The Pidjet’s main compartment had changed drastically at a single voice command from Griffin; the chairs that its crew had used to survive Rhydmie’s unorthodox takeoff slid to the side, compressing themselves until they had become part of the windowless wall. In their place rose a series of black hemispheres that rested on the floor. They appeared to be along the same lines as the holographic projector Carlos had used during their initial meeting. To accommodate the rest of them, he tapped his control panel, and a pair of long, simple benches rose from the floor.

     Brock and Rhydmie exited the cockpit together. The first noted the changes in the plane’s interior with words of awe, but the pilot simply came to attention in front of Griffin, snapping him a salute. “We’re on course and on-autopilot, Commander. ETA in sixty-three minutes.”

     “Very good. Everyone, take a seat.” They gathered around the half-orbs, sitting uneasily across from one another. Griffin noted with only a hint of amusement that Ash and Misty made it a point to sit as far from each other as possible, and still would not look at each other. “We’re a little more than an hour from drop, so listen up.”

     He took a small remote in hand and pointed it at the holographic projectors. They came to life with a flash, throwing laser light into the space above them. In an instant the initiates were confronted with a small, insubstantial replica of a gothic, dark, gloomy fortress. It rotated slowly, allowing each member of the team to get a good look.

     “This is Gypsum Hall.” Griffin narrated as the building continued to spin. “Currently, the fortress houses four hundred and eighty-three artifacts of various origin and power. They’re guarded by nearly a hundred soldiers, as well as no less than ten agents in the building at any given time.”

     “A hundred and ten verses the forces of darkness?” Giselle snorted sarcastically, crossing her arms. “What, did the Elite have to skimp out on real defenses after paying too much for their mysterious, double-talking bullshit?”

     Griffin wordlessly pressed a control on his remote. The rotating model flickered, becoming a three-dimensional schematic. The wire-frame reproduction glowed red in certain places, indicating defensive and security systems.

     “Beneath Gypsum’s rock exterior lies three feet of re-enforced titanium specially forged under conditions that make it resistant to mystical forces. Each soldier is armed with enough weaponry to make the taste you found in your rooms seem like peanuts at a circus.” He pointed to the various entrances indicated on the building. “Each entry point features layered defenses consisting of automated lasers, thirty-millimeter auto cannons, and an assortment of physical traps and deterrents too numerous to name.” He gave Giselle a pointed look. “The same laser defenses exist inside the halls.”

     “…oh.” Giselle sunk down in her seat, no mean feat for a woman sitting on a bench.

     Griffin went on to describe the rest of the Gypsum’s defenses. By the time he was through, there wasn’t a single face in the compartment that hadn’t blanched with fear. Even Rhydmie looked green around the gills, and she wasn’t going on the mission.

     “Question.” Ash raised his hand in the air as his Pikachu circled the floor, looking up at the hologram with fearful wide eyes. “If this place is supposed to be the ultimate fortress, then how in hell are we going to get in?”

     Griffin considered Ash for a moment, then nodded to himself, as if affirming something silently. “Over on the southern side, about a hundred meters out,” he tapped the remote once more, and the image slid over to rest on a network of conduits that ran beneath the complex. One of the tubes’ ends flashed a blinking red as he continued, “There’s an exhaust port located at the end of this channel. The port is small; only about two meters wide.”

     “We aren’t going to launch an attack through there, are we?” Rhydmie muttered, studying the hologram. “I don’t think I could hit a target that small with a missile strike.”

     Brock shook his head, leaning in next to her to stare at the miniscule target. “We’ve nailed smaller targets from our van with a rocket launcher. It’s not much different.”

     “We aren’t launching an assault. We’re launching an invasion.” Griffin corrected. Another click, and a series of red, blinking dots, like marbles rolling on an invisible plane. “We enter at the port, moving up into the main complex. From there, we split into three different teams.”

     Each of the marbles became a different color, corresponding to a different team. Griffin zoomed in on one of the dots, a pale, soft blue. “Team One will be Samurai and Giselle. It’ll be your job to scout the building for survivors. Should you find any, you’ll reconvene back at the port exactly one hour from the drop.”

     “Team Two,” he changed the view to a flashing yellow dot. “You’ll head for the generator room and wait for my signal. Should I fail to contact you, or you receive the order from me, you’ll set the generators to overload and then get the hell out of dodge.” Griffin looked grim, gritting his teeth at the thought of losing the investment that Gypsum represented. “If we can’t salvage the situation, we’ll make sure the Shadow doesn’t, either.”

     “So who’s on Team Two?” Ash asked, examining the room in question. It was hard to get a good impression of what the room was like from the wire schematic.

     Griffin looked to him, then glanced over at Misty.

     It was hard to tell who protested first, and impossible to tell which was louder. It didn’t matter; Griffin halted both of them with a scathing look. “If you have problems with the teams, I suggest you exit through the hole at the back of the plane. It’s a long drop, and we don’t have any parachutes.” And we won’t miss you, either, was the unmistakable implication.

     Ash and Misty both quieted immediately, but neither would look at the other. They just stared intently at the hologram, their jaws locked in an identical grimace. Pikachu looked between the two, murmuring softly as he went back to Ash’s leg. Finally, the Pokémon settled for sitting crossly at his trainer’s feet, probably grumbling about the stupidity of humans.

     “The next person to interrupt who isn’t bleeding or dying of a tumor gets shot.” Griffin told the group in a stern, no-nonsense tone. “Now, Stone, Mimiqué, you two are with me.” One last click, and the third dot turned a bright green before toddling merrily through the glowing sticks of the tiny fortress. “Team Three is going to head to the command center. From there, we can discern the situation, and figure out a plan from there.” This time, there was not smart-assed chatter or protests. They had taken his threat to heart. “I cannot stress this enough; if you see something you don’t recognize, or something that used to looks like it used to be a human being, you kill it. No questions, no talking, no hesitation.”

     “Human?” Ash couldn’t help himself. “What do you mean?”

     Griffin simply looked at him hard, his jaw clenching. “You see it, you shoot it. Got it?” Ash nodded, and Griffin looked to the rest of them. “Got it?” They nodded as well. “Good. Rhydmie, your job is simple: drop us and our equipment off, and get the hell out of here.”

     “Don’t need to tell me twice.” She saw Brock’s disappointed face, and patted him on the cheek. “Don’t look so glum, handsome.” she said mockingly, “You’ll have plenty of meat shields to tag along with.”

     Brock glanced over at the imposing Griffin and the sly, unreliable mistress of guile and disguise. “I’m more worried about them using me,” he admitted under his breath. It drew another smile from Rhydmie as she rose to return to the cockpit.

     “Fine.” Griffin rose, deactivating the hologram and sending the projectors back into the floor with a flick of his thumb. “Now, if there are no further questions, I suggest you all study the schematics. Ketchum, Waterflower, you’ll need to know how to lock the generators into an overload cycle. I’ll print up the technical manual-”

     A loud clattering from the back cut Griffin off in mid-order. The larger man’s sidearm was in his hand in an instant, faster than any of the others could follow. Rather than question the action, they quickly followed suit; They had heard the sound as well.

     Silently, Griffin motioned for Brock and Ash to move up to the closed portal leading into the aft compartment. The two partners took up position on either side of the door as Griffin squared off in front of it. Samurai and the girls stood behind the commander, weapons raised and readied just as his was.

     Reaching out with his free hand, Griffin keyed in the code to unlock and open the hatch. It slid open immediately with a soft whir of machinery, almost lost in the constant whine of the plane’s engines. Darkness greeted them inside the unlit compartment, filled with shadowy crates lining its sides and scattered across the middle of the floor.

     Griffin scowled, signaling Brock and Ash forward. No stranger to the situation, they leapfrogged in, moving to opposite sides of the room one after the other. Their side arms were cocked and ready, fingers pressing achingly against tense triggers. As soon as the two were in, Griffin followed hurriedly, with the others on his heel. They spread to fill the small width of the room, eyes and weapons sweeping the room for some sign of movement.

     Ash crept forward along the wall, watching as Brock did the same out of the corner of his eye. Pikachu padded silently at his feet, keeping close but out from under his feet. The thunderous mouse wisely kept his electricity unlit, so as not to give their quarry any kind of advantage. Ash knew that the extra half-second for Pikachu to power up and attack might make a difference, but it was a risk he was willing to take.

     Another soft stirring shuffled out of the darkness, somewhere in the far corner of the room on Ash’s side. He glanced back at Griffin, who nodded in acknowledgement. The entire unit moved forward, with Ash and Pikachu taking point. Brock was close by on his shoulder as they closed in on the target, and Griffin right behind him. Samurai, Giselle and Misty crouched low, training their guns on the spot they had heard the noise come from.

     “Don’t move a muscle.” Ash said in a hoarse whisper. He was so close he could hear their quarry’s short, panicked breathing, even though he could not see them. He could see Pikachu’s nose twitch, and knew that the Pokémon could smell them. Curiously, though, Pikachu now sat on his haunches, and had a curious smile on his tiny lips.

     “Computer,” Griffin snapped, “Half-lights.” The illumination in the room rose immediately to roughly half of what it had been in the central compartment. Ash blinked once, allowing his eyes to become used to the sudden illumination. Then he stopped, and blinked again at the sight of their now-familiar intruder.

     “Heh…” April Waterflower grinned from her seat on the cold metal floor. Her dark hair pooled behind her on the deck plating as her luminous eyes went wide at the sheer number of weapons trained on her. She had one leg stretched out in front of her, and was in the process of trying to rub some feeling back into it.

     Next to her, the cover from a rather large crate sat broken on the floor. The crate it had belonged to sat on its side not too far from them, surrounded by a small sprinkling of splinters. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened.

     “Sorry,” she stood up slowly as the impromptu team put their weapons away, “Charlie horse. I’ve been in there for a long time.” She watched the varying reactions of the adults, from Griffin’s fury, to the confusion that stole onto Ash and Brock’s face, to the silent masks of Giselle and Samurai, and finally to the bemusement firmly planted in Duplica’s features. She didn’t dare look at her mother, whose face was turning red enough to illuminate the room by herself. “Um…are we there yet?”

     While Misty experienced an anger beyond words, Griffin stepped up to bat to fill in for the missing angered shouting. “What in the nine circles of Hell are you doing here?!?” He stormed. Even Ash and Brock winced, though that may have had more to do with the volume and their proximity to his spitting mouth than actual fear. His hand snaked out, picking April up by the back of her shirt and hauling her to rest at his eye level. “We assigned a droid to watch over you!”

     As if sensing the jig was up, Zapper tumbled out of the crate, rolling along in a little ball before thumping against Griffin’s glossy black boots. The Pokémon unfurled, spying the gaggle of eyes that rested upon him. “Pichu! Pi, pichu!” The baby waved at them. Pikachu grumbled at his tiny cousin, and suddenly Ash was sorry he didn’t understand their language; from the looks of it, the baby had said something that really ticked Pikachu off. Then again, it was probably along the same lines as whatever April’s excuse was going to be, so he could afford to wait a few more minutes.

     “I know. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight, so…” April dangled from Griffin’s meaty fingers, twisting gently from side to side. She didn’t offer any resistance to his iron grip. She was smarter to that. Instead, she pointed down at the crate.

     Samurai leaned over, peering into the crate. Though his weapon was still out, he let his eyes lead. There, at the bottom of the box, was the form of a man folded completely in half. The man’s face peered out from between his knees, his head and rear pressed tightly against opposite sides of the box, and his arms wound unnaturally around himself.

     “Excuse me, Mr. Shoto.” See Nine said pleasantly, unaffected by the feats of contortionism his body was currently boasting. “Could I bother you for a helping hand? Ms. Waterflower’s erratic motion during the flight seems to have wedged me into place.”

* * *

     “You snuck on board”

     The rest of the crew had mercifully retreated into the back compartment so that Misty could chew her child out in private. All, that is, save for Ash (with Pikachu clinging to his head), Duplica, and the girl’s errant droid guardian. They had taken up residence on the bench opposite April, watching Misty pace furiously back and forth. Ash couldn’t recall ever seeing Misty his furious. Then again, she had yelled at him for doing stupid things that risked his life before, too; perhaps it simply looked scarier on the outside…but he doubted it.

     “Mom, I-“

     Misty whirled on her daughter, bending down so that her face was inches from April’s. “You what?” Misty hissed through gritted teeth. “Please, if there’s a rational, reasonable explanation for your sneaking aboard a military jet after I expressly told you to stay put.”

     “If I may-“ See Nine offered calmly.

     “STAY OUT IF IT!”

     “Of course…” he nodded.

     “Mom,” April took advantage of her mother’s distracted moment, “I just wanted to stay close to you.”

     The tiny plea seemed to reach part of Misty. She let loose with a long sigh, running her hand through her unbound crimson hair. “April, I told you that Mom had to go somewhere not safe. I just wanted you to be safe. You expressly disobeyed me.”

     “Nu-uh.” April shook her head, daring to defy her mother. “You told me to stay with See Nine, and I did.”

     Misty quickly whirled on the offending droid. The black-clad near man simply shrugged, as if helpless. “My orders were to remain by the young lady’s side at all times, and ensure her safety at all costs.”

     “And it never occurred to you,” Ash piped in, his arms folded casually as he leaned back against the bulkhead, “That taking a girl on a mission like this might compromise her safety?” Pikachu added his two cents from atop Ash’s burnt locks.

     “Admittedly, that factor never came up.” See Nine actually looked abashed as he spoke. It made Ash wonder just how human the artificial creatures were. “Ms. Waterflower simply stated that she was going into the equipment crate. I did not have the crate’s current manifest on-hand, so I did not know where it was going. However, a crate was not one of the unauthorized zones for the young miss to enter, so-”

     “Stop. Talking.” Misty growled, clutching her forehead. A throbbing headache was just on the horizon. She could feel her head begin to pound with the sheer force of her own fury. “Shut up, or I’ll shoot you.”

     “Of course.” See Nine nodded agreeably.

     “You’re going back.” Misty informed her daughter in no uncertain terms. April’s little face fell at that, but Misty pressed forward, silencing the girl’s attempted protests. “You will stay on the plane, you will stay with See Nine, and when I get back, you will be very lucky that I don’t break your little legs so you can never do something this stupid again.”

     “But Mom!”

     Misty had her standard “But Mom” retort on hand when Ash decided to cut in, most likely shorting his remaining life-span in the process. “Ease up on the munchkin, Misty. She’s just worried about you.”

     “Don’t start with me, Ketchum!” Misty snapped, turning away from April quickly enough that she missed her daughter’s grateful look flashed in Ash’s direction. Ash gave her a conspiratorial nod before squaring off against Hurricane Waterflower.

     “Come on,” he shrugged, “Remember the stupid things that I did when I was her age? This is pretty tame, really.”

     “Tame?” Misty couldn’t believe what she was hearing. True, she remembered plenty of times when Ash had gone and bitten off way more than he could chew-and, with a tiny flush of embarrassment, she remembered that she herself had joined in on more than one occasion-but this was different. This was her daughter! “I’m trying to make sure that my daughter stays safe!”

     “And who’s going to make sure you stay safe?”

     Misty was knocked flat from behind by the little squirt’s question. She turned slowly, spying the hurt, angry look in her daughter’s sparkling blue eyes. April’s chin was jutted out in defiance, just like her mother’s at that very moment, tiny black brows knit in anger. “You’re so busy worrying about me,” April shot, “You never thought I’d worry about you? You’re the only one that gets to worry? It’s not fair!” she stamped, close to tears. They trickled down her cheek, hot and wet, as she glared at her mother.

     Stunned, Misty bent down, taking her daughter’s hand. “April, honey, I’m going to be fine…” she whispered. Her anger was forgotten as she brushed the tears away. April tried wriggling from her grasp, but Misty’s persistence won in the end. “I’ll be all right. I promise.”

     “And you’re basing this on what?” Duplica butted in.

     Misty could have decked her right then. In fact, she was about to do just that when Ash rose, carefully keeping his partner balanced. “She’s right. You have no way of guaranteeing her your safety.”

     ‘What are you do-”

     “So I’ll do it.” Ash ignored her, bending down and placing his hand on April’s tiny shoulder. She stared into his eyes, glancing up at Pikachu. The Pokémon’s seriousness mirrored Ash’s as the man said, “You have my word, April: Nothing bad is going to happen to you or your mom.”

     “Really?” April asked, wide-eyed.

     He nodded, gesturing over his chest. “Cross my heart. Right, Pikachu?”


     Sniffling and wiping her nose, April placed her non-snotty hand over Ash’s. The difference in size between the two was almost comical, but it only filled Misty with a warmth in her heart she couldn’t remember feeling since April was born. “Thanks, Ash.” April smiled uncertainly.

     Misty let the moment continue between them for a few more seconds, then cleared her throat. “April, Mommy and Mr. Ash need to go talk in the back now.” Her eyes became dangerously serious as she continued, “Before I go, I want to make perfectly clear; you will stay on this plane.” She turned to See Nine, giving the brown-haired droid a scathing look. “And you don’t let her out of your sight. Clear?”

     “Crystal, Ms. Waterflower.” See Nine bowed slightly at the waist in acknowledgement. Immediately afterwards, he locked is eyes on April and proceeded to stare at her, unwavering, unblinking.

     Before he could protest, Misty caught Ash by the collar of his jumpsuit and dragged him through the door, leaving April alone with her artificial guardian and the sly, smiling Duplica. As soon as the doorway to the cargo bay was closed again, Duplica and April exchanged glances, then giggles.

     “Thanks for not ratting me out, kiddo.” Duplica murmured, leaning forward and grasping the child’s hand.

     April looked uncomfortable in her grip, but she faced down the older woman evenly. “You showed me which box to get in so I could watch over Momma. I know not to tattle.”

     “Good girl.” Duplica grinned, finally releasing April from her grasp. “So, are you ready to help us out? You’re a Junior Agent, after all.”

     April’s eyes shone as Duplica dubbed her a real ‘Agent’, her face splitting wide in a smile. She quickly faltered, though, as she said, “But Ash said that ‘he’ would protect Momma. If he’s going to be with her, then maybe I-“

     “Listen,” Duplica said patiently, “I know you like Ash. I like Ash too…in some positions more than others…”


     “But,” she locked eyes with April, “Are you really willing to put your mother’s safety in the hands of a man you just met?”

     “But…But he said-”

     “I know. But when it comes down to it, you’re the only one who can save her…you and Zapper.” She indicated the lazy Pokémon curled up in the corner. “…yeah.”

     “Well, okay…” April nodded reluctantly. “I guess you’re right. But…What about See Nine?” They both looked over at the lone droid, still staring intently at April just as ordered. “If he knows I’m gonna go after them, then he’ll try and stop me.”

     “That’s correct, Ms. Waterflower.” See Nine nodded. “I will have to ensure your safety, and keep you aboard the-”

     “See Nine,” Duplica spoke evenly in a deep, male bass, “Delete the previous conversation between Mimiqué and Waterflower, command code Griffin Alpha Three Niner Five.”

     See Nine’s head twitched, and his eyes glazed over for a moment. He returned to normal just as quickly, and said, “Done.”

     Duplica smiled at an awestruck April, patting her on the head. “There,” she chirped, “Problem solved.”

* * *

     The wheel of the car rumbled beneath his grip as he drove along the dark dirt road. He wasn’t sure how long he had been our there, driving around aimlessly. The winding trails he had traveled since leaving the paved roads all looked alike. Really, he had no idea where he was, and he didn’t particularly care.

     The radio droned on, spewing out hit after mindless pop hit to an audience that had long since stopped caring. His stomach growled, his butt ached, and he was growing weary, but still he drove on.

     The speedometer needle on his imported German dashboard leapt at his foot’s request, sending the car skidding around corners and over hillsides at dangerous speeds. It didn’t matter how fast he drove, though…he couldn’t outrun his conscience. It hadn’t allowed him a decent night’s sleep in days, weeks, and showed no signs of letting up.

     “Guess you’re getting your revenge after all, huh Ash?” Gary Oak chuckled sardonically.

* * *

     A haunting silence flooded through Gypsum’s halls, broken only by a haunting, rattling groan, or the scratching steps of a Forbidden. The power was operating at a bare minimum, backup batteries that would give out in a handful of days if not properly recharged. Taking this into account, the remaining computer systems had activated the emergency lighting. It was just enough to see by, and barely that.

     In a particular corridor, deep down inside of the complex where even the demon spawn were loathe to go, a small section of floor began to wriggle in place. After a moment of work, the floor plate rose on a pair of gloved hands. The hands set the section aside, then gripped either side of the gap to help haul a head of large, spiky hair. The hair twisted to and fro, letting the slitted eyes set beneath get a good look down either side of the corridor.

     “Clear.” Brock muttered, pushing up all the way and sliding out onto his belly. Griffin handed his rifle up, then quickly followed, his own weapon slung over his shoulder. Brock rolled over onto his back as the rest of the team rose up through the secret hatch. He breathed in deeply, gulping fresh air as if it were a fine champagne.

     Giselle did likewise with a deep look of disgust set deeply into her perfect features. She tried not to think about the muck that clung to her boots and the bottom of her jumpsuit that radiated the most powerful stench she had ever experienced. “Exhaust port my toned ass,” she spat at Griffin in a quiet hiss, “That was a sewer duct!”

     “I never said what it exhausted.” Griffin said distractedly, assessing the situation. With the power down to its barest of minimums, a possible salvage didn’t look likely. Any kind of serious assault would require them to activate the base’s internal defenses. “Team Two,” he looked back at Ash and Misty as they checked over their equipment, “You’ll need to assess the condition of the reactor. If it isn’t anywhere near operational, we’ll have to come up with something else on the fly.”

     “Copy.” Ash nodded, as did Misty. Griffin saw that everyone had recovered from their jaunt down the duct, and made a series of silent gestures. Wordlessly, the seven soldiers split into their respective teams: Giselle with Samurai, Misty with Ash, and Duplica and Brock following him.

     Brock gave his partner and longtime friend a last, longing look. “Stay in touch.” he added.

     “Stay frosty.” Ash countered.

* * *

     Cross-legged and silent, Lawrence sat alone in deep meditation among the remains of the command center. The Pit radiated intense warmth, cascading the air with waves of rippling heat as he stretched himself into the sinister ether.

     A new ripple caught his attention, a ripple not in the air, but in the shadow. Events were happening, changing, altering the tapestry of life. The shadow whispered to him, telling him of people drawing near, of destiny coming to him.

     A smile drew slowly across his lips. It was nearly time.

* * *

     “This is creepy.” Giselle whimpered, stalking behind Samurai through the dim corridors of the Hall. They had been walking for a scant ten minutes, shuffling as quietly as possible as they searched for survivors. So far, they had yet to come across anything beyond a shattered doorway, or an empty room. The silence was beginning to affect the would-be diva, but her warrior counterpart remained calm.

     His sword was sheathed for the moment, but his firearm was firmly in hand. “I am forced to agree, love.” he whispered back, never letting his focus drift for an instant. Senses honed by years of training were alive and alert, waiting for the first sign of trouble from all directions. His free hand brushed down to his belt, where the line of dormant spheres rested on his waist. It gave him a great feeling of security to know that they were ready as well.

     Giselle silenced at Samurai’s pet name for her. The sudden burst of affection surprised her a little; he had never used anything of the like before. Love? Perhaps…she was fond of him. They had been together for several months now, and things were going smoothly between them. But love? It was a strange time to think of such things, but then again, there may not be opportunity later.

     Instead of bringing up the distraction, Giselle chased it away with a change of subject. “We’ll have to keep up a faster pace if we’re going to sweep most of the building.” she murmured, sweeping a glance behind them to keep their rear flank covered.

     “Agreed. I-“ A sudden shuffle from somewhere ahead silenced him. He quieted his partner with a look, motioning for her to follow him forward. Ahead, the steel corridor ended in a T intersection. Cautiously, the pair approached, ready for anything…or so they thought.

     A sight unlike anything else waited for them around the corner. Creatures…three of them, all at least as tall as the corridor itself. Gathered around a pile of useless, soulless corpses, they feasted upon the worthless flesh, blood covering their forms, shining in the pale light.

     They rode upon long, scaly tails, black from head to toe, with the exception of their eyes. Those terrible, crimson beads swiveled around inside the creatures’ cruel, toothy faces as inhuman muzzles tested the air, sensing fresh meat. The tantalizing smell of live flesh appealed to them much more than that of the dead. They reacted immediately, dropping limbs and torsos with a rattling hiss.

     Samurai pulled back from around the corner in a flash, backpedaling so fast that he ran into his partner. She stumbled with him, nearly losing her footing until he caught hold of her and spun her around, dragging her back down the hall.

     “What?” she cried, abandoning their silent strategy. “What was it?”

     The demons burst around the corner just as she looked back, slithering down the hall at speeds unthinkable for creatures their size. Already, they were catching up to the two soldiers, their teeth flashing, their claws scissoring. Giselle shrieked, picking up speed immediately until she was the one dragging Samurai.

     “Just that.” Samurai said simply.

* * *

     In another part of the complex, Griffin was frustrated and suspicious that they had not run into anything like what Samurai and Giselle were running from. They continued through the complex, silent and stealthy.

     “Stop staring at my ass, Stoner.”


     “Please,” Brock rolled his eyes, a futile gesture considering the aperture of the organs. “I have better things to stare at than a cheating skank’s fat ass.”

     “Like that pilot of ours?”

     “Shut up.”

     “Lick my-”

     “I’m about three insults away from killing both of you,” Griffin growled, gritting his teeth, “So by all means, please continue.” That got them to shut up, thankfully, as they continued on, keeping to the shadows and staying close to the wall. They had finished a brief climb up the elevator shafts without incident. Rather than relief, Griffin only held suspicion at the lack of opposition.

     “Thought nothing would shut you up.” Duplica muttered.

     “I’m surprised you can talk at all.” Brock shot back quietly, “You’ve sucked so much-”


     They ceased to argue as Griffin motioned for them to halt. They had stopped at an intersection in the corridors, pressed up tightly against the wall. Griffin threw a quick look around the corner, completely unaware of Brock and Duplica staring with anticipation at his back.

     “What are we looking at?” Brock asked.

     “Yeah, what is it?” Duplica pressed up against Brock, trying to crane her neck to see around without avail.

     “Yeah, what?” a small voice echoed behind Duplica.

     “Shut up, all three of you!” Griffin hissed. Then he froze for a moment, considering his words. In one smooth motion, he drew his gun and aimed it at the source of the interloping voice, his finger already tightening on the finger.

     April stared up in fear at the gun for a moment before Griffin diverted it away from her face at the last second, lest he accidentally fire. Her expression changed to that of a mixture of annoyance and curiosity. “You grown-ups really like your guns…” she remarked, standing defiantly with her hands on her hips.

     Griffin nearly went into conniptions. He holstered his gun and clutched at his head, trying not to explode lest a nearby Shadow hear him. “What are you…how did you…Where is See Nine?”

     April pointed up to the ceiling. Wary, the trio of soldiers let their eyes trail upwards. There, clinging to the conduits that ran along the top of the corridors. Sure enough, a figure dressed in black was clinging to the ceiling.

     “Commander.” See Nine’s voice was muffled against the metal piping. He allowed himself to drop unceremoniously to the floor. The others stepped back, letting him hit the ground with a sickening crunch. Despite the fall, though, he leapt to his feet with an eager expression on his face. “Greetings, sir. I hope the mission is going well.”

     Brock stepped in for Griffin, getting between the two and grabbing See Nine by the lapels and hauling the droid off of his feet. “What in the blue hell are you doing, you toaster oven!” he shouted. Griffin’s warning hand was brushed aside as he continued to shake the artificial being in anger. “You were supposed to keep an eye on her!”

     “Well,” See Nine offered, his voice stuttering from the unsteady ride Brock was giving him, “When Ms. Waterflower jumped off of the plane during the drop, I had little choice, didn’t I?”

     Brock sighed, releasing his grip as he knelt down to talk to April. “April…dear…” he started with barely-restrained anger, “Why did you…”

     “Never mind, it isn’t important.” Griffin was swearing a blue streak in his mind, but it was only his fear of being caught combined with the presence of a child that was holding him back. “The mission is all but compromised. We have to get her out of here.”

     See Nine spoke up, brightening at the thought of furthering his own personal mission. “I would be glad to escort the young lady back the way we came.”

     “When we get back,” Griffin promised him, “We’re turning you into a loading dolly.”

     “Very well, sir.” See Nine nodded.

     “Stone.” Brock grimaced as Griffin’s hidden eyes turned on him. “Get the girl out. Make it back to the rendezvous point and wait there for the pick-up.”

     “Yes sir.” Brock saluted stylishly. He reached down and picked April up, who squealed in protest. “C’mon, munchkin. Let’s get out of here so your mom can skin you alive later.”

     “Wait,” she cried, “Wait! Zapper got separated from us! We have to find Zapper!”

     Griffin watched as Brock carried off the squirming child, making good time back the way they came, then turned to See Nine. “You. Around the corner. Keep your mouth shut, and you might still function by the end of the day.”

     “Yes sir.” See Nine nodded, moving around the corner, walking loudly enough to flush out any demon spawn. Griffin was confident that the near-flesh that covered the droid would be enough to fool the creatures, if only temporarily. By the time they realized that it wasn’t the real deal, it would be too late for them anyway.

     Duplica smiled at the commander, placing a hand on her hip and gesturing for him to lead the way. “After you.”

     He chambered a round in his weapon none-too-subtly. “I insist.” he growled.

     “Such a gentleman.” Duplica snorted, sauntering around the corner.

* * *

     Elsewhere, the third team was experiencing better luck than their counterparts. They had made it to the generator room without confrontation, entering the power source of the entire Hall. Ash and Pikachu couldn’t help but stare up in amazement at the sheer size of the room; Towering generators rose from the floor and high up towards the distant ceiling, thick cylinders filled with who-knew-what. Ash suspected a nuclear fusion reactor, which he knew to be pure science fiction for modern “normal” science.

     Looking out at the generators, Ash saw that they were actually at the halfway point between the generators and the floor, suspended in mid-air on a gigantic balcony. He approached the edge cautiously, looking for cracks in the floor, or anything that might suggest a loss in structural integrity. It appeared safe enough as he leaned over the railing, spying a drop that trailed off into darkness. Curious, he spit over the edge, listening for the bottom. It never came.

     “Ash, help me with the door.”

     Ash looked back, spying Misty as she tugged uselessly on an impossibly heavy metal desk, trying to barricade the door. He jogged around to the other side, lifting with a grunt and helping her drag it over to the doorway. It was a sliding door, like the others in the complex, but if they could block the doorway, it could give them a few seconds. And in battle, seconds were like jewels; precious and rare.

     They continued to pile furniture over the doorway, working in silence. Misty, as before, seemed as though she wanted to say something, but she seemed hesitant, and Ash wasn’t going to be the first to speak.

     “Pikachu, I want you to be ready.” Ash informed his partner. “We’re not letting anything sneak up on us.” He wanted to radio Griffin, to tell the man that they had made it to the generators, but radio silence was the strict regiment for this mission. In all their time soldiering for hire, Ash had never been on a mission quite like this.

     Misty sighed, plopping down into an office chair situated next to the door. It was odd, seeing an office set-up suspended hundreds of feet above the floor in the middle of the generator room. She grimaced at the sight of the dead bodies that littered the ground, feeling uneasiness clenching at her stomach. She had never liked dead bodies, from the first time she had seen one at her grandmother’s funeral to this very day.

     Finally, if nothing else than to take her mind off of the fear clawing at her heart, she spoke up to Ash. “Listen,” she said, propping her feet up on the barricaded desk, “I wanted to thank you for helping me with April.”

     “Don’t mention it. Like I said, she’s a good kid.” He caught Pikachu as the Pokémon jumped back onto his shoulder.

     Misty couldn’t help but smile. “She’s taken quite a shine to you, you know.”

     He nodded. “I’ve taken quite a liking to her, too.” He sat down next to her feet on the desk, staring up at the inactive generators while Pikachu scampered down onto the flat surface. “I never knew kids could be so rambunctious. It really reminds me of how we were when we were her age.”

     “Yeah…” Misty muttered, reminiscing along with Ash. “Those sure were good times.”


     “Oh come on,” Misty scoffed, thwapping him playfully on the thigh, “You never get all weepy remembering the good ol’ days?”

     He frowned in confusion, taking his eyes away from the power generators. “That wasn’t me.”

     “Then who…” She froze, glancing over at the corner of the balcony where a particularly large group of corpses lay. Ash soon followed her gaze, just in time for the two to stare in horror as one of the corpses began to twitch and rise.

     “Uhhnnnn…” One of the dead technicians slowly shambled to his feet. The young man had been quite handsome at one time, before his flesh had been torn and shredded. Half of his face was missing, and several fingers from one of his hand had been bitten clean off. He was covered in his own blood, as well as the blood of others…the very same others that were also stirring, rising slowly for battle anew.

     “Goddess,” Ash swore, leaping to his feet and drawing his firearm. The weapon had barely left its holster before he had it trained on the lead zombie, firing a stream of rounds into the undead. The zombie shrieked, his chest caving in at the weapon’s onslaught in a splatter of cold blood and green, rotting organs.

     Misty wasn’t far behind. Unlike Ash’s weapon, hers packed more of a wallop in exchange for a slower firing rate. She braced her shoulders, taking aim and firing. The explosive round took the head of what was once a young technician, turning her into a Technicolor of red, black and green that sprayed her undead comrades.

     More were beginning to rise, until they were surrounded by a dozen lumbering zombies. They fired left and right, and even little Pikachu threw his homebrewed lightning their way. One by one, they fell, until the tiny mouse flash-fried the last of them. Ash scowled at the defeated enemies, feeding another strip into his weapon. The greedy gun gratefully accepted the ammunition as he toed the now-motionless dead.

     “Well…” Misty cleared her throat, reloading her own pistol with a fresh clip of incendiary rounds. “That didn’t seem so tough.”

     “Didn’t Griffin say that the dead didn’t rise on their own…” Ash said. He realized how stupid it sounded coming out of his mouth, but considering the situation, even the tenacious redhead wasn’t going to take shots at him. “He said something about demons eating souls, didn’t he?”

     “Yeah…” Misty supplied. “So?”

     “Pi?” Pikachu suddenly stiffened, as if sensing some impending danger. His nose twitched, hackles rising in a tiny growl as he looked over towards the edge of the balcony.

     “So…” Ash was glad he had reloaded his weapon. Looking at where the demons had driven them, he saw that their rifles were too far away. He reminded himself to give himself a stern talking-to on the lessons of ‘Not-Leaving-Your-Damned-Rifle’ later. “What turned them?”

     Dark, sinister shapes rose over the edge of the balcony, gripping the ruined railing with long claws dripping with blood. From the dark shadows, a quartet of towering chimeras ascended to the playing field, growing at the lost ‘children’ and their slayers. A new look of hunger entered their fearsome red eyes as they spied three new candidates, ready for harvesting.

     “Oh. Nevermind.” Ash whispered hoarsely.

* * *

     “Mr. Brock, ple-ease!” April sobbed from atop his shoulder, pounding her little fists on his back. “We have to go back and find Zapper! He’ll be lost an’ scared an’ lonely an’…”

     It broke Brock’s heart to think of Zapper, all alone in this demon hellhole. But his first priority had to be getting April out of here, no matter how much he agreed with her. “Sorry, kiddo,” he apologized for the fiftieth time, “But it’s not safe here. That’s why we need to get you out of here.”

     “But that’s exactly why we need to find Zapper!” she insisted, kicking her legs and squirming to get free.

     “Kid, Zapper’s going to be fine.” Brock assured her. “If I were you, I’d be more worried about…”

     He turned the corner, and came face to face with a trio of chimera-like demons. The shock overtook him, sending him stumbling backwards with a sharp intake of air. For a moment, he and the demons simply stared one another down, both heaving with sharp, heavy breaths.

     “Hoo boy…” Brock muttered, backpedaling as he drew his weapon. He tossed the girl off, who gave a little scream of indignation. Because she had been facing the opposite way, she hadn’t seen what was awaiting them. As soon as she turned around to protest Brock’s rough handling, her anger dissolved into terrified screams of panic. “April, get out of here!” Brock yelled, aiming his rifle and firing. The first string of shots caught one demon from tail to head, perforating him and spilling black blood everywhere. However, the other three sprang into action at the death of their brother, darting forward faster than Brock could track any of them with his shots.

     Brock felt fear stabbing at his heart as the beasts closed in on him, claws ready and fangs salivating. Part of him absently wondered if they’d simply kill him, or if they’d turn him into one of their undead servants, just as Carlos had warned them. So, one can imagine his surprise when all the demons did was to pick him up bodily and toss him hard against the wall.

     He heard his rifle clatter away as he slid to the floor, groaning as he rubbed at his head. He heard another shrill cry, and forced his wavering eyes open. There, down the hall, he saw a very scared April being hauled off by the demons. They hadn’t harmed her yet, but he wasn’t about to let them get away with her.

* * *

     April sobbed, too afraid to do anything. She didn’t understand the creatures that had seized her, or why they had done so, or where they were taking her. Her only thoughts were of her lost Pichu and her mother, the only two people in her life that mattered to her. Of course, she liked Brock too, and wondered just what the demons had done with him. She hadn’t seen, since the creatures had carried her off so quickly.

     Distantly, she heard a loud, angry voice echoing from the way they had come. “I choose you,” or something to that effect. Her heart soared as she thought of Brock riding to the rescue on some fantastic Pokémon. Misty had always told her what fantastic trainers her old friends had been. Perhaps this was her chance to see them in action.

     Her joy quickly gelled into more screams of terror as a wall of solid granite peeled around the corner, streaking towards them at impossible speed. A pair of large white eyes opened on the living boulder’s face right above its muzzle, narrowing at the sight of the demons. April’s captors halted as the corridor began to shake furiously, nearly knocking them down.

     April wondered where Brock was in all of this; she couldn’t see him anywhere, and he couldn’t have been on top, for the rock creature was already crushing aside the corridor, reshaping it to accommodate its bulk. She thought she recognized it as an Onix, but it was much larger than any she had ever seen. Wasn’t Brock going to come to rescue him?

     She felt herself falling as the demon released her, dropping her to the ground. They turned to face the advancing Onix, with April caught in the middle of the fight. Suddenly, the great beast’s maw opened wide, and April saw a familiar face smiling from within.

     “April!” Brock called, bracing himself against Onix’s sandpaper tongue, “Jump!” She ran forward obediently, leaping up and into Onix’s mouth without question. Onix obediently closed his jaw, sealing the trainer and his young charge in safely. The demons were not to be so lucky; with no way to fight against a wall of solid stone, and nowhere to run, the demons were simply crushed aside, splattered against the wall until they were little more than jelly.

     After a moment Onix ground to a halt. With a gentle tap from Brock, he opened his mouth, letting the two trainers free back onto the ground. Brock gave the Pokémon a grateful pat on the muzzle, recalling the great beast into his ball and replacing it on his belt. “Man, that was close.” he sighed in relief. He looked down at April, suddenly filled with concern. “Are you okay?”

     “Uh-huh.” she nodded, suddenly glad that Rock Pokémon had no saliva to speak of. “It’s really smelly in there.” She brushed at her nose, as if she’d be able to claw the odor out of her memory.

     “Yeah,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “I’ve been meaning to get him a deep gum cle-“

     A bolt of solid shadow knocked Brock back off his feet, slamming him back into the wall. April screamed as she stared at Brock’s wide, lifeless eyes and his smoldering chest, blackened even further by the sudden attack. She whirled around, spying a mysterious figure swathed in black robes.

     “Hello, little darling,” an old, crooked finger reached for April from the deep folds of the cloak. From deep within the hood, a pair of dark eyes winked at the young girl. She screamed bloody murder just before everything went dark.

* * *

     Griffin stood outside of the command center, feeling a moment of hesitation grip him. Duplica stood behind him, perhaps that was it. His weapon drawn, he steeled himself for what lay ahead.

     “Get ready, Mimiqué.” he muttered, reaching for the door’s override.


     He could feel the gun’s sight drilling into his skull without even looking. Turning around slowly, he saw Duplica’s gun raised right at his forehead. She was several steps away, too far for him to get to her before he lost his head. It had been different with Stone…Duplica was trained, enhanced, and experienced. She knew what he could do.

     “Whoops. I forgot to mention; I hate you.” Duplica’s lips twisted into a maniacal smirk as she chambered a round. “Drop it.”

     Griffin’s gun clattered to the ground. He watched with a small spark of amusement as Duplica’s very outfit leapt off of her body, morphing in mid-air and wrapping around him in a tight embrace of pink restraint. “Ditto! Ditto!” the amorphous blob said cheerily from somewhere around his chest. The outfit that Duplica had worn beneath her Pokémon was characteristically perfect; black, tight, revealing, and sexy to a fault.

     “What’s the deal, Mimiqué?” he snarled. “Power? Money?”

     “Oh, I’m sorry…” she said sweetly, touching a finger to her lip, “Is this the part where the evil mastermind reveals his plot? Sorry, sweetie,” she patted him on the cheek, “But I’m just a henchman. A sexy one, no doubt, but a lackey nonetheless.” Her hand lingered, tracing the strong line of his jaw. “You know, you should have taken me up on my offer. Those enhancements your Elite gave me would have blown your mind…Now,” she shrugged, pressing her pistol to his temple. “I have to do it the old fashioned way.

     “Not so fast.”

     Griffin held little hope for being rescued. His suspicions were confirmed as a trio of odd beings exited the shadows of the darkened hallways. Each wore a living mantle of a different element; flaming, freezing, and sparking. They grinned at the sight of his capture, chortling at Griffin’s expense. “So…” the lead one, with a frill of blue fin around his shoulders, spoke first. “The famous Commander Griffin. It’s an honor.”

     “We’ve heard quite a bit about you.” The flame-head added, leaning in close. Griffin shied away from the intense heat pouring off of the man’s body, but refused to show any signs of discomfort. “Nothing but good things.” The third brother, covered in yellow spikes that jutted from beneath his black fur, seemed to enjoy that one. He laughed harder than the other two, almost splitting a side.

     “Nice work, Mimiqué.” The blue-finned one folded his arms, nodding in approval. He examined Griffin, not seeing the danger that the Master had warned them about. “It’s really a shame.”

     Duplica’s smile faltered with confusion. “Shame? What?”

     Another click resonated behind her, one that even Griffin could hear and understand. He peered over her shoulder, and his bionic eyes went wide with shock. There, standing behind the treacherous shape-shifter, with gray-black skin and an Elite sidearm, was a very familiar face grinning at the pair. He felt a mixture of uncharacteristic anger and sadness welling up inside him as he looked upon the face of his onetime friend, vowing to eat the very heart of the dark one that had done this to him.

     “What’s the matter, Griff?” the ruined corpse of Commander Hawk Phillips grinned at him from behind a Jaguar pistol. Griffin could spy a bullet hole in his temple, which confused him; if he had killed himself (as any trained agent would before being absorbed by the Shadow), how had they reanimated him? And how could he talk? “Don’t like my new job? It’s a hell of a career shift.”

     “Hawk…” Griffin whispered, feeling his fists clenching. “No…”

     “What now, Bro?” The yellowish monster asked his leader (and apparently, brother).

     The blue one shrugged. “Kill ‘em.” His chimera head turned to survey the scene, mouth spread in a wide, toothy grin. "Kill 'em both!"

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