The Quest for the Legends (ILCOE)

This is an author's commentary intended for readers who have already read the entire ILCOE. My retrospective comments on the chapter are in bold below, with some remarks within the text and then some overall thoughts at the bottom. The commentary will contain significant spoilers! Do not read the commentary on your first read-through!

Chapter 57: Three Conversations

June 20th, 2011 - at 4:44 AM, me having stayed up to get this posted to celebrate the fic's ninth birthday on the nineteenth. That makes three months since chapter 56.

While I was writing this chapter, I wrote on the Quest Blog that I'd just been feeling really bad about my writing, that the whole chapter plan sucked, that this chapter in particular was going to suck, etc. It's hard not to suspect I was feeling this way because I'd been unhappy with chapter 56 and got some unimpressed reviews on it and just felt crappy about how long it'd taken. It feels slightly surreal to read that now, though; I can't quite actually remember feeling that way! Either way, I kept going regardless because I am too stubborn to give up, and the chapter ended up having some fun Chaletwo in it that helped me recover some enthusiasm.

“Stantler, Hypnosis!”

Stantler’s antlers glowed with psychic energy as the Fangcat facing her hissed. Even after all Mark had been through in the meantime, the huge sabertoothed beast seemed every bit as menacing as the one that had killed Scyther what felt like years ago. Seeing it waver on its feet and then simply slump over on its side with its eyes shut just seemed fundamentally wrong, somehow.

This paragraph feels pretty awkward and very flat.

“Sneasel, Night Slash!” Mark ordered, and his newest team member was all too eager to comply. With dark energy swirling around her claws, Sneasel leapt at the Fangcat and raked her blades across its belly, drawing crimson blood. The creature twitched in its unnatural sleep but failed to wake up even as the weasel delivered another slash.

“Stantler, Stomp!” May called.

Stantler reared up on her hind legs and brought her hooves down on the Fangcat’s skull with a sickening crack, and something about the sound and the attack connected in Mark’s mind to the crunch of Taylor’s ribs collapsing under Tyranitar’s foot, the abrupt end of his scream, the corpse’s dead eyes staring emptily into the sky.

He shuddered, suddenly nauseous, and looked at May; she, too, had frozen, fists clenched, gaze fixed unseeingly into the distance.

As Stantler noticed their silence and turned her head questioningly towards them, Sneasel darted at the Fangcat yet again, slicing her bloodied claws into its side. This time the sabertooth Pokémon’s eyes flitted open and it rose to its feet with a hiss, swinging its engorged fangs towards Sneasel. She darted easily out of the way and ducked between Stantler’s legs, and as the deer turned sharply back around, the Fangcat pounced. Stantler cried out as its fangs tore into her side; May’s eyes widened and she quickly reached for Stantler’s Pokéball as Sneasel jumped onto the Fangcat’s back. While the weasel tore viciously at the creature’s shoulders, a red beam absorbed Stantler and recalled her into the safety of her Pokéball; the Fangcat crashed into the ground and didn’t get up again.

“Good job, Sneasel,” Mark said hurriedly as he recalled her. “That... that could be bad for Stantler. We need to get her to a Pokémon Center, quick.”

“But the Pokéball stops her state from...” May started to protest, but then trailed off. “Yeah. Let’s hurry.”

May still can't shake her practical nature, but forcibly tries to override it, because good trainers worry and are in a huge hurry when their Pokémon are hurt, right?

-------

Mark was mildly surprised when May decided to stay in the Pokémon Center while the nurses tended to Stantler, even though they had been assured she was not in any real danger and would be fine in only a short time.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she insisted, looking distractedly around. “Look, we need Ultra Balls. Why don’t you just use the time to go to the Pokémart and get some? I’ll get rooms for us while you’re there.”

He couldn’t shake the feeling she was just trying to get rid of him somehow, but after a moment’s consideration he figured he might as well leave her alone if she wanted him to, and she was right about the Ultra Balls, so he shrugged, left the Pokémon Center and headed for the Green Town Department Store.

It felt like years since he’d first come to Green Town, before the Pokémon Festival, before the legendary capturing. He could barely remember his life without the quest on his shoulders anymore, and thinking about the fact only a few months ago he’d been here picking out events to register his Pokémon in and looking forward to witnessing Chaletwo’s appearance made it strike him harder than ever before that despite that they had somehow already caught a few legendaries, he was still just a kid with no real idea what he was doing.

That is an impressively long sentence, 21-year-old self.

The weight of everything that supposedly depended on their mission hit him like a brick, and he stopped as something occurred to him that somehow hadn’t properly occurred to him before.

“Why me?” he asked quietly, directing the question inwards. “Of all people, why pick me?”

I think the buildup to this could've been a bit smoother than just "Mark's in Green Town and remembering the time before his quest, therefore WHY ME". I could at least have had him be thinking back over when Chaletwo killed him and then realizing it was a terrible idea to pick him.

“You were there,” Chaletwo responded with a telepathic sigh. “Out of the people who came to see me each of those five times, I picked out someone present who had Pokémon and seemed more excited than afraid of being in the presence of a dangerous legendary Pokémon. That’s all there was to it.”

Note the subtle retcon. What actually happened was Chaletwo sensed that Mark wanted to catch him, but as we've gone over quite a lot in this commentary, this was ridiculous and kind of sociopathic and here I just decided to make it something more sensible and palatable and quietly pretend that's what canonically happened.

“There are thousands of better ways to pick people for this than that,” Mark said.

Chaletwo was silent for a moment. “I know.”

“So why didn’t you do it differently?”

There was a moment of silence again. “It’s a stupid plan,” Chaletwo then said, bitterly. “It was a stupid plan from beginning to end. I’m not sure who I was ever trying to kid with it.”

This was spontaneous; I was not expecting this here, but then Chaletwo just went and had a mini-breakdown. Conveniently, this was also where I started to like the chapter more.

Mark blinked. Whatever he had been expecting, this was not it.

“Mew is right. Sneasel is right. The world isn’t going to end if the legendaries die and happen to take some mortals with them. We don’t even know what happens if the legendaries are all inside Pokéballs when the moment comes. We can’t stop it. I’m not sure I ever really thought we were going to stop it. I think I just wanted something to do to pretend I was doing something about it instead of sitting around waiting to die.”

Note he brings up Sneasel; it was Sneasel's words from chapter 56 that prompted Chaletwo to start thinking about all this. He had up to this point firmly been insisting to himself that the world's just going to end if the War happens and therefore this plan has to work. But when Sneasel rejected that premise, he had to actually think about that again - and now that he knows about the possibility of using soul gems, that thought wasn't quite as unthinkable anymore as it was last time he tried to think about it. And with the escape hatch of realizing he could just use a soul gem, he could finally begin to admit to himself the suppressed worries he's always had about how flimsy this whole plan was. Not that he could quite start to voice any of this until Mark started pushing on this exact thing that he's been thinking about and it just all comes pouring out.

It took a second for this to sink in. “What? Don’t say that,” Mark said, but it didn’t stop the pit forming in his stomach. “We’ve come this far. We can’t just stop and give up.”

Chaletwo sighed. “I’m not saying we should. It’s just –”

“I mean, even if it’s hard, we can at least try to save you, right? And thousands of people and Pokémon would die in the struggle too if the War happened. Of course we should –”

“– I’m sorry for dragging you into this. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were suddenly ordered to go save the world because of it. It wasn’t fair and I don’t blame you if you want to quit.”

There was a wincing, reluctant quality to his voice, like he hated every word. Mark was stunned into silence for a second; this was just about the last thing he ever expected Chaletwo to say, reluctantly or otherwise.

For whatever reason, at this point in the fic I'm leaning hard into making Mark talk a lot about how much he's not expecting whatever's going on. It's awkward but honestly becomes kind of amusing now the third time he's had this specific reaction in the space of two chapters.

“It’s a bit late to say that now, isn’t it?” he said pointedly after a moment. When the legendary didn’t reply, he added, “And what’s with the sudden mood swing, anyway?”

“It’s not a mood swing,” Chaletwo replied exasperatedly. “I’ve just... been thinking that maybe I should make a soul gem after all, just to be safe. I didn’t really want to face it but this whole catching-all-the-legendaries thing probably isn’t going to work, and then it’s good to have some insurance –”

“...and then it would be nice if I’d quit to give you an excuse,” Mark finished, anger seeping into his voice. “Right?”

Chaletwo responded with a sudden heat. “What is this compulsion you have to attribute everything I do to me just being a jerk? I’m genuinely sorry I pulled you into this in the first place, but I truly think you’re probably better off going home, telling your family to stay in an underground shelter or something and waiting it out. I know I used to say the legendaries were so powerful now that they’re going to destroy the whole world, but I really just kept telling myself that to justify the plan. I had no real basis for it. The world isn’t going to end. You can save yourself. Why am I the bad guy for pointing it out?”

Mark bit back at least three snappy replies that came to mind by telling himself it wouldn’t help. “What about everybody else?” he said finally. “We can’t possibly fit all the people and Pokémon in the world into a shelter.”

Chaletwo hesitated before replying. “Look, Mark, I know you have trouble with this ‘mortals die’ thing, but...”

“Not this again,” Mark cut in, frustrated. “I can’t just go save my friends and family and watch the apocalypse happen to everybody else.”

“The alternative is watching the apocalypse happen to everybody including you!”

The desperation in his tone gave Mark pause; he took a deep breath, calming down a little. “Unless we catch all the legendaries and stop it, like we’re planning.”

“That’s all well and good, but I’m really starting to think that was wishful thinking from beginning to end.”

“I don’t care what you do, but I can’t just go home,” Mark said, realizing as he said it that it was the truth. “That’s the thing at this point. I don’t know what I’m doing and you shouldn’t have picked me, but because I know what’s going on now I have to try to do something about it. I can’t run away from it. And I don’t know how you can just –”

“Because I’m scared, Mark!” Chaletwo responded, a hint of a tremble in his voice. “I’ve lived for a thousand years and in a few months’ time I’m going to go mad and get torn apart and stop existing. How do mortals deal with that every day of their lives, knowing it’s just going to end? I tried to pretend I could stop it but lately everyone has just been pointing out all the reasons it was a dumb plan until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I wish we could save everyone, I really do, but we can’t. You can keep trying, but...”

“But you’re going to abandon us and make a soul gem?”

Chaletwo hesitated for a long moment. “I just... I don’t want to die,” he said at last, quietly, the fight gone from his voice. For a second he seemed to be about to continue, but then he didn’t.

There was silence.

And Mark wanted to continue pushing him, but something held him back, the same something that had made him keep the origins of the Dragons of Ouen secret: in the back of his mind he could feel the naked emotion underlying Chaletwo’s words, all that confusion and fear and broken despair, and he couldn’t help sympathizing on some basic level.

He took a deep breath. “Isn’t it actually better for you to be in a Pokéball than in a soul gem?” he said. “The soul gem needs you to die and be helpless unless you get resurrected by a Psychic-type into a new body. In a Pokéball, you can be held in stasis where the Destroyer can’t get at you, keep your body and your power and it’s simple to send you out again after. Right?”

“Pokéballs are designed to open when destroyed. It’s not safe.”

“But gems are destructible too, technically,” Mark pointed out. “And the PC Storage System’s Pokéball farms are supposed to be pretty secure. I mean, they’re like bank vaults, built to withstand explosions and attacks of all kinds.”

In this universe, the PC storage system is essentially just transferral, transferring the Pokéball to one of these huge, heavily reinforced storage facilities, rather than actually permanently storing them in digital form somehow. I'm pretty sure I just decided on this here.

“You have no idea what a legendary at double its full power is capable of.”

“Yeah, but they’d hardly just happen to unleash that kind of power against a human building. They’re mostly trying to kill each other, right? There’s no reason they’d go for the Pokéball farm. Isn’t a gem a lot more likely to be accidentally destroyed?”

“What’s it to you?” Chaletwo said irritably. “Why do you care if I’m in a soul gem or a Pokéball?”

Mark hesitated. “I guess it’s actually pretty good having you around,” he admitted at last. “It would be hard doing it alone. And if it were me I’d rather be in a Pokéball.”

Chaletwo didn’t answer. After a moment, Mark sighed and walked on towards the Pokémart, leaving the legendary alone.

I don't like all the specifics of how this conversation plays out or the particular lines being said, but I definitely like the basic gist here of Chaletwo just losing his nerve when he sees a way out, and Mark understanding but having to remind him why they're doing this, in the process properly finding his own resolve.

-------

It took Mark a moment to realize who the teenage boy standing with his back facing towards him by the Pokéball shelves was.

“Hey, Alan,” he said, approaching him cautiously. Alan jumped and whirled around, and Mark started to regret talking to him as the older boy’s expression turned from recognition to dread.

“Mark? What are you...?” Alan looked wildly back and forth before fixing his gaze back on Mark. “Where’s... where’s May?” he asked warily.

“At the Pokémon Center,” Mark answered. “Her Stantler was hurt pretty badly.”

Alan’s face turned blank. “She has a Stantler?”

“Yeah. She caught her at the Safari.”

“Right.” Alan nodded, a few too many times. He seemed to have relaxed a little at hearing May wasn’t with him, but he was still clearly tense and awkward, and it was making Mark slightly uncomfortable.

“She stayed behind,” he said after a moment. “To wait while Stantler was being treated.”

Alan blinked. “Oh,” he said. “That’s new.”

Mark hesitated a little, realizing slowly what he really wanted to say to Alan. “I think she’s still pretty upset.”

Alan exhaled, looking down. “All right. That’s not really any of my business.”

“I think she might be trying to...”

“Mark,” Alan cut in, closing his eyes, speaking with a forced calmness, “out of everything, can we please talk about something other than May right now?”

“Okay,” Mark said hesitantly. “How are your Pokémon?”

“Fine. We’ve been training.”

Mark looked at him, growing more awkward by the minute, not sure what else to say.

“Was it anything else?” Alan said finally.

“Not really,” Mark replied in defeat.

“Okay. Bye, then. You’ll call.”

“All right. Bye.”

Alan smiled forcedly and hurried towards the exit, and Mark couldn’t help not really missing him.

Ouch.

This is a short one, just conveying that Alan's still extremely awkward and conflicted about May, while Mark recognizes the effort she's making to change, wants to help her, and wishes Alan would see it too - only because he's so awkward and hostile, Mark doesn't quite even want him back at this point. I do like the extreme awkwardness of this exchange, and the point gets across nicely, but it does feel a bit... detached from everything else.

-------

May sat down on the bed in the room she’d rented for the night and looked at the Pokéball in her hand.

How were trainers supposed to do this? It felt silly, like something you saw on TV but just seemed awkward and cheesy in real life. Everything about supposed good trainers was like that: forced, weird, stupid. She’d never even been able to take Alan seriously half of the time.

And yet here she was.

She sighed and dropped the ball, watching it release Stantler in a burst of white light. She tossed her neck a little before looking at her trainer.

“So,” May began and felt so, so stupid, “are... are you okay?”

First May-POV in the actual fic (discounting the two extras)! She hates this so much. The way she's feeling here is pretty relatable to me.

“I’m fine,” the deer Pokémon said. May nodded, unsure how this conversation was supposed to proceed exactly. Stantler opened her mouth again, gaze still fixed on her trainer. “But you aren’t.”

Something twitched inside May. “What are you talking about?”

“You don’t have to tell me what’s bothering you,” the Pokémon said carefully, still surveying her closely. “But don’t pretend it’s nothing – there is clearly something going on. You react strangely to seemingly innocuous things. You’ve already been to the League and battle like it, but your demeanor is awkward, like a beginning trainer. Everything about you is just a little off.”

May blinked at Stantler, unable to answer. (She wanted to protest that last part, but of course it was off. It was ridiculous. How did Mark do it and still sound like a person? And she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to feel insulted, and it occurred to her as she squeezed the Pokéball in her hand that she could recall Stantler to make it go away but she knew that wasn’t going to be helpful.)

This last sentence is a little awkward and I want to rephrase it.

May has these parenthetical thoughts that Mark doesn't really do in the same way, and I enjoy that because this was not at all a thing that I decided would be a difference between them; it's just how her internal narration instinctively played out differently in my head. I think it's a matter of how Mark's very open and honest with himself and his thought process is very straightforward, while May's always operating under a lot more self-censoring and conscious organizing of what she's thinking.

“I’m a mother,” Stantler said after a moment. “And I’ve had a trainer once before. I only want to help you. If you talk, I’ll listen and understand. That’s all.”

May looked away and couldn’t help thinking that the last thing she needed right now was a mother to nag and pretend she knew better how to solve her problems than she did – but it struck her that Stantler and Sneasel had never been told about Taylor, and that seemed unfair when all the other Pokémon knew, and that probably meant she should tell her (right?).

I'd forgotten about this; May's never talked about her family, but we do get a glimpse of her relationship with her mother in this off-hand line.

She took a deep breath. “There... I used to have a Tyranitar,” she said and already regretted starting. “He killed someone and I had to release him.”

Something changed in Stantler’s expression, something May couldn’t work out because she wasn’t a Stantler. “Who?” she asked gently.

I really enjoy this particular thought of May's for some reason, this little off-hand irritation that she can't tell what Stantler is thinking.

“Taylor Lancaster. He was... he was a cheating git. He kind of deserved it.”

“Nobody deserves to die,” Stantler said.

“I mean, I didn’t want him to kill him,” May clarified, quickly. “Tyranitar just thought I did, because... because he was too young, or something. I didn’t know. He never talked.”

Again with May's insistence that she definitely didn't actually wish death on Taylor.

Stantler tilted her head, waiting.

“I... I think I screwed him up.” She regretted saying it, just like she’d regretted it when she’d said it to Alan, just like she hated thinking about it at all. “But I didn’t know. I was just trying to be a competitive trainer, and he never talked and never told me he was just a little kid. How was I supposed to know he’d turn out...?”

Her voice faded. It was a sorry excuse. She made a lot of excuses for a lot of things but this was the one thing she couldn’t really make excuses for.

“Why do you think it was your fault?” Stantler asked.

“Because Lapras left, too.” Why was she telling Stantler all this? “I thought that was just because she was too sensitive and couldn’t deal with having a trainer, but then Tyranitar...”

May's really bottled all this up. Stantler's nonjudgemental reaction to the initial bit about the murder, plus the fact May doesn't really know Stantler and therefore doesn't quite have an image to maintain in the same way, kind of gave her permission to just dump all her feelings here, let her feel like she could say it.

She trailed off. Stantler nodded slowly, looking a little wary.

“I’m not... I’m not abusive,” May said, hearing her voice waver a little and struggling to stop it. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. But I’m not like Mark or Alan. I don’t go around... I’m not here to make friends. I just want to train a powerful team. Is that wrong? What am I supposed to do? Pretend to be someone I’m not? I keep trying to do everything good trainers are supposed to do but it just feels stupid.”

Stantler looked thoughtfully at her for a few seconds. “Why did your Lapras leave?”

“Because she was –”

--too sensitive, unable to take the training, is what she was about to say here.

May stopped and took a breath. No. That wasn’t it. She knew that.

She's trying so hard.

“Sometimes I got angry when she didn’t do well. And there was a time when she wanted to be recalled but I told her to get another attack in, so she got hit by a Thunder. She was always nervous about getting hurt. I guess she hated battling from the beginning, but I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know. She never told me.”

“Did you ever ask?”

At first she wanted to blow it off as a stupid question, but then she realized it was cutting deep somewhere, and she couldn’t say anything; she shook her head slowly.

“I think that’s your problem,” Stantler said after a few seconds. “It wasn’t that you didn’t make friends with them or ask them if they were all right after they got hurt or do enough of the things you think good trainers are supposed to do. It was that you didn’t care to get to know them and think of them as people. That’s what matters in the end.”

Stantler is absolutely right, but this is probably a bit harsher than I'd write her saying it today.

May stared at the deer Pokémon, alternative scenarios flashing through her mind: if she’d found out Lapras didn’t like battling immediately, released her, found a different Water Pokémon; if she’d talked to Larvitar, picked up on the baby-talk, treated him like a confused child instead of a fighter. Things would have been different. Things could have been...

She looked abruptly away, and Stantler just waited, silent.

“What was your old trainer like?” May asked after a long while, not looking up.

This is just her trying to actually follow this advice; Stantler mentioned having had a trainer before previously, and May didn't really think anything of it, but on reflecting on getting to know them as people, it's the first question that comes to mind.

“A boy,” Stantler replied, something changing in her voice. “He was a nice enough kid. Didn’t talk much.”

May nodded frozenly. If not for the time that Mark had wanted to have everyone share stories of their past, she wouldn’t have even known if any of her Pokémon had had trainers before.

“One day,” Stantler continued suddenly, looking away, “he hanged himself in a tree in Ruxido. We never found out why.”

This came to me very suddenly in the shower when I was at the "What was your old trainer like?" part in the conversation. Stantler had been immediately really perceptive and picking up that May wasn't okay, and probing about it and trying to help, before I ever knew why. It all just clicked with this realization, that this was why she was so concerned.

Stantler's advice about getting to know her Pokémon may be slightly influenced by her personal experience not getting to know her previous trainer enough to prevent this. You know, it'd be fun to emphasize Stantler's issues about this more, because really, the two of them aren't all that unlike one another.

May looked up in a jolt. It occurred to her that suddenly everything Stantler had been saying made a lot more sense. “I’m... I’m sorry.”

Stantler sighed. “It was years ago,” she just said.

They were silent for a few seconds.

“Mark must be getting back,” May said finally, standing up. “I should get out there and check for him.”

Stantler nodded. “That’s a good idea.”

May raised the Pokéball she was still clutching and hesitated. “Thanks,” she then said, and it didn’t feel as stupid as she’d thought it would.

And with that, Stantler's helped May get at the core of things instead of just awkwardly, confusedly trying to imitate what she thinks good training is supposed to look like.

The chapter plan currently in the document says Chapter 57: They travel back to Green Town; meet Alan. However, originally this chapter plan said Chapter 57: They travel back to Green Town and something happens. I had no idea what should happen in Green Town but figured it ought to be something; then, when Alan left in chapter 55, well, the obvious thing to happen in Green Town would have to be that they see Alan again, right? So I stuck that in the chapter plan to have something there. Obviously, the way it actually ended up playing out had only Mark meeting Alan, and two other conversations not part of the plan. In hindsight, the fact I put a chapter in the chapter plan where I wasn't planning on having anything in particular happen, just to have something occur in this place that they pass through, was pretty silly.

This chapter feels a little weird and disconnected, I think. There's not a strong sense of when any of this happens relative to chapter 56 - there's been some kind of timeskip, but we have no idea how long. In fact, there's kind of some conflicting information here - the Alan conversation sounds like it's been a little while since they met, but this seems to be the first time they actually come to Green Town after the Safari, and surely they headed pretty directly there - and why hasn't Letaligon been released yet? I may swap this whole bit with chapter 58 in the next revision.

The conversations here are then all very disconnected from each other, with the whole bit about Stantler getting hurt obviously serving only as a framing device for having these conversations. It kind of reminds me of bottle episodes in TV shows, where for budgetary reasons you'll have an episode featuring only a minimal number of characters and locations, usually dedicated to conversation and character development. They're definitely interesting conversations giving a bit of insight into the characters involved and driving where their development goes from here, but the contained feel of the chapter makes them feel less significant, somehow, I think. All in all, I think the next revision would try to reduce this disconnected feel.


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