Song for this chapter: Negai, Yami no naka de
from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.
Even after the sun had completely set, the air was saturated with acrid smoke. Mark Antony looked at the distant view of the battlefield from the cover of a row of bushes. Behind him, Corporal Cox and six of their finest men waited for him to speak. As they did, their eyes analyzed the surroundings, a part of them wondering if the trees were even real. The small forest they were currently hiding in had been far enough from their battle with the Kantonians to escape a fiery fate. To see leafy canopies and flourishing bushes after days of traveling through wastelands and abandoned towns was enough to take their breath away.
“The direct route to the hospital is too dangerous,” their leader finally spoke, his whisper a smidge louder than his men’s bated breath. “We’ll have to go around it, through this forest, in order not to be seen. It’ll take longer, but this is why we’re here: to find out what is the best route for the regiment to take.”
“Sir,” a private spoke up. Though his voice was soft, it was not hesitant; he was one of a handful of soldiers that did not fear the sting of his superior’s words. “With the Kanto regiment at their base, we may have the opportunity of raiding the Pokémon Center for food and medical supplies.”
Mark Antony turned, a thoughtful expression on his face. Pokémon Centers were a fairly new business in Johto and might not have much medical supplies to offer; they had only been built when the war started for traveling Johtonian regiments to heal their fighting and scouting Pokémon. Then again, little medical supplies were better than no supplies at all. Without saying a word, he regarded the man who had spoken then looked back out into the battlefield. Try as he might, the twenty-five-year-old man could not see the aforementioned building.
He grinned. “It doesn’t seem it was anywhere near the battlefield. Perhaps the Center escaped being torched to the ground.”
Again, Mark Antony turned around, but this time, a determined frown was etched on his features. “The Center is not among the burned and collapsed buildings I see, but it could be in another part of Cherrygrove. Keep an eye out for it; our men and Pokémon are in dire need of supplies.” The sergeant walked onto the dirt trail his men were on. Unsheathing his sword, he told them, “And just because this forest seems desolate, it does not give you reason to let your guard down.”
All eight of them, their weapons in hand, began to walk through the beaten path carved out by forest Pokémon. The blood stains and mud that coated their uniforms were hidden beneath the shadows of the trees’ canopies; any moonlight that did seep through the smoke and dense leaves bathed the thin, almost-black tree trunks. The sound of their muffled footsteps was in unison with the faint rustle and chirping of Pokémon hidden around them. The men ignored the buzz of nature. As long as they didn’t spot the flash of red and blue that made up the uniform of a Kanto-owned Pokémon, they didn’t consider themselves in any danger.
An hour had gone by in silence until one private stopped with a startled gasp and sniffed the air. While everybody else turned to look at the soldier with raised eyebrows, Mark Antony smelled what had alerted the private. The faint odor of charred wood and leaves that drifted on the wind was accompanied by a stronger smell of burning meat and spices. Mark Antony stepped forward a few paces and squinted, trying to pierce the gloom.
When he couldn’t, he leaned on his sword and simply said, “There are some people camped a little way’s off. They could be Cherrygrove citizens who stupidly decided to ride out the takeover or stationed Kanto soldiers on the lookout for us. Either way, we have to be the ones with surprise on their side.” Mark Antony gave Edward a glance, who nodded in acknowledgment.
“Okay, Private Kisubo and Private Toren, both of you…”
As the corporal assigned positions, Mark Antony leaned against a tree, still trying to see past the thick black that covered the forest. A couple more steps forward did nothing to help. As nonchalantly as though he was mounting his horse, he sheathed his sword and nimbly heaved himself up a tree limb. With his boots now precariously balancing him on a thick branch, he straightened and looked towards where the campfire aroma was coming from. Mark Antony tipped his head for a better look at a flicker of red he saw from the corner of his eye.
It was gone by the time he turned.
Edward’s faint words faded completely when the sergeant’s curiosity took over. One hand hovered over the hilt of his sword while the other laid over the trunk of the tree for support. Mark Antony sniffed the air, then frowned. The odor of smoke and meat was weak; the stillness of his bangs and the tied ends of his headband told him it was because something had interrupted the breeze that carried it. The branch he stood on creaked as he turned around to tell Edward. Mark Antony froze, though, when the screech of a raptor tore the air in two. He whirled around, narrowly avoiding falling eight feet to the ground, and whipped out his sword. The bird of prey flapped himself out of his dive at the sight of the blade but still brandished sharp, ivory talons.
“Kanto,” Mark Antony hissed at the sight of the ruby vest on the Pidgeot. The beige bird whipped his head back, the flowing scarlet and diamond-white feathers on his scalp writhing like snakes, and gave a great downbeat of his wings. Whatever breeze Mark Antony had felt before intensified into a tremendous gust that knocked him off his feet. The man grabbed the tree branch he had been standing on as he fell, but the Pidgeot grabbed it in his talons and snapped the limb like a toothpick; a taunting trill was let loose from the Pidgeot’s rose-colored beak at the sight of the human’s shell-hocked face. The forest rushed around him in a mix of colors until Mark Antony landed back-first on the ground.
“Sergeant!” Edward exclaimed, running to his friend’s side.
“I’m okay,” his superior muttered as he jumped to his feet despite his throbbing spine and chest. Steadying himself with a quick breath that sent a ripple of pain to a possibly-broken rib, he looked over to his privates. When he saw they merely avoided the Pokémon’s gusts and talon swipes, he yelled, “Don’t hop around like schoolchildren! Fire! Fire your weapons! The enemy is already aware of our approach!” The disappearance of the campfire smell told him that much.
Fired shots made the trees around them quiver. The privates, now braver with the command to defend themselves, took cover behind the trees, the canopies’ shadows hiding their well-toned forms. Edward had his own sword out and was poised for any incoming attacks, including those of Kantonian soldiers. Mark Antony’s grip on his own blade tightened in frustration. The Pidgeot was deftly dodging the whizzing bullets with an Agility that allowed him to weave through the canopies and fire an attack whenever he was seen. One of the privates was caught off-guard when a Gust came at him from behind. The attack swept him off his feet and straight into the tree he was hiding behind. The Flying-type let out a screech of triumph before propelling himself towards the fallen soldier, talons menacingly curled. In the blink of an eye, a shooting pain ran through the Pokémon’s stomach and up his chest to settle as a burning sensation that made him shriek in agony. Mark Antony came in running, the empty sheath of his dagger shoved into a strap in his boot, and kicked the Pidgeot squarely in the abdomen.
“Damn bird,” the spiky-haired man spat at the grounded flier. Mark Antony pinned the massive fighter by running his sword through one wing and standing on the other. When he looked down at the bird’s pained chocolate eyes, what little sympathy he could have felt was shoved to a dark crevice of his mind. Pokémon were intelligent creatures, and those who didn’t want to obey their masters could escape. The Pidgeot that writhed at his feet chose to follow his master.
He leaned over and yanked the dagger from the Pidgeot’s stomach. Ignoring the agonized wail, he did the same with his sword and turned towards Edward, who had come up to him with the rest of their troop in tow. “The Kantonians are closing in,” the corporal told him, only the slightest dimming of his eyes betraying his cool exterior; the privates that helped their nearly-knocked-out comrade to his feet weren’t so discreet. “We need to move out.”
“You’re right,” Mark Antony agreed, nonchalantly cleaning his sword and dagger on the grass before placing them in their sheaths. “We’re not sure if the camped Kantonians are two or two dozen. Only a fool would take the chance with our numbers.” Looking towards the west, he traced the path they had taken so far in his mind and knew with certainty that there was a barren expanse of land that bordered the River Cerre a little way’s from where they were. If they reached the desolate field, any Kantonian Pokémon would lose the cover of the shadows and tree canopies.
Then again, they themselves would be left wide open.
If only our scouting Pokémon hadn’t been killed off in that Blackthorn battle,
Mark Antony thought with gritted teeth. We could have found out how many Kantonians we’re actually facing!
“Everybody!” he said aloud. “Retreat to the west! If we make it out of the forest, we’ll leave the Kantonian Pokémon without cover! Corporal Cox, lead them out!”
Edward blinked and demanded upon seeing Mark Antony’s eyes alight with fiery determination, “Sergeant! What are you planning to do?”
“I plan to hold them off long enough to give you guys a running start.” When the blonde opened his mouth to retort, Mark Antony insisted, “I can take care of myself, you know. If you don’t go right now, you’ll kill us all.”
All Edward could do was nod and dash towards the west, barking a sharp order to the privates to follow him. The younger men looked at their officer with expressions muddled with confusion and shock but obeyed. Mark Antony watched them go, and when their backs disappeared, he dashed towards the wounded Pidgeot, one hand going for something that was latched beside his sword. The bird rose one dark-brown wing, a trill that was more pathetic than threatening stuck in his throat.
Or is it the blood bubbling in its chest that is making that sound?
he idly thought, eyes as emotionless as his expression.
From his sash, he unclipped a ball about the size of his hand. The sphere was clunky at best with both halves made of dark-black metal that already began to rust in spots; the man concluded after a moment that it weighed as much as his sword. Despite its flaws, Mark Antony still took a moment to revel in the invention, finding it, for the umpteenth time, hard to believe that it contained a living, breathing Pokémon. When he had received it from one of the military scientists a few weeks back when his regiment was stationed at Blackthorn, the central headquarters of Johto’s military, the mere thought that this capsule contained a Pokémon was ludicrous. If that hadn’t caused doubts, the claim that this “Poke Ball” allowed humans to gain the Pokémon’s complete and utter obedience did.
But whatever misgivings he had about the new invention would have to wait until the Kantonians were stopped in their tracks.
Pidgeot began to struggle against his exhaustion and weakness when the man before him took out his sword. Mark Antony stabbed the raptor in the chest then rolled him over on his stomach when the body became lifeless. As a second though, he ripped the Kanto vest off and threw it off to the side; looking at it had made him sick.
Pressing the button in the center of the Poké Ball, Mark Antony felt the sphere wobble in his palm before its top half opened to let out a stream of white light. Ivory changed to dusty-gray as the light solidified into a three-foot-tall bipedal creature of crudely-stitched cloth. Blood-red eyes blinked up at the human, a muffled hiss making his yellow, zipped-up mouth quiver into a hideous scowl. The Banette used its stubby legs to back and crouch defensively, his stub of a golden tail bristled like a broom and the wisp of cloth that curled from behind his three blunt, head spikes whipping ominously behind him. Mark Antony stood in front of the Hoenn Pokémon, unaffected by the murderous glare that was sent his way.
“You see this?” he demanded, thrusting the Poke Ball into Banette’s view. “I have control over you. I am your master. If you decide to disobey, I’ll kill you on the spot. Disobedience to the Johto side is alliance to the Kanto side.”
Only an agreeing grunt left the furious Ghost-type.
“Good.” Mark Antony could now hear the Kantonians’ raucous yells of attack. They were growing close enough for him to be able to feel the thundering hooves of a Rapidash; he was not going to wait long enough to be able to see the rider. He stared down at the possessed doll, then pointed at the feathery corpse. “I want you to animate that body. Make it seem as real as you can.”
Banette grinned evilly; it was time to release his pent-up anger. He gripped the zipper of his mouth with one of his tattered fingers and pulled until a cackle was ripped free. Even as he pulled out a handful of nails from his maw, his maniacal laugh still rang through the grim forest, his eyes as bright as rubies. The military officer watched as Banette took the nails, all of them coated in a thick-layer of rust, and stuck them into his torso, arms, and throat. It wasn’t until he saw the wounds open and the blood trickle into pools of red that Mark Antony realized that it wasn’t rust that covered the phantom’s tools.
A tuneless hum now overcame the animated marionette. He hovered above the Pidgeot’s corpse and let his blood drip onto the body, eyes now simmering coals that illuminated the inch-long nails embedded into his body. The corpse twitched as its cream feathers were soaked to become a grotesque shade of poisoned garnet. It lifted itself into the air, head still bowed down, its own blood drowning the grass. Banette lifted his hands above his head and twitched his fingers. Wings shook then spread. Talons slashed at invisible foes. With a flick of his wrist, Pidgeot’s head snapped into position.
Mark Antony unconsciously stepped back, horror making his eyes widen and his face to become pallid. Even when his ears heard the bark of an order, he couldn’t will himself to take control. The Pokémon in front of- No, he couldn’t call it one of Arceus’ creatures, not anymore. Whatever he had in mind when that scientist told him Banette could move the dead, this was not it.
The shot of gunfire made him jump into action. Forcing himself to look straight into the eyes of the bird, of Death himself, the twenty-five-year-old commanded, “When the Kantonians arrive, attack.”
Banette gave a barely perceptible nod from within his trance, his mouth still agape in a silent shriek. Mark Antony walked around the Pokémon and took cover behind a tree, the Poké Ball back in place and his sword held in both hands. As he waited, kneeling on the blood-soaked ground, his eyes couldn’t help but travel to the Pidgeot.
When their eyes had met, the bird’s gaze had been glossy and clouded over by the white veil of death. The sword wounds no longer shed blood, but they leaked viscous body fluid that stank of decay. Feathers that had been stained with the Marionette Pokémon’s blood had fallen to the ground to curl up like withered leaves, leaving the corpse’s back almost completely bare. It was a vile monstrosity, but Mark Antony had no choice but to rely on the faux Pidgeot. He could never hope to defeat the incoming Kanto soldiers, even with Banette’s help. Ingenuity and the element of surprise had to be used to their fullest potential if he wanted to get out alive, even if it meant going against nature herself.
The ground trembled once more. Mark Antony pressed himself closer to the tree and the shadows it cast, a white-knuckled grip on his sword. He was unaware that the still-possessed Banette extended the tree’s shadows so that it covered the officer in inky darkness until he couldn’t see the shine of his blade. As the tendrils of black slithered and hid his form from view, the Kantonians broke into the clearing in a thunderous orchestra of galloping hooves and running feet. A single beat of time later, all sound ceased to exist.
Then, “By Arceus… What abomination is this?”
“Sir, it’s alive!”
“It’s… Damn it, sir! It’s one of our own!”
Banette swept his arms in an arc, that same, malicious guffaw escaping his unzipped mouth. Pidgeot flapped his wings, spreading the odor of rotting flesh into the air, and rocketed towards the shell-shocked Kanto soldiers. At the same instant, Mark Antony flew from his shadowed perch, sword at the ready. Expertly, he ducked Pidgeot’s massive wings as they flapped for a second time, avoided the bird’s sharp beak as it lunged at a soldier, and ended up to the side of the group of twenty Kantonians. The man nearest to him turned around, mouth agape in surprise, but was quickly rendered helpless when Mark Antony slashed at his legs. Going down as a crumpled heap on the ground, the Kantonian writhed in agony as Mark Antony kicked the man’s gun to the shadows.
“What the?!” the leader exclaimed, drawing his own sword out from its sheath. He ran at the Johtonian but was then knocked back by Pidgeot’s wings. While Mark Antony knocked a soldier’s rifle from his hands, he saw the red-haired, navy-clad leader regain his footing and rush at him again, this time with two more soldiers on either side of him. Mark Antony backed up then jumped towards one private and aimed for his abdomen. Much to his surprise, the other solider was faster than him and slammed his rifle into the backside of his head. The sergeant stumbled and barely managed to avoid falling to the forest floor. Mark Antony rushed to pick up his fallen sword when the sound of a fired shot blasted in his ears.
“Ugggh!” he yelled and withdrew his right hand, cradling it to his chest. The bullet wound bled rivulets of blood that stained the front of his silver uniform scarlet. Mark Antony fell to his knees at the sensation of needles running through every nerve in his throbbing hand. For the Kantonians, the moment of distraction was enough. The leader raised his sword, emerald eyes narrowed; the two soldiers raised their rifles and aimed.
Branches of trees bent then snapped off as Banette commanded Pidgeot to unleash a Twister. Mark Antony quickly latched onto a nearby tree trunk as the wind whipped his clothes and hair in an attempt to send him to the next region. From the corner of his shielded eye, he saw the three men collide with the trees behind them. Unfortunately for them, they were not unconscious. They were fully aware of their breaking ribs and the echo of a broken skull as they were slammed into the trees, picked up again by a well-aimed Gust, and then thrown towards the rest of the soldiers.
“Thanks,” Mark Antony huffed towards Banette once the hurricane gale settled until only the broken branches and fallen leaves on the forest floor twitched. Miraculously, his sword had been lodged between two rocks instead of being blown into a nearby canopy. On his feet again, he pulled it out, ignoring how his hand screamed in protest; the bullet still wedged in the shattered bone of his hand felt like it burrowed deeper. The twenty-five-year-old bit the inside of his cheek, successfully fighting back the urge to dig the shrapnel out himself.