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*Pad, pad, pad, pad...*
Darkness enveloped the tunnel, an impenetrable shroud of black that obscured all but scant traces and elusive silhouettes. Sporadic clouds of cold moisture brushed against him, settling and accumulating on his saffron coat. He paused for a moment, long ears switching from side to side. Sensing no significant disturbance to his surroundings, he padded on. He wrinkled his nose, alternately emitting a muffled sneeze as a few invisible water droplets settled there. Mist and darkness; both were abundant in Gypsum’s lower halls and passageways, creating an overwhelming maze of sensations that would invariably leave the sight-bound creatures of the world forever groping in hopeless loss.
*Pad, pad, pad, pad...*
On and on it stretched, inch upon endless foot upon endless yard into the vague, unlighted distance.
*Pad, pad, pad, pad...*
Yet on he went, guided by his other keen senses. Granite floor and walls that spread themselves above and beyond him, the curve of the tunnel as it wound its way along; he felt rather than saw what surrounded him. He’d been searching these passages, following their winding course, pursuing the faint traces of scent that had originally caught his attention. He wondered for a moment about his trainer; would his partner be okay without him? No doubt the man would be concerned when he realized his primary companion was not there.
Pikachu pondered the prospect but a second longer before shrugging the thought aside. Ash had others with him, capable individuals; he’d be just fine. Right now, there was someone else to worry about.
*Pad, pad, pad, pad—Stop! *
Alert sensing pricked, he brought his searching advance to a quick halt, flattening himself against the granite floor and sniffing the cold, dead air. Sure enough, something was broadcasting its approach. He recoiled, snorting distastefully at the unmistakable stench that met his scent receptors. His ears switched forward.
From some distance away, two or three tunnels and junctions maybe, he heard the demon’s piercing screech.
In a matter of seconds, at least two more answered their prowling brother with sharp, blood chilling screams of their own. Yellow fur practically standing on end, it was all Pikachu could do to stifle the instinctive growl that threatened to push its way through his small vocal cords. Eyes darting, he cast about the passage he trekked, prodding walls experimentally, looking away only to sniff the pungent air and gauge the proximity of the hunting predators, returning again to his frantic search for a place to hide.
They were closer now; too close. Small feet working double time, Pikachu finally found and alternately darted into a small drainage duct that lay even with the ground. Settling inside, he lay flat upon its fungus-strewn floor.
Lifting his chin off the cold slab, he peered cautiously out his cubbyhole’s narrow entrance. Eerie, emerald light began to emanate in the room without, flooding the misted hall in progressively deeper shades of toxic green. The rasp of sharp talons echoed ominously from wall to wall and across the floor.
Clomp, scrape, clomp…
Something heavy entered the passageway, its presence like a lead weight that dragged everything down. The stench of decayed flesh spread like thick fog across the floor, filling even Pikachu’s secluded refuge with its noxious aroma. The mists rippled and fled before its advance. The ground itself heaved, as though it too wanted to pick itself up and flee in terror from this monstrosity.
The creature paused, took a deep intake of air and let out another ear-splitting scream. It echoed down the hallway, reverberating along its rigid surface, magnifying itself as it passed through every adjacent corridor and antechamber. A few moments later, two more like beings joined it. Together, they scoured the area, fiery eyes penetrating, their intensity purging earth, rock and metal, scourging everything they set themselves upon as the demonic carnivores sought some hapless victim for their dripping, ravenous jaws to devour. They crept along the walls, moving away, but still searching.
Again, Pikachu felt rather than saw—and he was glad enough to leave things at that. Pulling an Elite issue respirator from the small pack on his back, he strapped the breathing device on and waited patiently for the demon hunters to pass him by.
* * * * * *
Elsewhere in Gypsum, three other Pokèmon were heavily involved with a mission of their own. Like Pikachu’s, their task brought them right into the midst of their enemies; unlike Pikachu’s, their chances of passing undetected had long been completely extinguished.
The remnants of The Elite’s infiltration party were making their haphazard way through the last stretch of Gypsum’s nefarious perimeter, a maze of enormous tunnels, wide halls, narrow corridors and more twists and turns than one would’ve initially thought possible to compact within such an area. To their surprise, they hadn’t met any significant resistance. Unbeknown to these unlikely comrades, news of their presence and movement was quickly finding its way to higher Shadow command.
“Come and get it, you homicidal son of a witch!!” Wind blowing his ebony hair in every direction, Ash spurred his mount forward, crying in reckless challenge as the small company he currently lead burst from the confines of their narrow passage into a much larger hallway; “AAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!”
Ahead, perched atop various piles of debris, six dark gargoylian shapes screamed in answer, spreading their leathery wings as they rushed to meet his galloping advance. Raising his sidearm, Ash pulled the trigger, sending forth a searing volley of molten teflon. Unheeding, the demons came for it, eyes wide with frenzied anticipation, jaws agape and claws extended. From the opposite end, the rounds of deadly Elite fireflies surged to meet them, intent on causing the destruction they were designed to inflict. For a brief instant, steel and hellspawn regarded one another; then they collided. Too, late, the unfortunate company realized their fate, and before any of them could think better, five of their number were ripped to pieces; the sixth, however, somehow managed to stay alive.
Holstering his automatic, Ash leaned into Tauros’s heavy mane. “Run’im down, boy!”
With a maniacal bellow, the massive bull Pokèmon lowered its head and plowed into what was left of the sixth demonic swarmling, crushing the unfortunate hellspawn and kicking its remains up behind him. Samurai and Giselle ducked as the sodden mass flew over their heads. It landed in a piteous heap behind them, where it was pounded into the concrete under the stone-shod feet of Brock’s Rhyhorn.
“’Nother one bites the dust!” Stone chortled, alternately ducking into the saddle as his rampaging Rhyhorn barely cleared the hallway exit.
“Powder cement!” Giselle corrected, frowning disdainfully over her shoulder. The tunnel they’d entered was darker and comparatively more narrow. Narcissa’s haughty voice echoed unpleasantly from wall to wall.
Seat firmly planted in his mount’s natural rock saddle, Brock crossed his arms and leaned casually back, “You know,” he observed, pointedly ignoring Nacissa’s comment, “If we weren’t running right now, I’d say we’re having ourselves a right good time!”
Giselle looked incredulous. “Well we are running, in case you haven’t noticed!”
“Indeed!” Samurai agreed, shouting over his shoulder, “I’d stay focused, Mr. Stone! No need to save you twice!” The warrior’s echoing voice fell behind them as they cleared the tunnel exit, pulling in hard on the sharp turn that led them stampeding into another large hall. It was the longest they’d been in, stretching on into the distance, the end of its concrete self lost somewhere in the half-light on an unknown beyond.
“Yeah, that’d sure suck, wouldn’t it!” Carefully, Brock swung around into a reverse sitting position. Squinting even more in the sparse light, he surveyed the retreating hallway. Sure enough, there were two or three dark shapes closing from the rear. “Heads up, guys! We’ve got more company!”
“What?” Imitating Brock, Giselle swung reverse-saddle. Craning her neck to see around the rock trainer and his hulking Rhyhorn, she made a visual sweep of the receding hallway. “Shoto!” Leaning back slightly, she reached over her shoulder and drew Samurai’s rifle. “Fall back beside the Rhyhorn, love! I need a better view!”
“Affirmative, love!” Shoto answered, alternately reigning in their fleet-footed Arcanine.
“Arf!” Carefully, the fire Pokèmon positioned himself alongside the galloping Rhyhorn.
“Get ready!” Brock brought his own primary firearm to bear, chambering a fresh round before swinging it to his shoulder. “They’re closing fast!”
“I can see that!” Narcissa rejoined.
“When I say ‘go’, we shoot!” Brock cocked an eyebrow. “You remember how this is done?”
Giselle chambered a round in Samurai’s rifle. She smiled pleasantly. “I guess we’ll find out, won’t we!”
“Good rich-girl!” Stretching his trigger finger, Brock tapped a button on his gun's control array. Ahead of him, the rifle's barrel extended a few inches. With a whir of shifting metal, a large scope unfolded and assembled itself atop the weapon's main compartment. Brock steadied himself and looked through its magnifying portal. The lead demon’s dark, fiery-eyed countenance met his gaze.
Turning his shoulders, Brock scanned the rest of them. “Ready…” He stopped short. Behind the small knot of wiry hellspawn, something much larger was also approaching. Brock hastily adjusted his scope’s magnification, then its resolution; he looked harder.
“I’m ready!” Giselle shouted impatiently. She stared incredulously at Stone’s scope. “And what the hell are you do-!”
“Hey!” Brock shouted back, “Will you shut-it, for just a minute!? We’ve got someone else back there, too!”
“Yeah!” Giselle shot spitefully, “Your uncle!”
“Actually,” Brock looked up from his lenses, “It might be one of Sammy’s!”
Samurai jerked his head around. “I beg your pardon?”
Brock peered through his eyepiece again. “Those anorexic spider-bats’ve got some ten-foot hulk in black steel jogging along behind ‘em!”
“Wonderful!” Giselle rolled her eyes. “Let’s just kill the damn thing already!”
“Hey, that ‘damn thing’ also happens to have horns, wings, and a really big katana!” Brock cried over his shoulder.
“So!?” Giselle shot back.
“I don’t like this!” Brock shouted in reply. “Shinji, pick up the pace! We’re getting out of here!”
“We’re going as fast as we can!” Samurai called from the front.
“Find some way to go faster!” Brock yelled back, sights still apprehensively affixed to his scope. “We are not engaging that thing!”
Samurai peered over his shoulder. “At the rate they’re gaining, we won’t have a choice!” They all pulled their mounts in hard to the right, narrowly missing a miscellaneous pile of metal-strew cement rubble.
“Hey! Is your sixth sense broken?!” Brock shouted caustically. “Something happens to tell me the last thing we need is ‘ol Jack-the-Ripper-on-steroids back there getting pissed-off!
Giselle felt like pulling her hair out. “Like any of’em gives a damn, you idiot!!” She yelled. “Just kill something already!” With that (and a fresh string of indignant curses), she shouldered Shoto’s rifle and sent a volley of molten discharge streaming directly into their attackers’ one-demon vanguard. She was about to make another snide comment when the resounding plink of metal meeting metal made its way back to her ears.
Still looking through his scope, Brock frowned as he watched Narcissa’s flaming rounds ricochet off the big demon’s streamlined breastplate and jutting shoulder guards. He pointed at her smoking firearm. “You sure that thing wasn’t set on BB mode?!”
“Huh!? Aw, shit!” Giselle spat. Pulling a pokèball from her belt, she held the storage device in front of her and flipped its port’s circular guard aside. “Spardos, go!” she screamed, pressing a finger hard on the release button. The tunnel was instantly enveloped in pale, golden light as a Zapdos’ massive bulk exploded forth, nearly filling the wide enclosure as he spread his wings and turned to follow his trainer, “Skwaa!!” shrieking angrily. “Skkwwaaaaaa!!”
Wincing, Giselle put a finger in her ear. “Don’t give me that, Spar!” she shouted back.
Swooping in close, the bird leaned down and gave Narcissa’s head a medium-grade thwack with the side of his long bill. “Skwaa!!” He retorted.
“Ow!!” Frustrated, Narcissa grabbed the insolent thunder-shrike’s offending beak and shoved it roughly in the other direction. “Look behind you, bird-brain!”
“Skwaa?” Settling on the nearby Rhyhorn’s back (much to Brock’s chagrin and the rock Pokèmon’s general frustration), Spardos squinted dubiously into the background. “Twew!” He trilled appraisingly, cocking a critical brow at the approaching demons.
Giselle gave the Zapdos a scathing look. “Oh gawd, shut your third hole already!” She shot back venomously. Exasperated, the flustered heiress jabbed a commanding index finger down the hall’s retreating length. “Thunderbolt those unsightly scarecrows already!!”
Grinning fiendishly, Spardos reared back and gathered a few second’s worth of pulsing, yellow energy, compressing the volatile sphere in his long, open beak where it cracked and hissed like a massive bullwhip. “SCRAAAAAAWWW!!” With another ear-splitting shriek, he cast the immense column of radiant electrical discharge screaming into the ranks of their pursuers.
* * * * * *
Cautiously, the yellow mouse-mon poked his rotund head through his impromptu hideout’s narrow portal, sniffing the dank air. Wrinkling his nose in displeasure, he nevertheless ducked back out into the misted passageway. His pursuers were gone, but the stench of them still hung heavy in the atmosphere, a foulness that seemed to permeate everything, even—to some degree—Pikachu’s heavy duty Elite respirator. Adjusting the breathing device’s head harness, he gathered his things and padded on. He could no longer sniff out his principal’s trail, but once again, technology would serve to aid were natural attributes failed. Reaching into the pack, he withdraw a small, aluminum-rimmed and titanium reinforced set of what appeared to be a pika-sized pair of slick, dark-tinted surfer shades. Briskly, the Pokèmon snapped the new device on his face, where it clicked into place behind the breather’s nose-ridge. The mouse’s vision was instantly cleared; the mists disappeared from view, revealing the entirety of the hall’s diminishing length, their edges and the entrances to other chambers and passageways outlined in bold schematization. After a few adjustments to the optical computer’s side-lens dials, the projected imaging also revealed several slaps and splashes of crimson coloring.
Pikachu allowed himself a slight smirk; he’d done his homework, too. Moving along, he alternately examined the heat patches, noting various subtle details like were they were placed and what that indicated about the direction from which his quarry had come and subsequently went. Some patches were large and bright, denoting the remnants of warmth left by the hunter demons. But Pikachu paid them little heed. Another set of thermal markings—these smaller and fading—ran a distinct trail of their own, heading down the passageway, overlaid by the brighter ones for a ways before turning into a low, adjacent circular portal that sat squarely within the tunnel wall’s granite face.
Quietly, Pikachu padded off, following this older trail, entering the new tunnel and continuing his trek down its dark length. Presently, his headset’s sensors indicated a change in the heat spots’ age, showing a progressively brighter set of patches.
The Pokèmon glanced tentatively about. He was getting hotter, which meant he was also closer to finding out where Misty’s daughter had been carried off to—and maybe why or how she’d even managed to get herself into this horrendous place to begin with. He had picked up the girl’s trail shortly after Ash, Tauros, and Misty had collided with the others. For some forgotten reason, he’d neglected to alert his trainer to its presence, but instead had simply followed it, taking the small pack along with him.
That April Waterflower would be here was not altogether surprising--it fit her; she would not be left out of the adventure, no matter what anyone said or tried to do to make it otherwise. Nevertheless, this was no place for a human child to be; he would have to find her soon. Pikachu shook his head. April was so much like Misty, like Ash even. He considered that last thought for a moment, tossing the possibilities around in his head for a while before shrugging it away. He’d know soon enough; everyone would. In the meantime, he’d focus on just finding her first.
It was then that he heard the haunting echo of someone’s distant, antipathetic laughter.
* * * * * *
The thunderbomb incinerated the first spindly creatures with barely a touch, cutting through them all until it met the vanguard, whereupon it exploded in a flash of brilliant golden light and fiery debris. The force of the attack picked Brock’s mount off his feet and propelled the protesting Rhyhorn several feet ahead. He fell in line directly behind Ash and Misty, bellowing unintelligible curses, but still galloping in an upright position on all four stocky feet.
“Hey! Didn’t expect to see you so soon!” Misty piped from her seat atop the back end of Ash’s Tauros, glancing over her shoulder at a flustered Brock, his seething Rhyhorn and their newly acquired companion. She cocked a quizzical brow at the legendary bird.
“Skwaaaa!” The Zapdos replied, puffing his chest out importantly.
“Oh, shut up!” Brock interjected from somewhere under/behind the irksome bird’s spiky tail plumage. “She’s not talking to you, you overgrown pidgey!”
“So, what’s happening back there?!” Misty called again.
Brock struggled to make himself visible, finally managing to partially shove Spardos’ left wing out of his reddening face. “Well, we had a half-dozen or so hell scum and their pet cave thug following us!”
“You took care of them, I hope!” Ash joined in from his position up front.
“Oh, Ms. Rich-Prick sent this buzzard out to roast’em for us!” Brock quipped.
Ash took a quick glance over his shoulder. “Hey, that’s Giselle’s old Zapdos, isn’t it!”
“I guess so!” Brock called back.
The Pokèmon mounts groaned audibly as they momentarily became airborne, sailing heavily over a small barrier of concrete wall chunks and landing with a resounding thud on the other side. Picking themselves up again, the three steeds galloped on.
“Wow,” Ash risked another back-glance. “I haven’t seen the likes of him since that time we went after Missingno!”
“Yeah,” Brock snickered, “’Cept he wasn’t nearly such a pain in the a—Ow!! Hey!” Stone rubbed the top of his head, gingerly touch-inspecting the part where Spardos had thwacked him with the side of his beak. “What is your damage!?”
“Skwaaaa!!” The Zapdos scolded loudly.
“Oh yeah?! Well I’ve got a loaded gun, ya turkey!” Brock shot back warningly.
“Yeah, that’s right!” Brock dangled the nefarious weapon in the Zapdos’ face. “I’d show some respect if I was you!”
“I guess he’s just as spoiled as his owner!” Ash chuckled.
“Hey, Stone!” Giselle’s high-pitched voice screamed out from somewhere behind them.
Brock and Spardos simultaneously groaned. “Speaking of which,” the rock trainer grumbled.
“Give my Zapdos back!”
“You can have him!” Brock retorted.
“Skwaaaa!” Spardos pleaded.
“That’s not how I meant, you idiots!” Giselle shouted back. “That armored demon you spotted earlier didn’t die! He’s still following us and I can’t take him out with this incompetent rifle!”
Brock exchanged an exasperated glance with the Zapdos before swinging again into reverse-saddle. “Great,” He grumbled to himself, bringing his scope to bear. True to Giselle’s word, the ten-foot enigma was still hot on their heels, looking for all the world like nothing had even touched it. “Damn! Alright buddy-boy,” Brock nudged the thunderbird, “Let’s re-cook this thing!”
“Make this quick, Brock!” Ash called from up front. “The tunnel’s about to end! I want whatever you got back there buried six feet under, got it?!”
“Aye-aye, chief! Spardos, sick’em!”
The Zapdos spread his wings, launching himself over Brock’s head, screaming vengeance as he streaked toward the unconquered foe.
* * * * * *
“W-who are you?” April struggled against the bonds that held her from the waist up, to no avail. She was affixed to some odd cross structure, hanging precariously over a large, dark pit. Stubbornly, she glared at the dark figure standing arrogantly before her, his arms crossed, head held at a self-satisfied, scoffing tilt. He was still several yards away, standing on the solid ground surrounding her bottomless obstruction. He’d been rude enough to wake her again, scaring her back into consciousness with that strange magic necklace of his—or so he said. She’d been brought out of a nightmare in which she was running from his dark-cloaked form as it chased her through an endless maze of halls and corridors, its eye flaming from within a gleaming death’s head. It’s maniacal laughter still rung in April’s ears. “I’m not afraid of you!” She seethed. She had been afraid in the dream, like she’d been when he first went bad on her; now, for some reason, she was just angry.
“Oh, aren’t you now?” Whisking a long curtain of midnight garb behind him, Lawrence sauntered casually toward the edge of April’s stage of imprisonment. “That’s a real shame, little girl. To know the fullness of The Shadow you first have to be scared to death of it!”
April tired to move her legs, but found them also tied. “Why should I be scared of some goof-ball like you?!” She shot back caustically, “You’re wearing a bed sheet!”
Lawrence gave April a silly grin. “Yes, a rather fancy set, don’t you think?” He pulled the billowing cloak affectionately about himself, twirling daintily around as he continued to approach, casting the black “sheets” in a wide circlet that radiated from where the material was anchored to his shoulder guards. “I’ve become quite attached to it myself!” He replied languidly.
April glared disdainfully at him. “You’re crazy!”
Lawrence threw his head dramatically back and laughed, a hard, sadistic grind that sent horrifying chills down April’s spine. His countenance abruptly turned bone white. “Oh, you have no idea!”
“Who are you?!” April repeated, her small features contorted with disgust, “What are you?!”
Lawrence’s eyes turned dark, the surrounding skin collapsing into caliginous pits. “I thought I already told you—how many times do I have to keep telling everyone? I hate repeating myself!” His pupils dilated, obscuring the retina, then shrunk till they were but haunting specks set behind a background of cloudy, dead flesh. “I should think the Shadow’s Catalyst would be more well-known by now!”
April grimaced. “Ugh! Something’s really wrong with you, mister!”
“Wrong? Wrong!?” Crimson fire exploded from his sunken eyes, flaring bright in the room’s half-light. “I’ve never felt more right! Look at me! I am the emblem of power, most exalted among all mortal mankind! No one is equal to me! No one!”
“But you’re dead!” April frowned. “Why’s that so great?”
“Oh, I wish I were really dead; then The Shadow would have my soul completely! Ah, think of how much more powerful I would be then!”
“You’re stupid!” April cried. “You wouldn’t be at all anymore!”
For a moment, The Catalyst just stood there, cloak billowing of its own accord and eyes flaming. Lawrence looked genuinely perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t you get it!?” April strained against her bonds. “I don’t know you, mister, but…you’re dying, and as long as you’re like that, you’re gonna keep dying, until you’re dead, then you’re gone, forever—as in, not coming back!”
Lawrence came to the deep pit’s edge. “Look at me, child,” He commanded, his voice dark and empty. Uninhibited, he stepped out into the void and walked across its gaping chasm. The cold flesh about his face pulled back into an abhorrent smile. “Do you really think I care any more?”
A tear rolled down April’s cheek. “I don’t like you; get away from me!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, little girl; but you don’t have to like me,” he replied, the heinous smile evaporating into a dark scowl. “Because you see, whether you like it or not, death will invariably find us all, sooner, if not later.” Stopping right in front of her, he bent down and lifted her quivering chin with a cold, steel-clad hand. “It’s the nightmare we can’t escape, little girl; we’re all destined to rot in Hell someday.”
“Maybe you are,” April whispered back, the fear rising again in her small chest, “But I’m not!”
“Oh, that’s the good part!” Lawrence grinned, “The real punch-line to this whole cosmic joke!”
A coldness gripped April’s body. “What do you mean?”
Releasing her, Lawrence stood and began to pace across the empty air. “You obviously haven’t read the right books in your short life—pity. I suppose I’ll have to teach you then, despite what little time is left,” He paused, “Till you die.”
“Don’t plan on it, buster!” April shot.
Lawrence smirked. “Do you really think your youth will save you from an untimely departure?”
April’s brows knit. “Huh?”
“Then listen carefully.” He cleared his throat. “Now, where shall I start? Ah yes,” Lawrence spread his arms and what little light was left in the room faded. “In the beginning, there was a god,” Small pinpricks of starlight winked into existence about them, “Not the ‘highest’ god, mind you, but a divine majesty nonetheless; second from the top.” The darkness was partially broken as millions of other shining singularities ventured forth, creating a massive, rotating impression of the cosmos and its myriad of constellations and galaxies, with him and April observing the spectacle from within its central nucleus. “Well,” Lawrence continued, “He watched the highest God for a while, bought into His whole ‘life to glorify the almighty’ thing, and for the longest time, the two got along quite pleasantly—good times, so to say. That is, until the highest God had the audacity to create,” Lawrence thumped April’s forehead as he passed, “You and me.”
April sneered. “That’s stupid.”
“Is it now?” Lawrence sneered back. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me you evolved from some random ameba.”
“Well, no,” April leaned back against her crucifix. “’Cause that’s not right, either.”
Lawrence crossed his arms. “What other option is left you, then?”
“I don’t know,” April replied stubbornly, “But it’s not one of those!”
“It’s one of those or it’s nothing at all, little girl!” Lawrence shot back, eyes flaring.
“But it can’t be; you make it sound like making us was…a mistake!”
“Oh, yes,” Lawrence smirked, “The biggest ever!”
“But…but,” April’s frown deepened, “But aren’t you saying then that you shouldn’t be here?”
“None of us should.”
“But that’s…that’s crazy! I mean, aren’t you glad that you are?!”
Lawrence’s crimson eyes narrowed, their malicious flames dancing with profane glee. “Ha! Why should I be?”
“But you should be! You…Shouldn’t you?”
“Look, little girl, let’s get one thing straight: life isn’t all it’s cut out to be, okay? As a general rule, it usually sucks ass. Why do we suffer; if we were made by someone so great and powerful, why does he also allow our pain?” Lawrence stared into the expanse of stars, introspective, one hand absently stroking his lean chin. “Yes, I wanted to know that very thing. So, for years, I searched for him; this almighty cosmic being. I’ve spent the better part of my life admiring the supernatural, and to miss an audience with this enigma was more than I could stand to miss.” Sighing heavily, he threw his hands up in surrender. “Well, no mans effort could have been more wasted. To make a very long story short, I found his trail, his footprints, the evidence of his existence—it couldn’t be denied; he’d been there, though many would tell you otherwise. But I did not find him.”
“Oh…” April’s critical gaze softened.
“So here I am now. He was everything I wanted; kind, compassionate, most powerful, God of gods, father of all things—the father I would never have….” Lawrence’s crimson eyes found April’s. “You know, I was once told that if I only believed and sought him with all I had, I would find God. So, I did…And he wasn’t there….He wasn’t there for me….” The fiery slits closed for a moment, steam rising from their corners as the shadow man let forth a weary sigh. “Perhaps you, of all people, will understand how bitterly disappointed I was.”
Lawrence smiled, his hollow features creasing with bitter irony. “He never will be, little girl; not for you, not for me, not for anyone. He’s done with us; end of story; no exceptions. You see, the other deity was right about the human race; we turned out to be an exceptionally poor failure. When I realized this, it was then that I decided to seek this ‘lesser’ of the two supreme beings. And guess what? I didn’t even need to find him. No; he found me.”
The Catalyst glared balefully at April. “You see, the lie is not that there is no God, child; the lie is that he cares.”
April cringed, working her mind over for something to come back with, “…But…But-ah!”
Lawrence gripped the girl’s small chin, lifting her face to meet his. “Because if he did, you certainly wouldn’t be here right now, would you? Hmm?” He grinned wickedly. “Welcome to reality, little girl; in this world, the bad guys do most of the winning. God might as well be dead. He’s not coming back, not for anyone, and certainly not for you. In a few hours, you will die; die to fuel the ambitions of another god, one that is still here and who is still doing something!”
Angrily, April twisted her chin from out of Lawrence’s hand. “I don’t think so, mister!” She seethed bitterly. “I still have friends out there, right now; they’ll come find me!”
Lawrence cocked his head to one side, peering around a stray cluster of illusionary stars that happened to come rotating by. “Oh, yes—how silly of me to forget! Your friends, little girl, are by now long dead.”
* * * * * *
Everyone ducked within their mount’s protective frames, shielding their eyes from the shower of canary brilliance that followed in the wake of the Zapdos’ searing attack. The concrete walls and floor shook with the impact of the explosion, cracking and sending a hail of powdery debris spewing all the way through the last leg of the tunnel’s exhaustive length. The bull, the dog and the rhino shot through the exit and into the open lobby that lay on the other side, bellowing, barking and coughing gray dust. Squawking disdainfully, the still-pulsing Zapdos followed shortly after.
Ash ground his mount to a halt, swept himself and Misty off its back and alternately recalled the Tauros to its storage device. “Take a break, buddy—you did good.” Standing, he first retook possession of the plasma rifle, “Thank you very much,” and then proceeded to count heads. It was then that he discovered something very unsettling. Frowning, Ash again swept his line of allies. “Hey guys, any of you seen Pikachu?”
Giselle frowned back. “Isn’t that rat suppose to always be with you?” She spat contemptuously, alternately brushing furiously at the veneer of gray dust that now covered her from head to boot. Somewhere amid the reckless movements, she managed to snap the small band that held her bundled-up hair in place. Breaking free of its tight-girding bonds, the shimmering mass fell about her ashen face in a tumble of well-conditioned locks and tresses. Cursing in frustration, she shook a fist at the errant Zapdos; “I swear, Spardos! When we get back from this, I am so going to skin and stuff your turkey-headed ass!”
The Zapdos merely shrugged his indifference and perched atop one of the long desks that had once been part of the various furnishings that held residence within the front lobby of Gypsum Hall. Tucking his spiked head within his plumage, Spardos languidly dozed.
Scowling, Giselle flipped him off. “Same to you, jackass!” She shouted scathingly.
“Hey,” Brock sauntered tentatively over, “Go easy on the bird, will ya?” He checked himself. “No pun intended.”
Giselle waved dismissively toward the Zapdos. “Oh, screw him! He’s always like that; getting into mischief, causing trouble, giving me a hard time at every turn; I can’t believe I still keep his fat ass around!”
Brock scratched the back of his head. “Well, okay; I can agree with that—but he did save our butts back there. The guy’s a legendary, for cryin’ out loud! That’s something, isn’t it?”
“Well, he should act like one!” Giselle pouted; then her aristocratic instincts kicked in, “What the hell do you care, anyway? Go attend to your own, pathetic, normal Pokèmon, Stoner! Somebody from ‘Tech shoot me, I can’t believe I’m even talking to you!” And with that, the conceited heiress stomped off to rejoin Samurai, holding her nose in the air as Brock just watched her go. About halfway across, she stumbled haphazardly over a wayward pile of rubble, nearly painting the floor with her well bred—if not also a little dust-laden—countenance. Screaming in frustration and rage, she kicked the offending heap, “You stupid piece of sh-!” Only to find its nucleus was still attached to its floor base, “Ow!”
With no desire for further self-humiliation, Giselle limped sulkily away.
Shaking his head, Brock turned to rejoin Misty and Ash.
It was in that moment that they all felt the first distant tremor.
* * * * * *
The initial layer of cloud parted for the two, letting them down on a floating cushion of feather-light condensation as they entered the massive Hall of Kings. Ki held her breath. The size of the place was overwhelming; an enormous coliseum that stretched on for what seemed like miles, its interior capacious enough to host every single Lord (and lady) of the combined sovereign Realms, and then some. Beside her, Mewtwo also took in the regal scenery, quietly admiring the massive, smoothly hewn pillars of radiant ivory cloud, the sprawling floor of flawlessly clear crystal, the symmetry of the vast arena’s layout and design. They had both been here once before, when Mewtwo was officially sanctioned as Lord over Perraldra. Yet even so, their wonder with the place was renewed; the High Realm of The One never ceased to captivate them.
Languidly, their floating chauffeur brought them into the second layer of billowing mists, one stratum before they were finally ushered fully into the center of the massive chamber’s sparkling depths.
The two surveyed the circular dais that rose from within the great arena’s center. Several hundred Lords were already making their way to its foot, and all about, many more were coming. They floated, as did Mewtwo and Ki, upon similar cumulous transports, descending to the lucent parterre. Their bodies glowed brightly, radiating and encasing them with a dense spherical veneer of the formidable innate elemental power they contained in unprecedented levels and over which they held unparalleled sway. The very air seemed alive with the sheer dynamic force of their presence, pulsing like a subsonic heartbeat as the armada of uniquely tinted globes penetrated the last façade of roiling clouds, descending through their own shaft of heavenly light to the grounds far below.
Lifting his regal head, the lord of Perraldra’s own eyes and body began to emanate with a sharp, pale-blue radiance. Instantly, he, his companion and their shifting platform were encased in their own like-hued sphere of resonating psychic energy. Tendrils of the volatile plasma cracked and hissed menacingly, moving across the pulsing membrane like lithe sapphire whips.
So, He remarked solemnly, This is it.
Yeah… At his side, Ki sighed and nodded. I hope this is a good thing we’re about to get ourselves into.
Mewtwo continued to stare into the approaching circle. We’ll find out. He replied distantly. Ki nudged him, partially reclaiming his attention. Reflexively, he took her hand in his. You know this is no walk in the park, Ki.
I know. She smiled. But I’ll face anything…with you.
I’m here for you, my love; but I cannot predict what will happen, and…his gazed returned to the massive dais. He stared hard, the intensity of his mind’s focus causing the psychic fire that surrounded him to abruptly flare. From the misted depths, the eye found him; that portal into the depthless, impenetrable heart, soul and mind of …Him.
Ki’s brow furrowed. Puzzled, she followed her partner’s gaze. Only a blanket of cloud met her searching eyes. Who?
Mewtwo clutched her hand tighter and stared gravely ahead. Reach, Ki…
Ki glanced up at him, puzzled.
He turned her head back toward the arena’s center. Reach.
Ki reached, sending her mind into the distance ahead of her, probing further, finding nothing and so probing even further still. Closing her eyes, she let her psychic projection race on before her, shifting fluidly between the barriers that divided the physical realm from the extrasensory. As Ki passed out of herself, the visual world disappeared, relinquishing its hold on her consciousness. All became a maze of vivid, colorful thoughts and emotions, floating in a swirling sea of glittering tints and shades. Ki let herself be carried into the chaotically euphoric vortex. Bright, vibrant washes of color and light spiraled around her, coursing their way through, in, out and around one another, pulsing and swaying to the beat of a vaguely discernable sonata. Like someone who’s had a really bad acid trip, Ki mused aloud. The lucid tendrils slowly diffused into a wide pinwheel of whimsical, dancing particles of phosphorescence.
From behind her, something flared dazzling white.
Too slow, Ki spun around to face the unanticipated phosphoric deluge. She gasped in surprise as the mysterious light caught her up in its pale, silver-hued wake, pulling her into its blinding depths. She blinked, watching, riveted by the swirling columns of white fire that surrounded her. She found herself in the center of some massive, hollow cylinder, its diameter around two-hundred feet across—at least—made entirely of the cold-burning element. The churning waves of radiant flame spiraled far, far into the air above her, reaching tirelessly toward a distant, unseen end. With a blink, Ki teleported to the edge of the spacious enclosure. She stared into the rushing inferno, but only swirling wisps of white fire met her gaze. Curious, she reached out to touch the mystic flames.
Someone’s deep, guttural psychic voice suddenly reverberated through her. I would not do that, if I were you. Startled, Ki spun around.
She froze in place. Perched firmly in the swirling, cylindrical tower’s center, a large, strange bird-like creature with a pure, shimmering coat of silver solemnly regarded the psychic mistress. Impossibly large, the radiant being loomed over her, standing with his wings (or what could be called wings perhaps) folded loosely behind his back, his crane neck bent, with his enormous, crested head tilted to one side. A single, luminous sapphire eye observing Ki as she simply stood, silent as stone, enthralled, repulsed, enamored, terrified, puzzled—all of these and a million more—completely captivated and totally transfixed.
Who are you?
Angel of Light, The Lugia returned Ki’s staring gaze. So, you were the Mew’s human charge.
How…you know me?
Ki came a step closer. Who are you?
That, the Lugia replied, depends a great deal on where I am and who I stand before, or who stands before me.
Slowly, Ki continued to approach. Who are you here?
He smiled. In this, my own realm, I am simply King.
Ki frowned. There are no kings anymore, she stated simply. This is the age of democracy. Everyone has to agree to something, otherwise, it isn’t right.
Standing just outside the encompassing ring of white fire, Mewtwo looked on as Ki conversed with the High Lord of the Hall of Kings. Overhearing her, he winced. Oh boy; here we go. He’d taught his mate to test the integrity of every sentient creature’s worldview, but more often than not, her probings tended to take on a very personal nature, especially when the being in question was another adept psychic. Some conceptual sparring was inevitable.
The Lugia didn’t skip a beat. Who told you this? He asked.
Ki shrugged. Everyone should know that. Didn’t anyone at least tell you?
It is not true.
What do you mean?
First, this is a fallen world, and because it is fallen, most people are selfish, and because most people are selfish, no one will completely agree to anything. Second, democracy is not the principle of everyone agreeing.
Okay, sorry; just the majority has to agree then. That’s still better than giving all the power to just one.
It will never happen. Even the best democratic institutions are still, in actuality, a limited oligarchy, with a select few individuals making most—if not all—important legislature.
Why are you being so difficult?
Listen; those who created that notion did not have the courage to defy me openly with it—this supposed culmination of their own ‘wisdom’. Instead, they sent their own blind followers to face a wrath that was not originally those poor deceived creatures right to suffer.
So, you are a tyrant then; just like all the rest.
No. A tyrant only builds and destroys according to his own whimsical lust and desire. A King—if he is indeed a true king—recognizes that he is bound to the will of one higher than himself.
Ki came to a stop, halting her advance some twenty feet from the Lugia’s perch. Don’t give me that rubbish. We all know divine right is a lie.
Only for those who claim it unrightfully.
Ki shook her head. Who do you think you are?
I have already told you who I am. What were you hoping to hear?
Ki paused, uncertain how to continue. This was becoming a tad frustrating. The silver bird certainly knew how to play this game; he looked seamless.
With nothing else coming to mind, she decided to simply be real with this enigmatic creature, this one who claimed to be so much. Was he really? Could he care? Did he? I…she started again…I don’t know. I’m sorry; I guess I’m just reacting. You have no idea how much I have suffered at the hands of fallen authorities.
You are bitter, Ki.
Don’t I have a right to be?
Would you destroy yourself, those you love; is that your will?
No; but how am I suppose to do anything else in the end? Don’t we all eventually degenerate anyway?
Because we are fallen, yes; but that was not the original design.
Yeah, well, it’s too late for the original design; we’ve already fallen.
Yes; but you are not dead yet.
So, it’s my choice, my responsibility; my fault. Figures. That’s just so convenient for you, isn’t it.
No. There is no greater inconvenience; I cannot choose to save any of you.
And why would someone like you even want to? She asked sullenly, looking away. You’re perfect. The alter to my soul has already be desecrated.
The Lugia unfolded one massive wing and laid it face down across Ki’s path. Without a second thought, she stepped onto the outstretched appendage, and gingerly, he lifted her till their eyes were level with one another.
Daughter, until the last of your mortal breath leaves your body, there is always hope for you. Even if I should someday fail to believe in you, I am only a servant to The Light; I cannot give you back your innocence. There is still one far greater than any other who has walked this fallen planet; it is this one you should be seeking.
Ki looked hard into the Lugia’s mind. The King did not resist, but instead threw the doors to his conscious and subconscious wide open, nearly overwhelming his minute inquisitor with the first mammoth volume of his psychic capacity. Swiftly, she withdrew, her own mind still reeling from the force of his presence.
Okay, she smiled, I believe you. That short excursion had been a harrowing ride, but in it she had found what she was looking for. She had not been lied to.
The Lugia nodded approvingly; neither had he been told untruths. Welcome, Ki, he boomed, to the threshold of my kingdom.
“Ahh!” With a harsh gasp, Ki reemerged from the realm of the extrasensory. Mewtwo was instantly behind her, supporting the spent mistress of Perraldra. “Thank you.” She managed weakly.
You did well, love. Mewtwo answered. I think you’ve just made yourself a formidable ally.
Carefully, Ki lifted her head, and looking up found herself standing before the raised dais she and Mewtwo had seen earlier from a distance, now only a yard or so away. She smiled. Perched regally on the exalted platform’s center, his enormous wings spread, pale silver body and sapphire eyes blazing white with unveiled power, stood the towering Lugia.
Lifting his crested head, the King sent forth his verbal herald of greeting, and the earth shook with its deafening resonance; “Hail, lords!”
Fists in the air, Mewtwo and Ki joined the multitude, over a thousand strong, as they answered him.
Ki noticed two men standing on the platform with the King. One held himself with an air of confidence and kept his feet, but the other instantly went to his knees. Ki’s brows knitted in concern when she saw him visibly wince. Poor guy, she thought, he must be new here.
* * * * * *
“Whadda’u mean? How’d you know they were here!?” April demanded furiously.
Lawrence chuckled. “Oh, I just knew! Being The Shadow’s head-honcho down here gives me that distinct advantage sometimes!”
“Ye’right!” April shot caustically, “You’re sayin’ that ‘cause you just heard me say it!”
“Bright little snot, aren’t we.” Lawrence replied.
April gave him a smug look. “I’m not that stupid and ignorant!”
The Catalyst grinned wickedly, eyes dancing. “Oh? Well, let me prove to the contrary! You see, I knew Gypsum would send a distress call to its Elite mother base. And when no further contact with its agents here could be obtained, I also knew that The Elite would in turn send someone to investigate. That was just common sense; any fool could’ve counted on that happening. Now, what I didn’t know however was exactly who would be sent, how many of them there’d be and when they’d come and from where—a lot of unanswered variables, and I hate unanswered variables. So, what did I do? Why, I went to my familiar of course. And guess what he told me?” The dark-garbed mystic asked cockily. He paused for greater effect, sneering at his fuming captive’s irritation with this constant toying with her mind and emotion. His words continued to beat her down, driving her mercilessly closer to a state of ripe, bitter despair. “Yes. He told me alright,” Lawrence continued haughtily, “I now knew when they’d be coming, how they’d get in and where that would be, and how many of them The Elite would send to me. For that was what they were doing now; sending their own people, like so many sheep to be wastefully slaughtered. But I knew even more than that. Yes, I knew exactly who those people of theirs would be!”
April got that cold, sick feeling in her stomach. “But, that’s impossible!”
“Is it now? Well then, see what you think of this!” With a wave of his dark, steel-clad hand, Lawrence commanded the hologram universe to come to a silent halt. Brushing a few constellations aside, he cleared a dark patch of emptiness. “Here; this one ought to bring an air of familiarity!” With another curt wave, the starless atmosphere shimmered once and then began to take on shape and color, remaking itself into something solid. In a few moments, April found herself staring at a perfect hologram projection of…
First she gasped in astonishment, then, as the implications finally sank completely in, she just groaned; “Oh no…” Ash Ketchum, his arms crossed, countenance radiating with heroic confidence stared silently back at her. In a moment, Brock Stone joined him, and presently, Duplica, Misty, and the other two people (the snobby woman and the really short but polite guy), and even the big mean blond man, also stood with him. Now April really did feel sick. “No!” She cried, helpless at last. Lawrence had finally found something she couldn’t deny. “You stupid jerk! You…you! No!” He knew these people? It wasn’t possible! It wasn’t fair! And if he knew they were coming…
“Oh, silly me!” Lawrence smirked. He waved again, flippantly, initiating another sub-molecular shift in the air beside the images he’d already conjured. In a moment, a small, ebony-locked girl had also joined the collection.
“Oh, “ April hung her head. “This whole thing was just one big trap.”
“Y’gottit, kiddo!” Lawrence laughed with hard, malicious triumph. “You bunch of stupid, pathetic FOOLS! All of you, marching in here like you were going to just nonchalantly extinguish The Shadow’s inevitable dominance! Ingrates! Mwahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!”
Lawrence drew up short, bringing his morbid hysterical fit to an abrupt halt. “What?” He glared at April, but she glared stubbornly back, righteous defiance chiseled into her face like edicts of damnation set in metamorphic rock.
“I said ‘fine’.” She repeated.
“Oh, really?” Lawrence smirked.
“Yeah, really. So what if you knew who was gonna show up here? You can’t tell what they’re going to do right now! Those are my mommy and friends! And when they find out I’m not with’em, they’ll come find me!”
“Ha!” Lawrence broke into another hail of mocking laughter. “So naïve! What makes you think they even know you were there? If I recall…” he paused, rubbing his temples, “…Yes; everyone, including your dear matron, still thinks you’re back onboard the Elite vessel that brought all of you here to begin with. Everyone, that is,” Lawrence smirked ironically, using his dark power to draw the images of Brock, Duplica and Griffin forward and into clearer focus, “Except these three.” He finished with haughty, malevolent triumph. “Am I not right?”
“Huh!? You can’t-!”
“I can and I do, little girl. Now, shut up and listen—this is the best part of this whole thing and I will not for a minute tolerate your incessant interruptions!” He strolled casually between the holograms, finally coming to a stop in front of the big, heavily muscled blond guy. “You don’t know this chap too well, I imagine. Clay Griffin was one of The Elite’s best men—the best, I’d say, next to the chairman himself; proves Johnny Bravo really can kick ass! He’s mean as hell, but you would have liked him really—such an unswerving sense of justice. No one in his right mind would fight this man; he’s the most lethal human machine on the planet—or was.” Lawrence waved once and Griffin’s image evaporated into nothing. “We sacked him a little less than an hour ago, trucked his miserable half conscious body in here like so much miscellaneous luggage. He’s of no consequence now.”
Next, he stood and regarded Mr. Stone. “This one’s a nice chap, now isn’t he? Kind, generous—a real big heart. Pity. Last time you saw him, he’d gotten his guts fried by one of my loyal minions. So, he’s history—stone dead.” Lawrence’s cold, grating laughter echoed through the room. “See ya’round, bimbo nature boy!” Another dismissive wave and Brock, too, was gone.
April held her breath, fighting back tears. Don’t give up! She stared expectantly ahead. There was still one image left. Duplica…
April had gotten to know Mimique (somewhat to her mother’s chagrin [but everything was bothering Misty lately]) over their stay at Elite HQ, and on the between trip before they finally took off in their nifty black flying machine—the one that her new friend, the errant Mistress of Disguise, had helped her sneak onto. April liked Duplica; the emerald-headed woman had told her that she should look after her mother, and April had concluded—and Duplica had agreed—that this meant that she, too, should join them on whatever strange adventure they were about to have.
“Oh, you know this one, too, don’t you.” Lawrence interrupted her thoughts (perhaps after reading them somehow?). He circled Mimique’s exotically beautiful form. “Another chum of yours?”
April’s brow knitted suspiciously, but she nodded.
Lawrence sneered. “Forget it, little girl. Look at this woman; do you know what a worthless, compromised slut she is?” His half-dead features grimaced with malicious glee. “Do you?”
“What?” April shook her head. “I don’t think so!” She rebuffed furiously.
Lawrence’s malevolent grin never faded. “Oh? Just ask Mr. Ketchum here.”
April gasped as Ash’s imaged strolled forward, hands in its pockets, casually blowing a loose strand of black hair out of its face—just like the real Ash probably would.
The apparition scratched the back of its head and nodded sadly. “Yeah, that’s true alright. She’s a nice enough girl at first, but she’ll wear on you, and eventually, eat you alive. Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way. You see, we were together for a while,” the Ash image gave the Duplica one a scathing glance. “That is, until I found out she was cheating on me—and with one of my best friends, too, the dirty skank!” He shook his head. “Duplica cost me a double heartache, April. Stay clear of her, she is not one of the good guys.”
April started again, this time as Misty’s image came forward. “I’ve known Duplica for a long time, but I never let her meet you. She lies, she cheats,” Misty’s image nodded at Ash’s, “She sleeps around—anything to con her prey, leading them on, playing them like a poker hand. If it serves her purposes, she won’t hesitate to slit your throat or stab you in the back when you’re not looking.”
“They are right.” The stout, raven-haired man also stepped forward. “The woman is conniving and manipulative; dangerous; she cannot be trusted; she has no honor.”
“Yes, thank you.” With a wave, Lawrence sent the three images back into the shadows. “And I might as well add my own piece to the list. You see, The Shadow told me a great deal about this Elite mission before it happened, but it also indicated that someone else was needed; someone who would ultimately be there to help make sure it went as we planned,” he continued methodically. “What we needed was a double agent, a perfect rogue; in a word, someone to play the traitor!” He glanced for a moment in April’s direction. She stared back, wide-eyed, an anxious look of dread on her cherubic face. Lawrence sneered. “Yes, little girl,” he bemoaned with sarcastic sympathy, “Your pretty friend here…”
A tear rolled down April’s cheek. “No…”
“It’s not true…”
“No, shut up!” She screamed. “You LIE! Oh, I HATE YOU! NO!!”
“And very soon…”
“SHUT UP!!” She sobbed.
“…The others,” Lawrence grinned, “Will fail you, too.” He slowly shook his head, scolding her with the tic-tock motion of a reproachful index finger. “Stop denying the obvious, little girl; look at the evidence! You’ve been duped—all of you. I had you and your ‘friends’ before any one of you set a foot in this place. You played right into my hand. And now, you will all pay with your lives. Three of these here are accounted for—that would actually be four, if I include you.” Lawrence shrugged. “It’s only a matter of time before I have the others, too. In fact, I’ve already summoned the creatures that will hunt them down and kill them.” He pointed to the row of images behind him. Green luminescence surrounded the first image, bringing the stout, dark-haired man into disquietingly sharp focus.
Lawrence scratched his chin for a moment, then continued. “Shoto Samurai Shinji die before the blade of a Talwar Minotaur,” he declared in a dry, removed monotone. He lifted one metal-shod hand, making the image rotate in place with a lazy flick of the wrist. “Yes. The Talwar is a most formidable demon, master of the sword, poised, and completely brutal; the Minotaur is a nightmarish mountain of hideous strength, physically resilient almost to the point of invincibility. The creature I have summoned is a hybrid of both. When on the hunt for worthy blood, this beast is utterly relentless. Only the most cunning of warriors can defeat it; only those whose hearts are completely pure of all ill motive can come before him and stand.” The Catalyst’s eyes narrowed. “I have weighed the evidence of Samurai’s history against him and found the man wanting. It’s a real pity, I suppose; he had a good soul. Nevertheless, he will not have the strength of heart to defeat this nemesis. It will be his final match.”
Lawrence nodded and the focus shifted.
Next, Samurai’s companion, the tall, elegant yet unmistakably arrogant woman was brought under the eerie emerald light. “Giselle Narcissa will fall to a Siren, a female demon of unparalleled physical beauty and irresistible sensual allure—all of it merely a plastic façade, a clever deception fabricated by dark magic to conceal the monster within.” Again the crimson slits narrowed in critical scrutiny. “This woman has fancied herself to be something so high and unattainable that only the likes of the goddesses can compare with her. But she is a monster; a willful, tyrannical child who can think of nothing but her own selfish lusts and desires. I have watched her for a long time now. She has more in common with The Shadow than she would know. It will be a privilege to usher her soul through the gates of our dark kingdom.”
The emerald glow faded, etching a receding trail across Giselle’s haughty countenance.
Now, the light fell upon Ash and Misty, bathing the two in streams of verdant phosphorescence. The image pair stood facing away from one another, arms crossed, heads bowed and eyes closed.
Bound in steel, gagged by fear and growing despair, April could only look helplessly on while Lawrence slowly approached the glowing holograms; façades of two people her child’s heart had grown so unswervingly fond of. The others, it seemed, were all going to die horrible deaths, ripped to pieces by netherworld predators. Talwar Minotaurs and Sirens? What were those suppose to be? April didn’t have a clue, but Lawrence’s descriptions made her sick with horror. What was this satanic madman going to do her mother and friend?
* * * * * *
Ash’s head shot up. “…Did you hear that?”
Misty glanced over at Brock; the rock trainer had also gone still and rigid, head bent, senses reaching. She followed suit.
“…I…” She began uncertainly.
The ground quivered, causing everything in the large, rectangular enclosure to rattle ominously. There was no mistaking it.
Drum! Drum! Drum, drum, drum, drum!
Something was coming.
Drum, drum, drum, drum!
Ash brought the plasma rifle to his shoulder. “Everyone, pull together, weapons out; retreat toward the exit!”
No one argued with that.
* * * * * *
“Such a pathetic rag-tag collection of motley, mortal scum you have all proven yourselves to be.” Lawrence stood over the distraught April. “Even you, little girl; I really expected you to put up more of a fight. But no, you went down easier than all the rest, a terrible fault, for which you are not even responsible, but for which you shall, nevertheless, dearly pay.” Lazily, he gestured and the illuminated pair of images turned to face him. “Now then, what shall become of these two I wonder? I confess, Ash Ketchum and Misty Waterflower did take quite a stretch from the old thinking cap—such deep-rooted resentment between such irreversibly pledged friends always asks that the evil who wishes to exploit their potential be able to make the most of his opportunity.”
“You monster!” April was heartsick, but the fight in her spirit refused to die. “What are you going to do to them!?”
“Oh, they will fall to the most terrible deaths of all, little girl.” The Catalyst replied with spiteful glee. “Of the many deplorable things I could do to them, I’ve decided to simply hand this failed couple over to one of my favorite demonic creatures. I will let it decide how best to bring about their fateful end!” Turning, he beckoned into some black void of empty space that lay to the side of his collection of holograms. From within the impenetrable darkness, two thin slits of red light winked into existence.
April’s teeth rattled in her head as the tremor rolled through her, shaking her to her core. “W-w-w-h-a-a-t’s h-h-a-a-p-en-ning!?” She cried out, but her words were quaked into distorted stammering. An abhorrent, banshee wail exploded from the darkness, surrounding her, driving madness and despair into her throbbing eardrums. Malignant, twisted images of nightmarish horror danced before her minds eye. She shut her physical eyes tight, tying to will the whole spectacle into banishment, screaming to herself over and over to wake up, that this was all just a terrible dream.
Then the deep coldness surged into her small body, causing the girl to shiver profusely, biting her nerves till she was almost totally numb. April’s eyes shot open, panic registered all over her plush face; she found herself struggling to breath.
She was about to pass out when the last morbid throb sounded, so faint she almost didn’t hear it. Abruptly, she found herself blinking back into full consciousness, peering incredulously about; darkness, the funny red-eyed shadow thing, the images, Mr. Bad Guy—it was all still there. Lawrence swaggered casually over to the other dark being, looking for all the world like nothing had occurred. April stared numbly after him.
What had just happened?
The shadow man swept his midnight cape back, and for just a moment, his back was turned at such an angle that April’s eyes met those of the netherworld creature on the other side. For that brief instant, those malevolent slits of red fire stared directly back at her, and the coldness seized her body again, followed by rising nightmares and an eerie wail that seemed to magnify with each passing millisecond. Shrinking back (as far back as she could), April shut her eyes, and instantly, the other’s abhorrent influence on her faded.
“Yyyesss.” The Catalyst hissed. “Come forth, my most malevolent of slaves.”
Something darker than the surrounding atmosphere seemed to materialize almost directly in front of him, a vaguely humanoid mass of roiling shadows that suggested something wearing a large billowing hood and cloak. “What would you have me be, master?” A dry, hollow voice whispered in reply. “Give me my definition.” The red eyes implored.
Lawrence smiled. “Take whichever shape you wish, slave, so long as it aids you in destroying these two.” He waved dismissively toward the lighted pair of images. “But this one thing I command. Do not merely kill their bodies; before they breath their last and you claim their souls, I want you to make them suffer in ways only you know they can. Use their worst fears against them, bring their most haunting nightmares to life; I want the man and the woman both on their knees, begging for death. Understand?”
The eyes flared, and just under them, a gleaming set of pale, fanged teeth smiled wickedly back. ”It will be a pleasure.” The demon answered.
“Yes! Assemble the others, then all of you hunt down your prey!” Lawrence roared. “Go!”
With a monstrous, spiraling vortex of blinding crimson fire, the shadow being disappeared, vanishing like a substanceless wraith into the gaping blackness.
Lawrence chuckled. “Well, that ought to take care of things.” He stated lightly, patting April on the head as he passed behind her. “That was a Chameleon Necromancer. It not only has the ability to change its physical form, but also to create visual and even physiological illusions, detecting and thereby mimicking its victims’ fears, hates, and most powerful desires, good and evil attributes alike, which it then uses to deceive, lure, and ultimately destroy.” He smirked. “Ash and Misty will give my nefarious lackey plenty to work with, I’m afraid!” Throwing his head back, he let forth a searing barrage of grating laughter.
All about them, the illusions faded away; first the row of images, then the projected sphere of starry constellations and galaxies. Lawrence sauntered around on April’s other side, passing before her and crossing several feet away over the empty space that yawned below before exploding into a geyser of brilliant emerald fire. April shut her eyes reflexively, and when they again opened, she found herself looking across the dark chasm at a tall, clean-cut business man in his neatly pressed, light-gray suit. He smiled amiably at her.
This time, April did not smile back.
Unperturbed, Lawrence bowed deeply before addressing his captive. “It has been such a pleasure meeting you, April Waterflower.” He called out cheerily. “Indeed, I so hate to depart now, but I have many things yet to do in preparation for The Shadow’s coming—like speaking with that buxom emerald-headed dame of mine!”
Slowly, April’s head sank to her tightly bound chest. 'Emerald-headed traitor, more like it!' She seethed furiously, thinking again how foolish she’d been to trust Duplica. 'Well, if what he says is true, that is.' She allowed there was a slim chance that Lawrence had been lying to her. Nevertheless, a slim chance was all it was. For the most part, everything he’d shown her seemed frightfully real. And now that she thought about it, Duplica being a traitor made perfect sense; if it weren’t for the clever seductress’s feigned friendship, April realized, she might not be in this mess right now.
Turning curtly on the heels of his immaculately polished loafers, Lawrence began to saunter briskly away, calling over his shoulder; “Don’t feel so lonely, little girl! I’ll be back for you!”
“I don’t want you to come back!” April whispered bitterly. She looked up, but only the blasted out skeleton of a dark control room met her searching gaze.
From some far corner, the distant echo of hollow, grating laughter came floating back to her. Lawrence was already gone; she was all alone…
…or was she?
Far above, hidden behind a steel grate covering a small crevice, a single pair of little black eyes regarded the imprisoned girl with undisguised concern. Hoping against the worst, Pikachu had finally found April. Fortunately, she was still alive; unfortunately—from what he’d managed to overhear—it didn’t seem she had much longer to stay that way. He would have to act fast, or it would be too late for her.
Rummaging through his knapsack, the mouse Pokèmon produced a small, black disc shaped device, and after feeling about its slim perimeter, he found and alternately punched an even smaller silver button affixed to the circular object’s narrow side. A tiny red light blinked into existence on the opposite end.
Satisfied, Pikachu replaced the homing beacon inside his sack, then silently pushed the small metal barrier to his snug refuge aside and tiptoed out onto a narrow ledge that ran around the enormous control room’s perimeter. He adjusted the straps on his backpack, and then carefully, he made his way around the precarious overhang, padding quietly along until he arrived at the broad junction where a ceiling cross beam intersected with the wall. Looking both ways first, Pikachu proceeded to raced down the long steel gangplank, which, presently, arrived at the room’s central structure, the blasted remains of a tall, imposing cylindrical structure that looked like it had once housed the main control array’s nefarious jungle of criss-crossing computer network cables. Many of the black, snake-like ropes of shielded wire still hung from where their bundles had come in from somewhere in the ceiling.
Pikachu took a moment to study the various armloads of cable, making his way around the inner core of the main cylinder hub before finally selecting a bundle, tracing a strand and then climbing partially down its immense length, while also being careful not to make it sway. Reaching into his knapsack, he retrieved the black disc, checked to make sure it was activated, and then put it inside a formfitting black pouch, zipping it up, concealing its telltale led light. Taking the small container and its invaluable cargo, Pikachu threaded a flat-black steel ring through a few smaller rings embedded in the pouch’s nylon epidermis, clipped the new fixture to the cable he’d partly descended and then let the cleverly camouflaged device go. He stayed for a moment; long enough to watch it slide silently down its black rail, where he knew it would eventually come to rest somewhere directly above April’s head. Assured with his work, Pikachu re-scaled the improvised repelling rope, and after looking both ways again, made his hasty escape, scampering all the way back along the way he’d come.
Behind the relative safety of the closed metal grate, the lithe saffron Pokèmon continued his speedy retreat. Rescuing April alone (though personally, he thought it minutely possible) was out of the question. However, with the homing beacon attached to her exact location, he was sure he could find the help he needed, track her down again, and get her out. That was the plan, at any rate; and in this hellhole, a chance over none at all was a pretty good rate. Pulling out a small, black, pika-sized cellphone gismo, he keyed in a few commands, which alternately activated a small, pale blue suspension screen, causing it to blink into existence just in front of and above the black keypad, emanating from its projector toward the device’s head. He punched another series of keys, activating a dropdown menu, and after scrolling through its nefarious list of options, selected one that presented him with a basic schematic of Gypsum Hall. He went through another dropdown, selected another option, and so was finally presented with a bright red dot which placed itself directly inside the fallen Elite fortress’s main lobby, approximately seventy feet (and closing) away from the front door.
Pikachu quickly shut off the handheld computer, tossed it in his pack, tightened the straps, and took off again, this time at a dead run. Ash was almost outside. If he wanted to catch his trainer before it was too late, he’d need to really hurry.
For a moment, he wondered if that would be possible.
* * * * * *
“Oh, great!” Brock quickened his pace as one of the walls behind their small company exploded in a shower of pulverized concrete and chalky dust, the centrifugal force sending several stray shards hurtling toward them. Everyone hit the ground, rolling away from the rift and one another, fanning out across the room. As luck would have it, Stone ended up behind a miscellaneous desk and stone pillar setup, huddled back to back with… “Dude! Watch where you’re jabbing that freakin’ beak of yours!”
“Skwaa!” Spardos shot back irritably.
“Same to you!” Brock retorted. “Hey! You know that pillar’s not going to hide you too well!” He shouted above the sudden commotion.
“Ska?” Self-consciously, the Zapdos tried to make his bulk fit behind the comparatively slim barrier.
Brock groaned. “Oh for the love of McDonald’s cheep apple pie, why does every single legendary cockatoo have to be so freakin’ big!?” Hurriedly, he risked a peek around the far side of their unfavorable encampment. Several yards away, he spied another pillar, this one with part of a wall still attached to it. “Okay!” He yelled. “You see that over there!?”
Spardos turned his spiky-plumed head and squawked affirmatively.
“When I say ‘go’, we make for that wall!”
The Zapdos spread his wings and Brock hopped onto the great bird’s back. Swiftly, the two sailed across open, unshielded ground, coming to a grinding halt behind their intended destination, Spardos digging his talons into the partially carpeted floor, Brock doing his best to hang on as they reigned in hard behind the broken section of wall. Tumbling unceremoniously off his improvised seat, the rock trainer made a quick visual assessment of their new fortifications. They were inside what appeared to be the remnants of somebody’s office, with a wall to their backs and the side opposite from where they’d entered, creating a relatively protective peninsula—a good setup. Satisfied, he redrew his rifle, chambered a fresh round, and took a peek around the corner, keen eyes searching the terrain for any potential enemies. What he saw made him wish he hadn’t bothered. “Oh crap!” Brock was instantly back behind the stone bastion. “Spardos,” He groaned, “The next time you kill something, please make sure it’s really dead!”
Incredulous, the Zapdos stuck his own sharp-feathered head around the protective alcove. “Skwa!?” Eyes wide with astonishment, he quickly followed the rock trainer’s example, beating a hasty withdrawal back out of sight.
“How many times do we have to fight these shitheads!” Giselle watched in pure, aristocratic disdain as thirty or so armed undead came marching raggedly through the newly re-opened tunnel—the one Spardos had allegedly sealed shut when he supposedly dispatched that last tag-along demon. She glowered at her new opponents. These walking corpses sported heavy, Elite-issue assault rifles and napalm grenade launchers, and all of them (unlike some previously encountered specimens) wore complimentary body armor and assault gear. From behind her woefully inadequate fortifications (she and Samurai were hunkered down behind a random set of half-broken desks), Giselle could make out at least four small mortar cannons; bad news, for sure. There were also two undead Elite agents among them. She frowned. She’d done her homework; if those two still functioned like live agents, they could easily make short work of her and the others. Yet that was the least of her worries.
From the broken tunnel’s dark, gaping maw, something even darker exploded violently into the half-light, taking out the crumbling passage’s whole upper opening recess as it forced its massive bulk through the cement barrier. The company of undead soldiers ran from the pulverized, concrete downpour.
Giselle gasped in horrified indignation as a morbid cheer went up from the zombie ranks. Standing just outside the newly widened passageway was the demon hulk himself, great wings spread triumphantly, black armor and heavily muscled body glistening with condensation and showing no signs of injury whatsoever—just like he’d been after Giselle had tried to take him out.
Remembering the incident made the seething heiress hot with bitter fury. She hadn’t spent hours in combat training, hours becoming a crack markwosman just to have some faceless brute make her look like a completely incompetent fool. “Oh, that worthless bird!“ She spat contemptuously. Even after using her Zapdos, she had failed.
Reaching behind his broad back, he grasped the hilt of his long, straight-bladed katana. In response, the pair of dragon claws that held it in place released their hold on the weapon, allowing the demon champion to easily draw his primary instrument of mutilation free. Most of his upper body was patterned after the male humanoid, but his legs and head were unmistakably that of a black Tauros. He wore a heavy set of raven steel armor plates, three overlapping tiers thick on his bulging shoulders, two layers deep across his massive pectorals and around to his fully cut rhomboids and latissimus dorsi, and a single layer guarding his meticulously defined abdominals and lower back. His rippling forearms and great, clawed hands were also encased in striated bands of dark steel, with large elbow guards reaching all the way up his over-juiced triceps, creating a large, crescent-shaped shield for the whole upper portion of his arms, guarding even his tremendous biceps from all but a direct stab. Enormous greaves of ebony steel holstered the lower half of his massive bull legs; his rippling thighs were bare, but could be easily shielded by the overextended knee guards. Around his neck hung a double link chain with a thick, inverted pentagram, both plated gold. Small circular cheek guards of the same metal adorned the sides of his face from where they were secured to each large horn.
Swinging his enormous blade briskly through the air, the Talwar Minotaur spread his demon wings and launched himself into the center of high-ceilinged lobby, sailing over the heads of his company of undead as they cheered him on. The goliath’s ten-foot frame touched down again with a resounding crunch of pulverized concrete, initiating a small cloud of dust, and several significant cracks, from the floor under his massive, steel-shod hooves.
The bullheaded fiend snorted, his body steaming. Standing at his full height, he surveyed the broken room, crimson eyes searching, demon senses reaching. He had been sent on a mission, to dispatch a specific foe, a warrior, noble of heart, courageous and unafraid…or so his nemesis had been profiled. If that was true, where was the putrid, insignificant vermin? Bring the beggar on. Anyone who came against the Talwar were as good as dead. He’d crush him, rip him limb-from-limb, flay his bloodied carcass and hang it out for the birds to eat and the scavengers to devour, take his head and put it on a stake, polish his skull and use it as an ornament to grace his warbelt. In a word, he’d utterly defeat the insubordinate mortal. He’d never lost…of course, not many had the courage to face him. Even among the hordes of Hell, few had power equal to his. It had taken centuries, but this Talwar had stopped at nothing, even slaying fellow demons of considerable might in order to advance himself.
Impatient, the callous butcher rent the air with his three tails, cracking them like a whip. “I know you are here Shoto Shinji!” He roared. “By the gates of Abaddon, I challenge you! Come out you fallow dog! FACE ME!!”
Hunkered down behind his shared fortifications, Spardos was beside himself with consternation. Pulsing with new thunderous vigor, he sprang again to his taloned feet.
“Hey!” Brock hissed, shoving his rifle across the Zapdos’ path. “Where do ya think you’re going!?”
“Swkaa!” Spardos brushed the firearm aside.
“Dude!” Brock cut him off again. “Your strongest attacks didn’t leave a scratch on that thing last time! What makes you think it’ll be different now!?”
“Twir…” The Zapdos’ brows knitted as he mulled over the implications of that fact.
“Take a seat, buddy. We’re finding a way to escape before we try taking on Mr. Ripper there!”
Spardos stuck out a spiky wing, pointing across the room. His eyes were wide with alarm. “Skwaa!”
“Huh?” Brock followed the Zapdos’ urgent gesture. “Oh no!” He groaned.
“Shoto! Shoto get your ass back here!” Giselle shouted after Samurai as he stood and headed straight for his oversized challenger. “What the hell do you think you’re doing!? Love, he’ll KILL YOU! COME BACK!!”
Samurai turned. His face could have been chiseled from stone. “I am sorry. I must go; my honor demands it of me.” He saluted her, turned, and continued on.
Giselle stared after him. “Oh God…”
Click, click, click.
The sound of someone’s heeled feet approaching echoed on the floor behind her.
Giselle spun around, both guns out, sights level. She gasped in surprise. “Who…?”
“Oh man, this is not looking good!” Ash voiced the obvious, taking another sweeping glance of Gypsum’s broad lobby. Grimly, he watched Samurai approach the bullheaded demon. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure things out; Shoto was about to become hellspawn entrée. Ketchum vaguely wondered if the oversized Jason would use his undersized victim’s katana as a toothpick when he was done.
“Ash,” Misty was at his elbow, undisguised urgency in her voice, “Ash we’ve gotta do something!”
“Right!” Ketchum quickly brought the plasma rifle to his shoulder, alternately flipping its power discharge to “overload.”
For a moment, the weapon flickered with life, its wide muzzle glowing bright amber as it hummed ominously. Suddenly, however, the nefarious energy cannon went dead.
“Hey! What the he-!?”
A thousand red lights began blinking all over the plasma gun’s aluminum stock. “Warning!” the weapon’s internal android voice droned. “Energy core overheated; weapon will detonate in 10…9…8….”
“No!” Ash stared incredulously at his crimson-washed demon mauler. “Not this! Not now! Why me!?”
“What’s happening!?” Misty shouted in his ear.
“Grr! Take cover!” Ash shouted back.
“Why!? What’re you doing!?”
“Just do it!” Turning around, he sprinted half the distance between their makeshift bunker and the lobby’s front door, whereupon he did a couple of wind-ups before chunking the doomed rifle. Grabbing a nearby office chair, he dove for the floor, pulling the piece of contemporary furniture down on top of himself as the far double doors exploded in a ball of golden fire. “Yeah!” he crowed, “Hey, Misty! Round everyone up! We’re outta here!”
Misty was silent.
“Hey!” Ash turned around. “Did you-!” He stopped short. “What in the blue hell…”
* * * * *
The aging byway wound precariously up the mountain’s steep incline, turning sharply at every bend and twist, threatening to plunge those who dared traverse its perilous route off into the thickly wooded nether world of the valley below. Few ever traveled this way, preferring other routes to this notorious-looking serpent of crumbling country highway, seeking other destinations more safe. Actually, few came this way because, to put it frankly, few even knew it led anywhere anymore.
“Well,” Gary mused aloud, “Just goes to show what a little extra homework will do fer’ya.” He pulled hard on his supped-up Jaguar’s steering wheel. The imported sports car’s wheels squealed on the weather-worn pavement, narrowly hugging the edge of the road as it abruptly veered to the right, but managing to stay upright and on course.
A little reckless, aren’t we?
Gary shrugged at the thought. To be honest, he really didn’t care. Sure, he had important responsibilities, good reasons to keep himself alive. Among other things he was an important Pokèmon League official and a highly sought-after part-time detective. In fact, he was on an important case right now.
The Saffron City Museum of History and Art had been robbed a couple of nights back—one, he noted, in a series of uncannily similar thefts; the crooks had only taken one item. The other telltale signs were no less perplexing: burned-through walls, vaults, and glass display cases; blown-out fuse boxes, short-circuited security systems, electro-fried, half-conscious security personnel; frozen babes—okay, that last one had been an exception actually; whoever the thieves were, they’d apparently had an encounter with the daughter of this one rich fellow whose relic item they’d also stolen. Gary shook his head, forcing himself to shove the anger he still felt toward the villains over that incident aside. They had almost killed the young woman, Jennifer Elaine Rothchild, a university sophomore of about twenty-one, home for the summer to help her father organize the season’s advertising campaign for his upcoming run at the White House, or some irrelevant nonsense like that. At any rate, she’d been saved (for once, Gary thought ironically, money bought life), and it was she who gave Oak his first real hint as to who these notorious international pilferers might be: “They wore black,” she’d said, “One of them pulled out a small round ball, tossed it on the ground in front of me, and out popped…”
A Vaporeon. A Vaporeon who probably hit her with an icebeam attack, Gary seethed, and at point-blank range, too. Jennifer was lucky to be alive.
That had been a full month-and-a-half ago. Since then, Gary, and other constituents of the law with whom he worked closely on this case, had confirmed that two other Pokèmon—a Jolteon and a Flareon—had also been present. There were also two, more likely three, humans trainers involved in the mysterious thefts. Physical evidence had been scant, but they’d managed to find it, mainly due to the efforts of a superbly trained group of law enforcement Pokèmon from LA. Everyone was working at a breakneck pace on this; Gary was hoping to catch the criminals before, or better yet, in the act of their next steal. He didn’t know for sure, but he had a hunch about where that next strike would occur.
The car’s speedometer was registering somewhere between fifty-five to seventy mph—fifty on the turns, sixty-plus on the straight-aways; the time was early, about five after four in the morning. Quickly, Gary glanced at his car’s internal GPS, making a brisk check on his progress. He nodded affirmatively, refocusing his attention on the precarious drive ahead. His heart began to pound. Almost there! If the thieves were there, too, he’d be there to catch them, hopefully with their hands still in the cookie jar. Then he’d take them down hard…warranted, that was probably easier said than done. Gary mulled the possible liabilities over in his head; perhaps he should have brought some backup. For a split second, he thought of his friend, Ash. They’d always had crazy adventures like this; gallivanting off on some hair-brained mission to save such-and-such from so-and-so, to right wrongs, to champion justice. And Ash was also into this crime-kicking thing, if his sources were correct. Maybe…perhaps…just one more time?
Errr! Wrong! I’m sorry, but the answer is ‘No’!
Gary cursed. He knew that already.
The empty road wound on before him, forcing him to follow its aimless lead.
He was alone.
* * * * * *
“Oh, so the dog has balls after all!” The Talwar roared with mocking laughter as Samurai began striding in his direction. “You asinine mortal! I’m going to kill you!”
“Is that so.” Samurai didn’t hesitate, cringe or flinch. “I never would have guessed.”
The demon scowled disdainfully. “I was promised some great warrior to fight,” he seethed venomously, “And what do I get!? A midget! What kind of a joke is this!?”
“Sorry to disappoint you.” Samurai replied calmly, still approaching.
“Satan damn you mongrel!” The hellish beast roared. He brought a massive hoof pounding into the concrete floor, sending slivers and dust everywhere, but the man below him did not so much as even blink, letting the serrated shards fly by, leaving minute cuts on his face. The demon glowered disdainfully at him. “Worm! I’m going to rip your empty head off your puny shoulders! I’m going to tear your heart out and squeeze your carcass dry! I’ll butcher your pulverized flesh and feed your dripping entrails to the ravens and jackals!” Thick, acidic saliva ran down the Minotaur’s lower lip as he snarled balefully. “I’ll wipe all evidence of your existed off the face of the Earth! I’m going to hunt down your family! I’ll crush your father! I’ll ravage your mother! I’ll hound and rape your brothers and sisters! I’ll make their skulls into goblets and drink their blood as wine! I’ll dig up your ancestors’ bones-!”
Samurai ground to an immediate halt. His steeling aura abruptly melted as something inside Shoto finally snapped and a look of total, unadulterated fury darkened his countenance. “That,” he roared, “Is enough! ” Unstrapping his sword, he drew the highly polished blade and cast the scabbard and belt assembly aside. “You insult me and you will suffer spilt blood for your trespass; but for the dishonor of my family, you will die!” Fiery anger consumed his body and mind. “I swear to you, demon!” He seethed, “By my father’s name I will slay you for what you have said!
The giant threw back his head and roared with abhorrent laughter. “You father’s name!? Bah! His name means nothing you fool!”
Samurai burned hotter, his rage deepening. “Silence! Your mockery ends here!” With a berserker war cry, he lowered his sword and charged.
The two women regarded one another with silent appraisal. On the initial surface of things, they couldn’t have been more different. Giselle was clad in what could best be described as a pair of tight, formfitting diving slicks made out of solid black kevlar, and her slim waist was unceremoniously adorned with various tools and instruments of war, not including the miscellaneous gadgets strapped to her wrists, upper biceps and thighs. Chalky dust covered her from the crown of her head to the toe of her knee-high combat boots, and her shimmering hair hung down loosely about her symmetrically toned shoulders. By contrast, the immaculately groomed woman standing in front of the combat-soiled heiress was wrapped in a plush, semi-translucent evening gown made of shimmering pale silk and imbedded with hundreds of glittering, granule-sized gemstones. Her lustrous waves of golden hair were pulled back behind her head, flowing down the sensuously toned curves of her backside, all the way to her buttocks, where the radiant strands were braided into several hundred delicate-looking cords, each tipped with a half-inch, hexagonally cut diamond. Yet there was an unmistakable similarity between them. The bodies beneath the veils were perfect; lightly tanned, full bosomed, ideally streamlined yet also flawlessly toned, with every lithe curve in place, remarkably dimensioned and smoothly sculpted. The thin, critically arched brows, high-set cheekbones, haughty, elfin countenance—it was unmistakable; these two were clones of the exact same breed.
The siren and the urban princess glared at one another. Their universal sisterhood was undeniable, yet the impromptu reunion was no cause for celebration.
Giselle released her utility belt and hip holsters, letting them, and her long barreled firearms fall to the floor. Correspondingly, the demon temptress stripped off her lucent gown, casting it listlessly behind her, revealing the silver-hued bands of tight elastic fabric that shielded her female parts from the elements. From the ceiling above, two large cushions of black velvet descended between the women, each bearing a pair of gleaming, twenty-four-inch steel sais.
As the buoyant pillows came level with them, the two approached and withdrew their set of deadly trident heads, each still staring the other down. Slowly, they backed away from one another, the combined clomp and click of steel-heeled boots and high-heel steel sandals resonated simultaneously as the two took up their opening stances. They raised their weapons, exchanging one final glance of mutual animosity. Between them, a unanimous consensus had apparently been reached:
“There’s not enough room on this planet for both of us.”
Ash froze in place. Sweat began to emanate from his clenched fists, and it wasn’t because of the lingering inferno just behind him. Across from where he stood, Misty stared silently back, her cerulean eyes wide with fright and surprise. Ash watched in confused alarm as she drew her sidearm and aimed it directly at him, alternately backing away. A few feet behind her, a tall, nearly transparent shadow hovered several inches above the debris-strewn floor. Twin slits of crimson fire burned in its ethereal head.
He stopped short.
To his immediate right, someone else had also just spoken, using his voice, saying exactly the same thing he had and with just as much horrified consternation.
Quick as thought, Ash whipped out his own sidearm, bringing it to bear on…
“What the hell!?”
“What the hell!?”
Misty looked on in dismay as Ash and Ash just stared in total shock at each other, holding their full-auto Elite pistols inches away from the other’s nose. She watched as the horror of the situation sank into both of them and they turned their pleading eyes back to her. Dropping their guns, they held out imploring hands to the incredulous redhead.
“Misty, don’t! It’s me!”
“Misty, don’t! It’s me!”
“Oh, God!” Misty wanted to scream. “Not this!”
Behind her, the Chameleon Necromancer leaned over and whispered in her ear. “There’s no way to tell. You’ll have to kill both of them.”
* * * * * * *
Spreading his massive wings, the Lugia brought order to the great assembly gathered about him, ushering in an expectant silence to the Hall of Kings.
“I welcome you,” he boomed, “To the capital of our domains. I will not apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you, except to say that I am sorry the present course of this world has again called us to take action against the present evil which has persisted in the vile treachery or the first. We are all of us High Guardians or the Most High, called to care for the earth, the water, the sky, man and beast alike, and all corners of this planet are under our watchful eye. It is our duty, but even deeper than that, it is our love that calls us to champion the cause of Life and the One and the undying glory of His might! It is because of this that even through all the ages we have fought against the tyranny of evil and we have always won. Remember,” he advised solemnly, sweeping the vast assembly with his sapphire eyes, “Remember, above all things, who it is your power comes from.”
Tucking his wings behind his back, the King pressed on in a more methodical fashion. “Many of you know the reason for which you have been called, but for the many more who do not, I will briefly explain our crisis. Nearly a millenium ago, there existed a powerful nation of exceptionally adept and cunning rulers, who after a comparatively short time, succeeded in consolidating their resources into a single movement of unstoppable conquest. They subdued all who dared to stand against them, and within a century, had created the Pokèmopolitan Empire, a vast entity that encompassed and had dominion over most of the known, civilized world.” The Lugia closed his eyes. High above them all, the lights dimmed, and the room was illuminated by the image of a massive portion of the globe, showing Europe, Africa, and most of Eurasia, Asia and even Australia coated in luminous green, indicating the vastness of the Pokemapolitans’ rule. “I was not pleased with this kingdom,” The Lugia continued as he looked thoughtfully up at the lighted portrait, “None of us who were still around back then did, but we were commanded not to interfere with their general endeavors. In many ways, the empire brought a new level of advancement to the human race. The facets of technology and magic alike were brought to play, creating a world more free of disease, war, and poverty. These were an ambitious people, more so than any who had come before. It prompted them to defy the limits of unbelief and achieve things many had thought impossible. They harnessed the elements, using the power of wind, water and earth’s vast natural resources; they mapped the globe, charted the land and seas; they captured Pokèmon, bringing even the most ferocious of creatures under their control. This latter of their exploits was arguably the greatest. Ironically, however, it was this particular ambition that also led to their downfall.
“As their skill increased, the Pokèmopolitans began to capture rarer, more powerful Pokèmon, including a number from among our own peoples, enslaving many of these for the purpose of fettering their considerable command over the elements. But that was only the beginning of their outrage, for even after this, they were not satisfied. Many noble creatures of might and legend were callously slain in an effort to determine the secrets of their physiology and genetics, and many more were cross-bred in an attempt to create a hybrid more powerful than the originals.
“In a sense, they succeeded with these procedures; after years of relentless experimentation, this most powerful among the nations of men, those before and those which have come since, did finally produce a line of horrific elementals whose combined power, to this day, would severely rival ours.” He lowered his head and the world globe’s glowing image disappeared. “Unfortunately, that was where they made their final mistake, and it ultimately cost them their ambition, their empire, and their lives.”
The starlit sky spread itself above the heavenly arena, a vast, endless myriad of vivid pinpricks of illumination that cast their pale phosphorescence languidly on everything below, offset only by the combined radiance of the Pokèmon lords who quietly observed the cosmic spectacle.
“The celestial guardians who held back the fallen angels of darkness were recalled from their posts and the hordes of the Forbidden were unleashed upon the world of mortals, demon spirits given a physical form to live in. For nearly half a century, these malignant creatures ravaged the planet, driving the scions of man and Pokèmon kind alike deeper and deeper into the barren recesses of the world, closer every day to total extinction. The madmen who thought they could control these teaming monstrosities were all dead now, victims fallen to the instruments of their own design. The dark ages had begun.”
As they all watched, several enigmatic shapes began to emerge from the speckled void; twisted, hunched over and grotesquely deformed apparitions.
A sullen murmur of recognition rippled through the assembly.
“Among all the demons, a select few proved themselves to be far more powerful than the rest, possessing evil beyond any other of their kind. They had been guardian creatures once, like us, but abducted by the Pokèmopolitan Empire, their genetic makeup altered by dark magic and crude science until they became twisted irreversibly into something they were not meant to be. Designed to be protectors, they were more powerful than any hybrid ever procreated, purposed to defend the empire from its enemies. Yet in making them thus, these once noble beings were stripped of their dignity, enslaved, locked away in dungeons of lonely bondage, and after a time, given completely over to bitter despair. The spirits of animosity came to them first, and before any of the others were subverted, these fallen sentinels signed away the last fragments of their souls to the forces of evil, expecting freedom, but instead being enslaved again, now forever, their vacant shells being ultimately used to bring desolation on the world.
One by one, the haunting apparitions faded from view, melting again into the starry backdrop. “So it was the mightiest of empires fell,” the Lugia concluded solemnly, “And the remnants of mankind were scattered across the face of the earth, broken, afraid, and helpless; so it was then,” He added, “That we, the High Guardians of Light at last were permitted to intervene.”
* * * * * *
“Ha! Come on mortal!” The Minotaur scoffed, glaring down on his opponent with undisguised spite. “Is that all you’ve got!?”
Incredulous, Samurai rushed again, trying to get inside the towering beast’s defenses. He found himself confronted with a wall of solid, impenetrable steel.
The demon blocked his undersized opponent with maddening ease, parrying the small swordsman’s lightning fast strikes with the sheer volume of his gargantuan bulk, rather than superior proficiency. “You worthless insect!” He glowered disdainfully, using his massive shin guards to take another intricate combination, not even bothering to employ his sword. “I said fight me, not insult my skill! You pathetic wretch! FIGHT!!” He stamped the ground hard.
Samurai leapt into the air, barely avoiding the newly broken slabs of concrete. Recovering his balance, he tried to circle the hulking creature, but every time he moved, his opponent simply moved with him, never allowing him to pass his frontal defense.
“Trying to get at my backside are we!?” The satanic creature snarled contemptuously. “You shrinking coward! Here! Take the scourge of my ass!”
Shoto ducked as the demon spun around; too fast, he thought apprehensively, for something so large. Three massive, pronged tails of true bull-whip fried the air above his head. He fell to one knee as the creature hit the ground again, sending the shock of his landing all through Samurai, making the bones rattle in his head. He got up, only to fall again as his merciless opponent drove his monstrous blade halfway into the floor.
The Talwar Minotaur drew his katana out of the ground, sending another shower of serrated debris raining down all around his opponent. “Get up, dog! Get up and fight me! I’ll tear you apart! I’ll paint this hellhole with your blood! GET UP!!”
Samurai rose painfully to his feet. Even with his reinforced, shock-padded, slash-proof, puncture resistant Elite issue garb, his knees, and several other places, were nastily bruised, and he could feel the soreness of overexerting himself earlier creeping into his fatiguing muscles. His face was cut and bleeding freely in several places, not from his opponent’s blade, but from the shrapnel being incessantly kicked up from the cement floor. Why was he even fighting this battle? Honor or no honor, wasn’t it obvious to any rational person that he was going to eventually loose?
As his self-righteous indignation began to wane, so, too, did his iron resolve. After all, wasn’t the demon right about him? Was he really so honorable as he supposed?
The demon shoved off the ground, folding his wings in close to execute a flawless double punch-front. His steel-plated body hummed ominously as it spun through the air, impossibly fast for something with his proportions. Unfolding his brawny legs, the Minotaur brought his massive hooves crashing down on the floor, “HRAH!” Right in his opponent’s face.
Samurai was thrown twenty feet away, chucked like a rag doll by the immense tectonic shock. His world became a violent blur of dust and blood and stony shrapnel, and then sharp pain as his right shoulder met the floor again. He rolled helplessly across the debris-covered ground, finally coming to a stop when his tumbling body made sharp contact with a concrete pillar.
Lying in a crumpled, bleeding heap, Shoto stared vacantly, his mouth and eyes wide with shock and the last strands of his angry denial. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, struggling to keep up with this fight’s impossible demand for bodily resources. His arms and legs ached, and his lungs threatened to burst. Blood ran from the cuts on his hands and face; his bruises were severe and swelling. He clenched his empty right hand. Now even his sword was missing, the very fusion of his mind, body and soul. He let out a great sigh. He was finished, defeated by an overgrown animal. He thought of himself, long ago when he’d first started out as a Pokèmon trainer, how he’d aspired to become the greatest, a man of unassailable honor, and how it had all boiled down to vain glory, utterly futile. He thought of his friends, of all the times he’d purposed to be true to them, to always watch their backs, to be patient, to be understanding and kind, and of all the times he’d inadvertently let every one of them down. Thoughts of his family, those he had long ago abandoned and yet now fought to honor, also flooded his fading mind, and the thoughts only filled him with deeper shame and despair. He had failed them, his friends, and even himself. And now, he would die by hand of an unrighteous demon, spelling out the finality of his dishonorable fate.
Tears of humiliation mixed with the life fluid that poured down his face. It had taken a long time, but Shoto Samurai Shinji had finally lost everything.
Towering over his fallen prey, The Talwar sneered balefully.
“Had enough yet, human?”
“You wish!” Giselle snarled, spinning around, narrowly dodging what turned out to be only a quick feint from her opponent’s sai.
“Such powerful form.” The Siren remarked pleasantly, unperturbed by her prey’s disdain. “But so slow!”
“I’ll show you who’s slow!” The fuming heiress shot back.
For several minutes, the two living icons of feminine prowess exchanged blows—or more accurately, one tried with every ounce of hateful energy she could summon to skewer her opponent, while the other, almost lazily, blocked and parried her maddened alter-ego’s deadly strikes with logic-defying ease.
“Come on, dear,” the Siren taunted amiably, parrying a nasty slash/strike combo without so much as taking a breath, “I’m so bored! Can’t you try just a little harder?”
“Bitch!” Giselle fairly screamed. She ducked under her opponent’s defenses, executing a fast leg sweep, which would have worked beautifully, except that the other woman was simply not there. Springing to her feet, the fuming diva attacked again, throwing a very rapid, and ordinarily very confusing, series of feints, stabs, deadly lunges and uppercuts, spinning around like a hurricane as she tried to force her opponent to attack back, make a mistake, and give her an opening. She snarled in frustration and disgust. The Siren only smiled back, blocking, parrying and dodging fluidly out of harm’s way. “Quit running away, you cheap piece of shit!”
“Oh?” the Siren wiped at her cheek, feigning a hurt tear, “Are you tired of this game already?” She backed away, flying gracefully across the floor on her heeled feet as her enraged quarry ran at her with another vicious set of stabs, kicks and frequent curses. She blocked a double stab, catching the other woman’s sais just inches from where they were aimed at her abdomen and forehead.
Sensing her chance, Giselle pressed in harder, trying to force her weapons’ intended trajectory. The other pushed back, keeping her sais held at bay. Their weapons locked, and for a brief instant, the two stood motionless, forced to look again into the other’s eyes.
The charming smile twisted into a caustic smirk, revealing something of the Siren’s mutual hatred. “Keep trying, honey, but you won’t kill me; I’m too much a part of you.”
Giselle pushed harder. “Cheap slut! You’re nothing like me! I’m a million times better!” Yet her mind had to wonder, how could this woman still be holding me back like this…unless, perhaps, she’s much stronger than I am? At last, something in the back of her head was beginning to think rationally; but of course, not liking that notion at all, she only pushed harder, straining stubbornly against the force that held her back… all to no avail.
“In a little while, baby sister,” The Siren whispered, “you’ll be just like me.”
Something inside Giselle flipped the warning light, but as always, she paid it no attention. “The hell I will!” she spat dismissively.
The Siren shook her head. She smiled, re-donning the mask of inexhaustible flamboyancy. “Watch me.” And with no apparent effort or strain, she pushed back against her opponent’s weapons, stepping out from under the lockdown.
The high-pitched ring of metal sliding free of metal echoed ominously in Giselle’s eardrums, like the last bell toll. She watched her opponent spin languidly away, dancing across the floor with infuriating ease.
At last, totally incensed, and impatient with her progress, Giselle launched into a final barrage of lightning quick stabs and slashes, driving her opponent back toward the wall. The Siren allowed herself to be driven, giving ground until they reached the standing obstruction, whereupon she ran nimbly up its vertical surface, flipping around behind her astonished prey. Instinctively, Giselle ducked, taking that seesaw movement into an up-cutting back kick. Unfortunately, the other was no longer there.
The Siren smiled. Her prey was fast, she could see, and smart; but not fast or smart enough. She’d played the human; now it was time to say goodbye, “game over”. Unleashing her superior physiology, the demon seductress whipped around like a lightning bolt and landed her first crippling strike.
Giselle fell to her knees, screaming as her opponent’s sai buried itself deep in her left shoulder, drawing itself out again in a shower of bright red. Enraged, the wounded heiress stretched out her right arm, intent on spinning around and running her assailant through, but she screamed again when another stabbing blow pinned her right wrist to the wall.
“Poor girl,” the Siren chided, “You should have listened to what I told you.”
The world seemed to stand still for Giselle as she stared in disbelief at the gleaming spike that had just been driven clean through her oscillating connective hinge. The trident head’s pronged hilt was buried completely, along with the primary blade, in the concrete wall, with Giselle’s wrist firmly impaled between them. Blood flowed from the puncture wound, dribbling off the steel implement into a growing puddle on the floor below. Her conscious mind reeled with the implications of that image… How? …with the implication of inevitable defeat.
Before she could think to do anything else, her body recoiled again, now in shock as her left arm was also stretched out and her other hand nailed brutally to the vertical face.
“No, just…stay back!” Misty pleaded, chambering a round to emphasize the threat. “If either of you comes a step closer, I swear I’ll kill you both!”
Again, the soothing voice advised her. “Go ahead. You’ll have to anyway.”
“Oh God!” she was on the verge of tears. “Why me!?”
“Don’t blame yourself; it’s not your fault. Kill them.”
“No!” she wailed.
“If you do not kill them now, they will forever be coming back to you, pleading with you, demanding that you choose one over the other…haunting you with his image; one you thought loved you.”
“No!” But now, she didn’t sound so sure.
“Do you really need this man? Didn’t you leave him? Didn’t he effectively betray and abandon you?”
“He…” she began uncertainly, “…I…I don’t…”
“I know you suffer because of him; because of what he did to you.”
The pain of that one fateful night came rushing back to her, sweeping her away on its tide, flooding her mind and body with the sounds and sensations, and then the bitter feelings of utter betrayal and loss. “…He hurt me!” Misty cried. Moisture gathered around her eyes.
“Yes, he did.” The voice answered. “He wounded you so badly, you couldn’t stand the sight of his face. You wanted to die, and even after you tried to put it all away, he still came after you, trying to get more; he had no right. So end it now. Leave this wound behind you, forever.”
“I…” hot tears streamed down her face. Her hand trembled as she fingered the automatic’s trigger. “I…can’t!”
The Necromancer’s eyes narrowed. “Oh,” the demon whispered, “He can. If you will not kill him, he has no reservations about destroying either of you.”
Ash stared helplessly about; he noted, with no small amount of disgust, that his imposter did the same. He looked hard at the shadow hovering over Misty’s shoulder, then at her, knowing that if he so much as made a sudden move toward them, the “thing”—whatever it was—would convince her that he was the enemy, and then she would kill him. But then again, if he did nothing, “it” would still convince her anyway, and she would still…
No! He screamed inside. Not Misty! Never! Even after so many years of separation; years of heartache, blood, sweat and tears, she was still…his friend…Right? Ash’s mind spun, reeling for answers, coming up empty. He clenched his teeth in frustration, and beside him, he could feel the other mimicking his every outward sound and movement.
He wondered if she knew what was happening. Did she know something, someone else, was talking to her, putting mental delusion in her head perhaps?
“Not at all,” a thought that sounded like his own whispered, “look at her; she’s totally oblivious. It’s up to you to make this right, and she knows it, but she’s not going to let you. No; she’ll push you away, like she always has, like she always will.”
Ash’s mind recoiled in horror. No! He shot back incredulously, That’s not…
“Not what?” the voice asked intently. “Not true? Don’t lie to yourself; you know it is too.”
No! No, shut up! I don’t want to hear this! I don’t care what you say! It isn’t true! It just isn’t! It just…
“It just is, buddy, and you know it.”
“Yes! Who are you kiddin’ anyway? Look into it! Look back on every time you, the man, came up with that unbeatable plan, and she, the bitch, shot it down like it was total shit! Your journey to become the greatest Pokèmon master, for instance; what did she do? ‘No way! You’ll never make it, loser!’ And yet look at what happened! ”
But she was there for me! Ash protested. …Well…most of the time!
“Yeah! To cut you back down to size! And what about your world badge quest? Don’t you think, that perhaps, just maybe, you’d really have them all by now, every last one, if she’d really supported you, been there for you the way she was suppose to? ”
Ash stopped and considered that for a moment. It was true he realized; their relationship had been a never-ending feud, with him always daring to be something great and her always there to tell him just how miserably the whole idea was going to fail. Yet she had always been there to say, “I believe in you, Ash!” at all the right moments…
…Or is that just what she did to keep her room on his free ride? It seemed impossible; he’d known her for so long…known she was hardheaded, pessimistic, fretful, spiteful, bitter, envious, deceitful, petty—did he have to go on? But surely, he was, too…Or was he simply trying now to find some way to justify his tolerance for someone that had perpetually beat down the driving charisma that drove his male machine? Every time she told him he was crazy, that he couldn’t do it, that he was stupid, immature, incompetent in any way, it had hurt him—not his ego, not his arrogance; him! So what if she was right half the time; if she really believed in him, really loved him, how then could she also be so completely heartless?
…I never thought about any of that…
“And look at this; you’ve done far more, with your real friends, in the last ten years, helped more people and accomplished more mutual good, without her there to constantly tear you down.”
Oh, God…Ash’e eyes brimmed with moisture.
“Hey,” the voice soothed, “it’s okay; it’s not your fault! What else were you suppose to do? She said ‘I believe in you’ just enough to keep that little piece of your heart for herself. How were you suppose to know that she’d really up and leave you one day? And how were you suppose to know that when she did, she’d take your whole heart with her?”
He felt like a two-ton Golem about to explode. I can’t believe this…
“She beat you down, and then she screwed you over. How much more of this bullshit are you gonna take?”
Ash looked again at the woman who’d come to mean everything to him. He saw her, wide-eyed and frightened, and despite his genuine pleas, still pointing the gun at him.
Why!? He wanted to scream. Why do you hate me!? What have I done to deserve this from you!?
A tear rolled down his cheek. “But, I still love her.”
Behind him, the dark Necromancer calmly shook his shadow-crowned head. “She was suppose to be your everything,” he replied empathetically, knowing his victim was too spent to discern his lies, “But instead, she took everything you love away from you.”
“No…” Slowly, Ash picked up his gun again.
“Enough’s enough,” the demon stated, his voice heavy with patriotic resolve, “It’s time to ditch the bitch and move on.”
“No.” Ash repeated. He put the weapon’s muzzle against his own chest. “If she’s not for me, I’m not going anywhere.”
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