Chapter 115 – Espionage and Deception
The walk home was like a new breath of fresh air every step of the way. The further they got from Dark Matter, and the closer they got to the tree, the more everyone’s spirits seemed to be back to normal. It quickly dawned on them all that Dark Matter’s very presence had done that to them—and getting any closer, or staying any longer, could have made it worse.
But those feelings lingered in the back of Owen’s mind. He couldn’t shake them. It didn’t feel like some… external, dark presence. But now, he couldn’t be sure…
Gahi was muttering something to the others about beating Dark Matter up. Trina lectured him about the dangers of that, and how most of his fighting involved making contact. Demitri suggested throwing his tusks, but Trina tried, and failed, to explain that fighting him was a bad idea in general. As a solution, Demitri suggested throwing from even further away. By then, Trina gave up. Gahi suggested Psychic aiming.
Before Trina could reply, Zena cut over the banter. “I think,” she said, “I’m going to stay with Owen today, and… report as sick to work.”
“Lovesick?” Jerry murmured, earning a hiss from one of Mispy’s mouthed vines.
“I want to keep him company. Owen, would you mind that?”
“But it ain’t easy, y’know, gettin’ away with that…” Gahi hummed. “And I dunno if they’ll jus’ fire yeh, y’know?”
“Heh, maybe,” Marshadow remarked, hands behind his head. “Employment’s kinda tough sometimes. Where d’you work again? Service? Yeah, yer kinda expendable.”
“I work at a bathhouse,” Zena said.
“As a Milotic? Heh, maybe not too expendable.”
“…You can’t find a better place to work?” Owen asked.
“Not really.” She looked down. “I’ve been isolated in a cave for quite a while, Owen. I’ve lost a lot of my career skills.”
Owen seemed pensive about that. And Zena, when she spoke about work, was starting to look visibly uncomfortable. Marshadow’s quiet laughter wasn’t helping things. Something about that made his feathers puff out.
“I’d probably need some work, too,” Owen said. “At least to keep things comfy while we work out what to do about Dark Matter. Maybe I should take up a job at your place, too.”
At first Zena seemed hopeful, but then she quickly shook her head. “Oh, you don’t need to…”
“Would you like me to?” Owen pressed, and to this, Zena seemed conflicted again.
“It won’t be a bother?” she asked. “It’s… it would be odd, I think. But maybe just for a day, if…”
That was all Owen needed to know. There was more to it, wasn’t there? “Better than sitting around in my thoughts,” he stated.
“W-well. Sure. I’ll see if it’s allowed. But… Well, I still think you should rest. I’ll go in late, send some word to them…”
“Lookit you,” Marshadow said, eyeing Owen with an entertained smirk. “Feelin’ possessive?”
“…I’m starting to think Null Village doesn’t have the best employment practices,” Owen muttered.
Marshadow shrugged. “The world’s godless.”
Says the Legend. Owen glanced at Zena. “Only if you’re okay with it,” he said.
“Just for one day, I think I’d like that,” Zena admitted. “Maybe… at least to find a job for you.”
It was an excuse, but they both knew it.
Owen hopped off of Zena once they were back in their new home and walked down the hall. Enet pawed at the entrance again and Zena helped open the door. The Grassmander nodded a greeting to Amia, who did nothing, and then he hopped onto the bed that had the imprints of Zena’s body. Scaling the hills, he rolled into one of the crevices with his hands clasped over his belly, thoughtful.
“Hello? Yes… yes, this is Milotic… Yes, Milotic Zena. I’m going to come in late for work, I’m sorry.”
Owen, puzzled, rolled so he could get a look at what Zena was doing. Enet was sprawled out and rolling on her bed, snorting and sneezing and subbing her head against the bed. Zena was coiled in the corner with what looked like another strange device in her ribbons, much like the one Marshadow had shared with him before. Was she speaking to it? Was that badge her employer?
No, wait. This was… technology, something he’d only expect from the human world. Or Nevren’s communicator. But Zena had one?
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry. It was a personal matter. …I… Am I supposed to say? Y-yes, yes, it’s—it was for someone close to me, an important meeting, I had to guard him. N-no, it isn’t like that, I—”
Owen’s claws dug into the bed. The leaf on his tail glowed softly.
“Yes. Yes, it won’t happen again. I understand. Yes, I’ll take a late shift. Thank you.” She tapped something on the badge with her other ribbon, but Owen saw that she was trembling.
“Oh! Right. You’re here.” Zena cleared her throat. “That was my boss. He, er. Well, I did throw this on him short-notice…”
“Was he yelling at you?” Owen asked.
“Like I said, it was short-notice, so…”
Owen hummed a little loudly, disapproving of something. He wasn’t sure what. “Something about this doesn’t sit right.”
“That’s just how bosses usually are, Owen,” Zena said. “I can’t find anything better. And I don’t really have the time, either. Sometimes, I have to clean up after work, and by the time I get home, well, I’m quite tired. I was lucky enough to get this day off, though I don’t have any pay for it. I don’t have that same power as a Guardian. I need to work to sustain things until this Dark Matter business is taken care of. Being hungry isn’t very fun, you know. And decent food here is expensive…”
This sounded like Zena was in a bind not over physical power but social power. Would Zena enjoy if someone else was there to make it more bearable? Even worse, Owen wasn’t sure if the work environment was healthy for her mental health—or if something else was going on that Zena didn’t have the clout to go against.
He didn’t want to impose anything on her, let alone embarrass her, but… Maybe he could get something out of this that was productive, too. Anything to stop stewing in his own thoughts. “I’m fine with working there, you know, until I find another job,” Owen offered. “It’ll help make things easier here, right?”
There was a hopeful look in Zena’s eyes, but it seemed her pride kept her from accepting outright. “Oh, well,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to burden you with that.”
“No, I think I’d want that,” Owen said. “Anything to stop thinking about all this. Maybe a basic job is what I need.”
Again, she hesitated, but it didn’t seem like it was because she didn’t want him there. “It’s a little odd,” she admitted. “You don’t usually… well, perhaps if you’re looking for work, yes. That could be it…” Zena nodded. “Right. Right… But first, let’s relax. After what just happened with Dark Matter, I think I need it…”
“Yeah.” They definitely needed it. Zena didn’t look like she wanted to talk about work in any sort of depth, so he didn’t press it. “When is Nevren going to talk with us again?”
“He said fifteen days at the latest, when we’d seen him before,” Zena said. “Assuming time moves the same here—and we don’t really know for sure—that’s tomorrow our time.”
“How long was I…”
Zena smiled sadly, coiling around the bed so she didn’t take up Owen’s space, though he would have preferred it. “And how are you feeling, Owen? After…”
A fair question to ask, so Owen took the time to think on his answer. “I’m feeling better.” It was technically true. Not great, but better than before. He could tell that Zena knew. “I’m sorry if I let him get to me.”
“He got to all of us, but he was definitely targeting you,” Zena agreed with a cautioning tone. “I can’t believe he’d say such a thing to you…”
“He was trying to make me doubt everything,” Owen summarized. “But the thing is, I think a lot of what he said was… true.”
“It can’t possibly be,” Zena replied instantly, like it had been in her head. “You, aligned with him? With the same powers as him? I can’t imagine it at all.”
Deny, deny, deny, Dark Matter’s words echoed in his mind. It really did hurt to see Zena like that, but wasn’t it the truth?
“Are you sure he isn’t manipulating you? F-false memories? Ah, I’m… I’m sorry if that’s a touchy subject, I—”
“It’s alright. It’s… I get it. It might be, from your perspective, I just—I don’t think that can be it. He takes away memories and he makes negativity, but I’ve never seen him implant memories. I don’t think he can do that. And when I think about what he said, I’m… I feel confident that… at least some of it is true. And I don’t think confidence is something he can implant, either.”
“Confidence…” Zena shifted her weight. Enet was watching them closely.
“Sorry. I promise, I’m not gonna, like, side with him or anything, not after everything he’s done. It’s just, there must have been something different in the past that made me think differently, or maybe Dark Matter himself was different! It’s just like Eon. He’s different now.”
“Just like Eon.” Zena repeated that to herself, quietly, and that put a little light in her eyes. “That’s true. People do change a lot, and perhaps Dark Matter most of all, for you to have once sided with him.”
Hearing it back from Zena reinforced it. That was true, wasn’t it? Perhaps it wasn’t that Owen had once been somehow bent on Dark Matter’s nihilistic philosophies—but that Dark Matter had once been different!
Because he was trying to save the world, Owen realized. But what does that mean for Necrozma?
“You have that thoughtful look in your eyes again,” Zena said gently.
“Y’know, I thought losing my flame would make me harder to read.” Owen huffed, crossing his arms.
“No, I think I just know you well enough by now.” She curled one extra coil around the bed.
He couldn’t hide a smile. “Guess you do,” he said, heart fluttering a little. Then, after a pause, he glanced uncertainly at her. “Are… are we courting again?”
“Yeah,” Enet stated.
Zena blinked, glancing at her, then at Owen. “Did she just agree?”
“Oh, was that feral again?”
They stared in a brief silence, and then Zena laughed. “Well, Enet has always been more insightful than she lets on. I… I suppose we might be.” More silence. She was searching for the words.
Owen weighed it in his mind. He had initially been trying to start fresh with Zena. It was because they’d started off out of necessity, to stay sane. Zena was lonely; Owen was confused. They’d defended each other… but they still had things in common after all that. And now, despite everything, it felt… right, this time. Right enough to try.
Zena went on, “I know that we wanted to take things slowly, or, er—”
“Let’s do it.”
Zena’s scales flushed a deep red. “I’m sorry?”
“Courting. Let’s do it.”
Zena visibly relaxed, laughing along with her sigh. “Owen, you really… catch me off guard with your phrasing.”
That one, he hadn’t realized. “Sorry.” Grinning, he sat up. “Does Enet keep watch while we’re gone?”
“I know it’s weird for me to go to your work, but I’m too small to be a guard or a scout, and you’re my best reference. It’ll help bring in more money. And I want to try a few things to prepare for Dark Matter.”
“Oh? A few things?” Zena asked.
Owen nodded. “In case Dark Matter tries to force anyone to tell him, I need to keep it to myself. If… if that’s okay with you.”
Zena seemed unsure about that, but then sighed. “Well, you’re the last person I’d expect to keep a secret unless it was for a really good reason. Just… don’t do anything reckless. Okay?”
“This is the opposite of reckless,” Owen assured her. “It’s a plan for if something goes wrong. Speaking of which, will Enet be okay on her own?” he glanced at the Zoroark. “What if someone with Dark Matter tries to get her?”
Enet disappeared before his very eyes.
“She’s very good at it,” Zena explained, and that was enough.
Aster stood in an empty room, his ears ringing after another bellowing, angry roar from Alexander. Next to him was Mhynt, standing stoically as ever. He had been there for what felt like an eternity. Was he going to stop soon?
At this point, whatever Alexander had been saying was completely meaningless. He had no idea what was actually happening now. What he was saying. Why he was there.
Oh, because he’d failed. Now he remembered…
“Y-yes?” Finally standing at attention, the Mewtwo stiffened and stared straight ahead. Alexander drifted around him, his breaths coming in low, echoing growls tainted by darkness.
“What did I just say?” he quizzed.
“U-um… that… I’m a disgrace, and didn’t achieve even the s-simplest task.”
“…Mmff. Then you were listening.” Alexander leaned closer, growling
“Your Greatness,” Mhynt said, “I have good news, at least.”
“Good news? And you held it until now?”
“Yes. I did not want this to be over remote communications, and you took me to this meeting straight upon my arrival.”
Alexander’s expression twisted into a somehow deeper snarl. “Are you calling me a fool?”
“No, sir. Your anger is justified.”
“Then what is the report?”
“I lent some of my power to one of the guards of Null Village. I subtly altered his preferences to be partial toward being near Owen as a companion. Subtly enough that he would not realize it. With my latent Psychic power, I can see through his eyes when I focus, and I can read through his memories at will. He will be a valuable spy to keep an eye on Owen’s whereabouts.”
“Hmmm…” Alexander floated back, some of his anger ebbing away.
But Aster couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was Mhynt really that powerful, all this time? Or did she simply never have that opportunity before? Sure, she only recently got her full power back, but was it really this much that was sealed away?
“That is helpful…” The shadowy haze around Alexander’s body disappeared and Aster relaxed. The Hydreigon’s breathing no longer echoed. “And what did you learn already, then?”
“Owen intends to confront Dark Matter soon. He is likely going to figure out how to counter his power, even though he is weak. I also have learned that those in the living world are going to fight Dark Matter from the outside at the same time. In other words, a two-plane assault.”
“A battle from both sides.”
“If they strike soon, I suspect Dark Matter will be defeated with ease.” Mhynt straightened her posture. “His army is not ready. We will be able to take the remnants of Dark Matter’s army for ourselves and there will no longer be another Void King to challenge you.”
Aster did his very best to suppress a shudder. The only thing that held Alexander back from absolute rule was Dark Matter vying for the same power, and Necrozma across the Abyssal Ocean who was already powerless. If Dark Matter was gone, Alexander could…
But that was what he wanted, right? Alexander would be happy. Then they could have fun. Alexander wouldn’t yell at him ever again.
“That’s great!” Aster said, grinning. “That means Owen would do all the hard work for you!”
“And then we can kill Owen,” Alexander said, rumbling with a new laughter. “Perhaps your mistake was a stroke of luck instead, Aster. Maybe I won’t turn you into a Void Shadow after all.”
The Mewtwo’s blood ran cold. “Y-you were going to do that?”
“Perhaps for a few weeks,” Alexander said leisurely. “But now, I’m feeling generous. I’ll let you remain… intact.”
Aster forgot to breathe. He nodded and tried to speak. No words came.
“You’re dismissed. Mhynt, I want a report every day of your findings.”
Alexander said nothing more. Aster nodded and disappeared, searching for a quiet space in the castle to cry.
Cipher Castle’s courtyard was an excessively vast space of reddish green grass and glistening, black ponds. It was cleaner than untreated water of the Voidlands, but it still had a tinge of rot that, for the most part, people had become used to. An overweight Swampert was running laps around one of the blackened ponds, struggling every step of the way.
Mhynt strode along a stone walkway, the same color as the blotchy purple sky, and turned her attention to the left. Guards who were chatting next to a fountain in the shape of Alexander spewing water noticed her stare. One by one, they stood at attention, and Mhynt sighed, walking past them. They immediately relaxed, and one of them—a Luxray—mumbled to the others about how scary she was.
Feeling a little impish, Mhynt flicked her hand and launched a spear of darkness over the guard’s head, scorching the upper tip of his mane. The guard yelped, but Mhynt had already gone down a different path.
Alexander was probably watching, so she had to keep the cruelty up. Their fear fed him.
Once she was halfway to the courtyard’s exit, she stopped near a hedge maze and ignored the Void Shadows trapped inside the brambles. She leaned against it and the wraiths shrank away from her. She then flicked her hand, materializing a badge, and flicked through the holographic display with a conjured, shadowy claw.
She found Leph’s contact and waited for her to answer.
“What do you want?”
“I want to go out for some lunch.”
Leph paused and Mhynt heard a small whimper. She hardened her expression and transferred that to her voice. “Is something wrong, Leph?”
“No, I’m just feeling under the weather. Fine. I’ll come with you.”
“I thought gods didn’t get sick,” Mhynt commented dryly.
Leph paused again, then said, “Is Aster coming?”
“If you want.” That was an odd request. Leph usually hated having Aster around since he was so disruptive. “Why don’t I contact him?”
“Fine. But be nice to him.”
“You know why. Alexander has been awful to him.”
“Mm. For failing a critical mission.”
“Mhynt, I’m not having this conversation.”
“Okay.” Mhynt held a breath, sighed quietly, and added, “I won’t mention anything of the sort.”
“And how have you been?”
Silence, and that was all Mhynt needed to know.
“I’ve been under the weather. Like I said.”
“Did you see Owen?”
For only a moment, Mhynt was glad nobody else was around. At least, nobody that could see her face. There was of course that one person a few paces away. They would have seen her stoic mask break for a split-second. She hastily composed herself. “I made contact with him. But he’s nothing like I remember,” she lied. “Lost cause.”
“It’s nothing to be worried about, Leph. It only reaffirms my purpose here.”
Mhynt said nothing. The Swampert completed his first lap around the small lake.
“Well. I’ll see you at the front of the courtyard, like usual.”
“I’ll call Aster. Goodbye.”
Just as Mhynt ended the call, she sighed and tilted her head upward. “What do you want?”
“Oh? You knew I was here?”
An icy, haughty voice came from the other side of the hedge maze. The Inteleon, Qitlan. While he was by far the weakest, he was considered Alexander’s second in command, if only because he’d done the perfect amount of steady work, reports, useful praise, and general tail-kissing to the Hydreigon’s ego. And he was also apparently one of the best at getting information, and was already hard at work getting what they could from the captive Mew, slowly but surely.
“Of course,” Mhynt said. “You wanted something?”
“Oh, no, no. I was only checking on you. After all, it must be very heartbreaking to see your old mate so twisted and reduced to a shadow of themselves…”
“Get to the point.”
He chuckled. “I’m sorry. I thought you said it was beyond you now. I didn’t think you actually cared.”
Mhynt mentally cursed. She’d slipped. There was no point in hiding it now. “I won’t deny some bitterness,” she said, “but that comes with the territory. It changes nothing; he’s still gone. The one I knew is buried forever in his memories.”
“Of course. I’m sorry.” And Mhynt thought for just a second that it was genuine. “I’ll admit, though, I was worried about this. Alexander has more faith in you than I have for a mission like that. Granted, if you actually had come back with Owen, I would have been entirely convinced of your convictions…”
“Mm. It would have been convenient for me. Unfortunately, my powers were stalled. It is Owen, after all.”
“Yes. Your only true rival at the moment. One with Light and Shadow…”
“The Shadow half is still sealed,” Mhynt said. “I suspect Dark Matter will try to draw it out, but Necrozma’s light will win. Owen will kill Dark Matter, and then we will be one step closer. There was no risk of Owen being claimed after all, if he was able to ward me so easily. It was a strategic retreat. Why interfere when the enemies are fighting one another?”
“Hm!” Qitlan sounded surprised. “You’ve told Alexander already?”
“I have. He was happy.”
“Now that’s the true surprise.”
Mhynt chuckled at that one, and Qitlan did, too.
“So, to half-celebrate,” Mhynt continued, “we’re going for lunch. I have to call Aster, now.”
“Of course. Enjoy yourself.”
“And what about you?” Mhynt asked. “Progress with Star?”
“She’s a tough one,” Qitlan said. “Her mind is a maze and none of our psychics have been able to break through her memories. I suppose it’s to be expected… but it’s cumbersome nonetheless. Ah, well. We will break her eventually.”
“Mm.” Mhynt nodded. “Good luck with that, then. Now, if you don’t mind…?”
“Ah, of course. Goodbye, then.” Qitlan stepped away, his lithe footfalls even softer before, finally, she couldn’t hear them at all.
Star… Mhynt searched for Aster’s contact. Hold on a little while longer.
Cipher City was the largest settlement in all of the Voidlands. Kilo Mountain’s crater was large enough that it took an afternoon to walk from one end to the other; Cipher City sprawled across the center of Void Forest, destroying the dead trees to make room for more buildings for its growing population. Two, perhaps three Kilo Villages could fit inside the city, and that was ignoring the fact that the buildings were tens of stories high in some places.
Mhynt was accompanied by Leph and Aster, two of them riding on the former. They had left the aged Cipher Castle to go into more modern and less traditional parts of the city. The buildings were square and dotted with depleted light crystals, looking like stones dotted with rainbow geodes. Some of the fancier buildings got more extravagant with their crystal work, shaping the colors of each one to depict a picture if far away.
The roads were wide enough to accommodate even Groudon’s wide stance and still have room to spare. Everything was some shade of purple or black at its base, though the dark buildings and colorful lights gave some flair to the dreary atmosphere. Far ahead was a great pillar with an orb of light at the top. It didn’t do much for Mhynt’s scales, and staring at it was not nearly as harmful as the true sun, but it at least provided some light and a sense of time to Cipher City’s inhabitants.
Mhynt sighed, looking down at Leph’s fur. She hadn’t washed lately and it felt matted and thick. How low the gods had fallen.
“Oh! Is that where we’re going?” Aster asked, leaning forward and pointing over Mhynt’s head. She leaned left to see past Leph’s neck. She was at least glad that the holy ring around Leph’s abdomen made a proper, tangible divider between her and Aster so he didn’t accidentally knock her over.
“It is,” Leph said. “I thought we would go somewhere a little more energetic.”
“Energetic, hm?” Mhynt eyed the building’s decorations, unimpressed. It was mostly a bunch of green crystals in the shape of a Tyranitar in a suggestive pose. The Tyranitar’s Tail. “Why?”
Leph only shrugged.
“I think it’s neat!” Aster said.
Mhynt could already smell something vile inside and masked it with a snort. She’d have to get used to that scent later.
The interior of the bar was no better. Sickly brown wood, polished and brightened artificially with some dubious paint, covered the walls, and the tables looked like they were only washed with water for the legally required amount. Mhynt wasn’t going to look under them. After ordering a large booster seat for her table, and for Leph to clear out a spot where she could sit on a mat without a seat to even their heights out, they got situated.
It was different, speaking at near-eye level to Leph and Aster alike. It felt like she could actually get a word in.
“Come here often?” Mhynt hummed, glancing at the patrons that still watched them. There was a light buzz, but it was quieter than before they had entered. Eyes of countless patrons stealing glances at Alexander’s finest. Of course they would watch.
“Not too often, but I was curious about its energy,” Leph replied.
“Energy. Mm.” No, there was more to it. A noisy place. They were getting eyes, but not many were coming close. Hiding in plain sight? Was that what Leph was doing? This area was wholly unexpected…
Occasionally, Leph made a glance at the entrance. Nobody of particular note came in, and with how far in the back they were, did it matter?
No, it didn’t. And that was important.
“Hey, there.” There was a hint of nervousness in the waitress’ voice—a gruff looking Mightyena—but she at least had the courage to approach. Mhynt could respect that. As she used a free paw to pass the menus on her back to the trio, she asked, “Can I get you anything to drink to start off?”
“Oran juice!” Aster said cheerfully.
“Just water, please,” Leph replied.
“Your strongest drink. Titan sized.” Mhynt didn’t look up, so she didn’t see the waitress’ expression, and instead looked through the menu’s appetizers.
There was a pause, and then the Mightyena nodded. “Of course! And would you like to hear about our specials?”
“Only one,” Mhynt said.
“Oh! Erm. Yes. Well, er, we, um…”
“Mhynt, stop being so intense!” Aster laughed, patting Mhynt on the shoulder, who barely moved.
“Hm?” Mhynt glanced up. “How do you mean? I think I only want to hear the best special right now.”
“Oh! Well, the best one.” Mightyena visibly relaxed. “I’d recommend the spicy rocky wings. They’re a new item made with extra crispy batter, and real meat!”
“Real meat, hm? And just how was that acquired?”
“Legally,” Mightyena said, like it was rehearsed.
“I’ll order that, along with the bottomless chips. I’d also like the Tyratail Sliders.”
“Me, too!” Aster added. “Oh! And can I have the Cheri burger to go with it?”
“The cheese-veggie salad, please,” Leph finished. “That’s all for me. Titan sized.”
With their orders taken, Mightyena left, and Mhynt faced Leph again. The Creator’s daughter was always so polite. Mhynt figured she must have gotten it from the holy father’s mannerisms. So, why here? The Treecko’s yellow eyes bore holes into Leph’s face.
“Well, I guess with that look you’re giving me, you know something must be strange,” Leph finally said.
Mhynt said nothing.
Aster, too, said nothing.
“…I wanted to talk to you about Alexander.”
“Oh?” Mhynt asked. “I thought you preferred not to speak about work when on a break.”
Leph’s expression was inscrutable. She wasn’t nearly this unreadable during poker. And Aster was being remarkably quiet, too.
“There’s a resistance brewing,” Leph continued. “They’re done with his rule. I’ve… kept it a secret for a while. But I’m their leader, and… I got careless. I defied Alexander too openly and he nearly Voided me. I think he’s afraid. And I know you hate him, too. Even if you follow all his orders, I know you hate him. If we all work together, we can overthrow him. But we have to act fast. It has to be tomorrow.”
Mhynt’s face was like stone. She heard the words, and she understood the impact, but she did not let it move her. “I see,” she replied. “You’re keeping this resistance stronghold a secret even here, so it does not get out, then.”
“I am.” Leph was intentionally hiding her movements, tensing her muscles to keep still. Aster was less subtle, fidgeting nervously. They were afraid of something. That she would betray them after all this trust they’d built?
“You’re part of this as well?”
“I see.” Mhynt nodded. “That was very smart of you to do this here. Alexander’s spies wouldn’t already be here, because it is not your usual haunts. But you made sure to see everyone coming in. Very good.” Mhynt sighed. “But by now, one probably came. Let’s enjoy our food.”
Leph and Aster were silent again, glancing nervously at one another, then back at Mhynt.
“You—” Aster hesitated. “You mean, you’re fine with it? A-after all the work you’ve done for Alexander?”
“Hm?” Mhynt didn’t look up again, reading aimlessly through the menu. “You seemed confident about your deductions. Why doubt it now?”
“Well, we… I…” Leph fidgeted. More silence. Yes, something was wrong. How much of what Leph just told her was a lie? “It’s nothing.”
“Then it was nothing,” Mhynt agreed, and just in time, their waitress returned with drinks and appetizers.
“We will.” Mhynt slid her drink—which was larger than she was—toward her and then forward, and then grabbed a chip the size of her hand and nibbled at it, piece by piece.
Mhynt would have enjoyed the relative peaceful respite after that exchange, perhaps savoring some of the food the bar had to offer—it was a guilty pleasure—but all of that came crashing down when a cross-eyed Ursaring wobbled toward their table.
“Hey,” he said in a slur thicker than Aster’s head. “You’re that Minty Treecko everyone knows about…”
She considered ignoring him, but the stench was getting to her. She would shoo him away. A warning first. “I am Mhynt, yes. And you’d best—”
“Y’know, I always had a thing for small, powerful Pokémon like you…”
The warning expired. With a flickering motion, Mhynt produced her Honedge blade from thin air and pointed it just under Ursaring’s chin. “Leave.”
Ursaring’s smile broadened, but there was a tinge of fear in his eyes. “Feisty,” he commented. “Y’know, maybe I’ll buy you a drink or two and we can go to my place tonight…”
He grinned again, though his smirk held a bit of hopeful fear in him. Was he really asking her out? She really needed to work on her ‘go away’ default expression. With a sigh, she said, “Fine.”
Much to Aster and Leph’s surprise.
“Um—Mhynt? Are you feeling okay?” Leph asked. Any attempt at stoicism had disappeared from Leph in an instant.
“Of course. Ursaring, why don’t you come with me to the washroom?” Mhynt stepped off of her seat and landed far to the floor. “Leph, Aster, feel free to start eating if your food comes before I return.”
She didn’t look back as she stepped past the other patrons and into the back corner of the room. Ursaring followed, fidgeting nervously, giggling to himself, while a few nearby waitresses sighed and seemed to play fire-water-grass against each other for who had to perform cleaning duty next.
The washroom hall had several doors, but Ursaring kindly opened one of the larger ones so she could step in. The strong, chemical smell of cleaning liquids wafted toward her and made her inner Grass shrivel.
“So, uh, why here?” Ursaring asked, followed by a deep giggle.
Mhynt kicked off the ground and leapt onto a sink, turning so she was closer to his height. “I didn’t want anybody else to see, of course. I like leaving things to the imagination. Now, why don’t you give me a kiss?”
“O-uhuhu-ohoho… a kiss?” Ursaring, flustered, shifted left and right. “S-sure, sure! And, um, a kiss?”
“We’ll see what happens from there,” Mhynt said. “Maybe we’ll hold hands next.”
Ursaring’s fur puffed out and he nodded quickly.
“Now, close your eyes.”
He obeyed and leaned forward. Mhynt concentrated, watching his wobble… Her eyes flashed with pink light.
She saw an Ursaring working in heavy lifting in a company a few blocks from the bar. He was supposed to be at work, but he often shirked it. He went to the bar for extended breaks and spent a portion of his money on drinks and treats for random ladies he’d see. Then, he would go home to a makeshift family, and he felt powerful around them, often because he did still make the most money. But they also resented him, and he liked that look in their eyes.
She saw flashes of the things he did to them.
A rotten spirit, like so many in Cipher City. Only the rotten survived.
She’d seen enough.
Mhynt broke her concentration; only a few seconds had passed, and Ursaring was still waiting, eyes closed, for his prize. Mhynt reached up and pressed a finger to his lips, and he stopped breathing. Seconds later, bits and pieces of his fur fell off of him like dust in the wind…
Hopping off the sink, she made sure her movements were lithe, and she eagerly left the chemical smell and returned to the table. During that short time away, their food had indeed arrived, and Mhynt gladly returned to her seat with a quick hop.
Leph looked unamused, staring. The Treecko, in response, took her first extra crispy wing, savoring the taste. It really was crispy. Good crunch. Just the right flavors to balance it out. No wonder the bar was so popular. Crunch, crunch.
“You aren’t going to explain yourself, are you?” Leph asked.
“Hm?” Mhynt tilted her head.
“Can I have some?” Aster whispered.
“I’m far too small for all of this,” Mhynt said, gesturing for Aster to go ahead. “By the way, we should leave soon. Have we paid?”
“I paid in advance,” Leph confirmed, a small pouch levitating next to her to reveal a small, glowing card inside.
Mhynt nodded back. “Good. The smell of this place is starting to get to me. Though, I will admit, the food is good. But I’d much rather enjoy it at home.” They even had the courtesy of putting the food in some to-go boxes. Wonderful. Maybe they just didn’t want more tables to clean, or they wanted fresh customers to occupy them.
Just as they were finished packing up, a high-pitched scream sounded from the bathroom, calling the attention of about half of the patrons. The huge doors to the larger washroom opened, but no large creature emerged. Instead, it was a disoriented, frightened, confused Teddiursa covered in dust, staring at his paws like he was in a nightmare.
“I suppose that’s our time to leave,” Mhynt said, closing her box. “Let’s go.”
Mhynt was not sure where Leph and Aster had gone after their fun at the bar. They had gone back, business as usual, spoke to a few guards, asked why that Swampert was still swimming around the lake, and then headed back to their quarters. Mhynt had a lot to think about, mostly to do with what Leph had told her. A rebellion, really? Centered right in Cipher City, where Alexander’s influence was the strongest? She wasn’t going to believe that, but the reason behind telling her in the first place interested her. Leph wouldn’t be coming up with some false narrative just to throw her off without any good reason. No, in fact, this sounded more like a setup.
Leph had been ordered to say that, and then Aster had been told to keep quiet. It was the only way it made sense. This was a test from Alexander. So, with that in mind, it was trivial enough to know what to do next—tell Alexander and throw Leph under. On her way to Alexander’s quarters, she’d tried to find where Leph and Aster had gone, but for some reason she was unable to find them.
Leph’s door was askew down the long hall. There was a table that had been overturned, when she leaned over to take a look at what was in her room. Not good. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time that Aster had gone in to pester her, only to get an angry Judgement in response. But this time, Mhynt didn’t think that was the case.
More likely, they were ordered to avoid her until she turned them in, like a sort of test to make sure she wouldn’t ask for more information and get it wrong, or catch them in a lie. But there was still a sinking feeling in her gut that they’d been sent off to another mission, which would leave her alone with Alexander. And she hated nights like those.
Mhynt shook her head. Time to see Alexander. She had no choice.
The halls on this floor of the castle were ornate with regal blues and purples. Black stone was the dominant color, and it narcissistically represented the Hydreigon’s natural colors. There were even flecks of red here and there, like his eyes would be watching her no matter where she went. He wasn’t omnipresent, but he certainly liked to give off that impression.
“Your Darkness,” Mhynt said, rolling her eyes. She knocked on the door, knowing that at this hour he would be awake. But she always made sure to keep her knocks gentle, so he didn’t have a reason to yell at her for being too loud.
One problem with Hydreigon is that she had no way to tell where he was in the room. His wings made no sound when flying, and his levitation meant no footfalls. Maybe he enjoyed that small twinge of paranoia it gave her. For all she knew, he was down the hall. Her scales felt colder behind her and she spared a glance back. Nothing.
After a long while, Alexander finally answered. “Enter.”
Because he wanted to make it all the more inconvenient. These doors were meant for large Pokémon. At least she could conjure a Shadow for that. She held her hand up; over her shoulders, the silhouette of a Sceptile appeared and mimicked the motion. She pressed forward and the Sceptile did the same, pushing the door open, before disappearing. Mhynt stepped through and regarded Alexander’s room idly while he rose from his desk.
This was his bedroom. It was big enough that Mhynt could make a large house and yard for herself out of the square feet, and probably have a little shed for Aster, too. Near the back of the room was a large bed fit for a king, obviously, with enough pillows to satisfy Groudon himself. They towered over themselves, and Alexander must have recently toyed with them, because a few had been torn open and shredded. Mhynt wondered what he did in his sleep.
“This had better be important,” Alexander said, checking his badge for the message she had sent. It was a curt, businesslike one, simply that she had to speak with him, nothing more.
“Yes,” Mhynt said. “I wanted to report to you about a rebellion effort.”
Alexander’s scaly brows furrowed. “And you didn’t quash it immediately?”
“I did not know its full headquarters nor did I know the full extent of it. I was hoping to gather more information… and to inform you of it quickly. The participants involved made the circumstances… strange.”
“Strange? Who are they?”
“Aster and Leph. With Leph as the leader. Or, at least a figurehead. I do not know how they managed to do that without your detection until now, nor do I know how even I did not see it, but they disclosed it to me during an excursion into the city. They were careful to evade any possible retainers that you sent along with them, as well. They had planned to inform me of this in a coordinated manner. In fact, I would not be surprised if they had some kind of contingency should I have disagreed, not that I am confident in their ability to apprehend me.”
She’d rambled for longer than she should have. That would make her seem nervous. She hid her irritation with a firm stare. “I seek your advice on what to do next.”
Alexander listened with an amused smile. “They really thought that, did they?”
“I believe so. They appeared to be genuine; while I would not put such a prank past Aster, Leph was the one leading the discussion.”
“I see. Well, Mhynt, that is wonderful. I had suspected for a while that they were planning something; that is why I took the liberty of going ahead and apprehending them preemptively. When you told me that you wanted to speak to me about something… yes. I was certain that it would have had to do with them.”
“Apprehended?” Mhynt repeated, keeping her tone as even as possible.
Alexander grinned even more, a malevolent twinkle in his dark eyes. “Follow me. It’s time you saw them.”
Alexander drifted out of his room, his tail flicking in the air. He did that when he was eager, excited. She hated that. So many horrible memories. But she knew how to disguise those emotions, even from Alexander, as they continued through the halls. Down the spiral staircase with the red and purple carpet that looked like rotten blood. Down the darker, duller halls that were decorated far less. Where the windows stopped appearing because they’d gone underground, and where the damp air made Mhynt’s scales wither on reflex.
They walked along the dungeon’s first floor. Metal bars glowed softly with the aura of Protect energy, meant to nullify any elemental attempts of whoever was there. The air inside some of the inactive cells smelled vaguely of nullifying gas. Not potent enough to have an effect anymore, but she was certain that particularly troublesome Pokémon would get it. After taking a few glances at some of the Pokémon sitting inside, she decided instead to keep her gaze forward. Some of them looked malnourished; others still had wounds on them. A few looked like little more than lumps of darkness, as if Alexander had descended upon them on a whim. He probably had.
In the very back, as Mhynt tuned out the groans and whimpers of some of the dungeon Pokémon, Mhynt realized Alexander was leading her to a door that was closed off by solid, glowing metal. A high security room that not even she would be able to break out of with much ease.
An Inteleon—Qitlan—was standing right next to it, looking at something on his badge until they’d arrived.
“Hello, Mhynt,” Qitlan greeted with a bow. “How interesting to see you a second time today. Usually, we don’t cross paths often. Sometimes I think you schedule lunches around me.”
“Don’t be silly.” She did. “Are you here tormenting someone else? Star is down the other hall.”
“Oh, I’m giving her a break for now,” Qitlan said. “There’s something much more interesting behind here. Your Mightiness?”
“As you wish.” With a few taps on his badge, he pressed the device next to the door, which slid open. There was a second door on the other side, keeping whoever was in the main chamber completely trapped. Once they passed through again, the door closing behind them, Mhynt saw what she’d been expecting, and dreading.
Tied in chains, energy and elements suppressed, and pinned uncomfortably against the walls, were Leph and Aster. Both looked exhausted, but uninjured; they’d been here for a few hours.
“All over a mere suspicion?” Mhynt asked Alexander.
“They’re rarely wrong.”
“Mhynt…” Aster winced, like speaking was a strain to him. His voice was raspy. “What’s going on? I don’t get it…”
Leph said nothing, but she was staring at Alexander with a seething hatred.
“It seems pretty clear to me what should be done here, Mhynt,” Alexander said. “What do you think?”
Mhynt stared at Alexander with her usual, blank face. Her yellow, reptilian eyes then trailed to Leph, then Aster. He, in particular, looked at her with desperate, confused, hopeful eyes, all at once.
“I agree,” Mhynt said. “All this time, they had been preparing for an overthrow. To be this far into their ranks, there is no telling how much they have leaked to them. And how much more they will leak.”
“W-wait, I don’t—”
“Enough, Aster,” Leph said quickly. “Don’t… say anything.”
“Silence,” Alexander hissed, pointing one of his smaller heads toward the Mewtwo. A chain of darkness shot from its mouth and into Aster’s throat, coiling around it and squeezing. His eyes bugged out and he tried to breathe; he only let go once Alexander was sure he’d lost his voice again.
Mhynt flicked her hand; from the darkness, an empty Honedge appeared and placed itself in Mhynt’s right hand.
And then, with a low rumble, Alexander said, “Kill them.”
Mhynt moved deftly. She began her motion with a crouch, and then she’d disappeared, snapping in front of Aster just as her upward swing completed, cleaving him in two. Aster didn’t even have time to react, and her blade was coated in his blood and the dim glow of light and shadow. Mhynt was surprised at how easy it was; Alexander must have weakened him considerably.
Leph cried something. Mhynt didn’t hear it over the sound of her blade cleaving the stone behind Aster’s body.
Mhynt hopped back and shook her blade, spattering excess blood on the wall.
Something golden shined behind the wall. Tendrils of darkness jutted forward and around Aster’s halves, pressing them together. The body stitched itself back, leaving a fading, black line where Mhynt had cut, Aster’s face frozen in unaware horror.
And then, he blinked, and gasped, and tried to break free on reflex. He cried from the overwhelming phantom pains.
Leph screamed, “MHYNT! YOU—”
“Was that all you wanted?” Mhynt asked Alexander, annoyed.
“Well, well.” Qitlan idly clapped. “She didn’t even hesitate, Your Greatness.”
“She didn’t.” Alexander grinned again, lowering until he was closer to the Treecko’s level. “Tell me, how did that feel? I’m sensing… something from you that’s unpleasant.”
“Yes. I’m annoyed.” It was a lie; she was terrified. That could have gone horribly, and she’d taken a gamble with Aster’s life. But there was simply no way Alexander would want to dispose of Aster so readily, let alone Leph. None of it had added up unless it was all a ploy. So now, she had to keep with the act. Her heart threatened to explode.
“Annoyed?” Alexander asked, looking briefly and genuinely confused.
Good. She could lull him in. “I have a report to do, and I am being pulled aside to not-kill a not-treasonous person. I don’t have time for torture. Leave it to an underling. This is beneath me.”
“Ah. Of course.” Alexander nodded, looking entertained. Perhaps he’d even laugh later. “Well, Mhynt, since it’s fine now, I’ll tell you. I ordered Leph to fabricate a story about a rebellion, and then she would report to me on how you reacted. This was a test.”
“What did I do to question my loyalty?” Mhynt said with a bite to her tone.
Alexander raised his smaller heads disarmingly, but he still grinned, like he had all the cards. “It was just a suspicion that your drive wavered after seeing… him again. After what happened with Aster, I had to be sure, after all.”
“The Owen I knew is dead,” Mhynt spat. “Nothing will bring him back. He lives only as memories. What he became now is…” She was giving away too many genuine emotions. Stopping herself, she turned away. “There is nothing to salvage. My loyalty continues to be toward Cipher City and you.”
“Then you really were caught off guard?” Qitlan asked, still leaning against the wall. “I find that surprising, considering how easily you complete just about any other mission or target we throw at you.”
“Alexander would know better than you that Owen is a unique subject, along with any allies he enchants.”
“Yes. He has the same properties as Mhynt,” Alexander said.
“Actually,” Mhynt added, raising her blade before dispelling it. “I forgot to mention something during by verbal report. It is going to be in my written synopsis. Owen has lost his power over darkness. It has atrophied.”
“Hmm.” Alexander’s tail flicked again. “Then perhaps he isn’t a threat after all…” Alexander hummed. “But weakened does not mean gone. Dark Matter is there, too.”
Mhynt nodded. “He may be trying to reawaken that power. If it is, then he will become a threat again. However… Owen does not realize this. He intends to defeat Dark Matter.”
As Mhynt spoke, Alexander’s grin—all three heads—grew wider. “That is our time to strike,” he said. “Qitlan. Unbind the two. Mhynt, finish your report. I will be making arrangements to time our assault for when Dark Matter is at his weakest.”
He drifted out of the dungeon.
“In one swoop, we will eliminate two of our greatest threats.”
The door shut, leaving Mhynt alone with Qitlan, Aster, and Leph. She spared a glance back at them, out of Qitlan’s vision, and flashed an apologetic frown. But then, she hardened it again, and faced Qitlan. “Clean them up. I have a report to finish.”
“Of course.” Qitlan gazed at Mhynt. “But do not think I am fooled, Mhynt. I know you still have feelings for Owen. Don’t let that shake your loyalty. Otherwise…”
“I’m aware.” Mhynt stepped past him, pushing the dungeon door open. “Goodbye. Also, if it is true that Leph and Aster are still allies… I expect you will not treat them in the same way you are treating Star.”
“You have my word. I intend to only free them.” Qitlan flashed two glowing cards in his hand. “Speaking of which, you asked if you could see Star. After all you’ve done… why not? Pay a visit. Perhaps you can get more information from her.” Qitlan tossed Mhynt a third card, this one heavier than the two meant for the chains.
“Thank you.” With a flick of her wrist, the card disappeared. “I will do that after my report.”
She walked through the dungeon, silently pondering her options. She’d escaped that test unscathed, but at what cost? She could only pray that Aster and Leph would understand when it was all over. And soon, it would be. Soon… she hoped. But to whom she hoped, she no longer knew. Perhaps it was just to the aether.