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The Fall of a Leader - Part VII: Downfall

XLIII

Winter settled gradually into the land, carrying northern winds and freezing cold. The old oak on the hill was still deserted, standing alone as a looming reminder of Shadowdart’s lost friend.

Yes, he was alone now, the ultimate Leader, devoid of personal ties. He knew no one in the swarm better than another, and no one knew him better than another. He was their neutral symbol of unity, one without attachment, one without bias. Just as a Leader ought to be.

Shadowdart didn’t trouble himself with his loss of friends. He felt more focused than ever, better than ever, stronger than ever. His abilities as Leader had won the respect and support of every Scyther in the swarm. The young looked to him for guidance. The older recognized his superior knowledge of moral matters. The adolescents he was teaching learned more and more about the Code and its greater context.

And in between, Shadowdart had been meditating on his plans for the future, which were now at last finalized. On this cold day, he stepped up onto the Leader’s rock and announced an important swarmwide meeting.

The Scyther below looked at him in surprise. Most rituals and ceremonies were only attended by whatever portion of the swarm happened to be there when they were announced – but this was a swarmwide one, one that required those present to go out and seek those they knew that were not. One by one, the Scyther moved, either to gather below the Leader’s rock or to look for their absent friends.

It took a while for them all to return, but Shadowdart had plenty of time.

Before he had challenged the Leader, he had told Stormblade that he intended to change things in the swarm. He had not done so yet – he had taught new things to the adolescents, sure, but he had not actively changed anything. He had had it planned all along, and made no secret of it to his pupils – but it was only now that he would announce it to the swarm.

He waited. He could wait. He would rather have all of the swarm present when he had such a major announcement to make, something that would affect all of them. If they had no friends to tell him of the new laws, how would they ever know until they were faced with them? And that would not be fair. Everyone had to play by the same rules if they were to be fair.

“Is everyone here?” Shadowdart asked over the whispers of speculation as two Scyther at last returned from Ruxido. His voice immediately silenced the swarm and he now commanded the attention of every pair of eyes in front of him. “Do you know of any member of this swarm who is not yet here?”

The Scyther looked at one another, but there was no objection.

“Today,” Shadowdart said, speaking loudly enough for those farthest away from him to hear him clearly, “I have a very important announcement to make. Make careful note of it, because it may affect all of you.”

He allowed the words to sink in. All the setup had created electric tension in the air. He could almost hear their brains creaking as they wondered what he had called this meeting for.

“Code-breaking runs rampant in this swarm,” he said, his words cold and harsh as he looked over the Scyther. “There are many among you who have been led astray by your instincts and urges into the moral quicksand known as love. There are many among you who fear death but think that if you hide it well enough from the surface, you are exempt from its consequences. This is not true. The Code is a thing of perfection, of ultimate fairness, something that describes how to live your lives righteously without hypocrisy, and yet many of you do not seem to understand the importance of living your lives in such a way.”

He could see the shifting gazes and nervous glances being exchanged, the sudden fear in the eyes of more than half of the group; it angered him to look at how pathetic they were, his swarm, his swarm that should have been the most moral of them all because they had the most moral Leader of them all.

“The suicide of guilt,” he said, “is awfully uncommon. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. Some Scyther can be redeemed after they have realized the wrong they have done, and then what use is it for them to die? However, this is unfortunately not the reason that it is uncommon. The real reason for the decline of the suicide of guilt is simple moral decay. Those who are guilty refuse to admit that they have done anything wrong and proceed to move ever more rapidly on to increasing corruption and immorality that could so easily be stopped if they realized their hopeless situation earlier and put an end to it. But they don’t – of course they don’t, because it follows from the moral decline they have already been through that they will not repent for their actions. It is a very brave thing indeed to pull out of the vicious cycle of Code-breaking to commit the suicide of guilt before sinking any lower – but it is a feat achieved by only a few.”

A sting of pain, a flash of memory, seared through his mind for a fraction of a second: a beautiful young female with her scythe lodged in her throat, him only hours earlier holding her down while she whimpered and struggled – but he pushed it away and maintained his cool expression. It was in the past. There was no use in dwelling on the past.

“I have therefore judged it to be necessary for preserving this swarm’s morality that I should have the power to order forced suicide as a means of helping those individuals who are too far gone to come to their senses on their own.”

He could see the surprise flickering through the swarm’s eyes as they looked blankly at one another. He could see how quickly it was replaced by fury and outrage.

“What?”

“How can he even suggest that?”

“Has the Leader turned insane?”

Shadowdart had been expecting the swarm to take such a change with hostility, and made a gesture with the remains of his left scythe that quickly silenced the cries of protest, some because of the sheer authority of the movement, some out of fear of the threat implied, and some out of pure disgust as their attention was drawn to the horribly mangled limb. No matter the situation, raising that scythe had proven itself to be quick to silence a chaotic crowd: the mutilated scythe had in only a matter of months become a symbol of authority, of the Leader himself, rather than one of humiliation and defeat. It was one of Shadowdart’s many achievements in his short period of Leadership.

“This is necessary,” he repeated. “If you object to this new law, I can only take it as a sign that you fear death enough to consider it worse for a Scyther to die than to spiral ever on towards ever more moral depravity until such a time that some other incidence causes his death.”

He could see the confusion and nervousness entering their eyes now as they looked at one another in silence. The accusation had hit close to home in most of them. Of course. They had most been taught by the Leader before him, that hypocrite who had expected them not to defeat their fear of death but to bury it somewhere deep within their minds and pretend it did not exist. This was a test that showed them for what they were – nearly all of them found it preposterous that a Scyther be killed, but not that he would otherwise only die a still more pathetic creature than he had already become.

“I hope you have not forgotten that death is inevitable,” he said, his tone of voice harsh but quieter than before. “They will all die regardless of my intervention, by one means or another. The difference between dying sooner or later is only our actions in the meantime, and I plan to employ this strictly for individuals who have sunk deep enough already for it to be clear that their actions in the meantime will only pull them deeper into the pit of immorality.”

The Scyther were silent and stared at him in disbelief, as if they expected him to suddenly change his mind. Shadowdart stood his ground, giving no indication that he was about to do so.

“From now on,” he said, “any one of you may approach me at any time here at the Leader’s rock to inform me of a Scyther you believe to be beyond help in moral matters. I will also do more of making note of specific individuals when I observe any Code-breaking myself. And this, I should emphasize, includes all Code-breaking. It includes your so-called love. It includes not sharpening your scythes sufficiently. Of course everything will be done to help every Scyther with a chance of recovering from their immoral tendencies to do so – but in extreme cases, we will have a measure to take. That is all it means. You will have five days’ warning from today before any forced suicide will take place, but after that there will be regular evening gatherings where I will call those unfortunate serial Code-breakers up to the rock and let them die either by their own scythe or mine. Unless you have any comments, this meeting is hereby disbanded.”

He could see in their eyes that many of them wanted to comment, but none did.

One by one, the Scyther turned away and returned to their former activities, more aware than ever of Shadowdart’s watchful eye.

XLIV

Stormblade was much farther away than any Scyther still belonging to the swarm had ever been.

Yes, while they had hunted all around Ruxido, even flown up into the mountains and explored the general area near the swarm, he was far enough away that he had no idea what the place was at all. There was seemingly endless tall grass, and there was quite the abundance of prey. Human routes lay not too far away, but at this time of the year there was not much traffic around them. He had not managed to gather much else about the place, but it was nice – more or less a Scyther’s paradise.

Aside from the distinct lack of other Scyther, of course.

Most would not have admitted it to themselves, but Stormblade had long since realized that the loneliness was killing him. He found himself increasingly tempted to turn to other species, even to prey, as company, but the wild Pokémon fled when they saw him and fought to the last drop when they realized they couldn’t escape. Back on the Ruxido plains, all the wild Pokémon had been somewhat used to the Scyther. Here, he was quite simply the single most fearsome predator in the area for as long as any living Pokémon could remember, and trying to yell at them as they disappeared from sight that he was just misunderstood was certainly no recipe for success.

That didn’t stop him trying.

“Rattata?” he whispered into a small hole in the ground. “I just want to… talk.”

He realized how silly it sounded – but that was a small price to pay for that chance he might succeed in having a conversation.

“Don’t come near me!” he heard a terrified voice squeak from inside the hole. “I’m only flesh and bones, I’m tiny, you don’t want to eat me, please…”

“Just talk,” Stormblade repeated, holding his scythes back in as nonthreatening a manner as he could manage as he crouched down to the ground and tried to bring his eye down to the level of the hole. “Please?”

But there was no more of a reply except for the Rattata’s terrified breathing, which was disappointing even for his previous results; he had sometimes at least managed to get into a brief debate about the possible honesty of his intentions. He sighed and stood up, his stomach immediately assaulting him with a dull feeling of emptiness. Part of him considered digging up the Rattata from the hole and eating it – it would be easy prey – but the thought of killing a creature he had only moments earlier willingly attempted to converse with was rather too awkward, and the Rattata was probably right about its nutritional value, anyway.

He wished, as he had so often, that he were only back in the swarm with Shadowdart, but shook the thought off. Shadowdart had changed. He’d become too preoccupied with his power, with the Code, with keeping the swarm within his own paranoid moral restrictions, that he had in the process lost all traces of morality that he himself had ever had. He was not just the Leader, the Scyther who was responsible for their traditional knowledge and for the defense of the swarm: he had made himself a tyrannical ruler.

The Shadowdart he had been friends on and off with – he was gone. And it had only been on and off, anyway, and to Shadowdart it had always come second to those endless ponderings about the perfection of the Code. What Stormblade had realized that day he had left the swarm had been that not only had he and Razor never been the best of friends to him: Shadowdart had never been the best of friends to them, either. Perhaps it was their fault – perhaps Shadowdart just didn’t understand friendship because he had never experienced it. The idea of truly caring for someone else, and not only because they were company to him – did he comprehend it at all as anything more than one more violation of his precious Code?

What Razor had done still disgusted Stormblade – but not for the same reasons as it disgusted Shadowdart. Stormblade was appalled that Razor had not cared enough to risk himself for Nightmare. Shadowdart merely hated Razor out of spite that he had arbitrarily justified with his numerous breakings of the Code – numerous, numbers, something clearly defined. Everything was clearly defined in Shadowdart’s mind.

Stormblade, on the other hand, couldn’t think in terms of things that were clearly defined. He could tell whether someone had done something wrong by instinct without all that careful step-by-step evaluation. If Shadowdart preferred to think that his method worked better, that was fine – but when he was forcing his moral judgement on everyone in the swarm with something like forced suicide, he was just overstepping the line, and forced suicide itself was one of the most morally abhorrent ideas he had ever heard of. At least by Stormblade’s instinctual evaluation of the idea, which was what he preferred to trust. Shadowdart managed to make it sound good in principle when he spoke of it, but something about the idea made Stormblade cringe. Well, what the hell did he know? At least that day had made him realize that he and Stormblade just did not think in the same terms, and it would be impossible for him to stay in the swarm and look upon him use his power in that way. He’d had to go. He had promised Pearl he would leave the swarm if Shadowdart ever became Leader – it had been more than time for him to actually make it reality.

He heard movement in the grass and was quick to react, his empty stomach shooting down any plans for further conversation attempts before he could even begin to formulate them. A brown ferret Pokémon let out a squeak of surprise that was cut short as Stormblade’s scythe severed its windpipe. Quick and painless. Just how the Code liked it.

He snorted to himself, not without some shred of guilty sympathy for the Furret he had just killed, and started to wolf down its flesh.

The rustle indicating a creature in too much of a hurry to care about being heard made him look up in the direction of the human road in the distance. He could see movement in the grass ahead, growing ever nearer while grass blades flew in all directions from the source of it.

A Scyther, he immediately thought, his heart taking a leap. He very nearly left his half-eaten Furret where it was, but he was just a bit too hungry to risk some scavenger stealing his prey. He picked it quickly up in his mouth and took off the ground, zooming towards the movement in excitement. It took him only a couple of seconds to get near enough to see the creature from above.

A red, metallic body, useless paper-thin wings and arms ending in jagged pincers that furiously cut away at the grass assaulted his senses all at once, causing him to twitch in horror.

Not a Scyther. A Scizor.

In his shock at the discovery, Stormblade quite simply forgot to fly. He crashed into the grass and hit his head awkwardly on just about the only rock to be found in the grass field, the limp Furret falling out of his jaws just in front of the Scizor as it stopped abruptly.

It looked at him, seemingly no less taken aback at the sight of him than he was. “Are you hurt?” it asked hesitantly after a moment, the voice sounding more feminine than masculine although Stormblade did not have any experience with detecting the sex of Scizor through their voices and was rather too alarmed and revolted to care. He stood up and began to back away, feeling the muscles of his face twitch with repulsion as his gaze again found the pincers on the creature’s arms.

He had heard stories about Scizor when he was young, terrible stories about Scyther who were captured by humans and evolved into this monstrous freak species to lose their speed and scythes and be turned into slaves. To see one with his own eyes only made the lack of scythes all the more grotesque; the first thing that came to mind was that a Scyther with a mutilated scythe like Shadowdart was bad enough, but one with both of his scythes replaced with… those…

The Scizor saw him cringing and he thought he could detect bitter sorrow in her eyes, as if maybe she wanted to say that she found it every bit as horrifying as he did. It made him linger behind instead of running away as he would have preferred, but he averted his eyes from her body and instead looked firmly down at the grass.

“Do I… do I know you?” the Scizor asked slowly.

Part of Stormblade, the part that was still repulsed and wanted to leave as soon as possible, wanted to tell her no and end the conversation. The other pointed out that just earlier he had been voluntarily attempting to talk to a Rattata – this was at least a former Scyther, and she was talking to him willingly. Any company had to be better than nothing.

He forced himself to look up and winced, finally managing to look into her eyes while making sure that her arms did not come within his line of sight. “I can’t say I remember you,” he said, the words sounding spiky and forced.

She looked at him for a long while. “No, I’m sure it was you,” she said finally. “I duelled your friend the day I left my swarm. You were there.”

Nightmare.

It was Nightmare.

Stormblade stared at her in disbelief. Nightmare. That beautiful, fast Scyther that Razor had gone off chasing after that fateful day nearly four years earlier. She was standing in front of him. And she was a Scizor. What a dreadful waste of a Scyther. And Razor had let it happen. Razor had stood and watched while it had happened. While this abomination happened to her. The one he was supposedly so in love with that he had left the swarm to find her.

“I’m sorry that it happened to you,” he said quietly, looking down again. “Razor told me… I saw him again, I mean, and he was still alive, and he told me he’d just… stood there and watched you be caught.”

“Did he?” she asked faintly, and Stormblade remembered that she had supposedly been asleep at the time. He looked awkwardly up at her. “Yes. Or so he said.” He paused. “He seemed to regret it,” he added.

“He’d better,” she replied with a slight hint of distaste to her voice but no more. There was a short silence.

“We’re far away from the Ruxido plains, aren’t we?” she asked quietly at last.

Stormblade nodded.

“What are you doing here, then?”

“I left the swarm,” he said and decided after a moment of hesitation not to elaborate unless she asked. She didn’t.

“When?” she asked instead.

“Not that long ago. A few months.”

“How has the swarm been since I left?”

Stormblade shrugged, although painful memories were digging their way around his brain. “The Leader was defeated,” he responded at last.

“Oh.” She paused for a moment. “Who replaced him?”

“Another friend of mine.”

The mention of friends seemed to stir something within her. “I don’t expect you know how Sickle has been at all, have you? The one who was with me that day?”

Stormblade’s heart writhed in agony and he was silent for a long while, staring into the grass by their feet. “She… she’s dead,” he finally said, his voice a barely audible whisper.

She looked into his eyes for a few seconds with the distanced gaze of someone who has seen and experienced so many unfamiliar and alien things in such a short time that to hear that time had passed and things changed in the swarm as well, the static reference point that she had taken for granted throughout all of it, seemed downright absurd and unreal.

It suddenly occurred to Stormblade for just how long she’d been gone.

“Oh,” she said finally, the tone of her voice the empty kind that implied she wasn’t sure what she could say.

“How did you get away from the human?” Stormblade asked her, realizing that Pearl was a very uncomfortable subject for both of them.

“He released me. He said he was going to quit training.”

There was a silence, and he could see her gaze shift in discomfort, although she said nothing.

“Humans aren’t as bad as they say,” she murmured after a while. Stormblade stared at her in disbelief as she looked up, still decidedly averting his eyes from those horrible pincers, which she must have noticed. “He evolved me, yes, but when I told him what Scyther think of being evolved, he said he was sorry. He never made me fight without first asking me if I felt up to it.” She paused briefly. “I participated in this… this tournament where the Pokémon could fight alone. And… I fought him. The one you call Razor.”

Stormblade stared, his brain desperately trying to piece things together. “You fought him? As a Scizor?”

She nodded, wincing at his use of the word ‘Scizor’. “I didn’t recognize him at first, since I was too focused on trying to beat him and wasn’t paying much attention to his features. But he… he was faster and still had his scythes,” she spat bitterly. “He beat me and was about to kill me. And my trainer tried to make the organizers call off the duel then so that I wouldn’t be killed.”

Stormblade regarded her in silence. “Did they?”

She shook her head. “No. But then I recognized him, and he recognized me. He let me go.” She paused for a moment, looking absent-mindedly at the grass all around. “Just like I did the day we left the swarm,” she added quietly.

Stormblade nodded and suddenly realized that the dead Furret was still lying in front of him. “Are you hungry?” he asked, indicating it. She nodded gratefully and, without words, they began to eat.

It was Nightmare. She was back. It still hadn’t quite registered in Stormblade’s brain. He forced himself to look at her pincers, wincing ever so slightly less than he had when he had seen them for the first time.

So humans weren’t so bad after all, not all evil creatures who replaced the scythes of innocent Scyther with useless pincers and robbed Pokémon of their free will. It did explain things about Razor; while it had never been what had bothered him most when he had met him, he could now plausibly see how Razor could have come to accept life with the humans who had been with him. But nonetheless…

“Why didn’t you just ask him to release you before?” he asked, again wincing a little less when his gaze passed her pincers. “If he never made you do anything unless you wanted it… why did you ever want it?”

She swallowed slowly and took a while to think about it. “I suppose,” she said finally, “I just didn’t know what else I was meant to do.”

Stormblade considered this for a moment, but didn’t say anything.

“It’s strange,” she went on. “I wanted to get away the moment he let me out of that ball. But I couldn’t even fly in my new body, and well, after the initial shock, I realized that now that I was a Scizor I would never be able to integrate into Scyther society again. I didn’t even know how I’d hunt with these things.” She raised her pincers uselessly and Stormblade managed to keep his disgust more or less off his face this time. “So really, why wouldn’t I stay? At least he gave me food and seemed more considerate than I’d been told humans were, and if I agreed to battle for him on occasion I would at least have something to live for and some other Pokémon around my skill level willing to duel.” She shook her head. “I really have become sickening to your eyes, haven’t I?”

Stormblade made himself look her up and down. “I’d be lying if I said no. Physically, anyway.”

“Morally?” She looked at him, and he thought about it.

He didn’t feel anything at all. No disgust at her actions, no disdain for her thoughts, nothing.

“No,” he said. “Not to me. But I don’t think the Leader would agree.” It felt strange to speak of Shadowdart as the Leader. He had gotten used to the idea, but he had never attached the name properly to him. In fact, the Leader and Shadowdart seemed like two distinctly different characters.

She turned away. “Thought so.”

She had changed. The day she had duelled Razor she had been confident and sarcastic. Now she seemed so dull somehow, like the life had been sucked out of her. Like she had lost her purpose and didn’t know what to do with herself and was only keeping up a conversation with him because he was there. It saddened him.

“Why did you leave the swarm, anyway?” she suddenly asked, turning back to him.

“Disputes with the Leader,” Stormblade replied and sighed. “He told me he wanted to force the suicide of repeated Code-breakers that he thinks are beyond help.”

He could see her cringe at the idea and felt a little warmer to know that he was not alone.

“He’s all about morals and righteousness and the Code,” Stormblade said. “And everything he says kind of makes sense, I suppose, but it disgusts me anyway.”

She snorted spitefully. “I believed in the Code back when I was in the swarm, but now that I’ve got more experience with the world, I’ve realized it’s nothing but a set of arbitrary rules designed to make everyone affected by them as unhappy as possible. It says one should not let oneself be manipulated, and yet it’s the most deceptively manipulative pile of bullshit ever devised by Scytherkind. As soon as you’ve spent any time at all in a more sensible society, you can’t help noticing the irony of it.”

Stormblade stared at her in a vague blend of disbelief and admiration. He’d never dared to word it that bluntly even privately to himself. What was more, she seemed to have cheered up to some extent, because she was returning to her old mocking self that he warmly recognized from the day Razor had left. He smiled.

“I wish somebody could tell Shadowdart that.”

She nodded absent-mindedly, took another bite of the Furret, and then suddenly turned to him. “You know what? Let’s do it. Go back to the swarm and put an end to all that crap. I’ve got nothing better to do now anyway, and I think I have a lot of things to say that would be healthy for all the morons back there to hear.”

He stared at her. “What? Now? With you… like this?” He gestured vaguely at her pincers, the sight of which still bothered him a little.

“Why not? It’s not as if they’re going to magically change back into scythes if we wait. Besides, I’d love to see the looks on their faces.” She smiled with a mischievous glitter of glee in her eyes. “Come on. We have nothing to lose. If you’re not coming with me, I’ll go alone.”

Well. She was right, in a way. If he stayed behind, he’d continue to be devoid of company for some indefinite amount of time. If he went with her, he’d at least have her, even though they would make permanent enemies of the whole swarm. And the thought of standing up to Shadowdart in his presence suddenly seemed awfully irresistible.

He stood up, ripping a last strip of meat from the Furret, and told her, “Let’s go, then.”

XLV

The swarm had changed – for the better, as far as Shadowdart was concerned. And that night, another slow step towards change would be taken.

“I am told that one of you has entertained the thought of murdering me,” he said over the swarm on that evening’s gathering. The bulky male adolescent who had alerted him of it immediately pointed out a smaller Scyther in the crowd below, whose eyes widened as he tried to fight his way past the neighbouring Scyther and escape. They blocked his way and pushed him roughly up towards the Leader’s rock, where Shadowdart smiled grimly.

“So is it true?” he asked the young Scyther, narrowing his eyes. “Is it true that you have been guilty of planning murder?”

He didn’t even admit his guilt. There was fear shining from those eyes as the guilty Scyther raised his scythe to his throat. The young one didn’t close them before he did it.

Dark blood splattered into the yellowed grass as the Code-breaker’s dying body collapsed onto the ground. Shadowdart looked on it with a wild gleam of triumph in his eyes: there were few things that gave him happiness anymore, since his enjoyment of the First Prey preparation lessons had mostly faded, being Leader was a concept he had gotten used to by now and mating was more procedure than anything else, but seeing the laws he had put into place being effective at what they were meant to do made him feel very satisfied indeed.

If he had not made that Scyther commit suicide, he would perhaps have been killed that night. And the young Scyther would have been guilty of murdering the Leader. Now he was still alive, and the other Scyther had died innocent of everything but the malicious intent. Both of them were better off. He was starting to see the swarm realizing this slowly, one by one. More dared to report Code-breakers than at the beginning. The Scyther were getting used to the law.

“Remove him,” he told the swarm, and a few of the nearby Scyther united their efforts to move the body into the forest. “This meeting is disbanded.”

He had soon stopped having death acknowledgement rituals for the executed Code-breakers. Why show them the respect? The whole swarm had already seen them die, after all, and they all knew that their deaths were something to be put behind them. He could maybe make a little speech when he himself had been the one to kill the accused and had to wash his scythe anyway, but it just seemed like a waste of time when they did it themselves. He watched the Scyther walk quietly away to sleep, and ran his ever-vigilant eye over the plains as he always did to scan it for anything out of the ordinary.

His gaze stopped at the oak tree on the hill.

There was someone there – no, there were two Scyther there. Who could it be? Stormblade could have returned, but then why would there be another one with him? Or were they just rogue youngsters who thought they could sleep in a place the Leader still considered his own?

He walked over towards the tree. In the dark he couldn’t see them very well, but he thought there was something odd about one of them… and now he disappeared behind the tree…

“Hello, Shadowdart,” said Stormblade quietly as he came nearer. The one who was with him was still hidden.

“Stormblade?” Shadowdart asked faintly and stopped in front of his former friend. “What are you doing here?”

“I came back to see how you were doing,” Stormblade responded and paused for a moment. “I saw your First Prey lesson earlier. And the Scyther you just killed.”

“He killed himself,” Shadowdart replied spitefully.

“Because you’d have done it otherwise,” Stormblade spat. “What did he do wrong? Think?”

“I prevented him from actually committing the murder.”

“That doesn’t matter!” Stormblade cried out, slashing at the ground in frustration. “You don’t even know if he would really have done it! You don’t even know if he regretted it as soon as he’d said it!”

“He shouldn’t have said it in the first place,” Shadowdart said coldly.

“And another thing. Where’s Stalker?”

Stalker. Shadowdart’s heart took a painful twinge. Memories best forgotten. He hesitated, and it drove Stormblade further on.

“There were only four adolescents at the First Prey lesson, and none of them fit the description,” Stormblade repeated. “Where is she?”

“She’s dead.” Shadowdart looked uncomfortably away.

“Dead how?”

Shadowdart could hear Stormblade’s voice shaking with anger, anger like he hadn’t assumed him capable of. It frightened him to see Stormblade like that. “Suicide of guilt,” he replied.

“What, suicide like that Scyther earlier committed suicide?”

“Voluntary,” Shadowdart said loudly, looking into his old friend’s eyes. “I found her in the forest and she was already dead. I don’t know why she did it. What does she have to do with anything?”

And Shadowdart could tell that at that moment, Stormblade realized that she had everything to do with everything. His friend’s face contorted in disgust, and it seemed terribly wrong. Stormblade wasn’t supposed to be able to look that angry.

“What did you do to her?” he whispered, approaching Shadowdart. “Why did she commit suicide?”

Shadowdart’s gaze shifted and he found himself backing away, despising himself for it. “I mated with her,” he said at last.

Stormblade stopped in his tracks.

“She’d been begging me,” Shadowdart said defensively. “She was getting her smell out all over me and… what was I supposed to do? You can only stand it for so long.”

The older Scyther stared at him with horrified pity in his eyes, shaking his head slowly.

“I thought she’d like it, what with all the begging and seducing,” Shadowdart went angrily on. “How was I supposed to know she’d change her mind all of a sudden?”

“You’re sick,” Stormblade whispered, still shaking his head and looking into Shadowdart’s eyes. “You forced her?”

Shadowdart fumbled for an answer but didn’t find one. Of course he didn’t want to call it that, but he was not at all sure what else he could call it. He just looked at Stormblade as he took on an expression of sorrowful disgust and turned away.

“Come on,” Stormblade said, looking at his partner behind the tree, his voice shaking. “We should tell the swarm who their Leader really is.”

And a real, living Scizor stepped into sight, its arms mutilated into grotesque, jagged pincers, wings rendered small and useless, armor metallic and red. Shadowdart flinched in surprise and disgust; the Scizor took a long look at him and then followed Stormblade. They were heading to the Leader’s rock.

Shadowdart stared after the pair of them and suddenly realized that he didn’t want to stop them.

XLVI

“Swarm!” Stormblade roared as he stood on the top of the Leader’s rock, his heart clenched in despair. “Come on and hear us!”

He saw some Scyther look up in surprise, clearly wondering why he, not the Leader, was standing there summoning them – and for a moment he didn’t think they would come. But then, one by one, the members of the swarm walked up to the rock, and some of them woke their already sleeping friends and got them to come along – in a matter of minutes, nearly all the Scyther stood there frozenly, looking at Stormblade in an almost pleading manner.

He realized all of a sudden that they were hoping he had somehow become the new Leader, that Shadowdart’s reign was over. His heart wrenched painfully again. He looked slowly over at Nightmare.

The Scizor stepped up onto the rock, displaying that horrible, mutilated body to the swarm.

The crowd flinched in disgust at the sight of her pincers. Some of them hissed threats. She just stood there calmly, waiting for them all to take a good, long look at her.

Some looked away. Others gave her nervous glances. Still others forced themselves to take in every detail of her grotesque form. But none of them dashed up to attack her. As much hatred as they had all spewed about the species of Scizor when they had attended the Leader’s lessons about evolution, as much as the mere utterance of the word ‘Scizor’ was considered profane, they all realized to at least some extent, now that they stood in front of one, that she was a Scyther just like them who had lost her scythes through a process forced upon her. That she couldn’t be blamed for what had happened to her. And so they were eventually still and just waited for either of them to talk.

“Your Leader,” Nightmare began, saving Stormblade the task, “is a filthy hypocrite.”

Stormblade was glad that she was using the name Leader, because it was really not Shadowdart who had done any of it, after all, just that wretched Leader who was much worse even than the one before him.

The swarm below was silent.

“Your Leader,” she repeated, “has himself forced an adolescent to mate with him, driven her to suicide, lied about it, and now takes pleasure in the ability to bring about the suicides of other young Scyther through nothing but the very kind of manipulation that the Code, which he pretends to follow so dearly, condemns.”

And they were still silent, though some of them winced or looked at one another. Stormblade could tell that it did not really come as a surprise to many of them to hear it. None of them objected or asked them for proof. Not one. It almost saddened him.

“Come on,” Nightmare said viciously. “Raise your scythes, all of you, if you thought he was a good Leader. If you looked at the murder of that young Scyther earlier and still thought he was a good Leader.”

A few, maybe two or three, raised their scythes up nervously. One of them was the bulky young male who had nominated the one who had committed suicide that evening, the young Scyther whose blood still was splattered on the ground below the Leader’s rock.

Nightmare shook her head in disdain. “Why, if none of you thought he was a good Leader, did you just let him do it? He may have been the strongest Scyther in the swarm, but what could he honestly have done against all of you? Have you all forgotten that the Leader’s role is to protect the swarm from harm and keep peace and unity within it? Why did you put up with him? And now that you know what he did – are you going to let him get away with it still?”

The Scyther looked guiltily downwards and muttered something. Some looked lost and confused. Some even betrayed. But again, none of them protested or voiced their agreement. Nightmare was about to open her mouth again when suddenly the crowd began to part.

Shadowdart walked slowly through the group of Scyther, all eyes trained on him. The swarm was eerily silent as their Leader looked at the ones on either side and watched them flinch under his gaze.

He climbed to the top of the rock and looked at Stormblade, and for a moment the older Scyther could see that little dark-colored adolescent who had taken nine tries to kill his First Prey shining, begging in the back of Shadowdart’s eyes –

– and then the Leader turned around, jerked his head up towards the shimmering stars of the cloudless night, raised his mutilated left scythe and buried the jagged remains of the blade in his exposed neck.

Dark blood flowed onto the scythe and under it, streaming down his neck and chest as his eyes glazed over, wide and staring and full of sorrow and despair. The scythe was lowered back to his side, and then his legs gave way to the weight of his body and he fell forward into the unoccupied space in front of the swarm, his bluish blood blending with that of the young Scyther who had also ended his life earlier that same evening. The Scyther regarded the body in guilty silence, but none of them came near it.

Stormblade looked down at his friend. A cold gust of wind swept past his wings and he shivered.

Perhaps it had been for the best – perhaps Shadowdart, who had so devoutly believed that it was better to be dead than to find oneself sinking ever further into the quicksand of immorality for the rest of one’s life, was happier this way. But he could not shake off the feeling that Shadowdart had died lost, confused and horrified by himself, knowing that the entire swarm despised what he had done and even Stormblade had turned against him.

Shadowdart had died alone.

And perhaps there was no other way it could have happened.

XLVII

“Tonight, we commemorate two Scyther who have left our ranks,” Stormblade said shakily, holding up a scythe wet with the blood of both Shadowdart and the young one who had died earlier in that evening. “They both died by their own scythes, but in the end it was only one of them, the Leader, who killed them both. And that Scyther – the Leader – he used to be my friend once.”

The swarm looked at him in silence. Nightmare stood by his side, watching the flow of the river.

“He was always nervous but stubborn as a Descith. He evolved early but took nine tries to capture his First Prey. After that he developed an obsession with Leadership and the Code, and this obsession that started out as an honest longing to do some good eventually poisoned his mind. I don’t know what he was thinking when he died, but I’d like to think he died the person he used to be – Shadowdart. I don’t believe the person he had become, the Leader who forced a young Scyther to commit suicide for no crime but to think about breaking the Code, would have looked at me the way that he did before he did it. I think it was my friend who was so horrified of becoming that Leader again that he slit his own throat to prevent it. And if it was him, as I hope, then the Leader killed two innocent Scyther tonight.”

Stormblade took a deep breath and saw his scythe trembling. Everyone was gone. Razor, Pearl, Shadowdart…

Nightmare was the only one left.

And she understood him the moment that he looked at her.

“What’s done is done,” she said, looking over the silent Scyther. “They’re gone, and they’ll never come back. All we can do is think about what happened to them and learn from it. The new Leader can look back and think of the fate of his predecessor when he makes his decisions. We live on and the future is ours to make better than the past. Their lives shouldn’t need to have been for nothing.”

And he knelt down and lowered his scythe into the flowing water, letting the blood wash off the blade and vanish in the stream.


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