POKEMON - LEGEND OF THE EXILE
Chapter 9: Pearls in Mire
White Tyrant of cruel oppression
Red Dragon of warring destruction
Black Prince of coldest claiming heart
Genetic Fiend of darkest twisted art
The Raichu rubbed his face as early morning sunlight filtered into the sleeping bag. Thalia was already outside; probably for the best that was for the best. Otherwise, she would notice the slightest discomfort in him--and he wouldn't want to trouble her.
Slinging his leather satchel onto one shoulder, the Raichu emerged from the makeshift tent, blinking several times in the morning sunlight. The others were already gathered by the campfire, watching Dantor barbecuing several tender Bidoofs on a spit. By the fire, Rush was telling one of his war stories. "Dang, this place sure cleared out fast," remarked Thalia. "Hey, Sparktail! How'd you sleep?"
He couldn't dodge the question after all. "Slept okay, sort of," mumbled the Raichu, sitting next to her. "Well, not really, but... you know?" The Leafeon nodded thoughtfully, but even so, something felt off. Why did he feel awkward now? It was Thalia, after all, not a stranger.
The morning breeze ruffled Sparktail's fur as he absentmindedly flicked his tail at the coarse dirt. Too many thoughts were swirling around in his head, and he needed to straighten them out. He'd seen the Four Virtues twice now in less than two weeks, once in Sootopolis and once in Hearthome.
In Sootopolis, they'd said something about Slick being special, which now made them special for some reason. This time, there had been no mention of that at all. But the Herald had known that Lyther--and therefore all of Slick's former Pokemon--were hiding here. Why were the Virtues so interested in them?
"Breakfast's ready," announced Trident afer some time. Both Sparktail and Thalia blinked and glanced up to the Lucario, startled. "The others blinked and watched as the elder Lucario lifted the spit from the stands, and carefully pulled of the well-seasoned bidoof meats one-by-one. Sparktail and Thalia, you guys share one," said the warrior as he passed them out. One for Dantor and Trident, one for Altaria and Ferricia, and one for Rush and Shanala."
The others gave murmurs of thanks, and then eagerly dug into the seasoned meat. "So... I understand that this 'Wide Shot" that we seek must be opened by the Lustrous Orb and the Adamant Orb together," said Trident wiith a grim smile. "Lyther, Dantor, and I have channeled the Aura as one. In the flames of our campfire, we have seen the Lustrous Orb shining in the Great Marshes. Shanala, Rush, Altaria, Ferricia, Sparktail, and Thalia; the six of you should travel to the Great Marshes with all haste."
Sparktail, Thalia, and Altaria exchanged glances. "What about you guys?" asked Thalia after a moment, echoing Sparktail's thoughts, her tail brushing against the Raichu's shoulder gently. "I mean- well- if we're all trapped in Sinnoh because of the storms, then we're all in this together... right? We've all got to get away from here. And maybe we'll find the orb faster with you guys!"
"Brave as Ferricia and Altaria may be, I hardly think that it will do much good to expend their energy on carrying the three of us," said the old warrior, looking to Lyther and Dantor- a shadow crossed the former Lucario's features as his brother spoke. "Lyther, perhaps. But Dantor and I have no intention of leaving... Go, find the Orb- and come back for Lyther. May Arceus watch over you!"
Three hours later, Sparktail and Thalia clung to Altaria's back as they descended towards the half-sunken ruins of Pastoria City, buildings and docks rotting in the soaked peat terrain. Beside Altaria, Ferricia carried Shanala and Rush down towards the war-torn swamps, the odor of rotting flesh in the air, growing stronger as they approached the slurried ground.
They soared over the Great Marsh's Safari Zone gate and landed on an old trolley platform- one of the few dry places in the eerie wasteland that Sparktail could see, amidst strewn cattails and rotting stumps. As she and Ferricia settled down on the concrete, Altaria hugged her wings close, clearly unwilling to defile her pristine feathers. "Well, my friends," began the Herald, eyeing the watery filth with dismay. "Why don't you go find the Lustrous Orb, while I... um..."
"Oooh, somebody doesn't want to get their wings muddy," teased Thalia lightly as she landed with a pounce beside Sparktail, her voice accented with a faint 'mrew'. The Leafeon shielded her mouth with a paw to muffle a giggle that Rush quickly silenced with a sharp look; Sparktail felt a hot spark of irritation towards the Swampert crackling inside him, but he quickly suppressed it.
"Okay, guys, how about this," said Rush, crossing his arms and eyeing his teammates with an authoritative air. "Shanala and Thalia, you'll hang back with Altaria, where you'll all be safe." He then at Ferricia and Sparktail. "You two will come with me. With Ferricia's eyesight and Sparktail as a lantern, we should find this Orb easily--"
"Hey!" protested Thalia indignantly, her leaves rippling. "Why am I staying back here while you guys wander off? I want to help too!"
"Yeah. Thalia should come with us." Sparktail glanced to Thalia, and felt a strange tingle in his heart. He... he wanted her to come with him, just like always. But what was this other feeling...?
"We're not pretty pampered princesses," said Shanala darkly. She got to her paws and glared at the Swampert too, tails rippling in the wind behind her. "I was a soldier of the Vulcanites, and I still am. And don't forget that I once traveled with you all."
"Are you sure?" asked Rush, frowning at Shanala, then around to the others. "Agh, fine. Just remember this isn't a damn game. But hell, at least two of us should stay back here with Altaria, just in case something attacks-"
"Rush, you and I ought to stay back," interrupted Ferricia, her voice clear and resolute, sending the others into silence. "We are the largest members of our party by far, and we would most likely slow down the scavenger party. The two of us should be Altaria's guards."
"Thank you," said Altaria as Rush reluctantly agreed, joining Ferricia beside the Herald. Exchanging glances, Shanala, Thalia, and Sparktail looked back to the three, then padded off into the muddy wilderness. "I really appreciate this. Go find that thing!"
"Hey Shan, Sparktail, race ya," called Thalia after they had gone a distance from the others, smiling sweetly back over her shoulder to make the Raichu's heart jump. "Ready... get set... go!" The Raichu had barely glanced up when Shanala and Thalia had dashed off into the Marshes, leaving him behind. Which way did they go?
He dangled his glowing tail over his shoulder, lighting up the gloomy bog, scanning for some sign of the Lustrous Orb. The Pastoria marshes gave him an eerie feeling, in the mud beneath his feet and the fog around him and the decaying remains of broken trees. The air was damp with rolling fog that obscured his vision, the ground as saturated as a soaked sponge, squishing beneath his paws.
He froze as he felt something brush past his shoulder. Stopping dead in his tracks, Sparktail noticed dozens of glittering gemstones hovering in the air all around him. What were they? Faeries? He noticed two of the gemstones were very close together. Now that he noticed it, all the gemstones came in pairs, like a Pikachu's cheeks... or eyes.
Just then, something changed in the air, and Sableyes appeared all around him in a circle. Startled, the Raichu readied his tail like a sword, surrounded by the little devils' leers. "Little mouse? Little mouse? What might you seek here?" rasped the largest Sableye, pointing a hairy purple claw at the trembling Raichu. "Answer me!"
At once, three Sableye sprang at the Raichu, who squeaked and dropped low to the ground, splattering his fur with watery mud as he rolled out of the way. Everywhere around him was howling shouts and vicious claws. His cheeks and eyes flashed as he desperately lashed out with badly weakend lightning bolts that sputtered and died, his heart pounding in fear.
He ducked a flurry of swipes, then tail-slashed at the Sableye's legs to drag it down into the mud. Beastial claws raked at his muddy belly as he stumbled and slipped through the foul swampland, his foes gleefully lunging from every imaginable hiding place around him- from rocks and stumps and shallow ponds. He slashed at them with his tail as he ran, hacking at their scales desperately but doing no permanent damage. "Help! Help! Help!" yelled Sparktail as the Sableyes chased him across the marshes.
As they reached a dry stretch of land, the Sableye bearing down on Sparktail was suddenly thrown several feet back as a leaf blade embedded itself across its purple torso. "Leaa!" cried Thalia as she bounded out from the shadows and landed beside the Raichu, her leafy ears flattened back and her pelt splattered with mud. "Here, Spark! I'll clean you up." She quickly wiped mud from Sparktail's face, paws, and tail with her own tail- allowing him to focus thunderbolts- before springing at another Sableye.
Nodding in thanks, the Raichu swiftly struck out with lightning bolts at his foes, catching demons in mid-lunge- vibrating before electric force flung them aside. Dropping to one knee to dodge a foe's claws, he spun around with a wide tail slash, flashing blue sparks crackling up and down the length of his tail. The Sableyes were surrounding them in a circle now, forcing Thalia and Sparktail back-to-back. Vines emerged from the back of her neck and wrapped around her legs to secure her paws to the leaf blades on her wrist sprouts; he held his tail with his eyes in both paws.
"Ssstop!" said the Sableye leader suddenly, holding up a paw to halt his underlings. Sparktail's heart skipped a beat as he met the shaggy-furred demon's glittering gemstone eyes, feeling the beating of Thalia's heart as her flank rested against his back. "The Raichu's scent... it is not like the others. Claws away!"
At once, the other Sableye chittered and lowered their claws, exchanging excited glances. Sparktail exchanged glances with Thalia, confused. "My apologies," said the lead Sableye, bowing slightly. "I am Shad, and these are my brothers. I was a packmate of the great warrior, Lute."
Friends. Claws. Lute. Sparktail stared blankly at the Sableye, his heart pounding with anxiety as he slowly lowered his tail. "I'm Thalia, and this is Sparktail," said Thalia shakily, fur still standing up as she retracted her vines. "You guys know Lute? What's going on here? Are you... friends?"
The Sableyes all glanced at each other and began to laugh. "Surely you realize that these are dark times, Leafeon," said Shad, padding towards them. "I have been hunted because I call myself Swordwrit and Swordian, friend of Lute, sworn dissident against the Exile. We have been hunted to the ends of the earth, our number scattered and gone." Thalia shivered as she stared into the glitering, gemlike eyes. "And with the bones of the Sovereign scattered in Ilex, we know that not even gods can stand against the Exile."
"Bones?" echoed Sparktail from behind Thalia, staring at the Sableyes, confused. He didn't know who Roathaus was, but it didn't matter for now. "So... you're one of the Pokemon that- that Lute's looking for." Shad turned and spat into an algae-filled puddle, the others moving to join his side. "Who is the Sovereign, and why are his bones scattered here?"
The Sableye did not look back at him. "The Exile is the worst kind of murderer," said Shad softly. "He has sown emnity among the Pokemon of the wild, between the Sableye clans; he has slain his own sister, the Sovereign of Space, and cast her lustrous heart into this mire. " There was something chilling about the way Shad uttered the word 'murderer'. "But breathe the air, friends of Lute, and know our scent from the scent of the Exile's servants. For when a soul decays, so too does the body."
Lustrous heart... the sovereign of space... the Lustrous Orb! "Could it really be that easy?" muttered the Raichu as he and the Leafeon stared towards the rotting mound up ahead, not daring to hope. He could feel Thalia's pulse rising again- it excited his own heart for reasons he couldn't fully grasp- but no matter. The Lustrous Orb was just up ahead!
Meanwhile, at the top of that same hill, Shanala stood before a wooden Croagunk statue half-buried in the mud her tails rippling in the wind. She too had learned special training from Slick--extrasensory perception, a useful skill that had made her an indispensible part of Vulcanite war patrols. Ignoring the cold gloom around her, the kitsune fox closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. She took a slow, deep breath to still herself, inhaling the semi-putrid air before slowly exhaling. In, and out, and in, and out- and bit by bit, all the secrets of the world gradually came into focus.
Beneath the wooden statue, sunken in the bottom of a shallow marshy pool, lay the Lustrous Orb. Allowing the slightest of smiles to curl her mouth, Shanala opened her eyes and padded towards the wooden statue to dig up the crystal that they sought. Then, noticing motion nearby, she quickly dropped into a hunting crouch, frowning. But there was more motion now, more moving shapes around her; and with a jolt Shanala noticed the glint of eyes from every direction. She was surrounded, and any sudden motion would draw the ambushers out like flies to honey.
Gritting her teeth, the Ninetales broke into a dash, lunging forward at the wooden Croagunk statue and the toxic fumes it reeked. At once, a gang of real Croagunks and a fearsome Toxicroak sprang out from nearby mud-sluices with intimidating roars, surrounding her on all sides. The Ninetales feigned terror then, letting out a fearful cry even as she slipped back into the slush-puddle surrounding the wooden statue, her hind paws burrowing back into the soft mud for the Lustrous Orb.
"Gheh heh heh!" cackled the Toxicroak. The pack leader, thought Shanala. She tried to maintain a 'helpless' facade as the hideous bullfrog marched over to her with a foul smile plastered on his features. "Why, now, aren't you a pwetty widdle thing, lassie?" he croaked, reaching a red-barbed webbed hand towards the Ninetales, licking his lips suggestively. "Ohoho... such a helpless gal to be wand'ring these parts. What say we take 'er with us, boys?"
Maintaining a fearful, helpless expression, Shanala felt around in the bog with a hind paw. Yes, there, she could feel the Lustrous Orb! Now, she had to do was distract this pack of idiots and they could all get out of here.
Except that the Toxicroak had caught her throat , slimy fingers cupping the underside of her muzzle "Now now, don't cry," he hissed as Shanala tried to tug her mouth free, to no avail. Her eyes caught the faintest flicker of invisible motion in the swamp, slinking up behind the Toxicroak and his gang unnoticed. "We'll take you home wiff us, and then we'll aaall have a good time, mmm?"
"Get away from her!" snarled Insyte as he sprang out from the shadows at the Toxicroak, his eyes burning with spiteful rage, his haggard pelt bristling. The leader froze, let go of Shanala, whirled around to face the lunging Umbreon- then Insyte's fury was upon him, a mass of thrashing claws and fangs and shadows. The Croagunks gaped and glanced around to each other panickedly, then rushed over to pull the spitting, screaming Insyte off their leader; now he was helpless, but his eyes still burned as he struck out at the others.
Cattails parted as Thalia, Sparktail, and the Sableyes arrived at the top of the hill. The Raichu's ears perked up as he heard the snarls of an Umbreon. "Insyte?" he muttered. "That you...?" Clutching his tail like a sword, he rushed at the Croagunks, Thalia alongside him. A few swift strikes with clenched paws took down another foe, his heart racing between anxiety and adrenaline. But he could not best Insyte's ferocious attacks, those snarling lunges with jagged teeth, mud flying into the foul rotting air.
Within minutes, Sparktail, Thalia, Insyte, Shad, and the other Sableyes had driven off the Croagunks, and the Toxicroak lay sprawled out in the mud before them, beaten. "Fah! I'll gut you and all yore brothers, Shad!" rasped the frog-beast, shaking a fist at the Sableye leader as he rolled over and crawled off from the group. For a moment, Sparktail and the others stared blankly at each other, panting hard and all coated with watery swamp-mud, all feeling thoroughly at a loss for words.
"We must go," hissed Shad finally, his eyes glinting as he looked to his fellow Sableye with a beckoning claw, then surveyed his surroundings. "Sparktail, Thalia- mysterious Umbreon- take care in your travels. May we meet again!" Bowing his head towards each of them respectfully, the Sableye and his followers dashed off into the marshes- and the awkward silence quickly returned.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" asked Insyte finally, his voice slurred and fatigued. Shanala's head emerged from the bog, vigorously shaking water and mud from her head like a dog. Startled out of his thoughts, Sparktail followed his friend's gaze to Insyte- who quickly turned his head away from them both, hiding all but the bare edges of his eyes. Was there more to Insyte than met the eye?
"What're you doing here?" asked the Leafeon slowly, blinking, her voice cool but not cold. Sparktail felt a rush of red sparks stinging somewhere within him as Thalia stepped towards the Umbreon with those soft brown eyes, but he looked away and tried to push those thoughts back down. "I- how'd you find us?"
"Wait, Thalia- don't hurt Insyte," called Shanala as she pulled herself out of the mire- the Umbreon turned his gaze away from her too. "He saved my life." Startled, the three of them glanced to the Ninetales, her fur dripping with goopy mud as she deposited a fist-sized blob of mud at Thalia's paws.
"The Lustrous Orb's in there somewhere. I don't know what you're doing here, Insyte, but... I am sure you have your own reasons." Sparktail glanced down, feeling slightly envious of the way Shanala defended Insyte- but he tried to push that thought aside.
A few vines snaked out from behind Thalia's head, picking up the mud-dripping Orb in an attempt to wipe the grime off the sphere with her leaves. "I'm here because I shou... because I chose to be here," muttered the Umbreon after a moment, still not looking at the others. "Because... well..." Dazedly, he turned to face them.
"I'm sorry... I... I shouldn't have run away." He clenched his teeth, and squeezed his eyes shut, as if forcing the words out. "Because... you're- you're my friends."
Slowly, Insyte looked up at them. The Umbreon had been crying silently all this time, the fur on his cheeks damp, his eyelids puffy. A lump formed in Shanala's throat, and she buried her muzzle in her tails.
"I... I'm not sure what to say to him," admitted Thalia hesitantly, handing a mostly-clean Lustrous Orb to the Raichu. "But we should stick together, y'know? Buddies." Sparktail stared down at the orb as Thalia approached Insyte and nuzzled the Umbreon's shoulder.
Did Insyte really have a change of heart? Or would he attack Thalia? The Umbreon nodded peacefully, but still, Sparktail felt uneasy. No, this surge of alarm was something else.
Turning, Thalia smiled at Sparktail; but when he did not return the smile, she frowned, worried. "I- um- let's head back," suggested the Raichu, his heart in his throat as he glanced away.
"Rush and Ferricia will be... glad to see you," said Shanala, her eyes darting up towards Insyte, then quickly flicking away. Thalia continued to look at Sparktail with concerned eyes that only pained the Raichu when he met them. "So... shall we?"
They nodded, and the four of them set off through the swamp towards Altaria, Rush, and Ferricia. He still didn't understand what was going on- but he could almost feel the gazes of his teammates, Thalia's worry and Insyte's sorrowful spite, burning into his back.
"Insyte?" uttered Rush, his eyes widening as the four Pokemon approached the transit platform where the Swampert waited with Altaria and Ferricia. "Well, now... I don't believe it. Welcome back, my friend!" The Umbreon glanced up to the Swampert- whose arms were outstretched as if to hug Insyte- then nodded silently, and continued past him. "So, guys... I suppose that means we're out of here!"
"We sure can," replied Thalia, looking to the Swampert. "Sparktail's got it." The Leafeon gave Sparktail a look as they all climbed up onto Altaria's and Ferricia's backs. "Almost to the Conclave. First Lyther's camp... then we see the Wide Shot!"