Legend of the Exile, Chapter 37: Crossroads
The dragon waged war and the empire fell
Such was his power that no man could quell
His heart was like ice, his claws dipped in gore
His teeth stained red with the murders he bore
Sparktail slashed as he sprang past the Porygon-Z, hacking it to cyber-spatial ribbons. All around him, the Retrievers battled Mesprit's soldiers in the grassy fields of Verdanturf. The warriors clashed in a shallow valley at the base of the Rusturf Mountains, nestled between stone and tree on the boundary where hinterland met wilderness. "Sparktail! I ordered you to stick with Wyrn!" bellowed Shock from beside the Raichu as he fried a Lumineon to a crisp. "We CANNOT lose the hill!"
Swearing under his breath, Sparktail scanned the battlefield for his young partner, staring as the Buizel thrust his rapier through a Kricketune's exoskeleton, up on the pasture hill in the middle of the town. Shock was frustrating sometimes, thought the Raichu, countering a Weavile's swiping claws with bladestrokes as he reluctantly fought his way towards the village greens.
Why did he need a partner to fight? He had a sword! Did he really need help? Thalia was the exception, yes... but Thalia-- slash-- wasn't-- stab-- here. He didn't want to work with other Pokemon in battle, especially since the one Pokemon he really trusted as an ally wasn't around right now.
Above the battlefield soared the leader of the Exile troops, a tiny floating body that was no larger than Mew's. Its body was teal, while its head was pink with fleshy appendages, reminiscent of Lyther's aura sensors, a red gem on either of its tails and its forehead. "Uwee-hee-hee!" giggled Mesprit gaily as pink psi-bolts rained down across the battlefield over the heads of her enemies. "Think fast!"
A violet-eyed Graveler came cannonballing down as Sparktail arrived at the foot of the grassy mount, sending a tremor through the earth that caused the Raichu's legs to buckle, sending him toppling back down the hillside. Hissing, he leveled the three-foot blade at the Graveler, then dropped back down with closed eyes as his foe slid down towards him, flinging a fistful of gravel that stung his fur.
Before the Raichu could strike, a Water Pulse shot past from behind him and blasted the Graveler in the face, knocking it flat on its back with a tremendous crash. His heart pounding furiously, Sparktail slowly rose and turned to see Wyrn sliding down the hill towards him. "We've gotta watch each other's' back, just like Shock said," said the Buizel calmly.
Sighing, Sparktail wiped the grit off his blade and tail before rushing back into the fray. Quickly he brought up his sword to parry a Sneasel's swiftly thrashing claws, which tore at his flesh painfully as he slashed back. Shoving his foe back with his tail, the Raichu whirled around with a flurry of crackling slashes as a Prinplup charged at him, leaving gashes on the penguin's torso as he ducked to avoid a swarm of diving Combees.
At that moment, a fearsome Seviper reared up behind him with a rattling hiss that made his blood go cold. Frantic, the Raichu rolled aside as the giant snake struck for him, ducking under the swish of its tail, trying to slash at its coils before it could wrap around him, but the inky black scales were too thick. Serpents were the greatest predator of mice, more terrible than cats, more terrible than hawks; its massive fangs stirred some terrible panic in him that he didn't understand.
Quickly backing away from the snake, trying to fend off the darting mouth, the Raichu spun as a Skuntank approaching with outstretched jaws and sharpened claws. Though the Skuntank did not have the deadly reflexes of the Seviper, all Sparktail could see as he slashed were jaws swollen with poison sacs, in front and behind, deadly fangs lunging at him for the killing blow. As he lashed at them with electric streaks and frantic slashes, the Seviper and the Skuntank forced Sparktail up the hill with his every step, their eyes gleaming.
As they reached the top of the hill, the Seviper gave a shriek as a white paw with long black claws grasped the base of its tail and yanked the writhing serpent away. Dumbfounded, Sparktail and the Skuntank both turned to stare as the Zangoose swung the Seviper around in a circle before dashing its head against the ground with a cry.
Finally tearing his eyes from the serpent's body, the Raichu whirled around and sprang at the Skuntank, thrusting his blade into its body with a pop. Coughing, his eyes watered as residual fumes escaped from the skunk's body, stinging his eyes and nose and mouth and throat; he couldn't imagine what a full dosage might be like.
The Raichu had barely extracted his sword when a psychic wave flew past him from behind. "Aah, if it isn't the sword-holder," cooed Mesprit as it flew past him with a psychic wave that caught him like a punch to the gut. "Are you feeling lonely? Don't worry... Mesprit is here to play!"
Grunting, the Raichu sprang out of the way as pink psi-bolts rained down on him. What was going on? Slashing with every turn, he spun around with a lightning flash from a paw that caught Mesprit, who gasped before whirling around with magenta laser-whips that sent nasty jolts of pain across his nerves with every sting. Why was she targeting him? He should have known he couldn't hide from Giratina--
"Such rogue emotions for such a rogue warrior," taunted his foe as he struck. Sparktail flinched in mid-slash-- her voice sounded too much like Thalia's-- just enough for Mesprit to dart off unscathed, shooting back at him. "Even a child could read your mind!"
Swearing as a large glowing future-sight rune appeared on the ground under his paws, he bolted before the symbol burst into a destructive geyser of light behind him. Electricity and psi-bolts flew across the air as he chased after his smirking opponent.
As the Raichu sprang at Mesprit with a cry, a wave of white energy flew from her paw at him, hurtling him back to the ground with a crash. Rolling to his paws, he gathered energy into his tail, then howled as the energy whips struck his leg, jarring his senses and sending his thunderbolt off target.
Violet shadows flickered around of the makeshift arena on the edges of Sparktail's vision, darting in and out like the Seviper's fangs. The Raichu struggled to block out the darkness and focus on Mesprit as they exchanged bolts; with each successful hit of his, the tiny Pokemon only giggled harder before blasting him painfully.
"Feel the pain coursing through your body, the agony of your surroundings," hissed the pink sprite with a cruel smile, the crimson gems on her forehead and tails glowing as she gathered energy into her body. "Feel how heavy your heart is, weighted down by emotions, how terrible it is to feel so much about the world around you... how much of yourself you sacrifice for this savage land!"
Savage land... Slick's land. Shaking his head slowly, the Raichu slashed at Mesprit rapidly, blue electricity flying from his blade across the grass. Letting out a terrible squeal as the shock-waves blasted her back, the Pokemon's innocent eyes turned to fury as electricity coursed through her flesh.
"Such crude manners," hissed Mesprit as she shook off the electricity, her spell lost, the force-field dome collapsing all around them. "So easily riled... We must play again sometime!" Sinking to the ground again, breathing hard, Sparktail stared after Mesprit as she fled off into the sky.
The late-morning Hoenn sun beat down on the back of Thalia's neck as she, Speedster, Ketrail, the Sneasel, and Hephaestus continued up the sandy path towards the Vulcan League at Mount Chimney. The tips of her leaves were growing withered and dry, wrinkled beneath the baking heat of the arid lands.
Looming up high above them were the rust-red ridges of Mount Chimney, dotted with rising geysers of steam, its summit belching a thick plume of sulfuric exhaust. As the Leafeon stared up past the rocky slopes towards the volcano's infernal crater, billowing with overwhelming swells of heat, prickles of fear began to tug at her fur, the dust of the road hot underfoot.
Next to Thalia, Ketrail broke into a stripe-furred grin as he noticed the Leafeon's rising discomfort. "Aren't you the Leafeon who took down a Misdreavus?" asked the Zigzagoon cheekily. "I thought you said you weren't afraid of anything."
Thalia glared at Ketrail. "I said I didn't know what fear was," whispered the Leafeon as they padded on, irritated. "And um, well, now I do, because... I don't like fire." And that was true, she thought as both Ketrail and Speedster smirked. Fire and smoke would always go paw-in-paw with death for Thalia. Why had Shock sent her to escort Hephaestus, knowing that Thalia would take the Camerupt to a volcano?
"Murkrows! Get down!" yelled the Sneasel, breaking the Leafeon's reverie, claws outstretched and halting in the middle of the road. Alarmed, vines shot out from the bud at the back of Thalia's neck and spiraled down her fore legs, securing her paws to the handles of the leaf-blades sprouting from her wrists. Murkrows would tear her to shreds. Glancing up towards the sky, panic swept Thalia as a swarm of angrily screeching black-feathered birds swooped down through the air... and flew straight at her.
"Oh, crap!" yelped the Leafeon, dropping low to the ground as the murder of Murkrows surrounded her on all sides, their ravenous gazes rising and diving at her from every direction as she frantically darted out of their reach. Cawing and thrashing their wings, their talons ripped away tufts of fur and leaves even as Thalia tried to evade their vicious beaks. Dark feathers blotted out as she shrieked and rolled aside again and again, away from three Murkrows and into five more.
Out of the corner of her eye, just beyond the dashing wings of Murkrows, more carrion-feeders had swarmed Ketrail, raking their talons across his striped fur and tail. Hephaestus was nowhere to be seen as more Murkrows cornered Speedster, their wild cawing causing the Eevee to cringe. The Sneasel darted out of the crows' reaches, frantically swiping at her foes.
Yelping in pain as a Murkrow snatched her leafy tail in its beak, Thalia rolled over onto her back and desperately slashed with her leaf blades at her starving foes, only for the crows to hack both blades to ribbons. "Help! Sparktail!" yowled Thalia as she drew Shensing and Hador, forgetting for a moment that he wasn't there, engulfed in a sea of whirling black feathers and shrieking chaos.
She struck at the birds again and again as they dove, but there was something wrong with her swords as she stabbed, a subtle grating sensation like bones grinding at each other, and it grew worse and worse with every swing. Then, as Murkrow talons curled around the blades, she felt each of her swords warp ever-so-slightly, before both suddenly snapped free from their hilts. Horrified, the Leafeon stumbled back from her.
Suddenly, a slender ribbon of fire shot through the air and struck a Murkrow, setting its feathers aflame and sending it screaming off into the distance. Thalia's eyes shot open wide as a barrage of fireballs blasted the crows surrounding her, sending them wailing into panicked flailing. As their attackers flapped around in terrified circles with burning feathers and witch hats like torches, Thalia, Speedster, Ketrail, and the Sneasel slowly rose to their paws and stared at each other in wide-eyed disarray.
Her heart still pounding furiously with the heat of battle, Thalia reluctantly let the vines around her paws retract into the bud at the nape of her neck, letting the useless steel hilts fall to the ground. Feeling thoroughly lost, the Leafeon stared at the broken remnants of her swords, and her entire body trembled.
"Hey! Sparktail!" called a voice as the weary Raichu descended the bloody hill, the battle won, Mesprit and her minions long departed. "Why don't you ever listen?" said Wyrn angrily, padding up to Sparktail. "We're supposed to stick together. If you'd just listened to Shock, we could've taken down that psychic fairy together, and we'd be done with her!"
Tired, irritated because the young Buizel was probably right, Sparktail looked away and didn't answer. In the fields of Verdanturf, the fighting had finally subsided, and the last of Giratina's soldiers were fleeing into the woods, a snarling Shock at their heels. All around him, he saw bodies; no matter what he felt in the heat of battle, it felt wrong to see so much death, even if most of them were his enemies.
"Ugh, this isn't what I expected home to be like," sighed Amber from a few feet away, her eyes wide with fear. Glancing around the lush field again, Sparktail noticed that other members of the patrol were emerging from various nooks and crannies, carrying wounded survivors in their arms and on their backs. "I know Shock told us Verdanturf would be bad, but... not this bad..."
"Sparktail! Amber! I didn't expect to see Shock's patrol here already!" called a musical voice emerging from the trees overhead. Blinking, Sparktail sheathed his sword as Altaria the Herald descended from the sky, carrying Kyriaon her back. "I'm glad that the revolution's wheels are finally turning..."
Sparktail and the others quickly backed away from her falling shadow, giving her a clear landing zone on the grass "I'm sorry I couldn't speak to you and Thalia, before," said the Herald as she landed in a ruffle of white feathers. "Speaking of which, I don't see Thalia around here...?"
"H-hey, Altaria." He stared at the Herald. "It's, um... good to see you. Thalia's doing a mission for Shock..." The Raichu shifted uncomfortably as the Zangoose who saved him earlier emerged from a den with a badly wounded Lairon. "But what're you doing here?"
"Oh, Shock is a decent commander, so I'm sure you and Thalia are in good paws," replied Altaria as Kyria dismounted from her back, a large human first-aid kit cradled under her arm. "I came to deliver Kyria to Verdanturf, as per Shock's request. And-"
"Hey, Altaria!" called Amber. Sparktail blinked as the Pikachu eagerly ran up to the Herald. "Looks like you're okay! We heard you collapsed on the way back to the Conclave."
Altaria blinked, then smiled. "Ah! Long time no see, Amber. I'm sorry we've Were you worried about me?"
The Pikachu blinked. "Me? Of course not," she said hastily. "You can take care of Everyone else"
Sparktail glanced between Amber and the Herald. There was something nostalgic about seeing them together. "So, uh... you two know each other, then?" said the Raichu tenatively.
Altaria laughed softly. "That's right! I never mentioned it," said the Herald, closing her eyes with a gentle smile. "Do you remember when we recovered the Orbs? I didn't learn the locations on my own. I had help from my friends." She patted Amber with a fluffy wing. "Amber here helped me find the Red Orb."
Amber pulled away from the Herald. "Oh, yeah! Glad that my map came in handy, I guess," said the Pikachu briskly,. "Not that you needed help, right? Someone like you."
Sparktail looked down at his paws. "The map really did help," he managed to say. Amber glanced at him, surprised. "Thank you."
"Thalia... you're... a mess," rasped Ketrail between hyperventilating breaths, the ground between them strewn with Murkrow feathers and scattered fur. And it was true. Thalia's entire pelt was ragged and torn from countless peckings and clawings, her leafy ears and tail nicked and cut to the membrane. Coated with the dust of the fray, Thalia sighed and looked down at her paws, wishing more strongly than ever that Sparktail was here.
"Sorry I took so long," boomed Hephaestus, perched high on a low mountain ledge from where the fireballs had originated, watching as the last of the screaming Murkrows fled into the distance. "But I kinda ran into a few friends of mine. 'S thanks to them th't you're alive, see."
At once, the three Retrievers glanced up sharply towards the Camerupt's voice to see him standing at the top of the ledges beside a Torkoal, a Ninetales, a Blaziken, and several Combuskens.
"Retrievers," rumbled Hephaestus as the three Pokemon climbed up onto the mountain ledge to join the Vulcanite warriors.
"Lemme 'ntroduce my oldest friend, Sir Torrid--" The Blaziken nodded and raised a gauntleted fist.
"Colonel Coals--" The Torkoal bowed his head proudly.
"The Vulcanite 23rd regiment--" The Combuskens gathered around Captain Torrid nodded in acknowledgement.
"And last, but by no means least, the Lady Shanala." Startled, Thalia glanced to the Ninetales, disappointed in herself. Why hadn't she recognized her old friend at first?
"Greetings, Retrievers, and welcome to Vulcan Outpost Chimney," spoke Shanala, her voice clear and deliberate, containing hints of subtle dignity. Thalia frowned, wondering why the Ninetales' voice seemed a bit off, but she pushed the thought aside. "Lieutenant Hephaestus informs us that you are of the Honorable Major Shock's patrol. Our general, Insyte, will be most pleased to speak with you."
Wyrn, Speedster, Ketrail, and Thalia exchanged glances. "Um, you don't need to be so formal or anything, Shan," chuckled the Leafeon nervously. "But it's good to see you. How much further up the mountain is the entrance?" The Ninetales gave a smile, but did not reply. Grinning as well, Hephaestus motioned with his head to two Combuskens, who nodded and strode over to the mountainous rock wall behind the Vulcanites.
Standing side-by-side, they set their talon-like claws into some rock crevice between their bodies that Thalia could not see, and then pulled away from each other. The igneous stones groaned beneath the warriors' strengths, then divided along the crack into two halves and slid away into the craggy walls on either side to unveil the entrance of an eight-foot-high passageway cut far into the depths of Mount Chimney.
"Altaria the Herald, and Kyria the Healer," greeted Shock, the other Pokemon quickly parting way to let him approach the Herald. "At last, you've come. We've got a lot of badly wounded Pokemon down here, and we can't do a thing about them."
The Raichu's attention began to drift as Kyria and Altaria returned Shock's greetings. He watched as the Gardevoir wove her way towards the wounded Pokemon and humans, the hem of her cloak rippling gently around her green legs in the soft meadow breeze.
Setting down her first-aid kit, the Gardevoir knelt down beside the Lairon that the Zangoose had found, who lay half-conscious on his back with several nasty gashes across his unarmored gray belly. Gazing apprehensively, she glanced to the Zangoose, who was now kneeling at the armadillo's side. "Was he on his back when you found him?" asked Kyria calmly.
The Zangoose nodded numbly, her eyes wide. "He kept muttering something under his breath," she said, staring at the Lairon's wounds. "Must've been weak from blood loss; he barely resisted when I picked him up. Good thing, too. My claws might've injured him again if he struggled."
She took a deep breath. "Kyria, listen... Barrel's a childhood friend of mine," added the Zangoose. "Please, save him if you can."
"The wounds don't seem fresh- they may have been there for a few days," murmured the Gardevoir, returning her attention to the victim's wounds. The Gardevoir ran a gentle hand across the Lairon's cheek, then slowly traced each of the slashes with a finger.
"The wounds are slender and deep, more like knives than claws." She turned over one of the Zangoose's paws, exposing her black claws. "Notice how your claws are much thicker at the base, closer to the knuckles- and claws would rip at the flesh." Kyria gently let go of the Zangoose's paw, allowing the horrified warrior to stare at her friend. "But if you see how the flesh has split, the wound is clean, not jagged."
She took a small vial of blue liquid from the first-aid kit, dribbling the serum over Barrel's wounds. "Barrel, my friend," said Kyria gently and clearly as her stirring patient let out small cries of pain. "Can you speak?"
Rocking from side to side, the Lairon took a deep, shuddering breath. "He killed them all," gasped Barrel, staring past Kyria, pawing at the air. "We had no ties with humans, and yet Omega killed every last one of them. My family, gone. Curse Omega, curse the Red Dragon, curse the Exile!"
A chill ran down Sparktail's spine. To think that the Lairon was just one of many wounded that Kyria would tend to tonight, just another mangled victim of Slick's madness. Turning back towards Shock and Altaria, the Raichu stood at attention with the rest of his patrol, one paw firmly clenching the hilt of his sword.
As the rocky gates crashed to a halt, kicking up a haze of dust in the tunnel's mouth, the fatigued Combuskens each dropped to one knee, while the Retrievers all jumped in fright. "Whoa," squeaked Thalia, her fur standing on end in fright, staring far into the dark depths of the volcano's passage. "That... I... how was that even possible--"
"Oh, come on, Thalia," said Ketrail, though his hind paws too were quaking in terror. "All good mountain hideouts have hidden entrances. The- the doors are... camouflaged so no one can find them..." He turned around in a circle. "I mean... even lone Pokemon in the fields hide the entrances of their dens. It's kill or be killed in the wilderness. Everyone knows that."
At the Zigzagoon's words, Thalia's cheeks flushed even darker red-- it never occurred to her that Pokemon in the wild had to hide just to survive. Was this common knowledge amongst wild Pokemon? Were these things that she would have known, if Slick had never captured her?
"Larger hideouts like Cinnabar aren't like that, actually, and it's not as common in the lands north of Kanto," replied Shanala, her voice lower and more relaxed than before. Then, as if remembering her title and duty, she gracefully rose to all fours and continued with dignity, "Retrievers, let us proceed through the Fiery Path. All of you are badly wounded, and I am sure my lord shall wish to see the heroes who brought Hephaestus home."
Retrievers exchanged glances as Shock raised his head and Altaria rose off into the sky. "Listen up," said the Manectric as the patrol huddled around him. "The Magmortar blockade at Lilycove's been broken, thanks to Lyther and our fellow Retrievers at Sootopolis. Skarmories will reach the port in three days, waiting to transport patrols to Sootopolis."
There was a small cheer from the listening Pokemon. "There's just one small problem," said Shock, his voice growing somber. "Magmortar reinforcements are also approaching the cove; Lyther says he may not have enough reinforcements to break through this time. If we don't reach Lilycove in time, we could find ourselves pinned down for weeks, leaving Sootopolis open to attack--"
He broke off as he saw a Tauros laying on his side, badly wounded, blood still trickling onto the grass. "My apologies," said the Manectric, shaking his head, looking pained. "I know many of you are weary. Many of you have not slept in days; you have not traveled so far in such short time. This journey shall not be easy on any of us; the northeast jungles are the most dangerous parts of Hoenn. Those who wish to stay..."
A faint shudder ran through the crowd as his eyes ran over them. "Those who wish to stay at Verdanturf... may be discharged without repercussions," said Shock, almost sadly. "But..." Sparktail followed Shock's gaze to the east, toward the dark-green blur of thick forests on the horizon. "But for the rest of us... the road lies onward."