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Gears and tumblers shifted aside as the locks on the massive door unbolted, allowing the portal to swing to one side. There was no ominous creak, no squeaking of metal on metal as the door glided on its silent hinges, yawning wide and allowing the initiates in the hallway their first glimpse of the “Green Room.” Aside from the carpeting, there was far less green to the room than each had imagined at the moniker.
Duplica allowed herself a small, unseen smirk as she glanced sideways at her captors’ ill ease. It was almost worth having a revolver jammed into her temple to see Ash Ketchum’s face blanch ever so slightly as his amber eyes swept across the doorway, taking in what little of the room he could see from the outside.
“Well?” her rosy lips formed an unabashed smile this time. “You twisted my arm. I brought you here.” She watched the quintet look to one another in silent debate. “What?” she remarked, allowing amusement and false astonishment to creep into her voice, “You drag poor, defenseless me all this way, molest me at gunpoint until I’m forced to do your-“
“Shut up and get in the room.” Ash scowled in annoyance, shutting her up with another jab of his six-shooter. “We’ll be behind you. ‘Right’ behind you…” he added, emphasizing with another poke in the back.
“Oh Ashy,” she sighed, giving him a playful glance, “You’re so manly and forceful…” She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw a flash of jealousy in Misty’s eyes from over Ash’s shoulder. Well, so much the better; any stray emotion on the playing field was just another weapon as far as Duplica Mimiqué was concerned. She strode obediently into the room, reaching the center in a few steps and twirling for effect. “See? Nothing bad in here.”
“Uh-huh.” Ash grimaced, still hesitant to enter. He thought he saw Duplica’s eyes dart to the left side of the room for an instant, and made a mental note to keep his guard doubled. “Famous last words.”
“Whose?” Brock couldn’t help but smirk, “Hers, or ours?”
An impatient snort resonated from behind them, reminding Ash that he, Misty and Brock weren’t the only ones present. “Can we please hustle this up?” Giselle snapped impatiently. “I’d like to hurry up and see you all gunned down in a blaze of glory.”
Ash stepped aside, impishly waving her and her Ronin escort by with his revolver. “Ladies first.” Catching Samurai’s ever-smoldering countenance, he added, “You too, Giselle.”
Samurai wisely chose to ignore the comment as he led Giselle past the trio and into the room. His well-bred date for the evening settled for giving Ash the bird before following, focusing her attention where it belonged.
Ash allowed Misty and Brock to follow first as he took one last look down either direction of the hallway. It bothered him that there hadn’t been any other signs of life in the hotel since the catastrophic end of the Ball. Did this mysterious Elite control the entire hotel? As he entered the room, he began to think it was far from impossible.
He felt his tension ease a bit at first glance of the room. It appeared to be completely devoid of life; housing only a long, glossy black table with eight chairs tucked carefully underneath. Glasses of elegant crystal graced each place, and a pitcher of cool ice water sat at the end. Sweat had just begun to bead on the exterior of the container, telling Ash that it, and most likely the rest of the room, had just been set up for their arrival.
A sudden noise shuffled against the speckled emerald carpeting directly behind him. His adrenaline-charged senses barely picked up on the signal, for it was so slight, he was certain he would have missed it normally. A blur of lightning, he whirled around, leading the spin with his readied revolver to meet the unknown.
Ash’s vigilance was immediately rewarded; there, standing in the shadows near the entrance, was a large, strange man holding what was possibly the largest assault rifle Ash had ever seen. Currently, the rifle was at the ready, its barrel’s tip mere centimeters from Ash’s forehead. He could practically feel the laser sight drilling into his skin as his revolver stopped a few inches in front of his adversary’s nose, hammer cocked, steady as a rock.
The rest of the room recoiled in horror, save for two of its occupants. Duplica calmly took her seat, having half expected some kind of show on behalf of their benefactors. Brock, on the other hand, took a full quarter of a second to kick himself for missing the wayward gunman and another quarter second to wonder how he had used the room’s scant shadows so effectively. The remainder of the second was spent rushing to Ash’s aid, though he halted several feet back for fear of catalyzing the dangerous reaction at hand.
The man’s eyes were covered by a pair of dark glasses that wrapped around his face, resting below a scowling brow. His tremendous build had somehow been stuffed into a full tuxedo, much like the remnants that Ash still wore beneath his Kevlar vest. The man looked down at Ash’s gun with a look of mild curiosity. His lips twisted into a faint sneer as he said, “Get that toy out of my face.”
Ash took great care to keep his voice as level as his gun. “This ‘toy’ could take most of your ugly mug off if you pull that trigger.” he warned, praying that he wouldn’t be proved right or wrong in the next few seconds.
“You so sure that’ll take me out, Rookie?” the man countered.
An audible ‘click’ echoed in the room. Risking a glance away from Ash, the man spied Brock’s gun being brought to bear just as his partner’s was.
“How about two?” Brock asked in a low, even tone. His face was a mask of seriousness; the man didn’t doubt for a second that Brock Stone would hesitate before spreading his brains across the wall.
Their verbal sparring was interrupted as the door swung open again, admitting a much smaller (and more corpulent) man as he entered quickly. Despite his unassuming veneer, he had a quality about him, a commanding presence. Nearly all the eyes of the room were on him as he walked in, sizing up the situation.
He spied the dueling trio immediately, and looked to the other stranger with a mixture of mild horror and annoyance. “Griffin,” he ordered calmly, “Please take that rifle out of Mr. Ketchum’s face, if you would.”
Clay Griffin seemed reluctant at first, but he did as he was told. His rifle lowered to the floor, but remained firmly in his grasp. He noted with grim amusement that neither Ash nor Brock had lowered their weapons. In fact, he clearly saw Misty ready her own weapon, keeping a close eye on the room’s newest occupant.
“All of you, please,” the man said in a calm, firm voice, “Put your weapons away and take your seats. I believe some explanation is in order.”
“Excuse me?” Misty could not have looked more incredulous if she tried. “’Some’ explanation? You shot at us. You tried to kill us. You sent relatively innocent men to their deaths, all in the name of some stupid test. We should have a god damned three-hour program.”
“With show tunes.”
The rest of the initiates looked over at Brock. The burly man sunk down into his chair, blushing slightly as he tucked his firearm into his waistband, making sure the safety was on so he didn’t blow off anything important. “What?” he muttered, “I like show tunes.”
Carlos continued, ignoring the chatter. “If we could focus?” The table grew silent for a moment, though the dirty stares continued to come his way. “Thank you. Now, I’m certain you’re wondering as to the nature of our little organization.”
Ash raised his hand, feeling foolish at the gesture. Foolish or not, it worked, and he spoke as Carlos acknowledged his question. “I was wondering exactly why an ‘organization’ with such an obvious disregard for life want with people who’ve devoted their lives to saving them.” he remarked, putting quote marks around the word “organization.”
Giselle blinked, leaning back. “I’m impressed, Ketchum.”
“Thanks.” he nodded.
“I didn’t think you knew words that big.”
“Thanks,” he said again through gritted teeth.
In the meantime, Carlos had produced a small cell phone, tapping a brief code onto the keypad. “See Nine, would you please join us? And bring a spare component of your choosing.”
The initiates waited in silent curiosity, trading confused glances and shrugs, until the stillness was broken by the clatter of the lock unbolting as the door swung open. A youthful, cheery young man walked in, clad in the same black jumpsuit as the thugs from the first attack. “See Nine, reporting for duty, Mr. Carlos.” He carried a boot in the crook of his arm, swinging it with each jaunty step before snapping to attention before The Elite executive.
“See Nine, I assume you are familiar with the people sitting at this table.”
The man nodded, slowly letting his eyes circle the table in a very precise manner. “Affirmative, Mr. Carlos. I have had personal interaction with yourself and Mr. Griffin, and have downloaded the dossiers of each of the potential initiates.”
The way the oddly-named man spoke about them set a warning buzzing inside Ash. It was nothing compared to what happened next. “See Nine, would you please shoot yourself in the foot?”
Nine turned to Griffin, and politely requested the man’s rifle. Without a word, he set his spare boot down on the table, took up the rifle, and proceeded to blow his foot off. The staccato burst rang loudly in the small room, violently assaulting the initiates’ ears. Most of them were lucky enough to wince in pain, and missed the splattering of boot and organic matter across the floor as Nine’s foot disintegrated beneath the onslaught.
Ash, Brock and Samurai were the first out of their chairs, tossing them back and drawing their respective weapons. The two partners had See Nine covered, wondering if he was crazy and ready to pump bullets into him before he could turn on the rest of the room. Samurai, however, had his sword at Carlos’ throat.
“Tell him to stand down-“
“See Nine.” Carlos ordered, ignoring the point digging in his neck. “Kindly replace your foot.”
The man-if he truly was that-bent down, squeezing at his ankle until the joint clicked. He pulled away the mess, setting the ruined foot aside and taking up the fresh one. Several of the women gasped in disgust, and none of their companions thought less of them for it as the strange being snapped his new appendage into place, still wearing that odd, plastic grin.
“You see?” Carlos said agreeably, oblivious to the revulsion of his guests, “The men that attacked you were nothing more than-“
“Robots…” Samurai said softly, lowering his sword and re-sheathing it. He couldn’t help but stare at the humanesque mechanoid with a mixture of awe and nausea. “I should have known. I can sense nothing from them.”
“Don’t go all Zen on us, Sammie.” Ash muttered, equally transfixed by the automaton.
“Androids, actually. See Nine here is an all-purpose droid,” Carlos explained, “Part of our Charlie series. The units that attacked you were part of our Alpha Series. Of course, the Ay units were programmed strictly for non-lethal function this operation. So you see, no one was in any real danger.”
“No,” Misty spat bitterly, eyeing the false man with a new level of distrust, “All I see is that you’ve invented a disposable form of life.”
Carlos seemed to heave a long, deep sigh from the very bottom of his soul. “Ms. Waterflower, when one has to save the world on a bi-monthly basis, one hardly has the time for moral dilemmas regarding utilitarian tools that happen to look like us.”
“How nice for you.”
“And I assure you,” Carlos added with great sincerity, his voice raising above the tangential chatter, “We are here tonight for reasons no less profound than the fate of the human race itself.” This seemed to get everyone’s attention, as the room quieted down in a matter of seconds. He used the opportunity to launch into his own well-practiced version of The Elite’s mission statement. After so many recruiting missions, he knew it all to well.
“The Elite is a worldwide, world-class organization whose sole purpose is to protect the innocent of this planet, both human and Pokémon, from certain doom. Since the dark days before recorded history, as man first started his historic, symbiotic relationship with Pokémon, The Elite have defended truth, justice, and the rights of all sentient beings. Very few know of our existence, and even less have seen an actual agent and realized who he or she was.”
“Why all the secrecy?”
Ash was the first to interrupt, as Carlos knew he would. After reading up on the man’s psych profile, Carlos knew he wanted Ketchum; not just working for The Elite, but on his team, playing for him. The recruiter had ambitions of his own, and didn’t intend to simply be an equal partner in the organization forever; top agents like Clay Griffin were the kinds of things that could secure him for the Elite Grand Master, should the Old Man ever abdicate. He saw the same potential in Ketchum as he did in Griffin all those years ago, and with potential like that working for him, he was sure to pull ahead of the competition.
Ash continued, unaware of Carlos’ internal workings. “I mean, why not just come out into the open, let the public see what it is you do?”
Griffin’s gruff voice broke its silent streak before Carlos could answer. “That’s a fabulous idea,” he said evenly, without a hint of humor or sarcasm. “Just last month we stopped Team Rocket from unleashing a hell dimension of forbidden Pokémon. Do you think people would react well to knowing how close they came to being some hellspawn’s snicker doodle?”
“Um…no.” Brock piped in.
“This is exactly why we must remain hidden.” Carlos explained patiently. “There are things that mankind simply is not ready to deal with. When those things rear their ugly heads, we step in and quietly clean up the mess.”
“Great,” Giselle snapped impatiently, “You’re all about charity. So where do we come in?”
“You have all demonstrated potential far beyond the average trainer. You are all superb examples of Pokémon Masters, and,” he added, puffing a bit with pride, “You demonstrated exceptional combat prowess and improvisational skills in the initiation test tonight.” Griffin snorted skeptically at this, but no one bothered to take notice.
“All right.” Brock was the first to recover from the heady explanation. “You’ve given us your sales’ pitch. Now what is it you want us to do?”
Carlos pressed several keys on a built-in panel on the tabletop. “Currently, there are no Elite agents available who possess the experience or knowledge necessary to combat our current problem. I’m sure you’re familiar with the rash of museum thefts that have occurred within the last few months.”
“We were thinking about taking that case on ourselves.” Ash nodded.
Samurai looked at Ash with narrowed eyes. “So were we.”
“So what does a couple of heists have to do with your so-called worldwide agency?” Brock asked as Ash and Samurai glared at each other from across the table. “I mean, it’s just a couple of thieves looking to make a fast buck, right?”
The Elite recruiter shook his head. “I’m afraid not.” A small portion of the table recessed in the middle, giving way to a small, glossy hemisphere that rose to fill the void. The device flared to life with a soft glow, shooting small, dancing shafts of light into the air above the table. The light soon coalesced into distinct shapes, taking the form of a staff, several medallions, bracers, and gems that rotated around in a slow circle.
“These are the items taken so far, most notably of which is the Staff of Sa’nah’rei, Priestess of the Dead.” He indicated the tiny staff, which featured a tinier golden skull at the top. “And before you ask; No.”
“No?” Misty took the bait.
“No.” he shook his head. “We have no idea if these items have any kind of connection. Our resources are currently researching the possibility.”
“What about suspects?” Giselle cut in, leaning forward. Indeed, the rest of them were regarding the case with a growing sense of interest, slowly forgetting the runaround they had been given earlier in the evening. “Who’s behind it?”
Carlos seemed to hesitate at this. He bit on his lower lip in hesitation for just an instant, his fingers tapping against the table in thought. “There exist in this world,” he said slowly in a low, somber voice, “Those who worship the forces of death itself…the shadows that taint the purity of life. There are those who thrive on the pain and suffering of others…Who live only to cause misery.”
“Sounds like my last relationship.” Ash quipped, earning a scathing look from Duplica.
“For a long time, The Elite have fought against a terrible force such as this; The Cult of Shadows.”
“Trainers?” Brock asked.
“Soldiers?” added Samurai.
“Both…and neither…and more.” Carlos leaned forward. “We cannot be certain why they are taking these artifacts…Our best espionage divisions were slaughtered trying to find out.” His head hung for just a second. “Good men…”
The sudden intonation brought Carlos out of his revere. He looked at the source in disbelief. “Excuse me?”
Ash Ketchum leaned back, folding his arms across his chest as the rest of the table stared at him. Even Griffin, who had seemed an unmovable rock up to this point, quirked a brow. “What?” he snorted at Carlos’ incredulity. “You wanted us in for this. That’s what all this is about, right?”
“Yes…” Carlos answered slowly. “I’m just a bit surprised, I suppose.” He looked around at the others skeptically, meeting each of their eyes. “And do you speak for the rest of your companions, Mr. Ketchum?”
Ash looked to his partner. Brock’s slitted eyes narrowed even further as he frowned. The air crackled between them, as if a silent dialogue was taking place unbeknownst to anyone else. After a moment, he nodded once. “If Ash is in, I’m in.”
“And I as well.” Samurai added. He and Ash shared a glance, as if challenging one another.
Giselle looked at the testosterone ebbing and flowing between the men of the table. She grunted, leaning back. “You aren’t going to make it thirty seconds without me.”
Misty folded her hands on the tabletop, looking down at her reflection in its glossy surface. She could see the holograms mirrored in front of her blurry face as her mind raced. She thought of the courageous people around her, wondering how she was ever grouped in the same class as them. She thought of the horrors that a man she hadn’t know more than fifteen minutes claimed awaited them all.
She thought of her daughter, and the rest was easy.
“Yes.” she said at last.
“Excellent.” Carlos nodded, rubbing his hand together eagerly. “Then we’ll begin immediately.” He looked to Griffin, who had remained largely silent throughout his entire pitch with his arms crossed and face surly. “Agent Griffin will accompany you to one of our bases, where we will begin our hunt for the culprits.”
Ash glanced at Misty, and then to Carlos. “We have some equipment in our van we need to retrieve.”
“Of course.” Carlos stood, motioning for the rest of them to follow suit. “You may visit your van. Griffin will rendezvous with you en route.”
Griffin gave Ash a look of disgust as he led the way. Wordlessly, he pulled out a piece of paper with a series of coordinates on them. “This is a secret airfield. You have twenty minutes.” The room’s occupants filed out in a single row, until finally only Ash and his friends remained.
“You sure about this?” Brock asked his partner, cracking his knuckles. “These people-“
“I’m sure.” Ash nodded. “Come on. Let’s get our Pokémon.”
Brock glanced at Misty, who seemed unnaturally quiet all of a sudden. Her gaze was hollow as if she had been drained of everything vital. The elder of the three recalled the look that she had shared with Ash back at the dance upon their first meeting, and recalled that there was still something left unresolved between the two.
“Why don’t you pick mine up for me?” he suggested. “I’m going to try and get some more out of these clowns.”
“Always making me pick up your shit.” Ash laughed softly.
Misty nodded. “Right. Let’s go.”
Her jaw set defiantly as she looked at Ash with an air of annoyance. “Your van. My daughter. Is that a problem?”
Ash rolled his eyes. Somehow he knew that his opinion wouldn’t count for beans either way.
* * *
The Master sat in his inner sanctum, cloaked in a long robe of shadow that pulsed and flowed about him like a living entity. His senses were attuned to the darkness as he meditated, stretching his mind across the ether. To one such as he, a master of the darkness, the shadows were as good as eyes and ears. Better, in fact, for shadows existed everywhere, and heard things that others could not.
Through the shadows, he watched his minions’ assault on Gypsum Hall. He watched the pathetic Elite monkeys dancing about, trying to stop him. They would not succeed, of course. The shadows had already whispered the future into his eager ears, and the future was darkness. The future was…
Straining his senses, he listened as the shadows began to whisper anew into his ear. Something had changed the equation, something had been added to the mix. Was it a person? People? Had The Elite found something to use against him?
He drew himself out of his trance and rose to his feet, willing the shadows around him to solidify into coverings. A simple gray tunic knitted itself from pure shadow, along with dark black pants and a deep, midnight cloak to match. He opened the portal in his sanctum, striding back out into the real world. It was time to take a personal hand in matters before they spun out of his control.
* * *
Misty couldn’t help but glance back at the ruins of the Waldorf’s crystal ballroom as she and Ash strode out of the building. Everything was happening so quickly, she felt as though her head was spinning. Her dress was hanging in tatters, her legs ached, her ruined heels were tucked beneath her arm, and her weapon seemed completely inadequate. She was tired, she was confused, and completely uncertain about the future.
She glanced over at Ash. The man’s jaw was set in determination. It could have been her imagination, but she thought she even heard his teeth grinding against one another as he led the way. A brief conversation with Dexter via his disguised Pokégear determined their rendezvous point, which was a few blocks down the street for some reason.
An uneasy tension had settled between the two as they made their way down the street. Despite her own growing unease, Misty couldn’t help but smirk at the irony of the situation; before that night, Ashura Ketchum was the last person on Earth she had ever expected any kind of reunion with. When she had first seen him, she would have given anything to just disappear, especially when he had dredged up the painful past. Now, when she wanted to talk about their situation, he was silent as a tomb.
“Is April all right?”
Ash nodded, flipping Gear closed. “Dex’ll meet us in a few minutes. Until someone gives him the right password, no one can get in. Anyone other than me tries anything, he’ll resume his evasive pattern.”
“I’m actually surprised.” she admitted, ignoring the cold pavement against her bare feet. “I can’t imagine you’d trust these ‘Elite’ people after that little song and dance.”
“What? But you-“
“You’ve seen what they do.” he uttered, keeping his eyes focused straight ahead. “They believe the ends justify the means. They create disposable life.” His fists clenched involuntarily. “Saying ‘no’ could have easily meant death.”
Misty felt her blood run cold. She was no stranger to a good fight…which, ironically, was the reason The Elite had taken an interest in her. But when it came to things such as this, a world of mystery and intrigue, she was out of her league. “What happens now?”
“Now?” He risked a glance back at her. For a brief instant, she saw a universe of conflicting emotions tumbling through his eyes before he looked away once more. “Now we play the game. We wait, we watch, and we do what needs to be done.”
The conversation ran dry as they reached the empty street corner that would serve as their meeting spot. Ash’s eyes narrowed as they swept over the darkened alleyways and vacant shop windows. Even now, away from their mystifying benefactors, his tension was growing steadily. He seemed to sniff the air, taking everything in at once.
“Is everything all right?” Misty frowned, feeling her own unease growing.
A small light began growing in the distance. It split into a distinct pair, barreling down the street. She looked back at Ash, but he only checked his Pokégear and nodded. “That’s him.”
Relief washed over the pair as a familiar white van came down the darkened road, pulling up beside the curb. Ash reached for the door handle as Misty shivered, eager to get out of the cold night. “Well, trust or no, I’ll be glad for a little break from all the excitement.”
“Me too.” he agreed, sliding the back door open.
Without warning, a small prong came flying out of the van’s door at incredible speed. It was attached to a small, thin cable that led into the van’s darkened interior. The prong buried itself in Ash’s Kevlar vest, and immediately began sparking furiously. Ash felt his hair stand on end as a furious electrical current charged against his (luckily) insulated vest.
He and Misty jumped back, drawing their weapons and aiming at the open door. Misty’s heart leapt into her throat as her finger tightened on the trigger, ready to ventilate whatever had just attacked Ash. A half second later, her fear and anxiety dissolved into maternal anger.
April grinned nervously from inside her riot helmet, almost invisible within the ridiculously oversized vest that Ash had slapped on her. Her riot shield lay to one side, where she had left it when she had traded up for a ranged taser.
Ash wondered how she had gotten hold of something like that. Then he saw one of the equipment lockers she had jimmied open somehow, with its contents spilled across the floor. His partner was trapped underneath a non-conductive net, snarling and struggling to get out.
“Heh…heh…” April tossed the ranged taser aside, pulling her helmet free from her luxurious raven locks. “Sorry. I thought maybe you…”
Ash pushed her aside, grabbing the taser furiously. He took a look at the setting, then shoved the weapon into her face. “This was on the highest setting. It could have killed me.”
“Heh…whoops.” she grinned again, shrinking back from the near-total stranger.
Pulling the net off of Pikachu, he looked back at Misty. “You said something about a break from excitement?”
Misty shrugged, grabbing her daughter. Though she was angry with the child, she was unbelievably relieved that April was all right. “Believe it or not, this is well behaved for her.”
He grimaced. “I’ll believe it.”
* * *
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