Heroes [#ANewChapter]
#1

Heroes
Chapter One

Daniel had grown up with stories of heroes, and so of course, he wanted to be one too.

His mom once told him that before the war, everyone took Pokemon journeys to become heroes. They set out at the age of ten and ventured into the world with a trustworthy partner. The legendary Trainer Ash Ketchum had taken on the journey with his Pikachu, and before him, Red had done it with his Charizard. These kinds of great heroes had gone down in history by forging bonds of friendship with their Pokemon, and Daniel was determined to be just like them when he grew up.

Daniel had grown up dreaming of his own starter. He’d taken a liking to Samurott in particular—he’d seen it in the picture books, with sagely whiskers and noble armor and the beautiful, shell-bladed sword it used to render justice. He dreamed of growing up as a Pokemon knight, one who would ride in on his Samurott to save the world from the bad people in it.

Tomorrow was Daniel’s tenth birthday. He was to set out on an adventure of his own.

***

Firelight flickers from within the wood stove, casting deep and dark shadows against the cabin’s wooden walls. The winter chill worms its way through the slits in the boards. Its cold breath threatens the fire, sending it into a flurry of swirling panic each time a breeze hit it just right. Daniel can see the whites of his mother’s eyes clearly in the bright orange light.

“Keep low, and only travel at night,” she whispers, tone hushed. Daniel looks up from where he hides his face behind crossed arms to protect his cheeks from the cold, his arms perched atop his knees where he’s pulled them close to his chest. A dark blue blanket drapes about his shoulders. He watches her with intense focus.

“Don’t tell anybody who you are or where you’re from. Avoid people at all costs. Don’t trust anyone, especially if they have a Rocket Uniform on.” She sweeps back a lock of frizzy hair away from her dark features, tone deathly serious. “If you think someone is going to find you, bury your Pokeball and supplies, or put them up in a tree where you’ll be able to find them later. Never let them know that you have a Pokemon, or--”

“Momma, I knoooow, we’ve done this before. We’ve practiced, remember?” The boy means it reassuringly. Even though his tone is impatient, he’s not irritated. He says it playfully, hoping that she’ll find it comforting. Her features only grow more grave.

“This is the real thing, now, Daniel. These aren’t the storybooks about heroes. It’s real life.”

“It’s okay, Momma. I’ll get stronger. I can come back and protect you.”

Her hand clasps onto his shoulder, gripping so tightly he almost flinches away. Her grasp pushes the blanket off of his shoulder. He can feel the rough calluses on her palms and they itch on his skin.

“You can never come back, Daniel. You understand?” There’s a new edge to her voice. The moisture welling in the corner of her eyes reflects in the firelight. “This isn’t a game. You can’t play the hero. You have to survive, and heroes don’t survive, Daniel.”

The boy stares at her for a long moment, then sighs and nods. “I know. Like Red and Ash, right?”

She nods. “Right.” Daniel’s mom stares at him for a moment longer before turning her eyes down to the crudely-drawn maps stretched out on the dirt floor, cast in orange by the firelight. “Now, let’s go over again. Where are you going?”

He points to a small spot labeled “Undella Town” on the map. “East, Momma. To Undella.” He pronounces the words slowly. Daniel takes great caution to say them right and commit them further to memory.

“Good. And when you get there?”

Daniel pauses, thinking. “Find a boat… going to Sinnoh.”

“Good job, Daniel. Remember, don’t tell anyone where you’re going. When you find a boat that’s going there, you’re going to have to sneak onto it. No one can know that you’re trying to escape or know that you’re there...”

His mother rehearses with him throughout the night, until she has to move her boy onto his mattress by the fire.

***

The morning is hazy and cold, but Daniel’s awake and brimming with excitement the moment the sun crests over the trees, shaking his mother awake.

“Momma. Mooommma,” he whispers. She stirs and rises. Daniel notices the bags under her eyes, and the way her frizzy black hair goes every which way even more than it usually does. She’d shaved his head down to nothing a few days ago, saying that he couldn’t let it get caught on anything.

It doesn’t take long for Daniel’s mother to rise. She grabs the backpack she’d prepared for him the night before and slips it carefully over his shoulders. “Alright, now,” she whispers, “There’s enough bread in here to last you at least a week or two. Don’t eat too much at once, only eat what you need. Spread out the Gogoat cheese to every other day so it’ll last. Remember to be careful about where you get water, Daniel.”

“I know,” he says reassuringly, taking a moment to smile up at her. “I’ll have my Pokemon to help me.”

Daniel’s mother barely keeps the sadness out of her smile. “I know. Let’s go.”

As they step out into Lostlorn, they’re accompanied by Daniel’s whispers. “What do you think it’ll be? I’m hoping for an Oshawott. Or a Bulbasaur. That’d be so cool.”

“I’m sure it’ll be great, whatever it is,” she whispers back to them as they pick their way through the undergrowth. The trees are silent, laden with last night’s frost in a way that makes them all look identical. There is no path, but the woman knows where she’s going. The village soon comes into view.

Shacks and lean-tos lay scattered among the trees. Smothered fires from the night before still smoke softly between the trees. The occasional cough disrupts the morning’s calm. Daniel sees some faces peering out from behind tarps and makeshift doors as they pass. He waves. Some of the children wave back.

They come to the last shack on the outskirts of the village--a more well-constructed one than the others, layered with sheet metal and with a wooden door with notches carved on one side, jabbed into the ground to serve as a hinge. As they approach, an old, wrinkled woman layered in dark, dirty burlap opens the door. She looks around, and her and her mother exchange a nod before they’re rushed inside.

Daniel’s mother is pulled aside by the old woman, and the two begin whispering urgently. “Will he make it far enough away before the soldiers come?” Daniel hears his mother ask, though the boy doesn’t really process it.

“They should be slowed down by the other boys they’re taking from Nimbasa, especially in this cold, so he should have time to get away if we do this quickly…”

The room within is bare, with pine needles scattered on the packed dirt floor. A fire sits in the center, open to the air, with its light reflecting on the rusted metal walls. A thin mattress, deeply impressed with a figure’s shape, lays in the corner. The firelight catches on the only table in the back of the room, and Daniel’s heart jumps as he sees the red top of a familiar orb. A Pokeball! He runs toward the table but knows not to touch. Instead, he hovers over it with his hands tucked inconspicuously behind his back, giddy.

“Momma,” he whispers, drawing the attention of the village elder as well. They both shuffle over. The old woman pulls him gently aside.

“This might not be the kind of Pokemon you’re used to,” she cautions in a low, creaky whisper. “We didn’t have many options.”

Daniel nods, though he’s not really paying attention. He’s too excited to really listen to her words. “I know, I know,” he whispers, a smile beaming on his face. The old woman sighs, and then hands him the ball. Daniel’s mother watches with a furrowed brow as he clicks the center.

Neon red light suddenly fills the room in a brilliant flash. Daniel’s ready. He stares right into it, and watches as the light condenses into a white silhouette. Two tall ears and a round face, and a round body propped up on two feet. Immediately, his mind jumps to a Pikachu! But the light begins to fade and his features quickly falter.

“Glliiiiiigarrr!” the creature hisses, voice gravelly and raspy. It stretches its two arms, a navy blue membrane stretching between clawed hands and his body. The purple-armored Pokemon waves his segmented tail. At the end is a sharp stinger. Daniel stares at it for a long, silent moment. The Gligar's beady, black pupils focus on him, watching. Oh, Daniel thinks, slowly realizing what the elder had meant. This wasn't a hero in any story.

“Daniel, you need to go, now,” his mother says gently, approaching to place her hand on his shoulder. He sniffles a little, wiping away the tears he hadn’t even realized had risen with the sleeve of his threadbare jacket. Daniel doesn’t complain, though--he taps the circle on the ball again. It’s almost too big for his small hands when expanded. It pops open, and withdraws the Gligar in a quick flash before depositing the ball into his bag. He knows this is important to his mother, so he doesn’t complain.

His mom looks to the village elder. “Thank you so much,” she whispers as she guides Daniel out the door. The old woman nods and once again, the two of them rush back out, into the unforgiving cold.

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#2

Heroes
Chapter Two

The two figures move hurriedly over the frozen forest floor. For the first time, Daniel glances back distractedly as his mother ushers him on. His mother slows only when she reaches a small outcropping of rocks that jut out from the tree-blanket hillside. She stops him in its soft shadow, and for the first time, turns and kneels down to his level.

“Okay, Daniel. Remember everything that we talked about.”

He nods, quietly, solemnly, but is interrupted by his jacketed arm sweeping up to wipe at his eyes. Then, softly, he murmurs: “Momma, I don’t wanna go…”

“I know, baby,” she says, reaching out to pull him close. Her arms wrap around him. Her hands rest at the battered rucksack that nests against the small of his back. “I know. But you have to. You’re not safe here.” She omits the fact that at draft age, he’s not safe anywhere. But she was not going to send him to death on the front lines.

She needed to give her baby boy a fighting chance. She can’t help but still realize how small he is.

They stand there for a few more moments before Daniel’s mother perks up at the sound of wings up ahead. On the branch above, a black bird with a wide-brimmed hat alights. Its intense, crimson eyes stare down at them as it cocks its head. It lets out a crooked, hollow crow.

Daniel’s mom looks back down at him. “Tell me where you’re going again.”

Voice still muddled by his tears, he wipes his eyes again. “Undella, Momma. To Sinnoh.”

“And which star should you keep on your left to go east?”

“The bright north one.” Daniel looks down at his feet.

“That’s my baby boy. Momma loves you Daniel. Momma loves you so much.”

There’s a slight din in the far distance, some gentle disturbance or drone of noise that whispers up from the forest. By the time that Daniel’s mother notices it, she can tell that it’s the sound of men, and the sound of footsteps. There’s shouting, too, and they quickly realize that they’re coming straight for them. She looks up at the Murkrow, who still stares at them, then gives another husky cry.

“Dammit, dammit. Go, Daniel, go. Go straight from here, that way.” She gives him a shove and he stumbles a little, spraying leaves where his battered red sneakers kick at the ground. “Go!” Her voice is high, urgent.

The voices are louder now, more recognizable, and then-- “The crow’s over here! Up ahead!”

Daniel looks back over his shoulder as he steadies himself on the trunk of a birch. Shadows materialize from the pale mist in the distance. Soldiers, he realizes by the bulk of their armor and the sharp silhouette of the guns that they hold across their hips. The fear of those silhouettes finally kicks the boy into flight.

Heavy thuds grow louder even as he sprints away. His feet catch on roots but he picks himself up after every small tumble. He hears shouting, and then he hears a scream that pulls him to a sudden stop. Daniel holds himself a tree and peers around it but he can’t see anything. He hears another one of his mother’s screams and he looks about, frantic, warring with himself. Tears stream down his face as he leans his head against the rough bark.

“The kid went that way!” comes a shout, and another one echoes it:

“You get him, I’ll deal with her!”

Daniel hears another shout but of a different kind of pain--his mother’s voice, calling out to him to run. And so he does.

Streaks of pale bark blur past the small boy. He lunges over the mass of a toppled tree, slides down a steep slope of dirt carved from the hillside, chased by the crescendo of heavy boots smashing into leaves. Daniel is fast, but he’s also weak--he glances over his shoulder and sees him, the dark green bulk of his armor closing in.

“Stop! You’re only making it worse on yourself, kid!” The man’s voice isn’t friendly, isn’t reassuring--it’s threat, not a comfort, and it only makes him push harder. He feels the wind sting against the lines of moisture streaked down his cheeks.

A whirring sound whips behind him and suddenly, there’s something around his ankles. The weight of the bola smashes painfully against his thigh, but that doesn’t compare to the pain of his face smashing down into the root of a birch, splitting a sharp gash across his cheekbone. He sobs, flips onto his back and kicks his legs uselessly against the ground, trying to drag himself away. Dark brown eyes stare into shrouded goggles.

“No, no, no!” the boy shouts, tossing his hands forward, but the soldier bats him away with the cold steel of his gun. Thick-gloved hands snap toward Daniel’s jacket when a bright crimson flash erupts from between them.

Blinded, Daniel crawls backward, the red impression cast over his vision fading slowly away as deep screams erupt from the soldier. There’s a crack and then a thud, and he sees the dark bulk of the man fall, writhing, onto the ground. He focuses on the bright purple figure that obscures the soldier’s features. Daniel sees the long tail sweep out and in, out and back into the man’s neck, over and over, hitting perfectly in the crease between helmet and armor until the man’s grip around the creature’s carapace falls limp and his struggles slowly fade.

Clawed feet push abruptly off of the man’s chest. The Gligar’s claws fling upward to spread blue wings and glide backwards over to the fallen boy. Daniel stares on with impossibly wide eyes and labored breathing. The purple figure extends a claw to the child’s feet, but he gasps and scrambles further away, inadvertently managing to push his back up against the tree.

“Gliii-gaaaaar?” Wide tongue swipes over vampiric fangs as the Gligar steps toward Daniel. He winces and closes his eyes as he hears the snapping of its claws, but then the wiry pressure releases from his legs and he finds himself freed. Daniel opens his eyes. The scorpion’s beady, black eyes stare unblinkingly at him.

The fallen soldier’s radio crackles with static, and then an inquiring voice that Daniel doesn’t quite pick up the words of. It reminds him that he needs to move. He stares at the Gligar for a moment longer before risking a glance at the soldier, but the amount of crimson smeared across the soldier’s pale skin and dark outfit makes him quickly look away. Daniel grabs at his belt and fumbles with the ball.

“Thank you,” he chokes out. And in a flash of red, the Gligar disappears, and Daniel runs.

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#3

Heroes
Chapter Three

After a while, the only thing remaining is the sound of his footsteps crunching rapidly through the leaves, and the rhythm of labored breath as fear drives him forward. At some point, Daniel’s adrenaline stops pumping. Then, left with only his thoughts and his grief, the trees all begin to look the same.

East. He had to head east. He’s sure his momma had pushed him in the right direction when she told him to run, but what if he’d gotten turned around, especially when he’d fallen? Gradually, Daniel’s pace slows. The boy comes weakly to rest. He leans against a tree, panting hard, then slowly slumps down.

The cold sits in as he sits. He remembers what his momma had said about keeping track of the time with the sun in the sky. He looks up through the skeleton branches, pale as bone. The sun sits over and slightly in front of him. Noon-ish? Daniel suddenly can’t remember which direction the sun sets in. He knew that the bright star in the sky would guide him east if he kept it to the west, but it was daytime. Would he have to wait until night to travel again? Momma said he needed to always keep moving… and the soldiers would be mad once they found… Once they found…

Daniel shudders at the memory of the blood on the leaves. They were probably still following them. It was like playing tag or chase--he had the head start, the element of surprise. He needed to keep running if he was going to win the game. But what if he kept going and went the wrong way for hours? What if he was lost already? He’d been lost once in these woods, when he was six and had chased a Rattata that had made the unfortunate mistake of showing itself near their shanty. Daniel had chased it to what felt like the ends of the earth before he lost track of it and realized he had no clue where he was or which way was home.

He feels that same fear again now. Struggling to fight down the panic, the boy wriggles out of the straps of his rucksack and digs into it until he pulls out the crude, tattered map, scribed with uncertainty in weathered ink. Momma had traced it off of the old lady’s several years ago. He finds the large Pokeball shape in the center and draws small fingertip across to the marked spot on the eastern edge of Unova.

“Okay,” he murmurs to himself, voice twinged high by his anxiety. “Okay, so Momma’s house was here… ‘Don’t take the bridge, Daniel.’ Marvelous. Marvelous Bridge, okay. I’ll have to cross… the river. So I’ve… I’ve gotta find…” He’s gotta find the river, but his lips quiver even as he tries to say it. The breath designated to utter the very words catches in his throat and is wasted on a brief hiccup of a sob.

Without the movement from his sprinting, the cold sets into his small body as he cries.

”Tears won’t do anything about it, Daniel.” He remembers the countless time his momma’s said it. Once, he’d dropped a ration on the floor before he could finish eating it. “You just gonna let it sit there and let the germs eat it? Pick it up. Tears won’t do anything about it--Daniel will.” Even as the words echo in his head, he still can’t manage to make the tears stop. He just keeps hearing her scream.

For the first time--and as he’ll soon find out, not the last--Daniel wonders if he should go back home. What if his momma needed him? He had a Pokemon now, he could… do something about it, couldn’t he? He quickly snatches the words out of his head as soon as they’re there, though, his momma’s own words ringing. Daniel couldn’t ever go back.

You have to survive, and heroes don’t survive, Daniel.

He remembers the heroes in the story books. The boy had always liked the story of Ash in particular. Traveling the world with his friends, both Pokemon and human, on the journey to become a Pokemon Champion. He was only four when the news about Ash and the rest got around. He’d laid down to sleep when someone knocked on the door. It’d been a man, a townsperson he recognized as the father of one of his friends. He and his momma talked in hushed voices, but he could hear them through the flimsy walls as he pretended to be asleep.

“They executed the high trainers. The Elite Four, the Gym Leaders, and all of Unova’s champions. Even N and Rosa. They lined them up on the Castelia piers and hung them out over the water.”

His momma had been quiet for a long moment after that. She didn’t say anything other than a brief thank you to the man, then she shut the door. In the long silence, Daniel had asked:

“Momma, what does ‘executed’ mean?”

She sat down with him and let him cry into her when she explained that it meant they were dead, that they’d gone the same place that his daddy had gone in the war.

Over the years, he’d learned that everyone lost people. It was just how life was. Daniel learned not to make friends with the older boys; they were taken by Rocket soldiers when they hit the same age as he was. The girls were taken older, though, he noticed, so they were safer to make friends with. His momma wouldn’t tell him why they took the girls later, just said that they were taken off to the war the same as the boys. Daniel had only watched the soldiers take away the girls once before. He stopped after that. There was something deeply unsettling about the girls’ mothers clinging to them wailing in a way that was even worse than the boys’. Daniel stayed home after that.

These slow, meandering currents flowing through the river of his memory calms him, despite the grotesqueness of it all--to Daniel, it was just a part of life. You lost people, he’d learned. To lose people in the most tragic of ways was just the way things were. After a while, it stopped being tragic to him. Well, the concept, at least--he’d heard about all sorts of ways that people had died or been “executed.” It wasn’t until today that he’d seen some… version of that.

He finally collects himself as the winter sun crests the zenith above him. Worn gray sleeve wipes away frozen tears, clearing his vision enough to look down at the map with an exhausted sniffle.

“The river,” he manages to whisper, trailing it with cold fingers across the tattered page. His momma had told him to find a low spot to cross and keep his clothes dry if he could, be ready to start a fire on the other side to get warm so he didn’t get sick.

A fire. He’d need to start a fire. Daniel folds the map and puts it back in the bag, and reaches instead to feel for the cold surface of the flint and steel at the bottom. He finds it buried somewhere between his only other change of clothes and the wrapped bread. Food. But he’s not hungry yet, even after running for so long. The anxiety in his gut overwhelms any hunger he might usually feel.

Daniel considers his companion, however, and grabs the Pokeball from the bag. A click on the ball’s button releases the Gligar in a flash. The creature yawns as soon as the crimson light fades away. The boy stares at the flying scorpion apprehensively for a long moment, but it simply stares at him in return before giving a curious:

“...gar?”

He reaches into his pack again. This time, he retrieves the bread and unwraps it, pulling away a loaf and ripping it in half. With the reverence that one would fearfully present a sacred offering to an angry god, Daniel extends the half-slice to it.

Beady black eyes blink rapidly. “...gar?” It inquires again but walks forward on stubby limbs to investigate. Daniel can hear the wind rushing through its carapace-formed nostrils as it sniffs curiously. Then, abruptly, it snaps both of its claws down onto the bread and tears it from Daniel’s grasp, sending him startling back into the hard bark of the tree. The scorpion vaults away with surprising agility, its form curling into a ball and rolling backward as it brings its tail sharply up, stabbing it into the tender flesh of the bread with unmatched fervor. Even from his distance, Daniel can see a sickly, pale yellow dampen the bits where the stinger sinks in.

The Gligar rolls to a stop, presumably satisfied with the extent to which he’s killed the bread, and shoves it unceremoniously into wide mouth. Then, it turns and gives Daniel a curious glance.

The boy can feel his heart racing a million miles per hour in the chest, but he finds the courage to stand, fighting his stiff muscles to rise from where he sits against the trunk. He stomps forward and puts his hands on his hips, looking down at the smaller Pokemon.

“Hey, that’s rude!” His voice shakes, but only from the cold. Otherwise, his tone rings with brave, childish indignation. “You don’t need to kill everything you lay your… your claws on!”

“Gliiiiiigar…?” the Pokemon echoes, almost uncertainty, its purple lids drooping over almond eyes. It looks down at its claws, giving them an experimental snap.

Daniel stares down for a moment longer, then gives a sigh. He reaches for the Pokeball. The Ground type is silent as they’re deposited back into their refuge.

Probably doesn’t even know what I’m saying, Daniel grumbles inwardly. An Oshawott would know what I’m saying…

He drudges back to the tree and slings his pack back over his shoulders.

When he’d gotten lost in the forest those four or five years ago, Daniel had fallen asleep. It was early summer and the nights were still cool. He was so distressed and exhausted that he slept straight through his mother’s cries. The boy distinctly remembers the moment when he woke up, just as his mother came upon him. Warm fingers of dawn, piercing the verdant canopy with arrow shafts of yellow light. It made his mom’s dark, fluffy hair glow like a beautiful golden cloud, like a wreathen halo framing earthen features. Through sleepy eyes he watched her features light up when he looked at her, and he remembers not minding the sweat that glimmered on her shoulders as she pulled him tightly into her arms.

Gaze trawls quietly over the forest for a few more moments. A river… He remembers the way he’d been facing when he’d collapsed, at least, so Daniel starts there. He’ll just have to trust that he’s going the right direction. Momma said to always keep moving, so Daniel will do just that.

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#4
Grade for chapter 1:

The good:
Description of the setting is fantastic; the dilapidated house and the ramshackle village are easy to picture in my mind.
The tone of fearful anticipation shines strongly, especially offset by the first part where we see his ideals described and how nothing lives up to them.

Room for improvement:
Plot isn’t developed yet, there’s no real test or challenge of the main character in this part. Perhaps introducing some uncertainty would help; make it so that it’s not clear whether there’s even a Pokemon waiting for him. Maybe they were all already given out or promised to trainers, but a few of those trainers were already captured by the Rockets and one Pokemon freed up at the last minute. This also helps show the villain team’s evil and builds them as a bigger threat from the start.
Character detail is a bit light; you describe his mom’s hair, and his lack of it, as well as the callouses on her hands. Several times you mention things like tears welling up or the firelight reflected in the whites of her eyes, but we really don’t get a description of what the characters look like.

Verdict:
For chapter stories, having a story arc in each chapter helps the whole story feel more cohesive and keeps tension high. This chapter is set-up for where you’re taking the story, so I don’t feel it hurts the overall tale; but it does keep it from reaching medium. I’ll pass this as Simple and you can claim $5,000; if you want to add a test or challenge for the main character and resubmit, it’s not far from medium at all. And as always, feel free to reach out for more detail or if I didn’t explain clearly :)
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