Legend of the Exile, Chapter 36: Fireside
The Virtues instilled the disciplines of old
One of glass thought, one of honor bold
One of golden silence, one of living hour
One of command, but five of true power
Gray dust swirled in the seaside breezes in a vast sea of stone rubble like eddies of ash, dissipating into the air where once a thriving metropolis had stood. Debris of leveled office buildings littered wide avenues in chaotic stacks, the fragments of grand concrete bricks strewn across the broken cobblestone pavement until the boundary between street and building could no longer be found. A once-proud city of London-style marble architecture and corporate castles had been crushed into oblivion beneath the Red Dragon's claws, its people scattered and dead.
This was Rustboro City as Insyte saw it now, descending from the Hoenn skies on a Charizard's back, followed by ten guards behind him on Skarmories as they swooped down towards the ruins, where Insyte's lieutenant Marrow had already set up camp. The Flareon and his escorts landed in the center of a circle of red-and-orange canvas tents, each bearing the Vulcanite crest.
Feeling with one paw for the Phoenix Orb on the necklace chain tucked beneath his fur collar, he dismounted from his Charizard steed's back as ten Quilavas lined up on either side of his path, standing at perfect attention before their master. At the far end of the procession, Marrow stood in the entrance of his tent, quivering slightly as he met Insyte's gaze. The Vulcan warriors saluted Insyte as he padded past them towards the Houndoom. "Marrow, report," ordered the Flareon, his eyes flashing with a hint of silver.
"Sir! We have successfully deployed rescue teams without resistance," said the hellhound, bowing his horned head before the Flareon, the dusty winds of Rustboro rippling both of their pelts. "Three patrols have swept the Fallarbor area for survivors. However, it appears that the natives have no desire to leave Hoenn. They wish to fight, sir!"
"I'll speak to the natives. Where are they?" asked Insyte, glancing back over his shoulder to his ten escorts and dismissing them with a flick of his fluffy tail. "And has the Lavaridge area been swept yet?"
"No, sir, and we've received no word of the one in charge of Mt. Chimney," replied Marrow, his voice wavering slightly. "The commander in question is Hephaestus, sir; Hephaestus the Camerupt. He went incommunicado when your predecessor allied himself with Giratina. Sir!"
"So, all Heatran's lieutenants all understood that the Exile was far too dangerous to ally with," said the Flareon thoughtfully. Glancing around Rustboro, Insyte gave the Houndoom a grim smile. "Marrow, gather the troops. We'll march for Lavaridge at first dawn tomorrow."
In the foothills overlooking Verdanturf, a shivering Buizel rubbed scrap metal against flint as night fell, his paws feverishly scraping at the flint into a pile of twigs and dried leaves. "Here, let me try," said Sheltur, taking the steel and flint from the Buizel. Amused, Thalia curled her tail close and watched as the Wartortle began to strike the flint more forcefully-- accidentally breaking the piece of flint with a crack. "Whoops."
A few feet away, next to a more successful campfire, a Growlithe glanced up from the crackling flames, sighed, and padded over to the Buizel and the Wartortle. "You guys are helpless," muttered the dog, igniting the tinder-stack before returning to the other fire. Exchanging glances, the two water-types leaned in towards the tiny fire, watching eagerly as the red-hot flames began to grow.
On the edge of the patrol's camp, a Raichu cleaved a lunging Rattata in two with a slash, his glowing tail dangling over his shoulder like a lantern. "Stupid Rattatas," muttered Sparktail under his breath, wiping his blade clean on his leg fur. The Raichu squinted into the darkness, his ears perked for the squeaks of the rodent swarms that haunted the night.
There! Movement! He struck with his blade, and was immediately gratified with another Rattata's squeal. He gripped his sword tightly as he swung back behind him, flinging dead Rattatas away from the aura of his tail-lamp, too dark to see the skittering creatures attacking from the night.
The dark canopy overhead rustled, followed by a faint chittering. Alarmed, the Raichu scrambled back as a creature with a hard red shell and round pincers dropped down from the tree branches, his glowing tail briefly revealing the round eyes of a Corphish.
"Sparktail, if you came over here, you wouldn't have to deal with the rats," called Thalia to her mate, who cringed as a Rattata bit down into his hind leg, blade jabbing frantically at the approaching crab until it scuttled away, bored. "It's got to be warmer and cozier, right?"
Sparktail didn't reply immediately. Skewering another purple rat, the Raichu glanced sharply over his shoulder to the Leafeon, curled up by Sheltur's campfire, the nearest of the patrol's four flickering fires. "Why would I want to stay near them?" gasped the Raichu, pawing away at the glowing Illumises flitting by his eyes. "I- I don't even know them."
"They're nice people, Sparktail," said Thalia with a soft laugh, padding over to him, reaching with vines for her own blades to ward off the Dustoxes nipping at her leaves. "They haven't tried to bump you off yet, have they? And it's got to be better than killing rats all night." Pausing, Sparktail glanced over his shoulder to his mate, who grinned and winked back at him. "Only one rat's allowed to sleep near me, though, so don't bring any of those little guys, okay?"
The Raichu grimaced as he crouched down and stabbed into the shadows, silencing another rat's shrill squeal with his sword. "Fine, I'll stay by the fire," said Sparktail reluctantly, resting his blade in his lap before glancing back to Thalia. Softening as he saw the humor in the Leafeon's eyes settling back to gentleness, the Raichu gave her a small smile. "Sorry, I've just... had a lot of things on my mind lately."
"That's all right, I understand," chuckled Thalia, leaning forward and slightly nuzzling Sparktail's dust-stained cheek. "Let's go back and join the others, okay?" Nodding, Sparktail wiped the Rattata blood off his blade on his leg fur before rising to his paws, and the two padded back over to join the rest of the patrol.
"It's about time you joined us," said a Buizel as Sparktail and Thalia approached one of the campfires. Next to the Buizel sat Sheltur-- who Thalia recognized from Olivine, but Sparktail only knew from Rustboro-- who was tending to the fire with a pair of sticks. "We've been wondering when you'd get tired of killing rats all night."
"All night, for the third night in a row," added Thalia jokingly, gently prodding Sparktail's white-furred belly with a paw. The Buizel laughed. After adjusting the baking wood slabs in the fire for a few minutes, the Wartortle set down the sticks and sat back, finally satisfied.
"This is a good fire," chuckled the Warortle, closing his eyes and folding his paws behind his neck as the flames crackled merrily in the fire ring. Then frowning, he blinked and sat up, turning to face Sparktail and Thalia directly with twitching ears. "Say, Thalia. We've never introduced our friends, have we?"
The Leafeon's eyes widened. "Whoops! Sorry about that," said Thalia, glancing to Sparktail with a nervous smile. "Okay, this Wartortle is Sheltur from Cianwood City. I know, it's a weird name, but he said he got it from a human." She smiled and glanced back to Sheltur. "Anyway, this is Sparktail, my mate, and we're from-- uhh--"
"Ever Grande," said Sparktail quickly, giving Sheltur and the Buizel quick nods, before taking a seat by the fire as well. Technically, it wasn't a lie. Slick had been a Hoenn Elite, and the Hoenn Elites officially resided at Ever Grande City. Right?
"Ah, pleased to meet you, Sparktail," said Sheltur jovially, extending a paw that the Raichu stared at for a while before realizing he was supposed to shake it. "This Buizel here is Wyrn from Cianwood." Strapped to the Buizel's belt was some sort of slender instrument, and Sparktail couldn't help but think that the Pokemon looked familiar.
"I thought Buizels were native to Sinnoh," said Thalia, frowning as she glanced to Wyrn, who held a Magost berry in one paw. Sparktail watched in amusement as Wyrn bit into the sweet-and-spicy fruit with glee. "But you come from... Johto?"
"Yush, Johto," mumbled the Buizel through his mouthful of berry, taking a moment to swallow before continuing. "Aah. Anyway, I was bred in the Safari Zone, to be honest, but I was released into the wild after some demonstrators protested at the Safari Zone. Stupid ecologists. Oh well, past is past, right?"
"Oh, uh, I see," said the Leafeon sheepishly, feeling a bit embarrassed for not realizing she had trodden on a possibly sensitive subject. "I'm sorry for bringing that up, my bad."
Amused, the Buizel quickly shook his head. "Nah, it's okay, it's not really that bad or anything," chortled Wyrn, rising to his hind paws as Sheltur, Thalia, and Sparktail looked at him. "And there's a bigger question, anyway." Spinning his tails like a helicopter's rotors, the Buizel pointed a blue-finned paw at the sword on Sparktail's back, causing the Raichu to twitch his ears nervously. "Where'd you get the sword?"
"It's a weapon of--" began Thalia. Quickly, Sparktail shook his head, and the surprised Leafeon abruptly fell silent. "It's just a sword," said the Raichu, his ears flicking about. "My trainer--he based my tail attacks off swords, so... uh... might as well have the real thing, right?"
An awkward silence. "A-anyway, what about yours, Wyrn?" said Thalia, trying not to laugh. She pointed at the rapier on the Buizel's belt, a slender blade and a handguard of interlocking silvery rings. "Looks fancy."
Winking, the Buizel rose to his hind paws, stepped back, and then drew his thin sword in one fluid motion, the slender blade quivering with a hum. "Made by a Marshtomp smith," said Wyrn, eyeing the glint from the fire's light, tossing the sword up into the air to catch it by the hilt in his other paw. "Lane's been training me." He nodded to a Sneasel one campfire over.
Sparktail's eyes widened as Wyrn held the fencing sword aloft proudly. In a flash, he remembered seeing the Buizel at Mount Moon with a rapier, along with the other Swordwrit warriors. Had that been Wyrn? If so, the Buizel didn't seem to recognize Sparktail. Good,
thought the Raichu. At least I won't have to explain what I was doing.
"Gotta love Kalosian steel," said Wyrn happily. "Lightweight, twelve inches, very strong and rustproof, flexible but rebounds to its proper shape- so long as I take good care of it." Twirling his rapier around several times, he nodded and sheathed his sword again. "But I'm guessing you prefer your sword, right?"
"Yes," admitted the Raichu as they sat down again, feeling slightly envious of the Buizel's knowledge. What type of sword was his weapon, anyway? He didn't know who had made it or what sort of metal it was composed of. Slick had talked about different grades of steel, but didn't go into detail about actual swords. Back then, his tail was all he needed.
"Gotta say, the full moon is beautiful tonight," said Sheltur, glancing up to the starry sky, smoke rising from the warm fire. "It kinda reminds me of an old story my dad once told me, a long time ago." Wyrn rolled his eyes slightly, but grinned. "Let's see... once, there lived a Meowth with a great trove of treasure; gold, silver, and precious stones. He was the richest Pokemon in the forest."
Confused Sparktail looked at Thalia, who looked just as confused, but gestured for him to stay by the fire with her tail. "The Meowth kept his wealth buried near the roots of a tall oak tree near his den," said the Wartortle, a small smile forming as he re-stacked the wood in the campfire with Wyrn's sticks. "But he was too proud of his tremendous wealth. Each night, he would crawl out from his den, dig up his treasure, and gaze at it dreamily until the first rays of dawn came."
Thalia suppressed a giggle behind her paw. "One night, when the moon was full- just like this one- a Sneasel saw the Meowth standing over the treasure," continued Sheltur. "In the morning, after the Meowth had buried his wealth and returned to his den, the Sneasel dug up the treasure and fled. When the Meowth returned to the oak tree that night and found an empty hole, he began to panic and scream, clawing at the bark of the tree."
Wyrn rolled his eyes slightly, but couldn't suppress a small grin. "One by one, the other Pokemon of the woods emerged from their dens to investigate," said the Wartortle, reaching into his pack for a plump Wepear berry. "So one Weedle crawled up to him and asked if he had ever taken any of the gold out to trade for food or other supplies. Taken aback, the Meowth shook his head, asserting that he had only looked at it. Amused, the Weedle suggested that he could still come out at night to look at the hole, because nothing had really changed."
There was a long, awkward silence. Thalia and Sparktail exchanged bewildered glances, as if wondering what they had just been listening to. "I thought it was the Sneasel who said that, to make fun of him," said Wyrn, amused. "At least, that's the way you told it before."
"I've never heard that story before," blurted out Sparktail, unable to help himself.
Sheltur grinned. "Not surprised! Most of the classics get forgotten so easily, when we have gods walking among us," chortled the Wartortle. "I suspect you've never heard of the Mareep who cried 'Mightyena,' or of the Vulpix and the Murkrow." Both Sparktail and Thalia gave a nervous laugh, but Wyrn nodded quite firmly.
At that moment, they noticed a commotion from the crags near Shock's campfire, heard dashes of hushed voices as others hurried over. Exchanging glances, Sparktail, Thalia, Sheltur, and Wyrn got up and went over to look.
Amber was standing a few feet away from Shock's campfire, looking around nervously. Emerging from the cave behind her was a sleepy-eyed Camerupt, his mountainous sillouette dwarfing the Pikachu. His broad jaws were illuminated with dim firelight, his shaggy rust-red fur rippling with strength, the geysers on his back billowing with plumes of acrid smoke.
The Camerupt was easily thrice Sparktail's height in all his pride, with grand yet tired eyes. He began to paw and snort at the ground, emitting more steamy fumes from its nostrils; as the earth trembled ever so slightly, Sparktail's legs buckled, and sank to the ground with a curse under his breath. "You okay?" muttered Thalia as she helped the Raichu to his feet, though both their attentions were still on the Camerupt.
"Yeah, I'm fi-- ugh!" Sparktail's stomach churned as he felt disturbances deep in the earth, enough to jostle him. It'd been bad enough to ride a raft over a waterfall, without the ground to toss and turn. Frowning, he glanced around the crowd, then towards the fire again to the Camerupt. It looked like Amber had tumbled over too, but the rest of the patrol had kept their footing, even Shock. "Yes... I'm... fine."
"Everyone, I'd like you to meet my friend," called Amber a bit shakily as Shock helped her to her paws. Sparktail sighed in relief and grinned sheepishly to Thalia as the Camerupt's stretching finally subsided into a yawn. The Pikachu glanced around the patrol, then took a deep breath, her spitfire tone returning. "This is my friend, Hephaestus the Camerupt. He was from the Vulcanite League, see?"
At once, startled chatter broke out all around Sparktail and Thalia- who exchanged looks, surprised to hear the name of Insyte's army in Hoenn. The other Retrievers, however, turned to each other and broke into quick hushed voices.
"A Camerupt... of course," said Ketrail to Lane.
"The Vulcanite League?" gasped the Growlithe.
"Hephaestus... god of the forge," murmured a Phanpy.
"So he's on our side then?" asked Wyrn from beside Thalia.
"Whatever those nasty fire-types did, you can trust Hephaestus," declared the Pikachu, tapping her hind paw against the ground as Hephaestus let out a grunt behind her. As the crowd subsided and returned their attention to Amber, her eyes filled with a steel glint as she patted the Camerupt on his stone-gray cheek. "Just because the Vulcanite League sided with Giratina, doesn't mean all of them are evil!"
Confused, the rest of the Retrievers frowned at Amber. It took a moment before Sparktail and Thalia remembered that the Vulcanites had been on Giratina's side until very recently. "Hey! I don't know why you're all looking at me like this," snapped the Pikachu, crossing her arms. "It's not funny-"
Shock cleared his throat. "The Vulcanites had a major change in leadership a few weeks ago," said the Manectric pointedly. "See, this Flareon... Insyte Faldsem... he overthrew Heatran and declared himself king. So now the Vulcanites are working with us, and against Giratina. He paused. "You'd know this if you were actually this if you bothered to listen to me for once!"
Amber's cheeks crackled. "Listen to you? Who in their right mind...!" Next to Sparktail, Thalia tried hard not to burst into laughter at the Pikachu's expense, but quickly fell silent as tears began to form in the Camerupt's eyes.
Sparktail stared. There was something else going on that he didn't quite understand. As Sparktail stared at Amber, the open-mouthed Pikachu pointed a paw towards Hephaestus, still saying nothing. Feeling lost, the Raichu glanced to Thalia with a questioning look, but she didn't understand either.
They didn't know about the prophecy that foretold Insyte's birth, how the Vulcanite League had fallen into chaos when the prophesized heir vanished. Even now, they did not understand, but did not question, the Vulcanites' desperation that allowed Heatran to seize control of the League-- and how long-buried faith had united the warriors under Insyte's law. But for those brief seconds, all that mattered was that Hephaestus' prayers had been answered.
Shock stared as Hephaestus turned his head away from the crowd, as if to conceal his emotions. On the other side of the campfire from Sparktail, Delia and a Linoone exchanged glances, then nodded and bowed their heads as well. "I... Amber... who are these people?" said the Camerupt. "Who are you, to bring news of a new lord?"
When the tide of emotions had finally subsided, Amber filled in Hephaestus on the events of the past three-to-four days, wiping her tear-stained eyes with a paw before looking back to Shock. Before she could speak, however, Hephaestus cut her off, startling Sparktail with the sheer power rippling within the Camerupt's voice.
"Thank you for your message, Shock," said Hephaestus, his voice slow yet grand like rolling waves of magma. Shock backed away slightly as the Camerupt's voice rippled his fur. "I must return to Mount Chimney, and see my new master. For surely, if the tide is turning..."
"Wait!" protested Thalia, stepping out from the crowd. Startled, Sparktail stared as Thalia went over to Shock, Amber, and Hephaestus. The Leafeon slowly turned around in a circle to face them all as she spoke. "Hephaestus... you can't go traveling all the way to Lavaridge like this, alone in the dark."
"What're you talking about?" demanded Shock, frowning as the Retrievers turned to stare at the Leafeon. "Stay out of this." At once, Sparktail felt a red flash of anger at the Manectric, a paw instantly at his sword's hilt- but Thalia gave him a wink to signal that she'd be all right, and he reluctantly forced himself to stay calm.
"The 'leafy cat' in question may have a slight point," said Hephaestus, the ground trembling as he took a step forward, turning his broad gaze on Shock. "I may require an escort or two if I am to reach Lavaridge, if Amber is correct about the Red Dragon's soldiers. I will send them back to you with all haste when I arrive."
Shock nodded reluctantly. "Very well. We'll split into two groups," said the Manectric, whirling around to face his patrol. "Lane, Speedster, and Ketrail, you will escort Hephaestus back to Mount Chimney at first light." An Eevee, a Zigzagoon, and a Sneasel all nodded obediently. A few feet away, the Zangoose looked disappointed.
Then, Shock whipped around upon Thalia. "And you, Thalia, since you were so eager to bring up 'escorts', and weaken our ranks," said the Manectric a bit irritably as the Leafeon glared at him. "You go with him too."
Alarmed, Sparktail glanced to his mate. Mount Chimney was a natural haven for fire-types and fyling-types, both deadly for Leafeons. "It's all right, Sparktail," assured Thalia, gently placed a paw on his lips, though her legs were shaking. She stared at the smoke rising from the Camerupt's back. "I'll be fine... Don't worry!"
Down from the night-shadowed heavens, Skarmories descended on rapid steel wings towards the pale-white mountain of Sootopolis, bearing the Pokemon of the Conclave on their armored backs. At the forefront of the magnificent flock was perched Lyther, clutching his azure spear in one paw. His blue-white cape rippling in the wind behind him, the Lucario clung low to his Skarmory as they flew into the crater, his navy-blue gaze taking in the grisly spectacle of chaos within the mountain.
The great lake in the center of the city was dark and murky even where moonlight illuminated its surface, contaminated with brine, oil, blood, exhaust, and debris. Ringed by broad limestone ledges that extended hundreds of feet from the hollow mountain's walls, the interior of the once-grand metropolis was breathtakingly immense to Lyther, stretching more than a mile wide in diameter.
On the white stone plateaus stood the ruins of collapsed houses and neighborhoods, their foundations and spider-webbed with cracks in wall and floor alike. At the center of Sootopolis' silent lake, its shores foaming with refuse, stood an island with a lonely structure of broken glass and battered steel. And it was this structure, the Sootopolis Pokemon Gym- where his former master Slick had established headquarters in the final days before Hoenn fell- that Lyther swooped down upon.
"I should have understood, when I saw how Sinnoh burned," whispered the Lucario faintly, his voice low and his sapphire gaze surveying the scorched slopes of Sootopolis all around him. "This- this is..."
Clutching his spear tightly, the Lucario fell silent as he and the Skarmories landed smoothly on the island before the Gym's entrance in a flutter of steel feathers, his ankle-length cape settling down around his shoulders. A chill ran down Lyther's spine as he glanced up towards the mouth of the crater far above him, the darkness framing the luminous moon hanging in the night sky.
Dismounting, the warrior stepped down onto the dead brown grass that surrounded Slick's old center of operations, feeling the hideously decaying lawn with his toes. "This place reeks of death," murmured Lyther, shaking his head slowly as the other Pokemon dismounted from their Skarmories.
"Not death, but innocent sacrifice," said a voice from behind him, a voice much deeper and better-seasoned than his own. Eyes widening, Lyther immediately froze, sinking his spear straight into the ground- then slowly turned around to face the flickering image of another Lucario.
"From life to death, and back to life again, Hoenn's cycle continues unbroken," said Trident as he approached Lyther, snapping his black belt tight around his waist. "Hello, Lyther. You've certainly come a long way since we last met."
"Brother?" whispered Lyther, tightly gripping his spear. Breathing hard, the Lucario bowed towards his brother, reaching out in the aura to touch Trident's paw. But of course, this was not Trident's physical body; this was but an astral projection. "You and Dantor are alive, then... Why are you here?"
The elder Lucario's eyes narrowed. "I come with a warning," said Trident, gazing into his brother's eyes. "Lyther, you have been taught from birth to respect humans and other Pokemon, to treat them with civility, to act with honesty and justice. But this is not common of most Pokemon; it is the exception."
Lyther stared at the elder Lucario; did his brother think he was ignorant of Giratina. "Although you have seen firsthand much of the Exile's cruelty, he is not the lone source of all evil," continued Trident. "There are Pokemon who act violently of their own accord, who were evil long before the Exile touched their hearts, and who deserve to be sealed away or killed. And in their savage natures, they were drawn to join under our enemies."
"With the Exile's main infantry crippled, these monstrosities are emerging to replace them, one by one. Joined with the Exile's hideous creations, our foes shall be more devastating than ever. Do not let your guard down in the coming days, Lyther del Rio..."