The Fall of a Leader - Part VI: Stalker

XXX

Shadowdart did not sleep with Stormblade under the oak tree that night, because the Leader was expected to be available at the Leader’s rock at all times when he was not hunting.

The Leader’s rock was simply a large, flat rock, maybe the height of one Scyther across and half of one’s height where it was tallest, that stuck out of some slightly higher ground by its lonesome near the edge of the swarm’s general hangout area so that the taller end of its gently sloping upper surface faced towards the swarm and the lower in the direction of Ruxido. The Leader slept by the side of the rock as a rule, where he was essentially in the forefront should it come to a large-scale attack on the swarm from the forest, in an easily recognizable place, and in a particularly convenient spot for some of the various rituals he would have to perform.

Shadowdart had no plans for attempting to defy this law and knew that he should keep Stormblade at some reasonable distance anyway even if they remained on friendly terms, so he simply reminded his friend of it as they walked back from the river, and the two Scyther split up. Stormblade headed back to the familiar tree, and Shadowdart walked to the rock, looking at it closely from behind for the first time. It was a strange feeling to stand there at the other end after the times he had been one of the Scyther standing below and looking in awe up at the Leader (awe at the position, of course, and not at the Leader himself, who deserved no such feelings). Then he had felt small. Now, as he looked over the entire swarm from this sacred location, he felt the biggest he had ever felt.

He held out his left arm above the rock, letting a drop of the blood still trickling out of the wound from the earlier ritual fall upon the surface. It formed an irregular splatter of dark that maintained its form instead of simply sinking into the ground as it did when blood dripped into grass. This was more permanent. Something that would not be washed away until the next rain. In fact, it hadn’t rained for a few days, and when Shadowdart squinted – in the rapidly fading daylight, it was a little harder to see – he realized that the rock was still covered with splotches of dried blood from an acceptance ritual that had been a couple of days before. He would most likely soon have to mix his blood with that of some parents of the swarm – his swarm – and the prey they caught to baptize their newly-hatched Descith with the liquid of life. He absent-mindedly stroked his right scythe over the surface of the rock, smudging the splatter of his own blood. It was his rock now.

Leader. He, Shadowdart, was finally Leader.

He smiled to himself and walked in a circle around the rock, examining it from every angle to familiarize himself with it. Near the far side of the rock lay a small pile of whitish-metallic discs that Shadowdart didn’t recognize at first and squinted at them in the dark. They resembled scythes.

He recoiled in disgust. So this was where the Leader kept the pieces that he cut out of his challengers’ blades. He spread the pieces out on the ground with his right scythe and instantly recognized a few bits with an awfully familiar sheen and shape to them. Parts of his own mutilated left scythe, lying right before his eyes. He felt anger flare up within him.

“You sick bastard,” he muttered. “Those are going the same way you did.”

He looked at the pieces for a moment, easily coming to the conclusion that he couldn’t exactly move them with his scythes. Nothing to do but use his mouth, then. One at a time.

He picked up piece by excruciating piece and carried each of them hatefully towards the river and dropped them in, feeling better with each disc that was carried away by the current. First his own left scythe and then those of the challengers before him were disposed of as if they’d never existed. They were nothing but symbols of the reign of a corrupt Leader, and would only bring up bad memories. As he dropped the last scythe from his mouth and swallowed the blood from his cut tongue, he sighed and closed his eyes in relief. No more. There was nothing left of the former Leader now.

He began the slow walk back to the Leader’s rock.

Soon he would have to do what he had looked most forward to but also been the most nervous about, namely to teach the Code to young, newly-evolved Scyther. This would be where his ability to reach his ultimate goal as Leader would be put to the test, and he did not intend to screw it up. Indeed, he wanted to make it something different, and didn’t especially like the idea of simply doing what the previous Leader had – beating the laws into their heads to make them learn it all by heart, like mindless drones. No, he wanted to make it a truly eye-opening experience for them. Something that would not just make them follow the Code, but understand it, agree with it. Make them follow it as an ideal that they believed in, not simply because they were told to.

To do that, he realized, he needed to do something special.

And, he thought as he looked over at the oak tree, where Stormblade was lying down to sleep, he knew just the one who could help.

XXXI

“Stormblade?”

Shadowdart lightly prodded his friend with his scythe in the first hours of daylight. Stormblade mumbled something in his sleep and then opened his eyes. “Oh. Shadowdart.” He blinked, shook his head and rolled over onto his belly so he could stand up. “What is it?”

“You always liked old stories and legends, didn’t you? I remember one you loved that was the one about the pearl.”

Stormblade looked painfully away before turning back to him. “Yes.”

“Do you think you could make some up for me?”

Stormblade rose up, his expression skeptical. “What? Lies?”

“Not lies,” Shadowdart said. “I wouldn’t claim they really happened. I’d use them to teach. The First Prey lessons will be starting before long, and I’ve been thinking about it. They’d symbolize a moral lesson for the young, just like the old ones do, but more deliberately with more focus. There are old stories – like that one about the pearl – that I could use too, but they only tell them about some things. You’ve always… you’ve always done things like that. I think if anybody could make a new story, it is you.”

Stormblade looked at him strangely. “I’ve never done anything like that.”

“Well, at least I think you could,” Shadowdart stressed. “I think they would learn better from it. At least try. I can’t be with you as much now that I’m Leader, but while you’re alone you can think about it.”

Stormblade sighed. “I suppose,” he said, and Shadowdart smiled.

“Thank you, Stormblade. I appreciate it.”

It was just that evening that Shadowdart had to perform his first acceptance ritual as Leader of the swarm. He could see in the faces of the Scyther, now as he stood behind the rock and the swarm had gathered below him, that they were still skeptical about their new Leader.

But they wouldn’t for very long. Shadowdart was determined to show them to respect him soon enough.

A young female Descith, staring wide-eyed at the world with curious playfulness, was sitting on the rock in front of him, looking around with innocence that only a child yet oblivious of the existence of grief, pain and death could have. The mother of the hatchling stood warily by Shadowdart’s left side and the father by his right, holding a bleeding, feebly struggling Murkrow mercilessly in his jaws.

“A new member of our swarm has hatched today,” Shadowdart began, managing fairly well to make his voice loud but calm as the former Leader had done so masterfully. He looked briefly over the swarm for signs of approval or disapproval, but the Scyther were still waiting to be able to judge him more accurately.

“Let this young Descith be a valuable member of our swarm until the day of her eventual return to the soil,” he continued. “Let her grow and blossom into a Scyther and develop scythes and wings as the rest of us. Let her respect the Code and fulfill her duties.” He looked down for a moment and met the little one’s eyes, so big and innocent, the unconditionally happy smile of an infant filling her face at the eye contact.

He looked back up. “Let her be honoured tonight!” he said loudly, raising his left scythe to hold it forward. He eyed a couple of Scyther that cringed in disgust at the sight of the mutilated limb and for a moment couldn’t really blame them.

“By the blood of the Leader,” he said and made a sharp cut across the arm joint with his right scythe, ripping up the wound from the day before. Blood dripped down onto the infant’s forehead and she looked curiously up at the droplets, catching some in her mouth and seemingly judging the taste to be decent.

“The Mother,” Shadowdart went on, and he turned to the female beside him, whose right scythe she had extended calmly. He made a cut in her arm as well, letting her blood drip onto the Descith as well and then blend with his own on the rock.

“And the Fresh Prey,” Shadowdart finished in a quieter voice, turning to the male by his right side. The Murkrow had been injured enough to only eye him dully, pleadingly, as if it wanted him to put it out of its misery.

He did. One cut across its throat, and red blood mixed with the bluish-black on the rock, spraying over the newborn. This time the sudden rain of warm liquid seemed to frighten her slightly, and she let out a shriek, but quickly calmed down again.

The father dropped the Murkrow onto the rock, and the little Descith immediately attacked it, sensing that it was food. She ripped out black feathers, quickly finding the tender flesh and biting into it. The Scyther were already leaving and turning back to what they had been doing previously, as the young one’s eating of the parent’s prey was not a part of the public ritual. It tended to take too long. The parents remained silently by Shadowdart’s side, no more than glancing at him every now and then as they watched their daughter eat her first meal. She made fairly short work of the Murkrow and the parents prepared to leave; the Descith squealed in protest and began to walk awkwardly using her bladeless scythe-shaped arms as extra legs to keep her balance. When she came to the end of the rock she tumbled gracelessly to the ground but stood easily up again. The mother, looking back at her, betrayed a smile. “Come on,” she said softly, and the Descith followed clumsily.

Shadowdart could see the blunt edge of the father’s scythe stroke across the mother’s back, and felt himself momentarily angered. Yet another pair of Scyther in love who weren’t lucky enough to have realized the danger of it the way Stormblade had.

When he’d get to teach the newly-evolved Scyther, he would give them a few lessons on love.

XXXII

It was not far into Shadowdart’s reign as Leader when the last three-year-old Descith finally evolved. He had done his fair share of preparation for his lessons by now: while Stormblade had apparently still not thought of any stories, Shadowdart had spent most of his waking time deciding what to say to the next generation of Scyther. The day of the first lesson, he therefore found himself rather calm and prepared. He sat down by his rock as he woke up and recited his planned speech in his head while he waited for the pupils to arrive. There were five, he had gathered.

The first one to get there was a large and bulky male who simply approached him and sat down with an expression of vaguely interested indifference. Second to arrive was a taller but leaner female with some alertness to her that made him like her despite the air of faint arrogance that she carried. Two other smaller, more nervous females followed, and then a still smaller male who seemed uncomfortable to be there. That made five.

Shadowdart looked properly up at them for the first time, causing the small male to jump a little.

“Hello,” he said to them. “Welcome. I am your Leader, as I hope you know.”

He looked over the group, and saw the two smaller females looking to his left. He followed their gaze.

“Is my scythe so interesting?” he asked, holding the mangled blade lazily forward. He saw the biggest male flinch at the sight of it.

“This,” he said loudly, waving the remains of his left scythe at them, “will not happen to you. Because I’m the Leader now, and if you ever lose to me you will simply be killed. The reasons for that, as well as many other things, are what I plan to tell you about this summer.”

The young Scyther watched him, absorbing his words. At least he had their attention for now.

“You,” he said, “are now evolved Scyther. Or rather, you are adolescent Scyther, and as you will learn, there is a far greater difference between being an adolescent or an adult than between being a Descith or an adolescent. Do not overestimate your current status. You feel like adults, I’m sure, but you have far more things yet to learn than your evolution gave you. Among those things it did give you, as you may or may not be aware, is physical maturity and fertility. In other words, the ability to mate.”

The five young Scyther exchanged some glances. It was to be expected. Evolution did plenty of things to the brain, too, to plant the willingness to mate and plenty of interest in the subject. Shadowdart vaguely remembered himself during the previous Leader’s rant on mating. Like most other things the Leader had said, it had been shallow and worthless.

“As I’m sure you have learned already and find most disappointing, you are not allowed to mate yet. This, like everything else, has its reasons. Mating can lead to offspring, and while you may not be held particularly responsible for your own so it may not personally matter to you – especially the males – you have not yet proven yourselves worthy of descendants.”

They looked puzzled, all of them. It was just as he had thought: no one had ever bothered to tell them the whys of the rules. He shook his head to himself. “When you mate, your offspring will inherit some of your qualities. If two weak Scyther mate, their offspring will be weak, and vice versa if they are strong. Before you reproduce, you need to prove that the qualities you will be passing on to future generations are qualities we want in the swarm. Primarily, if you have not proven that you can catch prey, you may not reproduce. The later you start doing it, the better for the swarm, in fact, since those strong enough to live to an older age are those most worthy of fathering the next generation. But we all know it’s impossible to keep any creature away from sex for that long, don’t we?” He looked around, keeping his expression neutral and calm. A couple of the young Scyther snickered nonetheless.

“But that brings us to the primary subject of these lessons: your First Prey, when you will be recognized as adults and be allowed all of the privileges of a full-grown Scyther. It is a ritual taking place next spring – yes, nearly a year from now – that should and will be the most important event in your lives. It is when you go from adolescents to adults. You probably know already how it goes. Two witnesses, a male and a female, are randomly picked from the swarm, and you go into the forest in the morning, getting a full day to catch and kill your first prey.”

The pupils nodded absent-mindedly. They knew what it was about. Of course.

“You probably think that it will be easy,” Shadowdart said shortly. “Don’t.”

He looked at them, and they looked with puzzlement back at him. The bulkier male blinked.

“No, it’s not easy,” he repeated, glaring them down. “You won’t understand until you are there, pinning down some small Pokémon, how hard it is to kill for the first time. You are sentient creatures capable of sympathy, and you will sympathize with your prey. This is natural. In fact, I would go so far as to call it necessary.”

They were confused. He could see in their eyes that it was not what they had been expecting. And that, as far as he was concerned, was a good thing. It would make them listen better than if they had managed to slip into such a state of mind that they thought he would only be repeating what they already knew.

“My goal is not to make you stop sympathizing with the Pokémon you capture. Former Leaders have done that, but they were quite simply wrong. Your sympathy is the core of the greatest virtue of consistency, and likewise the greatest offense of hypocrisy follows from beating down your sympathy and thinking yourselves to matter more than other creatures. Do not forget this. When you sympathize with your prey, you can imagine yourselves in the same position – overpowered and about to die. And the point of the First Prey is not to brush it off with the knowledge that it is not really you who is about to die. It is to realize even better that the situation could indeed be reversed. It is to realize what kind of crime you are committing against the Pokémon that you kill, and know that one day you, too, will die – and that when you die, it will not be an unfairness or some terrible atrocity, but merely the way of life. Your initial reaction when you capture a Pokémon and sympathize with it is that you don’t want to kill it, and this is a result of your natural attitude about death – fear of it, a desperate longing to live forever, that you project upon the Pokémon you have caught. The goal is to change your attitude about death. If you are ready to be killed by another Pokémon, you yourselves can kill and feel justified. You will realize that you only happened to come out on top and that one day you will not. When you do this, and only then, you can be considered adults.”

Shadowdart knew it was a lot for them to wrap their heads around, but he would explain it better in time. Eventually they would understand.

“My own First Prey,” he went on, “was a life-changing experience. I had not been taught well enough, and my fear of death consumed me as I was on the hunt. I am not ashamed to say that it took me nine Pokémon to manage to face my fear and kill one, and only afterwards did I realize what I was telling you just now. I will not let you be like me, stumbling in the woods capturing Pokémon after Pokémon that escapes from your grasp only because of your hesitation, because you feel sorry for it for one moment and can’t stand the thought of ending its life. This is not how a predator should think. It will lead to hypocrisy. There are many Pokémon that can live their entire lives without killing anything at all, but we cannot. We need meat to survive, and to be justified in killing the Pokémon that provide the meat, we cannot think of our own deaths as something terrible – because that would make us hypocrites. Death is not to be feared, for it is the only thing that we all have in common – that is the first law of the Moral Code. Recognize that we will all die, you included, and then and only then you can stop fearing it.”

The five Scyther watched him in silence.

“And that brings us to the Moral Code, a set of five very important laws that you will need to learn. I have already told you the first, but the second says, ‘Do not disgrace the swarm with your life if you are not worth it.’ This law is commonly applied as referring only to the so-called suicide of guilt, when a Scyther who has broken the Code or otherwise disgraced himself repents by slitting his own throat. The suicide of guilt is a means of admitting your shame. However, the irony of the suicide of guilt is that any Scyther ready to commit it is, so to speak, already changed for the better, while one who truly disgraces the swarm will fail to perform it. The emphasis should not be on taking your own life if you aren’t worth it, but on making yourself worth it so that you won’t need to. The most disgraceful thing you can do is to leave the swarm to escape from the consequences of your actions and then continue to sink ever deeper into the quicksand of Code-breaking.” Shadowdart finished the words with a note of spite, thinking of his meeting with Razor. What a waste of a Scyther his previous ‘friend’ had been!

“Therefore, if you do ever find yourselves coming to your senses after having broken the Code, I am not of the opinion that you simply need to kill yourselves. If you have come to your senses at all, chances are you will be even more worth it and have a deeper understanding of the wrong you did afterwards than those Scyther who were never tempted to break the Code at all. Of course, if you do not come to your senses, you will not have the sense to commit the suicide of guilt at all, and this is why I plan to begin to intervene in Code-breaking. In the future, I may sentence you to death by your scythe or else mine if I feel that you are beyond help. Consider yourselves warned.”

Yes, he wanted to intervene. It was impossible to control respect for the Code in the swarm otherwise than by intervening. The Scyther who truly needed to die could not be trusted to handle it themselves without intervention. Of course there were not many of those Scyther – or so he hoped at the very least. He would only intervene when the doer was like Razor, oblivious to his own crimes.

“The third law of the Moral Code,” he went on, “is that if a Scyther is in danger, it is your duty to assist. The swarm cannot persist if its members do not help one another in need. If you go on a hunt with a partner and the other is attacked by a powerful Pokémon, you should as a matter of principle do your best to prevent the Pokémon from hurting him. However, this only goes so far. The most important part of this is to prevent the murder of a Scyther – murder, as I hope you know, is when a Scyther is approached and killed without being given the chance of a fair fight. In accordance with the First Law, do not become angry at the Pokémon that attempts the murder. When you kill prey, it is in its essence murder. We only look down upon it when a Scyther murders another Scyther out of being too cowardly to challenge him to a duel. When hunting, on the other hand, there is no killing on principle, but for survival, and then anything is fair play – so if you sense the swarm may be about to lose one of its unwary members, by all means do warn him. We work together.”

Even as he said it there was some doubt in his mind; some little feeling that there was something wrong with it. Why did they, on one hand, work together, warn one another to save their lives, but on the other hand emphasize how the unworthy did not deserve to survive? What if the unworthy had a partner with them for protection? Shadowdart would have to think more about this law, which was bothering him increasingly more with every time it passed through his mind. He was thinking things too well through for this to stay as it was.

But it could remain for now. For now. The young ones needed the first day to respect him as an authority figure more than they needed it to learn, and it would not give a good impression to seem unsure about parts of the Moral Code. He could always elaborate and correct himself later when he had figured it out better.

“The fourth law,” he continued. “Every individual to his own: Do not manipulate or be manipulated, control or be controlled. You will take orders from no one. It’s as simple as that. Every Scyther is to think for himself. To manipulate or control another Scyther to do your bidding is a lowly act of cowardice, and likewise it is a sign of weakness to allow another to control and manipulate oneself. Of course, this applies not only to Scyther, and to be manipulated by another species is equally distasteful. The most prime example of this, of course, is that of the humans calling themselves ‘Pokémon trainers’, who travel around the world capturing Pokémon in small balls and forcing them to fight one another for their amusement. Some Pokémon species paint this as fun or exciting and even openly encourage fighting trainers by their rules and letting oneself be captured. We, however, will not serve the will of any being in accordance with this law, and especially not one as measly as a human.”

“What about you?” asked the tall female, her voice smooth and devoid of fear. “Should we serve the will of the Leader?”

She was challenging him, trying to point out flaws in his logic. Shadowdart looked at her in mild surprise at her daring and couldn’t resist smiling slightly. He liked her. In fact, thus far she was probably the single most likable female he had come across in his entire life, not that he’d talked much to very many of them.

“No,” he replied. “The Leader does not have the power to tell you to do his bidding. If I came to you and told you to mate with me, you would be as free to deny as you would to deny any other male, and in fact you would be breaking the Code if you accepted against your will. My purpose is to educate and advise you in matters of morality, and morality and manipulation are two very different things. I cannot dictate your behaviour, but the Code can and should.”

She gave him a sly smile. “Fair enough,” she said. “Go on.”

She was making herself into the one in control. Pretending to give him the authority to continue. Oh, yes, she was daring.

“The fifth rule,” Shadowdart said, ignoring her, “is to sharpen your scythes, for while death is inevitable, pain is unnecessary. This law is very vital, and therefore should in my opinion be a higher number than the fifth. Again, the most important part is less that you should sharpen your scythes and more the law against the infliction of pain. When you kill, whether it is an opponent at the end of a true duel or prey that you have caught on a hunt, it is your responsibility to do so cleanly and painlessly. Torture is the vilest action in existence. Death is not to be feared, as it is a natural and necessary thing, but pain is anything but. Pain is never necessary and causes nothing but suffering. Do not, no matter what your situation, act with the intention of causing unnecessary pain or suffering to another creature, and this applies to both physical and emotional pain.” He looked briefly over the group. “Snide insults and mocking can cause as much agony as the most painful of wounds. Keep this in mind.”

He took a deep breath. “Now, the part about sharpening your scythes is, of course, not to be disregarded, even though it is not the main point. A cut from a blunt blade inflicts more pain than a cut from a sharp one. To keep your scythes sharpened at all times is a natural extension of the commandment not to inflict unnecessary pain. You are expected to do so, and will be very much frowned upon if you are known to do otherwise. Sharpen your scythes every day.”

He stood up, observing the sitting Scyther in front of him. They looked up at him, their eyes dull. He hadn’t given them many surprises in a while, and they were becoming bored and tired.

“That brief introduction to the Code will do for now,” Shadowdart said shortly, looking at them as they stood up as well and prepared to leave. “You will return here in five days’ time for the next lesson. And I want your scythes well sharpened by that time.”

They left, all of them except the tall female, who lingered behind for a second longer. “Why do the lessons take so long?” she asked him when they were gone, the tone of her voice difficult to read anything out of. “Why not have one every day and finish them earlier, so that we can have our First Prey within a couple of months?”

“You need the time to learn the necessary skills before your First Prey,” he replied simply. “Every young Scyther needs practice cutting grass before gaining the full precision that he will need in a hunt.”

“I could learn that in a couple of months.”

Heh. She reminded Shadowdart of himself.

“It is also best if the First Prey is in the spring, when the Pokémon of Ruxido have young and more vulnerable newborns with them, both easy prey themselves and slowing the mothers down.”

“I could catch something that’s not young and vulnerable,” she replied stubbornly, but with an air of mature confidence that Shadowdart had decidedly lacked back when he had thought in much the same way. He smiled.

“I’m sure you could, but I’m the one who has to prepare for the lessons and decide what to teach you.”

“If you need that much time to do that, you’re not a very good Leader, are you?”

The nerve of that female made Shadowdart smile again. “Who knows,” he said. “I might one day reconsider the precise interval between the lessons, but as it happens I, unlike you, have to do my own hunting and don’t entirely have the time to plan lessons for young, stupid adolescents for every day.”

She glared at him with unconvincing anger and a smile flickered momentarily across her features as well. “Fair enough,” she said. “But it’s awfully frustrating, don’t you think, being kept from mating for so long.”

And with that she turned and walked away.

Shadowdart looked after her, mildly amused, not sure whether the implications of that were intentional.

XXXIII

It had been a few introductory lessons now, and Shadowdart had decided that the next lesson would be about love. He did not need Stormblade to make up a story for this one; to demonstrate his point about love he only needed the story of the pearl, but nonetheless he was glad to find an opportunity to go hunting with his friend one day.

“How goes being Leader?” Stormblade asked him as they dragged the corpse of a Ponyta through the forest, back to the swarm.

“Well enough,” Shadowdart answered. “I’m still looking forward to getting to perform a First Prey ritual, but at least the lessons are a start.” He paused. “One of the young ones suggested to me after the first lesson that I should have them every day and make the rituals earlier. I’m almost tempted to do it. She doesn’t know I’m anticipating the rituals even more than they are.”

“It’s a she?” Stormblade asked with a smile of good-natured fun. “Well, that explains why you’re looking forward to them.”

Shadowdart didn’t smile back. “That’s more appropriate than you think. Not on my end, but on hers.”

Stormblade snorted in disbelief. “She wants to mate with you after spending one lesson listening to you? Whatever your secret is, I want it.”

“She’s an adolescent,” Shadowdart reminded him dully, tugging particularly harshly on the Ponyta.

Stormblade laughed, clearly enjoying the conversation immensely. “What, you would you do it if she weren’t?”

Shadowdart chuckled. “Isn’t it one of the Leader’s duties to father some descendants to inherit his superior strength?”

“But would you actually pick her?” Stormblade asked, now genuinely curious.

Shadowdart shrugged. “Why not?” And why be evasive? he scolded himself. It was just Stormblade, after all. “Well, I like her. She’s got guts.” He paused to think. “She’s not afraid of me. She questioned my abilities as a Leader to my face. Openly defiant and obviously very intelligent. The whole… flirting thing was all very precise and deliberate, if kind of disturbing. In a way it makes me wary of her.” He sighed. “But she’s just an adolescent, still growing up. Still hasn’t hunted. Still thinks she’s immortal because she hasn’t seen death with her own eyes. She probably wouldn’t be able to manipulate anyone, I suppose, but if she does… well, I’m not going to be her victim.”

Shadowdart shivered and momentarily stood up to stretch and shake his tired muscles. “I’m worrying too much about her, aren’t I?”

Stormblade looked away. “You can never be too careful, I suppose,” he said quietly after a short silence.

“She’s got well-shaped scythes,” Shadowdart muttered, again awkwardly getting his scythes around the dead Ponyta’s body. They were about to reach the forest’s exit. “And as I said, her attitude makes me like her. I really wouldn’t mind, if…”

But now he fell silent, because this in particular was something he really did not want to admit to himself. While the Scyther generally did not much care about one another’s sex lives, they took the matter of not mating until full adulthood very seriously, and now Shadowdart had found himself actually having the fleeting thought that technically that rule only applied because mating before proving one’s worth could result in weak offspring, and since he was the Leader, the strongest Scyther in the swarm, and she was so decidedly mature and intelligent already, to follow the rule would be missing its point…

No.

He mustn’t think that.

He was letting himself be controlled by a silly urge.

Yes, he would have to mention that to them when he tackled the fourth law of the Moral Code in detail; that not letting oneself be controlled included urges of all sorts, urges to mate, to get revenge, to challenge another Scyther to a duel on a whim…

As they dragged the Ponyta towards the Leader’s rock, where Shadowdart had invited Stormblade to eat with him, Shadowdart was busily occupying his mind with what he would say in the next lesson.

XXXIV

“Love. Love is… a feeling. It’s a feeling of intense affection towards another creature, generally another Scyther although there is always the occasional weirdo who falls in love with some other Pokémon, and it generally manifests itself in the relationship of a male and a female who have taken up a habit of mating only with one another out of some feeling of commitment. They will tend to defend one another more fiercely than otherwise and spend more time around one another than friends would.”

The two smaller females snickered and Shadowdart silenced them with a glare. “No matter what you think of this technical definition, you probably know approximately what love is already. Some of you may even have been raised by parents who considered themselves to be in love.” He did his best to keep the disgust mostly out of his voice, but wasn’t sure how well he succeeded.

“Love,” he continued, his words harsh and merciless, “is dangerous. Those afflicted by it don’t think so, and in fact will probably regard it as a positive thing. It is not. To commit yourself too closely to another creature, to care for them more than you care for yourself, makes you fear death. There is no such thing as love without fearing death. It may not be your own death that you fear anymore, but fearing the death of another is no better if not worse. When their death occurs – remember that death is inevitable – it will give rise to a whole host of emotions you would rather be without that will lead you straight down the slippery slope of Code-breaking.”

They were surprised now, the pupils – all of them except the tall female, who sat there nodding absent-mindedly in implied agreement, a smile of satisfaction on her face. It didn’t surprise him much that she agreed. He hadn’t expected her to be the type for love or committed relationships.

“I will tell you a story,” Shadowdart went on, trying not to make it evident that he had been looking at her longer than the others. “It is an old story that Scyther have passed down the generations for as long as we can remember. It is called the story of the pearl.”

He thought he could see her smile a little wider as he glanced at her again. He quickly looked at the small male, who was sitting nervously on the grass, chopping absent-mindedly at it with his scythes.

“Once upon a time, long ago,” he said, “there was a Scyther. An adventurous Scyther. He had only lived in the swarm for a year after his First Prey when he grew restless and decided that he would leave the swarm – and he did, despite his friends’ warnings not to. He traveled for a long, long time, and was becoming hungry in the forest he was going through when he saw a Pidgey. But instead of killing it, he asked it for the way out of the forest, and it agreed, although it kept at a safe distance from him.

“And finally he came to a body of water, so vast that its far bank could not even be seen. When he drank from it, he found that it was salty and undrinkable, and he decided to try flying over it. And as he flew over it, he happened to look down into its depths and see a round, whitish-pink object that shone like the most beautiful scythe. He flew to the shore and found a Pokémon, and desperately called to it to stay and tell him what the object had been, in exchange for not being eaten. And the Pokémon, one called a Buizel, told him that it was a pearl produced by a Pokémon named Clamperl, which the Pokémon named Spoink would retrieve one day when they needed it.

“The Scyther asked the Buizel if he would dive down and get the pearl for him, because he felt he could not live without it, but the Buizel refused, because he said he would be risking his life if he got the pearl; the Spoink would be angry, and the pearl had powers of its own.

“And so passed many days, and the Scyther offered every Pokémon he saw truce so that he might ask it to retrieve the pearl for him. But the Pokémon all refused, and eventually the Scyther was so desperate and hungry that he flew over the sea and dived down to get the pearl.

“But he could not swim, and he could not move the pearl to the surface, so he drowned there and was never seen again.”

Shadowdart looked over the group of pupils. Their faces were blank with lack of understanding; or no, they understood the story, but not its relevance. Even the tall female wore a skeptical expression.

“How is that story about love?” she asked at last, breaking the silence.

“It is comparable to it,” Shadowdart said patiently. “The Scyther became so fascinated by the pearl that he stopped eating, and even when he was dying of hunger, instead of killing some prey, he essentially committed suicide. The pearl dragged him to his death.”

“But love doesn’t make you stop eating,” muttered the large male. The smaller male was looking down at the grass, chopping idly at it.

Shadowdart sighed in irritation. “Fine. I will put it in more literal terms. Once upon a time there was a Scyther who liked to ask unnecessary questions. He fell in love with a female and began spending more and more of his time with her, even as his friend warned him to be careful and not start to care too much for her. He ignored his friend and always loved the female more and more, increasingly depending on her for his sanity and happiness. One day they were out hunting when the Letaligon they had meant to kill managed to knock her unconscious. He was so preoccupied with making sure that she was all right that he let the Letaligon charge a Hyper Beam which it then fired and killed her. When he realized that she was dead, he was thrown into murderous rage and, with his scythes, tore the Letaligon apart, relishing in its screams of pain, because he felt that it deserved it for killing her.”

Now, this was something they could understand. He saw the two smaller females’ eyes widen and the nervous male look up with anxiety in his expression. Even the tall female now seemed to have been surprised by his move, and he smiled momentarily in satisfaction at the thought of outdoing her.

“That Scyther,” Shadowdart spat after a moment’s silence, “is my friend. It is only fortunate that I managed to make him return to his senses afterwards, and now he realizes what kind of a twisted path love had led him. Learn from his story, because if you were taken that far, I don’t know if there would be any bringing you back to full sanity.”

There was a long silence after this, and even she, the tall female, seemed visibly unnerved by Stormblade’s story. And of course, she should be. Stories didn’t get a lot more unnerving than the true story of a Scyther led off the path of righteousness in such a brutal manner by something as innocent-seeming as love.

“So you see, I hope,” Shadowdart said quietly, “why love is a dangerous emotion. It is in your nature to desire company, and it follows that you will begin to care for some individuals, but love is this taken too far. Let the story of the Scyther who tortured a creature as a result of his love for another Scyther be a warning to you not to do as he did, not to take it too far.”

He saw her smile out of the corner of his eye. She liked his speech.

“That’s enough for today,” Shadowdart sighed. “You can leave.”

Again, the tall female stayed behind, looking at him with observant interest in her eyes and an all-too-alluring sense of femininity to her posture. He looked at her in a manner he hoped implied he wanted her to leave.

“You should make a name for me,” she said. “I like calling you Leader. But I don’t know what you’re calling me in your mind.”

The tall female. He almost laughed; she was probably hoping it was something a little more interesting, wasn’t she?

And all the same, Shadowdart couldn’t help thinking he wouldn’t mind having something else to identify her by. Nothing that would encourage her, of course, but something.

“Stalker,” was the first thing that came up in his head, and it was perfect.

She grinned widely. “Stalk you, do I?” she purred. “I suppose that means you want me to stop.”

“You distract me,” Shadowdart replied warily, looking away from her.

He heard her use the opportunity to approach him from the back and flicked his eyes to steal a look at her from over his shoulder. There was swift grace to the smooth flexing of her joints as she crept closer. “What’s so bad about being distracted?” she murmured and he felt himself jump a little as one of her scythes stroked slowly along his back.

“You’re an adolescent,” he said sharply, turning back around. “Come back after your First Prey and we can talk. Until then, sex is off-limits for you, and if you are unable to understand that, I may need to begin to employ my power to intervene as I’ve been telling you about.”

She stopped, standing in front of him, her expression one of mild disappointment. “So I’m inadequate? Probably too weak to have offspring, huh?”

Shadowdart’s heart jerked painfully for some reason. “No,” he said. “I like you. Don’t make me do anything I don’t want to.”

“Ah,” she said, “but then you would be letting yourself be manipulated, wouldn’t you? Allowing me to affect you in such a way that you do something you don’t want?” She tilted her head, the enjoyment of the mind game showing clearly through the false expression of thoughtfulness that she put on. Shadowdart glared at her.

“I hope you’re aware that manipulation is what you’re doing right now.”

“Why?” she simply responded, that sly smile still on her face. “What have I said that was manipulative? I merely suggested you gave me a name, which you did without objections, and asked you questions. If any manipulation is going on, it’s you letting yourself be manipulated by your own desires. Not allowing oneself to be manipulated by desires has to be included in the law, hasn’t it?”

Damn it. She was right, in a way. And she’d come up with the part about controlling urges on her own, too, just like that. Why did she have to be so darned smart?

“Go away,” he asked her in exasperation, turning away from her yet again. The Leader’s rock stood in front of him like a reminder that he could not be the one to retreat away from her.

“But I like it here,” she said, the tone of her voice heavy with fabricated innocence. Shadowdart was beginning to feel slightly nauseous. “Didn’t you say that even the Leader had no right to tell another Scyther what to do?”

Shadowdart felt his irritation melt away into helplessness, even fear, coupled with the uncomfortable, distracting background noise whose existence he was still firmly trying to deny. He was the Leader. Some adolescent shouldn’t be able to make him feel this way.

“Please,” he said finally without looking at her. “You’re causing me a lot of discomfort right now. Please leave.”

He could almost hear and taste her smile of triumph as he, the Leader, was reduced to begging, knowing painfully well that if she were any other Scyther, he would have done something, fought her off, forced her to stop by one means or another. But her…

She chuckled softly, and the sound rang like a mocking scream of humiliation and defeat in his ears. “As you wish, Leader.”

And then he heard her turn and walk away. He could sense the cunning smile she would be wearing, and the mere mental image of it made him shudder.

He didn’t dare to turn around until he was sure that she would no longer be in sight when he did.

XXXV

“Do not manipulate or be manipulated, control or be controlled. The wording of the law does not say anything about who or what it is that controls or manipulates you, and indeed there can be more than just other Scyther who might manipulate you to some extent. Love is manipulative, as I talked about last time. Prey can be manipulative – many of the more clever species of Pokémon will attempt to appeal to your emotions at some level to make you release them. And most definitely not least importantly, your own feelings can be manipulative.”

The pupils had learned not to expect his lessons to be merely stating the obvious, so despite the dull beginning they remained interested. Shadowdart noticed uncomfortably that he kept looking back at Stalker to see her reactions, and decidedly more at her than at the other females or at the males for that matter. Currently she was wearing a smile that implied she remembered well having mentioned manipulation by urges to him and thought it quite possible that he had simply picked it up from her. A flash of irritation struck him and he wanted to tell her he had been intending to talk about it all along, but then again, it had been her who had inspired him for it anyway, even if it had been before she ever said a word about it…

“You have all sorts of instincts and emotions, and it is an unfortunate fact that those can be troublesome to young Scyther who may act upon them more than upon their rational will. First and foremost…” He glanced at Stalker again, saw her smile back at him and quickly jerked his head away. “First and foremost, you have the urge to mate. It is strong. It is what you are naturally made to do, and it is understandable that the longing to do it will become strong at times, especially so in the late autumn when the females are fertile.” Again he found himself looking uncomfortably at her, seeing her smile widen slightly. Of course both of them were thinking it. She was smart enough. Of course she was thinking it too. Why was he thinking it? He shouldn’t be thinking it. He should be teaching.

“The urge to mate,” he forced himself to say, shaking his head to clear it, “may cause you to be easily manipulated. You may find a part of you – of varying size – wanting to sacrifice something that would ordinarily be important to you, such as the Code, for the opportunity for sex. The key, of course, is not to give in. Keep yourself aware of the manipulative power being deployed against your better judgement, and use that awareness to resist it, to catch it in the act before it takes over.”

He looked briefly over the group again now, decidedly avoiding Stalker’s gaze. “This can be very difficult, but fight it as best you can, and should you be tempted to give in, try to reinforce your defenses as soon as your mind is clearer, as this is very much a thing that becomes harder the more often you give in to it. It’s best never to let yourself be taken in by temptation at all.”

He could see her watching him with interest, observing his reactions, and tried to focus on being normal. He searched for the next thing to say and was filled with dread as he realized what he would have to tell them now, in front of her, in front of himself, because of his duty to teach the young…

“Should…” he began quietly, his voice dying at the end. He cleared his throat. “Should you give in to manipulation once or twice, it is not something that ought to drive you to suicide of guilt. None of us can help letting ourselves be controlled by one means or another at one point or another. The key moral of this law is not to let it take over you, not to have another Scyther, or an urge, or a human, or anything else capable of manipulation, controlling your every move like a mindless slave. You are Scyther; you are predators at the top of the food chain. What is most important is that you realize that you can only be virtuous by having will of your own. As long as you retain your sense of identity and do not let yourselves sink past the point of no return, to allow oneself to be controlled once or twice is not essentially a breaking of the Code, but merely a warning sign that should make you more wary.”

And she gave him one of her sly smiles, one that said she was still thinking the same as he was, and that she knew he was still thinking it too. That he had a point. That there was no harm in doing it once. Surely he, the Leader of the swarm, was a strong enough individual to maintain his identity even if he mated once with some female…

But mentally, he saw himself tearing viciously at that train of thought with his scythes, fighting it firmly down with the knowledge that mating with an adolescent was always wrong, and managed to look straight into her eyes as he continued.

“Let’s talk about mating some more, shall we?” he said sharply. “I have already told you that if adolescents could mate, the swarm overall would be gradually weakened, but it is not the only reason it is forbidden. As adolescents who have not yet developed the sense of yourselves that you will during your First Prey, you are much more easily manipulated than adult Scyther into doing something that you do not truly want. This is especially important with regards to mating. It is an urge you have no outlet for in the first year after you begin to feel it, and this gives it enough time to develop and build up for you to potentially become… quite desperate. You can ask any adult and they will know the feeling. You are especially likely to do something you will later regret in this one year of adolescence, and therefore you are more restricted now – for your own good.”

“If we were allowed to mate in the first place, we wouldn’t have a year without an outlet for the urge to mate, would we?” Stalker pointed out calmly just as he said the last word. Her expression throughout this speech had been unimpressed, bored, faintly disappointed, and it disturbed him how much he cared.

“You are still young and inexperienced. You do not yet know how to control your urges as an adult can, a year without an outlet or not. It could get you started down the slippery slope.” Essentially he was thinking of all this on the spot – but what sense it made! He would teach this to every batch of young Scyther from then on, he decided with satisfaction. “And once you’ve started, it may be too late once you’ve had your First Prey. You might become an adult only after already having become a slave to your own sex drive. You will never have gotten to live as yourself and make independent decisions. It is better to try to prevent you from being manipulated by it to begin with until you have gained the ability to resist it and had plenty of time to train it.”

She looked at him and finally nodded slightly, conceding the point with visible reluctance. He felt far more triumphant over having made his point to her than he knew he ought to, and couldn’t deny that he felt immensely relieved, like he could now finally look at her again. And it made sense to him, too, inspiring him with confidence in the righteousness of keeping away from her. In a burst of sudden enthusiasm, he realized how much he had unsaid on mating in general, and immediately went on:

“Do not mate with the weak. We have already discussed this. Although you are not expressly forbidden to do so by the Code, you should simply not do it. A weak Scyther has weak offspring, and again the swarm on the whole will be weakened. When you pick a potential mate, most of you will already have noticed the pure appeal of clean, well-shaped, sharpened scythes, as well as of impressive speed. These are the most important features that you have as Scyther. Your scythes are the mirrors of your soul, and your speed the reflection of your determination. But you should go further than that. Try a friendly duel with whoever you are interested in, and see how well they know how to use their scythes and their speed. Go hunting with them and observe their technique when they attack their prey. Observe how well they follow the Code. Make sure that a potential mate is healthy, fast, powerful, intelligent, and has generally desirable qualities – and, of course, I must stress that you are not to manipulate them into mating. Mating is a mutual act. When it gets intense, you may walk away more severely cut than you would after most duels.” The two smaller females were starting to snicker, and for some reason he only found this encouraging. “Mating is not to be taken as lightly as you think when you are so young. You weaken yourselves before a potential mate, and that is something quite serious. When you mate you might regret it. Yes, it feels damned good,” – there were more snickers – “but you will have to consider yourselves very lucky if you do it entirely without hurting yourselves. Having scythes is not always convenient, remember. There are examples of Scyther who have literally cut off one another’s heads in the heat of the moment. This is greatly less likely to happen if you are sufficiently relaxed beforehand, but that will simply not be the case if both partners are not willing.”

The pupils blinked in disbelief. Shadowdart realized he was starting to laugh. No, the older Scyther didn’t tell them that when telling them about the wonders of sex. Of course. They preferred not to think about it themselves.

“When you mate, you generally want to do it someplace quiet and a little secluded where the whole swarm isn’t watching. It is not recommended to make it too obvious who you’re mating with, because all kinds of jealousy might ensue and depending on the individuals involved you might get in somebody else’s way or inadvertently hurt someone. But if you want to let some other Pokémon watch you going at it, be my guest.” Even Stalker wore a bemused grin by now. Shadowdart had a feeling this was going to be their favorite lesson.

“Otherwise nobody cares much what you do when mating, as long as both partners are happy. You will be laughed at if you end up dead or with embarrassing injuries, however. After mating you may do whatever you like, but do keep in mind my warning about love. Don’t start to care too much about whoever you mate with, or it can end badly.” He looked at the group. “I think you can go now. I wasn’t even planning to say half of what I’ve been telling you. I hope it becomes useful to you.”

He had to admit it. Now that he’d gotten Stalker out of the way, it was his favorite lesson too. Even the nervous little male seemed slightly more confident, eying the two female friends shyly while they stood up and walked away in a chat. The bulky male just left the rock with a grin.

Which left Stalker. She looked at him for a long while, her expression still amused, and finally turned around to leave without words. No objections. No disturbing suggestions.

Shadowdart felt like the Leader again for the first time in what felt like years.

XXXVI

Shadowdart had decided that he had to start making sense of the third law of the Moral Code, so he sat down in the shade of the Leader’s rock on one day in the autumn to think. The coolness of the shadow felt refreshing after a long hunt in the blazing sunlight that still dominated the warm autumn.

Recently, in fact ever since that lesson about mating, Stalker had left him relatively alone, which Shadowdart was grateful for, and while some occasional glances of hers during lessons seemed to suggest that she had not entirely gotten over him, he allowed himself to hope and assume that she would simply not bother him anymore. He was able to focus much better on planning out his lessons, and almost managed to forget that he had ever been so close to allowing another Scyther to manipulate him into Code-breaking. That was in the past now. He would never let it happen again.

So there he sat, his eyes closed, his mind focused, and thought about the Code.

According to the first law of the Moral Code, Scyther were not to fear death. They were to have the right to kill only if they had overcome their own fear of death, if they could picture themselves in the situation of the prey without it causing them doubt and making them hesitate.

According to the second law of the Moral Code, having ejected one’s fear of death far enough to literally turn one’s scythe on oneself was a way of repenting for breaking the Code. That had to be the idea behind the suicide of guilt, because to make death itself into punishment contradicted the idea that death was not to be feared. Shadowdart was planning to implement forced suicide, but the idea of that was not that it would punish the doer for their misdeeds.

No, the idea of forced suicide was to make the Code-breaker face his fear of death, make him gain the last possible redemption before his death – since after all, Shadowdart was only planning to use it if the Scyther was beyond any other help, sunken too deep to be dragged to the surface by anything but suicide – which, as an unfortunate side-effect, required him to die in the process. And if he were still unable to commit the suicide of guilt – such as Razor had been – then the most merciful thing he could do to that Scyther would be to kill him himself before he sank any deeper than he already had.

Death was not to be feared. Why would killing or forcing the suicide of a Scyther who would not do anything he could be proud of for the rest of his life if he were to live it be wrong?

Which brought him to why exactly the murder of a Scyther was wrong.

The murder of a creature, provided it was without pain, had various consequences that lay in the death itself. Firstly that creature did no longer exist in the perception of those who still lived (Shadowdart felt himself getting a headache trying to imagine this properly and kept the thought to words in his head, leaving the matter of his own eventual death entirely out of it for convenience’s sake). Those who cared for whoever it was that was killed would mourn their death to some extent. Of course, the virtuous Scyther should put the death of another behind them and live life onwards, as the Leader would remind them of during the death acknowledgement ceremony, so this was not – or rather, should not be – a problem for the Scyther.

Secondly, that creature would no longer be able to do anything. His plans would never be acted out; he would never produce more offspring, never redeem himself if he had died guilty. This was, at first glance at least, the primary reason to believe that the murder of a Scyther in cold blood was wrong. A Scyther who participated in a duel did so in acknowledged awareness, knowing that he took the risk of never doing anything again. And if he lost the duel and was killed, he was weak and his death was merely nature’s way of seeing to that a weak Scyther would not reproduce. But murder was another thing entirely. When a Scyther was murdered from the back or in his sleep, he could be the strongest Scyther in the swarm but die anyway without descendants to inherit his strength (and, as Shadowdart remembered uncomfortably, that very thing had nearly happened to him). He could have had plans – such as plans to challenge the Leader – that would never be executed, or he could have been guilty of Code-breaking but with plenty of hope left to him – such as if Stormblade had been murdered while he was still seeing that female of his. Opportunities would be lost.

But if the Scyther who was killed cared about opportunities being lost if he died, was he not fearing death? Shadowdart shuddered. And how, then, could they justify the killing of another Pokémon as prey – a Pokémon with just as many opportunities and plans whose species perhaps even structured its society in families, where the individual would be sorely missed as if nothing were more natural?

No, it could not be contradictory. The key, he thought, the key was most likely in the motivation for the killing. The Scyther needed to kill prey, or they would die, and the prey that defended itself needed to do so or it would die. A Scyther murdering a Scyther would not eat his victim or directly survive as a consequence of his death. That was where the moral difference lay. And of course, they had always been told not to kill prey for fun or if they were not hungry. Yes, of course this was what it meant. In a way he had known it already. In hindsight, this was just about what he had said to the young Scyther when he had been talking about the third law of the Moral Code.

But then again, had the Leader not been intending to murder Shadowdart so that he himself might survive? Had Shadowdart really been much more, from the Leader’s point of view (he found this rather difficult to think about as well), than simply a predator that the Leader had meant to defend himself against?

Shadowdart thought hard. No. It couldn’t be right. Shadowdart was not a predator in the situation, because he was not trying to fight the Leader for survival. It was Code procedure that the Leader had to accept any challenge from any Scyther. To attempt to murder that Scyther was to directly break that rule.

And anyway, the duel Shadowdart had been about to challenge him to had been an organized act of fair fight.

Yes, Shadowdart thought, and a light seemed to come on in his head as he found himself smiling triumphantly: the difference actually lay in the expectations of the victim. The prey in the forest expected to be hunted, and the predators expected the prey to defend itself. This was how it had always been and would always be – the strongest would survive in a perfect balance of natural selection. Whoever was clever, powerful or camouflaged enough to survive in the forest would, and it was an unwritten law of which they were all aware.

But the Scyther swarm was different. Within it there were different rules. A Scyther sleeping in the swarm did not expect to be murdered, or he would be more wary – no sane Scyther would go soundly to sleep alone in the middle of the forest, and likewise with the prey. But in the swarm, they did not expect attacks. In the swarm, the rules were different. In the swarm, the Leader kept watch by sleeping loosely so that he could alert the swarm of danger, and all the other Scyther assumed they could sleep safely. In the swarm, the Scyther did not watch their backs, because they assumed that any Scyther wishing to kill them was ready to challenge them to a duel face to face.

In the swarm, in other words, they expected one another to play by the rules. Anyone who didn’t, anyone who played by different rules, disrupted the peace of the swarm by giving himself an unfair advantage. And this, he realized with excitement, was what murder was. This was why murder was wrong. When hunting in the forest, there were no rules about the interactions between predators and prey, and precisely that made the hunt fair, too. Fair was when everyone played by the same rules – and here it came right down to hypocrisy again, because that was precisely what hypocrisy was: somebody playing by different rules than he expected everyone else to. It all fit miraculously together.

Shadowdart was beginning to feel dizzy at the sheer magnitude of the realization. Now it was easy to explain the third law of the Moral Code: in the forest, the rules were that the predators were all on the same side and the prey all on the same side, at least in the sense that they didn’t kill one another, for as long as there was prey for all the predators and plants for all the prey. And likewise it was in those generally accepted rules that two Scyther were obliged to help one another. Everyone was aware of it. Everyone assumed it. It was fair.

And of course, in the swarm, where they played by still other rules, each individual Scyther was to alert the whole swarm of any danger because then they all expected that. It all worked out. Fairness was when every fatal mistake was a result of the individual’s own physical or intellectual weakness, nothing else.

Everything was complete. Everything made sense. Everything fit together. What a fool he had been to have worried that the Code contradicted itself. Of course it didn’t.

He felt free, amazed and enlightened. He stood suddenly up from his shadow and stepped onto the rock, looking over his swarm – all those Scyther who hadn’t yet realized what he had!

Overcome with emotion, filled with tingling warmth that had nothing to do with the bright light of the sun that still shone off his dark armor, Shadowdart took off to fly down to the river and calm himself down in the water.

XXXVII

Shadowdart was shaking with excitement as he waited for the five young Scyther to show up. He had not told Stormblade about his realization yet. It was more important to teach the young, to pass on the knowledge to those who did not know anything yet, who would better understand the Code when this was how he explained it, than to tell it to a Scyther who, he was at least reasonably sure, would probably never break the Code again.

The two female friends arrived, sitting down in front of him and seemingly noticing that his smile was wider and his expression tenser than usual. Well, usually he put some effort into remaining calm and expressionless, in fact. They most likely realized that something had to be up. He didn’t really care.

The nervous male came next, followed by the bulky one. They both sat down and took the occasional glance at Shadowdart, clearly also realizing that he wasn’t how he usually was. But Stalker was nowhere to be seen.

He was gripped by sudden anger: she, even with all her devilishness, would not ruin the enlightenment he was feeling, the elation of having knowledge that none other had. No matter how long she intended to keep him waiting, he would not. Why would he cater to her petty needs – and why was he calling them needs, when she certainly would only be trying to get to him with them, anyway? – when he had just realized the true meaning of the Code, when he could be teaching it to the next generation? He was about to open his mouth and just begin the lesson anyway when he saw the tall female’s form walking towards the rock.

She walked slowly, and he could almost see her smirk. She relished the ability to restrain him, didn’t she? To keep him from beginning to talk for as long as she could without it becoming too obviously deliberate…

Shadowdart stopped this train of thought before it got too long. She was no longer bothering him. She had no idea about his realization. She was simply walking there, simply not hurrying, because what reason would she have to hurry? She knew nothing yet.

Shadowdart forced himself to calm down again, and the feeling of elation returned while Stalker approached and sat down. She looked at him and she, too, noticed that he was different. With a somewhat amused expression, she asked him, “Why the goofy grin?”

He looked up, took a deep breath and straightened his expression to be serious, although flickers of excitement made the muscles in his face twitch. “Today, you will learn about the Code,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm. “I have already tackled each law of the Moral Code separately and told you about love and mating, but now you will see the greater context. The Code, in the end, is not a set of a few laws, but one single internally consistent system of thought that tells us how to live a virtuous life. The division of its infinite complexity into several separate laws is an oversimplification. From now on, you should only think of the Code in terms of this bigger picture, because only then will you fully understand it.”

The bulky male looked at him with obvious interest. The small, nervous one seemed doubtful. The two female friends paid reluctant attention. Meanwhile, Stalker folded her arms in one of her striking, challenging postures, one that said, ‘Oh, really?’ One that dared him to continue and be wrong. He would show her true, deep meaning, ultimate morals, final truth. He would show her.

“Fairness,” he said, his voice trembling slightly with the sheer weight of all the words that he was forcibly holding inside and were trying to break out at unintelligible speed, “is when everyone involved in a situation plays by the same rules. Each individual can to some extent predict what the other individuals in the situation may do and what they simply will not do. In the forest, when hunting, these basic rules say that any means of survival is allowed. The rules tell us that if the predators are strong enough to catch prey, they may do so, and if the prey are strong enough to kill predators, they may do so. The first law of the Moral Code tells us not to fear death exactly because of this. We are even. There is no unfairness to it if one of us is killed, no more than when prey is killed. It is also a rule of the forest that when food is plentiful for all, the prey and predators do not fight internally. The species of each group leave one another alone, avoiding inner conflict, for at least as long as there is prey in the forest for all of us and plants for all of them. It is part of the rules. It is likewise part of the rules that individual members of some species, such as Scyther, should actively help one another, and hence we have the third law of the Moral Code.”

“And how is this following the same rules for everyone?” Stalker asked him skeptically. “From what I can tell, you are saying that we are to help out other Scyther, but not Pokémon of other species. Why?”

Shadowdart had thought it through and didn’t need to think to know the answer. “For the same reason as why we hunt prey and not other predators,” he said. “It is part of the rules that Scyther stick together. The rules are informal, but they exist, and it is what is expected. A Scyther who is hunting in the forest with a partner expects to be defended and alerted of danger if the other sees it first, and vice versa. Unfairness is when somebody expects someone else to follow the rules but they don’t.”

“But why is it the rule at all that Scyther should help one another?” she argued. “Something else could as well be the rule. You can’t tell me this is somehow a given.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Shadowdart replied firmly. “The truly important thing about the rules is that they are what everyone accepts. The murder of a Scyther by another Scyther in cold blood is wrong because he does not expect it. A Scyther will thoughtlessly turn his back to another member of his species precisely because he has accepted the rule that Scyther do not murder one another. If a Nidorina thoughtlessly turns her back to a Scyther in the forest, she is simply stupid and her near-inevitable death will only see to that she will never have offspring to inherit that stupidity. The Scyther’s death is unfair but not hers because his death was a result of his playing by different rules, through no fault of his own self. He could have been the strongest, cleverest Scyther in the entire swarm and still die simply because he was playing by different rules – and that is unfairness in its essence. If we already expected everyone in the swarm to be perfectly entitled to attempt to murder us at any time, this Scyther would never have let his guard down in the first place.”

“True,” she admitted, “but why not change the rules, then, since what makes the rules the rules is their wide acceptance and not their content?”

“Because the rules are built into the Code to be consistent with one another. That is what I’ve been saying in this lesson. I have already showed you how the first and third laws of the Moral Code tell us the rules. The second tells us that we need to conform to the rules if we wish to live in Scyther society, that a Scyther who cannot follow the Code must no longer disgrace his swarm, but either die or submit to them. The fourth says that every individual is to be his own master and make his independent decisions, because a Scyther who is only slave to another is not following the rules for the right reasons. And the fifth says that pain is to be avoided: it is a negative thing that is never necessary for survival and undesirable by its very nature, making you a hypocrite if you do it. Even if some particular Scyther decided to change the rules he goes by, it would first sprout a period of unfairness where the others still expect him to follow the previous rules.”

“But doesn’t following the rules make you weaker?” Stalker asked, and there was honest skepticism in her tone, something that told him she genuinely meant it. “If by following the rules we render ourselves vulnerable, why should we? Why be fair?”

Why fair? Shadowdart racked his brain for a proper way to explain it, but all reason seemed to melt away in his mind and dissolve into the statement that fairness was simply right. Why, indeed, play fair? Was there any real reason that made fairness something good? Hypocrisy wrong?

“I suppose it’s all built on weak foundations, then,” she said slyly when he didn’t reply, smiling with that triumphant gleam of defiance in her eyes. The other Scyther were now watching her more than him with those eyes of admiration, buying every word from her lips…

“No!” Shadowdart shouted in frustration. “You can’t tell me that you don’t simply know that fairness is right. It is obvious that fairness is right. It is self-evident.”

She smiled deviously, clearly enjoying every opportunity to stand against the rules. “Why does it have to be?”

And that was what drove him over the edge and made him scream at her about the forced suicide that he was going to implement and how after she had her First Prey she would clearly be planning to land herself there on the Leader’s rock, slitting her own throat in front of the swarm so that they could see the climax of all her horrifying crimes against the Code and Scytherkind. Shadowdart did not think he had ever in his life felt as terrifyingly angry, and yet all the while she maintained an expression of unspoken superiority, superiority that she seemed to think ought to be obvious. What if the other young ones believed her? What if they let her influence them and make them into a generation of Code-breakers?

He stopped and took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. “You’re dismissed,” he said. “Please leave. All of you. I will see you in the next lesson.”

Stalker made no attempt to speak to him while the others left – but she did give him one of her glances and sly smiles as she walked off.

Shadowdart was left breathing at an exaggerated tempo, alone by the Leader’s rock, doubt nagging at the back of his mind.

XXXVIII

It was not until the next day that Shadowdart had finally calmed down to a reasonable enough level to feel able to talk to Stormblade. He had taken out his anger by hunting and had managed to catch a Girafarig, so he was not particularly hungry, but when Stormblade invited him on a partnered hunt, he accepted the offer anyway. It would be nice, he figured, to get out into the forest where they could talk in relative private.

They just snuck around in silence at first, the unwritten rule of partnered hunting being that the hunting would come first and the talking later when they had caught some prey. It made more sense, since if they headed into the forest talking, they would give away their location and have to start from scratch once they actually did start stalking after prey.

Even aside from that, Shadowdart was glad to have something to distract him at first. It did not take them long to find a group of still-sleeping Swellow that their trained flying maneuvers helped them isolate and kill one weaker individual from. It wasn’t the largest prey around, but Shadowdart simply declined the offer of getting a share of it for himself, leaving Stormblade to begin to rip into the bird’s flesh on the forest floor.

“I was preparing for yesterday’s lesson the day before it,” Shadowdart began. “I was going to get to the bottom of some of the things that bothered me in the Code – things that seemed to be inconsistent.”

Stormblade looked up at him with a flicker of something passing through his eyes. “And?” he replied, and Shadowdart got the vibe he was trying to seem less interested than he was.

“And I thought about it and I realized how… how great it all is. How much sense it makes. How perfectly it all fits.” He felt a tingle of that elated feeling trickle through his body again. “It all came together.”

He had a hard time reading into Stormblade’s expression in reaction to this. Somehow his friend seemed vaguely disappointed and definitely not particularly impressed. Shadowdart, who had been about to continue, decided to wait for him to reply.

“Shadowdart…” Stormblade eventually sighed. “I… I realize now that I took love too far. That I should have listened to you and obeyed the Code. But that doesn’t mean… I just… I don’t believe in the Code the way you do. In my mind it’s just a set of arbitrary rules. I don’t think like you. I can’t just… sit somewhere making up stories to illustrate a set of rules I don’t even agree with.”

The words stung, and Shadowdart felt anger flaring up in him: he could show Stormblade how he had found out the Code was not arbitrary at all, that it was simply a simplification, put in words, of the true rules of life, and that no truth was more worth illustrating in words than this, and that Stormblade had promised to help…

But he was not in the mood to begin to argue at all, and the rush of anger faded quickly into dull gloom. He saw Stormblade look at him with concern.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“Only the words are arbitrary,” Shadowdart just said. “The Code is much more than just the words.”

“I guess.”

Shadowdart knew Stormblade wasn’t entirely convinced, but he didn’t care. Stormblade lived by the same rules now, really. He just didn’t like to call them the Code. Was there any reason to argue over what to call the rules?

“That’s not the point, though,” Shadowdart said, struggling to word what the point really was. “I lectured them on this yesterday, and… the female, Stalker… she…”

He shivered with discomfort. She scared him. She scared him out of his wits. It was difficult to talk about her.

“She what?”

“She started arguing.” Shadowdart paused. “I had told them how the Code was about fairness, everyone playing by the same rules. If you know what I mean. I can explain it if you…”

“No, I think I get what you mean,” Stormblade replied quickly. “What did she argue about?”

Shadowdart didn’t think Stormblade really got it, but he continued anyway. He didn’t feel like explaining it again.

“At first she argued about the Code, the way I had expected them to ask. I could answer that. But then she just asked why we had to be fair at all, and…” He felt himself shivering again. “I didn’t know.”

Stormblade looked at him, puzzled. “Fairness? Isn’t it… obvious? Fairness is a good thing by definition.”

“It is to me,” Shadowdart said quietly. “But not to her. She meant it, about why we needed to be fair. I could tell that she meant it. And if she doesn’t think of it as a good thing in that way, I don’t think I can actually explain why.”

“So in a way, she is shaking the foundations of your beliefs,” Stormblade said before tearing another piece of flesh off the dead Swellow.

Shadowdart stopped to think. “Well, yes. I still believe in the foundations, but she’s made me realize that maybe they’re not as obvious as I think they are.”

“Well, there can hardly be that many Scyther who can’t understand the value of fairness, can there?” Stormblade asked and shrugged. “Do you need to concern yourself with her opinion?”

No, he didn’t. Not at all. There was no reason for him to care what she thought of fairness. And yet he cared, far too much for it to be reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. He didn’t care who else did or did not understand it, but she had to understand. The idea that she, of all the Scyther in the swarm, didn’t understand fairness pained him immensely. And even more painfully, there was no sensible reason why it should.

“I think she is going to grow up to be a Code-breaker,” he said finally. “And I’m going to implement forced suicide in extreme cases of being irredeemable. I think she will be irredeemable. How can she be redeemed if she doesn’t even understand fairness? It’s the whole point of the Code.”

Stormblade was silent. “Forced suicide?” he asked at last. “Why?”

“Because those who are ready to commit voluntary suicide of guilt are exactly those who still have hope of returning to society and repenting for their crimes against the Code. The ones that need to die so that they won’t sink any deeper and ruin themselves further are those already too far gone to realize the wrong of their actions on their own. They’re like Razor. If they even refuse to do it themselves after the order and don’t realize the urgency of it, I will do it.”

Stormblade stared at him in disbelief and shook his head. “Why are you doing this? Are you just trying to get back at Razor by making everything so that Razor would be killed if he were still here?”

Fury blazed up in Shadowdart again, and this time it didn’t dissolve. “This is for the good of the swarm, all of it!” he spat. “Isn’t death not to be feared? What’s so bad about preventing those who are already spiralling towards their own moral demise from getting any further along that line than they already are?”

“So you’re going to kill some young Scyther who don’t know any better?” Stormblade responded heatedly, standing up from the corpse of the Swellow. “Are you perhaps going to kill the Scyther who take too many tries catching their First Prey, too?”

“You think death is unfair?” Shadowdart snapped. “You still fear death, don’t you?”

Stormblade looked at him with an expression so wounded and betrayed that for a moment Shadowdart wanted to calm down and apologize – but before he had any chance to do anything of the sort even if the urge wouldn’t have been blocked by his better judgement, Stormblade had already taken off in flight, past the treetops, flying in the direction of the mountains, without looking back. The half-eaten Swellow was left on the ground in front of Shadowdart.

Anger gripped him with such power that without really deciding to do so, he raised his scythe and cut the head off the dead Swellow with a cry of frustration. It felt strangely good. He chopped violently into the bird’s corpse a few more times and then felt himself shiver as he turned away from it.

Stormblade didn’t understand the Code anyway – and of course he still feared death. Stormblade had always feared death. Who had he been kidding all this time? Himself? It had been obvious all along, and he’d denied it, just out of some stupid fear of losing some Code-breaker he talked to once a month.

As he walked with slow, heavy steps back towards the Leader’s rock, he swore that he would never again submit himself to such a feeble, manipulative thing as friendship.

XXXIX

The season finally began to grow cold.

“Duels,” Shadowdart said to the five young Scyther in the next lesson, around sunset on a cool, windy day. “You will need to learn all about duels. You have most likely already had some so-called mock duels. The one who first manages to pin the other down so that he can no longer move is the winner, and if either party becomes wounded he may resign from the duel and give up. Nobody should die or be seriously injured in a mock duel, and it is the only kind of duel you may practice before your First Prey. The reason for this is simple: you should be perfectly healthy during your First Prey, and accidental injuries during duels should be avoided. You have all tried some mock duels, I presume?”

The pupils nodded and murmured some words of agreement.

“Good. Then you know the approximate procedures for it. They are not very set in stone. You simply attack someone and the other retaliates until a winner has been found. The mock duel is as much practice for your upcoming hunting and First Prey as it is for future duels. Keep this in mind. By all means mock duel a lot.” Shadowdart’s mind wandered to his old mock duels with Stormblade and Razor, and felt pained to remember them. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and cleared his mind before continuing.

“The friendly duel is the mock duel’s replacement after your First Prey. You no longer need to practice your reflexes and ability to respond quickly to surprise attacks, because you can do that while you hunt. However, it is still practice where you can try out the various skills you may then use in true duels later in your lives. A friendly duel is for practice and enjoyment, and is most often conducted, as its name indicates, between friends, more so than the mock duel.”

Friends. Shadowdart’s gaze flicked over to the deserted oak tree. Stormblade had never returned to it after that time he had flown off towards the mountains. But that didn’t matter.

“During a friendly duel, you begin to have duel procedures, mostly consisting of the important rule that first a challenge is issued and then accepted or declined. To start a friendly duel you do not simply leap up and attack. If the challenge is accepted, you must then position yourselves at a certain distance from one another.” He indicated the bulky male with his scythe. “Come over here.”

The male stood up and walked towards Shadowdart. Shadowdart stopped him and then took several steps backwards to show the preferred distance between the duelers. “You do not need to be particularly precise. You mostly need to make sure that there is enough distance between the two of you for both to be well out of the other’s immediate reach. Once you have done this, you may begin the duel. Most commonly, the duel begins with a period during which both fighters wait and measure one another out while remaining alert and ready to counter whichever one of them makes the first move. This has tended to give beginning the duel a bad reputation as being what the weaker Scyther does, but I won the Leadership of this swarm in a duel that I started, so personally I would not say that this bad reputation is based in much factual evidence.”

They looked at him with curious admiration – even Stalker looked vaguely impressed, although he tried his best not to look at her too much. He looked quickly back at the bulky male, who still standing a short distance in front of him, and indicated with his scythe that he could sit down again.

“Once the duel has begun, a friendly duel still, like the mock duel, revolves around bringing the opponent down so that he cannot move. However, if either party sustains a serious injury, he may again call the duel off by giving up before that happens. For this, he needs to have been injured to such an extent that he has been put at a disadvantage too great for him to reasonably assume he can win the duel. Giving up as a means of chickening out after accepting the duel is frowned upon.”

Shadowdart looked over the group while decidedly avoiding Stalker’s gaze. The small, nervous male looked more nervous than usual. He could only hope that one would manage his First Prey. Throughout the lessons, he had always looked scared and pathetic and no matter how many enlightening speeches on the Code and how death was not to be feared, he never looked one bit less so. The adolescent noticed his glare and seemed to flinch slightly at the sight of it. No, there wasn’t a lot of hope left for this one.

“The true duel is the third type of duel and the most important. It is a duel of life and death, and when the Leader is challenged, the ensuing duel is always a true duel. It is also used as a means of settling personal conflict between Scyther, but keep in mind that both parties must accept. You can not walk up to an inexperienced Scyther and think you can simply challenge and slaughter him. If he does not deem his chance of winning reasonable enough to accept the challenge, there is nothing you can do about it. However, if a Scyther is known to repeatedly decline challenges from Scyther not obviously more experienced than himself, it will certainly rouse suspicions that he may be declining due to fear of death.”

He could see mild contempt in the bulky male’s eyes and smiled in satisfaction to himself. They should have contempt for those who feared death. It made them less likely to fall trap to the same during their First Prey.

“In the true duel, you position yourselves like in the friendly duel before it begins, and the procedure during the duel works quite the same, except that here you may not call the duel off no matter how injured you get. The duel is not over until at least one of the duelers is dead. The previous Leader incidentally felt he could disregard this and merely cut into the scythe of those he defeated. This is not how a true duel, which a duel for Leadership is, should be conducted. If you have pinned down your opponent, you should kill him, and if you do not, it will be taken as a sign that you fear death. Incidentally, if you are defeated and your opponent fails to kill you, you do not simply consider yourselves lucky. You nonetheless rightfully lost a true duel and ought to be dead; the fact you are not should be corrected with suicide. This should not be confused with suicide of guilt, because you are not guilty after losing the duel. You are, however, if you fail to rightfully kill yourselves afterwards, and again, I plan to take measures in that case.”

He narrowed his eyes at the group, and they gave him a quick nod to indicate their understanding.

“As I said, a Leadership duel is a true duel. At any time after your First Prey, you are eligible to challenge the Leader – me – to a true duel. Its procedures are the same as those of an ordinary true duel, except that as Leader and therefore the most powerful Scyther in the swarm, I am obliged to accept any challenge given to me. This is regardless of whatever injuries I may have already or how I feel about the upcoming duel, as if the Leader is at any point too weak to duel, he must also be too weak to protect the swarm according to his duty.”

He said it calmly and surely. Were he to be injured too severely to defend the swarm from incoming danger, he would not be fit to be Leader anymore, and had no inclination to want to remain so anyway. Why would he?

“That being said,” he said, putting emphasis on the words, “dueling the Leader is something you should not take lightly. The Leader is by definition the strongest Scyther in the swarm, and you should not let him kill you before you could perhaps have been capable of defeating him. It is foolish to rush into challenging the Leader when perhaps you would one day have been stronger than him. I dared to challenge the Leader too soon because I knew he would not kill me and that I would be able to challenge him again. This is not the case with me, so do not challenge me for Leadership unless you mean it. It would sadden me to kill a talented young Scyther that I could perhaps have been proud of being replaced by in the future.”

He could see a glint in the bulky male’s eyes that told him he could expect to be challenged by him at some point, and indeed he found himself hoping it would not be too soon.

“Should one of you defeat me, or perhaps one of my successors in the event I am defeated before you are at the height of your strength, you shall kill the former Leader and take the Leadership for yourselves. First the body of the old Leader must be disposed of in the forest, as I have already discussed when I spoke of death to you. Finally, the next night, there will be a ceremony by the stream where you are formally made Leader. First and foremost you must, as with any other death, wash the blood of the former Leader from the scythe that you killed him with in order to have his reign carried away and put behind us. Then you shall declare yourself Leader; this you do simply by stating that as the one who defeated the previous one, you assume the role instead. Next it is traditional to remind the swarm of its duties to the Leader: that until your replacement they are obligated to follow your guidance and obey your orders provided they remain compatible with the Code, that future generations are to learn of the Code from you by attending lessons such as these, that they are to respect you, and that they shall call you and only you by the name of Leader.”

He took a deep breath. In his own declaration of Leadership, he had added a clause stating that those who knew him by a more personal name should continue to call him that – but what did that achieve but pain? Was not the Leader, anyway, to be without such personal ties?

“Finally you must swear by the blood of your left scythe that you will take on the duties of Leadership. You will hold your arm out and prepare to cut it with your right scythe, and declare that you will protect the swarm from danger, preserve its unity, keep it from corruption, guide the young to their adulthood, set a positive example for them, be prepared to relocate the swarm if its current living space becomes unsafe or lacking in prey, accept every challenge to your Leadership, lead the rituals described by the Code that I have been teaching you about, refrain from personal ties to other Scyther, and to, before your death, father or bear a number of descendants to inherit your superior strength. All of this you must remember. The memory may fade, but before planning to challenge the Leader you should ask an older Scyther or even the Leader himself and memorize this, as it will give a greatly negative impression if the new Leader has not even cared to learn of what his role will entail. After you have sworn to respect all of these duties, you will cut your arm and let some of your blood fall onto the ground to seal your oath. When you have done this, you are the new Leader, and the swarm should bow to accept you.”

To describe the ritual so gave him flashbacks to his own declaration of Leadership, where he had sworn all those duties himself. It seemed so much longer ago than merely since the late spring. Even though he had not yet even performed a First Prey ritual, he felt as if he had always been Leader, and the memory of his oath seemed hazy and ancient.

“What would happen if the Leader were to die hunting or of old age, without having been defeated by a potential successor?” he heard one of the females ask.

“Those willing to replace him would determine the strongest in a series of duels,” Shadowdart answered. “But they would be friendly duels. If they were to be true duels, too many of the strongest Scyther of the swarm would be killed within too short a timespan, and the swarm might be severely weakened by their loss. It would be impossible to have all of them killed but the one who stands left. However, such a Leader will not be as accepted as a Leader who has truly defeated the one before him. He will only gain the full respect of the swarm by remaining Leader for a long time, through defeating formidable challengers in true duels for Leadership.”

He thought about what else he could bring up concerning duels and Leadership, but was there truly anything more than what he had said already? He sighed and looked down at the ground.

“You may leave now. I hope that you will memorize the oath of the Leader, because even if you do not plan to challenge him, it will teach you much about Codal values.”

And they stood up and left, all of them. Even Stalker had disappeared by the time he looked back up. Somehow he found himself vaguely disappointed, in an empty manner, but wasn’t sure why – he had after all only been glad to be rid of her constant harassment when she had left him alone recently.

He looked over at the oak tree. Stormblade was still nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there staring at that tree and the wind rustling its branches as the sun slowly sank below the horizon. All he really realized was that when a sharp gust of wind snapped him out of his trance, darkness was already looming over the plains of Ruxido.

Sighing to himself, the Leader decided to clear his mind by going the forest to hunt.

XL

The autumn night was cold.

Shadowdart shivered slightly as he came to the entrance of the forest and looked into its dark depths. It was a little too dark to be hunting, really. Then again, that was what the prey assumed. They wouldn’t expect a Scyther. They’d be watching out for the Sneasel for sure, but none of them would assume there would be a Scyther stalking about. Of course it was as good a time to hunt as any. Wasn’t he all about being surprising and unconventional? Hadn’t he become Leader through being surprising and unconventional?

He forced his legs to take him into the forest and was about to hide and look for prey when he got the uncanny feeling that someone was nearby.

He turned sharply around to see Stalker standing by the entrance to the forest, wearing one of her smiles. It was the smell, he realized dimly in the back of his mind, that had alerted him of her presence.

“Going out to hunt this late?” she asked.

Shadowdart hesitated to answer, the question somehow drawing out a chuckle. Again he was starting to feel silly about being out hunting at this time. The smell continued to waft through his nostrils, growing a little stronger, and he realized with a chilling feeling that it was no ordinary smell: it was autumn, when the females were fertile.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked her finally.

“Doing what?”

“Following me. Being after me. Trying to seduce me. Releasing your pheromones at me when we’re alone. What’s the point? What do you get out of it?”

She laughed. “Oh, come on, now,” she said, her voice silky and smooth. “It’s not as if I can control when I feel the urge to mate.”

He shivered. She was right about that, of course; the pheromones would obey only the command of her subconscious sex drive. But that it should see fit to release them at just this time said quite something. It was not yet the height of the fertility season. The only thing that could make a female smell so strongly this early was if she was very much in the mood – something she could, of course, technically not control either, but if it was his presence that induced it, she was certainly doing nothing to avoid his presence.

“I mean it,” he said, looking in the other direction, shutting out all the lovely ideas that his brain was coming up with by the second. “Why are you doing this? Why me?”

She paused to think and he heard her approach him. He walked a little further from her, too, although he tried not to make the intention of getting further away from her be too obvious. What sort of Leader, after all, needed to flee before an adolescent female?

But that smell. That sickening yet heavenly smell that he simultaneously wished to smell for the rest of his life and never smell again – it was assaulting his brain like thousands of tiny little needles, each trying to inject him with all sorts of ideas he should not be getting. It hit him, painfully, bitingly, that he had not mated in a very, very long time – unbearably long. Hadn’t he sworn, he thought crazily and hated himself for it, to father descendants to inherit his strength?

“Why?” she responded at last. “Because I watched your duel with the former Leader, and I was impressed. You’re strong and intelligent. You have guts. And, after all, you are the Leader…”

He felt that she was very close to him, that the edge of her scythe was stroking lightly along his back, sending little shivers of warmth spreading all through his body. He could feel her hot, excited breathing on the back of his own neck as he still steadfastly refused to look at her.

“You’re powerful…” she went on, “inventive… unconventional… everything that makes a Scyther admirable. Everything that makes a male attractive.”

No.

It was wrong.

It was disgusting.

“Please go away,” he said and heard his voice shake. “I’m glad you think so highly of me, but you’re young and confused. This is wrong and I don’t want it. Just stop this.”

“Am I not desirable enough to bear powerful descendants to even the Leader himself?” she asked quietly, and there was all too much naïve honesty to the question behind its rhetorical presentation. He shook his head.

“If any female were to bear my descendants, it would be you,” he found himself saying, very softly. He wasn’t even sure why. She was sick; she was twisted; seductive; amoral. Why did he cling to those features of her that had initially charmed him, latch on to them as if they made up for all the rest?

“Then why do I need to have my First Prey to prove it?” she whispered, again stroking her scythe along his back. She was very close to him now and the smell was strong and distinct. “Do you find me immature and unable to make decisions?”

Her tongue touched the side of his head and he felt himself twitch in sudden panic. He let out an odd yelp, a frightened sound he hadn’t even known he could make, turning suddenly and shaking her off him. “Go!” he screamed. “Leave me alone!”

She backed off and looked at him, and they stared into each other’s eyes for a few long seconds. A mixture of emotions touched her circular pupils, some arrogant amusement, some of that slyness she had always maintained, and he thought he could also see some confusion and insecurity flicker in them for a second. But only for a second.

She sent him one of her grins as she turned around. “If you like, Leader.”

And just then, as she was about to walk off and her sweet smell was starting to recede from the air that Shadowdart breathed, the need blazed up in him with reinforced power. All the reasons why it was wrong had turned hazy in the mist of feminine scent that his body now screamed in agony from having lost.

Suddenly nothing existed except him, the heavenly smell, her beautiful form, the insatiable urge for reproduction. His legs kicked off the ground and his scythes rose to knock her down as she turned around in sudden fear and surprise, just before he pinned her harshly to the ground. His self and morality drowned in an endless sea of red, blazing lust, and suddenly it ceased to make any difference whether her wide eyes were begging him to continue or to stop while struggling scythes moved blindly, breathless voices cried into the empty darkness and salty tears blurred desperate eyes.

The autumn night was biting, searing cold.

XLI

Damn it.

It was so wrong.

Shadowdart sat by his rock, absent-mindedly sweeping his scythe horizontally over the grass to shred each straw into tiny pieces. An inkling of warm, orange light touched the eastern horizon. The Scyther would soon be waking up.

Except him. He hadn’t gone to sleep in the first place.

He shivered as his mind flashed back to the events of the evening. What had he done? She was an adolescent, and not just an adolescent. She had struggled. Screamed. The sly seductiveness had been long gone from her eyes – of course, because what had it been all along other than the elaborate act of a naïve mind confused by its own urges and blinded by its admiration for power? – and he had done it anyway. It was terrible. It was a crime. It was deplorable. How could he have done it, he, Shadowdart, the Leader, who had so carefully elaborated an argument on its wrongness only months before? He who had on the grounds of hypocritical immorality despised and replaced the previous Leader? He who had once, long ago, been puzzled by the notion of why anyone would want to spend his time looking at females?

Well, of course, he realized suddenly, stopping and looking up, a flare of anger flashing through his head. Because she had manipulated him, that was why.

Yes, she had been seducing him all along, asking for it, begging for it, even as he refused – was it his fault if she turned out not to have truly wanted it to begin with? Heck, she must have wanted it. Why else would she have been asking for it all this time? She had admired him, had a deep-rooted crush on him all along, and there was no way to fake the scent of an aroused female that had practically been dribbling all over him from her: she had wanted it, and wanted it badly. It was obvious. Was it his fault if she had changed her mind at the last second?

He’d done everything in his power to prevent it from happening. She had dragged him on to do it. He hadn’t been able to stop it. He had fought it for as long as he could. How could he be blamed for it?

She had been asking for it.

He felt himself suddenly, heatedly, driving the blade of his right scythe into the ground, where it sank slightly into the soil. “She was asking for it, damn it,” he repeated aloud.

But it didn’t change her age, and it didn’t change that she had struggled away from him, shaking, and fled into the forest as soon as he had finished and was momentarily weakened by involuntary muscle contractions. He had been left panting, lying alone, bleeding and pathetic on the ground while he had slowly regained his senses and come to the full realization of what he had done. And eventually, to complete his humiliation, he had walked slowly back to the swarm, bearing his cuts as physical evidence of the deed, and sat down for a night of fixated staring into space and the bitter beheading of the flowers foolish enough to grow in his path.

He looked down and suddenly realized that in the remains of the grass there was a gleaming piece of a blade, in fact from his own, half-sunken into the soil, that he had apparently missed when he’d carried all the scythe-pieces away. He sat there and stared dully at it for a moment and then absent-mindedly raked some of the grass blades lying beside it on top of the piece so it would be overlooked by a casual observer. He had better things to worry about for the moment.

The cuts. What would he do about them? They wouldn’t in themselves tell anyone any more than that he had been mating, but being that he was the Leader, they would be interested in who it might have been, and any Scyther willing to ask around and able to add two and two would realize that it had been her even if he could get her to keep it secret. She might even lay an egg that spring that would confirm it. And what would he do then? The swarm would never accept a Leader who had mated with an adolescent. They had been able to look past the old Leader’s hypocrisy, but never this. It was just too terrible a thing to do, a violation of something too sacred for comfort. What sort of Leader would he be if he just started to excuse himself, tell them it had been her fault? Not a good one.

He could tell them he had been on a hunt. It was the only way out. Yes, even though the injuries from hunting were generally easily recognizable as different from those of mating, he had to pass them off as wounds from a hunt. He could hunt and get himself a little more injured, so that the larger, deeper scratches would be more noticeable. Perhaps. But then he would have to leave immediately, before the other Scyther discovered him.

Shadowdart stood up and dashed towards the forest, hoping that none of the Scyther who were already awake had managed to get a good look at him. He didn’t stop until he’d gotten deep enough in for it to be virtually impossible that any other Scyther who might also decide it was a good day to hunt would come across his path.

The easiest way for him to get himself hurt would be to find a Letaligon, but it was rather more dangerous than finding most other Pokémon. For one thing it was generally difficult to find them alone, and if there were many of them together it would be suicidal to attack them. Secondly they were some of the best counterattackers of any of the prey of Ruxido, so even one Letaligon was a formidable foe even for a Scyther. They knew how to use the blades on their heads, and when they hit they hit hard. When Scyther did kill Letaligon for prey, it lay in the strategy of trying to surprise the Letaligon and kill it before it had the opportunity to counterattack – and since he was planning to get injured, that strategy would not work. Attacking a Letaligon, letting it strike him and hoping he survived its attacks would be far too risky, even in the unlikely case he managed to find one at all.

So he would have to find some other prey that would injure him with cuts – but what? How many clawed Pokémon were there that the Scyther ate?

He looked in every direction for possibilities, left, right, back, and up.

Up. And he realized suddenly that not only did Pidgeot have claws – they would not inflict injuries much bigger than what he had now. Yes, it would in fact be believable if he simply said he had killed a particularly agile Pidgeot that had perhaps had the benefit of some Pidgey or Pidgeotto distractions working with it that had allowed it to scratch him so much.

They would still look like the cuts from a mating, of course – but he was the Leader; who would accuse him of lying if his story could be true? He was starting to believe it would all work out right and closed his eyes, tuning his other senses to make sure there were no Scyther around.

His eyes snapped back open. He’d smelled blood – and no ordinary blood, either. Scyther blood. He looked around quickly, seeing nothing, and then closed his eyes again to focus on the faint odor and let his sense of smell lead him on. It grew gradually stronger until the direction of it was easy to follow even without focusing, and soon he could see a dark green form lying motionless against a tree stump in front of him and sped over to it.

His stomach lurched and tied itself into a knot.

It was Stalker, and she was dead.

Her green form lay there peacefully, her left scythe lying by her side, her right still lodged in her throat, splattered with a crust of dark, dried blood. Her eyes were open, staring upwards in a frozen expression of despair and fear, her back supported by the stump of a dead tree whose thick trunk lay uselessly on the ground beside it.

It was the saddest sight Shadowdart had ever seen.

“Why?” he whispered, the sorrow he could hear in his own voice worrying him.

He stared at her dead face, trying to make out exactly why she had done it. The knowledge that it might have been his doing crept up his back and made the back of his neck shiver uncomfortably.

Then again, perhaps it had merely been suicide of guilt – perhaps she had realized the extent to which she had manipulated him, repented for it and realized that she was incapable of moral thinking according to the Code because she lacked the fundamental understanding of fairness.

Then he was maybe even glad that she had done it herself so that he wouldn’t have to do it to her one day.

He shivered and looked away. She was dead. That meant no egg and no witness. Nobody would ever have to know now.

He looked back at her body, that beautiful body that should have grown to mature so much further, and decided that the position she had died in looked dignifying enough. She was somehow defiant, proud, the fear in her expression something very far from fear of death. He made a cut to her arm to wet his scythe with some of her blood, and then turned away from her. For a moment he hesitated and took a deep breath, wanting to look back – but then he took off, flew up through the canopy, and headed back towards the swarm to declare her death.

The first drops of rain were falling upon the ground below.

XLII

After calling out from the Leader’s rock, it did not take Shadowdart long to gather all the Scyther by the stream. Cold, heavy raindrops hit the green armor of dozens of Scyther as Shadowdart tried to shield the smears of blood on his scythe from the raindrops.

“Today,” he said, firmly keeping the shakiness out of his voice, “we commemorate a Scyther who has left our ranks.”

Every one of the adult swarm members had the blank look of a person being told about the death of someone he only ever knew distantly. The four young Scyther that had taken First Prey lessons with her stood silently with vague emotion flickering in their expressions. Her parents were probably either dead or had long since stopped watching their daughter’s progress through life, having no idea it was her who was dead. It was all distanced and unemotional, and suddenly Shadowdart was struck with an overwhelming feeling of pointlessness: why was he even setting her off in a ceremony when the swarm hardly knew who she had been?

But he was the Leader, and this was the way things were done and had always been.

“She never managed to reach adulthood. The autumn before she would have caught her First Prey, she ended her life by suicide of guilt. I cannot say exactly what it was that made her choose to die.” He stopped to swallow and take a few breaths, and became dimly aware of the eyes on the cuts covering his body, whispering voices behind his words that he wanted to scream down in rage and kill, every last one of them, if they couldn’t even show the respect to be silent when the death of a fellow Scyther was acknowledged.

“I only found her body in the forest by chance after an exhausting battle with a Pidgeot brought me to the spot where she was. She still had her scythe lodged in her throat. We can only assume that for her to have committed the suicide of guilt, she must have been guilty of something. This is a good time to remember that ultimately she did the right thing.”

Every word he was saying felt like a blade slashing through his heart, but he continued all the same, the rain beating on his armor. “Those who break the Code are liable to do it again. A Code-breaker may be sent spiralling down the path to immorality at such a speed that he can no longer stop himself. She could foresee it and put an end to it before it was too late. She repented for her actions but realized that she might be led still further if she remained alive. Let us all consider her example and let it be a reminder to us as we put her death behind us.” He took a deep breath and raised his bloodied scythe, raindrops rapidly dissolving the streaks of blood. “Death is not to be feared, for it is the only thing that we all have in common.”

“Death is not to be feared,” the swarm droned, emotionlessly, monotonously, without even understanding what it meant. They were fools, all of them. He hated them.

“May her true spirit live on among us and her death be accepted.”

And he lowered his scythe into the stream with the little blood that was left on it and let the water wash the dark color away. It was all that was left of her, and now it was gone, leaving her body in the forest as no more than a reflection of what had once been that would slowly decay and disappear.


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