Anima Ex Machina
Twenty-Seven: The war machine springs to life, opens up one eager eye.

Hope kept her eyes closed, breathing in deep as she listened to the crowds. A smile crossed her face as she tilted her head upwards and allowed the heat of the lights to warm her skin. She slowly opened her eyes and examined the rows of seats all around her, the glittering display on the contest hall's screen, the wide-open space of the field, and the three judges standing before her. At her side, she felt Squirtle press against her legs, suddenly aware of the crowds for the first time that night.

Part of her sympathized with him. It had taken her three contests to win, so with all the crowd's attention on both her and Squirtle -- and on only them -- she felt a little embarrassed by the flattery. Yet she didn't let it affect her. With her neck still craned, she took a deep breath and strode forward, approaching the judges with Squirtle trailing behind her.

When she stood before the center judge, the one she knew as Mr. Contesta, the older man smiled broadly at her and accepted a box from the Nurse Joy standing beside him. Opening the lid, he tilted it forward to allow Hope to see the ribbon resting inside. Its golden crest and pink ribbon almost shimmered in the light. Hope's breath caught in her throat as her hand twitched; she wanted to reach for it but knew the etiquette of the contest hall all too well.

But oh, how hard she worked to be able to hold that ribbon. It had been months since she left Johto, after all. Months of training. Months of losing. Months of learning.

"This is your first ribbon, isn't it, Hope?" Mr. Contesta asked.

Hope looked at her feet, clasped her hands in front of her, and smiled shyly. "Yes, sir."

"I could tell by your enthusiasm. You put on quite a show, young lady. The creativity you've displayed on the battlefield today shows you've worked hard to earn victory. We're expecting great things from you."

At his last words, Hope's cheeks burned with a blush, and her voice grew quieter. "Thank you, sir. I'm-I'm really... I'll do my best. But it's really Squirtle who deserves the congratulations."

"Modesty is a good trait to have, but remember that every contest relies on the teamwork between a coordinator and her pokémon. You're both deserving of this award." Mr. Contesta's hand grasped the ribbon and drew it out of the box. "Hope, it's my pleasure to confer on you and Squirtle the Rustboro Ribbon. Congratulations to you both."

The crowd went wild while Hope raised her eyes at last to the ribbon. Her hand moved from her side, inching upwards almost reluctantly. Eventually, her fingers clasped the satin and gold, and her heart pounded in her ears.

Suddenly, everything went dark and silent except for Hope's own scream.

She was running. Her squirtle wasn't by her side, and the ribbon was no longer pressed against her palm. The tall grass scratched at her knees and thighs as she tore past scrambling nincada. Behind her, she could hear several people. Most of the sounds that came from them were the rustling of grass and the huffing of running, but occasionally, Hope heard short screams, brief few seconds of different cries before their sources were silenced. She didn't dare look back. She didn't want to see what was making the growling and screeching that accompanied each short yell. Not when she knew they weren't that far away.

A pair of arms scooped her up. She screamed, but a hand -- a human hand -- covered her mouth. Looking up, she saw the silhouette of a large, bald man. He looked frantically over his shoulder as he carried Hope to the trees edging the field of tall grass. Glancing over him, she could see what was pursuing them: dark creatures with long tails and glowing, red eyes.

But more than that, she could see that they were fast -- and, for that matter, that they were rapidly getting closer.

The man pushed Hope up the tree. Her arms wrapped around the closest branch she could grab, and with some effort, she managed to pull the rest of her body onto it. As soon as she was safe, her companion reached for a branch to pull himself off the ground. He got no further than a few inches up the tree before the creatures -- four in all -- appeared seemingly out of nowhere to yank him off the trunk.

Hope shrieked. It was the most natural thing she could think of doing as she watched the creatures descend on the man, ripping into his body with their sharp claws. That in turn saved him for a few precious moments. All four ixodida lifted their heads, their glowing eyes narrowing at the tree. One of them leapt at her, grabbed her leg, and pulled her down. She tried to cling to the branch, but the ixodida's grip was stronger. Her fingers slipped away from the bark, hands grasping at the air as she fell. Claws tore at her in mid-air, slashing through her clothing across her stomach and her arms. One of the ixodida's hands finally batted her away from the tree, flinging her to the ground next to the man. She hit it hard and instantly crumpled, her voice silenced as she turned her head. Next to her, she could see through the three other ixodida to the man's face. His eyes were wide and glazed over. His throat was torn open.

But he blinked at her.

The fourth ixodida joined its companions to tear at the man's torso and devour the slick, pink entrails. Hope could only watch, curled on her side as she cried quietly.

She could barely hear the faint pop of a ball opening. She could barely register the flash of white light or the sound of a low growl. She couldn't even watch as a black and white blur leapt at her attackers or sank its teeth into one of their necks.

All she could see was the face of the man.

Blinking.

---

Tate wasn't used to waking up in a cold sweat, so when he did at that point, he was momentarily confused by how cold and different the world was compared to his dreams. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, even as he took several deep breaths to calm himself. Ellen, who sat between him and the van, looked down and placed a hand on his forehead.

"It's good to see you awake," she said. "How are you feeling?"

The psychic gingerly rubbed his eyes and groaned. "Never better."

Ellen pressed her lips together for a second as she stood.

"Chansey took care of your injuries, but wait here. I'm sure you'll need to feed to recover the rest of your energy," she told him.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah, I guess so."

The nurse gave him one last concerned glance before she turned and strode towards the truck. In the meantime, Tate sat up, swaying slightly as his head spin. Even as the time ticked on, the vision he had in his sleep -- the girl, the ixodida, the blinking man -- refused to fade. His thoughts lingered on it, and he struggled to figure out why he simply couldn't shake it until something caught his ear.

"Pi po pa po pi po pa po pi po pa po pi po pa po..."

Turning his head, Tate stopped. At the center of the clearing, beside the roaring fire, was the exact girl he had seen in his dreams. She sat, her eyes wide and on the flames, as her other hand slowly waxed the shell of the squirtle sitting in her lap. The pokémon itself looked relaxed and happy while his owner's hand worked a cloth in small circles across his shell. Even the song the girl was singing seemed light and happy, almost whimsical. It was just her face. The empty eyes, the slight frown, the sharp, gaunt edges of her cheeks. Tate shuddered as he looked at her, yet there was something about her. He could almost hear something else deep inside her -- something that sounded like a whisper.

"Pi po pa po pi po pa po kimi ni wa wakaru?"

He leaned towards her, preparing to get up and move to her side, when a boot came down hard in front of him. Jolting out of his thoughts, he looked up at Lanette's stern face.

"I need your assistance," she growled.

Tate cringed, backing against the van. "Uh... my assistance?"

"You're psychic, aren't you?"

"Well, yeah, but--"

"And, as an ixodida, you can sense others like you."

Tate shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah."

Lanette narrowed her eyes. "We're missing a member of our group."

"What?" Tate sat up a little straighter. "You lost Bill?"

"We did not lose him," she replied harshly. "The idiot wandered away on his own, and the other idiot did absolutely nothing to stop him."

"In my defense, neither did Steven or Wallace!" Thom shouted.

Without turning her head, Lanette shot him an icy glare out of the corner of her eye.

"I'll shut up," he quickly responded.

Lanette moved her eyes back to Tate, her expression melting into a slightly less cold look. "I need you to find him. He'll be of no use to us dead."

"That may not be necessary," another voice chimed in.

She cast a glance over her shoulder to see Vito approaching with a swellow flitting after him.

"Swellow spotted a plume of smoke," he explained. "It's not far from here. Probably about a half an hour's drive from us directly to the west. That matches up with the last time and place Thom saw Bill."

"You think he got into a fight already?" Lanette asked.

"Could be. And Lanette." His expression darkened. "There's only so many types of pokémon that could produce smoke in the middle of a forest."

She narrowed her eyes. Then, exhaling, she turned to the west and plucked a ball from her belt. "You. Ixodida."

"I have a name!" Tate snapped.

"If you don't help me get that idiot back safely, you won't need it," Lanette replied.

Tate's eyes began to glow. "What?! Are you seriously threa--"

Abruptly, the glow dissipated, and Tate swayed in his seat. Vito dropped to the boy's side and held him up. As if on cue, Ellen rushed to their side, dropping a small, plastic cooler as she knelt beside Tate as well. Her cool fingers wrapped around the boy's wrist, feeling for a pulse.

"You shouldn't be so harsh towards him," Ellen told Lanette. "He's still recovering. I'm sorry, Lanette, but I don't think he can help you."

Vito looked up at Lanette. For a few seconds, her face remained stony cold, and Vito was almost afraid that she would argue. However, she turned away from them at the last second.

"Fine." Lifting her chin, she raised her voice and announced to the rest of the camp, "Wallace, I want you to stay here and look after Tate. You're his traveling companion. You're the one who's best for keeping an eye on him. Steven, I'll need your metagross and rock-types. We may be battling an ixodida." Then, she turned to Vito. "Vito, your alakazam knows Rain Dance, and your swellow can lead the way."

He stood. "Are you sure you don't need me here?"

Lanette started for the forest. "If that smoke was made by the fire-type that appeared around Mauville City, I'm going to need all the help I can get, but I need one of the champions to stay behind and watch over the psychic."

"Excuse me?" Tate growled.

She ignored him, simply focusing on heading towards the woods. Vito fell into step behind her, and a gust of wind beside her signaled that Steven arrived. She held out her hand and allowed the champion to pull her onto his metagross's back.

"You're going out of your way to help him," he commented. "Change of heart?"

Lanette paused for only a few seconds. After they passed, she spat, "Don't read into it. I'm only helping him because he promised he would look after his sister."

Vito pulled himself onto the back of the pokémon, and as soon as he was safely onboard, the metagross shot into the woods. At the same time, Tate sat up on his own and looked towards the trees.

"Sister?" he asked.

Ellen pulled the cooler towards herself and opened the lid. "Didn't you know?"

As she pulled a plastic container from the cooler, she nodded towards the fire. Tate accepted the container as he turned his head, following Ellen's gaze until his eyes fell on Hope. The girl was exactly where he left her, sitting by the fire and waxing her squirtle's shell. All the while, her soft voice continued weaving the same quiet song.

"Pipopa-go shika ima hanasenai yo."

"A sister," Tate repeated.

He lowered his head. His fingers cracked open the container, and he stared at the raw meat inside. All he could think about was that word. Sister.

"Liza."

As if she heard, Hope's motions gradually slowed to a stop as her voice reached the last notes of her song.

"Pi po pa po pi po pa po pi po pa yurushite."

---

"Mirror Shot!"

Bill, no!

For the third time in the past several minutes, a bright, silver light exploded in the forest, sending Bill careening into a tree. His back slammed its trunk hard, and he fell into a heap at its foot. Groaning, he lifted his head and pulled one of his hands into view. The jewel in its palm fizzled and faded, and the remnant energies of one more failed Mirror Shot faded into the air.

"What were the chances of taking my hands off with that move again?" he muttered.

Increasing steadily the more you insist on using it. Bill, this is a serious battle. You cannot afford to wield a weapon you have not mastered.

"We don't have a choice, Adam! He's too strong for anything else I've got!"

"Correction, little rogue, you have a choice. A very simple one, in fact."

Bill lifted his chin just in time to see the source of the voice. Prometheus glided forward, igniting every tree he passed on his way. He had been chasing Bill for the better part of the twenty minutes that had elapsed since the two of them met, but throughout that time, Prometheus went at his own pace, catching up to his quarry whenever the steel-type made the mistake of attempting Mirror Shot. Now, he hovered, waiting patiently for Bill to do one of two things: surrender or start flying again.

Unfortunately, Bill had the bad habit of being immensely predictable.

"I'm not going anywhere with you," he growled. "Magnet Rise!"

Golden light swirled around Bill's body as he sprang off the ground and launched into a low flight path. Prometheus was ready for this. He held up a hand, palm facing his opponent, as the flames dancing across his skin grew larger and brighter. His entire hand became engulfed in a bright, blue fire that centered on a swirling ball hovering in front of his palm. With a boom, the orb exploded into a stream of blue light that tore through the air. Trees instantly burst into towering infernos the moment the stream touched them, and as Prometheus glided through the forest after his prey, he moved his arm to sweep his surroundings.

Although Bill flew as quickly as he could, the jet shot directly over him, engulfing multiple trees just in front of him. A strangled yelp escaped his throat as he twisted in the air to avoid hitting fire. In an attempt to slow himself down, he hit the ground with a knee and both sets of claws, sliding towards the trees until he stopped just short of the flames. The golden aura around his body flickered, and his translucent wings drooped as he knelt. Already, the heat was getting to him. Shaking, his body lowered close to the ground as he began to pant. His metal skin began to burn against his muscles, and it took all of his power not to scream. Prometheus landed and strode forward as his entire form erupted into brilliant, orange flames. Bill winced and buckled a little more under the added heat.

"Struggling to stand the heat, little rogue?" Prometheus sneered. "I can keep this up all day, long after you collapse. Why not give up now and save yourself the pain?"

"Your empress," Bill panted. "Your empress wants me alive, doesn't she?"

Prometheus shrugged. "Of course. But she never said anything about bringing you to her unharmed."

At that, Bill cringed. "Oh. I... I d-didn't think about that."

He crawled backwards, his wings spasming against his back as he stared at the flames surrounding Prometheus. The fire-type flicked his tail but stood his ground, waiting for the rogue's response.

Well, Bill. Now would be a good time for a plan. I assume you have one, Adam quipped.

Bill dug his claws into the ground and glanced from Prometheus to the trees around him. As he gazed through the flaming branches to the sky, a smirk played across his face.

"I do," he said. "First, let's put out a few fires."

His golden aura flared again, and he pushed off the ground to launch himself straight into the air. Drawing his limbs close, he summoned a green barrier of light just before unfurling himself and shooting through the fires to the forest canopy. Watching him, Prometheus tilted his head.

"Do you truly believe you can escape me? Perhaps this will be a bit more interesting than the Lady of Frost made it seem," he said.

With that, he extended his flaming wings and shot through the forest canopy.

---

In the clearing, Hope looked towards the sky. She squinted, studying the black clouds as they trailed across the clearing.

"Ame ga furu," she murmured.

Scooping her squirtle into her arms, she dashed towards the forest, heading in the same direction Lanette, Steven, and Vito had taken. Tate, who had been watching her for the past several minutes, perked up.

"Hey!" he cried after her. "Hey! Wait!"

He stood and took a step towards the trees, but he went no further before Ellen jumped to her own feet and grabbed him by the collar.

"And where do you think you're going, young man?" she snapped.

Turning, he flashed his eyes at her. The air rippled as rings of psychic energy ebbed from Tate to Ellen. Unable to look away, Ellen let her eyes lock onto Tate's before she began to sway on her feet. Within seconds, she let go of him and began to drop. A blue aura surrounded her body, and slowly and gently, she came to rest on the ground. As soon as she was safe, Tate snapped out of his psychic trance and leaned against the van. Gingerly, he held his head and shut one of his eyes. The other glanced in the direction of the forest.

"Wallace!" he called. "C'mon!"

Before he could explain, Tate dashed after Hope. Wallace, who sat by the fire, raised his eyebrows before getting up and starting after Tate. Behind him, Veronica and Thom leapt from the truck. Veronica immediately ran across the clearing to Ellen's side.

"What's going on here?!" Veronica demanded.

"I don't know, but stay here," Wallace replied.

As Veronica carefully knelt to pull Ellen into her arms, Thom stopped and stood. Neither of them could say a word while Wallace ran into the forest after the children.

---

High above the forest, Bill swooped to dodge a fireball. As soon as it passed him, he twisted in the air and shot back towards the atmosphere. Behind him, Prometheus soared, looping and bobbing through the air in a stubborn attempt to keep up with his opponent. Every so often, Bill looked back to ensure that Prometheus was still there or to block a fireball with Protect.

I hope that you do not take this to mean that I do not trust you, Adam said, but what exactly are you doing?

"You can't tell?" Bill asked.

No.

Smirking, Bill looked above him. The blue sky was thinning out, and he was already beginning to see the sparkle of stars just beyond the planet's atmosphere. He didn't dare look down, and he didn't dare stop. The cold air felt welcome against his skin, as did the fact that it was getting harder and harder to breathe. At least the latter meant that Prometheus was following him right into his trap.

"There are only two things a fire needs," Bill explained through short breaths. "Something to burn and..."

He could feel the heat of a fireball rush by his shoulder, but by the time it passed him, it was already barely an ember. It fizzled out a short distance away from him, which signaled him to stop. Carefully, he turned around to face Prometheus, who hovered silently close by. The flames that had once danced across the ixodida's body were now out, leaving behind nothing but the creature's bright, red skin.

"Oxygen," Bill finished. "Let's talk."

"Talk?" Prometheus repeated.

Bill nodded. Although the air protected him from Prometheus's flames, it meant that every second, he struggled for oxygen. Because of that, he knew that every word had to count, and when he spoke, it was slowly and haltingly.

"Yes. I want to know. Why me?"

Prometheus stared at the steel-type for a long while. Then, a shadow of a smile flickered across the creature's face. Just as quickly as it appeared, it vanished, leaving behind a blank expression that unnerved Bill more than usual.

"Why you? Why are we after you?" Prometheus asked. "Do you truly not know?"

"No," Bill growled, struggling to maintain his neutral expression.

"Oh, little rogue," Prometheus sighed. "Her Majesty simply wants to speak with you."

"Why?"

Prometheus craned his neck. "Why? Why, because somewhere out there, there is one of my kind who prefers manifesting itself as a steel-type rogue. This creature... it is a troubling monster. A creature responsible for the downfall of our peaceful little moon."

"But why do you want to take me to your empress in that case?" Bill demanded. "Why not just kill me?"

"Believe me, little one, I have asked the same thing every passing moment since I was assigned to collect you." Prometheus extended his arms. "Now then. Will you surrender?"

Breathing as deeply as he could, Bill tensed his body, balling his hands into fists as he stared hard at Prometheus. So far, step one had him lead Prometheus to a place where his fire powers would be useless, and step two entailed coaxing some semblance of answers out of the ixodida. With each breath, Bill began to feel lightheaded, and the longer he remained there, the harder it was to come up with a step three. Unfortunately, if he wanted to get out of that situation alive without leading Prometheus to the Caravan, he knew he was going to have to come up with something else. At long last, he extended his claws. He knew he was working with a type disadvantage and that Prometheus's type could resist the strongest attacks he had in his arsenal. Because of that, he prayed that he was right about the thin air severely limiting what Prometheus could do.

"No," he finally said.

"No?" Prometheus responded.

"I'm not going with you," Bill told him. "You can't force me, either. Up here, I have the advantage."

Prometheus quirked an eyebrow. "And what advantage is that?"

Bill held up his claws. All of them began to glow with a bright, white light. Behind him, his tail curled, and the arrowhead took on a silver aura of its own.

"I can still attack," he told the fire-type. "I'm giving you one warning. Stand down and leave me alone, or I'll resort to force."

Prometheus tilted his head. "Little one, if I could laugh, I would. I will give you my compliments, though. You are smart enough to know how to disable many of my powers. However... you forget one thing."

Bill refused to falter. His hands quivered briefly, but the glow remained. All he did to betray a sense of uncertainty was narrow his eyes as he focused his gaze on Prometheus.

"What's that?" he asked.

Prometheus held out both of his hands. "I can strike with more than just fire."

He lunged at Bill, claws out. Instinctively, Bill flinched drawing his arms in front of his face to intercept Prometheus's attack. The light from his claws faded, but as a trade-off, his tail stiffened and shone with a bright, silver shimmer. Swinging it around, he struck Prometheus in the side, throwing the fire-type away from him. Prometheus dropped through the air for a few seconds before catching himself. His eyes rose to find Bill swooping away from him with a faint, blue light flashing across his body before his aura turned bottle-green and back to gold.

The Lord of Flames flexed his claws and dove at the other ixodida again. His hand latched around the steel-type's tail and yanked him backwards. Ignoring the sharp wail his prey emitted, Prometheus pulled back his fist and readied his next strike. Although the flames he was used to producing were reduced to nothing but faint sparks in the thin atmosphere, his fingers began to glow red with heat just before he rocketed his fist into Bill's stomach while the other hand released him. To finish off the assault, one of the fire-type's feet slammed into the same spot as orange sparks crackled across his red skin.

Flipping through the air, Bill's aura began to flicker. Pain radiated through him from the point where Prometheus struck, and the wind that rushed past him as he plummeted made it difficult to straighten himself out. Luckily for him, Prometheus snatched his arm, yanking him out of a free fall. As if acting on instinct, the rogue responded by slashing across the fire-type's cheek with a set of glowing claws before jamming his feet against his opponent's stomach and springing away. His golden aura reignited, and with his second wind, Bill quickly cut through the air to put distance between himself and Prometheus. At the same time, Prometheus righted himself and growled.

You are doing very well, Adam commented, but we cannot run forever.

Bill glanced behind him, scanning for his opponent. "You're right. We're not. Need to wear him down. Much easier to fight in that case."

He closed his eyes. With the pain still throbbing across his torso and the oxygen still running low, his vision began to blur, and it felt like the world was spinning.

It seems like you are getting more worn out than he is. Perhaps it would be best to change tactics.

For a second time, he felt Prometheus's grasp, but this time, the Lord of Flames wrapped his arms around the steel-type's neck, jerking his victim out of a free fall jarringly. Bill's eyes opened wide as his fingers scratched and dug into Prometheus's arms.

"I will ask you one more time," Prometheus growled, ignoring the lacerations on his arms. "Will you surrender?"

"N-never!" Bill croaked.

Prometheus clicked his tongue. "Very well."

Loosening his arms, Prometheus let the steel-type slide out of his grip until his red claws snatched one of Bill's arms. His free hand pulled back into another sparking fist just before it crashed down against his victim's temple. Then, he watched as Bill dropped, as the steel-type's golden aura faded away and as his golden wings fizzled into a shower of sparks.

Lingering in the air, Prometheus waited for his quarry to pick himself back up. When Bill simply continued to fall, the fire-type took this as a signal and swooped after him. For a third time, he drew his opponent into his arms, stopping him once more from falling.

"And now?" he asked.

His opponent lifted its head slowly and turned to look directly at him. Its eyes were open, but its face was completely devoid of expression. Tilting its chin back, it twisted in Prometheus's arms and placed a hand against his chest.

"Give my regards to Her Majesty," Adam hissed.

A flash of white light burst from Adam's palm, blasting Prometheus away from it. The fire-type, unable to regain control over his flight path thanks to the force of the point-blank Mirror Shot, sailed in a long arc back towards the forest. At the same time, Adam, barely conscious, began falling in a curved path towards the black clouds of smoke. Through half-open eyes, it saw the glimmer of a blue ball burst among the smoke, turning the black smog into gray storm clouds. As it punched through the topmost layer of gray, only one thought ran through its head, a thought that spilled across its lips in barely a whisper.

"You... you idiot."

---

Fat raindrops struck and rolled across Lanette's eyeglasses as she stared into the sky. Behind her, Steven and Vito stood, craning their necks as they examined the rainstorm right alongside Lanette. With a nod, Vito held up a poké ball to the alakazam standing beside him.

"Good work, Alakazam. Take a rest," he said.

The fox-like pokémon nodded and disappeared into the ball with a flash of red. Pocketing it, Vito turned to face the forest straight ahead, watching as the forest blaze flickered orange and yellow not far away. The group had stopped when it was not much more than a soft glow several feet away. Now, they could feel its heat. They waited for several minutes, watching the inferno creep to a halt, as if uncertain about licking the trees between them and it.

"It's slowing down," Vito said. "What now?"

"We wait," Lanette responded.

The men exchanged glances as Lanette lowered her gaze to the fires. Her hand drifted to the pouches on her belt, and her fingers snaked into one of them to feel for a poké ball. She remained quiet as she watched the flames die down and as she listened for something important.

"Lanette," Vito said, "what if he's... I mean, if he's in there, then..."

"Then he's what, Vito?" Lanette asked, her voice low and quiet.

"I think what he means to say is he's a steel-type," Steven said.

"I know that."

"I know you do," Vito replied quickly. "It's just a little unusual for you to go through all this trouble, isn't it?"

"Are you suggesting that we let him die?"

"What? No!" Vito shook his head. "It's just... I'm worried about you, Lanette. This isn't like you."

She looked over her shoulder, her eyes scrutinizing Vito carefully. He pressed his lips at her gaze and looked towards the forest.

"I mean," he said, "if you needed anything, you know you could come to me, right?"

Her gaze softened slightly. "I appreciate the offer, Vito. There is absolutely nothing wrong, I assure you. But as I've said..." She turned her head towards the forest. "He promised that he would look after that girl."

"And you trust him?"

"No. But he may be exactly what she needs to heal."

Vito sighed. "I really hope you're right."

Steven watched the two of them carefully, eyeing Lanette in particular. He saw her head tilt downward and her body slacken slightly, and though he couldn't see her expression, he had a feeling it wasn't the same stony look she always seemed to have on her face.

Before he could speculate any further, a bird's trill broke the silence. Looking up, all three humans spotted Vito's swellow circling above them. At once, Lanette launched forward, her boots squelching in the mud.

"Let's go!" she called.

Trilling in response, the bird swooped beneath the canopy and darted between the trees, leading the red-head through the forest and dying fires. The men dashed after her, calling out for her to slow down. She paid no attention to them, however, as she ran after the bird. Her lungs burned with effort and smoke, and her feet sank into the mud with each step. Yet, she refused to slow or stop. With each passing second, her mind focused on only one thought, repeated over and over until it became a mantra.

Please be alive. Please be alive. Please be alive.

Eventually, she broke through to a patch of forest where the trees grew further apart. Even here, the canopy and trunks flickered with the last flames as the rain continued to pound the earth. Swellow flitted between the trees carefully until he circled an indented patch of mud. After a few moments to catch her breath, Lanette ran forward to find a figure half-buried in the mud and lying face-down. She stood over the figure for a long while before nudging him with her boot until he rolled over onto his back.

"Lanette!" Vito called.

She looked towards the sky briefly before throwing a glance towards her companions. "Over here! I found him!"

Vito and Steven ran forward until they stood beside Lanette. Together, all three of them gazed down at the body lying on the ground.

"He looks like he's in bad shape," Vito said. "Is he..."

Lanette knelt beside the ixodida. "I don't know."

She pressed her fingers against Bill's neck, feeling the patch of flesh between his head and the metal plating running down his throat. Carefully, she undid the topmost buttons of his shirt, just enough to peer down it. Underneath the fabric, she could see the parasite core, flashing red in time with the beating of a heart.

"He has a pulse, and his core is still here," Lanette noted. "If he was dead, the parasite would have abandoned him by now."

Standing, she glanced at her gray-haired companion.

"Steven, call out metagross again. We'll need--"

She stopped short as soon as she felt something grasp her ankle. Calmly, she looked down to see the ixodida lying on his side, his hand circling her leg as he looked into the mud.

"Oh good," she said. "You're awake. That will make things easier. Can you walk, or will we need to carry you back to the Caravan?"

He turned his head slightly, and his voice hissed something that Lanette couldn't hear over the sound of the rain.

"What was that?" she asked harshly. Yanking her ankle out of his grasp, she knelt to his level. "Speak up. Go on. You pester me incessantly about friendship, you wander off, you force me to search a burning forest for you... I'm certain you have something to say for yourself, so go on! Say it!"

He lifted his head and stared at her with an expressionless face. She froze, her glare faltering.

"Feed," he whispered. "Must... feed."

Slowly, Lanette began to stand up. As soon as she reached half her full height, however, the ixodida sprang to life, leaping at her and pinning her down. It bared its teeth with a hiss as its claws pinned her arms to the ground. Right away, Vito and Steven jumped to action, pulling poké balls from their belts and throwing them into the air. With twin bursts of white light, two pokémon materialized beside their masters: an aggron and Vito's alakazam.

"Aggron, get that ixodida off her!" Steven ordered.

Grunting, the iron armor pokémon reached down and yanked the ixodida into the air. In response, the alien opened its mouth as its fangs began to glow white. An ear-piercing screech tore from its throat while faint, blue rings of air ripped from its mouth to wash over aggron and the alakazam. The aggron roared. His bulky paws released the ixodida and moved to his head as he writhed at the Metal Sound. In the same moment, the ixodida landed on all fours on the forest floor and scrambled towards the alakazam, leaping on to the psychic-type within seconds. It opened its mouth with another hiss and sank its teeth into the fox's shoulder. Screaming in response, the alakazam engulfed his body with a blue aura before telekinetically tossing the creature into a burnt trunk yards away. The monster dropped to the foot of the tree and growled before scrambling back towards the pokémon on all fours.

"Aggron, stop him!" Steven snapped. "Use Thunder!"

Bellowing once again, Aggron lifted his head to the sky as sparks danced across his metal skin. A twisting ball of yellow energy appeared between the three horns on his head, growing quickly in size as the sparks became a flickering, yellow aura. Once the ixodida was halfway back towards the group, Aggron tilted his head down, ground his feet into the mud, and jerked his head. A lightning bolt flashed between the earth, the sky, and his horns just before the yellow orb hovering over his head exploded into a massive beam of electricity. It slammed into the rampaging ixodida head-on, throwing it off its claws and slamming it clear through the burnt trunk. The dead tree creaked and snapped, and with a roar, it came crashing down in the space between the aggron and his opponent.

For a long while, there was only the sound of the rain. Vito stooped by his alakazam to assess its condition silently. At the same time, Steven helped Lanette to her feet, and the red-head leaned against the champion. Then, there was a rustle, followed by a scream.

"Get ready," Steven said.

The other two humans nodded. Rising to his feet, Vito balled his hands into fists, his thoughts flicking through all of alakazam's possible attacks. By his side, Lanette drew her crowbar and crouched in a fighting stance. Seconds later, the ixodida rushed towards them on all fours again.

This time, just as it was about to leap onto the alakazam for a second time, its body took on a blue aura and whipped into the air. An unseen force slammed the steel-type into a tree and let it drop with a thud back onto the muddy ground. Hesitating, all three humans turned in time to see Tate lower his hand as the blue glow in his eyes faded. Next to him stood Hope, clutching a squirming Squirtle to her chest like a doll. Wallace quickly approached behind them.

"Is everything all right?" he asked.

"You were about to miss all the fun," Steven replied.

"What happened?"

"It's Bill," Vito said. "He's gone berserk!"

As if on cue, the feral ixodida rose to its feet again. It narrowed its eyes at the troupe as a low growl rumbled from its throat. Tate only needed to glance at him to know exactly what was wrong.

"He's starving," Tate said. "He's trying to find something to feed on so he can heal."

"What do you expect us to do? Let him kill and eat us?" Lanette snapped.

Tate shook his head. "No. We've just got to knock him out or something!"

Once more, the ixodida lunged, heading towards alakazam for a third time. Before he could lay a claw on him, Hope flinched and screamed. Instantly, the ixodida skidded to a halt, resting his hands on the psychic fox's shoulders. Its expressionless façade broke into a mixture of confusion and weariness. Bill blinked several times, glancing from the alakazam to his sister.

"Hope?" he whispered.

A crowbar cracked against his skull. His eyes rolled to the back of his head as he slipped to the side and fell onto the forest floor. Lanette stood over him, glaring at his unconscious form for a second time. Then, she held up the Master Ball, cracking it open to recall the ixodida in a flash of red light.

"Idiot," she muttered.

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