Legend of the Exile, Chapter 39: Witch's Bridge
Flesh fed red jaws by the dragon's design
Crowned as king at the splattered shrine
They worshipped his murders with sacrifice
A kiss to their kinsmen's bones, now pale as lice
Always running, always racing against death. "Restless," muttered Thalia as the four sprinted through the jungle, following the scents of their patrol. "That's what it is-- Hoenn is restless." What could compel Pokemon to take sides, to rise from their dens and turn upon each other? What cry had swept through the wilderness, spurring it to claws and teeth?
Speedster blinked and looked to her, as if surprised by her words. "Maybe it is, but it's not usually like that," exclaimed Ketrail, bounding alongisde the Leafeon. The young Zigzagoon's eyes were on the jungle growth ahead, tiny paws racing against the vine-crossed ground. "From the outside, at least, Hoenn can look beautiful... tranquil... even peaceful."
"It was never like that," hissed Lane, his slender eyes darting around the dark, jagged vegetation. "It was humans who held Pokemon in check, who maintained the balance of nature. But without their authority to hold us accountable, we find ourselves becoming the very savages that the Exile desires us to be!"
It was mid-morning, and the patrol had arrived at the East Mauville River. Sparktail's senses were filled with the sights and scents of the Hoenn wilderness as the patrol settled, the numerous plants and trees that were flush with dark-green life, inhaling the unique mixture of earthy and briny scents of the jungle.
Settling down in a patch of grass with his sword across his lap, Sparktail examined his blade carefully, remembering his sword lessons from Slick; regular maintenance was important for regular usage. But between the cloudy stains of residue, the steel shone bright as if polished, like shards of a broken mirror.
He wiped the stains off with a damp cloth, and the gleaming blade was pristine where it should have gone dull, the edges just as sharp and exact as they were when he first wielded the weapon, like the facets of a gemstone.
He sighed and put the sword away. Lately, his attempts to figure out what was going on was like trying to catch a Latias. Every time Sparktail thought he understood what was going on, a little more of the truth would expose itself and open up new worlds of possibility. But that was just the way life was, right?
Glancing around his allies, Sparktail felt a tiny compulsion to join in on their conversations, but he quickly forced that thought down. There was only one Pokemon he ever needed to talk to, anyway, he silently told himself, and she wasn't here right now.
"Quiet," ordered Delia suddenly. At once, the voices fell silent, giving way to the rushing of the waters, the rustling of tree branches and tall grasses, and the faint chirps of innocent Taillows. "Something's not right here... We probably shouldn't have stopped here, no..."
In the distance, Sparktail could sense faint pawsteps, somewhere in the ground. "About two to three Pokemon, perhaps four," muttered Delia as she began to pace around, her voice low but discernable, her eyes scanning the ground for tracks that Sparktail could not see. "But no one should be here..."
"I heard there's a witch that roams this sort of woods," said the Growlithe. "It's a terrible thing with such an innocent body, like a helpless child. But if you get too close, it immobilizes you with an icy kiss, and feasts upon your flesh. Then, it wears your fur like a second skin to disguise itself as as you!"
"I heard something like that too, Fabian," whispered back the Zangoose. "Someone told me that a witch cuts open the bodies of sleeping travelers in the woods, then takes out their hearts and replaces them with rocks. Once she finishes stitching you back together, she controls you like a puppet, forever. If you ever feel someone creeping up behind you and tap your shoulder, late at night, that's probably her!"
The other Pokemon shuddered. "Bone up, all of you," snapped Delia, coming to a stop, her predatory eyes falling on Sparktail, who froze like a deer caught in a car's headlights late at night. "You there, Raichu. Go on and check out the bridge up ahead for traps."
Flinching, Sparktail rose to his paws and padded out of the clearing, feeling as if Delia's hunting gaze was burning into his back. Keeping one paw at his sword's hilt, the Raichu followed the trail up towards the bridge up ahead, the Mauville River thundering beneath his paws.
A sturdy bridge spanned the width of the gorge before him, connecting the low cliffs on either side of with logs and thick cables. The construction looked sturdy enough to him, but he wasn't an expert. How would he know if the bridge could hold his weight without actually walking across it?
The Raichu took a step forward onto the bridge, and something shifted in the bushes behind him. Forcing himself to ignore it, he took another step. The bridge creaked slightly, but seemed sturdy enough to hold him. Step-by-step, he crossed the gorge and moved into the trees on the far side, fur coated with spray from the tumbling water below.
Thump-thump. Sparktail stopped as he entered the clearing; the ground vibrated with heavy footsteps in the distance, then nothing. Frowning, he glanced around the clearing, but he was alone. His nose picked up the scent of Exile soldiers in the air, but couldn't tell what direction it came from.
Thump-thump. Again he heard and felt the sound. The Raichu scanned the clearing more carefully this time. But no eyes gleamed from the trees, no tails swished in the bushes. Were there Rhyperiors nearby? There couldn't have been that many Rhyperiors after the battle of Indigo Plateau, right?
Thump-thump. Sparktail held still with growing fear as he heard the step, feeling as if the clearing was closing in on him. His paw-pads grew damp with sweat, the sword slipping slightly. Thump-thump, thump-thump. His fur stood up as he heard a familiar cry in the distance. Was that his imagination, or was the story of Witch's Bridge real after all?
Without warning, the tree before him began to move. Sparktail stared as a pair of eyes and a red mouth cracked open on the wriggling body, green balls protruding from its branchlike arms like clustered leaves. Drawing his sword, the Raichu slowly turned in a circle as another tree came to life, followed by another, and then yet another-- four in all.
The Raichu leapt out of the way as the Sudowoodos swung for him. Rolling to his paws, he swung at the nearest foe, but his sword bounced off the stone bark with a sharp, jarring sound. Leaping away, he swung again at the trunk with more force, but the entire sword shook from tip to pommel upon impact, nearly breaking his grip.
As he whirled around to flee, he tasted blood and pain as a Sudowoodo landed a blow to the side of his jaw. He stumbled back to the clearing's center gasping as heavy blows crashed at him from all directions. Panicking, the Raichu lashed out with electricity, not expecting anything to happen, surprised when the rock-trees recoiled from the scattered discharge.
Stamp. Stamp. Stamp. Breathing hard, Sparktail stared as the Sudowoodos circled him in a slow, ominous dance. In the distance, he thought he heard cold, childlike laughter. Shaking his head, he swung at the nearest one's arm, shattering the green pods like crystal glass. Then, as he gathered another thunderbolt, another Sudowoodo brutally decked him from behind.
As the Sudowoodos loomed over him, a shrill Leafeon cry came through the trees. Whirling razor leaves tore at the Sudowoodo's rocklike skin, ripping into the raw flesh underneath. "Hold on, Spark! I'm here!" called Thalia as she tumbled into the clearing. "Yah!" Wiping blood from his mouth, the Raichu sprang up as two more Sudowoodos came to life behind the Leafeon, pulling their gnarled legs free from the earth.
Chittering eagerly, the four Sudowoodos circled the two Pokemon standing back-to-back. Thalia rolled under her opponent's swiping branches, vines snaring the stone trunk from behind. Tail grounded, Sparktail struck the charging Sudowoodo with a thunderbolt, shattering the leaf-pods, keeping his eyes shut to shield them from shrapnel. Giving a war cry, Speedster sprang out from the trees in a blur of brown fur, knocking the Sudowoodo to the ground, its body cracking in half like a broken statue.
At the same time, Lane leapt down from the branches in his chainmail, saber raised. Rolling as he landed, the Sneasel hacked at a Sudowoodo from behind, his curved blade nicking at the club-like arms. At once, the Sudowoodo whirled around to face the Sneasel, then groaned as Sparktail pushed his blade into a groove in the faux-tree's back, splintering its body open with a nasty crack.
Flinging Thalia aside with a swift blow, a Sudowoodo faltered as Ketrail crawled up the back of its trunk. Barking loudly, the mail-clad Zigzagoon smashed his paws into the back of the wriggling tree's head, tiny cracks spreading under impact. Stumbling to her paws, Thalia struck out with her blades at the struggling Sudowoodo, moving back from its swiping blows, until it too crumbled into dust.
As the clearing finally fell silent, Sparktail let go of his sword and stared at Thalia, dazed and confused. The witch's story echoed in his head. The Sudowoodos had blended into the trees too easily; their ambush had been perfect. What if this was another trap? Was this the real Thalia, and how would he know if it was?
"Sparktail?" The Raichu blinked. "Hey, you all right?" asked Thalia, frowning at him, as if sensing is turmoil. Feeling ashamed, Sparktail looked down at his paws, his fur falling flat. Then, he smiled, nodded silently, and hugged the Leafeon close, burying his nose in her warm fur as she hugged him back.
In the distance, they heard the shuffling of paws, crashing through the undergrowth. "What on earth is taking you so long?" demanded Delia's voice. At once, both Sparktail and Thalia froze as the Delcatty entered the clearing, followed by Fabian, Sheltur, and the Zangoose whose name Sparktail still didn't know. There was silence as the rest of Shock's patrol gathered alongside the Delcatty, who stared at the clearing, bewildered.
"Welcome back, you four," said Delia finally, looking to Lane, Ketrail, Thalia, and Speedster, then frowning at the scattered rock debris. "I don't know what's been going on here, but we'd best get to Fortree. Alpheral's patrol can't hold out forever against that infestation." Both embarrassed, Sparktail and Thalia let go of each other as Thalia's rejoined the patrol's ranks. Then, with a nod from Delia, the Retrievers set off into the woods.
Lyther knelt down in the Cave of Origin's deepest chamber, draped in his blue-and-white cloak. The walls of the great cavern glittered with red, blue, and green crystals, like finest jewelry, sloping down from the ceiling towards the floor. In the bottom-most pit stood eight consecrated boulders all around the edges of the shallow basin, placed with perfect symmetry such that they would form a compass-rose, a ninth boulder at its center.
Eight sacred names had been written upon the eight outer stones, but the ninth bore the names of commoners, not only the names of the blessed, but the names of all Pokemon and human alike. The lesson illustrated by the Cave of Origin was inescapable: "The gods exist to serve the people. Only when the gods serve the people, do they deserve the people's honor, for without the people, there would be no gods."
Taking a deep breath, Lyther clutched his spear tight as he remembered Slick reciting the parable, reading aloud the ancient names upon the stones. He could not accept the lesson. Lugia had seen how far he had fallen into chaos, and raised him back into the light. He knew that the gods cared for this world, and cared for him, in ways undeserved.
"Aah, but Giratina is a god, is he not?" came the deep, unseen voice of Kyogre as it always did when Lyther mediated here. The ancient voice held no malice, but pressed upon the Lucario with a desire to make Lyther understand. "Open your mind, young warrior. See the world for what it is, not for what it claims to be."
Lyther held his spear all the more tightly as he stared down at the misshapen boulders, shaped by nature itself, the last sign of the ancient islander tribes, nine nations united under two heroes against a pair of warring gods. "This is a land of chaos," said the Lucario, speaking in both voice and mind. "Hoenn's history is one of war and turmoil, united by fear, forged in darkness."
"You blind yourself," said Kyogre, his voice like a crashing wave- not harsh, not aggressive, but strong, and the Lucario pulled his cape closer around him with a shiver. "Do you not see the ancient legacy within the wilderness, how the children of the wild learn from their ancestors? Do you not see the footsteps of Hoenn's ancients, whose only temples are the living forest? And have you not seen how your allies have changed, traveling through the wilderness? The earth and the seas are alive, Lucario, and they resonate in all things."
"You are the living spirit of the oceans," said Lyther, bowing his head low in understanding, his cloak drawn about his body. "You are the ones who rule over the masses, the only ones who truly matter. You are the one who brings Hoenn to life, you and Groudon and Rayquaza. You are the gods of Hoenn, are you not?"
An invisible surge of fury made him shudder. "Do you worship the earth, or the sea, or the sky?" said Kyogre. " Do you worship the sun or the moon or the stars, cold and ever shining? I am not a god, not to you, nor to myself; not even to the human natives. I am but an imperfect spirit. Nature has always been a cyclical force, war and peace, night and day, death and life, child to man. No doctrine can tame it, and no power can control it..."
The Raichu dashed at a Heracross marked by Giratina's crest with blade in paw, his lightning-bolt cheeks glowing with golden sparks as the thrill of battle rushed through his veins. His sword rebounded off his foe's horn, the steel vibrating with a second strike, forcing the bark beetle back with a third.
His tail lashing a figure eight against the green turf, the Raichu gathered lightning into his free paw and blasted the Heracross in the face, sending it stumbling back with a squeal. He lunged forward and continued slashing at the stunned Heracross. Sword met horn again and again until steel triumphed over chitin, watching as Thalia leapt into the fray.
"So there's been no sign of Shock or Amber since you left them behind?" called Thalia, ducking low to avoid a Parasect's pincers as Sparktail blasted a Yanma swooping down from a nearby bridge. "Wow. Of all the Pokemon who could've stayed with him..."
"Yeah." Sparktail spun around and cleaved a Wormadam in two, sending the bug and its shredded grass-cloak to the ground, his eyes scanning the houses in the trees overhead. It'd been years since he last saw the city in the forest canopy. "Funny how things work out."
"They're probably tearing each other's throats out by now," laughed Thalia as she brought her blades into a cross to deflect a pair of barbed horns. Dropping low as a number of poison-stings flew past her head, her vine-twined paws drove parallel blades into a Pinsir's body. "And those bite marks that look like a Delcatty's--"
"Aieee!" shrieked a Poochyena from behind them as he was snatched off his paws. Exchanging glances, both Raichu and Leafeon whirled around to see an Ariados looming high over them, the pup's paws vanishing into the giant spider's mouth.
Quickly, Sparktail stepped in front of Thalia as the Ariados caught sight of them. "Hey, what're you doing?" hissed the Leafeon as the great spider reared up onto its back four legs, its mandibles clicking together. "You'll just get yourself hurt!"
The Raichu shook his head. "Just trust me," he whispered back. As the giant orange spider charged towards them, the Raichu darted under the Ariados with his sword ready, slicing a line down the arachnid's belly, the blade vibrating in his paws.
Screeching angrily, yellow fluids dripping from the cracks in its exoskeleton, the giant spider whirled around to face the Raichu with flashing eyes. Then, both Thalia and Sparktail stared as snarling Linoones lunged out from the bushes for the giant spider, their jaws sinking into the slender legs and tearing away, ripping its body to pieces with furious barks.
In a mere two weeks, the atmosphere of the Vulcanite keep at Mt. Chimney had reversed itself from fear to bravery. With the Vulcanites freed from slavery in the Red Dragon's mines, Insyte had watched as the Pokemon rose with weapons and armor, fire and claws, joining his army with the justice cry.
Upon his first arrival, Insyte had come face-to-face with a Blaziken-- the master blacksmith Torrid, sheltered within a concealed passage. Though first in doubt of Insyte's claims, he soon trusted the Flareon on seeing the flaming jewel upon his master's neck. And thus the battle had been swift and fierce and decisive, to purge the hideout of the usurper Heatran's allies.
"Not one among us shall embrace the shadowed door," assured Captain Torrid as he patted Hephaestus' muzzle, a sledgehammer slung over his shoulder. "I trust Insyte to be what Heatran could never be. He stood against our enemies alone. We are not his shield; but he would be ours.
But as he and his warriors padded through the ash-fields in the volcano's shadow, the Flareon was as troubled as ever. For though great changes had come to the mountain, he was not truly convinced that he had been the catalyst that set things in motion. Did these Pokemon truly trust him in their hearts?
Shadows flickered around the fire-light of a Charmander's tail, a sea of ashes and blackened timbers with hills and valleys, cold gray dust swirling in the wind. Insyte stared at the bleak landscape around him, pale flakes of ash sticking to his fur and pelt.
Here and there, he saw hardened, black depressions in the earth where lava had flowed and cooled, the earth scarred from the liquid flame. He could not bring himself to look at the skeletal remains, the buried flesh and the scorched imprints, all that remained of the village who farmed in the ash-fields.
"It will all grow back," said Shanala gently, padding alongside the Flareon, red eyes twinkling as her gaze swept over the destroyed village. "Yes, many good people died in the eruption... but their ashes return to the earth, and make the soiled fertile again.. Many trees of the forest have been destroyed, but they make way for new life."
The Flareon stopped, turned his head to stare at the Ninetales, his queen. "So simple, so easy to accept the role off a cleansing fire, and forget the memories of those who died," said Insyte heavily, staring down at the ground. "Was this Giratina's work, or did he let Hoenn tear itself apart? Was this inevitable? Or... or could these people have been saved?"