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Gaiien Region: Gods and Demons: Chapter 7

by Keleri

Keleri Our heroes depart Verdure Town, but all is not well in the mountains...
Chapter 7

Look for me another day; I feel that I could change / Let it Be Heard / Liona, Lonno's Get / Hanging Tree

- July 2nd-7th 128 CR

"And there you are," Russ said, tossing out Keigan's pokéball. "Good as new?"

The springbuck fluttered his wings and preened. "Yes, thank you. I am quite renewed."

Russ let the dirfox out of its pokéball and it looked around before noticing the treats in Russ's hand. It even let him stroke its ears for a moment before it skittered around the yard, nosing in the dust. It was getting more and more confident, although it still hadn't answered when he'd asked it if it wanted to go back to Tsugaru.

He'd begun to get the feeling that the dirfox had mixed feelings about returning: he'd inadvertently kidnapped it, but something terrible had happened in that park.

All the saints, he hoped he'd never see something like that again. He thought of his parents and their warnings that had taken on a pleading air as his departure date drew closer. Gods, they'd seemed silly at the time.

Russ stretched, looking out at the mountains; it was a fair morning with the sunrise illuminating the highest peaks. Good weather to walk in. No, this had been worth it: witnessing the aftermath of a murder was a huge weight, but on the other side of the scale there had been the wide-open prairie, the joy of the capture, the delight of the pokémon battle, and mountains soaring above you like pillars holding up the sky.

And it was already July: the end of the summer was barrelling toward him and it would be time again for school. He was a giant nerd, but he loved that feeling of returning with new books and new knowledge awaiting him. A brand new school in Kanto, brand new friends—that was a little scary, but he was sure it would go well. And he'd be able to visit home during the holidays and see his family and Moriko.

She needs you, a voice said, and he felt gross. How patronizing to think that about her; she was an adult like him, not a hurt animal. But he couldn't help wondering what would happen when he left. Saints, at least she was out of her aunt and uncle's house.

He was a little selfish, keeping Matt around: he was clever and funny and easy on the eyes, and him sniping at Moriko was a problem, but... well, surely he'd come around. Three people and a dog was the right number for adventures, and they all had dogs, so it was even better.

Keigan floated, looking over the pokécenter roof, and came down at Russ's offered treat, a sugar rose, which he crunched on daintily.

Russ smiled. "How did you feel about the battle with the gym leader? A little different than training, right?"

"It was fine. Some of the other pokémon were… quite injured," Keigan said uneasily.

Russ nodded. "It's true, I would hate for you to be badly hurt. For what it's worth, the pokémon center healing can fix any injury if you act fast enough. But that doesn't mean that your pain or fear in battle isn't real. If it was too much, or if you need a break, or you want to head home, you can tell me anytime."

"Very well." The springbuck's wings flittered. "Could you… if you don't mind, could you brush me with the round comb again?"

x.x.x.x.x

Keigan was hailed by the other pokémon as he joined them in the exercise area.

"So, you staying, cotton candy?" Tarahn asked.

"Cotton candy?"

Tarahn lifted a paw explicatively. "Ah yes, you see… it is a substance."

"Indeed?"

"It's sugar," Rufus said. He was lying on his side, propped up on one elbow. "One time Tarahn ate so much that he vomited."

The other pokémon looked at him in fascination.

"How?" Keigan asked.

"I just kept eating," Tarahn said proudly. "All of a sudden it all came back up."

"Ick."

"It's useful to train with a human for at least a season." Maia looked at the springbuck, appraising. "You weren't doing badly in the wild, but there's so much more energy to go around when you're with a trainer."

"Yes. My siblings will be fine without me—perhaps better off for a while without the habadryad harassing them." Keigan dipped his ears. "That was my fault, I'm afraid."

"What did you do?" Tarahn asked.

"I trampled their garden. It is a plant-type source, and they traded it with lombre and timbark nearby. I caused them some… transactional difficulties. I couldn't help it." The springbuck's eyes glazed over. "There were just so many crunchy, breakable things."

The raigar laughed. "I'd like to see you try that in a human garden."

"There is a famous conservatory in Porphyry City to the west," Maia said. She looked at Keigan. "All poisonous plants."

The fairy-type shuddered. "I have a great deal to learn about living with humans, a great deal indeed."

"It's easy," Tarahn said, rolling over. "You sleep, you fight, you sleep again. No worries, right?"

"Who keeps watch for enemies? How can you protect the herd in a ball?"

"How do you keep watch when you are hiding? In the ball you can extend your awareness just the same," the tibyss answered. "You can feel enemies' passage and their intent, and you can let yourself out."

"How?" Keigan asked, interested.

Maia extended a claw and gestured. "Find the crease in the energy. You can flick it open with practice."

"You can escape the ball at any time?"

"Certainly, but there are many situations where it would be inconvenient to solidify."

"One time I let myself out in a car," Tarahn said, pleased with himself. "Everyone was so mad."

"I see. You all are satisfied? You have not been mistreated? I sensed… why, I sensed such blood in the fights with the human leader."

"The more blood, the more benefit," Maia said, a green gleam in her eyes.

Keigan looked at her, aghast. "Do you mean to say that you—"

"No," she said sharply. "No one dies. No one is consumed. This is forbidden."

"There's no need," Tarahn said. "Everyone can get strong."

"This is all very strange." the springbuck was silent for a moment. "But I would like to know more. I have heard stories. You are put under the torture for disobedience?"

"Torture?" Tarahn shook himself, bells ringing. "What would that even be like? You could just slip away."

"He is quite disobedient, and no one has tortured him even when he deserves it," Maia said, pushing Tarahn over. He pretended to bite her paw.

"I think bad trainers do something bad to their pokémon," Sylvia said. She scratched her neck, sending pine needles flying and dissolving into lightmotes. "I saw it in a movie. They trick them so they think they can't leave. But you can leave anytime. Just tell the chansey at the pokémon center that you want to, and they'll help you get home, or to find a new nicer trainer. Russ is very nice though," she added. "He's always been nice. Even when I chewed up his homework."

"Is easier if you say name of human place," Bjorn the ursaring broke in, speaking for once. "You say: gods' cave beyond the falls, they do not know. You say: Blackthorn City, they know. This town name of Verdure Town. You remember this."

"Thank you," Keigan said. "Sir? Are you from this land? I have not seen your like."

"No. Region name of Johto. Far in east. More temples there, more humans."

"Is it strange being so far away?"

"Not so strange anymore." Bjorn grunted and put his head on his paws. "I am caring of Matt when Maia is a kitten. Now I am sleeping lots, fighting sometimes. Is good."

Keigan looked doubtful. Bjorn clarified: "Is fun fighting, like. Practice with friend. You know? Not fight to death. No one needs die. Humans stop you if try. Stop you hard."

x.x.x.x.x

It was tempting to take the train from Verdure straight to their next stop at the capital in Porphyry City, but they were still on the hunt for more pokémon. Russ had mapped out a series of routes where they could continue on foot through various nearby villages and intersect with the railway sooner or later depending on their stamina and the weather.

They set out into the mountains, following the easy paths through the valleys. The weather was changeable, showers passing into sun into showers again as moisture from the Lacuna Sea hit cold air coming down out of northern Gaiien.

There was a popular ski hill outside of Verdure, switched over to mountain biking for the summer, with the runs like lighter clawmarks among the dark green of the conifers. Past that, it was easy to pretend that they were the only people in the entire world, although periodically the clearcuts for power lines swooping along mountainsides ruined the illusion.

They followed the old road for much of the way, the original stone laid down by second-crossing rock-type specialists in the distant past. A few of the trading towns along the route had endured and grown into stops along the railway or tourist attractions; others had dwindled into shelters for traveling trainers, silent and serviced only by an automated store.

The old guard towers loomed over them here and there, flames unlit for centuries. Some of them had been repurposed into monitoring stations and ranger lookouts, but more were forgotten, tumbled-down ruins half-eaten by lairon and orocline or bickered over by nigriff and aquilux.

A few wild pokémon made an appearance: squarrel and margue darting in to bite and then tear off again; warhare and wartinger; some sparkat kittens to whom Tarahn told outrageous and unbelievable stories about his battle prowess. Moriko caught a lombre whose parent ludicolo showed up to reclaim it after half a day, and led it off into the forest with much grumbling. They heard the loud, slow clacks of orocline fighting from far away, but didn't set eyes on them.

At Lake Iolite there was an inn and a campground accessible by rail. There was a long beach with sand ground down fine by rock pokémon and local kids splashing in the green water. They got a hot meal at the inn: spam musubi and vegetables from its garden, and canned pineapple for dessert. It was a feast after their increasing indifference to the trainer stores' frozen meals and trail bars.

In the morning the ferrywoman took them down to the docks to her boat, which she told Russ about in detail as he listened politely. Moriko concentrated on getting herself and the bags onto the craft without incident. It wasn't a canoe that could tip, but she wouldn't put it past herself to unconsciously decide to re-enact every funny marine mishap video she'd ever seen.

A vaporeon was curled up under the helmseat, in shadow, and it twitched its tail in greeting as they came aboard.

"Well well," it said. "How is the Gaiien League treating you, trainers?"

Moriko smiled. "Pretty good!"

"Only pretty good? Surely it's been more exciting than that."

"Well… it's been… rough in places."

Moriko found herself scanning the shadows between the trees where the forest dropped into the lake. The beach by the campground was bright and open with colorful towels and umbrellas, but as they came around the shore the noise of kids playing faded and was replaced by the sound of the dark water lapping at the shore and the smell of earth. It smelled like old things and secrets.

She shook herself. "You must see a lot of people come through."

The vaporeon's fins rippled. "Enough to be interesting. Enough for gossip. Tell me some."

"I saw… we saw someone who'd been murdered," she heard herself say. "By a pokémon." She regretted it instantly, a heavy thing to confide in someone she'd just met.

But the vaporeon nodded, gracious. "That does happen. A great tragedy. Life cut short, for nothing. So much drive and purpose, evaporating, lost. What are your dreams, trainer?"

"I'm sorry?"

"In the stories the hero is tested. Find the true treasure in a hall of mirrors; answer the riddle; do not look back into those caverns of the dead. Name your heart's desire and be found worthy—or not. Who knows if you'll make it out of the woods?" It bared its teeth, mischievous. "Tell me, trainer, so at least that wish won't be lost."

Moriko felt her skin prickle, felt the weight of the air on her suddenly. She felt the pine trees and the mountains loom over her like judges.

"I want to be the best, ever," she whispered. "I want everyone to know it, I want them to fall silent when I walk into a room, and"—I want my pokémon's strength to be my strength I want their falling jaws to be my jaws I want their swift feet to be my feet I want their vast wings to be my wings—"I want no one to care… what I am, or what I look like, but only about the perfection of my competence and the splendidness of my strength."

"Let it be heard," the vaporeon said.

There was a resonance, like a bell tolling, and the suffocating closeness evaporated. No longer was she on trial before a court of the earth, but just a girl in a limp sweatshirt who badly needed a shower.

"What… what was—"

"Look here," the vaporeon said, and she stared down at it in shadow, all tissue-paper fins and tail.

"Ah," it said, meeting her eyes. "You're what the humans call… half. Part second-crossing and part third."

Memory whirled, and it struck like a knife. She tried to forget. "Yes."

"Well… in my experience, being different makes you a target. Standing tall gets you chopped down."

The vaporeon stood in the light. It was dark blue and scaled, what the breeders called the 'primitive' morph. It opened its eyes wide, and they were bright green, not the limpid black pools of the standard. The pale iris exposed the slit pupil, a sinister effect only valued in the dark-type umbreon.

"I was bred for showing, for contests—but I came out wrong."

"No one is born wrong," Matt interjected, and Moriko jumped. She'd forgotten he was there, and he said it like he wanted to believe it.

The vaporeon slow-blinked at him happily. "Oh, but there was hope—pokémon can learn to alter their form at high level. And so I trained and trained, and along the way I learned that contests were built around an empty ideal, and that the people I loved best enjoyed such differences instead of scorning them."

Its skin rippled as it shifted, turning to the standard vaporeon form with polished-onyx eyes and light blue hide, and then back again. "And so I can… pass. But there's no reason to." And it looked up at the dock, at the ferrywoman stumping along the boards, and she smiled at it, and stowed the last of the gear in the boat.

"That sounds terrible, about contests. I never knew they enforced dumb breed standard rules like that," Moriko said.

"Not so much anymore—they realized how inappropriate it would be to judge, say, coordinators by bone structure and integument, and so it is not right to judge pokémon so. Now there is a more general appearance category, and the precision of techniques is emphasized." It lashed its tail once before relaxing. "Water under the bridge, as they say."

"I'm sorry. Would you have preferred battling?" Moriko asked.

"Oh, the contest training wasn't all for nothing," the vaporeon said mildly.

The boat rose up on a swell of water, and they surfed off smoothly and at a good pace.

"Doesn't scare the fish, this way," the ferrywoman said, unfolding an outrigger.

x.x.x.x.x

After a few days the pokémon encounters dried up, the wild pokémon there and gone as fast as a couple blows traded before fleeing. More signs of animals than pokémon, in fact: birds and insects calling, deer, wolves howling at dusk, a black bear from far away across a river. The bear was concerning, but they had physically imposing pokémon for protection.

Quarric Village was a welcome sight, a little mining town with a railway stop. Food and a bed for tonight at the pokémon center, and then a train ticket for Porphyry for tomorrow, or whenever was soonest. They could walk to Porphyry as well, but it would take weeks through increasingly swampy ground. You'd be swimming half the time if you were walking and portaging half the time if you tried to canoe.

Moriko had been hoping to catch a water- or rock-type along the way for the fire-type gym in Russet Town, but the three of them were all getting irritable. Too much time on the road; it was time to move on. They could search for water-types in Porphyry or trade with a tourist.

They knew something was wrong as soon as they saw the helicopters and jumpcraft taking off and landing around the little village, emblazoned with red and orange pokémon ranger decals.

They approached cautiously. Pokémon rangers and frontier police were on patrol along the single main street of the village, and a ranger with officer insignia asked to see their trainer IDs as they walked up.

She looked over the records that popped up on her pokédex. "You three reported the murder at Tsugaru?" she asked.

"Yes," Matt said, as Moriko and Russ nodded.

"Do you know what's happened here?"

"No, although I'd guess it's bigger than that, judging by the activity."

"Murder number three in two weeks," the ranger said. "How interesting that you three are around again." She keyed a pokédex app and started to speak into it.

"Uh..." Moriko said, as those words sunk in.

Matt watched the ranger silently.

"Would you come with me, please?" the ranger said, as she was joined by a couple of tough, martial-looking pokémon, a machamp and a malamar.

"You three again," the malamar trilled at them. It was the one from Tsugaru.

x.x.x.x.x

A friendlier-looking ranger and a couple of psychic-types questioned them, and in the end they seemed to be satisfied by their answers. The rangers offered them the use of a portable healing machine for the pokémon, and afterward they accepted an extra ration and sat around on folding tables and chairs with the rangers on break.

Russ introduced himself to some young-looking rangers and was talking to them animatedly before broaching the topic of the latest murder.

"We have a good idea of what pokémon is responsible now," one of the junior rangers said. "We think it's the same one, the attacks are very similar: solitary trainer with weakened pokémon who's attacked and mutilated."

"It's good that you guys are in a group, I can't imagine what possessed these ones to be traveling alone," another junior said. She shook her head. "You can do that on the city routes in Kanto, but not here. It doesn't even have to be murder, just getting overwhelmed with too few pokémon or falling off the trail in the dark and breaking your neck."

"They're small town trainers," another guy said. "They're used to going it alone and they don't have much money for a guide or such."

"Lots of people have hiked Gaiien alone, or claim to," the first ranger said. He turned his pokédex around to show the comments on a training website. "You can get away with it if you're S-tier. Look at all these people bragging. Gives you a false sense of security."

The third ranger shrugged. "If you're smart—"

"It's not a matter of who's smart or stupid—"

"These things come in waves," an older ranger said. "There's some accident, and regulations and oversight tighten and relax, and then the cycle repeats. Everyone was freaking out about creeps for a while there—that's all we heard as kids, watch out for chesters and stay in groups."

"I didn't know they'd invented pokémon training during the age of the dinosaurs, habibi."

"Whippersnapper. When I was in ranger school, that's when it shifted to worrying about level sixty deathkings slithering out of the deepwilds and flattening villages. Now it's gangs looking for ronin and using kids as bait. In a few years it'll be something else."

One of the juniors shook her head. "Our pokémon behavior prof always said that the danger of killer pokémon was overstated, statistically, but this year's been a doozy."

"There have been more murders than these three?" Moriko asked.

"We had two missing trainers early in the season, both S-tier."

"And they were fifteen and sixteen so you've got people saying that the league needs to be eighteen and over, period. Another thing." The older ranger coughed. "Uh, that investigation is still ongoing."

The junior fiddled with her cap. "We had a couple of ronin after that, and now these murders."

"People get hurt all the time, even in the settled regions," the older ranger said. "It's not so much the pokémon, it's the environment. People don't respect the danger of things like losing the trail or pushing too hard in an afternoon."

"Should we keep traveling?" Russ asked.

"What? Oh yeah, no, don't quit yet, just keep an eye on the ranger boards. We're about to catch this killer pokémon"—the other rangers all rapped the tabletop with their knuckles—"doing aura sweeps in the forest, so after that things should quiet down for the rest of the summer if we're lucky."

"What kind of pokémon is it?"

"Pokédexes for all three cases pinged a caligryph, so we're pretty confident about that one. Aura analysis says air- and dark-type, around level forty."

Caligryph, the scribe pokémon. A dark- and air-type, it evolves from nigriff due to environmental factors or with a DNA splicer BLK. It carries a mystical scroll that it writes on to trigger its strongest attacks. In folklore, the quills from the left side of its body could only write truth, while those from the right could only write lies.

Air and dark, just like at Tsugaru.

Russ exhaled, trembling. Moriko put her hand on his, and he held it gratefully.

"Should've backtracked after all," he said quietly.

"Or taken the train, or stayed home and all become dentists," she whispered back. "Can't second guess."

"I'd be a great dentist."

"Are you sure? Remember that fuzzy tongue picture from health class?"

"I do now. I do now." He turned and squeezed Matt's shoulder. "Doing okay? You haven't said anything."

Matt nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, let's… let's figure out where we're sleeping tonight."

x.x.x.x.x

With the pokémon healed, they were free to leave. Presumably they didn't fit the killer pokémon's M.O. as long as they stayed together, but it seemed imprudent to go too far from the rangers tonight.

The pokémon center was closed, which was bizarre. After some poking around they found a distracted, harried clerk who filled them in: the murdered trainer just recently set out from the village, and the whole place was in mourning. They could sleep in the pokécenter lobby if they wanted, but the facilities were all shuttered.

The town instantly seemed gloomy, and the three of them were tired besides. They decided to head out to a nearby camping area with showers and privies and set up there.

The pokémon were antsy; they'd heard a lot of the discussion from inside their pokéballs and they wanted reassurance. The newcomers to the group, Keigan the springbuck, Conall the dirfox, and Tak the honchkrow, wanted to hear the account of the murder at Tsugaru-koen, and were alternately disgusted and fascinated.

"Kill the human and not his pokémon? Someone got that backwards," Tak said, and cackled harshly. "Unless it had a grudge," he added, and his eyes glittered, contemplating Matt's hands on the picnic table.

He dropped his beak to the table with a thunk, and Matt slid his eyes over to him. Tak stared back, swaggering, before finally giving up and fluttering to a tree branch.

"We encountered a ronin last summer, but the elders… disposed of it," Keigan said. "They are dangerous, strong and fast, but after all they are alone, and they can be misled and trapped."

"Who took it up?" Tak asked.

Keigan pawed the ground and shivered. "Unbelievably foolish to do so. It's not a clean soul."

Tak groaned. "What a waste!"

Moriko didn't quite follow this. Ronin got unnaturally strong by killing other pokémon—presumably if you killed them back, you could get strong, too…

x.x.x.x.x

Ranger-pokémon Bitefang extended her awareness again, the creeping tendrils slithering along every surface, worming into the cracks and crannies where pokémon would hide as energy. She startled a few forest pokémon that retreated deeper into their holes; she kept going, searching for their quarry.

This was a good place for it to hide: energetic spoor from squarrel and margue was everywhere, the dark-type trails weaving and looping over every tree and branch.

Bitefang checked in with the other searchers telepathically, trading observations.

East searcher Turai here, I've picked up a dark-type trail and large tracks.

Tell your ranger, said pokémon captain Spirol. East searchers, converge on her position.

The grimass got the sense of the direction through the link and started to move through the forest, partially phasing to make her hooves light on the roots and dirt and fallen logs.

She saw the shapes of the other ranger-pokémon through the trees and she grinned. The end of a hunt was always exciting.

They all had the trail now, a wide and foolish dark-type signature, not the pizzicato footfalls of a squarrel. Bitefang stretched her neck out as she ran faster, as light as a cloud through the forest, phasing through branches and jumping over roots. Wild pokémon were afraid to phase, thinking they'd be snorted up in an instant. She'd seen it all, and she knew that a healthy pokémon couldn't be eaten that way.

They flitted through the forest, lithe bodies or bulky ones streaking fast between the trunks, and all at once she could feel where the trail ended.

Their target crouched in the dark, wings mantled. It backed up into the ring of searchers and squeaked, caught.

"Dark and fighting, Turai!" someone said, exasperated.

Bitefang clacked her jaws. In front of them was a nigriff, not a caligryph—and she couldn't estimate level like a human pokédex, but it certainly wasn't level forty.

x.x.x.x.x

Curiosity about the murders sated, some of their pokémon wanted to explore the campsite area, and the three trainers made sure to pair them up with a buddy before they left.

Tarahn followed Maia as she explored. She sensed a creek nearby, and he batted at silvery fish that disappeared into the water while she drank upstream. As they walked he chattered, hoping to impress the larger tibyss. She was amused by his antics, at least.

She halted suddenly and he fell silent, casting his gaze around the trail, tail lashing.

"Show yourself," Maia said in her husky voice.

They waited, the forest silent except for a bird call, far off.

"Thunder wave, ahead and to the left," Maia said quietly, and something dark and winged burst out of the ground cover.

Tarahn shrieked and waves of electricity pulsed off him toward it. It tried to take off in a puff of air-type energy, and then faltered under the thunder wave.

Maia shot a bubblebeam, the spheres cracking on it and knocking it out of the air.

It scrabbled backward. "Stop! Stop! Please, why this violence?" it said, trying to rise. "I merely want to speak."

Maia stood tall, her crest quivering. "Proceed," she said.

It straightened, a bipedal avian pokémon with black plumage and a pair of oversized feather quills held in its claws. "I am looking to travel with humans for a time. Please, bring me to your trainers."

The tibyss' tail rippled once. "Very well," she said. She shifted so that there was a space on the path between her and Tarahn. "Please go ahead."

"Wouldn't you prefer to lead the way?"

"We'll let you know."

The dark-type walked ahead of them on the path and kept casting nervous glances backward.

"Keep going," Maia said.

They came back to the campsite and Russ was there alone. He stood up when he saw the pokémon, tossing down Sylvia's pokéball. The timbark growled briefly before falling silent, assessing.

Russell relaxed, seeing the two of them. "Oh, hi Tarahn and Maia. New friend?"

"Maybe," Maia said. "Where are Matt and Moriko?"

"They went to the privies, I just got back. The facilities are, uh, a little indelicate."

The wild pokémon was trembling.

"Everything all right?" Russ asked. He flipped his pokédex on. "…Caligryph."

The pokémon leapt into the air, flying off over the trees.

Russ ran at an angle, staying out from under its path. Sylvia growled and shot a needle attack after it, but it was out of range.

"Weird guy," Tarahn said. "What was that about?"

"The killer pokémon the rangers were chasing was a caligryph," Russ said. "I mean, I don't know if it was the same one—"

"It was skulking around in the woods when we found it," Maia said. "I don't trust it."

"Yeah, and—shit." Russ flicked open the messages app on his pokédex. "I don't know if this will reach them."

Tarahn watched him, the fur rising on his shoulders. "Reach who?"

"The privies are that way," Russ said, his fingers dancing over the projected keyboard.

"Yeah?"

"…Matt," Maia said, and she whipped around and tore off through the trees.

"Maia! Wait!" Tarahn called after her.

x.x.x.x.x

Rufus stood guard by the outhouse door. After a moment, Moriko dashed out of it, the spring snapping it closed again behind her, and she took a grateful breath.

"Oh gods, Rufus, cleanse me with fire," she said.

The oxhaust obliged, the spirit flames washing over her harmlessly. Moriko let down her ponytail and smelled her hair and then her clothes, but she could only detect her own journey funk and not the Eau de Toilette she'd just left behind.

"I should have just peed in the woods, that was awful. Do not go in there, Matt," she called, seeing him coming up the path. Bjorn was loping along behind him.

"These campsite privies are all treated with enzymes, it's not that bad," he said. "Fortify, my friend."

Frickin' Matt. "You'll understand in a moment," she said airily. "Don't say I didn't warn you."

Moriko and Rufus walked in companionable silence for a while, and Moriko stopped when her pokédex pinged. She opened the radar app, and it showed a pokémon nearby.

They started to walk toward it, but it winked off. Too bad, pokémon often saw you first and then hid or ran if they didn't want to fight.

The pokédex buzzed again after a few steps, the aura dot behind them this time.

Moriko turned and looked up the trail; there was nothing but the narrow dirt track through the forest, overhung with branches. The dot disappeared.

"Can you smell anything?"

The oxhaust shook his head.

It was quiet. She listened to the sound of Rufus breathing, the whispering of his spirit flames. What was unusual about a small pokémon darting around, too fast for the pokédex to get a reading?

There was no birdsong.

She moved closer to Rufus, and they kept walking.

Another ping. Moriko didn't look at her 'dex. They sped up.

A shadow to their right. Rufus snorted fire and charged it, punching branches out of the way and smashing bushes beneath his hooves. Moriko followed, but he barrelled into the undergrowth and she lost sight of him.

She halted, alone with the trees all standing over her. All she heard was her own breath and her hammering heart.

But she didn't have to be a ranger to backtrack along the trail Rufus had left. She carefully took pictures of her surroundings with her pokédex, scuffing the dirt as she followed the broken stems.

When she was back on the path she exhaled gratefully.

Gods, she needed another pokémon. She couldn't go out without at least two; Tarahn would have to try to woo Maia another time.

"Rufus! Rufus!" she yelled into the trees. She turned on her pokédex and told it to search for a fire-type aura.

No matches. Show excluded results? (Y/N)

There was a dark-type dot right on top of her.

She looked up at the caligryph, hidden in a spruce. It leapt to the ground, landing lightly on its clawed feet. It was crow-black with a griffin's ears and tail, and an oversized scroll slung over one shoulder.

They watched each other for what felt like a long time, the seconds caught in crystal.

"Who are you?" she asked. It seemed relevant somehow.

"A traveler," it said.

It swung the scroll around and extended its leaf; it raised one of its oversized feather quills, long and shiny and sharp-edged, and it scribbled something with a flourish. Her skin itched as the pen traced along the mystical paper. She tried to shift backward, her whole body suddenly held rigid, as if paralyzed.

The caligryph put away the scroll, and it held its quills like duelist's daggers. "May this soul strengthen Ituras," it said. It advanced.

Rufus hit it like a freight train.

The oxhaust knocked it to the ground in a cloud of feathers, and it righted itself and launched at him, screaming. Moriko could move again; she dashed to a safe distance. Rufus dropped his head and charged, fire flaring all around him. The caligryph drew in its limbs and spun up a drill peck attack only for Rufus to cross the distance and hit it with fire and a quick hammer arm. He lifted the caligryph and crushed it against a tree.

"Don't touch my trainer," Rufus said.

The caligryph groaned, choking, and its outline began to blur as it fainted, turning to energy. To escape.

Moriko hurled a pokéball at it, the capture net extending with a silver glitter to encompass its energy form and draw in the dark mass. Moriko watched the ball jerk, another one ready in hand. When it stilled, confirming the capture, she shuddered and leaned against Rufus, thinking of the thing's yellow eyes.

"Moriko," Rufus said miserably. "I'm sorry."

"It's fine," she said. "I'm fine. You came in time." She smiled at him, a trifle brittle. "Maybe don't cut it quite so close next time."

"Moriko! I'm here!" Tarahn yowled, racing up the track.

x.x.x.x.x

The rangers took the pokéball away, and Russ and Moriko recounted the evening's events to their questioners while a hexx and the malamar quizzed Maia, Tarahn, and Rufus. Recording devices were brought out, and they had to give their testimony again, witness statements for the killer pokémon's trial.

Afterward, the ranger-captain approached them; it was Captain Grouse from back at Tsugaru-koen.

"I'd like to offer you my thanks and my apologies," Grouse said. "Thanks that you did our job, and apologies that you had to do it. That should not have happened. We should have been able to distinguish between the aura signatures and gone after the right one. You were in extreme danger, danger I was supposed to keep you out of. I'm sorry."

"Moriko was in danger because she was separated from her pokémon," Matt said. "That won't happen again."

Moriko agreed, but Matt saying it made her want to cover herself in jam and go lie down in the long grass alone. She nodded politely to the ranger captain.

"Good. Is your team size an issue? We can set you up with a loaner pokémon, we've got plenty that wouldn't mind taking some time off for a few weeks to do gyms. We're very happy to send rangers along with trainers on rough stretches through the wild, it keeps our juniors busy. No?"

"That's very generous, but we should be all right," Matt said. "I'm already intruding on these two." Russ punched his arm, and Matt smirked.

Moriko grimaced inwardly, ignoring Matt's jibe; gods, how humiliating to have to be babysat by a ranger mentor like a ten-year-old.

The captain nodded. "It's no trouble, truly. Call us up anytime. With this out of the way, I hope things will return to normal. Just remember your wilderness safety and you should be fine."

Outside, the rangers' camp was sleepy with the killer pokémon situation resolved. Only a few ranger-pokémon remained awake, interrogators and aura specialists and their trainers.

Under spotlights in the middle of the camp was a containment field with a dark shape floating within, and there were wires and cables running everywhere on the ground, haphazardly covered or not at all. Computer and pokédex screens were faded under the spotlights.

As they walked up the caligryph threw itself against the shielding, back and forth with a sizzling noise and a whine as the generators spun up at high power draw. A couple of rangers and pokémon approached, unconcerned, and eventually the caligryph fell exhausted.

A grimass chuckled darkly. "Not this time, friend. Nor ever again, I think."

"Do you want to see this?" Ranger-Captain Grouse asked them quietly.

Moriko's eyes flicked over the machinery. "What are you going to do?" The image came to mind of a ranger with a big axe or a sword, like in period dramas.

"Just verification. We'll take it to Thalassa Heights for sentencing afterward."

"Are you going to torture it?"

"No! That's illegal. But you might hear it go into detail about what it did." She sighed. "And it sucks to see pokémon that are upset, even when you know they've done wrong."

"I'm gonna turn in," Russ said. He rubbed his face. "It's been a long night."

"See you in a few minutes," Moriko said.

She and Matt approached the pokémon containment. The caligryph glanced at them, its features swimming or magnified or shrunk grotesquely under the changeable high-power shielding. The malamar and the hexx looked on as the grimass and a xatu performed the aura analysis. It looked like an arcane ritual, the pokémon's eyes glowing as energy swept and whirled, and they and their trainer occasionally muttered code words to one another like a numbers station.

Eventually the system powered down, and the xatu sighed and hopped back into its pokéball.

Ranger-Captain Grouse clapped the aura technician on the shoulder. "And so?"

"Ninety-five percent certain."

Grouse nodded. "Thalassa in the morning for the nine nines, then. Try to get some sleep, Wong."

The caligryph was crouched on the floor of the dome, head bowed. Moriko crouched alongside it, and it looked at her briefly, as if it didn't recognize her. Maybe it didn't. She jumped when it hit the barrier, claws hissing on the shielding.

"I need—one more—" it muttered.

"A confession," the grimass said quietly. She flicked her long ears. "Why'd you do it?"

The caligryph screeched at her and she bared her teeth perfunctorily.

"How could you know? How could you even dream of what we are forced to do? Must do?" the caligryph snarled, yellow eyes wide.

The grimass pawed the ground, an invitation. "Tell me."

"Do you know how many children die, pushed out, weak, consumed, easy prey for ronin? And here you are, rich with energy. You make me sick."

"Why do you think I'm strong?" the grimass asked. "I partnered with a human being. I didn't kill a kid in the woods all alone and expect that to help."

The hexx drifted forward, all floating fabric and ghostly hair. "And what did you get from tasting that gross flesh? Did you get even a single particle of energy?"

The prisoner looked briefly cowed. "There was… it was promised…"

The hexx covered its mouth with its hand; the malamar hissed.

"You complete idiot. You idiot child."

"Worse than idiotic," the hexx said.

"They gave me energy! I was strong for the first time!"

"Exactly. And you paid them back thirty-fold with human hearts," the grimass said, disgusted.

"The first taste is always free," the hexx said. "And then you pay and you pay, and you go on paying."

Moriko couldn't follow this; she glanced at Matt, who was pale and shaking, his lips pressed into a thin line and his hands balled into fists.

"Captain, what are they…?"

Ranger-Captain Grouse seemed to remember that the two of them were there and drew away from the arguing pokémon, steering them back toward the sleeping tent that Russ had gone to.

The captain waved a hand. "Don't worry about it, some ronin think they're serving gods or powers."

Off to the side was another containment unit at lower power. The shield was nearly transparent, with only a faint iridescence like a soap bubble to mark it. The pokémon inside was curled up in the bottom, sleeping or trying to.

"Is that another killer pokémon?"

"We've cleared that one of any wrongdoing," Grouse said. She cleared her throat. "What you heard back there… pokémon sometimes turn to hunting other pokémon to get a boost when they're cut off from their home range. They're siblings, we think the elder was dragging the younger around. I'm not sure where it got the idea that killing humans would be useful."

Moriko watched the bubble as they went by. "What's going to happen to it?"

"It's free to go, but we'd like if a trainer could adopt it." Grouse looked at her significantly. "Probably these two thought predation was the only way for them to acquire energy. Not all wild pokémon know or realize that training with humans can be beneficial instead of one-sided."

"I'm… not sure it'll be too happy… What about with other nigriff in the wild?"

"We can try to match it with a wild group or a mixed one, but that can be ugly: with no social ties it'll be the butt of the pride. Try talking to it later, maybe some good can come of this whole mess."

Russ was already asleep when they came to the tent, and Matt lay down without a word, kicking off his boots and pulling the cot sheets over his head. Moriko flicked off the lamp, but she kept looking out at the crease of light coming through the tent flap.

She went out again, back to the pokémon's containment.

"Hey," she whispered, approaching and crouching down. "Are you okay? What's your name?"

Nigriff, the griffin pokémon. A dark- and fighting-type, it has two environment- or item-related evolutions, caligryph and ursagriff. They are proud and nest high on mountains, but they will fight among themselves for the best perches. They use darkvision to navigate at night.

The nigriff hissed. She tried to look big, standing over Moriko and spreading her wings. She had black plumage highlighted with dark red-brown, and a black beak and scales. "I'm Liona, Lonno's get. Who are you?"

"I'm Moriko, I'm a traveling trainer. I have two pokémon, Tarahn and Rufus."

"I don't want you," the nigriff said, misery settling on her all at once. She turned her back on Moriko and lay down again. "I want my brother."

Moriko tried to think of something gentle to say, instead of all the bald admonitions that kept jumping to mind.

"What are you going to do, now that you're alone?" she asked.

The nigriff screeched angrily, helpless. "I'm not alone! I have my brother!"

"Liona, your brother killed three people."

"He had to!"

"Did they attack him first?" Interrogating this hurt, sad pokémon? Real persuasive, Moriko.

"They were humans hunting pokémon," she said sulkily. "They would have if they could."

"None of my pokémon have ever killed anyone," Moriko said. "Why did he have to?"

"We didn't have anything. The others took our home so we had nowhere to go. It's none of your business. It's not fair. Who said you could capture him and kill him back?"

"What would the penalty have been if your brother had killed someone in your pride? In your family?"

Liona rumbled, annoyed, but she didn't reply.

"You don't have to live like that, Liona. You don't have to live alone or to prey on others. You can come with us and get strong, and if you don't like us you can go with another trainer, or come back here."

"I don't need you. Go away."

Moriko went to bed. It had been a long shot, and the nigriff had no reason to trust or love humans.

x.x.x.x.x

The rangers and ranger-pokémon had no luck persuading Liona, and in the morning she flew away alone.

The three of them marched to the next town in silence. The train would be skipping Quarric Village for a couple of days as the pokémon rangers mopped up the last traces of energy from where the trainer had been murdered.

That evening they made it to Lake Chrysocolla. They set up their tents and would get to Blackwood-on-the-Mere in the morning. They hadn't talked much all day; Matt hadn't said anything since the previous night, and Maia was at his side protectively. The weather had strained everyone's civility, with drizzling showers all day chilling them under their rain gear. Moriko brought Rufus out to help with the fire and Tarahn came too.

"Moriko," Tarahn said miserably. "I'm sorry. You were almost hurt."

Rufus crouched to look at her. "I left you. That was dumb."

"It was a close call," Moriko allowed. She wasn't mad, but gods—the caligryph had been a few paces away, and she thought of the broken body of the trainer at Tsugaru and felt like her knees would give out.

She shook her head. "We'll stay together as much as possible from now on, okay?" She reached out to grasp Tarahn's paws and squeeze them, and then Rufus's hands.

The two of them were especially solicitous that evening, staying close to her and peering ferociously into the twilight, but it could only last so long before they got bored. Sylvia was irrepressible, putting Russ back into a good mood as he threw a tennis ball into the lake for her over and over.

Moriko left the sodden campsite with Rufus and Tarahn, and they poked around the lakeshore. Moriko showed Rufus how to skip stones now that he could throw. He tried a couple practice ones and then set a beautiful flat stone skipping until it was too small to see, and Moriko cursed herself for not getting it on video.

"That one went to the moon," Moriko exclaimed as Rufus hid his face shyly, the rain steaming off his warm hide.

"And some say it's still skipping," Tarahn said, rolling on the rocks. "Come pet my belly, Ru, it's your responsibility now that you're a two-legs."

"It's a trap," Moriko told him. "He'll bite you."

Rufus obediently petted Tarahn's stomach, and the raigar's bite clanged off the oxhaust's metal armguards.

"Ow! Cheating!"

Moriko nodded. "Thus was the trickster punished."

"…Trainer Moriko?" said a voice.

Moriko whirled, and Rufus and Tarahn looked up.

It was Liona.

"…What can I do for you?" Moriko asked, heart beating fast. She found herself staring at the nigriff's talons and tried to look her in the face, at her sharp raptor's beak.

But the rain had plastered Liona's fur and feathers down flat; she looked miserable. She had a fresh cut on her foreleg.

"I… you look happy, oxhaust, raigar. You look strong," the nigriff said tentatively.

Tarahn came closer, and sat on his haunches next to Moriko. "Oh yeah, the strongest. We're going straight to the top. Right?"

Rufus peered at Liona, suspicious. "Your brother tried to hurt Moriko. Are you going to?"

The nigriff gave a thin cry. "I don't—I never wanted—"

"Hey," Moriko said, trying to be soothing. "I don't blame you. He was the one killing people. Right?"

"It was all we could do, he said," Liona said miserably. "I didn't know. Our parent died."

"I'm sorry," Moriko said. "My—" Her voice caught.

After a moment, the nigriff said, "I don't like being alone. I thought of you. I don't know you, but… it's got to be better than nothing."

Not a sterling display of confidence, but it would do for now. "I'd love for you to come with us, Liona. Right?" she said to Tarahn.

"No quarrel with you, little birdie," he said cheerfully.

"Rufus?"

He folded his arms and looked stern. "It's fine if you're good."

"You don't have to stay with me if you don't want to," Moriko said, "but you can come and get warm by the fire all the same. We'll take you to meet other pokémon and other potential trainers if you want."

The nigriff shook out her wings miserably.

"Don't think about it now. Just come rest. You've had a long day. Several long days."

Liona took a few uncertain steps out of shadow, and she followed them.

x.x.x.x.x

Matt lay in his tent with Maia crushed up against him. The chill and the nausea were almost normal now.

Gods. Were they here? They couldn't be. There must be others, other ugly powers exchanging strength for blood. This was an old region, after all.

He should tell the others. He laughed bitterly at the thought.

x.x.x.x.x

A/N: Thanks for reading! The vaporeon in this chapter is based off a design by we-were-in-love.
  1. Psycho Monkey
    Psycho Monkey
    Excellent chapter Keleri! It got very suspenseful when the Caligryph appeared which was pretty fun. I liked the alternate Vaporeon form as well. It's really cool seeing variants of known Pokemon in different areas.
    Dec 15, 2017
    Keleri likes this.