Anima Ex Machina
Twenty-Five: I won't depend on anyone anymore.

The Caravan, which had previously been a massive mobile village of up to thirty vehicles and nearly seventy people, now existed as not so much a caravan as a small band of nomads. Excluding the pokémon, its population count was eight, and all eight of these humans plus the supplies needed to sustain them had traveled almost two days away from the remains of Mauville City in nothing but one truck and one van that had miraculously survived the attack of one fire-type ixodida. Presently, the van and the truck sat in a clearing, flanking a fire -- the only source of light for the small camp -- tended by Vito. Thom lay in the bed of the truck, already asleep and snoring loudly with his manectric lying beside him. Veronica sat on the hood of the truck with one of her hands holding her gun between her spread knees. Her other hand rested on the head of her growlithe, who slept next to her. Lanette stood not far away, her crowbar in her hands. The only sound besides the crackling fire came from the hushed discussion Steven and Wallace were having. They stood over a map spread out on the back of Steven's metagross, heads bent and fingers occasionally pointing to dots spotting the paper's surface. Lanette kept one ear on this conversation as she stood watch, waiting for either news from them or the first sign of a threat to the camp.

Inside the van, Hope leaned against Ellen's side, her eyes closed and her chest heaving softly in a deep sleep. Ellen, meanwhile, remained wide awake. Leaning her chin on her palm, she stared out into forest. She hadn't had a single second of sleep that night, and she had the feeling she wouldn't, if only because her mind kept thinking about the dark expanse all around her. With her other hand, she reached up to smooth the hair of her charge as she wondered what might have gone through the girl's head. Was she happy? Was she having a good dream? Ellen worried about these things. At least those thoughts were a welcome change from all the mental images that had occupied her mind all day, like the claws and teeth of the ixodida and how many there might have been around them at any given time. Steven and Wallace's presence were only slight comforts to her.

Just then, Hope opened her eyes. At first, she remained quiet, as if she was hesitant to disturb her companion's peace, but then, her lips parted to utter a single phrase.

"Uwasa o sureba kage."

Ellen looked curiously at her companion, drawing her eyes away from the brush. At that same moment, a shadow appeared between the trees, and the snapping of a twig shattered the quiet outside.

Veronica was the first to react. She drew her legs under her until she crouched on the hood of the truck. Her arms swung up and pointed the gun steadily at the trees as she cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. Taking notice of the officer's stance, Lanette crept towards the source of the sound and raised her crowbar. The conversation between Steven and Wallace deadened with both champions gazing in the girls' direction.

"It's me! Don't attack!" a voice announced from the forest.

Veronica gripped her weapon tightly as her finger rested on the trigger. "Damn it, Bill! Get the hell out here so we can see you!"

Not so much stepping out into the light as rushing, Bill stumbled into the clearing, clutching onto a pink and blue burden as tightly as he could. He came to a halt several feet from the others and panted, lifting his head to gauge the reactions he would get. Just as he predicted, the first one he received was Veronica narrowing her eyes and shifting the gun to the burden, but luckily for it, the second reaction was Lanette lowering her crowbar and running forward. Bill leaned back, holding his companion protectively.

"Wait! Lanette! Don't--"

"What happened here?" she demanded.

Bill glanced briefly at the crowbar resting at her side. Taking it as a sign that she wasn't about to strike, he relaxed slightly, although he gazed at her in confusion. Cautiously, he let her see Tate, unconscious and lying limp in his arms.

"We-we got into a fight," he explained. "He attacked me from out of nowhere, and there was a kecleon--"

Lanette carefully pulled at the boy's shoulder to examine his face. She gripped his arm and felt the muscles beneath his pink skin before moving her hand to his chest.

"He's been paralyzed," she concluded.

"Lick," Bill replied. "He took a Lick to his face, and before then, I used Mirror Shot on him."

Lanette gave him a cold look before shifting her gaze over her shoulder.

"Steven! Wallace!"

At once, the two champions moved to her side and glanced at the boy in the ixodida's arms.

"It's Tate all right," Steven said.

Wallace nodded and took the boy from Bill's arms.

"I can't tell how serious it is," he said. "Lanette, how much field training does your Nurse Joy have?"

Veronica intercepted the question before Lanette could answer. "Not much. She's a city nurse, but she can learn on the fly."

"He won't require much," Lanette added. "His paralysis can easily be cured with one dose of paralyz heal, and he sustained minimal damage from two attacks. Nurse Joy should be familiar with those types of injuries. Please go get her, Officer Jenny."

The officer nodded and slid off the hood of the truck. As she jogged to the van, Lanette turned to Vito.

"Vito, stand watch. Steven, Wallace, I'd like one of you to assist Nurse Joy. The other may carry on with what you were doing."

"And you?" Steven said.

"I have private matters to attend to," she said as she began walking across the camp.

Steven followed her for a few steps, leaving Wallace behind with Tate in his arms. "Lanette, would you like someone to keep you company?"

She turned to him and flashed him a look. Bill froze, noticing right away that it was softer than usual, that her voice was a little more gentle than the one she used with him.

"Thank you, but no," she answered. "Concern yourself with protecting the camp and tending to Tate, please. Those two tasks are far more important than what I have to do."

With that, she walked away, passing by the trees framing the clearing. Bill shook off the shock of what he had just seen and started after her, passing by Ellen and Steven along the way. While Ellen only gave him a brief but concerned glance on her way to Tate, Steven reached out to grab his arm.

"Wait, where are you going?" he asked.

"After her," Bill replied. "Who knows what's out there?"

"And you think you can battle against what's out there?"

"Well, I can certainly try."

At that answer, Steven relaxed and released the ixodida's wrist. "Be careful out there."

"Of course," Bill quipped as he turned and walked into the woods.

For a long while, Steven stood, watching the ixodida until he could no longer see so much as the arrowhead tip of his tail between the trees. Then, the champion crossed his arms and raised his ice-blue eyes to the sky.

"Something's different about him already. That's for sure," he muttered.

Some distance behind him, between his back and the small crowd huddled over Tate, was Hope, standing wide-eyed and still by the fire.

---

By the time she stopped, Lanette could no longer hear or see the Caravan. The woods were cold and dark and lonely. At that hour, the moon had set long ago, and her only means to see were the smattering of stars overhead. It didn't matter to her. She knew that the ixodida cores and parasites glowed red, so darkness was safety. As such, she kept to only the darkest parts of the woods, her hand gripping her crowbar as she searched for something. Something familiar.

She hadn't found it when she stopped. In fact, by her calculations, she was only halfway to her destination -- if she was right about its location. The only reason why she stopped, really, was because for the past ten minutes, she heard a faint rustling behind her. She knew who it was already; she didn't expect anything less from him.

He stopped somewhere behind her. How far, she couldn't tell, but she could no longer hear the sound he produced as he pushed through the brush. She waited for a few moments, wondering if he would come out to meet her. When he didn't, she sighed and reached into one of the pouches on her belt. Drawing a sphere from inside it, she tossed the ball in the air and let it crack open with a brilliant, white light.

"Solrock! Psychic!" she called.

The sun-shaped stone appeared in an instant with its eyes already blazing bright blue in the direction of her pursuer. Lanette caught her poké ball and stepped aside, just in time for Bill to miss her while Solrock telekinetically threw him into a tree on the other side of the clearing.

"Ow," he moaned as he stood and held his arm. "Isn't that a little excessive?"

She scowled at him. "What's a little excessive is you following me. I don't need protection, Bill."

He forced a laugh. "Really, Lanette, I may be stubborn and old-fashioned, but I don't need another crowbar to the head to figure out you're strong enough to take care of yourself. No, I'm not out here because I think you'd need an escort."

"Then why are you out here?" she snapped.

Straightening to his full height, Bill's expression turned from an awkward smile to an intensely serious look. "I want to ask you a question."

"Couldn't it wait until I returned?"

"No." He stepped a little closer -- cautiously so as not to alarm her but just enough to make it clear he wasn't about to leave. "I wanted to ask it privately."

She hesitated slightly. Bill thought, in that brief silence, that she would simply blow him off and attempt to escape him again, but to his surprise, she looked away.

"Fine. Ask."

Surprised by how easily he had won that battle, Bill found himself stumbling over his own words. Suddenly, the perfect question that had been burning in his mind for the past several minutes became a muddled, vague mess encapsulated in two words:

"Why me?"

Lanette looked at him again, this time with an arched eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Gaining a little more confidence, Bill took a deep breath and said, "I don't understand it. You didn't try to kill Tate. I thought you hated all ixodida."

"I didn't try to kill Tate because he was vouched for by Steven and Wallace."

"Even so, the people of Mauville know you can trust me, and--"

"All except Officer Jenny."

"Nonetheless, Nurse Joy and Thom are comfortable with me!" Bill sighed. "Lanette, I understand your feelings towards Adam. I can't blame you at all if you can't trust him, but I want to know why you treat me like a monster."

"Because you are!" she snapped.

Bill groaned in exasperation. "What can I do to convince you that I'm not?"

"Nothing."

"I won't accept that as an answer!"

She glared at him. "Well, that's unfortunate, Bill, because nothing you've ever done has convinced me that you're still human and that that thing inside you is at all under control! Considering both, I'm inclined to believe that you're a monster and that you will never be anything but a monster."

The silence lingered over their heads for minutes. In the first few seconds, all Bill could feel was utter shock. His limbs hung limply at his side, his tail rested by his feet, and in both, he could feel a dull, cold ache, the only thing that tied him to reality. In the next few seconds, the ache traveled to his chest. His heart felt like it was about to burst, and he could do nothing more than cringe and place a hand over it.

"Lanette, I--"

"Don't say anything more about the subject. There's nothing else to say."

"Then I'll ask you another question," he said, keeping his eyes away from her. He wanted something -- anything -- to serve as a hint of the Lanette he knew almost a year ago, and as such, he scrambled desperately back towards civil conversation. "Why... why are you out here?"

"Do you really want to know?" she asked, her voice dangerously low.

He nodded and breathed. "Yes. Yes, I'd like to know."

"Very well." She raised her hand and snapped her fingers. "Solrock. Show him."

The stone's eyes flashed bright red, and a wave of faint, red light pulsed from its body and swept outward. Bill flinched, instinctively shielding his eyes with an arm as the wave washed over him and passed into the forest. Once it passed, he lowered his arm and opened his eyes slowly to gaze at Lanette's pokémon again.

It was sunny. Literally sunny. He blinked in confusion as he gazed through the tree branches above him at the blue sky. Stepping forward, he craned his neck and felt the warmth of the sunlight on his face.

That was when he noticed something else amiss about the situation. He knew that his tail would have moved at the pleasure he got from the weather, but he realized right then that he couldn't feel that part of him -- not the air around it, not the earth beneath it, not the feet of muscles within it. Quickly, he shot a glance over his shoulder to see absolutely nothing behind him. A look of confusion flashed across his face as he bit the finger of one of his gloves and yanked it off. His fangs were gone, and even more than that, when he removed his hand from the glove, it looked completely and mundanely human. He opened his mouth, letting the glove drop into his other hand as he stared in wonder at it.

"What's going on?" he murmured.

"Trick Room," Lanette replied impatiently. "You know what it does, don't you?"

Bill gave her an uncertain glance. Of course he knew what it was. Trick Room, a technique in which a pokémon distorted space to create a pocket dimension where the laws of science didn't always apply. It was one of the many moves that baffled researchers since its discovery, and Bill himself had never seen it used in person, never mind standing inside the resulting reality warp. He had no idea what to expect.

"Yes, but--"

"So long as you're inside Trick Room, Solrock will make you see what you want to see," Lanette explained. "For example, you wish to see yourself as human, so you're human. More importantly..."

She moved her eyes to the side without turning her head. Bill followed her gaze and noticed that in the distance, he could hear the sound of a truck passing by.

"...You wish to know what I'm doing here. I'll show you my memories. Take as much time as you'd like. I don't care. Just know that besides me, anyone you meet can't hear or see you," Lanette finished.

Then, before Bill could ask her anything else, she vanished and left him and Solrock in a clearing. He took a step forward, as if he intended on chasing her, but above him Solrock's eyes flashed red. The world dissolved around him, and in that brief second, he felt as if someone had yanked the ground out from under him. Pitching backwards, he yelped and clawed perfect darkness for something to grab onto, only to fall through thin air.

Luckily, the fall was short, and before long, he slammed into something metal a few feet below him. Groaning, he sat up and placed a hand on the ground as the world rapidly reappeared around him. He looked up at the blue skies and the green tree branches passing quickly above him; it took him a moment before he realized he was the one who was moving. Glancing around him, he let his eyes sweep over the cabin of the truck -- whose roof he was sitting on -- to the truck's bed. There, among boxes of research equipment, he saw two young women. One was instantly recognizable: Lanette, as she was when he knew her almost a year ago. The second looked nearly exactly like her, with the same shape of a face, the same lean body, the same bright red eyes and orange hair. In truth, the only differences between Lanette and this young woman were that the latter wore her hair short and choppy and that her clothing -- the white sweater and black miniskirt -- clung to her body a little more than anything her sister would dare to wear.

Craning her neck, Brigette smiled and gazed up at the sky above them. Then, twisting around in her seat, she gave her younger sibling an amused look and watched the girl work on a laptop.

"You'll run out of battery before we're halfway there!" Brigette exclaimed. "Don't you think you should give it a rest for a bit?"

Without looking up, Lanette replied, "In a minute. I just need to finish this letter."

"Oh? Who are you sending it to? Bill again?"

Lanette bowed her head. "Hold on. I'm going to lose my train of thought."

"I knew it!"

Brigette scrambled across the truck bed as her smile turned from amused to mischievous. Knowing full well that neither of them could see him, Bill leaned forward in an attempt to glance over Lanette's shoulder and see her screen. Unfortunately, the girl's body obscured most of it, and his view didn't improve when Brigette wrapped her arms around her sister and restrained her. Although Lanette shrieked and struggled in her sibling's grasp, she couldn't stop Brigette from reading what was on the screen.

"'Dear Bill'--oh, really, Lanette? You'll give him ideas, you know. 'I'd like to congratulate you on your position at Polaris Institute, but I regret to inform you that Brigette and I were blessed with an even better opportunity.' Good gods! You sound like you're writing a rejection letter! Come on, now! Is that any way to treat your crush?"

At that point, Bill nearly fell off the truck. Instead, he slipped into the bed, slamming face-first into the metal next to Lanette. Scrambling to his knees, he covered his mouth and nose with a hand and watched the sisters with wide eyes and a red face.

The shade of Lanette's face matched his as she finally broke out of Brigette's grip and shoved her away.

"Don't be ridiculous!" she yelled. "I do not have a crush on Bill! He's just a close friend, and that's all, Brigette! Close friends can tease each other now and then, you know!"

The other woman sat back and lowered her eyelids halfway. "Oh? Does he see it the same way?"

Without thinking, Bill responded, "Are you serious?! Of course I see it the same way!"

Lanette went back to typing fervently. "I don't have a clue. Goodness knows what goes through that boy's head sometimes, and so long as he keeps things like that to himself, I honestly don't care what he thinks."

"I don't have a crush on you! I swear!" Bill snapped, his face brightening even more.

"Anyway, why does it matter to you? Bill and I have known each other for almost seven years, after all. If he and I wanted to take our relationship any further than friendship, we would have, but we won't because I can't even begin to list how many things are wrong with that."

Brigette sighed and wrapped her arms around her sister again, this time gently.

"You're way too serious sometimes, Lanette," she said. "I worry about you, you know."

Lanette smirked. "Why should you worry? If anything, you should be more concerned if I ever do decide to start dating."

The older sister frowned and buried half her face in Lanette's hair. "Stress isn't good for your health, you know. You should enjoy yourself more often."

Pausing, Lanette let those words sink in a little. Her fingers rested on the keys, leaving half a sentence punctuated only by a blinking cursor on the laptop's screen. After a moment, she reached up and closed the computer's shell.

"You know what? Work can wait until we reach Point Zero," she said.

Brigette tilted her head up to rest her chin on Lanette's shoulder. "And Bill?"

Lanette grinned. "He can wait too."

---

It didn't register in Bill's mind at first that the scene had shifted. It simply felt as if a dark curtain fell over his eyes, and the sensation of being moved ended. However, the more he stared into the blackness, the more it began to take form, and he slowly started to notice that he wasn't in a void. Rather, it was night, and he was standing in the middle of the woods.

A flash of light drew his attention to the side. He watched for a few seconds as two glowing spots drew closer and closer. It took a few more seconds for Bill to realize that he was looking at headlights. Tumbling into the underbrush by the side of the road, he narrowly managed to avoid the truck carrying Lanette and Brigette. In the ensuing hesitation, he turned to watch the taillights shrink into the distance as his heart pounded from the scare. After a moment, he shook off the surprise and sprinted after the truck.

He didn't have far to go. It took a while of tree-dodging and tripping and scrambling in the darkness before he pushed through to a place where the trees were spaced out further than anywhere else in the woods. Moonlight filtered through the canopy onto the forest floor, which was covered with a carpet of splintered wood and broken appliances. Slowing his pace to a walk, Bill made his way down the road that cut between piles of debris, and with each step his eyes scanned both sides of it in wonder. A television set with a shattered screen. A decapitated doll. Scraps of a rug resting on a mountain of broken floorboards. All of them, signs of human life long forgotten. Bill knew at once where he was.

"Fortree City," he whispered.

Stopping, he found himself face-to-face with a plush eevee impaled by wood. It looked used, with frays on its edges that Bill could tell were there for years before it fell. Reaching for it, he realized that he recognized it. He had the hazy image of it sitting on a desk. Not just any desk, either. His desk. It was a gift: a birthday gift. The first one she had ever given him. What was it doing there, among all the details of Lanette's memories? His fingers rose, slowly reaching for it as his vision hazed. He could almost hear her shy, twelve-year-old voice, the shape of her words when she pushed the gift into his hands. The way her face looked when he thanked her.

His heart pounded again, but he couldn't think of a reason why.

Suddenly, he heard a scream not far away, followed by a crash and the roar of an ixodida. Tearing his hand away from the doll, he snapped his attention in the direction of the cacophony, further into the remains of the city.

"Lanette! Brigette!" he cried.

And just like that, he was running again. He didn't think twice about it. It didn't even occur to him that there was no way he could do a thing to save either of the sisters, and it certainly didn't occur to him that, logically, he had no reason to rush to Lanette's aid anyway if she still existed in the present. His body just moved on instinct, carried him closer to danger when he would have normally run in the opposite direction. All he could think about at that moment was the second cry. An ixodida. An ixodida was attacking, and as he considered that, Bill could think of a thousand different possibilities as to what he would be confronting in a matter of seconds.

The mountains of debris gave way to a space only marginally less cluttered than its surroundings. Research equipment, crates, and supplies lay smashed all over the floor of the clearing. Tents still stood or half-stood with rips in their canvas walls and poles bent or broken. Several vehicles stood like ghosts with broken windows and dust gathering on their otherwise intact surfaces, but the one that was transporting the sisters had its front end smashed into the back of a second truck.

Bill could just barely pay attention to the wreckage, however. There was too much blood and too many bodies for him to notice. Piles of them lay strewn on the mountains of debris, in some of the vehicles, half inside tents; anywhere a body could lie, there was one.

There was half of one, in fact, in the right hand of the creature standing in the middle of the clearing. He -- or Bill supposed it was a he, considering the way its body was shaped -- stood hunched over with his green-skinned arms held away from his bulky torso. Vines adorned his head and moved like snakes down his back as each of the red blossoms that dotted them emitted small puffs of yellow pollen. His tail ended in a club, not an arrowhead, and as it thumped rhythmically against the ground, a golden cloud began to form above it from the pollen emitted by his flowering skin. However, what interested Bill the most wasn't that he existed but instead what he was wearing. Blood-spattered lab coat. Ripped dark t-shirt. Shredded khaki shorts. Once he could picture the man with human skin and human hair, Bill recognized him immediately.

Professor Birch.

The ixodida threw back his head and howled before tossing the head in the direction of the crashed truck. Following it with his eyes, Bill watched as Brigette suddenly leapt from the shadows of the vehicle while clutching a crowbar. Swinging the weapon, she smacked the head like a baseball, sending it flying back towards her attacker until it landed with a wet thump between them. Meanwhile, Lanette sat up in the bed of the truck, holding a small, blue bird tightly to her chest.

"Lanette, stay there!" Brigette yelled. "Swablu!"

The bird wrenched itself away from Lanette and hopped onto the edge of the truck. Her master swung an arm in the direction of the ixodida.

"Aerial Ace!" she yelled.

Her pokémon took flight and dove at Professor Birch as quickly as she could. The ixodida reared back, his hair whipping to his front. Several of the vines framing his face sliced through the air in an attempt to strike Swablu, but the bird dodged, swooping deftly around each tendril until she smashed beak-first into her opponent's chest. Birch reeled as Swablu's cloud-like wings fluttered and carried her out of his reach. However, she wasn't nearly safe then. Swinging an arm towards Swablu, Birch opened his hand and released a barrage of glowing, green leaves from his fingers. Swablu chirped loudly and swooped again in an attempt to dodge, but the leaves followed her, slicing her skin and wings until droplets of blood and fragments of feathers rained onto the ground. The rest of her body endured the brunt of the attack, sailing several feet through the air before crashing into the earth.

"Swablu, no!" she cried. Without thinking, she took a few steps forward. "Come on! Please! Get up! You're our only hope!"

Swinging his head in her direction, Birch growled and lashed several of his vines towards Brigette again. Swablu, with some effort, pushed herself off the ground, her wings frantically flapping to launch herself into the air. Although her flight path was awkward and nearly looped back into itself twice, she still managed to push herself between her master and her enemy just in time for the vines to grab her instead of Brigette. The ixodida lifted her high into the air as her body and the vines began to glow with a brilliant, green light. Swablu screamed and writhed in Birch's crushing grip, but with each passing second, her movements became more and more sluggish as the green light pulsed from her skin back down to her attacker's head.

"Please! You've got to break out!" Brigette begged.

Hearing her command, Swablu twisted and shrieked, but no matter what she did, she couldn't escape. Brigette ran forward, her arms raised with the crowbar poised to strike, but without even turning towards her, Birch simply lashed several of his tendrils out at her to smack her away. She landed on her side with the crowbar slipping from her hands and thumping just out of her reach.

Watching this, Swablu struggled desperately, but the more she did, the more her eyes wanted to close. When her movements slowed to a stop, Birch slammed her back into the ground. Towering over her, he transferred the green glow to his right hand. He lifted his arm, balled his hand into a tight fist, and slammed it into the bird's body. Over and over again, he did this, literally pounding Swablu into the ground.

Picking her head up, Brigette could only watch, but she could feel tears come to her eyes with each successful Needle Arm on Birch's part.

"Swablu!" she screamed.

"Solrock, Fire Spin!" Lanette called.

A swirling tunnel of flame rushed over her and engulfed the ixodida. Lanette gripped the edge of the truck, watching the inferno twist from the ground up to the sky as her solrock remained suspended in the air beside her. In the center, the grass-type screamed. His silhouette twisted and struggled, but the hot air kept him inside, save for the occasional slip of a black claw reaching out of the fire. Swablu dragged herself away from the attack, her body battered and bruised.

Until, of course, a white light engulfed her.

Brigette sat up at that point and stared. Her bird -- her partner -- grew rapidly. A graceful neck arced out of a plumper body. A pair of long, cloud-like wings fanned out of her form on both sides. Her claws grew longer, and her beak sharpened to a point. When the light faded, Altaria's blue feathers shimmered, like her skin was made of jewels.

In front of her, the fire died down just enough for her to see the charred face of Professor Birch. Altaria didn't need orders at that point. She simply stretched her graceful neck, inhaled deeply, and released a beam of green light from her beak. The strike was point-blank. It catapulted Birch straight out of what was left of the tower and drove him into the ground several feet away, where he lay unmoving in a heap.

The sisters and their pokémon waited for a good minute for something -- anything -- to happen. When nothing did, Brigette picked herself up and walked to Birch's side. Using her crowbar, she turned him over on his back and studied his twisted face with its blackened skin, broken jaw, and muscles frozen in a scream.

"I think he's dead," she said softly.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw just the slightest movement across one of Birch's legs. Backing up a step, she raised her crowbar and trained her eyes on the edge of his shorts. A small creature poked out from beneath the hem. Its smooth, round body pulsed red with an internal light as its tiny, claw-like legs pulled itself out from beneath Birch's shorts. Tendrils trailed along beneath it until it cut them using two of its legs while it rested on its host's knee.

"Brigette? What is it?" Lanette asked.

She tightened her grip on the crowbar. "I... I don't know."

Behind her, Bill crept closer. His eyes were wide and fixed on the creature. His chest burned with the memory of the kind of pain he knew would come next.

"Get out of there," he rasped. "Please, Brigette, run!"

Then, the parasite leapt at her and latched onto her calf.

The last thing he heard of her before the world dissolved around him was her scream.

---

For hours after that, Bill was in Hell. The next scenes Trick Room forced him to watch were brief, but time no longer registered to him. In one scene, he watched as Lanette led Brigette to one of the tents, made her sister comfortable, and immediately rushed throughout the broken camp in a frantic effort to find medical supplies. All of her pokémon -- Spinda, Solrock, Altaria -- dug through piles of debris and broken crates. Lanette's hands began to bleed from the scratches and cuts sharp edges of metal and wood inflicted on her, and Spinda and Altaria, both of whom were forced to dig as opposed to lift objects telekinetically like Solrock, fared no better. By the time the sky began to gray with the first light of dawn, the four of them only managed to find broken and soiled medical supplies, scraps of cloth, and hundreds of other unusable objects. In fact, the only two useful objects they came across were the discarded crowbar Brigette had found and a knife that lay forgotten in the remnants of a kitchen.

That didn't seem to stop Lanette, however. The scene dissolved into another one, one where Bill stood by the piles of scraps on which Brigette lay. He cringed as he heard her whimpering while Lanette leaned over her leg. Vein-like ridges radiated from the core, forming spider webs up Brigette's calf and over her knee. As Lanette rested a hand on her sister's ankle, the web shifted beneath Brigette's skin, as if to anticipate what was about to happen. Lanette raised her hand, lifting in it the knife that she had pulled from the rubble. Carefully, she brought it to Brigette's skin, intending on slicing around the ixodida core.

The resulting scream caused Bill to flinch. When he opened his eyes, Brigette was pinning Lanette to the ground as a club-tipped tail whipped above her. On her hands, claws burst through her fingertips and grasped Lanette's shoulders. Brigette sobbed, her body shaking as tears trickled across her skin and dropped onto her sister's cheeks.

"Lanette," she begged, "help me."

If only that was the last time Bill heard that plea.

The next few moments came as quickly as flashes. Lanette pinning down Brigette's flailing, clawing arms. Brigette thrashing and ripping open her own skin. The human tying the ixodida's limbs to a square, makeshift frame made of metal bars she had gathered from the other tents. The ixodida biting whatever she could grasp. All the while, between screams and growls, Bill could hear Brigette's voice.

"Help me. Lanette, please help me!"

Some moments, he found himself standing next to Lanette outside the tent. In those moments of peace, Lanette stood, hugging herself and listening to her sibling's screams. Bill wanted to do something for her, to say something, to touch her and comfort her. But whenever he spoke, she didn't notice, and whenever he reached for her, his hand went right through her. For as long as he could remember, he couldn't recall any time that he felt more useless.

Bill hated it. He hated standing by and watching her suffer. He wanted to go back, to force Solrock to lead him out of Trick Room, to apologize to Lanette for the gods knew what but for something.

He wanted to stop noticing that Lanette was crying. That she cringed whenever her sister screamed. That she wasn't sleeping.

Eventually, though, something changed. For the first time, after flickering scenes of Brigette screaming and vomiting and crying, there was silence. In this scene, Bill stood in the corner of the tent, his arms wrapped around himself as he took shivering breaths and watched Lanette kneel beside her sister. By then, Brigette no longer looked human. Her green skin glistened with sweat and the golden pollen from the red blossoms dotting her limbs. Her vine-like hair twitched and slithered around her head like a living halo. Her clawed hands hung limply from the makeshift bed frame while her tail wound around her three-toed feet. When she parted her lips slightly, she simply breathed, the air whistling between her fangs. Then, she opened her red eyes halfway and stared at her sister listlessly.

Lanette grasped one of Brigette's hands tightly. To her surprise, Brigette squeezed back and forced herself to smile.

"You're way too serious sometimes, Lanette," she murmured.

In response, Lanette untied Brigette's hand, brought it to her cheek, and held it there. She pressed her lips together and swallowed, choking back a sob. In the meantime, the elder shut her eyes tightly and suffered through a shudder.

"There's something I need you to do for me, and you have to do it. Okay?" Brigette said.

The other woman didn't say a word. She only kept her eyes on her sister as she cried into her fingers.

"Listen to me," Brigette urged. "I need for you to do what I tell you."

Slowly, Lanette nodded. At the gesture, Brigette relaxed just a little.

"Go find your knife and stab the parasite. Hurry."

With another nod, Lanette scrambled across the tent on her hands and knees, groping for the handle of the knife. In the corner of the tent, Bill's eyes trailed from her to her sister. Quietly, Brigette used her free hand to shred the bind that tied her other wrist to the bed frame, and then, she sat up. At once, Bill froze, his gaze flicking back and forth between both figures in front of him.

"Lanette, don't turn your back on her!" he cried.

Just like all the other times he had tried to contact her, she couldn't hear him. Because of that, she had nothing to prepare her for the vines that whipped at her and grabbed her by the waist, wrists, and neck. Her hand clenched around the handle of the knife as her body was yanked into the air and turned around forcibly to face Brigette. The ixodida's expression was blank, her red eyes practically dead and glossy as they stared up at her.

Then, abruptly, Brigette shuddered and released Lanette, letting her drop to the floor of the tent with a thud. Frantically, she grasped her head and burst into a fit of sobs.

"Oh gods! Oh gods, I'm so sorry!" she wailed. "Lanette, please! Hurry! Stab this thing! You've got to do it!"

Lanette's hands scrambled to grab her knife again, but the rest of her body pushed itself back against the opposite wall. Her face blanched, mouth hanging open in shock. Brigette threw her head back and screamed once again, her claws curling in the air.

"Please!" she screamed. "I can't! I can't hold it back anymore! Lanette..." She tilted her head forward and cried into her knees. "...Lanette, listen to me. There's something inside me. I can hear its thoughts. It wants... it wants..."

Gripping the handle of the knife a little more, Lanette shakily stood, her feet inching closer to her sister. When she stood in the middle of the room, Brigette looked up at her and smiled one last time.

"Lanette. I love you."

With that, her face quickly blanked, and her body snapped the rope used to tie her feet to the makeshift frame. Lanette scrambled for the tent's entrance, narrowly missing her sibling's claws as Brigette lunged for her. The ixodida slammed onto all fours and chased after Lanette, right out of the tent. Bill hesitated for more than a minute, listening in shock to Lanette's screaming as it grew more and more distant. But then, when he started hearing gunshots, he shook himself back to reality and ran after the siblings.

Outside, the night was dark, with the best light being provided by the waning moon. For this reason, Bill could only see silhouettes, but luckily, Brigette didn't make it difficult for him to find her -- and not because the parasite on her leg served as a beacon, either. On top of one of the debris hills, she stood, several feet away from the shadows of a muscular, bald man and a wingull hovering next to him. Lanette stood at the base of the hill, her hands clasped as she watched her sister whip her vine-like hair at the newcomer.

The man dodged deftly, swinging a bowie knife in front of him to slice Brigette's hair. She screeched, reeling back as she held her head. Taking the opportunity, the wingull swooped at her, its wings glowing with a brilliant, white light before slicing across her chest. Just as soon as the gull struck, it flapped its wings rapidly to gain altitude, allowing the man to start forward with his knife pointed directly at the ixodida's stomach.

"No! Don't hurt her!" Lanette screamed.

At the sound of her voice, the man hesitated for a brief second -- one that Brigette took full advantage of by lashing out with her claws. Her entire arm was engulfed in a brilliant, green light, making it appear to be one long blade as it sliced across the man's throat. The glow illuminated the human's skin briefly, and the light glittered off the spray of blood that burst from the wound. As the newcomer fell to his knees, the ixodida turned to Lanette and gave her another blank glare.

"Brigette, please!" she begged. "Please! You're not a killer! You can fight this! We'll... we'll get you help! Real help! I promise! Just... please!" She bowed her head, her voice lowering in volume as she sobbed. "...Please stop."

The ixodida growled and rose to her full height. Her fingers tensed together, and once again, her arm began to glow bright green. Grinding her toes into the mountain of debris, she crouched and readied herself for a leap.

But before she could, the wingull decided to make its presence known again. For a second time, the bird dove at the ixodida, striking her across the face with a glowing wing. She turned to it with a snarl and swung her glowing arm at it, but suddenly, something hit her with a whack. All at once, her body froze, and her hand fell limp at her side as she arched her back. Behind her, the old man ground his knife into her spine, twisting as he placed a hand on her stomach to push her into the blade. He pressed his forehead against her back, his body wracking with spasms from loss of blood.

Then, the both of them fell to the other side of the mountain, out of sight of both Lanette and Bill.

One last gunshot rang out, followed by a chorus of shouts.

"No!" Lanette shrieked.

She launched herself up the mountain, scrambling as quickly as her arms and legs could carry her before coming to a stop at the top of the mountain. Without a word, Bill followed her, clamoring to the peak until he stood beside her, gazing down at the scene on the other side.

The man lay spread eagle with his head cocked at an unnatural angle. Across his neck, the slash looked like a second smile. His wingull sat on his chest, nuzzling him desperately. Beside him, Brigette lay on her side with her back to the man and the knife still jutting from her spine. The parasite had been shot, leaving a gaping hole in Brigette's leg where it used to be. All around the two, several people were bent down, examining them and chattering between themselves. Only one of them stood still and quiet: a young man with a shotgun. He merely stood over Brigette's head, gazing down at her with an apathetic expression. Then, he moved the barrel of his gun against her temple and pulled the trigger.

Lanette wailed. This one was louder and longer than anything else Bill had heard since entering Trick Room, and this one tore at his heart. He could only watch his partner drop to her knees and sob as the other humans made their way up the side of the mountain to surround her and gently embrace her.

---

Bill could hardly focus on the next few scenes. He watched the small band of newcomers take Lanette back to their camp -- the Caravan of several months ago -- by the river, but all he could do was follow mindlessly. None of the things he saw or heard sank into his mind as the people of the Caravan placed her in a bed and gave her food and water. All he could think about was Brigette's death.

This lasted until Lanette finally woke up. Brigette had been right about her sister; Lanette always took things a little too seriously. Yet, the expression she had on her face when she opened her eyes was a different kind of seriousness. Her eyes were wide. Her mouth was a thin line. Her skin was pale. With trembling hands, she gripped the bed sheets and threw them off her body. One of her hands grabbed her glasses, and as she put them on, she stood and started walking, walking out of the medical tent they had set up for her, walking through the camp, walking forward. Some of the people of the Caravan shouted at her, but she paid no attention to anyone. All she did was continue forward aimlessly.

As Bill followed her, he could hear her voice, but he wasn't certain it was coming from the figure directly in front of him.

"No matter what it takes," she said, "no matter what the risks. I will kill all of them. Even if I have to burn Hoenn to the ground, I will kill every single one of those parasites with my bare hands."

With each step that she walked forward, she and the scene around her shifted. The camp faded away before breaking into flashes of battlefields, of burned ixodida, dismembered humans, and half-eaten pokémon. Her clothing transformed piece by piece from the light green sundress she had been wearing to the battle attire Bill was used to seeing. Flicking her hair over a shoulder, she walked into a black-and-white scene, a still image of Mauville City with a copy of herself kneeling on top of a steel-type ixodida.

"Except..."

Color crept into the scene, bleeding over every surface to transform it from a photograph into something real. The first movement either of the spectators saw was a smile crossing the ixodida's face.

"Hello, Lanette," he said.

As the scene played out, the other Lanette -- the one who stood beside the human Bill at that point -- looked down at it with an unwaveringly cold expression.

"Do you want to know what I was thinking during that?" she asked.

The ixodida's tail wormed its way from beneath the other Bill and wrapped around his attacker's waist. She was shoved against him, just enough to let him lift his head and whisper into her ear a single word: a password to one of the security layers guarding the storage system. The name of the plush eevee she had given him so many years ago. A fragment of Lanette's full name.

"Melinda."

She straightened in her seat, but as she did so, several other images flashed in front of Bill's eyes. Images of Brigette. Her smile. Her words. Her embrace. Her dead body. Bill choked back a cry as he held his head.

"No," Lanette whispered.

"Not you. Anyone but you. Why did it have to be you?" the other one said.

The scene faded to black and white again at that point, but it continued playing in the background. In the meantime, the present Lanette rounded on her companion, her face contorted in seething hatred.

"Why did it have to be you?!" she demanded. "Do you get it now, Bill?! I can't do it again! I can't watch someone I remotely care about be killed! And the more you demand to be my best friend, the more I can only see you--"

She stopped short and turned her head. Bill straightened where he stood. He could see her lips quivering, the look on her face breaking from cold to human. Suddenly, something inside him moved, like his mind was settling rapidly on a single thought.

"They buried them both somewhere out here. That's what I'm doing tonight. I'm trying to find where they buried them so I could..." She shuddered. Her voice lowered and strained against her throat. "Mr. Briney died to protect me because I couldn't kill her when she asked me to. He killed her for me. I couldn't do it. She..."

Taking a deep breath, Bill stepped forward and reached for her. His hand rested on her cheek and gently nudged her to look at him again. The expression that twisted her face quickly turned into a scowl as she smacked his hand away.

"I hate you!" she cried.

Undeterred, he placed his hand on the back of her head.

"You don't hate me, and no matter how hard you try, you won't," he told her quietly.

"Don't touch me!"

She shoved him and took several steps away from him. Before she could get any further, he rushed forward and embraced her from behind. Right away, she struggled against him, trying desperately to wrench herself out of his grip.

"I said don't touch me!" she barked.

"No," he replied firmly. "I want you to understand something. No matter what happens, I'm not going to let you go through that again. I swear to you -- I promise you -- that no matter what happens, I will always be me. I'll fight with everything I've got if necessary."

All around them, the scenery changed until they were back where they started, in the middle of a forest in the darkest part of the night. Solrock hovered above them as Lanette bent over, pressing all her weight against Bill's arms.

"I hate you," she muttered, her voice barely much more than a growl by then.

He let her drag him to the ground. Her legs folded beneath her, and once she knelt, she bent her head down and cried, letting her tears fall freely onto the ground while the rest of her trembled. Leaning against her, Bill could do nothing else but hold her up and wait.

"I hate you," she repeated.

Then, resting his forehead on her shoulder, he replied, "I'm sorry."

Last Chapter | Next Chapter
Back to the chapter index