Chapter 14: River and Wood
Bridges are burned and the pillars destroyed
Escaping as his darkest foes are deployed
From dawn to dusk the flower claims your heart
Now cast aside the past and find a new start
The morning sky betrayed no sign of Giratina's prescence as chilly air swept through the Herald's wings. Clutching his Light Ball, Sparktail stared out towards the ocean as Thalia wove together Leaf Blades from next to him. All the while, Altaria stared towards their destination with hard eyes, wings swelling on the wind.
The Silver Conclave gradually disappeared into the sea behind them as the jungles of Hoenn rose on the opposite horizon. Clinging to the Herald, the Raichu glanced to Thalia as Altaria soared across the waves, Marills and Tentacools surfacing on the sea far below.
Suddenly, the sky shuddered with a distant roar, and a shower of meteors began to rain down from the heavens. Heart pounding, Sparktail stared as pillars of azure death smashed down through the air all around Altaria, missing them by less than a tail's length. Thalia clung to Sparktail tightly as shrieking Wingulls and Taillows were caught in the blaze, their bodies falling into the sea.
The two riders held onto the Herald's back as she dove toward the thick woodland, swerving sharply to dodge the falling missiles. The wind screamed past their ears as they dropped below the canopy, the ground a blur of undergrowth and trickling streams before Altaria came to a stop on a grassy riverbank.
Slowly, the roar of the meteors faded into the distance. For several minutes, the forest was silent except for the three travelers as they regained their breath. Smiling awkwardly, Altaria glanced back at Sparktail and Thalia.
Staring at the tangled shrubbery, Sparktail slid down from Altaria's back to land in the tall grasses with a thump. The great river churned as crashing waters swept down its banks, trees swaying rhythmically in the breeze. The Raichu could hear the faint cries of a Kecleon, Linoones barking off in the distance.
Landing on the ground next to the Raichu, Thalia stretched out her legs and took a deep breath of the jungle air. The air was fresh with flower-scent and leaves in the wind, plants glistening with dewdrops and damp mist still clinging to the air from falling rains. Beneath the lighter scents lay a darker, earthy scent, the musky odor of fertile soil and the faint salty tang of the hunt.
"Wilderness and trees," said Altaria, gazing up at the canopy. "Keep your eyes out. We're almost certainly being watched. Plenty of predators are almost as savage as the Exile." She dropped a map next to Sparktail. "Here. Notes from my friends on the Orbs' locations."
Blinking, Sparktail picked up the map and opened it carefully, so as not to tear it. "We're in Hoenn, but just where in Hoenn are we?" mused Thalia, peering over Sparktail's shoulder, her paws on his back.
Sparktail's fur prickled at Thalia's touch. "Well, there's a... a river nearby," he stammered. He could feel the Leafeon's breath on the back of his neck. "Maybe we're on Route 119? Because of the river." With his tail, he pointed at a green dotted line connecting Mauville and Fortree.
Thalia blinked. "Near Witch's Bridge? Yeah, that makes sense. And, and the Red Orb..." Sparktail's eyes followed Thalia's paw to a tiny red X on a yellow circular region to the west. "Wait, isn't this the desert north of Mauville? And down here..." Thalia tapped a blue X off the region's south coast, west of Slateport. "The wreck of the S.S. Cactus."
They looked up at each other. "W-well, let's get going, then," said the Leafeon a little too quickly, tucking the map away. Her face was growing hot. "I mean, let's get out of this jungle first." Blinking, Sparktail stared as Thalia hurried off, heart pounding. "Oh, yeah. It'll be just like old times, right? C'mon, race you!"
Witch's Bridge was just ahead. The place where Slick chose to meet with the delegates from Johto, to negotiate the status of Mossdeep City. The entire team was present as a show of force; Slick adamantly denied the delegates' requests for annexation and sent them away. Sparktail had always wondered why Slick chose this place, far out in the wilderness.
Slowing his pace as he moved along the river, Sparktail spotted Thalia on the far side of the bridge, mumbling to herself. As she caught sight of him, the Leafeon looked startled for a moment, then quickly glanced away.
Secrets. Secrets she could only tell to the trees. His fur prickled uneasily as he watched the Leafeon from across the bridge. What were they talking about? Thalia always told him everything. This wasn't like her to keep secrets from him. Unless she didn't trust him anymore-
No, no, no, thought the Raichu frustratedly as he hurried down the bridge towards Thalia, the slats creaking beneath his running paws. Thalia always seemed to have his best interests at heart, no matter what. She trusted him, so he should trust her too, like always. But as of late, his emotions had been flaring up whenever the Leafeon was around, and the Raichu didn't know why.
As he approached, his ears caught a snatch of her words. "What am I saying? Can the trees know love?" Thalia wondered aloud. The rest of her words were too quiet for the Raichu to hear.
Blinking, Thalia glanced back over her shoulder to see Sparktail by the bridge. She froze, her eyes widening with some mixture of fear and embarrassment. Sparktail stumbled back, his heart pounding.
The Raichu leaned against the bridge post as Thalia stared at him. After a moment, the Leafeon dropped her gaze, but not before Sparktail noticed a faint tinge of pink in her cheeks. Love, she said.
"Were you... talking to someone?" asked the Raichu, taking a deep breath. His cheeks felt hot, almost brimming with sparks, but he pushed those feelings away. There was no one else around; Thalia had been talking to herself. Was she that lonely?
"Oh, um... I guess," mumbled Thalia, still staring at the ground. The Raichu stared blankly. The Leafeon was never this shy, not even on the worst of days. "Just wondering what we ought to do, once we reach the desert and all."
She cleared her throat and glanced around. "Say, how do you think the others are doing? I wonder if Insyte's adapted to his new form."
Taking a deep breath, Sparktail pushed aside the thoughts that crackled at him. "He's... probably doing okay," said the Raichu as they padded on. He tried to force himself to speak. Just something to fill this eerie, unnerving silence. "What about Lute?" The Absol hadn't wanted to talk about what happened in Sinnoh. "You think he's found his friends?"
Immediately, Sparktail mentally berated himself. Talking about Lute wouldn't put Thalia at ease. "He seemed all right," replied Thalia, her voice careful and controlled. The Leafeon forced a smile. "After all... we might as well be heading to our graves, right?"
They both chuckled, but the air remained uneasy, all the same. Tail slapping at the ground, the Raichu tried hard not to think of the monsters they would face soon. Groudon and Kyogre, the superancient Pokemon, once just inanimate cave paintings, but now fully alive and terrible to behold...
Warily, the duo padded through the tall grass. This was the land that Slick had claimed as his new home, the forests that he had fought to protect with every ounce of strength he had, the region that he had lived and died for. Had it been worth the cost?
An Infernape and a Purugly sprang out from behind a tree, eyes brimming with black light. Tumbling down a ledge, Sparktail and Thalia landed in a mud puddle inches away from the Infernape, splattering droplets of brown rainwater. A foul grin spread across the Infernape's features, his red-and-gold fur standing out of place in the marshes of the East Mauville River.
"An excellent catch," growled the fiery primate as he grabbed Sparktail by the neck before he could move out of the way, lifting the Raichu into the air. Red-hot panic filled the Raichu's mind, kicking and flailing as his fearful eyes met the Infernape's. His lightning-bolt tail lashed furiously at the air as Thalia growled at the Purugly. "Mmmm, lost strays! Do you stand with our champion, Scarlet Streak, or against her?"
"W-we've got nothing to do with the war!" said Thalia angrily, stepping forward towards the Infernape. "We're just looking for food... so put him down!"
"A likely story," snorted the Purugly. "And do you live in a Skarmory nest? Is that why you both smell like Skarmories? Mmm! I think you two know where the Exile's enemies are!"
The Infernape pointed a finger at Thalia, still holding the struggling Sparktail by the neck. Baring his filthy, yellow teeth, he tightened his grip on Sparktail's throat to elicit a choked cry from the Raichu."You! Leafy cat! Tell me where the Silver Conclave is, or your friend gets it!"
Horrified, the Leafeon stared at the Infernape's fiery hair and tail in fear. The world was growing raw and blurry around Sparktail as the fiery monkey held him aloft by the neck. Panic surged into frustration as his eyes darted around the forest. Why did they have to pander to Giratina's soldiers? Why did they have to stay low?
He glared at the Infernape with all the defiance he could muster. "We're your enemies," he hissed. "We're against Scarlet Streak. We're against the Exile!" His tail coiled tightly around the primate's arm, his fears and doubts forgotten as a surge of fury filled his mind, and he tugged with all his might.
At once, the Infernape let out a howl of pain and released his grasp on Sparktail, letting the Raichu fall to the ground next to Thalia as the Purugly gave snarls of outrage. Gasping for breath and massaging his throat, Sparktail raised his tail like a sword as Thalia readied her leaf-blades.
The Purugly and the Infernape glanced up sharply towards Altaria's rapidly descending form. With cold blue eyes, the Herald spewed a thick stream of blue-red dragons' breath that shot over Thalia and engulfed the Infernape in flames that he could not tame.
As the howling primate sank to the ground in an agonized mass of magic flame, screaming and clawing at his flesh. The Purugly gasped and turned to flee into the woods just before a second flare of dragonflame incinerated it, reducing it to ashes.
They stared at their enemies' remains, shocked. Eyes stern with disappointment, yet soft with concern, the Herald settled on the ground behind Sparktail and Thalia, draping her cloudlike wings over them. There was a long silence.
"Please don't run ahead like that," said Altaria finally, closing her eyes. "I might not be able to protect you next time."
Thalia's eyes widened. "You're right," sighed the Leafeon, lowering her head in shame. "We won't wander off again." She looked at Sparktail, smiling tenatively. "Right, Sparktail?"
Sparktail nodded. "Y-yeah." He glanced at the Leafeon, his voice dropping. "And... I'm sorry too. I... I know I shouldn't have done anything. I just--"
Thalia flicked her ears. "It's okay. I... I didn't know what to do either..." Shifting her weight to her other leg, she nuzzled Sparktail gently. "We'll do better next time."
Smiling, Altaria rose up into the air. "Let's keep going," said the Herald, glancing back at them before returning her attention forward. "We've got a ways to go before night falls."
Altaria's eyes shone bright as she glided low to the ground, in line with Sparktail and Thalia. The trees were thinning out now, becoming less densely packed the further they traveled from the river. But as the trees gave way to open prairie, Thalia suddenly stopped.
"Wait, something's wrong," whispered the Leafeon, shivering. She glanced around worriedly. "Hey... Sparktail? Something... doesn't feel right about this field. I-I smell murder..."
Stopping behind an Oran bush, Sparktail scanned the peaceful field ahead, thoroughly confused. Then, just as he noticed a flicker of movement, Thalia sprang at him from behind, tackling him to the ground. "Ack! What the hell?" gasped the Raichu as he hit the dirt, staring up at the Leafeon.
"No, stay still! They'll see you," begged Thalia, clasping Sparktail's paw tight, motioning with her tail for Altaria to land. Eyes widening, Altaria landed behind the shrubbery. Thalia stared out across the field, terrified. "I smell blood... it's getting stronger... oh no...!"
His throat going dry, Sparktail watched as a pack of panicked humans fled across the field. Behind the fleeing fugitives came a row of Rhyperiors with red plating, gnashing their monstrous jaws and swining their brutish arms. The Exile's stench wafted from their stony hides.
"Fear not, for death is at hand," said a dark figure with a rusted red blade. Red lights appeared in the field, followed by ash-gray helms and black cloaks with gold trim. One by one, Dusknoirs revealed themselves, surrounding the humans. "Accept your fate, O people of clay," intoned the dark figure, raising his blade. "For this is the will of the Exile."
Trapped, staring into the eyes of death, the humans began to break down as the red Rhyperiors advanced upon them. Children sobbed as their parents held them. Couples held each other tightly. Many of the humans simply wept. Sparktail could hear one of the younger men crying out for mercy, all hope lost. As the Rhyperiors advanced upon their prey, Thalia buried her face in Sparktail's shoulder, unable to watch the inevitable massacre.
Howls and screams filled the air as the Exile's soldiers moved in for the kill, the final shrieks of agony washed in scarlet hell and crushed beneath murderous footsteps. Cursed flames erupted from the Dusknoirs' palms, lifeless gray flames that consumed human flesh in agonizing death.
Within minutes, there was not a single human left alive in the bloody field, their final cries still echoing as the blood-clawed culprits fled into the night, leaving the once-peaceful grasses scattered with corpses. Sickness churned inside his belly, until he could hold it back no longer.
Nose and mouth filled with a rancid taste, Sparktail shook as he rose to his paws, Thalia sobbing into tall grasses, Altaria's head bowed in deepest mourning. The world seemed to be changing greatly in such little time, and danger was stalking from every direction...