The wind gently blew through the dead leaves along the trees of Route 214 and Dawn looked up to see the sun shrinking into the horizon in the distance. She glanced at her luxray, Misha, and sighed.
“Didn’t think the day would go by so fast. We should start heading back before Bertha starts to worry, don’t you think?” she said. Misha nodded without hesitation and she felt deflated as he confirmed that they really shouldn’t stay out too long, especially as the days grew shorter and the weather chillier.
It wasn’t exactly rational, to be worried about the champion of the region like that and she pursed her lips as she thought about it. Yes, she was young but she wasn’t a child anymore! She trudged heavily through the grass up to Veilstone City with Misha in tow as these thoughts ran through her head not for the first time, not for the last. She was perfectly capable of helping herself but it was unfortunate that everyone else thought otherwise.
Which was silly because at the age of ten, she had already faced off against one evil team, two legendary dragons, and a whole slew of incredibly strong trainers in a bid to save the world. Not to mention the fact that she went to a whole other world in the process—
She stopped short in her tracks as she registered what she was seeing. A cold prickle ran across her exposed skin and she wasn’t exactly sure if it was due to the wind or something else.
“Misha, do you see that?” She pointed to a path among the forest of pine to her left which was definitely not there when she arrived on the route this morning. Misha immediately took a defensive stance and bared his teeth while sparks flew off his fur. No doubt, he did. And no doubt he remembered.
That path hadn’t appeared since the incident at Spear Pillar no matter how many times she came back to investigate the world further, and the memory of being there so many years ago slowly retreated to the dusty corners in the back of her mind, never quite the impactful nightmare it once was but also never quite disappearing completely. Like the world hidden deep under the calm surface of the lake just beyond those very trees, the memory of the experience was always lurking under the surface of her consciousness, bobbing its way up to the surface from time to time.
Right now, it had resurfaced again.
She started walking instead towards the opening in the trees but Misha ran up to block her. He nudged her back to the main path of the route all the while giving a pointed stare at the setting sun. Dawn paused and bit her lip. Cynthia had told her that she wanted to study more of that world but never found the entrance to it again.
If she left now, it may never appear again.
Dawn crouched down and stroked Misha’s fur to ease the tension in his muscles. “We won’t be long, I promise. This is such a rare opportunity and as champions—” Her voice wavered slightly at this “—it’s our duty to protect everyone by understanding the anomalies of the world.”
Misha bowed his head slightly but he still had a wary glint in his eyes as they proceeded into the forest.
Sendoff Springs was an eerie haven devoid of all life—unless the rustling of the trees against each other in the chilly breeze or the sounds of the water rushing below in the lake counted as signs of life. There were no wild pokemon in the area at all. No, not even a starly could be seen in the sky when they made their way across the bridge towards the cave. It was a soulless place that sent shivers up her neck.
That was why it was even creepier when they found the claw marks.
Misha’s fur stood up and electricity danced across it as he sniffed at the scratched up marks at the entrance to the cave. Dawn bent down with her eyes wide as she ran her hands across the uneven marks etched into the rock.
“A pokemon must’ve been here. Something that could’ve made these scratches specifically.” She thought about it for a bit. It could be a wild haunter from inside the cave but… she looked around at the outside world, perfectly prim and proper showing no signs of life from the present and the past and she doubted that any wild pokemon had ever stepped forth into the springs from either the cave or the outside world. She beckoned for Misha to follow her into the cave.
Turnback Cave was a maze of rooms filled with strange pillars. It was exactly how Dawn remembered it and still, she didn’t know if the cave was designed by people or a force of nature. It seemed too purposefully structured compared to something like Mt. Coronet. Still, it was a structure designed to confuse travellers within and lead them astray.
Only, this time, she found herself in minutes in front of the dark swirling portal which she stepped into so long ago.
“I must have good muscle memory because I barely remember the path I took the first time I came here,” she joked to Misha. He let out a bark that sounded like a half-hearted muffled laugh but his eyes remained wary and alert and the pit in her stomach grew larger. So he had felt it too. They both knew this place was creepy but what was disconcerting was how easily she had managed to get to the portal. None of the wild pokemon had disturbed her—in fact, they shrank into the shadows when she drew near, as if not wanting to obstruct her path or even be seen. It was as if the cave wanted her to get to the portal as soon as possible.
She held out her arm towards the portal, gently pressing her fingers against the surface until they went through. She glanced back at Misha before taking a deep breath. Ten-year-old her had stepped in with no qualms and no idea of what to expect so why was she hesitating now?
So she stepped through into the space beyond the portal to the Distortion World.
It was as she remembered. A dark swirling blue-black world with no sky to see the sun and no ground to feel the earth. What was there were islands—horizontal and vertical—suspended in the swirling space. These islands were rough, rocky pieces of land, tinged with a blood red hue and sparsely inhabited by thin shrubbery.
It was no place for any being to be, this silent world.
Misha barked and she looked over to see he had found something by a large rock and when she approached, her heart quickened as she knelt down to see broken pokeballs strewn on the ground, completely empty.
Suddenly, a frantic flapping sound came behind and was rapidly approaching her and before she could utter out a command to Misha, her pokemon had already let out a thunderwave and whatever was behind her dropped to the ground with a thud.
She turned and inhaled sharply. A crobat was lying on the ground, its permanent sneer and eyes glaring at her while its wings twitched spasmodically.
Another sound came from somewhere in front of her and she tensed up while Misha snarled at the invisible being.
It sounded… it sounded like footsteps. She put her hand in front of Misha. “Wait.”
A figure swooped down from one of the vertical islands in a swift motion and he stood up, standing to face her.
The man hadn’t changed since he was trapped her seven, eight years ago. Dawn stared, slightly dumbfounded. What had she expected exactly? He still had the emotionless glare etched on his face, his eyes were framed with dark circles--physically, it seemed like his body was stuck permanently in the conditions it was in when he arrived here.
“Your pokemon?” She gestured to the crobat on the ground before pointing at the empty pokeballs.
His eyes ran over the pokeballs. “Escaped. As they should.” His gaze slid over to the crobat. “There’s always the foolish ones who believe loyalty has any worth.”
Dawn thought back to the scratched up rocks outside the cave. Oh, so that’s why. She frowned at his second statement and knelt down beside the crobat, digging through her bag for a paralyze heal before treating it.
“And you? Have you found a way to realize your perfect world devoid of spirit?” she retorted, surprised at how patronizing she sounded. When she was ten, she didn’t understand the full ramifications of his goal but now that she had time to understand, well…maybe that was why. Surely he would’ve realized what a futile goal it was.
“A setback does not last forever as long as I’m still alive. Here, there is no interference—even that beast doesn’t care to toy with me,” he said. His eyes bore into her, his voice completely serious. Dawn almost wanted to laugh in pity, especially since it seemed as though he were immortal in this world and would, in fact, be chasing after an empty goal for eternity.
She finished treating the crobat and it flapped its wings up and retreated to Cyrus’s side.
“You have to understand that it’s been years since the closest you have been to achieving your goal. Team Galactic has disbanded, your followers are gone, the legendary pokemon you’ve captured have been freed, and—” She paused here “—And yet, you’re still here stuck in the past. Your determination and stubbornness is certainly a strong trait but you don’t seem to put it into good use.”
His eye twitched and he snorted but immediately, his face reverted back to its usual sour state.
“You cannot deny that it’s an outrageous idea to erase emotion because you yourself don’t have complete control over containing yours.” Why was she letting her mouth run like that? She hadn’t so much as said a few words whenever she confronted him back then.
Maybe she never could put into words what she wanted to say him back then. Maybe now that she was older, she could. Because she completely understood how pitiful this man was.
Misha nudged her leg and pointed at her poketch. She glanced down to see the time and she was shocked that it was already four in the morning.
“I’m afraid I have to go now. Good luck with your plans.” She, with Misha in tow, started walking to the portal, brushing past him in the process. When her hand touched his hands, she pulled it back in shock of how cold he was. Like a corpse.
She stopped and looked up at him into his dark eyes. What a sad, sad man indeed. She unwrapped her scarf and draped it over his shoulders unceremoniously. “You need this more than me, anyway.”
At that, she stalked away back to the real world.
Back at her room at the Pokemon League, after tossing and turning from trying to get to sleep (she would’ve thought she would be tired after staying out so late), she gave up and decided to read a magazine, hoping to lull herself to sleep by distracting her from her thoughts.
When she had snuck back in, Aaron had caught her.
“I really shouldn’t have to feel that I need to sneak in after staying out. I’m 18,” she had said.
He had given her a pained look. “I know what you mean. I was the youngest here once too! Look, Bertha knows we’re capable of helping ourselves but she does believe we need to careful of getting too cocky about our abilities as we’re still young and inexperienced. Just gotta deal with it.”
Dawn sighed as she relieved that memory. It wasn’t only Bertha who didn’t believe in her. By the looks of it, everyone in Sinnoh had something to say about the “Youngest Champion” and those articles were full of scepticism. Cynthia still filled the pages of the magazines—there was an article called “Alola! Cynthia Steps Into Paradise” and there was another, “Ex-Champion Cynthia’s Dragon-Type Strategies, #5 is a MUST-TRY”—as Sinnoh’s most beloved champion.
She shoved those thoughts away and continued flipping through until she reached an article called “Sunyshore: Rising Tech Hub?”.
It was about the rise of tech startups in the city of sun and solar panels and its promise for an eco-friendly future and on and on. As she read, her mind drifted back to a conversation she had with a stranger years ago near Sunyshore City.
An old man had hinted of an unhappy childhood of a man by the name of Cyrus. He never specified who exactly which Cyrus but her hunches were, even at that time, the one Cyrus that she knew.
The conversation didn’t affect her back when she was a child but seeing Cyrus today again and the broken man he had become bothered her. Why should she care? She shook her head in frustration.
What bothered her even more was the fact that crobat existed. Because somehow, it evolved into one with some sort of bond with Cyrus—it must have. And it must’ve been with Cyrus because why else would it have stayed with him in the Distortion World?
Once upon a time, he wasn’t beyond all hope. And maybe he still isn’t.
She found herself at the portal once again, this time with a very reluctant Misha.
It bothered her, thinking about Cyrus and so she felt like she needed to come back for answers of some sort. It was a surprise the path had stayed open but it took much coaxing for Misha to be convinced that she should go. He had shaken his head and tried to even give her big, sad eyes to guilt her not to going back.
“It’ll only be a little while. Please. I need answers,” she said once again before going in. Misha only gave her a frown.
When she found Cyrus again, he was standing motionless in one place in front of a spindly tree with his crobat beside him. He was still wearing her scarf in the same position she had placed it on him. He seemed almost lifeless until he turned around once he heard her footsteps approaching.
“I’m back,” she said, lamely. “I brought some food.” She held out the bag in her hand which was filled with snacks for both people and pokemon. She wasn’t even sure if he ate anymore—had the Distortion altered him so not only he was immortal, he no longer needed food?—but nevertheless, she brought it as some sort of offering of peace.
He took the bag wordlessly before subsequently dropping it onto the ground, stiffly. His crobat swooped down and started going through the bag but he took no notice.
“Do you think that just because I’ve been banished to this world, that means I’ll just give up on my beliefs? You certainly gave me a heavy lecture last time, preaching your morals. Do you not remember what I said when you finished battling that shadowy pokemon? We will never see eye to eye,” he said, monotone.
“Please sit down. I want to talk to you,” Dawn replied.
He glared at her but obliged and she sat next to him on the ground, Misha next to her, alert. The crobat had started munching through the snacks.
“You’re right about the fact that I was preaching to you last time I was here. And I’m not sorry for ‘wasting’ my breath on trying to get you to see eye to eye.”
He simply stared at her.
She closed her eyes trying to form the words to what she wanted to say before opening them again after Misha put a paw on her shoulder. Misha’s contact was encouraging.
“Let’s say you had created the world you envisioned. One without spirit and emotion. One without the strife that would come from bonds or emotional allegiances to people or pokemon. What happens next?”
He thought carefully over this question and Dawn couldn’t help but wonder how often such a thoughtful expression appeared on his face. He seemed like someone who needed some sort of stimulation for the mind. How he had stayed reasonably sane from being stuck here all these years, she didn’t know.
“We would live without needing to feel pain. Things would get done much quicker without needing to factor in emotional consequences. People would be freed from having obligations which would tie them down and prevent them from pursuing their full potential. Our society would become great and advance far into the future,” he said.
Dawn put an arm around Misha instinctively.
“Okay, now why do you think, even though a spiritless world would perhaps be much better than the world we have now, that people believe that even with the imperfections of our world, it is still something we should cherish?”
“I’ve no use for redundant questions. I’ve thought about this many times before. But if you must know, it is because of the fact that people’s spirits are all incomplete that they are weak. And when people are weak, they become cowards who, though they know what’s best for them, cannot take the most efficient route to success because they give in to their feelings.”
“And yet you have managed to control enough of your feelings to get to what’s best for everyone?”
“Apparently not enough,” His blank eyes went right through her, almost unseeing and she felt a chill from him.
A long silence followed before she spoke again.
“What would’ve happened if those feelings of yours were stronger? Say, what if you had a relative or good friend who really cared for you and invested their all into making you happy, like you did… for your crobat. Would that have stopped you from trying to suppress your emotions in the name of realizing an emotionless world?”
“As I have said. People are weak and shy away from what’s good for them. Following that logic, the stronger emotional bonds are between people and other people, people and pokemon, the weaker everyone involved will become.”
“So if you’re saying that you would have not tried to create a new world if you had someone close to you, then…would it matter if you had one now?”
“I don’t believe in growing strong from—“
“But you, yourself admitted that you didn’t have complete control in suppressing your feelings. As an… experiment, why don’t you test the strength of your suppression to further strengthen it so you have a wider control over them?”
He didn’t say anything and simply stared into the eternal darkness of the Distortion World.
She looked down and without thinking, took one of his hands and clasped them in hers. It was so, so cold. Like ice.
But when his fingers twitched at her contact, she thought that there must still be some warmth left.
The next couple of days flew by as Dawn visited the Distortion World every day for as long as she could, in between whatever duties she had as champion and her training and leisure time with Misha and her other pokemon.
Time didn’t flow properly in the Distortion World and so it was often the case she would accidentally spend a whole night in there, unknowing of the fact that the skies outside were already as dark as the world inside the portal. It didn’t help that as she spent more time there, she actually found the world less and less eerie and more peaceful and relaxing.
It became a second home of sorts, oddly enough, Even Misha started to hesitate less and less going there, though he was still alert as ever when she sat with Cyrus.
She had visited every day, not knowing what was in store for her. She would sit with him and have a conversation with him. At first, it was mostly just her talking—she would talk about what was happening outside in the real world: a new way of evolving pokemon was discovered in Kalos, the pokemarts were considering merging with the pokemon centers in Sinnoh, the berry harvest season had been particularly good, and on and on from the mundane to the magnificent. He regarded most of these things as fluff except for the news of mega evolution which he promptly said that it proved his point that people were weak as they needed mega evolution stones to compensate for their softness.
Still, she tried and just when she thought that maybe she was wasting time, she mentioned the new tech startups in Sunyshore City.
“Sinnoh doesn’t have an enormous technological presence, no?” he said. His stare was still blank but she heard the sound of interest in his voice.
“Sunyshore has been really catching up these days. You see, the city started offering generous grants and implementing programs in schools. The smartest minds of Sinnoh are moving to Sunyshore to work with machines. Actually, the smartest minds of the world are moving there in general.”
“I see,” he muttered.
“Look.” She dug through her bag until she pulled out a small wristband with a screen. “It’s a Holo Caster, a holographic way to communicate. First created in Kalos, the version I have right now is a beta version developed by Sunyshore engineers which have greatly improved the technology.” She passed it to Cyrus who held it in his hands, peering closely at the device, his crobat hovering behind him.
He fiddled with a few buttons and inspected it before out popped a recording of a news reporter, prerecorded just for the device. The reporter stood in full colour in front of them, as if she stood right there in the Distortion World in reality.
“Sunyshore developers have created a version that seems much more lifelike than the Kalos versions,” she said.
He fiddled around with it a bit more before he finally gave his opinion. “This is… quite impressive indeed. technology has come quite far. But there are some tweaks that could be made. In this part of the device, there is…”
He went onto to explain what he would do to improve the device and though Dawn couldn’t quite keep up with his ideas, she realized that it was the thing he needed.
There was a sparkle to his eyes and movements she hadn’t seen before. He had his impassioned bursts of anger back at Spear Pillar and the Distortion World when he was banished but it was completely different to the excitement he exhibited now.
It was completely, unabashedly innocent and passionate in a dreamy childlike manner. And she loved it.
She took his hands in hers and he stopped short in his speech. They were still cold, but there was a warmness to them she couldn’t quite place.
“These are very exciting times indeed for technology. And you have brilliant ideas,” she whispered.
“Yes, indeed.” His voice was still dull but even he couldn’t hide the upward tug at his lips. And he clasped her hands in return.
They talked for many more hours about gadgets and gizmos and it took Misha's persistent reminders to check the ticking time of the real of the world to remind herself she had to leave eventually.
When she came back to the Distortion World to visit Cyrus again, his crobat had disappeared.
It unnerved her for some odd reason which she couldn’t place a finger on. It unnerved Misha too but he couldn’t explain it either. She didn’t have a pokemon translator after all.
Despite Misha’s whimpers and her nagging feeling, she continued into the Distortion World with Cyrus. She had whispered to Misha that everything would be fine and there was no need to worry. The world was a mystery to her but it was a place of quiet and she sought refuge in there when the outside world became too hectic. She actually enjoyed the staying here, even though her sleep patterns had become completely messed up and she was constantly tired, because Cyrus was, dare she say it, somewhat charming?
"Where is your crobat, Cyrus?" she finally asked. She was unable to stand not knowing what had happened to the pokemon.
He turned around to her and his expression was flat but she swore she could see a hint of sadness. "Gone," he said. He didn't add anything after.
"Oh. I'm so sorry," she whispered. To be abandoned by his parents, his grandparents, and now his most loyal pokemon was a horrifying thought. Poor, poor him.
She instinctively wrapped her arms around him. He was still so cold but maybe if she shared a little bit of her warmth—
He held out his arms and stiffly wrapped them around her and she sighed as she felt him relax a little and she leaned her head against his shoulder.
The nagging feeling returned in the pit of her stomach. Was this wrong?
Misha nudged her leg and the moment was over and she let go reluctantly. It was nine but Misha had felt uneasy the whole time they were here and she didn’t want to make him any more uncomfortable.
“I have to go,” she said to Cyrus as she walked towards the portal back to the real world.
She paused and turned around to see Cyrus still standing there, his shoulders slightly hunched, his face still stern and deep inside, she felt a small sharp guilt stab at her. Why had she not thought of trying to bring him out of this miserable place and into the real world? It was very possible he by himself couldn’t leave but perhaps, she could try to help him.
Perhaps she wanted to save him.
She had to save him. Here he was, a sad, broken man trapped in this wicked world trying to find a way to find solutions to his hollow past life for him and those in his very place. No, she didn’t agree with his plans, but he wasn’t beyond saving. His intelligence about machines was incredible and his determination was admirable in a strangely twisted and hopeless way even though he himself was not hopeless. Not yet. Or else. Why would crobat have been crobat in the first place and why would crobat have stayed when all his other pokemon didn’t?
“Come on.” She reached out and took his hand. “You need to leave this place.”
“I can’t.” He stared at her, his gaze glassy. He shook her hand off.
“I can help you. Please, just come with me and we can leave together and I can help you,” she pleaded. He continued to stare at her, unmoving.
All of a sudden, a quiet rumble started in the distance, breaking the thick silence of the world. It was growing louder and the island she was standing on and the islands around her started shaking. Misha barked urgently at her.
“Hurry, we need to leave.” Her eyes were wide and she grabbed Cyrus’s hand again, trying to drag him back, but he stayed firmly planted as she lost her footing on the shaking ground and fell down. Misha rushed to her and grabbed onto her arm with his mouth, trying to get her up and to the portal. She brushed him off. She needed to help Cyrus get out, she needed to save him!
The rumbling grew louder and suddenly, some of the islands around them started falling, as if completely released from their suspension in the space. Misha continued to howl at her to leave as the island they were standing dropped a few centimetres lower and the portal to the exit grew higher.
She grabbed Cyrus’s arm and tugged him along and he followed her. Dawn kept her eyes on the portal as the island started sinking more and more and the portal kept on climbing higher and higher. Misha barked at her from her side and leapt up to make her release her hold on Cyrus.
“We can’t leave him here,” she yelled back. Misha shook his head desperately and continued barking and started releasing sparks to loosen her hold.
“Stop it Misha! We need to leave together!”
There were almost there. Just a little closer.
Misha looked desperately at the almost too high portal and before she could say or do anything else, he shocked her with a discharge that ran through her body and made her let go of Cyrus. She slumped to the ground, dizzy.
“Why…?” she started as Misha gave her a guilt-ridden whine but grabbed onto her and dragged her back to the portal. She looked back to see for the last time—
What was behind her wasn’t Cyrus. It was something peeling out of Cyrus through his eyes, his skin, and his body. It was a shadowy figure with red eyes and black tendrils for arms.
In its Origin Forme, the legendary pokemon of this messed-up world roared before zooming towards her, mouth wide open. She wrapped her arms around the soft fur of her luxray and closed her eyes, bracing for impact.
She felt her body fly up as Misha jumped.
When she opened her eyes again, all she saw was the sky, dark but filled with twinkly stars so far away. When she moved her hands and her head, just a little to the side, she felt the soft earth and the blades of grass brush against her, the scent of nature filling her with life. When she stirred, the pokemon resting at her side stirred too and he jumped up and nuzzled his head against her, relieved, and she too, when she finally gathered her senses, got up and buried her head against his fur.
She could see a pond up north a little bit and weathered picket fences to her left. Route 214. She let go of Misha to scrub at her eyes.
Misha stepped away and bowed his head apologetically and she shook her head as she realized why.
“No, I’m not mad at all. I know you didn’t want to shock me but needed to. In fact—” she felt tears pricking at her eyes “—I should apologize to you. I’m sorry for worrying you, for not listening, for putting you in danger... ” She took a sharp breath and wiped her face. “And I’m so glad you’re my partner. Thank you for saving me. Thank you. Thank...you.”
Misha knelt next to her and held out a paw and through the tears streaming down her face, Dawn took it and shook it before she again wrapped herself around Misha and buried her face into her pokemon’s mane. What had happened to her these past few days, she wasn’t sure anymore and what was left in the Distortion World she wasn’t sure anymore either.
What happened to him she wasn’t completely sure and she felt the frustration rise in herself before dying as she held onto Misha. Did she fail in helping him? Or was he beyond all help that she just didn’t notice? That crobat must’ve cared too. She should’ve known that when crobat wasn’t there, the last thing to indicate hope, the ruler of the land that they didn't belong in had complete control over everything and everyone who had lost control.
Which might have been her.
She glanced up and squinted in the darkness. The path had disappeared.
As she embraced Misha in her torn and dirt-covered clothes and hair, completely rattled by all that transpired, she smiled, despite the fact that there was no way she would be able to completely comprehend how foolishly she was sucked into an illusion and how she barely escaped it all.
She wasn’t hopeless at all with her pokemon by her side. And that’s what made her different from him.