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Gaiien Region: Gods and Demons: Chapter 27

by Keleri

Chapter 27

The Last Road / Down in darkness we found answers / Time leads you home

—Aug. 27th - Sept. 1st, 128 CR

After the party came the cleanup.

The pokémon carried Matt and Moriko back to the ruins of the ranger base. People were wary of them until the black charizard left, and then they were descended upon by medics who seized them for examination.

Hastily-erected tent canopies flapped in the cold air; they were filled with rangers in bandages and temporary bindings, guarded by as many of their pokémon as would fit. The voiced chatter was deafening and the mental cacophony was worse, but no one told them to leave.

Matt and Moriko were finally freed, stuck over with dermal patches like stamp collections. They went wobbling through the tents looking for Linden. Once they finally laid eyes on her, she was nearly oscillating too fast to see.


Moriko stared and then looked at the attending medic. "What did you do to her?"

The doctor looked genuinely troubled and was scrolling through his tablet with some urgency. "She's had what you've had for the crash and concussion, it's the standard mixture of painkillers and amphetamines—"

"You gave Linden speed?" Matt demanded.

"I mean, same drug family, but it's not—it's an incredibly tiny dose—"


"I'll add this to her file," he said.

"She gets like this when she has coffee, too," Myrmel the flygon said. She was stretched out on her belly watching the fun. "Don't worry about it."

They left Linden with her pokémon and the doctor to try to level her out. As soon as they stepped outside, Ranger-Captain Lark was already approaching, flanked by Droit and Gauche.

Moriko watched apprehensively, but Lark grinned and clapped the two of them on the shoulders.

"You did good," he said.

Moriko bowed to stave off her discomfort. "I'm sorry. We shouldn't have been here. We made your jobs harder."

Lark waved a hand. "Those evil motherfuckers made my job harder. You were—"

"Don't," Moriko said sharply. "Don't lie to me. I'm old enough to hear it straight. People died because I was here."

"And young enough to think you get all the credit," Captain Lark replied, but he was smiling. "This was the clusterfuckest operation I have ever been on, and it would have been just as fucky without you. Hell, maybe more. Listen, you two and Prof. Linden's kid did adult work today. You helped make plans and followed them, and you listened to orders. Belladonna's orders, at least," he amended. "What are you doing in the fall?"


"Yeah? You're eighteen, right? Are you going to university? Look—" He pulled out his pokédex and fired off contacts to the both of them. "Think about it. Still time to decide. It's late, but I could pull some strings."

"For what?" Moriko asked, dizzy.

"Ranger school," Gauche said. She tapped her brow. "Get you a hat and everything."

Matt looked at his pokédex warily and then lowered it. "Why are you doing this?"

Lark took off his cap and ran his hands through his long-unshowered hair until it was a total loss. "We are all that stands between humanity on Gaia and that." He pointed out to sea, where the fetid chunks of the ancient whiscash floated, hovered over by helicopters and flying pokémon.

"Thousands of people could have died this week, and they didn't. You know what? I'm feeling generous and handing out bonuses to anyone even mildly involved. You helped me today. Come to school and learn discipline, and keep helping me. Keep helping everyone."


After facing the Gray Prince, Matt had sought out the Black Queen for the first time in his life. He'd all but begged her to shield him from the Prince's curse again.

It was humiliating. But he could deal with that. It wasn't as bad as the curse; it had been twice as bad, leaving it and then coming back, like steel fishhooks up and down his body.

And so. He would follow her. He would follow her wherever she wanted, rather than feel that again. And that meant Johto, where his mother lived.

He watched the ranger-mewtwo, thinking about their unusual provenance, and as the day ended he approached Droit, meditating by the sea cliffs.

"Can I ask you something?"

Droit glanced at Matt sidelong. "I don't know," he said. "Can you?"

Matt was silent a moment. "I deserve that."

The mewtwo twirled a hand. "Proceed."

"How were… how were you born?"

Droit considered this, looking out at the sea. "Humans find it funny," he said eventually, "if I say 'when a mommy mewtwo and a daddy mewtwo love each other very much' and trail off."

"Sorry," said Matt.

The noise of machinery and pokémon reached them faintly. Someone's gyarados groaned below the cliffs as ranger teams cleaned up the contaminated energy and weapon residue. No one had seen Karaxil, or the Gray Prince, or the Wandering Fire.

Matt started as Gauche touched him on the shoulder. She sat down with them; he felt a little buzz behind his eyes as some psychic communication passed between the two mewtwo.

"Our mother was…" Gauche trailed off. "How do the wild pokémon say it? I was Iris' get, who was Primus'. Who is the one I think you're asking about."


"Everyone knows that story," Gauche said lightly. "A war between humans turned ugly, stopped by pokémon. Triads still controlled the league, after. Pokémon, better than guns or drones. Weaponize them, make soldiers of their trainers. An ultimate pokémon: too strong, too smart, too angry." She cracked her small mouth; a fang glinted.

Matt swallowed, said: "I know. But… how do you make…"

"How do the wild pokémon say it? I will tell you now the true tale, as it was told by her who was our parent, and by him who was hers…"

"In a distant land there was a mew," said Droit, "and he collected energy from many places. He became air and grew strong. He became fire and grew strong. He became water and grew strong. And when his time came he made an egg and considered many suitors, and finally he took all their energy and made a strong egg. One day humans came and took the egg to a place of stone and glass and iron, and they too added energy to the egg, strange energy, strange light, strange substances. What came out was not a mew."

Mutagens, radiation, energy from other worlds. There was a sheen on the water where buoys and pontoons had been set up to try to corral the spread of the ancient whiscash's remains, to be treated with bacteria that would break it down harmlessly.

"Does that bother you?" Matt asked. "To be made, not born?"

"I was born," Gauche said. "I was born like everybody else. Droit was born. Iris was born. Invictus was born. Primus was born, born a little different. We bred true. We're meant to be here. Thousands of years ago a meteorite fell to earth and exploded into pieces, and one piece waited thousands of years for me to exist." She flicked her hand, lifting the glamour on the mega stone set in her collarbone briefly.

"That stone was attuned to you. Any pokémon could have used it before that," Matt pointed out.

"And now it's mine," Gauche said.

"Existential crises in adolescence are normal," said Droit, "but they sure are boring."


"So, you're the young adept. Belladonna asked me to speak with you."

Moriko turned to see Lapis, the crystal-type specialist of the elite four. She nodded helplessly, tongue-tied.

They were pretty, with an asymmetric haircut and platinum genehan; they were missing their elite's costume, but there was something more appealing about their altitude jumpsuit and the air of authority the ranger badges gave them. A mictular flanked them, the ghost jaguar armored with a crystalline mask and bangles.

"I was expecting to fight to exhaustion here," Lapis said. "This was the one we'd trained for, and yet the demons only wanted a couple of teenagers." They laughed. "I suppose that's always the way. Who trained you?"

"Trained me?" Moriko repeated.

"Ah. You're one of those half kids."

"Excuse me?"

"The ones whose second-crossing parent ran and didn't want anything to do with Nalea," Lapis explained.

"Wow, okay—"

"Sorry, I can see I've made an assumption," they said, correcting themself smoothly. "You don't know anything about being an adept. True? It just happened to you one day."

Moriko swallowed. "Yeah. I caught—"

Vleridin reformed, like stepping out of a doorway. "She found me," the mooskeg said.

Lapis bowed politely. "May you have many useful years together. I, too, am an adept," they said, and Moriko and Vleridin had the impression of something huge and glassy overlaying them for a moment. "But I was trained, and carefully. It didn't come upon me suddenly. Well, less suddenly than others. And above all it was stressed to me the potential dangers of the process."



"Tell us, then," Vleridin said.

Lapis flexed their hand, opening and closing, and the mictular bumped its head against their leg, and they smiled.

"You have to understand," they said, "that ensoulment is tapping into a prodigious natural force—and the… pressure on you increases the deeper you go, until you are struggling to remember who you are, who you were. Until she is struggling," they added, nodding at Vleridin. "By using pokéballs we can stay at the surface and never dip a toe into that water, except in subtle ways, or wade in with mega evolution. But ensoulment can drag you down deep indeed."

Moriko felt cold; she'd known, somehow. "It seems so useful. It seems like there are no drawbacks."


They pointed toward the woman in black, perched with her charizard on a distant rock outcrop. Her eyes were on the rangers toiling below, ever watchful for the Gray Prince's return.

"You've seen her without her goggles?"

Ten pairs of eyes, and only one pair her own. Moriko nodded.

"She is not even as deep as you can go," Lapis said. "Where you are now, you can't even imagine what the bottom will be like."

"But… how? How do I be careful?"

"Don't do it. As much as you can, don't do it. Pokéballs are so much safer."

"Not an option," Vleridin grunted.

Lapis nodded. "That's usually how these things get started. Only when there's no other option, then. Learn to change your size, mooskeg; adept, take transportation that can accommodate large pokémon. Find a master. Limit the energy transferred in battle, and don't use it to heal casually. Others will push you; they want your power. It's useful! We wouldn't do it if it wasn't. But it's too good until suddenly it really, really isn't anymore."

"Alright," Moriko said. "…Lapis? You trained to fight ancient pokémon. What are they?"

"What's a hurricane? What's an earthquake?"

"Well—yeah? There are reasons those happen."

Lapis smiled. "I see you're less easily put off than most people I say that to." The mictular laughed, beside them. "The truth is, no-one knows. A professor might be able to give you pages of theory about energy density and auras, but…"


"Well, here's one hypothesis. We entwine our souls with these beings, and we live through them and they through us—what happens when we die? What happens when the pokémon goes back to the earth and the human's soul goes—somewhere else? Who knows?—What happens when you die together? What happens when it's an ugly death? What happens to those souls?"

Angry ghosts, lost and sundered. Seething. Festering.

The whiscash had been undead, worm-ridden, decaying in some prodigious grave until something revived it and tore it out of the ground, until it rose to the surface in a hurricane of unclean energy. Energy that no-one could use, energy that went to waste, entombed in concrete and steel sarcophagi until perhaps bacterial sludges managed to do something.

The Gray Prince had been able to use that energy.

Treasure, under the earth, with the dead.


Moriko found the woman again, one more time. One more try.

"Who is the Gray Prince?"

The woman was perched on the cliffside, leaning forward as if straining at a leash. "A man who thought he was a demon master," said the Black Queen. "I see you found a real one."

"Leave her alone, your majesty."

The woman smiled, pointed teeth gleaming under her extra eyes.

Moriko looked at the black charizard, coal-black with its blue tail flame burning.

"Who are you?" she asked.

The charizard swung its head around, and it watched her for a moment before venting a short laugh. "I'm the Black Queen," she rumbled. "Look me up."

The woman picked up a handful of sand and let it stream away into the breeze.

"They were made for each other, him and the demon," she said. "Arrogant, self-aggrandizing, cruel, imagining vast revenges for every slight. He'll be back."

"Who are you? Who was he?"

The woman in black shook her head. "Search for the Black Queen." She patted the charizard's flank. "You will see. It doesn't matter. Those people died a long time ago."

"Why do you do this?" Moriko asked. "Aren't you tired?"

"I sleep for years, when he does. I do not seem an impressive figure, do I? A century of stalemate."

"The thought had crossed my mind."

"Sometimes success is invisible. If you stop the hurricane, why, all that preparation was for nothing. No?"

"Are you stopping the hurricane? What is all this for?"

The woman looked into the west, where the sun was setting.

"Have you heard of Surdun?" she asked.

"It's… a continent. The last wilderness. There are mammoths there and giant animals that went extinct on Terra."

"Surdun is where the gods went," said the woman in black. "Surdun is where the doors are. The stronger he gets, the more likely it is that he can survive opening one. He could go anywhere. There are other worlds than these.

"I will protect the doors with my last breath. I hope you never see them open, Moriko Sato, Yuleidono's daughter."

A void opened under her, blood rushing in her ears. There was so far to fall. There was so much to remember. Blood. A lot of it.

"Where did you hear that name?" Moriko asked tightly.

"Public record." The woman looked at her. "I know how to use a computer."

The anger evaporated, and Moriko puffed a breath that could have been a laugh.

"You know what the Wrath did, now, I think," the woman said. "She is the slipperiest of them all. But she has no ambition. Not like him. I will leave her for last. For you, perhaps."

"She almost killed me! What if she comes back?"

"She does not hold grudges. Still, watch your back, Moriko." The woman in black stood.

"Where are you going?"

"Back to work," the woman said, and the charizard flowed onto her like a wraith. With a beat of her wings she was gone.


At last the triaged cases had all been flown out, and there was an aircraft ready for Moriko, Matt, and Linden. Back to Port Littoral.

Something glittered in the wood as they were preparing to board, and Moriko almost called out to the rangers on duty. Her pokédex read the aura quickly enough.

Celeste walked out of the trees, twilight shining on her hide.

Moriko waved, approaching cautiously. "Celeste!"

"Well met by moonlight, Moriko. I must bid you farewell: my responsibilities take me far from here."

"You saved us, Celeste, more than once. Thank you. What will you do now? Where will you go?"

"Where I am needed. The god is still in the world, and so I shall not rest."

"That's a lot for someone a couple months old. Isn't there anything else?"

The celestiule inclined her head. "It is my life's work—more than one lifetime's work."

"Celeste… what are you?"

"Someone with work to do," the celestiule said. "Be well, earth's daughter, while you can. We will meet again, when the storm rises."

"You could be someone who explains a goddamn thing once in a while, you know!" Moriko called after her.

Celeste brayed laughter as she turned to light and shot away into darkness.


The Port Littoral skyline came into view as the jumpcraft descended, and shortly they were circling the airport. Moriko felt herself tearing up, seeing the familiar streets and trees and architecture and the thin line of the boardwalk, but it was probably just the dry air.

Gods all damn it, she was home. She couldn't wait to see Russ.

Prof. Willow and a couple of her grad students were waiting for them in arrivals. She rushed forward to hug her and Matt, which they returned with some embarrassment.

"I'm sorry," Prof. Willow said, releasing them and dabbing at her eyes. "I'm just so relieved that you two got out safely."

"How have things been back here? Is Russ okay?"

"He had regen, and he was discharged this morning. He's fine. Let's go see him."

Moriko felt impossibly light as she nodded at that.

"Come see me afterward, okay?" Prof. Willow added. "I have some things to go over with you."

"Nothing bad, I hope?"

"No, it should all be good news," the professor said. Cagey, Moriko thought.

Prof. Linden was there to pick up Linden Jr. as well.

"Prof. Linden—" Moriko began, but he interrupted.

"I'm staying with Adeline," he said, meaning Prof. Willow. "Let's talk there."

They loaded Prof. Willow's day-share van up with their gear and piled in. Moriko couldn't help staring at the long-familiar streets and signs, willing them to have changed in some way, and yet nothing had. She felt a bubble building up in her chest, a tension. Matt immediately fell asleep; Linden Jr. gabbled excitedly about everything that had happened: the ancient pokémon battle, the demons, things she'd learned from the rangers.

Linden disappeared with her dad into the lab, and Matt and Moriko followed more slowly with Prof. Willow and the students. The professor was filling them in on current projects, upcoming conferences, and which students had graduated or bypassed to further study.

Moriko was only half-listening. She saw Russell as they came into the lab foyer.

Anxiety plucked a few notes. He still looked a little gray, a little thin—and, gods, he had always been dangerously thin—but he was here, he was awake, he was standing under his own power.

Moriko didn't charge him like she wanted to; she approached him, careful, shy.

"Hey, Russ."

"Hey," he said.

"How are you feeling?" Matt asked him.

"I've been better."

That's it? Russ! Moriko nodded. "We really missed you."


Moriko looked up at him, but he was staring over her head.

"Moriko, let me get your bag," Matt said. "I'll just be in the dorms, okay?"

She watched him go and wanted to call him back. Russ didn't say anything.

"…Do you want to talk outside?" Moriko asked.

Russ shrugged. "Sure."

Prof. Willow's lab grounds had the familiar summer smell of grass and weeds baking in the sun, mints throwing off aromatics and tiny flowers subtly fragrant. There was the spicy scent of pokémon, of volcalf and burnox happy and dozing in the fire-type paddock with its hard, packed earth, and the pine-needle aroma of sylpup and timbark in the shade. It was the end of the summer, the end of that year's opportunity for battles and exploration without school hanging over them.

Moriko felt that familiar prickle of dread and anticipation at the thought of a new school year starting, another year to be endured, and she realized that that was over. This autumn could be anything.

Moriko told Russ about everything he'd missed: Nocturna, the demon pokémon in the mountain, the rangers and the ancient pokémon, the demon god, the woman, Celeste.

He wasn't listening.

"Russ… are you okay?" she asked. "How are you feeling?"

He'd stopped, as if noticing she was there, and gave his head a shake to clear it.


"Do you want to sit down?"

"Moriko, no—you—Moriko, you ruined this journey."

"Oh," she squeaked. A silence. "I'm sorry?" she said, unable to keep the question out of it.

"It was supposed to be fun," he said, cold. The bluster was all gone, but so was all the old gentleness. "It was supposed to be an adventure, and all I had was your bad attitude and self-pity. About everything."

She felt it reverberate through her bones, through her whole body.

"I—when Matt—"

"I have had more fun with Matt in weeks than I did with you in years, Moriko."

"Russ—okay, I—"

"Moriko. You left me to die."

It was like a blow. She stared at him.

"You didn't come until it was… convenient. He drained me, and he said you were coming. You didn't. I called you and you didn't come, and he found out and he hurt me again. You came when it was almost too late."

He looked away from her, looked away over the horizon; there were tears in his eyes. She had no idea what to do.

"Russ, I, I couldn't—I couldn't until then, I would have died—"

"Like I was going to?"

Like a punch in the stomach. She almost doubled up.

"I had to fight a demon when I came for you! She would have killed me and the pokémon if not for Celeste. What could I have done against all three demons?"

Died, like you were supposed to. She wasn't sure if she merely imagined the Prince's voice.

"You left me," he muttered, not listening.

"I'm sorry, Russ," she said, helpless.

He cringed, turning inward, turning away. "I was… I can't believe you… I can't believe you've seen me like that, over and over."

She wanted to go to him so badly. "Like what? Russ, like what?"

"Helpless." His face screwed up with disgust.

We took care of him. I don't know if he'll forgive us, Matt had said, a thousand years ago.

"Is that how you feel when you help me? Do I disgust you?"

"No, that's different."


"It—just is." Russ stared at her. "You're not sorry. You'd do it again."

"Do what again? Help you?"

"Leave me to die, leave me until it was easy, until you could gloat—"

Her voice arced. "Russ! I'm not—when have I gloated?"

Russell walked away from her. She didn't let him.

"Russ! What is it with you? Why aren't I allowed to help you? You were always nice to me, you were always a friend—why can't I be that back?"

He shook his head, tried to sidestep her.

"What am I to you?" she shouted, anger flaring. "What am I? Am I just some animal to be saved like the others? It doesn't make you less to need help, Russ! It doesn't make me less! And fuck you for thinking it did!"

He was shaking. He was so angry.

"Don't—don't talk to me again. Okay? Not again. Just leave me alone."

She watched him go. She was startled when Sylvia nosed her hand gently; she wasn't sure how a giant wolf had snuck up on her.

"I don't know what's wrong," the borfang said sadly.

Moriko tousled her ears and scratched her along the jaw. She shook her head, the anger blackening into tears, as it usually did.

Sylvia licked her face. "It will be okay," she said. "See you soon. I love you."

"I love you too, Sylvia," Moriko said thickly. "Be good, okay?"

It hurt less than she expected—she did not melt down or think about cutting—but it hurt. It hurt a lot.


Moriko wandered back into the lab and found the dorms either by accident or distant memory. Matt took one look at her and got up.

"Didn't go well, huh?"

"No, it really didn't." She took a deep breath and scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. "It was like you said: we helped him. He didn't forgive us."

"I'm sorry," Matt said. He shifted, like he wanted to do something, hug her, maybe; she wasn't sure if she wanted one. "He's been through some shit. I think we should… give him some space. This isn't necessarily permanent. It's what I needed. After."

Moriko shrugged. Better not to hope.

"I should talk to him too, but…" Matt trailed off.


"You were right, he had the darkwater in him, and I wonder if it really did make him more uninhibited? And… well…" He reddened.

"And what if you fooled around with somebody who wasn't in their right mind?"

"More than fooled around."


"And it sounds like he didn't soften the blow, with you. I'm afraid to face him. But I owe him that, if I… well. Took advantage of him."

Moriko mock-punched his shoulder. "Do it. Rip off the bandage."

"Debridement is uniquely agonizing, they say," he said, smirking. "How are you feeling? Think you're up to talking to Willow?"

"Sure. Matt, I was thinking about what Lark said… What do we even do now?"

Matt laughed. "Right?"


Prof. Willow's office was almost identical to how it was when they'd started the journey—gods, two months ago? Ten weeks?—maybe with a few papers moved around. It had begun to offend her, that she could have left for so long and here nothing had changed; nothing had noted her absence.

"Moriko! Let me get you some tea," Willow said, and she bustled around the office while Moriko sat awkwardly in the same old student chair.

"So," the professor said eventually, "I heard things got a little rough."

"A little, yeah."

Prof. Willow reached out and took Moriko's hand. She squeezed it fondly. "Believe it or not, it's not supposed to be that hard. Even in Gaiien. You made it. That counts for a lot."

Moriko focused on her tea. "Thanks," she said, polite.

She felt Prof. Willow's eyes on her, but eventually the professor turned back to her computer.

"So… Moriko, I apologize for involving myself in your business, but I made some calls. This is your parents' lawyer's contact information." She flicked something on her pokédex, and Moriko's 'dex buzzed with a new contact.

Moriko touched it uneasily. "What… for?"

"Like I said, I'm sorry for involving myself, but… there was a rumor. Your family's lawyer can't speak to me, but you can speak to her about your inheritance, since you're eighteen."

Moriko's head was spinning. "I—I'm sure my aunt and uncle got—whatever. To take care of me."

"No, they got a survivorship benefit and foster child benefit from the government—" Prof. Willow put up her hands. "It's none of my business. Talk to the lawyer. Anyway, I heard from Ranger-Captain Lark about your adventures, and I wanted to let you know that I agree with him. You should go to ranger school, I think that would be perfect for you."

Moriko blinked at the sudden topic change. "Sure, but, I mean, it's too late, and my marks… I don't want to be the pity admission."

"I'll be the judge of that," Willow said briskly. "Do I have permission to access your academic files?"


A few protected logins later, Prof. Willow was scrolling swiftly through Moriko's test scores and report cards. Moriko winced at them, thinking of Russ's scores and those of the other high achievers, i.e. Angela and all her friends.

"See? I'm just not—"

"Hmm? Oh, Moriko, no, this is quite workable," Prof. Willow said, opening an application form and pulling numbers into it. It said University of Hoenn at the upper right.

"Oh! Really?" she squeaked.

"Don't be down on yourself for not having a ninety average or whatever. I mean, if you wanted to be a professor, I'd say stop and upgrade or even don't bother until and unless you're ready to memorize a lot of irrelevant minutiae—No, for ranger school you need to be well-rounded."

Moriko shifted nervously. "Well, I mean, I dunno, I just... I've never really been a good student, and I'm not that good at pokémon battling, either."

Prof. Willow spun in her chair. "Tournament battling is totally different! Totally different! Captain Lark told me how you worked with the rangers—"

"Prof. Willow—"

"—and all the dangers you've seen this summer, catching dangerous pokémon, catching unknown ones—and you kept going, Moriko. It's about finishing. Spirit. Drive. Tenacity."

"That's not—" she said helplessly, "That wasn't me, Professor, that was Matt and Russ dragging me around and I didn't, I had to be saved by a weird pokémon prophet multiple times, and—"

"So? You think you'll be out there as a ranger alone? You can rely on a team!"


"You can talk about—in your personal statement—you can discuss this summer and how it helped you grow, and also you had a bit of a rough home life—"

"Professor!" Moriko barked. "Who—what do you mean, 'rough home life'?"

Willow fluttered her hands, apologetic. "We… I'm sorry, Moriko, the community—most people know about you. How your parents died. We know how hard it was for you."

"What are you talking about?"

"We… knew that your… mother—"

"What about her?" Moriko snarled, and felt instantly bad. Prof. Willow was patting the air desperately now. "Sorry. What were you going to say?"

"I… spoke with Angela, when she came home," Prof. Willow explained. "I asked her some things about herself, and about the family. I'm sorry, Moriko. I would have intervened if I'd known."

Moriko looked at her, lost. "About what? I mean… we were always being shitty and fighting, I guess. Teen stuff. It's normal."

Prof. Willow shook her head. "It's… not," she said gently. "Some of the things Angela told me about were… beyond the pale."

Moriko shrugged. Being entirely honest, she was afraid to know. It was already bad. No need for someone to explain, in excruciating detail, why it was worse.

Willow looked worried, so Moriko said, "Thank you for looking out for me, professor. What are you filling out…?"

"I'm going to help fast-track your application."

"Professor! I haven't even—I don't know—Where am I going to get tuition?"

She hesitated for a moment and then resumed typing. "You're right," Prof. Willow said. "Take some time to think about it. But there are solutions for students without a lot of resources. And don't take too long. Alright?" She winked.


Moriko put her pokédex down like it was going to explode.

Vleridin and Tarahn watched her.

"Is she happy?" Vleridin asked Tarahn. "Sad?"

"I… don't know?" Tarahn said. He patted Moriko's knee awkwardly. "What was all that human stuff?"

"Human faffery. Explain, Moriko."

"There's a trust," Moriko said, halting.


Tarahn turned his head on the side. "Are you rich now?"

Moriko snorted. "No, not at all."

But it wasn't nothing, either. It was locked away until she was twenty-five—unless she wanted to draw some off to pay post-secondary education fees and housing. She'd never been in danger of starving: pokémon healing at the 'center was always free, and cafeteria meals for trainers. But it was hard to turn that into something more. It had just gotten a little bit easier.

If she wanted it.


She went looking for Matt and Linden—not Russ—and found Prof. Linden instead, his handhelds and portable computers hooked up to screens in one of the lab's classrooms. He waved at her, sipping from a coffee mug, and a purple-and-yellow cat pokémon yawned underneath his desk. The liepard and Tarahn looked at each other for a moment before turning away and washing their respective paws pointedly.

"The hero returns!" Prof. Linden said. "No?" he added, seeing her expression.

"I can't tell if you're being sarcastic, Professor."

He laughed and turned toward her. "So! What's next?"

Moriko shrugged. "I don't know. Today has been… a lot. I thought I was just going to see everyone and then ask for my job back at the ice cream place, and live at the pokémon center while I looked for a subsidized apartment. Now…"

"Say yes," Prof. Linden said. "I'm writing your recommendation letter right now."


"Not to pressure you, but it's good to go straight to university if you're serious about it. It can be hard to get back into that school mode once working becomes normal."

"I don't know—"

"The U at Mossdeep is where I teach. It's a bit of a party school, but it's a 'work-hard-play-hard' kind of atmosphere. You need to be around other people like you, who can drive and inspire you to be your best self. Not people trying to convince you that you're no good for not being able to fly when you can surf."

"Prof. Linden, I don't…"

"You don't want to go?"

"I don't… trust you," Moriko heard herself say. "You… you sent Linden out with demon pokémon."

Prof. Linden had always looked drained, but as he frowned Moriko saw the new stress lines on his face. He looked worse, aged twenty years.

"I did give her those pokémon," he said hoarsely, "but not to take away like that. After she stole them, I tried to decide whether to contact the rangers, risk their destruction, legal consequences for myself. We were distracted by larger matters. And I…" He swirled his mug; Moriko caught a whiff of something that wasn't coffee. "I confess that I am prone to experimentation. Wild experimentation."

"People could have died!"

"Yes." He looked like he could say more but shook his head. "I won't try to justify that. Thank god that Junior could do what we always thought she could."


"It's not easy to see adults exposed as total fools, is it? I know. I'm sorry." He gulped from the mug. "Come to Hoenn," he said, too fast, coughing. "Do better than an old drunkard. Keep people safe."

Moriko sighed, a long exhalation. "No. I don't want to be a ranger. They're useless."

Linden Sr. was taken aback. "What?"

"They wouldn't save Russ. I had to. They couldn't stop the whiscash, they couldn't stop the Gray Prince, they had to wait for the champion and the elites to come in to fight the demon. What's the point? What are they for? For harassing me my whole journey? Getting there too late to stop killer pokémon?"

Prof. Linden was silent for a few moments, and then he called up something on his pokédex. A human figure appeared, rotating slowly, with luminous, slit-pupilled eyes and spirit fire streaming off its shoulders.

"There are many stops along the road from human to pokémon, and branches, strange ones." He glanced at her. "We don't know what the Gray Prince is, or was, exactly, but… this is the 'hybrid' form. When a human is ensouled and the pokémon is ascendant, they gain telltale features… and few weaknesses. Humans are astonishingly fragile. Pokémon can be made to retreat easily. But the hybrid shrugs off anti-pokémon devices, and the pokémon soul mitigates flesh damage. There are things we can do; they're alone, and they can be trapped and immobilized, led astray and tired out.

"When the hybrid is half a god… well. You saw what had to be done, the forces they had to raise. That's one reason the rangers won't fight him. Not for one kid at a time who often doesn't die."

He looked at her. "But you did, Moriko. You did. You assembled allies and got your friend out. Could you do it again?"

"I didn't!" Moriko shouted. "I didn't and I couldn't, I was saved by a weird, powerful pokémon again and again and by some old mystic! If Belladonna hadn't listened to my batshit idea those rangers wouldn't have died—Professor, I put your daughter in danger!"

"Astrid has been in danger since she was born," Prof. Linden said. He keyed something on his computer and the larger presentation screen behind him warmed up. It clicked on to the twenty-four-hour news channel.

Porphyry City's ocean-facing side had been scoured away by the tsunami. There was nothing left.

Drones and helicopters surveyed the devastation; rangers and aid workers were setting up temporary shelters, and water pokémon were purifying seawater. Belladonna's arena was full of tents, and so were the campsite areas near to the city. The missing would slowly tick down, and the death tally would rise.

"Why are you showing me this?" Moriko asked, tears pricking her eyes.

"The death toll is eighty, Moriko. Eighty. Two digits."

"So far."

"A hideous, primeval pokémon from the bottom of the ocean and a god showed up this week, and between them they only managed to kill a few dozen people. Not thousands. That's what rangers do, that's what PRED does, that's what you helped do. Maybe it wasn't as intentional and well-planned as you wanted, but you did play a role. Now you have the opportunity to make the next one a better demonstration of your abilities. But you'll have to go to school and learn and practice your butt off to do that. We're not giving you too much credit today. We're thinking about what you'll achieve tomorrow.

"What'll it be?"

A green glow filled the room as Vleridin reformed.

"I will go, even if she does not," the mooskeg said.


"Enough prattling, Moriko," Vleridin said cheerfully. "Decide now."

Linden raised his mug. "Sleep on it. Let me know."

"She says yes. Now, where is this 'Hoenn', exactly?"


Moriko stomped back to the lab dorms and found Matt still there, reading on his pokédex and using Maia as a backrest.

"Are these people trying to railroad you into going to ranger school in Hoenn, too?"

Matt laughed. "In Johto, actually. So I can live with one of my parents and not have to pay rent." He sighed. "And so I can see her regularly."

"…How is your… curse?" That sounded idiotic, but she had no idea what to call it. She felt bad for not asking earlier, after seeing the web of energy snap back onto him.

He shrugged. "She fixed it again, but…" He rubbed his eyes. "It killed me, feeling it again. It was twice as bad, and it was bad before. No, I'll go. I'll go to Johto. I can't live like that." He chuckled, rueful. "I don't think Maia would let me. She'd drag me by the ankle."

"Do what Maia says," Moriko said sternly.

"See?" Maia rumbled, and Matt laughed.

"Hoenn for you, then?"

"Yeah. It's Prof. Linden's school, I think that's why. He has some pull there. I don't think my marks are high enough otherwise."

"It's competitive." Matt leaned back and put his hands behind his head, and Maia licked his face. "I didn't think I would ever go. It seemed pointless after everything that had happened. And to Sam."

"What were her plans?"

He smiled, sad. "She was going to be Champion, of course. I think she could have done it."

"I'm sorry. She sounded cool."

"She was a giant dweeb like me, but she'd be happy you said that." Matt looked at her. "You'd heard of the Spirit of Wrath before?"

Moriko felt the autumn chill from back in the forest. She tried to remember the demon's face, but it was like probing a wound.

"She said she'd met me. When I was young. She'd known my parents."

Matt looked like someone taking a step off a cliff. "Moriko… what… happened to your parents?"


Moriko grasped the ember at her heart. Memory cut her, as sharp as glass; burned her, as hot as flame.

There had been blood. A lot of it.

She heard her own voice from far away, as flat as a computer's. "My mom—my second-crossing mom—killed my dad and then killed herself, or they both killed each other. They weren't sure."

She stared at the far wall, didn't look at Matt, didn't want to see his face.

"I was placed with my aunt and uncle and my cousin. It was okay at first. But then more and more I heard the rumors. That I was violent, like her. Hafu kid. The first one at the school. Kids avoided me.

"Eventually they forgot. They met other half kids and they were normal and they forgot. I didn't."

Matt rose, his arms jerking up and stopping, his expression helpless. She stepped toward him and he hugged her, ferociously, and she put her head on his shoulder and just hung there.

"I'm sorry, Moriko," he said, strangled. "You—it proves—it wasn't her, Moriko. It was that... thing."

"I know. I know," she said.

I'm alive, she thought. So I keep going.

It was strange. She'd burned herself, but the ember was out. Something green was growing there.


Moriko wasn't sure what she had expected would happen at the end of the summer. Magic, she supposed: that it would all work out, somehow, despite Russ leaving for school and her letters of rejection. She'd have a meteoric rise through Gaiien's gyms and get a special transport to the tier eight gym at Sastruga Fjord, finishing the circuit just in time for the end-of-summer tournament in Thalassa Heights, and win, and become a superstar.

Something like that.

She wasn't that smart—her marks and this summer proved that—but she wasn't too stupid to see the favor the professors were throwing at her. "I sent three people and a helicopter," as the deity had said in the old joke. Well, she was getting into the chopper.

But she remembered that there were other people along for the ride.

Moriko set up a 3D map of Gaia as a projection in the outdoor classroom. The pokémon sat politely among the human student seating, bored or amused as she wrestled with the presentation software.

It was heartening to see them all together: Rufus and Tarahn, Liona, Vleridin, Thanasanian. They looked like a team, like a colorful and type-balanced trainer drama team, despite their bumpy, unphotogenic journey.

She tried to steel herself for the answers she'd hear.

She wasn't sure if they would understand; Vleridin hadn't at first. She made the map zoom in.

"Here's the journey I took this summer: from Port Littoral, to Verdure Town, to Porphyry, to Russet, to the desert, and around again. Here's where you joined us, Liona," she said, drawing an x on the map. "Vleridin here, and Thana, here. It took me two months to walk and ride this journey.

"Now. This is all of Gaiien." Moriko expanded the map. "And this… is where I'm… where I was invited to go." She zoomed the globe out until Hoenn was in view. "It's a journey across the sea on a fast boat, a few days.

"I've been invited to go to university to be a ranger," she explained. "My pokémon partners will learn special techniques and get powerful, and work with other ranger pokémon to do things they can't do alone. I hope you all will stay with me, but it is far away. And I understand if you're scared. I'm scared. But if you changed your mind, your pokéball could be transferred back here in an instant, and you could stay with Prof. Willow. I will… I would stay there, though. Until it's done.

"Please think about it a little while. And if you don't want to come, I understand, but I hope you do." She bowed.

She left them alone for a moment to talk among themselves, but Thana immediately came up to her. The oberant had been withdrawn ever since they'd left the desert. It was all too much and too new, Moriko guessed, and Porphyry had been crowded and filled with fear at the daikaiju. Her moment should have come at the dark type gym, but everything else had instead.

"Moriko… I…"

"You want to go home?" Moriko asked gently.

"I shall betray my mission," Thanasanian said, her head hunched into her fluffy ruff. "I have not told all the human leaders of the demons. But I… to go across the water…"

"You've already done a lot, for someone who'd never left home and had barely visited the surface. And no one could speak to every human leader personally. It would take years just to get there, and there would be new problems. You did fulfill your mission! You told the professors, and they spread the word." Moriko searched Thana's arthropod face. "You could make yourself a new mission: you could stay here with Prof. Willow and learn about humans, and take that back to your mom in the hive. You can go back right now, if you want. We can transfer your pokéball."

"You are not angry?"

"Not at all. I hope your parent is doing okay, and you get to see all your siblings when you get back."

"Thank you, Moriko. I do not envy you your long journey across the salt water, but I hope it is worth it. I hope you learn many things."


"You don't have to come with me if you don't want to," Moriko said.

Liona rolled her shoulders and turned her head away. "Where else would I go?"

"I told you when we met, you can go with any trainer, not just me. You can find one who you like better. You can go with a trader and meet many trainers."

"Do you not want me?"

"No! I like you. You're my friend. I hope."

"I've fought with you. I've won with you. You're kind to me. You took me in when…" She looked away.

Dead trainers, hearts eaten. Moriko remembered yellow eyes in the wood.

Moriko shook her head. "Anyone would have. You—you aren't responsible for what he did. It's not on you."

"Isn't it?" Liona said, shaking her wings, as if to dislodge a pest. "Moriko," she said suddenly, "I was—I was the bait. Do you understand?"

She exhaled. "Yes."

"He said—he said it would make us stronger. That it was the only way with our parent gone. We had nothing. We were easy prey for those with territories and sources."

"Yes. It's not your fault. You trusted him, and he betrayed your trust." She took a deep breath. "I hope I never betray your trust."

The nigriff was silent a long time.

"I will go with you, Moriko. Across the water."


"Of course I'm going," Vleridin scoffed. "I just didn't want to seem too eager."

Moriko laughed. "Vleridin, I… I've learned so much from you. I'm so glad you came with me, even after…"

The mooskeg shifted, uneasy. "Moriko, I should… I should tell you, when I ensouled you that first time, I—I wanted to hurt you. I wanted to show you how it felt, to lay dying under cold stone"—every word a blow—"but I went to you and… well. I saw you better. I saw you better than I could ever have dreamed.

"I have learned so much from you, Moriko."

She nodded. "I deserved it. It was wrong—"

"It was all wrong! You didn't deserve it and neither did I. Let the chain be broken. We are partners."

"Thank you, Vleridin. Are you ready?"

"What are we waiting for?"


Rufus didn't come to her.

She went looking for him, and she found him looking wistfully at the paddock full of volcalf and burnox. Moriko sat beside him on the grass.

He was silent for a long time. "When I mega-evolved—" he rumbled, stopped suddenly. "I didn't like it, Moriko."

She felt the anguish, unsaid, radiating from him like heat, like a star.

"Rufus, I'm sorry. I didn't know."

He nodded. "It was too much. I didn't like it. Do you feel like that all the time?"

"Feel like what?"

"…Worried. Sad."

She looked up at him, his gaze distant. "Some of the time, I guess. I was worried then about Russell and about the demons. Could you feel what I was feeling because of the mega evolution?"


"Sorry. It took me by surprise. I didn't know what would happen, exactly."


A long silence. The wind rushed over the high hills in the distance.

"…Will you come with me, Rufus?"

The oxhaust exhaled a long stream of smoke. "They called me your starter," he said. "But I'm not your first pokémon. I'm not your favorite."

"I don't—Rufus, I don't play favorites."

"Vleridin is your favorite," he said, not sulky, just stating a fact. "She stole you from us." The fires at his heart burned quietly; the spirit flames on his shoulders wavered in the breeze.

She felt him slipping away.

"You're my friend, Rufus. You always will be."

"Good. You too."

She put her hand on his for a brief moment, and then let it fall.

"School is for smart people," Rufus said. "People who think a lot. After I mega-evolved I had to think a lot. I didn't like that."

"Where would you go instead?" she asked, remembering the little calf who'd come home with her one summer's day.

"I will stay with Prof. Willow. I heard about a place. A place for fire- and steel-types. We can get strong there. I will be there if you come back."

"I will! I will."

"Good. Goodbye, Moriko."


"You asked everyone, but not me," Tarahn said. "Was it a given?"

"Will you come with me, Tarahn, across the water, to Hoenn?"

"Yeah, duh."

"Thanks, kitty-cat."

"You couldn't get rid of me if you tried, bud."


Three out of five. It wasn't what she hoped, but it was better than she feared. And Rufus had left her reeling. She wanted to hurl the mega stone into the sea, but she still owed Belladonna two hundred thousand yen for it.

Linden Jr. found her in the hallway.

"Moriko, this was… this was the best summer ever. What are you doing next summer? Can I come with you? Come with me, we'll hit a league at S-tier and wreck faces!"

Moriko hugged Linden, who hugged her back excitedly.

"You. Are. Insane," she said fondly. "Your dad and Prof. Willow railroaded me into going to the ranger academy at Mossdeep. Do you live there?"

"Yeah, sometimes. Oh! This means we can train on weekends! Oh my god! Yes! And then we'll hit the league next summer, I did some Hoenn badges already but not that many. Moriko! This will be so sick!"

"It's a deal," Moriko said, and they high-fived only a little ironically. "…Linden, where is other demon? The nosfearat?"

Linden shrugged, trying to seem cool and detached. "I gave it back to Prof. Maple. I... don't think it's that good for them to be in the field right now."

Moriko blew out her breath. "I'm sorry, Linden. I know you wanted things to be better for them. I'm sorry about the paraslit."

"We'll see what happens. The nosfearat seemed more independent. I don't think I'd trust it outside the lab yet."

And yet she'd brought its pokéball with her into the wild. Moriko didn't comment.

"Have you taken this ship to Hoenn before? What can I expect?"

Linden waved a hand. "This one is okay, it's the one between Hoenn and Kanto that's way better. That one has a video game room and a pool and—"


"So, what's the verdict?" Matt asked later, after a late dinner of takeout Ethiopian food with a kid's cartoon on the dorm TV as background noise.

The leisure was bizarre; Moriko's mind returned endlessly to her next task, the next plan, and there was none.

"Tarahn, Vleridin, Liona, yes," she said, "Rufus and Thana, no."

"Wait—what? Your starter? Shit. I'm sorry, Moriko. Is he going to a trader?"

"No, he wants to stay with Prof. Willow. And train with a fire-type source, I guess? He said he'd wait for me to come back, but four years is a long time."

"Yeah. Well, you could visit next summer. He might change his mind."

"How about you?"

"Everyone's in. Even Tak, which I have to say I did not see coming. But I think he'll bail in the first two weeks and try to join with someone who looks tougher or a battle academy keener or whoever."

"Not getting out of that one so easily, huh?"

"I should have released him when he tried to peck my eyes on, like, second forty-one of our acquaintance. Terrible."

Moriko sighed. "I guess I'm doing this, huh? This is really happening?"

"Why not? What have you got to lose?"

"My pride, I guess, but when has fucking up colossally ever stopped me?"

"Speaking of—Moriko… I… want to apologize." He stood and bowed stiffly, formally. "You would never have been caught up in all this if not for me."

"Matt." She threw her arms around him and he sighed, sinking into it. "Listen: you were an ass. A giant ass. But we followed the exact same route Russ and I planned on, or near enough. What passed us by because there were three of us? That we never knew about? A lot would be different if we hadn't met, Matt. There are some things I wish I'd never seen. But there are things I'll never forget."

"Thank you, Moriko," Matt said, the relief obvious. "I'm so glad I met you. And Russ. I hope he comes around."

"Me too." It was a dreadful hope.

"I just hope I can get through that person's opaque bullshit every month."

"Cooperate with her, you idiot," Moriko said. "Get well. I'll come see you and learn how to do whatever she does. I'll make her teach me. Okay?"

"You better."


Moriko boarded the boat, white and sleek with antigrav thrusters on the back that would levitate it over the water. It was slower than an aircraft, but cheaper, especially cross-region.

She had been patting her pockets compulsively all day, checking and re-checking, Angela's storage device refusing to give a tactile confirmation of all her worldly goods. She was looking forward to getting to wear clothes that she hadn't worn to a fine, tissue-paper-like consistency again. The promise of food that wasn't pokécenter cafeteria fare or ranger rations glimmered.

"Wait! Wait!"

Moriko turned on the deck. It was Thanasanian, flying in desperately behind another, faster, pokémon. Horsefly-green and yellow, it was the fulgurant who'd discovered them on their wild ride to try to save Russ, back in the desert.

"Thana? What happened?" Moriko called.

The fulgurant alighted on the deck railing and giggled. "Do not fear, young trainer! Keronnotorio has arrived to protect and aid thee!" It bowed with a flourish, wings buzzing.

Thanasanian followed, fluffy white moth's wings working hard, but she made it to the boat as well. "My sibling, Kera," she said, her tone a shade less polite than usual.

"Did you make it back to see your parent?" Moriko asked them.

"Yes, and she assigned me a new mission, to learn the rangers' secret techniques and to share them with the hive."

"And I as well!" Kera added.

Moriko wanted to ask why Thana had gotten over her fear of traveling so quickly. She looked between the oberant and the fulgurant, the latter casting her gaze about eagerly, while Thana stood with a look of fixed determination, and she thought that maybe she could guess.

"Queen Kalamatos dreams of roaming again, I think," Kera said. "She would take the whole hive journeying if she could!"

"Are you coming with me as well?" Moriko asked Kera.

"Alas, no, I have been instructed to locate Trainer Matthew. He is going to another land, and I will learn their techniques separately."

Moriko sent Matt a text, and directed Kera to the nearest pokémon center to meet with him.

"Farewell, fair Thanasanian! Brave Moriko! Until we meet again!"

"I'm glad she's going with Matt," Moriko said, after Kera had flown off into the city. "He needs more pokémon he can depend on."

"I also, although for a different reason," Thana said grumpily. She reached into her ruff and pulled out her own pokéball, passing it to Moriko, and hopped inside.


Moriko watched Gaiien get smaller and smaller, finally disappearing around the curve of the world, and she sighed. She was leaving behind Rufus and it killed her. She was leaving behind Russ and it killed her. It was a wound, and she couldn't do anything but tie her coat tight around the bleeding.

Linden Jr. saw her staring and changed the channel of her seat's tablet to an Almian tournament recap, loudly disagreeing with the announcer's assessment of the battle matchups and then crowing as she was proved right. Moriko glanced over her head at Prof. Linden, whose hands were limp on his keyboard as he dozed with his mouth open, and she quietly snapped a picture.

The sea sped by outside, thick cumulus clouds white and cheerful at the horizon and quickly left behind, and the sun glittering on the water.

She'd broken with Rufus, but she had four pokémon to care for. Tarahn, first friend, first to her defense; Liona, who longed to leave the shadow; Thana, shy but inquisitive; and Vleridin, who had charged into her life and changed everything.

Maybe Vleridin was her favorite. But you chose a favorite, and she would make sure none of them would want for attention and regard. And she thought of Prof. Willow, who had stood with her in place of a parent, and even Matt grown tolerable, and she thought that things might work out after all.
  1. Keleri
    @Psycho Monkey Hahaha poor Russ, he's really hurting here. I think he and Moriko can be friends again but it will take some work, so we'll see how their trajectories evolve in the next one.
    Mar 14, 2018
    Psycho Monkey likes this.
  2. Psycho Monkey
    Psycho Monkey
    I'm sad to see Rufus go. He's such a good boy and I always got the feeling he was a sensitive soul so the reasons for his departure really kicked me in the feels. Russ, I was kind of hoping would return to his old self after getting the black water removed from his system, but I'm honestly not surprised that he's still a dick. Matt did say all it did was remove his inhibitions and that he was always like this on the inside. :p
    Mar 14, 2018
    Keleri likes this.