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TEEN: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

Chapter 79 - A New Day
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Chapter 79 – A New Day

They were like transparent pillars in a great, unholy palace. The dark gray plating on the floor and ceiling greatly contrasted the white tile that the rest of the facility displayed. Most of them were empty, but several of them bubbled ominously with lumps in varying levels of development floating inside.

A long hall of green cylinders greeted Step upon entering the main lab. Ten floors underground, past a long hallway, into a dimly lit room. Step looked between the empty cylinders, a scowl on her face. The urge to destroy every last one made her tail twitch and her claws flex, but her daughters and her mate kept telling her to hold off and focus on what mattered.

One of the cylinders was full of a thick liquid. Floating inside, curled with its wings wrapped around its tiny body, was a Noibat. She puffed a small cloud of ice at the container, enough to get his attention. But it didn’t care, curling back up.

“So, this is another mutant, still in its larval stage? Is that what you are?” Step asked, but it either did not hear or did not care. “Fine, ignore me.” And it did.

Mom, are you okay? Cent asked. You’ve been really… um, you know, agitated. Like, craaazy agitated.

It’s not
that bad, is it? Kana added. Like, we cheat death all the time, kinda. We should be across the aura sea.

Ra was next. Step, what are you trying to accomplish by going down here? Destroying these things wouldn’t help anyone right now. We could use this army to fight Dark Matter.

That,
Step said, is why they still stand. The sole reason I have not reduced the entire southeast of Kilo into a new tundra.

Geez, Mom, bring it down a few notches,
Kana said. This is all kinds of extra.

I just need to see what we’re dealing with, and—
Step abruptly stopped and turned her attention to the right. The aura felt familiar, but two things were odd about it. Firstly, unlike all of the other Pokémon in these incubation cylinders, this Pokémon was being formed into a fully evolved state. And second, the aura suggested there was a piece of Mysticism already within it—but a small amount. A Hunter.

It was small and lumpy, more like something vaguely plant-like. Draped in a thick, purple veil and hiding some vulnerable center, it vaguely reminded Step of a Cheri Berry.

Step approached the cylinder to get a closer look, making sure the tiny form wasn’t actually of something familiar. She wasn’t that knowledgeable about all the species of the land; this one, perhaps she’d encountered one long ago, but the name escaped her.

Thankfully, Cent knew. What’s so special about that Cherrim, Mom?

It’s a Hunter, I think.

Eh? In there? Weird.


“Step?”

Nevren walked down the hall, head cocked to the side.

Step grumbled and backed away from the cylinder. “Who is this?”

“Hm? Just another mutant, I imagine,” Nevren said, and then motioned behind him. “I finished my headcount, if you’d like a report.”

Step eyed the cylinder suspiciously, but with everything going on, this was the least of her problems. And he was right—she wanted to know if there were any mutants she would have to take care of. “Go on.”

Nevren motioned for her to follow, which she did, out of the cylinder chambers and back into the halls of Quartz HQ. “Seven mutants are still unaccounted for,” Nevren said. “A trio and two duos.”

“Unaccounted. What does that mean?” Step said. “That they aren’t in the facility, and are therefore running rampant somewhere in Kilo?”

“According to the aura logs, one pair had left recently, perhaps yesterday. Another had been missing for quite a while—he could be anywhere in Kilo by now. And the last pair, there’s no log of them being gone for longer than the day. A recent disappearance.”

“Your mutant escapes are so commonplace that you have to track and log their auras?” Step said with a snarl.

“Yes. As I said before, it’s not ideal, but it’s also the only way we could have fixed the issue with their slipping sanity now and then. If we notice a mutant has gone missing, we simply recover them.”

“I believe a proper solution would be to simply kill them.”

“Ah, that would also be useful,” Nevren said, nodding.

Step stared, wide eyed for only a second, before she returned to her original snarl. “You don’t even care about them?!”

“I care about them deeply,” Nevren replied. “Killing them would deliver them back to the Reincarnation Chamber. It seems that despite everything, that is still operational. Quite curious.”

“Reincarnation—” Step stopped herself, still wondering what part of Nevren she was supposed to be outraged about. The fact that Nevren was cheating death so easily—something about that angered her to her very core—or how nonchalant he was about it all.

In the back of her mind, it seemed hypocritical, since nearly everyone among them had cheated death long ago. But this felt different. This felt… blasphemous.

“I’m leaving.” Step moved ahead of Nevren, making sure her tail swept him off of his feet. Her irritation doubled when he simply tucked his legs in midair, floating in place in a Psychic half-jump.

“Now, hold on,” Nevren said, though he made no effort to pursue her, nor did his voice hold any urgency. “If you’re going to leave, I recommend you at least take a communicator with you.”

“A communicator?” Step swung around again, going for another sweep, but Nevren once again dodged out of the way. The icy Aggron went for a swing this time, aiming to graze Nevren’s mustache. He didn’t even flinch, staring at Step. “After everything you’ve done?” she said, undeterred.

What’s with this guy? Cent said within Step’s Orb.

No kidding. Nothing fazes him! Kana replied.

Perhaps he’s reading her mind, Ra theorized.

The thought didn’t bode well with Step; it only made her want to get out faster. If Nevren wasn’t going to respect the privacy of her own mind… Tell me, Alakazam, can you hear my thoughts now? Know that you only live because the mutants cannot be contained without your help. If your usefulness fades, then so will the light in your eyes.

“You’ve been staring at me for quite a while,” Nevren said.

Oh, he’s totally messing with you, Kana said.

The Alakazam tilted his head. “Is something the matter?”

“Give me the communicator. I will tell you when I’ve eliminated the mutants.”

“Do you even know where they are?”

“I’d rather search aimlessly than spend another second here.”

“Ah, I see. Very well.” He handed Step the silver badge. “Take care.”

“You aren’t even going to argue against me leaving?” Step said.

“No, I believe you intended to come here on your own volition. I never requested you to follow.”

Don’t fall for it, Mom! Kana said. It’s reverse psychology! He wants to keep you here!

But wouldn’t keeping an eye on him be a good idea? After all, he’s a traitor.
Ra hummed. And I—oh, Step, hold on.

Um,
called another voice—Alex. Now that he was an Ice Spirit, the cold of the region didn’t bother him. Step, I’m sorry to intrude on the family gathering in your Core, but I wanted to deliver some news?

Step tilted her head upward, earning another curious inquiry from Nevren, but she ignored it. Yes, Hydreigon? How are the wraiths?

Er, right. Everything is fine now. I don’t think the wraiths will be bothering us any time soon… It seems that the last of them gave up.

Gave up? Good. Keep an eye on the border until then.
Step paused, then said, And I haven’t found any news on your mate. I’m sorry. Have you learned anything new on your side?

No… Thank you. But nobody has entered the Ice Realm aside from wraiths.

Mm. Take care
.

Nevren came back to her attention. She glared momentarily, then said, “The wraiths have stopped attacking my realm. I imagine the same can be said for the others.” She frowned, then, and considered what that could actually mean. “…Give me more communicators. I will fly to Kilo Village to give them to the surviving Mystics.”

“A good idea.” Nevren dug through his bag. “And that means, I imagine, that you weigh the priority of communicating with them higher than any antics I may pull here.”

“You’re taunting me.”

“Merely stating a fact.” He handed her a small sack of the badges. “I’ve made quite a few of them just in case.”

“Then you hoard just like Rhys. The only difference is you create your own mess rather than collect it.”

Nevren merely shrugged. Step wrenched the bag from his claws, then angrily looked it over. Holding it would be cumbersome, and she didn’t have a bag on her otherwise to strap around her neck.

“Having trouble?” asked Nevren.

“No. I will manage.” She coated the sack in frost, then planted it on her chest. She focused… Soon, it sank into her body, the bag frozen within the outer layer of her icy form.

“Fascinating,” Nevren said under his breath. “You really are just made of Ice.”

You know, if that came from Owen, I’d think he was giving a compliment, Cent said. But from him, it feels more like a veiled insult…

Maybe you should give him a solid kick before you go,
Kana suggested.

Ra said nothing, neither objecting nor encouraging her.

“Bah.” Step turned around, aggressively sweeping her tail near Nevren. He stepped over it wordlessly. “Manage this place as you like. Just know that if I am displeased, you will regret it.”

“Understood.”

“…One final question,” Step said, thinking about everything that she had seen in this laboratory. The mutants, the experiments like Lucas and Lavender, the Reincarnation Machines, those all seemed to make some sense. The one thing that didn’t—the one abnormality that seemed off…

“How is this place powered?” Step said.

“Ah, a few spare spirits,” Nevren said. “In part. Eon provided a significant portion of his life force along with Elder, but it seems that Eon’s had faded considerably. Elder’s alone remains for that portion of the provided power.”

“Elder… A mere Hunter was capable of providing that essence?” Step turned around again, this time intrigued enough to humor Nevren with a neutral expression. “Can Hunters confer blessings?”

“Not usually, no, which is why I’m quite surprised Elder was capable of it. Then again, it isn’t as if being able to enchant things is unheard of. Elder is just the only Hunter without an Orb that can do it on his own.”

Something about that didn’t add up to her. Um, wait, Alex said. This lab has been around for a lot longer than they had Orbs. How did they…?

“What powered it before Eon got an Orb, then?” Step asked.

“Ah, aside from Elder, there was a bit of Owen’s life force powering it, too, as well as some spirits that we eventually turned into future mutants. From there, it became a cycle of spirits used for power before they moved along to bodies… And then those bodies that died, the spirits returned to their artificial Orb, you could call it, and . . .”

Every word—Step stopped listening after a while—made her icy blood boil more and more. She eventually wanted to hear none of it and spun around, slamming her tail against the wall. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

Step didn’t look back, but she saw his shadow waving at her.

<><><>​

Compared to the plateaus, the tall trees of the blackened forest were less intimidating, yet somehow even more sinister. The plateaus stood tall and rigid, and even though they were wider at the top, it wasn’t as if they leaned over anything. These trees creaked at any movement Owen made. Their tall, thick trunks twisted and turned on their way toward the sky, and the branches were gnarled and jagged like loose brambles.

The tangle of rigid branches blocked most of the sky, and occasionally Owen would happen upon a fallen one. None of them had leaves, or if they did, they had fallen away long ago, joining the uncomfortable, damp ground. The mud-like dust went at least up to his ankles.

On his way to the forest, his nose—ever-sensitive thanks to the lack of any real smells in this wasteland—had picked up on the mouth-wateringly tantalizing smell of something cooking. Perhaps he had hallucinated it, but he knew, for just a whiff, he had smelled something savory. If he was lucky, that meant there were others nearby, perhaps some actual civilization! But he didn’t want to risk it or get distracted, and there was no telling if they would actually be friendly.

Amia had said she’d found berries in the forest. He wasn’t about to go off to another village and defer to their advice or help. He was supposed to be more independent, after all. And for once, he wanted to save someone all on his own, not relying on the decisions that other people made. More rationally, he had his doubts that a wasteland like this would leave others with food to spare.

And the berries would be free if he got them from the forest, and would guarantee that Amia would be healed. He just had to hurry. She was strong… but he didn’t want to leave her alone like that for long. The Fire Traps would protect from one wraith, but what if there were several?

The loud, dry crackling of a twig under Owen’s foot startled him out of his thoughts. He nearly spat out an ember on reflex, but suppressed his shock and took a deep, calming breath. He looked behind him and saw the edge of the forest. With how densely packed the trees were, he wasn’t sure if he should venture too far in. He’d be better off searching for berries near the edges.

No telling if wraiths loomed deeper inside, anyway. Amia had been injured the same way.

Berries, berries… Owen scanned his immediate area and found nothing. Would dead trees even provide anything? Owen looked at his green crystal again. It was a strange, perhaps random thought, but what if he could use whatever sense guided him to the crystal, and to his mother, to find berries?

Eyes closed, Owen focused on his surroundings. Perceive or not, he had some strange sense. He felt the crystal in his hands. That was always present. But he had felt Amia, too, even with that in his possession. What else was out there?

He remained motionless, but all he could see was the black cover that came from his eyelids. So, he stood for a while longer, searching, but still, nothing.

Eventually, he frowned and opened his eyes. He’d have to keep track of how far he went while searching. A little deeper wouldn’t hurt. He just had to keep his senses sharp. The flame on his tail would only draw attention; any dark areas would be best avoided.

He was meticulous, counting the number of steps he’d taken. Every hundred, he’d take ten deeper into the forest and then go back the other way for another hundred. After several of those, not finding anything, he instead took two hundred steps and swept across another segment of the forest, brushing along the very edge of the thicker perimeter before returning a few layers within.

His stomach tied itself into another knot, and this pang of hunger was enough for him to double over and wince. He had to find food soon—no, he had to find berries. And save a few for Amia. An apple would be nice, too.

He stepped over another twig, but accidentally lost his footing, crunching it. It reminded him of candy, those little, flaky wafers back home that he’d buy from Sugar ‘n Spice. They had once offered him one of their special menu items for being such a regular customer—Everything Nice, they called it.

It was just one of every item.

But he had taken the offer, and that crunchy wafer was one of his favorites. In a daze, Owen picked up the twig, inspecting it. What if…

Maybe just…

He’d read about it…

But that wasn’t from normal bark, was it? He had to get to the core of the tree. A nibble on the fallen branch confirmed it; tasteless, dry—Owen wasn’t sure if he could properly chew it, even if he tried. Bits of it got caught between his teeth, under his tongue… Owen struggled to get most of it out, but his mouth was so dry.

He had to get it from the core of a tree. Thankfully, there were tons of them. But would any of them hold edible wood? He could at least try.

He approached the nearest one and ran a claw along the rough edges. He pried off a bit of the bark, only to see more solid wood inside. He’d probably need to actually use his claws for this one.

Could he tap into Metal Claw again? It had been a while, but he still remembered having to use it a few times. He could’ve done it to get to Zena’s hidden abode, had Demitri not headbutted his way in. For someone so mild-mannered, he really did think with his muscles when presented with an obstacle…

Maybe channeling some of that was a good idea.

Owen squeezed his claws, searching for that old energy. Steel-gray light collected at the edges of his tiny fingers, concentrating to a fine point. He drew his arm back, crouched down, and swung.

He felt something wet on his claws and his heart skipped a beat. It was either blood or tree sap. Oh, please let it be tree sap.

Nothing red against his orange scales. He looked at the tree. It was bleeding instead—a thin, reddish liquid, akin to the lake. His tail dimmed a bit at that, but still, it was liquid. It was water—maybe. Owen ran a finger along the tree and inspected it, giving it a tentative taste.

Nasty.

But it wasn’t any worse than the lake water, and compared to shriveling up, it was just what he needed. He tore off a piece, digging into the softer, reddish wood beneath the tough bark, and pulled out a long, thick strip. It dripped in his claws, and some primal part of Owen forced him to nibble at the bottom so nothing reached the ground. The ground didn’t need this water, he did. Even if it tasted awful. Actually, it was starting to taste tolerable. Not good, but tolerable.

He sucked at the bottom of the bark, waiting until the wood was dry enough to pull away from. That wasn’t nearly enough water. He’d need to get a little more.

The tree was bleeding too much. It was trickling down the rough bark and toward the dirt.

What if it ran out?

Owen lunged at the base of the tree and stuck his tongue near one of the little rivers, relief washing over him once it had stopped the flow. He ran further up, eyes crossing as he got closer to the source, and swallowed.

Good. All taken care of. Oh, the aftertaste. Owen tried his best to keep from wincing, but no matter how thirsty he was, that bile-like taste wasn’t going to go away like magic.

He pulled away once the liquid’s flow slowed, returning to the piece of bark that he’d taken. It was a lot easier to chew—and a lot softer—and he hoped it at least provided him with a little bit of energy.

He munched on the tough, yet soft bark like it was hard taffy. It was starting to taste like taffy, too. Bad taffy, but—sweet, too. Was he losing it? Maybe, but this would help him return to sanity.

He tore off a few more pieces for the travel ahead, and wondered if Amia would appreciate a few of them, too.

Owen realized that his hands were already full of tree taffy. How was he could to carry back the berries when…

He’d have to think about that while searching for them, because regardless, he’d have to bring a few along for Amia.

After more walking—and with half of the tree taffy consumed—he spotted color in his vision, something that stood out subtly from the purples and blacks. Blue, a vibrant blue like an early morning sky, poking through a pile of mulch near the base of a tree.

Could it be?

Beneath the pile, after brushing the dirt aside, he saw a small patch of berries. They actually grew here—Amia was right! He pulled at one, but then winced. It had a lot of… resistance.

He tugged a bit harder, but the other berries followed, attached to the Oran like they had grown together in bunches. Except—it wasn’t just Orans. A few were, but there were Pecha Berries, and Cheri Berries, all part of the same vine, stuck together.

Well, that solved the carrying issue. He glanced at the trees. He could have potentially used the branches to fashion a scraggly, crumbly basket, but this sped things up much more conveniently.

“That’s everything, I guess,” Owen said. His voice startled him; high and hoarse.

Eleven berries on the bunch, and of them, three were Orans. Perfect! That would be more than enough to heal Amia up, and even give her some actual food, too.

He quickly navigated back, still searching for any signs of wraiths—to his fortune, none came. Maybe they were afraid of his tail, or maybe they knew he was dangerous. That had to be it.

After grabbing another few bunches of tree taffy and placing them between the berries, hoping they would stick together, he hauled his findings out of the forest with a tired, but still present spring in his step.

It was going to be a long walk back, but at least now he knew what he was supposed to do with himself.

<><><>​

The first sun of a new era of Kilo rose to its usual routine. First, Kilo Mountain’s face and jagged rocks cast long shadows across the forest and fields, and then, as the sun rose higher, the light finally shined within the city, still named a village by tradition, within. Various flying Pokémon flew in a high circle around the large crater, searching for stragglers trying to find their way to the great, natural landmark at the middle of the world.

The cross-shaped main streets were flooded near the southern side with dots of civilians looking for answers. Meanwhile, the hospital had been expanded into nearby shops and buildings—commandeered for the sake of making room for the influx of patients, though very few protested. Many dots congregated around the center of Kilo as the hospital expanded to take up nearly the entire center of the city. North, the commercial district had a thin sea of Pokémon looking for their last supplies before the stocks ran out, indefinitely.

Most shops were already closed, sold out. Places that didn’t have food or equipment, simply items of pleasure or entertainment, closed early, their shopkeepers more concerned with keeping their friends and family safe, visiting the hospital, or checking the south where most of the remaining Pokémon had gathered. Perhaps some were in the hospital as patients themselves.

The training district was devoid of activity entirely. Every Heart, provisionary or otherwise, had headed to the heart-shaped building at the very base of the southern district, past Waypoint Road, and embedded within the dip of the crater. Even as everything else crumbled, even as Anam left, the red heart remained—there were still hundreds of Hearts ready to help.

That’s what they hoped, at least.

In front of the Heart HQ, at the top of the stairway, stood the one Elite Heart that remained after the sky had fallen. The strange, black vortex far north of Kilo village remained, ever-present on the distant horizon. Occasionally, great arcs of light flew over the ski and smashed into it, leaving distant, thunderous booms for all of Kilo to hear.

Rhys knew that was Arceus, preoccupied with keeping Dark Matter at bay, but did that matter anymore? It seemed that Anam had already kept him suppressed. Yet another stalemate, and despite this, it seemed that the world was one second closer to doomsday.

It was almost nostalgic.

Without communicators, Rhys had no way of knowing what Nevren was doing with Step. In their rush to leave, they had left them behind in Hot Spot—and beyond that, Rhys wasn’t entirely sure if they worked any longer. Berries, Orbs, and Waypoints were strongly tied to Anam’s blessings, to the point where the revocation of them led to the crumbling of social order as they knew it.

However, after searching through all of town, it seemed that not all was lost. Technologies that did not rely on Anam’s blessings were still in working order, such as the hospital’s medical technology, the aura reading systems… They all seemed to be working. What else did they still have?

The crowd was getting larger. Rhys cleared his throat and raised a paw to get everyone’s attention. Nobody was listening. A few stray eyes here and there, but then they returned to speaking to one another. The Lucario growled to himself, figuring he’d have to make a louder noise.

Good thing most of his strength was back after that long rest. He fired a small, crackling orb of aura into the air, then clenched his paw. It exploded with a loud POP! that startled enough of the crowd for a noticeable silence to quiet the rest of them.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” Rhys said, shouting as loudly as he could without coming off as screaming. “I would like to begin by—er…”

Someone pushed their way through the crowd. The Exploud that usually showed up for announcements, such as when the Thousand Hearts had performed the Ceremony of Advancement.

“Hey, hey!” he called out, waving an odd, rubbery tube of some kind, attached to a strange device at one end and a long, glowing rod on the other. “This still works! I made it myself; use me!”

“Er—thank you.” Rhys took the piece and, by routine, jammed the rod into one of the holes on Exploud’s back. He then opened his mouth wide, and Rhys spoke into the other end of the tube, his voice amplified for everyone else to hear.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming!” Much easier. “I understand that there is a lot of chaos, but rest assured that the Thousand Hearts are well prepared for such catastrophes!” They were only partly prepared.

“Many of you may have noticed that Arceus has descended from the heavens and Destiny Tower has returned. Do not be alarmed!” There may have been reason for alarm. “He is currently combatting the void in the sky that had also appeared north of Kilo, in the Shimmering Outskirts. That situation is under control!” They didn’t know that.

Murmurs returned. Rhys’ ears tried to tune in on whatever they were saying, some of the louder voices coming in clearly. Mostly names stood out to him, like ‘Anam,’ or ‘Nevren.’ He figured those were valid concerns.

“Elite Hearts Alakazam Nevren and Decidueye James are handling the situation on other parts of Kilo!” True for only one of them. “Meanwhile, Goodra Anam is busy battling the void directly, and will be working tirelessly to keep this place safe until then!” Rhys could only hope that was the case.

“Until then, I implore everyone to stay together in pairs or trios, just as you would expect of a Heart rescue team. Badges, Waypoints, and most Dungeon equipment is no longer useful, and until we can find proper substitutes and replacements, everyone—civilians and Hearts alike—will need to operate under extreme caution!

“I would also like to encourage anybody capable of learning Heal Pulse, Life Dew, or any other healing techniques to tune your auras toward being able to draw from that power quickly. I have already personally tuned my aura toward it. Please consult with species experts to learn if you are capable of the same techniques.

“And lastly, I would like to caution anyone from entering a Dungeon at this time, for fear of safety in the distorted environment. Go to a Heart as usual for any absolutely-necessary Dungeon operations. Report any mutant sightings immediately, and do not engage with them.”

Rhys believed he had covered everything he wanted to, but something was still nagging at him. The way the crowd seemed, while informed, suggested they were still… unnerved, uncertain. Something was missing. What was missing? Their eyes were lost and confused. Despite the fact that his speech was over, it felt like he was still losing them.

Realization hit him—his speech wasn’t over. If the world was in a crisis and they had nothing substantive to actually hold anything together, what was the one thing he could do to show a sense of unity regardless?

“And now,” Rhys amended, “I would like to remind everyone of why we are all here. While this is a mantra that typically applies to my duty as a Heart, it is something that applies to all of us broadly, as Pokémon of one purpose, to help each other. We are all Hearts at our core. And so…”

Rhys raised his paw, bringing it just below the spike on his chest. It seemed that many others caught on, mimicking the motion if they could, others taking on similar poses with their varying body types, using vines, hooves, or tails. Others simply bowed their heads.

“A thousand hands

A single heart

Working and beating as one.”


The crowd slowly stopped their shuffling, more and more of them murmuring the mantra to themselves. Others said it a little more loudly, and the energy was contagious. Indeed, a thousand hands, thousands upon thousands, but they all tied to the same heart. Rhys glanced back at the HQ, then back to the crowd.

“Unite the lands

From worlds apart

Until our battles are done.”


He thought of the Waypoints. It wasn’t so bad. They had gone without Waypoints long ago, when Kilo had been fragmented across various villages and small kingdoms, for lack of a better term. And so, once again, this verse regained its relevance. Rhys didn’t pause too long, and went with the rest of the crowd, which would have carried on the rest of the mantra without him.

“We serve Kilo and all its parts

Under one name: The Thousand Hearts!”


What followed weren’t cheers or shouts of roars, but little murmurs and echoes of the same mantra again. Some seemed frightened, but they were brought closer by hardened eyes and determined spirits. Others seemed less enthused, less hopeful, looking back at the void in the horizon. But more still were already dispersing, and Rhys saw their muted auras, focused on one or two tasks at most. Searching for a species expert, readying themselves for a Heal Pulse. A surprising number were already going to the hospital district—it was a district now, overnight.

No time for peace; before Rhys took his first step down the platform, something in the Heart HQ exploded. He whirled around; a puff of smoke billowed out of the main entrance. He rushed inside, spotting a glow to his right. He ran down the hall, followed the colorful path to the storage room, and spotted the fading, cyan barrier of a Golem’s Protect.

“What happened?” Rhys said.

“Sorry! Sorry!” shouted another voice inside.

Past the smoke, a Primeape holding a straight, wooden stick of some kind stumbled through the debris.

“What happened?” Rhys said.

“We were checking inventory, and suddenly this stick just… blew up!” Primeape held it up. It glowed faintly with energy.

“Ah, that’s… that looks like a Blast Seed’s energy, doesn’t it?” Rhys squinted. “In a wooden stick…”

Isn’t this Nevren’s storage room? He was always fond of making useless experiments…

Rhys stepped in curiously, taking a careful look at the shelves. Despite the blast, most of the area was undisturbed aside from a new layer of smoke and dust. More of those odd, metallic wrists bands lined one part of the room, while neatly organized rows of more wooden sticks decorated another. Some of them were curled, others had little leaves growing out of the top, but they all glowed faintly.

Golem grunted. “What are these things? Seems like Elite Heart Nevren really went crazy with making them all. Did he do them without Anam’s blessings?”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Golem said. “Just like those Jammers, they aren’t made by Anam—they’re totally underground.”

“Conferring blessings is usually impossible for most,” Rhys muttered to himself. Still… I’ve seen something akin to blessings happen by others, and Mystics also have some capacity for it. Considering how long Nevren had to practice, I shouldn’t be too surprised at how far along he’d come.

He should have paid more attention to his projects.

So lost in thought, Rhys didn’t notice the second explosion until Golem brought up his cyan barrier again.

“Will you stop that?!” Golem shouted over the rough coughs by Primeape.

“Sorry, sorry! I was just putting it down and I accidentally set it off, or something! Here, let me just… slowly… slowly…” And on the ground it went.

Rhys sighed and inspected the strange stick. “…Wands,” he muttered under his breath.

“What was that?” Golem asked.

“Nevren had been developing equipment that he called wands, but this is all we have.” He inspected the shelves. “But that does mean that if others that were not Anam can confer blessings, perhaps, with a little luck…

Rhys shook his head. It wasn’t much use at this point to theorize on what could be possible when they were still trying to regain lost ground. “Leave this room alone for now,” Rhys said. “This just gave me a thought: unregulated Orbs and other equipment might be in the hands of criminals.”

“Wait—you mean, Orbs not made from Anam’s blessings?”

“Or not based off of them,” Rhys said, nodding. “We’ll need to be careful.”

“Right.”

Rhys hummed in thought. Blessings—incredibly difficult, but not impossible, to channel techniques into empty glass Orbs. They had barely been a problem in the past; Anam and the regulated Orbs simply outnumbered and outmatched them. But now? Perhaps they were actually a threat.

And what of—

Rhys’ ears twitched, sensing a commotion outside. Flaring auras, panic. What now?!

At the base of the HQ, a bruised and battered, but still standing, Emboar stumbled forward. “We need to lock down every single Dungeon,” he grunted to Rhys.

“What? What happened?” he said.

“There… there are monsters inside. Shapeless… black things, they were everywhere, they… I…” He collapsed, sending another wave of panic through the crowd.

Rhys pointed his paw forward and channeled pink energy through it, blasting Emboar with a Heal Pulse. While it didn’t heal him completely, it was enough to seal his wounds, yet his aura still appeared… damaged.

Wraiths. Why hadn’t it occurred to him until now?

Anam’s blessings were gone. Every single Dungeon that he had blessed—every single one in all of Kilo—was infested all over again.
 
Chapter 80 - Finding Stability
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Chapter 80 – Finding Stability

Demitri was a lot heavier than Mispy remembered.

The Haxorus lounged on her back, axes by his side, while he nestled his face against her. “Thanks for this, Mispy,” Demitri mumbled.

The Meganium nodded silently, though she was more focused on her surroundings. With no idea on where to go, they had decided to try to find the highest ground possible. To their fortune, they had wound up right next to a mountain, stuck in some kind of valley. The mountains were black—so dark that, at times, it was hard to tell where there were cracks in the ground, or boulders to step over. It had gotten so bad that Demitri had tripped every other step, resulting in Mispy’s more unorthodox mode of travel.

Her vines crawled over every small pit and dip, filling in the cracks without much issue. Sliding forward, creeping one vine at a time, she focused on their surroundings. The actual aspect of climbing—the slope wasn’t very steep—had become a routine. Red skies above and black rocks below made for a very ominous sight. The wind was invisible, kicking up no dust; she could only know to brace herself when she heard it coming, or otherwise had to make sure she had a good foothold—vinehold, technically—of a nearby rock.

“How far up are we?” Demitri said. “I don’t wanna look down.”

“Almost,” Mispy said. The summit wasn’t too far. If she really wanted to, Demitri could probably ball her up and throw her to the top. If only they had Gahi or Owen to do the flying; it would’ve taken Owen only a few hundred seconds to get to the top of the mountain from here. Instead, they had to deal with kiloseconds.

Mispy suddenly stopped.

“H-huh?” Demitri braced himself. “Is there another one?”

“Mhm.”

She raised a vine, pointing it at the ground to her left. She waited, staring, her antennae twitching. Then, suddenly, something black oozed out of the ground, lunging at her; the Meganium’s vine was faster, piercing it right in the center. It shrieked and went limp; she flicked it ahead, where it bled an inky blackness.

“Is it dead?” Demitri asked.

Mispy prodded at the thing; no movement. She jabbed it. More black ooze came out. “Dead.” She curled a vine around it, lifting it toward Demitri. It dripped thickly. “Hungry?”

Demitri’s head jerked forward in a restrained retch. “I—I’m full from the last one,” he said.

Mispy shrugged; the vine holding the carcass split open four ways and wrapped around the vaguely shapeless blob. Once she actually pressed on the strange body, she felt vague, slightly harder parts of the body that resembled limbs. Did this thing actually have arms and legs beneath its rounded mass? How strange. Not that it mattered; it was food, now.

Piece by piece, her vines tore away, swallowing each piece greedily until all that remained was black residue. She sighed, satisfied. Any food was good food, and it seemed like they weren’t going to come across anything fruit-based for Demitri to enjoy anyway.

It had been a battle just to feed him the first time. ‘What if that blob had a family?’ Demitri had protested.

She sighed at the thought, which earned a worried pat from the Haxorus. “It’s okay,” she said.

“It’s settling well, right?” he asked.

“Mm.”

Maybe they did have families, but as far as Mispy could tell, they were even dumber than ferals—not counting Enet. Then again, she didn’t deal with ferals all that often… But these things just attacked on sight. They were defending themselves! And once they were dead, well, it’d be wasteful, wouldn’t it?

She wondered if another would attack. She was still a bit hungry.

A while more of climbing brought them to the top, but a cruel wind forced Mispy to brace herself again. Her aura sense gave off no other wraiths, so that was a good start, but it would be bad timing if she had to take one on while the wind blew. Did they get blown away by those? They were pretty dense—and, therefore, were very filling meals—usually.

There had been one time, though, when she killed one and it simply dissolved into thin air. That was strange—and disappointing. It was the least defined of the bunch, nothing but a blob that vaguely resembled a Goomy, similar to the ones that Anam had summoned when he was possessed. She’d probably never know what those ones tasted like.

Soon, they reached the top—a flatland near the top of the mountain, with only a modest dip of a crater at the center. Demitri didn’t want to scan for too long, but he looked around enough to gather that they were simply too far away from any sense of civilization.

It was all the same. Mountains all around, skies the same, and the horizon was lined with more mountains. With the featureless sky, there wasn’t a whole lot to tell on where to go, either.

“Still nothing, huh?” Demitri said. “I guess we should just—wait, what’s that?”

“Huh?”

A cave. It was on the other mountain to the left of the one they’d been climbing—which meant it would be another long and boring climb—but it was at least something. Mispy’s antennae twitched, but it was too far away to tell. Still, at least it would be more climbing down than climbing up. The cave was a lot lower than the summit.

“It’s so far away,” Demitri whined. “Why can’t we just fly there?”

“Wings.”

“I—I know, just—wait. Didn’t we glide on our way here?”

Mispy flinched. Did boredom get to Demitri so much that he’d rather try to fly than take the safe walk? Then again… they could get attacked by more wraiths the longer they took, and they couldn’t risk too many injuries before tapping into their healing energy. And with food being scarce, Mispy would have to use up her vines for the healing.

“Glide?” Mispy said.

Mispy and Demitri had arrived to this strange place from the sky shortly after they had been taken by Anam. It was disorienting at first, but Demitri had been right next to her. They had been taken together, though the ground had been rocky. But the way they had broken the landing—aside from Mispy using most of her weight as a cushion for Demitri—was to try to fashion her vines into a flat, wing-like glider.

It hadn’t worked well, but it had slowed the fall.

Mispy gave Demitri an uncertain look, though she couldn’t find her words. She tried to speak, but she stumbled over herself and grumbled. “Not…” was all she managed to say.

“I guess so,” Demitri said with a nervous laugh. “Okay, maybe a little too crazy. Let’s just go with the normal walking, a-aha… Besides, I don’t know if I want to experience falling again.”

He adjusted himself on her back and leaned forward. “Do you want me to get off?” he asked.

Mispy wrapped her vines around his waist and smiled. She could feel her words returning to her again. “I’m fine.”

Demitri wrapped his arms around her neck for a better grip. “I wonder if we should fuse after all. Then I won’t be bothering you on your back.”

She had considered it, but would that take up more energy? Less? It was hard to tell. Food used to be abundant, and now they were just trying to be cautious.

“Not for now,” Mispy said.

“Yeah, I guess we don’t know what it’ll do with our energy.”

Deciding to keep to the same routine, Mispy started her slow and careful descent down the valley. They went over the rocks, over a small fissure, and finally started their ascent all over again. At some point during the descent, Demitri had fallen asleep. Mispy kept him situated on her back with a few more vines, which he happily snuggled with. Meanwhile, she kept his axes in safekeeping for now. She did appreciate that he slept with them off so he didn’t cut up her back with them, for how sharp they were.

Eventually, they made it to the cave on the other side, and in case there was something lurking within, Mispy gently shook Demitri.

“Mmm… uh… huh?” Demitri blinked himself awake. “What’s going on? Oh.” He rubbed his eyes, finally slipping off of Mispy. “You know, we could probably use the cave as shelter if it’s empty, don’t you think?”

“Mm.” She didn’t feel any odd auras inside. Maybe it was actually safe to rest for once. Taking shifts while sleeping would still be wise.

The inside of the cave looked like more of the same black rocks. No dust here, either. After Demitri verified with Mispy that it was safe to advance, he led the way in, unable to see the back of the cave. He was bolder, now, with the knowledge that there was nothing else inside. Still, he had to be careful about the floor being uneven.

A chilling wind shocked Mispy to her core. She raised her vines in an attempt to shield from it, but she could already tell that her body wouldn’t last against this cold for long.

Demitri had it just as bad, rubbing his arms. He retreated behind Mispy’s vines. “Cold—”

Mispy nodded and wrapped him in some of them in an attempt to shield the Haxorus from the wind, which didn’t end. And further along, the rocks were changing from black to something with at least some color. And was that… salt?

“Why does it smell like the beach?” Demitri said, wincing when another whip of chilling air hit his arm.

“Let’s keep going.”

Defiant of the wind, the pair pressed onward, black, oppressive rocks giving way to a dimly lit cave within, the stone even colder to the touch. Bizarre as it was, they continued anyway, and heard a high, constant whistling sound. “What’s…” Mispy looked back. “What is that?”

“Whistling—like wind through a tunnel,” Demitri said. “Wait, didn’t Owen mention to us about that before? A cave that always had a loud whistling noise. He went with Nevren to train, and he told us about that weird dream, I think… That was from a reset ago.”

“I remember…” Mispy frowned. That didn’t make sense. That cave was at the northern edge of Kilo, even further than Hot Spot. But that did explain the salty air—it overlooked the ocean on the northern side.

Everything except for how they got there made sense, if it really was…

“It actually is Eternal Whistler,” Demitri said, pointing to the left. “Owen mentioned that only heavy rocks remained and stuff. It’s gotta be.”

Mispy’s eyes brightened. That meant they were somewhere home. The air seemed saltier when they went in one direction; if they wanted to head south, closer to Kilo, they would have to go in the opposite direction, against the wind.

“”C-cold,” Demitri said. “How did Owen d-deal with this?”

“Fire.”

“Oh… right…” Demitri rubbed his arms again. “Would love to have Owen around right now… S-so warm…”

Gahi would’ve done even worse, Mispy imagined. Ground and Dragon wouldn’t do well in this sort of frigid weather. Step’s angry words echoed in her mind—how ironic that three components to the apparently-perfect fusion shared a weakness to Ice.

There weren’t a lot off feral Pokémon in the area. Even when Mispy tried to get a feel for their auras, she only sensed a few hiding in the corners. Did they fear the two of them?

Mispy suddenly froze in thought, then tapped Demitri on the side.

“H-huh? What? Too cold?”

“We’re mutants.”

Demitri blinked. “Yeah, we are. Are you feeling okay?”

Mispy looked onward, frowning. Once they got out, if the world was in any sort of trouble from what Anam was doing, or if the others were fighting, would they get mistaken for enemies by the general public? They didn’t have Enet to hide them in an illusion this time, and while Demitri could pass as normal… there was no disguising Mispy. She wouldn’t even pass as southern—she was simply too different.

“Oh… oh,” Demitri said lowly. “Well… we can’t just go back, can we? We’ll just behave really nice, and maybe they’ll believe us. Better than nothing. R-right?”

He had a point, but it wasn’t exactly a good chance.

Soon, they reached the exit, with just the little distorting waiting for them. It seemed a little different than the others; usually, they had to pass through little segments from one to the next, but they hadn’t encountered anything like that. And now, they were at the exit?

They decided to just accept the blessing and advance through, blinking at the sudden brightness. The sun practically burned against them. “Aagh, I think we adjusted too much to that dark place.” Demitri groaned, holding his arm up to the afternoon sun. “Maybe we should… stick to the shade or something. It’s kinda hot today, isn’t it?”

Mispy had to agree. She knew from traces of Demitri’s memories what it felt like to feel the pain of a burn, and even she was starting to feel it. It reminded her of when she’d endured Anam’s attacks—like they went right to her aura. Why was it that the sun felt the same way, now? No, it wasn’t the sun. It felt like the very air was oppressive to her. She looked to see how Demitri was doing, but—

“D… Demitri!” Mispy lost her words again.

“What?” But then he gasped. “Mispy! You’re—what’s happening to you?”

“What?”

They were both losing their shape, like a haze had overtaken their bodies. And it was getting worse—and as it got worse, so did the pain.

“S-something’s wrong,” Demitri breathed out.

It happened right when they got out of the Dungeon. Their first reflex—to simply go back. “Hurry,” Mispy said, pulling Demitri with her. They passed through the distortion for a second time—relief flooded over them, like cold water on a burn.

Demitri trembled, staring at shaking claws. “I… th-that… what happened?”

Mispy didn’t know. The pain—such a rare feeling for her—had become nearly unbearable by the time she’d thrown herself through. It was fading, though.

They shuddered together. Going out again was out of the question. But that just left…

“We need to head back… and find some other way in. W-we should tell the others about this first, and see what it means. Maybe Owen will know, right? He’s… got to be in there, too. Something out of all this must make sense.”

Mispy nodded. Owen might know. They just had to find him. How hard would it be to find a Charizard? He was probably searching for them from the skies.

“Let’s go.”

With a determined nod, the duo elected to return to the strange, red-sky land they had come from.

<><><>​

Manny slid down a hill made of cotton candy.

It was awful. The sugar got all over his fur and stuck between his paws, and he didn’t want to think about anywhere else that he’d have to start cleaning by the time he got to the bottom. Behind him, all of the other surviving spirits of his Realm continued through, some of them tumbling and spinning downward.

“We’re fallin’ too fast!” Manny shouted. “I ain’t gonna fizzle ter a fall, we gotta slow down!”

Elbee, further behind, pulled out one of her blades and slashed into the cotton candy slide; far below, there was a bubbling pool of pink liquid, waiting to melt them down should they land in it.

Yen followed next, slamming his hidden claws into the cotton candy, followed by the others doing the same. Azu, Roh, and Verd were strong enough to dig their claws into the surprisingly thick hill of pink fluff, and Manny swung his arms backward, using his wrist spikes to stop his fall. He slowly decelerated, his body pressed against the slide at a steep angle. They were only a few seconds away from the bottom if they lost their hold.

Freaking Willow,” Manny said, puffing out an irritated breath. “What’s with the Fairy Realm?”

Everything smelled sweet, and the sky was a swirl of pink and pale green, like the entire atmosphere had been painted in pastel. The clouds looked like brush strokes trying to imitate hair.

“I don’t trust Fairies. Never did.” Elbee tried to get a better hold of her blade. The Samurott couldn’t position herself nicely, but instead looked at her surroundings. “So, this slide goes into that pool of bubbling pink lava, right? What do we do?”

“Guys! A little help?!” Doll cried.

Far above them, two Pokémon were caught near the top of the slide. Clair and Doll—with their rough skin and prickly body respectively—had gotten caught on the slide right at the beginning.

“Aaah, that ain’t good,” Manny muttered, but he was pinned against the cotton candy by his own spikes.

“Pick the Fairy Realm, you said,” Elbee said in a hiss. “It’ll be easy, you said.”

“Oy, we tried ADAM’s place and that was messed up! I ain’t gonna live there! And Step’s nuts!”

“Oh, and the shrink-happy Joltik isn’t?!”

“Baaah, ferget that! She’s weak, I figured we coulda handled it!” Manny waved dismissively, which loosened him from the slide. He swung left, yelping, and he slammed his spike into the slide again.

A silence followed where nobody tried to move—up or down. Then, Elbee growled, jamming her forehead’s horn into the cotton candy. “Great. So what do we do now, leader?”

“Shaddap, I’m thinkin’!” Manny tried to move his arm, but any time he did, he felt his grip on the slide become more and more perilous. He couldn’t see what was to their left or right, but straight down was a bad idea.

“Elbee, shoot some water into that stuff. See if it’s actually hot.”

The Samurott nodded and launched a glob of water toward the vat below. Direct hit—the water sizzled loudly, a series of pops sending solidified pink material in all directions. The water blended with the pink fluid once it was as hot as the rest.

“Yep, that’s hot alright,” Manny said with a wince. “Great. That’s out.”

Some of the hot water splashed on the slide, melting the sugar near the bottom.

“…Oh, lookit that,” Manny said. “Hang on. I think I’ve got an idea.”

“Way ahead of you,” Elbee said, and then blasted the slide in front of her with a Hydro Pump.

Manny barked in surprise, eyes wide. “WHAT? NO! Don’t—”

“What?” Elbee stopped her attack prematurely, but the damage was already done. The water spread through the fluffy sweetness like it was nothing. “Which way were we supposed to go?”

The bridge split apart, revealing an open pit filled with—

“Oh, come on…”

All the others screamed or shouted, looking for a way out as more and more of the sugary footholds disappeared into melted, red candy. Far below, colorful, lumpy mounds of yellow, green, orange, and red, several times their size, came into view. In the rain of sugar, Manny crossed his arms and shouted, “Fall floppy; it’ll hurt less!”

Manny loosened his body, while Yen tried, and failed, to catch up to him in time. The Drampa kicked his legs and channeled his innate levitation abilities—something that the other spirits lacked in Willow’s domain. Roh flailed his arms in an attempt to fly. It had no effect. Azu struck an honorable pose, sticking one arm forward with his fist clenched, while his other arm held his hips. Verd had passed out—never was a fan of heights.

Clair was falling a lot faster than the others, challenging the ground to try to kill her, while Elbee actually listened to Manny’s advice. The Garchomp hit the pit’s center, sticking headfirst into one of the red lumps near the middle with a loud splorsh. Manny landed next, getting his chest-spike stuck in a yellow gumdrop. The others all landed one way or another, with Azu managing to hold his pose even after he landed. He was waist-deep between a pinkish and orange gumdrop, looking like he had been there all his life.

Verd, meanwhile, had landed back-first, and then rolled further down. The spikes on the Chesnaught’s shell carried a few of the gumdrops down with him, reinforcing his back with sticky goodness.

Sticky water landed on all of them in a brief, sweet rain. Manny’s fur stuck together, and for a moment, he just remained face-down, wondering if trying his luck with Step would’ve been the better choice after all.

Yen landed gracefully beside Manny, tilting his head. “It looks like everyone landed fine,” the Drampa said, serene as always.

Manny usually admired Yen’s ability to keep a level head and calm tone in nearly every situation, but right now, it seemed to make the sugar bubble with angry fury on his head. “Yeah, landed jus’ fine,” Manny grunted.

Yen’s massive snout gently went under Manny’s chin, playfully helping him up. “You were smart to tell them how to land,” he said. “You’ve had rougher landings in the past, haven’t we?”

Gentle waves of nostalgia hit him, and briefly, Manny felt like a Riolu again. He remembered a gentle fire that warmed up his waterlogged body and the Oshawott that so cheerfully doused him anyway, asking for a fight. He had been angry at the time, livid, even, and had his arm not been broken, he probably would have given her that fight. But now it just made him want to go for another sparring match with her.

“Gah, always know what ter say,” Manny mumbled, rubbing the back of Yen’s neck, though he couldn’t hide his dumb grin.

Yen nuzzled Manny back, but movement to his left caught his eye. “Ah… Clair.”

She was angrily slashing and chomping at some of the gumdrops, only to stop in confusion when the sweet taste got to her. Chew, chew. Too thrown off by their landing platform, she just shuffled to Manny and awaited further instructions.

“Feeling better, Clair?” Yen asked.

The Garchomp licked at the sugar between her teeth. “Yerm, ‘m fine.”

“Yes, you’re fine,” Yen said gently.

Clair snorted, but then glanced at Manny. “Yeh, doin’ fine,” she said.

Yen looked crestfallen. “Oh, goodness, another one…”

Manny smirked. “What’s wrong, can’t deal with the accent?”

Yen smiled nervously at Manny. “It’s charming. I’m just surprised at how impressionable they can be. That Flygon, Gahi? He had acquired it even faster all those centuries ago…”

Yen really did like to think about the past, Manny said, but that comforted him. Maybe he was spending too much time thinking about old times, but now that he was surrounded by gumdrops and melted sugar, thinking about better times kept him sane. Good call, Yen. “Swear, it was like Gahi already had it and just fergot,” Manny remarked.

They performed a quick headcount. Manny did best to ignore the fact that he felt like he was about to be rolled up for a Joltik’s sweet treat. He saw Clair, and the color trio… That took care of the mutants. Yen was, of course, by his side—Elbee was angrily jamming her blade into several of the larger gumdrops.

Someone was missing.

“…Doll?” Manny looked up. “Beh, ain’t that something.”

She was dangling by her shoulders and arms, unable to break loose from the sugar. A green dot in the pastel sky.

Now that they were lower, just where were they?

Manny didn’t expect Willow’s realm to be filled with nothing but sweets and—oh, there were mushrooms as well. That was more appropriate.

To his left, there was a mountain that, instead of trees, had giant mushrooms dotting its rocky—no, those weren’t rocks, those were crystals of solid sugar. Muttering incoherent curses under his breath, he looked for some sanity to his right, only to see that more of those mushroom trees had blocked his view outside the pit.

One was staring at them with black eyes and tiny, white dots for pupils in the mushroom-tree’s stump.

The sound of Elbee firing a Hydro Pump caught his attention. He looked skyward; she was trying to knock Doll loose from her sweet prison, but wasn’t accurate enough for such a distance.

“Little higher, gotta account fer gravity,” Manny advised.

Because at least gravity still worked properly here.

“Hey!” Manny shouted at the mushroom. “Where’s Willow? We need help, ya got that?”

The mushroom jeered at them, then laughed. Its echoing mirth shook the gumdrops and the sugar on their bodies. Then, it closed its eyes, and the mushroom became lifeless.

“…Well, alright.”

“Got her!” Elbee shouted. “Wait, no, I missed a bit…”

“Are you even getting far enough? That’s very high up…” Yen frowned, readying his body for another flight. “If I push, I might be able to get back up there in time.”

The Cacturne, meanwhile, kicked her legs uselessly. Her thorns were simply too stuck in the sugar.

Squeaky giggling made Manny’s ears twitch left.

Several Togepi, Joltik, and Cleffa were at the top of the pit, staring at them. Manny counted at least twenty in total. The Joltik in particular made his fur bristle. Great, she’s got fans.

All of them jumped into the air and sprouted large, pink wings. They fluttered toward Manny, who at this point was resigned enough to watch without a reaction. One of the Joltik landed on his head.

“Hi, Mister! How’d you get here? You don’t look like one of those mean old wraiths!”

“Yeah, we’re kinda runnin’ from them,” Manny said.

“Oh, is that it?”

“Oooh, you look strong! How come you’re running away?”

“Well, can’t fight a whole lot all at once. Too risky outta our own realm.”

“How come you’re not in your own realm? Did you lose?”

Manny kept his expression even, despite his urge to snarl. “Yeah, we met the wraiths’ boss. Didn’t exactly go well.”

“Oh, I see, I see! So, you want to see Willow?”

“Yeah, what’s she doing now?”

“AaaaAAAAA—OOF!”

Doll landed in a few of the gumdrops, stuck for a third time. Azu and Roh helped to free her, while Elbee and Yen tried to wake Verd up.

The fairies giggled and circled around the group several times in a disturbing tornado. “She’s flying around Kilo Village with a bunch of others!”

“Everyone’s scared because of Dark Matter, but with Willow on the case, nobody should be worried at all!”

“Yep! Willow will just shrink him down until he’s a tiny, tiny marble, and then crunch! No more Dark Matter!”

Manny frowned, pensive. “Dark Matter… So that’s his name, eh?” All things considered, it was appropriate. But he still didn’t like the sound of that. Wraith King was the name he’d known it by before, and that was just a title; Dark Matter… Should they really give it the dignity of calling it by its chosen name?

Not that it mattered; did it even care? It seemed keener on destroying everything all over again. And Star…

“Are you okay?” one of the fairies asked.

Manny jolted up. “Yeh, jus’ fine. Eh, take us ter Willow. Where’s she?”

“Well, you can try to talk to her directly if you go to the Core!”

“Sure, where’s that? Mind flyin’ us there? Actually, hang on—how come we can’t fly, eh? Let that happen! Ain’t that hard. Aether Forest let us fly no problem.”

The flying fairies all giggled again, and then a Togepi sang, “Only fairies are allowed to fly here! If you want to fly, we’ll turn you into a fairy!”

“Wait, no, hang on, yeh can’t just turn someone like me—”

Pink dust surrounded Manny in moments, as well as all the others on his team of refugee spirits. His back felt heavier, and a new set of limbs—wide and flat and with great resistance when he tried to move them. He didn’t want to look, because he knew exactly what had just happened.

But he couldn’t stand still forever. Eventually, be opened his eyes and beat… his new, pink wings, taller than he was. He gave them another few tentative beats, and each one lifted him a few inches off of the ground. He stopped, landing with a cloud of pink, glitter-like mist. The horror was too much for him to express, so he didn’t express it at all.

Behind him, the others sported similar wings, some taking it better than others. Verd, who had finally regained consciousness, inspected them curiously. Clair was already trying to fly with them, swiping at the air like it gave her a better battle stance. Azu marveled at them, and then tried to flex while in midair. “A wonderful addition!” he declared.

“Well… It could be worse,” Yen said to Manny. The Drampa’s wings were perhaps the largest of them all, and several of the other fairies were gathering on his back for a ride. He was unnerved by their presence—Dragon instincts, no doubt—and Manny just groaned and rubbed his head. “Yep. Should’a gone with Ice.”

“Come on! Let’s fly to the Core! There’s a portal that’ll take us there!”

“A what now?”

“A portal! Don’t you know? The Fairy realm is full of them if you know where to look! C’mon, let’s fly through one!”

“Will it get us closer ter the Core?”

“Yep! We’ll lead the way.” And then, the swarm of fairies took off for higher ground, beating their little wings like Butterfree.

With an irritated sigh, Manny followed them all to the skies before, finally, he spotted what seemed to be an odd, golden circle in the air. “Oh, lookit that,” he said. “So, through that, I figure?”

“Yep!” the flurry of pink nearly blinded him. Trying to ignore the fact that the wings came naturally—and all of his precious Fighting spirits—he beat them a few times to gain height above the haze and toward the portal.

“Hey,” Manny said to the others. “When we get outta here… nobody speaks o’ this. We clear?”

<><><>​

News of the hostile Dungeons and the return of the wraiths accelerated all efforts to put nearby Dungeons in complete lockdown. A map of all known Dungeons had been pulled out, marked, and then assigned to flying Pokémon to scout the perimeter for any signs of recent visitors, and to leave signs depicting the dangers of entering one now.

Blessed Dungeons were one thing—easy to manage. Anam had crafted their properties with nothing but benevolence in mind. If someone became too injured in a Dungeon, it would warp them to the entrance, sometimes with most of their injuries gone. Their auras were often severely damaged, though, and Rhys never quite understood why; it was as if injuries within Dungeons were done to the aura, rather than to the body.

Along with that, Dungeons often gave rise to blessed items within, like Oran berries. They even grew along the perimeter of nearby Dungeons from exposure. Rhys recalled the ones he had used to heal Owen during his outburst, so long ago, when he’d discovered Zena. And, perhaps most importantly, blessed Dungeons lacked wraiths of any kind.

But those blessings were gone—and now, so too went all of their benefits. Defeat in a Dungeon spelled death for those who traveled inside; no useful, blessed berries, orbs, or seeds appeared there; and wraiths ran rampant within.

Just like that new Dungeon within Hot Spot. The first dungeon to form in centuries… Why now? Would there be more?

Not that it mattered—they were all unblessed, now.

Several Pokémon entered and exited the office and passed along the halls, looking for orders on where to go next or what nearby area to scout. Nearby, because they didn’t yet have the provisions to handle long treks without Waypoints to take them anywhere more than a little ways away.

“That should be all of them,” Rhys stated, looking over the map, then at the long checklist of Dungeons that they had to send others to. He had deliberately excluded a few of them—such as Ghrelle’s swamp, or Zero Isle Spiral, since not only would those be too dangerous, but the Trinity surely had them covered. Though, it wouldn’t hurt to check just in case.

Before he had the chance to give out the final orders, something landed on his head. On reflex, he reached out to grab it—only for a jolt of electricity to crackle against his paws. He hissed and swiped it away, but that just learned another zap.

“Willow!” Rhys hissed.

The Fairy Joltik fluttered in front of Rhys, sparking angrily. “Why’d you hit me? I was resting my wings! Do you know how long I’ve been flying?”

“You don’t even need wings to fly!”

“Yeah, well, it looks better!”

Rhys pinched the bridge of his muzzle. “What do you need, Willow? Shouldn’t you be scouting with the others?”

“Manny wants to see you!”

Rhys blinked, and then his expression transitioned rapidly from exasperated to serious. “Manny? He’s alive?”

“Nope! But he ran all the way to the Fairy Realm just to see me! I’m gonna summon him now. All his other surviving spirits are there, too, but Manny’s too strong on his own. I gotta put aaaaall my strength into this so he looks solid!”

“Yes, of course, I—”

Rhys realized that several passerby Hearts were staring at the flying Joltik, but by now, they’d already made themselves known to the public. There was no real point in trying to keep themselves hidden for very long. He sighed. What was one more power?

“Summon him. We don’t have much time to—”

“Actually, Manny wanted it to be done in private. He refuses to come out in public as a Fairy.”

“…What?”

But Willow was already flying into the Heart HQ, and Rhys followed with a morbid sense of anticipation. Manny, a Fairy? What would he look like? Would he have fur colored like those mushrooms that Willow often summoned? Or perhaps, would he sparkle with every movement? Perhaps his voice would be several octaves higher—that could be it.

Whatever it was, Rhys intended to meet it with respect and dignity.

A spirit shot from Willow and in front of Rhys—a Lucario, pure and simple. Rhys’ shoulders visibly lowered with relief… and then he froze. Two luxuriously hot-pink wings spread behind Manny, taking up his entire arm span and a bit extra in width. Manny glared at the ground, paws clenched, as he stared at Rhys’ feet.

“Laugh an’ yer dead.”

Rhys nodded firmly, body tense.

“I’m here after we got attacked by that demon and stuff. We’ve got a lot ter go over.”

Rhys grunted in affirmative.

“…You busy? I’ll wait.”

“Just some small duties,” Rhys said too quickly.

“I’ll wait.”

Rhys made a hasty retreat into Anam’s office, shutting the door firmly behind him. Elder, who had just ascended the stairs nearby, tilted his head. He’d caught Rhys’ expression, filled with a great amount of strain and forced discipline.

“Is Rhys okay?” Elder asked, but then kept his mouth open upon seeing the elegant Lucario that remained with Willow. “Oh… goodness, Manny.”

“Yeh don’t wanna know… how much hate I got in my heart righ’ now.”

Elder looked at the closed door of Anam’s office, then at the Fighting Fairy, and frowned. “Perhaps some time to cool down would be best.” He exhaled a plume of clear smog, then rested his shell near the door.

<><><>​

“So he’s really callin’ himself Dark Matter now, eh?” Manny said.

“Indeed.” Rhys poured out some hot apple cider for himself, then passed the main teapot to Manny.

“Pur some fairy dust in it. It tastes way better!” Willow said, waving one of her mushroom spirits in her paws.

“…Yer not gonna tear off pieces o’ them again, are yeh? That’s weird.” Manny looked at the giggling mushroom.

“What’s weird about it?”

“Everything.”

Willow snorted and pulled off a bit from the cap—earning a loud giggle from the mushroom—and then tossed it into her tiny bowl. The rest of the mushroom disappeared in a puff of mist, returning to Willow’s Realm.

Elder hummed worriedly. “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the wraiths are trying to attack us any way they can. We can’t afford to let our guards down at all. Willow, your Fairy Realm—is it safe from wraiths?”

“Well, they can’t get anywhere near my Core, so I think I’m okay.”

“What security measures do you have?” Rhys asked. This one was curious. Of all the Guardians, Willow was among the weakest, yet her realm was safe from wraiths?

“Oh, that’s easy. Most entry points will destroy wraiths because of the spicy pits of sugary doom! And even if they get past that, they still have to battle the mushroom giants, and then they have to get across the gumdrop chasms. Oh, and Choco Mountain, and after that, Wafer Ridge…”

Rhys blinked several times, then looked at Manny.

“It’s a freaking candy land.” His wings beat once on reflex. “Only reason we got through easily was because the spirits guided us to a weird portal. Looked like a ring. Went through a few of them, actually. Next thing we knew, we were near the Core.”

“Hrm. So a confusing architecture can thwart the wraiths. That’s good to know. We should probably warn the others about that. Manny, what was your realm like?”

“Er… simple.”

“I see,” Rhys hummed. That explained why his realm was so easily overrun. Step’s was quite hostile as well, from what he gathered. ADAM hadn’t spoken of any issues in his realm, either.

Rhys briefly thought about all the other realms, but then quickly realized that all of the others were either overrun or simply claimed by Dark Matter. Everyone…

Well, the Trinity still had theirs, but there was no telling how they were doing until they sent others. “Ah, that reminds me… Elder. Could you stay here and discuss with the others? I need to send for a few teams to investigate the Poison and Dragon Dungeons.”

“Wait, isn’t that sorta a bad idea?” Manny said. “Star said those places’re pretty dangerous fer mortals. I mean, apparently the Dragon Guardian’s fine with mortals, but Poison, I dunno… And there’s that weird barrier protecting the factory that keeps mortals from getting’ there, too.”

“Hrm, that’s true. But we can’t travel all the way to the Poison swamp on our own, can we?”

“Well, I could fly there,” Willow said. “I’ll shrink one of you down to come with me. Do we know who Ghrelle would like?”

Manny thought back, but then growled. “The four that Star said would be fine the first time’re all…”

Rhys’ expression darkened. That was true. Enet, Owen, Amia, and Gahi were all lost to darkness. The four who Star had considered ‘worthy’ of Ghrelle’s presence, at least from the Altaria’s perspective.

“Tch… I’ll go,” Manny said, nodding. “Willow can come with, and I’ll take over her body fer a bit when we arrive. How long’s the flight, y’think?”

“From Kilo all the way to that forest… That’s quite far. Perhaps a day.”

“Don’t got a choice. Who’s gonna go ter the factory, you?”

“Zero Isle Spiral and the factory are on the same route,” Rhys said. “I will visit them both without a problem.”

Elder leaned his huge shell against Rhys. “Hmm, I do wonder, though…”

Rhys ran his paw along the large Torkoal’s side, watching wisps of smoke escape from the top.

“Would it really be a good idea for all of you to go alone like that?” Elder hummed. “I don’t know if it’s safe anymore, not with the wraiths.”

“We don’t have time nor other Mystics to help. ADAM is trying to assist in stabilizing the technology that went down, isn’t he?” Rhys frowned. “All that remains is Willow and I. Manny’s attached to Willow for now. We… have to.”

Elder hesitated, looking down. “I… I see.”

An awkward silence followed, but Rhys didn’t have time to think about all the others. If there was any hope of saving them, it would be by defeating Dark Matter—their spirits were probably imprisoned in the Ghost Orb.

That had to be what happened. And perhaps, if Hecto still can’t find Amia, maybe she—

“Hecto. Where is he?”

“What?” Elder said, but Rhys was already stepping out of the Heart HQ.

“Hecto. He’s how we can communicate with all the others with ease. Why hadn’t we considered that until now?”

“Well, I suppose part of that would be because of all the panic,” Elder admitted. “We’ve been so busy that—Well, actually, we aren’t really sure where Hecto is, are we? We need to find one of him…”

“I’ll go look! Do I just call for him a bunch?” Willow stretched her wings.

“Er, yes, actually,” said Elder with a nod. “I suppose you could try to do that.”

“Okay!” And she was gone.

“…Hey, wait, wait, oy! Yeh left me behind! I—” Manny looked at his paws, which were already fading the more Willow distanced herself. The Fairy Lucario let out an annoyed grunt, about to say something, but then his body dissolved into mist completely. His spirit returned to Willow in a blue ember, leaving Rhys alone with Elder.

“…We should search for backup just in case, Rhys,” Elder said, looking down. “I just don’t want to risk it, and we already know that mortals can handle themselves against wraiths if they have backup. But a Mystic alone can be overwhelmed.”

The Lucario rubbed his forehead. “And you shouldn’t come with me for this,” he admitted.

Elder frowned, but nodded. “I’m sorry I’m not much of a fighter, Rhys. It just isn’t part of my capabilities. Perhaps if I trained like Rim, I would be at your level, but… My focus was always imitation blessings. Something I should do here.”

“No. It’s not a problem,” Rhys said. “I just want to make sure you’re safe, Elder. And… if you’re worried about me, then I’ll search for some talent in town. Almost all of the Hearts are scouting Kilo, though, and we can’t afford to take guards away from the border in case mutants wander here. I might need to look for hidden talent.” Rhys’ paw flashed with cyan flames. “Thankfully, I have just the means to do so. And if they need a boost in power, there’s always that Substitute technique I developed.”

“Ah—don’t strain yourself too much,” Elder said. “You know how draining that is to your power.”

“That’s the point,” Rhys said. “A spark of energy is just enough for a boost… If it’s enough to take Demitri and Mispy to their highest forms, then perhaps it can help strengthen other non-Mystics to fight by my side, too.”

“Just don’t do it immediately,” Elder pressed. “Find… already-strong talent.”

Rhys nodded, setting off for town. He had already felt a few powerful auras that hadn’t even joined the Hearts; perhaps he could begin there. He already recalled a few that he’d spotted previously: a powerful Incineroar, for one, and a strange Smeargle.
 
Chapter 81 - Healing
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Chapter 81 – Healing

Spice didn’t take her eyes off of Leo for most of their walk, particularly focused on the bandages around his abdomen. She never realized how thin he was beneath all that fur. The Delphox moved delicately, trying not to aggravate his wounds, and he murmured little curses occasionally as he felt the bandages press against his wound.

“Maybe they put it on too tight,” Spice said. “They didn’t know their own strength. I can readjust it if you—”

“I’ll be fine. It needs to be tight. It’ll remind me if I’m moving too fast.” Leo took step after careful step down a trail that no Pokémon had traveled in decades—and it showed.

Beyond the nonfunctional Waypoint, the early morning sun revealed an expansive, lumpy field of tall grass. The breeze was nice against her scales, and she hoped the morning sunlight would give Leo a bit of energy, too.

“We should have stayed for one more night,” Spice said.

“The others might need us at Kilo Village. A day wasted is a day without our help.”

“You won’t be much help if you’re dead.”

Leo growled, but kept his eyes trained forward. “Have you slept yet?”

“Will you stop going on about that?!” Spice hissed, flicking her tail at him—but immediately stopped herself. She kept calm. The last thing she wanted was for her to be the one responsible for his first bandage replacement. She glanced at her bag; it had enough supplies for three replacements in case the wounds bled through.

That would be more than enough for when they got to the next village, right? They just had to find and follow the river along the way to Kilo.

“Spice.”

“Eh? What?”

“You didn’t actually answer my question.”

“What was the question?”

“Did you sleep?”

“I’m not tired.” Spice picked a stray scale and tossed it aside.

“How many days has it been, now? Four? What did you do while I was asleep?”

“Patrolled the village and watched Destiny Tower.” Spice glanced back, and Leo followed her gaze, to the tower where the Spire of Trials had once been. “You can’t see him from here, but Arceus is definitely at the top. Three times overnight, he fired off what I’m pretty sure was his Judgement attack on something up north.”

She pointed in the vague direction of the northwest. “Guess whatever’s there is a pretty big threat. Maybe when we get closer, we’ll see what it is.”

“Arceus,” Leo breathed out. “And I mean that literally. He’s actually real. Does that mean the Books were real all along, too?”

“Who knows?” Spice said, shrugging. “If you ask me, they’re probably just stories because of how powerful they are. But you know what’s also possible? Arceus coming down has everything to do with Orans and everything not working.” She puffed a small cloud of poison, then dispelled it with a smaller plume of fire. “Let’s take it easy for now. One step at a time, right? We’ll get to the next village and see if we can restock on anything.”

“And maybe we can get you some sleep. You’re looking… agitated, Spice.”

Spice’s left eye twitched. “I’ve tried to sleep. Drop it. Okay? I’m sick and tired of hearing it, day in day out, get some sleep, get some sleep, I would if I could!” She raised her arms in the air, then crossed them over her chest. “Hope the rest of the team is doing alright.”

“They should be back at Kilo Village,” Leo said. “And I think—”

“Wait.”

Leo stopped. Spice rose a bit higher, straining her spine to straighten her stance completely. She squinted and sniffed the air, then closed her eyes. “Hear that?”

“What?”

“Smells like wet dirt, and I think I hear a small waterfall.”

The tall grass made it hard to see much; it went up to Spice’s chest on her normal stance and tickled her scales. They had to be careful with their fire here unless they wanted to set off a Rain Dance from a feral.

Her scar was starting to itch again. “Hey, can we hang on for a second?” she mumbled to Leo.

“What? Oh. Sure.” Leo spotted a small lump of grass nearby and inspected it, making sure it wasn’t some sleeping Pokémon, and then sat down. “Is it bugging you again?”

“It’s all this grass,” Spice muttered. “My scales are more sensitive where the lightning struck. Just give me a second.” She dug through her bag, little glass vials clinking against one another. She pulled out one with an odd, whitish substance, marked with a yellow dot on the top. She poked her claw on the cork and tugged it out. A bit of the powder puffed out with it, drifting to the ground.

She poured some of it in her palm and stuck the vial in the grass to keep it upright. From the back of her throat toxic liquid bubbled up; she spat a small drop on the powder, where it sizzled into a yellowish paste.

The numbing relief that followed upon slathering it over her chest was enough for her to breathe an audible sigh of relief. “Finally,” she mumbled. She let the liquefied powder air out for a while, flaking off with the wind, and brushed aside the rest.

“Alright. Sorry for the wait.” She recovered the vial, corked it shut, and slipped it back into her bag. “Let’s find that river.”

After some trial and error, they found a direction where the bubbling got louder, and it was no wonder why they couldn’t see it at first. The tall grass had obscured it and leaned over the river, a mere few feet across. It was shallow, too. But a sudden dip in land made the water just loud enough to spot. “And now, we just follow it,” Spice said.

“Right.” Leo said, though Spice noticed a bit of breathlessness in his voice.

“Or,” she said, “we can take a second to relax.”

“No, I’m—”

“If you trip, that wound is gonna reopen. Besides, it’s starting to bleed through. I think it’s about time we changed them.” Spice motioned for Leo to turn around, and he reluctantly complied, sitting down by the riverside.

Leo winced when Spice got to the last few layers of the bandage, sticky and red. His fur got caught in some of it, and she had to pull a bit delicately so it wasn’t too uncomfortable. She looked through her supplies for a certain powder.

“What’re you doing?”

“I’m gonna do something that’ll help it heal faster, but it’s gonna hurt. You fine with that?”

Leo’s lip quivered.

“Oh, brush off your eggshell. It won’t be that bad.” She pulled out another vial, this one with a blue cap.

“Wait, wait,” Leo said. “Your hand—isn’t it still a little poisoned from your—”

“Oh, fine.” Spice rolled her eyes and breathed a plume of fire onto her own fingers, then shoved it in the water. It sizzled, a small cloud of steam rising to Leo’s face thanks to the wind. Spice winced at the cold. “Happy?”

“Yes.”

“You know, being too sanitary can make you weak to filth down the line,” Spice said.

“Says the Poison Type,” Leo mumbled.

Without warning, Spice smeared the powder onto Leo’s wound, making him yelp and nearly jerk away.

“Oh, quit it.”

Leo stifled his whimpers, though his eyes were tightly shut, creases forming over his muzzle. Spice followed up by wrapping another bandage over his waist, making sure it was a little less tight this time, but still tight enough that it wouldn’t slip or jostle around.

“There, that better? This shouldn’t strain the wound all that much.”

“A little… Did you have to be that rough?”

“You were bugging me.” Spice huffed, flicking her tail. “Alright. That’s done with. Let’s just relax and let you gain your breath.”

“Are you sure?” Leo said. “I’m good to go. I—”

“You’re a liar is what you are. Just sit still, alright?”

Leo frowned, but he didn’t protest further.

This far away from any town or Dungeon was a rare thing indeed. Spice remembered the old days when she was a child, before the southern annexation; no Waypoints to go so conveniently from place to place. Taking a trip to the nearby town meant navigating hills and paths often trotted. If there was an outlaw or some other unruly Pokémon in the way, she remembered her parents taking an alternate route, where the grass was similarly tall, just to avoid them.

Those were all hazy memories at this point. Vague visions of getting lost in a Dungeon crossed her mind; she remembered an intense, dark feeling, and her mother staring at her in fear. Everything was dark. And then what? Those Dungeons were always cursed; if Spice could credit anything to their insufferable leader, it’d be fixing those.

“This is a peaceful place, isn’t it?:” Leo asked, breaking Spice out of her memories. “I wonder if civilians ever travel here.”

Spice paused to remember what Leo had just said. “Doubt it. All this tall grass makes me surprised we haven’t run into any wild Pokémon, actually.”

Another gentle breeze ran across the field, kicking up loose blades of grass. A few got caught in the fur that stuck out of Leo’s ears. Spice brushed some of them off for him, flinching when a few extra blades went right over her snout.

“Something wrong?” Leo taunted with a wry smile. “Look at that, a big, strong Salazzle scared of grass.”

“Shove it.” Spice feigned to jab him in the side, earning a preemptive yelp from Leo. She smirked; he pouted.

A few Magikarp fell from the higher levels of the river, following the flow. They kicked up dirt on the riverbed, revealing a Wooper that had been lounging in the mud the whole time. Despite the world showing signs of the beginning of the end, the ferals still behaved as they always had. They didn’t care. As far as they were concerned, it was just a thunderstorm without rain.

“I’m glad it’s still quiet,” Leo said.

“What?” Spice said, losing her thoughts.

“All of this. I was worried that when I woke up, the world would be on fire, or a wasteland, or… well, simply not the same.”

“It isn’t.” Spice looked in her bag. “Waypoints are gone, berries stopped working…”

“That isn’t very different for you, is it?” Leo asked. “You grew up in the south before annexation.”

“Not for long,” Spice said. “I was only ten when that all happened.”

“Old enough to remember.” Leo gave her a little smile. “I don’t really know what that sort of life is like. I was a little Fennekin that lived right next to Kilo Village, in one of the outskirt colonies.”

“Oh, really? Which one? Maybe on our way, we can pay a visit.”

“Oh, it is on this side, if we keep heading to the mountain this way…” Leo hummed. “It’s called Yotta Outskirts. It’s sort of a spread-out settlement, one of the biggest in terms of, you know, landmass. Mostly farmland for crops. I wonder if they’re doing alright after, you know… How are they going to deliver all that food?”

“Well, they can always do it the old southern way,” Spice said. “Get a big, winged Pokémon and fly it around to everyone who needs it. Simple, basic.”

“And tiring. Those poor wing muscles.” Leo rolled his shoulder. “I can’t imagine.”

Spice shrugged, but sensed that Leo was feeling livelier than before. “Think we’re about ready to go?”

The Delphox adjusted his footing and tried to stand on his own, pausing when he felt a strain in his side. Spice held him and helped him up.

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Let’s get going.”

<><><>​

He could still smell it, even after getting close to where Amia had been. It smelled a lot like soup back home, some kind of thick, hearty stew, maybe. But that came with risks, and he didn’t want to have his berries stolen. Maybe when he had more energy, or if he was just more prepared in this strange place—or if he was actually evolved, that would’ve been nice—

Owen grunted, trying to keep his composure. There was no use fretting over that sort of thing. After all, he’d been through it countless times before. Now he just remembered them all.

“Mom?” Owen called, hoping she was still there. He didn’t smell blood, and he didn’t smell ash or anything burning. Had she been left alone? No rumbles had greeted him during the whole walk, thankfully, but that could change at a moment’s notice. The sooner he got in, the better.

Amia was where she had been before, though she seemed a lot paler. Her eyes drifted toward Owen, and she motioned weakly at the ground where Owen had set the traps. Once he got closer, he saw the subtle glow of where they had been planted.

“Nobody came. Good.” Owen sighed and walked over the traps—they didn’t activate to him—and settled down next to Amia. “Hey, do you want to have something to drink first, or the berries? Wait—dumb question. How about I give you the berr—”

“Water…”

A chill ran down Owen’s spine. Her voice was so weak. It was like an icy pit had replaced where his stomach had been. “Water. Right. Water.” He pulled one of the tree taffy slices. “It’s not the best, but it really helped me, and the berries will probably have some in it, too. See, that one’s a Pecha. It’s probably got a lot of juice in it.”

Amia nodded weakly, and Owen handed the tree taffy over. She tried to use the hand clutching at her wound at first, but it was caked in blood. She shifted her weight and nearly fell over; Owen dropped the berry amalgamation and propped her up. “It’s okay, here,” he said, easing it into her mouth for her. She wasn’t able to chew it well, but she got the juice out. When he saw her wince, he smiled nervously. “Sorry, I know it doesn’t taste good, but it’s water. I’ll give you the berries next, okay? How about the Pecha first?”

Owen tugged a bit harder at the amalgamation, finally breaking loose the Pecha. At the very least, it looked mostly the same compared to a normal one, even if it was attached to a bunch of other berries. Maybe that’s just how the berries grew in this part of the world.

He peeled off a segment of the Pecha, which broke apart in his claws, and fed it to Amia. Soft fruit. She was able to chew it easily. And then another, and another, and soon the whole Pecha was down, though Amia didn’t look any better. But it was hydrating. It would take time. “Another?”

Amia seemed unsure, but then looked at the Oran.

“Right. Let’s get you healed. It’s a little tougher, so how about I break it open?”

“Okay.”

Her voice didn’t seem as dry this time, but it was still weak. She gave him a little smile, waiting for the Oran to be cut up. Owen remembered how to cut them into smaller pieces; trace the outside, use a claw to cut along the tougher outer portions, and then break along the segments. Easy enough. He could use the button at the top as a guide. Snap. Snap. Soon he had four pieces. A few more, and it was in eighths, the soft insides spilling juice out. It, too, was a bit… red. Unorthodox. But it was the same as everything else here.

“Okay, open up.”

Owen watched Amia’s wound after each Oran slice, but nothing seemed to be happening. He wasn’t the only one with a bit of concern in his eyes. He looked at Amia again. Zena had mentioned that Orans used to not be blessed—that it would be harder to heal. Still, they healed a little. Maybe this place just wasn’t blessed?

It certainly seemed that way.

“I’ll get the next one ready,” Owen said.

He wasn’t sure where she put it all, but every piece of tree taffy, and every berry from the whole bunch, had gone to Amia, and Owen wouldn’t have had it any other way. The taffy would last at least through the… He decided to call it night.

Amia winced, glancing at her wound again. Her eyes seemed grave, and Owen could understand why. After being a Mystic for so long, having to deal with an injury like that, where it simply didn’t heal after enough time—he couldn’t imagine how scary it must have been.

“I’ll get more,” Owen said. “I know what to look for now, so—”

“Stay.”

Owen had already been halfway out the cave, but he spun on his heel. “St-stay?”

“I’m feeling better… You’re tired.”

“Yeah, but you still need more—”

“No.”

Owen’s flame twisted and crackled. He was supposed to be helping her, darn it. Not taking orders. But, his eyes were heavy. She probably saw that on him while he was cutting up the berries for her.

“Please, rest, dear. You’ve done so much…”

Every word brought a heavier fatigue over his shoulders. Rest sounded nice. “But you’re sure you’ll be okay?”

“Mm.” Amia motioned at the part of her dress that was draped by her side, so invitingly asking for Owen to curl up over. Owen’s legs carried him there without his input, and soon, he was curled up next to her in a cozy heap.

Amia’s hand drifted over his back, stroking along his scales, over his head, his shoulders—she found the spot, after all this time. He arched his head back, stretched his legs, and let out a long, drawn out chirp, growl, and then curled back up. How did she always know where to scratch? Did he still have that as a Charizard? He hoped so. Maybe it migrated to between his wings, or…

Owen’s eyelids fluttered again, then finally rolled to the back of his head. He was so tired. And even though he wasn’t sleeping in his own bed this time, it was with Amia. Hopefully Alex was okay somewhere… They’d have to find him next. And then, maybe he could find everyone else, and find a way out of…

<><><>​

Careful fingers wrapped around Charmander’s neck, squeezing at the extra skin and scales.

“You’re a healthy one. Looks like your mother took great care of you, huh?” The human behind Charmander moved to his arm next, tapping it. He lifted it on reflex, and they inspected them next.

“Not just her,” a Marowak growled nearby.

The one behind Charmander laughed. “Yes, you, too,” she said.

Charmander’s father growled again to emphasize his point.

The human rubbed Charmander under the chin. “Okay, little guy. Turn around; let’s listen to your heart.”

Charmander spun and chirped at the assistant. She had fair skin, dark hair, and a thick, flameproof lab coat on, as well as protective goggles. He knew that those were used because of his fire. With a hint of defiance, he puffed an ember in her face; it brushed against her cheek.

“Oh, you” she said, rubbing at where he’d hit.

Another chirp. Then, the human said, “Okay, shh. Don’t chirp for a bit, okay?”

She brought out a funny device that was attached to her ears, with a little circle at the other end, which she placed on his chest. He didn’t really know what she was saying, but he knew to be quiet when this happened.

After a little while, she pulled it away and smiled. “Good job, Charmander.”

He chirped again and looked at Charizard. Her smile was part proud, part elated, and the human said to her, “You’ve got another wonderful child here, Miho. He’s still a little too young to go on an adventure with a trainer, but do you think he’ll be ready?”

“My son is always ready.”

Charmander’s flame dimmed. He didn’t understand how Charizard knew what they were saying, but were they talking about the trainers? He looked down. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for that… Or if he wanted to. Why couldn’t he be like Redscale? He never went on an adventure. He just stayed home, and sure, he was getting older, but…

“Sounds like Amber’s pretty confident,” the human said.

Charmander chirped uncertainly. “Am I gonna go away soon?” he asked.

“Soon, little ember,” Charizard replied.

“But I don’t want to.”

“Smallflame…” Charizard frowned, looking at the humans.

The other human, who had been writing things down on a large rectangle that he always carried, said, “Is something going on?”

“It sounds like Charmander isn’t so sure yet,” the human guessed. “Charizard, is that it?”

“No, he’s ready,” Charizard said.

“I’m not!” Smallflame protested.

“You’re ready.”

Marowak looked away wordlessly.

The two humans listened, but it was clear that they could only understand the emotions behind their words, and not the words themselves. But that was simple enough, wasn’t it? Maybe Charmander just had to be a bit more assertive. He looked at the humans and growled. “I’m not going! Ever!”

“I—I think we upset him a little,” the rectangle-wielding human said.

“Hmm, maybe he’s just agitated from all the testing. We went on for a while. Let’s just let them rest for now. Sorry, Amber. But he’s wonderful! Perfect health!”

Charizard was more focused on Charmander, but she gave a little, irritable growl to the human. “Thank you.”

“G-guh, that was a scary-sounding growl,” the nervous human said.

The one with goggles grinned. “No, I think she was just saying thank you. She’s just occupied with the little guy. What, you’ve never given an irritated thanks?”

“I—right. Sorry. I’m still new to all this…”

“Well, everyone learns. You’ll eventually get a feel for what Pokémon are trying to tell you.” They both walked away, leaving Charmander behind with the others. He didn’t want to look at his mother.

He didn’t need a stupid human to get stronger, and that was final.


<><><>​

Waking up hungry was a new feeling for Owen, and for a while, he wished he could just find a way to go back to sleep. So cozy. The wave of nothingness was soothing in hindsight. Though, the strange dreams were starting to freak him out. Was that what a human looked like? Where were those memories—those weren’t memories, were they? What was…

But as soon as the dream had come, it faded. Owen spent a while trying to piece together some of them again, but they were slippery in his mind’s fingers. Maybe if he meditated later, when he wasn’t starving, he could find more of them. He’d thought he had all his memories, but maybe there were more that he had completely lost until now.

Owen exhaled through his nose and glanced down at his tail, and then at Amia’s dress with a small smile. He tried to roll, but then felt Amia’s hand still on his back, so he stopped. Now it was just awkward. How was he supposed to squeeze out while she was asleep? “M—” He almost called to her, but then figured she wouldn’t appreciate being woken up like that.

The pain in his stomach reminded him that he still had to get up to find food. Perhaps he had given too much to Amia after all—he should have taken a berry or two. That taffy didn’t give much for him after all…

Owen carefully crawled from under Amia’s hand, making sure that his tail, even if it was just a dull warmth, didn’t brush against her dress or her hand. Finally, he stood up, stretched his back—he heard a few satisfying pops—and sighed out a chirp. He glanced back to make sure Amia was still asleep.

She was still slumped over, hand resting where Owen had once been.

Something seemed off.

Owen wasn’t sure what. But there seemed to be something bothering him about the image. She was… too still.

And for a while, so was Owen: still. His blinks were quick, when they happened, like he was searching for any sign of movement from her, his mind immediately snapping to the worst-case scenario. He took a hesitant step forward, like going closer would see the subtle movements of her breathing. He struggled to reach up to her nose to feel her breath, but that’s when he realized that her eyes were half-open, a little smile on her face.

The surprise made him stumble, his hands instead slamming onto her side. He gasped—she was cold. As cold as the rocks behind her.

The only part of her that was warm was where he had been resting.

Thoughts didn’t come to Owen immediately, only a blurry fuzz of muddled words, and even those he didn’t completely understand. His head pounded with the beat of his heart, like it was trying to beat for the two of them. He reached toward Amia again, not thinking, just trying to feel for the cold again, like it wasn’t real. His vision closed into a tunnel, and then a pinprick of light, and then nothing.

<><><>​

“I don’t want to leave you,” Charmander said, wiping tears from his eyes. “It’s not fair!”

Charizard’s frown deepened. Her strong tail brushed him until he was sitting up, but Charmander kept his face hidden. His body shook with sniffles.

“Little ember, do you really not want to go with a human? Think of how much stronger you’ll become. The adventures you’ll have, the places you’ll see. You’ll grow wings. And if the adventure doesn’t work out, you’ll still learn and see what the world has. And if, after all that, you still want to come home… Then I’ll be here.”

“I don’t care what’s out there,” Charmander said. “I want to stay home.”

“But you’re almost ready to go,” Charizard said. “The humans’ rituals for starting an adventure… They told me a few will be coming soon. You won’t be part of that?”

“No.”

Charizard opened her mouth, but suddenly an otherworldly screech, followed by an explosion, filled the air.


<><><>​

Owen woke up with a start, springing to his feet, but then fell over. His nose smashed against the rocks and he smelled metal. With a groan, the Charmander rolled over and looked back—a wraith was staggering away from the cave, burned from one of the Fire Traps.

Once his heart rate went back to normal, Owen steadied his breath and inspected the floor for the missing glow. He glanced back to see if Amia was doing alright—

There she was, still motionless, eyes half-open, completely oblivious to the explosion that had protected them.

She was still cold, and she still wasn’t breathing, and Owen refused to believe it. He stepped back, turned around, and then turned back again, but the sight didn’t change. He felt her wrist for a pulse again, and felt nothing, and her body was stiff. The only sign of movement came from the fact that she had fallen to her side, earning a surprised yelp from Owen, and then a flood of hope. She’d come back to life, and she’d soon grunt from being woken up so rudely. Because the body had moved. Downward, sure, but it moved.

No movement followed, her limbs twisted unnaturally and uncomfortably, though it wasn’t like she would feel it.

“Mom?” Owen finally said, barely above a whisper.

He didn’t even know why he said it, and soon, he was in front of her again, feeling her cheek for some sign of life. And then her arms, and then her head, and her eyes. He couldn’t look at her eyes, yet he had to. He tried to close them, running his hand over the top of her forehead, but they stuck back open. Trying again yielded the same result.

“C’mon,” Owen said, but he couldn’t bear to try again. He instead pushed her back to a sitting position, but she fell over again. He let out a loud, helpless whimper and rolled her onto her back instead. Her arms stayed rigidly in place. She had to be in a graceful position, he had to get them crossed, why didn’t it work for her, why couldn’t she just—

Owen tripped over her dress and yelped, sniffling. He could barely see. And his stomach was still twisted in knots. On his back again, he curled up, too lost to figure out if he was supposed to stand or stay there. Would another wraith come? It would just run into another Fire Trap. That didn’t matter.

The ground rumbled again, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t leave for a while. He should leave, and he knew he had to find a place to go, but not now. He… just couldn’t. He couldn’t.

Was she in the spirit world now? How would he get there? He wasn’t even Mystic anymore. All of his friends were still looking for him. They were still fighting Anam. Or did the fight end? They would be looking for him.

But he couldn’t leave! What about Amia? Or at least, what she left behind.

The isolated Charmander shook his head, taking deep, meditative breaths. It wasn’t working. But he had to think rationally about this… He had no idea where he was, but he at least knew that Amia was probably more worried about him than he was of her. Maybe there was a bright spot to this after all; Amia could tell them where he was. Maybe they would set up a rescue party to find him.

They wouldn’t be able to find him if he was hiding away in a cave in the middle of nowhere.

He curled up tighter when another pang of hunger hit him. He glanced at the gnarled vine that had once held those berries, then at Amia. Now that he thought about it, he still smelled… there was a hint of… berry rot. The smell of…

Owen stopped thinking about it, physically clenching his jaw and fists. He forced himself to his feet and paced left and right, angrily shaking his head. What if he burned her body? That was a proper way to… No, he didn’t have the energy for it. The Fire Traps were too volatile; it wouldn’t… burn it properly. Bury her? He was too small, too weak, and he didn’t have the tools.

Would Amia understand if he just abandoned her body here? Or maybe he’d just tell her that he buried it, or burned it, because she was the Fire Guardian, and she wouldn’t—no. He was a horrible liar. She’d know.

His stomach tied itself into knots again and he doubled over. The pain didn’t go away; it was always there, dull and in slow, rhythmic spikes. He had to eat something soon, or…

Particles of purple dust bushed against Owen’s back; the wind was picking up. It danced behind him in small waves of ruin before finally settling. Some of the dust collected on Amia’s half-open eyes, further clouding them over. The rumbling was getting weaker; the large creature was going away.

Owen remained still for a while longer, his tail flame crackling once, then twice, and then it dimmed. He stared at Amia’s body for longer than he’d ever admit.

A horrible thought crossed Owen’s mind, and that’s when he decided to leave.

“I’m sorry,” Owen whispered, and before he could think twice about his decision, he used what energy he had to sprint out of the cave. He didn’t look back.
 
Chapter 82 - Casualties
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Chapter 82 – Casualties

Angelo leaned his back against the wall, legs crossed. He panted heavily, like he had been running for several miles, and he wasn’t sure if that was actually the case or not. He had been going from room to room for at least the first quarter of the day, ever since Elite Heart Rhys’ announcements. Tireless—but that was a lie, because he’d never felt so tired since his training with his father.

He saw someone approaching him, and he held up his paw. “P-please, I need a break. I can barely breathe; I can’t use Heal Pulse for a while, please…”

The Pokémon—Angelo wasn’t even sure who or what it was—left without a word. He felt a pang of guilt for shooing them away so quickly, but what he said had to be the truth. He felt like he was withering away. He’d lost count of how much he had healed the hospitals’ patients.

A nap sounded wonderful. And maybe lunch, and second lunch. Anything to get his energy back. They still had food, right?

A blurry figure entered Angelo’s vision again, this one accompanied by the characteristic warmth of a Fire. “Phol?” the Smeargle said, squinting up.

“How are you feeling? Don’t forget to conserve your energy.”

“I—I know, of course I know that,” he said, but then something cold was placed in his paws. He squeaked, but then Phol’s strong hands guided Angelo’s to his face. Smelled like a cold smoothie. A straw poked at his snout. “Ow.”

The cool temperature was all he noticed at first, and it was precisely what he needed. Then came the taste—sweet, and was that a hint of coconut? He usually didn’t care too much for that, but right now, he liked anything that would cool his chest. There was an odd tang, too. He recognized the taste, bringing back bitter memories, but he shoved those away, too. He needed the energy, even if it was from an Elixir.

“Mmph, I thought these weren’t good anymore?” Angelo said, looking up. “All blessed items stopped, didn’t it?”

Phol shrugged. “Only some Elixirs failed. Some of them are just made with certain mixtures of ingredients, and that seemed to be enough. Pechas, Rawsts, a lot of them are working just fine, too. They aren’t blessed; they’re just natural.”

“Then Orans were blessed,” Angelo mused aloud.

“Sitrus as well, even if they’re harder to come by.”

Angelo took another deep sip, the tang overtaken by the creamy taste of yoghurt and berry mash. He had to pause, losing sense of everyone else around him, to savor that refreshing gulp.

“You healed nearly half of all the patients here, you know,” Phol said.

“I—I did? I think I burned myself out, to be honest…”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

The words themselves should have been disapproving, but Angelo heard something else in Phol’s tone. Pride? Praise? Angelo curled his paws, humming. “You mean I did well?”

“You did more than everyone else here. Good job.” Phol looked ahead. “Anyway, I need to make sure everything’s in order. Let us know when your strength is back, but I think the major influx of patients is taken care of.”

Angelo looked up, spotting a furrowed expression on Phol. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

“…Just rest for now. I’ve got some things to tend to, but they aren’t anything you need to worry about.”

“Er, right.”

The Incineroar left him alone again, and the tension in his chest left with him. Angelo sighed, deflating against the hard wall, and looked at his half-finished smoothie. Why did Phol get that for him, anyway? It would’ve been nice if he had something with banana in it. Those were always amazing. Apples, too. Apples and bananas… maybe some yoghurt with it? And ice. Was Ludicolo Café still open? Maybe he could escape for a nap there.

“Smeargle?”

Oh, sweet merciful Arceus.

“Yes?” Angelo looked up. His breath caught in his throat; he sprang to his feet and gave a quick bow to the Lucario before him. “H-hello, Elite Heart Lucario Rhys. Er, I, sorry if I’m looking—er—unbecoming or anything—”

“Your aura. You’re very powerful, aren’t you?”

Oh, stars, why does he know that? Oh, that aura sense—why do Lucario have to be so prying?!

“No, I’m just—er—strained a bit from Heal Pulse. I Sketched it a long time ago, you see, er… Just had to tune my aura to bring it back to the surface. Smeargle are odd Pokémon in that way, don’t you think?”

But Rhys stared for a little while longer, eyes trained on him, and Angelo knew that wasn’t going to be the end of it. He braced for the line of questioning, the same questioning he always got whenever he showed even an ounce of talent. Just leave me alone. I just want to go home, sleep, and forget any of this happened…

“No, I know what aura strain looks like, and it’s certainly not this,” Rhys said in a hum.

Angelo cursed in his mind, hoping Rhys couldn’t read that, too. “Er—I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just an artist, Lucario. Maybe you’ve seen my work around town? Like, er, the menu inside Sugar ‘n Spice?”

“Oh, you made that?” Rhys said, eyes widening with surprise. “Goodness, small world. It’s lovely.”

His heart fluttered. “You really think so?”

“Oh, of course. One of my students actually—” Rhys cut himself off for some reason, puzzling Angelo. His expression became grave again. “I’m sorry, I got distracted.”

No, wait, stay distracted!

“Could you come with me for a mission when the healing is over?” he said.

Angelo hesitated, looking off. He was already feeling tired from all the healing. Maybe he could go on for a little longer, but he didn’t want to admit that; they’d be able to handle this on their own.

“I think I’m done with healing for the day, actually. They have everything covered. But I don’t think I’m cut out for doing anything crazy, um, with all due respect. I’m just an artist.”

“Just an artist?” Rhys pressed. “But your aura is incredible.”

Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be? Angelo thought bitterly. For an instant, he didn’t see a Lucario before him, but another Smeargle with an infectious, proud smile. Just let me go home. “Sorry, I just don’t have a fighter’s heart. Normal civilian here. I, er, I was never interested in all that Heart business—just too dangerous.”

“I understand,” Rhys said, “but this is a crisis situation, and you have one of the strongest auras in town. Please, can you accompany me somewhere for a simple mission? A very simple mission. …Also, do you happen to know Fly?”

If I say no, will you believe me? “I do, er, but it might take me a moment to tune myself to it.”

“Tune yourself…” Rhys frowned. “Don’t Smeargle completely lose access to a Sketched move once they tune to another? They can only have so many cling to their auras.”

How could I forget about that?! Angelo tensed, which earned a concerned look from Rhys, and that just made things worse. At this rate, he was either going to think he was a lunatic, or he was going to peg him as some kind of crisis deserter. And sure, he was that, but that didn’t mean Rhys had to know it. For shame! The Elite Heart, asking him for something in a time of crisis…

He had no choice.

“Er, right. I’m actually part of a bit of a… talented line of Smeargle. My father was the same way, and his mother, and her father, and so on… A bit obsessed with preserving the lineage, actually. Er—sorry, rambling.” He cleared his throat. “I guess you could say we have a vast aura. We can recall any move that we had Sketched; we don’t have to re-Sketch it from anybody. Sketch it once, and as long as we have time, we can relearn it just as any Pokémon can relearn a move they’d buried away.”

The more Angelo spoke, the more Rhys’ eyes seemed to light up, albeit subtly. He had a sinking feeling why.

“Angelo,” Rhys said. “Your father, I mean. He was a Heart.”

And there it is.

“Yes,” he said, bowing his head. “Died early, of course. That also runs in the family because they just can’t stop overworking themselves. So, I carry on the title. Smeargle Angelo, once Junior, now just… well, without title.”

“Your father and I were acquaintances for a time,” Rhys said, eyes showing just a small flash of nostalgia.

That only made Angelo want to shrink down further.

“Sorry—I didn’t mean to talk of the past. But do you need anything before we go?”

It wasn’t even his choice to begin with, was it? “Just some time to gather my strength,” Angelo said. “What do I have to do?”

“I need you to come with me to a place across the sea. It’s a bit of a long flight, but with your power and some energy, we should be able to make it.”

Angelo had to make sure he heard him right before repeating, “Across the ocean? What do you mean, across the ocean? There’s nothing out there except… Well, nothing! There are rumors about a tiny island, but after that, you’ll just go all the way around to the north.”

“There is something there,” Rhys said. “We need to check on it, but it’s dangerous for me to go alone. If you could just come along? I also need to find one other person, another strong aura—do you happen to know any?”

“No, sorry.”

“Then I’ll continue looking. Can I meet you in Kilo’s eastern exit by noontime?”

Angelo checked the shadows outside. They were still a bit angled against the street that split Kilo in half. He had a lot of time to just duck into Ludicolo Café for a quick rest. “Sure. I’ll see you then.”

Finally left alone, Angelo rose to his feet and tiptoed his way out of the hospital. He made a lazy glance at the patient list; most of them were checked off. That was good enough. Without looking back, he slipped out and paced down the road.

A while later, Phol returned breathlessly. “Second wave of casualties is incoming. All healers gather up! We’ll need everyone!” He looked for Angelo. “Where’s Smeargle?”

<><><>​

Angelo relished his precious few seconds of isolation in Ludicolo Café. The stools were the same as always, and the tables were mostly empty—people were too busy on getting everything in order on their end, but Angelo wasn’t too concerned about that for now. Instead, he placed an order for a simple apple smoothie and closed his eyes. The Elixir shake was nice, but the bitter tang left an aftertaste that he wanted to wash away with something purely sweet. Apples were just the treat. And apples with sugar? Even better.

He made a mental note to consider healthier alternatives next time.

Yet, despite this, that bitter taste didn’t go away. Though now it was all mental—because he knew there was still one last job he had to do today, all thanks to that Elite Heart’s request.

Angelo groaned and pulled his hat down, hoping he wasn’t messing up the fur that constructed its shape. He just wanted darkness over his eyes. “Why me?” he muttered aloud.

“Um, your apple shake,” Ludicolo said, placing it on the table.

“Ah! Oh—sorry, sorry.” Angelo sprang up, straightening his hat-fur again, and then looked down at the drink. Left alone again, Angelo took a few tentative sips, and then glanced at the entrance. He half-expected to see Rhys there, waiting for him to go. And he’d probably be obligated to comply, too.

Before he knew it, his drink was empty, and he sighed. All things considered, he should probably get back, but a little longer of taking a break never hurt anyone. He looked at his paws, wondering if they were still shaking, but they were stable. Guess all I needed was a bit of sugar…

He sighed, slipping off of his seat. Perhaps a little bit of rest was what he needed after all. The little excursion could do him some good; the hospital was so depressing with everyone panicking. And he’d already healed half of them—they could handle the rest.

He left Ludicolo Café and took a deep breath of the early autumn air. Was it that time of the year already? It certainly didn’t feel like it. He should check the leaves the next time he left Kilo Village.

An uncomfortable thought crossed his mind. When was the last time he’d set foot out of the village? He usually spent most of his time at home with his commissions, or working on his comic, and only really went out to gather groceries. His last time going out, that was…

Dad…

Angelo grumbled to himself, his mood instantly soured. Maybe I can back out if I say I’m not feeling well.

A slow walk back to the hospital reminded Angelo that he’d completely forgotten where he was supposed to go to see Rhys. Did he really want to go back and be asked to do everyone’s healing again? Maybe he could sneak back home and snooze. It was about that time for an afternoon nap, too.

The hospital looked a lot more crowded than before. Before Angelo had the chance to spin on his heel to leave, his curiosity got the better of him, and he got a little closer. Phol was yelling orders at someone; other Pokémon—Angelo recognized them as healers—tripped over one another and shoved past mildly injured Pokémon in favor of others that were deeper in the facility.

A Clefable waved a Corsola in the air, scattering a cool mist through one of the rooms. Angelo tilted his head, following the two in time to feel the refreshing effects of Life Dew reenergize him. “Er—did something happen?” he asked Clefable.

“Some village northwest was attacked by a stray mutant. Some kind of—I don’t know what it was, but everyone who fought it became seriously injured. The whole village ran to bring them here.”

“Shake me again!” Corsola shouted.

Clefable complied, more Life Dew seeping into the room.

Inside, several Pokémon were lined up on the floor, varying shapes and sizes, but all of them barely conscious.

“An entire village is in the hospital right now?” Angelo said, squeaking.

“Yes—please, do you know Heal Pulse?”

“Yes, I—”

“Go to room 5E, they’re short. Hurry!”

“Okay, where’s—”

“Just follow the hall!”

Angelo sputtered an affirmative and weaved past a few more, only for the powerful grip of an Incineroar pulled him back. “Yaaah!”

“Angelo,” Phol hissed. “Where have you been?”

“I—I—”

Phol picked Angelo up and hauled him over his shoulder. “We need you in 5E, and then the neighboring rooms. They’re all critically injured.”

“Critically? How badly were they—”

“Just focus on healing and don’t focus on the injuries.”

Soon, Angelo was set back down and urged forward. Phol left before he had a chance to reply. There weren’t many healers here… The silence was ominous. The buzz behind him was muted.

“Hello?” Angelo called, stepping inside. “I’m here to—”

They were lined up on the ground, several of them unconscious or close to it. Burns—he recognized them as being from Hyper Beams, based on the circular patterns that covered most of the large ones’ bodies—and lightning scars covered most of them, and even worse. He approached the first one—a Slowking that was more black than pink. He channeled a Heal Pulse into him, washing away most of the injuries like dirt under a waterfall. Slowking groaned loudly and rolled to the side; dead scales fell away, revealing a fresh coat underneath. They looked sensitive and discolored compared to the rest—had the wounds already settled in?

No, of course they had. Without berries or Revivers or Waypoints—they had traveled all the way to Kilo Village on foot?

He moved to a Boltund next. She whined with every attempted movement, but a Heal Pulse soothed her enough so she simply fell asleep. He checked her pulse, and then her breath; both were weak, but stable.

Then there was a Druddigon, but he wasn’t moving at all. He was clutching his side, frozen in time; it looked like bandages had been hastily placed there, only for them to break open and bleed out. “Hey, it’s alright,” Angelo said softly, and then channeled a Heal Pulse into him.

Nothing happened.

“Er—” Angelo pulled his hand away, staring at the unmoving Pokémon. The blood was slowing, but he had a sinking feeling that wasn’t because of the Pulse. It pooled everywhere.

He hadn’t noticed until now, but there was a trail of blood from where he had been, all the way to the entrance, and further down the hall. “Hey, wake up,” Angelo said shakily, sending another Heal Pulse toward Druddigon. It passed through uselessly and struck a nearby Rhydon, slumped against the wall behind Druddigon. Most of the Rhydon’s wounds went away, but the fact that it passed through at all…

Angelo didn’t have any aura sense. He didn’t need it. Yet, despite this, he still shakily stepped toward Druddigon and held a paw against his neck. It sank in; he felt no pressure. His limb was stiff.

No no no no no.

He had been alive recently. Had to have been. Could he try it again? Heal Pulse—it was supposed to be easy, right? Just—just bring them back from the brink! These Pokémon were well past a usual duel’s results. A Heal Pulse was barely enough for some of them, yet…

He moved on to the next Pokémon, healing him quickly. The fatigue was starting to set in, but Angelo ignored it and healed the next, and the next. How many were left? There were at least twenty Pokémon.

Someone was crying in the other room.

His vision was fuzzy; he didn’t even know why he was doing all of this. Did he even have enough energy for the next room? He was out of practice. Been out of practice for years. Why was he here?

Keep pushing, Junior! Dig deep and find that inner power!

Angelo shook the voice from his mind. He didn’t have any energy left. And once the final Pokémon was healed, he staggered back to see his handiwork. Two of the Pokémon in the room hadn’t reacted to his Heal Pulse. The remaining twenty were anywhere between bad to stable.

“Unngh…” The Rhydon he had healed opened his eyes. The barely-healed Pokémon dizzily stared at Druddigon, smiling. He glanced at Angelo. “Thanks…” And then, he tried to reach for Druddigon. “Dad… Looks like we made it…”

It felt as if Angelo’s temperature had halved. The last thing he saw was Rhydon holding his father’s dead shoulder; after that, Angelo bolted.

<><><>​

A bright green blur raced through the dark forest, tearing through dead branches and leaving nothing but a storm of twigs behind. “Rrgh, it all looks the same! C’mon!” Gahi twisted around and slammed his tail on the ground. Molten earth erupted behind him, followed by a shriek. A blob of darkness dissipated into nothing but smoke.

“Yeah, don’t think yeh can sneak up on me that easy,” he growled.

He glanced at the sky, hoping that he’d have some vague sense of time, but that was useless with how it was just red, always. He didn’t know why he even bothered. He was obviously trapped in some kind of nightmare-realm made by Anam’s demon spirit, so that probably meant he was somewhere in the Ghost Orb. This was a pretty big Orb, since apparently it went on forever!

Owen’s latent knowledge about flying in a random direction to go into Aether Forest didn’t work, either. So, he was obviously also trapped in the Ghost Orb.

He also had a vague feeling that he wasn’t supposed to be going in circles. Instead, he had the slightest feeling that he had to go forward, which he felt was supposed to be southeast. He felt something in that direction. What was it? Hopefully something that was less monotonous than a bunch of useless crystals. Still, it bugged him if he left those behind—and so, he now had three diamond-shaped gems in his claws, each one a different color.

A few more quick dashes through the forest, the dead trees a blur that only he could comprehend, and he suddenly stopped and listened.

Going above the treetops was a bad idea. The last time he’d tried that, he couldn’t even count the number of dark beams that came from the forest from all directions. His shoulder still ached from that attempt. So, instead, the Flygon grunted and followed the now slightly stronger feeling to the left. Yes, where was that coming from?

He crept through the last of the trees and sensed movement. But at the same time, that movement stopped. Gahi narrowed his eyes, trying to tune his hearing for anything odd. His antennae twitched, but they wouldn’t be nearly as useful as Owen’s horns. Too bad he wasn’t around to help.

Gahi suppressed a growl and crept forward again. Something was ahead, but he didn’t have the instincts to creep forward the way a feral would. He folded his wings back, worried that even a strong breeze would make them whistle, but in his distracted shuffling, he stepped on a fragile twig. Gritting his teeth, he stared forward, but he heard nothing.

One more move. It was right behind the tree. Was it friend or foe? Should he call out? No, that could give him away, if it was an enemy.

He knew what he had to do. Just grab it. Grab it quickly—he had the speed—and figure out what to do after that. Maybe pin it down, or toss it in the air.

Gahi tensed his muscles and felt the aura around his body shift, readying for a blink-speed run. He’d only have a split-second, but that was all he needed.

One moment, he was in front of the tree, and in another, his green, gleaming body was on the opposite side in a blurry curve. He grabbed the hiding creature and shouted, “Hah!”

But it was just a mound of dirt and twigs under his claws. “Eh—”

Something lightweight slammed on the back of his neck, earning an irritated grunt. “What’s—” He tried to reach for it, but a thin vine smacked his hand away. “Yow! Oy! What’s yer—”

“It’s rude to sneak up on someone like that,” said a familiar, yet extremely high-pitched voice.

Gahi spun around, but something stuck to his shoulder. He reached for it, feeling a thick, tough vine. Pulling it forward, the rest of the creature followed, dangling in front of him with an irritated glare.

“…Trina?” Gahi said to the Snivy.

“If the accent is anything to go by, you’re Gahi?” Trina said. “I hope this isn’t how you normally greet others.”

“Eh—no.” Gahi didn’t let go of her, though. “And yer a Snivy because…?”

“It isn’t really something I know the answer to,” Trina said. “How ironic that despite the fact that I take care of your kind, I wound up being the first one to be reduced to my lowest form.”

“So yeh really never devolved any of ‘em?” Gahi said.

“No. I hadn’t considered it. I only wanted to put them in a more stable mental state.”

“Oh, right, yeah. Figure you wouldn’t’ve known about that whole thing.” Gahi tilted his head left and right. “Guess you just turned ‘em inter yer soldiers instead.”

Trina’s huge eyes narrowed to a glare. “I didn’t turn them into soldiers,” she said. “I gave them all the opportunity to leave if they wished.”

“Yeah, after brainwashing them.” Gahi shrugged.

“I wasn’t—”

“Look, it’s fine. If you wanna get in a philosophy debate about yer methods, go talk ter Owen when I find the guy. I don’t care. It was like yeh said, right? We’re mutants, so we choose who we wanna fight, but we’re fighters. You just gave ‘em a choice.”

Trina blinked, but then shook her head. “You don’t understand what I was actually doing for them, do you? Just because I can alter the mind doesn’t mean I do.”

“But yer the Bug Guardian. Don’t those guys kinda like workin’ in hives and all that?”

“What an awful stereotype! Perhaps for feral Combee, but—”

“They call you Queen Trina.”

Trina opened her mouth to retort, but she interrupted herself several times. Eventually, she just sighed and said, “That was something they came up with themselves. I didn’t enforce it.”

“Uh-huh. Didn’t stop it, either.”

The Snivy growled, her one vine twitching in Gahi’s grip while the rest of her body hung limply in thin patience. “I suppose I’ll just wait for Owen, then.”

Gahi shrugged. “Maybe we c’n figure out why yeh got all tiny, too. But, heh, well, yeh look cuter that way, so that’s a start.”

Trina growled. “I’m not supposed to look cute. I have a regal image to keep up! If my subjects saw me like this…” She glared at the gnarled tree roots. “We need to find a way out of here that doesn’t involve being burned away.”

“Eh? What’re yeh getting at?”

Trina didn’t reply immediately, her expression becoming pensive. Gahi wondered if she was trying to gather exactly what she meant for herself; burning away? He didn’t feel anything like that, aside from getting blasted by shadows, but he had shaken that off. It had been more like a cold burn, too.

“It’s how I became a Snivy, or at least, what might have led to it.” Trina motioned in a vague direction behind her. “I was exploring this forest for some sort of landmark—as a Serperior—and found a distortion. It was a Dungeon. But once I found the exit, I felt myself… evaporating. I had been in such a rush to get away from the Dungeon, though, that I couldn’t get back in time before I realized what was happening. The next thing I know…” Trina frowned, motioning to herself with her arms. “Everything goes dark. There was this horrible feeling in that darkness—I fought against it, somehow, and… woke up here. As a Snivy.”

“Huh…”

“I premise the same didn’t happen to you,” Trina said, eyes going up and down his Flygon body.

“Nope.” Gahi leaned forward and bumped the top of his head under Trina, earning a surprised shout. Gahi grabbed a vine that had reflexively shot from her shoulder and brought it down to his neck. “Guess yer gonna ride on me fer a bit.”

“This is degrading.”

“Oh, okay,” Gahi said, plucking Trina off. He dropped her to the ground, where she landed with a soft pomf against the dusty ground.

Trina tried to dust herself off with her vines—her tiny arms were almost as useless as when she had mere leaves for hands as a Serperior—and then looked at Gahi’s thigh. Humiliating—so small that she’d been reduced to thigh-height…

She didn’t need to look up to know Gahi was smirking.

“You’re mocking me.”

“Wanna walk on yer own?”

Trina crossed her vines and turned her head away. “I said it was degrading. I’m not going back on that.”

“Bah! Get over it.” He thumped his tail on the ground. “If yer that low ter the ground, and somethin’ attacks, no tellin’ what it’ll be, got it? So get over it, go on my head, and you’ll be safer.”

“Really, you want that?” Trina said. “After all you just ranted to me about?”

“Ranted? C’mon, I’m just sayin’ the truth. Besides, yer still an ally, ev’n if yer methods’re shady.”

“Yet you’d still lower yourself to carrying me.”

Gahi couldn’t squint his eyes further. “You just said it was degrading, what’re you—”

“Yes, I did. I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about—”

“So what’s that make me, super-degraded?”

“What?”

“What do you mean, what, you just—”

“Hold.” Trina raised a vine.

Despite how tiny she was, Gahi listened with an irritated snort. A small plume of indigo fire escaped his nostrils.

Trina lowered her vine and watched Gahi’s tail as it thumped on the ground, kicking up a small plume of dirt from a dry patch of the ground. “Yes,” Trina said. “I said it was degrading, to let me ride you. And I don’t want to perpetuate your feelings by doing that, if that’s how you’re going to be. I won’t play that game.”

“Game? What in Mew’s pink a—this ain’t a game, I was offerin’! You gotta drop yer pride and accept it.”

“…Excuse me? Drop my pride?” Trina rubbed her eyes irritably. “I don’t understand you. I have no pride to drop here. Putting you in a lower position would mean you would be shedding your pride.”

It was Gahi’s turn to rub his eyes, even going so far as to pluck off his lenses and groan. “Baaah, I don’t get you! Yer small! I’m big! Ride me!”

“Even after what you said? I thought you wouldn’t want to be a soldier.”

“It ain’t like that.”

“Then you don’t find it degrading?”

“Well, maybe fer you.”

“I don’t find it degrading at all.”

“BUT YOU JUST—” Gahi’s claws squeezed together, then tugged at his huge antennae. “You said it was degrading.”

“For you.”

Gahi blinked at this, trying to repay what little of the argument he could remember. It had gone so quickly that he couldn’t even remember precisely what had started it.

While Gahi snapped his lenses back on, Trina continued. “It’s degrading to you to carry me. If you feel that I treat your kind as servants, I’m not going to put you in that same position.”

“That… wha…” Gahi felt a headache coming on. “I don’t care about that. I ain’t yer servant. I’m just helpin’ you.”

The Snivy continued to stare, vines crossed. “…And you’re sure? It’s as I said. I won’t let someone offer their services to me if it means they’re lower.”

“N… nah, that ain’t how I see it.” Gahi squeezed his left antennae thoughtfully, ignoring the disorienting feeling that it gave him. “Yer small. That’s it. Willow did th’ same thing.”

“I don’t care much for Willow’s treatment of others.” Trina frowned and concentrated her focus on Gahi’s left, gleaming wing. “But if you truly don’t mind, then I will ride you.”

“Yeah, jus’ phrase that better next time,” Gahi said, leaning forward to pick up the slightly flustered Snivy from the ground again. “Were you really gonna just go on foot if I got all offended?”

“Yes.” Trina looked down. “I know that your group would be unsure of me and my methods, and even if I try to prove myself, that lingering doubt remains. I don’t want to exacerbate it if I don’t need to.”

“Mm. So that’s how it is, eh?” Gahi frowned.

“What do you mean?” Trina mirrored his expression.

“Nah, nothin’. Just… didn’t think you actually cared.”

A confused silence permeated Trina’s general aura. During that time, Gahi leaned forward and helped Trina onto his head again, and then started walking.

The Flygon puffed out a small plume of dragon fire. “I thought all the stuff you said was just sweet nothin’ stuff. Trying to win us over, y’know, manipulate more people to join yer ranks. Guess I’m just paranoid after bein’, y’know, created ter be a weapon.”

Trina shifted her weight; Gahi felt that she was leaning forward, resting her chin between his antennae. She wrapped her vines around his neck, finding a good equilibrium.

“Figure I owe yeh an apology fer that,” Gahi muttered. “Y’ain’t so bad, if y’were gonna go without a ride just ter prove a point.”

“It was petty,” Trina said, looking away. “I would not have gotten far on my own. I had spent most of my time hiding since I woke up as a Snivy.”

“Mm.” Gahi tried to look up, but couldn’t see her.

Trina chuckled, finally resting her full weight on the top of his head, rather than resting on her shoulders. “Gahi?”

“Yeah?”

“I suppose I owe you a bit of an apology, too. You’re much more intelligent than I gave you credit for.”

Gahi grumbled, flapping his wings once. “What, just because I talk funny, I’m stupid?”

“No. I just know you from how Lygo used to be,” Trina said. “Headstrong, perhaps more interested in the fastest way to fix something than a more careful approach?”

He couldn’t deny that one.

“But you wouldn’t have gotten this far without at least a little intelligence. And the way you ended up trying to evaluate me…” Trina shrugged. “I think that was something unexpected of you.”

A wind blew through the forest and her leafy tail tickled his neck. He tried to ignore it. Gahi’s attention turned back to the forest and its dull repetitiveness

“Do you have a destination in mind?” Trina asked.

“Just followin’ my gut,” Gahi said, holding up his claws to show the three crystals he’d been carrying.

“Hm? What are these?”

“Dunno. Keep pickin’ these things up. Every time I get a feeling that there’s somethin’ there, I find these.”

“I see…”

“And I also felt it when I ran inter you. So what, you got one?”

“No, I don’t. But I had a similar feeling… Though, I was too small to get close. And it felt a bit aimless.”

“Got any better ideas on where ter go?”

“Well, no.”

Gahi shrugged, nearly making Trina lose her balance on his head. “Eh, sorry,” he mumbled, keeping his head steady. “If I had better shoulders, I’d put yeh there.”

“It’s not a problem.” She wrapped her vines more firmly around his neck—which was much thicker than she was—and asked, “Then we just keep searching until we find something new?”

“Yep.”

Trina sighed. “Very well. And hopefully we can find something to eat, too. I don’t know why, but… I’ve been hungry for the first time in… generations. My Mystic powers are suppressed, perhaps?”

“Maybe.” Gahi nodded to himself. “I haven’t been Mystic all that long. I only know that from Owen. Guess it must be weird needin’ sleep and food all over again. Heh. Privileged existence, if y’ask me.”

“Hmph. I suppose it was, but it’s only a fair exchange for everything we have to deal with.”

“Heh.” Gahi smirked in reply, but he didn’t disagree. He wasn’t really sure what to think about the fact that he was a Guardian, too—or at least, for a fleeting moment, he used to be. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside him, he still had that Psychic power. He just had to awaken it again.

“Let’s keep going,” Trina said. “Maybe we’ll find—”

A bolt of lightning, followed immediately by a bone-shattering thunderclap, knocked loose branches from their flimsy trees.

Trina looked up; she had seen the bolt, black like Kilo Village’s crater. She squinted at what she thought was something blue in the otherwise red sky. “…Hm. I think I found that something.”

“Eh?” Gahi followed the vine Trina used to point. “…A Druddigon?”

“You said flying above the trees is dangerous,” Trina said. “How quickly can you weave between them?”

“Watch me.” Gahi crouched down, predicted the Druddigon’s landing site, and disappeared in a green blur.

----------------

Author's Note: And... all caught up.

Congratulations, everybody, we did it: this thread is now fully caught up with the FFN, Wattpad, and AO3 platforms. You can no longer feel behind compared to everyone else! This also means, however, that uploads will now be slower here starting next week. I'll be finishing and uploading chapter 83 on March 29. After that, chapters will come once every TWO weeks, instead of weekly. Thanks everyone for keeping up with the story, and I hope you continue to enjoy what's to come! Because Owen won't. For those who didn't want to see any HoC-specific communities until you were caught up, you're now caught up.
 
Chapter 83 - Stew
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Chapter 83 – Stew

If it wasn’t for how thirsty he was, he would have been crying for a lot longer, but some part of Owen kept that from happening. He still couldn’t accept it. Amia…

He couldn’t remember what cave she had been left behind in. And he had no way to sense where she had gone, either. He was lucky enough to have the sense to bring the green crystal with him, but now that Amia was gone, he couldn’t sense where she had been. It must have been tied to her aura.

Now, all Owen could do was follow that smell of stew. It was weaker than the day before—maybe because there was less of it—but that also meant there had been a lot before. Surely, they would have some to spare for him.

At this point, Owen had been more focused on one step after the other than anything else. He didn’t want to think too much about what had happened, not until he had food in him. Otherwise… Perhaps he’d wind up seeing Amia a lot sooner than intended.

Another rumble shook the ground—they were becoming more frequent lately—and Owen dashed to one of the rocks, ducking behind each one now that the rumbles were so close.

He was starting to get reckless and desperate. The smell was so strong. He had to be close.

A booming shockwave cracked above him. Owen fell to the floor, covering the top of his head. Another one of those roars followed—the windy shriek of a giant. He whimpered loudly, trying to drown it out, until it finally passed. His chest felt like mush, yet his heart felt tight. He gasped for breath, not realizing that he had held it for so long. The very end of a dark blast, its faded particles shimmering like black-purple sparks, flew far above him.

They were different from the corrupted light that had been used to suppress his evolution, yet the colors still reminded him of that. And that, in turn, reminded him of his tiny, Charmander body.

At least it meant he wouldn’t have to find as much food to support himself.

What was that blast? Owen looked up again, but the rumbles were becoming louder. He had to hurry if he wanted to avoid it. He continued to duck between larger rocks, using what little energy he had to sprint between the ones that were too far away, until he spotted a small cave.

He had to risk it. The smell was strongest from there.

He was mere steps away from the entrance when a shadow in the corner of his vision crawled across the ground. He stared at it, then looked up on reflex. His pupils narrowed in terror—something black was flying in the sky. He didn’t have time to judge the size or whether it saw him—he only scampered into the cave, not looking back, and then tripped over a small, raised platform.

“Urf—” He didn’t smash his face this time, at least. The ground shook again and a few loose rocks hit the dusty ground outside. Softer. It was going away. And he didn’t see that flying creature’s shadow, either.

With the immediate danger out of the way, he could finally focus on his surroundings. He brought his tail forward, holding it like a torch, and found nothing but a large, stone pot in the middle, over a dying fire made from wood that he recognized as being from the forest.

Without thinking, he ran toward the pot—which was twice his height—and tried to think of how to get inside. He scanned for any wraiths, but found none. There didn’t seem to be any traps—but who else could make traps like him? He just had to climb up and get some.

Little bowls were scattered around nearby. Had this place been recently abandoned? Probably because of that huge titan. Could it smell the food? That would’ve gotten its attention…

Owen pressed his hand against the stone bowl, hoping it was light enough that he could at least roll it to get inside. The moment he did, he felt a jolt of energy rush through him. He yelped in surprise and pulled his hand back, shivering—it was warm, but it also felt like he had been hit by one of Enet’s sparks. He poked it again and felt the same spark—so that was the trap.

The food was right there and he couldn’t even eat it.

Some primal part of the Charmander made him pace around the bowl several times in a wide circle, looking for an opening. There had to be something he could get out of this—anything! How could he tip a bowl over without touching it? Or did he just have to power through it? No, even then, he was too weak. It was probably too heavy.

If only it wasn’t hooked up with a trap!

A trap…

Owen looked at his feet, a thoughtful chirp escaping him. What if he…

Owen stomped his foot near the base of the bowl, channeling a bit of energy into the ground. Then, for good measure, he did another—feeling the strain on his body. He had to stop there.

He took a few steps back. Narrowing his eyes at the base, he tried to activate them remotely. Just a little more… Ugh, I can’t concentrate… He could only think about the food inside. He grabbed a pebble instead and readied a Protect in case it went flying back at him. He tossed it onto the trap, using it as a focus, and then crossed his arms.

The explosion tipped the bowl over completely, the contents sloshing heavily. Some of it spilled out, but it looked like the pot had only been a fifth of the way full. Still, that was more than enough for him, and Owen let out a series of celebratory chirps and embers into the air. He scrambled to the stew, not caring that it was only warm and not hot. Manners were a thing of the past; he shoved his hands into the brownish-red porridge, pulling out chunks of meat and berries without thought. He even saw some of that tree taffy in the mix, but he didn’t care. Food! It was food!

Owen sniffled, taking a break to blink away a few of his tears, and kept eating. It’s so good, he thought to himself, his desperate sobs of relief the only thing that kept him from eating even faster.

I’m a mess, Owen thought, trying to calm himself down once he realized how savage he’d been. But if those strange dreams were anything to go by… what if that’s just how he was? No—there was more to it. Even feral Pokémon—at least, his mother… his—was that his mother? And not Amia, but…

It gave him a headache. The food was more important for now. Those dreams were fleeting at most; maybe if he got another, he could actually try to focus on remembering them a little more.

Owen winced—there was something hard in the stew. He spat it out. “Oh, gross…”

It was a piece of bone. Part of something a lot larger than him. Shaking his head, he looked into the stew for more pieces, realizing that whatever they had put in this giant pot, they had put it in whole, or at least were… very averse to being wasteful about it.

Why did they run off, anyway?

The thought was fleeting. Curiosity and hunger got the better of him, and he dug through the stew to get rid of more of the bones. Couldn’t eat that without messing up his gut, after all. He already bled on the outside; bleeding on the inside would just make things worse.

He wondered where the other bones had gone. He looked around, just to be sure he didn’t miss any, and raised his tail. Now that his energy was back, his flame was a lot brighter.

His heart leapt up into his chest—there were bones around, stripped clean of flesh. He recognized a few as bones he’d expect from a limb, and others, vertebrae. Thinner, longer bones suggested wing-like appendages, too… Were those claws?

Owen shuddered and looked inside the stew again. There was something lumpy at the very bottom of the tasty slop. Out of morbid curiosity, he reached forward. The only sort of bone he hadn’t seen yet was the skull.

What exactly did they wind up cooking? Owen thought, tugging hard against the lump. It was heavy—maybe as heavy as he was! It’s so big! No wonder they had spent so long cooking it. This pot must have been full the first time he’d come across the scent.

He pulled a little harder, but then yelped—he broke off part of the skull. It was certainly a skull, just based on the vague shape. What had come off—to easily—was a pointed horn of some kind. Then again, it had probably been cooking at the bottom for a while. Owen discarded it and tried to pull out the rest of the skull.

With a bit more tugging, he finally pulled it free, the stew falling out of the empty holes left in the head. He grimaced at first, regretting that he’d pulled it out at all. Gross. Maybe he should have waited until he wasn’t hungry anymore to do this inspection.

More of the stew fell from the skull, and he started to get a better idea of what shape it had. The lower jaw was missing—probably somewhere at the bottom of the bowl, still buried. The top of the skull was a lot longer than it was tall. Long snout. Intense eye sockets, too. And—

Oh, Mew, it’s a Charizard.

Owen dropped the skull into the vat and took a few shaky steps back. Did he just—there was so much, and—

He stepped on the horn again and kicked it away with a shriek. Dizziness from breathing too fast forced him to sit down, holding his head. His stomach churned harshly, it was rising up, hot, stinging bile in the back of his throat. He clenched his jaws tight and clamped his claws over it for extra measure, then clenched the back of his throat.

It would be even worse if it came back out. He didn’t want to see it again. He couldn’t bear to look at the bowl, either. The Charmander wobbled toward the wall, placing one hand on the rocks, as his tail crackled loudly.

“That didn’t happen. That didn’t…”

It kept flashing in his head. Those empty eyes in the skull, leaking stew from all over. It slid off of the skull where the scales had once been, mixing with the red stew. The pointed horn that had come off so easily, nothing but a firm tug needed to break the bone. How long had it been there, festering? How long had…

Pointed horn?

Owen glanced back at where he’d kicked it away.

Something about this picture didn’t fit, and the nagging feeling finally pulled him out of his spiral. He looked back at the horn again, inspecting it more closely. Charizard didn’t have pointed horns like that, like it curved upward. Those were mutant horns. Or maybe some subspecies that he didn’t know about. But…

He checked the head again, careful not to look at its face, or whatever was left of it. One horn was still left. And even though most of the flesh had been cooked away, there was still…

Click.

It popped off with just a firm tug.

For a while, all Owen did was stare. He wasn’t horrified anymore. Confused, maybe. Baffled? Was that the feeling? He tried to analyze his own thoughts, but then refocused back on the horn.

His horn.

He was the only Charizard in the world to have detachable horns. Har, and all the others of his kind, could turn down their Perceive naturally. But he couldn’t. He had to physically remove his horns to stop the sense from overwhelming him.

“It’s… it’s me. H-ha, it’s… it’s me!” Owen tossed the head—his old head—back into the pot, laughing with wide, incredulous eyes.

Was he supposed to feel better or worse about eating it, now? He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. He laughed for a little while longer, settling down into little, disjointed chuckles. The energy from the meal was starting to get to him.

Charizard stew! With only the finest herbs and berries. It cooked itself.

Finally calm enough to grab a small bowl—he gave himself permission to eat his own carcass—he dipped it into the overturned pot. If anything, he could get another helping with some dignity to make up for the circumstances.

Because despite everything, there was a new fire in him that wasn’t just from the food. His thoughts, now sharper, came to one new conclusion with this surprising piece of information. While he tried to ignore the twisting of his stomach—either because the stew tasted funny, or because of this new realization—he only let that fuel the flame.

Upon first landing in the wastes, he had fallen so hard that everything in his body broke. Had he been a Charizard? If that was the case… He had died then. He had died, lost part of himself, somehow—he was familiar with the feeling at this point—and became a Charmander. If he died again, would he lose even more of himself?

Only now he understood: Amia was not safe and sound in the aura sea, nor was she in the Fire Realm.

She was still here.

Somewhere out there, wandering as a Ralts.

<><><>​

The smell of paint welcomed him like an old friend. Trembling hands grabbed a nearby can—that he’d produced a while ago from his tail, but it was still fresh and ready for use—and inspected the nearby bucket of dirty water next to it.

Angelo wasn’t in the right mindset to paint. He wasn’t the sort of insane artist who could only draw when he was feeling particularly flustered. In fact, he couldn’t paint at all with how much his hands were shaking, his heart pounding, his legs threatening to shatter like the last few twigs of a tree in Void Forest.

It was just him and the dusty, stuffy, warm, inviting darkness. The Smeargle waded through piles of crumpled papers, heavy and stuck together in a flaky wad from all the paint that covered each one, and into the back room where a small container filled with cold berries sat. The Orb inside had gone out—some sort of slow-burn Hail Orb to keep the insides cool—but he opened it very quickly so the cold would be preserved for what little remained within.

A Pecha and an Oran. Not blessed—though even if they had been, they weren’t anymore—and just for a little treat. He started with the Pecha, savoring it, but it didn’t stop his shaking. Were there Chesto Berries in those drinks at the café? No, that wasn’t it.

He heard a distant scream outside for Arceus knows why. His blood froze instantly, followed shortly by his heart, as terror gripped his chest. He didn’t move, and he only realized a few seconds later that he’d crushed the Pecha in his hand. After muttering a soft curse, he grabbed a nearby paper and wiped the sticky remnants on it, tossing it on the dusty pile of trash. Clean that up later, he thought to himself for the umpteenth time.

It wasn’t worth checking. He was done. No more healing, no more chaos, just his home, his art, his darkness, his quiet, his solitude. The most interaction he’d never need is for making little art commissions, client requests. Sure, some were a bit hard to deal with, but at least they weren’t dying. Dying for his work, sure, but not drifting away to the spirit realm.

Angelo realized that he didn’t want to paint with red, perhaps ever. How limiting would that be for his art in the future? Was he being overdramatic? The fact that he felt his Pecha Berry coming back up suggested otherwise.

He needed to distract himself some other way. Perhaps an early afternoon nap. Maybe he could work on that request from that strange Espeon. That painting didn’t have any red, did it? Why was his fur suddenly standing on end?

“Angelo.”

Some mixture of a silent scream and a whimper bounced around his throat. Unable to look back, he only froze, hoping that it was his imagination. When it was clear it wasn’t, he then hoped that Rhys would just leave him alone.

He didn’t, and he should have known he wouldn’t. In fact, he was walking closer, into his home, seeing all this mess—clients weren’t supposed to see this, this was his private room, why was he breaking into his house and trespassing? Just because he was a Heart, he had the right to barge into anywhere he pleased? Oh, gods, he was right next to him. What now? His body didn’t move. He was a feral Rattata facing down an Arbok.

Rhys’ paw gently held Angelo’s shoulder, squeezing the life out of him. “Are you all right?”

His voice still didn’t come to him. Instead, Angelo choked out a small squeak, then another sputter, and then shook his head. He was far from fine, yet he couldn’t say it aloud. Mixtures of shame and evasion had his throat sealed.

“What happened?” Rhys said, sweeping aside the mess nearby with his foot like it was the most normal thing in the world. He sat down next to Angeo, crossing his legs.

Something finally escaped him. “I can’t go,” he said.

“I can see that,” Rhys said gently, still holding onto his shoulder. “I was waiting for you in front of the Heart HQ. When you didn’t show up, I checked the hospital…”

Angelo couldn’t hide his shudder. “I can’t go back there.”

“Angelo, why? You nearly surpassed my healing,” Rhys said. “Yes, I had to replenish my strength—I’m not tuned to healing—but you…”

“I can’t go back!” Angelo shouted again. “I—I’m not built for blood. I’m sorry. But I’ve done all I can, and I can’t… I can’t…”

More silence followed, the dusty air wrapping Angelo in what little comfort he had left with the intruder in his home. He couldn’t tell Rhys to go away; he was an Elite. The only one left in town. The fighter. And he was telling Angelo to go and help. Just like his father. The one that Rhys probably saw when he looked at the Smeargle before him. His father who worked himself to an early grave all for the name of others.

Angelo wasn’t a Heart; that was his father. Maybe Rhys had to see that.

“I’ll come later,” Rhys said. “The hospital might be getting another wave, and we can use your Heal Pulse. Can you also Sketch Life Dew from someone? Anything will help.”

There was no escaping it. One way or the other, Rhys was going to force him to get involved. And how could he say no? He heard his father’s words echoing in his mind again.

It’s our duty, Angelo. Our ancestor didn’t work toward this power for us to squander it! Now, come on! Let’s try another Dungeon! I’ll help you draw later!

“Angelo?” Rhys said. “Your aura is… very unstable. Please, if there’s anything you need…”

“I—I’m fine,” Angelo said. If he said the truth, Rhys would just echo his father’s words. “I—I just need to rest. I’m fatigued from the healing. Later this afternoon, I’ll come back, I just—”

“I understand.” Rhys nodded. “Take care of yourself.”

“And what about that flying trip you wanted to take?” Angelo said. “You—needed someone who could fly.”

“I needed someone powerful who could fly, but right now, securing the injured in Kilo is more important. I’ll… find some other way to contact them later.”

“How would you do that? Are there any Waypoints you could—oh.”

Rhys smiled sadly, nodding. “It’s not very easy. If there was a way to remotely contact them, that would be wonderful, but…” He paused, looking at Angelo’s paw thoughtfully. Rhys finally let go of his shoulder and hummed. “Remotely… Arceus…”

“What?” Angelo asked. “Arceus? Destiny Tower, from the Books, appeared, didn’t it? You’re planning on flying all the way there?”

“No. I won’t have to.” Rhys stood up. “I should have realized it sooner.”

Angelo figured they should have realized a lot of things sooner, but in all the chaos, they’ve just been trying to put out the immediate fires. “What did you realize?”

“I could just send a prayer to Arceus,” Rhys said. “Star mentioned that she could hear prayers—surely it’s the same for Arceus… Rrgh, but I can’t remember if he’s particular about what sort of address you’d make…”

“O Lord, hear my plea, and by Your Grace may it be answered,” Angelo recited like the chemical formula for sugar.

Rhys blinked, but then nodded in recognition. “Of course, your father must have taught you that. Thank you.”

Angelo said nothing and Rhys stood up, bringing his paws together. The weight over Angelo’s shoulders lifted slightly, but only slightly, when the Lucario finally exited his home.

“Fighting Pokémon,” Angelo muttered to himself. “So imposing…” He knew that wasn’t it.

With Rhys gone, he looked at the uneaten Oran Berry next to him and frowned. He rolled it for a while, forward and back, and then eventually watched it bump into the corner of the room. The pile of discarded papers leered at him—what are you going to do now, failure? Add to me, clean me up, or are you just going to run away again?

Angelo retreated to his bedroom.

<><><>​

Far to the east of Kilo Village, atop Destiny Tower in a late afternoon sun, Arceus stood near the edge of his domain and stared at the settled vortex in the faraway horizon. Dark Matter stopped his advance. Perhaps he’d finally realized that so long as Arceus remained active, he couldn’t advance. Did that mean he was unable to claim Star’s power? What had happened to her, then? Perhaps the same could be said for the other Guardians he’d claimed; perhaps there was hope yet.

But it was all speculation for now. Dark Matter could have been waiting for him to bring down his guard; attacking the vortex while it was down didn’t seem to do anything, either. Should he approach? …No, that was too risky.

O Lord, hear my plea, and by Your Grace may it be answered.

Another one from Kilo Village, from the feeling of it. He had been getting a lot of those, and while he typically listened to them without any direct acknowledgement, this one was a familiar voice.

The prayer continued. Kilo Village is stabilizing, but we have a great influx of outside villagers in grave conditions. Mutants are running rampant in isolated pockets across Kilo. The Dungeons are amok with wraiths. We need time to recover; is there anything you can do to help? How is the Trinity? Guardian realms are being invaded by wraiths, and I do not have the mobility, currently, to investigate. Manny and Willow may look after them, if needed. Er… I suppose if you have a means to communicate with me…

Did he? He did. Just as he’d reached out to Owen, he could reach out to Rhys, though a god interfering with mortals—or whatever Rhys counted as—wasn’t something Arceus was very keen on doing.

But he and Rhys had already communicated before, and he felt he had a stronger connection to the Lucario, anyway.

Fine. If only because it pertained to the Trinity and Dark Matter and a great crisis. Hello, Rhys. The Trinity is fine and where they should be. I am on Destiny Tower, making sure that Dark Matter is not advancing and keeping my Judgement charged.

It took a little while to hear Rhys again; Arceus imagined he was stunned in getting a reply. Perhaps he was also feeling honored in being graced by a reply at all by his almighty Creator.

Almighty once he got his Hands back, at least…

You can’t eradicate him outright? Rhys asked.

The ignorance stung, but Arceus didn’t let it show. No. I can only suppress him, and he is currently idle. I cannot sense any power charging within the dark vortex.

I see. Then it’s safe for you to descend? We could use your assistance.


The idea disgusted him on reflex, but a rational side suggested that what Rhys was asking for wasn’t unreasonable. In this time of great crisis, would he not be at least slightly obligated to descend and help?

Very well. I shall descend. Alert the town and I will depart.

He supposed that waiting wasn’t totally out of the question, but he did want to at least help, and standing around, while habitual and familiar, was making him restless. That void in the sky wasn’t going anywhere, after all, and he hadn’t been able to appear in the mortal world for so long…

But it was a little unbecoming of him, too.

A gentle gust of wind ruffled his fur and making an ethereal whistling noise through the wheel that wrapped itself around his abdomen. His heart fluttered; wind… How long had it been since he’d felt a genuine breeze? It hadn’t crossed his mind all this time. He was ashamed to admit it—and he never would to anybody else—but feeling the wind over his fur was something he didn’t know he had wanted.

The sunlight was next: warm against the gray skin of his face, trapped in his fur for what little of the heat broke through its white surface. He stepped uncertainly toward the edge of the tower, admiring—admiring the autumn forest to the south, its leaves halfway between orange and green.

This was the world he ruled; the world he had to defend against Dark Matter. And with Star out of the way, perhaps he finally could.

Are you able to teleport here now? Rhys called.

Snapping from his thoughts, Arceus prepared himself. I am. I’ll sense for your aura…

It wasn’t that difficult to find; Rhys was distinct to him, and zeroing in on his position was only a few steps away from trivial.

In a flash of light, Arceus disappeared from the top of Destiny Tower and reappeared in the middle of town. Almost instantly, he heard loud shouts and gasps in surprise, and he tilted his head upward to bask in their inevitable reverence.

“Indeed,” Arceus said, projecting his voice for everyone in the square. “It is I, Arceus, here to—”

An earth-shattering SNAP filled the air, followed by a heavy, chest-shaking rumble. Far to the north, just over the horizon, a puddle of black ink spilled over the clouds and ate away at the sky. It crawled out in rapid and ravenous branches, tearing the light away from the day.

Within seconds, it was halfway to Kilo Village.

Arceus summoned his light and fired a volley of quick, arcing beams of white light—it was a sloppy Judgement, and he hoped that would be enough to stall it in time to prepare a proper one. He ignored the screams and startled shouts, as well as Rhys calling for everyone to calm down.

“Arceus, what’s happening?” Rhys asked for them all.

“Nothing to concern yourselves over,” Arceus said as the blasts of light cut through the darkness. It slowed the advance, but more ink pooled over the sky. Cursing mentally, Arceus focused and, in a flash of light, disappeared from Kilo as quickly as he’d arrived, and the cool breeze of Destiny Tower’s top greeted him. Here, he could draw from his power the most, where the spirit world met the living world.

His light redoubled, and then he fired at the expanding darkness. The great arms of creation crawled across the sky.

<><><>​

Complete pandemonium and panic shattered whatever order Kilo Village had left. Rhys couldn’t deny it himself; his heart was beating out of his chest. He stared helplessly at the expanding darkness that raced Arceus’ Judgement.

“Ev-everyone get inside!” Rhys shouted, having no idea whether that would be even close to useful against the sky literally disappearing. He raised his arms above his head and charged an Aura Sphere several times larger than his head, firing it at the sky. It flew slowly; a shadow crept over Kilo Village in a blink’s worth of time, and suddenly it was a night without stars.

The glow of Rhys’ blast lit the street for a few seconds, bathing it in bright cyan. Another bright light—ADAM’s Hyper Beam—lit up another part of town and beat the Sphere’s pace. When the Hyper Beam struck, a splotch of light tore through the void, revealing the sky that was indeed still there.

An orb of lunar energy followed, and then a feeble, fist-shaped Aura Sphere right after from Manny’s attempt at a strike as a spirit. So, they hadn’t left yet? Good, because leaving was useless at this point. And then came a volley of flames from an aura he didn’t fully recognize, and then a speedy, successive blast of rocks.

Where were all those attacks coming from?

“Attack, attack!” shouted a Weavile to Rhys’ left, flinging high-speed Ice Shards at the blackening sky. “Ugh! I can’t get high enough!”

“Allow me!” A Mawile dipped her second set of jaws beneath Weavile and hurled him upward; he followed up with even more Ice Shards before flipping in the air and landing with a stumble.

Several more Pokémon followed up, carving tiny holes in the oppressive night. Waves of light followed from the north, explosive shocks disturbing small pebbles from their resting places on the ground. The holes in the sky remained for much longer, and a follow-up Hyper Beam from ADAM carved a permanent gash through it.

Rhys sensed something forming within the clouds. The same tingling sensation he felt when energy and aura gathered for a powerful strike.

But then, as quickly as it came, it faded, instead replaced by another volley of Judgement spears. The civilians struck for a second time, this time led by ghostly Marowak riding atop an Arcanine, throwing a flaming Bone Club toward a particularly dark patch of the sky. Unfortunately, it fell short.

Rhys wondered if, had they not been on a mountain, the thought of trying to strike the sky would have been laughable. Still, it was well below the clouds.

Another explosion knocked the wind out of Rhys and forced him to his knees, as well as several of the other Pokémon in the area. That wasn’t a normal shockwave; it rocked him down to his very spirit. Some Pokémon had passed out from the shock, waking up seconds later. He had sensed their very auras violently eject from their bodies, returning to their living shells seconds later.

Light returned to the sky in slow waves, the black sheets fading into the nothing that it had come from. A tense and heavy silence followed, nobody daring to speak. All eyes were on the horizon, which finally lost its ominous, dark aura. Already, Pokémon mumbled about Arceus’ arrival and subsequent departure.

“Arceus…” Rhys sighed. What happened? He looked to the now clear sky. I have to tell them something about your brief appearance.

Dark Matter was waiting for me to leave Destiny Tower in order to strike. I cannot leave again.


Rhys squeezed his paws. I see. Very well. I will be seeing you later, then. There is another thing I need to take care of… Particularly having to do with our medical needs.

Medical?


Rhys nodded, but then realized that Arceus probably couldn’t see him. There are a lot of healers, and even a talented Smeargle, but I’m positive another wave of Pokémon will be coming in need of our already exhausted supplies. We need better healing.

Better…
Arceus paused. You don’t mean…

Rhys winced, but projected his sigh to Arceus the best he could. I need to find Emily.
 
Chapter 84 - What's Your Name?
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Chapter 84 – What’s Your Name?

The once pristine labyrinth of silk and glowing halls had holes torn through them to let in the light. Har’s tail flame illuminated what was left, and they soon realized from the night’s rainfall that they had to keep the holes better covered. The water that seeped through the webbing made everything sticky and soggy; without Trina’s Mysticism to keep it regulated, their labyrinth was literally melting around them.

Snapping Har out of his thoughts was Ani’s sigh. “I don’t think Trina’s coming back,” she said. “Something happened.”

Having an icy pit in his stomach was never a good feeling for a Fire. “Those explosions made it pretty obvious,” Har said. “How’s Lygo doing?”

“I healed him, but he still seems shaken up,” Ani said.

Lygo had been their scout; when the sky had turned black, he had tried to flee. But then the lights had cut through the darkness, and the explosions made nearly everyone pass out—including Lygo, in midair. By the time he had regained consciousness, he’d struck the ground hard.

Even with his body healed, everyone felt a lot weaker. That explosion in the sky was one of the strongest things they’d ever seen. Har hadn’t seen anything like it, either, even with his past life’s incomplete memories. He did have a theory, though: streaks of light from a faraway place could only be something of divine nature, surely. And if the Book of Arceus was anything to go by…

“Whatever got Trina, it seems like Arceus himself is trying to suppress it,” Har said, squeezing his claws. He glanced at his bag, which felt so much heavier than usual, and at the three scarves tucked away inside. He hoped they would still be effective if he wound up choosing to give it to them, but—

No, would he be doing that? Was he supposed to do that by now?

“Har.”

“Oh—you’re still here.” Har nodded at Ani. “Sorry. I, um. Hi.”

“You’ve been lost in thought all day,” Ani hummed, frowning. The mutant Meganium wrapped a vine around his forehead. “You feel kind of hot. Are you sure you aren’t coming down with something?”

“…I’m a Fire.”

“Well, yeah, but hotter than usual. I feel like if I could feel pain, I’d be bringing my vine back by now.” She did so anyway, inspecting it, and then showed Har the part of her vine that had touched him. “See? It looks a little burned.”

“I don’t see anything, and I have Perceive. I’m fine.” Har crossed his arms.

“Har, I know when you’re lying,” Ani said. “I don’t have Perceive, but I may as well with you.” She prodded him with a vine, making sure one of her thorns dug into his chest’s scales. “So, what’s it going to be, Har?”

Always with the rhetorical questions. Har didn’t have an immediate response. Instead, he let the slowly collapsing wall to his right, and its unstable silk congealing into a shapeless mess, distract him. Ani, however, was having none of it. She would have said more had it not been for the shout from across the field, audible only because the walls that separated the corridors had long since collapsed.

“Another mutant’s woken up! S-someone, help!”

Ani cursed and looked to Har. “I’m not done, but we need to do this first.” Even while she spoke, she pulled herself along, and Har followed, stretching his wings to conjure himself some forward updraft.

Har twisted in the air and drilled through a thin wall of silk to get to the struggle faster—he could already sense them. The middle of it all was an Umbreon being held down by a Throh and Sawk. Those two weren’t mutants—he remembered their arrival several years ago. Outlaws in hiding that turned a new leaf under Trina. Good. Much more stable than the mutants who were losing it.

This Umbreon kept struggling under their hold, spewing poison from spikes that protruded from the glowing rings on his body. It was already weakening the two Fighting Pokémon, despite their type advantage. Feral growls and hisses were the only sounds that came from Umbreon.

“He’s getting loose!” Throh shouted, his grip weakening.

“Do we have any way to immobilize him?” Har shouted, landing nearby. “Thunder Wave, anything, do we—”

“This is with Thunder Wave.”

Har’s throat tightened and he looked down. He saw the madness in Umbreon’s eyes; there was no way they were going to console that unless they put him under or subdue or bind him.

Subdue, put under—sleep!

“Does anybody have a Sleep Seed?!” Har shouted, but then tuned his horns to the bags that a few of Trina’s best carried. There was one nearby, but in his panic, he didn’t know whose it—it was his. Right. He kept some of them to help with restless nights.

Pulling out the Seed and ignoring its vaguely floral aroma, he motioned for Sawk to help with pulling Umbreon’s mouth open. They tried to adjust, but the moment they did, sharp spikes jutted out from all sides of Umbreon and stabbed at the two Fighters’ skin. They cried simultaneously, let go, and Umbreon bolted.

“No!” Har stretched his wings and conjured more updraft to fly forward, the frantic flight leaving small trails of embers behind him. His tail blazed with the extra oxygen, which in turn gave him a surge of energy like a second breath of air, and soon he was already upon the frenzied mutant.

First came a sharp, burning pain—and burning was not something that Har was used to. Then came a much more familiar, icy chill that spread dully through his flesh, and he knew that Umbreon had used his strange, poison spikes. Didn’t matter; he had to power through.

“Calm down, you—” He shoved the Sleep Seed into Umbreon’s mouth and gripped his muzzle firmly afterward.

“It’s okay,” Har continued, somewhere between a growl and a whisper. “You’ll sleep, we’ll keep you safe, we’ll calm you down, okay? We’ll figure it out.”

Umbreon wasn’t receptive, but at the very least, the seed went down.

Har waited. And waited. And waited.

Nothing was happening. Why wasn’t it—

Distracted, Har lost his grip on Umbreon, who suddenly broke him his hold, blasted him with a volley of spikes to his snout and chest, and then bolted away. Har roared and spat a gout of fire randomly ahead, hitting only the air. He tried again, unable to see with his eyes but perfectly aware of Umbreon’s trajectory regardless. Umbreon hopped to the left and bolted past a few passerby mutants who didn’t react in time.

“Get him!” Har shouted, but he knew it was useless. Umbreon was gone. He rummaged angrily through his bag and pulled out a Heal Seed, trying to ignore the cold sting of the poison, and bit down.

Why did he even bother? Of course it wouldn’t work.

Please tell me Pecha Berries aren’t broken,” Har begged, turning to face Ani, who had finally caught up with him. He ignored her empathetic wince and said, “Yeah, I know, it looks bad—heal me, please.”

“I need to take out those spikes first,” Ani said.

“Fine, just…” Har’s words were slurred, and he realized only then how badly the poison was coursing through him. “Just do somethi…”

The world was a tunnel of light, and then darkness.

<><><>​

Charizard nuzzled Charmander on the back of his neck. In reply, Charmander growled and crossed his arms, looking away. A learned behavior from all his exposure to humans, but Charizard had always said that was a good thing.

“Humans are dumb.”

Charizard sighed, looking over at Marowak, who seemed more interested in the boulders in the distance. Marowak understood; Charmander knew that. Because he used to be feral, and he didn’t really get to know humans until after meeting Charizard. But… He still respected them, for some reason. And Charmander didn’t understand that.

“They aren’t dumb, Smallflame,” Charizard said. “Not all of them. Some humans… are worthy of your time.”

“Some.” Charmander spat a small ember on the ground. “What if I get a dumb one?”

“Then leave them.” Charizard smiled, prodding at Charmander again.

“Then they’ll be too weak.” As far as Charmander was concerned, if he picked a human, he was going to have to stay with them so they didn’t get into any trouble.

Charmander looked at his other siblings—they were all sparring with one another under the oversight of Redscale. He had never picked a human. He had stayed behind to help the others pick theirs. Why couldn’t he be like Redscale?

Charizard never answered him. And he knew Charizard wouldn’t answer him if he tried today. So, instead, he tried a new question. “…Fine. Tell me about your human.”

Charizard looked down. “What?”

“Your human. What about her? She gave you a name. And she trained with you. So, what about her?”

In all honesty, Charmander hadn’t paid much attention when Charizard talked about her human. He only knew the basics that every Pokémon in their family knew: That humans had the power to give Pokémon human names. Names that they didn’t know how to say themselves, but the humans could. Their strange language barrier; Pokémon and humans understood each other through feelings, not words, but that was usually enough.

But to be given a name… Was it really that important to Charizard? What was her human name? He never knew. He rarely heard her human name, because apparently Charizard didn’t like anybody else to use it except for her trainer. And she…

Charizard’s eyes briefly showed her age. Beneath the eternal flame were ancient embers that had long since settled down: little imperfections under her eyes, faded scales that speckled her face. Old scars from battles and troubles that a simple potion couldn’t heal in time. Charmander rarely noticed them; that was just how Charizard looked. So why was he seeing them now?

She had a wide smile on her face, but her eyes were sad. The old mother picked Charmander up and cradled him in her arms; he curled up on reflex, ready to listen to another bedtime story.

“She was wonderful.”


<><><>​

Owen groaned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. It was wet. He grimaced, looking blurrily at his fists. Rubbing his cheeks came; they were wet with tears, which confused him. The Charmander wiped them away and yawned for a second time, trying to understand the cause of the heaviness he felt in his chest.

Charizard… He looked at the bowl, frowning. He remembered a Charizard, but it was such a fleeting thought. It felt so long ago. Maybe it was just a dream?

It was never that simple. That was where the heaviness was coming from, but it all felt so vague. The dream had all but evaporated, and it wasn’t like there was anything he could do about it anyway.

He took one step and suddenly doubled over, grunting in pain. His stomach felt horrible. Had he even slept for long? It felt like his insides were on fire—everything felt like some kind of rushed blur, now that he thought about it. His muscles ached. And he smelled something foul nearby.

He looked to the left, spotting the remains of the bowl of food he’d eaten. The bowl of himself? At this point he decided that he should just get used to that thought. But the stew had congealed since he’d last eaten it, and simply reheating it probably wasn’t going to be good enough this time around. Out of tiny desperation, Owen inspected the soup, but it radiated a foul presence that made even his feral instincts recoil.

He stepped back and into something else. The sound of a half-full bowl clattered dully against his ankle. With a grimace, he shook his foot of more rotten food, but a different foul odor still permeated the air.

Wait—that’s my breath.

It smelled like bile. And then Owen remembered—in vague, dizzy flashes—what had happened. He had been eating the stew, which had settled badly in his stomach. Then, he’d tried to stuff more of it down in an effort to keep as much nutrition in him as possible… And then…

That backfired.

He rubbed at his cheeks, chipping away at dried bits of uneaten—and formerly eaten—food that stuck to his scales. The pain in his stomach, he assumed, was a mixture of emptiness and lingering food poisoning.

Was he better or worse off than before he found this stew? Psychologically, he was probably better. Physically? Owen wasn’t sure anymore. But he needed to find water next. The closest he had to that was the tree taffy. He probably had to spend another few moments in that forest…

He looked at the uneaten food—what a waste—but knew that this time, he couldn’t act out of desperation. The next one could kill him. He didn’t even know what that would truly mean this time around, either.

Trying to spit out the remaining taste of bile, Owen left the cave, felt for rumbles, and continued north to the dead forest. It was far away, like a black line in the horizon across a canvas of purple, windswept fields. The great plateaus towered over him as always, but Owen was starting to notice little distinctions in each one. Lumpy, straight, a little angular. Each plateau had their own personality. The one he just left felt particularly sassy.

Compared to the walks that he’d taken before, this one felt simultaneously longer and shorter. It was shorter because, as far as the number of steps he’d vaguely counted, they were the fewest by far. Yet between his lingering nausea, his lack of proper food in… a while, and the lack of water, it felt like he’d been walking for longer than all his other trips combined.

He had stopped caring about the rumbling a while ago, getting a sense of how near and far they were. The small ones didn’t scare him anymore; whatever those titanic things were, they were at least three or four rows of plateaus away when the shakes were at that intensity.

A defiant-looking plateau had its head eternally tilted upward, challenging the sky to blow it down. Owen wished he could be like that, so tall and unmoving. There had been a lot of people in Kilo who looked up to him. Demitri, Mispy, Gahi—he was finally becoming their leader. Then this happened.

And Zena… Was she okay? Could she be lost here, too? How many times could she have been killed, the way he had, and the way Amia had? So many others to find, and he had no idea where any of them were—or if they were still fighting in Kilo.

The defiant plateau was behind him, and up ahead, the final plateau before the forest, was a tired one. The cliffside sagged like an overweight Nidoking, huffing and puffing after climbing the Heart HQ stairs. Owen could relate. He was fit, but he was starting to feel the fatigue of no proper meals—none held down, at least. But he couldn’t stop. They were probably looking for him the same way he was for them.

He eventually got to the edge of the forest, prioritizing the water first. Without having to worry about going back to Amia this time, he simply followed the forest edge. Maybe he’d happen upon a river.

But first, he needed something to get his tongue to stop feeling so sticky and dry. He channeled some Steel energy into his claws, slashing at the nearest tree. Just like the ones deeper in, the tree had some inner bark for him to tear away, though not as much, and not quite as juicy. He was tempted to go deeper inside where the ground was moist, but decided, for now, to not risk it. Some basic energy would do for now.

After tearing enough pieces for himself, he continued along the forest perimeter, silently hoping that he’d find some lead on what he was supposed to do next.

Water. Everyone needed water. If he followed a river, maybe he’d find the others. And maybe Zena would be inside.

<><><>​

Dull, intense pain wracked Har’s body. He groaned a few times until he realized he was awake, or that he had passed out at all. Gentle claws held his shoulder.

“Stay down,” Lygo said, and the Flygon pressed a little harder to force Har to stop moving.

“Umbreon…”

“Ran off,” Lygo said. “It’s too late—sorry. But that’s how it is.” Lygo squeezed his hands together, claws digging into his palms. “We’re trying to keep the ones that didn’t run away stable, but that’s by force right now. They’re all asleep. But when they wake up, what?”

Har’s heart sank. “Are they stable?”

“For now…”

Ax’s voice sounded from somewhere far away. “He awake?”

“Yeah!” Lygo called back. When he took his claws off Har to wave them down, Har tried to get up again. Lygo’s tail smashed him back into the silk.

“Get off me—” Har tried to stand again, but overwhelming fatigue washed over him and he collapsed on his own. “Why aren’t I healed?”

“You need to rest,” Lygo said firmly. “That Umbreon’s poison is persistent, and we’re out of Pechas. The ones we used on you weren’t too effective on that poison, so you just need to hold still.”

His vision was blurry, but he could make out the vaguely green figures of the Flygon, Meganium, and Haxorus. Lygo pulled him up and kept him level, while Ani used her vines to prevent Har from leaning too far in any direction.

“I feel like I just ate Ani’s cooking,” Har mumbled.

Ani let go of Har and let him collapse.

“Just take it easy,” Ax said. “Har—the whole labyrinth is falling apart. We have no idea what to do. Do we just stay put until Trina comes back? Or—”

“I don’t think Trina’s coming back,” Har stated. “Something… happened. The whole place wouldn’t be falling apart if she was still around.”

Somehow, this thought felt even worse than the poison that still ran through his blood, circling through him in toxic waves from his head to his tail.

“We have to try to rebuild with what we have and salvage the mutants who aren’t going crazy. And… and you guys are staying sane, too, right?”

Ani nodded. “Don’t worry.”

Lygo shifted his weight and murmured, “We’ll tell you if we’re feeling off.”

“I thought Trina cured us of this,” Ax added, tugging at one of his tusks. “We were supposed to be past this, y’know? But—”

“It was Mystic power,” Ani concluded. “We have to be careful.”

“Too much stress might set us off,” Har added, feeling a phantom madness settling in his head that felt simultaneously familiar and foreign.

The poison made relaxing difficult, but he could at least try to breathe. His flame still provided him with a gentle warmth that spread through the rest of his system, and that was reassuring enough. He felt awful, slumped down in a pile of melting silk, but he wasn’t dying. He did sense, however, that the other three were bothered.

“You guys should help out the others,” Har said, screwing his eyes shut. “I’m useless right now. I’ll help out when my body fights off this stuff.”

“We will,” Ax said, “but…”

“Right.” Lygo nodded, shifting to his other foot. “There’s something else we wanted to ask you.”

“The scarves,” Ani added.

“Not now,” Har mumbled, rolling over and away, shielding his head from the rest of them with his wings. “Too tired.”

“Owe—Har,” Ani said, narrowing her eyes. She wrapped a vine around his wing and pulled, but Har refused to budge. Puffing out her cheeks, she pulled harder, but the Charizard growled in response.

“What part of tired don’t you understand?”

“Why did Trina give those to you?” Lygo asked. “C’mon, there’re three of them, and three of us. Where’s yours?”

“They’re—you know, stuff,” Har said. “Was meant for… a ceremony.”

“A ceremony” Ani said. “One only you know about? We asked about those scarves with the others and they had no idea.”

“Well, that’s because Trina only got around to telling me about it,” Har explained, weaving an even greater lie. Much like the silk around them, though, he feared it was rapidly deteriorating.

“What’s it for?” Ani pressed, her grip around his wing getting stronger.

“I wasn’t supposed to say because—”

Ani abruptly wrapped two vines around Har’s arm and pulled it back and around, twisting the scales. Har yelped, which transitioned into a desperate whine and wail.

“Stop, stop, stop!” Har shouted, but trying to pull away only made it worse. “S-stop! I’m already dying—you’ll kill me!”

“What’s it about?” Ani asked, twisting a little harder.

Har kicked and flailed his tail, waving flames over Ani’s vines, but she was completely unfazed.

“Ani, c’mon,” Ax said, backing down. “If he doesn’t want to tell us—”

“No.” Ani grabbed a third vine and curled it around Har’s neck; he tensed.

“Wh-what’re you doing?” Har squeaked, realizing that Ani had pressed him down while he wasn’t paying attention. He was too weak to fight back.

“Negotiations,” Ani replied, bringing another vine up to her mouth. She wrapped her maw around it; Har’s eyes widened with horror as thick globs of saliva coated the tip.

“Oh boy, here we go,” Lygo rolled his eyes, though he didn’t make an effort to stop her.

“Ani, wait,” Har said. “C-can’t we work this out? I—AAH!”

She twisted his arm again, and the wet vine slithered toward one of Har’s earholes.

“No, no, wait!” Har begged, craning his neck as far as it could go.

“Tell us,” Ani said threateningly.

“No!”

The vine was getting very close. He could smell it. A mixture of cut grass, berries, morning breath—Oh Mew, what did she eat?!—It was about to enter him and rot his brain.

In his panic, though, a moment of clarity passed through, and he wondered if Ani had sensed it from the start: the flame on his tail didn’t have any blaze of battle. Was he really fighting back? It certainly didn’t feel like it; he didn’t know what he was trying to preserve anymore. He didn’t know why they were so fixated on the scarves; he hadn’t said anything. Maybe he really was still easy to read…

Ani’s absurd negotiation tactic—it was completely like her to force the truth out like this. He didn’t want to lose that… yet…

“Fine—” Har said, sucking in a breath. He held it. Then he went on, “I’ll talk.”

“Hmph.” Ani loosened her hold and drew back. Lygo and Ax both avoided Ani’s slimy vine.

Har muttered under his breath and rolled to a slightly more comfortable position, eventually stopping on his belly to help his stomach settle. The combination of Ani’s threat and the ongoing poison wasn’t doing his gut any favors.

“So?” Ax asked, poking his claws together. “What’s it supposed to be for? The ceremony?”

Har looked the three over, hesitating, like this would be the final time that he would get to see them as they were. Yet, they had this grave look in their eyes that tempted him so badly to turn up his Perceive. He’d know instantly what they were thinking if he did, but…. It would also break their trust. He couldn’t do that to them.

Not that he wasn’t already going to do that.

The words didn’t come. He felt like a Charmeleon staring down an endless cliff. No wings to carry him over. If he stepped forward, would that be the end? Or would he evolve? That was too optimistic.

But a great, saliva-covered monster was threatening his brain. He had to jump.

“It’s not a ceremony,” Har said, sighing in defeat. It wasn’t even the threat of Ani that was making him speak, at this point. Once he promised to tell them, he couldn’t back out. Because… “You guys are my friends—so you deserve to know. They were… dispel Scarves. Just like how Owen made one to dispel Ghrelle’s power over that Aerodactyl guy, or at least suppress the effects… Trina made one that would completely nullify something she did to you three.”

“Nullify?” Ax said. “Like what?”

And just then, the words died in Har’s throat, all momentum lost.

“Keep talking,” Ani said.

That was enough. “Y-your memories. Trina altered them.”

“How?” Ani asked, though it was more like a demand. Ax and Lygo were uncharacteristically quiet, like the shock had rendered them speechless, yet all he saw from them on the surface were downcast eyes and little, sideways movements to adjust their footing.

“I’m—I’m not the only one who has false memories of being the original Alloy,” Har explained.

“Okay,” Ani said, her vines curling and uncurling. “So, all three of us used to be them, too?”

“We were never them,” Har said immediately, trying to rise to his feet, but a wave of dizziness made him fall again. Ani didn’t help him up, and Ax and Lygo were both still motionless. “We were born with fake memories based on their most recent experiences, and that’s all. We were supposed to replace them when everything went wrong the first time, but we were never them. And—and you guys couldn’t handle that, so when we found Trina, you asked her to remove those memories and start fresh, and when she offered it to me, I refused, and—”

He didn’t realize until the claws dug into his shoulders that Lygo had approached. Shortly after, it was Ax on the other side, while Ani slid to stand in front of him.

“Breathe,” Ax said softly.

“It’s alright,” Lygo said. “We kinda figured.”

“What—” Har tried to look at all three of them at once, but eventually settled on Ani. There was no way they could have deduced that far, yet they weren’t at all surprised. If anything, they looked relieved.

She nodded, then looked at the bag in the corner of the room. “So that’s what they’ll do?”

“Yes.” Har looked away.

A late morning breeze carried the smell of smoke from a distant fire. Har remembered a time when Ani had tried to make a fancy dish he’d read about in a cookbook. It had been the most terrible thing he’d ever eaten.

“How come you never told us?” Ani asked.

That one was probably the worst question of all. “I’m really tired, guys,” Har said, but he knew none of them were going to buy it. He didn’t have to look at, nor Perceive, Ani’s glare to feel it. “…I didn’t want to lose you.”

“Lose us,” Ax repeated. “You mean the fresh start that we had, even though you still had those fake-Owen memories? Because we couldn’t handle it? Why did you even keep yours?”

“I—I don’t know,” Har said. “I felt like I couldn’t have, or that I shouldn’t have. Because if I lost my memories, too, what’s that going to mean for… anything about what we used to be? I felt like it would have lost something if I did… lost forever if we all forgot. And look!” He motioned vaguely westward. “We knew about what was going on with the real ones that we were based on. Living in endless cycles of forgetting everything—a fog that kept them from being who they really were! I didn’t… want to have all of us go through that. I needed to be the escape. And I…”

“And you still didn’t tell us,” Ani stated flatly.

Har suddenly had to swallow, the back of his throat tasting like bile. He’d spent so many nights staring at the ceiling with only his flame to keep him company. Nightmares, recurring ones, about his body dissolving into a great void, and then being reborn as a faceless doll. He never saw the faces of his team there; they had always been blank. He always held masks of them, but the masks were tearful. He couldn’t bear to return them.

“I just don’t get it,” Ax said, frowning. “You wanted to hold onto a legacy that you hated because it wasn’t yours, but you also didn’t want us to regain it and catch up to you and everything you knew?”

He swallowed it back down and breathed. Still, no words followed.

“…Why, then?” Ani asked. “We chose to get rid of it. And after that, I guess Trina planned to give it back to us one day. Left it to you? Never told us?”

Everything felt tight and claustrophobic. Lygo and Ax were right next to him and somehow it felt like they towered over him. Those vines would squeeze what little life remained in his poisoned body, and maybe he deserved it, because he had no right to withhold that kind of information from them—their precious memories. The very thing he wanted to protect for some twisted, backwards reason, he hid from them.

All because… “I was… afraid I’d lose the new you. And it’d all just be fake again. Fake us. Fake me. At least this way… you guys were able to come up with your own personalities without the way Eon wanted you to be.”

Ani frowned, sighing. “Trina’s not here to give you therapy,” she muttered. “…Whatever.” She slid toward the bag, tugging it open. “Then are we allowed to wear them?”

“Y-you… I can’t…” Har, defeated, collapsed back onto the ground. “I don’t have a right to stop you.”

“Did you ever have that right?” Ani asked, and Har realized that, indeed, keeping his Perceive off was the best choice. He didn’t want to know how Ani felt just then, because her voice shook for the first time.

Har wasn’t sure if she would hear him, but he mumbled under his breath, “No. I’m sorry.”

Ani took the three out and tossed one to Lygo, then another to Ax. All three of them stared at it, then down at Har, who peeked out at them from between his claws. They all waited, and when Har realized this, he rolled onto his back and slowly sat up. The dizziness came the first time and he had to stop; Ani spared a few vines to prop him up afterward.

“Right now?” Har said, feeling, for some reason, small. “You’re doing this right now?”

“Should we?” Ani said.

“It’s—it might be stressful,” Har said.

“Maybe. But so is anticipating it, right?” Ani pulled the scarf a little closer, a few simple motions away from wrapping it around her neck. Har only saw it as a deadly knot to suck the life out of everything he knew about them… And yet, would it also be a return to what they used to be?

“Har,” Ani said, and Har willed himself to maintain eye contact again. “What’s my name?”

“Your—your name?” Har asked the Meganium. “It’s… Ani right now.” Because he didn’t know what would happen after.

“And you?” Ax spoke up, anxiously plucking and reattaching one of his tusks. “What’s your name? What would we call you?”

“I…” Why was he shaking? “Just—tell me after. We’ll see. I—just do what you want. I’ll answer to either, just—just do it already. Please.”

He couldn’t stop his jaw from quivering and he hated it. This was absurd—he was going to get them back! He would finally get his team back! His friends, his companions… their false memories still bound them together. And what else did they have? No—it was with Trina. Their friendship had been recreated under Trina… Was he better off that way?

His ‘true’ counterpart’s shining eyes flashed in his mind. So happy and full of life despite everything he’d gone through. And then there was him, the fake, with suppressed friends and no true identity. Miserable. But now he was losing even that to another veil of artificial memories…

But it was what they wanted. And according to Trina, memories, no matter how they were acquired, were eternal. It would be with them forever; the seal would eventually break. This was… inevitable.

So, he only watched, his eyes trying to remember every detail about them. And once again, he was tempted to use his Perceive to remember even more… But he didn’t. And he instead nodded, claws weakly digging into his palms, and waited.

Ani did it first, then Lygo, and then Ax. Ax had trouble tying it together, so Lygo helped and brought it around his neck.

“…Well?” Har choked.

There were no lights; no gasps; not even a startled blink. More than ever, Har wanted to know for sure how they felt, but with his eyes alone, he knew something was amiss.

“It’s not working?” he asked, and then a pit of ice pulled his stomach down. “Trina… If she’s gone, then her influence would be—the Mystic aura in those—”

Ani’s frown deepened, and then she looked to Ax and Lygo. They both blinked in some silent agreement toward her.

“We already got them back,” Ani finally said.

The shock left Har numb. He didn’t fully understand the words they had said, only that he wasn’t supposed to be reacting so silently. Yet he couldn’t find it in him to say anything.

“Our memories,” Ani clarified with a subdued smile.

Har tried and failed to get up, smashing his face into some of the lumpy silk. It tasted like feet. Sputtering and coughing, rubbing his tongue on his claws, he panted and ignored the quiet giggles coming from Lygo.

He settled for resting most of his weight on his arm again. “Why didn’t you tell me?!” he shouted, a sudden, seething anger putting a pressure on his neck and forehead. “I—I was getting all worked up over something that already happened, and—”

“Because now we’re even,” Ani said, her subdued smile becoming a playful smirk.

“Hmph.” Lygo crossed his arms. “Lie by omission to us, then fine, we’ll do the same to you.” After a second of seriousness, a wry smile broke the façade.

Ax fiddled with one of his tusks, tugging it out to twirl around his claws. “And if you’re wondering… We don’t feel too different. It was weird to get our memories back, but that was always the plan, even if we forgot. When we first lost them, Trina took us to the side, away from you, for the procedure… But it was actually just to sort out when we’d get them back.”

“Trina said memories were eternal,” Lygo added. “We’d get them back eventually under Mystic influence, and Trina has a lot of that. But the timing on when we got them would mean a lot… Guess she was right.” He looked at his claws, then at Har.

“And—and your accent,” Har said. “Gahi had a—”

“Ehh…” Lygo shrugged. “I feel it slipping, but I think I’ll stick with speaking properly. Leave the broken speech to Gahi.”

“And Ani,” Har said. “Your…”

Ani shrugged. “I’ve never had trouble talking. I don’t really know why the real Mispy can’t. Maybe Nevren got around to finding out what was going on with my speech center.”

“Then… then which ones are you?” Har asked, wings drooping.

The three looked at one another, perplexed. When it seemed that nobody had an answer, Ani asked, “What do you mean? I thought you didn’t tell us because you were scared to lose us, or something?” She leaned forward, several vines creeping over Har’s legs. “What, did you want to be Owen again?”

“I—” Har paused. “I don’t know.”

“Well, who do you want us to be?” Ani leaned forward. “Ani, or Mispy?”

“I don’t know!” Har blurted, trying to pull away, but Ani didn’t let up. She kept staring with that intense glare in her eyes. “I just—you pick! It’s not my choice!”

“What do you mean?” Lygo asked, standing on Ani’s right. Ax stood to the left.

“I—” Har’s words echoed in his head, everything feeling askew, like the whole world was tilted to the left. “I chose to be Har,” he began slowly, “because I wasn’t Owen. But I sorta wished I was Owen, too, because—I mean, duh, it’s what I started off with.” He watched their eyes and paused. Despite the fact that they were waiting for him, Har felt lighter.

“It’s wasn’t fair to leave you guys without memories. Now that you have them all… Pick.” He lowered his head, trying to suppress his shaking. He was at their mercy, after finally telling them the truth. He remembered how horribly they’d screamed at Eon, how they had blasted him away and fled the lab. Would the same happen now?

Perhaps the artificial apple didn’t fall far from the rotten tree.

“Why?” Ani asked.

He thought he felt Ani’s vines digging into his scales, but it was all in his mind. A quick glance verified she was just watching him, not advancing nor backing away.

His flame felt so cold.

“It’s not my choice,” Har whispered. “I already lied to you guys once and tried to manipulate you into… something. I was afraid of change—that was it.” The realization was enough for him to latch onto, even if he wasn’t sure it was true. “But now it’s done, and… I’m ready to just see what happens.” Lighter and lighter; he was shaking, but it was easier to breathe.

Ani eased her stance into something taller, looking down at Har with narrowed eyes. “So I can be Ani or Mispy?”

Har nodded. “Whichever.”

Ani looked to Lygo, who nodded. Then to Ax, who also nodded.

“Does it matter?” Ani asked.

Har blinked, looking up. “What—” He didn’t know how to finish, so he let them continue.

“We weren’t able to handle it, so we ran away to hide in our minds,” Lygo said. “You weathered the storm for us. I don’t think the name you pick, or we pick, matters anymore. We feel like… us.” He smiled a little wider. “And you’re still you, to me.”

At this, Ax and Ani nodded firmly.

Far to their right, a part of the silken maze sagged, even more of Trina’s abode collapsing gently around them with a soft sigh. Har couldn’t see. Everything was a blurry mixture of white silk and green bodies; Ani’s form faded into Ax’s, and then Lygo, those red flecks for his wings, got closer.

He hadn’t realized it until then, but his breathing was so quick that he was becoming lightheaded again. Deep, rumbling whimpers escaped his throat against his wishes. He tried to speak but it came out as a babble. His expression twisted into an ugly grimace, shaky gasps parting his jaws. “I—I’m s-so…”

“By the stars,” Lygo said, and Har could at least hear him. “You’re a mess.”

And then Har wailed, covering his eyes with his claws. His wings shielded him from the outside world, his sobs amplified within the protective shell. Two sets of claws held him by the shoulders and vines wrapped around his torso; three heads pressed against him on all sides, and in that instance, those relieved, sad sobs became happy tremors. He opened his wings enough to let them in, then his arms, and he cried into their shoulders. Tears weaved between scales and onto the damp ground. Their pressure relieved him, and he wanted to pull them even closer, even if it crushed his bones.

“I’m sorry,” Har sobbed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

“I’m sorry, too,” Ani replied.

“You cry too much for a Fire,” Ax whispered.

“I know, I—I know.”

Little murmurs and gentle nothings eventually brought Har down to an occasional sniffle, but now he was grinning more than he’d ever grinned before. “I—I really don’t know,” Har admitted. “I’ve been Owen, but I feel like Har, too.”

“Same,” they all admitted.

“But the real ones are still around, too,” Har said. “And we have our own n-names anyway.”

“So, stick with Har?” Ani asked. “For practical reasons.”

“Are we sure the real ones are still okay?” Ax said. “Trina went to where they are, and she’s not back…”

Har didn’t want to think about that, but his tail flame dimmed anyway. “Let’s stay optimistic.”

“Guess I’m Ani, then.” The Meganium relented.

“Yeah,” Ax agreed. “I’ll stay as Ax—I’m used to it.”

“Yeah, and Lygo sounds cool,” Lygo said, grinning.

Har frowned and rubbed the back of his head. “I’m sorry I prolonged it for so long.”

“Aah, who cares,” Lygo dismissed with a wave. “We’re as whole as can be, so now all that’s just the past.” He cracked his neck, then nestled a little closer to Har. “I’m just happy I don’t feel lost anymore.”

Har flinched, staring at Lygo, wordless.

“…What? Did I say something weird?” Lygo asked.

And just then, a thousand pounds left his shoulders. “No,” Har replied, a smile creeping from the left side of his face into a full grin. “I think you just helped explain something I couldn’t.”

They stayed together for a while longer, and Har didn’t complain. There was something special about being next to one another, rather than being fused or fighting or simply in the same room. He needed more of this. And for the first time, it didn’t feel like a lie.

“No more secrets,” Ani said to Har.

“None,” Har agreed. He basked in their warm silence for a little while longer as he played the conversation in his head over and over.

“We’ve got a lot to fix around here,” Ax hummed, glancing at the last of the silk ruins.

“Yeah,” Har agreed, sighing. He had no idea what the path forward would be like for them. But at least they had each other.

“I think we’ll manage it,” Lygo affirmed.

Amid the collapsing silken labyrinth, the sunlight shined through the dewdrop treetops. Bright skies warmed their scales and Har’s flame returned to a vibrant orange.

_______________________

Author's Note: Special thanks to a new beta reader to my beta team, this time Ambyssin, author of the completed Guiding Light, and the in-progress Path of Valor! You should give his works a read!
 
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Chapter 85 - A Bright, Dark Storm
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Chapter 85 –A Bright, Dark Storm

As it turned out, God appearing in the town square led to much more activity than usual. Rhys hadn’t heard Arceus’ name said so often since he’d actually been mortal, blurry as those memories were. Scouts had announced another town to the southwest had been attacked, and the assumption was another rogue mutant or two. Rhys was less certain; it was near the strange, dark blotch on the map that was rarely visited, after all. Void’s Basin, they called it. Not even plants grew there.

Still, perhaps there had been a mutant wandering around that area without supervision. There was a Dungeon there, but explorations turned up nothing, not even a wild Pokémon. Then again, it was just a lifeless crater from the first war. With everything going upside-down, perhaps it warranted another check.

But that wasn’t important now. What was important was the result: another group of badly injured Pokémon on a voyage that may have lasted the entire day or longer. Fliers had come first, claiming a whole village was coming for help, and in return, Elder had coordinated for their fliers to return and bring the injured back.

One of the Hearts, a Donphan, approached Rhys. He had no badge, for he wasn’t a true Heart, but he was with their administration. The countless assistants that kept the organization running, even if they did not participate directly in the rescue efforts. His words were grave.

“We’re running out of supplies. We don’t have the space or the power to heal another wave of them.”

And when he asked again if there were any stray supplies, extra donations, anything, he got the same answer: They didn’t know what worked and what didn’t.

That only redoubled his resolve. After locating him at the top of the Heart HQ, Rhys tapped Elder on the shell. “I’m leaving to find Emily.”

Elder understood within seconds. There was a flurry of activity around them, extra Pokémon at the front desk to gather up and triage Dungeon missions. Elder glanced at his own bulky shell in the way of everyone’s footwork and hauled himself to the edge of the room, nearby a small, potted Chesto bush that was stripped recently of its berries.

Rhys knelt down and wrapped his arm around Elder’s outstretched neck, careful of his spike like it was muscle memory. Even after all this time, he still remembered to do that. Rhys smiled faintly at the thought.

When Rhys pulled away, he asked, “Will you be able to handle things while I’m gone?”

“Oho, they’ll handle themselves.” Elder nodded in the direction of the Hearts. “Anam taught them how to self-direct quite well. Even without their leadership, they know where to go, what to do…”

Rhys decided not to comment on the fact that it was probably because Anam rarely gave direct orders to begin with. James had been the main director. “They still need central leadership. Elder, that isn’t something you’re used to.”

“I will last the day,” Elder assured him, a confident plume of white smoke escaping the top of his shell. “I have Willow, ADAM, and even Manny and his spirits to help. Manny seems to have experience being a leader, too. So, one Lucario for another, hm?”

Rhys smiled back. “All right. Then I’ll be back with Emily.” He stood, though he hesitated again, wondering if going alone would be a good idea. But he couldn’t afford to bring anybody else with him for something as simple as getting Emily. Everyone else was needed to help with stabilizing Kilo Village.

“Take care,” Elder said. “If you aren’t back by sundown, I’ll send for help.”

That only made Rhys’ anxieties worsen. “You don’t think it’s that perilous, do you? Granted, ocean flight may take some time, and I suppose it might be a strain…”

“Would you like me to get someone to help?” Elder offered. “Perhaps Willow? She’s a wonderful flier, after all.”

“Perhaps that would be wise. But that would take Manny away; we shouldn’t risk him transferring to another realm…”

“Could we ask ADAM? Though, he isn’t a very fast flier…”

Rhys hummed, mind flashing back to that Smeargle. Perhaps he could check on him one more—no, his aura had been so small and reserved. He wouldn’t be of much help should something go wrong. And seeing Lugia might overwhelm him.

“Then I’ll be cautious,” Rhys finally concluded. “I’ll try to call out to you should something go wrong, Elder. Take care.”

“I suppose you could also call upon Arceus for assistance,” Elder said.

“He may be occupied.” Rhys walked toward the Heart HQ exit. “But I will keep that in mind.”

With one last smile, Rhys stepped out of the Heart HQ and down the stairs. He passed by an Electrode cautiously rolling down the steps, and then a nearby Ariados looking conflicted about one of the missions that she had claimed.

They were all going to be fighting for Kilo, both the town and the world. Rhys clenched his jaw. This was no time to admire the hard work of the others.

He descended the worn-down, stone stairs, walked the long-flattened streets, trodden by countless Pokémon going in and out of all the buildings and Heart facilities that were, at this point, at capacity.

“Good luck,” Rhys murmured to nobody. Then, aura concentrated under his feet and in his paws, and finally, he jumped. In seconds, Kilo Mountain was a small mound behind him, the southern forests emerging from the horizon.

<><><>​

Nobody was coming to check on Rim. Nevren was really busy, but did that mean he had to forget about her? That wasn’t fair.

Lavender tried to keep his steps soft, though his hard talons didn’t allow for a lot of noise reduction. He’d transform into something quieter, but of the spirits within him, his go-to stealth Pokémon weren’t with him, and frustration kept him from trying other forms. Silvally it was.

The backup power he’d provided to the lab’s main generator was doing well; the lights no longer flickered, and none of the active incubation chambers had warning lights. However, according to Nevren, whatever species he had accidentally turned Rim into, it was taking up a lot of energy. It was a fully evolved Pokémon instead of the lowest form, which would have been much more energy efficient.

Instead, she’d become a Cherrim, and now, her body was almost completely formed. Hidden behind thick, huge, purple petals, Rim stirred weakly inside the fluid, occasionally trying to move, but never getting very far.

“Auntie Rim?” Lavender said, leaning against the cylinder, pecking gently. He was careful that it wasn’t hard enough to leave any cracks or dents in the container.

Rim didn’t answer. Lavender’s eyes shifted to a cosmic pink, reading for any vague feelings or thoughts that might come from her. It was garbled; Rim must have been drifting in and out of consciousness. Frowning, Lavender backed away and turned toward the sound of heavy paw pads.

“Lucas?” Lavender fanned out his head crest, switching to Fire to help him feel more welcome.

The Houndoom—his Mega state gone—growled in a subdued but happy greeting and nuzzled under Lavender’s cheek bolt.

“Aw, hey, Lucas,” Lavender greeted, bending down to bump his beak against his snout, and Lucas replied by playfully nipping at the metal. Lavender didn’t really understand why Lucas did that. Nevren had said it was some kind of pack respect instinct among feral Houndoom to bite at the muzzle, or maybe it was playfulness? Either way, Lucas’ tail wagging was enough of an indicator that he was in a better mood than before.

Lucas got on his hind legs and pressed his paws against Rim’s chamber, tilting his head with concern.

“It’s okay,” Lavender assured. “She’s gonna be fine. See? The light’s green.”

Lucas followed where Lavender pointed, but then looked back at Rim and whined.

“Aww, Lucas.” Lavender dipped his head under Lucas’ chest and pushed him away from the chamber. “She just needs more rest. It’s probably going to be a few weeks before she’s out and about again. We just have to wait, alright? Besides, we need to help the mutants take care of themselves. With just Uncle Nev taking care of us, it might be hard to, you know…”

Lucas whined again, his tail between his legs.

“I know,” Lavender said. “But don’t worry—Dad’ll be back one day. He’s strong! He’s just fighting! Same as Nate. He’s still resting, right? Does he seem okay?”

Lucas whined again.

“Oh… He’s still weak.”

Another whine confirmed it, and then a longer, extended one that nearly became a howl. Lavender sighed and nuzzled him again, trying to stay positive.

“Look,” the Silvally said, “everything seems kind of crazy right now, but, umm… but we still need to stay positive! Otherwise, um, otherwise we won’t really be doing any good for anyone, right? So… I know!” Lavender perked up. “Let’s go see how Uncle’s doing! He might know what to do. He’s super smart about it.”

With a bark, Lucas was already sprinting down the lab, and Lavender followed, empty green cylinders flying past him in a blur. That quickly transitioned to white halls and closed corridors, eerily empty now that most of the mutants were under curfew to keep them calm. At least they were obedient there, each one hiding away in their Poké Balls. That always seemed to calm their minds enough to not escape and cause trouble.

After making their way to the teleportation wall, they took a good guess on which floor Nevren was in and headed to floor nine. There, Lucas sniffed the air and then barked, leading the way.

“You found him?” Lavender kept pace easily, conjuring some tailwind while his eyes flashed into a baby blue.

After a few more turns they stopped in front of a locked door. For an extra second, Lucas’ panting and the clicking of Lavender’s talons echoed back to them. Lucas whined loudly and pawed at the metallic, flat blockage, but it didn’t budge.

“If it’s not opening, he must’ve locked himself inside,” Lavender said. Then, raising his voice, he called, “Uncle Nev! You okay in there?”

He pecked at the door. His eyes darkened to a blackish purple. “Maybe I can sneak in,” he told Lucas, sinking halfway into the shadows. Before he could go further, the door slid open, revealing Nevren and a medium-sized device that was about as large as his star-shaped head.

“Ah,” Nevren greeted, nodding. “Hello. Sorry for scaring you with my silence. I was deep in concentration.”

“What’s that?” Lavender pointed his beak at the device. It was mostly transparent with a few glowing wires attached to tiny, pebble-sized orbs, one pink, another cyan.

“A prototype using a few knick-knacks around my room,” Nevren explained leisurely. “I just need some of the components for a proof of concept. You see, while a lot of chaos has come up, something peculiar that I can actually investigate is Hot Spot Dungeon. And since Step is handling the recovery of the mutants, and Arceus and Nate and such are handling Dark Matter… why not dabble in some research?”

“That sounds fine,” Lavender agreed, having no idea what he’d said.

Nevren placed the strange device on his work bench, and Lavender peeked inside. It was surprisingly barren; most of his equipment must have been in Kilo Village. Too bad traveling there wasn’t going to be easy anymore…

“Uncle Nev,” Lavender said, moving to the side to allow Lucas through the doorway. “How come the sky’s falling?”

“Ah, just an incoming war at best,” Nevren said. “Nothing we can do for now, but perhaps with some ingenuity, I can change that.” He didn’t even look up from the notebook on his desk.

“Um… what exactly are you gonna do with that?” Lavender asked, pointing at the odd device with pink and cyan stones.

Nevren raised the device with an aura of Psychic energy. “Well, assuming all goes as planned, which it usually doesn’t,” he explained, “I’m going to create a Dungeon.”

<><><>​

Zero Isle was far behind Rhys; far below, the vast ocean. He knew that, far to his left, Brandon’s factory sat in the middle of the ocean. Based on those vague landmarks, he knew where to look for Emily, even as the sun settled into an orange sky. Emily’s unique aura, perplexing as it was, but surely due to her Legendary status, was also easy to trace.

Despite this, the closer he got to the other side of the world, the more a horrible, sinking feeling fell over him. His aura felt disrupted, but only subtly. He hoped that was as bad as it would get.

He looked down to make sure the aura he used to push forward through the skies still seemed healthy. Indeed, it was; cyan propulsion trailed behind him. Finally, far ahead, he saw Emily’s island.

And what luck, he also saw Emily’s silhouette lounging in front of her cave. No having to wait! He could just tell Emily what was happening, and then—

How was he going to convince Kilo Village to submit to Emily’s healing methods?

The shadow of Emily shifted. Rhys slowed down, suddenly rethinking his strategy. Practically speaking, Emily was their best bet at restoring the town and minimizing casualties. She was the ultimate healer, even if her methods were undesirable. Would they need someone to demonstrate?

…Would he have to demonstrate?

Suddenly this proposition seemed worthy of a second thought. But no, he was already too close, and the sun was already setting. Still, it gave everything a very nice, orange glow. The sea was beautiful and sparkling like fire, and Emily’s island had a wonderful shine to it. Emily’s dark form complemented it nicely.

Something didn’t fit there. Sunset. Orange glow. Everything was orange. Why was Emily so dark?

Rhys lowered in altitude and prepared to land, the blasts of aura coming from his feet leaving a rift in the ocean behind him.

“Emily!” Rhys called, but the wind carried it away.

Up close, the titanic Lugia’s body lost its white colors, replaced instead by a deep purple.

“What…” Rhys drifted forward, but a foul aura made his sensors crinkle in protest. He didn’t want to get closer, but he had to.

Why did this aura remind him so much of the wraiths in Aether Forest?

When the water was shallow enough, Rhys flipped and landed in the water, running for a few paces to slow down to a cautious jog.

“Emily?” Rhys called again, unsure if he wanted to call any louder.

“Who’s… who’s there?”

The wind felt like it had been forcibly squeezed out of Rhys’ chest. Emily’s voice was so horribly warped and garbled—despite the fact that her tone seemed normal, it sounded like she was screaming it through several sheets. It reverberated in his ears and into his bones and through his aura.

“Please… run away… I…”

The thing curled up, huge wings dripping a black mass into the water, which corrupted the sand near her. Thick, black fog surrounded Emily—the source of most of the darkness—while her body itself was a mixture of purple and a dark silver underbelly.

And then something burst out of Emily’s side, screaming. Rhys couldn’t recognize it at first; it was some blackened creature, covered in wraith material. But he also saw a blue paw struggling to free the rest of itself.

The Vaporeon—Tanneth—screamed and pulled herself out more, making eye contact with Rhys. She screamed even more, reaching helplessly toward him; her blood was black, and wraiths within Emily were dragging her back inside with barbed tendrils.

Completely stunned, Rhys only stared. He didn’t know whether to advance or flee.

Emily groaned; Rhys made eye contact with the Lugia’s red, bloodshot eye. There was a flash of recognition in them…

Then Emily stiffened, her pupil rapidly dilating.

Tanneth was still screaming; wraiths tore at her just to pull her back inside.

The recognition faded. With a quiet whimper, Emily went limp. Then, she stood up, slowly; sand and water drifted down her body, wisps of shadows coursing through them. Tanneth’s incomprehensible screams became more and more panicked, half her body dangling partway out of Emily’s side.

The corrupted Lugia—Rhys had no idea how this had happened—raised her wings. Clouds formed above the island, blotting out the sun.

Then, she beat them once.

Flashes of white light accompanied thick, purple clouds. Waves as tall as Rhys churned the corrupted sands; a cutting wind forced Rhys into a bracing stance, digging his feet into the ground.

“Emily!” Rhys shouted.

He couldn’t differentiate the sounds Emily made from the howling wind until she screeched. Bolts of black lightning crystalized the sand through the ocean water. He held still, paralyzed with the sudden sensory overload. One bolt hit uncomfortably close, deafening him, and he quickly learned that the white flashes were always followed by black bolts.

One flash later, and Rhys saw the image of Tanneth trying to escape from Emily’s side. He had to flee; Emily, once harmless, was radiating an aura that he simply couldn’t overpower. But he could at least try to save Tanneth.

He didn’t know if Tanneth would reemerge again. Falling back to his training, he called into his aura and drew out all the power he could. Then, he channeled it around his body, turning it into a flexible, solid armor, and collected the excess into his paws, sharpening them into blades. But he also knew that his cyan glow would attract Emily’s attention. Before she could glance at him, he sped forward, using the boost of an Extreme Speed to slam into her side.

He didn’t expect to sink inside. She had the same consistency as Anam. Startled, hurriedly wiggled out, blasted an Aura Sphere to further dislodge himself, and grabbed Tanneth by her forepaws.

Tanneth yelped in pain—the wraiths were pulling back. He hissed and channeled extra energy into his free paw and his blade sizzled with heat.

“I’m sorry, Tanneth,” he muttered.

He jammed the blade into Emily’s body and carved; loud hissing followed, black ooze spilling out and onto him. It still moved and pulsated against his armor, and Tanneth gasped in frantic pain when Rhys accidentally sliced part of her thigh.

He pulled again. Loose. He pulled more, but another flash made him realize that Emily’s great wing was looming over him. He braced just in time. Her wing wrapped around his body. Refusing to let go, Rhys pulled one final time at Tanneth, and this time, something broke free, the rest of Tanneth’s body falling out of the shadowy wound and into his arms. Her body twitched, half-melted into black sludge, but it was stable and reforming.

Writhing desperately, Rhys held Tanneth with one arm and used his other to slice Emily’s wing. It didn’t do anything but leak more black fluid, partially blinding Rhys in one eye. It was sticky like honey and stung the Combee it came from. Emily’s grip became tighter around him, pinning his arms against Tanneth.

Everything went dark. The storm was muffled by the thick wing-fingers that threatened to snap his body in two if he let up on his armor. Tanneth whimpered weakly, the breath leaving her from the pressure.

“H-hold on,” Rhys hissed, gathering his strength. Just one blast was all he needed.

He curled around Tanneth and channeled the energy into his back, toward the opening below him where her wing had not yet covered. He hoped that some trickery would work. His body brightened, and then he fired a thick glob of aura between Emily’s fingers and to the ground. The glob quickly shaped into a copy of Rhys, pure cyan—but it looked so similar to Rhys wearing his armor that it was enough to trick Emily.

He briefly thought back to those happy moments when this very same technique had been used to free Demitri and Mispy of their forgetful prisons.

Emily’s grip loosened, distracted, as she tried to grab the stationary aura copy.

Rhys had channeled some of his power into that aura. If Emily destroyed it—and she certainly would—that power would transfer to her. But it was negligible compared to what strength she’d already demonstrated. Even as the weak aura copy fought back against Emily, lobbing Aura Spheres at her wings, Rhys waited for his opportunity.

Her grip loosened more. That was his chance.

Rhys fired from his back, landing on Emily’s foot and out of her grip. Then, he slammed his palm forward and blasted her toes; she didn’t even flinch, but that didn’t matter. He used the propulsion to send him rocketing backward, where he skidded along the shadowy, glass sand. Pieces of it broke into his armor, and a cut in his fur—which immediately stung from the salt water—told him that his protection was waning.

But there was no time. With one more burst of strength, he propelled himself along the shallow water and toward the horizon’s light. He squeezed his other arm around Tanneth, making sure she was still there—and still in one piece—before looking back at Emily.

She wasn’t pursuing. Instead, Emily roared, firing beams of dark energy into the sky. Light clawed down from above, but even more darkness twisted it away. Now, the only light that covered Emily’s abode was from the crackling, white-purple lightning that crawled through the black clouds.

Emily flailed, one wing slamming against her head. Another beam shot out and slammed into her cave, blowing huge chunks of it in random directions. The rest of the cave collapsed inward.

Emily doubled over, wheezing. She was muttering something—it sounded like pleas for help, or for something to stop. Her fleeting clarity turned her movements back to something vaguely natural.

Her wings wrapped around her head and then weakly grasped at the top of her neck. She held still for a second, hesitating. Then, a jerking, twisting motion followed, and Rhys heard a noise.

Rhys gasped, nearly sinking beneath the water’s surface, and stared in horror. For a second, Emily looked relieved and serene, her massive body about to collapse.

And then she stepped forward, catching herself, and the immortal Lugia roared. It was loud enough that Rhys nearly let go of Tanneth to cover his ears. Another shadowy blast carved the water, exploding in a white flash eclipsed by a black circle.

So transfixed by it all, Rhys didn’t realize his armor had faded completely until the harsh chill sank into his fur. Tanneth was still in his arms, though he couldn’t figure out her condition. She was at least alive; he sensed her flickering aura.

While Emily was distracted, Rhys used a steady stream of aura from his feet to swim further away from the island, realizing that he had no strength left to fly.

“Tanneth,” Rhys said, only then realizing how winded he was. “Are you okay?”

The blackened Vaporeon made a sound, but he couldn’t understand it over the ocean’s loud whispers.

“I’ll get you somewhere safer,” Rhys promised, though technically he had already fulfilled it. Anywhere not near Emily was safer.

Still, they were in the middle of the ocean, and while falling to a wraith was probably a lot worse than dying, they still had to deal with the lesser evil. He didn’t sense any hungry ocean dwellers yet, but there was no telling when that would change.

He didn’t have the energy to swim across an entire ocean. Not anymore.

Emily’s roars were getting softer; he could at least take solace in that she probably wouldn’t be able to track him now. Precious seconds to think.

A large wave disrupted his thoughts and he held onto Tanneth a little tighter. “I’ve got you,” Rhys said, but he didn’t think she heard him.

The cold was getting worse. How much had his powers depleted? He shouldn’t have gone alone. Elder was going to worry, and perhaps rightfully so if he didn’t find a way out soon.

Arceus, Rhys said, half in realization, half in a plea. Arceus, can you hear me? I’ve run into trouble, I—

I have already sent Brandon for you.

Don’t send him to Emily! She’s become hostile!

What do you mean? I can’t sense her. My vision there is… obstructed.

Wraiths. They’re inside her. I was barely able to get Tanneth out, and she’s not doing well.

Wraiths? How? They’re supposed to only appear in Dungeons… Where did you go?

I’m off the coast of her island. I don’t know which direction. But don’t let Brandon draw near the island.


A long pause followed. Rhys felt a chill splash against his feet as his aura propulsion flickered on him. He held Tanneth a little tighter. After bracing through another indifferent wave, Rhys took a gasp of air, kicking to maintain above water. Even without Mystic power, he still had a great amount of natural energy in him, but the cold was rapidly sapping that away.

Tanneth’s pulse was weak, but stable. Her breathing was more difficult to determine, but her occasional gasps and mumblings meant she was at least conscious. If she stopped, that was when he decided he’d worry.

I’ve told him. He’s searching for you on the outer coastline. Don’t drift too far.

How can I help him find me?

How much power do you have left?

Very little.

Enough for an explosive Aura Sphere?

I don’t know.


Rhys kept kicking, tentatively channeling aura into his right paw. It glowed brightly, to Rhys’ surprise. He still had energy left after all. He gritted his teeth and channeled all the energy he could into it. Faint, but if he really pushed, it would light the sky in a small flash. But there were also several flashes already in the sky from Emily; would that throw Brandon off?

I can, but Emily’s aura and her power would make it hard to find us.

Try anyway. I will try to guide him.


Putting his faith in Arceus somehow felt ironic. The Aura Sphere flew far into the sky, and then, with a tired clench of his paw, it exploded in a blue flurry that forced him to close his eyes. He hadn’t realized until then just how dark everything was.

Did he see it? Rhys asked.

Yes. Do not move from your location if you can help it.

He held Tanneth a little tighter and scanned the depths below, but the Pokémon of the sea were wise to not surface while Lugia was rampaging. His lower body felt cold; his aura was going out. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t swim from his location, so he kept kicking, if only to keep his head above water. His body was too dense to float passively.

The sluggish response coming from his legs was a concern. Did that mean he was starting to lose feeling in them, or that he was running out of even the most basic amount of energy?

Another harsh flash in the sky left stars in his eyes. He hissed and tried to block it out; was it raining? Yet the rain felt like flashing, stinging, purple bolts against his fur. This wasn’t normal rain. Whatever it was—it not only disrupted his aura sense, but it was sapping him of his energy, too.

Keeping a rhythm was all he could do. Kick, kick, kick, and occasionally turn to search for Brandon. He checked Tanneth’s pulse again. Stable. Her breathing—still too hard to tell, but she had stopped making noise some time ago.

“Tanneth?” Rhys called.

Tanneth said something in return, but it was drowned out by another flash and bang. He dipped underwater and frantically kicked harder to stay afloat, gasping for breath when he surfaced.

Where is he? Rhys asked.

Where are you? Arceus said.

Impatient and desperate, Rhys formed another Aura Sphere and burst it too low. The shockwave sent him sinking several feet and he took in a mouthful of saltwater. He squeezed Tanneth too hard, earning a weak squirm from her. Trying to swim up with one arm, Rhys felt his paw hit cold air, then fell back underwater. More kicking—his chest felt like Emily was still squeezing it—and he grasped open air again. He tilted his head upward and kicked more, surfacing halfway.

He took a breath too early. Water went down his throat and he coughed—a head-splitting pain throbbed when he did—and sank back underwater.

Up and down were indiscernible. He held Tanneth again, trying to keep calm. Panic, now, would do nothing.

I’m underwater.

He saw you.

Hurry.


He was going to die. That was what his body told him. Despite this, he refused to let the panic show in his thoughts to Arceus or in his movements. He had to conserve his energy and control his body; his mind would not succumb to primal panic, even as death’s wings wrapped around him.

The shadowy sky felt like acid to not only his body, but his aura, perhaps even that small Mystic power he held. It was useless here. Was drowning a real danger? If he lost consciousness now…

Even then, Tanneth still needed medical attention, immediately. He had too much responsibility to die now! He kicked a few more times, no idea which way he was going, before suddenly something splashed above him and wrapped around his neck.

He saw the glint of metal in another flash of light; it looked like a chain at first, but then it twisted and wrapped around his chest with too much carefulness. Out of reflex, he tried to grasp at it, but then the chain molded around his wrist and glued it to his neck, and then something pulled him upward.

“Hey,” Brandon said, his metallic body glistening in the shadowy lightning.

The chain on Brandon’s end suddenly twisted and shifted, thickening near the end until it became a Blaziken’s head.

“Hi, Rhys!” Zeke said. “We’re here to rescue you!”

Rhys was certain he was hallucinating.

Brandon pulled Rhys further up with one arm, then dug through a metal pouch slung over his shoulder.

“Hey, good job signaling us.” Brandon pulled out something spherical from the bag. He tossed it at Tanneth, and suddenly he couldn’t feel her body anymore; she had dissolved into a red light.

“What—” Rhys tried to feel around for her, but only felt a light sphere where Tanneth had been. It wiggled weakly, and shortly after another thunderclap, it clicked and stopped.

The ball left Rhys by Mystic force, returning to Brandon’s hand. He mumbled something to the ball and placed it in his bag.

“Your turn,” Brandon said to Rhys, pulling out another Poké Ball.

“I—I refuse,” Rhys wheezed, already trying to pull away from the chains, but Zeke held tight.

“No choice,” Brandon said flatly. “You’re too weak and I can’t fly you in these conditions.” He motioned to the increasing storm. “I’m taking you back to the factory so you can recover. Don’t struggle out, alright? If you fall, I might not catch you.”

“I refuse to be stored inside a—”

Brandon tapped the ball to Rhys’ forehead, and suddenly, he didn’t have a body.

<><><>​

Ever patient, Rhys complied with Brandon’s request and did not stir from his prison. While he was tempted to stretch his lack of legs and shake his way free, he also could sense with vague yet certain terms that open air was below him, and they were flying at high speeds away. Every so often, he heard Zeke chattering, and Brandon would reply back, but the fatigue of his constant swimming, combined with the admittedly cozy, bodiless quarters, left him in a sleepy haze.

How much had he strained himself with that swim? What happened to Emily? Those flashing lights were from no ordinary storm, and that was no ordinary rain; it was corrosive to his aura. Corrupting. Like darkness had been given liquid form. He still felt it.

It felt bright. Did the storm subside? Rhys wiggled weakly, but then he felt a massive hand pass over him.

“Calm down,” Brandon’s voice echoed. “We aren’t there yet. It’s a stable flight, but I don’t want to risk anything, and for all I know, you’ll pass out the second I release you.”

It was demeaning. Disgraceful. Pathetic. How could he be trapped in one of those things? Perhaps he was thinking too harshly on it… But it was some quiet reflex that made him so disdainful. He had half a mind to break out, but the danger of falling, and the humiliation it would ultimately grant him, left him instead trying to enjoy the senseless comfort within the sphere.

Grudgingly, he could at least admit that it was much like staying under the covers after a very long rest. He understood why Pokémon often didn’t want to leave if they didn’t have to. It played with their instincts; the need to curl up into a ball to recover… The Apricorns and Pokémon had co-evolved in that way, after all. Poké Balls were another version of the same, natural process.

No, he still hated it. He wanted to move his limbs again before he got too used to that feeling, yet they were still airborne. He wiggled again to voice his protest, but this time Brandon didn’t reply. So, he wiggled again, this time bumping against his thigh.

“You have a problem?” Brandon growled. “Look, I can see the factory just ahead. Sit tight. Why can’t you behave like Tanneth, huh?”

Rhys stopped, flashes of worry washing over him. Was Tanneth not moving at all?

Brandon, perhaps sensing or at least predicting his worry, sighed. “She’s fine. You know as much as I do that as long as she stays in there, she’ll be fine until we can get her out and healed. You’re better at aura than me; maybe you can talk to her and get a feel for how she’s doing.”

That was true. She was safer in there than anywhere else, even from her own corrupted body.

They were falling. And then, suddenly, they stopped.

“Alright, alright, you’ve been patient, but be patient for a few more seconds. Don’t want you collapsed on the sand.”

Step, step, step, and then finally Brandon grabbed Rhys. “Come on out!”

A blinding light enveloped Rhys. On reflex, he jerked to the right, and suddenly he had a body again. He took one step, stumbled, and Zeke was by his side, this time warm and feathery.

“Hi! Are you okay?” Zeke asked.

“I’ve been better,” Rhys grunted.

The factory was the same as ever: clean, gray, and filled with machinery that hadn’t been activated in ages. Rhys suspected that it was only by Mystic influence that it remained standing at all.

The metallic Machoke, meanwhile, asked, “Looks like you lost your bag and your badge out there. Sorry.”

Rhys jumped and reached for his toolkit, but it was indeed missing. Suddenly feeling bare—and realizing he was still waterlogged—he looked down at the wet concrete below him.

“Cold?” Brandon asked.

“Somewhat.”

“Right.” Brandon looked to his left, then his right. “I’ll check out the back and look for some blankets. I got filled in by the boss on what happened, but what’s going on with Tanneth? Should we let her out?”

“No,” Rhys said firmly. “She isn’t ready. Get the blanket, and I’ll see if I can heal her aura from the outside. I’ve recently tuned my aura for Heal Pulse.”

“Right. Do that. I’ll be back.”

With Brandon gone, Rhys inspected the red-white ball that Tanneth had been captured in. Her aura, within, was so weak… But stable. It wasn’t a flickering flame, only a steady, small candle. Tentatively, Rhys channeled a single pulse of energy into the ball—and tried to ignore the dizziness that followed. He was not equipped for fully healing her, even if he wanted to.

Are you well? Arceus called.

Yes. Tanneth is not, but she’s stable.

What happened with Emily?

I don’t know, but she’s corrupted somehow. Her aura is like a wraith’s. Like staring into a void.

I see.
Arceus paused, uneasy. Do you know why?

You don’t?

No.


Comforting. Rhys sighed, but then said, Tell Elder that I am well, but I will be resting with Brandon. I do not have the strength to return, and I need to see that Tanneth is safe. I also need to observe Emily’s movements.

Is it safe to intervene?


Rhys briefly fretted. If Arceus was asking, did he not have the confidence to take her on directly? Arceus? I must at least try if you cannot.

I cannot. Dark Matter would expand again if I do, and I cannot spare a strike against her.

It may not even work.
Rhys hoped that didn’t insult Arceus, but now wasn’t the time to sugarcoat things.

Get well soon, Arceus finally replied.

Rhys chuckled weakly, channeling another Heal Pulse into the Poké Ball. A cold pit formed in his stomach and spread to his chest. He realized his mistake too late, and his vision darkened completely.
 
Chapter 86 - Titan's Shadow
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Chapter 86 –Titan’s Shadow

Wheat fields cut by pale grass paths surrounded Leo and Spice. For a whole day, they had traveled on foot, gathering berries to supplement their rations—Leo refused to hunt for ethical reasons—and taking safer routes to ration Spice’s healing supplies further added to their travel time. This amounted to night coming too early, and Leo had offered to take shifts.

Spice, of course, refused, as she was still not even the slightest bit tired.

After a sleepless night, Spice led a drowsy Leo through the last of the wheat fields, asking, “And this is Yotta Outskirts?”

“The wheat district, but yes. Crops must have rotated since I last visited… Used to be sunflowers.” Leo suppressed a yawn. “At least the climate here allows for wheat, even as autumn comes in full swing…”

“I suppose the local Grass would help with keeping growth steady,” Spice said, careful to keep away from the crops so she didn’t accidentally contaminate them with her element. “Leo, did you sleep at all? You seem…”

“I’m fine. We’ll use this as a rest stop before…” Another yawn. “What time is it?”

Spice looked at the horizon, where the sun was starting to peek out from the top of Kilo Mountain. “Barely morning. I want to say we’re a little past the twentieth kilo.” Spice looked back. “You slept right at midnight, with how much you were stirring.”

“You kept pacing,” Leo let slip.

Spice flinched, suddenly wincing when a loose sprig of wheat flew into her face. “I didn’t know that kept you up,” she mumbled, flicking the wheat away. “Sorry. I was getting restless again, and I had to chase off some random wild.”

“It’s fine,” Leo said. “But first thing, we’re getting you checked. How many days, now?”

Spice was tired of hearing it, so she didn’t reply at all and pointed forward. “Where’s your home?”

Leo pointed with a limp finger. “Skip the next two acres, then make a left, then a right again, and then it’ll be the fifth house to your left…”

“…Remind me again when we get closer.”

The brown field of wheat that waved with the breeze was soothingly normal. Occasionally, Leo stumbled over some lumpy part of the ground, or some imperfection in the path, too tired and too used to the paved roads of Kilo Village when not in combat.

“You alright?” Spice said.

“I’m fine,” Leo mumbled. “This walk took a lot out of me. Between avoiding Dungeons, the lack of sleep, and whatever’s happening in the sky… Oh, this way, Spice.”

A little more walking and the fields were behind them, replaced by rows of homes, each one made of some decorated clay, brick, or other kind of cement. Some were larger than others or in odd shapes to accommodate for the residences.

Compared to Kilo Village, it was very low-tech. Leo wondered if they had any technology inside yet. Clocks, or did they rely on the sun? Ovens, or Fire and Orbs? Spice hummed.

Even as they stopped in front of the home Leo had identified as his parents’ abode, Spice asked, “Leo, you don’t think this place was badly affected by most Dungeon equipment going bad, do you?”

“I’m not sure,” he said as Spice knocked on the door. Fine, old wood. Lasted well in the dry climate. She wondered if it had Passho blessings, or perhaps Occa to resist the Fire resident inside.

“WHOZZERE?!”

Spice blinked and stepped back. A low, weak hissing came from the other side of the door.

“It’s just me, Father!” Leo called tiredly.

“WHOZZAT?!”

“He’s… hard of hearing,” Leo said awkwardly. “Try opening the door. Actually, could you stay forward for this?”

“What?”

Spice pushed lightly against the door, and to her surprise, it was unlocked. She looked at Leo once more, uncertain. Wouldn’t it frighten them?

But Leo motioned vaguely to advance, and Spice complied.

A few globs of poison flew from the entrance. She ducked out of the way and pulled Leo with her; the poison bubbled, inert, on the ground. It was old poison; while toxic, it wasn’t very effective compared to her own.

“That’ll teach ya! Break and enter this old home! Shameful! Shame on you! Now beg for a Pecha, I dare ya!”

“Who’s there, Tari?” called another voice. “More villains? Oh, I hope not…”

“Mother! It’s me, Leo!” He casted a small ember in the air to light the inside.

With the darkness giving way, a large and pale Arbok, with unevenly patched scales, squinted and hissed in their general direction. Far behind, sitting in an old rocking chair of Occa wood, was a Delphox with clouded eyes and a noticeable layer of fur all around her general area. A half-knitted, well-made scarf lay half-made in her lap. All one color, yet what impressed Spice on second glance was that there was no way she could have seen her handiwork.

“Leo? Come here, let me feel your paw.”

“Bah, Leo! As if you can fool me, bandit!” Tari slithered forward and hissed in Leo’s general direction again, blinking several times while his pupils dilated strangely. More hissing—Leo stood still, looking mildly annoyed but tolerant—and finally he pulled back.

“He’s at least a Leo impersonator,” he said dutifully. “Go ahead and see your mother, if I can really call you her son!”

Spice could see the hesitance in his words and immediately felt disarmed. Was Leo’s father really trying to save face for his original mistake?

“Of course, Father.”

Spice rubbed the back of her head, standing awkwardly by the entryway. Countless trinkets that she couldn’t discern lined the crowded shelves along the walls of this three-room home. The main entry was the largest, with both the kitchen and the dining area, consisting of a cozy table, a stone stove with no power source, a storage cabinet… To her right, the bed, just one, large for at least three Pokémon of this family stature. And the left, a closed door, Spice knew would be a washroom, though she wondered where the water would come from.

Turning her attention forward again, she saw the ‘face’ on the Arbok father’s chest, glaring angrily at her. Looking up to the true head, she tensed and waited for some sort of ill-made strike.

“You think you can cozy up to my impostor son that easily? Don’t think I can be fooled, you silver-tongued temptress…”

“E-excuse me?” Spice stepped back.

“Father!” Leo hissed, breaking away from some silent communication between his mother. “That is my partner for Heart business!”

“It’s certainly him, Tari,” Leo’s mother rasped.

“Gahh, we’re old, who knows if we can tell,” Tari replied, waving his tail dismissively. “…I know, you’re gonna prove it to me. When was the last time you were supposed to visit us, eh?”

“Two moons ago at the peak of summer,” Leo replied coolly. “I was the only one of your kids who couldn’t make it because I was out on an assignment, but I sent my regards and a gift. I suppose I’m making up for it now.”

Tari hummed again, hissing and flicking his tongue in the air. “I heard half’a that, you’re mumbling too much. But fine, ya know, that was a detailed answer. I believe ya.”

“Now, what’s this about bandits?” Leo said, sitting down. “Here, in town?”

“Oh, it was awful!” Leo’s mother said. “I—oh, and who are you?” She turned her head to Spice, and for a moment, Spice had to register that she could somehow see—no, sense. Psychics. Of course.

“Er, Salazzle Spice. Part of Team Alight, with Leo. The rest of our team had been taking a break.”

Leo adjusted himself again.

“A pleasure to meet you, Spice. My name is Aries. Please, don’t mind Tari. He’s just being careful after the bandits attacked.”

“What bandits? How could there be bandits here?” Leo said urgently.

“Oh, it was awful!” Aries said again. “Bandits. They ran through the wheat fields, kicking up the crops and flooding it, burning it, all kinds off damage! Monstrous! Nearly made it to our homes before a few brave souls fended them off, but oh! Some were badly hurt. It was so lucky that we had some healing supplies left. So rare, an attack, so rare, but it happened…”

“One bandit didn’t stand a chance against me!” Tari said, flicking his tongue confidently. “He was so scared of my power that he didn’t even come close!”

Spice decided to choose her battles, too. “Leo, do you think it was a mutant?”

“Did you get a closer look?” Leo asked Aries.

“No, I stayed inside as instructed. And Tari was sure to lock the doors, too.”

Spice frowned, looking at the door. The knob had fallen off some time ago, it seemed, and Tari might not have even noticed.

This sort of environment never would have passed in the south. She couldn’t imagine letting these two live on their own. She flashed a concerned look at Leo, but he deliberately—she was sure of it—looked away.

“Leo, you sound so tired,” Aries said. “Why don’t you rest for today? You aren’t needed back at the capitol, are you?”

“No, I’m not,” Leo said. “I suppose I can rest here, if you’ll allow it.”

“What nonsense phrasing!” Aries reached for a small, wooden stick a few times, then pointed it at Leo. “You’re always welcome! I’m going to rest right here on my chair tonight so you can take the bed.”

“Now, Mother, that’s hardly necessary,” Leo said. “I—”

“Don’t you talk back to your mother that way!” Tari drawled hysterically. “You’re heading there and that’s final!”

“It’s not even noon,” Leo said.

“I can smell how tired you are,” Tari said. “Now, go on! Get!”

Leo sighed, nodding at Spice. “I suppose I’ll be seeing you,” he said. “I do need some rest…”

“And you!” Tari said, pointing at Spice. “If you’re gonna try to tempt my son for grandchildren, you better do it nicely! Now go!”

There were so many battles to not fight. But this was one she had to speak for. “We aren’t even in the same egg group, you know,” she said, glancing at Leo, who shook his head pleadingly.

“Bah, you and your newfangled Orb technology makes anything possible! I heard all about it! You’d make Mew cry, I tell ya, changing the gifts ya got!”

Did he want her to have kids or not?! Spice was about to object, but then realized that she could use this opportunity to speak with Leo anyway.

“…I’ll keep it in mind,” Spice said to Tari as Leo slipped into his old room.

“Yeah, and be quiet about it!” Tari said, slithering toward the closed door on the other side of the room. “Have some respect!”

He brought his tail forward and pulled on a lever, which opened the door and revealed a washroom; Spice caught sight of what seemed to be a Rainy Orb in the ceiling. She frowned, concerned that it was no longer operational… But the moment the thought crossed her mind, she heard the sound of water filling a sink.

“Oh,” Spice said, relief making her shoulders feel lighter. “Your Orb technology is still working?”

“Oh, it is,” Aries said. “It’s actually a traditionally made Orb, not one from Kilo Village. Tari is… stubborn and old-fashioned about things.”

Spice had zero trouble believing this.

“He’ll refuse to acknowledge when he’s wrong, piling crazier and crazier claims to prove himself right…” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “I’m sorry you got caught up in it. I promise, he’s much sharper than he presented himself.”

“I—I wasn’t thinking he was senile or anything,” Spice lied.

And then Spice remembered Aries was Psychic, based on that gray-eyed, knowing smile. “Well,” Aries said, “thank you. He just wants to be useful. Being an Arbok among a family of Delphox has left him… wanting to do as much as he can.”

“Oh.” Spice hadn’t considered that. “Well, like I said. He’s probably sharper than he lets on.”

“I wouldn’t have had a family with him if he wasn’t,” Aries said. “But Spice, you seem… troubled.”

“Well, who isn’t? The world seems upside-down, and we haven’t even gotten to Kilo Village yet.” Spice crossed her arms.

“Mm…” Aries tilted her head. “But Leo sounded worried for you, too. Is something wrong?”

“Oh, that,” Spice said, shaking her head—before realizing Aries wouldn’t see it. “No, that’s nothing. You probably know how much Leo worries for nothing.”

“Is it for nothing?”

Right, this was his mother. Delicate words. “He cares a lot for his team,” Spice said. “He’s only worried that I haven’t been sleeping lately.”

“For how long?”

“A few days,” Spice said.

“A few? How many?”

What was this, an interrogation? Spice kept her voice even. “I stopped keeping track of it. Five, six?”

Aries’ blind eyes widened.

“I know, I know, but I really do feel fine.”

“Does your family have a history of insomnia?” Aries asked.

“No.”

“How about… strange mood patterns? Anything like that?”

“No,” Spice said. “Well—my mother, after my sister and I hatched, used to get episodes of confusion and fear, but I’ve never had those, and also, I don’t have kids.”

“Hmm… Spice, may I take a closer listen to you?” Aries asked.

Spice tensed. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Aries said, sinking into her chair. “I used to be a general therapist. I’m no expert in any one field, but I can help narrow things down to experts if necessary.”

“It’s not—” Spice frowned, starting to wonder. Six days was bordering on the supernatural. Was this beyond the scope of therapy? “I feel perfectly fine. A little energized, sure, and I don’t get tired, but the most annoying part about it is everyone else worrying about it.”

“Hmm… May I at least analyze your psyche, then?”

“How invasive is that?” Spice said tentatively.

“Not at all,” Aries said. “I don’t read your thoughts. I only see if there is any turmoil in your mind. For me to go deeper, I would need your cooperation.”

“I’m a Poison, you know. I’m kind of sensitive to Psychic readings.”

“Not to worry. My mate is an Arbok, after all.”

She had a point. Deciding to comply—if Leo would listen to anyone, it would be her mother—Spice approached Aries and crouched down. “I just sit here?”

“Yes. You don’t need to do anything more than answer my questions. Spice, is anything bothering you?”

“Well, the world might be ending.”

“Mm… And what about Leo?”

“He’s got a few wounds that he’s still healing up, because Orans stopped working like they should. But he’s better now, so I’m less worried for him. Now that we’re at his home, I’m actually feeling a lot better about things.”

“I see, mm… And what else are you thinking about?”

“How Kilo Village is doing. A lot of strange stuff has been happening there in hindsight, not to mention that Ice Aggron that attacked a superpowered, creepy Espurr. I don’t know. It feels like all of this is somehow related.”

“Hmmm…”

“Of course it’s related!” came Tari’s voice as he slithered out of the washroom. His scales glistened with water. The added depth to his color made him look a few years younger. “Bet it’s related to all this nonsense. Those bandits, too, I tell ya. It’s all a great omen! Arceus is here to punish us for straying far from the path! Mew, too!”

“Now, we don’t know that for certain,” Aries said.

“Destiny Tower has risen!” Tari declared. “It’s time for new Pokémon to ascend, I tell ya! Why, if I had a few decades off, I’d try and climb myself!”

Aries smiled, and then said, “Tari, I don’t know if those stories are true. But perhaps if we’re ever lucky enough, we can ask Arceus Himself one day.”

“Bah! I’ll wait fer death.” Tari waved his tail dismissively. “All those floors sound like too much trouble.”

Spice had no idea what he was talking about, but it probably had to do with the Book of Arceus. She shrugged it off and asked Aries, “How is my head?”

“Well,” Aries admitted, “I don’t sense any abnormal turmoil. You… simply aren’t tired.”

The relief of validation hit Spice first, and then, seconds later, was followed by the same worry. “Then you don’t know why I’m like this, either? It won’t suddenly kill me, will it?”

Aries frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t know,” she said. “When you go to Kilo Village, you should seek out a sleep specialist. I know the son of a Hypno who is actually a wonderful therapist. You should look for him when you return. His father rarely failed at his treatments—I think the only one he couldn’t help was a Charmander that kept burning his bed from chronic sleep-fighting.”

“Right,” Spice said. “Sleep specialist.”

And now, they were doctor’s orders. So much for convincing Leo she’d be fine… “Well, thank you,” she said, turning back toward Leo’s room. “I’m going to try to rest.”

“Take care,” Aries said.

“How long do Salandit eggs take?” Tari asked.

Aries gently bopped Tari on the snout. Despite not seeing, she looked like she knew exactly where he was.

Spice sighed, slipping inside Leo’s room. “Hey, we need to t—”

He was already asleep. His body was curled around a soft bed of orange fabric stuffed with cotton, head resting on a large, white pillow. She’d never seen him look so dead to the world and peaceful. A small smile curled along her right side.

They could talk later. Leo didn’t deserve to be disturbed from a sleep so wonderful. Despite the fact that she wasn’t tired at all, Spice felt envious.

Then, hearing Tari hiss sweet nothings to Aries—and Aries giggling lowly back—made Spice realize that now was the perfect time for a walk. A long, faraway walk.

She didn’t dare leave through the front entrance. Thankfully, there was a window. Unlatching it—noting that it didn’t feel very reinforced—she pulled the wooden door open. It creaked like the rocking chair, but they didn’t hear it. She crawled outside and closed it behind her with her tail.

Her scales were tingling again, this time below her—which was unusual. Usually it was to the southwest. On reflex, she lowered her body to the dirt, squeezing her claws into the ground. Eyes closed, she tilted her head. Far away. It was far, far away, whatever it was.

…What was it?

“Erm, excuse me.”

Spice perked up to see a Scrafty looking worriedly at her.

“Are you okay?” Scrafty asked.

“Yes. Sorry.” Spice pulled herself away from the dirt and brushed off her scales.

Scrafty’s eyes immediately darted toward the scar on her chest, so Spice narrowed her eyes in return.

“Like what you see?” she growled.

“N-no! I mean—yes! No? Sorry!” Scrafty quickly brought his head down. “I’m sorry. You must have gone through a lot of trouble.”

Spice rolled her eyes. “Whatever, look, I’m just on a walk.”

“Do you sense an earthquake coming?” Scrafty asked.

“…No? What?”

“I heard that some Pokémon have a sense for that sort of thing.”

“Well, not me.”

“What did you sense?”

“I—” Spice wasn’t sure why she was answering all these questions. “I don’t know. Been sensing strange stuff lately. First from where that vortex is coming from, and then below me.”

“B-below? Right under this town?!”

“No. Feels a lot further away than that. Who knows? Maybe it’s like one of those stories where a great evil is sealed inside the world’s core.” Spice shrugged, though she did hope to get an amused reaction from Scrafty. Regret filled her shortly after: she’d never seen so much terror in someone’s eyes. “Hey, hey, c’mon, that’s stupid. Maybe it’s, I dunno, on the opposite side of the world instead?”

“Isn’t there nothing but ocean there?” Scrafty said, voice still trembling. “M-maybe it really is a demon in the world’s—”

“It’s not a demon,” Spice said tiredly, shaking her head. “Come on, don’t be silly.”

“Duh-didn’t you hear that voice in the sky, and-and the dark clouds, and—”

He had a point, but Spice wasn’t in the mood to hear about doomsday theories. “Look, forget I said anything. I haven’t had sleep in…” She forgot. “A while. Maybe I’m starting to hallucinate.”

Scrafty frowned, looking skeptical. And she couldn’t blame him; aside from the first impression, she felt perfectly fine.

After an awkward silence, Spice eventually said, “Don’t worry. Now, I’m going for a walk. Official… Heart business. So don’t—”

A distant thunderclap gently jostled the air. Spice couldn’t tell which direction it came from; first it was from the left, then a little while later, from behind. All around like an enclosing shockwave. Her scales felt like electricity.

“…Probably nothing,” Spice lied. But this time, she saw a little of her own fear reflected in Scrafty’s eyes.

<><><>​

Owen didn’t have as much luck with finding berries this time around, so he settled for getting as much of the tree taffy as he could to satiate his appetite. His jaw hurt from all the chewing he had to do, and he was starting to get the feeling that his stomach was starting to get wise to the fact that it was being fed mostly fiber and red water. Even after he had taken down what he was sure was his whole head’s worth of wood, his gut still felt empty. He had to find something to eat soon—and something that wasn’t foul from a day of being left to rot, either.

Eventually, he heard the sound of running water. While he hoped it was clear, he knew not to get his hopes up—and, indeed, the river was red with the same dust that permeated the land. He scrambled to the edge and drank his fill—he was desperate enough at this point that the taste was a mere afterthought—and then tried to decide which way to go.

The river was only a short way across, but it seemed deep. Swimming through it in his state ran the risk of drowning. It was only a stone’s throw across, perhaps ten feet, but for a Charmander—a starving Charmander—that could spell death. Owen hesitantly glanced at his flame; no matter how much he wanted to deny it, he’d never seen the flame so small. Its width was less than the middle of his tail. Never a good sign if he was supposed to be in decent condition.

The thought of food had crossed his mind several times. Some Tamato soup—spicy and burning against his tongue. Perhaps some potatoes to go with it, fried in the juices so it took on that same spicy flavor. And what if there was some meat in it? Fake, plant-based, or from a real, living creature—Owen wondered if he’d be able to have something substantive soon. Anything. Did he even have the strength to hunt? Because he likely would have no choice but to hunt; he hadn’t seen a sign of any kind of society in a while.

Maybe he could eat another patch of berries. Or just a vegetable. Anything? Something to dig his teeth into, to feel it pressing against his cheeks. To have a full mouthful of soft food, or hard food that pressed against his gums with every bite of his sharp teeth.

He was drooling. The Charmander quickly wiped his mouth—had anybody seen him? But no, there was nobody. As usual.

The river came from the dark forest; the water flowed away from it and into the black plateau fields. Which way? Going upstream, would he find a settlement of any kind? But the forest was also dangerous. He could run into the same creatures that had hurt Amia—did the wraiths live there? But downstream, it was nothing but a wasteland. Perhaps if he had more supplies, but…

But Amia was probably still there. Owen couldn’t remember many details about what had happened when he had first died, but the ground was dry. The forest’s ground was damp. If he was reformed somewhere nearby—in a dry location like the plateau fields—then did the same go for Amia? If she died there, was she still wandering around, a Ralts lost and confused? What would she be capable of?

That settled it. Amia was the top priority—it was the only thing that he knew in this world, and going in some blind direction wasn’t going to help. He had a sense for where he had been last time; perhaps, if he got within range again, he’d find her the same way.

Owen followed the river at a careful distance; even if he fell or stumbled from weakness, or strayed too far from his wobbly path, he didn’t want to risk actually falling into the river unless he needed a drink. He was tempted to try to clean and freshen himself up, but he didn’t think it was a good idea with how disoriented he was feeling. Thankful that he was lucid enough to realize this, he dedicated what energy he had left to finding signs of life.

<><><>​

Bigtail left.

Charmander didn’t want to watch that happen like so many of his other siblings. Charizard was so happy to see him go, giving him well-wishes and a proud Flamethrower. Bigtail had launched an ember into the flames, perhaps symbolic that one day he would be able to match her power, or perhaps that his flame would never truly leave hers.

When the family tradition had started was unknown to Charmander, just that it was.

And now Redscale was marching over the burned fields with the other Charmander, each one eager to go and find their human.

Smallflame remained behind, sitting with his father.

“You’ve been strong enough to get a human for a while,” Marowak said, tapping his bone club on a nearby rock. Tap tap tap. Charmander knew it was because he was thinking about something. He was always so quiet—Charizard liked that about him—and when he spoke, it always had meaning. Layers to what he said. He was a smart Marowak. Smarter than most Pokémon. Probably smarter than him, too.

“I guess,” Charmander said. He reached for a stick, burning the end to pass the time.

“You don’t want to go, like Bigtail?”

Of course he’d ask that. Ever since Charizard talked to him about her late trainer, all the wonderful adventures that they’d been through together, the eternal ember that she claimed existed in that human… He’d never listened to the story so intently before. But were humans really all that good?

He still didn’t understand why they interacted with humans so often in the first place. Was there a point to it at all? He wished they’d just gone to some faraway place that humans didn’t bother with, instead of right next to a weird building where neighboring Squirtle and Bulbasaur would occasionally pester them for playdates. Which he also found bothersome. Either he was afraid of getting soaked by a Squirtle that didn’t understand that water was bad, or he was trying to calm down a skittish Bulbasaur that didn’t understand that fire was good.

“Can’t I stay like Redscale?” Charmander asked.

“Well, you can…” Marowak looked down. “But don’t you want wings?”

“I’ll get them.”

Marowak frowned, looking at the human building down the path. “Redscale is our oldest child, Smallflame. He wanted to stay, and that was fine and his choice. He wasn’t interested in wings. He was interested in letting all his other siblings have wings, but… So many of his younger brothers and sisters already have them. And we don’t know if he will become strong enough, fast enough to get them before he is too old.”

Smallflame grumbled. “Because humans… make us stronger.”

“There’s something special about humans that lets Pokémon get stronger, faster. And that’s especially true for us. If you want wings in time to live your life as a Charizard… you need a human. Your mother, and your mother’s mother, and so on… They all followed the tradition of joining a human so you can grow, together.”

“Then what about when I become a Charizard? Can I just leave my human?”

Marowak’s bony mask made it impossible to read his expression unless he wanted it read. But this time, his eyes were smiling. “If you want to, you can leave whenever you want, Smallflame. But when you meet your human, I don’t think you will.”


<><><>​

At some point, Owen referred to them as ‘days,’ because he didn’t know what they were otherwise. They felt shorter than days, but he tired quickly, and used the opportunities of stopping for a meal of wood, drinking from the lake, and finding a safe cave to sleep a day. He didn’t have the fortune of running into another abandoned pot of stew—not that he’d want to risk that again. But soon, as his wood dried and his supplies dwindled again, he grew more and more desperate for something to eat.

He had visited a few caves and happened upon two more of those odd crystals. One was red with a flame emblem inside. Another was a curious white with a circular emblem. He still didn’t know what they were, but they were shiny, and pretty, and his hands weren’t very full with anything else at that point.

The sparse landscape allowed for a lot of time to think. His thoughts were starting to become repetitive, obsessive. They circled around Zena and how she might have still been fighting somewhere in these wastelands. He wondered if she was able to find anything to eat here, like berries, or at least something better than wood. How were Demitri and Mispy doing? Mispy was always hungry. Hopefully she wouldn’t try to eat Demitri.

That—that wasn’t a real danger, was it? She wouldn’t dare. Then again, she dared to eat her bed. And did. Owen wouldn’t mind eating a bed at this point. Or maybe a bed of leaves in a salad. He wasn’t sure what would kill him first, the hunger or the wraiths that were surely hidden somewhere, watching him. Waiting for the next moment he had a chance to eat. Were wraiths edible?

He rubbed his forehead roughly and growled, but he didn’t dare release an ember. He didn’t know where the energy for Ember came from, but he was sure that at least some of it was drawn from his food, maybe. He should have asked Star back before she became horrible.

The ground rumbled again. It had been so long since the last tremor that Owen didn’t know what to do with himself. He searched for a large boulder to hide behind, but then realized the nearest one was too far away. His pulse quickened. What was he supposed to do now? He spun around when another rumble got to him, and then he saw—

It saw him.

It was at least three plateaus away, but it saw him. An orange speck in the purple dirt. His flame—could the giant thing see it? And those colorful crystals in his possession—were they bright? Did the titans sense them?

Owen ran—no need for stealth now—and searched for a cave to hide in. But would that even matter? It would just pull him out if he tried.

That shaking was even louder. Owen looked back and squeaked. This titan had four legs and was bulkier than the first one that he’d seen. He didn’t know if it had a face; it didn’t seem to have a—no, its head just grew out of its shoulders, not unlike Elder emerging from his shell.

It was walking toward him. Directly toward him. Every stride took it across the plateaus by at least halfway between them. In just ten of those slow strides, it would be right on him.

Another thump, and then another, each one shaking the ground a little more. Owen noticed that the very dust on the ground was disturbed by them, now. Tiny shockwaves that went ahead of him and faded into the distance.

It was running. Running toward him. Owen’s heart pounded, the little energy he had left going all into his legs.

And then it roared. It was that same roar—this was the same titan from before, had to be, that sounded like the entire world whispering through the air, screaming at him.

He also felt the presence of another crystal—a dull one, like when he had sensed Amia. It was coming from the titan; perhaps a few of the crystals were lodged inside its body. Owen didn’t want to find out; any closer and it’d probably crush him.

His heart skipped a beat, that dull feeling, that Mystic pull, tugging at the back of his mind. Did that behemoth have a Mystic aura? It was so close, now, that he could feel it. It was faint, but it was there, the same way Amia had felt. Why did it feel like that? What would happen to Owen if he got captured?

He had to hide, and it was right behind him, and if it got him, some primal part of his mind told him that he had to avoid it more than death itself.

So, he jumped into the river.

The painful heat that ran through his legs suddenly became a bitter cold that stabbed at his chest. An instant later, it spread to his tail, but by now he was used to the concept of water shock. Waking up at the bottom of the lake was already bad enough—what more could be done here?

He didn’t remember to take a breath. Could he risk surfacing? He tried to look up, but he had no idea where it was. Instead, Owen went to the riverside, keeping his tail in the water against all instincts, and pressed the tip of his muzzle out of the water. He breathed deeply—surely he was too small for it to hear him—and sank underwater again.

The ground shook—he felt it when his claws dug into the riverside, but the water was so thick with red that he couldn’t see clearly. Only brightness, and darkness, where the sky was and where the riverbed was.

His lungs burned again. Before he had the chance to take another breath—he was so frantic—he heard the rumble again, and stopped. If he raised his head now, it would surely try to take him. He pushed his body downward, a bit below the water’s surface. His tail bubbled, struggling to stay alight, not that it mattered anymore. It was already producing steam, but the bubbles, he prayed to a god that probably didn’t hear him anymore, wouldn’t be noticed.

He had to stay calm. Calm so his breath could last longer; calm so, if something happened, he could outlast it.

The rumbling shook his body, and then he heard a splash. For a split-second, Owen thought that was it, that he’d be taken, especially when a huge wave overtook the water above him, bringing huge lumps of mud over his body. His entire body went up, and then fall, fall, fall—slam into the ground, but his fall was cushioned by all the water and mud around him.

The thing had dug out a whole segment of the land, and Owen was caught up in it. He was out of the lake, but now he was under an insurmountable pile of mud.

And then everything was quiet. Owen couldn’t see anymore; he kept his eyes closed. He didn’t know which way was up. Mud covered all parts of his body.

His chest burned. No time; even if he outlasted it, if it left and he was stuck, there was no use in trying to stay hidden. He reached forward—he still had one of the crystals in his hands, the green one. It was a struggle against the mud, but if he moved slowly enough, it parted for him.

He kept moving. More resistance. Was this even the right direction? He didn’t know which way was up—he had to breathe—but was he just going deeper? He couldn’t see anything—just one breath, a little air—but could he sense up and down some other way? The mud was too thick—could he breathe mud? His body thought so—no, that was no good. Maybe the crystal—yes, the crystal!

The mud wasn’t all that compressed. He probably wasn’t too deep in the mound. He had to go up. The crystal, if he made some room, would go down. He wiggled his arm—HE NEEDED AIR NOW—and released his grip. There was open air above the crystal—it felt hollow as the mud lost its moisture—but it stayed in his hand.

What did that mean? Was that up? Crystal, in hand. Crystal, hand. Air. Air. AIR. AIR. Hand, crystal. Hand below crystal. Hand, down. Crystal, up. So up was behind him? No. Front. Up was front. Push front.

Using the crystal to guide him, he pushed his hand forward and followed it. He used the sharp end to dig a hole, and then his hand broke through. He was squeezing so hard that the crystal fell out, but that didn’t matter. That was an opening.

He pushed his arm, then his shoulder—he wanted to cry, as did his lungs if they had eyes—and then out came the head.

Why did air hurt so much?

It was such a relief at the same time, though, but he’d breathed in too fast. He coughed and sputtered—he still couldn’t see—and had forgotten about the titan. At some point, the rumbles had stopped. The mud came off easily, at least; after a few globs from his face, he could open one eye to see—blurrily—that the titan was on the other side of the small river, digging in the dirt. Realizing this, he quickly brought the mud back over his face, leaving only a small hole to peek through.

The water spread across the dusty ground, turning it all into some strange, sea of thick red, like coagulated blood. It reminded Owen of mashed berries, or ground meat, maybe both at the same time. The crystal shined near the bottom of the mud pile; hopefully the giant wraith-thing wouldn’t notice it. It seemed more occupied trying to find him, anyway.

Eventually, it must have lost interest, because it stopped digging and wandered away. The relief that followed almost outweighed the general heaviness in his chest. With his remaining strength—at this point didn’t know where it was drawn from—he pulled himself out of the mud and rolled limply to the bottom of the mound, landing on the crystal with an annoyed grunt.

A small ember filled his body with warmth, starting from the tip of his tail, spreading to his gut, and finally to his chest and head, like sinking into a warm pit of lava. The soft, usually imperceptible drone of the flame was like music. An indifferent wind blew over the destroyed riverside, chilling the water and leaving small ripples over the puddles beside him.

Owen didn’t realize until later that he was laughing.

How many ways did he just avoid dying? First, there was the obvious threat of getting eaten, crushed, or who knows what else by that giant wraith. Second, there was the simple act of drowning, or water shock, or anything to do with a Charmander being submerged under water. Did starving also count? That was a third one. He was still at risk of that. But the fourth—perhaps the worst of it all—was suffocating under the mud. Even after escaping from everything else, what a way to go.

His laughter settled down from fatigue. Everything was blurry. Perhaps just a short rest was in order; after all, he didn’t really have anything else to…

Something was flying across the sky. It was a black dot—no, gray. Black was the wraith he had just evaded. Gray? The Charmander narrowed his pupils, focusing on the distant object with more clarity.

That’s an Aerodactyl.

It came circling around again. The wide bank suggested he was scouting for something, but was also cautious of the wraith, though by now it was far into the plateaus. The altitude suggested he was flying below the plateaus, probably so he didn’t get spotted.

Owen wondered if blending in was the best option now. He wiggled his tail, trying to push it out of the mud. The gentle warmth of his flame was there, but weak. Jerry probably couldn’t spot him… It had to be Jerry.

Weakly, Owen brushed away at the wet mud, hoping that some of his cream and orange scales showed in the mess. Jerry circled around again, getting closer this time.

Did he have some other way to get known quickly? He didn’t have the energy for a flame. If he tried, it would probably just be smoke and—

Smoke…

Owen breathed in, wondering if he still had it. Surely, he did. A technique he should probably rely on much more often now that he was so weak. What felt like cloudy bile collected in the back of his throat, and then he spat.

Messy, but it got the point across: A wobbly, black sphere escaped him and popped in midair, sending huge plumes of smoke all over the area. He could only see the vaguest of silhouettes, now, but the Aerodactyl was coming a lot closer.

If it wasn’t Jerry, would he be food?

“You better be Owen somehow,” the Aerodactyl said with a murmur.

At least he wouldn’t get eaten twice. Owen laughed, raising an arm to wave in what he was certain was the wrong direction. “Jerry…”

“I can’t believe it. Which one should I remark on first? The fact that you’ve got a foot in the grave, or that you’re a Charmander for some reason?”

A winged claw grabbed him by the arm, pulling him out of the mud, which had come close to solidifying around his warm body. After setting him on his feet, Jerry looked Owen over and growled with concern. “You’re a mess.”

Owen plopped onto his rear and slumped over. “Sorry,” Owen said, though he was still grinning. His voice, in the back of his mind, surprised him. He lost track of how many days he’d gone without talking. After the first two, when he had run out of food, he had stopped speaking to conserve energy. And that had been several days ago. A handful at least. A Charizard’s handful, not a Charmander’s handful. Tiny hands. Tiny Charmander hands. At least he had better fingers. “Ran into a lot of trouble.” Owen said at some point.

“A lot of trouble! Understatement of the century. Which probably means you made five more of those, huh? Mister half-millennium.”

“I might be even older,” Owen mumbled absently.

Jerry tried to help Owen up, but nothing he did was enough to get him to his feet.

Owen laughed again, still leaning his weight against Jerry’s wing. It hadn’t fully registered to him that the Aerodactyl had even arrived; everything felt like a dream. A happy, relaxing dream. Jerry felt so warm.

“Hey, HEY! Owen, you idiot, don’t—aghh, there we go…”

Everything was dark. The mud felt so cozy. So cozy. Just a small nap…

<><><>​

That was odd. Owen was starting to get used to the feeling of confusing dreams and his memories of some other time returning to him. But this time, he felt like he was nowhere, floating yet heavy on a ground that didn’t exist below him.

Hello? Owen called to nothing.

And, predictably, nothing replied back.

So dark. Was his tail flame extinguished? He felt alive. Then again, between the Orb, eating his old body, and being Mystic, the idea of death had lost its meaning a long time ago.

So bright! Owen squeezed his eyes shut and it still shined through his eyelids.

He saw a star, but he couldn’t tell how many sides it had. Unable to hold on any longer, Owen slipped away again.
 
Chapter 87 - Sunken Eyes
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Chapter 87 – Sunken Eyes

“Alright, Charizard. Why did you want us to come over? You don’t usually go flying all the way to the lab unless one of your kids is sick…”

Charizard grunted, looking at the remaining children she had. She held her belly once, feeling the telltale signs of another egg coming, but then looked at Redscale, Smallflame, and two other Charmander—the latter two still not ready to go with a human.

“They look healthy to me. You have another egg coming, don’t you?” The human with the fireproof coat rubbed Charizard on the shoulder. “You aren’t getting a little egg-protective, are you?”

Charizard grumbled and sat down next to Smallflame, using her tail to nudge him forward.

“Oh?” The assistant looked down.

“Smallflame wants to challenge you,” Charizard said. “I made a wager with him. He wants to see proof of the strength that Pokémon gain from humans.”

“Hmm…” It didn’t seem like the human fully understood her. Instead, she looked at Smallflame. “What do you want, little guy?”

Smallflame spat a flame on the ground and stomped his foot. “Fight me!”

“Oh! Well, that’s pretty obvious.” The human laughed, digging through her pockets. “I think I understand. You want to see how strong Pokémon can be, huh?” She pulled out a clipboard. “Why don’t you wait here? I know just the thing.”

She left, and Smallflame spent a good while kicking the dirt and huffing angrily.

Charizard smiled and bumped her tail against Smallflame again. “Think you’ll win?”

“Of course,” Smallflame said. “I trained under Redscale. I’m unbeatable.”

Charizard shrugged, adjusting her position to get more comfortable. “I think the egg’s coming soon,” she murmured to herself.

Smallflame nodded, but then looked back at the facility. He heard the door opening, and out came two humans. The first was the same as before; the other was a young human with long hair. Curious eyes. What did she want? Was that his opponent? She looked weak.

“Okay, found your opponent! You ready to go, Charmander?”

“Always.” Smallflame hopped on his feet.

“Wait.” Charizard carefully stood up. “This isn’t going to be a simple fight. Smallflame said that he needs to be convinced that a Pokémon with a human is stronger… and if he’s convinced, he’ll go with one, too.”

Smallflame’s chest tightened at the prospect, but he nodded firmly.

“What?” the human asked. “I don’t understand… Sorry. You don’t want to fight?”

“Oh, I think I know what’s going on,” the unfamiliar, younger human said. “If I had to guess…” She dug through her bag, pulling out an empty Poké Ball.

Charizard smiled.

“Yep!” The young trainer looked at the lab assistant. “They want this to be a battle to catch Charmander.”

“Oh! So clever.” The lab assistant nodded. “Would you mind doing that for us? A simple fight to get things going, and then I can take him to the lab if he decides to come with us. Can you and your partner do that?”

“Oh, um… Well, let me ask. Maybe he understands the situation?” She dug through her bag and pulled out another ball.

Smallflame growled. He was never going to wind up in one of those things; there was no point. Crammed up like that, just because some stupid human needed a guard while they went on a self-serving adventure? So, what? His siblings could do that. Not him.

“Alright, let’s do this!” She tossed the ball forward; in midair, it burst open, and the ball went flying back to the trainer. The zigzag of white light materialized into a Bulbasaur.

Smallflame’s apprehension suddenly switched to confusion, and then his face twisted into a smirk. This would be easy.

“My, aren’t you confident?” Charizard said, smiling.

He looked back, daring to glare, and then looked back at Bulbasaur. He seemed ready to fight, so Smallflame roared out a challenge. “Alright, you dumb Bulbasaur! I’ll beat you in two attacks! Just watch!”

“Wow, two, I’m sooo impressed.” Bulbasaur rolled his eyes.

Charmander crouched down and ran forward, flames erupting from his throat. Bulbasaur’s vine came whipping out quickly—it suddenly transformed into sharp claws, slashing at his shoulders.


<><><>​

“Kid, wake up already,” Jerry said, his wing-claws grasping Owen’s shoulders.

Owen shook limply, eyes fluttering open. “Huh? Wuh?”

“Finally.” Jerry stopped. Owen’s arms felt sticky—no, not sticky. Crusty? That was a good word for it. With blurry vision, Owen tried to wipe away at that crusty feeling, only to realize that it was dried mud caked on his scales.

“Ugh, you couldn’t even try to clean me a little?” Owen mumbled, his vision slowly clearing. His orange and cream scales were covered in a thin layer of purple dust, occasionally with patches of thicker grime.

Jerry snorted, jabbing the spade of his tail in the dirt. “This is after I cleaned you a little. But I wasn’t about to risk dunking you in water when I don’t like the stuff either.”

A rumble shook the cave and Jerry quieted down, glancing behind him. While the cave was abandoned, there was no telling if a wraith would find them in their sleep. It was a good thing Jerry had been awake to scare anything off.

Owen sighed, turning to get up. It was only then that he realized there was a wraith right next to him.

He screamed and sprang to his feet, ready to fight—but a wave of dizziness followed, and Jerry had to grab him under his arms.

“Calm down, calm down! It’s dead!” Jerry pointed at it. “Most of those things just dissolve away, but that one has some shape to it. Didn’t know what to really do with it, so I chucked it in the corner.”

“Next to me?! What’s wrong with you?!”

“Bah, get over it!” Jerry waved him off. “Besides, you should be thankful. That’s our meal.”

This did not help the situation. “What do you mean, our meal? I’m not eating that thing! It’s—is it even edible?”

“I dunno, but I haven’t eaten a thing here except for wood and red water, so if I’m gonna take my risk on some meat, I’m gonna do it. I told you before—my gut needs meat, not wood. And I’m pretty sure so do you.”

“Um—Charmander can handle a lot of things, and I think we can go vegetarian if we—”

“Kid, have you had a look at yourself lately?”

“I’m not a—what do you mean?” Owen followed Jerry’s claw, which was curled over so the curved top pressed gently on his chest. He blinked in surprise, realizing that there was barely a layer between his scales and his bones. Jerry ran it from the bottom of his chest up; his claw bumped against every rib.

Owen looked at his arms; the scales had a lot of extra skin to them, and he saw the bones of his wrist. The details along his hands where the soft, tiny scales followed the contour of his depleted muscles and joints. He turned his head and checked his shoulders, but all he saw was a faded scar where he had been attacked by the fanged wraith.

Oh, right—he hadn’t found a single Oran Berry since then. He had given them all to—

“Jerry, we need to keep going,” Owen urged. “Mom’s out there, and so are the others. We have to go and—you can fly, right?”

“Barely. I’m running on an empty stomach.” He pointed at the wraith. “We eating or not?”

“We can’t just find some berries or something?”

“No,” Jerry snapped. “First, like I said, berries for food just doesn’t cut it for me. And second, all the berries here are poisonous.”

Another cruel wind blew across the wastes outside. Some of the dust kicked up and flew into the cave, littering the ground and adding to its dry layer. Jerry used his wing to shield himself from a small cloud that blew into the cave, and then the wind settled. Through it all, Owen stood in complete stillness.

“Poisonous?” Owen repeated.

“Yeah. It happened in the south before annexation, actually. I don’t know the details, but berries in southern Dungeons—before Anam got in and did renewed blessings or whatever mumbo-jumbo he calls it… Sometimes the distortion corrupts the berries and other items inside. Oran Berries in particular were notorious for their false healing. We called them Oren Berries, because they looked just like ‘em, and you had to really inspect it to tell that it’s fake.”

“Poisonous…”

“Uh, yeah. So don’t eat them if you find any. Long time ago, I found out the hard way.”

A rumble followed, a bit louder this time, and that made Jerry look back nervously. “We should get deeper into the cave,” he muttered. “C’mon, Owen. Stay behind me so your flame doesn’t give us away. Sometimes those things bend down and stare inside, so we gotta keep to the dark. Don’t make any noise.”

Owen said something in reply, but he didn’t remember what he said the moment it left his mouth. Maybe just an affirmative, because Jerry kept going, prodding him to walk. Owen followed on reflex, but his eyes were empty and aimless, mind elsewhere.

“C’mon, kid, focus.”

The dead wraith remained where it was—it looked a bit more deflated than a few seconds ago.

Jerry draped a wing over Owen, hiding the Charmander completely from the mouth of the cave. His flame, dim as it was, gently lit up the inside of the Aerodactyl’s wings. He reached toward it out of sheer curiosity, but a shadow looming over the cave’s entrance made him freeze.

That was a big rumble. Was it the same one from before, or a different one? It seemed somehow bigger. And then came a deep groan, a grunt, and then air whistling through huge nostrils. Jerry had his head turned back, watching intently. His body was ready to bolt in any direction—even though they were completely trapped.

Owen heard a heart, but it wasn’t his own. He glanced at Jerry and saw his chest throbbing to each beat. Jerry’s expression wasn’t clear from Owen’s angle, but his jaw was clenched, ready for battle. There hadn’t been a shake for a while.

Jerry smelled a lot like the dust. But there was a bit more to him, too, that Owen couldn’t really describe. It was oddly comforting, though… If only because it was something different. He was tempted to lean closer, but didn’t want to distract Jerry or accidentally make a noise.

And then, the shadow left the cave, and the shaking ground indicated the titan was moving away. Jerry still didn’t move, each beat of his heart echoing in Owen’s ears—it made his own pulse quicken and deepen.

After what felt like forever, Jerry finally loosened up and took his wings off of Owen. “Didn’t even look into the cave,” he said. “Maybe they just aren’t interested, or they didn’t see it. Don’t care. Let’s eat and bail.”

Jerry made a few shaky steps to the fallen wraith and sat down, giving his legs a rest.

Owen wobbled to the wraith next, prodding at a deflated portion of its body. He felt something hard deeper inside, something that vaguely resembled bone. Aside from that, the skin was completely black and slimy, and whatever was inside…

“What, you want me to eat first?” Jerry said. “Quit poking it.”

“Sorry.”

Owen grasped at the edge of one and pulled, but it slipped out of his hands and left a black residue on his scales. He grimaced, not even wanting to taste it, and tried again, digging his claws into the slippery flesh. Claws punctured skin; sticky, black fluid oozed out of the hole like a molten chocolate cake, and even more gushed over the ground when he tore away. It didn’t make a sound, like ripping at gummy candy.

The scent was bitter, with a hint of blood. So it was blood. But it was black, like the innards of a Bluk Berry. Now he had a chunk, about the size of his fist, to work with. He nibbled on the edge; the slime outside didn’t have a taste, but the black blood was like iron and stale water. Still, it was water.

That was enough to convince Owen to go for a full bite. The texture—the tough, slick exterior was rubbery and chewy, and the inner flesh was chunky and watery at the same time. Bits of softer flesh bounced around on his tongue, surrounding tougher, springier pieces that reminded Owen that what he was eating wasn’t natural.

Jerry was having similar luck, but he was forcing it down in huge gulps, his expression barely changing with each bite.

“Food’s food,” he muttered, black drops pouring out from the sides of his mouth in streams. “Anything tastes good when you’re starving.”

Owen had to admit, as foul as it was, there was some small part of him that wanted to keep eating. But his mind kept wandering to other foods he could be eating instead, and then rapidly back to berries, and then to the fact that the berries here were poisoned.

“How did you find out they were poisoned?” Owen asked.

“What, this? I dunno if it’s poisoned. Guess we’re finding out. I’d rather die from that than starving to death.”

“No,” Owen said quickly. “Berries. How do you—”

“I said, they look different. It’s really subtle, but they do. And every one here looked the part. Sure, you might not’ve known since they were only really that way in the south for the longest time, but eh, once it happens the first time, you get more careful.”

Owen’s expression darkened again, not realizing that he had dropped his wraith slab. He clumsily picked out the stones and pebbles that had gotten stuck to it, then, in futility, brushed away the dust that mixed with the slime. He eventually gave up, setting it down.

“Hey, hey, no,” Jerry said. “Don’t waste food. Every bit of it.”

“But it’s dusty.”

“And it’s food. The dust is in the water, too, so it’s not like you’re getting anything weird out of it.”

“What?”

“The dust turns red when it’s wet. That’s what’s making the river its color, I bet. Now eat your food already.”

“But it’s…” Owen tried to protest, but Jerry’s glare gave him pause. “Okay.”

The chalky texture didn’t add much to the experience. With a few grunts and coughs, he finished the rest, the dark, inconsistent thing slowly making its way down his throat. It settled into his stomach like a rock. He somehow felt emptier than before.

“Once we’re done eating,” Jerry said, tearing off another huge chunk with his jaws alone, “we’ve gotta find out where to go next. Outta here. Away from those giant things, for one. Tried flying into the forest—got shot at.”

“Shot at?” Owen repeated. “By…”

“Those dark blasts. Flying above the trees’ll get you shot by those things. And last time I tried flying above the plateaus, I got spotted by a giant and it did the same thing to me. Even saw one try to jump at me. Those things can leap. Let’s hope we don’t meet a flying one.”

The Charmander tried to get rid of that aftertaste, which was arguably worse than the actual flesh, and coughed up dust that had collected in the corners of his throat.

“Use the blood to wash it off,” Jerry advised, pointing at a bit of the flesh that still oozed.

“I—I’ll be fine,” Owen said, but that just made Jerry scowl. “I know where I want to go next.”

“Oh?”

“Mom’s out there somewhere.” He pointed to the mouth of the cave. “I need to find her, and—and I know that I can sense where she is, and also where my crystal—” Owen gasped, searching the immediate area, and then stared at Jerry, horrified. “Did you bring my crystal?”

“What?”

“My—it was kinda shaped like two triangles stuck together, a diamond? And it was green—I mean, I had three, but my favorite one was green, and—and it was shiny, and it kinda glowed, too.”

“Alright. And?” Jerry tore off another piece—there wasn’t much left of the wraith by now, and Owen had only taken a few bites. He didn’t really want more, though. “What’s it matter?” Jerry asked.

“I—” Owen tried to answer, but realized he didn’t have one. It was pretty. That had been the main reason, but also, well, he had been drawn to them. They called him. Didn’t that mean something? “I found it because it felt like, I dunno, it was drawing me toward it. If I left it behind, I’d still feel the call from it.”

“You’d feel the call from it? Right. I didn’t feel any kind of call, so as far as I’m concerned, you’re nuts.”

“I’m not—I’m serious, maybe there’s something to it! Right? You don’t just feel that kind of thing for no reason, do you? It’s like Perceive, but not.”

“Sweet Mew, where’d your head go?” Jerry shoved a piece of wraith at Owen. “Eat so you stop talking like you’re a thread away from falling into the abyss.”

“I—I think I’m full,” Owen said.

Jerry snarled—the sudden hostility enough for Owen to flinch. The Aerodactyl waved a bit of the remaining wraith in front of him, flecks of black blood spattering randomly. “You don’t get it, do you? This is all the food we have, and there’s no telling if we’ll get more of it later. You got that? Eat now, eat until you’re at least a little full, because—”

“I am full, I—”

“Don’t lie to me. Eat your food, because if you waste away, I’m gonna force dust down your throat instead. Got it?” Jerry shoved the slab in Owen’s chest; he staggered back.

Owen stared at the rotten food, squeezing it between his claws. For a moment, he had a flash of anger—how could he eat something like this when he could barely hold it down?! He glared at Jerry, but he was already tearing at the last piece.

“I’m giving you,” Jerry said between bites, “every opportunity to not die. So if you do, that’s your fault.” He swallowed the final bit, then pointed at the piece in Owen’s hand. “Now choose. That’s either yours or mine.”

Owen let out a growl at the threat—yes, that was now a threat to Owen—and shuffled away, holding it to his chest. But he still wasn’t keen on eating it, even as the mess stuck to his cream-colored scales.

Jerry scowled again, looking down like he was dealing with some kind of feral. In a way, he was. “Make your decision. We can’t stay here for long, got it?”

It took a while longer of hesitating, but he finally shoved the rest of the ‘meat’ down, chewing a lot faster—not like it mattered, since most of it was soft and mushy to begin with—and gagged as it slid wetly to his stomach.

Two mouthfuls. He wouldn’t have been able to stand a third, even with how hungry he felt. Tree taffy was a thousand times better.

“Get on my back,” Jerry said. “We’re gonna fly. I guess we’ll go and find your stupid crystal again, but after that, what?”

Owen approached Jerry, hesitating on actually climbing up. Jerry growled impatiently, and that was enough for Owen to finally clamber on. “I want to find Mom. She’s got to be around here somewhere, and I’ll feel her.”

“Sure. Not like I have anything better to do.”

Once Owen was situated firmly on his back—despite his rapidly deteriorating grip strength—he beat his wings and took to the low skies.

<><><>​

Smallflame lay battered and bruised on the ground, flat on his belly. He groaned and stared at Bulbasaur, who was nursing a minor burn on his vine, and then glared at Smallflame. “I think I won this one,” he said to his trainer.

A few cheers followed from the humans, but they seemed solemn. Smallflame was in disbelief more than anything; what happened? Bulbasaur… always lost to Charmander. That was just the natural order of things. How could he lose? There was nothing special about him! Nothing except…

Bulbasaur happily pranced to his human and leapt into her arms with unseen strength. She giggled and swung him around in a gleeful spin, then set him down. “That was great. But, um… Did we do what you wanted?”

Smallflame slowly got up, keeping most of his weight on one foot. Marowak and Charizard were both watching in silence, and Smallflame couldn’t bear to look at them for very long. He lost to a Bulbasaur. That wasn’t…
right.

“Do you see now, Smallflame?” Charizard said. “That is the power of a human.”

Smallflame didn’t respond; he only stared at the young trainer, then at the lab assistant, who was holding another, empty Poké Ball. She was waiting for him, occasionally rolling the hollow sphere in her hands. His flame shrank; he didn’t want to go. His mother would miss him, and the fields were warm, and there was no telling how stupid his human would be if he took the risk.

“Smallflame?” Charizard asked.

But at the same time, he didn’t want to lose like that again. And… Bulbasaur…

The trainer rummaged through her bag, finally pulling out Bulbasaur’s Poké Ball again. “Okay, now let’s start our adventure for real! We’ve done enough training.”

Bulbasaur grabbed the Poké Ball and hopped away, yelling a playful taunt.

“Aw, c’mon!” She ran after him and into the lab, laughing.

Only the lab assistant remained, holding the empty ball.

“…Smallflame…” Charizard frowned.

“I don’t want to go…”

“I won’t be going anywhere,” Charizard said, trying to give him a reassuring smile.

Marowak, while stoic thanks to the mask, also nodded and tapped his bone club on a rock. “You’ll always be in our thoughts, and I know that once you find your human, you’ll find your wings.”

The little Charmander looked at the burned ground. He was going to miss how it smelled. And how Charizard felt. And Marowak’s strength and presence. All of it. But…

“Hold on,” Smallflame finally said. He ran toward his parents, wrapping his arms as well as he could around Marowak. Then, he went to Charizard and blew a tiny Ember at her flame. Charizard responded in kind, blowing a little ember over Smallflame.

His legs felt like they were weighed down by boulders larger than he was. His claws wiggled uselessly against the dirt, and then, finally—with the strength he had left after the fight—he slowly walked toward the assistant.

“I’m proud of you, Charmander,” the human said. “Are you ready?”

Smallflame made one final glance at Charizard and Marowak. The latter held his bone club in a battle-ready stance, but his eyes held the light of a smile. Charizard unleashed a motivating Flamethrower in the air, warping the morning sky in waves of heat.

His flame brightened. He looked up at the ball, then at the human, and finally nodded.

The world melted into a haze.


<><><>​

Owen felt something, but he was too disoriented to realize what was happening. There was a firm pressure around his abdomen, and he couldn’t feel the ground. His arms and tail dangled in the air. And that air—it was rushing past him, leaving trails of embers from his tail behind.

“Ugh—what’s—”

The ground was far, far below him. Owen squeaked and stiffened, and then Jerry shouted over the rushing wind, “Keep calm or I’ll accidentally drop you!”

“Okay! Okay!” Owen nodded fervently, wincing when Jerry’s talons readjusted around him. After giving his heart some time to slow down, and after he got used to staring at the ground from so far away, he asked, “How long have we been flying?”

“What, like we can tell time in this place?” Jerry beat his wings again. “No idea. But I feel like I’m being followed, and I’m not gonna slow down until that prickle on my scales goes away.”

“Right…” He felt like he should have been more afraid of staring at the ground the way he was, but there was something nostalgic about it. It tugged at the bottom of his chest, and he wanted to take deep breaths of the air, even if there was a lingering stench of rotten dust.

He had done this before, though not in the talons of an Aerodactyl. No, his mother—his mother flew him around all the—Amber. Her name was Amber. That was her human-given name. It was so clear.

“Hey, um, Jerry?”

“What?”

“Do you know what humans are like?”

“No.”

“Oh.” He wasn’t sure why he asked. Maybe it was the lack of food making him babble. Perhaps conserving his energy was best.

He tried to remember his father’s name next. Amber. Amber was his mother’s name. It was similar to the name he had. Owen, Amber. But his father’s name was different. He had been named by the facility. Daichi. That was his name. But he had only used it when answering the humans; he’d never cared for it otherwise.

Jerry made gentle banks over the ground, taking wide turns around the plateaus, but knew not to fly above them. He occasionally considered landing on top of them for a break, but didn’t know if he would be spotted by whatever had been following him.

“Pah,” Jerry suddenly said, waking Owen from a half-nap. “Thirsty. There’s a river ahead, no, a lake, I think. I’m gonna take a stop there.”

“Okay,” Owen said, though this had been their second stop for water already. First, Jerry lowered his altitude and kept an eye out for any of those titans; finding none, he lowered even more to the ground and warned Owen to get ready for a landing. The Charmander braced, and once the Aerodactyl let him go, he tumbled and rolled to break his fall.

It didn’t go well that time. With a surprised shout, he landed badly on his arm and rolled against a hidden rock in the dust, knocking the wind out of him. When he got his first breath, he instead took in a mouthful of dust and coughed.

“Sorry, sorry,” Jerry said, slamming his wing on Owen’s back.

He sputtered again, but held up a hand. “It’s okay—get—water,” Owen nodded, wiping his tongue of dust since what little spit he had wasn’t enough.

That feeling was back. That itchy feeling inside his forehead. Was it Amia?! No—it felt different. Still familiar, but different. Someone was nearby. But out here? A quick scan on the barren, red lakeside revealed a great swath of nothing.

“No, someone’s definitely here,” Owen said. He paced forward at the same time that Jerry grunted in disapproval.

“Well, they’re probably drowning,” Jerry said. “C’mon, let’s just get a drink. Make sure it’s not some aquatic wraith.”

“Err, right.” Owen crawled toward the water’s edge and nervously eyed the murky water. Some small part of him said not to inch too close; he was small and weak, and some large predator could be lurking just at the water’s surface to take him under. He shuddered, legs and arms tensed. Flames bubbled in his throat, but he stemmed them so he could at least drink, foul as it was.

“Don’t worry,” Jerry said, startling Owen. “I just said don’t worry, c’mon. I’ve got my eyes on the water.”

“Thanks,” Owen said after some stumbling over his words.

The water didn’t have the best taste, but either his tongue was numb to it or he was just getting used to that foul stench. It coated his tongue and mixed with the dirt; he spat the first rounds out just so his first few gulps weren’t dusty. Then, he drank, carelessly at first, but then calmed down enough to drink with some semblance of dignity. He was in front of Jerry, after all.

Oh, Jerry saw all of that. Owen glanced shamefully at him, but the Aerodactyl furrowed his scaly brow in response. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing. I—sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“Sorry for, uh, I don’t know.”

“Mew, you’re a mess.” Jerry’s wing made a motion for his forehead, but he stopped, training his eyes on the water again. “Just keep drinking and then keep an eye out when we’re through. I’m thirsty next.”

After Owen had his fill, they switched places, Owen trying his best to watch the water. Jerry dunked his lower jaw into the water and tilted his head back, red fluid trickling down his neck like blood from a kill. Owen’s mouth watered at the thought—tree taffy was not enough to keep him going, and he hadn’t even had any of that in a while. Was there anything he could eat?

The image of Amia’s stiff, tranquil body flashed through his mind and he took in a sharp breath.

It was enough for Jerry to hop away from the water. “What? What happened?”

“Nothing—sorry. Sorry.”

“Argh, don’t do that!”

Owen whimpered and nodded, refocusing on the water. Jerry snorted and took another mouthful.

But this time, Owen actually saw something in the water. It was faint and only at the surface, but it was the shadow of some small, aquatic creature, swimming tentatively toward them.

“Someone’s there,” Owen announced.

“Well, I’ll take care of it,” Jerry said, already preparing a Rock Blast.

“Wait!”

Jerry spat one of the stones on the ground nearby, clearing his throat. “Whaaat? What now?”

The fish had flinched deeper into the water. And when it did, Owen felt that the feeling of something calling him had gone further away. “That’s the thing I was feeling. The—it might be someone! You know, someone we knew? I—I felt Mom like that once, so maybe this… well, not her, b-but…”

Jerry, perhaps tired of his babbling, groaned and said, “Well, how are you gonna convince it to come closer?” He squinted at the water’s surface. “Doesn’t look all that big. I’ve seen bigger things in the water, but maybe they’re just too small to be interesting to those wraiths.”

Owen stepped toward the water’s edge, the damp ground curling uncomfortably around his toes. The red water was motionless, the last remnants of Jerry’s drinking far away from their spot. Owen had to pause to admire the dreary beauty of the still lakeside, disturbed only when another cruel wind stroked the water’s murky surface.

It was moving. It had to be aquatic. Not coming closer, but not leaving, either. Watching from afar? “Hello?” Owen finally called. “Who are you? It’s me, Owen, if… you know who I am.”

Jerry waited, tapping his foot impatiently. He was tapping loudly; Owen knew he was trying to make it known that he was wasting time.

“Hang on,” Owen said with a feral growl afterward. He crept closer to the water’s edge, looking for shadows. None. “Hello?” he called, just above the water’s surface, enough that it trembled beneath his chin.

Jerry took a breath, about to speak, but Owen shoved himself forward and into the water. Against his instincts, he bubbled out another “Hello?” Then, he waited. In the same breath, he added, “I’m Owen!” And then he pulled up for a breath.

“You’re probably the dumbest person I’ve met,” Jerry commented.

“Well, I didn’t sense anybody, so it was probably safe,” Owen said, though his creeping paranoia had him stepping away from the water’s edge afterward. Even if he could sense that there was someone out there like Amia, there was no telling if a wraith had been lurking at the water’s edge for someone just like him… Was he lucky just then? No—Jerry would have helped him if…

And finally, a shadow appeared at the water’s surface. Small, vaguely fish-like. Magikarp, perhaps? But the shape didn’t match exactly. A little closer, but then claws grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.

“You idiot, what if it’s a trap?” Jerry growled.

“That little thing?” Owen pointed at the shadow as it got closer.

“You never know with a place like—okay, never mind.”

Sunken eyes on an even uglier face stared at Owen, the Feebas taking a breath of air with an unpleasant, wheezy noise to speak above water. “Hello?”

Something nagged at the back of Owen, his instincts telling him he didn’t know this Pokémon. Then, some distant trivia he’d picked up long ago rose from the back of his mind. This ugly, aquatic Pokémon. Like Remoraid, or Magikarp, they evolved into something completely unlike their current form. Oh, that’s right, they evolved into—

Owen choked on his words, trying to say three things at once. He nearly lunged for the water, had it not been for Jerry clutching at his shoulder again. His flailing startled the Feebas, but Owen knew it would all be better once he shouted, “Zena!”

And her eyes widened in response. She dunked under the water, then rose back up, and Owen could only grin wider; it was her. And that probably meant the strange, tugging feeling he had whenever he wandered these lands corresponded to Mystic power after all. Amia, now Zena. He wasn’t sure what was so special about those crystals, though. Could it be related?

“Hey,” Jerry said, breaking the brief silence. “Looks like you’re in the same situation as Owen.”

“Owen?” Zena asked, blinking. Then, she looked at the Charmander. “You’re Owen?”

“Yeah! I know, it’s sort of awkward,” Owen admitted, laughing. “I think, uh, I don’t really know how to explain how it happened, but—”

“How did you know my name?”

Owen babbled uselessly again, starting with an explanation before transitioning into a question seconds later, but neither attempt at speaking was accomplished. Eventually, after several more attempts, he said, “What?”

“I don’t believe we’ve met before,” Zena said. “How did you… know me? You aren’t some kind of…”

“No! No, no,” Owen said frantically, waving his claws desperately. “Zena! Did you hit your head or something? It’s me! Owen! You know? We were courting!”

Zena frowned and hummed, diving under the water again for another breath. She rose back up. “Why would I court with a… Charmander? I don’t see how that would work out.”

“I—”

Jerry rubbed the back of his head, wincing. “Guess you just can’t catch a break,” he said. “Hey, Zena. What do you remember?”

“Remember? Well… I woke up here, but before that, I remember… Mm…” She looked pensive, then shook her body. “It’s all a fog there. Sorry.”

“Well, I’m part of the memories you lost,” Owen said, hoping this was just something temporary. Jerry turned his head back, likely to keep an eye on whether or not they were being followed.

“Hey, uh, Owen,” Jerry mumbled.

“Zena, can you survive out of water? As a Milotic you could, and—”

“As a Milotic? Are you… oh… oh, I do… but how could that be?”

“Owen,” Jerry said again, “look back.”

“Hang on,” Owen said. “Zena, please, you have to remember. We were fighting this thing—this, this shadow demon thing. He was possessing Anam, remember? Anam? A Goodra?”

“I think I do… It sounds familiar. Owen sounds familiar.”

Jerry forcibly wrapped his claws under Owen’s arms and spun him around. Owen struggled uselessly, but then caught sight of something black flying in the air. “Oh.”

“We gotta go,” Jerry said. “Grab Zena or don’t—we’re out!”

“Um—grab?” Zena said.

“Zena,” Owen said quickly, rushing toward the water’s edge. Despite the suddenness, she didn’t flinch away. “How long can you hold your breath in the air?”

“F-fairly long? Why do you—”

Owen grasped Zena by her belly with one hand, then the top by the other, before quickly realizing that she was practically the same size as him.

Zena flopped about, slapping her tail against his cheek, and said, “Excuse me! Explain why—oh, that?” One of her sunken eyes stared at the dark avian flying toward them, uncomfortably quickly at that. “Um—please hurry.”

“I’m trying,” Owen said, returning to grappling with Zena’s unwieldy form. This was somehow more difficult than if she’d been a Milotic. Then he could just—he wasn’t sure, perhaps wrap her around him like a rope? But this, it was just—a fish! How was he supposed to carry a fish the same size as him?

“C’mon, c’mon!” Jerry said, growling. “Just hug Zena tight, and I’m gonna swoop down and pick you both up! Got it?”

“Okay! Okay. Zena, are you fine with that?”

“Just hurry before we become food!” Zena flopped into Owen’s arms.

The Charmander struggled to keep steady, but eventually managed to wrap his arms around enough to get a firm hold under her fins. “Is this okay?”

“I think so.” She tried gasping for air, but it was foreign compared to working with her gills, and Owen could tell how labored it was.

“Are you sure you can stay out of the water?” Owen asked.

“Feebas are hardy.”

Wingbeats—two sets of them—accelerated Owen’s heart. One was softer, of Jerry swooping down; the other was from the great, black bird approaching them.

A second later, Jerry’s talons wrapped around Owen’s back and plucked him out of the water’s edge. Owen held onto Zena, the Feebas stiffening once she was far out of the air, a nervous whimper breaking through her wheezing gasps. Owen could only imagine the primal fear that came from being plucked out of the water by someone like Jerry.

“Gah! Why is he so fast?!” Jerry looked back, beating his wings harder. Jerry weaved to the left, then suddenly went to the right. “Owen! They still behind us?”

“Yes!” Owen said. “Stop moving like that! I c-can’t hold onto Zena like this!”

“Don’t let go!” Zena begged.

“He’s too fast! I—don’t have the energy to keep this up! We gotta find shelter!”

“But they already see us!” Owen shouted back up. “Wait, what if I—”

Fire bubbled in the back of his throat. He couldn’t do a Fire Trap in the ground, but what if…

His feet. He could still channel it through his feet, and then blast them that way! Owen focused—the warmth went from his chest, through his skin, along his legs, and to the bottoms of his feet. A dim glow emanated from them, then emitted a small ball of orange light. Owen focused, glaring at nothing, and the ball exploded.

The metal bird squawked and twirled right; the thing on the bird’s back—an icy Sandslash, it looked like—swore loudly, then yelled, “Stop, stop! What’re you doing?!”

This time, Owen heard it more clearly. “Wait—Jerry, they’re telling us to stop!”

“Oh, sure!” Jerry said, but then kept flying forward. “Whatever you just did, do it ag—”

Owen’s load suddenly felt a lot lighter. He looked down and realized that with all the strain, he’d dropped Zena. The air drowned out her screams, but not Owen’s. She flailed, flipping and spinning in the air; there was no water beneath them.

Jerry dove down in response to Owen’s screaming, but then had to pull up. The Charmander’s eyes bulged even more, completely focused on Zena and, without thinking much about the consequences, tried to tear himself away from Jerry’s hold. The talons dug into him harder, immediately stopping any future attempts.

“ZENA!” Owen cried.

The black bird—Corviknight, Owen finally realized—got to Zena first, following her falling speed. The Sandslash on his back grabbed her and held her down, and Jerry was flying further away.

“Forget it!” Jerry shouted. “We’re out!”

“NO!” Owen roared, flailing again. He channeled flames into his hands, the explosive energy building. “Take us back! Now! They have Zena!” Owen looked back again; Zena was still okay, but it was getting hard to see specifics. The Sandslash was inspecting her, and they were flying toward the river. “Jerry, take me back!”

“Or what?!” Jerry looked down, snarling, but his eyes flashed with incredulous worry when Owen showed the flaming sphere between his hands. “Are you nuts?!”

“Take us back!” The flame orb brightened.

A few more wingbeats followed, and then Jerry muttered something Owen could only guess was a southern slur. He banked to the left, turning back.

“If we die from this, I’m haunting you,” Jerry muttered.

“I don’t think that’s gonna work,” Owen admitted.

“What?”

“I’ll explain later.” He trained his eyes on Sandslash, Corviknight, and Zena. Sandslash hopped off of Corviknight and set Zena near the water, but said something to her. She glanced nervously at the pond while Sandslash pulled out an odd, rectangular tablet from the bag, poking at certain parts of the face of it.

Corviknight watched Owen and Jerry while Sandslash stared at the tablet, tapping on different parts. Little dots flashed on the face.

Jerry released Owen and, with a tumble and a grunt, the Charmander rolled to a stop near the lakeside. Zena flopped weakly near the water, and Sandslash finally said, “Alright, go in the lake. It’s safe.”

Zena didn’t have to be told twice, slapping the wet ground. With a splash, she sank into the red water, reemerging several seconds later with a relieved smile. “Thank you,” she said. “What are you doing?”

“Scanning for Void Titans,” Sandslash said, a puff of frost clouding the air in front of him. “Name’s Hakk, by the way. Feathers over there is Xypher.”

The Corviknight chirped when his name was mentioned, then tilted his head at Owen. “Hello.”

“Hi—hi.”

“You’re tired.”

“Er—” Owen glanced at his tail on reflex, noticing its tiny ember. Wincing, he nodded. “I am. Sorry for… trying to blow you up.”

“Energy. Strong. Spirited. Strong, strong.”

Owen wasn’t sure how to reply, caught staring at Xypher long enough that he realized he was being rude. “Um—thank you.”

“I forgive you.”

“Thanks.” Owen wasn’t sure where to go after that, so he looked at Hakk, who put away the tablet. “So, Void Titans. Are those the giant wraith things?”

“Wraiths, right. So you’re definitely from Kilo, I take it.”

“Uh—” Suddenly realizing that Hakk was the first person he’d met who could probably answer this question, he quickly asked, “Where are we? What happened? Do you know?”

Hakk sighed, rubbing his forehead. Then, like a routine, he said, “You’re in the Voidlands. You died. You can’t go back. Come with me to Null Village or stay out here and pray to the god that can’t hear you. That clear it up?”

“N…”

A cruel wind gave the group a bath of purple dust. Owen winced, squeezing his eyes shut, and Zena sank deeper in the water until the dust settled. When he finally felt it was safe enough to breathe, Owen shouted, “NO! That doesn’t clear anything up!”

“Uh-huh.” Hakk walked to his bag and threw it over Xypher’s neck. “So, Null Village or nah?”

“There’s a whole village out in this middle-of-nowhere?” Jerry asked.

“Well, it’s still in the middle of nowhere, but at least it’s a village,” Hakk said. “So, coming?”

“Better than here. Got food?”

“You’ll have to work for it.”

Jerry shrugged and looked down at Owen. “No choice. Get the fish and we’ll head over.”

“Oh, right, her.” Hakk looked in his pouch, then pulled out a strange, grayish ring from the bag. With a few clicks, it widened in radius, thinning out until it became about twice the length of Zena. He pointed the face of the ring toward Zena and closed one eye, then nodded to himself. After placing the ring in the water, he pointed inside and said, “Swim here.”

“I’m sorry?” Zena said.

“Gonna help make travel a little easier on you. Some tech based on an Araquanid’s water bubble. Makes it a lot easier for aquatics to go on long trips in the air.”

After some hesitation, Zena broke the water’s surface inside the ring, and Hakk pressed a small button on the edge. With a click, the ring glowed, and a dome of water surrounded Zena; her eyes widened with wonder at the same time that Owen’s did.

“You, Aero. Strong enough to fly?”

“Yeah, I’m good. I’ll carry Charmander.” Jerry nodded down to Owen, who needed a few seconds to register that, indeed, his first name was Charmander again.

Hakk pulled out a small, tough-looking rope—it didn’t look like it was made from fiber—and snapped it into the edge of another slot of the metal ring. Then, he tied the other side around Xypher’s neck. The Corviknight nodded.

“Right, we’re all set. Ready to go?”

“Um—excuse me, but is this safe?” Zena asked, poking her head out of the ring. “I’m worried I’ll fall.”

“Don’t worry. Once we get moving, the ring’s forcefield will solidify and you won’t be able to fall out unless you’re actually trying to break free. Oh, don’t do that, by the way. Tails and fins inside the sphere at all times. Including now.”

Zena shrank away, but Owen gave her an apologetic smile. When she didn’t return it, and instead stared at him with the same lack of recognition as before, Owen did his best to swallow the lump in his throat.

“Wait,” Owen added.

“What now?” Hakk said, already on Xypher’s back.

“There’s someone else lost out here. A Gardevoir—no, probably a Ralts now. Can we find her?”

“We don’t have the resources for scouting any longer,” Hakk said. “We need to return to Null Village, regroup, and then see what we can do.”

“But I—”

Hakk’s bag suddenly made a foreign, beeping noise that reminded Owen of something ADAM would have done. Xypher’s head twitched in its direction, then at Hakk, and the Corviknight let out a low caw.

“No buts,” Hakk said. “Titan’s nearby and coming closer. Might sense us. Time to go. You can tell us about Ralts on the way and we’ll figure out a rescue plan.”

Jerry helped Owen—in other words, picked up and tossed him—on his back. Xypher took to the skies first, lifting Zena in her aqua sphere suddenly, but securely. And then Jerry followed, with Owen looking back just in time to see a Void Titan crawling around a faraway plateau.

It roared, the sound turning Owen’s blood to ice, but they were faster. Soon, it was just a big, black dot in the wastes.
 
Chapter 88 - New Home, Old Friend
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Chapter 88 – New Home, Old Friend

At first, Jerry protested flying over the forest, claiming that the wraiths below would shoot at them. Xypher, undeterred, continued forward, and Hakk shrugged, nonchalant.

“It’s fine,” Hakk said. “Most of them can’t do much harm. The strong ones, we’ll avoid. We’ve got some Illusion fields just in case.”

“Illusion what?” Owen looked nervously downward. From above, the trees he had once explored for tree taffy and berry bunches looked more like mangled fingers clawing at the sky.

“Illusion field. It distorts outgoing light to disguise us. Same way Zoroark cast their illusions.” Hakk looked back at Owen. “Better than just bending light around us, or we’d be flying blind.”

“Zoroark…” Owen squinted. “Have you run into a Zoroark recently? Or Zorua. She might be scared or confused, but she’s another friend.”

“Nope. We’ll ask around our network and see if anybody else has info, though.” Hakk looked at his device again.

“Mm.” Owen’s claws dug into Jerry’s shoulder and the Aerodactyl jostled in response. “Oh—sorry.”

“What’s up with you?” Jerry growled. “No matter what these guys do to us, we’re better off than before. If they wanted us for food, we’d be dead already.”

“I—I wasn’t thinking about that at all!” Owen’s flame doubled in size. “I thought they were friends!”

“Well, aren’t you trusting,” Jerry grumbled. “Just leave the carefulness to me, then. We still don’t know what these guys want from us, and I doubt they’re going to be charitable when we arrive. Look at this place!” Jerry jerked his head vaguely upward. “You think they have resources to spare? Please. Best case scenario, we’re their servants.”

“S-servants?” Owen squeaked.

“Yep. But if we’re fed, it’ll be worth it. Better than dying. So look at it that way.”

“But what about Zena? She can’t…”

“They probably have something,” Jerry said. “And if they don’t, I dunno, at least we’re alive.”

“Um—excuse me!” Owen perked up, shouting toward Hakk.

“Eh?”

“Are we—”

Jerry dove down, making Owen scream, and then he lifted back up. “Ignore him,” Jerry said. “He’s impatient.”

“We’re almost there. And don’t fly down too low or you’ll leave the illusory field.” Hakk sighed and looked ahead again. “Okay, this is going to be a little tricky, so you’ll need to follow more closely. You see that stone spire ahead?”

Owen leaned to the left, around Jerry’s neck. Far ahead, looking like one of the trees, was a great cone tipped with a white, glowing point. It reminded Owen a lot of the central spire in Kilo Village where the Central Waypoint marked the center of the world map, or the Spire of Trials where Manny had once lived. The tip was probably as sharp as Owen’s claws.

“Yeah, what about it?” Jerry asked.

“When we start slowing down, stay behind us until the spire dims a little. Then, fly forward with us. When it gets brighter again, keep flying, but when it dims for a second time, slow down.”

“…What?”

“Just follow Xypher’s lead.”

“Forward,” Xypher said. “Slow, slow, fast, fast, slow…”

Soon, they slowed down. Zena anxiously swirled around in her aqua bubble, glancing up at Owen, and then at the spire ahead. It dimmed, so they moved forward. When it brightened, Jerry almost stopped, and Owen felt him lurch, so Owen mumbled that he had to keep going. Jerry grumbled something back, probably another curse, and then followed their lead. Once it dimmed again, they stopped.

“What’s this supposed to be? Some kind of signal that we aren’t hostile?” Jerry asked.

“Yep,” Hakk said.

“What, that communicator doesn’t do it for you?”

“A Void Shadow could’ve stolen it from us,” Hakk said.

“Void what?”

“Later. We’re clear for a landing.” Hakk put his tablet away into his bag and leaned forward. Xypher started to glide down, so Jerry followed.

“Seems like it would be pretty obvious if a Void whatever stole it from you. Sandslash and Corviknight. Not many pairs like those, right?”

“Some Void Shadows can mimic bodies the way you’d expect a Ditto to. And from far away, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Better to shoot them from far away if they try, since most of them are pretty stupid.”

“And if a clever one mimics you?” Jerry asked.

“That’s what the next test’s for. Get ready to land.”

The tops of the gnarled, black trees threatened to scrape Jerry and Xypher, but they found a clearing soon enough. Xypher landed on a fallen tree, which collapsed partway under his weight. Jerry landed on purple mud, grimacing.

“Ugh,” he grumbled. “Is everywhere this… what’s the word… vile?”

“Outside of town? Pretty much. That’s the Voidlands for you.” Hakk marched forward. “Stay close, stay behind, and stay quiet. Clear?” He picked up Zena’s bowl and started rolling her forward, the forcefield maintaining its shape tenuously.

Owen fidgeted and followed at a faster pace to make up for his leg span. “Um, what’s—”

“What’s the third thing I said?” Hakk said, glaring at Owen.

He squeaked and shrank back, playing with his claws. “Sorry…”

Jerry glared at Hakk, but said nothing. He gestured forward with a wing.

Satisfied, Hakk nodded back and said, “Follow any instructions you’re given. Play nice and this’ll be easy for everyone, including you three. We don’t like dealing with troublemakers. Any questions you guys have, we’ll answer once we have you inside and verify that everything is secure.”

Owen nodded vigorously, trying to shake off his nerves. Though he noticed that they weren’t moving forward. He wanted to ask, but then he remembered Hakk’s third command and shifted his weight instead.

Jerry tensed enough for Owen to notice his wings pinned to his side. Defensive stance, perhaps even noncombative at the same time. Owen felt a phantom sensation of his lack of wings doing the same.

“Identify yourselves, scouts.”

The voice was gruff and booming, sending another tight chill through Owen’s chest and into his throat.

“Sandslash Hakk, Class B,” Hakk replied, pulling out a white badge with a strange, star-shaped symbol with four large points and four small points between them.

“Corviknight Xypher, Class D,” Xypher cawed back, followed by a chirp. He produced another badge with the same symbol.

They were so bright; he only now realized that, aside from Hakk’s white-cyan appearance—which was stained reddish purple—those badges were the first pure white thing he’d seen in a while. The symbols were black, and something about them made his chest feel warm.

“And the other three?” the booming voice said. It sounded vaguely metallic.

“All rescues. Found them in a group. Yeah, I know, rare.” Hakk shrugged, motioning back. “Feebas, Aerodactyl, Charmander.”

Another pause. Shuffling. Owen’s scales tightened like feeble armor against his body, like a vestigial remnant from when his hide used to be stronger. They were surrounded.

“Alright, forward. Sandslash first with Feebas, then Charmander.”

Jerry tensed more, but continued to say nothing. He glanced down at Owen, who looked up uncertainly. They didn’t have a choice anymore, did they? Owen’s tail blazed; there was no point in trying to fight now, but if he needed to, they had to find some way to escape.

The caution in Jerry’s eyes suggested he agreed.

The source of the booming voice came from a Steelix, its shining, steel hide covered in flecks of the ground’s sticky mud. Huge eyes stared down at Owen and even more daunting jaws, frozen and expressionless, radiated a paralyzing aura. He could crush Owen with a tap. Wouldn’t even notice.

Owen stared straight forward, walking past his long, segmented body, the little, gleaming parts reflecting his tail flame, which was a lot smaller. His fire crackled now and then like a wet fire.

“Aerodactyl next,” Steelix said, and Owen wanted to collapse to his knees. But he didn’t and held strong, though he did ball his fists up.

Jerry approached just as slowly, occasionally giving a glance at Steelix, and then Xypher took up the rear.

The walk that followed was silent, save for Steelix’s grinding slither across the ground, light footsteps from the heavier Pokémon of the line, and the occasional swish or blub of Zena swimming in her bubble. Sometimes, a broken branch, a heavy misstep, or some other foreign noise gave away the fact that, indeed, they were still being watched by more than just Steelix.

“So,” Hakk said, glancing back. “Charmander. How long’ve you been out in the Nil Plateaus?”

That meant he was allowed to answer, right? “Not sure,” he replied. “I can’t tell time that easily here. No sun, or at least, I don’t think there is. But I’ve fallen asleep maybe… five, six times? I don’t know. Some of them might have been because I passed out…”

“Passed out?” Hakk asked.

“Mm.” Owen nodded. “I couldn’t get a lot of food, and there were these… giant things that I had to run away from, and the stress made me pass out sometimes, I think.”

“Those are called Void Titans,” Hakk said. “You were smart to run away from them.”

Owen nodded a little too enthusiastically.

“And you, Aerodactyl?”

“Same deal,” Jerry said shortly. “Less passing out, though. Wings help.”

Hakk continued walking. Occasionally Xypher babbled under his breath, but Owen couldn’t tell what he was saying—or if it was comprehensible at all. Whenever Hakk made a light snapping noise with his claws, however, Xypher quieted down.

“And you, Feebas?”

“I’m afraid I don’t remember much,” Zena said. “It’s a little blurry. I remember there was a fight I was part of… As a Milotic, if you can believe it, and then… Well, and then things became dark… There was a horrible… presence…”

“Presence?” Hakk asked.

“I remember seeing it. When it was dark, I felt something, like it was… pulling me, but not. Like a current. I couldn’t get away at first, and then… I woke up.”

“Mm.” Hakk nodded. “Sounds pretty scary. Glad you’re still with us.”

Hakk knew more. Owen could tell. But he couldn’t speak up. He’d remember it for later.

They continued in silence until the icy Sandslash pointed a claw toward a bright spot ahead, like a small, starry sky in the forest. “There’s Null Village,” he said. “Just keep to this formation, alright?”

Null Village had no welcoming sign and no clear perimeter. It simply started as part of the forest, little black buildings made out of packed mud and reinforced with some other, even darker material that Owen didn’t recognize. No building was greater than two stories tall, and they looked to be very deliberately below the trees’ height.

Some had larger doors, likely for larger inhabitants, while others were nostalgically smaller, like the tiny home Willow had once occupied in Hot Spot. Owen always wondered what furniture she would have had. Probably mushrooms.

Despite the unceremonious beginning to the village, the internals were organized and grid-like. Streets were mercifully solid and packed down like stone. The claws of his feet tapped on it, and the sound reminded him of fine pottery.

Occasionally, they passed by lighter spots in the buildings that illuminated the whole street despite the dim lighting. The light source came from more diamonds embedded into the walls, just like the crystals that he’d found in—what did Hakk call it, Nil Plateaus?

But they didn’t have the same draw that those crystals gave him. Disappointing. Even more disappointing was they weren’t able to find the old crystals that he’d lost.

Most of the Pokémon in the village weren’t fully evolved, which was an odd sight. He was so used to everyone being fully evolved in Kilo Village, most of the kids inside or at school or playing elsewhere than the Hearts’ center of operations. They gave him curious, sometimes wary glances, particularly at Jerry. A Ponyta galloped away from the other end of the street when they’d seen him, while an accompanying Cranidos sighed and followed the Ponyta more leisurely.

“Alright,” Hakk said, snapping Owen out of his thoughts. He’d lost track of how many streets they’d turned and how many buildings they’d passed, but suddenly, they were in front of one of the larger buildings. At least sixty feet across. Even if Zena was fully evolved, they’d need at least three of her, end to end, to cross one side.

The Feebas flitted about in her bowl. Owen wanted to get closer, but Hakk’s words continued to echo in his mind.

They entered, and the inside was a lot brighter. The walls were painted a light brown in a design that was reminiscent of a Dungeon’s twisted wood-warping. He wasn’t sure why that would be a desirable look, though. It just meant danger.

A few beanbags lined the ground for sitting and resting. A desk sat at the back of the room, which had two passageways to the let and right, as well as a closed door in the back that didn’t have any lever to push open. How did they get through? It was just flat.

Sitting at the front of the desk was a Jynx, quietly looking at another one of those strange, rectangular tablets like it was a book. Her eyes scanned the rectangle in a slow and steady rhythm.

It just occurred to Owen that Steelix and the unseen others had stopped following them some time ago. It was just Hakk and Xypher again.

“We have three. Three, three,” Xypher called, chirped, and then preened.

“Three more?” Jynx said, bringing an incredulous hand to her forehead. “Sure, okay, fine, just… ahh…” She frowned at the three, but then motioned to their left. “Go ahead and set up rooms and we’ll have them evaluated. Welcome to Null Village.”

Hakk gestured for Owen and Jerry to follow. Down the hall to their left, several doors—each one without any sort of knob—were separated by several wingspans’ distance. The walls were a polished black, like obsidian. It glistened against Owen’s flame.

The distance between each door felt a lot longer than it should have. Owen lost count of the paces, and he wondered if there were hidden rooms between them to compensate for all the empty wall space.

Owen was about to ask a question, starting with an, “Um,” but then remembered he was probably not supposed to be talking. Instead, he tried to play it off as a cough.

“Alright, Owen. You first.” Hakk stopped at one of the rooms, only a few doorways down from the main lobby. There was a symbol above the obsidian door that didn’t match the others. While the ones behind Owen were red and square, this one was a green circle.

“In you go,” Hakk said, pressing a paw against the door. He held it there for a second, then pulled away, yet a glowing imprint of his paw remained.

Owen moved to get a closer look, his eyes reflecting the light. But before he could see how it worked, the pawprint disappeared and the door slid open—into the doorframe.

Owen let out a feral chirp in response, flinching.

“Wha? Where’d the door go?” Jerry said.

“Uh, it slid aside.” Hakk gestured for Owen to go in. “Go on. We’ll get to you later.”

The interior was a short hall into a large room. The walls were that same obsidian color again, and the floor that similar, pottery texture. A dull heat emanated from the inside that made his flame perk up eagerly.

Hakk didn’t seem as receptive. “C’mon, I hate Fire rooms.”

“Sorry.” Owen quickly shuffled inside, ducking his head.

A deep and unsettlingly familiar voice echoed across the hall. “Where is he?”

Jerry blinked, looking down the hall, then at Owen. “That your clone?” Jerry said. “Didn’t think Har was in that fight.”

“Har…” It was Har’s voice. Which meant it was his own voice. Which also meant it might be—

Eon, as a Charizard, flew across the halls, glancing left and right when he passed their corridor. He halted—overturning a nearby potted void plant with his gusts—and stared at Owen.

“You’re here,” Eon breathed.

Xypher squawked. “No interaction! No interaction!”

“But he’s—”

Xypher squawked even louder, fanning out his feathers.

“Back off,” Hakk said, growling. “If you know this guy, we’ll process it later. You just got cleared, so don’t make us revoke it.”

“But—”

Xypher screeched, making Jerry wince and shuffle to the left. Zena tried to get as low to the ground as possible while remaining in her bubble.

Eon didn’t move. Owen, by the doorway, didn’t either. Eventually, he realized Hakk was staring at him, and he backed away.

“Press the help button if you need something,” Hakk said, and then the door slid shut.

And suddenly, Owen was alone.

<><><>​

Several days ago, they had followed a burst of black lightning in some faraway forest. That, coupled with the vague sensation that something familiar was there, led Demitri and Mispy to travel across rough, desolate terrain, taking rest stops in little caves and valleys when they could. Over those three days, they had happened upon two wraiths. One dissolved into nothing the moment they were taken down; the other, Demitri couldn’t stomach.

Now, over yet another chilly, dusty, black mountain, toward the jagged, violet horizon, the mutant Meganium and Haxorus continued. Mispy’s vines crawled over the terrain easily, and Demitri, who felt lighter than ever, rested atop her back, occasionally wincing from hunger pangs. His claws’ grip strength was getting weaker and weaker. It would be time for another break soon.

“I’m sorry,” Demitri said.

“What?”

“I’m sorry… I think you can tell I’m…”

Mispy frowned, but said nothing. So even he recognized how weak he had become, to need a break just so he didn’t slip off. Maybe she could use a few more vines to hold him in place.

“I just can’t eat those things like you can,” Demitri said. “Not like it matters. We haven’t found another one like them in so long…”

That was true. Mispy wouldn’t mind eating something, but seeing Demitri like this was tearing her apart even more. She bit her lower lip, then eased her way over a particularly steep slope. Demitri was slipping, so she quickly wound a few extra vines around him. When she did, she lost her footing below and tilted left; Demitri yelped, and then a few of her vines lost their hold on him next.

“No!” Mispy shouted, but her voice was drowned out by the bitter wind. Demitri hit the sloped ground and tumbled several feet, coming to a rough stop when his tail’s axe cut into nearby stone.

Mispy carefully slid down the same slope and picked Demitri up. “Are you okay?” She channeled some healing energy into him, but that was starting to wear her down, too. But she kept going anyway until she felt there was nothing more to aid.

“I’m sorry,” Demitri repeated quietly. “Come—come on, let’s get going. I’ll… walk. I’ll be fine.”

“No, you won’t,” Mispy said, wrapping a few vines around him. “Come on.”

Demitri resisted halfheartedly, but Mispy could tell it was more out of shame than anything.

“I’m just so weak,” Demitri lamented. “How did it get like this…” He squeezed at his gut, where the scales had started to sag where a healthy layer of fat had once been. Now his form was unhealthily slender. Mispy wasn’t doing much better, but she had ample excess mass to draw from before she’d show any signs of starvation. She had always overeaten. That wouldn’t mean anything, now, though, especially for Demitri…

For some reason, she kept seeing Demitri cooking in her mind. All those times he’d experimented with all kinds of dishes when Rhys was out on longer missions. Served them to her; she’d never asked if he wanted some, either, or if he wanted more than those small portions that he’d eaten instead. He was so strong; surely, he’d need to eat more.

“Are you okay?” Demitri asked, and his claws to her cheek broke her from a trance.

Another gust blew dirt in their eyes; Demitri closed his left one and ducked down, like that would help, while Mispy brought a few vines over her face.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pressing her head against the base of his neck. “I… I always eat. And you… you always… you don’t eat enough…” The words came after long stutters, but Demitri waited patiently, because he always did. He was always so patient with her. She didn’t deserve it.

“Don’t talk like that,” Demitri said, rubbing the back of her beck. “Especially not now.”

Demitri climbed onto Mispy’s back with newfound strength, slowly creeping until he was resting on the back of her neck. Reluctantly, she wrapped her vines around him, securing his position. His Dragon body was warm. So warm. Even now. Perhaps it was his inner, blue fire.

“It’s going to be okay,” Demitri whispered. “I loved when you ate. And I’ll love it when we get to eat again. It’s gonna happen. We’re gonna have a huge feast together…” His voice was so soft that she had to strain to hear it over another indifferent gust.

“Promise me,” Mispy said, though she advanced forward again. “Don’t… die.”

Demitri leaned a little deeper. “If we find another wraith…” He nuzzled her, and that, somehow, relaxed her. “We’ll fuse, and maybe I can stomach it easier. I know it’s risky, but…”

That was all she needed. “Okay.”

With more valleys ahead, they continued along the slopes once more. They carefully traversed over jagged gaps and sudden dips, occasionally navigating horizontally until they found a more lenient drop. Demitri mumbled about a time when they had gone on an exploration in Void Forest, which felt vaguely like the dreary atmosphere they had been enjoying for the past few days. How scared he was about Ghosts, of all things. What he’d do to worry about those than wherever they were now.

Demitri had eventually fallen silent, and Mispy, worried, shook him gently. “I’m okay,” Demitri replied, squeezing her a little more. “Was just resting my voice.”

But she liked his voice. And it wasn’t like she could speak to fill the air that easily, either. Still, they continued, Mispy occasionally contemplating—if only to pass the time—whether her vines qualified as plant matter or flesh.

“I feel him,” Demitri suddenly mumbled.

“Huh?” Mispy looked back.

“He’s close…”

Mispy blinked, perplexed, and stopped. Was he losing it? His aura still felt fine; while he was weak, it was still stable. He wasn’t fading—she’d force him to eat if it came to that…

She closed her eyes and humored him anyway. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t with his—

A Flygon flew over a forest of black trees.

Mispy’s eyes shot open. How did she… know that?

“Who?” Mispy asked.

“Gahi.”

Then they felt the same thing. “Let’s go.”

Demitri held on a little tighter, and Mispy moved a little faster, following that strange feeling that guided them forward.

<><><>​

“You’re flying too high,” Trina criticized.

“Bah, they ain’t shot me yet,” Gahi dismissed. Still, he flew closer to the treetops.

Trina looked down, inspecting a wound along Gahi’s side. “And how have you been doing with…”

“What, it look bad again?”

“It might. Try not to strain yourself too much.”

“Bah, better ‘n yesterday.” Gahi snorted. “Stupid Druddigon… who would’ve though that we’d get some territorial feral here, too.”

“It’s too bad the Orans here aren’t blessed,” Trina added.

“Might be poisoned, too,” Gahi grumbled. “That one I ate messed me up good.”

“It might have been a cursed berry,” Trina said. “Those used to happen on occasion in southern towns, from what I heard. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore.”

“Cursed? Sounds kinda familiar, but I dunno. Either way, I ain’t gonna eat another one without taking a long, hard look at it…”

“Do you still feel anything guiding you?” Trina asked.

“Yep. Gettin’ real strong, too.”

“Hopefully whatever it is, it can give you a chance to rest.” Trina frowned, her tiny body feeling vulnerable against the rushing wind. “I don’t want you falling while I’m like this.”

“Bah! I ain’t gonna fall unless I get shot.”

Trina half-expected a blast of darkness to hit Gahi just then, but none came.

“You ain’t gettin’ hungry, are yeh?”

“Oh, no,” Trina lied. Then, she amended, “Not more than usual. The lack of sunlight isn’t agreeing with my leaves.”

“Maybe I’ll start lookin’ fer somethin’ later. Better berries. Maybe more wood if we gotta.”

They flew along in silence afterward, Trina occasionally taking a closer and more careful look at Gahi’s wounds. They were only open because he’d refused to sit still; had he spent longer asleep and not constantly wandering around restlessly, it would have been healed by now. But instead, the wound was reopening yet again.

Stubborn fool. Trina rolled her eyes and used her arms—it was so strange to have them so long again—to get a better hold around his neck. Her vines anchored her further.

And then, suddenly, she was glad she had held on so firmly. Gahi twirled and rolled in the air, and everything felt frigid. Frost covered her left hand and she tried to shake it off before it’d damage her flesh.

“Gahi!” she shouted over the wind.

“Found Owen,” Gahi spat.

“You what?” Trina tried to look past Gahi’s neck. She saw a great spire in the middle of the trees with a glowing tip. It radiated a fine mist and cyan energy—the telltale sign of the Ice element.

“Ice, why’s it always ice?” Gahi growled, shifting his angle in the air as the source of the blast rapidly drew near.

“You said you found Owen. Is he there?”

“Yep. Feel it fer sure.”

“You shouldn’t follow your instincts so blindly,” Trina chided.

“Bah! Save the lecture fer later.” Gahi twirled around another blast and sped forward. Trina braced, hearing a whistling in the air that came from Gahi’s wings. And then, the sound of metal wind chimes—that was odd. Gahi’s wings darkened with little bright dots, like a sky.

“Gahi?” Trina said.

But Gahi didn’t hear her over the whistling and the wind.

Suddenly, Gahi dipped under the trees and closed his wings. He landed on his feet, ran several paces, and then hopped in the air again, the updraft of his own power pushing him forward. Trina saw a few wraiths in the shadows, yet Gahi was too fast for them to so much as react in time.

And then, just ahead, a Steelix emerged from the trees to the right, though Trina had seen his massive, shiny form coming for a while.

“Ngh—!” Gahi abruptly slowed down, spreading his wings apart to further decelerate.

“Gahi?” Trina glanced at Steelix. He’d crush them if Gahi didn’t move…

“Barrier.” Gahi poited at the lightly reflective, transparent surface that blocked the entrance to the village. He glanced at Steelix. “Oy, you keeping Owen in there?”

Steelix glared, and Trina’s leafy scales tingled. They were surrounded. Did Gahi even know?

“Rushing toward a village like that…” Steelix glared down at Gahi. “What is your name?”

“Who wants ter know?”

“Gahi,” Trina hissed under her breath. “Excuse me! We’re looking for a friend of ours. His name is Owen, a Charizard. He may look different from a normal Charizard, though.”

Gahi grumbled, but said nothing in protest. Instead, he kept his guard up, ready to bolt at any sign of aggression. Trina decided not to comment that he had been the aggressor here.

“A Charizard named Owen,” Steelix said. “And your names?”

“I am Serperior Trina,” she said, paused, and then sighed. “…Snivy… Trina.”

Gahi narrowed his eyes, then said, “Flygon Gahi.”

“You’re an odd Flygon,” Steelix commented.

“What’s it ter—”

“He’s from the south,” Trina explained. “Pokémon have some regional variants there, and Flygon are a rare one.”

“Mm, I see. The south. Then you’re from…”

“From? I’m from Arachno Forest. Gahi comes from Hot Spot, an unknown location. But he is also of the Thousand Hearts.” By now, Trina had scaled Gahi’s neck and was sitting between his antennae. “Where are we now? We were attacked and eventually found ourselves here. I had entered a strange Dungeon as a Serperior, but once I exited, my form dissolved, and I woke up as a Snivy.”

“I see. And what about your family?” Steelix said.

“Okay, enough!” Gahi snarled, flaring his wings. “I don’t know what yer—get off me!” Gahi tried to grab for Trina, but she ducked and weaved away from his grip. Meanwhile, she wrapped her vines around his mouth.

She could tell he was tempted to bite on them, but while she had the opportunity, she whispered into Gahi’s earhole, “Do you want to see Owen?”

Gahi stopped his struggling and glared at Trina with one eye.

“Then you will cooperate with them.” She rose up and addressed Steelix. “My family is all long since deceased. I was adopted into a family of Spinarak and Ariados.”

“And I don’t got a family,” Gahi said.

“You don’t have one, or you don’t remember them?” Steelix said.

“He’s…” Trina wondered how to phrase it. She’d already said he was southern. “Orphaned. But my memory of his status is clear.”

Steelix looked to Trina, then at Gahi, who maintained his glare.

“No sudden movements,” Steelix commanded. “You will follow us inside. You can’t see Owen yet, but we can bring you to where he is being kept for evaluation.”

“Evaluation?” Trina said. “Is he hurt?”

“No. But he is a Charmander now, so a similar fate as you, Snivy.”

“So I don’t gotta go through that,” Gahi said.

“You do if you want to see Owen.”

Gahi growled again, but Trina tightened her vines. He relented and motioned toward the town. “Fine.”

Steelix paused, scanning them one last time. Trina wondered what would make a town so cautious as to have so many scouts in the area just for two visitors. Though, he did dodge those Ice blasts…

And finally, Steelix slithered into town, the barrier granting access without resistance. Gahi followed behind, and Trina briefly wondered if they’d be allowed to step out again.
 
Chapter 89 - Your Name
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Chapter 89 – Your Name

Nothing looked familiar to Owen. Thankfully, an adorably oversized information pamphlet—roughly half his height—did a good job at directing him to where to go and how to operate all of the strange devices given to him in this somewhat cramped living space.

The sliding door that had locked him inside this windowless room didn’t budge, and he had tried very hard. His tiny, scaly hands clattered against the solid surface while he listened to Eon muttering on the other side. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to talk to him just yet… but he was at least glad he was alive.

With his back against the doorway, Owen looked over the brochure that was nearly half his height. While it wasn’t very colorful, it was very informational, and after spending so many days in the Nil Plateaus, having any sort of reading material was a mental breath of fresh air.

Some of the information was… basic, and he skimmed over most of it. He had no idea what sort of Pokémon needed to know what water could be used for beyond drinking. It was embarrassing; of course he’d use it to wash! Assuming they had Passho powder… There wasn’t any mention of that. Only that they had Passho berries in the ‘cold box,’ which they then titled a refrigerator.

He knew of these things. Nevren had invented them, though prototypes were already moving around in Kilo to replace manual Ice work. Controlled Hail Orbs. Basic, mechanical pumps. Perhaps it was a similar technology here?

Everything seemed so advanced. It was like he was staring into Kilo’s future, aside from the desolate wasteland everywhere.

Then again…

Shaking the thoughts from his head, Owen’s new battle was a struggle to open the fridge. It had some kind of seal on it because he had to pull very hard before the door finally gave way with a sucking noise. Cold air washed over his toes first, then his knees and lower body. Curious, he breathed into the white interior of the lit fridge, creating a foggy cloud.

There were a few Passho Berries indeed. No powder. He’d have to eat and then be—

Eat?

This was food.

The brochure had warned him not to eat it all, but he was so hungry… Maybe he could just have one, since he probably should wash up, and—

Knock went the door and Owen’s thoughts collapsed. Before he had the chance to answer, the door opened and revealed Corviknight Xypher and a woven, wooden basket in his beak.

He cawed and hopped inside; the door slid closed behind him.

“Um, hello,” Owen said, reflexively trying to sense what was inside the bag. Without Perceive, he saw nothing. “What’s that?”

“A gi—“ Upon opening his mouth, the bag fell to the floor, and Xypher cawed loudly and beat his wings before ducking down and muttering under his breath.

“Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay!” Owen said, raising his arms. “Didn’t sound too heavy.” And he didn’t want something that could step on him by accident getting upset. Cautiously, Owen approached and pulled the red cloth back, but he knew what it was before he even opened it.

Bread.

A simple, golden brown, tough loaf of bread, its shape long and rounded. Next to it was a slightly overturned, but not ruined, slab of butter. Tiny, but present, only really enough for a few slices at best, unless he really rationed them.

Owen thought his heart had stopped. Hesitant, he reached forward, “I-is th-that f-for… me?”

“Yes! Yes, yes.” Xypher nodded.

Before the phantasm disappeared before his eyes, Owen tugged the bag closer to him and dragged it to a small, raised portion of the dark ground that he recognized—based on the brochure—as a table. He placed the napkin on the table first, and then the bread, and the tiny ceramic plate of butter. There was a flat stick sitting at the bottom of the basket, and a palm-sized, flat clay container of some kind. Inside was an odd, red paste.

“We were told you enjoyed spicy,” Xypher said. “Spicy, spicy. Cheri jam. For the bread. Tasty. Tasty, tasty.”

It took every ounce of Owen’s willpower to eat it like a decent creature. First, he broke off a small slice. Then the stick. Butter first, this time. He breathed the tiniest ember over it. Sizzle. The aroma made him drool and he didn’t care.

His teeth sank in and the smell doubled, savory and dusty, yet in a good way. That bread scent was unmistakable, even here. The tiny amount of oil coated his tongue; at some point, Xypher had left for the washroom and returned with a cup of water, which he gently set down on the table. He cawed again, looking pleased.

Owen couldn’t see. He was smiling like an idiot and everything was blurry. Even still, he didn’t need sight or Perceive to keep eating, stopping only to take a drink of water.

“Not too fast,” Xypher said.

“M—mm,” Owen agreed. It would upset his empty stomach if he had too much, and despite his temptation to go for a second slice, he set it and the Cheri jam down. “Th-thank you,” he squeaked. “I’m sorry. Did you want some?”

“Oh, no. No, no.”

The hesitation came nonetheless, but he eventually resumed preparing his second slice, this time with slightly less primal enthusiasm. “And,” Owen asked before taking that tantalizing next bite, “how about the others? Jerry? Zena? They’re eating, too, right?”

“Yes. Yes, yes.”

“They’re doing okay?”

Xypher cawed in affirmative.

“Okay. That’s… that’s good.” Satisfied, he ate in silence, wondering why Xypher was still there. Perhaps to answer more questions? Xypher didn’t seem like the sort to be very good at… conversations. But the—oh the Cheri jam was—he had to stop eating to savor it. The spice tickled his tongue and reminded him that he was alive. Hopefully. It cleared his airway and warmed his throat. The crunch gave his teeth something to feel satisfaction over.

“You have a bright smile,” Xypher said.

Owen flinched, looking up at the huge Corviknight. His eyes gleamed with an odd, simple joy. “Oh,” Owen said, swallowing. “Um—thanks?”

“Yes. Don’t lose it.”

“Oh, I—I won’t.” And to prove a point, that smile returned. “Thank you again, I—whoever—whatever this building is for, thank you. I haven’t eaten something good since I came here.”

Xypher continued to stare, but he was attentive.

“Um, and how long do I have to be here?” Owen asked.

“A few days,” Xypher said. “You will be fine.”

“What for?” Owen tried to keep his voice as docile as possible. He was at their mercy, and they had been nothing but good to him so far. “Is it some kind of… security precaution?”

Xypher’s bright expression dimmed somewhat. “Mm… Yes. But I am… bad at explaining.”

“Oh.” So he knew. “It’s okay! I’ll just rest for now, if that’s what you need me to do. Just a few days, right? And your scouts are going to search for my Mom, right? The Ralts, she might be a Ralts now.”

“Yes. Yes, yes.”

That was the best he could ask for.

Before long, with the bliss of finally filling his stomach fading slowly, Owen pushed the plate of bread forward with restraint. “I’ll have more of it later. I don’t want to overwhelm my stomach.”

“Do you need help with anything else?”

“No, this helped me enough.” Owen searched for and then raised the brochure. “I was about to have a Passho and wash up. And then, er…” Everything was very bare, and he suddenly realized that the natural heat in the room might have been uncomfortable for Xypher.

“Oh! The—the heat isn’t bothering you, is it?”

“No. No, no.”

He was lying. “It’s okay,” Owen said. “Really, all the information I need is right here. I’ll figure out the rest of it later, y’know? I’m already in way better shape than you found me, and that’s good enough.”

Xypher seemed unsure, letting out a low, drawn-out caw of uncertainty.

“I know the room’s probably a little warm for you. Is there any way I can call for help if I need it? Then you can go.”

Xypher hopped toward one end of the wall and pointed with a talon. “Here,” he said. On the wall was a button that had a similar star-like design in the middle, black with white inside. “Press this, and then speak. Hello. Hello, hello.” Xypher poked the button at the same time.

“Hello? Xypher? Is Charmander doing okay?”

It was like a communicator! Owen’s eyes lit up, moving closer to the button and the strange, bumpy part of the wall just above it.

“Yes. Yes, yes. Showing the help button.”

“Um, hello, wall voice,” Owen greeted.

“…Hello. I’m not in the wall. Just security in the other room.”

Right. Communicator. “Er, sorry.”

Xypher released the button and nodded. “Do you know?”

“Yep! Thanks, Xypher.”

He cawed in approval and hopped to the entrance. He looked back once while Owen smiled. Owen’s little flame was brighter than it had been in days, and he hoped Xypher knew what that meant.

“Bright smile,” Xypher said again. And then, he left the room.

Shortly after Xypher left, Owen tried to place the bread, butter, and jam back in the basket for later, gently returning the red cloth over it so it looked more decorative. His stomach still felt empty, but he knew it was a bad idea to overstuff himself after going so long without food. Perhaps after his wash, he’d return to it.

The Passho Berry was bitter and dry, but it was still food. He already felt that cold sensation running through his body, and knew to take advantage of it while he could. After referring to the brochure again, he entered the washroom, which had tiny stairways for smaller Pokémon to operate the facilities, as well as several buttons at varying heights to accomplish the same task. A little crude, but universal. They probably had no idea what sort of Pokémon would inhabit these rooms.

These facilities were foreign yet familiar. In many ways, they reminded him of Kilo’s technology, yet several decades, or more, ahead. In other ways, it reminded him of something else in his past, which he concluded was either during his time with humans, or some other gap that he suspected was still missing.

He sighed. No use thinking about that now.

The walls were white and covered with red flecks of color like the tips of a campfire. The angular design of the red shapes reminded him of a Togepi’s shell. Passing a tall, tall sink, a few other facilities, and finally reaching the back of the room, Owen prodded at a small button next to a glass door. It slid open; he stepped inside to see a gated drain in the middle of anti-slip textured ground.

“…Fancy,” Owen had to say aloud, startling himself with how his high voice echoed in the room. Despite how supersized everything was, he had forgotten how tiny he sounded, too.

Two buttons. Red and blue, as well as a green one in the middle. The information he had read—which was thankfully element-proof—said green first, and then red for Fires.

Click, and then Owen waited. From above, a nozzle with countless tiny holes showered him in streams of water, and out of reflex, he gasped and pinned himself against the wall, his feral instincts crying, ‘Rain! Rain!’ before he came to his senses. Tentatively, he held his hand out, the water flowing between his scales. It was red by the time it dripped off him; he winced. Was that blood, or Void dust?

Suddenly feeling filthy, he reluctantly stepped under the gentle flow. Cold. He held the red button. Warm. Hot. Scalding. Not enough. There.

Owen sighed, steam clouding his vision and rain muffling his hearing. The Passho Berry wasn’t going to last too long, but he could afford to idle under the water. The steam cleared his head. For a few blissful moments, he didn’t think about the Guardians, or the Hunters, or Eon. Just the water, and before he knew it, he was thoughtless.

A sudden tapping startled him out of it.

“WAH!”

Gasping water-saturated air, Owen turned to the transparent shower door and saw the steam-obscured form of an icy Sandslash. Owen held his chest, panting, and approached the shower door. Running his hand over the glass, he saw Hakk standing with a container of something and a rough-looking cloth.

“You forgot these,” Hakk said. “Also, hi.”

Owen tapped a button to open the door, taking the bottle—smelled like soap—and cloth. “Um, thanks,” Owen said. “…I’m doing okay, by the way,” he added, closing the door again while he tried to comprehend the bottle, which was simply labeled, Scale Wash and Polish. Two in one? Impossible…

“Good to hear,” Hakk said. “Xypher mentioned you had a few questions.”

“Oh, right.” Owen glanced back at his tail; the flame ignored the water. As long as it didn’t start hurting, he could afford to enjoy the—why was the ground so red? Owen shuffled his feat, watching the red water flow into the drain. Grimacing, he glanced back at Hakk. “I had a few questions about… this place. And some of the things that happened while I was here.”

“I figure I’ll answer the ones we always get,” Hakk said. “First, you’re dead. I think I mentioned that before, but I want to reiterate, you’re definitely dead.”

Owen wanted to contest this, but he felt it would be a pointless battle. “Okay,” he said. “And why am I a Charmander?”

“Right.” Hakk sat down near the shower. Oh, so this was going to be a long talk, was it? Could he have at least waited until he was done washing? The water drowned out his voice…

Hakk continued, “Even though you’re dead, you can still die again here. Each time you do, all of your energy is drained away, and you’re reborn near where you had died before. Either from the ground, or in the water, somewhere, you’ll wind up. Sometimes you fall from the sky; better hope you don’t die again when that happens.”

“I—right.” He couldn’t contest that. He had found his old body. “Right. I found my old body back in these wastes. It was in a huge pot of… of stew!” Owen shuddered, not wanting to think further about it, but he knew he had to ask. “How did it wind up there?”

“Some tribe must have found your body and scavenged,” Hakk said. “If it was abandoned, probably means they had to run from a Titan. Still, I’m kind of surprised that you’re this lucid after what you went through. Feebas is still really out of it.”

“Zena?” Owen said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, she probably got killed somehow, too,” Hakk said. “Each time that happens, you come back a little less… you. Well, a lot of less.” Hakk looked off. “Me, I’m a class B. I died a long time ago, but I’ve been making a slow recovery since then. Used to be C, and that’s probably where Feebas is going to fall under.”

“…Xypher said he was D,” Owen said. “So, he died a lot?”

Hakk shook his head. “Doubt it. You can probably only afford to die once or twice at best before you’re totally gone. He forgot most of his past completely, and it’s not an easy climb getting it back. Xypher and I have been scouts for the better part of the last century or so, and he was barely able to talk back then.”

The water was starting to hurt, but he still had to get the scale wash on. He finally figured out how to work the cloth with the soap and started rubbing between his fingers, then his shiny head, and worked his way down. The water helped temper the grave news.

Owen tried to keep his voice even. “What makes that happen?”

Another shake and noncommittal shrug. “There are stories of people who see a red light when they die, and then some oppressive darkness, before they figure out how to fight back. That entity is something that’s got a name: Dark Matter.”

“Dark… Matter.” He didn’t recognize the title, but something about the description sent a cold chill down his spine.

“Seems to me that stronger spirits can break away sooner, but if you stay too long… Well. Eventually there’s nothing left of you except a blob of shadows.”

“A blob of—” Owen nearly dropped the cloth. His flame sparked. “The… the wraiths?”

“Yep.” Hakk’s eyes trailed to the geometric, colorful design on the walls. “Around here, we call them Void Shadows. Because that’s what they are, when you think about it. Empty shadows of what they used to be. So… don’t die. Don’t get reckless just because you’re immortal. Because ‘you’ aren’t.”

The coldness of the words overpowered the heat of the water. Owen took a steady breath and pressed the green button again, the rain from above slowing to a steady trickle. He felt a dull pain; he had been in the shower for too long.

“What’s with putting water in a Fire room?” Owen asked.

“Dirt baths tracked filth everywhere, and the dust doesn’t wash away to flame baths,” Hakk said. “We threw Passho Berries at it and called it a day.” He tossed Owen a soft, white cloth to dry off.

Owen was thankful to see that the cloth remained white when he was done drying; grudgingly, he had to admit that water was effective at washing away dust.

“Thank you,” Owen said again, looking down. “So, what do I have to do to pay you guys all back?”

Hakk smirked, rolling his eyes. “Well, right to the point, are you?”

“Yeah, well…” Owen couldn’t maintain eye contact. “I don’t know. Sorry I phrased it that way.”

“Nah, y’know, I can respect that. It’s practical. Kinda weird coming from you, though. I barely know you and you seem like the type to just give out generosities without thinking about it.”

The Charmander quickly returned to drying off. “Isn’t this place uncomfortable for you?” he asked Hakk.

“Downed an Occa before I came in,” the Ice-Steel Pokémon replied. “Anyway, here’s the deal. We keep newcomers cozy while we evaluate their mental stability. After that, we work on integrations, and that’s your repayment. Give back to the village that saved your hide.”

“Oh. That’s it?”

“Yep. Fair’s fair.”

It sounded too fair. “And what else do I have to do?” His flame crackled, and he wished it hadn’t. Charmander were too expressive.

And Hakk seemed to notice. “What’s that mean? What else? Figure that covers all of it.”

“Do I have to fight for anyone?”

“I dunno, maybe if a huge attack comes in, but at that point it’s in your best interest anyway.” Hakk shrugged. “If you aren’t one for the front lines, you can find a safer job. Maybe a berry farmer.”

Only the residual drip, drip, drip of the showerhead punctuated the silence.

“Y’know, probably not a good idea to snarl at the hand that feeds you,” Hakk cautioned.

Was he snarling? He couldn’t tell anymore. His flame was at least three times its size before bread, though, but that might have been because he finally had food in his gut. He tried to calm it. Deep breath. In. Hold. Out. In. Hold, but softer. Out.

“Sorry,” Owen said, and he realized he’d been saying that a lot. Submissive as always. Squeezing his fist, in an act of defiance, he said, “I’ve just had a long string of being led by others acting nice just to use me.” But he didn’t have the courage to look Hakk in the eyes.

“Tch.” Hakk shrugged. “Take it or leave. Not my problem.” He turned around, waving noncommittally. “Just don’t cry when you’re becoming a Void Shadow.”

Hakk’s steps echoed, the door outside opened, and Owen briefly felt the impulse to chase him and slip out and escape. But his feet felt glued to the ground, and he wouldn’t have been fast enough anyway.

By the time the thought was only half-developed, the door shut, and Owen was alone again.

After walking out of the washroom and past the sterilized, hard walls—which suddenly reminded him of Quartz HQ despite the opposite colors—he approached the bread basket and quietly ate another few slices. Despite everything, they were still delicious, and he was certain to finish the bread when he woke up again. But now, it was time to sleep.

Once again, the information he was provided helped guide him. Against one of the walls was another little button, this one a gentle orange, a little lighter than his scales. A press, and part of the wall depressed and slid away, revealing a closet with two items. First, a fire-designed blanket that smelled vaguely of Rawst leaves, like the plant had been pressed into fabric. Nostalgic. And finally, a curious, white bag stuffed with something soft and fluffy. It resembled a nest.

Owen hopped into the closet and looked around. It was a little cramped; he could only take three paces inside before touching the wall. There were shelves high and well beyond his reach, but it didn’t look like anything was there. Pressing a button from inside, the closet door slid shut, and the only light source was his flame.

Tentatively, he dragged the oversized blanket onto the nest-shaped bag and curled it over him. The fabric brushed gently against his body and curled around his underbelly. He took in a small, surprised breath; something this soft was unimaginable after the nights he’d spent on dusty, hard dirt. But then, he sank into the bed, like a tiny Oran nestled in custard. The soft nest caressed his back and underbelly at once; his cheek enjoyed the warm, fuzzy kiss of the bed.

Blurry thoughts melted into cozy darkness.

<><><>

Muffled sounds surrounded Charmander. The shuffling of fabric against the ball that had become his new abode. The gentle clicking of the feet-coverings the humans wore on hard ground. Charmander knew this place; he had been here once, when he’d gotten sick. Charizard hadn’t known what to do, and Marowak had gone to seek the help of the humans, despite how much he didn’t care for them. That was when Charmander had thought it was serious.

Those old memories made him anxious, but it was strange to not feel the usual feelings that came with it. He had no heart to beat; he had no mouth to breathe with. So instead, he stewed in this semi-state of being, wondering exactly what sort of human was going to become his partner. And, more importantly, if he would be worth following on his adventure.

If he was weak, Charmander planned to leave his new partner at night, just like what happened to Thinclaw and his useless partner.

Even more shuffling and chattering followed, and Charmander didn’t care about much of it. He wiggled impatiently within the ball, but then suddenly he felt like he was falling.

“Whoops!”

Caught in the giant hands of the assistant.

“Sorry about that, little guy. Careful, you’re on a table!”

He could wiggle if he wanted! Charmander giggled again, and again, violently this time, because he wasn’t going to be told what to do. The human sighed, but he had a vague sense that she was smiling, too. He was placed on the table again.

“Look this way, Charmander. Can you see?”

He could, he thought. She was pointing somewhere, toward the entryway. He never walked out of there. He didn’t know what it was like beyond those doors, where the human buildings were. But at the entryway was also a boy.

Short. Young. Thin. His skin was pale and his eyes were strange. He must have been a human from a different region. Charizard told him that humans were different depending on where they were from, just like Pokémon. But humans looked the same, so he had to study how they were supposed to tell each other apart.

Hair. His hair was brown. Brown was okay. It was short. Didn’t go past his ears. His eyes were brown, too. But he liked how this human appeared, too. The human had wings, Charizard wings.

Humans could have wings? That was strange.

“Are you Timothy?” asked the assistant.

“Yup!”

Oh, Charmander didn’t like his voice. Shrill. He probably screamed when he lost, like all those Bulbasaur that picked fights.

The assistant giggled. “Based on that costume, I think I know what Pokémon you’re going to choose.”

Costume? Humans had more than their usual coverings? Humans never made sense.

“Well, you’ll have to appeal to Charmander first,” the assistant said, and then looked at Charmander. “Are you ready to come out?”

Not really, but he had a feeling Charizard would be disappointed if he didn’t. And he could only imagine the disappointed stare from Marowak…

He wiggled in reply.

“All right. Here we go!”

Picked up and tossed, Charmander reflexively jerked forward, his vision suddenly flooded with light. Materializing on the ground, taking his first breath, he shook off what felt like a hot wetness from the energy that had surrounded him, and then he looked up at the boy.

A lot bigger up close. But still short.

“Hey!” Timothy said, crouching down. “My name’s—”

Charmander spat a puff of fire in his face. He spoke too loudly and suddenly and closely. He wasn’t anything like the assistants and that meant he’d be a bad partner.

But the human, startled at first, grinned even wider. “Already looking for a fight, huh?”

The assistants laughed. “Ohh, look at him. He’s a little defiant, you know. Are you sure you want to have him for your first Pokémon?”

“I’m sure!” Timothy said, and Charmander couldn’t understand his enthusiasm.

“What?” Charmander asked. “No! You’re supposed to run away! I burned you!”

“Aw, it’s alright,” Timothy said, rubbing his thumb on his nose. “I wouldn’t want to get a Fire-type if I couldn’t handle the heat!”

Charmander flinched. Did the human understand him? Humans didn’t understand Pokémon, not unless they’d been with them for a very long time, like the human with the flame-proof coverings that always visited, or Charizard’s old partner. Through feelings. And this human shouldn’t know his feelings.

“You aren’t allowed to understand me yet!” Charmander said, pointing angrily at him.

“What’s wrong?” Timothy asked, crouching down again.

“You—” Charmander tried to find the words, but the concepts eluded him. In Timothy’s eyes, he saw the reflection of the flames that were leaking from the sides of his mouth.

“It’s okay. We’re gonna go on an adventure, right? We’ll learn about the world and get stronger, together. It’ll be fun!”

Charmander’s flame hummed loudly behind him, but that was the only other sound in the lab. How did Charizard start off with her partner? Was it the same? So many of his siblings had gone away and returned with wings, or at least returned with a smile. A few were unhappy. But this… human Timothy. Which result would he be?

“So what do you say?” Timothy asked. “My name’s Timothy.”

He stared suspiciously, then spat an ember that evaporated in front of Timothy’s face. He only blinked. Impressive. “Smallflame,” Charmander replied.

“It’s good to meet you, too,” Timothy replied. “Sorry I can’t pronounce how you might want to be called, Charmander. But I’m gonna give you a name I can use instead. Is that alright?”

A name. The title that Charizard refused to let anybody else use. And he was going to receive one from this inexperienced boy?

Well, if he wound up hating him, he could always get a new one.

“Okay,” Charmander agreed, nodding.

“Well, you and I are going to go on our first adventures, together, right? And we’re gonna become the number one duo in the whole world!”

It sounded like he had practiced this. But he had to admit—it sounded enticing. The strongest? Did he really know how to do that? If that Bulbasaur could beat him with just the help of a human… who knows what he could do?

He realized too late that his flame was blazing with excitement. Trying to hide it, he shifted his weight and stared up at Timothy with more awed hope than he’d ever admit.

“Heh, looks like you’re already looking for a fight,” Timothy said, grinning. “Number one! I’m gonna call you… Owen!”


<><><>​

It was so soft! Owen opened one eye to the dim glow of his flame glistening against the polished walls of the closet. It was a cramped bedroom, but that was really all he needed. After all, he didn’t have to toss and turn at all in a bed he could practically sink into. He didn’t want to move; he only curled his tail around a clump of the nest and stretched inwardly.

What did he dream about? The humans again. He’d been getting those a lot lately. Timothy was…

So warm. Maybe if he slept a little longer…

<><><>​

Owen had never seen trees so tall and green. He wondered how they burned. But Timothy said that wasn’t a good thing to do, so he had to keep to himself. Keeping his tail high, he glanced up at his human partner, who was panting while going down the forest path. He didn’t know where they were going or why, but Timothy had what he called a “map.” If that flat piece of paper could show Tim the way, then maybe he had some other magic that he didn’t know about.

But the human roads with the shorter grass were long behind them. Instead, Tim was wandering the woods nearby.

“Okay, Owen,” Tim said, looking down. “I need you to translate for me, alright? Some Pokémon can’t understand me as easily.”

“Translate?” Owen asked, frowning. “For what?”

“Just repeat what I’m saying, but, like, to them. With the grr grr words you use.”

Owen growled. “What do you—”

“Yeah, like that!”

The growl became a snarl. “You could at least TRY to understand me!”

“I—I’m sorry, that’s just what it sounds like to me!” Tim brought his palms forward. “I’m not some master trainer. I’m working on it…”

“Better learn fast.” Owen huffed, already missing the lab assistants. Then again, their ability to understand him had been hit or miss, too…

Tim cleared his throat. “Hello, um, wild Pokémon!”

The hopeful look that Tim gave Owen was enough for him to reluctantly comply… slightly. “Sorry to bother you!” Owen translated.

“I’m going on an adventure! And I was wondering if anybody here wanted to come with me!”

“Ignore us! He’s an idiot!”

“Thanks, buddy,” Tim said, grinning. “Okay, now try this.” Turning his attention back to the trees, he shouted, “I’ve got food, and shelter, and you’ll get to become stronger with me!”

“Seriously, just leave him alone and he’ll leave you alone!”

Silence filled the air afterward. It wasn’t a windy day, and the sun poked glittering holes through the treetops with what few gusts there were.

“Are you sure you translated me?” Tim asked. “It felt kind of different…”

Owen shrugged. “Maybe they aren’t intereste—”

Just then, a Pidgey fluttered out of the trees, sizing Tim up from the air. Eventually, he landed on the ground, and Owen’s tiny shoulders sagged. He perked up when Tim looked at him again, but his flame was dim. Poor fool.

“An idiot human?” Pidgey asked. “Then why’re you with him?”

“Well, I still have to get stronger,” Owen said.

“Hmm…” Pidgey chirped contemplatively, then looked at Tim, and then back at Owen.

“So, what’s your name?” Owen said routinely, wondering if this Pidgey was really considering joining…

“Greatwing.”

Owen stared suspiciously. “Doesn’t seem that great to me.”

Greatwing chirped dismissively. “What’s yours?”

“Smallflame.”

“Yours fits.”

Owen crouched down and snarled, fire defying his name.

A loud tapping noise echoed from the tree to his left.


<><><>

Light flooded through Owen’s thin, scaly eyelids. An incessant tapping echoed from the wall. He squinted uncomfortably and groaned, sinking deeper into the soft bed.

There you are,” Hakk said, sighing. “Why didn’t you take your bed out to the main room?”

Owen groaned and tried to curl up around the soft cushions, squeezing them between his arms and thighs.

“It’s already one in the afternoon,” Hakk growled again.

“It’s what in the—” Owen half-groaned, but then stopped. He didn’t have the energy to shoot up, but he had enough to open one eye partway. “You guys use hours?”

“Oh, right. Some of you guys don’t—wait, you know hours?”

“Yeah. Can I sleep for another?”

“1 PM, little guy. C’mon, get up. I need to run an eval on you.”

“What kind of eval?”

“On anything you remember. See what class you are, log stuff like that down, I dunno.”

Owen groaned again, this time a little more loudly so Hakk was sure that forcing him awake after at least a week of almost dying was unjustified. But the icy Sandslash refused to listen, and instead added, “And if you take too long, I’ll freeze your bed.”

“Then maybe I’ll burn you,” Owen threatened emptily.

“Joke’s on you, I ate another Occa.”

A snap of cold bit Owen’s nose and he whined, finally sighing and rolling out of bed with a defeated flop.

“So, tell me about your parents,” Hakk said. “Do you remember them?”

“Which ones?” Owen said.

“Uh.” Hakk’s eyelids lowered, frowning. “You only have two parents.”

“Nope. I was adopted.”

Hakk rolled his eyes. “Don’t give me that. Who are your current parents?”

Owen glared, but it didn’t last. He sighed and went on, “Gardevoir Amia and Magmortar. Well, I mean, not really a M—”

“That’s one interesting pair,” Hakk said.

Owen huffed, deciding it wasn’t worth going over more. “And I ran into Mom in Nil Plateaus, so she’s still there. Are you preparing those scouts?”

“They’re gonna go out today to search for her. High priority, mostly because, you know, she might be able to sense Z-Crystals like you can.”

So that’s what they were called. Owen nodded and said, “Right, she might. I think the powers I had in Kilo were related to those. That might be why we can sense them.”

“Right,” Hakk said, but Owen could tell he wasn’t interested. “So, you were adopted. Do you remember your real parents?”

That one made his tail spark. “They’re both my real parents.”

Hakk sighed tiredly, rolling his eyes. “Your… other parents?”

Owen sat in front of the table and inspected his bread. Still a few slices left, so he prepared some for himself and offered Hakk a slice as well. After Hakk declined with a casual wave, Owen said, “Charizard Amber and Marowak Daichi.”

“Well, at least you remember both sets despite getting killed,” Hakk said. “That’s really lucky of you.”

At least I got to have some luck, Owen thought bitterly. “Yeah. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you about Daichi and Amber if you asked me a few days ago.”

“Eh? Why’s that? Kept it a secret from you?”

“Well, I don’t really know,” Owen said. “I don’t think so. I’ve just been getting those memories back.”

Owen nibbled on the slice. The bread had gotten hard since the night before, but it was still delicious, and now that he wasn’t quite as savagely hungry, he took the time to coat the slice in butter and jam at once. He took another bite, savoring the crunch now that he was used to it, but then realized Hakk hadn’t said anything in a while.

The Sandslash was staring at him so intensely that Owen stopped eating. After swallowing, he nervously asked, “What?”

“You’re getting memories back?”

“Yeah, uh, it’s actually been happening a lot lately,” Owen said. “Ever since I got in some, uh, a lot of stuff in Kilo. Been happening a lot more now that I’m here, though.”

“Right.” Hakk’s composure returned almost as quickly as it had left. “You’re getting memories back, okay. You’re saying you have more memories now than when you’d arrived?”

Owen nodded.

“Got it.” Hakk crossed his arms, then clicked his two claws together. “You know that’s impossible, right?”

“Uh.” Considering it was literally happening to him overnight… “No.”

“When was the last time you got those memories back?”

“When did you wake me?”

“Don’t get sassy with me, when did you get them?”

“When you woke me. I’ve been getting them as dreams. Sometimes when I meditate, too, I guess? I bet if I tried, I could.”

“And how do you know they aren’t false memories, or just… I don’t know, tricks your head is trying to do to fill in gaps of what’s missing?”

Owen frowned, humming. “It’s been happening without anyone interfering with me. I think… I think I know what returned memories feel like at this point. I’ve had a lot of seals, and these are too real.”

“Hmm…” Now, Hakk seemed troubled, which was odd, because until recently, Owen had been sure Hakk didn’t care about anything. “Okay. Guess that’s it for the eval.”

“What—just like that? You didn’t have more questions for me?”

“Well, my part of the eval.” Hakk started for the door. “Just sit tight, okay?”

Owen’s chest felt tighter, and he was tempted to run out with him, but he knew that’d get him nowhere. He had to cooperate until he could get Zena and Jerry out safely, too.

While watching Hakk, Owen tried to relax and tell himself things were fine. Even though he had no idea where everyone else was. But it felt like a few of them were close… But then again, that was probably just Zena.

Why did it feel like there were two nearby, then?

“ . . . door!” called a feminine voice—Owen recognized it as the Jynx from last night.

Right when Hakk stepped out, he suddenly slammed his paw on the wall, sealing Owen’s room. Owen sprang to his feet, leaving behind his bread. By the time he was at the door, loud thudding punctuated the air and the ground shook lightly beneath his feet. An odd, yet familiar whistling accompanied the chaos, but only for brief spurts. Was that—

“OWEN!” Gahi’s muffled voice forced its way through the door.

“Gahi,” Owen whispered, but then came to his senses. “GAHI!”

More scuffling, and then Hakk grunted. Some heavy piece of pottery broke, and then ice shattered on the walls. Gahi roared, and then another thud followed—this time against Owen’s door. Owen gulped and stood a little closer. “Gahi, what’s—”

“Get away from there!” Hakk shouted.

“Make me!” Gahi shouted back, and then he clawed at the doorframe. Not a scratch, but Owen heard every hard slam.

“Get over here you—where’d he go?!”

“Hah!”

“Hrk—”

Someone crumpled next to Owen’s doorway and he held his breath. “Gahi?”

“How d’you open this thing?” Gahi shouted.

“Gahi? What did you do?!”

“Stay away from there!” Jynx shouted. An Ice Beam cracked the air, but then the ground rumbled. Jynx shrieked, and then it was quiet again.

“Gahi, stop!” Owen screamed. “They’re friendly!”

“—Eh?”

“Stop right there!”

“Don’t move!”

“Try anything and you’re a popsicle!”

“Gahi,” Owen quickly said, “just say it was a misunderstanding! Okay?”

“Gahi!” This time, it was a tiny voice that Owen couldn’t help but feel was familiar. Who was that? “You… buffoon! Stand down! Do you want to get us all killed?!”

“…Did Trina die?” Owen asked.

“Eh? No, she just became a Snivy,” Gahi said as shuffling sounds grew closer.

“Okay, star-wings,” said one of the scouts. “Don’t fight back. Got it?”

“E-excuse me!” Owen called, pressing his hands hard against the door. “It’s okay! This is my friend, Gahi! He’s weirdly colored because he’s just like me! I can sense him!”

“Hey, lemme go,” Gahi snarled, and then a flurry of voices shouted for Gahi to stand down.

Owen, no matter what he said, was drowned out by them until they all yelled in surprise.

“I said let go!” Gahi snapped, but his voice was coming from the far end of the hall.

“How did he do that?” Hakk wheezed, his voice nearest to Owen.

“I think he has the Psychic Orb, or at least its power,” Owen said to Hakk.

“Psychic what?” Hakk said. “What kind of crazy company do you keep?”

Owen wasn’t sure if he had the time to thoroughly answer that one. Instead, he said, “You know how I can sense those crystals? Gahi probably can, too. That’s how he got here so quickly. He—”

One of the guards tried something, because there was another scuffle, and suddenly more groans overtook the fighting.

“Gahi, enough!” Trina commanded.

“Nu-uh, you ain’t blamin’ that one on me, they started it!”

“Gahi,” Trina said again, “having your foot on their back is not helping.”

“Seriously, Gahi?” Owen groaned, shoulders slumping. He bumped his head against the door, screwing his eyes shut. “Have some tact, at least…”

“Bah, they asked fer it.”

Just hearing the fighting was annoying Owen, but he doubted they were going to open the door and let Gahi in. They probably didn’t expect a Flygon to be able to teleport, but they wouldn’t be fooled a second time.

“A’right, a’right,” called another, smaller voice, and for a moment Owen thought Gahi had suddenly become a Trapinch. “What’s goin’ on?”

“Eh? Who’re you?” Gahi said.

“The one who’s gonna knock yeh ter next week if yeh attack someone else. An’ that goes fer all o’ yeh!”

Owen’s scales tingled. He felt something powerful on the other side of the door. “Gahi, be careful,” Owen whispered.

“I heard that,” the small voice said, and Owen suppressed a squeak.

The fact that Gahi wasn’t saying anything worried Owen.

“Now, here’s th’ deal,” the small one said. “You go an’ skedaddle down the hall an’ wait in a room, eh? Gonna talk with yer friend. He’s gonna be fine.”

This voice sounded familiar and he couldn’t figure out why. Owen was so distracted by rummaging through his memories that he didn’t pay attention to any of the talking until he heard Gahi’s footsteps, this time further down the hall. Two other sets of footsteps accompanied him, and Owen wondered if several more floated in the air.

Gahi’s tail thrashed on the ground to punctuate his anger, and Owen deflated, sighing. That… could have gone better.

A patch of darkness coalesced near the center-bottom of the door. At first, Owen thought it was a wraith and hopped back, spreading his arms and channeling fire through his claws and throat. But then, when his instincts subsided, he realized there was no way a wraith could be here. It felt too strong, anyway…

The shadows shaped themselves into something that vaguely resembled a bipedal body. Big head, wider than his shoulders. Owen was only a little shorter than this tiny, terrifying thing, and that only made him worry more. The last small, powerful creature he’d had to deal with was Rim, or Star.

Two orange ovals appeared on the creature’s head, centered with a yellow glow. A tiny, thin smile spread below them, smoky wisps drifting off of his head in an ethereal haze.

“Heh. Heya.” The shadowy creature made a gesture like he was tipping an invisible hat. “Charmander, eh? Good ter meet yeh.”

“Hi.” Owen’s default wasn’t doing him any favors. “Um—I mean, I’m sorry for Gahi. He’s—”

“Nah, nah.” He waved dismissively. “I ain’t mad. I know the sort. Heh… Hey. I saw on the feed that yeh were sayin’ some weird stuff.”

“Oh, right, um, Hakk mentioned that he needed to get something and I had to wait, um, is Hakk okay?”

“Bah, he’s had worse.” He shrugged. “Yer name’s Owen, eh?”

“Mhm.”

“Right, right.”

A silence that lasted a second too long forced Owen to look at something else. Before he could find something to say, the shadow laughed, sending a chill up Owen’s spine.

“What’re you so nervous about?”

“You know why.”

“Aaaah!” And in a blink, he was beside Owen, patting his shoulder. “C’mon! Let’s have some bread.” In another blink, Owen was next to the table. A gust of ghostly wind blowing the red cloth off of the basket.

Trying to not panic, Owen took a piece of bread like a normal Pokémon and started to spread butter over his slice.

“So, Owen,” he said, “I figure I’ll introduce myself. I only got one name, real simple: Marshadow. It’s my species, and I’m one o’ a kind.”

“Marshadow…” He’d heard that before in his studies. One of a kind. “Wait, you’re a—”

“Aaah, yer a smart one.” He winked with one of his orange eyes. “Yep. A Legend, in th’ flesh! Er whatever I have. Oy, tell me.” Casually, Marshadow snapped his fingers, and suddenly several clicks echoed across the room. “Cameras’re off. Nobody c’n hear us. How old’re you?”

Who was this guy?! He couldn’t get a read on him at all, and even if he had Perceive, this wouldn’t—

“You alright?” Marshadow asked.

“Yeah, I’m—bread.”

“Nah, yer Charmander.”

His tail flared and he grabbed the jam next. “I’m old.”

“How far back, eh?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t know.”

Owen sighed lightly and collected himself. “Sorry, I don’t really know how old I am because my memory still feels spotty. I thought at first that I was around, you know, four, five centuries or so. But recently I’ve been getting memories from even further back, and now it feels like there’s a huge gap in between.”

“Right, right. Sounds like yeh’ve got a real story.” Marshadow wasn’t making any motions to go for the bread. Was that just an excuse to sit down and talk? That smile on Marshadow was back. “Y’haven’t really changed all that much, Owen. Still analyzing. Still gettin’ reads.”

Something about that sentence made all of Owen’s analyses stop. Suddenly, he was just staring dumbly at Marshadow, a thousand thoughts tripping over each other, and ultimately none came forward.

“Bah, darn shame yeh fergot me. Gahi, too. Ah well.”
 
Last edited:
Chapter 90 - Incomplete Memories
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Chapter 90 – Incomplete Memories

Today had been interesting. The day before, Owen had been running for his life and afterlife from a creature that had been dwarfed only by the plateaus. And this morning, he had been awakened rudely from a very cozy nap in a very cozy bed. And now, probably still morning, yet it felt like an eternity, he was talking to Marshadow, who not only claimed to know him in some distant past… but also Gahi.

Three distinct snapping noises in front of Owen’s face brought him back to reality. “Huh? What?”

“I said,” Marshadow repeated, “how much did yeh ferget?”

“How can I know how much I—hey, do you know someone called Manny?”

“Eh?”

“Manny. He talks just like you.”

“Eh. No clue.”

Owen grumbled. “Maybe it really is an ancient accent.”

“Oy, who has an accent?”

“Nobody!” Owen said, stiffening, but then he saw Marshadow’s playful smirk.

“Nah, I get it.”

Owen deflated and took another bite of bread, sorting through his thoughts. He had so much to ask, but at this point, he had a good feeling that Marshadow wasn’t going to answer. Still… his hopeless optimism made him try anyway. “How do you know me?”

“Well, it’s probably not gonna ring any bells until they come back ter yeh,” Marshadow said, “but sure. Didn’t really know yeh all that much, jus’ by proxy when we got t’gether fer parties and all that. Unfortunately, ehh… that part o’ my memory’s also pretty shot. Been too long, had too many bad encounters, y’know how it is. I do know yeh were real close with us, though. Scaled Destiny Tower, and next thing we know, we’ve got a giant Charizard among us, heh.”

Owen was so glad he had experience with Manny. Gahi’s accent was thin, but Marshadow’s…

“So you’re saying,” Owen said, “that I used to go to… parties with Pokémon like you? And I was—giant?”

“Yeppers.” Marshadow nodded, scratching under his chin. “Dunno which Pokémon were at those parties, though. Just you, I remember real well, fer some reason.”

“And what about Gahi?” Owen asked. “You said you knew him.”

“Fer a bit. Taught him how ter fight fer some mission he had. Had a few folks who were students like that…”

“Like Manny?”

Marshadow shrugged. “What species?”

“Lucario.”

Marshadow perked up. “Y’know, now that yeh mention it…”

Owen nodded. That much made sense. Manny was Marshadow’s student, somehow? Yet Manny had no memory of it—or at least, he certainly would have mentioned something this substantial…

“I’m still trying to sort through my memories,” Owen said. “Maybe when I get more, I can start piecing it together. Don’t really know what good it’ll do me, but…” He sighed, finding these thoughts to be going in a circle. He wouldn’t go anywhere by just thinking about what he didn’t know. “Marshadow, do you know why I was associated with you guys?”

“Y’know, fer someone who doesn’t remember, yer takin’ this real well.”

“I—well…” He had a point. “Look,” Owen brought a few claws over his closed eyes. “Just two or three moons ago or whatever, I didn’t even believe in gods. Then I met Star and she turned me into a plant—I mean, er, a Grass-type.”

“Star. Mew Star?”

Owen nodded, and Marshadow smiled fondly. Owen didn’t.

“I’ve been going through enough lately that I don’t think this is too hard to believe anymore,” Owen said. “What I want to know is why this was hidden from me, and who did it.”

“Fer all we know, that was Dark Matter ‘mself. How else are all the Legends down ‘ere, barely recognizing each other?”

All?”

“Well, nah, not all,” Marshadow said. “I mean, tons’re unaccounted fer. But figure since yeh said Mew Star, that’s one. Then there’s Arceus, figure he ain’t stuck ‘ere. Eh, dunno af’er that.”

“Zygarde and Lugia,” Owen said immediately.

“’Ey, ain’t that somethin’!” Marshadow grinned and nodded. “Well, ain’t that a relief. Okay, here’s the deal. Most of us don’t remember anythin’ about other Legends in Kilo. Like history was just totally cut off fer us. Ter me? Sounds like a Decree.”

“I was just about to say,” Owen agreed, arms crossed. “So Star and Barky might’ve made a Decree to hide—”

Marshadow’s face had suddenly contorted into a valiant effort to hide his laugh.

“What?”

Barky? He really goin’ by that?”

“I think Star calls him that, and nobody really listens when he corrects her.”

For some reason, this left Marshadow trying even harder to stop from laughing. “Haaah! Lookit that! Always had a stick up his white tail. Guess someone’s really startin’ ter cut’m down ter size.”

“Right.” Owen tried to find a nice way to refocus the topic. This guy was all over the place… “The Decree, Marshadow. Do you think that’s what made everyone forget you guys?”

“I mean, it’s been a while,” Marshadow said. “Maybe we were just lost o’er time. And here in the Voidlands, maybe we jus’ lost those memories. Still, there is one thing I know fer sure.” Marshadow leaned back, thoughtful, his eyes suddenly serious. Serious enough that Owen was thrown off, wondering if he’d suddenly become a different personality. “I remember you weren’t under Star er Barky. And I remember those two fer sure. Maybe they’re just important memories, y’know, since they’re above me ‘n all that.”

He could understand that intuitively. Could a Decree hide away the gods of gods? Yet, if he wasn’t beneath either of them…

“The third one,” Marshadow said. “That’s who you were under. At least, that’s my deduction.”

“Deduction…” Owen frowned, scaly brow furrowing. “So this is like all the other Legends. You don’t remember, but you know they exist just because of those empty parts of your memory.” Third god?

“Yeh.” Marshadow waved in the air absently. “And he was strong. Maybe jus’ as strong as Star ’n Barks. Any time I think about’m, I feel… brightness. That’s all I remember.”

“Brightness…”

“The third god, dunno what to call’m,” Marshadow said. “Ev’n that was lost. But it’s just… bright. Has to do with the Z-Crystals, too.”

Owen paused. “Which has to do with the Orbs, maybe? But I thought those were the Plates of Arceus…”

“Eh? Plates?”

“Yeah.” Owen motioned to the table and traced out squares. “Arceus made plates of every element, which helped to contain and harness his own power, or something like that.”

Marshadow tilted his head, humming. “Every element?”

“Um, yeah?”

“Includin’ Normal?”

“I mean, he had to, right?”

“Huh.” Marshadow shrugged. “Dunno. Vaguely recall he never made a Normal plate since that’s jus’ how he was by default. Never had a use.”

“Well, we know the Normal Guardian, who had the Normal Orb,” Owen said, wondering how ADAM was doing. If he lost his memories, could they just perform some kind of… what did ADAM call it… system restore?

Marshadow snapping his fingers brought Owen back to attention. “Dunno about a Normal plate, but there’re definitely Normal Z-Crystals. If these Guardians er whatever’re related ter that, an’ you can sense Z-Crystals, maybe those Orbs came from the third god. The one we fergot…”

“Forgot…” Would Star and Barky have kept this hidden from him, too? A third god…

“Can I ask yeh somethin’?”

“Uh?”

“You loved usin’ Protect,” Marshadow said. “C’n yeh do it now?”

That was an odd request, but it was harmless enough. Stepping away from the table, Owen widened his stance and crossed his arms—which earned an amused smile from Marshadow that he ignored—and a golden shield formed around him.

“Yep,” Marshadow said. “Yer the same Owen alright. Turn around.”

“Okay, but why?” Owen asked, turning. “Why am I the same Owen?”

“Gold Protect,” Marshadow said simply. “That’s th’ mark o’ the third god. And speakin’ o’ marks…” Marshadow pointed at Owen’s back, but he couldn’t tell what Marshadow was pointing at. “That splotch yeh got there…”

“Oh, that’s just a birthmark. I think it came from when I was first creat—” But he wasn’t created. “You’re not telling me this splotch has to do with this third god, do you?”

“It’s kinda blurry,” Marshadow admitted, squinting, “but apparently it’s a mark left behind if yeh wanna be his student. Eight-sided star, longer on th’ cardinal directions… Maybe y’were in training? Either that er yeh kept it fer sentimental reasons. Looks like a splotch ter most, but I recognize the design anywhere.” Marshadow produced a badge with the same mark, but with a more angular, defined design that wasn’t distorted by scales or flesh.

“Gahi has the same,” Owen trailed off.

“He does, eh? Well, y’two were pretty close.”

“Is it really that noticeable?” Owen asked worriedly. “That’s not going to draw attention to me, is it?”

“Nah. It’s real faded. Blends in with yer wings real nicely, too. Somethin’ tells me th’ third god ain’t keen on bein’ flashy.”

For some reason, Owen felt the need to groan, but suppressed it. There was a joke in there, and the deepest recesses of his mind told him as much, but he couldn’t remember why, Still...

Something was still not settling right with him. This entire concept of a third god, something that Star and Barky were both unaware of. By now he would have seen some sign, any sign, that he existed before now. Why did he not have a Book like the other two did? Surely someone would have known about that. And, more importantly, he would have known if Star was lying about the Orbs’ true origins by now.

Yes, she’d lied before. And so did Barky. But he’d seen through their deception before, and this felt…

“I don’t think it’s a Decree from either of them,” Owen concluded. “Something else erased the third god from history. What if Dark Matter did it, somehow?”

“If Dark Matter has the power ter make Decrees, we’re dead,” Marshadow said.

Owen stared.

“…Deader.”

“Mm.” This was all a lot to take in, but he supposed it was better now than later. But he also didn’t know how much of what Marshadow was telling him was the truth or not. There was nothing to add up because this gap in his memory was still a total blank.

He didn’t want his head filled with too many falsehoods again. Could he risk it?

Owen was starting to wonder why this strange Voidlands existed at all. If Dark Matter was so strong that he could claim Guardians, why was he here? What was keeping him from just killing them all now? It didn’t make sense. There was something they were missing.

“You alright?” Marshadow asked.

“Yeah,” Owen said, nodding.

“Yer tail says otherwise,” Marshadow pointed a finger at the flickering ember.

If he could, he’d’ve cut his tail off by now. “Sorry, I’m still a little… stressed from all this information. Maybe I’ll ask more later, but right now, I just need and see if I actually remember all that. You know, to confirm it.” He shouldn’t have said that last part.

“Confirm?” Marshadow said. “Y’don’t believe me?”

He really should have stopped a sentence earlier. Scrambling, but still looking as calm as he could, he added, “Just—you know, so I have the details straight. Even you don’t remember everything, right?”

Marshadow was still looking at Owen’s tail. If only he could go Grass, but that power felt so far away from him now. He wasn’t ready for an interrogation. Marshadow was too strong. He could punch him into a red paste if he wanted.

“Alright.” Marshadow shrugged. “Fair’s fair.” He reached forward and offered another piece of bread. “Hey, don’t ferget ter eat. Ain’t doing that enough.”

“Oh.” At least that was true. Reaching for it, Owen said, “Thank—”

<><><>​

Xerneas sat across an oversized red-and-white blanket, sticking his nose in the air defiantly. Yveltal, next to him, teasingly offered a spoonful of curry with her massive wing-claws dwarfing the utensil. Owen was taller than them both while they were all seated in a circle. Mew was lying on top of a Psychic bubble, while a strange, bipedal feline of some kind stared at it in fascination. He was new to the group, Owen remembered: Mewtwo, a name based on the Pokémon he’d been based on.

Arceus, who only went up to Xerneas’ shins, trotted next to the second Mew-like creature and rammed into the bubble, popping it. Mew shrieked and landed on Arceus’ back, who bucked and tossed her onto the top of his head. Mew sighed, smiling, and rubbed Arceus between his eyes.

“Hey,” Jirachi said, floating high to get at eye-level with Owen. “What’s wrong? You aren’t eating.”

“Oh, sorry,” Owen replied, reaching down.

Jirachi already had a piece of bread the size of his head in front of Owen.

“Oh.”

“Here, at least eat
something.”

“What’s got you so worried?” called a voice from behind Owen—Mesprit, concerned as always. Behind him, on another blanket set up, were Mesprit, Azelf, and Uxie. Azelf was busy wrestling with Uxie for the last dumpling, and something about that made Owen’s heart flutter.

“Charizard?” Mesprit asked again.

“Eh? Owen?” Azelf looked back. Too slow: Uxie snatched the dumpling and gobbled it down before Azelf had a chance to react. She then smirked and disappeared in a flash of light, leaving Azelf to grumble to himself.

“It’s just evals,” Owen admitted. “A lot of people had wishes, and, well…”

“Hey, no rush,” Jirachi said. “I probably grant too many anyway! Let’s take it easy. You can take off the Wishkeeper hat for a
day, can’t you?”

“Hmm, overworking will only make you less efficient,” Palkia commented, though he was barely paying any attention, his face nearly pressed against the pages of an oversized book. He dipped a spoon in the air in front of him and drew some stew from the bowl by his side.

“You won’t be at your best if you never rest, Owen,” said a large Goodra across the blanket. “Why don’t you spend a day reading one of those action books of yours?”

“C-c’mon, Madeline,” Owen begged, trying with no luck to look smaller. “I can still keep it up, no problem! I—"

Jirachi used a burst of Psychic energy to jettison the bread into Owen’s maw.


<><><>​

Marshadow was repeating Owen’s name calmly, but not without a hint of concern, while he held Owen’s chest. Had he fallen forward?

“What?” Owen mumbled, ignoring a new, splitting headache.

“You alright? You looked vacant fer a sec, then fell.”

“I’m fine,” Owen said quickly. “Just… had some memories suddenly hit me.”

“What’d you see?”

“…A lot of… A lot of you.” Owen sighed. “Sorry. I guess maybe some of what you’re saying is true.”

“Just some, eh?” Marshadow said with an amused smirk.

Owen wondered if he knew how awkward it was for him to ask that kind of question. Perhaps even more awkward was his answer: “Yeah, just some.”

Marshadow’s smile faltered for an instant. “Geez,” he murmured. “What’d they do to you up there?”

He didn’t want to answer right now. He looked down and started to eat at his bread, and Marshadow got the signal. Physically backing away, he settled and pulled out a badge, flipping through the screen it displayed idly.

It just then occurred to Owen how silent the room was. So quiet that when the cooling device rumbled—the sound of ice being made—he jumped and stared at it with wide eyes. Composing himself again, he hoped his jumpiness wouldn’t be a sign of guilt, and tried to think of something to say. Anything. Anything!

“So uh,” Owen said.

And then nothing followed.

Marshadow waited patiently. Yet that was even worse. If he could just move things along and have some mercy, but no, the silence was already eating into Owen’s heart.

“Zena,” Owen suddenly blurted.

“Eh?”

Finally, something to grasp onto. “How is Zena doing? I—I want to see her.”

“Eh. Feebas, yeah. See, thing is, we kinda have ter observe yeh guys fer a few days, make sure y’ain’t Void Shadows in disguise.”

“Well, I’m not,” Owen said. “You can tell that, right?”

“Th’ Protect proves it,” Marshadow confirmed. “Void Shadows have black shields.”

“Well, I can sense that Zena’s Zena, too. I don’t know for Jerry, but he was with me for days. Everyone who was with me should be safe.”

“Well, ain’t you in a rush,” Marshadow commented, frowning. “Look, those scouts’re gonna be lookin’ high an’ low fer Ralts, so—”

“I still want to help. And there’s still so much I need to do, I—there are still a lot of friends out there that probably need my help. I need to get back to Kilo. I need to stop Dark Matter. I mean—I can’t just stay here!”

But the more passionately Owen talked, the deeper Marshadow’s frown became. In response, Owen tried to hide his frustration, and instead said, “At least let me out of this room so I can get familiar with the place. And—and Zena, too. And Jerry.”

“Yer askin’ a lot fer someone who ain’t even done with eval,” Marshadow remarked.

“I’m important to you, aren’t I?” Owen said. “Maybe I won’t cooperate if I feel like I’m not being treated properly.”

He had no idea where that came from. The momentum of his passion combined with the strange, casual nature of Marshadow’s behavior, and finally the sheer scope of what he’d just been told… And now he said something that he was going to regret. In that split-second, his flame dimmed, his breath stopped, and he wondered if he could backpedal. Then the flame returned.

Not this time.

“Teamwork is all about cooperating,” Owen said. “I’ll cooperate, but you already know I’m safe. It’s not helping anyone to keep me in this room.”

All the while, Marshadow watched with a stony expression that defied his wispy body. Impossible to read, perhaps even with his Perceive. He wore a smile, but a neutral one, and unlike Owen, Marshadow’s shadowy flames allowed no giveaway to his mood.

“Guess I was wrong,” Marshadow remarked. “You changed more’n I thought.” He clicked his tongue and hopped off his seat, hands behind his back, and paced toward the wall. Pressing a button, Marshadow said, “That food still coming?”

“Yes! Very soon.”

“Great. Move it ter Feebas’ room instead.”

“Feebas, sir?”

“Yeah. We’re gonna go there next.”

Owen blinked, a cold wave of relief rushing down his back. Did he just say that? So stunned, the Charmander didn’t rise from the table.

Marshadow looked back, jerking his head toward the door. “Well?” He snapped his fingers, and Owen heard several devices turn on within the room. Surveillance was enabled again. “Yeh got me convinced. Yer safe. Now you can help me eval Zena, and maybe Aerodactyl. But if he ain’t a seer, he’s gonna have ter go through the normal eval process. Can’t compromise on that.”

Owen wanted to protest, to pull for even more, but he had taken far too many unreasonable risks and demands with Marshadow to begin with. He nodded, trying his hardest to break the habit of bowing submissively, even slightly.

“Bah, relax,” Marshadow said, waving. “Hmph. There’s th’ old Owen.”

“Stop comparing me to—me! At least give me some time to come to terms with everything!”

“Oh, now it’s hitting you?”

“I don’t know.” Owen rubbed his forehead. One thing at a time. So many things were swirling in his head that he had to compartmentalize it. He wondered if returning to therapy was on the table. Did the Voidlands have therapists? Did the therapists here need therapists?

“Oy.” Marshadow snapped his fingers yet again, bringing him back to the void.

“Sorry.”

“I’m gonna walk ya to Feebas’ place. Then I’ll give yeh two some privacy while I sort out some paperwork.”

Marshadow went for the door and Owen followed after a few seconds of hesitation. There was something different about Marshadow compared to the other authorities he’d dealt with before. His parents, Eon, Star, and even Anam—it always felt like they were keeping the whole truth from him. Yet Marshadow, despite his name, seemed like the one who had shed the most light to his past in a single conversation.

Too bad he still had no idea what it all meant.

Feeling guilty for being so harsh on him, Owen followed in silence, trying to find something to say while they walked along the obsidian-like halls.

“I, um,” Owen started, stopped, and then continued, “how are things in this village, anyway? You’re the leader, right?”

“Eh, kinda. Yeah, pretty much. Comes with the status and natural power, I guess. Might makes right an’ all that nonsense.” He rolled his eyes and shrugged. “One day into th’ next, just keep things stable and movin’ forward. There’s some other stuff we gotta worry about, but eh, I won’t trouble ya with that yet. Y’heard enough. Enjoy yer time with Feebas an’ we’ll figure out next steps there.”

“Gahi, too,” Owen suddenly said. “Um, he’s safe, too, if that’s—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Marshadow nodded and waved dismissively. “One at a time. Start with Feebas.”

“Can I at least visit Jerry, too?”

“Ehhh… I’ll think about it. No promises. He ain’t a seer? Then maybe not.”

At least he was honest.

Zena’s room was down another hall, and the grid-like nature of the large building concerned him again. Too much like Quartz. The ground here felt powdery, and Owen recalled that a potted plant had fallen here.

“Hey,” Owen said, “how’s Eon? The Ditto, I mean.”

“Eh, he’s all hot ‘n bothered,” Marshadow said dismissively. “Dunno what job he’s gonna look fer, but it’s about time he finds one. There’s more’n enough positions that need fillin’ to get the town running with all the new inhabitants we’re prob’ly gonna get.”

“Do you guys not usually get new ones?”

“Not in a while,” Marshadow said. “Been centuries since we’ve seen so many.” He placed a hand on one of the doors, nodding at Owen. “I’ll make sure yer food gets in.”

“Thank you.” Owen tried to smile, but it came with tired eyes, and Marshadow returned them with a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

Inside was a much cooler atmosphere with blue, shimmering lights on the ceiling, like looking up from the bottom of a river. Not a good sight for a Charmander; it meant he was drowning.

He wondered, in all his years, how many times had he drowned, or come close?

Past the same hall, the large room that Owen had seen as his eating and living space was instead a giant pit in the ground filled with water. Lights lined the bottom in little dots that helped illuminate the pool, and, swimming about inside, was Zena, still her humble, Feebas form.

There was a faint smile on her lips, and she didn’t notice that he was there for a while. He didn’t want to startle her, either, so perhaps he could make a more noticeable noise. He walked to the door again and knocked as loudly as he could against the wall—hoping that nobody was on the other side to hear.

Thankfully, the vibration must have carried to Zena, who surfaced and blinked.

“You aren’t allowed in here,” she said, though she sounded more puzzled than anything.

“Oh, they made an exception for me,” Owen said. “Um, may I come in?”

“Well…” Zena frowned. “As long as we don’t get in trouble.”

“We won’t.” Owen grinned and approached the side of the pool, but the unfamiliarity in her eyes dampened his spirits. She still didn’t remember. No! It was still Zena. He had to be positive. Memories returned; they just needed time. Hakk was class C, now he’s B—it meant there was a way up!

…How long had Hakk been here?

At some point, Zena had gone back underwater, swimming in happy circles, before she surfaced again. “Oh! Charmander, you must see something while you’re here!”

Being called Charmander hurt. Small again, and she didn’t even call him by his familiar name… But it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t worth bringing up; he’d only come off as fussy.

Owen hesitated to lean closer, but he tried. Zena’s fishy form cast fleeting shadows. She bumped her lips against one of the buttons underwater, and a thin stream of air floated through to the surface from several holes along the bottom of the pool. Zena dove through a few of these streams, then pressed another button, and the bubbles came out even faster.

She broke the surface of the water and wiggled in the air, landing with a decisive splash. “Isn’t this amazing?” she said. “Bubbles! Just like that!”

He had to admit, it was a spectacle. “It is,” Owen said, though he had no desire to join her in the water. “I never saw something like this before, just blowing air from the bottom like that with the push of a button…”

“It’s incredible!” She dove under again, and Owen couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face.

Had Zena ever been this happy before? She was diving through the air without a care in the world. Normally, she was so much more reserved… and, well, a little gloomy, usually upset at one thing or another. She rarely yelled, though Owen recalled the others mentioning how she had really gone off on Star once.

This was nothing like that Zena. So happy and carefree… unburdened by her memories.

Instantly, Owen lost his smile.

“Charmander?” Zena asked. “Is something the matter?”

“Huh?” Owen sat up straighter, inching a little closer to the pool, but still not enough to dip his legs in.

“Oh, I’m sorry if the splashing is frightening you,” Zena said, shrinking down.

“No! No, it’s fine.” Owen nodded. “I just got lost in thought. Please! It was fun watching you.”

“Oh.” Zena hesitated anyway. “Well, I’m… It’s not becoming of me, anyway.”

“What?” Owen asked.

“I’m supposed to become graceful eventually, erm, when I become a Milotic. A-again. When I become one again.”

That was an odd reason to be subdued. “What, so you can’t have fun?”

“Er… I don’t know. I’m sure I can have fun. But if I want to evolve, I have to be graceful and elegant, not…”

Was that how it went for her kind? Owen had read that Feebas evolved in a very unconventional way, but he didn’t know how that went. It was like a mysterious secret that only their species knew. Then again, aquatic Pokémon weren’t very well-studied…

“I don’t think there’s any harm in enjoying yourself,” Owen said delicately. “I never got to see this side of you before.”

At first, Zena looked at Owen like he’d gone crazy, but then she realized, “Oh, of course, you—right. You knew me before.”

It still hurt, but Owen smiled. “I did. But you were a lot… well, you were happy. You enjoyed your time with me and the others. But I’ve never seen you… swim with joy before.”

“Perhaps because it’s undignified, if I was a Milotic.” She closed her sunken eyes sagely. “We have an image to keep up, after all.”

“You never seemed to care a lot about that… but maybe you actually did.” Owen frowned. It seemed unlike Zena to care about grace. Then again, she’d been alone for so long, maybe that old value had been lost.

After all, if being pretty or elegant was what was needed to become a Milotic, Owen could empathize with doing everything possible to evolve.

Owen worked up enough courage to dip his feet into the water, shivering at the first cold bite.

“Goodness, is water that bad for you?” Zena asked, drifting closer.

“Well, I mean…” Owen curled his tail forward to display its ember.

“Ah…” Zena drifted away, like she was afraid she’d put it out.

“It’s okay,” Owen said, smiling. “I’m used to the water. I’m just a lot weaker like this, so I’d probably get water shock a lot easier if I slip inside accidentally. Nothing like before we found you, though. I had to hold my breath and everything…”

Now that Zena was closer, he noticed something peculiar about the water around her body. Even now, it looked like there was a small amount of red radiating off of her—he recognized it instantly as residual Voidlands dust.

“Zena, have you been able to get cleaned?” Owen asked bluntly.

She flinched, and Owen realized his mistake.

“No, I—I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “It’s just, last night I was washing up in my room, and the ground was… covered in dirt from the Nil Plateaus. I just, with your fins, and everything, I was wondering if you had trouble.”

“…Are you hitting on me?”

A beat of silence followed where Owen only blinked. “What?!”

Zena frowned disapprovingly. “And you almost had me, too,” she said, turning around with a flick of her tail. “Trying to win me over just to get your claws on me. Honestly!”

“Wait, no, I—”

Owen had leaned forward too far and fell into the water. He gurgled in a panic before remembering his training; stiff tail, upward, arms wide, deep breath when he surfaced, and suddenly he was floating. The water’s coldness seeped into his scales, chilling his bones. Something pushed him toward the water’s edge. He reached for it calmly and rolled out and onto his back.

“Are you okay?” Zena whispered frantically, her voice next to him at the lip of the pool.

“Yeah, sorry,” Owen said, sighing. “Slipped.”

“Just so you could—”

No, because you startled—I mean, because I got startled. No sane Fire would hop in a pool just for attention.”

“Hmph… Well. Then why did you offer?”

“You’re still kinda radiating the dirt in the water,” Owen said delicately. “Do you want me to get something to help wash it off?”

“I’m not even a Milotic and you’re already being so forward with me.” Zena sighed, looking away, though Owen could tell she was hiding a smile. “Were you this bold when I knew you as one?”

“…I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Owen said. “I’m gonna find a cloth.”

<><><>​

The door to Zena’s room opened, and in came a Mienshao with a rolling table with a platter of food. “Room service!” he called, rolling the table inside and closing the door behind him. “We’ve got something simple for you both, some bread, we’ve got nutrient blocks for Feebas, and—”

Owen had Zena upside-down in the water, cleaning under her fins and then along her tail, where most of the void dust had collected. The Charmander looked back, startled at first, but then remembered what Marshadow had said about their meal.

“A-am I, er, interrupting something?” Mienshao squeaked.

“Oh, no,” Owen said quickly, “we were just—”

“No, no, it’s fine, I’m just gonna—I’m gonna go. T-take care, er, food, Marshadow sends his, good.” And he was gone.

Alone again, Owen helped clean the last of the dust off of Zena before he offered, “Want me to get you some?”

“How will I eat it if it’s all terrestrial food?”

“Said something about blocks…”

Owen climbed the mini-stairs next to the table that had been rolled in and inspected the generous platter. That was far too much for just the two of them: A small basket with two thick slices of bread, what looked like slabs of meat—where did they get it?—and cheese. Also nearby were chopped berries and what appeared to be five brown cubes.

Curious, Owen grabbed one of them. Dense. Heavy. Dry. Crumbly if he squeezed. “These are just blocks of food,” he remarked.

“They don’t expect me to eat that, do they?” Zena said.

Owen looked for any kind of labeling or information, then sighed. None this time. “Maybe it’s some kind of nutrient-dense food. We’re both pretty malnourished.”

“Malnourished. I suppose so. I can’t evolve if I’m not healthy.” Zena dove underwater, went in a swift circle, and looked pleased at the lack of a dirt trail. “You have a very careful touch, Owen. I appreciate it.”

“Thanks,” Owen said, sitting by the water again. “Here, I think it’s dry because it’s supposed to go in the water first.”

He delicately placed the first block in front of Zena. It sank halfway in before bulging noticeably in size.

There was some hesitation, but eventually she opened her mouth and sucked the block, and a lot of water, in. Owen was transfixed at how quickly it had gone away, particles of brown food leaving her lips and floating through the water. It drifted toward a few holes near the pool’s edge—a constant drain of some kind? Clever…

“How is it?” Owen eventually asked.

“A little bland, but… I like it. It’s filling. Could you place the rest nearby? I can handle myself.”

Owen assembled the sandwich next while Zena enjoyed her blocks, and while he had offered the bread and a slice for Zena, she declined, saying she wasn’t interested in that kind of food. They ate their meal almost completely in silence, but this time, it was a cozy quiet. Occasionally, they made eye contact, but felt no need to speak, and instead smiled at one another. Zena wasn’t all there, but her feelings were, just under the surface. Just like when they had first reunited by the red river.

“Tell me about yourself, Owen,” Zena finally said, breaking the silence. “I’m sure I used to know all about you, and you’re kind enough. You don’t seem like the sort to lie.”

“It’s hard for a Charmander to lie,” Owen admitted, bringing his tail forward.

Zena bobbed once. “I see. And how did you end up with someone like me? A Water and a Fire… It’s not a normal combination, you know. Let alone how much larger I may become…”

Owen paused, looking at the last bite of his sandwich, and then at Zena, who had forced the final block down despite her fullness. They had given her five for a reason, Owen figured, to help get her back in good shape. Her huge eyes had a new, inquisitive light to them, and while Owen could not recognize them as the graceful, red eyes of a Milotic, he still saw Zena in them. It was the same look she had given when they’d read an interesting book together. But back then, Zena had been more interested in being with someone, no matter what the book actually talked about. Now, Zena looked ready to learn about her past.

But would she want to know all of that? She was so happy now. If Owen told her everything, and the memories came back to her, would she become unhappy again? Would that burden return that melancholy demeanor?

…But to keep the memories away from Zena would go against everything Owen had been fighting for.

“Owen?” Zena asked. “Is something wrong?”

“You didn’t live a very happy life,” Owen said. “…But do you want to know anyway?”

The Feebas blinked, and for a worrisome moment, Owen wondered if she’d refuse after all. He shouldn’t have said that. It was the same trick Star had performed to keep him from pressing for more information. Was this her reasoning? For his own good?

“I think I want to know anyway,” Zena said, disrupting Owen’s thoughts. “I may not remember it, but… something about what I feel from you tells me that I can trust you. That you’ll tell me the truth.”

Warmth spread through Owen’s chest and it showed in his joyous, yellow tail flame.

“Okay,” Owen said, his tone dripping with relief. “Then I’ll start with when I met you, and everything I learned about you, all the way to right now.”

“I would love that.”

She drifted to the water’s edge and stared upward, and for that single, brief moment, Owen felt peace.

“You lived in a place called Calm Water Lake. I met you as a Charmeleon…”
 
Chapter 91 - Bonds Inseverable
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Chapter 91 – Bonds Inseverable

“This is quite possibly the most foolish thing you’ve done so far.”

“Yup.”

Gahi adjusted his neck, ignoring the Snivy that had her vines wrapped around him, futilely slamming her tiny fists against his back.

“Y’know,” Gahi said, “seems kinda dumb that you’d wanna come along fer this.”

“I’m starting to suspect I’m the sole reason you’re still alive,” Trina spat back, grunting when she pulled herself to Gahi’s shoulder.

Several confused Pokémon stared at Gahi, one of them remarking that he had just come in a few hours ago. Gahi ignored them, went past the front desk, and then ignored even harder the Jynx shouting for him to get back.

“Hey, what’re you doing?” Hakk said, carrying a trembling Cyndaquil in his arms.

He tossed the newly scouted Pokémon over to Xypher by his side, who caught him skillfully in an open bag, and then tried to grab Gahi. Instead, he grabbed thin air, and then Trina went in freefall. With an undignified squeak, she landed on top of Hakk’s outstretched paw.

“Eh?” Hakk dropped her.

“Ow—you could have at least set me down,” Trina grunted, searching. “Gahi!”

The Flygon had teleported behind Hakk. “Look, it ain’t anything personal,” Gahi said. “I gotta go.”

“How’d you—” Hakk spun around.

“Gahi, you aren’t leaving without me,” Trina said.

“Oh no you don’t,” Hakk said, stomping a foot on Trina’s tail. “You guys are both supposed to be in evaluations, so if you know what’s good for you—where’d you go?”

Mid-sentence, Gahi had disappeared again, and so had Trina.

<><><>​

“Are you going to at least explain why you’re suddenly teleporting more than an Abra having a nightmare?” Trina asked.

Gahi suddenly wondered what Nevren was like as an Abra, weaving around the trees and then, finally, above them. His wings were black and twinkled like the night sky they could no longer see.

“Gahi!”

“Eh? Oh. Psychic Orb.”

Trina squinted incredulously and pursed her lips to emphasize her disbelief. “When did you acquire the Psychic Orb?”

“Star tore it off Rim. I stole it.”

“You—she—what?! Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

Gahi shrugged. “Thought I lost the power. Guess it reawakened.”

Trina looked at her vines and concentrated. After a while, she sighed and said, “Well, I can’t.”

“Seems like Owen can’t, either. Maybe that’s just how it is if yer not evolved.”

“I still don’t know how that happened…” Trina shivered suddenly, the headwind intensifying.

“Cold?” Gahi asked.

“The lack of sun is getting to me. I was actually enjoying my time in my room, you know. They had artificial sunlight. It was wonderful. And then you Teleport into my room, pluck me out—why did you do that?!”

“I dunno. Seemed like a good idea.” Gahi rolled his eyes and rubbed the back of his claw under his nose. “Guess we traveled a lot. Figured we’d do it again.”

“Travel where, Gahi?” Trina motioned angrily behind her. “We’ve gone so far away from Null Village!”

“Demitri ‘n Mispy.”

Gahi kept his eyes focused ahead, undaunted by the rushing winds thanks to his lenses. Teleporting forward several feet each time was second nature to him, now, and more than doubled his effective travel speed.

“You can sense them?” Trina said, puzzled. “I don’t understand. Have your Psychic powers really gotten that strong?”

“No clue. I mean, felt some weird pulls fer a while, but it’s really strong now. Practically like they’re callin’ out ter me.”

Off by the horizon were several mountains. That was new, Trina noted; finally, something that wasn’t just a bunch of dead trees!

“And where do you plan to take them?” Trina said.

“Well, th’ village? What?”

“We just fled the village without a word. Do you really think they’re going to let us in again?”

“I dunno. Maybe.”

“How did—how did you even escape? Surely they have precautions for Pokémon like you.”

“Yeah, they did,” Gahi beat his wings once to speed up, then continued his Teleport-glide forward. “Fer a while, seemed like I was jus’ bein’ blocked from teleporting out. Didn’t work.”

“So, an anti-Teleport field of some kind. Perhaps anti-element in general.” Trina nodded. “No different than the Protect insulation in modern buildings.”

“Yep. But I guess I broke through.”

“Broke through. How?”

“Well, usin’ Teleport didn’t work. So I tried usin’ it harder.”

“…Harder.” Trina pinched the area between her eyes. “Gahi, you can’t just willpower your way through anti-Teleport walls.”

“Then how’d I get yeh?”

“Some—some sort of flaw in security, I’m sure,” Trina grunted, deliberately looking away when Gahi smirked at her.

“Or,” Gahi proposed, “I tried really, really hard, an’ it worked.”

“You’re absurd.”

Gahi shrugged, confident that he was right, and then continued to scan ahead. “Feels like they’re closer the more I go toward those mountains…”

Trina leaned closer, each little Teleport that Gahi did making her a little more nauseous. She tried to keep it together and envisioned that she was back in the sunlit room in Null Village. “Just be careful. Those wraiths below might try to hit you, and we have no idea where they are.”

The jittering of the trees was too jarring for her. Every Teleport and the scenery was offset by several of them. Keeping her eyes closed was easier, but she still wanted to navigate in case Gahi tried to ‘willpower’ his way through a mountain next. Far to their right, a gigantic wraith was lumbering through the treetops, and she quickly alerted Gahi to avoid it.

They were too far, but Trina watched it anyway. This one was bipedal, but it was so large that she couldn’t tell if it was nearby and a few houses tall, or far away and the height of Kilo Mountain. Thankfully, it didn’t notice them.

<><><>​

The trees were so far away. It was only mountains, now, and Trina, even though she was feeling tired, refused to acknowledge this to Gahi. Instead, she wrapped her vines in a semi-knot around her, and then relaxed her body. The vines, without strain, kept her comfortably tied to Gahi’s back. She occasionally looked down to see the rocky valleys. How long had Gahi been flying?

“Are we nearly there?” Trina asked.

“Yeah.” Gahi gently veered to the left, then brought a hand to his chest, thoughtful. “Such a weird feelin’ that I’m gettin’. Never felt somethin’ like this befer.”

“Perhaps it’s your Psychic Orb resonating somehow,” Trina said, and then she looked at her vines, frowning. “I can’t tap into my powers at all. Perhaps when I was… well, from what they explained to me, I had been killed somehow, and I was brought back as a Snivy. Perhaps I lost my power then, too.”

“Weird.”

Trina squinted and growled. “Is that all you have to say? I thought I’d have some insight on why you might not have the same problem.”

“What, you think I’m smart? I ain’t Owen.”

“Of course you’re smart,” Trina said. “There had to be some way that you escaped all of their facilities.”

“I Teleported really hard. Ain’t much else to it.”

This didn’t seem like a fight worth pursuing. Trina was about to return to thinking on her own when Gahi suddenly jerked to the left. With a grunt, she said, “Are we under attack?”

“Found ‘em.”

And suddenly they lost altitude, and Trina felt her stomach in her throat. She pinned herself to Gahi’s back and braced for impact, but thankfully, Gahi had enough sense to slow his descent once they were closer to the ground.

“Hey!” Gahi shouted, gliding over the rocky terrain. The fact that Trina didn’t hear anything back worried her, so she tried to look ahead.

It was them, unmistakably. Of course, it could have been Ax and Ani, but they weren’t close like the original pair were. The Haxorus was on the Meganium’s back, his tail drooping limply. Demitri was looking thin; his muscles, once defined, were replaced by loose skin and scales. Mispy looked a little thinner as well, though not too badly, though Trina did silently note she had fewer vines than usual.

“You guys alright?” Gahi asked, slowing to a stop once he was only a few paces away from them.

Mispy closed the gap, her eyes wide but her voice silent. She brought her head around Gahi and pressed against it, trembling.

“Hey, yer okay,” Gahi said slowly, wrapping his arms around her, and then looked to Demitri. He couldn’t look at them, but tears were rushing down his cheeks. “Look, we’ve got a place we c’n take yeh. You just gonna follow us, alright? There’s a forest not too far from ‘ere. Ain’t got much but we’ve got some wood ter eat fer you two. Ain’t like yer picky with the vegetarian stuff.”

Trina looked their starved forms, frowning. “Gahi, how are we going to bring them back with us?”

“Eh.” Gahi paused, looking blankly ahead. “Didn’t think about that part.”

“You—” Trina needed a moment to register what he had just said. “What? How? We’ve been flying for—you don’t know how to bring them back?”

“Guess I could Teleport a bunch. But it ain’t like Waypoints, dunno if I have th’ energy ter go th’ whole way.”

He had gone all this way just to see them and never thought of a way back. He was thinking of a plan now. How? Anger bubbled in her voice. “Why did you do this without a plan?”

“I dunno! I really wanted ter see ‘em, make sure they were alright!” Gahi growled and motioned to Demitri. “We gotta get him some food. I c’n feel it. Let’s work on Teleporting fer now. Gonna be a long way back, but we’ve got ‘em.”

“Thank you,” Demitri finally said, his voice a raspy choke.

Mispy nodded next, sliding away from Gahi. “What now?”

“I dunno. Lemme try something.” Gahi looked back at Trina, nodding, and then brought one hand on Mispy’s side, and another on Demitri’s back. His angular wings darkened and resembled a starry sky, and Trina could have sworn she saw some of those little lights move. Gahi brightened; Trina saw her tiny hands turn white. And then, they disappeared.

<><><>​

With a sore throat, Owen helped himself to another cup of hot apple cider that had been provided by room service. The sweetness was overwhelming. By the poolside, Zena floated idly and in thought, processing Owen’s story from start to finish. Occasionally, Owen worried that he had said too much, and that she would go back to being unhappy with the world. And he wouldn’t blame her, really.

“I don’t see how you were so interested in me,” Zena admitted, staring at the empty cup Owen had set down. “I sound so angry and resentful of everyone around me.”

“I don’t think that’s how it was,” Owen said. “You were just upset at being lied to by Star. And you couldn’t really relate to everyone else, either. But I felt for you, y’know? Because I was lied to a lot, too, and…” He trailed off, thoughtful, and then shrugged. “You liked reading books with me. And remember, I didn’t really… know you liked me for a while, either.” He tittered, avoiding her eyes. “I told myself you weren’t interested because I was a killer.”

“Oh, hardly a killer,” Zena said. “You said you were made to be berserk, right? I don’t think it’s your fault. You didn’t want that.”

“Yeah… Well, I—to be honest, I still like fighting. Sometimes I just have an urge to get into one. I breathe and meditate to keep that in check.” Owen pressed his claws into the back of his right hand. “Sorry if that’s scary. I know it is.”

“A little,” Zena admitted. “I can’t imagine having such a heart for battle. Yes, a small spar is fun, but… Oh, you probably hear it all the time.”

Owen laughed, and it was nice to do it so genuinely. “Yeah. I actually have memories of my therapist saying the same thing.”

“Therapist? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound alarmed—I was just surprised that someone of your… position would have the opportunity.”

“It was a long time ago, I think,” Owen said. “I only have blurry memories of it still, but he lived, or maybe still lives, actually, in Kilo Village. My parents thought that maybe one way they could treat my berserk…ness was something more mundane than Mystic power. It’s actually where I got the meditation from.”

“What stopped you from going?”

“I think I was reset so badly that I forgot him completely, and they didn’t want to raise suspicions…”

“Oh, that’s too bad…” Zena bumped her lips against the edge of the pool, blinking.

Owen tilted his head, unable to hide an amused smile.

“I wonder who else you forgot,” Zena said, looking up just slowly enough that Owen could look away and hide that previous smile.

“Yeah,” Owen hummed. “I can’t imagine. Old friends that I just… disappeared to one day. You know, now that I think about it, I heard stories about a… mythical Charmander who seemed to just come and go like a phantom. I always thought it was Deca—who turned out to just be Eon, but, y’know—but I’m starting to wonder if maybe that was me…”

“Surely they would remember you, though,” Zena said.

Owen shook his head. “I think Nevren used to keep stories about Mystics under wraps. Tried erasing memories and things like that. He’s a very powerful Psychic, you know.”

Zena didn’t look convinced. “I don’t think you can easily wipe memories like that. Not even for a Psychic. I mean, look at you. Even your memories are returning.”

“I don’t know if it’s the same,” Owen admitted. “But… I guess, now that I think about it, a single Alakazam keeping a whole town out of the loop does seem kind of strange. Maybe he… worked with orchestrating conspiracies in combination with selectively wiping memories? Even temporarily… Maybe if you make them forget long enough, they’ll think it was just a hallucination or something…”

“Making you forget a friend, just like that? E…erasing someone from someone else’s life? That’s like… wiping someone from history itself. How awful…”

Owen paused. “Erased from history…”

A sharp pain jabbed at the center of Owen’s head and she screwed his eyes shut.

“Owen!”

“I’m—I’m okay,” Owen slurred, but he couldn’t see. It was all so bright. Whether he opened his eyes or not, all he could see was a bright, gold light.

“I was really hoping you’d take the offer, you know,” said a familiar, foreign voice. “You’d be wonderful.”

“Sorry, it’s just not for me,” Owen said, yet his voice was so much deeper. “Not yet, a-at least.” He looked down, feeling guilty, and focused on the crystalline, golden feet of his superior.

His superior sighed, and Owen found the courage to look up again, though he had to squint a little.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

The light dimmed to something more tolerable, and Owen could actually see the god’s prismatic, crystalline eyes.

“So,” Owen said, “um, Necrozma, Our Light, about why I came here…”

“Oh! Of course. I completely changed the subject. Yes. Oatmeal or chocolate chip? Having both will just confuse them…”


“Cookies…”

“Excuse me?” Zena asked.

Owen remembered where he was. “Sorry, just remembered something.”

“Is it always that painful?”

“No. I—it’s a totally new set of memories. I’ve been getting a lot. These have been sort of coming out of nowhere and I don’t know how to process it all.” Owen didn’t realize how frantic his speech had become until he saw Zena’s worried look. “I’m fine, really.”

“I don’t think you are,” Zena half-exclaimed. “Someone may as well have driven a spike through your head!”

“Do I look that awful?” Owen groaned and leaned back, not dizzy but not feeling up to sitting any longer, either. He rolled to make sure his tail would stay away from the water. “I feel like I lived four different lives, not counting the one I’m in now.”

“Four. That’s a specific number.”

He hated that it wasn’t just one. “Yeah,” Owen said, and then elaborated: “One as some… feral Charmander who lived in a region called Kanto. Then something happened, and I think I became… I think I was working closely with someone called Necrozma. And after that, I somehow became a mutant… and then, I was back to being a normal Charmander again, just working toward becoming a Heart…”

His next laugh was a mixture of bitterness and befuddlement. “And now I’m here, learning about it all over again. Which is apparently strange, because normally recovering memories takes forever here.”

“Literally forever, or—”

“No, no,” Owen said, not sure what to think about the fact he had to specify it wasn’t literal. “Apparently recovery is measured in centuries.”

“I don’t know if that’s any better…”

He had gone through a handful of them on a similar scale, and he wasn’t sure, either.

“Well,” Zena said after an awkward silence, “I suppose one way or another, I hope I can become my old self again.”

Owen hid his frown too late.

“What? Is that bad?” Zena asked.

“No, I—”

“Oh, you mentioned I was gloomy. But I’m so curious what I used to be like, too. That’s only fair, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is,” Owen quickly replied. “Sorry, I was just worried that it’d bring you down, but that’s… that’s stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.” He sighed out the last of his frustrations and added, “It’d be beyond crazy for me to advocate for staying in the dark about the past.”

“I was about to say,” Zena replied, playfully spitting a small stream of water just by the pool’s edge. She grinned again, adding, “I want to be complete the same way you’re trying to. And I think with you to help me, I won’t be so gloomy anymore. How does that sound?”

The way Zena was staring at his tail, he figured she already knew he liked it. “Sounds gr—”

Three gentle taps on the doorway caught their attention. The door had a black splotch near the center-bottom of it.

“Oh,” Zena said. “Company.”

Owen figured they weren’t going to be given proper time alone, but could he have just waited until the next morning?

“How was the food?” Marshadow asked, emerging from the door.

“It was great,” Owen said. “Thank you, again, um. I’m sorry if I was rude to you back when—”

“Hey, so,” Marshadow interrupted, “yer friend, Flygon.”

Owen paused, sighed, and remembered his meditation. “What did he do?”

“Busted out somehow. Stole Snivy. Ran off.”

Hands over his eyes, Owen moaned and said, “Is that going to get him in any trouble?”

“Not with us.” Marshadow motioned vaguely behind him. “Just, dunno if he’ll be comin’ back. Titans and all that. No clue who he’s lookin’ fer, but he’s on a real mission.”

Owen furrowed his brow. “Maybe he’s looking for Demitri and Mispy. That’s the only reason I can think of for going out and leaving me behind like this.”

“Well, what, you think he left you behind?”

“He thinks I’m safe, probably,” Owen said. “Or maybe he looked for me in my room and couldn’t find me. …Yeah, he’s definitely looking for those two.”

“Who’re they?”

“Part of our team—Team Alloy.”

“But isn’t it such an expansive forest there?” Zena said worriedly, poking her upper body out of the water. “There’s no way he could find them.”

“They seers like you?” Marshadow asked.

“Yes and no. They have the same power I have, but not an Orb. Long story. I don’t know if he’d be able to find them the same way, but… maybe he can? Gahi’s kinda… but he’s not that dumb. Maybe he really did find them…”

Marshadow crossed his arms, the wisps over his head serene as ever. “Right. So yer sayin’ he might be comin’ back with company.”

“I think so. And he’s very fast, too. And… pretty straightforward. If he knows where they are, he’ll be going right to them. Ask the scouts you have if they spotted him going in any particular direction. That’s where he went.”

“He’s that predictable?”

Owen shrugged. “He’s honest.”

“That’s one way ter put it.” Marshadow smirked. “Alright. Well, I say you still take it easy ‘til we know how he’s doing. Rest up. Gather yer strength. If yeh need training, we c’n get some equipment ter help yeh out. Don’t wanna risk yeh while we’re lookin’ fer scouts. That alright?”

Owen nodded, and Marshadow looked like he was about to leave. A final thought crossed his mind, and Owen said, “Um, by the way, Marshadow?”

“Yeh.”

“Do you know a quick way to evolve Feebas? I know for me, I just have to get stronger, but for Feebas, it’s a special way…”

Marshadow looked at Zena, then at Owen, back at Zena, and finally back at Owen. He stared, silent, and then nodded. “You’ll get it. I ain’t gotta help.”

Without giving them time to reply, Marshadow disappeared through the doorway.

“That was oddly cryptic,” Zena said.

“I’m used to it,” Owen muttered, nearly crestfallen. “I thought he’d be the one person who’d just give the answers if I asked…”

“That’s too bad. But… at least it looks like he plans to help, somehow, right?” Zena drifted closer. “Let’s have some faith in him.”

“Faith in a Legend.” Owen smiled a little, looking back. “I think you know how funny that is for me.”

And Zena smiled back, both of their grins changing from forced to genuine.

<><><>​

Rhys awoke with a splitting headache and stiff muscles. A warm blanket covered his body, and the bedding under him was soft and irresistibly cozy. Next to him was a Poké Ball that had a thin layer of dust over it, as well as recently changed sheets to his left. Confusion followed, then dread, and Rhys sat up—bad decision. Fatigue constricted around him until he relented and collapsed back onto the bed. Nausea came after, his body convulsing in a silent, dry heave, but that only added to his fatigue.

Vision rapidly darkening, Rhys closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath. Held it. Then breathed out, and his vision slowly returned. He knew not to stand up now, but he didn’t know if he had a voice. He tried anyway. “Hel—” was all he could get out before the dryness of his mouth became apparent.

Thoughts. He could send thoughts.

Elder. Can you hear me?

No reply. Not a surprise. He didn’t have the mental fortitude to reach out with their tenuous connection—not when he was this weak. That battle with Emily had taken more out of him than he’d thought.

At least prayer didn’t require as much energy. Arceus. Are you there?

A long silence followed before he got a reply. You’re awake.

Yes. I must have overexerted myself with healing Tanneth.

I’ll inform Brandon.

Where is he?

Resting.

Resting? Where is Tanneth?

Next to you, I imagine.


Rhys paused, then glanced at the Poké Ball again. He focused, but his aura sense didn’t come to him. When he tried again, a dull headache crept in from the back of his skull. It wasn’t worth it.

She might be. I can’t sense anything right now. How long have I been asleep?

Five days.


Rhys became aware of a dull buzz of a lightbulb in the room. The light was an artificial, bright blue color, nothing like the off-white of the sun, too white.

Five? Days?

Yes.


No energy to laugh, Rhys rolled to stare at the ceiling again, where the white ceiling and square tiles only helped to remind him of Quartz HQ. He turned his head away and stared at the cement walls.

Five days. The factory was still standing. That meant Emily didn’t destroy it. But what else?

Emily hasn’t moved. But the storm persists and the oceans are turbulent. It’s raining more frequently in southern Kilo and there are constant storm clouds in the far horizon. Dark Matter has made occasional movements, but nothing that I couldn’t stop. Mutants are appearing more frequently and I suspect a few of them are from Trina’s former guard.

It was too much information to take all at once. Rhys tried to roll out of his bed, but then the metal door of his room slid open.

“Nope, none of that nonsense, stay in bed.” Brandon’s steel footsteps clanged on the ground. “Take it easy before you pass out for another week.”

Week?”

“I dunno, lost track of time.”

Rhys weakly sat back, staring at the ceiling. “Elder…”

“As far as I know, Kilo isn’t crumbling,” Brandon said gently. “Yeah, we’ve had better days, but society hasn’t totally collapsed.”

“The hospital?”

Brandon shrugged. “They had to enter triage. Save the ones that were the most likely to survive.”

Rhys tried to ignore the tension in his chest. He could have helped heal some of them, if only he hadn’t pushed so hard with Tanneth, if he had been more aware of his own—

“What’s that look for?” Brandon said, frowning. “Look, there was nothing you could have done. Don’t worry. Kilo can go on without you for a little while, Mister Hero.”

“I need to get back,” Rhys slurred, struggling to sit up. The headache was coming back.

“And do what? Pass out and take up another hospital bed?” Brandon pressed. “Stay down. Now. I’m your doctor.”

“That isn’t comforting.”

“Too bad. Down. I’m gonna see if Zeke came back with those berries. They might help you out a little.”

Brandon left, and Rhys had enough defiance in him to consider following, but rationality won over. He settled back in his bed and looked at Tanneth’s Poké Ball.

Elder is very happy that you are awake, Arceus reported. He wishes you well and that things are being taken care of in Kilo Village. Do not strain yourself or he will be very worried.

You’re toying with my emotions.
Rhys furrowed his brow in strain, trying to keep himself awake. Why am I so fatigued?

Aura rot. The shadowy power exerted by Emily did more to your aura than to your body. And, being Mystic, that has horrible effects overall.


Now, his eyes were closed out of uselessness, and some primal part of him wanted the bed to swallow him up and not let go. The thought was fleeting; he was far too busy to stop. Then there is nothing I can do?

For now, no. Stay put. There are other things I am trying to arrange for now.


That useless feeling was the last thing he wanted, but it seemed that he didn’t have a choice. Fine. But the moment I have enough strength to fly… I shall return to Elder.

I can’t stop you,
Arceus lied.

Rhys smirked, but said nothing in return.

A low rumble shook the air, and a chill ran through Rhys’ body, and then his aura. That shadowy sky was overhead…

He sighed and brought a paw to his head. “What’s happened to the world…”

<><><>​

“Can I see them now?”

A Charizard stood at the front desk with his tail flame humming. Opposite to him, a Jynx with a nervous frown and nobody to fall back to.

“I’m—I’m very sorry,” Jynx said. “We can’t let you into any of the rooms, even if… It’s policy. I just can’t. Now, if you keep behaving this way, I’ll have to call security.”

“Security. Really? And who would—”

“There a problem?” called a familiar, small voice from down the hall.

Eon glanced at Marshadow, his form rapidly losing shape, but he regained his composure enough to maintain his scales. After flapping his wings to make sure he still had them, he said, “Where’s Owen?”

“Always with Owen.” Marshadow sighed. “He’s with Feebas. Ain’t to be bothered.”

“He’s my son,” Eon said lowly.

“Doubt that one,” Marshadow said lowly. “Y’don’t give off that fatherly vibe. Who are yeh, really?”

Despite his tiny stature, Marshadow felt like the dominating presence in the room, but Eon refused to admit that. He stood his ground, dug his toes into the floor, and said, “Owen is my partner.”

“Mhm. And how come he never mentions yeh?”

“He’s confused. His memories are scrambled, and… I just need to talk to him.” The very fact that he had to explain himself… Nobody understood. But he had to play their game.

“Well, yeh c’n talk with him when he wants. If he didn’t mention yeh, then I ain’t heard o’ yeh.”

“Why don’t you ask?” Eon proposed quickly. “Ask him if he wants to see me—Eon. Or, or if he remembers… Tim.”

Marshadow squinted. “…That name… somethin’ about that name…” He sighed. “Whatever, doesn’t matter. Listen, yeh gotta lay off the guy.”

“You won’t even tell him I’m looking for him?”

Marshadow sighed, squeezing his eyes shut. Then, he relented. “If he asks, I’ll answer. But I ain’t gonna go outa my way.”

But that wasn’t enough for Eon. Marshadow didn’t understand how confused Owen was. Eon would have to go to Owen himself. With a bold step forward, Eon advanced down the hall in search of the vulnerable Charmander. He needed protection right now, not to be psychoanalyzed by a bunch of strangers.

A shadowy circle trailed in front of Eon, and Marshadow emerged from the ground several feet ahead.

“Last warning,” Marshadow said in a sing-song voice. “You don’t wanna break out in a fight with me, do ya?”

“I’m,” Eon said, his flame climbing to a blue ember, “a lot stronger than you think.”

“I’m,” Marshadow said, his shadowy wisps slowly turning green, “glad ter hear it.”

The wind starting to swirl around him. There wasn’t a lot of earth for him to work with, but he imagined he could simply conjure dirt if he needed. Gahi wasn’t the only one who had access to his power still… Though it was more useful as a trump card in this strange land. But if it was to get to Owen—

“Not that it matters,” Marshadow said with a shrug, the green fire on his head returning to black. “Think about it. You fight me, the whole town’s against you. Nobody’s gonna want you around. Rowdy newcomer starts beatin’ people up fer not followin’ their requests? This ain’t a place where we tolerate that kinda behavior. So yer either gonna turn around, er this whole town is gonna make sure you never see Charmander again.”

Eon’s tail was white-hot by now, but Marshadow did not waver. Instead, a green tinge colored his shadowy wisps again, the very tips transitioning to yellow.

He wanted nothing more than to step through and call Marshadow’s bluff. But he also knew that if Owen saw him fighting to get through… After everything else that had happened at Quartz…

“Are you at least taking care of him?” Eon asked, his flame slowly returning to orange.

“I’m pullin’ a lot of strings to accelerate his eval. Breakin’ a lot of procedure with my override. We know he’s safe to keep around.” Marshadow paused. “And I want you not to speak about him too loudly, either.”

“Why’s that?” Eon asked.

Marshadow leaned to the side; Eon looked back and saw only Jynx there, who nodded and returned to her front desk.

“Do you know about the third god?” Marshadow asked.

“…What?”

“Figured.” While disappointed, he also didn’t look surprised. “Seems like he’s a mystery in the living world, maybe totally forgotten by the same Decree that made us ferget each other. Well, here’s what’s going on: Charmander’s spirit is so strongly tied ter that third god that there are gonna be some big names in the Voidlands after him. The King, fer one.”

“King? Of the Voidlands?”

“More or less.” Marshadow’s green and yellow wisps returned to black, and Eon’s tail, in kind, returned to its normal blaze. “He lives far north of here, in the Voidlands capitol: Cipher City. And if he finds out we have someone like Owen… Well. Our little… covert resistance network will fall right apart! Heh. You wouldn’t want that. A seer like you would be rounded up and forced ter serve good ol’ King Alexander.”

“Alexander? How funny. Owen’s false father is named Alex.”

“Heh, well, names like those’re weird, but they ain’t uncommon. His pops is a Magmortar, I heard.”

“Well, that’s his current form. He used to be a Hydreigon.”

Something in Marshadow’s gaze shifted just then. “Well, ain’t that somethin’,” he said. “That’s the tyrant king’s species, too.”

Eon blinked, confused. That… was too strange to be a coincidence. Yet the possibility that it wasn’t pure chance was even stranger.

“Well, either way,” Marshadow said, “’s far as I’m concerned, yer part o’ the Voidlands Protection Network now. That’s us. An’ that means I’m yer commander. D’you accept, er are you gonna be a civilian?”

“…What happens if I refuse?” Eon asked.

“Then I’mma kick yeh out fer trespassin’.”

“Fine, then… if I accept, can I see Owen?”

“Nope, ‘cause then yer under my command.” Marshadow gestured forward. “If he asks fer you, then I got no power. Y’c’n taunt me all y’want if that happens.”

He could still protest if he wanted. Would Owen be proud of that sort of thing? …He wouldn’t. Too careful. Owen’s glare still burned in his mind. He had such a track record of doing things for him that Owen ended up hating because of how far he’d gone. Would this be one of those instances?

“Then tell me what I should do for now,” Eon said. “I’ll wait for Owen.”

“I’d normally take yeh ter training, but ain’t nothin’ better than practicals. I’m gonna take yeh on yer first mission: find Flygon with some scouts. Maybe if yer good, I’ll accelerate yer training so yeh have some authority around here…”

Was that a taunt? Eon gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Lead the way.”
 
Chapter 91 - Rediscovery
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Chapter 92 – Rediscovery

Angelo had fallen into a healthy routine. He would wake up around early afternoon, have breakfast, do some drawing, and leave his home to heal the dying. Then, along the way, he would see small requests on the board by the Central Waypoint—now nonfunctional and repurposed as a trouble board. Angelo was, therefore, able to take on essentially any request, whether he wanted to or not.

He didn’t understand. It had been so perfect. Every day would have been the same and nobody would have assumed any differently. He was an artist, just a simple comic artist who wrote about heroes taking down impossible villains. He wasn’t someone who actually could!

And yet, now, they assumed he was. Suddenly he was the versatile hero. And now, standing at the exit to his art shop slash home, he knew that it would only be two steps before someone would ask him for help.

He pawed uncertainly at the door, undoing the latch—but then heard a small, squeaking sound, followed by a scratching noise below.

“Erm, hello?” Angelo asked.

Little, fuzzy yellow legs poked out from underneath the door. More scratching and squeaking, angry little noises, and a Joltik finally popped out. “You!”

Angelo flinched, stepping away. “Me?”

“Yeah, you!” She leaped onto his face, and Angelo screamed, flailing,and tried to grab her. Instead, she squirmed and found her way somewhere under his hat fur. “You’re late!”

Angelo was still screaming.

“Why’d you take so long to wake up!?”

Angelo was still screaming.

Then he felt something bite against his skull, and then he couldn’t move. Electricity raced along his body, numbing him, and he fell on his side with jerking, spasming motions.

“Oh, great, and now you can’t even move!” Willow jammed her leg against Angelo’s head again. “Come on, you’re stronger than that! Get up!”

“I’m… trying…”

“Hmph!” Willow hopped off and waited at the door. “We need your help with scouting this time.”

“Scouting?” Angelo repeated, his gaze focused on a few dusty coins that had rolled under a shelf a long time ago. “Why scouting?”

“Well, because you can fly!”

“Oh, so I can.”

“And if we’re ever short on units to send somewhere, Elder said that you’d be the best person to grab! Because you’re a wildcard, or something!”

“Elder. The giant Torkoal?”

“Yup!”

“Of course.” In the past few days, he had seen him giving out calm orders in the place of the Lucario mate of his. What ever happened to him, anyway? Well, perhaps he was on a long travel.

“You know, I’m kinda jealous,” Willow said, prodding Angelo again while the feeling slowly and agonizingly returned to his limbs. “Since when can a Smeargle learn so many moves and keep them?”

“Sticky aura, Father called it.” Angelo slowly rolled until he was on his belly, then shakily brought his arms forward. Up, up… don’t fall, don’t fall… Too weak to stand. Not yet. Sitting would do.

Willow, clearly impatient, hopped a few times before landing on a nearby shelf, dangerously close to a framed picture of his grandfather, Smeargle Angelo. While recovering from his paralysis, the current Angelo wondered if his grandfather, too, had been driven insane by overworking. Sure, the cover was that he had gone insane somehow by straying too close to Void Basin, but really, weren’t those just silly rumors? Overworking sounded a lot more likely…

Because it certainly felt like he was following that same path.

He could feel his legs again. Good. Finally back on his feet, he sighed and didn’t flinch when Willow landed on his head.

“Okay. Time to go,” Angelo said. “Where am I scouting?”

“We,”—The word filled him with dread—“are going to fly to Yotta Outskirts to observe from the air if there are any mutants straying nearby, and if there are, we’re gonna take them down!”

Angelo was frozen mid-step outside his home. “Excuse me?” he said. “You can’t be serious. I—I’m not someone who can fight mutants. Are you insane?”

“But you’re super strong, aren’t you?”

“No!” Angelo shook his head fervently. “That’s all behind me! I have a variety of abilities, yes, and I’ve trained for the Hearts, yes, but I am just a comic book artist. I do not want to fight a mutant! I want to live!”

“Hmmm…” Willow shrugged. “It’s okay! I’ll protect you.”

The little Joltik hopped a few more times—at an impressive height, going over his head—and then said, “Okay! Let’s get our other scouts. These two went to Yotta Outskirts a few times already to help with the new trade route thingy.”

“What for?”

“I dunno! Something about farmland.”

“Farmland… Oh, perhaps to secure some steady food.”

Supplies were rapidly dwindling. The Hearts were scrambling to set up new routes to sustain the population—though thanks to most healing mechanisms disappearing, Angelo morbidly wondered if the number of mouths to feed would be a problem for long.

“Yotta Outskirts…”

There were several towns referred to as Outskirts, but Yotta was by far one of the largest settlements by area. Angelo also recalled that their crops used to be a great supplier across the world. Wheat, seeds, vegetables, whole orchards of fruits… If they could secure something like that again, feeding the town would become a matter of organization, not numbers.

Walking down the streets of Kilo Village, Angelo checked for any new developments. Several shops were reopening with new purpose or old business. Several more were used as makeshift hospitals and recovery shelters. Settled wounds—ones that proper healing did not get to in time—and other ailments plagued most of these Pokémon, and they needed a place to curl up and rest a while, at best. Angelo was tempted to visit them and see if his Heal Pulse would do any work, but the very thought labored his breathing. He was lightheaded.

“Oh, and Elder also said we’re gonna get a visitor soon!” Willow said. “A really big visitor from the east.”

“Visitor? Who told Elder?”

“Arceus.”

“Oh, okay.”

It was probably true, but Angelo had grown numb to it. Arceus this, Arceus that, it was like seeing him in town that one time was the dawn of a new era. What, the sky falling wasn’t enough? It wasn’t like Arceus was strong enough to do anything anyway. What a divine letdown.

“Will we know when the visitor’s arriving?” Angelo asked.

“Nope! Soon.”

Angelo passed by a team consisting of a Scyther and Pikachu heading for the northern exit. Both of them looked like they hadn’t slept well in days. In Pikachu’s paws were several mission statements, which he was reading aloud to Scyther. Angelo closed his eyes, wondering when he’d be able to curl up in bed again.

The Central Waypoint’s bulletin board was a crowded mess of requests of varying levels of legibility and descriptiveness. Pokémon came and went from this board, peeling requests off as they saw them, while several more were stuck on to replace them, managed by several Heart staff.

Perhaps he could take on that job next? Not as one of the Thousand, but as a simple bookkeeper that helped keep the Hearts functioning as a governing body, even now. Maybe if he asked convincingly—

“Angelo, right?”

It was a curse. “Yes, that’s me.”

Before him was a Salazzle with a settled wound—a scar that was certainly from a lightning strike on her chest. He couldn’t look away, but the annoyed look on Salazzle’s face was enough to force him to stand to attention.

“Like what you see?” Salazzle growled.

“I’m sorry. I, er—Yotta Outskirts?”

“…Yeah, that’s us. Delphox Leo’s going to be our director. Team of four. Apparently this one is going to help us fly there and deliver supplies.” She motioned to the Joltik between them.

“Yup! That’s me!” Willow raised her front half an intimidating inch off the ground. “Joltik Willow, master cargo deliverer!”

“…Is this a joke?” Angelo asked Salazzle.

“Nope. I saw her do this myself. You’ll see soon. Anyway, name’s Salazzle Spice. I remember you from drawing our menu over in Sugar ‘n Spice. Thanks, by the way. Really popped, brought in extra business before this whole mess started.”

“Oh! The same—you know Sugar?” Angelo asked. “Oh, of course, you’re, er, her sister.”

Now that Angelo thought about it, having two Salazzle for siblings sounded quite strange, especially at the same age. Weren’t female Salandit rare?

“Oh, there’s Leo,” Spice said, pointing behind him. Weaving away from the crowd still trying to take notices, Angelo struggled until he saw the Delphox in question waving them down.

“Is that Angelo?” Leo called.

“Yep! We’re ready to go!” Spice said.

Something landed on Angelo’s head and he froze in horror.

“We’re ready!” Willow said while on top of him.

But before they could depart—or figure out how they were supposed to depart—a shrill cry came from the western road. Heads turned. A frightened Bewear pointed a massive paw toward the horizon, where a great, black figure loomed over them. With the sun’s current angle, its shadow darkened the entire western mountains, with great, black wings made of some ethereal material, a long, coiling, serpentine body… Angelo couldn’t comprehend its form. Where was its head? It simply coiled and coiled with a black core in the center, and then it ended on the other end with five thick tendrils that looked this way and that.

Not that it mattered—it was covered in eyes! All of them blinked independently of one another, and Angelo was sure that a few were staring specifically at him, despite how far away it was.

It stopped its advance just as its shadow curled around the crater’s edge.The Pokémon of Kilo Village all stared in stunned silence. Murmurs of terror rippled across the crowd. Others were morbidly fascinated. Several were already fleeing for their lives.

Torkoal Elder was quickly—therefore, slowly—making his way down the Heart HQ stairway.

The leviathan in the sky waved one of its five tendrils at them, and Angelo realized that the tendril split open at the end like a mouth.

Hello!

Angelo forgot how to breathe. The thought and ability left him. Pokémon were screaming but it was all dull and muddled.

Do not be afraid!

Spice was shoving Angelo forward to find shelter, or something. He didn’t know. He was probably still dreaming. The screams were all white noise.

My name is Nate!

It was drifting closer. Several beams of energy—a Hydro Pump, a Fire Blast, and an Ice Beam—blasted the leviathan to no effect as its body drifted over the outer rim of Kilo Mountain’s crater.

Please! I’m here to help!

It was landing. Its body curled over the mountain like a hungry, feral Seviper over an unguarded nest, or like Angelo curling over his bed to rummage through his snack packs.

Angelo hadn’t breathed for a while. Or perhaps he was breathing too quickly. Either way, his vision was curling itself into a tiny circle. Something tiny pulled on his furry cap, and Willow’s voice loudly screeched for him to stand up. Angelo hadn’t even realized he’d collapsed.

“It’s just Nate! Get up!” Willow commanded. She jammed one of her legs into his forehead, but to no avail. She growled and kept trying to pull him up, flapping her fairy wings to gain altitude.

And then, everything went dark.

<><><>​

“They’re dead ahead.”

“Y’sure?”

Eon had the form of a mutant Flygon this time, likely because his mind was so focused on Gahi. He thankfully did not inherit the accent. However, he also did not inherit the Psychic powers, and had to deal with normal flying—an agonizingly slow pace compared to the others in the scouting team, namely Xypher and Hakk. Even with his Flying-induced Tailwind, they weren’t very fast compared to Gahi’s flying speed. Corviknight were incredibly fast fliers, but it wasn’t enough compared to Gahi’s speed. Though, he supposed having such a lightweight passenger also helped.

They had to stay close so their cloaking against Titans was still effective, but there was no telling how long that would last. The cloaking was apparently not perfect, especially if more intelligent ones were looking for small distortions in the sky. Below them were the many jagged fingers of Void Forest’s treetops, and ahead, after what might have been half a day’s travel, were the faraway mountaintops of what Marshadow had called the Nolla Mountains. By wing, travel there would have taken a full day of nonstop, full-speed flying, and they’d have needed to bring more rations. On foot? Marshadow had said not to bother.

“How’d he get this far so fast?” Marshadow said. “How’d he know where they were? They ain’t seers like you.”

“They share a strong bond already because they fused together before,” Eon said. “Maybe that’s a factor?”

“If that’s the case, they’d’ve said something about Owen, too, eh? You mentioned they fused with him, too.”

“Well, that’s true…” Eon sighed. “Then maybe it’s a coincidence.”

“I don’t buy coincidences,” Marshadow replied, arms crossed. “Bah, whatever. We’ll see if it means anything later. Fer now, let’s make sure he’s alri—OI!”

Eon had suddenly stopped, and Xypher squawked and beat his wings. Dark, steely feathers drifted below them. Marshadow, losing his balance, landed face-first into Eon’s back. With a grunt, he slammed his hand on a shoulder and stood up.

“Alright, what’s yer deal?”

“They’re behind me now,” Eon said, pointing. “They were just ahead a few seconds ago, and now they’re…”

“What, does your internal routing not update in time or something?” Hakk muttered, but then blinked. “Update…” He rummaged through his bag.

“I guess not, but we need to head back now. They aren’t ahead anymore.”

Eon spun around and flew under Xypher, then waited for him to keep up.

“This cloaking device blocks sound, right?” Eon said. “We might need to disable that so we can call them. He might not be paying attention to where we are.”

“Maybe we can just land next to them when we see them. Are they moving?”

Eon searched for Gahi’s energy. It didn’t seem like he was moving; they were getting closer at around the same speed they were flying. But it was all such a strange, vague sensation to begin with that he had no idea.

“Forget your senses. Found ‘em.” Hakk pointed at a bright green figure among the dark trees. The glossy, shining body was enough of a giveaway that it was Gahi.

Seconds before Eon was about to call, Gahi disappeared in a flash of light, and suddenly he was further ahead again. “What—”

“Teleporting. Figures.” Marshadow chuckled and tapped Eon on the shoulder. “Think yeh c’n keep up with that?”

“Hmph, I won’t be outrun by some Guardian newbie.” Eon beat his wings harder and sped ahead, but that only earned an irritated shout from Hakk.

“Wait!” he roared. “Cloaking device! Remember?!”

“Hrrgh, then how am I supposed to catch up?” Eon snarled back at them. “You’re the one keeping me held back!”

“Stop complaining and catch up!”

“Fast! Fast, fast!” Xypher panted, gliding downward for extra speed.

Thankfully, Gahi was slower to disappear this time, and once close enough, Eon shouted, “GAHI!”

“E-eh?” Gahi turned. “Lygo? What’re yeh—”

“It’s—” Eon was about to specify, but then realized that would be a bad idea. Not yet. Instead, he motioned behind him. “We were scouting for you. What’s going—” Once he landed on the ground, he saw how winded Gahi was, eyes crossed with what looked like a bad headache. Trina, slung behind Gahi’s shoulders, looked pale. Along with that, Demitri and Mispy, looking starved and battered, stood against one of the trees just to prop themselves up.

Marshadow muttered a curse and said, “You guys don’t look too great.”

“Yeah, was bringin’ ‘em back,” Gahi said between breaths.

“We found them in the mountains,” Trina reported, wrapped around Gahi’s neck by the vines like a backpack. She looked nauseous. “I’m assuming we’re going in the right direction.”

Eon looked to Demitri and Mispy next. “And you two? Are you okay?”

“Better than before…” Demitri tried to stand straighter, but it only made him dizzy. He collapsed against Mispy, who fell over right after, leaving the pair in a heap.

Xypher chirped worriedly, and Hakk hopped off of the Corviknight while sorting through his bag.

“Rations,” Hakk said to Marshadow, who nodded. “Hey. You two should get some energy back and just sit here for a while.” He pulled out two brown bars wrapped in paper.

“What’s that?” Demitri asked.

“Food. Just a little to—”

Mispy violently tore the two bars out of Hakk’s grip, having only enough self-control to give one of them to Demitri, who took it with trembling claws.

“You’ll need water,” Hakk said, pulling out a flask next. He held it out delicately this time, and Mispy took it with another vine.

“And how about you?” Hakk asked Gahi and Trina.

“I do not have an appetite right now,” the sick-looking Snivy muttered. “Perhaps when the world stops spinning.”

“I’m fine,” Gahi said. “When c’n we get back?”

Eon squinted; there was a trail of blood coming out from Gahi’s left nostril. “How much have you been Teleporting?”

“Not fer too long,” Gahi said.

“Looks like you’re Teleporting too much too fast,” Hakk noted, scratching deliberately at his own nostril.

Gahi mimicked the gesture and inspected his claw, flinching.

“I don’t think your powers are fully developed after all, Gahi,” Trina noted. “Let’s rest until you can go the rest of the way.”

“I’ll make it,” Gahi said. “I just gotta—”

“I will shove my vines down your windpipe if you Teleport me again,” Trina hissed. “I wasn’t built for this sort of thing.”

“Hmph, at least get me dinner first,” Gahi muttered back, but he sat down anyway. Only then did the dizziness hit him, because after a few breaths, Gahi had his hands on his head. He said something difficult to understand and then breathed deeper.

“Yep. There’s the migraine,” Hakk said, rolling his eyes. “Who would’ve thought, a Dragon with Psychic powers wouldn’t work out. Last I checked, only Legends have those.”

“Legends. Which ones?” Eon asked. “Hrmm… Latias and Latios, if I remember right.”

“Yeah.”

“Are they here?” Eon asked. “You mentioned that the Legends were forgotten, but…”

“Yeah, those two’re around. Far northeast from where we are right now. Those two’re leaders of another sector of the Voidlands Protection Network.”

Something was bugging Eon. “I think there’s another Dragon-Psychic.”

Marshadow shrugged. “Maybe. Probably another Legend we’re forgetting.” He approached Demitri and Mispy. “Hey. You know a Charmander?”

“What?” Demitri asked between bites. Despite how much he was starving, he swallowed, paused his eating, and nodded. “Kind of. He’s a Charizard now, though.”

“Nah. But what’s his name?”

“Owen.”

“Well, good ter meet yeh two. I figure yer friends o’ Gahi’s? I remember he told me a lot about y’guys.”

“Eh?” Gahi mumbled. “Whozzat? Manny sounds smaller.”

Mispy laughed weakly, and Marshadow’s shadowy flames bent to an imaginary gust of wind.

“Whoever this Manny is,” Marshadow muttered, “I’mma challenge him ter a fight.”

<><><>​

“Are you going to stand there all day?”

Tim spun around, as did Owen. Smallwing—who Tim ended up naming Duos—chirped angrily at Owen to hold still while atop his head.

Before them was another human, and Owen recognized this one as female, at least, he thought so. The higher voice was usually the giveaway there. Long hair, brown eyes, she looked native to Kanto, unlike his current trainer, who was apparently from someplace called Unova. A Pokémon he had never seen before was curled around her neck, snoozing lazily. Serpentine, no arms or legs at all, with a bright blue body.

“No, I was just looking,” Tim said, stepping aside. “This Gym is our first.”

“And you’re bringing a Charmander and a Pidgey to it?” the girl asked, sighing. “Didn’t you take
any classes on type matchups? They’re one of the most basic concepts.”

“I’m gonna make up for it in spirit!” Tim said. “And Charmander’s cool!”

She rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. Your parents moved all the way here because they’re rich, and then they helped get you into the Head Start program next, is that it?”

“N-no, I—”

She quirked a brow.

“…I… um…”

Owen, perplexed, growled confusedly at Tim. Why wouldn’t he just tell her off? Granted, he had no idea what this program was about, only that Tim wanted him as a partner. And sure, he was an idiot, but he wasn’t a
bad human. He already felt a little stronger, too.

The girl leaned forward. “Wait… did you maybe, get a scholarship for this? Are you a talented trainer?”

“No, that’s not it,” Tim hastily said, waving both hands. “I just, I don’t know. It’s what my parents wanted of me. I could’ve gone to high school back in Unova, but the Trainer Learning program is cool!”

“…Hmm.” She eyed Owen, and he didn’t like that. He started to growl, but Duos pecked his forehead from above. Owen hissed at Duos and grumbled.

The serpent around the girl’s neck stirred.

“Hm? Oh, sorry, Ire,” the girl said, rubbing under his chin.

“Ire, huh. Is that a, um….” Tim stared dumbly at it.

“A Dratini, yes.” And it looked like she took great pleasure in explaining this.

For some reason, this was monumental, because Tim’s eyes were wide. “But those’re—”

“Rare? Maybe where
you lived, but where I’m from, they fly around all the time! But they wouldn’t choose any simple trainer. Dratini are graceful, elegant, and wonderful—”

Ire let out a loud, satisfied belch. Owen couldn’t believe that such a sound could come from something so small. And then, Ire squeaked happily and nuzzled the girl’s cheek.

“Y-you were saying?” Tim asked, struggling to hold back laughter. “Something about grace and elegance?”

Ire nibbled on the girl’s cheek, pulling it so her teeth were showing.

“Oh, just—move aside! I have a Badge to win!”

“Okay, Your Grace,” Tim replied, bowing exaggeratedly. Thinking that this was a custom—after all, apparently Ire was supposed to be an incredibly powerful Pokémon—Owen mimicked Tim and bowed the same way. Duos fell off of his head and chirped various curses at Owen.

Seething, the girl stomped past him.

“Oh, um—and what’s your name? I’m Tim!”

“Hmph! Ayame. Good luck with your Rock-weak team!”

Tim watched for a while longer, looking wistful. “Wow… a Dratini…” He looked down at Owen, grinning all the same. “Oh well. Charizard’s gonna be cooler anyway.”

And that, he liked.


<><><>

“He sounds like an interesting human,” Zena remarked over breakfast. For her, more blocks, but she was looking healthier already. For Owen, he had what looked like a grainy, chewy bar packed with… he assumed it was food, but the taste was vaguely sweet and chalky.

“I guess so,” Owen said, staring at his toes. “Tim… Eon, now, I guess…”

“But from what you told me, you’re at odds with each other, now, aren’t you?”

Owen sighed, then stalled by taking another bite of his nutrient bar. She was still staring at him. No choice but to answer.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said slowly, “they aren’t the same person.”

“But aren’t they?” Zena asked. “I don’t understand.”

“No.” Owen closed his eyes, envisioning that happy, warm grin on the human boy, and then those desperate, mimicked-Charizard eyes. “He’s not the same person. You can have the same spirit and not be the same person. I’m at least four different people, and I don’t even know what some of those people were like. We may share the same name, and the same spirit, but… but the past ‘me’s are… that. In the past…”

Owen’s gaze drifted toward Zena, and her frown mirrored his. Look at him, now he was the one making her gloomy. He shouldn’t have gotten so into that; he was trying to cheer her up! Still, she wanted to know. And Eon… wasn’t the trainer he’d grown up with.

He wondered if Amber and Daichi missed him. Or Redscale, or Bigtail, or—

“Then what does that make me?” Zena asked softly.

“Huh?”

Zena rose a little more from the water, wheezing for air, and asked again, “You wanted me to get my memories back. But would that just be… a past me, a me that’s no longer—”

“No, it’s—this is different,” Owen said feebly. “This was a short time, and you’ll eventually just—”

“I don’t think I like that attitude,” Zena interrupted, narrowing her sunken eyes. “It sounds like you’ve given up on your old selves. I don’t think they’d be very happy about that. Well, I—I don’t know about you, but I want to be whole again. The old me might have been gloomy, but it was still someone you fell in love with. And I want that back!”

Owen flinched moments before Zena did the same. The idle hum of one of the water filters occupied the silence. One of the drains to their left was slightly wider than the others, and the water flowed faster through that one.

“I—I mean—” she stuttered. “I’m sorry. I spoke out of turn. I do not know where that came from.”

And then more silence. He’d never expected someone like Zena to have so much fire in her, but it wasn’t like this was unprecedented. This was the first time he was on the receiving end of it, though.

“How can I be whole, though?” Owen said. “I spent so long as different… people. I-in fact, at this point, Har has it easier than me! And—”

“I just don’t agree with that,” Zena said. “You’re the same person. Yes, you’ve changed, and yes, maybe those old selves are far and away, but… but they’re still you! Do we not all change, day by day?”

“This is a lot more extreme than day by day,” Owen replied automatically, flame blazing brighter. “We’re talking centuries here!”

“And?” Zena asked, voice rising. “What are a few centuries to people like us, really? At some point, we all take things one moment at a time, don’t we? We have more to look back on, and perhaps less to look forward to, but we’re all in this moment, now, together.”

“And what’s that have to do with… everything that I’d forgotten until now? I bet I’d be a completely different person if I never lost those memories.”

“As would I, had I never become a Guardian,” Zena retorted. “I am still me. No amount of amnesia is going to change that. And you! You’ve accepted your past as a weapon. A living, mutant weapon. How can you not accept this next?! What’s the difference?!”

Owen tried to speak, but his mind was a fuzz. What was the difference? For a second, Owen thought he had wings to flex, but he was indeed still a Charmander, and Zena was still a Feebas. He certainly wished he had wings to hide under, though. The warmth they provided, the way he could shield himself under them, always felt secure.

“I’m sorry,” Zena said.

“Uh?” Owen returned to his senses, and he only then realized the apologetic, remorseful look in Zena’s eyes. She was mostly underwater again, surfacing only to speak.

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Upset?” Owen echoed, and then realized how bright his tail was. “Oh.” He quickly tried to hide it behind him, took deep breaths, held each one…

“I was just so invested in getting my memories back, a-and then you say that it wouldn’t matter if—”

“No, no, it totally matters, I—”

“For me, yes, but surely for you as well?” Zena begged. “I do not see the difference in our situations. We both lost our past. We both are fighting to get it back. I don’t want to reject myself. How fair would that be to… to my old self? I’m sure I would be very upset…”

“I just don’t know if I can do any of them justice,” Owen admitted. “And I… don’t know if I want some of these memories back.”

“What?” Zena echoed, rising again. “But all of your talk about—”

“I did want it all back,” Owen said. “But…”

<><><>​

A Charizard hobbled up a great stairway, mumbling out a number. 77. 77. Because that was how many flights he had climbed. His arm was bruised. One of his wings was punctured. A few poison spikes had mercifully avoided any lasting damage to him, merely grazing his scales. Standing at the top of the stairway, yet another guard stood and watched, this time, a Rhydon. “You’re barely standing. Turn back.”

“Can’t,” Owen replied, a pitiful smile glued to his face.

“I know you’re close, but you just aren’t going to make it. One Stone Edge from me, and…”

“Do it, then,” Owen said, planting his feet on the ground. “Not like you’re the first Rhydon I met.”

“I know. You fought me before.”

“Wha?”

“The Destiny Guardians are an unending force. You can defeat us, and we will only return to take you down again. Now, c’mon, shortie. I know your tricks. Want to try aga—”

In a deft motion, Owen flew the rest of the way up the stairs and blasted Rhydon in the chest with Dragon fire. Rhydon was too slow, conjuring sharp stones from beneath, yet Owen had dodged it despite his injuries. Rhydon didn’t have time to react; the Destiny Guardian disappeared in a flurry of cyan embers.


<><><>​

“Owen?” Zena gently asked. “Did you have another memory just now?”

“It’s so much, Zena,” Owen whimpered, covering his face with his knees until the headache subsided. “Who even is Necrozma supposed to be? I didn’t remember his name at all until I started sleeping here! Why now?”

“I’m sorry,” Zena said gently. “I shouldn’t have brought this all up when you’re so distressed. My memories are nothing compared to yours…”

“Hey, no, don’t…” Owen peeked out from behind his leg-made hideout. “No, I’m sorry. I’m getting mine back. We still need to help yours…” He sighed, irritated with himself. “I should be grateful. Getting memories back at all sounds like it’s next to foreign here. And here I am, complaining about all the ones I have…” With a forced smile, he said to Zena, “Thanks. You helped me keep a perspective on this.”

“Right…” Zena sank a little lower. “But what do we do now? Has Gahi come back yet?”

“I think once he does, the next thing I want to do is help with scouting for Mom.” Owen nodded. “After that, I… well. One thing at a time for now. If I think too much, I think I’ll just tire myself out.”

“That’s okay.” Zena drifted away, but then perked up. “Um—you don’t have to stay with me all the time, by the way.”

“Huh?”

“Well, you… are surely here to help me feel better. But I promise, if you’d rather be elsewhere—”

“What? No! Where else would I go?”

“I—what?”

“I can’t go anywhere right now until that Marshadow guy says it’s okay for me to leave this building. I’m not going back to my room.”

“But you seemed to have trouble sleeping here. It’s built for Water Pokémon, not—”

“I was just having some memory-dreams,” Owen dismissed with a wave. “I’d definitely stay here until it’s time for scouting.”

“To… make sure I’m okay?”

“Well, sure.” Owen sounded puzzled. “But, you know, we were courting and stuff. And… well, I mean…” Owen fidgeted, looking for something to hold, but could only make use of his tail. “Being around you in general is nice. I’m starting to see ‘you’ again already. All I need is a book or two, and we can read together like before.”

Owen wasn’t sure what Zena was feeling—curse his lack of Perceive—but her silent stare worried him. Was that too much? Was he coming on too strongly? She still barely knew him aside from his own recounting. And for all he knew, Zena was taking that with the possibility that he was lying. He couldn’t blame her. After everything that had happened to him, he would have done the same.

“Just to be with a Feebas?” Zena finally asked.

Owen tried to disguise his mild annoyance with a playful sigh. “To be with you, c’mon! No, you were totally baiting me to say that answer.” The playful sigh worked for Owen, at least, because his annoyance morphed into a warm smile.

Yet Zena didn’t return it. A surprised frown, instead. “I wasn’t. I’m… Perhaps we were closer than I thought…”

“I wish we were even closer, to be honest,” Owen said. “Like I told you, I missed… a lot of signals. So, I’m trying to be really clear about how I feel this time, and you said you’d be the same way. So, um. That’s why I want to stay here, instead of going back to my Fire room.”

“Because… you love me.”

“Yeah. But—but it’s okay if you aren’t ready for me to say that to you, because, you know, with the memories, I know how sudden it must—”

“Owen,” Zena said gently, her sunken eyes looking right at him.

He couldn’t look away. Every detail was suddenly clearer. The glistening of the water over her ample sclera, those tiny pupils, the murky scales that surrounded it, her feeble fins. It was remarkable how much Feebas differed from their higher forms. How different and raspy and wheezy Zena’s voice had become. Yet despite it all, she was still there. Alive. And even if she didn’t remember him… there was still hope that she would one day. And even then, a chance to move forward regardless.

He wanted to see her smile again. It had been too long since the last time. Only this morning.

“What’s that look you’re giving me?” Zena asked after a long, long silence.

It was almost hypocritical, because she had been staring at him the same way. Not that Owen planned to comment on it.

“Sorry,” Owen said, and then struggled as much as he could, in that eternal second, to find something cool to say. Something. Anything. Brandon’s words echoed in his mind. Pickup lines. There were so many brilliant ones and none of them were returning to him. He was a master, and he forgot his teachings. Wait, wasn’t there—no, that wasn’t one. Still, he had to stop staring.

“Guess I just like looking at you,” Owen dumbly explained.

The filters in the pool filled the silence again, accompanied by Owen’s humming flame. One of the cameras, usually silent, made a quiet revving noise as it turned as part of its routine, usually drowned out in the natural noise of the pool. Owen finally broke his stare, suppressing a smile, though it didn’t work well.

“Sounds kinda silly when I say it out loud,” Owen finally admitted. “I—”

Owen thought he was having another memory flash—a literal one, staring at Necrozma and his blinding body. But that light was coming from Zena.

With a gasp, Owen hopped to his feet and ran toward the pool’s edge. He didn’t want to miss it. Her body grew and lengthened, shifting and changing within that bright light in a way more dramatic than any evolution he’d ever witnessed. At least, any he could remember.

That brilliant, white light cracked away into sparks that lingered in the air, then faded in tiny, flashing bubbles.

The Milotic looked down, and Owen found such humbling familiarity in those red eyes. There was a new glow in them that he had seen in the Feebas, and it did not fade when the last of the bright pinpricks of light did.

“Zena,” Owen breathed out. “You’re…”

She lowered as much as she could into the water, and Owen realized how small he was. As a Charmander, even with Zena’s chin practically on the floor, he was shorter than her horn.

“I’m what?” Zena asked, smiling. “Beautiful?”

“Well, yeah, but—you’re so huge!”

Zena recoiled, but then giggled. “And you’re so tiny.”

It was Owen’s turn to recoil, but when Zena smirked, he tittered and shrank even further. “Okay, maybe I phrased it badly…”

“I have a strange feeling that it wasn’t your first time,” Zena added.

“No, I’ve had a lot of times with you,” Owen agreed.

Zena looked like she was about to say something, but then looked behind Owen. When he turned to follow her gaze, Marshadow stepped out from the washroom with a small, amused smile on his face.

“How—long were you there?” Owen asked.

“Enough that I didn’t wanna interrupt yer moment,” Marshadow said. “I got some news fer you. Congrats on evolving, by the way. Surprised ev’n me, thought it’d take longer befer this li’l guy made yeh feel pretty.”

“Wait, that’s the secret?” Owen asked.

Marhsadow shrugged, then added, “Hey, so, I’ve got good news, great news, and bad news, so what order d’you wanna hear it?”

“Um.” Why did he have to make a show of it? “Just do it in that order.”

“Alright. Good news: Flygon’s back with Snivy, and he’s brought company. A weird looking Meganium and Haxorus.”

Owen’s flame doubled in size. “Are they okay?”

“Weak but stable. We’re gonna get ‘em checked in first thing, same as you.”

It was the best he could ask for. “Can I see them?”

“The great news,” Marshadow went on, his grin not faltering nor growing, “is that we found Ralts.”

Flame going from double to triple, Owen looked back at Zena with wide eyes. Hers were just as large, and then Owen asked Marshadow, “Okay, so—can I go? Can I help?”

“You’ll be able to sense her the strongest,” Marshadow said. “C’mon. We gotta go fast.” He turned around. “I think the rest of the scouts’re almost prepared by now. Gotta mobilize the team. Hurry and wait.”

“May I come as well?” Zena asked.

“No,” Marshadow said. “Stay put here. Not strong enough, and Charmander here is gonna be fer detectin’ it all.”

“But I—there has to be a way…”

“We can’t fly a Milotic all that easily with us.”

“Can you fly yet?” Owen asked Zena hopefully.

“I… cannot. Not yet. Or, I haven’t tried, but I doubt I would have the ability…”

“Then just you ‘n me, Charmander. C’mon.” Marshadow pressed on the doorway, which slid open, and Owen quickly followed after.

“What’s the bad news?” Owen asked.

“Well, it’s why the scouts are mobilizing twice as fast,” Marshadow said. “Yeah, we found Ralts. Problem is, she’s bein’ chased by a Titan.”
 
Chapter 93 - Protect
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Chapter 93 – Protect

Everything—his muscles, his bones, his scales—it all hurt. Stung, ached, cried in pain, but that was nothing compared to the shame that twisted his stomach in knots. A gentle breeze scattered flower petals into Owen’s face, a few covering the little cuts and scrapes over his body. There was a particularly bad welt on his right side where Onix had struck him into the sandy ground. The final hit that had done him in…

The battle flashed through his mind. Duos falling to the first attack, the rocks pinning him on the ground. That was an instant withdrawal. Then Owen came, and he struggled past the Geodude with difficulty, but it was enough. Then that great, rocky serpent emerged. It was over before it started; Owen had never felt his flame shrink so much from fear alone.

Another breeze rustled the grass. The view was at least something to appreciate. They had found a high point of the town, hiding under a few trees. Ahead, the orange rooftop of the healing center taunted him. Owen didn’t want to go there. And even when Tim insisted he did, Owen refused, though Duos got healed.

It was twisted, but Owen enjoyed the feeling of the pain of battle. To have it healed away would wipe away the experience. The catharsis of this aching, the ability to heal it all on his own, and not with the magic the humans knew… He wanted that, at least for this fight.

Tim was a good trainer because he listened.

Or maybe he was a bad trainer because he let him stay hurt.

But now Tim was writing in a book. He always did that, usually in the afternoon, maybe the evening. Blank boxes under strange words that he didn’t know how to read. The human language didn’t make any sense. Apparently, it was some sort of work he had to do with his adventure so he could do adult human things later in life, like a job. Whatever
that was.

“Owen?”

He immediately curled up. He didn’t hear that. Just like he didn’t hear Tim’s command in time to dodge. Or jump, or duck. He didn’t deserve his name.

“Owen, I’m done with my homework.”

And he wasn’t done being a bad Pokémon. Owen curled up tighter, but realized too late that a whimper had escaped him.

Soft fingers brushed his back and he yelped. Tim quickly pulled away.

“Sorry,” he said. “Is that a sore spot?”

Yes, saying his name was a sore spot. And that part of his back hurt a little, too. “I failed you,” Owen mumbled.

“Hey, don’t be so upset,” Tim said, and the fingers returned, this time gently around his side. That part wasn’t bruised.

He didn’t resist, but he was dead weight, making certain that Tim would know he wasn’t interested in being coddled. He failed, and it was that simple. Even with his human help, he was useless; there was no way he could have won that fight. Because he wasn’t good enough.

“I’m sorry I lost that fight,” Tim said.

Owen’s brow furrowed, little scales rubbing against one another. Was Tim fighting Onix, too, and he didn’t even notice that? How did humans fight?

“I froze up and didn’t direct you in time. I got scared and didn’t know how to react, and you got hurt because of it.”

Tim ran his fingers gingerly down Owen’s back. Shadows and light danced around the grass, tree leaves waving above them.

“You don’t want me to take you to the Center?” Tim offered.

“No.”

“You don’t want to rest in your ball?”

“No.”

Down the hill, two humans fought alongside their Pokémon. Training for the Gym, probably. A Geodude and a Rattata. Would either of them do well against Onix? So far, Geodude was winning, hefting Rattata in the air like a plank of wood.

“Owen, I want you to know something. Okay?”

He’d consider it, so he listened in silence.

“Don’t be mad at yourself. I can tell you’re sad because Onix won, but it wasn’t your fault.”

Human hands were so soft. From the back of his neck to the base of his tail, Tim made gentle, long strokes along Owen’s scales. The tight ball that he had curled himself into slowly loosened. His tail flopped lazily over Tim’s thigh, and he used Tim’s knee as a rest for his chin.

“But I was the one who lost,” Owen said. He wondered if Tim understood him yet.

“You and Duos were… disadvantaged, and I didn’t consider it’d be that bad until it was too late. It’s my fault. So…”

Tim’s voice quivered. Suddenly alarmed, Owen turned his head to look up—Tim had turned his head away at the same time, jaw clenched and brow furrowed.

“I’ll do better next time,” Tim said. “I’m—I’m sorry I put you through that. Made you take the loss because I don’t know how to battle.”

Why was he apologizing? Humans… knew everything, didn’t they? Pokémon just had to execute their attacks perfectly, and he failed. He failed to even listen. Onix followed his commands perfectly.

Fighting that Onix, Owen had frozen up completely. Tim had given clarity, something to follow. And then… Owen failed. He had hesitated.

“No!” Owen suddenly chirped, rolling tiredly until he was facing Tim more directly, though now Owen was awkwardly on his back. His tail flicked against the ground and he pointed up at Tim, whose head eclipsed the sun. “You… just have to yell louder! And I… have to listen more!”

“What?” Tim asked, his eyes drying ever so slightly. He sniffed and wiped his face, then smiled. “What, I just have to give my commands faster? Sure, I’ll try…”

“Then… we
both will do better.”

“I will, I will,” Tim said, his expression brightening. “Hey, it’s good that the fight’s still in you. Don’t lose hope in me yet, okay?”

One day, Owen hoped Tim would actually understand him. But for now, that would do. His arm flopped down, he nodded at Tim, and then curled up in his lap again. Another breeze filled the air with flowers, and the Rattata, in a surprising upset, knocked the Geodude down and then out.

Owen’s eyes fluttered, head blearily tilting to the soft part of Tim’s thigh.

Maybe he really was a good trainer.

“Found you.”

With a tired groan, Owen opened one eye and saw that girl with the Dratini again. Her human name eluded him.

“Ayame?” Tim said.

“Saw your fight,” Ayame said, and the Dratini around her neck gave Owen a teasing stare. “I’m moving on to the next Gym, but I wanted to give you a little boost.”

“I don’t need a boost, I need to train more.”

“If you want to brute-force it with pure power, maybe,” Ayame said, “but then you’ll never catch up to me.”

“Since when was I trying to keep up with you?” Tim asked.

Owen growled.

“I can tell. You boys are easy to predict.”

Owen didn’t know what she meant, but for some reason he felt offended.

“Here.” Ayame handed over a compressed Poké Ball.

“What?” Tim looked it over, hesitant to open it.

“Little guy accosted me as I left. Liked being with a winner, I guess. But I only need Ire.”

Ire raised his head in the air proudly.

“So, I offered to show him someone who might need the help. Like I said, bringing a Pidgey and a Charmander to the Pewter Gym is pretty boneheaded.”

Boneheaded? That was a good thing. Owen’s father would have taken Onix down easily.

“Just consider it,” Ayame hinted. “I’m not gonna wait for you if you take too long getting to the next Gym. See you.”

And just like that, she left. Ire curled around her and spat a plume of indigo fire in the air, then squeaked a taunt Owen’s way. “Bye, not-dragon!”

He didn’t like that.


<><><>

The flight over the Nil Plateaus was long and tiring. How the scouts had scoured such a place so thoroughly, Owen didn’t know. Groggy from his in-flight nap, resting in a passenger bag that was pinned under Xypher’s chest, Owen carefully crawled out and looked down.

That was a mistake, and Owen’s stomach felt ten times heavier.

“W-we’re flying really high!” Owen said. “I thought that was d-dangerous here?”

“Risk management,” Hakk said from above, though Owen couldn’t see him. “Right now, we’re flying fast with a high-power scouting device so we can avoid any Titans. It’s not like there are a whole lot of them. We’re also tracking down the general direction of auras like yours, but those aren’t all that accurate. Do you feel anything yet?”

It was hard to concentrate when the ground looked like a giant, purple ocean speckled with black. “No, I don’t,” Owen said.

“Hrm, guess she’s still far ahead,” Hakk said. “How much did she Teleport. Hmm, Ralts, single person, but low power… She probably would be able to outpace anyone on foot, but not enough to lose a Titan. Tch. And eventually she might have to hide to recover her energy, if she has any in her…”

“Mom’s strong,” Owen said quickly. “I never saw her Teleport before, so maybe she never had to, but…”

“As a Ralts, it might be instinct for her to fall back on it,” Hakk concluded.

“The scoutin’ call we got says so,” Marshadow called, and Owen peeked out a little more from Xypher’s bag to find whoever was carrying him. Eon—a Flygon. And beyond Eon was Gahi, and Trina on his back, deep in concentration.

“How long have we been flying?” Owen said. “Is it my shift yet?”

“Not yet,” Marshadow said. “Get more rest.”

Rest did sound nice… “Okay, but—wake me up when you need me.”

“Yeh.”

<><><>​

“Trident!” Tim shouted, “Double Kick!”

Ayame sighed. “Ice Beam, Ire.”

Trident, a Nidorino with deep, purple quills, shrieked and curled into a ball, shivering in the frosted ground. All around them, like a hallway, were tall bunches of grass—dwarfing even the humans, let alone Owen.

Tim winced and withdrew him in a flash of light, staring apologetically at the Poké Ball once the light faded. “You did great, Trident. Don’t worry about it.”

Trident was headstrong—even more than Owen, who now stood at hip-height with Tim. Never a fan of staying in his ball for long, Owen shifted on his feet while his flame hummed loudly behind him. Duos had already been taken down by the same move, and while Owen had planned to go next, Trident’s ball had wiggled in protest. Tim couldn’t ignore him.

So much for that.

“What do I do now?” Tim said desperately. “It’s just
one Dragonair. That’s all she has! Why is she so hard?!”

“Before the holidays, please!” Ayame called, tapping her foot. “I can see the leaves changing!”

Ire stretched his coils and fluttered his tiny head-wings. Occasionally, he glanced at Owen, flicking his tail so the orbs at the end glowed forebodingly. Owen’s flame glowed in kind.

“I can’t send Ivy out yet,” Tim said worriedly. “She’s not ready—she practically just joined us…”

And that meant Owen was the last one Tim was willing to send out for this battle.

Owen reached out to Tim and grabbed him by the hand. “My turn,” he insisted.

“Right…”

The Charmeleon furrowed his scaly brow. “Stop being scared.”

“I—I’m not worried that you’ll lose or anything,” Tim said. “I just… I don’t get it. She’s unbeatable. She’s way too strong! Dragons are…”

“Do you give up?” Ayame said, and Ire looked very displeased at the possibility.

“I only have one more Pokémon that I want to send in. My fourth, Ivy, she’s… not ready yet, for, um, for Ire.”

“That’s fine. Ire wanted to fight Charmeleon the most anyway.”

“C’mon!” Ire insisted.

Trident had gotten a good hit in before getting Ice Beamed. This gave Owen a head start. “Okay,” Owen said, stepping forward while his flame blazed. “Let’s go!”

“Ire, start off with a Thunderbolt!”

Owen knew that word from the last time they had fought—it hadn’t ended well—and rolled to the right the moment the electricity crackled. The sparks singed the ground, and Tim shouted something that sounded like Dragon Rage, so that was probably it.

Indigo flames bubbled in Owen’s throat—these flames tasted sour compared to the sweet warmth of his normal flames, but that only meant he had conjured the right ones. Getting close, he blasted Ire with the plume, small streaks of blue decorating the landscape between them.

“Again!” they both shouted.

This time, Ire didn’t miss, and the hot, sharp sting of electricity locked Owen’s legs. He pivoted to his side and used his longer arms to prop himself up, blasting Ire with another one—but he had disappeared. Where did Ire go?

He looked back at Tim for advice, but he seemed equally confused. Ayame smirked, then shouted, “Extreme Speed!”

Something struck Owen on the left.


<><><>​

Owen tumbled onto the ground and woke up to the sound of loud squawking.

“Xypher!”

“He fell! Fell, fell!”

“Ugh—what—what?” Owen groaned, too disoriented to move.

“Hey, it’s alright, we aren’t under attack,” Hakk said. “We just landed and you fell out of your bag.”

“Sorry. Sorry, sorry,” Xypher said in a whisper. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t, I di—”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Owen said, raising a hand weakly, and at first, he thought it’d be longer. But no, he was a Charmander. Those dreams were getting distracting…

“…dn’t,” Xypher finally finished, like he had been holding his breath.

Owen gave Xypher an odd look, and Xypher puffed out his feathers, muttering something else in his triple-repeat.

Owen nodded slowly. “It’s okay, Xypher. I’m fine.”

When Xypher relaxed, so did Hakk.

They had landed in a small cave, dimly lit only by Owen’s flame and a few of those of crystals that Marshadow had brought as ‘bait’ for the Titan. He couldn’t sense anything nearby, but Amia still felt like she was vaguely south. It felt like it wasn’t getting closer or farther.

“I guess it’s my turn to stay awake? Why did we land?”

“Tired,” Hakk said. “Can’t fly safely while we’re asleep.”

“But Mom’s—”

“We tried to get to her in a day, but we couldn’t,” Hakk said simply, and then looked to Marshadow for support.

“’Fraid those’re the facts,” Marshadow said with an apologetic nod. “Hope we c’n find her tomorrow, but if we press now, ain’t gonna be strong enough fer the Titan chasin’ her. With any luck, she’ll evade it and find some time to rest, too. She can use Teleport, after all. Real evasive, Ralts.”

Eon’s eyes in particular looked very heavy, but Owen didn’t want to look at them for long. For one, they reminded him of how tired he still felt. And to add, it was Eon, and…

“Owen? Are you okay?” Eon asked.

That was it. “I’ll keep watch outside.” Owen wobbled to his feet.

“Are you sure?” Eon asked, standing up.

“I’ll be fine on my own,” Owen said immediately, not looking back. He wanted to say thanks for the offer, but his throat was paralyzed the moment he tried. Instead, he quickened his pace toward the exit, finally emerging to the purple landscape of the Nil Plateaus. This portion of the region had denser formations; the Titans would have to go single-file between them, not that Owen had ever seen two in the same place before.

Finally able to clear his head, and hearing Gahi and the others settle down, Owen relaxed next. He listened for the distinct, hesitant, and heavy footsteps Eon would’ve made as a Charizard, or a Flygon, but none came. That was enough for him to loosen and relax.

“So, yer—”

Owen’s flame tripled in size. With a slow breath, he brought a hand to his chest and looked to his right. “Please don’t do that.”

Marshadow, who had emerged from the wall, held up his hands. “Force o’ habit, my bad.”

Awkward silence followed, and Owen realized that Marshadow was trying to coax a statement out of him. Well, maybe he didn’t want to talk about his feelings. Especially when he barely had a handle on it himself.

“If you don’t want him ter bother you, say the word,” Marshadow said.

It took a while for that to register. “What?” Owen blinked. “You’re not—”

“I dunno what the deal is,” Marshadow said. “But yer clearly uncomfortable. Maybe it was a mistake ter bring ‘im. But we needed th’ versatility, an’ he’s a Ditto.”

A Ditto, right. That introduced a new thought. “Can Ditto turn into Titans?”

“Nope.” Marshadow leaned back. “Too powerful, made of too many creatures. Even if he replicated one, it’d be too weak. Better ter replicate someone we know, utilize their abilities.”

Just talking about him wasn’t making him feel well. He looked ahead and nodded wordlessly.

“Need anythin’?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” he said, and he hoped Marshadow wouldn’t press.

“Yeh. Holler if yeh need me; we share a shift.”

And he was in the wall again, and Owen watched with mild confusion. Nothing? Marshadow didn’t ask or press for his opinion at all on Eon. Just… accepted it.

The silence was only accompanied by the occasional breeze across the dirt. No rumbles here, and it just occurred to Owen that he didn’t even have a scanner like the one that Hakk had used when he’d been first rescued. That would be useful.

“Hey, Marshadow?” Owen eventually called. “Do you have that… scanner thing?”

“Yeh.” Stepping out of the cave, he produced a small, circular device, a lot like a Badge, only with Necrozma’s mark on it. “I use this fer alerts. It’s got a buncha programs on it, so it’s already gonna beep if there’s a Titan that enters our range, and then it’ll really beep when it’s in the danger range where we should start movin’ around.”

Owen tilted his head when Marshadow pressed the center emblem. A split-second later, a circle of light appeared above it, and then melted into several icons and a green, monochrome map of Nil Plateaus.

“No Titans now,” Marshadow said. “You’ll know if there is one when it beeps. Guess until then, why not use it fer reading, maybe a game er two?”

“…For what?”

Marshadow tapped on the circle and pushed forward, and it disappeared into nothing. New icons appeared in a large rectangle. “We’ve got the same body type, so this is easy ter pass ter you without reconfiguring anything.”

Owen hesitantly grabbed it. “What’s this called, anyway? It’s crazy how many things it can do…”

“We call it a Voidlands Protection Assistant, or a Veepa.”

“Veepa. Alright.” Owen prodded at one of the buttons, disoriented at the lack of tactile feedback, and pulled back. A new screen washed over the old, and suddenly Owen was looking at what appeared to be a series of rectangles on the top part of the screen, a single rectangle on the bottom, and a circle just above it.

“What’s this?”

“Oh, that? Real old game that someone over in the Eastern district made. Spread like wildfire, became a must-have fer everyone, even if it’s simple.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Place yer claw near the bottom,” Marshadow explained.

The lowest rectangle followed Owen’s claw, and suddenly the circle was slowly bouncing off the upper blocks. Each one it hit either changed colors or disappeared completely.

“Go on, make sure that lower bar keeps the circle bouncin’.”

But Owen was too slow, and the circle fell past the rectangle. A mournful sound came from the device. Owen suddenly let go of the bar and tried to grab the circle before it fell off the screen, but then it disappeared. “What? Where’d it—”

And then the circle reappeared above the rectangle.

“How’d it do that?”

“Y’guys don’t have games where yer from?”

“Er, no,” Owen said. “Wait—we do! But not like this. These are… I don’t even know how this works. How does it make things I can’t touch?”

“They’re projections, kinda like a Zoroark’s illusions. And the way it works inside?” Marhsadow shrugged. “Combination o’ the basics. Porygon tech and a little bit o’ conferred powers. Dunno the specifics, but it’s real nifty.”

Nifty was one word to use. Incomprehensible was another. “Hello?” Owen said. “Porygon? Let me know if you need anything.” He gently stroked the side of the device.

“…Eh… it ain’t actually a Porygon.”

“Oh. Then who is it?”

“It ain’t alive.”

This was getting too confusing… “Um, you also mentioned reading?”

“Heh. Ain’t surprised yeh’d be interested in that.” Marshadow helped Owen navigate to another part of the device’s capabilities. “Here, read up in this. It’ll help yeh get familiar with Null Village, sorta a guide on all the facilities.”

The screen washed to what looked like the virtual face of a book. Following his intuition, Owen tried to open the book—and it responded! Marshadow’s smile suggested that Owen looked a little too fascinated by the tech, and tried to subdue himself. “Um—thank you,”

“When we’re ready, we’ll switch off so you c’n get some proper sleep, too,” Marshadow said. “you only slept fer maybe three, four hours. If yer tired, let me know.”

“Okay. Thanks, Marshadow. I’m… sorry I don’t remember you clearly.”

“Nah.” Marshadow waved dismissively. “Happened ter all o’ us. The fact you c’n get those memories back is the real miracle. Hey, y’know, shot in the dark: y’know about Gone Pebbles?”

Owen shook his head.

“Figured. Well, if you ever feel an object that seems to have a real strong, y’know, presence like yer powers and those like yeh… Lemme know. Not those crystals, I mean, they’re valuable too, but… just pebbles and stuff… They’re real valuable.”

“What makes them valuable?” Owen asked.

“They’re what can restore memories,” Marshadow said. “One-use enchanted objects filled with power that can combat Dark Matter’s curse.”

Owen perked up. “Wait—does that mean if Zena were to use one—” But then he stopped himself, shrinking. “Or, um, or Xypher, for example, who probably barely remembers anything…”

Marshadow’s smile only grew. “It takes a whole lot ter go up a class, let alone fully restore memories,” he said. “But just a single memory is precious around here. Keep that in mind, y’know, when going around sayin’ yer gettin’ memories back. Might make folks envious.”

The amount of empathy Owen felt from that statement alone was too strong for him to articulate. Instead, his throat tightened, and he nodded gravely.

“Looks like yeh get it.” Marshadow winked. “Take care. Holler if yeh need me.”

And so, Owen was left alone again.

Gone Pebbles… mundane items imbued with power. Where did they come from if this realm was so related to Dark Matter? And maybe even more importantly, why did he have those properties imbued within him?

He supposed that was something he’d have to think about later. He had a long shift ahead of him, and a lot of reading to do.

<><><>​

Bouncing in his Poké Ball, Owen was too weak to so much as struggle out of it. It was too tempting to rest and let the world fall into its warm darkness. But something was horribly wrong, too. This wasn’t Tim’s running rhythm. And this wasn’t the happy, gentle presence of him, either. He was kept sealed in some strange capsule that went around his normal home.

A skid, a stop. Then a sudden jerking motion as his carrier ran in another direction. Something yowled, and then abruptly cut off, and he felt the presence—muffled and weak—next to him. Another Pokémon?

“OWEN!” Tim cried. “DUOS!”

All their names. Owen tried to wiggle out, but it was no use.

It was getting a lot harder to stay awake. Poké Balls didn’t normally do this… did it?

Everything spun and suddenly light struck Owen’s ball. More struggling, and he tried to shift his attention to the source. A Dragonair had sent a bright arc of electricity through a human in a dark outfit.

Ayame?

Someone picked Owen’s ball up, and frantic, and then he was knocked over by Ire moving suddenly toward the carrier. This other human staggered and dropped Owen’s ball, but then fled the other way with a Koffing spewing smoke in all directions. Suddenly, Ayame was coughing, but Ire was curling around Owen’s ball like he was protecting an egg.

“It’s okay,” Ayame said to Owen through the ball, picking him up. “We’ll get your friends back.”

Tim was running toward them, but Owen was too tired. He finally gave in.


<><><>

Gahi kept Owen on his lap, protective while he slept. Sure, occasionally the fire burned when Owen got excited in his sleep, but that wasn’t important. It was unreal that he was right there, after all those days searching… And as a Charmander again. Yet Owen remembered.

And so did he. Not thinking much about it, Gahi draped the blanket that they had brought with them over Owen, and smiled when the little guy curled up more.

Trina was staring at him and he’d only now noticed. Freezing, Gahi frantically searched for an excuse, but then the Snivy looked back outside the cave.

“I don’t sense anything. Do you?” Trina asked.

Gahi hesitated to answer, words escaping him. Then, “Nope.”

“I suppose there’s no use trying to until this radar tells us.”

The sand here wasn’t anything like desert sand. It was soggy, in a way. Soggy sand, somewhere between wet dirt and dry grains. It made no sense.

“How is Owen?” Trina asked, not looking back.

“Eh? Why should I know?”

“Well, you’re taking care of him, aren’t you?”

“N-nah, just making sure he’s not—just making sure he doesn’t run off.”

To this, the Snivy looked back, giving Gahi a bored look. “Acting tough doesn’t work if others can tell how you really feel.”

“What’s that supposed ter mean?!”

Owen groaned in his sleep and Gahi brought his head down.

“I mean,” he added, speaking softly, “ain’t like he’d be all that strong out there.”

“Do you really think Owen would run off?” Trina said, frowning. “I don’t understand why you’re trying to act like you don’t care about him. Is it some kind of social complex to be tough?”

“I dunno, just—” Gahi squinted. “What’re you even getting at?”

She rolled her eyes and looked out again. Everyone else had gone to sleep. Marshadow was a black puddle near the backmost part of the cave; Hakk was curled up into a broken, spiked ball, like a miniature mountainside of glaciers. With his head tucked under his wing, Xypher also slept with the occasional caw under his breath. In his sleep, Eon had dissolved into a ball of pink slime in the other corner.

Trina never said anything in response, and Gahi growled, tempted to move away from Owen just to prove a point. But that wouldn’t be worth it. Owen looked too cozy anyway.

“How long have you known Owen?” Trina asked.

“Eh? Fer a while, kinda-sorta.”

“Mm. The memories?”

Gahi nodded when Trina looked back. “Choppy, spotty, y’know?”

“From what Marshadow told us,” Trina hummed, “it sounds like Owen’s history goes back a lot more than his creation at Eon’s headquarters. In fact, he’s from a world that isn’t even our own.”

Something was tight in Gahi’s chest and he counted the rocks on the wall opposite to him. “Yeah.”

“What do you suppose that means for the rest of your team?” Trina asked. “Team Alloy… Surely you weren’t created just to complement Owen for a fusion.”

“Eh?” That made sense, but it didn’t feel relevant. “What, like we used ter be with Owen? I ain’t got any memories like that.”

“You said yourself that it was spotty,” Trina said. “Do you suppose you’re also from that world?”

But unlike Owen, Gahi hadn’t gotten any memories like those, nor did he feel any particularly strong attachment to Eon the way Owen might have. Sure, he was tempted, but that was different, wasn’t it? Without realizing it, Gahi was stroking Owen’s back, and the little Charmander churred in his sleep, content.

“Owen’s quite different from Har, too,” Trina remarked. “I’ve never seen a Pokémon like us make so many feral noises before.”

“Aah, he’s just quirky like that,” Gahi said. “It’s cute.”

A beat of silence.

“Eh—I mean, he’s, it’s weird, but it ain’t like it’s harmful.”

Trina chuckled, bringing one of her tiny arms over her mouth. “It’s okay, Gahi. You’re allowed to care for a friend.”

“Mrph.” Gahi didn’t move. “Fine, if yer gonna be like that…” Gahi reached down and brought Owen under his wings, cradling him. Trina’s huge eyes widened just a little more, and Gahi defiantly made sure Owen was tucked cozily away. “What’re you gonna do about that?” he asked Trina.

Trina gawked wordlessly, then tried to suppress a laugh. “I suppose I’ll do nothing,” she replied. “I never saw you as much of a caretaker.”

“Well, maybe I am,” Gahi replied back. “Li’l things are cute.”

“Are they? Even bugs?”

“I mean, if they ain’t loud,” Gahi said, but even then, his words wavered.

“Then am I cute?” Trina teased.

“Stop tryin’ ter trap me,” Gahi growled.

“Oh, I must be enchanting.” Trina made an overdramatic flourish of her tiny hands.

Gahi replied with an equally dramatic eyeroll, head tilting back for good measure.

Gahi’s arms felt wet. Little streaks of tears connected Owen’s cheeks to Gahi’s scales, and suddenly nothing else mattered. “Hey,” Gahi said, jostling the Charmander. “Hey, Owen.”

Trina perked up. “Is he okay?”

“Mnn…” Owen blinked awake, but he was too groggy to tell what was going on.

“You alright?” Gahi asked. “You were cryin’.”

Owen continued to blink, then closed his eyes again, curling up tighter. “Memories. It’s okay.”

Gahi was about to press, but Trina said, “You can keep resting. If you want to tell us about it later, you can.”

Owen didn’t look up, but the flame on his tail calmed. Gahi hadn’t realized until then that it burned his belly a little.

“Thank you,” Owen said. “I’ll tell you later. I’m… sorry.”

“Nah,” Gahi relented. “I get it.”

And he really did. When he had fused with Owen after their encounter with Eon in the Chasm, and the night that followed, everything that had come to him… Scattered memories, strange new feelings. Gahi wasn’t going to force Owen to talk about that until he wanted to.

Owen settled back into a rhythmic slumber, and Gahi set him down beside him, fluffing up the blanket to instead become a mattress. That was even better, as Owen had settled into a tranquil slumber right after.

Trina moved to the other side of Gahi and settled there instead, probably because there was nothing of value to look at. “I do think what Owen is recovering is valuable, though,” Trina said.

“Well, duh. It’s who he is.” The light of Owen’s flame glimmered on Gahi’s shimmering scales. “He never gotten ter be his whole person befer.”

“Mm, yes. But I was more referring to what he knows about the past. It isn’t hidden for no reason.” Trina frowned, balling her hands up. “Dark Matter is what they called him. He erased some part of history. And I doubt he would do something that arbitrarily… An entity of pure evil? He seems too clever to just be a chaotic force. This was planned.”

“Planned. Fer all these centuries?” Gahi shrugged; he couldn’t wrap his mind around that scope. “Maybe he just wanted to cause trouble.”

“Maybe Anam was preventing him from doing that,” Trina said, “so he had to find some workaround for it. And it just happened to take this long. Think about it.”

Gahi was about to retort that Owen was usually the one to do the thinking, but humored her.

“All these centuries of stagnation among the Guardians. Most of them were dormant until someone disturbed their Dungeon homes or was foolish enough to bother them. Eon had no idea where to look for us until recently, and at the same time, our Mystic glow became more noticeable.”

“Eh?” Gahi tilted his head. “What? More noticeable?”

“Yes. Before, the glow was very subtle. And suddenly, we can barely hide ourselves. Suddenly, Anam loses his stability and Dark Matter runs rampant, just as nearly all the Guardians are gathered together. And to top it all off, it’s also at the same time that Owen was able to repair his aura after the scarring that had happened when he’d first fused.” Trina let out a quiet hiss. “I don’t believe that can all be a coincidence. This was, somehow, coordinated from the shadows.” She glanced over Gahi’s thigh and toward the sleepy Charmander. “And what was erased from history might be the key.”

Beep beep beep.

Their strange device was alerting them to something. On the map, a large, purple dot appeared on the bottom left of the radar, along with a flickering white dot that occasionally blipped ahead of the larger dot.

“Seein’ as we’ve got some white dots in the center, that’s us,” Gahi said. “Figure that’s Amia?”

“Yeh.” Marshadow was already awake, walking to the badge.

“Someone’s a light sleeper,” Trina remarked, approaching Xypher and Hakk to wake them next.

“Yeh.” Marshadow prodded Eon’s puddle and looked back at Owen. “Don’t wake ‘im,” he said.

“Eh?” Gahi was about to jostle Owen awake.

“It’s his Mom, yeh? Might do somethin’ stupid. Let’s just fly an’ get this done quick. No breakin’ formation.”

Gahi didn’t agree with that, but he also was more interested in getting to Amia before the Titan did. He picked Owen up, a little rougher than usual, but even then the Charmander didn’t stir. Disappointed, he approached a groggy Xypher and slipped Owen into the carrying pouch.

“Let’s go,” Marshadow said. “Time ter save Ralts.”

<><><>​

“And you weren’t able to escape your ball?” Arcanine asked.

Owen shook his head, but that made him dizzy, so he stopped and rested his head on the pillow. Strange wires were hooked up to his chest with some sticky tape—Owen didn’t know what invention it was, but apparently it helped the humans make him better.

Tim was sitting in the corner of the room, out of tears and speaking to a woman with a lot of strange gear.

“Do you remember anything else?” Arcanine asked Owen.

“…They wanted to fight,” Owen said slowly, each word a struggle. “We thought it was a normal battle. But when we lost…”

“Don’t strain yourself,” Arcanine said.

“What?” Owen followed Arcanine’s gaze. His flame was dim. Sinking into his bed, he nodded again and stared at the strange machine next to him, making a very annoying, rhythmic beeping.

“Did anybody else travel with you?” Arcanine asked.

Owen nodded. “Five of us. Tim was looking for a sixth for a full team, but… b-but…”

“Take your time.” Arcanine nodded.

“How’s it going, partner?” the woman in the strange outfit said.

Arcanine looked back and growled disappointedly. “Same as the others.”

“Nothing new, huh?” she clarified, and Arcanine nodded. “Okay. Well, Timothy, we’re very, very sorry for what happened. We’re on the case as we speak; we’ll track down the rest of your team.”

“Thank you,” Tim said, but his voice was barely a whisper.

Owen was tired again. He looked to Arcanine. “I remember one thing,” he said weakly.

“What?” Arcanine asked, and his human also looked toward Owen.

“They Pokémon they had… tried to attack my human.”

“Attack your human?” Arcanine repeated, growling slightly. “They can’t fight back.”

Owen tried to sit up, but a gentle but massive paw from Arcanine kept him down. He relented and nodded, motioning to Tim.

“They tried to poison him,” Owen explained.

“What did he say?” the Arcanine’s human asked.

“They might attack trainers directly,” Arcanine said, looking at Tim. He motioned to a scrape on Tim’s arm.

The human’s frown deepened. “These guys are serious,” she said. “Okay. Thank you, Charmeleon,” the human said. “You get some rest.”

“Will he be okay?” Tim asked quickly, the loudest he’d been—loud enough that the beeps didn’t drown him out.

“He should be fine,” the human replied.

Arcanine looked to Owen and whispered, “Know any Fire attacks?”

“Of course.”

“Hit me with one.”

“Now?”

Arcanine nodded.

Owen hesitated, but then opened his mouth, sending a small wad of flames toward Arcanine. The flames encircled around his body and washed over his fur harmlessly, and Arcanine smiled.

“He’s going to be fine,” he told the humans.

The way Tim smiled, it seemed even he understood.


<><><>

Owen awoke to an ear-splitting roar and learned soon after that he was airborne again. Suppressing a scream—not that anybody would hear it over the roar, Owen shrank further into the bag around Xypher’s neck and braced when the Corviknight banked to the left.

“What’s happening?!” Owen cried.

No answer. When the roar finally stopped, Owen found enough courage to look out. Only the empty, albeit narrower fields of Nil Plateaus. When Xypher turned back, though, the roar’s source—while obvious—was now the only thing Owen could see.

Four legs, a long neck, and a mouth that stretched across its entire head. Its tail wound in a coil behind it and left large gashes in the ground. Mercifully, it was ground-bound. That didn’t matter when their target was also stuck on the ground.

Right?

Where was she?

No Ralts in the field. Sure, they were high up, but she’d at least be a gray or green dot on the ground. It didn’t feel like she was down there, either. In fact, it felt like she was to the—

And suddenly, they were banking to the left again. “That way!” Hakk shouted. “Up on the plateau! How’d she—gah! No! That one now!”

Perhaps as a Ralts, Amia was more prone to Teleporting. But she wouldn’t be able to keep that up for long, would she?

“Wait!” Owen said. “If we keep flying toward her, won’t we be leading the Titan right to her?”

His voice was drowned out by the wind and Xypher’s wingbeats. They kited around the Titan, who seemed to be doing nothing but chase after Amia. Xypher gained more height; Owen mentally estimated how many seconds it would take for him to reach the plateaus if he freefell. About ten seconds. Could he survive that? Maybe if he—

Another sudden bank, and this time a beam of darkness bent the light around them, piercing the hazy skies to reveal more redness past the gray clouds.

“Oh, great, it can shoot stuff!” Hakk snapped.

“Keep pace!” Marshadow called from atop Eon.

“I can sense Amia,” Trina reported. “Gahi, can you speed toward her?”

“On it!”

“WAIT!” Marshadow shouted, and then there was an explosion.

Owen peeked out from the bag again, looking for some way to help. Xypher was moving around too much. But he had a lock on Amia. The little Ralts, so thin and frail, had collapsed on the top of the plateau. Owen knew it; they were tiring Amia out by leading the Titan right to her. She had been hiding!

But where was that explosion coming from?

A Flygon, with a black haze and shadowy burns covering his body, was in a limp nosedive toward the dusty ground.

“Gahi—” Owen choked. Trina was falling through the air, vines grasping uselessly at nothing.

The other Flygon flew down with Marshadow to catch Gahi in midair. That left only Xypher and Hakk to advance, but they weren’t.

“What’re you doing?” Owen shouted up. “Get Amia!”

It was too late now; Amia was too tired to move. They had to get to her before the Titan did, so why weren’t they?

“We can’t break formation,” Hakk said back. “Just stay put!”

“But the Titan will get Amia!”

“It’ll get us if we go in now!”

So they were just going to let it?! Owen brought his head down to look behind Xypher; the Titan didn’t have eyes, so it was hard to tell where it was looking, but its movements were toward the plateau with Amia.

It was going to get her.

“Xypher! Please! Can you dodge Titan attacks? I’ll use Protect!”

“Your Protect isn’t big enough for someone Xypher’s size,” Hakk said. “Xypher! We aren’t risking ourselves without Marshadow.”

“But! But, but!”

He was hesitating. “Xypher!” Owen begged. “Fly now! If something happens, I’ll—use Protect! Throw me at it if it tries anything!”

“Do you have any idea how strong that thing is?!” Hakk hissed, but then the Titan roared, shaking the air.

Eon caught Gahi, and Trina wrapped a vine around Eon’s neck to stop her own fall, but Gahi was barely conscious. They were descending for an emergency landing. It was just the three of them left. The Titan was still moving.

The plateau was only a few seconds away if Xypher had enough courage to fly that way. But he was hesitating. And of course he would. One more death and he’d be a Void Shadow. But he was so close. And that Titan was closer.

He wasn’t going to lose Amia again.

“Xypher, fly a little way there!” Owen shouted, conjuring flames around his hands in the meantime. It was difficult and unwieldy, but he still had it: an airborne Fire Trap, a Flame Burst in a delicate sphere. “If it tries to fire at you, we’ll run back!” A half-lie.

“Are you crazy?” Hakk said. “We can’t load her on safely without a huge risk to our—”

The flames were gathering. “I have a plan! Just do it!”

Xypher finally started flying toward the plateau; the Titan noticed this and turned its attention to Xypher. Perfect—

Xypher was already flying away. “No!” Owen said. “It didn’t fire yet!”

“I’m not dying for this!” Hakk snarled back. “Xypher, forget it! We’re landing!”

“KEEP FLYING!” Owen roared, and then pressed the edge of his first conjured flame orb against Xypher’s chest.

Xypher squawked and banked haphazardly toward the plateau and Owen let up, conjuring a second and then a third Flame Burst for later.

“Xypher! What’s gotten into you?!”

“Hot! Hot, hot!”

“What—CHARMANDER! You little sh—”

Another roar, and Xypher dove down, narrowly avoiding another blast. When Xypher pulled back up, Owen knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up his motivator toward Xypher now. “Sorry,” Owen tried to whisper, but he knew they didn’t hear.

With three Flame Burst spheres under his arms, Owen kicked out of his compartment, and suddenly he was falling with Xypher’s former momentum.

No wings. Owen splayed his legs and tail out as far as he could; the wind drowned out all but the basics of Hakk and Xypher shouting, but he was more concentrated on his descent. He was lightweight and small and his terminal velocity was slow. But it wasn’t enough; at this rate, he’d slam into the plateau’s side than its top.

Good thing he’d prepared.

Owen shoved a Flame Burst forward and waited for it to fly behind him with his momentum. Then, his two other Flame Bursts in his arms, he braced himself and concentrated his thoughts toward the Flame Burst he’d left behind.

A violent, upward force sent him flying higher and even faster forward, tumbling and flipping as the sky became the ground and then the sky again. A roar followed, and then a shadowy blast struck where Owen would have gone had he not altered his path.

Twisting and flipping, Owen stabilized himself enough to tell that he was still not at a decent trajectory. Burst number two.

Another explosion sent him tumbling through the air, spinning so fast that he lost hold of his third burst.

He didn’t need it. Hoping to break his fall, Owen swished his tail and tried to shift his angular momentum. The ground was a lot closer than Owen had expected.

He skidded over the dirt—the plateaus were covered in a thin layer just like the fields. And then, coming to a rolling stop, he saw something gray in his blurry vision, topped with green and red. Several seconds of blinking later, it was a Ralts.

Even though he was dizzy, Owen crawled to her, panting, and held her wrist. Her skin was so smooth, and a little cold, but she was breathing, and she pulled back in surprise.

“No, no, it’s okay,” Owen said hastily.

“What?” Amia replied. Her voice was so much higher.

“Your name is Amia. Do you remember that?”

“What? Of—of course I remember that, I… where’s that monster?”

“It’s—”

The whole plateau trembled. Owen fell to his side and Amia rolled a few feet toward the Titan; horrible, deep cracks formed at the edge of the plateau as the Titan tried to climb it. Given its size, it only had to get on its hind legs.

The plateaus being thinner at the base wasn’t doing them any favors, and it seemed like it was intentionally trying to break it down.

Scrambling to Amia, Owen helped her to her feet, but she could barely stand. “Hey, hey,” Owen said quickly, holding her up. “We have to get out of here. Can you Teleport us?”

“No,” Amia replied breathlessly. “Also, wh—”

The ground rumbled again and Owen grabbed her, running back. “This way!” he said. “We need to get off of this plateau before—”

The whole surface lurched, throwing Amia and Owen into the air. By the time they fell again, the ground was well below them at a steep angle, and Owen clutched Amia’s tinier body against his chest and rolled so his back faced the ground.

Then, he braced. The landing came right after, not as bad as he thought it’d be, but he didn’t know why it was suddenly so dark.

“N-no,” Amia squeaked, her neck craned upward.

The Titan was right above them. Up close, its details were so much easier to see. Each limb was made from countless, smaller creatures, faceless and writhing, several mini-limbs reaching toward Owen even though they were so far away. It raised one of its feet over Owen, revealing a hollow center.

Eon was crying Owen’s name from somewhere.

It slammed down. Owen squeezed his arms tight and concentrated—a golden sphere formed around him, but the hollow foot pulled them inside anyway.

“It’s g-gonna be okay,” Owen whispered to Amia. “You’re going to be fine, Mom. They’ll get us. I j-just have to… t-to…”

The Protect flickered and his back pressed against the ever-shrinking barrier. He held Amia tighter. “I just got you back…”

Amia stared blankly, and then terror took over her voice. “What?”

He looked down at Amia, trying to smile despite it all. “I’m happy to see you again, M-Mom,” he said. “S-sorry it had to be this way.” The barrier was forming cracks, like it was some kind of glass. Owen squeezed his eyes tighter, and the cracks disappeared. He was getting a headache…

And then Amia spoke. “Who are you?”

The Protect shattered.
 
Kanan Jarrus is a Noble Jedi
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Thoughts on Chapter 11.

The description in the beginning paragraph was great. How is Amia feeling when she is talking? When she needs sleep, maybe have her yawn. The part when they walk into town was well done. I feel that the battle scene could be more intense. The dinner scene has some interesting dishes. I like the concepts of Guardians.
 
Chapter 94 - Resonance
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Chapter 94 – Resonance

“OWEN!” Gahi cried, barely able to stand.

Clouds of dust obscured anything that was under the Titan’s feet. The plateau had collapsed and the two had fallen right into them. Marshadow’s flames were bright green and yellow, muttering curses to himself as his eyes darted left and right for something.

Eon was about to fly forward, but then Marshadow squeezed his shoulder and said, “We ain’t gettin’ there. They’re gone! They’re gone! We gotta fall back!”

“NO, THEY AREN’T!” Eon roared, flying forward again. “I can still sense them! They’re in there, they—”

“That’s just that Mystic power er whatever,” Marshadow said firmly. “There ain’t any recoverin’ from—”

“Do you really want a Mystic Titan?” Eon hissed. “We’re going to remove them from that thing.”

“We don’t have the power fer that,” Marshadow hissed again.

“Then get off me. I’m doing it myself!”

“So am I!” Gahi spread his wings, wincing as some of his shadowy burns reminded him that he wouldn’t be at his best.

“Gahi,” Trina warned, but Gahi gave her a firm glare. She glared back, and even as the Titan lifted its foot again and turned toward them, they stared each other down. Finally, Trina said, “I’ll help.”

“Yer all nuts,” Marshadow snarled. “We can’t beat a Titan. Like this we c’n only run. We don’t got the power fer—”

“I’m not leavin’ Owen,” Gahi snarled. “Not ‘til I know we can’t win.”

His wings darkened until they resembled a starry sky. The winds picked up around Eon, a small dust storm brewing below him.

“I can’t manipulate the plateaus,” Eon reported, “but I can use the dust on the ground. And I can feel my Flying Orb working, too.”

“Rrgh…” Marshadow glanced at the Titan, which was in some sort of paused state, and then at the others. “Snivy, stay back with Xypher and Hakk. Y’ain’t strong enough.”

Trina looked defiant, but she ultimately nodded and transferred to Xypher with an extended vine. The Corviknight wasn’t anywhere near flight-worthy, steely feathers partially melted and burned black rather than their elegant purple.

There was something resonating within the Titan, and Eon knew that feeling all too well. Owen. Perhaps even Amia.

Marshadow pulled out a few four-sided crystals. “We can try ter distract it and go fer a strike, then. If we’re really fast and he’s really lucky, we’ll be able ter pull those two out.” He was speaking hollowly, like there was no chance that was true. “Or,” he added, “we cn’ at least neutralize it so they’ll just be normal Void Shadows.”

By now, they had flown cautiously toward the Titan, which seemed to be resuming its movements, looking slowly toward them.

Marshadow winced. “This is a strong one,” he said, cursing. “we aren’t supposed ter take these head-on. It’s got a core.”

“A core?” Gahi asked. “So, a weak point.”

“No,” Marshadow hissed. “Don’t hit th’ core. Y’ain’t gonna do anything. Now, listen. The way to beat a Titan is ter take out its appendages, and then strike the center body. Break it apart and it’ll destabilize enough that it’ll—"

The two Flygon swerved out of the way of an incoming shadowy blast, which pierced the clouds when it missed. Black lightning crackled in the haze.

“Gahi, yer faster!” Marshadow shouted when they drew closer. “Distract it with this, and then Eon’ll go fer attackin’!”

“How can we split off?” Eon said quickly, still flying next to Gahi. “We can’t coordinate like that against—”

“Figure it out! Yer the ones who wanna do this! But if I say retreat, yer gonna listen, got it?!” Marshadow held his hand on Eon’s shoulder and said, “Follow what I say. Gahi!” Marshadow dug through his bag, and tossed three crystals Gahi’s way. He caught two of them and dove down to catch the third.

“Go,” Marshadow said into Eon’s earhole, and the duplicate Flygon banked left. Gahi, his wings still like stars, banked right, and the Titan’s head leaned toward Gahi.

This close, its facial features—if they could be called that—consisted of nothing but a large hole in the center of its head, where a dark haze billowed out before rapidly evaporating. Each time it readied a blast, that haze thickened.

To his credit, Gahi was good at feinting strikes, and while his glittering scales weren’t of much use in the dim atmosphere, his agility in the air let him weave around and then toward the Titan. He was so close that the Titan tried to stomp on Gahi, but its movements, thanks to its size, were too slow to have any hope of striking him.

But the Titan was also huge. It was unreal—a building’s height, several stories high, and just as wide. How many Void Shadows made it up? And the core… Eon felt it, too. There was a central core to the thing that was even stronger than the Void Shadows that surrounded it.

They just had to get Owen. And Amia.

He could at least feel Owen’s presence inside that thing, but it was faded and dim. A faded ember from a dying campfire.

A pressure on Eon’s shoulder caught his attention. Marshadow said, “Attack it now, the leg!”

There was only one nearby, and he knew Gahi’s abilities well. Attacking up close was too risky, so instead, he conjured molten earth below it, which burst in a smoky explosion. It wasn’t enough—but he could also tap into his Mystic power, couldn’t he? A little more… His scales turned a tan brown, like they were made of clay, and he conjured wind from his Flying Orb to maintain his altitude.

The Earth Power redoubled, and the whole Titan toppled into the churning ground.

“Oi, great!” Marshadow encouraged. “That’s one leg!”

“Owen’s somewhere in its midsection,” Eon said. “We need to—”

“Other leg,” Marshadow said. “I’m gonna aim fer that head so it can’t fire as easy!”

The Titan blasted again, this time carving the ground in a linear fissure that ended at a nearby plateau. The crater left behind was black and smoldering with some kind of obsidian-like rock that radiated the same black haze.

Something hot was forming above Eon, and he could only assume Marshadow was preparing his own attack.

“Dive!” Marshadow shouted, and Eon followed it without question. A half-second later and a beam of shadows grazed his tail; a chilling, knife-like pain surged through his spine.

Eon didn’t realize he cried out until Marshadow screamed over him, “FORWARD!”

Fighting through the pain, not wanting to look back at the damage that may have been caused, he leaned forward and dodged another incoming blast, this time snapping the air above him. The pressure made his earholes feel underwater, and he lost altitude without realizing it.

“Keep it together, c’mon!” Marshadow shouted. “Keep steady! I’m gonna blast that thing’s head next! Go fer the other leg! If we get it totally down, maybe we c’n smash it apart!”

“Wasn’t this supposed to be unbeatable?” Eon asked with a grimace, spotting the charred end of his tail in his peripheral vision.

“Something’s up with it.” At this point, it was completely ignoring Gahi, whatever ineffectual taunting he was doing on the other side. Marshadow lobbed his attack.

A tiny, marble-sized Aura Sphere flew through the air like a bullet, landing dead-center in the Titan’s face, vanishing in the black haze.

Eon had to stop, incredulous. “…What kind of pathetic—"

Orange energy pulsed through countless imperfections in the creature’s face and neck in a wave, exploding outward as Void Shadow remnants scattered in the wind.

Marshadow braced on Eon’s shoulder, conjuring another tiny Aura Sphere with his free right hand. “Well, c’mon!” Marshadow commanded. “Other leg! Befer it grows another head!”

Eon nodded hastily and sped forward, the cold stinging on his tail slowly, but not completely, fading into a dull throb. More magma swirled and destabilized the land beneath one of the hind legs of the Titan, this time, and without having to worry about another strike blasting toward them, it was much easier.

On the other side, the ethereal sound of a twisted Psychic scattered another one of the Titan’s legs.

“And you said this was hard,” Eon admonished Marshadow.

“Like I said”—Marshadow glared toward the great wraith—“it ain’t right. Maybe it’s got indigestion.”

Eon’s mind snapped to the presence trapped in its torso. “Is Owen fighting it from the inside?”

Marshadow didn’t answer, still conjuring another Aura Sphere. “Tell me again where Owen is?”

Eon could spot him easily and pointed at the upper chest. Owen kept shifting around, but he had settled there, or at least his energy did. That was still Owen, right?

“Easy-peasy.” Marshadow took aim.

“Wait, what’re you gonna do?”

“Blast ‘im out,” Marshadow said. “If he’s already Voided, then we’re freeing ‘im from being part o’ a Titan. If he ain’t, then he’ll survive. Win-win.”

Before Eon could protest, Marshadow fired. Another tiny Aura Sphere dug into the Titan’s chest, and Eon was wise enough to fly away from the impact site. One explosion flash later, and suddenly Owen’s presence flew across the battlefield; Gahi must have sensed him, too, because he immediately flew toward the presence.

“Owen’s out!” Eon announced.

“Or what’s left of ‘im,” Marshadow grunted. “Can we go now?! We gotta—”

A subtle shadow of something caught Eon’s eye and, on reflex, he swooped down and narrowly dodged a black spire striking the air where he’d flown. It was that length tail of the Titan. It lashed out and Marshadow cursed, grabbing onto one of Eon’s wings to keep from falling.

“Gyah—get back on! I can’t fly like—”

The tail twisted and whipped Eon into a downward spiral, skidding and tumbling over the dirt. Marshadow landed on his feet next to him and fired a smaller Aura Sphere at the incoming tail, deflecting it to the ground a few feet away from Eon’s arm. The tail lifted up again and went for another stab. Eon rolled and waved his arm haphazardly forward, erecting a thick wall of compacted dust, which was just enough to deflect the tail’s next strike.

Marshadow ran across the ground in the form of a shadowy puddle, speeding toward Gahi, who was jostling a black blob near the plateau.

“Flygon!” Marshadow shouted. “Izzat Charmander?”

“Yeah!”

“It ain’t—”

“He’s delirious, but he’s alright!” Gahi said. “He says we gotta find Amia!”

“It’s sayin’ something?!”

Near the blob’s lower half was a black tail emitting an orange flame. From that flame, orange scales started solidifying along the tip, climbing toward the central body…

“Then Amia’s still in there?” Eon said, hesitating. “I can’t sense her power as much…”

“Please…” The Void Shadow trembled.

Marshadow shook his head, eyes wide and fire wisps green, and then looked back at the shambling Titan. “Fine. We gotta finish this before it goes nuts. Use the crystals to channel extra power and we might be able to disrupt it enough that we can make a run for it afterward.”

Gahi, hasty, dug through Marshadow’s bag and winced when something inside shined particularly brightly. He picked up the source—a pink crystal. “This one.”

Marshadow couldn’t look directly at it. “Why’s it so bright?”

“What, you don’t kn—”

The rumble of the Titan’s remaining limbs hitting the earth was enough to cut their conversation short. Eon stood up and grabbed a few of the crystals for himself and faced the Titan. “Hurry!”

“Mom…”

Eon channeled as much energy as he could into the crystals he had hastily pulled from the bag. Marshadow stood next to him, preparing the same a fair distance away. His gems weren’t shining as brightly.

But something was wrong.

Eon was feeling weaker. Even as he tried to channel his energy into a crystal, his power drained faster than he could provide, and his vision was starting to whiten. He shook his head—he had to stop. There was barely enough energy in him to retain his Flygon body. But his vision was still whiting out—no, that was coming from Gahi.

The opposite of Eon, Gahi’s cosmic wings flared and doubled in size. The pinpricks of light were all going supernova at once. The crystal in Gahi’s hands was an overwhelming white, and it looked like Gahi was trying his best to keep it held in his hands.

With a determined grunt, Gahi crouched down and flared his wings again, large enough that it rivaled the Titan’s head. “All my power, eh?” Gahi said. The galaxies swirled, and Eon saw the vague shapes of Unown within the dark patches, or perhaps he was just seeing things in the extreme light.

From the hole where its head should have been, the Titan fired a dark blast their way. Gahi launched a wave of Psychic energy that distorted the light around it in a pink wave; sparks of white energy followed it, dissolving the shadowy blast like fire in the sea. The rest staggered the Titan, and several more waves from all sides of its body blasted it to the left and right, forward and backward, as little filaments of light surrounded its body like cracks in mud.

Gahi’s wings returned to their normal size, and then their normal shape and color. An overwhelming, white light blinded Eon to the point where he not only had to close his eyes, but then lost his concentration enough that he lost his shape, too. Feeling the dust seep into his pink slime, Eon shuddered and waited for his vision to return, even as his body jiggled with the shockwaves of Gahi’s Psychic blast. He didn’t know what that technique was called, but did it work?

Sight returned. Ahead was a scattered mound of dissolving shadows. In the center was something curled up, much smaller than the Titan, though he couldn’t tell what it was. Gahi had flown ahead, sifting through the scattered Void Shadows that were too weak to move. Several were fleeing in random directions like a horde of Paras from smoke.

“Ah-ha!” Gahi picked some black thing up. “Found ‘er!”

Marshadow muttered something under his breath, still covering his eyes. The crystal he had planned to use was discarded on the ground in favor of covering his face. “Flygon, what did yeh ev’n do?! I can’t see!”

“You said ter use the crystal!”

A new wave of fatigue washed over Eon, and a few tired bubbles escaped his ill-defined form. He didn’t even care that the dust was mixing with whatever he was supposed to call his body’s current structure. “Can someone carry me…”

“Eh? Ditto, what’s gotten inter yeh? Yeh didn’t ev’n attack.”

“I tried… but it felt like my energy was being drained away.”

“Well, ain’t that somethin’,” Gahi said. “It felt ter me like energy was comin’ ter me.”

Marshadow frowned, thoughtful. “Sounds like somehow, Eon’s energy was transferred inter Gahi’s… But why? That ain’t how those crystals work, not unless yeh set it inter a catalyst spire.”

“I don’t care,” Eon said. “Please, someone carry me. I can’t… move.”

Gahi flew toward Owen next, carrying a Void Shadow in his arms. “Oi, Owen!” Gahi said. “Found Amia!”

Owen, still more blob than Charmander, struggled to wobble and turn Gahi’s direction, while Marshadow helped Eon back to the rest. Trina had been sitting by Owen the whole time, while Hakk tended to Xypher’s wounds.

“Mom?” Owen asked, tripping over himself—his legs were only half-formed.

“Charmander, what’s yer name?”

“Owen. What’s—what’s happened to me?”

Marshadow could only stare in disbelief, a hand to his forehead. “Yer… un-Voiding right befer my eyes,” he said. “That ain’t…”

“Is Mom okay?” Owen tried to stand on malformed legs, then collapsed again. He coughed and black sludge spewed from what might be his forming mouth. Then, with a grunt, he stood shakily on two feet, even as his upper half remained amorphous and wobbly.

“I think so,” Gahi said, holding the other Void Shadow by the nape of its… something. Eon wasn’t sure what.

“Owen,” Eon said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

The upper part of the Void Shadow’s body nodded, but not after a moment to hesitate. “Nothing feels right.”

“Yeah, that’s about how I’ve been feelin’ fer a while,” Marshadow mumbled, staring uncertainly at the unmoving Void Shadow that Gahi was holding. “Gahi, careful. That one migh’ be hostile once it comes to.”

“It’s Amia,” Gahi said, shaking his head. “She ain’t hostile, wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

Beg to differ, Eon thought.

Hakk and Xypher, their wounds tended to for the time being with simple bandages, approached next. “Bad news,” Hakk said. “Xypher’s too injured to fly. We’re going to need to set up camp until tomorrow and see how he’s feeling then.”

“You don’t have Orans to heal?” Eon asked.

“This isn’t Kilo. Orans aren’t some miracle cure. At most, they’ll ease the pain, but that won’t mean anything if you need your wings to fly.”

Marshadow looked back at the scattered and defeated Void Shadows, and then at the core that the Titan had once housed. “Wherever we camp, it’s gotta be away from that thing. Even after that blast, it doesn’t look like we defeated it.”

The core was smothered in Void Shadow sludge, but whatever was inside still shifted weakly, occasionally groaning. It was large, whatever it was—maybe two Owens tall. Well, when he was fully evolved, at least. Eon tried to look for more details, but his vision was still weak.

“Wait…” Owen staggered forward, his legs a little more solid.

Hakk stared nervously at Owen and said, “Hey, don’t try anything funny. If you make one weird move…”

“I’m—I’m sorry I did that to Xypher,” Owen said, bowing at the two. “I really wanted to save Mom, but…”

“What?” Hakk squinted again. “No, I meant if you tried to attack us.”

“Why would I attack you?”

Hakk glanced uneasily at Marshadow, who shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll talk it over later. Right now, we—”

The Titan’s core rumbled and Marshadow’s flames bristled.

“—gotta go,” Marshadow finished.

“Wait, but that’s…” Owen pointed at the core.

More sludge fell off of the core, revealing deep blue, shining scales, accompanied by a thinner line of cyan along what looked like a limb. Even more sludge fell off, revealing steel, clawed hooves and a broad, steel chest with a chipped diamond in the center.

“I don’t believe it…” Eon said breathlessly. “It’s…”

The Void Shadows trembled again, and then they tried to congregate around the core. But then, a blue tail flicked a few Void Shadows off of it, and then the core’s hoof slammed into the ground. A great, four-legged creature rose from the sludge, sluggish, and the Void Shadows congregated even faster around it.

A flash of light broke through the Void Shadow conglomeration, and then a flurry of indigo flames burned through several of them. Some Void Shadows flailed at twice the speed they should have, while others were frozen in midair, but a split-second later, time flowed normally. All of the Void Shadows dissolved into sludge, dust, or nothing.

“Dialga,” Eon said, more a statement than anything. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Dialga, the Timekeeper? A Creation Dragon? Here?

As a Titan?

Dialga took his first step forward, but his leg buckled and he fell into a kneel. He coughed, expelling a thick wad of sludge and smoke, and then slowly rose back to his feet.

They all stared, too stunned to move. The first to finally take any form of action was Marshadow, who called, “Dialga!”

And the giant Legend finally noticed them. He tried to open his mouth to speak, but his voice didn’t come. Instead, a constricted, strained growl came, and then a nod. Dialga took a few wobbly steps forward again, aimless, and then fell over with a slow, thunderous crash.

Marshadow muttered a curse and sped along. “Hakk, Snivy, help me inspect this guy!”

“Eh? What about me?” Gahi said.

“Keep Ralts stable. She awake yet?” But Marshadow wasn’t there to hear the answer, already a few paces away from Dialga.

Eon, knowing he’d be too tired to help, approached Owen with some apprehension. The dust felt horrible against his body. “Owen… are—are you okay?”

Owen’s eyes were half-formed in darkness, and even then, he saw the shadow of a glare in them. “Do I look okay?”

“Im-improving?”

Owen growled, but relented with a shadowy sigh. “Yes.”

The Void Shadow in Gahi’s arm twitched against her initial rhythm. “Eh?” Gahi loosened his hold. “Hey, Amia. You awake? We saved yeh fr—”

The Void Shadow screeched and emitted a pulse of shadows against Gahi, knocking his arms open and burning his chest in black flames. Gahi shouted and stumbled back as the Void Shadow plopped on the ground, yet it continued its assault. Another beam of darkness struck Gahi’s left thigh, leaving another lingering burn.

“Mom!” Owen shouted. “M-Mom?! It’s okay!”

He tried to get closer, but he tripped and fell again, even as his dark body assumed the vague shape of a Charmander. Amia screeched again and blasted Eon with another shadowy beam, but it only grazed his slime. It felt cold and biting, like venom.

Hakk shouted something and stood in front of a trembling Xypher. Marshadow balled up his fist and formed another Aura Sphere in his hands, waiting for an opportunity.

“Wait!” Eon shouted. “Marshadow, what are you doing?!”

“What? Killin’ a Void Shadow.”

“No!” Owen ran for Amia, who ignored him, while Gahi rolled and avoided another hostile blast.

“Step aside, Charmander,” Marshadow said. “That ain’t yer mom anymore.”

Owen, of course, refused, and instead stood between Marshadow and Amia, but then remembered Hakk was on the other side. He stepped back and crossed his arms, forming a Protect around them both. Amia bumped into the barrier and fired against it to hit Gahi, but when it evaporated, she turned to Owen and hissed.

“Mom, calm down,” Owen begged. “It’s me, don’t you remember?”

Eon had a sinking feeling that if Amia still had eyes, there would have been no recognition in them.

“Tch.” Hakk clicked his claws and lowered them.

Marshadow dispelled his Aura Sphere. “Charmander, that ain’t yer mom. There’s nothin’ left. It’s a Void Shadow. That’s what happens to folks that become part o’ a Titan. It’s like dyin’ over and over. Somethin’ way below Class D.”

“Well, we—we weren’t in there for long,” Owen said, turning around. His scales were pitch-dark, but brightening, and his eyes had that usual shine to them. “Maybe it’s different and she’s just scared!”

“Only reason she ain’t attacking you is because she thinks yer like her.” Marshadow readied another Aura Sphere. “So once she attacks you, I’m—”

“If—if you do that, I’m running away,” Owen said helplessly.

“Owen,” Eon tried to step in, but Marshadow held his other arm up. Defiant, Eon pressed forward anyway, “Owen, please. We’ll figure something out.”

“Then promise you won’t kill her.”

“Kill? She’s worse than dead already!” Hakk spat, and the glare Owen gave him, while intense, did not seem to faze the icy Sandslash.

“Erm.” A deep voice shook Eon’s slime. “Am I… interrupting something?”

Still on his side, struggling to stand, Dialga huffed and puffed, flicking his tail and hooves to get the last of the Void sludge off of him.

“Dialga.” Marshadow glanced at Hakk, who nodded, and then advanced toward the Timekeeper. “Y’remember anything?”

“I’ll need some time for that,” Dialga said, “ironic as it sounds.” He winced at what Eon imagined was the worst headache in all worlds. “Everything is a fog. I remember fighting… and escaping, like trying to climb from a pool of black aether… over and over…”

“Take it easy,” Marshadow said. “We got a lot ter sort through. And—”

Suddenly, Owen was screaming, and so was the Void Shadow. Blast after blast bounced off of the Protect barrier, Owen ducking and weaving between each one until the barrier shattered completely. Hakk raised his claw and took aim, each claw glowing a bright white. Owen gasped and crossed his arms again; just as icy spikes jettisoned themselves away from Hakk’s claws, a new, golden shield blocked their path.

Then, the Void Shadow blasted Owen point-blank with another shadowy ray. Owen ducked. It struck the barrier. The Protect shattered. Hakk fired—

“MOM!”

And then it all stopped.

The spikes remained frozen mid-fire. Hakk’s glare did not waver and his body did not move. The Void Shadow’s aimless quivering had stopped mid-ripple. Owen’s breathing, rapid, gradually slowed the same rate as Eon’s anxious ripples.

“What,” Eon whispered, “just…”

“Sometimes,” Dialga said, finally on his feet, “we need a moment to pause and think.”

Marshadow dispelled his Aura Sphere, hopefully for the final time, and then looked back at Dialga. “How long’s that gonna last?”

“I can last a while if I focus only on the strange, black thing there…”

“Void Shadow,” Marshadow explained. “And…” He looked toward Owen, then at Hakk, and then sighed. “Alright. Hang on. You, Snivy. You alright?”

“Rgh, yes.” Trina nursed a large burn that covered most of her side. “Amia’s quite strong, even now, isn’t she?”

Owen gulped, stumbling over his words, but Marshadow kept talking. “Go on Flygon fer now, rest up.” He plucked the spike that was meant for the Void Shadow and let it drift toward open air. On cue, Dialga released his temporal hold, and the spike flew across the ground. Then, Hakk was released, and he blinked several times in confusion.

“What? Marshadow? How’d you move that—don’t tell me you’re defending that kid’s—”

“Dialga put a pause on it,” Marshadow said, gesturing to the Void Shadow, the only thing still frozen in time.

Owen squeezed his claws together. “Then that means we can bring her back, r-right? And—and maybe contain her, and then find a way to cure her?”

“Cure?” Hakk scoffed. “Kid—"

“We’ll bring her back,” Marshadow agreed. “Figure there’s somethin’ we c’n get from this. An’ if yer totally sure it’s her…”

“I sense her Fire aura, even if it’s corrupted,” Trina agreed.

“I’m pickin’ up Psychic somethin’s,” Gahi noted.

“It’s her,” Owen said, simultaneously firm and tearful.

Marshadow let out another irritable sigh, shaking his head. “I dunno what’s gonna come from this,” he said after a long silence, “but if it’s gonna be the only thing that keeps yeh calm, fine. We’ll bring it back.”

He looked back at Dialga. “Oy, Dialga. C’n you fly?”

“I’ll need to recover some strength first,” Dialga said, “but I believe I should be able to.”

“Then let’s set up camp here and rest. Dialga, yer way too big ter hide, so if we sense another Titan, we’ll have ter be on th’ move.”

“Of course.”

Eon inched closer to Owen, but his eyes were transfixed on the frozen Void Shadow. Was Amia really reduced to nothing but that? It was unbelievable. But… that meant Owen would need more support than ever. From him, just like old times.

Owen’s glare from their last rest stop flashed in his mind. How hasty Owen was to get away from him. That thought lingered for a few extra seconds, just enough for him to slide away and say, “Gahi.”

“Eh?”

Gaining some distance from Owen, he said softly, “Stay near Owen for a while. He needs a lot of support.”

Gahi scoffed. “What, you ain’t gonna try?”

Eon suppressed a scowl, tried to say something, but the words were shrouded in a haze.

Gahi was already by Owen before Eon had realized it, and a new, cold emptiness filled where Eon’ imagined his stomach should have been.

<><><>​

Inteleon Qitlan stepped down a hall of polished obsidian. The walls were decorated with regal, purple, gold, and red cloth, and the floor had an intricate, geometric design of varying colors of black, yellow, and red. Every several paces, Inteleon passed by tables that had a vase of a Voidlands plant, or clock, or a bowl filled with colorful berry candies in the shape of Minior. For some reason, there were a lot of yellow ones left behind compared to the much rarer greens and reds, and he only saw a single pink candy.

He was tempted to go for it—Pecha was his favorite flavor—but Aster would be upset if he found out.

Far ahead was a door large enough to fit giant Pokémon through, ornate with gold swirls that ended around a press to push the door open.

Which way should he address the King this time? Your Greatness? No, he never cared for luxurious titles. He preferred subtlety. Made the greatness shine brighter. He’d already used his simple title and name before, and repetitions felt too redundant. Ah, what did it matter, perhaps simply Your Swiftness this time. He’d been practicing his agility training recently.

The door was heavy, and only after a loud clang did it finally relent to Inteleon’s attempts, though he tried to keep from huffing too loudly. Undignified, and weak, and the King would be very unhappy with that.

Beyond the door was a room large enough for Rayquaza himself to fly. Near the back was a large bed that Inteleon would be able to perform Substitute four times and sprawl all five of him on different parts comfortably in the cushions. Though, the mattress seemed quite firm. Not that he’d dare find out how it felt—not when Alexander would surely…

Ah, there he was, far to the left, looking through another one of his reports. It always filled his heart with joy to see the Hydreigon looking through those notes—all of Inteleon’s hard work being put to use.

But now he had to decide whether to disturb him or not. No, he’d already opened the door; it was just irritating Alexander by stalling. “Your Swiftness,” Inteleon greeted.

“Qitlan.”

His voice was deep and smooth like abyssal butter, and it always dwarfed the higher, breezy vocals that Qitlan’s thin frame produced. Keeping himself composed, Qitlan said, “I have another report, well, two, actually.”

“Two? Is one of them Dark Matter?”

“Yes, of his movements.” Qitlan produced the first one from his satchel, though it was a thin report, only a few pages long. “In summary, he is continuing south, but is drifting away from Cipher City.”

“Hmph. Well, he’d be a fool to come here, so of course he’d avoid us.” The Hydreigon drifted away from his desk, having never sat down, as he floated by some dark force that swirled around his wings—darker than the usual typing that came with his species. “Odd that he’s moving at all…”

“Something must have changed in the living world.” Qitlan smirked.

“I wonder what that could be.” Alexander returned it with all three of his mouths, but then returned to a more neutral countenance. “Well, and what’s the other report?”

“Of course.” Qitlan approached Alexander’s table and set the first report down, then pulled out the next, somewhat thicker one, this time six pages long. “Most of the report is numbers and verifications, but the summary is simple: a large spike of Infinity Energy was detected in the deep Nil Plateaus.”

“Near Null Village?” Alexander said.

“Far south. At least a day’s travel nonstop.”

“Hrm. A spike of Infinity Energy…”

“We are going to investigate what that means soon,” Qitlan added. “However, our readings suggest that the energy output was significantly higher than your average Z-Crystal.”

“Could it have been a new spire?”

“Considering the location, very unlikely. There is no reason to set up any kind of sustainable settlement there.” Qitlan placed the report on the table and nodded. “In any case, I will inform you if there are more findings for—”

“Where is Aster?”

Qitlan’s blood ran cold. “A-Aster?” he repeated, trying to keep his composure as flashes of the artificial god blinked in his mind. “He, er, I’m not sure. He was clearly having his way with the candies in the hall some time ago, er…”

“Find him, and send him to Null Village.”

“Now?” Qitlan spoke out of turn, quickly trying to compose himself. “That is to say, before further reporting?”

“I am concerned that if we hesitate, we will miss our opportunity to acquire whatever it is there. Null Village’s relationship with us is… tenuous. While Marshadow is keeping them obedient, the civil unrest could lead to an irksome rebellion.”

“That’s true… but do you really think a run-down shanty like that would hold that sort of power?”

“No,” Alexander said, “but I’m taking no chances.” His six eyes closed, three heads looking contemplative. “Spirit strikes have ravaged the Voidlands lately, each one a new soul from Kilo. Any of them could be a disturbance. Any of them could be Anam. And aside from that loathsome Charizard, who is probably long dead, Anam is our best chance at finding and capturing Necrozma. Do you understand where I am going with this?”

“Of course.” Qitlan nodded. “You’re saying that any hint at Necrozma’s power should be investigated.”

“Yes.”

“And that I should be adopting such a policy going forward, regardless of the resources it may cost?”

“Yes.”

“Should I divulge this information to lower leadership?”

“On a need-to-know basis.”

“Understood.” Qitlan bowed, held it for a few seconds, and then rose when no further address came.

Alexander turned back to his table, which was gone, along with all of his reports and supplies. Qitlan stared in disbelief.

Alexander’s smaller heads’ jaws clenched. “Aster.”

An echo from somewhere bounced off the walls.

“Aster, not now!” Alexander snapped, staring at the sky. “I’m going to give you to three. One. Two. THR—”

The table and all of its contents reappeared where it had been, along with a single, yellow candy in the middle of the desk. Alexander grimaced and turned around and, suddenly, Qitlan felt a presence behind him.

Keeping himself dignified, the Inteleon turned and said, “Aster, how much of that did you hear?”

“I just got here!”

Qitlan kept his stance neutral while he addressed the Mewtwo. “Of course, Aster. This shortens things. You are hereby assigned on a mission to investigate Null Village to the south.”

Aster’s wide eyes took in every word like he was speaking of some grand, short tale. Yet, when he finally processed the words, those eyes narrowed to a displeased frown. “Null Village?! But that’s so faaar! And so boooring!”

“With your Teleportation, it would hardly be more than a few days’ travel,” Alexander cut in. “Consider yourself grateful. If I went by wing, it would take me months.”

Aster crossed his arms exaggeratedly, leaned forward in a curl, and pouted. “Can I at least bring Leph?”

“Leph has to stay here in case another mission comes up,” Alexander said. “But if you go to Null Village and ask the questions Qitlan gives you, you can do anything you want with them after, so long as you bring back whatever your mission statement requires.”

Aster perked up at this, his purple tail flicking with interest. “Anything?”

“Anything.”

“Anything?” The Mewtwo leaned even closer.

Alexander leaned forward, grinning to show his teeth. “Anything.”

Aster’s fists clenched in front of him, trembling as the Mewtwo’s glee overtook him. The marbled floor below him cracked. He curled up a little more and whispered under his breath, “Yesss…” Then, he stood up and enthusiastically saluted Alexander. “Okay! Mewtwo Aster is on the case!”

He disappeared in a flash of white light.

Qitlan and Alexander both stared at the empty space, and the circular, intricate cracks left in the ground. Clicking his tongue, Qitlan said, “He forgot the mission statement.”

“He’ll remember.” Alexander turned to his desk. “Write it up and wait for him to return.”

“Of course.” He had a lot of other duties to take care of, though, and he didn’t want to wait for too long. He still had to tend to their new guests. And pray the Zoroark didn’t find a new place to hide and growl at him. His shoulder still hurt from the last time. “Then I shall be going.”

“Mhm.”

Qitlan stepped out of Alexander’s quarters, slid the door closed behind him, and took the last Pecha candy for himself.
 
Chapter 95 - Regroup
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Chapter 95 – Regroup

Within the King’s castle, two Pokémon, one large, one small, sat on opposite ends of a large table. Leph always felt awkward playing with the Treecko opposite to her, and she was sure she felt the same about her… but they were the only ones who could really entertain one another. Everyone else was either dull or intimidated or downright irritating.

Aster’s grinning, saccharine expression flashed through Leph’s mind and she shook it away.

“Leph?” the Treecko asked, fanning her five cards. “Are you holding?”

Leph blinked, then looked down. Three kings—each one a different depiction of Alexander—a two, and a five.

“One card,” Leph said, sliding the two forward, face-down. She did not move her hoof, and lacking a mouth made for a good poker face, but she had always been told that her green eyes were very expressive. And apparently, a mouthless Pokémon wearing sunglasses was cheating. Sharing the same species as the God of Creation? Just fine. Some eyewear? Unbecoming of an Arceus, apparently.

Beside Leph was a small pile of candies they used in place of chips. They didn’t need money, after all, only the pride of winning. Her opponent had far fewer.

“And you, Mhynt?” Leph said.

The Treecko’s fingers twitched, and Leph knew that simply dropping one card was intimidating her. Good. And she already had a trio.

“Three,” Mhynt said, sliding them forward. With a flick of her fingers, a dark power danced around them and pushed the three cards into the pile, and that same dark power wrapped around the top of the deck. She was oddly stiff after she saw the cards, her expression even more stone-faced than before.

She was hiding her loss. “Something wrong?” Leph asked.

“No.” Mhynt’s eyes trailed for a split-second toward a lifeless Honedge next to her, its hilt balanced against the tableside. Common giveaway, looking toward the blade for support, even if it could not answer. It was sad, in a way, but Leph could take advantage of the insecurity.

Mhynt slid three candies into the pile. “Raise by three.”

Trying to psyche her out? Fine. All she would need is to match, raise, and scare her into folding. “Five.”

Leph’s face contorted ever so slightly into a forced frown. Forced frown.

“All in.”

No no no. This was a trap. Even if she matched it, Leph would have the upper hand in one play. If she backed out now, they’d be on even ground. Was it worth it? Three cards. Most of her hand was junk. The most she’d have is a pair. What was the point, then? To scare her? Or was it a lucky draw? A trio. But Leph had three kings. But had she seen a single ace from this deck yet?

Too risky. “Fold.”

“LEPH!”

The shrill voice of Aster punctuated the sudden weight on Leph’s back, and whatever sense of thrilling peace was evaporated with his shriek.

“Leph, Leph! I gotta go on a mission! Can you lend me some of your tricky spheres?”

Aster hung off of Leph’s wheel, swinging his legs and tail forward and backward, gaining more height each time.

“Aster, can you please knock next time?” Mhynt said irritably; during Aster’s sudden appearance, she had grabbed the hilt of her blade, but released it with an irritated huff. “Why didn’t Alexander ask me to go on this mission?”

“I dunno!” Aster said.

“I haven’t gone on one in a while.” Mhynt stacked her five cards, set them down, and conjured a large, dark hand from her left arm. With it, she drew the candies toward her side of the table with a large, shadowy hand.

“I dunno!”

Leph grunted and said, “Just be glad you can stay here. I’m not interested in…” She shook her head. “Never mind. Aster, what’s the mission?”

“Qitlan gave me a report! Null Village! There was a big spike in energy, way more than what a spire can make. I gotta investigate! Then I have to bring back the most powerful thing I see there so Alexander can talk to them.”

“Recovery. Hmph.” Mhynt crossed her arms, tapping her fingers. “It’s better than nothing.” She reached for her blade, pulled it closer, and ran her fingers along the flat of the blade. “Do you suppose this will finally be the key that gets us out of this place?”

“I would hope so,” Leph said. “I don’t remember what the sun looks like. Just pictures.”

“What are you saying?” Mhynt said dully, twirling her wrist. “All you need to do is look at Aster’s bright personality.”

The Mewtwo grinned wider, staring up at Leph with open palms. “Please? Just a few!”

“Don’t hurt anybody you don’t need to,” Leph said, tapping her hoof on the floor. Circles of light and various strange symbols appeared beneath it, and two bright, cyan spheres solidified beneath, each one filled with a white energy.

“Thanks, Leph!” He hopped high into the air and headbutted her on the face, then disappeared in a flash of light.

Leph didn’t flinch, though her eyes showed signs of a sad smile.

“Why did you tell him not to hurt anyone?” Mhynt asked, cocking her head.

“Aster’s trying to please Alexander. I can tell. But I don’t want him to lose himself now that activity’s getting hectic…”

“Mm.” Mhynt returned her blade to the tableside. “Things would be a lot easier if you just followed his orders instead of giving him a hard time. He can kill you if you push too hard, you know.”

“I’d love to see him try,” Leph said automatically, but then her throat hitched at Mhynt’s glare. “I—I mean… I am only following…”

“He makes the orders,” Mhynt said. “Without him, you would be nothing but a Void Shadow. Don’t forget that.”

Leph’s fur bristled with golden energy, and Mhynt’s scales coursed with black light. At the same time, they both settled to normal. He won’t let me.

“Still,” Mhynt said, “I suppose he sees some value in your cautious approach. Helps even out Aster, I guess, and he’s more than happy to please him.”

Leph said nothing.

“Should we continue our game?”

She had forgotten. Nodding, Leph pressed a golden hoof on her folded hand. “Three kings.” Now she wanted to know what Mhynt had that made her so confident as to go all-in.

The Treecko set her cards face-up. “Junk.”

<><><>​

The southern horizon was a lot gloomier, Angelo thought. All the more reason to stay inside and relax. Was it morning or noon? Afternoon? He wasn’t sure. He had passed out and spent the day inside after that. They had gone without him to Yotta Outskirts with that strange Joltik. Somehow. Was there a point in asking how?

Under his bed, something shifted and bumped. Everything seemed a little darker in his room, but Angelo attributed that to the gloomy weather outside. Not much light got in his room anyway, aside from the single open window on the opposite wall. The door into his work station and the front of the shop taunted him on his right. To his left, a wall with a few sketches to motivate him for the day. Never worked.

The bumping continued, and then he sank a little lower into his sack of cotton, like some of its contents had leaked out. Angelo curled up tighter, shivering. It wasn’t one of his sleep paralysis demons, was it? Apparitions of old nightmares of his grandfather cackling in his final days. Staring through the window while he was helpless to move.

No, no. This was different. He could move. Angelo squeezed his toes to make sure, then rolled over and curled his blanket over his face again.

The door opened and Angelo’s heart may as well have stopped. He didn’t dare move. No breathing. Then it closed. Was he going crazy? No, he had a visitor. That was right. This was normal now. He wasn’t living alone anymore, and he was too afraid of what would happen if he told it to go away.

Working up the courage to face it again, Angelo finally took a new breath and removed his soft, gray blanket. The cold morning air reminded him to regret that decision, as per usual, and then he sat at his bedside. The door opened again, and near the bottom was a strange, featureless mass of darkness with five little eyes that blinked asynchronously at him. Balanced on top of its head—was it a head?—and secured with countless tiny fingers was a plate of stir-fry noodles.

It slid closer and stopped in the middle of the room, four of its five eyes staring at Angelo. The last eye darted this way and that, focused on the sketches and drawings that littered his walls, and all the fallen papers and used supplies that covered most of the floor.

“Yes?” Angelo asked, his throat feeling dry from the night. Had that been his first word in the past full day?

The thing inched closer.

“I’m not usually hungry right when I wake up…”

To this, it shrank a little.

“Guilt tripping me, huh?” Angelo muttered, sighing. “I’ll try to eat it. Thank you.”

Angelo lifted it and gently worked the utensils, simple chop sticks. A lot like a brush—he was just more comfortable with that sort of tool, and he was surprised this apparition was so conscientious.

These things were also not much for conversation. He only knew that they were part of that monster that was now curled around Kilo Village’s crater. But sometimes, he’d hear its voice in a whisper in his mind.

Near the middle of his meal, someone knocked at the entrance to his home. Heavy knocks this time, so it couldn’t have been that insomniac Salazzle. The Lucario from before wasn’t back, and the Fairy one refused to be seen in public after that one incident with the child saying he was pretty. That must have meant it was Phol.

“Come in,” Angelo called out.

“Angelo, are you feeling any better today?” Phol called. The Incineroar opened the door to Angelo’s room next—he had to duck to get through the frame—and frowned at what Angelo assumed he thought was a sorry sight.

The Smeargle slumped over, and the five-eyed creature slid to the corner of the room. Behind Phol was another one of those blobs, this time with three eyes and two small arms that it used for walking.

“Oh, you have one, too,” Angelo remarked.

“It won’t leave me alone,” Phol grunted. “Still, at least it can get supplies.”

“Mine can cook.” Angelo gestured to his stir-fry. “…I’m not sure how, but…”

Phol waved dismissively. “Angelo, do you have time to come with us? We need your help.”

“Is the hospital at capacity again?”

“They might be tomorrow. We got word that Micro Riverside’s inhabitants ran into a mutant and the casualties weren’t pretty. They were on their way, but then ran into another one…”

“Oh, Mew…”

“Elder sent scouts and that Joltik to check on them, but we fear the worst. But now, we’re organized enough that we need to toughen up the town. The Thousand strongest are spread thin, so only the administrative Hearts can actually help bring us up.”

“Thousand strongest, hm.” Angelo sighed. What was the point? The whole reason there were only a Thousand was because apparently there was only enough energy to maintain a thousand Badges. But now those were useless. Did that dissolve the Hearts, too? Hopefully that didn’t send things into more chaos.

Phol had been talking and he missed it. Angelo perked up, and it seemed that Phol noticed. “Did you get any of that?”

“Er—toughening up. Does that include me?”

“Yes. Do you know Protect?”

“I do.”

“Can you demonstrate it?”

Angelo nodded, standing up and setting his half-eaten stir-fry on his bed. Suddenly self-conscious of the noticeable, Angelo-shaped depression in it, he moved the blanket over the mattress. Clutching his tail, he drew a circle in the air, and a sea blue barrier formed around him, fading seconds later.

“Good. Then you can help teach the others the same technique.”

“Protect? Why Protect?”

“While most Pokémon here aren’t the best at fighting, more focused on their own careers, there are still some invaluable skills that we can use no matter our skill level. Protect is one of them, and it only takes a little practice to get it going, and from there, it’s easy to repeat and strengthen.”

“Right…”

“Not to mention, nearly everyone is capable of it,” Phol added. “Right now, there are people in the town square trying to enchant some discs with aura so it can be passed onto others. We found a whole store of blank ones in the Heart HQ, perhaps ready to be enchanted for other techniques. We’ll be using some of those to spread Protect.”

“Oh, I’m, I don’t know how to enchant,” Angelo said. “I thought only Anam could do that, and maybe others with, er, with a lot of practice. But Anam was the prodigy, right?”

“Well, I can, and I’ve already enchanted a few. If you can’t, then perhaps instead you can help the townsfolk practice.”

Angelo hemmed and hawed a few times, and Phol tapped his foot with the occasional halfhearted encouragement. Eventually, Angelo relented, and when he was finished with his meal, he stepped out of his bedroom and followed Phol to the town square.

<><><>​

Spice narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the southern horizon, standing at the very peak of Kilo Village’s crater. “I don’t trust those clouds,” she said. “Too dark.”

“Could be rain,” Leo replied, though his eyes were more focused on the base of the mountain. “Spice, is that a mutant?”

Her eyes darted down. A Rampardos was wobbling around the lower edges, though there didn’t seem to be anything abnormal about it from afar. “Maybe he had one too many swigs,” Spice mused. “He doesn’t look hostile.”

“Hmm…” Leo fidgeted again. “I hate sentinel duty. I’m so helpless. I should be home making sure my parents are safe. What if another mutant attacks? Or those wraiths in the Dungeons get out somehow?”

“Yotta Outskirts is way too important to be left unguarded,” Spice assured him, patting his shoulder. “And those wraiths never leave Dungeons.”

“I suppose…”

Spice looked down again, but her eyes trailed to the dark clouds. They were closer than ever. Occasionally, she saw purple lightning dance along the bottom of them. “It’s not normal lightning,” she said.

“Well, I don’t know what it is.”

“I think it’s coming from the other side of the world.”

Leo gave her an odd look, and Spice ignored it.

“That isn’t one of your sleep-deprived theories again, is it?” Leo asked. “Ever since Yotta Village, you’ve said that you can feel something underground.”

“Well, I do. Or maybe not underground… Just far away. I feel it everywhere sometimes. Up north, where that Dark Matter storm keeps swirling… Southwest, by that Void Basin place…” Spice motioned vaguely in its direction, though all they could see was a lush, green forest, even at their height. “And then underground. Chances are it’s actually on the other side of the world.”

“Nothing but ocean there,” Leo said with a frown. “Spice, did you get any—”

“No. Stop asking.” It was a routine question by now. “Just accept it like I have. I don’t sleep anymore. I’ve been fine.”

“It’s been half a moon at this point…”

“And I’m just fine.” Spice shrugged, though she did admit—inside, not out loud—that it was starting to worry her. Fifteen days of no sleep, with no side effects? Something was seriously wrong with her, but she didn’t want to take up the hospitals’ time right now. Her performance as a Heart was more productive than ever, though, so it couldn’t be all bad…

Leo shifted his weight again, playing with his robe-like fur, and then with his ears.

“If anything, you’re the one acting sleep-deprived,” Spice said. “What’s gotten into you? Burned your bed?”

“I haven’t burned my bed since I was a kit, thank you,” Leo growled. “Ugh! Is our shift almost over?”

“How about I go down and check?” Spice slipped off of her rocky seat and glanced at the steep slope behind him. “Don’t follow me! You’ll trip and fall!”

Leo grumbled something, but the wind drowned it out, and Spice hopped from slope to slope. She was tempted to go straight to the HQ when she saw the crowd gathering at the Central Waypoint. Leo could wait a little while longer.

On her way there, she was flagged down and asked if she knew Protect, which was odd and annoying. Sure, Protect would have helped her guard against attacks, but it wasn’t her style, and learning a whole technique like that was cumbersome. It wasn’t as if the blessings from berries worked on her anyway. How was society today any different for her? It was just like living in the south before annexation.

Still, they were persistent. “I have a whole battle setup, you know,” Spice complained.

But the Hypno that flagged her down shook his head and said, “But we need to switch to more defensive fighting styles, now. Come on. At least try to learn it.”

Spice sighed. “I’ve got scouting to do.”

“It won’t be long. You can practice on your own later, Heart.”

So, he knew she was a Heart. She didn’t even have to flash the Badge. Must have been the lightning scars…

Oh, that was probably why the lightning made her nervous.

“Salazzle?”

“Right, coming.”

She was given the fast track and cut in front of most of the others waiting. Apparently being a Heart meant they wanted her to get right back to work. Understandable, and good, because she wasn’t about to stand in a line this long or this crowded. It felt even more packed than the Ceremony of Advancement.

The discs were strange, reflective materials that shined in the sun like prismatic coins. A weak aura flowed through all of them, little gifts and enchantments that had been left there. Anam was able to do this sort of work with a sneeze; it took these Pokémon, if they could do it at all, several kiloseconds to get it all done.

“There was this kid I knew who had a weirdly colored Protect,” Spice remarked while she waited for the aura to resonate with hers. “Sort of a bright yellow, or gold, or something, like the sun.”

“Oh, gold aura folks?” remarked a nearby Cinderace. “I have a friend who’s got that! Used to show it off at parties. Really rare.”

“I noticed something about that, actually. All of the Pokémon that are channeling Protect into these things… they all happen to have golden auras. I’ve never seen it all in one place. I thought it was just a myth!”

“Nah, that Incineroar at the hospital? The one who handles the unruly patients? He’s got a gold Protect.”

Spice rolled her eyes. “Well, maybe we can all get together and have a gold Protect party and show off how shiny our spirits are.” She wanted to roll her eyes and look skyward, but the disk on top of her made movement risky. “Is this thing done yet? I kind of feel like an idiot with this on my head.”

“Almost, almost,” said a nervous-sounding Gothitelle. “It’s taking a while for your aura to register it, I think… You can tell when the disc gets dull.”

“Right.” Spice sighed, flicking her tail impatiently. If anything, she was irritated that she would be expected to keep this on her quick-draw techniques rather than something she could draw on situationally. Defensive policy… who had the authority?!

“All done!”

“Finally.” Spice sat up and inspected the disc, no longer very prismatic. “Alright, see you—”

“Can you use it once to make sure it worked?”

“Fine, fine. Give me a second to find it…”

Spice closed her eyes, drawing into herself. It definitely felt different. She remembered someone vaguely… someone who used to draw out Protect with a certain pose. It looked silly… but maybe, intuitively, it would help.

Spice crossed her arms and drew out her spirit’s shield.

It suddenly got a lot darker, and at the same time, several people gasped. Spice dropped her shield and looked around. “What was—”

And it was brighter again, and Spice stepped in a small circle. “Why did it get dark? Is Dark Matter coming? Are those clouds—”

But everyone was staring at her.

“What?”

She glanced at the Gothitelle, who seemed too stunned and confused. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “We just, er…”

“Wow… if gold’s supposed to be rare… what’s black mean?”

“Black?” Spice spun around to face the Cinderace. “What do you mean?”

“Your Protect. It was black.”

“Black.”

Spice tried it again with some difficulty, and the world was dark like twilight again. That wasn’t the sky. That was her shield, pulsing with black waves of non-light from the top to her feet. She loosened her post and stood up straight.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve got Protect. That’s all I need, right?”

“Um, yes. Yes, sorry for keeping you, Heart. Thank you for your service.” Gothitelle bowed.

“Thanks.” Hasty, and without another word, she crawled to the Heart HQ to ask for a scout rotation.

She should have done that in the first place.

<><><>​

It had been four days since Marshadow had left Null Village with Owen and the others, and Jerry was starting to get worried. Perhaps not concerned—Owen had a knack for finding ways to pull things off, like saving his own hide—but for what was taking them so long. Did he find his mother? And then what? This place was too big.

“Aerodactyl, are you feeling alright?”

Jerry stiffened and glanced left to a Breloom chaperone, standing by the wall of a great, obsidian room. “Yeah,” he replied. “Just thinking.”

They were in some sort of communal dining hall, from what Jerry had gathered, lined with long tables and plates of all sizes. Before Jerry was a plate of meats. He’d long since learned that it was all imitation meat—finding real meat, let alone low-level ferals in the Voidlands was next to impossible—but it was a darn good substitute. Maybe even better than what Kilo had, though considering how hungry he’d felt lately, his judgement could have been clouded.

Next to him was Zena, and then by her, Demitri and Mispy. They were all on a tour of Null Village and were on a break to enjoy lunch. They'd seen all the facilities, the residential district, even the entertainment district. The technology there had been... confusing. Jerry hadn’t recognized half of it.

Next on the agenda was the town perimeter. Now that they’d all been cleared of their ‘evaluation’ period, they had to start searching for jobs to help contribute to Null Village, no matter how long or short they intended to stay. Fair, he supposed, but it only reminded him of that cursed Broken Heart system when he’d been arrested. Was this any different?

He had to get out. There had to be a way, right? He certainly felt alive. And after everything that had happened… to die now, and get stuck here?

There had to be more to it. He felt it in his gut.

Mispy mumbled something to Demitri, who nodded awkwardly and whispered to Jerry next, “Do you think they allow seconds?”

“Don’t look at me. Feels like I’m on thin ice as it is.”

“What? Did you get in trouble?”

“No.”

“Then why?”

“I always feel that way.”

Demitri frowned and inched away, eyes searching uselessly around the dining hall.

Aside from himself, the pair, and Zena, they were accompanied by a tired-looking Slowpoke and a shifty-eyed Scyther. Neither were much for conversation; Jerry wasn’t sure they could have a conversation. They were probably C or D.

“What class did you guys wind up getting?” Jerry suddenly asked Demitri and Mispy.

“B for both of us,” Demitri said. “I think it has to do with, y’know, the whole mutant memory scramble thing.”

Jerry finished his plate and glanced at Zena. “You? Think I forgot to ever ask.”

“C,” Zena admitted, looking away.

“C, eh… you had it pretty rough out there.”

“I can’t remember how rough I had it, is the part that worries me,” the Milotic said with a hum. “The only reason I know anything is because Owen told me.”

“Yeah, you two spent a lot of time together,” Jerry remarked. “Still, you barely knew each other, too.”

“We didn’t?” Zena asked.

“I mean, what, a moon or two at most. That’s nothing.”

“Maybe it was love at first sight,” Demitri piped up.

Mispy frowned, and Zena mirrored it.

“I don’t think I’m fond of that idea,” Zena said. “That’s so strange. When I saw him, I was very… happy. Like some deep part of me was happy to see him. Why, then, did I only know him for such a short time?”

“You were pretty alone before then,” Jerry said. “Maybe Owen was the first person to be something like a friend.”

“Mm.” Zena looked down at her plate, then pushed it forward. Despite the huge portions, the Milotic had eaten it all. The chef in the back—a Typhlosion—had a wide grin.

Jerry looked back at Zena. “What, having second thoughts?” He smirked.

“A little.”

Didn’t expect that one. “What?”

“Sorry. Just thinking.” Zena sighed.

Pots and pans gently clattered in the kitchen from the chefs cleaning up. Most of the others had finished eating and Jerry had gotten distracted. Hastily scarfing down the rest of his meal, he occasionally spared a glance at the Milotic, who was clearly still pensive.

“Jerry, was it?” Zena asked.

She had caught him while his mouth was full, so he nodded.

“Do you think I should, no, do you think it’s… no…” She focused on the wall.

Mouth finally empty, he said, “If you’re worried about Owen, I doubt he’d try to force anything too fast with you.”

“But could we have already—two moons, Jerry. That’s… that seems so unlike me.”

“Didn’t Owen tell you it was only that long?”

“He, I, we… Well, I think so. But it feels so much longer because it’s all so vague, and—and what if the reason I felt so strongly for him was, well, what if I…”

Jerry didn’t have the emotional investment to continue. He shrugged, uncommitted, and finished his meal. “Ask him yourself,” he defaulted.

Just then, a siren echoed across town—they had heard that a few times, and it always indicated that scouts were returning and to be ready, just in case. But the rhythm was different, and for some reason, the chefs had stopped what they were doing. Their chaperones had suddenly left the building.

“What’s going on?” Demitri asked, but Mispy was already sliding out the door. Jerry followed, Zena right behind him.

“Gahi…” Mispy sped up.

“What? You can sense him?”

“Mm.”

Down the clay-tile roads and toward the large, pointed spire in the middle of town, Jerry carefully weaved past hasty guards and civilians. It was hard to tell which was which.

“Signal compliances are all clear!” someone shouted from above.

They must have followed the flashing pattern properly. A team of scouts flew away from the village next, and then came a tense silence. Jerry, not knowing what to do with himself, shifted his weight to his left foot, stretched his wings, and glanced at Zena again. She had a lost, distant look in her eyes, like she was trying to figure out how to feel.

“Just say hi to him,” Jerry mumbled, jolting Zena out of her trance.

“What?”

“Even if you don’t know how strongly to feel about him, you can still be friends with someone after two moons.”

“Oh.” Zena’s ribbons folded over one another. “Am I that transparent?”

“You two have that in common.”

Jerry looked up, and when he did, he was glad he wasn’t holding anything. A great, looming shadow darkened the town, which had been lit only by the crystals that embedded the walls and the dim, red sky. Now the crystals seemed a little brighter, and the figure above them all the darker.

He knew this creature from the Book of Arceus. The shapes were basic, but seeing Dialga in person… that—that was Dialga, right?

“That can’t possibly…” Someone to his left stepped forward.

“Dialga?” Demitri said. “From… from the Book? Dialga’s here?”

“Which book?” Zena asked. “I’m sorry—I’m not very well-versed.”

“Book of Arceus,” Demitri said. “I mean, if Arceus is real, then Dialga must have been, too, but… here? In the Voidlands?”

A cold pit sank in Jerry’s stomach. If even the gods were being imprisoned here, what hope did he have of escaping?

“Hello!” Marshadow called cheerfully from the top of Dialga’s back. He hopped off of Dialga, fell at least twenty feet to the ground, and landed lightly. “Need a room in th’ large-Pokémon eval building. Also need a high-security room in th’ normal building fer another rescue. Lemme attend that one fer special permissions fer Charmander, too.”

“Charmander? The class A?” This voice was from Steelix, who looked up at Dialga skeptically as he descended. “If this is the Timekeeper, what’s the point in keeping him in evaluations? These buildings may be Protect-insulated, but I don’t think they can withstand the wills of a god…”

“He’s weakened,” Marshadow said simply. “This is more fer temporary housing ‘til we figure out what ter do.”

Everyone had been riding on Dialga’s back and hopped off as the great Legend descended. The slowest was Gahi, who had several parts of his body, particularly his tail, looking charred and blackened. He didn’t shine like he usually did.

“What happened to him?” Jerry asked.

“Void Titan,” Marshadow said.

Trina didn’t look much better; her entire left half was dark and blistered with old, leafy scales, though a new set was growing in. Jerry winced, wondering if it would scar, but then turned his attention to Eon. The Ditto took the form of a Charizard, and was carrying several bags over his shoulder, and was noticeably distanced from Owen. Uncharacteristic. Maybe they got in another spat.

Owen himself, though…

Despite having no injuries, Owen looked like he was doing the worst. Dull eyes stared at a blob of darkness that looked to be frozen in place.

…They had gone off to rescue Amia, hadn’t they? Where was—

A sudden weight dragged Jerry’s stomach downward from the inside and he looked away. “Well, they’re back,” he muttered. “Don’t we have a town tour to finish?”

“Can it wait?” Zena asked.

“It’s gonna wait,” Marshadow said, and then made eye contact with several other scouts and guards. “Everyone rest fer now. I gotta straighten out a few things.”

The scouts, organized as ever, escorted Dialga to an oversized building further down the clay roads. More scouts came with a strange, glass-like container and placed the Void Shadow inside before rolling it into the main evaluation building. Owen followed them, and thanks to whatever permissions Marshadow had given him, they let him through.

Jerry’s legs worked without him thinking, and he followed them in, too.
 
Last edited:
Chapter 96 - Stubborn Hopeful
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Chapter 96 – Stubborn Hopeful

The annoying pest was still following him.

The red skies left little light for the trees to cast any shadows. Yet there was always that sixth sense of his radiant presence constantly bothering him like an itch he would never be rid of.

Dark Matter drifted along the Voidlands in silence, quelling the more defiant voices within his core. The loudest ones, of course, were of Anam’s parents, the Salandit who denied his species, and the Goodra who denied her defeat.

He had tuned out their cries long ago, yet still they tugged at the back of his mind. Not that it mattered. He was used to screams.

Striking Kilo directly was no use. He did not have enough power in the physical world, and had reached a stalemate against Arceus. Gathering power in his spiritual domain came first.

Oh, it would have been easy to do so on his own, had his domain not already been split three-ways between a power-hungry Dragon and a powered-down Dragon. Neither of which was particularly cooperative. Perhaps if he killed one, he could defeat the other on his own.

“Stop right there!”

Wonderful.

One life in front of him, several more collecting around him. He could probably kill all of them quickly, but not without taking an annoying strike or two, and he wasn’t in the mood for that.

“Arms up. Try anything, and…”

Dark Matter rolled his eyes and complied. Slimy fingers rose above his head, and his tail thumped behind him. “Hurry up,” he demanded.

“…You’re being pretty nonchalant for wandering around the forest, Goodra.”

“I’ve been through this routine before,” Dark Matter droned. “Go on, search me, do as you must. I’m very tired.”

The first Pokémon revealed herself, this one a Gabite. Middle evolution, hm. That meant she likely had died at least once while here. Searching through his memories, he found her. This Gabite had lived in the Voidlands for two hundred or so years. She had fallen into a great despair and wandered too close to a Dungeon that hadn’t been protected by Anam. Southern, most likely. She had been attacked within that Dungeon, and of course, succumbed to her wounds. Without Anam’s blessing, her spirit belonged to him after that.

Gabite approached, looking him over. “You don’t look dangerous,” she said, but then pulled something from the bag around her chest. “But I’m still going to have to restrain you a little while we put you in the evaluation rooms. It’s the same for any division of Null Village.”

“Mm. Of course.” Dark Matter could sense the other Pokémon closing in. Ten total. These scouts were competent but they didn’t recognize his spirit yet. Only a matter of time. Dark Matter smirked. “You never really let up, do you?” And then he chuckled a hollow laugh. He made a motion to go for a playful nudge, but Gabite immediately backed away and snarled.

“I said don’t try anything,” she said.

Clever vermin. “Sorry,” Dark Matter replied, and then kept his arms in the air again.

Anam was getting closer. He didn’t have time for this. But an uproar would bring Anam right to him.

“Let’s go,” Gabite said.

Dark Matter sighed and stepped along, and several Pokémon that had been hidden in darkness revealed themselves.

This was becoming too annoying to bear. Time for a distraction.

He glanced left.

A Void Shadow shrieked, and all the scouts turned toward it in an instant. For that precious second, nobody was watching Dark Matter.

He reached toward Gabite and touched her shoulder. She looked at it in annoyed surprise, glared at Dark Matter, and suddenly her eyes were vacant. In another second, she was looking at the Void Shadow, which fled, while Dark Matter tapped his tail on a nearby Leafeon. Then, by mere luck, one of the hastier Pokémon, a Frosmoth, brushed against his arm.

Three. That would do.

“It ran off,” Gabite said under Dark Matter’s silent orders. “Everyone, close in. We should be more careful about this, and Goodra isn’t much of a threat.”

Dark Matter played along, speaking to himself. “Oh, not a threat. Bold from someone not even fully evolved.”

“Watch what you say,” warned a Mightyena, snarling. “Don’t make me have to use these claws on—” He tapped a paw aggressively on Dark Matter’s side. There was a flash of horror in his eyes, that fleeting second of control, and then he grunted. “Ugh, now I’ve got slime on me.”

The other guards cautiously advanced forward, occasionally bumping into Dark Matter in the same way with little coincidences that he took full advantage of. But soon, he sensed a new pair from far ahead—and they were a lot stronger.

His core rumbled. Darkrai and Cresselia, the king of nightmares and the queen of dreams. Those two were not ones that he wanted to deal with right now. Even worse, he felt a few of the spirits within him revolting more strongly than usual. That could only mean the vessel was getting closer.

Two choices. Press on, attempt to kill the troublesome ones, and then flee… or flee immediately, and risk pursuit by three of them.

Patience was a virtue, and Dark Matter knew that virtue was something he was frequently short on. Perhaps he could claim one of them…

One of the scouts to his left moved oddly. Hadn’t he already claimed that one? Yet there he was, trying to resist. His paw moved against Dark Matter’s command, and even when Dark Matter tried to force the guard down, he did not listen. The other, unclaimed scouts looked at him oddly.

Something prickled at Dark Matter’s core, like a desert sun’s heat. That purifying light was no doubt from Madeline, the feeble soul he’d defeated long ago, yet could not totally claim thanks to that annoying light dragon.

And then came the Legends, first with the bigger threat. Those lunar, pink wings and that strange, crescent head mocked him. And behind her, the hazy, skittish ghost who feared his own power. Even after all this time, they were still together? Quaint.

“Hello,” Dark Matter greeted. “I am here to visit your vil—”

Cresselia wordlessly fired a sphere of pink energy, and Dark Matter retaliated with a blast of darkness that neutralized the strike. That blast ate away at his shadows—that was no normal Moonblast, because of course it wasn’t, coming from Cresselia—and struck a tree behind him, carving a perfect hole through its large trunk.

Why is she so strong?!

Change of plans. Running it was.

Dark Matter grabbed Gabite by the neck—she did not resist—and hurled her at Cresselia and Darkrai. The latter swooped down and tried to catch her with a startled yelp, but the former fired another Moonblast toward Dark Matter. Instead, he silently commanded two more of the guards to get in the way.

But instead of obliterating them, the Moonblast washed over their bodies, and suddenly they collapsed, gasping for air like they’d been plunged into a deep lake. They were trembling—but more importantly, Dark Matter couldn’t send commands to them any longer.

She has Necrozma’s light?! That isn’t— Dark Matter seethed even more, so distracted with rage that he didn’t notice the Dragon Pulse to his right. It blew him off course and through a tree, which collapsed over him. He roared and slammed his fist into the darkened wood, disintegrating it within seconds.

“Sorry!” Anam cried. “I didn’t mean to hit you that hard!”

Dark Matter flung an explosive wad of shadows at Anam; the Goodra made no effort to dodge. Instead, he caught it, and the ball didn’t detonate.

“I hate you.”

“Stop running!” Anam begged. “What are you even trying to do?!”

“You know precisely what. I will gather my power. I will reclaim the Voidlands. And then I will claim everything.”

“But that wasn’t what you wanted!”

“Now it is.”

Cresselia was getting closer and Dark Matter didn’t know what more he could do. The guards were all fighting for control again. They had only recently been converted; they could bounce back if disturbed enough.

Still, they were useful for other things.

Dark Matter grasped the Leafeon by the paw and dug his other hand into its side. He whimpered, but that was all as his body dissolved into a shapeless Void Shadow.

Anam was faster. Even from afar, he felt something tug at the inside of his chest, and from within, something was trying to beat its way out of him. The two combined forces—

Dark Matter roared in pain and fell back. Two spirits left him, leaving a deep gash in his chest that rapidly closed before any more could escape. He could feel that tug again, but the spirits that remained were too weak and dormant to fight back.

The two that left—he had a good guess. He could no longer hear that stern, nagging voice of Anam’s mother, for one…

“That won’t be enough,” Dark Matter grunted, tossing the Void Shadow he had left at Anam. Just like before, the hero foolishly spread out his arms to catch it, as if he had a chance to save the creature, but that was the trap. Without him to advise Anam about deception, he was as naïve and trusting as ever when he had to think fast.

Cresselia tried to regroup with Darkrai, but the Void Shadow exploded, sending a massive, black shockwave out in all directions. Anam yelped; Cresselia and Darkrai floated back; Dark Matter rolled to his front and shifted his form into a Luxray.

Sprinting through the forest, Dark Matter felt his stamina waning. Just being near one of the trio of light was enough to fatigue him. Where was Celebi, then? Guarding Necrozma still, surely… Just his luck to run into the other purifying force.

He would get them later.

Anam wasn’t giving chase; in fact, it felt like he was going in the direction the spirits called southeast. Where would—

Yes, another city. Null Village was a collective; it had key strongholds in the cardinal directions away from Cipher City. Then that meant Anam was going toward East Null Village.

Alerting them?

Perhaps he was more clever than Dark Matter had given him credit for. Running ahead instead of fighting a futile battle now that he got his parents back? Or was that just a happy coincidence for him? He did not sense any malice from Anam, so there was no telling.

Fine, then, Dark Matter thought, growling as he stopped his run. Get your head start and warn the village. See what good it does you…

He tapped his paw on a tree and annihilated it. Settling in the hole where the roots had once been, he curled up and focused on the red core within his chest, siphoning energy from the dust nearby.

You are still in my domain. I’ll reclaim it all in time…

<><><>​

Amia’s room was filled with constellations and wave-like decorations over the walls, most of them pink and violet. Though, most of it wasn’t in use, as Amia’s cage, where she was contained, occupied the far corner of the room, furthest from the exit. It was a clear, element-resistant box with a firm lock and a strange, digital interface on one side.

Owen sat in front of this cage, staring at the Void Shadow within as it jiggled and angrily blasted in Owen’s direction. The shadows struck the clear wall and dissipated uselessly, and eventually, it got tired and huddled in the furthest corner of her cage. It wasn’t very far—it was only ten or so of Owen’s paces on the long end, and perhaps seven on the short side.

Hakk had mentioned that Void Shadows didn’t really need a whole lot of space, but it was too cruel to Owen. They had bigger boxes, right? And why not just let her explore the room on her own? There wasn’t any way out of there once the door was locked anyway.

“They should really let you out,” Owen said, smiling. “But, I can’t really do that. I mean, I could try, but the lock…” He gestured to the digital interface, which Owen didn’t know the first thing about. Buttons and numbers and letters. “And they’d probably be mad at me, y’know?”

The Void Shadow didn’t respond to Owen. He didn’t even know if it was looking at him—it had no eyes, or a face for that matter.

“S-so, are you hungry?” Owen asked.

No reply, of course, but maybe she was just grumpy, or the glass seal made things hard to hear. That was fine. Amia would tell him if she needed anything, after all.

The Void Shadow slid a little closer to the wall separating them and Owen eagerly leaned forward.

“Hey, Mom,” he said, laughing a little. “I, uh, can you hear me?”

No reply, but it kept sliding closer.

“So,” Owen went on, “do you want—”

It slammed hard against the wall, spattering, but then recoiled and tried again. Owen flinched and fell back on reflex, wincing when his tail bent oddly, and righted himself.

He laughed awkwardly, desperately, and tried to wave off the successive blasts that the Void Shadow volleyed. When it finally settled down and retreated into the other corner, Owen shakily repositioned himself to face the wall again.

“Y-you’re still in there, right?” Owen asked. No reply. “I know it’s you—I feel it, it’s you. It’s still you, Mom. E-even if maybe you don’t totally remember right now, you will one day, s-so that’s why I’m still treating you no-normally.”

Why did his chest feel so tight? His eyes were hot. He couldn’t keep himself composed, why was that? Amia was the one who was scared and confused, he was the one who was supposed to keep it together! He wasn’t helping things!

“A-and Dad, he’ll be happy to see you’re alright and back wi-with me, too,” Owen said, hands clenching over his knees. “Dad… that’s right, huh? I ne-never asked you how you two met, or anything like that. The real story, I m-mean. I guess maybe one day you can tell me. After this is all… all over.”

Once again, the Void Shadow did not respond, though it also didn’t attack. She was probably recognizing him. Memories always came back that way. Or maybe she was tired and didn’t want to express herself and extend even more energy. If she didn’t need to eat, maybe she had to generate her own energy slowly. That was probably it…

Talons on tile echoed in the room. Owen didn’t recognize the pace’s pattern at first and had to look back, finally breaking his stare at the cage.

Jerry?

“Hey,” the Aerodactyl said.

Owen grimaced, but tried to hide it. He went back to staring at the cage, but now with company that was surely going to tell him to do something useful. Jerry never cared about how he was feeling, only survival. Well, he survived; he had the right to feel, didn’t he?

Jerry didn’t even care that he’d accidentally poisoned his own mother. Shrugged it off like everything else and told him to get moving.

His tail crackled again, but Owen had no intention of hiding it, even as Jerry stepped toward him. Footsteps got louder.

If he had been faster, if Jerry hadn’t tried to fly them away. They would have been rescued a few minutes earlier. And those extra minutes could have gotten to Amia. And then none of this would have happened. Amia would have been a frightened, disoriented Ralts being taken care of in this very room, and they would have been chatting, and laughing, and maybe even hugging because of course they would, she was scared, and he was probably stronger than her now.

But none of that could happen now.

All because of—

“Whatever you want,” Jerry said. “I’ll get it. Just say the word.”

It was so startlingly unexpected that Owen had to look back on reflex.

Jerry’s eyes were locked on the ground like he was in pain, but it wasn’t his pride like Owen would have expected. There was something more…

“What?” Owen asked.

“You’re staying here, right?”

“I am.” Owen’s words were firm.

“Then I’ll get what you want. I’ll bring it here.”

“…Why?” The word fell from his mouth like water.

The Aerodactyl’s wing-claws squeezed into their palms. He folded them over his chest, and Owen had never seen him look so vulnerable, even if it had been for an instant. And then he was back to standing straight.

“While you were away, we went on a tour around town. You haven’t eaten yet, right? I’ll buy you something.”

“I don’t need anything from—”

“Pick something.”

“Maybe I don’t want to,” Owen snarled.

“…Then I’m gonna get something light for you,” Jerry said, turning back. “Fish, or veggies? Both? Starch?”

Owen’s tail crackled again, and Jerry didn’t move. And he still didn’t move, and why didn’t he? Was he really going to impose he eat, again?

Owen did his best to stare down Jerry, even though he had to look up to do it. He was several paces away, and Jerry looked annoyed. Gritted teeth, tense posture… Yet he didn’t say anything back.

Anything to get him away. “Mostly veggies,” Owen growled.

“Alright.”

And without another word, Jerry turned and left.

That hollow feeling was back, cold in a way a Fire should never have to feel. Jerry was steps away from leaving the room.

“And—and thank you,” Owen stuttered out. “Sorry.”

Jerry didn’t stop, but he did reply with a dismissive, “Mm,” as he left.

A dull thunk from behind reminded Owen that the Void Shadow was still there. He wondered if he should go after Jerry and help pick something out… but he still felt stuck in place.

Turning around, Owen sat down and watched the Void Shadow again, wondering why Jerry, of all people, had offered him anything.

<><><>​

With how quiet it had been, the subtle, grinding noise of scales on tile echoed over the smooth walls. He recognized that sound, so he wasn’t surprised when he glanced back to see Zena.

“Is this a bad time?” Zena asked.

“No,” Owen said, but it was suddenly a lot harder to keep himself composed. Even worse when she got closer; he locked his gaze onto Amia instead.

“I’m sorry if you wanted to be left alone,” Zena added. “It’s really okay if you’d prefer if…”

Owen wasn’t really sure what he wanted, so he shook his head.

“Oh, then I’ll go,” Zena said apologetically.

“No, I—” Well, that answered that. “It’s okay.”

So, she stayed. She wasn’t as close as usual, and that perplexed Owen a little, but he wasn’t in the mindset to ask why. Maybe she thought distance would have helped… A small part of him wanted to be closer, but another part feared that it would be the last thing keeping him from bawling. Was that bad? Was that good? What was he supposed to be feeling?

It all felt so numb. He didn’t remember how he had gotten into this room in the first place.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” Zena said gently. “And…”

She didn’t finish, and Owen wasn’t sure where she would have gone. Perhaps that everyone had come back in one piece, and that they had found Dialga. And that they found Amia, even if… Yes, that’s probably why she didn’t finish.

“Thank you,” Owen said, relieving her from the silence. “Sorry if I’m not that talkative.”

“No, it’s okay. Really.”

Owen was glued to his spot, but he wanted nothing more than to inch closer. Yet he couldn’t. He looked down again. Even without his Perceive, he had a vague sense that something else was bothering Zena. He couldn’t build up the energy to ask, and she was probably afraid to bring it up. Not like this.

What would Amia have told him to do?

His gaze trailed to the Void Shadow, which was now trying to dig through the glass on the opposite corner to no effect.

Amia would have told him to communicate, to talk it out. Owen vaguely remembered other fleeting friendships that he’d had with other Pokémon, some closer than others. All those lives, forgotten and erased. He wondered if Nevren had anything to do with his erasure from their minds, too, or if he was simply some mysterious Charmander of Kilo Village. He wouldn’t be the only one, considering ‘Deca’ had wandered there, too…

Communicate. That’s what she would have said to do. Mispy would have, too. And his father, he would have said to be thoughtful. Amber would have said to be strong. Daichi would have said to be sure of himself.

And sitting around doing nothing wasn’t helping. “Are you okay?” Owen asked, breaking his stare from the cage to look at Zena’s tail feathers.

“Me? You’re asking me?” Zena asked.

“Yeah, you, um, sorry. You seemed a little off. Sorry. Maybe I’m projecting.”

The way her feathery fan flexed suggested otherwise, but he didn’t comment.

She coiled around herself for one extra revolution, resting her chin on her belly, and she still towered over him.

“No, you’re right,” Zena said.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, Owen, this isn’t about me right now.”

“It’s okay. Please, tell me.”

And then more silence, and he knew it was something uncomfortable. Considering what little Zena knew of everything right now, still recovering her memories, it didn’t take much to deduce what she would be thinking about. It was probably about the Voidlands, about getting out. And he was thinking the same. They had to find a way back out. It was all so much, but there had to be some way to stop Dark Matter, right? Maybe if they found Anam, or regrouped with Rhys…

Finally, Zena spoke, “We only knew each other for a few moons?”

Okay, so he wasn’t quite expecting that. “Er—yeah.”

“Mm. I’ve, well, I’ve just been thinking about that,” she said. “So little time yet I felt so attached to you.”

“Yeah.”

“I was wondering why. Not to you, to myself. It seems so unlike me, yet I felt it. And I’m—I know I was never a believer in love at first sight, and yet…”

Maybe this was why Zena didn’t want to talk about it. Still, now that the topic came up…

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Zena said, and Owen realized that he’d slackened his shoulders, or maybe his tail had dimmed. Curse his expressiveness.

“No, it’s fine,” Owen lied.

“It isn’t. I should have waited to throw this at you, I—”

“It’s fine,” Owen hissed, and then suddenly he stopped himself. Eyes wide, his tail had crackled, and he quickly shook his head. “No, I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry.”

Zena flinched, but she settled down.

They fell into silence. The Void Shadow was trying the other corner, but the containment procedure was foolproof from the inside. Owen’s tail was crackling horribly, and he had to focus on his breathing to calm it down. He could only imagine how Zena would interpret it.

“…I can’t imagine how awful this must be for you,” Zena said.

Owen blinked, stealing a glance at her prismatic scales. He couldn’t look at her face.

“If there’s anything you need, please, ask me.” Her coils made an odd, rhythmic undulation, and she was a foot closer.

Owen’s eyes felt hot. Relief squeezed his chest.

“I was lonely and desperate. Getting so attached to you, so suddenly, was a mistake. But… what I’ve seen in you now, Owen, I want to try again anyway. Properly. Because even with how I’d been, I think I might have gotten… lucky.”

None of it made sense to Owen, so he just listened.

“If you feel the same,” Zena added, barely a whisper.

Breathe, he had to breathe. To stay calm. Having an outburst now would confuse Zena. Forget that, it would confuse himself.

Slow, steady. Breathe.

“Right,” Owen said, nodding. “I, yeah, that’s right. That makes sense. Never… I never thought of it that way before.”

“I wish I could have brought it up at a better time,” Zena admitted.

And to that, Owen laughed, which was a mistake. Suddenly, he couldn’t stop laughing, though most of it came out in chokes and sobs. His cheeks were wet and his tail blazed, and had he eaten anything recently—he hadn’t—that might have been in danger of returning. Even Zena laughed, though hers was a nervous chuckle.

“It’s never a good time with me anymore,” Owen finally said, wiping his face with both hands. “Now you have me thinking about why I wound up with you back then. Maybe we were both desperate.” He sniffled. “Guess that’s one for the therapist. I bet they get a lot of demand here.”

Zena giggled, shaking her head back. “I can’t imagine.”

The Void Shadow seemed to be glaring at them on the nearest wall, pressed firmly against it.

“Desperate… That’s probably it,” Owen admitted. “You were one of the first people to tell me everything, or everything they knew. You defended me when everyone else kept me in the dark. I know you don’t remember that, but… I think that’s why I cared so much about you. Or… or maybe I just felt that way when you told me the same. I wasn’t really sure myself, in a way…” He scratched the back of his head, tittering. “I was still mostly mutant back then. I didn’t really have a mind for love.” And he had been incredibly dense, but he decided to omit that detail.

“From the start,” Owen finally concluded, taking a sharp breath through his nostrils. He finally had the courage to face her. Red eyes stared back, hopeful, sincere, but calm. She wasn’t worried about herself, only him, and what he’d gone through. In hindsight… that was so different from how they’d met. “As friends. My name’s Charmander Owen… and I’m a Heart.” He held out a tiny hand.

Zena’s puzzled frown morphed into an amused smile. “And I’m Milotic Zena, er… Water Guardian, I suppose.” She brought a ribbon forward, wrapping around his arm, and they shook.

<><><>​

The gloomy atmosphere of Null Village confused Jerry because of how familiar it felt. No, the technology was completely foreign to him, as was most of the architecture, yet something about the mannerisms of the Pokémon and the crystals in the wall…

Jerry sighed, shaking it off. It wasn’t really important anyway; Pyrock Village was so far in the past. And even after so many days there, he didn’t know how to process or reconcile it all. Maybe later, he’d be able to put it all to words…

Jerry had stopped by a restaurant that had a long line the last time he was there, and when he’d returned, it was even longer. Still, he had already promised Owen to get something with veggies, and this was the only restaurant that he knew of that did it well. And if there was any time that he wasn’t going to skip out on something good for the idiot, it would be now.

During the agonizing wait, he had seen Hakk passing by, and Xypher had inquired—with a few caws—how Owen was doing. A little half-lie that he was resting had been enough to shoo him away. Hakk had been carrying a lot of berries on him, and it was odd to see him without Xypher, but Jerry hadn’t paid it further mind.

Finally, he returned to the facility, where he passed by the Jynx at the front, who smiled at him. Jerry tried to find the energy to smile back, but he was so preoccupied with himself that it came out more like a twitch of his jaw. “How is he doing?” Jynx asked.

“Dunno. Got him food.”

That was enough of an answer, and Jerry continued through with the bag clutched in his wing’s claws.

At some point, Amia had become more like a centerpiece to idle chatter than the person they had been watching. A strange mixture of relief and cold envy filled Jerry’s chest when he heard Owen laugh weakly at something Zena said.

Jerry stopped and listened for a little while, realizing that he hadn’t gotten anything for Zena. Sure, she hadn’t been there when he had asked, but she better not complain. They were talking about Voidland berries and edible bark, and Owen wondered if Demitri would try to cook the bark for any dishes.

Jerry sighed, making himself known, and stepped into the room.

“Oh, Jerry,” Zena greeted, nodding at him.

“Didn’t get you anything,” Jerry said, his wing-claws grasping at the paper bag that had two packages inside, one much larger than the other.

“That’s alright,” Zena said. “I’d eaten before I—oh, Owen! Did you… have you eaten at all?”

“Er, no.” Owen shrank down, and Jerry placed a paper box in front of Owen, along with two small, wooden sticks. “Was distracted.”

Owen was staring at the bag, and then up at Jerry, and he knew why. The Charmander’s eyes said it all. Why was Jerry being so nice? Because of course Owen would try to pry into things that he had no right to know. As much as Owen hated people telling him to do things, he still folded and followed; and as much as Owen didn’t like everyone getting in his head, he was still open and it was like he expected everyone else to be the same. Brat.

“Um,” Owen started, “are you feeling alright, by the way?”

Jerry flinched and looked left.

At the same time, he didn’t understand why he had gone out of his way to help Owen, either. But seeing that Void Shadow there—so weak and a shell of what she used to be… Jerry’s spiteful thoughts were just a little whisper. All he could remember seeing was how broken Owen had appeared, and…

Well, look at him now. He was perfectly fine. All he needed was a little support, and suddenly everything was better.

“I get it,” Jerry said, like it was an answer.

“You… get it?” Zena repeated.

Jerry looked at the Void Shadow in the clear cage, which was now back to butting against the back-left corner.

“Yeah,” he said. “But… whatever.” He spun around with his package of food. “Take it easy, alright?” He didn’t want to be there.

And without another word, Jerry left the two alone with the Void Shadow. Beneath the savory flavor of the fried vegetables and noodles, there was a hint of warm bitterness.

<><><>​

Author's note: Hey all, thanks for reading as always! I will be taking four weeks rather than two weeks to get the next part out. Incoming: the next Special Episode! This one is a doozy and I'm trying to get it just right, and it has a chance of being my longest one yet. I'm trying to keep these chapters in check in terms of length, but there was simply a lot to cover and a lot of heavy subject matter that I want to handle just right without getting too deep into it.

In the meantime, maybe keep an eye on my profile for another story that I've been working on, back before the Legends disappeared.

Also in my signature, you can find an invite link to the Hands of Creation discord. Check it out if you're interested! And as usual, comments and reviews are always appreciated so I know what my readers are thinking.

In any case, October 25th will be the launch date for Special Episode 7, "The Last Southern King," which will focus entirely on Jerry.
 
Special Episode 7 - The Last Southern King
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This Special Episode contains a few darker themes, this time dealing with abuse.

Special Episode 7 – The Last Southern King

It was a typical day in the outskirts of Pyrock Village, where the trees were full and green and the forest air was thick with moisture. The wet season brought daily rains, either in the morning, noon, or night, though usually two of the three. The blanketing heat made basking in the sun or in the shade, depending on one’s species, the best way to spend the afternoon.

Everyone had their favorite rock, their favorite tree, though they would share if asked nicely. The occasional sparring match for those a little more wild-blooded would also suffice.

This afternoon, under the mist of a drizzle whose water just barely missed the ground before evaporating, the floaty raindrops glistened in the rays of sunlight. Gusts of wind made for entrancing, natural, frantic patterns from the treetops toward the ground.

An Aerodactyl, still only half-grown, fell out from the treetops with a scream. On the branches, a mother Noctowl angrily beat her wings and looked as large as possible, but that wasn’t enough for such an insolent trespasser.

She screeched and swooped down, pecking the young Aerodactyl’s snout and bludgeoning him with her wings. He landed with a loud grunt and decided that getting up wasn’t worth it, particularly since the Noctowl had flown back to tend to her hatchling.

“I said sorry,” he muttered. “Dumb feral.” He spat a halfhearted Rock Blast only a few feet in the air; it landed on his snout, earning an exasperated groan as he rolled over.

Enough was enough. “Spice!” he called. “I give up! You win!”

“Darn right I win!”

A Salandit poked her head out from beneath the Hoothoot’s feathers.

“Thanks for the hiding spot,” Spice whispered to Noctowl, handing off a small Pecha to the Hoothoot for the trouble. The Noctowl scowled and returned to the nest.

With a graceful fall, Spice landed on the Aerodactyl’s back and whipped her tail against his left wing. “So, how’d I do this time, Jerry? You came close!”

“Hmph.” That was all the reply she’d get.

“Fair’s fair. I didn’t go more than ten trees away!”

“Yeah, but you used a wild Pokémon to hide.”

“But was that against the rules?” Spice crawled up to his neck, her eyes forever impish and giddy.

“Get off me!” Jerry harrumphed and bucked Spice off; she giggled and landed on her feet. “Just you wait, I’m gonna find you one of these days.”

“You’re ten years too early to say stuff like that,” Spice taunted. Then, she looked at the sky, a brief flash of concern on her face, but then relief. “And look, you gave up a lot faster, so I’m not late to help Mom at work!”

“I didn’t give up faster, I got beat up!” Jerry brought a wing to his nose and pulled back; only a little blood. “That’s not fair! That’s, uh, that’s an assist!”

Spice giggled and scampered away.

“Hey, I’m not through with you!” Jerry marched after her, but eventually rolled his eyes and let her go. She did have to help out at work soon. Her mother worked at the potion shop, though their effectiveness ranged from tried-and-true to… dubiously experimental. Jerry remembered one of them had to be scrapped entirely because it was too similar to a weird medicine. Something about using Salazzle toxins a certain way…

Before he turned to head home as well, the odd shuffling of a trio caught his attention. The foot patterns reminded him of kingdom guards, but the speed suggested it was something urgent. They were heading right for Dad’s work… Did something happen?

He glanced back for Spice, but she was already far down the path. Calling would alert the guards to his presence, and they always told him not to follow. Too bad.

With all of his stealth, he trailed behind the guards and into Pyrock Village proper.

“You.”

Jerry froze. Caught already!

Above, he spotted a surprisingly lithe Obstagoon. She narrowed her eyes and, with one swing, threw herself beside Jerry and picked him up with a sweeping motion from her other arm.

“Hey, hey, I wasn’t doing anything!” Jerry shouted.

“It’s not safe. Come with us to your father’s work.”

“I wasn’t following this time, I—wait, you’re taking me there?”

<><><>​

Northern invaders had breached the border. That was the extent of what Jerry knew from Obstagoon, whose eyes were trained ahead with her two companions, a Grimmsnarl and a Volcarona on the back of his head.

“And you couldn’t stop them?”

“They have some strange Northern magic,” Obstagoon explained. “But your father might know what to do about them. They asked to see our leader.”

“But the northern border is a whole day away on foot,” Jerry said.

“And we got an alert dated a day ago.”

“W-well, maybe they were stopped.”

“Doubt it. This is the North’s leader, and his power was…” Obstagoon ruffled through a satchel under her neck, pulling out a note. “Well, I can’t repeat some of the words to you until you’re older, but, let’s say it was ‘very terrifying’ and leave it at that.”

“Dad’ll beat him away,” Jerry said. “Like, the Northern leader and what army, y’know?”

“That’s true,” Obstagoon said. “They came alone. Just the two of them.”

“Two? And you still think they got through? What do we pay you for?!”

Obstagoon shuffled nervously. “Well, maybe your father will understand a little better.”

They passed by two guards, a Rhyperior and a Druddigon, between two peculiar trees. Just past the guards and then to the right, a tunnel leading underground greeted them. The tunnel started narrow, only large enough to let through the bulkiest species, before widening out into an entire complex of dark orange rock. It was much warmer underground, but Jerry was used to this kind of heat; it welcomed him.

They descended for quite a while, and the ceiling seemed to become higher and higher as they did. They passed the underground lake, which sparkled orange from a hole in the caverns above, and took the short way around.

After the underground lake, Jerry passed by another set of guards that seemed confused by his arrival.

“Look, you aren’t trying to get past here again, are you?” asked an Infernape. “Your father is very busy, kid.”

“Let him through,” Obstagoon said, flashing a metal emblem on her bag. “We’re escorting him to his father’s right now, and maybe he can be put somewhere safe.”

They didn’t question it further and Jerry passed through. It was surreal to be allowed in; he usually had to use a secret, small passage or two. Unfortunately, he was also getting too big for those passageways nowadays…

Pyrock Village’s interior was etched into the stony underground. While the surface had soft dirt and lush trees, solid rock wasn’t too far underneath, and hidden there was a labyrinthine complex of tunnels and gigantic chambers large enough to allow an entire fleet of winged Pokémon to practice aerial combat.

While dim inside, Jerry’s eyes were well adjusted to this kind of darkness, though the ceiling was lit by strange, glass tubes that punctured the rocks and led all the way to the surface. There, light fed into the crystals and transferred themselves all the way into the caverns; they seemed brighter than the sunlight that normally came in, and sometimes retained their brightness well into the night.

He never really knew why that was. The myth was that their ancestors lived in those crystals and were watching over them, making sure the good kids went to sleep, and the bad kids would be punished. That could be true, Jerry thought, so he often avoided passageways that had those crystals so his ancestors wouldn’t be disappointed.

After a narrow road, Obstagoon escorted Jerry down a wider path, overlooking the top of the central Pyrock Village chamber. Ahead and below Jerry was the city, at least a hundred feet down and five hundred ahead. Light crystals speckled the ceiling and the walls, and several fires in the center of town lit the bottom floor of the village.

Fire Pokémon were playing in the flames—most of the town by a vast majority were Fire types—and that kept them well-lit. There were two central bonfires that were too hot for Jerry to ever hope to approach, and it seemed that the kids were setting up some kind of game of flaming dodgeball, using each flaming spire as a home base.

“Go fly to your father’s palace,” Obstagoon said firmly. “No detours. Give him this message.” She handed him the same note she’d read from before, and Jerry nodded. For once, he felt this was important enough to follow without any sass.

Obstagoon walked down the path to a contraption near the top of the hill meant to slide down to the bottom floor quickly. After hopping onto the platform and giving it a firm kick, the contraption jiggled, groaned, and finally slid down the rocky slopes. Jerry, hanging onto the message, flew with practiced ease, curving his path only to avoid the ongoing fireball battle.

The King’s Palace was at the western end of Pyrock Village. From the southern entrance that they’d taken, Jerry was able to only slightly detour his path around the bonfires to avoid it. After flying over other political buildings—most of them he didn’t know the purposes of—he landed by the front where several guards stepped forward.

“Jerry,” said an exasperated Emboar. “Are we just skipping the sneaking in part, now?”

“Got a message from one of the guards,” Jerry said, showing the paper. “It’s really important this time.”

Apparently, they believed him enough to look it over. Emboar’s eyes focused on the signature first, a flash of recognition crossing his expression. To the others, he said, “Let him through.”

The palace’s entrance was large enough to accommodate three Emboar stacked on top of one another by the shoulders. Jerry flew through, took a few flights of stairs—by wing—and hastily apologized to a Simisear who had been carrying several stacks of papers, which were now scattered on the stairs.

The red-colored, rocky walls led him to a narrow hall with a stone door. “Dad!” Jerry shouted, pushing the door open—always heavy, like it was some test of strength—and then slipped inside.

“Junior, I’m busy. Go away.”

“It’s important!”

“More important than—”

“Probably!”

Finally, he had the door open. Inside were Pokémon he didn’t recognize nor cared about, and at the back of the office, lined with off-white scrolls and maps, was an Archeops. His eyes narrowed, and Jerry felt, briefly, like coming was a mistake—but he still had to deliver the message.

“It’s from a scout,” Jerry said, walking past six Pokémon, all of them Fire. “The Northern ruler is coming.”

“Excuse me?” His father snatched the paper and looked it over, eyes narrowed. His feathery body puffed up on reflex.

“N-Northern ruler? Here? Now? When?” A flighty-looking Talonflame shifted to his left side. “I thought we had a treaty.”

“Hmph, might makes right as far as they’re concerned,” Jerry’s father said. “Junior. If he’s on the way, he might only be a few kilos from here. Go home for now.”

“Home?”

“Yes. Check on your mother, or something.” Archeops stood up.

“Jeremy,” a Flareon said next. “What do we do if he tries to enter town? And attacks?”

“We attack back. I don’t care if he’s Arceus himself; you don’t trespass on my kingdom like you own it.”

“Er, wouldn’t Arceus technically—”

“You know what I mean,” Jeremy hissed. “This meeting’s over. Frankly I don’t care what sort of farmland you want, hash out the deal with yourselves. Putting political weight on this isn’t worth my time.” He shooed Flareon away despite stomping out of his office first. “I’m going to see the scouts for the whole story.”

Jerry, still standing there, shrank at the many sets of eyes that were now locked on him. He stumbled out himself.

Outside, the bonfires were blazing as usual, and Jeremy was flying, unguarded, over them and toward the southern entrance. Jerry saw something purple going down the slopes, too, which was an odd color around here. And green, which was even stranger, since it reminded him of leaves. Generally, something that didn’t last long in Pyrock.

The purple thing glistened under the crystal lights, and Jerry realized—

“Oh, Mew. That’s—DAD!” Jerry shouted.

But accompanying the purple and green Pokémon were Obstagoon and her partners. Did they somehow intercept him? Capture him? There was no way!

He flew closer to find out, heart racing all the while. The seconds it took to get closer felt like an eternity, especially since Jeremy was a much faster flier.

It was a Goodra and Decidueye. The Decidueye looked like the leader, the way he carried himself with a serious countenance, practically a glare, but he was bound by the wings. They were tightly strapped against his sides; he had no hope of flying, and his wobble was slow and awkward. Therefore, Obstagoon was helping him along. Despite her imposing stature, she looked like she was taking great care that Decidueye wouldn’t trip and fall.

The Goodra was similarly bound. His horns were tied up in a strong cloth and wound together so it was impossible to move them for attacks. His arms, while small, were similarly bound in front of him; his tail was pinned to his back; and lastly, his mouth was muzzled to prevent any Dragon blasts.

Obstagoon was speaking. “. . . let him here if we bound them completely. We also confiscated this from them.” She raised a bag. “Just has their rations and some supplies for exploration, but they also had a really thick looking legal document. No idea what it says. Should we burn it?”

“I’ll make those calls,” Jeremy said, but then looked Goodra and Decidueye over. When he smiled, Jerry shared it; it was a grin that was filled with triumph, like their greatest enemy’s head had just been delivered right to their doorstep. And, frankly, it may as well have been.

“Take them between the bonfires,” Jeremy said. “Spread the news to everyone. Jerry.”

Jerry had forgotten he wasn’t supposed to be here. “I was just—”

“Get your mother. I’m sure she would want to see this, too. Today is the day we solidify our independence from the tyrant’s kingdom forever!”

<><><>​

It wasn’t often that Jerry brought his mother out in public. For one, it was tiring for her—she had hatched in an odd way, or something had gone wrong somewhere, and it made moving difficult. Her muscles didn’t grow properly, and she was never worthy of flight. But Void Basin’s blessings had given Jerry vitality that his mother would never have—at least, that was how his father attributed such a successful egg to come from his mate.

Jeremy was a little rude about that at times. He had once said that he would never have had Jerry with his mother if she hadn’t had Mew’s Blessing. Still, she rolled her eyes at the comment and told Jerry, privately, that he should be nicer to whatever Pokémon he decided to pair with. Jerry was puzzled by that, because he thought that was just how couples interacted. Still, he took her advice to heart, just in case some girls were more sensitive than she was.

She also had a strong spirit. And as Jerry left their expansive home of deep orange stone, with his mother carefully shambling out of the doorway, several Pokémon were already swarming over her to help her along.

“Brigid,” said Obstagoon, the lead guard sent with Jerry, “please, allow me to carry you.”

“Not for long, I hope,” Brigid replied.

For a full-grown Aerodactyl, she was much smaller than average, only a head or two taller than Jerry. Her head occasionally wobbled to the left with the rest of her body, and her wings were constantly shaking, though she wasn’t cold. Being cold was impossible in Pyrock.

Despite her shaky stature, her eyes were firm, and she gave a very political, balanced compromise to Obstagoon. She would be too slow to walk the whole way to the bonfire, but she refused to be carried any longer than would be practical. The rest of the way, she’d go on her own, and that was why Brigid was the strongest Pokémon in Pyrock. Nothing could convince Jerry otherwise.

Jeremy had Goodra and Decidueye on a large platform with the fires roaring on either side of him. They were huge and hot, but they were far enough away that the heat was bearable and soft that they could still hear his shouts.

A crowd gathered around the platform, going as close as they could to hear what everyone was saying. Those at the front eagerly passed along the developments to Pokémon in the back who couldn’t hear as easily. In no time, practically a quarter of the town had gathered, resulting in a sea of mostly Fire and Rock Pokémon. The sea of Pokémon parted ways for Jerry and Brigid, some of them offering to help Brigid along, but she once again rolled her eyes and claimed she could handle herself.

“Not much more, now,” Brigid said to Jerry as the last of the crowd parted for them, giving respectful nods to the feeble Aerodactyl. “Hmph, and that’s the North’s ruler? Captured so easily… How did he take over the world?”

“Must’ve gotten careless,” Jerry theorized.

“Mm.” Brigid seemed less sure, narrowing her eyes. “Let’s not get too close, Jerry.”

“I can hear them at least,” Jerry said, leaning as much as he could. The crowd around him was silent, listening to his father.

He was in the middle of a speech, but Jerry knew the general beats to tell that he wasn’t missing anything important yet. Greatness of Pyrock, prosperity for all, yadda yadda…

“ . . . and finally, before you today, the leaders of Kilo have been captured by our hard-working Pyrock forces!” Jeremy said, motioning first to Obstagoon, and then at Goodra and Decidueye.

Jerry had never seen two Pokémon more thoroughly tied up. Anything that they could have used to attack was either bound or wrapped shut. The ropes were enchanted to seal off elemental techniques, which Jerry could tell from the dark glow they gave off. The most they would do was probably slime or feather someone, and that wouldn’t last very long…

Jeremy continued on his speech, occasionally addressing the crowd and pausing strategically to allow them to cheer or growl.

The realization dawned on them all. Kilo, the rest of the world, their ruler was right in front of them, bound and at their mercy. It was unreal! They had been encroaching upon their territory with shaky peace for so long, and now their leaders got so reckless that they’d enter their territory unguarded? Idiots!

Brigid’s wobbling suddenly stopped and she held her breath. She wasn’t the only one; several members of the crowd had stopped watching Jeremy, and the buzzing itself had gone quiet.

Jerry tore his gaze away from his father to look at Goodra and Decidueye. The latter was standing still like before, head bowed as if listening intently. But the Goodra looked bored, wiping his eye with a free hand and trying to cover his mouth with the other to hide a yawn.

Something about that didn’t seem right.

Jerry’s jaw dropped and he pointed a wing at Goodra. “He broke out!” he shouted.

Goodra jolted. “Huh?!” He looked at his hand, then at the rope that was supposed to have bound them together. It was embedded into his torso. “Oh! I’m sorry!” He reached down and slipped his hands back into the binds, and Jerry was positive he’d seen them melt through the rope.

Goodra were solid dragons. They were slimy like a Gastrodon, but they still had flesh and bones and blood.

Now that he had a closer look, he noticed that the fires of Pyrock were not just reflecting off of his body. Some of it shined through like he was made of cloudy water.

He was a monster… A monster feigning the shape of a Goodra.

“I’m sorry, I’ll pay attention,” Goodra pleaded. “Um, the greatness of Pyrock!” He raised a fist, which once again broke through the rope. And this time Jerry was certain of it: Goodra’s wrist had gone through the rope.

Decidueye’s head lowered a little more. “Anam,” he grunted, “I think we can drop the helpless act now. They aren’t going to be convinced.”

Something about Decidueye’s body flickered, like he wasn’t really there. A black haze replaced him, and then all of his bindings fell to the ground, like he had gone immaterial. But the elemental bindings should have stopped that!

“Oh.” Anam slipped out of his bindings and nobody dared launch the first strike in retaliation. This was why they had come unguarded—they didn’t need guards. Was that it? To boast and taunt them? Well, his father was still stronger. They didn’t understand what Void Basin had granted him. He was invincible. Just like how he would be, one day.

And Jeremy showed no fear. Instead, he scowled at them and said, “So you come without any guards or soldiers to our territory, fake getting captured, and be taken to the center of Pyrock for what reason? To take us all on at once? I assure you, these caverns will be your unmarked graves if that was your intent. Speak now to save your lives.”

And already, the crowd’s fears were quelled. Shock and terror of Anam so effortlessly escaping his binds had been replaced by confidence, and even some laughter.

But Brigid wasn’t laughing. Instead, she wobbled a little and said, “Jerry, you should go home.”

“What? No, I want to see this.”

Brigid was going to object, Jerry could tell, so he put on a steely gaze.

That, it seemed, was enough, but she still said, “Then be careful. If something bad happens… You need to go somewhere safe. I’ll be fine.”

He relented, then looked to Decidueye, who had requested their bags be returned, as that was the reason for their arrival. After some tense back-and-forth of asking what was in it, and Decidueye simply stating they were gifts and documents, Jeremy finally allowed them to be recovered. However, they kept the gifts, and only returned to Decidueye the documents. The ‘gifts,’ after all, could have been weapons that they would use. Kilo’s technology was mysterious and cursed, after all.

“I suppose I can begin with proper introductions,” Decidueye said. “My name is Decidueye James, and Kilo’s Heart of Hearts is beside me, Goodra Anam.”

“Hi!”

James flashed a glare.

“Um—hello,” Anam corrected, and then bowed deeply toward Jeremy. “It’s an honor to meet Pyrock’s leader and the Southern King. Did I get your title correct?”

“You did.” Jeremy’s glare did not soften. “Let’s start with these gifts you brought us.” He untied the bag and pulled open the cloth, his wing’s claws briefly scratching at the material to test its quality.

It was dyed cotton and silk, woven carefully and colored a royal purple. Jerry imagined wearing it like a hat, or a scarf, or perhaps even a cape if he had enough of it… No, but that would interfere with his flying. A scarf would do. Only if Jeremy approved, though. And given that glare…

“What is this?” Jeremy said. “Food? Cloth?” He pulled out an Oran Berry. What, one of those things? What was the point?

“That is a blessed Oran Berry,” James explained. “Has anybody in town been recently injured?”

“Why? Oran Berries restore vitality. Even a child knows this. A tired Pokémon will have a little more energy if they eat one.” Jeremy held the berry forward. “There is no point in trying to trick us with something as simple as that.”

“I assure you, this one will do much more than that,” James said. “Has anybody been injured? Anyone at all?”

James glanced into the crowd. Some hesitant murmurs rippled over them. Finally, a tiny voice called out, “That stupid Charmeleon threw a rock at me!”

“Nu-uh!” shouted a high, feminine voice. “You jumped in the way of my rock! I was aiming for Slugma!”

“That was for ME?!”

A Fennekin stepped forward with one eye shut, a thin trail of blood, dried by now, going down his cheek. “She threw it really hard…”

“Where are your parents?” Jeremy said, keeping his tone even. “I’m not going to condone you eating something like this from a stranger, especially if they’re from Kilo.”

“You may kill me if she is harmed from this,” James said evenly. “Go on, Fennekin. And you may watch, King.”

Jeremy growled in response, but reluctantly offered the berry.

The Fennekin sniffed at the berry, curious, and bit down. No reaction to the taste; it seemed like a normal Oran in every way. Yet, only a few bites in, a golden light washed over him, starting from his mouth and ending at his tail. With just that wave, his eye was back to normal, though the blood remained stained on his fur.

Gasps of wonder and surprise started at the front row and eased its way through the rest of the crowd as news spread like wildfire.

“As I said,” James started, “these are blessed berries. A drop of Anam’s power was imbued into its seed, planted in the ground, and now there is an entire species of Oran that is so much more potent than what you have now. And Anam is not the only one capable of such blessings. This art can be taught, though only the talented can replicate it in any capacity.”

“And the cloth? What are these for?”

“Imbued with the same sort of energy. I have given to you a Pecha Scarf—the poison-healing properties of one have been imbued into this scarf, making the wearer immune to most types of poison. While it can’t protect against powerful attacks, it can ward off the lingering effects.”

“And I named it!” Anam added.

“Yes… he named it.”

Jerry wondered how he dealt with this strange Goodra, who was supposedly the Decidueye’s superior.

The crowd was buzzing again, but Jeremy held up a wing and they quieted down. “

The bonfire’s orange light reflected off of and went through Anam’s body and bounced from the eyes of the Archeops and Decidueye.

“Why all this?” Jeremy asked.

“Proof of our proposal,” James replied, bringing forward the stack of papers that was thicker than a Furret’s coat. “We wish to form a partnership with your great kingdom. In exchange for a reasonable payment, as outlined in the document, we will offer to your medical divisions these berries, your rescue divisions these scarves, and to your rulership, Anam’s services to bless the Dungeons within your territory.”

“Payment,” said Jeremy, snarling. “You mean a tax. Do you intend to annex us like the rest of the world? I will hear none of it.”

Anam shifted his weight nervously. James, however, was undeterred. “An alliance is what we came for, and nothing beyond that. Anam is a compassionate person with great power, and he feels that his first and only objective is to make the world a better place.”

“Oh!” Anam perked up. “That’s right! It’s our motto, in fact!”

James’ puffed out, as if holding in a sigh.

“A thousand hands
A single heart
Working and beating as one.

Unite the lands
From worlds apart
Until our battles are done.

We serve kilo and all its parts
Under one name: The Thousand Hearts!”


Anam bowed at a light angle and opened his eyes. “It means that even if we live in different parts of the world, our hearts and our spirits all beat the same. I want to bring everyone together, even if it feels like we’re a world away!”

Jerry had no idea how this Goodra became the imperial leader. This was the dauntless force that swept across the land after the war tore it apart?

That was this Goodra?!

“We left more of our supplies near the border for your guards to confiscate. Those, too, should be considered part of our gifts, as we could not carry it all inside.” James looked to Anam, who calmed down enough to nod.

“Is this how you took over the rest of the world?” Jeremy asked. “With temptations to lure us all into submission? Is that your method, demon?”

Anam flinched, biting his cheek. “Um, that’s not how I wanted to come off…”

“It is as I said,” James replied, and then looked to the rest of the crowd. “We only come to form an alliance that will better both of our nations. Trade. Commerce. There is no need to isolate ourselves from one another.”

“You saved our land for last,” Jeremy said, “solely because we are the ones who would resist wholeheartedly.”

Anam brightened. “Well, I want to accept you wholeheartedly, too!”

“Anam.” James brought his wings together with patience. “I do not think they are as receptive.”

“W-well, maybe,” Anam said, “but the crowd is very quiet. Do you think they’re listening? You don’t have to do anything for too long. You can refuse anything we’re offering! Um, but maybe just give it a try? Heal your most hurt Pokémon, and equip your guards with this, and see how they feel!”

“I will not,” Jeremy said, “let you manipulate my people any longer. You will leave, and you will take your offers with you. This is what I think about your offerings.”

And then, with a deep breath, hot embers danced in the back of his throat. A cloud of fire warped the air and enveloped the documents on the ground, and Jeremy kept the flame going, enough that James gracefully stepped aside to avoid the ongoing inferno.

Finally, he stopped, but the documents remained. Jeremy blinked, looking bewildered, and James cleared his throat.

“We knew we would be entering Pyrock and did not want to accidentally burn the supplies,” he said. “The paper was made from blessed Rawst leaves and Occa powder.”

Now, the crowd was murmuring, and even Jerry had to admit that particular property interested him. Paper that didn’t burn? What other kinds of technologies did they have over there? But his father… He was still stern, but Jerry could see it in the way he carried himself that he was seething.

Brigid wobbled again, but then sighed. “Jeremy isn’t going to let this one go,” she said to Jerry. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that he will humiliate Anam before he can go. Such a shame… An alliance would have been nice, but they have disgraced my mate.” With a gaze like steel, Brigid stared at Jeremy.

And Jeremy stared back, scowling, and addressed the trespassers. Yet, before he could say a single word, Anam stepped forward with a pleading look in his eyes.

“We just want to help!” Anam cried. “Please! I don’t want this part of the world to go isolated from the rest of it! Can’t we be friends?”

“Friends.” Jeremy repeated, half-perplexed, half disgusted. But then there was a glint—a dark glint that filled Jerry with confidence. The tables had suddenly turned. “Anam, if you truly believe that we can be friends… then we should understand each other in the way Pokémon traditionally learn about one another.”

“Oh? How is that?”

He had him. He had him!

“Tomorrow at noon, at the sun’s apex, we will have a friendly battle at Void Basin’s edge.”

<><><>​

That night, Jeremy had gone to bed early, intending to get as much sleep as he could. He ordered Brigid and Jerry both to not bother him. Brigid’s tremors kept Jeremy awake, so it wasn’t as if they shared a nest. Still, since it was an important day, Brigid migrated to Jerry’s room for the night so not even her shuffling noises would wake him. Jerry didn’t mind; he liked when Brigid was in his room. He wasn’t sure why, but she seemed more at ease, too, when that happened.

Jerry was less at ease. He could barely get to bed himself, excitedly staring at the ceiling of their cave instead, until Brigid stepped into his room with the last of her nest. She looked tired, and she must have fallen again from the bruise on her side, but she still smiled and said that Jeremy was very excited for tomorrow, too, but that he should get some rest.

Somehow, he’d obeyed, soothed to sleep by the rustling his mother made.

Jerry was up before the sun and told his father that he would be skipping school in favor of watching the fight. Jeremy couldn’t care less, as Jerry had to attend quite a few public events in the past. This would perhaps be the greatest one yet.

Jerry raced the sunrise to Void Basin. There was already a crowd gathering near the edges of the forest where the trees stopped growing and the desolate landscape of the crater began. Southwest of Kilo Mountain, Void Basin mirrored the Chasm to the southeast, but unlike its inky blackness, the Basin’s bottom was clearly visible. Just rock, largely uninteresting, but it was sacred.

Only those chosen by the Basin were allowed to go close. Those who were not worthy went mad if they stayed for too long. But Jerry was among the chosen, because his father was chosen, and therefore his entire bloodline was under the Basin’s protection. Brigid wasn’t part of that bloodline, but she possessed Mew’s blessing… That was Jeremy’s goal for his offspring, after all. Big footprints to fill, but Jerry knew he could do it.

The Basin’s dark rocks took up half of the horizon and Jerry descended closer to the ground. He saw someone sitting near the crater’s edge—a Salandit.

“Spice?” Jerry called.

She jumped, then looked back. “Oh, Jerry.” Spice sighed. “You scared me.”

“You’re up early, too?”

“Mm.”

“Heard the news, huh?”

“Yeah.” Spice flicked her tail. “And I wanted to come here anyway.”

It was always strange that Spice could come here on her own. Neither of her parents were under its protection, and her sister, too, couldn’t come close. Yet to Spice, she behaved like it was her second home.

“I can’t believe your dad’s about to beat up Kilo’s ruler,” Spice said.

“I can’t believe that Goodra agreed to it. The Basin’ll make him go mad before the fight can even begin!”

Spice giggled, though she frowned afterward. “He did seem kinda nice, though.”

“Eh?” Jerry faltered. “Goodra? He’s a warlord, though.”

“Yeah, which is why it’s so surprising that he was so nice.” Spice crawled to the edge, looking into the steep rocks. Her paws wrapped around a sharp boulder. “I do wonder, if they fight and your dad wins, if they might make another offer later. All of those blessed things look really nice. Do you think we could replicate that on our own?”

“Pff. Who cares?” Jerry shrugged. “Life here’s fine without all that junk.”

Spice didn’t seem as enthused. “I guess so.”

They passed some time together, occasionally looking at the Basin’s shadows. When the shadows disappeared, that meant it would be time for the fight to begin, and neither Jeremy nor Anam had arrived yet. At first, Jerry wondered if that meant they had all done it for some political stunt, and the fight wouldn’t truly happen… but then, as the sun was moments away from its highest point, Jeremy came flying over the forest’s trees.

A whole crowd had gathered at the forest’s edge, now, and their voices carried faintly over the wind. Anam wasn’t far behind. This time, the Goodra came alone, which was odd. Where did the Decidueye go?

Whatever. One on one was fair anyway so they didn’t try anything funny. Not that it would matter—if they did, the whole south would be against them at once.

Jeremy was faster, traveling by wing.

And soon, they were facing one another. Neither King nor Heart smiled. Anam had a sad, pensive frown, occasionally glancing at Void Basin. Jeremy wore an intense glare, occasionally gesturing for Jerry to get further away for when the battle began, but he didn’t go too far. He was allowed to be close, and he wanted to see Anam lose.

“Go get ‘im, Dad,” Jerry whispered, though Jeremy probably didn’t hear.

Spice tapped Jerry on the wing and asked to climb up to his head for a better view. After some shifting around, she rested between his horns and wrapped her legs around his neck.

And then everything was still. Eyes locked to shadows. Soon, at the sun’s apex, it was as if Void Basin had nothing but light, and yet somehow it seemed darker all the same, like the sun itself avoided its lifeless crater.

Jeremy made the first move, but Jerry could tell he was holding back to toy and grapple with the Goodra. What bothered both of them was the fact that Anam didn’t move. The Goodra stood there, silent and staring, as the Archeops went for a twisting slash.

Suddenly, Jeremy beat his wings and misdirected his strike, missing Anam by inches. The breeze let loose a few drops of slime, and Anam still didn’t move, still sporting that pensive frown.

“What are you doing?” Jeremy snarled, landing on his feet again.

“Why did you want to fight here?” Anam asked.

“What? This is a traditional battleground if you ever want to fight the King. It is to show that you are worthy of standing up to me. Or has the Void Basin’s presence already eaten away at your mind, deeming you unworthy of even lifting a claw toward me?”

Anam’s frown deepened. “Is this true?” he mumbled, yet for some reason it didn’t seem to be directed toward Jeremy. The Goodra had glanced down toward his own chest.

“Of course it’s true,” Jeremy said. “And if you’re going to disrespect the Basin… then perhaps I should show you the power it’s truly capable of.”

Jerry perked up. He was going to see his father’s true power in action? He watched intently. Jerry remembered this sort of power before; it wasn’t as if a King was without his threats. He remembered when he was very young, a team of assassins had tried to strike Jeremy down in broad daylight. The boldness of their attacks had impressed Jeremy so much that he had fought back using the Basin’s power.

Jerry didn’t remember what happened to them after that. There was a shadowy blast, and then Jeremy said that they ran away. He had never seen them again. Now that Jerry thought about it… was that a lie?

Dark sparks crackled along Jeremy’s wings, collecting in his shoulders, and finally trailed up to his neck. Anam still watched, looking troubled, as he shifted his weight. Finally, he moved.

“Your spirit has been twisted by the Void,” Anam said gently. “I’m sorry. It might hurt a little, but I need to purify that before it claims you.”

“I would love to see you try,” Jeremy taunted.

“Okay.”

Before Anam could move, Jeremy retaliated with a technique that he had called Shadow Blast. The very air twisted around a dark aura like the fastest fish through water. The spinning beam drilled toward Anam, and Jerry couldn’t help but avert his eyes. He was about to take the hit point-blank, too slow to react or move in any way.

All that’d be left was a broken husk of a Goodra. Shadow Blast didn’t attack the body as much as it did the very energy that sustained them. Yes, the air would whip his body, but the darkness that Jeremy unleashed was corrosive to the aura itself. And then, after the blast was done corroding the aura, the body had no energy to guard against the force that backed up the blast. Nothing would be left.

Jerry couldn’t hope to perform such a technique. He’d need another decade of training, at least. He only had a phantom of it within him, and Jeremy was very strict about never using it.

So, to use it now? Jeremy was serious.

Finally, Jerry looked at the battlefield. Spice, next to him, had been watching the whole time, and her expression was one of complete disbelief.

Anam stood there, looking a little misshapen. The cutting winds had twisted his body so his arm had bent in an odd way, and his other arm was completely missing. Yet Anam wasn’t crying out in pain. Was his body already empty? Did he no longer have the thought to react?

But Jeremy looked lost, too. And Jerry knew that the Goodra hadn’t been defeated.

“I’m sorry,” Anam said. His arm regrew, and his body twisted back into shape like he was made of taffy. And then, a small beam of darkness, faster than Jerry could blink, lodged itself in Jeremy’s chest. He squawked in surprise and pain and fell to the ground; the audience was in a sudden uproar of terror. Jerry couldn’t find his voice, but Spice gasped and yelled something.

Anam tugged on that black string, and something was emerging from Jeremy’s chest. Thick plumes of black mist billowed out, and more inky darkness dripped onto the floor like blood, and Anam pulled again. Jeremy screamed—he actually screamed—and suddenly, he was silent.

That black cloud pulled from Jeremy evaporated away, most of it siphoning toward Anam, who looked a lot darker than before. Jeremy was limp, and Jerry was too far away to tell if he was breathing. Or if…

And then something hot stabbed into Jerry’s chest next. He opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out, and then, from his very core, something pulled away. It was like someone had removed his lungs through his ribs—and then, just as quickly, the pain left him. Or was it pain at all? Jerry clutched at where he felt the entry wound, but felt nothing but his chest, unwounded. A black haze remained like he’d been struck by a Flamethrower and the smoke was still there…

He felt lighter, somehow. He didn’t know how to describe it. Like some part of his breathing, which had always been missing, had returned to him… but he also felt weaker and fatigued. Something was missing.

Spice was staring at something above them and Jerry finally had enough sense to look up.

It was Anam. Right there. Two steps away.

Jerry immediately entered a battle stance and blasted a three-rock volley from his mouth, and Anam took each one. The rocks sank into his body and dissolved.

“Are you okay?” Anam asked Jerry. “Your dad is okay. He’s going to need to rest for a few days, though.”

The bewilderment dissolved into seething hatred, directed without any mental words toward Anam. He opened his mouth to blast again, but then he caught a glimpse of Anam’s glowing, green eyes. Those sad eyes, his massive form whose shadows were emphasized under the sun’s apex.

Jerry couldn’t move. His legs were numb. His attempt at a defiant cry came out as a whimpering exhale.

Spice was similarly frozen in place, eyes darting for an easy way to run, but in the open area, it was pointless, wasn’t it? Jerry felt the same way. He knew that was what she was thinking.

“What’s your name?” Anam asked, breaking the silence that Jerry didn’t realize had settled.

But Anam wasn’t looking at Jerry. Instead, Spice suddenly looked more trapped than ever.

“S-Spice,” she finally said, and Jerry wondered if this was the beginning of some kind of curse.

Anam wasn’t even blinking. Those green eyes just kept… staring. Did Goodra eyes naturally glow? And his body still seemed a little darker than usual.

“How are you feeling?” Anam asked.

“Not good after what I just s-saw,” Spice said automatically, and then gasped at her own words. She stared at the ground, screwing her eyes shut.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Anam nodded. “But, how about in general?”

“I—I guess I’m fine.”

“How about your parents?”

“Don’t—don’t hurt them. Please.”

Anam tilted his head. “I’m not hurting anybody.”

There were so many expletives that Jerry wasn’t allowed to say.

“But you want to protect your family?” Anam asked.

“I just want them to be safe.” Spice tried to keep her breathing steady. It seemed to be working.

“That’s good.” Anam nodded. “Thank you, Spice. You seem like a really good person.” He grinned, and what scared Jerry the most was that it looked genuine. “Anyway, that’s all. I’m sorry that I had to take away your power, but it’s tainted. You shouldn’t go near the Basin anymore. Tell your dad about that, okay?”

Jerry said nothing.

Anam turned away. “I’m gonna go home now. Um, I’m going to donate more supplies to your kingdom, if that’s okay. No charge or anything. I saw a lot of injured Pokémon that could use it. Um, can you tell your dad that, too?”

Once again, Jerry answered with cold, confused silence.

And Anam said nothing more. He walked, like he was supposed to be some normal Pokémon, toward the forest, while the rest of the crowd slowly inched their way toward their fallen leader and his son.

The rest of the day, and so many days to moons that followed, passed in a hazy blur.

<><><>​

The decline was simultaneously rapid yet imperceptible. It started with the donations, free of charge. Despite mentions of money initially, such requests never came. It wasn’t brought up again until later, during a routine regulatory meeting; a concerned noble mentioned the possibility that their supply would one day be cut if they didn’t start paying.

It was never said, nor implied in any political capacity, that Kilo would do this. Yet it was something they feared, as the Quartz Kingdom still paid no taxes or any sort of trade for those donations.

Attempts to replicate such magic were a struggle and yielded paltry results. Certain talented Pokémon were able to perform such blessings, and only a few at a time. It was nothing compared to the apparent industry of enchanted items that Kilo was capable of.

It did not help that Jeremy’s position as King had also fallen into question. Ever since that battle against Anam, he stopped fighting and hired guards under the guise of preventing Anam or any possible assassins from getting close to him. The feeble claim was Anam had used an underhanded technique to fight.

But Jerry knew the truth, because he felt it, too. The Basin’s power was completely gone from their spirits. It had been so long that Jerry didn’t remember what it felt like anymore.

And one day, Jeremy returned to the Basin against Anam’s advice, alone. Brigid had warned Jeremy not to go, that it was dangerous if he did not have the Basin’s power any longer. But Jeremy said that it was just a trap: to return to the Basin meant a return of his power. He screamed and shouted at Brigid when she tried to stand in the way and knocked her over, rushing to get out.

For some reason, this had instilled some kind of deep terror in Jerry, and he didn’t know why, and he quietly told himself that Jeremy must have been very determined to get his power back. Brigid just sighed and urged Jerry not to follow his father. There was an odd heaviness to her words that Jerry didn’t understand. Jerry was tempted to go, too, but Brigid’s firm words kept him from leaving. Someone had to guard her anyway.

Jeremy had left for a lot longer than he should have. When he returned, he had a grave expression and said nothing, only that he had nearly been driven mad by the Basin. It had rejected him.

The Basin became a forbidden land overnight. Even Spice was not allowed to go, even though she still called it her second home, treating it the same way one would regard a pristine beach shoreline, was not allowed to go there anymore.

Jeremy wasn’t the same after that day. Quieter, weaker, a shell of his old self who only growled bitter nothings toward Jerry or Brigid, no matter what they tried to do. Occasionally they saw flashes of his old, proud self, but any reminder of his lost strength returned him to that despondent countenance.

Years passed and cries for Quartz to remain powerful and relevant as its own independent kingdom became less and less of a roar of pride and more a whimper of defiance. Without a proper figurehead to lead them, rebellions both peaceful and violent were only quashed because the Pyrock guard was still loyal to Jeremy.

There were others who claimed to still have the Basin’s blessing, but none could prove their powers. Therefore, Jeremy was still their ruler, as there was no other savior. And who else would the Pyrock guards battle for? Certainly not Anam… Right?

Jerry saw that doubt in their eyes, sometimes. And Jeremy saw the same.

It drove the father mad. His pride ate away at his psyche, and Jerry remembered several nights where he woke up to him screaming at the air, at his reflection, at the sky, about how he was the King, how Quartz Kingdom was strong, and how no simple-minded Goodra would ever take that away from him.

Then came the Waypoints. It had started off at the Dungeon entrances, which Anam had used a mysterious power to get rid of the demons within. Now, they were all ‘safe’ Dungeons—blessed, as Anam called them. The Waypoints were part of Kilo’s means of travel, and were, in disguise, the final strike to destroy what was left of the once proud Quartz Kingdom.

When a Waypoint was installed at the front of Pyrock Village, that was the same day Jeremy abruptly had them move out. Move somewhere remote and away from Waypoints, away from Kilo, away from the traitors.

And with a defiant growl, the last kingdom was gone, and Anam took over the world.

<><><>​

Jerry landed flat on his back, covered in thin, toxic venom that stung his scales. He snarled and tried to stand up, but the Salazzle was already on top of him, with her foot firmly on his chest.

“Ah, ah,” she said, holding up a finger with a smirk. “I’m gonna relish this win.”

“G-get off me!” Jerry grunted. “What are you, five?!”

“You’re the one who keeps asking to get up close and personal,” Spice said, leaning down until her muzzle was inches from his.

“Enough!” Jerry said, stammering and trying to hide the blush of his scales. Wild Aerodactyl didn’t blush like this, so why did the civilized subspecies have to?!

By some miracle, Spice got off of him. “You better wash that poison off you soon,” she said, spinning around. “I need to head to work, though. Be seeing you.”

“Be careful,” Jerry said routinely. Spice’s family was lucky, able to adjust their jobs ever since the potion shop Spice’s mother used to work at closed down. Still, seeing her leave for work always left him with a bitter aftertaste.

Quickly Jerry returned home and cleaned himself of the Toxic with practiced ease, downing a Pecha Berry to dull the poisoning so his body could fight off the rest. He stored the Toxic fluids for later.

It was much smaller than their home in Pyrock, but it was cozy in a way. That was what Jerry told himself, at least. It was a clever little hut made from clay, stones, vines, and branches carefully and skillfully woven together. It required replacement every year or so, but it wasn’t very hard to do between himself and Jeremy, and Brigid could help with the clay portions. She insisted, really.

Now that he thought about it, that time was coming soon, wasn’t it? He hoped so. Jeremy was being a lot more irritable than usual, but he was always like his old self when he had an important task to take care of. Rebuilding the house always, and without fail, put Jeremy in a good mood, and sometimes Jerry saw that old Archeops resurface.

The opening was disguised as a large bush of Orans, but pushing through was easy. On the other side was a small, cramped hallway that arched over him in a large cylinder. Vines wove themselves together like a net, but there were holes along the ceiling to let in the light, with larger leaves off to the side that could be used to cover them if it rained.

No special crystals, no Kiloan magic, nothing that they could associate with their usurpers. It made for a difficult lifestyle at times, but they’d handled worse. Supposedly.

Further down the hall, Jerry passed by Jeremy’s office, which was no different than any of the other alcoves and rooms of their permanently makeshift home: A few stumps of wood; large, carved, flat stones; a basket for fruits and other snacks; and a jug of water. Jeremy didn’t have paperwork anymore, so he made some with paper that he’d also made himself. The quality wasn’t very good, but he’d pressed the wood into something that was at least cloth-like.

Jerry was a little curious what Jeremy was writing about now. Maybe their inventory again, or a declaration of ownership of a nearby tree. Jeremy worked tirelessly for his new kingdom, after all. And Jerry was going to inherit it one day.

Jeremy always said that, and as silly as it was, he did appreciate the gesture. It was one of the few moments of generosity Jeremy had left in him, even if it stemmed from pride and spite. Though, that same pride and spite led Jeremy to believing Jerry wouldn’t want that throne. He was right, but the way Jeremy reacted to it baffled Jerry. Still, his father was always like that, so it wasn’t a big deal. It was a big deal when he decided to get a new heir, though…

He supposed his to-be sibling, then, would inherit the throne.

Jerry passed by the egg room. It was kept at just the right temperature and layered with soft nesting, and in the middle of the thick layers of brown grass was a small, Aerodactyl-gray egg. It had been there for a while, tended to by the whole family, though it hadn’t shown any signs of movement. Slow grower, Jerry figured.

He was about to head into the bedroom when Brigid came hobbling out.

“Oh, Mom,” Jerry greeted. He resisted the urge to help her walk.

She was a lot older, now. She’d aged faster than she should have, and her shaking had gotten to the point where she could hardly eat on her own. Despite this, she still maintained almost complete independence. Jeremy wouldn’t have been fond of helping when he had a kingdom to run, and Brigid said she didn’t mind—that in fact, she preferred it that way.

She gestured for Jerry to enter her room and then wobbled back inside. She wore a serious, yet mischievous smirk, and Jerry couldn’t help but mirror it—even though he had no idea what it was for.

“Mom?” Jerry asked, this time in a lower voice. He quickly checked his bag again, hoping he could keep the vials of toxins safe for later. Brigid wouldn’t be happy if she found out about that.

Brigid had a bag of her own, which she pulled out from under her nest. Simple, brown, a little tattered, and it jingled lightly with Kiloan coins.

“For tomorrow,” Brigid said.

Jerry stifled a gasp and glanced behind him. Jeremy was still writing. “What do you mean?”

“I want you to buy something nice for your exam,” she went on, pushing the bag forward. Her shaking wings made the bag jingle loudly, and Jerry hastily took the coins and shoved them in his bag where he could move more quietly.

“We get standard supplies for the practical,” Jerry said.

“But you need a good meal today and tomorrow morning,” Brigid urged. “None of these fruits and Jeremy’s cooking. You know he isn’t any good at it.”

True. “But I just got back from working,” Jerry said.

Brigid thought Jerry worked in construction in town, but kept it a secret from Jeremy so he didn’t get upset about working for the rival kingdom. His cover story for Jeremy was that he gathered berries to trade. For some reason that was convincing enough.

The truth was, Jerry did neither.

“Go out again. Get something good,” Brigid urged like the old lady she’d become. It warmed his heart, and he couldn’t refuse.

<><><>​

The plan was to get something light for breakfast, which meant dinnertime now would be something heavy. He knew just where to go. It was a small building, but Spice had shown him the way some time ago as one of her favorite dining spots.

It was run by a Roselia and several other cooks. Apparently, she managed the quality control rather than the cooking, but based on the results, she was good at it.

There was only enough room for a few Pokémon of his size to slip in, and Roselia herself stood on a stool at least three times her height to get to speaking levels with most customers. Jerry was used to the arrangements by now. The cramped quarters made the ceiling only a hop away from his head, and he couldn’t even spread his wings without hitting the wall or another diner. There were no seats; he was meant to take the food and find someplace else to eat, which was fine by him.

“Jerry?”

“Eh?”

Behind him was Spice, looking pleasantly surprised. “Thought you were heading home,” she said.

Jerry grinned and held up his bag. “Mom was saving up in secret,” he said. “Wanted to give me a boost.”

Spice shared his expression, and after he placed and received his order—a thick chop with a savory, whitish and herb-filled sauce with generously buttered potatoes and grilled vegetables—they made some idle small talk at a small sitting area down the road.

“So, you’re finally applying, huh?” Spice said. “You’re gonna pass the basic exams no problem.” She sank her teeth into her own slab of meat, which dripped with a thin, brown sauce that smelled of garlic and sugar. “Surprised your Dad finally let go of it all, though.”

“He doesn’t know,” Jerry said, and that stopped the Salazzle from eating.

“What?”

“I’m gonna say that I’m still foraging around and doing clever trades or whatever, like before,” he explained. “Unpredictable time slots, sometimes you get hurt, it’s not so different, you know? Besides.” Jerry gestured to Spice. “Those blessed whatever items don’t even work on you, and you’re still standing.”

Spice scoffed. “That’s because I’m careful and I made my own potions thanks to Mom helping out with the apothecary work.” Still, she leaned forward with a more serious frown. “But can you seriously keep up that secret for the rest of your career?”

“Won’t have to.” Jerry looked down. “If I become a Heart, I’m going to save every Poké I get for a few years and then turn it into a little nest-egg. My folks don’t need to spend much since we just forage, but being able to buy a few things here and there helps.”

“Where do you get money from?” Spice asked.

“We sell stuff we find in the Wooden Wilds,” Jerry half-lied. “Dropped by idiot explorers, or we just gather the berries that grow there and sell it back. But I’ll make a lot more as a Heart, and then… we’ll be set.”

Spice didn’t look satisfied, but whatever she wanted to say, she never did. Jerry was fine with that; he’d done the math himself, and he wasn’t in the mood to justify being in it for the money when he barely cared about this place to begin with. But it was all he could do to make a better life for his family and not have his father lose sleep over his son working for the enemy. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, after all.

“Well,” Spice said, breaking the silence, “as long as the time you spend is to help others out. Maybe you can take on missions that’re in the south.”

“Rescue missions sound fine by me,” Jerry agreed. “At least if I’m there, I’ll be able to know for sure if the Hearts treat people down there well.”

“I’ve already made sure of that,” Spice assured. “Leo and I, we teamed up with another pair to go on missions together. Aim for southern missions but sometimes we get others, y’know. Mostly into hotter climates, or to stop fires. Maybe you can go on a scouting team, with the wings and all.”

“Eh, maybe.” Jerry didn’t really care a s long as it wasn’t too intensive and paid well. Even if Anam stole his Basin blessings, he still had a lot of strength from training with that power all his childhood. And while Jeremy had gotten on in the years, he was no slouch, either.

“Well, good luck,” Spice said. “I’m gonna be cheering you on from the side. I gotta go for a mission, though.” She stood up, her plate of food empty, and carried it to a nearby disposal basket.

“See you,” Jerry said casually, then went back to finishing his meal. He wanted to savor it and unlike Spice, he intended to clean the bowl of any remnants that would have otherwise been left behind. Every drop of flavor was energy and he wasn’t going to waste it.

Around when he only had a quarter of his plate left, mostly the veggies that he was reluctant to eat, a Clefable strode by his table and sat across from him, giving a sweet smile. That much was normal enough. In communal areas like this, picking the same table by coincidence wasn’t that strange.

What was strange was all the free seats around him at this quiet time of day.

Clefable had a modest tart for a meal, half eaten with all of the strawberries missing and a few too many blueberries. No Orans or other medicinal berries here. In fact, they seemed to almost be deliberately missing.

Jerry’s eyes flicked to Clefable, and their eyes met.

“How’s the tart?” Jerry asked, his tone businesslike.

“Missing some of my favorites,” Clefable replied.

“Eh.” Jerry dug through his bag. “Here, hun”—he didn’t know this Clefable for more than these meetings—“Pechas, like you like ‘em to cut the sour. Helps against poison. Heard that even Salazzle poison can’t stand up to it.”

Jerry brought out a bag that contained a handful of small seeds. The satchel rumbled heavily. There were no berries in the bag. Jerry kept it on his side of the table.

“Oh, you’re making me blush,” she said, holding her cheeks. “I actually was going to give you a gift, too, dear. But maybe later. I’m too shy.”

Jerry narrowed his eyes, but then glanced to his left. He didn’t see anybody. Still, he nodded. “Fine, fine, after I’m done. I’ll walk you home.”

They ate quickly. Clefable finished her tart in just a few bites, and Jerry dumped the vegetables down his throat and licked his plate clean. They didn’t settle well, but it was still food.

Then, they walked out of Kilo Village, through the eastern exit. It was rare to take the physical path out and not use a Waypoint, but it was just common enough to not be treated as abnormal, especially for short trips or exercising routes. There were a lot of makeshift training areas and other game fields speckled around Kilo Mountain, after all.

Once they were far enough down, Clefable dug through a bag wrapped around her shoulder and checked something inside. While Jerry couldn’t see it, he knew it was a locator, maybe one of those odd orbs. Radar Orb, perhaps?

And then Clefable stopped walking and pulled out a jingling bag of coins.

“Someone’s cautious,” Jerry commented.

“The Hearts are getting more careful about it,” Clefable replied, tossing the bag to Jerry, who caught it with ease.

“You’re saying we were being watched?” Jerry asked.

“You were just with one of them.”

“She’s nobody to worry about,” Jerry dismissed with a casual wave. He looked through the bag of coins, narrowed his eyes, and then pulled out a bag of seeds. This one was smaller than the last one, and Clefable noticed.

“Hey, what’re you doing?” she said.

“You paid me half, I’m giving you half.”

“’Scuse me?” Clefable snarled.

Jerry smoothly pulled out two of the coins, running his claw around the rhombus symbol on one of them, and then on the other. They were slightly different in color, but only sharp eyes would have spotted it. Even then, Jerry turned one coin over. “Too light,” he said. “I bet if I put this through their energy scanners, it’d come up fake, too. Nice of you to still give me some real coin, though.”

Clefable said nothing, but her stare was fierce.

“You don’t need to bother with your backup, by the way,” Jerry added. “Two behind me, three up ahead.”

“And despite that,” Clefable said lowly, “you’re still gonna act like you have control?”

Jerry tossed the half-filled bag to Clefable and wordlessly smirked.

Clefable matched his silence, raised an arm, and snapped her fingers. The five hidden Pokémon sprang into view.

<><><>​

Jerry walked back home in his usual way, humming quietly to himself. The sun was approaching evening, though the sky was still a bright blue. He’d washed up by the river, but there wasn’t much he had to clean. The Clefable herself had grazed him with a steely Meteor Mash, and that was going to leave a bruise, but he could chalk it up to construction for his mother, and an annoying feral with his father.

The little bits of blood were an inconvenience, though. Stained his bag. He’d have to hide that from Brigid until he could give it a thorough washing.

He pressed through the opening and immediately locked eyes with his father. The green top of the Archeops’ head blended with the leafy ceiling, but the red of his lower jaw seemed so much darker than the evening light that hesitantly peeked into their home.

“Why did you go out again?” His voice was low as always and had a hint of a cold whisper with every word. Jerry couldn’t look him in the eyes. They didn’t reflect light the same way that they should have. Dull, like a statue’s. It unnerved him too much.

“Forgot to get some extra stuff,” Jerry said. “But I ran into trouble, couldn’t get it anyway. Territorial ferals. Didn’t want to bother.” Routine explanation, always worked.

For some reason, Jeremy narrowed his dark eyes this time. “You’re lying.”

Jerry kept it cool. “Where else would I’ve gone?” He had a few curses he could’ve said, too, but he was already a little roughed up.

“Did you go to Kilo?”

“No,” Jerry replied, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t leave the forest.” Lying came easily, automatically. Perhaps even a Psychic wouldn’t suspect to read his mind. Besides, he knew how to falsify thoughts for those meddlesome Pokémon. It was an easy trick thanks to his experience when they were actually ruling a kingdom.

But that also meant Jeremy was just as sharp at reading them. Yet, not as sharp as he used to be. He huffed and said, “I don’t trust them, those Kiloans. Steal my kingdom and then claim they want to help us. It doesn’t matter what they say, Jerry.”

“I know, I know.” And, in a way, he believed him, truly. But mooching off of Kilo and taking advantage of their apparent generosity was better than spitefully ignoring them.

Finally, Jeremy let Jerry back into his home.

Jerry had his own bedroom, but he always checked on the egg with Brigid every night while Jeremy settled in his nest, which was separate from Brigid’s, mostly because her tremors made it hard to sleep. Jerry checked the egg, which once again had no movement, and it, too, seemed very dark. Brigid, next to him, shifted uncomfortably and directed Jerry to adjust the nesting and check that it wasn’t cold. Jerry couldn’t really tell, but his egg had been treated the same way and he clearly turned out fit and fine.

“Must be a late hatcher,” Jerry said, grinning at Brigid.

She smiled, too, but it didn’t reach her eyes. To avoid noticing it, Jerry looked down and spotted a darkened portion of Brigid’s side.

“Oh, I fell again,” Brigid said, sighing.

“We really need to get you a softer chair,” Jerry said with concern, noticing that this bruise was a lot bigger than usual, practically a welt under her scales than anything. Even a few cuts, probably from the sharper parts of the stone. “I’m going to clean your side a little bit,” he elected.

“Oh, you don’t have to,” Brigid said. “I already did. And you need to sleep early.” She kept her voice low.

Jerry relented again, nodding. “Well… alright. But—” He glanced out. Nothing. “But Dad is suspicious. If I stay out for too long…”

Brigid smiled, sly. “I’ll distract him,” she said. “I know just the thing.”

There was a mischievous glint in her eyes that amused Jerry, though it wasn’t until he’d gone to bed that he realized that some of it was shame.

<><><>​

Jerry spent the last of Brigid’s money on breakfast, as she wished. Light, sugary, and a pick-me-up drink. First came the academic portion of the tests, which Jerry had studied for in secret for many nights. Those were easy. Then came the physical tests, the battle against James—which he didn’t let intimidate him, as not only did he know they were mere Substitutes, but he also would never let a lowlife like him get the upper hand again.

So, it came as no surprise that Jerry got top marks in both. He didn’t even need to wait for the results to be announced; instead, he waited at the very front of the stairs to the Heart HQ, glancing back with an air of smugness as the rest of the applicants shuffled in. He’d heard about this ceremony and had observed a few of them quietly from the sidelines—especially when Spice had been accepted after her third try applying, failing on the physical tests for the first two—but to be in the very front was something else.

It was his first try, but only because he’d been holding off for so long. Surely, he would pass for the practical Dungeon exploration to prove himself completely. He just had to act agreeable, right? Then he’d be in, he’d be a Heart, and he’d earn more than enough money to get his parents a wonderful place. Jeremy could complain all he wanted, but he was certain that it would be enough if he worked the wordplay enough.

Several James substitutes walked among the crowd, passing out pieces of paper. The ones who qualified, no doubt. Jerry shifted from left to right again, practically a dance, and then something purple caught his attention at the top of the stairs.

There he was. Goodra Anam. The demon. The one who ruined his father, took away his kingdom, and then ruled the whole world with a slimy fist. The hatred only flashed in his eyes for a second before it was pushed down in favor of a smile, which he displayed in full force toward Anam.

He was spotted. The Goodra waved back, but there was a hint of awkwardness with the way he did. That was the first omen.

The second was when James gave a paper to Jerry next, formal and short, and said nothing. Normally James would simply say, better luck next time, or congratulations, depending on how hopeful they looked, if only to cut the tension. But James said nothing to Jerry.

That could have meant a lot of things. Grudging respect that he’d qualified for his amazing performance. Or…

His name wasn’t on the qualifying list. No Aerodactyl Jerry, let alone Aerodactyl, and Jerry wondered if that was on purpose, too. Sure, there were many species in the world, and only a few who had a chance of qualifying, so not every species would be represented, and yet Jerry wondered anyway.

He also wondered if it was a mistake. He, for sure, passed. The questions were easy and he was the only one to actually destroy a Substitute by James out of all the qualifying fighters—he’d checked! And the exams, maybe he got a question or two wrong, but who hadn’t?

“This can’t be right,” Jerry muttered, but before he could think further, someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey,” Spice said, and she was the last one he wanted to see.

Jerry couldn’t find his words.

“What’s wrong?” But she already knew. He saw it in her eyes.

“I—the exam, I—James, Substitute…”

Without thinking, Jerry had followed Spice’s gestures to sit to the side while so many other Pokémon celebrated or lamented. The crowd was a multicolored buzz and he ignored all of it in favor of whatever Spice had to say. She’d rationalize it. Clerical error. Suspicion of cheating. He’d understand that one. They could test him again under careful supervision, proof of his perfect record.

“Did you forget about the third test?” Spice asked.

“Third—what? They never told me about a third test.”

Spice looked more troubled than usual, but all Jerry cared about was this third test so he could start complaining about never being given one.

“Anam can override any passing tests if the person taking them is… well, for any reason,” Spice said. “It’s a strange rule and he rarely enforces it, but every time he has, it’s because they’re… well, I don’t really know. It’s always found out later that something they did was… morally questionable.”

“Morally—what right does he have?!” Every right if he was absolute ruler, but Jerry didn’t think that was valid enough. Just because Jeremy sometimes pardoned criminals that were innocent didn’t mean Anam could deem someone guilty with no evidence.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Spice said gently. “I’m a Heart. I’m going to have a talk with Anam after the ceremonies and see what can be done, alright? Just because you used to be, you know, with your dad and all, that shouldn’t matter now. I know you want to do good for the world, alright?”

Most of what Spice said was lost to Jerry. Mixtures of numb fury and hopeless despair fought for dominance in his mind, and the crowd’s excited buzzing, now quieting down, pounded against his head.

“I’m going home,” Jerry said, tearing himself away from Spice.

“Wait, Jerry—”

Don’t follow me,” Jerry spat.

<><><>​

The Wooden Wilds’ trees jeered at him in the wind. The afternoon sun annoyed him further, like the sun was mocking him, but that didn’t really matter. He deserved it, in a way. He’d failed, somehow. No, didn’t fail the tests or his own strength, but failed in putting his trust in that Goodra to let him in to begin with. What was he thinking? The son of the very Pokémon who tried to kill him, who then fled the kingdom he’d once ruled just to live a sad life in the woods.

Ten years. Ten years of this and all that resentment was bubbling all over again.

He had to clear his head. It was all over now, so maybe he could start somewhere else, or live as he had been before, making some money on the side with those modified seeds. The extra money would save up into a little nest-egg and then he could convince his father that way to live a better life. It’d take longer, sure, but it was better than hoping to apply to be a Heart again. Not after that. No amount of skill would get past that stubborn slimeball’s prejudice.

Jerry pressed through the entrance to his home and pushed the leaves aside. He swished his tail with practiced ease and sealed it behind him, but mid-swing, he was assaulted with a horrible, rotten smell.

Seconds passed slowly. Disgust hit first, then confusion. Something was shuffling around in the egg room, crunching leaves. His father grunted annoyedly, muttering a curse.

Jerry didn’t realize he had walked to the door until he was rounding the corner. The smell was getting stronger. He saw feathers of his father scattered on the ground near the entryway, and then, up ahead…

Brigid was on the ground, eyes closed in a pained grimace. Jerry didn’t know if she was breathing, but she was trembling and shaking weakly. Turned on its side was the egg with a crack along its shell, but the crack wasn’t sharp, it was more like a tear, and what seeped out was something that never had a chance of hatching.

Then there was Jeremy, standing over Brigid and facing the entrance. His eyes had an annoyed, yet distant look to them, like he hadn’t expected Jerry to come home so early, and that it was an inconvenience that he did. His right claw had flecks of crimson on them. That bruise on Brigid’s side had gashes.

“…She fell,” Jeremy said.

Jerry didn’t remember what happened next.

<><><>​

Early evening.

Orange sky. Light winds. It was cool on Jerry’s chest. How did he get there?

Something stung somewhere on his left wing. He couldn’t move it properly.

Someone was holding him by the shoulders. A familiar voice was repeating his name. There was a Salazzle in front of him, and just behind was a Delphox, wearing a horrified expression.

Salazzle pulled away and her hands were covered in blood. She looked at them in surprise, then said something to Jerry again, but Jerry didn’t realize she was talking to him. He somehow didn’t even know he was there.

Then Spice looked back at Delphox and said something, and he nodded and ran ahead. Then Spice guided him forward, somewhere, and he followed blindly.

His breathing was steady and while he didn’t remember when it happened, he had been walking for what felt like no time at all. His legs ached horribly, though, but not in the same way that his wings did. It was dark outside, but somehow the room he was in—a sterile white, painted stone—was lit up like daytime. The nest he sat on was a bag filled with soft cotton, and his body stained the outer, slick covers red.

A warm feeling started in his chest and spread throughout his body, concentrated mostly on his left wing like scalding water. He winced and stared at it, then watched as the wounds closed up beneath the caked blood. A Blissey, nearby, sighed with relief and asked him something.

While Jerry didn’t know what she said, he nodded back and said, “Thanks.” It was strained, but it finally cleared out his throat a little.

And then she was gone, passing through one of the halls. An Incineroar who had been in the room without Jerry realizing left shortly after, only for Spice to enter next. Incineroar said something cross to her, but Spice replied calmly, and then they parted ways.

“Jerry,” Spice said, holding his shoulder again. “Can you hear me?”

Jerry remembered he was himself. “I can,” he replied, like waking from a dream.

“Are you okay?” Spice said, and for some reason that felt like a dumb question, so Jerry didn’t answer.

He only stared, his expression giving nothing for Spice to work with. His gaze was still distant.

“What happened?” Spice pressed.

Jerry realized that the Hearts’ celebrations were ongoing. Loud hollers and whoops and cheers and roars shook the walls of Kilo Village.

“Jerry, you…” Spice looked like she had so many questions to ask, but Jerry was sorry to say that he didn’t think he could answer them right now.

“Spice,” someone called. That Delphox again. “Spice, we need to talk.”

“Can it wait?” Spice looked back; Delphox let himself in anyway. “What is it?”

“They found some seeds in there,” Delphox said, keeping his voice low.

Jerry tensed. Automatically, his eyes darted around for a window or some sort of escape route, and found none but the passageway Delphox had entered from.

“And?” Spice said.

“Modified seeds,” he went on. “They had Toxic in them.”

Spice looked taken aback, and now she joined in keeping her voice down. “What?”

“Not just any Toxic. Salazzle toxins. Corrosive.”

Jerry’s heart dropped and suddenly the well-lit room seemed a whole lot darker. Spice dared to glance at him only once, and even if it was for a split-second, Jerry felt like he’d been staring her down for the whole day. He would never forget that look.

“Spice… they were hidden in—”

“His father,” Spice said shortly, but her voice was even. She seemed like a completely different person. A pain twisted in Jerry’s stomach and his heart felt like someone was dragging it into Void Basin itself. “His father would hang around our battlefield after our sparring matches. I thought it was weird, but I guess now I know why.”

It was a complete lie. His father never watched. He barely left his home at all. And now he never would.

Spice was leaving. “I’m going to submit that as testimony.” She didn’t look back.

“Spice?” Delphox ran after her.

Jerry watched. He mentally called, begged, for her to look back, to see anything more than the back of her head or her straightened muzzle when she turned. But even when he could see her by the side, her eyes were locked forward.

And then he was alone. Somehow, Jerry knew that Spice wouldn’t come back.

He continued to sit, neither standing nor lying on his bed. Where was he going to go now? What was he supposed to do—were they going to question him? He couldn’t even remember how he got there in the first place. And his wounds were already gone, so he couldn’t use those to remember what had happened. Scars were more common before annexation, and healers had also been rare. Scars told stories, and now would he have one for this? Perhaps he’d forget it all happened. Maybe he never had a father.

The crowd cheered again outside. Kids ran across the streets, laughing and claiming that they would become the next Hearts. Several others countered and wagered they’d win. Then, the adults came and told them to find a proper place to fight, instead of acting like wilds who could fight like it was some savage pastime.

He wasn’t supposed to be here.

But then, one last person stepped into Jerry’s room, but for some reason he couldn’t believe it. She was the same shape as him, but she wobbled with each step. She moved slowly but with practiced ease, and her eyes were determined and fiery.

He didn’t know what to think about her anymore. Something about the image he once held in her mind was… cracked. A mask was falling away. The reality of her life that she lived in secret from her own son, what she had endured for him…

Jerry didn’t move, but she continued. Then, her wings wrapped around him. Warmth. Jerry hadn’t realized how cold he was until just then, and he leaned forward. Whether it was her or him, someone was shaking.

Her heart sounded so much softer.

But there she stood, embracing him, taking him under her wings. No matter what cracks had formed in that image in his mind of her… She was all he had left. After everything, Brigid remained. She was the strongest Pokémon he’d ever known.
 
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