=Chapter 5=

By Cyberwraith9
Back to Introduction

     The ruined interior of Gypsum Hall was covered in the spoils of battle; blood, death, and shadow. Pieces of Elite soldiers, agents and droids lay among the tangled, bloodied arms of their killers, the blackened corpses of the demons that they in turn had slain. It was a quiet irony, one that went unappreciated, as the halls echoed with a silence rivaled only by that the fallen soldiers now experienced.

     At least, the soldiers lucky enough to have truly “died.”

     Soldiers still patrolled the fortress, now under new management. Like the darkness that permeated the building, so too did they sport new colors; dead, tattered flesh hung off of yellowing bone where pink, healthy skin had once been. They carried weapons, those that still had enough limbs to wield the heavy rifles and bandoleers of grenades. Their eyes were empty and white, hollow with the absence of an untainted soul. They stood beside their new brethren, the hulking, slithering brutes that had murdered them, and together they searched for survivors, or any of the thousands of mystical and technological treasures that hid within Gypsum’s walls.

     Deep inside the ruins of the Command Center, three brothers stood ankle-deep in wreckage and bodies, surveying the damage their forces had wrought. All three were nude, covered only in a layer of thick, dusky fur. Their forms were relatively human, save for the claws that tipped their hands and feet, and their cruel faces. Human noses had twisted into feral snouts, with needle teeth lining their brutal grins. Their inhuman eyes, colored gold, blue, and red, were framed by long, pointed ears. The only detail differing each brother was their manes.

     “We do good work,” Sparky snickered. His head was capped with waves of golden spikes that flowed down his back. Every so often, a small sliver of electricity would jump from one spike to the next. He swung a long, curved sword through the air as he continued to laugh. “I don’t think there’s anyone left that isn’t ours, is there? What a waste, dying over trinkets like this!”

     “Put that thing down, idiot!” Pyro shook his head, sending the flames that engulfed his shoulders and the top of his head flickering. With a quick, paranoid glance, he checked on the identical six blades, which rested in an unceremonious pile on the ground. “The Master sent us to secure those ‘trinkets,’ so put it the hell down.” He looked over at their eldest brother questioningly. “Now what?”

     Rainer shrugged, lifting the Vaporeon ridges on his shoulders. “The Master said we would see a sign. I suppose we just wait for his-“

     The shadows of the room shifted, gathering in the center of the room. The dead and the ruins of the room gave way to the darkness as it began swirling, forming a vortex of pure black. Invisible forces stirred the air, creating a powerful wind that tugged at the three mutated brothers. They each sought some hold to keep them in place as the vortex quickened, faster than the eye could follow.

     Then, for no visible reason, the pool of ebony froze in place. A dark object began to take form at its center, rising out of the perfect circle. A humanoid form took shape as the brothers collected themselves, watching in awe. The shadow beneath the creature’s feet disappeared, and the man (?) walked forward towards the victorious conquerors. The black on the man’s body shifted just as it had on the floor, twisting and warping, forming a dark cloak that rippled in his wake.

     “So,” the man spoke in a deep, resonating voice, “You have succeeded.” The blackness pulled back from his face, revealing regal, angular features drawn into a smile. “Congratulations, gentlemen.”

     “Master!” the three scrambled to kneel before Lawrence, scraping and bowing at his boot.

     “Enough.” he waved their lip-service off. “Has all opposition been eliminated?”

     “Our forces search for survivors as we speak, Master.” Rainer stepped forward. “We have just secured this location, and were-“

     Lawrence cut him off with a gesture, and Rainer stepped back into line. “Fine.” he nodded, “Fine.” Suddenly, his head tweaked to the side, his eyes closing. Sparky stepped forward as his master’s attention disappeared from this world, but Rainer held him back, shaking his head. To disturb the Master during a vision was to invite death.

     “Well, well, well…” Lawrence muttered at last, his eyes fluttering open. “It seems the future has once again become unclear.”

     “What does it mean, Master?” Sparky blurted out. His brothers both smacked him for speaking out of turn, but the damage was done.

     Rather than angered, Lawrence smiled at his young soldier. “Gird yourselves for battle, my Generals, and you shall be gods among the insects of this world.”

    Emboldened by his moving words, the three “generals” scurried out of the command center, leaving Lawrence in the company of the dead and decaying. He surveyed his new kingdom, reflecting on the cost; it had taken a great deal of his forces, and many had not survived the endeavor. However, with the Dreadfire Crescents now in his possession, it would not matter.

     Reaching into the folds of his cloak, he withdrew a long, golden scepter topped with a tiny replica of a human skull adorning the top. Looking down at the two dead men lying among a circle of shredded demons, he couldn’t help but smile. The Arab was no one to him, but the other man…

     “So,” Lawrence toed the man’s shattered skull with a smirk, “The infamous Hawk Phillips, Commander of Gypsum Hall.” Lawrence gestured to the room with his free hand, waving as he bent the shadows of the room to his will. “You and I have never met face to face, have we, Commander?” Naturally, the dead man did not answer. Nor did he react when the darkness began to reshape the room, rending metal and electronics apart. “Nevertheless, you have been a worthy adversary.”

     The room continued to restructure itself without Lawrence’s attention as he leaned down, staff still in hand. “Thanks to the Staff of Sa’nah’rei,” he murmured, tapping each man with the golden skull, “I hope that you will become worthy allies, as well.”

     The corpses quivered. Whether it was a result of the room’s radical restructuring, Lawrence couldn’t be sure. It was irrelevant, as both men began to stir. Impossibly, they clamored to their feet, craniums still shattered and gore still adorning their tattered uniforms.

     “Yes, Master,” Phillips grinned maniacally, looking to Muhammad as the other soldier returned the sentiment. “I imagine we will be.” The new additions to his team bowed at the waist as Lawrence watched. A satisfied smile slowly graced his angular features.

     The pieces were falling into place.

     The world would soon be his.

* * *

     Ash sat up in bed, pouring over his fifth technical manual. A Styrofoam cup of coffee sat unattended on the nightstand, growing colder by the second as Ash’s eyes hungrily devoured technical specification on the weapons that hung just meters away in his closet. His tuxedo lay in a corner, unneeded and definitely unwanted. Instead, he had taken Carlos up on the clothing provided with the room. A dark, hooded sweat shirt with the words ‘L33t Ninj4’ on the front now covered his form. He didn’t get it.

    In all his life, in all of the quantum leaps he had seen technology take, in all of the bad summer science fiction blockbusters Brock had ever made him sit through, never had he ever imagined weaponry such as this; rifles that shot laser, rifles that hurled plasma, rifles that would never jam and could hurl sixty rounds in the blink of an eye…it was incredible!

     Distantly, he heard Brock showering in the bathroom as he stood up, tech manual still in hand in transit to the weapons’ locker. His eyes still scanned the page as he waved his right hand over the red paneling. Just as advertised, a soft click echoed from behind the wall, and the panel slid away to reveal three separate rows of gleaming weapons.

     One of the rows, a series of oddly-shaped pistols, sported a vacancy, no doubt made when Brock had produced the Jaguar laser cannon. Ash made a mental note to ask one of the Elite just what a jaguar was (a Pokémon, maybe?) as he chose and hefted his own model. According to the book, it was an ELP-748, part of the C series. He wasn’t sure what the significance of that was, thanks to the manual he now knew what the weapon could do...and damn!

     Doing just as the manual instructed, he picked up a thin piece of metal, one of many boxed beneath the weapons’ rack, and placed the end into a small slot at the bottom of the gun. With a mechanical whir, the gun sucked up the thin strip in one smooth motion, consuming it whole in a heartbeat. Ash frowned quizzically, spying the digital readout at the back of the cylindrical pistol. A sharp LED panel flickered, now indicating that the weapon had one hundred Teflon-coated rounds tucked inside, and the safety was off.

     “Dual firing modes offer greater versatility in the C series,” Ash read aloud, balancing the thick tome in one hand and the pistol in the other. “Primary setting allows for rapid fire, discharging all rounds within twenty sec-twenty seconds!?” He blinked hard, forcing his vision to scan the words once again. “Goddess…All right, what else does this toy do?” He mumbled to himself, skimming over the next few lines as he tried to absorb the gist of it all.

     “Yada, yada, something, alternative firing, ah!” he cried, looking first at the diagram provided, then at the weapon itself. Sure enough, he found a small switch at the bottom and flicked it over, altering the weapon’s mode. “Alternative fire is an emergency rapid-fire, discharging the weapon’s full magazine in under two seconds.” He glanced over at the gun again, setting the manual down next to the other weapons. “No shit? That’s a hell of a burst.”

     Thoughts began buzzing in his mind as he recalled the ominous warnings of Ferdinand Carlos. Shadows, demons, darkness plaguing the world…it had all seemed very fanciful in their little briefing. But with all this staring Ash in the face, all this science fiction brought into harsh, cold reality, he wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.

     He tried to imagine a demon, calling upon the worst nightmares he could remember as a child. Before his dad’s death, the elder Ketchum had regaled his horrified, delighted son with tales of the old ones, the Elder Gods banished from the realm by great heroes. The stories had always scared the bejesus out of him as a toddler, and sent him screaming into his parents’ bed for the night.

     Calling upon the images the old stories had left in his mind, Ash tried to picture himself surrounded by monsters of the worst sort. Pistol in hand, he crouched down and swung the weapon around, targeting the vase across the room. “Watch out, world!” he muttered to himself, swinging the sight to rest on the bookshelf. “I’m a self-employed blue collar worker with a middle school education and a weapon of mass destruction. Ha!”

     He whirled on his heel, letting his weapon lead as he aimed for the door. As his finger tightened against the trigger, he was confronted by three sets of luminous eyes, shimmering in the dim light of the halogen lamp. With a cry, he stumbled back, tripping over his own feet and landing on his butt. “Yeargh!”

     The six-eyed creature reached upward with a tiny amorphous limb, flicking the toggle switch for the lights. The room came alive with painfully bright light shining from the ceiling, revealing the room to Ash’s watering eyes and flooding his cheeks with an embarrassed blush.

     “Are you all right, Mr. Ketchum?” April asked, balancing a pair of Pokémon on top of her head. Pikachu clung to her scalp, with Pichu sitting atop of him. “What are you doing playing on the floor?”

     “April!” Ash gasped with relief. He checked the gun, re-securing the safety before he set the weapon aside. “You scared the he..heck out of me!” He got to his feet, trying not to think about how close he had come to putting a hundred bullets through Misty’s daughter. April, too, had confiscated a shirt from the drawer; ‘n0 ph33r.’ Whatever that meant.

     The young girl smiled at his near slip, clucking her tongue at her. “A scaredy-cat and a potty-mouth, huh?” She giggled, shaking her head free of the electrical cap. Pichu bounced into her arms, while Pikachu scampered to Ash’s side. Rather than help his trainer, Pikachu chose to laugh at Ash’s jumpiness. “That’s okay. Mom swears a lot, even around me. But she smacks me when I use those words…” she added in a mournful, serious tone, whispering to Ash as if divulging a dreadful secret.

     Ash hauled himself up off of the ground, giving his snickering partner an annoyed glance. “Does she? Well,” he sat up on the bed with a sigh, “She used to do that to me, too.” His memory flashed back to a thousand different beatings at the furious redhead’s hand. The recollections were painful, but he could help but smile; Sometimes he thought those days had been the best in his life.

     April smiled, plopping herself down on the bed next to him. Zapper wormed his way from her grasp and began sniffing around the bed. “Did she really? You’re way too big!”

     Rolling up his sleeves, Ash couldn’t help but smile once again. He flexed his arm, showing the girl the underside of his elbow where a long, pink scar ran lengthwise along the joint. “See that? Your mom gave me that. We got into a tussle somewhere outside of New Bark Town about eleven years back.”

     “Ouch!” April reached forward, completely comfortable in the presence of this perfect stranger. Her tiny finger traced the length of the scar as she asked, “What were you guys fighting about?”

     “You know,” he admitted, “I don’t remember. It wasn’t very important. All I remember is that she has a scar just like it on her ankle from the fight, and we ended up laughing about it later that night.” A sudden tittering from April quirked his eyebrow. “What?”

     April regarded him for a moment in silence, the smile disappearing from her face as she sat in serious thought. “I like you,” she decided at last.

     “Thanks,” he said dryly. “I always wanted the approval of a ten-year-old.”

     She laughed again, snagging Zapper back into her arms. “You’re funny, Mr. Ketchum.”

     Pikachu crawled up the sheets onto the bed, leaping up onto Ash’s shoulder. Ash rubbed the Pokémon behind the ears as he said, “Just call me Ash, kid. I don’t think I’ve ever been a ‘mister’.”

     “Okay,” she agreed, “Ash.”

     She observed him quietly for a moment, her head canted at an angle. Truthfully, he was examining her as well. The more he looked at her, the more of Misty he could see in the young girl’s face. However, as he looked deeper, he saw several differences. The girl’s aqua eyes were undoubtedly Misty’s, but deep within the sapphire orbs there existed a burning, passionate fire. Part of it could have been Misty’s determination, but there was something else…something familiar about it.

     The mane of raven locks that flowed down April’s back and across her shoulders was most un-Misty-like. He had met Misty’s sister, he had seen pictures of her mother, and father, and grandparents. He couldn’t recall any of them with hair so dark (though to be fair, if Misty’s sisters were any indication, then hair dye was also a part of the Waterflower bloodline).

     Her tiny, stubby fingers possessed large, red knuckles, with several tiny whitish scars gracing their chapped, puckered skin. April was clearly not a girl’s girl; she liked to get rough and play dirty, like her mother. From what Ash had seen, she was clever, inventive, agile, and determined.

     “Did you know my dad?”

     The question startled Ash out of his silent scrutiny. He snapped back into reality to see the young Waterflower staring up at him with curiosity. “What? Who?”

     “My dad.” April reaffirmed, leaning forward with newfound excitement. Her eyes shone as she looked to Ash, almost quivering with anticipation. The room had become deathly quiet at her question; Even Brock’s shower had fallen silent. “Did you know my dad?”

     Ash frowned. “What makes you think I would know him?”

     The corners of April’s mouth drooped at the counter. “I seen my momma’s old albums, and she’s always with you and Mr. Brock.” Her entire face came alive as she talked about the trio’s past, as if she herself had been a part of it. “And mom, she always says she was with you guys, so I just thought that maybe…” Her stomach suddenly gurgled. She looked down, sheepish at the rogue organ’s outburst. Another gurgle soon joined in, but this one came from Ash.

     He grinned, rubbing his own stomach. “Hungry?” She nodded emphatically, and he jumped up to his feet, steadying Pikachu as they went to the room’s miniature fridge. “Me too.” Opening it up, he found a small array of foodstuffs inside that looked plenty tasty. “You like turkey?” He heard an ‘mm-hmm’, and began putting together a pair of turkey sandwiches on a small table next to the fridge. “Now, you wanted to know about your dad?”

     “Yeah,” she nodded, her eyes glued on the sandwiches. Misty had made the pair something to eat when they had arrived, but she was still very hungry.

     Ash walked back to the bed, handing April the sandwich. The petite girl nearly took a finger or two as she snatched the sandwich, wolfing down half of it in a trio of monstrous bites. He smiled and raised his own sandwich to his lips, only to find that it wasn’t there. With a sinking feeling, he glanced back over to the refrigerator, where Pikachu had commandeered his snack, as well as a large bottle of ketchup.

     “What makes you think I knew him?” Ash asked, watching Pikachu plaster his sandwich with a comical amount of red goop. Zapper had already crossed the room, and was sniffing the concoction experimentally.

     She shrugged, taking another bite and talking around a mouthful of food. “I thought about it for a while. Momma must have had me right after she left you and Mr. Brock, so she probably knew my dad before that. I thought maybe you knew him too.”

     “Mmm.” He pushed his own jaded feelings for Misty aside for the moment. “Y’know, I lost my dad when I was really young.”

     “Never knew mine.” April countered wistfully. “Momma always said he was big, and strong, and very brave.” Her eyes misted over as her imagination took over. “He was always saving the day, helping people wherever he was, no matter what.”

     The story was chillingly familiar to Ash. He kept his eyes carefully averted as he watched the electric duo tear his sandwich apart. “That right?” he said. “Sounds like quite a guy…”

     “Hey!” April suddenly brightened, startling Ash. She bounced over, clutching Ash’s arm. “What if…”

     “Huh?” He wondered if she suspected the same thing that he did. “Uh, are you-”

     “Maybe he is!” she leapt up, “Maybe Mr. Brock really is my dad!”

     Ash blinked for a moment, watching April’s wide eyes so intently he could see his own reflection in the crystal orbs. “I thought your father was…well, dead.” he said, more than a little confused.

     “You know how parents are always lying to their kids!” April sang gleefully. “Maybe Momma never wanted me to know, ‘cause…Well, just ‘cause!”

     His lips evolved into a smile at the thought of Misty and Brock in the middle of a lover’s embrace, murmuring sweet nothings to one another in the throes of passion. It was hard not to laugh out loud right in April’s face, but he managed. “Yeah…I guess it’s a possibility.” he allowed, hiding his snickering behind a cough. “Maybe you should ask him.” Just thinking about the look on Brock’s face at being asked if he was her father was enough to send him into another fit of ‘coughs.’

     “This is great!” April literally shook with excitement, clapping her hands together. “I mean, I’ve always wanted a dad! They can get married, and we can be a family, and Mom doesn’t have to cry anymore!”

     The humor in Ash’s gullet gave way to a cold, wrenching feeling as he felt waves of guilt wrack his system. He hadn’t meant to raise her hopes like that, but he was so relieved to think that he wasn’t… “April,” he murmured, “I don’t think Brock’s your father.”

     “What?” The disappointment on her face broke Ash’s heart. “But…But he’s strong, and brave, and big, and…and…and…” Tears were gracing the edges of her eyes, and her shoulders slumped as she began to sniffle. “He could be.”

     “April, he’s got a lot of Islander in his blood.” Ash sadly examined the slant of April’s eye, her flowing black hair, and her pale ivory skin. “I hate to say it, but you’d be a lot darker if he was-”

     “He could be!” she said insistently, kicking the edge of the bed with her heel stubbornly. “He could be, he could be, he could be!” She looked down at her own hands, as if wishing she could will them to be stronger. Soft, short little sniffles and sobs rumbled at the back of her tiny throat, choked by her tight-pressed lips. “It’s not fair,” she whispered. “I thought-“

     A pair of strong arms wrapped her in a hug, surprising the hell out of her. She had never been hugged by a man before. Unlike her mother, Ash had a strong, musky smell about him. He was much bigger, and like her, his hands were uncertain. Unconsciously, she felt herself leaning against him. Her own hands wrapped around his waist as she sniffled, wiping her nose on his shirt.

     “You know what?” he said, talking into the top of her head as he rubbed her ebony crown. “You and me, we’re a lot alike. For the longest time, it was just me and my mom, just like you and Misty.”

     “Did you miss him?” she asked in a small voice. “Your dad?”

     He considered the question for a moment. “You can’t miss someone you didn’t really know.” he said. “Did I miss the fact that he wasn’t there?” He nodded, “Every single day. I still do.”

     “Thanks, Mister…I mean, Ash.” she looked up, her eyes starting to puff out, but a smile on her lips all the same. “You’re awful nice to someone you just met.”

     It did seem odd to him, showing this kind of affection to someone he had known for less than twenty-four hours, and a kid, no less! The one time he and Duplica had looked after her niece, he had made the kid cry in less than five minutes of her arrival. Children weren’t among his favorite people, but with April…

     “And you’re awfully trusting of someone you just met.” He countered good-naturedly.

     “Momma always said she could count on you and Mister Brock.” April said, pulling back so she could look at Ash once more. “It’s weird, though. One time, I remember she was telling me a bunch of old stories about you guys…did you really meet Lugia?” she asked randomly. “Anyway, she was telling me about that and a bunch of other things, and then she tucked me in and said goodnight, but I wasn’t tired, so I snuck out, and you know what?”

     “What’s that?” His head was spinning just trying to keep up with the little ball of energy.

     April leaned forward, as if divulging a great secret. “She was sitting on the couch, crying. Not real loud, kinda soft. I could hear it, though. And when she went to bed, I saw what she was lookin’ at. And you know what?”

     His voice was hoarse this time. “What?” he asked, already suspecting the answer.

     “She was lookin’ at the album she kept of all of you.” April revealed triumphantly. “I guess…I guess that’s why I thought you might know my dad. She always seemed so happy when she talked about you two, but if she met dad at the same time…” She shrugged.

     Ash fumbled for an answer, but the door to his room burst inward before he could utter a single syllable. April cried out, Pikachu and Zapper jumped, and Ash dove for the gun on the table as the door slammed into the wall, allowing a ball of living fury to enter the room.

     “April? April?” Misty cried with barely-restrained panic, looking about the room. She had taken advantage of the room’s amenities; the tattered dress no longer clung to her curves, replaced with a comfortable pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt with the words ‘L33T M3!’ on the front. Once again, he didn’t get it. “Oh, thank God!”

     “Mo-om!” April whined, launching herself off of the bed with a push. “I’m fine! I just came over here, there-”

     Misty strode forward, placing her fists on her hips. “You snuck off while I was reading-”

     “You fell asleep and I got bored-”

     “I told you to stay put, and what’s the first thing you do?”

     “We’re in some kind of freaky secret base, where am I gonna go?”

     “That’s not the point!”

     Ash sat back, watching the argument go back and forth between mother and daughter. It was one of the rare occasions when he was looking at Misty argue on the outside. He could see why Brock always found it pretty funny; her face was getting pretty red. April’s too. Absently, he wondered if that was how he looked when he fought with her…

    Misty ended the argument with the age-old parent’s trump card. “No more. March yourself back to our room and go to bed.”


     “Move!” Misty all but yelled, pointing furiously towards the door.

     April grumbled, stumbling sullenly towards the door. “Goodnight, Ash,” she muttered, scooping up Zapper and sulking her way out the door.

     Misty stood there for a moment. Her hands hadn’t moved, and her glare had shifted to rest on him. “And just what were you doing in here with my daughter?” she demanded icily.

    Ash matched her glare. Despite all of the fond reminiscing he had done recently, and all of the conflicting emotions their reunion had unearthed, he had to remember that Misty was the woman that had broken his heart. Misty had left him in the middle of the night, the night he had realized just how much she meant to him. No matter how much he wanted to, he knew he couldn’t trust her like that again.

     “April just wanted to talk. She was fine.” he assured her, not backing down. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled as he felt his own anger bubbling to the surface. “You might want to think about cutting the umbilical cord at some point. She’s a pretty tough kid.”

     “I’ll thank you to keep your advice buried in that murky little pit you call a brain, Ketchum.” Misty retorted, crossing her arms. “I know how to raise my daughter just fine.” She paused, blinking. “Why would she come in here talking to you?”

     “She wanted to know about her father.”

     Misty blanched as Ash shrugged, putting the weapon back on the table. “W-what?”

     “Her father. Fa-ther. You know, the guy that knocked you up.” Ash spat. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he could take them back. He didn’t want to be bitter, but apparently his mouth didn’t want to be the bigger person.

     He could hear her teeth gritting from across the room. “How. Dare. You.” She growled. It was hard to believe that this was the same woman that had been tickling him just hours ago. “How DARE you! You little, arrogant child!”

     “Child?” he shot back, no longer caring about the past. “Child! I’m not the one that left without even leaving a note! I’m not the one that avoided me for a whole decade!”

     “I, I, I, me, me, me!” Misty mimicked Ash’s voice, hamming up the whining tone a thousand fold. “I’m still harshing over something that happened a decade ago. I’m still crushing on my teenage love! I can’t move on because I have the emotional growth of a twelve-year-old mental patient!”

     “At least I’m not some heartless bitch who spreads her legs for-”

     “I never-!” she shouted indignantly, trying to raise her voice above his.

     “Please! The evidence and I just had a heart-to-heart about him, who, by the way, she wants to know more about!”

     “Stop butting in!” she stamped her foot. “Oh, you’re such an infuriating bastard, I swear! My life was going fine before you showed up again.”

     “Well, at least one of us thinks so.” he shouted back without thinking.

     The awkward comment deflated both their arguments, stopping both gladiators on a proverbial dime. Ash fell back onto the bed, suddenly feeling emotionally spent. Why had he said all that? He felt like an idiot.

     Misty took a chair from beneath the provided desk, swinging it around and folding her arms atop the chair’s back. “So?”

     “So what?” he risked asking, wishing he could just shut up and she would go away.

     “You say I’m a slut because I have a kid and I’m not married? Fine.” she said in an unnaturally calm voice. “So, how many other women have there been? I mean, besides Little-Miss-Slut-Slut staying a few rooms away…who I imagine will be showing up for a midnight rendezvous any time now.”

     “There’s nothing between me and Duplica anymore.” Ash said flatly, allowing ‘that’ particular pain to resurface along with the rest he was currently experiencing. “Not for a while, now.”

     “Really? Sounds like a pretty bad break-up.” Misty couldn’t help but grin a little; after all of the grief Ash had just put her through, she was ready for a little payback. “What’d she do?”

     “Gary Oak.”

     “Oh? Oh!” Misty suddenly understood. “Ohhhhh. How’d you-”

     “He was between her legs. The rest was pretty easy to deduce. I am a part-time detective, after all.” he said bitterly.

     “Oh. Jeez, I…sorry.” Misty said at last. She wasn’t sure how she was the one apologizing now, but she didn’t really want to see Ash in any real pain…just squirming a little, that was all. “I didn’t mean…”

     “And just so you know, she’s the only other one.” Ash’s voice was still dull, as if he had been drained of all his emotions. “I mean, there have been other girls, but none that I…y’know.”

     There was a long, poignant pause, then Misty heard herself say, “Me too.” He looked up at her, and she added, “Besides…besides April’s father, I mean.” There was an even greater silence between the two, unbearable for each because there was so much they longed to say. “Ash…Ash, I just want to tell-”

     “Forget it.”


     With a heavy heart, Ash realized that things would never be the same between them. They could never go back to that time of self-discovery, more than ten years past, and re-learn what it was to be in love. If it had been that… “Misty,” he sighed, “Everything happened so long ago. You’re right; it’s stupid to feel angry about it. It’s stupid to feel anything about it.”

     “I didn’t say that,” Misty started, but Ash cut her off again.

     “Look,” he sat up, “I’m sorry. You were right to be mad; I should have let you know as soon as April came over. I shouldn’t have pried into your life. I was just concerned. She was asking a lot of questions about her father, and…Well, with what happened between us, that night, I just thought that maybe...” He saw her about to speak again, and spoke quickly, “But you’re right. You say I’m not her father. That makes us perfect strangers. You obviously found someone else, someone who you cared about very much, if April’s to be believed. And I do…”


     “After this mission, whatever it is,” he said with downcast eyes, unable to look at her face to face, “We’ll probably never see each other again. I just wanted you to know that there are no hard feelings, or anything.” A small, phony smile forced its way onto his lips. “Hey,” he half-joked humorlessly, “Maybe this’ll be the closure I need to move on with my life. Right?”

     “What if I haven’t moved on?” Misty countered quietly. Damn the man, she actually felt her legs shaking, even while sitting down. “What if-”

     “I don’t think that road’s open anymore, Myst.” Ash heard himself say. He was too busy feeling his heart shatter anew to converse with her personally, so he let his brain guide him on autopilot. “Ancient history.”

     The door to the bathroom opened abruptly. “Man,” Brock stretched, walking out wearing nothing but a smile, “That was loooong overdue.”

     He spotted Misty sitting on the chair, looking downward with a face of pure dejection. Ash’s hands were supporting his head as he lay on the bed with a similar face. Despite his current state of undress, neither one looked up when he entered or spoke.

     “Um…” he fumbled, embarrassed, as he looked about for something to cover up. “I didn’t know we were having company…”

* * *

     “No!” Griffin roared, “Absolutely not!”

     Carlos massaged his temples, listening to Clay Griffin ranting echo off of the small ceiling of the command center. He had known this would cause problems, but had half hoped that his burly subordinate would take the news with a grain of maturity. Sadly, he was wrong.

     He held the hard copy of the report up, waving it in front of Griffin’s shaded eyes. Carlos knew that the implants buried beneath the sunglasses would have no problem getting the gist of the report’s title, ‘Emergency Signal from Gypsum.’ “We have no choice at this point, Griffin. Our other personnel are occupied with emergency measures in case the primary mission fails. You know that this attack on the Hall is no coincidence.”

     “Two weeks. You promised me two weeks, Carlos!” Griffin shook his large finger dangerously close to the shorter man’s face. “We had two weeks to install basic cybernetics, train with equipment, and prep psychologically. Now you’re giving me shit, and you’re expecting me to combat the forces of Hell itself with that very same shit!”

     His face a passive mask, Carlos retorted calmly, “You saw the initiation. You know what kind of a bind we’re in. They’ll be ready because they have to be.”

     “They’re ready to face a few thugs with rifles. Not demons! Not mages! Not the Dark One!” Griffin ripped the report from his hand and threw it down, practically screaming in Carlos’ face. “Give me two weeks, or give me a proper team!”

     There was deadly silence in the command center. Even the consoles that low-level Elite technicians orchestrated seemed to sense the tension in the air, and quieted their incessant beeps and trills. Carlos simply stood quietly, dressed in his simple, pressed black suit. His hands were folded quietly in front of him, his eyes smoldering and even, leveled at Griffin like a pair of cannons. Eventually, even the mighty Alpha Agent fell prey to the overwhelming pressure. His shaking and protests quieted as his training took over, and he drew himself up into parade rest.

     “Some might take that as insubordination, Commander.” Carlos said quietly. There was no mistaking the anger undercutting his voice. “Are you questioning my orders?”

     “No. Sir.” Griffin growled respectfully. His hands clenched so tightly that his knuckles went stark white, cracking under the strain.

     “Good. Have the recruits ready to leave at oh-four-hundred hours.” Carlos turned smartly on one heel and walked out without another word.

     As soon as he was gone, Griffin’s fist crashed into one of the monitors, leaving a small dent in its metallic casing and causing half of his watchful audience to startle and jump. “I know you all have better things to do preparing for the apocalypse.” he said to the room in general. That motivated the lot of them to return to work, but it didn’t save him from the stolen glances and snatches of conversation that followed him out of the room.

* * *

     Less than five hours after his outburst, Griffin stood once more in the base’s docking bay, watching the mechanical and humanoid drones load up their mission’s vehicle. Unlike the rotund, cargo-hauling Swellow from the previous day, the Elite’s standard Alpha-Three-Ten Pidjet was a true predator. A sharp, long contour formed the main fuselage, with short, graceful wings sweeping back on either side, and a pair of ailerons folded at an angle on the craft’s aft section, mounted just above a set of one of the world’s most powerful engines.

     Griffin admired the craft in silence as he heard a series of footsteps approach him from behind. “That,” a masculine voice whistled approvingly, “Beats the hell out of our van.”

     Turning, he saw the group he had been expecting for the past five minutes, led by the voice’s owner. Brock gave him an encouraging smile, and (Griffin suspected, but couldn’t be certain) flashed a cocky wink. The burly trainer tossed him a snappish salute, clicking his heels together. “Admiral Stone and Company reporting as ordered, mein Fuhrer.”

     Like him, each of the initiates was dressed in a standard Elite field jumpsuit; a dark, tight affair, heavily insulated and three times as protective as Kevlar. Gunmetal patches of stylish ribbed fabric gripped them at the shoulders and across the chest, as well as to the side of either thigh, where several of them had weapons holstered and ready to go. Griffin still didn’t feel anything but bad about the mission, but he was relieved that they hadn’t wasted the time given to become familiar with at least some of the weapons.

     The second thing he noticed about them was that each of their waists was encircled with tiny, colorful red and white spheres, clipped to the standard equipment belt. As always, Ketchum’s Pikachu balanced with practiced ease on his trainer’s shoulder. Griffin had been briefed on each of their respective teams, but was still skeptical; he had seen Pokémon pitted against the demon spawn, with a less than perfect track record.

     “Cut the shit and stow the attitude before I ventilate you, Stone.” Griffin snorted, adjusting his perpetual sunglasses to rest more comfortably on his nose. “Line up.”

     The six potentials quickly formed a passable row. Samurai was the only one to actually snap to attention, with his sword strapped to his back and a rifle slung over his shoulder. Ash and his small club at least looked like they were paying attention. Even his Pikachu followed the soldier’s slow, steady pacing with luminous eyes. Giselle kept touching at her long, luxurious hair pulled back into a single braid, looking for all the world as if she wanted nothing more than a spa and a fleet of stylists. Duplica merely leered at him with voracious eyes; he reminded himself to keep an eye on her.

     ‘I really wish I believed in some sort of God right now…’ Griffin thought to himself. ‘I could use someone to pray to.’ Out loud, he simply said, “Listen, and listen well. I know you were told that you were being brought on board to help uncover the truth behind the Cult of Shadows’ involvement with the rash of museum break-ins. Originally, we were going to start out doing some light investigation coupled with the standard basic training. Many of you were slated to be fitted for cybernetics, pending your approval.” At that, many of them blanched, with the exception of the already-modified Duplica. “However,” he continued, oblivious to their discomfort, “That just became impossible.”

     Sure enough, one of them decided to butt in. He knew it would be Ketchum, too: “What happened?”

     Rather than chew him out, Griffin decided he could afford to humor the newbie…to a point. “The Elite has kept watch over a storehouse of mystical, mysterious artifacts for quite some time now, a location known as Gypsum Hall.”

     “I’ve heard rumors about that place.” Brock muttered just loud enough to be heard.

     Samurai nodded. “Yes,” he said, “I believe-“

     “Sewing circle gossip is hereby terminated.” Griffin growled, growing dangerously close to the chatterboxes. Everyone quieted immediately, allowing him to continue. “Gypsum was home to some of the most powerful relics known and unknown to mankind.”

     “Was?” It was Misty’s turn to butt in, and also her turn to receive a scathing look from their commander.

     “We received a report six hours ago that Gypsum Hall was under siege. Further attempts at communication have been unanswered.”

     “Now it’s our job to investigate.” Ash swore under his breath, returning Griffin’s scowl. “Ran out of expendable soldiers?”

     Griffin didn’t hesitate to get right up into Ash’s face. Rather, he loomed above Ash’s face, nearly shoving his chest right into the younger man’s nose. “Believe it or not,” he snarled, “The Elite does not employ many field agents such as myself…and possibly you, if you live to tell about it.”

     “What about the rest of these people?” Giselle looked about. She couldn’t tell the real people from the See-series droids Carlos had shown them, but even if only half of them were real, it still meant hundreds of people. “Why not shove guns into their hands and send them off to die instead?”

     “Good Goddess, Giselle,” Brock quipped, never dropping his attentive façade, “I do believe this is the first time we’ve ever agreed on anything.”

     “If we had an army of people who could fight demons, do you really think they’d be working in a loading dock? Besides, many of our best people are committed to other projects, and…” Griffin stopped, checking himself. He was actually explaining himself, AND his orders, to a bunch of raw recruits. Cutting off further protest with a boot, he began raising his voice. “You know the mission. We’ve told you the risk. You don’t like it, we’ll show you the door.” Scowl deepening behind his shades, he added, “You can feel free to sit back in your tiny little houses, waiting for the apocalypse to swallow the immortal souls of you and everyone you care about.”

     A moment of tense, fearful silence pervaded the group, before Brock had the bad taste to break it. “To be fair,” he said, chucking a thumb at Ash and Pikachu, “We live in a van.”

     “On the plane or off the team. Those are your choices.”

     One by one, they broke off from the group. Ash was the first, followed closely by Brock, and then Misty. Samurai and Giselle soon joined them, leaving Griffin alone with Duplica. She still wore that mysterious smile on her perfect features.

     “You seem kind of tense, Clay.” she said sweetly, clasping her hands together in front of her and pursing her lips. “Is there anything I can ‘do’ to help you relax?”

     “You could take a bullet for me during the mission.” Griffin rumbled, eyeing her warily. His distaste grew as she approached him with slow, sensual steps. “Maybe let the Shadow eat your soul. Then I’d feel even less guilty about perforating you.” His hand strayed to his sidearm as his lips parted in a sneer.

     She let a casual finger trace a pattern on his taught, black-clad chest, her eyes never leaving his. “You know,” she teased, “They say that sex can sometimes help a man calm down before stressful episodes like this.”

     “I hope you weren’t planning on keeping that finger.” She pulled her hand away quickly, but the smile never faded completely. “Listen up, Mimiqué,” he said, “I’m going to put this in no uncertain terms; I’m watching you.”

     “Really? Well then,” she purred, stepping back.

     She hummed a few bars, seemingly random notes as she raised her arms in a flaunting gesture. Suddenly, a tiny, blobbish pair of eyes blinked open on her chest, followed soon by a mouth that split at her midriff. He could see smooth ivory skin between the lipless opening as her jumpsuit exclaimed, ‘Ditto, Ditto!’

     “I suppose we’ll have to keep a few eyes on you as well, darling.” The Ditto’s face melted back into a seamless rendition of the Elite jumpsuit as she turned. He watched her strut up the gangplank, boarding the Pidjet with a wink tossed over her shoulder. The motion caused her flowing emerald hair to flip suggestively, enraging him further.

     “Sweet deity, we’re as good as dead.” he muttered, following them into the ominous bowels of the deadly craft.

* * *

     A shock of blonde hair peered at Brock through the open doors separating the pilot’s compartment from the passenger section. The cockpit was small, barely large enough to hold four people, and only boasted two chairs sitting side by side in front of the controls. By comparison, the elongated section Griffin had directed them into was quite roomy; It possessed a series of acceleration couches lined up in rows of two, with six rows running the length of the cabin.

     The golden locks beckoned Brock as surely as a moth to a flame, for there was no doubt that they could belong to a female. He felt the ol’ Brock Charm rising to the surface as he leaned against the vacant co-pilot’s seat. “Hey,” he said to the back of her head, “Any chance I can take a ‘joyride’?” he emphasized the last part with a smile.

     “That depends, Rookie.” the pilot replied smartly, punching up a pre-flight diagnostic. “How well can you handle a stick?”

     The voice sounded familiar to Brock as he pulled back, unused to women responding with anything but a slap. “Guh?”

     Blonde locks whirled as a smiling face turned to greet him, a face he had just seen yesterday. “Hey Hot-Stuff. Going my way?”


     Her azure eyes sparkled as her smile grew. “He remembers my name. Good sign.”

     “I didn’t know you were coming in the mission.” Brock sat in the co-pilot’s seat. “Maybe flying into the clutches of evil itself won’t be so bad after all.”

     “Careful, cutie,” she continued her preflight, snapping toggles and keying in commands in a precise manner. “I’m just the wheelman on this operation. The rest is up to you.” She glanced over, seeing him examine the controls. “You might want to be careful, that-“

     “-looks like a thruster assembly diagnostic.” Brock tapped a few buttons, zooming in on a small section of the blue wire-frame schematic. A small set of numbers flashed in the corner. “If I’m reading this right, your left array’s misaligned by a few tenths of a millimeter.”

     “Well within parameters.” Rhydmie was a little surprised, but she tried to keep it smothered behind her trademark grin. “Looks and brains; I’m impressed.” She gestured to the seat next to her invitingly, asking, “Want to help me take her out? Could be a swell date.”

     “Thought you’d never ask.”

     Brock was suddenly glad to have paid so much attention during his glory days in the military. He eased himself into the copilot’s seat, wondering how long it would take him to say something truly stupid enough to screw things up.

     “I’ll try not to ride you too hard.” He heard himself say.


     ‘What was that, three seconds?’ he thought to himself, cringing. Maybe he had gotten lucky, and she really ‘didn’t’ hear him clearly. “I said I’ll try not to ride her too hard.” Brock muttered, turning away with reddening face.

     “Oh.” Rhydmie continued to go through the preflight, and then casually added, “I think I liked the first version better.” He looked over quickly, spotting a wide grin covering her face. She gave him a conspiratorial wink as she spoke into the comlink placed snugly in her ear. “Tower, this is Pidjet three-oh-niner, requesting clearance to take off.” Her head nodded at the unheard acknowledgement of clearance.

* * *

     In the rear compartment, the rest of the team strapped in for take-off. Ash sat in one of the acceleration couches, spying Brock in the cockpit. His partner seemed to be chatting up the pilot, and successfully as well. He caught Misty sitting down next to him out of the corner of his eye, and forced his eyes forward. She looked like she wanted to say something, but he wasn’t about to give her the opportunity. Instead, he beat her to the punch. “How’s April?”

     Her face soured as she looked away, angry at being cut off before she could say what she really wanted to say. “Safe.” Misty said plainly. “They assigned that droid we were with to watch over her.”

     “A robot baby-sitter?” Ash snorted. “The future is here.”

     Griffin came up behind them, strapping in and stowing his gear beneath his seat. “If we fail,” he informed them, “There won’t be a future.”

* * *

     Rhydmie nodded once more, pulling her flight harness up and over her shoulders. “The last of the equipment has been loaded. We’ve been cleared.”

     At the far end of the bay, a pair of identical doors slid to either side, revealing a starry sky that had yet to be touched by dawn’s first rays. The path between their plane and the bay doors was cleared a moment later. Forklifts and personnel scattered left and right, getting ready for the Pidjet’s roaring takeoff.

     Rhydmie glanced over to Brock, who had strapped in and was leaning forward in anticipation. “You might want to lean back.”

     “Why?” he asked, listening to the engines’ whine increase in volume and pitch. He had been on plenty of flights, and he knew pilots; every flyboy (or in this case, flygirl) thought regular people couldn’t handle a simple takeoff. He watched her hand ease on the throttle, her eyes sparkling and arm tensing with anticipation. “Are you going to-“

     She slammed the throttle forward.

     Whatever snide comment Brock had was smashed into the back of his throat as the craft leapt forward, riding on a jet of blue-white flame that left a long, carbonized streak of black along the bay floor. Rhydmie was pulling no punches; she whooped in delight over Brock’s terrified screams, guiding them through the narrow bay and out into the sky.

     “I live for this!” Rhydmie screamed as they continued to accelerate. “Feel the power!”

     “We’re gonna die!”

     The jet screamed off into the night, streaking towards Gypsum Hall with as much speed as it’s pilot could force from the craft. It’s passengers were the only hope for humanity, it’s mission dire. Silently, Ferdinand Carlos watched from the observation deck as their Pidjet soared away. He offered them prayers, knowing full well that it wouldn’t help; heaven could not help them, and hell was what awaited them.

* * *

     Gypsum’s command center was unrecognizable to any who had known it before. The center was nothing more than a gaping maw. Red light trickled up from the distant bottom, reflecting off of the gleaming metallic surfaces. The only other light came from several flickering monitors on the room’s perimeter, still receiving power from some distant emergency battery not yet devoured by hungry demons or shambling zombies.

     Lawrence stood back, leaning against the railing he had erected around the Pit as he surveyed his handiwork. A nod of satisfaction shook his curly, sculpted locks. “All is nearly in place.” Looking about the scattered ruins of the room, he spied the appropriate objects; the Dreadfire Crescents. They were the last piece of the puzzle.

     As he felt the darkness wrap around the metallic blades, a painful explosion blasted him right behind the eyes. He fell to his knees and clutched his head, snarling as a booming voice echoed in his head.


     He hissed, gritting his teeth at the pain the voice caused him. “Yes, my Master.” he managed to force out. “I hear, and obey.”


     “All goes according to plan, my Master.” Lawrence said. His head still burned with each word, but he could manage the pain a little better now. “Gypsum Hall has been taken, and the Pit has been summoned. All we need now is-”

     *THE SACRIFICE.* Lawrence could almost hear the smile in the voice, though he knew it had no lips. *I CAN SENSE IT APPROACH. IT SHALL NOT BE LONG. SERVE ME WELL, AND THE REWARDS WILL BE BEYOND ALL IMAGINATION.*

     “I have not forgotten, Master, nor will I fail.” Lawrence managed to open his eyes. He watched in awe as the very blades he was about to rework come aglow with dark energies far more powerful than even his manipulations of the shadow. The Crescents rose from the floor, twisting at the invisible hand of another, fusing together at the hilts until a crude, coiled crucifix hovered in the air.

     Useless, abandoned wires snaked down from the ceiling, grabbing hold of the crucifix and pulling it to hang over the center of the Pit. It swung for a moment, rocking gently to and fro, an ominous pendulum. Lawrence watched with a mixture of awe and horror as the voice began to fade in his mind, returning his equilibrium and senses.


* * *

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