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TEEN: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    15773218754593026517286834042305.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Mispy, by @canisaries
    1583109301228.png

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

    A young James and Anam. Credit to AarowTheBlacksmith!





    ACT I - A Fragile Identity

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

    “OWEN!” cried a Gardevoir.

    “M-Mom!” Owen mouthed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><>​

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

    Wait. What happened? Wasn’t he—

    “No resting on the fire, Owen.”

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

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

    “Yeah…”

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

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

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

    “I think so…”

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

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

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

    <><><>​

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

    “What’s wrong?” Owen asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Owen returned to his meal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “We’ll call the Hearts. I promise.”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 1 – Kilo Village
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 1 – Kilo Village

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

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

    “Oh, Owen!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Oh, come on.”

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

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

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

    Click.

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><>​

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

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

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

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

    Owen decided not to think too hard about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Kid. You’re in the way.”

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

    The Golem sighed and wobbled away.

    <><><>​

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

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

    “Ahh, it is not a problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Y-yeah, that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Meganium…” Mispy said, leaf drooping.

    The three collectively sighed.

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

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

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

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

    “That’s so cool! How’d you get in?”

    “Hard work,” Gahi said.

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

    “What? Who? Which one?” Owen asked.

    “Lucario Rhys,” Demitri said.

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><>​

    “Peh! Pah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Rrr… rrrn… rpphhf…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Hey. Kid.”

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

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

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

    “Y-yeah. Really easy, ha ha…”

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

    “Y-yeah? What?”

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

    “F… Fire and… Flying?”

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

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

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

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

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

    All that was left behind were a few stray embers from his tail; Owen bolted.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 2 – Trouble in the Woods
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 2 – Trouble in the Woods

    “Stupid kid—get back—pfwaaagh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Please,” Owen said.

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

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

    “No way!” someone shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Guys!” Owen shouted hoarsely.

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

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

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

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

    “Stop,” Mispy mumbled, shutting her eyes.

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

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

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

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

    Instead, the outlaw roared and ran toward Owen.

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

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

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

    “Mispy! Now!” Demitri shouted.

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

    Owen jumped when he felt something brush against his back.

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

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

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

    That wasn’t a dream.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Mm.”

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

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

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

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

    Again?

    Owen’s own thoughts gave him another pause.

    “You okay?” Demitri asked.

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

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

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

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

    “You’re weird,” Mispy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “W-wait, how badly were they—”

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

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

    “Made it,” Owen said, relieved.

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

    <><><>​

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

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

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

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

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

    The Aerodactyl whimpered and ducked his head down, defeated.

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

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

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

    “Like I’d tell you,” he hissed.

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

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

    “Not really. I just finished an apple.”

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

    And so, he was escorted away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Eh?” Gahi said. “What fer?”

    “Just to check on something.”

    <><><>​

    “Yer serious.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Paras all hissed at him, poisonous clouds thickening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Good going,” Gahi mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “He ain’t,” Gahi confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><>​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Mispy, too, was disappointed. “Boring.”

    “I—I’m not boring,” Owen squeaked.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Rhys?” Demitri said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Y-yes, Owen, why do you ask?”

    Owen looked at the pink cloud. Gone.

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

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

    “Hmph,” Rhys said.

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

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

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

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

    “Yes,” Mispy blurted.

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

    “It’s true!” Mispy said.

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

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

    “Colors? Like pink?” Owen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Nope! The Waypoint is really close.”

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

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

    He then glanced at Rhys’ room. He saw the pink mist again. Oh, Mew in the stars, he thought, taking his final bite. Can’t I have just one normal day?
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 3 – Ceremony of Advancement
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 3 – Ceremony of Advancement

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

    “Bah, get a room,” Gahi muttered.

    “We are,” Mispy teased.

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

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

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

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

    “Yes,” Rhys said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Pose,” he said, blinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yeah. Okay! See you, Rhys!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Exactly! So, get some sleep, Owen!”

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

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

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

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

    <><><>​

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

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

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

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

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

    “Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Oh, oh!” Owen said. “There he is!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “No idea,” Gahi said.

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

    Mispy nodded. “Ever.”

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

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

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

    “And you hate heights,” Mispy mumbled.

    “D-do not!” Demitri said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Owen shifted uncomfortably, keeping his head down.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Thank you,” Anam said.

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

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

    “Glowed? Did he glow?”

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

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

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

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

    Owen told himself this to stay sane.

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

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

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

    The audience, nearly as a whole, sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “. . . Some kind of mutant.”

    “Say no more. I will take . . .”

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

    <><><>​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yes. I hope you do well this time.”

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

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

    “Ready?” James asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Oh, hey,” Owen greeted. “Did I win?”

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

    The Substitute dissolved in a cloud of black mist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Hey,” Owen said to Demitri. “Where’s Rhys? I want to talk to him again.”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 4 – Strange Meditation
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 4 – Strange Meditation

    Owen forced himself to settle down for lunch. He didn’t know if his heart was racing or sluggish. It was a strange mixture of beating quickly, and then slowing down to rhythmic, loud booms. The excitement killed his appetite, like his stomach was already satiated with his hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties, but he knew he had to force something down for the mission portion of the exams.

    He was sitting at Ludicolo Café, lined with bright brown walls and large, green tables that resembled a Ludicolo’s hat. Ludicolo himself was dancing along the aisles, serving drinks, along with other assistant waiters and waitresses. The exams were a bit of a spectacle for the average citizen, and the activity was a strain on the staff. Owen hoped they got paid extra for this day.

    He was downing a simple sandwich and an apple smoothie. He spotted Lucario Rhys entering the café with the trio. Good, they got him.

    “Hey!” Owen called, waving. His tail blazed a bit brighter with joy. There was something that warmed his heart about seeing those four, no matter the circumstance.

    “Hey, where’s yer folks?” Gahi asked. “Y’know, the ones at that place Rhys brought yeh.”

    “Oh, they have to stay inside and do their own work and stuff,” Owen said. “They knew I’d be doing all these qualifiers, but…”

    “I’m sure they’ll be very proud,” Rhys said, nodding.

    Owen eyed the bag around his neck. It was glowing again.

    “Well, go on,” Rhys told the three. “Get your food. You skipped breakfast, after all.”

    “Meh,” the Trapinch grumbled, wobbling forward first.

    Owen watched them get in line, but then turned to Rhys. “You aren’t eating?”

    “There is no need for now. I will have lunch later.”

    “How come they skipped breakfast?”

    “They weren’t going on a mission, so I used that as punishment.” The Lucario grunted. “They would have a big lunch to compensate. They were trying to touch some of my treasures again.”

    “You mean that orb in your bag?”

    No reply; Rhys only held the strap a bit tighter.

    “It’s kinda glowing again, isn’t it?” Owen tilted his head. He leaned forward to get a better look, but Rhys placed a paw over it. “I think that pink mist I saw earlier came from that bag. Do you think it wants me to touch—”

    “You simply shouldn’t,” Rhys said curtly. “It would be very bad if you touched it here.”

    Owen watched Rhys carefully. “Do you know what that mist was? Or who?”

    “I cannot be certain,” Rhys lied, and Owen knew that much.

    “Can I at least see it?”

    “You may not.”

    “Is it too strong for normal Po—” Someone tapped on his shoulder. “H-hey! Nevren!”

    “I was looking for you!” The Alakazam gave a cheerful little bow. “I wanted to congratulate you on your successful battle against James, much better than any other Charmander on record. Though, I should probably mark it down as an outlier in the logs. After all, you’re a late-evolver, as you call it, hm?”

    Owen began with a babble. “Yeah. I did well enough that James had to refresh his Substitute. But it was still not that good—I hope I’m not getting weaker from taking easy assignments or something. I’ve been feeling a little off lately, actually.”

    Rhys glanced at Nevren, but then at Owen. “Indeed, you’re quite strong for a Charmander.”

    “It isn’t as if Trapinch, Axew, and Chikorita normally do that well, either,” Nevren noted. “And yes, it’s quite strong, but it’s still weak in the grand scheme of the Hearts. Still, he has the benefits of my Eviolite that I gave him,” Nevren said. “Though, during the exams, you will have to go without it.”

    “Aw, I’ll do fine.” Owen waved his claws dismissively. “That Aerodactyl was a fluke.”

    “Ahh, Aerodactyl, yes,” Nevren said. “He was quite strong, wasn’t he? I imagine if he cooperated, his performance at the test you took would be quite substantial.” He nodded. “Ahh, Rhys. And how are you doing?”

    “Just fine, Nevren.”

    Owen sensed, for the briefest of moments, a thickness in the atmosphere. Muscles on Rhys in particular felt tense, and Nevren was standing still for a longer period of time than usual. Owen rubbed his head—his awareness of the bodies nearby was starting to get to him in such a crowded place. He wished he could turn it off.

    “Back!” Gahi said, hauling his head onto the table; on top of Gahi was his plate, which slid onto the table. Demitri and Mispy took their seats next, carrying their plates in a much more normal fashion, with Mispy using her vines.

    “D’you like this café, Owen?” Demitri asked.

    “It’s good for something quick, and the smoothies! Perfect! I visit here all the time.”

    Nevren eyed the four of them slowly. “Well! You seem to have these trainees in order, Rhys. Will you be overseeing them?”

    “Y-yes,” Rhys said. “I will, though Owen has elsewhere to be than my home.”

    “Ahh, that’s true,” Nevren said. “Though, I suspect you may want to mentor him. Is that right?”

    There it was again. Owen was sure of it this time. Tension. He felt an atmosphere of irritation, the flicking of Rhys’ tail, the bristling of fur. Or perhaps there was something more. What was it? From Rhys? Or Nevren?

    “Yes,” Rhys said. “I think I will.”

    Owen stopped focusing on the atmosphere and realized the words being said. “Wait—Rhys, you’re gonna be my mentor?”

    If you pass.”

    “I’m gonna get Rhys as a mentor! Y-yes! Yes!” Owen stood up. Forget the creeping dread—he was about to get trained by an Elite! He sprinted off; all that was left behind of him was a stray ember from his tail.

    Demitri jumped in surprise. “Wh-where’re you going?!”

    “Exams!”

    Demitri stared, but then looked back at Owen’s plate. “He left a bit of his sandwich,” he mourned.

    One of Mispy’s vines greedily wrapped around the remains.

    <><><>​

    There was a long line for the exams. Due to the irregular sizes of everybody waiting in the queue, there was no telling how many were actually there. Between the Rhydon immediately behind him and the squad of Eevee evolutions in front of him, it could have been anywhere between five and fifteen Pokémon ahead. Despite this, when Owen stepped in line, it became even longer behind him.

    “Talk about lucky.” He leaned to the side to get a better look at what the exams were like. Last year, they were mock-Dungeon explorations. It seemed to be the same case this time around. Owen was first able to register his ID, and afterward, waited with the other Pokémon agonizingly for his name to be called—one way or the other—to go into testing. All the times before, he had been rejected. He wasn’t sure why. He did well in the academic and sparring portions, to the best of his memory. But there were just so many other candidates that were better, he figured. But despite the pit in his stomach from the past days, he had a good feeling about today. This was going to be better. It had to be. Right?

    It looked like candidates were heading into different Waypoints with established Hearts. Owen recognized most of the tiles as connections to weaker Dungeons that he’d be able to easily beat. If the test was to just get past those—this would be easy! He also noticed Anam standing in the back, watching every Heart get assigned. James was reading from a list, showing it to Anam every time. Every so often, Anam shook his head, and James seemingly skipped that line. How odd. Did Anam have final say? Once a name was given approval, James passed the word to the announcer. Owen’s heart picked up the pace. Did his name just get skipped? Was that it?

    Three more Pokémon were called in, and Owen shuffled aside to let them through. He spotted Nevren walking past them; the Alakazam glanced at him, and then flashed a small smile. He then spoke quietly to the Pokémon at the front, managing the candidates, and then walked away.

    James showed Anam the list again, and this time, he was staring at it for a long time. So long, in fact, that Owen and the others in the group wondered what the holdup was. Anam mumbled something to James, and James mumbled something back. Nevren stepped over and checked who was on the list. He tapped Anam on the shoulder—a trail of slime connected his finger to Anam thereafter—and said something else.

    C’mon, body, why can’t you zero in on what they’re saying? Owen complained, but the crowd around him distracted both his ears and whatever other strange sense he had. There was no body language for him to detect from so far away.

    And then, finally, Golem spoke again. “Next! Charmander-1!”

    Wait. He was called? He was called! He made it into the practical exam! “Y-yes!”

    The crowd waited anxiously for two more names to be called.

    “Oh, sorry, everyone. Nevren wants to personally test Owen alone,” Golem said, “since he is such an exceptional case with his test results.”

    Why did he have to phrase it like that? Owen shrank down. “S-sorry…” He didn’t need to look back to feel the envious glares. “How come I’m exceptional? Oh, because I’m a late-evolver and stuff?”

    “Yeah. For a Charmander, at least. You sure you didn’t eat an Everstone or something?”

    “No! I’ll totally evolve soon! So much for being a kid, huh?” Owen remembered this Golem from before. Still, he figured he should stop letting his size dictate his behavior. If he kept getting insecure about his size and stature, maybe he did deserve to be called a kid.

    The Alakazam approached, his mustache grand as ever. “Good to see you, Owen. It’s about time that we leave for your test. Please, come with me.”

    <><><>​

    Eternal Whistler Cave was on the northern peaks, with ancient, black mountains carved by a constant, shredding wind. The cave itself was a structure that went in a winding path from one side of the mountain to the other; the cold air blew through this labyrinthine passageway constantly. The result was a noise of wind running through the cave, like a deep whistle or moan of some great titan. The easy way through the cave was to follow the wind, which blew from the south toward the north; the difficult way was against it. Apparently, a very small distortion existed here, leading to a small, junior-level Dungeon that was even less threatening than the one where he had encountered Aerodactyl.

    Aside from the atmosphere itself, that is. The ocean was behind them; sheer cliffs threatened to plunge Owen to his death if he took a single misstep. And, in fact, he had nearly done so quite a few times. He imagined using his Badge as an emergency warp-away would be an automatic failure for this test. Still, it wasn’t the fall that frightened him the most, or the constant wind. Even with his Fiery attributes, the combination of the altitude, the wind, and the cold made for a challenge that no wild Pokémon could pose.

    “S-so… c-cold…!” Owen’s teeth chattered, his hot blood becoming an uncomfortable lukewarm beneath his skin.

    “Keep it up, Owen! The caves will be quite windy.”

    “Y-you don’t s-say?”

    Owen wasn’t sure what was more irritating: the fact that he, a Fire Type, was so weak that he was starting to feel cold in this extreme atmosphere, or the fact that Nevren was, as he always has been, calm and unflinching against the same weather. Waves crashed on the rocks far below. Owen decided long ago not to look down. If he fell, the descent would last at least ten seconds, at least. He didn’t want to find out what would kill him first—the cold of the water, or the force of the impact.

    The black mountain’s rocks were worn down from constant erosion. There were very few loose ones; only the biggest, densest boulders could withstand the constant force. Owen felt like one of the small rocks. He had to lean his body forward just to advance, and a single misstep—he’d tumble backwards and off the mountain for sure. His flame, half its usual size, cried for shelter.

    Owen’s bag was securely fastened around his neck, pushed so strongly by the wind that the strap left an imprint on the scales of his chest. If he stayed in this sort of wind any longer, it’d surely fuse into his body completely. He squinted through the gusts and followed Nevren into the cave. As promised, it was even windier than before. “Oh, come on!” Owen screamed over the wind.

    “We’re almost there!” Nevren said cheerfully.

    The walk took a bit longer until, finally, Nevren made an odd turn into an alcove. There, when Owen entered, the wind became much weaker. It was just a room with a rocky wall, but the tunnel ended abruptly in a dead end.

    “Wh—huh?” Owen built up the courage to open his eyes.

    “This is an offshoot from the main path,” Nevren said. “The wind has nowhere to continue through. It will be weaker here. An ideal spot to meditate, don’t you think? Before we enter the Dungeon proper.”

    “Oh—yeah! Did I mention that I meditate to you? I must’ve forgotten.” Owen’s body relaxed, his flame finally having some reprieve from the bitter gusts. “It really helps me to clear my head. Sometimes I can even get to think up new fighting techniques, y’know?”

    Nevren nodded. “I’ll give you an opportunity to do that before we have our true Dungeon exploration.”

    “Okay, sure!” Owen found a nice spot near the right side of the offshoot and sat down. There, he closed his eyes, trying his best to meditate. Now that the wind wasn’t constantly battering him, the general cold was much more tolerable, the natural heat of his body more than making up for it. Breathe in, breathe out. In a strange way, the chill was calming.

    “…Say, Nevren.”

    “Hmm?” Nevren was settled on the opposite side of the offshoot.

    “You’re a Psychic Type, right? So, does that mean you’re sorta more in tune with the mind?”

    “Well, yes, though I would say the stereotype is a bit exaggerated.”

    “That’s good, um,” Owen said, but then paused to consider how to phrase it, “because I think I’m crazy. I don’t want to—to make you worried or anything, but sometimes I just get this feeling that I’ve done something before. This stuff, right now? This feels new. But, like, talking to Rhys, and his students, feels like I’m having the same conversation all over again.”

    “Ah, how strange,” Nevren said. “But I do not think you are crazy. Perhaps you are just excited.”

    “Excited,” Owen repeated. “And what about if…” Owen wondered if he should mention the pink mist. “Uh… never mind. I’m probably just sleep-deprived. I was so excited for today that I only slept for, maybe, a blink’s worth of time, y’know?”

    “Ah. Well. What better way to freshen the mind than to meditate?”

    “Yeah, okay.” The chilled Charmander closed his eyes and steadied his breath. Clear my mind. Just listen to the world, he thought to himself, and then attempted to think no longer.

    The whistling of the wind was all that filled his head. He was well-versed in this sort of meditation, and he was able to slip into the state very easily, only vaguely aware of the world around him. Owen’s thoughts became deeply inward, envisioning himself standing in a void. His body no longer moved—only his inner body, like his aura, in his thoughts, in this void. He went into a battle stance in this void, blasting plumes of fire in the dark. They became Flamethrowers shortly after. He stomped on the ground, leaving Fire Traps behind. Shadowy creatures, envisioned dummies, chased him to put the traps to use, but Owen defeated them easily. They evaporated in a black fog, much like the ominous shadows that James became.

    Owen was surrounded. He blasted the dummies ahead of him with flames, clearing the way, and stomped on the ground for the dummies behind him. Then, he ran ahead. His form grew. It reddened and became taller; his flame became hotter. A horn emerged from the back of his head. The Charmeleon in the void spun around and scorched the dummies. He crouched forward, and his back expanded; the outer layer of his scales and skin split open, forming wings; the single horn split as well, becoming two on either side of the back of his head.

    Yes! Oh, the feeling, this was what he wanted, what he always imagined. Charizard! To fly through the sky, scorching his foes below. More, higher, stronger—keep fighting! Don’t let the fire go out! It was a surreal mixture of elation and serenity. A fantasy that calmed his aura. Slowly, his Charizard aura touched upon the ground, and the flames died down. Calm, calm. Keep it all calm. Burn slowly. Crackle, crackle….

    In the real world, Owen abruptly jumped to his right. “Ngh—what?” His body had moved on its own, as if he’d sensed something. He looked at where he once was; the rocks were severely warped into oblong shapes by a strange force. He stared ahead and saw Nevren, who was staring back with a blank, emotionless expression.

    “A-Alakazam Nevr—”

    Nevren’s eyes glowed bright, and Owen knew to dodge again. The rocks behind him twisted in the same way.

    “What’re you doing?!”

    The rocks kept twisting around him; he had to keep moving. Nevren held his arm forward; electricity crackled from his spoon. This time, it was too fast. A horrible pain rushed through Owen’s body; his legs refused to listen to any command. And then, he felt another pain—a twisting, indirect, dull, but incredible sensation of pressure across his entire body, like a giant hand twisting him into a spiral.

    Owen screamed and shook. He could move again. He fell on his knees, coughing; everything hurt. Everything felt broken. He tried to take a breath, but something there wasn’t working, too.

    Nevren stared at Owen. His eyes glowed.

    He was going to kill him. Right here, Nevren was trying to kill him. That could be the only explanation. Owen’s mind switched immediately to survival, as if he was fighting a hostile outlaw, but there wasn’t much he could do. His body was already broken. He didn’t have time to reach into his bag for any assistance. Was this it? Why? Nevren, what was he doing?

    Confusion washed into fear—and then—just as quickly, it washed into something primal. A roar of madness echoed in Owen’s mind.

    A burning flame in Owen’s chest seared his insides; his vision felt red. The pain vanished. His body moved. It broke more from it, but without pain to stop him, he kept moving.

    He dodged the Psychic attack and rushed at Nevren. He jumped—the little Charmander was now at Nevren’s height in the air, in for a full collision. He opened his mouth; his fangs were red-hot, and he was in a direct course for Nevren’s neck, but the Alakazam weaved to the right. Owen spun his head and blasted Nevren’s face with fire. Nevren grunted and Owen landed. He landed oddly on his foot, spraining it or worse, but it didn’t matter. He spun and flung himself toward Nevren again.

    Nevren couldn’t dodge this one. Owen wrapped his arms around Nevren, getting as strong a hold as he could; in a split-second, his teeth sank into Nevren’s neck. Owen didn’t hold back. His jaw clenched as hard as it could, until his jaws met—

    “Ng—uff—!” Owen opened his eyes with a jolt.

    The Charmander was on the ground, legs crossed. He was in the right side of the room. Nevren was still sitting where he had been when he started meditating. The only sound was the wind whistling. The rocks in the alcove were normal and untwisted. His body felt just fine. Relaxed, even, like it usually did after a meditation session.

    “Hm?” Nevren asked. “Is something the matter? You weren’t meditating for long.”

    “I… I…” Owen rubbed his head. “I think the altitude is getting to me, Nevren. I don’t think I can meditate here. I’m used to doing it underground, y’know?”

    “Ah,” Nevren said. “I see. Well, there’s no use in trying further if the environment isn’t ideal. Why don’t we simply advance through the Dungeon normally?”

    Owen stood up, dusting himself off. Just in case, he checked his body for any possible injuries, but there weren’t any. Perhaps he really was crazy.

    <><><>​

    It was easy. The Dungeon was filled with small Rock Pokémon like Geodude and Shieldon, yes, but Owen wasn’t afraid of them. He could tell that they were weak. Unlike the Aerodactyl, which was hard to get close to, Owen could easily approach these slow-moving wilds and dispatch them with a single swipe of hardened claws. This Dungeon was in a rough area in terms of its environment, but the Pokémon themselves were less than formidable. For that, he was thankful—as the wind was still relentless. Nevren had a barrier up ahead of them to ward off most of the atmospheric onslaught.

    The cave itself had the same general layout that Dungeons were known for. Corridors connected small rooms, this time made from the black rocks that had been carved by the cold winds. Within the cave, small pieces of sediment constantly chipped off of the walls, forcing Owen to walk with his eyes partially shut for fear of getting bits of mountain dust in them. Despite the barrier, Owen’s body shivered at every step. It was like walking on frost, yet the dry winds from the south didn’t allow for much ice to form.

    But other thoughts distracted Owen from most of the harsh elements of the cave. He dwelled on the strange dream he had. After his last experience with dreams, he was growing paranoid at what was real and what was a trick of the mind’s faults.

    “N-Nevren?” Owen asked, nearing the final segment of the Dungeon. “When you meditate, do you get weird dreams?”

    “Hm? No, not that I’m aware,” Nevren said. “Is that what happened? You seem quite shaken.”

    “Yeah,” Owen said, deciding not to comment that his current shaking was due to the cold. “At first it was normal. I was just fighting in a big, black room, kinda. I mean, not a room, since there weren’t any walls, but that’s how it usually goes. But then, suddenly I felt like,” Owen hesitated, “you were gonna attack me. And you were! I mean, in my dream. And then… and then I think I went crazy. I started to see red, and I stopped feeling pain from all your super strong attacks, um, and then,” another pause, “I don’t think I remember what happened after that.”

    “Hmm. That’s a very vivid dream.”

    “Yeah,” Owen said. “I think I shouldn’t try to do that on high mountains. O-or cold ones.”

    “Well, regardless of that,” Nevren said, “I’m quite confident in your abilities. I will be giving you a very positive review to James regarding your performance. I can almost guarantee your acceptance into the Thousand Hearts.”

    “W-wait—really?!” Owen asked. A sneaky Geodude threw a rock at Owen, hitting him in the back. Between Nevren’s barrier and how weak the Pokémon here were, he didn’t feel the need to acknowledge it. Seeing this, the Geodude hastily crawled away.

    “Of course!” Nevren said. “This is one of the designated testing Dungeons. If a recruit can pass it without assistance, and shows little signs of struggle, then it means you are ready to be part of the first tier of the Thousand Hearts. You may think of yourself as unskilled—” he shook his head, “—but in reality, few non-wild Pokémon get this strong or adept at fighting to handle such a task without trouble. Most only train themselves until they can reach the final stage of their species’ evolutions.”

    It made sense to Owen. He didn’t know how long he had been training for this moment. He had taken on more moderately difficult Dungeons in preparation for the exams. “So, I’ve just been training for so long, that my normal is most others’ abnormal?” He carefully stepped over a small crevice; Nevren had barely noticed it, but Owen’s shorter stature made it a conscious effort to avoid falling in.

    “Yes, precisely!” Nevren said, chuckling. “You’re quite abnormal indeed, Owen.”

    “Aw, shucks!” Owen laughed. A volley of rocks grazed the top of his scaly scalp.

    A gutsy Carbink threw a rock at Nevren from behind. A barrier blocked the attack, nullifying it completely.

    “These guys are persistent,” Owen said.

    “They’re merely territorial,” Nevren said. “Well! Let’s finish this Dungeon. You can wait for the promotion announcements in the evening. Perhaps with your friends? Team Alloy? I quite like that name.”

    “Totally.” But then, a thought occurred to him. “Abnormal…”

    “Hm? What was that, Owen?”

    “Uh, Nevren? I think I overheard someone after the Ceremony talking about some kind of… mutant Pokémon being spotted. You said you’d take care of it. What was that?”

    “Ahh, that was nothing to be concerned with. Pokémon tend to be a bit jumpy about the wild Pokémon in abnormal places, thinking they’re mutants. Sometimes they just happen to wander. I helped relocate the… creature to its proper place, and all was well.”

    “Oh! That’s kinda cool. So, are those missions usually reserved for Elites?”

    “Actually, Rhys and I reserve those sightings for ourselves, as we’re specifically trained with ‘abnormal Pokémon relocation,’ so to speak.”

    “Oh, wow! That’s so cool!” Owen said. Still, it was odd that there were strange Pokémon to begin with. Where did they come from?

    “In any case,” Nevren said, pointing at the final distortion of light, “let us return home.”

    <><><>​

    After completing the Dungeon and parting ways with Nevren, he spotted Gahi returning from his squad of potential recruits near the Heart headquarters. Owen ran over. “Gahi! How’d it go?”

    “Went fine. Gonna go and give my report ter James first, and I’ll be right back, eh?”

    “Sure.”

    Fast as always, Gahi didn’t take long to head back out.

    “So,” Owen said, “how’d those recruits do? The ones you handled?”

    “Feh, they ain’t ready.” He clicked his jaws. “Figure yeh passed, though?”

    “Nevren said that he was gonna give me a review brighter than my tail, so I hope so!”

    “Heh.” Gahi’s eyes glinted with amusement. “Well ain’t that something. Maybe we can form a team o’ four, go exploring. Three’s a good number that most recommend, but eh, four ain’t beyond us and what a Badge can handle, even if we gotta rescue a few folks along the way.”

    Owen nodded. “Yeah. But I don’t think I’m gonna go to that Dungeon again. I tried to meditate there, and I think I got a low-air dream or something, because…” His attention was caught by a passing conversation.

    “ . . . Strange, isn’t it?”

    “Creepy, more like!”

    “They should’ve investigated.”

    “No way! That wasn’t part of the mission!”

    Owen cleared his throat. “Um—what was creepy?”

    “Y’didn’t hear?” Gahi asked.

    “What?”

    “One o’ the teams that went out headed ter Calm Water Lake.” Gahi jerked his massive head in the direction of the Waypoint rows. “Around the third section, there was an eerie glow from the walls. A recruit got lost on the path, took a wrong turn, I dunno.”

    “A weird glow?” Owen asked, flame growing just slightly in height. “Was the group the one with Rhys?”

    Gahi shook his head. “Nope. Rhys handled some other team. They’re gonna send someone in ter investigate. Pro’ly gonna see the mission go up soon.” Gahi glanced at Owen. The Charmander didn’t even have an opportunity to ask: Gahi asked for him. “Wanna go?”

    Was it the same sort of glow? That orb? But Rhys didn’t go with them, so it couldn’t be from his weird, green orb. But there was a cold pit in his stomach when he thought about it. That must have been the thought of going to a watery Dungeon. Still, his curiosity trumped his Type, and he agreed.

    “Sure. But we have to be back before sunset! Let’s get Demitri and Mispy.”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 5 – Mystic Glow
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    Chapter 5 – Mystic Glow

    Watery Dungeons simultaneously fascinated and unnerved Owen. Due to his nature, they would be perhaps the last sort of Dungeon that he’d want to explore. Not only would getting his tail doused be perhaps the most excruciating pain imaginable—aside from being impaled—the terrain also made his Fire Traps useless. Calm Water Lake was no exception.

    The lake—a clear, blue expanse surrounded by yellow-green grass—disappeared the moment they passed through the distortion. It was replaced by blue, rocky walls made from amalgamated sand, rough and perpetually damp to the touch. The ground was covered in a thin layer of water that went just past Owen’s tiny ankles. This was a challenge for Gahi, who was even lower to the ground. His massive, orange head was constantly tilted upward to prevent his lower jaw from dipping underwater.

    “Calm Water Lake is kinda boring.” Owen had his hands behind his head, staring at the wispy clouds. Despite how much he didn’t like the Dungeon itself, it was still better than the cave before. “Hey, do we have any warps left?”

    “I do,” Demitri said. “Mispy used her Badge to get our group back, but mine still has a charge left for the day. Once we’re done exploring this Dungeon, we’ll head right back to Kilo.”

    “Yeah. I hope it goes by soon,” Owen said. “I’m sick of walking through water. Nothing’s happening.” He had been hoping to find mysterious, pink mist to lead the way. Nothing of the sort was around.

    “I mean, it’s called Calm Water Lake,” Demitri said. “Isn’t that kinda what you’d expect? Even its title is boring.”

    “All of the wild Pokémon are asleep. They won’t even bother with you unless you aggravate them first. Where’s the fun in that?” Owen blinked. That was an odd comment from himself. Was he getting antsy again? Did he skip his meditation this morning? The one in Eternal Whistler didn’t count. Not after that dream.

    “I know what y’mean,” Gahi said. “I don’t wanna go ter this place either, ‘cause the wilds’re all weak.”

    “All this teaching hasn’t given me a good fight the whole day,” Demitri said.

    Mispy sighed deeply. Her leaf bobbed and brushed against Demitri’s tusk.

    “You guys like to battle a bunch, too, huh?” Owen said. Such an attitude was incredibly rare among bystander and civilian Pokémon. There was no need to fight, usually. Some Pokémon went their entire lives not evolving simply because their auras never became efficient enough to trigger it. Most only trained enough to evolve and simply stopped after that.

    That was just another layer of kinship he felt with these three. Fellow battle-hearts!

    “I know what that’s like,” Owen continued. “If I don’t get a good fight in for the day, I can’t sleep at night. I’m all restless! And I need to fight something! My parents gave me a rock that I can beat up if I ever get like that. But if that isn’t enough, I need to meditate and stuff.”

    “Baah,” Gahi shook his head. “Don’t even say the word. I hate when Rhys makes us do that.”

    “It calms the mind, though.” Demitri rubbed his tusks, finding a little nick to scrape dirt off. “And we know it makes our attacks more efficient, so it isn’t all bad!”

    “Tune the aura,” Mispy said.

    “Ha, it’s like we get the same lectures!” Owen said. “I wonder if my parents and Rhys went to the same classes.”

    “Feh, wouldn’t doubt it.” Gahi fell into a dip in the watery ground, struggling and gurgling in the sudden increase in water. Mispy fished him out, placing him a few paces ahead. “Bah, stupid water… Say, how come we never saw yer parents, anyway? Figure they’d’ve supported you fer the Ceremony, at least.”

    “I think they’re busy at home,” Owen said dismissively, though his tail dimmed. “My parents have been really hesitant about going out lately. I’m not really sure why. I hope they aren’t afraid of the light or something.”

    An entire segment of the Dungeon passed in complete silence. It didn’t feel awkward to Owen. In fact, it was serene. For perhaps the first time all day, his heart was at ease, traveling with these three like old friends. Without realizing it, a dumb, subtle smile grew on Owen’s face.

    “Y’know, that thing y’mentioned,” Gahi suddenly said. “About us seeming familiar? I’m starting ter feel it, too.”

    “Huh?” Owen asked.

    Demitri tapped his claws against his scales. “Yeah, I’m with Gahi, for once.”

    “Mm.” Mispy nodded.

    Owen stared. “Yeah… it’s weird. But, I don’t know why, either. You guys?”

    They all shook their head.

    Owen shrugged. “I decided that I should just stop dwelling on it. Maybe we’ll figure it out later. Oh, right. Are we at…?” He pulled the mission statement from his bag, and then at his surroundings. They said section three.

    “This way,” Mispy said, suddenly turning. She walked with purpose, but it didn’t appear to be in a particularly interesting direction.

    “How come?” Owen asked, running after her.

    “Mispy can see auras, too, just like Rhys,” Gahi said. “That’s why she thinks ghosts are everywhere. I think her senses are just outta whack.”

    Mispy puffed her cheeks; a vine threatened to bludgeon Gahi, but she restrained herself.

    “A Chikorita? How?” Owen asked. “Does she secretly have aura sensors, too?” Owen knew that Gahi was particularly fast for his species, too. Demitri was an Axew, and they were historically strong… but those strikes he dealt to Aerodactyl were something else. Did Rhys recruit them because they were particularly talented?

    “I dunno. Maybe it’s in her leaf,” Demitri said. “It’s pretty cool. I don’t know how it works. But it’s helped us a lot when we have to chase down clever outlaws. And now, uh, Mispy? What d’you see?”

    “Weird,” Mispy mumbled.

    “She sees a weird aura,” Demitri translated. “I guess it’s a good lead for—oh. Uh, Mispy? I don’t think we need an aura sensor for the rest of this.”

    There was a wall ahead, to their right, that looked like it was easy to break. A dim light shined from the inside, going through the tiny cracks that made this part of the wall more obvious.

    Owen nodded, readying his claws. “Just give me a second to reset my aura for Metal Cl—”

    “I can do this,” Demitri said to the others.

    The Axew backed up and steeled himself, tensing his muscles. He ran forward, slamming his head on the wall; it easily collapsed, falling around him.

    “D-Demitri!” Owen said.

    “I’m okay!” Demitri called back, climbing out of the rocks; he had a few scratches—as well as a bad wound on his head—but he was conscious.

    “Don’t do that!” Owen said; Mispy was already healing him with waves of light. “Next time, let me do it! Metal Claw would’ve done the same thing.”

    “Feh, he’s an idiot.” Gahi wobbled ahead of them and over the rubble.

    They all looked inside. The walls of the cavern beyond the false wall glowed dimly; it reminded Owen of the mushrooms in Hotspot Cave. And, of course, the orb that Rhys possessed. He took the lead, and the rest followed. The passageway was only a few paces wide—and those were tiny paces, considering the size of their bodies. Every sound echoed endlessly.

    Not more than twenty paces in, Gahi remarked, “This place is giving me the creeps. Think there’re Ghost Types wandering around?”

    Demitri shuddered. “H-hopefully n-not.” He looked at the walls uneasily. Mispy wrapped a vine around his torso, squeezing him just slightly. He loosened in response. “I don’t think so, but this weird glow is what I’m kinda worried about. It’s the same as the glow in Rhys’ place, y’know, that weird orb?”

    “Yeah,” Owen said. “You mean that thing he brought with him to the ceremony, right?”

    “Yeah, that one,” Demitri said. “Think it’s related?”

    “Maybe,” Owen said, “but a lot of things glow. There are these mushrooms in my home, um, I can’t say where, but at my home, they glow kinda like this. So, it could just be, like, moss, or a tiny fungus or mold that grows on the rocks.” Owen wanted to believe it was actually related, but he didn’t want to get his hopes up. The past few days have been filled with confusing disappointments.

    Go back… go back!

    Turn away… leave!


    All four explorers stopped walking. Demitri’s knees knocked against one another. Gahi churred a rapid, growling noise. The little buds on Mispy’s neck started to glow.

    Mispy closed her eyes. “I see… something.”

    Owen noticed a pulsing light in the bottom corner of his eye. It came from his bag. “Uh, why is my Badge blinking?”

    “What?” Demitri checked his; it, too, was blinking. “Oh, that’s… that means we just completed a Dungeon.”

    “What?”

    “We aren’t in a Dungeon anymore,” Demitri said. “This cave ahead of us isn’t part of Calm Water Lake’s Dungeon. Which means—” He glanced around uneasily. “—if we get hurt here, or worse, we won’t be warped out. They might just keep attacking us, or…!”

    Owen gulped. “M-maybe we should go back.”

    “What, and miss a real fight?” Gahi asked, stomping his tiny foot on the ground. “Let’s feel it out!”

    “I do want a fight,” Demitri mumbled, unconsciously sharpening his left tusk with his claws. “But this could be dangerous.”

    “Mmn.” Mispy seemed unsure, but she advanced. The others followed her lead.

    Leave, leave!

    Or become one of us!


    Demitri let out a squeaking noise that defied his Dragon pride. Mispy had to prod him on the back to keep him walking.

    “Okay, enough whispering!” Gahi said. “Just show yerself and get it over with!”

    Surprisingly, they complied. Ahead of them, right where the glowing cave had a turn to the right, a creature rose from the ground. Houndour. But the colors were a bit odd—instead of the usual orange-red on black, it was ocean-blue on black.

    “Heh, Houndour, eh?” Gahi said, wobbling forward. “Y’look weird, but I’ll take yeh on!”

    Owen’s fire grew a bit. “Uh, Gahi, I dunno if—”

    Gahi dashed in an orange blur, wiggling his head and jaws; mud formed in the back of his throat, ready to fling. The Houndour opened its mouth and fired a concentrated jet of—water directly at Gahi. Surprised by the blast, Gahi jumped out of the way, hitting the wall next to him. While successful in avoiding the water, he sustained a small blow to his side from the rocks. “Kr—beh! What’s that supposed ter be?! What kinda game’re you playing?!”

    Gahi threw some of his mud at the Houndour; Mispy, whose buds were glowing bright, fired an intense beam of light at the Houndour next.

    “W-wait! Mispy!” Demitri said, but it was too late.

    The Houndour was completely incinerated; in its place was a small ember that floated in the air. It vaguely resembled Owen’s tail flame, only cyan like Rhys’ aura energy. It fled into the wall.

    “Mispy, that’s too much!” Demitri said. “You just obliterated some poor—”

    “It’s a ghost,” Mispy said.

    “What?”

    Whispers filled the air. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from, or how many were even whispering. Multiple. That’s all they knew. And, perhaps, from everywhere.

    “Why is there a Water Houndoom here? How does that even work? A gh-ghost that’s a Water Houndoom?” Owen squeaked the last part, taking a worried step back. He bumped into Demitri, who was practically a statue.

    Three blue-themed Pokémon—even if they weren’t supposed to be blue—rose from the ground. A Nincada, Morelull, and Venipede, rippling like a lake. They all advanced forward, Watery techniques ready. Owen, realizing that there was too much risk involved, with perhaps tens or more others like them ready to close in, shouted to the others, “Let’s go back!”

    This time, they agreed. Demitri grabbed their Badge and held it in the air; thankfully, now that they were outside of the strange effects of a Dungeon, they could use it to warp back to Kilo Village without the Dungeon interfering. Still, it needed a few seconds to gather its charge. The ghosts fired another set of water jets at them—Owen countered with a plume of fire, hoping to soften the blasts. Mispy shot her vines forward and blocked the rest. That bought them just enough time. In a flash of light, they were gone.

    <><><>​

    They wanted to tell Rhys about what they found before reporting back, but they also realized upon returning that it was close to the evening. Clouds painted the orange sky with lumpy, purple blotches.

    “Oh, Mew, we almost didn’t make it!” Demitri said. “Look! That crowd!”

    “Wait, so do we report first, or—”

    “No time!” Demitri took heavy steps forward, his speed betraying his mental fatigue. “C’mon, Owen! You go ahead to the front! You’re probably gonna get accepted!”

    The ceremony was a rush and then a wait. Owen took the long way around when the immediate path required traversing around a Muk, and instead settled for weaving between the legs of an antsy Rapidash mother waiting for her son’s results. He scrambled between Pokémon tall and small, apologizing to each one, until he spotted a Decidueye.

    There you are,” James said, green-and-brown feathers puffed out. Under his glare, Owen shrank to nearly three quarters of his height. “I imagine you just became aware of the results. Stand there, please.”

    Owen stood at the front row, to the far right, with his eyes fixed on the ground. After gathering enough courage, he leaned forward and counted off the Pokémon to his left. There were fifteen others here, but more importantly, they were all candidates that were practically beaming. He really did make it in! After countless applications—Owen couldn’t even remember how many times he’d tried—he was here, standing in the front row!

    “Ahem,” James began, “Goodra Anam is currently occupied with… processing the retiring Hearts. In his place, I would like to make official the advancement of these sixteen Provisionary Hearts into the fold of Entry-Level Hearts. To commemorate this, they will relinquish their Provisionary Badges, and in return be given their official Thousand Hearts Badge. I shall begin from the leftmost member.” James walked away from Owen. His tail lowered at the realization that he was the last to arrive. Talk about a first impression.

    Owen took the wait as an opportunity to size up the other fifteen members. Nervous shuffling, eyes filled with more ambition than their bodies could handle. They were all weak. He could feel it. What was he doing, taking so long to just enter, if he was already breezing past the easiest Dungeons? Owen refused to accept anything but the idea that it was a mistake—an oversight. “Hmph, well, I’ll show them…”

    Each Pokémon gave up their Badge in exchange for an official one, all the way up to Owen. It was right there. The gravity of the ceremony hit him just then. He was going to do it! Become a Heart! And yet, before James could give him the Badge, before he’d truly become a member of this grand, worldwide organization—

    “Waaaaaiiiiit!”

    All eyes turned to the main building. Anam was running out as fast as he could. A trail of purplish, transparent slime littered the ground behind him.

    “Am I late?!”

    “Yes,” James replied. “I have already started the ceremony. There is only one left.”

    “Who? I’ll—I’ll do that one!” He sniffled. “I’m sorry, Jam-Jam! I didn’t mean to, but I was just so sad! So many good Hearts!”

    James sighed, shaking his head, while the audience gave James amused smiles. “Very well,” Jam-Jam said, holding out the final badge. “I can’t be angry at you, Anam. Please, give Owen his Badge.”

    “Owen? Oh, right, Owen! Of course! I’m so happy Owen could get in this time!”

    James’ glare was so intense that, for a second, Owen thought Anam’s slime bubbled.

    Owen’s heart skipped a beat, and his flame flashed white for an instant. He was about to be given his Badge by Anam himself.

    The others in line noticed, too. They all stared at Owen with mixtures of surprise, confusion, and envy. What’s this upstart doing here? That’s probably what they were thinking. Or maybe they were irritated that being late was suddenly being rewarded.

    Goodra sniffled and wiped his eyes. “Owen—I mean, Charmander Owen, I give you this Badge in commemoration of your advancement into the Thousand Hearts.” He handed Owen the lightweight, golden emblem. It was covered in slime; Owen politely took it and, when Anam turned away, wiped it with the cloth of his bag. He then admired the clean, heart-shaped insignia on the front, using his tail to better see the shining details.

    “And now, of course, we must accept you into the Thousand Hearts more formally. I’m sure you all remember the motto?”

    Owen’s tail grew to twice its size. “Yes!” he said, just a bit too eagerly. A few of the newcomers gave him an amused smile, but they nodded, too. Suddenly, the atmosphere felt charged.

    “Then by my lead.” James looked ahead; with him, the Entry Hearts—and even the many behind him—recited the Thousand Hearts’ mantra. At first, it was a gentle chant, but the final lines transitioned into a rallying cry.

    “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!”


    Stomps, roars, and cheers deafened Owen, but he didn’t care—his flame was three times its normal size and his chest felt just as swollen with pride. He screamed with them, straining his throat, blasting little embers into the air. Losing all sense of self, Owen hopped from foot to foot, pumping his tiny fist in the air.

    After some time, the crowd calmed down, and James raised his wing to signal for them all to fall into silence. There was a little, happy gleam in his eye, but that was all he showed. “This concludes the ceremony of advancement. You are all dismissed.”

    Owen spun around to avoid any of the onlookers. His heart was still racing, but on his way down, even with the immovable grin on his face, the pressing issue of what they found in the lake returned to the forefront of his mind. After backtracking through the evening crowd, he spotted the silhouette of Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi in the twilight.

    Demitri had a similar smile. “Okay, I can’t deny that yelling that last part is something I never get tired of.”

    “I know, right?!” Owen said, beaming. “Oh! But—where’s Rhys? We should talk to him about what we found first, right? And then we can report it later. Then, I’m gonna go back to my parents’ place and tell them about what happened.” He glanced at the Waypoint lines and saw a Torkoal enter Calm Water Lake. “Uh—"

    “There.” Mispy pointed her leaf forward. Rhys was walking toward them from the main building.

    “Where have you been?” Rhys asked. His voice sounded suspiciously strained. He cleared his throat in an attempt to get it to sound normal again, but it was no help. “The entire ceremony was almost delayed to find Owen.”

    “We were doing a quick mission,” Gahi said. “How ‘bout we talk about it over dinner? I’m starved. Owen’s coming with!”

    Owen’s stomach growled loudly at the mention of food, his mind suddenly filled with the thoughts of a fine, hearty stew.

    <><><>​

    Dinner was a savory rice dish. While the food was wonderful, mealtime itself felt tense. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi seemed antsy from not getting a good fight in—and, after getting one, being forced to flee.

    Rhys—his voice recovered—finally broke the silence. “Well, now that you’re here, why don’t you speak about that mission of yours? Did it not go well?”

    “No,” Gahi mumbled. “Hated it. Nearly got killed.”

    “K-killed?”

    Demitri nodded, poking at a stray grain of rice. “We were attacked when we were investigating a weird glowing at Calm Water Lake. But that glowing led us outside the Dungeon early, somehow, which is where we got attacked. By a weird… water-typed Houndour, or something.”

    Rhys scanned the four of them, as if expecting them to say it was a joke. When none came, he said, “I see.”

    Silence accompanied the five while they ate.

    “That’s it?” Gahi asked. “Y’usually have something ter say ‘bout us being reckless, or maybe some theory on why it’s like that.”

    “H-hm? I do? Well. I don’t this time. I’ll speak to Goodra Anam about it tomorrow. Yes, I’ll do that…”

    Owen looked at the others expectantly. He wanted to ask about the Orb again, but after that encounter in the lake, he was too jittery to do it alone. He’d stumble over his words. And what was he going to do? Sneak into Rhys’ room and steal it? That’d just make him an outlaw! There was no point. He could ask politely, when there was less tension. He didn’t see that pink cloud this time, anyway.

    “Um. Well, if that’s all, when I finish dinner, I think I’ll just head home,” he said. “Thanks, by the way! I-it’s really good.”

    “No,” Rhys said. “Just for tonight, I want you to stay here. I will explain to your parents about it later.”

    The Charmander reflexively nodded, but then the words actually registered. Owen felt even more trapped than when they were in that glowing cave. “Y-you? But I can’t, um, they don’t know.” Owen looked like he was going to stand up. “They’ll freak out if I don’t get home by nighttime, and it’s almost that already! So, um, I just… I can’t just stay here without telling them.”

    “They will understand.”

    “Rhys, yer being weird,” Gahi said. “What’s going on?”

    “It’s too dangerous to go out,” Rhys said flatly. “The path to your home, Owen, is dangerous tonight. It will be safer tomorrow. Not tonight.”

    “B-but—” Owen stopped himself, but he couldn’t ignore that serious aura Rhys was giving off. Would him leaving, now, be that dangerous? Or was it bad for some other reason? He didn’t sense any malice from Rhys, but to suddenly make such a request…

    “This is final,” Rhys said. “I’m sure they will just think you need to do overnight training and orientation.”

    Owen looked at Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi, but they were equally confused. Rhys wasn’t explaining anything. But, in the back of his mind, Owen trusted what he was saying. He didn’t know why he trusted Rhys, but his gut feelings hadn’t been wrong before, not when he felt so sure of himself. If Rhys said it was dangerous, then it was. “Rhys, um. I’ll stay here. But can you explain why it’s so dangerous?”

    Rhys looked at his rice and ate. The others ate, too, in a silence so thick that Owen felt he was eating some of it with each bite.

    “We are all going to need to be careful for a time,” Rhys said. “There may be Pokémon in search of objects like the one in my room. Anything that gives off that glow may be a target, and I don’t want to risk anything right now.”

    Anything? Owen thought about Hot Spot Cave.

    Demitri swallowed his most recent bite quickly. “S-so, Calm Water Lake might have another of those orb things?”

    “Possibly. But we can’t do anything about it today.” Rhys motioned to the black sky outside the cave, a chilling wind knocking a few ripened Oran Berries from the treetops. “We can explore this further tomorrow, after I see Goodra Anam. He may be able to help.”

    Owen sighed, figuring that was the most they were going to get. “Okay,” he conceded.

    “You will stay in Gahi’s room,” Rhys said. “Demitri and Mispy share a room. We have an extra bed in storage.”

    “Oh! That’s convenient.”

    “Yeah, I kinda always wondered why we had that,” Gahi said. “Ain’t like we get guests.”

    Owen finished his meal; despite the tension, he was satisfied with even the leftover grains of rice and veggies. “Aah, that was good.” He rubbed at an imperfection in his scales. “I, er, I guess I’ll get familiar with—oh! I don’t think I can sleep in your bed, though.” Owen tittered. “See, my tail-flame kinda burns most beds. I know Charmander fire isn’t usually that hot when we’re calm, but I get really worked up when I sleep, or something, so…”

    “There’s no need to worry,” Rhys said. “They’re made from Rawst leaves, so they are flame-resistant.”

    “Oh! Oh, wow!” Owen nodded. “That’s kinda… really convenient, but I guess I’ll take it!” He fiddled with his claws. At this point, he was sick of inquiring.

    Rhys set up the spare bed; Gahi led the way down the hall, past the first pair of rooms, and into the left of the second set.

    “Here’s m’place,” Gahi said.

    It didn’t look different from the others; a simple, rocky room with two beds in the middle. One seemed quite sandy, ideal for Gahi’s species, like a pit in the ground. The new bed was a soft set of Rawst leaves; Owen gently ran his hand across the pile. They were just like the ones at home. This wouldn’t be bad at all!

    He happily hopped on his bed and looked at Gahi. “I hope my tail doesn’t bother you at night.”

    “Nah, I don’t think I’ll notice.” He shook his entire body, vibrating into the sandy pit, and he was gone.

    “Oh.” He wasn’t sure what he had expected.

    Every so often, Owen heard the muffled clicks of Gahi’s massive jaws. He sighed, closing his eyes. Something about that sound relaxed him, but it also kept him up for a while longer than he was used to. Every so often, Gahi’s sleep-churring startled him awake.

    <><><>​

    Owen was half asleep, somewhere between dream and reality. Something ethereal reached out.

    Owen. Owen? Owen! Hello?!

    That’s a pretty voice…

    Owen! Wake up!

    Five more blinks…

    Ugh, stupid, flaming scale-bag—wake up! HURRY!


    Owen thought he was dreaming, but it felt too real, and too normal. Too groggy. He rubbed his eyes and sat up, squinting outside their room. Something was glowing. That same, strange glow. But it wasn’t like that last time. The old glow was softer and constant. This one was wider; it spilled almost into Gahi’s room. Owen blinked again; the light was getting brighter. Owen hid his tail under the leaves to make sure it wasn’t him. Without the flame, it was clear as day—that light was moving. Was it the cloud again?

    So, this is my night, huh? Owen thought.

    The blur from his eyes completely gone, he spotted something in the corner of his eye. He immediately turned, his heart skipping a beat. The mist. It was right there, like a trick of the eye—just barely visible. Owen thought it was just a splotch on his pupil. It didn’t say anything, but it was very anxiously moving toward the hall, then back to Owen, and then back to the hall again.

    Why me? Owen thought. He slowly got out of bed and wrapped some leaves around his flame. Still holding his tail, he stepped outside. The source of the light was a Pokémon floating in the air. A small one—an Espurr. Floating. High in the air.

    She didn’t notice Owen; she was facing into Rhys’ room, moving inside.

    Trespasser!

    “Um—hey!” Against common sense, Owen shouted. “S-stop!”

    His legs moved on their own until he was at the entrance to Rhys’ home. There, he saw the Espurr going toward the orb—she was about to touch it. “Y-you aren’t supposed to—!” He saw that Rhys was still asleep. The pink mist followed. It pushed futilely against the Espurr, defending the orb to no effect.

    Then, the Espurr and Charmander locked eyes. He couldn’t get a read for her expression, but she didn’t maintain eye contact for long. He only knew that her eyes shined more than anything else. The atmosphere around him changed—he recognized this feeling. It was an incoming Psychic attack, just like Nevren. He jumped out of the way just in time to evade the twisting energy that chopped the wind behind where he had been. The power behind it was incredible—yet Owen had a sinking feeling she could do a lot more.

    The Espurr readied another strike, but a ball of bright, blue energy hit her on the side instead. She yelped and fumbled in the air. Rhys was awake, sitting up in his bed of leaves; he stared directly at the Espurr, who squeaked even louder at the glare. And then, she vanished in thin air—as if she wasn’t there to begin with.

    “Wh-what… what?” Owen breathed.

    Rhys stood up. The silence that followed—with Rhys staring at the pink mist, and then at Owen, and then at the orb—was long enough for Owen to absorb what had just happened. Some Espurr with the same sort of glow as the orb tried to steal it, or something.

    “You should get to sleep, Owen.”

    “Wait, but what—”

    “Sleep.” Rhys held his right paw in Owen’s direction. It glowed an eerie white. Rhys fired, and Owen felt a hot buzz course through him. His vision concentrated into a tunnel and then faded to black. Owen’s consciousness quickly followed.

    So. You’re asleep again.

    Hello, pretty voice…

    Owen. Listen. This is super, ultra-important. The orb. Touch. ASAP.

    But, Rhys said…

    And sometimes, Rhys is an idiot. We’re running out of options and time. Just touch it, okay?

    I’m so tired…

    S-stay with me, Owen. There are lots of bad ‘mon out there trying to get those things, and the more we ha—


    The rest was lost.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 6 – The Orb
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 6 – The Orb

    “Ugh, what a weird dream,” Owen mumbled. He rubbed his eyes; he still ached. He must have jumped improperly to avoid that Psychic attack and bruised himself. Wait. If he ached, then that wasn’t a dream, was it? Owen chanted to himself, “Not crazy. Not crazy. Not crazy.”

    “Eh?” Gahi said, peeking out from his sand pit. “What’re yeh mumblin’?”

    “N-nothing,” Owen said. “I think I just had a weird dream. That’s all.”

    “Well, have ‘em some other night,” Gahi said. The Trapinch clicked his jaws. “…I don’t smell breakfast.”

    “Does Rhys usually make it?”

    “Yeah. Unless he made something cold that doesn’t smell. Usually if we’re running behind er something…”

    The kitchen had food on the table—a simple fruit salad—and a note from Rhys saying that he had gone to speak with Anam, and to stay at home until he returned. “That glowing stuff must be real urgent…”

    “Wait!” Owen said. “That’s right! There was an Espurr that was trying to take the orb last night! I remember!”

    “Eh?”

    “What’s going on?” Demitri said. “Are you talking about last night? I think I had a dream of Rhys whisper-yelling. He sounded really angry.”

    Owen nodded incessantly, the memories of the night before flooding back, replaying in his head multiple times. “Last night, while you guys were asleep, I think I woke up and saw a weird Pokémon enter Rhys’ room. She tried to, like, get the glowing orb while Rhys was asleep!”

    “Did she?”

    “No, but she nearly twisted me to shreds with a crazy-strong Psychic attack. I think it was even stronger than Nevren’s!”

    “How d’you know how strong Nevren’s is?” Gahi said.

    “Oh, um—” Owen rubbed the back of his head. “Well, it was really strong in my dream…”

    “Wait, back up,” Demitri said. “An Espurr? That isn’t even fully evolved. Why is it so strong?”

    “The weird thing about that is that she kinda glowed, too. The same way the orb did, and the cave did.” And the mushrooms did…

    A sudden silence filled the kitchen. Realization washed over them.

    “He left the orb alone!” Owen said. “Right? Did he?”

    Forgetting about breakfast, the quartet rushed into Rhys’ room. It was the first time that Owen got a good look at it in the sunlight that bled into the shallow cave. There was a simple bed of leaves to the left corner of the room, and a solid stone desk to the right. There was a strange stash of Pecha Berries under the desk. Owen saw a small piece of parchment lodged inside the pile of berries in the shape of a heart. At first, Owen thought it was from Anam and his saccharine taste in themed shapes, but somehow, that didn’t feel correct.

    The shelves were lined with artifacts both shiny and dusty. Owen saw a number of strange items on the three shelves that lined the cave’s far wall in a half-circle. He only recognized a few of them: an Everstone in the far right, which Owen subconsciously inched away from; something that looked like a prototype Badge, lumpy and bronze; something that looked like one of Nevren’s zany inventions, some metallic bracelet; and what looked like an old, faded edition of the Book of Mew.

    The final item gave Owen pause. “Huh. Didn’t peg Rhys as a Mew sort of person,” he mumbled under his breath. “Seemed more like the Arceus type.” His eyes continued to trail along the other books lining the shelves. There was even a book that didn’t seem to have text on it at all.

    And there it was—perhaps he had forgotten about the orb in his rush to see Anam. For whatever reason, the orb was there, its glow significantly fainter against the morning sun peering through the cave’s entrance.

    Owen squinted, suspicious. Rhys wasn’t the sort to be careless. Demitri mentioned an argument, perhaps after he had been put to sleep. Arguing with who? The mist? The orb itself? Maybe Owen wasn’t the only crazy one in the family.

    This orb must have been there intentionally. That voice—was it the mist?—told Owen to touch the orb. But should he listen to that mist, or to Rhys?

    And sometimes, Rhys is an idiot, Owen recalled. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi wandered the room, looking for a way up. Mispy’s vines were too short to reach on their own, and it was hard to pick someone like her up to begin with. She always did seem heavier, or perhaps denser, than the average Chikorita—though, Owen had a feeling if he said that aloud, he’d face the wrath of her Solar Beam.

    “But it’s still so high…” Demitri finally said. Vines wrapped around his abdomen. “N-no way! I can’t do it!” he protested, legs shaking.

    “Aw, c’mon, it’s barely that high,” Gahi said.

    “I just can’t do it. Demitri shook his head, little feet trembling in the air. “I—I mean, it’s… it’s just too high up!”

    Mispy sighed. Even if she tried, her Chikorita-strength vines weren’t quite enough to lift an Axew like Demitri. But, Owen… Mispy eyed Owen, sizing him up.

    “What?” the Charmander asked.

    Mispy brought two vines forward, wrapping around him.

    “U-uhh—personal space, please?”

    Mispy lifted Owen up. “Hmm. Half.” She glanced at Demitri. She had a much easier time lifting Owen in the air. This just might work. He was even lighter than Gahi—and easier to hold, too.

    “Well, ain’t that something,” Gahi said. “Owen, you were the piece we needed, eh? Okay. Let’s go and lift ‘im up!”

    Mispy nodded, but then nodded at Demitri. He went up to the wall and held his tiny arms against it; Gahi got behind Mispy and pushed his head beneath her. Using Gahi’s front as a platform, she climbed onto Demitri’s back, awkwardly maneuvering until her chest wrapped around his head.

    “W-w-wait!” Owen said. “Wait! What are we doing? M-move slower!” Was this it? He didn’t expect his wish to touch the sphere would be granted in this way. He had been mapping the room in his head, looking for shelves to hop and Rhys’ various knickknacks and books to use as footholds. Owen normally wouldn’t disrespect a book by using it as a stepping stone, but perhaps this time would have been a necessary evil.

    “We’re gonna grab that orb and take a look at it!” Gahi said.

    “O-oh, okay. But—but it wasn’t my idea, okay?! I need to make a good first impression with Rhys, and I don’t want him thinking I’m some—some delinquent!”

    “With a vocabulary like that, I ain’t gonna feel too worried ‘bout that,” Gahi said.

    “And with a vocabulary like yours,” Demitri said, “Rhys will probably think it was your idea.”

    Owen hoped that his parents wouldn’t be upset if they found out. But then again—they didn’t even show up for his acceptance of the Heart position! Maybe a little rebellion was warranted. Yeah, that was a good excuse.

    Owen was at eye-level with the orb. Up close, it seemed bigger—he wouldn’t be able to hold it with just one of his tiny hands. He’d need to grab it by both sides; it was almost half the size of his head. He saw little, flowing lights swirling inside the pale, green sphere. “Just a little more, Mispy!” Owen said. “I can totally get it!”

    Mispy obliged, straining her vines. “Almost?!” She adjusted her vines lower to push him just a bit higher.

    “N-not too low, Mispy!” Owen squeaked.

    “S-sorry!”

    “Almost… got it…!” Owen took a break to let Mispy drift him closer, relaxing his arms. Then, he reached out one last time, feeling that Mispy was at her limit. He knew it, now—he could grab the orb! Owen reached out. “Okay, I—” Contact.

    The Charmander went completely limp; his arms fell forward, the orb still in his hands. Mispy stumbled from the dead weight.

    “O-Owen? Is it heavy?” Demitri asked, unable to look up.

    The flame on Owen’s tail went out.

    <><><>​

    “Hrrmmnnn, what a mess,” Rhys muttered, walking through town at a brisk pace. His bag hung around his shoulder, the bottom bumping against the spike on his chest. He glanced down inside; he had a few items, along with a cloth wrapped around a large sphere, glowing faintly. He scanned the immediate area. Business as usual for most of the Hearts. Missions, missions, and more missions. He spotted an Aerodactyl grumbling while posting mission statements on the bulletin board.

    “Ahh, Rhys!” Nevren called.

    The fur on Rhys’ body bristled. He walked without acknowledging the Alakazam.

    “Now, Rhys, that’s no way to greet me,” Nevren said. “What are you doing here? You don’t often come to Kilo Village unless there is a ceremony.” He looked at the bag. “…It’s not exactly a good idea,” he said, “to be carrying that around right now, don’t you think?”

    “I will take my chances.”

    “Are you sure?” Nevren tilted his head. “Rim might try to take it from you in broad daylight. Do not think a crowd will discourage her. The Hunters have been getting antsy lately.”

    “And what will she do if she sees me? Glare angrily at my feet?”

    “Now, Rhys, that was uncalled for.”

    Rhys clutched at the bag. “…She entered our home yesterday.”

    “Ah.”

    “I do not want her to endanger my students,” he said. “I would rather take it with me while speaking with Anam.”

    “Hrm.”

    “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Rhys made a motion to walk past Nevren, hesitating briefly, as if knowing that Nevren would say something. Yet, when he didn’t, he continued past him.

    Nevren watched Rhys walk. “Has Elder talked with you about any of this?”

    Rhys hesitated, looking down at his bag. “Of course we talk.”

    Silence.

    “…Where are you going, anyway?” Rhys said, looking back.

    “Ah, well. I was sent on a mission to where Owen had gone the day prior. I need to take care of one of the mutant sightings there before anybody else gets hurt; it was already designated as a restricted zone until further notice. Well, I plan to give that further notice.”

    “Ah.” Rhys hummed, glancing down at his bag, then at Nevren. “Will you need help?”

    “Not at all. This will be trivial. Carry on with your duties so you may return home with that Orb, yes?”

    “Mrm. Very well.” Rhys continued into the office, and Nevren headed out of the Heart HQ.

    The entryway, past the main, heart-shaped exterior, was a building of stone and wood, painted in various shades of pink, red, and purple. Pathways on the ground were painted in a dark violet to indicate which way to go in the main lobby; the walls were a soft, invigorating red, with white stripes separating the red from the purple and other colors. The ceiling was pink, and the upper half of the walls shared the same color. They were all solid colors with no real pattern, except for some floral designs lining where the colors changed.

    The color scheme disgusted Rhys, but he didn’t have the heart to berate Anam for his taste in décor.

    To Rhys’ left was a stairway into the in-house dorms, where Pokémon that preferred to live directly inside of Kilo Village slept. To the right was where official business took place, such as meetings, private assemblies, and administrative work. Rhys entered the right stairway. There were very few Pokémon in the Heart during this time of day. With the morning missions taken and afternoon missions still unprocessed, the boards were being cleared off by the disgruntled Aerodactyl, muttering something about Solar Beams.

    It was dark in the hall, and then brighter at the exit. The colors were the same, and Rhys generally didn’t care for Anam’s style. But he was the boss. The Lucario sighed to himself, fidgeting with his bag.

    A Decidueye emerged from the floor in a black mist—not a normal entrance for his kind, but something that the Lucario was accustomed to, specifically for the second-in-command. “Rhys,” James said. “Is this about the recent sighting?”

    “Calm Water Lake? Somewhat. Where is Anam?”

    “He is in his quarters.” He motioned behind him with a wing. “I will see you there.” He sank into the ground again in a cloud of ominous, black smoke.

    Goodra Anam’s quarters was at the very edge of the building, at the back and center of the Heart. He was staring at a large map of the world on the front wall, above the entryway. Due to Anam’s size, it wasn’t easy to see the rest of his room. However, the gentle, strange, sweet smell associated with the Goodra permeated the atmosphere. It was like he bathed in Pecha juice.

    “Oh, hi, Rhys!” Anam said, waving. “I was just looking at the map.”

    Rhys entered and turned around, looking with him. The map was ancient and hand-drawn. Much better copies existed of the world, but this was Anam’s personal copy. The original copy, apparently, complete with dried slime and illegible scribbles in the empty spaces. Kilo Village, and by extension Kilo Mountain, was at the center of this map, displaying a largely circular country in the middle of an ocean on all sides.

    “…Calm Water Lake,” Rhys said, pointing to the northeastern river that fed into the reservoir. “We always suspected an orb would be hidden there. But we didn’t find one, last we checked.”

    “We assumed it was a false lead,” James said. “Previous signs lasted only for a short while, after all. But it happened again, and this time we have actual witnesses to prove it.”

    “Not good.” Rhys sighed. “They might be taken by the Hunters… But perhaps we should also investigate.”

    “There were sightings of a Torkoal entering the lake,” James said. “I assume you know him, Rhys?”

    Rhys looked away from the map and toward the ground. “Yes, I’m sure that Elder attempted to speak with whoever held the orb. Anam… I actually wanted to tell you about some extra information.” He paused to make sure he had their attention. “It’s very likely that it is the Water Orb—my students explored it, unannounced.”

    “W-wait, your students?” Anam said. “You mean… all four of them… together? Wouldn’t that spook the Guardian?”

    “Yes,” Rhys said. “They are fine. Owen is, too. The Water Guardian may not have realized it, thanks to their current state.”

    James’ feathers puffed out considerably. “Those four are not supposed to be together, ever, Rhys.”

    “I understand,” Rhys said, “but a… series of circumstances caused them to be together, recently. But that will be the end of it. Once I get home”—Rhys let out a defeated sigh—"I will… set things right. Owen will return home. The rest of Team Alloy will forget him again. He will train and meditate, and… things will remain as they have always been.”

    “…You’re lying,” Anam said, nibbling on his slimy fingers. The feelers on his head twitched uncomfortably.

    “Ngh.” Rhys’ head went lower. “Anam, don’t start talking about any silly ‘dark emotions’ you may feel from me. I get enough of that from Owen’s Perception.”

    “S-sorry,” Anam said, looking down. “But… it was just so obvious.”

    “We can’t allow this,” James said. “I understand your feelings on the matter, Rhys. But it’s still too dangerous. Perhaps later. But not now.”

    “It has been that way for quite a while, hasn’t it? Perhaps later. Perhaps later…” Rhys smiled bitterly at James. “That is all I wanted to say. Thank you, Anam. Be careful.”

    “Rhys…” Anam sniffed. “I… I don’t want you to be upset!” He wiped gooey tears from his face. “Can I do anything to help?!”

    Rhys closed his eyes. “Anam. A long time ago, you told me that you saw great potential in the bond that my students shared. That if they could train their spirits to overcome their… weaknesses… they could perhaps tip this teetering scale in our favor. But to you, Anam,” he said, turning around, “what is that favor? What then, if we win?”

    “F-favor…?”

    Rhys crossed his arms. “How do you plan to use my students, Anam?”

    “I… I just, um…” Anam hesitated. “I don’t know. But together, they’re really, really strong.”

    “I see,” Rhys said. His eyes were closed again. “Anam.” He stared at Anam, right in his glistening, green eyes. “I’m sorry to hear that you don’t know what to do with that power. But the world will not wait for your decision. And neither will they.”

    “What?” Anam asked. “What’s that mean? Rhys…?”

    The Elite Heart said nothing else and turned to exit. James, glaring from behind, assured Anam that Rhys was merely upset at his circumstances, and he just had to blow off some steam. While this was normally true, James was worried at how affected Anam was, this time.

    “Anam,” James said, “is he not always like this, when he has that tone?”

    Anam gulped, but then shook his head. “This time… he feels different.” The feeler-horns behind his head twitched. “He’s telling the truth… b-but what’s that mean? I dunno… I dunno…”

    <><><>​

    “Goodness. You’re an angry one.”

    Nevren tilted his head to the right and stepped away, narrowly dodging a brutal swing from the muscular Snorlax mutant. In the close quarters of the wooden Dungeon labyrinth, it wasn’t the easiest maneuver, but it seemed like Nevren knew exactly where to move before the strikes even began. The air that followed made the Alakazam’s mustache dance with the flow. The strange creature made another brutal swing, trying to punch him in the torso next, but Nevren vanished in thin air.

    The Snorlax stared at his hand, squeezing his claws dumbly.

    “So unhinged. Is there even any reason within you?” Nevren asked, though the question was rhetorical. He floated just above Snorlax’s shoulders. He tapped a spoon on the behemoth’s head, squinting at some invisible spot on his skull. “Yes, very disturbed. There may not be any coming back from this one. You’re simply too berserk.”

    Snorlax roared and swung behind him; Nevren hopped on air, easily avoiding his arm, and then formed a small ball of light in his hands.

    “It’s a shame, really. I don’t know how to dispatch of someone like you most of the time. You’re a danger to all life, you know. Yes, a true shame…”

    Snorlax opened his mouth, orange energy concentrating at the back of his throat. The sphere emerged, aimed at Nevren.

    “Ah. Hyper Beam. I should have—”

    The blast cut through the ground and into the forest behind him; the Wooden Wilds’ trees splintered near the top, and one of the labyrinthine walls of the Dungeon incinerated completely, leaving a scorched hole into another hallway. Embers and smoke filled the air.

    Wordlessly, Snorlax turned around and lumbered through the Dungeon, growling. His arms twitched and swung, and the Snorlax himself was breathing heavily and angrily. For no particular reason, he roared and slammed his fist into the wall, leaving a crater as big as he was in it. Then, he continued forward.

    “Yes. Too far gone.”

    Snorlax spun around, blasting another Hyper Beam through the smoke. This time, it didn’t hit anything for a while. It struck the end of the hall with an explosion that rocked his chest. Glowing eyes of an Alakazam shined through the smoke.

    “Oh? You can blast them repeatedly? What drawback does that give you, hmm? Perhaps it takes up too much energy.”

    Snorlax fired again, this time directly at the glowing eyes, but they disappeared a split second before the blast could connect. He sniffed the air, trying to find the Alakazam’s scent, but the smoke made that too difficult. He opened his mouth again, but then Nevren reappeared right in front of Snorlax, tapping a single, glowing finger to his forehead.

    Snorlax stopped his blast; the energy that had been gathered dissipated harmlessly in all directions. But his mouth didn’t close; instead, it hung open. His legs wobbled, but he didn’t quite fall down, so much as he leaned against the wall that hadn’t been destroyed.

    Nevren sighed, looking at the entranced mutant. “I apologize in advance.” His eyes glowed brightly. Nevren placed his palm on the Snorlax’s chest; the glow of his eyes channeled rapidly down his neck, into his arm, and into his palm, and then into Snorlax.

    After a brief spasm, the Snorlax disappeared from the Dungeon.

    Nevren dug through the bag over his shoulder and pulled out his Badge. He tapped on the Heart symbol in the center twice and held it in the air. After several seconds of waiting for the safe extraction to be established, he disappeared from the Dungeon, reappearing near the entrance. While he fully expected to see the unconscious, or perhaps dead, Snorlax nearby, nothing waited for him at the entrance to the distortion.

    “Hm.” Nevren inspected the area halfheartedly, but then shrugged. He supposed it was already taken care of, then. Efficient. Knowing there was nothing else to worry about, and his mission was accomplished, Nevren walked toward the Waypoint back to Kilo Village.

    <><><>​

    Rhys’ walk back home was a quiet one. He heard wild Pidgey singing in the trees. Rattata scampered in the bushes. Auras were wild or calm, rushing or resting. They were all weak, really. Wild Pokémon in this area weren’t anything to worry about. That was one reason he enjoyed living in the forest to the side of Kilo Village’s outskirts. The auras didn’t overwhelm his senses. It also meant that if a powerful aura was around, he could spot it instantly.

    “Hello, Rim,” Rhys said. He stopped walking and lifted his head. To his left was the black, rocky Kilo Mountainside. To the right was the surrounding Kilo Forest, comprised of thin trees with thick, lumpy tops. And ahead and behind him, the thin, grassy field that connected the two.

    An Espurr appeared in front of Rhys, ten paces away. She was floating at eye-level to Rhys, but she didn’t look directly at him. She stared at his feet instead.

    “H-hello…” Her voice was like a whisper, barely audible over the wind. Rhys had to strain his sensitive ears just to hear her.

    “I didn’t appreciate your antics last night.”

    “S-sorry…”

    “Will you stop, then?”

    Rim didn’t reply.

    “I see,” Rhys said. “So, it’s begun again. Do not think that I am unprepared, Rim. Send that message to the others.”

    “The… orb… p-please…”

    “The orb?” Rhys grabbed at the strap, pulling his bag up. “You intend to take the orb?”

    “P-please…”

    “I will not allow it.”

    The wind died down. For five seconds, the atmosphere was without sound. Then, it picked up again. The leaves on bushes rustled; wild Pokémon, sensing the tension, fled. The wind stopped again. Rim’s fur, however, continued to blow, energy swirling around her.

    Rhys felt the air twist around him; in a deft movement, he jumped back, dodging Rim’s first Psychic blow. The dirt where he stood warped into an oblong, spiral spike of grass and mud. Rhys countered with a bright ball of concentrated light from his paws, aimed at Rim. It was weakened by an odd, invisible barrier, but still passed through, making the Espurr squeak. She countered with another bout of twisting energy. Rhys dodged it again, but felt the fur at the edge of his tail spiral into a corkscrew.

    Rhys fired another Flash Cannon at her, its brilliance scaring off all spectating wild Pokémon. Rim vanished. Rhys cursed and glanced behind him; he felt a powerful presence in front of him instead, but it was too late. The twisting energy surrounded Rhys, and the attack connected. He lost the wind from his chest; his bones were strained. He jumped away, but dropped his bag in the process. “Ngh—”

    Rim was readying another wave. Rhys ran in the opposite direction, and then redirected himself. He fired another ball of steely light one last time; Rim dodged, but had to close her eyes against the bright detonation. When she opened them again, he was gone, but the bag remained. Based on the dim glow it emitted, the orb was still inside.

    She hastily floated down and pulled the cloth out. The orb fell out of the bag, knocking against the dirt with a dull thud. She smiled in relief and hastily grabbed the orb with both hands.

    Nothing happened. Her smile transitioned into a confused frown.

    In another second, her big, purple eyes bulged with panic. She pulled her hands away, and then touched it again. Nothing. She touched it yet again. Still, nothing. She whimpered and knocked her claws against the side. It made a hollow tink.

    The glow inside was just a latent Aura Sphere; Rhys had mimicked the Mystic radiance perfectly, yet it was all a fabrication. It was simply colored glass.

    <><><>​

    “Got it, guys!” Owen said. “Ha ha, that was… what?” The orb wasn’t in his hands anymore.

    He was standing in a clearing within a forest that was vaguely similar to the one outside Rhys’ home. Sunlight poured through the treetops above, creating dazzling patterns on the ground. A large, open field sat to his right, beyond tree trunks wider than he was tall. To his left—and in all other directions, really—was more and more forest. Tanned wood topped with bright green. There was no mountain and no nearby cave; Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were nowhere to be seen.

    “Okay. I’m crazy,” Owen finally conceded, looking at his hands. He was certain that he was holding the orb, or that he at least grabbed it. But then, in an instant, it was gone, and then… What happened after that? He did feel a bit strange. He had blacked out for at most half a blink. And then, he was here. It still felt like Mispy was holding him, but it was some sort of phantom sensation. He saw no vines wrapped around his abdomen.

    “Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.” But then again, he didn’t feel hungry.

    Something rustled behind him.

    “U-uh—h-h-hello?” The flame on his tail brightened. Fire danced in the back of his throat. His heart was racing with onset panic at being thrown into a completely unfamiliar place.

    More rustling behind him again, where he had once been facing—and to his left, and his right, and above him. Eyes everywhere, little dots in the shadows of bushes and branches. He caught sight of one of them. “H-hey!” he said, pointing. “I saw that! C-come out! And—and do it in a… slow and non-threatening way! P-please!”

    After a few seconds, a Leafeon emerged. Owen deflated with his sigh.

    A few other Pokémon revealed themselves, including a large Jumpluff. Another was a Murkrow—but instead of its iconic, black feathers, it was covered in sharp leaves. Another emerged—this one was a Cubone, holding a solid, wooden stick instead of a bone. Its helmet was made of the same material. The Jumpluff—an actual, normal Pokémon—helped him relax the same way seeing the Leafeon did. If there was anywhere for him to be placed randomly, a place of Grass-Types wasn’t too bad.

    “Hey,” Owen said, lowering his guard. “S-sorry. I’m just a little… confused. Um. Where am I?” He nervously nibbled on his tongue. “I’m sorry if I’m, um, intruding, or anything like that. I think I got here on accident, somehow. I’ll go right home! When… I know where that is.”

    The Pokémon all looked at one another. They seemed to understand Owen, and were murmuring to one another. Owen’s breathing steadied. At least they weren’t wild. Another ideal circumstance. He listened in on the words being said, sensing that quite a few of these Pokémon were tense and ready to fight or flee. He gulped. Was he about to become a Carnivine’s lunch? Some Grass cult’s sacrifice? Even if he had an advantage, he didn’t think he’d be able to take on all of them. It would be the most humiliating way to die, really—a Charmander, eaten by a bunch of Grass-Types.

    The mumbling slowly subsided; more and more of their eyes focused on something behind Owen. The Charmander almost didn’t want to look back. He could feel it. A presence—a powerful, incredible, radiant presence. Perhaps it was the cult’s leader, ready to cook him up. Charmander stew! With only the finest herbs and berries. It cooked itself.

    He couldn’t move; his flame burned brighter, ready to run and torch anything that stopped him.

    “Yo,” said a feminine, yet casual voice. “Took you long enough.”

    By some miracle, Owen heard this voice over the blood pounding in his head. This voice sounded familiar. Recent. Wait! It was the pretty voice!

    He spun around.

    His jaw nearly detached from the rest of his head. “M-M-M… Muh—Muh—”

    “Nice to meet you in spirit, Owen,” the Mew said, smiling wryly. “How’s life?”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 7 - Not Quite Dead
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 7 – Not Quite Dead

    “You’re… you’re Mew.” Despite the being he was speaking to, he pointed an accusatory claw toward the pink god. “Mew!”

    “Yep!”

    “And—and you’re… you’re talking to me. You know my name.”

    “Uh-huh!”

    Owen’s throat sealed itself. He swallowed, but it didn’t help. It was like his face was stuffed with Oran Berries. “You… y-you… you, you… you…”

    “Aww, you’re shy! I like the shy types.” She gave Owen a little wink.

    Owen knew that if he wasn’t in this strange place, he would’ve passed out by now. Instead, he stared in shock. It took a full ten seconds for him to return to his senses. “Mew! Why are you looking at—at me? No, wait, I mean—talking to me? I’m—Did you want to see Rhys, instead? He’s way more important!”

    The Mew giggled. “Oh, call me Star. My name’s Mew Star.”

    “S-S-Star? Y-you—! But you’re important! A-aren’t you supposed to not have a name aside from your species?”

    “What, just because I’m Mew means I can’t have a name to go along with it? C’mon, that’s no fun.” Star puffed her cheeks. “What happens if I run into a lesser Mew? Then we’ll be all kinds of confused! My name is Star, got it? Besides, it’d be confusing if I did this, right?” Suddenly, Star’s body shifted and twisted, starting from a mesh of pink into orange, and she fell to the ground on her feet—a Charmander.

    She gave a little bow. “Eh? Eh?” She followed up with a little spin, wagging her tail to loosen a few embers.

    “Wh—uh—that—” Owen gulped. “D-don’t do that.”

    “Don’t do what?” Star asked, flicking her tail again.

    That. Please—stop.”

    Star eyed Owen, as if getting a read for him, but then shrugged. “Fine,” she relented, and she melted back to her floating, Mew self.

    Owen felt the heat slowly leave his face. “Okay. Okay, that’s better. It’s n-nice to meet you, um, Star. I’m—I’m Charmander Owen! And—”

    “Oh, please, I already know all about you.” She waved a paw dismissively in the air. “I’m Mew! Well, not a Mew. The Mew, yeah? I’m pretty high up in the pantheon or whatever.”

    “O-oh, so, you’re—”

    “Creator of common life, yes,” Star said, nodding. “Pretty nifty, huh? I have a few perks, too. Reading minds, shape-shifting, you know.”

    “Th-that’s… But…!”

    “So! I hate to be the one to tell you this”—She clapped her paws together—“but by touching that orb in Rhys’ room, you kinda more or less closed off your fate to three options. Okay? Mind if I tell you those?”

    “Wait—the Orb? The Orb? Was I supposed to—I mean, was I really not supposed to touch it?”

    “No way, definitely not.” Star shook her head, though she didn’t hide her playful smile. “I mean, you’re fine, probably, but you probably also shouldn’t have gone against what the old Lucario told you. But hey, that’s karma, right?”

    The many spectating Pokémon said nothing. They all listened silently. Owen noticed that none of them were really bowing to Star, or doing anything of that nature. He, too, refrained from kneeling before her. It didn’t feel right, anyway. Not after what she just said. The little connections in his mind clicked together. The pink mist, the voice, and now, this Creator before him telling him that he shouldn’t have done everything that voice told him to do.

    “…YOU TOLD ME TO TOUCH IT!”

    “Did I?” Star asked innocently, holding her right hand to her cheek, mouth agape. “Oh, no! Maybe it was my evil twin, Rats Wem!”

    That earned another long, thoughtful, existential silence from the Charmander. Even his tail dimmed. Owen had no idea the Creator could be so juvenile. His worldview was melting by the second. Entire perspectives shattered. Whole outlooks upturned. He didn’t even think Creator Mew was real. Now, not only was she real, but she was some sort of—

    “Okay, okay, fine.” Star bowed her head in what Owen knew was a false apology. “I’ll admit it. I may have egged you on to touching it, and maybe I convinced Rhys to leave the Orb for you to finally grab. A lot of people didn’t want you to touch that thing. Including Rhys, until this morning, and until—”

    “So it was intentional!”

    “And,” Star went on, “it’s still something that’s probably a bad idea. But it just happened to be the least bad idea. Kinda like choosing between cutting off your head and cutting off your arm.”

    Owen winced. “Okay. Fine. Good. Good to hear. Very good. Just… tell me where I am, first.”

    “Huh. Okay, that’s a good transition.” She floated higher, motioning to the bright forest. The dazzling patterns still mesmerized Owen. Now that he had a better look at the branches—which covered the sky like thick Spinarak webs—he spotted a few Grassy Pidgey nesting in the bunches of teardrop-shaped leaves.

    “You touched what’s known as the Grass Orb.” She then motioned to the tall, bright treetops above her. “And this here is the Grass Realm. It’s an offshoot of the spirit world, somewhere between the world of the living and the dead, where Grass Pokémon of times current and old come to socialize and help keep this Orb safe from intruders. Y’know, people like you.”

    Owen stiffened. “O-oh, I’m… I’m an intruder?”

    “Yeah, but we wouldn’t call you hostile,” Star dismissed, “which is why you’re still standing here. Though, I’ll be honest, I did have to warn some of these guys in advance.”

    A shiver ran up Owen’s spine. Some of these Pokémon, even if they were Grass Types, seemed incredibly powerful. He briefly envisioned the Pidgey in the trees all swarming him at once, plucking away at him scale by scale.

    “Okay. So, tell me this. What can I do? What are my options th-that you said I’d have to pick from?”

    The Mew nodded. “I’ll start with the option that can get you back home.” She waited for Owen to say something, but when he didn’t, she continued. “Right now, you’re in the spirit world, Owen. Okay?”

    “Yeah. So that means…?”

    “It means, in the real world, your body is kinda… not alive. But it’s being sustained on a basic level by the power of the Orb you touched—for a while, at least.”

    A blink’s time passed in silence. Then, “Wh—I’m DEAD?!”

    “Now—calm down for a sec!” Star held him by the shoulders, though her light body didn’t keep him from trembling.

    Owen was already panicking, heart rate increasing; he was breathing faster than his body could handle.

    “Not yet! You’re super-almost-dead, but not dead-dead, okay?”

    Owen stabilized enough to speak, though his eyes remained wide. “O-okay… okay…” He steadied his breath, but he was still shaken. “So—so how do I become not-super-almost-dead?”

    Star let him go. “Inside this realm, there’s a Dungeon. At the center, there’s something called a Core. The Core is going to have to accept or reject you, depending on whether I like you or not—or, I guess if you can force your way through, but,”—she flapped her lips with a puff of air—“no way that’s happening. But don’t worry, Owen, you’ll pass that test. But… if you take it… you also have to want it. And to want that, you need to know what grabbing that Orb… entails.”

    Owen nodded silently.

    “It, uh… the Grass Orb, uh… it’s… it’s going to give you a lot of power. Power that won’t really show itself at first, but the more you hone it, the stronger you’ll become.”

    Owen blinked. “What’s the downside?” he asked. “I’ll be able to help way more people if I’m stronger, right? Does it shorten my lifespan or something?”

    “I mean, indirectly. People may want to hunt you down for that power to have it for themselves.”

    Someone spoke from behind them. “It’s what happened to me.”

    Owen turned around, looking at a Jumpluff.

    “I was the… previous holder of the Grass Orb, long ago.” He stared uneasily at Owen. “And I was slain. From my body emerged the Orb—but before it could be claimed, Rhys took it, protecting the power from being acquired by someone with… less benevolent intentions.”

    “The Espurr?” Owen asked.

    “Look,” Star said, “a lot of people are after the Orb—and that Espurr is one of them, yeah. Jumpluff Klent”—she motioned to him—“decided to stay back here in order to protect the Grass Orb from the inside, and do anything he could to keep someone from getting to the Core.”

    Klent sighed. “I protected the Orb for five hundred years,” he said, “but I just wasn’t strong enough against that sort of power…”

    Star nodded. “Owen,” she said, “it’s a huge obligation. You’ll be, eh… you’ll be throwing a normal life away. And if you’re scared, you’ll have to go into hiding, like a lot of other holders did. It’s… it’s not fun, Owen, if you aren’t strong. And you aren’t strong. Not yet. But Rhys could help you, and maybe…”

    Owen caught onto something. “Wait.” His flame flickered anxiously. “So, if I get trained, I’ll be strong enough to guard the Orb, right? Sure. But… why me? Why do I pass so easily?”

    “Uhh—” Star fidgeted. Her tail twitched. “You have a lot of… potential! That’s all.”

    Owen crossed his arms. “How come, for real?”

    “No, that’s really it—you have a lot of potential. You can definitely keep the Orb safe. And if you do, maybe, I dunno, maybe things can work out?”

    “Things can work out,” Owen repeated. He figured that Star was aware of his perceptiveness. Yet, she planned to be evasive anyway? “What things?” he asked. “I mean—you aren’t telling me everything. What are my other two options?”

    Star hummed, creating a small, purple bubble of Psychic energy to lounge on. “Right, the other two. Okay. One is, you can stay here, like Klent, and protect the Orb. The other is, you come with me to the aura sea, and pass on.”

    One of the Pidgey let out a soft chirping noise, nuzzling against the other. Jumpluff Klent quietly rubbed his pom-poms together.

    “Wh—what choice is that?!” Owen blurted. “So, I either take this power, die, or super die?!”

    “I mean, uh… Yes.”

    “Well then, I don’t really have a choice, do I?!” Owen growled. The amount of information was too much for him to fully comprehend; for once, he was able to focus on just one thing. If he didn’t accept, he would never return to the living world again. Nothing else mattered.

    “Take… just take me to the Core.” This temptress had led him right into this divine trap.

    “Right,” Star said.

    <><><>​

    Owen walked with his arms crossed, head down. The power seemed good. He’d be able to use it for so many rescue missions! But he’d also be hunted down. But if he trained with Rhys, he’ll be able to defend himself! Oh, but then he’ll have to tell his parents.

    Owen gulped. All throughout their walk, Pokémon watched him from the bushes, from the shadows, from the branches above—there was even a wooden Ekans nestled inside one of the trunks, eying him silently.

    “Um, Star?” the Charmander—perhaps the only Charmander who’d ever set foot in this realm—said. “Does this mean, if I live for a long time, that I’ll outlive everybody? Klent said five hundred years…”

    “D’aw, you’re fine,” Star said. “Remember, the Orb taps into the spirit world. They’ll be around.”

    For some reason, this lifted a weight off his shoulders. Star looked down at him, bumping up against the tough scales on his ill-defined shoulders. “Aw, you think I’d put you through that? Don’t worry, I’ll help you out. I try to help everyone out, if I can.”

    “I’d hope so!” Owen said. “You made life!”

    Star giggled. “I do my best.” She then stopped and pointed ahead. There was a distortion of light that was wider than one he’d ever seen before, expanding all the way up, left, and right, like a giant, vertical lake. It only became visible then they approached; prior to that final step, it was unnoticeable.

    “That’s the Dungeon that leads to the Core. It’s a single-segment, giant Dungeon. All you need to do is get to the center.”

    “…Is it hard?”

    Star hesitated before she answered, which did nothing good for Owen’s nerves. “It’s not my place to decide. This is the domain of Grass—it’s not my territory.” She motioned to the distortion again, the ripples of which suddenly felt a lot more ominous. “Normally, you’ll have spirits protecting it, but seeing as I already gave you the okay, they’ll let you pass without a fuss, hopefully. Maybe some of them might be a little leery, you know, but… Aw, hey! It’ll probably be just fine!”

    The Mew’s confident smile was enough to brighten his tail. “Thanks, Star.” Despite his circumstances, she was still Mew. Maybe she knew something he didn’t, and couldn’t tell him for important reasons. What did he know? She seemed nice enough. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise. Some sort of divine surprise party. Owen used to not even believe Star existed, let alone that the Books were real, but here she was. He was probably in too much of a mental shock for the implications of all that to settle in, but he didn’t want to dwell long enough to let that happen. “I… I don’t know what this is all going to turn out like, but it’s… I’m glad that I got to talk to you.”

    “D’aw, don’t worry about it,” Star said, scratching her left ear. “…Owen.”

    “Yeah?”

    “Remember. A lot of people aren’t going to be happy that you took this Orb. To them, you just aren’t fit to be a Guardian. I know you’re a lot older than you look, and I can see into your heart, and I know you’re a good ‘mon and all that. But not everyone else sees it the same way. So, once you get this power… I want you to take it slow, yeah? Don’t get too creative with it, don’t try to make moves to take on more than you did before. Follow what Rhys says. Nevren’s good, too. And Anam. Use your judgement and think conservatively to earn their trust.”

    It was uncharacteristically serious of her—making it a bit difficult for Owen to take this seriously. What if it was all just a big joke? Still, he’d get nowhere by doubting her. What she said sounded reasonable so far.

    “I get it.” Owen sighed. “Everybody keeps calling me a kid because I’m so small. I mean, who ever heard of an adult Charmander, right?”

    “It’s more common than you think,” Star admitted. “Civilized, non-Heart Pokémon don’t exactly fight that often. Wouldn’t be surprised if most folks just didn’t evolve. I’d call it lost potential, but hey, a life of peace doesn’t sound too bad.”

    “Well—you know what I mean. And I get what you mean, too. I’ll… take it slow. And train. I… I mean, I always try to take things carefully, right?”

    “Owen,” Star said with an amused smile, “if you took everything carefully, you wouldn’t be here.”

    Owen’s face felt hot. “F-from here on out, I’ll be more careful.”

    “Good!” She clapped her tiny paws together. “And if you ever have any doubts, you can ask me, or even your spirits. We’re here for you. Now, get outta here.” She shooed him away with her tail. “Grab that Core.”

    And with that, the Charmander passed through the distortion.

    <><><>​

    Big indeed. Owen lost track of time during his adventure through the single-section Dungeon. Every turn through these bright, narrow halls led to a new room, and every so often, he ran into a spirit that helped him on his way. The walls were made entirely of twisted bark, like a frozen ocean of wood that sprouted entire trees on either side. He’d never seen something so surreal in any Dungeon before.

    During his walk, Owen did his best to try to look polite and proper; if he didn’t want to provoke some sort of divine wrath from these spirits of a Type that would naturally fear him, he’d have to be on his best behavior. Every so often, he’d run into a spirit or two that fled at the very sight of him. Other times, he’d see a spirit that just watched him nervously. When he had to pass by one in a smaller corridor, he’d give a polite nod and try to make some sort of casual conversation with them, especially if they were going in the same direction.

    They always watched him with an uneasy leer when he did that. Did Owen confuse them, somehow? It wasn’t that unheard of for a Fire to chitchat with a Grass, was it? Or perhaps they were just from a different era. After all, times had changed; Kilo Village fostered a society of inclusiveness and mutual understanding across all kinds of life, all sorts of Pokémon. He had explained that to the other spirits, and a few of them asked what he did for a living; Owen replied that he was a Heart, and beforehand, a Provisionary Heart—that he rescued Pokémon and helped out all across Kilo.

    They asked if by ‘Kilo’ he meant the central city or the world, and Owen happily replied, “Both!”

    But eventually—inevitably—Owen ran out of things to talk to with these awkward spirits that, no matter what he said, always gave him puzzled or fascinated looks, gawking at him like he was some kind of anomaly. But while he had grown used to that, he was starting to get sick of actually navigating this strange maze, even with the spirits guiding him in the right direction.

    “H-hang on,” Owen said to the tenth spirit: a tea-flavored Slurpuff. “Is this really the fastest way there?”

    “It is,” said the spirit. “Having trouble? You can always take a break.”

    “N-no, no, I’m fine,” he said. “It’s just… so big for a Dungeon. A single section, too!”

    “Well, it’s the spirit world, so some things are a little different. But you’re really close, now. Just a few hundred more rooms.”

    “Aaaagh…”

    But, eventually, he did find his way. He made the final turn and saw a long, dark hallway. The forest was quite dim here, and the trees were overgrown, blotting out the sun—or, whatever it was that simulated a sun in this realm. The only light source was a dim glow at the end of the hall. Owen walked toward it. His shadow loomed threateningly behind him the closer he got. The glow came from higher up. He entered a small clearing lined with a wall of more twisted wood, arching into a giant dome.

    “There it is,” Star said.

    Owen yelped and spun around. “W-were you following me?!”

    “No, I just teleported here,” Star said. “Say, are you ready? All you need to do is reach out to the light, and let it go into your chest. That’ll be enough.”

    “O-okay,” Owen said. “And… will it hurt?”

    “Might feel a little hot.”

    “Well, I like hot,” Owen said, perking up. Star’s left brow raised slightly, and he immediately grumbled and faced the Core again. He squinted at the light and held his small arms out. “Okay, um, Core! I’ll take care of you from now on!”

    The core got brighter. It was getting closer to him. He shut his eyes and felt an intense heat emanate from his chest. “Ngh—!” He gasped and opened his eyes. The center of his chest was glowing. It slowly faded, and the clearing became dark except for the flicker of the flame on his tail. “Wow…” he said.

    “Nice!” Star said.

    “What now?” he asked.

    “Just wait a bit,” Star said. “Takes a little time for the spirit to assimilate and stuff. Say, how was the walk?”

    “Hated it.”

    “Well, at least you weren’t fighting spirits the whole way.”

    Owen snorted.

    A few seconds of awkward silence passed. Star looked aimlessly to the left and right, as if searching for a conversation starter. “So,” the Mew said, “what d’you wanna do? Maybe I could turn into a Charmander again.”

    “Why?”

    “I dunno. I’m bored. Maybe we can—”

    Something bright caught Owen’s eye. He looked at his arms; lights were coming from his feet, rising like bubbles. “Wh-what’s happening?!”

    “Hey, you finished absorbing the power! Nice. You’re waking up,” Star said. “Oh, right, I forgot. Uh—when you wake up, don’t panic, but you might look a little—”

    But the lights were too much, and Owen evaporated in front of her. Star stared at where Owen once was and sighed.

    “Eh. He’ll be fine.”

    Star shrugged and spun around. She saw a silhouette.

    “Star,” Klent said, standing at the entrance.

    “Oh, hey.”

    The Mew tried to look casual, but the quiet flicking of her ears and tail suggested that she knew why Klent was there. She didn’t break the silence—didn’t know how to—but she concentrated on the pom-pom on the top of Klent’s head, if only to give the illusion of looking at him in the eyes.

    “…Owen. Why do you trust him?” he asked. “I agreed to go along with it, and I held my tongue while he was here, but… I still don’t exactly want to help him right now.”

    “Oh, come on, it’s been so long,” Star said. “It’s not like—"

    “And yet—”

    “Don’t ‘and yet’ me, you know this is our last shot!” Star said. “And Owen is the best one to do it. You know that. He’s stable now. Mostly. And if we wait any longer, Eon will get all the Orbs instead. No more procrastinating. We need to get Owen, and those other three, nice and ready. With Team Alloy or whatever they call themselves together, and with them in control, it’ll work out.”

    Klent ruffled his pom-poms together irritably. “I won’t go against him,” the Jumpluff said, “but I’m not ready to help him, either. The other spirits will. But I’ll… just watch, for now.” He turned around. “I’m going to see Amelia. She’s still shaken by all this.”

    Star flinched. “O-oh… right, yeah, okay,” Star said softly. “Um, Okay. Take care? It’s—it’s not as bad as it seems. Amia and Alex are doing a great job, and so is Rhys with the other three. I promise, this’ll work out.”

    Klent stopped at this, head lowering. His pom-pom bobbed idly in the air, and then he looked back. “Will you make that a Divine Promise?”

    Star bit her lower lip.

    Klent gave Star an angry smile. “I’m going to see Amelia.”

    “Yeah…”

    The Jumpluff spirit vanished; shortly after, so did the Mew.

    <><><>​

    “HE’S COMING BACK!” Demitri yelled into the cave. At the entrance to the kitchen, he saw Rhys returning from his meeting, walking past his little berry garden. The Lucario was distracted by a particularly ripe Pecha Berry, picking it from the branches. But even with those few extra seconds, they simply didn’t have enough time to cover up what had happened.

    “Is—is he awake yet?!” The Axew rushed past the kitchen table, through the rocky halls, and into Gahi’s room, nearly falling into his sand pit.

    “I dunno, scale-bag, the guy’s tail isn’t even lit up!” Gahi said, churring angrily next to Owen in his Rawst bed. The Trapinch slammed his head against the dead Charmander’s side, expecting that to be enough to rouse him from an eternal slumber.

    “B-but he’s breathing, right? Barely?!” Demitri asked. He was hyperventilating, on the edge of fainting, at risk of becoming the second casualty of the morning.

    Mispy, on the other side of the Charmander, shot another Heal Pulse at his body, but to no effect. As far as his body was concerned, he was in top shape. No bruises, no abnormalities, no ailments—he just happened to be dead.

    Gahi paced in a fast, small circle in the room, into the hall, and then back into the room again, thinking of a way that they could get Owen awake. “We—we ain’t gonna wake’m in time, are we?”

    “Is he even… alive?” Mispy brought her leaf to his chest, feeling for a pulse. He had been breathing shallowly before, and her leaf had felt the warm breath from his nose. But it had been fading quickly.

    She noticed that Owen’s body was turning a sickly green, and his scales felt disturbingly soft, like he was already decomposing in front of them.

    “I’m home,” Rhys said, entering the mouth of the cave.

    “H-heyyy, Rhys!” Demitri greeted, running up to him in the kitchen. He bowed a bit too deeply toward the Lucario. “H-how are you doing?”

    “I am doing well,” Rhys said, staring suspiciously. “And what are you doing? Where is Owen?”

    Mispy and Gahi step out of the bedroom.

    “H-he… eh, he’s… resting,” Gahi said, glancing at Mispy. “Yeah? Just having a nap? M-Mispy?”

    The Chikorita was incredibly pale.

    Rhys entered his own room and inspected the shelf. Mostly everything appeared to be in its proper place. He saw his Pecha stash was untouched. His artifacts and mementos pristine. The Book of Mew lay undisturbed. Yet, the Grass Orb was missing. The trio knew, immediately, that Rhys figured it out.

    “Students,” he said, slowly turning, “I want you to show me Owen.”

    “H-he’s… he’s sleeping,” Demitri said.

    “Y-yeah, maybe we shouldn’t bother’m,” Gahi said.

    Mispy was on the verge of tears. Demitri knocked his claws against one another, eyes wide. Owen was dead. They let him die. All because they didn’t listen to—

    Owen groaned from the bedroom. “Ugh, my head…”

    “Th-there!” Demitri said. “He’s awake!”

    Mispy’s leaf twitched in surprise. She turned, still in shocked disbelief, and trotted after Demitri. Rhys followed them with Gahi.

    “W-wait,” Demitri said, “I… Owen?”

    Gahi stared. “How the…”

    Rhys crossed his arms in resignation. “Hello, Owen.”

    Owen rubbed his head. Something about it felt… different. He felt—what was the word—fuzzy? No, that wasn’t right. It was as if his entire body was covered in a soft, flexible layer of scales. Not his usual, firm plating. He ran his right hand on his left arm. He recognized the feeling. Vaguely, just barely reminiscent of feathers. It reminded him of his bed.

    “L-leaves…?” He looked down. His front, once a pale brown, was the same color as pale grass; what were once orange scales along his back and arms were now sea-green. “What?”

    Owen took in a sharp breath in panic. What sort of joke was this?! He felt something welling up inside his gut. Normally, it would feel like a heat building in the back of his throat. Ember—a bad habit of a reflex if he ever felt in trouble, perhaps a fragment of his primal instincts. But this time, he felt something solid choking him from the inside of his neck. His eyes bulged in surprise—out from his mouth came a single, fat vine that narrowly missed Demitri’s shoulder. It snapped against the wall with a loud crack! and fell limply on the floor, twitching.

    Owen choked on his own vine. He flailed helplessly against it, trying to pull it out of him, but it was attached somewhere deep inside his stomach. He tried to breathe in. It writhed like a struggling Wurmple, and then retracted rapidly into his mouth. Owen gasped for air.

    “Ugh—! Th-that’s not right!” he said. “Wait—leaves… everything became… The Grass Orb.” He rubbed his head, looking at his leafy paws. “W-wait… that means…!” Panicking, he grabbed his tail, pulling it around to look for his fire. Just one thing to keep him sane, just one remnant of his Fiery pride. It couldn’t have all changed. He was a Charmander! If he lost the one thing—

    At the tip of his tail was not a flame, but a flower: a small, white daffodil.

    “AAAAAUUUUUUUUGH!”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 8 - A Thousand Heart Secret
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 8 – A Thousand-Heart Secret

    “I’m a PLANT!” Owen screeched, grabbing his chest and tugging gently at the feather-like arrangement of leaves that covered his body. He yelped when he realized that it was a lot easier to pull them away than he had expected. One of the leaves fell to the ground; a tiny splotch of green blood remained where the leaf had been plucked.

    “Ow.” He at the small hole left behind. The bleeding stopped quickly. “N-not that there’s anything wrong with being a plant,” he said to Mispy, who was glaring at him. “J-just—I’m a Charmander! Charmander! Like fire! Not a—a—”

    “Grassmander?” Demitri said.

    Demitri’s remark sent Gahi over the edge. The Trapinch laughed, rolling his huge head and round body on the ground. “GRASSMANDER!” he shouted to the heavens. “Oh, Arceus may’s well kill me now; there ain’t nothing gonna top this!”

    “It’s—it’s not funny!” Owen’s feathers fanned out, making him look much larger and puffier than before. “I’m not ready for this!” He knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that Gahi had a point to laugh at the situation, for one reason or another. And perhaps, in a few days, Owen would laugh, too. But for now, at the front of Owen’s mind, the Grassmander was thinking about the most effective way to crack an exoskeleton.

    “Now, Owen, close your eyes,” Rhys said carefully. “Try to meditate, yes? Can you do that?”

    “I…! I… I’ll try.” Owen felt the vine in the back of his throat well up. He was used to embers billowing from his mouth when he did that. Instead, he felt that same, horrible tendril prodding at the back of his throat. He gulped to keep it down. It writhed in his gut like a giant parasite. Owen clutched his belly. “I guess it’s—is this permanent?”

    “Likely not,” Rhys said. “Owen… you absorbed the Grass Orb into your being. The Grass Type, in other words, is manifesting itself in you. But soon, your body will properly assimilate it, and you will return to your Fiery self—and, perhaps after a bit of training, you’ll be able to transform from one form to the other at will. That can be quite useful.”

    “O-okay… okay, I think that makes sense…” His breathing steadied. “So, I just have to wait for now? Rhys—how do you know about all this?”

    “I’ve studied it before,” he said dismissively, “And, hrm… Owen, could you come with me? I would like to take you to town.”

    “H-hey, can we come, too?” Demitri said.

    Gahi raised his head, finally calm enough to not chitter his laughs between words. “Yeah, I wanna hear what this is all about.”

    “Please?” Mispy asked.

    “Ngh… I’m not sure,” Rhys said. “We will see.”

    “We’re gonna follow,” Gahi said.

    Rhys growled, “Are you going to disobey me?”

    Mispy shrugged with her vines. “Owen will just tell us.”

    The Lucario growled. He knew they were right. “You will come,” he said, “but you will be silent unless addressed. Understood?”

    “Silent, eh?”

    “Gahi.” Rhys glared.

    “Okay, okay.” Gahi flicked his head in what was his species’ equivalent of an eyeroll. “Silent.”

    Owen nervously shifted his stance. He thought Rhys would be extraordinarily upset at him for touching the Orb, and he remembered Star’s words to behave conservatively for now. Perhaps she was right about convincing him; he didn’t feel that tension from Rhys. At all. In fact, Owen sensed… relief. Rhys was relieved that Owen grabbed the Orb.

    Somehow, this made the Grassy Charmander—he refused to adopt the term “Grassmander”—feel even worse.

    Rhys retreated into the storage room and returned with what appeared to be a cloth three times the size of Owen. “Wear this.”

    “Wear?” Owen asked. “What’s…?”

    “This is a cloak. We can’t let you be visible in public. You may be mistaken for a mutant.”

    Owen gulped, reaching for the cloak. It was heavy. It felt like it was made from some sort of fur and silk. It was a wonderful shade of blue, with hints of black and cream-colored fur as well. Owen brought it a bit closer, sniffing the disguise curiously. It felt quite natural and soft. A strange sense of nostalgia washed over him—something about the smell made him want to nestle into it for a nice, long—

    “AUGH!” Owen hurled the cloak against the wall. “GROSS!”

    Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi all flinched.

    Demitri in particular hid behind Mispy, clutching at his tusks as if they would keep him grounded. “Wh-what’s wrong?!”

    “What’re you panicking fer?” Gahi said, clicking his jaws.

    Owen pointed an accusatory claw at Rhys, and his vine shot from his mouth halfway. He chomped down to keep it from fully emerging, and he swallowed it back. After a fit of coughing, he said raggedly, “That’s your FUR!”

    “Of—of course it is! I happen to shed quite a bit during the summer!” Rhys raised his muzzle indignantly. “I wasn’t going to put it all to waste! I made it into a cloak. I wove it with some Wurmple silk for a foundation, let it dry, and—”

    “I’m wearing YOU!” Owen squeezed his eyes shut. “Who hoards their own fur?! You don’t see me making a—making a bag out of my discarded scales! I think I’m going to throw up—”

    Owen belched a volley of claw-sized seeds from his mouth. Rhys ducked to avoid the high-velocity projectiles, which instead clattered loudly against the rocky wall behind him.

    “Bullet Seed,” Mispy said with wide, fascinated eyes.

    Owen groaned. Rhys stepped to his pelt and picked it up, dusting off a few of the bullets. He put it back in Owen’s arms.

    “You will wear this,” he said. “We cannot go in public otherwise. Understood?”

    Owen stared at the cloak of Rhys. The mixture of disgust and comfort he got from holding it in his arms was enough to make the vine in his belly writhe. “Unghh.” He finally slipped it on.

    It was very warm.

    <><><>​

    Owen walked in total silence on their way to Kilo Village. He didn’t know what he looked like; he only knew that the cloak covered him quite well. He felt a lot like a Mimikyu, or a Tangela, hidden away in a veil of darkness. He wondered, briefly, if this was going to be how he’d have to live forever. Even if he would eventually return to his Fiery self… that Espurr was going to hunt him down. He didn’t feel much stronger. If she was out for blood, the fight would be over in one misstep.

    Owen briefly lifted his cloak to catch a glance at the sky. It looked like it was just before noon. He spotted another Heart passing by—a Tyranitar. He stared at Owen curiously; the transformed Charmander quickly hid beneath his cloak again. The Heart paid them no mind for one reason or another; perhaps, with Rhys, he didn’t want to interfere.

    A nagging feeling tugged in the back of his mind. He felt bare, despite the cloak. He realized shortly after that there was a distinct lack of weight on his left shoulder. He’d forgotten his bag at Rhys’ home. Too late now, he thought.

    “How long was I out…?”

    “It was not very long,” Rhys said. “I left to speak with the Hearts, and then I returned home after a… small errand. Then, well, I arrived. Apparently, you immediately went for the Orb once I was gone, is that right?”

    “M-maybe.” Yes. “But… I feel like I’ve been gone for days. That Dungeon in the Orb was huge!”

    “Time passes differently in the spirit world,” Rhys said. “It can go as fast or as slow as it wishes, depending on the environment, whoever commands it, and other conditions.”

    Owen navigated up the stairway, tripping over the cloak—it was too long for him. There were a few instances where his legs and tail were exposed to the world. Rhys was quick to shove Owen back underneath.

    On the way up the stairs, Owen wondered—bitterly—why he had to get caught up in this in the first place. What were these Orbs even for, anyway? Why did they exist at all? He wanted to ask, but he had a feeling that there were more pressing answers he wanted to learn, first. For example, how someone would react to seeing a Grass Charmander. If he was mistaken for a mutant, he’d be mulch in seconds, wouldn’t he?

    All the while, Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi—even Gahi—were quietly following behind, though it seemed that they were just as curious about where this was all going. He heard the pitter-patter of their feet despite not seeing them. Small comforts.

    They walked through the halls of the large, heart-shaped building, going straight for Anam’s quarters. Owen, recognizing the turns being made and following the purple path painted on the ground, realized where they were going. Straight to Goodra Anam. “W-wait, how big is this Orb stuff?”

    “Bigger than you will expect.”

    “Owen!”

    “M-mom?!” Owen threw his cloak off with an enthusiasm that insulted Rhys—thankfully, nobody else was around. He pointed at the blue Gardevoir. “G-guys! It’s—why’s my mom here?” They couldn’t show up for his promotion into the Hearts, yet suddenly they’re here on such short notice? If he still had a flame, it would’ve been blazing irritably.

    Amia ran and picked him up, holding him close to her chest. Owen murmured something about not being handled that way, and that he wasn’t some kid to pick up, but his protests were weak and halfhearted. Being embraced by his mother was something he really needed.

    “Oh, Owen, I was so worried! I thought something had happened, and…! Oh, your father has been completely distraught!”

    The Magmortar emerged from Anam’s office next and nodded. He looked like he wanted nothing more than to hold him, too. But he held back, considering Owen’s new Type. “Owen! What happened?” he said with an odd delay. “Why are you…?”

    “…Amia,” Rhys said, nodding at her.

    “O-oh, Rhys.” Amia’s shoulders sagged slightly. “Um… hello. How have you been?”

    Owen blinked. “Wait,” he said. “What’s going on? You—you know my mom? Mom? You know… Rhys? H-he’s an Elite!”

    Owen took it all in. Amia and Alex, his adoptive parents, were both there. They knew Rhys. And now, they were all going to see the Head, Anam… “Why’d you come here?”

    “Wait, hang on.” Gahi tilted his huge head. “Yer mom’s a Gardevoir? How’s that work? I may not be much of a reader, but ain’t the mom usually the same species?!”

    Mispy bopped Gahi on the head with a vine. “Don’t ask that.”

    “I was adopted,” Owen replied routinely.

    Demitri sighed, rubbing his right tusk. “Sorry about Gahi.” After an awkward two seconds of silence, he added, “If it’s any help, er, we don’t know our real parents, either!”

    “You don’t say.” He would normally be suspicious of them sharing that aspect with him, too, but there were bigger issues to deal with in his head. It was a struggle to triage all of the incoming questions he had swirling around his head.

    “Er, actually,” Amia said, addressing Owen’s question, “we came here because James came for us. He said that you’d be here soon, and we’d… want to see you. I think he was right.”

    “Owen,” Alex said, “why did you touch the Orb? Why didn’t you tell us that—”

    “Wait, you know about the Orb?” Owen asked.

    “You may stop your questions, Owen.” A silhouette of a Decidueye rose from the ground in the form of a black fog, the rest of his colors arriving seconds later. “Anam is ready to see you. Rhys, keep a close eye on the entrance while we talk, yes?”

    “Of course.”

    “Is—is nobody going to point out that James just rose from the ground like s-some sort of phantom?” Owen asked. “H-he’s a Ghost Type, but he’s not…!” He followed them, but at this point, Owen wondered if he was still dead.

    They all entered Anam’s room. Rhys stayed at the back with his eyes closed, standing guard. He was constantly watching for auras. Owen, uneasy, thought about the Espurr from before. Is that what Rhys was looking for?

    Anam’s office was only about seven of the Goodra’s paces across. Upon entering, the left side was riddled with books covered in a permanent, hard layer of dry slime. It flaked off to the touch, but it had a net gain every time the Goodra contacted them. Owen spotted, at the far end of the shelf, an ancient-looking edition of the Book of Arceus, with a white cover that was faded and worn by time. Perhaps it was preserved only because of the layer of dried slime that encrusted it. He even spotted on an upper shelf a thick book titled The Unabridged Encyclopedia of Pokémon Abilities and Techniques, Seventh Edition.

    Owen, realizing that he was only familiar with the sixth edition, stared enviously at it. For a precious few seconds, he’d forgotten about his troubles, replaced by the petty thought of how much it would cost to buy one. Unfortunately, the feeling of leaves on his arm brought his current issue back to the forefront of his mind.

    The right side of the office had a giant board with many papers pinned all over. It seemed to be for the sake of planning and organizing. It looked incredibly chaotic; Owen couldn’t make out any pattern to where everything was placed.

    The middle of the room had a desk made of dark wood, polished either by a craftsperson or by Anam’s general moistness. It was covered in a stack of paper a quarter as tall as Owen’s head, with a small bottle of Bluk Berry concentrate to the side for ink. Behind the desk, to the back of the office, was a pool of water that Anam likely used to stay hydrated. It had its own current—the inflow came from the left, with the outflow going to the back.

    Anam sat in this pool of water, nibbling at his fingers nervously. “Owen,” the Goodra said, frowning at the Grass-Charmander. “Rhys… is this what you wanted to happen?” When he got no reply, he continued. “Why? This might…”

    “Hold on,” Owen said. “What’s going on? How come you guys are all… do you guys all know something I don’t?”

    Of course they did.

    “Hey, we’ve got the same problem,” Gahi said. “What’s going on?”

    Mispy wrapped a vine around Gahi’s huge jaws to keep him quiet. Demitri remained silent. Perhaps if they just let them speak, all would become clear—or, as clear as they could make it, at least.

    “Owen,” Rhys said, “There is something that you should know about… the Orbs, and their history. For a long while, they have been guarded by Pokémon like you—those who have taken hold of the Orb, claiming its Core as their own. These Pokémon are known as Guardians—ideally, there would be one for each Type. A Guardian of Grass, in other words, would be you.”

    “I’m… I’m the Grass Guardian.”

    “Well, you are now, after taking the Orb.”

    “Recently,” James said, “there has been an… increase in Orb-related activity. A Pokémon has figured out how to find them, somehow, and is now trying to gather them up. We do not know how many she has, but she has at least one, due to the glow she gives off in the darkness. The Espurr, known as Rim. Is that correct, Rhys?”

    “Yes,” Rhys said. “I have tracked her for quite some time. We used to be familiar with one another, until our motivations… diverged. Now, she has an Orb within her, likely taken from a slain Guardian.”

    “S-slain?” Owen squeaked, his head feeling oddly icy with anxiety. “Wait, motivations? Wait, but what’s the point? Why does she want them? To be a little stronger?”

    James shook his head. “Each extra Orb amplifies one’s power. To gather them all within one being? You could become something far greater than some of the highest Legendary Pokémon known to us. You could rival Arceus himself. At least… that is what you have gathered, Rhys, from your research?”

    “Yes,” Rhys said. “Gathering all of the Orbs will grant you… considerable power. You could distort reality itself. That’s already possible with one Orb and enough training—but every single Orb, gathered together, will exponentiate its range of influence to, quite possibly, the entire world. Perhaps further. This is why we need the Orbs to remain apart. Separate, and as far away as possible.”

    “In other words, dear,” Amia said, “we don’t want someone who wants that power… to actually have it. It could end, um… everything, dear.”

    “E-everything?” Owen said. “but… but if…! I mean… St—Star! Star, the Mew! Can’t she stop this?”

    “She is of the spirit world,” Rhys said. “Something is holding them back from interfering with matters of the Orb in the world of the living. So, we are on our own.”

    “Oh, great,” Owen mumbled, wondering what could possibly be holding her back.

    Owen wasn’t sure if he was fully absorbing this information. All he knew that the vine writhing in his stomach was replaced by a cold lump. Why did Star trick him into touching this thing? Suddenly, worrying about getting mugged in a Dungeon felt a lot more desirable.

    “Okay,” Owen said. “So, the Orbs, and their Guardians—all this time, they’ve been kept separate, right? So,”—Owen briefly wondered if he should ask, but he had to, for his curiosity was not satiated—“what’s this have to do with all you guys?”

    Owen didn’t like the amount of silence that filled the room then. He eyed them all. Anam, James, Rhys—his friends, and his parents. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi seemed totally lost. But everyone else in the room looked tense, the answer pressing against their lips or beak.

    It was the Lucario who finally broke that silence. “There are three Guardians within this room.”

    Rhys was about to speak his next sentence—he didn’t even breathe between them. Yet, to Owen, there was an eternity’s worth of between that one and the next. Three guardians. He was one. His parents were here. Why were they here? He knew why.

    “Owen, you are one of them. Heart Head Anam is the second. And the third…”

    No. No, no, no.

    Amia lowered her head and clasped her hands together. “I’m sorry, Owen, but… so am I, dear. I’ve been the Fire Guardian for a very long time.”

    “M… Mom? But—but then what about… what about Dad?”

    James sighed. “It is true. Guardians do not die of age. Unless they somehow lose their power, or are slain, they live forever. Therefore, they are sure to outlast all of their loved ones, who pass on to the spirit world.”

    Alex nodded. “The spirit world. That’s where I truly reside, Owen. I’ve… been dead, technically, for quite some time.”

    Owen’s head spun, that icy feeling becoming a tingling buzz. He sat down in the middle of the room, covering his eyes. “H-hang on… y-you’re… but you’re right here! You’re right in front of me! You aren’t a spirit! You’re… alive! You’re alive!”

    The Magmortar glanced at the Gardevoir, who nodded. Amia held her hand up; Alex suddenly disintegrated, becoming nothing more than a small, blue ember. It entered her hand. Gone.

    “Guardians can summon spirits, dear,” Amia said. “It’s one of the very first techniques you will learn. And while those spirits are weak at first… they will eventually become solid, and mimic the living.”

    “I, too,” James said, “am a spirit. I suppose, in a sense, I have been by Anam’s side for longer than he has been a Guardian.”

    Owen was close to tears. His whole world was collapsing around him. His dad was a ghost. His mom was immortal. What’s next?

    “Th-then,” Owen said, “what’s… going to happen to me?” he said. “If the Guardians have to be s-separated… th-then what’s…?”

    “We will no longer be following that policy,” Rhys said before James could answer. “It would be cruel to separate you from your own mother. Additionally,” he paused, “now that it is apparent that Rim—the Espurr—has a means of tracking down Guardians, it is now a bad idea to keep the powers isolated for her to pick away one at a time. We should beat her at her own game—and gather the Guardians ourselves.”

    “We can use our cave!” Amia perked up. “Since the entire village is just my spirits, I could easily have the houses be more… vacant… for other Guardians!”

    The villagers, too?!” Owen cried. “B-but what about the Granny Arcanine down the road? O-or—or the Infernape that’s always repairing houses? Those kids that played by the—! They’re… they’re all dead?”

    “Their status doesn’t change the way they live,” Amia hastily soothed, trying to assure Owen. “They just… happen to be spirits. That’s all!”

    “Is that why I never see anybody eating?” Owen said. “Because… they don’t need to? D-Dad, you said you ate breakfast! You… you said so!” He realized that his father was no longer around. In some primal, irrational reflex, his eyes darted around to find him. His mother made another motion, summoning a blue ember. It materialized into his father. In a second wave of realization, Owen stumbled to his feet and staggered back.

    “I’m sorry that this is so much, Owen,” Alex said. “But. I promise, even though everything is different—it isn’t very different—if you… just look at it a certain way, it isn’t so bad! Don’t you think?”

    Owen’s mind was processing it all, yet processing none of it. Thoughts whirled so rapidly that nothing stuck. The cacophony in his head made everyone sound like distant echoes.

    It was all fake. Fabrications. His mother. His father. All of Hot Spot Cave. It was all one great illusion. His whole past was built on an elaborate lie.

    “I—I need to go,” Owen said. “I just—I need some air.”

    “Owen, wait!” Anam said. The Charmander was trying to get out, weaving past the others. Mispy was the closet to him, but she didn’t get in the way. Rhys leaned forward to stop him, but Owen was too fast. The second Rhys’ muscles made the twitch to advance, Owen ran out, but skidded to halt only a few paces later.

    “Ah,” Alakazam Nevren greeted at the entryway. “Hello, Owen. That is an interesting fashion statement.”

    Owen was quiet. “You… y-you know, too.”

    “Hm? Oh, was I late?” Nevren said.

    “Very,” Rhys said. “Why were you not here?”

    “Well, unfortunately,” Nevren said, “I was busy handling the memories of all the townsfolk you recklessly rushed past with a Grass-Type Charmander, Rhys. Whatever disguise you used exposed his tail and legs quite a few times.”

    “Ngh… was it truly that many?”

    “Yes, quite that many,” Nevren nodded.

    “Wait—what?” Owen said. “What do you mean?”

    “I had to, ah, slightly modify the memories of those who saw you.”

    “You can do that?” Owen asked.

    “Not on my own, no,” Nevren said. “It was just an… invention of mine, thanks to some of Rhys’ help. We needed it in order to maintain Anam’s position, lest people realize that a Goodra has been the Hearts’ Head for centuries, let alone my existence alongside Rhys.”

    “Hang on, you two are immortal, too? How is—”

    “Oy, what’s all that about?” Gahi spoke up.

    “Ahh…” Nevren nodded. “We are. But for a different, but related, reason, so to speak.”

    “Boy, that’s useful.”

    Suddenly, his head was too full, and he didn’t want to ask more. He was done. He didn’t care anymore. His curiosity was satiated, and then bloated, and then force-fed. “I’m going.”

    “Going?” Nevren said. “I’d recommend against it. That Espurr could appear at any moment, actually, and we wouldn’t want you to be—” Nevren touched Owen’s shoulder.

    “I WANT TO GO!”

    Rhys reached out to grab him, but Owen turned his head and spat a well-aimed flurry of seeds in his face. Some got in his eyes.

    Owen broke off in a sprint. Nevren immediately attempted to restrain him with a well-placed twist of the air—but the new Guardian was too clever and dodged in time, predicting the strike. He had too much experience with Psychic by now to let one connect so easily.

    “Ahh…” Nevren watched him go. “Perhaps we should chase him.”

    Rhys was already on it, a blur of blue and white with the help of an Extreme Speed. With his vision slightly impaired, he was slower than usual. Gahi ran, too, barely keeping up. Once they both got to the exit of the Heart, they were abruptly ensnared by vines that sprouted from the ground, completely blocking the entryway. “Agh—he used—what is this—a Grass variant of his Trap technique—” Rhys kicked through the first layer, but two more tangles blocked their way.

    Nevren’s eyes glowed. He vanished from the office and appeared ahead, right by the stairs to the southern road, blocking Owen’s way. “Stop!” Nevren held a hand up. A clear barrier formed from his palm.

    Owen ran straight into it, baring his fangs at Nevren. “Let me out!” he said, slamming his fist against the barrier. His heart was beating against the sides of his head.

    “I can’t allow that, Owen,” Nevren said. “You will stay here while we sort things out.”

    “I said…” Owen’s vision was reddening again red. He pounded against the barrier. Nevren briefly glanced into his pocket, where something dim and gray shined. Meanwhile, the Charmander’s growls became deeper, defying his small stature. “Let… me… OUT!”

    And then, a bright, white light enveloped Owen. It was a brilliant glow—one that surrounded all Pokémon that were in the process of ascending to their next stage in life. But for a brief instant during that evolution, there was a tinge of something else—a strange, blackish bolt. Owen roared from within the light, slamming his fist on the barrier once again. He didn’t have time to fully process his new height or more defined shoulders, or his new, lanky appearance as a Charmeleon. He only knew to attack again. His mouth opened wide and a thick vine slammed against Nevren’s barrier with an ethereal thud.

    “Ngh—” The feedback caused Nevren to fall backwards. The grassy Charmeleon—leaves for scales, and an even larger flower on his tail—ran past the Elite.

    Rhys broke through the vines by the entrance, rushing past Nevren. A second set of vines erupted from the ground beneath him, ensnaring the Lucario yet again. “Nevren!” he hissed. “Why did you not pursue him?”

    The Alakazam glanced down at his bag again, inspecting the gray badge. He shrugged. “Ah, he’s well beyond my scope,” Nevren said flatly, sitting up. “I suggest you chase him instead. I need to remain behind and modify the memories of the Pokémon he runs past again.”

    Rhys cursed Star’s name and advanced. He saw the green Charmeleon enter one of the many Waypoints in the long rows. Which one was it? He ran to where it was and read it to himself. “Calm Water Lake…” He cursed Arceus’ name next. “Why must he behave so childishly…?” He supposed the revelations could have been done a bit more gradually… but he didn’t have to flee. Rhys stepped onto the Waypoint—and a flurry of vines wrapped around the metallic tile, blocking it completely.

    <><><>​

    Owen didn’t know how long he had been running. He just kept going. From the building, to the Waypoint, to the Dungeon. Water splashed all over; the fact that he partially enjoyed the feeling of water on his leaves was so unsettling that he had to slow down. Snoozing Pokémon stared dumbly at Owen when he passed. A particularly irritable Krabby pinched Owen’s leg, but when it did, the limb burst into an angry, writing pair of vines. The sight alone frightened the Krabby enough to scuttle away, bubbling in terror. Owen tripped over his one working leg, staring in a new mixture of emotions—annoyance and terror.

    “Normal—back to normal, you stupid—” He tried to focus, but his leg kept flailing, the vines splashing in protest against the watery Dungeon. He got onto his one working foot and hobbled forward, using his hands to drag himself along the walls. His right arm disintegrated next. He fell into the water.

    “P-please, please!” he cried, using his left hand to cover his eyes. But his claws were no longer there. His hands were no longer there. He gasped and stared at what they’d become—writhing tendrils covered in thorns, all the way up to his shoulders.

    Owen screamed. He screamed and rolled onto his back, swinging his split arms against the rocks, creating small gashes in the sandstone. His tail and legs were gone. They, too, were ingraining themselves into the ground, into the walls, and Owen had no control over it. “Stop, stop, STOP!” Owen wailed. “PLEASE, STOP!”

    Meditate, a voice said softly.

    He kept swinging, trying to pull his arms together. He started by trying to get some feeling—some semblance of a feeling—of lifting his arms toward himself, to his chest. But the thorns and the vines just kept writhing and twisting ineffectually in the water like a dying insect.

    Meditate, Owen. Breathe.

    “H-help… someone…” Owen was nothing but a head and torso amid a tapestry of plant life.

    Close your eyes and breathe.

    Owen whimpered, but he obeyed. He could hear the gurgling of the vines sloshing in the loose ground beneath him. Chaotic ripples of water brushed against his feathery leaves. It slowed down. His vines stopped moving.

    He took a slow, deep breath. His heart was still frantically beating away. His right arm involuntarily twitched; his eyes shot there, staring. It was back to normal. He panted, looking at the rest of him. The final few vines twisted themselves into a spiral, solidifying into a leg. He tentatively clenched his toes.

    “Oh, Mew.” He covered his eyes, shaking. His breathing was uneven and trembling. He found the strength to stand back up. And he remained standing for a while, not advancing.

    He was in the Dungeon already; there was no turning back. He had to keep going. And so, with step after careful step, the Charmeleon continued.

    In the third segment, he spotted it: that same, strange wall, into the glowing labyrinth. It wasn’t repaired. He didn’t really know for sure if he was beyond the Dungeon’s influence yet. He’d left behind his bag, and therefore his Badge, at Rhys’ home. He was a bit glad for it, though. If he had his bag when he evolved, he might have ruined its contents from whatever happened in the Dungeon. He already had it ruined once in the fight with Aerodactyl. To ruin his spare one, too? Maybe that time, he would’ve lost all his precious items, like the Eviolite given to him by—

    “Nevren…” He thought about that gift. It would still be useful to him as a Charmeleon, with one more evolutionary step to take. He stared at his claws, pressing them together. It was inconvenient to go from four fingers to three. At least his hands were bigger. The horn on the back of his head was an odd addition, though. He felt like he could sense things even more thoroughly. He was sure he could even tell what was around the corner.

    He should’ve been ecstatic. He evolved. He finally evolved.

    He just wished that his evolution was a bit happier than how it happened.

    Someone knocked at Owen’s mental door. What an odd feeling—a thought that wasn’t his, calling for him to listen.

    Owen? Owen, hello? It was the same voice that told him to meditate.

    …Star?

    What’s WRONG with you?!
    Star said, exasperated. You did the one thing I told you not to do!

    C-c’mon, give me a break, they… they all just… everyone lied to me! Every single one! Mom’s immortal, Dad’s dead, turns out the leader of the world is part of some giant conspiracy, and two of my idols are in on it! And—and YOU! You forced me to do this! I didn’t even believe you existed, and now I find out you’re a LIAR!

    E-excuse me?!


    Owen raised his arms, mouthing his thoughts like a lunatic. He mimicked Star’s tone. Oh, Owen, it’s no big deal, just take this Orb or die! Not that hard a choice! Go on, be happy, turn your tail into a flower! Owen slammed his hand against the wall and yelped. It exploded into more vines. After a second of panic, he closed his eyes, breathed slowly, and waited for it to go back to normal. He sighed, and a few seeds spilled from his throat; he choked for a few seconds and had to stop walking to clear his chest. At least that meditation turned out to be useful for keeping his body from falling apart.

    Don’t talk to me, Owen finally growled. I need to cool off.

    Owen could feel Star about to protest, but then she stopped herself. Relieved, he sighed. But now he just felt guilty.

    Thanks, Owen said. I’ll… I’ll talk to you later, okay? Just… not now. I need to…

    Just be careful.


    Owen left it at that. But his time alone with his thoughts lasted only seconds.

    Turn back, turn back…!

    A pang of irritation hit Owen. He quietly advanced, head down.

    Go away… run…!

    Or become one of us…!


    Owen said nothing. He kept walking. His claws pressed into his palms.

    Do you have a death wish?

    We’ll kill you!


    Owen didn’t even feel afraid. Not after all this. Even if they were spirits, he could still sense their intentions in how they spoke. They wouldn’t try to hurt him. They were just trying to scare him away. And he was in no mood to be spooked by even more dead Pokémon. After all, Owen thought bitterly, I’ve been with them all my life.

    This isn’t a Dungeon anymo—


    “I know!” Owen yelled. His voice echoed through the halls and returned to him. He shouted again. “I know!” He stomped his foot on the ground. “I know this isn’t a Dungeon, and I know you guys are spirits! I get it!” He turned around, addressing the glowing walls.

    “The Water Guardian is here! I don’t care WHAT you are, okay?! I’m not here to fight! I can’t even be bothered to fight! You have no idea how rare that is with me! I’m a Guardian, too, and this was all kinda just thrown at me this morning! I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m tired, I’m confused, I’m just—” His voice cracked. “I hate… everything right now, and I just want to talk to… to someone I don’t know, who’s… who’s in my situation, okay!?”

    Owen sniffed, shaking his head. He stomped his foot again, much weaker this time. It was practically only a gentle step in place. “So just—shut up, quit the haunted caves act, and let me through! O… okay?”

    His voice echoed, the only living thing in the room.

    When nobody responded, he gathered what energy he had left and shouted one last time. “Are you done?!”

    The spirits only replied with silence, and then more silence when Owen spun to address the other half of his invisible crowd. Owen huffed and continued onward. The catharsis of finally screaming at something forced hot tears to well up, but he blinked them away. He refused to cry.

    For the rest of the long walk, not a single spirit bothered him, let alone attacked. His only encounter with one of the Watery spirits was a Swampert on the far end of the cavern’s many turns. Upon seeing Owen, the spirit meekly dove into the wall to avoid confrontation.

    The Grass-Typed Charmeleon went through the rest of the cave without resistance. Slowly, his thoughts transitioned from hatred of the present to fear of the future.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 9 - Lonely Waters
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Thanks for the feedback again, you guys! I replied elsewhere, but hoo boy, get ready to meet a new character this chapter. A little on the short side this time... but a lot still goes on, heh.



    Chapter 9 – Lonely Waters

    No wild Pokémon resided within these glowing caves. Unsurprising. There wasn’t much food, and it was on a strange offshoot of a Dungeon. Not the easiest place to find, let alone inhabit. Even if they showed up, perhaps the spirits would frighten them away.

    Owen walked the rest of the way through the cave in silence, brooding over the morning’s events, dwelling on how his life—everything from his parents to his idols to his home—had been turned inside-out. He saw his father evaporate into nothing but a little blue ember, and then be recreated like it was nothing. How old were they? Why did they decide to adopt him? Why did they decide to adopt anyone? What if everybody in Amia’s Orb were all past kids? Was there a secret graveyard of Amia’s countless dead children?

    Owen shivered. No, that was ridiculous. He’d’ve found something like that. Unless they burned the bodies in the lava river. Wait! But I play in that river all the time! Was I playing in dead bodies?! Owen shook his head furiously. No. No! Mom’s not like that. Maybe they really are just villagers from an ancient time. Why would Amia lie with another lie? Owen’s pace wavered. If I was bathing in dead Pokémon, I’m running away.

    You already did that, Star quipped.

    Owen jolted. H-hey! Don’t do that!

    Hey, c’mon, I’m bros with your spirits. They’ll let me eavesdrop if they want me to.

    Ugh, eavesdrop silently, please, Owen said. You know what? Can I block you?

    I’m not telling.

    So I can, Owen said, squeezing his eyes tight.

    H-hey, wait! Owen, no fair, I was just—

    Silence. Owen deflated, relieved.

    Something was shining ahead. Latching onto anything to distract himself, he quickened his pace.

    While the cave rocks in general were still a soft blue even in otherwise complete darkness, this shining was a smidge brighter than the rest. That must’ve been where the Guardian was waiting for him. Still, the darkness unnerved him. Owen wasn’t sure why. His tail swished nervously, and that’s when he realized why. This was the first time in all his life that he was in truly in the dark. His flame was gone, replaced by a useless flower. The Charmeleon pulled his tail around to inspect it. He resented the fact that they were even bigger than before. The daffodil was large enough that he could stick his snout in it.

    I wish it could glow a little or something, Owen thought.

    The flower suddenly lit up. “Yeek—!” Owen threw his tail, but the light persisted. He swung it back around. It wasn’t quite as bright as his flame, but it would do. It was, perhaps, the first good thing to happen to him that day.

    He then eyed the glow at the end of the tunnel, reminded of why he was there. He was starting to get second thoughts about all this. After enough time walking in silence, and all that walking in the gentle darkness, he wondered if running away was really the best idea. No, of course it wasn’t. Still, they all lied to him! His flower brightened with a flicker of rage, but then dimmed.

    No. He got this far. He may as well see it through. Star didn’t protest him actually seeing the Guardian, after all. Perhaps this one was friendly, too, just like Amia and Anam. The Water holder was mere steps away; the Grass-Typed Charmeleon advanced.

    It was a large chamber with a rough, rocky floor. If Owen had to make a judgement on the size, it was around the same diameter as Hot Spot Square—at a full sprint, it would take Owen thirty seconds to go all the way across. Now that he thought about it, it might take less time, now that his leg span was so much longer.

    Every sound Owen made echoed for what felt like eternity. Self-conscious of his own noises, he tried to walk as carefully as he could. Despite this, the gentle ticking of his claws on rock remained. He gulped, and even that noise echoed for a little while. The silence made his head feel full. There was a pressure about it.

    And in this silence, he noticed that one of his steps felt different from the rest. He looked down, letting out a soft churr in curiosity. He inspected the underside of his foot and picked out what appeared to be a large, cream-colored scale. It wasn’t whole; it appeared that it had been ripped off prematurely, with a little strip of skin still attached to one side. Owen wrinkled his snout and tossed it away.

    There was a circle of water in the middle of this chamber. If Owen threw hard enough, perhaps he’d be able to toss a rock in the middle of it. The water itself was completely still, like a perfect pane of glass. He hesitantly walked forward; he couldn’t see the bottom. He couldn’t find any loose rocks to figure out if it just happened to have a dark base. He was left staring into the void that was this lake.

    Where was the Guardian? “Hello…?” Owen called.

    Hello, hello, hello. It echoed in all directions, and then faded.

    He sat down at the water’s edge. As a Grass Type, he didn’t feel as afraid of the water. It would normally sting quite a bit to get the flame on his tail wet—and there had been a few times when he accidentally extinguished it in the rain, though then his tail just emitted steam. Painfully. But he certainly tried to avoid it—his Fire attacks were next to useless in that sort of weather. But Grass…. How would he do with that? He sighed, but relented. If he was going to become a Fire Type again, he may as well enjoy the novelty of taking a dip in cool water for once. He squatted down and dipped his right leg first, wincing at the chill. He eased his way in until his knees were submerged, but couldn’t go further. The lake’s edge was too steep, and he had no idea how swimming worked.

    Owen saw the water ripple near the middle, just once. Nothing had gone inside to disturb the surface other than himself. What was that? “U-uh… is someone there?” he said.

    No reply. Owen figured it was just an aftereffect of dipping his legs inside, like the echoes of his voice were ripples in the air. He looked into the black water. He figured the Guardian was watching him from the very bottom. And he knew the spirits were listening in from the walls.

    “…I just wanted to talk to someone in my situation,” Owen said softly, closing his eyes. “I just got this… this job, kinda. I touched an Orb that I shouldn’t have, and now I look like this, and I’m being told all these things about being a Guardian, and being involved in this long conspiracy to keep them all protected or whatever. And I just don’t get it.”

    His claws gently grasped at the leaves on his knees. He was careful not to tug at them this time.

    “And—and turns out, my Mom is the same way. She’s the Fire Guardian… and I dunno what that’s gonna mean, either. The way James—he’s, um, he’s the person who helps run the Thousand Heart Association—and, um, and that’s, like, this group of Pokémon that help rescue others around the world. Yeah… the way James was looking at me—it was like he wanted to send me away.” He winced.

    “James wanted me to be like my Mom, who lived in that cave with just her spirits. I… I didn’t know that’s how it was for her. I think that’s why she almost never goes out. I had this dream—turns out, wasn’t a dream—where we went for a walk in the woods, and we got attacked, just like that. I almost died. But Mom healed me, and I passed out. But is that what it’s like to be a Guardian? To just be… sealed off?”

    Owen leaned back, using his hands to prop himself up. He happened to land his right hand on another one of the discarded scales—he felt a soft, fleshy bit on one of the sides and winced, quickly pulling his hand up. Losing support, he fell down, knocking his horn against the rock. “Nggk—!” The ringing in his ears didn’t stop for quite a while. He clutched his forehead with his left hand while inspecting the scale with his right. It had another strip of skin on the edges that had come off with the scale. He tossed it away, but then breathed.

    He continued to talk to the air. Even if nobody was listening—and he was sure at least the spirits were listening—it was therapeutic to actually unload his thoughts. There were simply too many to keep inside.

    “She’s just alone in that cave. I mean… not alone alone, but her spirits, y’know? And just them… forever, maybe. I can’t imagine what that’d feel like.” He kicked his feet in the water, making more ripples like the one before. “I guess you kinda know what that feels like. If you’re listening, or your spirits. I don’t know if I want that kind of life. But wh-what’s the alternative? I… I could get killed! I didn’t even get to be a Charizard yet…! B-but maybe I never will…” Owen glanced at the flower on his tail. He wondered if it’d hurt to pluck at the petals. He didn’t want to find out.

    That thought made another dawn on him. “If you’re the Water Guardian… that must mean you can become your Type, too, right? I got all grassy because of touching the Orb, so maybe that means… you’re all Watery.”

    A wave of cold realization struck Owen. He jerked his legs out of the water and pulled himself back with his arms, scrambling to his feet. Water dripped from his lower half. “I’m so sorry!” he said to the lake.

    The water rippled. It didn’t stop this time. Instead, it got stronger—most definitely in the middle, now—until something rose out from it. Water, but something that took a shape of its own, something serpentine. It thrust itself from the lake’s center, quickly approaching Owen, who was too surprised to move. The water landed near Owen, coiling around itself, taking a solid form. Its form transitioned from something that was entirely transparent into the normal colors of its species.

    The Milotic stared down at Owen with a soft blush. Owen stared back in awe, mouth agape just enough to reveal his lower teeth. She was at least three times’ Owen’s height, even in her current stance.

    “H-hello,” Owen greeted.

    “Hello,” she said.

    There was a silence that lasted seven seconds.

    “I—”

    “My—”

    They had interrupted one another.

    “N-no, you go—”

    “Please, introduce—”

    They both stopped talking again.

    Owen fidgeted with his claws; the Milotic’s tail twitched. Her blush had faded.

    Owen took a breath; the Water Guardian did not.

    “I’m Owen,” the Charmeleon said.

    “My name is Zena,” she said. “It is nice to meet you. I am sorry for keeping you waiting.”

    “O-oh, no, it’s okay, I—I was kinda just talking to myself anyway, but if you heard that, I mean… that’s good, so I don’t have to repeat myself. Sorry for stepping in you.” He said the last part in a mumble.

    Zena nodded. “You do not,” she said. “I’m very… sorry for your fate,” she said, “but you’re right. We have to remain separated in order to keep the power from combining.”

    “S-so, as in, it’s dangerous for us to even touch?”

    “No—no, nothing like that,” Zena said. “But, should we fight, perhaps, and then the winner extracts the power from the loser, well… we can’t have that.”

    “O-oh, okay,” Owen said. “…But… I heard that it’s starting to be dangerous to stay away. W-wait! Um—yesterday, I saw a Torkoal come this way, I think. Is that, um, is that someone you know?”

    “He was not,” Zena said. “I dispatched of him.”

    “D-dispatched?”

    “He was a Hunter,” Zena replied. “They are the ones that we hide from. A Pokémon that intends to find us… and take our power. By any means necessary.”

    Owen didn’t ask further. Instead, he looked down at the water, and then at Zena again. “Um… how… how long have you been here?” he asked.

    Zena hesitated. “I do not know.”

    “H-how long, um—before that Torkoal came, how long has it been since… someone came here? At all?”

    She shook her head again.

    “Do you at least know Star?”

    “I… I do,” she said. “And we talk from time to time, just as I talk with my spirits, I suppose.”

    “…But it’s not enough,” he said.

    Zena glanced away. “I suppose it isn’t,” she said. “But it’s… it’s still dangerous for us to converse with one another, isn’t it? If a Hunter finds us… they could potentially get two Orbs, not just the one.”

    “A-actually, we were thinking, um, that it’s kinda dangerous to be separated, now, because, like, there’s this thing, um, it’s this theory,” Owen trailed off. “Like they can detect us now. They’d pick us off one by one. So instead, maybe strength in numbers?”

    “Strength in numbers,” Zena said. “You mentioned that your mother is the Fire Guardian. Is there anybody else?”

    “Association Head Anam—he’s another Guardian. I don’t think I caught what Type.”

    “I see,” Zena said slowly. She was quiet, mulling over Owen’s words. The Grass Guardian, meanwhile, took the time to look over Zena again. The way her scales reflected the dim light—and in particular, the way she glowed in the same way the Hot Spot mushrooms did. Bitterly, Owen realized that the glow he’d been so accustomed to was no doubt a reflection of his mother’s Guardianship. But he couldn’t deny how comforting the light was, so he gazed a while longer at Zena’s scales.

    “…Why are you looking at me in that way?” Zena asked.

    “Sorry!” Owen’s entire body stiffened upright; even his tail stood alert.

    She glared at him, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “Hmph!” Zena turned her head away.

    “N-no, it’s not like that!” Owen waved his claws in front of him. “I didn’t think you were pretty! I—I mean, wait, wait, you are pretty! But—but I—”

    “You’d best choose your next words carefully,” Zena hissed.

    “I like your glow!” Owen blurted.

    Zena flinched.

    Owen covered his mouth. “I—I mean… you…” he hesitated, bringing his arms down. “C’mon, I mean, you’re a Milotic. You guys are just naturally really pretty. And that whole Guardian glow you have going on in these caves really makes it look nice, and stuff.”

    Five seconds passed with just Owen’s echoing voice filling the void.

    “W-well,” Zena said, looking at the wall. “Thank you.”

    Owen shifted awkwardly, looking at Zena again. This time, he looked her tail over, how the creamy, prismatic scales transitioned into stained glass that Owen would have expected from a temple for Arceus. Owen sensed another glare and immediately brought his head down. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I only saw your kind in books before.”

    “Books?” Zena repeated. Her eyes narrowed again. “What kind of—" But then, suddenly, the Milotic jerked her head up, startling Owen with the sudden movement. “Another Hunter is coming,” she said.

    “Wh-what?”

    “Yes. We need to go,” she said.

    “Go?”

    “If you want strength in numbers, then—then I’ll humor you,” she said. “But we need to hide. The tunnel,” she pointed with one of her eyebrows at the dark lake. “It leads to a river outside. Can you swim?”

    “I kinda used to be a Fire Type.”

    “Then I will be the current that guides you,” she said. “Please, get in.”

    She slithered into the lake and vanished, melting into the water. Owen’s old instincts were telling him to stay as far away from the water as possible—especially for a swim—but he knew he’d be fine in this current, Grassy form. His tail glowed brightly.

    “If you say so,” Owen said. He jumped in, expecting a frightening sting, but instead, it merely felt cold. He held his breath and felt the water rush around him. It was pushing him down, deeper into the tunnel; the water pressure wasn’t that bad, either. It seemed like Zena was pushing against the rest of the water, making it a little easier on his body.

    At first, it seemed like he’d have an easy time going through. His lungs felt a bit of strain—he’d never held his breath for very long in the past—but hopefully Zena would keep him going.

    But then, Owen felt a rush of heat in his chest. He glanced down; his green, leafy scales were solidifying, becoming yellower. His arms were turning red.

    Rhys said he’d go back to normal eventually.

    Why now?! He looked behind him; the flower on his tail was wilting. Bubbles of steam were coming out from the burning bud. The water was starting to feel less pleasant. And it wasn’t getting any easier to hold his breath, either. No, no! Just a little longer…! C’mon!

    He couldn’t hold his breath for much longer. He couldn’t see anything in these tunnels—it was too dark. His flower wasn’t glowing anymore, and his flame was slowly coming back.

    Pressure built in his chest. The need to breathe was too strong. In an effort to relieve some of that pressure, Owen puffed out, releasing some of the air. That only made him want to breathe in again. He flailed his arms and legs, trying to warn Zena that he wasn’t going to last much longer. Zena, the water, could not respond, but the water did rush faster. Owen had to close his eyes—the pressure against his face was too much.

    He felt it. He was a Fire Type again. He felt the horrible sting of near-freezing water around his whole body, like acid, particularly against his tail. He also felt his lungs give way—and in a sharp intake, water filled his chest. The shock made Owen pass out.


    Owen was floating in a black void, on his back. His lungs felt… tight. Like he couldn’t move them. Voices filled his head. They felt like memories from long ago. Forgotten.

    “Who’re you gonna fight, Owen?”

    Owen’s mouth moved in the darkness. He spoke, despite his lungs being filled with water. “Gonna fight… Demitri….”

    “Baah, always Demitri. How about Mispy?”

    “No way…” Owen said. “She’ll kill me…”

    “But she’s a Grass Type, c’mon!”

    “Gahi, she’ll kill me. That Solarbeam… is insane…”

    “Feh, then why don’t yeh fly and make it easier ter dodge?”


    Owen gasped and opened his eyes. “Solarbeam,” he mumbled.

    “Hm?” Zena turned back. “Oh, you’re finally awake.”

    The sun was setting. It was starting to get colder. They were near a river, but closer to the ocean. There was a beach further down, where the grass transitioned into sand, with Wingull circling over the shore line. The air was salty. Owen sat up—his entire body ached.

    “Ugh… what happened?”

    “You drowned,” Zena said. “I was waiting for your body to recover.”

    “D-drowned?!” Owen said. “Why didn’t you—w-wait, did you—” his face flushed.

    “Did I what?” Zena asked. “I waited for your body to fix itself.”

    “Th-the body doesn’t fix drowning!” Owen said.

    “For a Guardian, it does,” Zena said. “I set you down once we escaped, and waited for your heart to start beating again—”

    “MY HEART STOPPED?!”

    Zena, annoyed, said, “Yes. Is this truly that new to you?”

    “K-kinda! I feel like I should be dead right about now!”

    “So long as their body remains mostly intact,” Zena said, “Guardians can live and recover from any injury. It’s known as being Mystic.”

    “Mystic,” Owen slowly repeated. “So, all Guardians are Mystic?”

    “Yes,” Zena said.

    “But, that’s the same thing, then. What other things are Mystic?”

    “Well, I imagine Star is Mystic, even if she guards no particular Orb. The Hunters are also Mystic, though I wouldn’t consider them Guardians.”

    “O-oh,” Owen said. “Okay. So, just people who have power related to the Orbs.” He looked at his claws. He still felt… soggy. But at least he could breathe again. Something felt different, too. He felt stronger. Maybe that was just how his flame burned a bit hotter as a Charmeleon.

    “You mentioned… Solarbeam,” Zena said.

    “Huh? Solarbeam?” he asked.

    “When you woke up. Were you trying to learn Solarbeam? After all, you’re the Grass Guardian.”

    “Oh, uh, no, I…” He rubbed his head. “I can’t remember. I must’ve been having some kind of weird dream from bad oxygen. It happened before. I was climbing a mountain with one of the Elite Hearts, and when I meditated there, I had a crazy dream, too. Ugh, that’s two times that I got a weird dream. I need a break.”

    Zena smiled slightly. “Today has had the most talking I’ve ever heard from a stranger in a very long time,” she said. “You’re quite chatty.”

    Owen looked down. “Sorry.”

    Zena tilted her head. “I meant I enjoy it. You apologize quite often, too.”

    “Oh.” Owen tried to think of something else to talk about, but his mind drew a blank. He considered talking about the weather, but decided against it.

    “Owen… do you know where we are?”

    “Um, well… the sun’s setting that way… so I think we’re at a southern beach, right?” He turned around. “So that means… the Thousand Heart Association is—there! Look, d’you see that mountain with the flat top?” he said, pointing up. It was hard to see past the southern forest, but the distinct, black rocks of Kilo Mountain were clearly visible through the gaps.

    “Yes. That was there even before I began my hiding…. Has anything changed about it?”

    “That’s Kilo Village at the top, in the crater. The volcano is extinct and, uh… yeah. That’s where I go for rescue missions and things like that. I bet Anam will know what to do!”

    “Anam…” Zena said. “He’s another Guardian? Star mentioned him before. But she doesn’t talk a lot about the other Guardians—I think it’s to… keep us from wanting to meet them in person. But, Owen, I’m… not sure. I don’t know.”

    “You don’t know? Don’t know what?” Owen asked.

    “If it’s a good idea to go there,” she said. “The Orbs. They’re supposed to….”

    “Not anymore. C’mon, let’s just go!” Owen said.

    “I…. But what would I say? How much has changed?”

    Owen hesitated. “I dunno, but it should be fine! C’mon, I can show you around.”

    Zena hesitated, looking at the Charmeleon. “How are you so sure?” she said. The Milotic curled her long body, tensing her muscles. She waited for a response that would assure her.

    “Because,” he trailed off. “I mean, well…”

    “Did you not just rant about how everything you know has been a great lie?” Zena asked. “I believe you used similar terminology.”

    “Y-yeah, but, only some, not everything….”

    “But didn’t some of that everything happen to be your own parents, and your idols?” Zena said.

    “…Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi didn’t know, either,” Owen said. “I trust them. And… and Rhys is the one who wants the Guardians to stay together, too.”

    Zena blinked. “What was his name? Rhys?” he said.

    “Yeah, Rhys,” Owen said. “What?”

    “Lucario Rhys?” Zena said.

    “H-huh? Yeah.”

    “We are not going to Kilo Village,” Zena said.

    “W-wait, but why—”

    “Rhys is one of the Hunters.”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 10 - The Hunters' Mission
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 10 – The Hunters’ Mission

    “But… but Rhys is cool,” Owen said.

    The Charmeleon had stopped walking the moment Zena told him that Rhys was a Hunter. It simply didn’t make sense. No… no, it did. It added up. But it didn’t make sense to Owen anyway. Rhys was too noble. He was an Elite Heart. How could he be a murderer, too?

    “That Lucario is the one who nearly killed me.” Zena’s tail twitched, flexing the fan at the tip. “He is the reason I spent lifetimes sealed away.”

    “But… but he gave me the Orb! I mean, he didn’t—I mean, he was holding the Orb, but he never claimed it, and, um, and also, like—when I took it, he didn’t want to hurt me at all! M-maybe you’re thinking of his great grandfather or something? Like, Rhys is just a really strong Lucario. He’s not a Guardian or anything. He doesn’t glow! So, he can’t be, um, un-aging and stuff like us.” Nevren had said that they didn’t age for another reason. Was that because—

    “Hunters don’t age. He could easily be the same Lucario.” She coiled around herself a bit tighter, staring intensely at Owen. “Tell me. Did he specialize in aura attacks?”

    “I—I mean, what Lucario doesn’t, right?” Owen tittered nervously. He shrank before the serpent. He knew that Zena could see the helpless defiance in his eyes.

    The Milotic did not break her stare. “Are you sure? Do you truly believe that Rhys won’t harm you, should you appear before him now?”

    Owen gulped, looking at his chest. He was glad to be back to his fiery self again. It felt right. But would Rhys try to kill him? That Lucario…. He was stern, certainly. And perhaps he’d punish him with more meditation, or something like that. Perhaps, as well, he was a bit too harsh with his training regimen. But… he simply couldn’t imagine Rhys wanting to hurt him. Something at the very core of his being was telling him that he could trust Rhys. But at the same time, why did he feel that way? He just met him, didn’t he?

    “I don’t know.” The words tumbled out of him, but they were the truth. “I feel like I can trust him! But at the same time, he could… if he wanted, he could easily… couldn’t he? Well, I feel like he’d just force me to meditate, like he always di—” Owen blinked a few times. What? When did Rhys ever force him to meditate? That never happened. That was Demitri and the others. He grew up with Amia and Alex—his adoptive parents. They were the ones who—

    “Owen? Are you okay?” Zena asked, tilting her head.

    “H-huh? Oh. I’m fine. Um… b-but I really… I don’t know! If you’re with me, maybe he’ll hear me out, and not attack you? If he’s still like that? No… I—he’s too nice. If he wanted to, he could’ve killed me right at the beginning, when I first got the Orb!”

    “Regardless of his actions before,” Zena said, “he may have second thoughts. He is still a Hunter, and it is their very purpose to track down and gather the Orbs at all costs. And right now, we are two Guardians, possessing two Orbs. That may be an opportunity too tempting to ignore.”

    Owen played with the scales at the base of his claws. Zena had a point. Why would Rhys be chasing after them in the first place? Why Rhys specifically, if he knew that this would be the Water Guardian? But Owen’s gut still told him that Rhys was safe. He never sensed any ounce of malice in his body language. He was good at spotting those things, for as long as he could remember! But… what if Zena was right? What if he got tempted? What if that malice… came back?

    Owen’s legs felt weak. He walked to a nearby, sandy rock and sat against it. Waves washed upon the shoreline two times before he spoke again. “Rhys… could kill me…”

    “He very well could,” Zena said. She slithered a bit closer, but hesitated to get within arm’s reach of him. “And you aren’t nearly strong enough to defend yourself against him.”

    “But… b-but he’s my… I trusted him,” Owen said. “There’s no way he’d....!”

    “Are you willing to risk your life to see if you are correct?” Zena said.

    The ocean brushed against the sand. Owen smelled the salt in the air. Wingull squawked at one another, bickering over a carcass. He clenched the claws of his feet a few times in the sandy grass. He felt hot. His face, especially. His chest hurt. Something in the back of his eyes burned. His vision blurred. The Charmeleon trembled, clawing at his knees. “Everyone I knew…”

    “Owen…” Zena said softly. She finally broke past her hesitation and slithered even closer. She used a brow to rub his head. “It’s okay. It’s… okay. Even if Rhys is dangerous, the others are still your friends. And your mother, Owen. What Charizard would harm their own child?”

    “Um, a-actually, my Mom’s a Gardevoir… I don’t know my real parents.”

    “Oh, I’m—”

    Owen shook his head. “But either way, it’s… it’s all the same. You’re right. There’s no way she’d want to hurt me. She raised me! She—” Owen’s heart skipped a beat. “Mom! She’s with Rhys…! And she’s a Guardian!” He sprung to his feet, as if that action would somehow give him an idea on what to do next.

    He felt a strange tingling on the scales on his back. The air felt… sharp, like it cut into his lungs, and a sinking feeling twisted his stomach into a knot. What was this power that he could feel? He’d never had such a sensation before. He was used to having a vague sense of what was around the corner, or even in the other room. But this? This was new.

    At the same time, Zena stared toward Kilo Mountain. “He’s coming,” she said. “How did he know we were here? Who could have…?”

    Owen realized that what he was sensing was something Zena sensed, too. He closed his eyes. He heard the rapid footsteps of something bipedal. He recognized the pattern--it was Rhys, without a doubt. He also heard another sound, a lot more rapid, with smaller legs. Hard knocking on sandy dirt. Angry chittering. That pattern was equally familiar. It was a Trapinch, going much faster than it should for its species. “Gahi, too.”

    Zena coiled around herself, preparing to launch everything she had at the incoming duo.

    “D-don’t hurt Gahi. He’s a Trapinch, and he’s—he’s not involved in any of this!”

    Zena said nothing, but she was clearly aiming for Rhys. Owen turned toward the source of the sound again. Louder. He only had a few seconds to react. Was this really Rhys attempting to kill them? Why would he chase them all the way down here? Why couldn’t he hear his mother’s running pattern? Because she wasn’t there. It was just Rhys and Gahi.

    “Owen!” Rhys shouted, jumping between two trees, into plain view.

    Zena fired. The beam of water was simultaneously wide and dense, and it was a perfect shot. Rhys held his paws forward with an Aura Sphere-like shield to deflect the blast. Gahi, trailing behind, dove behind a tree to avoid the scattered beams of water, shouting something angrily. When the Hydro Pump stopped, and the mist faded, Rhys remained. Zena’s attack was completely neutralized by the shield.

    Gahi stared in horror at the gaping hole left in the tree that he’d been hiding behind. The deflected beams had missed him by only a head’s length.

    For that one instant, the world stood still for Owen. It all clicked in his mind at once. He felt Zena’s coils wind in defensive terror beside him. Almost out of empathy, his muscles tensed in a similar way. His heart was pounding against his neck. Rhys had deflected one of the most powerful attacks Owen had ever seen.

    He had been ready for that attack. He was expecting it. He knew. Owen’s claws dug into his palms; his tail blazed with a shining, green flame.

    The last of the mist faded. Zena’s words echoed in his thoughts.

    Rhys is one of the Hunters.

    The Lucario let out a pant. “Owen, I—”

    The Charmeleon opened with a plume of fire. It was easily blocked, but Owen followed up by lunging forward. He wasn’t using words anymore, just roars and grunts. Rhys deftly blocked every hit with little pulses of aura from his paws, stepping backwards with each lunge Owen made.

    “Owen, enough!” Rhys said.

    “You—what did you do—what did you do to Mom?!” Owen shouted.

    “Your mother?! What in the world do you mean?!”

    Owen roared and blasted Rhys with fire, point-blank. He couldn’t deflect this one, and his upper body was briefly alight. This was too much for Rhys to tolerate. With a single blow and a grunt of anger, Rhys swiped his paw toward Owen and created a small sphere on his side. It exploded, and blasted Owen with a shockwave of aura force. He slammed into a tree and cried in pain when his left shoulder dislocated itself, and his left leg broke in two places. A few ribs probably got fractured, too. There was a large welt on his right side where the aura had exploded, and some scales had been blasted off, too. He crumpled to the ground; it hurt too much to move.

    Zena spewed another beam of water at Rhys, but the Hunter jumped to the right in a blue blur. Zena blinked and lost track of him. She turned toward Owen and saw Rhys there instead, kneeling down. Rhys’ eyes were narrowed with concern.

    “You won’t!” Zena shouted. “Get away from him! Or I’ll fire again! I won’t miss!”

    “If you do miss, you will hit Owen,” Rhys said calmly. He didn’t even react to her.

    “It’s… it’s a risk I’ll take to stop you, you—murderer!”

    “Murderer,” Rhys repeated softly. He inspected Owen, who only glared. Flames danced out of his mouth. “Your mother is worried about you, Owen. Your father, too.”

    “You’re a Hunter,” Owen said. “Zena… Zena told me! You… you killed Guardians like me!”

    “Owen.” Rhys closed his eyes. “If I wanted to kill, then you two would already be dead.”

    “N-no way!” Owen said. “I’d totally beat you if… if I wanted to! I’m a Guardian! I survived drowning!”

    “Drowning,” Rhys said with a snort. “You took a quarter of the day, I imagine, just to recover from that. Do you really think a Hunter would kill a Guardian by drowning them?”

    Owen gulped. “Y-yeah, well, I bet I could survive… a lot of things, now.” His eyes darted to the left and right, searching for some sort of opening. Owen focused on a tree behind Rhys. The Lucario followed his gaze—just what Owen wanted. He spewed a wad of fire at Rhys the moment he looked away. In a single, deft motion, Rhys brought his arm up and blocked the blast with another aura shield.

    Owen flinched, and Rhys looked at him with a knowing glare. Owen had no escape.

    “You cannot survive much,” Rhys said. “Divine energy from the Orb sustains you, even if your very heart stops. However, great injury to your body disrupts that flow. If someone wished to kill you… they would. And they can. Just because you are Mystic does not mean you are invincible. Look at you, Owen.” He shook his head. “A body half broken already. If I aimed for your head,” he pointed out, “the Grass Orb would be without a host once more.”

    Owen envisioned Rhys doing just that. Moving his paw just a bit further up. He would’ve been headless. Just like that. He thought back to the Aerodactyl. He still would have been paralyzed from the waist down from his strikes. And if he was rejected from the Dungeon, some opportunistic wild Pokémon still could have feasted on his unconscious body.

    Owen’s sense of mortality returned to him. When that happened, the Charmeleon thought his heart had stopped again.

    “You can’t even stand.”

    “I can totally stand!” Owen used his good arm and clawed at the air in front of Rhys.

    Rhys waited.

    He kept clawing and tried to sit. In the end, he couldn’t. The most he could do was prop himself up. His arm trembled, and he fell again.

    Gahi waddled out from the tree he’d been hiding in. “Lighten up, Firebutt,” Gahi said. “Yer beat. And you! Pretty lady! You calm down, too! Rhys ain’t gonna hurt anybody.”

    “P-pretty lady?” Zena flushed red.

    “Can you stand, Owen?” Rhys asked again. Despite his neutral tone, Owen sensed that he was mocking him.

    “Nrgh.” Owen’s tail twitched. “I don’t feel like it.” He exhaled a defeated plume of smoke. It tasted like roasted seeds.

    Rhys sighed and looked up at the trees. He inspected the tops, and then looked at Zena. She didn’t take her eyes off of him, waiting for any sudden movements. Rhys, recognizing this, moved slowly, gently, raising his arm to point up. Zena didn’t change her focus. Right at Rhys.

    “There is a ripe Oran Berry in the trees. I intend to harvest it for Owen. Milotic Zena, will you allow me to do this?”

    “You will move slowly,” Zena said.

    Rhys obeyed. Every step was deliberate, and he pointed the pad of his paw toward the berry. The tiniest of Aura Spheres appeared there, and he fired, knocking it off of the tree. It landed nearby. Rhys took step after deliberate step toward the berry, and then leaned down to pick it up.

    At this point, Gahi was shaking with impatience, pacing in a rapid circle nearby. He mumbled something about being able to do this seven times by the time he finished once.

    Finally, Rhys returned to Owen and handed him the berry.

    “How can a berry help him?” Zena said. “They’re a pick-me-up. They only provide energy, as all food would. Oran Berries are useless for injuries like that.”

    Owen glanced at Zena confusedly.

    “Is—is it not?” Zena asked.

    Owen grabbed the berry and took a bite, chewing awkwardly while lying on the ground. A soft glow flowed from Owen’s throat to the rest of his body, barely visible if it wasn’t for the darkness of twilight.

    “Hold still,” Rhys said. With a firm push, he snapped Owen’s arm back into its socket, eliciting a loud, suppressed grunt from the Charmeleon. He then moved to his broken leg. “Are you ready, Owen?”

    Owen whimpered.

    “I’ll do it on three. One—” Rhys snapped them in place. Owen didn’t cry out that time; his eyes watered, and he gritted his teeth, but the most noise that came was from the air rapidly moving through his nostrils.

    “Thank you,” he said in a high-pitched voice.

    “Eat your berry.”

    Owen awkwardly ate at the berry using his good arm, still lying on the ground. A glow emanated from his throat that was only visible due to the darkness of twilight. It pulsed throughout the rest of his body—while bruised, Owen felt much better. Bones repaired themselves; he felt like he could breathe deeply again. He sighed and deflated after the final bite, idly licking at his claws.

    “Oran Berries have been greatly enhanced since your time, Zena,” Rhys said. “They have been blessed by Goodra Anam, leader of the Hearts, who doubles as a sort of… priest, if you will. Most Oran Berries you see in the world today carry that blessing. This is especially true for content found in Dungeons, which have, too, been blessed. Prior, they were much less welcoming.”

    “Blessing,” Zena repeated. “Priest. What sort of cult do you run?”

    “It’s not much of a cult if you can see actual results, now is it?” Rhys asked, motioning to the fiery Grass Guardian. “For smaller Pokémon like Owen, a single berry is enough to fully restore them to fighting health.”

    Owen grunted and stood up. He didn’t know what to think anymore. He’d gone past the panic and despair and slipped into frustration and anger again. The same anger that made him yell at Zena’s spirits. Even if he was healed, his older thoughts returned to him, now that he no longer feared for his life. He glared at Rhys. “Who are you?”

    “...I am Lucario Rhys, Elite Heart of Kilo Village. I am a former Hunter of the Guardians.” Rhys looked to Zena. “Owen is very good at detecting lies and malevolence. He is very in-tune with body language, and he knows if I intend to strike him, even if it is as a surprise. Owen, do you sense anything from me that suggests I would want to hurt you?”

    Owen looked up. He could feel it, yes. He didn’t know it was some sort of talent of his, but he was always very aware of his surroundings, including those close to him. And he could sense Rhys’ paw twitching irritably. His muscles were tense from the battle. His brow was furrowed with hidden impatience, invisible thanks to his fur, but the tension was there.

    Rhys did want to hurt him… but not in the way Zena thinks. No. Rhys was holding himself back from smacking him on the head. He could imagine Rhys telling him to stop acting so immaturely, so rashly, so childishly. He wanted him to be a proper Heart. He could hear the lecture about how, had this been done on a mission, innocents could get hurt, or worse.

    Owen finally straightened, but then brought his head down. He rubbed his nose with his arm.

    Zena’s eyes softened, just barely. “Very well. But do not think you’ve convinced me, Hunter.”

    “Great, great, that’s all nice and good,” Gahi said, clicking his jaws to get their attention. “But as yeh may’ve noticed, it’s pretty much twilight at this point, and I’m tired, and I haven’t had dinner yet, and maybe we can get this rolling along? Oy, Rhys, y’got yer Badge? I wanna go back ter Kilo. I hate rivers, and I hate oceans. I’d rather get eaten than drown someplace like this. We gonna go?”

    “Why did you even come, then?” Rhys said in a hiss that was only half-controlled.

    “Well, yeh had that story about Mystics an’ all that ter tell me on the way,” Gahi said. “Was the first story yeh ever told that wasn’t boring.”

    Owen sensed Rhys wanted to hit Gahi, too. The left half of his lips twitched upward, and he couldn’t hide his brightening flame. He shook his head to keep composed and looked to the Water Guardian.

    “Zena,” Owen said. “Even if Rhys is a Hunter… I mean, there’s no way Goodra Anam would allow him to do anything. If we go to Kilo Village, we’ll be safe. And I think Anam is way stronger than Rhys is.”

    “Perhaps not way stronger,” Rhys growled. He looked at Gahi. “Very well. I have the Badge. If Zena will allow me to look through my supplies, I will get it.”

    “You may,” Zena said slowly. “But if I am to follow, expect me to be ten paces behind you. I refuse to walk beside the likes of you.”

    Rhys winced. But Owen also sensed a tension in Rhys’ throat, too. Owen gently rubbed at his own, trying to get an idea of what the feeling was supposed to be. The Charmeleon realized then that Rhys had a figurative lump in his throat.

    “...What’s a pace fer you?” Gahi said, observing her lack of limbs.

    The Milotic glared.

    “Feh.” Gahi shuffled behind Owen. He tried to be casual, but Owen noticed his tremble.

    Rhys pulled out the Association Badge.

    “And that will help us home, how?” Zena asked.

    “It’ll bring us back to town,” Owen said. “It can only really bring back four people at a time or so. We usually bring more Badges in case we have to rescue a bunch at once, so then we can still get back ourselves.” Owen recalled what he’d read about the Badges functionality and limits. “You can key it in to other locations to warp to if you configure it while you’re there, but by default, if you just tap the little heart button in the middle once, you’ll go to the Central Waypoint. Easy. I’d’ve set my new Badge to go to Hot Spot Cave, but… it’s been a really hectic few days lately…”

    “Oh?” Zena tilted her head. “What’s a Waypoint?”

    “Oh, wow,” Owen said. “You have been gone for a while. Um… it’s… this thing where you have to stand on it, and then once you do, it will activate, and then you’ll go to its corresponding tile somewhere else in the world—so, in this case, the one in Kilo Village. Nevren invented it.” Owen looked at the Badge. “This Badge has the same sort of energy. It’s weaker, and it has to recharge… but it is tied to the Waypoints or other areas you register with it.”

    “I see… Waypoints can be used as much as we want, but they’re stuck at two specific locations. But these Badges can be used anywhere, but require energy. What an interesting system. Very well. If you are confident in this… thing, I will put my faith in you, Owen.”

    Owen caught a twitch of irritation from Rhys, but he figured he deserved that one.

    “Owen,” Rhys said, “why don’t you use it?”

    Owen nodded, took the Badge, and thrust it in the air. He clicked the button once. In a split-second, they reappeared in Kilo Village, just in time to see a small team, led by Anam, heading for Calm Water Lake’s Waypoint. The others accompanying him were Decidueye James and Alakazam Nevren.

    “Whoa, wait! L-look!” Anam said, pointing.

    “H-hi, guys!” Owen hesitated. In the rush of events, he finally remembered what had happened. Wasn’t he supposed to be angry at them? But, now that he had time to think… “I’m… I’m sorry for running off,” he said. “I just—I wanted to clear my head, and—”

    Zena stared, wide-eyed, at the countless buildings that surrounded her. Owen was glad they came when there weren’t any Pokémon passing by, or the isolated Milotic would have been completely overwhelmed.

    “A-and this is Zena! She’s, um, she’s the Water Guardian.”

    Zena tensed and looked away. “H-h-hel…”

    “Hi, Zena!” Anam waved. “It’s good to meet you!”

    “Ahh, the Water Guardian, I see,” Nevren said. He stepped forward and held out a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Zena. I am sorry if this is beyond your favored conditions.”

    “Y-yes, thank…” Zena held out an eyebrow for him to shake.

    “Zena, are you okay?” Owen asked.

    “Give her time, Owen,” Nevren said. “She has not spoken to so many strangers in a very long while, I imagine. This will take time to adjust.”

    “She spoke just fine with Rhys…” But he wondered if it was easier for her to yell at someone she hated than to talk to someone new. Didn’t explain why she spoke so easily with him, however. Owen figured it was because he was just one little Charmeleon, and this was a gang of elites and Gahi.

    “Owen!” Demitri shouted from the top of the Heart stairway. “H-hey! You’re back to normal!”

    Mispy was next to Demitri, and both of them rushed down to meet with the rest of their team.

    “Yeah, so much fer being funny ter look at,” Gahi said. “How’s it feel ter be Fire again, anyway?”

    Good,” Owen said immediately.

    Mispy glared.

    “S-so.” Owen avoided Mispy’s eyes. “How did… Rhys find us?”

    “He ran ahead ter get yeh,” Gahi said. “Said he knew where yeh’d be. Maybe he sensed yer Mystic aura, y’know?”

    “I am familiar with the underwater channel that Zena used,” Rhys said. “Once I figured out where you had gone, I decided to follow you there. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Waypoint designated to that part of the southern shoreline, as no Dungeon had ever formed in that location. I had to go on foot. Gahi was the only one who could realistically keep up.”

    “O-oh.” Owen thought about what Zena had said. A Hunter had been chasing after them. Did Rhys chase her through those channels before? What stopped him from…?

    Zena looked at Anam. By his species name, she knew he was the leader. “You… I’d… like to introduce myself,” she said. “And… to your spirit.”

    “Oh!” Anam said. “Yeah! I’m Anam, and this is James! He worked with me for a long time, but when he eventually got too old, I brought him back as a spirit assistant!”

    Owen squinted slightly. Anam sounded odd when he said that. Did anybody else notice? He glanced at Rhys. He noticed. But he didn’t say anything. It must have been nothing. Anam wasn’t the sort to lie, after all.

    “Yes,” James said, nodding. “Ah, and Owen, your parents are very worried about you. I will fetch them.” He sank into the ground.

    A brief, awkward silence filled the air. It was only broken when Anam said, “Wait! So… so that means right now, in this town… we have four of the Guardians in one place!”

    “F-four…” Zena said, realizing this. “Water, Grass, and…?”

    “Fire’s my Mom,” Owen said.

    “And I’m the Ghost Guardian!” Anam said.

    “Four of us, all in one place,” Zena remarked. “Isn’t that a bit worrying?”

    “Not anymore,” Anam said. “I think we’re going to be changing strategies.”

    Nevren nodded. “Yes. It appears that the remaining Hunters have discovered a means of tracking the auras of Guardians with great precision, so we must now dedicate ourselves to gathering, rather than separating, the power before the Hunters do the same.”

    “Hmm.” Zena looked at Nevren carefully. “You… give off a strange aura as well.”

    “Y-yes, well… that is…”

    “Nevren,” Owen said, crossing his arms. “I’m really sensitive to secrets right now, and I just… I just don’t want to deal with it. Just tell me now so we can get it over with. And I think this Mystic power is making my perception go on overdrive, and I think I hate it? Because I’m feeling all the lies pouring from you guys. It’s disgusting. Just… tell the truth.”

    Anam nibbled nervously on his fingers.

    Nevren shook his head, eyes closed. “Very well,” he said. “It’s not much of a secret to others, but I used to be an active Hunter as well, yes. A… researcher; I was not much for fighting.”

    Owen expected this, the way Rhys was so familiar with him. “Are there any other Elites or, like… anybody else here in the Hearts that are former Hunters?”

    Nevren shook his head. “Of the Hearts, only Rhys and I are affiliated,” he said.

    “Okay, just—what’s the point?” Owen said. “What’s the whole point of the Hunters? Why are you guys around for so long if you don’t have any Orbs to keep you alive? How many of you are there, and…?”

    “Perhaps,” Rhys said, “this is something that we should discuss in private.”

    Anam nodded. “Mhm. The night crowd is gonna come soon, and I don’t want them to overhear anything. Let’s go to my office!”

    Everyone agreed, though Zena trailed behind, as promised. Ten paces. In this case, those were ten intervals of Zena’s weaving, slithering motions. The walk was a long one—it felt longer than usual. And Owen sensed it again. Rhys’ tension. But this was a different tension… Owen shook his head. He hated feeling these things. He tried to dull it, but he still had the vaguest feeling of what the others were doing around him.

    Rhys glanced back at Zena. Owen did his best to ignore it, but those glances were becoming very frequent. He wasn’t getting tempted, was he? Was Nevren stronger than Rhys? No, he said he wasn’t a fighter. And what about Anam? Surely he could handle Rhys. Then again, Owen never actually saw the Goodra fight before. In fact, if the rumors were true, he usually just hugged outlaws into submission.

    Suddenly, Rhys stopped walking; Owen nearly bumped into him had it not been for how abrupt he had stopped. “Rhys?” Owen asked, leaning to the side.

    Zena tensed, Mystic energy silently flowing beneath the surface of her scales, making the once creamy color glow iridescently against the setting sun.

    “I… I wish to apologize,” Rhys said, head down. “For what I put you through. I didn’t intend for you to live in fear. And… for that, I’m sorry.”

    Zena’s guard faltered, but then her glare redoubled. “Intentions don’t mean very much, Hunter.”

    Owen and Rhys both winced, but neither had a counter. Zena had every right. Anam nervously nibbled at the tips of his fingers; Gahi clicked his jaws irritably, but it seemed that even he knew not to speak up. Demitri and Mispy, largely uninformed, only exchanged confused glances.

    “I understand,” Rhys finally said, cutting through the silence, but more agonizing emptiness took its place seconds later. Rhys’ paws twitched, and that lump—Owen sensed it in his throat again. But no words came.

    In the dying lights of evening, the group quietly shuffled into Anam’s office. Demitri tripped and fell onto Mispy, who wrapped her vines around him and set the Axew atop her back. Nevren tapped his spoons twice; Luminous Orbs lit the corridors. “Could’ve done that in the first place,” Demitri mumbled.

    The Goodra sat in the pond in the back of the room; all of the others sat in simple nests of hay that James had materialized from the shadows, except for Zena, who coiled around herself, next to Owen. On Owen’s other side was his mother—who refused to keep her hand off of the Charmeleon’s arm, holding firmly—and next to her, Alex.

    Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi jealously eyed Owen’s new, Charmeleon form. Owen, noticing this, gave a teasing little smirk—he won that little game and, surely, he’ll hit his final form first, too. The Elites were near Anam, though not too close; the gooey world leader tended to get in a grabby, cuddly mood at night, and the last thing they needed was to get covered in his slime.

    “Well,” James said. “Rhys, perhaps it is appropriate for you to explain… yourself to those who are not aware.”

    “Yes,” Rhys said. “I… believe it is appropriate.” He looked at the others—particularly at Zena, and then Owen, and finally, his students. “Nevren and I… are two of the five Hunters. Our purpose was to gather all of the Orbs into one being. We were meant to use this power to challenge Arceus, as we deemed him an improper god.”

    It took nearly ten seconds for Owen to fully process those three sentences; he didn’t even react when Zena spoke first.

    “Wh-what do you mean, challenge Arceus? Is that the power that these Orbs possess?” Zena asked. “Why in the world would Arceus allow such a thing to exist?”

    “Because he created it in the first place,” Rhys said, “and is powerless to stop it by his own design. At least, that is the story we are told; that Arceus used to be omnipotent, when the world was first created. But then, fearing his own power and temper, he delegated some of it to others that he could trust. Star was one; he gave her a third of his power. Another third became imbued into artifacts that represented Arceus’ power; those became the Orbs. The remaining third is still with him.”

    “Okay…” Owen rubbed his head. “But… hang on. Arceus didn’t like His own temper? Arceus has a temper?”

    Rhys nodded. “Arceus does indeed become wrathful at times, and with absolute power, the results can be… devastating.”

    It seemed too simple. Why would someone with ultimate power give it up at all?

    Owen pressed on. “So… so He basically… tried to save the world from Him, retroactively?” Even as Owen said it, there was a hint of skepticism in his tone.

    “It seems so.”

    Owen grumbled. “But what about you? The Hunters? You want to challenge Him? Like, as in, usurp Him? Even though He did something so selfless?” Owen briefly paused, feeling a brief tinge of reverence in the way he spoke of the Creator. Just yesterday, he didn’t believe in the existence of one at all. Now…?

    The shock of it all left him feeling numb enough that he could focus on the conversation and nothing else.

    Rhys closed his eyes. “We were… conscripted,” he said, “by Star, to usurp him.”

    “Oh.” Owen said. He blinked twice. “Wait—"

    “You’re lying,” Zena said immediately.

    “Do I look like I’m lying?” Rhys said just as quickly.

    “That Torkoal said the same exact thing,” Zena said. “You’re lying, just as he was! Star would never—”

    “Hm?” Amia looked up. “Oh, hold on, dear.”

    Owen glanced curiously at his mother; she held her hand forward, pushing out a blue ember. It coalesced and turned into a pink cloud, and then further solidified into a very faint, yet clearly visible, Mew.

    “H-h-hi, Star!” Owen greeted.

    “Hey, Owen!” Star waved. “Hey, good to see you got your old Type back. Maybe you can practice switching between the two later, huh?”

    Amia sighed, shaking her head. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you any more solid, Star, but your spirit’s just too much to manifest.”

    “Nah, it’s fine. This works.”

    Owen gulped, knowing why Star wanted to be summoned in the first place. “Um—about… about what Rhys said.”

    “Star, are you here to disprove what that Hunter is saying?” Zena said. “Smite him.”

    Star held her arms up, waving her paws quickly. “N-no, no, I don’t do the whole smite thing. I, uh, I mean, I’m kinda here to… back Rhys up.”

    Zena’s coils tightened.

    “I was listening in, and… he’s right. I… did kinda… create the Hunters, in a sense.” She fiddled with her paws.

    The Milotic looked like she’d been stabbed in the chest. “Y-you… created them?” She expected Star to laugh and say it was a joke, another one of her pranks. But the Mew’s downcast eyes said it all. “The very people that—that ruined my life—that ruined everything I had?!” Zena said.

    Star kept her head down.

    The lack of response was perhaps the worst reaction Zena could have received. The painful silence lasted for—Owen wasn’t sure how many seconds. Too long. Even Gahi stayed quiet, his huge mouth slightly open in disbelief. Owen wondered if it was because the trio was witnessing Mew Herself, or because Star was behind something so horrible.

    Silent through it all, Anam nibbled on his fingers and shrank back, eyes focused on nothing. It was like he was listening to a voice only he could hear, even while Zena spoke.

    “I could have lived a normal life!” Zena whispered loudly. She was trembling. Her voice slowly grew in volume. “I… I could have lived as a normal Milotic, perhaps found myself a fine partner to have an egg with, to raise a child together, to become a family, to die of age like—like any other Pokémon! But instead…! Instead I lived… centuries… in isolation… with nothing but spirits that taunt me with their deaths, their ability to freely leave and pass on…! And I’m… I’m just stuck here with this Orb, some piece of our so-called all-mighty Creator’s rejected power! And… and all for what?! All for you to take it back?!”

    Star opened her mouth to speak.

    I don’t want to hear another word from you! Leave my sight!”

    Star bit her lower lip. She lingered, but when Zena’s piercing, fiery eyes persisted—enough to rival Owen’s tail—she disintegrated into a blue ember and returned to Amia.

    Zena threw her head onto her coils, shivering and sniffling. Owen quietly looked around and saw that nobody was comfortable enough to approach her. He took initiative and quietly stepped closer to Zena and put a hand to her neck. She jerked her head away, but didn’t resist when Owen tried a second time.

    “Why?” Owen finally asked. “What’s… what’s it all for? Why does—or, did, why did Star want that power?”

    Rhys shook his head. “I don’t… I don’t know,” he said. “What she told us is the extent of her motivations behind trying to usurp Arceus. That he is an improper god; that the world is stagnating; that to save it, she would need the power. And… while I agreed with her at the time, the way the Hunters worked to do this…” He glanced at Zena. “It shook me. And I could not continue, and Star felt the same. Yet… well, as you can see, some of them still continue.”

    Zena pressed her eyes against her scales. She was well beyond anger at this point; it seemed like she was just closing herself off again, like she was hiding away in the base of her caverns all over again. The way she coiled against the rocks made her scales bend roughly against the jagged portions. Owen stared worriedly at this. Did Zena even realize it?

    “Star was my friend,” she said. “How could she lie to me? For so long?”

    Owen held Zena’s side, trying to prevent her from damaging her scales too much. It was enough to stop her, and she resorted instead to brushing against his side instead. She needed something to press against, and Owen recognized that much, even if he couldn’t understand why. Her sheer size made it hard for the Charmeleon to remain stable; he gripped his claws onto the nest for some leverage. It wasn’t very effective.

    “She may have told you many times before,” Rhys said, “and then erased your memory of it when the reaction was… less than favorable. Star can do that—it’s what inspired, and helped, Nevren do the same to Kilo Village to maintain Anam’s leadership without anybody realizing he never dies. But with all of us present, I doubt she can erase your memories again. Not effectively.”

    Zena sniffed. Her tail wrapped around Owen next; he was too slow to react, and he became enveloped somewhere along her abdomen. She curled around him, just to have something to hold. “I remember… oh, I certainly remember now…!”

    “Y-you do?” Owen said. “How many times did She tell you?”

    Zena shook her head. Her voice was only slightly louder than a whisper. “A number of times. Every few decades. I reacted badly. I threatened to leave, and she couldn’t have that—I would get hurt.” She shrugged her head and rolled her watering eyes. Owen sensed Zena’s muscles make the same contraction pattern as before, threatening to brush against the walls again. He held her firmly, and her scales flinched away from the rocks.

    The Milotic continued, “So, she had to undo it… and make me forget. She didn’t want me to get hurt…. That’s what she always told me. But…” Zena sniffled. She suddenly raised her voice, and it cracked. “But I’d rather die than live like this!”

    “You don’t have to live like that any longer,” Rhys said firmly. “We will stay together as our own community. We will live among the mortals. And… we will gather the Orbs before the remaining Hunters can.”

    It didn’t look like it was getting through to Zena, but she was at least silent. Her coils tightened further around Owen.

    The Charmeleon squeaked, air escaping his chest. His bones creaked. “Can’t… can’t breathe…!”

    Zena released him and he gasped for air. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. She stared at Rhys, now, recalling his recent actions. “Yet, here you are, now. Claiming to be an ex-Hunter… Why? When that was what you were given that power for?”

    “Because I don’t believe it is helping anybody to keep the Orbs scattered in this way,” he said. “Even Star agrees, I’m sure, that having us live together is much better than keeping us apart. It’s unfortunate that we had to wait this long for that decision… but here we are.”

    “And she doesn’t agree with the other Hunters, either?” Owen asked. “Like that Espurr?”

    “Certainly not,” Nevren spoke up. “The remaining Hunters are acting on their own, for their own gain.”

    Anam finally perked up, even if his usual, happy demeanor was completely missing, replaced instead by pained concern. “I—I trust Nevren. He’s my friend.”

    Owen sank down, satisfied at least with this answer. While it was hard, even for Owen, to get a read on Nevren, what he said was reasonable. And if Anam trusted him, that was good enough.

    “So that’s it, then,” James said, nodding. “We race the Hunters to gathering the Guardians. With Star’s cooperation, perhaps we can find more of them.”

    Zena curled a bit tighter around Owen again; the Charmeleon tensed, readying for another crushing grip. “You can plan with her,” she said, “I’m not ready to speak.”

    “Of course,” James said. “Amia? If you can summon her, please.”

    “Oh—yes, dear.”

    Star appeared again, this time a bit more solid—but Star was too powerful for Amia to fully materialize, and she was still very see-through. “H-hey, everyone…”

    Her head was on fire.

    “Uh, Star, er…” Owen pointed.

    “What?” Star tried to look up. “Oh, come on.” She licked her paw and dabbed it on her forehead, putting out the flame. “Honestly, Amia. Fire realm’s way too hot.”

    Amia tittered softly, but then fell back into a tense silence.

    “Star…” Owen wanted to speak carefully, if only so he didn’t get crushed like a Cheri Berry. “I—I don’t get how you could create the Hunters and…” He glanced at Zena,.“And let something like that happen, but… You seem like a good Pokémon! S-so, you’re gonna help us, right?”

    Star nodded. “I’ll do what I can. But, the thing is… a lot of the Guardians don’t talk to me anymore. They’re doing their own thing, hiding away and making sure they don’t, you know, get into any trouble. I’ll need some time to prepare. And I think you all need some rest.”

    “O-oh.” Owen nodded. “Right…”

    Just then, the pure exhaustion of the day hit him. This day began with him dying while touching the Grass Orb. It ended with him dying again when he turned back to a Fire Type. And now this?

    “Rest up for a few days,” Star said. “I need to… gather everything I know. Alright?”

    Rhys nodded. “That’s fair enough. Demitri, Mispy, Gahi. Let’s return home for dinner. Owen, I imagine you would like to go home with Amia.”

    “Y-yeah,” Owen said. “Definitely. I’ll—” He tried to get out of Zena’s coils, but the Milotic held onto him tighter.

    “Where will I go?” she asked.

    “Oh, um, well.” Owen considered this. Zena probably wouldn’t be very comfortable in a slimy pool of water with Anam. And Rhys—that was certainly out of the question.

    “You can come home with us, dear,” Amia said. “Hot Spot Cave, despite the name, is quite cool if I’m not using my power. I’ll make sure the central part of the cave is tolerable!”

    Zena nodded. “Then, I will go there.”

    Rhys nodded. “I believe we should also move in,” he said. “While Star prepares, we will gather our supplies and go to Hot Spot Cave.”

    “E-eh? Just like that?” Gahi asked.

    “I have a responsibility to protect the Guardians. If they are going to live in Hot Spot, then I shall go there as penance.”

    “Oh! You know,” Owen perked up, “there’s actually building a lot like yours in Hot Spot! It even has a little sand pit from one of the other—” Owen winced, remembering that his entire village was dead. “You know, where one of the spirits used to fake-live.”

    “A sand pit? Fer me?” Gahi said. “Hah! Well, I ain’t gonna complain. Figure we’ll accidentally go ter our old home a lot in the next few days, though.”

    “We will be sure to register our Badges with Hot Spot Cave as its new personal Waypoint,” Rhys said. “Come, you three. Let’s go.”

    Owen rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hey, um, am I part of Team Alloy, now?” he asked. “We never made it official.”

    “Eh? Oh, sure,” Gahi said. “Figured we already were. Sure. It’s official now.”

    Vines slowly wrapped around Gahi, lifting him off the ground. His tiny legs wiggled uselessly. Mispy turned the Trapinch around, staring at him with narrowed, red eyes. The Chikorita spoke with her whisper of a voice, yet it was firmer than anybody else on the team. “I’m leader.”

    “E-ehh…” Gahi’s jaws shut tight. He nodded.

    Mispy dropped Gahi and nodded at Owen. “You may.”

    Owen brightened. “Great! Then, um—I’ll see you guys soon!”

    With those parting words, Team Alloy departed again. Rhys glanced behind just once to meet eyes with Zena, only to be met with an icy glare. He bristled and hastily exited with the others.

    Owen’s tail dimmed, but Amia held his shoulder. She smiled and said, softly, “Give it time.” She followed the others out.

    Owen frowned, but couldn’t find it in himself to argue. But the thought was there…

    Wasn’t giving it time what ruined Zena’s life to begin with?

    The Charmeleon realized, upon descending the stairway, that his flame was a lot more noticeable. The evening’s final light disappeared behind the horizon.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 11 - Moving In
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 11 – Moving In

    Kricketot chirped in the bushes. No moon filled the sky, but tiny white pinpricks, painted on the sky, took its place. Amia, with Alex beside her, led the way home with Owen and Zena. There was a little spring in the Gardevoir’s step. Owen’s tail and his Magmortar father’s shoulders lit the way.

    “Uh oh,” Owen suddenly said, stopping.

    “What is it, dear?” Amia asked.

    “How is Zena gonna get inside if she’s alone?”

    Zena blinked. “What do you mean? Does it not open to certain individuals?”

    “No, it’s nothing like that,” Owen said. “You need to do the password to get in. But you can’t do it, because you don’t have any limbs.”

    The Kricketot filled the void-like silence that followed.

    “What?” Zena said.

    Amia giggled. “Oh, Owen, that password is just for non-Guardians. If you’re Mystic, it’s easy to just will the boulder to the side, you know! I just put that switch there because once we had you, well, it wasn’t going to just be me heading in and out of that spot…”

    “W-wait… so only I was…?” Owen trailed off.

    “What is this password?” Zena asked.

    “Uhh—” Owen blushed. “It’s not important.”

    “We’ll have to teach it to Gahi and the others anyway, dear,” Amia said. “But you won’t need it if you’re Mystic, Zena. So, Owen, that means you won’t have to do the dance anymore! Isn’t that nice?”

    “A dance,” Zena repeated, staring at Owen. She was clearly envisioning Owen cutting some form of a jig, based on the smile she valiantly suppressed.

    Owen wondered if drowning was the better outcome after all.

    “Ah, here we are!” Amia flicked her hand at the boulder. It rolled away effortlessly.

    Owen looked crushed.

    On their way in, Owen’s fatigue returned to the forefront of his mind. “I can’t wait to get some sleep.”

    “I just might sleep, too,” Amia said. “It’s not really something that we need to do, but—”

    “Wait,” Owen said exhaustedly, exasperatedly, “you don’t have to sleep?”

    “When you become strong enough as a Mystic,” Amia said delicately, “a lot of the things that mortals need to perform become optional. Eating, sleeping…”

    “But I like both of those things.” Owen frowned. “What’s the point of living if you can’t get a good meal?”

    “Well, nothing’s stopping you!” Amia laughed. “A meal every now and then is wonderful! Besides, Owen, you just became a Guardian. You still need to eat.”

    Owen shifted uncomfortably.

    “I slept quite a lot,” Zena admitted. “It gets… boring, down there.”

    “I can imagine,” Owen said. But on second thought, he couldn’t.

    He eyed the glowing mushrooms. “Mom? Are these mushrooms glowing because of your power?”

    “They are, dear,” Amia said. “I thought it made the cave look very pretty.”

    Owen nodded.

    “Do you like them?”

    “Yeah!” Owen said. “So—can you keep that, maybe?”

    Amia beamed. “I’d love to. What about you, Zena?”

    “They’re much better than my dreary cave.”

    They walked through the empty town. The pit in Owen’s stomach returned. He remembered the Arcanine that always greeted him. The kids playing in the main path. All his neighbors. Now it was empty and silent. Their steps echoed across the corridors.

    “I think this home in particular, Zena, would do nicely for you,” Amia said. It was right next to their own cavern, though it seemed a lot cooler inside. Within this alcove was a large pit filled with rocks. Amia stepped toward the entryway and held her hand out.

    Owen yelped when Amia’s head and dress burst into blue flames. More fire spewed from her arm, colliding with the rocks. The heat was enough to make Zena slither back a few paces. The loose rocks melted and compressed into liquid, creating an even deeper pit. Then, the flames stopped, and Amia’s body extinguished.

    Owen’s jaw may as well have been on the floor.

    Alex approached the lava, jumped in, and shoved his cannons into the molten rock. It looked like he was siphoning the stuff into his body. Then, he lifted his arms—which looked much heavier—and ejected that same molten rock to the far side of the home. Amia did the same thing, using psychic energy to haul more of the molten rock away to the corner of the room.

    Amia finished by holding her other hand out, releasing a concentrated beam of ice into the pool. Plumes of steam filled the air and faded, leaving a pit of smooth obsidian behind.

    “There!” Amia clapped her hands together. “Just one Hydro Pump, Zena, and you’ll have a lake to rest in!”

    Zena slithered tentatively closer. She gently prodded at the cooled obsidian, and then at the depths of the pit. It would fit her comfortably, and then some. She nodded. “It’s wonderful, Amia,” she said. “Thank you.”

    “We should go to bed, Owen,” Alex said. “You still need to sleep.”

    “Oh, yeah, right,” Owen nodded.

    Amia and Alex left, but Owen didn’t follow just yet. He turned his attention back to Zena; she was filling the pool with multiple, gentle Hydro Pumps, made from pure, crystal-clear water. It only took three to finish the job, cold water filling it to the very rim. She looked back. “Owen?”

    Owen glanced at the missing scales along her body; it occurred to him that Zena would be resting alone for the night. He could never sleep if it wasn’t at home in his bed. Would Zena be the same way, or was she used to it? “Will you be okay?”

    “Will I be… okay?”

    “Yeah.”

    Zena tilted her head. “How do you mean?”

    Owen played with his claws. “You said you were alone for centuries…”

    Zena’s expression was oddly neutral. “That’s true.”

    There was another long silence. He didn’t want to impose anything upon her, but part of the pit in his gut was certainly the thought of Zena being alone again. He’d never get to sleep with thoughts like that plaguing his mind. He glanced at Zena again; her expression was regal, but it felt like a mask. She had been so expressive before; now it was gone and emotionless.

    He didn’t believe it for a second. So, he spoke. “Do you want—”

    “Yes. Please.”

    “O-okay.” Owen scampered into his home. “Mom!” he called. “I—oh, thanks.”

    Amia handed him a bowl of Tamato soup.

    “Keep Zena company, dear, at least for tonight.”

    “Would you like me to carry over your bed?” Alex asked, peering out from the kitchen corridor.

    “Oh, sure, yeah.”

    Owen returned to Zena’s home and found a spot in the corner to drink his soup. Zena had slipped into the water during his absence, but he could still vaguely sense her presence as part of the water. Steam filled the air and clouded his vision; the soup’s red base was scalding, just how he liked it. The Charmeleon drank in greedy gulps. Alex returned with his bed, setting it down next to him. Owen crawled on top, finished his bowl in one last gulp, and handed it to Alex. “Thanks,” he said, and then eyed the lake.

    “So, I’m gonna rest here for tonight,” Owen said. “Hope that’s okay.”

    The lake didn’t reply. Owen didn’t mind. He curled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around, resting his chin atop them. He then wrapped his tail forward, noticing how the flame lit up the whole room.

    “Does my tail bother you?” he asked. “I—I can probably cover it, if you like.”

    Owen took her silence as indifference. Another glow illuminated the entryway; Alex entered, a book precariously held in the claws within his cannons. “I found this on your bed,” he said. “Looks like you have it bookmarked. Latest edition of,”—he squinted at the cover’s title—“Ho-Oh’s Absurd Escapade, I think?”

    “Oh, right!” Owen’s flame brightened. He looked the cover over—a comic book—and figured if he couldn’t sleep, he could read through a few pages. “Thanks, Dad.”

    With a nod and a few hesitant glances back, Alex finally left Owen alone with Zena. His tail was even brighter, now, and he was certain that it would be distracting the Milotic who probably just wanted a good night’s sleep.

    Owen then remembered that Mystics didn’t need to sleep. Was Zena just doing it out of habit? Either way, he knew his endless light would be bothersome.

    “Sorry if it’s too bright. I guess I’ll cover it.” Owen looked for a patch of Rawst leaves to hide his tail under. “It wouldn’t be too hard to—”

    “It’s okay.”

    Owen jolted, not expecting a voice. Zena had her head out of the water, staring at him. Most of the rest of her body remained liquefied.

    “O-oh,” he said.

    “Leave your tail out,” she said. “Sleep as you want. I’m not bothered by it at all.”

    Owen nodded wordlessly. Zena sank back into the water, blending into it.

    The soup’s warmth spread to the rest of his body, and his eyes grew heavy. He wasn’t going to last much longer. He curled up in bed, closed his eyes, and drifted away. Unfamiliar as it was, his bed made the new cave feel like home.

    Zena slept soundly for the first time in decades.

    <><><>​

    “It’s a dance?” Gahi growled, angrily clicking his jaws.

    The morning sun accompanied the arrival of Rhys and the rest of Team Alloy, just beyond Hot Spot Cave’s entrance.

    “I’m not that good at dancing,” Demitri said, glancing at Mispy, who rolled her eyes.

    “Maybe we can simplify it for you!” Amia said. “A phrase, or I can just manually check your auras instead of automating it.”

    Rhys nodded. “Well, in any case, we have about half of our essential supplies with us,” he said, motioning behind him. Demitri was singlehandedly hauling the bulk of it in a gigantic bag that had a color suspiciously similar to Rhys’ fur coat. Owen stared in disgust.

    “We have a home just for you!” Amia said. “I set it up overnight while Owen and Zena were sleeping.”

    Zena straightened her stance to appear taller. “I—I wasn’t sleeping. I was merely meditating, as I always do.”

    Owen was positive he’d heard the lake snore. Or perhaps that was a dream.

    “Once we haul the rest of our supplies,” Rhys said, “we will return home to get the last of it. Afterward, we will continue with our usual regimen of training, missions, and so on, until Star is ready.”

    Zena huffed at the mention of the Creator. Rhys glanced at the Milotic next; they briefly locked gazes, but Zena’s was a cold stare. Rhys looked to the floor next. “Do you need something, Hunter?” she growled. “Now that I think about it, I likely won’t be sleeping for the rest of my nights here.”

    Rhys’ tail lowered, but he had no words.

    “N-now, now, we just have to wait,” Amia said. “Owen! While your friends go on their usual missions, why don’t you stay back and train with Zena and I under Rhys? Perhaps we can help you get a better hold of your Mystic powers.”

    “Oh, that could work,” Owen said. Though he longed for a normal day, he supposed such a privilege would need defer to his new duties, forced as they were. “What kind of training?”

    “Train under him?” Zena asked. “The Lucario can go on missions with the rest of Team Alloy.”

    “P-perhaps that is for the best,” Rhys said quickly. “I should supervise them for now, anyway, now that the mutants are at another resurgence. It could be dangerous.”

    Zena didn’t smile nor smirk, but there was a bit of relief in her relaxed coils. “When we train, Owen, the first thing you should learn,” she said, “is how to control your ability to harness your Orb. So, becoming Grass.”

    Owen recalled when he’d been nothing but a torso and vines. “Th-that sounds like a good plan. How do I do that?”

    “Practice,” Amia said. “It shouldn’t be more than a few days for something that simple, so the timing works well!”

    Owen wondered if it was possible to die of boredom as a Guardian. That sounded much more lethal than drowning.

    “Heh, good luck, Grassmander,” Gahi said with a mocking churr.

    Owen growled, ending it with a defiant chirp. “Don’t forget that Grass trumps Ground.”

    “Aah, you’ll do fine,” Gahi said, wobbling into the cave. His voice echoed when they entered Rhys’ new abode. “Huh. Place looks almost like home.”

    Owen sighed, looking at his paws. He couldn’t get that feeling of his whole body melting into vines out of his mind. The Charmeleon suppressed a shudder, sparing a glance at his tail to make sure it was still alight. He then looked at Zena, following her glare.

    She and Rhys were looking at one another from across the cave. The Lucario was the first to break his gaze, shrinking into his home with his tail between his legs.

    <><><>​

    Flames and steam filled Hot Spot’s central road. Jets of water blasted the ground, narrowly avoided by a grassy Charmeleon in the center of the soaked, rocky field. He panted and rolled, frantically looking up; Zena stared, waiting for him to get on his feet. Scalding puddles of water surrounded Owen in small pools from previous attacks. He wanted to stay down, if only to take a few extra seconds to breathe, but he knew that the last time he did that, she just blasted him anyway.

    “Don’t stall, dear!” Amia sang, white-hot embers floating around her head. Just behind her, Alex stood with a meek smile, waving at Owen, as if that would somehow encourage him.

    “C-can’t I take a second to rest?” Owen said.

    “Just a bit more, dear. You said you wanted to push yourself, right?” Amia flicked her hand.

    Owen screeched and closed his eyes, focusing on his leafy feathers. They hardened, turning red, but it was too slow. He jumped out of the way again, but the ember redirected itself toward him. He screamed again, panic redoubling, and spat an ember of his own; that was just enough to cancel the attack in a swirl of orange and white fire.

    Owen’s throat burned—he was still a bit on the grassy side. He coughed smoke, taking in ragged breaths, and fell to his knees. “W-wait—wait.”

    “Should we stop?” Zena asked.

    “Hmm…” Amia tapped her chin. “Just one more volley.”

    He finally got a break; he wasn’t going to bargain for more. “F-fine, just one more,” Owen said, rubbing his eyes. “When are you gonna—AAAA!”

    He ducked, narrowly dodging another beam of water. Owen’s horn carved the bottom of the beam; he felt the torrent tug his whole head backward, but he reacted just barely fast enough to duck further down.

    Even as Owen’s scales transitioned to leaves, he couldn’t help but think that the most horrifying part about all this was he knew they were holding back.

    Zena leaned her head down, redirecting her blast to hit Owen again. He rolled in response, the blast grazing his leafy arms—but compared to when he had been fiery, it didn’t hurt nearly as much.

    The air felt hot, the power imbued within Pokémon techniques cutting through his body’s natural immunity to mundane flames. The Charmeleon dared to glance at Amia, but he couldn’t see her—instead, he only saw orange fire taking up half his vision. He screamed and crossed his arms, finally giving in. There was no way he’d be able to transition back to Fire that quickly. A shield of golden light appeared in front of Owen once he crossed his arms; the flames curved around the shield, splitting and evaporating behind the green Charmeleon.

    Owen’s Protect dissipated. His arms hung limply beside him. “Ugh…” Owen finally collapsed onto his rear. “D-done. I’m done.”

    And this time, Amia and Zena complied.

    He sighed, unable to suppress the relieved smile on his face. “Thanks.”

    “We didn’t push you too hard, did we?” Zena asked. “I personally thought we went a bit too far near the end, there…”

    “No, I—I think you stopped at the right time. Mom knows.” He gave a little smile at the Gardevoir, and then at the Magmortar that stood behind her. Alex held out a cannon for Owen to grab, pulling him to his feet. “I fizzle out sometimes, but I still have some energy left in me. I just have to push a little more than I think I can. That’s part of Mystic training, right? I—I’m way better than I was last session!”

    “That’s definitely true,” Amia agreed, holding her hands together. “It’s only been a few days and you’re already switching so fast!”

    “Not fast enough to just do it on the fly, though,” Owen mumbled. “…I want to train again, and you have to promise to push a little harder, okay?”

    “N-now?” Zena asked; even Amia flinched.

    Alex tittered, patting Owen’s back. “N-now, why don’t we take a break, first? F-for a bit longer? You may be Mystic, but you still don’t have the same stamina as before. P-perhaps some meditating instead?”

    “Aw, but I already meditated this morning.” Owen puffed out a small ember in protest, crossing his arms over his chest. His stomach felt like it was tying knots, but he ignored it.

    “Well, it’s also almost lunchtime, isn’t it?” Amia said. “Owen, did you eat breakfast?”

    “B-breakfast?” Owen repeated. “…O-oh, right. I think I forgot…”

    The knot loosened, but with it came a fierce growl, deeper than anything Owen could produce with his throat. “E-eheh…”

    Amia raised her head to the sound of a boulder moving. “Oh! Looks like Team Alloy’s back, dear.”

    Owen perked up, spinning around. “Just in time for lunch!”

    Amia and Alex both laughed. “We’ll get it ready, dear.”

    Rhys, Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi all entered, though curiously, Nevren was also behind them. “Oh, hey, Nevren,” Owen greeted with a formal bow. “How come you’re here?”

    “Ahh, I just wanted to inspect the landscape. I’m curious what Rhys’ new home looks like, and I was also promised a heavenly meal.”

    “From Rhys or Mom?” Owen poked a claw behind him. “She’s already making something, so you might want to hurry.”

    Rhys bristled. “But I asked her to hold off on dinner. I had just the dish in mind.”

    “…Dinner?” Owen leaned to the right; orange light bled through the entryway before the boulder closed it off. Demitri yawned, which made Mispy yawn next. Gahi clicked his jaws and clenched them shut. “How long have I been…”

    “Had a really long mission,” Demitri said, picking tiredly at his tusks. “A mutant—some kind of Electivire… thing, they weren’t sure what other features it had—had been on a rampage through a town a little north of the Wooden Wilds. Like… half of the buildings were either collapsed or cracked.”

    “Quite impressive, really.” Nevren raised one of his spoons. “I’m certain those buildings were reinforced with Protect insulation. It had hit hard enough to dissipate it, and then continue through. Very impressive, if we want to at least give credit where it’s due.”

    Team Alloy—Owen included—glared at Nevren. Zena, too, huffed. “What are these mutants? Owen mentioned them to me before, but all I know is that they’re strange Pokémon that seem to just appear.”

    “Well, effectively, that is what they are,” Nevren said. “They’re so few and far between that they aren’t necessarily a concern… until a particularly troublesome one appears. And that has been happening more often lately.”

    Rhys hummed, shaking his head. “If you must know, they have to do with the Hunters. I’m certain of that. We couldn’t find the mutant itself, only its path of destruction. It will take a while for that town to recover… but we did what we could in the immediate sense. Anam and James are arranging for long-term assistance as we speak. We may station a few Hearts there for morale and security in case another mutant happens to appear there. A second attack would wipe them from the map without our help.”

    Owen shuddered, nodding. “I ran into a Snorlax mutant a while ago. Ugh…” He turned around. “I’m gonna help make dinner.”

    “Hey, I’m coming, too,” Demitri said. “I want to see what we’re having! It should almost be ready, right?”

    “Not if I have anything to say about it. If they aren’t finished, I will get my dish ready.” Rhys took advantage of his longer strides to cross Hot Spot and enter Amia’s home. “Amia! Amia, don’t forget that it’s dinnertime, and you promised me . . .”

    No longer able to hear Rhys, and with Nevren walking ahead, too, Owen looked back at the rest of Team Alloy. “How’d the mission go? Did Rhys help out a lot?”

    “It was a bunch of rebuilding and gathering supplies,” Demitri said.

    “Boring.” Mispy’s leaf drooped.

    “Yep, boring,” Gahi clicked. “Barely got a good fight in. Was glad we ran into some territorial ferals on the way, otherwise we’d be all stir-crazy.”

    “Yeah.” Owen glanced back at the clouds of steam that coated the ceiling, condensing into droplets to rain back to the floor. “I got my fill of fights during my training, at least.”

    “Lucky you.” Gahi wobbled past them; the other three had to walk quickly to keep up. “Bah, at least you can actually relate ter us. Nobody gets it, that need ter fight, y’know?”

    “Y-yeah, but I think I get weird looks when I try to talk about that.”

    At the dinner table, Zena struggled to find a place where she would properly fit. In an effort to include her in daily life again—at least, as close to normal daily life as they could manage—they had invited her over for dinner every day. Her size made things a bit awkward, though she eventually figured out to coil near the corner and lean her head toward the table.

    But Owen noticed that there was a scowl on her face. He had a good idea why, based on where her eyes were glaring.

    Amia had graciously allowed him to add his dish to the spread—it seemed to be some sort of spicy rice, speckled with Cheri bits and seasoned with a dark brown sauce. But his fur stood on end; he felt it, too. Perhaps it was her aura, but Zena was making her glare plainly obvious.

    Owen decided not to speak and instead sat next to the Milotic. He flashed a forced smile, and Zena reciprocated with the same.

    “How long ‘til it’s done?” Gahi shouted, banging his chin on the table. “That mission took ferever and I’m starved!”

    “Very soon, Gahi; be polite.” Rhys tossed the pan’s contents up, slicing Cheri Berries with tiny blades of aura in midair. After a few tosses, he poured the last of the brown sauce in, which Owen realized was the main source of the savory smell.

    “Rhys is pretty good at cooking, huh?” Owen asked Zena, hoping that she’d at least have some shred of recognition for his talents.

    “Mm.” Zena’s scowl softened, but she also looked away from him.

    After what felt like forever, Rhys finally turned around with the spicy rice, as well as Amia’s simpler, but hearty, potato-Tamato stew. Owen wasn’t sure which one to go for first; he just took half of both for himself. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi took after him while Amia placed bowls of water near the middle, warning them that it was a bit spicy.

    “You guys really like yer spice,” Gahi said.

    “It’s okay,” Mispy said.

    “Feh, you’d eat anything.”

    “Say that again.”

    Owen didn’t have to look to know that Gahi had inched away from the Chikorita.

    Zena didn’t take a bowl for herself, but she stayed for the company. Though, compared to the previous dinners, she was a lot quieter than usual. And the only real difference was that Rhys was eating with them—and Nevren, but Owen knew that it was mostly the ex-Hunter Lucario that she was focused on.

    It was either because nobody else spoke, or because he, too, caught the tension, but even Gahi was quiet during dinner. In an attempt to stuff the thickness of the air away, Owen finished his meal first; almost immediately after he set his bowl down for the final time, Zena moved to speak. “Thank you for the dinner, Amia. It was lovely.”

    “Oh, you’re welcome, dear.”

    “I will be going.”

    Without any further goodbye, she slithered out.

    “I—I’ll go, too,” Owen said automatically, stepping away.

    Rhys stood up next, which made everyone except Nevren stare in alarm. “Er—Rhys, dear?” Amia asked. “Is something the matter?”

    “I wouldn’t recommend it,” Nevren said leisurely, taking another spoonful of stew. “Amia, you must tell me how you cook these potatoes. The texture is marvelous.”

    “Oh—I’ll tell you about the recipe, dear, but—”

    “Would you excuse me?” Nevren stood up with more agency than usual. Rhys had already gone out, following Zena. Owen, watching it all, sped up his pace to make sure nothing particularly insane happened—not that enough had already befallen him the past few days.

    “Hey, uh, Zena?” Owen said, stepping inside Zena’s abode nervously. “Er… sorry if I’m bothering you or anything, but…”

    You aren’t bothering me at all, Owen.” Zena slipped into the lake and kept her upper body above the water’s surface. While her eyes had a fire that defied her affinities, Owen could only assume she was telling the truth, particularly when her glare was aimed behind him.

    “Ah… yes. Hello, Zena.” Rhys gave a formal bow. “I didn’t mean to intrude, but—”

    “Then why are you here?”

    Both Owen and Rhys winced. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi caught up to them, Nevren right behind.

    “I… I wanted to apologize, again, for my actions in chasing you down. It wasn’t right of me, and I regret it—all of it. I want to make things right, and I want all of the Guardians to stop living in isolation and fear because of what the Hunters—myself included—had done.”

    While Zena didn’t look convinced, she still replied enough to humor him. “And how do you intend to do that? By approaching the Guardians again, but in peace? Just like that Torkoal tried? I doubt they would believe you.”

    “That is why I came here,” Rhys said, paws squeezed into little, anxious balls. “I need your help.”

    “Rhys, what exactly are you doing?” Nevren said.

    “Something I should have done when I first met her,” Rhys said, taking slow, deliberate, and careful steps into Zena’s home.

    “Don’t come any closer, Hunter,” Zena hissed. “We may be working toward the same goal, but I refuse to—”

    Rhys held out a paw and lowered his head.

    The Mystic flash that came from Zena’s mouth suggested she was about to blast him until his head went down. The light disappeared, replaced by words. “What are you doing?”

    “I, Lucario Rhys, Promise to abandon my role as a Hunter. Do you accept?” His paw glowed in a soft, golden light.

    While Owen sensed no reaction from the rest of Team Alloy, the way Nevren ended up blinking several times, and how Zena flinched, made the Charmeleon let out a quick, confused chirp. “Doesn’t he already promise that, implicitly?”

    But Zena didn’t answer him; she was completely focused on Rhys. “A Divine Promise, you mean?”

    “Yes. I won’t kill another Guardian. My work as a Hunter is done, officially, and by Divine Promise.”

    “…This is a trick,” Zena said hastily. “You couldn’t simply—abandon your—”

    Rhys repeated, more firmly this time, “Zena, I hereby Promise to abandon my role as a Hunter. Do you accept?”

    She stared at his paw for a while longer, the significance completely lost to Owen. He could only infer that this was a lot more than Rhys’ word alone…

    Do you accept?”

    More silence. While he didn’t know her for long, Owen had never seen Zena’s eyes so wide. Shakily, she held out one of her ribbons, grasping Rhys’ paw. “I… I—I accept.”

    Nevren looked like he was about to faint. Gahi, Demitri, and Mispy all looked at Owen for an answer, but the Charmeleon only replied with a shrug and wide eyes.

    The golden light between Zena’s ribbon and Rhys’ paw flashed, then faded. Rhys stood up, his expression firm, and bowed at her again. Zena, meanwhile, was stunned into complete silence, ribbon still hovering where Rhys’ paw had been. She finally closed her mouth and looked down. “Th-thank you, Rhys. But I’m very tired.”

    “I understand.”

    She doesn’t look tired at all, Owen noted, frowning. Why were serpents so hard to read? “Um, Zena, will you be okay on your own?”

    And to this, Zena gave him a warm smile that Owen hoped was genuine. “I’ll be fine tonight, but thank you. I… need to think.”

    “Do you feel safe, dear?” Amia asked, holding a hand to the fin on her chest.

    Alex bumped his cannons together. “If you would like company, we could always stand by your home.”

    “I believe I will be okay. There will always be others awake, yes?”

    “Oh, certainly. Owen, you still need your rest, but we will be awake to keep an eye on things.”

    Zena looked at her ribbon. “…I won’t deny that I feel at least slightly safer. But… thank you anyway.” She turned around. “I’m going to meditate and converse with my spirits. We’re all a bit… Well. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow morning. Hopefully Star will finally return with news.”

    <><><>​

    The mushrooms were dim compared to the fire in the center of the room. Owen was always fond of the light; if anything, he was glad that the bright flames didn’t bother his parents’ sleeping patterns. Since they lacked one. He wanted to sleep right on top of it, but Amia said it would make him smell of smoke all the next day. Instead, he for his boring Rawst bed and lazily rolled until his arm dipped into a small alcove in the wall. Out came a book titled The Power and Peril of Seeds and Scarves, with Owen hoping that a bit of nonfiction could take his mind off of things. As interesting as it was, every page made his eyes just a bit heavier, the existential worries of his relatively newfound power and problems washing away.

    Alex knocked his cannons against Owen’s room, the sound echoing hollowly. “Owen?”

    “Hey.” Owen placed the book, open-faced, on his chest. “Something wrong?”

    The Magmortar smiled. “I was about to ask you that.” He sat down near his bed—due to his size, he towered over Owen without any effort. “The past few days must have been really hectic.”

    “Yeah, a little,” Owen said, shrugging. “But I’m starting to get used to it.”

    “I can tell.”

    “Eh?”

    Alex chuckled quietly. “Well, this is the first time that you’re still awake after all your training.”

    Owen blushed, hiding beneath his book, focused on an image depicting a Reviver Seed’s healing light. “Did I really just pass out that fast?”

    “It certainly seemed that way.” Alex pressed his cannons together. “Owen, er… is there anything that you’d like to talk about? Anything that might be bothering you, or…?”

    Owen’s expression slowly transitioned from flustered to subdued, though he remained hidden behind the pages. He had been focused so much on training that he never had the time to really reflect on why he was doing it in the first place, or what had happened on that disastrous day. He felt his scales crawl, like they were about to become leaves, and shuddered.

    He felt Alex staring at him. Something had to be said to that, and it felt almost like a disservice to just tell him that everything was okay. Owen sighed, relenting. “I guess there’s one thing that sort of bothered me, but… I just…”

    “Yes, Owen? Please, anything. I want to be as open as I can with you, now that, well… this is happening.”

    Owen closed his eyes, focused on the dark. It was rare that he’d want to see nothing—especially since his flame kept his species perpetually in the light. “How come you guys wouldn’t show up when I became a Heart?”

    “A-ah…”

    Owen waited. All in all, it was one thing that certainly bothered him, out of everything. Becoming a Heart was monumental… and yet they weren’t even in the crowd.

    “Well, we… it was dangerous. What if the Hunters tried to attack us while we were out in the open? We could possibly fight them off on our own, but if there are innocents nearby…”

    Owen figured that would be the answer. It was only fair. But after those countless attempts, year after year, of trying to join the Hearts—he had no idea how many times he had been rejected—the day he was accepted, they couldn’t just take one risk?

    “Why were you able to show up at Anam’s place?”

    “Anam came to get us,” Alex said. “Out of all of us, he’s the one strong enough to be in public… and he’s the only other Guardian we know.”

    Though Owen’s claws were still squeezing the book cover, he knew that was a reasonable enough answer. But something still felt wrong.

    “Owen, what’s this really about? I think… you already knew those answers.”

    Owen snorted a bit of fire; his heart skipped a beat, reflexively trying to put out the flames on the page, but then he remembered he had bought special Rawst editions. The pages remained unaffected. He sighed, finally lowering the book. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

    Alex flinched. “T-tell you?”

    “About… you. That the whole village is dead. And that Mom’s…”

    “We just wanted you to live a normal life, Owen. That’s really all.”

    “But—that was just a huge lie!” Owen dared to peek out from behind the book. He regretted it immediately; Alex’s eyes were right on him, accompanied by an apologetic frown. He couldn’t bear to look at it for much longer, yet without thinking placed the book to the side of his nest. The Charmeleon rolled on the leaves, staring at the fire in the center of the room. For some reason, the flames seemed a lot colder tonight.

    “I’m sorry, Owen.” Alex placed his arm on the Charmeleon’s back, giving it a gentle press between his shoulders. Owen’s body loosened, muscles relaxing. “We just didn’t want you to panic. If you could have just had… the smallest sense of normalcy… where you wouldn’t have to feel afraid, or wouldn’t get scared by anything you saw, or what you knew… I—I didn’t want you to worry.”

    “Right.” Owen should have expected an answer like that, too. He already knew that the rest of the village spirits—now within Amia so she could spend more power training him—were surely proud. And perhaps, when his training was His eyes softened, finally gathering enough nerve to look at Alex directly. “What’s Mom doing, anyway?”

    “Standing guard outside, as always.”

    As always. Owen wasn’t sure what his face looked like, but it was apparently insulted enough that Alex looked at the fire next.

    “I’m sorry.”

    Owen couldn’t stay mad at that face. With a sigh of defeat, he just smiled at his father, “It’s okay. I… I get it. You guys just wanted me to be happy, and… I was.” Somehow, Alex’s relieved smile spread to Owen’s, too… or perhaps that was because he could barely stay awake. The fatigue was starting to set in again. At least he had some time to chat. “How have… I been doing?” Owen asked. “With my training… Mystic… strong.”

    “You’ve been doing well, Owen. I’m so proud of you for how well you’re taking all this. So is your mother.”

    “Mhmm…” Owen’s eyelids fluttered. The flames were a blurry, dancing blotch in front of his eyes, ever-present and cozy. “Guardians… Star, gonna…”

    “Soon, hopefully,” Alex replied. “Maybe if we can get them together, we can take on the Hunters. If they. . .”

    Owen wasn’t sure what Alex said after that. He curled around a clump of leaves, the tip of his tail touching his snout, and faded. He had many nights to rest, but it was the first time that he hadn’t just passed out immediately. Yet, despite this, it was the most restful sleep he’d had since becoming the Grass Guardian.

    In his sleep, Owen heard his mother’s voice.

    Good night, little ember.

    <><><>​

    “Well… I know for sure that Rim already stole one of the Orbs,” Star said, sitting on Anam’s dark wooden desk. In the morning light, James felt it was appropriate to gather everybody together once Star brought news to Amia that she had gathered all the intelligence she needed. It had been another few days, but the rest was well worth it—at least from Owen’s perspective. While he was never allowed to go on missions with Team Alloy, his meditation and training with Zena and Amia, while excruciating, was also… fun? Perhaps that’s how it felt, finally able to truly exert himself and fight in ways that most civilians felt uncomfortable with.

    “She has the Psychic Orb, actually. Appropriate, given she always likes being an Espurr, but…” She shook her head. “That one wasn’t very well-guarded. Some village had it as an artifact, hidden in plain sight, so all she had to do was sneak in and steal it. Didn’t have any power. Folks who tried touching it never woke up again, so, guess they just saw it as too dangerous.”

    “How about all the other Orbs?” Owen asked.

    “As far as I know, they’re all with a Guardian, but most I wouldn’t recommend going to just now,” Star said. “Still, we’re in a good spot. Four Orbs with us, one Orb to them.”

    “How come you can’t just tell them to come over?” Owen asked.

    “For one,” Star held up a nebulous claw, “a lot of them are kinda leery about me since, you know, I told them to stay put and all that, and suddenly changing my tune is gonna throw them off. And two, even if I did tell them that, uh, news flash, Hunters might get them on their way over. We need to go to them as a group in case we run into trouble.”

    Zena, while still flashing glares at Star whenever she could, kept herself professional enough to contribute. “I suppose she has a point. If that’s the case, let’s begin with Orbs you believe are the easiest to access. That means the Hunters would have the easiest time getting them, too.”

    “Okay. I’ll put down those dots first,” Star said. “Then you guys can grab the first one. Uhh…” She looked up at the huge map on the front wall of Anam’s office. The others followed her gaze. It depicted a great, roughly-circle-shaped country that comprised almost all of the world’s dry land. Everything else was just ocean. Owen saw the marking of his home to the north of Kilo Mountain in the center of the map.

    “This one’s pretty good. She’s a little weird, but she won’t hurt you, maybe. Willow, the Fairy Guardian. She’s right here, in a hidden garden inside that forest….” She pointed at a pale green patch of land within a northwestern woodland called Fae, Fae Forest.

    Demitri shuddered slightly. “Fairy, huh…”

    “Oh, calm down,” Star hushed him. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

    “I—I do!” Demitri said. “I just… won’t try to fight her.”

    “How about all the other locations?” Owen asked. “We should try to rescue them all at once!”

    “No-go on that,” Star dismissed. “Spread ourselves too thin, the Hunters will beat us down.”

    “Hrm.” James fluffed up his feathers. “At the same time, we risk giving the Hunters even more time than necessary if we all go to them one by one. Perhaps we should follow official Heart protocol—teams of four or fewer. On a practical level, it’s the most optimal size for a mission of this scale.”

    Owen nodded. “I feel like you’d need someone dedicated to just managing things if you have too many Hearts fighting on one team.”

    Nevren chuckled. “A Heart manager. It sounds as if you want a tactician.”

    Rhys glared at Nevren. The Alakazam ignored it.

    “What an interesting concept, Owen,” Nevren went on. “Well, I’m not much of a fighter, so perhaps I can play that role,” he said. “Would you care if I gave you all communication devices? I’ve actually been working on this for quite some time, and it may actually be useful in this case, hm.”

    “Y-you can do that? How?”

    “It’s similar technology to how my Waypoints have been working, but instead of transferring solid material such as Pokémon and their possessions, it transfers energy, such as, in this case, the vibrations of the air made by speaking. Quite useful, yes?” Nevren pulled from his bag—as if he’d been waiting a while to announce this—what appeared to be three silver Badges. “I only have two at the moment… ah, no, three.”

    “They look… kinda like our Badge,” Owen said.

    “Yes, I wanted there to be a resemblance. However, the color is quite different, so I imagine there will not be much confusion.”

    It was indeed a lot like the Badge, but the design in the center was not a heart, but a diamond. However, it was the silver sheen, compared to the typical gold, was the most immediate difference.

    Mispy prodded one of the communicators with a vine. “Mnn… nice.”

    “How do you use it?” Owen asked.

    “You press the center rhombus and speak into it. So long as the other badge is not pressed, it will reflect what it ‘hears’… to put it simply.”

    Gahi pressed the little rhombus with his tiny foot. “Can yeh hear me?”

    Can yeh hear me? the other two said at the very same time.

    “Whoa!” Owen said. “That’s… really cool!”

    The Trapinch clicked. “That’s how I sound?”

    “Sounded normal to me,” Demitri said.

    “Mhm.” Mispy nodded.

    Gahi grumbled something and pushed the communicator to the others with a flick of his head. “I don’t like it.”

    “Aww, you sound fine, Gahi. We’re used to it,” Demitri teased. “Hey, how about we compete for second place on evolving on this mission, huh?” Almost instantly, their cheerful expressions shifted to challenging glares, and the challenge was on.

    “Hey!” Owen perked up. “How about for this mission, all four of us team u—”

    “No!” Rhys and Star said.

    Owen jumped.

    Rhys shook his head. “That is not a good idea. We need at least one elite with you. Don’t forget, you’re all only at the Entry level. The Hunters… No. I shall accompany them.”

    “And your father and I will go with you instead, Owen,” Amia said, smiling.

    Owen deflated. He really wanted to fight as a quartet…

    “So that will be a team with Rhys and his students,” James said, “and a team of Owen, Amia, and I presume Alex. That leaves you, Zena… perhaps to come with myself and Anam. Do you have a spirit to accompany you?”

    Zena glanced at Owen, but then sighed and addressed James. “None that I can solidify usefully.”

    “I can’t go,” Star said. “I’m too strong to solidify completely, and I want Anam to focus that energy on keeping James out. I’ll just cheer for you guys... okay?”

    Nevren nodded. “I wish you all luck,” he said. “I will remain behind to manage the Hearts while you are away, yes?”

    “Oh! Yeah, thank you, Nevren!” Anam said. “Um… I think that’s everyone! Yeah! So, we’ll have three teams! Star? Where should we go?”

    “Hmm, okay. Like I said, Fairy Guardian is one. Rock and Normal are also ones that I’m kinda worried about the Hunters reaching sooner, so let’s do them, too.” Star pointed to the map. “Great Crevice for the statue.” On the map, a great, rocky gash trailed across an eighth of the land’s diameter, like a great titan had cut across the southeastern part of the map. Then, Star pointed to a spot in a western forest near Kilo Mountain. “And not too far from here, there’s an abandoned temple deep in the woods. Nothing’s really there anymore, but… Anam, you’re familiar with that place, right? You should go there, since you know the way.”

    “Why is the Normal Guardian at a temple?” Owen asked.

    “He kinda likes modern architecture.”

    “What’s a modern?” Gahi asked.

    “Uhhh—it means ancient. Sorry, I kinda get my terms mixed up. Generational lingo, y’know? Kinda hard for a god to keep up when you’re cooped up in the spirit world.”

    Owen was busy chatting with Zena to notice what else Star was saying. He already had his assignment. “I guess it’s good that I’m not a Dragon Type after all, huh?”

    “Oh, you aren’t?” Zena asked. “You know, I always thought the Charmander line was part Dragon.”

    “Believe me, I wish that was true,” Owen grumbled. “Dragons are awesome. We even look like one, if you compare us! But I guess someone”—Owen glared at Star—“thought we were better off with things like Pidgey. N-no offense to Pidgey or anything.”

    Zena nodded. “Well, I think you’re just fine, regardless of your Type. Fire… or Grass.”

    Owen tittered. “Yeah, I guess Grass isn’t so bad after all.” He lied aloud, if only to keep Mispy from dismembering him in his sleep.

    Zena giggled—something that surprised Owen at first, how bright her eyes looked for just a flash—and then she composed herself. “Well, in any case, good luck, Owen, with the Fairy Guardian. I hope we can spend some time reading a book together when we return?”

    Owen tilted his head. That was an odd set of muscle movements. He wasn’t sure if Zena was tense for the mission, or what. Perhaps she was just nervous, and Milotic expressed that differently. Defaulting to a cheerful smile, Owen said, “Hey, sure. That sounds great! And good luck with the Normal Guardian!”

    With the teams prepared and Badges charged, they all dispatched for their respective Waypoints.
     
    Last edited:
    Special Episode 1 - Storm
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Special Episode 1 – Storm

    Lightning shattered the sky.

    A squadron of Pokémon consisting of a Flareon, Delphox, Salazzle, and Rapidash stopped to avert their eyes. A thunderous blast deafened them, and the ground trembled when a follow-up explosion—this time, one of a tree crashing down—dwarfed any other noise. It was midday, yet the sun did not shine through the thick clouds for even an instant. Even truer to its name than usual, Nightshade Forest was navigable only because of the crackling flames on Rapidash Tee’s back.

    It was hard to see. Even with the orange glow, the tree trunks were coal-black, and the plants were all the darkest shade of green in all the worlds’ forests. Rainwater glistened against the flames of Tee, but ahead was an even greater glow of a distant, freak inferno that mocked the torrential rainwater.

    “LET’S GO!” the Delphox roared. He held his arm up and guided the team with a flame from his palm.

    “Leo, slow down!” the Flareon huffed.

    “We can’t,” Leo said. “Faster, Emby! What’s taking you, Tee?!”

    “It’s—it’s not very easy to work under these conditions!” the Rapidash replied with a hiss that rivaled the stinging fire on her back. Every drop of rain was like acid against her, and the steam that came off of her body was a constant reminder of the thunderstorm above. “Spice! Pick it up!”

    “Oh, you hush!” the Salazzle replied. “Pick it up?! You’re the one stumbling over your own hooves!”

    “Now’s not the time, girls!” Leo grunted. “Emby, what’s going on?”

    “Just ahead,” Emby said. Her bushy tail was soaked from the rain, and it doubled her weight. Between her new bulk and lopsidedness, she was barely able to run. “There’s someone there—who is it?!”

    Leo saw, just barely, the signature, dancing ember atop a Charmander’s tail. It walked with great labor—hauling something on his back.

    “Kid!” Leo shouted. “What’s wrong? What—” He gasped.

    He was hauling a Bulbasaur that was more ash than plant. Half-dead eyes stared emptily toward the ground.

    Leo ran close and wrapped his arms around the charred Pokémon. “This is bad,” he said. “Spice! Oran Berry!”

    “I don’t think an Oran’s gonna be enough for this!” Spice said, but she dashed forward anyway, handing Leo the blue fruit.

    Leo tried to shove the berry into its mouth, but it didn’t work. Too weak. “C’mon, just a little, get that energy back. This Berry is blessed, you have to eat it!”

    The Bulbasaur wasn’t even awake.

    “Oh, give me that!” Spice said. Her dark claws snatched the berry from Leo and she shoved it in her mouth. Leo’s eyes bulged in protest. He grabbed her arm, but Spice shoved him aside.

    “Spice! Stop with that Salazzle gluttony for a second and—”

    He tried to grab her again, but Spice whipped Leo with her tail, binding his arms against his body. He writhed to break free, always surprised by her strength.

    Spice then shoved her mouth against the Bulbasaur’s, promptly stopping the rest of Leo’s retort. Spice forced the mashed berry into the Bulbasaur’s larger mouth and down his throat with an amount of practiced ease that unnerved Leo.

    It indeed wasn’t enough—but the energy was enough of a jolt to get the Bulbasaur awake. He cried out, suddenly aware of the pain that permeated his body, even with some of the wounds healing. He flailed weakly, flinging bits of burned plant and flesh matter that washed away in the rain.

    “I need another!” Spice said. “And a Heal Seed! NOW!”

    “R-right,” Leo said, handing the seed, and then the berry. Spice tried to feed it to the Bulbasaur the normal way, but he was too panicked. She cursed under her breath and shoved both in her maw again, chewing quickly, and forcing the food in.

    Leo motioned for Emby and Tee to run ahead; they nodded and dashed. If this was the Bulbasaur’s condition, there was no telling how many more needed rescue from the inferno ahead.

    “Backup should be here soon with more supplies,” Leo said, looking back. “Ugh—this rain! Why is there a fire in the rain?!”

    “This is the worst thunderstorm I’ve ever seen,” Spice said. “Some freak accident must have caused it. The—"

    Another bolt split the sky in two. Leo covered his bushy ears. The flame-colored fur that covered the holes shook against the booming sound.

    When the thunder subsided, Spice turned her attention to the one that had brought the Bulbasaur to them. “You! Thank you for your help, kid—now, get out of here!”

    “N-no way!” he protested. “And—I’m not a kid! I’m Charmander Owen! Maybe you’ve heard of me?!”

    “Aren’t you that upstart who got his Provisionary Badge? Look, kid, you’re not even one of the Hearts yet—I know your eyes are toward the stars right now, but this is way too dangerous for someone like you!”

    “They need Fire Types to rescue the Pokémon that got lost in the forest. I can handle the fire!”

    “But not the falling trees or lightning strikes,” Leo said. “Get out of here! Your flame is already halfway gone. I know how it’s supposed to look.”

    The Bulbasaur whimpered. The wounds were fading, but the pain remained. He shivered in the mixture of cold rain and hot burns.

    “We can’t leave him here,” Spice said. “Leo! Take this guy back and catch up. I’m gonna run ahead with Tee and Emby.”

    “But, Spice—”

    “Just go, Leo. You can’t run in that robe-fur of yours anyway. You’re soaking!”

    Leo stammered disconnected, single syllables of protest.

    Spice shoved the Bulbasaur into Leo’s arms and ran forward.

    “Wait!” Owen ran after her. Leo, hanging onto the Bulbasaur, was in no position to stop him.

    “Kid!” Leo said. “You idiot! You—Tauros-headed—” He grunted, but then ran away with the Bulbasaur. Better to save one Pokémon than chase another.

    Ahead, Owen struggled to catch up with Spice. They had passed by Tee first, who fell back to assist with a pair of lost Paras. Next, they ran across Emby, guiding a Skiddo, Bellossom, and Shroomish away from the fire. “Any deeper and you won’t find anyone,” Emby warned. “It’s too hot for anybody that isn’t Fire to survive!”

    But they pressed on, just in case. Spice was quick in the rain, and she wasn’t quite as bothered by it as the other Fire Types in the area. For the most part, Owen felt the same way—except when the water dripped against the flame of his tail. Every one felt like a thorn stuck inside the very tip, lodging itself like an electric shock that traveled through his spine and into his forehead.

    He pushed through it all. His tiny legs were no match for Spice’s lithe, lanky stride. He had to admire being able to move so quickly—he fantasized about when he’d be able to evolve into a Charizard. He heard that sometimes, they could glide across the air by just outstretching their wings, using the updraft of their own heat to stay afloat. That’d be amazing!

    “Are you seriously still following me?!” Spice said, looking back.

    “M-maybe!” Owen puffed. “The fire’s this way!”

    “You don’t say?!” Deeper into the woods, there was dying fire all around them, though the current path of the inferno was much further ahead. A hot spot—indicated by a brighter glow in the corner of their vision—was to the right.

    “Just go back, kid. This is way too dangerous for someone like you!”

    “I’m an adult! And I can handle myself! This fire’s nothing to me! Th-the rain’s kinda bad, but I can deal with the heat!”

    “Ugh! Stubborn. Males are all the same,” Spice hissed. “Fine! Be a hero. But don’t cry to me when you wake up half-dead!”

    Owen grumbled something under his breath and rubbed at his arms. He appreciated the intensifying heat. The flames licked at his scales, and Owen sighed. “At least it’s warmer here.”

    “Speak for yourself,” Spice muttered, slowing down.

    Owen, relieved, also slowed. “What do you mean?”

    “Look, you Char-line ‘mons and other Fire-primaries have an easy time with fires, but me? I need to be a little more careful. You’re also lower to the ground, so the smoke can be a problem.”

    “Aren’t you part Poison?”

    “Still need air,” Spice said. “So, when you go running into the fire, don’t breathe it in, alright? Hold your breath and try to rescue as many Pokémon as you can. There might not even be any more.”

    “B-but there are tons of Pokémon in Nightshade Forest! And Fires like me can breathe flames! And I mean—the wild ones probably ran off by now, but we need to be sure, right? We don’t want to find any corpses that we could’ve saved in the aftermath.”

    “And that’s why we’re here.” Spice turned. She and Owen scanned the area; Owen demonstrated a strong awareness for the presence of others in hiding, but so far, there was nothing that either of them could detect. The burned forest was largely abandoned.

    On their third advance, Spice remarked, “You know, you’re not too bad, Charm. Maybe I should invite you to my place.”

    “E-excuse me?” Owen said.

    Lightning struck a tree nearby, but not in the immediate area. Owen gasped and held his chest, feeling the boom rock him to his core. “What’s with this lightning?”

    Lightning struck for a second time, and then a third, in rapid succession.

    “I—I don’t think storms work this way!” Owen shouted.

    “Let’s go! Before—”

    A deafening explosion was accompanied by a bright light. Then, there was a wave of heat that Owen welcomed for only a split-second. A tree right behind Spice exploded from the blast, sending splinters and branches in all directions. Spice narrowly dodged one of them, but a heavy branch struck her on the shoulder. She grunted and fell back. Owen stared at the splinters with wide eyes and weaved through all of them, only getting hit by smaller ones that bounced away from his scales.

    “S-Spice!” Owen rushed for her.

    “Ungh, that’s not good,” Spice grunted. She couldn’t move her arm—it was dislocated. “Kid—you go on ahead. I need to fall back.” She used her good arm to position herself, and then she stood up.

    Lightning struck yet again, and another tree exploded far in the darkness. “It’s getting worse,” Owen said, wincing when the rain intensified. His tail felt like it was being sawed off. He reflexively reached back and grabbed it, holding it beneath his chin to shield the flame from the downpour.

    “H-h-help!”

    Owen and Spice both turned. “Did you hear that?”

    “Let’s go!”

    With her good arm, Spice shifted her bag to a more convenient position on the other side of her chest and ran after him. Owen ran awkwardly with his tail under his chin, but he was careful not to actually make contact—by now, water was running down every inch of his body. Yet, the fire of the forest continued to rage; it was too hot and too extensive for the rain to put out quickly.

    The smoke was thick here, and it mixed with hot water vapor. That would be a problem if Owen got too close. They must have been near the center of the inferno. Steam mixed with smoke and embers, rising in thick clouds that only contributed to more of the blotted sky. Spice was a lot lower to the ground, shambling through to get as much fresh air as she could. It was almost a crawl, albeit awkward with only one arm working.

    Owen, shorter, kept up with his normal running pace.

    Lightning struck again, and another tree shattered. This one was ahead, and Owen feared the worst.

    A head-splitting, growling rumble shook the forest. Each vibration shook the water droplets on Owen’s scales. A tree tilted to the right. Spice was running straight toward it, wincing from a plume of smoke that caught her off guard.

    “Spice!” Owen yelled. He grabbed her by the tail and yanked—his strength was miniscule, but it was just enough to save Spice from the trunk that had crashed mere inches in front of her face.

    She flicked her tail away out of reflex, nearly whipping Owen with it, but then let out a little puff. “Thank you.”

    Just ahead, Owen saw a Jolteon cowering in the middle of a clearing, as far from the fire as it could get.

    “Aw, Mew, this isn’t any good—”

    “Ugh, curse Mew, more like!” Spice said. “How long has he been there?” She rushed closer. “Hey! Hey, can you hear me?”

    “H-help…” That was all he could say.

    He was hot to the touch. His fur hurt to even get near—electricity arced from spike to spike. “You need to calm down.”

    The Jolteon didn’t hear them.

    Spice grunted and reached forward, clutching the Jolteon anyway. Electricity coursed through her in a painful pulse. “Nngh, listen here, you…!” she said. “Charmander!”

    “Y-yes!”

    “Oran Berry! Bag! Now!”

    “O-okay!” Owen rummaged through his bag and grabbed one. He was about to pass it over to Spice, but another bolt of lightning crashed down, drawn straight to the Jolteon. It passed through Spice instead.

    “SPICE!”

    She could barely stand; a sharp, jagged pattern marked her back and an even worse pattern wrapped around her front. The Jolteon screamed in a panic, electricity from the bolt of lightning coursing through him next. He reacted with a countering jolt, shooting white arcs of electricity in all directions. Much of the blast went toward Owen who, still dripping wet from the rain, felt pain across his entire body. He could only moan in response and crumpled to the ground, seizing from the aftershocks through his muscles.

    “S-Sp-Spice!” Owen wheezed.

    Spice didn’t respond.

    Another explosion. Somewhere far away, a tree collapsed. A second explosion followed, and another tree fell. A third explosion—this one was much louder. Owen struggled to stand, but nothing his mind desired was answered by his body. Rain pounded on his back, and the fire closed in. It was all too much. He just wanted to sleep. Owen’s eyelids fluttered, and his body stopped seizing.

    Tiny hands grabbed Owen’s arm and rolled him over. “Hey. Hey. Wake up.”

    Owen’s vision was too blurry. Scaly hands tried to peel his eyelids open. He grunted and turned his head. The visitor shoved an Oran Berry in Owen’s mouth, and then his hands maneuvered Owen’s jaw, forcing him to chew. Bits of the juice leaked down his throat—that was enough to give Owen the energy to keep eating.

    Owen saw a Charmander in front of him. “H-hi?” he mumbled, delirious.

    “Hey.” It sounded, and looked, exactly like him.

    “Hey, me… Am I dead? Are you my dark side?”

    “Nice greeting,” the other Owen said. “No. Can you stand?” He pulled Owen to a sitting position.

    “No.”

    “Try.”

    “I can’t move my legs.”

    “Right.” The second Owen let go, and Owen fell back with a grunt. The doppelganger rummaged through his bag.

    “That’s mine, though,” Owen protested. “Oh, but you’re…” A brief moment of lucidity passed through him. “Spice!”

    “Berry isn’t doing much, but I helped her already.”

    “The Jolteon?”

    Lightning, crash, fall. Lightning again, another crash.

    “I’m working on it,” the duplicate said.

    Owen watched his double sort through his supplies.

    “Are you from the future?”

    “No.”

    The Charmander spun around and closed his eyes. Owen tilted his head, watching the odd maneuver. Was he suddenly blind? The second Owen groped the ground with one hand and held an Oran Berry in the other. He felt the Jolteon’s paw, and then immediately turned and faced Owen, staring at him while he shoved the berry in the Jolteon’s mouth, forcing more chewing.

    Owen, unnerved, said, “Shouldn’t you be looking at him? Stop… stop staring at me. That’s weird.”

    “Can’t.”

    Lightning flashed. The downpour was intensifying; Owen could barely hear over it and the angry inferno around them.

    “Where’s your Badge?”

    “In my bag,” Owen said.

    “Good.” He turned to the bag and rummaged through it again, pulling it out. He then walked backwards, staring at Owen the whole time, while he searched for the Jolteon again. Then, he tapped the Badge on the Jolteon’s forehead; it blinked, and a light enveloped him. In a flash, he was gone.

    “Th-that was my warp!” Owen said. “Now we can’t get out! That was just Provisionary! It doesn’t have the juice for full-on rescue warps!”

    “Better him than us.” He returned the now-useless Badge into Owen’s supply bag.

    The harshest bolt yet crashed down right next to them, splitting another tree apart down to its roots. Flaming splinters scattered in all directions, and Spice, finally coming to, was struck by a few of them.

    “Ugh—!” She rolled onto her front, wincing in pain. “What? Who are—?” She could barely speak; her scars weren’t healing from the Oran Berry that his copy had given her.

    Owen’s double grabbed Spice’s bag, grabbed her Badge from it, and tossed the bag itself to her without looking. She snatched it from the air.

    “Get out of here,” he said. “You’ve exhausted your supplies. Owen and I are going to keep going.”

    “Owen and—what are you, twins?”

    “No.”

    “I’m not leaving until my mission is complete. And that mission is to—”

    The mirror image tapped the Badge’s center and immediately threw it at Spice. She caught it with one hand. “Hey, you rude little thing, I’m the Heart here, and—” The Badge activated, and she was gone.

    Owen stared. After a pause of disbelief, he blurted, “THAT WAS OUR OTHER WARP!”

    Owen-two sighed, visibly relaxing. He looked at Owen. “There’s a Dungeon nearby that has Pokémon trapped inside. We need to get in there and help them get out. That’s where an Elite was sent, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough. Are you coming?”

    Owen replied with self-interrupted protests, but then he grunted out a small ember. Lightning rapidly struck four times in random areas. After the strikes stopped, and Owen took his hands off his head, he grunted. “Let’s go.”

    Owen followed his double; they ran at the exact same pace, had nearly the same gait, and were only slightly out of sync in their steps. “So, Owen! What’s—”

    “My name isn’t Owen.”

    “O-oh—um—Charmander?”

    He hesitated. “Call me Deca.”

    “Wait, how’d you know my name if you aren’t—?”

    “I heard about you getting a provisionary Badge.”

    “Oh.” Owen nodded. “So, wait, there’s a Dungeon in Nightshade Forest?”

    “Small one. Showed up recently.”

    “Showed up recently? How do Dungeons show up?”

    “It’s some kind of flux of divine energy, and it lingers, creating the distortion. It’s like its own little world.”

    “What causes it?”

    “Working on that.”

    Owen tripped on a flaming branch. “Ugh—”

    Deca stopped and helped him up, tugging him over the branch.

    “A-ahh!” Owen desperately pat his bag, but it had caught fire. The heat was outpacing the rain, and his bag was dry in some spots, and that was enough for it to burst into flames.

    Impatient, Deca grabbed the bag, pulled out the Badge, and threw the rest away. “We need to go.”

    “B-but that was expensive!”

    “Do you want Pokémon to die?”

    “N-no, but—”

    Deca ran ahead with his eyes shut. Owen hesitated for only a fraction of a second, and then he was right after him, panting from all the running. He hoped Deca didn’t trip from running blind.

    “Deca!” he shouted. “A-are you mad or something?! I’m sorry!”

    “I’m not mad.”

    “Then how come you’re talking so—”

    “I’m concentrating.”

    “What—”

    “Dungeon ahead.”

    They passed through a distortion of light, and the ground around Owen raised into its typical labyrinth, this time coated in burning wood, charred dirt, and glowing rocks. Water ran down the distorted labyrinth’s walls in small streams, which in turn filled the halls with a thick layer of steam. “The Dungeon’s on fire, too!?”

    “Must have passed through the distortion,” Deca said, looking back. “The fire’s old.” Their feet sank into ashen mud.

    The rain was still pouring, putting out the largest of the embers. The fire had been here for a while; the first segment had long since exhausted its fuel. But that meant the fire was more intense further in and—even worse—any Pokémon potentially trapped inside would be struggling to outpace it.

    Deca rummaged through his own bag and pulled out a scarf, wrapping it around his eyes.

    “Uh—”

    “Guide me.”

    “Excuse me?”

    Deca had blindfolded himself. “Guide me.”

    “O-okay, if you say so…”

    He walked forward and took the lead through the Dungeon, but Deca suddenly slapped his tail.

    “Excuse me!” Owen protested, blushing.

    “Faster. I’m not slow.”

    “Ugh!” Hot in the face, Owen sprinted forward—and, to Owen’s surprise, Deca kept up. Every time Deca fell forward, he brought his arms out and flipped in a sort of somersault, landing on his feet just behind Owen. So impressed by this, Owen didn’t realize the wall in front of him and he ran straight into it. His tail stiffened, then he slumped down with a groan.

    “Don’t get distracted,” Deca said.

    “Stop distracting me with those crazy moves,” Owen countered, rubbing his nose. He was bleeding from that one, but he ignored it. “What do you know, Acrobatics?”

    “I know what you know.”

    The fires intensified for every segment they went through. “How short is short?” Owen called over the roaring fire. The only thing good about the Dungeon was that lightning didn’t strike here. The deeper they went, the softer the explosions that echoed from the Dungeon entrance felt.

    “No idea. It’s a new Dungeon, so it’s going to be smaller. No more than six distortion gateways.”

    “G-got it.”

    Owen counted four that they had gone through. The flames covered the ground for entire corridors; he had to hold his breath so he didn’t breathe in the smoke. The heat made it difficult to tell where the next distortion of light was, since essentially everything seemed distorted by the heat.

    “We’re going in circles,” Deca said.

    “I—I know, I’m trying to find a way out!” Owen said.

    “They’ll die if we take too long.”

    “I know!”

    Owen took a spontaneous right. They got out of the fire, and Owen gasped for air. “Finally!” he said. “W-wait—no fire?”

    “We caught up,” Deca said, adjusting the scarf around his head.

    “That means the survivors are ahead, right?” Owen asked.

    “Or this is a dead end.”

    Something bright rushed past them, illuminating the halls that weren’t ablaze; Owen felt hot wind follow. “H-huh?” Owen looked back. “W-wait, that was—”

    It was in the shape of a Lucario, but it was coated in some sort of blue light. Once he was far away from the heat, the light vanished.

    “Th-that’s Lucario Rhys!” Owen said. “But he’s a Steel Type! How’d he even get down here?”

    “He knows the way!” Deca shouted, pulling off his blindfold to stare at Owen. “Follow him!” He put the blindfold back on.

    “O-okay!” Owen said. He briefly worried whether Deca would be able to follow him or not, but he had to move ahead anyway.

    Thankfully, Deca kept up. Without the flames and the smoke, Owen finally had a clear enough head to think about this strange doppelganger. He’d met other Charmander before—mostly feral ones in the Hot Spot Dungeon, whose mannerisms constantly unnerved him. It was incredibly surreal to see someone that was the same species, and yet with a different capacity. It was one of the great mysteries of the world, in Owen’s mind—what the difference was between him, and a wild Charmander. Upbringing? No, even then, they were different. Their minds simply didn’t operate the same way.

    Deca bumped up against Owen’s tail.

    “S-sorry,” Owen said.

    “Stop getting distracted.”

    “Okay, okay.”

    They continued to walk in silence, picking up the pace just slightly. The fire wasn’t moving quickly, to their fortune. They had time to find the survivors at the end of the Dungeon.

    “What were you thinking about?” Deca asked.

    “Wild Charmander.”

    “Oh.”

    “It’s just weird to think about,” he said. “I never saw another Charmander in a while that was like you.”

    “Like me?”

    “Not wild.”

    “Oh. It’s different.”

    “Yeah.”

    Owen pulled his tail closer to inspect it. “Where are you from, Deca?”

    “Southeast.”

    “Oh, that’s not too far from here, I think,” he said. “Did you hear about trouble and came?”

    “Yes. My friends and I wanted to help. Is there anybody around?”

    “No, why?”

    Deca took off his blindfolds and sighed, watching Owen’s back.

    “Uh… okay,” Owen said. “And how come you have that? What’s keeping it from burning away?”

    “It’s made from Rawst Leaves.”

    “Oh! Mom has that for my bed.”

    “Mom?”

    “Y-yeah. She isn’t a Charizard, though. She’s a Gardevoir that took me in. Dad’s a Magmortar, though. I learned a lot of my Fire techniques from him.”

    “Oh. I’m sorry.”

    “It’s okay. They’re just as good, and I never knew my real parents.”

    Deca nodded, but then flashed a smile. “I’m sure they’re very proud of you.”

    The confidence that Deca had said that made Owen hold his chest. “Y’think so?”

    “I’m positive. You would make them very proud.”

    Owen laughed slightly. He didn’t know why he believed Deca. Wishful thinking.

    “How about your parents, Deca?” Owen asked.

    “Dead.”

    “O-oh. Sorry.”

    “Of age. It’s okay.”

    “Open with that next time!” Owen puffed an ember. “I thought it was something tragic, or, you know…”

    Deca shook his head; the smile returned. “Well, you’re an adult, and you’re still a Charmander.”

    “Don’t remind me,” Owen mumbled. “I’m a late evolver.”

    “Late evolver?”

    “Yeah. Do you think that’s real? Because it’s the only reason I think I’ve never evolved…”

    “I guess it has to be real.”

    A distortion of light was ahead of their next corridor. “That has to be the last section,” Owen said, “right?”

    Deca nodded, putting his blindfold back on.

    “Deca, why do you do that? With the blindfold.”

    “Helps me concentrate. I can’t look at others that aren’t my kind without…” He shook his head. “It’s a disorder.”

    “Oh, okay,” Owen said, deciding not to prod. The longer they stalled, the less time they would have before the fire caught up.

    Once they passed through the distortion, a cool breeze welcomed them. With the Dungeon’s final section untouched by the flames, it seemed a lot safer than before. During their run, Owen had been speculating about who Deca was. But perhaps Spice had a point about the smoke and fire. And also, he supposed, being fried by a number of panicked Jolteon-born thunderbolts. All he could come up with were crazy theories, when perhaps the answer was something simpler, or just something else, if he only had the time to think about it calmly. But there was no such thing as calm tonight. He could only focus on one thing—the fire, and how to save the Pokémon inside the Dungeon from it.

    “Wild Pokémon,” Owen repeated. “I hope they’re okay. They aren’t smart enough to go through Dungeons normally, right? So how would they escape the fire?”

    “They may not have,” said Deca. “But if they got to the exit before the fire did, they’ll be okay.”

    Just then, a cyan sphere went straight to Owen, stopping at a mere claw’s width away from his face. His eyes bulged and he let out the smallest squeak.

    “I—I apologize,” Rhys said, flicking his paw backward. The sphere exploded against a far wall.

    Owen’s legs turned to jelly; he sat down, rubbing where the Aura Sphere would have hit.

    “I thought you were another agitated feral. We’re somewhat overwhelmed.”

    “Y-yeah.”

    Deca took a steady breath, holding the side of his head. “H-hello.” He stepped toward Owen and held his hand, helping him up.

    Rhys stared silently at Owen’s double.

    “H-hello, um, Lucario,” Owen said. “I—I’m Charmander Owen, i-if y-you heard of me. I—I tried o-out for the Hearts, but I didn’t make it y-yet…”

    “It’s good to meet you, Owen,” Rhys said. “Continue trying. And you…”

    “My name is Deca.”

    “…It’s nice to meet you,” Rhys said, “Deca.”

    “Do you need any help?” Deca asked.

    “No.”

    “You said you were overwhelmed.” Deca held Owen’s hand a bit harder. Owen glanced at his blindfold, and then back at Rhys. Deca’s forehead was creased with a hidden glare.

    “We can help!” Owen said. “What do you need?”

    “The fire is closing in,” Deca said. “The Dungeon might shift if we remain on this section for too long. The fire is running out of fuel outside.”

    “It is? That’s good to hear,” Rhys said. “We may be able to wait it out, if we find a way to stop the fire.”

    “Take us to everyone else,” Deca said.

    Rhys stared at Owen, then at Deca. His paws clenched, the blue flames of aura seeping through the cracks. Owen noticed, though it was hard at first, that Rhys’ body seemed very fatigued. There were little bits of… some strange sort of blue plating flaking off from parts of his fur, like armor. But the armor dissolved in the air when it chipped off. Was that some sort of technique Rhys used to get past the fire? It would explain how a Steel Type like him even made it through… Owen also noticed that Rhys’ legs and arms shook with fatigue, and his breathing was deep.

    “What’s wrong?” Owen asked.

    “Is now really the time, Rhys?” Deca asked. “Let us help. You can’t do this alone.”

    Rhys snorted and turned around. “Let’s go.” He walked stiffly; the aura from his paws didn’t let up.

    Owen followed next, and Deca, still holding Owen’s hand, followed after him. Owen tried to pull away, feeling awkward, but Deca just held on harder. “S-so, do you know Rhys?” Owen asked in a whisper.

    “We’re familiar.”

    “In, uh, in a good way? Bad way?”

    “Bit of a rut.”

    “O-oh.”

    Rhys led them to a large room, perhaps the largest of the section, housing at least thirty other Pokémon, most of them native forest-dwellers, such as a Beautifly, Fomantis, Ariados, and Mightyena.

    The Fomantis whined and hid under the Beautifly’s wings. The Ariados spoke softly, “How close is the fire?”

    “I can smell it,” the Mightyena reported.

    “One section away,” Deca said. “Does anybody know Water or Ground techniques?”

    “It’s too strong for that,” the Fomantis said. “We can’t stop a fire that strong!”

    “Who knows those techniques? Mud Slap? Mud Shot? Water Gun? Anything.” Deca held Owen’s hand a bit harder, and he jerked away. Deca aggressively pulled Owen closer.

    “H-hey, what’re you doing?” Owen said in a whisper. “Personal space!”

    Nobody answered Deca. None of the Pokémon knew anything to put out the fire.

    “None of you, at all, know attacks that can put fires out?!” Deca shouted.

    Still no answer.

    Owen gently pressed his hand against Deca’s, but this time to feel the pulse in Deca’s wrist. It was increasing. He seemed to be constantly under some kind of strain, and the additional stress wasn’t doing him any favors. It must have been the rain. Even now, it stung their tails.

    Rain.

    Suddenly, Owen turned around, walking with Deca. He followed, blind. Owen closed his eyes, taking a slow breath. He brought his tail forward and hid it under his chin again, keeping it away from his chest so it didn’t get even more water.

    Water collected on him. It could put his tail out if he wasn’t careful.

    Owen scanned the group, counting all of the Pokémon. He breathed deeply, and then double-checked what sort of Pokémon he had to work with. Grass Types. Bug Types. And a few Dark Types, too. Nightshade Forest was a mysterious place—the techniques learned here were stranger and more strategic, accompanying their usual offensive attacks.

    Could that work?

    Would that—

    Owen pointed at a Dustox. “Do you know Reflect or Light Screen?”

    “H-huh? Of course! W-well, just the one. Light Screen.”

    “I know Reflect!” a Ledian spoke up.

    Owen nodded. “Who knows Sunny Day?”

    At least half of the Grass Types raised their hands, paws, leaves, or tendrils.

    “O-oh, okay.”

    “S-Sunny Day?!” Rhys said. “Why would you—”

    “Let him speak,” Deca said.

    Rhys flinched.

    “Barrier. Does anybody know Barrier?” Owen asked.

    No answer.

    “Nngh, not the best. H-how about Psychic?”

    No answer.

    Owen nibbled at his right hand’s claws. “Okay, okay…” The Charmander paced left and right, eyes darting in microscopic directions. Pieces snapped together in his mind.

    He turned around, and then looked at the sky. “Everyone who knows it—try to use Light Screen or Reflect, but not on yourselves. Focus it on the sky. Try to shape it like a big bowl.

    Owen scanned the room’s walls. Their little shelter was connected to two other areas by corridors. That wasn’t too bad. He watched the other Pokémon awkwardly try to use their techniques in this unintuitive way, like turning it upside-down. Almost instantly, the effects became apparent; rainwater collected above their heads. Realization washed over the group, and Owen saw a glimmer of hope in their eyes.

    “Okay,” Owen said, trying to keep his voice steady from the excitement. “Try moving that barrier toward the halls! The left one, first, okay? N-no, other left! My left! Okay, keep going…”

    Owen walked with the barrier, easing it closer. Rhys held up his hand and fired a strange Aura Sphere toward it. Suddenly, the Reflect-Light Screen was enhanced by solid aura at the base. It was a barrier of its own—the same sort of barrier that had surrounded Rhys when he ran through the flames. But the way Rhys was breathing heavily, and his tense muscles, suggested that it put a lot of strain on him. Owen knew to work quickly.

    “Sunny Day! Now!”

    “Wh-what?!”

    “Just do it!”

    At least one of the Pokémon obeyed. Localized only to this section of the Dungeon, the clouds temporarily parted, and intense, enhanced afternoon sunlight pierced through from the sky. Energy returned to Owen almost instantly, and he looked to Deca. “Help me light this hallway on fire.”

    Deca staggered back. “What?”

    “If we take out the grass now,” Owen said, “and put out the small fire we started, the big fire won’t have fuel to get to us! Hurry!”

    The clouds were starting to close in again.

    Deca nodded. “Okay.”

    He and Owen both spat flames on the grassy terrain of the halls, starting from a farther end, and moving backwards and back into the room. The wet grass was hard to spark, but their combined flames overwhelmed the residual water enough to set the hall alight. The trapped Pokémon all watched, and Rhys let out a small grunt. The aura barrier he provided was fading.

    The fire grew quickly under the intense sunlight. Too quickly for the comfort of the others. A few of the younger Pokémon shrieked and hid behind the older ones. The clouds returned shortly after, and Owen looked up. He pulled Deca back. “Drop the barrier!”

    The water fell on top of the crackling flames; plumes of steam rose up, but it was just enough to put out the dying embers that were closest to them. The rest of the water flooded through the hall, thoroughly soaking the ground. Owen scrambled forward and slashed at the soil nearest to them with sharpened claws, hardened like metal. The water and mud splashed against his scales. Then, Owen plunged his paws into the dirt and pushed forward, huffing.

    “Hey,” someone said from behind, moving Owen aside. It was the Mightyena. “I’ve got this.”

    Owen panted, staring, but he nodded and stepped away.

    With powerful paws, the Mightyena faced his rear against the hall and dug into the ground, creating a trench that quickly filled with water, and a mound of mud behind him. There was no way the fire could get past it.

    “What’s happening?” Deca said.

    “The fire’s out, and there’s a wall of mud blocking the way,” Owen said. “Let’s do it again! Other side! Reflect, Light Screen!”

    “Right!”

    And so, the barrier collected water for a second time. Rhys fired another Aura Sphere toward it to reinforce its strength.

    “Nrgh…”

    “Rhys?” Deca asked, but suddenly held onto Owen’s hand again.

    “I’m fine.”

    “Okay. Sunny Day!” Owen said.

    The clouds parted once more, drenching them in warmth.

    And they repeated the process again. Owen and Deca washed the hall with fire; the flames cleaned the ground of floral fuel. The barrier above Owen and Deca flickered. Rhys lowered himself to one knee.

    “Hurry!” Rhys said. The Dustox and Ledian maintaining the dual-barrier looked equally strained; they had taken on too much water this time, and the weight was wearing away at the transparent bowl above them.

    Deca stepped away and into the room. “The fire’s too close,” he said. “Owen! Let’s put it out!”

    “Okay,” Owen said. “But hang on, it’s still too short. The fire could jump over the gap. Let it burn a little longer!”

    Rhys had both his paws up, and he was on both knees, head down. His arms were trembling. By now, both Reflect and Light Screens had faded away; Rhys alone was holding up the water.

    The clouds returned. Rain filled the bowl. Owen was standing in the flames, trying to accelerate the burning with extra plumes. This side was filled with much more grass; it needed more time to burn. He heaved another wad of embers.

    Then, Rhys’ concentration slipped. The aura barrier vanished, and all of the water poured onto the fire—and Owen.

    <><><>​

    Owen had a strange dream about taking a hot bath in the pit of a white, featureless room. His tail was just above the water’s surface. Then, he saw Deca on the opposite side of the bath, laughing. And Owen laughed, too. He heard footsteps behind him. He turned around, but the fragile dream faded away.

    Then, he felt cold—like ice, to the very core of his body. And then something tingled, and he felt warm again, starting from his belly, and then over his chest, and then his face. It smelled like Oran Berries.

    His vision was blurry. Owen could only see the outline of something orange. Was it a mirror? A blurry, wobbly reflection of himself. Flames danced over his face, and Owen sputtered in surprise.

    He blinked the blur away and squinted. Deca? He was saying something, but it was all muffled. There was concern in his eyes, but when Owen gurgled some sort of wordless reply, his double let out a laugh.

    “He’s okay!” Deca shouted.

    Owen heard cheers from a crowd. His ears rang, but that faded and gave way to more precise noises.

    He sat up with a start. “What happened?!”

    He sat up too quickly. His vision faded, and he held his head, breathing heavily. That, above all else, was the loudest sound—his own breathing unnerved him. He caught a glance at his tail, which was emitting a steady stream of steam, but no flame. Deca breathed a small ember at the tip; it tickled a bit, but then it reignited. This sent a slight jump-start to the rest of Owen’s system, and warmth spread completely after a few seconds of stillness.

    Rhys stood in the distance, looking like he hadn’t moved in ages. He was fixated entirely on Owen, fidgeting with his paws, clenching his claws into the pads. He’d never seen a Heart look so guilty. A small crowd of the Pokémon that had been trapped previously were around him, just as others surrounded Owen to get a better look.

    It wasn’t raining anymore, but it was incredibly dark. Owen turned his head to the sky and saw stars peeking through the burned treetops.

    “Where am I?” he said. “Is this the Dungeon?”

    “No,” Deca said. “The Dungeon rejected you when you got hit by the water.”

    “Water…” Owen recalled trying to take out the fuel in the Dungeon halls. “Wait, Water! The—what happened to the—”

    “It worked,” Deca said. “The fire got close, but it couldn’t clear the gap you created on both sides. We waited until the fire died on its own, and after that… We figured it would be safe where the Dungeon sent us out. And it was, so we circled back to the entrance to find you.”

    Owen rubbed his fingers together, and then his arms. “Everyone’s okay?”

    “Everyone that was with us made it out fine,” Deca said.

    Owen breathed a small sigh. “Good,” he said. “I’m just glad that I survived. When the Dungeon rejected me, I thought some stray wild would’ve attacked me while I was down, or something. But—”

    “Actually, we scared one of those ferals off!” one of the forest natives piped up. “It was such a weird creature!”

    “Don’t be stupid, that wasn’t a feral! That was a guardian spirit, I just know it!” another native retorted.

    “You and your ‘guardian spirit’ mumbo-jumbo.”

    “No, it’s real! There have been sightings! A four-legged creature with a green and black body—exactly like I keep telling you! I’ve seen it!”

    “Green-black and four legs? That sounds like Zygarde.”

    “Maybe you should lay off the funny berries.”

    Owen tittered. “So, some weird creature was guarding me?”

    Deca nodded, as did the rest of the crowd. “That’s the consensus. But it ran off before we could thank it.”

    Owen paused to silently thank this creature anyway. If it wasn’t Zygarde—which Owen wasn’t sure even existed—then perhaps it was some kind of forest guardian. After all, the trees of this forest were blackish and green. It could have just been camouflage. “And what about the fire?”

    “It’s burning,” he said. “But we got everyone evacuated. All the wilds are… either dead, or ran away.”

    “The fire started in multiple places due to some freak thunderstorm,” Rhys spoke up, and Deca refused to remove his eyes from Owen for the entirety of Rhys’ explanation. “This portion of the forest was trapped by a ring of fire, which was what caused us to send in the Fire teams to rescue the trapped Pokémon. We did our best to rescue who we could,” Rhys said, “but… obviously, we will have to perform a search for those who may not have escaped.”

    Owen gulped. “What caused this…? This thunderstorm was… it was way too strong.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Deca said. “What matters is we made it out.”

    By now, the bystanders—tired from the stress—were starting to disband. Now that they knew their savior was okay, they refocused on how to recover from the disaster. Despite their burned home, they still knew where to go. Rhys volunteered to help guide those who were less sure of themselves. After a passing glance at Deca and Owen, he grunted and walked.

    “Rhys!” Owen shouted.

    He stopped.

    Owen paused, finding the words. “Thanks for helping! It’s—it’s okay! Everyone’s saved because of you!”

    Rhys’ paws relaxed slightly. He gave a short nod, not looking back, and then walked away with the rest of the rescued Pokémon.

    Owen shook his head. “He seems like the type who’ll beat himself up for a while over dousing me,” he said. “But, I don’t think it would’ve worked without his help.”

    “He’ll reconcile,” Deca said. “Trust me. That guy will just turn it into more fire for him to do better next time. It’s not healthy, but as long as he doesn’t burn up from it, right?”

    They both laughed. Owen finally found the strength to get on his feet. He eased his way into it. Deca held him by the shoulder and back to keep him steady until he could stand on his own.

    “Thanks,” Owen said.

    Deca nodded. “Thanks to you, too.”

    Owen noticed that the strain in Deca’s voice was gone now that they were alone. “It’s too bad you’re so tense around others. I hope you can get better at that, huh?”

    Deca smiled wryly. “I’ll do my best.”

    Owen pulled his tail forward to inspect the flame. It was a healthy orange.

    “Owen.”

    “Yeah?”

    Deca stared for a while. Owen sensed something from his doppelganger—a strange tension of some kind. Like he wanted to do something, yet couldn’t. His paws twitched forward, then pulled themselves back.

    “What’s wrong?” Owen asked. “L-look, if you’re gonna ask me out, I don’t know if I have the time for stuff like that. I’m training to be a Heart. I—I mean, you seem like a really nice ‘mon and all, but we barely know each other!”

    Deca let out a sound that was a cross between a sigh and a laugh. He shook his head and fell forward, wrapping his arms around Owen. Startled, Owen could only take a step back, but that only made Deca squeeze tighter. He didn’t know what to say, let alone how to react, so he just stood there. Eventually, he brought his hand around Deca and patted his back.

    “Hey,” Owen said, figuring this had to do with Deca’s social anxieties, “it’s alright. I bet it’s hard, but you can overcome it, right? Maybe with some meditation? That’s what helps my aura calm down. I dunno if it’s the same thing, but—"

    “They’re so proud of you, Owen.” Deca trembled, the spasms shaking Owen.

    “They—what?”

    Deca kept holding onto Owen. He felt Deca’s hands press flat against his back; something stirred in Owen’s chest, and that advanced to his throat, and then his eyes. His vision felt blurry—tears welled up, and this sent him into a mild panic. “D-Deca?”

    “Don’t forget that,” Deca said. “Okay? Don’t ever forget…”

    Owen blinked, confused. His emotions weren’t matching his thoughts. His mind had no reason to think of anything about Deca other than the fact that he helped with the fire. Yet all he wanted to do was bawl and cry and stay with Deca the whole night. His heart raced, and he held Deca back. He kept his emotions together enough to speak. “Okay. I won’t… forget. I won’t forget.”

    Deca kept holding him for what felt like forever, and yet still it wasn’t enough time. Owen wondered if Deca would let go at all. And if he didn’t, he wouldn’t complain. He kept holding on, memorizing the scales on Deca’s back. They were exactly like his own. Curious, Owen felt for the strange patch of scales whose pattern didn’t quite match the surrounding area—a small, natural irregularity of the body, much like a birthmark. And he found it in the same spot.

    Eventually, Deca let go and pulled away. Owen was startled to see the streams of tears running down Deca’s face—a flow that was even greater than his own.

    “What’s—what’s going on?!” Owen said, wiping his eyes. “Deca! Who—who are you? Do you know my parents?”

    Deca laughed again. “Oh, Owen… I’m…”

    Owen saw Deca’s hand glow with a strange light. Deca sniffled once. The hand that didn’t glow wiped his eyes. Owen mirrored the movement, clearing his vision.

    “Good night, Owen.”

    “Wh—”

    Deca tapped Owen on the forehead with his glowing hand. Owen’s thoughts grew muddled. In an instant, it all faded to nothingness.

    <><><>​

    Deca’s ears still rang from the roaring flames. Not only that, but his mind was completely fatigued. He had been doing the mental equivalent of holding his breath for at least half the night, now. The identical Charmander stared down at Owen in his arms, struggling to carry him along—after all, they were completely identical in weight and—more importantly—strength. Owen needed to work out more.

    “Mnngg, more apples,” Owen mumbled. His tongue dangled from the side of his mouth, a bit of drool dripping onto Deca’s right arm.

    Deca sighed, but he couldn’t hide his smile. But his heart sank back down. It wouldn’t be long, now.

    He had to admit, it was a peaceful place. Calm, open field. A hot cave for him to live in, even if it was just due to the Fire Guardian’s antics. It seemed nice enough. There weren’t any particularly interesting landmarks this way, either, which made it quite secluded thanks to travelers just using Waypoints to skip over this path entirely.

    “You’ve got a good life, Owen,” Deca said. “I’m… not going to lie to myself and say otherwise.”

    “Too sweet,” Owen babbled. “Needs Cheri…”

    Deca sighed. He carefully set Owen down, making sure his tail rested against the dirt and not the grass, and then eyed the great boulder ahead of him. His hand glowed with a Mystic power, and he held his hand forward, toward the boulder. He swung his arm to the side.

    Nothing happened.

    “Ngh.” Deca tried again. The glow, the swipe. Nothing. “Oh, come on, it can’t be that strong.” And so, he tried again. Not even a wiggle.

    “How are you supposed to open this thing?!” Deca mumbled. “Password. There’s supposed to be a password, right? Ngh, what’s a…” He paced, tapping his chin. Every so often, he glanced at Owen, and each time he did so, it was like a breath of fresh air in his mind. “Open… now!” Deca shook his claws toward the unmoving boulder. “Open… Hot Spot Caverns! Open… sesame?” He knew it wouldn’t work, but he was desperate. After a full fifty seconds of staring, Owen snorted in his sleep. Deca jolted and spun around. But the sleeping Charmander didn’t stir.

    And then, Deca watched Owen for a while, entranced by him. He stared at the gentle rise and fall of his back and the flickering, lively flame at the end of his tail. The small, subtle frown while he slept, like he was pensive about something in his dreams. Probably whether he should use Cheri or Tamatos to cut through the sweetness.

    Deca took a single step forward, and then another. He was right in front of Owen, now. He leaned forward and picked him up; Owen hummed in response, bumping his head against Deca’s cheek.

    And he stayed there. Despite the dead weight, Deca stayed there, wrapping his arms around the Charmander double, memorizing every single scale that he could. He felt hot tears welling up again. They poured slowly onto Owen’s shoulders, and then to the ground. Deca stared with a fierce glare against the air ahead of him. He finally let Owen go, wondering if it would be the last time.

    With a resolute glint in his eyes, he faced the boulder, sat on the ground, and concentrated. He took a steady breath…

    O Holy Creator Mew. Deca projected. I call upon you to hear my prayer. Deca paused for a bit longer, and then dug his claws against his thighs. It was just a formality, really. Any sort of thought toward her would have been sufficient. But, from what he knew, prayers tended to be louder if he started politely. The same didn’t have to go for the rest of what he had to say, and his thoughts became a few tones harsher.

    A few days ago, Owen failed to become a Heart again. Didn’t pass Anam’s final check. Flying colors with the practical exam… yet never past Anam himself. Always the same story, year after year. No wonder he took on this horrible mission, just to prove that he could do a Heart’s job.

    Deca looked down, glaring at the dirt. Kricketot were chirping. Deca counted their cries four times in sequence, like a little conversation among the wilds.

    Is that your plan? Deca said. When Anam deems Owen worthy of becoming a Heart, he’s ready for the Orb? And do you think he’ll be ready for what comes next, too?

    Three chirps. Deca wondered if she was even listening, or if she was just stubbornly sitting in her own little realm, ignoring the world’s problems as usual. She needed an ultimatum.

    Star… if we find an Orb first, we’ll figure out how to take the rest. And your defenses won’t be enough once we have the power of one Orb. When that happens… you better be ready. Because I’m done waiting.

    Deca ended the prayer there. He brought his arm to his eyes and wiped them dry, and then glanced back at Owen. He let out a gentle curse from his breath and stared ahead. He wanted to finish on an awesome one-liner, but now he had a sleeping Charmander out in the cold.

    …Also, can… can you tell the Fire Guardian to open her cave? Owen’s asleep and I don’t know how to open it.

    With that final message, Deca stood to his feet and turned around to looked at Owen one last time. He figured he only had a few more seconds. He walked over and gently held Owen’s shoulder. His eyes clouded once more, but he shook it off.

    “I’m sorry,” Deca said.

    And then, when the boulder behind him rumbled, Deca bolted into the night.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 12 - Twisted Minds
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 12 - Twisted Minds

    Anam, and only Anam, heard the deep boom of metal bells.

    The Abandoned Temple—the original name lost to the ages—stood four stories high, despite only having a single story inside. The building was made out of marble with intricate designs along the walls in the shape of spirals, flowers, and all sorts of Pokémon. A broken, circular window of colored glass gazed from the top of the temple. Several rounded, tall windows sat along the walls. What the windows depicted, unfortunately, was difficult to decipher, as most of the glass was gone. But Anam remembered. He saw the windows as if they were still new, depicting the Pokémon of legends.

    While the temple may have once been a pristine, white marble, it was now reddened with the dusty winds of dirt and time, sitting in the middle of an empty field of brown, dry dirt, like even the grass refused to grow there.

    “What a loud bell,” Anam said, a serene grin spreading across his face.

    The boom reverberated through Anam’s mind: a deep metallic echo that shook the ground beneath his feet and the goo in his chest. It rang slowly, once, twice, three times…

    Zena and James exchanged glances. The Milotic eyed Anam with concern. “What?”

    “Don’t you hear it?” Anam asked.

    He listened to it chime three more times. His feelers twitched at the vibrations, and Anam pointed his head skyward, toward the topmost tower at the center of the temple. There was no bell there, but Anam could see it. Swinging with the wind and the rope of the bell ringer a room below. The bell ringer that was no longer there. But he used to be. A strong Tyranitar. Anam wondered, would he like to ring it again?

    The temple was silent.

    “No, Anam. This place is completely devoid of noise,” Zena said. “I think we’re the loudest thing on the property.”

    Yet, the Goodra stared at the building for a while longer.

    It rang three more times. Anam felt something well up from deep in his chest. A strange swelling of warmth. He breathed deeply, closing his eyes with a tranquil smile. And then, he breathed out.

    The bell stopped after the ninth ring. Anam put a hand to his chest.

    “Do you like it?” Anam asked to neither Zena nor James, holding a hand to his chest. “It’s okay. It might be fun.”

    Confused, Zena slithered a few paces forward. “We should not waste much time. Shall we enter? The Normal Guardian is inside.”

    “Yes. Come, Anam.”

    Anam followed silently, but he walked at a slow, agonizing pace. His slimy hand brushed against the dusty walls of the entrance. There was no door, but it looked like there used to be.

    The interior was like night and day, and Anam’s eyes shined so brightly that Zena almost had to avert her own. The marble walls on the interior were cleaned to a blinding shine; the open room was completely clear of debris. At the far end was some kind of altar. It looked like a Pokémon would stand there to address a crowd. Faded murals—so faded that the actual contents were unrecognizable—lined the high walls and broken windows.

    “I’ve never seen a building like this before,” Zena said. “This is nothing like Kilo Village. Or even Hot Spot.”

    “Hrm,” James hummed. “It is of a time long passed, Zena. A relic. This used to be a place of worship, back when Kilo had a significant interest in such things. While we still have a few ceremonies now and then, we’re quite secular. Kilo Village used to host congregations every moon, and this temple was one of those places of worship. It may be one of the few ones standing. For why the Normal Guardian would reside within…” James fluffed out his feathers. “I’m not quite sure. Star said he was quirky. Perhaps he’s spiritual.”

    “Aren’t we all technically… spiritual?” Zena repeated, looking at one of her ribbons as it formed a small, aura ember.

    “Hm. Good point.”

    Anam advanced, and Zena and James followed until they all reached the middle of the room. With a smile on his face, he walked straight toward the altar at the back of the room with an eager spring in his step.

    Click.

    Anam’s foot sank into the tile and he stopped his advance. “…Was that bad?”

    “Very,” Decidueye James replied, puffing out his feathers. “Anam, whatever you do, do not lif—”

    Anam lifted his foot.

    The fiery explosion that followed sent Anam, Zena, and James flying in completely opposite directions. The ground shifted instantly; the floors collapsed in patches and rose in others. Spikes skewered tiles from below, and strange, metal stalactites fell from above. A giant spike shot out from one wall and went straight for—

    “Pfwoooh—!” It pinned Anam against the wall; the huge, stone thorn went right through his gooey chest, narrowly missing his heart—if he had one. He brought his slimy hands over it and tried to push it away, but it was jammed in too tight. His paw disintegrated into goo from the strain. “J-James!” Anam called in a gurgle, waving his handless, melting arm. “Help! I’m stuck!”

    “Can’t quite help at the moment!” James replied, narrowly dodging a concentrated beam of light that carved the stone ground that it struck. Anam finally pushed the stone spire free and dropped to the ground with a loud splat, his lower half becoming a purple mush on the ground. He needed a few seconds to recreate himself—it seemed that as a Mystic, the goo half of his kind was very pronounced.

    “Is this the Guardian’s doing?!” Zena called to James, emerging from the ground. She was hiding in cracks of the temple’s ruined foundation as water, hoping to avoid the Normal Guardian’s strikes. Another Hyper Beam spooked the Milotic enough for her to hide within the cracks again.

    “I’m quite certain!” James vanished in a fine, black mist, dodging a second Hyper Beam. Something about these blasts felt dangerous even for his Ghostly nature. “He must feel threatened by this. Perhaps Rim already tried to defeat him. Clearly, she failed!”

    Zena emerged halfway to speak. “We haven’t even seen him yet!” she said. “Where could he be coming from?” Another blast of concentrated light carved a line out of the ground, leaving molten marble in its place. “These beams are coming from every direction! Surely he can’t Teleport and use Hyper Beam at the same time!”

    “I doubt that is the case,” James said, “but it is possible. But I’ve seen this strategy before… These might be a variant to Owen’s approach when he battles. Traps. Hyper Beam-traps, perhaps stored in empty Wonder Orbs, or—” James jumped to the right. A passing spike tore off a feather from his face. “Urf—the actual Guardian might be deeper insi—” Another line of hard light vaporized James where he stood, and he became nothing but an ember that returned to Anam’s body. Even a Ghost Type was not immune to these attacks.

    “Oops,” Anam said, cupping James’ spirit in his good hand. He dipped him into his chest, where the ember vanished completely. “Um, Z-Zena! Let’s try to keep going!”

    Thankfully, it seemed that the traps had exhausted themselves. Aside from the ambient sounds of rubble collapsing in small pieces against the walls, there were no further attacks.

    Anam used his hands to piece his lower half back together. So far, he had most of his belly and tail reconstructed, but he couldn’t find any spare material for his legs. He puffed his cheeks and pushed—new little feet popped out from the base of his thighs, followed by the rest of his missing appendages. He sprung to his feet, and Zena marveled at the Guardian’s regenerative abilities. If any of that happened to her, she’d be nothing but a dead puddle.

    “Of course,” Zena finally said. She returned to the cracks and advanced further into the temple. They passed the altar and entered a back room. The further they went, the more it appeared to be… less abandoned. The entrance was a crumbling stone palace—mostly due to the traps that had gone off—but further inside, the walls were back to their pristine polish, constantly maintained, like it was an eternal routine.

    Anam panted, tiny arms on the ground. “Th-this is way too much running… Why is this temple so big on the inside? It’s not a Dungeon, is it?”

    “You’re Mystic. Can you not just restore your own stamina?” Zena asked.

    “Anam is… typically focused on other aspects of his Mysticism,” James said, summoned again by Anam. “He largely focuses on self-preservation and high defenses rather than… offensive prowess.”

    Zena stared at Anam with a flash of a memory in her eyes. “That reminds me of an old friend,” she remarked. “Anam, do you happen to know an Emily?”

    “Huh?” Anam said. “What did you say? Emily? That sounds…”

    “Let’s not get distracted,” James said. He pointed a wing forward. There was a single Pokémon there, floating at the back of the smaller room. Twitching. Watching. “Are you the Guardian?”

    It was a strange Pokémon with a smooth surface—one that Zena had never seen before. Anam and James, however, knew of its kind.

    The Porygon-Z buzzed with anxiety. “You do not have permission to create a guest account!” he said. His voice was like a buzz in the air, as if he was speaking through the crackle of a Thunder Shock at all times. “403 - Forbidden! Access to the back rooms is not allowed! Those traps should have deleted you!”

    “Deleted?” James said. “Strange terminology, Porygon-Z, but we mean you no harm. We have no intention of deleting you, either. Yes?”

    “Authentication required.”

    James sighed, glancing at Anam. “The Badge, if you may.”

    “Oh!” The Goodra dug through the bag partially submerged in the right side of his chest and pulled out the circular emblem. “This! Yep! That’s my Thousand Heart Association Badge! I’m the leader, and our entire purpose is to make this place safe and peaceful for everyone! Including you!”

    Porygon-Z buzzed with uncertainty. “Your data has not been verified and may be corrupt. Checksum required!”

    James blinked. “…I do not know what that is,” he said, “but I imagine this has something to do with your species’ strange origins. I can assure you that we are not lying. Anam is a fellow Guardian, as is Zena. Meanwhile, I am a spirit, here solely because of the power of a very kind Mystic.” He pointed a wing at Anam, who blushed and giggled.

    Porygon-Z stared at the two, and then looked at Zena. “Are you a Guardian?”

    “Yes, of Water,” Zena replied. “I am Zena. This is James and Anam. What is your name?”

    “Profile data corrupted. Fallback data in use: I was once designated as an Absolutely Deadly Autonomous Machine. Therefore, my name is ADAM.”

    “ADAM, huh?” Anam said. “That’s close to my name! Except you spell yours out. And it’s a D instead of an N. Can we just call you Adam?”

    “That is my primary PC title,” ADAM said. “Such a title is reserved only for users with administrative permissions.”

    “Oh, okay,” Anam said. “Well, you can use my name whenever you want! I’m Goodra Anam.”

    “It seems that the Porygon-Z still has a sense of culture,” James said. “How long have you been here?”

    “The word ‘here’ must be further defined.”

    “In this temple. How long has this been your home?”

    “I have lived within this temple for approximately 1.5e10 seconds, base ten,” stated ADAM.

    Anam counted on his gooey fingers.

    “I see,” James said. “I imagine this is a very long time? How long does that compare to the lifetime of the average Pokémon?”

    “Compared to my time in this temple, the average life of a Pokémon, is not negligible, but is significantly smaller.”

    “So, a really long time,” Anam said, nodding. “Um, mister ADAM, does that mean maybe your… brain… head… has been damaged and corrupted?”

    “My hardware is incapable of degrading due to Mysticism,” ADAM replied. “…But perhaps my software requires repairing, and my file system, defragmenting. The data may be corrupted. However, I cannot reinstall my own operating system. Those files may have also been corrupted.”

    Anam nodded, noticing that ADAM was starting to become easier to understand. Perhaps when he wasn’t so frantic, his instincts didn’t in the way of his behavior.

    “Well, would it help if you came with us to… rest… your software?” Anam asked. He leaned toward James, “What’s a software? That sounds like a Nev-Nev thing. Like those screens in the hospital, or those little beep-boops in the new buildings.”

    James shook his head. “ADAM, we only request that you come with us,” he said. “Such a temple is not suitable to a Pokémon such as yourself.”

    “Oh, yeah!” Anam said. “And if more Hunters come by, we can keep you safe!”

    “Hunters are not a security threat,” ADAM said. “More persistent are Pokémon that do not appear in my database, but instead appear to be corrupted files.”

    “Mutants,” James said. “If I am not mistaken, you are describing mutants. I imagine such a landmark would pique what semblance of curiosity they have.” He nodded. “We can protect you against those, too, ADAM.”

    The Porygon-Z analyzed James carefully, then Zena, then Anam. He then scanned—for the umpteenth time—his polished temple. While Anam could not see an expression on the Pokémon’s face, he did feel his distinct lack of interest in the temple at large. “Very well,” ADAM said.

    “Nice!” Anam pumped his fist in the air. A wad of slime flung from his hand and toward ADAM, who drifted to the side to avoid it. The Goodra pulled out their silver Badge, the communicator. “Hey, everyone! We have the first Guardian! He’s okay! He’ll come with us, and he’s super cool! …Guys? Hello?”

    “They may be occupied,” James said. “Let’s return home.”

    <><><>​

    The World’s Wound.

    That was the other title of the Great Crevice, among many lesser nicknames. Nature’s Scar. The War’s End. All sorts of titles and nicknames for the great fissure that carved out a large portion of the land’s eastern side. On the map—the only place one could truly see its full size without entering the outer atmosphere—its lower, tapered end kissed the southeastern beaches, while the upper end was much like an expanding fan, covering an entire portion of the map in the shape of a jagged, narrow triangle. While swaths of the northern portions of the fissure were clothed in forestry, the narrower portions were still steep and rocky.

    Rhys and his terrible trio followed the subtle traces of Mystic aura that radiated from a cave near the northern side of the narrow portion of the fissure. Star knew that general detail, but nothing more. They had spent the better part of the afternoon simply finding the cave.

    It might have taken less time, had it not been for the fact that Demitri took longer than anyone to go down the rocky trails of the fissure. His legs trembled with almost every step, hugging the wall despite the fact that the path itself was several feet wide. Eventually, Mispy wrapped him up and held him on her back, where he still trembled.

    “Are you okay?” Mispy asked, squeezing her vines around his abdomen.

    “Yeah. I’m… I’ll be okay.” He nuzzled the vines a bit.

    “Feh, still scared o’ heights?” Gahi clicked at Demitri in a jeer. “Too bad yeh’ll never grow wings.”

    “Good!” Demitri squeaked, hugging Mispy’s neck from behind.

    They continued along until Rhys held out his paw. “There.” He pointed at a small alcove in the fissure. “I sense a Mystic aura coming from this general area, and there’s a small cave here. The Guardian of the Rock Orb is somewhere inside, certainly.”

    “N-no more cliff-climbing?” Demitri asked. As if to provoke him, a howling gust wind blew over the rocks.

    “No. Let’s go inside.” Rhys motioned for them to follow, taking the first step into the lightless cave. He held out an Aura Sphere and maintained it several feet in front of him, producing a soft light to lead the way.

    “Finally.” Gahi wobbled next to Rhys.

    With the cliffsides far enough away to forget, Demitri relaxed his muscles and flopped forward on Mispy’s back. Now, he was just cautious of the cave. Rocks wouldn’t fall on them, right? No, he had to distract himself from this. He stared at the Aura Sphere that lit the way, thinking about how if Owen had been with them, they wouldn’t have needed it. The blue color was more comforting, though. It reminded him of dragon fire.

    “Rhys?” Demitri asked. “What’s wrong with having Owen with us for this, anyway? I feel like we’d work really well together.”

    Mispy perked up, as did Gahi, for the answer.

    “It’s simply not a good idea to have four non-Elites in one team for something such as this,” their mentor stated. “We need to have strong and competent members—both qualities in one Pokémon—on all teams. You three simply aren’t experienced enough yet. The same goes for Owen, who just entered the Thousand Hearts.”

    Demitri frowned. “I guess…”

    “Just feels like…” Gahi tilted his head left and right. “I’unno. Fighting with’m feels… right, y’know? The four of us as a team. Yeah…”

    “Well, that simply cannot happen right now,” Rhys said simply. “Let’s focus on the task at hand. That is—the Guardian of the Great Crevice, home of the Rock Guardian.”

    They turned another corner; they finally saw it. It was very faint, but it was a glow visible even to those who couldn’t see auras, like Demitri and Gahi. They continued to walk in total silence.

    It only broke when Demitri spoke up. “Rhys?”

    “Hm?”

    “What’s a Divine Promise? Owen was talking about it with us. Something between you and Zena?”

    “Hmm…” Rhys continued walking. “It is something that only Mystics can do—that is, those with powers related to the Orbs. Simply put… making a Divine Promise is keeping yourself to your word—or face the consequences. In the case of a Promise… breaking it would mean relinquishing your Mystic power to the Pokémon you made the promise with.”

    “Y-you mean, if you broke your Promise with Zena, then…!”

    “Then I would no longer have any form of Mysticism. I would not have enhanced power. I would be nothing but a simple, mortal Lucario.” Rhys turned to look back at Demitri. “That is why Zena was so surprised when I accepted the agreement. Even the cleverest Pokémon in the world cannot break a Divine Promise without also losing their power. I phrased my Promise in such a way that there is no loophole—or, if there is one, I hadn’t thought of it.”

    “W-wow… so you really don’t want to be a Hunter any more, huh?”

    “I do not,” Rhys said with a bit more firmness than before, making Demitri flinch. His voice softened after. “Long ago, I fought for Star. But some fought harder, I suppose. And Star became disillusioned with her own cause, and asked for us to stop. We thought she was simply losing heart, and we pressed on. But I later realized that some Hunters… simply wanted more power. It had nothing to do with Star.”

    “O-oh, and… and Nevren is the same way?”

    Rhys nodded. “It seems that Nevren has quietly distanced himself from the other Hunters, too,” he said. “I haven’t seen him with the others for quite some time, even if we chat with them now and then, in our own pocket of the spirit realm.”

    “Wh—wait, when do you visit there?” Demitri asked.

    “When I meditate,” Rhys said.

    “Oh.”

    More walking—the glow was getting abnormally bright, but there was still no sign of the actual Guardian. Demitri felt Mispy’s back tense and her pace stiffen; she must have been trying to formulate her question in the silence. Then, she spoke. “Did you kill… the Grass Guardian?”

    Rhys’ steps lost their rhythm, but he regained it quickly. “I have many regrets regarding my past as a Hunter. But I was not the one who killed the Grass Guardian. In fact, I was largely unsuccessful in those efforts. Wholly, actually.”

    “Y-you mean, even if you’re super strong…?” Demitri asked.

    “It wasn’t necessarily strength that stopped me,” Rhys said, “but perhaps… willpower. Mystic power is largely tied to the will. If, so to speak, your ‘heart is not in it’ when you fight, that Mystic power will not help you. In fact, it could hinder you. Meanwhile, a Guardian is fighting to survive. Their willpower could be… significant. In the end,” he said, “My will to gain power was lesser than their will to live.”

    “Didn’t stop yeh from beating Owen ter a pulp of Cheri dust,” Gahi clicked.

    “D’you think the others might have trouble with that?” Demitri said. “If a Guardian is scared they’re being attacked…”

    Rhys shook his head. “We can only hope things work out.”

    Demitri frowned, rubbing at one of his axes awkwardly. “Too bad we didn’t bring Anam. He’d just convince them by being friendly.”

    “Yes, well,” Rhys said. “I’m sure I can be friendly.”

    None of his students looked convinced.

    The light was growing stronger. Rhys held his arm out to stop the other three. Mispy stopped first; Gahi bumped into her rear, which made Demitri topple onto her neck again. They squabbled amongst one another, but Rhys shushed them firmly and they listened.

    “The Guardian is just ahead.”

    They walked uneasily forward. Rhys didn’t feel a particularly powerful aura ahead, but it was distinctly Mystic. And a lot brighter than usual. A bit abnormal, but considering the lack of light, perhaps it had to do with keeping things bright.

    Demitri and Gahi were less informed. The Axew leaned to the side to see past Mispy’s leaf. “Wow! Cool statue!”

    In the center of the end of the cave—in a cavern large enough to fly in for a short distance—there was the statue of a Shiftry, accurate to the last detail.

    “Whoever made this must be pretty good at the whole chisel thing,” Gahi said.

    The cavern rumbled softly.

    Rhys, giving them all an incredulous look, said, “That is the Guardian.”

    “Cease…”

    The four stiffened. “Wh-uh—what was that?”

    “Cease… your movements…”

    The voice came from nowhere. It sounded masculine and deep, but nothing that they’d expect from a statue.

    “What do you mean, cease our movements?” Rhys said.

    “All movement must cease… spirits must know stillness…”

    The four looked at one another. Their mission was to befriend the Guardian… Perhaps they could play his game for now. “Very well,” Rhys said. “May we get into a comfortable position before, er… tuning ourselves to the stone?”

    The cavern rumbled angrily. “I will allow it.”

    “Into your meditative positions, everyone,” Rhys said. “We must comply, as we are mere guests. We can converse later.”

    “Meditate?” all three of them whined.

    “CEASE.”

    The three scrambled to separate spots. Mispy sat down with her rear down, but her front legs propping the rest of her up, and closed her eyes. It wasn’t very different from how she normally sat, but she kept her spine straighter than usual. Demitri sat down and tried to cross his legs, though they were too stubby for that, and it instead became a sort of position where the bottoms of his feet touched. It always tickled, but at least he could tune it out once he got in the zone. Gahi couldn’t do much of anything in terms of contorting his body. The Trapinch rested his head on the ground, splayed his stubs for legs outward, and remained still. Rhys sat, legs crossed, and closed his eyes.

    Rhys watched the chaotic auras of the trio. They were warped things, those auras; the light that they radiated had strange, lopsided sparks now and then that spurt from the edges of their flares. When they meditated, this light stabilized—at least mostly—into the gentle flames that they should appear as. Demitri’s and Mispy’s, in particular, looked quite stable.

    As the late morning bled into noon, Rhys realized that this would be their eternity if they did not try to speak with the Guardian. How could they convince him peacefully to come along? His aura was too weak to fight; if they hit him too hard, he could…

    And then, suddenly, the silence broke.

    Hey, everyone! We have the first Guardian! He’s okay! He’ll come with us, and he’s super cool! …Guys? Hello?

    Anam’s voice echoed from Rhys’ bag. The Lucario didn’t even react.

    Gahi mumbled aloud out of boredom. “What kind of luck is this?” Gahi muttered. “All this anticipating ter get here and the main Guardian’s as boring as Rhys.”

    “I dunno about that,” Demitri said. “He’s probably even more boring.”

    “ALL MOVEMENT SHALL STOP,” the Shiftry boomed. He didn’t move, yet he was clearly the one speaking—through the vibrations of the cave.

    Rhys didn’t react. He kept meditating.

    Gahi flinched and stayed put. Demitri softly said, “This test is to just not move? For how long…”

    Mispy shifted where she sat, sighing.

    The ground rumbled again and the Shiftry roared. “ALL MOVEMENT… SHALL STOP!”

    The cave walls heaved, threatening to collapse around them. Mispy stiffened and shut her eyes, trying to meditate. Demitri and Gahi did the same. Rhys remained motionless.

    A seemingly endless amount of time passed. Rhys watched, worriedly, as the auras of the three members of Team Alloy faded to the gentle undulations that indicated drowsiness. They weren’t meditating at all, now—they were about to fall asleep.

    And then, without any sort of stimulation and the overwhelming feeling of boredom, Mispy’s head and leaf drooped slightly—and then, she fell over to her side, asleep.

    The Shiftry roared through the mountain, screaming enough to startle Mispy awake. “YOU HAVE RUINED THE ATMOSPHERE OF STONE!” The ground heaved, stones already erupting from below, jostling everybody into a battle position.

    Rhys cursed and stood up. Their chances of ending this without a fight evaporated completely.

    “I wanted to do this peacefully!” He aimed his Aura Sphere at the Shiftry, but just then, he saw his paw glow with a strong, yellow light. Rhys flinched and stopped his attack, as if he’d seen his very soul nearly slip from his body. Was this Guardian so weak that a single blast would kill him? How was he supposed to subdue someone that his weakest techniques would annihilate?

    Gahi hissed. “Rhys?! What’re you doing?!”

    The Guardian wasn’t moving. In fact, the Shiftry in general hadn’t moved since they arrived, making it an easy target. It also made its attacks quite slow. There were a few seconds of dead air that they could think about how to approach and, for Rhys’ case, safely subdue this Guardian.

    “I—I can’t fight him right now,” Rhys said. “My attacks could kill. I—I can’t do that.”

    “Wh—nggh, fine!” Gahi said, rushing for the Shiftry. The ground heaved; rocks fell on top of Gahi, burying him.

    “No, don’t fight! He’s too weak!” Rhys urged.

    “G-Gahi!” Demitri and Mispy yelled. They rushed after him, helping him free of the Rock Slide, but Gahi was already growling from within.

    “Guardian! Stop this!” Rhys said, but his words fell on deaf, rocky ears.

    The Shiftry roared; more rocks fell from the ceiling. Rhys deftly avoided the attack with precise jumps, readying an Aura Sphere out of reflex. His paw lit up again—his Divine Promise in danger of breaking—and he held off, growling. He had to keep his students safe—but he couldn’t attack the Guardian too much. But he wasn’t going to listen to reason. His mind, like many Guardians who had become isolated for too long, had warped into something else thanks to their isolation.

    Surely the spirits that resided within his mind had conformed in one way or another to the Guardian’s whims, and now he was focused on only one thing—stillness. Any violation of that angered him. Perhaps a friendlier voice like Amia or Anam—or even Star, in person—could help this broken mind. But they had to convince him otherwise—and fighting with their own techniques was too much.

    Gahi would be fine; he was stronger than that to let a few rocks subdue him. What worried Rhys was what came after: A great, white light shined from the cracks—Demitri and Mispy stumbled back, covering their eyes.

    “No!” Rhys hissed, watching Gahi’s aura flare and shift, crackling, black lightning coursing through the nearest rocks to the former Trapinch. One of the sparks zapped Mispy, and she was enveloped in that same evolutionary light—followed shortly by Demitri right next to her. Rhys watched anxiously, but then looked at the Shiftry.

    The white light of evolution sparked black. Rhys glanced worriedly at them, but then it faded away. Emerging from this light was no longer a Trapinch, Chikorita, and Axew. The Vibrava, Bayleef, and Fraxure briefly paused to marvel at their new forms.

    “That corrupted light…” Shiftry rumbled the caves again, too soft for the three to hear, though Rhys heard it. “What was that?” Whatever it was, Rhys noted that Shiftry was stunned enough to stop his attacks.

    Gahi beat his new wings as if he’d had them his whole life. Demitri stared—and gasped in fear, slightly—at his new distance from the ground. Mispy struggled with her longer legs and neck, feeling awkward and lanky. But they adjusted quickly, and they let their instincts take over in the midst of battle. They jumped back into the fray.

    “STOP!” Rhys suddenly roared, holding out his arms. Mispy, whose leafy buds glowed with gathering energy, dimmed. Gahi flipped a few times in the air to cut back on his speed. Demitri toppled over himself, landing flat on his face.

    Shiftry rumbled again, but the rock slide stopped. Rhys feared that the ceiling would collapse on them if they upset the statue further, but they couldn’t take him on. “He’s too weak,” he said. “We don’t want to hurt him. We’re here to bring him with us, remember?”

    The trio looked at one another incredulously, then at the statue.

    “How dare you call me weak,” said the Shiftry. “You fear fighting me because I would smite you with my undeniable power.”

    “Undeniable?” Gahi challenged. “I bet I c’n take yeh on!”

    “You DARE—”

    “N-now, let’s hold for a moment,” Rhys said, raising his paw. “We don’t know want to fight. Who is stronger than the other is irrelevant.” Even though Rhys was certain that this Guardian could probably fall to any of their unrestrained strikes, and his aura was barely present, it wouldn’t be worth it to bring such a thing up.

    “Um, Mister Guardian, er,” Demitri waved at him, but that made the statue growl. He quickly stopped and straightened his spine. “We just want to bring you to our home. We are gathering the Guardians, you see, and it will be safer for you there.”

    “Is there movement?”

    “Er…”

    “I mean, even Rock Types move, don’t you think?” Demitri reasoned, his voice stuttering now and then. “Geodude, Aerodactyl, they’re Rock Types and they move around all the same! And you’re a Shiftry! You can move, too, right?”

    “No. I am Rock. I do not move.”

    “…Literal statue,” Mispy said.

    “I am… stillness.” Shiftry hesitated. “I… I won’t move. I refuse to move!”

    “But it’s safe to move,” Demitri said. “How about we carry you instead? It’s better than the Hunters finding you, right? And then you’ll just, uh, stay still in our cave next. Stuff moves all the time in the world. In fact, the whole world spins! So you’re always moving!”

    “AaaAAAAA!” The whole ground rumbled at that, toppling Demitri and Mispy off of their feet. Gahi beat his wings and Rhys stood his ground. “N-no! Don’t say that! How DARE you… say such horrible things. The spirit must be still. It must stop movement. Stop thinking. Tranquil.”

    “You might be confusing meditation with a total lack of movement,” Rhys said, easing forward with gentle gestures. “You recognize that you are unsafe right? Are you familiar with the Hunters? What about Star?”

    “Star approached me. I told her where I was. But her movement irritated me. I do not care for her philosophy of directly interfering with mortals.”

    “Well, I suppose I don’t, either, but I imagine you also don’t care about Hunters disturbing your… movement further?”

    “…Then I must choose between being killed, and living in a world of movement?”

    “What, that’s a choice?” Gahi growled irritably. “C’mon, Rhys, let’s just carry thus nutcase back.”

    “W-wait, not so violent,” Demitri urged.

    “Funny comin’ from you!” Gahi said. “Yer the one with the hardest punches!”

    “I—I know, but… but be gentle…”

    Mispy frowned, nudging Demitri. “He’s right,” she agreed, then glared at Gahi.

    “Feh…” The Vibrava looked back at Shiftry. “So you coming er what?”

    “I… I don’t… I can’t…” The cavern shook. “I haven’t moved in so long. I can’t remember how I came here. And to suddenly leave this place—what if it’s all unfamiliar? What if—”

    All the rumbling finally shook something loose. A stone fell from the ceiling and landed nearby; the statue made something akin to a scream, but then went completely silent. Demitri flinched. “Wh—what happened?” he said.

    Rhys quickly stepped to Shiftry, barely able to sense his aura, but…

    “He’s fine,” Rhys stated, releasing the breath he had been holding. “He must have panicked and passed out from shock. Let’s bring him back before he wakes up. Hopefully he will be… at least slightly more tolerant of it all with exposure; he seemed to just be worrying over the thought of it, even though we have been moving around him the whole time.”

    Demitri nodded, sighing with relief. “Good…” Then, once Mispy and Gahi relaxed their stances, Demitri’s arms trembled from his excitement. “We evolved! We finally did it!”

    The energy from Demitri spread to the other two of Team Alloy. Mispy beamed, awkwardly stumbling forward to headbutt Demitri in the chest. Gahi buzzed his wings and rammed into Demitri next. “Heheh, and I evolved first.”

    “Barely,” Mispy countered.

    “First is first,” Gahi said, flying above them.

    “And how are you three feeling?” Rhys asked.

    “Never better!” Gahi said. Demitri and Mispy nodded.

    Rhys could sense the excitement from them, even though it was a bit subdued due to a combination of mental exhaustion from the meditating and physical exhaustion from the battle, easy as it may have been in the end. Rhys suspected, however, that their less than explosive celebration was due to the fact that Owen had already beaten them to it. There was nothing to celebrate in their competitive hearts—only a fire to beat Owen to evolving when it really counted.

    Demitri shook his head and leaned down to get a hold of the statue. “Urgh—he’s solid rock!”

    “Uh, duh,” Gahi said, descending.

    Mispy smacked Gahi behind his head with a vine—as a Bayleef, they were much thicker, and the Vibrava slammed into the ground with a groan. Mispy flinched. “Um, sorry.”

    Gahi just hissed and crawled away.

    Demitri managed to balance the fallen Shiftry over his shoulder, using his massive tusk to keep the statue level. With his free hand, he pulled out their Badge—both the silver and gold ones. “Oh! That’s right!” He fumbled with the silver one, pressing a claw on the center button. “Hey, guys! We did fine! Our Guardian is just fine!”

    Rhys nodded. “Let’s meet the others at the village.”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 13 - A Place to Call Home
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 13 – A Place to Call Home

    Traversing Fae, Fae Forest was a calming experience, for the most part. The wild Pokémon were no match for Amia’s flames, and Owen managed to take on a few as well. He used the aggressors as practice for his vines. He had learned a new technique this way, though he couldn’t find a practical use for it yet, as it took too long. Owen was now able to turn his arm into a large vine. And that was all. He figured he’d build upon it later.

    While the wilds themselves were not a problem, their pranks were. Everything within the Dungeon was a sea of bizarre, Pecha-pink leaves and beige wood. It smelled like candy. Wild cries of many Fairy and Bug Pokémon faintly sounded in all directions like ethereal, haunting cackles.

    The seeds that appeared in this Dungeon were also something that some of the more intelligent wild Pokémon took advantage of. Near the middle of their exploration, a Whimsicott tossed with precise aim a strange seed that exploded right in front of Owen’s face. The strange mist that followed made the Charmeleon’s reptilian pupils dilate into saucers, and he had to be carried by Amia and Alex for two whole segments while he babbled about the leaves teasing him. This slowly transitioned into him laughing about how everybody looked like giant, rainbow Goodra, and how he could taste the light with his ears.

    When Owen came back to his senses, he had no memory of the past two sections. Amia and Alex spared him the details, and instead told him that it was a Sleep Seed, rather than some sort of potent X-Eye Seed.

    Thankfully, aside from a few thrown seeds, the Dungeon itself wasn’t any problem for them. The forest’s twisted dimensions melted away with the passage of the seventh segment. They emerged in a field that was—in stark contrast of the pink foliage that surrounded it—one of normal, green blades of grass that went up to Amia’s knees. But the tall grass hid subtle details beneath it. There were large, multicolored mushrooms dotting the pasture, and the rocks were colored like rainbows.

    This place was unexplored and untouched by most Pokémon affiliated with Kilo Village. Few wild Pokémon made this place their home, since it did not possess a Dungeon’s eternal, maze-like qualities to keep such Pokémon trapped inside its own warped ecosystem. This made the garden’s foliage move only to the wind.

    “I feel like I shouldn’t be here,” Owen mumbled, looking around. “Don’t you kinda get that feeling…? Like… like this just isn’t a place where Pokémon like us should be walking?”

    “I see your point,” Alex mumbled, rubbing his cannons together anxiously.

    “Hmm, let’s just keep going,” Amia said, “and see where it takes us! It can’t be that bad, can it?”

    “M-maybe,” Owen replied. “Mom? How come… you never told me about all this? Just, you know, about being a Guardian, or that awesome Fire power!”

    “W-well, it’s simply because, that is, er, Owen…” She sighed. “We just wanted you to live a normal life. We’d tell you eventually, but… don’t you think you deserved to just live like a normal Pokémon, at least for a little while?”

    “I guess,” Owen said. “It’s just, it’s hard because I still know they’re dead.”

    “Oh, but they’re hardly dead, dear.”

    There was no winning with that argument. He conceded, “I’m glad I at least had a sense of a community… Can they hear me now?”

    “They can, dear,” Amia said. “And they’re so proud of you for taking this so well.”

    “…What I did counted as taking it well?” he asked, thinking about how he’d toppled Nevren over and had to get one of the Waypoints freed up thanks to his Vine Trap.

    “Well, compared to how it could have gone,” Amia said.

    They walked some more. He saw a blue mushroom along the immediate path. Bored of the foliage, he kicked at it carelessly.

    “Ooo!”

    Owen stopped walking. That voice did not sound like anybody he knew. In fact, it didn’t even sound like a voice. More like a cry, or some sort of primal, sing-song grunt. Amia and Alex, too, stopped, and they all looked down.

    The blue mushroom’s top grew a mouth. And for a few silent seconds, they stared at each other, two, beady-black eyes just above the carved mouth.

    It then screeched at him. Owen jumped and held his arms up, as if to apologize. The mushroom grew to twice, then thrice its size—almost to Owen’s knees, now—and then exploded with a loud POP! It spattered fungal bits harmlessly in all directions. A bit got in Owen’s mouth; it tasted like old cheese. He spat, rubbing his tongue with his claws desperately.

    “I don’t think I like this place,” Owen finally said, looking back. Alex was hiding his gargantuan, flaming body behind Amia, who only looked mildly startled. They continued onward.

    Owen thought about what was said previously—about only being able to summon solid copies if enough energy was put into them, some sort of divine energy from the Orbs, or spiritual energy. He hadn’t tried that technique yet. His mother, however, could.

    “Mom?”

    “Yes, dear?”

    “How come you were able to make the whole village solid if it takes so much energy to do it?”

    “Oh, Owen, they aren’t very strong,” Amia said. “We used to live in a very hidden-away, very peaceful village. The Pokémon there didn’t fight—and so, their spirits were hardly trained to the same degree that you are in combat. The weaker a Pokémon is, the easier it is to make them solid. That’s probably why even Anam, as strong as he is, couldn’t fully materialize Star.”

    “Oh.” He paused, making connections. “Does that mean Dad is weak, too?”

    “W-well, I…! I mean…!” Alex protested. “I’m fairly strong! I’m the strongest of the village—er, before Amia.”

    “So, if I fought you, I’d lose? Or win?” Owen asked.

    “You… would have a challenge,” Alex said. “A-again, I’m strong, for my village.”

    “For your village of non-fighters,” Owen clarified. “Is that why I never got to spar with you?”

    Alex rumbled nervously.

    Owen sighed. “Maybe you should have mentioned that when we were making teams.”

    Just then, something shuffled in the grass ahead of them. Little flowers rose up from the grass—at first, Owen though they were pretty, but upon closer inspection, the petals were wilted and sticky. They’d been on the grass for a while.

    Someone giggled—it was a high-pitched noise and came from three directions at once.

    A chill ran up the Charmeleon’s spine.

    “Huhuhu…”

    “N-n-nggh, th-that just gives me a bad feeling,” Owen said.

    “Hmm, perhaps that’s the Guardian,” Amia said. “I’m certainly… sensing a different presence here.”

    “A Mystic aura, for sure,” Alex said, nodding to Owen. “That’s what we call that special atmosphere given off by people like us—Mystic auras.”

    “It’s what Star called it, at least,” Amia said. “I think she just liked how it sounded.”

    “Oooh, and who are you?” The voice giggled again. Childish. Feminine. Jittery. “I can’t believe it. People are here to see me! That’s so cool! It’s been so long since I had new toys to play with.”

    “Toys?” Owen repeated. He saw something yellow with pink wings fly past him.

    “We aren’t here to play,” Alex said. “We are here to bring you with us. To bring you someplace with other Guardians. Did Star warn you about this?”

    “I stopped talking to Star a long time ago. She’s no fun!”

    “Can you at least show yourself?” Owen squeaked. “Where are you?”

    “Where am I? I’m right here! And here, and here, and now I’m here, and now here!”

    Owen heard voices from all over—she was moving so quickly, the wind picking up with each new voice. Was this her—or was it spirits acting like her, or some kind of Double Team? Owen carefully tapped his foot on the ground, preparing a Fire Trap, just in case—Wait. No. Slowly, his foot turned green and leafy. He tapped his foot again. Vine Trap. That won’t burn the fields. Then, he returned to his red, scaly self.

    “What’re you doing?” Owen called out. “I don’t want to fight! I—can’t you just come with us?”

    “This is my home!” the Fairy Guardian replied. Every sentence came from a new location. “If you want me to come with you, then you’re just going to have to find me!”

    Suddenly, the world around them flooded with a strange, pink, glittery fog. Owen reflexively held his breath and shut his eyes, trying to fan the fog away. It felt thick and it made his tail crackle.

    “Owen!” Amia yelled.

    “Mom?” Owen opened his eyes—but she was gone. So was Alex—in fact… everybody was gone and, once again, he found that he was alone in a strange world. Blades of grass were as tall as trees; the little bits of dirt on the ground were like boulders. One of the mushrooms—a yellow one, this time—grew two slits for eyes and another slit for a mouth and jeered at him. It was ten times Owen’s height.

    “…I shrank,” Owen said. He looked around, as if verifying. “Oh, good. Can’t have a normal day anymore, can I?”

    Laughter filled the air.

    Amia screamed. She was far away, from Owen’s perspective. “Mom!”

    He ran, but then realized that the yellow mushroom was gone. Spinning around, he sensed something—it was right behind him. It opened its mouth, revealing countless tiny teeth, and dragged its body forward with an unknown force.

    Owen ran as fast as he could, looking back to see the mushroom hot on his tail. Not wanting to get anywhere near, he heaved a plume of fire its way. It shrieked and flailed its huge tiny body, disintegrating into a pile of ash at a rate that startled Owen. A little, blue ember rose from the ashes and lunged toward him. Owen ducked, then spun to watch where it was going.

    Owen’s mouth hung agape. “Oh, come on!”

    Right in front of him was the largest Joltik he’d ever seen. Its tiny, blue claws were as tall as Owen.

    “Huhuhu…” The Joltik—Star had called her Willow, didn’t she?—beamed. “You look squishy.”

    Owen blasted Willow with another plume of fire. Immediately after, he turned and fled, using the distorted light and smoky aftereffect as a distraction. A grain of dirt tripped him and twisted so he’d land on his back—wincing when he crunched on his tail instead.

    A huge, blue claw crashed down on him. He had no way to escape it. Out of reflex, he crossed his arms in an X-shape and squeezed his eyes shut.

    Immense pressure pushed on his back. He sank deeper into the dirt. Yet, no claw pierced through his body. Instead, a shield of radiant, golden light surrounded Owen in a protective, albeit fleeting, barrier.

    “Ehh?” Joltik said. She poked at Owen’s Protect barrier. “No fair! Stop hiding!”

    It wasn’t as if Owen had a choice. The light was already fading, and it would be too much of a strain to use the barrier twice in a row. How useless—he couldn’t do anything while Protecting himself. All he could do was stall for time, and now he was—by his perspective—trapped many feet underground.

    Hey, everyone! We have the first Guardian! He’s okay! He’ll come with us, and he’s super cool! …Guys? Hello?

    That voice—Anam? They found their Guardian. But why did they hear him? The communicator! Was it still normally sized? Owen just realized that he didn’t have his bag with him, but he could still feel the subtle presence of the Eviolite nearby. He must be close. If they could just get to the Badge, perhaps they could escape and get backup.

    Owen, a voice rang in his mind. Focus on the dirt!

    That voice sounded familiar. The Jumpluff who had guarded the Grass Orb previously. Klent?

    Listen to me! Focus on the dirt! Become Grass! Sink into it!

    Uhh—


    “Owen!” someone else called. It was Amia, but from where he was, he couldn’t tell what direction it came from. Was it behind? Or in front?

    Willow stomped again, but this time it actually hit. Owen wheezed—thankfully, he was so small that the claws lost their piercing capabilities. He couldn’t focus on the transformation. But he had another idea. Heat welled up in his chest again,and he scorched the Joltik’s claw.

    “YOW!”

    That was his chance. When she jerked away, Owen scrambled out of the hole of dirt, getting to the top just in time to spin around and cross his arms. The resulting force sent Owen flying back unharmed, and he used that to his advantage, taking the momentum to run away as fast as he—

    Willow sprouted pink wings and rammed straight into Owen. Her wings then evaporated, and she resumed the chase, stomping on the ground just behind Owen any time she could.

    “Please! Stop stomping on us!” Owen yelled.

    “No!” the gigantic creature said. “This is too fun! Just wait until I nibble on you!”

    “We just want to—” Owen narrowly dodged one of the claws of the giant Joltik. “PLEASE! Just turn us back to normal! We’re here to help!”

    He didn’t know where his parents were, but he knew he heard Amia calling somewhere ahead.

    Anam’s voice had to have come from somewhere nearby. Owen hoped that would be enough to guide the others back to the same place, too. Learning from his old mistake, he avoided bits of dirt and walked around the blades of grass. Weeds were like trees, pebbles like mountains. Surely this wouldn’t last forever, right?

    The Joltik giggled and continued to pursue Owen. He’d lost his way. In this part of the world, the sun was setting, and the oversized garden looked more and more like shifting monsters of the night. Willow was probably only chasing him because of the flame on his—wait! Maybe if he focused enough…!

    Owen shut his eyes. He tried to meditate—hard as it was, while running—and felt his body change and cool. The flame went out, and that same daffodil sprouted. He didn’t like it, but it was necessary. Red scales became leafy green, and all of his Fire attributes vanished—along with the light.

    “H-hey! No fair! I just wanna play!” she said. “Where’d you go?!”

    Willow must not be good at seeing auras. If he could just keep that up…

    Hey, guys! We did fine! Our Guardian is just fine!

    “YOW!” Owen yelped, holding the sides of his head. “Demitri! Why so loud?!”

    He turned to his right and saw a Badge almost as big as a house. His heart skipped a beat. He was there! He made it!

    Now what?!

    “Mom? Dad?!”

    “Right here, dear!” Amia called, rushing over.

    “I found you!” Willow said.

    Amia fired a jet of flames at her, but despite the Type advantage, she brushed it off with a laugh. The flames evaporated too quickly when fired from a distance.

    “Is that all you have?” she teased. “You’re a hundred times weaker like that! You can’t do anything to me! Now c’mere…”

    “Oh, dear,” Amia said. “Owen, d-do you happen to have an idea…?”

    Alex blasted Willow with a wave of fire next, sending two jets from his cannons, but it had a similar effect. Owen gulped and looked down. What did he do before? He’d stomped on the ground, preparing a Vine Trap. He did! And if the Badge was here, that meant it was probably right where they were standing. Maybe, with a little bit of good timing— “Mom, Dad, stay behind me, okay?”

    “Owen?” Amia said, but listened.

    “Are you gonna be my toy first?” Willow cooed.

    Owen wordlessly stomped. This triggered the ground to lurch upward; Willow screeched and struggled, but it was too late. The dying sunlight instantly became blotted out by the rising vines. They entangled the Joltik’s body, twisting around her many limbs, immobilizing her. She screamed and flailed, but nothing came of it; the vines were still normal-sized, and she was too tiny to break free.

    “N-no! L-let me go!” Willow screamed. “That’s not fair!”

    “You shrank us!” Owen said. “Who are you to talk about fair?!”

    “Let me go!”

    “Turn us back to normal!” Owen said.

    “LET ME GO!”

    “TURN US—”

    “Owen, dear,” Amia held his shoulder. “May I?”

    “Y-yeah, okay,” Owen said, shrinking behind her.

    Amia stepped forward. The Joltik was still struggling, but the Gardevoir waved to get her attention. “Um… Willow, dear,” she said, looking up. The Joltik’s right front leg weakly twitched against the vines. “We wanted to bring you home with us,” she said. “I’m Amia, the Fire Guardian, and this is my son, Owen, Grass Guardian. Alex, his father, is a spirit of mine. Star sent us here to see you. Your name is Willow, right? Hunters are trying to pick us off one by one, since they might know how to track us down. Sensing us, somehow, you know, dear? So, it’s better if we stay together!”

    “…Will you squish me?” Willow asked.

    “You have my word that I won’t,” Amia said. “I’ll even make a Divine Promise out of it.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Um… Gardevoir’s Honor?”

    The Joltik stared. “Y’mean it?”

    “I do. Please, Willow. There are so many friendly Pokémon waiting to meet you!”

    Owen couldn’t believe that simply making what was effectively a little good word was enough to subdue Willow. Then again, she seemed… simple.

    “Mnnn… okay,” she said. “Hang on.”

    She focused, and a white light surrounded the three of them. In another instant, they were back to their normal size, and Owen was staring at a three-foot-tall wad of vines. He was standing in the middle of it, trapped. Amia and Alex were behind him, out of the plant life.

    “Uh—I’m stuck,” Owen said.

    “H-help!” a tiny voice cried. She was near Owen’s foot, still caught in his trap. She was tiny, even for a Joltik—no wonder they didn’t notice her before. She could stand on the top of his horn!

    “C’mon, Willow,” Owen said, bending down to carefully unravel her from the trap. “Let’s show you Kilo Village.”

    Willow sniffled and zapped Owen’s hand.

    “O-ow!”

    Willow hopped off and stood on top of the vines. “That’s for burning my claw! I can walk on my own!”

    “O-okay, okay.” Owen sighed. Her body was barely a handful, but her attitude…

    With everything in order, Alex helped pull Owen out of his own trap. The family and Willow warped back to Hot Spot Cave to rendezvous with the others.

    <><><>​

    They had to act swiftly once they warped back to Kilo Village. ADAM and Willow, thankfully, looked normal, and the Rock Guardian passed as a sculpture. They had all finished their missions fairly close to one another, and were quick to go from the Central Waypoint to Waypoint Road. There wasn’t one for Hot Spot, but the nearest one was only a short walk away from the hidden village.

    Once everybody was gathered, they made their way along the prairie roads together, with three new Guardians accompanying them.

    One of the first things Owen did when he saw the Rock group was congratulate the rest of Team Alloy on their evolutions. Demitri rubbed his tusk modestly, while Gahi flitted his wings with pride. Mispy just glared at Owen challengingly, and Owen returned it with his own provoking smile. They still had one stage left to fully evolve.

    “The location you describe does not sound normal,” ADAM said. He twitched a few times. “The structure is not to code.”

    “It’s a cave, dear,” Amia said.

    “Does it have little nooks and crannies to explore?” Willow asked.

    “Certainly, dear,” Amia said.

    “Is it of stone?” the Rock Guardian asked.

    “Yes! Oh… Mister Shiftry, what would you like us to call you?”

    “You may call me Valle,” the Shiftry said. “I wish not to move for much longer. I must be one with the cave so I can familiarize myself with its form. If it is not to my satisfaction, perhaps I shall return.”

    “Well, if it’s not, why don’t we help you later, huh?” Amia asked. “But the cave definitely stays still!”

    Valle’s stone face cracked into the tiniest of smiles.

    “…How are you moving?” Demitri asked.

    This entire time, Valle was standing like a statue, yet his entire form was dragging across the ground, creating an uninterrupted line in the dirt. James took the liberty of dusting that dirt path away in case some unsuspecting traveler tried to follow it toward the boulder.

    “I move with Mystic power,” Valle replied.

    “He’s just using some energy to push him forward invisibly,” Amia explained. “The same energy I use if I need to fly!”

    Owen’s eyes almost popped out of his skull. “You can FLY?!”

    Amia jumped in the air and floated there. “Yep! It’s actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it!”

    “Mm.” Zena nodded, floating a few feet in the air next. Anam stepped on an invisible staircase until he hopped down, jiggling his entire body. Willow skittered through the air. ADAM—he always floated, and had little to demonstrate.

    “No fair,” Mispy growled.

    “Heheh.” Gahi hovered a bit higher, then jerked high into the air to avoid a swat from one of Mispy’s vines.

    “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that,” Demitri admitted, shuddering while riding atop Mispy’s back. “I’m worried about when I become a Haxorus, even. They seem really tall…”

    Mispy wrapped a vine around Demitri, the tip nudging his cheek below the tusk. “You’ll be fine.”

    Owen’s tail drooped with his shoulders. “That’s crazy. How come you guys never flew before?”

    “Well, did we ever need to? That hidden garden was inside a Dungeon. You can’t fly into it without getting caught in the distortion.”

    “Yeah, but, it seems really cool to do. How long until I learn?”

    “Well, why don’t we teach you?” Amia asked. “That’ll be part of our training! To learn how to ignore gravity, and move with your own willpower!” She giggled.

    Owen snorted, but agreed.

    The mushrooms didn’t glow until Amia returned to the cave. The Gardevoir sighed happily. “Home, sweet home. I haven’t left this cave for that long in a while!”

    “I was starting to feel homesick,” Alex said. “How about you, Owen?”

    “Yeah,” Owen admitted. “I mean… I guess the Thousand Hearts is nice, and so was Rhys’ old place, but I kinda like it here the most.”

    Mispy prodded at one of the mushrooms. To each touch, it glowed a bit brighter.

    “I like the mushrooms,” Willow said, landing on a particularly large one. “What makes it glow?”

    “Oh, just a bit of Mystic energy,” Amia said. “I thought the cave was a bit bare without them, so I wanted to give a little lighting! If I didn’t, the only glow we’d get was from the lava rivers deeper inside.”

    “Lava rivers?” Valle repeated. “Stone in movement. I do not know if I am comfortable with being near such rivers.”

    “Everything’s about not moving with you, isn’t it?” Owen said.

    “Movement is not necessary.”

    “Yeah, speak fer yerself,” Gahi said, rapidly beating his wings without any effort.

    Owen smiled at Gahi. He still couldn’t believe that all three of them had evolved! Still, he beat them to it, and he wasn’t going to let that tiny victory go. He’d certainly be the first one to fully evolve, too. He probably already had the power for it. He just needed a spark to trigger it.

    Hopefully Mispy wouldn’t kill him in his sleep when he won.

    “And here,” Amia said, “is the main square!”

    Owen had seen it many times before, but after the adventures of the day, it was such a relief to see the town as he remembered it—particularly after running for his life from a twisted, giant Joltik.

    “Mine!” the Joltik in question said, hopping into a nook that likely once belonged to a tiny spirit.

    “I shall check out this file for editing,” ADAM stated, floating into the one next door.

    “This is adequate,” Valle said, standing in the middle of town.

    “Are… are you sure?” Amia asked.

    “Yes.”

    They all stared. Given that Valle didn’t move much, it should probably be fine. He was just going to be like a statue, then. Literally. A centerpiece of Hot Spot.

    “Well, let’s go to our home, next,” Rhys said. “Anam, James, that reminds me. Now that our numbers are growing, will you be taking up residence here as well?”

    “No, I’m going to stay in the Heart,” Anam said. “I should be okay with all the other Hearts that live there, right?”

    “Anam, as much as that is appealing,” James said, “I have given it some thought, and I do not think that is a good idea. We can’t endanger Kilo Village any longer—we should stay here, with the others.”

    “B-but…”

    James tapped his left foot, staring at the Goodra sternly. “Anam, do you want the mortals to be killed because of your carelessness?”

    “N-no! I… I don’t!”

    “Then we will live here. Is that understood?”

    Anam sniffed, but nodded. “What will I tell the others…?”

    “They won’t miss you if you’re there during the day,” James said. “It’s only at night, when most Pokémon have their guard down, that we must be careful.”

    “You guys still sleep?” Willow asked, peeking out her tiny window. “That’s so boring! Can’t you just play at night?”

    “I can’t believe you guys skip sleeping,” Demitri said. “Sleeping is great! And so is eating!”

    Mispy nodded vigorously at ‘eating.’

    “We certainly can do those things,” Zena said. “There’s simply no need to.”

    “Can I still eat and sleep?” Owen asked. “Once I start getting more Mystical, can I still do that stuff? I want to feel normal a little while longer. I dunno. I’m still feeling kinda hungry.”

    “You’re still new,” Zena said. “You need time to strengthen your Mystic power. Then you will make those mortal needs… optional.” She gave Owen a small smile, if only to encourage him. Their training together showed how much Owen was dwarfed by all the other Mystics, but he was quick to catch up. That was the natural response, according to Star, for a weaker Mystic among titans of the same nature.

    Owen shifted where he stood. “Yeah…” He rubbed at his left arm, wondering if getting strong so fast was a good idea.

    Amia gently pat Owen’s back. “Why don’t I make you some dinner? How about for you all, too?” she asked, looking at Rhys and his students.

    “Rhys, d’you need to eat?” Demitri said.

    “Yeah, now that I think about it…” Gahi landed on Demitri’s head; the powerful Fraxure didn’t seem bothered by the added weight. “You eat, but y’don’t eat all that much. And yer Mystic, too. An old Mystic.”

    Rhys nodded. “I eat a small amount, if only to… appear normal,” he said. “But I suppose with this all in the open, I can drop the façade and focus on my training.”

    “How come yer so good at cooking, then?” Gahi said.

    The Lucario shrugged. “If eating is not a necessity,” he said, “then when I do eat, I’d like to make it worthwhile.”

    <><><>​

    Worthwhile indeed. Once everybody was settled into their new homes, and Amia filled the vacancies with her old spirits, she called for a small get-together in the town square, gathered around Valle. Before Owen and the others who had to sleep got tired, she wanted to sit around to get to know everyone. Rhys, with the assistance of Mispy and Demitri, hauled out a large pot of stew for everyone—Mystic or not—to enjoy. Around the time that the food was fresh and ready, Nevren conveniently arrived to get his bowl, and then ate quietly from the sidelines. It seemed that even the Alakazam could not resist Rhys’ cooking.

    Rhys and Amia helped to pass around stone bowls for everyone to eat another hearty stew—Rhys’ celebratory specialty. Large helpings were given to those who actually had to eat—Owen and Demitri were given bowls, while Gahi was given a flatter plate to accommodate for his bug-like head type. They gave a large bowl to Mispy, knowing that her appetite was beyond comparison, and made sure to set aside enough for when she’d inevitably ask for seconds, and then thirds.

    Anam got himself a small bowl to at least appreciate the taste, and shared some of it with James. Amia elected for a similarly tiny bowl and ate with Rhys and Alex. She fed Alex by hand, if only so the Magmortar didn’t have to struggle with his cannon-arms. Owen elected to sit between Alex and Zena during the meal so he could avoid the passive-aggressive nudges that Mispy gave him, perhaps as spite for evolving first. No, definitely because of that. From what Owen knew, Mispy’s species evolved fairly early to its final stage. She was the greatest contender to beat him in this silly race. Which he would definitely win.

    They weren’t really sure what to do about Valle. Amia offered a bowl to the Shiftry statue, going so far as to place the bowl in front of Valle’s face to let him smell it. The bowl trembled in Amia’s hands—with a squeak of surprise, the stone bowl went straight toward Valle, vanishing into his face. The stew, too, was gone.

    “Thank you for the offering,” Valle said.

    Owen didn’t even know where to begin with that display. Did he just absorb the stew? Did he have a mouth, or was it just there, now? Did he taste? Did he even have a sense of smell? How does he see? Did he feel? This simple gesture made Owen’s mind swirl with questions long enough that even his keen awareness was dulled. He didn’t realize Mispy stealing from his bowl from afar using her vines. He resumed eating without realizing that half his food had been transferred into her bowl.

    ADAM said that he required no food. Despite this, when presented with some, he leaned his beak into the bowl and, as far as Owen could tell, sucked the stew out of the bowl. But that gave Owen another thought, and he stared at ADAM for a bit longer. He didn’t have a neck. Porygon-Z had a head, and then a body, but no neck to attach them. How did he—?

    “Optimal,” he stated.

    Owen decided not to ask. That was enough questions for the day. Instead, he watched Amia hand Willow the smallest bowl they had, which ended up being three times her size. She countered by blasting it with a swirl of pink mist, shrinking it down until she could grasp it with her tiny claws. She then zapped the ground, forming a tiny, red mushroom that looked up curiously. She then grabbed this mushroom and tore it apart—it screamed a little, yet it laughed at the same time—and dropped its remains into the bowl. Owen noticed an ember returning to the Joltik’s tiny body. That mushroom was one of her spirits. Like death was a game to them.

    At least I’m not the only crazy one, Owen thought worriedly. Does being a Guardian make you go nuts?

    I think it’s just the isolation,
    Star said.

    Owen’s tail flashed with alarm, earning a concerned glance from Mispy. He shook his head dismissively and stared at his bowl. Can you not do that?!

    Whoops! My bad. Sorry, I’m just watching. You mind if I sit in your head for a while?

    Ugh
    . Owen resumed eating. Why don’t you just come out?

    I don’t wanna upset Zena. I’m gonna lay low for a while. Besides, I need to start looking for the next Guardians for you guys to get
    .

    “Owen, are you okay?” Alex asked, looking down.

    “Huh? Oh—yeah! I’m just fine,” Owen said. “Sorry. I got kinda distracted.”

    “This must be a lot for you to take in,” Alex said, gently patting Owen on the back. “I’m really sorry for all this.”

    “It’s okay,” Owen said. “I mean, it’s still crazy, and I didn’t expect my time as a Heart would be like this, but, you know, it’s not… bad. I mean, look at everyone here, right?” He looked up at his father. “Lots of new friends, and Team Alloy is all here, and everything. So it’s not a total loss.” He looked at the flames on Alex’s shoulders. “I do kinda wish it was normal, but, I think that’s just a little panic, you know? Or… something.”

    Alex smiled sadly. “I understand,” he said. “Believe me, I didn’t expect to live with Amia in quite this way, either. But I choose to stay here for her, and for you.”

    Owen blushed and resumed eating.

    Amia eventually tried to break the ice by having everyone introduce themselves. Anam was happy to oblige, talking about the Hearts and how James was such a great help managing everything. He then pointed to Nevren, who looked almost startled at being acknowledged. Owen was surprised, too. He’d almost forgotten the Alakazam was there. Anam declared Nevren to be the most helpful at managing the other Hearts. “He’s my favorite tactician!” Anam said, which earned an unpleasant cough from James and Rhys. Anam tittered nervously.

    “Hm, but now that I have the attention of everyone,” Nevren said, looking up, “I feel I should point something out. With the Hunters seemingly increasing their movements, and with so many Guardians here, it may be wise to stay together. That includes you, Anam. James was right. You may have been strong enough to survive out in the open without the Hunters approaching you directly, but now, that may no longer be the case. You should live here, in Hot Spot, with the others. I’m sure Amia can build you a hot spring just as they built a lake for Zena.”

    “Mnn… but I get to be in Kilo during the day, right?” he clarified.

    “Of course,” Nevren said. “That way, you can just be here at night, when you feel the need to rest. I know how much you enjoy naps, even though you don’t need them.”

    Anam’s cheeks blushed purple.

    “I didn’t expect this place to become so… full, so quickly,” Zena admitted, looking around with an air of nervousness. “I—I haven’t talked to so many new people in… in ages, really. Lifetimes. But—I’m quite happy here, now.” She glanced at Owen, but then flinched when their eyes met. She turned her attention back to the others.

    Zena, Owen thought to himself, frowning. I guess me being the Grass Guardian scares her a little. Her muscles are so tense every time she talks to me. Isn’t that how serpents react when they feel threatened? Owen hesitated, thinking for a bit longer. That wasn’t it. If anything, she was closer to him than she was to anyone else here!

    She probably just likes you, Owen, Star said.

    Likes… me?

    Well, duh. Pretty obvious after you met her and you guys talked for a while.


    “We’ll help you take it slow, dear,” Amia said to Zena. “Is there somebody in particular that you enjoy talking to?”

    Zena gulped. She stared at the ground and nodded. Owen smiled slightly, feeling slightly reassured. That had to have been him. Maybe she was just intimidated now that his training was showing results. He wasn’t scary! After all, she was still many times his size. Along with that, he wasn’t going to deny that—aside from when the air was squeezed out of him—it felt good to be wrapped up in her embrace.

    That was a weird thought, Owen said. Wonder where that came from. He glanced nervously at Zena. He shouldn’t be getting feelings like that so suddenly. They only knew each other for a little while, relatively speaking. Zena just needed a friend. Lost in thought, Owen started fiddling with his claws.

    “Well, talk to them, then!” Amia said. “It’s great to have a close friend.”

    Zena nodded silently

    Owen found himself nodding, too. “Hey, you know, Zena,” Owen said, quickly trying to think of something that she might enjoy, “if you want, you can train with me!”

    “Train?” Zena perked up. “Like, meditate together?”

    “No, we can spar!” Owen said.

    “Oh.” Zena shrank slightly. “You certainly like to fight, don’t you?”

    “Just a little,” Owen said, shrinking in return. Wrong move. “I mean, I trained all the time to become a Heart, so I guess maybe that’s where I get it from? Fighting’s in my blood. But, uh—let’s do something else!”

    “Yeah,” Demitri nodded. “I think Rhys raised us that way, too, huh? As long as we meditated, we got to fight as much as we wanted! Just like eating vegetables. But for your head? Kinda cool, having him as a dad and a teacher at the same time.”

    “I think we can say that,” Gahi said. “Yeah, I remember training with you guys fer as long as I can remember. You guys could never get me, though, ‘cause I was always flying way outta yer range! Hah!”

    Demitri, Mispy, and Owen all laughed, but Owen caught on that the others were laughing a bit less, or differently. The jovial atmosphere bled away. Willow was laughing obliviously; Valle and ADAM didn’t seem like the sort to ever laugh; Rhys and Amia chuckled with strained force; Anam tittered nervously; Zena didn’t make a sound and looked at the Charmeleon with concern. Owen tilted his head back at Zena, wondering what was wrong.

    This made Owen think back—did they say something wrong? Something in that last sentence felt wrong. Did Gahi make an insensitive joke? Perhaps they just didn’t understand the joys of fighting, getting the blood pumping. They were a lot more peaceful, after all. The thrill of the chase, especially when Gahi flew around and they had to catch him on foot. Owen was never able to catch Gahi when he—

    No. Wait.

    Flying?

    “Gahi, didn’t you just evolve?”

    “Eh?” Gahi said. “Well, yeah, but…” He twitched his head in thought. “Yeah… but… I always… flew off ter…”

    Gahi fell into silence, his big eyes staring at nothing. Demitri and Mispy glanced at each other uneasily. Owen looked at Amia and Alex. They both averted their eyes. He then stared at Anam, who jumped and gained an interest in the ground. Then, Owen’s eyes went to James, but he was already analyzing a mushroom on the ceiling.

    A slow silence filled the air. Nobody knew what to say next—and all Owen wanted was for someone to say something. Anything! But, nobody did. Even the new Guardians, who knew nothing about their situation, sensed that something was deeply wrong.

    Owen mumbled, “Flying…”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 14 - Too Late
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 14 – Too Late

    Owen had barely slept last night—nobody had answered his questions when he asked. They had said, what are you talking about? Maybe it was a lapse in memory. Sometimes evolution can change the mind slightly. Gahi is just confused. He’ll sort it out. Don’t worry, Owen. You evolved, too. Maybe you need to settle a bit?

    But Owen knew that hadn’t been some trick of the mind. It felt too… real to be a trick. But then—how could he know? If his mind thought it was real, but it wasn’t… he wouldn’t know. But then, why did he have that thought? Gahi did fly before. He was fast

    Days passed while Star went searching for more information about the Guardians. That left them with time to decompress. Willow had made herself a little mushroom village in her abode, where she happily conversed with her screaming, playful spirits. ADAM had spent his time obsessively polishing every corner of his abode until it was a smooth cube inside. Afterward, he had dedicated his time to “defragmenting,” whatever that meant. Valle… did his thing in the town square.

    The new normal was settling in. Every day, Anam would leave with Nevren to manage the Association. Rhys would leave with his students to take a mission or two after their usual meditation.

    “I’m not crazy. Not crazy. Not…” Owen shook his head. “I know it happened. I—I can’t just make that up, can I?”

    “I’m sure you can’t, Owen,” Zena said. “But you have to admit, it’s a little strange, don’t you think?”

    She was coiled up in the corner of her room, staring at a set of little marbles on the ground. Rhys had a bag of them in his room, and Owen knew the rules to a game they could play. He flicked one of two large marbles into the pile, knocking two out with precision. Zena, opposite to Owen, clumsily rolled her marble along her pink ribbon. It fell a few times, but a gentle, Mystic force kept it from hitting the ground.

    “Mom’s not telling me a thing. I tried pressing Dad, but he got so flustered that he exploded and hid in Mom’s Fire Realm or whatever.” He snorted and eyed the marble floating above Zena’s ribbon-eyebrow. “Is that thing you’re doing the same force you use to fly?”

    “Hm? Oh, yes. It is.” Zena fired the marble into the circle, freeing four from the perimeter in one shot.

    “Good one,” Owen said. The four marbles floated to Zena’s side. “But, yeah. That’s pretty cool. Maybe if I…” Owen focused on his marble. It wobbled in his claws, floating above his hand. It fell right after. “That’s weird.”

    “It is,” Zena said. “I think it’s the same force that keeps some Pokémon afloat. Mm, Castform, Claydol, off the top of my head…”

    “Levitation powers?” Owen hummed in thought. “Yeah, I didn’t think about it that way.”

    “Hmph. Star said it was ignoring gravity, but that doesn’t explain it all. We also choose which direction we want to float.”

    “Ignoring gravity,” Owen repeated. He stared at the remaining marbles in the circle. There were just ten. But he saw a good angle, and he rolled the orb in. With one flick, the marble bounced against six of the smaller ones, pushing them all out.

    “How did you do that?” Zena said.

    “Do what?” Owen asked, picking up the six that fell out of the ring. “It’s just a bunch of spheres. It’s easy to predict which way they’ll all go.”

    “Yes, but,” she said, staring curiously “you predicted all of that?”

    “Well, the last one was a little luck,” Owen admitted. “Your turn.”

    Zena counted her marbles, then Owen’s. “I can’t win.”

    “Huh?” Owen looked at his marbles, then at Zena’s. “Oh. You’re right. Even if you got ‘em all, I’d be two ahead…” He rubbed the back of his head, gripping his horn. “H-ha, sorry. Maybe I should’ve gone easier.”

    Zena flushed. “You were going easy?”

    “No!” Owen said quickly. “I was just—I mean—”

    “Don’t go easy,” Zena growled.

    “Okay.” Owen lowered his head. “Well—why don’t you pick the next game?”

    “Hmm…” Zena scanned the marbles. Owen helped to gather them into the small sack Rhys kept them in. She then eyed Owen. “I think I’m going to meditate. Would you care to join me?”

    “Oh, sure. Um, can I meditate while reading something?”

    Zena blinked. “I do not believe that is how meditation works.”

    “Well, I haven’t been able to read for a while.” Owen bumped the claws from each hand together. “I feel like my mind’s getting rusty.”

    “Well, what do you read?” Zena asked.

    “Books,” Owen said. “I usually like nonfiction. Or comics. Actually, I think I kinda like to read books in general…”

    “Books,” Zena repeated. “You’ve said that word before. But I’m not sure what they are.”

    “Uhh—remember those weird, rectangle things in Anam’s office?”

    “You mean the one that was encrusted with his… mucus?”

    “Please don’t call it that.” Owen winced, nodding. “Those, yeah. Well, you can actually open them on one side. It’s filled with really, really thin sheets, called paper. And the paper has words on them. You can spend days reading one book, depending on how thick it is, and how small the letters are.”

    “Goodness, that sounds like incredibly detailed craft. It must be expensive.”

    “Not really.” Owen replied. “We’ve got these things that can print them really easily. Nevren invented them with the help of some of the other Pokémon. You can make a bunch of copies of the same book really quickly—you could send it all across Kilo!”

    “Kilo,” Zena repeated, nodding. “The world, right?”

    “Yeah. Wait, back then, you didn’t even have a name for the world?”

    “No, we did,” Zena said. “But I don’t think it was Kilo. In fact, I don’t think Kilo Mountain was called that, either.”

    “Oh. What was it called before?”

    Zena paused, looking down. “I can’t remember. Perhaps I haven’t used it in so long, I forgot. Q… Qu… Hm. I’m not sure.” She sighed. “It’s not important. Names change all the time.”

    Owen nodded. “Well, how about we get something to read, huh?”

    He headed back to his home and slipped to his room, and then into a little alcove in the back where he kept his books. He had to buy special editions of them, printed on Rawst paper. “If we ever get you any books, Zena, I think we’ll need to find some books made of Passho paper.”

    “Passho paper? Is that not a berry?”

    “Yeah. It protects against water damage, so you can even read it underwater!”

    “I’ve never heard of making something waterproof before,” Zena said. “Let me guess. This is another one of those Dungeon items, or perhaps one of those odd blessings by Anam?”

    “Yeah. Blessed berries and seeds and scarves really enhance their power. I heard that one blessed Chesto Berry can let you pull an all nighter easily!” Owen pulled out a book that was bigger than his head. “Here! Let’s read this one together.”

    Zena blinked, rising a few inches higher from her leisurely coil. “I’m reading with you?”

    “I mean, this might be interesting to read, don’t you think?” He showed her the cover: Scarves and Seeds: Basic and Obscure Dungeon Equipment, Third Edition.

    Zena looked tired just hearing the title.

    “Here, let’s go to the Scarves section, huh?” Owen said enthusiastically, walking to his bed. His flame was bright, lighting up Zena’s eyes. She followed. He opened the book to the middle and started pointing and reading out a few of the standard Scarves, all of their effects, where they were found, and even their rarity when found in the wild.

    Somehow, Zena became interested, coiling near Owen to read with him. The pages turned slower and slower; by the time they were reading about Pecha Scarves, Owen had paused for so long that Zena spent a good amount of time simply re-reading.

    “Owen?” Zena asked, nudging his shoulder with one of her brows.

    “Zena, am I crazy?”

    Zena was quiet for a few seconds too long. “I certainly don’t think so,” she said. “Owen, it was just a lapse in memory, was it not? Gahi just evolved. It’s simply not possible for him to have flown around before, and the evolution has everyone slightly confused.”

    “It feels so real, though,” Owen said. “I… I don’t get it. I know he—”

    “Owen,” Zena said softly, “don’t get so worked up over it. Okay?”

    The Charmeleon hesitated, but then turned the page. “Okay,” he relented. “Thanks. I guess I’m just getting worked up over nothing. Lapse of memory from evolving. That makes sense. I guess the brain changes a little when you evolve, so maybe that’s why.”

    Zena nodded. And so, they resumed their reading.

    “So, I’m not crazy?”

    “No, Owen. You’re just fine.”

    <><><>​

    “This one here is the Spire of Trials,” Star said. “Fighting Guardian Manny lives here—he’s pretty cool. We go way back. I’d go there, definitely.” She pointed at the map they had brought in to Hot Spot’s main square. The Spire of Trials was that odd, narrow triangle on the map to the east, just below Nightshade Forest. “Hmm, I guess the Sunshine Highlands is also a good one, that’s the Flying Guardian, Cara.” She pointed to the far west, where white hills dominated the landscape. “Uhh… Oh! And why don’t we also try Forrest, the Ground Guardian in the Endless Expanse?” She headed southwest, to an odd, gray-colored portion of the map that looked like a place the artist forgot to finish.

    The group agreed and started shuffling around to divide up their numbers. With three new Guardians, they could have a full team for everyone and then some. After the fiasco that was Alex’s fighting abilities, he quietly retired to be replaced by someone else.

    “I shall not go,” said Valle.

    “Let me guess,” Star said, crossing her arms. “This place is your new mountain, and you’re gonna keep watch of any abnormal movements here instead? One with the stone?”

    “Yes.”

    Star sighed, rubbing her paws between her eyes. “Okay, okay. So, who else is going, then? We’ve got Anam, James, Zena and… ADAM, yeah, that’s pretty balanced… that seems like a pretty solid group, right?”

    Zena glanced at Owen again, but didn’t protest.

    “And then there’s Rhys, and his three students… Okay, group two.”

    “Wait, hang on,” Owen immediately protested. “Why can’t the whole Team Alloy go together this time, huh? We’re all evolved! That’s gotta be strong enough, right?”

    “Owen, that’s not even close to strong enough on your own.” Star motioned to Rhys, who was avoiding their eyes.

    “I understand your desire to work as your proper Heart quartet,” Rhys said. “However, I can’t in good conscience send you four out alone. I must accompany them.”

    “But… but I’m never allowed to just go on a mission with them.” Owen’s tail dimmed. “Why not? Is it really that unsafe for me to just go out for a little while?”

    Rhys nodded firmly. “The Hunters could take you at a single unlucky moment. We can’t afford for a Guardian to be alone without any elites keeping them safe.”

    Owen wanted to protest. But he didn’t find an opening; compared to the Elite Hearts, he was just backup.

    “Sorry, Owen. When you’re ready, but not now.” Star then turned to look at the rest of the group. “Who’s left? Willow, Owen, and Amia—oh, hey, Alex, you can come with us again! …Owen?”

    “H-huh?” Owen straightened his spine.

    “Owen, are you… okay?”

    “Y-yeah,” Owen replied weakly.

    The group shuffled uncomfortably. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were a bit unfocused, too. It had been quite a few days since their odd lapse of memory, but it obviously lingered in all of Team Alloy’s heads. Everyone knew it, but most didn’t want to acknowledge it.

    “Hey… don’t sweat it, alright?” Star said softly. “It’ll be okay. How about we just get to fighting, huh? Fighting is always fun! Right?”

    This lifted their spirits slightly. “Y-yeah, I guess so.” Demitri smiled. “Yeah… um—which one do you think would be the best fight? Of those three?”

    “Well, Forrest will probably give you a lot of obstacles to go through. And I’m pretty sure Manny will be the same. Cara’s more of a run-and-hide ‘mon, so… maybe Anam should do that one, since he’s the most outwardly friendly of us, y’know? And isn’t on fire.” She nodded at Amia.

    “Oh, okay,” Anam said. “So, we’ll handle Cara. What about Forrest?”

    “Ground, right?” Gahi said. “I can avoid all those attacks now that I’m flying. Levitate’s a pretty nifty move fer all those techniques. I say we do that one.”

    “But Rhys is weak to Ground,” Demitri said. The Fraxure worriedly glanced at his teacher.

    “I will survive,” the Lucario said.

    “Guess that leaves us with Manny,” Amia sighed. “I’m not much of a fighter, but… I will try.”

    “Excuse me?” Owen mumbled, recalling the time she melted the ground for Zena’s new lake.

    “And I will, too!” Willow said, hopping onto Owen’s head. “You! Carry me when we go. Understood? You are my servant for the day.”

    “E-excuse me?” Owen said again.

    “Now, Willow, at least ask permission,” Amia said.

    Willow growled. “You don’t mind if you are my riding-Pokémon, do you, Charmeleon?”

    “I—I guess I will,” Owen said, looking away.

    “Cool.” Star clapped her paws in a soundless plap. “Then let’s split up. If you guys run into any trouble, use those communicators like before. It might be useful!”

    “Of course,” Amia said, looking around. “Owen! Let’s go. Willow, won’t you lead Owen with us to Kilo Village?”

    “Of course! Servant, you will move!”

    “Okay…”

    Amia giggled. “Oh, be a good sport, Owen. I’m sure Willow is just playing.”

    “I sure hope so.” Owen looked up in an attempt to see the Joltik. He felt her balanced on the top of his horn.

    “See you guys!” Demitri waved a tiny arm at the other teams.

    “Be careful!” Anam called back. They all vanished, set to rescue the three Guardians.

    <><><>​

    The rocks of Sunshine Highlands glimmered like cut diamonds. There was no escape from the sunlight here, and the further along the highlands they went, the rockier it became. Everything was either white or prismatic; turning to the left risked seeing a rapid rainbow of colors, and turning to the right risked a whiteness that would rival the sun.

    “I hope she’s okay,” Anam said, looking around through squinted eyes. “Cara, right? The Flying Guardian…”

    “I guess that means she’s got quite the… hrm.” James said. “Well, perhaps her tendencies will be to flee rather than to battle.”

    “Yeah,” Anam said. “But I’ll take the lead, if that’s how it’s gonna be.” He squinted, holding his slimy arm over his eyes. “It’s so bright!”

    “Indeed,” James replied. “Part of the hazard here is how the rocks reflect the sunlight. We should have come here later in the day.”

    Eventually, Anam had to cover his eyes completely. “I can’t see…”

    “It’s… quite difficult, yes,” Zena admitted. She’d been slithering blind for quite a while, and had a splotch of slime on her neck and face from bumping into Anam so much. James kept his head down, using his natural hood to protect against most of the sunlight.

    “We must advance,” ADAM said. “My light sensors have been shut down due to overload. However, my other senses indicate that there is a Mystic aura further ahead, and is currently hiding. Would you like to continue? Options: Yes, cancel.”

    “Yes,” Anam said. “I guess… I guess we should keep going. How much longer?”

    “We are approximately 98% to the hiding spot.”

    “Oh, that’s close!” Anam said. “So, we should be finished soon?”

    “We are approximately 98% to the hiding spot.”

    “Um… yeah, so…”

    “S-stop right there!” a shaky voice called out.

    Anam stopped and tried to look ahead. He saw a flash of something flying toward them. Zena narrowly dodged the blast, but the strong gusts of wind left small cuts on her back. “Ah—ngh—that’s not very friendly.”

    Anam squinted and saw a bird flying high in the—no, that wasn’t a bird. It had wings, yes, but… it also had arms. And—something about the wings didn’t quite fit, either. What was wrong with…

    Anam saw flashes of brown when the light didn’t fight against him, and he realized that this fuzzy Pokémon was a Lopunny, its ears transformed into sky-blue, feathery wings. She flew through the air with an agility that Anam could only dream of. She was also extraordinarily large—perhaps twice the size of a normal Lopunny.

    “There! That’s definitely the Flying Guardian!” Anam pointed.

    “Wh-what do you want with me?!” Cara yelled back. “I don’t want to fight! Please, leave me alone!”

    “We aren’t here to fight!”

    “How can I know that?! You already came here once before! You—your kind—!”

    “I have no idea what you’re talking about!” Anam said.

    “Cara! Whoever came here before, we aren’t them!” James outstretched his wings. “This is our first time here! Look!” He vanished into the ground in a black fog, and then reappeared. “Anam is the Ghost Guardian, and I am his spirit, yes? Did Star not tell you about us?”

    Cara stopped her flying, but it was still too hard to see. “Wh-what do you mean?” She stopped flying away, and instead looked down at them. The way the sun was positioned, she was directly in front of it. “The Ghost Guardian, yes, I… I think Star mentioned you before. Yes. O-oh, I’m sorry. Hold on.”

    The lights of the crystalline field dimmed enough for them to see. They still sparkled white, but it wasn’t blinding. Was she somehow controlling the intensity of the light?

    Zena sighed. “Thank goodness.”

    “Yeah! I could barely open my eyes!” Anam said. “That’s not fair, you know, fighting your opponents when they can’t even see!”

    “My visual sensors were completely shut down,” ADAM said.

    Cara beat her wings-ears a few more times. “I’m—I’m so sorry,” she said, slowly descending. “I didn’t mean—”

    Anam suddenly went blind to a white flash of light. An instant later, the boom of thunder deafened him, leaving nothing but a loud ringing in his ears. Zena and the others shut their eyes again. ADAM blared an alert signal, but nobody heard it. The ringing faded. Anam tried to open his eyes, but everything hurt when he did, and he shut it again. Something heavy thumped dully a few feet ahead of him. He smelled something burning.

    Anam felt James grab his arm and tug him back; he fell down and heard another thunderous explosion. If he wasn’t so slimy, his body might have caught on fire. Anam knew not to open his eyes for a while, but when he finally did, through his blurry vision, he saw something black a few paces ahead. There was something glowing in this blackness. A pale, whitish light. It reminded him of the clouds that the bird Pokémon flew above.

    Heavy paws walked toward the black thing and the glowing orb. A tiny, gray creature floated toward it next, wrapping it in some sort of cloth. The light vanished. A forceful, invisible blast blew the blackness away like dust. And finally, Anam’s vision—as well as the others’—returned. Standing before them was Espurr Rim—and some… other creature.

    Long, black fur along its head, chest, and rear; short, blue fur everywhere else. Bits of yellow in the ears and behind its forelegs, and a four-pointed star at the end of its black tail. But there was something different, too, from how Anam was familiar with the Luxray species. It was bulkier, with intense, sharp eyes and a slightly more elongated muzzle. Its fur stood even more on-end than usual, constantly sparkling with electricity, more like a Jolteon’s fur style. Every so often, they saw black flashes—some kind of dark light, if he had to describe it—accompany this electricity. Its tail was long, and whip-like, like a Raichu.

    Anam couldn’t move. He just realized what had happened. That Luxray was the one who attacked—and the Flying Guardian, Cara, was—

    Rim vanished with the strange Luxray, taking the Flying Orb with her.

    <><><>​

    The Endless Expanse was named as such because, upon entering the field, it was hard to determine where the horizon was. It was a great flatland that had a perpetual, thin layer of water over a field of salt. The water perfectly reflected the sky, blending into the horizon an eternity ahead of them. Every step that Rhys, Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi took into this flatland sent small ripples ahead of them, disturbing the salt on the ground.

    Gahi’s wings beat rapidly, making the most, but smallest, ripples. Demitri walked beside Mispy, and their steps, with Rhys’, made the most impact. There was no Dungeon here. Instead, the challenge of finding the Ground Guardian came from actually locating him in the completely uniform mirror. It was too large for Mispy to detect a Mystic aura for the whole area, and the same went for Rhys.

    Gahi flew ahead multiple times to get a better visual of the fields for any abnormalities. Each time, he returned with no news, and they advanced forward to continue their scan. Around noon, Mispy started to complain about food, and Rhys sighed and dug through his bag for their rations. Rhys winced when he realized that he also had brought some of the food he planned to use for later.

    “GROSS!” Demitri shouted. “What is that?!”

    “It’s—it’s leftovers,” Rhys said, holding out what appeared to be a purple lump of… something. “I wasn’t going to throw it away. That would be wasteful.”

    “I think it’s moving!” Demitri said.

    Mispy glared as if the purple food had insulted her.

    “I didn’t intend for it to be for you,” Rhys said, holding the grimy-looking food in his paws. “This will be my meal, then. It’s not as bad as you make it out to be. You may have these instead,” he said, offering Mispy two large apples. Demitri and Gahi took one each, but they stared at Rhys. “What?”

    “You’re gonna eat that?” Demitri said.

    “Of course,” Rhys said. He then opened his mouth and—to their horror—he downed the purple lump in one gulp. They watched the lump descend into his chest. He cleared his throat. “It’s not very difficult if you know the proper way to eat it.”

    “I thought you didn’t need to eat,” Demitri said.

    “If I’m performing some strenuous effort, I do,” Rhys said, looking ahead. “These past few days have been taxing, particularly after you decided to take on that high-ranking mission into the Southern Abyssal Forest.”

    “Bah, scariest thing about that place is the rumors, nothing else,” Gahi said. “Okay, I’m gonna fly ahead and scan fer more weirdness, see if we can spot the Guardian, eh?” He flew ahead, having finished his apple.

    Mispy finished her two by the time Demitri had finished half of his. She wrapped a few vines around his body and pulled him onto her back, where she happily carried him across the salt flats.

    Gahi flew back prematurely, and his zigzag in the air suggested he actually found something.

    “Let’s hurry,” Rhys said.

    Gahi descended to their level. Once they all caught up, Rhys stopped, eyes wide.

    There were claw marks in the ground that Gahi flew above. The ground was filled with huge fissures from some Pokémon’s attack. There was also a pit left behind in the ground where the Guardian of the Ground Orb likely once was. Some of the pits were still filling, slowly, with water, suggesting that the clash was recent. But for a battle with a Guardian, the struggle didn’t seem to be very intense, all things considered. Even their clash with Valle, while underwhelming on a relative scale, left quite a bit of damage.

    “What is all this…” Demitri said, looking at the ground. The Fraxure couldn’t help but admire his reflection, picking at a smudge on his left tusk.

    “Good thing I can fly,” Gahi muttered, looking at his reflection.

    “I don’t… sense anything,” Mispy said. The Bayleef had her eyes closed, worriedly scanning for any sort of Mystic aura. If the clash was here, surely the Ground Guardian would be here, too.

    “But it looks like something just got here. There,” Demitri said, pointing at a particularly huge gash in the ground where water was still pouring inside. It was deep, but the bottom was clearly visible and the water level was slowly rising.

    They saw something lying in the flat ahead. “What’s that?” Mispy said.

    “Let’s look,” Rhys said, running forward. Gahi was the only one able to keep up.

    It seemed to be a small tree lying on the ground, cut near the base of the trunk. “What’s a tree doing here?” Gahi asked. “There ain’t a tree er a plant here fer… I mean, where’d it even come from?”

    “This is a Torterra’s tree,” Rhys said gravely. “It grows on their back, Gahi. But for it to be severed like this…”

    The water was covering most of it, but he saw heavy footsteps and multiple, converging imprints of other, attacking Pokémon. Rhys walked along and followed the path. He saw a particularly large pit in the ground—and at the bottom, he saw the victim. “Ngh.” Rhys squeezed his paws, forming little flashes of cyan aura. “We’re too late.”

    Gahi, Demitri, and Mispy followed Rhys. “What d’you mean?” Demitri asked.

    The current of the water and swirling salt obscured the corpse at the bottom of the pit. Demitri flinched once he realized what he was looking at, covering his mouth in shock. Gahi’s wings fluttered slower, looking for something to do with his legs. Anything but stare at something so morbid. Mispy frowned, pensive, wondering if he died quickly, or if…

    Rhys fired a few weak Aura Spheres at the ground; salt and sand burst and shifted into the flooded pit, burying the bottom completely. Rhys closed his eyes and lowered his head for a few seconds, waiting for the body to be buried completely.

    Then, he said, “It seems that the Hunters have arrived here shortly before we did. Unfortunately, they extracted the Ground Orb.”

    “Forrest…” Mispy couldn’t tear her eyes away from the pit. On her back, Demitri trembled, suppressing a few sniffles.

    “We… we could’ve saved him,” Demitri said. “If we just got to him a day earlier…”

    “A day earlier,” Rhys repeated. “I have my doubts. The Hunters… Could they have been tracking our movements? After we rescued the first three, could they be trying to predict our trajectories, just based on which Waypoints we take?”

    But Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were too dejected—and perhaps, too inexperienced—to strategize in the middle of Forrest’s unmarked grave. Without really suggesting it outright, they all stood there in a respectful silence until the pit completely filled with salt and water.

    “I’m sorry for your suffering,” Rhys said to the ground, head bowed in respect. Then, after another handful of silent breaths, he addressed Team Alloy. “There’s nothing we can do here. Let’s return home and report to the others.”

    “Should we use our Communicator?” Demitri asked.

    “No,” Rhys said. “We shouldn’t lower anybody’s morale. We’re already going as fast as we can; they won’t be able to go any faster than they already are.”

    “Okay,” Demitri said. “If that’s the case, let’s just… I mean, yeah. Let’s go back.”

    They didn’t want to admit it, but Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were all still itching for a battle. But in the solemn atmosphere of this lifeless salt flat, there was nothing to fight anyway.

    Rhys dug through his bag, searching for their Badge. He dug a bit more. And then more.

    “Rhys?” Gahi said.

    Rhys looked up. “Where are our Badges?”

    <><><>​

    “Oooh… this place is a bit creepy,” Amia said, hugging herself. There was very little light in this mountain’s cave; only by her flames and Owen’s tail could they see the path. The spire itself wasn’t much to look at from outside. It merely appeared to be a giant spike in the ground, perfectly conical with an entrance on the southern side. Internally, it was a great, winding spiral of polished rock.

    “I certainly didn’t expect the Spire of Trials to be some sort of literal, ascending spiral inside,” Alex said. “Just where are we going?”

    “From the outside it looked pretty big. Just a giant spike sticking out of the ground. So maybe we’re heading near the top?” Owen said.

    “That’s likely it,” Alex agreed.

    “Well, I don’t like it!” Willow said, stomping on Owen’s head with her tiny feet. “Owen! You’re going to turn around immediately!”

    “I—I can’t just turn around! We’re already inside!”

    “Then make it prettier! I need fresh air for my fur! And good smells, too! And light! Make it brighter!”

    “Mom, help!”

    “Willow, dear, why don’t I help make it brighter with my fire?” Amia offered. “I usually do blue light, but would you prefer something like green, or red?”

    “Ooo! Make it green!” Willow said, hopping on Owen. “Green reminds me of the fields!”

    “Green it is.” Amia smiled and created a small fire bubble in front of them to light the way. This, it seemed, pleased Willow enough to keep her from complaining the rest of the way.

    They walked quickly, but slow enough that they didn’t trip on anything. By the time they were a quarter of the way up the spire—going in a sort of inward spiral—they suddenly turned to the right and saw a large chamber. Echoes of explosions and shouts and roars radiated from the opposite side. Owen had to concentrate to get a better sense for what the sounds were—it was… something else. Who was that? Those roars didn’t sound normal. They were intense. Too intense for a normal Pokémon.

    The chamber was at least a hundred of Owen’s Charmeleon paces across. The walls looked like they had been buffered a thousand times over many centuries to get that perfect smoothness, and the same could be said for the floor. But there were imperfections. Cracks and faults, like battling had taken place there before. Still, the arena was empty. They could easily advance. The team of four stepped into the chamber and made it a quarter of the way across.

    “Ha HAAA!”

    After being so quiet to hear the others, the shout made Owen double over in panic, clutching his chest. Alex made the exact same gesture as Owen. Was it possible to die of shock? Perhaps not as a Mystic.

    A spirit rose from the rocks in the center of the arena-like chamber. The Feraligatr pumped his fists in the air. His scaly arms were thicker than Owen’s body, and the same could be said for the bulk of just about every other part of him.

    “I am the First Guardian Spirit, Feraligatr Azu!” he shouted. “I am one of three that you must defeat in order to see the Fighting Guardian, the greatest and strongest fighter of the Dungeon!”

    His voice boomed through the air—Owen wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear him for much longer.

    “You, a team of four!” said the Fighting Guardian Spirit. “What a perfect number! There are three of us in all, three Guardian Spirits! As the first… you are to give to me your weakest fighter, and we shall battle! If you lose… then that will be it! And you must turn away!”

    “W-weakest?” Alex said.

    “Wait,” Owen said, tilting his head, “doesn’t that mean you’re the weakest of the three Fighting Spirits?”

    “I—eh—” For a fraction of a second, his enthusiasm wavered. “No! I am the most powerful spirit that Manny can summon solid. I am at the perfect strength level.”

    Owen crossed his arms, frowning. “So there are even stronger spirits inside Manny? You’re even weaker than what you said the first time.”

    With even more confidence and volume than before, Azu grinned and bellowed, “I am the third in line of the strongest spirits Guardian Manny can summon! I am truly formidable! And so—you shall NOT get to the higher levels without beating me!”

    “B-but I’m not that good of a f-fighter, you see…” Alex admitted. “I—I wouldn’t want to…”

    “We don’t want to fight Manny. We want to talk to him!” Amia said. “And… what’s that fighting I hear from the rooms above us? It’s coming from ahead.”

    “Manny is dealing with a number of guests at the moment. To be another, you must get past me!”

    “So, they all got past you, too?” Owen asked. “How many times did you already get beaten?”

    “My little Charmeleon!” Azu thumped his tail on the ground with a laugh. A few rocks flew in the air, and a few cracks formed on the ground with each scaly thud. “You say such INCREDIBLE things!”

    “I—I think what Owen means,” Amia said, “is… if we don’t want to fight Manny, that means we’ll only be doing three battles. So why don’t we start with the second weakest in our group? And then the second strongest, and then the strongest.”

    “Ha! Then very well. Which of you is the second weakest?”

    “I think that’s Willow,” Owen said without thinking.

    Willow exploded with electricity atop his head, screeching and biting his horn. She tore off a few scales in the process.

    “Y-yow! Ow! No, NO, bad Joltik—” Owen tried to grab her, but she was too fast. She hopped off of him and landed on the ground, skittering around the rocks.

    “You’re the weakest! You, you!” Willow screeched and hissed like a feral Glameow. “You have a clever mind but in raw power, you’re NOTHING to me!”

    “But Willow, you’re smaller than my feet!”

    Willow sent another volley of thunderbolts at Owen. The Charmeleon hopped in some sort of frantic dance, going from foot to foot on the cold, polished floor. Amia, sighing, rummaged through their bag for an Oran Berry. Willow prepared a great, shining ball of lunar energy above her head—but Owen quickly said, “O-okay, okay! I’ll—I’ll fight first! I’ll fight!”

    The Fairy Guardian let the charging Moonblast dissipate. “That’s better.”

    Owen sighed. “Why aren’t you bigger, anyway?” he asked. “Can’t you evolve?”

    “I look cuter as a Joltik,” Willow said, raising her tiny body upward. “And going forward and backward in evolution is easy for a Mystic. It’s not in one direction with a little divine power!”

    “O-oh, okay.”

    “Stall no longer, challengers!” the Feraligatr said, thumping his tail one last time. “Approach me, witty Charmeleon! I shall show you the superior power of muscle!”

    “Good luck, Owen.” Amia smiled apologetically, giving him an Oran Berry to fight in top form.

    “O-okay,” he said. “I… I’ll do my best!”

    With a puffed-out chest and a blazing, red tail, the Charmeleon was ready. But then, during the walk toward the Fighting-Type Feraligatr, feeling the sheer power that radiated from him—despite his bluster, and despite the silly disposition of this spirit… he knew. He knew when he was standing face-to-belly with the behemoth of a spirit. Seeing every detail of his disturbingly chiseled body, his toughened scales, and his impeccable jawline…

    Owen didn’t stand a chance.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 15 - Reset
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 15 – Reset

    “Where in the world is…?” Rhys felt around for his Badge, but it was missing.

    “Rhys? What’s taking so long?” Demitri asked. He stopped walking; his natural density made his feet sink slightly into the salt, which floated like clouds in the crystal-clear water. Distracted, he wiggled his claws, letting some of that salt dance around his toes.

    “I am certain I brought my Badge with us,” Rhys said, opening his bag further. “I always keep it right in the inner front pouch, the sole item. I felt for it on the way out! In fact, it flashed upon us leaving the Dungeon and entering the main salt flats.”

    Mispy tilted her head, staring at her reflection in the water. Not a bad look. It was a bit distorted from the ripples that Demitri made, and the ones from Gahi’s wingbeats. She brought a vine out and grabbed Gahi, holding him steady; that made it easier to see herself. She couldn’t wait for the time when her little buds would bloom into huge petals. Meganium were so pretty. She had seen one walking through town—she couldn’t believe what the amazing flower her species was able to grow!

    Gahi protested being ‘monhandled, but eventually relented and looked at his reflection, too. He started by inspecting his wings. As a Flygon, they were going to get a lot bigger. Demitri was rubbing his tusks, wondering what it would be like once they became full-fledged axes like his evolution’s.

    “Rhys, you sure you didn’t drop it in the flats?” Demitri finally said, looking up. “The warp pad isn’t too far off. Let’s just walk back. We’ll get home by sundown.”

    “Nrgh. But I know I had it… but yes. Let’s go. We need not waste extra time searching in this expanse. We can have Nevren track its location later.”

    “Right. Okay,” Demitri said. He looked around. “Wow. It’s really nice, though, isn’t it? It’s so… big!”

    Indeed, now that they weren’t in such a rush, they had the opportunity to actually take in their scenery—now that they were turned away from the carnage, it was a reflective surface on all sides. Curiously, Demitri lightly—from his perspective—slammed his fist in the salt, creating a huge ripple in the water. The quake of his punch made Rhys and Mispy stumble. The water’s ripple went out, and out, and out; it brushed against Rhys’ feet, making little disturbances in the waves, and then continued outward. Everyone, even Rhys, took a moment to admire the sight.

    “It is,” Rhys said. “But… it is a bit unnerving. A salt flat of this size.”

    “Aw, it’s pretty!” Demitri said. “I mean, you can see your reflection perfectly in thi—Rhys?”

    The Lucario had abruptly turned around. His paws erupted with aura embers, and he was ready to lash out at any threat. “I believe I found my Badge.”

    There was a strange creature flying a stone’s throw away from them. A Ninjask at the base, in addition to its pointy, serrated-looking legs, it had an additional set of limbs that resembled a Scyther’s scythes.

    “I don’t think Ninjask’re supposed ter be here,” Gahi said. “Heh… weird. Wait. Ain’t their legs s’posed ter look a little different? And only have two of ‘em?”

    “Weird, hm,” Rhys said. “That’s one way to express it, I suppose” Rhys briefly scanned the Pokémon’s aura. He couldn’t quite place it at first, but then— “Demitri. Mispy. Gahi. Stay behind me.”

    “Wha—”

    The Ninjask vanished from view—and reappeared right in front of Rhys an instant later. It moved incredibly quickly—even faster than a normal Ninjask. It shoved its right, serrated limb right into the Lucario’s gut. Rhys grunted, eyes bulging. He jumped away and clutched at the wound, forced to a knee in the water. Crimson splotches faded into the salt. The trio stood in stunned silence—it all happened too fast.

    Gahi reacted first. “Mispy!”

    “Right,” Mispy said. She retreated to heal Rhys’ wounds. The strange Ninjask rushed forward. Gahi spotted this and countered with a deft shift in the air, ramming into the Ninjask to intercept the blow. Gahi heard a grinding noise that vibrated against his exoskeleton, followed by a shallow, sharp pain where he made contact.

    “YOW!” Gahi shouted, flying away to get some distance.

    “Gahi?!” Demitri didn’t know which way to run.

    Some of Gahi’s tiny scales were torn away—the Ninjask had an extremely jagged exoskeleton of some kind.

    “Rough Skin?” Demitri said.

    Rhys grunted, his wound healed. “Be careful!” he wheezed. “That isn’t a normal Pokémon! It’s—a mutant, but…”

    The Ninjask rammed at Demitri, attempting the same attack that it had done to Rhys—but his scales were too tough, and it only resulted in a minor wound. He countered with a powerful chop to the creature’s side, using both his arms and his hefty tusks to deliver the blows. Demitri felt his scales get caught on the Ninjask’s outer shell. He hissed and clutched his hand. It tingled—in fact, it felt like it was starting to spread.

    Demitri recognized this feeling. “I—I think it poisoned me!” he shouted, stumbling back.

    “Poison Point?” Mispy squeaked.

    “Nah, that’s definitely Rough Skin!” Gahi shouted back. He then retched into the water, finally feeling the effects of the poison.

    Mispy ran toward Demitri, readying another Heal Pulse to help him—if only to heal the damage, if she couldn’t get to the poison. But when she tried… something blocked it. The pulse was emitted, but then it faded away, like a dying candle to the wind.

    Rhys closed his eyes and immediately spotted the source. “Rim!”

    The Espurr was glowing with a dark light. Its aura radiated from her center, filling the atmosphere with a weak, ominous tinge—Heal Block. Mispy’s powers were useless.

    The Ninjask zipped toward Demitri again, slashing at his back. The arms tore through his scales with ease, ripping a few right out. He shouted in pain and spun around, but was too slow. It was already chasing down Gahi, who flew higher in the air. The Ninjask was faster and slashed at his tail.

    “Nrgh—!” Gahi spun back and puffed out a plume of foul, blue breath at him. It grazed the Ninjask enough for it to back off and fly down again, freeing Gahi from the pursuit.

    “Rrrgh!” Gahi tried to ram into Rim, but he hit her barrier instead. The pulsing sphere around the Espurr rejected his advance. The impact alone made a loud, ethereal clang, bending one of his wings oddly. The Vibrava was then blasted back at the same speed he’d approached with. He slid across the ground and tumbled into a pile of wet salt.

    His wings twitched; Gahi tried to free himself from the pile. In the meantime, Mispy charged her Solar Beam; Demitri ran toward Rim next, slamming his fist against her barrier. “Bet you can’t handle—Brick Break!” Demitri announced, slamming his claws down hard. The light flashed—flickered—faded… and then returned. “N-no fair!”

    Rim’s eyes glowed a bright purple. A force that seemed to bend the light itself blasted Demitri backward. The Fraxure slammed Gahi back into the pile he’d just escaped from.

    “N-now!” Mispy shouted, firing a concentrated blast of solar energy from around her neck, concentrated forward. Rim turned her head, staring at the light. The beam bent around her barrier—flashing, flickering—but it didn’t fade. When the Solar Beam finally subsided, it left behind a V-shaped carving in the salt behind Rim. Water slowly filled the gashes, but the Espurr herself was completely unharmed. Not even wet. Her wide, yet neutral eyes stared emptily forward, through Mispy.

    “B-but…!” That attack always worked!

    “Leave us, Rim!” Rhys said, though he was currently dueling with the Ninjask, careful to only use indirect attacks against it. In this case, his only effective move was a ball of white, hard light—a Flash Cannon. “You already have the Orb!”

    Rim stared at Rhys and blinked once, slowly. Then, she turned her head toward Mispy. The Bayleef flinched. That one moment of hesitation earned Mispy a Psychic blast; she screamed and skidded across the salt, bouncing over the salt flat like a rock over a river. She hit Demitri and Gahi, who had both clambered out of the pile seconds before. They all grunted, buried once again. The Espurr, floating over the water, went higher, staring at the pile. Her eyes glowed. Psychic energy twisted the salt around them; all three roared in pain. It was like they were being crushed in the palms of a giant.

    “Rim!” Rhys shouted.

    The Ninjask doubled back and flew toward Rim, flying behind her obediently.

    Rhys fired a Flash Cannon directly at her; she turned her head and deflected it with a glance. That was when Rhys realized that, in his current state, he wouldn’t be able to overpower her. He considered going all-out, unleashing his aura in full. But that would only give him a few moments, at the very most, to defeat Rim. It wouldn’t work, and he’d only strain his aura to the point of passing out. And then what? He was already injured. His guard had been down. Careless, careless!

    The Lucario grunted. “Y-you’re becoming quite powerful,” he muttered. “How many Orbs have you claimed, Rim…? How many have you relinquished to Eon?” Rhys hoped that his words would distract her long enough for the trio to recover.

    It didn’t. Rim stared at the pile of salt and blasted again with Psychic. They screamed. Mispy panted. Demitri tried to help them out. Another Psychic—salt flew in the air, mixing with water. Rhys brought up an aura barrier to block some of the water from splashing against him. “Rim—STOP!” he roared, using a vertical Extreme Speed to leap high in the air. Rim blocked him with her barrier; he landed in the salt, feet stuck too deep. “Ngh—” He fired at Rim from below with everything he had. Aura Sphere—Flash Cannon—his two ranged attacks, but neither had any effect. The barrier was just too much.

    “Rim—you can’t keep doing this! If you do, they’ll—”

    Rim blasted them one last time—and then… they stopped screaming. Instead, they all roared—in unison, in anger, in frustration, in madness. The salt blasted away with a great wind; the water rippled, splashed, and rose in tiny droplets. Rhys freed himself from the salt—but then, abruptly, felt a sharp pain in his back. “Ng—!” He lost all feeling in his legs. He fell forward, wheezing. The water around him reddened rapidly.

    The Ninjask flew toward the trio next, but was blown away by the force. Rhys stared in pain. A blinding, white light emanated from all three of them.

    The light of evolution—and then… a flash of black.

    <><><>​

    Owen left an Owen-shaped hole in the wall. He coughed and collapsed on the ground, barely able to stand. This, for quite a while, was his fight with Azu. It was a bit too dark to see the ground. Thankfully, the Feraligatr spirit had a slight glow to him that added to Owen’s fading fire. If this was how strong a summoned spirit was, just how strong was Manny? He was glad that he didn’t have his bag with him. While he couldn’t use Nevren’s Eviolite to his advantage, it also didn’t get in the way while he fought. Instead, he had set it aside near Amia and the others, so the only thing that would break in the fight would be his bones.

    “HAHAH!” Azu boasted. “And before you blame the Type Advantage, little Fire, I’m pure Fighting in this spiritual form! These muscles don’t lie!” He flexed, striking a pose that emphasized his right side. A few loose pebbles blew away from the resultant shockwave of his pose.

    “Ngh… that… that hurt!” Owen said, struggling to remain stable. Azu’s posing was both annoying and distracting. He leaned back and held the rocky wall behind him, glancing at the imprint he left on the wall. The rocks must have been a bit soft. Surely, he would’ve died from something like that normally… or he wasn’t giving his durability enough credit.

    “No pain, no gain!” the Feraligatr said. “Such a wonderful motto! I have no idea where Guardian Manny learned it, let alone Master Yen, but he is surely one of the greatest fighters alive!” He pointed a claw at Owen. “You can’t hope to face him with your puny strength! I can feel it!”

    “Gooo Owen!” Willow said, crackling near Alex’s feet. It made the Magmortar flinch. He quietly inched away while the Joltik leaped high in the air, flashing yellow and white light.

    “Y-you can do it, Owen!” Amia shouted from the entrance to the arena. “But—don’t push yourself!”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?” Owen said. He saw a fist flying toward him—he ducked and rolled. He felt the shockwave of the fist to the wall; a hole was left where Owen’s head’s imprint was. “Are you crazy?! That would’ve hit me right in the—I could die!”

    “What’s death to someone who died?” the Feraligatr laughed. “That’s meaningless to me! Perhaps if I kill you, I’ll see you again in the Fighting Orb!”

    “S-sorry, but I have some things I gotta do here, first!” Owen said.

    “Hah, and don’t we all?” He swept his tail, knocking Owen off of his feet. This was immediately followed by an uppercut. The combination of downward gravity and an upward fist knocked all of the wind from the Charmeleon; he coughed and flew through the air. His back hit the ceiling—and then he crashed down onto the ground. Owen could barely breathe, let alone stand.

    “Hm, so that is the extent of what you’re capable of,” Azu said, stomping toward him. With a light push with his foot, he rolled Owen onto his back. The Charmeleon’s tail was barely alight.

    “Owen!” Amia cried.

    “Don’t you dare hurt him more!” Willow crackled enough to illuminate the whole cave.

    “I won’t,” Azu replied, crossing his muscular arms. “He’s done, anyway.” He faced Amia and the others. He boomed triumphantly, “As per the rules, you can’t advance. Come back when you’re stronger!”

    “B-but we have an important mission to take care of!” Amia said. She held her arms out, pleading. “We—we need Manny to come with us, so he can be safer!”

    “Why would he be safer with people who can’t even defeat me?” he asked. “Your first fighter surrendered before he even entered the ring. And your next fighter…” He looked back at Owen, who was back on his belly, holding himself up a few inches from the ground. “Well, he’s out of his league, too. I wouldn’t exactly call that reliable. You two don’t have very strong fighting auras, either. You’re nothing to Manny.” There was a wave of seriousness over his voice. But it washed away just as quickly. Seconds later, he had a toothy grin. “So begone, and challenge me again when you become stronger! Ha!”

    The Charmeleon stirred. “N-no,” he said. “I’m… I’m not done!” He hacked and wheezed, and then stumbled to his feet. His legs shook like autumn leaves.

    “Oh?” Azu asked. “Hah. Your body is not ready, but your aura is strong! But you cannot win, Grass Guardian. Leave and return later.”

    “I won’t!” He rushed forward and tripped on his broken leg, yelping.

    “Hmph,” Azu said. “You fight like a spirit.” He picked him up by the horn. Owen’s body dangled limply.

    “Ngh… and what’s that supposed to mean?” Owen’s arms twitched—he was trying to punch, but his body simply wouldn’t listen.

    “Spirits don’t have bodies to worry about. They fight with disregard for their wellbeing.” He let go, dropping Owen on the ground, where he managed to stay standing.

    “Guess I like a good fight,” Owen growled, wobbling. He spat an Ember right at the Feraligatr; he blocked it effortlessly with a flick of the wrist. He countered with a powerful blast of his focused, fighting spirit, aimed squarely at Owen’s chest. The losing challenger roared and skidded back, holding the sphere in place. But it wasn’t stable—the launched Focus Blast exploded in Owen’s hands, propelling him into the wall again. Like a ragdoll, Owen hit the ground, eyes blazing.

    Amia cried, “Owen! Stop! Please!”

    “I can do this!” Owen roared back. He was missing a tooth, wobbling back to his feet. Adrenaline pumped through him. He didn’t feel any of the pain anymore. He knew this feeling. So familiar—so exhilarating. He was fighting to the death. He knew this. He’d die if he lost. And he’d never flee. This target would fall—or he would. Why did these thoughts fill him so naturally? It was logical to surrender. Tactically, he was being allowed to leave to return later, to win. But he couldn’t flee. He just couldn’t. He had to fight. He had to win. He had to kill.

    Owen’s vision was reddening. He growled. Molten embers dripped from his mouth, melting the rocks below.

    Amia covered her mouth. “No…”

    “You still challenge me?!” Azu said.

    Owen ran toward him and launched a concentrated jet of fire, turning the whole arena red for half a second. The flames enveloped the Feraligatr, but he punched through it and hit Owen in the stomach. Owen growled and opened his mouth, chomping down on the arm, breaking through the scales.

    “Grah—persistent Pokémon, I’ll give you—THAT!” With his other arm, he punched Owen away. Yet he didn’t let go. His jaw clenched even harder, and he took the arm with him. It dissolved into a flurry of blue aura flames; Feraligatr’s shoulder looked like it was on fire from the missing limb.

    He stared at his erupting shoulder. “Heh… well. Guess y’got me there,” Azu said, shrugging with his remaining arm.

    Owen growled and shambled toward him again. His arms dangled wildly below, but his legs, despite being broken, carried Owen step after clumsy step.

    “Not gonna fool me again!” Azu said, spinning around. His tail slashed at Owen, knocking him over. Owen got up and rushed again. The tail swatted him away. Owen got up and rushed again. And again. And again—he just kept coming. He didn’t stop—his stamina was endless. He’d fight himself to the ground. There was no pain. No fatigue. He didn’t even hear Amia crying for him to stop anymore. His vision was completely red. Running on instinct. There was something ahead of him, Azu, and that was all he knew. The target. It had to fall.

    A final punch from the Feraligatr did him in, and knocked him down completely. Owen’s body, regardless of what he couldn’t feel, was broken.

    “Ngh,” Feraligatr said. “I didn’t mean to be so harsh… but he wouldn’t stop!” he tried to explain to Amia, who was watching Owen intently. “What?” he asked. “Hope you brought Reviver Seeds! He’ll need ‘em!”

    Azu scratched the back of his head, laughing, trying to lighten the mood. His laughing was deterred somewhat by the look in Amia’s eyes. There were tears, and behind those tears, wide eyes of fear. But it wasn’t toward Azu.

    The cave glowed again. This time, the glow was white. Azu turned around. “Eh?”

    The cave was filled with the light of evolution. Owen’s body grew. Wings sprouted—his tail lengthened, his flame an inferno. A horrible roar filled the cave walls.

    A black flash corrupted the light.

    <><><>​

    “Owowow… Owen! What’s wrong with you!”

    “S-sorry!” Owen rushed toward Demitri, helping him up.

    “Hahahahah!” Gahi teased. “Ol’ Scalebag really had it coming to him, eh, Owen?”

    “Gahi…” Mispy growled.

    “Aw, c’mon, Mispy,” Gahi said. “Just playing.”

    “Are you okay?” Owen asked.

    “Y-yeah, I’m fine,” Demitri said, nodding. “I hope I didn’t break one of my tusks…”

    “I’ve got it,” Mispy said, washing him in healing light.

    “Aw, thanks, Mispy.” Demitri said, perking up. “Hey! Why don’t we fight again?”

    Someone chuckled from the sidelines. “Still looking to fight, are we?” Rhys asked. “Your endless energy is encouraging. If only I could say the same for myself.”

    “Ohoho!” A Torkoal beside Rhys chuckled. “At least you can fight, Rhys. I just don’t see myself doing those things.”

    “Aw, Elder, I bet you’d be super strong if you fought!” Owen laughed.

    “Ah, but I don’t know any offensive techniques, Owen! Such a shame, really.” Elder didn’t appear very regretful of this.

    The quartet laughed and Rhys chuckled.

    “Say, how about this,” Gahi said. “Demitri and Mispy can fight as one team, and you and me can fight fer the other.”

    “It’ll be air against ground?” Owen asked.

    “Yeah!” Gahi said, outstretching his wings.

    Owen smirked and mimicked Gahi. They both took to the skies.


    The memory was wiped away.

    <><><>​

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

    “No resting on the fire, Owen.”

    “Wh—huh? I wasn’t!” He rolled away and quickly hid beneath his bed of leaves. Some of them turned black from the fire, but they didn’t burn. He rubbed the back of his head, feeling pain all over. He grumbled and rubbed the orange scales on his arms.

    Rhys peered into the room. “You’re very lucky we were able to fashion your bed with Rawst leaves, or you’d burn through them every night,” Rhys said. He chuckled, but then walked over, patting him on the head. “How are you feeling, Owen? Today was a rough day, wasn’t it?”

    “Today?” Owen asked.

    Memories flashed before him. The Feraligatr. The fighting. That feeling… the sense of dying, yet the thrill. Like he was filling a void in his heart—fulfilling some grand purpose. But what happened after?

    “W-wait!” Owen sprang to his feet. “I—I was fighting!”

    “You were,” Rhys said. “And you lost.”

    Owen’s tail drooped to the ground. “Th-that can’t be…. I… I had him on the ropes! I even tore his little spirit-arm off! I remember!”

    “It wasn’t enough.” Rhys shook his head. “Don’t worry, Owen. Your mother told me everything—you fought very well.”

    “Mom,” Owen said. He sighed, crossing his arms. “You mean… I wasn’t good enough to win, even though I tried my hardest?”

    Rhys hesitated.

    Owen sighed and stood up. Every part of his body felt bruised, but he paced anyway to clear his head. His bed felt a lot larger today, and he felt smaller than ever. He remembered staring up at the Feraligatr—he was barely up to his thighs, wasn’t he? “I just… I bet I could’ve done it if… if I just… maybe if I moved to the left instead of the right, or…” He stopped. His fists shook with frustration, and he stomped on the ground. “I just wish I could finally evolve or something! I’ve been a Charmander forever!”

    Rhys gulped, but then said, “W-well, regardless, Owen… we need to do some planning. You aren’t the only one to fail their mission today.”

    “What do you mean?” Owen asked.

    “We all did,” someone said from the room’s entrance.

    “Gahi!”

    The Trapinch wobbled his way inside, clicking irritably. A Chikorita and Axew followed behind, clearly just as crestfallen, even though Gahi didn’t want to show it.

    Demitri spoke next. “Anam’s team… their Guardian was killed right in front of them—and Rim got the Orb, too! And our team… Rim was there! She already beat that Guardian, and then she beat us up! Really badly! But then I guess after we passed out, Rhys fought her off.”

    “Hmph,” Mispy said. “If we were… just… evolved…”

    The quartet sighed in unison.

    “We’re just late-evolvers,” Owen said. “We’ll—we’ll evolve eventually! I’m sure of it!”

    Rhys turned around. “We’re going to be discussing what happened now. Future plans. Star will be there, too. Would you like to come with us?”

    “Y-yeah,” Owen said. “W-wait! Zena! Is Zena okay?”

    “Zena is just fine. Everybody is okay, aside from the Guardians we tried to rescue,” Rhys said. “Come.”

    The Lucario led them to Hot Spot Square. The Charmander, Chikorita, Axew, and Trapinch followed him out.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 16 - Known Secrets
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 16 – Known Secrets

    “Looks like that’s everyone,” Star said, flicking her tail.

    A few of Amia’s spirits swept away little pebbles that littered the ground of Hot Spot—much to Valle’s irritation—while Amia herself channeled extra Mystic energy into the mushrooms to brighten the brown rocks. The cyan glow they gave off a light that mixed with the jagged edges of the houses, casting shadows on the wall. Owen sighed at the sight; what nostalgia to have a get-together like this. It’s too bad it had to be over such depressing talk.

    “What’s the damage?” Gahi asked, clicking his jaws uncertainly.

    Star sighed, sitting down in mid-air. Her tail curled around her legs. “I want you guys to be very, very calm, okay?” she said. “No sudden movements. Be nice and delicate. Talk quietly. Got it?”

    “Eh?” Gahi said.

    “Just… just promise me, okay?”

    Gahi hesitated, clicking his jaws. He glanced at a few of the others—Willow, in particular, who irritably crackled.

    “Well, why should I be quiet?!” she said.

    “Willow,” Star said slowly. “Please.”

    “W-well, I… I’ll…!” Willow looked at the others, and then at Star again. “Okay…” The crackling slowed down, and the Joltik stood still.

    Star nodded. She closed her eyes. “Anam, if you can…?”

    “Oh, right!” Anam held his arms forward and focused; a little aura flare formed between his hands, and he sent out another spirit. It formed into a winged Lopunny—a solid spirit. She wasn’t very strong, unlike Star, who was still very much see-through. Much easier to summon. But James and the others in Anam’s squad recognized her immediately.

    “Cara?” Zena asked.

    “Shh,” Star said softly.

    Zena flinched, but nodded. Cara was a trembling wreck—shaking, looking to her left and right, and all around her. “Wh-where am I? What is this?”

    “Hey… Cara,” Star said softly. The Mew floated closer, but she stopped when Cara shrank away. “Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay. It’s just me. Star. You know me, right? When you were afraid and confused, I popped right in and brought you someplace safe. Remember that?”

    “I was… I was floating. My body, I… I couldn’t feel my body…”

    “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

    “There were lights everywhere, like I was… I was flowing, I—I didn’t know where to go, what to—”

    “Shh, shh…” Star advanced, placing a paw in Cara’s. “You’re in a place called Hot Spot Cave. It’s underground, and away from any dangerous Pokémon. You can let your guard down.”

    “I—I can? Truly?” Cara looked like she was ready to collapse in front of everyone.

    “Look around,” Star said, waving her arm to the small crowd. “Not a harmful soul here, don’t you think?”

    Cara scanned the cave square. The four unevolved Pokémon. The lovely Goodra that summoned her. Star, the constant presence that she could speak with, should she ever feel afraid. The others seemed fine, too. “Oh, what an adorable Joltik,” Cara said quietly.

    “Adorable?” Willow asked.

    “Yes, you’re quite lovely,” Cara nodded.

    Willow glowed. “W-well, I guess I might be a little cute…!”

    Cara scanned again. “That one, the statue. Quite unnerving, that. Who is…?”

    “I am Valle. I am one with the mountain.”

    “He’s a little weird in the head, but he means well, I think,” Star said. “Actually—hey, Valle, is there anything dangerous in the caves right now? Like, uh, Pokémon that would be trying to hunt us down?”

    “No.”

    “There!” Star said. “See? Valle’s our little security system. He’s like an army of guards! That’s pretty cool, right?”

    “Yes. That is quite… cool, yes.” She flapped her ear-wings a bit. “A tad warm here.”

    “Yeah, Fire Guardian’s home, so, y’know.” Star srugged. “But it’s a bit cooler in some of the houses—anyway, Cara… you know you died, right?”

    “Y-yes… I believe that is it. I was summoned. A spirit. Oh… A spirit…” she sighed, shaking and shivering. But she seemed calm. Perhaps she was in shock.

    Owen watched sympathetically. “Hey, I’m sorry that happened. Um, so… that means Rim got to her before we could, huh? How come she still looks like she has the Orb?”

    “It’s the form she’s most familiar with,” Star explained. “Kinda like Valle, she prefers a body different from the one she was born with. And for what happened… that’s what I wanted to outline to you guys. And I want Cara to tell me everything she remembers about this, first. Cara? What do you remember?”

    Cara grabbed one of her ear-wings and preened the feathers with her paws. “I—I’ve always been a small bit jumpy. Perhaps it is in my nature. But I’m afraid I can’t give much more information than what I’ve told Star, even now. I had been fleeing from strange, mutant Pokémon like them for quite some time. I think the brightness of my abode made it hard for them to strike me, but once I lowered my guard…”

    Anam gasped. “Th-then… then when we made Cara feel safe, they just…!”

    “How did we not sense them?” Zena asked. “We should have sensed their auras!”

    “Rim may have been hiding from afar, waiting for the light to lower to find her,” Rhys said.

    Star nodded. “There wasn’t much we could’ve done with what we knew. I’m sorry that it happened, Cara.” She then addressed the others. “Right now, we’ve got seven Orbs on our side. You, your mom, Zena, Willow, Anam, Valle, and ADAM. And Rim stole the Psychic Orb a while ago. Well, she just got two more. Cara, the Flying Guardian, and Forrest, the Ground Guardian. I wanted Forrest to come along, too, but he said that he’s fine. I think he was ready to give up anyway.”

    “Wait,” Owen said. “So… not Manny? What happened to him?”

    “Guess Rim wasn’t strong enough to handle him yet,” Star said. “Actually, Rim also attacked other areas today, too, but I dunno if Guardians are there or not. It might’ve been a guess, because I just don’t know where all the Guardians are anymore. They either don’t talk to me, or won’t tell me where they are.”

    “Won’t tell you?”

    “They kinda… don’t trust me,” Star said, biting her lower lip. “Because, you know…”

    “Because you recruited the Hunters,” Zena said. She had cooled down from that revelation, but perhaps too much—the Milotic’s voice was icy.

    Owen looked uneasily at Zena. Everything felt hazy when he thought about her or any of the others. He must have been hurt pretty badly in that fight against Azu, because he could only vaguely remember details about all of them. They were in a strange state in his mind, both familiar and unfamiliar. He knew them, but for how long? Owen felt another crisis of panic wash over him. Not crazy. Not crazy. Not crazy. Just play along.

    “Yeah… but, anyway,” Star said, “Cara and Forrest were the last two weak Guardians, I think. At least, of the ones I know. From here on out, the Guardians are gonna be strong, and they might even be paranoid and hostile if we approach.” Star sighed. “Some of them… don’t trust my word anymore, like I said.” She glanced at Zena. “So, I think… we might need to do this a little forcefully and try to calm them down, or convince them some other way. But either way—we’ll have to… you know.”

    “Beat them up to befriend them?” Demitri asked.

    “Now yer talking.” Gahi clicked happily.

    Cara stiffened with fright. This was enough to quiet Gahi down; he stepped away, mumbling to himself, and hid behind Zena to avoid frightening Cara.

    “I would like to go, now,” she said quietly to Star.

    “Okay. Thanks anyway, Cara. Forget about all this and enjoy your afterlife.”

    Relief washed over Cara and the Lopunny vanished, and Demitri and Gahi both shrank guiltily.

    “You don’t have to fight them… not always,” Star said to them. “But, hey, they might put up a fight. So just keep that sorta thing in mind, y’know?”

    “Aw, heh, sounds fine to me.” Demitri tittered.

    Owen crossed his arms and spoke up. “So, wait, are we just going to send a single team, then?”

    “A team of our absolute strongest, maybe,” Star said. “But nothing more than that. If we had two squads head in, that might help us with extra power if we have some big problem… like a run-in with Rim, for example, or…”

    “Or those weird Pokémon that follow her,” Anam said.

    “But having two teams will make it difficult to coordinate,” Zena pointed out. “We aren’t very good at using our communicators in the heat of battle. Nevren wanted them to be useful, I’m sure, but we found little use for it in our last battles.”

    “Wait, hold on,” Owen said. “Weird Pokémon? You mean mutants, or something else? What’d you guys run into?” If they were more of those odd Pokémon, what did they have to do with the Guardians? And, more importantly, why did the others react strangely when he mentioned them?

    The group shifted uncomfortably again. Owen sensed it. “Guys, what’s all this about? And—and what happened when I passed out, anyway?! I know I lost, but…”

    “We ran into some strange Pokémon while on this outing,” Star said. “Basically, Rim was being followed by one or more… mutated Pokémon. Like, something was just different about them in some way—a Ninjask with Scyther arms, or a Luxray crazy bulked out, with a Raichu’s tail. It was insane! And—they all had this different aura about them, too, is that right?”

    “Much like the mutants we typically see around Kilo from time to time,” Rhys said. “Only now they’re fighting alongside the Hunters.”

    “The Luxray’s aura felt weird,” Anam nodded.

    “Weird?” Mispy asked, wiggling the leaf on her head. “Our auras are weird.”

    “Well, yeah, but that’s probably because we’re late evolvers,” Demitri said. “Right?”

    “Yes, that’s likely it,” Rhys said.

    “See? Even Rhys says so,” Demitri said.

    Owen spotted Willow nearby, shivering. “Hey, Willow, are you okay?” he asked the Joltik. “You’re, uh, shaking.”

    “Huh?” Willow squeaked. “Yes! I’m fine. I’m just… cold in the mornings!”

    “Oh,” Owen said, stepping closer. “Well, I’m a Fire-Type. Want to rest on my head?” he asked, giggling. “I mean, you liked it bef—”

    Willow skittered away, hiding behind Anam. Little particles of pink fairy dust scattered around her feet with every step, like she was ready to shrink him down if he got any closer.

    Owen blinked. “Uh… okay.” That was not the reaction he was expecting.

    A memory flashed in Owen’s eyes. He was rushing toward Azu, the Feraligatr from before. Willow was screaming, and Amia was calling Owen’s name. Azu’s eyes, for just a second, looked… afraid.

    Owen held his breath.

    James was murmuring to the Joltik, almost like a lecture. Whatever he was saying, Willow wasn’t having any of it, and she hid right behind Anam’s gooey ankles.

    “Yeah, weird auras,” Star said. “To be honest, we’ve seen that stuff before, and I’ve seen similar auras running through the aura sea before.” She avoided looking at anybody else. “Basically, these Pokémon, the mutants… I’ve only seen them recently out and about like that, but the reason those auras look strange? Ugh, how do I explain this? Oh, okay. So… You know how, like, berries kinda look like each other if they come from the same plant, or something? Like, Oran berries come from Oran Berry plants… I mean, unless it’s a huge berry tree, then it’s all sorts, but… Ugh, that example sucks…”

    “…Genetics, you mean?” Rhys asked. He quickly amended, “Nevren spoke of that before.”

    “Yeah! Nevren would know how to describe this, uh, but…” Star spun around. “Okay. Zena… you used to be mortal, right?”

    “Yes,” Zena said.

    “So, you had parents.”

    Zena nodded. “Yes. Their spirits are often ferried to my realm from time to time, in fact. It’s been so long since they’ve last visited, though…”

    “Yeah. So, your aura, see, it kinda has traces of both their auras, since you came from them. That make sense?”

    “Yes… ancestry, of a sort?”

    “Yeah,” Star said. “Really, really good aura readers can trace an ancestry back a few generations, kinda like matching and linking auras to where they came from, and where those auras came from, and so on, okay? Well… the Pokémon we encountered back there? That Luxray and that Ninjask? They… didn’t have that.”

    “…They didn’t have… auras?” Owen asked.

    “No, no, they had auras,” Star said. “They didn’t have ancestry. No aura traces of parents, or grandparents, or any of that. No history.”

    “Wait, what does that mean?” Amia said.

    “Rhys has a similar aura,” Star said. “His aura is a little weird because he doesn’t have grandparents—All he has is a single parent, me. Since I created their auras. Same for Nev, and all the Hunters. All that weirdness you sense from them? Sure, some of it is a bit of divine power, but it’s also their weird aura trace.”

    “You… created their auras?” Owen said.

    Rhys looked off.

    “Yeah,” Star said. “I mean, what, you think I’m just gonna pick random folks off the road to get involved in this Orb business?”

    Owen rubbed his eyes irritably.

    “In other words, since they came right from you,” Amia said, “their auras go just to you, and not some family tree. I get that! But… then, those strange auras from Luxray and Ninjask?” Amia glanced at Owen and the other late-evolvers.

    “They don’t have an ancestry at all,” Star said. “They were… created some other way. Without… parents. I at least gave Rhys and the others a little trace from me, just for, you know, symbolism and stuff.”

    “No… parents?” Owen asked. “They were created? But—you created Rhys, right? So, what’s the difference?”

    “They must’ve been created some other way,” Star said. “Maybe… artificially.”

    A confused silence filled the air. Then, murmurs. Anam spoke up. “Artificial? …Like Adam? His aura’s weird, too, now that I’m looking at it…”

    “ADAM,” the Porygon-Z specified.

    “Uhh… maybe?” Star said evasively. “He’s a weird case, but—Look, not important. But that’s why their auras are strange. No ancestry. They were made some other way—and it seems like they were modified, too, from how their species should be. That’s why they’re called mutants in the first place, y’know? They had some weird abilities. Even other sightings are kinda like that.”

    “Pokémon with weird abilities?” Owen asked. He wondered. Should he say this? Yes. He should. Because he wasn’t going to let this go when it already felt so close. It felt like someone tried to tie his memories up and seal them away. But now they were coming back. “You know, no matter how much I try to teach others, I don’t think anybody knows how to do my Fire Trap, but… maybe that’s just because I’m resourceful?”

    This time, Owen watched for everyone’s reactions closely. He wasn’t speculating for no reason. The others knew something. And he saw just what he expected. Uncomfortable shuffling where they stood or sat. Some of them didn’t make eye contact. Rhys, in particular, looked like he’d seen death in the face. He looked at Zena next, and the way her serpentine body reacted. He was starting to become more familiar with in terms of body language, if only slightly. He couldn’t identify the emotion she was experiencing based on her muscle movements, but he did know one thing: she had trouble looking at him. For some reason, this one hurt the most.

    “…Guys,” Owen said, “what… aren’t you telling me?” He turned his head, looking at them all. “What… am I?”

    Owen wobbled where he stood. He felt faint. He saw Rhys’ paw glowing with a strange light.

    <><><>​

    “Ugh, my back,” Owen muttered, rolling over in bed. “Wh—huh?” he looked up, springing to his feet. “Wait—how long was I…?” He remembered he was planning things out with Star and the others. They were going to try to form a strong team of fighters. Would Owen—no… no, he wouldn’t count. He’s just a Charmander, after all. Just a Charmander…

    “Ugh, stop dwelling,” Owen muttered. “I should just ask them about it.”

    Owen, seeing the glow of the mushrooms in his room, determined that it was late in the afternoon. Ugh, my whole sleep schedule is done for. He looked outside and saw that everybody was still planning, far ahead in Hot Spot Square. “Oh—good! I didn’t miss too much?” he called.

    “Oh, hey, Owen! You kinda passed out while you were talking,” Star said. “Feeling better? Listen, you shouldn’t push yourself. If you’re too tired, just sit back and rest.”

    “I must’ve been really tired from that fight.” Owen laughed. “Okay! So, um, who’s going to be going and stuff?”

    “We ain’t,” Gahi muttered, looking down. “We passed out just like you.”

    “Yeah. We just aren’t strong enough, I guess,” Demitri said. “The stress of all that fighting with Rim really got to us. I feel like I was hit by a Golem’s… everything.”

    Mispy sighed.

    “But don’t worry!” Star said, “You guys can meditate and spar with Rhys and stuff instead, okay? How’s that sound?” The Mew waved her arms encouragingly. “Right now, those ‘clean aura’ Pokémon aren’t doing anything—they must be regrouping, so we should take that time to do the same thing here, y’know? And to be honest, I think it’d be a good idea if we narrowed our numbers down to maybe… a single strong team to handle just one Guardian at a time. So, if you want my opinion on that… Then we should also go back to the Spire of Trials and try for Manny a second time—but with a stronger team. And we need some of us to also rally up some help in Kilo Village for scouting, since… uh… since I have no idea where the other Guardians could be.”

    “Hmm,” Amia said. “Well, I wouldn’t consider myself strong, so why don’t I help with rallying?”

    “Wait,” Owen said. “Can we do the Trial place again?”

    “Huh?”

    “I lost against the Feraligatr the last time. Feraligatr Azu. And I want a rematch! I’ll do better this time!”

    “Owen,” Amia said.

    “Please?” Owen pleaded.

    Star sighed. “No,” she said. “You need to train, Owen. I’m sorry.”

    “B-but…”

    “Um, should I stay back, too?” Anam said. The Goodra poked his fingers together; they fused, and then split apart each time. “I know I’m strong, but… you need me to rally up the Hearts, right?”

    “I can do that in your place,” James said.

    “But what if I’m defeated? You’ll fizzle up, and the whole town will see it!”

    “Hrm…” James ruffled his feathers. “I’d rather not imagine a scenario where you die, Anam. Also, I imagine it would be difficult to maintain my form so far away, even for you.”

    “Anam, compared to Manny, I don’t think you’ll be defeated like that,” Star said. “But it would be a tough win…”

    “Would I be… strong enough?” Zena said.

    “Perhaps not,” James said, “but we work as a team together quite well.”

    “Yeah, Zena, you seem like you’d be an elegant fighter, if you ask me,” Owen said. “It goes well with how James fights, and maybe it’ll keep Anam calm? And Mom fights like that, too.”

    “Elegant?” Zena blushed.

    Star giggled. “Okay, let’s form up the team of elites. Rhys, you might not be the strongest Hunter, but you’re the strongest we have. So, I want you to go and fight Manny himself, okay?”

    “Rhys is stronger than me?” Anam said.

    “Ehh, I dunno. You guys would have to spar it out,” Star said, “but—trust me, Manny will want to fight Rhys. Now, for the other three fighters. Amia, don’t be modest—you’re pretty tough. So, you’re going, too. Okay?”

    “Oh, okay,” Amia replied. “Am—am I, really?”

    “Yes. You should be able to handle his second-in-command. So as for his third- and fourth-in-command…”

    “So, I really can’t go back and fight Azu?” Owen spoke up again.

    “Owen, you—you can’t,” Star said. “Train here. Okay?”

    Owen crossed his arms, rolling a ball of an ember in his mouth to silence himself. He didn’t bring it up again.

    “Next up, uh… Rhys, Amia…” Star mumbled under her breath. “…Anam, are you sure you can’t substitute somebody else to rally the team, like James?”

    “I guess I could…” Anam said. “Nevren might be able to help, right?” He nibbled on his slimy fingers, thinking. “I just hope we aren’t bothering him.”

    “It’s his duty,” James said firmly. “He should be able to do it easily. We will simply speak with him before we go.”

    “Okay, and James, you’re pretty tough all on your own, so you’re member number four!” Star said. “Everyone else should focus on training. I’ll have someone other than Anam summon me so I can probably do some coaching.”

    Owen listened, but then decided to concentrate on his memories again. He felt it. They were sealed away. It felt like a plug stuck right in his skull, like he couldn’t breathe through his mental nose. What if he thought back harder? Owen earned a massive headache when he tried, but he pushed through anyway, just for something—anything—to satisfy his curiosity.

    More memories. He saw Rhys approach him while at the meeting—right before he had passed out. He was telling him something—to go rest, that he was tired. And then, his paw had glowed… and Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi all passed out. And then Owen did right after. And… and that fight. Feraligatr Azu. He wasn’t a Charmander, was he? No. He was too tall.

    He wasn’t at thigh-height. He was at belly-height.

    I was a Charmeleon.

    “Owen?” Rhys asked.

    He’d do it again. Rhys would try to make him sleep and forget. “Huh?” Owen asked. “Oh, sorry. I was thinking about a new strategy for that Feraligatr. I think I know how to beat him!” Putting his knowledge of his own body language to use, he tensed his arms, as if readying a punch. His eyes glowed with a competitive fire. “Or, maybe I can beat him. Maybe. I need to think more. Maybe after I do some training, I can have a rematch when he comes here with Manny!”

    Rhys sighed. “Of course.”

    As long as he played dumb, he could keep his memories. But why were they gone? What else did he forget? Think, Owen, think… What did they want to hide? And how is he back to being a Charmander?

    Zena’s reaction in particular bothered him. She was with Anam and the others for Cara’s failed rescue. None of Team Alloy was with them, so they must have told her what happened. So, what did they tell her? What did he—and the rest of Team Alloy—do?

    What did they become?
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 17 - Holes in the Mind
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Thanks, Canis~ Grabbed ya elsewhere, but now, let's get to another dramatic chapter. This is gonna get rough.

    Chapter 17 – Holes in the Mind

    Anam, Rhys, James, and Amia all left for Manny’s Spire of Trials. In the meantime, Nevren paid a visit after he was summoned, and left to rally up Kilo Village. That left everybody else to go through some training with Star, who was summoned this time by Zena. Compared to Anam’s strength, Star was barely solid, and for the most part, could only be heard. There were a few instances where Pokémon accidentally passed right through the Mew phantasm because they didn’t see her. And, generally, it was hard to tell the pink cloud of Mew-shaped smoke from everything else.

    Owen was sitting at the town square, just below a small bulletin board that went largely unused. He stared at it nostalgically; he knew every corner of that board, the way it was carved from stone and then melted at the edges to look shiny. There was a small bowl of grayish-yellow adhesive to the side of the board that was used to stick papers on; when it was no longer needed, it could just be peeled off. Owen remembered how he once put a notice here. ‘Looking for a new rock, at least two feet in height, polished! Will pay 3000 Poké!’ was what he had posted.

    It ended up being a very good rock.

    He had bought it with his allowance that he’d saved up from Amia and Alex, after spending most of it on treats and fighting materials. But now, what could he post there? Especially now that he knew all of the other Pokémon that had lived there in town were dead and hiding out in Amia’s Fire Orb to leave room for the newcomers. Owen felt a pang in his chest. How could his parents do that to him? All of the friends he had were spirits. They weren’t even around anymore—they had to make room for all the Guardians and their spirits. What was the point of all that, anyway?

    Spirits… It had been a while since Owen thought about the ones he had. Were they watching the whole time? “Wait…” Owen said. He looked around. It seemed that mostly everybody was training in their own corners of Hot Spot Square, focusing on what they felt was most necessary. Zena was nearest to Owen, despite this. Star was also nearby. “Um—Star?”

    “Yo.” The Mew in question was watching everybody and their training, giving pointers when necessary. Zena, in particular, was still gathering her energy after expending so much into summoning Star.

    “How do I summon spirits?”

    “Oh, you wanna learn that? Yeah, I guess you should, especially since everybody else knows how to do it. It actually isn’t that hard, either. Zena, didn’t you accidentally spit someone out when you used Water Gun once?”

    “Y-you promised you wouldn’t speak of that!” Zena squeaked.

    “O-oh, sorry,” Star said. “But hey, wasn’t a Divine Promise, heh… S-sorry. Really.”

    Zena, flushing red, slithered away to compose herself.

    “A-anyway, it feels a lot like using an Attack, okay? But instead, it feels like you’re focusing… inward, and then bringing something out… That make sense?”

    “I think I understand,” Owen said, closing his eyes. “Inward… inward… Wait—who do I summon?”

    “Uhh,” Star said. “Why don’t you try talking to them? It’s kinda like talking to yourself in your head. You’ll get a response. Hey, you might even feel them reaching out. That’ll make it easier to summon them.”

    Owen nodded. “Okay, let me try.” He closed his eyes and tried to ignore everything that his five senses were giving him. It was easier than usual; this part of town was quieter, and the heat was nothing to his natural body.

    Um… hello? Is anybody there? Owen said. It’s me, um, Owen.

    A few voices replied to him—various forms of hello. Owen knew that if they’d done this to him earlier, he would’ve thought he was going crazy.

    H-hi! I—I didn’t think that’d… work! Um—have you guys always been there?

    Various answers that confirmed.

    W-wow, okay… I didn’t expect that, he said. Are you enjoying watching all this? I hope you guys aren’t too bored there.

    Various responses, though they seemed mostly positive.

    Owen blushed slightly. A-anyway, I wanted to summon one of you guys for practice! Is that okay? Who can I summon and stuff? I just really want to learn this new technique. Everyone else knows it, and I gotta catch up!

    Well… I suppose I can,
    said a voice. Owen got the impression that it was Klent, the Jumpluff—the previous Guardian.

    Klent! Right? I’m glad to hear you again! Um… sorry I didn’t talk to you guys until now. It’s kinda been a really rough few days, and then I got distracted…

    It’s okay, Owen,
    Klent replied.

    Owen felt something inside his chest. No—not quite. But it felt like it was coming from there. Was that Klent trying to summon himself? But he wasn’t quite there. Owen had to help. “Okay,” Owen said. It felt like meditating. He went deep into himself, into his spirit… and found Klent’s presence. Then, with another thought, he pushed him out. More and more… it felt like something rising out of his body. A gentle warmth, even for his Fiery type. Owen briefly wondered if going Grass would’ve made it easier or harder to summon someone.

    A blue ember flew out of Owen’s chest, landing a few feet ahead of him. There, the blue ember shaped itself into four little spheres—Owen recognized this as the base of a Jumpluff’s shape. It then solidified enough to be visible, like Klent was made out of lightly colored glass that was also on fire. “A-are… are you okay?” Owen asked.

    “I believe so,” Klent replied, looking at his pom-poms. “Hmm. I feel very… ghostly.”

    “Sorry. I guess I’m not strong enough yet.”

    “Yeah,” Star said, “your Mysticism is actually a lot higher than when you started off, more than I expected, actually, but you don’t know how to use it yet, is the problem,” Star said. “That’s what I’d call a measure of how adept you are at using your divine power. Mysticism. And since you’re still working on it, don’t worry! You’ll improve fast.”

    “Mysticisismum… Mystici…” Owen shook his head. “I’m stronger than expected?”

    “Mhm,” Star nodded. “See, being exposed to powerful Mystics… kinda also raises the power faster. Like a feedback loop. So, the training you guys do with each other is gonna benefit you the most, Owen, since you’re the furthest behind. Oh, and not to mention you nearly died during that fight with Azu, that boosts your Mystic power, too!”

    “I—I have to nearly die to get stronger?! What kind of system is that?!”

    “Just a side-effect,” Star shrugged. “It’s not ideal… but hey, you also nearly drowned with Zena, remember? So that’s another boost! Stress on the aura trying to cling to the body is a real workout for the spirit, you know. Usually doesn’t mean anything, but for a Mystic, you can use that to get more in touch with your spiritual side. Literally.”

    Owen crossed his arms and pouted. She had a point, but he didn’t want to admit it. This reckless lifestyle that once endangered him was actually paying off. At least he was more strategic in battle. “What else raises Mysticis—mys—is there a better name for it?”

    “Divinity?”

    “Mysticism it is,” Owen grumbled.

    Star giggled. “What else raises it? Lots of spiritual and aural stuff that Rhys does,” she said. “Meditation, mental training, grueling endurance, powerful emotions, near-death experiences… the works. Stuff that the body normally wouldn’t want.”

    “So… not fighting?”

    “That’s for your normal fighting abilities; that tunes your aura with your body,” Star said. “Mysticism tunes your aura to the power that your body draws from, directly. The connection from your aura to your spirit. Subtle difference.”

    “I don’t get it.”

    “You will. Just practice more.”

    “Ngh…”

    They repeated this process a few times. Star left to train the others while Owen practiced under Klent’s instructions. Klent vanished as an ember and reentered Owen’s body.

    Zena was eventually unable to maintain Star’s form, and the pink smoke faded in the air. Willow summoned her next, practicing with ADAM and Valle. The Joltik practiced summoning her twisted spirits, all of them preferring to become giant mushrooms of some kind, screaming and laughing at anybody who approached, occasionally exploding. ADAM, meanwhile, focused on summoning the few spirits he had within his Normal Orb. They behaved oddly like ADAM, moving stiffly and erratically, though given how transparent they were, it was clear that this was not a technique that the Porygon-Z was used to.

    Valle practiced my meditating. That is, he stood still in the middle of Hot Spot and observed the cave’s walls.

    “Is that even a valid way to train?”

    “Well, it’s meditating,” Star said. Her smoky form made what Owen could only guess was a shrug. “And I guess since he’s expanding his aura a ton to feel the whole cave, that’s pretty good training. And—”

    Willow and a few of her mushrooms screamed at one another. Willow tackled a blue one, which puffed up and exploded, making all of the others scream and hop along the ground, tackling one another.

    “Oh, come on,” Star sighed. “I gotta go break them up.” She flew away, leaving Owen and Zena alone.

    The Charmander stared uneasily at the exploding mushrooms. “How long have we known her, again?” he said.

    “Not very long,” Zena replied. “…Do you… not remember?”

    Owen looked at Zena. “I mean,” he said, “I know that we met her recently, but I kinda—I don’t know. To be honest,” he laughed nervously, “I think this Mystic stuff is making my memories a little foggy. Is that normal?”

    “I’m sure it’s just shock,” Zena said, strained. “Owen, do you—do you really not remember anything? How much do you remember?”

    “I remember I was fighting Azu,” Owen said. “And I remember… I think I remember fighting Willow. And training. I think I remember that. Oh, and I remember fighting that Aerodactyl. I wonder how he’s doing.”

    Zena fidgeted with her ribbons. “What about me?” she asked.

    “Huh?”

    “Me. Do you remember anything about me?”

    Owen paused. “…Oh! I remember we fought Rhys. Yeah. That was pretty scary, actually. I hope when I get stronger, I can rematch him.” He nodded. “He beat me in one hit.”

    “You only remember your fights?” Zena asked.

    Owen scratched the back of his head in thought. “Yeah, I think so. But that’s the most important part, in a way, since I can learn from all those fights. Muscle memory! That’s a really important type of memory.”

    Zena stared in silence. Her tail coiled around itself in a tight circle.

    “Did… did we hang out more often than what I’m remembering?” he asked.

    “No, we didn’t,” Zena said curtly. “Your memory is just fine. Like I said, Owen. You’re still in some kind of shock from the fight. Your Mystic power will help you recover in time.”

    “Hmm,” Owen said. “I don’t know, Zena.” He eyed her carefully. “Can you at least fill me in on some of the details I’m missing? Maybe it’ll help jog my memory!”

    “No. You’re just fine,” Zena said.

    She seemed tense, but Owen’s perception was dull. He had the vaguest idea that his senses used to be a lot sharper for these sorts of things. But now? It all felt muddled.

    And he knew he used to be a Charmeleon. Zena should have known, too. Why was she hiding it from him? It was like everybody was playing along to keep the secret from him. He could tell that much. Zena knew, too. He saw it in her eyes. But—was it for something important…? Or was it just another lie, like Hot Spot’s villagers?

    No. He wasn’t going to live through something like that again. Zena felt too important for him to leave those memories locked away. He didn’t know why. It was just a feeling. Feelings. He could remember those. If only he could also remember the details. He also had a feeling who it was that was behind keeping everyone quiet.

    “Zena,” Owen said. “Do you trust Star?”

    “Star?” Zena said. “Of course not.”

    Owen wasn’t expecting such a forward answer. “O-oh. You don’t?”

    “No. I’m only following this group because you—” Zena stopped herself. “…Because… it’s better than being alone. There are others that I can talk to here and I feel safer. I can tell that it’s the same for most of the other Guardians, too. It isn’t that we trust Star. It’s that she’s offering a better alternative than… being alone. And, I suppose in Valle’s case, he’s satisfied with his new cave.” The Milotic rolled her eyes at the thought of the strange statue. “But don’t you remember why I don’t trust… well, no… why I simply can’t forgive her so easily? I’d think at least that would be something you’d remember,” she hissed.

    “A-about that,” Owen said, shrinking back. “O-oh, wait. I think I do, I—”

    Owen sat in the middle of Anam’s office. Zena was trembling around him, burying her face in her coils. Her body constricted around Owen, her scales grinding against the rocky wall behind her. The Charmeleon desperately held Zena steady, trying to keep her together.

    Owen clutched at his head. “OHH, that one hurt,” he grunted. His tiny body would’ve been split in two if she squeezed any harder! But that memory… that confirmed it. Charmeleon. He looked up at the Milotic in his memory.

    Zena gasped, slithering backward. “Owen?” She bit at her lower lip uncertainly.

    “Y-yeah, I’m fine. I’m fine. I think—I think I should stop thinking for a little bit.” Owen looked up, seeing the Milotic back away like she’d done something she shouldn’t have. Eyes of regret. She was keeping it a secret. Everyone was. It was Hot Spot all over again. “Zena? Listen—tell me again, just—why, with Star and—”

    “I need to go,” Zena said abruptly, turning around.

    “Uh—Zena!” Owen said. “Wait! I—”

    “Practice your summoning,” the Milotic said. “I need to meditate.”

    “But…” Owen frowned. “But I just… want to remember…”

    Owen… Klent said from within his spirit. Let’s just practice for now. Let her unwind. She’s obviously tense.

    Okay, so that wasn’t just me?
    Owen said. I know I upset her with what I said, but—I just don’t remember, Klent! I—

    She understands. She just needs time. Please, let’s keep practicing
    .

    Owen sighed. Fine.

    Owen summoned him again, over and over, improving his technique until—finally—the Jumpluff appeared, but instead of being opaque like before, he was solid. The Jumpluff was indistinguishable from others, just like the other spirits that Owen knew all his life. This thought sent another pang through him—of what, he still couldn’t identify. Anger, betrayal, sadness… confusion. He was pretty sure it was confusion. He couldn’t see himself holding a terrible grudge against his own parents, after all. They meant well.

    I better not be developing a complex, Owen thought bitterly. But then he addressed Klent with a smile and a presenting motion with his arms.

    “Oh, you did it,” Klent said, inspecting his pom-poms with a neutral expression. “Very good.”

    “You don’t seem too happy about that,” Owen said, crossing his arms. “I mean, c’mon, aren’t you glad to be alive again? I mean… basically-alive? …Solid?”

    “…I suppose I am,” Klent said. “I just didn’t think it would be under these circumstances.”

    “Oh—circumstances?” Owen asked. “What do you mean, circumstances?” Owen glanced at Klent and, for half of a second, they locked eyes. Owen saw… something, there, in those eyes. What was it? It put a horrible pit in his stomach, something eating at him from the inside. He gulped. “Klent?”

    Klent shook his head. “Sorry. I suppose I’m still bitter about dying, is all.”

    Owen nodded. “Yeah, I guess that’s pretty… yeah,” he said, stepping forward. But that look Klent gave him. It was similar to what he saw before when he first entered the Grass Orb. That hesitation to meet him. Why did they all hesitate? Were they shy, or…? And the way Klent looked at him, too.

    “…Owen?” Klent asked. His eyes softened. “Are you okay?”

    “I—yeah, I’m okay,” Owen said. “Klent… can I ask you something?”

    “As… as one of your spirits, I suppose I’ll have to at least listen to your question,” he said.

    Owen glanced back. Star was still busy. He looked back at Klent. If there was one person he could put his trust in right now, it’d be the very spirits that were a part of his being. They wouldn’t lie to him. “How come I’m a Charmander again?”

    “Pick a different question,” Klent said lowly.

    “S-so I really was a Charmeleon,” Owen said softly.

    Klent looked at Star. “Owen, stay here, I need to—”

    “Please, don’t tell her,” Owen said. “I don’t want to forget. I… it’s messing with my head. I feel like I’m losing my mind—why? What’s happening? Why does it feel like there are huge holes where my past should be? I—I don’t even know how old I am, Klent. Please… What’s… why am… why is everything like this?”

    The Jumpluff hesitated again. He looked cornered and eyed Star. He wouldn’t be able to get there in time even if he tried. His eyes were frantic and said it all: Owen wasn’t supposed to be behaving this way, and it was a surprise. Why was he regaining his memories so quickly?

    “Why did Star trust me to have this Orb?” Owen asked. “What’s so special about me? How come I’m so strong for a Charmander, a—a late-evolver, too. Like the others. Why… why can I do Fire Trap? Only I know it. Only me.” Owen’s mind was racing. Connecting. He was always good at this—when he was focused on something, he could make connections quickly and easily. He did it in battle all the time, finding just the right tactic to beat an opponent many times stronger than he was. But tactics alone wouldn’t make him that special. James was the same way—tactical—perhaps even better. So why him?

    Owen thought again. What other people had strange, special talents? Stronger than usual? Late-evolving? Gahi. A Trapinch that was incredibly fast. He gave off the signs of a Pokémon with Speed Boost, on top of already incredible speed, even for his slowest, larva-like form. Mispy. Her aura reading, for one, not to mention her incredible healing talent. Demitri. He was slow, but nothing held back his attacks. He could take more hits than all of them combined. Owen had a vague memory of him smashing through even his Protect shields of light during a distant sparring match.

    Those strange Pokémon. The Ninjask that Star talked about. The Luxray, too. They were strange, just like he was. A Pokémon with no ancestry. A Pokémon that was created by some other way. Who were his parents? The ones he was born from. Amia and Alex never knew. And Rhys—why did he know so much about—

    The bed. The Rawst bed. Not only did he have one in his home in Hot Spot Cave, but there was also one in Rhys’ old home. Who would ever need a Rawst bed in that cave? Rhys didn’t take guests. Sure, he tended to gather useless trinkets. But a Rawst bed?

    “Klent…” Owen finally said again. The Jumpluff was taking slow steps away, trying to get to Star. “Please, wait! Klent! I… I need to know!” he said.

    Klent ran as fast as his light body would allow. Little puffs of dandelion seeds flew from his pom-poms in his frantic dash. Owen didn’t yet know how to forcibly recall a spirit. He had to chase after him.

    “Klent, PLEASE!” Owen yelled. “What—what am I?!

    Star turned around, ears twitching at the question. She saw Klent running toward him with primal fear in his glassy eyes, and then Owen right behind him. She flicked her hand and created a barrier to stop Owen from advancing; he slammed his fist helplessly against it. Star floated toward him.

    “Whoa, whoa, h-hang on, Owen!” Star said. “Just—just breathe, okay? Just breathe…! This’ll only take a second…!”

    “NO! DON’T TAKE THEM AWAY!” Owen screamed, clutching his head. Star’s paw glowed, but when he said that, the light flickered. “P-please,” Owen said again, staring at the Mew with wide eyes. “I… I don’t want to forget! I know someone’s messing with my head—taking away my memories…! There’s… they’re missing… I’m missing so much of my past! I—I can see the holes, they’re—they’re all covered up and scooped out of my head…!” Tears bubbled at the sides of his eyes, tracing the ridges of his scales.

    “O-okay, Owen, just—just calm down! Look, l-look, no light! It’s gone, no light…!” Star waved her paws in the air; indeed, the light was gone.

    Hyperventilating, Owen sat down. He was dizzy. He wanted to throw up.

    He sat in the middle of some forest, reading a book with Amia and Alex nearby. They had gone out more often back then. How far back? He was a Charmeleon.

    He was playing marbles with a few of the other villagers. He was a Charmander. His tiny hands made it easy to make precise shots. He won every time.

    The chest pain returned. Something ran right through his back—a blade from the end of a tail, plunged into him. His mother cried his name.

    He was flying—the memory abruptly cut off.

    “O-oh… oh, Arceus… h-how old am I…?” Owen said. His head was pounding. He wasn’t sure if it was his breathing or his tears that made his vision so blurry.

    “Owen, shh, shh… just… just breathe, okay? Stay with me.” Star said. “Your aura is out of control—just breathe… Owen? Close your eyes… just focus on my voice, okay? Owen, can you hear me? Owen?”

    It wasn’t working. Owen’s entire body was shaking; he couldn’t see anymore. It was all dark. It felt like his tail’s flame was covering his whole back.

    He heard roaring. It was his voice. He remembered roaring. Such a horrible noise. The roars in his mind translated into desperate whimpers for the others to hear.

    “Owen,” Zena said, right beside him. Owen didn’t even realize she had been there. “Breathe.”

    Owen choked on his breath, clutching at his chest. It felt like his ribs were splitting apart.

    “You’ve got this, Owen,” Star said. “In and out. Breathe easy. Theeere you go…”

    Breathe, breathe… Meditate. Rhys always asked that. Rhys—!

    He sat next to Gahi. He sank halfway into the sand pit, muttering something. Owen laughed and said, “Just do it, we can fight later!” And then he closed his eyes.

    They sat at the table. Rhys gave Owen a little smile. He had his favorite dish today. Gahi groaned, wanting something meatier.

    Owen had Rhys’ neck in his giant claws—the memory abruptly stopped.

    “Owen, stay with me, c’mon,” Star said softly. By now, everybody was staring at them. Owen didn’t know; his eyes were shut tight.

    “Owen, I’m going to put a small block on your memory, okay? I won’t erase anything. I’m just going to stop them from coming for a little while.”

    Owen didn’t say anything. He was burning.

    He walked through Kilo Village with a spring in his step. As a Charmeleon, he’d surely be accepted into the Association!

    There was a frightened little Spinarak with a few injured legs. He offered an Oran Berry. The wild thing ate it, spat a String Shot in his face, and fled. Owen shouted something about being ungrateful.

    Owen felt the warm embrace of a fellow Charmander. They were both crying silently. He didn’t want to let go.

    “Owen? Owen, are you okay?” Star said.

    It felt like there was still a lot more missing. He didn’t know how much was gone—but a lot still was. But the flood was frozen in place. Ready to topple over him at any second, yet frozen for now. Owen breathed slowly.

    “Star…” he finally said. Feeling slightly more secure with what he had, and what he didn’t yet have to deal with, he asked, “What’s wrong with me…?”

    The Mew nodded and pat his shoulder. She floated to his height—a little, pink puff that tried her best to comfort him with words. “A lot, Owen, a lot,” she said, “but you’re going to be okay, alright? You have me. You have everyone else. We’re here for you, alright?”

    Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were all staring, confused. “What’s going on?” Demitri asked. “What’s Owen talking about? Is he…? Is that Orb driving him crazy?”

    “C-can it do that…?” Mispy asked. She was hiding her leaf behind her head; it was getting a total sensory overload at the pulsing flare Owen’s aura gave off. His panic made it an inferno; her ability to sense auras was shot like she was hit by three Flash attacks all at once. What was happening to his head?

    “Oy, Owen,” Gahi said.

    Owen gulped and opened his eyes. “G-Gahi…?”

    “Y’alright?” he asked.

    “I…” Owen stopped. He felt… grounded, hearing Gahi speak to him. “I’m okay… I think I’m okay.”

    He looked at Zena next, and the pain in his chest slowly subsided.

    Star sighed, feeling Owen’s aura calm down. It was still flaming—but it was at least no longer like staring at the sun.

    “Owen?” Zena spoke up. She was among the many training Guardians that had paused to see if Owen was okay.

    “H-hi, Zena,” Owen said. He realized that everybody was staring at him; he lowered his head in shame. “I—I’m sorry. I… I’m making a huge scene over nothing…”

    “It’s not nothing,” Zena said. The Milotic could relate. No breakdown was over nothing. There was always a reason—and it felt like this was over something much deeper than a bit of stress. “Star, why don’t we make lunch for him?”

    “I—I want to make lunch for Owen, too!” Willow said.

    “There is a fresh collection of underground berries,” Valle said, “located in hallway E after a left, right, left, and left turn. They will serve Owen well.”

    “Okay. We’ll all take a break for lunch,” Star said.

    “Guardians do not require food,” ADAM said.

    “Then—train if you like, but take a break if you want,” Star said. “Owen, want to head to, uh, Rhys’ place? We’ll whip up something nice.”


    Owen’s mind was still racing, but perhaps now it was at a jog rather than a sprint. He was making connections about his blurry past and what he already knew. With Star putting a block on the remaining memories that were hidden away, he could work with that manageable portion without being overwhelmed by the rest.

    He was definitely a Charmeleon during his fight with Azu. But then, something happened. He remembered… an intense heat. And a pressure in his chest. The heat he felt before when he had evolved the first time. And he felt that heat many, many times before. He became a Charmeleon countless times—he evolved, over and over, and then forgot, becoming a Charmander again. It was always Rhys—or… or Amia. They were the ones who somehow brought him back to normal.

    Normal. Normal from what?

    Owen thought about his strange dreams. He thought they were just fantasies about being a Charizard, but… no. There was no way they were fantasies. That happened. He was a Charizard before. And Gahi was a Flygon—and Demitri, a Haxorus, and Mispy, a Meganium. They all were, before. But something happened… what happened? He can’t remember. That was still locked away. Those times with Team Alloy, fully evolved, felt like incredibly early memories. How far back did it go? How long ago was that? How many evolution cycles…?

    “Owen!” Gahi shouted.

    “Wh—buh—huh?” Owen said, jolting awake.

    “Arceus in the Sky, ‘mon, we’ve been calling yeh ten times!” Gahi said.

    “You look lost in thought again,” Demitri said. “Are—are you sure you’re okay?”

    “I’m… I don’t think I’m okay,” Owen said. “My head’s spinning with all these memories… and you were all in them, too,” he said. “Gahi, do you ever remember—”

    “Ah, ah, ah! Owen! Not yet,” Star said.

    “H-huh…?”

    “Not yet. Please,” Star said carefully.

    Owen gulped but nodded. “O-okay…” he said. She had a point. There was no telling what would happen if Gahi had the same sort of panic that he did.

    Owen realized, like a punch in the gut, that the reason everyone was keeping him ignorant was because Star, or perhaps Rhys or Amia, had told them what would happen if he got his memories back. And then, against their wishes, he pried too far, and the memories came spilling back. And now, everything hurt.

    Owen stared at his claws while they waited for lunch. He focused, turning his scales green, and then orange, and then green again. He was getting better at that.

    The previous Grass Guardian, Klent… Owen sighed. What was that look he gave him? It wasn’t the first time. Still, there was something bothering him. He looked to the right, where Klent was sitting at the table, though he requested Star not make anything for him—he didn’t need to eat, after all. He didn’t want to take up resources if he didn’t have to.

    “Klent?” Owen said. His heart skipped a beat.

    “Yes, Owen?” Klent said. He was speaking respectfully, but Owen could still sense a bit of coldness in his voice. Owen was starting to wonder why, connecting more and more of his fragmented memories together. He couldn’t complete the full picture. He was filling in the blanks with speculation. The more he inferred and guessed, the smaller the gaps felt.

    Owen couldn’t remember anything beyond evolving into a Charizard. He didn’t even know if that’s what actually happened. What if he became… something else? The strange auras… The lack of ancestry. A clean history. No history. His strange dreams. His instinct for battle—his abnormal need to fight.

    That look. Klent’s eyes. Those eyes.

    “Klent,” Owen finally said. “…How did you die?”

    Star fumbled by the stove, dropping the berries in too fast. The hot water splashed through her smoky body. The Mew cursed under her breath, turning back.

    Klent looked away. He looked at Star, instead. The Mew shook her see-through head frantically, but Klent shook his head back. It was too late. Owen’s memories couldn’t be sealed away anymore. He was a Guardian—that trick wasn’t going to work as easily, or perhaps at all. He was going to find out eventually. Just as the memories of Rhys and the other Hunters couldn’t be sealed—a Guardian was just as immune to that kind of influence.

    The Jumpluff nodded at the Charmander. “I’m sorry, Owen,” Klent said. “But… I think I know what you’re thinking. And… you’re right.”

    The world stood still.

    Owen didn’t want to ask. But his mouth moved on its own. “M-meaning…?”

    Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi all exchanged dumbfounded looks. What was going on? Where was Owen getting all these crazy ideas from? And, more importantly—why was everybody else playing along?! They always felt like everyone else knew something they didn’t. They were quite eager to have Owen tell them the answer.

    Klent sighed as if bracing for it as well. “I’m sorry, but… it’s true. You’re right.”

    “Th-that the way you died… I…?”

    “You killed me,” the former Guardian said, “and my daughter.”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 18 - Mistakes
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 18 – Mistakes

    Shortly after Klent revealed his cause of death, Owen had left the table, saying that he wanted to think. Nobody stopped him, though they did watch to see where he went. Zena, however, started to slither after him.

    “Zena, wait—” Star said.

    Zena spun her head back and gave a glare to the Mew so intense that her pink, misty form fizzled halfway out of existence.

    Zena resumed her pursuit. “Owen,” she called gently.

    The Charmander didn’t stop. He was going straight for his home, to his room. The group collectively sighed in relief, but Zena pressed on. He needed company. Even if he didn’t remember it, he gave her company in her time of need. It was high time she returned the favor.

    “Owen,” Zena said again. “Please, look at me.”

    “No,” Owen said. “I need to think.”

    “Owen,” Zena repeated. “May… may I follow you to your room?”

    Owen didn’t object, so Zena took that as an affirmative. She knew it wasn’t the case.

    The Charmander went to his room and puffed a small plume of fire at the central fire pit, immediately setting it alight. He dug through his bag next, rummaging for something to calm his nerves. Zena, now closer, noticed that Owen was still trembling. He could barely hold his bag open.

    Zena couldn’t find her words. He was only a few feet away, and yet they were a world apart.

    “Did you know?” Owen said, not turning his head away from the contents of his bag.

    Voice missing, Zena could only tense her jaw.

    “Did you know I killed him? Did Star tell you?” Owen kept his gaze fixed on the bag.

    The Water Guardian was still unable to speak.

    “Does everyone here know what’s wrong with me? And they just aren’t telling me?”

    It ate away at Zena. When Owen didn’t say anything further, the silence was unbearable. She had to break it. “I—” Zena choked. “I’m sorry, Owen.”

    Thick silence. The fire crackled a few times in the pit.

    “Right.” Owen pulled out something from the bag and bit into it. In a blink, he vanished. All that remained of him, for a split-second, were the last few embers of his flame.

    <><><>​

    “Owen has vanished,” Valle announced to the others, just outside in the square.

    “WHAT?!”

    Gahi, the fastest, rushed to the home—followed by Willow, the second fastest. “Zena! What happened?!” Gahi said, but then saw Owen’s bag half-open in his room. “…Warp Seed.”

    Zena turned around. The mutterings and discussion among the others were blurry murmurs to her. She couldn’t get that image out of her head. The moment before he left, Owen had looked at her. They made eye contact for just a second. Owen’s eyes had never looked so empty and lightless.

    “V-Valle! Uh—d-d’you know where he went?” Demitri asked.

    “I am searching for him now. The Warp Seed must have brought him somewhere within these caverns.” The motionless Rock Shiftry then went silent. “I have found him. He is deeper inside of the caves. He is heading toward the lava flow.”

    “Wh-why?!” Willow said. “He’ll burn up!”

    “Doubtful,” ADAM said. “Owen’s species is capable of surviving in the lava. It is their habitat. It is very likely that he is going there to cool his system. The irony is not lost on me.”

    The Porygon-Z buzzed to fill the worried silence.

    “Additionally,” he continued, “it is likely a place where we cannot approach as easily. He wants to think in an isolated environment.”

    “At least he’s not running off somewhere stupid again,” Star said. “That’s a start. And, to be honest, Klent, I don’t blame him this time!”

    “If I vanish,” Klent said, “it means Owen’s power is waning. You can use me as an… indicator, if you like.” He rubbed his pom-poms together. “Was I too harsh? He may have… been the one to kill me, but…”

    “I still don’t believe that,” Gahi said. “What d’you mean, he killed yeh?”

    “It’s just as I said,” replied Klent. “Owen is responsible for my death. His flames are what snuffed out mine.”

    Gahi clicked his jaws irritably. “How long were yeh waiting ter break that line out?” he said. “As… as just a Charmander? C’mon, don’t kid us like that.”

    “He was not a Charmander,” Klent said. “He was… some sort of Charizard. A very powerful one… very…” He shivered. “It is not a memory I like to revisit. I was not the only one to die. My daughter was also killed. It still affects her, as any death would. She still doesn’t want to see Owen. I… don’t blame her.”

    “But… he’s a Charmander,” Demitri said. “He never evolved! He…! He…!”

    “Oh boy,” Star mumbled, forming a strange, white light in her paws again.

    Zena glared, but did nothing. Demitri was clutching at his head, wobbling where he stood. The other two weren’t doing any better. Star fired—the white light enveloped them dimly, and the three collapsed, asleep before their panic could fully set in.

    “So much for that,” Star said, followed by a sigh. “Don’t worry, guys. When they wake up, I think they’ll just assume they got tuckered out after their meal. Just play along like before, okay? They’ll believe you if you fill in the blanks. Let their own heads trick them on the rest. Zena, can you carry them to their beds again?”

    Zena stared at the three helpless creatures. They would never know who they were, what they became. They’d live, forever, in ignorance of that, while everyone else acted as if they were totally normal. Lie after lie after lie. Until what?

    Klent looked at his pom-poms. “Oh. I’m fading,” he said. “but—Owen feels just fine. Valle?”

    “Owen is walking.”

    “I think he’s too far away from me,” Klent said. “I won’t be able to…” He faded, returning to Owen’s core as a blue ember.

    Star sighed. “Zena?” she said. “C’mon, none of us are good at carrying things. ADAM’s too smooth, Willow’s smaller than Anam’s toe, and Valle’s Valle. Can you help out?”

    Zena wasn’t sure what came over her. There was a strange heat on the sides of her head, combined with an accelerating heart rate. Like she was preparing for a fight. She stared at Star. The Milotic’s words came without a filter. “Why should we listen to anything you say?”

    Star flinched. “H-huh? What do you mean?”

    “All of this,” Zena said, staring at her. “Why are we keeping the truth hidden away from them? What they are. They’re the very same things being sent to kill the other Guardians. And now, Owen knows it. H-he forgot everything. He forgot me. Why can’t he remember? Why should I follow your word, Star?!”

    Star floated stiffly, tiny, smoky paws clenched. “Because I’m the one keeping you all alive,” she said. “If I didn’t organize to get you guys, you’d all be dead. Your Orbs would be with Eon, and he’d be halfway to ruling the world by now. Zena, you have to trust—”

    “I will never trust you,” Zena hissed, slithering until she was mere inches away from Star’s ill-defined face. “Your sins will never wash away, Creator. You did this. You made the Hunters. You kept the Guardians sealed away. And you,” she used one of her ribbons to push at the Mew’s chest, “are the reason for all of this.” With one firm press, she knocked Star back a few feet.

    Willow fidgeted. “S-stop fighting,” she said quietly. “This isn’t fun…”

    Nobody listened. Star floated where she had been pushed, staring at Zena. She looked around at the others for support. ADAM and Valle were indifferent. Willow skittered toward Zena, hiding near her coils. Team Alloy was either gone or unconscious. She had nobody. And Zena, realizing this, gave the Mew a twisted, sick grin. If Star was going to kill her then, she could at least feel satisfied that she did it knowing she was right.

    But then, the Mew spoke. “You don’t… you think I don’t know that?” Her voice trembled. “I know. I kn-know I ruined everything. I know it’s all my fault. I just… I j-just can’t… do anything on my own. I need you guys to… fix my mistake. Because I can’t.”

    This caught her off guard. But she wasn’t going to let up. “And why is that, O Creator?” Zena asked. “You seem to do well enough with modifying my memories to your wishes, let alone Owen’s or the rest of Team Alloy. Why don’t you just do that now, hm? Wipe it all away. Go on. What’s stopping you?” Zena slithered closer, never taking her eyes off of Star, even when the deity looked away.

    She finally spoke in a voice so tiny, even Zena struggled to hear it. “I can’t.”

    She knew it. Despite this going exactly as she had expected, the Milotic’s sneer faltered. “And why is that?”

    “I only wiped those memories away in the spirit world. When you meditated and sank into your Water Realm,” she said. “And even then… it was because I was ready for it. You trusted me. Your mind was open enough for me to… if you reacted badly…” Star shook her head. “I can’t do that anymore. You’ll never let me inside. And… and that’s a good thing. I never should have in the first place. I’m sorry, Zena. I’m… sorry.”

    No. Stay strong. She won’t influence her with tears. That was how it worked before. “That isn’t good enough,” Zena hissed. “Sorry won’t make up for my centuries away. For the life I could have lived, simple and happy with petty worries. Sorry,” her voice cracked, “won’t make up for the fact that I’m alone again!” Her echo bounced off of the cavern walls. ADAM buzzed anxiously. Willow nuzzled against Zena, sending a mild, irritable shock through her scales.

    “You aren’t alone,” Willow said. “I’m here. And I’m your friend!”

    “You have heightened user permissions,” ADAM stated to Zena.

    “I tolerate your movement,” Valle said.

    Zena puffed a few times through her nose. Her heart was racing and she didn’t know why. She didn’t expect to get this far. She was ready to throw everything away just to get one jab at Star before leaving to the aura sea. She was ready to be made an example of, to experience a Creator’s wrath, just to prove a point. In hindsight, it was completely illogical. But she still did it. In some stupor, she finally laid her heart bare for the others to see its pain, and for Star to finally end it.

    But none of that happened. Instead, the pink mist floated there, staring at the four Guardians. She was too ill-defined to see an expression on her, but her voice was clear.

    “I’ll fix everything. I—I just need help. I’m helping as much as I can. I’m working as fast as I—and—and I’ll make Owen better,” Star said. “That’s—that’s what I’ve been trying to do this whole time, Zena. I’ll have him remember everything. I—I just need time, Zena. He’s not ready! You saw how he reacted! If I gave it all to him now, he’d—he’d totally lose it. You believe me on that, at least, right?!”

    Zena’s body tensed, looking for a fault in the logic. Star wasn’t going to deceive her again. But… she had a point. Owen’s aura was blazing before Star had blocked his memories.

    “Owen,” Zena repeated. “You can easily modify his memories, even outside of the spirit world. Yet, you can’t for us?”

    Star shook her head. “I’m not modifying them. I’m sealing them. His brain makes up for what’s missing.”

    “That does not sound like best-practice,” ADAM said.

    “Yet, you still can’t do that to us. I doubt Owen and the others trusted you enough to give you free access to their minds,” Zena said. “Does that mean you’re lying? That you’re—"

    “They were designed that way,” Star blurted. “They…” She looked down. “That’s how their minds are supposed to be. They have an intentional vulnerability in their auras to revert them to their lowest forms if needed. If you inspected them up close, you’d see the same thing. Ask Anam or Amia. They’ll say exactly what I said. And that same vulnerability seals away their memories. All you need is the right aura key, and…” She motioned to the three slumbering mutant larvae. “Rhys is an aura expert. He taught it to me, Zena. And then to Amia. If you want to help control Owen and ease him into recovery, have Rhys teach it to you, too.”

    Zena’s adrenaline, by now, was gone. “And you want to save him?”

    “Of course I do. All of them,” Star said. “That’s the whole point. I just want them to live normal lives. I want everyone to live normal lives. I want the Hunters gone—or at least, for them to give up. So the world can be at peace. So everything can be… fixed. But I… can’t do that on my own.”

    “Why not?” Zena said. “What’s stopping you from just coming to the real world and wiping the Hunters out yourself? You’re the Creator!” Zena shouted. “Descend upon the mortal realm and make it so!”

    “Wh—” Star shook her head. “What, you think I wouldn’t do that if I could?! I’d’ve done that a long time ago! I can only see the world through you guys if you let me! If you guys block me from your realms, I… I’ll be…” She shook her head. “I can’t, okay? I’m not descending on the world any time soon.”

    “Then why not?!” Zena said. “Or are you afraid that if you show your face here, we’ll kill you? Because in the end, you think we’ll turn on you because you were the one who—”

    “I’m not afraid that you’re going to kill me!”

    “Is that a challenge?!” Zena raised her voice.

    “No!” She raised her voice even more. “I’m not afraid because I’M ALREADY DEAD!”

    This time, despite her tiny, smoky body, it was Star’s voice that echoed throughout the cave.

    “I literally can’t come down. It’s the same way for Arceus. We’re dead, Zena. Dead gods! And neither of us will let the other come back. So, we’re stuck.” Star turned around. “I’ll never let Arceus down again. And he won’t let me, either. And if we can stop the Hunters from upsetting that balance… then that’s all I want.”

    “You want… to stay dead?” Zena asked.

    Star looked away. “I’m… tired, Zena. I’m… I’m s-so tired…”

    Zena’s breathing was completely normal again. He looked at the others.

    Willow sparked a few times anxiously, squirting a bit of web beneath her body. “Oops…”

    Zena sighed. “We have a common goal. Save Owen, and stop the Hunters. I suppose I can work alongside you until that is completed.” She looked away. “You’ll need to work more for my trust beyond that.”

    “Thank you,” Star said. “Can… can I get a hug?”

    Zena slithered toward her home. “I am going to wait for Owen.”

    Willow hopped—and partially sank—into Star’s arms instead.

    <><><>​

    Every step the four elite fighters took made soft echoes in the long, winding cave. From the outside, the Spire of Trials looked like a giant spike from the ground. Smooth. It was the perfect monument, and they were sure that Guardian Manny and his spirits had crafted it themselves from a mountain. They must’ve had a lot of spare time.

    Amia lit the way forward with a blue flame. The light revealed how well-polished the halls were. “Amazing,” Amia said. “Do you suppose they chiseled it with nothing but punches and, ah, their determined fighting spirit?” Amia winced. “I apologize, Rhys. I’m not familiar with your Typing and their tendencies.”

    “I wouldn’t consider myself typical,” Rhys said, but then pointed forward, into the first arena.

    And there he was. Feraligatr Azu, posing with his bulging muscles in various stances to show off each one. Every flex felt like it made the air itself bend in shockwaves, the sheer power radiating from him making the atmosphere tremble. It was likely all for show.

    “Goodness,” Amia said quietly. “It’s as if his muscles have muscles.” She wondered if she could make Alex look like that with a bit of Mystic work.

    “Hm,” Rhys hummed. “From how I understand it, we will be fighting in an order of some kind? From weakest to strongest…”

    “Who is weakest of us?”

    “Me,” James said, nodding. “I may be strong… but I am still limited by Anam’s power output. It would be best if I attack first, and then Anam follows sometime after.”

    “Isn’t Anam… only defensive?”

    “He has a kind heart,” James said, “but against spirits, he knows he can’t hurt others. He will be able to fight at his best.”

    Rhys nodded. “Then, I am fighting Manny… That leaves you two,” he nodded to Anam and Amia, “to decide who will fight the third and second strongest.”

    “I wouldn’t consider myself the greatest of fighters,” Amia said. “Not compared to you, Anam! The Association Head of the Thousand Hearts Association… you’re definitely stronger!”

    Anam giggled and blushed a slight purple under his cheeks. “Aww, I’m not that good… but okay, if you say so, I’ll fight after you.”

    “Got it,” Amia said.

    And with that, James finally called out to the Feraligatr. “Azu! We are ready to battle you with our weakest member, me,” he said. “Do you accept my challenge?”

    “I accept!” Azu said, stomping the ground. “Ha! You are familiar!” Azu called out to Amia. “Are these your best?”

    “Y-yes!” Amia called back. “We’re the strong four of our group, more or less! Well—so far, at least!”

    “Yes,” James said. “So, don’t think this will be as easy as your fight with Owen.”

    “Owen?” Azu repeated. “H-ha! The Charmeleon, you mean!”

    “Yes. That was Owen—I’m quite a bit stronger than he is. Do not expect this fight to go as well.”

    “To go as well?” Azu said. “Ha! I see! You mean to say that you are even more powerful than Owen!”

    “Yes. I do mean that,” James said. “Did I not state that outright?”

    “I see! Very well!” Azu shouted back, clapping his hands together. “Thank you for informing me!”

    There was an odd silence then, where Azu didn’t say anything, and neither did the group. The four expected him to make some sort of statement about taking the first hit or getting ready for a tough fight. At the very least, they expected Azu to perform some sort of Ultimate Pose Technique to dazzle them. But he just stood there, claws tapping one another with his hands together.

    “Goodbye!” Azu declared. He exploded in a flurry of blue embers. The way forward lit up with a dim glow on the opposite side of the arena.

    “Oh,” Amia said. “That was… an interesting reaction.”

    “I did not expect a forfeit,” James stated, removing himself from his battle stance. The feather-arrow tugged back with an ethereal bow disappeared. “Amia, did you understate Owen’s fighting abilities?”

    “W-well, he was getting his scales handed to him when he was a Charmeleon.”

    “But how was he after he evolved?” Anam asked.

    “Um… he was a much more difficult opponent,” Amia said.

    “You may have understated his abilities.” Rhys nodded. “Nevertheless, we should advance. Amia, prepare yourself for your battle. True to his Orb, Manny wants to see our strength before joining us.”

    “Right… of course,” Amia said. “Hmm… oh, how should I approach this battle? It won’t be too hard, will it?”

    “We can’t know the strength of the third-strongest fighter. He could be slightly stronger, or leagues stronger than Azu.”

    They passed through the exit and continued up the spiral. It was much like the last passageway, only with a slightly sharper curve: The only indication that they were higher in the spiral. After a few more circles around, they saw another dim glow. This one was slightly green, flickering with movement. “Here we go,” Amia said.

    “Hrruuoogh!”

    Amia quickly brought up her flames. The blue embers danced around her like tiny Illumise. They saw a Chesnaught posing in the middle of the room. Like Azu, he was bipedal, with a muscular build. What distinguished him, however, was his large, beige shell with four huge spikes on his back. The shell also appeared to have muscles.

    “Be careful, Amia,” James said. “Chesnaught are immune to quite a few projectile attacks. Since you specialize in distanced attacking… I would focus on beam-like moves, such as Flamethrower, or field-of-influence moves, like Psychic.”

    “Got it,” Amia said.

    “Ahh, so you are the ones who have defeated Azu!” Chesnaught said. “I am Verd, the second strongest of Guardian Manny’s summoned spirits! Give me your third strongest fighter!”

    “Th-that would be me,” Amia said. The blue Gardevoir waved sheepishly and stepped into the arena. She waved her hand, creating three bright, blue flames above her.

    “Ha! Then if you are the third strongest, I accept your challenge! Do not think this—”

    One of the flames with Amia turned into a jet of fire that went straight for Verd. He yelped and rolled out of the way.

    “W-wait! Wait!”

    “H-huh?” Amia asked; it looked like she was about to launch a second one.

    “Y-you didn’t let me finish my speech! I need to psyche myself up!”

    “Psyche… yourself up?” Amia said.

    “I—I need a second. Give me a second! There’s a process to this!”

    Amia crossed her arms confusedly and looked back at Anam, James, and Rhys. The Goodra shrugged. The Decidueye and Lucario merely looked down.

    “Okay. Take… take the time you need, dear,” Amia said.

    “Thank you.” Verd got into his pose again, stomping on the ground, shouting at Amia. “Do not think this battle will be easy! I shall give you a true challenge to see if you are worthy to face Guardian Manny! Now… let the battle begin! Hrrraaaaaaaa!” Verd ran at Amia with as much speed as his legs allowed, reaching Amia in seconds.

    At first, Amia didn’t move. She seemed unsure if the battle had started or not. Then, at the last half-second, she deftly moved to the right, sidestepping the initial tackle. He couldn’t redirect in time. He had a lot of momentum, but no agility to redirect. Still, Amia recognized the strength behind his attacks. Just one could do serious damage. She’d have to finish quickly.

    Verd ran toward Amia for a second time, winding his fist back. Still, he was a Fighting Type. That wouldn’t do as much damage against her. His Grass Type was likely hidden away, similar to Azu. Amia’s embers blasted out another blue-hot Flamethrower. Verd punched through it, forcing Amia to dodge again.

    “Fight me head on, Gardevoir!” Verd said. “Do not think that such tricks will be effective against Manny!”

    “Oh, dear, I’m not fighting Manny,” Amia said. “And this is working quite well against you!”

    “Nnngh! Don’t think you have the advantage!” Verd shouted. He pushed his hands together and separated them with a foot-long gap in the middle. An orb of his very fighting spirit formed, brimming with life and power. Verd launched the Focus Blast straight at Amia. She countered with a Flamethrower again, rupturing the ball of energy. It exploded in a blinding flash, sending a shockwave that knocked Amia back a few feet, but the flames persisted. Verd shouted in surprise—but that was all. Amia’s fire was simply too powerful and Verd was just another ember by the time the flames settled.

    “…That was it?” Anam said.

    “I suppose Verd was only slightly stronger than Azu, then,” James said.

    “Or they drew straws,” Amia added, dusting off her dress. “That wasn’t so bad! I haven’t had a fight in quite a while! Did I do okay?”

    “I think you did great!” Anam said, pumping a gooey fist in the air.

    James nodded, deciding not to point out the flaws. “You did well for not fighting in so long. Quite well.”

    “We should advance,” Rhys said. “Anam, are you ready for your fight?”

    “Yep!”

    The upward curve through the spiral was getting even sharper. It felt like the inside of the spire was roughly two or three stone’s throws in diameter. The dim glow met them again—red, now—and this time, they saw an Infernape waiting for them at the center of the penultimate arena.

    “I,” the Infernape greeted, “am Roh, the strongest of Guardian Manny’s Fighting Spirits! Give me your second strongest fighter to face me in a battle of might and honor!”

    Anam giggled and wobbled forward. “That’s me!” he said.

    “You, Goodra… shall be my opponent. Do you accept this fight, and not stop until either of us falls?”

    “I accept!” Anam said enthusiastically, clapping his hands together. They made wet, slapping noises.

    Roh seemed slightly unnerved. “And… you are certainly the second strongest?” he said. Despite his hesitance, his voice was still loud.

    “Yes! Well, Rhys and I might be around the same strength, maybe… but Rhys would be good against Manny, don’t you think?”

    “The Lucario?” asked Roh. “Yes. Manny would appreciate that. Then, very well!” The Infernape went into his fighting stance, holding his two fists in front. “Do not expect me to go easy on you! Let the battle begin!”

    Roh moved perhaps a single inch out of his starting position. Anam opened his mouth and fired an intense, blue blast of dragon might from the back of his throat. The blue suddenly became indigo, and for a fleeting moment, it looked like the blast Anam had fired had grown dragon wings of its own. The wings tucked in, accelerating, twisting toward its target. Roh had no time to dodge. It went straight through his chest, leaving a hole behind. Roh stared in surprise, looking down at the spiritual embers that poured from him. He didn’t have the words to react. Then, delayed, he said, “I—” His body burst into embers, returning to the Guardian above.

    Anam giggled, clapping his hands. “That was fun!” he said. “He’s so cheerful! I like Manny’s spirits. They seem really fun to talk to!”

    “G-goodness, Anam,” Amia said.

    “So, are we gonna go to see Manny, now?” Anam asked.

    “I—I suppose so!” the Gardevoir replied. “Um… Anam, did you tap into your Mystic power for that attack?”

    “I might have,” Anam said, rubbing his ill-defined chin. “After a while, your Mystic power just naturally enhances your attacks.”

    “O-oh, right.” Amia nodded. “Of course. Um… let’s go. Rhys?”

    “I am prepared.”

    The turns got even sharper, and a strange smell filled the air. The further up they got, the more it became… foul. Rotten. An ominous air filled the atmosphere with every step they took. Cautious, the group walked a bit closer together, and a bit more slowly. Every so often, Amia bumped into Rhys from behind. “S-sorry,” she mumbled.

    “What’s that smell?” Anam whined, covering his nose.

    Amia nodded. “It’s quite… strong.”

    James had his eyes closed, walking with them. “…It’s the smell of decay,” he said. “The decay of… bodies.”

    “B-bodies?”

    “Yes. I am familiar with this smell. It is death.”

    Around the corner, Amia stumbled over something. “Oops—what was…” She brought her flame closer and screamed. She scrambled back and bumped into something else, screaming again. Anam screamed with her. Rhys and James tried to calm them down. Rhys held Anam steady, getting goo all over him; James tried to get near Amia, but his feathers got scorched in the process.

    It was the fallen body of a slain Pokémon. There didn’t appear to be any major wounds on it, but it was lying there for quite some time—at least a day. “O-oh, Arceus…!” Amia said.

    “We must advance,” James said.

    “Did—did Manny do this…?” Amia couldn’t look for long. She walked, looking straight; she only gave flashing glances below her to avoid stepping on anything else. Anam was covering his eyes, guided by James and Rhys; the Goodra was shaking.

    “It’s okay, Anam,” James said. “Relax. It’s just a body…”

    Anam whimpered. The feelers on his head twitched. “D-d’you hear that?” he asked.

    “A-a ghost?” Amia asked.

    “H-huh? No, not a ghost,” Anam said.

    They stopped walking to listen.

    “Hah! Yah! Heh… that all yeh got?!” It was coming from ahead and above.

    “…Isn’t that Gahi’s accent?” Amia said.

    An aura explosion blasted the wall. Amia yelped and jumped away, slamming into Anam. “O—oops, sorry, dear!” She struggled to break loose of his gooey belly.

    “What was it?” Anam asked, clutching Amia from behind in fear.

    “J-just an Aura Sphere!” Amia said, unable to move out of Anam’s grip. “Rhys?”

    “Yes,” Rhys said. “I’m beginning to understand why they wanted me to fight Manny.”

    After only a few more steps, they saw it—another Lucario, a bit taller than Rhys, and significantly more muscular, rather than Rhys’ lean build. And the other Pokémon—a fierce one, Garchomp—but, more importantly, it was like all the other mutant, clean auras. Something was different. She used her arms as legs, and those arms were larger than a normal Garchomp’s. It looked like it was built for quadrupedal movement. She growled and rushed at Manny, and the Lucario laughed and dodged every strike. Fallen Pokémon littered the ground—the Garchomp was the last one standing, aside from the Mystic she was fighting. Was he fighting the entire time, ever since Owen had arrived?

    “Watch out!” Amia shouted.

    “I got it, I got it!” Manny said, firing another Aura Sphere at the Garchomp.

    She screeched and tried to dodge—but it was impossible to avoid the Sphere. She shouted and slammed against the wall, collapsing.

    Amia held her hands to her mouth. “Is… is she…?”

    The Garchomp abruptly roared and attempted another Dragon Rush toward the Fighting Guardian. In an instant, he countered with another Aura Sphere. Amia recognized those movements of that Pokémon. The desperate lunge, that primal, single-minded need to fight to the very end, against even one’s own body’s physical limits—that Garchomp wasn’t going to quit, no matter what. She looked at the bodies in the arena, and then at the last one standing.

    The Garchomp slowly stood up. She growled, wobbling closer to Manny.

    “P-please… stop,” Amia said.

    Fight and fight and fight—but instead of Azu, who lost once Owen evolved—and lost quite badly, in fact—Manny wasn’t even tired. He was on a completely different level than this Garchomp.

    The mutant growled, glaring at Manny.

    “Just… stay down,” Amia said.

    The Garchomp lunged.

    Amia thought, for just a moment, that the Garchomp had transformed. Like it had wings and a flaming tail. Running straight at Manny, straight toward his death, driven by thoughts that were tied to his original purpose.

    “P-PLEASE, STOP!”

    Manny fired directly at the Garchomp’s head.
     
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