"Don't you just love autumn? We're finally rid of that summer heat, and the leaves are a brilliant golden-red -- It's like we're walking through a painting!"
"You do realize the leaves changing color means they're dying, right? They're this fiery red, yellow, and orange for a few weeks, and then they're just an ugly brown as they sit waiting to be crushed under your heel."
"Aw, don't rain on her parade, Caroline. I think Hannah has a point. The trees look beautiful, and I for one love it when leaves crinkle beneath my feet."
The group of girls walked in silence for a moment – or as silent as they could be with leaves crunching at every step and the constant ringing of Patapan.
The old town part of Ecruteak was often a quiet place, and this brisk October day was no different. The area was mostly inhabited by monks who wished to preserve the city's rich history. From almost every point in the historic district, the Bell Tower could be seen looming above the autumn treetops, its presence a constant reminder of the city's sacred guardian.
But one had to travel to the western portion of the old town district to catch a view of the city's other landmark, the Brass Tower. Long ago it had caught fire and burned until only the charred husk of the first few floors remained. The townsfolk refused to rebuild the tower, instead leaving the blackened heap as a reminder of the mortality of man and the fallibility of his creations.
At least, that's what the history books claimed.
It was only as the girls crested a hill on the west end of the historic district that they managed to glimpse the top of the infamous Burned Tower over the roof of an old boarded up shop. Alice held up a hand for them to stop.
"There it is," she said, pointing out the pagoda's distinct slanted roof.
"Think we could get closer?" Hannah asked as Kestrel, her Starly, fluttered up to the top of the abandoned shop to get a better look.
"I don't know..." Lauren said in her small voice. "They say the tower's haunted with ghosts at night."
"Don't be silly!" Caroline laughed. "That tower's about as haunted as this old shop here." She gave one of the wooden boards a sharp tug, then stumbled back in surprise as the board broke away from the window with a loud crack!
The sound echoed through the empty streets, and Hannah quickly looked around to see if any monks would poke their heads out of neighboring buildings to see what had happened. Thankfully the only sound was the soft rustling of leaves in the wind. Even Patapan had stopped jingling.
"I-I didn't mean to do that!" Caroline said quickly, her face paling.
"Oh, hush," Alice said, shouldering Caroline aside as she put her face to the newly formed hole. "I've always wondered what this building used to be. It's been boarded up like this for as long as I can remember."
"What do you see?" Shannon asked.
"Nothing." Alice frowned. "It's too dark. Maybe Selena could squeeze through and unlock the door from the inside?"
Shannon took one look at the hole and shook her head, hugging her Sentret close. "Selena won't fit in there. You'd need to remove at least another board or two, and once you do that, you could just have Aurora go in there."
At the mention of her name, Alice's Eevee leapt up to the windowsill and tried to peer through the small hole, eager for a chance to explore.
"What about Patapan?" Hannah suggested. "He's the smallest Pokémon any of us have."
Caroline nodded as she shakily set the splintered board at her feet and scooped up the little Chingling in her hands. "What do you say, Pan? Think you can open the way for us?"
The Chingling nodded happily, creating a loud echoing ring.
"A-are you sure this is a good idea...?" Lauren asked. "Pan's too loud... what if we get caught?"
"Oh, don't be such a Scaredy-Delcatty," Hannah said. "It'll be fine, there's no one aro--"
The brown-haired girl froze as a chill went up her spine. She stared into the dark alley that ran adjacent to the old shop. It might have just been her imagination, but she could have sworn she saw something move.
"Does anyone else feel like we're being... watched?" she said in a low whisper.
One by one the other girls nodded, suddenly looking around at every shadow with suspicion. Patapan stood on the sill of the window, not daring to move for fear of giving away their presence with his jingling. Riley, Hannah's Ralts, shuddered from the air of unease as Kestrel cautiously peered over the edge of the roof.
"It's getting dark," Caroline said with a glance up at the sun's slow decent toward the Burned Tower. "We should probably be heading home."
Alice was quiet for a moment, appearing to struggle with the idea of abandoning such a perfect opportunity for exploration. At last, she sighed. "You're right. Put the board back in place. That way no one will be the wiser."
Caroline hastily recalled Patapan to his Pokéball before picking up the board and attempting to fit it back in its spot. She wasn't able to fit the board perfectly in place, but she managed to balance it on the windowsill just enough that to the untrained eye it would look like nothing had ever happened. "There," the girl said, trying to keep her voice steady. "Now let's go home."
The next day, the girls wasted no time in heading back to the old abandoned shop after school. All of them wanted another chance to explore the mysterious place. Even Lauren's curiosity overcame her uncertainty.
"Don't let those old ghost stories scare you," Hannah assured her classmate. "That's all they are: stories meant to scare little kids. Believe me, the Burned Tower isn't haunted, and neither is this dusty old building."
"I've done some thinking," Alice said as they approached the top of the hill where the shop lay. "Most buildings have a back entrance, don't they? We might have an easier time getting in if we try going through the alley."
"You mean... through there...?" Lauren clutched her Poliwag to her chest as she pointed a shaking finger toward the alleyway in question. Even in the afternoon sun, the tall buildings on either side cast a dark shadow over the alley. It was impossible to tell how far back it went.
Alice leveled her eyes, her lip curling into a smirk. "You're not scared, are you, Lauren?"
The girl quickly shook her head as she stepped up to the edge of the alley. "You'll protect me, won't you, Irene?" she whispered to the Poliwag in her arms. The tadpole Pokémon gave a nervous croon as she peered into the darkness.
For several minutes Lauren stood rigid on the edge of the shadows, struggling to muster up the courage to continue. Finally, Hannah walked up to the girl's side and put a hand on her shoulder. "If you don't want to do it, someone else can."
"I'll go," Shannon said. "My parents taught me to face much worse than this." She stepped forward and took a deep breath. From her shoulder, Selena gave a tiny whimper before the girl plunged into the alley.
After only a few steps, the other girls could see little more than a faint outline of Shannon's movement. They wordlessly counted her footsteps, each one marked by the ominous crunch of the leaves beneath her feet. One... Two... Three… Four... Five... Six...
Hannah, Alice, Caroline and Lauren all held their breath, standing perfectly still and silent as they waited for their friend to return. The seconds seemed to take hours to tick by. Alice's Eevee cautiously approached the alley's entrance. Hannah's Ralts cowered behind her trainer's leg, seeming to pick up on the anxiety in the air.
Then there was a sudden rustling as Shannon stumbled back into view, causing the other girls to shriek in surprise. Shannon backed up to the middle of the street, her face stark white. Selena clung to her head like a Remoraid to a Mantine.
"What happened?" Caroline asked. "What did you see?"
It took Shannon a few moments to catch her breath. "S-something's there. I... I couldn't make out what it was, but it was coming towards me..."
As one the girls turned to look back at the alley, half-expecting something to jump out at them. They were greeted with silence. The sun was beginning to set by now, bathing the leaf-strewn street in a golden light. Within an hour or two their surroundings would be as dim as the alley itself.
"Maybe you were just seeing things," Alice said slowly. "The darkness can play tricks on your eyes... especially when someone's been filling your head with ghost stories." She shot a glare at Lauren, who balked and took an unconscious step backward.
"Maybe we should come back this weekend," Hannah suggested. "If it's in the middle of the day, we might have an easier time getting in." She managed to stop herself before she admitted to being just as scared as Lauren.
"Either that, or we should bring flashlights," Caroline muttered.
As the girls headed home unsuccessful for the second night in a row, they laughed off their fears. The further they got from that creepy old shop, the more they realized how absurd it was to be afraid of an empty alley. Even Shannon started to believe she hadn't actually seen anything.
One by one, the girls split off from the group as they neared their houses. First was Caroline, whose footsteps were accompanied by Patapan's jingling all the way up to her quaint little home. Then Alice left, with Aurora perched on her shoulder as she reaffirmed their plans to meet on Saturday. Next was Lauren, still hugging Irene close as she vanished into her home, leaving Shannon and Hannah to walk the next few blocks alone.
"You know, it's funny how we've been making such a big deal out of this place," Hannah said. "It was probably just a boring old drugstore or something. I mean, at least the Burned Tower has some interesting history to it. I don't get why Alice keeps insisting we go to the shop instead of the tower." From his perch on her shoulder, Kestrel gave a sleepy chirp of agreement.
"She always has been one for adventure," Shannon said with a chuckle. "Give her just one taste of a mystery and she can't sit still. Just you watch, when we grow up she's gonna work for the International Police or something."
"So she'll be tracking down rebels like your parents?" Hannah gave a teasing smirk.
"Oh, Interpol likes to keep its nose out of the war," Shannon said. "Besides, by the time we're grown up, Liberty will have already won the war."
Hannah rolled her eyes. "Whatever you say, Shannon."
As the younger girl started to turn down their street, Riley gave a distressed murmur. Recognizing that the Ralts was picking up on negative emotions, Hannah turned around to find Shannon standing several paces back, a look of horror on her face.
"Hey," Hannah said as she walked back to her friend. "What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"My Pokégear," Shannon said, feeling around her pockets. "It's gone."
"Did you leave it at school?"
Shannon slowly shook her head. "No... I... I had it with me this afternoon..." Her face paled. "I must've dropped it in the alley."
Hannah put a comforting arm around her friend. "We'll get it in the morning. It's not like anyone's around there anyway. It'll be fine."
"No, my parents will kill me if they know I lost my Pokégear." Shannon looked straight at Hannah. "We have to go back."
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this."
"Relax, it'll only take a moment."
The two girls fell quiet as they backtracked through Ecruteak's historic district, sticking as close to each other as they could. Selena and Kestrel had both fallen asleep and been returned to their Pokéballs, leaving only Riley to keep them company. The monks had hung lanterns along the main street, which helped to light their path. As they neared the abandoned shop, however, the comforting lanterns became fewer in number. Soon only the dim light of the moon was left to light the way.
When at last they reached the shop, Shannon and Hannah froze in their tracks. Lying on the ground in front of the shop, barely illuminated by the moonlight, was the board of wood Caroline had pulled off from the window the day before.
"That wasn't like that this afternoon, was it?" Hannah asked.
Shannon shook her head. "It... It must have fallen down in the wind or something."
"Right," Hannah said. "Well, hurry up and grab your Pokégear so we can go home."
The older girl nodded and walked up to the edge of the alley, peering into the darkness before turning back to look at Hannah. "M-maybe you could help me look?"
"I thought your parents taught you not to be afraid of dark alleys," Hannah said. "Besides, you know where you dropped it. I'd just be in your way."
"Hannah, please..." Shannon looked at her friend with genuine fear. Her voice shook as she spoke. "I... I can't do this myself..."
Riley crooned softly as she tugged on Hannah's pant leg, urging her trainer to help. With a sigh, Hannah reluctantly stepped forward. "You owe me for this, you know."
As one, the girls stepped into the alley. Hannah slowly counted their paces. One... Two... Three... Four... Five... Six...
"It should be right around here." Shannon's voice was barely above a whisper. "Hannah, your Pokégear screen lights up, right?"
"R-right." Hannah quickly fumbled with the device and activated the screen's backlight. The Pokégear glowed, but did little to illuminate the area around them. The brown-haired girl had to kneel close to the ground for the light to shine across the crumpled leaves.
There was no sign of Shannon's Pokégear.
"M-maybe you should try calling it," Shannon suggested as she crouched down and ran her hands through the leaves. "It's got to be around here somewhere." Riley shuffled through the leaves to help in the search, creating a loud rustling that echoed against the walls of the alley.
"Quiet," Hannah ordered as she scrolled through her Pokégear's menu and dialed Shannon's number. A cheerful ringtone sounded from somewhere far away. It sounded muted, as if coming from behind a wall. Hannah frowned as stared down at her screen. "Are you sure you dropped it in the al--"
She was cut off as Shannon grasped her arm with a sharp intake of breath. Hannah quickly looked up, blinking as her eyes adjusted from her Pokégear's bright screen.
Standing at the entrance to the alley, not six paces from them, was a vaguely humanoid figure. It was impossible to make out any of its features in the darkness, but it seemed to be watching the two girls. For what felt like an eternity the figure simply stared at them. Shannon and Hannah stared back. Then it started to walk towards them.
Shannon's grip tightened on Hannah's arm and she began to back further into the alley. Hannah didn't need the prompt. Both girls broke into a stumbling backwards run, not daring to take their eyes off of the looming figure.
Their backwards retreat was stopped short by an iron fence that spanned the width of the alley. Shannon frantically tried to climb the metal bars, but her hands kept slipping before she could get more than a few inches off the ground. Hannah noticed a door in the brick wall and desperately tried the knob.
It was locked.
She pounded on the door as her heart pounded against her chest. At the other end of the alley the shadowy figure was slowly making its way toward them, one step at a time. It was almost as if it knew the girls had nowhere to run and was merely taking its time.
Hannah cried out as her hand broke through the door's window, shards of glass cutting through her skin. Forcing herself to ignore the pain, she reached over and unlocked the door from the inside. "This way!" she cried to Shannon before darting inside.
The interior of the abandoned shop was even darker than the alley had been. The only source of light came from the shattered window of the door behind her. Even as she reached out a hand to feel her way through the darkness, Hannah activated the backlight on her Pokégear's screen again.
The sound of crunching glass made her turn as Shannon stumbled in after her. A soft cooing told her Riley had followed them too. Motioning with her Pokégear for them to follow, Hannah led the way deeper into the shop. She had no idea where they were going, but she didn't care as long as they got further away from that figure.
Hannah's hands were shaking so much that she didn't even realize she had pressed a button on her Pokégear until an upbeat jingle echoed through the shadows, causing her to jump. Shannon's ringtone.
"How did it get in here?" Shannon whispered.
Hannah stayed silent as she followed the sound, preferring not to think about the answer to Shannon's question. She was moving faster now, guided by the happy tune. Twice she ran straight into a wall and she stubbed her toe on hidden obstacles more times than she cared to count. The cluttering coming from behind told her Shannon and Riley were having about the same amount of luck navigating through the darkness.
At long last she turned a corner and found a glowing screen on the ground several feet away. She ran forward and picked it up, confirming that it was indeed Shannon's Pokégear. "You really should keep a better eye on this thing," Hannah said as she turned around to hand the device back to Shannon.
The light from the Pokégears' screens illuminated not Shannon's face but something straight out of a nightmare. A skeletal face peered at Hannah with dim yellow eyes. Its mouth seemed carved into a devilish grin. The area where a nose should have been was sunken and scarred, as if the nose itself had been gouged out. The skin was discolored, some shade between a sickly yellow and stark white.
The Pokégears clattered to the ground as Hannah gave a scream of pure terror and tried to back away. She stumbled over something in the darkness and crashed to the ground, a sharp pain shooting up her leg. The light from the fallen Pokégears illuminated the frayed edges of a tattered cloak as the monstrosity moved toward her.
Suddenly Hannah heard a soft scampering. The cloaked creature seemed to pause for a moment, and Hannah recoiled as she felt something touch her arm. The something gave a familiar croon Hannah recognized as belonging to her Ralts. With a gasp she hugged Riley close, even as the psychic-type began to glow in a soft light.
Dizziness overcame Hannah as the invisible world spun around her. The Pokégears' light vanished and she felt like she was perpetually falling back... back... back...
Her head hit the ground with a soft thud. A cloudy orb hung far above her, its glow unbearably bright after being in the pitch blackness of the shop. There was another flash of light and Riley vanished from her arms.
With a groan, Hannah slowly lifted her head. She had been teleported outside. Right outside, from the looks of it. The boarded-up shop stood to her left, with the alley just past it. Riley must have gone back to retrieve Shannon.
Hannah tried to stand up, and cried out as pain shot through her ankle. She must have twisted it in her fall. With a grimace, she rolled over and shakily stood up on her good leg. Her hand throbbed as well, and in the moonlight she saw thin streaks of blood where the shattered window had cut her.
Another flash of light signaled Riley's return with Shannon in tow. "Hannah!" the older girl cried. "Are you okay?"
"I-I'm fine," Hannah said as she hobbled over to her friend. "We have to get out of here."
Hannah cursed. "I'm sorry. I dropped it, along with my own. But we're not going back there. Not with that thing out to get us."
Shannon nodded as she put an arm around the younger girl and helped her limp down the street. "I'm sorry I dragged you into this."
"Are you kidding me?" Hannah asked with a slight smirk. "If I hadn't been there with Riley, you'd probably be dead by now." She scooped up the little Ralts in her arms. "It's really all thanks to Riley that we made it out."
Shannon kept quiet for the duration of the long walk back home, letting Hannah's words sink in.
The next day at school Hannah and Shannon told the other girls what had happened. The cuts on Hannah's hand had scabbed over and her ankle had mostly healed overnight, although she still walked with a slight limp.
"And you're thinking of going back there?" Lauren's voice shook slightly.
"We have to," Shannon insisted. "Both our Pokégears are still in there."
"But... that creepy figure..."
"You don't have to come with us if you don't want to," Hannah said. She hadn't mentioned her glimpse of the grotesque face, not even to Shannon. The memory made her shudder. "None of you do. It's my fault for dropping the Pokégears."
"I'm going with," Alice said, her eyes filled with determination. "There's no way I'd pass up an opportunity like that. Besides, we can use our Pokémon to protect us."
"I'll go too," Caroline said. "Pan can act as a lookout. He'll give us a ring if anything bad happens."
Hannah nodded at the two girls, then turned back to Lauren. "No one's making you join," she said softly. "I understand if you don't want to come... I know I wouldn't go back there if it weren't for those Pokégears."
Lauren shook her head. "N-no, I'll go," she said in her small voice. "Irene can help out too."
After school, the girls ran home to grab their bikes and flashlights, then rode together toward the boarded-up shop. The afternoon sun seemed to taunt them as it dipped ever lower in the sky, a constant reminder that they had a limited amount of daylight.
"What kind of person lives in an abandoned old shop anyway?" Caroline wondered aloud as they pedaled through the cobblestone streets.
"He's probably just some homeless guy," Shannon said, although she sounded like she was trying to convince herself there was nothing to worry about.
"What if it's the shopkeeper?" Alice suggested. "Maybe he closed his shop after some tragic accident that killed his wife, and now he just stays in there, shutting himself out from the rest of the world. His story is one of tragic romance."
Hannah remained quiet. She was the only one who had seen the figure's face, and she had a hard time believing the gruesome creature was human. What if the ghost stories were true?
When they finally reached the boarded-up shop, all the girls had fallen quiet. They parked their bikes at the alley entrance and pulled out their flashlights. Having already been there the night before, it fell on Hannah and Shannon to lead the way. They chose to ignore the board that had been mysteriously replaced on the windowsill.
In the illumination of the flashlights, the alley didn't seem quite as deep. It wasn't long before the girls reached the iron fence and the door with the shattered window. Hannah reached out and slowly opened the door, which creaked on its rusty hinges. Glass crunched under her feet as she cautiously strode in, shining her light in every corner of the empty room. Her heart was racing. With every step she expected to come face-to-face with that horrible figure again.
"Darn, the lights don't work," Caroline muttered as she uselessly flipped a switch on the wall.
"Of course they don't," Alice said. "His wife was the light of his world, so when she died, he knew the artificial lights of his shop could never compare..."
"Oh, would you stop it with the tragic backstory?" Hannah growled. "Maybe you could help by calling one of us. I'm not seeing our Pokégears anywhere.
"I've got it," Lauren said, eager to be of some use. She quickly pulled out her own Pokégear and dialed Hannah's number.
The girls strained their ears, but heard nothing but the wind in the leaves outside. "M-maybe try my number?" Shannon suggested.
Lauren gave a small shriek. "Someone answered!" she cried, holding her Pokégear at arm's length as if it were possessed.
"Put it on speaker," Caroline urged as the other girls huddled around Lauren.
With shaking fingers, Lauren managed to fiddle with the controls. Once the speaker was turned on, they heard ragged breathing coming from the other end of the line. "H-hello...?" Lauren asked in her small voice.
Hannah felt a chill run down her spine as she panned her flashlight across the room. She was not about to let that thing sneak up on her again.
The ragged breathing continued, accompanied by a static-filled noise that sounded like wind rushing past the other Pokégear's speakers. Then the device changed to video chat mode and the screen became a whirlwind of colors: reds and yellows mixed with dull grays and a lot of black. When at last the image stopped moving, the girls saw several tiled rooftops of Ecruteak's historic district. The camera was peering over what looked like a blackened wall. A vaguely pagoda-shaped shadow covered the closest rooftops.
"Wait a second..." Shannon whispered. "He's not here. That's the Burned Tower." Seconds after the words left Shannon's mouth, the screen shifted into a mix of colors and hues before the person at the other end of the line hung up.
The five girls stood in silence.
Finally, Hannah voiced the thought going through each of their minds. "...It wants us to follow."
"What if it's a trap?" Lauren asked.
"What does he want from us?" Caroline wondered.
Alice stomped her foot impatiently. "We're burning up daylight just standing here," she said. "We can either go to the tower and see what this is all about, or we can just give up and go home. So what's it gonna be?"
The two towers of Ecruteak had always been an integral part of the city's image; the pagoda outline was practically the city's official symbol. As such, the imposing sight of the Brass Tower's charred remains filled the girls with a sense of dread. While the Bell Tower in the east was a symbol of new life and new beginnings, the Burned Tower seemed to only represent death.
And yet beneath the charring of the wood, it was obvious the Brass Tower had once been just as magnificent as the Bell Tower. Although it no longer glittered in the setting sun, the scorched relic's distinct architecture gave it an eerie beauty.
A beauty the city council had deemed off limits.
It was only when she approached the iron gate that encircled the tower that Hannah recalled how no one was allowed within several hundred feet of the structure. Being a centuries-old building alone make the tower unsafe; following the great fire, it was a miracle what little remained was even still standing.
"Hannah, wait." Lauren's eyes shifted between the Burned Tower and the No Trespassing sign on the fence. "Should we really go up there? What if we get caught?"
"There's never anyone around here," Caroline pointed out. "Besides, that guy made it up there without a problem."
"I don't know..." The girl clutched her Poliwag as her knees trembled. "Chasing after a creepy guy is dangerous enough in the first place. But going into the Burned Tower? E-even if the ghost stories aren't true, that thing looks like it could fall over at any moment!"
Hannah bit her lip as she looked up at the top of the rickety structure. "We have to try. It's the only way to get our Pokégears back.
Caroline released Patapan and had him scan the surrounding area. The Chingling would give a shrill chime if he saw anyone approaching. With their lookout in place and their bikes safely stowed behind a bush, the girls proceeded to hop over the gate with the aid of a nearby tree.
Knowing this area had been left untouched for over a century made the tower grounds feel strangely hallowed. Shannon carefully led the way up the steps to the door frame. Although the blackened frame remained intact, any semblance of a door had been destroyed long ago.
Hannah had expected the inside of the tower to be as dark as the sear marks on the outside. To her surprise, golden sunlight poured through a massive hole in the roof, illuminating the edges of a gaping chasm in middle of the floor.
Shannon took a step forward. "We're here!" she called out. "Now show yourself, and give us back our Pokégears!"
"So much for the element of surprise," Alice muttered.
"It looked like he was up on the roof," Caroline muttered thoughtfully. "I wonder how he got up there..." She flipped on her flashlight and began to look around, only to cry out in surprise as her light fell on a horde of Rattata.
"Oh, please," Alice laughed. "It's just a pack of rats. Aurora, would you kindly dispose of these pests?" With a flash of light Alice's Eevee materialized from its Pokéball. The fox-like creature took one look at the Rattata and pounced right into the middle of the horde, causing them to scatter. Whirling around in a mad dance, Aurora tried to chase after as many as she could.
"Come on, Caroline had the right idea," Hannah said, ignoring the Rattata and shining her flashlight across the walls of the tower. "There has to be a way up."
It was Lauren who finally found a frayed rope ladder nestled in a small alcove. She called for the others. That was when the girls first noticed a dense fog had filled the room. It began to blot out what little sunlight remained, replacing the sky's pink hues with a cloudy purple.
Purple? As the fog obscured Hannah's vision, the girl started to wonder if Lauren's ghost stories didn't have some truth to them. Maybe the stories didn't depict actual ghosts, but rather Ghost Pokémon. "Just my luck," the girl muttered as she tried to make her way over towards Lauren. "Riley's at a disadvantage, and half of Kestrel's attacks won't even work." In fact, out of all their Pokémon Lauren's Poliwag, Irene, was the best suited for combating ghost-types.
As Hannah wandered through the fog, she noticed a humanoid figure hidden in the smoke. Narrowing her eyes, she readied Kestrel's Pokéball and slowly inched closer. When the figure started moving towards her, Hannah pressed the release on the capsule, sending out her bird Pokémon in a burst of light. But before the Starly could orient himself in the smoky cloud, the figure lunged.
"Hannah!" The figure grasped her arm and pulled her close, revealing Lauren's terrified face. "What's happening? Where did all this smoke come from?"
"Lauren, you scared me half to death!" Hannah cried. "Do you have Irene with you? I think this might be the work of a Ghost Pokémon. Gastly."
"Sh-she's right here," Lauren stammered as she knelt to pick up her Poliwag.
Hannah smiled. "Alright. On the count of three, I'll have Kestrel flap his wings to blow away the gas. When you see the Gastly core, have Irene hit it with her most powerful water attack. Got it? One... two... three!"
Had the girls been in an enclosed space, Hannah's strategy might not have worked. But the open doorway and giant hole in the ceiling provided two points where her Starly could blow the smoke out of the building. Almost immediately the girls' vision began to clear up.
At Lauren's shout, Irene fired a blast of water towards a small figure retreating into the shadows. The figure vanished. In the brief moment of quiet, Hannah glanced around to find Shannon, Alice, and Caroline all in different corners of the room.
"Did we get it?" Lauren whispered.
The silence was broken by a bloodcurdling scream.
Caroline stood rooted to the ground as the hideous form of a Raticate lumbered toward her. It was bigger than most Raticate, and even at a distance Hannah could clearly see its disheveled fur and pockmarked ears. The giant rat gave a feral hiss and gnashed its teeth at the petrified girl. The air filled with a loud chime as Patapan quivered in place, looking just as shocked as his trainer.
"Kestrel, go help her!" Hannah cried.
"Selena, you too!"
As one the Pokémon bounded into action. Kestrel pecked at the creature's ears while Selena threw herself against its tangled fur with numerous Headbutts. Aurora grinned playfully at the sight of another rodent to chase and began trying to pin down the Raticate's writhing tail.
Finding itself suddenly burdened with the presence of so many assailants at once, the Raticate gave another hiss and tried to back away. Patapan suddenly overcame his shock and opened his mouth, turning his trembles into an ear-piercing Uproar. The grating sound made Kestrel, Selena and Aurora dive for cover, and the Raticate squealed in pain as it retreated back into the shadows.
"Caroline, are you okay?" Shannon ran over to her friend, who remained frozen in fear. When at last Patapan calmed down, Caroline gave a tiny nod.
"Is it gone...?"
"After what Pan just put it through, I don't think that thing's coming back here for a long time," Shannon assured her. "Come on, it looks like Lauren might have found something."
"Should we try giving one of your Pokégears another call?" Alice asked as they started heading over to where Hannah and Lauren stood.
"It probably wouldn't hurt," Shannon said. Alice quickly pulled out her own device and dialed Shannon's number. The cheery ringtone sounded above them, echoing across the rafters.
"At least we know it's here," Hannah said, checking every shadow for a sign of the mysterious person who'd taken their Pokégears. "Come on. No place to go but up."
One by one the girls climbed the rope ladder Lauren had found. Kestrel and Patapan flew up to meet their trainers, and Selena scampered up the rope herself, while Aurora and Irene were recalled to their Pokéballs for safekeeping. The ladder brought the girls through a small hole in the ceiling shaped like a trapdoor. As they climbed out, they found themselves on what used to be the tower's second floor. Now it was more like a roof. The walls around them stopped about five feet up, and debris littered most of what remained of the floor. Now that they were outside, the girls could see the last few rays of sunlight disappearing behind the trees.
"Alice, dial my number again," Shannon said as she began searching through the piles of burnt rubble. The familiar tune played and Shannon quickly followed the sound. Suddenly she stopped short and let out a startled gasp.
"What is it?" Hannah asked in concern. Her hand flew to Riley's Pokéball even as Kestrel hovered at the ready.
Shannon ran forward and knelt down near a small heap of debris. "It's... Molly."
"Molly." Shannon stood back up and turned around to reveal a raggedy old doll. "I've had her since I was a little girl. But what could she be doing all the way up here?"
"That's not Molly," Alice said. "Not your Molly, anyway. Dolls like that are a dime a dozen; it probably belonged to someone who left it in the tower when it burned down."
Shannon shook her head. "No, this brand only came out ten years ago. Plus, look at her dress. One strap is thicker than the other, just like the one I have. These dolls are hand-crafted; each one's supposed to be unique. But this doll looks identical to my Molly."
Hannah furrowed her brow as she looked at the doll in Shannon's hands. Now that she'd mentioned it, Hannah did remember seeing that doll in Shannon's room. But Alice was right; there was no way Molly could have gotten from Shannon's house to the top of an old burned tower. Not unless someone had broken in and stolen it...
"C-come on," Hannah said. "Let's just grab our Pokégears and go home."
"Right..." For a moment Shannon stood transfixed as she stared at the doll. Then she tore her eyes away and walked over to where the two devices sat nestled between splintered support beams. She slipped one into her pocket and handed the other to Hannah.
After quickly confirming the Pokégear was hers, Hannah anxiously scanned the piles of rubble. She was sure that the grotesque figure would come after them again, probably when they least expected it. Where was he?
The girls quickly started to head back to the trapdoor. Now that they had what they'd come here for, none of them were eager to remain in this spooky place. Lauren was the first to reach the rope ladder, and was about to lower herself down when Hannah noticed a glint in the doll's eye. A chill ran down her spine.
"Shannon, look out!"
The warning came too late. Shannon cried out and flung the doll to the floor. "She bit me!"
Sure enough, the ragdoll's mouth was ajar, held together only by a few loosened stitches. The corners of the mouth had curled into a sinister grin as Molly lay there innocently. Then her eyes flashed red and she rose up into the air as if pulled by invisible puppet strings. Shannon screamed as a cackle escaped from the doll's lips.
"Wh-what are you?!"
"Shannon, get away from there!" Caroline cried. "That's a Banette!"
Shannon didn't give any sign of having heard her classmate's words as she stared at Molly in horror. The doll floated towards her, laughing menacingly.
Fear flickered on Alice's face for a brief moment. Then the girl gave a confident smile. "A Banette, you say? Aurora, Bite that doll to shreds!" She tossed a Pokéball as her Eevee popped out once again. Aurora leapt in front of Shannon and clamped down on Molly with a force that would have cleaved any ordinary ragdoll in two. Molly was surprisingly durable, although her maniacal grin had suddenly shifted into a scowl.
As Aurora tossed the doll against mound of debris, Shannon finally found her voice. "B-but I never abandoned Molly. H-how could she become a Banette?"
"That's right," Hannah said with a frown. "You had Molly with you earlier this week. I know because you sent me a picture..." The girl's face suddenly paled. "...on my Pokégear."
Shannon's eyes widened before narrowing into a glare. "That jerk looked through my pictures! Does he have no concept of privacy?"
Aurora cried out and scampered back toward Alice. From behind one of the rubble heaps came a shadowy figure. It was too dark to see most of its features, but two yellow eyes were dimly visible as the figure calmly walked toward the girls.
Hannah felt her heart start pounding again. "Everyone down the ladder! Now!"
It was a mad scramble. Lauren, being the closest, was through the trapdoor in an instant. Caroline was next as Alice recalled Amber to her Pokéball and quickly followed. Shannon opened her mouth to say something about respecting people's privacy, but seemed to think better of it and instead ran after Hannah.
As soon as Hannah hit the bottom of the ladder she ran for the exit. That was when she saw the skeletal figure floating down through the hole in the ceiling, its cloak billowing around it. Every muscle in Hannah's body screamed for her to get out. She ran as fast as she could, wishing she could wake up from this horrible nightmare.
Then her stomach lurched as the floor gave out beneath her with a sharp crack! Hannah shrieked as she fell into an even deeper darkness. She hit what felt like dirt with enough force to knock the wind out of her.
Gasping to try and catch her breath, Hannah rolled onto her back to see the cloaked figure descending through the gaping hole in the middle of the floor above her. There was no escape. Even as she sent out her Ralts in a vain attempt to fight back, Hannah knew there was nothing she could do. With the wind knocked out of her she could barely stand, let alone run. The figure was on the ground now, walking steadily toward her. With every step the figure took, Hannah's heart pounded against her chest as if trying to escape the body it knew was doomed.
The thing drew close, its nightmarish face just barely visible in the dim light trickling down from above. She felt its stale breath on her neck as it stood over her. Then one side of its face started to droop. Hannah's eyes grew wide. Was she seeing things? Had her mind finally snapped from sheer terror? Before her eyes, the creature's face was literally melting.
It wasn't just its face. The creature's whole body was melting into a puddle of goop at her feet. The puddle cackled madly, seeming very pleased with itself.
"W-wait a second..." Hannah gasped as she finally caught her breath and peered at the goop through the darkness. "You're no monster... you're a Ditto!"
The creature grinned in response.
"Then... there was never a man. It was all you. You were trying to scare us!"
Before Hannah's eyes the Ditto morphed into a cackling Gastly. Then it changed into a hideous Raticate, a floating human doll, and finally that skeletal figure.
"You... you can transform from memory?" Hannah's eyes widened as she reached a hand toward her bag. "And you went through all this trouble just to scare us and see our reactions?" The monstrous face nodded with an almost comical smile. Hannah smirked. "Is that all you can do? Don't you have any prowess in battle?"
Riley took the cue and stepped forward, firing off a Confusion at the creature. The monster stumbled backward in surprise, but then grinned as it transformed into a Haunter. It raised a shadowy claw and slashed out at Riley.
The Ralts' body glowed purple before the ghostly claw collided with her, knocked her unconscious. The ghost started to cackle, but its laughter was cut off as a similar purple glow appeared around its ethereal body. With a cry of surprise the Haunter slowly mutated back into its original form, its strength suddenly sapped.
"Destiny Bond," Hannah said simply. "Gotcha." In the blink of an eye she pulled her hand out of her bag and lobbed a Pokéball at the Ditto. The gelatinous glob was instantly pulled into the capsule, which closed around it with a small click. With a shaking hand Hannah picked up the Pokéball. It was hard to believe the source of all their fears could be contained in such a tiny ball. "Thank you, Riley," she said as she recalled her Ralts to its own Pokéball. "I couldn't have done this without you."
The end of a rope ladder tumbled down from the hole she had initially fallen through, and someone was climbing down. Hannah recognized the voice as Shannon's.
"Hannah, are you alright? Is that thing still down there?"
Hannah glanced down at the Pokéball in her hands. "I'm fine!" she called back as she shakily got to her feet. "The monster's taken care of. Everything's alright." As she shouldered her bag and pocketed the capsule, the corner of her lip curled into a smile.
She was going to have a lot of fun with this new Pokémon.