Chapter 4 – Followed
I lay in my sleeping bag, wide awake. Even though it was late, and I was completely exhausted, I couldn’t sleep, no matter how hard I tried. My brain was too busy processing all that I had learned that day.
I pulled my ring out of my pocket and began inspecting it closely. Shawn had acted alarmed when I had shown it to him; there was obviously more to this ring than its seemingly magical ability to turn me back to normal. When I turned it over in my hands, I noticed something engraved on the inner surface of the ring. I had been distracted by other priorities when I had found it, and hadn’t paid much attention to any obscure details such as this. The inscription, when I looked closer, appeared to be the initials R.G. Apparently, I was not the first person to own the ring.
Another thing I noticed were some small, gold-colored buttons that were practically invisible against the gold surface of the ring, unless you looked closely. I decided to test them out later when I wasn’t half asleep.
I replaced the ring in my pocket and attempted to relax my tense muscles, with only partial success. I needed to ignore my jumbled thoughts and get some shut-eye. I closed my eyes and began to focus on the black color that invaded my vision, a technique that always seemed to help with my insomnia. I began to feel myself drift off, and finally, I succumbed to my exhaustion.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This night was different than the rest. Rather than having visions first, I spoke to Carol. As was expected, she was shrouded in a veil of light. Her tone was flustered when she relayed, “Elijah! You need to wake up, now!”
I stared confusedly at her. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“You have been followed! You need to wake up and warn everyone, or you all will die or worse!” Carol shouted a warning. “Just close your eyes and think about waking up, that should do the trick.”
I hesitated. Carol was not being completely forthcoming about many things, and I wasn’t sure if I could trust her. “How do I know that you aren’t messing with me?”
“Just trust me!” I saw her shadowy arm move in my direction and I felt my eyelids close uncontrollably.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Waking up felt just like blinking; one moment I was talking with Carol, the next I was lying in my sleeping bag, eyes wide open. I scrambled out of my sleeping bag with difficulty. I struggled to stand up; my feet were asleep, and my pants felt like they were too tight. I looked around, seeing the others asleep on the ground in their sleeping bags. To make it easier to leave in the morning, everyone had slept out under the stars without setting up the tents. Rick’s bag was empty; he was likely on watch duty. The campsite was pitch-black; the stars and the moon were not visible from under the clouds. I further inspected the campsite, calling his name with a low voice, and saw no sign of him anywhere. Alarmed, I shook Shawn’s sleeping bag on the other side of the camp, urging him to wake. Several disgruntled noises emanated from the bag, and the lucario’s head emerged. “What is it?” He asked, annoyed and half-asleep.
“Shawn, what happened to Rick?” I voiced in a whisper.
“He’s probably keeping watch somewhere around here,” He mumbled groggily.
“I can’t find him anywhere. Shawn, I talked to Carol again.” Shawn sat up; that had got his attention. “She warned me that we were followed,” I kept my voice low and calm, in case anyone was watching.
Shawn, having woken up sufficiently to speak normally, responded loudly, “Are you sure? We don’t know—“
I raised a finger to my lips and shushed him
He lowered his voice, “--whether she is entirely trustworthy yet. She could be using you to get what she wants. Invading someone’s dreams is highly invasive and generally discouraged without explicit permission, and I’m fairly sure that she doesn’t have that.” Shawn asked skeptically.
I looked around slowly, “Why would she lie about this kind of thing? If she were trying to hurt us, wouldn’t it have been easier to let our followers take us out while we were asleep?”
“Fine, I’ll look for Rick.” He extracted himself from his sleeping bag and stood up. “If we have been followed, it isn’t safe for you to search with me. You have little to no experience in a fight, and getting lucky once doesn’t mean you’re invincible. I’ll wake up Max and Jay and have them look around with me. You stay here with the others.” He intoned quietly. His attitude had drastically changed from that of the previous day. He was more serious, as if the possible threat had flicked a switch in his mind; the relaxed, almost care-free manner in which he had behaved the previous day was gone. Now I could see why his team treated him like the leader. “Go wake up everyone else. If we have been followed, we need to be able to leave as fast as we can.”
I nodded, shuffled back to where the other kids were, and began shaking sleeping bags starting with Sarah’s. She groaned in response to the disturbance. “Sarah, I know it’s late, but you need to wake up. Now!” I whispered meaningfully.
She sat up and rubbed her eyes with her white, two-fingered hands; a new result of her transformation. My transformation had probably progressed as well; I decided to check after waking everyone else up. I went to Jared, Lee, and Rachel’s sleeping bags and shook them awake as well.
Once everyone was conscious enough to process what I was saying, I explained the situation to them. Lee raised his hand, which had lost two fingers and was now purple. I looked at him, “what is it, Lee?”
“What can we do to help?” he asked.
“Pack up your things,” I told him, “We need to be able to leave at a moment’s notice.” He nodded and began stuffing scattered granola bars and Cheez-it packages into the backpack he had gotten them from. Lee was obviously a very messy camper.
The rest of them began to pack their things away as well. While they were busy cramming things haphazardly into their bags, I lifted my shirt. The red feathers had reached my navel and were now completely covering the bottom half of my body. I worked the awkward clothing off to get a better look. I threw the pants in my bag; I didn’t need them anymore; my body was completely covered from the waist down. I started to pack away my sleeping bag and heard a loud undecipherable cry coming from past where the adults had slept. Shawn had his colleagues up and looked in the direction of the noise. He turned towards me and motioned for us to stay put. I then saw him make motions towards Max and Jay that I couldn’t interpret. They moved stealthily towards the sound’s source and disappeared in the cloud induced darkness.
When they had finished, I had Sarah and Lee help me pack up Shawn and his friends’ things. After we packed the last item away, we sat in silence for a few minutes, waiting. The wind blew across the desert chilling my uncovered arms, but my legs felt unusually warm, despite my lack of pants.
Suddenly, the silence was interrupted by sounds of conflict in the direction that Shawn’s team had departed. We were all nearly blinded by multiple bright flashes of light and accompanying pew-pew sounds. Someone was being shot at! I could see the location of the fight relatively well now; someone had set fire to the ground and the inferno was lighting the area like the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, the fire obscured any details of what was happening. The flames parted momentarily and I saw a dark, silhouetted object hurtling in the direction of our camp four feet above the ground. As it got closer, I recognized Max. He was flying in an extremely drunken-looking manner, and did not seem to be in control of his flight path. He was heading directly towards Jared, who was staring at the flames, completely unaware. I jumped towards him and pushed him to the ground just before Max zoomed overhead.
Just inches behind us, Max crashed to the ground. Jared looked too stunned by Max’s sudden arrival to move. I hurried to the small crater that had formed due to Max’s impact and knelt to inspect it. Max was lying unconscious with strange discolored splotches where the metal that coated his body had become discolored. I was no expert, but he looked like he was seriously injured and I had no idea what had caused it. My mind suddenly cleared. They were steel types; ALL of them! That fire wasn’t some random side effect of their battle; it was intended to hurt them. Max, Shawn, Rick and Jay were all steel types. Jay wouldn’t be affected by the fire as much as the others, but it would still be an extreme disadvantage. My transformation had progressed sufficiently for me to be sure of what I was transforming into, and I knew that I could at least be of some help, regardless of my inexperience.
I turned to Sarah, who had rushed to Max’s side moments after I had reached him, “Stay here and look after him. I think that I can help Shawn and Jay.”
She protested, “But they told you to wait here! It’s too dangerous!”
“They won’t survive in that fire, Sarah. I can get them out.” I stood up and looked at the blaze, which had increased in intensity, spreading at an alarming speed. It was obviously not a normal fire; the sparse vegetation in the desert would not supply enough fuel to sustain a wildfire for long.
I stumbled; Sarah had grabbed a fistful of feathers on my foot, “How? The fire will burn you alive!”
I yanked my foot free wincing as some of the feathers came out in Sarah’s hand, “No, it won’t” I turned and sprinted towards the fire without a second thought.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was strangely comfortable inside the flames. I couldn’t see out over them and the fire was much larger than it had appeared from the camp, but the raging inferno didn’t bother me at all. I had been taking a risk by running into the fire; I had no idea if the parts of my body that were still human would be affected. Apparently not; even my t-shirt was untouched by the fire. I remembered the many times that I had burned myself on the stove at home; this felt nothing like that. Not only was I not being burned, but the fire seemed to be invigorating me, making me run faster. I heard a loud boom slightly to the right of where I was heading and headed towards it. In almost no time at all, I had reached an opening in the blaze. The fire was dancing around the edge of it, but was being held back by an unseen force. Remaining inside the wall of fire just enough to remain concealed, I inspected the area. On the other side of the circular clearing from where I was, two figures having a stare-off caught my attention, one of whom was Jay. I didn’t recognize the second one, the fire was distorting my vision. I skirted around the outside of the clearing while staying in the flames to get a closer look.
As I approached them, I could see the situation better. I recognized that the figure that Jay was looking at was an arcanine, the likely source of all the flames. Jay was supporting an unconscious Shawn under the armpits and I could see Rick lying behind the arcanine chained and unmoving. Both Jay and the arcanine looked exhausted. I approached the arcanine slowly as I circled the clearing. Neither of them noticed me. “Now you’re all alone, give it up. I’ve caught you. Come along quietly and I’ll make sure your torture session lasts shorter.” The arcanine sneered with a cruel, recognizably female voice.
Jay shook his head and began to back up slowly. She laughed maniacally, “Good answer! I love it when they choose the hard way!” She opened her mouth and a large ball of fire began to form in her large canine mouth.
I was now nearing the section of the flames that was directly behind her. Jay looked like he had been to hell and back; he was certainly in no condition to take any more damage. I decided to take action. Running as fast as I could, which was much faster than I had ever run in my life due to my new legs, I jumped onto the big dog’s back. Jay’s eyes widened and my surprised mount jumped about a foot into the air. The fireball in her mouth shot off into the sky, way off target, and exploded with a deafening bang. I began to pull on the long white hair on her neck to keep her from being able to get a good look at me while Jay lowered Shawn to the ground. Resisting against my grip she screamed, “Get off me!” She began bucking like a bull in an attempt to get me off.
I held on for dear life as Jay ran up to Rick and began releasing him from the chains. Luckily the arcanine was too busy with me to notice. “So, what’s your name little doggy?” I crooned in a high pitched voice.
She made an exasperated noise as she kicked and struggled to dismount me. “Whoever you are, I’ll make you pay for that!” She began charging up another attack.
“Bad dog! No fireballs! You know what it does to the furniture!” I scolded
“ARGH!” she growled from behind the fireball.
Jay chuckled as he got the last chains off Rick. The arcanine looked about ready to explode from anger. Jay motioned for me to get off her back. I nodded and pushed off her back with my legs, landing behind her. She whirled on me, completely oblivious that Jay had a large blue growing to fill his beak. She said something that sounded like, “I’ll kill you, you swine!” but it could have easily been, “I’ll fill two with wine!” with her mouth full of fire like that.
She threw her head back and then launched the fireball at me by bringing her head forward forcefully. As the fireball shot towards me, it grew five distinct prongs, kind of like a star. Uh-oh, she was using fire blast. I threw myself out of the way just before it hit me and it missed by an inch. The fire blast disappeared into the blaze behind me harmlessly. Suddenly, a large pressurized stream of water slammed into the arcanine, sending her across the clearing. She screamed like a little girl. When she hit the ground, she struggled to stand but collapsed a moment later.
I sighed with relief. That was certainly a close call. If I hadn’t come when I did, Jay would have been finished, and we all would have been captured or killed. Jay sank to the ground on his knees, breathing hard. He motioned for me to come to him. I jogged over to where he was kneeling and he looked at me. “Get Shawn awake.” He said in an alarmingly quiet rasp.
I looked at him expecting more, but he stood up and began spraying the fire with water from his beak. I hurried to Shawn’s side and began shaking him vigorously. He looked pretty beat-up. My shaking seemed to be having no effect, so I did something that I had seen many times in cartoons; I slapped him across the face. He jerked awake. “Wh-what? Where am I?” he spluttered.
“In the middle of a huge fire. We need to get you out of here.” I responded, pulling him to his feet. He stumbled and I supported him until he regained his balance.
“Where is that nasty arcanine? She shot me with a fire blast and I blacked out.” He searched frantically.
“Don’t worry, Jay and I took care of her for now. She’s unconscious over there.” I said, pointing in her direction.
I moved to Rick and woke him up with a similar method. Luckily, he was in much better condition than Shawn. He looked pretty pissed off though. “I can’t believe I got taken out so easily! Whoever attacked me from behind must have been really strong.”
“or a fire type.” I pointed out, considering his extreme weakness to fire.
“True. Is that where all this fire came from?” he asked.
“Yes. can you take Shawn and fly out of here? He’s really hurt.”
“I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be able to get off the ground.” He replied
“Alright, I’ll walk him out behind Jay. you go make sure the others are okay. Max is with them, but I think he’s more injured than Shawn.” I suggested. After he nodded and flew off, I walked back to Shawn, who seemed to be doing better, but not by much.
“Why did you come? I thought I had told you to wait at the camp for us.” He asked, struggling to remain standing.
“Max nearly crashed into Jared, and there was a giant fire in the distance, so i figured you were in serious danger.” I explained "I took a chance and ran into the fire to help you." Jay was cutting a wide path through the fire, so I took Shawn’s arm over my shoulder and started to walk with him through the gap.
"That was extremely stupid," he smiled "But incredibly brave"
Shawn looked too exhausted to talk any longer, so we walked through the fire in silence, Jay walking in front of us to quench the flames.
When we reached the camp, Rick had a first aid kit out, and was spreading a salmon-colored cream over Max’s discolored splotches. Shawn stumbled in my peripherals. I caught him and he looked at me gratefully. “You and Max need some serious medical attention. Do you know where we can take you?” I asked him.
He chuckled wearily, “I don’t think it’s that drastic, Elijah. Pokéumans heal extremely fast compared to humans. Our injuries will probably last for a day or less.”
I sighed in relief. “That arcanine wanted to capture you. Was she from PokÉxtinction?”
He nodded, “Our location has been compromised. We need to get to our shuttle. We left in the town where we were trapped by the PokÉxtinction lackeys you saved us from. It’ll be pretty far down the road.” He sat down on the ground. “Get ready to leave after I rest for a bit”
Everyone gathered their supplies together and stood in a circle waiting for Shawn. We all looked at the sky, which had started to become lit moments ago by the sun. After a moment, Shawn had joined us and we began to follow Rick, who had my map and compass out and was leading the way. Shawn was able to walk on his own without help now, so I jogged up to the front with Rick. “What town are we heading to?” I asked.
He pointed with a claw to a spot on the map. My eyes widened. It was my hometown.