Around two hours later, our party exits the far side of Volt Peak. I had anticipated spending a lot longer in there, but conveniently enough, the Manectric that seemed to be the captain of her guard was waiting outside, ready to escort us to the other side. We never saw Lady Christine, but we were warned that if we deviated from our path, she would know.
In less than ten minutes, we had crossed what had once taken us hours, including the five-minute brawl and my brief recovery. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of progress or not, but it makes me uneasy. It almost feels like a waste, but of what? Of time? Potential? I don’t know...
The afternoon sun shines down on us, only just barely managing to cut through the January cold. It’s now that I remember the vast, golden plain that had been here during the late fall- now, most of the grass is grey or light brown. It stretches on for miles in front of us, offering very little in the way of topographical variation or cover.
Sylvan is perfectly visible from where we’re standing. I recall how uncomfortable the cold had been with the leaves still attached and shudder. They must have some kind of temporary insulation there- I can’t imagine living there during winter.
I realize that my mind is wandering. I don’t care, though- wherever it might end up is most likely better than where I’m going.
I’m about to return to my thoughts when Jaroda turns to Melchior. “I don’t remember the place getting this dreary in the winter.”
He keeps his voice low, obviously trying to keep the conversation quiet, but I can’t help but eavesdrop. It’s something to concentrate on.
Melchior shrugs, and returns with his own low answer. “The frequent shutdowns of the sun have been wreaking havoc on the local plant life.”
He leaves it at that, making an effort to not look at Jaroda. Jaroda ignores this, and leans next to him. “Well, maybe it’ll return to normal fairly quickly. I mean, when we’re done here, the big catalyst will be gone-”
Melchior hisses something inaudible out at Jaroda, and Jaroda hops backwards as though he’s been struck. He takes a moment, and slithers next to Melchior. “Well, frankly, I can’t say that I’m a fan of your attitude. But whatever. It’s not like I can change your opinion of me at this point.”
Melchior nods, and keeps moving. Jaroda seems to wait a moment before looking genuinely shocked, and chases after him. “...Look. Nobody regrets what happened more than I do.”
At this point, Melchior actually laughs. He turns, and looks Jaroda dead in the face. “Oh, really? Because that’s going to undo murder.”
Jaroda shakes his head, now attempting to sidewind backwards in front of Melchior. “That’s my point. It won’t, but neither will you continuing to hold onto it. If you just tried to let go, and behave as though we’re teammates...”
It’s now that I realize- ever since our large group set out, Melchior has deliberately been keeping his distance from Jaroda. Melchior continues this trend by letting Jaroda move ahead a few feet before responding. “Except we aren’t. Not since one of my best friends killed and ate another best friend of mine.”
Jaroda nods. “Exactly. But I’ve done all I can do- apologized to his family, apologized to you, went into exile with Melanie sent out to watch me...”
Melchior scoffs. “And that’s supposed to change anything? As I recall, your encounter with his family ended in violence.”
“They hit me a couple dozen times, I hit them back.”
Melchior raises an eyebrow. “That isn’t what they told me.”
It’s Jaroda’s turn to scoff. When he speaks again, it’s at a normal speaking volume. “They didn’t tell you a lot of things about the whole affair. How about the year after I arrived in Quest Plaza I spent with a therapist? Did you ever hear about the nightmares? Consider this- I killed and ate someone who was like a brother to me. I have... shall we say, vivid memories of the event. Did you know I still don’t eat meat? I’m a bit on the malnourished side right now- have been for years. Not enough for it to become a serious health risk, but I could fix everything in a month if I started hunting again. Of course, then I run the risk that any prey might just so happen to utter identical words to his last.”
Jaroda and Melchior have actually stopped, and I find that I’ve actually been lingering near the back of the party to keep their private conversation in earshot. Madame Lucario and Kim have dashed a small bit ahead of the group, leaving Ampharos, Julius, and I closest to the oncoming meltdown.
Jaroda is actually shaking. as he continues, and has transitioned from barely a murmur to a shout. “Do you want to keep talking about how I killed someone? Next, how about we talk about the fallout- how my family reacted, how the other rescue teams behaved around me, how the pair of you- the only people I’d ever cared about up until that point- behaved in general?”
Jaroda looks him dead in the eye as his own begin to glow a dull red. “Allow me to make this clear- if you think your behavior is going to somehow right my wrong in some cosmic manner, you’re wrong. There’s nothing it can do at this point aside from bring back little bits of the hell I’ve already been through. And I’ve stared down worse than you can dole out and lived. But then, I’m fairly certain this is going over your head a little- famous adventurers don’t have to deal with this sort of thing.”
His voice falls as he finishes, and he slithers back to join the group, leaving Melchior to slowly recover from Jaroda’s words.
I scramble forward a small bit, trying to make it look as though I wasn’t eavesdropping. Jaroda doesn’t seem to care, but Melchior might. I’m within earshot of Madame Lucario and Kim. I briefly consider eavesdropping on them, but I’ve already heard more than I wanted to from one conversation so far...
I find my mind wandering again, for some reason arriving at a memory from mid-October. The seventeenth, if I remember right. Kim had turned ten that day. I remember her being excited that someone else would be celebrating with both her and Madame Lucario-
Eavesdropping, it is. Unfortunately, I happen to catch them in the middle of the conversation.
Kim shrugs, and replies to Madame Lucario in the same hushed manner. “Well, I haven’t decided yet. The adventuring thing was something to do to protect him. It was what I was capable of doing. But I don’t know if it’s something I’d want to do full-time.”
Madame Lucario nods. “I understand. Adventuring isn’t for everyone. At the same time, the reports that Julius submitted after every mission all said the same thing- Heath was more or less useless, but you seemed to be the one with the most control of the situation. You do have a natural talent for it.”
Kim chuckled a little. “I also have a natural talent for devising lever-and-pulley systems. Not something I’d want to do my whole life.”
“Levers and pulleys are one thing- saving lives is another. And based on what both Julius and that Manectric have told me, your team survived five minutes in the ring with Lady Christine. It may have been years since her prime, but I knew her when she was younger, and she was a ferocious fighter then. I don’t imagine a woman who saw a mountain with lightning storms inside and decided to make it her palace is the sort to let herself deteriorate physically.”
Kim shrugged. “Your point being?”
Madame Lucario sighed, putting an arm around Kim’s shoulder. “Anyone who is that tough and doesn’t use that to defend others is doing the world a disservice.”
Kim pushed back against her hand a little. “So what- you’re going to try and guilt me into it?”
Madame Lucario shook her head. “Just sharing what I’ve observed in the time I’ve spent alive.”
Probably better to avoid this one. I begin to slide back over towards Julius and Ampharos, who have started up a conversation with Jaroda. Julius is enthusiastically gesturing as he speaks. “And here’s the best part- we have multiple options for where to put it. And one of those options has a restaurant right next door.”
Jaroda nods. “Easy access to food is crucial. But I have to wonder- is a rescue team base really worth the investment if only the two of you are involved?”
Ampharos nods, but Julius raises an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
Jaroda nods towards Madame Lucario and Melchior. “When the f- the three of us tried to purchase space for a rescue team base-”
Ampharos suddenly looks rather awkward. “You, um... you don’t need to pretend it was three. We kinda... er... overheard your argument with Melchior. Kind of hard to miss.”
Jaroda narrows his eyes for a moment, but then seems to relax. “I suppose eavesdropping is inevitable, given the small size of our group.”
I’m fairly certain I see his eyes shift over to me, but he keeps talking as though I’m not there. “In any case, our team was four members in size for a few months before we even considered buying a base. We were actually looking for a guild hall in Nexus- we had all the paperwork filled out and ready to go... Anyway, the only members who are guaranteed are the two of you. Isn’t a base a little excessive?”
Julius puffs out his chest, trying to look important. “We can’t afford to be unprepared for the influx of new recruits. I mean, even without Kim being on board, we’ll be able to build a solid reputation- solid enough for new applicants. With enough time, they’ll beat a path to our door.”
Jaroda smiles. He has a faraway look in his eyes for a moment, but then closes them before speaking. “Well, I’m sure you’ll certainly get that. Some advice, though- if you’re going to design the exterior, don’t make it look tacky. Something like a giant Axew head is going to raise complaints.”
Without missing a beat, Julius responds with “What about Haxorus?”
Ampharos stifles a laugh, and grins at Julius. “Come on, now. How will people react to a guild where the building is a Haxorus, but the Guildmaster is an Ampharos?”
It takes Julius a good five seconds before Ampharos’s words actually hit him. “Wait, what? You? Guildmaster? Over my dead body!”
Ampharos gives him a genuine smile in return, something that I only think angers Julius further. Before the two of them come to any sort of blows, Jaorda moves in between them. “Come now. Before you two arrive to the battle with a massive handicap, consider that whoever ends up as Guildmaster doesn’t do a lot of adventuring. His jobs are mainly in training new recruits and paperwork. It’s not an exciting job.”
Julius nods. “So, what- like what I do now?”
This is twice now that Julius doing paperwork has been brought up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him doing anything like that.
...Come to think of it, there’s a different mood to a lot of these conversations than I’m used to. So much doom and gloom under normal circumstances...
It hits me suddenly that every single one of them know they’re traveling with a barely-stable dead man walking, and it clicks. This must be what they’re like when they aren’t devoting energy to worrying about me.
How much don’t I know about my friends?
I shake my head, resolving to spend more time less wrapped-up in myself if I survive today. My mind begins to wander away from the conversations around me, and I find myself observing the Hall of Origin. ...Well, not how I normally do. I’m clearly aware of what’s around me- the dead grass, the chill in the air, and Kim punctuating something said by Ampharos with a loud “Zing!” My awareness of the Hall of Origin, meanwhile, almost feels like a memory, or a daydream. Like I’m recalling something as it happens.
Chance stands before Arceus, holding a large ball of multicolored yarn in her hands. She looks up at Arceus, and pleads with him.
“He’s doing what we told him to do. Just a few more hours, and he’ll have taken down the shard. I promise. Just please, tell me how to stabilize him. He deserves it after what we... what I’ve put him through.”
I’m surprised I can actually understand what’s being said. Arceus regards her by raising his head, and responding with a single, pure note of sound that no human or Pokemon can replicate, its sound alien, but its meaning unambiguous.
“Shouldn’t you be working on your magnum opus?”
The memory abruptly cuts, and I find that I’ve stopped moving entirely. It's a second or two before I feel someone tap my shoulder lightly. Melchior is behind me, apparently the only one who's noticed that I've been standing still.
"You look upset."
I'm suddenly incredibly cognizant of the look on my face. I take a moment to change expressions, but it's obvious that he isn't fooled. He looks ahead at the group a hundred or so feet in front of us, then back down at me. "What's wrong?"
I find myself stammering. "...We're... We're doing what... What needs to be done, right? Wh-what's Arceus have to gain by letting me die?"
It's a moment before he nods. "...You saw it, too, then. It isn't what he has to gain. It's what he has to not lose. Stabilizing you is difficult to impossible- that's the level of a botch job this is. He could try, but the end result- Palkia vaporizing you- would be identical. The only difference would be the time of the event."
The scale of Chance's error was that great? That wasn't how she had sold it. "Y-you're sure?"
He nods. "It's what my eye tells me about your structure."
I had forgotten that he sees me as I really am through that violet eye of his. I meet it for a moment, then shiver a bit. "How can you look at me without being scared out of your mind?"
He shrugs as though it’s no big deal. “Honestly? I’m used to it now. I’ve fought so many Shards at this point that you’re nothing unusual.”
I shouldn’t have expected any other answer. “How did you react to your first one?”
He’s silent a moment. “...I don’t like to talk about it. But with time, I became used to seeing that sort of thing. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t seen disturbing things before in this line of work.”
He’s silent a moment, and his eyes briefly flash towards the group. I can’t tell exactly, but I’m fairly certain he was watching Jaroda for a moment. I look over at Kim, Julius, and Ampharos. “...Do you think they’ll remember me well?”
He gives me a puzzled look? “What?”
I sigh. “It’s just... I was eavesdropping, and the mood seemed... Just so different from when they talk with me. I feel like a burden on them- do you think they’ll remember me as such?”
He sighs after a moment. “By now, you’re aware of Richard. And let me tell you something- he was unpleasant. He was arrogant, rude, had no sense of when to keep his mouth shut. But he was also intelligent- far more than anyone on the team. You want to guess which comes up far more often in conversation?”
I’m silent a moment before he stands up again. “Have a little more faith in your friends. You want to catch up with them?”
I nod. "Please. But... Faith in my friends? I know I can do that, but what about you and Jaroda?"
He scoffs. "He isn't my friend. Hasn't been for years."
I raise an eyebrow. "He seems to think otherwise."
"How would you react if Kim killed Julius?"
It's a solid minute of false starts and stops before I realize that I don't have a clue. I shrug, and he nods. "You weren't there. Don't presume to understand. Did you want to catch up to them?"
I slowly nod, and he picks me up before lifting off the ground. We glide ahead towards the group, who finally seem to have noticed that I was lagging. Julius raises an eyebrow as we approach. “...Are you okay?”
I nod, hoping that it isn’t obvious that I’m lying through my teeth. It seems to satisfy him, although I notice Kim staring a little. We begin moving again, suddenly completely silent.
I know Melchior said to have faith in them, but it feels almost as though a slight break in my composure transformed us into a funeral procession.