Legend of the Exile, Chapter 48: Up On Your Paws
The sun swallowed by our darkest fears
Heroes cursed by their blood and tears
Escape the terror, the path cut clean
Eyes are opened by a hero unforeseen
Off the coast of Kanto, the waves reflected the blazing sky as Lugia descended toward the wave of Dusknoirs flying from Darkrai's staff. The beach shook with Dialga's roar as he shot charging Rhyperiors with whirling blasts of light, turning them back toward Mewtwo. An eerie cry reverberated as Palkia sprang across the sea, tearing into the advancing Wailords.
Overhead, Ho-Oh and Giratina battled in the sky, writhing around each other, exchanging furious blows. "Your time is at an end, Exile," cried the great phoenix as he shot around Giratina's back, tearing up with his talons as he rose. "No longer will you terrorize our world!"
The Exile shrieked as Ho-Oh tore into his flesh. "You think my defeat will bring an end to the chaos?" snarled Giratina as he swooped low under the phoenix, his vast black wings against a flurry of rainbow feathers. "That I alone have caused this madness, this destruction? Think again, and look at ourselves!"
"No more of your lies," spat Ho-Oh, circling back around, the wind swelling around his body as he lunged again at Giratina. "You would rend the world apart and name yourself its emperor! There is no glory in this!"
"I have bathed in the blood of my enemies, but you have bathed in the blood of your children," hissed the Exile as the phoenix swerved around him. "Was it I who abandoned my people to slavery, god of Johto? And left them a lonely hero to raise their spirits?"
"You have sought the deaths of your closest friends," said Lugia sternly as Giratina broke free from Ho-Oh's hold, red spikes surfacing from his wings. The Summoner's eyes glowed as pure-white energy gathered at his maw. "Once, when you were man, they were your children; now you would scatter their bones!"
"And what have you done to stand between me and them?" snarled the Exile as he rushed up at Lugia with spread wings. "No, you only cast them out into the world, hoping only to draw away my attention! You did as you have always done, O White Lie; you send your pawns against your enemy unprepared!"
Lugia's eyes widened, but the other Columns were furious. "Hardly insurmountable," shouted Ho-Oh, rushing at the Exile once again in a flash of fire, tearing into Giratina's back with his talons. "The risk which the Summoner took has paid off! Has it not, Lugia?"
But there was no reply. And for the briefest moment, Ho-Oh glanced back to Lugia, the Silver Summoner, the guardian hidden beneath the sea for millennia. A flaw in a creature that all tribes revered as perfect: not regret, not guilt; but the mortal thoughts of shame and fear. And the phoenix was stunned.
"My champion shall soon prove his power, prove his strength," shouted Giratina as he struck with his wing-spikes into Ho-Oh's breast, forcing the phoenix to loosen his grip. Raising Mewtwo and Darkrai to his side, the Exile's eyes seared with blood-red fire as the four Columns converged on him, shadowed wings raised with scarlet death. "Spineless and wretched; your warriors shall never claim victory!"
Shrieks rang out as meteors bombarded the ridge with upheavals of soil, rocks, and bushes. Sheathing his sword, Sparktail dove for cover as a great meteor came streaking down into the camp, swallowing Heroc and the third Rhyperior in a burst of fire and smoke.
As he lay on his back in the swirling chaos, the Raichu coughed on the rolling waves of ash, wiping his stinging eyes with a paw. "Thalia?" called Sparktail, the screams of both Retrievers and Exile soldiers filling the burning camp. He tried to get up, but his pack snagged on twisted fallen branches. "Where are you?"
There was a dry cough as fire-dust crackled around them, followed by shifting paws. "Spark? That you?" called back Thalia, somewhere in the gray haze. "I'm over here! Where are you? Stay there, I'm coming!"
Cutting himself free, the Raichu heard a yowl from behind. Whirling around, he caught sight of a Roserade looming over a crumpled Delia, a blue rose-club raised high jagged thorns protruding from the undersides of mutated petals. All enmity forgotten, Sparktail scrambled forward and dragged the Delcatty out of the way.
Tucking the cat under the bushes, Sparktail spun around as the Roserade loomed over him. Ducking the swishing rose-club, he moved to one side and swung up at her arm with his tail. As the Roserade recoiled, the Raichu struck her with a burst of electricity, forcing her back.
A feral cry came through the smoke. Sparktail backed away as the Zangoose sprang out from behind the Roserade, tearing into her back with furious claw-swipes. As the Roserade crumpled to the ground, the panting Zangoose stumbled over to check Delia, blood mingled with her red stripes. "Thanks," muttered the Raichu. "What's your name?"
The Zangoose looked at Sparktail, disgusted. "We've been fighting together since winter," she said angrily, stepping back from him. "Slateport... Littleroot... Verdanturf... Mauville... Fortree... Lilycove... I saved your life, twice, and you don't even know my name?"
There was no good excuse. "I'm sorry," said Sparktail weakly, not able to meet her gaze. "I owe you." They were ragged and worn, but they were fortunate, compared to the others. He stared at the burning shrubs around him, to the smoldering branches overhead.
Behind Sparktail, branches shifted with a groan as Thalia emerged, shaken, leaves and fur half-singed. "Oh good, you're safe," breathed Thalia, padding over to Sparktail. Her eyes darted over the wrecked ridges, ears quailing. "Anyone seen Shock?"
There was a long silence as Retrievers stumbled out from the wreckage, staring at each other in the haze. Lane emerged from a collapsed lean-to, dragging Fabian the Arcanine behind him. A few feet away, Klesr lifted Lute to his paws as Ketrail helped Mythic out of the bushes.
Sparktail stared out over the devastated landscape. Bodies lay strewn on the ground, Retrievers and Exiles alike, unconscious or dead. Across the valley sat the Pokemon League like a giant's staircase, casting a shadow over the carnage, an imposing temple perched upon a narrow inlet.
As Latias crawled out from under a collapsed tree, a blue and gold muzzle poked out from a tangle of fallen branches. Shaking himself free, Shock touched his muzzle to a fallen Mawile, her eyes closed, blood trickling down the side of her black jaws. "Lute," said the Manectric, his eyes dull. "Status report."
Wyrn and Lane exchanged glances as Amber carried her limp Plusle friend over to Delia and Fabian, her eyes bitter. "Twenty-seven wounded, eight dead," said Lute, stumbling towards the Manectric as Klesr and a Sandslash gathered behind him. "About thirteen of us can carry on."
Nodding, Shock turned to the smoking crater in the middle of the wrecked camp. "Heroc had... a good heart," he muttered. "Headstrong, but... good." Pain crossed his features as he passed Sparktail to look at Delia, his paws shaking. "Delia... if Mother could see us now..." The Retrievers stared at each other as Shock lowered his head, the clearing motionless save for ashes swirling into the silver-red sky.
Finally, the Manectric lifted his head. "The others... the battalions will have been hit as well," said Shock, his voice hardening again. "Lute, take your Swordians and go find Red Battalion. Latias, find Green Battalion and report to Rush." Nodding, Lute led his patrol down the hill as Latias flew off into the storm.
The others gathered around the Manectric, scarlet meteors like bloody gashes against the ruined dawn. "We must finish this," hissed Shock, a storm brewing in his eyes. "We know our true enemy... and we know he'll never back down."
Something stirred in Sparktail as Shock spoke. Staring back toward the temple spire, he thought back to his blade, to his oath. And in that moment, he knew what needed to be done... what perhaps only he might understand.
Feeling the echoes of the falling meteors, the Raichu looked back to Thalia, a chill running through his fur, afraid he might be doing the wrong thing. And yet Shock was right, they knew their true enemy—and it wasn't Omega or Scarlet Streak. "Wait here," said Sparktail quietly, afraid to meet the Leafeon's eyes. "Please..."
Thalia's eyes clouded, then flashed with alarm as Sparktail dashed off down the hillside. "What? No, wait!" yelled the Leafeon as she sprinted down through the grass after him, the other Retrievers turning to stare after them. "Sparktail! Where are you going? Stop!"
Paws pounding against the rocking ground, the Raichu glanced back over his shoulder without slowing, tail flapping behind him. Behind him, the Leafeon's eyes were wild and frantic. Bidoofs fled from the falling meteors as Sparktail sprinted across the valley toward the sacred trail, the burning wind in his fur.
There! On the ridge ahead stood a red gateway, marking the seven-tiered temple that the Elite Four once called home, ancient walls pointed skyward. Cringing, Sparktail dodged between streaks of sulfur and fire, past Bibarel fists and Staraptor beaks. He scurried forward as a meteor came streaking down on the red gate, cracking it in two.
Not looking back, he hurried to the temple doors, surrounded by scorched craters, a hammer and a miner's pick in the blackened flowers nearby. Yes, he remembered that day three years ago, when Slick finally arrived at Ever Grande, standing before these same doors in awe.
As the Red Dragon's wrath rained across the hills, Sparktail shoved his weight against the wood-panel doors, pushing them open. Back at Indigo Plateau, he was afraid to enter, he had only been following Thalia's lead... but this time, he willingly rushed into the temple, ready to confront his enemy.
"Sparktail, wait!" shouted Thalia, racing up the path and past the broken archway. "No, stop! Get back here! Stop! SPARKTAIL—" Giving a shrill cry, the Leafeon stumbled to a halt as the threshold came tumbling down before her eyes, burying the entrance in rubble and dust.
"Keep going! We're almost there!" shouted Rush as they climbed the hill, cosmic dust sizzling in the air. Black streaks marred the sloping hills around them, tiny meteorites pockmarking the earth.
At the top of the hill, Azelf spun to face the Swampert, blue energy spiraling around him. "Stop!" roared the Swampert, lunging forward, but too late, smirking, Azelf vanished in a flash of light.
Retrievers surged forward to meet the Exile's troops, but only acrid scent distinguished the two sides. Linoones bit and clawed at each other's throats as a Stunky and an Eevee leapt back from a Gallade's slashes, the air filled with fire. Pokemon of every shape and color, Pokemon from Sinnoh and Hoenn, Kanto and Johto; Retrievers against their devil-marked brethren... and yet brethren, nonetheless—
"Rush, sir!" shouted a voice from above. Body-slamming an Armaldo against the ground, the Swampert glanced up to see a red blur swooping down toward him. Golden jets of light flew from Latias' maw as she passed Rush, knocking a cluster of Hitmontops off their heads and into the dust. "Reporting for duty."
Butterfree against Mothim, Fearow against Staraptor; enemy and friend, a civil war dividing all species. "Latias," grunted Rush as he caught a Croagunk's fist, tossing the Pokemon over his shoulder. "What're you doing here? Thought you were with Shock-"
"Emerald Battalion's making one last charge," shouted Latias as she dove, snatching a Marowak out from a Victreebel's snares, depositing the Retriever on a cluster of Sevipers. "This is no ordinary meteor storm. Scarlet Streak is unleashing her wrath upon the island, with the full might of the Exile behind her."
A Floatzel behind him, a Floatzel before him; Golems crashed into each other as the ground shook. More Pokemon, more colors, fire and ice and lightning, flying leaves and flashing steel, a violent blur of spilled blood, his two fists against a Machamp's four.
"Of all the things we never planned for," said Rush angrily as he raised his arms to shield a Retriever Medicham from descending streaks of fire; then spun around and dealt a swift blow to an Exile Medicham. "Shock assured me you'd be a valuable asset, Latias, but the way it's looking—"
"I'm doing what I can," said the red Pokemon with forced restraint, swerving under a Lombre's water-pulse as Foam the Azumarill body-slammed a Miltank to the ground. "But Shock brought me for a very specific purpose, and I can't do it from here!"
Exiles beneath his fists, Retrievers blown off their paws by Electrodes; it mattered not how they died, they were all Pokemon in this battle he had engineered. "Whatever you can do, do it," gasped Rush as he grappled with a Probopass, staring at the half-sun on the east horizon. "We're out of time!"
The rising swirls of smoke were easy to follow. His eyes narrowing, Lute followed the trail of dead comrades as Skarmories and Drifblims swerved around in the sky beneath the falling fire. He tasted the soot on the wind and felt blades of grass rippling beneath his paws, threatening to shrivel and die.
On the grassy ridge ahead, where the earth curled up before leveling out, a Dragonite lay surrounded by fallen Skarmories and their motionless riders— stunned, wounded, or dead. "Roathaus?" called Lute, approaching the Dragonite, his followers moving among their shaken allies. "Sir, are you all right?"
Coughing, Roathaus stared up at the Absol, the last remnants of the disarrayed battalion descending around them. His scales were slick with oozing burns from meteors and dragonflame. "Get back," croaked the Dragonite, shaking his head, feeling around for his black blade. "Get back... get away—"
Eyes widening, Lute and the others glanced up as a shadow dropped down from the trees, followed by a host of Weaviles and Gallades. "I know you've all been eager to fight me," said Blusabre softly as he stepped out into the open, eyes gleaming. "And so I followed your little knight, knowing he would lead me to you."
Croak. As Lute's eyes widened in horror, there came a vile, rattling hiss from behind Blusabre, Breathing hard, the Absol stared as a scarred Toxicroak emerged from the shadows, its eyes locked on him.
"A special guest, in thanks for aiding me," hissed Blusabre as growls rose and Pokemon readied claws and blades. Turning back to Roathaus, a thin smile formed on Blusabre's muzzle, thin and dangerous. "And as for you, Roathaus... my master, my bane! Grounded, as you grounded me."
Anger flashed in Roathaus's eyes, the others rising to their paws. "You dare show your face here?" said the Dragonite harshly as he stood up. An Umbreon and a Typhlosion hurried to his side as he stumbled, but he waved them aside. "Traitors like you are the reason we have not seen daylight in a century and a half!"
"Lute, watch out!" shouted Klesr suddenly. As Blusabre and Roathaus pointed their blades at each other, the Absol glanced up sharply to see the Toxicroak lunge at him, before Klesr shoved him out of the way.
Screeching, Klesr slashed at the marsh-creature with both armblades, a deadly dance of whirling slashes. Ducking under the Scyther's blades, the Toxicroak swiftly plunged both of his red stingers up into Klesr's abdomen with a bloated hiss... and at once, the dance came to a halt.
Klesr's eyes widened as the stingers punched through layers of green chitin, a low gasp coming from his throat. Jaws half open, he struggled to raise his blades, but was too weak to push the Toxicroak away. "Lute," gasped the Scyther, tilting his eyes back to the Absol one last time. "Remember... bind your blade... always—"
"Klesr...?" gasped Lute, horrified. Hissing, the Toxicroak pulled his stingers free, the Scyther slumping to the ground, eyes closing. "KLESR!" As the Absol lunged at the Toxicroak, Blusabre barked an order to his followers— and the entire hill burst into motion.
Taken by surprise, the Sableye guards fell to the floor, first one, then the other. Breathing hard, the Raichu moved past the shattered glass and broken concrete, bodies strewn across the floor. Slowly, he passed between the reception counters, crossing the League's threshold for the first time in a long, violent year.
Behind one counter, a glass cabinet door shattered under his sword's pommel, revealing row after row of spray-bottle potions. The Raichu shut his eyes as he cut open a small green-and-gray canister, its pressurized contents splashing over his fur, scrapes and cuts stinging. The cries of the dying echoed in his ears, but he shut his eyes until he could continue on.
His fur tingling, Sparktail passed through the challenger's doors, forcing his fears as low as he could. His paws thumped lightly against the steel steps, fur crackling with tiny pops and snaps of static as he climbed the stairs, lights flashing in the shadowed chasm below.
He crossed the first battle-ring anxiously. The walls were decorated with faded murals of forests in twilight, intercut by twisted vines and gnarled roots. Four landings, four challenger's rooms; these were Slick's stairs and Slick's challenge, then and now, both sides of the line; Slick who was both master and enemy.
At the second landing waited Omega, his back to the stairs and the open doorway. Old rock fountains lined the walls, dry waterfalls and crumbling moss, walls cracked and worn by time. "You're late," said the Omega Warrior without turning, echoing down the steps. "So, my friend... have you come to avenge your honor?"
"No," said the Raichu quietly.
Frowning, Omega spun around to see Sparktail standing at the top of the steps, sword raised and tail lashing. "You," he breathed, drawing his own blade, voice dropping to a hiss. "Why are you here... well, well. This duel shall be more interesting than I thought."
A chill ran down Sparktail's spine as Omega's shadow loomed over him, his tail lashing at the floor, but he held his ground. "Stand down—where's Slick's charm?" He met Omega's silent gaze with his hardest stare, trying to contain the fear festering in his belly. "I said—stand down! Shock's right behind me-"
"Then your body will still be fresh when he arrives," retorted the dark warrior. "We shall both see this drama play to its finale, this time!" Ears flattening, Sparktail held his stare as Omega circled him. "You fight alone, as always. Haven't you learned anything?"
Alone? Don't listen, don't listen to his voice, thought Sparktail silently. Words came tumbling from his mouth, making up for weeks of silence. "I know enough." Cheeks crackling, he pointed his blade at Omega's neck. "You're the—you were behind it all! Garchomp leveled towns and cities, but guards, you set up guards—"
At once, Omega sprang forward with a heavy blow, his sword clanging against Sparktail's. "You know nothing about me," growled the other rodent as their swords spun up into a lock, bringing their eyes close. "You think you can win, without your guiding light?"
Drawing back, Sparktail brought his blade in line with his shoulder, then swung sharply as Omega rushed down at him, pommel twisting in his left paw. "The light ball was just a crutch," gasped the Raichu, stepping left, parrying right, fumbling between training and instinct. "Strong in a Pikachu's paws—" Strike-angle-strike; the Raichu struggled not to lose himself in his words. "I should've let it go."
He moved back and forth as Omega swung and stabbed at him, striking where he could. "But you wouldn't understand-" Too much talking; he couldn't. "You came after me—you hunted me... you took Slick's charm—" He crossed Omega's left, sword crackling with electricity. "To prove your power... to prove your strength—to Giratina-"
Omega stopped Sparktail's blade with a downward stab, sending his thunderbolt into the steel steps. "You never knew me, and you never knew him," snarled the other Raichu, his eyes bulging as he swung again, forcing Sparktail into a hasty block. "You never saw the Exile inside him, never saw the madness brewing in your precious master; none of you did!"
Clutching his sword with both paws, Sparktail stumbled back, his resolve faltering beneath Omega's powerful strikes, each blow driving their fight further up the steps. "You never saw our bridges burn," shouted Omega. "You never saw him part ways with his own kind; never saw him give me purpose. Struck where you are most vulnerable; you shall all break with the dawn!"
A great pillar of fire burst from Insyte's maw and swallowed Scar whole, but the Scizor only laughed as the white flames washed over his tarnished armor. "Foolish pup," said Scar sternly as the fire faded and the Flareon sank to the ground, a Bronzong amulet on the Scizor's neck. "Now you shall see your people's blood spilled, struck down without their precious king."
Dazed, the Flareon dragged himself to the edge of the trees, staring down at his battalion; and he saw the shimmer of hidden Porygon-Zs, waiting in ambush for his people. "Lost Mareeps without their shepherd," said Scar from behind him. "Thus they wander blindly into the briars, and suffer wicked fate for their protector to find. You are no king."
Behind them, Shanala and the Quilava glared up at the Scizor, but flashes of conversations with Torrid and Lyther echoed in Insyte's ears. Did he make the right choices? Did he rule Lavaridge justly? "You bastard," said the Flareon angrily as he turned back to Scar, furious at the doubts his enemy stirred. "You murderous bastard!"
The Scizor gave a series of sinister clicks. "Yes, in a night of chaos and terror, when I had gained Lute's trust, I took the lives of the ones under his charge," said Scar. "And then, their blood dripping from my pincers... I was consumed by your murderous fire."
A low growl filled Insyte's throat as he stared up at Scar; the fire in his soul rippled and shook, threatened to be smothered by Scar's shadow. "You're the murderer," spat the Flareon, unsheathing his lion-claws. Eyes blazing with blue fire, he lunged at the Scizor again, only to be wrest by the throat and hurled back into the bushes.
Shanala and the others stared in dismay as the Scizor advanced on him. "Your parents knew they would die that night, but no one else," said Scar as he advanced on Insyte, his voice cold and terrible. "Even I did not know the ones whom I would kill. Such great prophets should not have died by my claws!"
The words stirred a searing fury in his blood, and he rose to his paws. "SHUT UP!" shouted Insyte, baring his teeth at the Scizor. "Shanala, stay back!" He sprang at Scar with claws spread, but was once more struck down, his claws scratching only air.
"This is my curse," hissed the tarnished Scizor as he loomed over the Flareon with his broken, oozing gaze. "I would not have taken their lives; I should have died on that night. But Giratina saw strength in me, in my scorched body-"
The Scizor broke off and spun around as the Quilava lunged at him from behind. "I don't think so," hissed Scar as he swiftly grabbed the Quilava by the neck and hurled him headfirst into the ground, the fire on the Vulcanite's back extinguished into a burst of heat. "Your warriors would have strength, but their liege holds them back..."
The Flareon stared in horror as the Scizor cracked open the Vulcanite's skull with a swift blow, a shocked cry from Shanala. "Damn you," whispered Insyte as he stared up at his enemy, at his dead soldier laying on the ground. His paws trembled with an old, bitter rage, formless and seething. "Damn you!"
"You think yourself pure?" shouted the Scizor, leaping back as Insyte sprang at him, sweeping with his clamp. "Honorable, or perhaps heroic? You murdered a king and took his throne. You incited uprising; you abandoned your love and let her die. Your legacy is rebellion and violence."
Ducking under Scar's blows, the Flareon clawed up at his enemy, howling. A fiery veil cloaked him as he sprang forward again; but this time, the Scizor struck him squarely in the muzzle, sending him tumbling back into the dirt. "There is no escape from your past," hissed Scar. "You skulk in darkness still, as always!"
Bruised, angry, and exhausted, Insyte stared down at his battalion, rushing up the valley of scorched petals. And for the first time since his transformation, he was at a loss for direction. "No," whispered the Flareon, shaking his head. "That part of me is gone... I defeated him...!"
"You cloak yourself in fire, but we were no different on that night," clicked Scar disdainfully, holding his bloody clamps to the dim light. "Both ordinary Pokemon, both swept into a monumental conflict. And when you swallowed me in blazing death, you showed me the truth... For under our red pride, there are only black lies!"
For every Phione they slew, three more sprang out from the foam. Felling two Phiones with a pair of thunderpunches, the Flaaffy was blasted off his feet by a third. The Meowth yowled as Phiones grabbed him from behind, dragging him down into the churning waters.
Childlike giggles echoing through the cavern, Manaphy flew past Lyther with glowing eyes. "Come, come to me," sang the Pokemon softly, spreading its arms out wide as a burst of pressurized water crashed into the Linoone archer from behind. "Give yourself to the shining waves, forever..."
"Lyther! Help!" cried the Flaaffy. Breathing hard, the Lucario spun around to see the Retriever clinging desperately to a rock near the edge, Phiones tearing at his wool. "What are you doing? You have to stop Manaphy, we don't stand a chance—"
The Lucario stared around the great cavern in shock, the Aura muddled and broken in the chaos of battle. He heard Manaphy's voice echo from the middle of the cavern, rippling through the rock walls. How could he have miscalculated? Everything had happened at the right time, in the right place; and yet his carefully plotted strategy had fallen apart.
Eerie laughter echoed down the water-slicked tunnel on the Lucario's left, walls flickering with magenta light. "If only you listened to your subordinates," said Mesprit gleefully as she floated into the room, an Arbok dragged down into the waters. "Then you might have anticipated our coming!"
A crude, rattling hiss; a yellow light emerged from the passage on the right. "But you were too arrogant to consider their warnings," said Uxie with mock sorrow as two Phiones flung an Armaldo against the far wall. "You think you alone know the wisdom of the world?"
A burst of blue light swept past his ear, painfully slicing into his aural-sensors. "You have no faith in a warrior's blood," accused Azelf as Lyther sank to his knees with a howl. "You think a warrior's mind is weak; but then, you have never been a warrior!"
Retrievers clung to the rocks on the edge; weary, bruised, shivering, and fearful. They were just pawns, just part of the battalion at Lyther's command, consumed by emotions like Insyte. How could they have helped him? No one could have recognized the egg for what it was—
"And who but you would fall for such a trap?" said the water-sprite as the Lucario fumbled for his spear. "An unguarded resource, hidden beneath the earth? An easy solution to the unbreachable defense?"
Dazed, the Lucario pulled himself to his feet as the Retrievers' howls filled the cavern. "The Aura is serenity... How could it not be what I believed?" He couldn't have lost like this. There had to be another way. One last trick... There was always an escape route...
Nothing. The Lucario shook as he ran through thousands of scenarios, all leading to death. "You echo the dogma of your kind," hissed Manaphy. "You worship an echo of power, always sensing true power, but never tasting it, never seeing your flaws; caged by your own mind!"
Glowing steel sliced between a Mareep's ribs as a Shinx frantically leapt away from a Gallade's plunging strike. A Staravia shrieked as sharp bursts of chilling air crossed her feathers, a gray Vulpix flung off her paws by a sweeping psychic wave.
Howling, Lute dashed at the Toxicroak, all things made surreal, Red Battalion reduced to background noise. Filthy claws and thrashing teeth, no longer holding back, no longer playful. Slashes and swipes and kicks and bites melded into a vicious blur with no sense or rhythm.
At the top of the hill, the remnants of Red Battalion gathered behind Roathaus as Blusabre led his minions up the slope. Whether Swordwrit or ordinary Retriever, they would defend the Dragonite to the last breath.
Dropping his head, Lute shoved forward, plunging his horn deep into the frog's chest. Gurgles came from the Toxicroak's throat, shuddering into a faint, rasping laugh as the Absol twisted his horn and dug his claws into the amphibian's flesh...
"Stop." The Absol froze as the Lucario's words pierced the red haze, dispelling the fury. Bind your blade, Klesr had warned him with his last words; focus on the target. Roathaus, Roathaus; how could he forget? At the top of the hill, the fighting subsided, the two sides retreating, all eyes on Blusabre.
"Lay down your arms, all of you," ordered the Lucario, striding to the front, "I may bear the sign and stench of the Exile— but we are Swordwrit, and we did not come to do Giratina's will."
His eyes gleamed as he met Roathaus's furious gaze. "Roathaus. I challenge your right to the title of guildmaster of the Swordwrit. Stand aside, Retrievers, and I will allow you to walk away."
Horrified, Lute stared at the Toxicroak's body, the one who robbed his attention, who unhinged him. "Not in our lifetimes," said a Luxray fiercely, baring her teeth at the Lucario, a Togetic and a Flareon nodding in agreement behind her. "You have no standing to make such a claim. Begone!"
But Blusabre smirked. "You are not Swordwrit; you would not understand," said the Lucario. "I promise you this: he who wins our duel shall command all Swordwrit without question, whether Retriever or Exile, for the strength of our guild transcends all time. Gods rise and fall; but a true master is honored forever!"
Angry mutters ran through the Retrievers, the front line tightening. "Wait," ordered Roathaus. "Stand aside." Shocked eyes turned to the Dragonite as he raised his blade, and Lute felt as if his heart had stopped. Blusabre's smile widened as the dragon crossed toward him with fuming eyes. "I accept your challenge, criminal.
Lute watched as the Pokemon formed a circle around the two, the Toxicroak's blood running down his horn and smeared on his claws, convulsing with a savagery he never thought he would embrace. In the eyes of the battalion above, he saw the ancient guild of Swordwrit in peril, the legacy that he had hoped to restore; endangered by his own doing!
Sparks flew as the Raichus fought, drifting further and further up the steps. Faint, spectral light flickered down the stairs as they approached the third landing. Sparktail's pawpads grew slick with sweat as Omega pounded at him, jarring his concentration, wearing down his discipline.
What were the others facing? Insyte's Vulcanites, Lyther and the Conclave, Rush and the entire Retriever army... was it rationality or vengeance that drove Giratina? Was Thalia out of harm's way? No, no, he couldn't lose focus, he needed to be aware; the slightest misstep could send him tumbling to his death—
The Raichu gasped as his own electricity came streaking up the red handrails, catching him in its jagged path. "Years of captivity have made you soft," hissed Omega as he knocked Sparktail's sword aside with a decisive blow. "Years of reliance on your master has dulled your senses..."
Black lightning flashed from Omega's blade and flung Sparktail off his paws. "In your despair, you had only the gods to guide you," intoned Omega from the top of the steps as Sparktail hit the floor with a cry, sword clattering two steps down. "And now they abandon you to your isolation, devoid of purpose!"
A frustrated hiss escaped Sparktail's throat as he scrambled back, slashes tearing at his fur, mere inches from becoming lethal blows. "Isolation—" The words seared in his ears as he snatched up his sword, scathing and familiar; training alone, cyclical thoughts, mindless repetitions. "You don't know—"
As their swords collided, Omega reached out and grabbed Sparktail's blade, holding it tight against his; a savage smile, promising another broken blade. Panicking, the Raichu tried to tug his blade free, but couldn't. He felt his tail streak up at his enemy, cheeks and fur sizzling with desperation—
A blur of gold, a splatter of sparks. With a surprised cry, Omega released his grip on Sparktail's sword and stumbled back through the open doorway. Panting, Sparktail followed his foe onto the third landing. Hissing and spitting, Omega sank to the floor, a paw to the place where the iron-tail struck him, staring at his paws—the illusion unraveling.
Surrounded by the dim glow of crystals hanging from arching tree branches, Omega's fur melted and fell away, brown and gold yielding to black, shaggy tufts. Curved mouse ears became sharp and upright, the snout elongating, the eyes a chilling blue. The arms grew long and shaggy, the legs thick and upright. "A Zoroark," whispered Sparktail, heart pounding. At last, he saw the true form of Kusaan, the Omega Warrior.
Thick bunches of long, red fur dangled down the back of Omega's scalp, tied back like a human's ponytail. On the floor lay the warrior's sword, its gleaming edge replaced by crude, bloody iron. And as Omega snatched up his blade, Sparktail noticed the thin, jagged scars on the air... all containing the swirling, scarlet chaos of Distortion. "What on earth...?"
The Zoroark looked up at the Raichu with hungry eyes. "Don't you know?" spat Kusaan, all pretense of civility gone. "Weren't you there when the King of Time raged, and woke us from sleep? You have seen the Void! You can recognize it. And you know what it leaves behind—"
The Raichu brushed past a shriveled tree, its bark crumbling into dust—just like the trees in Floarama. With a jolt of horror, he remembered the barren Sinnoh wasteland, all life and essence stripped away by the World Abyss. "I don't understand," said Sparktail, staring around the room in dismay. "The Void collapsed! The rifts were closed—"
"Chaos does not die! Chaos does not end," shouted the Zoroark, rising to his full height. "Hoenn's past is steeped in destruction, ever wary, ever clashing, always at odds! Who but a true champion could understand the wilderness, and break such a cycle? You restored the equilibrium to the Void... and in doing so, you released darkness around the world."
The floor trembled as the tiny rifts glowed brightly, the crystal lights growing even dimmer. Kusaan's words led in circles, yet chilled him to the bone. What was the Zoroark implying? He raising his crackling blade, rounding upon Kusaan. "What did you do?!"
"I? I did nothing but serve the god who freed me," said Kusaan as their blades collided and electricity flashed through him. "But what you, who held the seed of chaos, who brought war to Hoenn's peacful isles? Here where earth and sea meet sky, where primal energy unravels time and space? I only fulfilled your efforts to benefit my god—"
The doors behind Kusaan opened, revealing an intricate mesh of glowing cracks, leading up the passage. At the top of the rift-crossed steps, where the space-time cracks met, Sparktail saw Giratina's shriveled charm hovering over a black altar, where the barrier between worlds was most fractured.
In his mind's eye, the Raichu saw Hoenn's jungles reduced to ash, terrified Pokemon fleeing down the scarred, rotting plains. "Mankind has been purged from these lands, but the crusade is not complete," said Kusaan with a savage, vulpine smile. "Through the Griseous Orb, we shall share the Exile's gift of chaos with the world. And though the Retrievers deny it, our true nature—our primal selves—shall soon awaken."
More taunts from Kusaan, echoing his own fears, clouding him with anger; but still the anger came, and he rushed forward again. "Yes! Embrace your true self!" hissed the Zoroark as he darted under Sparktail's furious, crackling blows, landing a painful slash across the Raichu's back-stripes. "Become wild, as you were meant to be!"
Fire and shadow, each succumbing into the other. What would Lyther have done? Insyte had disdained the Lucario's smug calmness for years; but he needed that calm now, more than ever. Past and present, blazing rage.
He saw what he had once been, what he now stood for; he saw the Umbreon echoed in Scar's eyes. I must succeed, thought Insyte. I have fought so many battles... I must overcome this one, no matter what.
Glaring up at Scar, the Flareon lifted his maw to the sky. "Now!" he shouted. Spreading his claws, he leapt at the Scizor once again. But this time, as the clamp came for him, he twisted away from Scar, clawing across his chestplate.
At the same time, Shanala leapt up from behind Scar and struck him from behind with her tails. Fire to tail, tail to fire; Insyte bit into armored leg as the Scizor grabbed for the Ninetales, shaking Scar's aim, allowing Shanala to leap away.
Kicking the Flareon away, the Scizor stared at Insyte as he hit the ground, questioning the Flareon's intelligence. "Why would you...?" Then suddenly, he screeched in agony as his chestplate burst into flames. "What is this?!" Clawing at his chest, the Scizor was stunned to find that the Bronzor pendant had been replaced with Insyte's flame orb. "How did you—"
"We're not the same," shouted Insyte, eyes burning with the fire gathering in his belly. "You embrace your inner monster, while I rejected mine. Your pride may have been a lie, but mine is true fire!"
As the Scizor leapt at him, the Flareon opened his maw and unleashed a concentrated blast of fire. Spinning pillars of flame converged on the screaming Scizor, who ranted and cursed as fire swallowed him whole, his body collapsing into slag.
As the burning fire rose into the sky, the entire valley suddenly flooded with sunlight from the east, streaking through the red-gray clouds in harsh, withering rays. "Insyte, what's going on?" gasped Shanala as Insyte sank to the ground, gasping for breath. "The sun... something's not right—"
Down in the valley, Vulcanites and fellow Retrievers stumbled to a halt as the ground shook with a mighty roar. In the brilliant sun they could see the shimmer of their pink and blue enemies from afar, the ambush they had nearly entered. "Porygon-Zs!" shouted Marrow from the head of the battalion as Quilavas and Leafeons hurried forward. "Archers, lavashots, to the front—"
As the fire dissipated, Insyte stared at the ashes and molten armor that had been Scar, the sky streaked with white-hot light. "No time to figure out," said the Flareon as he retrieved his flame-orb, glancing back to Shanala. "Hurry, we must rejoin the others!"
His cape was shredded, his fur plastered to his flesh. The Lucario fell to all fours as Manaphy beat him with twisting whips of compact water, shivering. His eyes found the Retrievers, still clinging to the rocks as Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf blasted them back into the river from their spherical fields.
No! Why were they still looking at him, seeking direction from him? Hadn't he shown too many errors of judgment to lead? And yet the look in their eyes...
The Aura led them here, where power surged beneath Ever Grande, but that power had not been theirs to take. And yet, what was the source of the Aura? "Life," breathed the Lucario, his eyes widening. "The greatest force in the world... is life itself."
The four Magi turned to stare at Lyther as he rose to his paws. Thoughts shimmered and wove together, answering old questions. Pride and fear, he saw now that all creatures had both; they were all the same, all flawed, all sentient.
Phiones and Retrievers paused as an aqua-ring shield formed around Manaphy, all eyes on the Lucario. "The Aura may be an echo of power," said Lyther heavily, reaching for his spear. "But it is not nothing. For if it were nothing... I would have nothing to give—"
Eyes widening in alarm, Manaphy dove at the Lucario, but was slowed down by his water-shield. Gathering the last of his strength, the strength he had hoped to save, Lyther thrust his spear down into the fragments of Manaphy's egg with a cry.
Pale blue light flowed down his spear and into the ground, spreading out until it met the river's surface. At the aura-pulse's contact, the foaming river released a second, stronger wave of blue light—this one darker—sweeping through the cavern with sheer power.
For a moment, it seemed Lyther had failed; as the second wave touched each magi, the light was sucked away into their force-fields and lost. But then, horror replaced triumph as their psychic fields accelerated, revolving faster and faster.
First Azelf, then Mesprit, then Uxie—one by one, the magi lost control of the raw, wild power of the churning sea rushing through their veins and screamed as violent, unbidden psychic bursts erupted from their bodies. Shrieking, Manaphy clutched its head as violent swells of power overwhelmed its mental bridges, Phiones going into shock and splashing down into the river.
A deep, rumbling roar echoed through the cavern, and the water in the river rose up into the air, forming the shape of a great beast with blue fins and red eyes. Eyes widening, the fourth Magi spun around as watery jaws opened wide, and swallowed him whole.
Bruised and weary, Retrievers climbed up onto the rocks as the water-beast collapsed into the river, their eyes wide, hearts pounding. "Lyther!" shouted the Flaaffy as he pulled himself up onto the rocks. Dozens of dazed eyes turned as the Lucario lay crumpled on the floor, the Flaaffy hurrying to his side. "Sir! Are you all right? What happened" And how did you—"
The waters frothed and sizzled as Retrievers gathered around the Lucario, tasting the ocean's salt in the air. "It's... okay," gasped Lyther, staring around the cavern in awe, as if he could see what others could not. He smiled feebly as the deep roar once again rippled through the cavern. "I... understand now. Thank you... Kyogre..."
Katana met blackened steel, raw strikes on the bloody hill. The Absol felt sick as he saw Blusabre slice Roathaus's side; the Dragonite was strong but old. Racing up the hill, Lute stared at the Luxray and the other Retrievers. Why did they stand still? Why didn't they intervene? Didn't they realize what would happen if Blusabre won?
Around and around the duo fought; Roathaus was skilled, but Blusabre was faster, younger, and more determined. The Dragonite could not keep up. With weary eyes, the Retrievers watched on, and Lute wished he could rejuvenate them, inspire them to act. But then the Absol caught sight of the Exile's soldiers—and saw the same fatigue in their eyes.
They were all weary of this unending war, realized Lute. Red Battalion had expected an easy air raid, a victory within hours of launch; the Red Dragon's warriors had believed themselves invincible on this island. But the Retrievers had been brutally shot down; and the Exile's soldiers found themselves on the brink of defeat, under fire from their own master...
He would have to do it himself.
With a sharp bark, Blusabre shoved forward as Roathaus moved, grabbing the Dragonite and flipping him over his knee. Gasps rose as the lighter Pokemon flung his much heavier opponent to the ground, blade at throat.
"Now they know their true master," said Blusabre through gritted teeth, his eyes blazing. "See how still they stand! They know it is over, your feeble reign, and who dares oppose the rightful master—"
Time seemed to slow as the furious Absol leapt over the heads of the startled watchers, the shocked Lucario turning his head to meet Lute's snarl. Two feet of hardened calcite horn impaled Blusabre from behind, knocking the katana from his paws, the wolf crashing into the warrior with all his might.
Howls. Barks. Shocked, Roathaus sat up to stare as the snarling duo tumbled to the ground, surrounded by terrified, murmuring Pokemon; Exile and Retriever, it did not matter. "You fool," breathed the Lucario as the duo hit the ground. "You... you think Roathaus will thank you for his life?"
"Damn the guild laws!" shouted Lute furiously, eyes hot and wet as he ripped open the Lucario's flesh before the watching Swordwrit. "Giratina will never... control... the Swordwrit... never again... even if I... must sacrifice... my own honor!"
Faint, gurgling laughter filled the Lucario's throat and eyes, red sash growing dark and damp with his blood. He stared up at Roathaus and Lute, shaking with mirth, until he moved no more. One by one, swords clattered to the ground, and heads bowed before Roathaus, Swordwrit from both armies, as the Luxray and the other Retrievers stared on with nervous relief.
As the Lucario lay still on the bloodstained grass, Lute pulled his horn free, stumbled over to Roathaus, and lay down on the ground before the guildmaster's feet, his throat exposed, the Swordwrit reunited behind the Dragonite. They had all seen... They all saw him violate Swordwrit law. He had dishonored his blood...
"Lute," said the Dragonite softly. "You did well."
Brief, rapid exchanges in the darkness; glowing cracks crisscrossed the stairs and split the room in hideous, twisting paths. Sparktail shuddered as he stumbled past the thin cracks and onto the fourth landing, the chill of another world penetrating his bones to the marrow.
A fierce, shrill wind whistled through the crumbled walls and its tattered red banners, swirling around the central stone pillars, carrying the scents of blood and steel. Below Sparktail's paws lay trenches of gleaming steel spikes like dragon's teeth, the pulsing dimension-cracks the veins of its mouth, the Griseous Orb a jewel on its tongue.
Shadow-claws struck him from behind, knocking him off his paws, the light from his tail and fur dissipating. "Be silenced," hissed Kusaan into Sparktail's ear before his blade lashed out from the shadows, caught inches from his throat. "Your blood shall fuel my ascent; and the Exile shall forever honor me!"
Voices, memories; dark thoughts swirled around Sparktail as the Zoroark moved in the shadows, the Griseous Orb throbbing and pulsing like a living heart on its altar. "Who should expect anything from you? You, who master no one? Vermin that can only dream of greatness, and rot in its shadow—"
At that moment, a powerful burst of wind tore down the banners, revealing gaping holes in the walls on either side. Eyes widening, both Sparktail and Kusaan stared out to the pale dawn, to the rolling gray clouds in the west, to the blinding sun beyond the eastern sea. Then, as the wind filled their ears and swelled their fur, Sparktail looked back to Kusaan—and in that moment, he saw the true face of fear.
How long had Kusaan studied him? Learned to echo his thoughts, to validate his fears? The fears for which Thalia reassured him, for which Insyte challenged him, for which Rush tutored him. A lost secret was regained. Proof that he had not come this far on his own.
He remembered Lyther on a high cliff, watching the Retrievers from afar; and hadn't he done the same, learned to see like Lyther? Watching the Zoroark's advance, he moved forward, intercepted Kusaan's slash, twisting it around and down. "I... I always felt despair, when we fought before—"
He thought of Insyte's fur glowing in the darkness, inspiring his people to war. Not isolation but proximity. He couldn't let himself forget, couldn't let Kusaan twist his memories anymore! "Something in your voice." As Kusaan caught his counterattack, Sparktail held his pommel and crossed his left paw under his right, blade swiftly pivoting around the Zoroark's. "And I thought you were stronger—"
Catching Kusaan's strike in the crook of his handguard, he shoved their swords back, squinting to protect his eyes from the buffeting wind. "Because I always, always forgot..." Thalia aiming her arrows, focusing on the target; the most powerful memory of all. He held her determination in his mind as Kusaan advanced. "You were the one running—"
The Zoroark's features were raw with fury in the cold light, the rifts pulsing and swelling. Down inside, Sparktail knew that fear was an illusion, even if he could not help but let it stagger him; might pride, too, be an illusion? Fear told him to back away from Kusaan; and knowing this, he gathered his power, leapt forward, and thrust.
Lightning flashed up his blade and down his tail and blasted Kusaan, arteries and veins glowing with electricity. Howling, the Zoroark flew back from the force of Sparktail's thunderbolt, crashing against the black altar. Writhing, the dark warrior fell to all fours, sparks glowing beneath his skin, out from his eyes and mouth.
Kicking Kusaan's blade aside, the Raichu held his sword to the Zoroark's neck, tail lashing at the floor and his fur bristling. Dazed, the dark warrior struggled limply against Sparktail's hold as the cool steel met his throat, but was too weak to break free.
Thalia's cries, Retrievers dying on the battlefield, all the misery of Hoenn; in his mind, Omega represented them all. From his angle, he couldn't see the taunting gleam in Omega's eyes, the cruel smile. One simple cut, and the world would be rid of Omega, just like the rest of Giratina's soldiers before him—
"What protector would I be if I gave you the power to kill as you pleased?" said Lugia coldly.
"Your heart needs no prompting of mine," said Mythic calmly. "Not when it hungers to become what it ought to be."
"So much blood behind you, so much blood ahead of you!" taunted Azelf. "Why fight on, and cause more misery?"
"You hold the power to protect and the power to harm—the power to build and the power to destroy," said Dialga solemnly. "For Slick lives on, deep inside you."
"If not for you, I would still live," shouted Slick, pointing a shriveled finger. "You killed me, all of you, and you left me with nothing!"
"Make no mistake, for the path ahead will not be easy," murmured Mew, her eyes glowing. "But if your will is strong, and your resolve unshaken, you will find peace, waiting at the end of chaos... created by your own paws—"
Horrified, Sparktail stared down at Kusaan, at the sword in his paw, at the deed he almost committed. At once, he let the Zoroark fall to the floor. "What are you doing?" hissed Kusaan, eyes widening as the Raichu went to cut a section of rope railing from the stairs. "You! You cowardly rat! You won't even kill..."
The Raichu kept silent as he bound the Zoroark's paws. His heart pounded, Mythic's words echoing in his ears. He was certain that Slick would have killed Omega, even the old Slick. But whatever the right path was, killing someone who was already defeated wouldn't protect Hoenn... wouldn't protect the land that he couldn't seem to let go of—
The Griseous Orb fell from its pedestal, and the entire temple shook.
Alarmed, Sparktail glanced to the charred orb as it hit the floor, smoking and crackling as the floor trembled, filling him with nausea. The thin rifts around him were not fading; if anything, they were growing, flashing red and blue, splitting open time and space. Seizing his prisoner, the Raichu stared out to the sky, the world stirring beneath his paws.
Atop the ridge of Victory Road, Rush grunted as he lifted a boulder from the ground, revealing a Breloom packed under a dead Rhyperior's arm. "Still alive," whispered Foam, incredulous, reaching for his unconscious friend with wide eyes. "Heroc... how did you—"
Across the island, Pokemon cringed and shielded their eyes from the sun's blinding-white fire, Groudon's molten presence rising above the horizon. But the Swampert stared out to the west, to the brewing dark clouds approaching from the sea, his bones humming with the impending storm which cast Kyogre's impending shadow upon the world.
As hot sun and cold rain approached the island, the falling meteors in the sky began to fade, their power slurring, their fiery impacts fading to echoes. For one instant, the essences of crimson earth and azure sea were visible, framing the silhouettes of Groudon and Kyogre. Then, as the warring duo locked eyes, the world shook violently, and both melted into the wind.
A sudden chill passed over Rush, and his body grew heavy. Dismayed, he stared at the sky. How? How could the super-ancient Pokemon appear now, when they had ignored his summons for so long? And to turn upon each other now—they might well destroy the island—
"Rush, sir! Look!" shouted a Blastoise with a Furret and a Vulpix under his arms. Following the turtle's gaze, the Swampert stared toward the temple in the distance, his right arm growing hot and dry as his left tingled with approaching cold.
As the world trembled and the wind howled in his ears, Rush saw four towers rising from the Pokemon League's spire as black mist rose from the temple's base. Heart pounding, the Swampert thought he could see glowing lights atop each tower, before the entire temple—towers, spire, and all—vanished into the shadowed haze.