Sylph Knight and Waterviper
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April Waterflower struggled uselessly against the unseen clasps that held her tightly against the cold, sharp metal crucifix at her back. She was tired, and she ached fiercely, and all she wanted was to just go home.
“Mom…” she whimpered softly as big, blubbery tears rolled down her round cheeks. “Mommy…please help me. I promise I won’t do nothin’ bad from now on. Please…”
But there was no answer. There hadn’t been an answer for quite some time now, and she didn’t expect any answer for the next time she asked five minutes from now. She didn’t care anymore. At that moment, she would do anything, absolutely anything, to get down and go home, where it was safe and warm, and where her mother wouldn’t let anything hurt her.
“Mommy…I just want to go home.” Her voice was small and scared. The cloaked man hadn’t come back to haunt her for hours, leaving her with only the memory of seeing those horrible demons descending upon her mother and new friends. Ash. Brock. That one pretty lady and her boyfriend with the big sword. All of them could be dead, and April would never know, because she would be dead in a little bit, too. The cloaked man had said so.
A reverberating voice echoed across the ruined Command Center, bouncing off of ruined and blackened consoles and ringing in April’s ears. She lifted her chin from her chest and looked about, but couldn’t find any sign of its owner. She was still alone.
“Wh-Wh-Who’s there?” she demanded in as brave a voice as her terrified little mind could put forth.
Don’t you know me, darling?
The light in the room faded gradually, leaving only the reddish glow of the pit beneath her crucifix of blades behind. Cast in a hellish glow, the little girl looked about, but couldn’t see anything beyond her own body. Her breathing grew ragged and panicked as she renewed her struggle against the mystic bonds. “No…go away! Leave me alone!”
I thought you wanted a friend, sweetie…
“Not from here,” April squirmed and squealed, tossing her raven hair as her head shook back and forth. “I just wanna go home!”
But that’s why I’m here, darling. I’m here to take you home.
April’s struggling ceased at once as she stared out into the pitch black surrounding her. Despite the eerie nature of the situation, she couldn’t help but feel a small glimmer of hope rekindle in her heart. “A…Ash?” she asked hopefully. “Mr. Brock? Is that you?”
No, my darling.
“Th-Then who are you?” Her voice trembled. Ever since she was a little child, April had been afraid of the dark. It was her greatest shame; that such a rough-and-tumble tomboy was scared to be alone at night. Oftentimes, when the fear would become too much, she would sleep with her mother, clinging to her only parent’s warm body for protection and comfort. She would have given anything to have that now. “Wh-Who’s there?”
Oh child…I’ve been searching for you for so long…And at last, I’ve found you.
April felt her heart skip a beat. Calling out into the darkness, she uttered a single word, the word more important to her than any other in her short, short life, a word that meant everything, and yet was nothing, save for hope:
That’s right, child. I am your father.
Though she could still see nothing, April felt a set of hands encircle her arms, rubbing her skin as gently as could be. The sensation was very cold, and sent shivers running up and down her spine, but she was just grateful to have something to connect with in that terrible darkness. The touch worked its way across her arms and over her neck, coming to rest on her cheeks. She felt an invisible thumb caress her cheekbone with a tender circular movement as a voice murmured in her ear.
Would you like to go home?
There was no question. “Yes,” she breathed, unconsciously leaning into the cool touch. “Please. Help me…”
Then accept me.
“I…I don’t unn’rstand.”
Accept me. Trust me. Trust your father, child.
April flinched as a set of icy lips brushed against her cheek. She felt the coolness linger as they pulled away, and could almost feel the smile in them hovering so near to her. Then she felt the cold spread into her cheek, and screamed. The chill rushed through her skin and touched every part of her as she pulled against the crucifix with all of her might. Her terrified screams echoed in the sightless room for naught; there was no one to help her.
The Dreadfire Crescents, hooked together in a demonic caricature of faith, began retracting in on themselves. Wherever they touched April’s fragile body, they began merging with her flesh and clothes, drawing in. There was no pain, and yet April screamed anyway, terrified of the new sensation combined with the awful cold that seized her body. She screamed in fear, sobbed with frustration, but the Crescents and the cold just kept coming. At last, the little girl’s body jolted free, no longer held in place by the crucifix, and flew forward onto the cool, cluttered metal deck of the Command Center.
Lawrence smiled at the body trembling at his feet as he willed the darkness away. He cleared his throat, chasing away the unnatural reverb that had served so well to trick the young one as he bent down and clutched with a bony hand at her arm. Pasty, rough and sallow skin pulled back into a skeletal smile as he rolled her over and stared into her unconscious face. There, on her cheek where he had graced her, was a tiny black mark; a talon of pure obsidian, outstretched as if reaching for a helpless prey.
“April, darling…” he whispered, nudging the pretty little girl. “Darling, it’s time to wake up.”
April’s eyes snapped open. Where once there had been striking cobalt surrounding her pupils, now there was only black. Her eyes looked enormous and alien as she gazed lovingly up at the puppet of the Shadow, blinking slowly with a broad smile upon her lips.
“Yes, father,” she murmured, taking his hand and resting it against her marked cheek.
* * *
Brock Stone knocked back his fifth cup of coffee, and wondered absently if he would ever be happy again. In the space of a single night, he had witnessed monsters that would give him waking nightmares for the rest of his life. He had watched good friends and comrades alike go off to their doom. He had shot his own Pokémon dead.
Rhyhorn was dead because of him.
A slinky figure slid onto the stool next to him, clutching a mug in one hand and reaching tentatively towards his with her other. Brock caught Giselle’s concerned look out of the corner of his eye, and at the back of his mind realized that she really was pretty, when she wasn’t screaming or acting like a snide pain in the ass. Across the way, Gary and Samurai were talking quietly in a booth as the patrons and staff of the diner kept a respectable distance away from all of them. Ash and Misty hadn’t yet returned from outside. Goddess only knew what they were talking about.
“Hey,” Giselle said softly as she pulled his empty mug away and replaced it with the full one. “Thought you could use a refill. None of these pricks’ll come near us anymore.” She tossed a thumb over her shoulder at the terrified waitress, who squeaked at being singled out and retreated back into the kitchen.
“They’re scared.” Brock muttered, downing half of the steaming, scalding liquid in a single gulp. The burning sensation felt good as it traveled down his throat. It reminded him that he was still alive and still useless. “They have a right to be. And I probably shouldn’t drink any more coffee.”
“Yeah, well…I guess I wanted to see…how you were doing.” Giselle admitted painfully. She pulled away, leaning against the counter and looking down shamefully as Brock was, but for completely different reasons.
“Hey,” she smiled with a tiny laugh, “Can’t be a bitch all of the time, right?”
Brock shook his head. “No,” he murmured. “I mean, thanks for saving me back there. In the hallway.”
“Oh. Well…Thanks for trying to get me off of the wall.” Giselle replied uneasily.
“Yeah.” he uttered bitterly, “Trying.” He threw his head back, draining the rest of the burning liquid and letting it scorch its way down into his stomach, where it sat in a detestable lump right up against his ulcer. “That seems to be the operative word, doesn’t it? I tried to save you. I tried to save April. I blew it on both accounts, and managed to kill one of my best friends in the process…”
“One of your…oh.” Giselle suddenly remembered the final moments before her delirium blurred the memory of the events afterward. Despite the strange dream she had, combined with Gary and Brock’s testimonials, she still had a hard time believing that some celestial being had swooped down to save her and Samurai. But she definitely remembered Brock emptying a clip of high-velocity rounds into his very own Pokémon, courtesy of the Talwar Minotaur. “That wasn’t-“
“Story of my life, girl.” he sighed as he cut her off. His head drooped lower toward the counter as he leaned heavily on his elbows, staring at his blurry reflection in the gleaming tile top. A thousand failures flashed past his eyes in the space of an instant, but it was the special ones, the really big screw-ups, that surfaced and stayed with him, just like they always did. “I failed everyone.”
Giselle didn’t speak as he shifted in his seat and turned to face her. His creamy Pilipino features were a mask of uncertainty and pain as he laughed derisively at himself, rubbing at his temple as if struck by a sudden headache. “Did you know my family won’t even speak to me anymore?” Another laugh. “I have more brothers and sisters than you can imagine, and none of them will have anything to do with me.”
“Why?” she asked quietly.
“Oh, I don’t blame them, don’t get me wrong.” He waved her question aside as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “After my father’s death, I was so gung-ho to avenge him. Brock Stone, the Great Avenger, seeking justice and absolution, yada yada yada…” Giselle could have sworn she caught sight of a crack in his tough-guy demeanor before he got a better handle on himself. But even then, his voice was still choked. “But when I finally came back…They said I abandoned them. Said they had no one, that I should have taken care of them.”
Giselle’s hand started to reach out before she thought better of it. “Why are you telling me this?”
Glancing out the window, Brock caught sight of his best friend and partner. Ash was leaned up against one of the big rig trailers, staring out across the parking lot. Misty, the object of his attention, gazed into the rising sun as if oblivious to his existence. “Ash is the only family I’ve had in a long time. When I couldn’t get April out of there…”
“But April’s not his kid…is she?” Confusion reigned in Giselle’s voice as she too stared out at the mismatched pair separated in the parking lot.
“No,” Brock shook his head. “But she’s Misty’s. And even if he didn’t like the kid…and he loves that kid, I can tell…just knowing that Misty’s heart was broken is enough for Ash. I let them both down…I let April down.” He moaned, resting his head against the cool countertop. “And I can’t seem to stop letting everyone down.”
There was a beat before Giselle asked, “Are you finished?”
“Um…I guess so,” he mumbled into the tile.
“Good, ‘cause I’m going to be a bitch again.” Reaching out, she grabbed him by the back of his spiky hair and hauled his face out of the counter. Surprisingly, he didn’t put up any resistance as she tossed his head up and grabbed him by the chin. An icy glaze settled over her glare as she squeezed the sides of his face with her fingers, pushing his lips into a ridiculous pucker. “Now shut the hell up and stop feeling sorry for yourself, asshole.”
“What the hell do you know?” Brock managed to say through his puckered lips.
“Plenty.” She released him and began ticking off on her long, slender fingers right in his face. “First, it’s annoying. Second, it makes you sound like a woman. And not a tough, independent bitch like me. I mean the pansy, wussy, dainty little cows stuck in their fifties’ style kitchen popping valium so they can stand their wife-beating husbands.”
Brock tilted his head. “You’re a horrible person, you know that?”
She pressed ahead as if he had never spoken. “Third,” she snarled, “Those people you let down aren’t benefiting from your wishy-washy moping. Rhyhorn’s dead, and-this might be a surprise, but-it’s not your fault. April might be dead, she might not be. Also not your fault. I’m not dead, but even if I was, I’d be too busy taking over Hell to even give your sorry ass a second thought. So grow a pair, shut up and put up! People are counting on you.”
As Giselle drew her hands away, she caught a brief flash of unadulterated fury in Brock’s eyes. But the moment was short-lived; his features settled into their usual demeanor of quiet thoughtfulness as her words ran through his mind like cogs in a machine. “People are really counting on me?” he asked quietly.
“Buddy,” she said in all seriousness, “We’ve got a planet out there with the Shadow’s name on it. It’s up to us to wipe that name out before it’s too late.”
That was the last push needed. With a firm nod, Brock slid off of the stool and stood up, clenching his fist with a new sense of determination. “You’re right. I’m doing no good feeling sorry for myself.”
“Right.” Giselle nodded with a smile.
The glint in his eye returned. “It’s time for action!”
“Yes!” she crowed.
Grabbing his mug up, he proclaimed, “I’m going to get another cup of coffee!”
His large hand engulfed her shoulder with a grateful squeeze as he smiled for real for the first time since their escape. Though she had no real feelings for the big lug, it warmed her heart to see him back on his feet, even if it was mostly due to the intense amount of caffeine coursing through his veins. “I take it back, Giselle,” he told her softly. “You really aren’t so bad. When you try.”
“Well,” she blushed slightly as she brushed his hand aside. “Trying is too hard most of the time.”
A distant wail of sirens interrupted the tender moment. Brock and Giselle looked out the window as beacons of flashing red and blue glinted on the distant highway, growing closer with each passing second. As Gary and Samurai slid out of the booth, Brock caught sight of the look of triumphant relief crossing most of the staff’s faces. Though it meant a boatload of trouble for the rest of them, he couldn’t really blame any of the people here for being scared; they had witnessed a quartet of heavily armed people enter, covered in what looked and smelled like blood, quickly followed by a miraculous return from the dead for two of the Elite’s junior agents. If it had been Brock, he would have messed his pants and booked it out of there half an hour ago, when they had first arrived.
“Looks like we’ve attracted some attention,” Gary quipped as he sidled up next to Brock.
Samurai’s eyes narrowed. “We cannot save the world if we are incarcerated.”
Brock remained silent, watching Ash through the window for telltale signs. After so many years of working together, Brock could read his partner like a book. But even an amateur watching Ash at the moment, as the raven-haired mercenary stared up into the sky with a knowing smile, could tell what was going on. “No worries, Sammy,” Brock tossed in the warrior’s direction. “I think our ride’s here, anyway.”
* * *
Ash watched impassively as the long line of police cars wound their way across the service road that led to Tony’s Diner. He flipped his Pokégear faceplate closed with a flick of his wrist, then folded his hands behind his head and leaned against the side of a big rig with a smug smile of self-satisfaction.
Misty had seen the cars as well. She jogged towards Ash with a sense of urgency that grew with every step, though she did not give in to panic. Rather, her face was painted with the grim misery of a person facing the prospect of another unwanted fight. Considering where they had come from, Ash had to agree.
“So what’s the plan?” Misty asked, all business once more. Gone were the tears and screams of a forlorn mother. Now she was Misty the warrior, and she wasn’t about to be carted away peacefully by some honky sheriff and his deputies. “We’re low on ammo, and I don’t see any reinforcements.”
An answer rested on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back as the rest of their troupe marched out of the front of the diner. Brock was in the lead, and from the look on his face, Ash knew he wouldn’t have to bring his partner up to speed. Good old Brock. Turning back, Ash said, “I wouldn’t worry.”
As the remaining Elite and their ally advanced toward Ash and Misty, the squad cars finally reached the parking lot. They surrounded the front of the diner in a semicircle of screeching tires and flying dust as they skidded to a halt. Car doors flew open as a small army of police poured from the insides of the vehicles. The officers drew their weapons, crouching behind their cars for protection and watching the suspects for the first sign of trouble. From the phone-in, they knew that these strangers were considerably armed, and that made them dangerous.
The lieutenant in charge, a beautiful young woman by the name of Officer Jenny, raised a bullhorn to her lips with her free hand as she kept her Magnum trained carefully on the raven-haired leader of the pack. “This is the Police.” She always felt stupid saying that, but the Academy had drilled it into her, and she couldn’t help it. “Throw your weapons away and lie down on the ground. You are under arrest.”
“What’s the charge?” the young man, probably in his late twenties, called out.
“Disturbing the peace,” Jenny shot back evenly. “And possession of illegal and dangerous firearms.”
Inexplicably, the dust in the parking lot began swirling about, as if blown by a sudden wind from straight above. Like the rest of her men, Jenny was forced to look away. The air seemed to tremble, and howled with unseen fury that sent many of her younger officers scrambling back into their cars for protection. Even as Jenny tried to scream out an order above the dull roar, she watched the air above them shimmer and morph into something large, black, and ominous.
A great black jet wavered into existence. Its VTOL engines were angled downward, spraying streams of blue flame and kicking up the fierce dust storm that blinded everyone. After a minute of sucking dirt and heat, Jenny heard the jet’s engines ease off mercifully, killing the artificial tempest and lowering the rumble to mere background noise.
A ramp lowered from the long, graceful neck of the avian construct, angled so that Jenny caught the briefest of glimpses within. She watched as the small pack of offenders walked peaceably towards the ramp, climbing in one by one and disappearing into the jet’s mysterious depths. The leader was last in, and shot her an infuriating smile and a wave goodbye.
“Sorry we can’t stay and be arrested,” he called out as the ramp whirred shut, “But we have to jet. Maybe next time.”
And just like that, the metallic hatch snapped shut like the jaws of a true raptor. Jenny was about to give the order to open fire when the engines cut back in, lifting the plane high into the air and throwing a good deal of earth around, obscuring almost everything. Jenny waited patiently until the dirt settled to the ground, forcing her eyes to remain open despite the furious grit. Her hand rested on her radio as she readied herself to call in the jet’s bearing for pursuit. But when the dust had cleared, there was nothing but empty sky waiting for her.
Jenny stared up into the mocking void, ignoring the shouts of protest from her subordinates or the terrified wails of the diner bunch exiting the front door in a panic. “This is going to be a bitch to write up…” she lamented softly.
* * *
Griffin gritted his teeth, forcing back a snarl of frustration. He was tired. He was cranky. And it would still be several hours before he could move again. What was worse, he couldn’t get See Nine to shut the hell up. After losing his central processing chip, the poor automaton’s damaged backups couldn’t do anything more than spout ridiculous nonsense in a constant stream of chatter. And unfortunately for both Griffin and Pikachu, See Nine’s vocal systems were one of the few things the demons hadn’t screwed up. Pikachu had tried shocking him into submission, and it had only juiced the android up more.
“Beta…marked for emission…” See Nine mumbled as he carefully observed Pikachu’s delicate work. So far, the Pokémon had done an excellent job constructing the makeshift transmitter from spare parts, odds and ends, and of course, See Nine’s mechanical guts. Griffin had guided him as best he could, using what little he knew of mechanics and electronics (when most of one’s body is replaced with gizmos, one tends to know a thing or two about said gizmos) to help. It hadn’t been easy, but it was almost time for the moment of truth.
“Okay, rodent,” Griffin sighed, “I want you to turn it on.”
“Gleep,” See Nine agreed with a nod, probably unaware that anything important was actually happening.
Both Griffin and Pikachu held their breaths as the thunderous mouse reached forward, connecting the power cell to the main circuit. There was the briefest of flickers in the haphazard array of LEDs before the entire rig went dead. No smoke, no dazzling display of pyrotechnics…just nothing.
Griffin’s breath exploded in a disappointed groan. “Shit.” There went their last hope of contacting Elite Headquarters. Griffin wasn’t sure what exactly he could tell them, but he had to at least let them know that they were still alive, and as soon as his repair cycle was completed, he would do his damndest to make certain that, if they did succeed, the Shadow would at least pay a hefty price for that victory. “Well, it was worth a shot. Good try, little guy. Good effort.” His praise didn’t sound very convincing.
“Pi!” Pikachu swore violently at the useless machine. His tiny hind paw lashed out, connecting with the pile of junk. With a sharp crack, the machine slid across the floor and bumped into the remains of a table, and Pikachu was left clutching his leg in agony, hopping up and down and spewing a filthy stream of Pokémon curses.
The lights of the transmitter sputtered to life, and a soft electronic hum stuttered between Pikachu’s cursing.
“Ha!” Griffin crowed. “Score one for percussive mechanics!” He closed his eyes and triggered a mental switch, bringing up the display for a frequency scanner buried somewhere deep inside his skull. Though the device was operating at a fraction of its true efficiency, the flickering lines projected in his eyeball did indeed detect a steady signal coming from their machine. It had worked.
It had WORKED!
Griffin forced a calm over his excited, rampant emotions. They had crossed the first and biggest hurdle, but there were still a thousand things that could go wrong. Even though the signal broadcasted on a little-used Elite frequency, there was still a chance the Shadow could detect it and snuff it out. Besides that, Griffin didn’t even need his scanner to know that the signal wasn’t strong enough to leave the room, much less break through Gypsum’s resistant alloys and reach the outside world. Plus, the signal was a rudimentary binary switch; they could turn it on, they could turn it off, but that was it.
“All right. Here’s what we do…”
But Pikachu was already three steps ahead of Griffin. The Pokémon had stared endlessly at the stupid blueprints while he had roamed the air ducts to avoid demonic patrols. The criss-crossing labyrinth of white lines were practically burned into the back of his black little eyeballs, and as an electric type, he tended to notice things that might be to his advantage.
For instance: The walls of Gypsum Hall, both inner and outer, were composed of an alloy neither he nor Ash could even pronounce the name of, and was resistant to everything from magic to missiles to good old fashioned bullets. But the studs…oh, the studs were plain, everyday, ordinary steel girders. The entire building was supported by an old-fashioned steel skeleton, a relic from the days before it had become a true military installation.
Hastily, Pikachu took some leftover cable and dragged their transmitter carefully, oh so carefully, to a break in the wall. One of the demons had been kind enough to tear a hole in the Elite’s precious and very expensive armor plating, leaving one of the metallic studs bared and easily accessible. With a little work, and a few connections… “Pika!”
Griffin stared in silent awe as the little Pokémon effectively turned the entire building into a gigantic transmitting tower. His respect for, and entire opinion of, Pokémon changed in an instant as Pikachu used his own home-brewed lightning to solder the connections straight onto the beam. “You little smart ass,” he breathed.
There was just one problem left; the power cell on their hasty jury-rigged job couldn’t possibly power a signal through all that metal. It would be lost amidst all the natural resistance of the steel.
“So how are you-“
Pikachu tore the power cell from their transmitter and tossed it aside, giving it one last look of contempt. Then he took the leads running from where the cell had been and touched them too his cheek. Closing his eyes, he summoned up everything he had, and blasted unbelievable amounts of power through the little device with a mighty, “PIKAAAAA!” The burst lasted only a second, but Griffin was forced to look away or be blinded by Pikachu’s intense radiance. For a second, he feared that their device wouldn’t stand up to the strain, but somehow, the transmitter held.
Then Pikachu did it again.
Then he did it again.
Then again, only in a shorter burst.
And after the fifth shot of electricity, Griffin understood. “Good boy,” he murmured, keeping his eyes squeezed shut lest Pikachu’s powerful blasts knock his ocular implants offline. Maybe, just maybe, they had a shot at pulling this off after all. It wasn’t a good shot, but hell, when was it ever?
* * *
The tension at Elite Headquarters was thick enough to slice, scoop, and spread onto a piece of bread with jelly. As Ash and the others followed Rhydmie through the twists and turns of the Central Command Chamber, he couldn’t help but see the gnawing fear in the faces of a thousand different console operators, greasy technicians, and other unknown personnel who clearly did not want to die at the hands of an army of demons. Even their bouncing, bubbling blonde pilot was subdued in the face of so great an evil looming just over the horizon.
Their journey through a field of unending computer terminals with nervous operators ended at a small, nondescript doorway situated in the corner of the great Center. Rhydmie presented first a keycard, then a thumbprint, and finally allowed her finger to be pricked for a DNA sample before being allowed entrance. The door slid aside silently and obediently, leading into another darkened room. ‘Haven’t the Elite heard of lights?’ Ash thought to himself as he entered.
Inside the room was a simple desk, far less ornate or complicated than anything else Ash had yet encountered in the organization. Simply a monitor with a keyboard built into the desk, sitting peaceably in the middle of the room, and nothing more. Carlos sat hunched over the desk with his fingers steepled together, looking grim and ominous. And to his right was a hideous monster.
Ash yelped and stepped to the side as Brock shouted in surprise. Before anyone else could react, his sidearm was out and aimed. He squeezed off a single shot even as Carlos rose in a panic. Brock’s aim was straight and true; the bullet streaked straight for a spot right between the monster’s luminous purple eyes…
…and stopped in mid-air. The glowing shot hung for a moment, taking the opportunity to cool off until it was once again a misshapen lump of bronzed metal. With a flicker of the monster’s eyes, the metal fell from its invisible grasp and clinked against the floor, rolling to a rest at the beast’s elongated feet.
‘Hello,’ the creature’s voice echoed within their minds. ‘It is good to see you as well, young heroes.’
Though Giselle and Samurai wore confused and frightened expressions, Ash, Misty and Brock immediately relaxed. Rhydmie and Gary (especially Gary) wore looks of general unease, but nobody voiced anything negative at the time. Instead, Brock holstered his weapon again with a look of embarrassment, and Ash even managed a small smile.
“Hello, Mewtwo,” he said.
Mewtwo bowed slightly at the waist in greeting to the trio from his place at Carlos’ side. His tail swished to and fro in an uncharacteristically impatient gesture. Even in the few times Ash had chanced to run into Mewtwo-those he could remember, at any rate-had always left him with the impression of the clone’s sense of patience and timing. Ash had no doubt that, if he were to try his hand at it, Mewtwo would make one hell of a chess player, even without his psychic powers predicting his opponent’s moves.
Carlos, on the other hand, looked like he had been wrung through a half-dozen times. There were large bags beneath his haunted, hollow eyes, and his pressed suit hung limply on his stocky frame. “I’m glad to see you alive, my young friends,” he greeted them with an empty platitude. None of them missed the flicker of hope in his eyes as he looked behind them, or the disappointment that followed when their former commander failed to appear. With a gesture, he sent Rhydmie from the room, waiting until the heavy door had sealed behind her to continue. “No doubt, you are all quite angry at the outcome of your mission.”
“Why is this happening?” Misty demanded, stepping to the forefront of the gathering crowded into the tiny office. “We were in there, we saw those things…they weren’t interested in any of your stupid artifacts.”
“Not all of them, no…” Carlos sighed. Unlike before, he didn’t rely on theatrics or holograms for his explanation. Instead, he relied simply on the truth. “From what our sensors have been able to gather, and based on the advising of our…allies…” He shot a glance at Mewtwo, who nodded silently in agreement. “…we have come to conclude that humanity is, on the whole, very, very screwed.”
There was dead silence. Then, “Could you be a little more specific?” Giselle asked.
The Elite superior allotted himself another sigh, rubbing at his eyes. The very weight of the world was on his shoulders, and it was apparent that the strain was becoming too much. “Our psychics have determined that the Shadow has accessed and activated the Dreadfire Crescents.”
“…which are…?” Brock supplied the opening.
“To put it simply? They are weapons designed to combat demons.”
Samurai spoke up, his brows knitted in a deep and thoughtful frown. “But why would the Shadow activate weapons that were intended to do them harm? It seems most unlikely.”
“Because the Crescents are also a key. When brought together,” Carlos explained, “They can unlock a gateway to an astral prison which contains the Shadow’s dark god.”
‘A most foul and terrible beast,’ Mewtwo offered gravely. ‘Even a guardian with such little experience as myself is aware of his power…I can sense it writhing beneath the fabric of reality, testing its weave for weaknesses.’
“And for the past two thousand years, he’s been locked away, snug as a bug in a rug.” Carlos finished. The very notion seemed to be slowly killing their commander as he gripped the edges of his desk with whitened knuckles. “For all that time, the Elite has prevented his escape…until today.”
Ash grew silent in sobering thought as the rest of the room looked about. “Can we fight this dark god dude?”
Mewtwo floated forward as Carlos collected himself. ‘I and the other guardians stand ready to do battle for the mortal plane…but there is little chance that, even with our combined might, the dark Chaos Lord will fall to us.’
The doorway to Carlos’ inner sanctum slid aside, allowing an excited Rhydmie to enter breathlessly. She pushed past the junior agents and slammed up against his desk in a decidedly unprofessional manner, leaning over and panting for air. “Sir,” she gulped, “We’re receiving a signal from Gypsum Hall!”
“No doubt Lawrence, calling to taunt us,” Carlos slowly stood from his chair, brushing at the fading lines of his suit. He set his face in grim determination at the prospect of facing the shadow weaver.
“No sir,” Rhydmie shook her head. “It’s an emergency beacon!”
Ash’s silent doubts of Ferdinand Carlos evaporated as he watched the older man practically leap over his desk and bowl through the gathered throng effortlessly. With a brief exchange of glances, Ash led the way out the door, following Rhydmie and Carlos as they jogged down the hall to the Communications Wing of the Command Center.
The doom and gloom of the Center had become a fevered excitement as technicians and operators rushed back and forth with pieces of paper, calling out numbers and letters to one another. They barely afforded Carlos a respectful nod before continuing their work. Rhydmie led them all to a particularly large setup, with a multitude of screens and readouts that all flashed faster than the eye could follow. Ash saw a wobbling frequency wave flicker on one monitor even as another spit out a satellite feed of Gypsum Hall itself.
“What’s the signal?” Carlos demanded of the technician manning the com console.
Turning around, the extremely young man looked across his ominous audience (specifically the genetically enhanced Pokémon) with a trace of fear. “W-We aren’t sure, Commander. At first, it seemed like an emergency beacon. Then it kept cutting out and cutting back in. It took us a few tries to recognize it as-“
“Morse Code.” Giselle grinned, watching the flickering frequency monitor. “Someone’s using a beacon to transmit a message to us right under their noses. Hot damn!”
Carlos nearly ripped the poor tech’s hands off as he yanked the clipboard away. “What do we have so far?” he demanded.
A-C-H-U C-A-L-L-I-N-G A-S-H [STOP]
Misty stared incredulously at Ash as an enormous smile split his features wide open. “You taught your Pokémon Morse Code?”
“Don’t judge me,” he chided her with renewed good nature, “It came in handy didn’t it?” He couldn’t believe it; Pikachu was alive!
W-I-T-H G-R-I-F-F-I-N [STOP] W-I-L-L B-E O-N-L-I-N-E I-N F-O-U-R H-O-U-R-S [STOP] A-P-R-I-L A-L-I-V-E C-A-P-T-U-R-E-D [STOP]
Now it was Misty who shoved Carlos aside with such force that Mewtwo had to catch the poor man using his telekinesis or risk him toppling to the floor. She flew at the console, slamming against the metallic housing as she all but screamed in the technician’s face. “She’s alive? Are you sure?”
Frightened, he cupped a headset tightly to his ears as he tried to hear the rest of the signal, scribbling down letters as best he could. The signal was blipping in and out quickly, and he was rusty on his Morse Code. Luckily for him, Ash wasn’t, and was watching the in-and-out frequency change on the monitor.
“Sacrifice?” he muttered, wondering if he had translated the blips wrong.
Misty whirled upon him at the word, growing white as a sheet. “What?” she croaked hoarsely.
Listening a moment further, Ash tried to sum it up as best he could. “He says it looks like some kind of sacrifice. She’s all right for now, but…”
“Sir,” The technician looked up from his monitor. “Sir, we’ve lost the signal. It’s gone.”
Recovered from Misty’s shove, Carlos grew pensive and tense. He began pacing the length of the floor as he muttered to himself. “This doesn’t make any sense. The Shadow wouldn’t even give that little girl a second look. Why her?”
“Why are they sacrificing my daughter?” Misty demanded chokingly.
Carlos stopped his pacing and turned to all of them with a look of genuine confusion. It didn’t seem natural on his usually smug, confident features. “The stipulation for opening the gateway is that all seven Dreadfire Crescents must be wielded by a Chosen One. Someone selected by the gods themselves as a warrior for peace. Their blood’s the other half of the key.”
“That’s nuts,” Brock retorted. He glanced over at Ash, who seemed lost in thought and oblivious to the rest of the conversation. “I only know one Chosen One, and it doesn’t look like he’s wielding any crescents at the moment.”
“No, no,” Carlos replied quickly, “I knew they wouldn’t try to take Ash. They couldn’t control him well enough to open the gate, and you can’t be tricked into opening it. Only one with Chosen blood, who knows exactly what and who they’re releasing, can unseal the dimensional prison.”
“But why April?” asked Giselle. “Misty isn’t a Chosen One.”
There was a collective start as Ash spoke softly. “No, she isn’t.” he said. “But her father is, isn’t he?”
He looked to Misty with an inquisitive stare, but her wobbly eyes were glued to the floor. It seemed as though panic could overtake her at any moment, and she could not bring herself to meet Ash’s gaze.
But rather than press the issue, Ash turned away and spoke to Carlos and Mewtwo. “You guys said you had a bunch of guardians gathered together?”
‘The most powerful creatures in all of creation,’ Mewtwo assured him.
“Good. We’re going to need them. Carlos, when does this thing go down?”
Carlos was sweating bullets. “At the stroke of twelve.”
“Midnight; at least that gives us some time.” Brock breathed a silent prayer of thanks.
The Elite Commander shook his head somberly. “No. Twelve noon. In four hours.”
“WHAT?” came the angered shout from their rock-steady companion. “NOON? Since when do they have these things at noon?” He felt cheated out of his extra twelve hours. Dark rituals were supposed to happen in the dark, weren’t they?
“Well, I’m sorry,” Carlos replied snappishly. “I’ll have a talk with the ritual’s two-thousand-year-old designer, shall I?”
“Forget it,” Ash shook his head, “It doesn’t matter. Rhydmie, get the Pidjet prepped, we’ll leave as soon as we’re ready.”
Rhydmie responded with a smile and a nod. “Roger,” she quipped. She gave Brock a soft punch in the arm and a pointed look before jogging out of the Command Center and making a Beedril-line for the hangar.
“And someone find my van,” Ash added, looking around for the first available lackey he could find. “We don’t have much time to put something together.”
Misty looked at Ash as the Center burst into a new and frenzied activity. Her features softened as she felt a new sense of hope settle over the room. It was as if the very spirit of those wonderful times they had spent together as children had returned to see them through one last chronicle together. “It sounds like you have a plan.”
Ash’s grin assured her that they could dreg up the painful matter of April’s lineage at a later time. “Don’t I always?”
“Yes, but is it a good plan?”
“Now you’re just being picky.”
* * *
Duplica Mimiqué approached the ruins of Gypsum Command with a strong sense of foreboding. The air around them seemed charged with a kind of electricity, as if power itself was coursing from the damaged Center and flowed out through the corridors, turning Gypsum Hall into a living being of darkness. So, did that make her a virus, or an antibody?
Leaving her metaphorical questions behind, she steeled herself with a breath and entered through the remains of the doors. With a start, she noticed a distinct change in the room; the Pit was still there, spitting flecks of brimstone and putting out a lot of heat as it always had. But the crucifix of the Crescents that had hung over it was gone now, and so was April Waterflower. “Where…?”
“Mimiqué.” Lawrence’s voice called to her from across the Pit. He stood swathed in dark robes, with his arms folded together. The red illumination of the room painted him a devil; crimson light reflected off his sunken cheeks and hollow eyes as he grinned with rotting teeth to her. The Shadow had claimed much of his body since the last time she had laid eyes upon him. Darkness, it seemed, had a terrible price.
Circumnavigating the fiery crater, Duplica knelt before her new master and bowed her head. “You commanded my presence, sir.”
“I did.” He waved her up, and she stood obediently. Now that a closer inspection was possible, Duplica was disturbed to find a new glimmer of joy in the dark one’s eyes. He seemed elated at the disappearance of their sacrifice and the keys to unleashing Chaos into their realm. Whatever had happened, it couldn’t be good. “I want you to tend to our young guest, my dear. The hour will soon be upon us, and there is much preparation for me to attend to. See to it that she has everything she desires.
‘Including freedom, you pasty bastard?’ “Of course, sir. But…where is she being held?” Frowning, Duplica searched the interior of the room with a visual sweep. The little girl was nowhere in sight.
But then Lawrence stepped aside, revealing a second robed figure. This one was much shorter, with a head that barely topped Lawrence’s waist. Like him, her face was deathly pale, save for the dark talon gracing her left cheek. Large, blackened eyes sat dully in each socket, giving her an alien appearance that forced a gasp from the mistress’ throat.
Lawrence knelt down, grasping the small girl by the shoulders. His finger caressed her powdery skin lovingly as he whispered to her, “Be good for Duplica, my darling daughter. Your time has almost come, and then you can go home.”
April Waterflower smiled and batted her eyelashes over the deep, dark pools of her once radiant eyes. “Yes, daddy.” she whispered back.
* * *
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