"This is Hunt One, reporting in. The time is twenty hundred hours. The target has not been sighted, over." The emotionless, monotone voice emanated from a watch-like Pokégear on the wrist of a tall young man who was at that moment sitting indolently on the wide branch of an ancient tree. Jayce Tramont had his feet up, his blue-black eyes closed, and his back supported by the tree's thick wooden trunk. A large backpack and a pair of flashy white sports shoes lay discarded next to him on the massive wooden limb, and his simple black jacket and blue jeans were the unassuming garments of a simple traveller.
A simple traveller? If only that were true,
He sighed, almost imperceptibly, and ran a hand through his bright red hair, sitting up from his slouch against the gnarled bark. Twilight was falling, the red light casting crimson shadows amidst the surrounding trees and the underbrush far below as the sun disappeared into the horizon behind him. The old-growth forests of Kanto were truly beautiful places: Jayce would have been content to sit here in this grove for days, moving only to hunt for food. But, nice as that sounded, that wasn't why he was here. He sighed again, and raised his wrist to speak into his state-of-the-art Pokégear.
"Hunt Two here. Yeah, nothing on my end, either. Zammy can't detect sleeping minds at any kind of range, so unless she's travelling by day, which I doubt, we'll know if she's nearby in a couple of hours. Over 'n out."
Jayce was a bounty hunter. He and his colleague were combing the forests fifteen miles northeast of Viridian City for a particular child who went by the name of Tella, roughly fourteen or fifteen years of age and wanted by a secret organization that one simply didn't cross. Jayce was dying of curiosity to know what exactly the unfortunate girl had done to kick the hornet's nest. But,
he reflected, this is probably one of those affairs that it's best not to know too much about.
The girl's capture was a job, nothing more, and one that carried a handsome payroll.
The job would have been much more difficult if they weren't fairly certain of the general region their quarry was going to pass through, and if they hadn't had Zammy, Jayce's Alakazam, to teleport them straight into their target's path. The long-range teleport, repeated several times to get them far enough ahead, had worn Zammy out utterly, but still he insisted on remaining out of his Poké ball. Zammy was currently sitting against the base of the tree Jayce was in, his psychic senses straining to detect the consciousnesses of Tella and her Pokémon. It occurred to Jayce that his partner, Gale (who preferred that Jayce never use his real name,) wasn't the only one with a case of injured pride after his and Zammy's defeat at the hands of Tella's Pokémon two days before.
"I will admit to that,"
said Zammy's familiar mental voice in Jayce's head, completely clear despite nearly a hundred feet of altitude between them, and laced with a tinge of amusement that had no right to be there. "While you were busy loafing off and psychoanalyzing me, I took the liberty of sending Golbat to forage for berries. I'll have him bring them up."
"Isn't it a bit too bright out for him?" asked Jayce. He needn't have spoken out loud— Zammy could read the thought easily enough even without his vocalizing it— but he preferred to carry on his part of the conversation that way, and Zammy didn't mind.
"Dusk has fallen already, and he no longer finds sunlight nearly as soporific as he did before evolving,"
explained Zammy. "Wait..."
There was a short pause, through which Jayce, used to his deep mental connection with his first Pokémon and lifelong friend, could sense a sudden tension. "...Yes, I feel something. It's the girl! Almost directly east of us, and heading this way at a surprisingly quick pace. At her rate of travel, it should take her..."
There was a pause of about three seconds. Jayce frowned; Zammy must really be exhausted from the long-distance teleports earlier that day, or he would never have taken this long to calculate a simple one-dimensional dynamics problem. "...about an hour to reach our current position. We can head her off easily if you call backup right now."
"That's nice." Jayce said with a distinct lack of excitement, yawning and stretching on his tree limb. "I'll just have a bite to eat, and we can set out." Sure enough, a loud flapping noise heralded the arrival of Jayce's Golbat, a light blue batlike Pokémon that seemed to be all mouth and purple wings. It was struggling to remain airborne, but kept its stubby two-toed feet clasped tightly around the drawstrings of a large pouch about the size of Jayce's head (and nearly half Golbat's own size.) Managing to stifle a laugh as the Pokémon flapped laboriously over to him and dumped the heavy bundle on his legs, Jayce nevertheless failed to contain a wide grin as he reached out to pat the Pokémon's tired wings as it slumped on the tree branch, panting.
"Wow, Golbat... You outdid yourself, huh? Look at all this!" he exclaimed, opening the sack to reveal a veritable treasure trove of ripe, succulent Oran, Pecha and Sitrus berries, with a few Razz mixed in. It was far
too much for any one person to eat. "I doubt I'll even be able to finish it all." He pretended to consider. "I know! Why don't you help me eat them? That way there'll be no waste."
Golbat wavered, thinking about this for a moment. After a hesitant pause, it reached out with one wing, scooping several fruits out of the pouch, and swept them into its mouth, the fist-sized berries disappearing whole into the gaping, fanged maw. Jayce grabbed a handful himself, and between them the two demolished more than half of the berries in less than ten minutes. When they were done, Jayce tightened the drawstrings of the much lighter bag, stuffed it into his giant backpack, tugged on his shoes and the pack, and called out, "Could we get a teleport down?"
"Did you let Golbat overeat again? You know he flies clumsily when he's too full!"
"Nah, we both know better than that. I'm not a kid any more, Zammy!"
"You'll always be that clumsy child in the schoolyard to me, Jayce. Now get down here."
The affectionate rebuke was accompanied by a sudden blurring of Jayce's and Golbat's leafy surroundings, the colors of the deepening dusk in the treetops running together and then resolving into a different picture, this one a tableau of barely visible underbrush bathed in deeper shadow.
Zammy was standing nearby, having brought them there with a thought. His dark brown armorlike carapace was barely visible in the twilight of the forest's floor, leaving his bright yellow head, whiskers, hands and feet looking like they were floating in midair on their own. Jayce couldn't help grinning. Zammy, seeing the mental picture in his Trainer's mind, snorted with impatience. "If you're quite finished fooling around, I am impatient to get going."
"Relax, Zammy. I know you want to redeem yourself, but we should at least make sure our backup knows what's going on." Accordingly, Jace pressed a button on his watch-like Pokégear and began speaking into it.
"Hunt One, this is Hunt Two. The time is twenty hours forty-six minutes. Zammy's picked up a trace on the target's location, about an hour's quick march from our designated watch post... well, maybe less by now... Anyways, come meet us at the watch post itself, and we'll intercept her here, over."
Almost without a pause, Gale responded, his voice humming through the Pokégear's small speaker. "Copy that, Hunt One. On my way. Over and out."
Zammy frowned, perturbed. "I could teleport them here and save time, you know."
Jayce returned the frown with a grimace of his own, unaware that his expression was almost identical to his Pokémon's. All trace of his previous lightheartedness seemed to be gone; a stern, professional look had found its way onto his face, a look he only wore when he was well and truly in 'mission mode.'
"Zammy, you're already clearly exhausted. Even as it is, you won't be operating at even close
to a hundred percent, and expending power to bring Gale and his Pokémon here is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Our best bet is to wait here and prepare as best we can. Unless our target alters course or speeds up drastically, she'll pass right through this part of the forest in about half an hour, by which time Gale will already have arrived."
Zammy blinked, and transmitted a fragment of an unformed thought, not unlike a human starting a syllable and cutting himself off. "I think you're right,"
he said with an unmistakable aura of surprise underlaying his words. "I must be more tired than I thought."
Jayce concurred: Zammy was normally, above all, a creature of logic, and was correct far more often than Jayce himself. That Zammy would even admit to being incorrect was worrying. Still, this was no time for misgivings; Zammy could handle himself even in his exhausted state, and the job had to be done. Pausing to rest and letting Tella pass them would just result in needing Zammy to teleport them ahead yet again, and they would be in exactly the same boat.
A rustling in the bushes some distance behind him made Jayce turn swiftly, but Zammy's lack of concern put him at ease even before he registered Gale and his Pokémon emerging from the underbrush. The older man was nearly invisible in the falling darkness due to his black bodysuit, and was already wearing a simple cloth mask that covered the lower half of his face.
Gale strode confidently into the small clearing that surrounded the giant tree that served as their temporary 'watch post.' His Rotom floated along behind him, its spherical orange body coated as always in transparent shimmers of ghostly energy and bearing two arm-like solidified llightning bolts. Jayce glanced around for Gale's Gliscor, which had recently evolved from its previous Gligar form, but it was nowhere to be seen: doubtless it was remaining hidden, flying amongst the leafy crowns of the ancient trees, scouting ahead or serving as a rearguard.
"What news?" Gale's voice was uncharacteristically unsteady, most likely due to a combination of pain from his broken ankle (which Jayce had splinted the day before using a whittled branch and gauze from his field medical kit) and the feverish anticipation of the hunt. Gale, Jayce reflected, had been a bit unbalanced ever since his defeat at the hands of the girl Tella's Pokémon. The taciturn bounty hunter, to whom the appearance of professionalism was of unparalleled importance, had taken his first ever failure as a personal insult. The irony, Jayce supposed, was that for the first time in the six years he had known Gale, a job was something more than just a job. For the first time, maybe the first time in Gale's whole life, it was personal.
"Well?" Gale growled impatiently, waiting for an answer to his question. The fact that his irritation was showing through his customary impassive mask was a source of both worry and amusement to Jayce.
"Nothing I'm aware of. Zammy, anything new?" he asked, turning to look at his Pokémon. It took a moment for the Alakazam to realize he was being spoken to.
"No, no, nothing new,"
Zammy said distractedly. "She should arrive within ten minutes... No, wait, she's stopped."
"Stopped?" asked Gale sharply. "Why?"
Zammy put a hand to his forehead, rubbing absently at his temple as he strained to detect Tella's surface thoughts over a distance of nearly a mile. "I can only get a vague idea... She's waiting for something, but I can't tell what..."
"Forget it, Zammy. Save your energy," warned Jayce. Zammy, not hearing him or perhaps just too stubborn to give up, kept concentrating for a few seconds, until he sagged with renewed weariness and a kind of defeat.
"Nothing else. We should get ready. I'll be in the treetops."
Zammy swayed unsteadily, then disappeared, heading for the upper branches of the giant tree... only to reappear a few feet in the air and crash unceremoniously to the ground in a heap, unconscious.
"I was afraid of this." Jayce said, shaking his head in bemusement. "The problem with having a Pokémon smarter than you are is that he's always convinced he knows better. And normally, he does. But when he's wrong, he's spectacularly
so. We'd best call the ambush off for now."
"We continue the mission, Hunt Two. Recall him," Gale said forcefully.
Jayce turned suddenly and fixed him with a steady blue-black gaze, dark eyes meeting pale greyish ones. Gale's washed-out eyes flickered with a frenetic energy, but it was a mere spark next to the steady flame that suddenly flared to life in Jayce's. Jayce was nearly five inches shorter than his colleague, but a strong presence seemed to well up from within him, so that despite his height he seemed to tower over the older man. "We will not
continue the mission. When was the last time you slept, Gale?"
"I am to be known as Hunt One," Gale said through gritted teeth, looking away from the sheer force of Jayce's gaze.
"Answer the question." There was no levity, none of Jayce's omnipresent joking in his voice now, only steel.
"...Two days ago, before the Failure." The way Gale pronounced the word, heavy with sullenness, implied a capital letter.
Jayce sighed and ran a hand through his hair, the forcefulness in his eyes and aura falling away all at once. "You're just as likely as Zammy to collapse on us without warning. Now is the worst possible time to stop acting like a professional, Gale
, and I will keep calling you that,
" he said, raising his voice to override Gale's mumbled objection, "Until you stop endangering both of us. Where would I be if you toppled over in the middle of a battle?"
Gale opened his mouth to argue, but no sound came out. His shoulders sagged, the wind going out of his sails. "All right. Let's get out of here."
Jayce returned the unconscious Zammy to his Poké ball in a swirl of red light, and within a minute the clearing was empty, with not even footprints to indicate that anyone had stood there.
---May 2, Year 1505 MTA; 21:02---
Tella Marr, perched in the very same massive tree that Jayce had been reclining in half an hour earlier, watched the clearing carefully for another five minutes after the two men had gone before she dared to relax. In an improvised rope sling, which was fixed to the front of her shabby black jacket with hastily-tied knots, was a very tired Ralts, his fifteen-pound body trembling with exhaustion. He had spent the last hour or so hiding his mind and his Trainer's from the much more powerful, but even more exhausted, Alakazam. The illusory mental Substitute, created nearly a mile to the east, had sapped Ralts's remaining strength, and if the Alakazam had not lost consciousness first, Tella's mind would have been laid bare to detection.
The girl sighed with a deep exhaustion of her own, and slumped against the trunk of the massive tree, unaware that she was in the exact spot the red-haired bounty hunter whose name she didn't know— it hadn't been mentioned— had occupied an hour before. She was worried, and with good reason.
It had been two days since the black-clad bounty hunter— whose name she now knew was Gale— had captured her, and she had only escaped through the heroic efforts of Ralts and Machop, the latter of whom was currently resting in a Poké ball at her waist. After two days of travelling by night and sleeping by day to avoid detection by the flying-type Pokémon that were no doubt combing the area for her, Tella had hoped she had left the bounty hunter behind. And then Torch, her Torchic, scouting nearly a mile ahead of her, had reported a curious sight: a red-haired Trainer, apparently sleeping, in the top of a giant tree that was squarely in Tella's due-west path... Along with an unpleasantly familiar Alakazam at the base of the tree. Torch was certain that it was the same Alakazam that the black-clad bounty hunter had used. Luckily, it had not detected Torch's presence, since it had been searching specifically for Tella's human mind, not the minds of Pokémon, which would have overloaded it with the sensory input from the various birds and bugs settling in for the night.
Tella's decision to recall Torch and Machop, and to teleport ahead with Ralts, had been tactically sound... but she wished she hadn't had to ask so much of the little psychic-type. She hadn't been able to let him rest in his Poké ball at all since her capture and escape two days ago, and he had managed only brief periods of sleep in his sling during that time. Now, with the threat of the Alakazam temporarily removed, she could return him to the red-and-white ball, and did so with a whispered thanks. The rope sling she removed and stowed in one of the bulging pockets of her scruffy jacket, which contained all her worldly belongings: a sad collection of odds and ends, the most valuable of which were a few rare berries from the deepest parts of the forest. With remorse forming a hard lump in her throat, Tella resolved never to push Ralts so hard ever again. Still, her gamble had paid off: she now had more information to work with.
She knew there were people chasing her, men and women who, back in Celadon City, had seemed to be civilians until they had attacked her. Then, after she fled her hometown, others had given chase, openly wearing the black uniform and silver-red emblem of their organization. She knew that, way back in Celadon, she'd provoked them into their relentless chase by what she'd done there... but she also knew that, given the chance to do it all over again, she'd make exactly the same choices.
Well, not exactly
the same. She still had one regret. Noren... I'm sorry.
But it wouldn't do to dwell on the past. Her full attention needed to be devoted to the present, and she couldn't allow herself to be captured again, whether by the police, by the sinister syndicate that was after her, or by these two bounty hunters who were also doubtless in the pay of the enemy. Tella had no illusions: these men were trained to take down the strongest of foes— hardened criminals— and she had little hope of fighting them off if they found her. But, as Tella's gamble had proven, even the best-trained hunters rarely expect their prey to hide right under their noses... Or, as the case may have been, a hundred feet above their heads.
Tella took a deep breath, pushing herself upright from her sitting position against the tree. She twisted one of her shabby but serviceable Poké balls off of her belt, and tossed it onto the wide branch in front of her. Torch, his orange feathers and yellow beak barely visible in the thin strands of moonlight that filtered between the giant tree's leaves, chirped quietly at his Trainer. Offhandedly catching the empty Poké ball as it flew back towards her and returning it to its place at her waist, Tella knelt to ruffle her Torchic's head feathers. "Hey, Torch. You up for scout duty?"
Torch whistled a cheerful affirmative, ready to do whatever was needed to protect his Trainer. He didn't really understand the situation— why would people want to hurt a good person like Tella?— but he was only a few months old, and although the reasons for Tella's danger went straight over his head, he still had a child's simplistic view of the world: anything that wanted to hurt Tella was bad, and that was that.
Tella straightened, and turned to set off... and stopped abruptly. The massive width and length of the branch on which she was standing had allowed her to forget, for a moment, that she was a hundred feet in the air, in a tree whose crown was so big that its shadow produced a clearing amongst the surrounding trees. Her branch continued for an impressive thirty feet away from the trunk before tapering off, but it was another thirty before the branches of the nearest tree began. Without the help of a large flying-type or a psychic to teleport them down, your average person would have been stranded.
Then again, Tella wasn't your average person. "Well, there's nothing for it," she said with a sigh. "Torch, you go ahead."
Below her, fifteen feet down and a short ways clockwise around the massive tree's trunk, was another branch of similar width to the one on which she was standing. Such immense branches protruded from the tree every ten to twenty feet below. Tella didn't hesitate any further before jumping off of her own perch, to fall and land on the hardened wood with a thump that should have broken the bones in her legs. Instead, she simply rolled, pushed off, and carried her forward momentum into another leap to a much farther-off branch, thirty feet below. Torch fluttered down behind her, his stubby wings just barely holding him aloft. In a series of leaps and rolls, with an occasional stop to decide on the best path down, Tella made her way to the ground, landing with a roll in the soft loam of the forest floor. She was breathing hard, but didn't so much as stop to catch her breath before setting off due west in the pitch blackness of the night, with Torch gliding clumsily but spiritedly through the air ahead of her to scout for danger.
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 02:15---
"She'll be three or four hours from Viridian City by now," Jayce observed out loud. There was no one to hear him, though, except for Golbat. Zammy was still in his Poké ball, out cold, and Gale and his two Pokémon were getting some much-needed sleep. Jayce had slept most of the day away, so he doubted he could've managed to go to sleep even if he hadn't needed to post himself as a sentry while the others recuperated. The off-route wilds of the world were mostly empty of Trainers, but the powerful wild Pokémon that inhabited such places were often more dangerous than an average Trainer if a traveller accidentally trespassed on their territory.
The night had been quiet, though, with only a few Zubat flapping by to break the peace. Jayce found himself missing the soft hooting of young Hoothoot and their Noctowl parents, the night sounds of the forests in his native Johto. The climate of this part of Kanto wasn't right for the owl Pokémon, though, and Jayce thought he could get used to the near-silence and soft sighing of wind through the high-boughed trees of Kanto, so different from the low-hanging pines that were prevalent in Johto.
Jayce's wandering mind returned to the plight of his and Gale's elusive quarry, Tella. Would she risk stopping in Viridian to gather supplies? Did she even have money to buy them with, or would she try stealing from the Poké Mart or passing Trainers? She might just continue on past the city, and in Jayce's mind that would be her best bet: to put as much distance between herself and her pursuers as possible, and to avoid the danger of a trap in Viridian.
Jayce didn't doubt the existence of such a trap. Members of their employer's organization were everywhere, it sometimes seemed, though even Jayce had only the bare minimum of information despite his own surprisingly extensive network of contacts. It was as if, despite its wide-ranging and apparently all-pervasive reach, the group was completely unknown to the public, and anyone who did
know wasn't telling... Or had been silenced. For the first time Jayce thought he knew part of why Tella was being chased with such urgency.
It all came down to how much Tella actually did
know. Would she think Viridian, so far from Celadon, was safe? If she did, it was likely that Jayce would arrive in the quaint but busy city only to find his job done for him, the girl captured and taken who-knows-where.
Jayce sighed and stared upwards at the few stars that glinted through the canopy of leaves above him. Either way, he would be glad to see this chase done with. I still have a delivery to make,
he reminded himself, fingering the third Poké ball at his waist, And I think I'm overdue for a visit home. Yes, Johto is a better place to be, away from all this intrigue. A secret organization, slowly taking over Kanto...
He shivered. I hope I'm just worrying about nothing.
The night wore on, Jayce staring into the blackness with a sequence of uncharacteristically dark thoughts cycling over and over in his mind.
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 12:36---
Tella opened her pale blue eyes a tiny bit, squinting into the bright sunlight that bathed her face. A hole in the canopy of the trees, almost directly above, framed the sun and illuminated the triangle of branches in which she'd fallen asleep early that morning.
Far below, the shadowy forest floor was dappled with spots of sunlight that illuminated the brilliant green underbrush and brown, loamy soil. Shielding her face from the glare, Tella pulled herself stiffly to her feet, and started her climb down, making short drops from one branch to another with slow, careful precision. The trees here were smaller, younger, and climbing down from one didn't require the kind of acrobatics she had used the previous day... which was fortunate, because every single one of her muscles ached from the punishing pace she had set since her escape from the bounty hunter Gale, three days ago now.
The night before, just as dawn's light was beginning to brighten the patches of sky showing through the treetops, she had climbed a tree and caught sight of the distant rooftops of Viridian City to the south. Weak with relief, she had gone to sleep right there in the tree, some instinct warning her to wait until dark before leaving the cover of the forest. Now, though, in the light of midday, feelings of fear seemed much more distant, and foolish. Why pass up the opportunity to get some supplies?
Tella knew that, without the proper gear, she would never survive the trek through the western mountains, the ones that separated Johto from Kanto. She had to at least stop in Viridian City for food, water purifiers, Poké balls (just in case) and warm clothing. Maybe even a tent. She might even stick around for a while. But, nice as it would be to simply build a small house near Viridian, like the one she had lived in just outside of Celadon, she had to keep going, because...
That thought brought her up short. She paused on the trail along which she had been walking. Because what?
She hadn't yet had the time or the inclination to inspect the reason she was so certain that she had to flee Kanto entirely, but now that she thought about it, it was obvious. Tella's hands began to shake, and she balled them into fists to stop them from trembling.
Viridian City isn't a safe place. I should have realized that from the start. If these people are everywhere in Celadon, why not in Viridian too? Or even all over Kanto? Johto is the only place I can hide from these people, and maybe not even there...
She shook her head to clear it. If Johto wasn't a haven, nowhere was: Hoenn and Sinnoh were so far off as to be barely more than rumours, distant places where only the rich and the powerful could go. She had to make herself believe that safety lay across the mountains to the west. Without at least a small hope, Tella knew she would just give up... and she refused to admit defeat until she had reached Johto or died trying.
The girl forced herself to start moving again, trudging along a forest trail and skirting a large expanse of wide-open meadows that ran parallel to Route 2. Staying under the cover of the trees, she made her way south and west towards Viridian City. Even having realized that she couldn't count on the City being free of the mysterious group who were after her, she knew she was as good as dead if she tried to climb the western mountains without the supplies she could get in Viridian.
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 14:05---
It was a beautiful day, but the warm sunlight failed utterly to lift the chill from Tella's spirit as she emerged from the trees and onto a wide dirt road that ran from north to south. This was the farthest southern end of Route 2, a highway for Trainers that ran from Viridian City in the south to Viridian Forest in the north. Tella fell in a short ways behind a group of eight or nine young Trainers about her age, close enough to look like she might belong to their group but far enough behind that none of them would notice her. As she took her position, she noticed that there was a middle-aged lady a fair distance ahead of the rowdy group, talking earnestly with a short, bespectacled boy.
A Trainers' School outing,
realized Tella with the odd, distantly familiar feeling of coming face to face with something one has only read about. Most of Tella's knowledge of the world came from books her mentor had recommended she borrow from the Celadon library, or from her limited interactions with shopkeepers and librarians in Celadon.
"Hey, you," said a voice close by on Tella's left, a voice that cracked mid-syllable and caused her to jump visibly. She whirled, ready to fight, relaxing only slightly when she saw that the person who'd surprised her was a kid, albeit a very large one.
The boy couldn't have been older than fourteen— somehow he still gave the impression of being a child, despite being nearly six feet tall, with bearlike broad shoulders— but looked threatening enough, dark beady eyes glowering from under a unibrow that jutted out on the bottom fringe of a wide forehead. A square haircut and the long, disproportionate arms and giant hands of a teenager just growing into his adult body rounded out the menacing visage. His jacket and jeans were ragged, almost as shabby as Tella's own, and the knees were heavily stained with grass and mud. Tella had read about this archetype before, but had never expected to come face to face with the 'schoolyard bully' of literary fame. She raised her hands, ready to defend herself.
The massive boy flinched at Tella's raised fists, an absurd sight given that she was two thirds his height and had about half his shoulder width. He looked a lot less menacing with his shoulders hunched defensively, his face turned sideways and down as if he were expecting a blow. Warily, Tella let her hands fall, keeping her guard up, ready for anything. The boy seemed to relax, although he took a cautious step away from her. "S... sorry. Didn't mean to startle you," he mumbled, his voice an awkward rasp.
Tella was thoroughly confused now. Weren't bullies supposed to be obnoxious? If he hadn't fit the book's description right down to the unibrow, she'd have said the book had got it wrong. "You're very odd, for a bully," she observed bluntly.
"I know. My dad always says, 'If you're gonna be a mis'rable failure at school, ya might as well beat some nerds up!'" The boy's imitation was astonishingly good, his posture changing completely and his voice rising from its adolescent rasp to emulate perfectly the slurred, shouting voice of a very drunk man. "But I don't like violence, and the nerds are all better at Pokémon than me, anyways," the large boy finished lamely in his own voice. "No matter what I do, I'm a disappointment."
Tella blinked twice, then decided she didn't care what the books said. "Well, that sucks. Isn't there a third option? I read about Trainers who go and learn on the road, instead of going to school."
"Thought of that. Can't leave home, Dad'd drink himself into oblivion and forget to eat."
"Uhh..." Tella tried, and failed, to think of an answer to that. Glancing around for a distraction of some sort, she realized that the rest of the group had drawn far ahead while she talked with the awkward 'bully.' "We'd better catch up," she said with relief at being able to change the subject. This conversation thing was a mine-field!
"What's your name, by the way?" asked the boy as he and Tella hurried to close the gap between them and the bigger group ahead.
"Tella," she told him, without thinking. She immediately realized her mistake— I should have used a fake name! They might be asking if anyone's seen me, and the police are sure to have put me on some kind of wanted list!
— but another of the difficulties with conversation, she reflected with a sinking feeling, was that it was impossible to unsay something.
Unaware of her discomfort, the boy responded in his rasping voice, "Nice to meet you, then, Tella. I'm Gordon... but everyone calls me Brute."
As the gaggle of chattering students passed the first houses on the outskirts of Viridian City, Tella frowned at the odd nickname. I think I like the first one better,
she decided. Misnomers grated on her nerves.
Unaware that she was stretching an awkward silence as she stared into space, Tella came back to herself when she realized Gordon had just started talking again.
"...were just on our way back from the Forest, field trip and all that..." his voice trailed off.
"What were you studying there?" asked Tella, a bit curious as to what schoolkids actually did
on field trips. The books weren't very clear on that.
"Uh, something about type advantages. I didn't really get it. All that stuff is so hard...
"Type advantages?" Tella asked incredulously. "Are we talking about the same thing here? Grass beats water beats fire? That's easy!
I know that, and I never even went to school—" Tella cut herself off again, aghast. Conversation was far harder than type advantages: she was terrible at it!
"You never went to school?" asked Gordon with equal incredulity. "Is this, like, your first day or something?"
Tella backed up a step, not sure if she should just run for it. What could she say now? Surely Gordon would tell someone about a girl he'd met who said odd things about never having gone to school, and her pursuers would hear and be after her in a flash. "Uhh... I have to go. Don't tell anyone, please," she begged. Turning, she fled at literally inhuman speed, her innate psychic power and her legs pushing themselves to the limit and leaving a slack-jawed Gordon gaping after her in a small cloud of dust.
"Hey! Teach me to do that!" he called after her when he'd recovered enough to string together a sentence. "Running that fast'd be awesome
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 14:50---
"What d'you mean, you don't have a Trainer Card?" the Poké Mart employee asked Tella, a little brusquely. "What, did you lose it? Well, tough luck."
Tella, fighting back tears of frustration, tried again. "But why do I need one?"
"Where else does a Trainer keep money?" the blue-shirted man behind the counter asked rhetorically, glaring at the girl in the beat-up coat who was wasting his time. "If you lost it, better go to the Pokémon Center and get it replaced, they'll probably transfer the money from the old one if it has any left. Now move along, you're blocking the line."
Tella retreated from the busy counter as the next customer, an older woman who gave her a disapproving glare, moved up to make some purchases. The shopkeepers at the market were always willing to trade supplies for rare berries,
thought Tella with bewilderment, unaware that bartering was rare even in Celadon— the shopkeepers had chosen to humour her when she had first begun coming into the City for supplies, then over time had gotten used to trading their goods to the strange, reclusive girl who came to their shops with expensive berries that were hard to find even in the depths of the off-Route forests.
Here, though, in a real Poké Mart, such things were unheard of. Tella hadn't even had a chance to show the man the berries in her pocket, meager but valuable remnants of her travel supplies. Now
what was she supposed to do?
Worried and disheartened, Tella walked out of the Poké Mart, still trying to figure out what she should do next. The widely spaced, brightly painted homes on all sides seemed somehow menacing, as if enemies lurked behind every one. The man had mentioned getting a Trainer Card at the Pokémon Center. She'd never been inside one before, but she knew what the Celadon one looked like from the outside. Getting up the courage to ask a passing Trainer, a well-dressed woman with a sleepy-eyed Ekans draped around her neck, where the Pokémon Center was, she was directed with a benevolent smile towards the bustling city center. As the houses drew closer together and were replaced by large halls where Trainers gathered to spectate and participate in battles, with narrow alleyways between them, Tella began to feel like she was being watched. Unconsciously, she hunched her shoulders and hurried along her way, speeding up every time she passed by an alley, which went a long way towards drawing the odd stares that she had until then only imagined.
She burst into the Pokémon Center as soon as the sliding doors had opened. There were only a few Trainers, all of them together in one corner of the room, sitting in the Center's plush armchairs and talking animatedly. They turned to look as she rushed up to the counter, but returned to their conversation almost immediately— flustered Trainers dashing into the Pokémon Center were nothing all that rare. Coming to a stop in front of the bemused, pink-haired Nurse Joy at the counter, Tella looked around in amazement, for a moment completely forgetting why she was here.
The bright red ceiling sparkled, having been recently cleaned. The walls were painted a pristine white that, next to the red, brought to mind a fresh-out-of-the-package Poké ball, a sorry contrast to the faded old ones at Tella's waist. She felt a pang of guilt— Torch, Ralts and Champ deserved better— but kept on drinking in the strange coziness of this place. The public-use PCs in the corner were currently switched off, but clearly they had seen lots of use, and were in prime condition, at least from what Tella could tell; her experience with the machines was limited to laptop-style units borrowed from the library so she could read electronic books stored on discs.
Her wandering gaze returned to the pink-haired woman who was smiling kindly at her from behind the desk. Tella had read all about the Joys: an entire extended family of nearly-identical women who formed the backbone of the staff at Pokémon Centers across the globe.
"New to being a Trainer?" asked the Nurse kindly, apparently completely unperturbed by Tella's awed grey-blue gaze.
Tella realized she'd been staring, and felt a peculiar sensation of blood rushing to her face. "N... no, ma'am," she stammered.
Nurse Joy smiled knowingly, but decided to humour the raggedly-dressed girl. "Well, don't be shy. Are your Pokémon in need of a rest?"
The words yanked Tella back to the present with a nasty jolt. Yes, very much, but we can't rest here... or anywhere else in all of Kanto,
she thought, a little bitterly. Out loud, she said, "No, but I need a Trainer Card."
Nurse Joy frowned, taken aback by the sudden businesslike tone in Tella's voice. "You seem to have Pokémon already. Didn't your parents get you to register before giving you your first Pokémon?"
"I'm not from around here. I registered in a different city, but lost my card, and I need a new, local
Trainer Card," Tella bluffed. This
kind of conversation, she could handle. The words had the feeling of a battle to them— more a swordfight than a brawl— a kind of thrust and parry of information. She was bluffing, of course, but it stood to reason that different cities might have different systems for their Trainer Cards, and she could turn that to her advantage.
"What's your name?" asked the Nurse.
Tella considered. She'd already told one person here her name, and she doubted that Joy was working for the people chasing her... or for the police, who as far as she knew were still after her for a theft she hadn't committed. And from what little she knew about official paperwork, giving a fake name was somehow dangerous. She remembered reading that somewhere, anyhow; probably in one of the fiction novels that had been a guilty pleasure for a change from her studies. She hoped that they had some basis in truth, then, because they were all she had to go on.
Lowering her voice slightly so the loudly talking Trainers in the other corner couldn't hear her, she muttered, "Tella."
"Tella who? I'll need your last name."
"Okay, I'll just search the Kanto database for you." Seeing Tella's blank look, the Nurse smiled. "The Kanto Trainers' Association has a centralized database, so anyone born here will be on file in some form or another, even if it's just a birth certificate." She started typing at the keyboard of a PC hidden behind the counter.
thought Tella, her blood suddenly running cold. I'm registered in some kind of database? Then... if the police have a search for me in progress, that'll show up when she searches my name!
"Hmm, that's strange..." said Nurse Joy, staring at something on the screen.
Without giving any outward sign, Tella readied herself to bolt. Nurse Joy's next words, however, were the exact opposite of what she expected.
"...I can't find you anywhere. Are you sure
that's your real name?" the pink-haired Nurse asked, giving this suspicious girl a searching look.
"Positive," Tella said, the confidence in her voice completely feigned as her mind raced to find a way to stop the Nurse from asking too many more questions. "Is there any other database? Johto, maybe?" she asked in desperation.
"Hmm, let me send a request." the Nurse said. Tella, certain that she would need to run now, glanced furtively at the door, planning her escape, as Nurse Joy tapped away at her keyboard. If she ran straight to the exit, she would still have to stop and wait for the sliding doors to open. If Nurse Joy had some kind of mechanism to stop the doors from opening, Tella might have to break them...
"Ah, here we are! Tella Marr, citizen of Johto, birth date May 18th, Year MTA 1491... Trainer Card originally licensed in Goldenrod City, May 19th of the same year... They're not giving me any more information, but that should be all I need. Let me just check your fingerprint, take a photo, and print off your new card, and you'll be ready to go again."
Tella, dumbfounded, tried not to let her astonishment show on her face as she pressed her finger against the electronic pad, wihch gave a cheerful 'ding!' as the patterns were successfully matched. Johto? I'm not from Kanto? And... I know my birthday now. May 18th.
It was mind-boggling: she had long since given up on knowing the day she was born, but here was precisely that information, resting in some long-untouched, fourteen-year-old database entry. For a fleeting moment, Tella longed to ask the Nurse who her parents were. Surely the database would know?
But there's no way I can do that.
Asking a question like, 'who are my parents?' would blow her cover as surely as not having a database entry at all. She had to give Nurse Joy no reason to suspect she wasn't just a girl Trainer travelling from Johto with her parents' permission. So Tella just smiled and thanked the Nurse as she was handed a shiny plastic Trainer Card with her photo on it.
Tella turned and left, in a bit of a daze, a smiling Nurse Joy calling after her, "Good luck, Tella!"
Neither the Nurse nor Tella noticed one of the laughing, joking Trainers in the corner of the room perk up at the sound of the name. The young man, whose name was Paul Diver, excused himself from the conversation, and walked out the door just in time to catch a glimpse of the back of a tattered black coat, with a long, half-unraveled braid of messy black hair tumbling down the back.
Paul had recently joined a group who would be most interested to know that one Tella Marr had just visited the Viridian City Pokémon center. He might even get a bit of a bonus on his next paycheck. These people paid their informants well, and their active agents better. Today was his lucky day.
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 15:43---
Tella walked into the Poké Mart and was surprised to see only three people in the line in front of the counter. Apparently business fell off at around 3:30 in the afternoon. Going to the chock-full racks of merchandise, Tella collected together another batch of the items she'd tried unsuccessfully to barter for earlier: A proper black backpack with waterproof compartments for keeping supplies dry, several lengths of rope, dried fruit as an antiscorbutic for long treks, nutrient bars that could feed a traveller for a day each, a compact but complete first aid kit, and a sleeping bag. Doing some quick mental math, she found that the total came to
3,250. She hoped that wasn't a lot of money, or she'd have trouble paying it back later.
Approaching the blue check-out counter, Tella quailed when she saw that behind it was the same impatient Poké Mart employee she had tried to trade with earlier. Still, there were two people already behind her in the line, so she couldn't turn back now, and he was already giving her a cross look for hanging back. With a gulp, Tella walked forward and hoisted her purchases onto the counter, which was almost as tall as her shoulder, unlike the much lower barrier at the Pokémon Center.
"I've got a Trainer Card this time," Tella told the man defiantly, showing it to him.
The Mart employee's name, according to his name-tag, was Fredrick. "Yeah, yeah, give it here," he said, rolling his eyes. I don't get paid enough for this,
he was thinking, his mind already roaming wistfully an hour ahead, when he would be finished for the day and go battle at the Trainer Houses downtown to let off some steam. Today had been even more hectic than usual, and he was at the end of his patience. He swiped the girl's Trainer Card through the slot on his cash register.
And of course, the kid's card was empty, a big fat
0 on his till's display screen. Now he'd somehow have to find time to put all this stuff back on the shelves, only to be harangued by customers waiting for him to get back behind the counter. Goddamn it, what a day!
"What do you think you're trying to pull?" Fredrick asked the girl angrily, glaring at her. What had he expected from a scruffy kid like this? If she'd had even close
to enough money for that heap of stuff, she'd be able to buy herself a new coat and jeans. "Your... card... is... empty,
" he told the girl, enunciating each word slowly, as if he were talking to someone who might not understand him. "ZERO Poké Dollars, capische? Go win some battles, or do some chores for somebody, and come back when you have enough!" He slapped the card onto the counter, with feeling.
Tella, who was having quite a bad day of her own, stared at him for a second, then burst into tears, snatched the card off the counter, and fled the Poké Mart. Watching her go, a bit taken aback by the forcefulness of her response, he noticed that every single person in the building was glaring at him. Along with the unpleasant sensation of being the focus of a great deal of disapproval, he was now at an all-time low in terms of self-esteem. I just made a little girl cry,
he thought with a sort of numb disgust. Great job, Fredrick.
"Hey, Fred, whatup?" Fredrick's good-for-nothing co-worker, Steve, asked loudly, breezing in through the doorway. He stopped short as the mute glares of all the offended customers switched to him. Steve's shift should have started ten minutes earlier, but Fredrick couldn't bring himself to get angry, as he rightfully should have.
"...Nothing, Steve. Just... take the till for a while, all right?" Fredrick said, rubbing his temples and sitting down exhaustedly, safely hidden behind the counter from the disapproving stares of the Mart's patrons.
With a kind of elation— he'd never been trusted with the till
before!— Steve took his place at the counter, and promptly said, with what Fredrick considered an unbearably annoying amount of energy, "May I help the next customer?"
I need to get out of here for a bit,
Fredrick thought to himself. He glanced around for something to distract him from Steve's incessant stream of chatter to the customers— something which, inexplicably, they seemed to find charming— and found himself staring at the abandoned, unpaid-for bag full of travel gear that the girl Tella had left behind.
I think there's something I can do to make up for this,
he decided. "I'll be right back, Steve. Just... keep doing what you're doing, because whatever it is, it's working." And it was: the customers who had already been helped seemed to have already forgotten about Fredrick's shameful outburst. One of them even nodded jovially to Fredrick as they both left the shop.
Steve, left behind at the till, could hardly believe it. Fredrick, who he looked up to immensely, had actually expressed approval for something he'd done. Steve's smile as he greeted the next customer was even wider than usual. He loved this job!
---A Few Minutes Earlier: May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 15:57---
Tella, fleeing the Poké Mart in tears, barely made it out of the sliding glass doors before slamming into someone. That someone, a familiar six-foot figure, had been moving at almost the same speed, which resulted in Tella being catapulted backwards while Gordon, completely winded by the impact, tried to catch his breath.
Tella rolled as she hit the ground, more out of muscle memory than conscious thought. The fabric of her thick but already damaged jacket took the brunt of her sliding impact on the concrete, and the entire back of it, finally giving way after all the abuse it had taken over the last few days, was reduced to shreds. She staggered upright out of her roll, just as winded as Gordon.
"I'm... I'm so sorry." Gordon panted, his unibrow as high as it would go with shock and worry. "I... didn't hurt... you... did I?"
Tella shook her head, still unable to breathe in enough to talk properly, and straightened her back with an effort, clearing her airway slightly as she'd been taught. After another half-minute of shallow breathing, Tella managed to say, "I'm fine."
Gordon kept apologizing profusely, worry still written across his blockish features. As far as he was aware, even bullies didn't hit a girl, and he had never wanted to be a bully in the first place. Still, she seemed to be all right. The same couldn't be said for her coat, though, the back of which hung in tatters, leaving a somewhat grimy white undershirt visible underneath.
Tella turned her neck around to inspect the damage and sighed, mentally adding the cost of a new coat to the amount of money she would now have to earn. It occurred to her that maybe Gordon would be willing to battle her: the custom of wagering Poké Dollars on a Trainers-Association-sanctioned match was one that she had read about. A nasty little part of her mind added that, given that Gordon didn't even know about type advantages, it would be fairly easy to beat him.
"Sorry, but, I gotta' go," Gordon was saying.
"Why?" Tella asked.
"Well... I went for some training after school ended, and my Rattata got knocked out by a wild Pidgey," Gordon admitted. "I need to get some Potions to heal him up."
Tella frowned. "Why not use the Pokémon Center? It's free."
"But it takes so long," Gordon said with a worried frown. "How are we ever gonna' get stronger if we have to wait for days between training sessions?"
"Have you been using Potions exclusively this whole time?" Tella asked.
"Uh, if exclusively
means just Potions, then yeah. Why?"
Tella shook her head. "Well, there's your problem. Potions use your Pokémon's own energy to heal them. If the Pokémon's exhausted, a Potion barely does anything. You have to let your Rattata rest for a day or so in between Potions. If you do that, I promise it won't be long before he's able to take down five
Pidgeys before needing to rest for the day."
Gordon, listening wide-eyed to Tella's explanation, frowned at the end. "Well, why didn't Mrs. Corel just say that in class, instead of going on and on about the 'variable effectiveness of potions based on Pokémon vitality levels?'" His voice for this last part effortlessly switched to a perfect imitation of a nasal female voice, no doubt that of the Mrs. Corel in question. "I can't make head or tail of that stuff."
"I think it's the way your mind works," Tella said after a moment's thought, remembering several books she'd read about human psychology. They'd been her favourite, though in practice she was finding that they weren't as useful as she'd thought. "It sounds like you need a concrete example, like the one with your Potions, before a concept really makes sense to you. Try telling your teacher that, and then
ask her to explain something without using theoretical language."
"Uh... Yeah, I'll do that, but what does concrete have to do with Potions?"
"Never mind," said Tella. Is this how a normal conversation is supposed to be? Somehow I don't think I did it right...
"I need to get going," she said, turning to head south, in the direction of the Pokémon Center and, more specifically, those gathering halls where she had seen Trainers battling each other. "See you around."
Startled by her sudden departure, Gordon just stood there for a moment, thinking. He didn't need to buy Potions any more, if what Tella had said was true, and she seemed to know what she was talking about. So... he should go to the Pokémon Center, right? He headed that way, and soon caught sight of Tella's shredded jacket a short distance ahead. His curiosity was aroused when she went into one of the big green-roofed Trainer Houses that had been so popular since their establishment two years ago. School-kids weren't allowed in those places, though. Did she have some kind of special permission to go in?
Evidently not. As he walked by the Trainer House, she came back out the door, looking dejected. Undecided whether to go say something to her or not, Gordon wasn't paying attention to where he was going, and for the second time that day, he bumped into someone, knocking them over.
"Sorry!" he said, turning to see who he'd hit... and groaned. Connor.
Connor was the teacher's pet, an immaculately dressed, super-smart little nerd who never tired of getting Gordon into trouble. He had once left a sheet of completed homework lying on someone else's table which just begged
to be copied, but which had all the wrong answers. He would get himself paired with Gordon during the weekly 'practical applications' class and have his Pokémon use excessive force, leaving Gordon's Pokémon wrapped in bandages for days on end. He would drop his glasses in front of Gordon's feet and whine when Gordon accidentally stepped on them, shoot spit-wads at the blackboard in class and then blame Gordon when the teacher demanded to know who had done it, and perform a myriad of other clever and malicious tricks. All of these pranks worked to perfection, simply because Gordon so obviously fit the archetype of the big, dumb schoolyard bully.
As if all this weren't bad enough, one of Connor's absolute, absolute
favourite things to do was to step in front of Gordon when he wasn't looking, pretend to be knocked to the ground, and call for help, bringing the nearest adult running to reprimand Gordon for 'picking on a little kid.' Sure enough, right now Connor was grinning cruelly through his glasses, but a small grin, one that only Gordon could see; several passersby were giving Gordon unmistakable you-should-be-ashamed-of-yourself-young-man
"Look who it is," Connor said, standing up and making a show of dusting himself off. "The Brute, here to knock me down and take my lunch money."
As if on cue, four or five of the kids from Gordon and Connor's class materialized out of the crowd, grinning and laughing.
"Knock it off, Connor," Gordon muttered, turning bright red. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tella watching. Aw, no, not in front of her,
he thought with dismay.
"Me? Knock what
off, Brute? Am I doing anything, guys?" This was met with a chorus of dutiful 'no's, and Connor shrugged innocently, as if that settled it. "That's not very polite, accusing me of things. My honour demands that you battle me, Brute. With a wager of a thousand Poké Dollars each."
Gordon was painfully aware that he didn't want Tella— maybe his only friend in the whole world— to see him lose to Connor. And he would: he lost every
not right now, Connor," he begged. "I just finished training, and my Pokémon are all tired. Give me 'till tomorrow at lunch, okay?"
"As good as lunch money sounds, I think I'd rather battle now.
Are we going to do this the easy way, or the hard way?"
"The easy way," Gordon mumbled miserably. Much as he'd hate to lose in front of Tella, 'the hard way' involved Connor's posse of friends subduing Gordon by weight of numbers (plus the fact that he would never fight back, for fear of seriously hurting one of them,) holding him to the ground, and grabbing his Poké balls off his belt, sending them to battle Connor without even their Trainer to help them.
It was the kind of thing that Gordon had never believed was possible in a crowded street full of people, but the one time he'd continued to refuse, certain that someone
would help him, the crowds had simply parted around the scuffle, ignoring Gordon's pleas for help. Gordon had decided months ago that it was easier to just get it over with.
Battles on the streets of Viridian City were not uncommon, and as long as no excessively dangerous moves were used, most people took no notice unless it was to spectate. Connor's friends formed a ring, and a few interested bystanders wandered over to watch from just behind them. Tella remained where she was, on the other side of the street, but Gordon didn't doubt that she was watching everything.
"Go, Pidgey," he said, throwing his first Poké ball, and the orange-and-white bird appeared, its plumage rumpled and its flapping erratic from its injuries while training, but ready to fight.
"Pikachu, show 'em who's boss!" said Connor confidently, the yellow mouse with its lightning-bolt-shaped tail popping out of its Poké ball with a cheerful, "Pika!" Small arcs of electricity crackled from one of its red cheek pouches to the other, showing that it was fully charged and ready to go.
"Uh... Uh... Pidgey, use Gust!"
Pidgey flapped its wings, starting to whip up a wind that would send Pikachu flying, but it was far too slow. Pikachu, tightening its tiny fists in concentration, began to glow with energy, then sent out an arc of lightning that crackled loudly as it struck Pidgey, knocking the bird to the ground unconscious and singed. Dismayed, Gordon returned Pidgey to the safety of its Poké ball, but wasted no time in throwing another.
"Caterpie, do your best! String Shot!" The ball released a green insect with a segmented body and red V-shaped antennae on its head.
"Pikachu, return to your Poké ball. Charmander, take care of this!"
Pikachu disappeared in a swirl of red light, and was replaced by a red lizardlike Pokémon that stood on its hind legs. Its tail was tipped by a large flame. Caterpie shot a stream of webbing from its mouth at the Charmander, but the fire lizard, instead of becoming entangled in the String Shot, simply twisted its tail around and set fire to the sticky strands, burning them away. Then it let loose with a stream of flames from its mouth, just enough to char Caterpie's skin. The insect fainted from the pain, unable to fight any longer, and Gordon recalled it.
"One Pokémon left," taunted Connor. "What's it gonna' be?"
"You know what it is," growled Gordon under his breath. "Rattata... I'm sorry."
The rat Pokémon, less than two feet long from nose to tail and standing at barely a foot high, was in a sorry state. It was barely able to stand on four legs, its purple fur was scuffed and dented, and it had at least two deep scratches that looked like they'd been inflicted with long, sharp talons. It was in no condition to fight.
"I concede the match," Gordon said, unwilling to subject his Pokémon to any more pain. It was clear he couldn't win, anyways.
"Whatever," Connor said with a shrug. There was a pinging noise from both Gordon's and Connor's pockets, and Connor took out his Trainer Card, ran it through a slot on his Pokégear, and grinned. "Hey, an extra thousand Poké Dollars! What a pleasant surprise! Who's up for ice cream?" This was greeted by cheers from Connor's sycophants.
"Not so fast."
Gordon, who had been sighing at the loss of today's allowance, which he'd saved for buying potions— Connor knew Gordon always got exactly
1000 from his dad to pay for lunch and dinner every day, and always chose at least two days of the week to take it away from him— hadn't noticed Tella moving to intercept Connor's crowd.
"What does she
want?" asked one of them. "An autograph from the great Connor?" suggested another, which caused widespread sniggering.
Tella ignored them. "Connor, as a Trainer of Kanto, I challenge you to a battle with a two-thousand-Poké-Dollar prize."
Connor grinned. "Oh, really?" he said, looking Tella up and down, making it clear he was noting her ruined coat and worn jeans. "Our luck is just exponential
today, is it not? Maybe we can get dinner as well as ice cream!" Cheers from his friends. "Three versus three, then, milady?" he asked Tella with a mock-genteel bow.
"Agreed," said Tella coldly.
"Well, then, let's begin..."
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 16:05---
Connor's gang of friends had once again formed a circle, defining the ring in which Tella and Connor would battle. They seemed to be taking the battle more seriously; Tella was an unknown quantity, and she already knew what two of Connor's Pokémon were.
"Challenger sends first," Connor stated.
Tella had known as much from reading about the rules of sanctioned battles. Still, it was her first time doing this formally. "All right, then. Torch, get ready!"
"Pikachu, it's a bird-- you're up!"
The orange-feathered little bird appeared, determinedly facing down the yellow lightning mouse.
"Torch, Flamethrower! Don't go airborne, just stick to the ground."
"Pikachu, use Thunderbolt!"
A lightning bolt arced from Pikachu to Torch, but the little bird didn't even try to dodge, instead weathering the crackling bolt and responding with a torrent of fire that blasted Pikachu off of its feet.
"Quick Attack, just dodge the fire and hit him!"
"Fire Spin. Leave him nowhere to run."
Pikachu leapt to its feet and dashed towards Torch, zigzagging so quickly its outline blurred. Torch whirled in a circle, dropping a line of fire to burn on the ground. Pikachu, leaping over the fire, struck Torch head-first with a small crackle of electricity, but Torch struck back with a stubby wing, knocking Pikachu into a patch of flames, which went out with a hiss. Pikachu remained lying there, unable to move.
"How do you like fighting an opponent you don't have a type advantage against, genius?
" Tella taunted harshly.
Connor, looking a lot less confident now, sent out Charmander. The fire lizard narrowed its eyes, sizing up its opponent.
"Torch, fire's useless. Slash him with your talons!"
"Charmander, Dragon Rage attack!"
Torch fluttered forward, claws extended, but Charmander didn't so much as flinch. It opened its mouth, and flames issued forth... but instead of the more usual orange flames, which Torch would have more or less ignored, purple fire roared out, striking Torch directly. The Torchic plummeted straight through the flames to land a painful blow right on Charmander's forehead, but it was clearly at a price. Torch tottered unsteadily, its orange plumage singed black at the tips by the draconic flames where regular fire would have done next to nothing.
"Torch, come back, you've done enough! Champ, go!" The grey-skinned humanoid Pokémon— a Machop— was well-rested after a good long sleep in her Poké ball. She snorted with derision when she saw her opponent.
"Don't let up, Charmander. Flamethrower!"
"Try and dodge it, Machop! Get close and Low Kick if you have time!"
Champ raised an eyebrow sardonically as Charmander took a deep breath, ready to blow fire, then she exploded into action, dodging aside in the nick of time. It was clear immediately that the Machop was by far the more experienced of the two; Charmander followed Champ around with the torrent of flames for several seconds, its attack always slightly behind the dodging, rolling grey figure as Champ made her way ever closer. Once, Champ even turned around swiftly mid-dash and leapt over
the cone of fire. The Flamethrower attack ended; Charmander, out of breath and tired from keeping up such an intense flame for so long, didn't react nearly quickly enough as Machop closed the remaining distance, swept its feet out from under it with a Low Kick attack, and pinned it struggling to the ground, yanking on the base of its flame-tipped tail until it stopped struggling.
"Chop!" she declared, and a grim-looking Connor returned his Pokémon to its Poké ball.
"All right, you asked for it. Mom lent me this Pokémon, so you don't stand a chance! Milotic, go!" He threw a blue-and-red ball that Tella recognized as an expensive, high-quality 'Great ball.' There were only two types better: Ultra balls, which cost a fortune, and Master balls, of which only one was produced per year in the entire world. And Tella had never heard of a Pokémon called Milotic before: it wasn't in any of the books she'd read. Perhaps a newly discovered one, or an import from Johto?
A moment later, she found out exactly what a Milotic was. The red light from the Great ball grew to the size of a person... and then kept on growing, and growing, and growing, until it towered over even the tallest of the rapidly growing crowd of spectators. Finally, at almost twenty feet high, the light resolved into the massive, coiled form of what could only be called a giant, exceedingly graceful water snake. Its cream-coloured body was as thick as Tella was tall, and it was easily five times that in length, from its large, intelligent eyes to the scaly blue armor that covered its tail. Graceful fins that resembled locks of hair flowed down from its head, and two curved eyebrow-like strands emerged from above its eyes to float lazily above its head like wisps of pink seaweed. The entire Pokémon glistened with pure water, marking it clearly as a water-type. All in all, the Pokémon was huge and beautiful, but above and beyond that, it radiated an unbelievable sense of calm.
Tella, feeling that calm wash over her, felt as if every single burden, from the feeling of guilt for Noren's death to the petty desire to show Connor he wasn't all-powerful, had been lifted off of her shoulders. She nearly collapsed right then and there, but the calm feeling hadn't taken away her iron will: she fought her way back into a state of watchful alertness.
Across the street, but unable to see Tella through the massive bulk of the Milotic, the bounty hunter Gale, currently dressed in an ordinary suit and carrying a gentleman's cane (with a sword hidden inside, of course,) stopped abruptly. He had rushed here to gather information on his elusive quarry's whereabouts, and hopefully even to overtake her before she left Viridian, but suddenly it all seemed so much less important. So he had failed one
mission. Was he making a mountain out of a molehill? Glancing over at the Milotic towering above even the street-lamps, he grimaced and, with a twitch of his slight psychic power, shielded his mind against the Pokémon's soothing aura, sinking back into his dour thoughts of revenge.
A younger man, Paul Diver, having made his report to his immediate superior in the area and having been given the order to locate the girl and wait for backup, suddenly felt all the fight go out of him as he rounded a corner and saw the beautiful Pokémon silhouetted against the sun. Suddenly, he couldn't quite feel the urgency of his mission. Did it really need to be done today?
Maybe he would put off the search for a day or so; surely the girl would still be around by then. Besides, it was dinner time, and he was hungry. Smiling absently, he turned and headed towards home, whistling a happy tune.
Other passersby stopped, many in a kind of a dreamlike state, to gawk at the Milotic, feeling their troubles melt away under the influence of the huge Pokémon's calming aura. It seemed as if, all the way up and down the wide street, time had come to a grinding halt. This was still a battle, though, and Milotic was still a Pokémon.
"Milotic, Surf attack," Connor ordered, in a kind of daze. The gentleness in Milotic's eyes took on a tone of sadness, and it turned to look reproachfully at the boy. Then, with a small stirring motion, it summoned a six-foot-tall wall of water that somehow looked puny next to Milotic's serene bulk, even as it swept towards Tella and her Machop.
Champ, a lost, dazed look on her face, just stared at the wave as it rushed towards her. There was no way to dodge something like that. The water struck Machop like a hammer, sending her cannoning into Tella and knocking the girl off her feet. The wave collapsed before it reached the two, falling to drench them in cold water as the nearest spectators shuffled dazedly backwards.
"You gonna' send out your third Pokémon?" There was no gloating in Connor's voice: casually unkind emotions were more or less impossible in Milotic's presence, though with an effort of will one could still overcome its aura of calm.
"No," Tella said hollowly, shivering as she got to her feet. She was soaked with icy water, and her tattered, waterlogged coat was no help whatsoever. "Ralts needs to rest, and I won't send him against that thing. You win."
Connor held up the Great ball and returned Milotic to its resting place. The disappearance of the Pokémon's calming aura was almost a physical shock to Tella, all her worries and stresses landing on her back like a ten-ton weight. She fell to one knee, gasping. A few members of the crowd started crying. After the serene, weightless feeling of having all one's cares removed, the resumption of the burden was all the harder for having tasted freedom from it. The expressions on the faces of the passersby, who were slowly stirring themselves to go about their business, ranged from mild disappointment to within an inch of emotional collapse.
"Well, I'll just take my reward now." Connor seemed to have recovered fairly quickly, and his gloating tone was back in full force. He took out his Pokégear and slid his card through it, then frowned. "Hey, do you even have
two thousand Poké Dollars?"
"I..." Tella was cut off by a ding!
sound, and a small screen she hadn't noticed before on her Trainer Card showed, 2,000 received from Fredrick Taylor.
sounded, and the screen now read Balance: 0
"C'mon, guys. Let's go eat," Connor shouted, and walked away, his laughing, cheering group of friends filing along behind him.
Tella regained her feet and returned the sopping-wet, unconscious Champ to her Poké ball. A man separated himself from the crowd, and she backed up instinctively before recognizing him as the Poké Mart employee who had yelled at her... and, apparently, who had just transferred two thousand Poké Dollars to her empty Trainer Card.
"Hey, kid. I came to apologize," Fredrick said self-consciously. He shrugged off a familiar-looking black backpack, and held it out. "It's got all the stuff you wanted. I added a new jacket and a change of clothes, and it looks like your old coat was on its last legs anyhow."
Tella just stared at him for a moment, and he shifted uncomfortably at her unnerving greyish-blue gaze. Then she took the backpack with an awkwardly muttered, "Thanks," slung it on, pushed something roughly fist-sized into his hand, and fled into an alleyway.
"Wierd kid..." Fredrick murmured to himself. "But I feel better now." It wasn't as if he didn't earn more than five thousand Poké Dollars a day at work, anyways. Then it occurred to him to look at whatever she'd given him.
"What—??" he exclaimed, staring at the object. It was a Starf Berry, a green berry whose cross-section resembled a five-pointed star, and which, if cut in half, would reveal a luscious interior composed of five different types of fruit. It was extremely rare, and certainly worth more than five thousand Poké Dollars; berry farms across the world would pay more than tne times that amount for such a berry, though it was rumored to be very difficult to cultivate, supposedly yielding only two or three berries in a year. It was much sought-after by Trainers, too, and rumors of its extinction in the wild had been flying around lately. Fredrick, somewhat of a berry enthusiast himself, had never imagined he'd even get to hold
a berry this rare, much less own one. As far as he was aware, the nearest farm to boast a Starf bush was just east of Vermilion City.
So just where had Tella gotten this one...? Fredrick shook his head. It looked like it was true what people said about karma; he hadn't expected it to be so prompt, though. Maybe he should try this 'good Samaritan' thing a bit more often.
"Huh?" Fredrick looked up from the berry, then craned his neck a little more to look up a few inches at the six-foot-tall boy who had spoken.
"Thanks. It was good of you to help Tella out. Sorry she didn't thank you properly, she's just a little awkward, I guess."
Thinking that Tella had thanked him more
than sufficiently, Fredrick smiled. "I don't mind, don't worry. By the way, wasn't that you she was stepping in to help? What was all that about, anyways...?"
"Well... Uhh..." Gordon stammered. He wasn't used to being spoken to by adults, except to be reprimanded. "...Maybe I should start from the beginning. I'm not all that smart, you see, and that kid called Connor..."
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 16:55---
Tella, dashing through the alleys, tried hard not to cry with mixed relief and a dull knot of tension somewhere near her stomach. She hadn't shown it, but the moment of awful calm that Milotic's power had given her had been almost more than she could take, after running on a tank full of mounting panic and stress alone for nearly a week. Its disappearance had, if anything, been even more crushing.
Her only consolation was that she now had the supplies she needed, and had narrowly avoided... whatever punishment the Trainers' Associated visited on Trainers who didn't pay the prize money they owed. In all her life, Tella had never expected anyone to come to her rescue, and she wasn't sure whether to be elated by Fredrick's timely arrival, or horrified by the thought of what would have happened if he hadn't been there. She hoped she hadn't cost him a great deal of money; she was a little vague on exactly what
5,250 was capable of buying, but it had to be a lot, if all this travelling gear had only cost three fifths of that.
Her mind, and even more dangerously, her instincts, were in turmoil over the moral and practical ramifications of the events of the last hour or so; so much that, not paying attention, she had missed a turn-off onto the east-west road through Viridian City and was now dashing through a maze of side-streets and alleyways. Realizing her mistake only now, Tella came to a stop, frowning, and turned to go back, only to find her way blocked by a shabbily dressed man with a carving knife. She whirled to run— she could easily have subdued the mugger, but injuring him was inadvisable and he would slow her down— and was brought up short by a Houndour, a black dog Pokémon with a pattern of stiff white bands of hair that resembled bones in its fur. Growling, and directly in her path, it cut off her planned route of escape. The alley she was in was very narrow, and had walls that went up a good three storeys that lacked any sort of handholds; she cursed her own stupidity for getting herself into this kind of tactically untenable situation.
Nevertheless, it would be simple enough to get away, provided the Houndour wasn't quick enough to chase her down after she defeated his unsavory Trainer. Tella turned around again, ready to take the man down and move on.
"Gimme' yer Trainer Card, or else," the man grated, unaware of his danger.
Before Tella could so much as move, though, a black blur dropped down from one of the three-storey rooftops above and landed right behind the mugger. The mugger whirled, only to take a carefully aimed chop to the side of the neck that sent him careening sideways into the wall, his face going white with restricted blood flow before flushing purple with its renewal. He subsided to the ground, unconscious, revealing his attacker to Tella.
A figure stood facing Tella, wearing a hood and a silver mask that depicted a stylized Gyarados face. The person was dressed in black pants, black gloves, and a black shirt that bore a small, unpleasantly familiar red-and-silver emblem over its wearer's heart, its shape that of a roaring dragon. A small bandolier with two Poké balls clasped onto it crossed the figure's chest. Behind her, Tella heard the sound of a scuffle.
A huge, pale purple insect, its brown furry body half Tella's height and its wings half again as large— a Venomoth— had landed on the back of the mugger's Houndour and sunk its teeth into the scruff of the dog's neck. The hapless Houndour writhed and slammed itself into the wall of the alleyway, but failed to dislodge the bug, and quickly began to tire as its energy was leached away even more rapidly than its blood. Before a lethal level of blood loss was reached, the Venomoth released its victim and emitted a horrible, extremely loud insectoid hum from right next to the Houndour's ear.
The Bug Buzz, directed straight at the struggling dog Pokémon, had no effect on Tella or its masked Trainer, but the Houndour howled with pain and slumped to the ground. Leaving it there, the Venomoth rose to hover there, still blocking Tella's way. The poisonous scales coating its wings were a light purple, almost white, in colour, indicating that they would inflict a temporary paralysis on anyone they landed on. If they were darker, Tella knew from her studies, they would inflict a more directly lethal poison.
"I have orders that you must be captured, dead or alive." The voice was tinny, distorted by the Gyarados mask, and Tella couldn't tell whether the person was male or female. "Please refrain from resisting, or I will be forced to terminate you."
"No way," Tella said, removing one of her Poké balls— Torch's— from her belt. "Death would be better than some of the things I saw back in Celadon."
The figure shook its head, raising its hands in a shrug to show the emotion that was hidden by the mask. "So you saw even more than our Allies thought. If you won't come quietly, then I'm afraid you have to die," said the tinny voice.
"Good luck trying," Tella said, raising her fists. The black-clad figure clenched its fists and made an odd twisting motion in midair with them; narrow blades sprang from the wrists of the gloves. Tella scowled; in a pinch, she could harden her skin enough to reduce a lethal slash to a paper-cut, but the focus of power required would take energy she couldn't spare at this point.
The black-clad figure took a step forward, and Tella was about to press the button on Torch's Poké ball, when for the second time in as many minutes, someone leapt from the rooftops and landed behind her attacker. The mask-wearing figure turned his back on Tella, raising one of his wrist-blades to defend himself against an attack that Tella couldn't see, but which produced a ring of metal on metal. Before Tella could make use of the opening, a small Pokémon teleported into place at the man's back. Brown in colour, with reddish-brown circular markings on the front and back of its spherical torso, was a two-foot-high Pokémon shaped like a spinning top, with a large ovoid head resting on its torso and a single conical foot hovering slightly above the concrete floor of the alleyway. Tella's knowledge supplied nothing but its name: Baltoy. The Pokémon promptly began to spin, and a transparent barrier of psychic power formed between Tella and its silver-masked Trainer, who was dodging a blow from a long, slender sword.
The sword belonged to an incongruously ordinary-looking gentleman, wearing a crisp black suit over a pristine white shirt and grey tie, apparently completely unfazed by his three-storey drop of a few moments earlier. In the middle of his recovery from the slash, the man used his off-hand to tip his top hat to Tella with a sardonic expression. In the same hand, he held the bottom half of a cane, the top half of which formed the hilt of his elegant sword. Tella didn't have to wonder who he was, though, as their eyes met and she recognized the empty, silvery-grey orbs that belonged to Gale, the bounty hunter.
Seeing that she recognized him, Gale's sardonic expression morphed into a half-grin, half-snarl that promised murder. "She's mine," he growled as the masked entity stepped between him and Tella.
"I have been given a mission," retorted the tinny voice behind the mask, slightly strained by effort or injury. "Nothing shall stand in my way."
"Then die," Gale roared. Metal rang again and again as the two opponents faced off on the other side of the Baltoy's barrier. Behind her, there was a furious burst of flapping wings. A large, dark purple Pokémon, with massive claws the size of its batlike head and a scorpion-like tail, had thrown itself at Venomoth, pinning the smaller Pokémon to the ground and obscuring it entirely with its webbed black wings, scattering paralysis-inducing powder everywhere. She recognized it as somewhat similar to the Gligar Gale had used previously, and realized that this must be the Pokémon's evolved form, a Gliscor. It was bigger than Tella herself, and she experienced a moment of panic as she wondered how she would get past it. She hesitated, and with relief she saw that neither the Gliscor nor the Venomoth were moving: one due to the weight holding it to the ground, and the other due to the paralyzing dust that had covered it, locking its muscles in a rictus of painful rigidity.
Tella released Torch from his Poké ball, and without needing to be instructed he released a torrent of flames that cleared the air above the two immobilized Pokémon of the Venomoth's floating scales. Tella took a running jump, leaping over the two motionless forms, and nearly stumbled as, sailing over them, she was forced to adjust her stance to avoid tripping over the unconscious Houndour that lay immediately beyond them.
Torch fluttered along behind her, barely keeping up but managing to turn briefly to cast a dark look back at the Gliscor— his last encounter with it, back when it had been a Gligar, had ended with him paralyzed and captured along with Tella.
Tella ran further into the maze of alleys, keeping a wary eye out for Gale's Rotom; it stood to reason that the bounty hunter's other Pokémon would be somewhere around here, and the matter was made worse by the fact that, as a ghost, it could be anywhere,
hidden in one of the walls or floating somewhere on the rooftops. Her worst fears were confirmed as, turning a corner, she met a wall of crackling electricity blocking her path. Beyond the transparent wall of sparks, Tella could see another corner, from around which she could hear the distant sound of the crowds on one of the main streets.
Rotom floated out of a wall a few feet behind Tella and Torch, and as one they turned to face the ghost-type Pokémon. Its body was an orange orb with a spike on top. The face on the front of the orb was currently arranged in a wide grin. The ghostly glow and faint sparks it emitted in darkness couldn't be seen in the late-afternoon sunlight that made its way down into the alleyway; in fact, Rotom could be seen to be somewhat transparent in the daylight. This didn't make it any less menacing, though, as it floated theatrically towards Tella with the same malicious smile plastered across its face.
From where he'd landed on the ground slightly behind and to one side of Tella, Torch let off a torrent of flame from his beak. It roared straight into Rotom's face, and the floating orb's progress slowed slightly. As the stream of fire abated, though, the Rotom simply continued forward, its grin a little forced now. An arc of lightning shot past Tella and struck Torch on the forehead, much like the earlier blast from Connor's Pikachu but with greater force. Despite being grounded, Torch was sent skidding aross the ground, coming to a stop inches from the electric barrier behind Tella.
Tella remained frozen, a drop of sweat running down one side of her face. Machop couldn't do a thing to a Pokémon that was immune to physical impacts, and Ralts was in no condition to fight. Was this the end of the line? Racking her brain for some way out of this mess, Tella didn't notice a glow, quite apart from the light of the setting sun obscured by the buildings, begin to come from behind her. It wasn't until Rotom, stopping its ominous advance, narrowed its eyes to squint at whatever the light was, that Tella noticed there was something amiss. She turned her head, and had to squint, too, as the blaze of white light came to a peak of brightness and then winked out, revealing a much changed Torch.
The little orange chick had changed: Torch was taller, almost three feet high now, and his upper limbs resembled arms more than wings. Apart from the new grey talons at the ends of his arms and some red feathers near his legs and crowning his head, Torch's feathers were now entirely yellow, and he looked quite formidable.
Tella had only read about it until now, but from what she knew, such a process made a Pokémon stronger, and was part of most Pokémon's natural growth into adulthood. Her Torchic was now a Combusken, and it was clear that he intended to put whatever new strength he had to good use.
Torch burst into motion, running forward unsteadily at first and then more confidently as he became used to this new way of moving, so unlike the awkward hopping of his previous form. Crossing the distance between himself and Rotom with such speed that neither Rotom nor Tella had time to do more than stare with surprise at the place he'd just left, he launched himself at Rotom, his upper right talon curling into a fist and bursting into flame. Throwing all of his weight into the strike, he drove the Fire Punch attack into Rotom's staring face.
A punch alone would have simply gone straight through the ghost-type, but the fire was far more effective: As its ghostly form was shredded by the flames, Rotom dissipated with a howl of pain, reforming a short distance away. Angrily, it charged up a bolt of lightning, its slightly transparent body beginning to glow visibly with electric power. Moments before the Discharge attack was released, Torch raised both his upper talons, and shifted his feet into a solid stance. As Rotom fired its lazor, a shiny, mirrorlike barrier appeared in front of Blaziken. The Mirror Move caught the bolt of electricity and sent it crackling back at Rotom, exploding in a shower of sparks and making the ghost, dazed and blinded by the fireworks display but mostly unharmed, sputter with rage.
As the sparks cleared, Torch could be seen standing in exactly the same place as before. However, he hadn't been wasting his time. His entire body was now covered with a veil of flames, making him into his namesake of a living torch. He began to run, and the air whipping past him fed the fires so that they doubled in size. Rotom, flustered, whirled to escape down the alleyway instead of simply retreating into one of the walls, and Torch overtook it within a few seconds. Hurling himself at the fleeing ghost, he slammed into it, and the shell of fire surrounding the chicken Pokémon exploded into a massive fireball.
Rotom, unconscious, its orange body charred and reduced to regular metal in the absence of its ghostly power, shot down the alleyway, and rolled to a stop in the far corner of the alley, the direction Tella had originally come from. The electrical barrier blocking Tella and Torch from their escape disappeared, and not a moment too soon: from around that far corner came the sound of footsteps, and neither was particularly interested in finding out which of their enemies had won the scuffle.
---May 3, Year 1505 MTA; 18:20---
Torch and Tella slowed down as they emerged onto he large street— it was the north-south road running through Viridian City— and Tella, returning her Pokémon to his Poké ball for a well-deserved rest, blended in with the crowds, for once grateful for the tightly packed stream of people, which she'd initially found intimidating after the spacious boulevards of Celadon City and the quiet solitude of her home outside it.
About to take a left turn to head for the exit of the city, she stopped briefly as she saw Gordon and Fredrick crossing the street just ahead of her, headed for one of the green-roofed Trainer Houses. Aren't those places off-limits to kids?
she thought. Gordon spotted her, and waved. A little tentatively, wondering if something was wrong, she waved back, and changed her course to intercept theirs.
"Hey, Tella," Gordon said as soon as she was within earshot, a big grin stretching all the way across his face. "Turns out Fredrick is an awesome Trainer in his spare time, and he says he'll take me to see some battles and learn stuff!"
Fredrick shook his head in self-deprecation. "I'm not as great as all that. Being a Trainer is really more of a hobby for me, and I only have two Pokémon. Still, I graduated from the Trainer's School, so I know at least enough to help Gordon out. They'll let him into the Trainer Houses as a spectator if one of the battlers vouches for his good behaviour."
Tella just smiled uneasily at them, trying to get her brain to change gears from the mindset that handled a world where people were trying to kill her, and a wave meant help me!
to the way of thinking that dealt with normal people. It was hard, after such a close brush with death, and with the knowledge that there were people in this very town who wanted her silenced.
A little unnerved by the stare of Tella's pale bluish-grey eyes, Fredrick gave a little cough. "Uh, about that berry you gave me," he said, feeling that he owed her absolute honesty (and a fair bit of money, actually,) "It's worth a lot. Was there something I could give you in return? I'm not exactly rich, but..."
This was exactly what Tella had needed for the idea to fully sink in that this was a completely different place. Money meant nothing in a life-or-death chase; Fredrick's concern over it was hopelessly amusing to the part of Tella's mind that was endlessly turning over escape strategies and last-ditch contingency plans. She couldn't resist breaking into a wide grin as her brain made the transition back into 'dealing with normal people' mode. The sensation was almost a physical relief.
"I'll tell you what that berry was worth to me: Just another meal." she told him in a matter-of-fact tone, somewhat spoiled by her beaming smile. "Consider it paid for in full by these supplies," she said, hefting the stuffed-full black backpack, "And by helping Gordon out. I'm pretty sure he's not as dumb as he says he is, so don't let him tell you otherwise." Tella could see that her sudden lightheartedness had taken both Gordon and Fredrick aback, but that simply made her want to laugh even more. She stifled the impulse: they might take it as an insult, and she didn't want to hurt their feelings.
"Good luck to both of you," she said, still smiling, but with unexplainable tears in her eyes. "I hope we meet again someday." She turned and left at a run.
"Where are you going?" Gordon yelled after her.
Tella turned around and ran backwards for a few seconds, waving at him. "Somewhere. Anywhere! Bye!!" she shouted back, then turned away one last time and broke into a lighthearted skip as she headed down the road towards the setting sun in the west.
She wasn't sure why she felt so happy... Nor could she understand why there were tears running down her cheeks.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 13:20---
Gordon faced Connor across one of the ten small Pokémon battle rings in the back yard of the school. This was Practical Applications class, and as usual Connor had pulled some strings with Mrs. Corel to get himself paired up with Gordon for the Pokémon Battle portion of the lesson.
Connor was his usual, immaculate self: he made the school uniform, grey pants and a black vest over a white shirt, look like actual clothes. Gordon made a rather scruffy contrast, with food-stains on his shirt, grass-stains on his knees from football practice at lunchtime, and wearing a cut-down black jacket in place of a vest since the school clothing store didn't have one in his size. The two facing off was a fairly common sight, though, and all but a few of the other students were too busy having their own battles to bother watching what would probably be just another instance of 'the Brute getting owned.'
But what none of them knew was that Gordon had an ace up his sleeve this time.
"Ready, class?" barked Mrs. Corel in her sharp, nasal voice. "Remember what I told you about deviational movement around the perimeter of the arena; while risky, it is beneficial in the circumstance of..."
As Mrs. Corel droned on, Gordon couldn't help grinning slightly as he remembered how, when he'd repeated one of her lectures to Fredrick, he'd scoffed, "Your teacher's full of hot air. She doesn't need to use nearly that many complicated words, but she throws them in to make herself sound smarter."
Upon finding that Gordon had an astonishingly good aural memory— indeed, he could repeat word for word most of the lessons he'd actually paid attention to— Fredrick had asked him to run through them, and had translated the various concepts into regular language. Then, extremely helpfully, Fredrick had proceeded to challenge several opponents in the Trainer House and had demonstrated each idea in action, taking several losses in the process but managing to pull off about the same number of wins.
Now, Gordon was certain he could handle Connor. It had only been a day, but he knew he was much improved; and he had taken Tella's advice and let his Pokémon rest instead of training. And, he still had that ace up his sleeve...
"The matches will be four versus four. All students who do not have four Pokémon will inform their opponent, and will adjust accordingly..."
"Three against three, then, Brute?" asked Connor with a long-suffering sigh.
"Nope, not today, Connor," Gordon retorted. "I've got four now."
"Ooh, let me guess. A Spearow?" Connor said mockingly, clearly trying to taunt Gordon into telling him what his new Pokémon was.
"Maybe." Gordon said, not giving anything away. Did Connor think he was stupid? Probably. He hadn't exactly given the rest of the class any reason to think any different, but all that was about to change. "Today's your turn to send first."
"Whatever," Connor rolled his eyes, and raised his first Poké ball. "Pikachu, I think he's got a new
kind of bird for you to zap."
The electric mouse appeared from the Poké ball's beam of red light, ready to fight. Gordon, without a word, released his new Pokémon, one he'd captured the day before when Fredrick had taken him on a short journey, tagging along with a group of tourist Trainers from Johto, to the well-known Diglett's Cave. The beam of red light struck the ground and, instead of forming into a Pokémon, kept going; a moment later, a small brown head popped out from under the ground, its red nose and beady eyes the only features.
"A Diglett? Well, someone's done their research! Or did you ask that Tella kid to help you? How you even got a girl to talk to you, I'll never know." Connor grinned at his own joke.
Gordon just ignored him, which took some of the fun out of it. Connor wasn't worried, though. Sure, the Brute had a type advantage now, but the Diglett was freshly caught, and it looked pretty feeble. Besides, if Pikachu couldn't do the job, he had a backup. "Pikachu, Quick Attack. Let's see what that thing can do."
Pikachu's outline blurred as it sped towards Diglett with lightning speed. Just before the mouse reached it, though, Gordon called, "Diglett, Dig!" and the ground-type disappeared into the earth. Pikachu stopped, and looked around in confusion, wondering whether the Diglett would pop up again. Immediately, the ground-type did so, immediately underneath its foe. Pikachu was catapulted into the air, and Diglett disappeared underground again. As Pikachu landed with a thump, Diglett, sensing the vibrations of the impact, shot up out of the ground, launching its opponent upwards again and again.
"All right, stop," Gordon said after three or four blows. "We don't want to hurt it too bad." Its Trainer, though,
he reflected with rather uncharacteristic vindictiveness, I wouldn't mind hurting just a bit.
He didn't say anything, though.
Connor, looking a bit annoyed at his Pokémon's failure to so much as scratch its opponent, recalled Pikachu to its Poké ball. "All right, play time's over. Bellsprout, go!"
The flytrap Pokémon, a grass-type whose body consisted of two root-like feet, a slender stem, a pair of leaves, and a large yellow bell-shaped head, appeared in the ring.
Gordon considered. Switching Pokémon could be dangerous, Fredrick had told him, since it left your replacement Pokémon open to attack before it could shake off the disorientation of being released from the Poké ball. Diglett was pretty strong; maybe it could beat Bellsprout despite the type advantage. "Diglett, Body Slam!"
"Bellsprout, Giga Drain! Use your roots to capture it!"
Gordon realized his mistake as Connor called his Pokémon's attack, but it was too late: Bellsprout plunged its roots into the ground, and Diglett, burrowing through the surface of the battle ring, was caught by surprise as the roots burst out of the ground surrounding it. They latched on to it, and began to draw energy out of the mole Pokémon, which let out a shrill cry of "Diiiiig!" and promptly fell unconscious.
Gordon returned it to its Poké ball, remembering too late that Fredrick had told him Diglett were 'powerful but fragile.' But there were lessons that he had
learned properly, and he knew exactly what Pokémon to send next.
"Pidgey, I choose you! Gust attack!"
Gordon watched with surprise as the battle started to go more smoothly. The little bird's gust attack blew Bellsprout away, uprooting it painfully and making it flee the ring on its stubby rootlike legs, with Connor shouting in vain for it to get back here!
Starting to look worried, Connor countered with Charmander, who chased Pidgey in circles with streams of fire, never letting the bird get close or giving it the time to use its Gust attack. Gordon ordered it to return, snagging it out of the air and replacing it with his secret weapon: borrowed Pokémon were allowed in class, Fredrick had lent him his Squirtle, a small blue turtle Pokémon that stood on its hind legs. Charmander, dithering as Connor tried to calculate the best way to respond, blew a halfhearted ball of fire at its opponent, but Squirtle more or less ignored the attack, which splashed harmlessly off of its shell. Opening its mouth, Squirtle spewed a ridiculously large wave of water onto the ground, a wave that rushed straight at Charmander. The fire lizard was washed, unconscious, to the feet of its Trainer, the flame on its tail much diminished in size. Connor had only one Pokémon left, while Gordon had Squirtle, Pidgey, and
"You're asking for it, Brute!" yelled Connor, returning his Charmander to its Poké ball. "Go, Milotic!"
Gordon's eyes widened; he hadn't thought Connor would ever resort to using the huge Pokémon in class.
The capsule released a flood of red light, which coalesced into a familiar form that grew and continued to grow. Floating in midair, the twenty-foot-high coiled form of Milotic took shape, and the red colour shifted, resolving into the soft pink and tan of Milotic's sinuous body, the scales of its finned tail twinkling like blue diamonds. It turned a reproachful gaze on Connor, as if rebuking him again for using it in so crass a thing as a battle.
"Sorry, Milotic," Connor mumbled in a subdued voice, all thoughts of obnoxiousness stolen by the Pokémon's serenity-inducing aura. "You're my only Pokémon left, so it's this or lose the match..."
"Class! Class!" called Mrs. Corel, with a dreamy quality to her voice that was quite unlike her usual strict bark. "Come and look, this is a capital opportunity to reflect upon the rapturous effects of proximity to a Milotic. Notice... the graceful..." the teacher's voice trailed off into a dazed smile as she stared up at the massive, beautiful Pokémon. The class began to gather around, partly to watch the battle and partly just to stare at the Milotic.
"That's not fair..." Gordon mumbled with a dejected slump of his shoulders. Normally he'd have been shouting that Connor was a cheater, but it took too much effort to get angry around the Milotic. "No unevolved Pokémon can beat that thing..."
"Milotic, use Surf." Connor ordered. But Milotic, instead of whipping up the same crushing six-foot wall of water it had used on Machop the day before, simply continued to stare at Connor. After a few moments, it became obvious that the Pokémon wasn't looking at the boy, but instead at a figure that was rapidly approaching from the direction of the school's front gate. Clearly, this was Connor's mother and Milotic's Trainer.
"Connor Alexander Michaels!!
" the woman shouted in an ominous but somehow musical voice, marching up to Connor, who, to Gordon's amusement, wore an expression of sheer terror. Arriving in front of her son, Mrs. Michaels towered over him with an authoritative glare. She wore a simple but elegant chemise and a thigh-length skirt of pale blue silk, and carried a fine shawl woven from shed Linoone fur draped over her shoulders. Her shoes, though they matched the dress in colour, were no-nonsense hiking boots that bore the scuffs and dust of more than a few travels, indicating that there was more to this woman than just money. All in all, she gave the impression of competence and a kind of nobility, without seeming to even try.
The look on her dignified, faintly lined face was equal parts anger and disappointment; neither emotion seemed to be particularly affected by Milotic's aura, nor did they make the woman any less imposing. "You should be ashamed of yourself, young man! Milotic told me you had her fight an opponent yesterday, but I trusted that you had a very good reason. She hates causing harm and is not to be made to battle,
except for in dire circumstances! And here I find you using her as a toy, in a battle of no consequence. Shame on you!
I will have to seriously discuss this with your teacher at a later date... but for now, you're coming with me!"
Gordon watched with equal parts awe and hilarity as Mrs. Michaels proceeded to seize her loudly protesting son by the ear and drag him forcefully out of the schoolyard, Milotic drifting serenely along behind.
As Milotic disappeared down the road, Mrs. Corel seemed to come to, returning to her strict, brisk managing of the class. "Well. That was quite
unforeseen. It appears that Connor has forfeited this match, so the victor is the Bru— Uhh..." Mrs. Corel cut herself off, appearing to rack her brain for a moment to come up with Gordon's name. "...Gordon. Congratulations, young man. Your technique in the initial stages of the battle was not bad at all; there may be hope for you yet."
Gordon certainly hoped so. He smiled widely as a few of the more outgoing kids gave him a thumbs-up behind Mrs. Corel's back as she bustled off to get the classroom ready for their next lesson; the others, at least, regarded him with something approaching respect as the crowd of kids slowly filed back into the classroom.
The future looked a lot brighter than it had the day before.
Gordon had a mentor, of sorts, who had promised to teach him the practical side of the stuff he was learning in school. That wasn't all, though: when he'd gotten home from his trip to Diglett's Cave with Fredrick, he'd found his mother's lawyer, a smiling man who seemed to genuinely like Gordon, waiting there to give him the news that his father had agreed to go to a rehab centre for alcoholics and that Gordon would be living with his mother in the meantime, perhaps indefinitely. She lived on the other side of Viridian City, just about the same distance from school, and he was pretty sure that it'd be a nice change.
So, yes. Maybe there was hope for Gordon. Still,
he reflected, his eyelids drooping as Mrs. Corel started to lecture the class about 'logical linkage of attacks yielding greater efficiency than haphazard brute force in the subduing of an opponent,' It's not like everything's suddenly easy. That'd be boring.
Those were his last thoughts as he dozed off on his desk, a small smile on his goonish face.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 19:30---
The future looked a lot darker than it had the day before.
Dark grey clouds blanketed the sky, dimming what little light still came from the setting sun. Tella groaned quietly as she stirred herself and rose from amongst the prickly leaves of the bramble in which she'd gone to sleep eight hours earlier. The muscles in her back and legs ached abominably from the punishing pace of the sixteen hours before that, which had been spent fleeing from an endless succession of people hunting her. Her stay in Viridian, while necessary and unexpectedly fulfilling, had removed the safety that had come with her pursuers' lack of knowledge about her location. When she had been travelling through the woods, only Gale and his red-headed companion had known approximately where she was. Now that she was confirmed to be just west of Viridian, it seemed like the grasslands of Route 22, the only viable passage into the Kanto-Johto mountain range, were absolutely filled with hikers and joggers, every one out of two of whom seemed to be plain-clothes agents bent on capturing or killing her. She had taken the more mountainous cliffside path, but to no avail. After a series of gruelling chases to escape her persistent pursuers, she had finally managed to find a safe, hidden place to rest, in a patch of brambles at the bottom of a sheer cliff. The cliff had taken all her stamina, mundane and otherwise, to climb down from. Looking up, she could see the handholds she'd gouged out of the solid rock with her bare hands— hands that were fortified, of course, with psychic power.
Now, Tella regretted every ounce of strength that she'd spent, though without having done so it was unlikely she'd have found a safe place to sleep away the daylight. A full eight hours of rest and superhuman endurance notwithstanding, she was far from being in top form: her overtaxed muscles twinged with every movement, and any great exercise of power would probably be beyond her for the rest of the night. Hopefully, though, her would-be captors wouldn't be prowling the slopes in such great numbers at night, and she was less likely to be seen by whatever ones remained. Marshaling her strength, Tella started up the hand- and foot-holds she'd created the day before. She needed to get this climb over with before the fading daylight disappeared entirely; she would be all too likely to miss a handhold in the dark.
Unbeknownst to Tella, as she climbed out of the narrow valley, she was being watched at that very moment; but not by any human eyes— in fact, not by any eyes at all.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 19:35---
"Still see her, Golbat?" murmured Jayce, for the third time in as many minutes. Unperturbed, Golbat proudly nodded a third affirmative, and returned to standing with its underdeveloped eyes closed and its wide wings cupped around its ears to capture the reverberations of its supersonic cries. Using echolocation, Tella was as clearly visible to Golbat as she would have been to a human eye in broad daylight, which was a valuable advantage given that even now the dimness of the setting sun's light through the clouds made it impossible for Jayce to make out Tella's black coat and dark jeans as more than a vague flicker of motion. Within a few minutes it would be completely dark, and Golbat's supersonic 'sight' would be a necessity.
The two were perched amongst an outcropping of rocks across the valley from where Tella was just finishing her climb, not more than fifty feet away from the girl. The wind whistled by, but the man-sized boulders blocked the chill. Gliscor was off scouting, and would likely return within a few minutes. Sure enough, before twenty seconds had passed the massive purple Pokémon glided into view and landed, indicating with a gesture of one oversized claw that it, too, had detected Tella on her way out of the valley.
A slight crackle from Jayce's wrist-Pokégear alerted him to an incoming message from Gale.
"This is Hunt One. I haven't sighted the target yet, over."
"Hey, Gale, I was just about to call you. I've got her right here. Get Zammy to teleport you in, over."
"Finally," muttered Gale's voice through the Pokégear. "Copy that. And for the last time, call me Hunt One when we're on a mission." The transmission cut off, without so much as an 'over and out.'
Jayce rolled his eyes. Gale was sure worked up over this. He'd almost gotten them into very hot water back in Viridian City by claiming Tella as his own quarry and attacking one of their employer's agents— their supposed allies— and only a swift intercession by Jayce had prevented the two from killing each other. As it was, the miscommunication had been smoothed over and the agent had withdrawn ('for now,' the silver-masked agent had said,) but to no avail: Gale's altercation with his would-be rival had slowed him down, and Tella had escaped despite the contingency plan of having Gale's Rotom lie in wait at the alleyways' obvious exits. Rotom had been found unconscious and much the worse for wear in a corner near the turn-off to the main streets, and Tella had been nowhere to be found.
At least until now. Zammy was back from a couple days' sleep in his Poké ball, and, now that he was rested and Tella was no longer protected by the psychic cacophony of a large city's crowds, Zammy was once again in his element and almost as eager as Gale to capture the girl. Rather than trying to reason with both of them, Jayce had simply sent them off together, keeping Golbat with him and borrowing Gale's Gliscor for another type of echolocation— between them, Golbat and Gliscor had two kinds, aerial and through rock or earth surfaces.
With a soft pop
noise, Zammy and Gale appeared a short distance away from Jayce. Zammy immediately turned to face exactly in Tella's direction, despite the now pitch blackness of the cloudy night: he didn't need his eyes to detect the presence of the minds around him.
"She does not have Ralts shielding her. At this range, I can be certain of that. Nonetheless, I cannot read her mind; I had not thought she had any psychic power, but it appears she has been taught to shield herself."
"You can find her, though?" Jayce confirmed.
"Absolutely. She is headed west... I am beginning to detect a trend,"
Zammy said with a sardonic tone to his mental voice.
"Well, if she gets much farther west, we're going to have to chase her into the mountains, and I for one am not keen on that idea," Gale observed dourly. "Can we get moving and stop her now?"
"Hmm..." Jayce pretended to consider for a second, while Zammy and Gale waited impatiently. His grin invisible in the darkness that had fallen, Jayce decided to stop teasing them. "Sure. No time like the present."
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 19:46---
Another watcher, hidden on a high ledge that overlooked three low mountain passes just north of Route 22, lowered a pair of night-vision goggles from her eyes with satisfaction. Her quarry, a girl known as Tella Marr, had just come into view passing through the southernmost of the three paths. Although they were technically mountainous, the range to which the passes belonged was no more than a foothill to the massive Johto-Kanto mountains that loomed in the west.
The watcher knew that, if she hurried, she could be down at the other end of the pass Tella had chosen within a few minutes, and the capture would be a piece of cake with the Master's Venomoth's help. She had her own Pokémon, of course— her Baltoy and Scyther were her sparring partners and her closest friends— but the loan of Venomoth meant something special. Being allowed the use of one of the Master's Pokémon was a huge step up in her apprenticeship, and she was the envy of the other apprentices for having been given this prestigious mission for the Master's Allies.
The Master lived by a strict code of honour, and by extension so did his apprentices, senior and junior alike. Even the mysterious, illustrious but shady 'Allies' for whom this mission was being executed had to tread carefully and keep their dealings with him strictly honest and honourable, lest they arouse his ire. The Master was said to respect the goal of his Allies, though the hunter wasn't sure what that goal was, and as a result his apprentices all wore the red-and-silver mark of the Allies, and the services of the Master's apprentices were always at the Allies' disposal... for a price, as was necessary to maintain the high standard of the equipment and materials they used in their training.
The hunter's vigilance never wavered even as thoughts ran through her head, and she arrived at the bottom of the low pass in plenty of time, and hid herself amongst some boulders by the side of the path. Now to wait for her quarry to arrive...
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 19:50---
Paul Diver shivered and crossed his arms for warmth, wedging his flashlight under his armpit, as he trudged up the path, which was getting steeper and steeper as it climbed into the mountain pass. His superiors had not been amused when he had disobeyed a direct order, and gone home instead of joining in the city-wide hunt for the girl Tella. So they'd sent him on a night-time search mission, despite his protests that the shops were all closed and he only had a thin windbreaker for a coat.
"Damn Tella damn Milotic damn cold damn damn damn..." he muttered under his breath, rubbing his shoulders for warmth. If he weren't being paid handsomely for his cooperation, he would've simply refused to handle this unpleasant task, but money was money.
All this brooding is so unlike me,
Paul reflected. He was by nature fairly cheerful, and couldn't stay in a bad mood forever. So it was cold out, and likely to rain before too long, and he was on the payroll of a group whose methods of achieving their aims... whatever those were... could only be called criminal. He tried to look on the bright side. This kind of hike was good exercise, and would serve him well if he was going to use his saved-up pay for a well-deserved journey around Kanto with his Pokémon.
Whistling a brave tune against the increasing howl of the wind, Paul turned his flashlight up a bit and squinted upwards, trying to make out the two small mountains flanking the pass for which he was headed.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 19:52---
Tella, unaware that she was being steadily surrounded by her various pursuers, came to the top of the mountain pass, wishing she could risk a light to see by. Despite her carefully honed sense of balance, in the pitch blackness of the night, with not even the stars visible through the thick blanket of cloud, it was hard to tell up from down with no point of reference but the irregular rocky ground of the path along which she had been stumbling for the last fifteen minutes. She considered releasing Torch to light her way, but reasoned that it would be much safer to do so when she had made her way down from the peak of the foothills. A flame here would be visible from miles away.
A dim flash of colour from amidst the darkness made Tella jump and glance around, finally turning to face back the way she'd come. A bobbing light, unmistakably that of a flashlight, was approaching. Its bouncing motion suddenly increased in speed and amplitude as its holder caught sight of Tella. "Hey! You!" shouted the man as Tella turned and fled as fast as her stiff legs and her near-depleted power would take her: considerably faster than any normal person could run.
"Uhh... Stand and deliver!" Paul shouted, panting as he jogged in the direction she'd taken. "Or, just run away..." he finished lamely, realizing that he hadn't exactly thought about what he would do
if he actually ran into the object of his mission. He had considered the mission an unpleasant but ultimately futile search, and had had no notion that his flashlight beam, illuminating a tiny millionth of the tens of square miles of accessible paths through Route 22, would actually fall on the girl he was supposed to capture.
Conflicting feelings writhed in Paul's consciousness as, a bit stunned, he started walking again. What was he doing here, really? He was just a part-timer for these guys, getting some money off them in exchange for some harmless information. He'd never wanted to actually hurt
anyone, much less a little girl. And, face it, some of the full-timers really freaked him out. They were so serious
about the whole thing, like some kind of secret service. At first he'd thought it was all just a wierd cult of some kind, an insiders' club with a fund to pay 'informants,' just the kind of rubes you could milk for cash while pretending to do something. But on his first day of 'work,' when he opened his door to find himself staring at two serious-faced guys with black clothes that almost had the look of a uniform to them, he'd started to get the idea that he was now part of something a lot more organized.
The worst part was, he hadn't backed out immediately. There would still have been time, then. Now, Paul wasn't so sure. He wasn't stupid: whatever group he was gathering information for, it was big, and it was secret. There was really only one reason why they would be after some fourteen-year-old girl: she knew something that they didn't want anyone else to know. And if they would put out an order to bring her to them, 'dead or alive,' just for that... what would they do to Paul if he tried to quit, knowing even the small amount he knew?
It was easy to fool himself in the light of day, with the sun shining and the birds singing: there, Paul could tell himself that whatever information he gave his superiors wasn't hurting anyone, that it was all worth the money that kept flowing into his Trainer Card's account from an unknown source. At night, though, Paul sometimes lay awake for hours, wondering just what he was getting himself deeper and deeper into with every regular twice-a-day report.
Now, walking down a deserted (as far as he knew) mountain path through the pitch blackness of a heavily overcast night, Paul shivered, and this time, it didn't have much to do with the chill wind.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 19:54---
"Damnit!" Gale yelled, ripping off the black cloth mask that covered the lower half of his face. Its presence or absence made little difference, though; he could only be seen dimly by the light of the small, shuttered electric lantern that was hanging in midair in the middle of the group.
A slight ghostly aura surrounded the object: Rotom's spirit was temporarily inhabiting the appliance while his more usual body awaited repairs. The unearthly, superconductive orange metal that composed it was hard to come by, and even harder to melt down and recast; when imbued with Rotom's spirit, it could withstand any amount of current without overheating, but in its current damaged state it was uninhabitable. An atmosphere of sullenness could be felt by anyone who went near the floating lantern.
However, feelings of sullenness were not confined only to Rotom in its ignominious new home.
"Damnit!" Gale roared again. "We almost had her!"
"Calm down, Gale. We had no idea that side passage was there. What could have possessed her to start running like that?"
Zammy spoke up from where he had been seated, motionless, for the last several minutes, his voice reverberating in their minds rather than their ears.
"She was spooked. I was too busy maintaining the trap to catch most of it, but I can now detect a single man coming this way. He is, as far as I can tell, a nobody: a member of our employers' organization, but one with serious doubts and no special skills to speak of, and he accidentally alerted Tella to his presence, causing her to fear discovery and flee. Unfortunately, as blind luck would have it, the direction in which she chose to stumble was apparently the side passage you spoke of."
"Where is she now?" Jayce asked his Pokémon.
"She is a short distance south of us, travelling south-southwest. I cannot remotely detect the contours of the mountains without seeing them through the eyes of another, as you know, but my guess is that she is in a narrow valley of some kind which prevents her from striking out straight west."
"Then we can catch up with her if we give chase now!"
"Probably," agreed Jayce. "But I think we should wait and see what our other
interloper does first."
"I am surprised that you picked up on that,"
Zammy remarked, his mental voice just a bit miffed.
"I may be no psychic, but I've learned to read your
mind, at least," Jayce said, grinning. No one could see the smile, but Zammy would know it was there. "You do
know our mental link goes two ways, don't you?"
scoffed Zammy affectionately. "As I had been about to say before this know-it-all 'in-befored' me,"
he continued, directing this at Gale, "We do have an ally of sorts. You may remember a certain silver-masked person, who would be best described as an apprentice ninja. While her mind is guarded so that I cannot read it, she lacks any true psychic power and thus cannot prevent me from at least identifying her and knowing her location. She is currently closing in on Tella."
"So we should beat her to it!" said Gale, the fierce joy that was his response to a challenge making its way onto his face.
Zammy said, almost in unison with Jayce. Jayce silently yielded the opportunity to speak, sending a mental cue to Zammy to continue. "No, we will wait for our 'ally' to tire Tella out a bit further. From what I can gather about the young ninja, although she is skilled she doesn't stand a chance unless Tella is far more exhausted than I expect."
"Hmm... I can see the merit in that," Gale admitted grudgingly.
"Let's use the time to see if we can get ahead of Tella!" Jayce exclaimed, as if Gale's noncommital words were an unconditional agreement. Gale found himself following along, despite his misgivings, as the entire group set off westwards along the very trail that they had until now expected Tella to take.
Our trap will work regardless of location,
the bounty hunter told himself, If we can only get that accursed girl to walk into it.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 20:10---
Tella stumbled and caught herself, bruising her hand against the smooth rock wall of the valley, as her right foot plunged deep into a patch of marshy ground in the pitch blackness. She could hear the trickle of running water coming from somewhere ahead and off to her left, implying the presence of a stream, but the entirety of the ground in this valley was composed of a two-foot-deep layer of churned mud with countless swamp plants floating in it. Using her hands to sweep yet another heavy clinging load of plant matter off of her feet, Tella tried in vain to see her way ahead, to see something, anything, in the impenetrable darkness.
Almost twenty minutes had passed since her headlong flight from the flashlight-bearing man in the mountain pass, and she hadn't yet given herself time to so much as take a breather. Tella stopped slogging through the viscous mud for a moment, leaned back exhaustedly on the smooth, almost vertical rock wall of the valley, and took a few seconds to reflect on the foolishness of her rush to escape. Thinking of how easily she could have fallen and hit her head, or broken a leg on a jutting rock, or simply dashed headlong into a yawning crevasse while running in the dark like that, she grimaced and thanked sheer luck that she had found her exit safely. She'd entered the first alcove she'd discovered in the wall of the mountain pass, and fortunately the narrow passageway had descended gradually and smoothly into this marshy place.
Or perhaps not so fortunately. Every step was a great effort in the waterlogged muck that came up to her thighs, and Tella couldn't shake the feeling that the man carrying the flashlight, or perhaps his allies, could be waiting in the darkness ahead of her, listening to her noisy progress and grinning...
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 20:16---
Tella opened her eyes, realizing with a shock that she'd fallen asleep briefly. That was worrying: her position, leaning against the hard rock wall, was hardly comfortable enough to be sleep-inducing. The wind,
she realized. This place felt warm, almost cozy, due to the absence of the otherwise omnipresent mountain winds down here in the valley. The towering rock walls produced a hushed stillness of the air that prevented the marshy earth from drying out and blowing away, a stillness that could lull the unwary into forgetting how cold that air really was. While not exactly the height of comfort, it was a sleeper's paradise compared to the high-altitude paths among the rocky spires of the mountains, where the wind shrieked as it sped from one horizon to the other and leached away body heat no matter how many layers a traveller was wrapped in.
I can't afford to sleep now; If I do, I might never wake up.
Tella levered herself upright and was about to start her weary trudge once more, when a voice spoke from a few feet in front of her, startling her into leaping back. The manoeuvre, reflexive and not particularly effective in the clinging mud, sent Tella toppling backwards as her mired feet failed to follow her body. She landed flat on her back in the swampy muck, her braid flying free of her coat to splat into the mud next to her face.
There was a tension-filled pause as the speaker waited for an answer. Tella, her racing heart beating like a drum in her ears, couldn't even begin to recall what it was that the voice had just said.
"I said, surrender peacefully or die, Tella Marr. Falling over was not an option." the voice was underlaid by a metallic echo of itself, making it impossible to identify whether it was male or female , or what emotion it might contain. It was the voice of the silver-masked hunter Tella had run into in Viridian City.
It's all over.
Tella suppressed the urge to burst into tears, and struggled to lift herself to her feet, to at least face death standing up. I won't give in. I can't go all the way back there and have done to me what they were doing to those poor Pokémon. At least death will be less painful than that. I hope.
Her struggles were in vain— try as she might, she couldn't push her feet down to reach the firmer ground below the mud— and her thrashing served only to bog her down deeper in the muck, threatening a ghastly alternative to capture or execution: death by drowning in a sea of mud.
"I'll never surrend—!" Tella shouted desperately, the effect ruined as her mouth filled with sludge on the last word. The swamp closed over her face, and she felt a horrible unvoiced scream bubble from her throat as she began to sink, ever so slowly, her feet unable to reach down to the harder ground a foot below to push her upright. Just then, Tella could think of no worse way to die than to slowly suffocate, her limbs completely immobilized by the horrific wet weight of the mud pressing in on her from all sides. She ran out of breath, her inaudible scream died away, and her terror redoubled as the swamp poured itself into the back of her throat.
Then a pair of hands grasped Tella by the shoulders and yanked her out of the mud, throwing her roughly against the valley wall. She spit out her mouthful of slime, then doubled over, dry-heaving, as her body tried to clear away every last trace of the muck. After more than a minute of vomiting, she slowly straightened.
There was light in the valley, now, but it wasn't from the sun: A small round figure, which Tella recognized as the Baltoy that had appeared in the alleyway in Viridian along with its silver-masked Trainer, was floating some ten feet in the air, spinning around and around and letting off a piercing white glow that lit everything starkly, casting shadows as black as the surrounding night. The dark greenish-brown of the mud was indistinguishable from a shade of grey, and the smooth rock of the valley wall was a vivid white as it reflected the harsh brightness.
Tella's saviour and, apparently, captor was standing a few feet away. The black clothing and silver Gyarados mask were unchanged by the stark brightness of Baltoy's Flash; Tella glared at the hated red-and-silver emblem on the black shirt. The symbol was mostly covered, though, by the bandolier hanging across the hunter's chest with its two Poké balls.
"Well?" the tinny voice asked, distorted by the mask. "Do you surrender?"
Tella scowled, beyond any idea of despair. Was this person playing with her? "Never," she croaked, her voice rasping as the acid of her vomit burned her throat. "Why did you save me, if you're just going to kill me anyhow?"
"Dying in the muck is not a warrior's end. I would test your honour."
Tella didn't know what to make of that. So I'm not going to be executed out of hand. Maybe I can exploit this,
she thought desperately. "How... how can I prove my honour?" Tella asked, trying to get her voice to stop rasping.
"Fight me. To the death."
Tella's face went completely blank as her mind raced through the ramifications of the challenge. On the one hand, it was clear that death or victory were still her only options, but a duel gave her at least better chances than trying to escape— an impossibility in this marshy valley— or surrendering.
"What are your terms?" Tella asked.
"We will find a patch of firmer ground. You will release up to three of your Pokémon, and each of them will battle one of mine. Meanwhile, I will fight you. Are these terms acceptable?" The metallic sound of the voice grated on Tella's raw nerves.
"Why?" Tella asked abruptly. "Why is honour so important to you?"
"Come." The figure turned and walked away, heading in the opposite direction from the valley wall. Tella, considering her chances if she tried to run for it, and noting that the person seemed to be somehow walking along the top of the sludge rather than being hampered by it as Tella was, decided to simply follow. For a moment it didn't look like the masked person was going to answer Tella's question, but finally the distorted voice said quietly, "I am not as the others you have encountered. If anything, my values are most like those of the man Gale, who I can see has a code of his own, though outwardly he answers to nothing but his own whims or the money of an employer."
"So you're not really an agent of the— the people who are after me?" Tella asked, not really believing it.
"I did not say that. The Master lends our services to the Allies, since he sees honour in their goals. We wear their sigil only when on missions for their benefit, so that their agents can recognize us as allies."
Tella stopped where she was, her hands clenching into fists despite her exhaustion. "You call torture and... and worse..." she stammered, her sudden rage making her unable to string together a coherent sentence, "You call that honour?"
"The means justify the end," said the masked figure simply. "An honourable goal is honourable, regardless of the opinions of others about the way it's achieved."
That sounds like a line learned by rote, not real belief,
Tella thought darkly. These people can talk about honour, but it's all just an excuse to do whatever they want.
Tella had never set much stock in an ethereal idea like 'honour.' To her it was just another word, like faith or patriotism, that could be used by evil people to justify the things they did. Tella saw no problem with striking an opponent whose back was turned, or leading her enemies into traps, if it ensured her survival or struck a blow against the system of atrocities they committed. They could call it 'dishonourable' all they wanted; they deserved anything they got, and in Tella's opinion, honour was only for those who could afford it.
"Here we are," the hunter stated, stopping and waiting for Tella to catch up. Sure enough, a few steps later Tella was able to lift her feet clear of the much shallower mud and onto a rocky, flat plateau that rose out of the marsh. It was a roughly square-shaped formation whose far edge melded with the valley's other wall. Twenty feet by twenty feet wide, and illuminated clearly by Baltoy's light, it provided ample room for manoeuvering, although the rocky ground was uneven and strewn with small stones that had fallen from the cliffs above over the course of years.
I'll need to watch my step, but it's better than trying to fight in the swamp,
Tella decided, her mind's focus shifting to gauge her opponent. Slim and agile, the masked figure seemed capable enough, and had been unhampered by the sludge that had so bogged Tella down. There was no reason to believe her enemy would be any less fleet of foot here. The black gloves the hunter wore, she knew, had blades in their wrists, but there could be any number of other weapons hidden in other locations; it would be a mistake to let her guard down just because her opponent's hands were occupied, or to ever assume her enemy was disarmed. This was an opponent Tella would not have relished a fight with, even if she had not been exhausted, hungry and wanting nothing more than to simply sleep for several days. She wished they could all just leave her alone. As if that's ever gonna' happen.
"Choose your battlers," the metallic voice commanded.
"Torch, Ralts, and Champ." Tella stated, and then whispered under her breath, "I'm counting on you." She removed the Poké balls from her belt, and released all three Pokémon into the battleground.
Torch, in his new Combusken form, was in fine shape, and he puffed up his yellow plumage aggressively, making himself look much bulkier.
Ralts seemed tiny and scared next to Torch's show of force; he was a pale green one-foot-tall Pokémon with tiny stubby arms and legs, and red disc-shaped horns extending from the front and back of his mushroom-shaped head. Appearances could be deceiving, though; Ralts's psychic powers were formidable.
Champ, her grey skin looking several shades lighter in the harsh light of Baltoy's Flash, stretched mightily, then gave Tella a thumbs-up. Barely two and a half feet tall, her stocky frame contained more raw strength than any human, even Tella, could hope to achieve, and her skill in battle was honed by hours of self-training.
A low humming noise from behind her made Tella glance back, and then duck as a large body flew out of the blackness and over her head, its translucent wings whirring. The Pokémon, a five-foot-tall mantis with green skin, insectoid wings, and long blades curving along the insides of its upper limbs, turned around in midair and landed in front of its Trainer. "Ssssscyther..." it hissed at Tella.
From above, where it had been hidden behind the blinding glare of the spinning Baltoy, Venomoth fluttered down to hover beside Scyther. Its pale purple wings were coated with paralytic scales that glittered ominously in the harsh light.
Finally, Baltoy descended to the ground, its glow fading as it stopped spinning. As the white light was replaced by its regular brown coloring, its roughly spherical body and head became more distinctly visible, and then less so again as the brightness faded into the pitch black of the night.
The darkness was immediately chased away again, though, as Torch let out a quiet clucking noise and burst into flame. The flames covering the Pokémon's body let off a flickering but bright radiance, leaving Torch unharmed but illuminating everything with a soft, natural light.
Champ's and Scyther's eyes met, with the unspoken mutual accord of two beings who lived for their next fight. Torch's glare was fixed on the masked figure across from Tella, and he flexed his talons, ready to do whatever it took to defend his Trainer, even if that meant directly attacking the enemy Trainer who was hunting her. Before Torch could begin to act on his readiness, though, Baltoy floated into place directly between him and its Trainer, the action a clear message that Torch would have to get through it
This left Ralts facing off against the Venomoth. Whistling uncertainly, the little psychic-type looked to his Trainer. Tella was standing straight, glaring defiantly at her silver-masked opponent and revealing none of her doubts. Even though she was caked with mud and evidently exhausted, Tella's posture exuded strength, and all three of her Pokémon seemed to draw on that energy, their gazes fixing with the same clear intensity on their respective opponents.
There was a perceptible change in the tension, and the battle began.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 20:49---
Gale gripped his binoculars tightly, not noticing how hard he was pressing them against his eyes. More than sixty feet directly below the ledge on which he was perched, a battle of stunning proportions was taking place.
Machop and Scyther were a pair of blurs, green and grey, dodging and weaving in an intricate dance. So far, neither of the skilled fighters had managed to strike the other; when and if that happened, it would likely be the blow that decided the battle.
Ralts and Venomoth were both hovering in midair over the swamp, more or less motionless except for the flapping of Venomoth's wings. The air around both glittered with twinkles of psychic energy; Ralts was using his power to hold back each individual particle of paralytic dust, clumping the immobilizing scales together and driving them harmlessly into the swamp's water, while at the same time trying to knock Venomoth out of the air with small bolts of energy, which the moth dodged. At the moment, it was a stalemate; the two Pokémon seemed able to hold each other at bay indefinitely.
The battle between Torch and the masked hunter's Baltoy was less of a fight and more of a test of endurance. Torch was striving only to reach the enemy Trainer, and Baltoy, spinning wildly like a top, was holding him back with a barrier of pure power. Punch after punch met the wall of transparent purple light, each one threatening to break through, but Baltoy was holding out desperately in the hopes of making Torch run out of stamina first.
The most fascinating battle by far, in Gale's opinion, was that between Tella and her black-clad opponent. It seemed like a mismatched battle; the masked Trainer was taller by almost five inches, and exuded an air of professional skill, while Tella looked like just a particularly grimy little girl, her clothes and hair encrusted with mud. The girl seemed unperturbed by this; her entire attention was focused on the careful circles she and her opponent were tracing around each other.
Tella was saying something; Gale could see her mouth moving. He strained to make it out, but it was too far. Then he felt Jayce's Alakazam's presence in his mind, diverting the input of his own eyes and ears and substituting that of a psychic monitor hovering a few feet above the action.
"...nothing but an excuse for doing evil things," Tella's voice said harshly, clearly audible from Gale's new vantage point.
"Rhetoric about good and evil is no more than an excuse to behave without honour," her opponent retorted in that monotone metallic voice.
"Easy for you to say!" Tella shouted.
The hunter responded by closing the distance between the two fighters with a step, blades extending from the sides of its gloves, and whipping its right wrist across at Tella's neck height. The girl ducked underneath the strike, her leg sweeping low to trip her enemy. The hunter jumped over the attempted trip, the left-hand blade slicing down at Tella's head.
Tella, already low to the ground, rolled aside, kicking out at the same time and landing a heavy blow to the masked figure's left hip as her opponent sailed overhead. Knocked off-balance in midair, Tella's black-clad attacker tumbled to the ground, the silver mask flying off to reveal a young female face, certainly no older than eighteen.
The Alakazam knew what he was talking about, then,
Gale thought to himself. Zammy had referred to the masked hunter as 'she' since he had first sensed her presence out here in the mountains.
The black-clad hunter got to her feet, showing none of her pain. Gale felt a grudging respect for the girl's fortitude; he had been on the receiving end of just such a kick, and he knew that a blow from Tella hit harder than a fourteen-year-old girl had any right to hit. Unbeknownst to him or to the opponent Tella was fighting, if Tella had not been almost completely drained of psychic power, such a blow would likely have had bone-breaking force, or even lethal strength.
"So you have some fight in you," said the hunter. Her voice, without the mask, was now a more natural light alto. "Good. There is no honour in defeating a weak opponent."
"I can ask you
to surrender, now." Tella said with a hard look.
"I will die before I surrender."
"That makes two of us," said Tella, and this time it was she who stepped in to initiate the fight. She threw a punch, and with lightning speed a blade swept up to intercept it. However, the strike was nothing but a feint; the fist stopped halfway there, and instead Tella's boot slammed into the wrist of her enemy's blocking arm. There was faint pop
of cracking bone, but it came from Tella's right foot as well as from her opponent's right wrist: the lining of the gloves contained metal plates on which the side blades were mounted. Gritting her teeth against a flood of pain, Tella retreated a step before her opponent could strike back. The two returned to circling, with Tella limping and her opponent turned somewhat sideways, favouring the broken wrist and keeping the uninjured one between herself and Tella.
After several more circles, Tella appeared to lose patience. She feinted a dash forwards, which her opponent ignored, then followed it with a real rush that nearly caught her enemy off-guard. It was a reckless move, Gale noted: Tella's opponent had blades that could do far more damage than Tella's punches, and throwing herself at a pair of blades like that while unarmed was foolishness. It appeared that the young ninja concurred, and, recovering just in time, she took a balanced stance, ready to slice Tella to ribbons.
Tella didn't so much as slow down. The wrist-blades sliced the air with a whining sound as they whipped across at her right hip and her neck, rendering a duck or a jump ineffective, but Tella did neither; she raised her own wrists, one at neck height and one at her side, and whipped them straight into the oncoming blades, reinforcing her skin with all the power she could muster.
It was just barely enough. The blades sliced through the arms of Tella's black coat, and to the astonishment of Gale and the wide-eyed apprentice ninja alike, the wickedly sharp metal bounced back from Tella's arms, leaving only twin dents in her skin that were paralleled by similar dents in the centers of the blades. Tella, now immediately in front of her opponent, transferred her momentum into a flying headbutt that, although aimed for the forehead, fell short and smashed her taller enemy headlong in the chest. Winded and gasping, the black-clad hunter flew backwards and skidded along the rocky surface of the battlefield for several feet and lacerating her back. Tella landed similarly, but front-first, her brand-new thick black coat taking the brunt of the damage and holding together admirably.
A secret technique?
"That was no martial arts technique."
Jayce's Alakazam was in his head again. "I could feel it. Tella manipulated psychic power to achieve that feat, but did so in a way I have never seen before. Her ability was hidden from me along with her mind."
I don't think this girl is done surprising us,
Jayce's voice put in, joining Zammy in Gale's head.
Gale thought sarcastically. Now shut up and pay attention.
Shaking off a momentary daze from her head-first impact, Tella pulled herself to her feet, and took stock of the situation. Torch, still separated from her and from her opponent by a translucent purple barrier, was peppering the wall of psychic energy with a barrage of Fire Punches. He appeared to be tiring, but so did the Baltoy that was producing the barrier.
Champ had Scyther locked in a wrestler's hold, its legs and wings twisted around in such a way that, flail its bladed arms as it might, it couldn't reach the Machop seated on its back. Champ gave Tella a wink, which she returned with a grateful smile before her gaze switched to Ralts's fight.
This one was not going so well; Ralts had retreated on to the rock surface, and was no longer hovering in midair, instead huddling on the ground with a swirling silvery veil of power wrapped around himself; Venomoth was still airborne, and was positioned directly above Ralts, shedding copious quantities of paralysis- and poison-inducing dust onto the little psychic-type's Safeguard, effectively keeping him locked down and unable to do anything else.
About to go and help, Tella realized that her opponent, whom she had assumed to be unconscious, was standing up. She smiled mockingly. "Sorry if I didn't show great honour with my unfair tricks," she taunted the black-clad girl. "Just give up now. You're outmatched," she bluffed. There was no way her opponent knew she didn't have the strength to repeat the feat of making her skin as hard as steel.
"There is no dishonour... in using... what skills are available to you." The hunter panted, straightening despite the pain of at least two fractured ribs and struggling to regain her breath. "The failure is mine... for not being... prepared."
"Was that a compliment?" Tella asked, looking askance at the older girl. "Does nothing
make you mad?"
"Anger is a... weakness. Underestimating an opponent... is a weakness. Emotion is... secondary... to honour. Prepare... yourself!" the hunter said, taking laboured breaths between words. She advanced on Tella, sidelong, with her good wrist forward.
"Is that the only reason you're doing this?" Tella asked with frustration, and a little bit of despair. "Some crazy idea of honour?" She was beginning to realize that when the black-clad girl had said, 'to the death,' she had meant it. Would this idiot keep fighting her until one of them was dead? Tella knew her limits, and knew that she was dangerously close to them, but she had no illusions: if this fight continued to the death, even with her own power as depleted as it was, it would be her enemy who died. Even though she wanted all these people to stop chasing her, Tella didn't want to become a murderer to achieve that.
Unaware or uncaring of how overmatched she was, the hunter kept on coming towards Tella. "What you call crazy is to me the only way to live. I cannot live knowing defeat. I must achieve victory or die trying."
Gale, watching from his vantage point above, felt, for the first time he could remember, his blood run cold. Failure was to be detested, yes, but even he would never take it so far as to equate it with death. If one survived it, defeat was to be taken as a sign that one needed to improve oneself. Or... so he had been telling himself, perpetually, ever since his own humiliating Failure. The young ninja's words hit too close to home for his comfort.
"Don't do this," Tella said, trying and failing to keep her voice from shaking. The hunter ignored her, continuing to advance. She came within striking range, and lashed out at Tella, her injuries not affecting her speed in the least. Tella barely managed to duck out of the way, and then narrowly avoided an unexpected second swipe from her opponent's injured wrist by throwing herself into a backwards roll.
Coming into an unsteady kneeling position from her roll, Tella saw the black-clad girl racing towards her. Reaching Tella once more, the hunter swung both wrist-blades at her quarry's head, again regardless of the pain from her broken right wrist.
Tella, crouched in her attacker's path with her right foot rendered less than reliable by an unknown broken bone, took the only possible way out: pushing off from her crouch with her left foot, she dived through her enemy's legs, rolling once more and coming to her feet. At the same moment that she spun around to face her opponent, she felt an odd tug at the back of her head, and realized that she'd made a horrible mistake. Her long, messy braid of black hair, which she normally kept tucked into her coat for exactly this reason, had come free back when she had fallen into the mud, and she had forgotten to hide it again. The hunter, whirling faster than Tella could recover from her roll, had snatched the trailing end of the braid out of the air, giving the older girl an invaluable advantage over Tella. She had but to give a yank, and Tella would be off-balance and easy prey: she was at her enemy's mercy.
Incongruously, given the pace of the fight so far, both Tella and the girl froze, staring each other in the eyes, the braid connecting them like a dangerous leash.
"Do you surrender?" asked the hunter.
"No." The thought hadn't even entered Tella's head.
"Why do you fight?" asked the hunter.
Tella blinked. She didn't understand the question. "Because I have to."
"I mean, why do you continue to fight? Even when you are about to lose, why do you not surrender?"
"Because if I'm captured, there are worse things than death."
The hunter shook her head, apparently not happy with Tella's answer. "Your fighting style isn't the wild struggle of a cornered animal. I can tell you have your own kind of honour, somehow, but if that honour isn't in your refusal to surrender, then... I don't understand where it comes from."
Tella had tried talking just to keep her enemy distracted; she could have gotten away in the last few seconds if she had been given a chance. Unfortunately, it didn't look like the hunter's left hand was anywhere near loosening its grip. Frustrated, Tella launched a verbal counterattack: a risky prospect, but nothing else so far had worked. "I can't afford your suicidal kind of 'honour.' I don't want to die for some stupid ideal. Is it so hard to believe that I have none??"
A look of disappointment crossed the hunter's face. "Perhaps I was simply mistaken. With or without honour, then... die."
Tella burst into motion at the same moment the girl yanked at her hair, and the unexpected jerk combined with the broken-wristed awkwardness of the left blade's stab caused the strike to go awry, cutting a bloody gash across Tella's forehead instead of slicing her throat open. The pain of the wound, along with the sensation of some of her hair being torn out by the roots, made Tella scream and jerk away again. At the same time, the unexpected sound and the jolt of pain from her broken wrist made the hunter's grip on Tella's hair relax for the merest second.
It was enough. Tella's braid yanked itself out of her opponent's grip as she fell sideways, and she rolled out of harm's way. Blinded by the blood that was beginning to run from her forehead, Tella leapt to her feet and ran, wiping blood from her eyes. Her vision temporarily clear, Tella barely managed to stop before her momentum would have carried her face-first into the unforgiving rock wall of the valley. She spun, putting her back to the wall, and took stock of her options as her opponent recklessly rushed her for the fourth time.
She didn't like those options, but she had less than a second to make a choice; without any conscious thought, her instincts chose the option that carried the greatest chance of escaping without injury. She ducked under the haphazardly swung right blade, seized the elbow of her opponent's uninjured left arm to prevent a second attack, and swung her right fist up and around to slam into the side of her opponent's head.
Disengaging swiftly, Tella backed away, ready for a counterattack, but as the black-clad form crumpled it was clear that some combination of the pain and the violent impact itself had rendered the hunter unconscious. At least, Tella hoped
the older girl was unconscious, and not...
First things first: Tella removed her backpack and, ignoring the bloodstains that marred the black fabric, dug through it until she found her first-aid kit. Taking out a roll of bandage, she wrapped it three times around her head and tied it off, stemming the flow of blood from the gash in her forehead. The wound didn't hurt, in comparison to the dull ache of whatever bone was broken in her right foot, but head wounds always bled profusely. She couldn't deal with weakness due to blood loss in addition to her mounting weariness, and being blinded unexpectedly by a reopening wound was a great way to die in a fight. Next, she tucked her hair firmly back into her coat. All this done with, she drew closer to the downed hunter and, wary of tricks, knelt down, holding a hand out over the girl's mouth. She was relieved to find a shallow but steady breathing pattern.
Why am I so glad she's not dead?
Tella thought, cross with herself. Didn't I just say I can't afford to have stupid ideals? It'd be most efficient to just finish her off so she can't come after me again.
Her heart wasn't in it, though. Something in Tella's nature rebelled against the thought of intentionally taking a life.
Still, this girl was a dangerous enemy. Tella removed the bladed gauntlets— retracting the blades using a button she found on the inside of the cuffs— and stuffed the gloves into her backpack, then flipped her attacker's unconscious form over and tied the hunter's hands and feet with a length of rope from her supplies. That done, she stood up and turned away from her defeated enemy, staggering a bit as her right foot gave a twinge of protest.
At that moment, Torch, still glowing like his namesake, raced to Tella's side. He crowed a worried question: Was Tella all right? Assuring him that she was, even though it was far from true, she looked around for Baltoy. The Pokémon, its strength depleted by its desperate defense against Torch, had abandoned its fight the moment its Trainer had lost consciousness, and was now spinning slowly in midair next to her inert black-clad form, emitting small buzzing noises of distress. Despite her misgivings, Tella couldn't help but feel glad, again, that she hadn't seriously injured the girl.
Over in the corner of the rocky battleground, Machop still had Scyther pinned. Looking around for Ralts, Tella raised her eyebrows with surprise as she saw the little psychic-type sitting with a satisfied smile on one of Venomoth's wings. The purple moth Pokémon was out cold. Whatever trick Ralts had pulled, he had managed a handy win, though he looked tired.
Her Pokémon's satisfied expressions aside, Tella could see one more relic of the battle. There, lying in the middle of the rocky plateau, was the silver Gyarados mask. Tella lifted it gingerly, as if it were an Ekans that would bite her if it awoke. After staring for a moment at the eerie roaring visage, she turned and threw it like a frisbee into the swamp.
"Ugh..." It sounded like the hunter was waking up.
Tella crossed to stand over her, unsure what to do now. "Do you surrender?" she asked.
The hunter struggled for a moment and then rolled over laboriously, unable to do much more with her hands and feet tied. "Of course not. You win; kill me."
"No." Tella said.
"But I lost." the hunter looked confused, and a bit dazed.
Tella, more than a bit exasperated, wondered if the strike to her opponent's head had damaged anything important. It wasn't as if this girl had made much sense beforehand,
though. "So? Most people would be begging for their life right now."
"If you let me live, I'll just come back after you."
Tella sighed. Was this girl trying
to get herself killed? "Unless I can get your word of honour you won't?"
"That's not how it works." Now it was the hunter's turn to get frustrated. "My honour demands that I capture you or die trying. Yours... I don't know what it demands. Just what is it that you're trying to do?"
"Well, right now, I'm trying to find a good reason not
to kill you. You're not helping," Tella said, only half joking. This conversation was aggravating.
"But, what's your mission? You're not just running away; I'm sure of that. So, where are you going, Tella Marr?" The hunter was looking less dazed now, and her stare had a much more piercing quality to it, though she was still helpless in her bindings.
Tella didn't want to admit that she herself wasn't sure where she was going, nor did she feel like letting on that she agreed with the older girl's evaluation. In the back of her mind, Tella knew she wasn't simply running; she was going
somewhere. Without consciously acknowledging it until now, Tella was headed for Johto in search of something other than simple safety, though she wasn't sure what that something was. Grudgingly, Tella acknowledged that she would have to find time to think about this; but it would have to be a time when she wasn't actively running for her life.
"Wouldn't you like to know," she retorted in place of an explanation.
"Kill me," the girl pleaded. "If you don't, I'll be honour-bound to return to the Master." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I fear Master's disappointment more than I fear death."
"Well, maybe this Master person will talk some sense into you," Tella said unsympathetically. "Since apparently your honour won't let you commit suicide, I'll just leave a knife a little way off, and you can go over to it and cut that rope around your wrists when you're done feeling sorry for yourself. I'll leave your Pokémon there with it." She might have taken the girl's weapons, but there was no way Tella could steal her Pokémon.
Bending down, Tella unclasped the small bandolier that circled the hunter's chest, and paused. "Why are there only two Poké balls here?"
"Venomoth belongs to the Master. His Pokémon are all very powerful and skilled. His rage will be all the greater, since I can't blame the Pokémon for my failure, even if I wanted to," the older girl explained miserably. Her Baltoy, its presence forgotten until now, nuzzled itself comfortingly against her cheek, but she turned her face ashamedly away from its solace.
"Well, that's just too bad." Now that she had justified not killing the ninja girl to herself, and with an unpleasant pulsing pain coming from the broken bone somewhere in her right foot, Tella had no inclination to be nice, or to hang around bandying words. Removing the two Poké balls from the strip of fabric in her hand, Tella briskly returned the pinned Scyther and the dejected-looking Baltoy to the red-and-white capsules.
"Ken?" Torch asked, cocking his head.
"No, we're not going to punish them. Not any more than we already have, anyway. It sounds like they're going to get an earful from this Master guy anyways."
"Busk." He didn't agree with the decision, but Tella probably knew better anyways.
"Now, what are we going to do with you?
" This was directed at the Venomoth, which had awoken but was too weak to resist the shimmering aura of psychic energy that Ralts was using to keep it from moving.
"Mothhhh..." the Pokémon whispered. Its voice had the quality of a sigh mixed with the rustle of wings or dry leaves. "Moth, Mothhh..."
"Busk, Com," Torch translated to Tella. The piercing crow of his new, deeper voice was a sharp contrast to the moth Pokémon's soft rustle.
"You have something to give us?" Tella asked the moth suspiciously.
Tella considered. "Ralts, is Venomoth safe to touch?" she asked the little psychic-type. He whistled an affirmative, and Tella knelt down to remove a small satchel, which she hadn't noticed until Venomoth had indicated it, from where it was tied around the moth's hairy thorax. Opening the pouch carefully, she emptied two objects onto the ground.
One was a yellow-and-black Ultra ball, slightly worn with use but in good condition. Tella picked it up. In its reduced, carry-size form it was about the size of a grape, but like any Poké ball it would expand to the size of Tella's fist if the resize disc circling its equator was twisted.
The second object was a tiny postage-stamp-sized hologram plate, which activated as it clattered to the ground. A blue-washed hologram of a person wearing a hooded cloak expanded out from the glow of the device until it was a bit taller than Tella, becoming steadily more detailed until Tella could make out the individual folds in the fabric of the enshrouding garment the figure wore. A metallic, anonymous voice, like the one produced by the Gyarados mask that had belonged to the girl, emanated from the hologram.
"If you are hearing this message, then you have been judged worthy of the loan of the Viridian Master's Venomoth. My Pokémon know my will, and know true honour when they see it. Honour comes in many forms, and you may trust that as long as you continue to show your particular type of honour, the Venomoth from whom you obtained this will obey you gladly and completely. May your travels be blessed with success as long as you travel with honour as your guide."
The glow of the hologram plate faded, and the image of the hooded figure faded with it.
Tella scowled. This Master guy sure was full of himself. Honour, honour, honour, and not a bit of it made sense to Tella. Why just give away your favourite Pokémon to anyone who managed to beat your apprentice in battle? But if the message was serious... then the Venomoth was hers to command, right? She looked at the Ultra ball in her palm, and, twisting the resize disc to expand it, pointed it at the Venomoth. In a stream of red light, the moth Pokémon disappeared. Apparently, Tella had just made yet another addition to her team, without doing more than just defending herself.
"Congratulations," said the tied-up girl in a subdued tone of voice, her inflection bordering on awe.
"Why?" Tella asked, glaring at her.
"Only the senior apprentices are given one of the Master's Pokémon to keep indefinitely. Venomoth was just on loan to me. Looks like you outrank me now."
"I don't want your Master's patronage," said Tella coldly. "If he's going to just give
me one of his Pokémon, I'll take it, but he'd better not start thinking he has any hold on me. I want nothing to do with someone who thinks those red-and-silver bastards are honourable."
The hunter blanched, but said nothing. She had never met him directly, but she was sure the Master would not
be happy to hear about this. His other five senior apprentices, each one a graduate of years and years of intense training at the Master's hands, were his direct representatives. They were extensions of the Master's will, and executed it to perfection; any dishonour that fell on one of them would reflect on the Master himself. They were the only ones to receive direct training at the hands of the Master, and were the objects of near worship amongst the lesser apprentices, who they were in charge of training. The Master would not be pleased to learn of a sixth, a child who he had never met, who had set herself directly against the Allies and against the Master himself, and who claimed to have no honour whatsoever, nor to want any. If I'm lucky,
the dejected hunter reflected, He'll only kick me out of the Academy.
Tella, unaware of the older girl's dour thoughts, glanced around, and decided there was nothing else to do here. Recalling Ralts and Champ to their Poké balls for a well-deserved rest, Tella was about to ask Torch to stay with her and light the way when she realized that during the battle, the clouds had broken up. Stars and a nearly full moon shone through the few remaining cloud banks, making Torch's fire seem a lot dimmer than it had been in the pitch blackness earlier. With a tired smile, Tella restored him to his Poké ball, too. Company would have been welcome on her trek, but her companions needed to be as well rested as possible.
Dropping a small knife a fair distance away, for the morose-looking girl to use to free herself when Tella was long gone, and setting down Scyther and Baltoy's Poké balls next to it, Tella stared up into the sky, using the position of the stars to figure out which way was west. Finding it to be almost at right angles to the direction the valley went, she sighed with annoyance, but limped over to the edge of the rocky platform, favoring her injured right foot. Broken bone or not, there was something she wanted to try.
Pushing through the mud would slow her down, and she would risk permanent injury to whatever part of her foot she had damaged if she tried to slog her way through it for the rest of the night. Fortunately, Tella thought there might be another way, excluding the option of calling Ralts out and wasting his valuable power on a teleport. She'd seen the black-clad girl walking on top of the swampy mud, so she knew it was possible; but could she figure it out?
Taking a step onto the dense mud— uninjured left foot first— Tella felt her boot begin to sink, and pulled it out with a frown. Pressing the same foot against the surface, she tried changing the way she stepped down. Normally, she moved around on the balls of her feet, the way most people ran rather than walked; it was the most energy-efficient way of placing her feet, and yielded the greatest balance in a combat situation. Now, she tried to modify that, spreading her weight and putting her foot down more or less all at once. The mud sagged a bit, but held her weight until, experimenting, she leaned too far forward. Backing up on to the rock and trying again, she found that as long as she centered herself, kept moving at a certain pace, and used her entire foot to step down, the thick mud supported her weight. The feeling of this odd gait was not unlike marching, complete with the necessity of raising her knees fairly high with each step. It looked and felt odd, but without the dragging weight of the mud to contend with, Tella moved considerably faster. Despite her weariness, Tella was confident she could handle whatever challenges lay ahead.
She had no idea just how quickly the next such challenge would arrive.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 22:00---
Gale paced impatiently, watched with amusement and a certain amount of complacency by Jayce.
"Settle down, Gale," the red-haired bounty hunter told his agitated partner with a grin, as the pacing started to be tiring to watch. "Wearing a rut in the ground won't make Tella get here any more quickly."
"How can you be so relaxed? What if something chases her off again?" Gale grated, whirling irritably on Jayce.
"Then we'll adapt, as we always have when everything doesn't go according to plan." Jayce said airily, waving a hand to dismiss the question. "I've never seen you this intense," Jayce continued, a bit more seriously.
"It's your imagination. I just want to complete my mission," said Gale with an obstinate glare, daring Jayce to comment further. "This girl has eluded us for too long."
"It's almost as if this mission is personal now," Jayce observed pointedly, not in the least intimidated. "That would be unfortunate, wouldn't it?"
Opening his mouth to deny it, Gale hesitated for a second and then subsided into glowering silence. Jayce could almost see the gears turning in Gale's head as he tried to examine himself with the complete objectivity that had once come so naturally to him. Gale's expression took on the stony, professional blankness that Jayce had almost been starting to miss.
"Golbat," Jayce called, partly to fill the tense silence, "Are you getting anything on radar?"
"Gol!" The bat nodded, the motion closer to a bow since it lacked a neck (along with anything else except wings, stubby feet, and a huge mouth that took up the rest of its body.) The Pokémon indicated the road with one of those leathery wings.
Jayce scrambled to get a look, his admonition to Gale to 'settle down' forgotten in a burst of boyish energy. He peered over the edge of the tumble of boulders amidst which he, Zammy, Gale, and Golbat were hidden. In the dim light of the nearly full moon, a distant form could be seen walking towards them along the flat, rocky path. This was almost certainly Tella: no one else was likely to be taking this nearly inaccessible passage that wound its way steadily westwards. Running parallel to Route 22 to the south, the trail made its way through a cleft between two of the foothills instead of over their windswept peaks.
Gliscor swooped down silently, having been dispatched to watch the path and report back when Tella was approaching. Seeing that she'd already been noticed, the scorpion-tailed Pokémon simply glided down next to Gale and waited impassively for its Trainer's next order with a detached, professional look on its batlike face. Jayce, glancing back, barely managed to choke back a laugh as he noticed that Gliscor's expression was almost identical to Gale's own. Like Trainer like Pokémon indeed,
he snickered inwardly.
"Get ready," whispered Jayce, staying hidden as he crawled back down from the top of the boulders. Gale gave him a curt nod. Zammy, who was sitting wedged in a corner with a look of intense concentration on his face, nodded slightly, acknowledging the comment without disrupting his firm hold over the psychic trap upon which their plan hinged.
Gliscor, climbing swiftly up the side of one of the boulders, took off into the gloom in a silent glide, headed for the other side of the trail where it would take up a hidden position. Its skill at climbing even the solid rock walls of the valley would allow it to remain hidden in one of the ubiquitous crevices that riddled the stone, but still be ready to arrive and lend a hand within seconds.
The trap was set, and Tella was approaching at a steady pace, apparently unsuspecting. Try as they might, neither Jayce nor Gale could think of a way this could possibly fail.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 22:10---
There was a querulous whistle from the sling hanging from Tella's front.
"Yeah, Ralts, I can feel it too." Tella whispered. Nonetheless, she kept walking steadily forwards, giving no sign that she knew of the psychic trap ahead. No one with any sort of psychic sensitivity could miss it; it radiated power like the sun radiated heat. "I can't tell what it does, though."
A worried musical note, piannisimo.
Neither could Ralts.
Do they think I'm stupid?
Tella wondered. I can't be sure if that bounty hunter's Alakazam is the one responsible for that thing, but walking in there would just be suicide, regardless of who it is. But even if they think I'm an idiot, they sure aren't. There's only two ways out of this valley: forward and backward. I wouldn't doubt that at least one of them is already back there, blocking off my escape route.
There was only one thing for it.
"Ralts," Tella whispered, "I think our best bet is to teleport out of here. It's the only way forward, and we're all too tired for a fight."
Ralts just nodded, and a purple aura surrounded him and Tella. With a pop,
their surroundings disappeared into a haze of purple. Instead of resolving into a new location, though, the haze thickened, so that Tella couldn't even see her hand in front of her face.
"Ralts, what's happening?" Tella asked, but she couldn't even hear her own voice. She felt the weight of the Pokémon's little one-foot-tall body in the sling around her neck, but even that sensation was fading fast, as her senses slowly quit.
My mind is being cut off from my body,
Tella realized with panic, figuring out too late the nature of that trap. From her studies, she knew that a teleport worked like a 'slingshot,' launching physical objects from one place to another through a kind of tunnel through space-time, a tunnel created by psychic power. She could guess that by setting up some kind of wall or web of psychic energy, her hunters had trapped her and Ralts in that tunnel. Now, that same web was pulling her conscious mind away from her body, a process which was impossible to all but the most powerful psychic Pokémon and which would cause her to appear essentially comatose in the real world for as long as the Pokémon held on to her consciousness.
A small beacon of clarity cut through the haze for a moment, restoring limited function to her eyes and lending her a momentary view of Ralts in his sling, his eyes clenched shut with effort, before the little Pokémon was occluded once more by the purple mist.
Evidently, the process could be fought. Tella's mentor had never known much about conventional psychic power, that which had nothing to do with the physical body, but he had taught Tella what little he could. Tella made her mind into a spear, and struck out, following the intangible connection that told her where her body was; it was easier than it would have been normally, because the odd sensation of being apart from it was the only thing Tella could feel. The spear met some kind of resistance, a tenuous glassy wall of psychic power holding her separate from her body, and shattered it into a million pieces.
Immediately, Tella was back in her own skin, though her vision was hazy and she still seemed to be floating in a sea of purple mist, this time with tangible threads of the mist enwrapping her body and keeping her immobile. Disorientingly, there was no feeling of gravity, so that Tella couldn't even tell up from down. This entire space, she realized, was an illusion, her brain fooling itself into thinking that the psychic vibrations of the constructs around her were real input from her eyes and nerves. A cool but faintly sweet taste, like lukewarm water with a hint of sugar in it, seemed to fill her mouth, though she knew this, too, was just her mind's interpretation of the psychic landscape.
Tella took in all of this in a split second, and a wave of tiredness swept over her as she tried to process it. Even such a small exercise of psychic power as her return to her body had cost her: with no reserves of strength left, any psychic energy had to be drawn directly from her mind's own processing power. This meant that, if she used her power too much after running out of strength, her mind would become clouded with a kind of inner fog, a feeling like being extremely tired and unable to think straight. This feeling, she knew from experience after overextending herself during training years ago, wouldn't dissipate until she had a chance to rest. At the moment, she felt only a slight mental tiredness on top of her physical weariness at the moment, but it would get far worse if she tried to push her exhausted mind to generate more psychic energy.
Fortunately, her unseen foe had apparently given up trying to render her comatose, and instead was pouring its strength into yanking them off of the course of their teleport and towards a destination of its own choosing. Ralts, giving it his all, was opposing the psychic pull, trying with all his strength to push them out of the entangling purple webbing and onwards to their destination in the real world. It was clear that he was losing the battle, though, as the headache-inducing pulse of psychic power he was giving off started to lessen gradually. Unable to do even the slightest good in the battle of minds, Tella struggled ineffectually against the ethereal-looking but aggravatingly solid purple cords that bound her. Giving up after a few seconds of fruitless wriggling, she stared down worriedly at Ralts.
"It's up to you, Ralts," she murmured to her Pokémon.
---???, ???; ???: Limbo---
Ralts, his mind locked in contact with that of the Alakazam who referred to himself as Zammy, quailed as the psychic shield around his mind began to melt away along with his rapidly failing power. Zammy's voice, already loud in his head, grew closer, and he could feel the fully-evolved psychic begin to slowly tear away his mind's own defenses, the ones that had nothing to do with his power. These were the defenses that any sentient being, human or Pokémon, guarded itself with, psychological walls that protected the ego from harm, whether that harm was emotional or a direct mental attack. An organized mind had strong defenses and few chinks in its armor; a poorly disciplined mind was easy to invade.
Ralts's defenses were strong, but they were nothing next to the powerful intellect that was meticulously breaking them apart. This was the ultimate step in any psychic duel; if the difference in strength was great enough, the more powerful psychic could read, and even take control of, his opponent's mind. Ralts struggled to clear his mind, to bolster the failing walls, even as he threw what little power he had left against Zammy's to prevent Tella from being pulled out into the real world where she would be at the mercy of her enemies.
~It's not enough.~
Zammy spoke in Ralts's mind.
Ralts, whose thoughts had been heading towards the same conclusion, jerked away from Zammy's chilling assertion. ~It'll have to be!~
Zammy's mind, so close to Ralts's, gave off a feeling that was almost disappointment. ~Yes, that's right,~
Zammy said. ~I find myself feeling sorry that I have to crush you like this, after you fought so hard. You are remarkably skilled, for such a young Pokémon.~
~Don't mock me,~
Ralts said, tears leaking from his eyes in his body, which seemed infinitely remote. ~I have to be enough. Tella doesn't have anyone else.~
With a last twitch of power, Zammy laid bare Ralts's thoughts. He could detect every single one of the little psychic-type's mental processes, no matter how small, and he could take control of Ralts's very mind at any moment, a process that would be painful; nothing could be more of a violation than such a complete takeover. ~You've lost,~
Zammy said harshly, unwilling to do it unless it was completely necessary. ~Let it go, and I won't have to hurt you.~
~I won't surrender! Tella wouldn't, and neither will I!~
Ralts shouted, his mind's voice echoing dishearteningly in the vastness that was Zammy's cavernous mind.
~So be it,~
said Zammy, regret suffusing the message. He gathered himself to seize Ralts's mind by force and cut off the dwindling flow of power that was keeping Tella suspended in Limbo.
Without warning, though, he felt something in Ralts's consciousness change drastically, with jarring suddenness. A surge of overwhelming power suddenly burst forth, and Zammy was forced to retreat from the little Pokémon's mind or have his own consciousness burnt to nothing. Throwing up a psychic shield against the glare of power, he wondered with amazement how Ralts could have summoned up such an impressive last-ditch defense.
The reality of this burst of power came to him immediately, but was no less awe-inspiring for all that. I have just witnessed a mind's evolution from within. What power...!
This flow of pure, white-hot energy had stunning implications. Even as the radiance, psychic and real, dimmed, Zammy's own considerable power paled next to it. If this strength could be retained, harnessed, kept from dissipating...
Zammy's thoughts trailed off as he realized this was an impossibility. Such a power, left in the form of pure energy, would destroy the body that contained it. Thus the energy converts itself into new flesh, remaking the new, evolved body of the Pokémon. This explains why mass seems to be created during evolution...
As Zammy watched, unable to do anything more than wait out the burst of power and mull over its implications, a new mind coalesced out of the ball of obliteratingly powerful energy that Ralts had become. It was new, and yet it had the same aura, the same individuality, that marked it as Ralts's psyche.
~I am Curl.~
The mental voice was calmer, more graceful, and less timid than Ralts's, but held the same earnest tone of willingness to strive even against overwhelming odds.
Zammy's confidence faltered, but only for a split second. Even though he was expending power both to keep his quarry from shooting off on their teleport's course and to draw them in, a swift sizing-up of Curl told him that despite his adversary's evolution he was still the stronger by far. ~Impressive,~
he said derisively, seeking to undermine Curl's confidence and possibly make him angry. ~But still not nearly enough.~
~We'll see about that.~
The taunt had made Curl neither angry nor insecure, that much was clear... And the flow of power keeping Tella in place had waxed much stronger, even to the point that Curl was expending some power to slice at the psychic web holding Tella and himself captive, parting its strands with an equally ethereal blade of pure thought.
He'll be on the defensive soon enough,
thought Zammy. He would force Curl back into a stalemate, a state which could only result in the weaker psychic's defeat. He reinforced the web with a burst of power, and then redoubled his pull on Tella and Curl's physical bodies, forcing his adversary to put more strength into stopping them from exiting Limbo.
The amount of power that responded surprised Zammy, and he realized that Curl was not only balancing his opponent's pull but expending his remaining stamina at a dangerous rate to achieve a single mighty heave, temporarily unbalancing the psychic tug-of-war. Their 'movement' away from Zammy's dragging psychic anchor brought them closer to the current established by their teleport's tunnel, pulling against Zammy's web strongly enough to threaten to break its hold.
Rushing to reinforce the web again at the same time as increasing his power output to drag Curl and Tella back, Zammy failed to notice that Tella had entered Curl's gambit with a last-ditch effort of her own, expending psychic power she didn't have. A crude, dull blade of psychic power flashed into existence and began severing the ethereal strands of Zammy's web, allowing Curl to pour his fading strength into the tug-of-war. With a jolt of surprise and horror, Zammy felt his carefully-woven net fray and dissipate, and Tella disappeared with her newly-evolved Kirlia, the now uninhibited Teleport carrying them to whatever destination they had set upon their departure.
Zammy opened his eyes, and noted dejectedly that only a few seconds had passed in the real world, judging by the fact that Jayce and Gale were still in the act of rushing towards him to prepare to capture Tella. That had been the plan: to defeat Tella the old-fashioned way if she kept walking despite the powerful aura of the teleport-trap, or to capture her as soon as Zammy dragged her out of Limbo. How was he going to explain to them that he had, beyond all probability, failed?
As their looks of professional preparedness gave way to hastily hidden surprise, Zammy saw that his expression spoke for him.
Instead of loading Zammy with rebukes, as Zammy knew he deserved, Jayce just shook his head and asked, "Do you have anything left to teleport with?" Seeing Zammy's mystified nod, Jayce smiled brightly. "Well, then, let's go see where she landed. She'll be completely exhausted, and probably lose consciousness right away, so we just need to find her before she wakes up."
Was it really that easy? Zammy blinked. So it was. He couldn't trace exactly where Tella and Ralts— or rather, Curl— had gone, but he knew the general direction they'd headed; west, of course. The psychic residue of their teleport was still there at their departure point, and by analyzing it Zammy could figure out approximately how far they'd gone, to within a mile of their actual landing.
Zammy said, his spirit, though not his confidence, restored by Jayce's endless optimism.
It's moments like this,
Zammy reflected with an inward smile, That remind me why Jayce is the one human I can truly regard as an equal.
Jayce thought at him with a mock-bashful grin, reminding Zammy that, although his Trainer lacked psychic power of his own, Jayce more or less lived his life connected to Zammy's surface thoughts, and vice versa.
If only Jayce had been born with psychic power, he could have shared Zammy's battle with Curl and Tella, and everything would have ended so very differently...
You win some, you lose some,
Jayce thought cheerfully. Zammy wasn't sure whether Jayce was agreeing about his own lack of luck in not being born a psychic, or trying to comfort him with regards to his latest humiliation at Curl's and Tella's hands, but for once he refused to simply dip into Jayce's consciousness and find out. Knowing Jayce, Zammy decided, it was both.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 22:13---
It had been only a few seconds since Tella and Ralts had teleported out of the hidden valley between the foothills, but it felt like an hour to Tella's sluggish mind as she and Ralts— I mean Curl
— tumbled to the ground. The ground was soft, and green. We landed on grass,
Tella thought. That was significant for some reason, but she couldn't bring it to mind right now. Oh, well... better get up.
She stumbled awkwardly to her feet, and was about to stagger away before she remembered there was someone else with her. "Oh, right... Ral— Curl? Uhh..." She fumbled the Poké ball off her belt, and returned the unconscious, exhausted little figure to his Poké ball without really registering the difference in how he looked. Time for that later, right now she needed to...
Why was she on the ground again? Tella blinked up at the distant stars, and her vision blurred. Sleep would be nice,
she reflected. A face appeared, a face belonging to someone who was standing over her as she stared upwards; its expression was odd for some reason, but it was too much effort to figure out why a look of indecision and confusion was a strange thing to see on a person's face right now.
Tella's eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep with a bemused smile.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 22:15---
Paul Diver sat against the trunk of one of the scraggly pines that populated the eastern face of this particular mountain. This stand of trees was located on the lower half of a steep slope that led up into the maze of peaks and valleys of the Johto-Kanto mountain range. The line of snow more than a kilometre above marked the true end of the foothills, but even here it was bitterly cold. Despite that, Paul had taken off his coat and draped it over the still form of the unconscious girl at his feet. It wasn't as if it had been doing him any good; as a windbreaker, it served, but it was no insulation at all in the still air underneath the pines. This meant it wasn't doing Tella any good either, but the gesture, however meaningless, had been intended to at least make Paul feel better about what he was probably going to bring the girl back to.
In this, too, the coat had failed miserably. Paul's body may have been shivering at the foot of a tree high on a hillside in the middle of the night, but his mind was in a far darker and colder place.
I don't even recognize myself,
he thought miserably. The me of two years ago would be disgusted with this man sitting here freezing, wondering whether he should take a defenseless little girl back to Viridian City and hand her over to a creepy group who'll probably dissect her or something.
He stared down at himself, seeing nothing but the red-and-silver design on his black shirt, the design that marked him as one of the bad guys. Of that he was now sure: this organization, about which he still knew little to nothing, was up to no good, at the expense of anyone who got in their way.
Including Paul himself. I may have my doubts about what I'm doing, but am I a coward for not wanting to risk my life?
he wondered. If I let this girl go, sooner or later they'll find out. Is my life really worth throwing a way so a girl can run off into the mountains and probably die of cold anyway? But that's nothing more than a justification...
his thoughts went in circles, making him feel more and more like a monster.
It all comes down to what I think is a priority. Do I throw away my morals for my life, or do I throw away my life for my morals? Is it even all that bad? I'm thinking of the worst-case scenario, here. Maybe if I let her go, they'll never find out. I mean, it's not like they have informants all over the place way out here in the mountains, is it?
He smiled slightly, trying to make himself believe it, but the truth was that he had been growing a little paranoid lately, seeing agents of the red-and-silver organization— other
agents, if he was going to be honest with himself— everywhere. After all, if an ordinary guy like him was secretly on their payroll, who else might be? The feeling of being watched hadn't gone away when he'd left Viridian, though logically it should have. Am I going crazy?
"Nnnngh..." A small groan from near his feet made Paul start. He had almost forgotten the girl was there. He levered himself upright, staring down warily at this girl. He'd forgotten until now, but the ordinary-looking man who'd come to his apartment earlier that night and told him to go into the mountains had mentioned something about Tella being dangerous, and to call for backup if he ran into her, using a special transmitter he'd been given. He fished it out; it was a black device the shape of a Meowth's coin, rectangular but with smooth curved edges. It had a button in the center, which he didn't press.
This kid? Dangerous?
Paul thought nervously as Tella, lying on her side on a thin carpet of pine needles, struggled to get up. It looks like he was exaggerating... she doesn't look like she's in the best shape, anyways.
It was true. Pulling herself to one knee and then onto her feet, Tella swayed drunkenly, looking a bit like Paul's ex-roommate the morning after he and his hooligan friends partied too hard (one of the things Paul had liked best about his ill-gotten informant's payroll had been being able to pay for his own apartment.) She struggled to focus on him, and Paul took an involuntary step back as he saw her greyish-blue eyes, luminescent in the dim light of the moon. Uncanny eyes. Maybe there was some truth in the rumour about how dangerous she was.
"Huh...?" the girl asked in a slurred voice. Paul wondered if she'd been drinking; a pretty stupid thing to do if you were on the run. Maybe she wasn't in such big trouble after all.
"Uh... are you Tella Marr?"
Tella's gaze sharpened infinitessimally, just enough for her bleary eyes to make out the large red-and-silver dragon design on his shirt. Lacklustre shock made its way into her vague expression, and she started to back away slowly, holding loose fists up in a pitiful mockery of a fighter's stance. All notion of this girl being dangerous disappeared, and Paul put the coin-shaped device with its call button back in his pocket.
"Don'— don't come any closer," Tella said, her suddenly sharp voice a contrast to her body language. It no longer had a slurred, drunken sound to it, although her limbs and face still sagged with... what? Paul took a moment to identify her ailment, and when he did figure it out, a few seconds passed before it could fully sink in. The girl's 'symptoms' matched Paul's on a Saturday morning when he didn't want to get up but knew he had to go to work to pay for his Trainer supplies. She was exhausted, nearly falling down with tiredness, and he knew for a fact that it wasn't the "tired-after-twelve-hours'-sleep" kind of weariness; he was willing to bet she hadn't slept at all that night. It had been barely more than two hours since he'd seen her on top of a mountain pass, and he had been heading steadily west in the intervening time, and the fact that he had walked into a clearing and found her already passed out there meant that she had to have travelled even faster, a punishing pace for someone with such short legs. He made up his mind that if she ran, he'd pretend to chase her and let her go.
Tella, staring at him this whole time, appeared to make up her mind, and turned to run. Instead of completing the maneuver, though, in her exhausted disorientation she overbalanced and fell backwards, staring up at him with real terror as they both realized she couldn't even run away properly.
Paul felt pity and admiration well up within him. I couldn't have been more wrong, thinking of Tella as some helpless kid. This girl can take care of herself. She ran herself into the ground trying to get to the safety of the mountains, and would've managed it if I hadn't been here. I have orders not to go past the snow-line, so maybe the others have the same orders? She might still make it if I...
He looked around: no one in sight. Paul, feeling as if his finest moment was upon him, opened his mouth to tell the girl to just go.
His words of mercy died in his throat as a yellow-and-brown humanoid Pokémon abruptly appeared behind Tella and seized her head with its three-fingered yellow hand. The Alakazam let out a brief pulse of psychic energy that rattled Paul's teeth, and must have been unbelievably painful to Tella, who crumpled. Two men emerged at exactly the same time from hiding places in the underbrush, one a young red-haired fellow about Paul's own age, the other a fair bit older and wearing a black cloth mask across the bottom half of his face. The older one had creepy silvery-grey eyes, kind of like Tella's but with a look of emptiness that even Tella's vacant exhaustion hadn't produced. Two leathery-winged batlike Pokémon, a purple one with a scorpion's stinger and a light blue one that seemed to be all mouth, followed their Trainers into the clearing.
The red-haired one turned to Paul with a jovial expression that sickened him. "Thanks for finding her for us. Zammy detected your mind and found out you'd found Tella, and we used you as a reference point to teleport here."
"Uh... Thanks..." Paul said, still fighting the urge to throw up after seeing the girl so brutally handled. He realized the red-haired man was still talking, and forced himself to listen.
"...really dangerous, so be glad she was exhausted or you'd probably be littering this clearing by now. Anyways, we'll be going to deliver her. What's your name, so we can put in a good word for you with your superiors?"
"Paul. Paul Diver," he told them hollowly. The red-haired one jotted it down in a notebook he pulled from a side pocket of his massive traveller's backpack, and then without warning or even a flash of light they were gone. It was as if no one had ever been in this clearing.
Paul settled himself miserably against the tree again, next to his beat-up knapsack, and reached over to pull a trail-rations bar out of the bag. Munching the bar, tasting nothing, he closed his eyes to block it all out. Sooner or later he'd have to head back to Viridian, but he just couldn't make himself do anything. Was it really all that sudden? Was there nothing I could have done? Let her go sooner?
Tormented by these thoughts, Paul passed a sleepless night in the far western foothills of the Johto-Kanto mountains, a mere half-hour's climb away from what he knew Tella would have seen as safety.
---May 4, Year 1505 MTA; 22:35---
"He was a traitor, you know. He was on the verge of letting her go."
Jayce didn't look surprised, nor did he show any inclination to deviate from his eastward walk. In the small amount of light from the nearly full moon, Zammy, Jayce and Gale could just see the path along which they were trudging with their captive in tow. Tella was floating along behind Zammy and firmly in a psionically-induced coma.
"Should we do something about it?" asked Gale indifferently. The improvement— if you could call it that— in his attitude had been marked ever since they had made their capture. His professional mask and self-assurance had returned in full force, and he was a lot less abrasive now, albeit less interesting. Jayce hadn't yet decided which he preferred.
"No. We may work for them at the moment, but we aren't exactly on good terms with these fellows. If you'll recall, they threatened us into continuing with this job in the first place."
"We should never have abandoned it, but I agree. Threats are most... unprofessional."
Jayce rolled his eyes. He seemed to be perpetually surrounded by people fixated on certain words. He had grown up in the company of a great many people for whom this word was 'honour,' and it had meant something different to every one of them. Gale was, if anything, worse, with his need for everything to be 'professional.' But,
Jayce reflected, I don't exactly make any effort to separate myself from such people. I wonder if I'm secretly a lot like them?
He entertained that notion for a few minutes, turning it over and over and wondering if there was a word that described everything he
Zammy suggested privately, with the mental equivalent of a smirk.
Oh, stuff it, Zammy. I'm only insolent when people deserve it.
True. I jest. Although, I would like to point out that people are seldom as one-dimensional as they would like you to believe.
"Point taken, Zammy," Jayce said out loud.
The apparently disjointed remark didn't excite any comment from Gale; he was used to Jayce's half-inaudible conversations with his Alakazam. The party was silent with two differen silences; a quiet silence as Gale reflected on who-knew-what (though Zammy probably did know; Jayce wouldn't ask, as that would be extremely rude) and Zammy and Jayce kept up an amiable but inaudible conversation. Gale's silence was rather forced, though, and Zammy and Jayce's small talk had the feeling of a distraction to it. They had some idea, or at least had guessed, what it was that Tella was bound for.
Through it all, Tella floated along behind them, deeply unconscious. Had she been awake, her terror would have rendered her into quite another type of silence.
---May 5, Year 1505 MTA; 06:20---
The Academy was a sprawling set of buildings located in the middle of a mazelike tangle of trees and bushes on the eastern fringe of Viridian City. Its location went a long way towards keeping it hidden from the general public, though its existence was not a secret as such. The Academy was a school dedicated to teaching the traditional art of the ninja, but it didn't cater to the population of Viridian, at least not directly; such a facility had no need of tuition fees or donations. The Academy was run on funds that came directly out of the Master's pocket, and its students consisted entirely of orphans of all ages, from all over Kanto, saved from a life of poverty to be raised in the strict but fair setting of the ninja school. Some of the older students whispered excitedly that the Master was building an army of loyal ninjas; others believed that he was genuinely dedicated to giving orphans a new life and teaching them the way of honour that was the only one that he knew, and that would allow them to truly appreciate what he had given them.
Whatever his motivation for creating the facility known only as the Academy, the Master was revered as a legend amongst his students. He was never seen, though, and according to the flow of rumor that was the Academy's lifeblood, none of the students had actually met him in more than seven years. Instead, they were taught by the five senior apprentices, graduates of the Academy and devotees of the Master who had chosen to stay on and help him teach the new generation. They took their orders and their lessons directly from the Master himself, and were dignified and strict taskmasters, as befitted their station.
For the first time ever, as she approached the Academy in the burgeoning light of dawn, Clover's heart sank. She had been away from the Academy before— she was one of the lucky older students who was allowed to run errands such as grocery shopping in town— but she had always returned with a feeling of coming home. The series of one-storey, one-room buildings contained kitchens, a dining hall, dormitories, and most importantly the expansive, low-ceilinged training rooms. Living there was difficult and demanding, but rewarding; the Academy was home. Or, at least, it had been.
Clover knew that she had no right to be here any more, but her duty, having survived her shameful defeat, was to at least deliver her report. Then they would throw her out, as she deserved. And where would she go then? The prospect of a life outside of the Academy was one that she had never even considered, and the thought of leaving the familiar hallways and chambers behind forever was heartbreaking.
It would be coward's action to hang back, though, and Clover knew that delaying the inevitable would only allow her more time to agonize over it. Walking through the Academy's open gate, which even when closed was purely ornamental (it was barely taller than she was, and was set in the center of an easily-climbed hedge of similar height,) Clover crossed the wide open space at the center of the campus at a steady pace. She arrived in front of the administrative building, the one that was off-limits to students except in certain circumstances, and raised her hand to knock on the dark wooden door.
It swung open before she could reach it, and she found herself staring up at the impassive face of Cormac, one of the senior apprentices and the eldest of them at the age of thirty-five. Being fairly tall herself, Clover rarely needed to crane her neck to look someone in the eye, but Cormac towered over even his fellow senior apprentices. He had ordinary-looking brown eyes, but Clover thought his eyes always looked as if they were staring at the wall behind you. He was wearing the usual deep blue robe that marked him as one of the five who taught classes at the Academy.
"Can I help... Ah, you are the girl named Clover. Was the mission successful?" he asked in his pleasant but perfectly bland voice.
"No." Clover said, lowering her gaze.
"Enter," Cormac said, and stood to one side to allow Clover to pass through. He left, and shut the door behind him.
Clover's gaze shifted to take in the interior of the room, the only one in the Academy that she had never seen before. It was dark inside, the only light coming from a dim reading lamp that rested on a wide desk in the center of the room. The administrative building had seemed small even from the outside, and like most of the one-storey structures of the Academy it contained only one room. However, the impression of being in a very small space was increased tenfold by the bookshelves that lined the walls, packed full of heavy tomes and even some plastic cases that held ancient-looking scrolls. A plush brown carpet covered what little of the floor could be seen. The desk took up nearly all of the center of the remaining space, and dimly illuminated by the glow of the lamp was a man who could only be the Master.
Clover could have described him as old,
though she shied from even thinking the word of such a dignified-looking man, and indeed he bore none of the usual indignities of age. His back was entirely straight, and his hair, though white, wispy and restricted to a three-quarters-halo encircling the top of his head, was neatly tied back into a knot in the style of far-off Ecruteak City. He had light brown eyes and long thin eyebrows that gave an impression of grace to his long nose and sharp chin. His face bore an expression of calm, with a hint of iron to it, but it was not the stern visage that Clover had imagined the Master wore.
"Clover Field, Apprentice ranked twenty-fifth in the Academy?" he asked in a soft voice. Clover blinked. The Master's voice, which she had somehow imagined would be a harsh bark, was in fact a gentle bass that boomed softly, like the dinner-time gong, with each syllable.
"Y-yes, Master," said Clover, kneeling down on the floor and pressing her forehead to the soft carpet.
"Well, stand up, girl." The Master's voice took on a no-nonsense tone, but grew no louder. "I can't see you down there."
"What was the result of your mission?" the Master asked.
Clover gulped hard to clear a lump that had risen in her throat. Now was the time to tell the Master himself of her shame. "I was not successful. My opponent proved stronger than I had anticipated, and I was unprepared. I am ready to take full responsibility for my failure."
"Admirable," the Master said quietly.
Clover, her mind racing, waited for him to continue. Is that it? Am I to be banished without even giving a full report? Why did I even come back?
The silence stretched as the Master seemed to contemplate something. Suddenly, his long-fingered hands began to shuffle through a series of files that were neatly stacked in one corner of the wide desk.
"Here we are. The dossier I was given by our Allies with regards to the girl Tella." He began to read. "A girl, of unknown age but assumed to be fourteen or fifteen. Skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Unknown skill in other forms of combat. Supposedly trained by... [classified information.] Roughly five feet tall, slight of build. Long black hair, silver-blue eyes notably out of the ordinary, ragged clothing, normally wears a black coat, damaged blue jeans, and grey sneakers. Appearance-related information reliable as of April 28, M.T.A. 1505." The Master closed the folder with a crisp motion.
"Classified information... As if we are nothing but a department of their own organization." The Master's voice was casual, as if making an offhand observation, but his disapproval was clear. "One would think that we could use all the information available to us when outfitting a student for a mission. Clover," he said, his sudden use of her name making her jump, "Would you say that this information was both accurate and adequate in describing your opponent?"
Clover thought about it for a moment: her honour required her to give the Master a carefully considered answer. Certainly Tella had been much as described, and— as she had been cautioned by Damien, the senior apprentice who had overseen her preparations for this mission— quite skilled in a hand-to-hand fight. But Tella had also used some kind of special technique or unidentifiable power in the fight, at one point hardening her skin to the point that it dented and bounced back Clover's weapons. This might have something to do with the 'classified information' on Tella's mentor, but Clover was inclined to believe that there was more not hinted at in the dossier. "No," she concluded out loud, "While accurate in what it does say, that description does not fully describe Tella's abilities."
"I see." the Master lapsed into quiet contemplation once more, until something seemed to occur to him. "My senior apprentices will have loaned you my Venomoth. Might I have him back?"
Clover hung her head, her shame returning in full force. "He was captured by Tella. She discovered where he had hidden his Poké ball."
The Master, rather than flying into a rage as Clover had feared, seemed only slightly perturbed. "You said she discovered his home. Did she find it by chance, or did Venomoth reveal it to her?"
"I... From what I could hear, it sounded like Venomoth told her about it."
"Ah." The Master grew quiet once more, to all appearances contemplating something deeply. The silence stretched; one minute, then two more, Clover all the while wondering what he was thinking. Surely he would be angry that she had allowed a girl he had never met to be entrusted with his Pokémon. Maybe he was considering whether or not banishment was too light a sentence. Would she be subjected to a deserved humiliation in front of the entire Academy before being kicked out?
Finally, Clover could stand it no longer. Breaking all protocol, she blurted, "Master, what is my punishment to be?"
The Master, his expression still calm and thoughtful, simply looked up as if he'd forgotten she was there and asked, "Punishment?"
Clover didn't know what to make of this. "I was defeated."
"Well, then, is that not punishment enough?" the Master seemed genuinely puzzled now.
"My honour is sullied by defeat," Clover explained, wondering if she had somehow not made herself clear. "Surely there is no longer any place for me at the Academy?"
"Ah, I think you have misunderstood ," the Master said, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You were taught that when death or dishonourable surrender are the only options, it is death that you should choose?"
"But, judging from the fact that you are standing here and, despite being defeated, neither dead nor held captive, clearly your surrender was no dishonour."
"I don't understand."
The Master stood up from his seat, taking a deep breath and then beginning to pace back and forth in the small space available behind his desk. "Surrender is a word that is hard to define," he began, an authoritative note appearing in his gentle voice. "Fortunately, I need only help you understand the difference between honourable and dishonourable surrender. I am surprised that my senior apprentices have not done so, but it must always be that some things are omitted when the way of honour is handed down... Where was I? Tell me the possible outcomes of surrender. Just the ones that occur to you immediately."
Clover began listing the ones she had learned from the senior apprentices during the earliest stages of her training, when she had grown old enough to understand what she was taught. "Death by execution; torture; violation; imprisonment; coercion; release under terms; unconditional release."
"Which of these would you say bring dishonour upon the defeated? Keep in mind that honour or dishonour comes from choices you yourself make, rather than ignominies inflicted by others."
Clover thought hard. She was not used to this sort of quiz, having received her training entirely by lecture. Still, she had her own idea of what was dishonourable. Execution is merely another form of death at the enemy's hands. It is not always honourable to fight.
That much Clover remembered. She moved on to the next item in her list. "Giving in to torture is dishonourable, if one reveals information that will bring harm to people under one's protection."
"True. Go on."
"Allowing oneself to be coerced by threats or bribes into aiding or ignoring an enemy is dishonourable, in any situation, whether one is in that enemy's power or not," Clover stated, basing this more on her own gut feeling than on what she had been taught.
"Correct. A true enemy should not be made lightly, but once such a decision has been made, nothing should stop you from doing what you can to hinder such an enemy."
"Release is dishonourable," she finished with conviction. "Having found that an enemy can defeat you, and being released out of hand, dismissed by this enemy as so small a threat that you need not even be killed or imprisoned, is the ultimate humiliation. My honour remains in the hands of that enemy, never to be recovered, for I am too weak to take it back." She found that, without her noticing, tears had come to her eyes, and were dripping onto the soft brown carpet.
"Here is your mistake, child." The Master ceased his pacing and stood watching Clover. "May I indulge in an example, one that I hope will disprove this notion of being allowed to escape being a dishonour?"
Clover nodded numbly, staring at the floor. Little dots of moisture speckled the brown carpet, and she was suddenly aware that she was showing humiliating weakness in front of a man who was, to the lesser apprentices of the Academy, a living legend.
He did not seem to judge her for her tears, though, when she met his pale brown eyes. Instead, seeing that she was now listening, he began his tale.
"When I was a young man, I left my hometown of Ecruteak and travelled the world, learning what I could from masters all over Johto and Kanto alike. During my travels, I encountered a man, a raggedly dressed robber, who threatened me with a rusty blade and demanded that I hand over all of my money. I was not in a mood to be charitable, and to my chagrin I must say that I defeated him rather more thoroughly than was necessary, leaving him heavily bruised and incapacitated, though with no permanent injuries. As I walked away, he shouted after me that he would get stronger.
"Nearly a year passed, and it happened that I walked that road again, stronger and wiser than I had been the last time. A man stepped into my path, with a young Pokémon at his side, and demanded that I give him my money and all the goods I was carrying. I recognized him as the same robber, and, being in a more charitable mood than at our previous meeting— though not charitable enough to hand over my travel supplies— I asked him to step aside before I was forced to thrash him again. He refused, and when I fought him I realized that, though his abilities were still far beneath mine and his Pokémon was a rather poor specimen, he fought with a spirit and skill that had not been present the last time, a spirit that his Pokémon shared. I defeated him easily enough, though, and finally he limped away, cursing me.
"Still more years passed, and I had almost forgotten these incidents, when, on a completely different road, I met him once more, this time travelling the path instead of lurking alongside it. He appeared to have attained some measure of respectability, and his clothing, while still composed of simple garments, was no longer the mess of rags it had once been. He challenged me immediately to a duel, which I accepted. After several minutes of furious battle, I made a clumsy error, and found the blade of his fine sword resting against my throat. I expected to die then, but instead he sheathed the blade and told me his story.
"Ever since his defeat at my hands, followed by my releasing him much as you described— a contemptuous dismissal of his meagre abilities— he had been driven by a need to become stronger, to defeat me the next time. This drive, originally born of injured pride and shame, matured into something more wholesome, and in the process of seeking to become stronger he captured and befriended his first Pokémon. By the time of his second encounter with me, he was a different man, though he still existed as a footpad, living on what he stole from travellers.
"Now, listening to his tale from his own perspective, I learned that in the intervening years he had used the skills he picked up while seeking the strength to defeat me, and had become a Pokémon trainer of skill and even some slight renown. He no longer needed to rob the weak to exist, and had devoted his newfound resources to training himself and his Pokémon with the sole aim of defeating me.
"Now that he had succeeded, he realized that his hatred was gone, and that his defeat at my hands those years before had changed his life in the most extraordinary way possible. Though he was not rich, he lived with honour and dignity now, something that had been impossible as a common highway robber. He thanked me, and turned and left. I have never heard from him since.
"His story gave me much to ponder. I thought, at first, much as you did, that my honour was hopelessly sullied. And yet, what is honour but a series of choices made in a way that upholds a certain set of values, values which can differ from one individual to another? As I continued to travel, over the course of many months my gloom disappeared and I saw that, despite my defeat, I was still as strong as I had ever been, and as capable of behaving with honour. How can one truly 'lose' honour? The only way, I believe, is to act in such a way as to betray one's own principles. Nonetheless, I began to understand the feeling the man had described, the feeling of needing to better oneself, so that none might ever defeat me again.
"I have told you this for the same reason that I founded this Academy and began to teach my apprentices here so many years ago: in the hope that you might learn from my experiences and go on to have many such experiences of your own. Do you understand, Clover?"
The girl, her eyes very wide, bowed deeply. "Yes, Master. I will endeavour to improve myself."
"Go, then. Return to your classes, and think no more of your defeat. There will be chances to redeem yourself in your own eyes, but in mine you need no redemption."
"Thank you, Master... From the bottom of my heart." Clover turned and fled.
The Master sat down heavily, suddenly looking as old and tired as he was. "The young are so resilient. I'm just glad I could help." His hands, acting almost of their own accord, grasped an object on his desk, and he looked down to see that he was tightly gripping the folder he had been looking at when Clover had entered, along with the dossier his shady Allies had given him on the girl Tella.
Now, I believe I have a somewhat more unsavoury task on my hands,
he thought with regret. Not only are those who would call themselves my allies unnecessarily endangering my apprentices with their secrecy, but some very interesting reports have just come in about their recent activities...
He sighed tiredly, then banished his weariness, a new look of unyielding steel coming into his aged features. It has been too long... seven years, now... since I left the comfortable world of paperwork to travel the world. I think, though, that I must see for myself the truth of this discrepancy between the goals proclaimed by a certain group that approached me for support and the methods they are using to achieve those goals. One might even say that the two point to entirely different sets of principles.
For the first time in seven years, the Master of the Viridian Academy exited his office by the main door, rather than by the secret passageway concealed behind one of the bookshelves, and for the first time in seven years he walked through the center of his Academy. Passing apprentices glanced at him with confusion or respect, depending on whether they were old enough to recognize him. One of the younger ones, a little boy who was certainly no older than six years old, ran up to say a cheerful hello. The Master's stony expression softened, and he patted the child on the head, telling him to run along. Then, his stern look restored, he proceeded out the gate with every eye on him.
The Master was back, said the whispers. The Master was back, and from the look on his face someone
was about to get a decidedly painful crash course on honour.