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Gaiien Region: Gods and Demons: Chapter 8

by Keleri

Keleri Our heroes make it to Porphyry City and prepare for their next gym battle.
Chapter 8

Elder Tree / Songs for Lost Girls / Knives / Cruel Old Child

July 8th-10th 128 CR

Blackwood-on-the-Mere was a tiny village with not much to recommend it beyond a train station and an inn, but the latter turned out to be just what the three trainers needed. They were greeted with a feast: hot coffee and tea, fresh bread, last summer's preserves, cold horchata and smoked game meat, and they fell upon it while the pokémon healed.

They caught the train a few hours later and all promptly fell asleep in their seats, awakening in the evening to the clatter of the snacks cart in the aisle. They watched from the window as they passed the high bridges over the swamp, which lay still and gray-green where they could see it through the mist. And then all at once the mist cleared and the train pulled into view of the Lacuna Sea, which glittered to the horizon as the sun set.

Far away to the north was the Northern Gaiien Passage, Sastruga Fjord and its tier eight gym, and then the border of Gaiien. Beyond that was Arctic treaty land, ice that few people remembered how to live on, and monsters.

In the twilight Porphyry City loomed before them, a city on a hill, the capital of the old second-crossing kingdom. The old town had many of the original buildings still standing, while the city had expanded outward with new construction built on the cliffs sloping down toward the beaches and on a crescent of artificial land stretching out into the water.

They caught a glimpse of the bay: boats were visible by their lights, small craft for fishing and day journeys. Port Littoral's industrial docks with its ranks of haulers were missing, but the big ships could make the trip to the Lacuna Sea through the Northern Passage. Porphyry had a comfortable climate year-round and a lively nightlife, and there was a steady traffic of airplanes and jumpcraft at the airport just outside the city. It was a popular destination for a taste of wild Gaiien with the usual comforts close at hand.

"Have you guys ever been here before?" Matt asked them.

"I went last year for a mathletes competition," Russ said. "Honestly, it's kind of a dump. Everybody wants to sell you something and half of them are scams, you pay for a boat trip that doesn't exist or, like,"—he coughed—"erotic massages, but they just steal your pokédex and maybe stab you."

Matt laughed for the first time in days.

"It sounded like there was a lot of trouble on that trip—I remember you sending me emails, complaining," Moriko said.

Matt smirked. "The massages get out of hand?"

"Oh saints." Russ rubbed his eyes. "No, no one tried to buy a massage. Other than that, though… I thought math nerds would be well-behaved, but everyone brought hard liquor in shampoo bottles and stuff. Hua brought her pokémon and she had a plan to fleece tourists by posing as a dumb junior trainer and making extravagant bets, but she ran into someone with the same plan and stronger pokémon."

"I've heard that's a whole cottage industry here," Moriko said. "They pressure you into betting, or they let you win and then you bet big, but the fourteen-year-old has a level fifty garchomp all of a sudden and you lose everything."

"Well not level fifty," Matt interjected, "that would be illegal to battle with on the street."

Moriko waved a hand. "You know what I mean. They overwhelm you with a strong pokémon."

"You should say—"

"You sound wistful, Mor," Russ said. "Thinking of raising some money?"

"I wish," she answered, turning away from Matt. "I hate counting pennies."

At the rate they were spending, she'd have to stick to free pokémon center meals and conserve potions strictly, though the latter hadn't really been hard with the lack of wild pokémon they'd experienced so far. Russ had more spending money from his parents so she wouldn't be left with nothing, especially for healing items, but it was galling.

She tried not to think about her options with no money, namely having to head back to Port Littoral. Going home also meant having to put herself in reach of her aunt and uncle again, who'd shown that they couldn't be trusted several times over. Her original plan to go back in the fall and work there was more and more unattractive.

It was funny, how having strong pokémon was supposed to mean that you were independent and grown-up, but they, pokémon-less, had found so many ways to inconvenience and control her.

The path to the pokémon center from the train station was riddled with street vendors. At night they were mostly selling drunk food, greasy or starchy offerings to soak up the alcohol, and the air was full of the smell of frying bread and noodles.

There were street performers putting on light- or fire-shows with buckets for donations held by stern raticate and warhare, but also some shady-looking sellers with poorly printed brochures, and cut-rate pokémon mystics offering to equalize your pokémon's chakras and judge potential.

A wild-eyed guy on the end of the row had a table dotted with grisly photographs and all-caps printouts with dubious punctuation. The font size was such that it was easy to read from far away: he was a Saffron truther, asserting that Saffron Town had been destroyed by second-crossing terrorists rather than that legendary ancient ho-oh. They gave him a wide berth.

The pokémon center was in an old building, and there was an odor of basements and sea fog that clung to it. Reviews said it was actually unexpectedly quiet in the evenings due to people staying out to party. It was undergoing renovations, rooms and chunks of the elderly stone under plywood and plastic sheeting, and the attendants gave them vouchers to get meals at a hotel up the street. They slept through the night, although it wasn't clear whether that was because it had been quiet in the dorm or because they were bone-deep exhausted.

Moriko nearly wept at the hotel breakfast. It was palatial after hiking food: cinnamon French toast with syrup and berries, eggs and smoked fish, fresh fruit on ice, yogurt and granola, and other more savory items, but her eyes were only for the toast.

They three of them ate in total silence. A couple of helpings later, they slowed and started to talk about where to head next. The sign-in board on the dorms had updated when they scanned their pokédexes; there were quite a few names on the list, some familiar ones from the campsites in the regional parks, but also lots of travelers. The board included a column for region ID, and there were trainers or budget tourists or both here from Kanto, Sinnoh, Tanos, and other regions.

The sign-up for the gym was bizarrely handled: the lists were backlogged, but they reset every week and you could get in if you were early enough in line. Lots of out-of-region trainers were here just to give it a try, along with the Gaiien regulars making the circuit for the summer. People were lining up early in the morning and even battling to move ahead.

"The leader should have subordinates that you have to battle first if it's this popular. This is nuts." Matt jiggled his leg, annoyed. "It's to get people to linger here longer and spend money." He cast a dirty look toward the reef, and the hotels and casinos on the pier.

"Are we gonna get up early to line up?" Russ asked.

"We're gonna camp out to make sure we're first in line," Matt said. He checked the time on his pokédex. "We can do some training before sign-up day, and there's a professor living here in town who I want to speak with."

"Who is it?"

"Prof. Alder, she's retired. A million years old. But she knows a lot, she studied with the old second-crossing clans back in the day."

"Is there a good spot to train?" Moriko wondered, querying her pokédex.

"We're in the capital city and she wonders if there's a good spot to train," Matt muttered, keying his own pokédex.

"Among all the possibilities for training, I would like to look for the best one—"

Matt held up his pokédex, displaying thousands of video search results for 'Porphry [sic] City Street Battle'. "Just look around you, my friend. Training is happening as we speak."

Moriko grit her teeth. "I've noticed you say 'my friend' when you're not bring friendly."

"Street battles can be hit or miss," Russ said quickly, "but they are easy to set up. It looks like there are several type-specialist guilds in town we can hit for personal instruction as well."

That sounded good; it was helpful for pokémon to be tutored by more experienced battlers to learn new techniques or perform known ones more reliably.

Matt sniffed. "Costs money if you aren't a member of the guild already."

Of course it did. Moriko closed that window.


Matt split off from them to go look for battles, and Russ and Moriko decided on the same. They took a sedate pace around the old town, studying kitschy souvenirs and watching the boats in the harbor. The weather was perfect; there were people skating and skateboarding, kids playing with pokémon and dogs, and tiny figures crowding the white beaches down below.

"Oh hey, look who it is," Russ said to Moriko.

"Who—? Oh gods," Moriko ducked her head, seeing Angela. "Peace out."


Nope, she was gone. Too bad. Russ couldn't fix that little rift, as loath as he was to admit it to himself. He strode over to Angela, waving. She looked amazing; her hair was glowing in the sun, and her skin was clear and tanned with a dusting of freckles.

"Hey Russ!" She dropped her bags and hugged him, delighted. "How's everything going?"

Russ smiled, a little embarrassed of his sweaty shirts and hack shaving job. "Great, we got the badge in Verdure and we're signed up for the gym here, hopefully it goes well."

"That's great! We're getting some sun today down at the beach, there's a wonderful cove with shade trees and the water is the perfect temperature. We're signed up for wakeboarding tomorrow! Want to come?"

"I've got to train, but that sounds amazing. Post pictures, okay? How are your pokémon doing?"

"Rio and Phoebus are good, Rio is juuuust about to evolve I'm pretty sure. I also caught a springbuck and a warhare in the mountains. The mountain warhare have a great look, they get a fluffy coat in the winter—"

"Listen, I wanted to speak with you a little seriously, but I can bug you later, I don't want to ruin your day—"

Angela put her hands on her hips and exhaled. "Come on, Russ, I lived with Moriko for ten years, I can hear about her latest escapades. She's insufferable, isn't she?"

Russ took a breath. This was why this would be hard. "…No, she's fine, but actually I think your parents are harassing her."

"What? Why? No, actually, they're harassing me now that she's gone—all of a sudden I'm getting all these worried emails and demands to check on her and to pass along messages and where I am and when I'm coming home"—she threw up her hands—"it's always her, the brat, I just want some peace—"

"…Are you sure it's her that's the problem?"


"Listen, I'm sorry that's happening—Ange, we, a pokémon ranger spoke with us the other day because someone reported that she'd stolen her pokémon."

"Did she steal a pokémon?" Angela asked, arms folded and head cocked.

"Ange! No! Look, I know you guys didn't get along—"

"She never—"

"Can you please ask your parents to leave her alone? We've run into rangers so many times, I'm worried that—"

"Uh, I think rangers are probably investigating her for a good reason—"

"No, no, it's been a coincidence, I think, it's been for different things—we saw—we saw a murdered kid in Tsugaru Park—"

"You what?" Angela stared and took his hand. "Russ, what?"

Russ covered his eyes; he could still see that appalling redness if he thought about it too hard. "…It was bad. It was really bad."

"Oh my god, I'm so sorry, Russ." She hugged him again. "Why don't you come with us? It sounds unsafe—"

"No, thank you, sorry, I have to stay with Moriko and Matt. Keep them out of trouble. You know?"

"You have to quit picking up strays, Russ," Ange said, and she mock-swatted him. "Look, I'll send Mom and Dad a message, but I don't think it was them. They're parents, they're worried about us—"

"Please, Ange. It would mean a lot to me."

"For you I will do this," she said sternly, and smiled. "Take it easy, okay? We're staying at a cute little bed and breakfast, I'll send you the address. Come see us after dinner if you want to chat more? See you on the beach!"


The three of them regrouped after dinner. Matt had won several battles and seemed to be in a better mood than usual, and he treated them to fresh cherries from a market vendor on the way to Prof. Alder's.

Alder had a small first-floor apartment with a yard on the edge of the old town in a gentrified area. Matt called her on his pokédex to let them into the fenced complex.

She was a little old lady, short and round with pointed face under the wrinkles. She was sitting out on the porch smoking a long-stemmed pipe, and the fragrant smoke was drifting down the street in the evening air. A massive torterra dozed in the yard, its pillar legs covered in stony scales and its shell-top tree twisting and gnarled.

Prof. Alder studied the three of them as they approached.

"Hello, Prof. Alder," Matt said, "I'm Matthew Reyes. It's good to meet you in person."

"You're right on time. Are these your friends?"

Moriko and Russ introduced themselves, and they all sat down with the professor. A mushroom-like beheeyem glided out of the house levitating a tray of sweet teas with ice, and departed just as smoothly after setting them down on the cast iron table.

"I admit I was confused and intrigued by your questions, Matthew," Prof. Alder said, after they'd all taken a few sips of tea. "You should know that when you contact a professor, you're most likely to see a response to very specific and well-posed questions, but now and again I will answer queries that are less-so, if they interest me." She looked at Matt, her eyes glittering. "What are you leaving out?"

Moriko frowned at this. Russ's face was politely blank, but when she glanced at Matt she saw that his color was high, his jaw clenched.

Lying to a professor, Matt?

"Apologies," Matt said shortly. "I have... difficulty putting it into words," he managed, and the muscles on his neck and arms were as tight as bridge cables.

Prof. Alder took a long draw of the pipe. "Your other question was easier to answer, though perhaps hopelessly broad," she said. "What, exactly, do you want to know about the people of the second crossing?"

"Everything," Matt said, and you could hear the hunger in his voice. "On the internet I can only find vague accounts and racist assumptions, just-so stories by armchair anthropologists and tall tales by crossing war veterans. I'm—half-second crossing, but my mom wouldn't tell me anything, I want to meet with them, speak with elders—the young ones, they, we, they don't always care—"

Prof. Alder drew out her researcher's pokédex, tablet-sized and delicate. "Show me your 'dex," Alder said. She looked at Russ and Moriko. "You can join in too, if you want," she added, and shortly their three pokédexes in red, green, and gray were on the table.

"You're all over eighteen? Good, I'll give you a provisional academic access key—you can check out two university-level texts a day with this. That will give you more access to history and scholarship."

"Ah—I need to do my own reading," Matt said, faintly abashed.

"I'm too old to help undergrads," Prof. Alder said primly. "Start with the highest-rated textbook."

Matt scrolled faster and faster, his eyes poring over the titles in the academic library. "Thank you," he remembered to say.

"That won't be everything, of course. Prof. Blackwood is the leader of the team putting together what we hope is an accurate history of the second crossing era, as complete as we can make it. Much of the history was oral, or in code, and the readers have been lost through accidents or spite. And the clans all had their own biases. Somewhere beyond rumor and legend is the truth."

"Do you know where I could... meet elders, meet people who know the history?"

"Up north, most likely. Try Sunset Village or the Passage. You could talk to second crossing or half kids, too—there are plenty around in town, and their teachers. Not all of them are disinterested."

"Thank you."

"And anything from you two?" Prof. Alder asked Moriko and Russ.

"Why the tree names?" Moriko blurted out.

Prof. Alder grinned. "You are speaking even now with Prof. Alder I, the original, the fossil. I was there when it started. Terrible idea—like many pointless things it turned deadly serious. All kinds of nasty little backbites over who gets what name when they graduate, fights and bribes and bets. I'm surprised no-one's been knifed over it yet. That we know of."

Russ coughed. "I heard that the professors' organization will come after people with tree last names?"

"Poor young Samuel Oak. We thought we were being clever there. It's his family name—but then concerned citizens went after the rest of his family for misusing his designation. Feh. I heard he and his family moved to some tiny town to escape the busybodies.

"The P3O can pursue those who misrepresent themselves as pokémon professors as a civil matter. It's a protected profession because there's a great deal of trust placed in us—there was a fairly serious case in the fifties where someone posed as a professor in a remote region to get close to kids and teenagers through starter distribution."

They all winced at that.

"I thought rapists couldn't keep pokémon?" Matt asked baldly. "Where did that person get pokémon to distribute?"

"Pokémon will abandon trainers that torture or murder, but they're as vulnerable as anyone else to subtler violence, grooming, and intimidation," Prof. Alder explained. "They aren't like the creeps in films, pokémon-less and ugly. You can train a pokémon or a human being to accept appalling treatment over time."

Russ frowned sadly. "Why didn't they tell someone? Why didn't their pokémon defend them?"

"Oh, they did, when it got bad enough. Pokémon are all prey animals, fundamentally; this one or that one may wear a cat's shape but unlike the animal they can be devoured by mice just as easily as the reverse. Pokémon will keep their trainers' secrets, even as those secrets fester," Prof. Alder said, looking sharply at Matt, who shook his head slightly.

The professor blew out smoke and looked sagely and dragonlike in the dim light. "I can only answer questions by the letter, Mr. Reyes. If you need someone to answer a question that is unsaid, or secret, or one that lies in the heart or the eye, you must consult a pokémon mystic, not a pokémon professor."

Matt's face was carefully blank, and he nodded. "Thank you for your time, Prof. Alder."

"Good luck, Mr. Reyes. I hope you find what you seek."

"What are you looking for, Matt?" Moriko asked, when they were further down the road.

"Knowledge." He glanced at her. "Unlike some."

"I know how to ask a question without wasting a professor's time, at least," she snapped.

He ignored that. "This is the first step," he said, looking at his pokédex.

Moriko stretched, annoyed. Well, if Matt wanted to know about the past, that was fine. She was looking toward the future; she wasn't interested in all the sins people left behind them. There were too many.


Liona the nigriff was in poor spirits, resolutely looking at the ground and not the noisy, overwhelming city and enclosed buildings. Moriko brought the pokémon to a practice area and had Liona spar with Tarahn. She struggled with fighting on the ground—airborne she'd have better mobility, but take double damage from electricity—and then dealt the raigar a very smart revenge attack that sent him skidding backward.

Moriko praised her and the other pokémon did too, and afterward the nigriff looked more comfortable sitting among them.

"Are you happier today?" Tarahn asked her. Moriko had retrieved discarded cardboard out of the recycling for him, and he was running his claws down it eagerly.

Liona picked a little at the cardboard with her talons. "I am happy to be in a pride again. It was lonely." Her ears drooped and she put her head down on her forelegs.

"Your sibling," Maia rumbled.

"The human rangers will kill him. I know—I know! I know what he did. But…"

"If someone killed my trainer I would not rest until I killed them," Maia said, her head high and her fins the color of sunset. "I would make of my body a blade and follow them to the ends of the earth. I would follow them to other worlds where they say pokémon cannot live. I would follow them into the next life and the next, and I would kill them again and again without rest until the world ends."

Liona shivered. "He didn't kill your trainer," she said, sulky.

"Luckily for him."

"What good is a trainer, anyhow?"

"Opportunity. Power. Vision. You will appreciate the second pair of eyes when you see how battles are run with humans. The ball protects, and the healing machine means anything is survivable. You will see the lengths that we go to."

"Why? What good is it?"

"How do you think I became strong?" Maia said, as commanding as an empress. "We have no sources, no territory. I have never stolen energy nor killed for it. We battle as much as we like, and we face others just as strong or stronger. In the wild you scrabbled for scraps, and here we feast every day."

Liona whistled suddenly, angry. "Why? Why did he—he said it was the only way! It was pointless!"

The tibyss looked at her, interested. "You don't know why?"

"No! He told me to—wait, to wait here or there, and then he would come back covered in blood."

"Do you want to find out why?"

"Maybe, yes."

"Enough to experiment?"

"To—no!" The nigriff put her ears back. "I will not do what he did!"

"Good. We have no quarrel. You are well rid of him," Maia said. "He was a murderer and a fool."

"I know, but... I want my brother. I want him back." Liona looked away.

Tarahn pushed some of his cardboard toward her.

Maia's tail rippled once. "I don't know how to get him. You could ask."


Moriko sat on the edge of the cot, taking off her hiking boots. The bunk above her creaked as Matt shifted around.

"It looks like there are doors in here that lead down into sub-basements and tunnels that stretch from building to building," Matt said conversationally, apparently to her.


"Yeah, I just found a site with crappy paint-program maps. People use them as makeout spots or to smoke or drink." He snickered. "Not everyone is on a journey or badge quest to actually train pokémon. Some people are just out to get laid."

Moriko snorted. "None of my business as long as it isn't in this room." She looked out at the rows of cots and hanging curtains. "Yech."

"There are a few corners that looked suggestive, to my eye. That's all a pokémon journey is, really—it's a test. A rite of passage. Sometimes it's not really about the monster battling."

She stood up, pulling on her sweatshirt, and she peeked over the top bunk railing at him. "Which is it for you?"

Matt's mouth quirked, but he sighed with surprising feeling. "Just the monster battling."


She turned in surprise to see Liona coming in from the exercise yard.

"Hi Liona, ready for bed?"

The nigriff looked wistful for a moment and then shook herself. "I want my brother," she said sternly. "I will not battle until I see him. Take me to him."

Moriko winced and tried to think of something placating to say. When they'd left the rangers at Quarric Village, Liona's brother was to be transported to Thalassa Heights and the high tribunal under the strictest security. He would be euthanized, unless something went awry with all the evidence the rangers had already gathered. It was what happened to killer pokémon; it was what pokémon would do in the wild when one of their own had a taste for blood.

But Liona hadn't had a chance to say goodbye.

"I guess I could try to ask for Ranger-Captain Grouse again…"

The captain had wanted Moriko to adopt Liona, and perhaps she'd take a call about the nigriff's well-being, arrange something to reassure her.

"You can take a ferry from here to Thalassa Heights," Matt said quietly.

Liona looked between the two of them. "Really?"

Moriko nodded; Liona's hopeful face didn't completely erase her dread at seeing that caligryph again, but it was a near thing. "I'll try to take you to him, if you really want to. But I can't… I can't help him escape. I won't."

Liona's ears and wings were drooping. "I know. He was… wrong. But I want to see him."


The pokémon ranger office in Porphyry was quiet, with more dim offices than active rangers, and a gray-muzzled wintris sleeping in the foyer. The police station was probably busier, dealing with theft and minor injuries, while the rangers were off in the wild.

Moriko asked to be connected with Ranger-Captain Grouse, relaying the story of the caligryph in the mountains. A couple of rangers went with her to scan her ID and pokéballs, and they stopped short when Liona came up on the scan. There was considerably more in her file than in Rufus or Tarahn's.

"This is a killer pokémon," one of the rangers said to her, half in disbelief.

"She's not—that was her sibling," Moriko said quickly. "Ranger-Captain Grouse asked me to adopt her. I wanted to check in with her."

"We will verify that. In the meantime, as far as I'm concerned, you're trafficking killer pokémon."

Moriko stared at him. "I'm what?"

She felt weak, withering under the pokémon rangers' serious gazes. Like a punch in the gut she imagined how she looked to them—half-second crossing, dealing in illegal pokémon. Was the accusation of theft still there?

"That's not… that is not even in sight of being true," Moriko managed to say.

The other ranger was scrolling through her pokédex log, as Lieutenant Lecce had in Verdure Town. "Do you have a mentor we can get a reference from?" she asked, more businesslike.

"Prof. Willow. Of Port Littoral. Well of Coral Knoll, it's a suburb, her contact is—" she babbled.

"We'll look it up on her public page," the male ranger said. "Why don't you take a seat while we call her?"

Moriko sat down on a folding chair, her eyes flicking toward the door. She briefly entertained the thought of telling Liona to run, like in a movie. But there was no way she'd be able to outrun trained ranger pokémon, flyers that could hit Mach numbers or deception specialists that could make you walk straight into their hands.

They called Prof. Willow on a big video phone, and the magnemite icon buzzed a few times—too many times—

"Port Littoral Research Center, Professor Adeline Willow speaking."

Moriko exhaled. The professor was in her usual outfit—was it a weekday? She couldn't remember—the white lab coat and lavender blouse, and her halo of curly blonde hair filled up the screen.

"We'd like to speak with you about a character reference for one of your protégées."

"Of course."

"Is this person known to you: woman, average height, brown skin, green hair, orange eyes—"

"Moriko Sato is one of my students, yes," Prof. Willow said smoothly.

"We have reason to believe that she is in possession of a killer pokémon. Trafficking dangerous pokémon—"

"Are we talking about the same person? What is her explanation?"

"That she adopted the sibling of a killer pokémon at the request of one of our captains, I believe."

"That sounds more like Moriko. She's a shy person with a deep empathy and kindness for pokémon." Moriko blushed. "If she did capture a killer pokémon, it would be by accident, and if discovered would turn it over to the ranger corps. Which captain?"

"Ranger-Captain Grouse, Professor."

"Why didn't you call them first? Either they were there and can confirm all this or they weren't and the game is up," Prof. Willow said sharply. "Hop to it."

"Ma'am," the ranger said, and cut the call. A few minutes later he had Grouse on video, a little bleary-eyed with her iron-colored hair curling out from underneath her orange cap, who corroborated Moriko's story in harsher terms.

The male ranger's color was up, annoyed. "With all due respect, sir, the documentation clearly—"

"What doc—ah, I see it." The ranger-captain's eyes flicked over Liona's file. "Shit. Kekoa!" she said over her shoulder. "Sync the files from Quarric Village! …No they didn't, the kid who caught our killer bird just got stopped and frisked in Porphyry!" Grouse looked back into the camera. "My bad. Wait for the new file to confirm, but the nigriff is clean."


"Wait—Captain Grouse—" Moriko said, throwing herself into view.

"Hello, Moriko, how are things going aside from my juniors trying to steal your pokémon?"

"It's—no problem—Captain Grouse, Liona, the nigriff really needs to see her brother again. Where is he? Where are you?"

Her expression softened. "I really don't recommend that. Pokémon heal from this kind of separation quickly—"

"Please, she's really miserable, I think she needs a chance to talk with him! She didn't get to say goodbye. You know?"

The captain sighed, thinking. "Come to Thalassa Heights, and I'll help her get a last look. Please do not attempt any kind of jailbreak. You will fail miserably and it will be hilarious, but more time-consuming for me than hilarious, which will not put me in a good mood."

"I wouldn't—I mean, I was there, Captain Grouse. I looked into his eyes."

"That you did. Technically you did me two favors. I will grant you this one. See you on Thalassa."


Moriko called Prof. Willow from her pokédex when it was all finished. She flinched a little when Willow's face appeared on the screen, but the professor's face instantly lit up upon seeing her.

"Prof. Willow—thank you so much."

"Moriko! Of course, not a problem. I hope you don't take that to heart, sometimes rangers jump to conclusions, but they have the best intentions—I hope you weren't scared by my professor voice!" She laughed.

"No, not at all, it was kind of cool, actually. Thank you for helping me. I just… I don't understand why they thought that, like who would ever…"

"Some people…" Prof. Willow's face on the phone flickered. "Some people deliberately try to catch killer pokémon."

"…Why?" Moriko's head whirled at that. Normal pokémon were enough of a handful; Tarahn had given her injuries, playfully, accidentally, that had needed regen. To deliberately catch a ronin, a pokémon that would kill, a pokémon that wouldn't take orders…?

Prof. Willow looked offscreen. "You can use a pokémon to intimidate or threaten—all but the sweetest, gentlest pokémon love it, to be honest. That kind of pecking-order shakedown happens all the time in the wild. They'll battle, and they'll defend themselves or a trainer with deadly force, but to instigate it… Most pokémon will balk if you tell them to deliberately attack someone. They'll abandon you if you try to force them. But there are pokémon that will do it. Pokémon that will torture or kill, and have fun doing it. That kind of pokémon is, thankfully, rare, but in the right hands it is a powerful and terrifying weapon."

Moriko thought of the evil pokémon in movies and video games: ronin that a hero would have to slay, lone and insane pokémon crawling with strange diseases, malign legendaries. "It must be more trouble than it's worth?"

"The kinds of people looking for such a thing usually don't mind a little collateral damage, or have illegal ways of subduing pokémon." Prof. Willow pressed her lips together. "Or they're a kindred spirit. A killer pokémon is… well, we like to think that someone like that is insane, but they can be quite rational. It might partner with a human to meet its goals like any other pokémon. It's an accident waiting to happen, of course."

Moriko was silent for a few breaths. "Thanks, Professor. Thanks for defending me."

"I know you, Moriko. And frankly I think they were giving a teenager too much credit." She winked.

Moriko smiled crookedly.


The boat scudded over the waves, jouncing Moriko in her seat and leaving her feeling decidedly unwell, but the sickness disappeared as Thalassa Isle came into view. It was actually two islands, bisected by a narrow strait, with severe, vertical rock walls down to the ocean. There was some fishing and ocean traffic, but for the most part it was quiet and shuttered, preparing for the regional tournament and elite challenges at the end of the summer. This was where the Elite Four met challengers in Gaiien: Dragut and Aria, Lapis and Titania, and the champion Faraday.

Thalassa was built to impress, with statues of heroes and legendaries in white marble and titanium nitride glittering gold, all towering over visitors. Vermilion pillars and bridges linked islands separated by curated streams full of ornamental plants and colorful fish. Above them was the elites' tower, looming over its surrounding arenas. It was smaller than the grounds at, say, Indigo Plateau, but it had been uniformly designed and constructed, unlike the historied sprawl of the facility in Kanto.

The arenas were empty and echoing before the tournaments, and past them was the administrative village. Here there was activity: rangers and suited employees walked from building to building, strolling or intent on errands.

The building that Grouse had directed her to had a body scanner at the entrance, with guards and psychic pokémon, and even a virtual-type hexatron darting in and out of unfamiliar electronics. Nervous and forgetting all the metal items she carried, she set off the scanner and had to try again. The hexatron beeped at her encouragingly when she finally got through.

Visitor badge firmly applied, she met Captain Grouse in a lobby and was shown through to the elevators. Another ranger came with them, and Grouse's key card got them access to a lower level.

It was cool and dry, hospital-like with the smell of antiseptic and faintly blue lighting. Rooms and doors flew by—Moriko caught a glimpse of soldiers with guns and anti-pokémon devices at the end of an intersecting hallway—and finally they came to a room where the killer caligryph was held.

He was in a shield bubble like before, a powerful one with automated defenses. Electronic eyes tracked them as they came in. The caligryph rose, seeing them.

Moriko released Liona, and she looked small in the room, the release mechanism muted. The nigriff hesitated; Moriko rubbed her shoulder and she shook herself, walking forward toward the shield.

"Do you keep him in here?" Moriko asked Grouse, looking at the bare walls and confined space of the bubble.

"No, he has a virtual environment. This is just for viewing."

"Latna," Liona was saying. "I—"

"You betrayed me," the caligryph hissed.

The nigriff's ears went back.

Latna lunged at the shield; there was no sound but the strike of his body against it. "It was supposed to be you! They caught you!"

Liona flinched away, wings half-spread as she retreated. "What?"

"And you—" He was looking at Moriko. "You were the last! I needed one more! You were supposed to go to the god! And then—and then—"

Moriko felt sick, watching him scrabble against the glass like a trapped insect. Liona was shaking.

"Add that to his file," Grouse muttered to the tech behind her.

"You… you wanted…" Liona whispered.

"You wanted Liona to take the fall for you?" Moriko demanded. "Where were you going to go? Killing people didn't even do anything except land you here."

"Power! Power untold, a gift for a gift!" The caligryph jammed his claws against the shield. "It—was—promised!"

Moriko shook her head. Some trickster had persuaded him to do this, maybe. She pitied the caligryph, despite her fear: he'd been alone and desperate, with Liona to care for.

Well, if he'd actually ever cared about his sibling. Perhaps it had been one-sided. She looked at the nigriff, who looked worse than ever and was making hurt crying noises.

"Liona, do you want to go? I'm sorry—I didn't know—"

Liona turned her back on the bubble. "Take me away," she whispered.

Moriko recalled her.

"You did me another favor," Grouse said, as they were taking the elevator back up. "That was a useful confession of intent from him."

Moriko shrugged. "I don't know if that did any good for Liona. I'm not sure if I should have come. I feel weird about… helping you execute him. Even though he wanted to kill me."

Ranger-Captain Grouse was silent a moment. "We don't execute them very often anymore, actually. We study them. He has a long, long life ahead of him," she said.

"…So, what, you experiment on them?"

"Yeah. Well, not so much the tanks and tubes and needles you're probably imagining. They get enrichment and activities, and the studies are usually in the form of games. Positive reinforcement. Something… changes in a killer pokémon. We don't know if they're born or made. We want to find out."

Moriko thought of Prof. Willow's explanation. "So you can make more?"

Grouse barked a laugh. "Lord, I hope not. To persuade the existing ones that they don't have to kill. The ones that like it—eventually they see the needle and the winnower, probably."

Moriko looked behind them. "Are there more killer pokémon in there? Do you keep them all together? Didn't you ever see Heist 54?"

Grouse laughed again. "Based on a true story. No, we learned our lesson after that. They're scattered all over. The killer pokémon that were stolen then… most of them are still around, traded between criminal gangs, djinni you can let out of a bottle to happily do humans' dirty work. We think Team Rocket used Tsar Bomba to assassinate a rival leader a couple of years ago. We can't prove it wasn't a gas explosion. The auras were fucked up by the time we got there."

They'd reached the doors leading out of the building. Moriko looked back again; she remembered that attack. She'd seen some ugly uncensored photos on imageboards: pulverized concrete, cars blown to shrapnel, people with missing limbs, fountaining blood and hasty tourniquets.

"…Are you sure you shouldn't execute them?" she heard herself say.

Ranger-Captain Grouse took Moriko's visitor badge. "A question that we ponder endlessly. Good day, Moriko. Let me know if you or your friends need our help again."

Moriko wandered out into the sunlight. She picked Liona's pokéball again.

"I wish that had gone better," she said quietly, and put it back on her belt.

There wasn't much to see between tournaments. Moriko passed a gift shop stuffed with fan merchandise and pokémon plushies, gewgaws and knickknacks commemorating the upcoming season or famous previous ones. No wild pokémon, either, unless there was some way to get down to the water that wasn't a sheer cliff. She headed for the ferry stand to wait for the evening ride back to the mainland.

"Leaving so soon?"

Moriko turned and stared: there was a shiny tibyss behind her, cherry and aquamarine, and beyond it was Dragut of the Elite Four. He was incredibly good-looking, with glowing brown skin, luscious, long black ringlets, and genehan blue eyes.

He also, somehow, looked amazing in the elaborate pirate costume he was wearing with all its lace and ruffles. Water-type was his specialty; it was all part of the performance.

"I—have to get back. My friends," she stammered.

"Of course. Porphyry's badge?"

"Yup! I mean. I haven't done it yet. We're training." Oh gods.

"Good luck!" Dragut said. "Belladonna can be… a bit of a handful." He winked roguishly, twirling his moustache. "Don't let her push you around. What do you think of the island?"

"It's great! I hope I… I hope I make it to the tournament. Feels kind of unlucky being here early, though. You know?"

"I'll tell you a secret," Dragut said, with the air of pulling out a doubloon from behind someone's ear. "How many times do you think I was here before I got the badges?"

"I'm guessing, not never?"

"I lived here for a year, training with the old elites as an acolyte. I knew all the ins and outs of Thalassa, and then I did the gym circuit, and I came back here and aced the tournament. Ten years later they called me back to take the elite position. Knowledge is power. Never hesitate to use it, or any other trick." His eyes sparkled. "Will I see you at the tournament in August?"

She blushed. "Probably not. We'll be too late to get the eighth badge, even if everything goes right."

"Right, Polaris's badge." He turned, looking away to the northeast; Sastruga Fjord was that way, a long boat journey distant. "We need to fix that. We already make you kids wait so long."

Moriko smiled ruefully. "Yeah, it's kind of annoying seeing thirteen-year-olds with three or four badges from Hoenn or whatever sometimes. I feel really behind," she blurted out, "I should have gone to an academy if I was really serious about battling—"

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen," she said, reluctantly.

"An infant," the tibyss said, gravelly.

"You have so much time, Miss—?"

"Uh, Moriko."

"Miss Moriko, you have so much time. You are going to learn so much in these next few years, I promise. This isn't a sport where it all stops at middle age. It gets better! Take your time. Learn about this beautiful world. Power you can get in a summer by hitting it hard, but mastery comes with time and new experiences. Free advice." Dragut looked down at himself, as if realizing that he was in his elite outfit. "Yarr," he added, and saluted and moved off, trailed by the shiny tibyss.


Moriko let the pokémon out on the ferry to sit in the sun as it went down. Liona put herself near the prow and didn't move even as she was hit by spray, and she got wetter and more bedraggled-looking as they went.

"Aren't you getting cold? Come on back and sit by Rufus."

Liona sighed. "I am a fool. I should throw myself in the ocean."

Moriko crouched by her and weathered some spray herself. "Don't think about him. He betrayed you. He was supposed to take care of you and he didn't, and then he tried to frame you. He's dead to you."

"Where am I going to go?" Liona asked, despairing.

"You can stay with me. Or if you don't like me we can find you someone else. You don't have to do anything if you don't want to. You don't have to battle, even. It doesn't cost me anything to have you along. I want to be friends with you. And if it doesn't work out I'll try to find you a friend."

The nigriff looked at Moriko, appraising. "You are kind. What do you get out of it?"

"I'm a pokémon trainer. Either I get to train you, or I just get to keep you and be kind to you. I wouldn't be a trainer if I didn't like doing that."

"Why would you want some idiot who couldn't even see that coming?" Liona asked, jerking her head at the island receding behind them. "Gods, it's so obvious."

Moriko thought of her aunt belittling her, controlling her, and that day that it all escalated so fast. "I let people hurt me too. I… lost people, too. I won't pretend that I know exactly… but maybe we're in the same boat."

Liona watched her. "We are on the same boat, Moriko," she said, confused.


It was sunset when they disembarked again back at Porphyry. Moriko felt wrung-out and exhausted, which was bizarre, since she'd barely walked anywhere. She was looking forward to a late dinner and bed.

"Hey! Hey Moriko!"

She turned. It was Angela.

Her cousin approached cautiously; there was a strange readiness to her stance, like she expected a blow. She was dressed well, nice hair, nice makeup. Moriko was suddenly aware of her limp clothes, dirty, sweat-soaked. She watched Angela, just waiting for whatever it was.

"I talked to Russ," Angela said, abrupt. "He said you guys found a… body. Someone who'd been murdered."

Moriko sighed. "Are you going to accuse me of doing it?"

Angela held herself tightly, a little of the—what, fear?—replaced by anger. "No, I wanted—why do you always—I'm trying to talk to you normally and you go for the worst thing!"

"Because it's always the worst thing. It's always me and something I'm doing wrong."

"You—look. We were thinking about going home after this gym. The ranger boards are just warning after warning. It's not just… what you found, it's all kinds of places. Maybe you should go home too. It was a good run."

"Cool, see you back in Littoral."



"Moriko—" Angela's voice arced. "Why are you always like this? I'm trying to help, trying to give you a warning, trying to be friendly—"

"By confronting me and telling me to go home?"

"It's just badges for the godssake—"

She always tried to feel nothing in these arguments, but the anger bubbled up. "That I'd been looking forward to! For months, years even! Why—why are you doing this journey? You never planned on it, all your gear is brand new—"

"I don't need your permission, it's an open league—I wanted to take a trip and get a couple of badges before university starts, see the sights."

"Copying me."

"Now you sound like a fourth-grader. Mom suggested I go with Vic, and then the boys thought it would be fun to do, too—what?"

Moriko's face had probably turned ghastly—of course Rachel had put Angela up to it, tried to one-up Moriko's planning with new-bought supplies and an expensive item storage device, when her attempts to sabotage Moriko's journey had failed.

"I'm not going home. This is something I get to do for once, and you—your mom—just, stop. Stop playing games with me. How do I even know you're going home?"

"You're the one who plays head games, Mom always said—"

"She plays—"

"And when have you ever not done what you wanted? I always had to hear you starting fights with her when I was trying to study or enjoy some time alone—why were you around if you hated us so much?"

"Because when I finally left she hit me and tried to steal my savings! Of course it took time to work up to leave!"

"You're always lying! You're always lying and starting fights and exaggerating, and making up problems, like, did you really see a dead kid? Or were they just hurt—"

"We saw a murder victim, Angela," Moriko said, cold. "It was not mistakable."

Angela stared at her, her lip curling. "And now Mom is going after me! Now she's sending me all these emails about school and my stuff back at home, how she's going to throw it away if I don't come home, and it's your fault—"

"What does she want? She never wanted me there and now she wants me back? What do you want?"

Angela started to say something and then didn't.

Moriko blew out her breath. "Is that it?"

"No," Angela said, and she tossed down a pokéball, revealing a flareon, Phoebus. "Let's battle."

Sometimes you had to say it with your fists. She went for Tarahn's pokéball.

The raigar appeared and scratched himself. "Hey Phoebus, howzit?"

"You know, the usual." The flareon waggled a paw.

"Flamethrower, Phe!"


Tarahn hacked up a clot of poison that the flareon torched out of the air before turning the beam on him. Tarahn grunted, scorched, following up with a thunder wave. Phoebus' muscles seized for a moment, and the raigar darted up close, raking the flareon's sides in a poison claw attack.


Tarahn swore, backing off, as Phoebus' fur flared with heat, and the raigar aimed a thunderbolt at him. The responding flamethrower passed through it, both attacks connecting. Phoebus shot in with a quick attack, and Tarahn yowled, burnt by contact.


Tarahn slapped his paws together and Phoebus was forced to quick attack erratically, shooting from position to position between the two trainers, but Tarahn couldn't hit him either, his thunderbolts missing by fractions of a second.

"Ah, shoot," Moriko muttered.

"Yeah," Tarahn agreed.

Phoebus broke the encore effect, but he was panting. "That's enough for me," he said. "Good to see you, Tarahn."

"Likewise, take it easy, Phe."

The flareon hopped back into his pokéball. Angela watched, annoyed, as Moriko recalled Tarahn as well.

"Well? Aren't you going to gloat?" Angela asked angrily.

"No? Angela, just… I don't want to see you. I don't want to hear from you. Tell your mom to leave me alone. Hell, tell her to leave you alone."

"Yeah? You want her to swan dive off the fucking handle at me?"

"Whatever, I guess."

Angela dashed angry tears out of her eyes. "Why were you even here? We were happy before you came!"

Moriko turned around and left, half-running. They always escalated. They always brought out the knives, old and expected ones, and despite everything they still stung, they cut to the fucking bone.

We were happy when I was there, too, for a little while. She couldn't remember when that had changed.


"How did it go?" Russ asked her. He saw it in her face, she guessed, because he hugged her. "Not great, huh?"

"It was kind of fucked up." She rubbed her eyes and sniffed. "I saw Angela on the way here, too. Fuck."

"I'm sorry, Moriko."

She shook her head. "It could be a lot worse," she said, thinking of Liona's brother in his virtual prison, raging about death and strange gods. "It could be a hell of a lot worse."

"Also, you're not going to like this, but we're going to get up at four to get in line for the gym sign-up."

Moriko groaned.

"Russ?" Matt's voice came from their bunk.


"Uh, your egg is hatching."

They raced in; there was a distinct pale-gray glow in the room and an open pokéball on Russ's cot, and the egg.

Pokémon eggs didn't precisely hatch. Moriko remembered the class they'd all had to take on pokémon reproduction; she'd been prepared to smother giggles, but the whole process for pokémon was far less messy than for animals. Two pokémon, a major and a minor parent, put energy together to create a protoform, an egg. And after it had absorbed enough energy it would evolve into its next stage.

The egg was glowing white, and it started to shift its shape into limbs, and a head and a tail. After a moment, the infant pokémon was left behind, the light fading.

Celestiule, the messenger pokémon. A light- and dark-type, it is a hybrid produced by a nimbval and a grimass parent. They are rare to see because the parents' natures are often inimical. Its appearance reflects the current sky conditions, and will change with the time of day and weather.

It was the deep velvety black of the night sky, dotted with stars like tiny diamonds glittering on its hide. Its eyes were white and opalescent, and it raised its head to look at them. A foal, perfectly formed and lovely.

"Hi there," Russ said, speaking in his gentlest voice. He put out his hand carefully for the celestiule to smell.

Newborn pokémon were highly precocial, they'd always heard: they learned from their mothers and they learned in the egg, so within weeks they'd be able to—

"How dull," the minutes-old pokémon said.