Anima Ex Machina: Nineteen
In the third act, the pistol is shot.

At the time of the attack, the children of the Caravan, save for the capable trainers, were herded into the pokémon center. Most of them were huddled away from the windows in tight, whispering groups of three or four. Ellen and Chansey hovered from cluster to cluster holding trays of mugs filled with steaming hot cocoa. Across the room was a young, purple-haired girl with a furret close behind her. Ellen had nothing to say to her, to this girl she knew as Julie, for a long time. After all, her priority was keeping the children calm and inside the center where it was safe.

But then, something caught her eye. It was a flash of dark green passing by her, so low it nearly knocked the tray out of her hands. Stepping out of the way, she saw the back of a girl; the flash of green, as it turned out, was her pigtails bouncing with each step her sneaker-clad feet made across the floor. She held something close to her chest, something Ellen couldn't see until the girl approached the window. Once she did, the object jumped out of her arms and perched itself on the windowsill. The blue turtle leaned out of the broken front window of the center, peering almost hungrily at the battle outside.

Ellen stepped towards her, reaching for her shoulder with a hand, but before she could touch the girl, Julie appeared by her side.

"Oh, that's Hope," she said. "Don't worry about it. I can take care of her."

Swiftly, she approached the girl and took her hand. Hope looked over her shoulder, revealing a heart-shaped face and large, brown eyes. At once, Ellen stopped. Something about that face struck her -- something she couldn't she couldn't place.

"Come on, Hope," Julie cooed, as if she was speaking to a young child. "It's too dangerous to stand by the window like this. Let's go back with the others, okay?"

Julie's hand slid to Hope's wrist, but the girl wasn't about to let herself be led away without a fight. She squealed and twisted, wrenching her arm away from Julie. Her squirtle trilled and jumped out of the open window, followed closely by the trainer herself.

"Hey!" Julie called. "Hope! Wait! Don't go out there! Furret!"

The ferret's ears twitched as he turned. He didn't even need instructions. Furret simply bound across the room, weaving his way between clusters of children until he reached the open window where Julie was already climbing onto the sill. Within seconds, the both of them were outside, leaving Ellen to stand dumbfounded in the room. Chansey approached and gazed at her partner with an inquisitive glance.

"Chansey," Ellen finally said, "take these and keep an eye on the children. I'll be back in a moment."

Obediently, Chansey nodded, took Ellen's tray in her free paw, and watched as the nurse mounted the windowsill and bounded outside with the others.

She didn't get very far. The fighting had ceased, but everyone was frozen in place. Julie stood in the middle of the street with her arms wrapped loosely around Hope, and both of them were turned in the same direction as the others: facing a spot in the sky over the building next to the center. With a blink, Ellen followed their gaze and stopped as dead in her tracks as they had in theirs.

Hanging in the air was what looked like a person -- at least, in terms of size and general shape and the fact that the figure was fully clothed. Beyond that, Ellen could see the tail curled around his form, the claws clutching at the hat on his head, the golden aura surrounding his body, and most importantly, the two pairs of gold, translucent insect wings jutting from his shoulder blades, an addition she knew he didn't have not too long ago.

Ellen's mouth moved, but her voice couldn't connect to it. All she could do was watch as the figure uncurled himself slowly and glance at where he was. Bill looked down and then over his shoulder. He murmured something, but what, Ellen couldn't hear, even with the quiet of the street. Seconds later, he winced and grabbed his head again before looking towards the western horizon. His hands dug into his pockets and pulled out his gloves. Afterwards, the rest of him bent, arms flailing and tail thrashing in an attempt to stabilize himself in the air until, finally, he started off in a wild, zig-zagging path down the street.

The nurse stood there for a few seconds, watching the ixodida bolt for parts unknown. What snapped her out of it was a sharp cry. Something bumped into her, and Ellen realized just a second too late that Hope had broken away from Julie once again. This time, the girl stumbled away from the rancher before bolting in the same direction Bill had followed.

"Hope! Don't!" Julie paused to cast a frantic glance towards Ellen. "Nurse Joy, stay here! I'll go get her! Furret, come on!"

Before Ellen could react, Julie sprinted after the girl, the ferret in tow. The nurse was, once again, left behind in utter, stunned silence.

---

A year ago, Lanette would have screamed bloody murder at being carried high into the air by three alien monsters. She never liked heights, much less flying. Now, she had her knife in hand, her arm swinging in a frantic effort to gut her captor. Eventually, one lucky swing planted the blade between the bird's ribs. The ixodida screamed and snapped her arms apart, releasing her victim mid-flight. Lanette slipped through the air, freefalling until she landed on something soft and warm. Sitting up, she sheathed her knife and patted her altaria on the back.

"Good job, Altaria. Now, finish it! Flamethrower!"

The dragon chirped and swiveled her head towards the ixodida. Opening her beak, she spewed a jet of flames at the injured harpy. The fire engulfed the creature, scorching her feathers and sending her to the ground in a fireball. She hit the cement with a crack, and there, she lay burning in a mess of feathers and limbs.

Suddenly, something slammed into Altaria. Rider and mount flew in opposite directions. The second ixodida latched onto Altaria and drove her into a nearby rooftop. At the same time, Lanette fell, her hands grasping desperately for something to break her fall.

Luckily, another hand grabbed hers. Her body jerked to a halt, and in the pause, she looked up to see a gloved hand. Above it, Lanette spotted a familiar face.

"You!" she snapped.

"Good to see you're safe, Lanette," Bill said.

He glanced towards the rooftop where the other ixodida pinned Altaria. The harpy lifted her head, turning her blank eyes to Bill and Lanette.

"That's not good," Bill muttered. "I'm sorry, Lanette, but it looks like we'll need to have this conversation later. Hold on!"

Lanette yelped as Bill pulled her into the air and circled his arms around her waist. When he was sure he had a good grip on her, he darted back towards the pokémon center.

He didn't get far. As soon as the shock wore off, Lanette began thrashing in his arms, pushing her hands against her colleague's chest in an attempt to get away. Bill held her tighter, but this diverted his concentration away from flying. As a result, the two of them began to bob and dart through the air uncontrollably.

"Lanette, hold still!" Bill cried. "I can't--"

She slapped him. Because of that, Bill's concentration completely snapped, driving him to swerve directly into a nearby shop wall. His aura vanished immediately, and both ixodida and human plummeted to a blue awning between the ground and them. Lanette bounced once on the canvas, but Bill, considerably heavier and sharper in a literal sense, ripped straight through and hit the sidewalk with a bang. He groaned and squirmed on his aching back until he propped himself up on his elbows. Then, Lanette slipped through the hole in the awning and landed squarely on Bill's torso. The blow forced the breath out of his lungs all at once as he smacked into the pavement again.

Sitting up, Lanette glanced towards the street. She noticed how quiet it was. How still.

Her lips moved as her voice spilled across them in a low mumble. "Altaria... Altaria! I'm coming!"

She twisted and began to stand, but before she could, a hand grabbed her wrist. Looking down, she found the eyes of her partner.

"Lanette, wait," he pleaded, hoarsely at first until he paused to clear his throat. "Altaria is a very strong pokémon, isn't she? Once we can convince the ixodida that we mean them no harm, we can get her to Nurse Joy, but please, don't hurt them."

"'Don't hurt them'?!" Lanette wrenched her wrist free from her former partner's grasp. "Are you an idiot?! Bill, do you even know what you eat?!"

He looked at her confusion. "I'm not sure how that's relevant, but raw meat."

"It's perfectly relevant!" she snapped. "Where do you think that raw meat comes from?!"

"I..." Bill stood. "Isn't it the same as what humans eat?"

"No!" She huffed. "Bill, ixodida like you eat other pokémon!"

"...What?"

He fell quiet as he placed a hand over his stomach. All of a sudden, he felt queasy while the memory of his first meal as an ixodida surfaced in his mind. His mouth tasted acidic, and for a second, he thought he was going to throw up. In the meantime, Lanette drew her crowbar from the straps on her back and pointed it at Bill.

"That altaria evolved from Brigette's swablu. If something happened to her..."

"Lanette..."

Bill shook his head and gave her a half-sick, half-sympathetic glance. Then, he caught a glimpse of something beyond her, and his expression completely dissolved into one of surprise. As quickly as he could, he lunged at her and shoved her out of the way of a stream of blue, disc-shaped lights. As soon as she hit the road, Lanette looked up, eyes darting back towards the storefront where she watched her partner get knocked clean off his feet. He crashed onto the sidewalk not far away, and through a wince, he looked up to see a white-feathered creature. This one stepped forward, folding a set of wings as he offered a hand to Bill.

"My intent was to prevent her from harming you, not doing so myself. I apologize," he said.

Bill smiled and reached for the other ixodida's hand, but before he could grasp it, it fell numb.

Be wary, Adam hissed. Do not let your guard down.

As quickly as it happened, Bill could feel his hand again, and with a sigh of relief, he grasped the ixodida's. The creature pulled him to his feet and looked him over carefully.

"No harm done," Bill said. "She really wasn't going to harm me, you know. Lanette is just a bit cautious around ixodida like us. I promise you, if we can show her that we have no intent to fight any human, we can--"

The flying-type's tail twitched. "Are you a rogue?"

Bill released the ixodida's hand and blinked. "A... what?"

Adam sighed. Bill. When someone asks if you are a rogue, the proper answer is no.

"What?" he murmured. "Why?"

Do you not remember the last time someone found out we were a rogue?

The other ixodida narrowed his eyes. "A rogue of the Iron Clan. My empress would be most interested in you. Please come with me."

Bill looked up. Adam?

The proper answer would be no again, Bill.

With a nod, Bill took a deep breath, straightened his back, and replied, "I'm afraid I can't. But please--"

Without warning, Lanette's scream cut through their conversation. The feathered ixodida turned and extended his wings. He flapped them furiously, churning the air into a gale that met Lanette halfway through her lunge towards them, and before she could change direction, she was blasted back into the street. She landed on her side with a thud and skidded for several more inches before coming to a stop.

"Lanette!" Bill shouted.

A shadow cast over her, and she looked up to see the second harpy flying high overhead. The female extended her wings, readying them for one more attack. Lanette sat up, struggling to force her body into moving quickly, but the ixodida was faster. Her wings flapped rapidly, shaking blue arcs of energy free from her feathers. They cut through the air towards the human as the latter closed her eyes and braced herself for impact.

That impact never came. Before it could, something warm hit her and held her tightly. Opening her eyes once more, she first took notice of a green barrier of light standing between her and the arcs. Each strike drummed off the surface of the translucent wall, causing it to flare brightly. Then, she realized the warm something was more of a warm someone -- someone embracing her with his own eyes closed.

"Bill..." she whispered. "You can use Protect?"

Opening one eye, Bill gazed at the barrier. "So that's what he meant..." Then, with a grunt, he held Lanette a little tighter. "Lanette, I can't keep this up forever. What are we going to do?"

Lanette regained her composure and frowned. "Listen. I won't ask you to kill anyone, but without Altaria, I won't be able to fight these monsters by myself. I need your help."

The attack stopped, and with it, Bill's barrier faded. He relaxed his hold on her as he pulled away just enough to look at her face.

"What are you saying?" he asked. "Wait, you don't mean... Lanette, the ixodida are just like me! They're people inside! We can't hurt them! Please, just let me--"

Lanette, whose eyes remained on the other ixodida in the sky, abruptly gasped. She threw her arms around her partner and embraced him as tightly as she could.

"Use Protect now!" she yelled.

Without even thinking about it, Bill held her and closed his eyes again. Another dome of green light surrounded the two of them, blocking a stream of high-speed wind generated by the female. Lanette's fingers clenched fistfuls of cotton cloth from her partner's shirt as she tightened her hold just slightly.

"If we don't act against them, they'll hurt someone," she told him. "If it's not us, then it will be the people of the Caravan. We don't have time for diplomacy. They won't fight fairly, and if we show them we won't fight back, they'll take that as an opportunity. Bill, I'm not asking you to kill anyone, but I have to do whatever it takes to protect the others. If you'll help me, I'll know I can trust you, but if you won't, then don't protect me. Do you understand?"

The wind died down, allowing Bill to let the barrier fade. He relaxed just enough to look at Lanette once again.

"All right," he said quietly. "What can I do?"

Lanette pushed herself away from him. "You can fly. Distract the other one and try to lure it into landing. I'll handle the one on the ground. Go!"

She shoved him away and bolted to her own feet. Nodding, Bill rose and cleared his mind until his body regained its golden aura. His feet left the ground, and the gold insect wings burst from his back. Looking up, he cast a glance towards the female.

"Let's hope I can do this," he murmured to himself.

Lanette didn't spend much time watching her partner; she only waited until he slapped his tail against the ground and rose quickly into the air. Once he did, she whirled around and plucked a ball from one of the pouches on the belts across her chest. Her feet stepped forward in wide, graceful arcs as her hand swept downward, fingers clicking the button on the ball to enlarge it before she let it slip from her grasp.

"Spinda, go! Teeter Dance!" she cried.

The ball opened with a pop, spewing out a brilliant, white light onto the pavement. In seconds, the light formed the shape of a small, red-and-white bear, and from there, the spinda leapt immediately into action -- literally. She hopped from one foot to the other, bounding in a half-stagger towards the male ixodida. Blue light outlined her body as her paws rose in drunken waves, adding to the stumbling dance. With a growl, he responded by flicking his wings up and over his head, shielding his face from the bear and her dance.

"Take the opening," Lanette ordered. "Water Pulse! Now!"

Spinda stopped where she was and lifted an arm. The blue light around her body pulled upwards, swirling into a glowing ball the size of her head. She jerked her paw backwards and threw it down, slamming it into the pavement as her momentum pitched the ball towards the ixodida. The sphere of light splashed against Spinda's opponent seconds later, and once it made contact, it expanded until the feathered creature was completely engulfed in water.

Lanette clenched her hand around her crowbar and barked one last order. "Finish it! Shock Wave!"

At her master's order, Spinda let loose a cry and raised her arm once more. Blue electricity crackled off her body before rushing up to a point of light at her paw's tip. She twirled once, bringing her arms down until she pointed them, paws out, at the ixodida. The ball of white light bobbed in front of them and burst into a beam of electricity that sliced through the air and slammed into the water surrounding Spinda's opponent. Instantly, the attack exploded, sending electricity and steam arcing into the air. For the next few moments, the battlefield on the ground was shrouded in smoke until, finally, it cleared enough for Lanette to peer at what was left.

The ixodida's feathered wings were still clamped around it, but his coat was no longer snow-white. Rather, patches of feathers were colored black, curled with burns and still slick with moisture. Part of the wall of feathers fell, tilting the whole thing to an angle as if the bird within it fell to one knee.

Lanette took that to be her cue. Her voice ripped from her throat in a yell as she raised her crowbar above her head and stormed forward. Just as she was within a foot of her intended victim, the ixodida spread his wings, knocking her back onto the pavement. He glared at her, eyes narrow and teeth bared as his chest heaved with one breath after another.

"How weak do you think I am?" he snarled. "Do you know who I am? I..." He slowly stood, his legs shaking in an effort to support his body. "I am a monarch. I am one of the empress's chosen guardians. I am not only one of the Wind Clan. I am its lord, the Lord of the Skies. I am not one you should underestimate!"

He held his hands together as a golden orb grew between them. His hands separated, allowing the ball to grow to the size of a basketball as he pulled his arms back, reading an attack. Lanette simply stood and narrowed her eyes at her opponent, waiting for the strike. She didn't move. She didn't speak. She merely watched as the ixodida threw his hands forward and released his pent-up energy in the form of a hot, wide beam of light.

It sailed right through what he thought was Lanette and blew a massive hole in the side of the building across the street.

"And I am three feet to your right," Lanette told him matter-of-factly.

The ixodida froze, his arms shaking as he suddenly became aware that Lanette was very close to his side. A stabbing pain racked his body, and he threw his head back and screamed. His hands flew to his side where Lanette had wedged her knife into the parasitic core sitting on top of his ribs. Looking to his side, his mind finally cleared, and his vision focused until he could see the real Lanette at last.

"Confusion is an inconvenience, isn't it?" she purred. "So would being a member of a species with a fatal Achilles' heel."

She pulled her knife free from the ixodida's body and sheathed it once more. Then, she turned and began walking away.

"Spinda, put it out of its misery. Rock Tomb."

With a grin, Spinda held one of her paws up. Then, she twisted it as she spun around wildly, kicking one of her legs up as she turned. She paused at the end of her rotation, fixing her spiral-shaped eyes on her target before swinging herself around. Her body gained speed as it lowered closer to the ground until, finally, she stopped on her knees with one paw rising in the air and the other slamming into the ground. The pavement beneath her rumbled as a crack rushed from beneath her paw to the ixodida. Once it reached the bird's feet, the ground split open, sending him falling into a hole as the cement rose and slammed together to swallow him completely.

In the ensuing silence, Lanette huffed and looked to the sky.

"That was almost too easy," she muttered. "Now, if only Bill would stop fooling around and pull down the other one."

A cry from Spinda snapped her attention away from the sky. Casting a glance Spinda's way, Lanette immediately froze as her lips parted slightly. The reason why was staggering towards her with a nose smashed into the skull, two arms hanging limply, a leg dragging behind it, a back crooked, and what appeared to be burns all over its body.

"You've got to be kidding," Lanette sneered as she watched the half-dead female stagger towards her. "Fine. If you want to play like that..." She raised her crowbar. "...Come get me, then."

Meanwhile, Bill was literally flying circles around the other female -- with good reason, too. Every moment he hesitated, she extended her wings and flapped them to launch another attack: another gale, another stream of blue lights, another rain of feathers. He bobbed and darted through the air in an attempt to dodge each one. One blast of wind caught him, driving him towards the ground again. The golden aura around him flickered and nearly faded before flaring up brightly just before he could smack into the ground. As a result, he glided just a few inches from the cement and launched himself into the air to analyze the situation again.

Protect becomes less effective the more times I use it in a row, he thought. I've already used it twice so far; using it a third time would be too risky. And she's using distance attacks, so Iron Defense won't be effective. What does that leave me?

Actually attacking? Adam inquired.

"I can't, Adam," Bill replied as he dodged another stream of wind. "She's too fast, and I'm not ready to fight an ixodida yet. I can barely fight a normal Pokémon!"

Then you propose doing nothing at all?

Bill opened his mouth, but a cry prevented him for responding. He glanced down to see Lanette and a spinda freeze in their tracks. Ambling towards them was an ixodida, limping and flopping like a walking, half-burnt ragdoll.

"Oh no," he whispered.

Suddenly, something collided into him, and the next thing he knew, the harpy latched onto him and dragged him close to the ground where she threw him into the pavement. She sped away after that, pulling up and out of her Aerial Ace with a cackle. Groaning in effort, Bill sat up.

Bill, we cannot simply sit here and do nothing, Adam barked at him. One female is attacking us, and the other is threatening your friend. What will you do?

"I can't kill anyone," Bill said. "Isn't there another way? Can't I just convince them to stop attacking?"

That will not work with my kind. They only know war. Why will you not understand this?

Bill felt the wind pick up slightly. His nerves prickled as he cautiously cast a glance towards the female in the sky. She held her hands in front of her as a blue sphere of light swirled between them. Pulling her hands back, she aimed her palms at Bill and pushed on the ball, sending it flying right at him. He snapped his arms in front of his face and summoned another bright, green barrier to block the attack. The orb exploded on impact, flashing with a brilliant blue light as the energy contained within it rippled across the emerald wall. It took a few seconds for the dome to fade completely, and Bill took that as his cue to stand.

However, his opponent wasn't finished. With another flap of her wings, she pulled her hands in front of her once again to generate another ball of blue light. For a second time, Bill cringed, holding up his hands and drawing yet another barrier around him. Once again, the female sent the ball flying just a second too late, and the attack smacked against the steel-type's force field and exploded harmlessly across its surface. This time around, as soon as it faded, Bill let his arms hang limply. They felt heavy and numb, as if they had been tied to weights for the past hour.

Bill, you must fight back, Adam instructed. Only defending yourself will get you nowhere.

"I know! I know!" Bill answered. "I just need time to think!"

You will need to think faster than that.

For a third time, the harpy drew her hands in front of her body. Wind swirled around her as another blue ball of energy formed in her hands. Bill, ignoring the numb feeling in his arms, forced himself to raise them one more time and summon one last barrier. This one glowed with a fainter light than his first one, however, and his arms shook as he held it up. As a result, when the ball flew at the barrier, it didn't strike it. It passed right through.

Bill had no time to react. The ball slammed into his arms and chest, tearing him off his feet and sending him flying backwards. He landed in a heap a few feet from where he started with a loud bang.

Seconds before that moment, Lanette had directed Spinda into another attack, one that was in the process of being executed. Spinda opened her mouth and inhaled deeply as her spiral-shaped eyes filled with tears. Then, she bellowed, her voice rising in volume to the point where the shop windows around her shattered. Blue ripples of light ebbed from her mouth and struck the ixodida, causing her to screech and flail her arms wildly until one of them struck and swept Spinda. The feathered alien sent the panda flying at an angle into a shop wall while the other struck Lanette just as she darted in to deliver a blow with her crowbar. Lanette was flung backwards, crashing onto the ground with a cry just after Bill landed. The steel-type's attention was drawn to her again at once.

"Lanette! No!" he cried.

Now do you see? Adam asked. If you refuse to act, you will not fulfill your true purpose.

Bill lowered his head. "Adam, I can't do this by myself. I need to help Lanette, and I need your assistance to do it."

Then what do you propose to do?

Bill stood and held his arm. Above him, a screech sounded. He looked up to see the other harpy diving at him, her entire body glowing with a neon, teal color. That's when he tensed.

"I have an idea," he said.

Several feet away, Lanette picked her head up and shook it. A shadow loomed over her, and realizing that the injured ixodida was just above her, she reached for her crowbar, only to notice she had dropped it exactly where she had started. She sat up and pushed herself backwards, her eyes steadying on her opponent. The alien's lips parted, jaw unhinging to stretch her mouth wider than a human's could ever open. Yet, Lanette didn't scream. She didn't make a sudden move. She didn't even make a sound.

That is, until she let loose an involuntary yelp when the second feathered ixodida crashed into the first. Bill skidded to a halt in front of her, shielding himself with his arms as he stood between the ixodida and her.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

She raised an eyebrow. "Fine."

"Good. Don't move."

The two harpies untangled themselves, snarling at one another before the healthy one spread her wings. With a flap, she was airborne again, but she wasn't that far from the ground before Bill rushed at her and grabbed her tail. He yanked her down roughly, ignoring the high-pitched screams that tore from her throat. Once she was down, one of his hands grabbed a wing while the claws of the other hand began to glow white. His fingers slashed across the base of the wing, severing it from the rest of the harpy's body with a crack. Her shrieks grew louder, and still, Bill didn't react to them. He simply focused on channeling the energy in his hand into his tail, and once it began to glow white, he turned quickly and swung it into the female. The metal cut through her body easily, sending her torso falling to the ground with a wet thump as her waist and legs dropped to the ground like a puppet cut from its strings.

Bill raised his claws, ready to finish her off when the other ixodida grabbed him from behind. Her jaw unhinged again, releasing a hot breath of air that smelled strongly of fish. Shuddering, her prey wrinkled his nose and reached up to grasp her forehead.

"You lot need to learn new tricks," he stated.

With that, he sank his claws into his skull and flipped her up and over his head. As soon as she hit the pavement, her screaming stopped, and her head snapped clean off her body. Her arms flailed, grabbing onto Bill's feet as a red glow flashed in her back. He stooped down, his claws digging into the glow until he felt the smooth, glass-like surface of the parasite's body against his palm. Then, with a yank upwards, he ripped the ixodida's core free from her back. The rest of her body fell still as Bill stood over her, examining the parasite closely. At last, he clenched his fist, crushing the squealing pokémon in a burst of green liquid.

"One down," he murmured.

A scraping noise drew his attention to something crawling behind him. He lifted his tail, once again channeling energy into it until it began to glow white. Then, he turned, gliding his tail clean through the other female's neck. Her head dropped to the pavement and bounced until it rolled for a few feet, but the rest of the body continued towards him.

"Where is your core?" he muttered.

Suddenly, as if to answer his question, a crowbar jammed into the female's hand. Green liquid spurted out of the wound, and the headless torso collapsed. Lanette pulled her crowbar from the ixodida's body and flicked it to shake off the parasite's fluids, but she kept her gaze on the ground as she did it.

Sighing with relief, Bill grinned at Lanette and walked to the middle of the street where the flying-type's blast forced him to drop his hat. Scooping it up, he fitted it back over his horns as he spoke to his partner.

"That's quite enough excitement for one day, don't you think? Thank you for your help, by the way. You did spec--"

He turned, only to come a mere inches from letting the pointed end of Lanette's crowbar stab through his scarf and into the flesh on the front of his neck.

"Okay," she growled, "who are you?"

He blinked. "What? Lanette, it-it's me."

"Bullshit," she said. "It might have been Bill who saved me the first two times, but you're not him. Who are you, and what did you do to him?"

Instantly, his expression blanked, and the creature that was controlling him reached up to grasp the end of Lanette's crowbar. She was about to slide it out of the ixodida's grip when it forcefully pulled her close.

"My kind normally do not give one another names, but you may call me Adam," it said. "I assure you, Bill is safe. Watching this, even. Our hosts are fully conscious for everything we do -- even when we get them killed."

"If you're trying to force me to feel sympathy for monsters like you, you failed. Now, let Bill go," Lanette snapped.

"Or what? You will hurt me with this little thing?" Adam narrowed its eyes. "Do you realize how easy it would be to kill you right now? I could stab you with my free hand. Decapitate you with my tail. Pull you high into the air, drop you, and watch you crack on the pavement like an egg. And those are just the possibilities Bill is aware of. He has no idea of half the weapons I have given him."

Lanette released her crowbar and drew her knife from her belt. "Don't underestimate me. I know all about your weakness. The parasite body. If it's destroyed--"

"Then you will live with the knowledge that you killed one of your closest friends," Adam finished. "Little girl, not that I happen to be proud of this fact, but I have killed far more of my kind than you could ever hope to eliminate yourself. Your threats do not scare me. And another thing."

The creature stepped forward. Lanette flicked her knife downward, pointing it at Adam. It twitched its tail and grabbed onto the blade with a bare hand.

"Bill can feel everything right now. Pain. Excitement. The heat of your body. It was his idea, you know. To help him learn about this body, just for this battle, he can feel everything I am experiencing. So, if you drive that knife into me, he will feel every second of blinding, excruciating pain until he and I finally die together. Do you really want to inflict that upon him?"

Lanette's skin paled just a shade. Her red eyes glanced to the side, unwilling to peer into those of her colleague.

"And do you want to know something else?" Adam asked.

"What?" she snapped.

It grabbed her chin and turned her head slowly -- gently, even. "The reason why I have not attempted to kill you right now is because you entertain me. Your insistence on pretending to be a warrior. Your harshness. And most importantly, all the things Bill is saying about you right now, right inside my mind."

Against her better judgment, Lanette stared into the alien's eyes. Outwardly, they were the same eyes as the ones she knew her partner to have, but somehow, these seemed dead. Cold. Unfeeling.

"What is he saying?" she asked as firmly as she could.

"'Don't you dare,'" Adam replied, mimicking Bill's voice perfectly.

Lanette stiffened. "What's that supposed to mean?"

If the creature could smile, Lanette knew exactly what kind would be on its face right then. It wasn't one she would have wanted to see.

"This," it said.

And then, its arms wrapped around her, drew her close, and kissed her forcefully.

For the first time since she joined the Caravan, Lanette Chastain was completely stunned. Her fingers loosened until her knife slipped from her hand and clattered onto the pavement. Although it wasn't the best kiss she had ever experienced, she still felt her eyes widen and her body tingle. Her arms twitched, rejecting her every command to push the ixodida away. Instead, she stared directly at the closed eyes of the all-too-human face in front of her.

Finally, the face pulled away, and its eyes opened. The dead eyes studied her carefully until they flicked to something over her shoulder. Abruptly, the creature's expression cracked. Its face paled, and its lips parted. Something returned to its wide eyes -- a spark of emotion that signaled to Lanette that Adam was no longer the being in front of her. She was about to snap something when her partner let loose a soft whisper.

"Hope?"

Lanette looked over her shoulder sharply, and sure enough, behind her stood an alarmed, purple-haired woman holding a young girl close. They had the same eyes -- the alien in front of her and the young girl behind her, but this girl stared at her with a steady, serious expression.

At the sight of that, Lanette's hands tightened into fists. Gradually, she glanced back at Bill, her mind struggling to form the words she wanted to tell him. She didn't want to explain to him why she was there. He wasn't supposed to know at all. But now...

Luckily, before she had a chance to say a word to him, something clocked him in the back of the head. The ball split open, and right away, a red light surrounded him. Lanette backed away, watching as her former colleague and friend was pulled into a purple-and-silver poke ball. It dropped to the road, twitching and swaying violently as the button on its face blinked. All three of the humans stared at it, waiting for something to happen.

And then it stopped. The button turned from red to an unlit gray.

Gingerly, Lanette stooped, her hand reaching out to grab it. Before she could touch it, something struck the ground between her fingers and its plastic surface. She pulled her hand away, rubbing it gingerly as she studied the black tulip that was now planted in the cement. Its blossom crackled with white electricity before it exploded, spewing a thick cloud of smoke into the air. Lanette, Hope, and Julie all began to cough violently as the adults waved their arms in the air in an attempt to clear the cloud.

It took a long while, but eventually, the screen cleared, allowing all three of them the ability to see and breathe. Lanette looked to her feet for the ball that contained the steel-type, and her heart began to pound when she realized the only thing on the ground was the broken stem of the flower. The ball was nowhere to be seen.

"What was that all about?" Julie asked hoarsely.

Lanette turned to her. "Julie."

At once, she straightened and held Hope close. "Whoa, Lanette. Wait! I can explain!"

"Take Hope back to the Caravan and tell them to leave immediately. Don't let Vito try to convince anyone to stay."

Julie hesitated. On the one hand, she felt relieved that Lanette wasn't about to tell her off about letting Hope wander so far from camp. On the other, something was most definitely wrong if Lanette was telling her to order everyone to pack up and leave immediately.

"What about you?" she asked softly.

"There's something I have to do," Lanette replied. "Just do it, Julie."

Before the rancher could object, she pulled out Spinda's poké ball to recall the bear and then yanked another one free from one of her pouches. Her feet began pounding the pavement as her hand worked to enlarge this ball and toss it into the air.

"Solrock, I need you!" she called.

The ball cracked open and released a flash of light into the air. Lanette snatched the orb as soon as it shut and continued to run forward as the ball of light followed until a red, sun-shaped rock burst from it and followed close behind its master.

She didn't know how or why, but Lanette knew two things at that point. First, that Bill was an idiot. Second, that she had to get him back.

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