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TEEN: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

Act I - A Fragile Identity
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Don't you hate it when your life is a lie?

Owen, a Charmander that should've evolved a long time ago, accidentally becomes the Guardian of the Grass Orb. To make matters worse, he is plunged into a great conspiracy hidden in the outskirts and Dungeons of the world. He must rely on friends new and old to survive and defeat the Hunters that aim to take the Orbs for themselves. The deeper he delves, the more Owen suspects that his past is a lie, and his future is uncertain.

Fighting your fate is one thing. But what about fighting your design?

An original Pokemon Mystery Dungeon setting. No prior knowledge beyond basic Pokemon trivia is required.


Cover art by the wonderful @canisaries
Hello, everyone! This is it, my main work. Maybe you saw a few of my oneshots here and there, or maybe you just know me from other areas, but this is where most of my effort and creativity goes.

In terms of my philosophy on fanfiction, I like to take what the canon gave me in terms of the base mechanics, and then work them into a narrative style. I dropped a few things that felt specifically game-oriented (stairs in the middle of a forest...? Nah.) but tried to incorporate things from the game into this original world if it was passable (warp tiles? That'll be useful!)

Tone-wise, I keep to the general feel of the Mystery Dungeon series -- a lighthearted setting, colorful characters, and dark undertones. And dark plot points. Then I add a bit of my personal flair to it: A bit of divine conspiracy here, an ensemble cast there... I have a heavy emphasis on character interaction and the elaborate plots they weave.

This will be long. While I've been told that the early chapters are fast-paced, I still feel like they're a bit of a slow start compared to when I finally have all my pieces in place to get things rolling. But as a new reader, I hope you don't notice that and it's a fun ride every step of the way! And for old readers: I hope your rereads pick up on the little hints that a blind reader might not pick up.

Okay, enough rambling. Have some information, a Table of Contents, and then some fanart!

Content warning: "T" on FF.Net, "Teen and Up" on AO3.
Mild to moderate violence; blood; death or themes of death; and some suggestive, disturbing, or dark themes and imagery. (I promise the tone isn't grimdark or anything like that.)
This is a work that is posted on FFN, AO3, and Wattpad under the same username, so don't be alarmed if you see it there, too. I'm still working out how to get the work here to "catch up" to my weekly uploads there, but until then, I'll trickle them in to the forums week by week.

This is going to be a four-act, chapter-based work.

Serebii, 2018:
Best Chaptered Fic (new author) 1st, tie.
Best PMD fic - 1st, tie
Funniest character (Rhys, the comically serious) - 1st
Best nonhuman supporting character (Goodra Anam) - 2nd
Best Plot - 2nd
Most suspenseful moment (Chapter 8) - 2nd

15773218754593026517286834042305.png

Art of the Association Head, the strongest* 'mon in the world! This one was drawn by Psychic! Though his slime is typically purple like the rest of him, fun trivia: When he was younger, the slime was green like the rest of 'em.

Some art from a reader who wished to remain anonymous. Title was "The Call of the Spirit." Alternative title was "Top 10 Images Taken Before Disaster."

Fanart from a 15 minute sketch by @canisaries after inspiration from seeing Owen's, uh, new look! He didn't give it a title, but I think "Grassmander" fits.

Reward art of the lonely heart Zena by Dragonfree!
Zena_Strangle_Owen.png

By Tanuki1029, though he isn't on this forum. While Owen isn't a Charmander in this scene, it's still such a good image that I'm giving it a pass. This is when Zena was finding out, um, less than stellar things about Star.

This one is from NebulaDreams, though he isn't on this forum.
gawen.png

Gawen, by @canisaries
And also...
SPOILER_image0.png

Mispy, by @canisaries
1583109301228.png

You guys may start to notice that @canisaries is very fond of making memes of HoC. But I'm deeefinitely not complaining~

A young James and Anam. Credit to AarowTheBlacksmith!





ACT I - A Fragile Identity

Poison-tipped fangs plunged into Owen’s chest. The Charmander cried out, struggling through his pierced lungs, and pushed against the stone serpent wrapped around him. He didn’t know what it was. It had the face and colors of a Tyranitar, with its rocky edges and black gaps in its armor. Yet it had the winding, coiling body of a Seviper, a poisoned blade at the end of its tail, and long, sharp fangs stuck deep within him. He tasted blood; he couldn’t breathe. His lungs were full.

“OWEN!” cried a Gardevoir.

“M-Mom!” Owen mouthed.

Behind the Gardevoir was a Magmortar. With fire in his eyes, he launched a volley from his cannons that exploded right next to the amalgamation. It hissed in pain; the Flame Burst sent him flying, along with Owen. The bursts lit up the surrounding field of lush grass, cutting through the evening twilight’s darkness. Only the fading fire of Owen’s tail and the Magmortar’s shoulders lit the area—making them easy targets.

The impact on the ground gave Owen just enough time to escape, wriggling out of its rocky hold. He felt free for only half a second. Owen turned his head and saw the thing launch a succession of large rocks toward his father, the Magmortar. Three hits. They went straight through him. Blue fire erupted from the resulting holes. And then, his father exploded in a flurry of embers.

D-dad? Owen stared with wide eyes, distracted.

The serpent hissed and swung its tail forward—a sharp pain surged through Owen’s back. A jerking motion forced Owen’s head down. He saw the blade coming out from his chest. He had no way to scream.

“Get AWAY!” the Gardevoir, his mother, screamed for him. An incredible heat washed over Owen’s back, and then a horrible, shrieking wail filled his ears. He fell; the tail slipped out from behind. Blood gushed on the dirt beneath him.

Owen fell face-first into the dirt, but despite this, it felt like the coziest pillow in the world. Everything felt cold, and then warm.

“Owen! Owen!” She rushed toward him, paying no mind to the fire on the ground. It didn’t look like the flames affected her body at all. “Owen, it’s going to be okay!” She held his back, pushing wave after wave of healing energy through his body. His breath returned to him; he coughed the remaining blood out.

What happened to his Dad? Owen’s eyes darted in all directions, his expression asking what his mouth couldn’t.

“Shh, it’s okay,” she said, placing her hand firmly on his back. The pain was unbearable. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Calm down. Sleep…”

The world curled itself up in a tiny circle in front of Owen, darkening into a distant tunnel. But then, the world uncoiled, much to Owen’s displeasure. He just wanted to sleep.

The Heal Pulse intensified, the warmth almost too hot even for his Fiery body. He gasped his first breath, life—and pain—returning to him in full.

But then he felt a different energy course through him. It wasn’t healing him. “Shh,” Amia said softly. “Just sleep. Just sleep…”

It felt awful. Energy drained from his core. His vision faded. And then, darkness.

<><><>​

The dim glow of nighttime mushrooms colored the rocky walls of the cave. Mixing with this light were flickering embers of orange and yellow. Owen was lying in the middle of these flames, enjoying the warmth; they licked at his scales and washed over his back. The flame at the end of his tail got hotter, brimming with energy. He rolled over to sear his belly next.

Wait. What happened? Wasn’t he—

“No resting on the fire, Owen.”

“Wh—huh? I wasn’t!” He rolled away and quickly hid beneath his bed of leaves. Some of them turned black from the fire, but they didn’t burn. “Ngh,” He held his chest. It felt horribly bruised. And his back was killing him. No wonder he was sleeping on the fire! But why did he feel that way? He remembered a fight. A fight that he’d lost. Badly. But was that just a dream? He remembered a rocky serpent. And fire, and explosions. It was all so garbled—he wasn’t sure what was real.

The Gardevoir peeked into the room, her white dress aglow from the mushrooms and the fire. She sighed, smiling. “You’re lucky we got you that special Rawst Leaf bed, or we’d need to replace it every night!” She laughed, but then walked over, patting him on the head. “Go to sleep, dear. Tomorrow’s a big day for you, isn’t it? Another expedition as a trainee. You don’t want to do that while sleep-deprived, do you? When you get up, Alex and I will get you a good meal ready.”

“Yeah…”

Another voice whispered quietly from the other room. “Amia, is he okay?”

Owen saw the burning shoulders of his Magmortar father. A vague image flashed in front of his mind of that very same Magmortar bursting into an explosion of blue embers. Bluer than his mother’s hair. That must have been a dream.

“It’s very late, Owen. Get some rest.” The blue Gardevoir gently pressed her hand against his back, making him reflexively tense. She frowned at this, biting her lower lip with concern. “Owen, did you have a nightmare?”

“I think so…”

“Well, it’s gone, now,” Amia said. She looked back to Alex, who shuffled to the other room. “Get some sleep. It’s still late at night.”

Owen eased himself onto his bed of leaves again, giving a defeated nod. “Okay, Mom.”

Right before going to bed, his mind felt muddled again. In the corner of his eye, he saw an eerie glow. His consciousness abruptly cut out.

<><><>​

Breakfast was a hearty stew. The table had three seats. Two were sized for the smaller frames of the mother and son. Both were approximately the same width, albeit oversized for Owen. The third seat was much larger than the rest—in order to accommodate for its usual occupant. Alex, bumping his cannon-arms nervously, looked down at his food without a hint of an appetite.

“What’s wrong?” Owen asked.

“N-nothing,” Alex said. He refused to make eye contact.

Owen squinted suspiciously. He glanced at Amia, who giggled nervously and looked at her half-eaten bowl.

“Mmm. How are you feeling, Owen?” she asked.

“Perfect! But, uh, I don’t know. Did you ever have that feeling where you had a really good dream, but then you can’t… remember it?”

Owen noticed the subtle, shocked expressions in his parents’ eyes, but he didn’t acknowledge it.

“I had one of those. But I can’t remember any of it. I think I was having a really big fight. I remember my heart racing!” Owen played with a lump of a potato in the stew. His parents always got uncomfortable when he talked about his dreams, and he never knew why. He did admit that they felt too real to be dreams, but what else could they be? He had decided long ago not to press the issue. He grabbed his bowl and downed half of his breakfast. His parents’ expressions were grave, but they feigned a smile when he looked at them again. “Weird, huh? Dreams are funny.”

“Oh, Owen, m-maybe you’re just nervous about all this,” his mother said. “Becoming stronger, more responsibilities. Being part of the Thousand Hearts is a big deal, after all! …If you get in. Remember, there’s no shame in failing the exams.”

She was trying to help him feel better, but that didn’t help the knot of inferiority tightening in his gut. How many times had he tried and failed to get in? No, this would be different. That was the whole reason he was going out on a practice exploration in the first place.

“Y-yes, exactly,” Alex said. “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not too late to… live quietly? Perhaps take on a farming job.”

“No way!” Owen said, beaming. “Fighting is the way to go. I can’t live without a good fight. And what better way to fight than to, uh, y’know, fight bad guys?”

“Of… of course.” At this point, his father’s flaming shoulders were mere cinders. Owen’s mother put her hand on Alex’s back, shaking her head.

Owen returned to his meal.

. “So… today’s the day, right?” Alex asked, breaking the tense silence.

“Oh, Alex, you weren’t up all night, were you?” Amia asked.

Owen wouldn’t doubt if Alex spent all night fretting over his planned excursion.

“No! I shut my eyes,” he said. “…Owen, are you sure about this?”

“Super totally!” Owen said, tipping his bowl of stew directly into his mouth.

Alex gulped. “Amia, don’t you think it’s a little early?”

“Oh, Alex, we can’t baby him forever. He’s an adult!” she said. “It’s just one exploration. Into a known area. In a Dungeon, sure, but nothing he can’t handle! He’ll be just fine.” She fidgeted with her hands. It was a telltale sign she was trying to convince herself it would be okay. Owen chose not to acknowledge this, either.

“Yeah,” Owen said. “And if I get horribly maimed, I’ll just warp back to the entrance! It’ll be fine!” He grinned, but he wondered if his word choice could have been better. He was trying to be funny, but he practically heard his father’s heart explode through his giant torso.

“B-but it will still be dangerous! You’ll be badly hurt, Owen! There are stories of bandits and outlaws and even ferals waiting for defeated Pokémon to return to the entrance. You’ll be too weak to fight back, and then—and then—” Alex’s shoulder fire nearly touched the ceiling of the cavern. “And what if you bring something important with you? If you get kicked out of a Dungeon in that way, you’ll—lose it! You’ll lose almost everything on you! Perhaps even your—your life!”

“Well, if wild Pokémon think it’s safe,” Owen said, “then it must be really nice, y’know?”

“B-but…! That’s…!” Alex’s arms heated up. He looked like he was going to collapse into himself with worry. “Wh-which Dungeon is it again?”

“It’s only the Wooden Wilds, dear,” Amia said. “It isn’t even very far. And it’s mostly just Bug and Grass Pokémon—you have nothing to worry about! He won’t strain himself.” She nodded at both of them.

Alex hummed against his lips, expression twisted with an endless pit of worry. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Then… then, you can go, Owen. But—be careful! Very, very careful. And if you ever run into trouble, we’ll tell the Hearts about it right away.”

“I’ll be fine, Dad,” Owen said. How humiliating would it be for his parents to ask the Hearts to rescue him? He was supposed to be part of them, not one of their clients! He hopped out of his seat. “Okay! I’m gonna go now, alright? See you!”

“W-wait!” Alex said. “Did you meditate?!”

“Did this morning!” Surprisingly, this was the truth.

Owen hopped out of his seat. He grabbed a small, lightweight, golden Badge with a heart-shaped insignia from a nearby rock, and then grabbed his little exploration pouch from the front, wrapping it around his back. “See you!” He glanced at the Provisionary Heart Badge within his claws, nodding to himself.

They watched Owen leave. Amia leaned into Alex’s chest, sighing.

Alex’s fire finally returned to something normal in size. “I hope he isn’t self-conscious of his size. It might affect how strong he is, even if he’s stronger than the average Charmander, you know, given the…”

Amia giggled, patting Alex on the shoulders, completely unaffected by the flames. “He’s got a strong will, though, and he’s resourceful, too. He’ll make up for it. And who knows? Maybe this adventure is what he needs to control that spirit of his.” She sighed, staring at the empty bowl Owen left behind. “I wish Rhys was still here. Maybe we wouldn’t have had to…”

Alex hummed worriedly. “That was a close call, yesterday,” he said. “I’ve never seen one of those mutants so powerful before. What if he runs into another of those—those things in the Dungeon?”

Amia bit her lip. “I know, dear. But that Dungeon is safer than most. If he runs into any trouble, well, it’ll be better there than anywhere else. You know it’s me they’re after, not him.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” Alex rubbed his cannons together. “If I was just a little stronger, I could have defended us both. But I just… evaporated after the first strike. Curse this body. It’s so foreign, even now. Sometimes I wish I…”

“It’s not your fault, dear,” Amia said soothingly, holding his shoulder a bit tighter. “It’s my fault, too. I should have been more careful when leaving the caves. If we just stayed put, we wouldn’t have had to put Owen through all that again.”

Alex frowned, but then the Magmortar forced a smile to the Gardevoir. “Let’s clean up the table,” he said. “And—and if he isn’t back by the evening… N-no, late-afternoon…!”

“We’ll call the Hearts. I promise.”
 
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So, welcome. I'm giving this a look-see. I know that you're porting this story over here, but I'm probably going to keep pace solely with the forum version. It's... less stressful that way, if I'm honest. ^^;

As far as prologues go, I think this one's solid. It starts with an action set piece to grab my attention, before introducing me in a bit more detail to Owen and explaining just enough stuff about how this world works to where I can follow things and not be scratching my head in confusion. We have this Association, which seems to manage explorers, and the dungeons themselves, coupled with real wild 'mons. I imagine you're going to have address just how sentient these wild 'mons are and what kind of relationship they have with civilized 'mons, but that's left to the future. Owen's already got a badge and an inventory, so he clearly knows what's up. That does close off the possibility of using the main character's ignorance as a way to explain some of the mechanics of your world, but I'll wait until we get any actual exposition to judge it.

At the same time, there are some mysterious plot threads you've dangled to get me interested in the story. Was what we saw at the start really just a dream vision? What do Owen's parents know about him that they're not telling him? Why is Owen adopted? In general, I think these plot threads were introduced pretty naturally. The one exception is the "Tomorrow's a big day," stuff. You explain a bit about Owen needing to go dugeon crawling, but it just struck me as an instant of the characters being vague for the sake of being vague or trying to keep the audience in suspense.

On the more critical side of things, I think you're seriously overusing ellipses, here. I'm not sure how mechanically correct or incorrect it is to follow ellipses with a question mark or exclamation point, but something about it strikes me as off. Even beyond that, though, you use them quite a lot, frequently ending off dialogue lines with them. I don't think the characters' voices are trailing off that often in their dialogue.

Related to that, this prologue is really inconsistent with how it handles introducing the characters. By which I mean, you first refer to Owen and his family by their species' names. Then, later on, you describe their physical appearances as if you were explaining them to someone who's never heard of Pokémon before. But what's really baffling is that Amia is randomly referred to by name within Owen's dream sequence, in the narration, but then you go back to calling her "The Gardevoir" until Alex mentions her by name during breakfast. It's unnecessary, in my opinion. You're writing a fanfic, after all, so unless your POV character doesn't know what they're seeing (like with the not-seviper monster), you don't need to describe the pokémon to your audience unless they have a unique physical attribute to set them apart from other members of their species. For example, Amia's shiny, so it makes sense to mention her blue hair.

Lastly, I guess I'll note that FFN is a bit of crapshoot with its ratings, but that opening dream sequence is stradling the line b/w Teen & Mature. Given that Owen gets, y'know, impaled through the chest. That's some Devil May Cry shit right there. Granted, he shouldn't have lived that long, anyway, since he starts the dream sequence with a sucking chest wound that probably would progress to a tension pneumothorax but, y'know, pokémon are magical so I'll overlook it. :p

Those bits aside, it was a good opening. Hopefully I'll be back in the future.
 
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Was what we saw at the start really just a dream vision?
Thanks for saying this. I, uh, tried to imply that it wasn't a dream (Owen remarking that his back was killing him) because I hate opening with dream sequences. I added a small extension at the end of the prologue to basically confirm that it actually happened.

The one exception is the "Tomorrow's a big day," stuff. You explain a bit about Owen needing to go dugeon crawling, but it just struck me as an instant of the characters being vague for the sake of being vague or trying to keep the audience in suspense.
I'm 100% positive this is an artifact of the first, first draft of this prologue, seasons ago. This prologue used to open with the second scene, and the encounter with the Seviper-thing was completely absent. I didn't actually intend for this to be something for the reader to wonder about, so I added a quick line on why it's a big day -- an exploration as a trainee!

On the more critical side of things, I think you're seriously overusing ellipses, here
Yeah, this is an author's sin of mine. As I upload to the forums, I'm probably going to cut out most of the ellipses as I go. A lot of them can probably be replaced by commas.

Lastly, I guess I'll note that FFN is a bit of crapshoot with its ratings, but that opening dream sequence is stradling the line b/w Teen & Mature.
Yeah, I've no idea how standards and practices work, especially for literature. I have it as Teen if only because that sort of violence doesn't happen every chapter, and is actually a bit infrequent. I basically compared my work to other Teen works and figured, "Despite what just happened, I've seen a lot worse in the same rating in successful fics," and went with that.


Thanks for the feedback!
 
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Well this is an interesting start to a story. The first half of the prologue does act as a pretty weird contrast to the second half, however it seems like Owen's dream isn't quite a dream like he thinks. Admittedly I think the sypnosis for the story kind of goes a little into too much detail, which already kind of spoils that whole revelation that Owen, and somehow his father, survived.

Unfortunately, other than that I don't have much to comment on in regards to the prologue. I'm glad you pointed out that Owen was adopted considering I...couldn't see how he could even be born, but that does raise some questions on the source of his adoption, I mean assuming there's some special reason for why he was adopted in the first place. Outside of that I actually liked how you inverted the usual parents cliche by having his dad be the worrywart of the two, since usually it's the other way around and it helps add some uniqueness to it.

Outside of that, I don't have much to say about Owen himself. He seems like your typical plucky protagonist excited to start the journey towards his dream, I kind of hope we're given more interesting traits as the story goes on, otherwise it could get pretty dull, though at least it's made up with the fact that Owen is still pretty young as a Charmander.
 
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Thanks for the feedback, @Flaze! I don't have any specific quotes from you to pull out, but I am glad that you're interested. Owen does seem a bit enthusiastic and "plucky" so far, but while I obviously wouldn't want to spoil too much about how things go on in the next few chapters, I can assure you there's more to Owen (and his parents) than just a starry-eyed kid and his role-flipped parents.

The synopsis does spoil a little bit of early-story points. That being said, it doesn't spoil much more than the some back-of-the-book blurbs do, I can assure you of that.
 
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Oh, this really was short, but that made sense after being told it was a prologue. Lots on stuff in it though, however.

The dim glow of nighttime mushrooms colored the rocky walls of the cave.
Ooh, I'm a big fan of bioluminescence. Always makes an environment neater to me.

A Gardevoir peeked into the room, her white dress aglow from the mushrooms and the fire. She had blue hair and a red, fin-like protrusion from her chest.
The third seat was much larger than the rest—in order to accommodate for its usual occupant. He was a creature with a flame-themed body, and a bulky one at that. His most prominent features, however, were his arms, which were shaped like natural cannons. He was bumping these cannon-arms together with anxiety.
Not sure about the description of the mon that appear... the blue hair should naturally be mentioned for the Gardevoir as it's not the standard color for the species (I'm assuming she's a shiny), but mentioning the fin seems redundant. The people who read this are either going to know what a Gardevoir looks like or not know what one looks like. The former group will already know about the fin once the species is mentioned and the latter group would require way more description to paint a picture in their heads.

The description for the Magmortar is more naturally injected into the prose and sticks out less. The mon's anatomy is more unique and odd than a Gardevoir's, too, so a refresher on it may be useful.

For the Tyranitar-Seviper mutant, the description is perfectly necessary, as it's a creature unfamiliar to the viewer - and also to Owen, the main character.

Alex gulped. “I hope he isn’t self-conscious of his size,” she said. “It might affect how strong he is, even if he’s stronger than the average Charmander, you know, given the…”
I'm assuming this was meant to be Alex's line, and therefore "he"?

Anyway, this prologue awakens a lot of questions and curiosity about the world and scenario, as a good prologue should. So far it feels like some kind of astral projection stuff is going on, with Owen's memories being wiped every time after? Can't say for sure, but that's why the reader reads on. Count on me for catching the first true chapter when it's posted.
 
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Not sure about the description of the mon that appear...
This is probably the most conflicting thing I've done in the fic so far, even to myself. When first writing, I thought that I wouldn't reveal the pokemon species until after the description, but I've since figured it would be silly since most who read this fanfiction would be familiar, and only a really cursory description would be needed, maybe key features. I'm considering doing a compromise on that and shortening any "familiar" species to whatever perspective the third person narrative is following (typically Owen).

I'm assuming this was meant to be Alex's line, and therefore "he"?
Oh, for the love of--not another one! I have no idea why I'm so bad at the genders of my characters. I know what they are, but sometimes my fingers just don't agree. Thanks for pointing it out!

Count on me for catching the first true chapter when it's posted.
Thanks! Since it's such a teeny part, this was mostly just me getting my bearings in a forum setting. I plan to post the first actual chapter tomorrow once I'm fully settled in.
 
Chapter 1 – Kilo Village
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Chapter 1 – Kilo Village

Owen walked with a spring in his step, tail flame blazing happily. The caverns that he lived in had no natural sunlight, but the mushrooms that lined the rocky walls and ceilings gave more than enough light. Not that it mattered; complete darkness was a foreign concept to most Charmander.

The central cavern was a stone’s throw across, with many smaller offshoots in either direction. Other villagers made their homes in these rocky caves, mostly Fire Pokémon like himself. In that sense, his adoptive mother was an exception to the population, though she could deal with the heat like any other Fire could.

“Oh, Owen!”

Owen stopped, spotting a large Arcanine bounding over to him. “Hi, Granny Arcanine!”

“Oh, hush, I’m not that old. Auntie Arcanine is just fine.” Despite this, she smiled, passing a small bag of apples over. “You’re going on a little mock-expedition, are you? I gathered these up just for you.”

“Aw, thanks!” Owen graciously took them, counting them for inventory, and slipped the three apples into his pouch.

“I figured it would save you the trouble of going by the apple garden yourself,” Arcanine said, fluffy tail wagging. “It’s not far, but you’re a busy Heart, aren’t you?”

“Well, I’m not a Heart yet,” Owen said, though his tail and chest both expanded at the thought. “Just wait! This time, I’ll get it!”

“Ohh, your eyes are so bright, Owen.” She laughed, waving him off.

Owen left at a full sprint, too full of energy to go any slower, and only looked back to wave her goodbye.

The passage narrowed until it was only a reminder to Owen that, one day, he’d have to be more careful about how he walked through it. When he became a Charizard, he’d have to keep to one side so he didn’t take up the entryway. Though, now that he thought about it, he didn’t see a lot of other villagers pass through this area. They usually kept to themselves—it was a secret location, after all. Which made it even cooler.

Owen stopped at what appeared to be a dead-end of the caves. He hopped onto a small, flat square on the ground. Nothing happened.

“Oh, come on.”

Owen stepped off of the tile, swung his arms back, and hopped a bit higher into the air, putting his full weight and gravity behind the jump. The tile depressed a little, but still, nothing happened.

He used to open this so easily. Did he lose weight? Muscle weighed more than fat. Owen worriedly pinched at his gut, wondering if his chubby Charizard genes were coming through before the rest. But it felt normal.

The apparently lightweight Charmander scanned the ground and found a large rock. That’ll do. He hauled it over with him and jumped onto the tile again.

Click.

The dead-end glowed a bright cyan, much like the glassy mushrooms. The blockage, a huge boulder, rolled aside, revealing the bright sky. Owen squinted, reptilian pupils narrowing until he could finally adjust to the new normal.

He emerged to the base of a rocky hillside behind him; green fields of grass as tall as he was greeted him ahead. To his left and right was a simple dirt path, carved by traveling Pokémon. Owen headed to the left, knowing that it would be a quick walk to get to Kilo Mountain.

It was a little raised hill in the distance from his perspective, but that was a whole mountain of black rock. The ground rumbled, the boulder that had led to the opening of his hidden village rolling back into place, blending in with the rest of the hill.

A short, quiet walk later, with the summer breeze tickling his flame, Owen stopped where the dirt road converged with many others. Embedded into the ground was a flat, silvery hexagon with a few dim lights lining the sides. The lights weren’t very bright in the morning sun—it was mostly for visibility at night. Instead, it made for a colorful, intricate pattern that, from what Owen had read, was meant to be aesthetically pleasing, and had little other functional value.

Owen stepped onto the Waypoint and gently tapped his ankle on the tile. In a flash, he disappeared.

<><><>​

The sky was a blinding blue that morning, not a cloud in sight. With the help of the Waypoint, the fiery explorer appeared in the middle of town in a flash of light. It hadn’t felt like anything but a blink, yet in that blink, he went from staring at Kilo Mountain from far away to being within the crater’s top, within Kilo Village itself.

“That was so cool!” Owen said. It wasn’t his first time, but the wonder of being able to teleport from any other Waypoint to the central one would never wear off for him. Just as this wasn’t going to be his first exploration, but it’d be the first one in a slightly harder Dungeon that he could remember.

Owen looked around to gather his bearings. Immediately in the center of town was a sign that said, ‘Welcome to Kilo Village!’ It was odd to have a welcome sign in the exact middle of the location, but it made sense when most individuals entered through the Waypoints scattered across all of Kilo. The town itself was in the middle of a crater at the top of an extinct volcano. From inside town, one couldn’t see anything beyond the dark hills of the crater. The altitude, however, wasn’t very high; the mountain was mostly underwater, rather than above the sea—according to the Water Pokémon, at least. Owen didn’t intend to test such theories out.

The buildings that surrounded him were no more than two stories tall. Oblong rocks bound by mortar shaped the buildings near the center of town—the oldest buildings of the crater. These black stones were home to nobody. Instead, it served as a hospital for rescued and injured Pokémon. Owen spotted a Chansey through windows of wood and glass, holding a few soft-boiled eggs in her tiny arms. A Miltank was carrying a large jug of milk in the opposite direction.

Owen decided not to think too hard about it.

All around Owen was everything that a Heart would need. The northern side of the crater was dedicated to Dungeon items and equipment. These buildings were made from the same material, but were more recently renovated, lined with displays of seeds and berries, wands and orbs, tonics and vitamins.

The east was dedicated to eateries and restaurants for Pokémon that were either preparing for a mission or returning from one. Sweet and savory scents mixed in the air and the jovial energy of a job well done permeated the atmosphere. If it wasn’t for the price, Owen would have eaten there every night.

The west was for training and sparring, fighting one another, attacking dummies, and conquering obstacle courses set up by retired explorers. These buildings were often where experimental materials were used before shifting the techniques into the older buildings. After all, if it could withstand the attacks of the Pokémon that trained there, it could easily handle whatever else the rest of the town had to deal with.

Owen then glanced longingly at the southern part of town. The Thousand Hearts. The building itself was a big, red, heart-shaped structure, with many smaller hearts scattered around: kiosks and special-purpose facilities. Inside the biggest building was where all Hearts met for check-ins, assignments, and training. Why a heart? Owen had no idea, though it might have something to do with their leader’s personality.

All of the sights and the bright sky lifted his spirits. He couldn’t ignore how nervous his parents were, and that dampened them slightly—but he figured that if he kept acting cheerful, maybe he’d be able to fool himself into truly feeling confident, too. That feeling always nagged at him. The idea that something wasn’t right with anything he did. Not that he did it incorrectly, but that something, in general, felt wrong. Even now, it tugged at his mind.

Lost in thought, he didn’t notice a passerby Zangoose.

“Kid,” he said, “you oughta get off the Waypoint.”

“S-sorry!” Owen scrambled away. “Okay. Okay, time to go. I need, uhh, what do my supplies look like?” He rummaged through his bag. “A-and I’m not a kid!” he shouted. “I’m just a late evolver!”

He had two Oran Berries, two elixirs, two apples, a Pecha Berry, a Heal Seed, a Totter Orb, and—just in case—an Escape Orb. That should be enough, hopefully. No need to go to the shop to get anything. He’d want at least one Reviver Seed, or even a tiny one just for the boost to escape from trouble, but he didn’t have the funds for that sort of thing. Oh! But what if they had a rare berry or two? Sure, he preferred having his bag half-empty in order to make room for scavenging in the Dungeon, but a few extra berries wouldn’t hurt. If he just shuffled the Oran Berries around, perhaps carried the Totter Orb instead?

“Kid. You’re in the way.”

“S-sorry!” He stumbled. “Wait—I’m not a kid! I told you, I’m a late evolver! I’ll have you know, I—uh—I, er…” He finally realized who he was talking to. Not the Zangoose this time. It was a Golem, a behemoth of a rocky sphere, staring down at him from his great height. Defiantly, Owen puffed out his chest. He was a full-grown adult! Or at least an adult! Lots of weaker Pokémon never evolved. He just happened to be strong and slow at evolution.

The Golem sighed and wobbled away.

<><><>​

“Kid… not a kid… I’m just a little late, is all. I bet I’m way stronger than even the average Charmeleon! Stronger than that Golem, too, if he didn’t have an advantage.” Owen mumbled more to himself, the rest incomprehensible, clutching his bag. “I didn’t train with Dad for nothing.” He hesitated on that line of thinking. What if he didn’t evolve yet because he never got to train with a Charizard before? Could that happen? Is that how evolution worked? Owen shook his head. No, many Pokémon were raised without the same species around, and they evolved just fine. Adopted Pokémon weren’t at some—some disadvantage, were they? No, he was just fine! “Yeah, I’m just—”

He bumped right into another patron. “Sorry! I’m sorry!”

“Ahh, it is not a problem.”

Owen saw an Alakazam whose mustache was large enough for Owen to walk on like a carpet. Owen’s gut twisted with a feeling he couldn’t comprehend. But then, he shoved that feeling away, and instead tried to take in exactly who he was talking to.

“Y-you’re—you’re—!” Owen’s eyes sparkled. “Alakazam Nevren! Oh—oh, wow!”

“Ahh, you’ve spotted me!” Nevren chuckled. He put his two spoons in his left hand and shook Owen’s with his right. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

Owen tilted his head, confused. Hadn’t they met before? No, they hadn’t. He was just so well-known that he must have had that impression.

Nevren continued. “Ahh, I see you have a Provisionary Heart Badge. Training to become one of the Thousand, are you? There are quite a few open slots coming up soon, you know. Sixteen official retirements.”

“Sixteen?” Owen asked. “Wow! How come? Are… are some Pokémon not doing well?”

“Ahh, no, no, it’s nothing like that,” Nevren said. “These Pokémon are retiring on schedule. There will be a ceremony about that soon, you know. Perhaps you should attend and network with the others.”

“But you’re an Elite Heart,” Owen said. “Do you think I’ll be able to, um, get to that level?”

“Well, surely with time, you can. Everybody begins at the Entry tier, of course. But, looking at you…”

Owen felt a cold pit in his stomach at that analytical gaze. Was he being judged, right there, by one of the most Elite Hearts in the whole world?

Nevren nodded. “I see potential. Quite a bit!”

“Y’do?!” Owen said, worries gone instantly. “Wow! Okay! Then I’ll definitely do better!”

Nevren nodded. “In fact, why don’t I give you a small gift?”

“What? A gift—from you?! Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Please! I’ll treasure it!” Owen had no idea why Nevren would want to give him a gift so randomly. But he wasn’t going to question a freebie!

“Of course! Here, have this.” He handed Owen a small stone. It sparkled in the sun, but was mostly gray, like a shiny rock.

“Cool!” Owen said politely. “What, uh, what’s it do?”

“It is a special stone that protects Pokémon that have not yet fully evolved. It’s called an Eviolite—and it will be useful as long as it is near your body. I, of course, have no use for it, but you certainly do.”

“Oh! That means, so, when I get super strong, that’s when I won’t even need it.” It was a constant reminder that he was a larva when he shouldn’t have been. But, at least now he had a boost. “That’s the perfect item! Thank you!” Psychologically it was undoubtedly going to feed into some complex, Owen thought, but in terms of practicality? Priceless.

Nevren chuckled. “Be sure to keep it with you!” He walked past Owen, and the Charmander was left puffing a little plume of confused smoke at the Alakazam. Keep it with him? Of course he would!

Completely forgetting about going to the shop, he headed south again to the Heart. There, along the pathway, were many lines of warp tiles, each one with a label engraved on it. They were Waypoints set up by explorers of the past in different regions across the continent, meant for getting there instantly, rather than on foot or by wing. With the tiles sorted by a strange derivative of Unown runes, Owen searched for Unown-W’s symbol. “Western Crystal Cave, Western Wetlands, oh! Wooden Wilds! That’s it, alright.” Owen took a breath. “Tenth section. That’s my goal.”

Before he had the chance to enter, someone bumped into him.

“S-sorry! Again!” Owen said, a hint of irritability in his voice. This place was too crowded.

“Feh, quit standin’.” A huge, orange jaw chittered in front of Owen, owned by a Trapinch.

“Gahi, don’t be rude,” said an Axew just behind the Trapinch. Right next to the Axew was a Chikorita, who rolled her eyes.

Owen’s heart fluttered as if he’d seen old friends. Yet, he didn’t even know their names.

The Axew was the first to speak. “I’m sorry about Gahi,” he said, motioning to the Trapinch. “We were actually on our way to do a little mission. Or, well, to find one.”

“Oh, really? I was going to go exploring in the Wild Woodlands.”

“Y’mean the Wooden Wilds?” Gahi asked.

“Y-yeah, that.”

“Heh, well, g’luck,” Gahi said. “Figure yeh ain’t too experienced.”

“I am too! I’m super strong! I just… didn’t evolve yet.”

“Oh, really?” Gahi asked, his starry eyes shining with interest. “Well that makes four o’ us. Mispy, Demitri, ‘n I all’re late evolvers, but we’re super tough!”

“Oh! Wait—late evolvers. Is that real?” Owen had just made up the term, but they used it, too. Owen’s tail-fire burned a bit brighter at the validation.

“’Course it is!” Gahi said, stomping his tiny foot. “Otherwise, I’d be a Flygon by now!”

“And I’d be a Haxorus,” Demitri said. “Well, maybe just a Fraxure.” He rubbed at his tusk, tending to a little nick on the right side.

“Meganium…” Mispy said, leaf drooping.

The three collectively sighed.

“I know how you feel.” Owen’s tail drooped slightly. “I’ve trained hard enough to become a Charizard already. I’m sure of it! But, it just never happened. It’s so weird. Everybody else in my scales would’ve evolved by now, but…”

“It’s too bad,” Demitri said. “But, what can you do? We work with what we have, as Heart Entries.”

Owen’s eyes sparked. “You’re one of the Thousand?!”

“Well, three,” Demitri said. “We’re our own little team!”

“That’s so cool! How’d you get in?”

“Hard work,” Gahi said.

“And,” Demitri said, “we got a good word in from our mentor, an Elite Heart.”

“What? Who? Which one?” Owen asked.

“Lucario Rhys,” Demitri said.

There was the smallest pause from Owen. He knew the answer. He knew these three were his students. Trapinch Gahi, Axew Demitri, Chikorita Mispy. It was obvious to him! But why? No, don’t look crazy. Not today, Owen thought. He feigned a beaming expression. “He’s so cool! He’s the aura expert, right?”

“Yeah,” Demitri said. “And he’s super tough!”

“I already met Alakazam Nevren a little while ago! Those two are friends, right?! Oh, can I meet—I mean,” he paused. “Um… I mean…”

“Heh,” Gahi said, amused. “Maybe when yeh get stronger. ‘Til then, we’re gonna do our mission.” He led the way to the main building. Demitri followed, waving back in farewell. Mispy gave Owen an apologetic smile and followed after them.

Owen watched them with a tilted head. Their entire conversation felt like one giant déjà vu. Everything today did. He shook his head; if he kept thinking like this, his entire day would be ruined. He forced excitement to take over. He had an exploration to do!

<><><>​

“Peh! Pah!”

Embers filled the air. Shrieks of wild Pokémon accompanied them. With their bodies burned, they vanished in thin air, returning to the entrance to the Dungeon. “Sweet!” Owen said, pumping his fist in the air. “This is super easy!” He felt a little bad about hurting those Pokémon, but they were the ones attacking him. Owen felt a gentle sting to his side; one of the Paras had jabbed him in the thigh.

They should be fine enough. Getting ejected from a Dungeon often left the victim exhausted… but ferals like those were resilient.

Owen puffed and leaned against a nearby tree that jutted out from a soft wall. The corridors of Dungeons were always so awkwardly narrow, made from raised ground nearby—in this case, of dirt and rock. A strange gravity prevented him from climbing the walls, let alone flying over them if he ever sprouted wings. Perhaps in his dreams he could.

Owen’s stomach growled loudly, breaking him from his train of thought. He tittered and dug through his bag. “I guess fighting all the time can work up an appetite, huh?” The crackling flames of the battle’s aftermath spoke back to him. “I need to stop talking to myself.”

Owen sat down to enjoy his meal. He grabbed a stick nearby and stuck it through the core of the apple. He wrapped his tail around and kept it in front of him, roasting the apple above the flame, focusing to make the flame hot enough to actually cook it.

Someone growled behind him. Owen sighed. There was never any peace from the ferals of the Dungeon. They wandered aimlessly into these strange distortions of space, with no knowledge about how to leave, or even how they got in.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Owen warned. He didn’t even turn around. He bit into the roasted apple, savoring the sweet, hot taste.

The feral advanced, growling even louder. Suddenly, the ground beneath the Pokémon’s feet lit up in a bright yellow. A column of fire engulfed it—and that was it. A quick shriek, and then it was gone from the Dungeon. Satisfied, Owen spun the apple to cook it a bit more. “My signature attack—Fire Trap!” he said to the wind.

Being at such a disadvantage, he had trained day and night to perfect a delayed Fire attack, should he ever be caught off guard when handling things one on one. He wasn’t really sure how long he had actually trained; long enough to forget when he actually learned the technique, at least. Still, it took time for him to do it. He could only use it if he had a big opening. But that wasn’t so bad. Now, if only he could figure out how to run away and use the attack at the same time.

Owen finished his apple and stood up. “Top shape!” He pumped his fists in the air. “Can’t beat me now, Dungeon!”

The ground rumbled, as if Owen had tempted fate a bit too much. “U-uhh—” He looked back.

“Rrr… rrrn… rpphhf…”

Owen’s fire burned bright. He was ready to run at a moment’s notice. He shoved his hand into his bag, looking for an item that he’d picked up in an earlier section. He found it and looked up just in time to see the foot of a Snorlax stepping through the corridors. This Snorlax was huge—even bigger than he thought was normal for the species. And its arms were a bit longer, too, with long, matted fur. Muscles bulged unnaturally. It wasn’t a normal Snorlax—and Owen wasn’t prepared for whatever it had in store.

The phantom pain in Owen’s chest and back suddenly flared up at the sight of this mutated Pokémon. He had forgotten all about it. Suddenly, Owen remembered his dream, or flashes of it. He remembered his father getting struck, and then exploding in a cloud of blue embers. And some creature—he couldn’t remember what—slicing at him. That didn’t feel like a dream. But—his father was alive! It had to be a dream.

The Snorlax, however, was anything but. A single swing from its mighty fist would turn Owen to a fine, red mist.

“Nope!” He threw a seed toward the Snorlax and fired a puff of flames along with it. The seed ignited, sending soot and smoke in all directions, both blinding and suffocating the mutant. It roared and rubbed its eyes, stumbling blindly into a wall. Owen, knowing he was outmatched, fled for the next section. He only stopped running once he was sure he was far away. He held onto his tiny knees.

He caught his breath and stood straight. “That was weird,” Owen mumbled. “Never saw a Snorlax like that before.” He shook his head. Nothing he could do about it now. It was just something to report when he got back to Kilo Village. The Charmander gently held his chest; the phantom pain was fading.

I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. That was real, and I’m not seeing things. Not crazy.

And so, he advanced. Each section was separated by a small distortion, like a vertical pool of water, but Owen had an easier time checking each time his Badge blinked. The blink indicated a transition into a new part of the Dungeon. Section seven, section eight, section nine… section ten. “Okay, this must be it,” he said. “Finally.” Between his apparent struggle to differentiate dream from reality, and then the Snorlax sighting, his enthusiasm for the exploration was being sustained only by his own feigned excitement.

He did his research. There was a Waypoint at the end of the tenth section, where the Dungeon’s perimeter ended. What great timing, too—Owen was beat! He didn’t want to admit it to the Dungeon, but the tenth section was his limit. He looked up at the sky. The sun’s rays weren’t shining through the tall trees anymore—not directly, at least. It looked like it was going to turn orange soon. If he didn’t get home by evening, Alex’s cannons were probably going to explode with worry again.

“Hey. Kid.”

Owen bristled. “I’m NOT a ki—id…!” He turned around. On the other side of the Dungeon hall, a few paces behind him, was a creature with gray scales, huge jaws, and large wings. His eyes… Owen didn’t like those eyes. Trained, focused. Malevolent. What did this one have in mind? He saw that look often in town—outlaws that were captured, still bitter with defeat. But this one wasn’t defeated.

Of all the people that he’d met today, this outlaw was the first one that he had no inkling of familiarity with. He had to be careful what he wished for; meeting this Aerodactyl gave him the worst pit in his stomach yet. Maybe it was the apple.

“What’s someone like you doing in a place like this?” the Aerodactyl asked. “Looking for an advantage? Nothing but Grass and Bugs here, after all. Fire Type like you? Easy win.”

“Y-yeah. Really easy, ha ha…”

“I have an easy time here, too,” Aerodactyl replied. “Rock is strong against Bugs. And Flying? Beats ‘em both. But you know what’s really great about me?”

“Y-yeah? What?”

“Rock beats Fire. Rock also beats Flying. And guess what explorer-types show up the most here?”

“F… Fire and… Flying?”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?”

“I—I know Alakazam Nevren,” Owen said. “You should be careful how you act in front of me!”

“Oh, is he around?” Aerodactyl asked. Owen flinched. His hesitation said it all; the winged Pokémon’s jaw twisted into a horrible grin. “Guess that won’t matter, then, will it?”

“Uhh…! Uhh, then I’ll just beat you!” he said. He stomped on the ground and leaned forward, feigning an attack stance.

“Oh, really?” Aerodactyl asked, amused. “That’s a laugh. Okay, kid. But I’ll give you one last chance. Gimme your bag, and I’ll let ya go. Otherwise, I’ll—”

All that was left behind were a few stray embers from his tail; Owen bolted.
 
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We've got the introduction of our town hub and, of course, an introductory dungeon to go with it. I'll get back to the actual settings so I can focus more on the plot first. For being an introductory chapter, things move briskly. Owen's not dawdling in the town too long and even meets characters that I'm 100% confident will be important later on *looks at signature*. Each encounter has a nagging sense of familiarity to it. It's pretty blatant foreshadowing that something's going on here and that, yes, that dream of his was real. If I had to guess, Nevren (or another psychic we'll meet) erased selected memories from Owen's mind. Because we can't have a PMD story without some amnesia, am I right? :V

I suppose that, the benefit of Owen being a resident of this world is that he's already familiar with the mechanics of how things operate. This gives you leeway to not need to explain anything to us. The world has teleportation and we can see that. Since Owen knows about, there's no exposition. I'm okay with this as I hate it when the story stops so the narration can just explain something for me. But I think you mostly leaned on the showing side with things like the different Heart ranks. There were a few points I was confused on – like does the Thousand-Hearts Association actually have a thousand members? – but they might get clarified later. On the flip side, the dungeons are a subject where you should find a way to explain things more concretely. From what it looks like, we've got a forest landmass that isn't floors, but sections, divided by the usual weird distortion. But are the layouts constantly shifting? Where are wild Pokémon living, if not in the dungeons themselves? Do they just randomly wander in and attack? Why is there a different in intelligence level b/w wild 'mons and civilized ones? These are worldbuilding questions I'll be looking for answers to in the future.

With that said, my big issue again was with inconsistency in your descriptions. The issue with Pokémon I brought up in the prologue is still here. It might actually be magnified since you have a couple of instances where you just refer to a 'mon as "someone," which doesn't help with drawing a mental image of what's going on. The other side to that is with the actual settings. While you described the warp points and the Thousand-Hearts HQ, the rest of Kilo Village is a giant question mark, as is the forest dungeon. The crater part was specific, but using vague descriptors like "restaurants" or "item shops" leaves a lot to my imagination... and I'd bet most readers wouldn't create the mental image you're going for without a bit more detail. Like, say, shapes/sizes/colors of buildings. Likewise, the dungeon needs some more setpieces other than just trees and roots, in my opinion.

Anyway, that's all I've got. Looks like Owen's gonna rock out next chapter. sorrynotsorry
 
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Crossposting review from Serebii!

The town itself was in the middle of a crater at the top of an extinct volcano. From inside town, they couldn’t see anything beyond the hills of the crater.
Hmm... pardon me if it's part of some phrase I happen to be unaware of, but the "they" here doesn't seem to refer to anything. If it's the individuals arriving through the Waypoint, they're a bit too far behind to be matched up with this pronoun. If it's the townsfolk, it's feels kinda reachy. Suggestion: you can use "one" instead, I think that would work.

and that dampened them slightly
Heh, the fire type's spirits are dampened. Intentional or not, that's cute.

“Ahh, it is not a problem,” the Pokémon replied. Owen saw a creature with yellowish skin and a brown chest. His mustache was one that was large enough for Owen to walk on like a carpet. Owen’s gut twisted with a feeling he couldn’t comprehend. But then, he shoved that feeling away, and instead tried to take in exactly who he was talking to.

“Y-you’re—you’re—!” Owen’s eyes sparkled. “Alakazam Nevren! Oh—oh, wow!”
I remember what you said about describing mon over at Bulba, and this way does feel better than the one in the prologue.

“What? A gift—from you?! Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Please! I’ll treasure it!” Owen had no idea why Nevren would want to give him a gift so randomly. But he wasn’t going to question a free item!
uh oh. better not let Owen near any white vans

It was a constant reminder that he was a larva when he shouldn’t have been.
Mmm, the use of the word "larva" here really lasagnas my Garfield. (That's a good thing.) Really vividly describes how helpless and silly-looking a late evolver feels.

Completely forgetting about going to the shop, he headed south again to the Heart. There, along the pathway, were many lines of warp tiles, each one with a label engraved on it. They were Waypoints set up by explorers of the past in different regions across the continent, meant for getting there instantly, rather than on foot or by wing. With the tiles sorted by a strange derivative of Unown runes, Owen searched for Unown-W’s symbol. “Western Crystal Cave, Western Wetlands, oh! Wooden Wilds! That’s it, alright.” Owen took a breath. “Tenth section. That’s my goal.”
Ooh, this is one of those PMD fics that goes strong on the MD aspect but still makes game mechanics make sense in-universe. Haven't bumped into many yet, but I like the adaptations in this.

The plot seems to be picking up pretty fast! I was expecting it to take quite a while until Owen realizes something weird is going on with his life. This is not a complaint - I think I'm just used to seeing fics get back to the big main plot after a few chapters. What this tells me, though, is that this fic will likely focus on whatever that mystery is, which sounds like it'll work to set this fic apart from the mountain of other PMD fics.

The narration and dialogue flow very well to me with witty moments, and these two aspects usually make or break a fic for me (sadly, more often break, as I tend to be picky to a tragic extent). This is simply a joy to read, the opposite of a chore. I'm already engaged with just a prologue and one chapter and I'm actively looking forward for the following ones. That's the mark of a good writer (in my eyes, anyway), so congrats!

Owen's breezing through the enemy mon is very true to that early-game feeling when you just destroy everything in front of you. The Aerodactyl is very true to when you try to do the same thing in PSMD but everything keeps killing your stupid weak good-for-nothing Fennekin you picked because it was cute. No, I'm not salty at all.

Owen's a cheerful little thing - yeah, I know he's older than he looks, but he does retain that childlike excitement still. However, this cheer becoming more and more feigned as time rolls on already brings him depth. Loved the line about him hoping his enthusiasm would ease his parents' worries. Pretending to be fine is something a lot of people want to or feel like they have to do.

Man, I haven't been this positive in feedback in ages... anyway, those are my thoughts. Feel free to ask about any point if it makes you wonder something.
 
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Thanks for the feedback, both of you! I already gave my responses to them elsewhere, but they've both been very useful for later and for the chapter that you reviewed specifically. Stay tuned for chapter 2~
 
Chapter 2 – Trouble in the Woods
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Chapter 2 – Trouble in the Woods

“Stupid kid—get back—pfwaaagh!”

A Fire Trap exploded beneath Aerodactyl when he reached where Owen had stomped. Unfortunately, all it did was slow him down. “Nghh—that burns,” he muttered, rubbing at his right side with his wing.

Owen ran as quickly as he could, glad that the outlaw was stunned by the surprise attack. Hoping it would work again, he spent some of his time stomping on the ground. This created another trap. Owen turned down the corridor, but then skidded to a stop. “W-wait! That’s not fair!” he shouted.

“You shouldn’t be the one to complain about being fair!” Aerodactyl shouted, pushing through the second Fire Trap.

Owen stared at the path—or, rather, the lack of a path—ahead of him. He had run into a dead end. There was no way out but to backtrack, and that was where Aerodactyl was rapidly closing in.

“Heh, well, I suppose our fairness evens out, doesn’t it?” Aerodactyl said. He stopped advancing if only to taunt, but it was clear that he was looking for a good way to strike without dealing with more of Owen’s tricks.

“That’s not right! I—just—let me go!” Owen said.

“Oh, no, no, no, I don’t think I can do that,” Aerodactyl said. “Not without some payment first. Your bag. Just hand it over, and I’ll be on my way.”

“No way!” Owen said. He glanced in his bag with the little time he had. He had too my precious items in it. The gift from Nevren, too. And all the items he picked up during exploration! Wait, the items!

“Ha!” Owen said. He saw the small, blue sphere—an Escape Orb. He could use it. He’d be out of here without a problem! Owen smashed it on the ground. He was ready for the blue light inside to envelop him and take him straight to the entrance. Instead, the light and energy inside evaporated into nothing.

“Wh-what?” he said. A mysterious power had stopped the Orb from functioning. That normally only happened against Pokémon with powerful auras, or—

“Heh,” Aerodactyl said. He dug his right wing into his own bag, flashing a strange-looking device. It was red with a glowing, yellow heart button in the middle. “Jammer Emblem. You think I’d let you run off so easily? Everyone brings Escape Orbs. So, I bring a Jammer.”

“Th-those are illegal! You can’t use those without Heart permission!” But Owen realized shortly after that this was an outlaw. What was one broken rule if they already cast the law aside?

Aerodactyl took another step forward. Owen only had enough time to use one more item. And his Totter Orb would be useless, too. He could try to use his Badge to escape—even if it was just a Provisionary Badge, it still had enough of a charge to escape. But within a Dungeon, it wouldn’t have the energy or precision to take anything on him—just his person. All of his items—no, Nevren’s gift, too! He couldn’t use his Badge. He didn’t have time, anyway; it needed a few seconds to activate. Seconds he didn’t have. The moment he made a move, Aerodactyl would attack.

Something knocked against his claws in his bag. A seed. It felt strange to the touch, as if the air around it simply wasn’t there. He knew the feeling. A Warp Seed.

Owen immediately shoved a seed in his mouth and chomped. In one second, he was staring an Aerodactyl in the face. In another, he was in the middle of a random area in the same section of the Dungeon. Owen, working off of the adrenaline rush, immediately ran ahead. If he could just find the—

He was in the exact same room he had been in before. He even saw the Aerodactyl emerge from the hall next to him. Owen fought against his own momentum and scrambled backwards.

He rushed through the Dungeon as much as he could, but fortune was not Owen’s friend that day. He couldn’t find the way out. Why did this always happen when a quick escape was needed the most?! He had explored the entire segment by now! Where was the next distortion?

He found a room he hadn’t yet visited. He peered inside and saw the Aerodactyl—and the exit, right behind him.

Aerodactyl caught sight of Owen at the corner of his eye. His huge jaw twisted into a smirk. “Hey, there,” he said. “Having trouble?”

Owen wasn’t sure how long he’d stood there. It was just the two of them. The exit out of his reach. But now, he knew that he had a solid target. That Aerodactyl wasn’t going to move from that spot. So, if he could take advantage of that somehow, then maybe—

“Hey!” Owen said. “How about this?!” He grabbed something from his bag and threw it at the outlaw. It was another seed—one that, upon hitting him, popped and scattered a strange dust around the Pokémon.

“Wh—huh?! Why you—little—!” He was bumbling where he stood, wobbling horribly. His jaws opened wide and he fired—unexpectedly—a set of rocky pellets toward Owen. Rock Blast—Owen was sure his species wasn’t capable of such a technique normally.

He launched pellet after rocky pellet in a random direction, completely missing Owen. Now was his chance! Owen opened his mouth and launched a small plume of fire toward him. An Ember was less than ideal, but it at least did some damage. All of his other techniques either required contact or required Aerodactyl to move to where he had been standing. Ember was all he had, or all he thought he could pull off against someone so much bigger and faster.

“Ngh—!” Owen narrowly dodged to the right, evading a lucky shot, but his momentum made him tumble to the ground. He scrambled up—and felt a sharp pain on back of his head. Everything felt upside-down, and there was a sharp ringing in his ears. “Ughn—no, I…!” he tried to stand, but a second rock smashed against the center of his spine. The force made him roll across the ground like a bag of berries—he couldn’t feel anything on his lower half.

Aerodactyl tried to fire a third, but nothing came. “Tch.” He spat out a loose pebble. “Must be getting tired.” He winced at his burn. Then, he stepped toward Owen, who was too injured and dizzy to react, yet not enough to be kicked from the Dungeon.

“You gave me some real trouble, Charmander,” Aerodactyl said. He pulled Owen’s bag away and dug through it, grabbing one of his Heal Seeds. With a chomp, his burn evaporated before Owen’s eyes. “Heh. Well, I’ll just take this bag as payment.”

“N… no.” Owen struggled weakly, a single hand still clutching at the strap. “You can’t!”

“Looks like I can,” he replied, munching on an Oran Berry next. He roughly tugged the bag away, jerking Owen forward. Aerodactyl’s injuries vanished with a wave of blessed light at the same time that Owen’s face slammed into the dirt. The outlaw let out a deep, refreshed sigh.

“P-please. At least give me the Eviolite that Nevren gave me,” Owen said, holding himself up with an arm. “You don’t… you don’t need it. You’re fully evolved. Or, er, you don’t evolve…”

“Eh?” Aerodactyl looked at the glimmering stone. “Doesn’t look like a normal Eviolite to me. I bet it’d sell real well, though. Sorry, kid. I’m keeping it. And you’re right. My species doesn’t need evolution.”

Owen tried to blast him again, but no flames came out; he could taste the fire on his tongue, but he didn’t have the strength to push it further. He exhaled, but the flame was gone. The best he could hope for was that Aerodactyl would be merciful and leave him alone. Maybe he should have listened to his father. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. He couldn’t even send a distress signal. His bag was taken, and therefore his Badge. Was this it?

Aerodactyl stared at Owen, and Owen wondered if he could smell the fear radiating off of him.

“Kid,” he said, “I don’t work like that. All I want is the goods. What happens after, I don’t care. That’s the way the world works. And the way Dungeons work.” He took another step closer. “Here, let me help. I’ll beat you up nice and good, and you can crawl back to your base to recoup. You ready?”

Owen stared up at the outlaw. They locked eyes. His wing was raised. Owen didn’t know if he’d be able to survive the blow. If he’d wake up at all at the entrance, or if he’d just be there, too weak to fight, left for the ferals to eat.

“Please,” Owen said.

The wing hung there, tense. But then the claws at the end clenched in what may have been a fist. “There’s nothing more that I hate than you Hearts.” He lowered his wing and gave Owen a halfhearted kick, more like a push, that only accomplished a half-rotation of the Charmander’s numb body. “Thanks for the loot.”

He spun around, walking toward the Dungeon’s exit. Owen’s throat clenched, as if trying to seal what little pride he had left inside his body.

“No way!” someone shouted.

Owen’s heart fluttered. He recognized that voice from earlier in the day. He turned his head weakly and saw an orange blur rush past him. A speedy Trapinch, a walking contradiction, and a welcome surprise. He weaved left and right, went in front of Aerodactyl, and then hit him directly.

Aerodactyl shouted and stumbled back. “You—oh, great. Hearts?!” His wings clutched the bag to his chest. “But it’s just a bunch of runts. Is that your best?”

Demitri and Mispy were puffing at the other end of the hall, trying their hardest to catch up to their third member.

“Far from our best!” the Axew said, huffing. His tiny hands were barely able to grasp his scaly knees. “We’re Team—uh, what was our team name, again?—uh—Alloy! Of the Thousand Heart!”

“Hearts,” the Chikorita mumbled, using two vines to act as a fifth and sixth leg, since her normal four weren’t enough to stay standing.

“Y-yeah! Hearts,” Demitri said. “And we’ve got to be top-tier to get into something like that!”

“You seem new. Worst of the best, I take it?” Aerodactyl asked, smirking.

“Goodra Anam said that a ranked system isn’t good for morale, so we aren’t the worst or the best! We’re just Entry-Level Hearts!”

“Guys!” Owen shouted hoarsely.

All this time that they were talking, Owen saw the outlaw making sly, subtle movements with the bag. “He’s trying something!” He might have disabled his jammer. And that could only mean he would use an Orb next.

“Hmph, think you’re clever?” He pulled out the Totter Orb and threw it on the ground. Owen felt the confusion wash over him instantly, on top of the dizziness that he was only starting to recover from. He gave up and collapsed on the ground, trying to stop his head from spinning. He knew that the best thing to do while confused was to wait for it to pass. “He’s getting away,” he mumbled.

“I got ‘em!” Gahi said, rushing Demitri with a dark aura characteristic of his Feint Attack.

“G-Gahi! What’s your problem?!” Demitri said. “He’s right that way!” Demitri sliced at the air in front of him, leaving a small, blue trail of dragon fire with both swipes. It completely missed.

“Stop,” Mispy mumbled, shutting her eyes.

“I’ll get ‘em!” Gahi said, striking out again with a dark tackle. He hit the wall.

The outlaw was mere steps away from the exit. But then, Gahi got a lucky shot on his next run. He shook the dizziness away, spotted Aerodactyl, and ran. The orange blur was in front of the outlaw in seconds, blocking his way out.

“How’d you—outta the way, peanut!” He opened his mouth and fired a volley of three rocks. Gahi dodged them all and countered with a solid strike with his massive head, square in the chest. This one left a bruise; the outlaw stumbled back, dropping the bag. In the amount of time he took to reach for it, Gahi took it and dropped it by Owen.

Good, Owen thought. The outlaw would give up and run away, and he’d be safe. Then he could head home and take a nice, long nap.

Instead, the outlaw roared and ran toward Owen.

Weakened and immobile, he shut his eyes tight, waiting for the inevitable impact that would kick him out of the Dungeon. And then, despite expecting nothing of it, he prayed to Arceus that he’d be able to wake up afterward. But it never came. He heard an impact, but he wasn’t the one to receive it. He opened one eye.

Demitri was standing in the way; he took the whole hit with one of his tusks. Miraculously, it didn’t break, but it looked like it hurt. The follow-up wasn’t any nicer—a strong jab to the side of Demitri’s body with his other wing—but he stood anyway.

“Give it here, you—” Aerodactyl grabbed the bag. Owen didn’t have the strength nor reflexes to hang on. The outlaw turned around, sprinting for an escape.

“Mispy! Now!” Demitri shouted.

Owen had to shut his eyes again. He saw a blinding beam of light, and it was simply too much. He heard the Aerodactyl scream in fright, and then he heard the dull noises of punches and kicks and swipes. And then, panting. Gahi laughing. Demitri telling him to quiet down.

Owen jumped when he felt something brush against his back.

“Eep—! O-oh, it’s you,” Owen said, spotting Mispy, clearly the healer of the team. Her vines gently rubbed at his spine.

“Shh,” Mispy said. Her leaf glowed and released a soft light that clouded around Owen. All of the energy he had lost returned to him. He could feel his lower half again, too.

Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay, it’s okay. Calm down. Sleep… Amia’s words echoed in Owen’s mind.

That wasn’t a dream.

Despite the healing, the phantom pain returned to him in an instant, and flashes of that past event clouded his vision. His muscles seized and his claws dug into the dirt, leaving tiny holes in the ground. Embers spilled from the sides of his mouth, and his eyes widened.

One of Mispy’s vines slapped Owen on the forehead. “Stop that.”

“B-buh—h-huh—” Owen snapped back to reality. “Wh-what happened?”

“You’re fine,” Mispy said. “Shut up.” She pressed her vines against his back again and focused. Healing energy continued to flow into him, and Owen, after a few seconds of tension, managed to breathe easy. He shut his eyes, thinking happier thoughts, like when he had cut his arm on a rock when he fell, and how his mother used the very same technique to patch him up. Easy, easy… Finally, Owen could breathe easily again.

“Nng, that’s the spot,” he said. “Was that Heal Pulse? You know Heal Pulse?”

“Mm.”

“Hey, uh,” Demitri said, rubbing his right tusk again. “Sorry about your bag.” He handed the tattered remains to Owen. “Most of the items got ruined from Mispy’s blast. But maybe there’s—”

Owen grabbed the bag and rummaged through it desperately. “Ah!” He pulled out two items—his Provisionary Badge, and Nevren’s gift. There were a few other berries and orbs remaining, too, but those were much less important. “It’s okay. This is all I needed!”

“Hey, we still messed up your inventory,” Demitri said. “How about we bring you back with us to our mentor’s place? He’s kinda good at repairing bags and stuff. Maybe he can patch it up?”

“Oh! Okay.” He didn’t care about the bag. He got invited to a Heart’s home! And now that he had a moment’s pause, he wanted to see Rhys again, anyway.

Again?

Owen’s own thoughts gave him another pause.

“You okay?” Demitri asked.

“Dazed,” Mispy surmised with a nod. She gave Owen a little smile.

He stared at the three for an uncomfortably long time. Mispy shifted from her right feet to her left feet. Gahi clicked his jaws.

“I think I know you guys,” Owen finally admitted.

The three looked at one another. Then, back at Owen.

“You’re weird,” Mispy said.

“I—I kinda feel like we met before, too,” Demitri admitted. “That’s crazy! We must have good chemistry.”

Gahi’s jaws opened and closed in contemplation. “Meh. Let’s go.”

Owen rubbed his paws together to get off the dirt. “How’d you guys find me so quickly?”

“Well, we saw a bunch of Paras and other wild Pokémon near the entrance, so we figured you were still going through the Dungeon,” Demitri said.

A pit of guilt weighed on Owen’s stomach. “O-oh. They were still out of it? I didn’t—I wasn’t that hard on them, right? I didn’t…?”

“Hey, self-defense,” Gahi said. “Besides, this place is overpopulated with those pests anyway. Isn’t enough food fer ‘em ter all survive.”

“W-wait, how badly were they—”

“Aah, they’ll be fine. Wild Pokémon’re real resilient, I figure.”

Demitri nodded and rummaged for their Badge. They walked to the exit of the Dungeon and finally passed through; their Badges all blinked in a slow pattern. The raised ground of rock, embedded trees, and dirt transitioned into an open woodland.

“Made it,” Owen said, relieved.

“Yeah. Let’s get out of here,” Demitri said. He pressed the little heart-symbol in the middle of the badge once, and the others did the same. In a flash of reddish-white light, the Badge transported the group out of the forest and to the center of town.

<><><>​

“Great work on apprehending this Pokémon, Hearts,” said a Watchog. “We will be sure to escort him away for his punishment.”

“It—it was a setup! I swear!” Aerodactyl pleaded. He was still smoking from the Solar Beam, and his left eye was purple and shut completely from Demitri’s Dual Chops. “I didn’t mean to steal all those things! I was under Hypnosis! I’m—I’m a sleeper cell, secretly, eh, secretly I go crazy when my master wants me to! And, eh, and my master is right in that building, over there!”

Owen didn’t even need his sharp senses to see that lie. Watchog, too, was unconvinced.

“Hypnosis puts Pokémon to sleep. It doesn’t control them.”

“Feh, quit yer lying,” Gahi said. “Pay yer dues and don’t do it again.”

The Aerodactyl whimpered and ducked his head down, defeated.

“Oh—um,” Owen spoke up, “I almost forgot, but, can I report something?”

“Report? What else would you like to report?”

“I don’t want to… I don’t want to make anybody feel bad, but there was this really weird, really muscular, really angry-looking Snorlax in the same Dungeon that I found Aerodactyl—um, what’s your name, Aerodactyl?”

“Like I’d tell you,” he hissed.

Owen flinched. “W-well… w-well, I just thought it was strange to see a Snorlax there.”

“Hm, perhaps it was just your imagination. Were you hungry while fighting?”

“Not really. I just finished an apple.”

“Perhaps you were seeing things. Still, I will report it. Do not be worried. Strange Pokémon like those are seen in Dungeons all the time, and it’s nothing to be concerned with—so long as they don’t wander out of those Dungeons.” He mumbled the last part. “Eh—we let our Elite Hearts deal with them. Now then.” He looked at Aerodactyl. “We will be going.”

And so, he was escorted away.

“Hmm,” Owen watched. “What’s going to happen to him?”

Demitri tapped his tusks thoughtfully, giving the top of a nearby building a pensive stare. “Well, he was wanted for theft. Targeted explorers and took everything they had on them. We actually took that Mission because he was said to be in the same Dungeon you went into. Sorta spelled bad news, when you put two and two together, y’know? Chances are he’s going to have to work his debts away to pay them all back. Maybe as a volunteer as a temporary rescue team member. I think they call ‘em Broken Hearts. Make a living. Then once he’s done, maybe he can continue that work with full pay.”

“And repair that Broken Heart of his,” Gahi sang mockingly.

“So, he pays back his debts, and gets a job in the process? I wish it was that easy for me,” Owen mumbled. “My dad wants me to be a berry farmer because my sharp senses would let me tell when they’re ripe or not.”

“Goodra Anam says that a lot of thieves only do what they do because they don’t have the skills for anything else,” Demitri said.

“Feh, I think they’re just weak-willed,” Gahi said.

So,” Demitri continued, “what happens is they can contribute back to society instead of being worse than some random wild Pokémon. That make sense?”

“Yeah! It totally does!” Owen said. “I can’t believe it’s so nice, though! I guess Anam is even better than I thought.”

“Heh. Well, anyway, let’s show yeh ter our personal Waypoint,” Gahi said.

“Yeah! And—oh.” Owen hesitated. “Actually, before we go, can we take the Waypoint back to the Dungeon again?”

“Eh?” Gahi said. “What fer?”

“Just to check on something.”

<><><>​

“Yer serious.”

Owen had brought Team Alloy all the way back to the Dungeon’s distortion. They were careful not to pass through and enter it all over again, and in reality it wasn’t a very far walk thanks to the Waypoint set nearby, but for Gahi, it was already an inexcusable detour.

“Yer coming all the way here just fer some random ferals?”

“I didn’t think I’d do that much damage. You said they were pretty beat up, right? And Aerodactyl looked really hurt, too. Just… you know.”

“Bah, he probably got roughed up by the recovery squad fer resisting arrest,” Gahi said. “C’mon, yer fire ain’t all that bad.”

Owen’s flame dimmed. “I just want to make sure,” he said. “It wasn’t that far of a walk, right? We’ll head to Rhys’ place right after. It’ll just give me some peace of mind, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Gahi clicked his jaws together impatiently. “Could be having dinner by now.”

“C’mon, Gahi, he’s just worried.” Demitri picked at a bit of dirt between two of his claws. “It’s one thing to defend yourself, but I think Owen just wants to make sure he didn’t go overkill on it.”

“K-kill, yeah,” Owen said, laughing hastily. “No need to go overkill.”

Mispy closed her eyes, breathing out. “Ahead,” she announced.

“Ahead?” Owen said, his eyes following the path for him. A small cluster of Paras skittered groggily about, each one with a burn here or there, some with their mushrooms looking particularly damaged or cooked. When Owen got closer, one of the Paras hissed and skittered away. The others did the same, almost in unison, and clustered together. Purple fog trickled out of their mushrooms, threatening to flood the arena if provoked.

Owen’s flame blazed behind him, but he kept it hidden out of the ferals’ sights. He dug through his bag, slowly pulling out a Rawst Berry.

“…Why’s a Fire carrying around Rawst Berries?” Gahi said. “You guys don’t get burns.”

“Others do, though,” Owen said, taking a hesitant step forward.

The Paras all hissed at him, poisonous clouds thickening.

“D-do you guys have Pecha Scarves?” Owen asked.

“Eh? Yeah, we’ve got one,” Gahi said. “…Wait. Aww, c’mon.” The Trapinch exasperatedly flung his huge head back.

Mispy knocked a vine on top of Gahi’s back, giving him a firm stare. “Let him.”

“B-beh, feh.” Gahi clamped his jaws shut tight. “That ain’t even enough, one lousy berry.” He watched Owen as Demitri handed the scarf over. Gahi growled and looked up at the trees. “We’re gonna be here all day if we just let him do his thing. Scalebag, go get more from that tree.” Gahi jerked his head above them. “Orans right up. I’ll help roll ‘em over.”

Demitri nodded, scraping his tusks against the tree, as if sizing it up. “Yeah, that seems like I can knock a few down. It won’t startle them?”

“Who caaares, they’re all bunched up! Oy, Owen! Back off a sec!”

“Huh?” Owen glanced back just in time to see Demitri taking a few readying steps back. He backed away from the Paras, tugging at the scarf tied around his neck.

“Hah!” Demitri sprinted toward the tree, ramming his head full-force against the trunk. The branched trembled weakly; the loosest berries fell to the ground. Gahi swiftly went beneath them, lifting and then lowering his head beneath the berries to slow the fall of one. The rest plopped on the ground, a few rupturing slightly from the fall.

The Paras hissed again, thickening their poisonous fog. Mispy backed away with Demitri and Gahi, the fog getting a bit worrisome. Owen, in the middle of it, only winced at the pungent odor the fog gave out. Thankfully, with the scarf’s blessings, the effects stopped there. Owen gathered up most of the berries, enough to fill his arms, and then spun back to the Paras. By now, they seemed slightly puzzled, the fog around them dissipating.

“I’m sorry I hurt you guys so badly,” Owen said. “I know I entered your territory, and I was just going on a fun exploration. I shouldn’t have been so careless about you guys. Just try not to attack randomly, alright?”

“Torch, they ain’t gonna understand ya,” Gahi said. “Besides, yer scaring them. Gimme a scarf.” Gahi jerked his head at Mispy, who rolled her eyes and wrapped one around his abdomen. Protected, the Trapinch wobbled to Owen and said, “Look. You gotta keep yerself small. They’re already weak, so they ain’t gonna fight back. Just look small and offer whatever y’ wanna do, yeah?”

Gahi rolled a berry toward the Paras horde. A particularly bold one skittered closer, snatching the berry away. It nibbled a few times, still tense, and eventually relaxed after Owen did. The Charmander smiled, showing his teeth—a small mistake, as the Paras hissed and skittered away again.

“Good going,” Gahi mumbled.

“Look, I’m not familiar with Paras, alright?” Owen rolled another one over. This time, a few more Paras leaked from the pile, nibbling at their offerings. And then a few more, and then more still, until the whole horde had gathered in front of them to feast on the bounty. Burns slowly reversed, cooked mushrooms simply looking a bit chipped. Dull light touched upon anywhere the burns had been, dimming when they were completely gone.

“Happy?” Gahi asked Owen once the Paras accepted the group as safe enough to tolerate. “Looks like these guys are.”

Demitri and Mispy, once they saw that the poisonous fog had faded, joined them to watch the feral Pokémon up close. It was almost calming to see the horde feed, watching the way their mandibles meticulously tore at the pulp. “You seemed kinda invested in this,” Demitri commented. “I mean, they probably could have just climbed the trees and gotten it on their own, y’know?”

“Y-yeah, I know, maybe.” Owen watched a particularly small Paras wrestle with a particularly large berry, grinning—this time, without showing his teeth. “I guess I’m a little self-conscious about it.”

“I guess y’did beat ‘em up kinda bad,” Gahi said. “Didn’t think they looked that bad when we passed ‘em by the first time. Maybe these’re just the ones that got roughed up the most.”

“To be honest, a lot of these don’t actually look like your flames, Owen,” Demitri said, pointing at the Paras. “Looks like some of these guys got hit by something a lot worse. But at least the burns are gone.”

Owen rubbed his head. Foggy as his memory was, Demitri did have a point. He hadn’t fought too many of them. He couldn’t have burned these all. Still, it was a good thing he came when he did. “Either way, I’m glad I came to undo some damage.”

“What makes you self-conscious, eh?” Gahi asked.

Owen smiled sadly. “Well… just fire in general, I guess. It’s not like Dragon might, like Demitri, where it’s… more graceful and controlled and… you know.”

Demitri blushed under his green scales, rubbing at one of his tusks. “I dunno if I’m all that graceful.”

“He ain’t,” Gahi confirmed.

Owen laughed weakly, but then continued to observe the Paras. The ones that had their fill skittered away thanklessly, while the more gluttonous ones remained to nibble on a few more. “Normal Fire isn’t the same way as Dragon fire,” Owen said. “It’s… untamed. Violent. Hungry. If I don’t keep it in check… I could do a lot more damage to innocent Pokémon than I need to.” Once the final few Paras left, Owen brought his tail forward and inspected the flame at the end. “I guess I just want to be careful. And if I slip up and get carried away… I want to make things right. That’s part of being a Heart, right? No fighting if you don’t need to.”

Gahi said nothing. He opened his mouth, but then closed it, looking to Demitri and Mispy to say something instead.

“Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself,” Demitri said, patting Owen on the shoulder. “Dragon fire can do some serious damage, too. If it gets caught on normal brush, it’ll become normal fire just from the heat. Ethereal or not, heat is heat. I guess I don’t have to worry as much since, er, I usually just use brute force…”

Owen smiled, rubbing his nose. “Yeah, I guess that’s true. You seem like you’ve got a lot of muscle; may as well use what you’re good at. I’m a little on the scrawnier side.”

Mispy smiled, sighing. “They’re gone,” she said, pointing a vine toward the departing Paras.

“Yeah.” Owen stood up, his flame a cheerful orange. “Sorry for the detour. I’m ready to head to your guys’ place.”

“Meh…” Gahi looked at the eaten pile of berries. “I guess it’s worth it.”

<><><>​

Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi lived in a small cave near the western base of the mountain. The rocks here were a lot lighter—closer to a reddish-brown color than the dark basalt of Kilo Village’s crater. Trees were immediately beyond the rocky exterior of their home, with Oran Berries growing from the tops of some, and apples from others. Gentle winds washed the leaves, making the ripe fruits fall from their branches when a particularly strong gust passed.

“Convenient,” Owen said. “And the Waypoint led us almost right to here.”

“Yeah, all Hearts get that sorta treatment,” Gahi said. “Guess it’s a benefit fer working under the Hearts, keeping the world nice and safe.”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “But, it’s just so cool! The way you guys just beat that Aerodactyl without any trouble!”

“Well, there was a little trouble,” Demitri said.

“Yeah, had ter keep yeh safe,” Gahi said. “But sure. No trouble.”

“Mnn.” Mispy sniffed the air. She could smell dinner.

“That smells good,” Owen said. “Umm—so, your mentor! How is he? What’s he like in person and stuff?”

“Lucario Rhys is, uh, he’s nice,” Demitri said. “He just happens to also be really, er, strict, sometimes. You know. But it’s all part of being trained, right? I guess it’s not that bad.”

“Jus’ wish he didn’t make us meditate all mornin’,” Gahi said.

“Meditating?” Owen said. “You guys meditate, too? I do it all the time! It’s really nice to clear your head.”

“Aw, not you, too,” Gahi grumbled, wobbling into the cave.

Mispy, too, was disappointed. “Boring.”

“I—I’m not boring,” Owen squeaked.

“Oy, Rhys! We’re home!” Gahi said. “Mission went fine! Brought a guest!”

“A guest?” Rhys said. “I should prepare another portion.”

Owen ran to get a first look. And there he was: Elite Heart Lucario Rhys. His red eyes were intense, but Owen felt oddly safe when looking into them. His aura sensors—the strange, black, teardrop-like extensions behind his ears—were a bit larger than average.

“H-hi!” Owen said. “It’s nice t-to meet you, Elite Heart!”

Rhys stared at Owen for a bit longer than anyone in the room thought comfortable. Owen noticed his fur puff out. For a split-second, his paws glowed with a light blue, aura ember.

“Rhys?” Demitri said.

“I’m—sorry,” Rhys said. “I was thinking about what I could prepare for a Charmander.”

No, you weren’t, Owen thought. “Oh! Anything’s fine,” he said. “I promise! I’m good to eat anything as long as it isn’t dirt.”

“Well, dirt ain’t how Rhys cooks,” Gahi said.

“Yeah, Rhys is a good chef!” Demitri said. “You’ll love whatever he makes.”

“Ha, okay.” Owen took in in the new environment. The immediate entryway was a short walk, perhaps only a few of his tiny paces. After the entryway was a larger, dome-shaped segment of the cave. The stone table in the middle of the room was where they ate; the edges of the room had equipment like a stone stove, cabinets, and shelves for storing nonperishable food. Owen was surprised at how elaborate it was. “You guys really have a lot of stuff here!”

Rhys nodded. “With our earnings, we have been able to purchase a few luxuries.”

Owen sat at the table. From where he was positioned, he could see further into the cave. It was like a hallway that split off into separate rooms. Four in total. One was the closest, forking to the right. This one led into a room that had a faint, white glow in it. None of the other rooms glowed. The second room was to the left, and two more were further in. Perhaps they were for each of the Pokémon that lived there. Owen deduced that the glowing one was Rhys’ room. What was in there?

What Owen saw next made him rub his eyes. There was a cloud of some kind—a very fine mist, like a pinkish haze. It didn’t move with any breezes. Oh, no, Owen said. Now I’m starting to see things! Can anybody else—? Owen glanced at the others. Mispy’s leaf was twitching, like she had an itch. Demitri and Gahi were too focused on Rhys’ cooking.

Rhys was moving stiffly. That was odd. He usually moved with a graceful flow. Did he notice? “Rhys?” Owen spoke up. “Are you okay?”

“Y-yes, Owen, why do you ask?”

Owen looked at the pink cloud. Gone.

“Nothing. Just tired. So, uh.” Owen grabbed his tail so he had something to do. “Team Alloy. That’s a pretty cool name.”

“Alakazam Nevren helped us come up with it!” Demitri said. “It’s really cool. Something about how stronger metals are made from weaker metals working together. It’s awesome!”

“Hmph,” Rhys said.

“Heh, Rhys is mad ‘cause he didn’t say it first,” Gahi said.

Owen giggled. He had to admit, it sounded clever. He certainly saw that kind of fighting in the Dungeon, too. They worked very cohesively. He wondered if he’d be able to contribute to a team like that…

Out of the corner of his eye, the pink mist bobbed in and out of the room.

Unable to contain himself, Owen asked, “Hey, so, is this cave haunted?”

“Yes,” Mispy blurted.

“Baah, no it ain’t,” Gahi said, waving his head dismissively. “You guys’re just superstitious. Sometimes the wind blows funny, that’s all. Mispy always gets like this.”

“It’s true!” Mispy said.

Gahi and Demitri both looked at the hall. The pink mist was gone.

“L-look, this place is creepy sometimes, alright?” Demitri said. “We see little, like, colors floating around sometimes. All of us! So, it has to be real.”

“Colors? Like pink?” Owen said.

“Pink? No, usually greens and yellows,” Demitri said.

Rhys sighed, pausing his food prep. “I am the one who is most in tune with the aura,” he said. “And I say that whatever phenomenon it is, it’s nothing to worry about. Now, enough talk of spirits. Dinner is ready.”

And just like that, their idle talk about ghosts subsided. It must have been a common occurrence for it to be dismissed so easily, but Owen decided to put this piece of the puzzle in his mental notes.

Rhys served out the food—a hearty stew, this time, filled with mostly savory items. Owen happily gobbled his portion; it reminded him of what he ate for breakfast. Breakfast… “Oh!” Owen suddenly said. “I—I totally forgot! My parents were gonna freak out if I didn’t get back before the evening!”

Owen thought to use his Badge, but having just used it to return to the Central Waypoint in Kilo Village, it wouldn’t have the energy to warp him again until tomorrow. More importantly, he didn’t have a Waypoint registered for Hot Spot Cave—after all, if someone stole his Badge, they could theoretically warp right to that secret village. He’d have to use the public Waypoints instead, and then walk the rest of the way.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Demitri said. “We’ll just bring you home instead! Your parents won’t worry too much, right?”

“Dad might explode,” Owen said. “Literally. He’s a Magmortar, and he kinda does this thing with his arms when he’s nervous, and I’m worried he might—like—fire into his own hand, or something? I dunno what happens after that. But he might actually die from anxiety if I don’t get home in time.”

“Uhh—well—too late now,” Demitri said. “We’ll just run really fast to get you there?”

“O-oh, uh, actually, about that. My parents said that I can’t bring people back home because it’s a secret where I live, and stuff.”

“I see,” Rhys said, nodding. “That’s understandable.”

“Wait, it is?” Demitri said. “How is that—who has a secret home?!”

Rhys shrugged noncommittally. “Some areas enjoy privacy, I suppose. Don’t worry, Owen. But it’s still a bit unsafe to wander alone at night without supplies. Hrm, but your parents will still worry, won’t they?” Rhys hummed again, looking between the three members of Team Alloy. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to let you three go at a time like this.”

This was his chance. “So, does that mean… you’ll be bringing me there, Lucario? Or, u-um, I can just go on my own.”

“You may call me Rhys,” he said with a small smile. “And I would be happy to.”

He would? Owen didn’t expect that to work. In fact, in hindsight, it felt forward, and rude. But there was an odd sort of familiarity that he felt with Rhys. Then again, aside from the Aerodactyl, that was how he’d been feeling all day. And Rhys seemed to know him, too, given how casually he spoke. He had heard from rumors that Rhys was usually incredibly stiff.

“Okay—Rhys. Um, since you’re an Elite, I can trust you with a secret, right?”

“Of where your parents live?” Rhys asked. “Revealing this to me will change nothing.”

“Okay. Then after dinner, it’s really okay if…?”

“Yes. It shouldn’t be a very long walk, yes?”

“Nope! The Waypoint is really close.”

With the thought that he’d be able to walk and talk with one of the best Hearts in the whole world, Owen ate the rest of his dinner faster than a Swalot.

Okay, Owen thought between bites. So, everything today feels weirder than usual. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t dreaming last night. Did Dad actually explode? Did I get attacked by another of those mutant things? Nngh, or am I just losing it? Nevren’s a Psychic, right? Maybe he can fix my brain.

He then glanced at Rhys’ room. He saw the pink mist again. Oh, Mew in the stars, he thought, taking his final bite. Can’t I have just one normal day?
 
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“Th-those are illegal! You can’t use those without Association permission!” But Owen realized shortly after that this was an outlaw. What was one broken rule if they already cast the law aside?
you can't break the law! that's illegal!

Why does this always happen when a quick escape was needed the most?!
Did, right?

The gray fossil-Pokémon
Hmm... I'm guessing it's more of a living fossil kinda thing, then, as I doubt they have labs for resurrection here.

“Hey!” Owen said. “How about this?!” He grabbed something from his bag and threw it at the outlaw. It was another seed—one that, upon hitting him, popped and scattered a strange dust around the Pokémon.

“Wh—huh?! Why you—little—!” He was bumbling where he stood, wobbling horribly. His jaws opened wide and he fired—unexpectantly—a set of rocky pellets toward Owen. Rock Blast—Owen was sure his species wasn’t capable of such a technique normally.
Am I slow for not being able to figure out what kind of seed that was? I thought it was a Blind Seed for a while, but then the Aerodactyl just kind of walks over to Owen and nabs his stuff right after.

And then he prayed to Arceus that he’d be able to wake up after it.
From personal experience, I say be careful with mentioning the big goat upstairs. When I hear someone mention Arceus in the way God would be in Western dialogue, I assume that the character has gained the concept of a god above all others worth praying to from somewhere. If the fic turns out to never address that, it ends up looking like a simple find-and-replace of God to Arceus.

There's two ways to go about this, really. One is changing Arceus to something pretty vague like "the heavens" to imply that there are some beliefs and religions in the world, but they're not too structured or distinguished where the speaker comes from and live on mostly through sayings and such. The other is to actually create some kind of religion and explain its presence by showing churches, practitioners, religious texts or so on. Otherwise it'll turn out seeming like Pokémon just instinctively know about Arceus since they're born, which in turn kind of raises more questions than it answers.

He heard the Aerodactyl a scream of fright,
Some words missing here?

Demitri nodded and rummaged for their Badge. And so, in a flash of reddish-white light, the Badge transported the group out of the Dungeon and to the center of town.
I'm a bit curious as to how these badges work... I know the games themselves don't explain this, but can they only teleport the team back once the expedition is complete? How does the Badge know it? Or can they be used to teleport at any time?

“Hypnosis puts Pokémon to sleep. They do not control them.”
"They" sounds like the wrong pronoun here, or the thing it referred to wasn't properly established.

So,” Demitri continued, “what happens is they can contribute back to society instead of being worse than some random wild Pokémon. That make sense?”

“Yeah! It totally does!” Owen said. “I can’t believe it’s so nice, though! I guess Anam is even better than I thought.”
I guess this explains where all the outlaws go in the PMD games with no prisons or executions mentioned. It's a very smart, nice solution, at least on paper. Wonder what happens to the criminals that refuse to work, though...

Rhys was staring at Owen for a bit longer than everyone in the room thought comfortable. Owen noticed his fur puff out. For a split-second, his paws glowed with an aural ember.

“Rhys?” Demitri said.

“I’m—sorry,” Rhys said. “I was thinking about what I could prepare for a Charmander.”
or..... how to prepare a charmander.....

All of the other rooms didn’t glow.
Would sound better as "none of the other rooms glowed", imo.

And I say that whatever phenomena it is, it’s nothing to worry about.
Phenomena is the plural, phenomenon is the singular.

It almost felt like it was urging him somewhere into Rhys’ room.
Wording seems odd here... but then again, I'm not a native.

I don't really have anything profound to say about this chapter, just know that I'm still very hooked. See you round!
 
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Always quick with the feedback. I'm really happy that you're so hooked, especially when we're technically still in the exposition phase!

I'm guessing it's more of a living fossil kinda thing, then, as I doubt they have labs for resurrection here.
It's actually just an epithet that I forgot to delete, so that'll be gone when I upload my edits after a few days of waiting for feedback. Thanks!

From personal experience, I say be careful with mentioning the big goat upstairs.
Thanks for the concern, but while I have no real evidence right now aside from my story's title, Arceus is going to become relevant,

The other is to actually create some kind of religion and explain its presence by showing churches, practitioners, religious texts or so on.
This is some of what I do. However, you just gave me an idea for a small extension to a scene in the very next chapter that might answer some of your concerns!

Am I slow for not being able to figure out what kind of seed that was?
Totter Seed, and I suppose I could have been more clear about it. My hints on the matter were 'firing in random directions.'

I'm a bit curious as to how these badges work...
I will be adding a tiny bit of text here, but the function (and limitation) of Badges becomes relevant later on. I might add some throwaway line when Owen remembers he's late to get home, because that'd be the perfect time to mention why he can't just warp home.

Wonder what happens to the criminals that refuse to work, though...
I'm actually on the fence on whether I should write a special episode that's related to this statement. I have it all outlined. I just don't know if it's relevant or not.
 
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This was not what I was expecting this chapter. I don't mean that in a bad way. It was just... different. To start, I like the idea of magical jamming signals blocking the use of orbs. That's a nice way of writing around that niche game mechanic. As for the battle itself, well, I'm not sure why I expected there to be much Owen could do. Maybe because you started with a (somewhat) experienced protagonist, so you could avoid the trappings of a tackle battle. But that doesn't happen. Owen gets his ass handed to him handily and even when Team Alloy drops in to the rescue, there's still a bit of fumbling around before they're able to win. It has set this quartet up (and I do imagine they'll be a quartet pretty soon) as a pack of loveable losers, I suppose. The only thing I can really say is something that diamondpearl876 told me as feedback: when it comes to battle, it's best to describe the actual moves, rather than falling back on using their names repeatedly like you did with, say, Dual Chop. Otherwise, you don't give your audience anything to work off of. I'm pretty sure ScytheRider subscribes to that philosophy, for what it's worth. :V

I think a bigger gripe that I have is the bit where Owen seems to realize the opening in the prologue wasn't a dream. You try to give an in-universe explanation as to what happened. But given the traumatic nature of that memory (y'know, a near death experience) I don't think it's that realistic for Owen to just brush it aside and not give that idea more thought. I'd at least expect a slight panic attack or something. As it stands, it strikes me as odd. XP

And then it's more exposition. I didn't really have a problem with any of it. What you showed off makes enough sense to me and I really don't think you slammed us with a complete wall of exposition, if that's something you were at all worried about. I get the feeling that there were a lot of other 'mons whose memories were tempered with, including Team Alloy. Possibly Rhys too... assuming he's not the one involved in the tampering in some capacity. I mean he called Owen by name and there's the spoopy colors in his cave. Also, Rhys strikes me as one of those names you'd give to someone who's not the most benevolent soul around. I guess I'll have to wait and see how that pans out.
 
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Thanks for the feedback as usual, Amby! And I'm glad that the chapter didn't go quite as expected. Owen is strong, especially for a Charmander, but there are always stronger foes out there.

when it comes to battle, it's best to describe the actual moves,
I try to do this, but it looks like I slipped here and there. I do try to mention the technique, but description comes first. I think I forgot to do that for Dual Chop in particular, it seems. I'll comb through this chapter and feel it out.

I don't think it's that realistic for Owen to just brush it aside and not give that idea more thought. I'd at least expect a slight panic attack or something.
That's a good point. I think I'll add a brief passage about that when the memory comes back, because he does shrug it off a bit quickly here.

What you showed off makes enough sense to me and I really don't think you slammed us with a complete wall of exposition, if that's something you were at all worried about.
Good! Early iterations of the first few chapters were kinda boring in hindsight, and I had gone back and rewritten these chapters in particular quite a few times to get them, uh, better. In general, and in terms of how content is conveyed.

Thanks for reading! I don't know how many others are keeping up with this story, but I don't plan to upload anything more until Sunday at the earliest, so there's time to catch up. It's been really fun editing and revising these early chapters! Every significant pass-through gives me more content to work with, and the chapters get a little more fleshed out each time. These things used to be 2, 3k each. They've since ballooned into 4, even 5k, and yet every addition was an enhancement, and not needless bloat. I'm really grateful for all the feedback I've gotten.
 
Chapter 3 – Ceremony of Advancement
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Chapter 3 – Ceremony of Advancement

With dinner finished and plates cleaned, Rhys dismissed the trio to their rooms. Gahi wobbled into the left, deeper room. Demitri and Mispy head into the left room that was closer to the kitchen. Owen noticed that Mispy was being quite pushy with Demitri, playfully prodding at his back with her vines on the way into their room. Demitri, meanwhile, meekly bumped against her with his tusks, flicking his tiny tail against her front legs, which earned a giggle in response.

“Bah, get a room,” Gahi muttered.

“We are,” Mispy teased.

Owen chuckled nostalgically at the three. He decided, for now, to ignore why he had felt like reminiscing on memories he did not have. Seeing the three head into two bedrooms answered the use of part of the house. Figuring one of the remaining two was Rhys’ quarters, that left one unaccounted for.

“Uh, Rhys?” Owen pointed down the hall. “What’s that room supposed to be? The one there?”

“The furthest, right room? That is for storage of our supplies,” Rhys said. “Extra items that aren’t supported as easily in the official Heart storage facilities. Spare furniture, and the like.”

“Oh, so the glowy room is yours?” Owen asked, leaving no question unasked.

“Yes,” Rhys said.

“So,” Owen said slowly, “why’s it glow?”

“I have a few items in my room that glow,” he said. “It is nothing else, really.”

“Oh, okay.” He wasn’t convinced. “Nothing about any ghosts, maybe? Spirits, little,” Owen paused, “pink clouds?”

“Pink,” Rhys repeated. “Are you sure it was pink?”

The right side of Owen’s lips twitched upward. He got him this time. “Yeah, definitely pink.”

“Hrmm.” Rhys’ ears twitched, the aura sensors accompanying them rising just slightly. “Owen, what was this pink cloud doing?”

“Kinda, well, bobbing around when I looked at it. And then it went into your room.”

“I see.” He spoke analytically, but it felt forced. “Thank you, Owen. I will investigate this later, but it’s far too late tonight. I will take you home.”

Owen relented. It was late, and he was tired, and Alex was going to blow up with worry. A fresh day could help him think straight.

After a few quick warps—one to Kilo Village, and then another to his usual Waypoint, Owen led the way. His tail flame helped to light the path. “So, this is Hot Spot Road,” Owen said. To the left was a rocky hill with boulders the size of Rhys. To the right was a great field of light green grass that went up to Owen’s chest. With the sun already down, it was hard to see much more than a sea of wavy blackness in the fields and jagged darkness in the mountains, though the tops still stood out against the barely-lit sky.

“If you take a left into that cave,” Owen said, pointing at a small entrance, “there’s actually a Dungeon that you could explore. A lot of Fire Types live there, and even some Rock and Ground Types. But mostly Fire Types.”

“Not very advantageous for a Pokémon like myself,” Rhys mused. “Quite, mm, melty, for a Steel Type.”

“Yeah! Good thing we aren’t going that way.” He continued, waving his fiery tail left and right. The ember at the end fluctuated in its intensity, going from a blazing flame to a shrinking ember. He thought it was just a lingering feeling because he’d seen Rhys all the time as an Elite, just walking through the halls, but the familiarity still felt too strong. He felt so at ease with Rhys, almost like how he felt around Amia or Alex or any of the other villagers.

Should he say it? No. He’d look like a complete lunatic. But if he didn’t ask, it’d bother him all night, and then the next night. He had to ask. So, he stopped walking.

Rhys stopped, too, as if he knew it was coming.

“Rhys…” He turned to face him. “Do I know you?”

For just a second, it was as if the very wind had stopped between them. For that iota of an instant in time, nothing else mattered but him, the Lucario, and the empty space between them. The rustling, tall grass quieted. The sun set, and twilight ruled the world, save the flame that lit Owen’s back.

The Lucario’s eyes, which glowed just barely in the darkness, held no expression; that, in itself, was abnormal to Owen. Why would someone not react to such an outlandish statement unless they were prepared for it?

But after that silence, Rhys replied. “Well, I imagine you would.” He shrugged noncommittally, though his evasion of eye contact said more. “As an Elite Heart, I’m known by many.”

Not good enough. “No, but… know you, know you,” Owen pressed. “Like I used to chat with you and stuff. Do you ever get the feeling that you know somebody for a lot longer than you actually do? That there’s more to it?”

Rhys blinked a few times. Owen’s heartbeat picked up in both frequency and intensity. He tried to get a read for Rhys and his tension, but it was too hard. He was too controlled this time. Owen had a knack for being aware of these bodily cues, but he couldn’t get anything from Rhys.

Finally, Rhys answered. “I do not believe in love at first sight.”

Simultaneously, Owen’s tail burned white, and his heart skipped a beat. “N-not in that way!” he squeaked.

He turned around and walked again. He puffed into his hands, letting the flames escape through cracks between his fingers. How could he have said it in that way? As if he was trying to propose to Rhys some sort of—lifelong—Owen shook his head fiercely, imagining a scenario where Rhys would have blushed and said yes. He’d’ve had to let Rhys down nicely, say that wasn’t what he meant. And then, for all eternity, any interaction he’d ever have with his idol would be awkward.

Slowly, color returned to Owen’s scales. “Sorry,” he finally said. “I guess I’m just a little tired after the day. I didn’t expect to get pelted by rocks in that forest, is all. I don’t think Aerodactyl are supposed to know Rock Blast. Maybe I’m just delirious.”

“Mm, that could be it. I’m glad that I can give off such a friendly aura, though. Thank you, Owen.” Rhys chuckled. At least one of them got to be happy….

“Ha! Totally,” Owen agreed. He was screaming inside.

He didn’t know what to make of it, so he just smiled and laughed. He saw no other opening to probing Rhys for those odd feelings of familiarity. He’d have to deal with tossing and turning at night anyway.

He huffed a small sigh, a few sparks of irritability leaving his nostrils. He was home. “So, don’t tell anybody about this, okay? We’re going to Hot Spot Village—it’s a secret, underground town. That’s where I live. And, um, you can only get in if you say the passcode, and do the pose.” Owen said the last part at such a soft tone that Rhys only heard it thanks to his keen hearing.

“Pose,” he said, blinking.

“Yeah. Okay, so, I’ll do it, but you have to turn away!”

“Of course,” Rhys said, humoring him. He turned around and waited, arms crossed.

Owen, after verifying that Rhys wasn’t watching, turned toward what looked like an innocuous boulder next to the road. Each syllable was accompanied by a motion. He whispered, albeit loudly, the words:

“Hot! Spot! Hot! Spot! Open up, Hotspot Cave!” Owen had raised his left arm up, then his right arm, and then brought his left arm down, and then his right arm. This was followed by swaying to the left, and then the right, and then the left and right again; next, he stepped backward, finally advanced forward.

Rhys was rubbing the top of his muzzle, cringing. He wasn’t the only one. Every time Owen did this dance, a tiny part of his Char heart withered away.

“There,” Owen said. He looked back and saw Rhys trying to hide from the world with his paw. “What? It’s not too bad. And nobody would dare do it, so it’s the perfect disguise!”

After a brief delay, the boulder rolled to the right, revealing a hidden passageway into the ground. It was dimly lit by blue mushrooms that gave off a soft, cyan glow.

“Thanks, Rhys!” Owen said. “That was a really safe trip. You should get home now, huh?”

“Yes. Thank you for letting me guard you, Owen,” he said. “Stay safe. Be sure to keep up your meditation.”

“Oh, sure!” Owen said. “Yeah, you make Team Alloy do the same thing, right?”

“Yes, I do, that’s right,” Rhys said. “It’s very important for everyone.”

“Yeah. Okay! See you, Rhys!”

Owen watched Rhys leave for a bit longer. No, it wasn’t just some delusion. Unless he completely lost it, Rhys was hiding something. And perhaps Nevren, too. But then again, he probably just heard and saw them a lot. Both of them. They were Elite Hearts, after all.

Owen closed his eyes. There was no use focusing on the negative. Every night ended like this, wondering if he’d done something, or everything, of that day before. A lot of this felt new, yet he still had that lingering doubt. Maybe he was just getting paranoid.

At some point, it got tiring. He just wanted this perceived monotony to end. But hey, he didn’t have another mental crisis, panicking because he couldn’t remember how old he was. Oh, no. The thoughts were coming back.

He refocused on the positive. “Oh, wow,” he said. “I met two Elites in one day! That’s so… cool!” He bounced slightly, but then remembered the timer on the boulder. He ran in the cave; a few seconds later, the boulder rolled back onto the passageway.

He ran past a few other inhabitants in the cavern. There was Auntie Arcanine—an old Pokémon who always had an apple or two for him to eat. She waved at Owen as he passed. There was also a Fennekin, Chimchar, and Flareon trio that often played near the entrance at night, before their parents would tell them to pack it in for the night. If anything, he knew he had the townsfolk to see, even if he wasn’t particularly close to any of them. They were all good friends, the village as a whole, no matter the age.

Owen’s house was near the back of the village, where it was even hotter. He wasn’t sure how his mother, in particular, handled this heat, but for all his life, she wasn’t bothered by it in the slightest. Blue mushrooms lit the entirety of the cave; now that Owen thought about it, the glow reminded him of the aura fire in Rhys’ paws. The home itself was like a cave within a cave; it was a circular entrance—big enough for his father’s bulky, Magmortar frame to fit through—that led into larger, dome-like rooms. Owen then realized the parallel it had with Rhys’ home.

“I’m home, Mom! Dad!” Owen called, stepping into the first, largest room.

“Ohh, Owen!” Amia called back. The Gardevoir adjusted her blue hair; there was a bit of ash remnant on the right side, perhaps from one of the kids’ pranks. She greeted Owen with a scratch under his chin—something Owen always enjoyed. “How did your little exploration go? We heard about what happened. You got in a bit of a scare, didn’t you?”

“Just a little,” Owen said. Should he ask? He was going to ask. “Hey, how’d you find out, anyway? Nobody knows how to deliver letters here!”

“We checked the, er, the bulletin board at the crossroads,” Alex said, stepping inside from the bedroom to Owen’s left. “Someone in town must have put it there.” He tapped his cannon-arms together. “Y-you… you did fine, right? You aren’t hurt?”

“No!” Owen said. “And I already had dinner, too! Lucario Rhys treated me with his Entry Hearts. They were all really nice. Sorry that I was a little late.”

Both his parents’ eyes widened with alarm when he mentioned them, but Owen was so mentally exhausted that he decided that this was one battle he’d choose to ignore. He didn’t even want to bring up his dream of Alex literally exploding. Too much. Later. Another day.

The two nodded. “Oh, I heard of them,” Amia said. “It’s nice that you made some new friends, Owen! But you know what we also heard?” She rapidly clapped her hands together. “Tomorrow is another big day for you.”

“Oh, yeah!” Owen said. “I might become an Entry Heart, too!”

“Exactly! So, get some sleep, Owen!”

“Totally!” Owen nodded. He ran right to bed.

Alex watched him go and then glanced at Amia worriedly. She shook her head and held his shoulder.

“I trust Rhys,” she said quietly. “His students can interact with Owen. It… I don’t think it’ll result in… I mean…”

“It won’t happen all at once,” Alex said. “Let’s just be very careful. I’ll come up with some chores that will keep him here when we need him close.”

<><><>​

The next afternoon was cloudier, much like Owen’s mood. He’d slept for perhaps a blink or two. Aside from essential missions for lost Pokémon or dangerous outlaws, there weren’t any Hearts going out that day. Instead, the southern portion of Kilo Village was packed, waiting for a big announcement at the top of the stairs to the main Heart building.

The southern side of Kilo Village was usually only sparingly populated with passerby Pokémon entering the line of warp pads along the roadway. Now? It was a sea of Pokémon of all shapes and sizes. A Pachirisu was balanced atop a Rhydon’s head. A school of Magikarp hopped as high as they could to get precious glances at the stairs that led to the Heart. A pair of Girafarig chatted while their tails nipped at one another.

Alakazam Nevren stood at the top of the stairs, assisting with setting up a new technology of his with the help of one of the Heart members—an Exploud. After making that Exploud hold two hooks and keep his mouth open, he handed a strange, black, rod-like device to the leader of all the Hearts, who finally emerged.

Owen had to pause only to admire the significance of this gathering. The sheer number—almost all of the thousand main members of the Hearts were right there, in Kilo Village, at the same time. That wasn’t to mention all the peripheral assistants, organizers, and suppliers that worked from the sidelines. A sea of shapes and sizes and colors and energy. He shook himself to his senses. He had to get closer for a better view!

Owen was in the middle of the crowd, trapped between a Tyranitar and a Hippowdon. He stood near the back, trying to get a look—but with all the bigger, stronger Pokémon in the way, this was impossible. “C’mon, c’mon—can I get a little room, please?” Owen begged, pressed between a rocky thigh and a sandy hide.

“Hey!”

Owen struggled to look back, finally slipping out from their crushing bodies.

Demitri waved at him from a little hill. His green, scaly body was barely noticeable—he was just so small! His darker color scheme made for a nice complement Mispy’s light-green body; she assisted him, waving her vines to stand out more.

Owen thought it was a bit too far away, but he complied anyway, if only so he didn’t get stomped on. He rushed over, weaving between the crowd with a series of ‘sorry!’ and ‘excuse me!’ mumbles.

When he finally arrived, he sighed, picking off some remnant sand from between the scales of his arm. “Thanks.”

“Here, if you want to get a better look, Rhys brought a Zoom Lens.” Demitri handed Owen a bulky pair of white glasses.

“Wh-what? These are pretty valuable, aren’t they? Aren’t these for being more accurate with your less reliable techniques?”

“Yeah, but there are better items to use in battle, so we just use this for times like these.”

“Where’s Rhys, anyway?” Owen asked, looking around.

“All Elite members are supposed to be up front to send off the retired Hearts,” Demitri said. “So, we’re standing here for now to watch. All the front seats are for the Elites, anyway.”

Owen nodded and put the Zoom Lens on. He saw a bird-like Pokémon with a green, grassy hood. “Oh! There’s Decidueye James!”

“The second-in-command?” asked Demitri.

“What’s there?” Gahi asked, struggling to use the Zoom Lens on his huge head. “Bahh, these tools ain’t good fer Pokémon like me. Where’s the Trapinch-friendly gear?”

“Probably the same place you left half your vocabulary,” Demitri muttered. This earned a swat from Gahi’s head.

“Enough,” Mispy said, using her vines to pull the two feuding Pokémon apart. They were strong enough to hold Gahi in the air.

“Oy, oy, l-lemme go!” Gahi wiggled his tiny legs uselessly.

Demitri huffed and leaned against Mispy’s vines, rolling his eyes. He turned his attention back to the ceremony preparations. “It looks like he’s just working on that Exploud guy so we can all hear the Head.”

Gahi eventually calmed down enough for Mispy to set him back on the ground.

“Oh, oh!” Owen said. “There he is!”

The leader of Kilo’s eyes were big, and his body was slimy as ever. There was always an energetic glow about him. Owen knew the sight well. Goodra Anam had finally exited the building.

Anam took the device attached to the Exploud and looked at the crowd. He gave off a big, happy smile to them all. Owen didn’t need a Zoom Lens to see a smile that big. Anam waved, and slime shook off from the arm; James respectfully backed up to avoid dirtying his feathers.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming!” Anam shouted from the top, his voice surprisingly high-pitched and as cheerful as the rest of his demeanor suggested. “I’d like to first welcome our Elite Hearts to the front, so that we can see the best of our Hearts—role models that I hope you all will aspire towards!”

Claps, stomps, and cheers echoed from the audience while the Elites all walked up. Owen spotted that Golem from before, and Rhys, and even Nevren. “Hey, what’s that?” Owen asked. Rhys was holding onto a small bag. Nobody else had one—why did Rhys bring a bag with him for this event?

“Feh, he brought that weird glowing ball,” Gahi said.

“Glowing?” Owen asked, recalling the strange glow when he had dinner with them the night before. “What is that thing, anyway?”

“No idea,” Gahi said.

“It’s this weird, green, swirly thing, like a giant orb, y’know? But Rhys always says that we’re never, ever supposed to touch it,” Demitri said.

Mispy nodded. “Ever.”

“He moved it with a thick cloth and then sealed the bag,” Demitri said. “Not even he wants to touch it.”

“I once made ‘m slip, though,” Gahi said. “He told me it’s really strong, heh. So, I guess he doesn’t wanna get too strong.”

“He keeps it on the highest shelf,” Demitri said. “Too tall for Mispy’s vines to reach, and Gahi’s too short.”

“And you hate heights,” Mispy mumbled.

“D-do not!” Demitri said.

Anam continued. “I would also like to take a moment of silence in acknowledgement of the hard work that our departed Hearts have done for Kilo Village, and indeed, the whole world.”

This was a lot more formal than how Owen recalled most of Anam’s speeches. It must have been rehearsed extensively. The Charmander could only imagine James exasperatedly trying to get Anam to remember the words properly.

Anam lowered his head. He then listed off a set of names, some of which Owen caught as familiar. They were all very old Pokémon that had worked at the dojo. Owen also heard names of other Hearts, and realized that all of these ones had, over the year, died one way or another due to a mishap or other fatality in the line of duty. His tail dimmed in solemn respect; as noble as the job was, it didn’t come without risks. That was the whole point of their line of work, after all.

Owen scanned the crowd immediately near Anam with his Zoom Lens. There was a Granbull next to a Nidoking, shoulder to shoulder. The Granbull was trembling, but remained stoic. The only sign of emotion she showed was when she leaned against the Nidoking. He, meanwhile, was staring intensely at nothing, tears streaming down his face.

Anam spoke up. “We would like to thank Granbull Jin for his line of work, and grant him the title of Eternal Heart.”

Owen remembered reading about this story moons ago, during the winter. A strange mutant that had been described as a Golduck by some and a Toucannon by others had gotten dangerously close to Kilo Village. Jin had gotten there first, and he fought it alone, buying time before the Elites had arrived. A freak accident where everything had gone just slightly wrong. Despite Owen’s foggy memory, a vague image crossed his mind of seeing Alakazam Nevren passing through the town the day after, visibly upset, yet silent. He had acknowledged no one.

“His sacrifice saved the lives of countless others. For that, we are eternally grateful, and we wish upon him eternal peace in the welcoming arms of Arceus.”

Owen shifted uncomfortably, keeping his head down.

“By His blessing,” Anam said, raising his arms slowly.

“By His blessing,” some of the audience echoed; Owen followed, slightly out of sync.

Owen glanced up, thinking that it was over, but then realized that nearly the entire crowd had their heads down in silence. Flame sparking, he quickly brought his head back down—but the corner of his eye caught something. He dared and looked up again.

Anam was glowing. It was subtle, but under the dim light of the cloudy sky, the Goodra had a weak, blue glow. Rhys’ bag, too, had an ethereal radiance. The Lucario was trying to cover it up with small movements of his paws.

As soon as it came, it faded. Anam and Rhys looked normal again, and the moment of silence passed.

“Thank you,” Anam said.

I—I’m not the only one who saw that, right? Owen said. No, everyone had their heads down. But someone else had to have—

He glanced at Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi. They were all looking down, too. He then looked to his right. He saw a pair of Pokémon murmuring to one another. He tried to listen in.

“Glowed? Did he glow?”

“He did. It was weak, but I totally saw Goodra Anam glow!”

“Maybe the rumors are true. They say Anam used to be a priest of some sort.”

“Maybe he really is holy? Oh, thank Him, the whole town is blessed!”

Excuse me? Owen thought. What kind of nutcase superstition is that? He dismissed the notion immediately. Glowing like that happened all the time! The Hot Spot mushrooms glowed in the same way! It was simple bio-luminescence. Perhaps Anam was just a rare variety of Goodra, or he had some glowing moss as part of his breakfast or last night’s dinner.

Owen told himself this to stay sane.

“And now,” Anam said, “I’d like to have all sixteen Old Hearts come up.” He clapped at the incoming sixteen. “You all have done a great job for all of us, haven’t you? All of your work. None of it will be forgotten! The many Pokémon that you’ve rescued, the many outlaws that you’ve corrected… th-the fun times that we all shared together, training, talking… all of that… a-all of…!” Anam sniffled. Rhys rubbed the top of his muzzle; James visibly sighed; Nevren’s left eye twitched.

The Goodra broke down in a wail, rubbing his eyes with his free arm, flinging off slime and gooey tears in many directions. The combination of paying his respects to the dead, and then saying goodbye to so many heroic Pokémon, was too much for the leader of Kilo Village.

James pried the audio-amplifier from Anam’s hands and continued the speech—which he had memorized for just such an occasion. “All of your efforts will be forever remembered in our records, and we all look forward to your relaxed lives as mentors and tutors for the next generation of Hearts that will take your place. We thank you all, and wish you all happy lives for many years to come.”

The audience, nearly as a whole, sighed.

Gahi clicked his jaws and bumped against Demitri’s tusks. “Every time with this guy.”

The Axew picked at his tusks thoughtfully. “It’s hard to believe that the leader of the Thousand Hearts has such a… bleeding heart for all his members.”

“Not really,” Mispy said, pulling Demitri’s claws away so he stopped chipping at his tusks.

Demitri awkwardly lowered his claws. “Yeah, I guess when I say it that way, it makes perfect sense.”

It sounded like James was finishing up the speech that Anam was too scattered to finish. Instead, while James read out the retiring Hearts’ names, Anam shook the hands, paws, hooves, and wings of those retiring or—in the case of a Magcargo—giving a respectful, sniffling nod.

“Th-thank you, f-for all you’ve done!” Anam sniffed. “Nn… nggooh… mmbbbn…!”

A few of the Old Hearts were a bit misty-eyed, too. Perhaps it was contagious. Someone approached Nevren on the side. Whatever was said was enough for him to discretely descend the stairs to talk away from the crowd.

“Anam’s very compassionate,” Owen admitted. “I think that’s a good trait in a leader, even if he takes it a little far.” His fire brightened. “To think I might one day be standing in front of him, retiring after decades of hard work. And then I’d start teaching new Hearts how to fight in a dojo, or something like that. Yeah. That’s what I want. Maybe not the whole Arceus thing, but I’d like to be remembered a little.” He couldn’t wait to start.

“Ain’t you thinkin’ ahead,” Gahi said, an amused glint in his eyes.

“I would also like to announce,” James said, scanning the crowd, “that with these sixteen Old Hearts leaving, we now need sixteen new members. To all those, ngh, Heart-working individuals with Provisionary Badges, we will be holding preliminary tests throughout today in the many dojos in Kilo Village.”

“Heh,” Gahi said. “Well lookit that, Owen. Guess that means yer gonna—where’d he go?”

Owen was already sprinting to the dojo. He passed by Nevren, overhearing a passing conversation about a strange Pokémon in the woods near the western exit.

“. . . Some kind of mutant.”

“Say no more. I will take . . .”

Apparently Nevren volunteered to take care of it—and at any other time, Owen would have been interested in finding out more. But this time, his priorities were hyper-focused on examinations.

<><><>​

Stiff silence filled a wide room near the training district of Kilo Village. Owen sat on the floor with a small, raised lap-desk in front of him, going just above his belly. His flame was dim with concentration and his claws glowed with residual fire. In front of him was a sheet of paper with thirty questions on it, each one more difficult than the last, though all of them were multiple choice. The dreaded five-option multiple choice, of course.

An irritable buzzing sounded on his left. He glanced over and saw a Voltorb staring very hard at his paper, which was on a similar desk, though at ground level. His eyes, narrow, stared at the third question, electricity coursing around his body. Then, with a pop, a bolt singed one of the bubbles

To his right was a Gyarados, mouth closed in intense concentration, staring at a supersized version of the paper below him. His huge, serpentine form was pressed against the corner of the building so he wasn’t in the way, and he was using his whiskers dipped in ink to answer the questions. He was on the fourth, it seemed.

The questions were changed around this year, so Owen couldn’t just blaze through it like last time. He sighed against his pointer claw, maintaining a small ember at the tip. He scorched his answer into the sixth question. Despite there being thirty of them, they had a large tank of water at the very end of the room, slowly draining into the bottom portion. It was meant to last a thousand seconds—for some reason, Anam had a bit of an obsession with a thousand—but that wasn’t nearly enough time to answer all of the questions. Every single one was tricky in some way. Policies intermingling, rare situations, but they all mattered. Equipment management, dealing with ferals morally, an outlaw with a hostage, survival tactics…

Before Owen knew it, the Scyther at the front of the room clicked. “Time’s up!”

“Urgh…” Owen breathed, hissing inwardly, and churred at the four empty questions at the end. He turned his paper over and slid it forward for the assistant Grumpig to collect. Stealing a few glances around, he felt at least a bit more confident that he’d pass. The academics were always easy for him; it seemed that most of the other test-takers could only answer a little over half the questions in time.

Wait. Did he put his name on the—Yes. He did. He saw his name when Grumpig took his sheet. She even checked herself as part of the routine.

Owen sighed, standing up. That’s one test down. Time for the fighting. With a quick walk outside—pressing against the wall when Gyarados stormed through, barely able to keep his sobs from becoming wails—Owen went across the dirt road and into the next building, wiping his feet on the grass just by the entrance.

Something went flying past Owen; he ducked just in time, feeling the cool sting of water brush against his scales.

“S-sorry!” a Dewott said, but then shrieked when a Shadow Ball slammed against his back. It exploded, sending him toppling forward in a crumpled, groaning heap.

“Don’t get distracted.” A Decidueye straightened his wings out, looking down at Dewott. “That will be all for the test. Please allow the next in line to fight. Your results will be recorded and presented to you alongside your academic score.”

Dewott sniffled and stood up shakily. Off to the side, an Audino waved him down; once he was close enough, a healing wave of energy quickly patched up his small wounds.

Owen breathed slowly. He was going to be fighting James, was he? But he seemed a lot weaker than usual. As Anam’s second-in-command, he could probably beat all of the Heart candidates at the same time.

Just next door, Owen heard the faded voice of James speaking to another set of candidates. “Substitute…” Owen mumbled. Curse his foggy memory; it was all coming back to him, now.

James was one of the best Substitute users around. It wasn’t just some doll or some lookalike statue. It was the real deal, making an actual, weaker copy of himself with a part of his own aura. That was how James had described it, at least. He wasn’t sure how he was able to do something so intricate that not even the books had records of it.

The fight after Dewott—it was a haughty Nidorino this time—didn’t last much longer. He staggered to Audino for a heal, and Owen realized that he had left early compared to other groups. He was next.

“Charmander,” James said, giving a nod. “Ah. Owen. Welcome again.”

Owen grinned. “Hey, Decidueye James. Er—just like last year, right?”

“Yes. I hope you do well this time.”

Owen suppressed a wince. Last time, he had been so nervous that he tripped over his feet and busted his snout before the battle even started. There had been blood everywhere…

“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” Owen raised his hands in front of his chest, balling them into fists. Fire blazing, he stepped into the makeshift arena within the sparring room—surrounded by a few observers, and nothing else but sturdy walls to withstand particularly intense battles. This would not be one of them, Owen was sure—particularly because it seemed like even as a Substitute, James was holding back.

“Ready?” James asked.

Owen’s fire flashed a bright yellow. That was enough of an answer.

James brought his wings forward, forming a bow-like weave from his wing. An ethereal arrow appeared where his feathers touched the bow. James tugged backwards; the string of light stretched, arrow aimed for Owen’s chest.

Owen reacted with a bubble of fire, though James deftly sidestepped. Owen’s attack missed completely, not so much as a singe on his feathers, and James retaliated by firing his feathery arrow. Owen knew what a Spirit Shackle felt like and he’d rather not repeat it. He dove out of the way, the feather grazing the flame of his tail, and then rolled to his side. James was already preparing another arrow.

Owen’s Fire Traps would be useless like this. James was too fast and too dangerous to get close to plant one nearby—that aside, he also had no time to set one up in the first place. He just had to wait for an opening. But how was he supposed to find an opening from the Thousand Hearts’ second-in—

Owen didn’t know his legs could send him so high into the air, but he almost made a flip over the ground to dodge another arrow. He landed on all fours, puffing. He had to get James off his guard. He only really knew one way to do that.

Bitter darkness welled up in Owen’s throat. While James prepared another arrow, he spat a black, cloudy sphere toward him. James sidestepped it again, but that wasn’t good enough. It burst into a thick cloud of smoke, enveloping James.

The Decidueye grunted, evaporating his arrow in favor of blowing away the smoke. Now was his chance! Owen rushed toward James, closing the gap, and stomped on the ground, channeling his Ember through his foot. Then, he jumped away, right when the smoke cleared.

Owen spewed a small plume of fire to taunt James. He couldn’t do much after spending so much on the trap, but it had to be enough so James wasn’t suspicious that he did nothing while he was blinded.

The heat scorched a few of his feathers, but that was all. He wordlessly readied another arrow; Owen retaliated with another blast of fire, this time veering it slightly to James’ left. He sidestepped again—right onto the trap.

Fire erupted from below James, the Decidueye hooting once in surprise. Owen lunged with fire in his throat, spewing flames at the Substitute, but just then, he saw a ball of darkness in the heart of the fire.

Eyes wide, Owen had no time to think or block the attack. Instead, the Shadow Ball came straight at his chest, exploding on impact. The force sent Owen flying across the room in a spectacular spiral, ground and ceiling rapidly exchanging positions. He hit the floor three times, bouncing twice, and eventually stopped near the corner of the room.

Owen groaned, the world spinning around him. “I’m okay…”

But his fire burned happily. He landed a good hit on James, and historically, that was more than enough to pass. The Heal Pulse that washed over his body—he was starting to worry about how used to this he was getting—only added to his satisfaction.

By the time his senses returned, he saw a few Pokémon standing over him. James, a Delphox, and the uncannily familiar face of Axew Demitri.

“Oh, hey,” Owen greeted. “Did I win?”

James straightened out the last of his feathers. “You didn’t win, but you passed, if that’s what you’re wondering. You nearly broke this Substitute.” He hooted again, inspecting one of his burned feathers as if it mattered. “I’m quite impressed, but I’m going to have to return myself to James so this Substitute can be replaced. Excuse me.”

The Substitute dissolved in a cloud of black mist.

Delphox sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “You must have really startled James for him to do an attack like that on you,” he said, pulling Owen up. “Still, you should’ve guarded that attack. Don’t you know Protect?”

“I was trying to follow up with my Trap!”

“You got greedy,” Delphox said. “Just remember that next time you fight someone that completely outmatches you.”

Owen grumbled, breathing flames into his hands. This was going to be at least another session or two of meditating. Still, Delphox had a point. “Oh—er, Demitri.” Speaking to someone more his level was a bit more reassuring. “Guess I did pretty well here and in the exam portion, huh?”

The Axew nodded twice, clutching at his tusks excitedly. “Yeah, good job!” Demitri said. “So, you’re going to get into the preliminaries! That’s nice, right? That’s gonna happen later in the afternoon, y’know. And then, after that—uh, if it goes the same way as last time—you’ll find out in the evening if you’re in or not. Fast!”

“Yeah… Yeah!” Owen’s eyes were almost as luminous as his fire. “That’s right! This is my shot!”

“We don’t have any urgent missions to take care of,” Demitri said, “so we’ll be there to cheer you on when you take them!”

The Charmander nodded, his flame brighter than ever. Even if he was a bit careless in a fight against someone as strong as James, he would be able to prove himself in the mock-mission. Then they’d see—after that, he’ll finally be a full-fledged Heart.

Owen took a short breath to gather his thoughts. As excited as he was about the exams, he still had some time to kill. The lingering thoughts of the orb in Rhys’ bag returned to him.

“Hey,” Owen said to Demitri. “Where’s Rhys? I want to talk to him again.”
 
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Man, nothing but Hearts as far as the eye can see, huh? But when's the only important heart showing up, huh? Y'know what I mean, right? The Jamba Heart! Dark Lord be praised!

I do think you did a better job with the descriptions here. You actually gave me a sense of the layout of Hotspot Village... which I'm going to assume is the champion of the "Worst-Named Town Contest" for nigh on centuries at this point. :p And during the whole ceremony, I had a clear picture in my head of the crowds and the stage and the little hill. There were quite a number of characters showing up around Owen in this chapter, but I think the only ones whose personalities shined through besides Owen were Anam and Rhys. I'm not knocking Team Alloy or anything, since I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of them soon. But at this point in the story, I honestly cannot tell the three apart and am constantly having to remind myself who is who because they all feel interchangeable and you haven't given us much to distinguish the three of them yet. I do think that's the peril of choosing to start a story with an experienced team like this. They already have an established dynamic, so we don't really get to see where they started from... which detracts a bit from setting up characters and character arcs. I'm sure this'll change as the plot progresses, though.

With that said, Anam clearly had some of the typical quirky guildmaster tendencies with his rather emotional outbursts and incredibly lame heart-based puns... that I 100 percent approve of. Go Anam, you punderful slime ball, you! <3 But, like the canon leader characters, there seems to be a hidden element to Anam that I'm sure we'll see going forward. And then you have Rhys who you are doing your darndest to make look as suspicious as possible. That conversation he had with Owen really didn't help convince me he's the most upstanding member of the Association. I get the sense that the orb he's holding is important and I've got an even stronger feeling that Owen's going to end up touching it and bad things will happen.

Lastly, a bit of a nitpick. This is really a personal preference thing, but I found the pre-test measurement odd. It was one of those things that sucked me out of the story. Because, quite frankly, the only way I could interpret it is that it's basically showing off what "level" Owen is. And I really don't like when the actual numerical stats and values from the games show up in fic... with numbers and everything. Like I said, it breaks my willful suspension of disbelief. It seemed like this was just a throwaway thing for that one scene, in which case it's not too much of an issue. Just know that, if it does pop up again, I'm still gonna say it's not my thing.

Nice work. Though I'd advise you to slow down your reupload pace, even if your chapters are more like 3-4k words. Three uploads in a week is a lot to work with and you're risking alienating potential readers by having them fall so far behind the forum version that they get discouraged and stop reading.
 
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Man, nothing but Hearts as far as the eye can see, huh?
I know this is just a throwaway line from you to be witty, but you actually brought up a good point. Owen should have been remarking about this mentally! This is literally a concentration of nearly the entirety of the Thousand Heart Association! I need to drop a line about that near the beginning of that scene. Thanks.

I'm not knocking Team Alloy or anything, since I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of them soon. But at this point in the story, I honestly cannot tell the three apart and am constantly having to remind myself who is who because they all feel interchangeable and you haven't given us much to distinguish the three of them yet.
Early on, this is something that I struggled with simply due to how much is going on. I think I'm going to add in a few small things here and there just to differentiate the three a little more, because you're right, as of now, they're just "Team Alloy" and their personalities have yet to shine through, bar Gahi's accent and rudeness.

I found the pre-test measurement odd. It was one of those things that sucked me out of the story. Because, quite frankly, the only way I could interpret it is that it's basically showing off what "level" Owen is. And I really don't like when the actual numerical stats and values from the games show up in fic... with numbers and everything. Like I said, it breaks my willful suspension of disbelief. It seemed like this was just a throwaway thing for that one scene, in which case it's not too much of an issue. Just know that, if it does pop up again, I'm still gonna say it's not my thing.
I was trying to find one line from this piece of the feedback, but it's all important. Because it indeed was a slight throwaway thing, perhaps only made to illustrate (further) that Owen is not normal by even scientific standards. And after all the other foreshadowing I had added in prior, this scene feels like an unnecessary artifact. I think I might rewrite it and rework it entirely, and convert it into a practical exam.

Three uploads in a week is a lot to work with
...It's only been a week?
...Oh, what have I done. Between the rush of getting such valuable feedback, the hurricane, and beating Monster Hunter World, I honestly thought it had been TWO weeks! But no! I uploaded the Act 1 prelude exactly 7 days ago! Agh!

Okay. I'll slow it down. I'll feel out when to put up the next part, if only to give people time to catch up. Sorry, everyone!
 
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Glad I'm not the only one around here with a poor sense of time lol. Anyway, thoughts.

figuring one of the remaining two was Rhys room,
Missing apostrophe.

Finally, Rhys answered. “I do not believe in love at first sight.”

Simultaneously, Owen’s tail burned white, and his heart skipped a beat. “N-not in that way!” he squeaked.
ahahahhaha man you really know how to play with tension

A Pachirisu was balanced atop a Rhydon’s head. A school of Magikarp hopped as high as they could to get precious glances at the stairs that led to the Heart. A pair of Girafarig chatted while their tails nipped at one another.
Ah, I love when diversity in crowds of mon is highlighted in ways like these. Can't expect them all to be two-legged furries mammals.

His darker color scheme complimented Mispy’s light-green body; she assisted him, waving her vines to stand out more
Common mistake, the word is actually "complement". Also, missing period at the end.

a place where you all will one day fill!
Either my brain broke, or there's something off about this grammatically.

To all those, ngh, Heart-working individuals
GET OFF THE STAGE

I have to agree somewhat with Ambyssin about Team Alloy, but I can say that at least Mispy has been recognizable to me since her introduction. Granted, it's probably a lot because she's the only girl in the group, but I also have a feel of her personality already - and Mispy just really sounds like a Chikorita girl's name, you know? Demitri and Gahi still feel rather interchangeable to me, though, save for the accent. I mostly know which is which because I specifically memorized it as fast as possible - I tend to be poor with names in general, and I knew that small trouble would save me lots more later on, not having to scroll back or deduce from context.

Speaking of names, it feels a bit odd that we have Owens and Alexes and Jameseseses, but then also Rhyses and Nevrens and Gahis. I guess Demitri is an example of a name that falls in the middle of the two groups, with not being a common English first name but still being familiar through another culture. I hope there are more characters with names like his to bridge this somewhat jarring gap.

Also, side note, I always think Owen Wilson when I read Owen. Not your fault but the world's for only having, like, one famous Owen.
 
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