Legend of the Exile, Chapter 40: Emerald Forests
The seal is broken, the time draws near
A thousand phantom hearts are beating
Mind and soul bound together by fear
The open gates of the master's feeding
Swish, swish, swish. As the patrol continued down through the jungle grasses, Sparktail emerged from the bushes with a few blue fruits with green, leaflike skin, some fresh claw marks on his shoulder. Frowning, Thalia gave Sparktail a quizzical look as he hurried to her with the Cornn berries, joining her in the patrol line. "Don't worry, they'll heal," said the Raichu quickly.
She looked at the claw marks again but did not press the issue. Sprouting a razor leaf from her paw-wrist, the Leafeon peeled away the cornn's layered skin. "Dry but sweet," murmured Thalia as she bit into the flesh, closing her eyes and savoring the taste. After several more bites, she nodded and stored the half-eaten berry in her bag and grinned up at Sparktail. "Mmm, this isn't too bad. Thanks!"
"Of course," he said, smiling. "Sorry I couldn't find Hondews." Storing one of the berries in his bag, he peeled open the third fruit and took a bite. Cornn was dry, with a firm texture; but it had a faint sweet aftertaste, not as sweet as Mago--which was too sweet for Thalia's liking--but Cornn was satisfying in its own way.
The familiar taste reminded the Raichu of the odd feeling he'd been having over the last few weeks. He couldn't explain it to himself, but there was something about Hoenn, about the forest and the earth that intrigued him--something fierce and alive. But why? Why did this bizarre land stir such feelings in him?
"Hold your position, we're at the lake!" called Delia from the head of the patrol, jolting Sparktail out of his thoughts. He, Thalia, and the other Retrievers had arrived at the grassy shores of East Fortree Lake, a great expanse of sky-blue water that swirled in a hill-ringed basin, fed by side channels from the Great Mauville River.
A sturdy wooden bridge spanned the great lake's width where the shores were closest, though the waters that calmly swirled four feet beneath those secure wooden slats were far from treacherous.
"That looks like Tropius Bridge, all right," chuckled Delia as the awed patrol gazed across the lake's sun-sparkling surface. She took a step towards the water's edge, her stern-yet-calm gaze flicking to each of the Retrievers on the shore. "We'll wait here for Shock and Amber to arrive. If any of you go wandering off, make sure to travel in pairs."
The others laughed cheerfully and relaxed their muscles, and Sparktail and Thalia exchanged grins. "Wow... that lake's pretty," said Thalia softly. Sparktail nodded silently as the two settled down in a patch of jungle grasses.
As sunlight filled her leaves with warmth, the Leafeon could make out a rocky island resting in the center of the lake, its shard-like structure vaguely reminiscent of rippling flame. "Say, Spark... what do you suppose that island is?" she asked, pointing with a paw towards the rocky spire. "It looks like there's a cave there."
"Oh, that's the Scorched Slab," piped up a youthful voice from next to Sparktail before he could reply. Blinking, both Raichu and Leafeon glanced towards the speaker to see Speedster gazing dreamily towards the island, his eyes aglow. "They say the queen of the sun once hid herself in this volcano."
"Queen of the sun?" echoed Sparktail, exchanging glances with Thalia. "Um... what're you talking about?" Though uneasy, he resisted the impulse to draw his sword. The Raichu felt as if he had caught a glimpse of something forbidden.
"It's a very, very old tale," said the Eevee distantly, his eyes still fixed on the cave. "The sun hid from the belligerence of the sea in that cave for three nights. They say that the sun's heat turned the stones of that cave into living fire..."
Thalia stared blankly at Speedster. For a brief moment, she thought she saw ancient wisdom in those eyes... Then, the Eevee laughed youthfully, boyishly, dispelling the moment.
"It was probably a caldera... you know, the crater left from an extinct volcano," said Speedster as they padded away from the group. "Don't worry about all that. No one remembers the stories of ancient Hoenn, anymore. Its legends have been lost to the eons."
Awkwardly, Sparktail glanced back toward the Scorched Slab, surrounding by the gentle wash of East Fortree Lake. "So... it's a natural formation, then?" asked the Raichu, looking back to Speedster, his tail crackling slightly as they continued down the lakeshore, leaving the patrol behind them. "I thought maybe it was built by Hoenn natives or something. You know, sort of like the cave islands in Sinnoh--"
"The caves of the Magi? They were built by man, yes," said Speedster, glancing back to the Leafeon, his tail swishing. "But those are beautiful and exact. Those were built to house their gods. But this cave..." He pointed down toward the misshapen rock formations, the lake's crooked shores. "Only nature could produce something so irregular."
Thalia and Sparktail exchange awkward looks. Finally, Sparktail glanced to Speedster, his cheeks sparking. "So... if everyone's forgotten, how do you know the stories?" he said slowly. In the distance, waves crashed on the banks of Mount Pyre, far away in the distance. The Eevee only winked and smiled, and both Leafeon and Raichu stared at Speedster blankly.
Thalia and Sparktail exchanged awkward looks. Finally, Sparktail glanced to Speedster, his cheeks sparking. "So... if everyone's forgotten... uh... how do you know the stories?" he said tenatively. fur rippling as waves crashed on the banks of Mount Pyre, far away in the distance. The Eevee only winked and smiled, and both Leafeon and Raichu stared at Speedster blankly.
Then all three of them froze as they heard a rustling in the jungle grasses nearby- they'd left the patrol behind them on the lakeshore, isolated in a clearing amidst a forest of tall foliage. At once, Sparktail drew his sword with both paws and brought it to eye level, cheeks crackling as Thalia readied Shensing and Hador in her vine-twined paws. Speedster's eyes widened fearfully, and he quickly darted behind the two duo. "Who's there?" called Sparktail, narrowing his eyes down his blade towards the rapidly approaching disturbance. "Show yourself!"
"Gladly, my friend," came the grand reply, like a stinging slap from a cold wet towel. "I've been looking for you, Sparktail!" Sparktail exchanged glances with Thalia as Speedster retreated to the edge of the grasses. He remembered this voice- it was the leaders of the Dusknoirs that attacked Shock! But there was something else about this voice, something dark and dangerous.
"Yes, yes, I know your name," commented the mysterious voice, growing louder as it approached the three. "I've been studying you all for quite some time- you, Insyte, Rush, Lute, Lyther, and all of you meddlers attempting to disrupt my master's affairs." Tail halting in mid-lash, Sparktail's heart pulsed raced as an oddly familiar silhouette parted the tall grasses. Shadows concealed the figure's identity, but odd familiarity prickled at the Raichu's fur, the sparks on his cheeks flickering blue.
"Thalia, you get back too," warned Sparktail out of the corner of his mouth, tightening his grip on his sword, his eyes narrowing as anxiety began to gather in clouds within him. "I don't like the sounds of this." Thalia frowned at him and shook her head- Sparktail gave her a pleading look, feeling a twinge of guilt inside, but he stood his ground until the Leafeon reluctantly obeyed.
"Why, isn't that cute," laughed his mysterious opponent, finally emerging from the shadows of the grass. "But that's only natural, I suppose!" Still clutching his sword at eye level in sweaty paws, Sparktail's heart dashed over a beat as he caught sight of the other warrior's face, both Speedster and Thalia gasping behind him. Standing across from Sparktail in the clearing stood a- a-
...a Raichu with jagged, scarred cheeks and green eyes, a glowing sword on his back, a leather satchel across one shoulder, matching Sparktail detail for detail- down to the subtle scar on his left shoulder and the shape of his sword's hilt.
The true Sparktail shuddered as he stared at his doppelganger, his heart pounding furiously. Did Sparktail always have that savage gleam in his eyes, when he entered battle? Did his cheeks crackle with red sparks in the flush of battle? There was just one key difference: On the other Raichu's paw, he could see the black and white symbol of the Hexwraiths. "Who are you?" whispered Sparktail, shaking his head, the world beyond this clearing dark and unimportant now, every sense bristling with his imposter. "You're not me--"
"But am I not what you could have been?" whispered back the other Raichu, drawing his blade and bringing it to eye level just as Sparktail himself had. Sparktail stared at his foe's sword, identical to his own, gleaming pristine like a jewel. He winced at the harsh smile that twisted his doppelganger's face- did he ever do that, too? "Am I not he who ends wars? Who divides the night? I promise you, Sparktail, you shall yield to me by the end of our struggle; and with yourself, you shall yield all that you took from our master. I assure you this, for as surely as you are the alpha, I am the omega."
"Omega...?" Sparktail remember remembering the wounded Lairon that Kyria had tended to in Verdanturf and its 'cleanly cut' wounds- so this was the Lairon's attacker. "I'm not yielding to you, whatever the heck you are," he replied, his eyes narrowing and his ears flattening back. The two Sparktails began to circle each other, their matching blades aimed at each other's white-tufted fur-bristling throats. "You came here... to fight me?"
"But of course I did," replied the false Sparktail as he lunged. At once, Sparktail dropped to one knee and rolled aside to dodge his clone's thrust, leaping up with a rolling vertical slash at Omega's side that rebounded off his foe's blade. Hastily deflecting the other Raichu's blows with several successive strokes, he let momentum spin his last block into a wide slash, bringing his sword against Omega's with a clang. A red ring-shaped force-field enclosed the two Raichus as a gasping Thalia leapt to her paws to run to her mate's aid, blocking her off.
"I am all that you should have been; I am all that you are and more," taunted Omega. Both Raichus' cheeks crackled with red sparks as they glared at each other through crossed blades, until both warriors simultaneously leapt away from each other. That pattern of scars- the illusion was perfect, the disguise was whole- and yet Sparktail's foe hadn't once attempted to pretend that he was the true Sparktail. What was going on here?
Bringing his sword to eye level again, Sparktail leveled his blade towards the doppelganger's green gaze as Omega pointed his towards the Raichu's calf. He thrust forward to miss his foe by inches, then stepped back as the other warrior's sword jabbed at the ground where his hindpaw had been moments ago- and they were back to where they started.
Lightning crackled up and down the lengths of their swords as Omega shifted his blade again and again to deflect each of Sparktail's slashes- and now it was the imposter's block that rolled around into a slash. As Sparktail deflected his foe's strike, an odd vibration ran down the length of his sword while the other Raichu retreated with a backflip and landed neatly on both hind paws.
Channeling electricity into his tail, Sparktail and his imposter stared at each other from opposite sides of the clearing at an angle, their blades again at eye level. As they lunged each other, Sparktail slashed at Omega, feeling claws tearing at his side--
Without warning, the ground beneath his hindpaws lurched. Field and forest spun around him, and Sparktail hit the ground with a cry, impact knocking the sword from his paws. "Worthless," hissed Omega's voice as weight pressed down on the Raichu's back. "You are unworthy of this proof."
Gasping, the Raichu tilted his neck around and up at Omega, but was unable to get a good look at his enemy, only able to make out a pair of gleaming eyes cast in shadow, green becoming yellow.
He felt his imposter tugging at the flap of his leather satchel, pulling out an object that glinted gold in the sunlight. "But the Exile meant this for me," whispered the warrior. Recognizing the shriveled charm that he'd taken from Slick, the Raichu's blood went cold. "How kind of you to deliver it for him!"
He trembled furiously beneath Omega; he knew his adversary, but could not place him, couldn't think clearly enough, his mind still fogged and his heart still pounding with the heat of battle. Growling, hissing, he lashed up at Omega with his tail, releasing a burst of electricity into Omega's leg.
At once, Omega shrieked, and the weight on Sparktail's back lifted, a pair of objects falling to the ground on either side of him. Gasping for breath, the Raichu scrambled to his paws as his foe dashed off into the tall jungle grass, the red field vanishing.
"Stop! Get back here!" he shouted, before he stumbled and fell again, frustrated and ashamed. It was too late; Omega was gone, leaving only the echoes of cackles in Sparktail's ears, his body burning with pain.
"Sparktail!" cried Thalia, hurrying towards her mate in dismay. Helping the Raichu to his paws, she snaked a vine over to the sword resting in the grass a few feet away, dragging it towards them awkwardly. "Are you okay? What happened? Did you know that- that thing?"
"I'm... fine," he gasped, stumbling up onto one knee and then sinking back to the ground again. Sparktail glanced around his fuzzy surroundings again, his half-dazed eyes finally settling back on Thalia- things seemed to sharpen, then.
He felt her whisper words of forest healing, and the throbbing pain slowly subsided into tingling- perhaps she could tell when he was lying, even about his own wounds. "Thanks," murmured Sparktail, giving the Leafeon a quick, tight hug.
Still feeling the tingles of Synthesis in the back of his scalp, the Raichu then suddenly noticed Speedster staring into Sparktail's satchel in the grass nearby, the flap still dangling open. In the grass nearby lay the light ball and the Blue Orb where they had fallen from Omega's paws, still glowing.
The young Eevee's eyes shot open wide, and he hastily backed away from the bag. With a jolt of horror, Sparktail suddenly remembered what Omega had stolen from him,. "Thalia," whispered the Raichu, glancing around the grass again, raising his sword. "That... that Pokemon- Omega- he's got Slick's charm-"
"Blade down," growled an all-too-familiar voice from behind Sparktail, sending him springing up into the air with fright as Thalia half-gasped, half-yowled in surprise beside him. She, Speedster, and Sparktail all whipped around with widened eyes to face the six Pokemon emerging from the tall jungle grasses.
"At ease, don't want to be poking anyone's eye out here," said Shock grimly as he stepped out into the clearing with a splint secured to one leg, surveying them all with his electric-blue eyes, followed by Amber, Kyria, and the three Kirlias from Mauville. There was an egg cradled in Kyria's arms.
"She took a vow of celibacy, it's not her egg," added Shock to Thalia's questioning look, his eyes crackling as Sparktail slowly lowered his sword. "It's an egg we found abandoned in the Mauville Daycare Center. Kyria thinks it's a war orphan. And yes, damn it, we're going to have to play egg-sitting."
"And Heroc?" said Thalia curiously, glancing to Sparktail.
Amber and Shock exchanged glances. "The Breloom and his patrol are traveling south," said one of the Kirlias quietly. "Shock told us what happened. Heroc will circumvent the blockade by the Pacifidlog Straits; it is a treacherous route, but if they survive, there is no question of his bravery." She dipped her head. "And if I understand correctly from Lady Kyria; we have our own, safer route to Sootopolis?"
An awkward silence filled the air at that last comment. "Shock, um, sir," began Sparktail slowly. His low voice choked on that last, unfamiliar word- it made him cringe inside. "Delia's waiting over by the bridge, over there." He pointed with his tail off towards the place on the lake's shore where they'd left the rest of the patrol, and Thalia confirmed it with a nod.
"Excellent," said the Manectric, his eyes flaring up as he gazed towards his patrol- Sparktail and Thalia exchanged silent, nervous chuckles. "Let's go, then." Glancing to Amber, Kyria, Speedster, Thalia, and Sparktail, the proud warrior vanished into the grasses, with the others in awkward pursuit after him.
As the six Pokemon approached Shock's patrol, the Retrievers one-by-one caught sight of Shock and leapt to their paws, rushing forward to greet Shock. But Sparktail didn't partake of their joy; he tuned them out, his torn fur bristling and his cheeks crackling.
"Omega's still out there," he muttered. "Whatever he's doing... I've got to stop him." Feeling the warmth of the sun and tasting the wind from the sea, the Raichu reached a paw for the sword on his back, staring off toward the distance.