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Gaiien Region: So Comes Ice After Fire: Chapter II

by Keleri

II. Frost and Starlight

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

June 7th–8th, 130 CR

It felt like everyone else on the boat had crowded to the opposite end. Moriko was alone with the enormous, serpentine pokémon, its segmented legs scrabbling on the deck, and its ticked fur shedding chunks of frozen seawater. Rufus and Ganny flanked her on either side.

It was an auroraboros, a pokémon that was a legendary and a demon both, a pokémon that could feed not only off the energy of other pokémon, but of humans', too. Regular pokémon, even legendaries, had been tamed by fair exchange—more or less fair—with humans, who provided energy and opportunity to gain battle prowess in trade for the unique powers pokémon possessed.

What could one offer a demon that they could not take?

And yet, here they were, talking.

Her initial shock aside, Moriko had to say that Karaxil looked… good, much better than the pale shadow of a pokémon that had spent hundreds of years imprisoned underground. It seemed more lithe and shiny, its movements more dynamic.

The last time she'd seen it had only been for a moment. It had dragged a legendary pokémon—a hybrid, merged with a human—called Ituras, the Gray Prince, underwater and been lost to sensors. Evidently it had won after that sneak attack.

Or had it merely escaped? Had the Prince escaped? Where was the Gray Prince?

"The ice clan-priest requested your presence. I set out to find you at once," Karaxil was saying.

The who?

Moriko had no idea where to start. But her Pokémon Behavior classes had always recommended an exaggerated politeness, like you were speaking to an interviewer or the First Ambassador, if you weren't sure.

"I see, thank you for your solicitousness," Moriko said, bowing. "I believe the vessel is close to Sastruga Fjord. Please, would you care to ride in with us?"

"That will be acceptable," Karaxil said, to Moriko's surprise.

It arranged itself on the prow of the boat, its long body and quill-tipped tail drawing out of the water. Moriko asked Thana to tell the captain that it was—probably—safe to continue on, if they could get the ferry started again. The mist was already disappearing.

Moriko had expected it to spirit her away in some fashion, hopefully not by dragging her underwater too. But as she watched the demon pokémon, she realized that she could see places on its hide where the scales had healed off-pattern, and that its huffing breaths were subtly slowing, its cervical gill-covers opening and closing.

Well. It had been two years, but it had fought a god. No judgement to still be recovering.


As the ship pulled up to Sastruga Fjord, Moriko was dogged by two spirits of fire and one of ice, and she suspected the ferry captain was very, very glad to see the back of her. The sky was leaden, heavy over the red-paneled buildings set high above the cold ground on stilt legs, but the pokémon center/inn had a cheerful interior, cozy with a hot fireplace and hot fish soup.

She hadn't been ready for the cold: Moriko had lived in muggy Port Litorral nearly her whole life and then nearly-tropical Mossdeep for school, and she immediately hit the gear rental to swap out some of her borrowed winter clothing for even warmer dress. She'd been told that Sastruga was mild at this time of year, but the wind was like a knife, strong and damp, and she needed a heavy fleece and winter jacket, and a big rain coat over it all. It wasn't even below freezing yet. She couldn't imagine winter.

The locals seemed to be used to it, less bundled-up or in better-fitting personal gear or both. Moriko looked at the distant wall of the glaciers in the hills, forbidding above spring's first green shoots in the lowlands, and she stuffed her gloves with hand warmers.

Karaxil, part ice-type, was unaffected, and the locals seemed unperturbed by the huge pokémon sleeping by the harbor as Moriko took care of her errands. It seemed the gym leader—the ice clan-priest?—was away, and his second was busy with the other trainers who'd beaten Moriko to the gym. She didn't mind having to wait in line, but she wasn't impressed by him taking leave at the beginning of the season, the only time his gym was really available to challenge.

"He may be searching for me," Karaxil admitted, when Moriko rejoined it. "I left perhaps… unexpectedly at his expressed desire to meet with you."

Moriko's heart thudded, wondering what kind of international incident she'd precipitated this time. "Why did he want to see me?"

Karaxil yawned, baring its needle teeth. "There is a demon in the hinterland. You have some experience with such."

The auroraboros was not talkative, though not silent, either—but it would only answer questions with evasions and circumlocutions. Moriko suspected it, dragonlike, treated conversation as a duel and any admission of true personal information was a point lost. She decided to think of it a coworker instead, and asked for recreational recommendations, finding out the best places to sit in the sun or roll in the snow, and where one could find the best whole, raw fish.

Vleridin sat with them, watchful; she had a healthy apprehension for the demon, but did not strike before it did. Moriko added Karaxil's aura data to the pokédex database, and with her university account she could see all the anonymized entries that had come before hers. She guessed that Polaris had been—in contact with? Taking care of?—the auroraboros for about eighteen months.

Despite its long imprisonment, Karaxil seemed not to have travelled far or done much with its new freedom; legendary pokémon got their energy from absorbing environmental energy and battling like regular pokémon, but they needed so much that they spent a great deal of time sleeping. And the auroraboros was recovering from that battle with the demon pokémon Ituras.

Moriko had to wonder if it had been getting energy from gym battles on Polaris's team, although she would have seen outraged articles about that on the internet, no matter how isolated the gym was.

Its head swung around midsentence, as did Vleridin's, and Moriko followed their gazes to see a flying pokémon approaching them. Before long, Polaris had come to them, hopping off the back of a hovering white reindeer-like pokémon, a guide forme yulerein. He was a stocky man, not tall, and—aggravatingly—he was wearing shorts and a hoodie.

"Aren't you cold?" Moriko blurted out as she shook his hand.

"Why? It's a nice day," he said dryly. He had white hair, or nearly white with a touch of blue in it, and similarly pale eyes and brown skin. "I see you two have met," he added, looking between Karaxil and Moriko.

"I see you two have met," Moriko replied. "The last time I saw it, it ended an international incident. How did it end up here?"

"Same way I find a lot of pokémon, actually. I found it on the beach one day covered in ice and blood, and I brought it to the pokémon center. "

"With firearms trained on me," Karaxil murmured.

"Well." Polaris shrugged. "Can't be too careful. Since then we've got to know each other better."

Moriko caught eyes looking at them from windows and around doorjambs, and Polaris said, "Why don't we head back to the gym?"

Karaxil lifted off into the air, its body eeling away into the blue sky and scudding clouds, while Moriko and Polaris strolled up the rocky street.

"So..." Moriko said. "You know it's a demon pokémon, right?"

Polaris pulled an aura monitor out of his pocket and gestured with it briefly. It would detect if Karaxil or any other pokémon was leeching energy from him. "I keep an eye on this. But it's been good so far."


"Curiosity. A test. Sometimes you have to put your rifle down first, you know?"

Moriko nodded. "Yeah. Well. Can I challenge you? I've come from Hoenn—I'm from Gaiien originally, but—"

"You can fight my second. There's something that needs my attention in the hinterland. I've let the rangers at the Northern Passage know already. If needed. But if you wanted… you can come with me instead. Ranger student, right? And you know something about all this… demon business."

Moriko's stomach clenched. "Yeah."

Oh no. Oh no. She'd vowed to avoid supernatural stuff if she possibly could—that summer with the Gray Prince and the Wandering Fire and all their bullshit had been enough. She'd be happy to clear brush and help kids from now on, and help when giants showed up. Really.

But this was what she'd signed up for, as a ranger: helping gym leaders when they requested it, keeping humans safe, keeping pokémon safe. She was still a student! Maybe she should leave it to the masters for once, get her badge and go home. Time was ticking on the giant mantine.

Something warned her; the bright northern sunlight was suddenly too harsh, the gray hills and white mountains unforgiving and distant. If South Gaiien had been wild, North Gaiien was wilder still, ready to devour the unwary and leave no trace of them. There were things out there more terrible than wolf and bear and saberteeth, more powerful than pokémon.

She sighed. She couldn't not go. It was what she was.


The gear store employees blinked to see Moriko back so soon. Polaris got her even more winter clothing, high-tech gear for cold flying that she immediately cranked the temperature control on. This was more like it; she could feel her ass again, numbness subsiding in painful waves.

He laughed, seeing her expression. "Not a cold-weather girl, I take it?"

She shook her head. "I'm from south Gaiien, and I've been going to school in Hoenn. I think it got to be ten degrees Celsius one winter when I was a kid, and that was scary."

"See, forty with humidity would actually kill me. Thirty and I'm dying. And you left your sweaty-ass greenhouse just to see me?"

"Yeah. Well—and to get one of my pokémon."

"That sounds like a story, want to share?"

"He stayed behind when I went to school. My oxhaust."

"That sucks. Wait—didn't you mega evolve him? Wasn't that your grand showdown with the legendary?"

Moriko smiled ruefully. "Sounds like you heard Belladonna tell the story. Yeah, I ensouled him and we mega evolved. But he wasn't ready."

Polaris blinked and then whistled. "Oh wow. Did he come back…?"

"He agreed to come fight you. But no ensouling, no mega evolving. And I don't know if he'll come back to Hoenn. He has a good gig going at the steel smelter."

"That's… wow. Believe me, I know a little of how bad that must have been. Cool, I'll give you a good fight when this is over."

"Thanks. I really… I got the last couple badges for services to the gym, not actually fighting the leaders," she admitted. "I need to know I'm at tier, battle-wise. It's been eating at me."

Polaris grinned. "You'll know after you fight me."

"You're an adept too?"

"Yes, one of the few fullblood third-crossing adepts." He winked. "No, there are lots of third crossing adepts, but it is around a two to one split in favor of fullblood and halfblood second crossing trainers. Then again, there are plenty of fullblood second crossing people in Nalea without any adept talent." He sighed. "And good for them. Ensoulment is dangerous."

Moriko nodded. "I've been told that."

Polaris looked at her sharply. "And yet you're walking around with your mooskeg. Don't—"

"Vleridin is ball-phobic," Moriko interrupted. "She's out most of the time, just like this for situations that don't accommodate her size."

Polaris blew out his breath, allowing this. "Alright. Honestly, that's the best advice I can give—don't do it. Even with animaegis, you can't spend that long. You'll lose each other."


He waved a hand. "Mental resilience, fortitude. Whatever they're calling it now."

"Uh, like, meditating? Positive thinking?"

"You—you must—the training you're doing with your master. Your master who's training you. In adeptry."

"Mmm. One of the senior professors is an adept and I was supposed to train with her, but she keeps pushing me off because she's too busy, keeps promising next semester."

Polaris looked absolutely stricken, his pale gaze jumping from Moriko to his pokédex and back again.

"…Okay. Okay," he said finally, slapping his hands together and breathing deeply. "Before we go anywhere, I am going to give you the crashiest of crash courses in mental resilience."


Polaris brought Moriko to the Sastruga Gym, a low building nearly indistinguishable from the other long warehouses near the harbor. As they walked to a training room, she could hear faint noise of the battles proceeding in the hardened arena, muffled sounds of pokémon roars and beam attacks. The training room was similarly hardened, but without the stadium seating of the main arena. The spongy floor would absorb some of the energy from attacks, and there were the familiar shielding baffles on the walls.

"Should I bring out any pokémon?" Moriko asked him, as they hung up their gear.

"No—just us for this first part."

Polaris sat down crosslegged, and Moriko realized that this was going to be the long, boring process that "mental discipline" suggested. There didn't seem to be too much associated mystical mumbo jumbo, at least.

He exhaled, hands on his knees, and Moriko mimicked his pose.

"Alright. Tell me how you found out you were an adept."

Moriko told him the story: Vleridin, mortally wounded while fighting for Moriko under duress, jumping into her body in revenge.

"Ah, you stumbled into it. That's happening more and more. We want kids to forget about it, not to try it—pokéballs are safer. But sometimes you figure it out by accident, and then you have no mental discipline, and when you join… well, you get everything and the pokémon gets everything."

Moriko nodded. Ironically, that was what had bound Vleridin to her: their shared memories provided a beginning for mutual understanding. If she'd had mental defenses… well, if she'd been more properly trained, she'd likely never have tried to pursue Vleridin-the-wild-pokémon in the first place. So it went.

"We bleed into each other a lot," she said. "Thoughts and worries about this or that."

"That needs to stop," Polaris said gently. "Psychic hygiene is important. Adepts have ended up with mental injuries, lost memories, damaged senses of self, not just in the sagas. Real life. The pokémon has to take them over just to continue and then can't get free. It's safety for both."


"You aren't in trouble," Polaris said. "This is a super common mistake. But you do need to heal what damage may already have been done."


"First step: Try to quiet your mind. Close your eyes. Develop an awareness of your body. Feel every part of it, like it's a pool and your mind is the fish swimming in it. Except the pool is also the fish, and the fish the pool, and the fish can splash the water if it wants."


"Crash course. I told you. Find the edges of your body, and try to disturb the fluid. You can speak mind-to-mind with your pokémon? Do that, but to no one in particular."

Moriko sighed and tried to imagine as much as Polaris was describing. Hello world, she sent, imagining the words projecting from her head like usual, and then as if they were sloshing around her body and falling to skitter away on the ground.

Loud, Vleridin told her.

"Crash course. Normally you'd spend like a week just meditating with the master. Or more. They'd watch you for flashes of aura. Second step: whoever your best—I mean, whoever you think is the most suited pokémon for this, bring them out."

Vleridin stepped out of Moriko's body and sat on the floor with them, her wide hooves splaying out. "It's me, of course," she said. "Vleridin, Thuridin's get, at your service," she added politely to Polaris.

"Well met and good running," Polaris replied. "To start, reach out for one another through the energy—but stop. Don't dive in. When you ensoul each other right now, you're diving in with everything, and that's dangerous. Look at each other, find the shore. Reach out. You can control how deep you dive. Just wet your hooves."

Moriko wasn't even sure what ensouling really was—it had been done by Vleridin always, or something so decided and spontaneous that it just happened. Even that terrible moment when Rufus had recoiled from their first attempt to ensoul, and she'd grabbed for him as the demon came for them—that had been pure panic. She couldn't even say what had really happened.

As she was sitting there wondering, though, Vleridin had come through, extending a cautious vine of energy that Moriko could perceive just behind her eyes, a vein of pure green plant- and water-type energy. She tried to imagine herself reaching out for it.

"Ha! Vleridin is much better at this," Polaris was saying. "She's a natural."

"I was born for this, snowman," Vleridin muttered. "You all are groping around in the dark."

"I love pokémon that talk back," the gym leader said warmly.

Moriko sighed, blowing upward and scattering her loose hair. Mind-to-mind speaking felt a little like lobbing a thought at the recipient, so maybe—

"Ha! Good try. Don't take it just yet, Vleridin, please. Moriko, that was good, but you went with everything again. Know that your body is the pool, and in the pool are currents of water—this is energy, impersonal, identical to every other drop of energy in the universe. Don't throw the fish."

"I'm not sure I completely understand this metaphor," Moriko muttered, but she closed her eyes, breathing deep.

She gripped her knees and then let go again.

She was the fish. She was the pool. She was the earth under the pool. She was the river that ran to the sea and the rain fell upon the sea and she was—

She was the mantine, a mile wide and floating, water and air spiraling up nine miles into a vast thunderhead, and out of bleeding pores on her wings came remoraid the size of cars, falling and falling toward the sea—

Vleridin touched her, gently, and for an instant she could see not just the glow of energy under energy-sight, residues lingering on every surface in the practice room and fresh bolts being traded somewhere beyond in the arena, but a vast network suffusing every living thing and every thing that had ever lived, every band of rock and breath of air, and down it wove, down and up and north and south and directions she couldn't imagine and didn't understand to a Source, vast and precious—

Moriko awoke on the ground with Vleridin's snout in her face, and Polaris and the dark face of a hexx just beyond her.

"Bwuh," Moriko said.

"I ask you to see the light and you stick a fork in a socket," Polaris said dryly, but she could tell he'd been very scared a moment ago.

Moriko's mouth tasted metallic and ashy. "…What happened?" she croaked.

"That was you going in for everything but not into Vleridin. You… I don't even know." He ran his hands through his hair. "Have you ever seen a video game glitch where the character falls through the ground? You fell through the ground into fucking space."

"I have to tell you, Polaris," Moriko said, accepting his offered hand up, "your metaphors, while evocative, are totally nonsensical."

"I try."

Vleridin bumped Moriko's chest with her head. "Don't do that again," she said sharply.

"You went almost too fast for me to pull you back," Polaris's hexx said, a hovering humanoid figure wreathed in floating pale hair and a long, dark dress. "I urge you not to repeat that experiment."

"I don't even know what I did," Moriko protested.

"You thought of death," Vleridin said suddenly. "You… There are… We are all connected," she said finally. "There is a place from where we all must come and where one day we all shall go, and that journey can only be disrupted at greatest cost."

"I thought of the daikaiju, just before it happened," Moriko said slowly.

Vleridin and the hexx exchanged an uneasy look. "Giants are dead," Vleridin said softly. "They are so big that it takes them time to realize it."

"Alright, I won't… think about morbid things the next time. This is going to turn into a 'don't think of a pink elephant' thing pretty quickly though. Can I even do this?"

"You know what can happen now, so you'll be able to stop yourself from getting too into it," Polaris said, but he sounded doubtful. "Tell you what, just…" He sighed expressively. "Just… keep ensouling. Don't worry about it for now. Try to practice the meditation step when you get downtime. That's the first step."

"Yeah? Isn't that going to make my, mental damage or whatever worse?"

Polaris waggled a hand. "I mean, you've been doing this for two years, what's a few more days? Just promise you'll see a master when you get back to school. I don't want this on my conscience. I'll write that professor who's blowing you off a sharp letter. Cool?"

Moriko sighed. "Sorry, thank you—I really appreciate you taking the time."

"Standard gym leader stuff. Well, maybe a bit nonstandard. I don't have to pull people out of Hell that often." He grinned. "Keeps things interesting. Meditation is the cliché, by the way, but anything that makes you really aware of and centered in your body would work. Lots of fighting-type specialists do weightlifting, for instance."

"I did want to get jacked as hell," Moriko said thoughtfully.

"But please keep up with it. Mental discipline becomes mental defenses. An enemy adept—I mean, God willing, you will never fight an enemy adept, but if you did they could sever your connection with your pokémon or hurt your minds. You could do the same thing to them if they lack defenses."

Moriko turned cold at that. Perhaps that was what the Wandering Fire had done to her and Rufus, splitting them apart from their already problematic ensoulment. She'd always wondered to what extent the demon legendary had been toying with them that day, and that did little to allay her fear.

The Gray Prince had done even more, manipulating her connection with Vleridin and preventing the mooskeg from acting to help the two of them escape. She prayed that she'd never see a powerful demon pokémon again, but life had a way of avoiding giving her what she wanted. She might as well get prepared.

Polaris was checking his pokédex. "Alright, if you're still in, let's head out early tomorrow—it's borderline now but it'll be late before we're actually in the air."

Moriko nodded. The giant mantine incident was still ongoing, and hell, she was in it now. What was a little more waiting?

She turned as she was leaving. "Polaris? What is a giant pokémon?"

He shook his head. "You need a professor for the technical explanation, but if you want another inaccurate but evocative metaphor, from what I've seen…" He stared a long way into nothing. "They're like… weather. And I don't mean 'teehee it'll be sunny tomorrow' weather, I mean like 'ten billion tons of hot and cold air hit each other and somebody in Tanos has a really bad week' weather. And yet… it's only a tiny portion of the entire whole, a momentary blip in the scale of geologic time. Colossal forces come together and then part as if nothing happened, and it's a clear, sunny day again. Make sense?"


"There you go."


That night, Moriko checked her email on the inn's wi-fi while enjoying hot cocoa and fresh bread. She was expecting a stern email from the university summoning them all back to field school, but it wasn't there, just the usual periodic administrative notices. Her classmates' social media accounts were filled with Porygram shots of revelry or chilling on the beach, while ranger- and PRED-spotting communities were still posting grainy videos of the giant mantine, which was so far uncontained.

Several personages she remembered from the Lacuna Sea incident were there: Atlitzin the suicune; Ranger-Captain Lark; Gaiien's regional champion, the electric-type specialist Faraday and her pokémon; and Gauche and Droit the mewtwo. There were many other Ranger-Captains and their wings, and other ranger-pokémon and Pan-Regional Elemental Defense specialists all working together to defeat the mantine and its remoraid vassals.

Contrary to her fear of demon pokémon, she had to admit she looked forward to joining the fight on the daikaiju. She couldn't quite say what the difference was; maybe the fact that the monsters were huge, impersonal forces of nature, and not out for her specifically for some boneheaded reason.

MSato10: Hey I'm back in Gaiien, it's kind of weird
MSato10: Anyway I'm doing the last badge except Polaris asked me to come look at some demon bullshit
MSato10: Story of my life right
M_M_M_Matt42: : )
MSato10: How are you guys doing?
— Message read by M_M_M_Matt42 28 minutes ago —


The sun rose early this far north, and Moriko awoke to a red sky and long shadows. It was unspeakably hard to leave the warm cocoon of her sleeping bag on the squashy inn mattress, but she dressed and packed her gear with sleep-weak hands. She took a coffee from the dispenser with three milks and three sugars outside to meet Polaris, and stood on the lee side of a building to avoid that damn wind. Rufus popped out of his pokéball and she leaned on him, heart warmed figuratively and literally.

Polaris arrived on his yulerein; he was actually wearing pants today, Moriko was relieved/worried to see. He had on his own altitude suit, a tailored personal model instead of the rental one she had and was incredibly grateful for.

Polaris copied the plan for the route to Moriko's pokédex; they were visiting several villages and a power station, and each pin had a note for the reports of demon pokémon that were drawing them out. The path led them north, to the most distant inhabited village.

"You've got a flying pokémon, right?" the gym leader asked her.

Moriko brought out Liona, who immediately fluffed her feathers in the wind; Moriko hesitated, instantly full of doubts about the advisability of flying through the freezing air. She wondered if Polaris would offer her one of his pokémon, and distantly she was aware that riding on Karaxil might be an option, but not one she was enthusiastic about testing. Polaris pursed his lips a moment before bringing out his hexx.

"Atropos can use Icy Veins on your nigriff to make her ice-type temporarily," he explained. "That will give her considerably more stamina in the air."

Moriko blinked. "That sounds great, if—Liona? Do you feel comfortable with that?"

"Ah, yes, please go ahead. I have been ghost-type in class before."

Atropos wove a glittering net of ice-type energy that she draped over Liona like a blanket, and long streaks of white seared into the nigriff's feathers as she gained the transient typing.

"This will last about an hour," the hexx said in a deep and distant voice. "Less if we have to battle. Remind him to renew it."

"I'll remember, Tropo!" Polaris protested.

Atropos smiled before returning to her pokéball.

After comparing gear, Moriko hopped onto Liona's back and waited for Polaris to bring out his yulerein. Instead, Polaris, tier eight gym leader, the last before the elites, grinned and brought out a delibird, the red and white penguin-like pokémon chirping cheerfully. It inflated its tail until it was large enough for Polaris to sit on, and then it kept going until it was the size of a truck, rising gracefully into the air like a hot-air balloon.

"Seriously?" Moriko muttered.

Liona flew upward after Polaris. From the outskirts, a flash of blue was Karaxil flying up to join them, and the demon's long body rippled through the air without obvious propulsion. Soon they'd left the village behind, the delibird moving much faster through the air than simple wind power would allow, and they followed the river inland.

The terrain was rough, scrubby with gravelly debris left by the retreat of glaciers during the last ice age. Well-studied back on Terra, scientists and pokémon professors had wondered what that supremacy of winter on Gaia would have meant for pokémon typing and biodiversity. All they had so far were garbled long-lived legendaries' accounts and a wealth of archeology still undone. Humans had not ventured this far until the third crossing had arrived on Gaia, bringing with them indigenous immigrants eager to preserve and reinvent their ancestors' methods for living in the far north.

Moriko couldn't help watching Karaxil, wondering at the arrangement between it and Polaris. Demon pokémon could take human energy where regular pokémon had to bargain for it, or for some ghost pokémon, tease it away unseen. There were protections for trained pokémon against abuse and exploitation, and in return they received the opportunity to battle without need for lengthy recovery and an energetic connection with a bonded trainer. Energy was everything to them; it allowed them to grow strong, rise socially, become attractive to mates.

That was the foundation of the relationship between humans and pokémon, but demons upended it, able to take what they wanted. The one mercy was that they were few and hated: before humans, they preyed on other pokémon where such a thing was taboo, murder; or on animals, killing them to extract their meager spiritual energy where ordinary pokémon might inhabit them passively. They lived alone, unable to depend on groups to defend territories and support one another with friendly battles. But if a demon could get started, consuming weak opponents and proceeding from there, they could become very powerful indeed.

This was a good country to be alone in. They flew over dark forests with secret gullies still full of snow and ice-type energy, and sullen hollows full of shadow with dark-types slinking between them. Wintris patched half white and half brown loped through their territories, patrolling in packs of lean bodies, their ice-blue eyes upturned to watch as strangers passed overhead.

To the wild pokémon the trainers were ronin, loners deceitful or dangerous or both; the wild pokémon would be prudent to drive them away or destroy them if they got the chance. Elder pokémon often served as judges in such matters, knowing the difference between itinerant strangers and true threats. Demon pokémon and killer pokémon could be powerful, but alone they could fall victim to an elder pokémon who knew what they were and had allies to direct.

However, pokémon did not venture much past their energy sources, and so there were vast stretches of nothing where travelers might pass unnoticed by those without the energy senses to detect them.

Polaris had them land at a tiny hamlet by a free-flowing river. It was deserted; none of the doors were locked, but everything was in good order and the narrow windows were shuttered and insulated.

"Is this bad?" Moriko asked, thinking of another incident: on her journey, Sere Island had been bizarrely deserted under the influence of another demon pokémon, a nosfearat. This lacked the former's sense of oppression, though not its loneliness.

"Not necessarily," Polaris said slowly, scanning with his aura monitor. "The settlers here are very mobile, they'll head out on fishing or gathering expeditions if the season is right."

"Kids? Elderly?"

Polaris shook his head. "The government gives incentives for them to stay in Sastruga with their caregivers. It's got the only hospital. Nobody should be in the hinterland if they're not old enough to have a pokémon or healthy enough to use one. There are saberteeth out here and shit."

Population had always been a compromise on Gaia: not so many people that it stressed the environment and left the settlement vulnerable to disasters, natural or otherwise, but infrastructure like schools and hospitals always needed a minimum. Natural resources were the main industry of the Arctic, and with a little help from pokémon and modern technology the hard work could be almost comfortable. But the very young and old and less-able-bodied needed the safety of a city while the workers headed out into the hinterland.

They managed wild animals and plant life and produced art from natural materials, and fortunes had been made by treasure-hunters heading out with their rock- and steel-type pokémon and sniffing out rare metals and meteorites. Or would be made—claims had been staked, but often the cost of extraction was too high compared to the more temperate deposits still waiting to be exploited elsewhere in the world. There was demand for legally-hunted meat and fish, as well, but for the most part it was done entirely for the local inhabitants.

"Do you have any idea what demon it is?"

Polaris shrugged. "Not too many legends about this far north. We were much more worried about the animals when I came up here. I read a lot of the online ghost stories as a kid: Slendamantis, The Missing Number, Mewzero, skinwalkers. Lots of misidentified pokémon from the early days that aren't quite debunked in some people's minds. It's bullshit, although somebody made up a story that skinwalkers snuck over with the third crossing and picked up even stronger skins from the Pleistocene survivors, and a lot of kids half-believe it."

Moriko thought of the legendary demons she'd seen, ones that took human form to blend in with and hunt humans, and wondered if there was some truth to that.

"I heard you met some of them a couple years ago." Polaris looked at her sideways; he'd obviously been itching to ask her about this.

She hadn't told the story to many people, in fact; it was the kind of thing she'd deliberately avoided mentioning at university, especially after she'd had rumors told about her as the girl from Gaiien's super-tough league. It had bought her scorn and regard, both unearned, though time and other rumors had left her free to be judged on reality rather than imagination.

Probably Belladonna, the poison-type gym leader, had told Polaris about her; or he'd observed bits and pieces among his own tasks—he'd been there too, defending the region.

"Yeah, the Black Queen had to save me and my buddies from them, and then later they found us again at the Lacuna Sea. It's a long story."

Polaris whistled. "Whew, so you were that kid. You owe Bella money for that mega stone."

Moriko snorted ruefully. "Yup, for all the good it did."

She still had it and the focus the Black Queen had given her, despite her terrible desire to chuck them both in the ocean. It was hard to throw away a couple hundred thousand yen no matter how many bad memories it triggered. She'd thought about giving them up to be re-attuned to a new user; mega stones and mega foci were always in demand by, well, everyone. It was selfish, but she knew that if she did, she wouldn't be seeing another one for a long time, if at all.

"No, no, you were useful!" Polaris clapped her on the shoulder, grinning. "The Prince was so concerned with your group that it gave Faraday enough time to get there. Gave me a breather, my team doesn't deal that well with steel-type attacks, of course. I heard you caught a demon, too, a little one."

"Paraslit." It had died, killed by the Gray Prince.

"What was it like? Did you try to train it?"

Moriko laughed humorlessly. "Oh no, I knew better than that, at least—I'd already tried to train an uncooperative regular pokémon, I didn't need to try my luck with a demon. I turned it over to Prof. Maple." She didn't mention how her friend Linden had then stolen it, and tried to train it on the basis that she was believed to be immune to demon attack.

"Huh. Did Maple say much? Does she think they're trainable?"

Moriko shrugged, remembering the paraslit's last act before the demon god had destroyed it: a mild, uncertain rebellion. She remembered the moment in terrible clarity and yet simultaneously through a veil of heart-stopping terror and confusion, so she could never be sure what, exactly, had happened that day.

Had she interpreted the communication that had passed between those two nonhuman intelligences correctly? Psychic-types always had the last word in depositions. The answer that Linden Jr. and Prof. Maple wished was true was that human kindness had persuaded the minor demon to abandon its cruel and dangerous hierarchy. It was a nice thought.

"They can make deals like other pokémon," Moriko said instead. "But they're hard to persuade unless you're a demon master. They don't have the culture for it like other pokémon, even ones that have hardly heard of humans. They... have their own agendas, though." Moriko looked behind them, at the bulk of Karaxil piled in a heap just outside the village. "How did...?"

"Made a deal," Polaris said.

It was her turn to look at him sidelong. "I'm wondering why it wanted to, is the thing," Moriko said.


Moriko picked her way over to the demon as Polaris did aura scans and his pokémon swept the hamlet, looking for stragglers or enemies.

"Are you well, living up here?" she said finally.

"I am unsure if anyone has ever asked me that." It stared out at the nearby forest. "Yes. I am trying to… live as those in the cycle do. No humans here. I am freed from temptations." It looked at Moriko appraisingly and went on. "Myself, only, and the ice, and the wind, and starlight. As it should be. But I will not lie, I have been experimenting."


"The ice clan-priest… Polaris… he came to me and we talked of many things, and one of those things was the power of the demon master, to refuse connection." It was silent. "But the demon master can give it. And in fact anyone can."

Linden and the paraslit. "How does it feel?"

"Strange. 'I could just take this,' I think. 'I could have it all. How dare they seal me in the earth for acting according to my nature.' But was it not their nature to imprison me, to kill those they could, in revenge? And yet I see the clan-priest Polaris—I smell his fear, I feel it pulse at his heart—and he welcomed me to his place, healed my wounds, treated me as an equal. He challenged his nature. Could not I?

"And so I thought of what I would do. Supplicants, acolytes, a great city of ice, as once I ruled. But I thought, how beautiful to see the sky at last. I have had enough years curled in a dragon's lair. Let me enjoy the wind and the rain and the sleeting snow." Its many eyes glittered. "There shall be time for more."

Yikes. Well, that was probably as good enough a guarantee as she was going to get from the demon pokémon. Let future dragon-slayers deal with it.

"That day at the Lacuna Sea… I wanted to thank you for saving us. Not even the execution pulse could stop it. Ituras."

Karaxil hissed dismissively. "It was nearly beaten. I, selfishly, thought to steal the killing blow from the other warriors—and I shall admit that I did not realize humans had such powers at their disposal. That I shall remember. I should have let you have it; it was weak, but so was I, and it is slippery, and it ran and ran…

"And finally we attracted the attention of another of our number. The Night's Empress."

Moriko blinked, hastily typing the sobriquet into her pokédex. Gratitude seemed to be the way to get the demon to open up. "Is that… Darkrai?"

Karaxil tutted. "Servants of the gods-who-left. The Empress was one of us."

"One of…? Weren't you one of Ituras's servants?"

Moriko regretted saying that as the auroraboros turned baleful dark eyes on her, and she held up her hands apologetically.

"We fought alongside Ituras before it betrayed us, and it lost. The world was broken, and though they had won, the gods were forced to leave. The gods' servants imprisoned some of us while others ran, and then they, too, slunk away to hide among the ruins. And still Ituras's ghost oozes from country to country eager to be king over dust and bones. It is all foolishness."

Moriko listened attentively; this sounded more or less like the battle between gods and demons that Vleridin had described to her near to when they first met. She had to get Prof. Linden up here to record an account from someone who'd apparently been there.

"What did the Empress do when you were fighting?"

"It trapped me in a Singularity, and when at last I recovered they were both gone and their trail obliterated. For a time I wandered, in the mist and cold air, but I was not well and my wounds did not close, and I knew I would meet my death at last if I did not find a major source. The ice clan-priest found me, and I found that humans' power could heal as well as destroy, mightily.

"And so I rested. But ever my comrades and I are drawn back together, it seems. Or one of our underlings and I."

"Where did the Night's Empress go? Ituras?"

Its segmented legs rippled. "I cannot guess. The Night's Empress can live in the void beyond the vault of heaven. It must have gone far indeed if it escaped the notice of the god-servants these many years."

"Could it protect Ituras there too?"

"Perhaps. Ituras is a creature of the shadow, however; I think it would avoid the fierce and unfiltered light that travels through the cosmos. Perhaps the Empress left it on some forsaken shore, as eventually I was. You should tell your hunters this." It pulled back its lips. "It would amuse me to see them captured at last. No, earth's daughter, I do not know where they could have gone, and I would tell you if I could. Let no one say that the Demon of Frost and Starlight cannot learn its lesson. Let the hunters have the kill; let me enjoy only the word of its death."


The next stop was the geothermal energy plant that fed Sastruga and its hamlets electricity and heat. Water superheated by magma was captured to heat water and drive turbines, and the site was bathed in elemental energy and crawling with pokémon. Conflynx and Gaiienese noctowl, skuaargh and tamguin, and geysard everywhere, the latter fire- and water-type perfectly suited to the area. Even the evolved form, tiamat, very rare elsewhere, had several huge specimens lounging about the steaming inflows and outflows, and a glittering cloud vented and floated away as a nearby geyser system released pressure.

In the center of the plant was the hulking form of a legendary, a volcanion. A legendary was often the linchpin and manager of elemental enterprises like this, as the heatran had been back at Rufus's steel mill. The only problem was that they could grow bored suddenly and abandon the project—but legendaries tended to be long-lived, and their attention spans lasted decades. Usually. There were few things that legendaries liked more than such generous power sources, which provided a smorgasbord of power in exchange for minor effort, and a built-in supply of lesser pokémon supplicants.

Polaris tossed out a couple of pokémon, Atropos the hexx and a big antepard, a two-headed leopard, to speak with the lounging wild pokémon. He and Moriko went their own way to do a run-through of the energy plant. It turned out that the missing inhabitants of the hamlet were there, crashing in the dorms for the plant's human employees. They'd sent a communication to the local rangers that hadn't been forwarded to Polaris yet.

"There was a whitikhan," the headwoman explained, as teenagers were having a slightly rowdy ad-hoc lesson from an elder in the cafeteria behind her. "One of our people fell ill, and we were getting ready to fly him to Sastruga when one of the pokémon found it. And one of the hunters went out alone and hasn't come back." A twist in her mouth suggested that this may or may not have been related, but the subject was a damnfool all the same.

Moriko checked her pokédex surreptitiously; whitikhan was another cryptid pokémon species, like paraslit had been when she had first encountered it. Whitikhan was much better-documented, though: the entry's grainy photos were accompanied by genuine pokédex metadata and energy data, enough to say that the observing trainer really had encountered an undocumented pokémon.

Their abilities, though, were pure speculation: cryptopokémonologists had proposed a modest set of ghost- and ice-type abilities based on the energy data, as well as the classic demon ability to aggressively drain human energy and initiate possession. Meanwhile, cryptid enthusiasts online had workshopped a wide variety of gruesome possibilities.

Upon detection the whitikhan appeared to have vanished, but the whole hamlet had packed up to leave for the busier power plant and the aegis of the volcanion and its energy senses. It occurred to Moriko that the crowded welter of the plant might have been a better place for a predator to lie in wait than the lonely tundra, but the volcanion had reassured them of its ability to detect intruders, and that its vassals were capable of same.

Polaris continued interviewing the villagers while Moriko explored the plant. She followed stainless steel walkways further and further down into the steam, and came to a number of decorative pools where the raw water bubbled up and left coarse rings of sediment. She tossed out Rufus and Ganny's pokéballs so they could enjoy the warm temperature.

Rufus touched the fatally hot—to a human, anyway—water gingerly and then more confidently, with wonder. Ganny bent his head to drink from the geyser stream.

"What do you think, boy?" Ganny asked. "Can you believe this water? So perfectly filled with fire!"

"I didn't know," Rufus said, cupping his hands and letting the water run out of them over and over. "Moriko made me hot water from a kettle, before. But this..."

"Fire and water and earth all together, and steel and dragon too, if you're lucky. This is the water of the gods, straight out of the center of the earth, where souls go."

"Where souls go?" Moriko repeated.

"Ah yes," the emboar said somberly. "Humans do not have souls and cannot go there, but at the center of the earth is the heart of fire, greatest of elements and source of all life. That is where souls are born, and they come to the surface to be matched with a body. When they body dies, the souls return to the fire. So it goes."

"I see," Moriko said, not contradicting him. "That's fascinating."

Sounds like when I fell through the ground, Moriko said to Vleridin, who didn't answer.

Eventually Polaris rejoined them, looking down from a plant catwalk. "Didn't feel like bathing, Moriko?"

"Wanted to keep my skin," she called up.

He laughed. "It's wonderful stuff when it's cooled down a bit. They use it for the onsen in Sastruga, you'll come out of the water covered in scale. That's why you can buy a vinegar scrub for afterward."

"I'm surprised you don't get more tourists up here with a pitch like that," Moriko said dryly.

"One day," Polaris said cheerfully. "Russet has us beat for now, but they'll come around."

"What did you find out? Do you think it's really a whitikhan?"

"I can't commit without the pokédex data. It's possible that someone got sick and coincidentally they saw a weird pokémon nearby or their pokémon fought one, and the whole town emptied out for nothing. But at the very least I think something unusual happened that frightened them, and that's worth investigating on planet Gaia."

"I hear that. What's our next stop?"

"Qagaaqtuq and then Kaamanen—we're getting to the high latitudes now, you'll be glad of your proper gear. I may even turn on my hand warmers."


The next few villages were deserted, too, although these had radioed ahead to confirm their evacuation. But protector pokémon had fought—something—and the energy traces still lingered, ice- and fairy- and ghost-type energy from the enemy pokémon's techniques as it had engaged and retreated. Heading north.

The empty villages were unsettling. Moriko had dealt with such before, on Sere Island. Well, not dealt; she'd just seen it, seen enough to call the rangers and people who knew what they were doing. She didn't know what she was doing still, even with two years of ranger school under her belt. She'd barely scratched the surface, it felt like.

But it felt familiar. More than the paraslit, less than the sobriquet-bearing demons. It was like the nosfearat.

That demon still lived, as far as she knew, passed into some uncertain fate among professors and researchers. The lieutenants, to say nothing of the shadow of the great demon, were terribly dangerous: but Linden Jr. had shown that the paraslit could be mastered, could be persuaded like any pokémon, provided a demon master was there to begin the dialogue. But something like the nosfearat… remained to be seen. Moriko regretted not bringing Linden along.

They flew north, the pokémon cutting away the air from in front of them and rushing forward into the unknown. Moriko clipped herself in to nap in the saddle while Liona did all the work. Karaxil was a long, glittering shadow ahead of them as the frosty ground gave way to solid ice.

Ice at the top of the world, where winter never ended. On Terra the North Pole was sea ice, flat aside from heaves and polynyas, but on Gaia there was a scattered mass of islands under the ice. The territory enclosed by the Ursian Circle at 66°N was unincorporated territory sometimes given the unofficial regional name Arktos. There had been talks of setting up an extreme gym challenge nearby at one time but it had been judged unlikely to be much utilized and probably damaging to the fragile ecosystem.

There were pokémon living this far north, as they seemed to no matter how extreme the environment, but they were particularly shy and wild, having had little contact with humans. Engaging them was discouraged since they might interpret a battle as a fight to the death, and because they might represent the last vestiges of pre-human-contact pokémon intelligence available for scientific study.

Mountains covered by ice, glittering like a crown, appeared ahead of them. It was spring but this land would never know it—

"Moriko, ground ten o'clock," Liona told her.

The pokémon were nearly invisible in their white coats; instead it was their long shadows that caught the eye, loping across the ice.

"Tell Polaris's pokémon," she said. "Let's follow discreetly."

The arctic pokémon were good runners and tireless: they were a pair of wintris and an antepard, running toward a ridge. Before long they'd disappeared into dark mouths in the ice.

"Polaris says to hover," Liona reported, and Moriko agreed.

They watched the ridge, Moriko filming with her pokédex, but there was no more activity, and there didn't seem to be nearby flying pokémon. A scout hiding in the direction of the sun was a favorite ranger trick, but they seemed to be clear of hidden watchers.

They landed nearby, Karaxil joining them.

"The energy trail continues," the demon murmured. "Whomsoever attacked your settlements is there."

Moriko watched the caves uneasily. Enclosed spaces like that were the worst to fight in; human soldiers had been cut to pieces in nasty traps in tunnels probably since war had been invented, to say nothing of a student pokémon ranger who intended to pursue police actions and not heroic/stupid frontal assaults.

"I will go first," Karaxil said, and Polaris laughed and slapped its side. Moriko stared at him, shocked.

"Moriko is thinking about all the ways she's been taught she'll get killed in close quarters battling," Polaris told it, "and here you're volunteering to die first."

Karaxil pulled back its lips in one of the ironic grins that pokémon did, knowing about the human smile, but wanting to remind the viewer what baring the teeth meant. It had a lot of them.

"I have fought gods," it said. "Follow."


The auroraboros rapidly outpaced them despite its large size, but Polaris didn't seem to be concerned. Moriko followed his lead through the tunnels.

"These are boreannid holes," Polaris explained, casting his pokédex around at the crystalline walls. "It's an ice worm pokémon, fairly rare."

"Uh. Are they home?"

"No, if they were the tunnels would be totally smooth," he said, pointing at their feet. Their spiked boots crunched through a debris of ice chips and gravel. "We'd be slipping even with crampons. They're long gone, there's too much crap on the ground."

Inside the ice ridge there was evidence of fierce industry: the floor of the boreannid tunnels was scoured by rock and metal. As they drew on, the pale ice receded here and there to reveal rock tunnels, or was stained by dark oil and hydrocarbon dust. Surely no human being had been up this far to try to seriously prospect, let alone mine, when you could find sweet crude and fist-sized gold nuggets walking around near the equator with a mai tai in one hand and an aura reader in the other.

But pokémon could draw energy from mining, like the oxhaust at the steel mill—the mineral energies were there, and water and dark, and sometimes fire, poison, or acid. Fossil fuels even had a whisper of plant-type energy in them still. But it was aged energy, whatever that meant to pokémon, and wasn't always quite edible. Better were the nuggets of crystallized energy in an easily consumable state that trainers called rare candy, or evolution stones if they matched a particular type matrix. Perhaps that was what they were looking for, and the coal was just gangue.

Seeing the oil, though, Moriko had a dreadful thought: what about darkwater, that strange liquid ghost-type energy that seemed to feed Ituras? Did anyone mine it?

That was just oil back there, Vleridin told her. There was no ghost-type energy on it.

How did the Gray Prince collect darkwater? It seemed to have been—to be—his pursuit, as the Black Queen had followed him from place to place all over the world. Moriko remembered her consulting with professors to try to find his next location; the Black Queen didn't know his criteria, either. Maybe he didn't know.

Moriko had stolen a small amount of the darkwater, once—had others, before or since? Could you disguise it as a hydrocarbon and ship or trade it?

They moved through the tunnels as quietly as they could, stopping and stilling as aura radar picked up distant energy signatures that faded in and out of range. Only Karaxil was ahead of them consistently; perhaps it was driving off wild pokémon ahead of it. Then again, maybe it was ringing every possible alarm.

The tunnel opened into a huge cavern, its ceiling lost in cold condensation while massive ice stalactites and pillars stabbed through the space. Moriko and Polaris moved slowly to try to scout the cave without being seen past the rim of the tunnel mouth. There was movement deeper in the cavern, pokémon or animals with white winter coats, and—

Moriko's heart raced as she caught a glimpse of a familiar sight: in the center of the cavern was a circular depression with a raised dais. The depression was filled with black, shining liquid.


Her eyes kept going, as if pulled, and she looked beyond the pool into the depths of the cave.

Far away was a huge, dull purple pokémon, six-limbed and banded with gray iron armor.

It was Ituras.