Anima Ex Machina: Seven
Never make a deal with the devil.

Bill opened his eyes to find himself in a place that was definitely not Polaris Institute. Turning his head, he pushed himself onto his knees to examine his surroundings. Above him, what he could see of the sky was gray, but much of it was obscured by the bare, black branches of the trees all around him. The earth and the dead leaves that littered it were shades of dark gray. For as far as he could see, the forest stretched in all directions with no end in sight. Yet, despite how cold and grayscale the place was, he couldn't help but feel as if he had been there once.

"You have," a voice said. "This is the forest around your home, is it not? The forest that surrounds the place you call Route 25. To the east, it will end, giving way abruptly to a beach, and one could follow that beach to a lighthouse upon a cliff -- the one you call the Sea Cottage. However, for our purposes, no matter how far you walk, you will never get there. I tell you this now so you can feel comfortable but focus completely on me."

Sitting back, he listened carefully to the voice. It definitely sounded like his. He knew all too well it wasn't.

"You!" he yelled. "Where are you?"

There was only a short beat of hesitation before it answered, "Find me."

Bill pressed his hands into the ground and prepared to spring onto his feet, but before he moved, he noticed something about his body. Looking at his hands, he discovered that his armor had been replaced by soft, pink flesh, and all of his sharpened claws were gone.

Something in his brain jolted. Suddenly, a rush of memories hit him: waking up to find that his body was covered in metal, encountering a man who could produce electricity, breathing in a white cloud that put him to sleep. With each short recollection, he tried to calm himself with rapid gulps of air.

"Take as long as you need. Time is irrelevant here," the voice told him.

This time, he didn't attempt to jump up, opting instead for rising slowly to his feet. He realized that they felt strange under him, although they were definitely the feet he was born with. Step by step, he crept in the direction of the voice until he passed the first tree. Behind it, a flash of silver caught his eye. He turned his head to see himself leaning against it, but this self wasn't human. He assumed it had to have been what he looked like as an XP-650B: the face was his own (albeit paler than what he was used to seeing in the mirror), while the metal-armored body looked more like what happened if a raptor mated with a human. Its claws glinted in the gray sunlight, its legs were bent into the ankle of a long foot, and its tail curled around one set of three broad toes. Yet, as strange as it looked to Bill, the creature stared at him with dark, human eyes -- his dark eyes. Before long, Bill realized it wanted him to speak.

"Am I dreaming?" he whispered.

"Yes," the creature told him. Then, it looked away. "Electric-types are the fastest among my kind, but they cannot carry weight well. Therefore, you must be kept asleep and still so that Abel may carry us to where we need to be. Otherwise, I am afraid of what may happen if he drops us. I can smell water outside."

Bill took several steps backwards until his back smacked against a tree. "What?"

The creature turned back towards him. Right then, Bill noticed that its expression was completely unreadable. Its mouth was a straight line, and its eyes were blank. A shudder went down the human's spine.

"I was worried that I would have to emerge in order to free us," the parasite continued. "Luckily, Abel is here. After all, if I were to dominate our body for too long, then..."

Its voice trailed off at that point, and it looked down at its feet. Bill could feel himself sliding down the trunk. He felt numb, and none of what the alien had just told him sank into his mind.

"What are you?" Bill whispered. "What... what do you want?"

The creature lifted its chin slightly. "My kind do not have names for ourselves or for each other. I cannot, therefore, tell you what I am. As for what I want, we are going to a place you know as Hoenn."

Suddenly, Bill's entire body felt cold. "You're going to take me to your kind, aren't you? You want me to..."

Bill sensed that the creature was amused. Considering the look on its face never changed, he couldn't figure out how he knew that. He just looked at it and knew it would be chuckling if it could.

"There are few like me on this planet," it said, "and none of them would accept your human mind. I, on the other hand, have no intention of forcing myself on you."

It strode forward. Bill watched it carefully until it stared down at him. With a flash, one of its metal hands lashed outward and grabbed him by the neck. Gasping, he felt its grip tighten and lift him into the air. His windpipe contracted, and he felt his lungs strain for oxygen. Frantically, he grabbed and pulled the creature's arm.

"Humans are so fragile," it told him calmly. "A few breaths of a poison, and you wither and die. A few wounds, and you bleed to death. I do not know how strong the others of your kind are compared to you, but you seem laughably weak compared to my last host. If I push you too hard and too quickly, you would break."

It released him, causing him to drop to the soft ground. He grabbed his throat and spasmed with a coughing fit. His body bent in half, and he pressed his forehead to the ground. The air felt like it was on fire as it ripped down his throat. As he lay gasping and shaking, the parasite stood over him and spoke to him tonelessly.

"If you are wondering, our relationship is not unique. There are others of my species who, either by force or by choice, have relinquished control over their bodies to their hosts. This has always been true. Therefore, it is my choice to give you as much freedom and guidance as I can, but there is something I must ask you to do in return."

The coughing began to subside. Bill lifted his head to look at his companion. He said nothing, but the parasite knew what question was on his mind.

"You must learn to survive," it told him. "I can teach you all I can, but you must hone those skills on your own. You must learn how to control the gifts I have given you, and you must become strong. This will need to happen quickly. There is something else I will ask you to do soon, but you would not be able to do it until you have adapted to the form I gave you. However, if we waste too much time, we will lose any chance of completing what we must do, and if that occurs, your species will be doomed."

Bill pulled himself back to his feet using the tree. His knees felt shaky, and his vision was still blurred by his tears. Squinting, he rubbed his throat.

"I... I don't..." he rasped.

The creature tilted its head slightly. "Do you find it that difficult to understand? I am proposing to you a contract. Control, in exchange for a very simple favor. Do we have a deal?"

It extended a hand. Bill stared at the metal and pressed his back to the tree trunk behind him. Right then, it all hit him. If he took that hand, he'd be bound by contract to do exactly the kinds of things he wanted to avoid. Fighting? Gifts? He didn't even know what favor the thing wanted or what he was getting himself into. Trembling, he shook his head.

The creature knelt in front of him. "No?"

"Please... please leave me alone," Bill whispered.

"Have I really failed to make myself clear with my last example?"

It placed a hand on his shoulder. At first, it was just a light touch, but as seconds passed, the hand grew heavier. The grip tightened until Bill could feel the claws pierce through his skin and dig deep into the muscle of his shoulder. He cried out and gripped the monster's arm. Hot pain laced from where the fingers were burrowing deep into his flesh, and he shut his eyes tightly.

"Oh gods!" he cried. "Let go!"

The hand squeezed harder. Bill could almost feel its fingers brushing his bone. The creature leaned close and whispered into Bill's ear. Its breath was cold and smelled like the sea.

"I am inside you," the creature hissed. "To reject me will be suicide. You will either be killed by my brethren, or I will kill you to find a new host. The truth is, Bill, that the only painless alternative you have is to surrender. To go deep down inside yourself -- so deep that your mind will drown in my consciousness, and you will cease to exist. I could do that to you in an instant, but because you are useful to me, I give you a choice. I offer you peace and a chance to live with me, but it must be on my terms. Do you understand?"

Shakily, he nodded. His mind was focused on the pain, and he felt his limbs wobble and his body grow weaker. Both of his hands slipped off the creature's arm and hung at his sides. As his vision began to grow dark, he forced himself to think about the words it said.

"Good."

The creature presented its free hand. Bill stared at it. He didn't want to do this. He didn't want any of this. He wanted to be back in Polaris with his own body and his own thoughts, but he suspected both were just beyond his reach for the time being.

Weakly, he wrapped his hand around his partner's. The metal fingers nearly crushed his, but luckily, the contact lasted for only a second. As soon as it happened, the monster pulled away from him, drawing its fingers out of Bill's shoulder. He screamed for a second time as blinding pain ripped through him, but as soon as he reached up to grab his shoulder, he stopped. Panting, he looked down to see that the bare, white skin of his shoulder was just that: bare and white, with not even a scar to tell him that five needles had been jammed deep into it just a moment ago. Even the pain was almost completely gone.

Completely indifferent to Bill's curiosity, the creature stood and turned. "Now that formalities are out of the way, there is one other order of business I believe we must attend to before you awaken. Because you humans have difficulties comprehending anything without giving it a name, I suppose I should choose one for myself before you take to calling me by that ridiculous designation you gave my species."

Breathing shallowly, Bill struggled to stand, using the tree as support. He felt light-headed, as if at any second, he would drop face-first into the ground again. It felt like a miracle to him that he could remain standing long enough to stare at his companion.

"They gave me a name, you know," it said. "Your colleagues, I mean. They gave me one like they did for Abel." It looked over its shoulder. "Adam. It is not quite the name I would have chosen for myself, but it will do."

At that point, Bill's mouth moved, although he wasn't entirely conscious of the fact that he was speaking.

"Adam..."

It clasped its claws behind its back. "I read your memory to understand your kind better. Adam was the first man." It looked forward. "Ironic, is it not?"

Exhaling, Bill once again whispered, "Adam..."

Adam straightened its back. "Something is happening outside. Wake up."

Before Bill could reply, the forest and Adam vanished.

---

When Bill awoke for a second time, he opened his eyes to a cold world of color. Below him, he saw a blur of brown and green, and above him, there was a stretch of blue and white. A streak of yellow and red passed over him, screaming, as he was sent careening towards a patch of green. The journey towards the patch was short; he hit it with a bang seconds after he was dropped. He squinted, and the blurs of color around him morphed into the wobbling vision of a field fringed by trees. Gunshots and cracks of thunder filled his ears, and the bitter smells of metal and gunpowder flooded his nostrils.

With some effort, he turned over and lifted his head. Bill squinted and tried to will the world to stay still just enough for him to see. Several feet in front of him, he caught sight of a group of people -- ten in all -- in various civilian clothes. All of them had guns in their hands and electrike around their feet, and in one large hunting party, they almost completely surrounded Abel.

The electric-type looked, in Bill's opinion, absolutely terrible. Blood ran out of a red wound in his shoulder, and from the other shoulder, his arm hung limply with a bone jutting out of its side. Half the hand on the broken arm was missing; it stopped at a ragged line -- the edge of a hole left by a point-blank gunshot wound, no doubt. His tail looked just as incomplete.

Roaring, Abel surrounded himself with blue light and released another volley of electrical bolts. The electrike barked and pounced forward, into the attack. Before a single bolt could strike their human companions, the pack absorbed the electricity and dropped to the ground. None of them had so much as a burn on them. Each electrike simply stood on all fours, teeth bared and growls rumbling in a chorus.

Another gunshot rang out, and Abel reeled forward. Blood spurted from the back of his skull as another one of the civilians placed a gun barrel against the jewel in Abel's chest. The trigger was pulled, and one last shot boomed. Abel fell backwards, green gel and red blood flying as he fell to the red-slicked grass. He didn't get up again.

The civilians hesitated, waiting for Abel to move. One even lowered her rifle and nudged his body with the barrel. When he didn't stir, the group looked at Bill.

"Now the other one," one of the civilians said.

With a shuddering cry, Bill realized what they were about to do. As they moved towards him, he sat up and scrambled backwards. His eyes widened, and he felt his breath quicken. Placing a hand over his chest, he trembled and forced himself to speak.

"W-wait!" he cried.

They stopped and looked at each other.

"It spoke," a woman in the group whispered.

"Can it understand us?" a man muttered.

The group turned towards someone in the middle of their formation. They parted to allow her to walk through.

Normally, Bill would be comforted by the sight of an Officer Jenny. Her blue police officer's uniform represented justice and safety to the majority of his world. No matter where she went, there would be order. However, there was a glint in her coffee-colored eyes that made him uneasy, and the way her glossy lips pursed made him think of a judge about to sentence a convict. Of course, the latter notion might have come from the fact that she was holding a black handgun that was pointed directly at him, and although Bill knew very little about weapons, he thought it looked powerful enough to put a hole right through him.

There was a long moment of silence. Officer Jenny kept her hand steady as she looked at him with a critical eye. Tilting her head, she finally found something to say.

"Do you have a name?" she asked.

He sat up, blinking. His mind scrambled to grasp her question. It seemed so casual and out-of-place that he couldn't even understand it at first. Then, his mouth pushed to speak.

"Bill," he murmured.

Jenny nodded, her eyes settling on the hand on his chest. Behind her, a member of the hunting party stepped forward.

"Should we kill it?" he asked.

Jenny shook her head. "I've got a better idea."

She swung her arm. The barrel of her gun cracked against the side of Bill's head, sending him sprawling into the ground. Once again, his vision darkened, and he found himself quickly slipping into unconsciousness.

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