Tomorrow would mark the tenth year since I had joined the Espion involuntarily, and somehow, it seemed like only yesterday I had heard the screams of my parents as they were slain by this heinous group of individuals. The event of that day had placed itself on repeat in my head that entire week: the Espion had infiltrated my home town of Acacia, murdered the townsfolk, destroyed the surrounding environment completely, and pillaged for every valuable item that hadn't been damaged during the raid. The leader of the Espion, who I have now come to know as Lumina, had ordered her crew to set the ruins ablaze and move out – that is, until a young child was brought to her attention. Somehow this child had escaped the entire incident unscathed, and instead of annihilating him as she had done with the others, she decided to recruit him as the youngest member of their infamous group.
That young child was me.
For the last decade, I have been jogging my memory in an attempt to figure out why I was spared, why this terrifying group had taken me in after slaughtering my family and friends. Ideas overwhelmed my mind, but none ever made sense. The Espion had used me for infiltration; I guessed that due to my innocent nature, no one would expect that I would be part of such a notorious group. Due to this, I could easily sneak around and collect information as to the location of the richest settlers, escape alleys, and other similar things. Although this is what the team had charged me to do, I was still left to ask why. Why me? I could never find the answer, and because of that, I was left to contemplate what unknown secret, perhaps even desire, was buried in the back of their cruel, dark minds. I felt like a caterpie surrounded by an angry, hungry flock of spearow – stunned, confused, and left to be haunted with whatever unthinkable injustices crept into my mind.
I looked down beside the chair where a black pokémon lay sleeping. It was the poochyena I received from Lumina when I was fifteen. Referred to as Khail, the poochyena seemed warm and content on the hard, clay floor.
It was Alari, Lumina's younger sister. I looked up at her and immediately noticed her concerned facial expression. Although she, too, was part of the Espion, she shared the same views as me in regards to the group's activities. Since the age of five, she participated in raids and ruthless pillaging of innocent settlements. Only recently, at the age of fifteen, was Alari permitted to raise and own a pokémon of her choice; the pokémon she chose was a rather small skitty of which most considered the runt of the litter. As her friend, I supported her decision, regardless of the fact that it would never grow past half the normal size of a normal, adult skitty. That was two years ago, and although the skitty never did mature to a normal size, Alari trained it in such a way that it became a dependable ally specializing in trickery and speed instead of power and defence. As she stood before me now with her runt skitty, named Nami, tight in her hug-light grasp, a grin was forced onto my face.
“Shin, are you all right?” she asked, studying my face. “All you've done today is sit in that chair; I'm starting to become worried.”
“No, no, everything is fine,” I replied promptly. I refused to show any hesitance, as to not raise suspicion. “I was just thinking about yesterday's raid, that's all.”
Alari pulled up a chair from the table and sat in front of me. She placed skitty on her lap, it purring softly as it tucked itself into a sleeping position. It yawned, stretched a bit, and seemingly began to doze off. Alari petted the small, kitten pokémon before returning her gaze to me, a frown now sprawled across her face.
“You never think about raids,” she said bluntly, inching her chair towards me. “You prefer to forget about them than to review them.” She took my hand in hers and squeezed a little, staring me deep in the eyes. “What are you really thinking about? After all these years, you should know better than to try and hide things from me.”
I removed my hand and slouched into the brown armchair. My two arms hung down from either side of the armrests as I relaxed my head on my shoulder. “It's the middle of autumn,” my voice was rather hoarse as I spoke, “and I still haven't paid my respects to my parents. It's been nearly a decade and I haven't even gone to visit their grave.”
“Oh, Shin, you need to stop thinking about tha-”
“I can't. I've already tried.” I sighed heavily, depression creeping up on me. “Whenever I think about it, only one thing comes to mind. Do you know what that is?”
“What is it?”
“That the only reason I wasn't killed along with them was because I had an argument with my mother that morning, and I told her I was running away and never coming back.” This caught Alari off-guard, it appeared, for her head flinched and her eyes widened. “But you know what, Alari? I did come back. I forgave my mother, and I came back home, but what did I find when I returned?” There was silence, for both of us knew the answer.
The adolescent gently placed Nami on the floor beside her chair and stood up, walked over behind me, and began massaging my shoulders. Poochyena awoke now, aware of the kitten pokémon that had been placed in its grasp. Khail snarled menacingly.
“Shin, Shin, Shin.” She pronounced my name in a tone similar to that of a teacher giving a lesson. “You need to put that behind you; you can't change what happened, and you can't go back in time. You should live for the present and not dote on the past.”
I leaned forward slightly and brought myself to my feet. Alari hesitantly placed her hands at her sides, fiddling with the bottom of her grey, ragged shirt. I stared hatefully into the fire that flickered not too far from where I was standing. That fire, so calm yet so violent, was the cause of this. It engulfed my past and left only ashes and remnants of what used to exist. The only vivid image left of Acacia was the one I saw everyday in my memory.
Placing Alari's chair back into its position at the table, I said firmly, “I can't just erase my past. Maybe you've erased yours, but I won't erase mine.” I looked at Alari with an icy gaze, one that screamed with apathy. “It's all I have left.”
With that, I picked up Khail and swiftly departed the room, closing the old, wooden door behind me carelessly. The force used to slam the door had shook the bookshelves enough to topple a few dusty, old books onto the hard, concrete floor. I could have cared less at that point; I just needed to get away.
Yes, away. Far away.
I stopped at a window in the corridor and looked out towards the South. I couldn't see anything, for the entire Espion fortress was covered in a thick fog. If you weren't familiar with the area, you would easily become lost within it, especially if a storm were to arise. The only recognizable sound in the area was that of the relentless crashing of the sea waves against the harbour and the jagged rocks surrounding the hide-out. On a small strip of sand in front of a stone staircase lay rocks, shells, and occasionally, a random pokémon, such as krabby or corphish. A stone dock breached the fog and led out to sea; tied to it, the Espion's ship, named the Eclipse, could be left safely unmonitored. The monstrous boat with the tall, white masts and the lapras-shaped figure carved into the bow was a gorgeous sight to behold, until you noticed the white flag with the image of a shadowed kecleon fluttering in the wind ever so silently. The black kecleon was the trademark of the Espion and represented the technique they were most famous for: camouflage. Although it wasn't the most creative of signatures, its symbolization definitely had depth.
As for the fortress itself, it was rather plain. No trees grew here due to lack of sunlight; the absence of greenery made the site depressing and cold. The fortress was large and occupied most of the island's mass. The entire thing was made of cold, grey clay instead of lumber due to an absence of supplies. With flat roofs and glassless windows, the entire building itself seemed to be better fit in a museum as a historical artifact, and not serving as a fortress for a pack of thieves and pillagers. When I enquired about its construction, I was told by Lumina's right-hand man, Dast'n, that Lumina's great-great grandfather had kidnapped people from all over the kingdom of Iris to labour and toil at its creation. Even children were forced to extract clay from the surrounding areas day and night to provide the necessary material to create the walls, floors and roof. He told me it took a total of three years to complete and by that time, most of the labourers had become sick from malnutrition or had contracted gangrene from kneeling in a wet environment for so long. He seemed amused by this, for as he recounted it to me, his eyes were sparkling sadistically. I was forced to excuse myself due to an intolerance for such inhumanity.
A grim expression suddenly came across my face. Escape had always been a thought that had crossed my mind, but I always ruled it out, for it would be impossible to swim the length of the sea without drowning. I didn't have a boat nor a water pokémon, and stealing the ship would cause an alarm. Escape always seemed like such a hopeless thought, and even now it's still a hopeless thought, yet I constantly reflect back to it, as if it's somehow possible, but I'm not seeing it.
“I think I can help.” It was Alari. Skitty mewed softly in her arms.
“What are you talking about?” I growled at her, then spat. Khail began to snarl as well. “You don't even know what I'm thinking.”
Alari was stubborn, however. The reply that came was both intriguing and bewildering.
“Come with me.”
We were outside now; the cold, brisk, northern wind brushed against my face and sent a chill running down my spine. Khail, too, didn't seem to appreciate the sudden change in temperature. Alari, who was dressed in the Espion's female costume, didn't seem at all bothered by the chilly weather. Instead, she was cheerful, but alert. Her skitty was also very aware of its environment, for at the slightest sound, its ears would perk up and it'd look around hesitantly. Its muscles would tense up until it reassured itself that nothing posed a threat. At that point, it would relax, and continue to walk on Alari's heels as she strolled casually along. The fog posed an advantage for us, for our navy-blue and grey uniforms camouflaged well with it. As I sidled alongside the rocky cliff of the island, I caught a glance at myself in the water and felt sick. Here I was at the Espion's hide-out wearing their costume. The feelings of shame, embarrassment, and disgust hit me all at once and I suddenly had a compelling urge to vomit.
The costume itself wasn't hideous, however. Male team members wore a pair of grey slacks sporting the group's signature kecleon at its heel and each had their own individual, navy-blue shirt with the black kecleon on its back. They also wore black boots most of the time and, under regulation, anyone with long hair was required to tie it in a ponytail. As for females, they were given a pair of grey caprices to wear, as well as a navy-blue skirt to go over it. Their shirts were grey and long-sleeved; it, too, sported the black pokémon logo on the back. For shoes, females generally wore black boots which rose a bit further up the leg than those of the males, and they also appeared less bulky and more slim. All costumes were done by hand by Lumina's mother, Raëlle, and everyone took great care of it as to not upset both Lumina and her mother. The costumes were simple and identical, but everyone feared the sight of them.
Along with their pokémon, members of the Espion are required to always have their sword on-hand, and if necessary, a light shield tempered from iron strapped to their back. The males and the females of the Espion both wore their thin, sharp swords in sheaths on their backs. The sheaths were of a variety of colours; some were black, others were blue, and some were even white. The colour of the sheath didn't really matter; the colour of the hilt did, however, for all Espion-related swords have silver, black, and navy blue hilts. For not only did pokémon battle pokémon in this era, but swords were mandatory to battle other people. One could not solely rely on their pokémon to deal with both the human enemies and the pokémon foes. Regardless of the fact that the Espion is considered an evil operation, team work is very important and recognized as one of the key factors of winning during a mission. If one is not in sync with their pokémon, one will fail. That's one of the valuable lessons you're taught the first day on the field.
“Shh! Stay still!” Alari hissed at me, pressing her back against the wall of the cliff and staring up. I, too, gazed towards the sky and noticed a member of the Espion patrolling the area on top of the rocks. I petted my poochyena on the head a bit to keep it from howling. He didn't seem to notice us, yet we waited. Finally, the man walked away, unaware of our presence down below.
“Phew...” The young adolescent let out a sigh of relief. “I thought he'd never leave.”
Hesitantly, I glanced back towards where the man had been, and then levelled my view. Alari had already started to advance in front of me and I quickly, but quietly, followed suit. The ground beneath soon became overlapped with harmless waves which licked at my feet. To prevent Nami from crying out, Alari picked it up and carried it in her arms, petting it to help it understand that it's safe from harm. As the water soon approached my knees, I found it difficult to keep Khail still. Alari also seemed to have a problem with her skitty, although it was definitely more severe than with poochyena. Luckily, there wasn't much farther to go. As the water edged towards my waist, a black form appeared against the fog. It didn't seem very inviting, yet that's exactly where Alari was headed.
As we approached, the form of a small rowboat became more and more recognizable. I looked at Alari with a startled expression before saying:
“Where did you get this?”
“A while ago, I found it drifting at sea,” she explained excitedly. “There was no one in it; I just assumed that it got detached from the mainland harbour and floated over here.” She was grinning like a child who had just received an unexpected gift from someone.
“That seems highly unlikely.”
“Who cares? We have it, don't we?”
I frowned. Technically she was right, but I still wasn't too convinced on the matter.
Alari, however, was more than reassured. She was confident. Before I could object, she had already climbed into the boat and was seated in it with skitty. Skitty began to meow in fear; the girl quickly silenced it, though, with pets that stroked from her nose to her back.
“See? It's stable, too. I'm sure you can use it, Shin.”
I frowned before reluctantly placing Khail into the boat. It sat up on one of the benches and stared into the water. It then whimpered, as if its own reflection had frightened it, and began to cower beneath the bench. I hoisted myself up, drenched from waist down, into the boat and sat on the bench opposite Alari, almost capsizing the boat in the process. As I looked around and tested the boat's buoyancy, Alari addressed me.
“Well?” was the impatient word that followed.
“It seems stable,” I admitted, fiddling with one of the paddles, “but I don't know. I'd love to be able to row to shore and escape this heathen place, but the onshore surveillance is hefty during this time. If we ever were to have any chance whatsoever of escaping successfully, we would have to...” I paused and shook my head, my black hair glistening from the collection of moisture due to fog. “We'd have to depart at night, and that's too dangerous. I wouldn't make it to shore.”
“I have faith in you, Shin.”
“Sometimes faith isn't enough.”
“Well, it should be. In a situation like this, faith is all you have.” She placed Nami on the floor and stood up, water dripping off her clothing and into the boat. She then looked at me with mournful eyes. “Shin...” she began to say, but I cut her off.
“I'll try,” I stated stiffly. “I'd rather risk my life for freedom than live my life in chains.” I looked up at her and smirked. “Anyplace is better than here after all.”
Alari smiled joyfully. “Great! I'm so glad!” she exclaimed, clutching her hands together. “I was worried a bit that you would reject, but I knew you would come around. Now we just need to get you ready and wait for nightfall. You'll need food, supplies, pokéfood...”
“But wait! Aren't you coming with me?” I enquired abruptly, noticing her selflessness.
To my dismay, Alari shook her head. “I can't go; that would be too peculiar.” She sat back down in the boat, as to stop the endless tilting that plagued the boat while she stood. “I sleep near my sister's bedroom after all. She'll be waiting for me to come to bed, and if I don't show up, she'll search the entire fortress from head to toe looking for me.”
I thought about this for a moment, and then concurred. Lumina was cruel and vile with everyone else in the Espion, but when it came to her mother or her sister Alari, Lumina was as loyal as one could possibly be. When I first learnt of this a few years ago, I didn't believe it until Alari went swimming and Lumina thought she had become the victim of a gyarados or another hazard, such as a whirlpool. Until Alari was found, Lumina was the most distraught human being I had ever seen – and it makes me wonder how she can live with herself knowing she separates children from their parents permanently at least once a month.
Poochyena's stomach suddenly growled. It crawled out from beneath the bench and pulled itself onto my lap, nudging me for a something delightfully tasty. Alari noticed this and got out of the boat nimbly. She then grabbed her skitty and held it tightly, wincing as the terrified kitten penetrated its claws into her skin. I attempted to follow her, but Alari stopped me.
“Stay here, Shin,” she told me with a firm tone, forcefully re-seating me with one hand. “I'll come back soon.”
“No 'buts',” Alari told me strictly, glaring into my eyes. “Just trust me.”
I relaxed, convinced, for Alari's glare was both menacing and serious simultaneously. I cast her a soft gaze as she backed away slowly, and then turned completely as to be able to see where she was going. Khail laid down on my lap and sighed, snorting temperamentally.
“Just trust me.” I contemplated these words as Alari disappeared from sight and left me in a state of unawareness. I didn't know how long she would be or what she was planning on doing. She just said to trust her.
So I would.