Just Imagine
Just Imagine is the third installment in a series. To read the previous stories, please see Imagine This (Book 1) and Imagine That (Book 2). Reading them will not be necessary to enjoy this third book, but I encourage you to read them in order to obtain maximum involvement and excitement! =)

Regarding comments: I love hearing from my readers! That said, until this series is complete, please redirect commentary to my Stories Hub. Thank you!

Just Imagine

Chapter 1: Runner
Chapter 2: Gangster
Chapter 3: Leader
Chapter 4: Avenger
Chapter 5: Darkness Rising

Chapter 1 Prologue — A Beginning, of Sorts


A lone girl, who looks to be about fourteen or fifteen years of age, stands with her back to a round concrete pillar on the sixth floor of an old parkade. Her coarse black hair is shaved almost bald, and her grimy grey t-shirt and black sweatpants both bear the stains and tears of her rough day-by-day existence, as do her tattered and dirty white runners. Her slim body bears tell-tale signs of not enough to eat: collarbone and hip bones faintly visible through her skin; cheeks slightly sunken in; limbs too thin. She peeks around the pillar, scanning the next level of the parkade; it's empty except for a few dust-covered cars with shattered windows, languishing uselessly in their parking spaces.

The girl's fists are clenched with tension, her dirty fingernails digging into her palms almost hard enough to draw blood. The next part of her escape is essential. If her accomplice doesn't show up soon, she'll be caught; and that would mean being 'blacklisted.' Blacklisted slaves were watched far too closely, and if that happened, she wouldn't be able to try another escape for years.

A quiet shuffling heralds her ally's arrival, and the girl appears to relax, just a bit.

"W-what do we do now?" asks the newcomer, a brown-haired boy of about the same age, whose build would be bulky if he weren't so emaciated. His ripped black t-shirt hangs partway open, exposing his malnutrition-swelled stomach, and his voice trembles with barely suppressed terror when he speaks. "They'll notice we're gone soon, and we can't hide from the fliers if they send them out to get us—"

"I have a plan," the girl snaps, cutting the worried boy off. "There's no guards up here, so we can use this." She reaches down to a small indent in the concrete pillar and pulls out a makeshift grappling hook: two short steel rods that look like they've melted together in a fire, tied to a coil of rope made out of tough-looking green vines. "It'll get us into another building through a window."

"That sounds risky..." the boy mutters, his haunted expression making it clear he's having second thoughts.

Not on my watch, he isn't, the girl's expression seems to say. "Riskier than putting your life back in the hands of those Trainers?" she whispers harshly, spitting the last word like a curse.

"I... I guess not."

"Thought so. Follow me."

The two crouch and make their way across the empty concrete, both constantly scanning their surroundings, the girl with wariness and her companion with open fear, as if something terrible could spring from any dark corner without warning. After a minute or two, they arrive in the protective shadow of a smashed-up, dust-covered car lying next to the glassless parkade window, which consists of a ten-foot-long, four-foot-tall gap three feet up the concrete wall. The window lets in the grey sunlight of the cloudy day and provides a view of the city streets far below.

The streets in question are as quiet as the grave, with not a living soul or moving vehicle to be seen. The two fugitives seem unperturbed by this; in fact, movement below would have been notable, a departure from the norm. The days of city streets populated by chattering passersby and roaring, honking vehicles are long gone.

The building immediately next door to the multi-storey parkade is an office complex, its glass windows a mere stone's throw away. Many of the windows are shattered or have large holes in them, including the wide one directly across from the gap in the parkade's concrete wall. Through the jagged-edged hole can be seen a large room that was clearly once filled with cubicles, the remnants of which form a pile of debris in the middle of it.

"So that's why you picked the sixth floor..." the emaciated boy murmurs, earning himself a scornful glance from the girl.

"Of course. Do you want the Boss to send Steelbird to check out the sound of breaking glass? This is the best way. Now hold this, and don't let go." She hands him the end of the vine rope, then tugs on it to make sure his grip is steady.

"I can't believe this is happenin'..." the boy groans quietly. "We're gonna fall. We're gonna be pancakes way down there, an'—"

"Shut up." The girl has finished testing the knot connecting the other end of the vine to the grappling hook. Grasping the makeshift rope a few feet down from the grapple, she begins to swing it in circles above her head, faster and faster. After several orbits— one... two... three!— she releases her grip, sending the crudely welded grappling hook flying across the gap between the buildings.

It flies through the hole in the window and lands somewhere inside with a loud clang of metal on metal. The boy looks around, frightened of any attention the noise might bring, but the girl wastes no time, seizing the other end of the vine from him and pulling on it, reeling the grappling hook in until the rope suddenly pulls taut with a faint twang. The girl breathes a sigh of relief; the hook has caught on something. She gives her rope a few more sharp tugs to make sure it's secure, then ties it to the bumper of the smashed car beside which the two are standing and starts to climb up onto the concrete edge of the parkade's window.

"Get up here," she says, gesturing for the boy to follow.

Haltingly, with terror written across his face, he does. Glancing down at the street five storeys below, he begins to tremble and clings to the cement. "I... oh shit, I can't do it, it's too high," he whimpers fearfully.

"Oh, suck it up," the girl snarls. "We can't turn back now. It's this or a short life of drudgery until some Trainer gets tired of your face and bashes it in. And I need your help for the next phase. You have to get on that vine first, because if I go first it'll get all frayed and won't take your weight; I'm lighter, so I can go second without as much danger."

The boy hesitates, glancing down again and biting his lip to keep from crying.

"Go on..." The girl's voice takes on an artificially gentle tone for a moment, as though she's realized her companion is nearing his breaking point. "I'll be right here to make sure you don't fall."

It's an empty assurance and they both know it; but the boy nods, then reaches out, tears running down his face as he grips the taut vine with first one hand, then both. All at once he swings his body out, putting his full weight on the vine, which creaks loudly, straining with the sudden weight... and then quiets.

"That's it," the girl says encouragingly, "Keep swinging across it, it's only ten feet or so."

For a nerve-wracking minute, the boy inches himself hand-over-hand across the vine, quietly crying and whimpering every second of it. Reaching the spot where the makeshift rope stretches over the office building's window sill, he reaches a hand over and grasps the edge; ignoring the tiny cuts that appear on his fingers from the remaining glass, he strains his undernourished arms and manages to haul himself over the side, narrowly missing the broken window shards embedded in the dirty carpet as he tumbles across it, and coming up hard against the mess of trashed cubicles and ruined swivel chairs that fills the centre of the large room.

The girl glances back into the parkade, for the first time showing the nervousness that she wouldn't allow onto her features in her companion's presence. It's been too long since the two left their tasks— surely they've been missed by now. "I'll have to hurry," she murmurs to herself.

Instead of gripping the vine with her hands, she takes a deep breath and then steps up from the raised parkade window onto the vine rope, thanking whatever god might be listening that it's wide enough to give her feet some purchase... and trying to ignore the alarming creaking noises starting to come from the vine as its far end rubs against the shards of broken glass on the office building's window sill.

She takes one step, then another, holding her arms out for balance; a five-storey-up tightrope walk with no net. Her fellow fugitive, seeing what she's doing, looks like he's about to call out but thinks better of it, instead holding his breath and watching with disbelief as the girl takes another step into space with only a rapidly fraying rope for support.

She's only a few steady steps from safety when, without warning, the loudest creak yet emanates from the tightrope and the vine abruptly slackens, shuddering violently and nearly sending the balancing girl tumbling to her death. The boy glances in front of him at the office building's windowsill and sees that the glass shards have sawed most of the way through the vine; and the stringy fibers that make it up are continuing to part bit by bit.

At that moment, there's an awful, final noise like fingers snapping loudly in the silent winter air; the boy doesn't have time to think, but instead reacts, leaping forward and seizing the end of the rope with both hands as it breaks entirely. His chest is yanked against the windowsill of the office building, but he holds on tightly.

Having gone slack for a split second, the vine rope tautens again as it strains to pull itself out of the boy's hands, making him cry out involuntarily at the pain in his arms. In the instant the rope tightens, though, the girl leaps, using the help of the returning tension to catapult herself over the boy's back and onto the glass-strewn ground of the abandoned office, where she lands heavily in the middle of a mess of the window-glass shards that litter the floor.

"Are... are you all right...?" stammers the boy, picking himself up uncertainly and glancing over himself and the girl for injury. His chest is a little bruised from its jolt against the window sill, but that seems to be it.

"Yeah, I'm okay," the girl says, picking herself up. She doesn't look okay— little pieces of glass are embedded in her skin all along her right arm and her right side, her flimsy grey t-shirt having provided no protection at all. Small droplets of blood begin to appear on the injured arm, and a red stain spreads across the grey fabric of her shirt, but she ignores them. "Let's go."

As the two turn towards the door marked "Stairwell" at the other end of the room, a loud, tinny avian shriek, the kind of sound one would expect from a cross between an eagle and a chainsaw, sounds from somewhere on the street below. The boy and the girl look at each other, then break into a run, dashing for the doorway to the stairs.

A moment later, the entirety of the wide office window shatters as something large and heavy hurtles through it, wings spread. The two escapees hit the door to the stairwell at a run, praying it's not locked— fortunately, it's not, and it flies open. The two stop, turn and slam it shut.

Standing with their backs to the door, the two barely have time to process the sight of a concrete landing with two sets of stairs leading both up and down, before they're nearly thrown off their feet by a heavy impact that strikes the other side of the portal. Stumbling forward alongside the boy, the quick-minded girl grabs his arm and whispers something in his ear.

He looks confused for a moment, then nods. He dashes to the left, down the stairwell, while the girl goes upwards.

There's a brief moment wherein the only sounds audible in the abandoned office building are the faint slaps of feet against stairs...

Then a gust of impossibly powerful wind smashes the stairwell doors open, spraying refuse from the office room across the landing. A creature stalks onto the concrete, talons clacking. It looks like a six-foot-tall bird of prey clad in steel, with the addition of a spiked triangular crest atop its head: its entire body is covered in silvery lightweight armour that creaks faintly as it flexes its wings; its plumage consists of three red metallic 'feathers'  on each wing, which possess enough articulation to spread and flap but can also catch the air like a jet plane's wing when locked together; and its metal beak bears a set of jagged toothlike tines. The hundred-pound bird looks like it shouldn't be able to walk under its own weight, much less fly, but its movements are graceful, and the creature has an almost humanlike quality of assurance as it glances first down the stairwell, then up it. The metal bird opens its beak and lets out a brief, tinny call, which is answered by a chorus of shrieks and howls from the streets. Confident that its allies now know approximately where the runaways are located, the creature spreads its wings and takes off, flapping its way swiftly up the staircase in search of the more elusive of its two quarries...


The girl has reached the roof of the office building; exiting the small structure housing the top of the stairwell, she heads immediately for the edge of the roof. A storey below, the flat top of a derelict apartment building looms. It's a fifteen-foot drop, but she knows she can make it; given that her ally— now, regrettably, only bait— is down in the ground floors of the office building, maybe in the alleyways by now, her best bet is to hide and lie low. She takes a deep breath, and prepares to take a running jump across the gap between the two buildings...

Then, behind her, a loud smashing noise heralds the arrival of the first thing to go wrong with her plan. The creature, known as Steelbird to the many members and slaves of its Trainer's gang, lets out a piercing shriek and then flaps into the air, preparing to dive-bomb the girl.

She responds by dashing to place her back against a metal smokestack that juts from the edge of the building. Unperturbed, the bird locks its wings and plummets, swooping at the girl with talons extended, seeing her frozen by terror like so many others...

At the last second, the girl throws herself out of harm's way, revealing that her terror was only an act; she rolls, and comes to her feet in time to see the bird smash straight through the smokestack with a rattling series of metallic crashes. Its momentum hardly reduced, Steelbird begins to climb again, banking in a wide circle for a second pass. This particular prey, however, has a trick up her sleeve.

Reaching into a small , crudely sewn hidden pocket on the inside elastic of her sweatpants, the girl retrieves the few possessions she's managed to keep secret for just this occasion: a small slingshot made with a rubber band and a twig; and four walnut-sized seeds as ammunition. The girl raises one of the seeds to her mouth and rolls it across her tongue, praying that the scant moisture of her parched mouth will be enough...

The winged menace has finished its slow circle, and is accelerating down at the girl. She stands her ground, waiting for the right moment... she can't afford to miss.

Scant moments before the bird's razor-sharp wings and steely talons rip through her, the girl dodges aside and lets loose with the weapon she had held hidden at her side. The seed hits the bird, and sticks in its armour as it swoops past with a faint whistling of sliced air.

The girl turns and waits, watching the steadily receding bird glide higher into the sky. Shouldn't something have happened by now? she wonders, fear coiling in her stomach with a sensation like a cold fist clenching her insides.

The seeds, stolen at great personal risk from the Trainers' quarters on the forbidden basement floor of the parkade, belong to a creature with power over plants. She's seen its Trainer command it to fire several of these seeds at one of the non-Trainer slaves, at which point the walnut-sized objects sank roots into his flesh and burst immediately into rapid growth, enwrapping the unfortunate man's entire body and holding him upside down for the entertainment of the laughing, jeering Trainers. The girl can only hope they work the same way when they're activated by water.

Abruptly, the far-off bird's smooth glide seems to falter. A moment later its banking turn towards its quarry veers off track, carrying the bird away into the distant horizon, and against the grey backdrop of clouds the girl can faintly see the silhouettes of snaking vines covering the bird and fighting to pin its wings against its body.

She doesn't pause to celebrate; it's time to get going.

The girl takes a running leap from the office building's roof onto that of the abandoned apartment and rolls to break her fall, heading immediately for the rooftop stairwell. There, she'll find a place to hide until the Trainers stop searching. A small smile appears on her thin lips, and stretches into the first real grin her face has played host to in more than five years. Her plan is still on track, and she's finally, finally free.


Chapter 1: Runner

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 09:30, NOVEMBER 26, 2011~~~~~~~~~~

Just imagine something for me, will you?

Just imagine every place you'd ever called home was underground. Just imagine the feeling of the sun on your face equated with danger. Just imagine your idea of a successful day was one in which you didn't get your legs broken. Just imagine any group of people you met could all die tomorrow, and no one would notice. Just imagine you could die tomorrow, and no one would care.

Just imagine you didn't even think you would care.

All but the last one of those things describe the world I live in... and the lattermost is starting to. Which scares the shit out of me.

My name is Larissa; I don't really have a last name, because my parents didn't live long enough to tell anyone what it was. For the same reason, I don't actually know how old I am (although my reflection looks about seventeen or eighteen,) or when my birthday is. Not that it would matter. What am I going to do, bake a cake out of ashes and rubble?

You see, I live in a world that's nothing like your own; it's different in every way, but all of those differences come from a single, shitty source.

It's been fifteen years— more than three quarters of my life, from what I can guess— since the creatures started appearing. The ones that people call Pokémon— short for Pocket Monsters— in hushed tones of fear. Pokémon are mysterious creatures with frightening powers, powers that can turn you into a smear on the pavement in seconds flat. There are over six hundred known kinds now, and it seems like that number is only going to get bigger. I'm not old enough to have clear memories of what life was like before it happened, but the appearance of such dangerous creatures changed the way the world works. The globe was plunged into fear and terror; the mere existence of Pokémon threw society into chaos. All across the globe, people cowered and waited in vain for the worst to pass. Instead, the shitstorm rolled over them like the trampling feet of an angry god.

Some people— the ones who didn't just roll over and bury their heads in the sand— tried to get rid of them. In those early days, the stories say, anyone who frightened or threatened a wild Pokémon tended to die horribly. Having seen some of the bullshit these unnatural creatures can do, I personally don't doubt it. Most people just stayed the fuck away from them; hoped that a wild Pokémon wouldn't make its home in their front yard; closed their eyes to the fact that feral animals were taking over the world and that we were powerless to stop them.

Some, however, survived by befriending the beasts, even going as far as learning to train them. They were by far the best off. Nowadays, the world is ruled by Pokémon Trainers, ruthless criminals who take what they want and go where they please. No one can stop them, of course; they wield the power of creatures that can breathe fire, electrocute with a touch, or even rip you apart with just the power of their mind. It's no good trying to fight Trainers with Trainers, either— the streets are ruled by gangs that defend their territory viciously against other gangs, but being in the territory of a gang is no protection— it just means they get to do whatever they want with your homes and belongings, provided they can find them.

Me, I survive by staying as far away from Trainers as possible... but that's no easy feat. Take right now, for example.

I'm half kneeling and half lying on my stomach, most of the way up the roof of what used to be a hospital. That isn't as big a feat of climbing as it might sound like— the roof is all that's left, lying in the midst of the rubble. All that matters, though, is that it's the highest vantage point available in this particular area, at the same time as providing cover while I peek over it. Nothing fucks you over faster than making a recognizable silhouette on a horizon.

A wasteland stretches out in all directions, bathed in the early afternoon light; rubble-strewn streets crisscross between blasted, torn buildings and piles of shattered concrete. Some of the ruined houses still have a couple of walls standing, while others are indistinguishable from any other pile of burnt wood or smashed cement. Everything's covered with small plants and even a few saplings— most of the husks (that's Runner-speak for blasted or torn-down houses) in this part of town have been abandoned for years. Closer to the city centre, some of the bigger buildings are still standing, especially the ones made out of concrete, but smaller houses and things are basically a thing of the past. Too much valuable-as-shit metal in the walls.

I peek over the top of the roof again, rising a little higher this time so I can see the ground closer to the base of the destroyed hospital. They're down there— the Trainers. There are about five of them that I can see, with their Pokémon; a tight group, about a half mile to my west, heading straight north. Probably a patrol. That would make sense, because I can tell from their faded purple shirts that they're members of the Quickstep gang that's in charge of the area west of today's route.

I'm downwind, and far enough away that I'm not particularly worried this bunch will notice me, especially since they don't look like they have any Psychic-types to detect my mind from afar. The real danger is that they probably have a scout or two, away from the main group or in the air. I scan the skies— they seem clear, so I relax a little... but only a little. If I'm caught, the best case scenario is losing the valuable supplies in my backpack; if the Trainers are in an especially bad mood, which they are most of the time, they might decide to break my legs and leave me for the carrion-eaters.

I'm a Runner— one of a few people who have learned to survive topside by staying clear of Trainers. Runners normally work alone, and we earn our meals transporting supplies between the suburb farms and the scavengers and craftspeople who manage to eke out a living in the city ruins. Usually I'll run one way with food from the farms, trade it for tools and other necessities the city-dwellers make or find, then run those back the other way. We generally don't play the part of merchants— trying to find buyers for our goods would take valuable time out of our day. Instead, our clients place orders and we arrange a deal with whoever has the requested goods.

A Runner has to be small and fast— hard to spot and harder to catch. We do one of the most dangerous jobs out there, because in the eyes of Trainers, Runners are bugs to be squashed: bugs that carry big bags of free stuff. We're paid pretty well by our clients... Not with money, of course— that paper stuff stopped being worth anything long ago, at least in this part of the world— but we charge a steep commission of food and tools. Because of that, we live in relative comfort. Unfortunately, while a Runner's life might be comfortable enough, it also tends to be short... because sooner or later the Trainers will catch up with you, take your shit, and leave you to die.

I have no intention of letting that happen to me any time soon. I scramble back down from the hospital roof, dropping the few feet from the edge to the rubble-strewn ground as quietly as possible. Sound carries surprisingly clearly over the ruins, and there's still a danger that the Quicksteps might have a scout somewhere around here, so silence is key.

I sprint off to the south, along the wide, relatively clear street that's my planned route, which fortunately takes me in exactly the opposite direction from the Quickstep patrol. After a couple of minutes, I slow down to a light jog, breathing deeply but not too quickly. I've got a good eight miles to my first delivery spot, and there's no way I'm tiring myself out by running that entire distance; dashing is reserved for getting away from Trainers.

Ahead of me, the road ends abruptly; rubble is thick on the ground, and from here on I'll have to pick my way carefully up and down piles of shattered concrete and charred wood. If I could, I would only do my runs at night— less chance for Trainers and their Pokémon to see me, that way— but navigating places like this in the dark would be an easy way to get my legs broken, so that's a no-go.

It takes another fifteen minutes or so, but soon I'm approaching the first location: one of the Warrens I supply. A Warren, by the way, is Runner-talk for a hidden place where a group of people live, usually underground or in some way rendered indistinguishable from the surrounding ruins.

There's nothing here to indicate that the spot is at all different from any other stretch of wasteland, but as far as I can remember, it's the right place, so I find a relatively out-in-the-open area and sit tight (which would usually be a very bad idea if there were Trainers about.) Almost immediately, I know I've found the right location, because a young boy wearing homemade trousers of beige curtain cloth, a makeshift rope belt, and a faded black t-shirt with an illegible logo on it pops up right next to me, apparently out of nowhere. It's all I can do not to jump out of my skin. How the hell did he get so close without me noticing? I'm supposed to be aware of everything that goes on around me.

"Rizz!!" he shouts exuberantly, his sky-blue eyes shining with excitement. "You're early! What'd ya bring us?"

I look down at the boy, frowning faintly and trying not to reveal how badly he scared the shit out of me. "Quiet, kid," I snap, careful to use a hushed tone. "You'll bring the Quicksteps down on us from ten miles north with a voice that loud."

The kid, whose name I think is Matt or Manny or Malo or something, winces and ducks his head, as if I'd hit him. I'm guessing the anger of an adult usually means a sound beating in his makeshift homestead. "Sorry," he apologizes in a subdued whisper. "This way."

He leads me around a knee-high pile of metal scraps and digs at one side of it for a second, then grabs hold of something and pulls. A trap door, cleverly disguised with nailed- or glued-on tin cans and metal scraps, swings open silently on well-oiled hinges; Matt-Manny-Malo's folks are veterans of the wastes, and it shows in the care that goes into keeping their Warren secret and safe.

A quiet male voice calls from inside the door. "Marcus? Is Rizz here already?"

"Yeah, Dad!" Marcus— right, that was his name— shouts, forgetting to use his outdoor voice again. I scowl. This is exactly why I'm not fond of kids, and I'm sure as hell not sticking around if the boy brings down a bunch of Trainers on his family's heads.

"Well, bring her in," his father responds, "And don't forget to whisper when you're outside."

Marcus shoots a guilty glance at me, mouths 'Oops,' to himself, and scampers down the steep stairway into what used to be a cellar. I follow, reaching back to quietly close the trap door behind me. I have to duck my head and lower my shoulders to avoid catching my backpack on the low slanted ceiling until I reach the bottom of the stairs, finding myself in a familiar room.

Stone-walled and about ten feet by twenty feet, this Warren is pretty nice for a scavenger place. The stone walls have been dug out in two places, and earth-walled tunnels lead out of both holes. One tunnel ends with an exit I've used before to get into and out of the Warren; the other is unknown to me, and probably leads to living quarters as well as a similar escape route— after all, why have one back door when you can have two? Aside from the tunnels, one wall holds a set of shelves bearing cutlery, bowls and other eating utensils. A small but serviceable table stands in the middle of the room, cluttered with a few more odds and ends. In one corner there's a plastic sink basin resting on a rusted metal frame, with a couple of buckets of water sitting next to it. I'd enjoy knowing where this group gets their water, but it's none of my business. Everyone has their way of surviving, whether it's trips to a nearby stream, a secret well, or just collecting rainwater, and because every asset is worth stealing in today's world it's both rude and suspicious to pry.

On the opposite side of the room, leaning on walls or sitting in chairs of assorted styles, are six of the ten people who live here: Toby, Marcus's father, a tall slim man in his late twenties; Helen, the mother, who's in about the same age range; the boy himself; and three young men whose ages I guess to be between nineteen and twenty-two, who are basically the muscle of the operation: they're likely the ones who do the bulk of the scavenging for things amongst the ruins, like the chairs they're sitting in, tools like hammers and nails, and edible herbs or roots.

Everything is lit by a faint but clear light from a single dirty grey cellar window at the top of one stone wall— or, more likely, the window is intentionally painted grey on the outside to disguise it and reduce its shine in the sun. Smart, keeping the window useable— saves candles and lamp oil.

"Well?" Toby says gruffly, gesturing for me to come over to the table and planting himself solidly in a chair on the other side of it. "Have you got what we asked for?"

By way of answer, I thump my huge backpack down on the table and pull out a large bundle wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag. "A pound of beef jerky, half a pound of dried fruit— figs and cherries, this time— two whittling knives straight from the blacksmith, an old-style metal knife sharpener, a chisel, twenty candles, and a ten-inch-across, foot-long section of rock cedar heartwood," I recite from memory, unwrapping the bundle and laying out the named items. "In return, I asked for two good-quality wooden bowls, two full sets of wood cutlery, two fishing rods minus the twine, half a gallon of water in a sealable container, and a handle for the dagger blade I showed you last time I was here."

Toby is an expert carver and whittler. In today's world, you're either a scavenger, a craftsman, or too young to walk— otherwise you can't feed yourself. Everything I asked for is something Toby can spare, and he agreed to the deal last time I visited. That's how Runners operate— you don't ask for too much, but you get as much you can for yourself from every run, make sure you have everything for your orders, and aim to always have a full bag. One fishing rod is for a group that lives off of fish from a lake just past the edge of the city; the bowls and cutlery are for a family I'll be visiting later today.

The second fishing rod and the dagger handle are both for me. The rod is useful for someone who occasionally makes runs to Warrens out in the suburbs near lakes or rivers. As for the dagger, a little weapon like that wouldn't be very useful against a Pokémon, but it pays to have some way of defending yourself from more normal threats. More than one runner has been robbed because they made the mistake of ignoring the greedy eyes of their "friends" on their pack of supplies. On that note, I briefly look over Toby and the three scavengers, the latter of whose names I've never had reason to learn. I scan their eyes; reading people's emotions in their eyes is something I've always been good at. I see longing in their undisguised stares at the backpack— a Runner's bag is a rare prize indeed— but no open hostility, as well as a certain amount of trepidation. Good; having a reputation for being able to defend yourself is an important asset for a Runner.

Toby disappears into a back room, and returns with a fourth man who is helping him carry the things I asked for. They place the assorted items on the table across from me— the water is in a large plastic bottle with a screw-on cap, not a makeshift waterskin, which is a pleasant surprise— then the two back away to the far wall, careful not to make any threatening movements or cut off my way out. That's just common courtesy— trust is an even rarer commodity than food, and my bag is full of the latter.

I methodically stow everything in my backpack, economizing for space, except for the incomplete fishing rods— two long slim sticks with wooden loops all along them— which I strap to the back of the bag. Then I back away from the table in turn, leaving all the stuff I brought on it. Toby and Helen move forward and give it a cursory look over, ensuring that everything is indeed there. Toby stops when he realizes I've left the plastic garbage bag on the table along with the meat it was wrapped around, and looks at me quizzically.

"Keep it. Plastic for plastic," I say. Heavy-duty plastic like that garbage bag is a rare and often valuable commodity, but about a year ago I was lucky enough to find an entire untouched industrial storage closet. I have plenty to spare, and the bag is about a fair trade for the useful plastic water bottle they've given me. Generosity is deadly, but fairness tends to reap its own rewards, I've found.

Toby just nods; I take the dismissal for what it is, and leave quietly by the trap door through which I came. Business as usual; no need to stick around once my job's done, especially since I've got four more stops to make today alone. The sun's still high in the sky, but it won't be for too many more hours: the days are growing shorter as autumn wears on, and I don't want to be caught out after dark.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 11:20, NOVEMBER 26~~~~~~~~~~

Hey. I'm Borden, and this is Buzz, my Pokémon. Together, we're part o' the Grayout gang, the best gang in the fuckin' city! You tell me any different, me and Buzz'll have to teach you better. And that'll hurt. So don't say nothin' about the Grayouts, okay?

Just so you know what me and Buzz look like: me, I'm a big guy, so you better not get in my way or I'll knock you out of it! (Out of my way, that is. You got what I meant, right?) I wear my gray gang sash 'round my arm, to show my pride as a Grayout! As for the other stuff I wear, well... I pretend like I don't get cold, even in the winter, so I mostly wear my long-sleeve shirt with jeans, and maybe a coat over it all on the really cold days. If there's a coat to spare. If Dorian and Jess and Marty ain't usin' all the coats... Actually, I mostly just don't wear coats 'cause the higher-ups are hoggin' 'em all. But whatever. Maybe I'll get lucky one of these days, and one of my scavengers'll find a real coat, then it'll be all mine and no one'll be allowed to take it! Not unless Boss says so, o' course.

Buzzer, or "Buzz" as I call him most o' the time, he's a tiny li'l four-legged spidery Pokémon all covered in yellow fur, maybe half the size o' my hand... but don't let his size fool ya. He's plenty dangerous! You can usually find him on my shoulder or up my sleeve, on account he's real shy. Boss says Pokémon shouldn' be kept too close like this, on account they're supposed to be weapons and not some kinda pets, but I got an exemption 'cause it's important he grab onto somebody so's he can be useful. See, Buzz takes static electricity off me when I walk, stores it up... and then when I give the word, BAM you're on the ground! Long as I don't act too friendly with him, it's all good: none o' that affection bullshit you see from those other gangs in town (the poser Quicksteps and the boneheaded Smashers.)

I'm pretty low on the rungs in the Grayout gang, but that's okay. Yeah, sure, they don't tell me much about nothin', but I get to be on explorin' duty— make sure the scavengers are workin' hard— and that's kinda fun. Actually, I'm out on a scavenge run right now! Part o' my job's lookin' around for anythin' good, but my main job's to make sure the normals (that's gang speak for anybody who ain't a Trainer) ain't slackin', or keepin' any o' the shit they find. This bunch is pretty well-trained, so I ain't got nothin' to worry about... but that don't mean I can slack off neither. If Dorian finds you slackin', you get twice the punishment one o' the normals would get! That ain't fair, but Dorian ain't never pretended to be fair.

Right now, most of the scavengers are diggin' around in the rubble o' what's left from when Dorian's 'mon tore out the wall o' this mall place. Goin' in the door woulda been too slow, so now we got a nice convenient way in and out. After a couple more hours o' findin' useful stuff like metal rods (good for bashin' shit but also food for the Steel-type Pokémon us Grayouts are famous for havin',) we'll be movin' on to look round the inside o' the place. In there, there oughta be plenty o' stuff that was too big for rogue scavengers to carry back to their little hidey-holes. Maybe a clothes store what ain't been completely looted...?

Normally I like bein' on explorin' duty, on account I get to keep any clothes the normals find (everything else's gotta go to Boss, o' course) but lately I done been a little on edge. There's rumors goin' around, nasty rumors that mean it might not be real smart to hang out too far from safety. I ain't more'n ten city blocks from HQ, but that don't mean I ain't still antsy, and I'm glad I ain't on the border patrol. Them guys are the ones with the strongest 'mons, and usually patrols are a walk in the park (the hell're those Quickstep babies gonna do, cry at us?) but now them patrols've started gettin'...

"Hey! Bore!" someone shouts from the other end o' the street.

Oh, shit! That voice belongs to Dorian. He always calls me "Bore" or "the Bore," and he loves kickin' me around. He loves kickin' anyone around, really, but Buzz and I ain't exactly the strongest outta the gang, and everyone knows it.

"Yeah??" I yell back, startin' to look around real quick-like, so's I seem extra busy.

"You slackin'?"

"Hell no!"

"Better not be, Bore! Don' make me come over there!"

Dorian must be on patrol on this part of our turf. Shitty luck— he hates patrol duty, so he'll be in an extra bad mood when he gets back. I'll have to keep my head down tonight, if I don't want it bitten off...

"...Uhh, should you really be so hard on the kid?" chimes in Marty's stuttering voice, quieter than Dorian's and with that whiny sound what gets on everyone's nerves every time Marty says anythin'. "I mean, for a new member, he's doing pretty well—"

"Shut the fuck up, Marty. The brat's been with us fer three years an' I've yet to see 'im pull 'is weight in a scrap. Fuckin' waste o' space..." Dorian's voice fades into the distance, and I feel my stomach churn with maybe somethin' more than the usual amount o' hunger. Worse luck, because Dorian's always in a really bad mood after spending any amount o' time near Marty.

What Dorian said about me is pretty much true, though. Buzz and me, we ain't the best in a fight— he builds up enough static in a day for a real good ZAP or two, but in a full-on territory scrap with the Quicksteps to the east or the Smashers to the south of our turf, we use up those zaps and then we gotta turn tail and run. It's shitty, and I keep getting told I only got given Buzz 'cause when they found him no one else wanted him. But what do they know? Really, Buzz ain't just "better'n no 'mon at all," like they keep telling me. He's a good bud, and I wouldn't trade him for nothin'.

I done been on scavengin' duty for about five hours, so it's nearly time for me to trade off with Stern so's I can take a break. I look back toward HQ, but I don't see him comin' out. Problem is, if he don't feel like takin' my place, there ain't shit I can do, on account I can't leave my spot to go find him. With anyone else he'd be too worried 'bout what they'll do when they get back, but he and Bulb could wipe the floor with me and Buzz, easy... and he knows it. Shit. If I'm still here when Dorian gets back, he's gonna find some excuse to rip me a new one. My brain fills up with panic and frustration, thinkin' 'bout how bad it's gonna be if I can't find a way to get Stern to take over before—

Right at that moment, one o' them scavengers drops his armful of metal rods from the debris, and the clangs as they hit the ground make me jump outta my skin, on account I wasn't payin' attention. I whirl round, real fuckin' angry.

The guy cringes and stares at me, plenty afraid. He should be scared, on account I'm havin' a shitty day already and now he had to go and make it worse!

"Get over here," I tell him. The moment he hesitates, I stop playin' mister nice guy. "I said, get the fuck over here!"

He dashes like he's bein' chased by motherfuckin' Steelbird, comin' to a stop right in front of me, eyes down on the ground like they should be.

"Buzz, let him have it."

There's a SNAP! and a tiny sizzlin' sound, and the guy crumples down, twitchin' a little and makin' little whimperin' noises. I glare round at the other scavengers, feelin' superior. No matter if I'm on the bottom of the heap in the gang's peckin' order, I'm still better than these guys!

"Get up and go back to work," I tell the guy, as his twitchin' calms down to a kind o' shiver. Then I realize he ain't able to do nothin' quite yet... so I clarify, "When you can stand up, I mean."

The other scavengers, who all done turned to watch me layin' down the law, get back to work, shoulders all hunched up in terror. I cross my arms, grinnin' and tryin' to hold onto that superior feeling. As good as it is to be on top, though, it doesn' stop my worried thoughts comin' right back, thoughts 'bout Dorian and Stern and all the others. In the end, I don't end up feelin' any better.

I can already tell it's gonna keep bein' a fuckin' bad day.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 12:40, NOVEMBER 26~~~~~~~~~~

One uneventful stop later, I'm headed southwest towards the edge of Quickstep territory, moving slowly since for safety's sake I have to keep my silhouette off of the myriad hills of rubble and pick my way through the mess of jagged garbage at the bases of them. Before long, I can tell I'm exiting Quickstep territory and entering Grayout land, mostly from the fact that I occasionally cross fifty-foot stretches of empty road that have been cleared of debris for quick travel by the Grayouts. I have to look both ways carefully and dash across each of these 'highways,' because getting caught in the sights of the Grayouts' fucking Pokémon-vehicles guarantees a quick death at best.

My Run— that's the name of the group of Warrens a single Runner supplies, sort of like claimed gang territory but only claimed against other Runners— overlaps the territory of three different gangs: Quicksteps to the north, Grayouts in the middle and to the northwest, and Smashers to the west. Which gang's territory I enter the city through depends on which part of my Run I'm headed for, but if I'm mostly supplying the center area of my Run, I prefer to approach through the Quicksteps' territory like I did today. The Quicksteps are less vicious and are generally predictable— less likely to catch me, and less likely to end my Running career permanently if they do.

Hmm... I should explain further. Like most Runners, I got my Run from the one who was here before me; that's how things usually go. In the three years between my escape from slavery and my successful capture of this Run, I was a scavenger and lived off of stolen veggies, old preserved canned food, and a scattering of the edible tubers that grow among the ruins. Now, I live comfortably— maybe even as comfortably as some Trainers, albeit only those who're part of a sub-par gang— at the cost of doing basically the most dangerous fucking job there is. Trainers might ignore a scavenger; those rarely have much on them. They'd never ignore a Runner.

Maybe someday, if I don't die out in the ruins with my legs broken and swollen with gangrene, gasping for water and watching the vultures circle overhead, a younger and stronger Runner will come and push me out of my Run... or kill me herself, before starvation has a chance to do the job for her. She'll start small— supplying one or two of the Warrens in my Run before I can get there, so that I arrive to find that they no longer need the supplies I was bringing. Slowly, she'll supply more and more of my clients, until we're competing to get to each group first. Finally, one of us will get fed up and leave the other a message with one of the Warrens: a challenge, of single combat— or perhaps a Pokémon-aided curbstomp by a Runner who has the patronage of a gang. The winner takes over the Run; the loser gets lost... if she survives.

Did I forget to mention that some Runners work for gangs? Sure, they'll pretend to be independent, but 'pet Runners' have a gang that they Run to as if it were a Warren, a gang that protects them from other Runners and gives them a place to stay when they need it. It sounds like a great arrangement in theory, yeah, but you wanna know why I've never gone for that deal with one of the gangs around my Run? Because it's a trap. Because sooner or later, they'll take you for everything you've got and find a new Runner. And, entirely aside from the practical shit, because Trainers are the fucking scum of the earth.

I'm still moving southwest, but turning a bit more to the west now. My next stop is a mile or so ahead. As I approach my target, I slow down significantly. This is one of the most dangerous stops in my entire Run; even though the likelihood of a chance encounter with a ground-based Grayout patrol is low in the roadless part of the wasteland, fucked if I'm going to assume that'll hold true. I switch to a quiet, steady tiptoe as I approach the last concealing pile of rubble before my stop.

I flatten my back against a slanting wall made of concrete chunks and rusted metal bars, and peer around the edge of it. About ninety feet away, in the middle of a large empty area, is a single intact house, undamaged except for the wear and tear of fifteen years without a proper paint job. Its roof is shingled— actual shingles, like they made in old-world factories— and its walls show white paint under the dust and a few spray-painted gang tags. The windows have shutters covering them, and one even has a whole pane of real glass in it, glass so transparent you'd actually have to touch it to be sure it's there. Through the glass window, threadbare but brightly coloured blue curtains can be seen, a month's food's worth in high-quality machine-made fabric.

A big enough Pokémon could level a house like this in seconds flat... but none have. That's because the family that lives here has a deal with the Grayouts. I don't blame them for making that arrangement... well, not much. I have to respect them, at least: I bet it takes a lot of diplomatic skill to get Trainers not to fuck with you, given that there isn't a lot you can offer them that they can't just take by force. Unfortunately for the family in there, though, you don't have to be a genius to figure out what you can offer a group that has enough of everything but pairs of eyes.  No one in the surrounding Warrens will have anything to do with the Sutton family, for fear of their hideout being ratted out to the gang.

No one except me, clearly. God, Larissa, you're a dumb fuck, I think dourly. I'm exaggerating, of course— I'm careful not to reveal anything personal when I make my Runs here; and what the fuck are the Grayouts going to do with the knowledge that I do give their informants? "A Runner will be here sometime in the next day or two?" It'd be a waste of their time to go out of their way to lay a trap; while I'd be fair prey in their twisted minds if I got caught out in the open by chance, in the long run a good Runner in the area just means the nearby Warrens have more stuff for the Grayouts to steal if they find them. The leader of the Grayouts, a woman named Gail who everyone calls 'Boss,' is smart enough to realize that— gangs led by stupid people get crushed fast as fuck. And, it's not like I'd just walk into a trap, anyways, if there were one: first rule of Running is 'plan for the worst.'

That's why, despite my near certainty that half the fucking Grayout gang isn't lurking nearby in wait, I'm not about to just flat-out walk across that empty space around the house. There aren't too many other options, but there are enough. I've picked up a few tricks from watching Runners in other parts of the old city, back when I was living by scrounging for scraps and they would actually let me close enough to observe them (and, if I was lucky, trade them something useful I'd found for a bite to eat.)

The first thing I learned was that there's always a "back door." Not usually a literal one, more like a simple fact: anyone making a plan can only be ready for what they know or suspect might happen... so if something unexpected or unknown goes down, their plan ends up in the shitter. If there's a trap out there— which, I remind myself, is unlikely as fuck— it won't work on someone who has something the trap-maker has never seen before. So, my best bet has always been to think outside the box... which I happen to be good at.

I pull a small string on the side of my bulging backpack, and a secret compartment folds out. Inside is a folded-up piece of thin, sheer cloth dyed the same mottled grey and white colours as the concrete rubble strewn all over the ground: my own little invisibility cloak. I unfold it to its full ten by ten feet and carefully drape it over myself and my bag. I can see out, but to anyone outside, I look like one more pile of rubble, the kind of background object the eye just glides over.

Crouching low to the ground and moving slowly, I take my first few steps out into the semi-clear space around the house, crossing to the nearest one-foot-tall mound of smashed cement bits. There's no sound but the whistle of the breeze, and after half a minute of creeping warily towards the house, I begin to relax, increasing my pace just a little. The rubble-strewn clearing is obviously empty, and there's no pile of debris large enough for anything bigger than two or three feet tall to hide from me. Still... some kind of sixth sense tells me to keep my wits about me, and I stay low to the ground, still holding the sheer fabric of my invisibility cloak close...

A moment later, a feeling like walking out of a doorway and into a mist of rain droplets hits me. I freeze, and glance to either side to find myself halfway through a thin, previously-invisible barrier of pinkish energy. I'm immediately glad I stopped moving, because suddenly I can see the Trainers who were hidden behind the psychic barrier.

Less than ten feet away, with his back to me, stands a heavyset, shaved-bald man, who's wearing a thick ankle-length winter coat partially unzipped to reveal a grimy collared shirt underneath— a fairly standard version of the usual hodgepodge of garments needed to keep warm in the chilly late-autumn winds this time of year. His name is Dorian, one of the lead Trainers in the Grayout gang. A shiver of fear goes through me when I think about what he's famous for among the Grayout slaves: beating those who displease him to within an inch of their lives. I was one of the luckier slaves— I never had the misfortune of getting on his bad side.

Thankfully, he doesn't seem to have noticed me— rather, his attention is on another man, this one a skinny guy with a grey bandanna tied around his head, wearing a grey t-shirt under a beat-up purple windbreaker with a broken zipper and black ski pants. Marty, I think, a current of contempt running through me. No one likes Marty, not even the other Trainers.

The two are arguing, their voices clearly audible despite the fact that just a second ago I couldn't even hear them.

"...Fuckin' leaves us ta watch out fer 'er here, even though the damn royalty in the house dunno when she'll be back," mutters Dorian mutinously. "...Tells us ta wait a week if'n we have ta. Damn selfish bitch..."

"Calm down!" Marty pleads in a nervous tone. "N- Not so loud! You know Boss w-wouldn't hold with that..." he gulps, "W-with that kind of t-talk! And we need to catch the girl before—"

"I fuckin' know Boss don' like that kinda talk," Heavy-set Dorian cuts his compatriot off, "But who's gonna tell her I said it, huh? You? Yeah, I didn' fuckin' think so," he finishes as the other Trainer quails visibly.

Nevertheless, the beleaguered-looking Marty manages to gather the courage to speak up again. "I wouldn't ever...! But... I just... We do have to be here, you know we do. If she's responsible for this, the Runner has to be brought down! What if she strikes again?"

Dorian scowls. "Doubt it's her. But whatever did wreck Don, it's out there... an' that's what I'm fuckin' scared of. After seein' what Don looked like when they found 'im, are the two o' us gonna be enough? I mean, he looked like somethin' sucked him dry!"

"I... Well... Uhh, we'll see anything coming from half a mile off with this barrier up, so..." Marty stammers. Then he gives a start as a far-off noise carries to where I can hear it as well. "Wait, here comes your Pokémon." Sure enough, I can hear the grating, scuffing sound of something big approaching from the distance beyond the two Trainers.

My impulse to turn around and flee in terror wars with my better instinct. Just from listening in to this little conversation, the answer to the question of why two Grayout Trainers are camped out at my stop is answered, but a bunch more questions have popped up in their place like ruins-weeds after a spring rain. It's obvious that they're hunting me for something that I didn't do... But it sounds like whatever's actually responsible is capable of taking out a Trainer. If something like that is in my Run— maybe some dangerous new wild Pokémon in the area, or a rival gang's scout force— I need to know as much as I can about it, for my own safety. And the best way to learn about it might be to grill the family in that house.

The slow approach of whatever it is that's appeared on the horizon, making that nasty gravelly scrape as it drags itself through the concrete rubble, forces me to decide quickly. Instead of taking the less risky, easy way out and running the fuck away, I slowly and silently begin to move towards the house, trusting my safety to my concrete-coloured cloak and the Trainers' distraction as they turn their backs on me to watch the Pokémon arrive.

I cross the remaining forty feet without any problems, arriving on the faded white-painted doorstep; then, with a brief glance over my shoulder to ensure that the two Trainers still aren't looking this way, I ease the house's door open and slip through it, stuffing the grey-and-white cloak into its pouch as I go and tying it shut with the same slip-knot that held it before.

Inside is a scene straight out of a story book... One of those little paperback novels that describe a happy family living their lives in a time before Pokémon existed; the kind of book whose main source of conflict is usually something absurdly banal like schoolyard bullying. The people here live in luxury: the walls and floor aren't strewn with litter, and even the ceiling is cleaner than any surface I've ever seen; shiny metal light fixtures with actual glass light bulbs line the walls— useless ever since the power plant went down at least seven years ago, but impressive in the fact that they match perfectly, like only factory-made rarities can. There's a long brown-and-red rug— only slightly stained and ragged— running down the centre of a short hallway that ends in a doorway into another corridor. There's also a doorway to my right that's blocked by a real, hinged wooden door. I've always wanted to just try swinging one open and shut; functioning doors are a novelty in a place where even standing buildings are rare. After all, the Second Civil War twelve years ago completely totaled most of the...

Without warning, another door slams somewhere in the house, startling me, and I'm hit by a flood of unpleasant memories. Crap. I shouldn't have started thinking about the War...! I struggle briefly against the tide in my head, gritting my teeth and digging my fingernails into my arm to anchor myself in the present... but despite my best efforts I feel myself getting swept away, images flashing through my brain like a slideshow I can't stop seeing even after I close my eyes...

People are running past me through the orphanage hallway, screaming and shouting incomprehensibly... Dumbass kid that I am, I'm just sitting here in an alcove, hugging my knees, while the walls shake with the heavy rumbling sound of the buildings all around the orphanage crashing down... The memory takes over, and all sense of being anyone but a scared five- or maybe six-year-old disappears. I see Ms. Mannagan, the only employee at the orphanage who's ever nice to me, running down the corridor towards me... I see, in slow motion, the sudden explosion— a stray artillery round that strikes the side of the orphanage just so— blasting the wall between me and Ms. Mannagan and hiding her from me in a burst of concrete dust... The whole room lurches sideways and the floor and ceiling fall away, then; I drop all the way to ground level in a blur of motion and come to rest buried in rubble with bruises all over my arms and legs. I feel the tears of impotence and terror running down my face as I wait to die just like that, alone and powerless to stop any of it... Time speeds up as I lie here for hours and hours, frozen with fear amongst the wreckage, until the explosions stop and the Trainers arrive to drag me out of the ruins as just one more survivor to be inspected and then abandoned...

"...irl? Runner girl, can you hear me?" A voice, distant as if it's calling me from far away, intrudes on my reality. A few moments pass, then a growing ache in my left arm calls me back to my body and brings me partway out of my stupor. My eyes have gone out of focus; I finally manage to force them to show me the real world, and find that I'm staring to my right, straight at the orange door-hinge... I see what they did there, says a detached voice in my head, which I only partially register. The next thing I notice is that the pain in my left arm is growing stronger and sharper; I glance at it, and find that my fingernails, digging deeply into my forearm, have broken the skin; I'm bleeding from five small wounds, and getting blood on my nails.

"Girl?" says that distant voice again, in barely more than a whisper. I look up to find Mrs. Sutton, the mother of this house's family, staring at me from only a few feet away, wringing her hands. She's a slim lady, bordering on underweight— no doubt due to the stress of having a family living so openly in gang territory— and wearing a faded floral-print dress. "Are you all right?" she asks.

Her concerned tone confuses me for a moment; but looking into her eyes, I can see fear rather than compassion. That makes more sense— she's afraid for her family's safety. If the Grayouts are hunting me, my presence here puts them in danger, so she'll want me gone as soon as possible.

I can use that, I decide, if I need to apply some pressure later on. "Mrs. Sutton," I say diffidently, acting as though nothing is wrong and holding my arm level so as not to drip blood on her floor. "I'm here to make a delivery, as promised..."

"Oh... the cutlery and the bowls? That's good, since our last ceramic one got broken last week, but you really shouldn't be here..." she trails off, wringing her hands.

There's a brief pause, so I prompt her. "I can be gone soon, if you have the items to trade?" I'm carefully watching her eyes, and there's something other than fear there... Some kind of indecision. I instinctively tense up a little. What does she know that I don't...?

"About that..." she seems to come to a decision, and abruptly a kind of solid resolve replaces the indecision hidden behind her expression, though the fear in her eyes doesn't go away. "We'll have to negotiate somewhere... other than the kitchen. They've left a... creature there, the one that's making that eerie barrier. I don't think it would be safe for it to see you."

I catch myself and school my expression before my eyes have time to narrow suspiciously... but as far as I can tell, there isn't any likelihood she's betraying me to the Grayouts by taking me elsewhere in the house. If what she says is true, and there's a Pokémon in the kitchen— which sounds believable given the Trainers outside— she could have just walked us in there with me none the wiser, and it'd have been too late. Chances are she'll want something in return for her silence— a better deal or something— but I'm willing to satisfy her in that way if it'll count towards keeping me safe from the Trainers.

The woman leads me quietly through the door at the end of the hall, then turns left instead of the usual right (the right-hand end of the hallway leads to the kitchen) and precedes me down a set of stairs into a small concrete-walled basement. Normally the children of the house can be seen peeking around corners at me, but presumably they've been banished somewhere safer given the Trainers outside and a Pokémon's presence indoors. I wonder again, with a frown at the woman's back, why she hasn't just turned me in yet. Does the risk really outweigh the benefit...?

The basement is empty except for some unoccupied shelves and a dusty old water cooler, on top of which sits a neatly arranged bundle of stainless steel cutlery in a homemade woolen bag. This family grows their own food year-round in a garden and small greenhouse behind their home, so they only need my services when something breaks, and they can make do by trading away the remnants of their old life, like these valuable metal tools. I pull my backpack off and remove the wooden bowls, knives, forks and spoons that I got from Toby's Warren; stacking them carefully on the shelves, I then cross to the steel cutlery and empty the bundle's contents into a pouch in my backpack, deliberately leaving Mrs. Sutton's homespun bag.

Glancing to see Mrs. Sutton's reaction to my 'discount,' I notice that her eyes are still scared, rather than holding the expected satisfaction.

"Are you sure you don't need that, dear?" she asks in a worried tone of voice.

Still a little put off by her odd behaviour, and growing more than a little suspicious, I shake my head. "No, thank you." Maybe I should spell it out for her. "It's the least I can do after you hid me from the Grayouts."

"Oh..." she frowns. "Well, that cutlery is meant for someone else, I assume... So I'd hate to see you leave without anything for yourself. Wait here a moment."

She turns and leaves. I do a quick calculation in my head: if she's gone to alert the men outside, it should only take me ten seconds or so to get up the stairs, around the corner and out the glass-free living room window... But the question is, does that degree of caution justify leaving? I haven't had an opportunity to ask why the Grayouts are waiting for me outside Mrs. Sutton's home, and based on the woman's attitude so far, I doubt she's just stalling for time while she alerts the Trainers that I'm here. It seems like there's still something she wants from me.

Less than a minute passes before she returns, bearing three things: a resolute expression, a small box of the rare, machine-made adhesive bandages called "Band-Aids," and a book. She offers me the Band-Aids first, and I look at her askance before taking out five of them and quickly applying them to the bleeding fingernail-marks on my arm.

"You didn't have to give me these," I say, handing the box back.

"I can't have you dying of infection, dear, it might take months for another Runner to realize we're even here," Mrs. Sutton points out matter-of-factly. "But if you want to consider us even, I have something to ask you... and I'll give you this book in return for a complete and honest answer." She's referring to the small, well-worn green volume in her hand, which, from the faded illustration of a cornucopia on the front, looks to be a gardening guide of some sort. She holds it out for me to take.

I accept it reflexively, before I can even think to refuse. "I... How do you even know I can read?" I ask defensively, wondering just how much the woman has found out about me that I never told her.

"I've seen the way you looked at the bookshelves on the way to the kitchen, when you visited a month or so ago... you thought I had my back turned. I know it can't be easy to find them... out there," she finishes with a gesture at the stairs out of the basement. "So please, take it, if you have room."

With the wooden bowls gone from my bag, I do actually have room for the book, but...

"Thanks, but no thanks," I say stiffly, glaring at her. Fucking observant woman. I underestimated her, I realize, angry at myself. It's dangerous to reveal too much, to give people knowledge they can use against you. Books aren't necessary for survival, and the unnecessary is a liability if you have to pay for it. Even if you really want it.

"You're wrong," I continue. "I can't read or write, and back then I was only thinking about how nicely those books would burn on a cold day. Sorry to disappoint you."

Mrs. Sutton frowns. When I offer her the book back, she takes it and holds it protectively against her chest. "I'm sorry, too. I'd forgotten how hard it can be to learn even the basics, out there."

If she only knew, I think. "With all due respect, Mrs. Sutton, you can't eat books. If you've any spare vegetables, I'd like those instead. If you still want me to answer your question, I mean."

"I see..." Mrs. Sutton says. "I've got some mushrooms and cherry tomatoes here." She opens the water cooler and pulls out a handful of each.

"Thank you, ma'am," I say respectfully, taking out a hard plastic container and removing the lid for her to drop the food into. "I'm all ears." Maybe now we can get down to business, and see why Mrs. Sutton is so set on getting an answer out of me.

She closes the cooler and clears her throat. "The... The Trainers came to visit us a few days ago, asking about you... They wanted to know if we had scheduled a meeting with you, but we told them no. They said..." she hesitates, as if convincing herself that it's all right to tell me this, "They said they were investigating disappearances. Disappearances of their Trainers. They... they think they're dead."

The woman's eyes have taken on a haunted look, and I take a moment to remind myself that she lives a very different life from the rest of the world, to be so affected by the mere idea of someone dying. The rest of us? We live with the reality of death hanging over us like a fucking cloud.

"And?" I say impassively.

"The Grayout gang doesn't know who did it, and they wanted me to help them trap you so they could ask you questions. I know them, though... and I don't want you getting hurt. So my question is: did you do it?"

For an impulsive moment, I find myself wishing I could say yes... But Mrs. Sutton's already purchased the truth from me; and besides, a reputation for honesty is valuable, so I don't make a habit of lying unless it's going to benefit me greatly. "No," I respond, "And I don't know who did, though I was hoping you would."

"I see." Mrs. Sutton straightens, most of the suppressed fear leaving her eyes. It makes more sense, now, why she's been so afraid this whole time; being in the same room with anyone capable of killing a Trainer is frightening on a very instinctual level, though logically she probably knows I could beat her handily in a fight regardless. "Then you'd best be going."

"Hold on," I say. "I'll go, but only after I've got answers to a couple questions of my own. Do you know exactly what happened to the Trainers? Anything about what they looked like?"

"I..." Mrs. Sutton's gaze locks with mine, and I can tell from the resignation mixed with irritation in her eyes that she knows I've got her over a barrel; she likely wants me out of her house so that her family can be safe, but if I refuse to leave she can't force me. "I know that they found one body... that he looked drained, whatever that means. It's the only description I overheard."

"All right. One last thing," I say. "Is there anything you know about other ways the Grayouts are trying to find me, or about any other suspects?"

"Nothing. I only know about the two camping out at my house. You think they tell me anything?" the woman asks, her voice still calm but anger sparking in her eyes. A moment later, the anger fades to irritation again, and she continues speaking in a deliberately patient tone. "I'm sorry. I understand that you're just looking out for yourself, and you're a good Runner for us and the others around here; if I knew anything else, I'd tell you. But that's it. I swear."

Offhandedly taking this opportunity to push the plastic container of vegetables into an empty space in my backpack, I nod appreciatively. It's pleasant to work with someone who understands how necessity works, even if she's never had to live with starvation or the fear of imminent death. "Do you have any further need of my services at this time?" I ask in a professional tone. When Mrs. Sutton shakes her head, I continue, "I'll come back and check on you in a month, then. Tie a white cloth to somewhere near your door and I'll come inside to talk."

"I understand," she says, her eyes relaxing as it becomes clear that I'm about to leave. "And, girl?"


"For what it's worth, I hope you stay safe."

"So do I," I respond curtly.

Then I turn and walk back up the stairs, emerging into the long corridor with its tattered brown-and-red rug and long-disused light fixtures. I step quickly toward the doorway to the entrance hall, but a trace of movement in the corner of my eye draws my glance just before I step through it.

A pink-skinned, chubby creature is standing at the far end of the corridor, right in front of the house's front door. Its body is shaped like that of a huge fat salamander standing on two legs and coming to about my height, but it has yellow markings around its mouth and protruding nose, and long, flat yellow scales covering its lower belly like plate mail. Behind it, the bipedal creature drags a huge, grey shellfish shaped like a four-foot-long spiral shell, attached to its tail by sharp teeth that ooze with some kind of colourless fluid. The animal looks like nothing nature has ever produced; I recognize it instantly as the "composite Pokémon" known as Slowbro.

Unfortunately, the thing belongs to Marty, and it is infamous amongst the Warrens for its prowess in sensory manipulation. It can render people invisible or steal their senses, allowing for the capture of unsuspecting teams of scavengers— men and women whose lookouts would normally have seen the gang members coming and given the signal to scatter. Lookouts do no good when your assailants sneak up on you invisible and inaudible, so, thanks to the creature I'm staring in the face, the Grayouts have managed to expand their force of slave workers to never-before-seen proportions.

I take all this in with just a glance before turning to run, but almost instantly I feel something happen to my mind... and my senses of sight and hearing are suddenly ripped away. My vision tunnels for half a second, then blacks out entirely, and every sound disappears, right down to the distant rumbling sound of the autumn wind against the outside of the house.

I stagger into one wall of Mrs. Sutton's entrance hall, feeling the sting of my bandaged left arm hitting the wall but not hearing or seeing anything. I feel a faint vibration in the floor through the thin soles of my leather boots, from somewhere behind me and to my left, indicating that the Slowbro is advancing towards me with languor appropriate to its name. But its slow pace isn't going to benefit me if I'm unable to see or hear well enough to run away; I fight against a rising panic, telling myself that this blind-and-deaf state can't be permanent. I just have to get far enough away from the Pokémon that its powers can't affect me any more...

I lurch forward down the hallway, keeping my left hand against the wall and using it to guide me, and walking more steadily with each step as I get the hang of not trying to use my sight to balance. I take it a step at a time, trying to ignore the progress of the dragging shellfish on the floors as I leave it behind... Step... Step... Step... Step...

As I take my fifth step, the texture of the wall changes, and I can feel the surface of the living room door under my fingertips. I fumble for the doorknob, then turn it, pulling the door open but nearly overbalancing. I steady myself by seizing the doorknob with both hands, then feel my way across the door and through the doorway, pulling it shut behind me. The lack of a sound makes me nervous, and I reach back and pull at the door's knob to make sure it's closed. Fortunately, it is.

I can feel a little bit of wind blowing in my face: the small amount that gets through the living room shutters. From what little memory I have of this room, the windows are on the right-hand wall, and there's a couch somewhere between the door and the windows... but that's all I remember. I move off in that direction, one shuffling step at a time, hands outstretched low in front of me to avoid bumping into the couch. My hand hits something soft at the same time as my foot hits something harder— one of the sofa's legs. I stifle a yelp of pain and grit my teeth, shuffling my way around the sofa to the right, and proceeding in the direction the wind is coming from.

All of a sudden, my sense of hearing returns, and I can hear the wind... As well as a faint scraping sound, audible through the wall of the living room. The Slowbro is in the hallway outside. Feeling around for the source of the slight creaking the shutters make as they resist the wind, I find the latch and swing them quietly open.

Now's the moment of truth. I'm out of options and I have to hurry; I can only hope the Trainers aren't nearby, or at least that they're looking the other way. I climb over the window sill and carefully drop the couple of feet to the empty flower bed outside. Then, throwing caution to the wind, I begin to speedily shuffle out into the cleared space surrounding the house, my feet shifting small chunks of concrete but fortunately not encountering anything too substantial. I just have to get far enough away...!

I hear a shout from somewhere to my right, though with the wind blowing from me towards the sound I can't judge the distance accurately.

"Th... That's it! The signal!" I recognize Marty's shrill, stuttering voice.

"What signal? Shut th'fuck up an' tell me whatcha see!" Dorian shouts back grumpily.

"Over there, by the d-d... By the d... door! The flashing light!"

"Fuckin' stupid signal, why couldn't he just message ya with his damn mind?" complains Dorian loudly.

Marty ignores him. "Hey, look, the door's opening. It's my 'bro! Hey! Slowbro! What's up, why'd you signal?"

I shuffle faster, smacking my shin painfully against a protruding piece of concrete but stumbling straight over it and continuing on. It sounds like I'm just about out of time...

"Wha? Fuckin' pair a dumbasses, I swear ta God! Tha girl's here somewhere, an' yer stupid creature's lettin' her escape!" Dorian shouts, his voice sounding more distant as though he's looking around wildly while he talks. Stretching one foot out in front of me for a second to make sure the ground is clear, I drop flat, but continue crawling; anything to get far enough away from that fucking Poké—

A flicker of late afternoon light appears in the centre of my field of view, illuminating a small, foot-tall pile of wood and concrete debris. I can't tell how far away it is, with nothing to compare to; but I crawl for it as fast as I can go, scanning up and down with my tiny tunnel of vision to ensure that there's a clear space between me and it; fortunately, there is. As I crawl forward, away from the house and the Slowbro, my tunnel vision slowly lifts, and I glance to my right to see...

The two Trainers are running towards me, Dorian's multiple layers of winter clothing bouncing up and down in the lead while Marty follows, his broken-zippered purple windbreaker and baggy black ski pants flapping in the wind. I leap to my feet and dash off in the opposite direction, which the angle of the sun tells me is northwest. My nearest personal safehouse is a long distance off in that direction, but there is one hidden place nearby that I can go to... But only if I can get far enough ahead that I won't lead these two Trainers right to it.

The men's angry shouts fall behind slowly as I dash away from them, not even bothering to look back, but another sound grows louder: a deep rumble that comes from the ground more than from any direction. In fact, if I didn't know better I'd almost say...

Oh, shit!

I leap to my left, getting out of the way just in time as a pair of wickedly sharp metal spear-points burst from the solid concrete where I was just standing. The chrome-coloured blades are followed almost immediately by a huge metallic forehead-plate and hinged jaw, like a steel biker's helmet with a jagged spike protruding from the front, plates of neck armour fanning out behind it, and two holes in the forehead: holes from which those pointy spears— the creature's horns— emerge.

With a powerful thrashing motion that sends branching cracks through the concrete in all directions from its hole, the Pokémon digs itself the rest of the way out of the ground, clambering onto the surface and revealing its true, terrifying size: it stands almost seven feet tall on two legs, and its monstrous, dinosaur-like body is composed of heavy slabs of dark grey stone— except for the metal head and two rings of silver metal armouring its elbows and knees. Two blunt-ended spikes of the grey rock extend from its shoulders, each 'hand' ends in three wicked silver metal claws, and glowing blue eyes glare at me from under the overhanging brow of its helmetlike head.

I can't read those eyes. I can see emotions in people and animals through their eyes, and in both cases the level of intelligence doesn't seem to matter... But Pokémon are different. They're not fucking natural, and they don't operate by the same rules; they seem to somehow just resist being read. I can't explain it any other way. It creeps me out, and I hate it. Even back when I was a slave, I didn't like dealing with the Trainers' companions; I used to trade Pokémon-feeding chores to other slaves for harder, more taxing labours, just to avoid having to interact with the damn things.

The aggression written plainly across this Pokémon's body language is clear, though; not only is every part of its huge, seven-foot frame designed for a brawl (right down to the metal elbow and knee "pads" and the shoulder spikes,) its arms and three-clawed hands are spread menacingly wide and its battle-ready crouch indicates that it could spring at any moment once it sees which way I'm going to run.

I don't think so much as I react; in a split second, my mind cycles through every available option— most of which consist of running in one direction or other and praying I don't get squashed— and settles almost instantly on the one that leaves me the greatest chance of survival. I reach into the hidden pocket on the inside waistband of my pants, a pocket I've sewn into every pair I've owned since I escaped my captors three years ago. I've only had occasion to use the contents one other time since my encounter with Steelbird; every day of my life, the three— and later two— remaining walnut-sized seeds have been a subtly comforting pressure against the front of my right hip bone, reminding me that I have an escape route that's never failed me.

I lift the walnut-sized object to my mouth and spit on it, then lob it underhanded at the monstrosity looming five feet away from me. The huge creature, moving with surprising speed for such a bulky animal, tries to bat it aside with one clawed hand, but the seed sticks in between two of the slabs of stone that make up the surface of its forearm. A second passes wherein the creature, spurred on by my apparently offensive action, gathers itself to leap... But it's too late. Vines begin to spew forth from the beast's arm like jets of water, wrapping ropelike around that arm and racing to cover the rest of its body. The seed itself could never have held so much mass; as far as I can tell, the seed draws the energy to grow directly from its target, producing the mass as if from nowhere in that quasi-magical way Pokémon-related things sometimes do.

I've seen enough; I turn and run, due west, leaving the huge creature to be entangled by vines that seem to sense their prey's rocky nature, digging viciously into each crevice and crack in the monster's dark grey body while mostly ignoring its metal head. For several minutes, the beast's roars of frustration follow me, roars that are echoed much more faintly by Dorian as he hurries up to his Pokémon companion. Glancing back, I can see him trying to wrestle the vines away from his monster's body while Marty dances about anxiously nearby; smiling grimly, I can't help but hope with a certain vindictiveness that the vines tear both of those fuckers apart.

But I'm not sticking around to see whether that happens. I've got my head start; time to capitalize on it.

~~~~~~~~~~13:30, NOVEMBER 26~~~~~~~~~~

A few minutes later, I'm still hurrying towards my destination— heading northwest now, towards the border of Grayout territory— and praying that the two Trainers haven't rallied themselves to come after me yet. Up ahead, the landmark I'm looking for can already be seen.

Four huge, ruined walls, each at least a half mile long, thirty feet high at the least torn-down spots, mark the skeleton of what was once a truly massive library. I can't help but shiver every time I walk up to this relic of the past, imagining what it must have looked like when it stood. It boggles the mind that a place that big could have existed; large-scale construction is a thing of the past, and where would you even get all that metal and wood? Especially to construct a building that doesn't have any practical use— a house full of books doesn't feed anyone, and apparently no one even slept there at night! It's times like this that I let my practical frame of mind slip a little, and think wishfully... I'd really love to have lived my life in a world like that... A world where a bunch of people could make a building that huge and not have it even serve a practical purpose, and no one would go hungry because of it. Just imagine...

...No. Thinking like that gets depressing after a while, when I follow the thoughts to their logical conclusion and remind myself that the world I'm fantasizing about will never exist again. I chase the wistful thoughts out of my head, refocusing on the world I do live in. The gutted building isn't nearly so impressive any more; the walls are pretty much all that's left, and even the detritus covering the concrete foundation has been picked clean of any pieces of wood or paper large enough to burn. But underneath that concrete expanse littered with burnt wood and smashed stone, there's a secret that may prove my salvation if those Trainers are giving chase.

In one corner of the huge lot, hidden beneath a fallen, moisture-warped and fire-damaged wooden door that hasn't been taken away because it's too heavy to carry, there's a five-foot-deep pit in the concrete, interrupted by a set of six steps leading down to a doorway. I shift the door with some effort, then walk down a few of the stairs and pull it back over the hole, shutting out daylight and disguising the secret entrance.

I retrieve a candle and a spark-maker— a piece of flint held against the bottom of a rough metal cup by a pair of fused metal rods— from one of the many side pouches on my backpack, and light the candle by squeezing the rods so that the flint rakes across the cup and rains sparks on the wick. In the light of the candle, I see the familiar concrete tunnel that disappears into the darkness of the library's basement.

Walking through the empty doorway and into that tunnel, I finally relax, glad beyond words that the Trainers didn't follow me closely enough to prevent me from coming to this place. If they had, I'd have had to just keep going; it would be a disaster if they found out about this entrance to the library's basement. At the other end of this tunnel is a secret place, a throwback to times gone by that I consider my one guilty pleasure.

I emerge onto a walkway, part of a network of such walkways that hang above the storage hall. Black-painted metal railings line each walkway to prevent anyone from accidentally falling off the narrow paths, because the cement floor of the storage hall is more than twenty-five feet below. Massive industrial shelving stretches from that floor to almost level with the walkways, and on those shelves are boxes upon boxes of books. The building above used to be a bookstore as well as a library, a place where you could either borrow or purchase books. This is where all the books that weren't in the upper floor are stored— overstock, duplicates and the like. The aisles between the shelves have "forklifts," machinery meant for lifting and lowering the boxes, which run on gas and still work... Though that'll only last as long as the gas does. It hasn't given out yet, since they're used once in a blue moon by... Well...

I discovered this place about three years ago, shortly after I fled the Grayouts' hideout. It was here that I learned to read and write (I lied through my teeth to Mrs. Sutton earlier about not being able to.) It's here that I decided that I wanted more out of life than just food and water. Without what I've learned here, I'd probably be dead many times over... But I didn't find this place or learn those things on my own; I had a little help.

"Ah, Larissa! You've returned!" The tremulous, aged male voice reverberates only slightly in the vast space below, the echoes dampened by the shelves with their endless boxes of books. I turn to my right to find an elderly man carrying a candle, wrapped in a threadbare black housecoat over black sweatpants and a white t-shirt, hobbling towards me along the web of pathways from the direction of the mattress in a concrete alcove that serves him as sleeping quarters. This old-timer is the closest thing to a father I've ever had, and the name he prefers is Old Adam.

"Yes, Old Adam, I have," I say, smiling ever so slightly. "I'd intended to stop here today in any case, but my... schedule got bumped up."

"Ah, good! I'd been wondering when you'd return, girl... I've found the next book in that series you were reading!"

I groan. "You didn't have to do that! I could have gone and found it myself, and you can't just go clambering all over the shelves at your age!"

Old Adam smiles. "But your time is valuable, whereas mine... Ah, I've too much of it, just sitting down here in the dark, reading and watering my mushrooms."

Old Adam grows mushrooms in the smaller, disused storage rooms deeper in the basement. Some of them, which he brought here more than ten years ago when he still scavenged for a living, glow faintly until they're picked, which is valuable because it lets him read to his heart's content without needing to use candles. Since he can't subsist on just mushrooms, he trades the surplus to me and to another Runner— all I know is that she's a girl and that her Run picks up where mine leaves off, to the west of here— for necessities. Even an old man has to do something to make ends meet... Though I must admit, I always give him more food than the mushrooms are worth. He's done a lot for me, right from that day three years ago when I was camped out in the library ruins, shivering and alone... and he chose to shift the door that hides the entrance to his personal Warren. He  invited me in, even though I was just some kid he didn't know. He offered me a place to stay, and food if I helped him with chores like watering his mushrooms and scavenging for other edibles. I pretty much owe him my life.

"I've got some food I can trade for that book," I tell him. As always, packed away in my backpack is some spare food that I set aside for whenever my day's Run will take me past the library. I wouldn't normally make this kind of completely impractical trade, but Old Adam gets special treatment that I justify as many ways as I can— such as the fact that I can use this place as a hideaway in a pinch.   "I also need to ask... Can I stay here tonight? I've... run into some trouble. I'll supply my own food and sleep somewhere out of the way."

"Certainly," Old Adam says, his smile fading as he shoots me a look of concern. "It's been some time since you last stayed here, but as you're well aware, space is something I've plenty of. You can set up wherever is comfortable, Larissa."

I choose to let a relieved smile show through, an expression that feels strange on my (usually carefully neutral) face. "Thank you. I'll tell you everything later."

"A full account is no less than I expect, as payment for staying here in a home of knowledge!" Old Adam says, a beaming smile returning to his wrinkled face. "We'll see if your spoken grammar has improved, and we'll work on that tendency of yours to omit detail!"

I roll my eyes with mock exasperation, but somewhere in my heart there's an unfamiliar warm feeling. It's as though the two and a half years since I stopped living here never happened; maybe this is what "home" feels like... even if I can never let it be permanent, since this place's distance from the suburb farms and its single exit make it extremely impractical as a home base for Running. It would be far too easy to be cornered here.

Still... one more thing to imagine during those wistful moments. But just imagine. Reality is too harsh for more than that.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 18:40, NOVEMBER 26~~~~~~~~~~

Night is falling, Dorian and Marty ain't back, and Boss is livid.

"Everyone out!" she's shoutin', sendin' Trainers and normals alike scatterin'. Steelbird's shrieks, backin' her up, are enough to get everyone practically panicked. "No one gets to sleep in HQ 'til that li'l bitch's found!!"

I'm already safely at the exit o' the big-ass concrete parkade what's host to Grayout HQ; I dash out before anybody can trample me. I guess bein' the whole gang's punchin' bag has its perks— you know when someone important is in a bad mood, and you're ready for when it goes sour.

Everyone's spillin' outta HQ fast as they can, which is pretty fast given the big doorway at the bottom o'the parkade. A few last stragglers trickle out... then a big-ass wind, Steelbird's signature move, blasts out o'the buildin', sendin' a bunch o'garbage flyin' out the door, followed by a couple normals who got trapped in there as everyone scrambled for the exit. The two normals flail their arms in a funny way as that wind carries them out the door way too fast... then they land with two nasty CRACK! noises, and stop movin'.

The big group o'people outside HQ goes deathly silent. Nobody can stop lookin' at them motionless normals. Boss walks out o'the place, with the light o' the settin' sun turnin' everythin' the creepiest bright red color, even her grey leather jacket: she looks like she's covered in blood, head to toe. Her shoulder-length black hair blows in the breeze, and I swear you can hear each strand fuckin' movin', it's that quiet.

She speaks up, and we hang on every word. "Not a single person other'n me is allowed in that buildin' unless it's to tell me you got the girl. If you get tired, you sleep wherever you fall down exhausted, and if'n ya choose a dumbass spot and get yer ass shanked, it ain't my problem. To anyone who ain't up to speed... Dorian and Marty are missin', and they ain't at the rest house where I told 'em to stay. Until somebody brings that girl to me— alive— and I make 'er beg me for death once she tells me who done sent 'er, y'all ain't got no right to my pro-tec-shun."

Murmurs meet that statement, and she fixes us— all o' us— with the scariest glare you ever done seen. "This shit is gonna destroy the Grayouts if it keeps on, and if the TA's involved then God help us all." Her drawl is gettin' thicker the longer she speaks, a sure sign that we're all in danger. A few brave people start backin' away slowly as she continues, "Y'all are gonna go search till you drop, and if you got a problem with that, talk now, and I'll take it like I would any challenge to my au-thori-tah."

No one speaks.

Boss nods once, real quick. "Good. Now git."

Trainers and normals alike scatter. I start runnin', tryin' to cross paths with somebody, to find someone, anyone, to join up with... but they're all gone too fast, and I'm left runnin' south, away from HQ, alone. I start to tear up, and Buzz, clingin' to my earlobe, makes a tiny comfortin' whirrin' noise in my ear.

"Keep your damn comfort," I growl at him. "I ain't no weakling, I don't need nothin' from you!"

Another noise, this one obviously sarcastic.

"Shut up!" I object. "I don't gotta be a coward to be scared, I got a real reason to be shittin' my pants right about now! There's somethin' out there what maybe took down Dorian and Marty, and it's either this one Pokémon-havin' girl we done heard about, or maybe it's somethin' else, and if I run into it I'm fucked!"

Buzz quiets down, then lets out a tiny little chirp, followed by a small pop o' static. He's sayin' he'll protect me.

"Aww..." I say, smilin' a little even though for a moment there I wanted to cry. "Thanks, little buddy."

I look around, payin' attention to what's around me again. Dark is fallin' already, and I ain't found shit. Maybe it's time to find somewhere safe and hidden. "All right, little buddy, time to hit the hay..." I tell Buzz, all the while wonderin' just how the hell I'm supposed to know where's safe and where ain't. It's not like I ever had to sleep outside the HQ before!

Buzz lets out a forlorn chirp. I feel bad, but I ain't supposed to be all nice with him in HQ... Then it occurs to me: this ain't HQ. "Aw, don't worry, everythin'll be better soon, Buzz."

My little buddy whirrs in my ear, soundin' doubtful.

"Well, maybe the Grayout gang ain't long for this world, but I damn well ain't gonna let that stop me. Maybe someday we'll go it together, just you 'n' me— how 'bout that, little buddy?"

A tiny spark flies outta my ear, and Buzz makes a sound I ain't heard before, kinda like a purr. I can't help but smile again.

"You like that? Go off somewhere, live in the forest, never have to get pushed around again?"

Buzz's happy purrin' intensifies.

"Yeah... It'd be nice, wouldn' it..." I say all quiet-like.

I ain't gonna tell him it'll never happen. I done heard the forests are dangerous: full o' wild 'mons and, sometimes, even wilder Trainers. The rumours say some forest Trainers done started cannibalizin' tresspassers! And even if there ain't really crazies in there, I still ain't got the know-how to live off a bunch o' plants. Prob'ly poison myself. The Warrens're out, too: if you ain't got the powers to find normals and the strength to take what you need from 'em, you ain't got shit. And no normal's gonna ever trust you if you just say you ain't in a gang and you don't wanna hurt 'em. Nah, there ain't no way to survive out there without a gang, and anythin' else is wishful thinkin'.

But still. It'd be real nice, not havin' to answer to nobody but ourselves... Maybe someday, if Buzz and I get strong and smart enough, we can think o' some way to make that happen, and leave the Grayouts once and for all.

Just imagine, if only I could actually leave all this shit behind!

...Ha. Shouldn' kid myself.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 07:45, NOVEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

It's morning outside— I know because waking myself up every couple of hours throughout the night to go check the sky is a skill I've had to learn, living alone and underground— and I'm eager to be off. Hopefully the Grayouts have lost me, since I'll have simply seemed to disappear as far as the two men following me are concerned... But odds are, if they want me badly enough, they'll be out looking. Either way, I can't afford to stay here much longer; since I had to skip one Warren in yesterday's flight, the people at yesterday's remaining stop, a distance to the south, will be wondering where I am.

"I could use some mushrooms," I'm saying to Old Adam. "Fresh, not dried, if you don't mind— some farmers to the north of here could really use the spores, to start their own basement colony, and the other delivery isn't far from here. I'll pay extra for the hassle of having to go down there and pick them fresh."

We both know that I'm still just trying to justify my generosity, but it helps to have an excuse— I don't like to think of myself as a fucking bleeding heart, and I'm sure as hell not about to try to pay off some imagined debt he's never said I owe him.

"As you wish, my girl," Old Adam says, nodding amiably and smiling for a moment, just a flash of the few teeth he's got left. "But first, indulge an old man. You stayed here through the night for the first time in, what, two years? And you mentioned that yesterday's schedule was... shall we say, accelerated out of necessity? There's a story there, and if I recall, you promised to tell it. Come, talk as we walk, and I'll get those mushrooms for you..."

I tell him about the unexpected hitch in yesterday afternoon's plans, with the appearance of two Grayout trainers lying in wait for me, making sure to pay special attention to my descriptions of people and places— Old Adam's a very picky listener, and he won't hesitate to point out things that are lacking in my narrative, in the interest of forcing me to do it right or not at all. I don't mind; I've never understood people who can't take criticism, and I enjoy opportunities to improve my skills in general... even useless skills like storytelling.

I'm most of the way through the story by the time we reach the bottom of the spiral stairs that connect the walkways to the storage hall floor. "...So, as soon as I got far enough from 'Slow-bro,' I got my sight back. But I'd been spotted! The moment I looked over to where I'd heard the voices, I saw the two men running toward me. I... fought off Dorian's Pokémon, and booked it to the west instead of coming straight here, because wasn't about to lead them in a straight line to the library."

"Is there any reason you're omitting details about exactly how you fought off a Pokémon?" Uncharacteristically, this is the first time Old Adam has interrupted the story, and here's a slight hint of sharpness in his tone. I stop walking. He turns to glance at me, and in the light of our two candles I look into his dark brown eyes and detect something I've never seen there before: suspicion. "That was rather a spot of vagueness in the middle of a detailed story."

My mind races. What is he getting at? I wonder, nervous.

"I used an old trick that I don't tell anyone about," I say evasively, wishing, not for the first time, that I could read a reason for a sentiment or emotion in someone's eyes. "Why?"

"There have been rumours," he responds slowly, as though weighing each word carefully before uttering it, "Rumours that someone or something has been... preying... on Trainers hereabouts."

Ah... now I see, I think, as it all falls into place. "That's the same thing the Trainers were suspecting me of," I murmur, partly to myself, knowing that in the silence of the underground Old Adam will hear me clearly. "That's why they were lying in wait for me at the Suttons' house."

"Then it isn't you?" he inquires, his gaze suddenly surprisingly intense and fixed on mine, searching my eyes for sincerity.

"I'm just a Runner, I'm no match for any Trainer and I know it," I retort with bitter honesty.

Old Adam seems to relax a little, the suspicion slowly disappearing from his eyes, to be replaced with a soft, gentle emotion I don't know the name of but have grown familiar with. It mostly arises in moments when Old Adam is at his most generous, and it draws a similar response from somewhere inside me every time; but I keep that under control. I have absolutely no need for an emotion that makes me generous.

"Why does everyone seem to think I'm behind this bullshit?" I ask, hiding my discomfort behind my aggravation.

"Because,” he says, “It's clear that you dislike the gangs, and equally clear that if... someone... were to give you the power to defeat Trainers, you would use it. I'm glad to know you're not responsible."

"I'm not," I say, my voice still heavy with bitterness. "I wish I had that kind of power. I'd make them pay."

"For what they've done to you?" Old Adam asks, returning to a conversational tone of voice... but there's another strange emotion in his eyes now, and this time it's one that I've never seen before, one I've never experienced myself. That's no good— something this unknown is incomprehensible and might be dangerous, except that it's cool and slow and quiet, like a still pool... Maybe this sentiment is an old-person thing, and I simply haven't lived long enough to feel it? The thought gives me pause, as does every new thing I don't understand... so I consider for a long moment before responding.

"For what they've done to everything," I answer finally, deciding that Old Adam is looking for me to be selfless about this. "They fucked everything up in the... the War, and they didn't fix it afterwards, so now there's no one left who can fix it. That's why I'm pissed, and that's why the gangs can fucking go to hell."

"Hmm." Old Adam gives me a small smile, then breaks eye contact and resumes walking. Somewhere in my gut, I get the uncomfortable feeling that I was just tested... and I don't know if I passed or not. A smile means very little— people use it to set each other at ease, but that doesn't mean Old Adam liked my answer.

The rest of the walk to the small storage rooms, which are at the end of a corridor leading out of the storage hall, is completed in uncomfortable silence— uncomfortable for me, at least. We reach a cold, damp corner where a wide crack in the concrete wall trickles clean water that's been filtered through feet and feet of soil. A plastic painter's bucket, more than half-full of collected water, rests beneath the trickle, with another empty one resting beside it. Old Adam pushes the empty bucket into the place of the half-full, picks up the latter one, and precedes me through the first doorway we come to.

It's been a long time since I've been down here; when I first came to his Warren, Old Adam invited me to stay as long as I needed to, and I helped him with the watering of the mushrooms, but after a few months I moved out into my first safehouse and only visited occasionally, such as when I was near starving or when I had something I'd scavenged to give him in exchange for something more to eat. But this place still feels familiar: on each side, a row of open doorways— the thin metal doors themselves have long since been removed from their hinges to be made into tools— give access to rooms that are empty except for a few dusty shelves and a carpet of white mushrooms that crowd the damp floors and climb up the walls. Up ahead, a faint greenish glow from two of the rooms indicates that those are the ones where the inedible, bioluminescent fungi grow.

"Wait here, please; I'll be but a moment," Old Adam says. He walks to a storage room a few doors down and goes in, disappearing from view. I hear a sloshing noise as he splashes the water on the floor and walls, supplying the moisture the mushrooms need to grow.

I take this opportunity to carefully set down my candle, and swing my backpack off. I dig out the plastic container of vegetables Mrs. Sutton gave me, a similar container of dried cranberries from one of the farms up north, and a bundle of beef jerky. I empty them all into one of the folded-up garbage bags I keep in a side pocket of my backpack, and roll it up into a neat bundle. Another minute or two passes, then the old man returns with the bucket half-full of white mushrooms.

"Here," I say, handing him the bundled-up veggies and meat. Then I transfer the mushrooms from the bucket into the now-empty plastic containers, put on the lids, and stow those in my backpack. "Pleasure doing business with you."

The old man smiles at me, picking up the empty bucket with his free hand as I retrieve my candle. "Likewise, Larissa. It is always good to see you."

I can't help but be glad that he's not angry any more, though logic tells me he shouldn't have any reason to be. Just what was that all about? I get the feeling I'll be thinking about Old Adam's comments for a while if I don't figure this out now, so I decide to just ask straight out. "Why did you seem so disappointed when I said I was angry at Trainers? Don't I deserve to be?"

Old Adam smiles, and in the flickering light of our candles I can see sadness in his eyes. "Ah, I suppose so. Don't mind me, I'm probably just a throwback to a time when hating someone didn't mean you had to kill or injure them. I suppose today's world is different, and I've been left behind like so many other old relics..."

His passive-aggressive tone rubs me the wrong way, which I realize too late was probably his intent. "With all due respect, that's no way to deal with these motherfuckers," I burst out. "Trainers will just keep on living that easy, comfortable life they don't deserve, until someone stops them from breaking the backs of everyone around them for their own comfort. There's no other way for justice to happen, because if you leave them alone, they win by default."

Old Adam's eyes glint, interest replacing his fleeting sadness, and I can see that he's achieved the reaction he was looking for. "Will stopping them make any difference?" he asks me. "Even if someone drove out or killed an entire gang, would life get better? After all, there's no shortage of those eager to take the empty territory and make it their own."

He is, of course, insufferably right, but he's missed the point. "No," I say through gritted teeth, "Nothing would get better, but at least that one gang would get what's coming to them."

"I see. So even if it did no good, if you had the power you would do evil unto them for revenge's sake."

I let my lip curl with the disgust I'm feeling at this condescension— with a bunch of Trainers absolutely salivating to 'do evil unto' me, I'm in no mood to be lectured. "Looks like someone with some power thinks the same way I do, if gang members are turning up half-dead and no one knows who's doing it. I just wish it were me. If wanting someone to hurt the way they've hurt everyone else around them is 'evil,' then I don't want to be good."

Old Adam is nodding and giving me a small tremulous smile, but his eyes don't look pleased. Not angry or sad, though, either; instead, he's got that unfamiliar look again, the one I can't identify. "I can't say I agree with you... but at least you've developed a sense of the difference between justice and spite, even if you've not yet learned to temper justice with mercy."

"Must you always have the last word?" I gripe, still irritated but less so now that he's not being any more condescending than usual; this kind of gentle teasing is normal for Old Adam.

"Always," my mentor retorts.

We arrive back on the walkways above the storage hall, and Old Adam hobbles away to his concrete-alcove dwelling place to drop off the food I brought. When he returns, he's carrying a lovely, mint-condition hardcover book with a brightly decorated plastic sleeve wrapped around it. The cover art is of a man wearing deep blue robes and holding a staff; wisps of sparkling magic swirl in the air around him. He's standing on a floating disk of light that hovers above a huge battlefield where armies of men with mud and blood on their steel armour are clashing far below. Large letters at the top of the cover read: "The Last of the Pathfinders."

Fantasy novels are my guilty pleasure. In the mornings, when the gang patrols are most active and it's too dangerous to go out, I'll spend hours reading. That's where I get most of my vocabulary, and I think that without these books my imagination would have died long ago. So I rationalize my hobby as helping me think outside the box, a skill which has helped me enough times to be worth it... and maybe I'm even right.

"It's lovely," I tell Old Adam as I place it carefully in the remaining space in my backpack, and am rewarded with the old man's beaming smile, as though his earlier disappointment were forgotten completely.

Whispering a brief goodbye to Old Adam, I depart through the tunnel. I can almost feel the world's weight settling back on my shoulders with every step away from the old library basement.

~~~~~~~~~~08:30, NOVEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

The morning sunlight assaults my eyes as I carefully shift the door an inch, and I wait for my vision to adjust before looking out through the crack I've created. The ruins are quiet, and nothing moves. Lifting the door a little more, I slither out of the hole and let the warped wood settle back over the steps, making sure that any hint of the basement's entrance is completely covered. Satisfied, I step back... and nearly jump out of my skin.

Standing no more than ten feet away, hidden from me until now behind a pile of debris, is a young man wearing black sweatpants and a grey t-shirt that marks him as the property of the Grayouts. He's poking dejectedly at some detritus on the ground with a stick; his back is to me, and he clearly hasn't noticed I'm here yet. No way he's a Grayout slave, though; not only is he unsupervised, he's chubby, and I know for a fact that no one eats well enough to get like that unless they're a Trainer. As I stand here stupidly, frozen, wondering whether my best bet is to dash away or quietly slink into hiding, he turns around and almost jumps out of his skin.

"Oh motherfuckin'...! Who in the hell—" he bursts out, but cuts himself off, eyes widening. "Y... You!"

Thinking quickly, I hold out one hand toward him in the most commanding and magical way I can think of, making full use of the threat of whatever this gang thinks I've been doing to their Trainers. "Don't come any closer!"

He frowns, seeming more confused than scared. "What? Ain't it you, Rizz? I thought ya were fuckin' gone from this here city ages ago."

Where do I know this person from? I wonder to myself. He doesn't look familiar, but he knows my name, and his accent is local. "Don't come any closer," I repeat threateningly.

The young man stares at me, mild surprise behind his brown eyes. "What's wrong, Larissa? It's just me, ain't it?"

An image flashes through my mind, a three-year-old picture of this same pair of brown eyes meeting mine for a brief second as he grabs a vine rope, preventing me from plummeting to my death. Oh. Well, shit... it's bait boy. What even is the kid's name? Boleyn? "Oh, sorry... I didn't recognize you for a moment, there," I say, stalling for time and trying to force a smile.

"Yeah, well, I'm a lot different, now," Bo-something replies, looking pleased with himself. "Thanks to you."

"What?" I ask, confused.

"Well, y'see, when they done caught me, instead o' gettin' mad, they done said they liked the backbone I done shown by runnin' for it," he explains. "I kinda took the credit for the whole thing, since... well, you weren't there, so I guessed you was gone free."

"And?" I'm still racking my brains for the best way out of this, because sooner or later he's going to realize he should be capturing me. His Pokémon— whatever it is— hasn't made an appearance yet, so it's not safe to use my last remaining leech-vine seed...

"And they done gave me a Pokémon! Buzz ain't the strongest, but he's a good buddy and I ain't wanted for anythin' since."

Of course. The answer to everything: become a Trainer, live on the labour of everyone and anyone who can't fight back against you, and all your problems are over. What a fucking stroke of luck, Bo-kid. "Good for you," I say, unable to keep the sourness out of my voice.

"Yeah... Good for me," the boy says, a bit of a harder tone to his voice. "Looks like you missed out. Sendin' me downstairs, towards the Trainers, while you booked it the other way."

Damnit. I'd hoped he wouldn't have caught on to that. "I did what I had to, Boleyn."

The boy pauses. "It's... It's Borden." He looks at me, really looks me in the eye, for the first time since noticing I was here, and I catch a glimpse of something snapping. Then he breaks eye contact, before I have a chance to really figure out what's going on in his head.

"Y'know," he says in a light, conversational tone, looking everywhere but at me, "This whole time... I kinda done held onto the hope you really cared, back then. Hoped you didn' plan on usin' me as bait, just did it once things got so it were the only way. Even now, I was really thinkin', honest-like, 'bout just runnin' off with you and gettin' as far away from the Grayouts as we could. But, see... when I was thinkin' that, I kinda assumed you'd, y'know, remember my name??"

"Borden, I—"

"Shut up!" Borden meets my eyes again, and the fiery rage in them forces me a step back despite myself. "I cared 'bout you! I went an' risked my life 'cause you needed my help, even though I were terrified the entire fuckin' time! When you told me t'go down the stairs, I weren' so dumb as you thought! I done known what it meant! And I did it 'cause I fuckin' wanted to!"

The young man clenches his fists, knuckles turning white. Is... is he crying? "And you never done cared enough t'check if I were alive, not once! You never thought I was important enough t'even go rememberin' my fuckin' name!" he yells, his voice growing raw with how loudly he's shouting. "Was I just some throw-away thing t'you? I THOUGHT YOU CARED!"

But I didn't, I think detachedly, feeling nothing but hollowness. Back then, I never once thought of the boy who accompanied me in my escape as anything more than bait, for in case something went wrong. But he was a person, he has been this entire time... and on top of all that, he's right. He thought he was my friend, but I threw him aside like a discarded tool without even a word of explanation, and I never looked back.

Sure, he never asked straight out for friendship... and it's not like I'd have owed him anything even if he had, but... didn't he deserve simple, basic respect as a human being? And I didn't even give him that, because the whole time, to me, he was only bait.

Only bait. Bait, bait, bait, bait, bait, bait, bait...

"Stop it!" I shout, more to myself than at Borden, just to shut up that hateful little voice inside me. I still feel nothing— shouldn't I be feeling something?— but I know I should at least act like I do, to minimize the damage. "You're right, I messed up. I never thought of you as a person with real feelings, not once, and that was wrong! I'm... I'm sorry," I finish in a quiet voice.

Borden stares at me woodenly, his eyes glassy and lacking any sort of emotion. Those eyes look how I feel inside. "Do me a favor?" he suggests, "Pick up that little piece o' burned-up wood by your foot."

I glance down in confusion, my thoughts still whirling. Is this a trap? Nothing seems to be in any way unnatural about the burnt fragment of charcoal, though, so I kneel down and pick it up.

"Now break it."

I snap the stick of charcoal cleanly in half.

"Now apologize to it."

I look at the charcoal and mouth the words, "I'm sorry," meaning them for Borden.

"Is it still broken?"

My anger kindles at the childish attempt at a lesson, and my gaze snaps up to fix him with my best glare. "Okay, I get it. Sorry isn't enough. But I can't do anything to fix what I did wrong, and what's even the big deal? You obviously love being a Trainer."

"Being a Trainer is shit," Borden says bluntly, "Unless yer the strongest. Me 'n' Buzz... Well, we ain't. Now I think 'bout it, it's only 'cause o' Garth that they even let me live; and I spend more time forcin' myself to forget 'bout everythin' what's wrong with my life than I do actually livin' it. Now, I think it's 'bout time you come with me."

"What?" I ask, with a sinking feeling in my chest— the first real emotion I've felt this whole time. I distantly wonder what's wrong with me. "You don't mean...?"

"I didn' expect you t'be the Runner we done been lookin' for, but I got my orders. Dorian and Marty never came back from the Sutton house, and they was after you when they disappeared. Now, you can walk back t'HQ with me, or I can drag your unconscious body," Borden says flatly, that ugly edge of anger sharpening his voice so the sound of it cuts at me with every word. "Your choice."

A jolt of panic rushes through me, replacing that sinking feeling with pure terror. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, okay?? I know you're mad, but you can't take me back there!" I shout hysterically. "Please, I didn't do anything to those Trainers, you can just let me go—"

"Goodbye, Larissa," Borden says quietly, cutting me off.

I'm just turning to run when I feel something pinch me on the back of my neck, under my hair. The pinch and a faint whirring noise from somewhere back there are all the warning I get that something's wrong; half a second later I hear a loud SNAP! and everything goes black.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 08:50, NOVEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

True to what I said, I throw her on a piece of wood and drag her the whole fuckin' way to HQ. I thought it'd make me feel better, to see her get some bruises from bumping against stuff on the way back, but all that happens is I feel even shittier by the time we get there. Anyone ever tells you revenge is sweet, you call him a fuckin' liar and kick his teeth in.

The place is deserted when I get there. Nobody'd dare come within a mile of this place without the Runner— who I'd been damn surprised to find out was actually Larissa, on account they don't tell me goddamn anything— nice and fuckin' well captured.

I drag the girl in through the door and into Boss's audience chamber. She heard me comin' in, and her eyebrows just about get lost in her hair when she sees it's me who done captured her super-important prize. So why ain't I proud of myself?

"This the right bitch?" I ask Boss shortly, too fuckin' tired to care about being respectful.

It's obvious boss ain't too interested in nitpickin' my language right about now, neither. She leaps outta her seat and grabs Larissa's face. "This's 'er!" she whisper-shouts ta me. "Well done, kid, well fuckin' done!! Steelbird, go let e'rybody know they're good ta come back 'n' hang aroun' outside, just don' let 'em in 'ere yet. You 'n' I got some interrogation to do when the girl wakes up, 'n' we're gonna want some privacy!"

Steelbird flies out through a window, and Boss turns to me, her face suddenly damn ugly with a threat. "You better not'a used too much power, hey? She dies, I gotta make an example o' yer sorry ass."

My heart just about stops. "Buzz's... he's pretty good with usin' the right 'mount o' lightnin', uhh, Boss," I choke out, trying not to let my damn traitor voice shake too much.

Just as quickly as she went all threatening, Boss is totally happy again. "Good t'hear. Hope for yer sake yer righ'!" she says as she grabs a rope from some supplies in a corner. She starts trussin' poor unconscious Larissa up good, tyin' her head, hands, legs and feet with rope wrapped tight-like around one o' them concrete pillars. "Anyhow, since you done so well, why don' I tell you a bit about all this while we wait for the girl to wake up?"

"Uhh, sure. Boss."

"You heard o' the TA?" Boss asks me, sitting down on her big throne of metal stuff.

"Yeah, Boss. A little. They're some kinda huge gang what's takin' over some cities up north and west, right?"

Boss grins wide, like that's the funniest shit she ever done heard. "Yeah, somethin' like that. TA stands fer Trainer's Association, they got some prop-a-gander—" Boss drawls the word extra hard for emphasis— "...'bout gettin' rid o' gangs an' givin' equal rights ta normals an' Trainers... Dunno why they're tryin' to get the useless normals on their side, 'stead o' offerin' us shit, the dumbasses... but yeah, yer right; they're just this big gang what's actin' all high 'n' mighty, an' they know we ain't lettin' 'em just roll over us.

"That's where the girl comes in. I'm bettin' they done given her some kind o' Pokémon— dunno what— 'n' sent her ta soften us up. I'm gonna find out where them TA sons o' bitches are, 'n' what 'mon they gave 'er."

"But what if it ain't her doin' this shit? If'n she's so dangerous, how come I could take 'er down?"

"Ya got the element o' surprise, I'm guessin'," Boss says blunt-like. "Besides, who else's it gonna be? She obviously hates our guts. She's a Runner, but she ain't supplyin' us jack shit, and she don' want our protection. Motherfuckin' TA would love a recruit like that."


"Shut up," Boss says, cuttin' me off. "I think she just moved."

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 10:00, NOVEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

I wake up slowly to the distant sound of voices, my head aching abominably and the rest of me feeling like I've been dragged behind a fucking horse for eight miles. The first thing I focus on is the ground right in front of my eyes; it's covered with old yellow paint that's faded away in parts to reveal the grey concrete underneath. There's the feeling of concrete along my spine; I seem to be leaning against a wall. I blink a few times, and more comes into focus. I'm in a horribly familiar place; every concrete pillar holding up the cement roof is just like I remember it, and the windows, nothing more than holes in the thick concrete wall, are letting in just enough early afternoon light to illuminate a scene plucked straight from years' worth of waking nightmares.

A woman is sitting on a 'throne' of sorts, an oversized seat made of fused-together metal reinforcing bars of the kind that would be wrenched from shattered concrete. One of the throne's arms expands into a giant, makeshift "perch" on which a particular Pokémon is known for resting. The woman has straight, greasy black hair that falls to shoulder height, and she's wearing a grey leather jacket with fur lining the neck and sleeves. In the light from the windows, I can see a nasty expression on her face as she glares straight at me.

"Looks like she's comin' 'round, eh, boy?" the Boss says in her thick Southern drawl.

"Y...Yeah," says Borden's voice from somewhere to my left. I try to move my head to look in his direction, but can't for some reason. He sounds shaken, but that's probably got more to do with being in Boss's presence than any kind of remorse for dragging me into my worst nightmare.

"Uh-huh. Well done, you actually brought 'er back alive, like I said, so I don't hafta make an example o' you or nothin'. Now git lost."

Borden scrams, leaving me alone with the closest thing there is to the Wicked Witch of Amarillo. Normally, the ground floor of the Grayout HQ would be bustling with people, but I'm guessing everybody's been banished outside for now, as Boss has been known to demand from time to time in her occasional fits of rage. I take stock of my assets quickly, and find that my forehead, neck, hands and feet are secured by a rope that wraps tightly around the pillar at my back... and my backpack is nowhere to be seen. I can't move, can't even look around freely, but even worse, my bag of tricks is gone: I feel practically naked without it. The only thing that keeps me from panicking instantly is the feeling of my final, secret weapon— my last remaining leech seed— sewn into its secret pocket against my hip. I've got no way to get it out or use it, but at least it's still there, a kind of talisman warding off the sensation of complete helplessness.

"Well... well... well," Boss drawls ever so slowly, leaning forward in her throne. "Ain't we got a prize here. D'ya know, we been lookin' fer ya more'n a week now?"

I meet her gaze and say nothing. Frustratingly, the biggest window in this part of the parkade's ground floor is behind her, and her face is in shadow, so I can't read anything from her eyes.

She seems disappointed that I didn't take the bait, though, because she continues with a distinct tone of irritation to her voice. "Well, now that we got ya, I gotta few questions fer ya. We're gonna have a proper ol' girl talk now, woman ta woman, an' yer not gonna lie ta me, got that? If ya do, I'll know, an' this—" she twitches a finger, and a steel blade flashes past my face, drawing a line of hot pain across my left cheek— "...Will seem like a love tap. Nod if'n ya unnerstand."

I glare; she twitches another finger, and this time I feel the wind of Steelbird's wingbeat from somewhere near my head; a split second later, the razor-sharp wingtip slices a second line into my cheek.

"Un-der-stand...? Or... no...?" Boss asks, slowly, as if she were talking to somebody mentally impaired.

Biting my lip to keep from letting out a whimper of pain, I nod yes.

"Good. Now, tell me. Who sent ya?"

"No one," I say quietly.

I don't even see the signal; a third deep gash is sliced into my cheek— the surprise of it somehow making it hurt even more than the previous two— and I thrash involuntarily for a moment, biting my lip almost hard enough to draw blood.

"No, really," Boss drawls in a bored tone, "Who sent ya? An' answer using 'ma'am,' ya stupid li'l bitch."

"No one!" I repeat angrily. "Why the fuck would I lie?"

Steelbird's wing whips past me again, twice, and my right cheek suddenly erupts in the pain of two parallel gashes. I yell, more from the surprise and shock than from the pain at first... But, as if that first shout broke the back of my composure, I can't seem to stop. I scream, again and again, fueled by a seemingly endless pool of pain, and frustration, and the terror that's been eating at my insides since I woke up in my worst nightmare...!

As abruptly as it started, the uncontrollable urge to scream passes. I go limp in my bindings, feeling numb everywhere, as though the pain and terror belong to someone else. I look at myself from outside, and I realize I'm a wimp. I've read all sorts of stories where the hero goes through far more than just some cuts to the face, and still holds out... but it's so different in reality, where I know that no one's going to come and rescue me, and the only thing worse is knowing that maybe a hundred people— Trainers and slaves— are hearing me scream and not one of them thinks anything but, 'I'm glad it's not me.'

A tear trickles down my left cheek, the salt of it stinging in each wound individually. I look up hollowly at my tormentor, eyes barely even focusing on her.

"Now, let's try again," she says mock-politely. "Who sent ya?"

"No one, ma'am."

The bladed wing cuts into me, but I barely feel it through the numbness that's gone through my body and mind; I couldn't even tell you if it was my right cheek or left, this time. The pain is distant, like everything's happening to somebody else; and I'm grateful for that.

"Now, why're ya goin' and lyin' ta me for 'em?" the Boss asks me, slumping in her seat and seeming a little put out at my lack of response to this last gash. "Ya know, we know who it is already. We know who it is what gave ya a Pokémon. We just gotta find where that Pokémon's hidin'... an' we'll find it, don' you worry, li'l missy."

"That's funny," I say quietly, "Because I don't have any idea what you're talking about. Ma'am."

She stands up angrily and makes that hand signal again, twice; Steelbird cuts two new gashes, jagged ones, right up my jaw on both sides. It hurts, but in my numbness, this new pain is just a distraction from the other four lines on each cheek.

The Boss strides aggressively across the room, and shoves her face close to mine. "Don' lie ta me," she whispers. "I know the TA sent ya, so you better start talkin' or I'll do far worse'n just cut up yore pretty li'l face."

"I haven't lied to you yet," I retort, equally quietly. "Go fuck yourself."

The Boss, her expression showing that she's just about lost control of her famously short temper, pulls her face back from mine, and raises her hand to make some new signal, probably for my death. Dumbass. If I did know anything, you'd have just lost yourself the info you wanted, I think calmly, the numbness of shock saving me from even caring that I'm about to die...

A commotion from somewhere outside, followed almost immediately by the shuffling of approaching footsteps from the doorway to outside, distracts both me and the Boss. She whirls, rage painted across her face, ready to rip into whoever is responsible for interrupting her interrogation...

Then she stands there, slack-jawed, as the two supposedly missing men— the ones who chased me at the Suttons' house, Dorian and Marty— shuffle into this section of the parkade. They look ghastly: their faces are pallid, they're moving like zombies, and their eyes are wide open and staring sightlessly at nothing. Okay, definitely creepy.

The Boss opens her mouth to demand an explanation, and as if in response, the two men also open their mouths— jarringly and unnaturally wide. A pulse of pure darkness, like a shockwave, rushes up from their throats, accompanied by an unearthly, wailing screech like a combination of warping metal and screams of pain. The moment the sound hits my ears and the wave of pitch blackness passes through me, my sight vanishes, and the ropes binding me suddenly fall away. From the yelp of surprise that I can only faintly hear from the Boss's direction, and the slightly more audible screech from Steelbird, I'm guessing the same blindness has affected them. A second pulse strikes me, the sensation of it like a wall of slightly thicker air brushing past and through my body, at the same time as I hear a brief intensification of the awful screaming noise. It doesn't hurt, but it is mildly disorienting.

Still moving with that detached calmness that I recognize from my books as a symptom of shock, I stagger to my feet and walk as quickly as I safely can in the direction I remember held the exit, careful of the possibility that I'll miss and crash headlong into a pillar or something. Fortunately, instead of the pain of impact, I feel wind on my face and hear the shouts and aimless stumbling of many others affected by the Dark Pulse. Trusting luck to guide my footsteps, I break into a jog, hearing and feeling the combined waves of screeching sound and sight-stealing darkness rushing through me from behind, each pulse fainter as I get farther from the source.

All of a sudden, my vision returns, and I veer out of the way of a rapidly approaching pile of jagged concrete as I emerge from a dome of darkness that has covered the entirety of Grayout HQ. That was lucky, I think coolly. I'm not even sure which direction I'm running— somehow, right now it's a bit beyond me to look up and determine the time from the sun's position— but every little detail of the ground in front of me is perfectly clear: each small pebble on the cracked and pitted asphalt is defined with perfect resolution, down to the tiny scrapes on the surface...

I lose track of time, but I know I've been running for a while because, in that distant place where I'm feeling pain, I notice an ache in my legs and my lungs. I can hear the sounds of people shouting and running, behind me and to either side... And, worse, from somewhere in the distance ahead of me comes the screeching of rubber wheels on pavement: one of the Grayouts' makeshift Pokémon-powered vehicles must be tearing along the distant main streets to cut me off. My feet, controlled by instinct more than anything, have taken me to a maze of alleyways and side streets between mostly-demolished houses in the southwestern part of Grayout territory. Maybe I can lose my pursuers here...

I trip and go sprawling, rolling reflexively and stumbling to my feet a few moments later. Glancing back, I see a smear of far too much blood on the ground where I landed. Uh-oh. I can probably shake the Trainers off, but only if I don't pass out from blood loss first, I think clinically. As I run, I tear a few strips off of the front of my now-tattered t-shirt (when did it get this ripped up?) and wrap them haphazardly around my head a few times, knotting each one at the back. The pressure makes my face sting distantly— all pain is distant, still— but it holds the blood in... or so I hope.

There are shouts and calls all around me, now, and I know I'm on the way to being well and truly boxed in. A yell from behind me signals that I've been spotted, and I duck into a random gap between two old residential buildings, following the run-down walls for as long as they stand only to emerge into an open road that has four or five Grayout slaves dotted across it, hard at work picking through the ruins for valuables that the Trainers will soon take from them. They stare at me for a moment, and I stare at them... Then they start shouting, calling my pursuers.

Fucking idiots, I think at the slaves. They won't thank you for that! I turn and consider diving into a different part of the maze of homes, but the shouts are all closer now, a noose tightening around me. Giving up on hiding, I emerge onto the wide road, which runs from north to south, and tear northwards along it as fast as I can (as quickly as I can, corrects the insouciant part of my brain that pays too much attention to Old Adam.) My breath is as ragged as my t-shirt, and although I only distantly feel the discomfort in my lungs and legs, I can tell that my strength is about to give out. The shouts behind me are close, too close, but as the concrete road gives way to packed dirt, I can see that up ahead is a scrapyard, long since picked through for useful materials but still stacked with piles of rusted metal and garbage that I might be able to climb...

Left without much choice, I run into the scrapyard and between two such piles of garbage, which tower on either side of me like canyon walls; ahead of me is a man-made valley that slopes downward amidst the trash, perhaps leading (if I'm lucky) to some kind of bottleneck I can escape through. Off to my right, I also notice a crack in the ground. Running past it, my perspective shifts; the crack reveals itself to be wider than I thought, and I can see that it's got steps leading down inside. The basement of some long-gone building? It looks like there's a flicker of greenish light coming from somewhere down there...

Even at the best of times, I would mistrust something like that green light, as it's clearly the creation of some Pokémon or other— a tool of my pursuers', to cut off my path?— but suddenly, my body doesn't seem to belong to me any more. My feet miss a step, then fall into a new rhythm that I didn't choose, turning me to the right; I struggle wildly in my head, but none of the messages I'm sending to my body are getting through. Something has taken control of me, and my feet are carrying me straight toward those steps leading down into the green-glowing chasm.

All of a sudden a woman, whose stained and tattered grey semi-formal pants are the item she's chosen to mark her as a Grayout, drops down from atop one of the garbage piles, landing ahead of me and a little to my right, between me and the gaping hole in the ground. Trailing behind her and struggling to keep up is a one-foot-tall yellow lizard Pokémon that's got a dull-black, round metal shield a foot and a half in diameter growing from its head.

Neither seems to notice the green glow from the hole behind them; they're facing me, and the Trainer opens her mouth to instruct her creature to attack...!

Without warning, a small plume of purple gas bursts out of a tiny crack in the packed dirt road between me and the Trainer. Instead of blowing away in the fitful gusts of wind, it coalesces into an opaque cloud and hovers four feet or so off the ground. Then a gap opens in one side of the cloud of purple gas, revealing a dancing emerald-green flame in the centre.

The Trainer suddenly lets out a scream and falls to her knees, shuddering uncontrollably. Her Pokémon begins to rush forward, as if to charge the gas cloud, but then it collapses headfirst to the ground, quaking violently as well.

The Grayout woman is kneeling with one hand on the ground, her face stark white and pallid as though her very life-force is being sucked out of her. Her Pokémon thrashes about, but its struggles, too, are growing more feeble. In the space of less than a second, both of my would-be assailants are squirming and groaning on the packed earth of the scrapyard, unable to pose any kind of threat.

The bright green flame inside the gas cloud is tiny and dim, now, as though its strength has been almost expended. The purple gas surrounding the fire rips itself away from the flickering light, and streams back down into the crack in the ground from which it came; then, the little emerald flame floats over to the downed Trainer— who now appears to be unconscious— and disappears into her slightly-open mouth.

My footsteps, which didn't even falter during the few seconds it took for the Grayout and her Pokémon to be reduced to unconsciousness, are still taking me down the steps and into a green-lit, stony tunnel...

My perspective warps and my feet stop moving the moment my head falls below the level of the pavement outside. I could have sworn there was a gaping hole above me just a few moments ago, but in its place there is now an unbroken ceiling of deep-brown rock, lit from below by that ubiquitous flickering green light. I look back; all that I can see of the surface is a distant circle of natural light, far behind and above me, maybe sixty feet up a long flight of brown stone stairs— impossibly far for the five or six forced steps I took to get here. I hear faint, bewildered shouts from that distant hole as my pursuers search in vain for me... Then, distantly, I hear the discordant wail of the same kind of Dark Pulse that struck Grayout HQ. Immediately, the circle of sunlight disappears.

A moment later, I have to turn my attention to my more immediate surroundings, because my feet have started to walk without my permission again. Moving at a more leisurely pace, my involuntary strides take me off the final step of the long flight of stone stairs I don't remember descending, and down a short corridor, whose walls and floor are of the same brown rock, a colour I suspect my favourite books would describe as chocolate-brown. The flickering green glow that lights everything is coming from a cave entrance up ahead, and I squint as I approach, my eyes adjusting to the oddly hued brightness...

I emerge into a slightly larger cavern; it's a dead end, and empty except for what appears to be a cylindrical stone well with a foot-long stone bearing a mysterious sigil set into the front. From the well gushes a torrent of green flames, engulfed and enshrouded by a cloud of the same light purple, opaque gas as before. Again, rather than dispersing as would be normal, the gas seems to cling to the well and the flames alike, blocking the emerald brilliance from showing through except in rapidly shifting patterns.

After a second, the patterns of fire showing through the purple cloud start to stabilize and come together, until they form the unmistakable appearance of a slit-eyed, noseless face with a jagged gash for a mouth. Then the 'mouth' moves, emitting a buzzing murmur that seems to contain more than one voice, echoing in the cave and in my head— the echoes in my head are an uncomfortable sensation, as if something were pressing lightly against my skull from within.

~Welcome, seeker of strength. You hold much darkness within you.~

I shuffle my feet, just to be sure I have control of them again; thankfully, I do. But running away doesn't seem to be an option, and trying to fight would probably just trap me in this eerie-ass place, so I default to sarcasm instead. "And that's supposed to make me feel just great about this encounter, right, talking-fire-head Pokémon?"

~You hold much darkness within you, Larissa.~

"If you know my name, it's only polite to tell me yours," I say matter-of-factly, clinging desperately to sass as my only alternative to hysterical screaming. How does it know who I am??

~We once had many names. But as we are a tomb of spirits, you may call us Spirit-tomb. Your inner darkness calls to us.~

A memory passes through my head, the shade of Old Adam telling me I shouldn't wish evil on Trainers. "You're not the first person to call me evil in the last couple of days," I tell the Pokémon, smiling a harsh smile that's composed of equal parts bravado and panic.

The reverberating voice tapping at the inside of my head takes on a genuinely bewildered tone. ~We spoke naught of evil. You hold much darkness within you.~

"What's the difference?" That cool, logical part of me is taking over, and I surrender to it with relief. "Talk is cheap, but no matter what story you're reading, dark is bad. Ask anyone."

~Dark is the unknown: oft frightening, and difficult to navigate. But darkness is also calm; soft; nurturing, where the world's brightness is stark and unforgiving. The soothing dark of night gives succour and rest after the scouring light of day.~

"Is that where we're going with this, then?" I ask coldly, feeling more in control as long as I'm doing the talking. "You're some kind of ghost, or devil, or demon, that's supposed to tempt me to do bad things by calling it just a darker way of doing the right thing?"

~You hold much darkness within you. It is a part of you, without regard to whether or not you accept it. We but offer you a way to make use of it in whatever way your greater nature dictates. You carry within you the desire to seek— and emulate— the ones responsible for the mischief visited upon your tyrants, do you not? You have found us; and we offer you our strength.~

It seems that this Spirit-tomb creature is responsible for rescuing me from the Grayouts after all, and this confirms that it's the thing that's been taking out Trainers in Grayout territory. "And the price?" I ask mistrustfully. "There's always a price."

~You would be required to wield power, while remaining true to your chosen path and avoiding the temptation to stray into selfishness. You will need to fight for what you believe in, and expect no one to shoulder that burden for you. Oft, holding great power is its own price.~

Huh. "So... No soul exchanges, or blood pacts, or anything? I find that hard to believe."

~We have no need for another soul. We desire no blood offering at this time, nor aught else in payment.~

Damn. I could really use the kind of power I saw back in Grayout HQ. If I could get out of a scrape like that at will, then... "What's the catch?" I ask, falling back on my skepticism to buy myself some more time to think.

~None. We expect nothing of you that you do not choose for yourself. We aim to solve the problem of Trainers once and for all: should you become our ally, we offer you the chance to take into your own hands the revenge that you seek.~

That has my attention. Solve the problem of Trainers once and for all...?

Still, I'm no stranger to the whole "carrot and stick" deal. It's easy to promise big things and then go back on them later; if the reward is empty, you've gotta trap your target with a threat ready for when she finds that out. So what happens if I don't take this deal with the devil? Will I find a threat looming behind me, my bridges burned?

"And if I say no?" I ask skeptically, deciding impulsively to be up-front about my misgivings.

~You will remain here until the danger above has passed. Then you will walk from this place, and return to your life of scurrying and fear amidst the ruins. It will matter not whom you tell of us: you will never find our home again.~

"No retribution? No throwing me to the dogs? You want me to think I actually have a choice," I interpret. I toy with the idea of pretending to walk out of here, just to see if this creature is bluffing... but of course, I can't, with all those Trainers hunting me up top. Still, there must be something I can do to test this thing's sincerity; it all sounds a little too good to be true. A chance to finally take back some of that power the Trainers have been holding over everyone's head for my entire life? And all I have to do is help eliminate those selfsame Trainers?

~We require a willing ally, not a servant under duress. Go, if you have no desire for the power we offer. We will wait for another more suited.~

I feel the faintest impression of movement, and the ghostly green fires of the creature's face begin to recede, almost as though the floor I'm standing on is shifting me away from it. Is Spirit-tomb... dismissing me?

"Wait!" I shout, all of a sudden keenly aware of the feeling that the chance of a lifetime is slipping away. To my relief, the sensation of motion ceases, and Spirit-tomb stops receding into the distance. "I... I may be interested. But I have to ask... Why are you offering this to me?"

~You hold much darkness within you. We require a kindred spirit for that which we intend. Will you accept our trust and our power, and give us your word that you shall not falter in your resolve to free your home from the Trainers? We can but offer you power, and a way forward should you choose to follow it. The rest will depend upon your decisions.~

I've spent enough time thinking: it takes me only a moment to decide. This is my chance to take some power into my own hands, and finally do as I please with all those fucking Trainers, instead of spending the rest of my life scuttling around in terror. "Only if I really do get to make the choices," I say, just to clarify. "We do nothing I don't allow. No coercion, no... no possession. Promise me that, and your answer is yes."

A whooshing sound, like the release of a long-pent-up breath, emanates from the Pokémon.

~As you ask, so it is promised, Larissa Spirit-Wielder. We trust in you, for you hold much darknesssssssssssssss...~

The hissing of the Pokémon's voice continues, then intensifies, and the cavern itself seems to shake with the echoes. Inside my head, the hissing reverberates as well, pressing painfully against the inside of my skull until I double over, wrapping my arms around my head as if to keep it from exploding. The pain in my skull and the sound in the small cavern reach the edge of my tolerance, and I begin to scream at the same time as the Pokémon lets out a ghostly wail of suffering. Our voices echo in the small cavern, creating a discordant cacophony that makes the pain even worse, on and on for what feels like an eternity—

Abruptly, the pain ceases, and all is quiet and dark. Spirit-tomb's green flames are dim, now, the gas surrounding them seeming to almost choke the otherworldly fire.

"What was that about?" I ask, my voice unsteady but echoing eerily in the cavern.

In response, a voice, a quiet and whispery shadow of Spirit-tomb's echoing murmur, speaks in my head. ~The bond is not something we were meant for, but bind ourselves we did. We apologize for the pain, though we too endured it.~

"Bond? What bond?" I'm immediately on my guard.

~It takes a great deal of our power to send even a small extension of ourselves out from this sanctuary. Tens of weeks were spent to amass the strength to possess the two men we captured, as they were so far away from this place, and the use of our Dark Pulse required them as living conduits. To pass more than that small amount of power through you, a more profound bond is needed, similar to that between lesser Pokémon and their Trainers.~

I don't like the sound of that— this 'bond' thing has too many unknowns to it. But... I'll take it, if it's the price I pay for the power to beat Trainers. Still... If this Spirit-tomb creature has a way into my mind, now, does that mean it can listen to my thoughts? "You used my name earlier. Can you read my mind? Does the... bond... allow that?"

~We cannot. We learned your name by listening remotely to your discussions with the inhabitants of the Warrens. We have the power to see much, but without your assistance we can affect events only a little, and not often.~

"What exactly does this bond do?"

~We will feel your emotions faintly, and we can speak to your mind when you are with us here. Also, with your permission, the excess power generated by your strongest emotions will be available to us, to recover trace amounts of strength.~

"Fine. What about this power you were talking about? How do I use it?"

~Our essence will remain in this cavern, hidden from all. From this time on we will be nigh powerless; our strength of spirit will travel with you. You will wield it through your corporeal form, and we will instruct you in its use. Your body's strength will increase, as will your endurance and the speed of your reflexes and movements. With our protection, you will be all but immune to the encroachments of the psychic or the ghostly upon your mind. And lastly, when your anger or vengeful passions generate enough raw strength, you will wield a measure of power to harm in the palms of your hands, to shape as you please.~

"Show me."

A strange but pleasant sensation hovers in my consciousness for a moment, a feeling best described as the essence of a contented smile, before Spirit-tomb speaks again.

~As you wish, Spirit-Wielder.~

I smile as well. Better watch out, you piece of shit Trainers...

Here I come.

~~~~~~~~~~10:30, NOVEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

Fifty miles and more to the north and west of that place, a girl— a young woman, really— stares out at the horizon, her gaze fixed on a point to her southeast.

"Sunshine. Did you feel that?"

A small blue flame emerges from the centre of the girl's chest, passing harmlessly through her slim red windbreaker. As it moves away from her, it grows, and a Pokémon shaped like a glass lantern with a black metal hood and fuel reservoir appears surrounding it. Two yellow eyes manifest on the surface of the glass, and a female voice whispers in the young woman's mind, "Yes, Rachel... I felt it too."

"What was it?" Rachel asks her Pokémon partner.

"Something dark," Sunshine says. "Something dangerous. I fear we'll find out soon enough."

End of Chapter 1

Intended Captures:
Difficulty Rating:
---MEDIUM + 3x COMPLEX (100k to 140k characters)---
Length: 151,729 Characters

Character Report:
Recommended Characters: 100,000 to 140,000
Characters Used: 151,729
Result: Exceeds required character count!
Chapter 1: Runner
Chapter 2: Gangster
Chapter 3: Leader
Chapter 4: Avenger
Chapter 5: Darkness Rising

Chapter 2 Prologue — A Boy and His Bug


A young man of perhaps fifteen years— barely more than a child— stands with eyes downcast on the flat concrete roof of the old parkade, in front of four people and three Pokémon. All four of the humans wear the grey armband or bandanna of the Grayout gang; the Pokémon belonging to three of them stand menacingly silent behind their Trainers. Judging by the haunted look on the boy's downturned face and the sweat beading on his large brow in spite of the cold, he fears these seven more than words can express.

"Make an example of 'im," says one, a heavyset bald man in a black coat and bearing a grey bandanna wrapped around his head; his Pokémon, Lairon, looms behind him like a steel-studded boulder. This man, whose name is Dorian, grins cruelly. "Make sure the normals remember why they don' try an' run."

"That sounds mighty wasteful," says one of the two women, a redhead wearing a sleek silver windbreaker which is open at the front to reveal a grey button-down shirt underneath. A look of exasperation is painted across her narrow face, and disapproval is evident in the tone of her voice. Behind her stands a three-foot-tall Pokémon that looks like a mole with a patchy mixture of black, blue, and red fur; it's standing on two legs and absently scratching at the ground. Where its huge ivory-hued foreclaws pass, they dig shallow gouges in the concrete; the white surface of the claws is rough, and is chipping off in places to reveal bright metal underneath.

"This Borden child seems strong despite his obvious malnourishment," the stern-looking woman continues in her clipped, carefully enunciated Southern accent, "And plenty useful as a scavenger. Despite our good fortune recently, it's pure foolishness to destroy our own assets."

The other woman smiles mirthlessly at her, and speaks up in a thick drawl. "Always practical, ain't ya, Jess? Tha's what I like 'bout ya, but 's also what I hate 'bout ya."

Shorter than any of the other three Trainers, the speaker wears a grey jacket and black jeans that are practical and unassuming; but she somehow commands the most attention out of all of them, by dint of the aura of ruthless authority she effortlessly drapes about herself. Her black hair, recently cropped short, ruffles ever so slightly in the wintry breeze. Behind her, a huge bird of prey with skin and wings of steel stands sentry; bits of shredded green plant matter cling to the corners and crevices of its body from some recent struggle. The metal avian is carefully watching the collapsed buildings and defunct skyscrapers that make up the city's horizon. Steelbird is not a Pokémon that likes surprises.

"I'm gonna need more reason'n that ta hold back on revenge, dearie," Steelbird's Trainer says, the humourless smile leaving her face to be replaced by a scowl, her lips curling in outrage. "Ain't no gawddamn normal can run from us an' get away with it. This's an insult ta the Grayouts, an' there ain't no way I'm gonna stand fer that!"

"Hell yeah, Boss!!" shouts black-coated Dorian, regarding the captive boy with a broad, malicious smile. "When's the execution?"

"I think this is a terrible idea," Jess retorts, turning on Dorian with a severe expression. "I have had quite enough of you encouragin' this sort of—"

"Ahem." The man who hasn't spoken yet— the one wearing a long silvery-grey trench coat and bearing what looks like an ornate sword in a hilt on his back— clears his throat sharply; immediately the other three are paying attention, even practical Jess and overzealous Dorian.

"I believe I may have a solution: one that preserves our gang's reputation while also benefitting us," he says in a crisp clear accent, turning a winning smile on everyone present— his grinning regard even seems to include the boy who is still standing frozen with fear in the centre of the windswept parkade roof.

"I'm all ears," drawls the woman whom Dorian had referred to as Boss, putting one hand on her hip and raising a skeptical eyebrow. "What've ya got f'r me, Garth?"

"This." Still smiling, Garth reaches into a pocket of his silver coat and withdraws from it a fuzzy yellow animal about the size of his palm: the creature is reminiscent of a four-legged tick the size of a tarantula. It's lying on its back in his grasp, and appears to be either dormant or unconscious.

The other three Trainers gather a little closer to inspect the thing. Boss is the first one to speak, a doubtful edge to her voice. "Tha's a Pokémon, ain't it? I never seen one that small. Ya sure it's even useful?

"I found it while I was outside city limits, where there're still wild ones. As for its usefulness? Watch." Garth sets the little creature upside down on the concrete and draws a sliver of tree bark from another one of his coat's various pockets. Then he kneels down and pokes the bug's upturned belly with the scrap of wood.

There's a snap! of powerful static electricity, and four small but visible arcs of lightning all strike the end of the wood at once, lighting it on fire. Garth holds up the makeshift match with a grin. "If we know one thing about Pokémon, it's that they get stronger as they grow, right? It's not a strong one, not yet; but if you give this Pokémon to somebody young who's proven he has the will to live, and the courage to make a break for it against all odds... well, then it was no undeserving 'normal' who tried to escape us, now was it? And someday we might have a real asset on our hands, not just another piece of human refuse."

Garth, still with that charming smile plastered across his face, turns to the boy, who is staring back at him uncomprehendingly. The other three Grayouts follow his gaze, and understanding paints different expressions on each of them.

"That certainly would solve our problem," says Jess in her clipped tones, sounding and looking surprised that she herself hadn't thought of this. "Another Trainer added to our numbers, and his insolence rebranded as worthiness. It's an excellent synergy of practicality and propaganda."

Boss snorts dismissively, but her smirk betrays her amusement with the idea. "Yer marketin' background's comin' out again, Jess. This ain't no corporation, y'hear? But yeah, we can always use another Trainer. I'm willin' ta overlook the kid's defiance. This time. Don' disappoint me, boy." She turns around and walks toward the ramp leading to the next level down, indicating that the issue has been decided and its execution is up to her underlings. Immediately, Jess turns and follows her, leaving Garth and Dorian with the boy.

"Whew. Glad that worked," Garth says, turning to Dorian with an exaggeratedly relieved grin. "You and Jess were just about to get into one of your spats."

Dorian, who's been silent and borne a dour look on his face since the moment Boss's decision was made, turns his sullen glare on Garth. "You ruined my fun," he growls. "Now take care o' this bullshit... and don' make a habit o' takin' Jess's side. It won' end well for ya."

He turns and stalks away after Boss and Jess; but Garth, rather than looking put out, only widens that confident smile of his. For a moment, there's a glint of something like triumph in his eyes.

"Hey there, kid," he says, crossing the parkade roof and scooping up the unconscious bug Pokémon on his way. Arriving in front of the stunned boy, he holds out the yellow-furred creature for Borden to take. "What d'you say to joining Team Garth?"


Chapter 2: Gangster

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 12:30, DECEMBER 13, 2011~~~~~~~~~~

Boss ain't happy.

I mean, Boss ain't never really been the nicest, but the last couple weeks, she's been comin' down extra hard on us Grayouts. Gettin' ambushed in her own HQ by whatever-it-was what came outta Dorian and Marty, well, that made her turn downright paranoid. Now, we gotta give passwords to enter HQ, and if we don't remember 'em, well, tough shit.

...Which's why I'm at where I'm at now. It's freezin' as all hell out here, and all I want's to get somewhere warm and have a bite to eat... but I done gone and forgot the password.

"C'mon, Dorian, it's obviously me. Just lemme in..."

Dorian's enjoyin' this, I can tell. Boss ain't the only one what's gotten meaner since the attack on HQ— Dorian took bein' used as some mysterious enemy's tool like it was a personal insult, and he's been extra nasty ever since he woke up a week after the attack. The collar of the big guy's black winter coat is turned all the way up against the freezin' wind, and he's swallowed his pride enough to wear a hat over his bald head and grey bandanna. All that gear means he's nice and sheltered from the cold... but I ain't with my tattered old windbreaker, and he knows it.

"Aww, man, wish I could," he says all innocent-like, "But Boss was real specific... 'Ain' no one gettin' in here without them bein' able to tell me what I told 'em this mornin'!'" he says, mimickin' her voice in a dangerous whiny sorta way. Nobody other'n Dorian would dare mock Boss (except maybe Jess if she ever stopped kissin' Boss's ass long enough to try,) but Dorian's been gettin' more and more fed up with Boss's attitude lately... So he's been takin' some liberties with his tone o' voice, and he also done made a habit o' takin' out the rest o' his frustration on me.

"It's fuckin' cold out," I complain, givin' him my bravest look and tryin' to ignore the huge bulk of his steel-helmeted rock Pokémon, Aggron, standin' silently right behind him. "Listen, how 'bout this? You lemme in this time, I'll let you in next time you forget."

"Except I don' forget," he points out, laughin' a little. "Plus, they wouldn' put you on guard! Ya couldn' stop me if'n ya tried. Ain' much of a trade, ya ask me."

He's got me there. Dorian's got a memory like his Pokémon's metal jaws; and Aggron could wipe the floor with me and Buzz any day. They'd love an excuse to do it, too, both of 'em. I don' really remember why, but Dorian's just always had it in for me.

"Shit," I say, completely outta ideas. "Fine. I'll just hang out here till I remember, then."

Dorian rolls his eyes all exasperated-like. "Now there's a threat! Aw, fuck it, this ain' fun no more anyway," he says. "Get in there, an' by the way, today's password's horseshit. Anyone asks, pretend ya knew it, got that, Bore?"

"Right, sure thing Dorian!" I tell him, too relieved and surprised at my good luck to even be sarcastic 'bout it.

After we're a safe distance away, Buzz, perched on my shoulder, makes a little grumblin' noise and lets off a tiny spark, outta bad temper at Dorian.

"Aw, let it go," I whisper to him... but despite what I done said, I'm grinnin'. It's nice to have somebody who understands.

As I hurry outta the wind and through the openin' on the ground floor o' the old concrete parkade, I see some o' the gang hangin' out on the plastic fold-up chairs scattered around the empty room; most of 'em look real bored.

The Grayouts are a gang o' fifteen Trainers; we used to be bigger, but startin' earlier this year, a few o' us went missin', one by one. Just... gone without a trace. I try not to think about it too much. Anyhow, the missin' Grayouts ain't been real noticeable on account o' the fact we ain't never all been here all the time. Right now, looks like only seven o' us are on this floor. In one corner, keepin' to himself, is Stern, a kid Trainer no more'n fourteen years old. He's sittin' on the worst, ricketiest chair off to my left and holdin' onto his Pokémon, Bulbasaur: a mottled green dinosaur about two foot high includin' the giant plant bulb on his back. Most o' us name our 'mons after the sounds they make: Bulbasaur's noises sound kind of like he's sayin' "Bubba-saar," an' he's got a bulb, so that's where his name came from.

Jess, the Grayouts' unofficial second-in-command, is leanin' against one o' the concrete pillars what hold up the rest o' the parkade. Jess's a redhead with basically no personality outside always doin' whatever Boss tells her to do. Her Pokémon, Excadrill, is a small but dangerous three-foot-tall mole-lookin' thing, whose black body is covered with jagged red splotches; he's got metal diggin' claws at the ends o' his arms, and a huge serrated steel spike comin' out his forehead.

Marty's here, too, lyin' with his eyes closed right in the middle o' the floor. His head's propped up by the pudgy belly o' the pink lizard Pokémon he calls Slow-bro, or 'Bro' for short. Marty sleeps a lot ever since the attack on HQ. Jess calls it a copin' mechanism; I think Marty's just lazy and likes havin' the excuse, honestly.

Near Marty's head, linin' up her teeth to bite into his earlobe, is Mawile, a cute-lookin' little two-foot-tall creature with yellow fur all down her body. She's got a thick sheet o' black hair growin' from her head and hangin' over one o' her big eyes; she'd look like a tiny human wearin' a yellow dress and skirt, except for the huge set o' metal-toothed jaws bigger than she is, what come straight out the back o' her head like a ponytail! And even though she's so little, she's only cute-lookin'— really, she's a prankster with a helluva mean streak. I'm thinkin' I should prob'ly stop her before she can give Marty a rude awakenin' and a hole in his ear... but before I get a chance, I see her Trainer, Allie, comin' round the corner. Allie spots Mawile and runs up to grab the little terror, scoldin' her in a whisper. Allie's the only Trainer other'n Stern who's younger'n me— maybe fifteen?— and she doesn' have a good handle on her Pokémon yet... but she and Mawile are still better at fightin' than me and Buzz, so people respect her more.

Melianne's here too; she's, like, nineteen, with a sharp tongue and a sharper temper; I'd call her a brat despite her bein' older'n me, if I weren' scared to death of her. Melianne's Pokémon, Magneton, is ridiculously strong, but she makes a big deal outta bein' embarrassed by its many ways o' actin' up; it's nowhere to be seen right now. She's wearin' high heels and her favorite pink-and-black dress: a set o' nice clothes what she only brings out when she wants to impress somebody.

That's explained right away by the fact o' who she's clingin' to today: a cheerful-lookin' guy wearin' a stylishly tattered, thigh-length silver-gray coat what hangs open to show his simple gray t-shirt and blue jeans. He's got long blond hair tied back in a ponytail what falls to between his shoulders, where it tangles a bit around the handle o' the sword on his back. The sword's got a dark tan hilt and is restin' in a real fancy brown sheath; it's got a wide blue cloth tassel hangin' from the end o' the pommel, and there's a gemstone what looks kinda like an eye set into the middle o' the crossguard. The fella's Garth, and the sword is Honedge, his Pokémon. Garth is sittin' cross-legged on the concrete and talkin' business— somethin' about a meetin'— back and forth with Jess, mostly ignorin' Melianne holdin' onto his arm (she looks livid. You don't ignore Melianne!)

"Yo! Borden!" Garth calls, shruggin' Melianne off o' his shoulder and gettin' to his feet with a big ol' grin. "Looks like you managed to not die while I was gone! What's it been now, a year?"

"Hey, Garth!" I say, grinnin' right back. "Yeah, 'bout that long. Where were ya?"

Garth's accent is from someplace up north, no idea where. I don't know much 'bout the guy, to be honest; what I do know is, he visits Grayout HQ from time to time; he's the nicest to me outta everybody; and he's always loads o' fun to be around.

"Here and there," he says, wavin' a hand like it ain't important. I know better, though— I ain't quite as dumb as everyone thinks I am! He and Honedge are super strong, and always out on secret Grayout business— important-as-hell stuff— so if he's back, then that means he thinks somethin' even more important is gonna happen soon.

"Heard you all have had some tough times lately," Garth says. "Nobody'll tell me why Boss called me back here... but I'm guessing I'll find out from the woman herself soon enough, huh?"

He's right. Boss ain't lettin' us talk to no one 'bout Larissa, nor 'bout the attack on HQ, on account it'd be bad if the Quicksteps or the Smashers heard we was havin' troubles. Garth's safe, but Boss's real literal-minded whenever she says 'no one,' so ain't none o' us gonna tell nobody— not even Garth— shit-all till she says we can.

"Yeah," I say, givin' Garth an apologetic grin, "Prob'ly best to hear it from her."

"Right you are," he says with that easy smile of his. "Must be a big deal: I haven't seen so many people in HQ at once since… well, years ago."

Jess speaks up. "There's a reason for that. You all will find out soon enough, since the meeting's in five minutes."

I stare at Jess, totally taken by surprise. "Wha? There's a meetin'?"

Melianne stands up from where Garth left her sittin', and I realize with a horrible sinkin' feelin' that she done been glarin' at me ever since I made Garth get up.

"Yeah, doofus,” she spits in my direction. “Boss said it, like, five times yesterday: meetin' at nine-fifteen, on the third floor. Didya seriously just wander in here with no clue?"

"Uhh…" It really seems like that's exactly what I done, but I ain't about to admit it!

"Of course not," Garth says, comin' to my rescue with a friendly grin and throwin' one arm over my shoulder. "Borden here was thinking of it as a friendly little get-together, so calling it a 'meeting' just threw the poor guy off. Eh, Borden?"

"Y… Yeah!" I say, givin' him a grateful thumbs up. "Exactly!"

Everyone else laughs, too, which is nice… though now I think about it, most of the time when people laugh around me it's on account I said somethin' stupid.

Even Melianne smirks, which ain't never a good sign. "Right," she says, starin' directly at me, with that smirk growin' larger in a way that terrifies me instantly. "And Boss'll be the friendliest person there. All smiles and congratulations for everybody, right Borden?"

"That… that doesn' sound much like Boss, Melianne," I point out, tryin' not to act as intimidated as I am. Melianne's at her scariest when she acts happy. "Am I… am I missin' a joke, guys?"

"No, not at all, Borden!” Stern pipes up from the corner, but I get the feelin' he's lyin' on account he's still sniggerin' to himself. “We're just laughin' 'cause, uh, 'cause Garth's so funny."

"Yeah, I have that effect on people," Garth says from where he's leanin' on me… actually leanin' on me pretty heavy-like— I'm havin' trouble stayin' standin' up. "The fun never stops when Garth's around... don't worry your little head about it, buddy."

"Three minutes left. Time to get going," Jess snaps, glarin' round at us like as if she's just darin' us to make her late for a meetin' with Boss. "Somebody wake Martin up."

She turns smart-like on her heel and marches off toward the ramp that connects the first and second floors o' the parkade.

Melianne kicks Marty awake, and we all follow Jess at our own paces; I end up last, on account Garth keeps leanin' on me until everybody's more or less outta earshot. I feel Buzz crawlin' across my neck, headed for Garth's arm to give it a good hard zap. I ain't havin' that— I pretend to scratch my neck, and use the motion to grab Buzz, shovin' my hand into the pocket of my tattered coat and trappin' him in there for now. Buzz ain't never liked Garth— I feel like there's gotta be some reason why, though I don't remember it right now— but that doesn' mean it's all right t'go electrocutin' the guy!

"Hey, Borden," Garth says, all quiet-like, soon as nobody can hear us anymore. "Tell me... how long's it been since we first met? Three years?"

I nod. "Yeah, 'bout that long.” T'be honest, I don't remember much— details're a bit blurry— but Garth's been a friend o' mine for about as long as I been a Grayout.

“Tell me, Borden. Do you remember our agreement? The one we made three years ago.” Garth's whisperin' for real, now, and I get the feelin' this question's important.

"…Yeah, Garth," I say, whisperin' too. "I done said I'd be on Team Garth, right? I'm supposed to watch for anybody actin' strange or outta chracter, and tell ya—"

I'm cut off on account Garth makes a sudden shut up! motion with his hand, and before I get a chance to ask why, Dorian breezes past us ridin' on top o' Aggron, who moves surprisin' quiet-like for a Pokémon made o' rock and steel.

"Better hurry, Garth!" Dorian calls on his way by. "Boss don' like slackers!"

"Hey! Why you warnin' Garth but not me?" I yell at Dorian's back.

"Boss already knows you're a slacker!!" Dorian shouts, and laughs real mean-like as he and Aggron bulldoze their way round the concrete pillar separatin' the ramp from the rest o' the second floor.

A few moments go by with me just standin' there dumb-like, splutterin' and too far behind to shout anythin' back. Then I realize Garth already done let go o' my shoulder and took the lead. I hurry to follow, and take my hand off the openin' to my pocket tentative-like; but Buzz seems to've made himself comfortable, and he stays sulkin' in there. Even before I catch up with Garth as he goes round the pillar, that awful second-floor smell hits me with a feelin' like runnin' into a wall. Second floor's where the scavengers live, see… and they don't bathe much.

Each level o' the parkade's a big rectangular expanse o' wind-swept concrete, with a window along the two long walls what's basically a gap in the concrete (usually blocked up good with metal bars grown round with Bulbasaur's hardy vines.) Empty space takes up most o' each floor, with faint traces o' paint left over from the old parkin' slots on the ground. Every level's got two ramps: one goin' up and one goin' down, each one wide enough for five or six people to walk side by side. There's also a stairwell at one or the other end o' every floor; but we blocked the stairs off ages ago, so's to limit how many ways there are o' gettin' into HQ.

Here on the second floor is the holdin' pen: a set o' metal bars jammed into the concrete like a fence. The scavengers are inside; some of 'em are watchin' us go by from near the bars; others are asleep in piles o' dirty blankets way in the back end o' the pen.

The two Grayouts guardin' 'em today— Kayla and Rodge, with their Pokémon Shieldon and Durant— glare at me and Garth as we walk by, like as if it's our fault they weren't invited to the meetin'. Hey— somebody's gotta watch the scavengers, make sure they don't run off and starve somewhere!

I open my mouth to finish what I was sayin' to Garth, but he shakes his head at me with a real sharp look, and I realize he doesn' wanna talk about anythin' here where there's people around. Our feet crunch on the bits o' dried-up food waste litterin' the second floor as we get to the bottom o' the ramp what'll take us up further.

"Sorry," I say, real worried I done pissed Garth off.

"No need to be, buddy," Garth says, grinnin' my way all friendly-like. Seein' the good-natured look on his face, I wonder why I ever thought he was mad! I must just be gettin' all anxious about everythin', on account o' the meetin' comin' up.

Third floor's pretty empty; it's where the bigger Pokémon sleep at night, and also sorta a buffer zone or hangout spot for the important Grayouts. If you're here and you ain't a pilot or mechanic, and ain't got permission from Boss or Jess, you already done went too far up. There're eight or nine old car skeletons here: it's where we done shoved 'em all to make extra space on other floors, way back when we moved in here. Some are rusty wrecks, but others are still pretty clean. There used to be more cars— we scavenge the clean ones for parts when our vehicles need repairs, and Melianne and some o' the others feed bits o' the rusty ones to their metal-bodied Pokémon when they're hungry.

“So, Borden,” Garth says once nobody's in earshot, “Anything to report? Anyone acting unusual...?”

I think real hard. “Uhh... Not really. Everybody acts the way everybody acts, y'know?”

“Hmm.” Garth doesn' look happy 'bout that— his eyebrows go all scrunched together— but before I can apologize he says, “Borden, do you remember why you're on Team Garth?”

“Because, uhh...” I stammer for a second, “Because you always done been real nice to me?”

The moment I say it, though, I know that ain't the right answer. There's a real reason, but it's all distant and foggy, and it hurts my head to try and remember. “Wait. There's gotta be more, gimme a sec...”

Garth and I get to the next up-ramp, the one what'll take us to the fourth floor. Fourth floor's the beatin' heart of HQ, protected from the big doorway below by three floors o' us Grayout Trainers and guarded from any flyers comin' in from the roof by two floors o' Boss's elite. It's where we keep our survival shit: big ol' plastic bins're stacked all along one wall, holdin' winter blankets, clothes, and coils o' rope. A mix o' rusty metal crates and wooden chests o' drawers are full up with supplies like matches, lanterns, and even a valuable stockpile o' canned food. In the second half o' fourth floor, among all the other stuff, there's even a single scratched-up red Jeep all locked tight; it's got valuables and— supposedly— a tank o' gas and a workin' engine. That's supposed to be our getaway car for anybody what doesn' have a vehicle or a Pokémon big enough to ride, if the unthinkable happens and we gotta abandon HQ. The wide parkade window's blocked off on this floor with metal bars jammed into the concrete at the top and bottom o' the gap: ain't no one gettin' in here by climbin', neither!

“Any luck, kid?” Garth asks, and I realize he done been watchin' me intent-like this whole time while I was zonin' out lookin' at all this neat fourth-floor stuff. “Try to remember.”

I think real hard and squeeze my eyes shut... but whatever I was rememberin', it's gone. A surge o' disappointment goes through me, like a cold wave sinkin' down my shoulders and chest. “Sorry, Garth. That's all I got... but I really do wanna help Team Garth, honest! You're the nicest to me outta everybody.

“I see.” To my relief, Garth doesn' sound mad, just thoughtful. “Let's keep moving.”

The next ramp leads up to Level Five. Normally, only Boss, Jess, Garth (when he visits,) and sometimes Dorian and Marty're allowed up here. I almost hesitate for a moment, but Garth is still walkin' full speed, and besides, everyone's gone up there now. I'm allowed up if I'm with Garth, right?

Just then, Garth clears his throat and says— real quiet-like again— “If you learn anything you need to tell me, write it down right away and leave it in my corner of the parkade basement before dawn the next day.” He holds out a stack o' old Post-It notes and a pencil.

I nod, lettin' him know I understand, and take the things, stuffin' 'em both into the pocket o' my coat; then we both walk up the ramp to Level Five.

I look around real curious-like— probably gawkin' a little, to be honest— at Level Five, on account I ain't never been up here as far's I remember. Heck, HQ's fourth floor's usually restricted, so nobody gets anywhere near Five without Boss's or Jess's say-so. The first thing I see is that the place's nice. The parkade window's covered in all but a few places with heavy, dark red rugs that match each other perfect-like— probably all pulled outta the same mall or store. The floor's still concrete, but there's a few red and gray carpets placed in just the right spots, and on top of 'em are a few matchin' sets o' furniture made o' stainless steel: two sturdy restaurant kinda tables, with five chrome-plated chairs near each of 'em. As I follow Garth off the ramp, I see they done put Stern, Bulbasaur, and Allie to work pushin' the two tables together. Stern and Allie are draggin' 'em by hand; Stern's Pokémon is movin' the chairs with vines what come outta the bulb on its back.

Boss's standin' in front o' the biggest chair: that's her throne, a huge hunk o' melted-together metal what looks like it's made o' a mix o' steel girders and iron reinforcin' bars, with fur coats from the old abandoned department store draped over it. Boss ain't tall, and her shoulder-length black hair and simple gray jacket've always done looked pretty ordinary, but that don't mean she looks ordinary. Boss's frightenin' in a way what's hard to describe... like a sharp metal spring all coiled and just about ready to snap; or maybe like a container full to burstin' with boilin' water made o' violence and rage. I almost jump outta my skin with fear when she makes eye contact with me, but then she just jerks her head at the chairs, obviously tellin' me Get to work, idjit.

I run over and start helpin' the others drag the ten heavy chairs up to the tables one by one, lookin' around at who all else's here while I do. Jess, Garth, Dorian and Marty're all no surprise— ain't no such thing as a big Grayout meetin' without the gang's best— and I ain't surprised they brought Melianne, given how useful Magneton is... but there's a few more people already waitin' up here, ones I ain't expected to see.

There're two other women standin' round the table, aside from Boss, Jess, Melianne, and Allie. One's Vivian, whose Pokémon Electrike ain't here for some reason. Electrike's a little electric dog sorta thing, with green fur and yellow markings; I'm guessin' he's downstairs right now on account he likes to hang around her bike, a huge machine what's kept in the second basement level o' the parkade where we got the workshop. Electrike's the power source and the gear shift for that thing, since it's designed to change speeds based on how much electric power he gives it.

The other woman's Lorraine, the pilot. None o' us see much o' her, on account she's mostly either out on patrol or sleepin'; but we all know her, 'cause she's our biggest asset in a turf war. She's an older lady, maybe in her forties, dressed in dull black leather clothes under a gray windbreaker what fits tight so's it can't get caught in any rotors or movin' parts. The left sleeve o' the coat's been removed and sewn shut, on account o' Lorraine's missin' arm. Her Pokémon, Scizor, ain't here right now either; and I'm glad, on account that thing's scarier'n any Pokémon but Steelbird (who also ain't here, thank God.) Despite havin' only one hand, Lorraine flies the Grayout Scout— our flyin' helicopter-y machine— like a pro: the vehicle's powered by Pokémon and kept runnin' smoothly by the gang's mechanics, and it can carry about six people's worth o' humans, Pokémon, and cargo.

The mechanics are Evan and Seth. They're here, too, wearin' brown aprons and blue overalls stained all over with oil. Evan's Pokémon, Ferroseed, is a kind o' egg-shaped metal creature with green spikes all over it, rollin' along behind him. Not sure what it even does in a fight, but I still wouldn' wanna tangle with it. Seth's Pokémon is called Charger... It's a pretty apt name, on account the little guy has a round yellow body with black stripes and a black lightning bolt on the front, a tiny face, and big ears shaped like a power plug.

On top o' all o' them important Grayouts, there's me, Stern, and Allie, with our sorta weak Pokémon. If I count Kayla and Rodge downstairs guardin' the scavengers, that means fifteen outta fifteen o' the Grayouts are here at HQ. Right now. And trust me, that ain't usual... Boss's a stickler for patrols and scavengin' parties bein' out at all times.

Boss takes a seat in her throne o' melted steel beams, and everybody else grabs a chair round the tables... except me and Allie, who're too slow to find a seat (or maybe we just know our places? We're the least useful.) We stay standin', outside the circle o' more important people.

"I suppose y'all are wonderin' why I been makin' a big deal o' this here meetin'," Boss says in her usual drawl. "Well, I ain't 'bout ta stand on ceremony. We're goin' ta war."

There's a mixed bag o' reactions from round the table. A few people start whisperin' to each other, wonderin' which gang got on Boss's bad side, those poor saps. Marty splutters and nearly falls off his chair. Dorian gives a loud clap, jumps outta his chair, and shouts "Whoo!!" Garth just raises an eyebrow; one corner o' his mouth turns up in a quirky, expectant smile, kinda like he thinks Boss has a surprise for us.

"Yeah, yeah, calm yer tits," Boss says, lookin' mostly at Dorian. "We got some prep ta do afore any fightin'."

Dorian leans forward, plantin' his hands on the steel table and scowlin' at Boss. "Aw, what the fuck, Gail. The hell're we gonna prep for? The Smashers'll shatter like glass if we come at 'em full force... 'n' the Quicksteps'll run outta juice real quick if we start movin' in on their territory, they got too much t'defend at once..."

He trails off, on account Boss's narrowin' her eyes dangerous-like— comin' from her, that look is enough t'give even Dorian pause. "Yer gonna refer ta me as 'Boss,' Dorian," she tells him, her voice low and quiet and deadly. "An' we're preppin' 'cause we ain't fightin' the Smashers, nor the Quicksteps."

Confusion goes racin' across Dorian's face. "Both at once? Boss, why the hell—?"

“We ain't fightin' neither o' this city's other gangs,” Boss cuts him off, her scowl dead serious. “We're gettin' their help. Our fight's with the biggest gang any o' us done seen. Ever."

"...The T.A.," Garth says. He's smilin' for real, now, a wierd sly grin what seems familiar from somewhere, though I coulda sworn I ain't never seen it on him before.

"Tha's righ', the T.A.," Boss echoes, her low growlin' voice lendin' the words a right frightenin' sound. "Not ten, not thirty, but a hunnerd Trainers all told, best as my sources can say."

Now there's whisperin' comin' from everybody, includin' Allie next to me.

"Hey, Borden, do gangs that big even exist?" Allie asks me quiet-like, starin' wide-eyed at everybody talkin' amongst themselves.

I frown— how'm I supposed t'know?— but try my best to answer. "Well, a while back I done overheard Marty and Dorian talkin' 'bout a real big gang takin' over everythin' up north and west... entire cities, if they weren' makin' mountains outta molehills."

"They actually wiped out every gang in more'n one city? ...That mean we're next?" Allie's voice's tremblin'.

I snort. "'Course not. Grayouts ain't like other gangs, we'll be fine. Boss'll make sure."

"Quiet!!" Boss shouts impatient-like, and everybody who'd been talkin' goes silent. A lotta wide eyes turn to look at her; Boss gets angry a lot, but she doesn' yell all that often.

"We're goin' now, ta tell the Smashers 'n' the Quicksteps we're declarin' a truce an' they better join. Anyone got any questions, afore we leave?" she asks, glarin' round at everybody.

I ain't about to ask any o' the questions I got, not with Boss lookin' that pissed... but Garth and Jess're obviously made o' sterner stuff.

"Are we visiting the Quicksteps first?" Garth asks, still with that pleased-as-punch look on his face. Is he enjoyin' this? "They'll likely be more amenable to an alliance, and the Smashers won't have a choice if we prove we have Quickstep support."

Boss nods. "Good idea. Yeah, Jess?"

Jess done been waitin' patiently with her attention focused on Boss in a way that makes it feel like she's a kid in a classroom with her hand raised. (I ain't sure why I know what that looks like; I don't remember ever bein' a kid in a classroom, but I guess I must've been at some point.)

"Gail, what of the logistics?" Jess asks, soundin' like the perfect voice o' reason. "I'd like to know how you'd like us to do this. The entire Grayout gang simply cain't fit on the vehicles we have: all we have are the Scout, and Vivian's bike, and I suppose Magneton. Unless you propose we use the escape ve-hicle, most that can go quick is six. Are we walkin'?"

"I don' give a rat's ass how we go, but we're goin' now," Boss says, standin' up and givin' us all a glare. "Numbers're better'n speed fer this, so if ya can't find a way, we walk. I want us ready t'go yesterday."

Then she walks straight forward; everyone gets outta her way right quick, 'xcept for Dorian and the heavy table, both o' which she pushes aside with no trouble at all; before anybody's got their wits about 'em to say anythin', Boss's already done headed down the ramp to fourth floor.

"Right," Jess finally snaps all business-like, just as if Boss'd given some kinda clear instruction. That's what Jess's in the Grayouts for: she takes Boss's “I want”s, and she makes 'em happen. "Everybody, retrieve your Pokémon and meet me on the ground floor in five minutes, or be left behind. We all know Boss won't tolerate no-shows... And neither will I."

With that, she turns around and walks out too, with Excadrill followin' silently behind her. Everybody stares for a second longer, then scrambles to get downstairs. Aggron, with Dorian ridin' on top o' him, nearly tramples Melianne and Vivian, who're rushin' out to go get their Pokémon; I stay well back for now, on account I already got Buzz with me so I don' gotta risk gettin' crushed in the stampede.

Lookin' around as I follow the crowd down the ramp, I notice Lorraine, the pilot, headin' upstairs, with Seth and Charger followin' her... which makes sense I guess: if the Grayout Scout— our flyin' machine— is comin' with us, it'll need Charger as the power source and Lorraine as the pilot.

From my shoulder, Buzz chirps and makes a little whirrin' noise o' curiosity. I grin. "Yeah, we're goin' out, Buzz. Seems most everybody is, yeah? Mission's to put some fear in the Quicksteps and Smashers, sounds like."

He nips me a little on the neck— that's basically his version o' a hug— then skitters down my shoulder under my coat to hide himself away in my sleeve and stare out at the world through a rip in the tattered polyester.

I get to ground floor and see everybody's already taken the ramp down to "B1," the first basement floor o' the parkade; they're throwin' together packs o' food and tools. Followin' their lead, I go to my own little corner o' B1 and take stock o' what's left o' this week's ration. I get basically the worst stuff, on account o' bein' the weakest Grayout: there's some trail mix made o' dried candied figs and peanuts (from a rubble-buried bin in that bulk store we scavenged last week,) a sealed metal tin o' anchovies, and not much else.

Better'n nothin'. I stuff 'em into a little brown gym bag I got as a gift from Garth last year, look around my corner as if hopin' to see somethin' I mighta missed— no luck, the corner's empty now— and then turn around to go join the others.

Boss's waiting impatiently by the ramp up to ground floor, tappin' her foot. As I go by, she growls, "Boy. Stop righ' there."

I come to a halt right in front o' her, goin' all stiff with fear. "Y... yeah, Boss. What can I do for ya, Boss?" I stammer.

"How many people d'ya think that bug o' yers can take out afore ya both end up useless?" she asks me.

"Three," I answer right away. I got no clue why she's askin', or what the right answer's supposed t'be, but I know for sure it ain't a good idea to lie to Boss. "Four if they're small guys or you just want 'em on the ground for a few minutes."

Boss nods to herself, like as if that done decided somethin'. Probably did; guess I'll find out in a second. I try not to look like I'm shakin' in my boots. I probably don't manage t'look that way, on account I'm definitely shakin' in my boots.

"Head up ta the roof, boy," she says. "Tell Lorraine I sent ya as a bodyguard fer her an' her vehicle. Yer job's ta get rid o' anythin' what gets too close ta the Grayout Scout while it's in th'air, y'hear? Send it fallin' straight down."

"Yes ma'am!" I say, knees goin' all weak with relief as I realize I ain't in trouble. And I even get to ride the Scout! I ain't never done that before...!

Boss turns and follows the others, who all headed up the ramp past us while Boss was talkin' t'me; I head straight for the roof, passin' sour-faced Kayla and Rodge again on my way up. They saw us all headed downstairs in a big group a few minutes ago; now they know they're bein' left outta somethin'. Sucks t'be them, I guess!

I pass by third floor's rusty cars, fourth floor and its food and gear, and Fifth where the tables and chairs are still sittin' where we left 'em. Then I keep goin', up into sixth floor, an empty place that sends a wierd shiver through me for some reason I ain't quite able to remember... anyway, I heard this's where the Scout's kept whenever it ain't bein' used.

The ramp off sixth floor leads up to the rooftop parkin', a set o' two different-height platforms on the roofs o' floors five and six. Right in front o' me as I walk up the slope, I can see the Grayout Scout in all its glory, with Lorraine strappin' herself into the pilot's seat and Seth makin' sure his Pokémon, Charger, is secure in the power cell.

See, I been listenin' to Seth a little. He loves talkin' about his work! He says the Scout ain't so much a helicopter as it's a hovercraft, with a squarish frame what serves as a platform to stand on and spreads weight pretty evenly around a big central helicopter rotor scavenged from the old airport outside the city to the east. The pilot's chair's at the front and center, and four smaller rotors (controlled by Lorraine's joysticks and levers and stuff) are at each corner o' the frame; years ago, Seth and Evan cut some electric engines outta old vehicles lyin' around the city, repurposed 'em to turn the rotors, and hooked 'em up to work with Poké-electricity.

Made o' soldered iron, powered by Seth's buddy Charger, and held together with tough steel cables what came outta Evan's Ferroseed, the Grayout Scout's a labor o' love on them two's part: none o' that "duct tape and prayers" stuff the Quicksteps go with for their gear. Lookin' at the whole contraption gettin' ready to fly makes me proud to be a Grayout!

"Lorraine!" I yell, joggin' up to the Scout and walkin' to stand in front o' the vehicle where Lorraine can see me. "Boss sent me, I'm supposed to guard ya!"

Lorraine, sittin' in her pilot's chair, quirks an eyebrow at me. Now I realize she probably don' know much about me, on account she's always out on scoutin' missions. I must look pretty useless with my tattered coat and Buzz hidden away in my sleeve.

"Bore, right?" she asks.

I wince. I don't like bein' called that. But everyone calls me it anyway, so it ain't no surprise that's the name she heard. "Uh... Borden, if that's all right with you."

She gives me a smile, and it completely changes her old, sorta sour-lookin' face, lightin' it up real nice. "Well, welcome aboard, Borden," she says, warm-like. "Who's yer friend, there?"

I look down, and realize Buzz's actually crawled outta the rip in my coat sleeve and is wavin' one o' his four little legs at Lorraine. "This's Buzz," I tell her. "Funny, he doesn' like most people."

"I ain't most people," Lorraine says, winkin' at me like as if she's keepin' a secret. "Now get up here, and hold tight to them handles."

Lookin' closer at the Scout, I can see pairs o' handles soldered onto the metal platforms in six different places; I hop up behind where Lorraine's pilot's seat is and lie down on the steel plates, grabbin' on tight-like.

"Ready, Lorraine?" shouts Seth from where he's standin' in front o' the Grayout Scout. "Charger, do yer thing!"

The little yellow-and-black Pokémon— crouchin' strapped in on a platform what's restin' over top o' the Scout's center rotor— waves a stubby arm back, then stands up the rest o' the way. When he does that, his two ears what mimic the shape o' an old-style electric plug fit perfectly into the complicated-lookin' power unit held up above him by wires and cables.

"Ele... Ele-kiiiiiiii!!"

With a yell what starts out shrill and loud, gets even louder, and then cuts off sudden-like, Charger begins to crackle with electric power, little arcs of it jumpin' all over his body. Right away, the Scout starts up: an almighty noise sends Buzz scurryin' back into my sleeve. The huge central rotor is startin' to spin, lettin' out a sorta heavy drumbeat that I can feel somewhere way deep in my ears.

"Clear for liftoff?" shouts Lorraine, flippin' some switches on her controls with her right hand— I mean, uh, her only hand. That's gonna take some gettin' used to.

"Grayout Scout, y'all are clear for liftoff!" Seth yells back, wavin' for Lorraine to take her up.

We rise slowly up off the concrete, with all the tattered bits on my coat whippin' back and forth in the wind from the five rotors. Then Lorraine does somethin'— I can't see her through the back o' the pilot seat to figure out what— and we're movin' forward, out off the edge o' the parkade, the concrete drops away and we're flyin', we're actually flyin'!!

"Wooo!" I shout without thinkin', gettin' this big dumb grin on my face that I can't seem to get rid of. But who cares, I realize: ain't nobody can even see me gettin' all giddy, not even Lorraine! "Wahoooooo!!"

I stop yellin' after a few seconds, but the sound o' exhilarated shoutin' continues— Lorraine's screamin' the same as me, like it's comin' right from her soul. "...Whoooooooohoooo!! Hahaha!!"

Listenin' to Lorraine laugh without a care in the whole damn world, I feel all my worries drop away, too. For maybe the first time, I feel like I'm sharin' somethin' real special and unique with somebody else: the joy o' flyin'. Up here, I ain't Borden the Burden; I ain't the fuckup, that boy, the Bore. I'm just a kid on a flyin' machine, full o' the excitement o' the moment! I can't help myself: I start laughin', too.

I dunno know how long it is that this goes on, with nobody to hear us over the spinnin' din o' the Scout's rotors. Eventually, our laughter slows down and stops, and as it does I realize just how bad I don't want it to.

"Look," Lorraine shouts. "Down below. The rest of 'em... They look like ants from up here, yeah?"

I peer down through one o' the narrow gaps (spaces what Seth and Evan deliberately done left in between the metal plates o' the Scout,) and Lorraine's right: they really do look like ants.

"Up here, we rule the skies, Borden! You, me, Charger there: we all understand, yeah?"

"I... I think so!" I shout back, my heart still racin'.

"Before now, I ain't taken nobody up here who really done enjoyed it, y'know??" Lorraine yells over the thrummin' in the air. "Not till now. Thanks fer that; I was startin' to lose hope. Now, I can't see much that ain't right in front o' us, so you tell me if we get too far from the others, yeah? Your job's lookout 'til I say otherwise!"

"Ye... yes, ma'am!" I shout. I always done been kinda useless, down there— there was always someone who could do the same job better... I used to figure, hey, at least there weren' no pressure, right? Up here, though, I guess I have a real job: one nobody else can do. It's on me if we mess up, but... it's still actually kinda nice to think I'm doin' somethin' what matters.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 14:30, DECEMBER 13~~~~~~~~~~

"Gah, shit!"

I keep my arms close to my body defensively as I skid a half-metre backwards across the chocolate-hued stone floor of the cave. Across from me, visible in contrast to the dancing green light of Spirit-Tomb's fire, is a body double of myself: a Larissa made entirely of shadow, with eyes of green flame. It's stalking toward me in a fighting crouch to close the distance between us, every bit of its impossible substance ready for whatever move I might make.

The shade lashes out with a punch that connects solidly with one of my arms; but that kind of thing's barely even going to leave a bruise. I've learned to keep my guard up so strikes like these don't connect with my sides or chest. Spotting the opening I've been looking for, I take the initiative, leaning forward and reaching out to grab hold of the arm that struck me; but then I realize I've done so a moment too late as the shadow's fist snaps back to safety, leaving me seizing only air.

Realizing that my failed grab has left me vulnerable, I duck swiftly into a low crouch and am rewarded by the solid shadow's next blow— a heavy punch intended to punish my overextension— flying harmlessly over my head.

But now the fucking thing's left itself off balance! I think triumphantly. I tighten my fist and straighten my legs, rising up to strike at its abdomen with a slight twisting motion like the books taught me...

A kick blindsides me mid-punch, hitting me right in the soft tissue on the side of my body— about kidney height— and sending me flying a solid metre and a half. I skid almost all the way to the cavern's wall and curl up in pain, covering my head as best I can against further blows...

But no more strikes land. I look up, and after a few moments my seizing muscles let me uncurl enough to see my opponent again. The shadow double is standing quiescent, the green fires of its eyes dimmed to mere wavering sparks, as it always does when it has won.

~Good, Larissa Spirit-Wielder. Stand, and fight again.~ Spiritomb's many-voice speaks in my head, the whispers booming and echoing as though my skull were the cavernous size of the library basement Old Adam lives in.

"No! Time out!" I yell, getting to my feet with the help of the cave wall. "This is ridiculous! I can't beat this damn thing. How did you even make it learn this stuff so quickly?"

Spiritomb— that's the shorthand I've started using to refer to the ghostly creature that calls itself Spirit-Tomb— remains silent for almost ten seconds before responding; when it does, the multitude of whispers in my head send an unpleasant shiver through me, a reaction that's starting to become familiar.

~We replicated that which we saw in the tome of knowledge which you showéd unto us. We encompass much of conflict; to emulate a single art of combat is a mere nothing.~

"If you can trounce me— with zero magic, by the way— after one look through a fucking martial arts book, then what hope do I have of beating down a gang Pokémon?" I ask, frustrated and seething. "Am I even learning anything from this?"

~You are improving with speed that exceeds expectations, Larissa Spirit-Wielder. Two weeks past, you were a mere neophyte. Two weeks hence, few without training in the art of combat will stand against you, however powerful.~


~Allow us to demonstrate. May we?~

Where is the damn thing going with this? I wonder. I'm at least a little curious, albeit mostly angry. "Go right ahead," I tell Spiritomb, crossing my arms.


The shadow figure, a construct of darkness that Spiritomb calls a Substitute— the manifold whispers keep pronouncing the word as though it has a capital S— loses its shape, collapsing into an orb of blackness for a moment. Then it stretches out, growing larger than before and extruding four new limbs, until it's become a perfect replica of a featureless adult man. It faces me, eyes of green fire flaring to life, and squares up.

"Again?" I ask, frowning. "Okay, whatever." I assume the defensive stance I've grown used to.

The Substitute starts walking towards me, eyes fixed on mine, but it's not setting any kind of stance. Instead, after a few steps, it breaks into a run, one which seems oddly slow for some reason. Is Spiritomb going easy on me? I wonder, cold anger welling up inside me. If that's how it's gonna play, I wonder how valuable this Substitute thing is to it?

The shadow figure throws a punch, again insultingly slowly; I simply lean to one side to avoid it. Drawing on the cold core of my anger at Spiritomb's condescending attitude, I channel my will to harm into the palms of my hands, making use of my darker emotions like Spiritomb's been teaching me. Instantly, tiny licks of purple fire spring from the tips of all ten of my fingers, pinpoints of green twinkling along each tongue of heatless flame. The flames on my hands cast no light— the glow of Spiritomb's main body is still the only source of illumination in this cave, limning everything in the eerie Pokémon's sickly green tinge.

With a shout of frustration and rage, I lunge forward and tear my open hand through the slow-moving Substitute. My purple flames rip through its solid shadow-stuff with a feeling not unlike cutting tough meat with a knife, and proceed straight through to the core of cold green fire, shredding it to pieces behind me.

I whirl to face the well over which the jagged green-flame face of Spiritomb floats, glaring daggers at the damn thing. "What the hell was that??" I yell, taking a step towards it. "Are you playing with me?"

~Spirit-Wielder, calm yourself. We perfectly emulated the speed and skill of an average, adult human male.~

I narrow my eyes, trying to figure out what kind of trick Spiritomb is up to. Glancing around, I notice that my hands are still flaming with that power Spiritomb gave me. As soon as I stop wanting them there, the purple flames go out; with them, that cold core of anger inside of me melts just a little, and I relax... but only slightly.

"What do you mean?" I ask, deciding to be up front about my suspicions. "Is this some kind of trick, to give me confidence?"

~No, Spirit-Wielder. It is as we said: this was the reaction time of an average adult human bent on harm. These two weeks of training have been tailored to challenge you, accounting for the additional speed, strength and haleness of body you have earned through your bond to us. The rest of the world is not so designed to threaten you, given the powers you wield.~

I blink several times, my mouth dropping open; I'm too dumbstruck to even care how stupid I look. "You mean that's how slowly people actually move?"

~A trained fighter might attempt to match you in speed and strength. A mere thug is at your mercy even now.~ Is it just me, or is there a tinge of smugness to the whispering voices at the edges of my consciousness?

That smug attitude puts me on my guard. "So this isn't just you underestimating people? What if I asked you to prove it?"

There's a long pause, this time nearly a minute. I've grown used to Spiritomb's odd tendency to consider its words for long periods of time, so I wait it out. Then...

~Outside of here, to the south by southwest, is a patrol of two Trainers walking far apart from one another. Their Pokémon are young; weak. The Trainers, less so. They will prove as great a threat as their Pokémon.~

"Wait, you think I'm ready to go out there and fight Trainers?"

~Is this not the reason for which you have prepared for yourself a disguise, and hidden it away in darkness?~

I scowl. "How do you know about that?"

~We see much, Spirit-Wielder. The shadows of this city are eyes unto us.~ There's definitely a smug tone to the whispers this time.

Ugh! I got changed right before I hid those things! I think, disgusted. "Yeah, well, keep those shadow eyes off me when I'm in between sets of clothes, pervert," I mutter, glaring back over my shoulder at Spiritomb's jagged green-fire face as I walk away, headed for the stairs up to the surface.

~We do not understand the value you humans place upon your second skins.~ Confusion, radiating from that place in my head where Spiritomb's voice resides whenever I'm in its sanctuary. ~Why are you offended?~

Then the confusion in Spiritomb's mind-presence changes to a sense of realization, followed by unmistakable amusement. ~Do you imagine that we desire you as a mate, in the way that the Borden boy does?~

"...The hell? No, god no!" I shout over my shoulder, struggling not to turn around and stomp back in there like a petulant child. Gritting my teeth and fully aware that the damn thing can hear me no matter where I talk from, I face forward and start to climb the stairs, telling Spiritomb firmly, "And for the record, you're way off base about Borden. That asshole turned me in, so if you think he's in... in some kind of twisted love with me... well, then you sure don't understand humans like you think you do."

~We stand corrected, Spirit-Wielder. Until your return, we bid you good hunting...~

As I stomp up the stairs— pointedly ignoring the knowing resonance with which the whispers were delivered— the green glow of Spiritomb's flame fades to nothing behind me. Emerging into the afternoon light amidst the abandoned refuse of the scrapyard, I head for the dilapidated old administrative building where I've hidden my gear, grumbling internally.

Fucking arrogant-ass ghost...

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 14:30, DECEMBER 13~~~~~~~~~~

The Grayout Scout's landed five times in the hour we been travellin', so's to let Charger rest. Each time we done taken off, our job's been the same: fly ahead and circle round to both sides, check if we're bein' snuck up on. So far, nothin' out there but the old abandoned and ruined buildings, far as the eye can see. Right now, we're just comin' up on an old park, all overgrown bushes and little baby trees pushin' up outta the grass.

Lorraine's a lot o' fun to hang out with! I used to figure she'd be all work and no play, since she's always out on patrol, but she kinda treats flyin' like a game... or maybe it ain't that. It's more like she lives to fly, if that makes sense. I can understand why: even just ridin' the Grayout Scout, racin' over and past everythin', seein' it all grow small and far away and insignificant, that's already a rush... I can't rightly imagine what it'd be like to actually control the thing!

"Hey, Lorraine, what's that?" I ask, before rememberin' that she can't really turn to look. "Uh, it's kinda like a speck up in the air, way off to our right..."

I grab a tighter hold o' the handles as the Scout lurches to one side. Lorraine's puttin' us into a quick turn to take us straight back the way we came. "Good spottin', Borden," she says as her turn takes her field o' view across the thing I saw. "Them's the Quicksteps, all right."

I can hear the other Grayouts cheerin' as Lorraine brings the Scout down towards 'em; it ain't more'n five seconds after she lands the vehicle that Boss's got everybody quiet, though. I choose to stay where I am, since I don't exactly think Boss wants to hear any bad news from me.

"The Quicksteps," Lorraine says from the pilot's seat ahead o' me. "They're airborne, Boss; looked t'be about three miles off, north-northwest o' us."

I can see Boss's face from here; she's smilin'. A smile on Boss ain't never comfortin', but this one's straight-up predatory. "Well, well... A welcomin' party," she drawls. "Well, looks like we done got their attention... If it's a scuffle they're lookin' for, the Grayouts'll oblige, but nobody fergit: we're here to talk to that poser Merela, so when they give in we're done. Got that?"

She looks round at everybody, and gets a bunch o' nods— I notice Dorian don't look too happy 'bout that order, but he's at least keepin' quiet.

"Lorraine, git up there and signal Seth with yer light if ya see anythin'."

"Will do, Boss! Clear for liftoff?" Lorraine yells.

"Grayout Scout, y'all are clear for liftoff!!" shouts Seth from somewhere in the crowd o' Grayouts.

"Hit it, Charger!" Lorraine says, loud enough for the little guy to hear.


The Scout takes off, and as we rise straight up Lorraine lets out a whoop o' excitement and then yells to me, "Now's time to earn yer keep, yeah Borden? Keep them eyes peeled!"

I look through the gap in the floor o' the Scout, and see the Grayouts scatterin' in little groups o' three or four. Boss, Dorian, Jess, Jess's Pokémon Excadrill, and Seth all hop up on Aggron's back, and the big Pokémon rolls out. Flyin' over top o' him, Steelbird lets out a shriek, and I wince from a surge o' old, bad memories... before puttin' 'em aside and focusin' on somethin' else.

Shadowin' those guys, I see a glint o' somethin' shiny and red. I'm about to mention it to Lorraine— in case it's a Quickstep 'mon— when the thing walks through a bit o' sunlight and I get a clearer look at it. It's Lorraine's Pokémon, Scizor!

"Lorraine, Seth's got your Pokémon?" I ask, surprised.

"Yeah," the woman shouts back. "He's followin' along and guardin' Seth, since Seth's partner's way up here with us. I figure it's a fair trade; see, Scizor's a little too heavy fer the Scout!"

Far below, Scizor, who looks kinda like a giant blue-winged mantis covered in red metal, with two deadly-lookin' crushin' claws at the ends o' its arms, is jumpin' from shadow to shadow to stay hidden; and sure enough, he's followin' along behind Seth and the others who're ridin' Aggron.

The other groups split off; Garth stalks away on his own, is hidden by a buildin' for a second, and then never emerges, disappearin' so completely I barely believe my own eyes. Melianne, ridin' on her Pokémon Magneton— who just looks like a trio o' shiny metal specks from up here— pauses for a second to wait for Marty, who stands there talkin' with her for, like, half a minute before Melianne gets off and helps him lug his big pink lizard Slowbro onto Magneton's back. I got no idea what he said to even make her do that, but there ain't no doubt it's for the best: Slowbro lives up to his name, and if nobody gave him a ride he and Marty'd be arrivin' after the fight was already over.

Vivian and her bike, powered by her Pokémon Electrike, take off down the street, headed to circle around behind whoever's comin' toward the main group; I can't even hear the machine from up here, on account o' the noise from the Scout's rotors, but I can fill in from memory the unique electric whirr the machine makes when it gets rollin'.

Evan, Stern, and Allie, the third group, hang back with their Pokémon Ferroseed, Bulbasaur, and Mawile, prob'ly told by Boss that they should watch from farther away and come help if Quickstep reinforcements show up. I think they call that a 'reserve.' Boss's smart. Those six can all take care o' themselves, obviously, but they ain't the powerhouses o' this gang any more'n I am.

I look back up at the horizon, and see that the speck from earlier's turned into a formation o' flyin' Pokémon: three of 'em, pretty small on account o' the distance but gettin' closer every second. Lettin' my eyes drift down from there, I see what looks like a flash o' purple light near the ground, but when I look again there's nothin'.

Still, can't be too careful. "Hey, Lorraine, I thought I saw some purple down there..."

"Great goin', Borden!" Lorraine shouts back, more excited than I done expected. "Tell me, was it like a flash o' violet light?"

"Yeah, exactly! Right down there, ten o'clock..."

Lorraine turns the hovercraft about a little so's she can look, and right then, from the same direction but much closer, there's another flash o' purple light. This time we both see where it came from: a parkin' lot, but there's nothin' there when the flash ends.

"Good catch. I'll signal Boss that the Quickstep teleporters're on their way!"

Peering down through the floor o' the Scout, I'm almost blinded by a bright light what turns on on the underside o' the vehicle. Closin' my eyes and backin' up a little, I still get a fair bit o' it shinin' through my eyelids: damn, that's a bright light!

"You heard o' Morse code, Borden?" Lorraine asks.

"Yeah, like flashin' a light to somebody else to mean letters? That what you're doin'?"

"Right you are! Now our guys know trouble's comin'. Y'can look again, by the way."

I look back down, and see the farthest-forward group— Boss, Dorian, Jess, and Seth— hop off Aggron in another little parkin' lot, this one next to an abandoned convenience store, and prep their Pokémon. A glint o' sunlight off red metal tells me Scizor's hidin' somewhere on the rooftop.

"Gimme eyes on the sky, Borden," Lorraine says. "They ain't got any other flyers comin' from our sides or behind, yeah?"

I look around, scannin' the skies, and check below us through the gap for good measure. The only things I see are those three bird Pokémon, fast approachin'. Two are big; from this distance I can guess they're about the size o' a person: one with light brown feathers and a red crest on its head; another with dark blue plumage, red stripes along its wings, and a set o' three large red feathers atop three even larger white feathers sweeping back from its eyes. The third Pokémon's too small to see any details, and it's stayin' partially hidden, glidin' behind the other two. Aside from them, the skies're clear.

"Nope, Lorraine!" I yell over the rotors. "Still just those three!"

"Then it's time to get things Tesla up in this motherfucker!" Lorraine shouts, laughin' a straight-up unhinged sorta laugh. I like it way less than the one we had when we took off from HQ. "This is yer captain speakin'! Under ze-ro circumstances are passengers to stop touchin' the big metal parts o' this craft, got that?"

"Wha? I mean, yeah, but...?"

I don't get to ask any more o' my question than that, on account Lorraine's done somethin' with her controls what's started a deafenin' electric hum from somewhere behind me. The rotors were loud, but this's ridiculous.

"Lorraine! What the—"

I go stiff and nearly shit my God-damn pants with fear when there's this loud SNAP! o' electricity from behind me. My hair's already short enough to stand on end, but every last hair starts tinglin' and pullin' outward ever so slightly. Over top o' me, electric arcs are snappin' across to hit the top o' Lorraine's metal pilot chair, settin' me shakin' with fear they'll switch targets to hit me.

Ahead, all three birds shriek and veer off, tryin' to get the hell away from whatever just happened behind me (I'm too damn scared to look back; I'm just huggin' the Scout and prayin' I don't die!) One ain't quick enough; there's a loud CRACK! and the bird— the light brown one with the red crest— goes tumblin' outta the air with a shriek that sounds like "—Otto...!!"

Lorraine's practically cryin' with laughter; she starts turnin' the Scout around so's to chase the other two birds, who turn tail and fly the other way. They're faster'n us, but they're headin' straight for the horizon to the west, so they won' be interferin' with the fight down below. That's what counts, I'm guessin'...?

Speakin' o' down below... to distract myself from how scared I am, I look back through the gap in the Scout's panels, and see that things're goin' pretty well down there. There're two kids in Quickstep purple sittin' under guard by Marty and Slowbro; their Pokémon're nowhere to be seen. A third Quickstep is sneakin' through some bushes by the edge o' the parkin' lot, headed for Marty, who ain't lookin'. I'm about to tell Lorraine so's she can send Seth a warnin', but just then Garth pretty much appears outta nowhere, burstin' out from the bushes behind the kid and puttin' his sword-Pokémon Honedge to the Quickstep's throat.

A blur o' motion in the air below us reminds me about the flyin' Pokémon we done hit; it recovers from the Scout's lightnin' bolt and pulls outta its fall maybe twenty feet off the ground above the parkin' lot, flappin' to gain height and headin' west to catch up with the other two birds.

"I think we won, Lorraine!" I yell over the rotors and that terrifyin' hum, thankin' God there ain't no more arcs o' lightnin' strikin' her chair above my head. I don' think I coulda taken the stress for much longer!

"Sounds good, Borden! I figure we're done here," she shouts back, and to my relief she does somethin' that turns off the hummin' monstrosity behind me. I turn around in time to see the tail end o' somethin' big, round-lookin' and silvery as it sinks back into the tangle o' cables and machinery what's hangin' above Charger.

It takes us just over five minutes to head down and land, and when we do everybody's there to greet us— well, mostly greet Lorraine.

"Did it work??" Seth started askin' her excitedly. "Oh, man, Lorraine, you gotta tell me all about it!"

Grinnin' ear to ear, Lorraine gives everybody a nod, then joins Seth as he heads over to unhook Charger, chatterin' back and forth with him, somethin' about a Faraday cage. Allie comes bouncin' up to me with Mawile squeezed tight in her arms, and pesters me with all kinds o' questions about the Scout and what it was like to be on it. I give her kinda half-interested answers, on account I'm more curious 'bout exactly what's happenin' with the captured Quicksteps.

The three of 'em, all wearin' shirts in different shades o' purple by way o' gang colours, are bein' held in a little circle with Dorian and Marty watchin' 'em. They ain't tied up, but that doesn' matter— based on how the two who're even movin' are crawlin' across the ground, pattin' the concrete to try and figure out what's goin' on, I'd guess Slowbro's got 'em blind and deaf.

The two movin' ones look like twins: one's a boy and one's a girl, but they got identical straight brown hair to their shoulders, identical brown eyes, and identical lost, confused looks on their faces. God, how old even are these kids? They don't look more'n fourteen, that's for sure.

The third one's definitely older, but not by much. Maybe sixteen? He's a boy with hair cut real short, a little on the top o' his head but the rest buzzed down to stubble. He's sittin' up straight, eyes closed, waitin' to see what happens. I got no idea how you get a kid his age actin' like that— if it were me, I'd be pissin' myself and cryin', to be honest— but he really doesn' seem afraid o' us, even without bein' able to see or hear.

Then I see Boss headin' our way, and I remember that he probably should be. Boss's why I'd be scared to get captured by our gang.

"Marty, let that'un have his senses back," she says, walkin' past me and Allie.

"Yes ma'am, uh, Boss," Marty stammers. There's a long pause, then Marty pokes Slowbro with his toe. "That means let the older one go, damnit, Bro!" he whisper-shouts at his Pokémon.

Slowbro lets out a big dumb yawn. He looks at Marty. He slowly moves his gaze over to Boss. Then he goes back to starin' at Marty again.

"Sloooooooooooooow," he says, painful slow-like.

With a start, the kid with the short haircut opens his eyes, and darts 'em around real quick, takin' stock o' what's goin' on. Then he focuses straight ahead, like a robot or somethin'.

"I'll cut the chit-chat," Boss says, goin' over and sittin' down cross-legged across from him. "I wanna speak ta yer boss— that's Merela— an' until she has a word with me, me 'n' mine'll be cuttin' our way through yer territory." She fixes the poor kid with her scariest grin.

"You wish for the Commander to turn herself in to you in exchange for us," the boy interprets, his voice not waverin' even the slightest.

"If ya wanna see it in those terms, sure, I guess," Boss says, still with that expression o' hers that's half grin, half snarl.

"Commander Titania will not be parlaying with hostage-takers. She won't allow herself to be captured in exchange for mere soldiers," the boy responds, all business, not lookin' scared at all. I'm impressed, to be honest— and from Dorian's low whistle, so's he. "The Commander's priority is to protect those who are still in active duty. Threaten all you like, it changes nothin'."

"Ha. Ha, ha." Boss says, her smile gettin' wider and her laugh the exact opposite o' amused. "No, see, that weren't a threat, it were a promise. I ain't the type to wait about. So either she comes to me, or I go to her. Otherwise, come tomorrow mornin' she won' have a gang left ta protect." Boss says these last words in a whisper, right in the boy's face. On one side o' the kid, I can see his hand clenched into a fist and tremblin'... But only tremblin' a little. Dorian whistles again.

Boss stands up then, and walks away from the kid. "Yer free to go."

The kid stays stock-still for a second, then stands up slowly, as if expectin' to be thrown back on the ground. Everyone, includin' him, stares at Boss.

"I'm... I'm simply bein' allowed to leave?" he asks, his formal way o' speakin' fallin' away. It's obvious he doesn' believe what he's hearin'.

"Yeah... but here's the thing," Boss says, a real smile growin' on her face. "I know a kid with a good memory when I sees 'im."

Boss ain't even botherin' to turn around and look at the boy again, but in the silence every last one o' her words is clear as day no matter where you're standin'. "Ya remember exactly what I said, an' how I said it, too... don'tcha, boy." It ain't a question. I get a shiver down my spine at how smug and in control she sounds, and I'm reminded for the hundredth time today why we're all scared to death o' Boss.

"Th... that's correct, enemy commander." the boy says, stammerin' a little, mistrust obvious in his voice.

"Yer gonna call me ma'am," Boss purrs real quiet, almost a whisper... then she chuckles a little. "Let's hear it."

"...Yes, ma'am."

"Ya got yer message. Now git."

The boy turns and runs, straight west. Everybody stands silent for a long moment, and the only sound's the slappin' o' the kid's purple sneakers on the road.

"Sloooooooooow," says Slowbro.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 15:15, DECEMBER 13~~~~~~~~~~

The winter wind tries and fails to find purchase on my thick padded black coat with its tight-fitting hood. The chilly breeze can't make it through my heavy ski pants either, nor the scarf wrapped tightly around every part of my head but my eyes. I've prepared well: it wouldn't do to let my muscles get chilled on my first real hunt.

Clouds cover the sun overhead. The wasteland is quiet, since the birds— Pokémon and otherwise— have all long since flown south. There's no telling which tumbled-down wall, which overgrown set of bushes, which leaf-bare tree might hide a Trainer, so I proceed with the utmost caution. Moving from pile of rubble to pile of rubble, doing my best to keep myself hidden from eyes I might not know about, I make my way south and west as Spiritomb told me.

Briefly, I wonder if it's a good idea to trust the eerie thing's words. It's using me; there's no doubt about that. In my favourite novels, heroes are chosen for a task because of their valour and worthiness. But I'm no storybook hero; and no one in the real world— especially a creature like Spiritomb— gives someone power without getting something in return.

Of course, Spiritomb did feed me some line about getting rid of all the Trainers, a little more than two weeks ago when I accepted its... bargain. I don't know if I believe that's its real end-game, though. I haven't caught the thing in a lie yet, but damned if I'm about to trust it to be one of those "never tells a lie" kind of creatures of darkness. 'We will eradicate your enemies' is exactly the kind of tall tale I'd expect if an evil ghost needed some grand claim that sounded too outlandish to be a lie. And even if true, I doubt Spiritomb just wants to help fix Amarillo out of the goodness of its blackened heart.

So what I need to know is, if it wasn't being entirely truthful about its goals, what's Spiritomb's real angle? If it's really not after my soul, and this isn't some scheme to set me up and then desert me— saving my life and then training me to fight would seem like a lot of work on Spiritomb's part if it were only out for some sick thrill of betrayal— then what is the ghost after?

The issue isn't that I can't think of anything; it's that there are too many possibilities. Let's start with the obvious ones. First idea: to Spiritomb, I'm a willing pawn whose motives it knows (or at least thinks it knows.) It understands that I want the Trainers beaten, and that I'll go to great lengths to make that happen. So, whatever Spiritomb's goals are, if it sends me to the right places and plays on my desire for revenge, it can use me for its own ends. If that's the case, do I try to figure out what its game is and sabotage it? It would be counting on me not caring enough to do that... but it might even be right to count on that. As long as I can take out a whole bunch of those goddamn Trainers, do I really care what Spiritomb gets out of it?

...I guess I do, or I wouldn't be worrying about it right now; but I'll need to find out more before I can decide if I want to risk setting myself against a powerful creature like Spiritomb. So, moving on to the second possibility I can think of, which is that Spiritomb actually does share my goal: it wants get rid of as many Trainers as possible. If so, there are a few reasons I can think of why that'd be the case. First of all, if I were a nefarious evil ghost that can see out of every shadow in the entire city, wouldn't I want every possible obstacle out of the way? If Spiritomb makes an ally who eliminates lots of Trainers and draws the attention of the survivors, that's less people who could stand in its way or threaten it. Then it's free to pursue whatever it likes, probably taking captives and tormenting them or some shit like that. Which would make me basically the lieutenant to the evil overlord. Or a decoy. Not a great role to have in a story, but this is no storybook.

Entirely apart from those options, there's a third possibility that occurs to me, one that I'm not sure how I feel about: maybe Spiritomb just finds me amusing. Perhaps giving me some training and a measure of power to kill, then sending me out to wreak havoc on the Trainers I hate so much is Spiritomb's idea of fun. Objectively, this is probably the best-case scenario, since it means I'm being given power for nothing as long as I remain interesting. My pride isn't exactly the most important thing to me... but it still gives me the creeps, imagining Spiritomb playing with me like some disposable toy. And if that is the case, it could be that my death would be equally 'fun' to it; Spiritomb could be sending me out here to die. After all, there's no shortage of people bitter enough toward Trainers: Spiritomb could easily find and recruit any number of them to replace me...

There's no more time for such dark musings, though; as I peer cautiously around yet another wall that's a husk— a remnant of a long-destroyed building— I see two of my targets. A heavyset man in thick winter wear and a toque, his gear mostly black in colour, is standing with his back to me. A bright red piece of cloth is tied around his arm: red for the Smashers gang, I think coolly. Across from him looms an old abandoned gas station, the pumps long since stripped of metal parts due to its proximity to Grayout territory— the Grayouts' Pokémon love to eat steel, and they'll raid other gangs' territory for the stuff if they think they can get away with it. The building's still intact... though not for long, judging by the fact that it's drawn the attention of the Smashers.

See, unlike the Quicksteps to their west and the Grayouts to their north and east, the Smashers are known for not even bothering to break into a place and clean it out; they save time by smashing a building to the ground and then salvaging whatever's useful from the wreckage. It's quick, but wasteful; I'd guess there've been thousands of pounds of valuable-as-hell canned food crushed by collapsing buildings in Smasher land over the years, and even more buried deep under tonnes of concrete, never to be found. It's taken years for that attitude to catch up with the Smashers, because they're only now starting to run out of places to knock down... but as soon as they do, well, the local Warrens will really have something to worry about. I can think of few things more dangerous than a starving Trainer gang whose territory is made up entirely of unsalvageable wrecks.

I sneak closer, staying low behind some overgrown bushes that've taken over the grassy patch between the road and the husk I was using as cover before this. I find a gap in the hedge and peer through, careful to avoid moving quickly enough that my movements would draw the large Trainer's eye. From this vantage point, I can now see that in between the man and the building is a Pokémon. The Pokémon's body is small and spherical: maybe the size and shape of a melon, and blue all over except for a blocky sort of yellow crest on top and two tiny yellow feet. It's got sharply beveled hexagonal surfaces to it, surfaces which meet at angular edges that make the creature look like it's made of rock... which it probably is, given that the Smashers are known for favouring heavy Rock Pokémon or the powerful humanoid Fighter Pokémon that tend to be strong enough to throw such creatures about.

Sure enough, the Trainer waves at something down the road ahead of me and to my right, and another man and Pokémon— thankfully still not at an angle to see me behind my hedge— arrive at a run. This man is skinnier but taller, and has a windbreaker on over top of some bulky grey sweaters. He's wearing a red baseball cap for his gang colours; his Pokémon is a little humanoid creature with purplish-pink skin, no visible ears on the sides of its flat-sided barrel of a head, and a thicker brown growth covering its feet and pelvis almost like shoes and shorts. It has a tensor bandage wrapped around its stomach area and both of its forearms, and its skinny limbs look to be covered in pure muscle with barely any fat.

"Get Tyrogue on this, I gotta good feelin'!" the big Trainer with the red armband yells at the other man, making a single broad gesture that encompasses his own rocky Pokémon as well as the gas station.

"Yeah?" the tall skinny one shouts back. "Well, ya heard Gideon, 'Rogue. Pick up Rocks there and get to it!"

"Tyrogue!" shouts the Pokémon, with a tone in its squeaky voice that would probably be mistaken for eagerness if you personified it; but really, that sound is likely just how the eerily humanoid thing's cries are all the time. It scurries over to the rocky blue Pokémon on the ground, which curls its feet and crest down into an even closer approximation of a ball. Then the Fighter Pokémon— Tyrogue— picks up the creature called Rocks in two hands and begins to spin around like it's launching a discus (that's a disc of metal that's designed to take strength and technique to throw: I read about it in a book about an old-world sporting event called the Olympics.) Then Tyrogue lets go, sending the heavy-looking rock Pokémon hurtling at the gas station's wall.

There's an almighty CRACK!! followed by a moment where everyone present can see and hear the wall crumbling; then a huge plume of dust rises up from the base of the wall and hides everything. It takes about ten seconds for the sounds of concrete crashing to the ground to end; that's when my thoughts on how to best sneak up on these animals are interrupted by the first screams. Their voices rise into the air, laden with the baggage of terror and despair: scavengers caught in the wreckage of their once-secret— but now thoroughly discovered— Warren.

Oh, for fuck's sake, I think to myself. My job here just got a lot more complicated.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 15:30, DECEMBER 13~~~~~~~~~~

The afternoon sun's still shinin' down from above us, and I'm glad o' it on account the fuckin' cold would be even worse if the clouds hadn' all moved away to the south. Me, Stern, and Allie, we're all sittin' together in a corner with our Pokémon, tryin' not to be awkward about stayin' close for heat since we all got stuck with the shittiest coats outta everyone. Buzz's been tryin' real hard to help, scurryin' back and forth under my coat and vibratin' as fast as he can to warm me up, but it ain't doin' much good.

The rest o' the Grayouts are scattered all over this parkin' lot, some watchin' the two Quickstep prisoners squirm while others chat or watch the road for any sign o', well, anythin'. We been waitin' here for near three quarters o' an hour, far as I can tell, since lettin' that Quickstep boy go. So everybody perks up when Lorraine comes down with the Scout, prob'ly to let Boss know she done seen somethin'! Right about the same time, Steelbird shows up outta the sky and lands next to Boss where she's standin' right in the middle o' the parkin' lot.

Boss doesn' look surprised at whatever Lorraine's tellin' her; I'm guessin' this is all accordin' to whatever plan she's got, especially since she told us to wait here and then went all quiet watchin' the sky in the west.

Lorraine's noddin' at whatever Boss's tellin' her, and she runs back to the Scout after a minute or so. Seth helps her clear the hovercraft for takeoff, then hops aboard and hunkers down holdin' onto one o' the Scout's sets o' handles. I get a little pang o' envy at that: I wish I could be flyin' again, instead o' bein' stuck down here. It's cold as shit up there, but somehow I always stopped noticin' how cold I was whenever we was flyin'...

"Grayouts, t'me!" Boss shouts, and everybody scrambles. Me, Stern, and Allie, we get up kinda stiff-like, but head over at a jog so's to be standin' near Boss before most o' the others. Buzz scurries down my right arm and onto the back o' my wrist, peekin' out from inside my sleeve all curious-like to watch whatever's goin' on. Just then, the whine o' the electric motors on Vivian's bike rush up from behind me, and I near jump outta my skin as Viv screeches the vehicle to a halt a few inches from my back, joinin' the knot o' Grayouts who're gatherin' round Boss.

"Nobody do any talkin 'less I tell ya to, got that?" Boss drawls, lookin' especially at Dorian and Marty.

Marty nods a bunch o' times to show he done understood, but Dorian just looks away after a second or two o' meetin' Boss's eyes with a muttered, "Yeah, Boss."

Boss goes back to watchin' the sky to the west, and I take a look up, too, squintin' a little on account the sun's just startin' to dip down from right above us. Then I take a look at the horizon down the street the gas station's on, and I see what Boss's lookin' at.

Way off in the distance, somethin' big and flyin' is gettin' closer, real slow and steady-like, and it's surrounded by a swarm o' smaller flyers in a "V" sorta shape. The big flyer looks like a vehicle o' some sort— no wings or nothin'— maybe somethin' Poké-powered like the Grayout Scout?

We wait another five minutes, with everybody lookin' at Boss with concern every once in a while— we gettin' ready for a fight or no?— before anybody can see enough detail to realize what we're lookin' at.

"Holy shit, is that some kinda blimp?" Marty bursts out all o' a sudden. Boss glares at him— she said t'keep quiet— and he shuts up.

It sure looks like he's right, though! Up there, whatever that is, it ain't just big... it's round and floatin'. There's a basket hangin' below it, like a hot air balloon, and I can see movement in there...

Then someone starts speakin' through a megaphone: a woman's voice in sharp, clipped tones. It'd kinda remind me o' how Jess talks, if Jess was tryin' really hard to sound like she was from the military.

"Grayout gang, you are standing on the sovereign soil of Her Majesty, Queen-Commander Titania of the Quickstep Regiment. You are charged with tresspass and assaulting an officer of the Queen-Commander's law. Stand by to be apprehended."

Boss's lips quirk in a way that looks more like a sneer than a smile. "Marty, make yer Pokémon get my voice up there. An' stand by ta gray all their eyes out on my signal. Merela's feelin' confident, 'n' I ain't gonna let 'er stay that way."

Marty clears his throat uncomfortably, then tells Slowbro, "You heard Boss, 'Bro. Send whatcha hear up there to that basket, an' get ready to gray out everythin'."

Boss pauses for a moment, waitin' for Slowbro to take his sweet time like he always does (his name ain't no joke;) then Marty's 'mon starts glowin' purple a little bit, and Boss starts talkin'.

"This's Gail, Boss o' the Grayouts. Merela, get yer damn fool ass down here'n talk, or them dumbass 'soldiers' sneakin' up on us right now're gonna feel a world o' hurt." Boss signals for Marty to tell Slowbro to stop sendin' her voice, and he whispers somethin' to his pink lizard Pokémon.

"How dare you speak to the Queen-Commander that way?" responds a different voice— male— through the megaphone after a moment or two. "We have you surrounded. This is your last chance to surrender before we authorize our soldiers to use lethal force!"

"Just what I done expected," Boss drawls, grinnin'. "Do it now, Marty. Make it last 'bout ten seconds."

There's a few seconds pause, then everythin' goes silent and my eyesight goes completely gray. I freeze, scared as hell even though I know what this is. I only done experienced it once before, more'n three years ago when I was runnin' from...

...Well, I ain't gonna think 'bout that right now. Basically, Slowbro's got the power to change or take away what people see and hear. He's replacin' whatever everybody within maybe six hundred feet sees with a wall o' blank gray, a trick Boss likes on account it fits our name— the Grayouts. He's also takin' away sound, so I ain't even sure what's goin' on around me. It's damn eerie, and I can only imagine how frightenin' it'd be for people and Pokémon who don' know what's causin' it. I feel Buzz's little claws dig into my wrist a bit as he clings to me for comfort, and wince when he draws blood.

Then the blank's gone, and Slowbro teeters a little. "Slooooooooooooow," he groans, pantin'. Off in the distance, the blimp— which I can now see is a real huge Pokémon with purple skin, a yellow mouth shaped like an "X," and four white-and-yellow tentacle things makin' it look almost like a flyin' jellyfish— is startin' to drift slower and turn a little, like it done lost its way. Out in front of it, pullin' it forward on a tow cable, another Pokémon's flappin' around in confusion, recoverin' from losin' its balance in midair. The rest o' the flock is doin' the same, their "V" formation all changed into a chaotic mess.

"Great job," Marty tells Bro quiet-like, but he ain't quiet enough: Boss done heard him.

"Shut up, idjit!" she spits at him, her lip curlin' in that way that promises a world o' pain later. Marty flinches. Boss reacts pretty badly whenever somebody stops treatin' their Pokémon like a tool or weapon 'round her. "Get me talkin' with Merela again, now."

"...Yes, Boss. Do it, Slowbro," Marty tells his Pokémon, his voice all stiff.

"Slooooooooooooooooooooow," Bro moans, and then after a few seconds he begins to glow again.

"Yer pretend soldiers an' fancy elites ain't a match fer us, an' ya know it. We'd both lose quite a few, but after I blind 'n' crash yer fliers, it ain't hard t'capture yer guys 'n' take yer shit. Or we could parr-ley, if'n y'all prefer." Boss says, drawlin' extra long and grinnin' her meanest grin up at the hot air balloon Pokémon. "Any further ob-jec-shun to talkin' this out?"

There're a long ten seconds or so o' silence from the hot air balloon Pokémon hoverin' above the road ahead o' us. Then the loudspeaker crackles back on, it's the woman's voice again. "I accept your invitation. Stand down, soldiers."

Right then, a bunch o' trees and sets o' bushes around our parkin' lot rustle, and Trainers— almost twenty o' them, all in Quickstep purple, some with medals hangin' from their shirts— step out and salute. Then they just stand there, hands still on their foreheads and watchin' us careful-like for any sign o' trouble. I see a few Pokémon's heads stickin' up outta the greenery, too.

I start sweatin' a little— this many Quicksteps'd be a problem, even for us Grayouts. Buzz shimmies a little on my wrist, and licks the back o' my hand as if to say it's gonna be all right. I smile a bit despite myself; Buzz always knows how to cheer me up.

Slowbro stops glowin', pantin' heavy-like now, and Marty whispers to Boss— quiet-like, but not so quiet I can't hear— "Boss, Bro can't do that again. We're in trouble if she attacks us now..."

Boss's nasty smile doesn' shift a bit. "She don' know that," Boss tells him. "Shut yer trap 'n' keep it that way, Marty."

"Yes, Boss," he says, then shuts up smart-like.

Ahead o' us, the huge purple Pokémon is driftin' slowly straight down, 'til the basket touches down on the road about five hunnerd feet away. Four people get out, though I can't see any details yet. The big flyer what was pullin' the blimp— looks like some kinda huge insect?— gets uncoupled from the tow cable; then one o' the four Quickstep Trainers turns and walks towards us, with that Pokémon hoverin' along behind her. It takes about three minutes for her to arrive, but as she gets closer a bunch o' us end up with our mouths droppin' open.

The woman walkin' down the street at us is dressed in full military gear: green-and-brown camo and a helmet with a gold star spray-painted right in the center o' the front. Her hair's black and short, so short I can barely even see any comin' out from under the helmet. There's two long rows o' complicated-lookin' medals crossin' the front o' her gear, and she's got a wide belt 'round her waist with handguns— actual handguns— hangin' in holsters on either side. On her back, held in a sling or somethin’, there's the unmistakable silhouette o’ another gun: an AK-47 from before the Civil War, which’s what they call the big fight what made all us gangs. I ain't never seen an AK up close, but I done heard o' them! Them’s what the military broke out when the Rebellion were really gettin' powerful... meanin’ that’s a weapon that'd kill a bunch o' us right now if she grabbed it off her back.

The Pokémon buzzin' behind her completes that perfect picture o' readiness for violence. It's a huge dragonfly, six feet high with wings that stretch at least eight feet across. I can feel the wind comin' off those wings, full o' a teeth-rattlin' vibration like the Grayout Scout's rotors but faster and higher. A pair o' big white mandibles stick outta the Pokémon's mouth; its body's covered in green chitinous armor with red spots along the sides, and its huge red compound eyes look like they're sizin' us all up to see who looks the tastiest. I gulp a little, findin' myself hopin' it doesn' like the chubby ones...

She comes straight at Boss, movin' right through Dorian who doesn' make an effort to get outta her way. The huge man stumbles back as she shoulders past him, and I take a little breath o' disbelief. No way she's really that strong... Dorian musta just been taken by surprise... right?

The big bug lands on her shoulders, its wings goin' still, and she doesn' even stagger even though the thing's gotta weigh at least a hundred pounds. Stoppin' barely a foot away from Boss— uncomfortable close, though Boss doesn' take so much as a step back— the leader o' the Quickstep gang looks her right in the eye and says in that strict, harshly enunciated voice, "I'll cut to the chase, Gail. Underneath this combat gear, I'm covered in enough plastic explosives to blow your entire gang to Hell and back. If I go down, my squad hits the button. Got that?" Her Pokémon, its head on a level with Boss's, looms close, mandibles clicking as if it's ready to bite Boss's head off if she moves wrong.

Boss looks right back into the woman's eye, a sardonic smile playin' around her lips. Behind her, Steelbird opens his wings threatenin'-like, just as ready to strike as the Quickstep's Pokémon. "Gawddamn, Merela. Ya know I ain't here ta fight, or I'da played it a lot smarter'n this. I just got somethin' ta say ta y'all Quicksteps."

"Then stop wasting my time," Merela retorts sharp-like, "And say it."

Boss's smile completely drops away, and her face's dead serious for the first time since we got here. "The TA's comin'."

"Yer jokin'." Merela's professional attitude drops completely, showin' she's got a Southern drawl almost as strong as Boss's. "That bullshit? Yer... Ahem. You mean to tell me you're here to warn me about a fairy tale?"

"Ain' no fairytale. Somebody I trust ta know her shit, she done seen 'em. An' then I done checked, ta be real sure. Big ol' army on th'march, enough ta put yer crew o' posers ta shame."

"You're bluffing," Merela says accusingly, narrowin' her eyes at Boss. "And where would this army be, if it existed?"

"As o' five hours ago? Eighty-five miles straigh' northwest, as th'crow flies... an' comin' our way at a fair clip." Boss says. "Steelbird, settle down."

Steelbird retracts his wings, foldin' 'em down to his sides... but his eyes stay just as sharp.

"You, too, Yanmega. Stand down," Merela orders her Pokémon, causin' the massive dragonfly to retract its head from where it was hangin' in Boss's face and curl its huge body around her shoulders. Then the Quickstep leader reaches down to her belt and picks up a black rectangular thing the size o' her hand, which she brings up to her mouth before pressin' a button on the side.

A crackle kinda like the megaphone comes outta the thing as it starts up, and she speaks into it: "Titania to Oberon, I want a sitrep on sixty miles north by northwest, right now. You have special dispensation to use Intelligence Operation Foxtrot-Sierra. Do you copy, over."

The device crackles again, and immediately a scratchy male voice comes through it. "Copy that, Titania, sir. Engaging Foxtrot-Sierra... stand by."

About four minutes pass, during which time Merela and Boss both stand perfectly still, waitin' for the next thing to come outta the black box. Us Grayouts and Quicksteps all watch each other with an air o' palpable tension hangin' between us. Then the walkie-talkie (which is what this is, I'm sure o' that now!) crackles again.

"...Oberon to Titania, you won't believe this... but there appears to be an army headed our way. Do you want additional details right now, over."

There's a long pause as Merela looks at Boss, then back at the radio, then back at Boss. Keepin' eye contact with Boss, she presses the button on the radio again. "Proceed, Oberon, over."

"The unknown force seems well equipped with packs, rations, and technology that's unidentifiable at this distance. They have a vanguard and rearguard on the ground, and scouting squads in the air. It appears that some of them are carrying firearms. Numbers currently present include approximately one hundred human beings and anywhere from thirty to fifty Pokémon. Intelligence Operation Foxtrot-Sierra confirms they'll be making camp outside the civilian settlement of Hartley tonight, then engaging the Trainer presence there at approximately thirteen-hundred hours before proceeding in our direction at an uncertain time. Foxtrot-Sierra indicates a zero-point-zero-five percent chance of Hartley's Trainers delaying them for more than three hours, over."

Merela puts one hand over her forehead and eyes, lettin' out a long exasperated breath. "Falcon one-zero-four, Oberon. Titania out." Merela hooks the device back on her belt and turns to face Boss again. "Okay, you've convinced me that this army exists. What proof do you have that it's really the TA, and not just some friends of yours?"

"Maybe th'fact I didn' call up any such 'friends' when you'n yours moved in an' took over this whole section o' my territory, five years back," Boss drawls slowly and dangerously, her eyes flashin' with some real serious anger. "I ain't a patient woman, see? But the real proof, well, it's that I'm even standin' here righ' now, ain't it? I'm riskin' my neck, riskin' my gang... and I'm comin' ta my most hated enemies ta ask y'all ta help me."

Everybody, includin' Merela, does the biggest double-take you ever done seen. Boss is a legend through the whole city o' Amarillo. Everyone knows: the Boss o' the Grayouts doesn' show weakness. She doesn' admit defeat. And she doesn' ever ask nobody for help.

"...All right, Gail," Merela says, her voice quiet. "You've made your point. What is it you want from me and my soldiers?"

"Same thing I'm wantin' from my Grayouts," Boss says, almost growlin' the words out. "Ta fight the damn TA with everythin' we got. 'Cause ain't nobody walks into my city without my permission... an' they ain't even bothered ta ask." She says this last bit in a dangerous, bone-chillin' growl.

"I see," Merela says. She spends a few seconds thinkin', like as if she's lookin' for some way outta all this. "I'll have to confer with my Captains, but it doesn't seem we have much choice. That army will roll right over us if we can't match their numbers, and you're a smart enough woman to have seen that. You have my support, civilian."

Boss straightens up a little from the threatenin', seethin' forward lean she was doin', but somehow it doesn' make her look any less dangerous.

"Y'all will call me ma'am," she whispers, fire cracklin' in her voice as she stares Merela right in the eyes. "Not 'Gail,' not 'civilian.' Call me... ma'am."

Merela looks straight into Boss's eyes for a real impressive length o' time, and I can practically feel the two of 'em locked in some contest o' wills what I can't even imagine... until Merela's gaze finally drifts off to one side, and she gives the tiniest of nods.

"...Yes, ma'am."

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 15:30, DECEMBER 13~~~~~~~~~~

A Warren doesn't necessarily have to be underground.

Sure, most Warrens are tunnels or basements: parts of the city that best survived the heavy artillery bombardment that Amarillo, Texas received during the Second— ...during the bad times. But here and there, even within city limits, there are other places that escaped the destruction. Places that became aboveground Warrens; places that I make deliveries to, once in a while.

A storage container on a road in the industrial part of town. An elementary school gym, the only structure still standing on the whole campus. The third floor of the one remaining building in a derelict apartment block, with the windows boarded up and painted black to avoid drawing attention. An old industrial slaughterhouse's defunct walk-in freezer. Even a large mausoleum in the centre of the city graveyard. All places intact enough— and secret enough— that people can live, hidden away, with the illusion of safety.

But that's all safety is: an illusion, and a fragile one. As the screams rise from the rubble of the old gas station's wall and the billowing dust cloaks everything in a haze of blurred outlines and vague distant motion, the Trainers move in, loudly ordering their Pokémon to start taking prisoners... and I'm reminded of why it is that I've taken it upon myself to finally make the hunters into the hunted.

It's now or never. I tug firmly at the edge of my black scarf— ensuring it's still wrapped tightly around my face and won't slip up to cover my eyes or down to wrap around my throat— and tighten the drawstrings holding the hood of my coat on my head. Noticing that my breathing is shallow and laboured, I force myself to take a few deeper, slower breaths.

I stare at the backs of the two men as they disappear into the cloud of dust, and think about every injustice I've seen Trainers like these perpetrate. I remember watching helplessly from hiding as a Warren— one that I accidentally led a Quickstep patrol to— was systematically raided, the people taken away to serve as slaves to the Trainers. I remember happening upon a tumbled ruin on the edge of Smasher territory, and being startled by the last pained groans of a man whose legs and pelvis had been crushed by falling rubble when they demolished his Warren; they had left him there when it became obvious he couldn't survive.

My rage grows colder and colder, like a heavy lump of ice in my chest, as my memories begin to go further back; as they begin to grow more personal. I remember the stinging slap of Melianne's hand across my face. I remember the pain in my knees and elbows from stumbling to the floor on the way back to the slave pens after a hard day's searching amidst the ruins; I remember the ache of my ribs from Jess casually kicking me out of her way. And I remember the pulsing nausea of horror in my gut from the first time I saw a Grayout slave writhing in agony as Bulbasaur's Leech Seeds took root in his vitals and tore him apart bit by bit over the course of half an hour...

That's enough; I'm ready. I step out of the bushes, and stalk towards the dust cloud that hides the two Trainers and their Pokémon. Focusing my desire to hurt these pieces of shit— to make them suffer like their victims suffered, like I suffered— I will my hands to become weapons. My fury is more than cold enough: instead of producing little claw-tips from my fingers, like I did in my sparring match with Spiritomb's Substitute, the icy rage coursing through me instead causes my entire hands to burst into purple flames, trailing heatless fire all the way to my elbows.

I walk past the first bits of rubble; sight fades, the fine particles at first obscuring details and then rendering everything a blurry outline. My scarf protects me from the choking dust, and I continue to move forward despite the poor visibility, following the scattered sounds of coughing. Soon, I come upon two people crawling free of a gap in the tumbled-down wreckage of the gas station wall.

One of the two survivors is hacking loudly and repeatedly as they struggle to crawl forward; but the other one looks up at me as I draw closer, and I make out the indistinct outline of a mouth opening, perhaps to plead for mercy from the Trainers or shout a warning to the other scavengers. Instead, dust floods into the person's mouth as they take a breath, and they join the chorus of other people coughing amidst the drifting dust.

I glance around for another way forward, but the rubble is piled too high on either side of this gap; if I climb it, I'll be above the slowly settling dust cloud and give myself away. I resign myself to the next best thing: taking a silent running jump over the two scavengers. Landing amidst the rubble-strewn darkness of the gas station interior, where visibility is even poorer, I listen carefully.

"Hey Tyrogue, there's one standin'! Git 'em!" shouts a man's voice from somewhere else in the building. I make a mental note of the direction I think the Trainer's shout came from, and slowly sink into a defensive crouch, glancing around me warily for danger. Almost immediately, I notice a small, swiftly approaching silhouette appearing out of the dust cloud to my right. I prepare to defend myself, but then hold my strike as a fleeing figure— definitely human proportions— runs straight past me about three feet away, apparently not even noticing me. A child? I think, relieved that I didn't lash out without thinking.

"Roooooogue!" A shout from the same direction warns me of the approaching Pokémon, and I step out of the way, narrowly avoiding being seen as the distant silhouette of the tiny powerhouse flashes by; I note that it's moving much faster than the child did.

Perfect. With the Pokémon out of the way, I can make short work of the Trainer. I turn and begin walking— if I run in this poor visibility, I'll hit a wall or trip over rubble— toward the source of the Trainer's shout...


I'm brought up short by the unmistakable sound of a young child's shriek of fear and pain. For a long second, I hesitate; the fires in my hands die lower as the cold core of vengeful rage inside of me wars with a sudden instinct to help.

I growl and take one more step ahead, toward the Trainer— it would be downright idiotic to turn back nowbut inside of me, a memory is unfolding: a memory of being small and alone and frightened. A memory that I absolutely fucking can't have distracting me right now.

With a growl of frustration, I turn and dash back the way the child and the Pokémon went. It's only a second or two before I come to the edge of a bubble of relatively good visibility, where a narrow down-draft of wind has cleared the air.

I don't hesitate. The Pokémon, which its trainer called Tyrogue, is winding up to kick an already bruised-looking little girl who is curled into a foetal position against a pile of concrete wreckage. Its blow never lands. I lunge out of the thick drifting dust and strike out twice: one hand in a fist to drive into the Pokémon's shoulder and dislocate its left arm; the other held knifelike as I move to draw it violently across the Tyrogue's neck.

The creature notices me barely half a second before I make contact, and with quick reflexes it leans back enough to avoid having its throat sliced open; its arm, though, falls limp to its side, and I collide bodily with it, trying to pin it down with my weight.

A powerful kick— far stronger than the Pokémon's size would indicate should be possible— crashes into my side, nearly sending me flying. Instead of trying to hold on, I let myself roll off of the Tyrogue, absorbing the momentum of the blow and doing several more rolls through the dust. Planting one foot and whirling to my feet using the rest of the impetus of the tumble, I watch carefully as my enemy also comes to its feet with a single lithe jumping motion. It reaches across with its working right arm to try to relocate its left shoulder, but when its three-fingered hand contacts the shoulder I can see it flinch in pain. Frost crystals are forming at the edges of the bruise, and a few wisps of dark fire trail from the hand it used to try to grab hold.

Its distraction affords an opportunity: I race in, crouching low and balling my dark-flame-cloaked fists to fake a strike at the creature's groin area. I can tell that I've taken the Tyrogue by surprise with my speed; it ducks down ever so slightly, too, trying to guard low with its forearms.

I was counting on that. Instead of using the obviously dangerous flames on my hands, which the Pokémon is watching for, I straighten out of my crouch and turn my forward momentum into a sideways-sweeping kick at the Tyrogue's head, which is at almost exactly my waist height. My heavy boot slams into the side of its face, and there's a muffled SNAP noise accompanied by a shock that reverberates through my boot and into my foot and leg.

The Pokémon collapses into a limp, broken bundle that skids a foot or two to my left. Trying not to acknowledge the trembles— shock, I diagnose distantly— that are running through my body, I think, Poor stupid trained animal. Your only crime was having been taught to kill.

I look past the dead Tyrogue and see the battered-looking child, who has visible friction burns on her exposed arm and one side of her face. She's staring up at me with her mouth open in fear.

I'm about to say something to try and calm her down when I hear voices approaching, along with the sound of footsteps. I whirl to face them.

Amidst the dust about ten feet away, two figures appear: the smaller silhouette is staggering almost as if drunk, with one arm over the larger one.

"Branthon... What's up, man?" asks the slow voice of the first Trainer I saw, the big man. "Talk to me."

"Ghhh... Ack..." sputters the other figure breathlessly, stumbling a little further towards me and the terrified little girl. "T... Tyr... 'Rogue, he's..."

"Rocks! Over 'ere, on the double! What is it, Branth? Did somethin' happen ta..." the outline of the Trainer's head shifts and I can tell he's looking straight at me. "Shit, what the hell's that thing on fire over there?"

I realize that with my hands flaming, my hood up, and my heavy coat on, I must make a pretty strange silhouette. Good; I can work with that. I crouch, ready to strike out.

"We're under attack! Rocks, get it!" shouts the Trainer, sounding panicked. I take a single step toward him before a flicker in my peripheral vision alerts me to the Rock-type Pokémon taking a flying leap at my head.

I turn to face the blue-bodied stone Pokémon that's hurtling toward me, and draw back my right hand, rotating my whole arm and wrist for maximum impulse as I let loose with the strongest punch I've got.

The Pokémon contacts my purple-fire-wreathed knuckles— fortified by Spiritomb's dubious gift of power and reinforced by cold rage converted into actual raw force— and my fist goes right through its body, shattering the Rock Pokémon into a hundred pieces. I get another wave of that cold shocked feeling as I realize I just killed this one, too. Trying my best to distract myself from my growing urge to vomit, I glare at the rain of spinning pieces of blue stone that are clattering to the ground. You picked the wrong species to throw in your lot with. Humans just abuse whatever power we're given.

Nauseated or no, I'm not about to just stand here in a daze and get taken down like some idiot. I whirl, ready to strike down the Trainers if they're coming at me. Instead of attacking, though, the two of them are collapsed on the ground on top of one another, shuddering like they're having some kind of epileptic fit. It's kind of pitiful. Frowning, I approach them, and for a moment I'm concerned that I'm going to chicken out before I finally get my revenge.

Then the concern passes, and I settle with satisfaction into the cold rage that's expanded once more to fill the core of my body with ice. Fuckers like these are the reason I spent years of my life as a goddamn slave. They were gonna take that little girl over there and subject her to hard labour and who knows what else— there're enough rumours about what the Smashers do to the pretty ones when they get old enough. These men don't deserve my pity; they don't even deserve to live.

Taking aim at the bigger of the two Trainers, I raise one hand, preparing to plunge it down and put an end to his worthless life, a life that should've been cut short long ago before the fucker could hurt anyone...

Then a tiny, scared voice from somewhere far behind me hits me like a punch.

"Dad... Dad!! Please, somebody help!!"

The familiarity of the emotion in that voice is so tangible that I lurch in place as if I've been struck. The sound of it awakens an irresistible, roaring current in my head, pulling at my mind for a single moment in which I struggle; then I'm swept helplessly away by a flood of unwanted memory...

"Ms. Mannagan... Ms. Mannagan!!" I cry, tugging at a huge slab of concrete that is pinning a familiar— horribly, horribly familiar— arm to the sidewalk. "Somebody help her!! Please!"

But there's no one here. Just the distant sounds of shells whistling through the air, and the explosions that follow them. I don't know why people are hurting each other, I don't know why they're destroying everything, and I don't care why! I just want it to stop!

"Ms. Mannagan!! Please wake up! Please..." I whimper, shoving mightily at the concrete with my tiny five- or six-year-old hands but achieving nothing.

Then a voice, gravelly with pain but familiar, speaks from somewhere beneath the slab I'm trying to move. "...Rizz... Is that... you...?"

"Ms. Mannagan!" I squeak, my voice breaking with relief. "Please, we have to— hic— we have to go!!" I beg her, my plea interrupted by hiccups of mixed fear and relief.

"Oh, Rizz..." Ms. Mannagan's voice is full of something kind of like sadness, but different. "Please don't cry. I'm afraid... I'm not... going anywhere with you. Find somewhere safe underground and hide, little one."

"No, you don't understand!" I shout, tears of frustration running down my face. Why doesn't she get it? "It's not okay to be here! We have to go far away, Ms. Mannagan!!"

"Rizz..." Ms. Mannagan's voice sounds breathy and thin, as if she's just run a long way. "Listen to me, Rizz, little one... I have to leave you now. I'm going somewhere... Somewhere very safe. But you can't come there, not yet..."

I don't understand. "Ms... Ms. Mannagan? Why? Why can't I come with you?" My mind can't wrap itself around the thought that Ms. Mannagan, the only person who I can ever remember being truly kind to me, doesn't want me to go with her.

"Oh, little one..." Ms. Mannagan says, barely whispering now so that I have to lean down and press my face against the concrete to hear her. "I can't explain now... Just... know that... I love you. And... please... be... safe..."

Then she goes quiet.

"Ms. Mannagan?"

There's a brief lull in the bombardment, and the only noise breaking the sudden silence is the distant— very distant— sound of screams.

"Ms. Mannagan!" I whimper, then add my own scream to the cacophony of anguish that's growing louder and closer in every direction. "Don't leave me!!"

I open my eyes as I return to the present, feeling cold sweat soaking my scarf and the shirt under my coat. I'm breathing heavily, and everything feels surreal, almost as if my life here and now is more of a dream than the flashback I just experienced. The folds of my scarf beneath my eyes are wet.

Behind me, I hear whimpers. "Dad!!" the little girl screams again, and I can tell it's barely been half a second that I was gone... so short a time that maybe— if I move now— I can do for that girl what nobody ever did for me.

God fucking damnit, I think to myself with a surge of disgust, even as I turn and dash straight for the sound of the girl's crying. I'm turning into my least favourite kind of character: the bleeding heart who saves the innocents and lets the bad guys get away. I deserve whatever terrible thing happens next.

I arrive at a tumble of gas station fragments that are pinning a man to the ground, face-down. His head is partially buried in concrete gravel; he's likely unconscious, and if something isn't done quickly, he'll suffocate. From what I can see, there's no way to dig the gravel out from under him; more will just fill in to replace it.

Off to one side, the battered little girl from earlier is straining to push an irregularly-shaped concrete block with a metal support rod through it off of her father's torso. It's an eerily familiar scene, almost like living through that goddamn experience again from the outside. The practical side of me comes to my rescue, though: I evaluate instantly that, with the way the girl's pushing at the concrete block, if she manages to actually roll that thing over she's going to send the metal rod plunging straight through her father's back.

I stride forward and shove the girl out of the way, sending her skidding back a little bit to trip and land on her ass; she barely reacts except to stare at me, unharmed but obviously still in shock. Then I take hold of the concrete boulder with both hands, and heave it up and off of the man, throwing it aside into a clear space to my left. It's a feat of strength that would've been nigh impossible for me normally; but with Spiritomb's power fortifying my body it's almost easy.

I reach down and brush a few smaller chunks of concrete off of the man's legs to ensure he's not still pinned, and then grab him by the back of the neck and lift him clear of the rubble. He's not breathing— blocked airway?— so I give him a single solid slap to the back, careful not to use my full strength.

Thankfully, it's only been barely a minute and a half since the gas station wall first collapsed: not long enough for permanent brain damage. With a puff of concrete dust from his mouth, followed by a gasp of renewed breath, the man comes to and immediately starts coughing and struggling to free himself from my grip. He's bigger than I am, but his flailing is directionless so I remain perfectly unharmed as I set him on his feet and step back.

I've wasted enough time. I turn away from the man as he tries to recover his balance, and stalk back through the dust cloud— which is now rapidly settling to just barely above my head— quickly finding the two Trainers lying exactly where I left them. Good; I can finish the job now.

The fires on my hands have gone out, I realize— it must have happened back when I was thrown into the damnable, ever-grasping traumas of my past— and I coldly will them back to life with the renewed desire for vengeance against men who stand for everything I hate.

As I do, though, one of the two Smashers— the smaller one— comes to. Shivering uncontrollably, the man looks up at me. I look back into his eyes through the thinning dust; I can see the fear there, but also— thanks to my awful, stupid eye-reading thing— I see a horrible gaping pit of loss, far too similar to the feeling I was just forced to relive. Against my will, the twin fires on my palms gutter out.

Damnit, I want my revenge, so let me do this! I think with a surge of frustrated rage, hoping that my frustration will reignite the fires; but this kind of anger is too hot, too bright, for Spiritomb's dark gift to transform it into power... and besides, it's directed at myself. That won't work, as Spiritomb was quick to tell me early on in my training. I'll beat this motherfucker to death with my bare hands, if I have to, I decide.

While I've been struggling with myself, the Smasher seems to have mistaken my hesitation for mercy. Instead of running for it, though, he's crawled unsteadily over to the limp form of that Pokémon of his. The body of the two-foot creature barely even fills his lap; he pulls the Tyrogue's corpse close and starts weeping, and I wish I hadn't looked into his eyes because I know for a fact that he's not faking his grief.

I shift my gaze to the bigger Smasher, who's still unconscious. Gritting my teeth angrily, I consider whether I could maybe put this one out of his misery before he wakes up, and use that to work my way up to finishing off the other one? But then again, who am I kidding? My heart clearly isn't in it any more; and I can tell that taking vengeance now won't give me the satisfaction I crave.

Maybe this is because these men technically aren't even Trainers any more. They're still worthless brutes, but with their Pokémon gone they're easy prey to any slightly larger group of thugs. I suppose it's rather poetic that these two pieces of human garbage should have to experience what tens or hundreds of other human beings have experienced thanks to them: helplessness. They aren't the face of my greatest enemy any more, not with their Pokémon dead: they're just has-beens, stripped of any real power and saddled with grief and loss. Their punishment should be to live with that.

I'm out of time. The dust is about to settle, and I'm not about to let anyone see any details about me; people who see any part of my face are people who can link a Runner girl with a mysterious figure who just killed two Pokémon.

I gather myself and jump, putting every bit of my Spiritomb-granted strength behind it; my leap carries me all the way onto the roof of the remaining three-quarters of the gas station. A drop and roll takes me safely down on the other side of the building, and I dash off to the north, headed for the highway that serves as a border between the three gangs of Amarillo.

Underneath the highway are a network of maintenance tunnels that are easy to hide in; and if one of the occasional Trainer patrols that passes through there encounters me?

Then perhaps I'll make sure they're no longer Trainers when they leave.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 16:30, DECEMBER 13~~~~~~~~~~

Wait a Goddamn second... how am I airsick right now?

When I rode on the Grayout Scout, it was a rush and a real treat; but now, standin' in a huge basket shaped like a boat what's hangin' underneath Drifblim— that's the name o' the hot-air-balloon Pokémon the Quicksteps got— I'm realizin' this kinda flyin' is... well... less to my likin'.

Crammed in amongst everybody in this ridiculous contraption o' woven-together wood, well, it's kinda like standin' on a buildin'; but with a whole lot less stability and just enough swingin' back and forth to make me downright queasy. I really hope I don' hurl; It'd be bad enough to offend Merela, but what I'm really afraid of is that Boss'd have Steelbird skin me alive for embarassin' the Grayouts in front o' a rival gang.

To keep from spewin' my lunch— trail mix and anchovies guzzled down back on the Scout ain't exactly a great recipe for a steady stomach!— I avoid lookin' down at the ground far, far below us... (urp...) and instead watch the flyin' Pokémon what're coastin' in a perfect V formation 'round us.

The Quicksteps got flair, I'll give 'em that. Right out in front o' us at the point o' the V is Braviary, the Pokémon belongin' to Erin, Captain o' the Quickstep Flyin' Squadron. That bird's one o' the ones I saw earlier on the Scout: a huge Pokémon with a six-foot wingspan, dark blue plumage, and a crest o' red and white feathers fannin' out from a blue part o' his beak what Erin calls a 'cere.' Somethin' about the red, white, and blue on the bird gets me feelin' all wistful, like there's somethin' about those colours I oughta remember... but nothin' comes to me right now.

Flyin' behind and to each side o' Braviary are Pidgeotto and Honchkrow, two more birds belongin' to members o' the Quickstep Flyin' Squadron. The Quicksteps, they got codenames for their Trainers and Pokémon: them two birds're Gold Four and Gold Six, while their Trainers're Gold Three and Gold Five. Oh, and Erin's Gold Leader, with Braviary bein' Gold Two.

Erin done told me all this, actually, with this big proud grin all across her face; then she leaned in and admitted she's 'a huge nerd, t'be honest.' Quite frankly, I don't know what that even means, but she sounded stoked on it.

Aside o' those ones, they got a bunch o' other birds in the V formation; and in the slipstream behind the V, there's Yanmega— Merela's huge dragonfly Pokémon— pullin' Drifblim and all o' us along on a tough harness o' parachute cord.

Perched on the front o' the basket, where the prow o' a real ship'd be, is the Pokémon named Veritas. It's a wierd-lookin' bird with a yellow beak, a tall green body with red and yellow markings, white flag-shaped wings with red along the tips, and red feet. It's standin' with its wings folded down to the sides o' its body, starin' straight up at the sun to our right as we fly south toward Smasher territory.

"Yo, Erin?" I ask the short, chirpy lady, still tryin' real hard to distract myself from how close I am to throwin' up, "Who's Veritas with?"

"Ah, yeah, Veritas," she says with a wide grin, adjustin' her camo helmet. "I ain't allowed to tell ya much 'bout him! Super secret, y'know? But I can say he belongs to Cap'n Oberon over there."

She indicates a man with a real sad-lookin' face, who's just starin' down over the front end o' the basket and watchin' the ground go by underneath (I gotta stop myself from followin' his gaze, or else I really am gonna be sick!) Now I come to think o' it, the guy is standin' pretty close to Veritas.

"Yeah," Erin says cheerfully, "I hear they call that species o' Pokémon a Xatu, but Paul— I mean, Captain Oberon— prefers givin' Veritas a unique name."

"Who's even they?" I ask, a little cross on account Erin's still actin' way too chipper for me given how awful I feel right now. "It ain't like we got nobody to compare notes with."

"Ah, well, I ain't allowed t'say," Erin says, smilin' mysterious-like. "But out there, they definitely call that a Xatu. Veritas's kind ain't so uncommon out on the reserves, seems like. Somethin' about gravitatin' to spots with lots o' totem poles..."

I'm saved from Erin's way-too-cheerful chatter by a shout from up ahead in the basket. "Queen-Commander Titania! Target location is in sight, but there are two figures on the roof—"

A moment later, whoever's yellin' gets cut off by the loud WHOOSH! o' somethin' round and whitish-blue rushin' past the basket and into Drifblim. To my incredible relief, whatever it is doesn' seem to actually hit the blimp Pokémon, passin' straight though Drifblim's skin like he weren' there and continuin' into the sky.

Merela grabs up her loudspeaker— which I can see now, it's a white cone o' plastic with a handle and a button— and makes a run to the front o' the basket to talk through it. "This is Queen-Commander Merela of the Quicksteps, speaking on behalf of the Quickstep Army and the Grayout gang. We are here to talk; do not fire, I repeat, do not fi—"

The man called Paul, who I only now notice done spent the last few seconds walkin' up to stand next to Merela, reaches out calm-like and grabs hold o' his boss by the shoulder, cuttin' her off. He pulls her back from the edge o' the basket right as another sphere o' pale blue energy rips through the basket rim where she was standin', flyin' past and through Drifblim again.

"The next Aura Sphere will hit two of the four basket supports," Paul says in a quiet voice that I can hear clear-like on account everyone's gone quiet. "As a result, Drifblim will be forced to grab hold of the basket and render itself fully material, therefore vulnerable to the projectiles. We must Change Course." The way he done said those words makes it feel like the phrase's got some kinda special weight to it.

"Quicksteps!" shouts Merela at a normal volume, droppin' her loudspeaker so's it hangs on its string around her torso. "We're clearing the skyspace. Prepare for mass emergency landing!"

"Yes, Commander!" come a chorus o' shouts from the twenty-five-odd Quicksteps on board. They all salute, then each one o' them starts shouting an order to their Pokémon, one after the other instead o' all at once:

"Gold Nine to Gold Ten, emergency landing!"

"Gold Seven to Gold Eight, emergency landing!"

"Gold Five to Gold Six, emergency landing!"

After every shout, exactly one bird peels off the end o' the V formation. It continues like that for about twenty seconds before the entire V is gone. Durin' that time, those four white-and-yellow tentacles o' Drifblim's reach down and grip the basket-ship we're on, and right after that another o' those Aura Sphere things rips through both o' the left-hand ropes linkin' the basket to Drifblim's body. I don' like to think about what woulda happened if it hadn't been holdin' on...

"Gold Leader to Braviary, I'm comin' on board!" shouts Erin. Then the crazy lady runs to the edge o' the basket and jumps right onto the back o' her Pokémon, who adjusts his speed to fall back toward us and be there at the right time. "Gold Leader to Gold Two, emergency landing!" she shouts, then, "Whooooooo!" as the two o' them drop away.

"Lieutenant Puck," Merela says, "Prepare us for descent on Captain Oberon's mark."

"Yes, Queen-Commander!" says another young woman in sand-colored camouflage gear and a purple Quickstep sash around her waist, salutin' smart-like. "Drifblim, prepare for descent on Captain Oberon's mark!"

Everyone turns to look at Paul— uh, Captain Oberon, I guess. He's watchin' his Pokémon, Veritas, carefully; but the bird's still just starin' into the sun. I start to wonder if these people are maybe a little more cracked in the head than I gave 'em credit for...

Then Veritas flings out one flag-shaped white wing all sudden-like, and Captain Oberon says, "Now."

Drifblim makes a sound like a huge wet fart, and a gust o' cold wind— freezin', actually— rushes outta the bottom o' its body and over us all. Instantly, I get a feelin' like I'm fallin', and I realize that's exactly what's happenin': the basket's dropped out from under me, but it's fallin' just as fast as I am so I didn't see a difference! Almost immediately, though, Drifblim stops, the basket stops, and I almost collapse with the sudden feelin' o' my weight comin' back. In my sleeve, Buzz is clingin' to my wrist again, shiverin' with cold and alarm.

Turns out we dropped just in time: perfect-like in time, actually. Just a couple seconds after we took that short and frightenin' plunge, another one o' those Aura Sphere things goes WHOOSH! through the air where Drifblim's body used to be. If Oberon was really tellin' the truth earlier, then that woulda been bad, on account it sounds like Drifblim's gotta be fully solid to hold onto us like this...?

"Take us down gently. That was the last one," Oberon says calmly.

I'm able to look down now. I can see we're definitely over top o' Smasher turf, right in the middle o' it actually. Down below us, and stretchin' out all the way in every direction, the streets're covered in rubble: every last buildin' is wrecked. Smasher territory's like a graveyard where the last remainin' parts o' the old world go to die.

There's one exception to the rule that everythin's destroyed around here. Ahead o' us, there's a big warehouse-type buildin' with dirty white walls and no windows, only one story high but the highest point for miles around despite that, and the size o' a bunch o' ordinary buildin's put together. From what I done heard about Smasher HQ, it's an old paper mill they done took over way back when.

"It's okay, Buzz," I whisper at my forearm, where Buzz's scurried down to hide under my coat again. "We're gonna be okay."

Drifblim starts sinkin' lower in the sky, and below us I can see a bunch o' little figurine-sized people rushin' outta the wide buildin'. Uh oh. There's a lot o' Smashers, see; the most outta all three gangs in Amarillo. And if we can't stay up in the air, they'll be all over us in no time...

"Captain Oberon, stand by to communicate orders to all Quicksteps and Grayouts. Quicksteps, I want us inside that building," Merela says, real businesslike.

I catch a glimpse o' Oberon's strange Pokémon wavin' its white-and-red wings about, and somethin' really odd starts happenin' with Merela's voice. It's like she's talkin' twice: once so's my ears can hear, and once inside my head.

"Teleporting squad, execute No Exit Protocol, as per contingency plans for a takeover of Smasher HQ. One jump only; no saving your strength. Ground team, form a defensive wedge and keep them off us while the teleporters prepare. Grayouts, hold position inside the wedge; keep an eye on the sky; and launch ranged attacks where able. We'll be teleporting into that paper mill in approximately one and a half minutes."

Most o' us are lookin' unnerved by the sudden prospect o' a fight with the Smashers on their own turf, but Boss is grinnin' wide-like. Whatever's about to happen, she seems like she knows what's goin' on, which is a big damn relief on account I ain't got no clue.

I didn' realize we were goin' down all that fast, but it doesn' seem like much time passes before I feel the basket-ship we're on comin' to a gentle stop on the pavement o' a street. Everybody floods outta it and suddenly we— that is, the Grayouts— are standin' in the middle o' a real smart-lookin' diamond-shaped wedge o' Quicksteps, with their Pokémon on the outside o' the wedge. They done formed up real professional-like, and I can see some honest-to-God rearguards watchin' behind us even though all the Smashers look to be comin' from ahead! Honestly, it's makin' me feel a lot safer: these Quicksteps might just know their stuff, and right now it looks like they got our backs.

Grayouts, I repeat: hold position inside the wedge; keep an eye on the sky for enemy flyers; and launch ranged attacks where able, repeats Merela's voice inside my head.

I look up, and see a whole crowd o' flyin' Pokémon, with Braviary at the head of 'em, go whizzin' by overhead.

"Quickstep Flyin' Squadron, form up for low-altitude combat!" shouts Erin from her Pokémon's back, and the flyers spread out into a wide V formation before disappearin' behind some trees ahead o' us.

I notice that those two kids who were our prisoners for a while— the twins— are crouchin' off to my right, with two little Pokémon in front of 'em. The Pokémon are near identical: barely over a foot tall, with white bodies and heads that look like green caps, almost like colorful mushrooms that grew arms and legs. Both of 'em have narrow red semicircles— horns, I guess?— comin' out the front and back o' their heads.

Squintin' over at the little Pokémon, wonderin' what they and their Trainers're doin' out o' the formation, I gotta look twice on account the air above them's shiftin' and warpin', almost as if somethin' invisible was stretchin' the world.

These're the 'teleporters' Merela's been talkin' about, I think, gettin' a shiver down my spine as I watch the empty space above the two Pokémon bulge and then narrow like it were full o' somethin' other than air. Not only does it look creepy, but there's somethin' about Psychics— even laid-back ones like Slowbro— that gives most everyone the heebie-jeebies.

I hear shoutin' and the sounds of fightin', and look back up to see Pokémon crashin' against the wall o' Quicksteps and their Pokémon that're separatin' us from whatever's out there. I can't see much— most o' what's goin' on is blocked by the bodies o' the Quicksteps and their Pokémon— but I see puffs o' dust driftin' skyward from where Pokémon are no doubt hittin' the dirt and comin' up fightin'. I hear the sound o' Viv's bike— she done drove here, on account the bike weren't gonna fit on the blimp's basket— followed quick-like by a few shouts and a crack o' lightnin'. Then the wedge opens up and lets her bike through to join the rest o' us Grayouts.

To my right, Oberon's Pokémon, Veritas, has shown up and is floatin'— not even flappin' its wings, just levitatin'— right in the middle o' that clusterfuck where space is getting warped by the twins' Pokémon. The warps are bigger, and I look away in a hurry, feelin' queasy all over again (I just got over my airsickness, dangit!)

"T-minus ten seconds to teleportation," says Oberon's calm voice in my head. "All Quicksteps, disengage from opponents..."

"Flying squadron, strike!" There's an exclamation point clear as day in Merela's thought-voice— Queen-Commander Titania, I correct myself, in case this psychic link thing lets her hear my thoughts.

Then I hear Oberon again. "Vector foreseen and teleportation power approaching threshold. Brace for landing in ten... nine... eight..."

At that moment, the entire V formation o' flyin' Pokémon whooshes by overhead, towin' a hell of a wind behind 'em, nearly knockin' me over with the force o' it...

"Six... five..."

I see 'em race all the way around the edge o' the diamond-shaped Quickstep formation, a visible whirlwind towin' along behind 'em, and there's a series o' shouts and yelps from outside as the Quickstep Pokémon all hunker down and shove or throw their enemies away into the wind, sendin' 'em flyin' and buyin' some valuable time...

"Three... two..."

"Now, bring their leader with us," comes Titania's head-voice, cuttin' Oberon off for a brief second.

"...Copy that, Queen-Commander," Oberon think-says. "One."

Then the world fades away sudden-like, replaced by an eye-smartin' purple haze for exactly three...



Then the purple color disappears, and I find myself standin' in a huge dark room hundreds o' feet across with a concrete floor. Every other detail's invisible in the shadows except for the bulk o' a giant metal silo takin' up three-quarters o' the far wall, a small doorway far behind us, a makeshift skylight twenty or thirty feet up lettin' in a narrow spotlight o' sun, and a very angry-lookin' man and his Pokémon both standin' starin' at Boss and Titania in surprise.

The four of 'em— Boss, Titania, the man and his Pokémon— are visible on account they're standin' right in the middle o' the circle o' sunlight, like as if they were put there on purpose... actually, I'd guess they probably were. The rest of us, though, are here in the dark: I can tell I ain't alone from the real faint sound o' people and Pokémon breathin' all around me.

"Andre," Titania says, real cold-like it sounds to me. "It's been a long time."

"Yeah, Andy..." Boss drawls, a nasty grin spreadin' across her face that communicates exactly how much she's enjoyin' this confrontation. "It's almos' like ya done been avoidin' us."

The guy they're talkin' to has just gotta be El Jefe— that's pronounced 'ell hay-fay,' apparently it means 'boss' in some language or other— the leader o' the Smashers gang. The guy's got a reputation for goin' hand to hand with Pokémon for fun, if that gives you some idea o' the general idea o' how he operates. In person, he's a mountain uvva guy, six foot six and at least four feet across at his shoulders; brown-skinned, with heavy black facial hair, he looks like he could tear Titania, or maybe even Boss, in half with his bare hands. His oiled black hair's tied back behind his head, and he's wearin' a sleeveless winter jacket made o' brown polyester over a thick blood-red sweater and a pair o' blue workman's overalls.

El Jefe's partner is just as legendary 'round here as the man himself. Lucario's a Pokémon what stands on two legs, like a person. It's about five and a half feet tall, with paws like a wolf's or a dog's at the end o' its arms and a face that's just as canine-lookin'. Lucario has metal spikes comin' out o' the backs o' its forepaws and the front o' its chest; its black fur's got blue markings that cross its ears, face, arms, upper legs, and long tail, and a shock o' dirty yellow-brown hair replacin' the black fur on its torso. It looks ready to fight, just like its Trainer who's standin' beside it.

"You fucking dare walk in here and challenge El Jefe?" the huge man growls in a strange accent I ain't never heard before, takin' a threatenin' step toward Boss and Titania. "Me and Lucario, we will rip you gringo bitches apart!"

"Ah-ah-ahhh," Boss singsongs, holdin' up a finger and shakin' it at him, just like as if he was some kid who done given the wrong answer to a question. "We ain't here ta fight... but if the boss o' the Smashers'd rather make this a real takeover, we can always oblige...?"

She snaps her fingers, and Steelbird— standin' in the shadows right behind her— lets out a screech and clashes his wings together, sendin' a shower o' sparks rainin' from the dagger-sharp edges; for a split second, it lights up the whole crowd o' fifty-plus Trainers surroundin' El Jefe.

The fella gets an unhealthy-lookin' pale tinge to his brown-skinned face as the flash o' danger tells him how bad all this really is. "What... what the hell is this?" he snarls without takin' another step toward Boss and Titania, though it's obvious he wants to. "This is my base."

Titania speaks up, takin' charge o' the talkin' now that it looks like El Jefe is actually willin' to listen. "Yes, and we're here to help you make sure it stays yours, instead of becoming the newest base of operations for the Trainers' Association. They'll roll over you like a tide and leave nothing in their wake."

El Jefe splutters for a moment, clenching and unclenching his fists with helpless rage. "You... You insolent putas, I will...!"

Boss shoots him a glare; it shuts him up, on account he's still surrounded by her guys.

"You don't have to take our word for it," Titania says. "Oberon, show him."

A faint purple glow illuminates a tiny island o' light off in one corner o' the big room, and then I can see Veritas floatin' up, eyes closed, from where it was perched on the concrete next to Oberon. It opens one eye, and a beam o' white light shines outta that eye to land on the big metal surface o' the silo at the far end o' the room.

A movin' picture starts playin' on the silo's side, like them movies I faintly remember from a long long time ago (a time I try not to think about much,) with sound and everythin'. In the picture— which is all browns and reds but no greens— we can all see, as if we're hoverin' over top o' it, a huge campsite teemin' with activity. It looks t'me like a whole town, to be honest, on account I ain't never seen so many people in one place.

There's guards patrollin' the perimeter, Pokémon flyin' and carryin' gear and messages back and forth, and humans pitchin' tents and cookin' up food over campfires. There's so many of 'em, it's like watchin' ants! And there're some devices here and there that I don' recognize, probably some kinda technology like the Grayout Scout. The sounds rise up and outta the image to reach us: cracklin' fire, Pokémon cries, and the din o' many, many voices: voices talkin'; voices shoutin' orders; even a few singin'. A flyin' Pokémon flashes past our point o' view; Veritas's vision follows it at a distance as it circles down into a cleared patch and a Trainer dismounts from a saddle on its back.

Several other Trainers, their features indistinct in the flickerin' image, approach the flyer.

"Rin, what did you see? Report," says one, her voice fuzzy and hard to make out but definitely female.

The Trainer who just got off the bird Pokémon answers, her voice crackling a little with some kinda interference what seems centred around the newcomer. "Hartley's..." The sound and the picture both grow dim and distant for a few seconds, then they clear up when Veritas 'zooms in' on the speaker. "...no more than ten Trainers holding the townspeople captive. I counted five Pokémon of size class three, the other five seemed unevolved. I recommend a stealth rescue, treating this as a hostage situation, with reinforcements set up—"

The vision abruptly cuts off as Veritas closes its eyes, its energy expended. There's a long quiet as everybody's gazes turn to the circle of light where Boss, Titania, and El Jefe are standing.

El Jefe's face is like a thundercloud, expression dark and eyes all shadowy where his frownin' eyebrows block the sunlight. Then a slow smile spreads across his face.

"You think that illusions will fool me?" he growls. "Still, I must thank you for delaying! This little... performance, it has allowed Lucario time to ignite a beacon of a fighter's aura in this place; all of the greatest warriors of the Smashers gang, their Pokémon can sense it, and have by now found us here. Your tricks have done nothing but seal your defeat! Smashers!"

Three large garage doors, invisible in the darkness 'til now, rumble as Smasher hands throw them open to let afternoon light spill into the building. Bodies're crowdin' all the garage-type entrances— one on each wall except the wall with the smaller door that leads into the rest of the old paper mill— and it's clear we're well and truly surrounded. There's a long pause as we all size each other up: forty or fifty Smashers on the outside, versus fifty-odd Grayouts and Quicksteps on the inside. Buzz, clingin' to my shoulder under my coat, lets out a single little spark of electrical power, psyching himself up in his own way.

"The TA's already movin' in, y'know," Boss drawls menacin'-like. "There's been attacks on Trainers in Grayout turf fer months now... An' a week back, we finally figgered out the TA's armed some Runner girl with a Pokémon and sent 'er to soften us up."

"A story made up by cowards, to explain the loss of your weak Grayout patrols," snarls El Jefe.

Titania takes a step toward him, though the threatenin' effect is lost a bit on account she's gotta tilt her head back to look up at him. "The Quicksteps have lost people, too; they just go missing, soldier and Pokémon, without a damn trace. This isn't a fabrication, Andre."

"Stupid women," El Jefe says contemptuous-like, "I see what happens here. You are desperate, no? You fear that we will soon take your territory, so you bring me a story to make me lower my guard. It will not work. We will smash you here and now!"

"Be reasonable, Andre." Titania tells the Smasher boss in a real cool, even tone. "This is a fool's fight. Your rabble don't stand a chance against both of our gangs together!"

"You insult me with lies, thinking that I am stupid because I am a foreigner. Pah!" El Jefe spits on the ground at Titania's feet. "A Smasher is no coward. We will fight, and win, because you bring women and children to fight a man's battles!"

"Gawd fuckin' damnit, Andy, not that shit again," Boss says, her upper lip curlin' with contempt. "We think yer stupid 'cause yer bullheaded enough ta get yer entire gang killed fer pride, not 'cause yer Mexican!"

"Enough of this!" El Jefe shouts, "Smashers, attack—"

"Jefe!!" comes a shout from the little doorway leadin' to the rest o' the buildin'.

Everybody hesitates, and El Jefe holds up a hand sudden-like, tellin' his Smashers to hang on a sec.

"I know this voice. You are of my gang, and no outsider. Branthon, yes?" the Smasher boss says, pronouncin' the name all strange-like with his accent. "What is it."

"W... we got attacked," says another voice, echoin' through the big open space. Two men come staggerin' through the doorway, leanin' on each other. "...Some kinda shadowy figure. It came outta nowhere, and it... it killed 'em. It killed Tyrogue and Rocks...!"

The speaker, the larger o' the two men, starts cryin'. El Jefe's eyes narrow; he looks over at Titania and Boss, and I swear the look o' suspicion on his face could slice steel.

"Gideon, of the Smashers," El Jefe says slowly, turnin' to face the one who were talkin'. "Tell me. Could this figure have been a Runner? Una niña, a girl-child?"

"I... I dunno," the man says between pitiful sobs. "I guess so? It was maybe five-two, and it looked human, but... but it couldn'ta been, right? It... it killed our Pokémon! Our friends..."

"What did it look like?" El Jefe growls, his face a mask o' barely suppressed rage.

"Boss, I... I couldn't see nothin' else! The dust, and whatever this thing was, it was wearin' heavy clothes... I just... I just want my buddy back..."

The man's voice peters out, and for a few seconds his weepin' is the only sound in the entire room. The man leanin' on him slumps to the ground, lookin' a lot like he done blacked out.

"This girl-child... she was alone?"

"Y... yeah, Jefe," says the one who's still awake.

"You are both no longer part of my gang," El Jefe growls. "No real man of the Smashers is weak enough to be defeated by a mere girl! Elric. Tristán. Take them away, and put them with the other sirvientes."

Two Smashers come out from the doorway behind those two to grab 'em, with one havin' to sling the unconscious guy over a shoulder. The still-awake one doesn' even say anythin', just stares at El Jefe in disbelief as they haul him away.

Buzz, perched on my shoulder, lets out a whirrin' chirp o' concern, havin' seen the whole thing from where he's peeking through one o' the coat's many holes. "Yeah, Buzz," I whisper, "It doesn' pay to be a normal. I'm real glad I got you."

"¡Manolo! ¡Hawlucha! ¡Ven aquí!" shouts El Jefe, turnin' to face one o' the garage doors.

A man and a Pokémon separate out from the indistinct mass o' Smashers crowdin' the entrances; the two walk straight through the crowd o' Quicksteps and Grayouts to stand in front o' El Jefe. The man's wiry and lean, and he's got the same dark-brown skin color as his boss. His Pokémon's a strange-lookin' bird with proportions kinda like a human; it's three foot tall on account it's standin' upright on two legs. White feathers're coverin' most o' its body, but on top o' that it has colorful green wing plumage and a sorta cape made o' red feathers all across its shoulders and wingtips. Its face's covered in green 'n' red featherin' what makes a sorta mask, and an orange crest fans out on top o' its head. The thing looks ready for a scrap: the three little claws on the end o' each o' its wings are clenchin' and unclenchin' like as if it can't wait to get in a fight.

"Sí, Jefe. ¿Qué quieres?" the Trainer says, in that language I don't understand.

"Woman," El Jefe says to either Boss or Titania, not sure which (doubt it matters to him.) "If there truly was un ejército, an army, as your trickery bird showed... then where would it be?"

Titania takes it on herself to answer. "Outside of the town of Hartley, fifty miles north and twenty-five miles west from here. They will be camping there tonight, and invading Hartley tomorrow during the day, if our intelligence is correct. And it is."

"¿Oíste? Vete a ver si aquella puta está diciéndonos la verdad."

"¡Sí, Jefe!" the man says. "¡Hawlucha! ¡Vamos!"

He and his Pokémon turn and book it outta the buildin', with everybody partin' like water to let 'em through. El Jefe turns to Boss and Titania. "If you have told me truth, perhaps I will consider a... a, how do you say it, a cease of hostility," he says grudgingly. "But my Smashers do not need your help."

Boss sneers. "Ya really think yer rifraff o' thugs and spicks is gonna stand up ta that army? Yer even dumber than I thought, amigo—"

Titania, standin' next to Boss, throws her arm out quickly across Boss's front, startlin' her just enough that she stops talkin'. That's probably for the best, on account El Jefe was startin' to look like as if he'd try and punch her out.

"What she means to say, Andre, is that we all need each other's help right now," Titania continues, calm-like, as if she didn' just prevent a nasty fight. Her accent's comin' out a little more, though, which's maybe a sign she's worked up. "If that's really th' TA, then you 'n' I, we've both heard the stories: big city gangs goin' down like ninepins up north 'n' west— gangs bigger'n any o' us. Only way we even come close to matchin' that army's numbers is with all three gangs o' Amarillo. Together."

El Jefe takes a deep breath and then sits down cross-legged, with his Pokémon, Lucario, loomin' over him like a guardian. "We wait for Manolo to return. Then we speak. Until then, no more discussing. And no tricks! Lucario will know if your Psychics begin anything."

Ohhh boy, I think. This's gonna be a long wait, and real awkward, too. I sigh and take a seat, too, thumpin' to the ground with quite a bit o' relief— I realize I done been standin' in that flyin' basket for actual hours!— and others among the Grayouts start to do the same. The Smashers all stomp their way through the garage doors, not closin' them behind 'em so's there's still light.

Turns out the Quicksteps're just as stuck-up as the rumors say: every last one o' them waits to relax 'til Titania calls out, "At ease, Quicksteps." Even then, although they start lookin' around and stretchin' and stuff, they stay standin' up and keep completely quiet. The Grayout pride in me wants to call 'em posers, but really, I gotta admit it's downright impressive the discipline these Quicksteps got.

"Hey. Hey, Borden!"

The whisper from my right is Stern; he and Allie done snuck over to sit nearby me. "We really gonna fight that army?" he asks, eyes all wide. Damn, that expression makes him look as young as he is. I almost wanna lie and say he ain't gonna have to do that.

"We'll do whatever Boss says, I reckon," I tell him instead. I ain't a good liar, and it's a lot easier to just let Boss or Jess or somebody handle this kinda thing. "Ask Jess later."

"We're gonna team up with the Quicksteps an' the Smashers, though!" Allie whispers, excited-like. "Lookit all these strong-lookin' Pokémon! Ain't no way we can lose."

I didn' really think 'bout it that way, but it's real reassurin' how certain Allie is. "Yeah, Boss knows what she's doin'," I tell them, lookin' around at the Smashers sittin' down in little circles with their brawny-as-hell Pokémon, a short distance from where the Grayouts and Quicksteps are beginnin' to chat amongst ourselves. "We're gonna be fine, 'cause Boss always wins."

Outta the corner o' my eye, I see Oberon's Xatu, Veritas, swivel its head sudden-like to regard me with one eye. I jump and look straight at it, reflexive-like, but the Pokémon just makes eye contact with me and blinks— slowly— once, sendin' an inexplicable chill o' forebodin' down my spine.

I settle down to wait, feelin' a little bit more worried than I were before... though I ain't sure why that is.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 17:00, DECEMBER 13~~~~~~~~~~

It took me almost ninety minutes to make the trip from the gas station to Spiritomb's junkyard, even though it would've been less than an hour's travel if I hadn't been trying so hard to stay hidden.

I store away the dark blue ski pants and black coat-and-scarf disguise in the scrapyard building, replacing them with my sun-bleached grey jeans; then I throw on my usual outerwear of a concrete-grey windbreaker over a three-layer hodgepodge of thin jackets and sweaters. Swinging my heavy pack with its tricks and tools onto my back, I head for the entrance to my spooky mentor's lair.

"Honey, I'm home," I say sarcastically, quoting some book or other, as I arrive at the bottom of the steps that lead down into Spiritomb's unnatural cave. I've returned because I know the damn Pokémon's gonna have questions for me, and I want to get them over with.

~And how fared the hunt?~ Spiritomb asks, with an element of too-careful neutrality to the ghost's many echoing voices in my head.

"You know how it went. You were watching," I infer, arms crossed impatiently. "Cut the crap."

~Indeed, let us dispense with formalities,~ agrees Spiritomb. ~You chose to slay the Pokémon but spare the Trainers. Why?~

"I didn't feel the need to kill them this time," I say simply. "I've still got plenty of vengefulness, in case you were worried about that; but at the time, my heart just wasn't in it. Killing those men would've been meaningless."

~We do not understand.~ The judgment I had been expecting to hear in Spiritomb's cacophony of thought-voices isn't there; I sense only confusion. ~We know that you hate the Trainers, hate them more than anything in this world. We are concerned not that you will lose your desire for vengeance, but that you are suppressing it. This will weaken you when you most need your power.~

"I'm suppressing nothing," I tell Spiritomb coldly. "If anything, what I did was crueller than killing them: I sent them out there to live as normals. If they're smart, they'll hide the fact that they were ever Trainers, and join some Warren somewhere. If they're dumb, they'll head back to their HQ."

~And if they do return to their kind, will they not bring more of their ilk to seek revenge upon you?~

I give a mirthless snort of almost-laughter. "They won't get the chance. I've seen how the gangs treat non-Trainers who fall into their hands; I've lived it. We're slaves; meatshields; fuck-toys if we're unlucky enough to be pretty. If they go back to Smasher HQ, getting revenge on me is gonna be the least of their worries."

~Very well, Spirit-Wielder. We believe that you will do as you must.~

I frown. "That's it? No... no threats to take your power back? No demands that I show less mercy?"

~We promised that we would not gainsay your methods. The strength we have given is beyond our power to remove; it is for you to decide how to use it.~

"So you're not bothered that I didn't kill those two."

~We are, but that is irrelevant. You will do as you must, or you will fall trying. Until you do, we are behind you, Spirit-Wielder.~

I'm kind of flummoxed, to be honest. I hadn't expected Spiritomb to be, well, serious about not coercing me or interfering in my decisions... but, in retrospect, I actually have to respect how honest the ghost's been about everything; it has yet to go back on any of its promises from when I made my deal with it.

That's not to say I don't think it could still be lying about being unable to take its power back, or about anything else. It just means I'm surprised at how little pressure there is to do things Spiritomb's way. "Okay, well, I'm leaving."

~Good-bye, Spirit-Wielder.~

I turn and walk up the steps of brown stone, headed for the circle of evening sky at the distant exit, and wonder to myself if that wasn't too easy. Or maybe I'm just being paranoid?

...If so, good. In the world as I know it, paranoia keeps you alive.

End of Chapter 2

Intended Captures:
Difficulty Rating:
---2x SIMPLE + 2x MEDIUM + 3x COMPLEX (120k to 180k characters)---
Length: 159,514 Characters

Character Report:
Recommended Characters: 110,000 to 160,000
Characters Used: 159,514
Result: Within recommended parameters!
Chapter 1: Runner
Chapter 2: Gangster
Chapter 3: Leader
Chapter 4: Avenger
Chapter 5: Darkness Rising

Chapter 3 Prologue — Flames and Wrath

~~~~~~~~~~DECEMBER 14, 2011~~~~~~~~~~

Two women face each other across a stretch of pitted and rubble-strewn highway. One is younger— perhaps twenty years old— and slim: her straight, waist-length brown hair is gathered in a long ponytail down her back, hanging down over her thin red windbreaker. The other is a stocky woman of middling age, with a square face and powerful muscles visibly defined under a simple black turtleneck. Behind this woman slinks the black batlike creature she has named Noivern; it would be a head and a half taller than its Trainer if it stood upright. A white mane of fur grows from its neck and upper back, purple scales like a lizard's run along its belly and wingtips, and a bluish-green membrane stretches across the inside of its leathery wings. It twitches its huge round ears, effortlessly sorting minute intimations of danger from meaningless noises.

Wintry gusts of wind drive the last vestiges of autumn's fallen leaves though the air in a stream of muted brown and yellow. A few sparks drift through the air, too, carried by the wind from the burning frames of six greenhouses just off the road to the north.

"Am I speaking to Dolores, leader of the Trainers of Hartley, Texas?" asks the younger of the two women in a crisp Seattle accent.

"Well, since ya ask so nice-like, yeah," says the older woman in a gravelly voice, a humourless half-grin creasing her lips. "An' you'd be Rachel, right?"

"You burned the greenhouses," observes Rachel, a sharp edge of anger surfacing beneath her otherwise matter-of-fact tone of voice. "What, exactly, did you hope to gain from that?"

Dolores sneers, and retorts in her broad Southern drawl, "If me 'n' mine ain't gonna have 'em, neither are y'all."

Rachel's features twist briefly in fury, and a few sparks fly from the slim girl's brown hair to join the growing torrent in the wind. For a second, her ponytail rises into the air as though carried by a sudden updraft. Then she schools her expression and takes a deep breath; the sparks stop, and her hair settles back into its normal position. "Destroying those greenhouses was petty, and cruel. What if the people of this town starve because of you?"

The stocky Trainer spits on the concrete, making direct eye contact with her challenger. "Ain't my problem. Y'all's fault for not thinkin' o' that when y'all brought yer gang in."

"Don't you dare try and pin this on us," the young woman says through gritted teeth. "You..."

Then Rachel pauses, staring straight into Dolores's eyes; and her eyebrows rise with disbelief at something she sees there.

"...You didn't just do it for spite. You did it... to hide the evidence that's buried deep in the soil."

The apparent non-sequitur clearly means something to the other woman; Dolores flinches and then takes a step forward with clenched fists, her careless demeanour dropped in an instant. "Ain't no business o' yours! How d'you even know 'bout that??" she shouts, glaring daggers at Rachel.

Rachel responds to Dolores's outrage with a cold look of judgment, her eyes still locked on the older woman's. "I know a lot of things. Some of them, they're written there, in the dark places inside you. Others, I can guess. You didn't bother to give them a proper burial, did you? Just threw them into the compost..." Then Rachel's eyes widen in horror as she comes to yet another realization. "...With the first victim. How could you?"

"Yeah, well, I done what I had to do!" Dolores shouts defiantly, all pretense of calm now abandoned. "Now make your damn Pokémon show itself already! You a weaklin' waitin' for yer buddies to get 'ere, or we gonna do this?"

"...Oh, we're going to do this, all right," Rachel assures the older Trainer in a frigid, studiously even voice, sparks beginning to fly from her hair. The young woman's ponytail rises into the air once again and begins to strain against its ties. "But not because of anything so simple as your taunts. This fight might go better for you if you try not to make me any angrier. You have one more chance to surrender, before I make sure you live to regret this."

"Noivern! Now!!" shouts Dolores, gesturing violently at her bat-dragon Pokémon, which has been stealthily taking the opportunity to creep around behind Rachel while the young woman's attention was occupied. With a shriek that quickly grows unbearably loud and shrill, the black-and-purple creature unsheathes dark red claws from the ends of its wings and feet, then leaps at the back of the apparently defenseless girl...

Covering her ears against the eardrum-shattering sound just in time, Rachel turns her head, fixes her gaze calmly on the Pokémon as it hurtles toward her... and bursts into a violent pyre of orange-and-red flame. The ties holding her ponytail together turn to cinders in an instant, but the rest of her clothing seems unaffected; her long brown hair, instead of burning, billows outward behind her head to flutter amidst the flames like a silken cloud.

As the pillar of fire roars up from around Rachel, the updraft catches the dragon's open wings and hurls Noivern skyward like a scrap of paper. With difficulty, the Pokémon snaps its wings out at the peak of its trajectory and stabilizes itself into a glide, avoiding a bone-crushing tumble back to earth; but with its white mane completely scorched away and its face and neck covered in burns, Noivern seems barely able to do more than coast on the hot air rising from the flames. The threat from the dragon is all but neutralized, and Rachel turns her head again— slowly this time— until she is facing Dolores directly once more.

"Yeah," Rachel says in a quiet voice from the centre of the conflagration, the crackle of her fire almost drowning out her words, "You've done it now."


Chapter 3: Leader

~~~~~~~~~~KAREN: 22:00, DECEMBER 14, 2011~~~~~~~~~~

Hi there!

My name's Karen— Karen Davison. I'm the nominal head of the Trainers' Association's Logistics and Supply Division... which is to say that I'm a lone twenty-four-year-old with the stressful and overwhelming job of trying to raise donations for a good cause from a continent's worth of people who have very little to give, then arranging for said donations to be delivered to twenty-five moving targets all across that continent. And you know what? I wouldn't trade this job for anything, because it's making a real difference.

You see, fifteen years ago, strange and powerful creatures called Pokémon started appearing in the world, and they've been popping up ever since— more and more kinds with every passing year— though no one's ever found out where they're coming from. Human beings soon discovered that we could tame these mysterious creatures; and eventually, we learned to use them to fight.

Oh, hang on a sec. I just got a notification on my AIM— AIM is an online chat app that's been widespread since the nineties, when it was the best thing around and software development stopped being a thing— and based on who it's from, this message is probably important.

22:04 Now chatting with RAvery.
22:04 RAvery: Karen, 25th Company's got a situation here in Hartley, TX that you might be able to help us with. Please?
22:05 Kares4UAll: Oh dear! I'm listening. Fill me in
22:05 RAvery: Okay, here goes...

The notifier stating that "RAvery is typing..." appears and stays there, and I let out a long slow breath. I can already tell this one's gonna be a doozy.

Let me explain what's going on. The first few years after Pokémon started appearing were relatively peaceful for the continent of North America, though disasters caused by wild Pokémon— earthquakes, fires, tornadoes— quickly became an issue to contend with. My country, Canada, chose to treat Pokémon with the same laws that governed domestic pets, a decision which came with its own slew of problems; but near the end of year three, the government of the United States to our south, which saw Pokémon not as pets but as weapons— weapons with destructive potential that exceeded even firearms— banned them outright.

Telling the growing population of Pokémon Trainers that they didn't have the right to keep their partners didn’t go over well, dividing the already partisan populace of the U.S. along very clear lines: in favour of Trainers, or against them. North America’s real woes began with a civil war that engulfed the United States four years after the first Pokémon appeared. During the two years that followed— a period now known as the Second American Civil War— there was widespread destruction of U.S. infrastructure by artillery strikes and misused Pokémon techniques alike; the country's society fell into chaos; and when the rebels who won the conflict went to form a government that could start rebuilding everything, a great tragedy occurred. The generals of the defeated U.S. military attempted to achieve a pyrrhic victory by launching a nuclear strike at Washington, D.C., scattering the majority of the people who had gathered to form a new government. The self-sacrifice of a pacifist hero saved untold numbers of lives, but when it was all done with, the panic and chaos of the evacuation left its mark: groups of Pokémon Trainers formed gangs and moved in to take over the city, with no one left to stop them. The new status quo spread outward from there: the strongest were those with Pokémon, and they banded together and took what they wanted. Well-intentioned Trainers who protected those weaker than themselves were quickly swept away by brutal gangs who had more supplies and more power due to their willingness to overpower, rob, and even kill their victims.

A flood of refugees fleeing north out of the collapsing States put pressure on the Canadian government, and Trainers who had failed to establish themselves as part of a gang in the States began to fly, swim, or teleport across the border in search of easier places to claim as territory. The Canadian police were overwhelmed, unable to suppress the spread of the gangs; rather than repeat the bloody mistake of sending the army against Trainers, the Canadian government dissolved its executive branch and military. It didn't try to govern, but instead reshaped itself into the New Canada Corporation, a passive force of stabilizing influence that collected taxes to maintain roads, infrastructure, and public services such as hospitals and schools. It also ceased to fund police activity, reasoning that the loss of life implicit in sending officers to fight Trainer gangs could not be justified. Or at least, that was the official line— really, they realized that making themselves an enemy to the Trainer gangs was a great way to get their organization taken apart.

Because of this, the New Canada Corporation didn't hold any power of its own: it hired Trainers to collect taxes, but otherwise stayed out of the way. Leadership of each community fell to the communities themselves, and so the war in Canada was a socioeconomic one rather than a military conflict: most cities and towns came to be ruled by gangs who took what they wanted while the Corporation remained behind the scenes; this destabilized the more delicate balances of commerce across Canada and resulted in the widespread extinction of factories producing old-world luxuries such as computers, as well as cutting the supply lines that provided complex necessities like antibiotics. The efforts of the New Canada Corporation, however, kept food reasonably obtainable and amenities— electricity, radio, ambulances, and even a low-bandwidth satellite Internet network— available to all who paid taxes.

Over the course of ten years or so, some cities 'went dark' as gangs, rebelling against the new status quo, dismantled the New Canada Corporation's local operations out of spite, taking down power plants or demolishing radio towers. In other population centres, vigilante Trainers grouped up to strike back at gangs; a few even succeeded, taking control and making their cities paragons of stability with a quality of life that approached pre-upheaval times. Such cities, equipped with a part-time police force of volunteer Trainers, drew immigrants, making them overcrowded but still much safer places to live than gang-ruled ones.

National borders, with no enforcement of them, were more or less meaningless; they dissolved, and the state of things in Canada began to bleed over to the northern States in places as the vestigial U.S. governmental organizations adopted New Canada's model. The rest of the States, though, remains a desolate mix of abandoned ruins and empty ghost cities, with a vastly reduced population eking out a living under the heel of Trainer gangs.

...Which brings me to my current situation. I hope I didn't talk your ear off!

I represent the Trainers' Association, or TA: an organization dedicated to establishing a new and better version of what's been lost. It's a group designed for the purpose of founding a new civilization, one in which non-Trainers are protected from those who would use Pokémon to oppress them. The Association's work over the last several years has been to create and sustain safety— and even a modicum of civilization— for the entire U.S. West and Midwest regions, a grueling but rewarding job that's taken every bit of resourcefulness and resolve my volunteers and I could muster.

Last message from RAvery at 22:05
22:12 RAvery: The gang that ruled Hartley up until now called themselves the Green Thumbs. They kept the population under their heels by controlling access to the food grown in the greenhouses at the edge of town; no one was allowed to scavenge or hunt unless the Thumbs' leader, Dolores, approved it, and they divided the spoils of those outings, too. When they got wind of us, the Green Thumbs knew they couldn't win, so they torched the greenhouses. Now it's the beginning of winter on the prairies of Texas, and that town's got nothing to eat. I need to know if you can source food for two hundred for the winter.

Oh dear, I think, my heart sinking. Poor Rachel must be desperate if she's even asking. I know Rachel to a fiercely independent young lady; she almost never asks for more than the steady stream of supplies her people need to operate effectively, and she knows I don't have much more than the bare minimum.

22:13 Kares4UAll: Thanks so much for coming to me with this, Rachel. I'm afraid it's looking grim, but let me check if we've got any surplus at all.

Such are the struggles of an organization dedicated to fixing all the world's ills. The majority of this amazing work isn't my doing, of course. It's more an indirect result of the strange tendency of things I start: nearly everything I begin seems to grow in unexpected ways. More than a decade ago, as a gesture of compassion to my childhood friend Camilla whose parents were killed in a fire started by a wild Pokémon, I founded a group called Camilla's Rescue Team, intended to respond to Pokémon-related disasters. Over time, our priorities shifted from responding to accidental misuses of Pokémon to protecting non-Trainers against deliberate violence, and the Rescue Team evolved into It's Not Right, an international information and support network that kept tabs on situations across North America, reached out to non-Trainers in need, gave them the knowledge we had, and helped them as best we could. There was simply too much need, though, and we were treating the symptoms of systemic cruelty, not the cause; I often felt like I was drowning in the whole continent's suffering.

One day, though, in the city of Seattle where Camilla had gone to intervene in a very serious situation, there appeared a girl named Rachel who turned everything upside down with a single preposterous suggestion: that it was time to stop waiting for the world to change. That it was time to make it change.

And then, impossibly, she started to simply do that. Pulling together a ragtag crew of her friends, some of my operatives, and even somehow a whole ex-military gang of our enemies, she began directing them all in an audacious assault on the very paradigm of 'us or them' hostility that's forced every inhabited city in the States or Canada to either pay benevolent Trainers to protect them or else be ruled by a gang of thugs. Instead of just defeating her foes and settling for that, Rachel— inspired, as she often reminds me, by her beloved Ellen— took it upon herself to save every last person and make the world a better place.

Since then, my new job has been to make sure that she and her group— the Trainers' Association's Protection Force, which has grown from a motley band of thirteen Trainers and their Pokémon into an army of more than two thousand five hundred— are fed, clothed, and supplied with everything they need as they spread across North America, liberating oppressed people who have long since given up on anything getting better. There are twenty-five companies of the Protection Force now, each a hundred people on average; they're a large organization for a ruined society like ours, but tiny compared to the landmass we're trying to cover.

With a sigh, I turn back to the laptop that's sitting on the desk in front of me, glancing around as though trying to see some resource other than the same room I've spent day after day in for three years now. Electric lights illuminate a small featureless room in one corner of the old abandoned building complex that used to be my elementary school; a year or two ago, several of us in the TA moved into the place, hooked its (thankfully intact) electrical system up to generators, and made it into a permanent Trainers' Association office. Search as I might for a magical answer to Rachel's need, nothing has changed since I last looked: the single door to my right and the night-darkened window to my left are the same as they ever were.

I bring up the Excel spreadsheet that's always open on my laptop, then click into the "Food" sub-sheet, selecting the entire column labeled "Nonperishables Surplus (kg)." I total them up and come out with a truly dismal number. Without much hope, I total up "Perishables Surplus (kg)" as well.

Last message from Kares4UAll at 22:13
22:15 Kares4UAll: I've got twelve kilograms of perishables for you. And five hundred grams of nonperishables, if that helps.
22:15 RAvery: ...You mean that's what you can get me right now?
22:15 Kares4UAll: I mean that's what I can get you by the end of the week, including projected donations between now and then. Those numbers could be higher, but it's more likely they'll be slightly lower. And there's no rushing them; the teleporters are scattered across the continent until tomorrow.
22:15 RAvery: You've gotta be kidding me.

I'm not kidding, though I wish I were. It's been dark out for hours, but I'm still only three-quarters of the way through the projections for next week's logistics. The steady flow of material support for the TA is equal parts heartening and frustrating for me: it's great that we're able to feed our people, but the limited resources are stretched thin and my job isn't getting any easier. By the end of tomorrow, I have to finalize a plan to successfully coordinate the transport of sixteen metric tonnes of food, tents, batteries, generators, assorted electronics and tools, and medical supplies from their donors to twenty-five moving targets— the Protection Force companies. To do this, I have at my disposal the services of sixty-five Psychic-type Pokémon, each of whom has a different maximum weight capacity and teleport range. It's like a puzzle designed to give you a headache.

For lack of anything more meaningful to do, I double-check the math. It adds up to the same two numbers.

Last message from RAvery at 22:15
22:18 Kares4UAll: I checked again, just to make sure. We have barely enough to feed all twenty-five Companies minimum survivable rations, and that surplus I mentioned was originally going to help provide for six families injured in the heavy fighting in Kansas City. Moving the food farther will leave those families to starve and stretch the Psychics to their limit, maybe even require Camilla and Wes to double up on trips. It won't feed Hartley, and I can't justify it. I'm so sorry, Rachel...
22:19 RAvery: It's okay. I know you're doing your best, Karen. We'll manage somehow. Thanks
22:19 RAvery has logged out.

I groan and let my forehead drop gently onto the top of the desk. This whole time, I've been listlessly dragging the cursor around the screen on the Excel spreadsheet, selecting and de-selecting that dang Surplus column, and it's becoming increasingly clear that there's no way I'm getting anything more done tonight.

I sigh again. Time to call it a night. I hit Save— no sense taking chances— and minimize the window. I'm just collecting myself to stand up and close the laptop when I notice something on the Windows desktop that shouldn't be there. I keep my files supremely orderly.

"RunThisIfYouWantToTalk.exe?" I murmur to myself, reading the file name. "What in the world...?"

Thing is, I definitely didn't download this. In fact, I haven't ever downloaded anything on this laptop, it's my work computer. All it has installed is the stuff that came with its state-of-the-art operating system, Windows 2000 (again, software development isn't exactly anyone's priority nowadays; software from the year 2000 is the latest.) The rest is Excel spreadsheets and text files.

So why does my desktop sport an executable that I never put there?

On the spur of the moment, I double-click the .exe. A plain command prompt window with a black background pops up, and text begins to cross the screen.

[Image: attachment.php?aid=256]

I watch as the underscore next to the word "message" blinks three times, then the window closes abruptly and a simple Notepad document— with "Untitled - Notepad" at the top of the window— opens itself.

[Image: attachment.php?aid=257]

I sit back in my chair, eyes narrowing as I think about what I’m dealing with here. This message is interesting, shady, and maybe even a little bit sinister... but I do believe I've been presented with a mystery.

I love mysteries.

Okay, mysterious hacker, I think. I'll bite.

On a new line, I type in "Y, why?"

[Image: attachment.php?aid=258]

Then I press Save, exit the Notepad doc, and close the lid of my laptop.

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 09:00, DECEMBER 15~~~~~~~~~~


"Yeah, Rae?"

"If anyone ever tells you the people they call 'heroes' have it easy? You have my permission to punch them in the teeth."

Ellen smiles sleepily, adjusting her head so that it rests a little more comfortably on my shoulder. "Okay, I'll remember that. Can I ask why?"

"Of course," I say, running my fingers absently through her waist-length hair. "Most people think having authority is the way to get what you want. But really, it means that when you show up, people expect you to fix the unfixable, and then they get mad if you can't. There's no glory in being everyone's hero, love. Saving the continent is a lot of pressure; not to mention a freaking hard job. Zero out of ten, would not recommend."

"Mmhmm," Ellen murmurs, wrapping her arms around me and squeezing gently. "Well, to me, you're more than glorious enough."

I relax into my lover's embrace, grinning at her shameless ego-stroking. She knows I can use the reassurance; it feels good to be appreciated out loud, especially by the one person whose opinion matters most to me.

"Rachel! Rachel, there you are!" shouts a distant voice, accompanied by a stream of excited yap yap yap yap yap yap!! noises that are growing steadily nearer. "Come down, we need you!"

My smile fractures a little, though I don't lose it entirely. "Sorry, beloved," I whisper to Ellen as she reluctantly lets go of me and sits up, wiping the sleep out of her lovely hazel eyes. "Duty calls."

"It's all right," she says with that grateful smile of hers, the one that always melts my heart. "I love you. Go make me proud, like always."

The morning sunlight is shining out of a clear sky, a pleasant change after the night's heavy rain. It's been almost a full day since the liberation of Hartley, Texas; but the problems just keep stacking up. From the sound of it, it's time I got back to solving them as best I can.

I stand up on the roof of this rusty old metal silo, where Ellen and I have been sitting leaning against each other for the past hour or so. The cluster of four or five old metal cylinders are arranged by the side of the pitted-concrete surface of the highway. Each one is about ten feet high; there are more of them behind us, huge defunct storage containers twice and ten times the size of these.

I hop down from the silo just in time to be ambushed by a large, yapping canid Pokémon with messy grey fur, sporting a cute red leather harness covering his chest and back. "Woah, there, settle down, Poochyena, you're gonna— Oof!" I'm cut off as the Pokémon collides with my midsection and nearly knocks me over.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry!" says the out-of-breath voice of Poochyena's teenage Trainer as she hurries across the highway to grab her Pokémon's harness. This overzealously affectionate Pokémon belongs to Fay, a doctor-in-training apprenticed to my mother; Fay is a sweetheart who wouldn't hurt a fly, so it's appropriate that she's learning the healing arts.

"Poochyena, you can't do that! You're not tiny any more!" she chastises her Pokémon in a worried tone.

"You can say that again! I remember when he barely came up to my knee," I say with a much-needed laugh. "And his legs aren't as stubby as I remember. Keep an eye out, Fay; provided his size is anything to go by, he might be in the process of evolving; if he gets any bigger you'll have a bona fide riding dog!"

Behind me, I can hear Ellen laughing too, likely at the mental image of Fay— a slender little wisp of a girl— jostling about on Poochyena's back. Fay blushes deeply, and I take pity on her. "I'm sorry, we're not making fun of you," I explain, trying to avoid breaking down into helpless giggles, too. "It's just that, well, you in a saddle on Poochyena's back is a hell of a thought. The two of you are both adorable."

"I... umm... thank you, Rachel!" Fay says, smiling, her face still flushed pink. She meets my eyes; I catch a glimpse of green petals and brightly coloured flowers on the surface of her soul, in the split second before my gaze flinches away to stare at her nose instead.

...I should explain what that was all about. For the last five years— ever since I first formed my bond with my Pokémon partner, Sunshine— I've been able to read people's defining traits in their eyes in the form of symbols. I don't just go reading everyone I meet, though; I find the experience far too intimate, so I try to avoid eye contact with those who wouldn't be comfortable with my accidental prying.

"Umm, I do need you to come with me, though," Fay says, not appearing to have noticed my reaction to meeting her eyes. "They've discovered something that might be a solution to Hartley's food problem, and they need your input—"

A surge of relief rushes through me, and my face lights up. "Fay, that's fantastic news! Everyone'll no doubt already be at the command pavilion."

Fay blinks a few times— her features a perfect mask of astonishment at my sudden shift of pace— and stammers as I grab her by the elbow and begin racing us both across the empty highway, headed for the large, orderly campsite on the other side.

"Y... yes," she finally says over Poochyena's excited yapping, as we skirt around the patch of burnt earth and crisped vegetation that was once the site of the Hartley greenhouses. “They asked me to bring you there.”

On our way into the outermost fringes of the encampment, we pass a patrol of two Trainers— they wave at me as we go by. The camp is laid out in an orderly fashion, starting from the command pavilion and moving outward in the rough shape of a wheel, with carefully cleared thoroughfares as the spokes. The lodgings for our volunteers are a hodgepodge of different kinds of tents— polyester, cotton, and even deer-hide. In and around the tents, one hundred and four human beings are resting, or talking seriously with the leaders of their platoons, or warming themselves around campfires or Fire-type Pokémon, or bustling from place to place with arms full of gear ranging from the simple (rope and parachute cord, Swiss Army knives, first-aid kits, and the like) to the high-tech (water condensers, floodlights, electric stoves, and the solar-charged battery packs or gasoline-burning generators we use for power.) Everything, from the tents to the tech, comes from donations to our cause by supporters to the north and west.

It's not just the humans who are involved in keeping things running. The calls of Pokémon all over the campsite, and the occasional thump of heavy feet as one of our larger fighters moves from place to place hauling gear or people, form the pulse and lifeblood of the campsite. There are exactly one hundred Pokémon in the Twenty-Fifth Company: almost all of the Vanguard’s humans are Trainers, because this group's job is to be on the front lines of a long and difficult conflict.

Oh, right— I still haven't properly introduced myself!

My name is Rachel Avery, and I'm the decision-maker for a group called the Protection Force: the twenty-five-hundred-strong conflict-oriented branch of the Trainers' Association. The Association— which is most commonly known as the TA— is an organization of volunteers dedicated to protecting people from those who would use Pokémon to oppress them. We, the Protection Force's Twenty-Fifth Company, are the newest of only twenty-five groups on the front lines... but the Force is just one part of the TA, a network of tens of thousands of like-minded individuals— Trainers and non-Trainers alike— whose jobs include: rebuilding or shoring up old housing and farming infrastructure; re-establishing public services like education, electricity distribution, and hospitals; or serving as a Pokémon-empowered police force to protect the people from the rogue Trainers— remnants of disbanded gangs— who roam the countryside engaging in theft and banditry.

A group of two and a half thousand people and their Pokémon takes a lot of organizing... and with the help of my team of experts, that's what I do. As a result, right now I have a meeting to attend, to figure out how we can best help the people of Hartley.

"Thanks for coming to get me," I tell Fay, smiling warmly at her as we arrive near the middle of the camp. "None of us can afford to go too long without doing our jobs; I'm glad you came to remind me of that. Now, I should let you go so you can do yours, am I right?"

"...Yeah, I'd better head back," Fay agrees with a nod, "Catherine'll be frantic!"

She salutes awkwardly, then races off to the north, in the direction of the medical tent where my mother, Catherine Avery, spends most of her time. I watch Fay go for a moment— smiling to myself at her earnest eagerness to please— then turn to face my destination.

Welcome to the command pavilion: the beating heart of the Twenty-Fifth Company of the Protection Force — a group that's popularly nicknamed 'the Vanguard.'

The command pavilion is a huge red-and-white polyester tent covered in a blue rain-guard, both of which are held up by strong, ten-foot-long carbon-fiber poles designed to lock into each other. If it were used for shelter, it'd easily house fifty people; instead, it's home to the foldable desks, generators, laptops and radio equipment that keep the Vanguard’s units in communication with each other and allow our one hundred Trainers and one hundred Pokémon to function as a cohesive quasi-military force.

"Okay, what's this solution I've heard about?" I ask, clapping my hands together as I walk into the pavilion through the large entryway.

Several people turn to regard me with a variety of attitudes. One is a drab woman with dull black hair, wearing a drab purple skirt and a drab... well, actually, a really old-fashioned but surprisingly classy purple blouse. This nicest part of her garments doesn't suit her; Platoon Sergeant Gloria is the kind of woman who can— and does— make anything she wears look drab, right down to the lacklustre expression of dislike she turns on me as I walk in. It's clearly meant to be offensive, but just like everything else Gloria does, the look is so diluted with uninteresting plainness that I can't even work up the effort of getting annoyed at it.

"Hello, Commander," she says, with an utterly underwhelming tinge of weak vitriol to the honorific.

The second of the three people present— a woman in her mid-twenties with long brown hair and grey eyes that are perfectly complemented by her silver jacket— shoots Gloria a haughty glare, clearly not as indifferent to the woman's tone as I am. "Is that any way for a soldier to speak to a superior officer?" Camilla asks primly, coming to my 'rescue,' as per usual, with that excessively confrontational attitude of hers. Camilla is basically the opposite of Gloria— equally efficiency-oriented, but fiery and passionate, with a tendency to make a huge deal out of both important things and very small ones. Thankfully, Gloria— instead of turning this latest outburst of Camilla's into a fight— just shoots her a bored Gloria look.

The third person in the command pavilion is a man I first met five years ago, and whom I respect immensely: my father, Stan Avery. His hair is the same dark brown colour as mine, and his eyes are the same deep grey ones I see whenever I look in a mirror. His face bears the deepening lines of a person who's spent a long time caring a great deal but showing as little as possible; his every movement carries a familiar kind of focused intensity, as though whatever he's doing right now is the most important action he'll ever take. In every way that matters, I've come to realize, we resemble each other a great deal.

Like me, he doesn't waste time getting caught up in Gloria and Camilla's drama. "Well, Rachel, the solution is a dangerous one that involves exploring unknown terrain," he says, addressing my question concisely. "We need to make a decision, quickly, and for that we need your input and your approval."

It's never made sense to me how quickly everyone simply accepted that I was in charge, when all this began. Nowadays, it seems to be common protocol to run major decisions by me, even though everyone involved is eminently qualified to make that call themselves. I've come to terms with it, though; it ensures I know what's going on at all times, and on some occasions has led me to step in and redirect people who didn't have all the information... which I suppose is why the military used to do it that way, back when there was a military.

"Okay, fill me in."

Dad nods. "It's easier to show you than to tell you. Gloria; Camilla: if you will?"

The two women nod at him, then, in perfect unison despite not so much as looking at each other, gesture for their partners to come forward. Floating behind Gloria is her eerie Pokémon, Claydol: its roughly cylindrical body and oversized head are dark grey and shaped like two squarish spinning tops of similar sizes, with a single glowing pink eye set into a ring of seven other darkened ones that circle its head. It floats forward to hover in front of its Trainer, lone eye closing as it focuses.

Standing behind Camilla is Wesley (or Wes,) Camilla's partner, who is of the incredibly rare species known as Alakazam: he has a pointy goatlike head and long yellow whiskers like a moustache; his yellow-skinned body is shaped somewhat like a human's, but spindlier, with a thick brown carapace covering his torso, shoulders and knees. When Camilla gestures, Wes teleports from behind her to in front of her completely without any fanfare— not even the flash or whoosh of psychic energy I've come to expect from "lesser" Psychic-types.

Now directly next to each other, the two psychics each gesture in their own way— Claydol's stubby little maraca-shaped limbs and Wes's inhumanly graceful hands with their three long fingers— creating a haze of pure psychic energy that appears between them and then resolves into a perfect square 'screen' that hovers in front of me and Dad.

In the screen, I can see what is essentially a bird's-eye view of the region we're in. The northwestern corner of the detailed map shows Hartley and our camp; then our immediate environs disappear off the edge as the view starts shifting slowly like a side-scrolling video. The view begins to zoom gradually in and out, without any reason to do so, and I realize this is literally a bird's-eye view. "Is this one of Pidgeot's memories?" I whisper to Dad, who nods back yes.

The picture zooms in, and in, and even further in as Pidgeot's incredibly acute vision focuses on a wash of blue and green that is covering a wide band of the grey, winter-blasted landscape...

Is that a lake? And... a forest? Here in the middle of northern Texas? I can barely believe my eyes, but it seems as though that's exactly what we're looking at.

I descend lower— that is, Pidgeot descends lower— and I begin to see details. I can't make out the shapes of the leaves, but I can tell from the absence of any bare branches that the trees are either evergreen, or they're deciduous but somehow still bear their leaves during the middle of winter. The trees part at the centre of the anomalous belt of forest, pushed aside by a wide river that flows out of a lake at the very midpoint, where the buckle would be on an actual belt...

Without warning, a wide, pulsing beam of coruscating light flies straight through the field of view on the screen, clearly a very near miss that almost shot me right out of the air. The image itself assaults my mind with confusion, startlement, and alarm in quick succession, and I suddenly have the incredibly strong instinct to turn and fly as fast as my wings can take me—

I wake up a second later, already halfway to the doorway of the pavilion and facing away from the two Psychics as they cut off the flow of power to the screen. Dad's next to me, stumbling to a halt with the same stunned look on his face as I probably have.

"...Oh. Wes offers his apologies," Camilla says, trying to keep her voice professional but clearly worried. "We tried to increase the neural synergy for improved immersion and detail, but didn't realize the effect the impulse transmission would have on unshielded minds, and..."

"There was a miscalculation," summarizes Gloria, voice empty and face deadpan. "It won't happen again."

I look from Gloria to Camilla and back, anger smoldering to life inside of me; then, with an effort of will, I force myself to let it go. "Okay, well, that was... unique. So there's a lake, rivers, and a forest where they've no business being." From what I could see, they're right in our path, too: the belt of unexpected greenery stretches directly between us and Amarillo, our next stop. Going around looks like it would take weeks.

But this was shown to me as a potential solution to Hartley's food woes. So I re-focus on that issue, and immediately understand. Where there are trees, there's life; and...

"Where there's life, there's food," I reason out loud, "And it's a dangerous solution because whatever shot at Pidgeot is in there; and it might not be the only thing to contend with if we want to explore that forest."

"Right," Dad says. "The question, then, is... do we have an alternative?"

"Let the people of Hartley fend for themselves," Gloria says.

All eyes turn to her.

"That is our alternative," she says in a perfectly neutral (and perfectly dull) tone. "I suspect it is not acceptable to most of us, myself included."

"Gloria's right," I agree; the sentence always feels ghastly coming out of my mouth, but I'm still obligated to say it every once in a while. "Karen can't supply an entire town for the winter; she's stretched thin as it is. The greenhouses are gone, so it's explore the forest or leave Hartley to die."

"Then it's settled?" Camilla says. "I'll inform the townspeople that we're going to great lengths to obtain them supplies—"

"No," I cut her off, resolutely. "This is my decision, so I'll inform them. It's my responsibility to look them in the eye when I tell them that if we can't find food in that forest, we're going to leave them to their own devices instead of letting our people go hungry."

Dad opens his mouth as if to object, and even without looking into his eyes I can practically see the gears in his head turning, just as though they were mine— because, in many ways, they are. We operate using the same machinery, Dad and I. He's warring with himself: the parent in him wants to protect me, tell me I don't have to be so harsh on myself; but the soldier in him— the Trainer who fought for ten years to defend people he barely knew from friends who had turned against him— approves of my resolution to hold myself accountable for the effects my harshest decisions have on those around me.

In the end, the soldier within wins... as, I suspect, he always will. Dad nods, and makes eye contact with me; I can see a familiar, plain metal surface in his eyes: a scratched, dented and unadorned shield that protects others from harm. It's in the foreground, winning out for the umpteenth time over the nurturing, comforting blanket of fatherhood that is forever pushed to the fringes of his being but which never truly disappears.

The mere fact that that tiny little sign has survived everything this man has gone through is testament enough to how proud he is of me. I give him a small smile to show I understand, and walk past him and out of the pavilion before he can see the tears gathering in my eyes.

Outside, I collect my courage and set out in the direction of Hartley's one neighbourhood of still-standing homesteads. Those houses, abandoned years ago by their original owners, had been occupied by Hartley's Trainers when we first arrivedl; but the townspeople have gathered there now that the Trainers no longer claim a monopoly on the finest living spaces.

The sky above the TA camp is still clear of clouds, but it's apparently still freezing out: around me, everybody's bundled up in the warmest winter coats and jackets the TA could provide. I have to take my cue from the others to judge how icy the weather really is, because the cold hasn't bothered me in years. The thin red windbreaker I wear wouldn't normally be enough to shield me from the Texan winter; instead, the perpetual source of warmth that accompanies me everywhere is my refuge from the cold.

I close my eyes briefly and let my consciousness sink inward, so that I'm looking at the warm welcoming space inside my mind where Sunshine resides. Amidst the gentle darkness floats a presence that evokes the mental image of a curved glass lamp with a black metal frame, shedding a steady blue light that warms my body and keeps my spirits up whenever I don't have the strength to go on. The harsh winter wind can't trouble me when Sunshine is always generating the perfect amount of heat to keep me comfortable. It's a form of very welcome ghostly possession— as a Ghost-type Pokémon, Sunshine is capable of hiding herself away in my body, an arrangement that lets her draw on my fieriest emotions for astonishing quantities of power.

Sunshine feels my inner gaze regarding her, and opens her eyes, too: two little orbs of light on the surface of her lantern body's glass, like a reflection. She has no mouth in this form, but those cute little eyes of hers squint slightly in her version of a smile. A brief increase in the positive feelings flowing from her buoys me up, sending some artificial courage through me as I pass the last of the old silos and approach the closest and largest of the houses.

"Thanks, Sunshine," I whisper, walking up to the front door of the rickety old two-storey house and knocking firmly.

About twenty seconds pass before an elderly woman wearing a faded grey housecoat and a pair of heavy boots yanks the door open a crack, her sharp eyes searching my face; I catch myself before I make eye contact and hurriedly focus on her left earlobe, narrowly avoiding whatever I would learn if I looked upon her soul's Marks. Entirely aside from not wanting to be rude, I have to admit that I'm partly motivated by selfishness: the few times I've had occasion to see an elderly person's Marks, I've been thoroughly unnerved. The Marks of the present in such people are usually far too complex and multifaceted to even begin to unravel, occluding the Marks of the past and of possible futures entirely... and there always seems to be a crushing emotional weight to such Marks.

"What is it, girl?" the town's leader demands to know, in a heavy Southern accent that's grown quite familiar to me lately. "My people are more'n tired o' Trainers. We'd prefer y'all continue ta leave us alone."

I stifle the impulse to sigh. Sadly, this kind of attitude is what we've come to expect here in the South. Elsewhere, we've had opportunities to prove ourselves trustworthy during the course of steady expansions through a city; here, in the oppressed little towns that dot the landscape, we've had no choice but to simply overwhelm the small gang presences rather than wait and let the people suffer. As a result, we appear to these abused people like one more conquering gang of Trainers... and they know all too well what they expect from those.

Just as I begin speaking again, Sunshine picks up on my dejection and flares brighter in my inner space, sending a rush of upbeat feelings through me. "I want to let you know that the Trainers' Association is going to try to help with your greenhouse problem," I say, trying to keep my voice even; unfortunately, due to Sunshine's poor timing, the words come out sounding very chipper— cringeworthy levels of cheerful, to be honest.

"Y'mean the one y'all caused," the woman says harshly, not opening the door any further. "I'm listenin'."

This isn't going as well as I'd hoped... but at least she hasn't slammed the door in my face. "There's a forest where we, umm, didn't expect to see one; we're hoping to find a good source of food there."

"Fergit it. Ain' nobody comes back from th'forest," the old woman says. "Dolores got mighty curious about it, once. Sent three o' her Trainers with fifteen normals."

I blink, surprised to hear that people here know about the forest. After all, it's clearly not any kind of natural occurrence, and we haven't heard anything about it in any of the towns we've liberated on our way here. "It's been there for some time, then?" I ask.

The woman shrugs curtly. "Dunno. Dolores ain' never told us nothin'. An' like I said: ain' nobody comes back from the forest."

The meaning of her words sinks in. "You mean... eighteen people, and three Pokémon? None of them came back?"

"Nope," the elderly woman says, glaring at me. "And if y'wanna force my people t'go in there, ya may's well kill me now, 'cause yer only takin' 'em o'er my dead body!"

"No, no!" I say, hastening to raise open palms to reassure her. "We intend no such thing. It's just, I'm going to send my own people in there to see if we can replace what Dolores destroyed. So... if there's anything more you know, please tell me. For the sake of your people, if not for mine."

The woman narrows her eyes, and reluctantly I realize it's time to meet her gaze: I need to convince her that I'm serious. For some reason, ever since five years ago when I took on the task of making a world— for my Ellen and for everyone else— where Trainers are protectors and not tyrants, something about me seems to have changed. That something has an inexplicable effect on... well, whatever it is that people see when they make eye contact with me.

"I need to make sure we all make it through the winter," I say, letting my natural intensity guide my words as I look into and through the woman's eyes. "I can't leave anyone behind, and I can't just write your people off as a lost cause. Ellen would be so heartbroken... I'm gonna save everyone, or wear myself down to nothing trying. Help me."

In the old woman's soul I see a sheer iron wall of willpower and protective instinct: surprisingly simple, it seems at first, but over the course of the long seconds we meet each other's gazes I can see the wall part down the middle ever so slightly. The defending doors open just a crack to reveal a bronze image, monochromatic like a frieze or statue: a metal cast of a flowering tree in the last stages of its winter. From the trunk of the tree grow three branches: one bears no leaves, dead and charred as though it had once been caught in a fire; another is gnarled, twisted and stunted; and the last juts straight out at a right angle from the trunk and is covered in wickedly sharp thorny spurs. Above all three branches, but rising from no one of them, springs a single stem bearing a wilting flower that hasn't yet fallen. All of it carries an aura that sends a cold wash of despair through me, as though the tree itself is mourning something that can never be.

My gaze into the woman's soul is mercifully interrupted when she breaks eye contact and searches the rest of my face as if looking for something. After a second, during which I blink a sudden wetness out of my eyes, her expression softens so slightly that anyone less used to reading people's faces might well have missed it.

"All righ', girl," she says quietly. "Truth is, one person did come back from that God-damned forest. Name's Jeannie, youngest o' the lot. She were cryin', talkin' 'bout how there was people in there: wild people, who done fought back 'gainst the Trainers usin' traps an' tricks. Then she started shiverin', an' said one thing: she said, 'We angered the Guardian.' Said it five or six times, then went quiet. After a day or two, she got better, an' I didn' bring it up no more; why force th'girl to go through that agin?"

The plot thickens, I muse with a sinking feeling, wishing that for once something could just be simple... and could also not put the people I care about in danger. That'd be nice. "I'd be truly grateful if you could ask Jeannie to try and remember what happened," I say as firmly as I can, hating that I have to ask this. "We're going into the forest one way or another, but I owe it to my volunteers not to send them in there blind... not if Jeannie has information that could tell us what we're dealing with."

"I'll do what I can," the woman says, a measure of steel coming back into her voice. "I promise nothin'... Y'all'll be hearin' from me by tonight if she remembers anythin'."

It occurs to me that I don't know this woman's name. "Who can I tell them to look out for, so you'll be allowed into the camp?" I ask.

"Agnes. Agnes Clay." With that, the door closes.

I blink, startled by the abrupt— and very clear— dismissal. As someone tasked with keeping a large number of people safe, I can relate to Agnes's need to appear harsh and unyielding to potential enemies; it's something I've had more than enough experience of needing to do myself. But even so, I'm impressed that she can stand up so fearlessly to someone she knows is a Trainer.

I reason that it must come from having nothing to lose: in Agnes's mind, if she can't intimidate me— or at least secure my respect— then she has little hope of protecting her people from the Trainers' Association, which she of course sees as just one more gang moving in to take advantage of the non-Trainers of Hartley. She'll do whatever it takes to convince me that trying to abuse or make use of her people will be met with resistance; for her, the alternative is failure and the re-enslavement of those she's protecting. That kind of desperation can make anyone stand firm in the face of threats, but I know firsthand that it also taxes your will; her fortitude, despite her age and despite the grief I briefly glimpsed in her eyes, blows me away.

I can only hope the Vanguard can get out of here soon enough to give Agnes some peace of mind. I can't let the old lady down any more than I can let down Ellen, or the hundred and four men and women of my Company, or their Pokémon, or the thousands of volunteers across North America labouring to support them.

As I turn around and head back to camp, I feel a little more weight settle on my shoulders, like one more stone on an already mountainous burden: the weight of responsibility that has, for months, been threatening to crush me even with Ellen's gentle, warm support and Sunshine's cheerful power buoying me up.

I have to do this. I have to succeed, I have to win. For them— for all of them.

Failure isn't an option.

~~~~~~~~~~KAREN: 09:45, DECEMBER 15~~~~~~~~~~

Today I arrived at work early.

To be honest, I actually arrive at work early every day. When I was younger, I used to have a tendency to show up late; it wasn't a big deal... until I nearly missed my high school graduation! Then my parents— who I haven't called on in a while, now that I think about it; I'd better swing by their place this afternoon— sat me down and told me I needed to break that habit. Since then, I've made it a point of pride that I leave for everything at least half an hour ahead of schedule.

Today, though, I arrived at the old repurposed school building earlier than usual, a solid hour early in fact. I had trouble sleeping last night: I tossed and turned, thinking my way through endless stories in my head about the mysterious message. Is this some kind of secret agent thing, and I'm about to be involved in some kind of worldwide conspiracy? Perhaps it'll turn out to be a threat to the TA from a mysterious enemy or (dare I hope?) a warning from an ally. Thoughts like these kept me up for hours. When I did fall asleep, I had dreams about computer screens blinking warning phrases like "ACCESS DENIED" and "TOO LATE," with loud klaxons and red flashing lights and everything.

The morning sunlight pours through the window of my office, and outside of that window the mixture of bare deciduous trees and wind-blown evergreens is casting the occasional shadow on my desk and on the closed laptop that's resting on top of it. I've just sat down, and am psyching myself up to open the computer's lid.

I finally bite the bullet and pull the laptop open; it boots up slowly, and I fidget with nervous excitement while it does, even more imaginings going through my mind: does the message carry a virus? Can it make my laptop explode? (I'll admit to not really being too savvy about the inner workings of computers.) Should I be letting someone else know about all this in case I go mysteriously missing? Somehow this strikes me as the kind of communication that'll disappear without a trace if I go telling people about it, though...

It's done! I double-click the .exe immediately, and only afterwards realize that it's been renamed: instead of "RunThisIfYouWantToTalk.exe," it's now called "GoodMorningKaren.exe."

[Image: attachment.php?aid=259]

Like last time, the blinking underscore goes on and off exactly three times before the command prompt window closes and is replaced by a Notepad. It's the same one as before:

[Image: attachment.php?aid=258]

I stare at it for a second, a little surprised that there's nothing new except for the title. The whole document is otherwise exactly as I saved it last night.

Then, right in front of my eyes, the Bold option on the Messenger window self-activates and letters begin to appear, one by one but very quickly, as though someone else (someone who is a very quick typist) were sitting at my computer!

Hi, Karen. You arrived early! Fortunately, I anticipated you would. How are you feeling this morning?


My mouth is hanging open a little. "Uhh... Hello?" I ask, almost expecting the empty air to respond. But really, I know this isn't a ghost— even a Ghost-type Pokémon— typing at my computer. Instead, someone is inputting keyboard commands remotely from somewhere else. I watched enough spy movies as a child to know that's a thing that can happen!

I'm all right! How about you?


I put in three underscores after my message, because that seems to be this person's way of indicating that they're done talking. Kind of like "over," in radio-speak!

I am well, thanks. With the pleasantries out of the way, I hope you don't mind if I get straight to business. I'm quite busy, you see... as, I imagine, are you.

I know from eyewitness accounts what the Trainers' Association appears to be. However, I haven't had the opportunity to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Would you mind summarizing for me, in your own words, exactly what your organization is about?


I blink. So formal...

Well, the TA is an organization that grew out of It's Not Right, a network of concerned Trainers and non-Trainers who dedicated ourselves to sharing information and non-confrontational aid with those affected by Trainer gangs. We gave advice, offered solutions where we could, and kept safe-houses for situations in which neither of those were any help. The Association is a little different: it arose when some of my volunteers got involved in a situation that turned Seattle from a gang-ruled city into a gang-free one; the TA was really founded by a young woman named Rachel. You might be better off asking her about these things, honestly.

Our organization has a strict policy of not contacting those who are directly involved in conflict. We expect that you will not tell Rachel or any other militant Trainer about these messages. If you do, we will know, and communications will cease. Understand?


I can't tell Rachel? Why on Earth not? Besides, she's not militant! Nor is the TA! The whole point is to be passive. Like, we expand our influence, but we try to avoid doing so through being the aggressors. The TA is not an army.


...Explain, please?

Okay, so, when the TA was first being put together from its roots in the It's Not Right organization, Camilla (that's my childhood friend, her partner is Wes the Alakazam) was really gung-ho to go wiping out gangs. I wasn't okay with the idea, because my volunteers never signed up for that... what blew me away was that Rachel managed not to take either side. Like Camilla, she believed that just watching, informing, and helping weren't fixing the problem; but like me, she also didn't think a war against the entire continent's gangs was going to help anybody. So she came up with a way to slowly but steadily force gangs out of a city without it coming to an all-out battle.

Four and a half years ago, the TA's arrival in the population centres near Seattle was treated like a foreign gang moving in. That meant they were attacked by a single existing gang whose "territory" they were encroaching on. After decisively routing them, though, Rachel and her people were met with ultimatums from the rest of the gangs. The threats boiled down to: Don't interfere in our affairs. You stole that territory fair and square, so stay inside it and we won't have a problem.

That suited Rachel just fine. Through my organization, she amassed support and supplies, consolidated her power, and arranged protection for the people who lived in the TA-controlled regions. When the right moment arrived, Rachel left behind her high school studies and travelled to each individual city and town to lend her Pokémon's power and give the order to begin. That was when her real plan was put into motion: the TA declared a sizeable region in each city a 'Protected Zone,' where the people and their belongings (but not any unclaimed food or wealth) were under the TA's protection.

The gangs had no idea what to make of it: Rachel's TA volunteers wouldn't initiate an attack against gang Trainers, even when provoked; and they didn't stop the gangs from doing their own scavenging and foraging in the Protected Zones. However, the volunteers responded to attacks on themselves or the non-Trainers in their Protected Zones with overwhelming force, avoiding lethal injuries by meeting the out-of-line actions with more strength and greater numbers than their opponents could possibly have anticipated.

Over time— months in most cases— the TA's Protected Zones became relatively prosperous and safe neighbourhoods where people farmed, crafted, or scavenged without needing to live in fear of Trainers. It was something none of the downtrodden people of the cities had seen before: the gangs weren't actually forbidden to enter these places, but they were afraid to overstep themselves. Soon, even those who didn't live in each city's Protected Zone began using it as a safe haven in times of trouble, and gradually such witnesses carried word of Rachel's efforts throughout the entire city. People flocked to these regions of civilization where Trainers and non-Trainers alike were treated fairly and protected from oppression.

It wasn't long before neighbouring communities started to reach out to Rachel for assistance; she was too busy keeping the gangs in line to properly manage all the requests, and asked if she could refer them to me. Before I knew it, I was the official leader of not just my original It's Not Right organization, but also the TA. With the express invitation of the leadership of areas surrounding our Protected Zones, we began to expand the Zones into more parts of the city, again serving as a kind of volunteer police force rather than a conquering military presence.

At this point, the gangs whose territory we were converting into Protected Zones would attack us, only to be soundly rebuffed by Rachel's brave volunteers; just as often, some of the members of the city's gangs would do a complete about-face and leave their gangs to join us (on probationary terms, of course.) Such recruits are always carefully watched, but it's amazing what a little hope can do to change a person! As it turns out, if you offer gang Trainers something better than squatting amidst squalor and stealing from those weaker than themselves, a lot of them are eager to escape the life of cruel necessity they thought was all that remained.

With Rachel's strange but effective brand of quasi-pacifism, the TA made entire sections of gang territory nearly worthless to the gangs, since they couldn't rob the inhabitants any more but still had to compete with them for scavenging locations. Farming became safer, since gang Trainers couldn't just steal the harvest for themselves. It helped that the gangs are invariably bitter rivals with each other, because it took a lot to make them work together. By the time the gangs realized we really were more than just another faction of tyrants expanding into the city, it was too late for them: there were too many of us, especially with the added numbers of their defectors; and there was almost no one left outside of our protection to steal from, making food and other necessities impossible to obtain. They were obliged to either leave the city entirely in search of another source of food, or to surrender and be rehabilitated as law-abiding members of the newly minted society. Most did the latter. This technique has since been repeated in more cities than I can count, though I have a list of them saved somewhere.

It's taken me about thirty minutes to sum up the basic modus operandi of the TA. But I'm not done yet.

Lately, we're experiencing problems in the South and Northeast regions of the old United States. The population of every city is secreted away in underground or hidden places. The Second American Civil War's fighting was fiercest in those areas, so there aren't many standing buildings or other infrastructure left, either. There's really nothing to protect, and nothing to rebuild a society from. On top of that, there's a worrying trend we've seen in the last few population centres: gangs keeping people penned up like slaves... especially in the little towns. Recently, Rachel's had to resort to just moving in and capturing the gangs by force, which has got certain groups within the TA excited and the rest quickly losing morale. It also presents the problem of having to contain and feed uncooperative Trainers for long periods of time, where previously they all either joined us, settled down into peaceful lives, or skipped town. That state of affairs might explain why you thought Rachel's Protection Force was a military organization, but I assure you, it's not the norm for us.

Uh... I hope that's a clear enough explanation of where we came from and where we are now?

Well, it's certainly more information than I expected you to share this early in our correspondence. Aren't you concerned I might be a foe?

Not really. Even if you considered yourself our enemy, we thrive on being understood! It might seem odd to you that I'm giving away our formula for victory so easily, but you see, that's the whole point: we're not a military force. We don't need to bog ourselves down with a security or intelligence division, because we don't have coded communications or secret operations. Our opponents aren't organized forces, they're mobs of scared human beings and Pokémon led by a few bad eggs... so our methods work best when the people we're rescuing know what's going on.

I'd rather the gang Trainers get to know us, instead of just seeing us as invaders. Then they'll know they don't have to fight if they just stand down or join the movement! The Trainers' Association doesn't have enemies that we fight, only victims that we save and obstacles that we overcome.

If true, all this provides an eye-opening insight into some of the less easily-explained actions we've seen from your group. Thank you for your transparency, Karen. However... Regrettably, I can't return the favour: with regard to you speaking of this to others, our rules remain strict. If the fact that we contacted you becomes known to anyone else in your organization, I'll be required to cease communications with you immediately. The decision isn't in my hands: we don't take sides, and we only talk with leaders who aren't directly involved with conflict. Is that acceptable?

I hesitate a little bit. Keeping information from my people feels wrong; but then again, I don't exactly have a lot to share right now anyway. What am I going to tell them, that some mysterious hacker sent me messages on my computer? That I don't have a name for the organization he or she represents, or anything else to go on? Hmm... best to be honest with whoever this is, anyway.

I won't tell anyone unless I find out you're a danger to my people. Hopefully that's good enough! What kind of group are you, anyway?

That is a discussion for another time, I'm afraid. I must go now; please watch for a name change in the executable file on your desktop in the next few days. I'll update this message with the date and time that I can next be in touch.

And, Karen: I wish to say a formal thank you for the knowledge you have shared with me. I can promise you that it will not be used to harm anyone.

Wait, can I at least ask you for your name?

I watch for several minutes, but it becomes clear that whoever it was that was talking to me is gone. Darn. I go to the File... menu and click Save as, then save the message to the laptop's My Documents folder. It'll be good to have a copy of what's been said so far.

I spend another few minutes running a system search for a folder called Hidden1, but turn up nothing, even with the "Include hidden files and folders" option active. Huh...

It's almost eleven now; there's a lot to do, and barely enough time to do it in, so I have to put the matter aside. First, I have to finalize this coming week's logistics by the end of today: although the plan is three-quarters done, I need to finish it, proofread for errors, then send it to Synthia to double-check before I get started on the outline for next week's plans (which won't be finalized until a week today when we get a confirmation of exactly how much food, supplies and tech we have in donations...)

Yeah, it's going to be a long day... but I wouldn't have it any other way! As long as I'm up to my eyes in busywork, it means we're making a difference out there. That matters to me more than anything.

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 17:00, DECEMBER 15~~~~~~~~~~

The sun is setting, and I'm still only just keeping up with everything that needs to be done. In the seven hours since I spoke with Agnes, I've checked in with all six of our supply coordinators to make sure we have food for the week; averted a minor crisis when two of our strongest hauler Pokémon tangled the reins connecting them to their two sleds full of gear; spent a few hours communicating with the leaders of Protection Force companies six, eight, fifteen, and twenty-three via radio to get their travel plans sorted; and assembled a squad for our trip to the forest to the southeast— a forest sitting in the middle of a desert where no such collection of trees should exist.

This reconnaissance mission will need to be a small group: we can't spare flyers or teleporters, who'll be needed for scouting and retrieving the week's supplies. Accordingly, I've tapped our reserve, a team I'd trust with anything. I'll be in charge, and with me will be the squad known as the Candle Guard: Jazz and Scar, Tom and Zebstrika, Matt and Charming. The preparations for the group of us to depart have taken most of the day, and will probably need the rest of the evening; as driven as I am to leave as soon as possible, I'm not about to lead my friends someplace dangerous without preparing in every way I can! We may expect the trip to be only a few days there and a few days back, but we're taking no chances: my team is busy packing rations for multiple weeks, and collecting survival gear for an extended stay in a hostile environment. Who knows what could potentially happen to trap us in a strange place like that?

We leave tomorrow morning; in the meantime, I have some arrangements to make for while I'm gone... which brings me to where I stand right now, speaking to a row of four Trainers lined up at attention.

"Advance Squadron, who are we missing?" I ask them; I know the name of every person in the Vanguard, but it's still hard to pick out which of Advance Squadron's five Trainers isn't here right now.

"Seth is not here, sir!" shouts the Squadron's leader, Rin, from where she's standing at one end of the line. "He is on evening-shift aerial scouting, sir!"

Rin is an older Japanese-American woman with a history in aviation, and it shows in her brown flight jacket and the orange-tinted goggles she wears pushed up onto her forehead. Her Pokémon partner, standing behind her with wings folded, is Pidgeot— a huge falcon-like bird with light brown plumage, a red crest and tailfeathers, and an eight-foot wingspan. Most individuals of his species are smaller, but something that's become clear over time is that even after the years-long process of evolving, many Pokémon seem to grow steadily larger. Rin has had Pidgeot since almost the first day Pokémon began appearing in the world, and it shows.

I glance up to scan the skies, and sure enough I can see two flying figures circling in the distance, one each to the north and south of the encampment: scouts on the backs of their flying Pokémon, equipped with the best binoculars we can give them.

"Thank you, Rin; please fill Seth in on tomorrow's mission to Amarillo as soon as he returns," I tell her. "That mission is as follows..."

I begin to describe exactly what it is that I want from Advance Squadron. In some ways, it's similar to their usual role: fly over the next population centre we're moving into, and get an idea of the lay of the land.

"...However, this mission will be different from the ones you usually take: firstly, the Squadron will need to give that forest a wide berth— as I'm sure you've heard, something in it tried to shoot Rin here out of the sky already. Secondly, you'll be making stops to try and find out where exactly the people of Amarillo, Texas are hiding."

"Wait, you mean we get to land??" blurts one of the two boys in the middle of the line— Emmett, I believe his name is. He immediately looks mortified to have broken military procedure, but I've never enjoyed being treated like some kind of superior officer anyway, so I just do my best to answer without calling attention to the slip-up.

"Yes, Emmett, you get to land. My usual sources, they... well... they aren't working, so we have no info on the status and whereabouts of the city's population. That's where this mission gets unorthodox: I need you all to find them for me, and establish contact if you possibly can. No unnecessary risks, though— keep at least a couple of you airborne for support. And as usual, don't engage."

"Understood, sir!" Rin barks out, her enunciation particularly professional, as if to make up for Emmett's faux pas. "You can count on us, sir!"

"I know I can," I say, turning my smile on her, though the expression is beginning to grow strained after a full day of trying my damnedest to look like I'm in control of the utterly uncontrollable situation we're perpetually neck-deep in. "Thank you, Rin. Advance Squadron, you're dismissed."

Like a well-oiled machine, the Squadron turns smartly and follows Rin into the gathering dusk at a half-march, half-speedwalk, already talking quickly amongst themselves. I turn around, too, and as the merciful darkness finally hides my face from those around me, my smile drops away like a lead weight. It's this time of evening— the half-hour or so when the gloom of the wintry night is just falling over the camp and our electric lights haven't yet been turned on— that I get to stop wearing the mask of cheerful competence that I've come to so despise.

My exhaustion feels like a physical object hanging from my shoulders. For lack of anywhere to sit, I sink to my knees in the half-frozen mud of this shadowy corner of the campsite; and my darkest fears move to the forefront of my thoughts, as they always do when I finally let myself relax. My memories of the past several years surface, but the dimly recalled faces of the many people the Trainers' Association has helped fade to insignificance next to the looming shades of my failures. People who fell prey to desperate gang Trainers as we patiently awaited the invitation to sweep in and liberate their neighbourhoods; those who starved or were left homeless in midwinter when the gangs burned their fields or homes to keep us from taking them; the hostages the gangs took, the ones we weren't always able to save. I remember the sight and the smell of the corpses. These memories remind me that for every bit of difference I make, there's ten mistakes that cost someone dearly; for every town I save, there are five more that quietly cease to exist. The old world's wonders are withering and dying, and it's all anyone can do to slow this headlong plunge into a new and worse time.

Within me, I can feel Sunshine rushing to kindle my inner light, sending a surge of positive emotion through my core, and for a moment I even forget what was so terrible about everything; then the buoyant feelings gutter out, doused by a jarring wave of nausea as I nearly lose consciousness from sheer exhaustion. I push aside Sunshine's confused attempts to restart the fire within me, angry at myself for relying on such a cheap and dangerous trick to keep myself going. It's not my partner's fault— she has the best intentions— but regardless of her power to make small amounts of ordinary fire on her own, her ability to alter the way I feel is something she can only access by channeling my energy and burning it away. And right now, I don't have anything left to burn.

"...Sunshine," I slur, struggling and failing to stand up, "I'm jus' gonna sleep a bit..."

I feel Sunshine's agitation distantly; heat spreads through my body as she tries to keep me from falling asleep, but I'm just so tired...

The last things I hear are Sunshine's alarmed screech as she leaves my body and begins calling wordlessly for help; and then the distant thudding of someone's running feet.

~~~~~~~~~~ELLEN: 18:30, DECEMBER 15~~~~~~~~~~

I can't hold the tears back. They flow down my cheeks and drip onto Rae's blankets, joining the spreading stain of moisture from the last half hour's helpless weeping. I shouldn't be crying right now— we have limited water, everyone's on rations— but I can't seem to stop, and I feel so useless...

Rae's going to be all right. Catherine made sure I knew that. Telling me was the first thing she did when she finally, successfully restarted Rae's heart. She was so kind and reassuring, even barely a minute after she almost lost her daughter... I can't imagine being that strong and selfless.

I've never been the tough one. Even years ago, in my group of friends, it was always Rae or Brian or Sonia who knew what to do when things got difficult. And ever since this journey began, I've always been in the company of so many wonderful, strong people: Camilla and Wes, who'll push themselves beyond every limit if it'll help someone else; Porter, who always knows what to say to lift everybody's spirits; Brian, with his practical nature; Rae's parents, Catherine and Stanley; Rae herself...

I sniffle and try again to stifle my tears, but it's no use: the thought of Rae pushing herself so hard for my sake is enough to make my eyes overflow again, wasting more water. I gather up fistfuls of the blanket, cover my face and bawl into the soft fleece, grateful at least that no one else is in the infirmary tent to be disappointed with my lack of restraint. I'm not the tough one, no... I'm the messy crier, the one who feels emotions too deeply, the one who just cares too much about everybody, even the bad ones, even when I try not to...

A clear whistling noise of concern from somewhere to my right reminds me that I'm not completely alone. I look up to see Rae's Pokémon partner, Sunshine, hovering her way closer to my face. Her round glass body glows with a soft purple light, and her little eye-spots are slanted upwards at thetop— as though they had eyebrows— to signify worry. I smile despite everything, grateful for someone who won't judge me for my weakness, and reach out to rest my hand gently on the black metal hood that covers Sunshine's head. She's pleasantly warm, a welcome change from the cold of the winter night.

She whistles again, pressing her glass face up comfortingly against my cheek.

“Thank you, Sunshine,” I murmur, sniffling as my tears begin to dry up. “I'm all right... just scared for Rae. I know you understand.”

Sunshine's hum of agreement cuts off as she gives a start and rotates in midair to face Rae's infirmary bed. Following her gaze, I see that Rae's eyes have flickered open.

“...Ellen? Wha' happened—“ she slurs in her usual half-asleep way, then stops and awakens all at once when she sees my face. “You've been crying, love...”

I promise myself I won't start weeping again... but that promise lasts less than two seconds, and then I'm holding her hand and sobbing my relief all over her fingers, unwilling to put my head on her chest in case the pressure makes her heart stop again. “I was s-s-so worried,” I stutter through my tears.

“Woah there, relax,” she says, smiling and sitting up a little to pull me closer. “You're acting like someone died.”

I jerk away from her, my breath catching with the shock of hearing her say it. She stares back at me for a few seconds before she comprehends.

“Wait... I died?

I nod, the tears still falling, and haltingly begin to explain. “Brian found you. Sunshine was making the most awful noise, and when he got there, you weren't breathing. He got a teleporter to send you to the infirmary straightaway, and Catherine, she... Your... your heart stopped, Rae...”

She opens her mouth to respond, but my words are still tumbling out of my mouth. “Hayes came and got me, and I made it here just before she brought you back. It was the worst thing I could imagine, seeing you in that bed and not knowing if you were gonna make it...!” The tears take over, and I weep into my hands.

Then I feel Rae's hand on my forearm, and a second later Sunshine's skinny metal arms wrap around my shoulders. “Ellen, I didn't know,” my lover says quietly. “I didn't mean for this to happen.”

“Promise me.” I look my Rae in the eyes, and see that stubbornness that's never been absent in all the time I've known her. Along with it, there's pain at having worried me, and I feel a pang of responding dismay. I don't want her to feel bad! But I need to say what I'm about to say, even if it makes us both sad. “Catherine said your heart stopped because... because you were pushing yourself too hard, and you fed your whole life into Sunshine's power. Your heart didn't even have the energy left to beat on its own. Promise me... promise you'll stop before it gets this bad again. Promise me you won't kill yourself just to save everyone else.”

Rachel looks away. “I can't just refuse to help. What if I can fix everything by just giving a little more? I thought you wanted a world where no more people have to die.”

Frustrated, I reach out and cup her cheek, pulling gently at her face until she looks me in the eyes again. I can feel a painful heat in my chest blazing with passion for her, for this. I'm burning with the need to make everything right again. “I do, but that includes you. Especially you. Don't you dare leave me, not even to save every other life in the world.”

Tears start to run down Rae's face, too. “O... okay. I promise. I'm sorry, Ellen...”

I kiss her, hard, and then hug her tightly, and relief fills every part of me when she wraps her arms around me in return, her strength reassuring me that she's truly recovering. Here in her warm, protective embrace, I can't help but feel like everything will be all right, now. Rae is the strongest person I know, and when she puts her mind to something, she can't help but succeed. She won't let it get this bad again. She promised...

And if there's one thing I know about Rachel Avery, it's that she keeps her promises.

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 20:00, DECEMBER 15~~~~~~~~~~

I don't notice that I've fallen asleep until the dream-world has fully formed around me. Rising out of my own body, I look around at the monochrome grey of my environs, smiling a little when I see Ellen dozing with her arms wrapped around my sleeping form. A haze of muted colours rises from her; she hasn't been asleep long enough to be truly dreaming, so no images have yet fully formed in the mists that are gathering above her head.

Sunshine is here, too; in the dream world, she doesn't wear her Pokémon form but the shape she remembers from before: a girl of eighteen, wearing an orange winter jacket and a bright red scarf. Both articles practically glow with colour in this place where physical things are grey and immaterial. As I push off from the infirmary bed and float into the air above it, Sunshine looks up from where she's been weeping.

“Sunshine,” I murmur, letting myself descend a little, then alighting next to her and raising my hand to wipe the tears off her face, “Don't cry...”

She throws her arms around me and holds tight, sniffling. “I thought I killed you.”

I'm not about to point out that she technically did. Instead, I pat her silky brown hair comfortingly and murmur, “I'm all right... I'm all right.”

After a short while, Sunshine steps back and smiles through her tears, an expression that lights up her soft, kind features. “Thank you, Rachel. What now? Do we fly?”

I nod, smiling back at her, and we rise through the roof of the infirmary tent and into the sky, swiftly ascending to a height that makes the desert's features tiny, everything spreading out in all directions like a map.

“The forest,” I murmur, remembering what I learned today in the waking world. “We haven't gone looking past Hartley, since we spent so many nights gathering intel on Dolores and her Trainers.”

“Is it time to change that?” Sunshine asks, shooting me a playful grin that wavers only a little with the remnants of her sadness.

“Yeah. Yeah, it is.” I join hands with Sunshine, and we fly for the horizon, swift as only the two of us together can be.

Time means little in this realm of dreams, to which ghosts have access— and which I, by extension, can visit through my bond with Sunshine. Whether our travel is really so blindingly fast as to trivialize distance, or whether the time blurs and fades from my awareness, I don't know: but it feels like only seconds before we arrive at the edge of the green expanse.

The first thing that the forest's appearance confirms for me is that it's no natural occurrence. In this place where everything simply mundane is colourless, the leaves are faintly, shimmeringly green.

“Can you feel that, Rachel?” Sunshine breathes, staring into the trees with her mouth ever so slightly open.

I pause and wait; after a moment, I do feel something that might be a shadow of whatever Sunshine's picking up on. “It's... it's like the air is moving,” I murmur. “Like the forest is breathing.”

“There's great power deep within. Like a beating heart,” Sunshine says, her voice barely a whisper now. “We should move carefully.”

I nod, and we float silently in amongst the trees. Here, details are indistinct, as they are in dreams— the forest is a blur of sparkling green and quiet grey. We wander for a time, until something changes.

There are homes here. Makeshift cottages— more like tents reinforced with wooden beams than permanent abodes— gather in a cluster on both sides of a quiet stream that winds between the trees and disappears deeper into the forest.

People are awake here, moving about between the shelters. Their motion blurs together with itself, like three-dimensional pictures taken in stop-motion, making it difficult to tell if they are moving quickly or slowly; but I can see the paths they take leading to and from a clearing. The full moon shines down on this gap in the trees, painting the forest floor a lighter grey and causing the evening dew to sparkle like colourless gems.

Amidst the gleaming leaf litter, I can see a collection of perhaps ten large objects, carefully placed halfway into holes dug in the ground of the clearing. Jutting from the soil, they objects are not quite spherical, but rather are reminiscent of eggs the size of large melons. I turn, and see the motion-blur of the wakeful human beings connecting this place to a series of similar clearings. Sunshine floats up to me and gestures for me to come where she's going; I follow her into a place where a group of odd, stunted trees are growing in the centre of a clearing. No taller than eight feet, the plants have trunks as wide as those of the surrounding trees, lending them a barrel-like, stocky appearance.

One of the awake people, his (her?) features blurred by the strange interaction of the dream-world with those who move in reality, slowly retrieves (or perhaps violently snatches?) a fruit of some kind from the tree; following the trails of more who are heading back to the shelters, Sunshine and I see the stop-motion images of them sitting around makeshift tables, opening the fruits and eating.

I turn to Sunshine, excited. “Food,” I whisper. “This might be something we can take back to Hartley!”

Immediately, though, I realize something is wrong. My whispers echo, and magnify, as though bouncing from distant walls; every last tree around us begins to shake, their branches adding to the whispering crescendo.

A surge of impossible strength, like a torrent of water, shoves me, and abruptly I find myself flying away from this place, carried as if by a tidal wave. Disoriented and unable to do anything to stop myself, I tumble head over heels in midair, over and over with the trees blurring past until I'm ejected from the edge of the forest. Sunshine, arriving out here before me, catches my careening dream-self and steadies me as I regain my bearings. We're floating together outside of the tree line, but something has changed: instead of shimmering green, the leaves of the forest are now gleaming in the rainbow colours of opal, or mother-of-pearl.

The knowledge comes to me that the dream is nearing its end— a sourceless knowing, as always— and I turn towards home. Sunshine takes my hand and we begin to rise into the sky, preparing to return to my body. I pause, though, faintly remembering something else that matters in the waking world; and I glance back over my shoulder, looking now beyond the forest. There, the city of Amarillo should await... but in the distance, instead of the city of Amarillo, I see something else.

“Sunshine.” I grip her shoulder, and she turns to join me in staring at the dome of inky blackness that has replaced an entire section of the dream-world. Amarillo is nowhere to be found; instead, some force has hidden the entire city from the sight of any who would walk through dreams.

We look at one another, concerned. “Another mystery,” I murmur.

“A great darkness,” Sunshine says with an edge of tension to her musical voice. “I don't like the thought of going there.”

“But we must.”


Then we head for home.

~~~~~~~~~~RIN: 06:30, DECEMBER 16~~~~~~~~~~

Night flying is dangerous, but every member of the Advance Squadron has had to learn how to do it. Pidgeot is no exception; since he is near sightless in the darkness, he and I have learned to fly as one. I am our eyes, keeping us on course and helping us stay level. He is our wings, catching the air as we soar toward our target.

Seth has taken lead; his youkai Noctowl sees well in the dark, so we follow him at times like this. The light brown tufts of feather upon Noctowl's head look like horns and make him easier to separate from the blackness of the winter night, although from below he is much more difficult to see because of the darker plumage on his breast.

We have been flying all night, going the long way around to avoid the youkai forest. Now, the sun begins to rise on the horizon, and I can see that we are in the right place: the ruins of the city are ahead of us and far below, lighting up bit by bit as dawn appears. I pull out my night-vision binoculars, to see what lies farther away.

The city is called Amarillo, and it is as bad as we were told. There are not many buildings still in one piece, and the ones that still stand in the downtown area are broken-windowed and dark. There is no electricity here, and no running water. If I had not been told there are people living here, I would think the city is empty.

Emmett, on the back of Staraptor, flaps forward to fly alongside Pidgeot. “Where do we look first?” he shouts over the whistle of the wind.

“Northwest,” I call back. “Pidgeot will take lead now.”

Pidgeot and I move to the front of our formation, and we start to guide Advance Squadron into a circling descent. The skies are clear, and for a few minutes so are the steets, until...

I turn on my radio and say into it, “Trainers at two-of-the-clock!” Then I look through my binoculars as Pidgeot levels off and takes us soaring overhead of the unknown people walking below. There are fifteen humans on one of the ruined streets ahead and a little to our right, and fifteen youkai with them.

They look like they have seen us despite the darkness, and my hope that the first day of this week of searching will be peaceful, it disappears. They have started to spread out and a few of their youkai are beginning to glow.

“Advance Squadron, we go south!” I command into the radio, and we turn our formation around just in time as bolts of purple energy start to fly into the sky from below. We do not fight while on scouting missions unless to escape more quickly... especially when we are outnumbered. We will fly south until we find something else. Maybe it is bad luck that we found a patrol of youkai-tachi— gang Trainers— so early when we entered this place.

But I do not believe in luck. I use the radio to tell everyone to keep their eyes sharp. We will need to keep on seeing large groups of youkai-tachi like that one before they see us. Every time, we must see them first. Because unless I am mistaken, the first time we do not, our mission will be over. And so will we.

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 07:15, DECEMBER 16~~~~~~~~~~

Everything's been prepared for the expedition into the forest. The Candle Guard— three Trainers and their Pokémon— has assembled, with packs and jackets stuffed to bursting with every bit of rations and supplies we could possibly need.

Tom and Matt are standing at the edge of the old concrete highway, chattering away as usual; or rather, I suppose I should say that Tom is chattering, while Matt nods along and occasionally interjects with a quiet word or two. Behind them stand their Pokémon partners: Tom's friend Zebstrika, who's best described as a zebra patterned with lightning-bolt-shaped stripes and adorned with a white mane that stands up straight and crackles with electricity; and Matt's buddy Charming, a red-skinned bipedal lizard with an ever-burning flame at the end of his tail, a pale red underbelly, and the beginnings of two stubby wings starting to grow out of his back.

Tom's wearing his usual hodgepodge of black and white gear. Both boys have recently hit six feet tall; at least if you count Tom's wild shock of tousled black hair as part of his height. It stands up on its own, and is shot through with streaks of white; I gather he somehow bleaches it with his Pokémon's electricity. (That sounds unnecessarily dangerous to me, but who am I to judge? My own hair has a habit of bursting into flame when I lose my temper.)

Matt looks ordinary by contrast to Tom. He's a lot wider-shouldered than his skinny counterpart, and his light brown hair is short and straight— a far cry from the bright red mohawk he used to have. Years ago, shortly after we first set out as part of the TA Protection Force years ago, I asked him why he stopped wearing his hair like that, and he responded simply that Dye takes up space. We're on the road now. Matt's got a really down-to-earth way of looking at things.

The third member of the Candle Guard is Jazz— short for Jasmine, though she prefers the nickname— and her partner is Scar, part of a humanoid species of Pokémon that the online community has named Scrafty. The two of them are both hanging out a fair distance down the road, jittering anxiously to get going, already! Jazz is wearing her floppy green beret and matching green coat over a practical black sweater and some blue jeans; Scar is alternately running his small three-fingered hands nervously over the bony red crest on his head, and fiddling with the leathery yellow cloak of shed skin he wears like a scarf. The four-foot-tall, scaly orange-and-black Pokémon also carries more of this protective armour wrapped around his waist and legs like a pair of baggy sweatpants.

“Yo, I heard Brian and Dylan are joining us,” Tom is saying as I finish taking stock of our readiness and tune back in to his chatter. “Man, it's been, like, years since we teamed up on something.

“Seven months,” Matt observes. “They been busy.”

I frown, walking a little closer to the two of them. “I haven't authorized anyone else to come with us. Where did you hear that?”

Tom gives a start, as though he hadn't realized I was listening in. “Uhh, Jazz said so, but she said she heard it from Fay, who heard it from Porter, who heard it from... I don't remember.”

“Well, we're keeping this operation small, so—”

I'm cut off by Jazz's voice calling from down the street. “Oh, there you guys are!! Hurry up!” She's waving at somebody— two somebodies, in fact— crossing the concrete expanse from the direction of the part of town that holds the newly freed people of Hartley.

“Sorry we're late. Had to make sure patrols were set up,” says a gravelly voice, as its owner draws closer and Jazz hurries to group up with the rest of us. “For while we're gone.”

That voice belongs to Brian, a tall young man with curly brown hair who's currently wearing simple, warm clothing underneath the sky-blue windbreaker that's become the unofficial uniform of the Trainers' Association Peacekeepers. I try not to give away how my heart sinks as he and his sidekick Dylan both come to a halt in a rough circle with the three Trainers of the Candle Guard. Dylan is somebody I'm fairly familiar with; he used to be a reluctant member of the same gang Jazz, Tom and Matt were in before they joined me in founding the TA, though he didn't leap to join the Protection Force like they did. Brian's my friend— or at least, I think he is— so I shouldn't resent having him around, but things have been... awkward between us for a long time. And it's only gotten worse in the last couple of years.

“Hi, Brian. Dylan,” I greet them with the politest smile I can muster. “You're going to be gone from your duties here, then? Where are you going?”

“With you,” responds Dylan simply, a genuine smile spreading across his round face. I grab swift hold of my immediate surge of aggravation and push it away before it can show up in my expression; Dylan is a good kid— although he must be almost twenty now, so I guess I shouldn't call him a kid— and there's not a malicious bone in his body. I just wish he didn't have to be the bearer of bad news so often...

“I see,” I say, as evenly as I can. “Sorry, but this is a stealth mission. I can't justify taking more than the four of us.”

“A stealth mission involving the leader of the Protection Force needs more than just a single squad in case things go sour,” Brian replies. “As acting head of the Peacekeeper force for this region, I'm authorized to overrule decisions I believe are reckless. We're coming along.”

I sigh, knowing I don't have the patience or the ability to fight him on this. It all started two years ago, when Karen— meaning well, and with my blessing— put some checks on the power of the Protection Force. It was all very well when there were twenty or so of us, but as the Force grew into a quasi-military organization of twenty-five hundred Trainers, it became clear that we needed to appoint another branch of the TA to watch us for overconfidence or abuse of power. That somebody, we decided, should be the Peacekeepers. They're the TA's mobile police force, a decentralized group spread out across the territory we've liberated. They keep the peace in cities or towns that are in turmoil, hunt down and capture bandits, and generally make sure the TA's left hand knows what the right hand is doing. Now, they have the added duty of reporting back to Karen and the rest of the TA's leadership on what the Protection Force gets up to.

I didn't regret giving that power to the Peacekeepers until Karen assigned Brian to watch me. She reasoned— and I have to admit she's probably not wrong— that as my childhood friend, he knows me well enough to tell when I'm acting out of character. He's been a thorn in my side ever since, curbing my enthusiasm and my occasional fits of pique alike. And, even worse, ever since he re-entered my life after being away doing his own thing for three years, I feel like I don't recognize him any more; at no point has he been anything other than professional and direct. I wish he'd act like a real person... I'd even prefer if he were rude. Then I'd have something to tell him off for, which might break the icy wall that seems to have come between us.

“Fine,” I tell him. “We leave now. I hope you brought supplies.”

My once-friend indicates the heavy packs he and Dylan are carrying. “We're good to go. Dylan, call Diver and Bright down, would you?”

Dylan blows a long trilling note on a tiny metal whistle around his neck, and out of the sky descend two Pokémon: Diver, a small blue jellyfish-like creature with a round head and long, flowing tentacles like a dress, which floats lazily as though Diver were suspended in water instead of air; and Bright One, a person-sized insect with huge red wings and a fuzz of tiny scales along his sides that glow white-hot. Bright used to be my father's Pokémon, but they were separated years ago after a near-death experience; when Brian rescued Bright and nursed him back to health, the fiery bug became his new partner. No one I've talked to has seen anything like that happen before; all other evidence holds that Pokémon are bonded to their Trainer for life.

“Shall we go?” Jazz, ever eager, demands to know.

“Yeah,” I grumble. “Better keep up, Peacekeepers, or we'll leave you behind.”

Diver and Bright float and flutter to greet everyone's Pokémon as we start to move; Tom swings himself up onto Zebstrika's back, apparently unbothered by the loud crackling of static electricity that jumps to him as he does so. The rest of us are gonna be walking the entire way: as much time as would be saved by taking a Pokémon-drawn vehicle, we can't spare any of the Vanguard's heavy haulers, and teleportation is out of the question. As it is, the Vanguard's psychics have little enough juice left each week after organizing supply transport. Besides, we have to save Zebstrika's strength; one person is fine, but he won't be much use for the final step of the plan if he has to pull an entire vehicle...

The desert stretches out in all directions as we leave Hartley behind. After minutes, then hours of trekking, with the sun rising steadily into the sky above us, the scrubland takes over completely and the dilapidated roads grow fewer and farther between.

In my head, I start to review our course for what feels like the thousandth time. The print-out of the satellite map that's on the command pavilion's wall is practically burnt into my mind, complete with the penciled-in belt of forest that the map didn't originally show. We'll be proceeding southeast, more or less as the crow flies, until we reach the forest; there's absolutely nothing of note between here and there.

At the exact moment that I would normally start dwelling on the dangers ahead, Sunshine sends a wave of positive feelings through me. I smile a bit— she knows me too well— and then the smile fades despite the glow of well-being that's still running through my veins.

Sunshine, remember what Mom said, I think at her, trying to be firm despite how good I feel. I can't go using your power as an emotional crutch. What if my heart stops again?

Fervent and apologetic worry greets that thought, emanating from Sunshine's presence in my mind, and I relent. Okay, it's probably not so bad when I'm well-rested; but don't go doing that all the time. I'm an adult; I can manage my own feelings.

I glance around at the others, checking to see if any of them observed my minute or so of self-absorption; but Tom is busy chattering to Matt and Jazz, and Brian's talking quietly with Dylan— probably about logistics or something— so no one seems to have noticed.

That's for the best. No sense in worrying anyone.

~~~~~~~~~~KAREN: 11:30, DECEMBER 16~~~~~~~~~

Karen, are you busy?

I snort, and minimize the text window that's popped up while I finish totalling the number of pounds of nonperishables and tech Camilla and Wes will need to teleport from Vancouver to Chicago. The two of them do the bulk hauling when we need it; no other psychic is powerful enough to move a full metric tonne of gear and food in a single go.

Chicago's our supply hub for the northeastern States, where things are just starting to settle down. It was one of the first places to invite us in, and one of the easiest to establish order in, thanks mostly to the willing surrender organized by the city's leading gang (a self-styled group of “honourable thief” types.)

Having come to an amount that's just over twenty-three hundred pounds, I sigh with relief. Camilla assures me that she and Wes can transport as much as two tonnes, but I'm not willing to leave them with no juice left to defend themselves, since they're heading straight back to the active conflict zones.

Then I call the text box back up, and roll my eyes at the question. Am I busy?

Very. But curious enough that I can take a break. What's up, my mysterious online pen-pal?

I'd like to ask if you've heard anything about a forest appearing out of nowhere, somewhere on your continent. Somewhere a forest wouldn't usually be located.

Oh— as it happens, yes. I received a report on that.


Our sources have told us a little, including that it's in Texas, between your Protection Force and their next stop. What do you know about it?

Only that it's inhabited by some kind of powerful Pokémon, and its location.

I have an offer to make you. We want to know anything your allies learn while they're interacting with that place, as well as anything you know about other places that could be called, for lack of a better term, otherworldly. In return, what if I told you I could get you in touch with the rest of the planet?

Uhhhhh. Just for the record, I am connected to the Internet. Like, literally, right now.

That's not what I mean. The forums and wiki pages are kept open for information exchange between civilians, but email and search functions for finding new private messaging partners are both disabled. Have you ever wondered why that is?

I'd assume because the Mods have free rein to limit that kind of thing. Besides, it's not like email servers work any more. But I get the feeling you're trying to indicate something a little more in-depth. Could you clarify the question?
By way of clarification, let me ask you this: Who do you think the Mods are?

My mouth drops open at the conclusion I think I'm being led to. I lean forward and start typing again, quickly.

You're one of the Mods? The people who run the Internet? You're asking me why I think private messaging is disabled. So you want to know what I think your motives are? Okay, I'll bite: I think you're a group with a lot of power, meaning that if you make a decision it's going to have major effects on people all over the world. Your reason for limiting direct communication outside of moderated forums and wikis... that would be because you think harm could come of it.

You're correct, Karen. We are the Knowledge Guardians. We walk the razor's edge: We want humanity to communicate, but there's knowledge out there that can and will hurt people. We can't restore the network to what it used to be, but wecan make special channels available to people we think won't abuse them. The world is watching your Association, Karen, and we think it's best if communication is opened. There are people who want to talk with you.

I consider for several long minutes before sending anything else. So, the Mods— sorry, the Knowledge Guardians— want to get me a direct line to... someone, probably several someones. If they're to be believed, the world at large is paying attention to what's going on here in North America.

I'll admit to not knowing much about the state of the other continents of the world. What little information trickles in from oblique references on forums— most of which get taken down quite quickly— has led me to believe some places are doing better than we are here, while others are even worse off. Wikipedia is notably quiet on the subject of geopolitics; likely because such information has been suppressed. Any contact with the world at large is, well, intriguing, to say the least.

That said, these Guardian people hold all the cards. I'd better at least ask some pointed questions.

What's to say you won't be reading every word of whatever messages I send?

We absolutely will. As you pointed out, we're responsible for any harm that comes as a direct result of our generosity, so we need to know if our clients are, say, planning a war; trading weapons... buying and selling Pokémon. Or people. Is that a problem?

Well. The honesty is certainly appreciated. I think about it for a minute longer. So, I'll be talking using a tapped line. But what do I, or the TA as a whole, have to hide? The Knowledge Guardians seem to already have a pretty clear handle on what's going on— I certainly didn't tell them about the forest in the middle of the Texan desert, nor did I specify where exactly Rachel's people are, but they seem to know both of those things— so as long as I keep the TA's few, minor secrets to myself altogether, I won't have much to worry about.

What do I have to do?

Just say you want our help and are willing to abide by our terms. We'll take care of the rest. I'll contact you by this time next week, to give you time to decide. Everything will be ready by then, pending your agreement.

Completely on its own, my mouse cursor moves to bring up the desktop folder, and on it I see a new text file TermsAndConditions.txt. I double-click it, and the document opens, showing more or less what you'd expect from the file name.

You can bet I'll be reading this thoroughly before agreeing to anything, but a cursory glance over the minimalist document indicates that it amounts to a promise not to buy or sell contraband, weapons, or sensitive information while using the Knowledge Guardian contact network.

I don't have time to go through it in detail right now, though, because I really, really need to start arranging the rest of the supply transport for next week! The first step— bulk transfer— is easy; just give it to Camilla and Wes. The rest will be the usual balancing act of not overburdening any given teleporter, and working within their range limits...

But I can tell the offer will remain in my mind from now until I can properly evaluate those terms and conditions. What could be going on out there in the world...?

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 19:00, DECEMBER 18~~~~~~~~~~

It's been three full days of travel; over the course of those days, I have to admit the trip has been a little easier than I thought it'd be. Dylan is soft-spoken but cheerful, and his Pokémon Diver is a happy-go-lucky bundle of joy, making them both quite pleasant to be around; Brian, rather than bothering me over every little thing, has let me manage the outing more or less as I please; and the Candle Guard's morale is boosted by having their old friends along. Also, I can't help but be at least a little grateful for the extra people to take shifts on watch; four people on two-hour shifts generally means nobody gets a real full night's sleep, whereas six gives more leeway.

We're in no man's land right now, but that doesn't mean we're being careless. Some places this far south are plagued by bandits: people who haven't got any way of surviving except to raid villages and rob the few brave or foolish travellers who walk the abandoned highways. Even if there aren't any such desperate individuals around, there's always the danger of wild Pokémon; they're even rarer than bandits, but they've been known to get hungry enough to attack villages or travellers just the same.

Thankfully, even in three days of trekking we haven't encountered any such dangers. My tight-knit Candle Guard doesn't complain about the boring food or the cold, and I'm bothered by neither; Dylan and Brian seem to be taking their cue from the others, and they're keeping any misgivings to themselves as we approach the forest.

The treeline was first visible as a smudge on the horizon, a distant mirage that grew into a wide band of darkness as we walked, and which then began to evince the unmistakable silhouette of a forest. Now, as we draw even closer, the air has started to grow warmer, albeit still wintry; and the smell of green growing things is a much-needed reprieve from the taste of prairie dust on the tongue. I glance around at the rest of my group, aiming to gauge their readiness; but instead I accidentally catch Brian's eye and look away uncomfortably before his Marks can tell me anything I don't want to know.

“Here we are,” I say quietly. “Stay low to the ground as we head for the trees, and get your night-vision goggles out.”

I receive five quick nods of assent, and the six of us human beings pull the ski-mask-like devices— the highest-tech stealth gear the TA has access to— over our eyes. Scar, Jazz's Pokémon, doesn't need them; he sees incredibly well in the dark even without any tech. We start to wind our way closer to the forest, keeping behind the hillocks that dot the landscape as much as possible. A ravine offers a way to draw even closer without being out in the open, and eventually the first few trees— stunted and thrashed to leaflessness by the desert's icy winter wind— begin to appear. They don't look like any species of tree I'm familiar with, but then again, I'm not exactly a botanist.

We creep slowly into the first grove— using it as cover from whomever might be watching— and soon find ourselves amongst healthier trees: most of these specimens bear broad, flat leaves that descend almost all the way to the ground. Our feet make barely any noise as we walk across a layer of moist mulch: the loamy soil beneath the decaying plant matter is completely different from the half-frozen dirt of the desert outside.

The darkness around us goes from the dim light of the waning moon to near pitch blackness, since barely any illumination is making it through the canopy of the trees some twenty to thirty feet above. The goggles do their job, keeping our vision clear enough that we can see where we're stepping; but there isn't enough light for even these devices to see farther than ten feet away.

I've briefed everyone, of course. In the five nights that have passed since Sunshine and I discovered the secret of the fruit-bearing trees, we haven't been able to get back into the forest's dream-world, nor has anything changed about the dome of darkness that covers Amarillo; but the information we have is valuable. There are people living here, and we'll need to hide from them and watch for a while to make sure we understand how the seed-planting process works.

It takes more than an hour of silent, tense sneaking before we encounter signs of habitation. The first things we see are game traps: vine nooses, laid out on the ground and connected to bent branches of trees above, ready to pull taut should the trigger vine— tied around what looks (and smells) like raw meat— be disturbed.

Matt, who found the first of them, waves us over and points out a trail of faint infrared prints leading to and from the noose: heat lingers in the dense leaf litter, showing trace outlines of a human being's footfalls. The shape and evenness of the patterns, glowing in our visors' display, hint that the person stepped lightly, but wore only leather moccasins that did little to keep their body heat from leaching into the soil below.

I nod to indicate that I've understood Matt's silent signal, and take the lead. The footprints, which can't have been left longer than an hour ago, lead us along a series of game trails that wind ever deeper into the forest. The distant, peaceful sounds of movement around us— beyond the range of our night vision— indicate that there's wildlife here, but we don't seem to have startled any of it: the six humans and Jazz's partner Scar are stepping quietly on soft ground, avoiding the occasional pools of moonlight on the forest floor to stay amidst near pitch darkness. Diver and Bright One are hovering quietly in the shadows above us, and we've left Zebstrika and Charming in a dry riverbed about two miles away from the forest. The electric zebra Pokémon is hitched to a makeshift cart made of foldable tent poles and interlocking plates of fibreglass that we brought with us in our packs: he's our way of carrying the tree seeds if we succeed, or our quick way out of the situation if something goes wrong. Charming's there to keep our getaway vehicle safe, and because his flaming tail is a liability here in the dark forest.

Our stealth is our greatest asset on this mission. I briefed my squad on this already: if we're found, we'll be outnumbered by the people who live here, and whatever force protects this forest will likely respond as well. I didn't specifically share that it can banish ghosts— my ability to do team up with Sunshine and do reconnaissance in my sleep is a carefully guarded secret that only Ellen, Dad, Camilla, and Karen know about— but I did make it clear that whatever the mysterious force is, its powers are unknown and therefore dangerous.

The distant sound of voices up ahead informs me that we've followed the tracks to their source. I motion for the others to slow down; we crouch and begin to crawl through the underbrush, causing as little disturbance as we can. The pools of moonlight are more frequent in this place where the trees have been thinned, and we have to move more and more slowly as we draw closer to our destination.

Sure enough, the makeshift dwellings of animal hide and wood come into view ahead of us, partially hidden amongst the trees. As before, I can tell they're sized for perhaps three or four people each... now, though, with the help of the real world's clarity of detail (plus the zoom feature on my goggles,) I can see the material that makes up the tent-like structures: it bears spotted brown fur, and although the fur means it doesn't seem to have been treated— only smoked, perhaps— it still seems thicker and tougher than regular leather. Could these people be using Pokémon-hides?

It's at this point that I get my first good look at the people who dwell here: a few of them emerge from the tent I'm inspecting, their pale skin making them easy to spot in the night-time glow. There are two men and a woman; all three of them are dressed in rather skimpy fur vests and woven skirts made of long flat leaves that aren't the same kind as those of the common trees around us. All three of them are carrying what look like white, pearlescent soup bowls. They head to my left, toward one of the clearings that dot this area of forest.

With a wave of my hand, I gesture— slowly, in case one of the forest-dwellers glances in the wrong direction and glimpses movement— for my squad to Follow me, and crawl through the bushes in pursuit of my three quarries. The going is painfully slow, but I don't dare travel any more quickly than a snail's pace: discovery at this point could spell failure for our mission. Eventually, we reach the edge of the clearing, staying well within the trees' shadows and remaining hidden under the leafy bushes.

In the clearing, a group of more than thirty human beings are gathered, encircling a short and squat tree that can't be more than nine feet tall. It sticks out oddly amongst the twenty- and thirty-foot trees of the forest: it has an appearance similar to the illustrations of banana trees from my old school books, with coarse bristly brown bark covering its bulky trunk and turning to boughs only near the top. Instead of bananas, though, the fruits clustered at the tree's crown are more like exceedingly large, egg-shaped white coconuts the size of my head. Long, slender leaves extend down from the palm-tree-like cluster above the fruits, and I notice that these are the ones the people are wearing as skirts and belts.

All of the forest-dwellers are carrying those white bowls made from the shells of the tree fruits; all of them shimmer in the moonlight. They're standing motionless in their circle, as though waiting for something. Will the tree start moving? I'm already suspicious of anything that doesn't fit in with the nature around it: such things are generally Pokémon, and this tree absolutely fits the bill.

Then a humming of wings from above— almost like the sound Bright One makes when he takes off, but deeper and louder— heralds a new arrival. The crescent moon is briefly blotted out from the gap in the trees over the clearing, and a huge green bug Pokémon descends, bathed in moonlight, out of the treetops. The Pokémon is shaped like a praying mantis the size of a human, with a wedge-shaped lizardlike head and curved blades of wickedly sharp chitin along the outer edge of its arms. My breath catches: I recognize this Bug-type from photos on the Internet's Pokémon-info wiki. This is a Scyther, a rare and deadly breed of Pokémon feared for its incredible speed and viciousness. None have been domesticated that I'm aware of; feral Scyther are infamous for slaughtering entire populations of non-Trainers and Trainers alike before being brought down.

Instead of attacking the gathered humans, though, the Scyther alights atop the strange tree and folds its green-edged transparent wings against its back. Then a man steps forward from amidst the crowd; he's wearing extra layers of leaves and furs in a robe-like cascade down his entire body. Atop his head is an elaborate, rigid headdress constructed from carved shards of shiny white tree-fruit shell, arranged in a shape that's a cross between a crown and a horned helmet.

“Child o' the moon,” he says, in a clear Texan accent, “We welcome ya this evenin'. Please, accept our offerin's.”

Clearly, the words are some sort of cue, because a woman comes forward with her bowl, walking forward slowly until her measured steps bring her right up to the Scyther perched on its nine-foot throne. The Pokémon extends a single deadly blade, and the woman slices the tip of her finger on it, allowing several drops of blood to fall into the bowl of liquid she carries.

“Blood, drawn by the moon's scythe,” intones the entire circle of forest-dwellers, in unison. This ritual must be familiar to them; the way they all speak at once still draws a shiver from me, though.

The woman swirls the bowl of blood-water to mix it, then slowly pours it out at the roots of the strange tree. Then she backs carefully away from the Scyther, and rejoins the circle; immediately, the man to her right steps forward and begins to repeat the ritual.

This goes on for almost an hour, with each person offering drops of their blood and pouring it out on the tree's trunk or at its roots. I notice that there are only a few people here under the age of eighteen— and no children younger than thirteen. It seems as though this is a ritual for the adults among the forest-dwellers. That in itself doesn't seem odd to me— I've travelled the continent enough in my sleep over the last five years to know that isolated groups like this have a lower age cut-off for whom they consider an adult: it's how they survive. Even among populations from the indigenous cultures of North America, some of whom have chosen to return to their people's traditional ways of life, I haven't seen a ritual like this before.

“We beg the blessin' o' the forest,” the man in the headdress says, his voice slow and formal. “Give us life, we pray.”

At the centre of the rough circle of forest-dwellers, the strange tree begins to shake as though caught in a violent gale; but that's clearly not what's happening here, because the chill winter wind doesn't reach this relatively warm place. Then, five of the cluster of six fruits at the top of the squat tree fall to the ground with a series of muffled thuds.

In unison, the gathered humans shout, “Praise ta th'moon-child! Praise ta th'forest!”

Then the leader, who I suppose must be their shaman or priest or something, steps forward and lifts one of the large egg-shaped objects. He hands it to a woman who's waiting at his elbow, and calls out to the Scyther in the tree, “We are blest!”

The Pokémon makes a long hissing noise, then leaps into the air with blinding speed, disappearing completely in seconds into the column of moonlight above.

A series of instructions are given, too quietly for me to hear, by the shaman and the woman who's now holding the first of the fruits. Several more people come forward out of the crowd and reverently pick up the remaining four egg-shaped items, which they carry away, deeper into the forest across the clearing from us. Everyone else begins to disperse; it looks like the ritual is over.

We'll need to go the long way around to the other side of the clearing to see where those shiny white fruits are being taken. I signal for the others to follow, and begin to crawl away.

I suspect this will a long night... but thankfully, it's shaping up to perhaps be a successful one as well.

~~~~~~~~~~RIN: 11:00, DECEMBER 19~~~~~~~~~~

Four days have told us too much about Amarillo.

The weather has been terrible. Dark clouds hover over everything, making even the light of morning feel as empty and cold as the destroyed buildings filling the south part of town. No one lives above the ground here; our search for the people of Amarillo bore no fruit until we landed and searched the basement of an old corner store.

We were met by people who hated us. They shouted for us to get out, and made threats of gun violence. These threats proved to be empty, as I suspected; the one man who came out to try to intimidate me was unarmed, and too malnourished to have fought even one who has no youkai. They would have sent their strongest to face a potential foe, so I learned much from this man's appearance.

We left without trying to force anything. Our job is not to help; not yet. Our job is to learn. And if we stay too long in one place, the youkai-tachi who patrol the city will notice our presence.

Since then, we have found three more places where people hide from their enemies. Two groups shouted at us from beneath closed trapdoors. Between their threats, they have used words that taught us some of their culture: they call their homes Warrens, and their greatest fear is those such as us, who wield the power of youkai. Some of them believed we were of the youkai-tachi group called Quickstep, come to demand tribute for a fifth time this month. These Quicksteps must be foolish in the extreme; I do not believe the people of Amarillo have anything left to steal.

The third group fled in every direction from an old barn on the edge of town as we landed nearby, screaming to each other that they have been found and to run. I hope they have returned to their home after we left, though I suspect they abandoned the place forever now that they think youkai-tachi have discovered it.

I am lying down on a pile of rubble. It is maybe one and one-half metres tall, but is still the tallest thing for kilometres. The rest of my squad, they are sitting off to one side of it, eating and feeding their youkai partners and Pidgeot. I am here keeping watch for the next youkai-tachi patrol; but my binoculars show me nothing, only the far distant buildings of the downtown area. Downtown is a place we have already determined to be the headquarters of the grey-armband gang.

“Are you hiding from the Trainers too?” whispers a voice from right beside my ear.

I go very still. I am an alert person. No one sneaks up on me. And yet just now someone has snuck up on me. I wait and listen, knowing that moving now is a very bad idea if this person is an enemy.

“Are you okay?” says the whisper. Then, very slowly, “Can you hear me. Look around if you can hear me, lady.

I turn my head to the left and come eye to eye with a child who is pressing his nose right up against my face. I do not think he is older than maybe six, seven years. He has green eyes, which are all I can see of him. His breath is terrible: a sign of malnutrition.

“Where did you come from?” I ask him.

“Home,” he says. “Where did you come from?”

“The sky.” I do not say anything more; I do not want anyone this child speaks with to know who I work for. That is the first rule of scouting: reveal nothing you do not have to reveal.

He nods as if that answer makes sense to him. “Then you must be an angel,” he whispers. “Mom makes us pray to God and the angels for help every night. She says they live in the sky, and they'll come save us one day. Did you come to save us?”

I work very hard not to show my emotions when I respond. “Yes. I came to save you. If I can.”

“Follow me,” the boy whispers. He backs up so that his face is no longer pressed against mine; as he continues to wriggle backward I get a look at the old black t-shirt he wears, and the simple rope belt keeping his homemade pants from falling to his ankles. As a scout, I see and interpret very quickly. From his clothing I can tell that the family of this boy cares for him, but they are very poor. I also see the old and fading bruises on his face and shoulders. They do not know how to keep a child in order in a dangerous place like this, so they beat him when they cannot think of anything else. They are well-meaning but stupid and afraid. That means they are dangerous.

They are also the only lead we have in four days of searching. I watch the boy pull open a hidden trap door in the side of this pile of junk and know that it is my duty to follow. I clear my throat loudly and get the attention of Emmett, who is closest to me. I wave for him to come up here.

“What's up, Rin—”

“Shht,” I silence him. “Tell the others, but be quiet: if I am not back in five minutes, leave. Do not follow me.”

He opens his mouth to argue. A real soldier would not question his superior. I understand, though: he is not a real soldier. He is a kind boy, and worries for me. Before he can speak and break protocol, I slide from where I am lying prone on the rubble and disappear through the trap door.

“My family's this way, Miss Angel,” whispers the little boy, who is waiting inside for me. Below the trap door is a space just high enough for me to stand up, with metal ladder rungs hammered in to one wall for people to climb out.

I look around more. It is dark but there is enough light filtering through the trap door edges that I can see we are in a little compartment of air connected to a narrow tunnel with concrete walls. It looks like a section of old sewer pipe. The smell supports this theory.

“Tell them that I will not harm them,” I instruct the boy in a whisper. When we encounter his parents, I do not want him to say anything that will get me killed by frightened people.

“Of course you won't,” he replies. “You're an angel. C'mere!”

He leads me down the tunnel, which requires him to hunch down and me to bend double. A taller person might have to crawl. The concrete pipe ends and is replaced with earth walls and a ceiling held up with very precarious supports. I do not want to think about what would happen if one of these rusty metal rods gave way.

There is light up ahead. Pulling my binoculars back up to my eyes and looking down the tunnel, I can see the stone and mortar wall of a basement room with small rectangular windows along the top. They are painted black, but enough sun gets through to light everything dimly.

The boy runs ahead into the room, and disappears from my sight. “Dad, there's an angel here,” he shouts.

“That's nice, Marcus,” says the quiet voice of a man from around the corner. “Tell your imaginary friend to have a nice day.”

“But Miss Angel is here to help us! Mom, tell Dad to say hi to the angel.”

Someone on the other side of the doorway clears her throat. I can guess that the strained sound means impatience, but I cannot see or hear enough about this woman to be certain.

The man sighs. “Okay. Hello, Marcus's angel, thank you for visiting us,” he says to the invisible angel that he thinks is in his son's imagination.

This is not a good time to introduce myself. But I do not think there will a better time to introduce myself.

“Hello. Please do not alarm yourselves— I am here to help.”

There is movement inside the room. I see shadows shift, and I hear the sound of chair legs scraping against wood, but there is not enough information to tell what is happening around the corner.

“Who are you?” shouts someone— a man, but his voice is different from the voice of Marcus's father. “Come out where we can see you!”

“My name is Rin. I do not think that it is wise for me to come out there until you hear what I have to say. I am here on behalf of some people who want to help remove the youkai-tachi, the gangs, from your city. I can see that they have been treating you badly: you are very poor and afraid to go out when it is daylight. We can change that.”

The silhouette of a man appears in the doorway. I can see the outline of an object in his hand, maybe a weapon.

“Why should we believe you?”

It is definitely a weapon. People grow more bold when they hold such things.

“I cannot force you to believe this. But if you do believe, it will be because you have no hope and because you want it to be true,” I reply. “Answer for me something: I do not know why there are so many gang Trainers everywhere. They have only small places to rule, and the people of this city are all hidden from them... yet they walk the ruins everywhere, looking for something. Why?”

There is a long time before any response. Then...

“We don't know.” A short pause. “Who are you, if you're not a Trainer? Are you... the Shade?”

“Who is the Shade?” I ask. The name sounds important.

“No one knows. If the Shade isn't you, then who sent you?”

I think it is time that I concluded my work here. They are growing more insistent that I answer questions that I am not authorized to answer. I do not think that I will find out anything more, and staying any longer will risk the youkai-tachi encountering my Squadron and endangering this mission.

“I will leave and there will be no further trouble. Please take this to be our gesture of good will. I will return in one week. If you need help, meet me above ground on that day, when the sun is highest. If I do not see anyone, I will pass over and no one will bother you.”

“We don't have anything to offer you.” Marcus's father does not sound angry, only confused. “So, why? Why go to all that trouble?”

“Because that is what we do,” I tell him simply. I am out of time; I turn and run, hunching over to fit in the old sewer pipe.

Behind me, I can hear Marcus shout, “Why are you being so mean to Miss Angel?

I get back to the surface very quickly, and mount up in my saddle on Pidgeot's back. The people of the Warrens, they have no knowledge and no help to offer us: they need our assistance. We will have to take some new risks.

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 18:00, DECEMBER 19~~~~~~~~~~

We've learned a lot from watching these people.

It's growing dark now, and the seven of us have gathered in the copse of trees— well away from the village— that we've assigned as our meeting place. I've written down everything we learned, and it's more or less as follows:

Last night, the forest-dwellers moved the five hard-shelled white fruits they received from their ritual to another empty grove, where they dug holes sufficient to half-bury them and left them there, shining slightly in the moonlight. Investigating further, we found more clearings— apparently man-made, given the uprooted tree stumps we found decomposing in the underbrush nearby— peppering the forest around the village. Many of the clearings were empty, and the soil showed signs of having been tilled back into an even layer; however, in at least thirty of them there were more of the squat, strange trees in various stages of growth, confirming the idea that the egg-shaped objects serve as seeds as well as food.

This morning, we each took up a well-hidden vantage point near various of the clearings. At breakfast time, the families of forest-dwellers visited one of the groves with its cluster of five fully-grown, seven- or eight-foot-tall trees; calling the trees Tor as they talked amongst themselves, each group picked five of the six fruits off of their individual tree (the strange trees always bear six fruits, and we never saw anyone pull the sixth from any of the Tor.) The twenty-five fruits picked from that one grove seemed to be enough food for the tribe's population of fifty or so; they took them into their habitations and boiled them over cooking fires before cutting the boiled fruits in half and using carved spoons to eat about half the contents. They saved the rest for later; as they went about slicing the cooked flesh of the fruits and storing it away in leaf wrappings, Jazz overheard a man and woman refer to the fruits as Kiut. The flesh is a uniform yellow; aside from the colour, though, boiled Kiut insides look quite similar to an exceedingly large hard-boiled egg.

From the day's quiet watching, we gathered some basics: that the people of the village get most of their water from the streams nearby, but also collect dew using funnels of woven leaves; that they spend the daylight hours checking their traps and hunting game— it seems native wildlife like squirrels, rabbits, foxes and deer have taken up residence in the forest as well as Pokémon— and pass the time between twilight and sunset making garments out of hides and skirts from the long leaves of the Tor. The other task the tribespeople performed was to tend the mystery trees themselves: all of the Tor, whether seed, sapling or tree, were watered three times in the day, each time with a few drops of blood mixed into the water-filled fruit shell.

I close the notebook I've been taking all these notes in and slide it into my jacket pocket. It's time to get ready.

“Okay,” I whisper to my night-vision-goggled crew of stealth operatives, “I think we know what we came to learn. Tonight's mission is to wait until all those people are asleep, then grab five of those Kiut. Even if they perform the ritual again, it should be safest to take the five that were planted last night.”

A round of serious nods tells me that my team understands. Okay. Time to make some executive decisions.

“Jazz, you and Scar are the lightest on your feet out of all of us: best if the two of you go and get the Kiut fruits when the time comes. Dylan, you and Diver will be their backup; if something goes wrong, your water powers should be quiet and precise enough to knock out a pursuer without hurting them or alerting the rest of the village...”

More nods of agreement from all around the circle. For some of them— Jazz, Tom, and Matt— I'm uncomfortably aware that they'd follow me without question even if I said I was going to leap in a volcano or take on a gang singlehandedly; I'm perhaps a little bit grateful that Brian's here, if only because he'd be calling me out on it if this were a bad plan.

He must have noticed me watching him, because he returns the look— my gaze drifts away from his eyes instinctively to settle on his right ear— and says quietly, “It's a good plan. This way we keep the fiery Pokémon as a last resort. No sense burning the forest down.”

I had been thinking that. Despite myself, I give him a small smile of appreciation. It feels good to have his approval; maybe everything isn't as bad between us as I thought.

Then Matt tugs at my sleeve. Taciturn as he is, I know he'd have said something if he wanted to use words, so I suppress my instinct to ask What? and just glance at him.

He's staring over my shoulder into the forest, in the direction of the forest-dwellers' village. The others have all caught onto whatever he's seeing over the last couple of seconds, and have gone quiet; in the sudden silence, I become aware of a faint, distant noise from far away among the trees in that direction. I slowly turn around, fearing the worst.

Whatever I expected to see, it wasn't this. Five short, squat silhouettes are coming toward us at a slow trudge: their profile in the faint light of the rising moon that's filtering into our night-vision goggles is exactly that of the Tor trees.

I was right, I think with a surge of trepidation. They are Pokémon.

I gesture for everyone to get into hiding; as I crawl into a handy bit of underbrush, I note that only Dylan and Tom needed the prompt: the others already took the initiative and got into hiding before I even thought of telling them to. With everyone invisible amidst the bushes or under the leafy boughs of the forest's more ordinary trees, I simply wait and watch the Tor get closer.

They lurch from amongst the trees, unsteady on roots that rise from the mulch and form themselves into vaguely foot-like appendages. Each one has only a single fruit remaining: these must be the Tor that were picked this morning.

Then, as the Tor draw close enough for detail to be clear in my goggles, I see the eyes. On each of the pearlescent white fruits at the tops of the five Tor, eyes have opened. Their lids are made of the same shell material as the rest of their faces, and the eyes on each fruit are shaped slightly differently, as though each Tor were wearing a different expression: surprise, excitement, even disappointment.

The creatures shuffle through the grove. Their root-feet are growing more defined, almost like the wide stomping claws of strange dinosaurs, albeit made of bristly brown plant material and caked with fresh soil.

One of the Tor turns to stare directly at my hiding place— no, at me— and I feel a nudge against my mind before a tiny surge of Sunshine's power renders me opaque to psychic power. The thing stares at me for a brief moment longer, then a crack in the bottom half of its egg-shaped face opens wide like a mouth and emits a noise.


Then, to my immense relief, the creature turns and follows its four fellows away into the forest, leaving me doing my best to calm my racing heart. The cascade of my thoughts returns: the ones I held suppressed while I was staring the Pokémon in the eyes so as to avoid panic. Oh god what does it want, is it going to fight us? These things drink blood, don't they, does it think we're prey?

But the thoughts tumble through my mind and are gone with the departure of the five Tor. After several minutes of motionlessness, in which we all listen to the heavy footfalls of the Tor as they depart— their steps only sound aside from the sigh of the night wind through the treetops— we all slowly emerge from our hiding places.

“That was too close for comfort,” Tom whispers. “It looked like one almost saw you, Rachel...”

“It did. They knew we were here, Tom,” I tell him very quietly. “These things are psychics.”

Dylan lets out a low whistle, which cuts off almost immediately as Brian gives him a sharp look. Dylan looks sheepishly to me, and I have to make myself frown at him, too, to reinforce the importance of staying quiet. We are on a stealth mission, after all.

“Jazz, Scar, get in place,” I whisper. “We'll arrange around you. Wait until roughly midnight: that should give the villagers time to fall asleep.”

We climb halfway up trees or crawl under exposed roots, each of us making sure we can see Jazz and Scar where they've hidden themselves in the underbrush a minute's walk distant from our target clearing. The hours pass slowly, with my mind full of all the things that could go wrong: to my overactive imagination, every small forest creature shuffling through the underbrush is a villager hurrying home to raise an alarm; every branch shaking with a gust of wind is Scyther descending to menace us. I almost miss it when Jazz and her Pokémon both disappear from their hiding place: like twin shadows, they blend into the darkness and vanish, headed invisibly for the clearing.

I grow more and more tense as my mind fills with doubts and worries. We can't see the clearing from here; what if something's happened? What if Jazz and Scar have been attacked, by Scyther or by more of the walking Tor? We could just be waiting here while something horrible happens to them...

The graphic nature of my imaginations grows worse and worse, until I'm struggling not to panic from the vivid images of Jazz and Scar lying somewhere between here and our target, dismembered or crushed to a pulp by root-feet or...

A flash of movement in the spot I've been staring at nearly wrings a scream out of me, but thankfully my voice only produces a hoarse and strangled croak. It's only Jazz— she and Scar are back in the same hiding place they just left from, and both are carrying one of the huge egg-shaped fruits under each arm. A fifth Kiut peeks from inside Jazz's pack, the contents of which we emptied into everyone else's bags earlier today for just this purpose.

Almost crying with relief, I sneak out from my hiding spot and arrive next to Jazz and Scar. “Well done,” I whisper. “Let's get out of here before anything else happens.”

She nods, and hands me one of the fruits. The Kiut's surface is completely smooth, and the fruit as a whole is surprisingly heavy: for some reason, I'd been imagining something with the density of a coconut, but clearly the contents are more similar to an egg's. Scar hands one of his over to Matt, and the seven of us move off, with Diver hovering somewhere in the treetops and Bright One fluttering near-silently above us.

I don't relax until the forest is far behind us, and we're in the cart drawn by Zebstrika with our five undamaged prizes, rolling steadily into the start to our three-day journey back to Hartley. Then I let out a long, slow breath of relief.

The TA can feed the people of Hartley— no one's going to starve.

We did it.

~~~~~~~~~~RIN: 10:30, DECEMBER 22~~~~~~~~~~

I hope that the rest of the T.A. is having more success than we are.

We were given one week to find the non-Trainer people of Amarillo. That amount of time is not negotiable. This is because we can only carry enough supplies for seven days: our youkai are strong, but carrying us is already all most of them can do. Pidgeot has grown big enough to carry me with a large pack on my back, and Dean's youkai partner Mantine can as well, but we are the only ones able to do this. That means that the food and water we carry has to be enough for five people and five youkai. So, one week.

Unfortunately, one week might not be enough. None of us has ever seen a place as ruined and ground under the heel of youkai-tachi as this. The people are hidden away, and every time we land to look for them, it is only an hour at most before the youkai-tachi appear and we are forced to leave.

Now I have come to believe that to find more information, we should not disturb the frightened people of Amarillo. The ones who hide and scurry will only bring themselves more suffering if we try to find them. So we must find others who will be more willing to speak.

The downtown area is youkai-tachi land. The gangs walk the streets and force groups of people— slaves— to search the abandoned buildings. No one there is a friend to us. Besides the downtown, in this city only one place above the ground shows life.

From high above, we have been watching one house, checking in on it once an hour, for all of yesterday and most of this morning. It is the only standing home in a large neighbourhood of destroyed cottages and collapsed two-level houses. There are craters all around this neighbourhood, holes that have been filled with overgrown bushes from the abandoned backyards. The Civil War hit this place strongly, but this house survived and its people have not been robbed or taken prisoner by the youkai-tachi.

At first we watched from afar because we thought that a youkai-tachi group used this house as a base. But the gangs do not pass through here, even though they patrol close by. The house is painted white, and a woman lives inside; we have glimpsed her tending a small vegetable garden, and I saw two children come out to play inside the white fence for a short time. They do not fear the youkai-tachi; likely they have some deal. They will know things about these Quicksteps and others.

“Advance Squadron, watch my back and radio if the youkai-tachi approach,” I say into my radio. Then I pat Pidgeot on the side and whisper to him in Japanese that it is time to descend.

I stay alert as we circle down, watching for anyone who might see us, but the youkai-tachi are elsewhere for now. We land in the yard where the garden is, and Pidgeot settles low to the ground to let me dismount.

The garden is simple and well-planned; the only spaces without vegetables or herbs are narrow pathways for the woman to walk or the children to play in. Over the next twenty seconds, I take in the supplies and calculate that this place could feed maybe two soldiers for a season. Then, the back door of the house opens and the woman steps out. She looks me up and down with a face that is carefully neutral, then gestures silently for me to come indoors. Her body language is stiff. Perhaps she is afraid, though her actions tell a different story— does the rabbit invite the wolf into her den? This person is mysterious. I will need to tread carefully until I properly take her measure.

The inside of the house is somewhat run-down, but it feels like a place that is lived in. The carpet is threadbare but clean; the lights are not on, but the fixtures are there on the walls as if someone is wishfully imagining the power might come on at any time. I follow the woman into a kitchen full of stainless steel and clean laminated countertops: this room looks like it could be from the old times, except for the yellow plastic buckets of clean water resting next to the sink. One window looks out on the crater where another house used to rest, across the shattered and overgrown street.

“You aren't from around here,” the woman says, making a gesture at one of the three kitchen stools around the black-topped centre island of the kitchen. Her voice holds a bit of the southern accent of these parts, but only a little. I find it easier to understand than most.

I sit, and respond, “No.”

She nods to me, and a timid smile appears on her face. Hmm. Timidity suggests that she invited me into her home not out of bravery but because she is required to do so by youkai-tachi whenever they visit. The smile implies that it is good I am from elsewhere, meaning she is glad I am not one of the youkai-tachi gangs she knows. This could be useful knowledge, if it is not a misdirection.

“Tea?” she asks.

“Please,” I say, masking my surprise with a smile of my own. Few places this far south have luxuries such as tea.

My host turns on the kitchen's stove with a hiss of gas and a click-fwoom of sparks lighting it on fire. Propane? A kettle is seated atop the stove, and the woman hums a tune as she pulls a homemade teabag of burlap from a shelf and places it in a teapot alongside two empty mugs.

There is a long silence while the kettle comes to a boil. The woman shifts from one foot to another. “Was it a long trip?”

“Not so long by sky.” My words are ambiguous by design: I will tell nothing that she has not seen with her own eyes. If I am to reveal truth, it had best be in return for something the T.A. requires.

The kettle begins to whistle and my host pours it immediately into the teapot. The smell of fresh green tea fills the air, and I feel (but do not show) a wave of nostalgia for a homeland I have not seen in many years. Shutting off the stove, the woman brings the teapot and both mugs to the centre island and sits so that she is facing me across the counter.

“This is a dangerous place. Why stop somewhere like here, if you're traveling?” she asks. Perhaps she is simply making conversation. But perhaps not. This question could be one that an unwary visitor might answer too fully.

“I am not afraid of youkai-tach— of gangs,” I say, deciding that I should speak a truth that can be interpreted in many ways.

“I thought the only ones who aren't afraid of gangs are the gangs themselves,” says my host. Her timid frown shows me confusion.

“We are no gang,” I say. This is an important thing to communicate as soon as it is addressed in a conversation, but not before. We will get nowhere by appearing as simply more oppressors, nor by appearing too eager to claim not to be oppressors. One is cruel, while the other causes us to look like pretenders.

“I know.” The woman's timid expression has vanished. It was a pretext. “The gangs are terrified. They're crawling across the city in huge numbers, and they come round three times as often as they used to, always demanding that I be on the lookout for strangers who could be behind the disappearances.”

“I do not know about any disappearances,” I tell her, putting a frown on my face to signal that I mean what I say. Through my head rush many thoughts, but I let them flow like water and drain away. Only with a clear mind can I hear without self-deception what this woman will say next.

“Why have you come to my home.” The question does not sound like a question but a demand.

“To learn.”

“To learn? To learn what?” She is surprised, and her harsh questioning demeanour has cracked. Now she is curious, despite herself: I can see it in her posture and the way this query has opened itself; she has lost focus, and is no longer single-mindedly pushing me to give up information.

I have the upper hand now. Curiosity is dangerous but useful. I can turn it into information if I am playing my cards correctly. My next answer must be one that gives her more questions. “To learn who can be helped.”

“And you've found nobody who'll trade learning for help, because no one wants your help.” The woman leans forward and rests her crossed arms on the counter. “Am I right?”

I narrow my eyes and take a sip from my mug of tea. It is delicious. With the time it buys me, I calculate my next move: this woman was pretending to be curious, but she was not curious. My revelation of the T.A.'s intent to help did not spur questions, but instead sprung a trap. Now it is I who must answer to proceed, and I cannot lie; to do so this early, before I know the situation, is dangerous.

“Perhaps,” I say, but we both know that in this case Perhaps means Yes. I must reconsider my approach.

“What have you come here for.” Another question that is not a question.

I pause for a moment, then settle for repeating myself. “To learn.” I will not be baited into giving up more information so soon after my mistake.

“Then I have a deal for you. Do you make deals?”

“If they are good ones.”

“Then listen. You won't learn anything about this city unless it's from me or one of the gangs.” The woman's neutral expression becomes intense, and her posture is a wall of stone that will not yield. My fear that I have underestimated her skill at bargaining becomes a certainty. “You haven't bartered or threatened an answer out of the gang leaders, so I'd guess you either can't or won't deal with them. So tell me what 'help' you're here to offer, and offer it for what I have to say... or get out of my house. Is that a good enough deal for you?”

My caution has backed me into a corner. By hiding what I know, I have suggested that I fear divulging too much; so she has made it clear that further hiding or a pitiful offer will end this bargaining. I believe that even my caution was this woman's doing, a result of her sudden changes in tactics; in my mind is a board of Go with every move resulting in the loss of the game. There is nothing to do but gracefully admit defeat.

“We can offer anything you ask. Food, technology, help from Pokémon. What we will not do is kill.”

She opens her mouth to say something, but is interrupted by a voice from the door of the kitchen.

“Momma? The baby's awake.” A girl, maybe twelve years old and wearing a faded set of blue pajamas printed with teddy-bears, is standing in the doorway. Distantly, I can hear the sound of an infant crying.

The woman turns, placing a tired smile on her face. “Does he have his pacifier? Go get it for him, Emily.”

The little girl nods and disappears back into the house. The woman turns to me, and her face holds that same intensity once more. The smile is gone. “I'll talk. About the gangs, about the things that have been going on in the shadows, about the Warrens and their people. But first, I want you to get me, my three children, and one other far away from Amarillo, somewhere safe. Do we have a deal?”

I realize that this woman knew what she wanted from the moment she saw Pidgeot and became aware that I was not one of the youkai-tachi. She has played my shrewdness and my caution against me to soundly defeat me at this game of information and words that I have been learning since I was a child.

“We have a deal. I will return when I can, to tell you when we can do this thing.” I stand from my seat and bow, as much to honour this skilled opponent as to signal my sincerity.

The tired smile returns to her face. “Oh, stop that and finish your tea. But then you should go, before the gangs notice your Pokémon outside.”

I slowly sit, and begin again to sip my tea, watching her carefully; but for so long as the tea lasts she does not appear to be anything but a weary, relieved mother of several young children. I say goodbye and leave the house, then mount up on Pidgeot and depart. It is only when I am already far above that I realize I never asked of the woman her name, nor gave mine.

I suppose it does not matter. We have a deal now, after all, and I must bring her offer to the T.A.

End of Chapter 3

Intended Captures:
Difficulty Rating:
---MEDIUM + HARD + 2x COMPLEX + DEMANDING (130k to 185k characters)---
Length: 159,187 Characters

Character Report:
Recommended Characters: 130,000 to 185,000
Characters Used: 159,187
Result: Within recommended parameters!

Attached Files
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Chapter 1: Runner
Chapter 2: Gangster
Chapter 3: Leader
Chapter 4: Avenger
Chapter 5: Darkness Rising

Chapter 4 Prologue — Night Terrors

~~~~~~~~~~IN A DREAM~~~~~~~~~~

A young woman is running across a silent and empty expanse of grey concrete. A dome of featureless darkness seems to have replaced the heavens above; the pavement against which her feet are pounding is starkly lit by a colourless light without a source. The dusty concrete stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction, with not even a tree or a building to break the monotony, until it reaches some distant horizon and fades into the blackness of the sky.

She shivers as she runs through freezing cold air, dressed in nothing more than the tattered shorts and threadbare t-shirt she remembers from her days in slavery to Trainers. The girl— whose face is criscrossed with disfiguring scars— is filled with the urgency of desperation. She knows, somehow, that to escape the cold and her feeling of helplessness, she must reach the darkness at the edge of this dream; both safety and power lie enwrapped in that welcoming abyss.

The inky horizon, and the promise of relief, both draw slowly nearer; the chill light illuminating the pavement dims steadily as she pushes her burning lungs and aching legs to carry her faster towards an escape from the biting cold. She has nearly reached the place where the darkness ahead merges with the blackness of the sky when a yawning chasm of blinding white daylight devours the night in front of her, searing her eyes and roaring its unforgiving harshness at her from the depths of a bottomless pit. She stumbles back from the edge of the precipice, inexplicably aware that to fall into the all-consuming brightness is to be destroyed utterly.

She turns to go back, but the fissure from which the cruel light emanates has spread to encircle her; there's no way out. Desperately, the trapped girl casts about, squinting with eyes that burn in the harsh glare; her gaze falls upon several long planks of wood that had previously escaped her notice. They lie within the circle of entrapping light, and are long enough to cross the chasm; all three together will be just wide and sturdy enough to bear her weight. With a flood of relief, she seizes them and places them across the gulf separating her from the protective darkness.

Even before she sets foot on the beams, they begin to smolder, the all-devouring light wearing away at them from below. As the girl steps hurriedly out onto the wooden slats, they begin to scream.

Terrified faces appear in the wood underneath the girl's feet, and their keening cries rise up to assail her as she treads across their anguished features. The faces belong to people she knows: Old Adam; Mrs. Sutton of the one standing house; Marcus, the little Warren boy; the young girl she saved from the Smashers; Borden, whose wail of agony only grows louder as the young woman flinches away to avoid stepping on him.

"Why me, Larissa?" he cries, and his eyes aren't the angry, squinting ones of the gang Trainer she last saw him as: they're the terrified eyes of the boy she sent away three years ago to serve as a distraction.

"Why me?" echo the others, each of them twisting the question into a different meaning in the girl's guilty conscience. "Why me?"

The young woman hurls herself forward, off of the screaming faces and into the comforting arms of the darkness, as the planks— still wailing their disbelief and accusation— crumble into cinders and fall away into the bright chasm.

Chapter 4: Avenger

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 05:40, DECEMBER 23~~~~~~~~~~

I roll out of my blankets, heart racing, and instinctively assume a fighting crouch as flashes of purple flame burst to life on my palms. The interior of the old storage closet is dark: the space is just barely large enough to fit a set of rusting metal shelves covered in dusty boxes of plastic bags, dish soap, and assorted cleaning supplies. The only other items present are the pile of blankets that serve as my bed when I stay at this safehouse, and my spare backpack: a sorry replacement for the much larger one that held nearly all of my tricks and gear. The door to what's left of the rest of the building is closed— despite my combat-ready reaction, there's no sign of any threat.

...Just a dream, I realize, struggling to convince myself that I'm not still asleep, not still trapped in some nightmare. I can only remember the end of the vision— I don't recall how my dream-self arrived on that fucking eerie stretch of pavement— but since nowadays I remember most of my dreams, I can tell this one is no mere vagary of my imagination. Nightmares like this one have begun to haunt my sleep regularly ever since I killed those two Pokémon. Perhaps I'm going batshit insane; or perhaps— more likely— Spiritomb is sending me cryptic messages for its own inscrutable reasons.

Ugh, I think to myself, slowly relaxing out of my state of alertness and snuffing out the purple fires in my hands with a thought. Being bonded to one of these unnatural creatures already gives me the creeps without adding eerie nightmares to the mix. Fucking two-faced ghost. I'm already under a whole lot of stress without you being all spooky about it. Butt out of my business, will you?

Only silence meets the thought, to my relief. In the twenty-six days since I made my deal with the devil, it's become clear that Spiritomb was telling me the truth when it said it can't read my mind. Even better, it can only speak into my head when I visit its lair under the scrapyard on the western edge of Grayout territory, or when it sacrifices a portion of its oh-so-precious stored power to fashion one of the constructs of purple smoke and green fire that it calls Substitutes.

Still, though, I think to myself as I fill my pack with some food, two plastic bottles full of lake water from up north, and a variety of tricks and tools, I'm going back there today, so doubtless I'll get a chance to take it to task about that dream. In between planning routes, Running to make a living, and slowly rebuilding my supplies of essential equipment, I've been heading to that hidden underground grotto several times a week to train: toughening up my body, learning how to react in dangerous situations, and getting the hang of channelling darkness. In the evenings, I've also been teaching myself some new martial arts techniques from the books in Old Adam's library, the better to one-up the damn ghost's Substitutes with.

Old Adam didn't think much of it when I asked for those books, I think to myself, pulling the backpack on and quietly slipping through the door that segregates my storage closet from the empty, mostly-collapsed supermarket building that it used to belong to. He's usually full of questions. I wonder if something's up.

Old Adam hasn't brought up the question of revenge again, even when I asked him for books that could train me to fight. He probably assumed I'm just looking for another way to defend myself as a Runner in a world full of Trainers, I reason as I start the half-hour jog to the scrapyard where Spiritomb awaits me.

What Old Adam doesn't know is that for almost a month, I've only been tending my Run four days each week, and accordingly haven't been making enough commission on my deliveries to fully support myself. Instead, I've been falling back on my valuable stores of nonperishable food: salted meat, fruit and vegetable preserves, and rare canned goods. I'm not thinking too hard about what'll happen when I run out: there's enough food and water stashed away in my various hidden basements and caches to last me almost two months if I ration it properly... And since I'm pitting myself against Trainers, my odds of living that long might not be very high anyway. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

It's still completely dark when I leave the old supermarket. I'm not concerned, though: one of the perks of my bond to Spiritomb is very good night-vision. I still can't see more than outlines in pitch darkness, but as long as there's even a little bit of light I can see quite clearly. No more worrying about injuring myself if I move before dawn.

The cloudless sky brightens slightly with the earliest pre-dawn light as I run through the empty residential district near the centre of Grayout territory. I squint out over the ruins of the old civilization, searching for any sign of danger amongst the tumbled walls of destroyed houses or hidden in the hedges surrounding the overgrown lawns. Aside from the whistle of the wind, though, it's quiet, and for good reason: anyone without important business is staying underground where it's warmer. The ordinary birds have all gone south for the winter, and there aren't any nocturnal Pokémon to make noise, either: no wild Pokémon would bother living here in the middle of the city, where any good foraging spots have already been picked clean by human scavengers.

Still, I keep a low profile and avoid wide-open spaces as I move on to the second half of this morning's danger— no sense in being an idiot about this. I watch my surroundings carefully as the residential district gives way to the industrial area: but the only things that separate me from my destination are a series of old dilapidated grain silos (long since emptied) and a wide expanse of dirt overgrown with weeds and tall grasses.

I double over and move through the tall grass at a crouch, careful not to give away any sign of movement and occasionally glancing at the sky to check for Trainers with flying Pokémon. You'd think there'd be no worries about anything but Steelbird here in Grayout territory, but that logic would be flawed. The Quicksteps have been extra bold lately, flying overhead surprisingly often... as though they're surveying Grayout territory for conquest. Anyone can tell you that it doesn't pay to be out in the open when the Quicksteps are about; they won't hesitate to swoop down and grab anyone who looks to be carrying valuables.

It's with a sigh of relief that I make it through the last of the tall grass and scramble into the shadow of one of the piles of rusted metal and twisted plastic, quickening my pace toward the centre of the scrapyard... and the entrance to Spiritomb's lair, that crevasse in the ground that seems to open only for those Spiritomb wishes to grant entry. As I approach, the first few droplets of rain hit the ground; it looks like today will be stormy.

I've scarcely set foot on the brown stone steps leading down into the hole in the ground before Spiritomb contacts me.

~Spirit-Wielder, we greet you.~

The many whispers that make up Spiritomb's composite voice average out, as always, to a calm and carefully considered tone. I grind my teeth; the longer I've been in this strange working relationship with the ghost, the more I've wished I could do something to rattle its irritating composure.

“Cut the fucking chatter and tell me what today's training is,” I say, reaching the bottom of the steps and emerging into the cave where Spiritomb's body of purple smoke and green fire awaits me.

~As you wish.~ There isn't even reproof in the creature's tone, just acceptance. ~This day we will teach you to glean knowledge from darkness.~


~Those who possess the will to harbour secrets oft hide them in the darkest places deep within themselves, so as to evade the discomfort of looking upon them. Your human race is no exception. We shall teach you to draw these secrets forth.~

“Let me get this straight, you're gonna teach me to read minds? After you told me you can't do that?” I glare at the thing's ghostly green face, feeling just a little bit triumphant. Finally, I've caught it in a lie!

~Incorrect. To divine the thoughts of another is the art of a psychic, and is beyond us.~ Spiritomb's mind-voices are patient, but not a long-suffering kind of patient. More like the kind of tone you'd take if you were speaking to someone you'd expected to act out; someone whose confrontational attitude you weren't much bothered by.

Fuck. Being treated the way an adult treats a petulant child annoys me far more than open condescension would have. Unaware of my clenched fists— or, more likely, simply not acknowledging them— Spiritomb continues to speak. ~Consider a deep pool of clear water in a lightless cave, with a treasure beneath the surface. We see in true darkness, but the waters of the mind are opaque to us; you cannot see without light, but with your understanding of your kind, nothing hides from you what lies beneath. If you gaze into the darkened pool and behold what you seek, our power can reveal its nature, though it lurk yet in darkness. Thus can we achieve together with you what would have been impossible for us or you alone.~

“So you can see secrets through human eyes, but even then you can't read minds. Following that metaphor, is that because somebody's conscious thoughts are too... lit up for your magic to see?” I ask, forcing myself to ask the question as a clarification instead of a petty jibe. I have to do at least that to avoid yet again proving Spiritomb's low opinion of me correct.

~It is as you say, Spirit-Wielder.~

“Shitty. But even if things they're thinking about are off the table, there's still a way to read their deep dark secrets? Tell me.”

~There must first exist one with a secret you wish to know. Then, this art will require that you trust us. You must invite us into your mind; only by the joining of our power to your human psyche may this feat be performed.~

I glower at the ghost. “Assuming for a moment that I'm stupid enough to take that suggestion at face value, what's to say you don't just take control of me when I let you in?”

~You saw the men named Dorian and Martin, whose wills we suborned and whom we sent to release you from the gang's gathering-place. Do you believe we desire another puppet like those, mindless and clumsy? There is no shortage of candidates for such.~

The thing's logic makes a frustrating amount of sense. It wouldn't have left me with free will if it could just create better servants than... those things it's referring to. “Fine,” I tell it, “But don't expect me to use this power much unless I have to.”

~Very well. To learn this art, first defeat a Trainer and render your enemy unconscious or helpless. Then, employ the power your language names empathy; resonate with the darkness within your foe. Awaken your curiosity; and call upon your heart's darkness. Through it, we shall respond to the call.~

“We start now, then,” I snap, wanting to take back the initiative. “I've gone too long without a hunt, anyway.”

To my continued annoyance, Spiritomb doesn't seem taken aback by my sudden eagerness. ~There is a patrol to the north of this place, heading south and west even now. If you travel north-west forthwith you shall encounter them before the sun fully rises. We shall be ready for your call, Spirit-Wielder.~

“Always ready for anything, aren't you? Perfect,” I mutter sarcastically, and whirl to stalk up the stairs toward the sound of distant rain. I always leave this place feeling like I've lost an argument, even though Spiritomb has yet to try and stop me from doing whatever I want. Fuck, I hate this stupid creature...

At least now I can put all this cold rage to a good use.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 06:25, DECEMBER 23~~~~~~~~~~

God, I wish I hadn' had to get up today.

It's nasty out. Freezin' cold rain is pourin' outta the sky, and Boss's got us all out an hour afore the crack o' dawn, continuin' preparations for what she calls 'the big 'un.' I don' get why a huge fight's somethin' to be excited 'bout, but by the way Boss, Marty, and even Jess are talkin', this's the greatest thing to happen since a couple years back when that one little gang, the Salamanders, got scattered and driven outta town once and for all by us Grayouts. I didn' see what was so great then, on account I weren' exactly involved... and right 'bout now I still don' see what's so great about a big-ass army marchin' toward us.

It's been more'n a week since the big meetup between us three gangs. Since then our job's been: go to the Warrens we know 'bout, and bring all them helpless scavengers under our protection. Boss says that 'til now it were better to send people to them underground places every few months, and get 'em to pay us for our protection. But now, she says, since we're gonna be havin' a gang war, we can't just let this TA bunch get a hold of 'em and use 'em against us.

I wasn't sure what Boss meant by the TA usin' them normals against us. When I asked if she meant, like, as hostages, she gave me a look like I done asked somethin' real stupid, then said, 'Yeah, sure.' So I guess it was real obvious to everybody but me what we're protectin' them from. I still ain't sure, but I also ain't about to tell nobody that!

"Hey! Found the last secret entrance, guys!" yells Stern from about thirty feet to my right.

It's me, Stern, and Marty over in this little section o' northern Grayout territory, near the northeast edge o' the city. Me'n Stern, we done got Marty on our team on account our Pokémon ain't gonna be able to capture many scavengers on their own if they try and run. I gotta head over to where Stern was shoutin', now, since it's us two's job to keep things under control till Slowbro can get a bead on the scavengers!

Buzz is huddled on my shoulder under my coat, vibratin' miserably to try and keep warm in the icy rain. He gives a pathetic little chirp. "Yeah, Buzz, I get ya. We'd both like it better if it was snowin', right?"

As we get closer to Stern and Bulbasaur I notice that, unlike us two, Bulb seems plenty happy with the rain. The plant on his back's swelled up bigger with the extra water, and he's wavin' them two vines o' his around all cheerful-like. Stern's crouched down at the thin line between two big slabs o' concrete, and when I look real careful, I can see the faint outline o' some steps leadin' down, barely visible in the dim sunlight what's filterin' through the rain clouds.

"Hey, did I hear you shout— oh, you found it!" Marty says as he comes up over a pile o' concrete rubble and slides down the other side. "Great job, Stern! Hey, 'Bro... hurry up!"

"Slooooooooooooooooooow," yawns Slowbro, head poppin' up as he begins to drag himself like a glacier over the hill o' wreckage. We all wait awkward-like while he makes the two-minute trip down our side o' the slope, pickin' his way down at his usual waddlin' pace.

"So, uhh... What's the plan?" asks Marty, scratchin' his head nervously and lookin' first at Stern, then at me. Marty's an okay guy, but I swear he's too nervous and indecisive to ever do anythin' on his own. He'd be lost without Dorian or Boss to tell him what they want.

Stern looks at me, too, and I realize it's up to me to decide what we're doin'. Immediate-like, I feel outta my depth. "Uhh, let's open it up and talk to 'em, 'til Slowbro's ready," I say. "But, like, maybe we can convince 'em to come with us without havin' to blank 'em out, right?"

"I dunno, Borden," Stern says, dubious-like. "Most scavengers don' exactly like us, y'know?"

I frown. "Why the hell not? We keep 'em safe from other gangs, make sure nobody bothers 'em, yeah?"

"...Never mind," Stern says, rollin' his eyes for some reason. "Marty, can you get 'Bro to stand by, for when Borden can't convince 'em to come quiet?"

"Yeah," Marty says confident-like, now he and 'Bro are bein' asked to do somethin' they're familiar with. "He's only gotta see one of them."

"Okay," I say, "This's the last entrance, right? We done closed up all the other ones?"

"Pretty sure," Stern says. "Especially since yer bug found that real well-hidden spot under the fake pile o' rusted cans and cinderblocks."

"Yeah," I reply, mighty proud o' my buddy. "Well done, Buzz!"

Buzz chirps a cheerful thanks as I bend down and start shiftin' one o' the two main concrete slabs aside. They ain't too heavy; Bulb gives me some help movin' the heavy rock with his vines, since Stern's a bit young to drag somethin' this size.

Sure enough, a set o' old basement steps is underneath the slab. And standin' at the bottom in an open doorway is a man with a big scruffy beard, wearin' a coat what looks like scraps o' three coats patched together; he's holdin' a rusty ol' pipe like a club.

"The hell're you dirty Grayout bastards doin' here?" he shouts, wavin' the pipe threatenin'-like in my direction. "Them tunnels'll take days ta dig out! An' it ain' tax day. Git lost!"

"Woah, settle down, there," I say, puttin' my hands out in front o' me to show I ain't gonna do nothin'. "This ain't about that. We're here to help!"

The man narrows his eyes suspicious-like. "I ain't seen you before. Yer Grayout though, just like the rest of 'em, right? The hell you sayin' 'bout helpin'?"

"Yeah, I'm a Grayout. But listen, some real bad news is comin' into town," I explain, tryin' to smooth over the misunderstandin'. "So we're, uhh, invitin' y'all to come somewhere safer."

Instead o' actin' grateful, he spits on the ground. "This's bullshit! Y'all's Boss swore we'd be left alone if we paid all our tribute on time, an' we did! And now y'all wanna take us in, huh? Well, what if we say no?"

I notice his fists are all white where he's clutchin' his pipe. Poor fella's frightened outta his mind. Behind me, I hear Stern whisper to Marty, "Get ready t'start it, yeah?"

"Hang on, guys," I say, turnin' to Stern and Marty. "I think I got this."

"Who ya talkin' to?" shouts the man at the bottom o' the steps. "I warn ya, there's hunnerds o' us, and we'll... we'll kill ya if ya come down here!"

I know I ain't too smart, but I also sure as hell know there ain't more'n thirty scavengers down there. But I actually kinda feel for the guy: God knows I been desperate before, even if I don't really remember when.

"Hey, I can see yer scared," I say, blurtin' out the first thing what comes to my head. "I'd be, too, y'know? There's six o' us here, and I mean, everybody knows what Slowbro can do, right? Fightin' us is just a fool's errand, so I get that y'all want us to leave afore it comes to that."

The fella just gulps and clutches his pipe tighter. He ain't brandishin' the thing no more, not really... more like clingin' to it for comfort.

"I don't want anythin' bad to happen. That's why I'm here," I tell him, tryin' to sound as reasonable as I can. "Listen... I ain't supposed to say too much 'bout this, but there's a real big gang comin' into town. I don't know more'n a little, but they ain't gonna take care o' y'all like we do. If there's fightin', I bet some Warrens are gonna get buried or get fought over, and that ain't good for nobody. Boss wouldn' go back on her word for nothin' but an emergency, y'know? We done kept our promises for years."

The guy's glancin' behind him, and there's the sound o' somebody whisperin' real quiet in his ear, too far away for me to hear any o' the words. "Y'all mean that? Ya won' hurt us if we come quiet?" he asks.

I look back at Marty and Stern, and what I try and say is: "We'll treat 'em right?" But for some reason, without thinkin' I borrow that trick Boss uses sometimes, where she says somethin' that should be a question but turns out bein' an order instead. So when I ask the others, "We'll treat 'em right?" it ends up soundin' like, "We'll treat 'em right."

I freeze up a little inside, a hunnerd percent sure that I done overstepped myself; but I'm surprised when Marty just looks startled and then nods nervous-like a bunch o' times, like he does when Dorian or Jess or Boss tells him somethin'. Stern takes his cue from Marty, and shoots me a thumbs-up. Well, better take advantage o' them agreein' while I can, I think.

"Y'all got my word. We ain't here for nothin' violent," I tell the scavenger leader.

"...All right," he says after a few secs, lookin' worn-out and defeated. "I hope this ain't just some trick, but you already done caved in our secret exits, and we all know this fight'd go bad-like fer us, wouldn' it?"

"Yeah, prob'ly," I say quiet-like. Normally that sort o' compliment— somebody admittin' the Grayouts're the strongest— would be the kinda thing to make me grin and feel real proud o' my gang... but right now I'm just sad for some reason. Not bein' proud o' the Grayouts... it feels wrong, uncomfortable.

It only takes half a minute for all twenty scavengers— a dirty scrap-wearin' bunch o' sorry saps— to file outta the Warren. Stern clears his throat and starts leadin' 'em toward HQ, and they follow him hopeless-like.

Marty, standin' next to me, claps me on the back. "I've never seen anything like that, Bore," he says with a grin. "Now 'Bro will have enough juice for handling an extra group later today! Boss's gonna be so pleased with us."

"Yeah, Marty," I say, fakin' a smile. "Uhh, let's get goin'. On account Slowbro's gonna have trouble keepin' up with them scavengers, if we don' leave now."

Marty nods a bunch again before turnin' to leave, which still seems odd on account he only ever nods like that at the higher-ups in the gang. I turn to follow him, draggin' my feet. I still got this chilly, dark feelin' restin' like a block o' ice somewhere in my stomach, and I think I'm startin' to figure out where it's comin' from. It's there 'cause I ain't stopped feelin' bad for them poor scavenger bastards; it’s pretty clear they ain’t happy with havin' to leave their home, even though they're better off with us.

But they are better off with us...


~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 08:45, DECEMBER 23~~~~~~~~~~

Spiritomb was right: Trainers are on the prowl in the ruined Smasher part of town.

It's been ten days since my first hunt when I defeated the two Smashers, and by now I'm no stranger to being hunted in return. I'd thought the sudden burst of activity in Smasher territory was a reaction by the Smashers to my retribution against the two slave-takers and their Pokémon ten days ago... but then Spiritomb told me the Trainer movements are everywhere, not just near the old gas station where the fight took place. Earlier this week I had to sneak past a five-person Grayout patrol to even get back into the scrapyard where Spiritomb's grotto is hidden; the Grayouts are assholes, but they're not stupid— or at least, they're smart enough to know I disappeared somewhere in this area of town after Spiritomb's Dark Pulse attack on their HQ.

Even more suspiciously, for the last few days, Spiritomb has indicated that the gangs appear to be working together. That doesn't fucking happen; I disbelieved the ghost at first, until it described— in detail— groups of Trainers in grey clothing or armbands trudging through the ruins side by side with purple-wearing Quicksteps and even some burly men wearing the red colours of the Smashers gang. The humans among them, Spiritomb told me, seem mistrustful of each other; but they definitely aren't fighting amongst themselves.

I still have to see this for myself, of course. The sun is just rising behind the heavy grey clouds that continue to pour down frigid rain, and I'm hidden amongst the dense branches of a leaf-bare tree across an overgrown field from some of the patrolling Trainers. I followed them all the way here from Grayout territory, and Spiritomb's stories are lent some credibility by the fact that all three gangs' colours are displayed; not to mention that they've since crossed into Smasher space without any attempt at stealth. They're walking down the centre of the road, weaving their way around potholes; and it's now that I realize I recognize one of the Trainers there. Trudging along through the rain in a dirty, scuffed yellow child-sized raincoat is Allison, one of the youngest Grayouts. She used to be a slave like me... and like Borden. Four years ago— about a year before my escape— Allie was out scavenging and found a wild Pokémon eating scrap metal. She made friends with the thing, and when the gang found out about it she leaped at the chance to leave the rest of us behind and join our slavers. Allie, she... she was kind of like a little sister to me, until she became a Trainer and decided she didn't need me any more.

I notice that my gloved hands have closed into hard, icy fists of fury. I hate Allison like I hate the rest of the fucking Grayouts; honestly, maybe more. Sure, they've all hurt me, in one way or another; but she betrayed me. And I don't care if anyone judges me harshly for holding so much resentment for a fourteen-year-old girl, because I give exactly zero shits about how young she is. It takes a special kind of cruelty to leave behind somebody you've suffered alongside, who cared for you, and just start pretending that she isn't worthy of you any longer: Allison is a monster, an epithet which fits her far better than it does the dumb beast she bound herself to.

That dumb beast— Mawile, a deceptively small yellow-skinned creature with a set of cruel metal jaws growing from the back of its head— is trailing behind Allison, its tiny legs barely managing to keep up with the pace the Quicksteps are setting; the three other Trainers are, of course, accompanied by their own Pokémon as well. Two of the Trainers— a man and a woman— have matching purple shirts under their rain jackets. The gang that wears purple are the Quicksteps: either the closest thing to a professional military that's left in the world or a whole gang full of hopeless posers (it depends on who you ask.) These two have Pokémon that are flyers: I can see the silhouettes flapping about in the sky above them, too large to be ordinary birds but too small to see in detail at this distance.

To top it all off, there's a musclebound hulk of a man looming over top of all three other Trainers: there's no way he's under six foot four, and his shoulders are wide as a mountain. He's got a dirty, faded strip of red cloth tied diagonally across his body like a sash, proclaiming him a Smasher. Next to him is a black-and-white-furred Pokémon, comically small next to its Trainer's bulk. It looks like a mockery of a child's teddy bear, and carries a small green leaf in its mouth for some reason; as ridiculous as the animal looks, though, I know better than to underestimate any Pokémon based on its size or appearance.

The four Trainers and their Pokémon aren't just patrolling: that much I can tell. They're glancing around enough to make sure nothing's sneaking up on them, but mostly the Trainers are looking ahead of them and talking quietly amongst themselves as they walk. Meanwhile, the ground-bound Pokémon are sticking close to their Trainers, and the flyers are doing the bulk of the watching. This whole squad of Trainers isn't just wandering or searching: they're going somewhere. As a group. On some level, I still didn't really believe Spiritomb when it told me Amarillo's gangs were working together... but it sure looks like the fucking ghost was right.

I don't need to tell you again that this is impossible. The gangs of Amarillo despise each other. The Grayouts and the Smashers think the Quicksteps are pretentious pansies; the Quicksteps and the Grayouts think the Smashers are boneheaded thugs; and the Quicksteps and the Smashers resent the Grayouts for having the largest territory and being brutally effective at holding on to it despite the Smashers' numbers and the Quicksteps' vaunted discipline. As if that weren't enough, the gang leaders hate each others' guts on a personal level, so teaming up has never been on the table.

Honestly, that's all I know, because the politics of the gangs only ever interested me insofar as I could use them to predict the Trainers and stay out of their way. What's worrying is that this team-up falls well outside of anything I would predict them doing, at least based on what I know. So now, having confirmed that Spiritomb wasn't exaggerating, my next goal is to find out what's really going on. Has Spiritomb's work sown enough terror to somehow unite the big three? That seems doubtful; even large new gangs arriving in town— like that stupid doomed Salamander gang that existed for all of half a year— haven't sufficed before. Something else must be up.

I drop out of the tree as the Trainers and their Pokémon pass behind the half-standing ruin of a wrecked house. Sneaking through the debris, I resume following them at a distance, keeping my ears open for anything they might say loudly enough to overhear...

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 12:15, DECEMBER 22~~~~~~~~~~

The sun's way up above us as if to remind us all the day's half over, but that don't matter to Boss— soon as we dropped off that load o' scavengers, she sorted us into new groups and sent us right back out, separate-like. This time, though, it ain't Warrens we're clearin' out: word is, a boy Runner's been spotted hereabouts, and everyone's out in force lookin'. See, in ten days o' real hard work, we already done checked all the obvious Warrens: the ones we knew 'bout and the ones what Boss was only pretendin' not to know 'bout. Them scavengers're all safe in HQ now. But Boss says we ain't done till every last normal's found. We ain't got the locations o' any other Warrens... but a Runner would sure know where more are!

I squint out across the big empty spaces o' wrecked Smasher turf. The view's borin' as hell, and no sign o' the Runner: I yawn, and Buzz gives me a sympathetic chirp what makes me grin a little. "Sorry, bud. Didn' get as much sleep as I wanted last night," I tell him quiet-like.

Seems I ain't been quiet enough, though. "Shut the fuck up," snaps Dorian from up ahead where he's stompin' his way up the rubble-covered street. His big Pokémon, Aggron, is movin' pretty quiet, but Dorian's steel-toe boots are comin' down so hard I'd bet the normals can hear him for miles. It's kinda pointless to not talk when his feet are makin' echoes louder'n a God-damn shout... but I ain't about to argue with him about it! If Dorian has to tell you somethin' twice, he's bringin' an ass-kickin' with him the second time. And he's in an even worse mood than usual right 'bout now, on account o' this gang alliance he hates so much...

To distract myself from how unfair it is I done got put on Dorian's team for this afternoon, I look 'round at the ruins. It's a pretty clean-lookin' area: we're in a part o' Smasher territorywhat used to be a mix o' houses and small businesses, so there's a lot o' overgrown green lawns sittin' next to the wrecks. It'd be a real nice place to live, except that most o' the big concrete buildin's round here ain't still standin', and the few that are, they got no roof and plenty o' holes through their walls so they ain't much good for takin' shelter in. There's even a park, a big overgrown one with rotten old skeletons o' swing sets and kiddie gyms. The valuable parts made o' metal and plastic're long gone, leavin' just the pieces o' the frames what're bolted down and couldn' be chopped up and hauled off for firewood.

Places like this, they make me kinda thoughtful. I know I ain't the smartest, but I'm still allowed to think sometimes... right? Old relics like this, they really make me think 'bout how much more there used to be in the world, stuff what ain't around no more. I mean, a place where kids— not even Trainers but normals— would just go and hang out in the open... that ain't somethin' anyone'd use nowadays. It makes me wonder what it'd have been like if I was a little older, if I was old enough to remember wierd-ass times like that.

Even then, I ain't sure I'd remember much anyway. See, there's a lot o' memories I ain't able to bring up outta my head. Sometimes, when I get all thoughtful like I am now, I start to realize just how much I'm supposed to recall... but it's like anythin' older than a couple years ago is real distant, too much work to try and think 'bout. Times like this, I get a little worried. Worried somethin' real bad might happen if I do think 'bout the things what're all foggy in my head. I dunno why that'd be: not much changes in Amarillo, yeah? It more or less always done been like this, with the Grayouts rulin' most o' the city and the other gangs sorta scrapin' round the edges. Which is why Dorian ain't happy we're allied with them others...

Why are we allied with 'em, anyway? Oh, yeah, that's on account some other gang— a real big one— is supposed to be comin' this way to mess with us all. When did I forget 'bout that? Ain't it kinda a big deal? Well, it ain't my business to worry about it: I'd rather leave the worryin' to Boss and Jess and Dorian! The moment I stop thinkin' 'bout scary things what're comin' in the future, it feels like they get a lot less scary, so I try and stop thinkin' about the fightin' Boss says is to come. I know from experience that the thoughts keep comin', though, so I look around again for somethin' else interestin' to distract me.

"Hey, look!" I yell to Dorian as somethin' catches my eye. There's a little flash o' movement in the shadows under a burnt-down house's rotten porch off to my left. "The hell's that?"

Dorian and Aggron turn to look at the same time as a small figure with a heavy backpack on suddenly bolts out from hidin', leapin' from below the porch and runnin' straight north, away from us. Uh-oh. Buzz ain't that fast, no way he's catchin' up to that Runner...

I shouldn' o' done worried, to be honest. Dorian gets that slow, mean look on his face what indicates he's lookin' forward to a fun time, and he tells Aggron, "Dig under the Runner. I don' much care if ya break a leg."

The huge Pokémon dives straight into the concrete, metal horns first, with a sound like... well, I ain't sure what the sound is like, but it reminds me o' somethin' I done tried real hard to forget, so I steer clear o' thinkin' too much 'bout it. A big ol' fissure splits the road the moment Aggron hits it, and Dorian's Pokémon vanishes into the ground like a huge mountain collapsin' into an even bigger pit.

You'd think a big thing like Aggron, all made o' rock and covered in metal armour, would dig slower and make bigger waves, but there's only the tiniest shake in the ground as Aggron practically swims through the packed dirt under the road. There's a long wait, while the Runner gets smaller and smaller in the distance... then a far-off explosion o' ground and rubble flies into the sky as Aggron pops up under him.

Dorian's still grinnin' that grin what means somebody's in for a world o' pain. Somethin' at the back o' my head bothers me for a moment; but I switch whatever-it-is off and follow Dorian toward the captured Runner. I'll settle for bein' glad that for once it ain't me what's gonna be gettin' the focus o' Dorian's bad mood.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 8:55, DECEMBER 23~~~~~~~~~~

I've been following this group of Trainers for almost two and a half hours now, which is an hour and a half longer than I had intended to. My coat is soaked through; the chill is starting to make its way to me through the sodden fabric; and worst of all, I'm starting to lose my cool. I can now say without a doubt that— despite never having interacted with the purple-clad gang except to dodge their patrols— I officially hate the fucking Quicksteps.

The problem is, they're actually disciplined. They've been keeping the chatting amongst the entire group to a minimum, and when they do talk to each other, they speak in quiet almost-whispers, and with the noise of the rain interfering I absolutely cannot get close enough to hear what they're saying without giving myself away.

I'm perched, fuming silently, on the convenient slope of a rooftop that overlooks the old basketball court where the Trainers have decided to stop and rest. The section of rooftop that I'm on is all that's left of the building itself— only the old plastic sign that's still standing off to one side of the ruin indicates that this thoroughly destroyed structure was once South Lawn Elementary School.

The pitted concrete sends up a constant pattering noise in the rain, and does little to reflect the quiet voices the Quicksteps are using to confer about something or other. The Smasher is looming over them; I can't tell if he's listening or just trying to intimidate them, but they're paying him no heed either way. Allison, though, seems to have gotten bored; she's wandering off onto the abandoned street, with her yellow-skinned Pokémon trotting at her heel.

That works for me— it's the first time a real opportunity has presented itself to get these Trainers separated. I slide down the slick shingle rooftop and drop to the ground, careful to land atop a patch of muddy earth rather than in one of the many puddles that would make a splash and betray my presence. Taking cover behind the overgrown shrubs and brambles that have overgrown the ruined school's grounds, I creep slowly after Allison.

She crosses the road slowly, idly kicking chunks of pavement across the street and sending up splashes from the shallow puddles. Even through the heavy rain, I can hear her whistling a familiar tune. An ugly, nauseous sensation rises out of my stomach and into my chest... it hurts me in places I'd thought had long since gone numb, to hear Allison— now a Trainer on the hunt for people to hurt— whistle that same carefree melody little Allie used to hum when I would sit with her in my lap in the Grayout slave cages, running the old plastic comb I'd found through her hair.

The urge to strike— to cross the street in an instant and make her taste helplessness for the first time since she threw me away— builds to the point of being unbearable. It would be so easy. With Spiritomb's power and my training, I'm fast enough that only a trained fighter could react before I reached her...

A long second passes before I crush the impulse ruthlessly into submission. Acting on pure emotions is a classic mistake, both in fiction and in reality: you make mistakes when you're not thinking about what you're doing. I look up, and catch a glimpse of the two flying Pokémon— barely visible through the rain— still circling above the basketball court. If I move now, I'll be spotted, and likely I'd be outmatched by four Pokémon at once. Plus, the distance between me and Allison is still enough that, even if she and her Pokémon both fail to stop me from getting to them, she'll have plenty of time to scream for help.

I've got to be patient. I knew that already, and I'm more than prepared to wait another few minutes for Allison to make a mistake. I turn away and head slowly for a spot where the plant life has overgrown a crater in the street; this way, I won't have to cross out in the open where the sharp-eyed flyers can spot me.

Crawling underneath the bushes where the roots dig into the shattered concrete, I emerge only a short distance from a ruined house whose one surviving wall has wide, sheltering eaves. I bare my teeth in a rough approximation of a grin; Allison's taken shelter from the rain here, leaning on what's left of a set of steps and doorpost at one end of the wall. She can't be seen from the skies; and even better, she seems distracted with her Pokémon.

“Mawile, you do not bite unless I say!” she admonishes the creature, using both hands to hold the jagged metal mouth at the back of Mawile's head closed. At one of Allison's elbows, I can see a new hole in the already somewhat damaged yellow raincoat, along with a spot of blood where the Pokémon seems to have nipped her. The creature struggles against Allison's grip and makes a horrible metallic growling noise, then snaps its jaws violently open, throwing Allison to the wooden steps on her ass.

“Bad girl!” Allison shouts, standing back up in a rush, her face pink with anger. “Go and think about what you've done!” she barks, her voice not nearly imposing enough to give her fury any bite. Mawile gives a start, and tries to approach its Trainer, but the girl turns her back on it. Stymied by Allison's unwillingness to relent, Mawile makes a pathetic mewling noise and raises a tiny fingerless hand to paw at Allison's leg. When that, too, fails, the Pokémon finally crawls away around the corner, seemingly to sulk.

This is too perfect. I spend a few minutes checking the area as I draw stealthily closer to Allison, suspicious. But there are no signs of a trap: Allison isn't bait; she's just stupid, with no concept that the open streets are no place to be having a spat with the creature that's the source of her strength. She sits back down on the steps and glowers at the dead grass on the lawn in front of her, apparently lost in thought.

Once Mawile has wandered a safe distance away— more or less out of earshot— I make my move. By this point, I've drawn close enough to hear Allison muttering to herself and sniffling. Is she crying, or is the cold just getting to her? It doesn't matter; the world seems to slow down as I leave my final hiding place behind a winter-bare tree in the destroyed house's front lawn, and swiftly cross the three metres between me and the Trainer without her so much as stirring from her curled-up position.

I carefully place my left hand on her shoulder; if my plan for slaying her Pokémon is going to go exactly according to plan, I need her to react the way I think she will. Sure enough, her immediate response is to gasp and jerk a little more upright, bringing her head up from where it's resting on her knees.

I win. My other hand— until now hovering at my right side— flashes into motion. On the day I lost my bag to the Grayouts, there were only a few things of value that I left behind; two of them were the hilt and the blade of my incomplete dagger. In the twenty-six days since then, I've finished the weapon; it slips soundlessly free from the sheath I made for it, and comes to rest against Allison's neck.

“Don't move or call out, or you die.”

Allison's tension turns to stiffness in an instant. She opens her mouth, then seems to think better of saying anything at all. A slight whimper is all that escapes.

“That was the right choice, Allison,” I say, wrapping my left forearm around the front of her neck to immobilize her head and allowing myself a brief moment of enjoyment at her fear. She must recognize my voice— it hasn't been that long. There's something so satisfying about the moment someone recognizes the well-deserved revenge that's come for them... “Call your Pokémon, quietly. If your friends hear you, you're dead.”

Allison's breathing is ragged. “Who... who are you?” she asks. “How do you know my name?”

A surge of rage goes through me— is she playing dumb?— before I crush the feeling ruthlessly. “Guess who,” I singsong. This was one of many silly little games we played regularly, in the long boring after-dark hours in the slave pens, when she was younger. Before the Pokémon. One of us would come up behind the other, and cover her eyes; Guess who!

...Nothing. No gasp of realization, no begging for her 'friend' Larissa to spare her; Allison's body just shudders as she begins to cry in earnest. “I don't... I don't know,” she whimpers, “Please don't hurt me...”

“Shut up,” I hiss. I feel cheated; this isn't turning out at all how I planned it. “Call Mawile, now. Without alerting your Quickstep friends.”

Allison snivels for a few seconds, seemingly unable to make any other sound, before gathering herself enough to call out quietly, “Mawile? Mawile, come... come help me, girl.”

There's a long silence; half a minute passes before I grow impatient— the longer Allison's gone, the more likely it is those other Trainers will come looking for her. “Must be too far off,” I mutter. My first and least risky plan's failed; time to improvise.

I adjust my grip in an instant, turning the position of the arm that's holding Allison's head still into a choke-hold I learned from one of Old Adam's books. She gasps and splutters for a few seconds before the steady pressure on the arteries and veins in her neck knocks her out cold.

Lowering her to the ground so that she won't make any noise falling off the steps, I arrange myself so that I'm straddling Allison's unconscious form. Until her Pokémon returns, I've got a technique to test: after all, that was the point of this outing. Spiritomb indicated that the actual trick of reading someone's secrets would be nigh instant, so I'm unlikely to be at Mawile's mercy if it returns.

And if I'm honest, it's not just that Allison is a convenient guinea pig; this is also at least a little bit personal. I want to see what secrets she's keeping— maybe one of them will explain why she pretended not to recognize me.

“Now what, Spiritomb?” I ask the darkness, certain that the ghost is watching.

There's a pause of several seconds, and then the shadows underneath the house's rotting wooden steps well up into a darker shadow speckled with green light; a miniature Substitute.

~Focus your gaze upon the dark place at the centre of your enemy's eyes. Feel as she feels, and call out for our assistance; we shall proceed from there, Spirit-Wielder.~

I reach down and pull one of Allison's eyelids up so that I'm looking into one of her pupils. At first, the absurdity of what I'm being asked to do is all I can think about; but then I start to see something more there in the darkness, almost like how I read people's feelings when they're awake and make eye contact. Somewhere inside me, I can feel a pervasive mix of fear and sadness that isn't my own.

Something shifts, and abruptly I'm bombarded with a river of sensation— a chaotic mix of complicated ideas and feelings that defy expression in words— a stream of raw consciousness that rushes into and through me in the space of less than a second, leaving in its wake a few clear concepts tangled in the waiting net of my mind.

~Feel this one's secrets. Look upon them and know them,~ says Spiritomb's many-voice in my head.

I concentrate, and it surprises me how easy it is to find the secrets coalescing at the edge of my awareness, each one shrouded in that distinctive cloak of awe and fear that surrounds the things we human beings keep secret from everyone else. Unpacking them is... uncomfortable, like trying to turn over a stone whose underside is lodged in mud or slime— there's only a little resistance, but my mind itself recoils from the idea of freeing whatever hides underneath, following the age-old human tendency to hide away our fears and shames and so avoid thinking of them.

But I'm no stranger to examining the things I'd rather not admit about myself; I press on, and my discomfort is outweighed by no small amount of triumphant excitement: feign ignorance as she might, Allison can hide nothing from me now...

The first secret comes free with a mental sensation like tearing flesh, and I feel a rush of fear that isn't mine. Disjointed, incomplete images flash into my head: the mottled green face of Stern's Pokémon, Bulbasaur, with its huge empty eyes and gaping gash of mouth; the thrashing of a human body on the ground, with a swiftly growing mass of plant matter rising from the chest; leaves sprouting in seconds from entwining vines; a hoarse scream of pain growing louder and louder over many long minutes that flash by in an instant; then the screaming voice is cut abruptly short—

I hurl the vision away, feeling sick to my stomach. The meaning is clear enough: Allison wisely fears Bulbasaur. She remembers, as I do, the first and only time a slave dared to contradict Stern by pleading with him to let us rest in between scavenging outings. And like anyone in that shithole parkade, Allison hides how scared she is because fear is weakness.

I wrench another of her secrets from where it lies tangled in my thoughts. This one feels less raw, more like a piece of broken glass than a lump of meat. I see Mawile— a view of the steel-jawed Pokémon from much closer than I would ever want to get in reality— and a wash of Allison's overwhelming joy rises to greet the vision, completely at odds with my own revulsion at experiencing closeness to one of those unnatural creatures. In quick succession, I see Mawile at play, tossing a broken and much-chewed tennis ball back and forth across the concrete parkade floor; curiously investigating an anthill and happily snapping up the ants as they swarm ineffectually across her yellow fur and tough hide; mischievously sneaking up on Marty to deliver a painful bite by way of a prank; angrily tearing into Dorian's booted foot with steel jaws, for the crime of stepping too close to where Allison was lying on the floor of Grayout HQ...

Along with these images come emotions— joy, concern, petty amusement— which I shove aside, save to note Allison's conflicted feelings about Mawile's increasingly violent tendencies. She's hiding her worries that she's losing control of her Pokémon— that Mawile won't listen to her when it matters. I smile grimly. Serves you right...

I cast this secret aside, and reach for the next and last. Here, surely, must be her guilt at becoming a Trainer and leaving me behind— at turning a blind eye as all of us who used to be slaves alongside her suffer...

Instead of the expected drop into the emotional pit of guilt and shame, though, I'm blindsided by a wave of embarrassed warm fuzzy sensations that nearly make me vomit out of their sheer contrast to what I was expecting. I see Allison's grey rain-boots from her own perspective, then movement as she looks up at Borden. This image of him has none of his flaws; his normally greasy hair looks puffy and well-groomed, the mean look in his piggish eyes is replaced with a confident gleam, and the huge ugly pimples that dot his face are nowhere to be seen.

I can't believe what I'm seeing. This is one of Allison's deepest, darkest secrets? A stupid adolescent crush on Borden? It's obvious even to someone like me, who's never had time or inclination to pursue such frivolous idiocy: even in this secret memory, Allison has completely erased all his faults and turned him into this unrealistic caricature.

What kind of stupid, harmless secret is this supposed to be? I think. A feeling like disgust, but more complicated and unfamiliar, knots itself up somewhere above my stomach. Who could even think such positive things about a fucking tool like Borden?

The sickly sweet taste of Allison's infatuation disappears completely as I mentally tear the secret into tiny shreds; the empty feeling the bloated, puffed-up mass leaves behind as it blows away is almost enough to wring a disgusted retch out of me. I didn't come here to waste my time with this... bullshit. I cast about for the rest of Allison's secrets, certain that I've missed something— but the net in my mind is empty.

“Where are the rest?” I demand to know, returning in a flash to the world of consciousness and glaring at the place where Spiritomb's fire flickers in the shadows. “There have to be more.”

~You have seen all that she hides. These small humans are simpler; their secrets fewer.~ Spiritomb's many-voice is infuriatingly calm and rational, as always.

“You don't understand; it's missing, the worst one, the one I needed to find—“

~Spirit-Wielder, this may be a discussion for another time. The prey that is not secret requires your attention.~

I spin around at the intimation of danger, instinctively putting my back to the lone standing wall of the house. Spiritomb's warning was timely; Mawile is just now crawling its way around the corner of the house, some ten feet away. I've only been out of the real world for a second or two, tops— most of the time I wasted was spent talking to Spiritomb, honestly— but it appears Allison's desperate plea for help was heard after all.

Spiritomb's trick may not have worked as it should, but the rest of the plan is still going well. Mawile just barely has time to fix its beady eyes on Allison's still form; I'm no longer there standing over her. I've taken the opportunity to leap to the top of the wall— an easy jump of only a few metres with my new strength and speed— and pounce down at the unsuspecting Pokémon, black fire flaring like claws at the tips of my fingers...

I only barely get my leading arm out of the way of Mawile's snapping jaws by twisting in midair; and instead of striking a lethal blow, I collide shoulder-first with Mawile. The metal growing from the creature's forelimbs and head digs into my body, and I feel my shoulderblade and collarbone creak and groan with the strain of holding their shape. Without Spiritomb's power reinforcing my bones, it's doubtless I'd have suffered far worse...

I roll free from the melee in time to avoid a second snapping strike, and use the momentum to come to my feet. There's no time to think about my next move, though: Mawile is already rushing me, acting on sheer animal instinct. Fuck. I should have expected a threatened Pokémon to reflexively lash out, even against an enemy it's only aware of for a split second...

Diving out of Mawile's way, I hit the ground shoulder-first and roll horizontally, as I've been practicing against Spiritomb's shadow doubles; a half-assed dodge won't give those crocodilian metal jaws a wide enough berth. The trick pays off; without any guidance but its own killing urge, the Pokémon's overcommitted to its head-on attack: the jaws snap three times, straining in my direction but failing to reach, as Mawile hurtles past me and through the spot where I was standing a moment before.

My training has taught me not only to avoid half-measures, but to immediately punish mistakes. I've already finished my roll, and my feet are under me: I use the springs of my leg muscles to hurl myself back the way I came, intercepting Mawile and flying right at its back. My hands are open and coated in black flame, ready to hurl aside the metal jaws if they strike; but I needn't have worried. Mawile's skidding, trying to stop and turn around to face me, and the residual momentum has thrown the oversized maw all the way in front of it.

My flame-coated hands plunge through the creature's body, tearing it in two. I dance back as the metal jaws snap back towards me; but once they hit the ground, they only open and close twice more, feebly, before going still.

I shake a few droplets of watery pinkish-red blood off of my hands— the beads of moisture are frozen by the cold of Spiritomb's fire— and straighten, scanning my surroundings for new threats, just in case. My breaths steam in the winter air, and to my relief there is only a slight waver underneath the exhalations. I'm clearly getting used to hunting these things; that's for the best. I can't go breaking down like a fucking pussy every time I take away a Trainer's power.

~Spirit-Wielder, we go. Return to us when your mission is complete; we have thought on this, and there is more to discuss regarding the secrets we were not able to uncover.~

“Yeah, all right,” I mutter. Spiritomb's pool of supernaturally deep, green-glittering shadow disappears from the eaves of the house, leaving Allison's unconscious body lying atop the steps as the only notable item in the area.

Walking toward her, I offhandedly note that the raincoat she's wearing is something I lack— my rainproof gear was all in the pack I lost at Grayout HQ. It's big enough on her that it might fit me, though it's far too small for most of the Grayouts (likely why she was allowed to keep such a valuable item.) It's harder than it should be to unbutton it and take it off her due to her tossing and turning; but I manage it, ignoring the scrunched-up faces she's making in her sleep. I've little care for the comfort of a monster like Allison.

Just as I stand and start stuffing the rain-beaded yellow coat into my spare backpack— wishing, as always, that it were my larger one— Allison abruptly sits up straight and lets out a piercing scream.

“The fuck was that??” a male voice yells from across the street and behind the destroyed school building. At almost exactly the same time, two avian shrieks sound above me: one a rough caw, the other an abnormally loud warble like a pigeon's.

I'm done here. I turn and dash in the other direction as quickly as I can, drawing on a surge of Spiritomb-granted strength to vault over the ten-foot wall; I hit the ground running and—

A blast of wind from directly above hits me like a physical object, smashing me to the ground face-first. I bounce free from the icy mud once before coming to a full stop, and my head spins. My arms and legs don't seem to want to do what I'm telling them any more. Concussion? Maybe. Fuck. Time enough to figure that out later.

With difficulty, I force my twitching arms to push me off the ground and roll sideways twice to get myself away from where I've fallen (a tactic learned from Spiritomb's perpetual willingness to hit me while I'm down.) Sure enough, something hits the ground where I just was; but nothing else happens as I crawl laboriously to my feet.

My eyes won't focus— fucking hell, definitely a concussion— but there's something indistinct thrashing about in the mud in the spot I just left. There's no room for hesitation; my thoughts are worthless right now, anyway. I lurch forward and claw at the chaotic thrashing thing with a palm covered in dancing black flames.

I make contact, and grab on to what feels like a wing; the incredible strength of the Pokémon nearly hurls me back off my feet, but the clinging muck around my ankles gives me just enough leverage to stay standing by shifting my weight to my heels and taking the brunt of the force on my spine. A nasty creaking noise from near my tailbone tells me I'd best be fucking glad once again that my deal with the devil has made me tougher than most humans; separated spinal cords aren't treatable with first aid.

The black flames are spreading, and my vision is getting clearer. A bird almost the size of a person, with brown-and-cream plumage and a red crest on its head, is struggling to pull itself from the mud, but it seems to have ploughed itself deep into a furrow in the ground when it failed to strike me. As Spiritomb's dark fire consumes more of the bird's plumage and sends waves of searing cold into its flesh, it shrieks again, adding its agony to the continuing screams coming from Allison on the other side of the wall.

A flapping sound from up above gives me just enough warning to let go of the giant brown pigeon, lever my feet from the mud, and stagger as quickly as possible out of the way of another crushing blast of wind. I look up— circling some distance above, too high for me to jump, is a second bird: slightly smaller, with black plumage. I can't make out any further details with the brief glance I got; I have to focus on my escape route now.

In the direction I've been running— west— is a landscape of shattered buildings overgrown with the hardiest of the bushes and small trees that once made up their lawns. Craters pock the whole scene: remnants of the bombardment. There's plenty of cover a couple minutes' sprint away in that direction, but I have to get to it first...

A small figure hurtles overhead and crashes down directly in my path just as I get my cold-numbed feet moving again. Not a bird, this time— instead, it's the fourth of the Pokémon I observed accompanying the four gang Trainers: a three-foot-tall bear-shaped creature standing on two legs and chewing on a small green leaf. Its black and white fur is stained with mud, and it looks less than imposing, but I'd be a fucking idiot to assume it can't wipe the floor with me. Even an ordinary bear cub is dangerous; but this is a Pokémon (with the improbable powers that implies,) and it looks like it's recently gone through a growth spurt based on the patches of fur that are still growing in.

It holds out a forepaw and executes a perfect “come get me” gesture. I grimace. That's exactly the kind of thing a Smasher would train his creature to do.

I can't just stand here; the bird above me could be readying another attack already. “Okay, let's fucking dance,” I mutter.

I dash toward the little bear Pokémon in an arc that takes me across the firmest ground I can find; at the last moment, I fake a jab in its direction and juke away, trying to run past it.

One paw rises to block my strike, but the creature doesn't flinch; in the same moment it defends itself, the beast also shuffles two steps to the left, cutting off my planned escape route and forcing me to skid to a halt entirely to avoid colliding heavily with it.

I stop just in time, and I see the Pokémon shift its balance; it was bracing itself to grab and hold me if I tried to bowl it over, and it's adapting to the fact that I've stopped. Damnit— it knows how to fight.

“Pancham!” a voice shouts from the other side of the wall, “Whatcha doin'? Is whatever did this over there?”

“Paaaaaan!” the creature responds, cupping one paw next to its mouth to help the sound carry.

It's distracted; seems even non-human opponents shift the way they stand when they let their guard down. I'm not about to let an opportunity like this pass— I step forward as quickly as my enhanced reflexes will let me, and deliver a low sweeping kick to the creature's side.

Even delivered with the advantage of surprise, the impact doesn't send the little creature hurtling away to my left as I'd hoped, partly because the animal's bulk is almost entirely solid muscle and much heavier than I expected. The creature half-turns as I strike it, and its muscles go stiff as I hook its belly with my ankle: my best effort just barely knocks the Pancham over.

That'll have to be enough. I follow through on the kick with a full three-sixty-degree spin, then vault over top of the little beast; sheer luck just barely gets me out of the way of another blast of wind from above.

There are a couple more indistinct shouts from behind the wall, the individual words of which are rendered inaudible by the continuing drumming of the rain; but the sound of paws squelching in the mud informs me that the Pancham is giving chase.

Swerving around a bramble bush in my path, I take an opportunity to glance back at my pursuers. In the air ten metres above and somewhat behind me, barely visible amidst the heavy rain, I can make out a black-feathered form. Below it, the Pancham has pulled itself free from the mud and crawled onto the bottom half of a broken stone lawn ornament in the yard behind me; it leaps from that perch to a patch of vines that have grown over an old rotten picket fence.

Behind these two, the dark flames have ceased to spread across the brown bird's plumage. One of the purple-wearing Quickstep Trainers looks to have rounded the wall of the destroyed house and is frantically beating at the icy blaze with a sodden coat; but thankfully, even with Spiritomb's cold fires being quickly extinguished, it looks like the badly injured Pokémon is well and truly out of the fight.

Impeded only by the larger craters in the ground which have filled with rainwater, I trace a winding but otherwise direct path west at a dead run, scanning my surroundings as coolly as I can for a place to lose my pursuers. Occasionally, I glance back to see the black bird coasting overhead and the bear Pokémon still leaping from platform to platform, closing the already negligible distance between us. There hasn't been another blast of wind in a while; is the bird tired, or is it trained not to launch its attacks when an ally is too near? Likely a combination of both, I decide; I push myself to run a little faster, but not so quickly that I pull too far away from the Pancham.

Up ahead, the field of destroyed houses and chaotic backyards gives way to a heavily damaged street, one that's familiar to me; with my legs aching and my lungs burning, I'm aware that my stamina won't hold out much longer at a dead sprint: thankfully, I have a plan. This next part will need some finesse, and hinges on the fact that the Trainers have been left far behind...

As soon as I reach the crumbling edge of the street, I lunge forward and plant both feet on a chunk of concrete that's resting at an incline, using the relatively stable footing to stop dead, pivot and launch a raking right-handed haymaker as a surprise attack at the Pancham's face.

No predator is going to fall for such a simplistic and desperate move from a foe that's running away, of course: and a smart animal that's been trained to fight will have a way to turn things like this around. That's what I'm counting on. The little bear doesn't slow at all, ducking underneath my wide blow and taking the opportunity to throw a punch of its own at my apparently wide open right side.

The trick, of course, is that with my fist coming straight for its face, it doesn't have any peripheral vision of my left hand. What meets the creature as it ducks under my desperate haymaker is a small but intense jet of icy black flame issuing from my rigid fingertips, again aimed at the most efficient target: the centre of its head.

The first part of my plan almost goes off without a hitch. As the black bird Pokémon swoops overhead, unable to stop in time, the Pancham takes the bait and goes to deliver a crushing blow to my ribs. But either my aim is off or the creature's been hiding the truth of its dexterity; it jerks its head back and to the left at the last instant, and instead of blasting straight through its skull, the short spear of dark fire obliterates its right eye, eyebrow, and ear.

My plan was a desperate one, and the penalty for failure is high. Try as I might to predict the blow the Pancham intended, I'm not able to get out of the way; the short but wide and wickedly sharp claws tear into my torso just under my right breast, shredding even the thick waterlogged fabric of my coat like paper.

I bite down hard on my lip to hold in the cry of pain, and hurl myself into a crevice where the road has split enough to make a trench the height of a tall human. Water is running down the sides of the trench and sluicing along its bottom; the jagged concrete shards that form its floor riddle the knees of my ski pants with punctures, but thankfully they don't penetrate to pepper my legs with holes. I can't afford to be losing any more blood.

Urgently, standing so that I'm only thigh-deep in the icy water, I pull aside the tatters of the right side of my black coat and inspect the wound. The gash is wide and bloody, but just shallow enough to have avoided shattering any of my bones and burying the shards in my organs. The main dangers from this will be blood loss and infection.

A handy strip of the destroyed section of my coat serves me as an impromptu bandage; after tying it tightly around the wound, I hurry up the trench against the flow of the water. I just have to stay hidden from that last bird for a little while longer. A caw from somewhere above confirms that it's still searching the surface for me; from a bird's eye view, these crevices are so narrow as to be all but invisible unless you're directly above them.

See, the spot where I ambushed Allison is just south of where the three gangs' territories meet at the centre of Amarillo. In a couple minutes' sprint west, we've travelled from Smasher territory into the very edge of Quickstep land; and if there's something the scavengers in Quickstep space know, it's how to make yourself impossible to see from the air.

Up ahead, I see the crevice growing narrower... and then, in the base of the corner where it ends, there's an opening into what looks (and smells) like an old sewer pipe. A surge of relief runs through me: I did remember this area correctly, even with the rain...

I shove the relief aside; now isn't the time to relax. I'm still not sure how badly injured I really am, or how much blood I've lost: adrenaline might be all that's keeping me conscious. I get to my hands and knees and start crawling. As I crawl, the amount of water running past me decreases steadily until I've passed the last of the gaps in the pipe walls where the rain is flowing in from above.

Four minutes of crawling later— fuck, it normally takes me less than three... or maybe the shock is setting in and I've been counting too quickly?— during which time the pipe turns left and becomes a dead end, while a makeshift tunnel through the concrete begins from a gap in the corroded metal, I emerge into an old cellar room shored up with the original hardy timbers from the original construction: a stable rarity. This is a well-preserved place; I remember thinking this was a lucky find when I first stumbled upon it, and my opinion hasn't changed. But of course, like most good things, the place was already claimed when I got here.

I hear faint breathing; someone is asleep in one corner of the room, where a sleeping bag huddles atop a pile of dried grasses. Another is sitting slumped in a heavily duct-taped armchair next to a rickety wooden table: guards. They're not very good ones, as evinced by the fact that they're both asleep... but they don't need to be good at their job: a Trainer would make short work of ordinary people like this, but the scuffle would certainly alert those listening in the deeper parts of the network known as the Grandwarren. Anyway, I've nothing against these people, and I'd rather not get involved with them right now; best if I stay out of their way.

I move behind one of the wooden pillars that support the cellar roof, so that even if they awaken the two guards likely won't see me. Then I gingerly lean myself back against the wall and sink down into a sitting position. My side throbs with my heartbeat, and a wave of exhaustion washes over me— shit, not good— as I strip off my jacket and shirt, gently unwrap the makeshift bandage from around my body, and pull out my medical kit. It's still wrapped in the faded, dirty red fabric case it had when I found in the supermarket equipment room: I've since stocked it with more bandages (both stick-on and homemade,) medical tape, gauze pads, elastic bands, and tubes of precious antibiotic ointment.

I spread some of the ointment over the gauze pads and place them over the worst of the lacerations— wincing as the pressure shoots pain through me in every direction— then use one more pad to spread the oily antibiotic as widely as I can over the entire wound. The largest of the bandages from my kit wraps several times around my torso; the first and second layers turn dark as the blood soaks through, but the third only shows a few dark spots before I pull the binding tight and tie it off at my left-hand side; that should keep the dressings on and the blood in, for the most part.

A second wave of exhaustion hits me, and I hurriedly zip the first-aid kit closed and shove it back into my pack before throwing my shirt and half-shredded jacket back on. Time to get going. I lever myself upright, bracing myself on the wall and the wooden support pillar...

But I stood up too quickly. The whole world drops away as what little blood was making it to my head falters, and darkness rushes in.

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 10:45, DECEMBER 23~~~~~~~~~~

The Kiut are growing, thank goodness.

My squad arrived yesterday evening, after three days' travel back from the mysterious forest. Immediately, I called a meeting to get the Vanguard's command team— Camilla, Porter, Hayes, and Dad— up to speed on the way the strange egg-like fruits seem to work. We quickly assigned Jazz, Tom, and Matt from my Candle Guard to test whether the method for making them grow works here outside the forest.

Now, standing in the last drizzle of the morning's rain looking at the spot in the residential area of Hartley where we planted the Kiut (arranged in the same horseshoe shape we saw the forest-dwellers use,) I feel satisfaction lift away some small part of my burden of cares. The first indications of roots have grown out of the pods already, and small green shoots have sprung skyward despite the cold of the winter night.

I feel someone coming— more accurately, Sunshine lets me know through a shiver of warning where she's resting in my mind— and turn my head a moment before a Southern-accented voice that I've come to know well in the last five years says deferentially, “Commander Rachel.”

I turn all the way around and salute stiffly. In response, reflexively, the man who's come to a stop a respectful distance away from me salutes back and shifts his heels together, coming to attention in an instant as only an ex-military leader of a squad of real soldiers can. The man is wearing military camouflage in greens, browns and blacks, including a brown shell helmet over his pale blond hair; a bulletproof vest and kevlar armguards peek out from underneath the practical gear. He's about five foot eleven, muscular but not broad; his facial features evoke every cowboy I've ever seen in the old 'Wild West' movies, but with no facial hair— he keeps himself clean-shaven.

This is Lieutenant Jonathan Hayes (he insists that I call him Hayes for short,) an ex-military, ex-gang-leader Trainer whose expertise even I have to admit has been crucial for the TA's success. His Pokémon, Roc, is nowhere to be seen, but is probably somewhere else in camp or circling high overhead: it's an exceedingly large specimen of the species known as Fearow, boasting an eight-foot wingspan and a beak the size and sharpness of a longsword.

I carefully school my expression to keep from frowning, and am glad I succeeded as a group of five Vanguard volunteers passes by, waving to me. I smile and wave back, keenly aware that everyone's eyes are on me even outside of camp; especially here where the non-Trainers of Hartley have taken up residence since they were freed. I can't spend any time looking angry or concerned, or it'll impact the morale of the Twenty-Fifth and the hard-won tolerance of Hartley's people.

I'm no stranger to keeping up a strong front, but it gets more difficult when I'm around Hayes, or even when I just think about the man. The problem is that my temper flares even more easily than usual when he's involved, and it's noticeable to others if I don't keep a handle on it— those closest to me probably suspect I've never gotten over the fact that when I first met Hayes, he was the leader of a gang and was doing his best to kill me and Dad. Or maybe they think I'm bothered by the number of innocent people he killed, directly and indirectly, during his years as a gang leader. They'd be only partially right. There's one particular crime Hayes is guilty of that I just can't let go... but even Hayes himself doesn't know I'm aware of it.

I've kept a lid on my simmering resentment, though. My feelings (including my famous temper) are secondary in this case: from a practical point of view, I should be thanking my lucky stars every day for Hayes— who has served as my unquestioningly loyal voice of reason regarding logistical matters— and for his squad, even his unpleasant second-in-command, Platoon Sergeant Gloria. The group of them have managed the day-to-day training for the Twenty-Fifth, as well as the coordination of the Vanguard's movements with the other twenty-four companies, for five years. If I didn't have their ex-military cadre to take up that task, I'd have been left with absolutely no time to deal with the endless stream of other problems that assail any organization this large.

“Lieutenant,” I say, trying and failing to keep the fake smile on my face; I settle for just doing my best to look professional. “To what do I owe the honour?”

“The Advance Squadron's debriefing's about to start, sir!” he reports, still at attention. Hayes is always very formal around me, and defaults to following the regulations of the long-defunct U.S. military when not told otherwise. Problem is, it's effective and keeps our relationship exactly as impersonal as I want it to be, which makes it really hard to justify my continuing dislike for him. Unfortunately, that just annoys me all the more.

“Drop the soldier act, Hayes, we're not in the army,” I tell him shortly, for the umpteenth time. “Where are they at.”

“Main pavilion, Messenger,” Hayes responds, his voice quieter and less abrasive now that he's not barking like a soldier. “I've sent my squad to fetch th'other members of command team.”

There it is again. Messenger. If he's not referring to me as sir, Messenger is the title Hayes uses for me: a relic of the man's quasi-religious obsession with a martyr called the Young Saint, who defended the helpless on both sides during the Second Civil War that laid the United States to waste twelve years ago. He thinks I embody the teachings of that kid hero, and that Ellen's the heir to his spirit or whatever. The whole thing creeps me out, and when Hayes first pledged his loyalty to me I made him swear to keep his distance from Ellen. I don't need him going full fanatic on either of us.

As I lead the way back through town and towards the Vanguard's camp, I reflect on the fact that— for what it's worth— Hayes has obeyed that instruction flawlessly, as well as every other one I've ever given him. He also seems more stable and self-aware than you'd expect a religious nut to be, at least in every way that doesn't involve his eerie loyalty to me. Understanding him is beyond me, but Dad's opinion is that Hayes knows the serious mistakes he's made in the past mean his judgment is suspect, to the point where he genuinely trusts my decisions over his own.

I arrive at the command pavilion with Hayes still following at a respectful distance, and find the rest of the command team waiting there: Camilla and Wes the Alakazam, Porter with his Pokémon Meow, and Dad.

Also present, standing at attention in one corner of the large tent, are Rin and the rest of the Advance Squadron: the five most skillful flyers in the Vanguard (their Pokémon are absent; they wouldn't have fit through the pavilion flaps.)

“All right, I'm here. Rin, please report,” I say, coming to a stop in the centre of the room.

“Yes, sir!” she replies, then launches into a summary of her Squadron's travels in her rather charming Japanese accent. She's concise and efficient with her words: to be expected of the only member of the Vanguard with true military training aside from Hayes and his group.

From her report, I gather that Amarillo is in even worse shape than we'd anticipated; those who are under the gangs' power are reduced to little more than slaves, and the rest of the city's people hide underground. Just as worryingly, the gangs are actively patrolling in the air and on the ground; either there's gang warfare actively going on, or they know we're coming. I also gather that have two potential points of contact to learn more about the situation in Amarillo: one is dangerous due to the unpredictable nature of frightened people; the other is dangerous because we'll need to pull off a full-on rescue, a 'friendly extraction operation' as Rin puts it. As a rule, I've instructed the T.A. to prioritize the safety of our volunteers above saving individuals— we've been burned too many times when we lost good people to meaningless heroics that failed to save anyone at all— but the only deal Rin was able to strike involves changing my stance on that. Rin's report isn't all bad; but it does place yet another hard decision before the Vanguard's command team.

A discussion ensues— Porter and Dad want to be patient for a week, play it slow, then send Advance Squadron back to make contact with the people hiding underground; Hayes suggests sending one of our elite squads to execute the extraction; and Camilla thinks we shouldn't risk doing either, and instead proceed with a modified version of our usual approach: establish one of these “Warrens” and begin inviting people to join it, relying on those who take shelter with us to give us the information we need.

I'm against Camilla's method: it involves waiting until we arrive, then going in blind. That's something we've done only a handful of times, and even then only when dealing with vastly inferior numbers of Trainers in small towns. Camilla may be smart as all get-out, but sometimes she only accounts for the actions of those she sees as enemies, imagining that everyone executing her plan will do so with the same level of precision and excellence that she and Wes apply to everything they do. In a pinch, I would trust Camilla herself to make smart decisions on the fly, even after being forced to take a position without much information; I don't think she appreciates how much riskier it is for the Vanguard to try to do the same. That leaves two plausible courses of action, each one with a definite reward but a chance of failure.

“We'll make contact both ways,” I say, as soon as I judge that everyone present has finished stating their position and discussion is about to grind to a halt. “The Advance Squadron can't perform the extraction; a rescue takes time even in the best of circumstances, and those patrols will spot them and attack them.”

To my left, Hayes nods agreement and my temper immediately flares with petty dislike— of course he thought of that— but I shove the distraction away and continue, “That means they'll be free to make contact with that hidden Warren. Meanwhile, we should assemble a stealth team to make their way through the ruins. We're getting that woman and her kids out of there. If either mission fails, we're relying on the other one to succeed.”

On my right side, I catch Dad smiling a sad smile of approval. I know he never wanted me to learn the harsh necessity of maximizing chances of success, even when there's danger to those you care about; but I've learned it all the same, and I guess his sadness doesn't stop him from being proud of me in his own way.

“Any questions?” I ask.

“Yes, Messenger,” Hayes says. “Permission to lead the extraction operation? I'll gather an appropriate squad, if so.”

I consider for only a moment. “Granted. This is your area of expertise.” I've been told that Hayes used to be the leader of an elite team that was specially trained for urban extractions. “Any other questions?”

A chorus of no this time; Advance Squadron marches out of the pavilion, and the command team disperses quickly and efficiently to make the rest of the plan happen. At times like this, I'm left thinking of how lost I'd be without such an effective group to delegate to. It still blows my mind that they all just do as I say, even when they disagree... Especially intelligent, opinionated Camilla, but I suppose she understands better than any of us that the more unified our leadership appears, the more stable the Vanguard will be.

Suddenly tired, I sink down into a chair, and I feel my arms and legs trembling. One night's sleep hasn't been enough to recover from the six-day trip to and from the forest, and I was exhausted before the mission; now I'm running on empty again. I curl my hand into a fist in frustration at my own weakness; but to my intense annoyance, even this gesture is feeble compared to my usual grip. There are a thousand things I have left to do today, but my mother— in full doctor mode after my collapse last week— has instructed me that when I get this exhausted, I'm to take the rest of the day off.

I let that sink in. I'm taking the rest of today off? I start to feel some wetness on my face; then tears of relief begin to drip onto the front of my red windbreaker. The unfamiliar, uncomfortable feeling— relief— isn't met with a surge of positivity like most of the emotions I'm not comfortable with have been for years: ever since she accidentally stopped my heart, Sunshine's been keeping a tight rein on her protective instincts. I don't know whether to be proud of her or beg her to start again.

I wait a surprisingly long time for my tears to stop— I can't let anyone see me crying— and then stand up slowly (there's no sense in knocking myself out cold with a head rush.) Shuffling my way out of the pavilion, I head for the tent Ellen and I share. I could really use a hug. And whatever else she's up for.

...Shit, you weren't supposed to hear that part. Forget I said anything!

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 12:45, DECEMBER 23~~~~~~~~~~

The sound of voices wakes me. I lie very still, but as I return to full awareness it becomes clear that the two guards aren't nearby, nor are they talking to or about me. The flickering light of a lantern from somewhere on the other side of this support pillar illuminates the dusty stone walls and faded white paint on the support beams of this basement room; I start calculating how best to stay in the shadows on my way out of here.

“Fuck, we both dozed off again,” says one of the guards; her voice is female but low-pitched. “Why didn'tcha wake me if you were about t'sleep?”

“Bah, ain't matter anyway,” mutters the other one, a man, yawning as he speaks. His voice is closer, so I'm guessing he's the one near the table at the centre of the room. “Nobody done come through here in months, not since that Runner, Rinsa or wha'ever, last came in this way.”

“The others're relyin' on us to be here if somethin' does come through, doofus,” the woman grumbles.

“I don' give a shit. Not like they'll do anythin' t'help us if we get in trouble,” the male guard grumbles back.

“Ya rather be turnin' over soil or diggin' tunnels?” the woman asks pointedly. “We got the easy job this week, so can we at least do this right?”

I pull myself free of the ground, where a tiny pool of slightly sticky blood from my wound has weakly cemented me to the floor, and stand up— slowly this time— placing my back against the support pillar.

“Yeah, yeah,” the man says dismissively; then, quieter so that presumably the woman can't hear it from her bed against the wall, “Bitch.”

I wait patiently for my opportunity. They'll be watching the opening I came out of, but so soon after waking up they'll still be figuring out who's watching and who isn't.

This guard post, and others like it, are more or less the only way the Grandwarren survives. The Grandwarren is a hidden network of cellars, sewers, caves, and tunnels that span most of the centre of town. If you listen to the people who run the place, it sounds like a safe haven where people can make a living without risking being caught by Trainers: underground fungus farms and wells tapping into the groundwater make it technically unnecessary for Grandwarren-dwellers (or “Granders”) to go topside. Theoretically, that means nobody needs to worry about Trainers at all, except for volunteer lookouts who choose to go topside to gather information about the state of things.

When I first met one of those lookouts during my first few months of Running, I was brought down here and offered the wonderful opportunity of joining the Grandwarren. But the lady who was making the pitch started the 'interview' by looking me up and down, and I could see the gleam of avarice in her eye in that first moment when she decided I was strong and capable. A few pointed questions and some hard bargaining with the woman confirmed that the reality isn't so great.

See, the Grandwarren is under perpetual siege. Trainers know their quarry hides underground, and the first thing they do whenever they find something suspicious is search nearby basements or dig holes in the ground. Anytime a group of Trainers finds a section of the Grandwarren, that place is lost forever: it becomes a race against time to collapse every tunnel leading there before the Trainers explore any further, and the Granders who were in the area at the time? There's no saving them; they get cut off and abandoned to the Trainers. As a result, the majority of the Granders at any given moment are assigned to tasks like tunnelling out new caves or guarding places like this: every last one of them is expendable. In the time since, my visits have confirmed that the life of a Grander is a gruelling toil of farming vast beds of fungus, or spending entire days digging through earth and stone and concrete for new places to hide, or sitting around watching the entrances for Trainers whose arrival means you'll be sacrificed for the good of everyone else.

I'm not keen on announcing myself to the Granders today. I come to various of their secret entryways in my capacity as a Runner, so it's unlikely they'd consider me an enemy; but I'm wearing my hunting gear, not my Running equipment. My injuries would raise eyebrows, especially if their topside scouts report that there was an attack on Trainers nearby; the last thing I want is for any of my clients to draw the connection between a Runner girl and the ongoing attacks on Trainers...

“Hey, d'you smell somethin'?” asks the man suddenly.

“Whaddaya mean?”

“Smells... kinda fresh.”

I hold myself very still, keeping my breaths as silent as possible. Fuck. I hadn't considered the fact that I smell like rain and wet clothing; even from this distance, a sufficiently unfamiliar odour would stick out to these people who rarely if ever go aboveground, while being completely unremarkable to me.

“You holdin' out on extra rations o' somethin' nice?” I hear the man growl; but as he does, there's a rustle of clothing as he turns away to face the object of his annoyance.

This is the kind of opportunity I was looking for. Stepping as quietly as I can without losing my balance— I'm still somewhat lightheaded— I dash out from hiding and into the tunnel that leads to the sewer pipe, relying on the raised voices behind me to cover the sound of my flight. Now to return to the surface; here's hoping that at least one part of my plan is still intact, and the Trainers have assumed their Pokémon lost me completely.

To my relief, when I exit the sewer pipe and climb the side of the trench, a thorough scan of the area confirms that I was right: the Trainers have assumed I vanished into thin air like one of Spiritomb's Substitutes (which I'm told were responsible for the infrequent, small-scale attacks it was launching before it recruited me.)

I'm not about to start questioning good fortune when it's staring me in the face; I head for one of my hidden caches nearby, letting my instincts as a Runner kick in and get me moving quickly but carefully between the husks and across the shattered streets.

Less than half an hour later, I'm wearing fresh gear, an older and bulkier but much less tattered winter coat, and carrying all the commissioned supplies I can fit in or tie to my pathetically small backup pack. I'm using far too many plastic garbage bags to maximize the amount I can carry; and they make too much rustling noise; but the alternative is to make multiple trips, and that's by far the more dangerous prospect.

The first three Warrens I visit go more or less as expected; they're unhappy that they had to wait so long for me to come by, but I make sure they still trade for the full value of what they need. I also pick up some interesting information.

Word travels slowly amongst these isolated little islands of life in the dead city; but travel it does. There are ever-changing meeting places where groups of scavengers will arrange to make contact with each other, just to experience connection with someone other than the same tiny group day in and day out. At some point, each of these Warrens has been in contact with someone who told them the rumoured reason for the intense gang activity: the people of the Warrens have heard that something is hunting Trainers. The one common thread is that all of them call it the Shade. Beyond that, accounts vary, describing everything from a bloodthirsty wild Pokémon that moves at lightning speed and strikes from the darkness, to a cult of devil-worshippers who have summoned a demon to strike down the Trainers, to a vengeful spirit cloaked in shadow, with eyes of fire.

I keep my expression curious and neutral as I hear these tales, but internally I'm fascinated. A vengeful spirit cloaked in shadow? That's not far off from what I must look like when I'm wielding Spiritomb's power... maybe I should take some cues from the whole 'eyes of flame' thing. I'll play around with that when I get a chance... If even the scavengers have heard of me, the fucking gangs definitely have; they must be terrified, and lending some truth to some of the rumours can only help.

At my fourth stop, my good luck holds: in exchange for all the plastic bags I'm carrying (now empty,) some canned food, and my small backup bag, I'm traded a hiking pack they found lying around in one of the buildings they looted.

Just wearing this pack, which is even bigger than my old one, is a relief; it's comforting to be back to having a reasonable amount of space to carry gear and trade goods, without wasting plastic and clanking when I move. Maybe nothing will really return to normal... but with a little more rebuilding of my tricks and tools, Running, at least, will feel more or less like it used to.

The final few Warrens of the day grant me the opportunity to trade the rest of the canned goods I'm carrying for a variety of textiles, twines, and tools to help rebuilding my lost tricks. A good but costly Run; I could have cut corners and saved some of the precious nonperishable foods... but as any Runner knows, the day may well come when a cut corner costs you your life. I finish the day newly well-equipped, with a much lighter but much larger backpack, and turn in for the night in my maintenance-room safehouse at the corner of the ruined supermarket.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 10:15, DECEMBER 24~~~~~~~~~~

"Oh my god, Bore, you're such a bore!"

"...Yeah, Melianne," I agree, keeping my eyes lowered to the concrete floor o' the parkade. I ain't the brightest, but even I know better'n to fuck with Meli. Better to be borin' than dead.

"Don't Mistress Gail leave anybody interesting round here?" she moans all obnoxious-like, floatin' by in front of me sittin' on Magneton. The big three-part metal Pokémon is hoverin' horizontal, his magnets lccked on to each other to make a seat for Melianne and his three eyes starin' straight down. "Where is everybody, anyway?"

"Patrols," I tell her simply. "Still lookin' to find trouble afore it finds us."

Me and Melianne, the two of us're standin' on the bottom floor o' Grayout HQ, almost alone except for a bunch o' scavenger normals way at the back, outta earshot. Stern is here too, but he's lyin' asleep with his bandanna over his eyes; his Pokémon, Bulbasaur, is wavin' a couple o' vines lazily in the direction of the scared-as-hell scavengers. I ain't sure why them scavengers're so scared o' the little Pokémon... but this whole time I done had such a bad feelin', like as if I'm certain somethin' awful might happen if nobody's watchin' Bulb close-like. Every so often, I clear my throat to remind Bulb I'm still keepin' an eye on him, and he pulls the vines back a little and makes a playful little noise at me.

"Boooooring," Melianne whines, one hand up in her hair playin' with the big gray bow she wears as gang colors. "Why can't I be out there where the action is, 'stead of being stuck guarding this shithole or checking all the boring places where that boring Runner girl's been seen? Magneton here is absolutely insufferable every time we go to that stupid scrapyard, the glutton!"

Aw, man... I hope Meli leaves soon to go searchin' for Rizz again. Her voice gets on my nerves, and I'm shit-my-pants terrified she'll notice how I wince a bit every time she stresses a word in that awful whiny way she's got. "Dunno," I say, to answer her question before she thinks I'm ignorin' her.

"Say, Bore, d'you wanna take a break?"

I look up at her disbelievin'-like for a moment, rememberin' too late that she doesn' like it when people look her in the eye. What surprises me, though, is that she's smilin'. Her smile feels weird and wrong comin' at me; normally Melianne only smiles at Boss, or at people she's torturin'. "Wh... whaddya mean, a break? Like, leave here?" I ask, tryin' not to sound as suspicious as I feel. Is she messin' with me? There ain't no breaks without Boss's say-so. “I ain't on search duty like you, Melianne... I gotta stay here and guard the place.”

"I said—" she rolls her eyes, and talks real slow like as if I was even dumber than she thought— "Do you wanna take a break. From that boring old job you're doing. Just leave this place to take care of itself for a li'l bit, go... entertain ourselves... somewhere else." She's still smilin', which is really odd for her when somebody told her 'no,' and she even scoots over a bit to make room on Magneton, pattin' the spot beside her like she wants me to go jump up there.

"An' leave Stern 'n Bulb alone guardin' the normals?" I say with a frown, glancing over to where Stern's still asleep and Bulb is still threatenin' the scavengers. "Somethin' terrible might happen by the time we got back. Bulb's got a mean streak when he knows Stern ain't gonna notice... besides, what's there even to do round here?"

Melianne's eyebrows snap together in complete furiousness, and right away I know I done fucked up somehow. "Ya fuckin' idiot," she spits quiet-like, her smile completely gone and her voice drippin' with the familiar sound o' contempt, "I'm tryin' to say let's ditch this stupid place and have sex. You're dumb as shit, you know that? Lucky for you, I'm pissed, horny, and bored, so if you get up here right now you might still get some!"

I splutter for 'bout five seconds, almost chokin' on my own spit, while I try and figure out how to answer that.

I mean, like, sex? Wow. I'm supposed to want that, ain't I? I'm... I'm a guy, and eighteen. It's not like I ain't had lonely nights as a sentry where I secretly took care o' stuff; not like I ain't had private fantasies about doin' it with some o' the prettier normals, or even (though I'd never even think about it in the light o' day) with Jess... or Larissa...

But, well...

Truth is, Melianne scares the shit outta me. She's pretty and all, and it never done occurred to me to think why I ain't never looked at her that way... but now it comes down to it, the idea o' even gettin' close enough to touch Meli freaks me out. Somethin' about the girl makes it impossible to want... that.

And how the Hell am I gonna say all this without experiencin' a world o' hurt? I think to myself, quakin' in my boots. Aw, shit...

"...I see."

I come back to payin' attention when Melianne says that, and I can't help but shiver real hard when I realize how cold her voice done been. "Uh, Melianne," I stammer, "I can..."

"I was right," she cuts me off. "I can tell your taste runs more toward... Runner." Her voice ain't just cold no more. To me, it sounds exactly the way freezin' cold acid oughta feel.

"M... Melianne..." I stutter out, tryin' to keep the damage as low as possible, "There's better guys than me in the Grayouts, c'mon... You were just bored, right? ...Meli?"

Her eyes go all wide and I can see her pupils turn as tiny as pin-heads. It's fuckin' spooky. "Never call me that name again," Melianne spits, standin' up in a rush from where she were sittin' on Magneton, so as she's atop her floatin' Pokémon and towerin' over me even from halfway across the parkade. "Ain't nobody turns me down for some little Runner slut!"

I take a step back, raisin' my hands so's to show her she got it all wrong. "Sorry, I meant Melianne," I stammer. "Just, uhh, wait, I'll do what you want, just don'—"

"You'll live to regret that, Bore, but that girl Larissa won' have a chance to," Melianne says in a quiet hissin' voice, cuttin' me off. The emphasis she's puttin' on one outta every few words ain't annoyin' no more; it's terrifyin'.

"It... It ain't got nothin' to do with her," I tell Melianne, not even sure why I'm sayin' it. "I just ain't ready to do that kinda thing with anyone, I don' think... Ya got me wrong—"

"Save it for someone who gives a shit," Melianne says as she whirls 'round to face away from me, disgust writ large all over her body. She waves at Magneton, and he rises up to hover over the edge o' the wide parkade window. "I got a Runner to hunt down 'n' kill the shit out of. And once she's gone, I'm comin' back for you, to show you why ain't no one puts Melianne second!"

With that, the two of 'em launch out the window with a sound like a crack o' thunder, which wakes up Stern and starts up a storm o' swear words from his corner. I watch 'em go, mouth hangin' open so's to make me look even more like the dumbass I am.

"The fuckin' shit fuck even was that, Borden??" Stern yells, stompin' over to me and tightenin' his bandanna.

"The start o' a real bad storm," I tell him, and I ain't able to feel even a bit proud o' how poetic I done sounded. All that won' matter if I'm dead, which is exactly what I'm gonna be when Melianne comes back.

I really hope she doesn' find you, Rizz, I think, starin' out that window with wide eyes and my face all pale with fear. Hide good-like, for both our sorry asses' sakes!

~~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 10:40, DECEMBER 24~~~~~~~~~~~

Today is another training day, and I'm headed for Spiritomb's lair at the scrapyard.

Yesterday's rain has left the streets and lawns covered in mud, and a rime of frost has formed at the edges of every leaf, building, and crater. I watch my step and trust in my skills as a Runner as I make my way cautiously northeast across the centre of town and through the tunnels underneath the old highway. Emerging onto the flat, open space around the scrapyard, I crouch and take cover amidst the waist-high grass— which has revived somewhat with the rain— as I approach the yard itself.

Little rivers of filthy water run every which way across the scrapyard's packed earth; rivulets the colours of rust, rubber, and rat shit mingle into awful-smelling pools of brownish-black sludge wherever the ground dips. I move from cover to cover, heading for the spot near the centre of the scrapyard where the largest piles of refuse form a valley of sorts and Spiritomb's sanctum lies hidden.

Then a clattering noise from the top of the scrap heap I'm sheltering under causes me to freeze, pressing myself against the underside of a bent and corroded tin roof that's holding up part of the pile. I'm immediately glad I did, because at that moment a scattering of small metallic detritus rises from around me and into the air, accelerating upwards out of my field of vision. There's exactly one Pokémon I know of that does something like that...

"Magneton!! Stop that!" screeches an unpleasantly familiar female voice, in a drawn-out whiny tone that sets my teeth on edge and makes my blood run cold in equal measure. "Now's no time to be eatin'!"

That petulant voice, which is coming from the top of the pile I'm hidden in, belongs to a Trainer called Melianne, sometimes referred to as 'Meli' by Boss, Jess, and Dorian (and only by them. Others do so quite literally on pain of death.) "Get out of there!" she whinges, sounding for all the world like a cranky ten-year-old protesting the lack of a third serving of dessert.

The immaturity of Melianne's attitude is deceptive. That girl may act like she's ten, and look like she's sixteen... but she's one of the most sadistic people I've ever met, and will torture someone with her Pokémon at the drop of a Grayout bandanna. I mean that literally— my own screams start to echo in my ears at just the sound of her voice, and I'm only partially successful at blocking out the memories of being shocked brutally with pulse after pulse of electrical energy... all for the crime of accidentally dropping her newly cleaned grey bandanna (which she wears tied up in her dirty-blonde hair like a ribbon.)

I was always good at keeping a low profile and avoiding the other Grayout Trainers' individual quirks of cruelty, but Melianne's mercurial ire wasn't something you could avoid through anything but dumb luck. Even so, I still didn't get the worst of it; truth is, Melianne's a ruthlessly envious bitch. Any girl she considers prettier than herself becomes the single person she hates more than anything else in the world. Where someone plain like me could get off lightly with a bit of high-voltage torture, the one nice-looking female slave who I saw fall afoul of Melianne had no hope of surviving. And when Melianne orders it to take its time, Magneton's lightning doesn't make death quick... or quiet.

"Magneton!" Melianne screeches, sending another surge of unwanted, painful memories through me. The 'bandanna incident' was my only actual transgression, but Melianne's sadistic torture sessions didn't always need a reason; that wasn't the only time she took her anger out on me. "Magneton!!"

Ignoring her, the Pokémon descends slowly from above my hiding spot to hover a mere six feet in front of me, facing away from where I'm standing; I hold my breath and stay perfectly still.

Magneton is a strange Frankenstein's-monster of a Pokémon composed of three identical Steel-types linked together by powerful magnetism. Each third of Magneton is a separate entity, and each consists of a single huge round eye set into a spherical shell of silver metal and two grey U-shaped magnets hovering on each side of it. Large screws are stuck halfway into the Pokémon's three component bodies, apparently at random.

Magneton sweeps its way over the ground at a slow pace, and small pieces of rusty metal fly out of the dirt to stick to the six supermagnets hovering around its body; I can feel the rusted metal roof behind me creaking and warping as the Steel-type manipulates the magnetic field around itself, forcing the rusty fragments to fly off of the magnets and onto its three bodies, where they kind of melt into the Pokémon's silvery metal skin.

...There are only a few things I've experienced that are more disconcerting than watching a Steel-type Pokémon 'feeding,' and I really don't want to think about those right now.

"Get back here!" Melianne screeches at her Pokémon, and I'm struck by just how badly I want to shut her up right now. "Right! This! Instant!"

Without ever turning around enough to see me, Magneton drifts lazily upwards, with curving magnetic-field lines of metal shavings still following it. I begin to relax ever so slightly... and then, with a shock of excitement, I realize I've been too busy falling into old patterns to realize that this is an opportunity. I'm no longer just a frightened girl at the mercy of this monster and its awful Trainer! From here, it would be the easiest thing in the world to launch a surprise attack, leaping up at Magneton with the superhuman strength and speed Spiritomb's given me, crushing the creature with the raw power of the frustration and hatred that it and Melianne stoked in me for so many years. And then, with Magneton out of the way, Melianne would be at my mercy for once, in the most delicious reversal of roles I can imagine...

I gather myself to jump, my hands beginning to glow with the purple-and-green aura of my darkest passions; in my mind's eye, I can already see the decisive blow against Magneton taking form, unavoidable and impossible to endure...


With a harsh sound like the toll of a bell, a large piece of metal— torn free from the scrap pile by my target's magnetic field— bounces off of the corroded tin surface right next to my head. Instantly, my vision fractures and loses focus, and my legs turn as rigid as stone.

No! Not now, I rail at myself, Not when I'm so close...!

With a vast effort of sheer stubbornness, I begin to force my stiffened body to bend to my will, all the while struggling to break the hold my past has on me. Bit by bit, my swimming vision gradually sharpens and my body begins to grow less rigid; I help it along by imagining how it'll feel to force Melianne to suffer every bit of pain she ever put me through, sending fresh power born of vengefulness coursing through me—

Another sharp CLANG! of metal on metal, inches from my face, shatters my concentration like a landslide crashing through a sheet of thin ice. I collapse as the sound violently casts me years into the past...


The sound of the massive bell, teetering and falling from atop the ruined cathedral at the end of the road to smash cacophonously into the already-gouged concrete, vibrates through my body as I sit in the corner formed by two ripped-up blocks of foundation stone. I stare emptily at the pile of twisted metal that the beautiful old bell has become, barely registering the Trainer who's shouting at me from close by on my left.

"Girl! What's your name?" The woman asks me for the fourth time, aggressively shoving her face right into mine, breaking my view of the broken bell and sending a jolt of raw, startled fear through me. "Damnit," she says, pulling away just as abruptly, "I think this one's mute. No use to us if she can't even talk..."

She moves off down the street disgustedly, and even though she was frightening, I find myself wishing miserably that she were still there to block me from seeing the ruins of everything I've ever known. The orphanage is gone— reduced to smoking rubble— and almost none of the buildings around it survived, either. I don't want this. I just want everything to be its old, bad self. I want to be woken up early by that church bell ringing at dawn; I want to wait for hours under my covers, till I've heard everybody getting up and filing out the doors for breakfast and know it's safe. I want Mrs. Mannagan to come and sweep me up in her arms and tell me everything will be all right, but she's... she's...

I choke up, and begin to sob; but my eyes are dry and can't produce any more tears. Three men in heavy coats are walking past, barely sparing me a glance as they discuss the boy who's following them— I recognize him through tear-blurred vision as one of the slightly older kids from a different part of the orphanage— with a defiant look on his face, as if daring them to chase him off.

"He could be useful," one's saying, in a private tone meant just for the other two men. "Got the right attitude. Get 'im a Pokémon, he'll be a soldier in a few years."

"Ain't he a bit young?" the second one mutters doubtfully.

"Pah," responds the first. "As if his type ain't what we really came here for. Not like the Rebellion's got a place for snivellers like that piece o' work over there," he says, rolling his eyes and indicating me with a jab of his thumb.

"That's heartless," the third man, who's been quiet up till now, murmurs just loudly enough for me to overhear.

The first man shrugs. "Heartless world," he observes coolly, and the second of the three men sniggers in response.

"I suppose." The third one doesn't sound convinced, but he changes the subject regardless. "Where d'you think we'll find a wild 'mon for this kid, anyhow? They mostly avoid the cities lately, and..."

They move on, out of earshot, and a long time passes. Then I ball my little-girl fists, suddenly just as angry as I am sad and terrified. Angry at those three men for ignoring me, angry at the people with tanks and artillery who destroyed everything, and most of all angry at myself for being too young, too confused, too
weak to do anything about it all.

I stand up with a yell and start pounding my fists against a block of concrete, wanting the pain to chase the anger away. It hurts a lot, but instead of feeling better, I only get madder and madder, as painful almost-dry tears of rage fight their way down my soot-covered face...

I wake up with a gasp, drenched in sweat and scrunched into a foetal position in the frost-bound dirt of the scrapyard. It's quiet, except for the whoosh of the freezing wind over the piles of metal and plastic refuse. Shivering with a mixture of cold and shock, I uncurl as best I can, and distract myself from the waves of nausea running through me by crawling shakily to poke my head out from under the corroded metal of the tin roof. Peering about from my hiding place, I see nothing but the top of the scrap heap and the wide expanse of clear blue sky beyond.

Clenching my fists with frustration, I drop my arms to the ground and just lie here on my back, staring into the sky. My eyes start to burn, but the tears of rage don't come; I haven't cried since that day, no matter how desperate or angry or heartbroken I've felt.

I missed my chance for revenge against Melianne. Missed it completely. No matter how few shits I give about the past, it won't fucking let go of me... because there's something really, really wrong with my head.



"FUCK!!" I scream, for once not caring who hears.

~~~~~~~~~~RACHEL: 19:00, DECEMBER 26~~~~~~~~~~

“You all know what tonight's decision is about,” I tell the Vanguard's command team, who have just finished gathering around our map table in the pavilion. Platoon Sergeant Gloria is standing in for Lieutenant Hayes, since he and Extraction Team are already headed for Amarillo; but Dad, Porter, and Camilla are all here. Wes is standing next to Camilla, making sure that no one is eavesdropping; the only other person in the tent is Jasmine, who I sent for earlier today. “The time's come to determine where and when our next step will take us. Jazz, please report on the state of things here in Hartley.”

Jazz takes the floor with a flirty wink at me (par for the course for the incorrigible young woman) and her partner Scar follows her into the centre of the room, grinning insolently at no one in particular.

“Right you are, Rae. It's been four days since we planted the Kiut, all! Only four days, but the Tor are nearly full-size, yeah? Plus, more Kiut are already growin' up top. We showed them Hartley normals how—”

“We don't call people that, Jazz,” I cut in, my voice sharper than I'd have liked.

The girl falters, realizing what she just did. The T.A. is explicitly against categorizing people by the pejorative 'normals.' Completely aside from the gangs' nasty use of the term to refer to non-Trainers as if they were non-persons, we also don't want frightened people to hear T.A. volunteers using the same slang as their oppressors. “Right. Um. We showed the people of Hartley how to water and harvest the Tor, and it's lookin' like the first harvest— twenty-five Kiut— is gonna be in two more days.”

“That'll do,” I tell her, by way of dismissal; Jazz shuffles, red-faced, back to her spot near the door. I'd like to say something to comfort her, but then the lesson will be wasted. I can't let casual cruelty become something that the T.A. allows, even in jest.

Scar, not quite understanding anything except that I've done something to seriously bother his Trainer, doesn't leave the centre of the room so quickly. Instead, he turns to glare daggers at me, the red crest on his head standing up aggressively.

I meet his eyes, and in the instance our gazes lock, Sunshine supplies me a spark of power from within me where she resides. Scar's eyes widen; his crest flattens down immediately; then he hunches his shoulders and shuffles sheepishly away to join Jazz by the tent's entrance. I relax slowly, glad that a real confrontation with the proud Scar wasn't necessary. Sunshine and I have avoided many an unpleasant situation by cowing Pokémon this way. Something in Sunshine's power communicates exactly the right kind of unyielding fury: a primal fearsomeness few Pokémon will stand up against without the urging of their Trainer.

“With the Tor handled and food for the town reasonably stable, it's time for us to get ready to move on,” I continue, as though nothing had happened. The tense energy in the room relaxes as I bring us back to the matter at hand.

“The question is where, and how. The forest extends for miles in each direction, far enough that the flyers took ten hours to travel each way when going around the trees. At a march, with all of our gear and Pokémon, Wes's calculations estimate—” I nod to Camilla and Wes— “that it will take twelve days to circumnavigate the forest. Since we have indications that the gangs are actively patrolling and are most likely expecting us, that'll tell them exactly which direction we're coming from, and will put us in danger of raids and guerilla tactics. Platoon Sergeant Gloria?”

Gloria rises from her chair— her bearing as dull as ever— and steps listlessly forward to the map table, inadvertently towering over me as she reaches for the tray of wooden figures that represent the one hundred Trainer-Pokémon pairs of the Twenty-Fifth Company. The gesture would've been truly aggravating if anyone else had done it, but instead it just comes across as offhandedly rude. “The Vanguard is best equipped to travel short distances,” she drones, shifting the tray all the way to the western edge of the carefully illustrated trees that have been recently drawn onto the map— our cartographer is a very dedicated young lady— and indicating the red-and-white measuring string attached to the tray that shows the distance travelled: 120 inches, meaning 120 miles.

“Very careful coordination and precise drop-off points are required for supply transport to reach us. When we are moving, delivery is nearly impossible, requiring us to live on the rations we have plus whatever we can find along the way.” She places a pin on the map to block the string from straightening out, then moves the tray the rest of the way to Amarillo: another hundred and forty miles. “Twelve days of rations are impossible for Karen and the Logistics and Supply Division to supply. We would have to stop midway and wait for more supplies to reach us, further extending the trip. Then there is the risk of being attacked: we will need to supply scouts to find defensible locations to camp each night, and to forestall surprise attacks.”

“You're saying it's impractical,” Camilla intuits.

“I am saying it is inefficient,” Gloria responds, and the bland way she speaks and holds herself is the only thing that keeps the answer from sounding like a snippy retort. “It is both the most practical and the safest way. Losses should be limited to scouts and sentries, and even then no more than eight to twelve percent of our forces.”

“You've gotta be kidding,” Porter moans, leaning back in his seat and running a hand through his short brown hair. “Getting attacked the entire way, and losing eight or more people? That miserable forecast is our best option?”

“Perhaps,” shrugs Gloria. “Unknown risks lie in the forest, and the experiences of our Commander and her 'Candle Guard'—” she looks at me with that usual lacklustre expression of barely polite dislike— “have failed to indicate the true nature of the threat that fired upon our first aerial scout.”

“That wasn't a scouting mission,” I say, my temper flaring.

“As you say. Yet we have not sent more scouts,” Gloria points out. “Presumably due to the danger. If we wish to use the forest to pass, this is my recommendation as acting Lieutenant.”

She removes the pin from the map and shifts the tray full of Vanguard back to its starting position. “The travel through the forest will take no less than four days, barring unforeseen delays; we have rations for seven. Flying scouts will be of no use in thick tree cover, forcing us to rely upon psychics and physical scouting for all information gathering. Teleportation will be unavailable if the psychics are used; aside from Diplomatic Affairs Lieutenant Camilla and Wes, most can only manage one major task for an entire shift while operating at anything like full capacity.”

Further down the map table, Camilla bristles at the supposed compliment; then she vigorously straightens her silver jacket and makes a show of letting it go. She hates it when people use her title; she'd rather have any job but that of the diplomat. “Fine. Wes and I will take care of situational information gathering, allowing the tactical teleportation crews to save their energy and respond when needed,” Camilla says in a businesslike tone.

“Very well, that will allow for full mobility in any situation of danger that may arise,” Gloria drones. “Physical scouting will be essential also, to determine exactly what non-living or cloaked dangers exist. I believe your Candle Guard experienced traps?”

“Designed for hunting, but yes,” I reply. “If they saw us coming, no doubt these forest-dwellers could and would design some traps to work on humans and Pokémon. Perhaps we should reach out to them?”

Dad clears his throat and speaks, a second before Camilla opens her mouth to volunteer for that also. “I'll arrange for a diplomatic group to be dispatched, the kind that can pull out quickly if talks turn sour,” he interjects.

“Acknowledged, Special Advisor Avery,” Gloria replies. “Then, with the proper precautions taken, a best-case scenario is for us to emerge from the forest in four days.”

She shifts the tray through the forest, carefully having it avoid the lake in the centre and arranging for it to cross the river at one of the narrower points that our cartographer gleaned by watching and re-watching Pidgeot's memory. “The distance is fifty-five miles from here to Amarillo. All forces remaining from the crossing would emerge only two-point-five miles from the edge of the city, allowing for entry without time for an enemy force to respond.”

“Why does it sound like you doubt we'd all make it through?” Porter asks, leaning forward and staring at the tray and its one-hundred figures.

“Losses are all but certain where unknown threats exist. I will amend my expectations when further scouting is performed, but I prefer to operate assuming an as-is state of—”

“That's utterly impractical,” Camilla cuts in hotly. “Proper planning requires that we at least factor in the results of scouting, individual acts of excellence, on-the-fly adjustments...”

“That's enough for now,” I say coolly, and the two of them turn to me expectantly, looking for my usual resolution of the situation one way or the other.

“How confident are you that you and Wes can be aware of anything that goes on within a mile of our group?” I ask Camilla.

“One hundred percent. A mile is child's play,” she responds evenly. “I dare this mystery enemy to oppose us with their strongest psychic. It might even limit Wes to just a mile.”

“Let's hope it doesn't come to that,” I mutter darkly, staring warningly at a spot in between her eyes. I never make eye contact with Camilla; the roiling miasma of Wes's psychic power that shrouds her Mark induces severe nausea every time I do. “We'll proceed as if we're going into the forest; we'll send scouts, and make overtures to ally with these forest-dwellers. If our scouts can't find the source of the danger to flyers, and if diplomacy fails when dealing with the inhabitants, then we can consider requisitioning supplies to go around. I'm not having us make unreasonable demands of Karen if we can avoid it. Now, let me hear your opinions on that plan.”

Porter gives me a thumbs-up; Dad nods; and Camilla and Wes just glance at each other. Whatever thoughts are flashing back and forth between them, clearly they don't constitute an objection.

Gloria regards me in that bored, boring Gloria way she has about her. “This plan's level of risk has yet to be seen, but it bears the potential reward of entering Amarillo nearly unopposed by the gangs. The possibility remains that the losses will turn out to be less than eight to twelve percent of our forces; therefore I am in favor.”

“Good. Command team, let's make it happen. We'll reconvene when the scouts get back.”

The group splits up and heads out with its usual effectiveness, and I take a seat for the first time in a few hours. I'm less exhausted than emotionally drained, now, but the next three days will involve a whole ton of packing, hauling and striking camp. Today, though, will have to be a rest day: I'll need to make sure that I'm up to tomorrow's tasks. Not many things motivate people like seeing their leader out and about, helping with the heavy lifting.

I let my eyelids drop closed, and my last thoughts before falling asleep are of Advance Squadron: they'll be departing soon for their one-week-later check in with our one known Warren. I can only hope that they'll be okay...

End of Chapter 4

Intended Captures:
Difficulty Rating:
Length: 128,187 Characters

Character Report:
Recommended Characters: (To be updated)
Characters Used: 128,187
Chapter 1: Runner
Chapter 2: Gangster
Chapter 3: Leader
Chapter 4: Avenger
Chapter 5: Darkness Rising

Chapter 5 Prologue — Blood and Vengeance

~~~~~~~~~~10:20, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

Freezing wind blows across a wasteland of shattered concrete, half-standing walls, and overgrown patches of weeds that were once lawns. The morning sun, its light muffled by a thick blanket of dark grey clouds, illuminates a girl dressed in a thick black winter coat and ski pants, with a black scarf wrapped around her head against the early-winter cold... as well as against the prying eyes of her enemies. She is stalking swiftly through the gap between two destroyed buildings, purpose and direction evident in her composed strides. She knows that her quarry, running scared, isn't far off, and her pulse quickens at the thought of finally getting another taste of the vengeance— no, justice— she's after.

As she emerges from between the buildings at a steady lope, she wills the newest part of her disguise back into being: from her eyes begin to trail heatless black flames; they flow out from between the folds of her scarf to stream behind her as she moves, and a cloak of shadow manifests about her shoulders, clinging to and obscuring her clothes and billowing behind her in the chill winter wind.

Her prey, taking shelter behind a husk some sixty metres away, sees the approach of the darkness-wreathed hunter. A wiry man wearing the red sash of the Smashers, the Trainer bolts out of cover, carrying his gravely injured Pokémon cradled in one arm: a small blue-skinned turtle whose shell is the colour and texture of granite. The turtle bears a jagged-edged puncture wound in the underbelly of its left side, and a raking claw-mark on one side of its head obliterating the right eye. The fleeing man, covered in the purplish blood of his Pokémon, glances fearfully back at the apparition that follows him; the humanoid creature of shadow and black fire doesn't give chase at a run, but instead seems to drift inexorably forward at a pace no swifter than a jog, letting him tire himself out. Terror, plain to see painted across the man's flushed face and crouching in his bloodshot eyes, spurs him on to redouble his pace despite his exhaustion; but he miscalculates his own balance, and a piece of the shattered pavement turns underfoot to send him sprawling.

Then the dark creature is suddenly upon him, and his scream is cut short as it slaps him, hard, across the face, knocking him out cold. In the same movement, its other hand, which now bears terrible claws of black fire, tears his Pokémon from him and crushes its neck with a sound like shattering stone.

The shadow-wreathed figure casts aside the lifeless body of the Pokémon and watches as the unconscious Trainer's limbs begin to shudder and his face contorts in agony. “So you aren't spared the pain by being knocked out. That's good,” the girl murmurs. “You never deserved that mercy.”

She kicks the seizing man for good measure, sending him rolling sideways several times before he comes to rest against a chunk of a fallen building's wall. Then the hunter departs at a swift loping pace, her disguise slowly beginning to unravel as she heads for the first of many safehouses where she will lose any potential watchers. There are no watchers, but she is careful: none must successfully pursue her to the hiding-places where the hunter fades from reality and the Runner named Larissa returns to Amarillo.


Chapter 5: Darkness Rising

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 10:40, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

We're huntin' Runners again.

Dorian's in a bad mood and Marty's stayin' quiet. My feet hurt and there ain't a damn thing I can do about it. I keep expectin' Boss or Melianne or somethin' worse to show up over the next husk all o' a sudden— it ain't much comfort that I ain't seen Meli since she stormed off, on account she holds a grudge like no one else. And then there's that
'somethin' worse,' that “Shade” thing what Allison and Stern heard about from some stupid scavengers and won't shut up about now.

And on top o' all that hangin' over my head figurative-like, it's literal-like about to fuckin' rain! I can tell on account Buzz is all but overflowin' with power, spittin' sparks every time I take a few steps and rushin' up and down my sides under my coat in real high spirits. Even on a shit day like today, his good mood's enough to make me smile a little.

“The fuck you grinnin' at, Bore?”

I gulp and my amusement at Buzz goes away all at once. I start shakin' in my boots: Dorian done turned round from where he and Aggron were takin' the lead, and he done noticed. And I'm extra fucked, on account he got in my face while I was thinkin' about stupid shit and smilin' to myself like an idiot, 'stead o' keepin' a safe distance like Marty over there. I feel like an idiot a doomed idiot on account only an idiot's happy when Dorian's nearby and mad!

“N-nothin', Dorian, I just... Buzz is ticklin' me and I...”

“Shut the fuck up.” Dorian's arm swings out backhanded and smashes me across my face; I see stars and the sky is suddenly in front o' me rather'n above me. “We don' find nothin' soon and I swear ta God I'm gonna...”

His voice fades away and I lie here for a while— not sure how long, just a while— with Buzz chatterin' and runnin' angry-like all over the inside o' my coat, till Marty pops up in the sky starin' at me.

“You've done it now,” he sniggers. “Try and stay out of his way, hey Bore? Else you're gonna make this too much of a fun trip, and we'll get nothing done!”

“Aw, shaddup, Marty,” I say, wipin' an arm across my face and strugglin' to stand up. There's a bit o' blood on the mostly shredded sleeve o' my jacket; I frown and prop myself up on one arm for a moment while I wonder when I went and ruined the damn things. I don't remember. Why don't I remember? That kinda shit would piss me off like Hell.

“Hey, Marty?”


I hoist myself up on some rocks. “When did I fuck up my jacket?”

“Musta been when you brought the Runner back that one time.”

I grab him by the shoulder. “What Runner.”

“Never mind,” Marty says, and shakes me off. I can't believe it— Marty ain't never had that much. I get real mad and reach out to grab the back o' his shirt.

“Marty, who d'you think y—“

Everythin' goes gray and quiet sudden-like, and I almost fall over again. Buzz grabs onto my shoulder so tight I can feel his little feet cut holes in my t-shirt. I try to say, Aw, Goddamnit, buddy, but as I try and talk the feelin' o' the cold wind and the pinch o' Buzz's feet on my shoulder both go away and I can't feel my mouth move or hear anythin' either! I try and move my arms and legs, shove away the heavy blanket what must be smotherin' me, but my limbs are all gone, it's like I'm floatin' in nowhere with no body to even fight back with. I begin to shake all over with the awful fear o' this feelin', the sensation o' bein' unable to escape the grey nothin' and numbness...

Then I can see again and the sky's all I can make out and I realize I done fallen over after all. My arms and legs are still tremblin'.

“Who do I think I am?” Marty sneers in his weird accent full o' crispy-ended words. “I'm the only one stopping Dorian from killing you outright, you fucking twit.”

For once, I don't think Marty sounds snivelly or whiny. Fact, the way Marty's soundin' right now scares me almost as much as everythin' else about today...

“Now stay there and shut up,” Marty says. “I've got some damage control to do.”

Marty walks away, and I lie here shiverin' with the cold what's even worse now that I done experienced not feelin' the ice wind for the first time in a long time. My everythin' aches— I guess these're the aches I always feel, but ain't noticed till now. Ain't noticed till Marty and Slowbro made me feel... nothin'.

The cold's too much. I can't just lie here no more, I'll freeze! I shove myself up onto my feet for the second time in however long this done been, and stand here with my teeth chatterin' and my arms wrapped round my shoulders. I look around, not sure what to do next. I know Marty told me to stay put, but where'm I supposed to go? Not HQ— Boss'd skin me alive for showin' up while I'm supposed to be out patrollin'. But I ain't stickin' around here either— bein' alone is so fuckin' stupid, even Dorian done refused to go out solo when Jess suggested it earlier today!

My feet and my scared thoughts make the decision for me, and I follow Marty. Even as scary as he done been just now, there's scarier shit out here than him. Goin' slow is way too cold, so I jog till I hear voices and see the massive bulk o' Aggron lurkin' like a mountain behind the wide-shouldered bulk o' Dorian and the skinny silhouette o' Marty. Then hearin' Dorian's voice sayin' my name makes me stop and duck behind a bush, instinctual-like.

“...fuckin' Bore ain't nothin'! Motherfucker ain't nothin' but the perfect example o' what's wrong with the Grayouts nowadays!” Dorian grits out, and his voice's even more vicious than I ever heard it. Enough to make me real afraid all over again. “We used ta be strong! All o' us! Then these, these kids came along... they ain't like us. They don' belong.”

“You're right! You're right, of course,—” Marty whinges, soundin' just like his usual self. Somethin' about that makes me real uncomfortable, makes me wonder how much o' his whiny, snivellin' attitude is just an act. “But what can we do? If we only let the strong ones join, we'll be so much smaller than the other gangs. Boss always says, strength in numbers—”

“Don't you talk t'me about that bitch!” snarls Dorian, grabbin' Marty by the collar. “She's the one what done took my band o' strong Trainers from me, she's the one what made it into this stupid club what lets in weaklin's like Borden! And that other stupid kid, Stern... he don't belong— his fuckin' 'mon ain't neither metal nor thunderin', where's she get off lettin' him in! And you. When'd you even join this gang, huh? Why is it I can never remember? Bottom-feeders like you—”

“That'll be enough,” Marty says, and I swear even from here I can hear him smilin'...

And somehow, against everythin' I'd have expected, Dorian goes quiet. I peek over the bush and see Marty walkin' a slow circle around Dorian, who's kneelin' down where he done stood before.

“You know, it always amazes me how you keep coming back to that,” Marty says in this amused, gloaty voice what seems totally wrong on a hand-wringin' toady like him. “That ridiculous idea that if the gang were only pure, it'd be the way it used to be. But progress marches on, Dorian, and if Gail hadn't come along you'd be a relic, hiding in the ruins or absorbed into the Smashers... or dead, probably.”

Behind the two, Aggron topples over, slow-like, slumpin' to the ground with a sound like a rockslide. Marty sniggers a little— that's familiar, at least— and pushes Dorian a little between his shoulders, makin' the big guy crash to the ground face-first.

“You've always had more aggression than sense, though. A pity— you'd be more useful to me if you had the subtlety to do anything but bulldoze whatever I point you at. In fact, you do more to tear my gang apart than to help it. I've half a mind to leave you here for whatever that smoky mystery Pokemon is...”


Marty frowns, like as if Slow-bro's yawnin' meant somethin', then turns to look straight at my hidin' spot. “Borden, I thought I told you to stay put. Well, no matter. I was going to have to handle you anyway. Come out from there.”

I stand up and try to shake my head no fuckin' way, but instead the whole world does this strange kind o' skip, and I'm standin' right next to Marty with my mouth closed.

For a second I ain't sure what all done happened today. How'd I get here, again? Slow and stupid-like, I say, “Marty, what's goin'...?”

Marty just waits, smilin' a little in a weird way I ain't never seen him do before. I think back, but my brain's all fuzzy... then all in a rush I remember and that smirk ain't so unfamiliar no more.

“Marty, I don't underst—”

“You know,” Marty cuts me off, still with that gloaty little smile, “That look of fear you get, in the moment you remember... that's just the greatest thing. It's in moments like these that every shove, every derisive look, and every time you follow Dorian or Jess or one of the others in taunting me... it all comes back and I just revel in knowing that for all your bravado, when you face me— the real me— I scare you out of your wits. Don't I, Borden?”

I'm frozen. Even the cold wind and the urge to run and the feelin' o' everything I thought I knew fallin' upside down on itself, all o' it together still can't make my legs move. I want Buzz to save me, to shock Marty or Slowbro or somethin', but I can't even feel him holdin' on to me anywhere— he's just as knocked out as Dorian and Aggron slumped over together in the background. I try and say somethin', anythin', to get Marty to stop this and start actin' normal and put everything back the way it was, but only a pathetic little whimper comes out.

Marty starts pacin' back and forth, grinnin' with satisfaction. “You all think my Bro's power is to take away people's senses, to make them blind and deaf. None of you know what's really going on, do you? You think I call him Slow-Bro because he moves slowly.” Marty stops pacin' and turns that awful half-crazy grin on me. “But you're wrong, all of you. I call him Slowbro because he can slow anyone to a stop, even if they don't need to see, even if they don't need to hear. The secret is, Slowbro doesn't eat your eyesight, he eats your time. He takes out your memory of ever having seen or heard anything. Can't react to something you saw two seconds ago if you can't remember seeing it, can you?”

He starts walkin' again, talkin' as he goes in a circle round me. “But here's the thing about having power over people's memories. It lets you change how they act. Melianne, poor angry horny little Meli, she's mad at you because you aren't down to fuck today? Whoops, guess she can't remember why she's mad. Then you suggest maybe those normals you don't like, in the Warren a little ways off, are in need of a little intimidating, and she's out the window to go let off some steam! Heh. Heheh.”

He stops and switches directions, walkin' around me the other way. “And then there's Dorian. What a fucking buffoon. Doesn't like Borden, doesn't like Stern, doesn't like anybody. Wishes Melianne would fuck him like she does everyone else, but she isn't his type. Whine, whine, whine. Then he can't remember what he was complaining about, and he's putty in your hands, and you can turn that frustration into just about anything!

“But the best... oh, Bore, the best is when you listen to people say what they're really scared of, or what they really wish they were like. I'm a good listener, Borden, and everyone knows it— even when they can't stand snivelling Marty, cowardly Marty, they come and they tell you everything, because what possible harm could come from that pathetic, toadying little man?

“They come and they tell you the things they fear, and in the back of their brain they know it's because when you talk to Marty about your problems, they just... go away. You're Dorian? That time you wish you'd stood up to Jess, knocked her out with a punch and killed the stupid kid they call the Bore— you forget the conversation ever happened. You're Vivien? The nightmares that keep you up at night of when you first met your Pokémon and it cut your arm off, you won't remember them until tomorrow night... Maybe you'll wonder why you're always so tired. Heheh.

“But what if you're Borden? Oh, well then you've got so much for that Marty to take care of. Maybe you mouthed off and someone wiped the floor with you and you can't stand thinking about it? Maybe you looked at Stern or Bulbasaur for too long and remembered that one time he put a seed in a normal, and it's been bugging you for weeks? Maybe there's people missing from the gang and you just can't stand to think that they're gone?”

Marty's eyes are burnin' with this feverish sorta glee, and I whimper, on account this look on Marty might be even scarier than Melianne or Boss or... I don't even know!

“There it is! You've been here with me many times, Borden, more than anyone else. And every time, it's just so satisfying... because you're a bully, Borden, and you make it so easy to hate you. You're always trying to look big and strong, always lashing out and tearing others down. But I know the truth, Borden: the truth you hide even from yourself...”

Marty leans in so's he's real close to my face, and my breathin' goes all ragged. I wanna punch him, do somethin' to get him away from me, but even that gets buried under my paralyzin' terror and all I do is lean back away from him as far as I can.

“Everything frightens you, doesn't it, Borden?”

I fall over on my ass, and Marty throws his head back and laughs for real, not his usual sniggerin' but a real, terrifyin' cackle.

“Brilliant! Every time! Ahahahahahahaha! Run, Borden, run!”

It's like my body needed someone to just say the words. I turn 'round and run like Hell itself's after me, tears runnin' out the corners o' my eyes. I run and run and run, till my legs burn and my lungs wanna cough themselves outta my chest. I keep runnin' even when all the focus goes outta the world and I feel dizzy, and all that's left is how scared I am, and my head gets foggier and foggier till I can't even remember what I'm runnin' from.

What was I runnin' from, anyhow?

Was I runnin' from anythin'?

...Maybe I was runnin' to get outta the cold. The wind's extra cold, today, worse than anytime I remember.

Huh. Yeah... must o' been the wind, I think. HQ shows up on the horizon and I run faster, shiverin' and pullin' the tattered sleeves o' my coat to cover the holes in the shoulder o' my t-shirt.

Wait, shit, when did I rip that? Fuck, I'm clumsy. And now the wind's got an easy path right to the rest o' me, on account my jacket ain't doin' much either... ugh. But I should look on the bright side... maybe today I'll get guard duty on a search, and the scavengers'll finally find me a good coat!

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 11:00, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

It's a good thing I'd already changed out of my disguise when the sound of voices from within one of my safehouses alerted me to the fact that it had been found. After about fifteen minutes spent listening— I'm no longer the girl who'd have been forced to curse her shitty luck and slink away, just in case it's Trainers inside— the best I can tell is that the newcomers are ordinary people: refugees from some kind of ongoing gang operation.

That's a bad fucking sign. It means that while I've been busy training and hunting, the Trainers have been striking out at these people's homes. How the fuckers found the Warrens, or why they're making their move now, are questions I only have guesses about... and what's more, the answers are important enough that I'm willing to take the risk and ask the refugees.

Pushing myself carefully out of the shadowy alcove I've been listening from, I shuffle as loudly as is realistic for the rest of the way down the tunnel leading to the old cellar room.

“Big place,” A man breaks the momentary silence up ahead; the timbre of his voice is lighter than some, but not exactly high-pitched. He's one of the three or four refugees that were led down the tunnel in the last ten or so minutes.

“Yeah.” Second to speak is a woman, who's been doing most of the leading of refugees and most of the talking since I began listening. “We were lucky t'find it.”

“You don' think it's dangerous,” rasps a third person. I can't tell if they're male or female— age wears at the edges of their voice and renders it impossible to pin down. “Invitin' all these in here? Someone'll notice, mark my words!”

“Ain't about to turn 'em away, elder Francis,” retorts the woman. “We all done lost our homes the same way. Think we deserve better'n any o' them? This spot's big enough for more, and so long as there's space here we don't leave no one out in the cold, got that?”

“Nothing'll be the same, y'know?” murmurs the man at about the time I walk through the makeshift doorway leading from the tunnel into the brick-walled room.

It's dark in here, but that's no obstacle to me anymore— to my right, I can see a group of twelve worn-out adults and four frightened-looking children huddling along the wall and crouching in the nearby corner to the right. The rest of the room, to my left and ahead, stretches out into the shadowy distance, full of dry rickety-looking shelves that might once have held containers of beer or wine or some such (I don't know much about old-fashioned things like that, and don't care to.)

“Why's that?” I ask, and several of the people seated along the walls give a start, while the three crouched in the corner jump to their feet.

“Who's there?” asks the woman, who I can now see is of about middling height and wearing a heavily patched winter coat over scratched-up but serviceable khakis and ancient-looking sneakers. Her tone isn't overly sharp or confrontational, despite the context; my respect for her as a leader rises a notch. “I don't recognize your voice. How'd you find this place?”

“I'm a Runner,” I tell her truthfully, watching as most of the people in the room pause and squint in the general direction of the woman, following her voice. They're clearly blind as bats; the eyes might adjust to dim light after a time, but pitch blackness renders everyone but me sightless. “I found this spot a while back, and stopped by because I needed a rest stop. Looks like it's yours now, though.”

The woman's shoulders relax a little and her back straightens; her body language is an open book since she clearly doesn't think she can be seen. “It's become that way, yeah. If you got anythin' stored here, it ain't ours to take, so feel free to reclaim it; but we're gonna live here now, okay?”

“You're refreshingly straightforward,” I say. “Yes, that's okay, not that I can or would stop you. Another safe place on my Run is welcome, especially with what's going on lately.”

Exactly as I'd hoped, my mention of recent events evokes a storm of murmuring, which I sift carefully for useful information.

“Motherfuckers just don't stop, do they?”

“Our old place's gone, smashed to pieces... guess that's what we get for livin' near Smasher stompin' grounds.”

“We got nothin' left— had to leave it all behind. Whoever stopped to grab their stuff, they're the ones what got caught!”

“Them Quickstep bastards buried our water supply first, starved us till we ran for it and then swooped in to pick up the stragglers. What a fuckin' waste... that well was perfect, took us weeks to dig out.”

I frown. “How did they find you?”

“A mix o' reasons,” the woman says, answering for the whole group with a bitter edge to her voice. “Far as we can tell, some they found by sheer luck, sweepin' the ground for metal or people's minds with the powers their monsters got. Others, they had deals with. Y'know, the usual— 'pay us food and tools and we won't come in and break your legs and carry off your children to slave for us,' that kinda deal. But sudden-like, any deals we done had, they stopped meanin' squat. They came for us, too many of 'em for us all to get away... what you see here's the ones what got lucky.”

I spit on the ground. “Trainers ain't changed a bit,” I say, noticing only after I speak that I've returned to the way I used to talk. Being around people for long can sometimes do that. “Trusting them to honour an agreement is like sitting on a ticking time-bomb.”

“Amen to that!” rasps the old person that the woman called elder Francis, who's sitting bundled up in a massive pile of blankets with two of the youngest children. “Fuck the Trainers, eh!”

That gets a rousing hiss of approval from all along the wall of the room— everyone here's thankfully too smart to make the mistake of cheering aloud— and a few people echo, “Amen!”

“Hey, Runner,” says one man, a dark-skinned fellow who's just standing up from where he was sitting next to the door, “Listen, you said you could do a Run from this place, right? Our Runner, he ain't gonna find us here— we could use your help. We made a livin' craftin' tools they need on the rivers and farms up north.”

“Yeah, I can do that,” I tell him. “Before I leave, give me a list of things you can make, and I'll set up a trade next time I'm out of town.”

“You're a lifesaver. Bless you, sister— there wasn't no way we knew of to get a new Runner till you showed up!” He reaches out a hand and clasps my forearm after a brief search in the air in front of him— I remind myself again that I should be careful not to reveal that I can see in this darkness. People are always suspicious of anything unnatural, with good reason, and I don't want them questioning whether something's up with me.

“What d'you go by, Runner?” asks the woman who clearly leads this place.


“Well, welcome, Rizz; I'm Rena. I'm in charge o' this place, and believe me when I say we're plenty happy t'have you! If you're ever in need o' a place to stay, we'll keep space for you: this spot's safer'n most, 'specially recently.”

“Especially recently?” I ask, noticing the hidden meaning to the last part of that comment. “Why's that?”

Whispers arise again as everyone asks each other if they think I've heard the news, then the black man in front of me says, “It's 'cause o' the Shade, sister.”

“The Shade?” I'm immediately on my guard— I don't need another mysterious enemy to deal with.

“Yeah!” pipes up one of the children ensconced in elder Francis's pile of blankets. “The Shade's a hero!”

“The Shade's a dangerous mystery,” Rena says, turning in the child's direction in a tone designed to quell dissent. Then she turns back to me. “But one we're happy to benefit from, y'know? This is a part o' town where the gangs're startin' to be scared to go.”

The meaning of all this is starting to piece itself together in my mind. This area's smack-dab in the middle of town, at the centre of where most of my hunts have been. I'd been careful to make the attacks' epicentre somewhere other than Spiritomb's haunt, but it seems like my attempt at faking a 'source' for my attacks has been successful beyond expectations...

“I hear the Shade done struck again just a few days back,” whispers a woman from her seat along the wall. “Someone found a dead Grayout monster, and signs o' a fight... but only a few tracks, like as if the Shade disappeared into nothin'!”

Hisses of approval follow the announcement, and a few of the others start murmuring to each other. “I hear the Shade's the ghost o' a scavenger crushed in his tunnels by the Trainers...”

I done heard he's a bio-weapon type thing the fuckin' Granders found in the dark places under the city!”

“No, you idjits, it's a regular guy, only he found some kinda gear what lets him fight them Pokémon things! Ain't nobody seen this Shade fella, he could be anybody!”

“I don' care what he is, long as he fucks those Trainers up good! They ain't got a problem makin' everywhere dangerous t'go for us, but them motherfuckers don't like it so much when it's payback time!”

More people speak up, in increasingly excited whispers, and a comforting warmth begins to grow somewhere behind my solar plexus. I'm barely listening to the individual words at this point, instead just doing my best to scan for useful information and ignore the pull of my own responding excitement.

A welcome distraction comes when I notice Rena sitting down with one group and then another, using an expert word here and there to guide the scavengers' anti-Trainer sentiments into a sense of unity and safety. As best I can tell, she's doing a lot to comfort these refugees despite never saying a comforting word directly, and given time she might just forge them into a cohesive scavenging and crafting workforce.

I'm content with what I've seen and learned here today. After a brief chat with the dark-skinned craftsman and his group of four, I leave with a list of supplies they can make for the fishers and farmers to the north and that warm feeling still nestled somewhere inside me.

For the first time, I've started to feel like maybe I'm making a difference with the path I've chosen. That feeling will go away eventually, I suspect, and that's for the best— hope is a great way to get disappointed, and these people could get discovered by Trainers at any moment— but the thought is kind of nice, for as long as it lasts.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 11:05, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

I walk into HQ freezin' cold and feelin' like somethin's real wrong, though I ain't able to quite figure out what. I hate it when I get feelin's like that, on account somethin' awful usually happens soon after. Or maybe it's just that awful shit happens to me all the time? Doesn' matter. I stay on extra careful alert, but all that's anywhere is just Stern sittin' on a rickety wood chair in a corner, sleepin' like he does a lot. Everyone else's gone... not sure where. Maybe patrols? I feel like there's somethin' I should know 'bout that, but I got no way o' figurin' out what. Whatever— if it's important, I'll remember it later.

That bad feelin's still there, makin' me nervous. I look down the ramp leadin' to the basement, then up the other ramp what leads to the second floor. It's right then that the screamin' starts.

I run up the ramp without really thinkin' about it, and show up on the second floor in time to see Stern's Pokémon— the green-and-blue plant dino Bulbasaur, lettin' go o' a normal with the two vines he uses when he wants to grab stuff. The man, who's got long unkempt brown hair and some thin patches o' beard, hits the ground and thrashes around, screamin' and tearin' at somethin' in his shoulder. There's blood on the floor, and his fingernails're absolutely covered in the stuff...

Behind the normal and Bulbasaur, there's a whole lot o' normals freakin' out and fallin' over themselves to get back in the holdin' area, what's got a hole in the bars. Looks like Bulbasaur's dealin' with an escape attempt... but for some reason I ain't feelin' proud o' him like I should.

Maybe that's 'cause the screamin' ain't stopped. I walk a little closer and frown at the guy who's goin' crazy, still scrapin' at his shoulder, tearin' his scavenger-style scraps o' clothin' to shreds and diggin' deep scratches into his own skin. Bulbasaur ain't doin' nothin' to stop him from movin' or put him back in the holdin' area... he's just wavin' his vines lazy-like and watchin' the normal with his big unnatural eyes. “Bulbasaur, what'd ya...?”

A scene pops up in my brain, a memory o' somebody else screamin' exactly like this, with leafy plant branches growin' outta his skin in all directions. In the memory, there's blood everywhere and I'm tryin' not to vomit while I yell at a scared-lookin' Stern, “Stop him, stop him holy shit!

For some reason, I can't recall when that shit went down, but I nearly throw up at just the memory— it's way too, well, real to be anythin' but somethin' what happened. Without even thinkin', I run up to the screamin' normal and yell, “Buzz, do somethin'!!”

Buzz shows up on the back o' my hand, givin' me a confused little chirp, like as if to say, The fuck you want me to do?

I grab the thrashin' man by the shoulder (the clean one,) and pin his other wrist to the ground, on account I ain't able to see a damn thing with him tearin' himself to pieces. Lookin' closer, it looks like there's some kinda seed about the size o' a ping pong ball, sittin' in a bloody hole deep in the centre o' the man's shoulder! Holy shit, gross...

The seed twitches, and the guy howls; then I see little green roots growin' from the surface o' the thing, reachin' outta the hole and in other directions, too, into the normal's body. I turn and stare at Bulbasaur. “The fuck you do that for?” I ask him, but he just stares past me at the guy I'm pinnin' down.

The normal's still thrashin' and tryin' to get away, but he ain't strong like me— he probably don't eat much. I fight down another wave o' feelin' like I'm about to lose my breakfast, then whisper to Buzz, “Buddy, I need ya to shock that seed thing good.”

Problem is, Buzz can shoot sparks pretty far, but they ain't real strong if he ain't in contact with the target— or with me when I'm touchin' the target. And he don't really understand what I'm pointin' at, givin' me another Wha? sort o' chirp. For a good shock, I'll need to put my finger right in the middle o' that mess.

I look up and see all the normals clingin' to each other with fear and starin' at the guy. I dunno how, but I know for sure that some o' them know what's comin', maybe the same way I do. Others ain't been around long— I don't remember why we got so many scavengers in the last little while, but we do— but they're plenty scared. I know what it's like to be that scared o' somethin' I don't understand. Even if I don't wanna touch all that gross blood and stuff, even if I'm scared the plant thing might start grabbin' hold o' me, I gotta do it.

“Buzz, GET IT,” I yell, that's the signal to really floor whatever I'm touchin'; at the same time, I push my finger into the middle o' the tiny roots what're spreadin' everywhere in the open wound, and touch the hard surface o' Bulbasaur's nasty death seed.

There's a crack o' lightnin', and my finger gets real hot, and the screamin' gets louder for a second before it stops. Behind me, I hear Bulbasaur make this terrible growlin' noise, like as if I gone and made him angry. I turn around slow, and see Bulbasaur standin' there with his eyes narrowed and his two vines raised like whips...

“What in the— Bulbasaur! No! Bad boy!” Bulbasaur flinches and hunkers down defensive-like as Stern shows up at the top o' the ramp from first floor, and runs over to us, brandishin' a lead pipe. He smacks Bulbasaur's two vines outta the air, then keeps on smackin' 'em till Bulbasaur pulls 'em back into the bulb on his back, yellin', “Down! Down!

My heart, which I swear feels like it done been in my throat this entire time, starts to relax itself back into a more normal spot, poundin' all the while. Except for Stern draggin' Bulbasaur back down to first floor and swearin' at him, all I can hear is the scared breathin' o' almost a hunnerd people.

“Borden,” says the guy I'm still pinnin' down. “...Why?”

Still shakin' with a mix o' fear and exhilaration, I look down at him and start to grin. “I couldn' just do nothin', yeah?”

Instead o' smilin' or lookin' grateful, though, the normal's makes his face go all twisty for a second, then settles on fixin' me with a glare what's way too furious and confident for a guy who'd be dyin' in agony without me. “You couldn', huh? Then what the fuck was the last few years?”

“Hey... hey, hang on a sec, where— where d'you get off gettin' mad?” I sputter, glarin' back. “I just saved you!”

“Saved me from what? Another three years o' watchin' you toady around with them Trainers while we all work our asses off for nothin'? Saved me so I can go dyin' some other way when one o' them fuckers decides I looked at 'em wrong? You used to be one o' us, Borden!”

I jerk back away from the normal, feelin' disoriented all o' a sudden. “What? I ain't never been one o' you! I ain't never...” Somethin' about what I'm sayin' feels a weird kind o' hollow, though I can't even imagine a time when I didn' have Buzz. He's been around for as long as I can remember. “Buzz and me, we been buddies forever!”

“Sure, you go on tellin' yourself that,” the guy says, then he spits on the ground as he gets up and brushes himself off, starin' me right in the eye. “Guess you think three years o' doin' nothin' gets made up for by savin' one normal. That's what you call us now, ain't it, Borden? Normals. Like that bug makes you better'n any o' us—”


I jump at least a foot in the air, and the guy goes limp and hits the cement floor real hard. Blood starts leakin' from the back o' his head, way too much blood. It takes me a few long seconds to recognize what done happened; right as I figure it out, Buzz pops up from behind the guy's head, under all that long hair. His yellow fur's got blood on it. He gives me a proud little chirp, like as if to say, We showed that guy, huh?

I start to shake. At first it's in my hands, then it takes over everywhere in my body. I ain't told you to do that, Buzz, I think, but my thinkin' feels like as if it's far away and bein' thought by somebody else. I ain't wanted to hurt this guy. He's just some normal, he ain't no threat...

Fear's grabbin' me by the throat, and I'm frozen. Why do I feel like I know this guy, like it's real bad that he's bleedin'? I don't remember nothin' about him, but he's... he can't be...

I try and take a step forward, like as if to do somethin' to help, but I realize I dunno how. I don't know no first aid, I ain't got any bandages or whatever you use to help somebody what's bleedin' from the head. I'm scared to even touch him, scared to get that way-too-big pool o' blood on my hands, scared to make things worse with my stupid clumsy hands...

Buzz chirps again, and this time it's a confused chirp, like Where's my appreciation, yeah? I did somethin' good!

“No, Buzz, you ain't done somethin' good,” I tell him, with my voice shakin' as much as the rest o' me. “I ain't told you to do that. I... I ain't wanted to teach you to act like... like as if... oh, God...”

The memories are real fuzzy, but I remember bein' in situations like this before. I remember havin' shoutin' matches with people before, people whose faces and names I ain't able to call to mind right now, and then I gave the signal and Buzz knocked 'em down with a solid zap. I remember bein' so proud o' him and tellin' him how good he was for showin' them who's boss.

My frozen body finally unfreezes, and I turn and run away, away from what I gone and done. I run away from the feelin' that I done failed Buzz, who always done been there for me while I never thought about what I been teachin' him. I run away from my buddy who ain't never had a cruel bone in his little body, but who I done taught to do bad things. I run away from my shame and the memories and everythin'. As I run outta HQ, Stern yells after me, askin' where I'm goin'; but I got no idea, so I don't answer.

~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 11:20, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

My return to the day's Run has been interrupted again. On my way to the closet in the ruined supermarket, where I've stashed my new bag and the other necessities a Runner must have, I've stumbled upon what might be an opportunity.

Down below, in a natural gully with the shattered streets and the ruins of buildings piled atop one another at the bottom of it, sit two Pokémon and two men in grey bandannas. What makes this an opportunity instead of a ridiculous risk is that one pair appears to be... incapacitated. The man Dorian isn't unconscious, but instead is kneeling in some kind of stupefied trance, clearly under the power of Marty's strange psychic Pokémon; Dorian's hulking mountain of a Pokémon, Aggron, is similarly afflicted, slumped over on its side with its eyes wide open.

Slowbro, the likely source of the odd state of affairs, is lounging propped up against the belly of the stone-and-metal beast, looking for all the world like an oversized, obese pink lizard sunning itself on the side of a rock.

It's unclear to me what exactly is going on. Did Marty and Dorian have a falling-out? I seemed to recall them going everywhere together during my time as a slave, but perhaps things have changed. Either way, the two are alone and Marty is continuing to walk in slow circles around Dorian, his mouth moving (though from this distance I can't make out the words.)

Dorian's a brute, and I've felt the sting of a backhand from him before— but Marty's the real monster out of the two of them. It's not that he's any more or less cruel than the other Trainers; the thing about Marty is that none of his actions seem to have consequences. It must be something done by his Pokémon, which he calls his “Slow Bro;” I've watched from the slave pens and seen him unwisely whip Melianne into a livid state of near-apopletic rage at him, then somehow with a few cunning words redirect her anger to one of the prettier slaves who just happened to be watching the humiliation. He's the kind of man who's so wildly insecure that he needs to keep proving to himself that he can make people do whatever he wants. And for some reason, he can.

I draw on my disgust and hatred, and I lift the dark power out of them, whirling it around me to don the disguise of flowing shadows and dark fire that the scavengers were calling the Shade. The coat and scarf, left behind in a previous safehouse, aren't strictly necessary to the disguise: they just hid my face and my silhouette should the dark flames die or the shadow cloak be carried away by high winds— and the gully below isn't particularly windy.

I move as swiftly as I can from cover to cover, drawing nearer to Marty and the catatonic Dorian by making use of the shadows cast by tilted husk walls or overgrown desert scrubs. I had planned a surprise strike to take out Marty's Pokémon first, but as I arrive in hiding roughly thirty feet away from the pink-skinned abomination, it lets out a loud, slow yawn.


Marty immediately looks up and scans my general environs, as though aware there's something there but unable to pinpoint it. “What in the... trouble? Oh, shit!” the scrawny, weasel-faced man exclaims. “Bro, wake Dorian up, now!

I'm not waiting for that to happen.

Slow Bro turns ponderously to face me as I launch myself from hiding, seeking to close the gap before it can react; the Pokémon blinks once, stupidly, then opens its mouth and lets out a noise like a yawn. Instantly, I can feel something pawing at the boundaries of my mind, trying to gain access; my eyes narrow, but a split second later I smile as it becomes clear that Spiritomb's claim of possessing powers that nullify psychics was no empty boast— that odd sensation of psychic pressure slips off of my identity like water from a rainjacket.

“Not this time, motherfucker,” I whisper.

A ten-foot-square patch of icy concrete lies between me and my quarry, full of frozen-over pockmarks full of water where some explosive force once pitted and cracked the streets; the autumn rains filled the potholes, and the cold has frozen them solid. I'd planned to go around this while remaining hidden; but there's no time to do that now, so I take the running start I've got and leap, trusting in my supernatural strength to carry me more than far enough.

At the exact moment I reach the midpoint of my long jump, Slow Bro yawns again, its mouth opening even wider this time, and a wave of energy rushes from its maw, a spreading cone of ripples in the air that refract the cloud-dampened sunlight into a myriad of chaotic rainbows that emphasize purples and blues. The tiny, confused snarls in reality grow larger, expanding outward swiftly with a sound like the air itself is tearing apart.

My reaction is immediate and reflexive after so much time spent practicing for moments like this; with a surge of contempt for this creature and its snivelling, conniving Trainer, my right arm lashes out in front of me, with a grey-and-black aura emanating from my hand that leaves only the faint outline of my fingers visible. Wispy grey shadows trail behind this aura of hatred and contempt made real— far more real than the shadows and black fire that make up my disguise— and a rent is torn in the psychic energy, parting the beam of eye-smarting rainbow ripples and turning the rending force of the technique aside from me.

The blow has set me back, though; by striking the Pokémon's attack as though it were physical, I've been forced to sacrifice my momentum, and I drop straight down onto the surface of the ice. My balance has always been good— I avoid slipping straight away, but it's a near thing, and the slick surface is going to send me sprawling if I try to start myself moving quickly; my overconfidence has placed me in a situation where I'm practically a sitting duck.

Past Slow Bro, perhaps fifty feet away from me, Marty has reached Dorian and is shaking him. To my relief, Dorian doesn't seem to be responding quickly, but he is blinking and mumbling something unintelligible; I don't know how much more time I have until Aggron joins the fray.

Slow Bro unleashes another burst of confusion into the air, and I seize my opportunity as it propagates toward me in an expanding cone. Both hands come up, now, but instead of slicing through the energy, I catch it like an onrushing wall and push off of it, sending myself flying backwards to crash heavily onto my back amidst some rubble. As I shove myself back into a standing position, taking some care not to aggravate the new, raw scrapes along the backs of my arms, I consider that perhaps I should retreat while I still can.

My head begins to ache; the pressure of Slow Bro's ongoing attempts to rob me of my senses briefly becomes stronger, then abates as I channel a surge of cold fury into my mental defenses. Spiritomb did warn me that its gifts only work with dark emotions to fuel them, I recall. I stare the psychic creature down, letting myself feel the contempt and disgust that these fucking Trainers and their Pokémon weapons evoke in me... The pressure disappears completely, and the grey auras surrounding my hands redouble in size.

Slow Bro opens its mouth to release a third cone of reality-bending power, and I make my move. It hasn't seen my true speed yet; I make use of that and sprint entirely out of the way of the attack, then zig-zag back to dodge a second blast. The maneuver crosses almost half of the thirty feet between me and the creature, and I smile grimly. Marty will make a particularly satisfying ex-Trainer.

The Pokémon opens its mouth again, and I time my dash out of the way perfectly; except that no cone of madness issues forth. Instead, Slow Bro closes its jaws and its eyes begin to glow purple; immediately, I feel the ground beneath my feet give way as psychic power rips the pitted concrete to shreds. The sudden loss of traction sends me tumbling head over heels in what would normally be a punishing wipeout across several feet of jagged gravel and shattered concrete.

I haven't trained with my inhuman speed for nothing, though. Instead of crashing heavily down again, I tuck my limbs in and somersault in midair, pushing off with one foot to fend off the ground the first time I'd strike it, and sending myself spinning skyward. The next time the ground approaches me, I land on both feet and roll to absorb momentum, coming up on my feet afterward only a little dizzy and easily ten feet to the left of where I started.

Whatever Slow Bro had been expecting, it wasn't that. The blast of confusion intended to finish me off ploughs into the spot where I should otherwise have been lying prone, shattering the concrete and pulverizing the gravel into sand. In the time that it's taken the Pokémon to fire off that finishing blow, I'm more than fast enough to close the rest of the distance.

I launch myself at Slow Bro, and the creature is too glacially slow to bring its head around to fire off another burst of rending lights; as I bring my cold satisfaction and ever-present hatred to bear, the grey light fades from my palms and my hands sprout flamelike tongues of purplish darkness: no defensive tool, these. In midair, moments before my body collides with the astonished Pokémon, I drive one of my hands— fingers held stiff and flat, and rendered deadlier than sharpened steel by the dark power infusing them— straight through the centre of its chest, seeking its heart.

Instead of the satisfaction of rending flesh, I experience the unexpected sensation of nothing. I pass straight through the , and only my superhuman reflexes and my training let me roll instead of crashing to the ground on the other side.

When I come to my feet, I look around wildly for the real location; and instantly I realize that Slow Bro is standing behind me, five feet to the left of where it appeared to be; its belly rises and falls swiftly as it pants with exertion, but aside from that I've yet to put a scratch on it.

I flex my fingers, and the flames on my hands turn to two-foot claws that extend out from my fingernails. In the instant that I try to whirl and strike, though, I feel a searing pain as Slow Bro reaches out and plants one reptilian foreclaw in the small of my back. My mental defenses are torn away, and everything goes grey and soundless...

In the limbo of nothingness, I struggle futilely for only a moment before delving deep into myself for exactly what I need. I haven't been twiddling my thumbs since that day when I failed to exact revenge on Melianne and her Pokémon; I know where power lies when I'm desperate for it. I just hope the price isn't— No. There's no room to second-guess.

I return to the time when the artillery fell from the sky, and everyone I knew died, and Trainers flooded the streets to pick up those of the pieces they considered useful. The pain is terrible, worse than when I was at least trying to fight the visions. I relive the sound of the explosions and the terror of lying in my bed with the covers over my six-year-old head expecting to die at any moment; I feel the building give way around me; I struggle futilely to free Mrs. Mannagan from the slab of stone that killed her, experience being cast aside by the victors of the conflict, relive the night I spent sleeping, cold and miserable and terrified, in the surviving half of the ruined bell from the bell tower...

I can't use fear alone. Fear only weakens you; there's no power to be drawn from it... but for every bit of fear I felt, there was always something else, even as a child. I was afraid, but I also hated. And so I dig deep into the old hatreds, the ones even I feared to unearth for fear of losing myself. The visceral hatred for the military that bombed my home; the harsh, sullen glow of hatred for the Trainers that caused all of this with their greed and their hunger for power; even the distant, cold guiding star of my hatred for the parents who abandoned me into an orphanage, who gave birth to me in the first place and made me live this life of rage and struggle and pain.

It feels like an eternity, but it's really likely only half a second between the grey void's appearance and its harsh, sudden absence. I'm still mid-whirl, my claws of darkness now four feet long and flowing with chill ribbons of green hate; in a single clean slice with each hand, I decapitate Slow Bro and bisect its body at the sternum.

The three pieces fall to the ground, and the hatred flows through me. My power effortlessly turns aside the momentary shock of psychic torment that rushes out from Slow Bro as its head— still alive for that one moment in which it's aware that it's been killed— broadcasts the primal terror of staring death in the face.

I straighten from my fighting crouch and begin to walk away from the lizard, my eyes burning with points of green within the dark fire and the cloak of shadows licking at the surroundings like cold flame. I've embraced my hatred deeply and perfectly; in this moment, I want nothing more than to wipe every Trainer from the face of the Earth, scatter the pieces to the skies, and dance in the rain of their blood.

Marty is some fifty feet away, collapsed in agony where he fell after abandoning the addled Dorian to his fate and running for it. I was protected from the psychic force of Slow Bro's dying scream; Marty had no such protection.

I stare down at the whimpering, helpless man, thinking calmly to myself whether he deserves to live. I had thought before that the ultimate torture was to force an ex-Trainer to live with never having power again, but that attitude strikes me now as a desperate, self-deluding justification for mercy.

Slowly and deliberately, I reach down and place my hand— still burning with the cold purple flame and its silky green core of raw hatred— on Marty's chest.

The man's whimperings turn instantly into a shriek of agony as dark fire races to cover his body. For a moment, he rolls about in a vain attempt to extinguish the fires, but I know they need no oxygen— they're fueled by draining his body of its strength. I stand and watch with frigid equanimity as Marty's squeals and struggles grow steadily weaker, and then cease. The body isn't marked with burns, but the fingers and toes are black, and when I nudge it with one toe, I find that it's frozen solid, sapped of even the residual heat of life by the cold flames.

I consider saying something, but decide against it. There's no satisfaction, no remorse, nothing but the enduring hatred.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 11:35, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

My whole body aches and all o' my breaths are burnin' me, but I keep runnin'. I think I done cried somewhere along the way, but everythin's real fuzzy still, like as if I can't remember nothin' what I didn't think real hard about when it was happenin'...

Just as I'm thinkin' that, I trip and fall over a damn hole in the street, like as if reality was tryin' to punish me for thinkin' too hard about stuff.

“Shit, shit, shit!” I can't catch myself, and there's this slope...! “Oh, fuck!”

I go skiddin' down a pretty long hillside covered in brambles and pieces o' broken street, what looks like they done been thrown here by some kinda explosion; they rip the left side o' my jacket to shreds by the time I catch myself on a ledge near the bottom. I stand up unsteady-like, cursin' my fuckin' awful luck, only to find that along with half my jacket, I done lost the grayout sash I had tied round my arm.

Then I look round properly and see a sight what makes my blood go freezin' cold. Maybe fifteen feet away from me, Marty's lyin' on the ground, real still. His fingers're black, and I might not be very smart but I know frostbite when I see it! And standin' above him is a horrifyin' monster like a hole in the grey cloudy sky, all billowin' shadow and black fire and eyes like cold green stars.

It hits home right then that I ain't got Buzz with me. I'm worse'n unprepared, I'm practically a normal.

The thing just stares at me, and I stare back at it. My heart beats fifty miles a minute. Do I run away? Who knows how fast this thing is, but even if I think I should try, I can't on account my damn traitor body's gone frozen again.

Then it surprises me by speakin'. “We meet again.” That's funny... its voice don't sound like you'd think a monster like this would sound. It almost sounds like a girl... what's more, somethin' about the voice is familiar.

“Who—” I start to say, then there's a feelin' like a dam burstin' in my head and I remember some things— some things I ain't remembered in a long time. I remember what Marty was talkin' about that one time, when he said I 'brought the runner back.' I remember runnin' with Pokémon chasin' after me, all the while knowin' I'm makin' a distraction for somebody who might be goin' free... and I remember sittin' and talkin' to a girl who sounds just like this thing, in the evenin' dark o' a place what looks like the holdin' area back at HQ... no, we had another name for it. The slave pen.

“...Rizz?” I ask, my mouth droppin' open real stupid-like. I ain't even sure what I'm supposed to feel right now. “You're that thing what's huntin' people?”

“Not hunting people.” Rizz's voice is cold, real cold. “Hunting Trainers. And one just showed up in front of me.”

“Wait... I...” I stammer. Only stupid questions are comin' to my brain, and one o' them escapes. “You mean you're gonna do me like you did Marty?”

Both o' our gazes flick to Marty's body. I oughta be mad, or sad, or somethin', but for some reason I can't remember right now, I'm almost relieved Marty's gone. How's that for fucked up?

“We're even, aren't we.” asks Rizz, and it doesn' sound like a question. “I abandoned you. Then you turned me in. To your fucking 'Boss.' I guess I deserved it, huh?”

Tears show up in my eyes. “I... I ain't never thought that, I just... I was just mad, and—”

“Well,” Rizz says, cuttin' me off in that same cold, cold tone o' voice, “Right now I'm mad. Very mad.”

I'm cryin' for real now. “P... please d-don't k-kill me,” I blubber, sobbin' like a baby. So much for bein' a cool Grayout in the face o' danger... when it comes down to it, guess I'm just some poser for real.

“I don't listen to begging,” Rizz says, and she walks toward me, and I'm too scared and too sad and too tired to even do anythin' about the fact she's gonna kill me now, and I can't stop thinkin' about how I ain't done anythin' with my life, Hell, I ain't even had sex before, and now I never will, and—

“That's odd.”

I open my eyes, which I ain't even done noticed I'd closed till now. I'm too scared to even talk, so I just stare at Rizz, not sure what's up.

“I hate Trainers,” she says, and it sounds more like as if she's talkin' to herself than anythin' else. “And you're a Trainer; there's no doubt of that. You, and everyone like you, are the cause for all of this shit, and I want to wipe every last one of you out. You understand that, right, Borden?”

I can barely even get my head to nod, but I do it on account I think I might die if I don't.

“But for some reason, I can't seem to hate you enough to kill you. Even now, when I've got nothing but hatred going on anywhere in my fucking head. What's up with that?”

I ain't got an answer to that at all, so I make my shoulders hunch up a little more, so's maybe it's like a shrug.

“If you tell anyone what you saw here today, it won't matter whether I detest your stupid, snivelling, brown-nosing guts enough to kill you— I'll do it on principle,” Rizz tells me, and even though she don't sound angry when she says it, I don't doubt she means it a hunnerd percent. “Today's your lucky day; you get to live. Now let me take care of Dorian and his—

Rizz turns around sudden-like, with the cloak o' dark magic or whatever swirlin' behind her all silent, and makes a quick movement like as if she's grabbin' somethin' outta the air. There's a series o' loud SNAP! noises just like what Buzz makes when he shocks somethin'.

“You won't catch me again with that trick,” says Rizz, and there's the sound o' a smile behind the words what makes 'em sound even more menacin'. “I'd hoped your creature would show itself. Say goodbye to your bug.”

I thought I was the most scared I could get earlier when I thought I was about to die, but as I realize what's goin' on, what I'm feelin' gets somehow way worse than that. I was paralyzed before, couldn't even talk right, but sudden-like I'm blurtin' out, “Please, don't kill Buzz... kill me instead!”

Rizz pauses, then turns to face me, real slow. Where she'd normally have a hand, there's this set o' black fiery claws closed round Buzz like a cage, holdin' him so tight his legs are stickin' out in all directions. He looks terrified, his little eyes even bigger'n usual, and I realize I'd give anythin' for him not to have to feel that scared.

“What... did you just say?” Rizz asks me.

I gulp. “I... I said, please don't kill Buzz. I... I don't care what happens to me, just don't punish him for what I done. It ain't his fault!”

“You know I just spared your life, right?” she asks me, talkin' slow like as if I were even dumber than I am. “You sure you want to make that trade?”

I'm scared, but right now nothin' matters more to me than that Buzz doesn' get killed for what I done to him. “Yeah. I'm... I'm ready, just please don't hurt him. I know you ain't got no reason to believe me, but he's really a sweet and cheerful guy. He wouldn't o' hurt nobody if I didn' teach him to.”

There's this long, awful silence.

“You make no sense.” Rizz's dark fire claws are still round Buzz, but they ain't squeezin' him quite so hard as before, and he's pulled his legs back in— Buzz hates havin' his legs stuck anywhere. “You'd choose to be a dead Trainer over being a live normal?”

“It... it ain't like that,” I stammer pathetically. “I just... he don't deserve that. He's... he's my friend, and I love him. You can get rid o' me, just please... please let him go free, he won't bother nobody.”



Rizz makes a lightnin'-fast move and I feel somethin' light hit me in the chest. Right away, Buzz's little feet cling tight to my chest through my shirt, and I hug him close, not even mindin' the way he's scratchin' me up with how tight he's holdin' on. Tears are runnin' down my face, and I start cryin' into his soft yellow fur.

“Start running. Leave Amarillo and don't return,” Rizz says. She don't sound nice, but she also don't sound as cold as before. The claws she was usin' to hold Buzz are gone. “You have five minutes to get out of my sight, and if I see you ever again, I will kill you.”

I take a few shudderin' breaths as it sinks in what's happenin'. We... we both get to live?

I run for it, not even carin' which direction. I ain't gonna question it, and I already done spent too long just thinkin'— when the scary darkness monster says jump, you jump! I ain't even sure how I feel— relieved, maybe? It's like as if I done spent so long bein' scared, I done forgot how to be anythin' other'n scared.

So I guess all I know is I ain't scared right now. I'm... somethin' else. Plus, Buzz and I are alive.

That's... better'n nothin', I guess!

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 11:45, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

I watch Borden run northwest for a few minutes. I'm still not sure exactly what happened to make me so certain that Borden was the one Trainer I didn't hate enough to kill; I'd hoped that all this would start making sense if I gave it some more time, but all I've gotten for the minutes I've thought on it is confusion.

The grinding of stone on stone from some distance behind me causes me to turn, and I see Dorian leaping atop Aggron and spurring the huge creature into a surprisingly swift retreat up the side of the gully and over the ridge. I briefly consider giving chase, but during the conversation with Borden, my hatred has given way to numbness. The fires on my hands are gone, and I realize distantly that there's little I can do to Dorian's Pokémon now, even if I were to catch up. It seems as though my deepest hatreds are expended for the moment, and I'll have to rely on lesser things for some time.

A small purple cloud of gas with a core of green rises out of a crack in the street, and Spiritomb speaks out loud, in a much diminished version of the many-voiced whisper it used when we first met.

~The human Marty is no more— you have slain both master and servant.~

“You made a Substitute,” I observe. “This must be a big deal to you.”

~Return, and speak with us.~

Before I can respond, the Substitute winks out of existence. I roll my eyes. Once a cryptic asshole, always a cryptic asshole.

I guess I'm headed for the scrapyard— good thing it's nearby.

~~~~~~~~~~RIN: 11:50, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

The skies are dark even though the sun is high. The clouds above have grown more thick during this last hour of our flight, but still have not begun to vent their fury. The horizon is empty in all directions, and time feels as though it is frozen.

Now is the return of my Squadron to Amarillo. Our mission is to fulfill our promises: the first of these was to return when the sun is highest to the Warren where the boy named Marcus lives. Second was to lay the foundations for an extraction.

Pidgeot makes the sound that he makes when his keen eyes sight trouble. I raise my binoculars in the direction his head is turned, and I adjust them to see what has caught my youkai's attention.

Far away there is a flurry of movement on a pile of shattered concrete. A young boy whose ragged clothing I recognize is standing up and waving in our direction. But his waving is frantic because two adults have come out from a secret tunnel to grab him and begin to haul him back into hiding.

Pidgeot makes the “trouble” noise again. I follow his gaze to the skies and see five creatures drop from the sky with spots of purple upon their backs: large birds bearing youkai-tachi!

“Rin! Are you seeing this?” shouts my radio with the voice of Emmett. His partner Staraptor is as keen of eye as is Pidgeot: he will have followed his youkai's lead as well as

My heart is a ball of lead within me. Despite my care, I have caused this: I had not considered that Marcus might disobey his parents should they decide not to show themselves. I can see the tunnel that the three are even now retreating into: so too can the youkai-tachi.

There is radio chatter between my squad. The others whose partners are not so keen of eye now know what is happening: I must decide on what to do quickly before the decision is removed from me.

“We can't just ignore them!” Seth is saying through the radio. “We're supposed to help, that's the whole thing we're even for!

“They aren't our only mission,” returns the voice of Andrea who is ever calm. “We're Advance Squadron. We don't fight, we scout. We don't help anybody by getting captured or killed.”

“But” Seth sounds angry.

“Quiet. Anyone could be listening on a radio,” I say, to cut off the boy and his zeal before it can destroy us. “We should leave.”

“Is this really all we can do? Turn around and run?” Now Seth sounds both angry and sad.

“I don't like it any more than you do,” Andrea responds so quietly that the static behind the radio almost drowns her words. “But we signed up for more than just heroics. We have no intelligence on the enemy force, and we have orders not to engage!”

“Maybe not. But I vote we save those people.” It is Dean: he is usually the quiet one.

“Yeah!” shouts Seth. “C'mon, Rin!”

“Seth, you don't get to decide for” Andrea begins.

“Enough.” Now it is time to cut Andrea off also. “I will decide.”

The air-waves go silent. My Squadron has learned to follow me like soldiers would: that is good because we are supposed to be soldiers. We are supposed to follow our orders and do what is right for many instead of what is good for a few. A real soldier turns away from one who is suffering and leaves to fight instead a battle that can certainly be won. That is how even greater sufferings are prevented: by good soldiers.

I have often thought to myself that these children who follow me are not good soldiers. But I hear the silence on the radio and think now to myself that they might be better soldiers than I thought.

I am a hypocrite: after all these times I have judged them, in the end I am the one who is not a good soldier.

“Advance Squadron: we battle. The gangs will not harm any more innocents today.”

I squeeze the sides of Pidgeot with my legs, and my youkai partner tucks in his wings, diving to intercept the enemy forces: the others on their flying youkai follow suit, like good soldiers.

I am a fool, I think to myself as I lead my Squadron in the plunge toward an action of kindness and disobedience.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 12:00, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

“You called me here. What's going on?”

~Patience, Spirit-Wielder.~

“No. Cut to the chase.”

~Very well. We seek to ensure that you still have your conviction.~

I bristle. “Because I spared Borden?”

~Not at all. You share a bond, even if it is one of conflict. It is your right to be inclined to spare him. We refer instead to your qualms about killing your kind.~

“What about them?” I ask. “I did it, didn't I? Marty had it coming.”

~You did, and he did. What we wish to ask is: will your convictions survive?~

I stare at the ghost. “Is this a joke? You're asking if I'm all right?”

~We chose you for more than your darkness. You hold strongly to your beliefs, and it is right that you do so. It is pain to know that an action you took has forsaken a conviction you held strongly. Will the pain destroy you?~

“I can't believe it. You're concerned for my well-being?”

~From all we have seen humans are pitiable creatures, weak in body and needful of constant validation and perpetual reassurance. They scrabble in the muck, clawing each other to pieces to get at any extra scrap of certainty that death is not coming for them this day. You have thus far not been so, yet we are aware you may hide the same weakness— we seek to prevent a collapse.~

“Shut the fuck up.” Cold anger courses through me, a welcome change from the partial numbness I've felt since the hatred fell away. “This is all your doing, and now you're asking if I'm okay with this? Well, your answer is no! No I'm not!”

I let the chilly rage flow through me and into my hands, where black flames slowly grow to flicker hungrily around my fingers. “You wanted this. You wanted me to be a remorseless killer, and I felt exactly zero guilt for killing that son of a bitch. You won, so stop acting like you didn't get what you want!”

~Did you not choose this for yourself?~ If Spiritomb is scared of my very real intent to harm it, it doesn't reveal that fear in its voices, which sound simply curious. ~Are these not the ones who have caused suffering for yourself and others? Did you yourself not say that they deserve to die?~

“You gave me a power that only works when I hate. This isn't a surprise to you, you motherfucker.”

~No. There is no surprise here. We know that you will do what you believe is right, for we have never seen you seek selfish comfort at the expense of others. We aim to reassure you that your actions this day were correct, lest you destroy yourself.~

“Don't you dare pin this on me,” I grit out, “I... I didn't choose this, I lost control. The power you gave me, it took over.”

~Our power, once given, is not a force to influence you but to make your deepest desires real. You surrendered to your own hatred.~

“Bullshit!” I shout, but it feels like an act of empty defiance instead of an expression of anger— the thing's words make too much sense. The fires on my hands go out.

~Own your hatred or it shall consume you. We do not wish to see that occur, for you remain the best conduit for our power that this city has to offer. Once you accept that this is you, and that there is no shame in having slain one who is deserving of death, you will be free.~

“Don't. Don't lecture me, you smug fucking tool.” I stare into Spiritomb's green-fire eyes, but as always there's nothing there to read, nothing to help me prove to myself that the thing is manipulating me. I hate that— I despise the way that when I deal with Spiritomb, I have to search myself instead of my enemy for the truth.

The ghost's presenting a fairly simple argument: I wanted this, and it didn't do anything but give me the tools to make it happen. It follows that I can prove or disprove that argument with a test: I need another target, before the really dark stuff comes back to tempt me with Spiritomb's power. If I can want to kill someone, really want to kill them, without the dark powers, only then will I believe that I really did do this myself. Then I can choose whether I do it or not.

“Give me a Trainer. You have eyes everywhere, right? Find me someone you think I can take out.”

~As you wish. There is conflict to the north: a battle between the slavemasters. In the chaos of combat, there may be stragglers, or else the two sides will destroy each other and leave easier pickings.~

Instantly, I start mentally sorting through the ramifications of a fight between Trainers. “The gangs are battling. Did the alliance fall through?”

~No. These are newcomers. They are few, but well equipped. They carry the items you call binoculars and radios, and upon their backs are packs filled with provisions.~

I frown. “A new gang. Where did they come from?”

~We are uncertain. They do not originate in this city, and we have not stretched our power beyond here. To do so would have been too costly.~

“Okay,” I say. “Where exactly are they? Give me a landmark.”

~The Warren of the boy Marcus, the one who you spoke with a month past. The gang you name Quickstep is there, taking them captive, and the new group is attacking them.~

I do some quick thinking. It should take me roughly twenty-five minutes to get there, less if I run. It's not ideal, but I sure as fuck don't intend to let these Trainers mess with anyone on my Run. “I'll be back.”

~Good hunting, Spirit-Wielder,~ whispers Spiritomb's many-voice as I take the stairs back up into the cloud-choked light of day.

~~~~~~~~~~RIN: 12:15, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

Pidgeot makes a wide banking turn, commanding the air beneath his wings. A bird so large should be unable to fly with anything atop his back, yet we are graceful as the crane and swift as the falcon. This is the power of youkai.

Our foes, who all wear the purple of their gang, are on the defensive and have been forced to leave behind the family of Marcus on the ground to fight us in the air. Three of my five are in the position of power as those with the greatest altitude in this battle of flying youkai: we have trained well, knowing that to be above your enemy means that he must always defend against a diving attack.

Our opponents, too, have trained well. They fly in formation, circling as one; I see no radios, yet they communicate with no effort, coming together to punish mistakes; both the rash Seth and the calm, composed Andrea are circling below the enemy. The youkai-tachi's good coordination forced my subordinates to abort their strikes from above and rendered them unable to climb back to join us. It was a necessary attempt, to probe our foes for weakness, but it has left us at a disadvantage.

I activate my radio. “Emmett: stay above and keep the heights clear. Dean, bomb the enemy now. Seth, Andrea: begin to climb, I will create an opening.”

I hear each of my Squadron say, “Roger,” and then Dean commences the water-bombing. His partner, Mantine, is large and slow, floating in the air more as if it were made of water than sky; but even if it means he flies and turns more slowly, his youkai power has its greatest use if he is in the position of advantage.

Mantine, hovering above the enemy formation, begins to spit water in large blobs the size of my fist, turning around slowly to send the projectiles in different directions. The globes of water do not break up as they fall towards our foes: to be struck with one would be painful, certainly, but even more importantly the impact could threaten to throw a rider off or break pinion feathers. And then there is the cold: at this time of year being wet is dangerous even to youkai that have thick feathers, and a human will have to leave the battle to go dry off or risk frostbite and hypothermia.

The foe is forced to scatter, and I take my opportunity. Pidgeot is swift, but he is also larger than any other flier the T.A. has ever encountered: his bulk is an asset at times when he must clash with other flying youkai. I target the youkai-tachi commander, the one at the centre of the scattering enemy formation: her Pokémon is the largest, a raptor with plumage in the colours of old America: red and white and blue.

As I expected, the enemy is too disciplined to scatter for long: already they are banking at various speeds and seeking to return to their formation. But the youkai-tachi commander is forced to move far out of her position to avoid being struck by me and Pidgeot; in the time that she leaves a gap in the middle of the slowly returning enemy formation, Andrea and Seth's partners Unfezant and Noctowl climb and race through the opening. I give Pidgeot the command to pull up and to not complete the diving attack: my job has been done.

Our entire squad is now above the enemy. I give the signal, and our attack plan commences in earnest now. We account for the enemy's discipline, with water bombs from Mantine providing covering fire for my Squadron while the other four of us drop from the sky at once.

There is not enough space in the youkai-tachi formation for all of them to dodge both us and the water bombs that are spreading to cut off their retreat: I feel the impact through Pidgeot's body as his talons strike true, disabling the wing of the enemy commander's youkai and tearing a gash into its side. In seconds, four of the five enemy youkai are spiraling down toward the ground, and the fifth is fleeing.

I leave it to my Squadron to give chase. Pidgeot and I, we dive, following the enemy commander. Her youkai, shrieking in pain with one wing flopping uselessly, is too distressed to marshal its power and call upon the winds: they are plummetting too quickly to survive.

When the ground begins to grow too near, I guide Pidgeot to fly underneath the falling youkai and launch a gust of wind; I hold on tightly with my arms around Pidgeot's neck as he turns upside down in midair and, with a flap of his wings, breaks the enemy commander's fall, sending the two of them fluttering slightly upward in a jumble of wings and limbs.

Then we are right side up and out from underneath, and the enemy commander and her youkai fall painfully but not lethally to the ground, unconscious. Pidgeot and I, we land on a hill of rubble near the place where they fell, and I take stock of the situation.

The fifth foe has been left to escape, because the other enemy forces are still launching gusts of air and other attacks as they spiral down, injured but not out of the fight. The dogfight is growing quite low in the air, and I can see that it will be over soon, in our favour. Once the enemy is grounded, we can easily capture them.

Suddenly there is a flash of movement from somewhere near me, and a blur of something dark flies into the sky like a ball of black fire that trails ribbons of smoke. It strikes one of the enemy youkai, clings to it for a moment in midair, and then launches itself further into the sky. The enemy youkai, which is of the same species as Pidgeot but is much younger, thrashes for a moment and then its head falls off and the youkai-tachi on its back plummets fifteen feet to the ground.

I do not usually have strong emotions that I am not in control of, especially on the battlefield. But it is very hard not to be frightened and horrified by this development.

“Climb!” I shout into the radio, “Gain altitude now! Bogey spotted— unidentified combatant, likely hostile!”

In the time it has taken me to say all of this, the dark figure has leapt onto all four enemy youkai, tearing them apart and sending showers of blood down to spatter against the concrete twenty feet below. I raise my binoculars and can see that this thing is shaped like a person, with blackness billowing around it like a cloak.

I kick Pidgeot into motion, trying to give chase, but it is too late: the dark thing is too fast. It leaps up from the falling body of its latest victim, and catches up with Emmett and Staraptor, who are following my order to climb but far too slowly. I watch through the binoculars as claws of black flame slash into Staraptor's neck and rip his head off. Emmett screams a scream that I can hear even without the radio, and falls.

I hunch low to Pidgeot's back to avoid increasing our drag, and we rush to catch Emmett. Above us, foolishly, Seth begins to turn and dive toward us, and I shout into the radio, “No! Leave!”

I catch Emmett, his unconscious body thudding into me and nearly sending me dropping off of Pidgeot; I grab the handles on Pidgeot's harness and pin Emmett to his back with my body just in time for Pidgeot to turn upside down and send a blast of wind at the dark figure that is plummetting toward us with claws out and eyes of green fire without any soul in them staring into us.

The gust of wind sends the creature flying, preventing it from landing upon us, and the shadows part for a moment to reveal a human figure, female and wearing a jacket whose colour is impossible to tell. Then it lands on a pile of rubble fifteen feet away, leaving a smear of blood.

“Bogey is human,” I say into the radio, tying the unconscious Emmett to Pidgeot's harness as Pidgeot flaps hastily to avoid smashing into the ground. “Retreat. The gang Trainers are defeated and there has been time for the civilians to depart!”

“Rin, look out!” shouts the radio with the voice of Seth, and I look up as the dark figure rolls to its feet with impossible speed, and leaps from where it landed to rush across the ground toward us.

The bogey leaps. There is no time for Pidgeot to climb out of range or launch another attack. I have seen the speed at which this creature moves, how it tears into other youkai, and I know that that fate awaits us. Unless I do something desperate.

“Pidgeot, home,” I say, knowing that he will understand this command after so many years of being together, after so many days when home meant a joyful return to camp after a long scouting mission. My eyes fill with tears and I hurl myself off of his back, straight into the path of the dark figure, trying to prevent it from reaching my beloved youkai and his precious cargo.

I experience a moment of being weightless as Pidgeot begins to surge into the sky with one last powerful flap, and then there is an impact— the impact is surprisingly light, as though the body striking me is not so heavy as I had thought— as the dark figure crashes into me. Something grabs me by the throat at the same time as I feel a hand seize the back of my shirt.

I am pulled along and used as a meatshield against the wall of a building. I feel something crack in my shoulder and pain radiates through me. Then I am staring into the empty green eyes of this figure, which has one clawed hand on my neck and the other bunched in the front of my shirt. Its touch is colder than ice.

It stares back for a long time. I do not know how long. Then it speaks in a voice that is human after all. “Do you have any last words?” The scouting part of my mind notices that its accent has traces of that spoken by most in these parts, but is much easier to understand. Its grip on my windpipe loosens enough that I can breathe and speak.

“May I use my radio?” I ask with a voice that shakes. My mind moves quickly at this moment, but tells me only that there is nothing I can do. This person is too strong, and too quick, and I am not armed.

“Any funny business and you die right away. Go ahead.”

I reach slowly down to the radio clipped to my chest and press the button. “You were good soldiers,” I say, trying not to let them hear my tears.

Then cold rushes out from the places where the dark figure is touching my body, and black flame consumes my vision, and I feel nothing swallow me.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 12:20, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

I watch the flames freeze the woman, bomber jacket, flying harness and all, as her red-crested bird and her three remaining gang members gain altitude and flap away. I may have seen a little of Borden in the way she sacrificed herself for her Pokémon and that other Trainer, but it didn't make a difference— I simply wanted her gone. Now she can't ever hurt anyone else, and even better, I've sent a message to this new gang: if you come to my city, you will die.

It's not exactly a relief to know I wasn't under some kind of nefarious control when I killed Marty, but I'll need to think on this more later. The hero of most stories never kills anyone, and even in the grittier ones, they usually do so only in self defense. I wanted to do something good, and it's possible that on some level I made the decision not to kill anyone because I worried that would mean I was being corrupted by my power; maybe that was an unwise metric, but on some level it still feels like I've crossed a line.

That's not important now. It's time to clean up the others; if I later decide I won't kill again, then so be it, but it's stupid to leave loose ends untied until then. I start to turn away to go and see if any of the fucking Quicksteps survived, but a flash of unexpected motion in the corner of my eye causes me to hurl myself into a diving roll to my left and come up in a fighting crouch.

It wasn't a projectile or an attacker, though. Instead, Marcus is running foolishly across open ground, headed for me.

Stupid! I think at him, frowning my disapproval behind my fiery mask. I look like a fucking monster, why would he—

Then he runs right past and grabs a hold of the frozen body of the Trainer. “No! No!!” he yells, then turns around and stares up at me with eyes that are full of tears. “I hate you! Why did you hurt Miss Angel? She was gonna help us!”

I sigh. Poor kid's out of his mind. “No Trainer will help you,” I tell him, lowering my voice as much as I can so that he can't recognize me like Borden did. “Why do you think that?”

“She promised!” he says, crying and clinging to the woman Trainer's rigid arm. “She was gonna help! She was!”

“I'm sorry, Marcus,” I say, still keeping my voice low and gravelly, “But she was using you. She had you show her where your family lives, didn't she? That's what they always do, if they find a kid.”

Marcus responds by running at me and pounding his tiny six-year-old fists into my stomach, bawling. I let him— the weak blows aren't even an annoyance, now that I'm tough enough to take a punch from a grown man and barely flinch. After a few seconds, he gives up, takes a step back, and picks up a piece of pavement to throw at me.

Enough is enough. I step forward, snatch the concrete chunk out of his hand, and crush it in my fist. “Don't trust Trainers,” I tell him, letting him stare into the face of my disguise and seeing the terror written plainly in his eyes. “They'll only hurt you and everyone you love.”

I've stayed too long— if anyone's watching from a hidden vantage, such as the ones I know his parents and their Warren keep, I don't want them learning too much about me. I leave Marcus there, and hurry over to the nearest of the fallen Trainers whose Pokémon I killed. There's blood splattered across the gravel pit where he landed, and his head is at an unnatural angle to his body— his neck is broken. As I turn to look for the next one, I hear a whoosh of displaced air from some distance away, and a bird Pokémon the colours of the American flag, with a purple-clad Trainer on its back, shoots into the air from behind a hill, flapping haphazardly with one wing while the other dangles limp at its side. Another gust of wind flies down and sends eddies whirling through the piles of rubble, launching the Trainer further into the air, well beyond my reach.

Damn. I watch for a little longer, in case they show signs of falling, but it looks like they're able to stay airborne by making up for the broken wing with the unnatural air-controlling powers of the Pokémon.

The other bodies are just that— bodies— except for one Trainer who's unconscious and impaled through the lung by a jutting splinter of weathered wood in a rubble pile. I stab a jet of dark fire through her heart, finishing the job; I don't worry too much about the ramifications of that, as it can hardly be considered killing.

Then I stalk off through the ruins, headed for the last safehouse on my itinerary for today.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 13:30, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

I done run till I couldn' run no more, then collapsed down in the middle o' the road. Now, after draggin' myself to somewhere to sit, I'm sat down on a curb in a part o' town what's got lots o' destroyed houses and parks. My breathin's makin' this wet rattlin' noise, and my head hurts... I keep getting' weird flashes o' memory, like as if stuff I forgot is comin' back bit by bit, but it's all useless stuff what has nothin' to do with anythin'. I'm rememberin' times back at HQ, when I wasn't a Grayout and everybody in the slave pens had to huddle together for warmth in the winter. Times when somebody yelled at me and I didn't get angry or scared, just forced myself not to cry and worked faster. Earlier, while I was runnin' past a park with the ruins o' a playground set in it, I remembered bein' real young and playin' there.

“What in the Hell is wrong with me?” I ask out loud, and Buzz gives me a little chirp, worried-like. “Aw, buddy, it's nothin'. I'm just havin' head troubles.”

I look around for somethin' to distract me from the strange type o' thoughts I'm havin', and as I stare out over the empty streets I get this flash o' daydream where I'm lookin' at the same place, only the houses are standin' and the streets are jam-packed with cars all standin' still. They're all facin' the same way, north, and in the daydream I remember gettin' out o' Mom and Dad's car and runnin' with my parents up the sidewalk, passin' all these cars what ain't movin'... There's kids in the back o' one car who're wavin' at me as I go by, and I wave back. Then the sky starts explodin', and the car what had the kids in it is gone and there's just a crater and a whole lot o' scrap... Mom and Dad run even faster, and I can't keep up, and then the sky explodes again and there's blood and Mom's nowhere and Dad, why's he just lyin' there, why won't he move...?

Buzz zaps me with a little crackle o' lightnin' and I snap out o' the frightenin' daydream, breathin' like I just done ran somewhere again, and I stare at the ground so as not to remember anythin' else like it. But one thing's stickin' with me: all them cars were goin' north. I remember that— north was safe, north was where we were all goin' to get out o' this place.

I done been runnin' west this whole time— I can tell on account that's the same way the sun is goin', behind all those dark clouds. I look up the street and see that sure enough, it's runnin' north and south.

Without really thinkin' about it, I get up and start walkin' north. Buzz makes a quiet little cracklin' noise, and I grin. “You figured out I wasn't havin' a good time. But I'm all right now, I think. Thanks, bud.”

Really, I ain't all right. But I'm as all right as I can be, which makes sense, I think. I ain't sure where I'm goin', but it's somewhere other'n Amarillo, somewhere I'll never have to risk bein' in Rizz's sight again or work for Boss or get backhanded by Dorian.

“We're goin' north, Buzz,” I tell my buddy. “Hope this feelin' I got is a good one.”

Like as if it was tellin' me I was wrong, the sky opens up and starts rainin' on us.

“Aw, fuck.” I hunch my shoulders, pull off the half o' my coat what's left, put it over my head to keep some o' the rain off, and keep goin'.

~~~~~~~~~~LARISSA: 14:10, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

I've finally gotten around to today's Run, after all those unexpected distractions. Back at the ruins of the supermarket, in the buried storage closet that serves as one of my most valuable safehouses, I took off the blood-soaked outfit I was wearing earlier; unfortunately, that was my nicest coat other than the one I usually wear in my guise as the hunter that the scavengers are calling the Shade. That jacket is stored in another of my caches halfway across the city, so I've had to scrape together another outfit.

The bright yellow raincoat I took from Allison is complete shit for camouflage— I haven't encountered anyone in this week's Runs who has any spray paint or similar to paint it concrete grey or black— but at this point, beggars can't be choosers. If someone sees me and picks a fight, I'll give it to them: a dead Trainer can't ever tell anyone who the Runner Larissa really is.

My first stop today would normally be Marcus's Warren, but I'm gonna let things simmer down in that area before I make that visit. The other place in the area is Mrs. Sutton's home, the standing house near the western edge of Grayout territory— I told them I'd be back in a month or so, and it's been a month.

As I sneak my way closer to the house, even from this distance I can pick out a clear blot of white in the corner of the door— the signal I told Mrs. Sutton to leave if she needed me. Looks like I can't skip this stop: I watch for several minutes, but the ruins are empty and free of anyone I can see, and thankfully I'll never again have to worry about Slow Bro hiding Grayout Trainers from view. I cross the empty field of gravel and concrete at the quietest run I can, and let myself in through the door.

“Mrs. Sutton? It's me, the Runner.”

There's a loud clang of metal on metal from the kitchen, then I hear Mrs. Sutton call, “Come in, Runner girl!”

I walk into the kitchen, taking in with a certain amount of disbelief— as always— the picture-perfect laminated countertops, the stainless steel sink and stove. It's impressive to be able to even appear this well-off.

“Young lady, you just about gave me a heart attack,” Mrs. Sutton says, greeting me with a smile from where she's moved to sit near the countertop that forms the kitchen's centre island. “I'm so glad you came today instead of later in the week... please, have a seat.” She indicates another tall chair across from her.

“I'll stand,” I say. I'm not interested in appearing too friendly, especially if she's buttering me up before asking for something big and expensive. “How can I help you?”

Mrs. Sutton's eyebrows draw together a little, and in her eyes I can see... trepidation? She's nervous about something she's about to do, and I'm immediately on guard. Coldly, I decide that if she's sold me out to Trainers, I'll run and take the fight somewhere else, let her think she got me killed.

“I... I want you to run away with us.”

I have no idea what to make of that. “What do you mean? You're leaving?”

She gestures again for me to sit down, and this time I walk the four steps it takes to pull myself up onto the tall chair. “Yes. I've made a deal. Someone is coming— today— to get us out of here, set us up somewhere better. If you could come with us, I'd be...” she pauses and gathers her words together. “It'd be a relief to know you're not still struggling to survive out here. You've been such a help to my family, I thought perhaps I could repay you. If you want to go, that is.”

It takes me a moment to sort through my feelings about this unexpected offer. On the one hand, I hadn't realized I meant so much to Mrs. Sutton— she's soft, sure, but the kind of deal you'd have to make to get so many people escorted safely out of the city and brought somewhere else... it boggles the mind what she likely had to give up. Also, as I learned the last time I was here, she's got a sharper mind than I used to give her credit for: someone like Mrs. Sutton doesn't seem likely to leave town without a plan for what to do after leaving.

On the other hand, I have plans now. Once, the offer might have been much more tempting— back when I had no power and was just struggling to scrape by. Now, though, I have a purpose here in Amarillo. One that no one else can fulfill— no one else has the strength to put the gangs in the ground. And then there's the occasional references Spiritomb makes to its plans for ridding the city of Trainers: the ghost hasn't given up any details yet, but has made it clear that it hasn't forgotten its promise, and that those plans require my assistance.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” I say, coming to a decision. Then I make up a reason I think Mrs. Sutton will understand. “I don't want any part of a deal made with Trainers, if it's all the same to you.”

There's real sadness in Mrs. Sutton's eyes. “Oh. I... I understand. You're certain? These ones don't seem like the Grayouts. They're different, somehow.”

Although I'd just been using that as an excuse, it still rubs me the wrong way that Mrs. Sutton could think so highly of any of those... those Trainers. “Different?” I ask, spitting the word like a curse. “Different like the fucking Quicksteps? Or like the Smashers, maybe? Do you know how many people have lost their families, their homes, to the people you make your deals with?”

“Of course I do.” Mrs. Sutton doesn't rise to my bait, and her eyes are still sad instead of angry. “I do what I have to, because there's nothing else that will keep my family safe. And now things are even worse than ever— the gangs have teamed up, they're hunting Runners like you, and using the information they get to hurt people. It was time for me to find a new place to call home, and I made this agreement because I had no other choice. Please, consider joining us.”

Anger burns like a cold flame in my chest; but despite myself, I know that in her position I'd do nothing differently. In this world, you use whatever power you have, and you scrape together the best life you can for yourself and anyone you can't live without. She's got several such people, and if she's been successful enough to keep this household going then she must be doing something right, even if she's going about it in a way I can't stomach.

“I'm sorry, I won't be leaving. Is there anything else I can help you with?” I ask in a coolly professional voice.

“...No, dear. Nothing. Just... may I ask what your name is? You've never introduced yourself, and I didn't want to pry.”

“I don't think that information helps you. Unless your deal involved telling these Trainers some names?”

Pain flares in her eyes, but her expression remains gentle. “No. I promise that they haven't asked, and I swear I won't tell them about you. I just want to know what name to say when I recite the prayer for peace tonight.”

I think very hard about what exactly she might be hiding. Talk is cheap, and I can't determine truth from lies with my eye-reading trick— knowing she's sad doesn't help me determine if she's sad because I'm refusing to go with her or sad because she knows she has to betray me. “I don't believe you. No one asks for anything without a good reason.”

“What if I show you that this is important to me? Let's make a trade: one last exchange.” She reaches down and pulls a drawer out from below her side of the counter; from it she lifts a worn green book with a cornucopia on the cover.

“You're a very good liar, but I knew you weren't telling the truth about not being able to read, from the way your eyes checked the spine of the book for a title,” she says. “I'll give you this, as a parting gift. In return, please tell me your name, Runner girl.”

I don't know why, but I want to cry right now. I can feel the urge rising from somewhere so deep inside me that I'd practically forgotten it existed. I scowl— what exactly about some perceptive fucking woman and her stupid book makes me want to cry, something I haven't done since I was a little kid scrabbling uselessly at a rock in the ruins of an orphanage?

“It's...” I pause, gritting my teeth against another surge of feeling that I refuse to allow to show even in my voice, “Larissa.”

Mrs. Sutton smiles, a bittersweet expression, and places the book on the counter between us. “It's nice to meet you, Larissa. Be safe.”

I stand up, sending the tall chair toppling over, and grab the book off the counter. “Goodbye, Mrs. Sutton,” I say, and walk out of the room as quickly as I possibly can. Once I'm in the hallway, I start running, and I don't stop until the Sutton household is out of sight far behind me.

Stupid fucking perceptive woman and her strange priorities. I don't understand her.

I've got more places to be— the Warren where Marcus and his parents live is the closest and is on the way to the rest of the day's Run, so I head southwest, trying to pretend nothing unusual happened back at the lone standing house.

It's a few minutes, though, before I can bring myself to shrug my backpack off and shove the worn green book deep, deep inside, where I won't have to think about it.

~~~~~~~~~~BORDEN: 18:50, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

'Hype-o-thermeeya' is what they call it when you get too cold and can't get warm again, right? I sure hope I don't got hype-o-theermeeya.

My whole body's numb, and although I know I ain't the smartest, my brain ain't workin' even as well as usual. I ain't sure when the last time I ate somethin' was, so that might be the problem. And I'm hella thirsty.

Good thing I done been holdin' the battered metal thermos I carry around everywhere out as I walked— it's caught a bunch o' rain. Bottoms up, I guess!

I feel a little less dizzy and wonky-headed after I finish guzzlin' the water, but it was cold as Hell and now I'm even colder, if that was possible. Shit, I didn't think that one through...

I been walkin' for hours, followin' this one road north and a little west, and for the last ten minutes there ain't been no more streets around it. I can't see any more on account the rain keeps startin' up, and there ain't no more sun. The only way I know there ain't been streets is that Buzz is helpin' me out, sittin' on the back o' my hand and lettin' out this steady glowin' light. Seems like he can keep doin' that as long as I keep walkin', on account it charges him up enough.

Up ahead, the road gets a little wider for a second, then the pool o' light what Buzz is castin' shows me that there ain't no more pavement. There's some crumbled bits o' concrete at the edge where the street turns into a dirt road— more like a mud road now. A sign by one side o' the road says somethin', but I ain't sure what it is on account I can't read.

I look back. There's only dark night, I can't even see the city I'm leavin' through the rain and the blackness. But I sure as Hell ain't goin' back there, even scared as I am o' whatever I'm headed for.

The rain stops a bit after I start squelchin' through the mud. It ain't rained enough for there to be much mud, thank God— there's only, like, half a foot o' the parched earth this much rain can soak. Everythin' smells weird here, and I realize I ain't been this far from Amarillo in, well, ever. I think the strange smell's on account this's the first time I been anywhere there's rain that ain't had that wet-concrete odor.

Then I hear somethin' what's real odd. It's like somebody whistlin', only way higher and always in sets o' two. Might even be similar to Buzz's little chirps, but these ones sound like music.

Chirp-chirp. Chirp-chirp.

Memories come back. “Field crickets, son,” says a voice I oughta recognize. “It's the season for 'em...”

I still got some rain in my eyes. It's drippin' down my face, but I'm noticin' it on account it's hotter than the rest. I ain't quite sure, but I think I just done remembered the sound o' my dad's voice.

“What's wrong with you, Borden?” I ask out loud. Buzz gives me a chirp back, and I can't help but grin. “Yeah, I'm all right, buddy. I'm... I'm all right for sure.”

It's a long bit o' walkin', and I don't got any way to count, but I pass the time playin' with Buzz the way he likes best— cuppin' my hand over him, lettin' him wriggle out and go perch somewhere else on my body, then findin' him and doin' it again. It's real simple, but he enjoys goofin' off this way and I like seein' him have fun. Somethin's different, though— I'm havin' trouble fittin' my whole hand over him. That ain't what I remember.

A couple more memories pop up, in a way I'm startin' to get used to: first's a memory from maybe three weeks ago: I woke found Buzz all pale yellow and curled up upside down. I got real worried and went to pick him up only to find he was light as a feather and shriveled: then he popped out o' one o' my pockets and chirped, and he was bigger'n the skeleton he done left behind. He and I had a good laugh over how scared I got by his shed skin!

I also remember that I been noticin' lately: he's growin' again, and his legs seem a little longer than before. I ain't sure what he's gonna look like when he's done gettin' bigger— maybe he's changin' the same way Jess's Pokémon Driller done changed?

The tears what're on my face slowly go away as I walk more along the road, and I start hearin' one more thing: this swishin' noise, distant-like, like as if maybe there's a whole bunch o' water near here. But the lake's supposed to be at least ten hours walk away! I ain't gone that quick, right?

The farther I walk, the bigger the sound gets until it feels like it's everywhere... then I just about run into the first tree.

Now, there was lots o' trees along that road I took out o' town. Those're the normal trees what live hereabouts. This one's different— it's huge! The trunk's big enough I ain't sure I could wrap my arms round it if I tried, and the leaves hangin' down to a foot above my head are wide things with a shape what reminds me o' the spades on playin' cards.

My feet crunch in this carpet o' old leaves, crackle, crackle, as I walk up to the tree and touch it, probably lookin' real dumb with my mouth open. It's warmer here. Wierd-like warm. I ain't noticed till now, but it's like as if the air's warmer'n the numb parts o' my fingers and toes, and the water from the rain what's still on my body don't feel like knives stabbin' me no more...

I let my eyes come down from the tree and a dizzy feelin' comes over me. Uh-oh, I think, Ain't this what hype-o-thermeeya's supposed to feel—


Boy, these leaves're soft...

...Boy, I'm tired...

“Nighty... night... Buzz...”

~~~~~~~~~~KAREN: 23:15, DECEMBER 27~~~~~~~~~~

I can barely keep my eyes open— it's been a hell of a week already, and it's only Tuesday— but I can't rest yet! I have to put the finishing touches on the teleportation schedules for this week, which are already late— I sent off Monday and Tuesday early because I couldn't figure out the rest of the week by Sunday evening. The Excel spreadsheet taunts me with its nearly-complete-ness, but with the current setup I still have to magically come up with a certain amount of psychic juice (which we don't have) to teleport the last half-tonne of cargo, or else find volunteers who're willing to make the sixteen-hour trip from Niagara Falls to Hamilton and back with a fair few packages on their backs... Maybe if I ask Teleporter 5 to make a midnight trip tomorrow, or dependable old Courier 124 to come out of retirement...?

“Oof,” I say, leaning back and squinting at the screen, trying to see the miraculous solution I'm missing. “I must be the only person in the TA who's getting tired of Christmastime!”

“Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah,” Mina grumbles good-naturedly from under my desk. As she shifts to look up at me, the whole table shakes and I have to grab the laptop to make sure it doesn't slide off! She barely fits there, any more— my Pokémon is starting to really resemble a hippo size-wise as well as in looks, and she doesn't always fit through doors anymore.

People get a lot more charitable during the holiday season. Now, that's true mostly for the places that're still stable enough to really celebrate holidays, but it's a blessing for the TA! I just wish it were a blessing for me.

“Need a friend?” asks a cheerful, sleepy voice from the doorway.

I turn around in my swivel chair, surprised. “Synthia? What are you doing here? I thought I sent you home, like, four hours ago!”

My childhood friend Synthia, a member of the same group as Porter and Camilla that helped to found Camilla's Rescue Team (which would one day become the TA,) is leaning against the open door to the hallway, her Pokémon partner Primeape jittering behind her. She's wearing a huge faux-fur coat that completely obscures her petite frame.

“You did, Karen,” she says, “But I knew how busy the holidays are, so I stuck around. I got those translations done, and called in a few favours: you still haven't got someone for the Niagara trip, am I right?”

“Are you ever! Where on Earth did you find another courier, I thought I'd already tapped all of them out!”

“I have my ways,” she says, smiling. “Let's just say that Annthea— sorry, we're on the clock, that's Courier 124— has a bunch of nieces and nephews who had no idea what to get her for Christmas. They're helping, or else she'll know they're 'too lazy' to pitch in for her favourite cause.”

“You're an evil genius,” I tell her playfully, but my relief shows. “Did you already get in touch with the Niagara hub people?”

“Mm-hmm. Just mark the supplies down as 'handled.' Then get some rest.”

With relief, I highlight the last little bit of the spreadsheet in yellow, then hit Save and move to the AIM window I'll be sending the file through. “Yeah, I'll be right out.”

“Sure you will,” Synthia says, still smiling. “Well, don't be up past midnight, at least. I'm going home.”

“Mm!” I say, hitting 'Attach' on the group message and watching the “uploading” bar slowly start to creep up from 0%. I wish we had higher-tech group messaging software, but most of the old email servers are just straight-up kaput.

Then, unbidden, the mouse cursor moves to the bottom left of the screen and clicks Start.

“Hey!” I exclaim. “What the—”

The Run... menu is highlighted and gets clicked, opening the command prompt window. As I watch, starting to clue in to what's going on, a familiar file name begins to type itself in.

[Image: attachment.php?aid=260]

Hello, Karen.

Hey, there. Been a while!

I'd like to start by formally thanking you for relaying us that information about the forest. None of our other sources were aware of there being Pokémon involved with the humans who dwell there— you helped us clarify some things.

You're welcome, I guess. I still don't see how that's helpful

It's all rather esoteric. As it happens, I didn't message you to talk about that, but rather about the services we offered in exchange.



Is there anyone present in your office at this time?

Just in case, I look around and check; the only other living thing in here is Mina, who's asleep again.

Nope! No one but me and Mina here


Stand by for transmaterialization.


A second later, a wisp of something that looks like smoke shows up just above an empty part of my desk. Then it spreads out, forming a strange grey mist that clears in three or four seconds to leave behind...

It's a phone?

Not just any phone. Attached, you'll see an ethernet cable and a splitter. Connect those to the port you normally use for your laptop.

internet phone? That doesn't exist.

It does now.

The phone set looks perfectly ordinary, albeit old-fashioned; it's black, with a spiral cord leading from the receiver to the base, which sports a rotary dial. I do as the mystery hacker asked, connecting the ethernet cable to the wall.

Pick it up, and dial 555-5555.

Okay, let me try that

I lift the receiver and spin the rotary dial seven times to the “5,” and watch with amusement as it resets to just below 0 each time, just like in every old black-and-white movie ever.

There's a dial-tone for a moment, then the sound of someone picking up a receiver on the other end.

Hello, Karen,” says a woman's voice— she sounds kind of young, actually. “I'm Tess. I'm your 'mysterious online pen-pal.' It's good to meet you properly.”

...Wow. It's, uh, it's really hitting home that I'm talking on the phone with somebody I only ever met on the Internet. No one I've talked to has done that. Most phone networks don't work any more.”

We have our ways,” Tess says, and it sounds like she's smiling. “Now, I've got to go, but please don't tell anyone where you got this device. Like you said, it's not supposed to exist.”

Wait, Tess, how did—”

Click, bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

I hang up on the dial tone, annoyed.

Our mysterious online pen-pal is just as impossible to pin down as ever, Mina,” I say.

Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah,” yawns Mina, rumbling my desk again.

Yeah, it's late, isn't it? Time to head home,” I say, confirming that the plans for the rest of the week have successfully been sent to my small army of assistants, and shutting the lid of the laptop.

Mina's tiny little ears perk up at the word, 'home,' and she shuffles out from under my desk, the entire half-tonne of her. I pat her on the head affectionately, then hop up on her back; she shoulders her way through the heavily-scuffed doorway, out into the hallway and toward home.

End of Chapter 5

Intended Captures:
Difficulty Rating:
Length: 113,181 Characters

Character Report:
Recommended Characters: (To be updated)
Characters Used: 113,181

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