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Gaiien Region: Gods and Demons: Chapter 4

by Keleri

Keleri Our heroes encounter various difficulties including recalcitrant pokémon, weather, and murder.
Chapter 4

Egg / Running From the Storm / Songs for Rain / Songs for Darkness / Songs for the Road / Killer Pokémon

– June 20th-25th 128 CR

In the morning the air was fresh and clear, with the prairie grass beyond the town waving and the wind running races along its surface. The three of them set out from Umber Village, taking a bus to the next regional park at Canyon Creek. They were let off at a rest area above the park, past a bridge spanning a deep gorge with water glittering far below. A long path descended to a forested area closer to the level of the stream, which slowed and broadened past the gorge.

Near to the bus stop was a gathering; it was audible a long way off, amplified music booming across the prairie. A turn off the main road led to a flattened and graded dirt hill with a stage and farmer's market-type stands arranged in two loose rows, with groundcars and wheeled trucks parked off to the sides. There was a small crowd among the stands, mostly parents and kids dressed for outdoor work and a few pokémon.

Russ approached a woman selling homemade food out of a covered stall. "What's all this? A fair?"

She laughed. "There's some bad weather coming in, and we're having a little get-together before it breaks. We have a local association to deal with storms."

"Oh? How does that work?" Russ drew out his pokédex and exchanged some money with the seller with a beep.

"The pokémon do a certain technique all together and they draw energy out of the storm, and stop it from getting too severe," she explained as she put sandwiches and lemonade in a bag for him. "It's nice for us to visit and gossip while we're waiting."

"How soon will the storm get here?"

"Probably less than an hour, but you can ask the radar guy down at the end," she said, pointing, and there was a stall with an antenna down at the end of the row.


Russ split up the food: they each had a sandwich and a drink, and Matt briefly tried to refuse it. They did the little polite no-I-couldn't-oh-but-I-insist dance, but finally the three of them were eating and walking among the stalls. There were other people with food for sale: samosas, empanadas, cookies and brownies, a huge soup boil on a portable stove, and other goods like soaps, tooled leather, old-Earth antiques, and other crafts.

The radar guy had a computer displaying satellite weather data and wanted to tell them about inflow boundaries and loops, but Moriko couldn't follow it until he started talking about the pokémon.

"Tempest can create a short-term weather-like effect, but it's not actually connected to the greater environment," he said. "However, when lots of pokémon use tempest together, and feed the effect through a master, they can counter the storm, absorbing its energy and lessening its impact."

"Really? Pokémon can do that? Does it help them in some way?" Moriko asked.

"It's a huge amount of energy but we coordinate with other groups around the prairie, and it can save millions of yen by downgrading the storm. It still happens, but it's the difference between ruined crops and salvageable ones, right?"

"It makes us stronger, too," his voltorb buzzed from its spot beneath the table.

Moriko thought of Tarahn. "Is it electric pokémon only?"

The radar guy scratched under his ball cap, looking up the row of stalls. "Lucio is the master pokémon this go-around, so it will be easiest for an inexperienced electric-type to join in. The storm is actually mainly air- and water-type energy alongside the lightning, so those types will gain the benefit directly. Other types can take it up as well. I don't know the exact details; it will make them tired to process the energy if they aren't the right type, but that makes them stronger too. Newbies can go in one of the outer rings."

"By the way," Russ asked, "do you know them? What are they doing?" He pointed to another stall that seemed to be getting interest, but people were walking away empty-handed.

"Hmm? Oh, the Ahmadi family's kids are auditioning trainers and pokémon," the radar guy said. "They have some kind of special egg that won't hatch."

That stall had a young teenage girl and two pokémon, a nimbval and a grimass. Russ introduced himself.

Nimbval, the noble pokémon. A light-type, it features prominently in mythology as a herald of good fortune. It has a heroic nature but is easily bamboozled. It can hybridize with the dark-type grimass to produce celestiule offspring.

Grimass, the nightmare pokémon. A dark-type, it has a frightening appearance and a bad reputation. In mythology, it was born from the vengeful spirit of a mistreated animal. It can hybridize with the light-type nimbval to produce celestiule offspring.

"I'm Blue Steel," said the nimbval, "and this is my associate Trashmouth."

"Sup," said the grimass.

The nimbval was heavy and muscular, pure white—a white that hurt the eyes, a white that should be off somewhere shilling laundry detergent—with a blue mane and tail, and scattered star-shaped markings. The grimass was carbon black, as if burnt, and it had a dragonish look with its hairless hide and a long un-equine mouth. It was tailless, with dark purple spikes on its neck.

The teenage girl was wearing a headscarf, a long-sleeved linen shirt, and overalls. She was holding a gray, watermelon-sized ovoid—a pokémon egg.

"Hey, I'm Nasrin," she said. "Are you guys trainers?"

Moriko nodded. "We're from Port Littoral. Do you live out here? Where do you go to school?"

"Yup, we have a farm and I go to school in Passe-du-Nid, which is over that way somewhere," she said, gesturing.

"It's actually to the west," Blue Steel put in.

"Anyway, it's a long bus ride, so it's half distance learning and half in-class sessions. How do you like pokémon training so far?"

"It's different than I thought, so far, but I guess we just got started. Do the pokémon help with… ploughing, or whatever?"

Nasrin laughed. "No! They just stand around looking pretty."

"Damn straight," Trashmouth said, and showed his teeth.

"We keep watch over the domestic animals," Blue Steel said sternly. "I can kick a coyote inside-out. They're quite safe from predators."

"As long as you're alert and not fighting amongst yourselves," Nasrin retorted, but she patted the nimbval's neck. "Our farm is mostly automated, it's just a matter of chasing down the autocombines and autoplanters when something goes wrong or needs to be patched. Plenty of time for schoolwork," she added dismally.

"Whose egg is it?" Matt asked, passing his pokédex over the egg.

"Stella's," said Trashmouth, a little shortly, as if they should have known this already.

"Who's Stella?"

"She was the matriarch, a celestiule," Nasrin said. "This is her last egg. She passed away during the spring and went back to the earth. She wanted us to give it to traveling trainers, but we didn't, and it's long overdue for hatching, so now we're trying to carry out her wishes properly."

"You better do it Stella's way, even now," Blue Steel said, ruefully.

"The whole prairie turned up for the funeral," Trashmouth said. "Payin' respects, but also to make sure she was really dead, like."

"How do you decide who to give it to?" Russ asked.

"Whosoever is worthy," Blue Steel said. "Light-types are good judges of character."

"And dark-types are good judges of bad character," the grimass added, snickering.

Matt watched the egg, which was a gentle, cloudy gray with a subtle pattern. "Why, though? Why give it to a trainer? Shouldn't it hatch and then decide where to go?"

Nasrin shrugged. "Stella traveled through Gaiien and Tanos a long time ago with her old trainer—it was before the third crossing, when it was all temples and filling up your shrine-book instead of badges. She knew a lot. Maybe she wanted that same experience for her egg."

"She knew all kinds of strange techniques and dirty tricks," Trashmouth said wistfully. "Even some she couldn't quite teach us, but someone out there was able to teach her."

"She kept us safe," Nasrin said. "It was her idea, to drain thunderstorms. They do it all the time in Tanos, she said." She nodded toward the stage, where electric- and air-types and their trainers were gathering, farmers and rangers and workers still in their jumpsuits, down from the power plants.

"She was scary sometimes, though," said Blue Steel. "She'd say stuff that would make my hair stand on end, like 'What was paid for in blood must never be forgotten, or we will bleed anew, buying it.' Whew!"

"She sounds amazing," said Russell. "I wish we could have met."

"What's special about this egg? She had others?" Matt asked.

"She sired many others, our parents included," Blue Steel said, indicating himself and Trashmouth, "but this was the only one that she herself had."

That happened sometimes with pokémon with a high standing based on their own power: having an egg drained it, so they had to be quite secure or unworried about rivals to have an egg themselves. Being the minor parent was less of a commitment of energy, though it seemed the celestiule contributed time and affection, judging by her grandchildren's regard for her.

"Well, what's your verdict? Who among us is worthy of the egg, if at all?" Matt asked.

Trashmouth extended his head and clicked his teeth in Matt's face. "You're cruel and she's angry, but red-hair would do."

Moriko blushed, dismayed that she was judged unfit to care for a young pokémon, but she'd be the first to agree that Russ was the best choice, and he only had one pokémon so far as well. Matt looked like he had an argument forming and then shrugged.

Nasrin nodded. "Put your hands on the egg," she said to Russell. She held it out, and Russ put his hands on it below her supporting ones.

A radiance came into Russell's face, and Moriko looked at him, surprised, and at Nasrin, and saw the same thing; their expressions softened, like they were looking at some sublime work of art or some precious treasure.

Nasrin released her hands and let Russell draw the egg to his chest and cradle it.

"Whew!" she said. "That was pretty clear," and she wiped at her eyes a little with one hand.

Russ cleared his throat and sniffed a few times. "Wow," he said finally.

Moriko looked from face to face. "What was...?"

They gabbled for a few minutes about lights in the sky and rolling fields before they finally seemed to get a hold of themselves, the odd radiance leaving them.

"Sorry, that sounded crazy," Nasrin said. She ran her hands over her scarf and exhaled loudly.

"I saw something... it was like a dream, and you could wake up and tell someone all the details, but it still wouldn't feel like what you felt," Russell said, and the girl nodded along.

They exchanged contact information with Nasrin so she could check up on the egg, and they chatted more about how the automation on the farm worked and the crops and animals. Eventually the wind changed, whirling by in fitful gusts, and the storm slowly rolled over the horizon, stealing daylight.

They approached the stage as the mixed group of trainers and their pokémon started to take their places, and Moriko got permission for Tarahn to join the circle. There was another raigar there and a sparkat, and he touched noses with them before a senior-looking luxray directed him toward a place between a silteel and a wartinger.

The pokémon arranged themselves into circles, and trotted along in concentric rings, clockwise and counter- and clockwise again, and as the storm approached and spattered them with rain and gusts of wind, they sped up, the many-colored bodies of the pokémon twirling and whirling. Moriko's skin prickled into goosebumps and not just from the chill wind; there was something, something huge being drawn into the center of that circle, and Tarahn looked ecstatic as he passed around and around in the ring.

Cars and the folded-up stalls and stands creaked in the wind and the rain came down heavy; lightning lanced overhead and thunder rolled closer and closer. And the center of the circle erupted in light that blinded and left flashing afterimages, and the thunder left them all with ringing ears. Somehow the pokémon were all right, though they all crackled with energy and Tarahn couldn't stop bouncing around for hours afterward.


Maia moved like a sheet of oil, dark and silent, her fins folded and her bio-lights dimmed, and she crept toward the wartinger washing its ears on the other side of the tree.

She pounced, the wartinger shrieking as her jaws clamped on its wing, followed by a burst of ice crystals. Her opponent flapped its wings furiously and kicked twice in rapid succession; Maia groaned and sidestepped, gaining distance, but the normal-type shot upward and away into the air over the treetops.

Moriko stomped out of hiding. "Oh, come on! This is stupid! I'm sick of this."

"I lost that pokémon, why are you mad?" Matt said over his shoulder.

He sprayed a bit of potion on the clawmarks on Maia's chest, but the tibyss hadn't been badly hurt despite the type matchup. Moriko opened her pokédex, checking the radar for wild pokémon, but it was as empty as ever.

"I'm going to sue Digital Monsters for false advertising," Russ murmured. He hadn't bothered to get up; he was stretched out and lying on Sylvia, who was snoozing in the shade, her claws twitching as she dreamed. "You had to fight off wild pokémon with literal sticks in the Legendary series. They'd overwhelm your team if you spent too much time outside of a town, and you had to repel them. I wonder what 'repel' is, anyway?"

"It's pee," Moriko said, quoting a meme. "It's always pee."

"Well, we can get some plastic bottles and give it a try I guess."

"Gross," Matt said.

They'd camped at Canyon Creek for a few days, with some initial promising encounters, but now it was the same story: the pokémon were skittish, appearing only briefly, and didn't want to join them. It was infuriating, but they at least were in company: they headed back to the campsite office for healing after training against each other, and commiserated with the other frustrated trainers there.

The office wi-fi was at a standstill as people were loading up the regional pokémon ranger website and firing off comments of various degrees of fury and/or literacy toward the organization. Now the site indicated that a ronin had been tracked passing through, too late. The ire was understandable: the bus cost money, and they all depended on ranger alerts to judge if it was going to be safe or productive to visit.

Moriko flicked away the internet app window. "What pokémon is this? Why haven't the rangers captured or relocated it?"

"Not all ronin are dangerous," Matt explained, although it sounded a bit like he was trying to convince himself too. "Sometimes they're just wanderers, maybe even an itinerant legendary. But it's wise to be wary, and wild pokémon have a lot to lose if attacked."

"Are you sure?" Russ asked. "On the news it's always 'dangerous ronin pokémon apprehended'."

"People use the terms interchangeably," Matt said with a grimace, as if this were a grave offense. "It's supposed to be an intersecting set: not all ronin are killer pokémon, but most killer pokémon are ronin."

"I always wondered what makes them wander.."

"Killer pokémon? They're chased out of their groups for the murder, and then they wander alone, killing, until they're a big enough problem for rangers to notice and take them down. They're rare."

"But regular lone pokémon—I'm surprised that they can make wild pokémon hide out too, they must be in a vulnerable position all alone."

"Yeah. So they don't leave unless they can make it."

Russ nodded. "Well, what's next, do we keep waiting here? I guess the pokémon will come out again eventually."

Matt drummed his fingers on the picnic table. "Let's just keep going. I want to get to the next gym. The wild pokémon are higher population closer to the mountains, and more varieties."

"Sounds good to me," Russ said. "Moriko?"


The next day they packed up and headed to the bus stop at the park entrance, but kept going, out into the unincorporated land between parks. They followed dirt roads and tractor tracks between fields and saw no people, just the weeding and sampling robots moving quietly through the waving stalks of wheat and canola. The sky seemed to go on forever, with fluffy white clouds dotting its surface and towering cumulus in the distance. They saw a few dark shapes hovering that could have been buzzurgh or murkrow, or just hawks high up on the thermals.

The storm took them by surprise on the flats, blowing up fast with scarcely a warning and ferocious straight-line winds that caught at their clothes and almost knocked them over. It was night-dark within minutes, lit by blinding, strobing lightning that turned the world into a game with a bad framerate. They started looking for a valley, a gully, somewhere to get down low—they had passed long-abandoned sod dwellings before—and then wind took on an ominous tone, lashing their legs and threatening to soak through their gear.

Matt started running, a silent, desperate run, and they called to him over the thunder and could hardly see him through the driving rain.

"Where is he going? Let him go!" was Moriko's opinion, shouted over the roar of the wind, and trying to match Matt's furious pace and Russell's long strides stole what was left of her breath. The prairie grass was wet and clinging, grasping at her soaked legs and boots.

Matt fell and they caught up with him. He slapped Russell's hands away as he tried to help him stand up, and ran off again.

"Let's leave him!" Moriko shouted again, but Russ followed him, and shortly they were scrabbling up a slope. "We need to stay low!"

At the top of the hill, stone walls loomed out of the dark, lit white by lightning. They followed Matt into a building, where he threw himself onto the ground, shaking and shaking. Maia came out of her pokéball and looked at them and at him, and finally she curled up around him and stared, as if daring them to say something.

Russell looked up at the roof and walls: stone and timber, not concrete and poly-composite, and half-collapsed. "I don't know if this is any better," he said around the thunder. "This could come down on us."

"Who's there?"

A bobbing light and a voice revealed a hole in the floor; a girl in camping gear raised a lantern and looked at them.

"Oh! Trainers!" she called back down the hole. "How bad is it out there?" she asked them.

"We saw everything except an actual tornado, I hope," Russ said, and they all listened for a moment at that, but it wasn't clear if there was any especial roaring of the wind over the thunder and rain.

Another woman came up the stairs with a light. "Oh saints, you all must be drenched—why don't you all come down here with us?"

"Thanks! I'm Russ, and this is Moriko, and… Matt."

"I'm Professor Hickory. We've got fire pokémon and hand warmers down below. What's wrong with him?"

"He took a bit of a funny turn when the storm started," Russ explained. "He found this place, though," he added, more than half to Moriko, she thought.

Matt kept shivering in huge compulsive bursts, and Maia growled quietly as they approached.

"Maia, let's get him somewhere warm and dry, okay?" Russ said to her, gentle, and her ruff went down a little.

"He's… hard to move like this," she confided.

They hoisted Matt by his armpits as he struggled and managed to get him over Maia's shoulders. She carried him down the stairwell, which opened into a hallway. It stretched into the dark in either direction, with strung-up low-power lamps illuminating a few nearby chambers. Two students peered out the doorway of a room with cots and a battery stove set up.

Professor Hickory led them to another room, empty and dry. Moriko released Rufus and asked him to go sit by Matt and keep him warm, and Maia inclined her head at him graciously. They unloaded their bags and got out towels for themselves and Matt, and rigged up a clothesline for the wettest items.

Luckily their bags' waterproofing had worked aside from a little dampness driven into the gaps. Russ and Moriko changed quickly into spare clothing, but Matt ignored them. He recovered enough to swear at them for trying to touch him again so they left him to Maia.

The professor and grad students were heating up hot drinks for them. The powder hot chocolate offered was objectively not great, but at that moment it seemed gloriously warm and soothing. An arcanine was out, radiating heat, and Moriko wanted to put her freezing hands in its fluffy white ruff.

"I'll let you know the wi-fi password," Professor Hickory said, and shortly their pokédexes were connected and showing angry red severe weather warnings.

"Now you tell us," Moriko said, scolding the device and flicking away the app.

"Did you not get an alert for that one?"

Moriko shook her head. "Reception is really spotty, we got the forecast for today with evening thundershowers, but, I mean…"

"Not expecting that… or that," Russell said, nodding at the other room.

Prof. Hickory pressed her lips together, looking half worried and half amused. "He was an addition to your group? Another traveling trainer?"

"Yeah, he joined with us in Littoral."

"Is that where you all are from?"

"Yeah, Moriko and I grew up there."

"Well, not every group works out," the professor said evenly.

"What are you guys doing here?" Russ asked.

The professor sat on the edge of a cot, stretching out her legs, happy to be on more familiar ground. "You might not have been able to see it, running up, but this is an old second-crossing village—just this, the stone main building is left, and a little of the foundations of the nicer homes. And you saw up top, a lot of it is fallen down, but these underground rooms are in good shape, and have protected all kinds of carvings and records."

"Oh, really? What kinds of things?"

"This was the hub for a number of farms surrounding—there was water here, deep wells probably located and dug by pokémon, and there still is a little. They were prosperous, and they had rock-type adepts to raise a few stone buildings, and to add—probably religious—carvings to the stonework. But they left, and they didn't leave much behind. We love garbage in archeology, it tells us so much, but they didn't leave any treasures this time—it was an orderly evacuation."

"The real treasure was the friends we made along the way, Dr. B," one of the grad students said piously.

"The real treasure was hot, greasy fast food when we finally get out of here," another said from his cot.

A third: "The real treasure was shut up."

"So why did they leave?" Moriko looked around the dim stone rooms.

"The climate changed," Prof. Hickory said, "and storms started to come too often, and yet paradoxically it was frequently dry. We can farm here, but that's with machines and satellite weather and insurance and public aid, not all alone on a homestead with some family and pokémon. They probably moved back to the coast—you know how productive the water is on the east coast, if you've ever been fishing or clam digging, and further north is even better."

"Why farm, then?"

"The coastal gathering does cap the size of your community—it can be lonely, and not enough people together to work against raiding, or to support adepts to warn against ancient pokémon. Most of them come from the sea, of course. Closer to Porphyry was another option, it's wetter, and of course that was the old capital."

"It seems like you know a lot already."

"Oh, there's always new things to find. This summer we're trying to get a complete survey of the ruins done and to turn up more evidence regarding how the people here lived, before it gets battered into the dirt by a twister." Prof. Hickory gestured up at the ceiling. "Rock-type pokémon have been at it, too; no one to replace the stone now."

"Thank you very much for taking care of us," Russ said politely, sipping his hot chocolate. "I think we'd be all soaked and freezing in a ditch somewhere if not for this."

"Anytime. You all can settle down and have a little dinner with us before lights-out."

Russ teased out a few more details from the professor and her grad students over dinner: Avinav was doing a PhD identifying pokémon energetic residues in the construction of the town and its irrigation system; Jill was a genetics masters student working with human remains, and it was her arcanine Eddie keeping them warm, who had a killer routine in contests; Karine kept their tech working and was working on a complementary hypothesis about the region being devastated by plague as well as climate change.

Moriko definitely understood most of the words, and the students tended to lapse into jargon that the professor would clarify after a few baffling sentences.

Later they had canned soup, and the hot vegetable broth with thick chunks of potato and carrot was an incredible comfort. Moriko listened to the team's bickering, but it was a performance and totally without rancour.

Prof. Hickory ventured outside while they were all working on fruit cups and announced that it had stopped raining, and everyone better go outside and play and not come back until dark. This was the signal for the students to retreat to various places around the ruins.

Everything was fresh and cool in the aftermath of the storm, with songbirds taking up their calls again. It was breezy, with scudding clouds far above. Rufus went out, clattering up the stone stairs, and played with the higher level arcanine; they wrestled briefly and then practiced fire attacks, their breath burning yellow and red and blue as the sun set.

Russ was an instant favorite as he pulled out that now slightly battered bag of marshmallows, and the grad students set up a fire above ground in short order with the fire-types' help. Karine pulled out a flute and played a few haunting tunes that made them draw closer to the fire with the night pressing in all around them, and then broke the spell by shifting to imitations of pop songs and opening credits themes.

Eventually Russ suggested they check on Matt, and Moriko went with him regretfully, but also dying to hear what the hell had been going on with him.

Someone had cajoled or threatened Matt into moving into the room they'd been in with the battery stove. He looked better, mostly dry, and he'd stopped shivering; Maia was circled around him protectively, but it wasn't quite the desperate defense it had been in the rain.

Moriko lingered by the doorway while Russ went up to Matt carefully and inquired after his condition.

"Better," Matt grunted, working on a mug of soup.

Russ talked to him for a while, telling him some of the stories the grad students had shared about the area, and Matt slowly relaxed, although he glanced over at Moriko, casually browsing on her pokédex, more than once.

"So…" Russ said eventually, "That was quite a run you made here. What was that about? Scared of thunder?"

Matt's face worked. "I… it was hard for me to leave home, for… a lot of reasons," he said, eyes averted, petting Maia. "That storm was dangerous, and so I… I had to run."

Russ nodded, as if this was a normal statement. "It would have been nice if you'd said so. We'd have helped."

Matt's mouth opened and closed, and finally he shrugged. "It is what it is."

Moriko walked off. No apologies there. Well, he did find Prof. Hickory, which had done them a real service—otherwise they'd be crouching under an overhang in a gully somewhere, soaked and cold. She sighed.

She saw a light down the corridor and followed it to a terminal chamber in the basement, where the professor was sitting in a circle of equipment, staring at the wall.

"Prof. Hickory?" she called, approaching.

The professor waved her forward. "—Moriko, was it? Have a seat, anywhere but the spectrophotometer."

"What are you looking at?"

"There's some evidence that this was a chamber where religious rites were performed, and on the walls are devotionals or records or both."

"Can you translate them?"

"Some—this one seems to be a hymn," Prof. Hickory said. She shone a light on the carved symbols. "It begins with what we are pretty sure are the usual invocations to the gods, although the carved system is different from the pen-and-ink ones still used today by the people of the second crossing, and separated by hundreds of years besides. And then the prayer, using alliteration and repetition to strengthen its effect."

"What does it say?"

"Currently I'm thinking it's an adept's prayer—the old pokémon adepts, before pokéballs. Not everyone could have a pokémon team in those days; most people just had one partner, and they worked hard alongside their humans to survive. An adept could have several pokémon, high-level ones that could levitate stone or make the best steel or divert rivers. But they were feared, too—they had a lot of power, and they misused it at times."

Moriko thought of the dramas she'd seen, stories about the early days of the second crossing and the desperate struggle to survive in a pristine land filled with monsters. She thought of those long-ago adepts and their first urgent experiments with bonding with pokémon, and their invocations to the gods they'd left behind and to any that might yet be listening. Help us, help us, help us.

"This part says something like 'let them be strong, let them be swift'."

Moriko smiled. "Do you think it still works? I'll take any help on this journey."

Prof. Hickory laughed. "It's worth a try—why don't I send you the translated lines when I'm done?"


In the morning, Matt was recovered and they departed, thanking Prof. Hickory and her students for their help.

They found the next bus stop, a relief after that strange detour: it had a fueling station and a tiny pokémon center hut where they could heal and pick up a packaged lunch each. They were on time for the morning bus, and soon they were heading northwest to Tsugaru-koen, the next Regional Park.

The road was straight for several hours and then began to weave between hills, passing dark forest in the valleys. There were only a few pines among the birches, but the ratio shifted as they drew closer to the foothills and the Spine of Gaiien loomed higher and higher in the distance. Soon they were close indeed, with dark evergreens all around and the mountains standing high and gray, wreathed in forest with rock falls and waterfalls on their sharp, flat faces.

They were let off the bus with another wave of campers, following the now-familiar routine, and went off to find their campsite.

Tsugaru-koen wound through the woods and clearcut areas, and as they went on it grew wet and marshy. The watermeadows lurked beyond the path, with rotting plants under the murk covered in bright reeds and waterweeds. Their pokédexes reported a good selection of wild pokémon sighted in the area, with smaller, darker forest clawbit and dirfox, pilosite and its evolutions, and forest-dwellers like margue, springbuck, and murkrow.

They set out looking for pokémon with plenty of pokéballs and remedies. Things hadn't worked out before, but Moriko was certain her luck was about to change.


They found a trainer on the road.

They saw him on the ground; they saw white chips of bone; they saw split skin and ruined clothes.

They saw the blood. There was a lot of it.

Moriko thought, dazedly, about first aid.

Something had eaten his heart.

Matt sent an alarm message on his pokédex and watched his connection tick between one and zero bars, hoping the bytes were getting through.

There was nothing to do but wait, and listen to the flies buzzing around. The world felt glassy, wheeling, like it was a bowl hanging in the air and about to fall at any moment. Russ was off being sick somewhere.

The rangers came, flying in on a pidgeot and a golurk; their red and orange uniforms looked washed-out compared to the crimson ruin of the trainer's body.

They were asked to wait nearby, to give their statements, and a jynx and a malamar heard their accounts. Psychic-types could judge veracity, and even interrogate memory, but the latter was forbidden; if you could get in to read someone's mind you could plant ideas or memories too.

The rangers scanned their pokédexes and trainer IDs. There were ways to spoof your identity, especially in the field, but they seemed to be satisfied for now.

"Where are his pokémon?" Matt asked quietly.

One of the rangers looked at him a moment and then pointed his pokédex at the trainer belt on the body: two of the pokémon were fainted, and one was at half health. No daring defense by the pokémon against a sneak attack like in the movies, against—whatever, whoever had attacked him.

And it looked like a pokémon, from the huge wounds and the gouges in the earth, but the rangers' energy residual scanning would tell more. One ranger took them aside and asked to see their pokémon one by one and scanned them.

"Is it safe to stay here?" Russ asked, still weak, still wobbling.

The ranger looked at their campsite tag and shook her head. "Come with us, we'll put everyone close together for tonight."

The rangers cordoned off the scene, and one accompanied the three of them back toward the campsite office. More rangers were arriving; large flying pokémon passed over, and they heard the dull hum of jumpcraft engines.

Trainers and campers were milling around the office, talking in pairs or small groups, while several pokémon rangers were speaking with the campsite staff. They seemed to be discussing the logistics of making everyone camp together, or at a few nearby sites, or just putting everyone on a bus to Verdure Town right now.

Eventually a more senior-looking ranger got up on her rhyperior's shoulders and called for quiet.

"I'm Ranger-Captain Grouse," she said. "Let me make things clear: a dead pokémon trainer has been found in the park. To minimize potential danger we ask that you remain in large groups with healthy pokémon. My ranger teams will keep watch overnight. We're having buses sent up from Verdure to take you all there tomorrow. Questions?"

Shouted questions, ramping up in volume as people struggled to get a word in, and the Ranger-Captain pointed to someone only to have five start talking at once.

"One at a time!" an exploud roared; it had a touch of the attack in it, and a couple people subsided with squeaks.

"Who did it?" someone yelled.

"It's not certain at this time. Please report any unusual human activity or pokédex pings to myself or any of my team. We will be making a record of every trainer and caught pokémon in the park."

Someone else: "Shouldn't we leave now?"

"We have judged that it will be safer for everyone to remain in place tonight in a location with amenities than to try to make a dangerous overnight journey to a rest stop. Let me reiterate: you are much safer in groups right now."

"When is the park going to re-open?"

"I can't say. Certainly not for at least a week."

"Come on! I had paid time off for this!" an adult trainer shouted, but fell silent under a humorless look from the malamar.

"We can definitely provide ranger and police reports for this incident—"

Moriko looked at Russ, who still looked pale and haggard, and she was sure she didn't look much better. "We're leaving."

"As soon as possible," he agreed.

There wouldn't be any pokémon to train with or capture here for a while, anyway: if the pokémon in the previous parks had been skittish at a ronin passing through, they'd be hunkered down for days at this actual kill.

A couple of rangers and their pokémon led half of them to one campsite while some of the other trainers talked, excited, like it was just a summer camp outing. Someone described the crime scene, clearly making it up out of whole cloth, but Moriko bit down on the urge to correct them—gods, she'd be mobbed if she spoke up. She glanced at Matt, sidelong, but he was staring at the ground, face pale and lips pinched.

The spacious site was cramped with this many people here, arranged in a loose circle around the fire pit. People would be chattering until late at night, probably; no one could shut up at sleepovers. Maybe they shouldn't sleep at all, just sit up waiting in the woods for the killer to show up with a machete or threatening stick sculptures.

Matt walked faster and faster and finally threw his bag down angrily. "Stupid kid," he managed to get out from between clenched teeth, and he stalked off into the woods, leaving the two of them to set up camp.

"Don't go off alone, dude!"

Matt kicked a rock, furious, almost falling over, and Maia burst out of her pokéball to walk beside him.

Moriko watched the production. "What's that about?"

Russ shrugged. He said instead, "Mor, I was thinking about what the rangers said. That kid's pokémon—he let them get too hurt. They fainted, so he couldn't keep them up with potions. He was alone. They couldn't protect him. We can't—we can't get into that situation." He scrubbed at his eyes with his hand, not looking at her.

Sylvia burst out of her pokéball and nosed him anxiously, her leafy tail swishing, a cheerful sound despite all they'd seen.

Moriko sighed and started unpacking her bag. She felt guilty: it was another, tacit denial of her desire for Matt to leave, and she felt bad for bringing it up again, if only by implication.

"Who was he fighting, anyway?" she muttered.


"All the wild pokémon we've seen traded a couple attacks and then bailed. Who'd he fight until his pokémon fainted? All alone?"

Russ kept working in silence at that for a while. "Let's just keep everybody up, keep together, keep safe."

Moriko set up her tent, feeling awkward, not sure how to join the other campers getting a fire going with laughter and jovial insults and not sure if she wanted to.

She tried not to think about the trainer. Only stupid kids got hurt and died alone in the woods. Smart kids traveled together, kept up their pokémon with potions, turned around at sensible halfway points. Smart kids got to go home.

Smart kids didn't stomp off to brood in the woods with a killer on the loose.

Moriko exhaled angrily and turned on the radar mode on her pokédex. It showed the rangers' and trainers' pokémon in a bright, rainbow cluster, and pinged on Maia's aura a short distance away.

Rufus kept up a tense watch as they followed the path to Matt and Maia, pine needles and loam shifting under hooves and boots as they walked. A bird called somewhere, cheery, oblivious.

They found Matt by a small stream, staring at nothing as the tibyss stared at him in turn, and she glanced at them as they walked up.

"Come back to the group before you get fucking stabbed," Moriko said, by way of greeting.

Maia gave a low groan, not at her, but at Matt, and to her surprise he rose silently and started walking back.

Back at the campsite he disappeared into his tent without a word, and zipped it up behind him.

"You're welcome," Moriko said to the tent.

Russ smiled at her, returning from visiting with the other campers. "I was worried about him."

"So was I," Maia said quietly, her tail twitching.

They looked at her. "What's wrong with him?" Moriko asked.

Maia watched them, silently, her leonine face unreadable. She shook her head side to side slowly, a human gesture. "He needs rest."

"You can tell us," Russ said. "We can keep a secret."

"There's nothing to tell," Maia said.


A/N: I got a job! Back to intermittent fanfic writing. The illustration for Nimbval, Grimass, and Celestiule is up on my 'charms profile.