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Gaiien Region: Gods and Demons: Chapter 5

by Keleri

Keleri The gang makes it to Verdure Town and gets some training and pokemon-catching in before the next badge.
Chapter 5

Verdure Town / Whoops / False Witness / Adept's Prayer

- June 26th-28th 128 CR

Moriko passed the night in a haze, startled at every noise, and finally the tread of boots and pokémon voices at dawn suggested they'd soon be moving out.

Despite the rush, the buses weren't ready yet. The trainers their age were actually fairly subdued, tired after a late night chatting and scaring one another around the campfire. A few of them joked, laughing too loud.

It was the adult campers that were acting out, poorly rested and uncaffeinated, herded away from a nebulous danger, weekend ruined. One guy started shouting in the face of a young ranger and the ranger-captain intervened, flanked by the rhyperior.

Moriko wanted to wander and Russ came with her. They strayed as far as they dared from the group at the pick-up point, and Russ found a dirfox crouched in a hollow under a tree. Seeing Sylvia, it yipped and split into three copies.

"Odor sleuth!"

Sylvia made a beeline for one of the copies and yanked it to the ground with a quick rootbind attack. The real dirfox lay there staring, chest heaving, and then clamped onto Sylvia's nose in a snakelike strike. She yelped, scratching it off, and it flopped onto the ground.

Russ tossed a pokéball after it, which closed with a couple of cursory wiggles.

"What did you find there?" a bisharp asked, approaching them. It was one of the rangers' pokemon, humanshape in red and black with steel blade armor.

"Hey! A wild dirfox," Russ said.

"Is that all?" The bisharp cast its gaze around as if smelling the air. "It felt like—"

Their pokédexes pinged the approach of a new wild pokémon.

"You two need to get on the bus. Now," it said.

Two rangers were running toward them with a vigoroth and a pyroar.

Moriko and Russell ran, Sylvia trailing them. Moriko felt a terrible sensation of being watched, and fear sank claws into her stomach as she imagined something chasing them. They couldn't resist looking behind them, but there was nothing to see but the wary pokémon and their trainers, and kept their eyes forward after a near-stumble in a pothole.

The rangers closer to the buses were speaking quietly and urgently into their pokédexes. Russ and Moriko running up did not go unnoticed; several of the bored trainers looked up at them and pelted them with questions, but the two of them shook their heads.

Looking back, they could see the two rangers in bright orange and the pokemon against the green and dappled shadow of the scenery, but they seemed to be still, waiting.

They all jumped at the sound of tires crunching on the gravel as the buses approached.

The rangers herded them on at last, and they were sent off with a couple of junior rangers at the front of each bus, tense and watchful as the vehicles finally drove away and wound up the hill.

Moriko watched out the back window at the rangers left behind until they disappeared, and the bus juddered and someone yelled at her to sit down.

"See anything?" Russ asked.

"Nothing. What was—"

Russ held up his pokédex: it had detected the aura of a dark- and air-type pokémon.

"Maybe just a murkrow," he said, "but the rangers sure didn't think it was just anything."

Moriko felt cold. "There were two of us. Were we in danger?"

"I can't believe it. We were just that width of the field away from a dozen rangers."

On the highway they relaxed at last, and a couple of people groaned that there hadn't been anything to see after that brief excitement. The ride thereafter was quiet, weaving between mountains on the mostly empty highway, and more than a few people caught some missed sleep. Matt was quiet, curled up against the window; he hadn't said anything all morning.

Before long the road split into divided highway and they were pulling into Verdure Town, shops and hotels going by outside the bus windows. The townsite was nestled in a valley at the feet of Talon Peak and G67, which sounded foreboding but seemed to be fairly modest peaks without any ice on them in the summer.

At the bus station, they and the other Tsugaru-koen refugees piled off, a few grabbing large bags from storage. The rangers made them line up again, re-checking IDs.

Moriko breathed in the morning air, cool and fresh off the mountains. Despite the scare and the horror back at Tsugaru, and despite the rotten night and rattling nap snatched on the highway, she almost felt healed. Russ leaned on her companionably as they waited, and she put an arm around his waist and closed her eyes. She could pretend.

The rangers scanned their pokédexes, and a grimass and a malamar stood slightly aside, watching them. The malamar muttered something to its trainer as the three of them went through the scans.

"You guys reported the original incident?" one of the rangers asked quietly. "Please consider making an appointment with a counselor at the local clinic—that scene in the park, that was really grisly. I haven't seen something that bad in a while. Okay? And thank you for making the call. Stay safe."

They thanked him and moved on to the pokémon center.

Foot and bicycle traffic was favored inside the town, with broad tree-shaded walkways between rows of shops, many of which were done up in a rustic style with polished wood to make them look like log cabins. There were outdoor enthusiasts' clubs and trainer guilds among the shops, places where you could pay to have a guided tour of the wilderness for amusement or exercise, or to catch pokémon, and traders that would help match you with a pokémon for a fee.

Hiking and mountain biking seemed to be popular, and there were a couple of hot springs further up G67, although the word was that they weren't as nice as the ones in Russet Town, where the fourth gym was. A few of the shops seemed to have a hastily-converted winter theme and desultory summer offerings; Moriko was puzzled by the idea of going on holiday to somewhere cold, but Verdure stayed relatively temperate in the winter and could cope with snowfall. The more northerly villages and hamlets tended to see isolation and ferocious wind chase out most of the staff before the passes closed.

The restaurants were really hard to pass by: they smelled delicious, with the smell of frying food, popcorn, and fudge candy spilling out of opened doors. There were plenty of street vendors as well with pad thai and churros and a dozen other items, but there would be free food at the pokémon center for trainers. Maybe a victory dinner, later…

The pokécenter was done up to look like a log cabin as well, with a hotel-like foyer with couches where trainers and budget tourists were lounging and chatting. Network coverage of a summer tournament was playing on the TV above the unlit fireplace. A few pokémon watched them as they came in; a brown-gray summer forme wintris and a shiny raigar gave them a look-over but went back to their naps.

Their pokémon in pokéballs all went in trays with the attendant for check-up healing, and Russell handed over the celestiule egg in its pokéball to a blissey who commented on it appreciatively.

After a short check-in, three of them found themselves in a shared room that, luxuriously, they had to themselves for a while, with four bunk beds and a couple of hanging plants and Gaiienese tapestries on the walls.

Moriko sat down on one of the lower bunks and instantly regretted it: she wasn't sure if she could stand up again. She managed to keep herself awake and started pulling gear out of her backpack to be washed or repaired.

The room felt… homey. Not quite a home with the row of bunks, but not a sterile hotel room with speckled industrial carpeting and paintings of vague nowheres, either. She smiled ruefully, comparing it to Port Littoral. Pros: She'd had an allowance to spend on snacks and restaurants, none of this obsessive coin-counting, and had never had to walk this much. Cons: Her aunt and uncle. Angela. School.

Someday she'd have her own place. But if home was a person, not the room… it was comfortable. It felt safe despite the lack of privacy and the close quarters. Even with Matt there; he didn't get mad and scream at anyone, at least. Her eyes flicked toward Russell and away. If things were… different. That was a hopeless wish, unfair and burdensome, and she pushed it away.

And still. There were little intimacies, interesting ones, like the hesitation before just turning around and changing clothes in front of each other. She peeped at little at the two of them changing into their laundry day alternates, faded old tournament t-shirts and sweatpants, but there wasn't much to see.

Matt had a row of keloid scars swiping up his side, and the stitchmark scars made them look like centipedes. She was curious, but not enough to try to engage him. Anyway, he'd mentioned that he'd spent some time in hospital, so maybe it was related to some surgery or treatment.

"So, what's the plan for today?" Russ asked.

"Are you tired? Because I am friggin' done," Moriko said. "I think I woke up every hour last night."

Russ laughed. "Me too, I was so pissed off at that drunk guy. I think someone battled him to make him shut up finally."

"I think I heard that, I started dreaming about a league battle."

"Good, rest day. Matt?"

"No objections."


Moriko and Russell headed to the caf for a late breakfast. Matt said he'd catch up with them.

He lay down and pulled the covers over his head, and he put his hand over his mouth and let himself sob, quietly.

Oh gods, gods, gods, gods

This was a bad one, thought a small part of himself, not awash in despair and panic. He'd be lucky if he could leave the room tomorrow.

He should not be here; he should be in Port Littoral; he should be in Johto. I can't, he thought, I cannot be there in that house, and if he had stayed in Port Littoral he would have never left.

You fool. You had a good place there. You had a good place in Johto

No no no no, not, never, never again.

Just when you thought you were fine, there were storms; just when you thought you were whole, there was blood. There was nothing but the curse, over and over.

Gods, gods, gods, help me, help me, help me.


They were watching the cafeteria waffle machine in fascination when Russell's pokédex buzzed with a message from the pokémon center.

"Russell Scott?" one of the pokémon doctors asked as he approached with Moriko. She was average height and stout with a neat haircut and a violet-hair genehan.

"That's me," he said, sliding his ID over the counter. "Is there a problem?"

"I'm Dr. Dabrowska, there's an issue with one of your pokémon. When did you catch your dirfox?"

"Just this morning, at Tsugaru-koen."

"This was its first pokémon center healing?"

"Yes." Russ was frowning. "What's wrong?"

"Let me show you."

Dr. Dabrowska led them into the employees-only area behind the pokémon center counter. It lacked the racks and racks of medical supplies of a human hospital, most issues solvable by the row of healing machines, but there were other specialized devices and a pathology lab to diagnose more mysterious afflictions. There were boxes of potion bottles and remedies, and revivifiers that pulled a fainted pokémon out of incorporeality with a burst of energy. An audino passed by, intent on an errand.

The doctor led them to a corner of the building.

"It burst out of its pokéball as soon as the healing was complete," she said, "and now it's hiding in a closet."

The dirfox was crouched in the back of the room, whining. A jigglypuff was trying to coax it to try a treat, and had laid out cat crunchies, bacon bits, candy, and even a slightly stale-looking poffin as encouragement. As soon as the dirfox saw Russell peering in, it flopped over onto its side again, trembling.

The jigglypuff inflated. "Puffing idiot—" it said, and swept up the treats and toddled off.

"I am so sorry—" Russ said, after a beat.

"It's fine," Dr. Dabrowska said smoothly, "but to avoid this in future, please be reminded to allow wild pokémon to escape battles, and to check in after capture."

"We would have, but—" Moriko protested, but Russ shook his head.

"I heard a trainer was murdered at Tsugaru-koen," Dr. Dabrowska said. "True?"

"Yes," Russ said.

"You caught the dirfox nearby?"

"Twenty or thirty minutes' walk?" He looked at Moriko for confirmation and she nodded.

"Sometimes pokémon are adversely affected by the presence of—a murderer? Killer pokémon?" the doctor said, peering at them. Pressing them for gossip?

They shook their heads.

"Either one, a death is a profound spiritual and psychic disturbance, and dirfox is a psychic-type besides. Give it a day or two. But if not, take it back to that park and release it. I'll be checking up on you two."

Russ was nodding. "Absolutely. I really appreciate you speaking with me one-on-one about this."

"No problem. Try recalling it," Dr. Dabrowska said, handing over the ball.

Russ raised the pokéball and said "Return," triggering the beam and drawing the still-motionless dirfox inside.

The pokémon doctor tilted her head, considering. "Could go either way. Good luck."

They headed back to the caf. Backtracking would be a bother. Then again, maybe someone at the pokémon center or ranger station would do it, having a vested interest in keeping pokémon in appropriate habitats and not wanting trainers to release wild pokémon willy-nilly.

It was a danger: you hoped that a pokémon that wasn't actively fleeing was open to being captured, but sometimes they did freeze up.

"Huh. They never had a situation like that in the Legendary games," Moriko said.

Russ managed to smile. "Yeah, it was all bloodthirsty pokémon that would fight until fainting and killer pokémon with unexpectedly tragic death scenes. Well, this might be all right after all. We've obviously been a few steps behind something this entire time, so maybe by doubling back we'll have a more normal experience." He wiped at his eyes.

"Oh no, are you okay?"

"Just feel bad for the little guy," Russ said gruffly. "He's gotta be scared."


They needed to catch pokémon. It was absurd now, to be at the second gym and Russ with the only maybe-successful wild capture. They asked the aide at the pokémon center counter for maps, tips, help, gossip. Who had come in with a wild pokémon lately?

Russ pressed a button and a few hundred yen were traded to the aide's account.

He took Russ's pokédex and opened the map application, adding pins around the town. "Wild springbuck caught here… warhare here… boldore… lotad… raigar. Keep in mind these are chance encounters! You might walk around all day and see nothing. Stay on the path and look for pokémon challenging you, all right?" he added, giving Russ a pointed look.

That got Moriko's back up, but Russ was waving a hand, good-natured.

"Learned my lesson, believe me," he said.

The aide was about to hand back the pokédex and then developed a sly expression. "Just for fun, you should go to these coordinates," he said, dropping a couple more pins. "That's The Living Room, and this is The Carousel."

"The what?"

"You'll see. We go up there to blaze sometimes." He winked.


They stuck to the valley trails, waiting for pokémon to appear. The valleys were richer, more likely to have young pokémon; the easiest captures were of adolescents getting ready to leave their family groups. They were looking for a fight to test themselves, maybe a trainer to journey with and come back strong.

It was cool beneath the pine trees, the mountains' gray bones showing through the loam and needles. There was moss underfoot in the shaded areas, green and springy, and ferns, and tiny wildflowers blooming. Dragonflies swooped over the clear water that flowed swift over tumbled rocks, with the roar of waterfalls nearby.

A papiliris challenged them, the sunlight lancing off its stained-glass wings. It fled after a cautious attack from Rufus, the off-target embers winking out on the path into motes of spirit energy, harmless to matter. The streams were full of lotad and poliwag, but they were too young, their attacks having the force of play only.

"So much for that guy's advice," Moriko muttered. At midday they'd seen more birds and chipmunks than pokémon.

"It's very luck-based," Matt said. "Didn't you ever learn that animals outnumber pokémon by a factor of—"

"We'll see something eventually," Russ said. "The pokémon seem normal around here instead of horribly skittish. Can't rush it, as I've lately found out," he added, self-deprecating.

"What did the aide say at the end, that we should visit The Front Porch or whatever? What was that about?" Moriko asked.

"The Living Room and The Carousel. Should we check it out?"

Moriko nodded. "I think we're coming off too desperate. Let's go do something unrelated and a bunch of pokémon will pop up."

The Living Room was at higher altitude, and they were glad they weren't carrying their full bags going up the switchbacks. Sylvia had boundless energy in the forest, racing ahead and then back to them, her jagged tail wagging furiously. There was a cairn where the path diverged, and soon they were following game trails just worn enough to break through the thick underbrush.

"Keep your pokédex tracking your position," Matt advised. "This is perfect country to step off the path to pee and get hopelessly lost."

Moriko scoffed. "Come on, a few meters from the path—your pokémon could find it again."

"You hope," he said, shrugging.

"It's getting a pretty good signal up here somehow," Russ said cheerfully. "The map has the main trail to the peak lookout on the map, but not this one."

Eventually the track opened up, and on the ground amid the reaching roots was… a living room.

A sofa and two armchairs sat in the clearing, a matching set in dappled earth tones and pale wood, all facing an old television on a stand. Ferns had grown up around the chairs, and they were covered in windblown needles and leaf litter. A rabbit burst out of hiding as they approached, sprinting into the trees.

"Huh. Weird," Russ said.

Sylvia sniffed the sofa, interested.

"Anything good?" he asked the timbark.

"It's full of bugs," she said, delighted. "Can I tear it up?"

Russ laughed. "I think this is someone's art project. We can go get some garbage to destroy in town."

The TV screen had been broken or punched out, so it was just a hollow eye socket in the clearing. It was only a few centimeters deep, but it was… dark. A darkness that drew the eye, that seemed too deep for the summer day and cheerful bird calls. Moriko shifted around so that that hollow interior wasn't looking for—at her.

Matt studied the tableau for a while, fascinated.

"What do you think?" Russ asked him.

"I feel like… I've seen this before." The moment spun out and he shook his head. "It's probably old pokémon center furniture. It all looks the same."

"I love it," Russ said. "It's insane. Who on earth carted this all up the mountain?"

"Where's 'The Carousel'?" Moriko asked. Anything to get away from that TV.

There was an entire fairground carousel on the mountainside.

It was polished and lacquered wood, with carved pokémon and mythical beasts on gleaming metallic poles. The rapidash had manes in translucent fiber that waved in the slightest breeze, and there was an entei that looked nearly alive, ready to leap off the platform and tear away into the trees.

Abandoned on the mountainside—how?—it looked better and cleaner than the rental rides Port Littoral would trot out for summer festivals.

They looked at it for a long time. It was silent aside from the wind sighing off the mountain peak.

When Russ moved forward to touch it, Moriko and Matt blurted out "No!" in unison, and Sylvia whined. He looked back at them, grinning, and it fell off his face when he saw their expressions.

They didn't say anything until they were far away down the trail.

"I'm sorry, Russ," Moriko said.

"Nothing to be sorry about," he replied. "But… what did you…?"

"I don't… I don't know. I didn't get a good feeling up there." She hesitated. "I felt like someone was watching through the TV."

"It was a trap," Matt said, abrupt. "You see something… unfinished, in the woods, in distant places. You see something that invites completion. You sit down on the seats. You get on the ride. I don't know what happens when you do."

Russ stopped, turned on the path. He was smiling. "Come on, are you sure? Why would the aide have sent us there?"

Moriko shrugged. It seemed silly now, away from the appalling pressure of that open-air sitting room and the temptation of the carousel. "I don't think he meant anything. But… it wasn't a good place."


After some deliberation, they tried splitting up for one last reconnoiter. They were minutes away from the townsite with healthy pokémon, so it wouldn't be too risky for a short time.

Moriko hiked along a stream with Tarahn prancing beside her and Rufus trailing them. Not that she'd ever wish Russ away, but there was a freedom in walking alone and just listening to the sounds of the forest and your own footfalls. She stretched her arms, thinking of the interludes between pokémon appearances in Backcountry Training and the quiet voice of the host pointing out tracks and signs. It was annoying not to be able to catch anything, but she could almost be at peace here. And for travel companions you could do much, much worse than Rufus and Tarahn.

"What's the plan?"

"Follow your nose, kid, and find us a third teammember," Moriko said.

Rufus tired after a while. Tarahn peered exaggeratedly into bushes at every turn, but only startled a grouse out of hiding. Eventually they came to a stream with a large, rocky beach, and sat down to have snacks and water.

Moriko sat down on her pack and stretched out her legs, staring at nothing while Tarahn purred and tried to sneak a lick of the peanut butter packet.

Suddenly the raigar whipped his head around. Moriko looked too, dropping the food, her heart racing as she grabbed for her pokédex.

"Someone's coming," Tarahn said, his ears alert.

They walked out along the bank, Tarahn striding purposefully but silently, Moriko following, her boots sliding on the dry, rounded stones. Her stomach felt like a knot as she waited for something—air and dark?—to come up on the radar.

A mooskeg burst out of the trees in front of them, and they dove out of the way of the huge pokémon. Its hooves clattered on the river rock and then threw up the clear water in the stream, and it whirled on them triumphantly.

Mooskeg, the muskeg pokémon. A water- and plant-type, it evolves from elkampos near level 24 and to cernunnos with age or a leaf stone. Famously belligerent in defense of their calves, these pokémon have strong control over environmental energy through their nature power.

It was young, newly evolved with a thin spray of antlers, but it was still a half-ton of flesh on long, long brown legs and mottled, mossy hide above.

"Tarahn, use thunder wave—"

There was a chiming noise behind them, and Tarahn whirled, distracted, as another raigar leapt over him to face the mooskeg. It was older than Tarahn with a darker pelt, and longer and thinner in body.

"You'll regret that, pond scum!" it snarled at the cervine pokémon.

"Oh please," the mooskeg replied, and fired off a quick water gun attack at the raigar.

The raigar's eyes glowed blue as it used copycat, stolen energy coalescing into an imitated water attack, but the mooskeg shook it off, unfazed. The cougar pokémon followed up with a thunder wave, the yellow pulse of electricity doubling up as it darted forward. The mooskeg bellowed, trying to catch it under its hooves, a sound that choked off as the electricity seized its muscles. The raigar got a wild rake in that left trails of venomous clawmarks down the mooskeg's side, and it turned to blast its own wounds with water.

"Uh, use poison claw too, Tarahn?"

Tarahn darted in after the mooskeg as it whirled, a chance to attack its uninjured side—but the wild raigar tackled him angrily.

"He's mine! Who the hell are you?" it snarled.

Tarahn responded in kind, slashing at the other raigar, and in the confusion the mooskeg was hobbling away.

"Tarahn—get the mooskeg—" Moriko called, and then splashed into the water herself as the two raigar locked each other into a whirlwind of slashing paws and copycatted attacks.

She hurled a pokéball overhand at the mooskeg, who knocked it away contemptuously with its antlers.

"Ha! Nice try, trainer. Some other time," it called, summoning a swell of water to help propel it downstream, and it started running again as the paralysis wore off.

On the bank, Tarahn and the other raigar circled each other warily, red blood staining their purple coats and winking away into lightmotes where it hit the ground.

"Maybe we can make a trade," Moriko muttered. "Tarahn, use double team—"

"As if you could fool me, kitten," the other raigar growled, and leapt on him, pushing him to the ground with its greater weight while Tarahn's copies fizzled out.

It bit his ear, and he yowled in protest.

"You beetle-brain, letting him get away! Who do you think you are?"

"Who are you"—Tarahn kicked the other pokémon hard in the belly, and it yelped, backing off—"copycatting ineffective moves? Do you know a thing about types?"

"I know about power," it said, splitting into double-team illusions, "and I know how to use it!"

All three copies clapped their paws together, and Tarahn shuddered, forced to use double team again and again, the illusions growing thin and unsubstantial.

"Return, Tarahn," Moriko said, throwing out Rufus' pokéball in the same moment.

Rufus' mane flared as he materialized, and he exhaled a little warning burst of fire at the wild raigar, who backed off warily.

"Horn attack, Rufus."

The burnox put his head down. The wild raigar's copies turned tail, running in three different directions away into the forest.

Moriko sighed. "Better not pull a Russell here," she muttered, and shoved the unused pokéballs back into her pockets.

Rufus nudged her shoulder. "There'll be another chance," he rumbled.

"Gods, I hope so," she said. She tossed out Tarahn's pokéball again, hoping the encore effect had been broken, and patched him up with a few spritzes of potion.


"You used to play Kingdoms of Thorae?"

"Yeah, I got kind of obsessed with it. I had a large army, I was checking it and micromanaging it during school and stuff. It got to be too much. But I wrote a history for my kingdom and everything, and I had this whole elaborate backstory for my general, she was a dragon-type clan heir who—" Russ groaned. "Don't get me started. Like I said, totally stupid."

"I've heard worse," Matt said graciously. "I used to play Age of Aren. Lots of weird arcanine roleplayers in that game."

Russ laughed. "I think I know what you mean. That's an old game though, how did you get into it? Did you start playing when you were a kid? I hope you didn't see any private chats by accident, yikes."

"Ha, no, I wasn't scarred by people cybering until I was a teenager. I had the same problem, I got into it while I was doing homeschool and it was too easy to spend hours and hours on it. Did your parents have to cut you off or did you quit yourself?"

"Eh, a little of both. I stayed up all night during an event and then flubbed a quiz the next day. My dad said, 'Well, that's too bad, what are you going to do about it?' and I went upstairs and uninstalled the game. I kept up with a lot of the people that I played with, after, but the game was too much."

Matt nodded. "A better man than me, sir."

Russ laughed shyly. "What, did your parents drag you away kicking and screaming?"

"Heh. Something like that." Matt smiled sadly.

Their pokédexes buzzed and they held them up. The pokémon proximity app displayed an aura reading that resolved into an ID: a 3D murkrow sprite bobbed and nodded its witch-hat-crowned head.

"Jackpot. Let's go," Matt said.

They found the murkrow flock close by, and Maia made short work of the first one to come swooping in, her ice-type attack weighing down its wings so it couldn't fly. Matt caught it with a quick underhand great ball.

"Nice one!" Russ called.

Matt waved and picked up the ball while the other murkrow jeered from high up in the conifers.

"Have fun kid, maybe you'll learn how to fight!"

"Kraw! Bye-bye little birdie!"

Maia watched the murkrow flock, her bio-lights pulsing and bubbles growing on her open jaws as Matt exposed his back to them, but they just flapped their wings and cawed high above.

"Who's next?" Matt called up at them. "My friend needs a new pokémon too."

The murkrow responded with cheerful invective, and a few of them flew off. None hopped down to fight Russell despite some shoving up in the branches that sent needles pattering to the ground. More departed, bored.

"Looks like they're sold out," Russ said. "How are you feeling? I think I'm ready for dinner and to put my feet up at the pokécenter."

"I'm good either way, if you want to keep looking," Matt answered, but they were shortly on the trail back to Verdure Town, with Maia and Sylvia trotting beside them.

On the path they found a springbuck, cotton candy-colored with tiny, flittering wings and spiraling horns, and a wide splash of red blood on its broken leg. It started as it saw them.

Springbuck, the spiral horn pokémon. A fairy- and air-type, it evolves to spronghorn near level 32. They can leap high into the air and manipulate air-type energy to fly. They can be mischievous, deliberately destroying gardens and ornamental plants.

"Hey," Russ said quietly, crouching down and pulling a potion out of his backpack. "Hey now, you look like you're in some trouble. Can we help?"

The springbuck grunted, trying to stand up, but cried out as it tried to move the broken leg. Maia and Sylvia backed off, deliberately not looking at it to seem less predatory.

"Hey there, don't try to move, okay?"

"…Why haven't you fainted?" Matt asked.

It jerked its head around, trying to see into the brush above the path.

"There's danger," it gasped out.

Maia looked up the hill with some interest, her tail rippling.

"Come with us," Russ said, proffering the pokéball. "No pain in the ball, we'll heal you up, we'll send you on your way. Pinky swear."

The springbuck stared out into the forest, trembling, and finally it looked back at Russ with narrowed eyes.

"What on earth… is a pinky?"

A pokémon appeared out of the brush, green and red and humanshape. It had small eyes set in deep sockets and a broad red crest on its head, bright against the green and brown leaves that covered its body.

Habadryad, the pepper imp pokemon. A fairy- and fire-type. It secretes a potent, flammable oil that ignites on contact with the air. It is capricious and can turn from playful to violent in an instant.

It crouched, watching them for a moment, and then rushed forward. The springbuck groaned and scrabbled in the dirt, and Russ and Matt ran out of the way of the habadryad's chimpanzee charge.

Sylvia darted between the two pokémon and snarled, spreading her shoulder branches. The habadryad stopped short and jerked its head, spitting oil onto her. She yelped, trying to shake it off, and then whined as it ignited and burned her.

"Crunch, Sylvia!"

The timbark clamped down on the habadryad's arm and it screeched, scratching at her face with its other hand and dragging more oil over her fur. She backed off, whimpering, as she pawed at the oil and then tried to roll in the dirt to shed it.

The habadryad was poisoned, though, the bruise of the bite spreading. Russ glanced at his pokédex.

"Poison fang again, Sylvia!"

Sylvia rose, squinting, and advanced on the habadryad. It wavered, looking back and forth between the two hurt pokémon. Finally it gave up, leaping away across the path.

"Whew," Russ said, recalling Sylvia. "That was ugly."

Matt clapped him on the shoulder. "I'd have got you if it was bad."

"Hope Moriko is okay alone. So, buddy, how are you feeling?" he added, to the springbuck.

"Quite unwell," it said, trying to rise and failing again. "I will accept your assistance." It looked up at Russ. "I hope only that the cost is not too high."

"No charge," Russ replied. "Really."


"Are you serious?"

Moriko groaned as Russ and Matt related their capture stories.

"I saw two—two!—wild pokémon, but they were fighting each other, and turned on Tarahn when I took a side. It was weird, they were heckling each other."

"Pokémon have private lives and rivalries in the wild too," Matt said. "Obviously."

"Thanks, professor. Anyway, they ran off. What did you two catch?"

"Murkrow, an adolescent ready to leave the flock," Matt said, tapping a great ball. "That's how you do it, no surprises, no accidents."

Moriko exhaled, buzzing her lips. "Uh-huh. Russ?"

"A habadryad hurt a springbuck pretty bad and chased it into our path, but I captured it to get it healed up. It might leave, like the dirfox." He shrugged. "I'm hoping some treats will change both their minds, but we'll see."

"Are you going to go out again tomorrow, Moriko?" Matt asked.

She sighed. "I guess so. I still only have two pokémon."

"Well, they both have a type advantage against the plant-type gym," Matt said. "Come train with us and we'll pass that hurdle at least, and then we can head out on the road to Porphyry City. There will be more pokémon there."

Moriko tried not to make a face at the prospect of Matt's battle criticism, but it sounded good to her.

After the healing, Matt tossed down the murkrow's great ball. It reformed a little uncertainly, looking around the pokécenter curiously. It looked at the three of them, and then finally focused on Matt, fixing him with one yellow eye.

"Hey," Matt said. "I'm—"

The murkrow squawked and flapped its wings, advancing on Matt. It launched itself at his face only to be smacked out of the air by Maia, who held it beneath her paw.

Matt blinked and exhaled, putting his hand on Maia's shoulder; it wasn't clear whether it was supposed to be a restraint on the tibyss or a steadying gesture for himself.

"What's the matter?" he said after a moment. "I thought you were looking for a trainer."

"A strong trainer," the murkrow screeched. "You're short."

Russ carefully didn't laugh. Matt's eyebrow twitched. "I'm a normal height. Well, feel free to leave—it's too bad," he added airily, "I saw a shop selling evolution stones earlier."

The murkrow fell quiet, clicking its beak as it looked from Matt to Maia. "S-stones," it repeated, tentatively.

"If you're above the recommended level I could get you one," Matt mused. "But it sounds like your mind is made up. Too bad. Maybe another murkrow from your flock would like to evolve—"

"No! I want it! I do! I'll train with you, human."

"It's Matt. This is Maia. You are…?"

Maia let it up, and it shook out its feathers, preening. "Takktktkk," it said, clicking through the consonants. "Tak. You can call me Tak. Easier for humans, right?"

"Takktktkk," Matt repeated, a passable imitation. "Tak for short. Come with us to the practice arena, I need to check your level and techniques first."

The murkrow squawked impatiently, but it hopped along after Matt and Maia and then launched into the air, following them.

They all sparred at the arena, Rufus practicing withstanding and avoiding water-type attacks from Maia, and Maia throwing off Tarahn's thunder wave attacks faster and faster. Tak was initially rebellious, but started to respond to commands and flew circles around Bjorn, who swiped at the murkrow without much force.

Russ discovered a snack food that the dirfox liked, honey-glazed crickets, and it sniffed Sylvia cautiously. The larger timbark kept her expression bland and nonthreatening, but her hind end was wriggling at the prospect of a new friend to play with.

Afterward they separated to wash up and have a late dinner. Later, Matt returned with a dusk stone from a merchant, and Russ and Moriko joined him to watch the evolution.

He let Tak out again and held up the stone, swirling with shadows and ghostly afterimages. The murkrow looked at it hungrily.

"So?" Matt asked.

Tak cawed softly to itself, considering, and then finally flipped its tail in Matt's direction. "Give it here!"

Matt pressed the stone to the murkrow's breast, and after a breath all the color drained out of the item, suffusing the pokémon with a faint purple glow. It clacked its beak, looking at something far away, and finally stretched out its wings as it started to glow white.

Its outline softened and then blurred, shifting as it evolved. It emerged a larger bird with blue-black feathers and red highlights, a honchkrow. It shifted on its perch, flapping its wings experimentally. Matt put out his arm, and Tak hopped over to him.

The honchkrow screeched in his face. "Smell ya later, cuckoo chick!"

Matt ducked, avoiding the slapping wings. It took off, flying out and over a row of nearby buildings and was gone.

The three of them sat in silence for a while.

"…Well, that happens sometimes," Matt said eventually.

"Whoops," Russ said.

Moriko bit her knuckles, trying not to laugh. You deserved that, you smug carcass.


The three of them went out into the evening to get some air. It was a nice night, the summer hours of daylight a little truncated by the mountains. The main street was filled with the sound of people talking on patios and music playing, a different track at each restaurant. Moriko had filled up at the pokémon center cafeteria so that the delicious smells wafting out of each establishment were merely curious instead of torturous, but she found herself doing mental math, deducting from her savings. She sighed. Too expensive.

Russ and Matt debated the efficiency of some electronic gadget in a shop window. Moriko leaned on the ledge and people-watched for a moment, trying not to stare at the restaurant patrons. She tried to imagine what that would be like, to have a group of friends out for dinner, to order food confidently without falling to sullen mumbling as people made fun of you for whatever reason, to not worry about the cost—

"Hey! How many badges do you have? Want to battle?"

Moriko turned to see another trainer—a tourist, by the look of him: nice clothes, hair styled, shoes unsuitable for hiking, with four pokéballs on his trainer belt.

"One badge from this league," she said. Wait, did that make her sound like an S-tier trainer? Too late.

"Great!" he replied, "I've got four from Sinnoh, which is about the same level bracket."

His friends behind him looked her over and then went back to their conversation, laughing about something.

You, probably, said a little voice, and Moriko's heart beat faster, angry.

"Sure, what'll it be?" she asked, trying to keep it light.

The two of them moved into the street; Russ and Matt came up, seeing the battle starting.

"Two-on-two, no items, to the red," he declared. "Bet?"

"No bet," Moriko said. "And one-on-one, please."

"Tell them to double battle," Matt murmured. "I'll knock his block off."

I'll knock his block off. "I'm good," she said tightly.

"Come on! Tell her to bet, Austin!" shouted one of the friends, while another one booed.

"Peer pressure, guys! Please!" Austin yelled back, mock-censorious. "You sure?" he asked, turning back. "Just a five, what do you think? Get some extra dessert if you win, you look like you need it," he said, chuckling.

Spoiled idiot. Moriko gripped Rufus' pokéball. "Cool, five hundred it is."

"Hey, if you don't—" Matt started to say, but Russ pulled him aside, away from the axis of the two trainers facing one another.

A couple of people on the street started to watch, and others on the café patio. Austin soaked in the attention and waved to his buddies, who booed him affably.

"Keep it short," a girl called. "The bar is filling up!"

Austin shook his head and turned back to Moriko. "Ready?"

"When you are," she said, and they both tossed their pokéballs onto the street.

Rufus flared his mane and pawed the asphalt at his opponent, a monferno: it was one of Sinnoh's starters, a fire/fighting-type and a quick, dangerous fighter, or at least the final form was, leaping around in tournaments with fast moves and staying out of reach. Her pokédex estimated its level at around Rufus's, maybe lower, but it had the type advantage.

Let it come to us, then, Moriko thought.

"Wow, they sure make 'em big in this region!" Austin said. "But size isn't everything—"

"That's what heeeeeee saiiiiiiiiiid," his friends all roared, high-fiving each other.

"Ten, Austin! You owe me!"

"Oh my god. Mach punch!"


The monferno blurred, darting in to strike Rufus on his steel armor, and its fist made it toll like a bell as the fighting-type energy washed through the burnox's body. In the same instant the counter blasted it away, the doubled energy sending the much smaller monferno flying, but it recovered agilely.

"Whoa! How are we doing, West?"

The monferno grunted something over its shoulder.

"Same thing, Rufus," Moriko muttered, and he snorted.

"Cool," Austin was saying. "Incinerate, stay far out!"

"Flame wheel, then!"

The monferno breathed a stream of orange fire at Rufus; a few people backed off, but at this level all you could feel was a little warmth. The burnox charged up, his mane flaring and a tracery of fire surrounding him before he charged in, barrelling down on the monferno.

"Low kick!"

It dodged just in time, cutting off the incinerate, and kicked Rufus hard in the side, bowling the much heavier pokémon over.

Rufus groaned expressively, thudding on the asphalt and attracting a police officer's attention—the flames weren't real, but the four hundred kilos of bull sure were.


Austin took out his own pokédex triumphantly. "And he is in the r—oh, still yellow," he said, referring to Rufus' estimated health.

"Finish it up," one of Austin's friends said.

This is dumb, Moriko thought, frustrated. Let's just end this. "Return, Rufus," she said, but he ignored the beam and his mane flared brighter, blazing.

Rufus charged again, and the monferno gestured "bring it!" with both hands, preparing for another low kick. At the last moment Rufus feinted, breaking off to catch the monferno in the stomach with a powerful double kick that sent it flying. Moriko's pokédex beeped as its health hit the red.

"West!" Austin said, dismayed, and recalled it.

"Yeah! Rufus and Moriko!" Russell cheered.

Rufus trotted stiffly back over to her. "See? You need to trust me," he said, reproachful.

"That was all you, buddy," Moriko said. "Nice one! Return."

Austin passed her five hundred yen from his pokédex with a beep and turned to receive his friends' ribbing. Moriko smiled at Russ and Matt, but it felt hollow, somehow.

They kept walking, window-shopping and getting sticker shock from price tags on luxury summer sport gear. There was a rocks and gems store with tourists admiring necklaces from behind glass, but also a row of dusty plastic bins filled with uncracked geodes and agate slices that an oligocline and a larvitar were eagerly petitioning their trainers for a taste of. A staturosa in white marble studded with citrines stood serenely at the center of the shop, watching for quick hands.

There was a free concert in a nearby park and Russ treated the three of them to ice cream. They sat on a picnic table under a spreading pine as musicians and soloists took the stage. The sun had gone down, lamps along the paths lighting up and fireflies glittering in the darkness under the trees.

Moriko couldn't pay attention to it, her mind coming back over and over to Rufus and Tarahn's hurt in Umber Village over her using Maia at the gym, and just now Rufus's displeasure with her attempt to recall him and forfeit the match.

Can't win with my own pokémon, can't catch a pokémon, can't trust my pokémon to win, Moriko thought miserably. What am I doing out here? What's the point?

She looked at the Dust Badge and felt like taking it off her belt and hurling it away.

Hasty, hasty, she chided herself, and she turned the trainer belt so she couldn't see it. This is very teenage, this moaning and groaning, a part of her thought, but there was a sick satisfaction in the self-pity, like picking at a wound.

"You've been quiet, everything okay?" Russ said to her, between musical sets.

"Yeah, just thinking. Worried about the gym."

"Don't worry, you've got the type advantage, right? What could go wrong?"

"Two pokémon with double ground weaknesses," she said. "And he's expecting people to come in with fire or poison."

Russ laughed. "We'll see what happens." He put an arm around her shoulders. "Don't sweat it, we're not in a rush out here. If somebody loses and wants to reattempt the gym we'll just wait. You'd wait for me, right?"

"Of course," Moriko said, but she though of Matt and the way he'd start rubbing his hands impatiently any time they'd discuss doing something that wasn't moving immediately to the next gym town. And he and Russ seemed to get along, chatting and laughing. A coil of envy stirred in her stomach and she pushed it away.

"Thanks for coming on this journey with me, Russ," she said. "I'm glad you're here. It was worth it just to get out here to the mountains. I wish we'd gone earlier."

"Right? I feel like the air is purer out here." He raised his hands and took an exaggerated breath, and then yelped when she poked him in the ribs.


In the morning, Matt was called to the front of the pokémon center. A ranger was standing in the foyer, a tall and muscular man with a stern expression. Accompanying him was a high-level florges, subtly perfumed with a ruff of violet flowers, and something wrapped up in vines.

It was Tak, and it cawed sadly as they walked up.

"I found this guy stealing lunches and hats along the café walk. He's registered to a Mr. Matthew Reyes," the ranger said.

"Speaking," Matt said neutrally. "I thought he went back to the wild."

"That's still an option, but he requested to be brought here," the ranger said.

"I see," Matt said, and looked at the honchkrow contemplatively.

Tak hopped a little, shifting under the florges' vines.

"What'll it be, then?" Matt asked him. "The wild, or more training?"

Tak cawed something rude, but he looked fairly abashed. "Training," he croaked. "I can get stronger than this," he added, casting a glance at the florges, who floated meditatively.

"Quite a bit stronger," Matt said.

"We done here?" the ranger asked.


The florges withdrew its vines, and the honchkrow murmured and flapped his wings experimentally.

"Return, then."

There was a beat as Tak plainly contemplated lashing out or making a break for the sliding door, but he followed the beam at last.

"Be good, you little shit," the florges said, in perfect, cultured tones. "Toodle-oo."


More training. When they came back for lunch, new rangers were waiting for them at the pokécenter counter, not anyone they recognized from Tsugaru. Still, Moriko replayed all they'd seen in her mind, wondering what detail they'd left out, what the Ranger-Captain had sent them to find.

"Moriko Sato?" one asked, displaying her ranger ID and badge; she was average height with a shock of pink hair poking out from under her orange ranger's cap.


"I'm Ranger-Lieutenant Lecce. I'd like to speak to you. Would you come with me?"

The ranger led her into the back of the pokémon center, and they sat down at a table that had been cleared of someone's lunch.

She didn't bury the lede. "A report was filed with us alleging that your pokémon were stolen."

The pit of her stomach dropped out. Moriko shook her head, her hands and feet tingling. "No," she heard herself say. "No, they're mine."

Lecce let the moment draw out, but Moriko was silent, staring at her hands. It was absurd, it was stupid, what could she say—

"I believe you," the ranger said finally, "but I'd like to go over the paperwork with you just to be sure."

Lecce pulled up Moriko's trainer registration and file number, and showed her history: check-ins at the gyms, at the pokémon centers on her journey, the upgrade to full trainer at Prof. Willow's, and on and on since she got her junior license at ten. There was a log of all her pokémon center visits that was fast-scrolled through, and the dates of Rufus and Tarahn's registration.

Moriko relaxed—surely that was clear enough—

The ranger took Rufus and Tarahn's pokéballs and tossed them onto the floor.

"I've known Moriko forever," Tarahn said immediately, almost before he was finished re-forming.

The ranger-lieutenant put out her hands, placating, especially as Rufus formed and towered over her. "I just want to speak with you two briefly, with my friend Pagliacci verifying. Okay?"

She flicked out another pokéball and a mr. mime appeared. It bowed elegantly to the two of them, somehow managing to look trustworthy despite its comical pink-and-white appearance.

Moriko waited, sick, as the ranger questioned Rufus and Tarahn out of earshot. Her fight with them before the Umber Village gym came back to her in vivid detail, her shame cutting like glass. What would they say? Was everything all right? Were they happy?

Eventually they trotted back over, and Tarahn rubbed his face against hers, and she hugged Rufus' broad neck. She took several steadying breaths, breathing in the warm hot-metal-and-leather smell of the burnox, and feeling Tarahn's purr against her shoulder.

She wiped at her eyes. "So…?" she asked, voice tolerably steady, as Lecce typed on her pokédex.

"Everything is in order," said the ranger, but she motioned for Moriko to continue sitting.

"I can't tell you who made this report—that isn't allowed, to protect that person from reprisal. But… one thing we're seeing more often is false reports by parents or guardians to stop trainers from leaving home. Sound familiar?"

Anger seemed to fall through Moriko's body and spread, like a drop of blood into water. Of course. Of course they would—"Yes," she said tightly.

"All right." Lecce took off her gloves and rubbed her face. "I haven't told you who made the report, so do not react or act on your suspicions in any way. You get me?"

"…Fine," she managed to say. But then again what could she do? It would be something else no matter what. Better to pretend it hadn't happened, maybe, that they couldn't affect her.

The ranger tapped something else onto the report. "My parents didn't want me to leave home, either," she said. "You're allowed to do this. You're allowed to be out here. Some people don't understand, a pokémon is just a, a phase to them. School will still be there in the fall, and we need people bonded to pokémon, even if they're not tournament stars."

"I don't look like a star, huh?"

The ranger grunted. "Not that you can't be, but it's okay if you're not. I wasn't. This is important. What you'll do later will be important, even if it's not glamorous. Stay strong, kid."

Tarahn bumped her head with his again. Moriko nodded. "Alright."


"You seem down, Moriko," Rufus said later, when they were out of the pokécenter.

She reached out and scratched the hide under his cheekbones, and he rumbled, pleased.

"I just… I'm not sure if we're—if I'm working with you properly. I was worried you weren't happy and you'd leave with the ranger today."

"What? Why?" Tarahn watched her face.

"I'm not sure if I'm a good trainer," she said, looking at her hands.

"Well, you've got a lot to learn," said Tarahn smugly, "but if you listen to me I'm sure we'll come out ahead."

"Tarahn, I'm not joking."

"I'm not joking," he said, bells jangling.

"I don't think that's possible," Rufus, solemn.

"Look, we had a disagreement before, we had a talk, we worked it out. That's in the past now. You can't dwell on these things. I don't. What's happening now? What are we going to do now?" The raigar slapped her knee with his paw, to punctuate.

Moriko drew a breath. "We'll train, we can try to catch another pokémon—we're going to the gym soon."

"Good! We're ready," Rufus said.

Moriko smiled and took them out to practice again, still feeling unworthy of their faith in her. But there was work to be done.


Moriko checked her pokédex before bed; there were a few spam emails, and one from Professor Hickory. It was an update on some of their findings at the ruins; they were taking a break for a few days in Umber Village.

My student translated part of the inscribed prayers we found, her email said. It goes something like this: 'I call upon all the gods, thus: let their strength be my strength; let their breath be my breath; let their bones be my bones…' and so on.

Moriko stared at the screen. Long ago those adepts had needed pokémon to survive; now her pokémon needed her, they needed her knowledge, her expertise, her foresight, her memory. Directed, organized, precise, they could be more; they needed a human to do it.

Does it still work?

Worth a shot, surely.

I will give them everything, she thought. Let my bones be their bones. Let my breath be their breath. I will do this.

I swear it to any god listening.