Chapter 7: Noctis Mortem
The crumbling old house left much to be desired in terms of comfort, but Wes supposed it was better than nothing.
They'd made it to the ruins of a tiny old town about two hours northwest of Phenac. Night had officially settled over the desert, and the winds brought a sharp chill in the cooler temperatures.
Rui had major hesitations at first, when she saw where they were headed. Wes didn't entirely blame her; staying in an abandoned town at night, with its decaying buildings and creaking houses, would make any regular person nervous.
But for Orre natives, it was even more ominous, as they all knew what had reduced so many towns like this one to ruins; as a result, most citizens avoided these places out of fear and superstition.
Wes was not "most citizens", however.
"It's perfectly safe, trust me," he'd said to her as she planted her boots firmly in the sand and refused to move closer.
"How do you know that?" Rui looked at him with fearful eyes, the dying light of the sunset fading behind her. "How do we know there aren't still traces of - of the-"
"I know because I've stayed here before. Several times. Do I look dead or sick to you?" he asked curtly.
Rui pursed her lips. "O-Okay..." she said nervously.
Now they sat in what appeared to be an old inn of sorts; they'd settled in a room with two small beds for the night. The desert breeze rattled a rickety window across the room, and the house groaned quietly. It was one of the few buildings left that had a more or less intact roof overhead, and it was the only one Wes trusted not to cave in on them in the night.
He patted as much dust out of his mattress as he could as he set up his space, then noticed Rui glancing at her own with a wary eye.
He sighed. "Look, you're not going to get sick by staying here. Noctis never worked that way."
"I-I know." She slowly sat on her mattress. "It's just...this place is so creepy. To think it used to be a place full of people and families not that long ago, and now it's...like a graveyard."
"They're just empty buildings now. Don't get too worked up over it."
She didn't answer, and instead curled up into the mattress as if trying to retreat into herself. Wes held back another sigh. He supposed he ought not to be too judgmental; places like this had been routine for him as he traveled for his Snagem missions, but he was well aware he was an exception. It was part of why he'd resorted to staying in these towns in the first place - they kept unwanted visitors away, and guaranteed he would have privacy.
He sat on his mattress and pulled out the canvas tote, ignoring the painful throbbing in his shoulder. That battle had not done his injury any favors, and he would look at it later, but his Pokémon were his first priority.
Wes was grateful that he'd kept a small store of healing items tucked away in his bike, as he'd never had the chance to get supplies in Phenac. And that was the only reason I went there in the first place, he thought sourly.
Neo was first. Placing a flashlight on the floor for light, Wes revived and healed up the Espeon and was relieved that, while he'd been thrown around quite a bit, none of his injuries were serious. Neo curled up beside his Trainer with a tired sigh and promptly fell asleep as Wes rubbed his ears. "You did great today, bud," he said quietly.
Next was Novo. Wes hadn't got a good look at the Umbreon before returning him, so he wasn't sure what to expect - and he certainly wasn't prepared to see blood dribbling down his foreleg. Novo looked up into Wes' eyes with a weak mew. "Bri."
"Oh, Arceus - " Wes fumbled through his bag until he found a roll of bandages, another thing he made sure to always have on hand. He sprayed Novo down with more Potions, then pulled him into his lap as he gingerly bandaged the Umbreon's leg.
"I'm so sorry, Nov," he said with a grimace. He clenched his teeth. Damn those guys, attacking them with five Pokémon at once...
Novo blinked up at him and rubbed his chin against Wes' shoulder (thankfully, his uninjured one). "Umb." He gave a tired, throaty purr.
Wes finished bandaging Novo's leg and let him curl up next to his brother. He wouldn't be watching out of any windows tonight; he was far too exhausted from their earlier battle. It was more like an ambush than a real battle, Wes growled to himself.
"You take really good care of them." Rui's voice jolted him out of his thoughts; she'd been so quiet, for once, he'd almost forgotten she was still there. She was curled up on the mattress with her back against the wall, watching him tend to his Pokémon with a small smile.
Wes shrugged - and immediately regretted the action when his shoulder gave another painful throb. "Of course I do. They're my..."
He paused. He glanced back at his sleeping Pokémon and finished, a little more quietly, "They're my family."
"Family, huh?" The smile faded from her face a little. "Do...do you have other family, or parents...?"
"...oh." Sadness flickered in her eyes. "I'm...really sorry."
Wes almost shrugged again, but he knew better this time. "It's fine. I don't really remember them."
Truth be told, at times he wished he could remember more - and other times he was glad he didn't. He thought he might have vague memories of his father's face or his mother's laugh. A part of him thought he could remember that she liked to sing...but he couldn't be sure about any of it. Perhaps he'd only dreamed such things.
"Were you really young?" Rui was looking at him intently.
"I was five."
"Oh, Arceus - " her eyes widened, her face appalled. "That - that's so young - and you've been on your own ever since?"
"...more or less."
There was a brief silence. Rui shivered a little and pulled her jacket more tightly around her.
"Noctis?" she asked quietly.
Wes gave a bitter snort. "What else?"
She dropped her gaze to her boots and fell silent.
Noctis. He'd been so young when the mysterious illness swept through Orre and devastated its population, but he'd heard the stories plenty of times from older adults at Snagem. They spoke of its effects, how it turned one's skin as white as a sheet and blackened their eyes and veins until they looked like a corpse, how the seizures and screams of agony would last for hours, sometimes days, before death took them.
He'd heard other stories, too - about families, neighborhoods, and entire towns like this one that went from active, healthy and thriving communities to desolate, corpse-ridden ghost towns in a matter of days.
Noctis Mortem. Night Death. It was appropriately named.
Even before the illness, Orre was a rather hopeless excuse for a Region. The nuclear war with Kanto seventy years earlier had already ensured that the area wouldn't be suitable for wild Pokémon for many years - if ever again - and many people speculated that the nuclear after effects on the population were a big factor in the massive Noctis death toll.
Wes didn't care to know all the facts and details. They didn't matter to him anyway, not now when everything was said and done. Nothing would change the fact that his parents were dead, or that he lived on the streets for a year after that, or that he was picked up by Snagem and subjected to daily horrors for the rest of his life after that.
All of that was supposed to change, he thought bitterly. He was supposed to be on his way out of Orre for good, heading to a better, brighter place with his Pokémon beside him, catching his first opportunity for real happiness...
As if to spite him in his thoughts, his shoulder throbbed again. He clenched his teeth. Of course that had all been too good to be true. It seemed he'd been doomed to perpetual misfortune from an early age.
"How's your shoulder?" Rui spooked him out of his wallowing thoughts. She was looking at him with concern.
"It's fine," Wes lied.
She raised an eyebrow at him, then dug into her jacket pocket and pulled out the meds he'd been given at the hospital. She tossed them to him, the bottle rattling as it flew. "Here. You should take some."
"I don't need-"
"I don't care who you are, Wesley Lycas, nobody dislocates their shoulder and then walks it off." Rui huffed and folded her arms. "So take the stupid pills already."
Wes stared at her. "Did you just...scold me with my full name like a parent?"
"Yes, and if you keep acting like a child, I'll keep parenting you!" she snapped.
Wes shook his head and popped the bottle open with a grumble. "You're unbelievable."
"That wasn't a compliment."
He swallowed the pills with a shudder; he'd always hated taking the things. Medicine wasn't too common a commodity at Snagem, and to be caught taking it was to be made a target. Any sign of weakness or injury made one easy prey for the other kids who were desperate to prove themselves.
You're not at Snagem anymore, he told himself. You don't need to hide. She's not a threat. Not a threat.
Still, he didn't look at her as he shoved the meds back into the canvas tote. There was a moment of silence.
"I lost my father to it, too."
Her voice was so quiet he almost didn't hear her. Wes glanced at her and saw that she'd pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs, staring blankly as though lost in memory.
"Noctis?" he asked. She nodded.
"He was a scientist, actually. When the Noctis hit, he was working in the labs for days on end trying to find a cure. He eventually caught it from one of the patients. I was almost two."
Wes wondered why she was sharing this. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
She gave him a wan smile. "It's all right...I don't remember anything about him, I was so young." She brightened just a little. "But even so, I'm proud to be his daughter. He was fighting to save lives, and that makes him a hero in my book."
Wes didn't know what to say to that, so he remained silent for a moment. He vaguely wondered about her mother, but he thought he could see a faintly haunted look in her eyes as she returned to her thoughts. He decided not to ask.
After a moment, she seemed to come back to the present. She blinked and looked up at him, then gave a nervous laugh and sheepishly fiddled with her hair. "Sorry, I don't know why I got into that. You're probably tired of hearing me talk all the time..."
Wes shook his head and waved a dismissive hand. "I don't mind."
He was surprised to learn he actually meant it - well, sort of. Mostly. He still wasn't used to so much conversation with another person, but he supposed it wasn't all bad.
Rui gave him a more genuine smile this time, and somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that, for all her obnoxious optimism, smiles quite suited her.
He cleared his throat. "We should probably get some sleep. We have a long ways to go tomorrow."
She cocked her head to the side. "Where are we going?"
"Pyrite. It's the closest town, and I know a few people there that can get you to Agate."
"I see." Rui relaxed her shoulders with a sigh. Her eyes rested on the canvas tote beside Wes. "What are you going to do with...them?"
Wes followed her gaze to the bag, inside of which the four Pokeballs rested. "No idea."
He wouldn't ever admit it to her, but the thought of those Pokeballs made him extremely uncomfortable. He'd gone out of his way to leave Snagem and all its ways forever, and yet, just two days later, he'd Snagged not one, but four Pokémon.
Granted, he supposed he could justify it as self defense, but the way he so naturally and quickly reverted to his Snagger instincts was not lost on him, and it disturbed him greatly.
And...why had he bothered to take the Snag Machine? Why hadn't he destroyed it with all the others? On the surface, Wes had told himself it was a backup plan, a last resort; if he couldn't scrape up the funds for a passport in Gateon, then he could have sold the thing in the right part of town for a solid price.
But a tiny part of him whispered that maybe, just maybe, he'd been afraid to leave behind something that had been so integral to his identity for so many years.
He hated that thought almost as much as he hated Snagem itself.
Rui spoke again, and her interruption was so sudden he nearly jumped. Arceus. How many more times was she going to do that?
"We really should see if there's a way to help them," she said. "Those poor Pokémon are really suffering, Wes. I could see it."
Her use of "we" grated on Wes' ears, as though she thought of them as a team or something.
"Those 'poor Pokémon' would have killed me or you in a heartbeat," he answered dryly.
"Yes, but I don't think they want to." She raised her eyes to his again with an urgent expression. "They weren't born like this, it's too...unnatural. Someone made them this way. Which means there's got to be a way to fix them."
Ever the optimist.
Wes shook his head and sighed, moving the bag from his mattress to the floor and gathering up the flashlight. "We can talk about it later," he said, although he wasn't sure he had any intention of doing so. He didn't like to think about it. "For now, let's get some sleep."
He fully expected her to argue, but instead she just nodded her head wearily and laid back on her mattress. "Yeah...okay." Her voice finally betrayed her tiredness. "Goodnight, Wes."
"...yeah. Night." He found he was very unused to having someone - a human someone - say goodnight to him. Was it always this weird to be around people all the time?
Wes was about to lay back on his mattress when he caught sight of Novo curled up beside his brother, rings pulsing gently in the dark. He hesitated, wondering if he needed Novo's Hypnosis again...but no. It had been a far too long and eventful day, he was worn out, and the pain in his shoulder was subsiding now, thanks to the meds. He would be fine.
He settled down, and he didn't even have time to reconsider before sleep overtook him.
He was crouched behind a cluster of sagebrush, scoping out the targets ahead as the sun beat down mercilessly on his dark clothing.
Two young teens, a boy and girl, strode hand in hand to their parked hover car outside the walls of Phenac. A Poochyena and a Shroomish darted happily about their feet, squealing and yapping, utterly oblivious to the predatory eyes upon them.
He swallowed past the panic rising in his throat and tried not to show his reservations.
"Your move." A voice growled over his shoulder and he could practically feel Wakin's cold eyes boring into the back of his head. "You got about twenty seconds before they reach the vehicle."
He nodded, took a deep breath, but his feet refused to move.
"The hell are you waiting for?" Wakin snapped. The boy turned his head to look at him. I can't do this, he thought. I'm not cut out for this.
Then a cruel sneer curled across the man's face. "You scared, Leo?" he taunted.
And the boy knew what that meant. He had hesitated, had made a costly mistake. Hesitation meant fear. Fear meant weakness.
And weakness meant death.
Without a word, he darted forward. He might die someday in this Arceus-forsaken desert in this Arceus-forsaken region, but it wouldn't be today. Not today.
He barely made it in time; the young couple noticed him just as they were almost to their vehicle. The girl saw him first and pointed with a gasp of surprise as he came closer.
The male teen eyed him warily, but not without a hint of concern. "You, uh...you lost, kid? You need some help?"
"Y-yeah, I'm lost," he replied. He tried to put on his most innocent face - not that he really needed to. The torn clothing, the dirty smudges all over his face and arms told his false story well enough. "Could you...help me into the city?"
They exchanged a nervous glance. "Well...yeah, sure," the older boy replied after a pause. "But where are your parents? Do you need us to call them for you? And you're probably dehydrated, we should take you to a hospital, yeah?"
He tried and failed to quash the guilt screaming at him from inside. These people were too innocent, too kind, too trusting...why hadn't they learned by now? Didn't they know better?
The harsh growl sounded from behind them. Over their shoulder, he caught a glimpse of Wakin's snarling face, the viciously triumphant eyes, the gun in his hand.
The girl let out a shriek and the boy moved protectively in front of her with a cry as their two Pokémon sprang in front, growling. But no amount of screaming would save them here; they were too far from the city wall, and Wakin always made sure never to pull a heist like this where strangers could intervene.
"Give me your Pokémon and I'll let you go free."
"P-please, we're just travelers!" the girl cried. "We've never done anything wrong, just let us go! Please!"
Wakin growled. "I don't give a damn who you are. Now return them and hand them over, or I shoot the girl first."
There was a pause, and then they shakily returned their Pokémon. The girl broke down into sobs as they tossed the Pokeballs at Wakin's feet. The boy held her close.
"There, you got what you wanted! Happy?" The boy seemed like he was trying to look brave and defiant, but the tremor in his voice gave him away.
Wakin sneered. "Almost." His eyes shot to the young boy behind them. "Leo!"
He was already one step ahead of his boss. The boy raised a hand with three more minimized Pokeballs inside it. Pickpocketing was easy when the targets were more concerned about the gun pointed at their heads.
The girl's wails and the boy's cries pierced him like a dagger. He ignored them.
The rest was a blur; Wakin said something to them before letting them go. They sped off through the desert, and he thought he might have heard the boy throw some words over his shoulder, but he didn't catch them.
He did, however, catch the gleam of hatred in his eyes.
Wakin stepped up beside him. It was a job well done, he thought. He started to feel hopeful about a reward; maybe he'd get to have a decent meal, for once -
He was not prepared for the unexpected blow. He staggered as blinding pain shot through his head. He raised a hand to the wound, and when he pulled it back, found it covered in red.
"Your little dramatic pause nearly cost us the whole mission, you brat!" Wakin roared at him, but he refused to cower under the man's terrifying fury. No fear. No weakness.
"I'm willing to let it slide this time, only because Gonzap seems to have a special interest in you," the man snarled, "but I'm warning you, boy. You pull another stunt like that, and I won't hesitate to pull this trigger. Got it?" He articulated this threat by spitting into the sand at the boy's feet.
He nodded, which made his head hurt more, but he refused to let it show. He hastily blinked the tears away; pain was weakness. Weakness was death. "Yes, sir."
"Good." Wakin turned on one heel and marched in the direction of their hidden motorcycle. He didn't wait for the boy to follow him.
But he followed, nonetheless.
The scene changed. Desert shrubs and sands blurred together and were replaced with a dark, blood spattered room. The lifeless bodies of several Pokémon were strewn across the room, and one man was slumped on the floor against the wall, his breaths rattling painfully in his chest.
"No!" The scream tore from his own lips as he struggled to reach the dying man, but his captor held him fast. "No - please - NO!"
"It's time you learn this lesson, boy." A low, gravelly voice rumbled from the shadows across the room. A hand raised, and a large, steel-feathered bird stepped out from beside him, wings spread from its side like swords.
The injured man coughed, resulting in blood cascading from his mouth and down his front. He looked at the boy with a weak smile. Those eyes, though dull and fading, still held fondness.
The only pair of eyes that had ever regarded him with kindness.
"Do good, kid."
The command was given, the bird lunged with wings spread, and the sickening sound of impact was masked by the boy's screams -
"Wes - hey - Wes! Wake up!"
Someone was shaking him. He shot upward with a strangled gasp, nearly slamming his head into Rui's as he did so. He coughed and gagged, trying to rid the smell and taste of blood from his senses -
Then something soft and warm leaned against him, and Novo's worried trill met his ears.
Dust. Moonlight. An old inn. He remembered where he was.
He buried his face in his shaking hands, breathing heavily. Neo came up on his other side with a concerned, "Espi?" His Eons leaned against him, comforting him with their warmth, their presence.
A timid hand brushed his shoulder. He flinched at her touch and shoved her away with a snarl. "Go. Away."
The mattress across from him creaked as she sat back down on it. "Do...do you want to talk about it?" she asked quietly.
He didn't answer her and instead swore shakily under his breath. Like hell he wanted to talk about it...
Rui seemed to take this as an answer, as she said nothing more.
He laid back down, his Pokémon curling tightly around him. Novo was nosing his arm urgently. "Bri, briii, umbri..."
Wes pulled the Umbreon close to him and closed his eyes. He didn't know if Novo would take that as permission to use Hypnosis or not, and he didn't care. He just needed to feel his Pokémon close to him, and maybe his heart would stop pounding so hard...
A lump formed in his throat and he immediately swallowed it. He crushed the broken feeling rising in his chest. He would not cry, dammit, he would not. Not now, not ever, and especially not in front of this girl, this stranger.
To cry was to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable was to be weak, and weakness was -
A familiar humming met his ears. He felt Novo touch his muzzle to his forehead. He thought he heard Rui murmur something, but before he could catch the words, he was plunged into darkness once more.