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TEEN: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

Chapter 91 - Rediscovery
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 92 – Rediscovery

    Angelo had fallen into a healthy routine. He would wake up around early afternoon, have breakfast, do some drawing, and leave his home to heal the dying. Then, along the way, he would see small requests on the board by the Central Waypoint—now nonfunctional and repurposed as a trouble board. Angelo was, therefore, able to take on essentially any request, whether he wanted to or not.

    He didn’t understand. It had been so perfect. Every day would have been the same and nobody would have assumed any differently. He was an artist, just a simple comic artist who wrote about heroes taking down impossible villains. He wasn’t someone who actually could!

    And yet, now, they assumed he was. Suddenly he was the versatile hero. And now, standing at the exit to his art shop slash home, he knew that it would only be two steps before someone would ask him for help.

    He pawed uncertainly at the door, undoing the latch—but then heard a small, squeaking sound, followed by a scratching noise below.

    “Erm, hello?” Angelo asked.

    Little, fuzzy yellow legs poked out from underneath the door. More scratching and squeaking, angry little noises, and a Joltik finally popped out. “You!”

    Angelo flinched, stepping away. “Me?”

    “Yeah, you!” She leaped onto his face, and Angelo screamed, flailing,and tried to grab her. Instead, she squirmed and found her way somewhere under his hat fur. “You’re late!”

    Angelo was still screaming.

    “Why’d you take so long to wake up!?”

    Angelo was still screaming.

    Then he felt something bite against his skull, and then he couldn’t move. Electricity raced along his body, numbing him, and he fell on his side with jerking, spasming motions.

    “Oh, great, and now you can’t even move!” Willow jammed her leg against Angelo’s head again. “Come on, you’re stronger than that! Get up!”

    “I’m… trying…”

    “Hmph!” Willow hopped off and waited at the door. “We need your help with scouting this time.”

    “Scouting?” Angelo repeated, his gaze focused on a few dusty coins that had rolled under a shelf a long time ago. “Why scouting?”

    “Well, because you can fly!”

    “Oh, so I can.”

    “And if we’re ever short on units to send somewhere, Elder said that you’d be the best person to grab! Because you’re a wildcard, or something!”

    “Elder. The giant Torkoal?”

    “Yup!”

    “Of course.” In the past few days, he had seen him giving out calm orders in the place of the Lucario mate of his. What ever happened to him, anyway? Well, perhaps he was on a long travel.

    “You know, I’m kinda jealous,” Willow said, prodding Angelo again while the feeling slowly and agonizingly returned to his limbs. “Since when can a Smeargle learn so many moves and keep them?”

    “Sticky aura, Father called it.” Angelo slowly rolled until he was on his belly, then shakily brought his arms forward. Up, up… don’t fall, don’t fall… Too weak to stand. Not yet. Sitting would do.

    Willow, clearly impatient, hopped a few times before landing on a nearby shelf, dangerously close to a framed picture of his grandfather, Smeargle Angelo. While recovering from his paralysis, the current Angelo wondered if his grandfather, too, had been driven insane by overworking. Sure, the cover was that he had gone insane somehow by straying too close to Void Basin, but really, weren’t those just silly rumors? Overworking sounded a lot more likely…

    Because it certainly felt like he was following that same path.

    He could feel his legs again. Good. Finally back on his feet, he sighed and didn’t flinch when Willow landed on his head.

    “Okay. Time to go,” Angelo said. “Where am I scouting?”

    “We,”—The word filled him with dread—“are going to fly to Yotta Outskirts to observe from the air if there are any mutants straying nearby, and if there are, we’re gonna take them down!”

    Angelo was frozen mid-step outside his home. “Excuse me?” he said. “You can’t be serious. I—I’m not someone who can fight mutants. Are you insane?”

    “But you’re super strong, aren’t you?”

    “No!” Angelo shook his head fervently. “That’s all behind me! I have a variety of abilities, yes, and I’ve trained for the Hearts, yes, but I am just a comic book artist. I do not want to fight a mutant! I want to live!”

    “Hmmm…” Willow shrugged. “It’s okay! I’ll protect you.”

    The little Joltik hopped a few more times—at an impressive height, going over his head—and then said, “Okay! Let’s get our other scouts. These two went to Yotta Outskirts a few times already to help with the new trade route thingy.”

    “What for?”

    “I dunno! Something about farmland.”

    “Farmland… Oh, perhaps to secure some steady food.”

    Supplies were rapidly dwindling. The Hearts were scrambling to set up new routes to sustain the population—though thanks to most healing mechanisms disappearing, Angelo morbidly wondered if the number of mouths to feed would be a problem for long.

    “Yotta Outskirts…”

    There were several towns referred to as Outskirts, but Yotta was by far one of the largest settlements by area. Angelo also recalled that their crops used to be a great supplier across the world. Wheat, seeds, vegetables, whole orchards of fruits… If they could secure something like that again, feeding the town would become a matter of organization, not numbers.

    Walking down the streets of Kilo Village, Angelo checked for any new developments. Several shops were reopening with new purpose or old business. Several more were used as makeshift hospitals and recovery shelters. Settled wounds—ones that proper healing did not get to in time—and other ailments plagued most of these Pokémon, and they needed a place to curl up and rest a while, at best. Angelo was tempted to visit them and see if his Heal Pulse would do any work, but the very thought labored his breathing. He was lightheaded.

    “Oh, and Elder also said we’re gonna get a visitor soon!” Willow said. “A really big visitor from the east.”

    “Visitor? Who told Elder?”

    “Arceus.”

    “Oh, okay.”

    It was probably true, but Angelo had grown numb to it. Arceus this, Arceus that, it was like seeing him in town that one time was the dawn of a new era. What, the sky falling wasn’t enough? It wasn’t like Arceus was strong enough to do anything anyway. What a divine letdown.

    “Will we know when the visitor’s arriving?” Angelo asked.

    “Nope! Soon.”

    Angelo passed by a team consisting of a Scyther and Pikachu heading for the northern exit. Both of them looked like they hadn’t slept well in days. In Pikachu’s paws were several mission statements, which he was reading aloud to Scyther. Angelo closed his eyes, wondering when he’d be able to curl up in bed again.

    The Central Waypoint’s bulletin board was a crowded mess of requests of varying levels of legibility and descriptiveness. Pokémon came and went from this board, peeling requests off as they saw them, while several more were stuck on to replace them, managed by several Heart staff.

    Perhaps he could take on that job next? Not as one of the Thousand, but as a simple bookkeeper that helped keep the Hearts functioning as a governing body, even now. Maybe if he asked convincingly—

    “Angelo, right?”

    It was a curse. “Yes, that’s me.”

    Before him was a Salazzle with a settled wound—a scar that was certainly from a lightning strike on her chest. He couldn’t look away, but the annoyed look on Salazzle’s face was enough to force him to stand to attention.

    “Like what you see?” Salazzle growled.

    “I’m sorry. I, er—Yotta Outskirts?”

    “…Yeah, that’s us. Delphox Leo’s going to be our director. Team of four. Apparently this one is going to help us fly there and deliver supplies.” She motioned to the Joltik between them.

    “Yup! That’s me!” Willow raised her front half an intimidating inch off the ground. “Joltik Willow, master cargo deliverer!”

    “…Is this a joke?” Angelo asked Salazzle.

    “Nope. I saw her do this myself. You’ll see soon. Anyway, name’s Salazzle Spice. I remember you from drawing our menu over in Sugar ‘n Spice. Thanks, by the way. Really popped, brought in extra business before this whole mess started.”

    “Oh! The same—you know Sugar?” Angelo asked. “Oh, of course, you’re, er, her sister.”

    Now that Angelo thought about it, having two Salazzle for siblings sounded quite strange, especially at the same age. Weren’t female Salandit rare?

    “Oh, there’s Leo,” Spice said, pointing behind him. Weaving away from the crowd still trying to take notices, Angelo struggled until he saw the Delphox in question waving them down.

    “Is that Angelo?” Leo called.

    “Yep! We’re ready to go!” Spice said.

    Something landed on Angelo’s head and he froze in horror.

    “We’re ready!” Willow said while on top of him.

    But before they could depart—or figure out how they were supposed to depart—a shrill cry came from the western road. Heads turned. A frightened Bewear pointed a massive paw toward the horizon, where a great, black figure loomed over them. With the sun’s current angle, its shadow darkened the entire western mountains, with great, black wings made of some ethereal material, a long, coiling, serpentine body… Angelo couldn’t comprehend its form. Where was its head? It simply coiled and coiled with a black core in the center, and then it ended on the other end with five thick tendrils that looked this way and that.

    Not that it mattered—it was covered in eyes! All of them blinked independently of one another, and Angelo was sure that a few were staring specifically at him, despite how far away it was.

    It stopped its advance just as its shadow curled around the crater’s edge.The Pokémon of Kilo Village all stared in stunned silence. Murmurs of terror rippled across the crowd. Others were morbidly fascinated. Several were already fleeing for their lives.

    Torkoal Elder was quickly—therefore, slowly—making his way down the Heart HQ stairway.

    The leviathan in the sky waved one of its five tendrils at them, and Angelo realized that the tendril split open at the end like a mouth.

    Hello!

    Angelo forgot how to breathe. The thought and ability left him. Pokémon were screaming but it was all dull and muddled.

    Do not be afraid!

    Spice was shoving Angelo forward to find shelter, or something. He didn’t know. He was probably still dreaming. The screams were all white noise.

    My name is Nate!

    It was drifting closer. Several beams of energy—a Hydro Pump, a Fire Blast, and an Ice Beam—blasted the leviathan to no effect as its body drifted over the outer rim of Kilo Mountain’s crater.

    Please! I’m here to help!

    It was landing. Its body curled over the mountain like a hungry, feral Seviper over an unguarded nest, or like Angelo curling over his bed to rummage through his snack packs.

    Angelo hadn’t breathed for a while. Or perhaps he was breathing too quickly. Either way, his vision was curling itself into a tiny circle. Something tiny pulled on his furry cap, and Willow’s voice loudly screeched for him to stand up. Angelo hadn’t even realized he’d collapsed.

    “It’s just Nate! Get up!” Willow commanded. She jammed one of her legs into his forehead, but to no avail. She growled and kept trying to pull him up, flapping her fairy wings to gain altitude.

    And then, everything went dark.

    <><><>​

    “They’re dead ahead.”

    “Y’sure?”

    Eon had the form of a mutant Flygon this time, likely because his mind was so focused on Gahi. He thankfully did not inherit the accent. However, he also did not inherit the Psychic powers, and had to deal with normal flying—an agonizingly slow pace compared to the others in the scouting team, namely Xypher and Hakk. Even with his Flying-induced Tailwind, they weren’t very fast compared to Gahi’s flying speed. Corviknight were incredibly fast fliers, but it wasn’t enough compared to Gahi’s speed. Though, he supposed having such a lightweight passenger also helped.

    They had to stay close so their cloaking against Titans was still effective, but there was no telling how long that would last. The cloaking was apparently not perfect, especially if more intelligent ones were looking for small distortions in the sky. Below them were the many jagged fingers of Void Forest’s treetops, and ahead, after what might have been half a day’s travel, were the faraway mountaintops of what Marshadow had called the Nolla Mountains. By wing, travel there would have taken a full day of nonstop, full-speed flying, and they’d have needed to bring more rations. On foot? Marshadow had said not to bother.

    “How’d he get this far so fast?” Marshadow said. “How’d he know where they were? They ain’t seers like you.”

    “They share a strong bond already because they fused together before,” Eon said. “Maybe that’s a factor?”

    “If that’s the case, they’d’ve said something about Owen, too, eh? You mentioned they fused with him, too.”

    “Well, that’s true…” Eon sighed. “Then maybe it’s a coincidence.”

    “I don’t buy coincidences,” Marshadow replied, arms crossed. “Bah, whatever. We’ll see if it means anything later. Fer now, let’s make sure he’s alri—OI!”

    Eon had suddenly stopped, and Xypher squawked and beat his wings. Dark, steely feathers drifted below them. Marshadow, losing his balance, landed face-first into Eon’s back. With a grunt, he slammed his hand on a shoulder and stood up.

    “Alright, what’s yer deal?”

    “They’re behind me now,” Eon said, pointing. “They were just ahead a few seconds ago, and now they’re…”

    “What, does your internal routing not update in time or something?” Hakk muttered, but then blinked. “Update…” He rummaged through his bag.

    “I guess not, but we need to head back now. They aren’t ahead anymore.”

    Eon spun around and flew under Xypher, then waited for him to keep up.

    “This cloaking device blocks sound, right?” Eon said. “We might need to disable that so we can call them. He might not be paying attention to where we are.”

    “Maybe we can just land next to them when we see them. Are they moving?”

    Eon searched for Gahi’s energy. It didn’t seem like he was moving; they were getting closer at around the same speed they were flying. But it was all such a strange, vague sensation to begin with that he had no idea.

    “Forget your senses. Found ‘em.” Hakk pointed at a bright green figure among the dark trees. The glossy, shining body was enough of a giveaway that it was Gahi.

    Seconds before Eon was about to call, Gahi disappeared in a flash of light, and suddenly he was further ahead again. “What—”

    “Teleporting. Figures.” Marshadow chuckled and tapped Eon on the shoulder. “Think yeh c’n keep up with that?”

    “Hmph, I won’t be outrun by some Guardian newbie.” Eon beat his wings harder and sped ahead, but that only earned an irritated shout from Hakk.

    “Wait!” he roared. “Cloaking device! Remember?!”

    “Hrrgh, then how am I supposed to catch up?” Eon snarled back at them. “You’re the one keeping me held back!”

    “Stop complaining and catch up!”

    “Fast! Fast, fast!” Xypher panted, gliding downward for extra speed.

    Thankfully, Gahi was slower to disappear this time, and once close enough, Eon shouted, “GAHI!”

    “E-eh?” Gahi turned. “Lygo? What’re yeh—”

    “It’s—” Eon was about to specify, but then realized that would be a bad idea. Not yet. Instead, he motioned behind him. “We were scouting for you. What’s going—” Once he landed on the ground, he saw how winded Gahi was, eyes crossed with what looked like a bad headache. Trina, slung behind Gahi’s shoulders, looked pale. Along with that, Demitri and Mispy, looking starved and battered, stood against one of the trees just to prop themselves up.

    Marshadow muttered a curse and said, “You guys don’t look too great.”

    “Yeah, was bringin’ ‘em back,” Gahi said between breaths.

    “We found them in the mountains,” Trina reported, wrapped around Gahi’s neck by the vines like a backpack. She looked nauseous. “I’m assuming we’re going in the right direction.”

    Eon looked to Demitri and Mispy next. “And you two? Are you okay?”

    “Better than before…” Demitri tried to stand straighter, but it only made him dizzy. He collapsed against Mispy, who fell over right after, leaving the pair in a heap.

    Xypher chirped worriedly, and Hakk hopped off of the Corviknight while sorting through his bag.

    “Rations,” Hakk said to Marshadow, who nodded. “Hey. You two should get some energy back and just sit here for a while.” He pulled out two brown bars wrapped in paper.

    “What’s that?” Demitri asked.

    “Food. Just a little to—”

    Mispy violently tore the two bars out of Hakk’s grip, having only enough self-control to give one of them to Demitri, who took it with trembling claws.

    “You’ll need water,” Hakk said, pulling out a flask next. He held it out delicately this time, and Mispy took it with another vine.

    “And how about you?” Hakk asked Gahi and Trina.

    “I do not have an appetite right now,” the sick-looking Snivy muttered. “Perhaps when the world stops spinning.”

    “I’m fine,” Gahi said. “When c’n we get back?”

    Eon squinted; there was a trail of blood coming out from Gahi’s left nostril. “How much have you been Teleporting?”

    “Not fer too long,” Gahi said.

    “Looks like you’re Teleporting too much too fast,” Hakk noted, scratching deliberately at his own nostril.

    Gahi mimicked the gesture and inspected his claw, flinching.

    “I don’t think your powers are fully developed after all, Gahi,” Trina noted. “Let’s rest until you can go the rest of the way.”

    “I’ll make it,” Gahi said. “I just gotta—”

    “I will shove my vines down your windpipe if you Teleport me again,” Trina hissed. “I wasn’t built for this sort of thing.”

    “Hmph, at least get me dinner first,” Gahi muttered back, but he sat down anyway. Only then did the dizziness hit him, because after a few breaths, Gahi had his hands on his head. He said something difficult to understand and then breathed deeper.

    “Yep. There’s the migraine,” Hakk said, rolling his eyes. “Who would’ve thought, a Dragon with Psychic powers wouldn’t work out. Last I checked, only Legends have those.”

    “Legends. Which ones?” Eon asked. “Hrmm… Latias and Latios, if I remember right.”

    “Yeah.”

    “Are they here?” Eon asked. “You mentioned that the Legends were forgotten, but…”

    “Yeah, those two’re around. Far northeast from where we are right now. Those two’re leaders of another sector of the Voidlands Protection Network.”

    Something was bugging Eon. “I think there’s another Dragon-Psychic.”

    Marshadow shrugged. “Maybe. Probably another Legend we’re forgetting.” He approached Demitri and Mispy. “Hey. You know a Charmander?”

    “What?” Demitri asked between bites. Despite how much he was starving, he swallowed, paused his eating, and nodded. “Kind of. He’s a Charizard now, though.”

    “Nah. But what’s his name?”

    “Owen.”

    “Well, good ter meet yeh two. I figure yer friends o’ Gahi’s? I remember he told me a lot about y’guys.”

    “Eh?” Gahi mumbled. “Whozzat? Manny sounds smaller.”

    Mispy laughed weakly, and Marshadow’s shadowy flames bent to an imaginary gust of wind.

    “Whoever this Manny is,” Marshadow muttered, “I’mma challenge him ter a fight.”

    <><><>​

    “Are you going to stand there all day?”

    Tim spun around, as did Owen. Smallwing—who Tim ended up naming Duos—chirped angrily at Owen to hold still while atop his head.

    Before them was another human, and Owen recognized this one as female, at least, he thought so. The higher voice was usually the giveaway there. Long hair, brown eyes, she looked native to Kanto, unlike his current trainer, who was apparently from someplace called Unova. A Pokémon he had never seen before was curled around her neck, snoozing lazily. Serpentine, no arms or legs at all, with a bright blue body.

    “No, I was just looking,” Tim said, stepping aside. “This Gym is our first.”

    “And you’re bringing a Charmander and a Pidgey to it?” the girl asked, sighing. “Didn’t you take
    any classes on type matchups? They’re one of the most basic concepts.”

    “I’m gonna make up for it in spirit!” Tim said. “And Charmander’s cool!”

    She rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. Your parents moved all the way here because they’re rich, and then they helped get you into the Head Start program next, is that it?”

    “N-no, I—”

    She quirked a brow.

    “…I… um…”

    Owen, perplexed, growled confusedly at Tim. Why wouldn’t he just tell her off? Granted, he had no idea what this program was about, only that Tim wanted him as a partner. And sure, he was an idiot, but he wasn’t a
    bad human. He already felt a little stronger, too.

    The girl leaned forward. “Wait… did you maybe, get a scholarship for this? Are you a talented trainer?”

    “No, that’s not it,” Tim hastily said, waving both hands. “I just, I don’t know. It’s what my parents wanted of me. I could’ve gone to high school back in Unova, but the Trainer Learning program is cool!”

    “…Hmm.” She eyed Owen, and he didn’t like that. He started to growl, but Duos pecked his forehead from above. Owen hissed at Duos and grumbled.

    The serpent around the girl’s neck stirred.

    “Hm? Oh, sorry, Ire,” the girl said, rubbing under his chin.

    “Ire, huh. Is that a, um….” Tim stared dumbly at it.

    “A Dratini, yes.” And it looked like she took great pleasure in explaining this.

    For some reason, this was monumental, because Tim’s eyes were wide. “But those’re—”

    “Rare? Maybe where
    you lived, but where I’m from, they fly around all the time! But they wouldn’t choose any simple trainer. Dratini are graceful, elegant, and wonderful—”

    Ire let out a loud, satisfied belch. Owen couldn’t believe that such a sound could come from something so small. And then, Ire squeaked happily and nuzzled the girl’s cheek.

    “Y-you were saying?” Tim asked, struggling to hold back laughter. “Something about grace and elegance?”

    Ire nibbled on the girl’s cheek, pulling it so her teeth were showing.

    “Oh, just—move aside! I have a Badge to win!”

    “Okay, Your Grace,” Tim replied, bowing exaggeratedly. Thinking that this was a custom—after all, apparently Ire was supposed to be an incredibly powerful Pokémon—Owen mimicked Tim and bowed the same way. Duos fell off of his head and chirped various curses at Owen.

    Seething, the girl stomped past him.

    “Oh, um—and what’s your name? I’m Tim!”

    “Hmph! Ayame. Good luck with your Rock-weak team!”

    Tim watched for a while longer, looking wistful. “Wow… a Dratini…” He looked down at Owen, grinning all the same. “Oh well. Charizard’s gonna be cooler anyway.”

    And that, he liked.


    <><><>

    “He sounds like an interesting human,” Zena remarked over breakfast. For her, more blocks, but she was looking healthier already. For Owen, he had what looked like a grainy, chewy bar packed with… he assumed it was food, but the taste was vaguely sweet and chalky.

    “I guess so,” Owen said, staring at his toes. “Tim… Eon, now, I guess…”

    “But from what you told me, you’re at odds with each other, now, aren’t you?”

    Owen sighed, then stalled by taking another bite of his nutrient bar. She was still staring at him. No choice but to answer.

    “As far as I’m concerned,” he said slowly, “they aren’t the same person.”

    “But aren’t they?” Zena asked. “I don’t understand.”

    “No.” Owen closed his eyes, envisioning that happy, warm grin on the human boy, and then those desperate, mimicked-Charizard eyes. “He’s not the same person. You can have the same spirit and not be the same person. I’m at least four different people, and I don’t even know what some of those people were like. We may share the same name, and the same spirit, but… but the past ‘me’s are… that. In the past…”

    Owen’s gaze drifted toward Zena, and her frown mirrored his. Look at him, now he was the one making her gloomy. He shouldn’t have gotten so into that; he was trying to cheer her up! Still, she wanted to know. And Eon… wasn’t the trainer he’d grown up with.

    He wondered if Amber and Daichi missed him. Or Redscale, or Bigtail, or—

    “Then what does that make me?” Zena asked softly.

    “Huh?”

    Zena rose a little more from the water, wheezing for air, and asked again, “You wanted me to get my memories back. But would that just be… a past me, a me that’s no longer—”

    “No, it’s—this is different,” Owen said feebly. “This was a short time, and you’ll eventually just—”

    “I don’t think I like that attitude,” Zena interrupted, narrowing her sunken eyes. “It sounds like you’ve given up on your old selves. I don’t think they’d be very happy about that. Well, I—I don’t know about you, but I want to be whole again. The old me might have been gloomy, but it was still someone you fell in love with. And I want that back!”

    Owen flinched moments before Zena did the same. The idle hum of one of the water filters occupied the silence. One of the drains to their left was slightly wider than the others, and the water flowed faster through that one.

    “I—I mean—” she stuttered. “I’m sorry. I spoke out of turn. I do not know where that came from.”

    And then more silence. He’d never expected someone like Zena to have so much fire in her, but it wasn’t like this was unprecedented. This was the first time he was on the receiving end of it, though.

    “How can I be whole, though?” Owen said. “I spent so long as different… people. I-in fact, at this point, Har has it easier than me! And—”

    “I just don’t agree with that,” Zena said. “You’re the same person. Yes, you’ve changed, and yes, maybe those old selves are far and away, but… but they’re still you! Do we not all change, day by day?”

    “This is a lot more extreme than day by day,” Owen replied automatically, flame blazing brighter. “We’re talking centuries here!”

    “And?” Zena asked, voice rising. “What are a few centuries to people like us, really? At some point, we all take things one moment at a time, don’t we? We have more to look back on, and perhaps less to look forward to, but we’re all in this moment, now, together.”

    “And what’s that have to do with… everything that I’d forgotten until now? I bet I’d be a completely different person if I never lost those memories.”

    “As would I, had I never become a Guardian,” Zena retorted. “I am still me. No amount of amnesia is going to change that. And you! You’ve accepted your past as a weapon. A living, mutant weapon. How can you not accept this next?! What’s the difference?!”

    Owen tried to speak, but his mind was a fuzz. What was the difference? For a second, Owen thought he had wings to flex, but he was indeed still a Charmander, and Zena was still a Feebas. He certainly wished he had wings to hide under, though. The warmth they provided, the way he could shield himself under them, always felt secure.

    “I’m sorry,” Zena said.

    “Uh?” Owen returned to his senses, and he only then realized the apologetic, remorseful look in Zena’s eyes. She was mostly underwater again, surfacing only to speak.

    “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

    “Upset?” Owen echoed, and then realized how bright his tail was. “Oh.” He quickly tried to hide it behind him, took deep breaths, held each one…

    “I was just so invested in getting my memories back, a-and then you say that it wouldn’t matter if—”

    “No, no, it totally matters, I—”

    “For me, yes, but surely for you as well?” Zena begged. “I do not see the difference in our situations. We both lost our past. We both are fighting to get it back. I don’t want to reject myself. How fair would that be to… to my old self? I’m sure I would be very upset…”

    “I just don’t know if I can do any of them justice,” Owen admitted. “And I… don’t know if I want some of these memories back.”

    “What?” Zena echoed, rising again. “But all of your talk about—”

    “I did want it all back,” Owen said. “But…”

    <><><>​

    A Charizard hobbled up a great stairway, mumbling out a number. 77. 77. Because that was how many flights he had climbed. His arm was bruised. One of his wings was punctured. A few poison spikes had mercifully avoided any lasting damage to him, merely grazing his scales. Standing at the top of the stairway, yet another guard stood and watched, this time, a Rhydon. “You’re barely standing. Turn back.”

    “Can’t,” Owen replied, a pitiful smile glued to his face.

    “I know you’re close, but you just aren’t going to make it. One Stone Edge from me, and…”

    “Do it, then,” Owen said, planting his feet on the ground. “Not like you’re the first Rhydon I met.”

    “I know. You fought me before.”

    “Wha?”

    “The Destiny Guardians are an unending force. You can defeat us, and we will only return to take you down again. Now, c’mon, shortie. I know your tricks. Want to try aga—”

    In a deft motion, Owen flew the rest of the way up the stairs and blasted Rhydon in the chest with Dragon fire. Rhydon was too slow, conjuring sharp stones from beneath, yet Owen had dodged it despite his injuries. Rhydon didn’t have time to react; the Destiny Guardian disappeared in a flurry of cyan embers.


    <><><>​

    “Owen?” Zena gently asked. “Did you have another memory just now?”

    “It’s so much, Zena,” Owen whimpered, covering his face with his knees until the headache subsided. “Who even is Necrozma supposed to be? I didn’t remember his name at all until I started sleeping here! Why now?”

    “I’m sorry,” Zena said gently. “I shouldn’t have brought this all up when you’re so distressed. My memories are nothing compared to yours…”

    “Hey, no, don’t…” Owen peeked out from behind his leg-made hideout. “No, I’m sorry. I’m getting mine back. We still need to help yours…” He sighed, irritated with himself. “I should be grateful. Getting memories back at all sounds like it’s next to foreign here. And here I am, complaining about all the ones I have…” With a forced smile, he said to Zena, “Thanks. You helped me keep a perspective on this.”

    “Right…” Zena sank a little lower. “But what do we do now? Has Gahi come back yet?”

    “I think once he does, the next thing I want to do is help with scouting for Mom.” Owen nodded. “After that, I… well. One thing at a time for now. If I think too much, I think I’ll just tire myself out.”

    “That’s okay.” Zena drifted away, but then perked up. “Um—you don’t have to stay with me all the time, by the way.”

    “Huh?”

    “Well, you… are surely here to help me feel better. But I promise, if you’d rather be elsewhere—”

    “What? No! Where else would I go?”

    “I—what?”

    “I can’t go anywhere right now until that Marshadow guy says it’s okay for me to leave this building. I’m not going back to my room.”

    “But you seemed to have trouble sleeping here. It’s built for Water Pokémon, not—”

    “I was just having some memory-dreams,” Owen dismissed with a wave. “I’d definitely stay here until it’s time for scouting.”

    “To… make sure I’m okay?”

    “Well, sure.” Owen sounded puzzled. “But, you know, we were courting and stuff. And… well, I mean…” Owen fidgeted, looking for something to hold, but could only make use of his tail. “Being around you in general is nice. I’m starting to see ‘you’ again already. All I need is a book or two, and we can read together like before.”

    Owen wasn’t sure what Zena was feeling—curse his lack of Perceive—but her silent stare worried him. Was that too much? Was he coming on too strongly? She still barely knew him aside from his own recounting. And for all he knew, Zena was taking that with the possibility that he was lying. He couldn’t blame her. After everything that had happened to him, he would have done the same.

    “Just to be with a Feebas?” Zena finally asked.

    Owen tried to disguise his mild annoyance with a playful sigh. “To be with you, c’mon! No, you were totally baiting me to say that answer.” The playful sigh worked for Owen, at least, because his annoyance morphed into a warm smile.

    Yet Zena didn’t return it. A surprised frown, instead. “I wasn’t. I’m… Perhaps we were closer than I thought…”

    “I wish we were even closer, to be honest,” Owen said. “Like I told you, I missed… a lot of signals. So, I’m trying to be really clear about how I feel this time, and you said you’d be the same way. So, um. That’s why I want to stay here, instead of going back to my Fire room.”

    “Because… you love me.”

    “Yeah. But—but it’s okay if you aren’t ready for me to say that to you, because, you know, with the memories, I know how sudden it must—”

    “Owen,” Zena said gently, her sunken eyes looking right at him.

    He couldn’t look away. Every detail was suddenly clearer. The glistening of the water over her ample sclera, those tiny pupils, the murky scales that surrounded it, her feeble fins. It was remarkable how much Feebas differed from their higher forms. How different and raspy and wheezy Zena’s voice had become. Yet despite it all, she was still there. Alive. And even if she didn’t remember him… there was still hope that she would one day. And even then, a chance to move forward regardless.

    He wanted to see her smile again. It had been too long since the last time. Only this morning.

    “What’s that look you’re giving me?” Zena asked after a long, long silence.

    It was almost hypocritical, because she had been staring at him the same way. Not that Owen planned to comment on it.

    “Sorry,” Owen said, and then struggled as much as he could, in that eternal second, to find something cool to say. Something. Anything. Brandon’s words echoed in his mind. Pickup lines. There were so many brilliant ones and none of them were returning to him. He was a master, and he forgot his teachings. Wait, wasn’t there—no, that wasn’t one. Still, he had to stop staring.

    “Guess I just like looking at you,” Owen dumbly explained.

    The filters in the pool filled the silence again, accompanied by Owen’s humming flame. One of the cameras, usually silent, made a quiet revving noise as it turned as part of its routine, usually drowned out in the natural noise of the pool. Owen finally broke his stare, suppressing a smile, though it didn’t work well.

    “Sounds kinda silly when I say it out loud,” Owen finally admitted. “I—”

    Owen thought he was having another memory flash—a literal one, staring at Necrozma and his blinding body. But that light was coming from Zena.

    With a gasp, Owen hopped to his feet and ran toward the pool’s edge. He didn’t want to miss it. Her body grew and lengthened, shifting and changing within that bright light in a way more dramatic than any evolution he’d ever witnessed. At least, any he could remember.

    That brilliant, white light cracked away into sparks that lingered in the air, then faded in tiny, flashing bubbles.

    The Milotic looked down, and Owen found such humbling familiarity in those red eyes. There was a new glow in them that he had seen in the Feebas, and it did not fade when the last of the bright pinpricks of light did.

    “Zena,” Owen breathed out. “You’re…”

    She lowered as much as she could into the water, and Owen realized how small he was. As a Charmander, even with Zena’s chin practically on the floor, he was shorter than her horn.

    “I’m what?” Zena asked, smiling. “Beautiful?”

    “Well, yeah, but—you’re so huge!”

    Zena recoiled, but then giggled. “And you’re so tiny.”

    It was Owen’s turn to recoil, but when Zena smirked, he tittered and shrank even further. “Okay, maybe I phrased it badly…”

    “I have a strange feeling that it wasn’t your first time,” Zena added.

    “No, I’ve had a lot of times with you,” Owen agreed.

    Zena looked like she was about to say something, but then looked behind Owen. When he turned to follow her gaze, Marshadow stepped out from the washroom with a small, amused smile on his face.

    “How—long were you there?” Owen asked.

    “Enough that I didn’t wanna interrupt yer moment,” Marshadow said. “I got some news fer you. Congrats on evolving, by the way. Surprised ev’n me, thought it’d take longer befer this li’l guy made yeh feel pretty.”

    “Wait, that’s the secret?” Owen asked.

    Marhsadow shrugged, then added, “Hey, so, I’ve got good news, great news, and bad news, so what order d’you wanna hear it?”

    “Um.” Why did he have to make a show of it? “Just do it in that order.”

    “Alright. Good news: Flygon’s back with Snivy, and he’s brought company. A weird looking Meganium and Haxorus.”

    Owen’s flame doubled in size. “Are they okay?”

    “Weak but stable. We’re gonna get ‘em checked in first thing, same as you.”

    It was the best he could ask for. “Can I see them?”

    “The great news,” Marshadow went on, his grin not faltering nor growing, “is that we found Ralts.”

    Flame going from double to triple, Owen looked back at Zena with wide eyes. Hers were just as large, and then Owen asked Marshadow, “Okay, so—can I go? Can I help?”

    “You’ll be able to sense her the strongest,” Marshadow said. “C’mon. We gotta go fast.” He turned around. “I think the rest of the scouts’re almost prepared by now. Gotta mobilize the team. Hurry and wait.”

    “May I come as well?” Zena asked.

    “No,” Marshadow said. “Stay put here. Not strong enough, and Charmander here is gonna be fer detectin’ it all.”

    “But I—there has to be a way…”

    “We can’t fly a Milotic all that easily with us.”

    “Can you fly yet?” Owen asked Zena hopefully.

    “I… cannot. Not yet. Or, I haven’t tried, but I doubt I would have the ability…”

    “Then just you ‘n me, Charmander. C’mon.” Marshadow pressed on the doorway, which slid open, and Owen quickly followed after.

    “What’s the bad news?” Owen asked.

    “Well, it’s why the scouts are mobilizing twice as fast,” Marshadow said. “Yeah, we found Ralts. Problem is, she’s bein’ chased by a Titan.”
     
    Chapter 93 - Protect
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 93 – Protect

    Everything—his muscles, his bones, his scales—it all hurt. Stung, ached, cried in pain, but that was nothing compared to the shame that twisted his stomach in knots. A gentle breeze scattered flower petals into Owen’s face, a few covering the little cuts and scrapes over his body. There was a particularly bad welt on his right side where Onix had struck him into the sandy ground. The final hit that had done him in…

    The battle flashed through his mind. Duos falling to the first attack, the rocks pinning him on the ground. That was an instant withdrawal. Then Owen came, and he struggled past the Geodude with difficulty, but it was enough. Then that great, rocky serpent emerged. It was over before it started; Owen had never felt his flame shrink so much from fear alone.

    Another breeze rustled the grass. The view was at least something to appreciate. They had found a high point of the town, hiding under a few trees. Ahead, the orange rooftop of the healing center taunted him. Owen didn’t want to go there. And even when Tim insisted he did, Owen refused, though Duos got healed.

    It was twisted, but Owen enjoyed the feeling of the pain of battle. To have it healed away would wipe away the experience. The catharsis of this aching, the ability to heal it all on his own, and not with the magic the humans knew… He wanted that, at least for this fight.

    Tim was a good trainer because he listened.

    Or maybe he was a bad trainer because he let him stay hurt.

    But now Tim was writing in a book. He always did that, usually in the afternoon, maybe the evening. Blank boxes under strange words that he didn’t know how to read. The human language didn’t make any sense. Apparently, it was some sort of work he had to do with his adventure so he could do adult human things later in life, like a job. Whatever
    that was.

    “Owen?”

    He immediately curled up. He didn’t hear that. Just like he didn’t hear Tim’s command in time to dodge. Or jump, or duck. He didn’t deserve his name.

    “Owen, I’m done with my homework.”

    And he wasn’t done being a bad Pokémon. Owen curled up tighter, but realized too late that a whimper had escaped him.

    Soft fingers brushed his back and he yelped. Tim quickly pulled away.

    “Sorry,” he said. “Is that a sore spot?”

    Yes, saying his name was a sore spot. And that part of his back hurt a little, too. “I failed you,” Owen mumbled.

    “Hey, don’t be so upset,” Tim said, and the fingers returned, this time gently around his side. That part wasn’t bruised.

    He didn’t resist, but he was dead weight, making certain that Tim would know he wasn’t interested in being coddled. He failed, and it was that simple. Even with his human help, he was useless; there was no way he could have won that fight. Because he wasn’t good enough.

    “I’m sorry I lost that fight,” Tim said.

    Owen’s brow furrowed, little scales rubbing against one another. Was Tim fighting Onix, too, and he didn’t even notice that? How did humans fight?

    “I froze up and didn’t direct you in time. I got scared and didn’t know how to react, and you got hurt because of it.”

    Tim ran his fingers gingerly down Owen’s back. Shadows and light danced around the grass, tree leaves waving above them.

    “You don’t want me to take you to the Center?” Tim offered.

    “No.”

    “You don’t want to rest in your ball?”

    “No.”

    Down the hill, two humans fought alongside their Pokémon. Training for the Gym, probably. A Geodude and a Rattata. Would either of them do well against Onix? So far, Geodude was winning, hefting Rattata in the air like a plank of wood.

    “Owen, I want you to know something. Okay?”

    He’d consider it, so he listened in silence.

    “Don’t be mad at yourself. I can tell you’re sad because Onix won, but it wasn’t your fault.”

    Human hands were so soft. From the back of his neck to the base of his tail, Tim made gentle, long strokes along Owen’s scales. The tight ball that he had curled himself into slowly loosened. His tail flopped lazily over Tim’s thigh, and he used Tim’s knee as a rest for his chin.

    “But I was the one who lost,” Owen said. He wondered if Tim understood him yet.

    “You and Duos were… disadvantaged, and I didn’t consider it’d be that bad until it was too late. It’s my fault. So…”

    Tim’s voice quivered. Suddenly alarmed, Owen turned his head to look up—Tim had turned his head away at the same time, jaw clenched and brow furrowed.

    “I’ll do better next time,” Tim said. “I’m—I’m sorry I put you through that. Made you take the loss because I don’t know how to battle.”

    Why was he apologizing? Humans… knew everything, didn’t they? Pokémon just had to execute their attacks perfectly, and he failed. He failed to even listen. Onix followed his commands perfectly.

    Fighting that Onix, Owen had frozen up completely. Tim had given clarity, something to follow. And then… Owen failed. He had hesitated.

    “No!” Owen suddenly chirped, rolling tiredly until he was facing Tim more directly, though now Owen was awkwardly on his back. His tail flicked against the ground and he pointed up at Tim, whose head eclipsed the sun. “You… just have to yell louder! And I… have to listen more!”

    “What?” Tim asked, his eyes drying ever so slightly. He sniffed and wiped his face, then smiled. “What, I just have to give my commands faster? Sure, I’ll try…”

    “Then… we
    both will do better.”

    “I will, I will,” Tim said, his expression brightening. “Hey, it’s good that the fight’s still in you. Don’t lose hope in me yet, okay?”

    One day, Owen hoped Tim would actually understand him. But for now, that would do. His arm flopped down, he nodded at Tim, and then curled up in his lap again. Another breeze filled the air with flowers, and the Rattata, in a surprising upset, knocked the Geodude down and then out.

    Owen’s eyes fluttered, head blearily tilting to the soft part of Tim’s thigh.

    Maybe he really was a good trainer.

    “Found you.”

    With a tired groan, Owen opened one eye and saw that girl with the Dratini again. Her human name eluded him.

    “Ayame?” Tim said.

    “Saw your fight,” Ayame said, and the Dratini around her neck gave Owen a teasing stare. “I’m moving on to the next Gym, but I wanted to give you a little boost.”

    “I don’t need a boost, I need to train more.”

    “If you want to brute-force it with pure power, maybe,” Ayame said, “but then you’ll never catch up to me.”

    “Since when was I trying to keep up with you?” Tim asked.

    Owen growled.

    “I can tell. You boys are easy to predict.”

    Owen didn’t know what she meant, but for some reason he felt offended.

    “Here.” Ayame handed over a compressed Poké Ball.

    “What?” Tim looked it over, hesitant to open it.

    “Little guy accosted me as I left. Liked being with a winner, I guess. But I only need Ire.”

    Ire raised his head in the air proudly.

    “So, I offered to show him someone who might need the help. Like I said, bringing a Pidgey and a Charmander to the Pewter Gym is pretty boneheaded.”

    Boneheaded? That was a good thing. Owen’s father would have taken Onix down easily.

    “Just consider it,” Ayame hinted. “I’m not gonna wait for you if you take too long getting to the next Gym. See you.”

    And just like that, she left. Ire curled around her and spat a plume of indigo fire in the air, then squeaked a taunt Owen’s way. “Bye, not-dragon!”

    He didn’t like that.


    <><><>

    The flight over the Nil Plateaus was long and tiring. How the scouts had scoured such a place so thoroughly, Owen didn’t know. Groggy from his in-flight nap, resting in a passenger bag that was pinned under Xypher’s chest, Owen carefully crawled out and looked down.

    That was a mistake, and Owen’s stomach felt ten times heavier.

    “W-we’re flying really high!” Owen said. “I thought that was d-dangerous here?”

    “Risk management,” Hakk said from above, though Owen couldn’t see him. “Right now, we’re flying fast with a high-power scouting device so we can avoid any Titans. It’s not like there are a whole lot of them. We’re also tracking down the general direction of auras like yours, but those aren’t all that accurate. Do you feel anything yet?”

    It was hard to concentrate when the ground looked like a giant, purple ocean speckled with black. “No, I don’t,” Owen said.

    “Hrm, guess she’s still far ahead,” Hakk said. “How much did she Teleport. Hmm, Ralts, single person, but low power… She probably would be able to outpace anyone on foot, but not enough to lose a Titan. Tch. And eventually she might have to hide to recover her energy, if she has any in her…”

    “Mom’s strong,” Owen said quickly. “I never saw her Teleport before, so maybe she never had to, but…”

    “As a Ralts, it might be instinct for her to fall back on it,” Hakk concluded.

    “The scoutin’ call we got says so,” Marshadow called, and Owen peeked out a little more from Xypher’s bag to find whoever was carrying him. Eon—a Flygon. And beyond Eon was Gahi, and Trina on his back, deep in concentration.

    “How long have we been flying?” Owen said. “Is it my shift yet?”

    “Not yet,” Marshadow said. “Get more rest.”

    Rest did sound nice… “Okay, but—wake me up when you need me.”

    “Yeh.”

    <><><>​

    “Trident!” Tim shouted, “Double Kick!”

    Ayame sighed. “Ice Beam, Ire.”

    Trident, a Nidorino with deep, purple quills, shrieked and curled into a ball, shivering in the frosted ground. All around them, like a hallway, were tall bunches of grass—dwarfing even the humans, let alone Owen.

    Tim winced and withdrew him in a flash of light, staring apologetically at the Poké Ball once the light faded. “You did great, Trident. Don’t worry about it.”

    Trident was headstrong—even more than Owen, who now stood at hip-height with Tim. Never a fan of staying in his ball for long, Owen shifted on his feet while his flame hummed loudly behind him. Duos had already been taken down by the same move, and while Owen had planned to go next, Trident’s ball had wiggled in protest. Tim couldn’t ignore him.

    So much for that.

    “What do I do now?” Tim said desperately. “It’s just
    one Dragonair. That’s all she has! Why is she so hard?!”

    “Before the holidays, please!” Ayame called, tapping her foot. “I can see the leaves changing!”

    Ire stretched his coils and fluttered his tiny head-wings. Occasionally, he glanced at Owen, flicking his tail so the orbs at the end glowed forebodingly. Owen’s flame glowed in kind.

    “I can’t send Ivy out yet,” Tim said worriedly. “She’s not ready—she practically just joined us…”

    And that meant Owen was the last one Tim was willing to send out for this battle.

    Owen reached out to Tim and grabbed him by the hand. “My turn,” he insisted.

    “Right…”

    The Charmeleon furrowed his scaly brow. “Stop being scared.”

    “I—I’m not worried that you’ll lose or anything,” Tim said. “I just… I don’t get it. She’s unbeatable. She’s way too strong! Dragons are…”

    “Do you give up?” Ayame said, and Ire looked very displeased at the possibility.

    “I only have one more Pokémon that I want to send in. My fourth, Ivy, she’s… not ready yet, for, um, for Ire.”

    “That’s fine. Ire wanted to fight Charmeleon the most anyway.”

    “C’mon!” Ire insisted.

    Trident had gotten a good hit in before getting Ice Beamed. This gave Owen a head start. “Okay,” Owen said, stepping forward while his flame blazed. “Let’s go!”

    “Ire, start off with a Thunderbolt!”

    Owen knew that word from the last time they had fought—it hadn’t ended well—and rolled to the right the moment the electricity crackled. The sparks singed the ground, and Tim shouted something that sounded like Dragon Rage, so that was probably it.

    Indigo flames bubbled in Owen’s throat—these flames tasted sour compared to the sweet warmth of his normal flames, but that only meant he had conjured the right ones. Getting close, he blasted Ire with the plume, small streaks of blue decorating the landscape between them.

    “Again!” they both shouted.

    This time, Ire didn’t miss, and the hot, sharp sting of electricity locked Owen’s legs. He pivoted to his side and used his longer arms to prop himself up, blasting Ire with another one—but he had disappeared. Where did Ire go?

    He looked back at Tim for advice, but he seemed equally confused. Ayame smirked, then shouted, “Extreme Speed!”

    Something struck Owen on the left.


    <><><>​

    Owen tumbled onto the ground and woke up to the sound of loud squawking.

    “Xypher!”

    “He fell! Fell, fell!”

    “Ugh—what—what?” Owen groaned, too disoriented to move.

    “Hey, it’s alright, we aren’t under attack,” Hakk said. “We just landed and you fell out of your bag.”

    “Sorry. Sorry, sorry,” Xypher said in a whisper. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t, I di—”

    “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Owen said, raising a hand weakly, and at first, he thought it’d be longer. But no, he was a Charmander. Those dreams were getting distracting…

    “…dn’t,” Xypher finally finished, like he had been holding his breath.

    Owen gave Xypher an odd look, and Xypher puffed out his feathers, muttering something else in his triple-repeat.

    Owen nodded slowly. “It’s okay, Xypher. I’m fine.”

    When Xypher relaxed, so did Hakk.

    They had landed in a small cave, dimly lit only by Owen’s flame and a few of those of crystals that Marshadow had brought as ‘bait’ for the Titan. He couldn’t sense anything nearby, but Amia still felt like she was vaguely south. It felt like it wasn’t getting closer or farther.

    “I guess it’s my turn to stay awake? Why did we land?”

    “Tired,” Hakk said. “Can’t fly safely while we’re asleep.”

    “But Mom’s—”

    “We tried to get to her in a day, but we couldn’t,” Hakk said simply, and then looked to Marshadow for support.

    “’Fraid those’re the facts,” Marshadow said with an apologetic nod. “Hope we c’n find her tomorrow, but if we press now, ain’t gonna be strong enough fer the Titan chasin’ her. With any luck, she’ll evade it and find some time to rest, too. She can use Teleport, after all. Real evasive, Ralts.”

    Eon’s eyes in particular looked very heavy, but Owen didn’t want to look at them for long. For one, they reminded him of how tired he still felt. And to add, it was Eon, and…

    “Owen? Are you okay?” Eon asked.

    That was it. “I’ll keep watch outside.” Owen wobbled to his feet.

    “Are you sure?” Eon asked, standing up.

    “I’ll be fine on my own,” Owen said immediately, not looking back. He wanted to say thanks for the offer, but his throat was paralyzed the moment he tried. Instead, he quickened his pace toward the exit, finally emerging to the purple landscape of the Nil Plateaus. This portion of the region had denser formations; the Titans would have to go single-file between them, not that Owen had ever seen two in the same place before.

    Finally able to clear his head, and hearing Gahi and the others settle down, Owen relaxed next. He listened for the distinct, hesitant, and heavy footsteps Eon would’ve made as a Charizard, or a Flygon, but none came. That was enough for him to loosen and relax.

    “So, yer—”

    Owen’s flame tripled in size. With a slow breath, he brought a hand to his chest and looked to his right. “Please don’t do that.”

    Marshadow, who had emerged from the wall, held up his hands. “Force o’ habit, my bad.”

    Awkward silence followed, and Owen realized that Marshadow was trying to coax a statement out of him. Well, maybe he didn’t want to talk about his feelings. Especially when he barely had a handle on it himself.

    “If you don’t want him ter bother you, say the word,” Marshadow said.

    It took a while for that to register. “What?” Owen blinked. “You’re not—”

    “I dunno what the deal is,” Marshadow said. “But yer clearly uncomfortable. Maybe it was a mistake ter bring ‘im. But we needed th’ versatility, an’ he’s a Ditto.”

    A Ditto, right. That introduced a new thought. “Can Ditto turn into Titans?”

    “Nope.” Marshadow leaned back. “Too powerful, made of too many creatures. Even if he replicated one, it’d be too weak. Better ter replicate someone we know, utilize their abilities.”

    Just talking about him wasn’t making him feel well. He looked ahead and nodded wordlessly.

    “Need anythin’?”

    “I’m fine, thanks,” he said, and he hoped Marshadow wouldn’t press.

    “Yeh. Holler if yeh need me; we share a shift.”

    And he was in the wall again, and Owen watched with mild confusion. Nothing? Marshadow didn’t ask or press for his opinion at all on Eon. Just… accepted it.

    The silence was only accompanied by the occasional breeze across the dirt. No rumbles here, and it just occurred to Owen that he didn’t even have a scanner like the one that Hakk had used when he’d been first rescued. That would be useful.

    “Hey, Marshadow?” Owen eventually called. “Do you have that… scanner thing?”

    “Yeh.” Stepping out of the cave, he produced a small, circular device, a lot like a Badge, only with Necrozma’s mark on it. “I use this fer alerts. It’s got a buncha programs on it, so it’s already gonna beep if there’s a Titan that enters our range, and then it’ll really beep when it’s in the danger range where we should start movin’ around.”

    Owen tilted his head when Marshadow pressed the center emblem. A split-second later, a circle of light appeared above it, and then melted into several icons and a green, monochrome map of Nil Plateaus.

    “No Titans now,” Marshadow said. “You’ll know if there is one when it beeps. Guess until then, why not use it fer reading, maybe a game er two?”

    “…For what?”

    Marshadow tapped on the circle and pushed forward, and it disappeared into nothing. New icons appeared in a large rectangle. “We’ve got the same body type, so this is easy ter pass ter you without reconfiguring anything.”

    Owen hesitantly grabbed it. “What’s this called, anyway? It’s crazy how many things it can do…”

    “We call it a Voidlands Protection Assistant, or a Veepa.”

    “Veepa. Alright.” Owen prodded at one of the buttons, disoriented at the lack of tactile feedback, and pulled back. A new screen washed over the old, and suddenly Owen was looking at what appeared to be a series of rectangles on the top part of the screen, a single rectangle on the bottom, and a circle just above it.

    “What’s this?”

    “Oh, that? Real old game that someone over in the Eastern district made. Spread like wildfire, became a must-have fer everyone, even if it’s simple.”

    “I don’t get it.”

    “Place yer claw near the bottom,” Marshadow explained.

    The lowest rectangle followed Owen’s claw, and suddenly the circle was slowly bouncing off the upper blocks. Each one it hit either changed colors or disappeared completely.

    “Go on, make sure that lower bar keeps the circle bouncin’.”

    But Owen was too slow, and the circle fell past the rectangle. A mournful sound came from the device. Owen suddenly let go of the bar and tried to grab the circle before it fell off the screen, but then it disappeared. “What? Where’d it—”

    And then the circle reappeared above the rectangle.

    “How’d it do that?”

    “Y’guys don’t have games where yer from?”

    “Er, no,” Owen said. “Wait—we do! But not like this. These are… I don’t even know how this works. How does it make things I can’t touch?”

    “They’re projections, kinda like a Zoroark’s illusions. And the way it works inside?” Marhsadow shrugged. “Combination o’ the basics. Porygon tech and a little bit o’ conferred powers. Dunno the specifics, but it’s real nifty.”

    Nifty was one word to use. Incomprehensible was another. “Hello?” Owen said. “Porygon? Let me know if you need anything.” He gently stroked the side of the device.

    “…Eh… it ain’t actually a Porygon.”

    “Oh. Then who is it?”

    “It ain’t alive.”

    This was getting too confusing… “Um, you also mentioned reading?”

    “Heh. Ain’t surprised yeh’d be interested in that.” Marshadow helped Owen navigate to another part of the device’s capabilities. “Here, read up in this. It’ll help yeh get familiar with Null Village, sorta a guide on all the facilities.”

    The screen washed to what looked like the virtual face of a book. Following his intuition, Owen tried to open the book—and it responded! Marshadow’s smile suggested that Owen looked a little too fascinated by the tech, and tried to subdue himself. “Um—thank you,”

    “When we’re ready, we’ll switch off so you c’n get some proper sleep, too,” Marshadow said. “you only slept fer maybe three, four hours. If yer tired, let me know.”

    “Okay. Thanks, Marshadow. I’m… sorry I don’t remember you clearly.”

    “Nah.” Marshadow waved dismissively. “Happened ter all o’ us. The fact you c’n get those memories back is the real miracle. Hey, y’know, shot in the dark: y’know about Gone Pebbles?”

    Owen shook his head.

    “Figured. Well, if you ever feel an object that seems to have a real strong, y’know, presence like yer powers and those like yeh… Lemme know. Not those crystals, I mean, they’re valuable too, but… just pebbles and stuff… They’re real valuable.”

    “What makes them valuable?” Owen asked.

    “They’re what can restore memories,” Marshadow said. “One-use enchanted objects filled with power that can combat Dark Matter’s curse.”

    Owen perked up. “Wait—does that mean if Zena were to use one—” But then he stopped himself, shrinking. “Or, um, or Xypher, for example, who probably barely remembers anything…”

    Marshadow’s smile only grew. “It takes a whole lot ter go up a class, let alone fully restore memories,” he said. “But just a single memory is precious around here. Keep that in mind, y’know, when going around sayin’ yer gettin’ memories back. Might make folks envious.”

    The amount of empathy Owen felt from that statement alone was too strong for him to articulate. Instead, his throat tightened, and he nodded gravely.

    “Looks like yeh get it.” Marshadow winked. “Take care. Holler if yeh need me.”

    And so, Owen was left alone again.

    Gone Pebbles… mundane items imbued with power. Where did they come from if this realm was so related to Dark Matter? And maybe even more importantly, why did he have those properties imbued within him?

    He supposed that was something he’d have to think about later. He had a long shift ahead of him, and a lot of reading to do.

    <><><>​

    Bouncing in his Poké Ball, Owen was too weak to so much as struggle out of it. It was too tempting to rest and let the world fall into its warm darkness. But something was horribly wrong, too. This wasn’t Tim’s running rhythm. And this wasn’t the happy, gentle presence of him, either. He was kept sealed in some strange capsule that went around his normal home.

    A skid, a stop. Then a sudden jerking motion as his carrier ran in another direction. Something yowled, and then abruptly cut off, and he felt the presence—muffled and weak—next to him. Another Pokémon?

    “OWEN!” Tim cried. “DUOS!”

    All their names. Owen tried to wiggle out, but it was no use.

    It was getting a lot harder to stay awake. Poké Balls didn’t normally do this… did it?

    Everything spun and suddenly light struck Owen’s ball. More struggling, and he tried to shift his attention to the source. A Dragonair had sent a bright arc of electricity through a human in a dark outfit.

    Ayame?

    Someone picked Owen’s ball up, and frantic, and then he was knocked over by Ire moving suddenly toward the carrier. This other human staggered and dropped Owen’s ball, but then fled the other way with a Koffing spewing smoke in all directions. Suddenly, Ayame was coughing, but Ire was curling around Owen’s ball like he was protecting an egg.

    “It’s okay,” Ayame said to Owen through the ball, picking him up. “We’ll get your friends back.”

    Tim was running toward them, but Owen was too tired. He finally gave in.


    <><><>

    Gahi kept Owen on his lap, protective while he slept. Sure, occasionally the fire burned when Owen got excited in his sleep, but that wasn’t important. It was unreal that he was right there, after all those days searching… And as a Charmander again. Yet Owen remembered.

    And so did he. Not thinking much about it, Gahi draped the blanket that they had brought with them over Owen, and smiled when the little guy curled up more.

    Trina was staring at him and he’d only now noticed. Freezing, Gahi frantically searched for an excuse, but then the Snivy looked back outside the cave.

    “I don’t sense anything. Do you?” Trina asked.

    Gahi hesitated to answer, words escaping him. Then, “Nope.”

    “I suppose there’s no use trying to until this radar tells us.”

    The sand here wasn’t anything like desert sand. It was soggy, in a way. Soggy sand, somewhere between wet dirt and dry grains. It made no sense.

    “How is Owen?” Trina asked, not looking back.

    “Eh? Why should I know?”

    “Well, you’re taking care of him, aren’t you?”

    “N-nah, just making sure he’s not—just making sure he doesn’t run off.”

    To this, the Snivy looked back, giving Gahi a bored look. “Acting tough doesn’t work if others can tell how you really feel.”

    “What’s that supposed ter mean?!”

    Owen groaned in his sleep and Gahi brought his head down.

    “I mean,” he added, speaking softly, “ain’t like he’d be all that strong out there.”

    “Do you really think Owen would run off?” Trina said, frowning. “I don’t understand why you’re trying to act like you don’t care about him. Is it some kind of social complex to be tough?”

    “I dunno, just—” Gahi squinted. “What’re you even getting at?”

    She rolled her eyes and looked out again. Everyone else had gone to sleep. Marshadow was a black puddle near the backmost part of the cave; Hakk was curled up into a broken, spiked ball, like a miniature mountainside of glaciers. With his head tucked under his wing, Xypher also slept with the occasional caw under his breath. In his sleep, Eon had dissolved into a ball of pink slime in the other corner.

    Trina never said anything in response, and Gahi growled, tempted to move away from Owen just to prove a point. But that wouldn’t be worth it. Owen looked too cozy anyway.

    “How long have you known Owen?” Trina asked.

    “Eh? Fer a while, kinda-sorta.”

    “Mm. The memories?”

    Gahi nodded when Trina looked back. “Choppy, spotty, y’know?”

    “From what Marshadow told us,” Trina hummed, “it sounds like Owen’s history goes back a lot more than his creation at Eon’s headquarters. In fact, he’s from a world that isn’t even our own.”

    Something was tight in Gahi’s chest and he counted the rocks on the wall opposite to him. “Yeah.”

    “What do you suppose that means for the rest of your team?” Trina asked. “Team Alloy… Surely you weren’t created just to complement Owen for a fusion.”

    “Eh?” That made sense, but it didn’t feel relevant. “What, like we used ter be with Owen? I ain’t got any memories like that.”

    “You said yourself that it was spotty,” Trina said. “Do you suppose you’re also from that world?”

    But unlike Owen, Gahi hadn’t gotten any memories like those, nor did he feel any particularly strong attachment to Eon the way Owen might have. Sure, he was tempted, but that was different, wasn’t it? Without realizing it, Gahi was stroking Owen’s back, and the little Charmander churred in his sleep, content.

    “Owen’s quite different from Har, too,” Trina remarked. “I’ve never seen a Pokémon like us make so many feral noises before.”

    “Aah, he’s just quirky like that,” Gahi said. “It’s cute.”

    A beat of silence.

    “Eh—I mean, he’s, it’s weird, but it ain’t like it’s harmful.”

    Trina chuckled, bringing one of her tiny arms over her mouth. “It’s okay, Gahi. You’re allowed to care for a friend.”

    “Mrph.” Gahi didn’t move. “Fine, if yer gonna be like that…” Gahi reached down and brought Owen under his wings, cradling him. Trina’s huge eyes widened just a little more, and Gahi defiantly made sure Owen was tucked cozily away. “What’re you gonna do about that?” he asked Trina.

    Trina gawked wordlessly, then tried to suppress a laugh. “I suppose I’ll do nothing,” she replied. “I never saw you as much of a caretaker.”

    “Well, maybe I am,” Gahi replied back. “Li’l things are cute.”

    “Are they? Even bugs?”

    “I mean, if they ain’t loud,” Gahi said, but even then, his words wavered.

    “Then am I cute?” Trina teased.

    “Stop tryin’ ter trap me,” Gahi growled.

    “Oh, I must be enchanting.” Trina made an overdramatic flourish of her tiny hands.

    Gahi replied with an equally dramatic eyeroll, head tilting back for good measure.

    Gahi’s arms felt wet. Little streaks of tears connected Owen’s cheeks to Gahi’s scales, and suddenly nothing else mattered. “Hey,” Gahi said, jostling the Charmander. “Hey, Owen.”

    Trina perked up. “Is he okay?”

    “Mnn…” Owen blinked awake, but he was too groggy to tell what was going on.

    “You alright?” Gahi asked. “You were cryin’.”

    Owen continued to blink, then closed his eyes again, curling up tighter. “Memories. It’s okay.”

    Gahi was about to press, but Trina said, “You can keep resting. If you want to tell us about it later, you can.”

    Owen didn’t look up, but the flame on his tail calmed. Gahi hadn’t realized until then that it burned his belly a little.

    “Thank you,” Owen said. “I’ll tell you later. I’m… sorry.”

    “Nah,” Gahi relented. “I get it.”

    And he really did. When he had fused with Owen after their encounter with Eon in the Chasm, and the night that followed, everything that had come to him… Scattered memories, strange new feelings. Gahi wasn’t going to force Owen to talk about that until he wanted to.

    Owen settled back into a rhythmic slumber, and Gahi set him down beside him, fluffing up the blanket to instead become a mattress. That was even better, as Owen had settled into a tranquil slumber right after.

    Trina moved to the other side of Gahi and settled there instead, probably because there was nothing of value to look at. “I do think what Owen is recovering is valuable, though,” Trina said.

    “Well, duh. It’s who he is.” The light of Owen’s flame glimmered on Gahi’s shimmering scales. “He never gotten ter be his whole person befer.”

    “Mm, yes. But I was more referring to what he knows about the past. It isn’t hidden for no reason.” Trina frowned, balling her hands up. “Dark Matter is what they called him. He erased some part of history. And I doubt he would do something that arbitrarily… An entity of pure evil? He seems too clever to just be a chaotic force. This was planned.”

    “Planned. Fer all these centuries?” Gahi shrugged; he couldn’t wrap his mind around that scope. “Maybe he just wanted to cause trouble.”

    “Maybe Anam was preventing him from doing that,” Trina said, “so he had to find some workaround for it. And it just happened to take this long. Think about it.”

    Gahi was about to retort that Owen was usually the one to do the thinking, but humored her.

    “All these centuries of stagnation among the Guardians. Most of them were dormant until someone disturbed their Dungeon homes or was foolish enough to bother them. Eon had no idea where to look for us until recently, and at the same time, our Mystic glow became more noticeable.”

    “Eh?” Gahi tilted his head. “What? More noticeable?”

    “Yes. Before, the glow was very subtle. And suddenly, we can barely hide ourselves. Suddenly, Anam loses his stability and Dark Matter runs rampant, just as nearly all the Guardians are gathered together. And to top it all off, it’s also at the same time that Owen was able to repair his aura after the scarring that had happened when he’d first fused.” Trina let out a quiet hiss. “I don’t believe that can all be a coincidence. This was, somehow, coordinated from the shadows.” She glanced over Gahi’s thigh and toward the sleepy Charmander. “And what was erased from history might be the key.”

    Beep beep beep.

    Their strange device was alerting them to something. On the map, a large, purple dot appeared on the bottom left of the radar, along with a flickering white dot that occasionally blipped ahead of the larger dot.

    “Seein’ as we’ve got some white dots in the center, that’s us,” Gahi said. “Figure that’s Amia?”

    “Yeh.” Marshadow was already awake, walking to the badge.

    “Someone’s a light sleeper,” Trina remarked, approaching Xypher and Hakk to wake them next.

    “Yeh.” Marshadow prodded Eon’s puddle and looked back at Owen. “Don’t wake ‘im,” he said.

    “Eh?” Gahi was about to jostle Owen awake.

    “It’s his Mom, yeh? Might do somethin’ stupid. Let’s just fly an’ get this done quick. No breakin’ formation.”

    Gahi didn’t agree with that, but he also was more interested in getting to Amia before the Titan did. He picked Owen up, a little rougher than usual, but even then the Charmander didn’t stir. Disappointed, he approached a groggy Xypher and slipped Owen into the carrying pouch.

    “Let’s go,” Marshadow said. “Time ter save Ralts.”

    <><><>​

    “And you weren’t able to escape your ball?” Arcanine asked.

    Owen shook his head, but that made him dizzy, so he stopped and rested his head on the pillow. Strange wires were hooked up to his chest with some sticky tape—Owen didn’t know what invention it was, but apparently it helped the humans make him better.

    Tim was sitting in the corner of the room, out of tears and speaking to a woman with a lot of strange gear.

    “Do you remember anything else?” Arcanine asked Owen.

    “…They wanted to fight,” Owen said slowly, each word a struggle. “We thought it was a normal battle. But when we lost…”

    “Don’t strain yourself,” Arcanine said.

    “What?” Owen followed Arcanine’s gaze. His flame was dim. Sinking into his bed, he nodded again and stared at the strange machine next to him, making a very annoying, rhythmic beeping.

    “Did anybody else travel with you?” Arcanine asked.

    Owen nodded. “Five of us. Tim was looking for a sixth for a full team, but… b-but…”

    “Take your time.” Arcanine nodded.

    “How’s it going, partner?” the woman in the strange outfit said.

    Arcanine looked back and growled disappointedly. “Same as the others.”

    “Nothing new, huh?” she clarified, and Arcanine nodded. “Okay. Well, Timothy, we’re very, very sorry for what happened. We’re on the case as we speak; we’ll track down the rest of your team.”

    “Thank you,” Tim said, but his voice was barely a whisper.

    Owen was tired again. He looked to Arcanine. “I remember one thing,” he said weakly.

    “What?” Arcanine asked, and his human also looked toward Owen.

    “They Pokémon they had… tried to attack my human.”

    “Attack your human?” Arcanine repeated, growling slightly. “They can’t fight back.”

    Owen tried to sit up, but a gentle but massive paw from Arcanine kept him down. He relented and nodded, motioning to Tim.

    “They tried to poison him,” Owen explained.

    “What did he say?” the Arcanine’s human asked.

    “They might attack trainers directly,” Arcanine said, looking at Tim. He motioned to a scrape on Tim’s arm.

    The human’s frown deepened. “These guys are serious,” she said. “Okay. Thank you, Charmeleon,” the human said. “You get some rest.”

    “Will he be okay?” Tim asked quickly, the loudest he’d been—loud enough that the beeps didn’t drown him out.

    “He should be fine,” the human replied.

    Arcanine looked to Owen and whispered, “Know any Fire attacks?”

    “Of course.”

    “Hit me with one.”

    “Now?”

    Arcanine nodded.

    Owen hesitated, but then opened his mouth, sending a small wad of flames toward Arcanine. The flames encircled around his body and washed over his fur harmlessly, and Arcanine smiled.

    “He’s going to be fine,” he told the humans.

    The way Tim smiled, it seemed even he understood.


    <><><>

    Owen awoke to an ear-splitting roar and learned soon after that he was airborne again. Suppressing a scream—not that anybody would hear it over the roar, Owen shrank further into the bag around Xypher’s neck and braced when the Corviknight banked to the left.

    “What’s happening?!” Owen cried.

    No answer. When the roar finally stopped, Owen found enough courage to look out. Only the empty, albeit narrower fields of Nil Plateaus. When Xypher turned back, though, the roar’s source—while obvious—was now the only thing Owen could see.

    Four legs, a long neck, and a mouth that stretched across its entire head. Its tail wound in a coil behind it and left large gashes in the ground. Mercifully, it was ground-bound. That didn’t matter when their target was also stuck on the ground.

    Right?

    Where was she?

    No Ralts in the field. Sure, they were high up, but she’d at least be a gray or green dot on the ground. It didn’t feel like she was down there, either. In fact, it felt like she was to the—

    And suddenly, they were banking to the left again. “That way!” Hakk shouted. “Up on the plateau! How’d she—gah! No! That one now!”

    Perhaps as a Ralts, Amia was more prone to Teleporting. But she wouldn’t be able to keep that up for long, would she?

    “Wait!” Owen said. “If we keep flying toward her, won’t we be leading the Titan right to her?”

    His voice was drowned out by the wind and Xypher’s wingbeats. They kited around the Titan, who seemed to be doing nothing but chase after Amia. Xypher gained more height; Owen mentally estimated how many seconds it would take for him to reach the plateaus if he freefell. About ten seconds. Could he survive that? Maybe if he—

    Another sudden bank, and this time a beam of darkness bent the light around them, piercing the hazy skies to reveal more redness past the gray clouds.

    “Oh, great, it can shoot stuff!” Hakk snapped.

    “Keep pace!” Marshadow called from atop Eon.

    “I can sense Amia,” Trina reported. “Gahi, can you speed toward her?”

    “On it!”

    “WAIT!” Marshadow shouted, and then there was an explosion.

    Owen peeked out from the bag again, looking for some way to help. Xypher was moving around too much. But he had a lock on Amia. The little Ralts, so thin and frail, had collapsed on the top of the plateau. Owen knew it; they were tiring Amia out by leading the Titan right to her. She had been hiding!

    But where was that explosion coming from?

    A Flygon, with a black haze and shadowy burns covering his body, was in a limp nosedive toward the dusty ground.

    “Gahi—” Owen choked. Trina was falling through the air, vines grasping uselessly at nothing.

    The other Flygon flew down with Marshadow to catch Gahi in midair. That left only Xypher and Hakk to advance, but they weren’t.

    “What’re you doing?” Owen shouted up. “Get Amia!”

    It was too late now; Amia was too tired to move. They had to get to her before the Titan did, so why weren’t they?

    “We can’t break formation,” Hakk said back. “Just stay put!”

    “But the Titan will get Amia!”

    “It’ll get us if we go in now!”

    So they were just going to let it?! Owen brought his head down to look behind Xypher; the Titan didn’t have eyes, so it was hard to tell where it was looking, but its movements were toward the plateau with Amia.

    It was going to get her.

    “Xypher! Please! Can you dodge Titan attacks? I’ll use Protect!”

    “Your Protect isn’t big enough for someone Xypher’s size,” Hakk said. “Xypher! We aren’t risking ourselves without Marshadow.”

    “But! But, but!”

    He was hesitating. “Xypher!” Owen begged. “Fly now! If something happens, I’ll—use Protect! Throw me at it if it tries anything!”

    “Do you have any idea how strong that thing is?!” Hakk hissed, but then the Titan roared, shaking the air.

    Eon caught Gahi, and Trina wrapped a vine around Eon’s neck to stop her own fall, but Gahi was barely conscious. They were descending for an emergency landing. It was just the three of them left. The Titan was still moving.

    The plateau was only a few seconds away if Xypher had enough courage to fly that way. But he was hesitating. And of course he would. One more death and he’d be a Void Shadow. But he was so close. And that Titan was closer.

    He wasn’t going to lose Amia again.

    “Xypher, fly a little way there!” Owen shouted, conjuring flames around his hands in the meantime. It was difficult and unwieldy, but he still had it: an airborne Fire Trap, a Flame Burst in a delicate sphere. “If it tries to fire at you, we’ll run back!” A half-lie.

    “Are you crazy?” Hakk said. “We can’t load her on safely without a huge risk to our—”

    The flames were gathering. “I have a plan! Just do it!”

    Xypher finally started flying toward the plateau; the Titan noticed this and turned its attention to Xypher. Perfect—

    Xypher was already flying away. “No!” Owen said. “It didn’t fire yet!”

    “I’m not dying for this!” Hakk snarled back. “Xypher, forget it! We’re landing!”

    “KEEP FLYING!” Owen roared, and then pressed the edge of his first conjured flame orb against Xypher’s chest.

    Xypher squawked and banked haphazardly toward the plateau and Owen let up, conjuring a second and then a third Flame Burst for later.

    “Xypher! What’s gotten into you?!”

    “Hot! Hot, hot!”

    “What—CHARMANDER! You little sh—”

    Another roar, and Xypher dove down, narrowly avoiding another blast. When Xypher pulled back up, Owen knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up his motivator toward Xypher now. “Sorry,” Owen tried to whisper, but he knew they didn’t hear.

    With three Flame Burst spheres under his arms, Owen kicked out of his compartment, and suddenly he was falling with Xypher’s former momentum.

    No wings. Owen splayed his legs and tail out as far as he could; the wind drowned out all but the basics of Hakk and Xypher shouting, but he was more concentrated on his descent. He was lightweight and small and his terminal velocity was slow. But it wasn’t enough; at this rate, he’d slam into the plateau’s side than its top.

    Good thing he’d prepared.

    Owen shoved a Flame Burst forward and waited for it to fly behind him with his momentum. Then, his two other Flame Bursts in his arms, he braced himself and concentrated his thoughts toward the Flame Burst he’d left behind.

    A violent, upward force sent him flying higher and even faster forward, tumbling and flipping as the sky became the ground and then the sky again. A roar followed, and then a shadowy blast struck where Owen would have gone had he not altered his path.

    Twisting and flipping, Owen stabilized himself enough to tell that he was still not at a decent trajectory. Burst number two.

    Another explosion sent him tumbling through the air, spinning so fast that he lost hold of his third burst.

    He didn’t need it. Hoping to break his fall, Owen swished his tail and tried to shift his angular momentum. The ground was a lot closer than Owen had expected.

    He skidded over the dirt—the plateaus were covered in a thin layer just like the fields. And then, coming to a rolling stop, he saw something gray in his blurry vision, topped with green and red. Several seconds of blinking later, it was a Ralts.

    Even though he was dizzy, Owen crawled to her, panting, and held her wrist. Her skin was so smooth, and a little cold, but she was breathing, and she pulled back in surprise.

    “No, no, it’s okay,” Owen said hastily.

    “What?” Amia replied. Her voice was so much higher.

    “Your name is Amia. Do you remember that?”

    “What? Of—of course I remember that, I… where’s that monster?”

    “It’s—”

    The whole plateau trembled. Owen fell to his side and Amia rolled a few feet toward the Titan; horrible, deep cracks formed at the edge of the plateau as the Titan tried to climb it. Given its size, it only had to get on its hind legs.

    The plateaus being thinner at the base wasn’t doing them any favors, and it seemed like it was intentionally trying to break it down.

    Scrambling to Amia, Owen helped her to her feet, but she could barely stand. “Hey, hey,” Owen said quickly, holding her up. “We have to get out of here. Can you Teleport us?”

    “No,” Amia replied breathlessly. “Also, wh—”

    The ground rumbled again and Owen grabbed her, running back. “This way!” he said. “We need to get off of this plateau before—”

    The whole surface lurched, throwing Amia and Owen into the air. By the time they fell again, the ground was well below them at a steep angle, and Owen clutched Amia’s tinier body against his chest and rolled so his back faced the ground.

    Then, he braced. The landing came right after, not as bad as he thought it’d be, but he didn’t know why it was suddenly so dark.

    “N-no,” Amia squeaked, her neck craned upward.

    The Titan was right above them. Up close, its details were so much easier to see. Each limb was made from countless, smaller creatures, faceless and writhing, several mini-limbs reaching toward Owen even though they were so far away. It raised one of its feet over Owen, revealing a hollow center.

    Eon was crying Owen’s name from somewhere.

    It slammed down. Owen squeezed his arms tight and concentrated—a golden sphere formed around him, but the hollow foot pulled them inside anyway.

    “It’s g-gonna be okay,” Owen whispered to Amia. “You’re going to be fine, Mom. They’ll get us. I j-just have to… t-to…”

    The Protect flickered and his back pressed against the ever-shrinking barrier. He held Amia tighter. “I just got you back…”

    Amia stared blankly, and then terror took over her voice. “What?”

    He looked down at Amia, trying to smile despite it all. “I’m happy to see you again, M-Mom,” he said. “S-sorry it had to be this way.” The barrier was forming cracks, like it was some kind of glass. Owen squeezed his eyes tighter, and the cracks disappeared. He was getting a headache…

    And then Amia spoke. “Who are you?”

    The Protect shattered.
     
    Chapter 94 - Resonance
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 94 – Resonance

    “OWEN!” Gahi cried, barely able to stand.

    Clouds of dust obscured anything that was under the Titan’s feet. The plateau had collapsed and the two had fallen right into them. Marshadow’s flames were bright green and yellow, muttering curses to himself as his eyes darted left and right for something.

    Eon was about to fly forward, but then Marshadow squeezed his shoulder and said, “We ain’t gettin’ there. They’re gone! They’re gone! We gotta fall back!”

    “NO, THEY AREN’T!” Eon roared, flying forward again. “I can still sense them! They’re in there, they—”

    “That’s just that Mystic power er whatever,” Marshadow said firmly. “There ain’t any recoverin’ from—”

    “Do you really want a Mystic Titan?” Eon hissed. “We’re going to remove them from that thing.”

    “We don’t have the power fer that,” Marshadow hissed again.

    “Then get off me. I’m doing it myself!”

    “So am I!” Gahi spread his wings, wincing as some of his shadowy burns reminded him that he wouldn’t be at his best.

    “Gahi,” Trina warned, but Gahi gave her a firm glare. She glared back, and even as the Titan lifted its foot again and turned toward them, they stared each other down. Finally, Trina said, “I’ll help.”

    “Yer all nuts,” Marshadow snarled. “We can’t beat a Titan. Like this we c’n only run. We don’t got the power fer—”

    “I’m not leavin’ Owen,” Gahi snarled. “Not ‘til I know we can’t win.”

    His wings darkened until they resembled a starry sky. The winds picked up around Eon, a small dust storm brewing below him.

    “I can’t manipulate the plateaus,” Eon reported, “but I can use the dust on the ground. And I can feel my Flying Orb working, too.”

    “Rrgh…” Marshadow glanced at the Titan, which was in some sort of paused state, and then at the others. “Snivy, stay back with Xypher and Hakk. Y’ain’t strong enough.”

    Trina looked defiant, but she ultimately nodded and transferred to Xypher with an extended vine. The Corviknight wasn’t anywhere near flight-worthy, steely feathers partially melted and burned black rather than their elegant purple.

    There was something resonating within the Titan, and Eon knew that feeling all too well. Owen. Perhaps even Amia.

    Marshadow pulled out a few four-sided crystals. “We can try ter distract it and go fer a strike, then. If we’re really fast and he’s really lucky, we’ll be able ter pull those two out.” He was speaking hollowly, like there was no chance that was true. “Or,” he added, “we cn’ at least neutralize it so they’ll just be normal Void Shadows.”

    By now, they had flown cautiously toward the Titan, which seemed to be resuming its movements, looking slowly toward them.

    Marshadow winced. “This is a strong one,” he said, cursing. “we aren’t supposed ter take these head-on. It’s got a core.”

    “A core?” Gahi asked. “So, a weak point.”

    “No,” Marshadow hissed. “Don’t hit th’ core. Y’ain’t gonna do anything. Now, listen. The way to beat a Titan is ter take out its appendages, and then strike the center body. Break it apart and it’ll destabilize enough that it’ll—"

    The two Flygon swerved out of the way of an incoming shadowy blast, which pierced the clouds when it missed. Black lightning crackled in the haze.

    “Gahi, yer faster!” Marshadow shouted when they drew closer. “Distract it with this, and then Eon’ll go fer attackin’!”

    “How can we split off?” Eon said quickly, still flying next to Gahi. “We can’t coordinate like that against—”

    “Figure it out! Yer the ones who wanna do this! But if I say retreat, yer gonna listen, got it?!” Marshadow held his hand on Eon’s shoulder and said, “Follow what I say. Gahi!” Marshadow dug through his bag, and tossed three crystals Gahi’s way. He caught two of them and dove down to catch the third.

    “Go,” Marshadow said into Eon’s earhole, and the duplicate Flygon banked left. Gahi, his wings still like stars, banked right, and the Titan’s head leaned toward Gahi.

    This close, its facial features—if they could be called that—consisted of nothing but a large hole in the center of its head, where a dark haze billowed out before rapidly evaporating. Each time it readied a blast, that haze thickened.

    To his credit, Gahi was good at feinting strikes, and while his glittering scales weren’t of much use in the dim atmosphere, his agility in the air let him weave around and then toward the Titan. He was so close that the Titan tried to stomp on Gahi, but its movements, thanks to its size, were too slow to have any hope of striking him.

    But the Titan was also huge. It was unreal—a building’s height, several stories high, and just as wide. How many Void Shadows made it up? And the core… Eon felt it, too. There was a central core to the thing that was even stronger than the Void Shadows that surrounded it.

    They just had to get Owen. And Amia.

    He could at least feel Owen’s presence inside that thing, but it was faded and dim. A faded ember from a dying campfire.

    A pressure on Eon’s shoulder caught his attention. Marshadow said, “Attack it now, the leg!”

    There was only one nearby, and he knew Gahi’s abilities well. Attacking up close was too risky, so instead, he conjured molten earth below it, which burst in a smoky explosion. It wasn’t enough—but he could also tap into his Mystic power, couldn’t he? A little more… His scales turned a tan brown, like they were made of clay, and he conjured wind from his Flying Orb to maintain his altitude.

    The Earth Power redoubled, and the whole Titan toppled into the churning ground.

    “Oi, great!” Marshadow encouraged. “That’s one leg!”

    “Owen’s somewhere in its midsection,” Eon said. “We need to—”

    “Other leg,” Marshadow said. “I’m gonna aim fer that head so it can’t fire as easy!”

    The Titan blasted again, this time carving the ground in a linear fissure that ended at a nearby plateau. The crater left behind was black and smoldering with some kind of obsidian-like rock that radiated the same black haze.

    Something hot was forming above Eon, and he could only assume Marshadow was preparing his own attack.

    “Dive!” Marshadow shouted, and Eon followed it without question. A half-second later and a beam of shadows grazed his tail; a chilling, knife-like pain surged through his spine.

    Eon didn’t realize he cried out until Marshadow screamed over him, “FORWARD!”

    Fighting through the pain, not wanting to look back at the damage that may have been caused, he leaned forward and dodged another incoming blast, this time snapping the air above him. The pressure made his earholes feel underwater, and he lost altitude without realizing it.

    “Keep it together, c’mon!” Marshadow shouted. “Keep steady! I’m gonna blast that thing’s head next! Go fer the other leg! If we get it totally down, maybe we c’n smash it apart!”

    “Wasn’t this supposed to be unbeatable?” Eon asked with a grimace, spotting the charred end of his tail in his peripheral vision.

    “Something’s up with it.” At this point, it was completely ignoring Gahi, whatever ineffectual taunting he was doing on the other side. Marshadow lobbed his attack.

    A tiny, marble-sized Aura Sphere flew through the air like a bullet, landing dead-center in the Titan’s face, vanishing in the black haze.

    Eon had to stop, incredulous. “…What kind of pathetic—"

    Orange energy pulsed through countless imperfections in the creature’s face and neck in a wave, exploding outward as Void Shadow remnants scattered in the wind.

    Marshadow braced on Eon’s shoulder, conjuring another tiny Aura Sphere with his free right hand. “Well, c’mon!” Marshadow commanded. “Other leg! Befer it grows another head!”

    Eon nodded hastily and sped forward, the cold stinging on his tail slowly, but not completely, fading into a dull throb. More magma swirled and destabilized the land beneath one of the hind legs of the Titan, this time, and without having to worry about another strike blasting toward them, it was much easier.

    On the other side, the ethereal sound of a twisted Psychic scattered another one of the Titan’s legs.

    “And you said this was hard,” Eon admonished Marshadow.

    “Like I said”—Marshadow glared toward the great wraith—“it ain’t right. Maybe it’s got indigestion.”

    Eon’s mind snapped to the presence trapped in its torso. “Is Owen fighting it from the inside?”

    Marshadow didn’t answer, still conjuring another Aura Sphere. “Tell me again where Owen is?”

    Eon could spot him easily and pointed at the upper chest. Owen kept shifting around, but he had settled there, or at least his energy did. That was still Owen, right?

    “Easy-peasy.” Marshadow took aim.

    “Wait, what’re you gonna do?”

    “Blast ‘im out,” Marshadow said. “If he’s already Voided, then we’re freeing ‘im from being part o’ a Titan. If he ain’t, then he’ll survive. Win-win.”

    Before Eon could protest, Marshadow fired. Another tiny Aura Sphere dug into the Titan’s chest, and Eon was wise enough to fly away from the impact site. One explosion flash later, and suddenly Owen’s presence flew across the battlefield; Gahi must have sensed him, too, because he immediately flew toward the presence.

    “Owen’s out!” Eon announced.

    “Or what’s left of ‘im,” Marshadow grunted. “Can we go now?! We gotta—”

    A subtle shadow of something caught Eon’s eye and, on reflex, he swooped down and narrowly dodged a black spire striking the air where he’d flown. It was that length tail of the Titan. It lashed out and Marshadow cursed, grabbing onto one of Eon’s wings to keep from falling.

    “Gyah—get back on! I can’t fly like—”

    The tail twisted and whipped Eon into a downward spiral, skidding and tumbling over the dirt. Marshadow landed on his feet next to him and fired a smaller Aura Sphere at the incoming tail, deflecting it to the ground a few feet away from Eon’s arm. The tail lifted up again and went for another stab. Eon rolled and waved his arm haphazardly forward, erecting a thick wall of compacted dust, which was just enough to deflect the tail’s next strike.

    Marshadow ran across the ground in the form of a shadowy puddle, speeding toward Gahi, who was jostling a black blob near the plateau.

    “Flygon!” Marshadow shouted. “Izzat Charmander?”

    “Yeah!”

    “It ain’t—”

    “He’s delirious, but he’s alright!” Gahi said. “He says we gotta find Amia!”

    “It’s sayin’ something?!”

    Near the blob’s lower half was a black tail emitting an orange flame. From that flame, orange scales started solidifying along the tip, climbing toward the central body…

    “Then Amia’s still in there?” Eon said, hesitating. “I can’t sense her power as much…”

    “Please…” The Void Shadow trembled.

    Marshadow shook his head, eyes wide and fire wisps green, and then looked back at the shambling Titan. “Fine. We gotta finish this before it goes nuts. Use the crystals to channel extra power and we might be able to disrupt it enough that we can make a run for it afterward.”

    Gahi, hasty, dug through Marshadow’s bag and winced when something inside shined particularly brightly. He picked up the source—a pink crystal. “This one.”

    Marshadow couldn’t look directly at it. “Why’s it so bright?”

    “What, you don’t kn—”

    The rumble of the Titan’s remaining limbs hitting the earth was enough to cut their conversation short. Eon stood up and grabbed a few of the crystals for himself and faced the Titan. “Hurry!”

    “Mom…”

    Eon channeled as much energy as he could into the crystals he had hastily pulled from the bag. Marshadow stood next to him, preparing the same a fair distance away. His gems weren’t shining as brightly.

    But something was wrong.

    Eon was feeling weaker. Even as he tried to channel his energy into a crystal, his power drained faster than he could provide, and his vision was starting to whiten. He shook his head—he had to stop. There was barely enough energy in him to retain his Flygon body. But his vision was still whiting out—no, that was coming from Gahi.

    The opposite of Eon, Gahi’s cosmic wings flared and doubled in size. The pinpricks of light were all going supernova at once. The crystal in Gahi’s hands was an overwhelming white, and it looked like Gahi was trying his best to keep it held in his hands.

    With a determined grunt, Gahi crouched down and flared his wings again, large enough that it rivaled the Titan’s head. “All my power, eh?” Gahi said. The galaxies swirled, and Eon saw the vague shapes of Unown within the dark patches, or perhaps he was just seeing things in the extreme light.

    From the hole where its head should have been, the Titan fired a dark blast their way. Gahi launched a wave of Psychic energy that distorted the light around it in a pink wave; sparks of white energy followed it, dissolving the shadowy blast like fire in the sea. The rest staggered the Titan, and several more waves from all sides of its body blasted it to the left and right, forward and backward, as little filaments of light surrounded its body like cracks in mud.

    Gahi’s wings returned to their normal size, and then their normal shape and color. An overwhelming, white light blinded Eon to the point where he not only had to close his eyes, but then lost his concentration enough that he lost his shape, too. Feeling the dust seep into his pink slime, Eon shuddered and waited for his vision to return, even as his body jiggled with the shockwaves of Gahi’s Psychic blast. He didn’t know what that technique was called, but did it work?

    Sight returned. Ahead was a scattered mound of dissolving shadows. In the center was something curled up, much smaller than the Titan, though he couldn’t tell what it was. Gahi had flown ahead, sifting through the scattered Void Shadows that were too weak to move. Several were fleeing in random directions like a horde of Paras from smoke.

    “Ah-ha!” Gahi picked some black thing up. “Found ‘er!”

    Marshadow muttered something under his breath, still covering his eyes. The crystal he had planned to use was discarded on the ground in favor of covering his face. “Flygon, what did yeh ev’n do?! I can’t see!”

    “You said ter use the crystal!”

    A new wave of fatigue washed over Eon, and a few tired bubbles escaped his ill-defined form. He didn’t even care that the dust was mixing with whatever he was supposed to call his body’s current structure. “Can someone carry me…”

    “Eh? Ditto, what’s gotten inter yeh? Yeh didn’t ev’n attack.”

    “I tried… but it felt like my energy was being drained away.”

    “Well, ain’t that somethin’,” Gahi said. “It felt ter me like energy was comin’ ter me.”

    Marshadow frowned, thoughtful. “Sounds like somehow, Eon’s energy was transferred inter Gahi’s… But why? That ain’t how those crystals work, not unless yeh set it inter a catalyst spire.”

    “I don’t care,” Eon said. “Please, someone carry me. I can’t… move.”

    Gahi flew toward Owen next, carrying a Void Shadow in his arms. “Oi, Owen!” Gahi said. “Found Amia!”

    Owen, still more blob than Charmander, struggled to wobble and turn Gahi’s direction, while Marshadow helped Eon back to the rest. Trina had been sitting by Owen the whole time, while Hakk tended to Xypher’s wounds.

    “Mom?” Owen asked, tripping over himself—his legs were only half-formed.

    “Charmander, what’s yer name?”

    “Owen. What’s—what’s happened to me?”

    Marshadow could only stare in disbelief, a hand to his forehead. “Yer… un-Voiding right befer my eyes,” he said. “That ain’t…”

    “Is Mom okay?” Owen tried to stand on malformed legs, then collapsed again. He coughed and black sludge spewed from what might be his forming mouth. Then, with a grunt, he stood shakily on two feet, even as his upper half remained amorphous and wobbly.

    “I think so,” Gahi said, holding the other Void Shadow by the nape of its… something. Eon wasn’t sure what.

    “Owen,” Eon said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

    The upper part of the Void Shadow’s body nodded, but not after a moment to hesitate. “Nothing feels right.”

    “Yeah, that’s about how I’ve been feelin’ fer a while,” Marshadow mumbled, staring uncertainly at the unmoving Void Shadow that Gahi was holding. “Gahi, careful. That one migh’ be hostile once it comes to.”

    “It’s Amia,” Gahi said, shaking his head. “She ain’t hostile, wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

    Beg to differ, Eon thought.

    Hakk and Xypher, their wounds tended to for the time being with simple bandages, approached next. “Bad news,” Hakk said. “Xypher’s too injured to fly. We’re going to need to set up camp until tomorrow and see how he’s feeling then.”

    “You don’t have Orans to heal?” Eon asked.

    “This isn’t Kilo. Orans aren’t some miracle cure. At most, they’ll ease the pain, but that won’t mean anything if you need your wings to fly.”

    Marshadow looked back at the scattered and defeated Void Shadows, and then at the core that the Titan had once housed. “Wherever we camp, it’s gotta be away from that thing. Even after that blast, it doesn’t look like we defeated it.”

    The core was smothered in Void Shadow sludge, but whatever was inside still shifted weakly, occasionally groaning. It was large, whatever it was—maybe two Owens tall. Well, when he was fully evolved, at least. Eon tried to look for more details, but his vision was still weak.

    “Wait…” Owen staggered forward, his legs a little more solid.

    Hakk stared nervously at Owen and said, “Hey, don’t try anything funny. If you make one weird move…”

    “I’m—I’m sorry I did that to Xypher,” Owen said, bowing at the two. “I really wanted to save Mom, but…”

    “What?” Hakk squinted again. “No, I meant if you tried to attack us.”

    “Why would I attack you?”

    Hakk glanced uneasily at Marshadow, who shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll talk it over later. Right now, we—”

    The Titan’s core rumbled and Marshadow’s flames bristled.

    “—gotta go,” Marshadow finished.

    “Wait, but that’s…” Owen pointed at the core.

    More sludge fell off of the core, revealing deep blue, shining scales, accompanied by a thinner line of cyan along what looked like a limb. Even more sludge fell off, revealing steel, clawed hooves and a broad, steel chest with a chipped diamond in the center.

    “I don’t believe it…” Eon said breathlessly. “It’s…”

    The Void Shadows trembled again, and then they tried to congregate around the core. But then, a blue tail flicked a few Void Shadows off of it, and then the core’s hoof slammed into the ground. A great, four-legged creature rose from the sludge, sluggish, and the Void Shadows congregated even faster around it.

    A flash of light broke through the Void Shadow conglomeration, and then a flurry of indigo flames burned through several of them. Some Void Shadows flailed at twice the speed they should have, while others were frozen in midair, but a split-second later, time flowed normally. All of the Void Shadows dissolved into sludge, dust, or nothing.

    “Dialga,” Eon said, more a statement than anything. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Dialga, the Timekeeper? A Creation Dragon? Here?

    As a Titan?

    Dialga took his first step forward, but his leg buckled and he fell into a kneel. He coughed, expelling a thick wad of sludge and smoke, and then slowly rose back to his feet.

    They all stared, too stunned to move. The first to finally take any form of action was Marshadow, who called, “Dialga!”

    And the giant Legend finally noticed them. He tried to open his mouth to speak, but his voice didn’t come. Instead, a constricted, strained growl came, and then a nod. Dialga took a few wobbly steps forward again, aimless, and then fell over with a slow, thunderous crash.

    Marshadow muttered a curse and sped along. “Hakk, Snivy, help me inspect this guy!”

    “Eh? What about me?” Gahi said.

    “Keep Ralts stable. She awake yet?” But Marshadow wasn’t there to hear the answer, already a few paces away from Dialga.

    Eon, knowing he’d be too tired to help, approached Owen with some apprehension. The dust felt horrible against his body. “Owen… are—are you okay?”

    Owen’s eyes were half-formed in darkness, and even then, he saw the shadow of a glare in them. “Do I look okay?”

    “Im-improving?”

    Owen growled, but relented with a shadowy sigh. “Yes.”

    The Void Shadow in Gahi’s arm twitched against her initial rhythm. “Eh?” Gahi loosened his hold. “Hey, Amia. You awake? We saved yeh fr—”

    The Void Shadow screeched and emitted a pulse of shadows against Gahi, knocking his arms open and burning his chest in black flames. Gahi shouted and stumbled back as the Void Shadow plopped on the ground, yet it continued its assault. Another beam of darkness struck Gahi’s left thigh, leaving another lingering burn.

    “Mom!” Owen shouted. “M-Mom?! It’s okay!”

    He tried to get closer, but he tripped and fell again, even as his dark body assumed the vague shape of a Charmander. Amia screeched again and blasted Eon with another shadowy beam, but it only grazed his slime. It felt cold and biting, like venom.

    Hakk shouted something and stood in front of a trembling Xypher. Marshadow balled up his fist and formed another Aura Sphere in his hands, waiting for an opportunity.

    “Wait!” Eon shouted. “Marshadow, what are you doing?!”

    “What? Killin’ a Void Shadow.”

    “No!” Owen ran for Amia, who ignored him, while Gahi rolled and avoided another hostile blast.

    “Step aside, Charmander,” Marshadow said. “That ain’t yer mom anymore.”

    Owen, of course, refused, and instead stood between Marshadow and Amia, but then remembered Hakk was on the other side. He stepped back and crossed his arms, forming a Protect around them both. Amia bumped into the barrier and fired against it to hit Gahi, but when it evaporated, she turned to Owen and hissed.

    “Mom, calm down,” Owen begged. “It’s me, don’t you remember?”

    Eon had a sinking feeling that if Amia still had eyes, there would have been no recognition in them.

    “Tch.” Hakk clicked his claws and lowered them.

    Marshadow dispelled his Aura Sphere. “Charmander, that ain’t yer mom. There’s nothin’ left. It’s a Void Shadow. That’s what happens to folks that become part o’ a Titan. It’s like dyin’ over and over. Somethin’ way below Class D.”

    “Well, we—we weren’t in there for long,” Owen said, turning around. His scales were pitch-dark, but brightening, and his eyes had that usual shine to them. “Maybe it’s different and she’s just scared!”

    “Only reason she ain’t attacking you is because she thinks yer like her.” Marshadow readied another Aura Sphere. “So once she attacks you, I’m—”

    “If—if you do that, I’m running away,” Owen said helplessly.

    “Owen,” Eon tried to step in, but Marshadow held his other arm up. Defiant, Eon pressed forward anyway, “Owen, please. We’ll figure something out.”

    “Then promise you won’t kill her.”

    “Kill? She’s worse than dead already!” Hakk spat, and the glare Owen gave him, while intense, did not seem to faze the icy Sandslash.

    “Erm.” A deep voice shook Eon’s slime. “Am I… interrupting something?”

    Still on his side, struggling to stand, Dialga huffed and puffed, flicking his tail and hooves to get the last of the Void sludge off of him.

    “Dialga.” Marshadow glanced at Hakk, who nodded, and then advanced toward the Timekeeper. “Y’remember anything?”

    “I’ll need some time for that,” Dialga said, “ironic as it sounds.” He winced at what Eon imagined was the worst headache in all worlds. “Everything is a fog. I remember fighting… and escaping, like trying to climb from a pool of black aether… over and over…”

    “Take it easy,” Marshadow said. “We got a lot ter sort through. And—”

    Suddenly, Owen was screaming, and so was the Void Shadow. Blast after blast bounced off of the Protect barrier, Owen ducking and weaving between each one until the barrier shattered completely. Hakk raised his claw and took aim, each claw glowing a bright white. Owen gasped and crossed his arms again; just as icy spikes jettisoned themselves away from Hakk’s claws, a new, golden shield blocked their path.

    Then, the Void Shadow blasted Owen point-blank with another shadowy ray. Owen ducked. It struck the barrier. The Protect shattered. Hakk fired—

    “MOM!”

    And then it all stopped.

    The spikes remained frozen mid-fire. Hakk’s glare did not waver and his body did not move. The Void Shadow’s aimless quivering had stopped mid-ripple. Owen’s breathing, rapid, gradually slowed the same rate as Eon’s anxious ripples.

    “What,” Eon whispered, “just…”

    “Sometimes,” Dialga said, finally on his feet, “we need a moment to pause and think.”

    Marshadow dispelled his Aura Sphere, hopefully for the final time, and then looked back at Dialga. “How long’s that gonna last?”

    “I can last a while if I focus only on the strange, black thing there…”

    “Void Shadow,” Marshadow explained. “And…” He looked toward Owen, then at Hakk, and then sighed. “Alright. Hang on. You, Snivy. You alright?”

    “Rgh, yes.” Trina nursed a large burn that covered most of her side. “Amia’s quite strong, even now, isn’t she?”

    Owen gulped, stumbling over his words, but Marshadow kept talking. “Go on Flygon fer now, rest up.” He plucked the spike that was meant for the Void Shadow and let it drift toward open air. On cue, Dialga released his temporal hold, and the spike flew across the ground. Then, Hakk was released, and he blinked several times in confusion.

    “What? Marshadow? How’d you move that—don’t tell me you’re defending that kid’s—”

    “Dialga put a pause on it,” Marshadow said, gesturing to the Void Shadow, the only thing still frozen in time.

    Owen squeezed his claws together. “Then that means we can bring her back, r-right? And—and maybe contain her, and then find a way to cure her?”

    “Cure?” Hakk scoffed. “Kid—"

    “We’ll bring her back,” Marshadow agreed. “Figure there’s somethin’ we c’n get from this. An’ if yer totally sure it’s her…”

    “I sense her Fire aura, even if it’s corrupted,” Trina agreed.

    “I’m pickin’ up Psychic somethin’s,” Gahi noted.

    “It’s her,” Owen said, simultaneously firm and tearful.

    Marshadow let out another irritable sigh, shaking his head. “I dunno what’s gonna come from this,” he said after a long silence, “but if it’s gonna be the only thing that keeps yeh calm, fine. We’ll bring it back.”

    He looked back at Dialga. “Oy, Dialga. C’n you fly?”

    “I’ll need to recover some strength first,” Dialga said, “but I believe I should be able to.”

    “Then let’s set up camp here and rest. Dialga, yer way too big ter hide, so if we sense another Titan, we’ll have ter be on th’ move.”

    “Of course.”

    Eon inched closer to Owen, but his eyes were transfixed on the frozen Void Shadow. Was Amia really reduced to nothing but that? It was unbelievable. But… that meant Owen would need more support than ever. From him, just like old times.

    Owen’s glare from their last rest stop flashed in his mind. How hasty Owen was to get away from him. That thought lingered for a few extra seconds, just enough for him to slide away and say, “Gahi.”

    “Eh?”

    Gaining some distance from Owen, he said softly, “Stay near Owen for a while. He needs a lot of support.”

    Gahi scoffed. “What, you ain’t gonna try?”

    Eon suppressed a scowl, tried to say something, but the words were shrouded in a haze.

    Gahi was already by Owen before Eon had realized it, and a new, cold emptiness filled where Eon’ imagined his stomach should have been.

    <><><>​

    Inteleon Qitlan stepped down a hall of polished obsidian. The walls were decorated with regal, purple, gold, and red cloth, and the floor had an intricate, geometric design of varying colors of black, yellow, and red. Every several paces, Inteleon passed by tables that had a vase of a Voidlands plant, or clock, or a bowl filled with colorful berry candies in the shape of Minior. For some reason, there were a lot of yellow ones left behind compared to the much rarer greens and reds, and he only saw a single pink candy.

    He was tempted to go for it—Pecha was his favorite flavor—but Aster would be upset if he found out.

    Far ahead was a door large enough to fit giant Pokémon through, ornate with gold swirls that ended around a press to push the door open.

    Which way should he address the King this time? Your Greatness? No, he never cared for luxurious titles. He preferred subtlety. Made the greatness shine brighter. He’d already used his simple title and name before, and repetitions felt too redundant. Ah, what did it matter, perhaps simply Your Swiftness this time. He’d been practicing his agility training recently.

    The door was heavy, and only after a loud clang did it finally relent to Inteleon’s attempts, though he tried to keep from huffing too loudly. Undignified, and weak, and the King would be very unhappy with that.

    Beyond the door was a room large enough for Rayquaza himself to fly. Near the back was a large bed that Inteleon would be able to perform Substitute four times and sprawl all five of him on different parts comfortably in the cushions. Though, the mattress seemed quite firm. Not that he’d dare find out how it felt—not when Alexander would surely…

    Ah, there he was, far to the left, looking through another one of his reports. It always filled his heart with joy to see the Hydreigon looking through those notes—all of Inteleon’s hard work being put to use.

    But now he had to decide whether to disturb him or not. No, he’d already opened the door; it was just irritating Alexander by stalling. “Your Swiftness,” Inteleon greeted.

    “Qitlan.”

    His voice was deep and smooth like abyssal butter, and it always dwarfed the higher, breezy vocals that Qitlan’s thin frame produced. Keeping himself composed, Qitlan said, “I have another report, well, two, actually.”

    “Two? Is one of them Dark Matter?”

    “Yes, of his movements.” Qitlan produced the first one from his satchel, though it was a thin report, only a few pages long. “In summary, he is continuing south, but is drifting away from Cipher City.”

    “Hmph. Well, he’d be a fool to come here, so of course he’d avoid us.” The Hydreigon drifted away from his desk, having never sat down, as he floated by some dark force that swirled around his wings—darker than the usual typing that came with his species. “Odd that he’s moving at all…”

    “Something must have changed in the living world.” Qitlan smirked.

    “I wonder what that could be.” Alexander returned it with all three of his mouths, but then returned to a more neutral countenance. “Well, and what’s the other report?”

    “Of course.” Qitlan approached Alexander’s table and set the first report down, then pulled out the next, somewhat thicker one, this time six pages long. “Most of the report is numbers and verifications, but the summary is simple: a large spike of Infinity Energy was detected in the deep Nil Plateaus.”

    “Near Null Village?” Alexander said.

    “Far south. At least a day’s travel nonstop.”

    “Hrm. A spike of Infinity Energy…”

    “We are going to investigate what that means soon,” Qitlan added. “However, our readings suggest that the energy output was significantly higher than your average Z-Crystal.”

    “Could it have been a new spire?”

    “Considering the location, very unlikely. There is no reason to set up any kind of sustainable settlement there.” Qitlan placed the report on the table and nodded. “In any case, I will inform you if there are more findings for—”

    “Where is Aster?”

    Qitlan’s blood ran cold. “A-Aster?” he repeated, trying to keep his composure as flashes of the artificial god blinked in his mind. “He, er, I’m not sure. He was clearly having his way with the candies in the hall some time ago, er…”

    “Find him, and send him to Null Village.”

    “Now?” Qitlan spoke out of turn, quickly trying to compose himself. “That is to say, before further reporting?”

    “I am concerned that if we hesitate, we will miss our opportunity to acquire whatever it is there. Null Village’s relationship with us is… tenuous. While Marshadow is keeping them obedient, the civil unrest could lead to an irksome rebellion.”

    “That’s true… but do you really think a run-down shanty like that would hold that sort of power?”

    “No,” Alexander said, “but I’m taking no chances.” His six eyes closed, three heads looking contemplative. “Spirit strikes have ravaged the Voidlands lately, each one a new soul from Kilo. Any of them could be a disturbance. Any of them could be Anam. And aside from that loathsome Charizard, who is probably long dead, Anam is our best chance at finding and capturing Necrozma. Do you understand where I am going with this?”

    “Of course.” Qitlan nodded. “You’re saying that any hint at Necrozma’s power should be investigated.”

    “Yes.”

    “And that I should be adopting such a policy going forward, regardless of the resources it may cost?”

    “Yes.”

    “Should I divulge this information to lower leadership?”

    “On a need-to-know basis.”

    “Understood.” Qitlan bowed, held it for a few seconds, and then rose when no further address came.

    Alexander turned back to his table, which was gone, along with all of his reports and supplies. Qitlan stared in disbelief.

    Alexander’s smaller heads’ jaws clenched. “Aster.”

    An echo from somewhere bounced off the walls.

    “Aster, not now!” Alexander snapped, staring at the sky. “I’m going to give you to three. One. Two. THR—”

    The table and all of its contents reappeared where it had been, along with a single, yellow candy in the middle of the desk. Alexander grimaced and turned around and, suddenly, Qitlan felt a presence behind him.

    Keeping himself dignified, the Inteleon turned and said, “Aster, how much of that did you hear?”

    “I just got here!”

    Qitlan kept his stance neutral while he addressed the Mewtwo. “Of course, Aster. This shortens things. You are hereby assigned on a mission to investigate Null Village to the south.”

    Aster’s wide eyes took in every word like he was speaking of some grand, short tale. Yet, when he finally processed the words, those eyes narrowed to a displeased frown. “Null Village?! But that’s so faaar! And so boooring!”

    “With your Teleportation, it would hardly be more than a few days’ travel,” Alexander cut in. “Consider yourself grateful. If I went by wing, it would take me months.”

    Aster crossed his arms exaggeratedly, leaned forward in a curl, and pouted. “Can I at least bring Leph?”

    “Leph has to stay here in case another mission comes up,” Alexander said. “But if you go to Null Village and ask the questions Qitlan gives you, you can do anything you want with them after, so long as you bring back whatever your mission statement requires.”

    Aster perked up at this, his purple tail flicking with interest. “Anything?”

    “Anything.”

    “Anything?” The Mewtwo leaned even closer.

    Alexander leaned forward, grinning to show his teeth. “Anything.”

    Aster’s fists clenched in front of him, trembling as the Mewtwo’s glee overtook him. The marbled floor below him cracked. He curled up a little more and whispered under his breath, “Yesss…” Then, he stood up and enthusiastically saluted Alexander. “Okay! Mewtwo Aster is on the case!”

    He disappeared in a flash of white light.

    Qitlan and Alexander both stared at the empty space, and the circular, intricate cracks left in the ground. Clicking his tongue, Qitlan said, “He forgot the mission statement.”

    “He’ll remember.” Alexander turned to his desk. “Write it up and wait for him to return.”

    “Of course.” He had a lot of other duties to take care of, though, and he didn’t want to wait for too long. He still had to tend to their new guests. And pray the Zoroark didn’t find a new place to hide and growl at him. His shoulder still hurt from the last time. “Then I shall be going.”

    “Mhm.”

    Qitlan stepped out of Alexander’s quarters, slid the door closed behind him, and took the last Pecha candy for himself.
     
    Chapter 95 - Regroup
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 95 – Regroup

    Within the King’s castle, two Pokémon, one large, one small, sat on opposite ends of a large table. Leph always felt awkward playing with the Treecko opposite to her, and she was sure she felt the same about her… but they were the only ones who could really entertain one another. Everyone else was either dull or intimidated or downright irritating.

    Aster’s grinning, saccharine expression flashed through Leph’s mind and she shook it away.

    “Leph?” the Treecko asked, fanning her five cards. “Are you holding?”

    Leph blinked, then looked down. Three kings—each one a different depiction of Alexander—a two, and a five.

    “One card,” Leph said, sliding the two forward, face-down. She did not move her hoof, and lacking a mouth made for a good poker face, but she had always been told that her green eyes were very expressive. And apparently, a mouthless Pokémon wearing sunglasses was cheating. Sharing the same species as the God of Creation? Just fine. Some eyewear? Unbecoming of an Arceus, apparently.

    Beside Leph was a small pile of candies they used in place of chips. They didn’t need money, after all, only the pride of winning. Her opponent had far fewer.

    “And you, Mhynt?” Leph said.

    The Treecko’s fingers twitched, and Leph knew that simply dropping one card was intimidating her. Good. And she already had a trio.

    “Three,” Mhynt said, sliding them forward. With a flick of her fingers, a dark power danced around them and pushed the three cards into the pile, and that same dark power wrapped around the top of the deck. She was oddly stiff after she saw the cards, her expression even more stone-faced than before.

    She was hiding her loss. “Something wrong?” Leph asked.

    “No.” Mhynt’s eyes trailed for a split-second toward a lifeless Honedge next to her, its hilt balanced against the tableside. Common giveaway, looking toward the blade for support, even if it could not answer. It was sad, in a way, but Leph could take advantage of the insecurity.

    Mhynt slid three candies into the pile. “Raise by three.”

    Trying to psyche her out? Fine. All she would need is to match, raise, and scare her into folding. “Five.”

    Leph’s face contorted ever so slightly into a forced frown. Forced frown.

    “All in.”

    No no no. This was a trap. Even if she matched it, Leph would have the upper hand in one play. If she backed out now, they’d be on even ground. Was it worth it? Three cards. Most of her hand was junk. The most she’d have is a pair. What was the point, then? To scare her? Or was it a lucky draw? A trio. But Leph had three kings. But had she seen a single ace from this deck yet?

    Too risky. “Fold.”

    “LEPH!”

    The shrill voice of Aster punctuated the sudden weight on Leph’s back, and whatever sense of thrilling peace was evaporated with his shriek.

    “Leph, Leph! I gotta go on a mission! Can you lend me some of your tricky spheres?”

    Aster hung off of Leph’s wheel, swinging his legs and tail forward and backward, gaining more height each time.

    “Aster, can you please knock next time?” Mhynt said irritably; during Aster’s sudden appearance, she had grabbed the hilt of her blade, but released it with an irritated huff. “Why didn’t Alexander ask me to go on this mission?”

    “I dunno!” Aster said.

    “I haven’t gone on one in a while.” Mhynt stacked her five cards, set them down, and conjured a large, dark hand from her left arm. With it, she drew the candies toward her side of the table with a large, shadowy hand.

    “I dunno!”

    Leph grunted and said, “Just be glad you can stay here. I’m not interested in…” She shook her head. “Never mind. Aster, what’s the mission?”

    “Qitlan gave me a report! Null Village! There was a big spike in energy, way more than what a spire can make. I gotta investigate! Then I have to bring back the most powerful thing I see there so Alexander can talk to them.”

    “Recovery. Hmph.” Mhynt crossed her arms, tapping her fingers. “It’s better than nothing.” She reached for her blade, pulled it closer, and ran her fingers along the flat of the blade. “Do you suppose this will finally be the key that gets us out of this place?”

    “I would hope so,” Leph said. “I don’t remember what the sun looks like. Just pictures.”

    “What are you saying?” Mhynt said dully, twirling her wrist. “All you need to do is look at Aster’s bright personality.”

    The Mewtwo grinned wider, staring up at Leph with open palms. “Please? Just a few!”

    “Don’t hurt anybody you don’t need to,” Leph said, tapping her hoof on the floor. Circles of light and various strange symbols appeared beneath it, and two bright, cyan spheres solidified beneath, each one filled with a white energy.

    “Thanks, Leph!” He hopped high into the air and headbutted her on the face, then disappeared in a flash of light.

    Leph didn’t flinch, though her eyes showed signs of a sad smile.

    “Why did you tell him not to hurt anyone?” Mhynt asked, cocking her head.

    “Aster’s trying to please Alexander. I can tell. But I don’t want him to lose himself now that activity’s getting hectic…”

    “Mm.” Mhynt returned her blade to the tableside. “Things would be a lot easier if you just followed his orders instead of giving him a hard time. He can kill you if you push too hard, you know.”

    “I’d love to see him try,” Leph said automatically, but then her throat hitched at Mhynt’s glare. “I—I mean… I am only following…”

    “He makes the orders,” Mhynt said. “Without him, you would be nothing but a Void Shadow. Don’t forget that.”

    Leph’s fur bristled with golden energy, and Mhynt’s scales coursed with black light. At the same time, they both settled to normal. He won’t let me.

    “Still,” Mhynt said, “I suppose he sees some value in your cautious approach. Helps even out Aster, I guess, and he’s more than happy to please him.”

    Leph said nothing.

    “Should we continue our game?”

    She had forgotten. Nodding, Leph pressed a golden hoof on her folded hand. “Three kings.” Now she wanted to know what Mhynt had that made her so confident as to go all-in.

    The Treecko set her cards face-up. “Junk.”

    <><><>​

    The southern horizon was a lot gloomier, Angelo thought. All the more reason to stay inside and relax. Was it morning or noon? Afternoon? He wasn’t sure. He had passed out and spent the day inside after that. They had gone without him to Yotta Outskirts with that strange Joltik. Somehow. Was there a point in asking how?

    Under his bed, something shifted and bumped. Everything seemed a little darker in his room, but Angelo attributed that to the gloomy weather outside. Not much light got in his room anyway, aside from the single open window on the opposite wall. The door into his work station and the front of the shop taunted him on his right. To his left, a wall with a few sketches to motivate him for the day. Never worked.

    The bumping continued, and then he sank a little lower into his sack of cotton, like some of its contents had leaked out. Angelo curled up tighter, shivering. It wasn’t one of his sleep paralysis demons, was it? Apparitions of old nightmares of his grandfather cackling in his final days. Staring through the window while he was helpless to move.

    No, no. This was different. He could move. Angelo squeezed his toes to make sure, then rolled over and curled his blanket over his face again.

    The door opened and Angelo’s heart may as well have stopped. He didn’t dare move. No breathing. Then it closed. Was he going crazy? No, he had a visitor. That was right. This was normal now. He wasn’t living alone anymore, and he was too afraid of what would happen if he told it to go away.

    Working up the courage to face it again, Angelo finally took a new breath and removed his soft, gray blanket. The cold morning air reminded him to regret that decision, as per usual, and then he sat at his bedside. The door opened again, and near the bottom was a strange, featureless mass of darkness with five little eyes that blinked asynchronously at him. Balanced on top of its head—was it a head?—and secured with countless tiny fingers was a plate of stir-fry noodles.

    It slid closer and stopped in the middle of the room, four of its five eyes staring at Angelo. The last eye darted this way and that, focused on the sketches and drawings that littered his walls, and all the fallen papers and used supplies that covered most of the floor.

    “Yes?” Angelo asked, his throat feeling dry from the night. Had that been his first word in the past full day?

    The thing inched closer.

    “I’m not usually hungry right when I wake up…”

    To this, it shrank a little.

    “Guilt tripping me, huh?” Angelo muttered, sighing. “I’ll try to eat it. Thank you.”

    Angelo lifted it and gently worked the utensils, simple chop sticks. A lot like a brush—he was just more comfortable with that sort of tool, and he was surprised this apparition was so conscientious.

    These things were also not much for conversation. He only knew that they were part of that monster that was now curled around Kilo Village’s crater. But sometimes, he’d hear its voice in a whisper in his mind.

    Near the middle of his meal, someone knocked at the entrance to his home. Heavy knocks this time, so it couldn’t have been that insomniac Salazzle. The Lucario from before wasn’t back, and the Fairy one refused to be seen in public after that one incident with the child saying he was pretty. That must have meant it was Phol.

    “Come in,” Angelo called out.

    “Angelo, are you feeling any better today?” Phol called. The Incineroar opened the door to Angelo’s room next—he had to duck to get through the frame—and frowned at what Angelo assumed he thought was a sorry sight.

    The Smeargle slumped over, and the five-eyed creature slid to the corner of the room. Behind Phol was another one of those blobs, this time with three eyes and two small arms that it used for walking.

    “Oh, you have one, too,” Angelo remarked.

    “It won’t leave me alone,” Phol grunted. “Still, at least it can get supplies.”

    “Mine can cook.” Angelo gestured to his stir-fry. “…I’m not sure how, but…”

    Phol waved dismissively. “Angelo, do you have time to come with us? We need your help.”

    “Is the hospital at capacity again?”

    “They might be tomorrow. We got word that Micro Riverside’s inhabitants ran into a mutant and the casualties weren’t pretty. They were on their way, but then ran into another one…”

    “Oh, Mew…”

    “Elder sent scouts and that Joltik to check on them, but we fear the worst. But now, we’re organized enough that we need to toughen up the town. The Thousand strongest are spread thin, so only the administrative Hearts can actually help bring us up.”

    “Thousand strongest, hm.” Angelo sighed. What was the point? The whole reason there were only a Thousand was because apparently there was only enough energy to maintain a thousand Badges. But now those were useless. Did that dissolve the Hearts, too? Hopefully that didn’t send things into more chaos.

    Phol had been talking and he missed it. Angelo perked up, and it seemed that Phol noticed. “Did you get any of that?”

    “Er—toughening up. Does that include me?”

    “Yes. Do you know Protect?”

    “I do.”

    “Can you demonstrate it?”

    Angelo nodded, standing up and setting his half-eaten stir-fry on his bed. Suddenly self-conscious of the noticeable, Angelo-shaped depression in it, he moved the blanket over the mattress. Clutching his tail, he drew a circle in the air, and a sea blue barrier formed around him, fading seconds later.

    “Good. Then you can help teach the others the same technique.”

    “Protect? Why Protect?”

    “While most Pokémon here aren’t the best at fighting, more focused on their own careers, there are still some invaluable skills that we can use no matter our skill level. Protect is one of them, and it only takes a little practice to get it going, and from there, it’s easy to repeat and strengthen.”

    “Right…”

    “Not to mention, nearly everyone is capable of it,” Phol added. “Right now, there are people in the town square trying to enchant some discs with aura so it can be passed onto others. We found a whole store of blank ones in the Heart HQ, perhaps ready to be enchanted for other techniques. We’ll be using some of those to spread Protect.”

    “Oh, I’m, I don’t know how to enchant,” Angelo said. “I thought only Anam could do that, and maybe others with, er, with a lot of practice. But Anam was the prodigy, right?”

    “Well, I can, and I’ve already enchanted a few. If you can’t, then perhaps instead you can help the townsfolk practice.”

    Angelo hemmed and hawed a few times, and Phol tapped his foot with the occasional halfhearted encouragement. Eventually, Angelo relented, and when he was finished with his meal, he stepped out of his bedroom and followed Phol to the town square.

    <><><>​

    Spice narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the southern horizon, standing at the very peak of Kilo Village’s crater. “I don’t trust those clouds,” she said. “Too dark.”

    “Could be rain,” Leo replied, though his eyes were more focused on the base of the mountain. “Spice, is that a mutant?”

    Her eyes darted down. A Rampardos was wobbling around the lower edges, though there didn’t seem to be anything abnormal about it from afar. “Maybe he had one too many swigs,” Spice mused. “He doesn’t look hostile.”

    “Hmm…” Leo fidgeted again. “I hate sentinel duty. I’m so helpless. I should be home making sure my parents are safe. What if another mutant attacks? Or those wraiths in the Dungeons get out somehow?”

    “Yotta Outskirts is way too important to be left unguarded,” Spice assured him, patting his shoulder. “And those wraiths never leave Dungeons.”

    “I suppose…”

    Spice looked down again, but her eyes trailed to the dark clouds. They were closer than ever. Occasionally, she saw purple lightning dance along the bottom of them. “It’s not normal lightning,” she said.

    “Well, I don’t know what it is.”

    “I think it’s coming from the other side of the world.”

    Leo gave her an odd look, and Spice ignored it.

    “That isn’t one of your sleep-deprived theories again, is it?” Leo asked. “Ever since Yotta Village, you’ve said that you can feel something underground.”

    “Well, I do. Or maybe not underground… Just far away. I feel it everywhere sometimes. Up north, where that Dark Matter storm keeps swirling… Southwest, by that Void Basin place…” Spice motioned vaguely in its direction, though all they could see was a lush, green forest, even at their height. “And then underground. Chances are it’s actually on the other side of the world.”

    “Nothing but ocean there,” Leo said with a frown. “Spice, did you get any—”

    “No. Stop asking.” It was a routine question by now. “Just accept it like I have. I don’t sleep anymore. I’ve been fine.”

    “It’s been half a moon at this point…”

    “And I’m just fine.” Spice shrugged, though she did admit—inside, not out loud—that it was starting to worry her. Fifteen days of no sleep, with no side effects? Something was seriously wrong with her, but she didn’t want to take up the hospitals’ time right now. Her performance as a Heart was more productive than ever, though, so it couldn’t be all bad…

    Leo shifted his weight again, playing with his robe-like fur, and then with his ears.

    “If anything, you’re the one acting sleep-deprived,” Spice said. “What’s gotten into you? Burned your bed?”

    “I haven’t burned my bed since I was a kit, thank you,” Leo growled. “Ugh! Is our shift almost over?”

    “How about I go down and check?” Spice slipped off of her rocky seat and glanced at the steep slope behind him. “Don’t follow me! You’ll trip and fall!”

    Leo grumbled something, but the wind drowned it out, and Spice hopped from slope to slope. She was tempted to go straight to the HQ when she saw the crowd gathering at the Central Waypoint. Leo could wait a little while longer.

    On her way there, she was flagged down and asked if she knew Protect, which was odd and annoying. Sure, Protect would have helped her guard against attacks, but it wasn’t her style, and learning a whole technique like that was cumbersome. It wasn’t as if the blessings from berries worked on her anyway. How was society today any different for her? It was just like living in the south before annexation.

    Still, they were persistent. “I have a whole battle setup, you know,” Spice complained.

    But the Hypno that flagged her down shook his head and said, “But we need to switch to more defensive fighting styles, now. Come on. At least try to learn it.”

    Spice sighed. “I’ve got scouting to do.”

    “It won’t be long. You can practice on your own later, Heart.”

    So, he knew she was a Heart. She didn’t even have to flash the Badge. Must have been the lightning scars…

    Oh, that was probably why the lightning made her nervous.

    “Salazzle?”

    “Right, coming.”

    She was given the fast track and cut in front of most of the others waiting. Apparently being a Heart meant they wanted her to get right back to work. Understandable, and good, because she wasn’t about to stand in a line this long or this crowded. It felt even more packed than the Ceremony of Advancement.

    The discs were strange, reflective materials that shined in the sun like prismatic coins. A weak aura flowed through all of them, little gifts and enchantments that had been left there. Anam was able to do this sort of work with a sneeze; it took these Pokémon, if they could do it at all, several kiloseconds to get it all done.

    “There was this kid I knew who had a weirdly colored Protect,” Spice remarked while she waited for the aura to resonate with hers. “Sort of a bright yellow, or gold, or something, like the sun.”

    “Oh, gold aura folks?” remarked a nearby Cinderace. “I have a friend who’s got that! Used to show it off at parties. Really rare.”

    “I noticed something about that, actually. All of the Pokémon that are channeling Protect into these things… they all happen to have golden auras. I’ve never seen it all in one place. I thought it was just a myth!”

    “Nah, that Incineroar at the hospital? The one who handles the unruly patients? He’s got a gold Protect.”

    Spice rolled her eyes. “Well, maybe we can all get together and have a gold Protect party and show off how shiny our spirits are.” She wanted to roll her eyes and look skyward, but the disk on top of her made movement risky. “Is this thing done yet? I kind of feel like an idiot with this on my head.”

    “Almost, almost,” said a nervous-sounding Gothitelle. “It’s taking a while for your aura to register it, I think… You can tell when the disc gets dull.”

    “Right.” Spice sighed, flicking her tail impatiently. If anything, she was irritated that she would be expected to keep this on her quick-draw techniques rather than something she could draw on situationally. Defensive policy… who had the authority?!

    “All done!”

    “Finally.” Spice sat up and inspected the disc, no longer very prismatic. “Alright, see you—”

    “Can you use it once to make sure it worked?”

    “Fine, fine. Give me a second to find it…”

    Spice closed her eyes, drawing into herself. It definitely felt different. She remembered someone vaguely… someone who used to draw out Protect with a certain pose. It looked silly… but maybe, intuitively, it would help.

    Spice crossed her arms and drew out her spirit’s shield.

    It suddenly got a lot darker, and at the same time, several people gasped. Spice dropped her shield and looked around. “What was—”

    And it was brighter again, and Spice stepped in a small circle. “Why did it get dark? Is Dark Matter coming? Are those clouds—”

    But everyone was staring at her.

    “What?”

    She glanced at the Gothitelle, who seemed too stunned and confused. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “We just, er…”

    “Wow… if gold’s supposed to be rare… what’s black mean?”

    “Black?” Spice spun around to face the Cinderace. “What do you mean?”

    “Your Protect. It was black.”

    “Black.”

    Spice tried it again with some difficulty, and the world was dark like twilight again. That wasn’t the sky. That was her shield, pulsing with black waves of non-light from the top to her feet. She loosened her post and stood up straight.

    “Well,” she said, “I’ve got Protect. That’s all I need, right?”

    “Um, yes. Yes, sorry for keeping you, Heart. Thank you for your service.” Gothitelle bowed.

    “Thanks.” Hasty, and without another word, she crawled to the Heart HQ to ask for a scout rotation.

    She should have done that in the first place.

    <><><>​

    It had been four days since Marshadow had left Null Village with Owen and the others, and Jerry was starting to get worried. Perhaps not concerned—Owen had a knack for finding ways to pull things off, like saving his own hide—but for what was taking them so long. Did he find his mother? And then what? This place was too big.

    “Aerodactyl, are you feeling alright?”

    Jerry stiffened and glanced left to a Breloom chaperone, standing by the wall of a great, obsidian room. “Yeah,” he replied. “Just thinking.”

    They were in some sort of communal dining hall, from what Jerry had gathered, lined with long tables and plates of all sizes. Before Jerry was a plate of meats. He’d long since learned that it was all imitation meat—finding real meat, let alone low-level ferals in the Voidlands was next to impossible—but it was a darn good substitute. Maybe even better than what Kilo had, though considering how hungry he’d felt lately, his judgement could have been clouded.

    Next to him was Zena, and then by her, Demitri and Mispy. They were all on a tour of Null Village and were on a break to enjoy lunch. They'd seen all the facilities, the residential district, even the entertainment district. The technology there had been... confusing. Jerry hadn’t recognized half of it.

    Next on the agenda was the town perimeter. Now that they’d all been cleared of their ‘evaluation’ period, they had to start searching for jobs to help contribute to Null Village, no matter how long or short they intended to stay. Fair, he supposed, but it only reminded him of that cursed Broken Heart system when he’d been arrested. Was this any different?

    He had to get out. There had to be a way, right? He certainly felt alive. And after everything that had happened… to die now, and get stuck here?

    There had to be more to it. He felt it in his gut.

    Mispy mumbled something to Demitri, who nodded awkwardly and whispered to Jerry next, “Do you think they allow seconds?”

    “Don’t look at me. Feels like I’m on thin ice as it is.”

    “What? Did you get in trouble?”

    “No.”

    “Then why?”

    “I always feel that way.”

    Demitri frowned and inched away, eyes searching uselessly around the dining hall.

    Aside from himself, the pair, and Zena, they were accompanied by a tired-looking Slowpoke and a shifty-eyed Scyther. Neither were much for conversation; Jerry wasn’t sure they could have a conversation. They were probably C or D.

    “What class did you guys wind up getting?” Jerry suddenly asked Demitri and Mispy.

    “B for both of us,” Demitri said. “I think it has to do with, y’know, the whole mutant memory scramble thing.”

    Jerry finished his plate and glanced at Zena. “You? Think I forgot to ever ask.”

    “C,” Zena admitted, looking away.

    “C, eh… you had it pretty rough out there.”

    “I can’t remember how rough I had it, is the part that worries me,” the Milotic said with a hum. “The only reason I know anything is because Owen told me.”

    “Yeah, you two spent a lot of time together,” Jerry remarked. “Still, you barely knew each other, too.”

    “We didn’t?” Zena asked.

    “I mean, what, a moon or two at most. That’s nothing.”

    “Maybe it was love at first sight,” Demitri piped up.

    Mispy frowned, and Zena mirrored it.

    “I don’t think I’m fond of that idea,” Zena said. “That’s so strange. When I saw him, I was very… happy. Like some deep part of me was happy to see him. Why, then, did I only know him for such a short time?”

    “You were pretty alone before then,” Jerry said. “Maybe Owen was the first person to be something like a friend.”

    “Mm.” Zena looked down at her plate, then pushed it forward. Despite the huge portions, the Milotic had eaten it all. The chef in the back—a Typhlosion—had a wide grin.

    Jerry looked back at Zena. “What, having second thoughts?” He smirked.

    “A little.”

    Didn’t expect that one. “What?”

    “Sorry. Just thinking.” Zena sighed.

    Pots and pans gently clattered in the kitchen from the chefs cleaning up. Most of the others had finished eating and Jerry had gotten distracted. Hastily scarfing down the rest of his meal, he occasionally spared a glance at the Milotic, who was clearly still pensive.

    “Jerry, was it?” Zena asked.

    She had caught him while his mouth was full, so he nodded.

    “Do you think I should, no, do you think it’s… no…” She focused on the wall.

    Mouth finally empty, he said, “If you’re worried about Owen, I doubt he’d try to force anything too fast with you.”

    “But could we have already—two moons, Jerry. That’s… that seems so unlike me.”

    “Didn’t Owen tell you it was only that long?”

    “He, I, we… Well, I think so. But it feels so much longer because it’s all so vague, and—and what if the reason I felt so strongly for him was, well, what if I…”

    Jerry didn’t have the emotional investment to continue. He shrugged, uncommitted, and finished his meal. “Ask him yourself,” he defaulted.

    Just then, a siren echoed across town—they had heard that a few times, and it always indicated that scouts were returning and to be ready, just in case. But the rhythm was different, and for some reason, the chefs had stopped what they were doing. Their chaperones had suddenly left the building.

    “What’s going on?” Demitri asked, but Mispy was already sliding out the door. Jerry followed, Zena right behind him.

    “Gahi…” Mispy sped up.

    “What? You can sense him?”

    “Mm.”

    Down the clay-tile roads and toward the large, pointed spire in the middle of town, Jerry carefully weaved past hasty guards and civilians. It was hard to tell which was which.

    “Signal compliances are all clear!” someone shouted from above.

    They must have followed the flashing pattern properly. A team of scouts flew away from the village next, and then came a tense silence. Jerry, not knowing what to do with himself, shifted his weight to his left foot, stretched his wings, and glanced at Zena again. She had a lost, distant look in her eyes, like she was trying to figure out how to feel.

    “Just say hi to him,” Jerry mumbled, jolting Zena out of her trance.

    “What?”

    “Even if you don’t know how strongly to feel about him, you can still be friends with someone after two moons.”

    “Oh.” Zena’s ribbons folded over one another. “Am I that transparent?”

    “You two have that in common.”

    Jerry looked up, and when he did, he was glad he wasn’t holding anything. A great, looming shadow darkened the town, which had been lit only by the crystals that embedded the walls and the dim, red sky. Now the crystals seemed a little brighter, and the figure above them all the darker.

    He knew this creature from the Book of Arceus. The shapes were basic, but seeing Dialga in person… that—that was Dialga, right?

    “That can’t possibly…” Someone to his left stepped forward.

    “Dialga?” Demitri said. “From… from the Book? Dialga’s here?”

    “Which book?” Zena asked. “I’m sorry—I’m not very well-versed.”

    “Book of Arceus,” Demitri said. “I mean, if Arceus is real, then Dialga must have been, too, but… here? In the Voidlands?”

    A cold pit sank in Jerry’s stomach. If even the gods were being imprisoned here, what hope did he have of escaping?

    “Hello!” Marshadow called cheerfully from the top of Dialga’s back. He hopped off of Dialga, fell at least twenty feet to the ground, and landed lightly. “Need a room in th’ large-Pokémon eval building. Also need a high-security room in th’ normal building fer another rescue. Lemme attend that one fer special permissions fer Charmander, too.”

    “Charmander? The class A?” This voice was from Steelix, who looked up at Dialga skeptically as he descended. “If this is the Timekeeper, what’s the point in keeping him in evaluations? These buildings may be Protect-insulated, but I don’t think they can withstand the wills of a god…”

    “He’s weakened,” Marshadow said simply. “This is more fer temporary housing ‘til we figure out what ter do.”

    Everyone had been riding on Dialga’s back and hopped off as the great Legend descended. The slowest was Gahi, who had several parts of his body, particularly his tail, looking charred and blackened. He didn’t shine like he usually did.

    “What happened to him?” Jerry asked.

    “Void Titan,” Marshadow said.

    Trina didn’t look much better; her entire left half was dark and blistered with old, leafy scales, though a new set was growing in. Jerry winced, wondering if it would scar, but then turned his attention to Eon. The Ditto took the form of a Charizard, and was carrying several bags over his shoulder, and was noticeably distanced from Owen. Uncharacteristic. Maybe they got in another spat.

    Owen himself, though…

    Despite having no injuries, Owen looked like he was doing the worst. Dull eyes stared at a blob of darkness that looked to be frozen in place.

    …They had gone off to rescue Amia, hadn’t they? Where was—

    A sudden weight dragged Jerry’s stomach downward from the inside and he looked away. “Well, they’re back,” he muttered. “Don’t we have a town tour to finish?”

    “Can it wait?” Zena asked.

    “It’s gonna wait,” Marshadow said, and then made eye contact with several other scouts and guards. “Everyone rest fer now. I gotta straighten out a few things.”

    The scouts, organized as ever, escorted Dialga to an oversized building further down the clay roads. More scouts came with a strange, glass-like container and placed the Void Shadow inside before rolling it into the main evaluation building. Owen followed them, and thanks to whatever permissions Marshadow had given him, they let him through.

    Jerry’s legs worked without him thinking, and he followed them in, too.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 96 - Stubborn Hopeful
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 96 – Stubborn Hopeful

    The annoying pest was still following him.

    The red skies left little light for the trees to cast any shadows. Yet there was always that sixth sense of his radiant presence constantly bothering him like an itch he would never be rid of.

    Dark Matter drifted along the Voidlands in silence, quelling the more defiant voices within his core. The loudest ones, of course, were of Anam’s parents, the Salandit who denied his species, and the Goodra who denied her defeat.

    He had tuned out their cries long ago, yet still they tugged at the back of his mind. Not that it mattered. He was used to screams.

    Striking Kilo directly was no use. He did not have enough power in the physical world, and had reached a stalemate against Arceus. Gathering power in his spiritual domain came first.

    Oh, it would have been easy to do so on his own, had his domain not already been split three-ways between a power-hungry Dragon and a powered-down Dragon. Neither of which was particularly cooperative. Perhaps if he killed one, he could defeat the other on his own.

    “Stop right there!”

    Wonderful.

    One life in front of him, several more collecting around him. He could probably kill all of them quickly, but not without taking an annoying strike or two, and he wasn’t in the mood for that.

    “Arms up. Try anything, and…”

    Dark Matter rolled his eyes and complied. Slimy fingers rose above his head, and his tail thumped behind him. “Hurry up,” he demanded.

    “…You’re being pretty nonchalant for wandering around the forest, Goodra.”

    “I’ve been through this routine before,” Dark Matter droned. “Go on, search me, do as you must. I’m very tired.”

    The first Pokémon revealed herself, this one a Gabite. Middle evolution, hm. That meant she likely had died at least once while here. Searching through his memories, he found her. This Gabite had lived in the Voidlands for two hundred or so years. She had fallen into a great despair and wandered too close to a Dungeon that hadn’t been protected by Anam. Southern, most likely. She had been attacked within that Dungeon, and of course, succumbed to her wounds. Without Anam’s blessing, her spirit belonged to him after that.

    Gabite approached, looking him over. “You don’t look dangerous,” she said, but then pulled something from the bag around her chest. “But I’m still going to have to restrain you a little while we put you in the evaluation rooms. It’s the same for any division of Null Village.”

    “Mm. Of course.” Dark Matter could sense the other Pokémon closing in. Ten total. These scouts were competent but they didn’t recognize his spirit yet. Only a matter of time. Dark Matter smirked. “You never really let up, do you?” And then he chuckled a hollow laugh. He made a motion to go for a playful nudge, but Gabite immediately backed away and snarled.

    “I said don’t try anything,” she said.

    Clever vermin. “Sorry,” Dark Matter replied, and then kept his arms in the air again.

    Anam was getting closer. He didn’t have time for this. But an uproar would bring Anam right to him.

    “Let’s go,” Gabite said.

    Dark Matter sighed and stepped along, and several Pokémon that had been hidden in darkness revealed themselves.

    This was becoming too annoying to bear. Time for a distraction.

    He glanced left.

    A Void Shadow shrieked, and all the scouts turned toward it in an instant. For that precious second, nobody was watching Dark Matter.

    He reached toward Gabite and touched her shoulder. She looked at it in annoyed surprise, glared at Dark Matter, and suddenly her eyes were vacant. In another second, she was looking at the Void Shadow, which fled, while Dark Matter tapped his tail on a nearby Leafeon. Then, by mere luck, one of the hastier Pokémon, a Frosmoth, brushed against his arm.

    Three. That would do.

    “It ran off,” Gabite said under Dark Matter’s silent orders. “Everyone, close in. We should be more careful about this, and Goodra isn’t much of a threat.”

    Dark Matter played along, speaking to himself. “Oh, not a threat. Bold from someone not even fully evolved.”

    “Watch what you say,” warned a Mightyena, snarling. “Don’t make me have to use these claws on—” He tapped a paw aggressively on Dark Matter’s side. There was a flash of horror in his eyes, that fleeting second of control, and then he grunted. “Ugh, now I’ve got slime on me.”

    The other guards cautiously advanced forward, occasionally bumping into Dark Matter in the same way with little coincidences that he took full advantage of. But soon, he sensed a new pair from far ahead—and they were a lot stronger.

    His core rumbled. Darkrai and Cresselia, the king of nightmares and the queen of dreams. Those two were not ones that he wanted to deal with right now. Even worse, he felt a few of the spirits within him revolting more strongly than usual. That could only mean the vessel was getting closer.

    Two choices. Press on, attempt to kill the troublesome ones, and then flee… or flee immediately, and risk pursuit by three of them.

    Patience was a virtue, and Dark Matter knew that virtue was something he was frequently short on. Perhaps he could claim one of them…

    One of the scouts to his left moved oddly. Hadn’t he already claimed that one? Yet there he was, trying to resist. His paw moved against Dark Matter’s command, and even when Dark Matter tried to force the guard down, he did not listen. The other, unclaimed scouts looked at him oddly.

    Something prickled at Dark Matter’s core, like a desert sun’s heat. That purifying light was no doubt from Madeline, the feeble soul he’d defeated long ago, yet could not totally claim thanks to that annoying light dragon.

    And then came the Legends, first with the bigger threat. Those lunar, pink wings and that strange, crescent head mocked him. And behind her, the hazy, skittish ghost who feared his own power. Even after all this time, they were still together? Quaint.

    “Hello,” Dark Matter greeted. “I am here to visit your vil—”

    Cresselia wordlessly fired a sphere of pink energy, and Dark Matter retaliated with a blast of darkness that neutralized the strike. That blast ate away at his shadows—that was no normal Moonblast, because of course it wasn’t, coming from Cresselia—and struck a tree behind him, carving a perfect hole through its large trunk.

    Why is she so strong?!

    Change of plans. Running it was.

    Dark Matter grabbed Gabite by the neck—she did not resist—and hurled her at Cresselia and Darkrai. The latter swooped down and tried to catch her with a startled yelp, but the former fired another Moonblast toward Dark Matter. Instead, he silently commanded two more of the guards to get in the way.

    But instead of obliterating them, the Moonblast washed over their bodies, and suddenly they collapsed, gasping for air like they’d been plunged into a deep lake. They were trembling—but more importantly, Dark Matter couldn’t send commands to them any longer.

    She has Necrozma’s light?! That isn’t— Dark Matter seethed even more, so distracted with rage that he didn’t notice the Dragon Pulse to his right. It blew him off course and through a tree, which collapsed over him. He roared and slammed his fist into the darkened wood, disintegrating it within seconds.

    “Sorry!” Anam cried. “I didn’t mean to hit you that hard!”

    Dark Matter flung an explosive wad of shadows at Anam; the Goodra made no effort to dodge. Instead, he caught it, and the ball didn’t detonate.

    “I hate you.”

    “Stop running!” Anam begged. “What are you even trying to do?!”

    “You know precisely what. I will gather my power. I will reclaim the Voidlands. And then I will claim everything.”

    “But that wasn’t what you wanted!”

    “Now it is.”

    Cresselia was getting closer and Dark Matter didn’t know what more he could do. The guards were all fighting for control again. They had only recently been converted; they could bounce back if disturbed enough.

    Still, they were useful for other things.

    Dark Matter grasped the Leafeon by the paw and dug his other hand into its side. He whimpered, but that was all as his body dissolved into a shapeless Void Shadow.

    Anam was faster. Even from afar, he felt something tug at the inside of his chest, and from within, something was trying to beat its way out of him. The two combined forces—

    Dark Matter roared in pain and fell back. Two spirits left him, leaving a deep gash in his chest that rapidly closed before any more could escape. He could feel that tug again, but the spirits that remained were too weak and dormant to fight back.

    The two that left—he had a good guess. He could no longer hear that stern, nagging voice of Anam’s mother, for one…

    “That won’t be enough,” Dark Matter grunted, tossing the Void Shadow he had left at Anam. Just like before, the hero foolishly spread out his arms to catch it, as if he had a chance to save the creature, but that was the trap. Without him to advise Anam about deception, he was as naïve and trusting as ever when he had to think fast.

    Cresselia tried to regroup with Darkrai, but the Void Shadow exploded, sending a massive, black shockwave out in all directions. Anam yelped; Cresselia and Darkrai floated back; Dark Matter rolled to his front and shifted his form into a Luxray.

    Sprinting through the forest, Dark Matter felt his stamina waning. Just being near one of the trio of light was enough to fatigue him. Where was Celebi, then? Guarding Necrozma still, surely… Just his luck to run into the other purifying force.

    He would get them later.

    Anam wasn’t giving chase; in fact, it felt like he was going in the direction the spirits called southeast. Where would—

    Yes, another city. Null Village was a collective; it had key strongholds in the cardinal directions away from Cipher City. Then that meant Anam was going toward East Null Village.

    Alerting them?

    Perhaps he was more clever than Dark Matter had given him credit for. Running ahead instead of fighting a futile battle now that he got his parents back? Or was that just a happy coincidence for him? He did not sense any malice from Anam, so there was no telling.

    Fine, then, Dark Matter thought, growling as he stopped his run. Get your head start and warn the village. See what good it does you…

    He tapped his paw on a tree and annihilated it. Settling in the hole where the roots had once been, he curled up and focused on the red core within his chest, siphoning energy from the dust nearby.

    You are still in my domain. I’ll reclaim it all in time…

    <><><>​

    Amia’s room was filled with constellations and wave-like decorations over the walls, most of them pink and violet. Though, most of it wasn’t in use, as Amia’s cage, where she was contained, occupied the far corner of the room, furthest from the exit. It was a clear, element-resistant box with a firm lock and a strange, digital interface on one side.

    Owen sat in front of this cage, staring at the Void Shadow within as it jiggled and angrily blasted in Owen’s direction. The shadows struck the clear wall and dissipated uselessly, and eventually, it got tired and huddled in the furthest corner of her cage. It wasn’t very far—it was only ten or so of Owen’s paces on the long end, and perhaps seven on the short side.

    Hakk had mentioned that Void Shadows didn’t really need a whole lot of space, but it was too cruel to Owen. They had bigger boxes, right? And why not just let her explore the room on her own? There wasn’t any way out of there once the door was locked anyway.

    “They should really let you out,” Owen said, smiling. “But, I can’t really do that. I mean, I could try, but the lock…” He gestured to the digital interface, which Owen didn’t know the first thing about. Buttons and numbers and letters. “And they’d probably be mad at me, y’know?”

    The Void Shadow didn’t respond to Owen. He didn’t even know if it was looking at him—it had no eyes, or a face for that matter.

    “S-so, are you hungry?” Owen asked.

    No reply, of course, but maybe she was just grumpy, or the glass seal made things hard to hear. That was fine. Amia would tell him if she needed anything, after all.

    The Void Shadow slid a little closer to the wall separating them and Owen eagerly leaned forward.

    “Hey, Mom,” he said, laughing a little. “I, uh, can you hear me?”

    No reply, but it kept sliding closer.

    “So,” Owen went on, “do you want—”

    It slammed hard against the wall, spattering, but then recoiled and tried again. Owen flinched and fell back on reflex, wincing when his tail bent oddly, and righted himself.

    He laughed awkwardly, desperately, and tried to wave off the successive blasts that the Void Shadow volleyed. When it finally settled down and retreated into the other corner, Owen shakily repositioned himself to face the wall again.

    “Y-you’re still in there, right?” Owen asked. No reply. “I know it’s you—I feel it, it’s you. It’s still you, Mom. E-even if maybe you don’t totally remember right now, you will one day, s-so that’s why I’m still treating you no-normally.”

    Why did his chest feel so tight? His eyes were hot. He couldn’t keep himself composed, why was that? Amia was the one who was scared and confused, he was the one who was supposed to keep it together! He wasn’t helping things!

    “A-and Dad, he’ll be happy to see you’re alright and back wi-with me, too,” Owen said, hands clenching over his knees. “Dad… that’s right, huh? I ne-never asked you how you two met, or anything like that. The real story, I m-mean. I guess maybe one day you can tell me. After this is all… all over.”

    Once again, the Void Shadow did not respond, though it also didn’t attack. She was probably recognizing him. Memories always came back that way. Or maybe she was tired and didn’t want to express herself and extend even more energy. If she didn’t need to eat, maybe she had to generate her own energy slowly. That was probably it…

    Talons on tile echoed in the room. Owen didn’t recognize the pace’s pattern at first and had to look back, finally breaking his stare at the cage.

    Jerry?

    “Hey,” the Aerodactyl said.

    Owen grimaced, but tried to hide it. He went back to staring at the cage, but now with company that was surely going to tell him to do something useful. Jerry never cared about how he was feeling, only survival. Well, he survived; he had the right to feel, didn’t he?

    Jerry didn’t even care that he’d accidentally poisoned his own mother. Shrugged it off like everything else and told him to get moving.

    His tail crackled again, but Owen had no intention of hiding it, even as Jerry stepped toward him. Footsteps got louder.

    If he had been faster, if Jerry hadn’t tried to fly them away. They would have been rescued a few minutes earlier. And those extra minutes could have gotten to Amia. And then none of this would have happened. Amia would have been a frightened, disoriented Ralts being taken care of in this very room, and they would have been chatting, and laughing, and maybe even hugging because of course they would, she was scared, and he was probably stronger than her now.

    But none of that could happen now.

    All because of—

    “Whatever you want,” Jerry said. “I’ll get it. Just say the word.”

    It was so startlingly unexpected that Owen had to look back on reflex.

    Jerry’s eyes were locked on the ground like he was in pain, but it wasn’t his pride like Owen would have expected. There was something more…

    “What?” Owen asked.

    “You’re staying here, right?”

    “I am.” Owen’s words were firm.

    “Then I’ll get what you want. I’ll bring it here.”

    “…Why?” The word fell from his mouth like water.

    The Aerodactyl’s wing-claws squeezed into their palms. He folded them over his chest, and Owen had never seen him look so vulnerable, even if it had been for an instant. And then he was back to standing straight.

    “While you were away, we went on a tour around town. You haven’t eaten yet, right? I’ll buy you something.”

    “I don’t need anything from—”

    “Pick something.”

    “Maybe I don’t want to,” Owen snarled.

    “…Then I’m gonna get something light for you,” Jerry said, turning back. “Fish, or veggies? Both? Starch?”

    Owen’s tail crackled again, and Jerry didn’t move. And he still didn’t move, and why didn’t he? Was he really going to impose he eat, again?

    Owen did his best to stare down Jerry, even though he had to look up to do it. He was several paces away, and Jerry looked annoyed. Gritted teeth, tense posture… Yet he didn’t say anything back.

    Anything to get him away. “Mostly veggies,” Owen growled.

    “Alright.”

    And without another word, Jerry turned and left.

    That hollow feeling was back, cold in a way a Fire should never have to feel. Jerry was steps away from leaving the room.

    “And—and thank you,” Owen stuttered out. “Sorry.”

    Jerry didn’t stop, but he did reply with a dismissive, “Mm,” as he left.

    A dull thunk from behind reminded Owen that the Void Shadow was still there. He wondered if he should go after Jerry and help pick something out… but he still felt stuck in place.

    Turning around, Owen sat down and watched the Void Shadow again, wondering why Jerry, of all people, had offered him anything.

    <><><>​

    With how quiet it had been, the subtle, grinding noise of scales on tile echoed over the smooth walls. He recognized that sound, so he wasn’t surprised when he glanced back to see Zena.

    “Is this a bad time?” Zena asked.

    “No,” Owen said, but it was suddenly a lot harder to keep himself composed. Even worse when she got closer; he locked his gaze onto Amia instead.

    “I’m sorry if you wanted to be left alone,” Zena added. “It’s really okay if you’d prefer if…”

    Owen wasn’t really sure what he wanted, so he shook his head.

    “Oh, then I’ll go,” Zena said apologetically.

    “No, I—” Well, that answered that. “It’s okay.”

    So, she stayed. She wasn’t as close as usual, and that perplexed Owen a little, but he wasn’t in the mindset to ask why. Maybe she thought distance would have helped… A small part of him wanted to be closer, but another part feared that it would be the last thing keeping him from bawling. Was that bad? Was that good? What was he supposed to be feeling?

    It all felt so numb. He didn’t remember how he had gotten into this room in the first place.

    “I’m glad you’re safe,” Zena said gently. “And…”

    She didn’t finish, and Owen wasn’t sure where she would have gone. Perhaps that everyone had come back in one piece, and that they had found Dialga. And that they found Amia, even if… Yes, that’s probably why she didn’t finish.

    “Thank you,” Owen said, relieving her from the silence. “Sorry if I’m not that talkative.”

    “No, it’s okay. Really.”

    Owen was glued to his spot, but he wanted nothing more than to inch closer. Yet he couldn’t. He looked down again. Even without his Perceive, he had a vague sense that something else was bothering Zena. He couldn’t build up the energy to ask, and she was probably afraid to bring it up. Not like this.

    What would Amia have told him to do?

    His gaze trailed to the Void Shadow, which was now trying to dig through the glass on the opposite corner to no effect.

    Amia would have told him to communicate, to talk it out. Owen vaguely remembered other fleeting friendships that he’d had with other Pokémon, some closer than others. All those lives, forgotten and erased. He wondered if Nevren had anything to do with his erasure from their minds, too, or if he was simply some mysterious Charmander of Kilo Village. He wouldn’t be the only one, considering ‘Deca’ had wandered there, too…

    Communicate. That’s what she would have said to do. Mispy would have, too. And his father, he would have said to be thoughtful. Amber would have said to be strong. Daichi would have said to be sure of himself.

    And sitting around doing nothing wasn’t helping. “Are you okay?” Owen asked, breaking his stare from the cage to look at Zena’s tail feathers.

    “Me? You’re asking me?” Zena asked.

    “Yeah, you, um, sorry. You seemed a little off. Sorry. Maybe I’m projecting.”

    The way her feathery fan flexed suggested otherwise, but he didn’t comment.

    She coiled around herself for one extra revolution, resting her chin on her belly, and she still towered over him.

    “No, you’re right,” Zena said.

    “What’s wrong?”

    “Oh, Owen, this isn’t about me right now.”

    “It’s okay. Please, tell me.”

    And then more silence, and he knew it was something uncomfortable. Considering what little Zena knew of everything right now, still recovering her memories, it didn’t take much to deduce what she would be thinking about. It was probably about the Voidlands, about getting out. And he was thinking the same. They had to find a way back out. It was all so much, but there had to be some way to stop Dark Matter, right? Maybe if they found Anam, or regrouped with Rhys…

    Finally, Zena spoke, “We only knew each other for a few moons?”

    Okay, so he wasn’t quite expecting that. “Er—yeah.”

    “Mm. I’ve, well, I’ve just been thinking about that,” she said. “So little time yet I felt so attached to you.”

    “Yeah.”

    “I was wondering why. Not to you, to myself. It seems so unlike me, yet I felt it. And I’m—I know I was never a believer in love at first sight, and yet…”

    Maybe this was why Zena didn’t want to talk about it. Still, now that the topic came up…

    “Oh, I’m sorry,” Zena said, and Owen realized that he’d slackened his shoulders, or maybe his tail had dimmed. Curse his expressiveness.

    “No, it’s fine,” Owen lied.

    “It isn’t. I should have waited to throw this at you, I—”

    “It’s fine,” Owen hissed, and then suddenly he stopped himself. Eyes wide, his tail had crackled, and he quickly shook his head. “No, I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry.”

    Zena flinched, but she settled down.

    They fell into silence. The Void Shadow was trying the other corner, but the containment procedure was foolproof from the inside. Owen’s tail was crackling horribly, and he had to focus on his breathing to calm it down. He could only imagine how Zena would interpret it.

    “…I can’t imagine how awful this must be for you,” Zena said.

    Owen blinked, stealing a glance at her prismatic scales. He couldn’t look at her face.

    “If there’s anything you need, please, ask me.” Her coils made an odd, rhythmic undulation, and she was a foot closer.

    Owen’s eyes felt hot. Relief squeezed his chest.

    “I was lonely and desperate. Getting so attached to you, so suddenly, was a mistake. But… what I’ve seen in you now, Owen, I want to try again anyway. Properly. Because even with how I’d been, I think I might have gotten… lucky.”

    None of it made sense to Owen, so he just listened.

    “If you feel the same,” Zena added, barely a whisper.

    Breathe, he had to breathe. To stay calm. Having an outburst now would confuse Zena. Forget that, it would confuse himself.

    Slow, steady. Breathe.

    “Right,” Owen said, nodding. “I, yeah, that’s right. That makes sense. Never… I never thought of it that way before.”

    “I wish I could have brought it up at a better time,” Zena admitted.

    And to that, Owen laughed, which was a mistake. Suddenly, he couldn’t stop laughing, though most of it came out in chokes and sobs. His cheeks were wet and his tail blazed, and had he eaten anything recently—he hadn’t—that might have been in danger of returning. Even Zena laughed, though hers was a nervous chuckle.

    “It’s never a good time with me anymore,” Owen finally said, wiping his face with both hands. “Now you have me thinking about why I wound up with you back then. Maybe we were both desperate.” He sniffled. “Guess that’s one for the therapist. I bet they get a lot of demand here.”

    Zena giggled, shaking her head back. “I can’t imagine.”

    The Void Shadow seemed to be glaring at them on the nearest wall, pressed firmly against it.

    “Desperate… That’s probably it,” Owen admitted. “You were one of the first people to tell me everything, or everything they knew. You defended me when everyone else kept me in the dark. I know you don’t remember that, but… I think that’s why I cared so much about you. Or… or maybe I just felt that way when you told me the same. I wasn’t really sure myself, in a way…” He scratched the back of his head, tittering. “I was still mostly mutant back then. I didn’t really have a mind for love.” And he had been incredibly dense, but he decided to omit that detail.

    “From the start,” Owen finally concluded, taking a sharp breath through his nostrils. He finally had the courage to face her. Red eyes stared back, hopeful, sincere, but calm. She wasn’t worried about herself, only him, and what he’d gone through. In hindsight… that was so different from how they’d met. “As friends. My name’s Charmander Owen… and I’m a Heart.” He held out a tiny hand.

    Zena’s puzzled frown morphed into an amused smile. “And I’m Milotic Zena, er… Water Guardian, I suppose.” She brought a ribbon forward, wrapping around his arm, and they shook.

    <><><>​

    The gloomy atmosphere of Null Village confused Jerry because of how familiar it felt. No, the technology was completely foreign to him, as was most of the architecture, yet something about the mannerisms of the Pokémon and the crystals in the wall…

    Jerry sighed, shaking it off. It wasn’t really important anyway; Pyrock Village was so far in the past. And even after so many days there, he didn’t know how to process or reconcile it all. Maybe later, he’d be able to put it all to words…

    Jerry had stopped by a restaurant that had a long line the last time he was there, and when he’d returned, it was even longer. Still, he had already promised Owen to get something with veggies, and this was the only restaurant that he knew of that did it well. And if there was any time that he wasn’t going to skip out on something good for the idiot, it would be now.

    During the agonizing wait, he had seen Hakk passing by, and Xypher had inquired—with a few caws—how Owen was doing. A little half-lie that he was resting had been enough to shoo him away. Hakk had been carrying a lot of berries on him, and it was odd to see him without Xypher, but Jerry hadn’t paid it further mind.

    Finally, he returned to the facility, where he passed by the Jynx at the front, who smiled at him. Jerry tried to find the energy to smile back, but he was so preoccupied with himself that it came out more like a twitch of his jaw. “How is he doing?” Jynx asked.

    “Dunno. Got him food.”

    That was enough of an answer, and Jerry continued through with the bag clutched in his wing’s claws.

    At some point, Amia had become more like a centerpiece to idle chatter than the person they had been watching. A strange mixture of relief and cold envy filled Jerry’s chest when he heard Owen laugh weakly at something Zena said.

    Jerry stopped and listened for a little while, realizing that he hadn’t gotten anything for Zena. Sure, she hadn’t been there when he had asked, but she better not complain. They were talking about Voidland berries and edible bark, and Owen wondered if Demitri would try to cook the bark for any dishes.

    Jerry sighed, making himself known, and stepped into the room.

    “Oh, Jerry,” Zena greeted, nodding at him.

    “Didn’t get you anything,” Jerry said, his wing-claws grasping at the paper bag that had two packages inside, one much larger than the other.

    “That’s alright,” Zena said. “I’d eaten before I—oh, Owen! Did you… have you eaten at all?”

    “Er, no.” Owen shrank down, and Jerry placed a paper box in front of Owen, along with two small, wooden sticks. “Was distracted.”

    Owen was staring at the bag, and then up at Jerry, and he knew why. The Charmander’s eyes said it all. Why was Jerry being so nice? Because of course Owen would try to pry into things that he had no right to know. As much as Owen hated people telling him to do things, he still folded and followed; and as much as Owen didn’t like everyone getting in his head, he was still open and it was like he expected everyone else to be the same. Brat.

    “Um,” Owen started, “are you feeling alright, by the way?”

    Jerry flinched and looked left.

    At the same time, he didn’t understand why he had gone out of his way to help Owen, either. But seeing that Void Shadow there—so weak and a shell of what she used to be… Jerry’s spiteful thoughts were just a little whisper. All he could remember seeing was how broken Owen had appeared, and…

    Well, look at him now. He was perfectly fine. All he needed was a little support, and suddenly everything was better.

    “I get it,” Jerry said, like it was an answer.

    “You… get it?” Zena repeated.

    Jerry looked at the Void Shadow in the clear cage, which was now back to butting against the back-left corner.

    “Yeah,” he said. “But… whatever.” He spun around with his package of food. “Take it easy, alright?” He didn’t want to be there.

    And without another word, Jerry left the two alone with the Void Shadow. Beneath the savory flavor of the fried vegetables and noodles, there was a hint of warm bitterness.

    <><><>​

    Author's note: Hey all, thanks for reading as always! I will be taking four weeks rather than two weeks to get the next part out. Incoming: the next Special Episode! This one is a doozy and I'm trying to get it just right, and it has a chance of being my longest one yet. I'm trying to keep these chapters in check in terms of length, but there was simply a lot to cover and a lot of heavy subject matter that I want to handle just right without getting too deep into it.

    In the meantime, maybe keep an eye on my profile for another story that I've been working on, back before the Legends disappeared.

    Also in my signature, you can find an invite link to the Hands of Creation discord. Check it out if you're interested! And as usual, comments and reviews are always appreciated so I know what my readers are thinking.

    In any case, October 25th will be the launch date for Special Episode 7, "The Last Southern King," which will focus entirely on Jerry.
     
    Special Episode 7 - The Last Southern King
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    This Special Episode contains a few darker themes, this time dealing with abuse.

    Special Episode 7 – The Last Southern King

    It was a typical day in the outskirts of Pyrock Village, where the trees were full and green and the forest air was thick with moisture. The wet season brought daily rains, either in the morning, noon, or night, though usually two of the three. The blanketing heat made basking in the sun or in the shade, depending on one’s species, the best way to spend the afternoon.

    Everyone had their favorite rock, their favorite tree, though they would share if asked nicely. The occasional sparring match for those a little more wild-blooded would also suffice.

    This afternoon, under the mist of a drizzle whose water just barely missed the ground before evaporating, the floaty raindrops glistened in the rays of sunlight. Gusts of wind made for entrancing, natural, frantic patterns from the treetops toward the ground.

    An Aerodactyl, still only half-grown, fell out from the treetops with a scream. On the branches, a mother Noctowl angrily beat her wings and looked as large as possible, but that wasn’t enough for such an insolent trespasser.

    She screeched and swooped down, pecking the young Aerodactyl’s snout and bludgeoning him with her wings. He landed with a loud grunt and decided that getting up wasn’t worth it, particularly since the Noctowl had flown back to tend to her hatchling.

    “I said sorry,” he muttered. “Dumb feral.” He spat a halfhearted Rock Blast only a few feet in the air; it landed on his snout, earning an exasperated groan as he rolled over.

    Enough was enough. “Spice!” he called. “I give up! You win!”

    “Darn right I win!”

    A Salandit poked her head out from beneath the Hoothoot’s feathers.

    “Thanks for the hiding spot,” Spice whispered to Noctowl, handing off a small Pecha to the Hoothoot for the trouble. The Noctowl scowled and returned to the nest.

    With a graceful fall, Spice landed on the Aerodactyl’s back and whipped her tail against his left wing. “So, how’d I do this time, Jerry? You came close!”

    “Hmph.” That was all the reply she’d get.

    “Fair’s fair. I didn’t go more than ten trees away!”

    “Yeah, but you used a wild Pokémon to hide.”

    “But was that against the rules?” Spice crawled up to his neck, her eyes forever impish and giddy.

    “Get off me!” Jerry harrumphed and bucked Spice off; she giggled and landed on her feet. “Just you wait, I’m gonna find you one of these days.”

    “You’re ten years too early to say stuff like that,” Spice taunted. Then, she looked at the sky, a brief flash of concern on her face, but then relief. “And look, you gave up a lot faster, so I’m not late to help Mom at work!”

    “I didn’t give up faster, I got beat up!” Jerry brought a wing to his nose and pulled back; only a little blood. “That’s not fair! That’s, uh, that’s an assist!”

    Spice giggled and scampered away.

    “Hey, I’m not through with you!” Jerry marched after her, but eventually rolled his eyes and let her go. She did have to help out at work soon. Her mother worked at the potion shop, though their effectiveness ranged from tried-and-true to… dubiously experimental. Jerry remembered one of them had to be scrapped entirely because it was too similar to a weird medicine. Something about using Salazzle toxins a certain way…

    Before he turned to head home as well, the odd shuffling of a trio caught his attention. The foot patterns reminded him of kingdom guards, but the speed suggested it was something urgent. They were heading right for Dad’s work… Did something happen?

    He glanced back for Spice, but she was already far down the path. Calling would alert the guards to his presence, and they always told him not to follow. Too bad.

    With all of his stealth, he trailed behind the guards and into Pyrock Village proper.

    “You.”

    Jerry froze. Caught already!

    Above, he spotted a surprisingly lithe Obstagoon. She narrowed her eyes and, with one swing, threw herself beside Jerry and picked him up with a sweeping motion from her other arm.

    “Hey, hey, I wasn’t doing anything!” Jerry shouted.

    “It’s not safe. Come with us to your father’s work.”

    “I wasn’t following this time, I—wait, you’re taking me there?”

    <><><>​

    Northern invaders had breached the border. That was the extent of what Jerry knew from Obstagoon, whose eyes were trained ahead with her two companions, a Grimmsnarl and a Volcarona on the back of his head.

    “And you couldn’t stop them?”

    “They have some strange Northern magic,” Obstagoon explained. “But your father might know what to do about them. They asked to see our leader.”

    “But the northern border is a whole day away on foot,” Jerry said.

    “And we got an alert dated a day ago.”

    “W-well, maybe they were stopped.”

    “Doubt it. This is the North’s leader, and his power was…” Obstagoon ruffled through a satchel under her neck, pulling out a note. “Well, I can’t repeat some of the words to you until you’re older, but, let’s say it was ‘very terrifying’ and leave it at that.”

    “Dad’ll beat him away,” Jerry said. “Like, the Northern leader and what army, y’know?”

    “That’s true,” Obstagoon said. “They came alone. Just the two of them.”

    “Two? And you still think they got through? What do we pay you for?!”

    Obstagoon shuffled nervously. “Well, maybe your father will understand a little better.”

    They passed by two guards, a Rhyperior and a Druddigon, between two peculiar trees. Just past the guards and then to the right, a tunnel leading underground greeted them. The tunnel started narrow, only large enough to let through the bulkiest species, before widening out into an entire complex of dark orange rock. It was much warmer underground, but Jerry was used to this kind of heat; it welcomed him.

    They descended for quite a while, and the ceiling seemed to become higher and higher as they did. They passed the underground lake, which sparkled orange from a hole in the caverns above, and took the short way around.

    After the underground lake, Jerry passed by another set of guards that seemed confused by his arrival.

    “Look, you aren’t trying to get past here again, are you?” asked an Infernape. “Your father is very busy, kid.”

    “Let him through,” Obstagoon said, flashing a metal emblem on her bag. “We’re escorting him to his father’s right now, and maybe he can be put somewhere safe.”

    They didn’t question it further and Jerry passed through. It was surreal to be allowed in; he usually had to use a secret, small passage or two. Unfortunately, he was also getting too big for those passageways nowadays…

    Pyrock Village’s interior was etched into the stony underground. While the surface had soft dirt and lush trees, solid rock wasn’t too far underneath, and hidden there was a labyrinthine complex of tunnels and gigantic chambers large enough to allow an entire fleet of winged Pokémon to practice aerial combat.

    While dim inside, Jerry’s eyes were well adjusted to this kind of darkness, though the ceiling was lit by strange, glass tubes that punctured the rocks and led all the way to the surface. There, light fed into the crystals and transferred themselves all the way into the caverns; they seemed brighter than the sunlight that normally came in, and sometimes retained their brightness well into the night.

    He never really knew why that was. The myth was that their ancestors lived in those crystals and were watching over them, making sure the good kids went to sleep, and the bad kids would be punished. That could be true, Jerry thought, so he often avoided passageways that had those crystals so his ancestors wouldn’t be disappointed.

    After a narrow road, Obstagoon escorted Jerry down a wider path, overlooking the top of the central Pyrock Village chamber. Ahead and below Jerry was the city, at least a hundred feet down and five hundred ahead. Light crystals speckled the ceiling and the walls, and several fires in the center of town lit the bottom floor of the village.

    Fire Pokémon were playing in the flames—most of the town by a vast majority were Fire types—and that kept them well-lit. There were two central bonfires that were too hot for Jerry to ever hope to approach, and it seemed that the kids were setting up some kind of game of flaming dodgeball, using each flaming spire as a home base.

    “Go fly to your father’s palace,” Obstagoon said firmly. “No detours. Give him this message.” She handed him the same note she’d read from before, and Jerry nodded. For once, he felt this was important enough to follow without any sass.

    Obstagoon walked down the path to a contraption near the top of the hill meant to slide down to the bottom floor quickly. After hopping onto the platform and giving it a firm kick, the contraption jiggled, groaned, and finally slid down the rocky slopes. Jerry, hanging onto the message, flew with practiced ease, curving his path only to avoid the ongoing fireball battle.

    The King’s Palace was at the western end of Pyrock Village. From the southern entrance that they’d taken, Jerry was able to only slightly detour his path around the bonfires to avoid it. After flying over other political buildings—most of them he didn’t know the purposes of—he landed by the front where several guards stepped forward.

    “Jerry,” said an exasperated Emboar. “Are we just skipping the sneaking in part, now?”

    “Got a message from one of the guards,” Jerry said, showing the paper. “It’s really important this time.”

    Apparently, they believed him enough to look it over. Emboar’s eyes focused on the signature first, a flash of recognition crossing his expression. To the others, he said, “Let him through.”

    The palace’s entrance was large enough to accommodate three Emboar stacked on top of one another by the shoulders. Jerry flew through, took a few flights of stairs—by wing—and hastily apologized to a Simisear who had been carrying several stacks of papers, which were now scattered on the stairs.

    The red-colored, rocky walls led him to a narrow hall with a stone door. “Dad!” Jerry shouted, pushing the door open—always heavy, like it was some test of strength—and then slipped inside.

    “Junior, I’m busy. Go away.”

    “It’s important!”

    “More important than—”

    “Probably!”

    Finally, he had the door open. Inside were Pokémon he didn’t recognize nor cared about, and at the back of the office, lined with off-white scrolls and maps, was an Archeops. His eyes narrowed, and Jerry felt, briefly, like coming was a mistake—but he still had to deliver the message.

    “It’s from a scout,” Jerry said, walking past six Pokémon, all of them Fire. “The Northern ruler is coming.”

    “Excuse me?” His father snatched the paper and looked it over, eyes narrowed. His feathery body puffed up on reflex.

    “N-Northern ruler? Here? Now? When?” A flighty-looking Talonflame shifted to his left side. “I thought we had a treaty.”

    “Hmph, might makes right as far as they’re concerned,” Jerry’s father said. “Junior. If he’s on the way, he might only be a few kilos from here. Go home for now.”

    “Home?”

    “Yes. Check on your mother, or something.” Archeops stood up.

    “Jeremy,” a Flareon said next. “What do we do if he tries to enter town? And attacks?”

    “We attack back. I don’t care if he’s Arceus himself; you don’t trespass on my kingdom like you own it.”

    “Er, wouldn’t Arceus technically—”

    “You know what I mean,” Jeremy hissed. “This meeting’s over. Frankly I don’t care what sort of farmland you want, hash out the deal with yourselves. Putting political weight on this isn’t worth my time.” He shooed Flareon away despite stomping out of his office first. “I’m going to see the scouts for the whole story.”

    Jerry, still standing there, shrank at the many sets of eyes that were now locked on him. He stumbled out himself.

    Outside, the bonfires were blazing as usual, and Jeremy was flying, unguarded, over them and toward the southern entrance. Jerry saw something purple going down the slopes, too, which was an odd color around here. And green, which was even stranger, since it reminded him of leaves. Generally, something that didn’t last long in Pyrock.

    The purple thing glistened under the crystal lights, and Jerry realized—

    “Oh, Mew. That’s—DAD!” Jerry shouted.

    But accompanying the purple and green Pokémon were Obstagoon and her partners. Did they somehow intercept him? Capture him? There was no way!

    He flew closer to find out, heart racing all the while. The seconds it took to get closer felt like an eternity, especially since Jeremy was a much faster flier.

    It was a Goodra and Decidueye. The Decidueye looked like the leader, the way he carried himself with a serious countenance, practically a glare, but he was bound by the wings. They were tightly strapped against his sides; he had no hope of flying, and his wobble was slow and awkward. Therefore, Obstagoon was helping him along. Despite her imposing stature, she looked like she was taking great care that Decidueye wouldn’t trip and fall.

    The Goodra was similarly bound. His horns were tied up in a strong cloth and wound together so it was impossible to move them for attacks. His arms, while small, were similarly bound in front of him; his tail was pinned to his back; and lastly, his mouth was muzzled to prevent any Dragon blasts.

    Obstagoon was speaking. “. . . let him here if we bound them completely. We also confiscated this from them.” She raised a bag. “Just has their rations and some supplies for exploration, but they also had a really thick looking legal document. No idea what it says. Should we burn it?”

    “I’ll make those calls,” Jeremy said, but then looked Goodra and Decidueye over. When he smiled, Jerry shared it; it was a grin that was filled with triumph, like their greatest enemy’s head had just been delivered right to their doorstep. And, frankly, it may as well have been.

    “Take them between the bonfires,” Jeremy said. “Spread the news to everyone. Jerry.”

    Jerry had forgotten he wasn’t supposed to be here. “I was just—”

    “Get your mother. I’m sure she would want to see this, too. Today is the day we solidify our independence from the tyrant’s kingdom forever!”

    <><><>​

    It wasn’t often that Jerry brought his mother out in public. For one, it was tiring for her—she had hatched in an odd way, or something had gone wrong somewhere, and it made moving difficult. Her muscles didn’t grow properly, and she was never worthy of flight. But Void Basin’s blessings had given Jerry vitality that his mother would never have—at least, that was how his father attributed such a successful egg to come from his mate.

    Jeremy was a little rude about that at times. He had once said that he would never have had Jerry with his mother if she hadn’t had Mew’s Blessing. Still, she rolled her eyes at the comment and told Jerry, privately, that he should be nicer to whatever Pokémon he decided to pair with. Jerry was puzzled by that, because he thought that was just how couples interacted. Still, he took her advice to heart, just in case some girls were more sensitive than she was.

    She also had a strong spirit. And as Jerry left their expansive home of deep orange stone, with his mother carefully shambling out of the doorway, several Pokémon were already swarming over her to help her along.

    “Brigid,” said Obstagoon, the lead guard sent with Jerry, “please, allow me to carry you.”

    “Not for long, I hope,” Brigid replied.

    For a full-grown Aerodactyl, she was much smaller than average, only a head or two taller than Jerry. Her head occasionally wobbled to the left with the rest of her body, and her wings were constantly shaking, though she wasn’t cold. Being cold was impossible in Pyrock.

    Despite her shaky stature, her eyes were firm, and she gave a very political, balanced compromise to Obstagoon. She would be too slow to walk the whole way to the bonfire, but she refused to be carried any longer than would be practical. The rest of the way, she’d go on her own, and that was why Brigid was the strongest Pokémon in Pyrock. Nothing could convince Jerry otherwise.

    Jeremy had Goodra and Decidueye on a large platform with the fires roaring on either side of him. They were huge and hot, but they were far enough away that the heat was bearable and soft that they could still hear his shouts.

    A crowd gathered around the platform, going as close as they could to hear what everyone was saying. Those at the front eagerly passed along the developments to Pokémon in the back who couldn’t hear as easily. In no time, practically a quarter of the town had gathered, resulting in a sea of mostly Fire and Rock Pokémon. The sea of Pokémon parted ways for Jerry and Brigid, some of them offering to help Brigid along, but she once again rolled her eyes and claimed she could handle herself.

    “Not much more, now,” Brigid said to Jerry as the last of the crowd parted for them, giving respectful nods to the feeble Aerodactyl. “Hmph, and that’s the North’s ruler? Captured so easily… How did he take over the world?”

    “Must’ve gotten careless,” Jerry theorized.

    “Mm.” Brigid seemed less sure, narrowing her eyes. “Let’s not get too close, Jerry.”

    “I can hear them at least,” Jerry said, leaning as much as he could. The crowd around him was silent, listening to his father.

    He was in the middle of a speech, but Jerry knew the general beats to tell that he wasn’t missing anything important yet. Greatness of Pyrock, prosperity for all, yadda yadda…

    “ . . . and finally, before you today, the leaders of Kilo have been captured by our hard-working Pyrock forces!” Jeremy said, motioning first to Obstagoon, and then at Goodra and Decidueye.

    Jerry had never seen two Pokémon more thoroughly tied up. Anything that they could have used to attack was either bound or wrapped shut. The ropes were enchanted to seal off elemental techniques, which Jerry could tell from the dark glow they gave off. The most they would do was probably slime or feather someone, and that wouldn’t last very long…

    Jeremy continued on his speech, occasionally addressing the crowd and pausing strategically to allow them to cheer or growl.

    The realization dawned on them all. Kilo, the rest of the world, their ruler was right in front of them, bound and at their mercy. It was unreal! They had been encroaching upon their territory with shaky peace for so long, and now their leaders got so reckless that they’d enter their territory unguarded? Idiots!

    Brigid’s wobbling suddenly stopped and she held her breath. She wasn’t the only one; several members of the crowd had stopped watching Jeremy, and the buzzing itself had gone quiet.

    Jerry tore his gaze away from his father to look at Goodra and Decidueye. The latter was standing still like before, head bowed as if listening intently. But the Goodra looked bored, wiping his eye with a free hand and trying to cover his mouth with the other to hide a yawn.

    Something about that didn’t seem right.

    Jerry’s jaw dropped and he pointed a wing at Goodra. “He broke out!” he shouted.

    Goodra jolted. “Huh?!” He looked at his hand, then at the rope that was supposed to have bound them together. It was embedded into his torso. “Oh! I’m sorry!” He reached down and slipped his hands back into the binds, and Jerry was positive he’d seen them melt through the rope.

    Goodra were solid dragons. They were slimy like a Gastrodon, but they still had flesh and bones and blood.

    Now that he had a closer look, he noticed that the fires of Pyrock were not just reflecting off of his body. Some of it shined through like he was made of cloudy water.

    He was a monster… A monster feigning the shape of a Goodra.

    “I’m sorry, I’ll pay attention,” Goodra pleaded. “Um, the greatness of Pyrock!” He raised a fist, which once again broke through the rope. And this time Jerry was certain of it: Goodra’s wrist had gone through the rope.

    Decidueye’s head lowered a little more. “Anam,” he grunted, “I think we can drop the helpless act now. They aren’t going to be convinced.”

    Something about Decidueye’s body flickered, like he wasn’t really there. A black haze replaced him, and then all of his bindings fell to the ground, like he had gone immaterial. But the elemental bindings should have stopped that!

    “Oh.” Anam slipped out of his bindings and nobody dared launch the first strike in retaliation. This was why they had come unguarded—they didn’t need guards. Was that it? To boast and taunt them? Well, his father was still stronger. They didn’t understand what Void Basin had granted him. He was invincible. Just like how he would be, one day.

    And Jeremy showed no fear. Instead, he scowled at them and said, “So you come without any guards or soldiers to our territory, fake getting captured, and be taken to the center of Pyrock for what reason? To take us all on at once? I assure you, these caverns will be your unmarked graves if that was your intent. Speak now to save your lives.”

    And already, the crowd’s fears were quelled. Shock and terror of Anam so effortlessly escaping his binds had been replaced by confidence, and even some laughter.

    But Brigid wasn’t laughing. Instead, she wobbled a little and said, “Jerry, you should go home.”

    “What? No, I want to see this.”

    Brigid was going to object, Jerry could tell, so he put on a steely gaze.

    That, it seemed, was enough, but she still said, “Then be careful. If something bad happens… You need to go somewhere safe. I’ll be fine.”

    He relented, then looked to Decidueye, who had requested their bags be returned, as that was the reason for their arrival. After some tense back-and-forth of asking what was in it, and Decidueye simply stating they were gifts and documents, Jeremy finally allowed them to be recovered. However, they kept the gifts, and only returned to Decidueye the documents. The ‘gifts,’ after all, could have been weapons that they would use. Kilo’s technology was mysterious and cursed, after all.

    “I suppose I can begin with proper introductions,” Decidueye said. “My name is Decidueye James, and Kilo’s Heart of Hearts is beside me, Goodra Anam.”

    “Hi!”

    James flashed a glare.

    “Um—hello,” Anam corrected, and then bowed deeply toward Jeremy. “It’s an honor to meet Pyrock’s leader and the Southern King. Did I get your title correct?”

    “You did.” Jeremy’s glare did not soften. “Let’s start with these gifts you brought us.” He untied the bag and pulled open the cloth, his wing’s claws briefly scratching at the material to test its quality.

    It was dyed cotton and silk, woven carefully and colored a royal purple. Jerry imagined wearing it like a hat, or a scarf, or perhaps even a cape if he had enough of it… No, but that would interfere with his flying. A scarf would do. Only if Jeremy approved, though. And given that glare…

    “What is this?” Jeremy said. “Food? Cloth?” He pulled out an Oran Berry. What, one of those things? What was the point?

    “That is a blessed Oran Berry,” James explained. “Has anybody in town been recently injured?”

    “Why? Oran Berries restore vitality. Even a child knows this. A tired Pokémon will have a little more energy if they eat one.” Jeremy held the berry forward. “There is no point in trying to trick us with something as simple as that.”

    “I assure you, this one will do much more than that,” James said. “Has anybody been injured? Anyone at all?”

    James glanced into the crowd. Some hesitant murmurs rippled over them. Finally, a tiny voice called out, “That stupid Charmeleon threw a rock at me!”

    “Nu-uh!” shouted a high, feminine voice. “You jumped in the way of my rock! I was aiming for Slugma!”

    “That was for ME?!”

    A Fennekin stepped forward with one eye shut, a thin trail of blood, dried by now, going down his cheek. “She threw it really hard…”

    “Where are your parents?” Jeremy said, keeping his tone even. “I’m not going to condone you eating something like this from a stranger, especially if they’re from Kilo.”

    “You may kill me if she is harmed from this,” James said evenly. “Go on, Fennekin. And you may watch, King.”

    Jeremy growled in response, but reluctantly offered the berry.

    The Fennekin sniffed at the berry, curious, and bit down. No reaction to the taste; it seemed like a normal Oran in every way. Yet, only a few bites in, a golden light washed over him, starting from his mouth and ending at his tail. With just that wave, his eye was back to normal, though the blood remained stained on his fur.

    Gasps of wonder and surprise started at the front row and eased its way through the rest of the crowd as news spread like wildfire.

    “As I said,” James started, “these are blessed berries. A drop of Anam’s power was imbued into its seed, planted in the ground, and now there is an entire species of Oran that is so much more potent than what you have now. And Anam is not the only one capable of such blessings. This art can be taught, though only the talented can replicate it in any capacity.”

    “And the cloth? What are these for?”

    “Imbued with the same sort of energy. I have given to you a Pecha Scarf—the poison-healing properties of one have been imbued into this scarf, making the wearer immune to most types of poison. While it can’t protect against powerful attacks, it can ward off the lingering effects.”

    “And I named it!” Anam added.

    “Yes… he named it.”

    Jerry wondered how he dealt with this strange Goodra, who was supposedly the Decidueye’s superior.

    The crowd was buzzing again, but Jeremy held up a wing and they quieted down. “

    The bonfire’s orange light reflected off of and went through Anam’s body and bounced from the eyes of the Archeops and Decidueye.

    “Why all this?” Jeremy asked.

    “Proof of our proposal,” James replied, bringing forward the stack of papers that was thicker than a Furret’s coat. “We wish to form a partnership with your great kingdom. In exchange for a reasonable payment, as outlined in the document, we will offer to your medical divisions these berries, your rescue divisions these scarves, and to your rulership, Anam’s services to bless the Dungeons within your territory.”

    “Payment,” said Jeremy, snarling. “You mean a tax. Do you intend to annex us like the rest of the world? I will hear none of it.”

    Anam shifted his weight nervously. James, however, was undeterred. “An alliance is what we came for, and nothing beyond that. Anam is a compassionate person with great power, and he feels that his first and only objective is to make the world a better place.”

    “Oh!” Anam perked up. “That’s right! It’s our motto, in fact!”

    James’ puffed out, as if holding in a sigh.

    “A thousand hands
    A single heart
    Working and beating as one.

    Unite the lands
    From worlds apart
    Until our battles are done.

    We serve kilo and all its parts
    Under one name: The Thousand Hearts!”


    Anam bowed at a light angle and opened his eyes. “It means that even if we live in different parts of the world, our hearts and our spirits all beat the same. I want to bring everyone together, even if it feels like we’re a world away!”

    Jerry had no idea how this Goodra became the imperial leader. This was the dauntless force that swept across the land after the war tore it apart?

    That was this Goodra?!

    “We left more of our supplies near the border for your guards to confiscate. Those, too, should be considered part of our gifts, as we could not carry it all inside.” James looked to Anam, who calmed down enough to nod.

    “Is this how you took over the rest of the world?” Jeremy asked. “With temptations to lure us all into submission? Is that your method, demon?”

    Anam flinched, biting his cheek. “Um, that’s not how I wanted to come off…”

    “It is as I said,” James replied, and then looked to the rest of the crowd. “We only come to form an alliance that will better both of our nations. Trade. Commerce. There is no need to isolate ourselves from one another.”

    “You saved our land for last,” Jeremy said, “solely because we are the ones who would resist wholeheartedly.”

    Anam brightened. “Well, I want to accept you wholeheartedly, too!”

    “Anam.” James brought his wings together with patience. “I do not think they are as receptive.”

    “W-well, maybe,” Anam said, “but the crowd is very quiet. Do you think they’re listening? You don’t have to do anything for too long. You can refuse anything we’re offering! Um, but maybe just give it a try? Heal your most hurt Pokémon, and equip your guards with this, and see how they feel!”

    “I will not,” Jeremy said, “let you manipulate my people any longer. You will leave, and you will take your offers with you. This is what I think about your offerings.”

    And then, with a deep breath, hot embers danced in the back of his throat. A cloud of fire warped the air and enveloped the documents on the ground, and Jeremy kept the flame going, enough that James gracefully stepped aside to avoid the ongoing inferno.

    Finally, he stopped, but the documents remained. Jeremy blinked, looking bewildered, and James cleared his throat.

    “We knew we would be entering Pyrock and did not want to accidentally burn the supplies,” he said. “The paper was made from blessed Rawst leaves and Occa powder.”

    Now, the crowd was murmuring, and even Jerry had to admit that particular property interested him. Paper that didn’t burn? What other kinds of technologies did they have over there? But his father… He was still stern, but Jerry could see it in the way he carried himself that he was seething.

    Brigid wobbled again, but then sighed. “Jeremy isn’t going to let this one go,” she said to Jerry. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that he will humiliate Anam before he can go. Such a shame… An alliance would have been nice, but they have disgraced my mate.” With a gaze like steel, Brigid stared at Jeremy.

    And Jeremy stared back, scowling, and addressed the trespassers. Yet, before he could say a single word, Anam stepped forward with a pleading look in his eyes.

    “We just want to help!” Anam cried. “Please! I don’t want this part of the world to go isolated from the rest of it! Can’t we be friends?”

    “Friends.” Jeremy repeated, half-perplexed, half disgusted. But then there was a glint—a dark glint that filled Jerry with confidence. The tables had suddenly turned. “Anam, if you truly believe that we can be friends… then we should understand each other in the way Pokémon traditionally learn about one another.”

    “Oh? How is that?”

    He had him. He had him!

    “Tomorrow at noon, at the sun’s apex, we will have a friendly battle at Void Basin’s edge.”

    <><><>​

    That night, Jeremy had gone to bed early, intending to get as much sleep as he could. He ordered Brigid and Jerry both to not bother him. Brigid’s tremors kept Jeremy awake, so it wasn’t as if they shared a nest. Still, since it was an important day, Brigid migrated to Jerry’s room for the night so not even her shuffling noises would wake him. Jerry didn’t mind; he liked when Brigid was in his room. He wasn’t sure why, but she seemed more at ease, too, when that happened.

    Jerry was less at ease. He could barely get to bed himself, excitedly staring at the ceiling of their cave instead, until Brigid stepped into his room with the last of her nest. She looked tired, and she must have fallen again from the bruise on her side, but she still smiled and said that Jeremy was very excited for tomorrow, too, but that he should get some rest.

    Somehow, he’d obeyed, soothed to sleep by the rustling his mother made.

    Jerry was up before the sun and told his father that he would be skipping school in favor of watching the fight. Jeremy couldn’t care less, as Jerry had to attend quite a few public events in the past. This would perhaps be the greatest one yet.

    Jerry raced the sunrise to Void Basin. There was already a crowd gathering near the edges of the forest where the trees stopped growing and the desolate landscape of the crater began. Southwest of Kilo Mountain, Void Basin mirrored the Chasm to the southeast, but unlike its inky blackness, the Basin’s bottom was clearly visible. Just rock, largely uninteresting, but it was sacred.

    Only those chosen by the Basin were allowed to go close. Those who were not worthy went mad if they stayed for too long. But Jerry was among the chosen, because his father was chosen, and therefore his entire bloodline was under the Basin’s protection. Brigid wasn’t part of that bloodline, but she possessed Mew’s blessing… That was Jeremy’s goal for his offspring, after all. Big footprints to fill, but Jerry knew he could do it.

    The Basin’s dark rocks took up half of the horizon and Jerry descended closer to the ground. He saw someone sitting near the crater’s edge—a Salandit.

    “Spice?” Jerry called.

    She jumped, then looked back. “Oh, Jerry.” Spice sighed. “You scared me.”

    “You’re up early, too?”

    “Mm.”

    “Heard the news, huh?”

    “Yeah.” Spice flicked her tail. “And I wanted to come here anyway.”

    It was always strange that Spice could come here on her own. Neither of her parents were under its protection, and her sister, too, couldn’t come close. Yet to Spice, she behaved like it was her second home.

    “I can’t believe your dad’s about to beat up Kilo’s ruler,” Spice said.

    “I can’t believe that Goodra agreed to it. The Basin’ll make him go mad before the fight can even begin!”

    Spice giggled, though she frowned afterward. “He did seem kinda nice, though.”

    “Eh?” Jerry faltered. “Goodra? He’s a warlord, though.”

    “Yeah, which is why it’s so surprising that he was so nice.” Spice crawled to the edge, looking into the steep rocks. Her paws wrapped around a sharp boulder. “I do wonder, if they fight and your dad wins, if they might make another offer later. All of those blessed things look really nice. Do you think we could replicate that on our own?”

    “Pff. Who cares?” Jerry shrugged. “Life here’s fine without all that junk.”

    Spice didn’t seem as enthused. “I guess so.”

    They passed some time together, occasionally looking at the Basin’s shadows. When the shadows disappeared, that meant it would be time for the fight to begin, and neither Jeremy nor Anam had arrived yet. At first, Jerry wondered if that meant they had all done it for some political stunt, and the fight wouldn’t truly happen… but then, as the sun was moments away from its highest point, Jeremy came flying over the forest’s trees.

    A whole crowd had gathered at the forest’s edge, now, and their voices carried faintly over the wind. Anam wasn’t far behind. This time, the Goodra came alone, which was odd. Where did the Decidueye go?

    Whatever. One on one was fair anyway so they didn’t try anything funny. Not that it would matter—if they did, the whole south would be against them at once.

    Jeremy was faster, traveling by wing.

    And soon, they were facing one another. Neither King nor Heart smiled. Anam had a sad, pensive frown, occasionally glancing at Void Basin. Jeremy wore an intense glare, occasionally gesturing for Jerry to get further away for when the battle began, but he didn’t go too far. He was allowed to be close, and he wanted to see Anam lose.

    “Go get ‘im, Dad,” Jerry whispered, though Jeremy probably didn’t hear.

    Spice tapped Jerry on the wing and asked to climb up to his head for a better view. After some shifting around, she rested between his horns and wrapped her legs around his neck.

    And then everything was still. Eyes locked to shadows. Soon, at the sun’s apex, it was as if Void Basin had nothing but light, and yet somehow it seemed darker all the same, like the sun itself avoided its lifeless crater.

    Jeremy made the first move, but Jerry could tell he was holding back to toy and grapple with the Goodra. What bothered both of them was the fact that Anam didn’t move. The Goodra stood there, silent and staring, as the Archeops went for a twisting slash.

    Suddenly, Jeremy beat his wings and misdirected his strike, missing Anam by inches. The breeze let loose a few drops of slime, and Anam still didn’t move, still sporting that pensive frown.

    “What are you doing?” Jeremy snarled, landing on his feet again.

    “Why did you want to fight here?” Anam asked.

    “What? This is a traditional battleground if you ever want to fight the King. It is to show that you are worthy of standing up to me. Or has the Void Basin’s presence already eaten away at your mind, deeming you unworthy of even lifting a claw toward me?”

    Anam’s frown deepened. “Is this true?” he mumbled, yet for some reason it didn’t seem to be directed toward Jeremy. The Goodra had glanced down toward his own chest.

    “Of course it’s true,” Jeremy said. “And if you’re going to disrespect the Basin… then perhaps I should show you the power it’s truly capable of.”

    Jerry perked up. He was going to see his father’s true power in action? He watched intently. Jerry remembered this sort of power before; it wasn’t as if a King was without his threats. He remembered when he was very young, a team of assassins had tried to strike Jeremy down in broad daylight. The boldness of their attacks had impressed Jeremy so much that he had fought back using the Basin’s power.

    Jerry didn’t remember what happened to them after that. There was a shadowy blast, and then Jeremy said that they ran away. He had never seen them again. Now that Jerry thought about it… was that a lie?

    Dark sparks crackled along Jeremy’s wings, collecting in his shoulders, and finally trailed up to his neck. Anam still watched, looking troubled, as he shifted his weight. Finally, he moved.

    “Your spirit has been twisted by the Void,” Anam said gently. “I’m sorry. It might hurt a little, but I need to purify that before it claims you.”

    “I would love to see you try,” Jeremy taunted.

    “Okay.”

    Before Anam could move, Jeremy retaliated with a technique that he had called Shadow Blast. The very air twisted around a dark aura like the fastest fish through water. The spinning beam drilled toward Anam, and Jerry couldn’t help but avert his eyes. He was about to take the hit point-blank, too slow to react or move in any way.

    All that’d be left was a broken husk of a Goodra. Shadow Blast didn’t attack the body as much as it did the very energy that sustained them. Yes, the air would whip his body, but the darkness that Jeremy unleashed was corrosive to the aura itself. And then, after the blast was done corroding the aura, the body had no energy to guard against the force that backed up the blast. Nothing would be left.

    Jerry couldn’t hope to perform such a technique. He’d need another decade of training, at least. He only had a phantom of it within him, and Jeremy was very strict about never using it.

    So, to use it now? Jeremy was serious.

    Finally, Jerry looked at the battlefield. Spice, next to him, had been watching the whole time, and her expression was one of complete disbelief.

    Anam stood there, looking a little misshapen. The cutting winds had twisted his body so his arm had bent in an odd way, and his other arm was completely missing. Yet Anam wasn’t crying out in pain. Was his body already empty? Did he no longer have the thought to react?

    But Jeremy looked lost, too. And Jerry knew that the Goodra hadn’t been defeated.

    “I’m sorry,” Anam said. His arm regrew, and his body twisted back into shape like he was made of taffy. And then, a small beam of darkness, faster than Jerry could blink, lodged itself in Jeremy’s chest. He squawked in surprise and pain and fell to the ground; the audience was in a sudden uproar of terror. Jerry couldn’t find his voice, but Spice gasped and yelled something.

    Anam tugged on that black string, and something was emerging from Jeremy’s chest. Thick plumes of black mist billowed out, and more inky darkness dripped onto the floor like blood, and Anam pulled again. Jeremy screamed—he actually screamed—and suddenly, he was silent.

    That black cloud pulled from Jeremy evaporated away, most of it siphoning toward Anam, who looked a lot darker than before. Jeremy was limp, and Jerry was too far away to tell if he was breathing. Or if…

    And then something hot stabbed into Jerry’s chest next. He opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out, and then, from his very core, something pulled away. It was like someone had removed his lungs through his ribs—and then, just as quickly, the pain left him. Or was it pain at all? Jerry clutched at where he felt the entry wound, but felt nothing but his chest, unwounded. A black haze remained like he’d been struck by a Flamethrower and the smoke was still there…

    He felt lighter, somehow. He didn’t know how to describe it. Like some part of his breathing, which had always been missing, had returned to him… but he also felt weaker and fatigued. Something was missing.

    Spice was staring at something above them and Jerry finally had enough sense to look up.

    It was Anam. Right there. Two steps away.

    Jerry immediately entered a battle stance and blasted a three-rock volley from his mouth, and Anam took each one. The rocks sank into his body and dissolved.

    “Are you okay?” Anam asked Jerry. “Your dad is okay. He’s going to need to rest for a few days, though.”

    The bewilderment dissolved into seething hatred, directed without any mental words toward Anam. He opened his mouth to blast again, but then he caught a glimpse of Anam’s glowing, green eyes. Those sad eyes, his massive form whose shadows were emphasized under the sun’s apex.

    Jerry couldn’t move. His legs were numb. His attempt at a defiant cry came out as a whimpering exhale.

    Spice was similarly frozen in place, eyes darting for an easy way to run, but in the open area, it was pointless, wasn’t it? Jerry felt the same way. He knew that was what she was thinking.

    “What’s your name?” Anam asked, breaking the silence that Jerry didn’t realize had settled.

    But Anam wasn’t looking at Jerry. Instead, Spice suddenly looked more trapped than ever.

    “S-Spice,” she finally said, and Jerry wondered if this was the beginning of some kind of curse.

    Anam wasn’t even blinking. Those green eyes just kept… staring. Did Goodra eyes naturally glow? And his body still seemed a little darker than usual.

    “How are you feeling?” Anam asked.

    “Not good after what I just s-saw,” Spice said automatically, and then gasped at her own words. She stared at the ground, screwing her eyes shut.

    “Oh, I’m sorry.” Anam nodded. “But, how about in general?”

    “I—I guess I’m fine.”

    “How about your parents?”

    “Don’t—don’t hurt them. Please.”

    Anam tilted his head. “I’m not hurting anybody.”

    There were so many expletives that Jerry wasn’t allowed to say.

    “But you want to protect your family?” Anam asked.

    “I just want them to be safe.” Spice tried to keep her breathing steady. It seemed to be working.

    “That’s good.” Anam nodded. “Thank you, Spice. You seem like a really good person.” He grinned, and what scared Jerry the most was that it looked genuine. “Anyway, that’s all. I’m sorry that I had to take away your power, but it’s tainted. You shouldn’t go near the Basin anymore. Tell your dad about that, okay?”

    Jerry said nothing.

    Anam turned away. “I’m gonna go home now. Um, I’m going to donate more supplies to your kingdom, if that’s okay. No charge or anything. I saw a lot of injured Pokémon that could use it. Um, can you tell your dad that, too?”

    Once again, Jerry answered with cold, confused silence.

    And Anam said nothing more. He walked, like he was supposed to be some normal Pokémon, toward the forest, while the rest of the crowd slowly inched their way toward their fallen leader and his son.

    The rest of the day, and so many days to moons that followed, passed in a hazy blur.

    <><><>​

    The decline was simultaneously rapid yet imperceptible. It started with the donations, free of charge. Despite mentions of money initially, such requests never came. It wasn’t brought up again until later, during a routine regulatory meeting; a concerned noble mentioned the possibility that their supply would one day be cut if they didn’t start paying.

    It was never said, nor implied in any political capacity, that Kilo would do this. Yet it was something they feared, as the Quartz Kingdom still paid no taxes or any sort of trade for those donations.

    Attempts to replicate such magic were a struggle and yielded paltry results. Certain talented Pokémon were able to perform such blessings, and only a few at a time. It was nothing compared to the apparent industry of enchanted items that Kilo was capable of.

    It did not help that Jeremy’s position as King had also fallen into question. Ever since that battle against Anam, he stopped fighting and hired guards under the guise of preventing Anam or any possible assassins from getting close to him. The feeble claim was Anam had used an underhanded technique to fight.

    But Jerry knew the truth, because he felt it, too. The Basin’s power was completely gone from their spirits. It had been so long that Jerry didn’t remember what it felt like anymore.

    And one day, Jeremy returned to the Basin against Anam’s advice, alone. Brigid had warned Jeremy not to go, that it was dangerous if he did not have the Basin’s power any longer. But Jeremy said that it was just a trap: to return to the Basin meant a return of his power. He screamed and shouted at Brigid when she tried to stand in the way and knocked her over, rushing to get out.

    For some reason, this had instilled some kind of deep terror in Jerry, and he didn’t know why, and he quietly told himself that Jeremy must have been very determined to get his power back. Brigid just sighed and urged Jerry not to follow his father. There was an odd heaviness to her words that Jerry didn’t understand. Jerry was tempted to go, too, but Brigid’s firm words kept him from leaving. Someone had to guard her anyway.

    Jeremy had left for a lot longer than he should have. When he returned, he had a grave expression and said nothing, only that he had nearly been driven mad by the Basin. It had rejected him.

    The Basin became a forbidden land overnight. Even Spice was not allowed to go, even though she still called it her second home, treating it the same way one would regard a pristine beach shoreline, was not allowed to go there anymore.

    Jeremy wasn’t the same after that day. Quieter, weaker, a shell of his old self who only growled bitter nothings toward Jerry or Brigid, no matter what they tried to do. Occasionally they saw flashes of his old, proud self, but any reminder of his lost strength returned him to that despondent countenance.

    Years passed and cries for Quartz to remain powerful and relevant as its own independent kingdom became less and less of a roar of pride and more a whimper of defiance. Without a proper figurehead to lead them, rebellions both peaceful and violent were only quashed because the Pyrock guard was still loyal to Jeremy.

    There were others who claimed to still have the Basin’s blessing, but none could prove their powers. Therefore, Jeremy was still their ruler, as there was no other savior. And who else would the Pyrock guards battle for? Certainly not Anam… Right?

    Jerry saw that doubt in their eyes, sometimes. And Jeremy saw the same.

    It drove the father mad. His pride ate away at his psyche, and Jerry remembered several nights where he woke up to him screaming at the air, at his reflection, at the sky, about how he was the King, how Quartz Kingdom was strong, and how no simple-minded Goodra would ever take that away from him.

    Then came the Waypoints. It had started off at the Dungeon entrances, which Anam had used a mysterious power to get rid of the demons within. Now, they were all ‘safe’ Dungeons—blessed, as Anam called them. The Waypoints were part of Kilo’s means of travel, and were, in disguise, the final strike to destroy what was left of the once proud Quartz Kingdom.

    When a Waypoint was installed at the front of Pyrock Village, that was the same day Jeremy abruptly had them move out. Move somewhere remote and away from Waypoints, away from Kilo, away from the traitors.

    And with a defiant growl, the last kingdom was gone, and Anam took over the world.

    <><><>​

    Jerry landed flat on his back, covered in thin, toxic venom that stung his scales. He snarled and tried to stand up, but the Salazzle was already on top of him, with her foot firmly on his chest.

    “Ah, ah,” she said, holding up a finger with a smirk. “I’m gonna relish this win.”

    “G-get off me!” Jerry grunted. “What are you, five?!”

    “You’re the one who keeps asking to get up close and personal,” Spice said, leaning down until her muzzle was inches from his.

    “Enough!” Jerry said, stammering and trying to hide the blush of his scales. Wild Aerodactyl didn’t blush like this, so why did the civilized subspecies have to?!

    By some miracle, Spice got off of him. “You better wash that poison off you soon,” she said, spinning around. “I need to head to work, though. Be seeing you.”

    “Be careful,” Jerry said routinely. Spice’s family was lucky, able to adjust their jobs ever since the potion shop Spice’s mother used to work at closed down. Still, seeing her leave for work always left him with a bitter aftertaste.

    Quickly Jerry returned home and cleaned himself of the Toxic with practiced ease, downing a Pecha Berry to dull the poisoning so his body could fight off the rest. He stored the Toxic fluids for later.

    It was much smaller than their home in Pyrock, but it was cozy in a way. That was what Jerry told himself, at least. It was a clever little hut made from clay, stones, vines, and branches carefully and skillfully woven together. It required replacement every year or so, but it wasn’t very hard to do between himself and Jeremy, and Brigid could help with the clay portions. She insisted, really.

    Now that he thought about it, that time was coming soon, wasn’t it? He hoped so. Jeremy was being a lot more irritable than usual, but he was always like his old self when he had an important task to take care of. Rebuilding the house always, and without fail, put Jeremy in a good mood, and sometimes Jerry saw that old Archeops resurface.

    The opening was disguised as a large bush of Orans, but pushing through was easy. On the other side was a small, cramped hallway that arched over him in a large cylinder. Vines wove themselves together like a net, but there were holes along the ceiling to let in the light, with larger leaves off to the side that could be used to cover them if it rained.

    No special crystals, no Kiloan magic, nothing that they could associate with their usurpers. It made for a difficult lifestyle at times, but they’d handled worse. Supposedly.

    Further down the hall, Jerry passed by Jeremy’s office, which was no different than any of the other alcoves and rooms of their permanently makeshift home: A few stumps of wood; large, carved, flat stones; a basket for fruits and other snacks; and a jug of water. Jeremy didn’t have paperwork anymore, so he made some with paper that he’d also made himself. The quality wasn’t very good, but he’d pressed the wood into something that was at least cloth-like.

    Jerry was a little curious what Jeremy was writing about now. Maybe their inventory again, or a declaration of ownership of a nearby tree. Jeremy worked tirelessly for his new kingdom, after all. And Jerry was going to inherit it one day.

    Jeremy always said that, and as silly as it was, he did appreciate the gesture. It was one of the few moments of generosity Jeremy had left in him, even if it stemmed from pride and spite. Though, that same pride and spite led Jeremy to believing Jerry wouldn’t want that throne. He was right, but the way Jeremy reacted to it baffled Jerry. Still, his father was always like that, so it wasn’t a big deal. It was a big deal when he decided to get a new heir, though…

    He supposed his to-be sibling, then, would inherit the throne.

    Jerry passed by the egg room. It was kept at just the right temperature and layered with soft nesting, and in the middle of the thick layers of brown grass was a small, Aerodactyl-gray egg. It had been there for a while, tended to by the whole family, though it hadn’t shown any signs of movement. Slow grower, Jerry figured.

    He was about to head into the bedroom when Brigid came hobbling out.

    “Oh, Mom,” Jerry greeted. He resisted the urge to help her walk.

    She was a lot older, now. She’d aged faster than she should have, and her shaking had gotten to the point where she could hardly eat on her own. Despite this, she still maintained almost complete independence. Jeremy wouldn’t have been fond of helping when he had a kingdom to run, and Brigid said she didn’t mind—that in fact, she preferred it that way.

    She gestured for Jerry to enter her room and then wobbled back inside. She wore a serious, yet mischievous smirk, and Jerry couldn’t help but mirror it—even though he had no idea what it was for.

    “Mom?” Jerry asked, this time in a lower voice. He quickly checked his bag again, hoping he could keep the vials of toxins safe for later. Brigid wouldn’t be happy if she found out about that.

    Brigid had a bag of her own, which she pulled out from under her nest. Simple, brown, a little tattered, and it jingled lightly with Kiloan coins.

    “For tomorrow,” Brigid said.

    Jerry stifled a gasp and glanced behind him. Jeremy was still writing. “What do you mean?”

    “I want you to buy something nice for your exam,” she went on, pushing the bag forward. Her shaking wings made the bag jingle loudly, and Jerry hastily took the coins and shoved them in his bag where he could move more quietly.

    “We get standard supplies for the practical,” Jerry said.

    “But you need a good meal today and tomorrow morning,” Brigid urged. “None of these fruits and Jeremy’s cooking. You know he isn’t any good at it.”

    True. “But I just got back from working,” Jerry said.

    Brigid thought Jerry worked in construction in town, but kept it a secret from Jeremy so he didn’t get upset about working for the rival kingdom. His cover story for Jeremy was that he gathered berries to trade. For some reason that was convincing enough.

    The truth was, Jerry did neither.

    “Go out again. Get something good,” Brigid urged like the old lady she’d become. It warmed his heart, and he couldn’t refuse.

    <><><>​

    The plan was to get something light for breakfast, which meant dinnertime now would be something heavy. He knew just where to go. It was a small building, but Spice had shown him the way some time ago as one of her favorite dining spots.

    It was run by a Roselia and several other cooks. Apparently, she managed the quality control rather than the cooking, but based on the results, she was good at it.

    There was only enough room for a few Pokémon of his size to slip in, and Roselia herself stood on a stool at least three times her height to get to speaking levels with most customers. Jerry was used to the arrangements by now. The cramped quarters made the ceiling only a hop away from his head, and he couldn’t even spread his wings without hitting the wall or another diner. There were no seats; he was meant to take the food and find someplace else to eat, which was fine by him.

    “Jerry?”

    “Eh?”

    Behind him was Spice, looking pleasantly surprised. “Thought you were heading home,” she said.

    Jerry grinned and held up his bag. “Mom was saving up in secret,” he said. “Wanted to give me a boost.”

    Spice shared his expression, and after he placed and received his order—a thick chop with a savory, whitish and herb-filled sauce with generously buttered potatoes and grilled vegetables—they made some idle small talk at a small sitting area down the road.

    “So, you’re finally applying, huh?” Spice said. “You’re gonna pass the basic exams no problem.” She sank her teeth into her own slab of meat, which dripped with a thin, brown sauce that smelled of garlic and sugar. “Surprised your Dad finally let go of it all, though.”

    “He doesn’t know,” Jerry said, and that stopped the Salazzle from eating.

    “What?”

    “I’m gonna say that I’m still foraging around and doing clever trades or whatever, like before,” he explained. “Unpredictable time slots, sometimes you get hurt, it’s not so different, you know? Besides.” Jerry gestured to Spice. “Those blessed whatever items don’t even work on you, and you’re still standing.”

    Spice scoffed. “That’s because I’m careful and I made my own potions thanks to Mom helping out with the apothecary work.” Still, she leaned forward with a more serious frown. “But can you seriously keep up that secret for the rest of your career?”

    “Won’t have to.” Jerry looked down. “If I become a Heart, I’m going to save every Poké I get for a few years and then turn it into a little nest-egg. My folks don’t need to spend much since we just forage, but being able to buy a few things here and there helps.”

    “Where do you get money from?” Spice asked.

    “We sell stuff we find in the Wooden Wilds,” Jerry half-lied. “Dropped by idiot explorers, or we just gather the berries that grow there and sell it back. But I’ll make a lot more as a Heart, and then… we’ll be set.”

    Spice didn’t look satisfied, but whatever she wanted to say, she never did. Jerry was fine with that; he’d done the math himself, and he wasn’t in the mood to justify being in it for the money when he barely cared about this place to begin with. But it was all he could do to make a better life for his family and not have his father lose sleep over his son working for the enemy. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, after all.

    “Well,” Spice said, breaking the silence, “as long as the time you spend is to help others out. Maybe you can take on missions that’re in the south.”

    “Rescue missions sound fine by me,” Jerry agreed. “At least if I’m there, I’ll be able to know for sure if the Hearts treat people down there well.”

    “I’ve already made sure of that,” Spice assured. “Leo and I, we teamed up with another pair to go on missions together. Aim for southern missions but sometimes we get others, y’know. Mostly into hotter climates, or to stop fires. Maybe you can go on a scouting team, with the wings and all.”

    “Eh, maybe.” Jerry didn’t really care a s long as it wasn’t too intensive and paid well. Even if Anam stole his Basin blessings, he still had a lot of strength from training with that power all his childhood. And while Jeremy had gotten on in the years, he was no slouch, either.

    “Well, good luck,” Spice said. “I’m gonna be cheering you on from the side. I gotta go for a mission, though.” She stood up, her plate of food empty, and carried it to a nearby disposal basket.

    “See you,” Jerry said casually, then went back to finishing his meal. He wanted to savor it and unlike Spice, he intended to clean the bowl of any remnants that would have otherwise been left behind. Every drop of flavor was energy and he wasn’t going to waste it.

    Around when he only had a quarter of his plate left, mostly the veggies that he was reluctant to eat, a Clefable strode by his table and sat across from him, giving a sweet smile. That much was normal enough. In communal areas like this, picking the same table by coincidence wasn’t that strange.

    What was strange was all the free seats around him at this quiet time of day.

    Clefable had a modest tart for a meal, half eaten with all of the strawberries missing and a few too many blueberries. No Orans or other medicinal berries here. In fact, they seemed to almost be deliberately missing.

    Jerry’s eyes flicked to Clefable, and their eyes met.

    “How’s the tart?” Jerry asked, his tone businesslike.

    “Missing some of my favorites,” Clefable replied.

    “Eh.” Jerry dug through his bag. “Here, hun”—he didn’t know this Clefable for more than these meetings—“Pechas, like you like ‘em to cut the sour. Helps against poison. Heard that even Salazzle poison can’t stand up to it.”

    Jerry brought out a bag that contained a handful of small seeds. The satchel rumbled heavily. There were no berries in the bag. Jerry kept it on his side of the table.

    “Oh, you’re making me blush,” she said, holding her cheeks. “I actually was going to give you a gift, too, dear. But maybe later. I’m too shy.”

    Jerry narrowed his eyes, but then glanced to his left. He didn’t see anybody. Still, he nodded. “Fine, fine, after I’m done. I’ll walk you home.”

    They ate quickly. Clefable finished her tart in just a few bites, and Jerry dumped the vegetables down his throat and licked his plate clean. They didn’t settle well, but it was still food.

    Then, they walked out of Kilo Village, through the eastern exit. It was rare to take the physical path out and not use a Waypoint, but it was just common enough to not be treated as abnormal, especially for short trips or exercising routes. There were a lot of makeshift training areas and other game fields speckled around Kilo Mountain, after all.

    Once they were far enough down, Clefable dug through a bag wrapped around her shoulder and checked something inside. While Jerry couldn’t see it, he knew it was a locator, maybe one of those odd orbs. Radar Orb, perhaps?

    And then Clefable stopped walking and pulled out a jingling bag of coins.

    “Someone’s cautious,” Jerry commented.

    “The Hearts are getting more careful about it,” Clefable replied, tossing the bag to Jerry, who caught it with ease.

    “You’re saying we were being watched?” Jerry asked.

    “You were just with one of them.”

    “She’s nobody to worry about,” Jerry dismissed with a casual wave. He looked through the bag of coins, narrowed his eyes, and then pulled out a bag of seeds. This one was smaller than the last one, and Clefable noticed.

    “Hey, what’re you doing?” she said.

    “You paid me half, I’m giving you half.”

    “’Scuse me?” Clefable snarled.

    Jerry smoothly pulled out two of the coins, running his claw around the rhombus symbol on one of them, and then on the other. They were slightly different in color, but only sharp eyes would have spotted it. Even then, Jerry turned one coin over. “Too light,” he said. “I bet if I put this through their energy scanners, it’d come up fake, too. Nice of you to still give me some real coin, though.”

    Clefable said nothing, but her stare was fierce.

    “You don’t need to bother with your backup, by the way,” Jerry added. “Two behind me, three up ahead.”

    “And despite that,” Clefable said lowly, “you’re still gonna act like you have control?”

    Jerry tossed the half-filled bag to Clefable and wordlessly smirked.

    Clefable matched his silence, raised an arm, and snapped her fingers. The five hidden Pokémon sprang into view.

    <><><>​

    Jerry walked back home in his usual way, humming quietly to himself. The sun was approaching evening, though the sky was still a bright blue. He’d washed up by the river, but there wasn’t much he had to clean. The Clefable herself had grazed him with a steely Meteor Mash, and that was going to leave a bruise, but he could chalk it up to construction for his mother, and an annoying feral with his father.

    The little bits of blood were an inconvenience, though. Stained his bag. He’d have to hide that from Brigid until he could give it a thorough washing.

    He pressed through the opening and immediately locked eyes with his father. The green top of the Archeops’ head blended with the leafy ceiling, but the red of his lower jaw seemed so much darker than the evening light that hesitantly peeked into their home.

    “Why did you go out again?” His voice was low as always and had a hint of a cold whisper with every word. Jerry couldn’t look him in the eyes. They didn’t reflect light the same way that they should have. Dull, like a statue’s. It unnerved him too much.

    “Forgot to get some extra stuff,” Jerry said. “But I ran into trouble, couldn’t get it anyway. Territorial ferals. Didn’t want to bother.” Routine explanation, always worked.

    For some reason, Jeremy narrowed his dark eyes this time. “You’re lying.”

    Jerry kept it cool. “Where else would I’ve gone?” He had a few curses he could’ve said, too, but he was already a little roughed up.

    “Did you go to Kilo?”

    “No,” Jerry replied, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t leave the forest.” Lying came easily, automatically. Perhaps even a Psychic wouldn’t suspect to read his mind. Besides, he knew how to falsify thoughts for those meddlesome Pokémon. It was an easy trick thanks to his experience when they were actually ruling a kingdom.

    But that also meant Jeremy was just as sharp at reading them. Yet, not as sharp as he used to be. He huffed and said, “I don’t trust them, those Kiloans. Steal my kingdom and then claim they want to help us. It doesn’t matter what they say, Jerry.”

    “I know, I know.” And, in a way, he believed him, truly. But mooching off of Kilo and taking advantage of their apparent generosity was better than spitefully ignoring them.

    Finally, Jeremy let Jerry back into his home.

    Jerry had his own bedroom, but he always checked on the egg with Brigid every night while Jeremy settled in his nest, which was separate from Brigid’s, mostly because her tremors made it hard to sleep. Jerry checked the egg, which once again had no movement, and it, too, seemed very dark. Brigid, next to him, shifted uncomfortably and directed Jerry to adjust the nesting and check that it wasn’t cold. Jerry couldn’t really tell, but his egg had been treated the same way and he clearly turned out fit and fine.

    “Must be a late hatcher,” Jerry said, grinning at Brigid.

    She smiled, too, but it didn’t reach her eyes. To avoid noticing it, Jerry looked down and spotted a darkened portion of Brigid’s side.

    “Oh, I fell again,” Brigid said, sighing.

    “We really need to get you a softer chair,” Jerry said with concern, noticing that this bruise was a lot bigger than usual, practically a welt under her scales than anything. Even a few cuts, probably from the sharper parts of the stone. “I’m going to clean your side a little bit,” he elected.

    “Oh, you don’t have to,” Brigid said. “I already did. And you need to sleep early.” She kept her voice low.

    Jerry relented again, nodding. “Well… alright. But—” He glanced out. Nothing. “But Dad is suspicious. If I stay out for too long…”

    Brigid smiled, sly. “I’ll distract him,” she said. “I know just the thing.”

    There was a mischievous glint in her eyes that amused Jerry, though it wasn’t until he’d gone to bed that he realized that some of it was shame.

    <><><>​

    Jerry spent the last of Brigid’s money on breakfast, as she wished. Light, sugary, and a pick-me-up drink. First came the academic portion of the tests, which Jerry had studied for in secret for many nights. Those were easy. Then came the physical tests, the battle against James—which he didn’t let intimidate him, as not only did he know they were mere Substitutes, but he also would never let a lowlife like him get the upper hand again.

    So, it came as no surprise that Jerry got top marks in both. He didn’t even need to wait for the results to be announced; instead, he waited at the very front of the stairs to the Heart HQ, glancing back with an air of smugness as the rest of the applicants shuffled in. He’d heard about this ceremony and had observed a few of them quietly from the sidelines—especially when Spice had been accepted after her third try applying, failing on the physical tests for the first two—but to be in the very front was something else.

    It was his first try, but only because he’d been holding off for so long. Surely, he would pass for the practical Dungeon exploration to prove himself completely. He just had to act agreeable, right? Then he’d be in, he’d be a Heart, and he’d earn more than enough money to get his parents a wonderful place. Jeremy could complain all he wanted, but he was certain that it would be enough if he worked the wordplay enough.

    Several James substitutes walked among the crowd, passing out pieces of paper. The ones who qualified, no doubt. Jerry shifted from left to right again, practically a dance, and then something purple caught his attention at the top of the stairs.

    There he was. Goodra Anam. The demon. The one who ruined his father, took away his kingdom, and then ruled the whole world with a slimy fist. The hatred only flashed in his eyes for a second before it was pushed down in favor of a smile, which he displayed in full force toward Anam.

    He was spotted. The Goodra waved back, but there was a hint of awkwardness with the way he did. That was the first omen.

    The second was when James gave a paper to Jerry next, formal and short, and said nothing. Normally James would simply say, better luck next time, or congratulations, depending on how hopeful they looked, if only to cut the tension. But James said nothing to Jerry.

    That could have meant a lot of things. Grudging respect that he’d qualified for his amazing performance. Or…

    His name wasn’t on the qualifying list. No Aerodactyl Jerry, let alone Aerodactyl, and Jerry wondered if that was on purpose, too. Sure, there were many species in the world, and only a few who had a chance of qualifying, so not every species would be represented, and yet Jerry wondered anyway.

    He also wondered if it was a mistake. He, for sure, passed. The questions were easy and he was the only one to actually destroy a Substitute by James out of all the qualifying fighters—he’d checked! And the exams, maybe he got a question or two wrong, but who hadn’t?

    “This can’t be right,” Jerry muttered, but before he could think further, someone tapped him on the shoulder.

    “Hey,” Spice said, and she was the last one he wanted to see.

    Jerry couldn’t find his words.

    “What’s wrong?” But she already knew. He saw it in her eyes.

    “I—the exam, I—James, Substitute…”

    Without thinking, Jerry had followed Spice’s gestures to sit to the side while so many other Pokémon celebrated or lamented. The crowd was a multicolored buzz and he ignored all of it in favor of whatever Spice had to say. She’d rationalize it. Clerical error. Suspicion of cheating. He’d understand that one. They could test him again under careful supervision, proof of his perfect record.

    “Did you forget about the third test?” Spice asked.

    “Third—what? They never told me about a third test.”

    Spice looked more troubled than usual, but all Jerry cared about was this third test so he could start complaining about never being given one.

    “Anam can override any passing tests if the person taking them is… well, for any reason,” Spice said. “It’s a strange rule and he rarely enforces it, but every time he has, it’s because they’re… well, I don’t really know. It’s always found out later that something they did was… morally questionable.”

    “Morally—what right does he have?!” Every right if he was absolute ruler, but Jerry didn’t think that was valid enough. Just because Jeremy sometimes pardoned criminals that were innocent didn’t mean Anam could deem someone guilty with no evidence.

    “I know what you’re thinking,” Spice said gently. “I’m a Heart. I’m going to have a talk with Anam after the ceremonies and see what can be done, alright? Just because you used to be, you know, with your dad and all, that shouldn’t matter now. I know you want to do good for the world, alright?”

    Most of what Spice said was lost to Jerry. Mixtures of numb fury and hopeless despair fought for dominance in his mind, and the crowd’s excited buzzing, now quieting down, pounded against his head.

    “I’m going home,” Jerry said, tearing himself away from Spice.

    “Wait, Jerry—”

    Don’t follow me,” Jerry spat.

    <><><>​

    The Wooden Wilds’ trees jeered at him in the wind. The afternoon sun annoyed him further, like the sun was mocking him, but that didn’t really matter. He deserved it, in a way. He’d failed, somehow. No, didn’t fail the tests or his own strength, but failed in putting his trust in that Goodra to let him in to begin with. What was he thinking? The son of the very Pokémon who tried to kill him, who then fled the kingdom he’d once ruled just to live a sad life in the woods.

    Ten years. Ten years of this and all that resentment was bubbling all over again.

    He had to clear his head. It was all over now, so maybe he could start somewhere else, or live as he had been before, making some money on the side with those modified seeds. The extra money would save up into a little nest-egg and then he could convince his father that way to live a better life. It’d take longer, sure, but it was better than hoping to apply to be a Heart again. Not after that. No amount of skill would get past that stubborn slimeball’s prejudice.

    Jerry pressed through the entrance to his home and pushed the leaves aside. He swished his tail with practiced ease and sealed it behind him, but mid-swing, he was assaulted with a horrible, rotten smell.

    Seconds passed slowly. Disgust hit first, then confusion. Something was shuffling around in the egg room, crunching leaves. His father grunted annoyedly, muttering a curse.

    Jerry didn’t realize he had walked to the door until he was rounding the corner. The smell was getting stronger. He saw feathers of his father scattered on the ground near the entryway, and then, up ahead…

    Brigid was on the ground, eyes closed in a pained grimace. Jerry didn’t know if she was breathing, but she was trembling and shaking weakly. Turned on its side was the egg with a crack along its shell, but the crack wasn’t sharp, it was more like a tear, and what seeped out was something that never had a chance of hatching.

    Then there was Jeremy, standing over Brigid and facing the entrance. His eyes had an annoyed, yet distant look to them, like he hadn’t expected Jerry to come home so early, and that it was an inconvenience that he did. His right claw had flecks of crimson on them. That bruise on Brigid’s side had gashes.

    “…She fell,” Jeremy said.

    Jerry didn’t remember what happened next.

    <><><>​

    Early evening.

    Orange sky. Light winds. It was cool on Jerry’s chest. How did he get there?

    Something stung somewhere on his left wing. He couldn’t move it properly.

    Someone was holding him by the shoulders. A familiar voice was repeating his name. There was a Salazzle in front of him, and just behind was a Delphox, wearing a horrified expression.

    Salazzle pulled away and her hands were covered in blood. She looked at them in surprise, then said something to Jerry again, but Jerry didn’t realize she was talking to him. He somehow didn’t even know he was there.

    Then Spice looked back at Delphox and said something, and he nodded and ran ahead. Then Spice guided him forward, somewhere, and he followed blindly.

    His breathing was steady and while he didn’t remember when it happened, he had been walking for what felt like no time at all. His legs ached horribly, though, but not in the same way that his wings did. It was dark outside, but somehow the room he was in—a sterile white, painted stone—was lit up like daytime. The nest he sat on was a bag filled with soft cotton, and his body stained the outer, slick covers red.

    A warm feeling started in his chest and spread throughout his body, concentrated mostly on his left wing like scalding water. He winced and stared at it, then watched as the wounds closed up beneath the caked blood. A Blissey, nearby, sighed with relief and asked him something.

    While Jerry didn’t know what she said, he nodded back and said, “Thanks.” It was strained, but it finally cleared out his throat a little.

    And then she was gone, passing through one of the halls. An Incineroar who had been in the room without Jerry realizing left shortly after, only for Spice to enter next. Incineroar said something cross to her, but Spice replied calmly, and then they parted ways.

    “Jerry,” Spice said, holding his shoulder again. “Can you hear me?”

    Jerry remembered he was himself. “I can,” he replied, like waking from a dream.

    “Are you okay?” Spice said, and for some reason that felt like a dumb question, so Jerry didn’t answer.

    He only stared, his expression giving nothing for Spice to work with. His gaze was still distant.

    “What happened?” Spice pressed.

    Jerry realized that the Hearts’ celebrations were ongoing. Loud hollers and whoops and cheers and roars shook the walls of Kilo Village.

    “Jerry, you…” Spice looked like she had so many questions to ask, but Jerry was sorry to say that he didn’t think he could answer them right now.

    “Spice,” someone called. That Delphox again. “Spice, we need to talk.”

    “Can it wait?” Spice looked back; Delphox let himself in anyway. “What is it?”

    “They found some seeds in there,” Delphox said, keeping his voice low.

    Jerry tensed. Automatically, his eyes darted around for a window or some sort of escape route, and found none but the passageway Delphox had entered from.

    “And?” Spice said.

    “Modified seeds,” he went on. “They had Toxic in them.”

    Spice looked taken aback, and now she joined in keeping her voice down. “What?”

    “Not just any Toxic. Salazzle toxins. Corrosive.”

    Jerry’s heart dropped and suddenly the well-lit room seemed a whole lot darker. Spice dared to glance at him only once, and even if it was for a split-second, Jerry felt like he’d been staring her down for the whole day. He would never forget that look.

    “Spice… they were hidden in—”

    “His father,” Spice said shortly, but her voice was even. She seemed like a completely different person. A pain twisted in Jerry’s stomach and his heart felt like someone was dragging it into Void Basin itself. “His father would hang around our battlefield after our sparring matches. I thought it was weird, but I guess now I know why.”

    It was a complete lie. His father never watched. He barely left his home at all. And now he never would.

    Spice was leaving. “I’m going to submit that as testimony.” She didn’t look back.

    “Spice?” Delphox ran after her.

    Jerry watched. He mentally called, begged, for her to look back, to see anything more than the back of her head or her straightened muzzle when she turned. But even when he could see her by the side, her eyes were locked forward.

    And then he was alone. Somehow, Jerry knew that Spice wouldn’t come back.

    He continued to sit, neither standing nor lying on his bed. Where was he going to go now? What was he supposed to do—were they going to question him? He couldn’t even remember how he got there in the first place. And his wounds were already gone, so he couldn’t use those to remember what had happened. Scars were more common before annexation, and healers had also been rare. Scars told stories, and now would he have one for this? Perhaps he’d forget it all happened. Maybe he never had a father.

    The crowd cheered again outside. Kids ran across the streets, laughing and claiming that they would become the next Hearts. Several others countered and wagered they’d win. Then, the adults came and told them to find a proper place to fight, instead of acting like wilds who could fight like it was some savage pastime.

    He wasn’t supposed to be here.

    But then, one last person stepped into Jerry’s room, but for some reason he couldn’t believe it. She was the same shape as him, but she wobbled with each step. She moved slowly but with practiced ease, and her eyes were determined and fiery.

    He didn’t know what to think about her anymore. Something about the image he once held in her mind was… cracked. A mask was falling away. The reality of her life that she lived in secret from her own son, what she had endured for him…

    Jerry didn’t move, but she continued. Then, her wings wrapped around him. Warmth. Jerry hadn’t realized how cold he was until just then, and he leaned forward. Whether it was her or him, someone was shaking.

    Her heart sounded so much softer.

    But there she stood, embracing him, taking him under her wings. No matter what cracks had formed in that image in his mind of her… She was all he had left. After everything, Brigid remained. She was the strongest Pokémon he’d ever known.
     
    Chapter 97 - Reaching Out
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 97 – Reaching Out

    A great Titan towered over the forest, charging a Shadow Blast. Anam was all too familiar with the attack; it was a signature, powerful technique that all basic Titans shared.

    It fired; Anam countered with a sigh, which unleashed a halfhearted, indigo, yet radiant blast of his own. The light of his attack cut through the strike and split the blast across the empty fields of purple grass behind him. When the attack faded, Anam fired again and blasted the Titan directly, knocking its front half into pieces. He closed his eyes and clasped his hands together. Please, have a moment of peace.

    The rest of the body went limp, countless Void Shadows scattering in all directions.

    Anam watched them go, a few of them firing parting shots of darkness toward him, but a barrier of light dissipated all but the strongest ones, which lightly stung his amorphous body.

    The Goodra then advanced, his horns drooping, with slow steps.

    Anam, you should hurry, a voice called within him.

    “I’m sorry, Jam-Jam” Anam said, taking a breath. “I don’t like hurting them.”

    I understand. But please, before Dark Matter gets to the town. You can feel him getting closer, can’t you?

    “Mhm. Okay.”

    And talk to us mentally when you go in there, James chided. You want to convince them to evacuate, not that you’re crazy.

    “Okay.”

    Perhaps, a new voice said, this time of his mother, you should start practicing that now.

    Okay.


    It was a miracle that he had company at all. Dark Matter had claimed so many spirits within his core, but James and Madeline, his parents, he was able to wrest back. But so many of the others were still somewhere in the Voidlands, either as Void Shadows, or frightened spirits trying to live their sad lives.

    Anam shook his head—bad thoughts. He shouldn’t focus on that. He had to save them. He could save them! He just… needed to find the others. Defeating Dark Matter wasn’t something he alone could do, after all. It was too bad he couldn’t get to Necrozma immediately, not with the power he had now.

    “Just a little more,” Anam said, leaping into the air and flying forward. Even in the Voidlands, under Dark Matter’s domain, he still had some of his Mystic power manifesting. Just ahead, Anam saw a great spire jutting out of the dead forest, as well as several Pokémon flying overhead. Good, they spotted him.

    Less good, they were firing at him.

    Twirling to the left, Anam easily dodged a Hyper Beam, and then another barrel roll left him only grazed by an Ice Beam. Then came the great charge from the spire itself, energy concentrating at the tip in a fine, bright point. Anam held his hand forward.

    A beam of energy, another high-powered Hyper Beam, cut across the trees, incinerating the tips off the branches it touched, but Anam knew how to manipulate crystal energy. He deflected it to the left, where it sliced through the forest and left a messy, smoldering gash in the trees. That left the scouts panicking; they must have expected it to be a direct hit.

    “Wait!” Anam shouted, but his voice didn’t carry far. He flew faster, but then wobbled in the air—he was using his power too much. It was so strange to not have Dark Matter powering him anymore.

    Be careful, Anam, Madeline said.

    Sorry.

    He landed a few paces from what he thought was the town’s entrance. Within seconds, scouts surrounded him, using the gnarled trees as cover.

    “Wait!” he shouted again. “I need to speak to your leaders! Quickly!”

    Anam’s breaths were quick and shallow, and he tried to keep calm. The reckless act of going straight into town was already catching up to him—he couldn’t feel their negativity anymore. He had no idea what any of them were thinking. Dark Matter wasn’t there to tell him. What if they were thinking of how to dispose of him?

    “Who are you?” came a deep, demanding voice from the left.

    “I’m Goodra Anam, and Dark Matter is coming here! Please, I need to see your leader!”

    More silence followed, and it ate away at Anam. Losing his patience and composure, Anam took another step toward the town, but a sudden blast of ice struck the ground a few feet ahead.

    “Stay right where you are, Dragon,” came a feminine voice to the right.

    Please,” Anam said. “Can’t you detect him or something? I need to—”

    “You’re going to have to wait until we can make sure you’re not a Void Shadow.”

    “But—but I—I just deflected that Z-Crystal beam thing! Void Shadows can’t do that!”

    To this, there was not only silence in words, but the subtle movements of Pokémon moving around, perhaps communicating to the scout leader, or sending other nonverbal signals throughout the ring that had Anam surrounded. Every second wasted, Anam felt Dark Matter drift closer. He was perhaps only half a day away. That wasn’t nearly enough time.

    I’m sorry, Anam thought, though he wasn’t sure who it was directed toward.

    Anam, wait—

    Not yet, Anam—


    Anam rushed for the entrance and, instantly, a flurry of action overtook his senses. Lights of all colors, but mostly cyan, came from the left and right, and a cold, sharp pain shot through his body. His advance was halted in an instant because his legs refused to respond, completely frozen in ice. He shook his body and freed one leg and decided the other one wasn’t worth keeping. His left horn extended and shattered the ice where it met his right leg. The excess of his body fashioned itself into another one.

    More beams of energy came next, this time striking him in the chest. This was ideal, because he could keep running—

    A heavy fist slammed into Anam’s back in a downward strike, sinking into his body.

    “Ugh! What is this guy?!”

    Anam jerked forward, caught on his fist, and tried to wiggle free, but his assailant was grasping onto the ice that had formed in his chest like a glacier. He pushed harder and fell forward, ignoring the hole in his chest where the ice block had been.

    “He really is a Void Shadow! Kill it!”

    “No, please!” Anam rolled out of the way. These scouts were strong—hardened by the Voidlands and potentially centuries of training, for all he knew. He simply wouldn’t be able to stand up to that kind of skill and get away unscathed.

    But he could afford a little damage.

    Guys, can you help make a distraction? Anam begged.

    But he didn’t have time to hash out a plan, so he tried it on his own. He slammed his hands on the ground and channeled Ghostly energy into the floor. He hated that cold power, but it didn’t feel as foul anymore—his portion of the Ghost Orb was not tainted by Dark Matter’s presence.

    The guards felt differently, suddenly shouting as hands rose from the ground. The dead hands dragged them downward. They struggled and broke free, but more rose and dragged them deeper. That would keep them stuck for a while—

    More ice coated Anam’s body and suddenly his whole lower half was solid. He squeaked in surprise and then wailed in pain when that persistent Machamp’s fist slammed into the ice, shattering it. Machamp shouted in horror, which Anam understood. Shattering a Pokémon was probably not his intent.

    Anam went flying forward, but this was good! In a sudden burst of inspiration, Anam’s body softened, and his horns hardened. Then, with a firm jab downward, Anam could no longer feel his chest.

    It had been a long while since Anam had been headless—well, bodiless—but he still had some of the motions return to him in seconds. It was like a Charizard discovering how to fly. He ignored his parents’ warnings about being so vulnerable. At this point, any single hit would freeze him completely. He knew that. He also knew that if he got held up at all, he’d run out of time.

    A little faster. His horns dug into the ground and he galloped forward, and he briefly recalled an old, old game he’d played with his parents. Hearing them talk to him like parents must have jogged the memory. Another game of Blaster.

    With a childish grin, Anam slammed his face into the ground and channeled what energy he could in the back of his throat. There was less space than usual to work with, but it would do; as just a head, this wasn’t too different from a Goomy with abnormally large horns, right? Then, he fired, and just in time; the cold chill of an Ice Beam coated the ground he’d just stood, and he was propelled upward and through the sky. A second Dragon Pulse to the left and he dodged several more stray blasts, and then he was out of their range and—

    He slammed into a wall with a wet SLAP. Dazed, Anam curled his horns around whatever he could, miraculously finding some leverage around a curve. He had landed on a rooftop, his company being some purplish scum and slightly tilted tiles.

    Ignoring the looming sense of dread that was Dark Matter’s approach, Anam focused on the powerful auras nearby. Two in particular—Dragons, like him? They weren’t quite Guardians, but it was something similar, like Hunters. They might be the leaders.

    You should hurry, Anam, Madeline warned. Remember, one hit and—

    Okay, okay,
    Anam said. Um, okay. Two more blasts, one to get away, and another to… oh, this roof is strong, right?

    You don’t have a choice,
    Madeline said.

    Anam hummed nervously and positioned his face downward. Then, with another blast, he was in the sky—thankfully, the roof held. Must have been like the buildings in Kilo. A second blast diverted him away from the initial volleys of Ice Beams from the scouts below.

    From above, the town was beautiful. In the dark, jagged sea of Void Forest, this town was a speckled beacon of light, dotted with so many different colors in the walls and along the rooftops. It scared away the Titans; while they were drawn to crystals, they were warded away by high concentrations of it… It was no different than the warmth of a campfire and the terror of an inferno.

    He was falling, the colorful buildings looking less like squares and more like proper structures again. But this time it was fine; the scouts, while still pursuing him from the sky and the ground, were far behind, and he only needed to see the leaders.

    “Help!” Anam shouted at the two guards that stared, dumbfounded, at the Goodra head that had just rolled across the ground. “I need to talk to your leaders! Quickly!”

    The first guard, a bewildered Inkay, wrapped a tendril around a crystal in the satchel under her beak. “What—what happened to you?”

    The second guard, a wary Beartic, snarled down and said, “Careful. It looks like scouts are chasing it.”

    “No, no, wait! I’m not a Void Shadow, I’m just a little funny!”

    “A little funny? Where’d the rest of you go?!”

    “Frozen by the entrance.” Anam landed on his cheek and used one horn to point vaguely north.

    “How are you talking?!” Inkay shouted. “Don’t Goodra need lungs for that?”

    “Well, I don’t usually use my lungs,” Anam said.

    Beartic squinted. “That just gives me even more questions!”

    A rough, quick voice shouted from within the building. “Okay, what’s going on?”

    “Latios, stay back!” Beartic said, not breaking his gaze away from Anam. The Goodra hoped that he wouldn’t get frozen as a precaution.

    “Oh, get over it.”

    Out came a blue-white creature covered in fine feathers and rigid, angular wings jutting out from either side of his back. His eyes were fixed in a perpetual, serious stare, and his arms were in a defensive position beneath his chest despite his casual tone.

    Latios floated higher to get a look at Anam. “It’s just a weird-looking Goomy.”

    “Um, I’m actually a Goodra. My name’s Anam!” He waved with his horn, but when he did, he accidentally rolled over and spent the next few seconds trying to right himself.

    “Then where’s the rest of—” Latios stopped. “Wait, Anam? Kilo’s ruler?”

    “Well, I’m actually called the Heart of Hearts, not ruler.”

    “Anam,” Beartic repeated. “You mean Dark Matter’s seal?”

    “If our intelligence is anything to go by,” Latios murmured. “Let him in. I’ll get Latias.”

    “He’s—he’s safe?”

    “You can’t feel his aura? No way that’s a Void Shadow.”

    “No, I can’t,” Beartic deadpanned, crossing his massive arms. “Unlike you, I happen to not be an immortal fallen god.”

    “Oh, right.” Latios didn’t even look back. “Come on in, Anam.”

    “Thank you!” Anam stiffened his horns and crawled inside. “Oh! Um, and can you ask for them to carry my body here? It’s a lot easier than regenerating it…”

    “Oh, sure,” Latios said. “Beartic, do that.”

    Beartic sputtered over his words, then grunted and lumbered away. Inkay floated in the air, drifting toward Latios, then at Beartic, and then finally decided on settling on the latter’s head.

    Anam followed Latios through the building, which seemed even larger thanks to his Goomy-sized perspective of it all. Supersized doors led to overwhelming halls that were well-lit and colorful but gentle mixtures of light blues and reds. After a few turns, Latios floated in front of a metal, sliding door that sank inward and slid into the wall.

    “Latias—”

    “Meep!”

    Something clattered to the ground and a red creature, similar to Latios, flew around a central table and hid underneath it.

    Latios, sighing, drooped his head and said, “Latias… just me.”

    “O-oh, oh, I’m sorry,” Latias said, peeking out from the side of the table. “It was so loud out there, I thought something had gone wrong. Um, why is there a weird Goomy with you?”

    “Goodra head. It’s Anam.” Latios floated inside and gestured for Anam to take a seat—which he struggled to climb—and settled on the other side of the table.

    “Oh! Anam!” Latias peeked up. “Wait—Anam? What’re you doing here? That’s… that’s really bad!”

    Anam climbed further to get a better look at what was displayed on the center of this chamber, which resembled some kind of small conference room. Countless papers riddled the walls, all kinds of notes that Anam couldn’t discern. The back of the room had a map of the Voidlands with a gold pin in the eastern portion of the forest area—depicted in a dark green, despite the actual colors—which must have been their location.

    The center table was alight with a screen of buttons, not unlike one of Nevren’s strange inventions. However, it looked like this one was displaying another, more interactive map of the Voidlands, with several dots either blinking or remaining stationary on the map. One dot was a black color with a white outline, which was blinking and slowly moving toward their current location.

    “I know it seems bad,” Anam said to Latias. “But, um, I’m here to warn you guys that Dark Matter is coming. But… it looks like you guys already know.” He looked at the black dot on the map.

    “We do. We’re already preparing to evacuate,” Latios said.

    “Oh.” Anam should have known that they’d be more competent, even with such an unexpected event. They probably had countless ‘doomsday’ scenarios and action plans in their systems…

    “But you should tell us everything anyway,” Latios said. “Why are you here? I thought you were Dark Matter’s seal.”

    “I, um… I lost my grip a little,” Anam admitted, shame gripping at where his heart should have been. “A-and now I can’t get it back without weakening him, but he’s too strong… I need to find some of my friends that are trapped here, too. Others who are like me! Please, did you see anything like that?”

    “Hmm… No.” Latios floated toward Latias and asked, “Any reports about others like Anam?”

    “Um, what would that even mean?” Latias asked. “Like you how? Just a head?”

    “No, um, as in, more powerful than usual? Maybe they react—oh! They react to Z-Crystals more!”

    “Well, we have a lot of those. People who inherited Necrozma’s blessing.”

    “No, even more than that,” Anam said. “They should have an even stronger reaction because they, um, ohh, it’s too long to explain! They just do! They have a piece of Necrozma’s power!”

    “A piece?”

    “Mhm! Some more than others. Like me!”

    Ask them about Owen, Madeline said. He’s here, too.

    “Oh! And a Charizard! He’d probably have the strongest reaction of them all.”

    “No new Charizard has showed up here lately,” Latios said. “But y’know, I’ll try to send word to the other cities and ask, but… That’s a risk on its own, you know. Alexander might be spying on any messages we send.

    No, Owen. Ask about Owen specifically.

    “Um, not just any Charizard—Owen.”

    Latios and Latias both looked at one another, then at Anam. “Owen?” Latias asked. “He should be long dead. Wasn’t he mortal?”

    “I thought he was killed,” Latios added.

    “He’s alive, oh, um, he’s here, so I guess not alive,” Anam said. “But he worked under me for a little while. I was taking care of him! Kind of.”

    “Owen…” Latias levitated a little higher, her expression brightening. Then, it suddenly twisted into horror. “Wait… Owen! Alexander would try to imprison him immediately—at best!”

    “We need to spread the news without our lovely King finding out,” Latios agreed. “Anam, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to send something over the network. Did you visit any other towns? We’ve got the North, West, and South strongholds to visit next. If Owen’s anywhere, it’d be one of those places. Or he’s already in Cipher City, but we’d probably know about that by now…”

    “I passed by the North one,” Anam said. “I didn’t feel anything there, though, not like Owen.”

    “Good. That narrows things down.” Latios looked at Latias, nodding. “I have a plan. We’re some of the fastest fliers in the Voidlands, but I’m a little faster. I’m going to head to West Null Village and probably try to avoid the Cipher City scouts. I’ll have to fly wide around the city. Latias, take the easier route for South Null Village. Anam, you’ve got leadership experience up there, right? We’re gonna give you a good word so you can help protect this place while we’re gone.”

    “A-are you sure?”

    “They can handle themselves without us,” Latios assured. “Okay. It’s sudden but we also don’t have a lot of time. Latias, if you run into any trouble, just head back, alright?”

    “Mhm. And you too.” Latias floated a little higher, nervously fidgeting. “I, um, if you get hurt, fly back. And if you think the scouts are following you, fly back, too. Nobody can outrun you, and we’ll be safer together…”

    “I’ll prepare some letters to deliver to them to say we needed to send an alert about Dark Matter,” Latios said. “Maybe say Dark Matter messed up our communications.”

    Anam wasn’t following most of their planning and instead looked back at the doorway, wondering where the rest of his body was, or if they were still thawing it out.

    Eventually, Anam realized Latias was addressing him directly: “It’s, um, good to meet you in person, Anam. I knew your mother for a while, and, um, also Giratina. I hope, um, oh, I shouldn’t have mentioned, she’s probably…”

    …Giratina? What about Giratina? Madeline said, and her perplexed tone bled through Anam.

    “What?” Anam asked. “Um, Mom is okay, but what about Giratina?”

    “Eh? I always associated those two together. Oh, it’s been so long, but they were always together, you know?”

    …What in the world is she talking about?

    “Sorry, I don’t think Mom ever mentioned Giratina to me,” Anam said. “Are you sure it was Giratina?”

    “No, I remember, too,” Latios said, tilting his head. “I suppose it has been a thousand years or so…”

    Anam and Madeline both fell silent, and James hummed on the left side of Anam’s mind. Strange, he said. Not once did Giratina cross Madeline’s mind, at least, she never mentioned them to me.

    Could I have lost a memory of an entire person somehow? I don’t understand…


    Anam frowned. He was no longer bound by the Promise he had made to Dark Matter now that the conditional—Dark Matter never attacking—had been broken. But even then, he had no knowledge of Giratina’s association with his mother. How thoroughly had they been erased? How? Perhaps it was like Dialga and Palkia. Nevren remembered Dialga, and Rhys remembered Palkia. Yet neither remembered the other.

    “Anyway,” Latios said, breaking the pensive silence, “we don’t have time to think about that. I need to fly. West Null Village is a lot farther away than South, so I’m taking a head start. Latias, once you have everything prepped here, go South.”

    “Mm!” Latias nodded, fidgeting again. “They, um, I’ll do my best! And, er, um…”

    “Don’t worry, Sis.” Latios grinned and nuzzled her side. “They trust you. You’re the nice one, remember?”

    Latias nodded, her feathers fluffing up. “N-nice, right. But maybe they need a commander…”

    “Well, then imagine you’re blue,” Latios said. “Okay, I need to get going. No time left.” He glanced at the map; Dark Matter was accelerating. “Definitely no time. Anam, you’re sure you can hold him off?”

    Anam hesitated. “I can stall.”

    “Good enough. I’m counting on you. Latias, you too. You can do it.”

    “Right. I will!”

    He flew out of the planning room and Latias poked at a few buttons on the wall. “I’m going to make a backup of all the data we need and pass it to the scouts,” Latias said. “I’ll make a few copies. I’ll give some to you.”

    “Data? Of what?”

    “Stuff we know about Alexander and tracking Necrozma. But if this place gets destroyed by Dark Matter, or the scouts come with another random inspection, we need a way to hide it.” She looked back at Anam. “So, um, if you’re here, and Dark Matter’s moving, and Necrozma’s light spiked a few months ago… does that mean we’re escaping the Voidlands soon?”

    Anam blinked, thinking. Now that it was all coming to a head, it was odd that all the Guardians were glowing more than usual just before Owen became the Grass Guardian… Was that a coincidence?

    “There’s a way out, right?” Latias asked. “We—that’s what we’ve been fighting for all this time. There has to be, right?”

    “Yes, there is,” Anam assured. “I’m… I’m sorry that you’ve all been sealed for so long, but it was to keep the wraiths from escaping, and…”

    A cold, sinking feeling came from his phantom chest again, and probably not because his body was still thawing. That was right. His blessings had been undone. The seal between the Voidlands and Kilo was broken… All of the Dungeons were gateways into the Voidlands once more.

    Latias jammed a strange rectangle in Anam’s head. “There you go,” she said. “um, sorry, that didn’t hurt, did it?”

    Anam crossed his eyes, even if the gesture was meaningless. “What is it?”

    “The data. Hang onto it! And… thank you, Anam, again. To see light again!” She raised a tiny fist.

    “Y-yeah. To see light again!”

    <><><>​

    “Owen, that’s enough!” Tim cried.

    But it wasn’t. Owen clawed his way through yet another training dummy that Tim had set up—or rather, the one that Owen had put together just to slice through again. They had brought them at the strange human shop, ten of them for cheap since they were on something the humans called ‘clearance.’ He didn’t know what it meant, but they got more when it happened.

    The evening sun left an orange glow on the pale green hillsides and long shadows extended across the fields before it. Tim’s shadow was a few paces away from Owen’s, yet the young trainer did not move closer.

    His claws bled and his red scales had a tinge of darker crimson. He had occasionally wiped them on his chest, leaving little flecks along his cream underbelly, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to be satisfied until he could cleave these training dummies in two with one swipe. So far, he was down to three slashes, which was much better than the seven he’d started out with. Pokémon were more durable, and they moved and fought back, but training was training.

    And it wouldn’t be enough until he
    knew he could defend Tim properly.

    Tim was behind him, perhaps too afraid to get in the way, so Owen ignored him and went for another horizontal slice, his claws wreathed in fire.

    “You need rest, too, Owen,” Tim begged.

    “Not until I know it won’t happen again,” Owen said between breaths. “I don’t… I won’t be taken away from you.”

    “I know you want to get stronger,” Tim said, “but you’ll only get… get vulnerable if…”

    “I won’t lose again!” Owen spun around to glare fiery daggers at Tim. “I c-can’t… Not when there are humans out there that could… could just
    steal me! I n-never felt so… useless before. I’m…”

    His legs wobbled but he refused to kneel. He hid his tail from Tim’s view, too, because he knew it was dim and wavering.

    Owen was all Tim had left. The rest of their team was gone. The police wouldn’t find them. Ayame had said they were some kind of crime syndicate. There was no way…

    Tim held Owen’s shoulders firmly, and Owen had forgotten how weak his touch had become. That poison was potent. But Tim’s strength was returning rapidly, even though it had been a few days. Humans were a lot stronger than Owen gave them credit for—or maybe it was just Tim who was strong like that.

    “Please,” Tim said. “Let’s rest for tonight.”

    The wind blew, sending a few stray blades of grass into Tim’s hair. Another blade burned in his tail, and that’s how he knew he was too worked up. Normally that flame only burned hot when he was agitated or in battle. If it was just training, it would have only been a gentle warmth.

    But how could he train with a clear mind anymore?

    He didn’t have Duos to spar with. With the whole team gone he had to pick up the slack.

    But now that he was out of the battle for a while, his claws ached and stung, and his chest was tight and his throat dry. Maybe taking a break would be a good idea…

    Rustling grass that didn’t match the wind patterns caught their attention. Ascending the lower hills was Ayame; beside her, a Dragonair. They both wore somber expressions, though there was still that pompous air about her.

    “Hey,” Tim greeted, trying to keep a steady voice.

    “I got something for you,” Ayame said, and then tossed a small package to Tim. With a bit of fumbling, he caught it and looked down, inquisitive.

    “What is it?” he asked as Ayame sat down by the top of the hill. Tim sat with her.

    Ire curled around Owen assertively. Owen growled and tried to wiggle away, but Ire growled back and bumped his cheek against Owen’s side.

    “You fight too much,” Ire lectured. “Relax!” There was cheer in his tone, but his eyes were stern. He must have inherited them from Ayame.

    “I can’t relax when I’m weak,” Owen said.

    “You’ll be weaker if you fight too much.”

    They all said the same thing, but at this point, Owen was in no position to fight back—mostly because Ire had rendered him immobile.

    Ayame placed something in front of Ire, and Tim placed another package for Owen to look through. Smelled like food—and the moment that registered, the Charmeleon’s stomach growled. Ire relaxed and let Owen go.

    “A TM?” Tim asked, the other package now open.

    “Owen’s been training hard, but I don’t think strength alone is going to cut it,” Ayame said. “With everything we know, I think learning about new techniques might help Owen more than anything. Knowledge might speed up his training, make him stronger than a Charmeleon at the same strength, in a way. And besides, I know he’s smart. He helps you with your math homework, doesn’t he?”

    “N-no, he just looks at the pictures.”

    “Mmhm. Anyway, try it out on him.”

    “Which one is it?”

    “Pretty strange move, but one that’ll help him learn exactly how it feels to use other moves. What better way to learn about what enemies can do than use their techniques yourself, right?”

    Tim flipped the disc a few times over, frowning.

    “It’s called Mimic,” Ayame said. “If Owen sees a move, he can capture that energy for a short time and store it inside himself. Then, he can call upon it and use that same energy again.”

    “What?” Tim scratched his head. “Is that even something he’s compatible with?”

    “Mimic is compatible with almost all Pokémon,” Ayame said, “but it’s also a huge strain, so be really careful. I heard rumors that they’re going to discontinue this TM, or they’re planning to, because it’s not really that popular. But I was just thinking about everything, and maybe it’s just what Owen needs.”

    “How much did you spend on…”

    Ayame smiled dismissively. “Forget it.”


    <><><>​

    Owen awoke to a Void Shadow staring at him with nothing but a clear screen keeping him safe.

    “Hi, Mom,” Owen said blearily, rubbing his eyes. Something about Mimic…that felt useful, but he couldn’t piece together why.

    The Void Shadow said nothing in reply.

    “Did you sleep at all? Was my fire bothering you? It’s technically light or something, right? And that’s supposed to… wait, how did I know that?” Owen scratched at his scalp, humming. Right, those crystals were imbued with light, or something like light, or called light, and…

    “Oh, good, you’re awake,” Jerry said from the entrance.

    Owen stiffened, but then looked back. Only then did he realize that there was a blanket over him, soft like silk.

    “I don’t remember falling asleep,” Owen admitted.

    “Yeah, you kinda conked out next to Zena. We grabbed a blanket, cleaned up the food, and left you to rest.” Jerry held up another package of food which smelled like a light, sweet breakfast.

    A confused warmth spread through Owen’s chest at that, and he still wondered where this more tender side of Jerry was coming from after everything else that happened. And despite this, what Jerry had told him before, and his general attitude prior, was now at the forefront of his mind.

    Jerry scowled. “What? Still hate me?”

    Owen hadn’t realized the glare he’d given. “No, I—” The reality was he didn’t, and the glare wasn’t meant for him. “I was just thinking back, sorry. You happened to be where I was looking.”

    “…Bah, like you can lie.” Jerry set the food down. “We’re going to be having a meeting in Dialga’s room pretty soon, but you don’t need to come if you—”

    “I’ll be coming,” Owen automatically said.

    “You sure?” Jerry replied just as quickly. “Like, we get it. If you need to spend more time with Amia…”

    “That isn’t it.” As much as Owen wanted to. “I need to be stronger right now. For her, too, even if she might… not completely recognize me right now.” He smiled sadly, but then stood up, taking a sharp breath. “Alright! Enough moping. Nothing’s gonna help her if I do!”

    Jerry flinched, and for a second, there was a hint of some foul emotion on his face that Owen couldn’t quite place. But then he wiped it away and looked forward. “Right. Then follow me.”

    <><><>​

    Everyone gathered in Dialga’s room, a larger-than-life chamber with illustrations of tall, rugged mountains and artificial wind from fans in camouflaged walls. The ground was intentionally uneven and rocky to better support the feel of a Dragon’s ideal habitat, though Dialga didn’t seem impressed.

    Trina, Eon, and Gahi had to be taken away—along with Xypher—to be inspected and patched up for their injuries. Hakk had chosen to stay with Xypher to keep him company. Marshadow, however, was fine enough to attend.

    That only left Zena, Jerry, Owen, Demitri, and Mispy to gather together with Marshadow and Dialga.

    “Alright, guess we’ll catch up the others if their checkups run long,” Marshadow said. “I got a few things ter say.”

    Owen was glad that he already knew Manny so well, because without that, Marshadow would have been very hard to understand.

    “First,” Marshadow said, pointing at Dialga, “how come yer not Voided?”

    “Voided… As in, what happened to—er.” Dialga glanced awkwardly at Owen, and the Charmander shook his head in response

    “What happened to Amia,” Owen said.

    Dialga stared awkwardly, then continued. “I don’t know. Perhaps I’m too strong for them to kill, so they had to instead try to take me over some other way. As a defense, I had gone into dormancy for… what I imagine is quite a while. I recall fighting back very recently to something… Like I was emerging from a vat of slime. Very unpleasant. I think Palkia was there, too…”

    “Palkia, right…” Marshadow looked down. “Not sure what caused that. There were energy spikes in the Nil Plateaus a while ago, couldn’t find anything after. Then suddenly this all happens, tons o’ newcomers ter th’ Voidlands.”

    “Wait, what was that?” Demitri said. “Slime? Climbing out? Anam had ties to Dark Matter, right?”

    “Slimy,” Mispy confirmed, nodding.

    Marshadow waved his arms. “I wanted ter gather everyone here so we c’n try to sort everything we know out,” he said. “In order. As far back as we can.”

    “I don’t even know where to begin!” Demitri breathed, then looked to Mispy, who shrugged.

    “Owen’s… the oldest,” Mispy explained.

    Owen shrank. That was true. He was older than a lot of—who was he younger than here? “Dialga, um, sir,” Owen said, looking up at the massive Timekeeper.

    The metallic Dragon dwarfed everyone else, even Zena. The building, which was geared toward large Pokémon, had still forced Dialga to crouch between the doorway.

    “You’re older than me, right?” Owen asked.

    “I… believe I am roughly as old as this world,” Dialga deadpanned. “Perhaps a little younger. So, yes. I believe I’m older.”

    Owen slumped over, sighing. “Right,” he said. “Sorry, kind of stupid of me to say something like that. I don’t know why I—but I don’t think Dialga talking about Creation or whatever would matter anyway. I think the beginning for me is… when I was born in a place called Kanto.”

    “Never heard o’ it,” Marshadow said.

    Owen figured as much. “It’s a world where humans and Pokémon live together,” he said. “Humans can’t do a lot on their own, but they can strengthen Pokémon. I had what’s called a trainer—but in practice, they’re more like partners. Not—not important.” Owen waved his hand, but before he could go on, Marshadow interrupted.

    “Now, hold on,” he said. “Not important? Sounds real important ter me. Why’d you mention that? Was Eon yer partner? Yer father?”

    “At some point, he was my trainer, but then, he… something happened. I don’t remember yet. And it led to him… I…” He bit his tongue lightly, unable to find the words.

    “Take a breath,” Zena suggested.

    He didn’t even know he was holding it, but that explained the dizziness. Slowly, his breath returned, but not his thoughts.

    “Thanks,” Owen finally said. “Let me try to explain what I know. Maybe the blanks will come back later…”

    Owen started with the general dynamics between humans and Pokémon as he understood them. Most important was how humans could understand Pokémon vaguely if untrained, but almost perfectly if tuned with them. Then he went on about how Pokémon of that world enjoyed battling, and it came to them the same way walking or eating did.

    “So, that’s why you liked battling?” Demitri asked. “Does that mean we’re from the same world, too?”

    “I don’t remember any of you from Kanto,” Owen said. “And I have a feeling that you never were there. I think you two and Gahi are native to Kilo. But… beyond that, I don’t know. If I wasn’t born a mutant, maybe you two weren’t, either. We never really asked where those new spirits came from for new mutants. I thought Eon just created them.”

    “Guess we’ll ask,” Jerry said. “He wasn’t all that hurt, was he?”

    “He’ll be fine,” Owen said dismissively. “He’s still my old trainer. He’s”—An image flashed in Owen’s mind, one of a human who had been struck with poisonous spikes—“too strong to let a few little attacks take him down.” Despite the pride in his tone, his smile didn’t reach his eyes.

    “Alright, humans and Pokémon have a strong bond. Cool. Dunno if that’ll be useful, but I’ll keep it in mind.” Marshadow leaned forward. “What’s next? How’d yeh get here?”

    “Still don’t know,” Owen said. “Every time I fall asleep, I get a few new memories. Maybe if I focus on that in the coming days, I’ll get them all back. Or maybe I can meditate.”

    “Y’know, I always thought that was weird,” Jerry said. “All that meditating, and those memories. Seems real convenient that you’re getting ‘em all back now…”

    “There was a Divine Decree keeping most of them sealed until I got here, I think,” Owen said. “Maybe when Star possessed me, it broke that…”

    “Still,” Jerry said. “Feels planned.”

    Owen sighed. “Maybe it is,” he said. “Almost everything about what I do and who I talk to has been planned by someone that isn’t me for centuries.” He rolled his eyes. “If someone else is dictating when I get my memories back, too, I wouldn’t be surprised. I—”

    Owen paused.

    Maybe it was planned. He didn’t know why, but his feelings sometimes outlasted his conscious memories, and that idea, that mere idea that something was planned, tugged at him. Planned by who? Certainly not him. Certainly not Arceus or Star.

    Then it had to be Necrozma. Someone at that level. Could all of this be happening because of some plan by him?

    What caused all of this to begin now, of all times?

    He made a mental note to revisit this later.

    “Anyway,” Owen said, realizing they were all staring at him, “I don’t know how I went from Kanto to Kilo, and I don’t know about much of my time with Necrozma. It’s all a huge blur until I became a mutant under Eon again.”

    “That’s a freakin’ huge gap,” Marshadow commented. “I’m gonna close a little bit of that, and maybe it’ll jog yer memory.”

    Attention turned to Marshadow, who cleared his throat, and everyone waited in respectful silence. “Oh, eh, you c’n fill in, too, Didi.”

    Dialga blinked, frowning. “Dialga, please.”

    “Worth a shot.” Marshadow winked. “Alright. So, I dunno the whole deal about how the world formed er anything like that. Wasn’t around when that happened. I do know, though, that we lived a pretty good life managin’ the place. Basically, if something ever went wrong, we’d step in. Fix things from a higher level, y’know? World of little gods like Pokémon would take bigger gods ter fix things if they mess it all up.”

    “We seemed to get along fine without you guys, though,” Owen commented. “I mean—no offense or anything, just, our world barely has any gods now, and it’s been fine.”

    Marshadow smiled wryly. “Well, yeah. Now yeh just had the one, Anam. He sorta filled the divine vacuum. And befer that, lots o’ people were droppin’ into the Voidlands through Dungeons. Befer Anam fixed them, dying in a Dungeon meant your spirit fell… here.”

    Owen felt a little colder.

    “Yeah, it ain’t pretty,” Marshadow said, glancing at Owen’s dimming tail. “Dunno how Dungeons formed ter begin with, either. Showed up one day, around the same time that blights happen. Assumption is that it has ter do with Dark Matter, so—”

    “Hold on, blights?” Demitri interjected.

    “Yes, I’m not familiar with that term,” Zena said. “What are blights?”

    “No clue what you guys call it now,” Marshadow said. “It’s the energy associated with Void Shadows. It’s corrosive ter aura, rots yeh from the inside but gives yeh a lot of power in return.”

    “Void…” Jerry trailed off.

    “What was that?” Zena asked, glancing to Jerry.

    “Eh—nothing,” Jerry said.

    “Not nothing,” Mispy said, frowning. “You know.”

    “Lay off, will ya?” Jerry snapped, but by now everyone was staring at him. “Look, we called it the Basin’s Protection. Blessing. Whatever. It’s been, like, decades since I was only a kid when I dealt with that kind of power, and—”

    “You were blighted?” Marshadow said, his head suddenly flashing with green fire.

    “I dunno what that means, but whatever it is, you—back off!” Jerry stood up, realizing that the stinging feeling in the air was because Marshadow’s aura was flaring.

    “Guys, come on,” Owen groaned.

    Mispy slid between Jerry and Marshadow, turning her back to Jerry to glare at the small Legend.

    Jerry used Mispy’s size to stay hidden, though he still said, “If I was some threat, wouldn’t you guys have seen it by now?”

    Marshadow glared through Mispy, but then relaxed. “…Right. Sorry fer gettin’ all hot ‘n bothered.” His head returned to its normal, black wisps. “That ain’t like me.”

    Mispy relaxed next, though now she very clearly decided that it would be appropriate to stay closer to Jerry in case something like that happened again. Demitri relocated on Jerry’s other side, following Mispy’s direction, and decided to be his left guard.

    “Um, so is the blight… really that bad?” Demitri asked.

    Marshadow sighed, rubbing his forehead. After the initial adrenaline, he did look genuinely ashamed.

    “I wouldn’t call it bad,” Jerry downplayed. “It ran in my family. Void’s Blessing. Sure, it sounds ominous, but it was a symbol of power, and it was what helped the Quartz Kingdom flourish before Anam took over. We had advantages against the Dungeons and could repel wraiths, even control them if we had to so they didn’t cause trouble.”

    “Inherited, eh?” Marshadow said. “Blessings run across blood, yeah. Has ter to with the way spiritual history passes along the Infinity Energy signatures. Thing is, only person who has this ‘Void Blessing’ er whatever… is Alexander.”

    “Alexander… the Hydreigon in Cipher City,” Owen clarified.

    “Yeah. From what I gathered, you also know a Hydreigon Alexander.” Marshadow eyed Owen curiously, coaxing him to elaborate.

    “My dad’s real species is Hydreigon, and his name is Alex,” Owen said. “He changed because I was scared of his Hydreigon form when I was younger, or something.”

    “Ain’t no way that’s a coincidence,” Marshadow said. “Sounds ter me like that event erased from history is bubblbin’ up in yer subconscious mind. Y’were Jirachi’s assistant. Chances are, yeh fought Alexander.”

    “Okay, but that doesn’t explain anything about my dad,” Owen said. “He’s not—”

    “Maybe if we run inter him again,” Marshadow said, “we’ll ask.”

    “It’s a southern tradition for some families to pass a name down the bloodline,” Jerry said. “Mine, for one. Pretty sure there’s a Smeargle in town that’s got that going on. Maybe your dad was southern?”

    “But then…” Owen sighed. “I don’t get what that has to do with any of this. But it sounds to me like, Jerry, somewhere in your ancestry was… my step-grandpa, or something?”

    Jerry grimaced like he was looking at a moldy plate of food.

    Owen tried to envision his father being related to someone like Cipher City’s ruler. Perhaps the reason Alex hid that was by intentional omission. Was he ashamed of his species bloodline, and wanted to change it?

    Did Alex know about his father? If he was in the Voidlands, then Alex must have assumed he was dead and not worth talking about.

    Owen had to find him and ask—hopefully Alex was still alive and not Voided. Amia was, unfortunately, no longer able to answer this question… As enigmatic as it seemed, Owen had a feeling that the blights, Alexander, Dark Matter, and himself all had something to do with each other. Perhaps Marshadow was right; Owen could have fought Alexander in the past. And then forgot, with the rest of that gap in history…

    “About blights,” Owen said, breaking everyone’s contemplative silence. “I remember a little about it. When the Legends were around, they were practically invincible. No mortal Pokémon could defeat a Legend… except if the mortal was under the effects of a blight. For some reason, that let them cut through that invulnerability.”

    Marshadow settled in his seat. “Even Arceus wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Figure Necrozma had no idea, either.”

    “How about Mew?”

    “We don’t really rely on Mew fer intelligence,” Marshadow admitted.

    Owen frowned, glancing at Dialga, but he, too, shook his head. It was unlikely that Star would have any idea about the blights, or she would have said as much.

    “Then it’s all unknown even to Legends? How is that possible? Dialga, weren’t you around when the world was created?”

    “I was,” Dialga said. “When everything was nothing but a swarm of Unown, a testing ground to plan this new, little world… At least… I think I was around back then.” Briefly troubled, Dialga shifted his weight until he was at a sort of half-kneel. “It’s very blurry. I only remember watching, floating there… Did I have a body? I remember Arceus arguing with Mew. I can’t remember the conversation, so long ago… And then… it’s all blank. Like so many years passed in an instant, and suddenly I was standing before Arceus, ready to serve.”

    “No offense or anything,” Owen said, “but hazy memories and just remembering serving Arceus doesn’t sound that good to me.”

    “Oh?” Dialga asked.

    “Arceus… lost his way a little.”

    “Lost his way, how could he lose his way?” Dialga said defensively, and Owen realized that this would be a losing battle.

    “Er, nothing. Maybe he was a little stressed.”

    “Hmph. Maybe you just didn’t understand the sheer magnitude of what he was saying. If you get an order from Arceus, you listen, simple as that. Next time you see him, I expect you to apologize for any insolence and defiance you threw at him.”

    It took every ounce of willpower and control for Owen to not roll his eyes.

    “Alright,” Owen moved on. “So you guys lived as Legends and helped manage the world. What happened after? How come I became a mutant and you guys ended up here?”

    “…The blight decided it was high time ter rise up, one way er another,” Marshadow said. “It happened real quick. Pokémon were gettin’ corrupted more and more, mostly down south, and suddenly we had a whole army of Pokémon that had the blight in ‘em. They were being led by the Dragon Guardian, last I checked…”

    Owen blinked. “What? The Dragon Guardian? Aramé, right?”

    “Eh? No, Lugia,” Marshadow said. “The blight got ter her somehow, and…” He hummed, concerned. “Well, the attacks practically carved out the country.”

    Carved out echoed in Owen’s mind, and he briefly thought back to where they had discovered Valle. That fissure, called the War’s End, yet the reason behind its name had been lost to time…

    Or had its history been erased?

    “I dunno the full scope o’ that battle,” Marshadow said. “I was a small part. Me and my team—they’re all dead, probably Void Shadows by now—we all fought near the front lines, too. So, I know fer sure Lugia was what ol’ Dark Matter was usin’ as the centerpiece. Made her invincible.”

    “Invincible…” Owen trailed off. “But that’s… I don’t understand. I met Lugia, and she’s one of the nicest Pokémon I ever met! Yeah, a little weird, but…”

    “You met Lugia?” Marshadow said. “How far back?”

    “It hasn’t been all that long before I came here,” Owen said. “Like, only a few weeks ago.”

    Dialga and Marshadow exchanged a grave look. “Then she’s been dormant this whole time. And if Dark Matter’s making moves now… what’s to say he isn’t trying to regain control?”

    “What was the nature of Lugia?” Dialga asked.

    “What do you mean?” Owen didn’t know how to nicely explain Emily’s nature.

    “How powerful was she?”

    “Well…” Owen frowned. “She was a very strong healer. And, er… well, she… I don’t think it’s possible to actually hurt her in a way that matters. If you’re inside her, practically anything you try is nullified.”

    Marshadow blinked. “Wait, repeat that last part?”

    “And she’s supposed to be a healer?” Dialga asked.

    “She… heals you if you’re in close contact. Very close contact.” Owen fidgeted. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

    “She eats people,” Jerry said flatly. “And inside, they heal. Then she pulls them out. It’s disgusting.”

    But despite Jerry’s words, Marshadow’s expression became even darker.

    “It’s a long shot,” Marshadow said, “but… is she bigger on the inside?”

    “She’s big enough!” Jerry shouted, but then lowered his wings, thoughtful. “Then again… I feel like it should’ve been harder to fly around the way I did…”

    “It was bigger on the inside,” Demitri noted. “I thought that was just some Mystic property of her, but the only one who can change around sizes like that is Willow.”

    “And Willow’s the Fairy Guardian,” Owen added. “That power came from her personality and desires, the same way everyone’s powers manifest, right? Emily didn’t seem like someone who’d develop a power that shrinks people down or something.”

    “She was big because she was one of Necrozma’s elite students, just like you,” Marshadow said. “But ter be even bigger inside, like a distortion is balled up in her gut?” He sighed, rubbing his forehead. “…Call it a hunch, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. Lugia—Emily, y’called her? She ain’t a Lugia anymore. Ain’t been one fer a long, long time.”

    “Then… what is she?”

    “Same thing Anam became.” Everyone was silent, all eyes focused on Marshadow. “Dark Matter turned her inter a gateway inter the Voidlands. A living Dungeon.”
     
    Chapter 98 - Overwhelming Forces
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 98 – Overwhelming Forces

    “Gahi, slow down!” Eon shouted, wobbling along in a Charizard form.

    “Dunno what that means,” Gahi replied, his feet not even touching the ground as he glided over the floor of the large-Pokémon evaluation building.

    “It means,” Eon said, panting between breaths, “that you need to let me keep up with you.”

    “Why do you not transform into Gahi and keep up that way?” Trina asked. “After all, do you not typically turn into whatever is on the forefront of your mind?”

    “Yes, and right now, all I can think about is taking care of Owen, and therefore—”

    “Well, consider yourself glad you don’t become a Charmander.” Trina smiled wryly.

    “What—”

    And just then, Eon started to shrink. “No, no, no, don’t say that! You’ll make it happen!”

    “Eh?” Gahi glanced back. “Charmander Charmander Charmander Cha—”

    “STOP!”

    Too late. Eon suddenly fell forward and toppled over, rolling over the ground. Before he could right himself, Gahi swept his tail under Eon and flicked him onto his shoulder.

    “What—how did you do that?” Eon muttered, wobbling with his new, small form.

    “Dunno. I think I did some Psychic pushes ter keep yeh on th’ right path.” Gahi rounded the corner, going past several larger-than-life potted Void plants. These ones looked more like miniature trees and bushes of dark red leaves, in a perpetual, violet autumn.

    “This the one?” Gahi said.

    “What?”

    “Receptionist lady said two doors from th’ right, right.”

    “I didn’t hear that! You were throwing me around!”

    “What, you think I’m good at listenin’?”

    “But you just—”

    The door slid open slowly, with hollow grinding as several gears and pullies within the wall slid the heavy door aside. It was probably meant to be secure enough to keep others from breaking in as well as whatever was inside from breaking out…

    “Yer here,” Marshadow greeted, taking up barely a tenth of the width of the doorway. “C’mon, we were in th’ middle o’ talkin’ about stuff.”

    Owen looked back, and he and Eon made eye contact for an instant. Charmander to Charmander. But in another instant, Owen tore his gaze away, taking some of Eon’s heart with it.

    “We had a breakthrough,” Marshadow said once he took a seat. “Y’know Emily?”

    “Former Dragon Guardian?” Eon asked.

    “How much d’you know ‘bout that?”

    “Wait, that’s the thing she is?!” Gahi said.

    “Yes,” Eon said. “A Decree was disguising it because apparently, she’d once rebelled against Arceus. But after her power was stripped from her and given to the new Dragon Guardian, she was given a second chance. Her past transgressions and her past role would be forgotten, but she could still use her power to save Pokémon lost at sea. Why?”

    “Mostly because all yeh just said was a false story,” Marshadow stated.

    “Arceus lied about that?” Owen said.

    “Preposterous,” Dialga interjected immediately, his booming voice overwhelming all other speakers even if it was his normal speaking tone. “Why would Arceus lie about something like that? Every god has dissenters and opposition, and the fact that Arceus was so merciful as to give her a second chance would be a story he’d happily tell.”

    Eon glanced at Owen, who seemed to be frowning with disapproval, and Eon agreed. Though, at the same time, it did add up. Barky had quite the ego, after all; anything to make him look good, he’d take it, wouldn’t he? Then why hide it at all?

    “This is good,” Marshadow said, getting up from his seat. “Real, real good… I think this discussion is givin’ us real insight on what actually happened here. I don’t think anybody in this room is intentionally lyin’. In fact, I think all you guys think what you just said was the truth.”

    “How’s that possible?” Demitri asked. “Everything that was said… And Marshadow, you said Emily was Dark Matter’s vessel or something, right?”

    “…What?” Eon looked between the crowd, realizing that so many of them were following along—aside from him, Trina, and Gahi.

    Marshadow paced, then pointed at Dialga. “You say Arceus would never hide somethin’ like that from history.”

    “Yes, absolutely. And in fact, I have no recollection of Lugia being anything short of kindhearted and benevolent.”

    “And you say that Lugia rebelled against Arceus and was defeated.” Marshadow pointed to Eon. “And then made to ferget it ever happened, along with the rest o’ th’ world.”

    “Yes, that’s how I… think I remember it…”

    “An’ you,” Marshadow said, looking now at Owen, “say she’s got Dungeon properties about ‘er. A vessel o’ Dark Matter.”

    “I’m still not completely sure about that,” Owen said. “But she is bigger on the inside, and she doesn’t… have—I guess, now that I think about it, she’s a lot like Anam. She’s just some thing in the shape of a Lugia.”

    “Oh.” Mispy suddenly said, and hearing her speak after all that was so surprising that all heads turned to her. Everyone had been so quiet during this theorizing that her voice actually carried across the room.

    “Mispy?” Demitri asked.

    Mispy tried to speak again, but all the eyes on her made her freeze up.

    “It’s okay, Mispy,” Trina said. “Everyone, stop staring at her. Let her gather herself.”

    Demitri held her side and whispered something, and Mispy whispered back.

    The Haxorus widened his eyes. “…Marshadow,” he said slowly, “do you know how Divine Decrees work?”

    “They’re like wishes,” Marshadow said. “World runs on wishes. Little wishes, big wishes, specific wishes, broad wishes… I dunno, ask Jirachi, he’s the expert on that. An’ befer yeh ask, no, he’s in West Null Village, and we’re in South Null Village.”

    “Get to the point,” Jerry said impatiently.

    “Right, yeh.” Marshadow cleared his throat. “One way to conceptualize Pokémon power is with wishes.”

    “You mean like how we use aura to perform our techniques and attacks?” Owen asked.

    “Aura? Heh, sure. Another term is Infinity Energy, but sure, aura. What, yer technique science run by a Lucario er somethin’?”

    “Well, Rhys developed most theories behind how Pokémon techniques work, and he’s a Lucario.”

    Marshadow looked genuinely surprised that he was correct.

    “Rhys…” Dialga murmured. Eon heard it, but nobody else did, and the conversation moved on.

    “We know the lesson already,” Jerry muttered. “Heard it enough in school. Use your power to tap into those techniques you were born with, right? Exercising your aura is no different than exercising your muscles or any other part of your body. What’s this got to do with Decrees?”

    “Well, a Decree isn’t just a wish,” Marshadow said. “It’s a wish that c’n restrict wishes.”

    “I read a book about that once,” Demitri said, tilting his head. “It was about Jirachi being unsealed from sacred stone, and he was going to grant three wishes. But one rule was that they couldn’t wish for more wishes, and there were other restrictions, like they couldn’t wish for love, or death of someone, or—”

    “A Decree is what made those rules,” Marshadow explained simply. “Decrees are rules fer rules. They permeate all reality when they’re made. Originally, a Decree was made ter limit what Pokémon do at all, so you don’t got a Charmander shootin’ Hydro Pumps, er a Haxorus runnin’ Play Rough.

    “A Decree is the law of reality. Yeh can’t break it unless yer strong enough ter rewrite the Decree itself, or yeh got an override. To challenge reality itself.”

    “Like Mystic power,” Owen said. “If I have something that gives me the techniques…”

    “Yep.” Marshadow nodded. “Workarounds, yeh could say. But we’re gettin’ off topic. Meganium, eh… Mispy, was it? How come yer askin’ about those?”

    “Dark… Matter,” Mispy replied after a lot of pausing. When she got those first words out, her eyes hardened. “He made a Decree.”

    “Good,” Marshadow said, nodding. “Th’ fact you came ter the same conclusion makes me think I’m right.”

    “But—you can’t make Decrees unless you have divine power, right?” Owen said. “And a lot! I’m a Mystic and not even I can do those! Star and Barky have most of the power, and the rest is all scattered around the Orbs.”

    “Two Orbs isn’t enough for a Decree, either,” Eon pointed out, gesturing to himself. “I have two, and I’m nowhere near that level of power.”

    “…Hm.” Marshadow looked at Owen. “You mentioned a while back that a Decree sealed your memory, and it broke. What was sealed?”

    “My memory of Kanto,” Owen said. “I even forgot my native language. There’s this feral Zoroark on our team—I started understanding her perfectly after it broke.”

    “How strong were you when that broke?” Marshadow asked.

    “Star possessed me. I think that was enough power in the heat of the moment that it snapped.”

    “Just Mew?”

    “And a little of an Orb.”

    “Then whatever Decree sealed those memories were at least slightly weaker than that amount of power. One god and one Orb. That’s our minimum,” Marshadow said. “We can math this out. What’s the minimum power needed ter make a Decree that can erase Lugia’s true nature from history? If we figure that out, we might have a shot at figuring out the truth. We c’n also say that there’s a maximum befer any o’ this wouldn’t have mattered. If Dark Matter gets enough Hands, he’d’ve won already.”

    “What’s the point of figuring that out?” Jerry asked.

    “Getting info,” Marshadow said simply. “If Dark Matter really did make this Decree he had a reason. He hid info. If we wanna beat him, we gotta get that info back. First thing we gotta do is retrace our steps, and maybe, jus’ maybe, figure out how much power we gotta gather ter break it. It’ll all cascade from there.”

    Mispy was staring pensively downward, and Demitri nudged her gently. Eon didn’t know them as well, but he knew them enough to guess how she was feeling. Mispy wrapped a few vines around his arm and squeezed, still deep in concentration, but needing something tactile to feel and fiddle with. Mispy was very physical like that.

    “Well, he couldn’t have gotten a majority,” Owen said. “More than half of all Hands and Dark Matter would have just beaten us all, right? So he probably had around two-fifths!”

    “No,” Mispy said simply.

    “Eh?”

    “Too hasty.”

    Owen frowned, but Marshadow nodded.

    “Think carefully. Don’t rule that out just yet,” Marshadow hummed.

    Eon frowned; he didn’t understand. If Dark Matter gained over half of all Hands, wouldn’t that have been enough? Sure, there was raw power beyond that, too, like that whole willpower explanation from Manny, but did that apply here? And who would have a greater will than a literal… whatever Dark Matter was?

    That silence hung over the group before they could continue with their theorizing. They trailed along for a little while longer, mostly focused on Owen’s time as a Heart, the sudden resurgence of Guardian sightings and its odd timing, and then Trina mentioning that she doubted it was a coincidence. To this, Marshadow and the others agreed, but just precisely what mechanisms were at play was still hard to puzzle out.

    Owen figured aloud that if they had enough time to sit together and think, they might have found more, or perhaps that was all they could have found. But that didn’t matter; their conference was interrupted by five rapid knocks at the entrance to Dialga’s room.

    “M-Marshadow! Quickly!” called a guard, deep yet cracking with panic.

    “Eh? What?”

    “Aster!”

    That one word made Marshadow’s wispy head turn to green flames. “How long do we got?”

    “Five minutes, at most!”

    Marshadow muttered a quick curse and stared at Owen, then Dialga, then the rest. “Owen, with me. Dialga, do not leave this room. The rest o’ you, scatter. Do whatever in town. Blend in, don’t get noticed. Got it?”

    “What?” Eon asked, but Marshadow did not repeat himself. He instead reached for Owen, held his hand firmly, and pulled him along and out of Dialga’s room. Eon yelled for him to get back, but the confusion and sudden urgency left him standing with everyone else.

    <><><>​

    Marshadow ran Owen along the roads of Null Village’s residential district. Pokémon of varying sizes and evolution levels, most of them at their lower or middle forms, watched Marshadow with worried curiosity. The intensity of his flames made them quicken their pace to find a place to take shelter. Rumors of Aster arriving spread faster than Marshadow’s pacing through town.

    Down one of the paved clay roads, Marshadow stopped when he saw a familiar and trustworthy face.

    “Oi! Xypher!”

    The Corviknight chirped, having just exited a small building with an entrance just the right size for him. The crystals that embedded the walls were all a bright silver.

    “I need yeh ter keep Owen safe, y’hear? Safe and inside yer place.”

    “Safe? Safe, safe?”

    “Aster’s coming and we gotta make sure he doesn’t get a look. You and Hakk have a place ter hide yer stuff, right?”

    Xypher shifted nervously, like he wasn’t supposed to answer.

    “What’s going on?” Hakk called from inside. The icy Sandslash stepped beside Xypher and closed the door behind him.

    “Ain’t any time,” Marshadow said. “Hide Owen in yer place. Aster won’t think ter look there, fer one, since this is just some random home out in the residential district.”

    “What do you—”

    “Hide!” Marshadow conjured a large, shadowy hand from the ground that tossed Owen into Hakk’s claws, who had cradled him on reflex. Owen blushed under his scales and Hakk dropped him.

    After some quick movements, Hakk and Xypher headed back inside to leave Owen, saying for him to stay put for the time being and not go outside. Apparently, they had errands to run, and the best way to keep Owen safe for now was to keep him someplace indiscriminate. While Owen was nervous about being on his own in this home, he also figured that, at least statistically, the chances of this ‘Aster’ finding him in the residential district among the many other buildings was astronomically small.

    “We’ll be back after we get some groceries,” Hakk said. “Don’t go outside. The walls should keep Aster from looking inside for mind reading or anything.”

    “What? How?”

    “Insulated walls. Privacy, y’know?”

    “You guys have that here too?”

    “Something tells me Null Village is more advanced than Kilo.” Hakk dismissed Owen with a shooing wave and stepped out with Xypher.

    <><><>​

    Marshadow stopped near the center of Null Village, where the great anti-Titan spire loomed above all the other buildings. It was a dark obsidian color, embedded with several crystals in a lattice pattern in a rainbow gradient of colors. Near the top, the crystals stopped, replaced instead by thin lines that glowed dimly with its radiant power. The bottom of the spire was the width of a great oak tree, with several control modules on the southern side, though it didn’t activate nor even reveal itself without the right person in front of it. It was mostly for overrides anyway; the spire was controlled remotely from the lookout towers instead.

    The spire sat in the central plaza, behind a gate that Pokémon were not allowed to tread unless they had authorization. Even Marshadow did not enter if he didn’t have to, if only for safety; the spire’s energy was extraordinary. So, Marshadow stood about ten feet away from the spire, eyes skyward as he waited for Aster’s arrival. Any second, now.

    “Marshadow, is he there yet?”

    Marshadow pulled out his badge and spoke into it. “Nope. How many seconds?”

    “Are you sure? He’s right there!”

    Marshadow stared at the badge, then sighed, eyes closed. “Aster,” he said aloud. “No tricks, c’mon.”

    Someone giggled from the other side of the spire.

    He was not in the mood to be playing one of Aster’s games. A hyper Aster was an unpredictable Aster. Though, he supposed it was better than an Aster who was afraid of getting in trouble with Alexander; then they wouldn’t be able to distract him. Perhaps he should count his blessings.

    “An’ to what do I owe yer visit this time? If yer waitin’ on Null Village taxes, we sent ‘em a few days ago.” Marshadow sank into the ground and swiftly dashed around the spire, where he saw a flicker of light and a bit of the Mewtwo’s tail before it disappeared.

    “No, no, we got those!” Aster replied, now on the original side of the spire Marshadow had been. “Where’d you go?”

    Marshadow hopped out of the ground and casually walked around. “Was lookin’ fer yeh. Alright, so not taxes. What fer?”

    “You need to give me whoever did that really powerful Infinity Energy explosion!”

    “Eh?” Marshadow mentally cursed; Alexander had noticed. Still, Aster wasn’t a good mind reader. Marshadow knew how to defend against even the subtlest mental invasions. Type advantage or not, Aster wouldn’t find out if he tried to peek.

    “Yeah, Down south in the Nil Plateaus! Big, big explosion of energy, way more than what a Z-Spire can do! So what is it, huh? Who did it? Is it someone really cool? Or a new weapon?! It’d be really great to use when Alexander’s too busy to take down Titans on his own!”

    “Dunno what yeh mean by all that,” Marshadow said. “Been sending scouts around down there ter gather up spirits that fell from th’ sky. Maybe something happened.”

    “Scouts, huh?” Aster flicked his tail, his eyes gleaming with curiosity. “How long does it take for all your scouts to come back?”

    “Their trips can go from days to weeks,” Marshadow said.

    “Oh. Well, how about the strong ones? I dunno if Alexander can wait that long…”

    Cornered. But it would buy them time. Aster was looking for someone powerful. Alexander knew. If they had a decoy, or an excuse, maybe that would work, but right now they needed time, and if he could at least keep Aster from looking around town…

    “Maybe a week,” Marshadow said. And this was true, even if the premise was a lie. “Send Alexander a message saying that. A week. If he wants ter be mad, he c’n be mad at me.”

    And at this, Aster’s happy gleam had dulled a little. Good, that vulnerability was still there.

    “What, was he cross with yeh?” Marshadow prodded.

    “No,” Aster replied immediately. “Alexander’s always friendly. He’s just a little strict because he cares a lot for Cipher City and the Void Kingdom! So, I have to work extra-hard to make sure he’s happy, because he works extra hard!”

    Marshadow gave a disapproving frown, making sure he exaggerated his features. Aster understood those easier. “I really wish he wasn’t so hard on yeh. Yer doin’ yer best.”

    “No, he’s fine!” Aster said desperately, and then he laughed wildly. “Alexander’s funny! I stole his desk and he said he’d count to three, and it was fun because then he gave me a mission where I could do anything I wanted as long as I brought back the source of that power!”

    “Anything?” Marshadow repeated.

    “Mhm! And then he leaned all close and smiled and said, aaaanything!”

    Marshadow let the silence sink in.

    “So,” Aster said, immediately trying to fill it, “that’s why I have to.”

    “Have to,” Marshadow replied, nodding. “Yeah, I guess that’s how it is. Don’t wanna have Alexander punish you.”

    While he probably didn’t mean it, Aster had let out a squeak anyway, and that happy façade melted like butter in a desert. He hastily slathered it back on. “I’m gonna get to do anything I want!” He smiled wider than ever, but his eyes reminded Marshadow of Class Ds trying to fake recollections to fool themselves.

    “You want a place to stay until then?” Marshadow offered. “Yeh c’n stay at my place.”

    “No,” Aster said, spinning around rapidly as he leaned back. “I’m gonna look for, uhhh… a cool place where I can strike cool poses!”

    “Well, alright,” Marshadow said. “you know where I live if yeh wanna relax a li’l. Don’t ferget ter tell Alexander.”

    And again, Marshadow saw that hesitant look in Aster’s eyes. Now he knew that Aster was hoping to get in and out. He was going to get desperate if things weren’t careful, but…

    “How about you tell him?” Aster asked with that same, cheerful tone. “You’re way more articulate than I am and stuff!”

    “Would he approve that?” Marshadow asked. “Dunno if he’s real happy with my, eh, articulate way o’ talkin’ an’ all that.”

    “It’s okay!” And before Marshadow could object further, something landed in Marshadow’s free hand—Aster’s badge. Still good with Teleporting, it seemed.

    With a suppressed groan, Marshadow navigated the badge’s interface, knowing that if he did anything suspicious, Aster would panic. Without any shenanigans, he went to the contacts menu and—

    “Okay.” Marshadow didn’t know what he expected. “Which one is Alexander?”

    Grumpybutt. Pewpew. Hackerslasher. These nicknames were absurd.

    “Oh, you need to pick Darkeyes!”

    Wordlessly, Marshadow initiated the conversation and waited for an answer. It showed what appeared to be a doodle of a Haxorus for the profile picture, which pulsed with a little white ring as it waited for a response.

    “Aster,” called a voice that gripped Marshadow’s chest with ice.

    He refused to let it show in his voice. “Aster wanted me ter call. He’s right by me.”

    “Hi, King!”

    “Why?”

    “Yer really gonna ask?” Marshadow said.

    Alexander growled lowly. “Speak with respect. Why did you call me?”

    “From what Aster told me, he’s here ter get the source o’ some great power detected way down south, right?”

    “He is to get the most powerful entity he can find there, which is going to be the source of that unprecedented spike of energy.”

    “Yeh, figured.” Marshadow looked to Aster, who smiled, though he looked very relieved. The Mewtwo’s eyes looked tired, and Marshadow couldn’t help but feel pity.

    “And how long will you be stalling?” Alexander said.

    “Ain’t like that. They’re still out on a scouting mission, and it ain’t gonna be an easy call back that far out. They’re scheduled ter return in a week. What’s the plan?”

    “Then they will return in a week?”

    “Yeh. Well, around a week. If yeh wanna be safe, ten days.”

    “Aster.”

    “Yes!” Aster straightened and saluted nothing.

    “For each day wasted, kill one resident.”

    “Oi, hold on,” Marshadow said, masking his panic with anger. “It ain’t their fault they’re on a scouting mission. They’re doin’ their thing as fast as they can!”

    “I know you are lying.”

    It was a bluff. It had to be a bluff. So Marshadow would bluff back. “Look, you’ve got one of the Voidlands’ strongest standin’ right next to me with a giant type advantage ter boot. Why’m I gonna lie? All yer gonna do is stir up unrest and then it’ll make future collabs worse.”

    “Send your fastest scouts to get the ones out there to bring them back,” Alexander said. “How much will that reduce the wait?”

    “I dunno the numbers off the top of my head fer that. We can’t spread our resources thin without risking the village.”

    “You really want to take this lie to the end, do you?”

    “I ain’t lyin’,” Marshadow snarled. “Don’t go making orders ter kill my people.” Marshadow felt his flames turning green. In the rush of it all, he let slip something that, even as he said it, he wondered if he should have kept it inside. But instead, he let it go anyway, fueled by so much pent-up anger. “If Aster tries, I’ll fight ‘m back myself, and then we’ll see if you’ll ever get cooperation from me again.”

    Silence from the other end. Marshadow’s flames were humming in his ears. If Alexander gave the order, he’d be fighting a Mewtwo in seconds. If he didn’t die then, Alexander would send Leph. He’d be fighting God’s forgotten daughter. And if he somehow, somehow evaded that, he’d have to deal with that Treecko. He wasn’t prepared for that.

    Aster looked nervous, shifting from left to right, and the soft sting of Psychic waves ran across Marshadow’s back. Yes. Marshadow knew he was readying for an order he did not want to follow.

    “Aster.”

    “Yes!” This time, it was a squeak, and he did not salute.

    “If powerful scouts do not return in five days, take Marshadow instead.”

    “Okay. Five days!” Aster looked visibly relieved, but his voice didn’t show it. That same old enthusiasm.

    “I’m sure you will figure out how to get them back by then, Marshadow. Do not call me again unless they’ve returned early.”

    And then it disconnected.

    Aster’s shoulders slumped over, but when Marshadow turned to face him fully, he straightened right back up. “He’s nice, isn’t he?” Aster beamed.

    Marshadow didn’t return the false smile. Instead, he stared up at the strange Legend, green flames finally returning to their wispy black. Aster continued to smile—even wider than before, in fact—and finally Marshadow sighed.

    “Hey,” he said. “How about yeh come back ter my place and rest?”

    “Oh, sure!”

    “It ain’t far,” Marshadow gestured for him to follow, and indeed, it wasn’t very far. After a short walk down the roads, which were barren from all the Pokémon holing themselves up in the nearest building they could find. Marshadow was glad that Hakk and Xypher lived on a different street; he didn’t have to take any suspicious routes.

    He approached a building embedded with crystals, most of them a deep, spectral purple. “Hope the colors don’t bother yeh too much,” he said, pressing a hand against the wall. An imprint glowed against the obsidian stone, which faded a second later when the door slid open. He gestured for Aster to enter first, and then Marshadow followed.

    The second the door closed, Aster’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. Marshadow didn’t acknowledge it; instead, he headed to the fridge, kicked it open, and tossed Aster a small container of Pecha juice. Without looking, Aster caught it in a gentle Psychic grip.

    “You remembered,” Aster said, his voice suddenly soft and noticeably deeper. “I love this flavor.”

    “Eh, I don’t, but they come in variety packs. Save ‘em fer last when I’m desperate, may’s well give ‘em ter you.” Marshadow pulled out a Cheri soda next. “Make yerself at home, relax a little” he added. Not like yer allowed to anywhere else.

    “Oh, but I’m always relaxed!” Aster said, his voice defiantly energetic and squeaky.

    Marshadow tilted his head, but then nodded. “He can’t hear yeh.”

    “I—I know,” Aster replied, his eyes dulling. “But I’m always relaxed. Well, not relaxed, I’m energetic, but I’m always happy.”

    “Never said yeh weren’t.”

    Aster’s jaw clenched. He looked down, squeezing his fingers; he couldn’t maintain eye contact with Marshadow. “I’m… happy. I have to be. And smiling is fine. It’s just a smile, right?”

    Marshadow frowned, deciding that this was not something he would be able to fight on his own. “Juice’ll get warm.”

    “Right.”

    Marshadow left the Mewtwo to his own devices, quietly wondering if there was a way he could use his mask against him. Aster didn’t want to fight for Alexander, but he was also afraid to fight against him. How could he get Aster to cooperate and not scare him into complying with the orders?

    Marshadow hopped onto a cushion several times his size and sank in, closing his eyes.

    Five days… Aster would have no choice after that.

    <><><>​

    The skies of Kilo’s oceans were black with a shadowy storm. Occasionally, bright violet lightning bolts crossed the clouds and struck the water, and Rhys could only hope that the aquatic Pokémon had long since sought refuge in the depths or far away from this part of the world.

    The rain was weakly ebbing, and that was going to be the best opportunity they had to get out while they could.

    Rhys had lost track of the days, but it had been more than enough to lose his mind from some mixture of anxiousness and boredom, only able to temper himself with idle chats with Brandon in person and Elder from afar. Arceus was insufferable and he didn’t bother.

    Tanneth hadn’t moved at all from within her tiny capsule, and showed no willingness to emerge even after all this time. She needed immediate medical attention, and the only thing possibly keeping her alive was the ball’s properties putting her in some kind of semi-stasis.

    Rhys wasn’t the only one leaving. Arceus had given an order, after observing the storm from Destiny Tower through some kind of far-sight, to leave the factory. This surprised and unnerved Brandon, but the instruction to gather the strongest and most operational Poké Balls meant that Arceus still had his basic mission in mind, even if he still wasn’t sure why he needed them.

    “Guess this’ll do,” Brandon said, holding a bag that was filled nearly to bursting with miniaturized spheres. “You got Tanneth?”

    “I do.”

    “Alright, now where’s Hecto—oh, wait, no, he’s not around anymore…”

    Rhys didn’t recall seeing a Hecto anywhere around the factory. That was always strange, and he finally asked, “Do you know where he went?”

    “No clue. Saw him running off, so he probably went for a swim and never came back… Kinda weird. He’s not all that strong, but he’s probably got enough energy to get to the mainland after a few days.”

    Rhys wondered if Hecto knew Star had disappeared. While stoic, the Zygarde certainly would feel distraught about that, wouldn’t he? What would he be doing all this time?

    “Let’s go,” Brandon said, “before the dark rain starts up again.”

    “Of course.”

    Most of his strength had returned, so the flight was much faster than Hecto’s hypothetical swimming trip. Rhys learned once they could see the horizon that they had left at the top of noon, and their flight—courtesy of Brandon’s flying steel plates—took the bulk of the day. Rhys occasionally tried to communicate with Tanneth, reading her aura from within, but she did not want to emerge. Elder helped pass the time with more small talk, his voice feeling closer and closer with each second.

    Speaking with him was nostalgic, in a way. So many decades with nothing but telepathy to link them. Being away for a few days shouldn’t have bothered him, but he missed the Torkoal’s warmth.

    The stormy skies were behind them, but were unsettlingly still along the horizon. Much closer than before at this point. Was half the world under this shroud of darkness, now? Would it expand, or would it stay put now that Arceus could deflect it?

    That was what he planned to do, right?

    “Hey, look. Land,” Brandon commented, snapping Rhys out of his thoughts to look down. No more ocean, only a brief strip of sandy beach, and then the southern forests. They had passed by Zero Isle Spiral without him realizing. To the right was the now emptied Chasm of the Void, and far to the left, beyond the horizon, was Void Basin. It was so strange to be back on land after so many days of recovery.

    “Land indeed,” Rhys said, looking at Tanneth’s Poké Ball. The sooner they could get her healed, the better.

    They flew the rest of the way in silence aside from some idle comments to break it up. Brandon would comment on the trees and how green it was, and how that unnerved him. He asked Rhys if his Steel body would throw anyone off, and Rhys said probably not, since there were already a few abnormal Pokémon around thanks to the company they keep. Still, looking normal would be wise as well, since he could be mistaken for a mutant.

    Brandon hesitated, then relented, though he also added that he hadn’t gone to his normal form in a very long time. He spent the next few minutes poking his own arms, frowning at the sudden give it had.

    When they landed in the southern entrance to Kilo Village, Rhys got off first with shaky steps. The entrance was a wide crevice in the mountainside that allowed for easy entry after a bit of a climb. Brandon had the courtesy to land near the top, where, at the bottom of Kilo Mountain’s steep crater edge, a Torkoal waited. Despite how far away he was, Rhys felt his smile and conjured what aura energy he could to slide down in a makeshift sled.

    He ignored Brandon’s ‘showoff’ comment and hopped off with a graceful landing, followed by a small stumble.

    “Elder,” Rhys breathed, and then he let out a strained laugh. “Elder…”

    “Rest, Rhys,” the giant Torkoal cooed. He turned, letting Rhys press his head against his shell, and then smiled at Brandon. “Good to see you as well… Brandon, was it?”

    “Yeah.” Brandon looked him over. “…Weird pair. But y’know, I think I see why you two got together.” Then, he clapped his hands together and said, “Anyway! Glad to see you. Steel Guardian, yadda yadda, hey, where can I drop off these things where absolutely nobody can get to them?” He raised his inventory of capsules. “Arceus calls it insurance. Who knows? Maybe we can catch Emily in one or something if we play our cards right. Just need to figure out how to get close…”

    “Ye—”

    “Elder!”

    From behind, an Incineroar stepped toward the Torkoal and slowed once he was at speaking distance. “We have a somewhat… urgent problem. Are you busy?” He nodded to Rhys. “It’s good to see your return.”

    “Of course, er…”

    “Phol,” the Incineroar introduced. Then, looking back to Elder and barely acknowledging Brandon, he said, “Elder, our main food supply lines have stopped.”

    “What?”

    Rhys looked between them, feeling the urge to step forward. He didn’t even take one step when Brandon held his shoulder, giving him a disapproving look. Rhys growled, but relented and let Phol continue.

    “Eastern supplies have stopped for three days. We’re supposed to get them daily, and if this keeps up, Kilo Village will run out of food within another three. There’s a chance that mutants caused some problems on the supply line, or… Yotta Outskirts itself.”

    “Yotta Outskirts?” Brandon said. “What’s that, major supply line?”

    “Largest farmland in Kilo,” Phol said. “When Waypoints broke, it was essentially our primary source of food since it was nearby and along easy paths. But now that supplies have stopped, our reserve foods are rapidly running out.”

    “What have you done already?” Elder asked.

    “I gathered some talents to come with me to investigate,” Phol said. “I don’t think I’m needed at the hospital for now. I trained some new staff and they’ve caught on, and it’s not like I know any healing techniques. I’ll be fighting if I need to.” He frowned. “I’m also going to bring Angelo for flight and utility. Seems to always have a technique ready when we need it, and right now food is a higher priority than healing.”

    “Hang on, hang on, healing?” Brandon asked. “How many of you guys’re hurt?”

    “A lot. The wounds that mutants deal are much more long-lasting than typical injuries. Not to mention, anybody injured by wraiths in Dungeons are no better.” Phol grunted, looking down. “Blessed items are rare and rationed. I’m pushing for more of them to be used on civilians, but the Hearts do still need a supply of them for rescues. And there are just too many missing Pokémon that we’re starting to triage missions.”

    “Right.” Brandon stepped forward, glancing skyward. “I can help.”

    “What?”

    Brandon raised his bag. “This technology can preserve dying Pokémon until they can be safely healed. Don’t ask where it came from. Does it matter? No? Then bring me to the hospital and I’ll preserve your most severely injured Pokémon. After that, send me to wherever the most missions there are and I’ll clear out the whole place. I’m stronger than I look.”

    “You’re not even fully evolved, how can you—”

    “What did I just say?” Brandon snapped.

    Phol and Brandon stared at one another, wordless for a few intense seconds. There was a hint of recognition between the two of them.

    “Do you know where Pyrock Village is?” Phol asked.

    “You have a map?”

    Phol pointed to the Heart building, which—despite everything—still stood strong. It was a constant reminder to Kilo that they could still stick together even in the toughest times, and despite the Elites’ absence, and the Heart of Hearts himself, they could carry on and forward.

    “Do you need anybody else to go with you?” Phol asked.

    “I’ve got a team.”

    “You do?” Phol looked Brandon over, but then added, “Never mind. I’m not questioning it. The past half-moon has been nothing but strange Pokémon after strange Pokémon coming out from whatever hole you spawned from. Do what you want.” He nodded at Brandon, then said turned after a few more parting words with Elder.

    “He seems busy,” Brandon commented. “Nurse and explorer?”

    “Mm. Quite a few talents,” Elder said. “He used to have aspirations to go into exploring, and I’m certain he would have passed the exams. I remember seeing him training as a youth. But at some point, something changed… and he became a nurse instead. He doesn’t really have the species for it… but, well, as the Book of Mew states, we should not let that restrict the dreams of a soul, hm?”

    “Well, if he’s still got the job, he must’ve found some way to make it work,” Brandon said. “Right, hospital. Point me there. We gotta get this one looked at, too.” Brandon showed Elder one of the Poké Balls. “Emily’s… whatever she is, Tanneth, the Vaporeon? Not sure what their relationship is but she was badly hurt. Not normal injuries, either. If there’s anything you guys can do to help that out…”

    “Of course.” Elder nodded to Rhys. “Lead him there. I will catch up.”

    They all departed, though Rhys made one last glance to the south. The horizon was dark with shadowy clouds, but it wasn’t advancing. Not yet.
     
    Chapter 99 - Together Again
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 99 – Together Again

    Owen didn’t know what to do with himself for a while within Hakk and Xypher’s home. He didn’t even know they’d lived together. So much had happened in the past few minutes that he didn’t know where to begin with processing it, so he instead explored his temporary hideout.

    The furniture was similar to what he’d had in his room during evaluations, though a few tools and decorations seemed specialized for Hakk or Xypher specifically. Certainly, the gigantic bowls were meant for Xypher, and there seemed to be an abundance of towels. Somehow, Owen figured he would be a messy eater. There was a sharpening post nearby that was probably for Hakk, and Owen wondered if he could use his claws on those if he asked…

    “It was this one.”

    Owen blinked, glancing at the entrance. Was that Gahi? He sounded far away.

    “Guys?” Owen called, but he didn’t speak up enough. He scampered to the doorway, but he was too short to get to the button to unlock the door. This house was discriminating against his stature!

    Even when he jumped as high as he could, he couldn’t quite reach the button.

    “Hey! You in there?” Gahi called, and Owen heard knocking… on their neighbor’s door.

    “I don’t think he’s in there,” Demitri said.

    “Shh,” Mispy said.

    “Can’t yeh just look fer his aura? C’mon,” Gahi growled.

    “Can’t.”

    “Why not?”

    “The walls…”

    “Insulated,” Demitri finished.

    Owen slammed his fist against the door. “Guys! Wrong house!”

    “Eh?”

    “Idiot,” Mispy grumbled.

    “Oops… wrong house.” Demitri’s voice got louder.

    “Oi, Owen!” Gahi knocked what might have been his fist, or his head, or maybe his tail, against the door. “Open up!”

    “I can’t.”

    “What? Are they keepin’ you imprisoned in there?!”

    “No! I, uh, I just… can’t reach the button to open it.”

    Silence.

    “Okay, well…” Gahi stumbled over his words, “Demitri, how about you force it open?”

    “I—I’m not gonna do that!”

    “Well how else’re we gonna get in?”

    “…Wait for Hakk,” Mispy deadpanned.

    “That’s the smart answer,” Gahi growled. “I ain’t gonna wait that long.”

    “But shouldn’t we do the smart answer?” Demitri asked. “The door might be expensive to make, and, um…”

    “Maybe there’s a window we can get in through…”

    “Too big,” Mispy said. “And you have to break in.”

    “Well, mister muscle here ain’t gonna do it!”

    “Sorry…”

    Owen was, at this point, repeatedly bumping his forehead against the door.

    “Alright, I got an idea,” Gahi said. “Hang on, Owen!”

    “What? Gahi, if you’re going to break anything, don’t. Hakk and Xypher are just normal Pokémon here!” He frantically scanned the room for something to reach the button with. “Some of this stuff looks really expensive!”

    “Aaah, I ain’t gonna do nothin’ bad!”

    This did not bode well.

    “There! See? Easy.”

    “Gah!” Owen spun around; Gahi was inside the building without ceremony. “What! How did—”

    “Teleported hard. Worked before.” Gahi explained, stepping to the door to press the button. Owen had a strong suspicion that Gahi made a fifty-fifty shot at which one was the one to open it, and guessed correctly.

    “I thought these buildings had a bunch of insulation to prevent that kind of thing,” Owen said.

    “Like I said”—Gahi flicked his tail, pleased that the door opened—“worked before. Guess I’m special.”

    “Might be the Psychic Orb that makes you stronger than the insulation,” Owen concluded.

    “Feh, ruin my fun.” Gahi paced around the room, familiarizing himself with the new environment.

    “Don’t—don’t open anything randomly,” Owen hastily advised. “No touching. We’re guests here, okay?”

    “Fine, fine.”

    “What are you guys doing here, anyway?” Owen asked when Demitri, last to enter, closed the door with another button push. “I’m trying to hide from someone that Alexander sent here, so I don’t think showing up to the building I’m in is a good idea.”

    “Well, maybe.” Gahi looked off. “But we wanted ter see yeh anyway. Moral support.”

    “Gahi didn’t trust Marshadow,” Mispy translated.

    “We followed from away,” Demitri added. “And it was a calculated risk Mispy made as leader while you’re away. If Marshadow sold you out, we’d be here to give you a chance to escape.”

    “Well, that’s…” Owen tried to find an objection he hadn’t already raised. Eventually, he smiled and sighed. “Well, that’s good. I guess I was getting bored anyway.”

    The other three smiled back, and Owen tried to keep up his grin, but it faltered a little. And his flame was dim, too, once again giving himself away.

    Silent expressions said it all, little flashes of concern in their eyes. Then Owen looked away, urging them not to worry. Yet they continued to stare.

    “And,” Demitri broke that tense silence, “it’s been a while since we got to just hang around as Team Alloy, y’know?”

    “Yeah…” Owen looked down.

    The silence returned and he felt their eyes on him.

    Gahi, perhaps not knowing what to say, went back to wandering around the house, entering and exiting rooms several times to keep moving.

    “Tell us what’s bothering you,” Mispy commanded, her voice soft as ever, but the words instilled an authority that Owen thought he was supposed to have as the technical Alloy leader.

    “You don’t mince your words, do you?” Owen mumbled, scaling one of the oversized beanbag seats.

    “Pretty hard to when she’s only got a few ter say,” Gahi commented, and then ducked, narrowly dodging a vine jabbing the air where his head had been.

    Owen stifled a laugh and curled up on a cushion, fixing his eyes between the three. Mispy was right; she didn’t need to read auras to tell. His flame probably gave it away well enough. All this time, with Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi all part of this fight, this whole Guardian business, the Mystics, and then the Voidlands, and now his recent memories…

    “Are you overwhelmed by all this?” Demitri asked softly. “I can’t blame you. If I even had a fraction of all this circling directly around me, I dunno what I’d do. I might just… not do anything.”

    The Haxorus settled down next to Owen’s cushion and delicately curled his tail away from it so he didn’t accidentally cut the stuffing out. Mispy slid next to him and rested her head on Owen’s other side, looking at his tail. Owen quickly pulled it toward his chest in an effort to hide it.

    Demitri had it wrong. If anything, he was getting used to how much this whole crisis was apparently trying to use him as a key to it all. Between Star, Eon, and now Marshadow, he knew he was being used for everyone’s personal gain one way or another. That was fine. He was used to it. And he knew that it gave him power; he could choose who he wanted to help.

    Gone were the days that he’d let others push him around—and, in a way, he appreciated Marshadow being so open. So far, he had no reason to doubt that Marshadow was doing things to help Owen, too, rather than just himself. Perhaps it was for the greater good of the world? To get out of the Voidlands?

    No, there was something else bothering him, and they weren’t going to leave him alone unless he spoke up about it. Maybe telling them directly would help, too.

    “It’s not that,” Owen said, and by now even Gahi had settled down next to him. While Demitri was on Owen’s left, and Mispy was curled around the back and his right, Gahi sat near the front and left of him, with Owen near the center.

    “Yeah, y’know,” Gahi said, “you’ve been acting real different lately. Not as… y’know, cheery. Your eyes ain’t as bright.”

    Owen looked at Gahi incredulously. “Not as bright?”

    “Yeah. Like, I dunno. You look confused, er somethin’.”

    “Confused…” His gaze trailed to the cushion.

    “I noticed it a little, too,” Demitri admitted. “Just, emotionally, you… I—I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t try to dissect how you’re feeling; that’s… rude of me. Sorry.”

    “You’re just worried,” Owen assuaged.

    Mispy tilted her head, looking Owen over. She said nothing but her eyes asked him to go on.

    “…I don’t know if I know you anymore.” Owen curled up a little tighter. He couldn’t look at them directly.

    “Eh?” Gahi said. “Aw, c’mon, you didn’t lose yer memories again, did yeh?”

    “No,” Mispy said for Owen, and her voice had enough understanding that Owen could let her—slowly—do the talking for him. “It’s because… you’re getting them back.”

    “Eh?” Gahi said once again, then looked demandingly toward Owen. “What’s that supposed to mean? How can you know us less when you get more memories back?”

    Finally, Owen raised his head. “You aren’t in them.”

    When nobody said anything, he went on.

    “I’m native to Kanto. A world with humans and Pokémon who live side by side. They fight together, in a way. It’s… complicated. And my human partner… was Eon. And… you weren’t there. And I just know, just by the feeling I get when I look at you, think about you, that you won’t show up. You guys… aren’t from Kanto. You weren’t ever my partners there. You’re native to Kilo. I’m…” Owen laughed a little. “I’m not—”

    “Stop.” Mispy held a vine to Owen’s shoulder, firmly, practically digging the thorns into his scales. “That’s enough.”

    “But I’m not—”

    Enough.” Mispy shook him, then pressed him into the cushions.

    “Mispy…” Demitri held her side, and finally Owen got a look at her expression.

    Her eyes shined, but Owen couldn’t tell what they shined from. They weren’t tears; she wasn’t crying. Maybe she was holding them back? But there was some concern in them, too. And maybe annoyance.

    “I think what Mispy’s try’na say,” Gahi went on, “is, why does that matter?”

    “What do you mean?” Owen said. “You three were together before meeting me. That’s something that I…” Owen felt it in his core. He knew, when he said it, that this was true, some locked away memory he’d yet to recover. “I know you three used to be some kind of trio before all this mutant business. And I was just… there. I’m not part of your lives. I—”

    “Well, that’s a pretty big leap,” Gahi growled, narrowing his eyes. “How did ya get from ‘We were a trio’ to ‘I don’t belong,’ eh?” He leaned forward, prodding Owen in the chest, and Owen tried to push him away with an annoyed grunt. “Teams get new members, y’know. What’s all that Guardian business? We were getting new folks all the time!”

    “I…” When outlined like that, Owen wasn’t sure why he thought of it that way.

    “This… this is more than just us as a team, isn’t it?” Demitri asked.

    “I don’t know.” Owen slumped over, breathing a small ember in nobody’s direction. “I’ve spent so much time with everyone trying to keep us apart. Specifically, me from you three. To the point where you guys completely forgot about me for lifetimes, and I forgot about you guys. So then when we’re finally together, after everything keeps trying to tear us apart… I start finding out that we were never really together to begin with?”

    There it was. Owen could tell because suddenly his chest hurt and his eyes were hot.

    “What kind of joke is that?” Owen laughed, but he could only imagine the anguished face he was giving them all. “I was fighting so much for something that ended up being nothing. Everything I’ve been fighting for was just—”

    A vine smashed Owen across the face. Vines cut his scales and his head started ringing. A thin trickle of blood ran down his cheek, and his tears stung the new wound. He stared, wide-eyed, at Mispy. Gahi didn’t react; if anything, he’d been thinking the same. Demitri, stunned, looked ready to stop Mispy if she did that a second time.

    “Feeling better?” Mispy asked, frowning as she inspected the vine that had struck him. Orange scales decorated part of its side.

    Owen ran his hand against his cheek, staring at his bloodied hand. Not much of a wound, all things considered. And the sting was a distraction at most.

    Owen brought his hand down, staring emptily downward. “A little,” he finally admitted.

    “Good.” Mispy huffed, then wrapped another set of vines around Owen to pull him close.

    Gahi stared enviously.

    “I—I think what Mispy means,” Demitri said, “is, er, that she wanted to snap you out of it. But, um, Mispy, I think Rhys said we aren’t supposed to be violent like that.”

    “He’s like us,” Mispy said simply, pulling him closer. The pressure made it hard to breathe and Owen tried to pull away, but a part of him didn’t want to. “Nobody else is here.”

    “I—yes, but,” Demitri started, but couldn’t find his conclusion.

    He’s like us. It echoed in Owen’s mind. Mispy always knew just what to say.

    “Mispy’s right,” Owen said, laughing. “Hitting someone and making them bleed would just make things worse for anyone but us. We’re… violent little monsters, after all. Built to fight. A-and…” He laughed a little more. “It’s funny. I used to be the same way back then, too. Pokémon in Kanto loved to fight. We healed from wounds so easily; we understood each other through fighting. I wonder… why that happens. Why wild Pokémon are like that, yet Pokémon in Kilo aren’t.”

    Mispy relaxed her hold. “Analytical,” she remarked.

    “Huh?”

    Demitri held down a giggle. “She means you’re getting analytical again. It means you’re feeling better.”

    Owen stumbled over his words; Gahi laughed, breaking the relative quiet. “Back ter theorizin’ already, huh?”

    At this point, Owen was tripping over his words more than Mispy. “Yes, I—I mean, what else would—I know you—that’s—”

    The three laughed while Owen tried to find a way to hide behind his hands. Gahi reached over and held Owen from behind.

    “Look, I don’t care what yer past was. What matters is now. And now? Yer Team Alloy’s leader. An’ from here on, I’m not gonna let us get separated fer longer than we need to. I’m done with all that.”

    “Deal?” Mispy asked, holding a vine forward. “Thousand Hearts?”

    “Oh!” Demitri fell in, placing a hand on Mispy’s vine next.

    “…What’re you doing?” Gahi asked, but Mispy wrapped another vine around Gahi’s wrist and forced it in. He scowled, but didn’t pull away.

    It had only been a few seconds of staring, but he didn’t want that little, simple, silly moment to end. Just the four of them, with nobody to watch their display. It was for the team and no one beyond. For him, to make the trio into a quartet.

    The three of them, watching him with eyes pleading, confident, and hopeful, Owen thought for that brief second that it was true. That was all he needed.

    The Charmander’s hand was so tiny among their fully evolved forms that he had to really lean forward to get in.

    “Alright, team,” Owen said firmly. “I think we should, uh…” No, no, keep up the momentum. “Figure out our next steps.”

    “Next steps?” Demitri asked, breaking formation as he crossed his arms. “As in, how to fight Dark Matter?”

    “Nah, he means how ter get out,” Gahi said.

    “…Fight Aster?” Mispy theorized.

    “There’s a lot on our plate,” Owen agreed with all of them. “I think the first thing we need to do is figure out everything we have at our disposal.”

    He settled back down. The wind of his original momentum was gone, but now he was carried forward by the need to plan.

    They no longer had Rhys to tell them where to go. He didn’t have Amia to guide him forward. They had Marshadow, who was at the whims of a higher authority, and an entire town held hostage. He knew nothing about Aster or Alexander personally, but the way Marshadow behaved, it was clear that his true interest was protecting this town.

    So, Marshadow wouldn’t be able to help them escape. As nice as he was, there was a chance that he would cave if, for example, Alexander decided to come to Null Village himself. He did not blame Marshadow for any of this, but on a practical level, they could not trust him.

    Owen quietly expressed this to the others, adding, “And even if Marshadow doesn’t turn on us, I don’t want to risk all the villagers here. What if Aster attacks them to smoke me out?”

    “Why do they want you, anyway?” Mispy asked.

    “No idea—no. I have an idea.” Owen turned to show them his back. “I’m tied to Necrozma. And Necrozma seems to be some huge threat to Dark Matter. I don’t know why Alexander cares, but I bet that has to do with it.”

    Mispy blinked, but then wrapped a few vines around Gahi, forcing him to turn his back to the team.

    “Hey,” Gahi growled.

    Mispy looked at Gahi’s back, just above the base of his wings, and then at Owen’s mark.

    “Oh, hey, that’s right…” Owen trailed off. “You have the same birthmark, I think…” He squinted. It was hard to tell, actually.

    “Faded,” Mispy confirmed, motioning to Gahi’s. Between the two of them, Owen’s was much more pronounced. Gahi’s, unless they were really looking, could have been mistaken for a trick of the eye.

    “…Gahi,” Owen said. “You were the one who used that extremely powerful move that defeated the Dialga-Titan thing, right?”

    “Yeah. Eon tried to, too, but he almost passed out.”

    “He tried at the same time you did?” Owen asked.

    “Yeah, we were right next to each other.”

    “Right next to… And how did you feel?”

    “Like I was gettin’ stronger. A ton o’ energy was flowin’ into me, felt like.”

    The light of realization hit Mispy’s eyes, and Owen nodded toward her. “I think so, Mispy,” Owen said. “I think Gahi drew from Eon’s power, and then channeled it through one of those crystals. They have something to do with Necrozma; maybe he made them? Either way, I think that’s why it resonated so strongly with you. Not sure about why Eon’s power drained into you, though…”

    “Well, either way,” Gahi said, “sounds like something ter use against Titans.”

    Owen agreed, then looked to Demitri and Mispy. “You two don’t have the mark, do you?”

    “We checked,” Demitri said. “We don’t. Just you two, for some reason. Sorry…”

    “Don’t be,” Owen said. “You two are still strong fighters. In fact, if I can get to my fully evolved form again, we might be able to fuse together and still draw from your power, too. And until then”—Owen motioned to Gahi—“you can fuse with him and augment his power that way.

    “So, that’s our best plan for fighting Titans if we need to. Other Pokémon like Dialga might be in the stronger ones. If we find any, we can take them down and free them. We might even be able to send them back to Null Village to recover while we do the rest of our mission…” Owen furrowed his brow. “Bringing them with us might draw too much attention right now. They’re so big, you know? And if Aster is so strong, he might overpower them. Diagla’s weakened right now.”

    “That’s true,” Gahi said, “but at the same time, who else’re we gonna bring? Zena, Trina, Jerry?”

    “Jerry? Why him?” Owen asked.

    “I dunno. Just listin’ off names we know.”

    Owen hummed. “This isn’t like Hot Spot. I don’t know if it’s safer or riskier to gather everyone together. If only there was a way to—Palkia.”

    There was a beat of silence, and then Demitri said, “Um, I think you just took… five leaps of logic in your head and didn’t say it out loud.”

    “Right, er, sorry. Dialga. We have Dialga. And you guys, you guys somehow found each other, right?”

    “Well, yeah, I sorta had this feelin’ where Demitri ‘n Mispy are.”

    “I dunno why that happened,” Owen said, “but what if Dialga can get a sense for where Palkia is? He said he had a sense that he tried to escape, too, right? If Dialga came with us, we might find Palkia, and then Palkia—the Spacial Dragon—might be able to warp us around as we need to! We can redevelop Waypoints!”

    Demitri brightened. “That means we won’t have to take days to travel around anymore!”

    “We should ask,” Mispy said.

    “Right.” Owen nodded. “And maybe from there, we can also ask about ways to get out.”

    “There’s a way,” Mispy said, earning a quizzical look from Owen.

    “Right,” Demitri added. “We didn’t get it at first, but when we first got here, we were in these mountains. But before that, we found this cave, and it took us to… a really high up place, really cold and windy. The wind was making this whistling sound… And it definitely wasn’t the Voidlands. But when we exited the Dungeon, it felt like we were burning up! So, we ran back.”

    “Trina had somethin’ similar,” Gahi said. “Except she actually burned, and woke up as a Snivy.”

    “Right…” Owen frowned. “Marshadow said that Dungeons were a gateway between the Voidlands and this world, but they were all plugged by Anam, maybe to stop Void Shadows from getting out. But then why would we…”

    He shook his head.

    “One thing at a time. Let’s talk to Dial—I can’t leave. Um. You guys talk to Dialga, okay? Do you want me to write this down?”

    “Please,” Mispy replied.

    “What about Jerry and Zena?”

    “I don’t know if they should come right now,” Owen said.

    Demitri gave him an odd look. “Are you and Zena fighting?”

    “…What?”

    “Remember last time you said not to bring Zena? She got pretty upset…”

    “We’re just friends right now,” Owen said. “Er, uh, ask if she wants to come, then. But tell her the whole plan first; maybe she could help out in town if something happens.”

    The door to their house opened just as Owen hopped out of his seat. Hakk stepped in first with several paper bags of groceries piled over him, and with Xypher carrying another bundle under his neck.

    “Oh, sure, yeah, break into my place and make yourselves at home,” Hakk growled as he dropped off his bags. “What did you guys break?”

    “Nothing! I told them not to touch anything! We were just resting on this bed.”

    “Um, sorry if it’s your bed.” Demitri poked his claws together.

    “Whatever.” Hakk motioned for Xypher to start putting away all their supplies, then looked back at Owen. “So, what? You guys planning something?”

    “Kind of,” Owen said. “If we can get this working, we might have a big boost against Alexander, and—”

    “You’re seriously gonna try to take him on? What ever happened with escaping?”

    “That, too,” Owen said. “But all of this… has to do with everything else. I don’t think… anything that’s been happening to me or my team has been a coincidence. Someone’s orchestrating it. Maybe Necrozma? He might be trying to guide me into fixing all of this, if I was his disciple.”

    “You weren’t his only disciple, you know,” Hakk said. “At least, I don’t think so. Why would he place all his eggs in one Charmander?”

    “Don’t… phrase it like that.” Still, Hakk had a point. Others who had the powers of light might also be related, like Anam.

    “Either way,” Owen said, “that’s the plan. But right now, our short-term goal is to avoid Aster and find a way to get out, get Palkia, and then set up some connections.”

    Hakk seemed mildly interested, but he was more interested in getting his groceries away before they went bad. “Good luck,” he said. “I’m not about to go risking my life for this when I can just live a normal life as a guard here.”

    “That’s alright,” Owen said. “Sorry that Marshadow threw me in your place…”

    “Whatever, part of the job,” Hakk dismissed. Then, he murmured, “Better get paid for this…”

    Owen smiled a little, though Hakk didn’t see it, and gestured for Gahi to leave first. It was time to stagger out their departures and put the plan into motion.

    <><><>​

    Hakk and Xypher had a guest room. The Sandslash insisted with the politest tone that they go there and only there. And so, after figuring out how to shove Mispy through the corridors, they sat in a room that was large enough for one of them, but a little close-quarters for all three, particularly with Mispy, whose vines, if she wanted to stretch out, took up a large portion of the floor space. Owen navigated around them, occasionally getting a few pricks against his front, until he settled for resting against another one of the beanbags. This one was a bright cyan, and Owen wondered if Hakk had picked it out to match his colors.

    There were a few purple ones to match Xypher’s steely feathers, too. The cyan and purple went oddly well together for the internal decorations, though each room tended to only have one color as the dominating one, with the other as bright or dark spots.

    Now that Owen had a closer look, the flecks seemed to be roughly the same size as Xypher’s talons and beak…

    “This place isn’t so bad,” Demitri said, leaning into Mispy’s side. “I guess eventually one of us will go out next,” he added. “Um, Mispy? You, or me?”

    “Mm…” Mispy shrugged. Though, she then glanced at Demitri with concern. “Do you… know the way back?”

    “Yeah, I do,” Demitri said. “Memorized the turns.”

    “But in reverse.”

    Demitri suddenly looked trapped.

    Owen giggled. “You know, then again, I don’t think it would be that suspicious if you two went out together. In fact, they might find it more suspicious if you didn’t.”

    “That’s also true…” Demitri looked down. “Well, either way, I wanted to relax with you anyway. I don’t want to leave you alone after that talk we just had, y’know?”

    “Even Gahi didn’t want to,” Mispy remarked, but something Demitri said seemed to bother her. Her eyes narrowed, and she suddenly looked pensive.

    “Groaned the whole way out of the house,” Demitri agreed, not noticing. Then, after some reflection, he sighed and said, “I’m glad he found us so quickly, though. And he managed to keep his Psychic power, too.”

    “You guys found that cave outside,” Owen said. “But that place was really rocky and barren, right? How did you survive out there?”

    Owen regretted asking; they had seemed peaceful before, but then both their expressions had darkened.

    “Never mind,” Owen said. “Sorry, forget I asked. It must’ve been tough out there…”

    Mispy curled her vines around herself, and Demitri suddenly seemed uncomfortable leaning against them. “It’s okay,” Mispy said. “It’s… behind us.”

    “It really was hard,” Demitri said, taking a deep breath. “But Mispy’s right. It’s behind us. We… You used to go to therapy right? M-maybe we can ask about it or something.” He laughed, waving it off, but Owen wondered if that was a truthful plea.

    “For my fighting instinct, mostly,” Owen said. “I’ve got vague memories about my parents trying that for a while, but then it sorta faded out. But maybe it’ll help?” Now Owen’s curiosity was eating at him, but after how uncomfortable they got, he held it back.

    He didn’t have to ask, anyway. “There wasn’t any food. That was the worst part. We had each other for company, and we had a goal of going forward, but the only thing we could eat were Void Shadows. And half the time, they disappeared after we attacked them.”

    “Oh… That explains why you were so…” No, he wasn’t. He was weakened, but he didn’t look like he’d wasted away.

    “Yeah, we… had to find other ways to survive,” Demitri said.

    Mispy continued to curl her vines away from Demitri, instead opting to nuzzle him. “It’s okay,” she said gently. She seemed less bothered by it all, which surprised Owen. He always imagined that Mispy would be the one to be the most horrified by a food shortage. In fact, she’d wasted away a lot more than Demitri had.

    Now that he thought about it, Mispy seemed to be short by almost half her usual vines, even after the time spent in Null Village. But if all they encountered were a few weak Void Shadows, where did—

    Oh. Oh.

    Owen failed to hide his realization; Demitri and Mispy both couldn’t look at Owen, let alone each other. Mispy looked like she didn’t know whether to distance herself from Demitri, or go closer. So instead, she was paralyzed, neither close nor far.

    Demitri looked sick. His fingers trembled. And the room fell into a cold silence.

    “…You guys really were strong together,” Owen finally said. “You did everything you could, and you’re back here now. It’s alright.”

    “I know,” Mispy said, but Owen knew she hadn’t. Her eyes seemed a little brighter.

    “But was it?” Demitri asked. “I… what if it wasn’t enough, you know? What if—”

    “I don’t think either of you would have forgiven yourselves if you let the other die,” Owen said.

    “Well, of course—”

    “But,” Owen said firmly, “I bet if you were the one who died, you would have forgiven the other, too.”

    “I…”

    “Yeah…”

    Owen hopped off of the beanbag and made sure he was getting both their gazes. “And we’re all together now, right? If there’s anybody who should be worrying about the past, it’s me, not you guys.”

    At this, Mispy let out a weak laugh, and Demitri winced. “Wow,” he mumbled. “When you put it like that, we seem really petty, don’t we?”

    “Er, no,” Owen said. “I think what you went through is anything but petty, just—you know, I get it, thinking about the past trials and stuff. But… you guys got through it, and you’re stronger for it. Um, mentally. You guys should still take it easy for a while physically.”

    “Right.” Mispy deflated a little, looking suddenly tired.

    That reminded Owen of something from earlier. “By the way, Mispy, a little while ago it looked like you were thinking about something. Anything on your mind?”

    The Meganium blinked at that, the little antennae on her head twitching. Then she furrowed her scaly brow, curled her tendrils again, and then the light of recognition flashed in her eyes. “Alone,” she reminded them.

    “Huh?”

    “Should we really… leave you alone?” Mispy glanced behind her, curling her tendrils inward in thought, like she wanted to look smaller and stealthier. Impossible task.

    “What do you mean?” Owen asked, lowering his voice in case someone might hear.

    “Oh, right.” Demitri interweaved his claws. “The second reason Mispy wanted us to come here with Gahi and all that—it wasn’t just that we didn’t trust Marshadow, but what if that Aster guy found a way here? He could force the information out of Marshadow. Mispy had a feeling. And Aster could read minds, too.”

    “A feeling,” Mispy explained. “Just… a feeling.”

    Owen had a feeling Mispy was right.

    “We can’t leave you alone with two normal Pokémon,” Demitri concluded. “But maybe we can figure out what to do next later.”

    “I guess you made Gahi go out before he remembered,” Owen remarked. “He would’ve wanted to pull me out immediately with you guys. That’d make Hakk and Xypher pull up a stink and probably tell Marshadow right away.”

    Demitri nodded. “I think when we have a good opportunity, we’ll try to sneak you out in Mispy’s vines.”

    “And then what?” Owen asked.

    “We’ll use it as a test,” Demitri said. “If Aster found his way to Hakk and Xypher’s place, that means it’s not safe to trust Marshadow, even if he might want to help us.”

    “And if it’s safe and Hakk and Xypher get really mad?” Owen frowned, arms crossed.

    “Well, uh… We apologize really meaningfully,” Demitri said.

    Mispy shrugged. “Better them than Aster.”

    He couldn’t argue with that. “Let’s wait a little so they don’t get suspicious. I saw Hakk and Xypher getting a little tired, but not completely. If you say you’re spending the night, I bet they won’t complain.”

    “Maybe we actually should,” Demitri mumbled. “It’s been way too stressful. I could use a nap.”

    “Same,” Mispy and Owen breathed.

    Owen continued, “Let’s do that to pass the time, huh? I want to meditate again and find more memories.”

    “You can do that?”

    “I mean, that’s been the pattern. Sleeping or meditating.” Owen nodded. “Sometimes it’s mundane like trying to sleep out at night when Tim and I were going camping, and other times it was more important stuff… Those ones stick out the most. I was hoping to get more of that.”

    “Oh, okay.” Demitri nodded to Mispy, who did the same. “We won’t bug you.”

    “I wonder if we…” Mispy searched for the words. “Memories.”

    “Hey, yeah,” Demitri said. “We’ll meditate with you!”

    Owen giggled. “Sure. Let’s try it together!”

    <><><>​

    “Okay, Owen! Use Mimic, now!”

    It was surreal. It didn’t make sense to him. Yet intuitively, he reached out—he grasped at what felt like little invisible threads, little thicker parts of the air, and pulled it toward him. And suddenly, in place of this empty part of his mind where Mimic had been, it took on the flavor of crackling electricity.

    “Now use it!” Tim shouted.

    He knew that Ire resisted this kind of strike, but that was the point of practice. Owen shoved his arms forward, and electricity came rushing through his arms, out of his claws, and then through the air. Ire winced at the sudden bolts, but none of the snapping lines lingered.

    “Good! Great job, Owen!” Tim said, and the little praise, routine as it was, made his flame grow.

    Something caught his eye to the right, but he ignored it. It seemed to be a Jumpluff, perhaps a curious spectator.

    “How long until Mimic wears off and he can copy another one?” Tim asked.

    “In the heat of battle, it won’t fade,” said Ayame, opposite to Owen. “But if Owen ever takes the time to relax himself, he might let go of Thunderbolt and be able to acquire a new attack.”

    “So, nothing practical in the moment,” Tim said, frowning.

    “Perhaps not in a formal battle,” Ayame said, “but if we plan to take on the goons that stole your team, the versatility might be useful. Don’t forget that, alright? This goes beyond formal battles, now.”

    “Right…” Tim nodded. “Still, it’s not really…”

    Whatever trainer theories they were going on about, Owen wasn’t interested. That Jumpluff was still in his peripherals, this time in another part of the surrounding forest. Now that he thought about it, why was that Pokémon here? They weren’t native to Kanto.

    …How did he know that?

    “Owen?” Tim called. “Let’s get back to training!”

    The Charmeleon spun around, and then glanced at the bushes again, but the Jumpluff was gone.

    They went back to training for a while longer, and Owen got to experience for the first time what it felt like to expel beams of ice from his maw instead of fire. It was strange. Cold. A little hydrating, actually.


    “You were pretty adaptive back then, too, weren’t you?” Jumpluff asked.

    Owen whirled around. “What?” he said, but then chirped and tried to blast an Ice Beam on the ground to scare him away.

    Jumpluff leapt to the right and gracefully floated down. “Wait, stop!” he pleaded. “Owen!”

    “What—how do you know my human name?” Owen said. “Wait… I…”

    “Owen, I have no idea what you’re saying,” Jumpluff said. “You’re speaking wild or something.”

    Owen blinked several times, then looked back. Ire and Ayame were staring, looking bewildered, and then he looked to Tim, who seemed just as confused.

    “Um, what’s going on?” Tim said. “I thought Owen was dreaming. Ah, wait. Now I’m not real.” And then he disappeared.

    Ire and Ayame evaporated next. A gust of wind blew away their colorful dust.

    Owen rubbed his eyes, dream and reality scattering around in his mind. “Wait… hang on… something…”


    “It’s me, Owen. Klent. Remember.”

    “Klent… Klent!” Owen gasped, and suddenly it felt like a switch had been flipped in his mind. His mouth formed words differently, or it felt like it was—he couldn’t tell—and then he stared at the Jumpluff before him. “But you’re… wait, am I—I was in the middle of remembering things in my dreams! How are you—are you real?”

    “I hope so,” Klent said. “I certainly feel real. Owen, we’ve been watching you for a while. We’ve been trying to reach you for… days! What in the world is going on?!”

    “Uh, I don’t know where to begin.” Owen sat down, crossing his legs. “…You don’t need a recap, right?”

    “Voidlands, perpetual darkness, Titans?”

    “Alright, you’re caught up.”

    Klent nodded solemnly. “I’m… sorry about Amia.”

    He wished Klent hadn’t mentioned it, but he knew Klent meant well, so he nodded. “There’s still hope,” Owen said. However small it may have been.

    “I don’t know if you’ll be able to hear me or any of the others,” he said, “but if you do, we’re here if you need any advice, okay? Try to reach for us now that you know we’re here.”

    “You guys are okay, right?” Owen asked.

    “Yes. Well, I believe so. It’s… different. We no longer have a Grass Realm. We are merely… there. Within you, we—ah. It’s as if we are seeing through your eyes, if we wish, or we may sink into a slumber. I do not truly know how else to describe it. I much prefer the Grass Realm, in all honesty… Do try to return us, if you find a way.” The way Klent was smiling suggested it wasn’t an urgent request.

    “Sure,” Owen replied, mirroring the smile.

    Some calm silence passed, and Klent eventually turned around. “Kanto, hm?”

    “Yeah. Home world. Still trying to recover the part that brought me to Kilo, but it’s been nice. I hope Kanto is still around…”

    “Oh, I’m sure it is,” Klent said, admiring the buildings that Owen had remembered from so long ago. “I doubt a whole world can be destroyed so easily.”

    “Don’t jinx it,” Owen said darkly, sighing. “At this point, I’ll believe anything.”

    “Well, do be careful.” He jumped, floating down after several seconds as he spoke. “After all, believing everything ended with you being misled.”

    “I guess so.” Owen still wasn’t sure if he’d been misled malevolently, though. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like everyone had a small secret to keep for his sake. Amia kept secrets from him to protect him from Eon and keep him happy. Deca kept his identity a secret so he could just… be with him for a while. Anam kept—

    “Why didn’t Anam tell us about Dark Matter?” Owen suddenly mused.

    “Hm?”

    “It seems like such a big secret… and there’s no way Anam wanted this to happen.”

    “Well, retaliation, perhaps,” Klent said. “If Anam told anyone, Dark Matter could have struck at any moment.”

    “But then why not do that immediately? He had five hundred years. Anam must have been forced into it… Must have been a Divine Promise. But why would Anam have agreed to one?”

    “Well, he is naïve,” Klent pointed out.

    “Maybe…” But that was too simple. “We should ask him when we find him. Maybe he’s in here, too. The powers he had… I think Anam is also immune to Voiding, like me. So he must still be around.”

    “Another task on the list,” Klent remarked.

    Owen sighed. Indeed, another task. But at least now he had a defined list instead of a vague item called ‘survive.’

    “Would you like to resume your dreams?” Klent asked.

    “I think I get the picture.” Owen stood up. “Next time, I’m going to try to focus on… on something else. I want to see if we ever got Duos and the others back.”

    “Why do you ask?”

    Owen looked skyward. No matter Kilo or Kanto, the sky always looked the same, yet he knew it was not the same one. “Before I confront Eon about all this, I want to know everything about him that I forgot.”

    “I see. Evidence against him.”

    “Evidence to understand him,” Owen said simply. “I know Eon is a good person. I’m not… doubting that anymore.”

    Klent shifted uncomfortably. “I see.”

    “But I also know he’s done awful things. To you, to me, to all of Kilo.”

    To this, Klent relaxed.

    “I don’t want to return to his cause. I don’t want to call myself a Hunter anymore, either, or ever. I’m doing this so I can see how he got to this point. Then, I can find the path to snap him out of it. Otherwise, if we beat Dark Matter and get out of here, we’re just going to be back where we started—a war between Guardians and Hunters. And then what?”

    “I… I think I understand,” Klent said warily. “Snap him out of it… Then you believe that everything Eon has done was out of misguided honor and valor?”

    “Maybe,” Owen said. “But what if I ended up being the only Pokémon that stayed with him, and everyone else he loved was taken away forever? It’s no wonder he became so obsessed with me.” Owen puffed a small plume of smoke. “Just because what he did was wrong doesn’t mean I can’t see why he did it.”

    Every word Owen said seemed to make Klent even more tense. “Then you’re trying to forgive him. After all he did to you. To me.

    This wasn’t a conversation that Owen was expecting to have in the middle of his dreamscape. “It’s not like that,” he said a little too hastily. “I’m not looking to forgive him. I just want to understand so we can put an end to this without having to fight.”

    “…Right.” Klent stared, stone-faced. “But don’t forget what he did.”

    “I won’t.” And he was annoyed Klent thought he would.

    The world dissolved into a haze, and Owen woke up.
     
    Chapter 100 - The World's Basin
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 100 – The World’s Eyes

    33. Badly injured. Consciousness fading.

    89. Three mutants laying waste to Milli Town. Abandoned. Seven casualties. Three saved, four dead.

    1. Continue duties as normal. Requesting status report from 44 on northern vortex.

    44. Northern vortex is stable. Dark Matter does not appear to be active.

    1. Requesting report from 23 on Lugia.

    1. Requesting report from 23 on Lugia.

    1. 23?

    52. 23 is unconscious at sea. Rescue?

    1. Let it die. Continue duties as normal.


    Hecto sighed and brightened his red eye, returning his attention to the surrounding aura sea. Roughly a tenth of his copies had been killed during the sudden crisis, which was a serious uptick in deaths compared to his usual casualty rate. A decimation. Most of it was due to the mutants, but the few Zygarde assigned to Lugia had all slowly perished. Those memories were not pleasant to recall.

    That wasn’t all. Most worrying was how empty the aura sea had become. The passage of spirits from the living world to beyond had been interrupted.

    Hecto stood in the now lightless void that was once the glimmering aura sea. All Guardian realms were under attack or disappeared completely, though thankfully those who remained alive were able to fend off the wraiths.

    But the likes of Owen, Enet, Gahi, and Eon, whose realms had completely disappeared from the aether, Hecto was less optimistic. He did not know where their spirits went, but it was not across the sea.

    Where were they?

    Arceus theorized that Dark Matter was taking them, somehow. And if so, to where?

    Even more worrisome was that any attempts to locate Step were met with death. He supposed being Ground-Dragon did not help matters, but being in the path of destruction of mutants as the Ice Guardian hunted them down was not easy. Only once did he get injured by Step’s residual attacks, but the mutants, who were openly hostile and berserk, possibly agitated by Step’s own aura, were much more lethal.

    More memories he preferred to not recall.

    When mutants died, they did not go to the aura sea for long. Their spirits were tied to Quartz and the Reincarnation Machine. Hecto did not remember how such a machine came into Eon’s possession and that irritated him, too, but that was not relevant at the moment. There was something more troublesome.

    There had not been a single new incubation since Dark Matter’s attack.

    The implications were very inconvenient.

    More inconvenient was being unable to reach Step to deliver this news in a timely manner. She was ignoring everyone, and traversing the spirit world was dangerous with wraiths out and about. His individual fragments were not powerful. He was meant to watch the world with his hundred pairs of eyes. But perhaps it would be appropriate to gather himself, should his actual power be needed…

    Not yet. He had more use spread thin.

    1. Requesting report from 62.

    62. Nearing Yotta Outskirts. Parts of the forest are frozen over. It is not due to incoming winter cold.

    1. Continue following the path. Use caution. Shout if you must if you get close.

    62. There are others. The town is populated.


    Hecto paused, one of his fingers twitching in thought. He floated idly in the void for a few seconds, considering his options.

    1. Who is near Yotta Outskirts?

    97.

    52.

    3.

    1. Converge. Save who you can. Hope Step notices you.


    And now, Hecto could only wait. He peered into their fragments to see firsthand what was happening…

    <><><>​

    Step was missing her left arm and that was more trouble than she’d been hoping for. The clearing, beyond the thinned forest, showed huge fields of some crop, though it was empty, perhaps recently cultivated. Good. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about destroying it all while defending the town.

    With her one good arm, she aimed forward and gathered clouds of frost at the center of her palm. The white beam that followed cracked the air and formed ice crystals along its path, splashing into the chest of a crazed Sawsbuck with the lengthy body of a Linoone. It roared and snorted, its maw glowing with the orange energy of a Hyper Beam, but Step blasted directly into its mouth with a second frosty line.

    The crystals coated the roof of its mouth and covered the rest of its head instantly, freezing it in place. She didn’t stop; the beam spread, the crystals growing and snapping until its entire body was coated in a gigantic, jagged boulder. Its angry expression was frozen in time.

    Step slammed her tail on the ground and pivoted her body, preparing to shatter it like she’d done to so many others.

    “Halt!”

    That was a new voice, and she’d rarely been spoken to. It was enough to give her pause. To her left was a Zygarde with its leg completely frozen in a patch of icy ground.

    “…Please free me and then I would like to talk,” Hecto said. “Leave that mutant frozen. We need to prioritize the others in town.”

    Step narrowed her eyes, approaching with heavy steps. “Fine. I shall free you, Zygarde. But you will—”

    “And,” Hecto said, “be gentle.”

    She growled. “You are asking for a lot.”

    <><><>​

    Yotta Outskirts was a mixture of hail and flames. The ice pelted the rooftops while the flames crackled outside, sizzling against any chunks of ice that were unlucky enough to land in the inferno. Frantic and disorganized, Yotta Outskirt’s residents scrambled toward Kilo Village where it would be safer, or at least away from town and toward the faraway mountain. The older population was less able, and while several younger Pokémon helped them escape, some were still left behind.

    “I can still fight!” shouted an Arbok, hissing at an incoming, berserk Tyranitar with silver scales that jutted out of its body like knives. “You can’t get past me!”

    “Father!” Leo shouted.

    “I’m on it, I’m on it!” Spice sped forward, but Leo’s fireball was faster. It flew overhead and slammed into Tyranitar’s face. In a rage, it blasted several knife-scales forward, narrowly missing Tari’s abdomen.

    He weaved out of the way a split-second after the knife had gone past him, and his bold taunts faltered.

    “Get back!” Leo shouted, and Spice pulled on Tari so he’d follow. The old Arbok complied, spitting several more curse-laden taunts toward the burning Tyranitar.

    “I think that’s the last one,” Spice panted. “How’s your mom doing?”

    Leo looked back. She was clutching at her side, where a nasty gash had cut into her fur, leaving crimson to darken the orange coat. She had trouble standing, but that was nothing abnormal, and her conjuring stick was still firmly in her grasp.

    “Which way, Leo?”

    “Aries,” Tari growled, and the Arbok snarled at Spice to let him go. “How dare you force us to flee! What about our pride?!”

    “Will you be reasonable for this one fight?!” Spice snapped.

    The Tyranitar had its bearings again and curled into a tight ball. Its bladed scales stiffened and pointed outward.

    Spice knew what that meant.

    “Get back!” Spice shouted, taking long strides to get in front of Tari and Aries. Leo was about to step forward next, but then the Tyranitar erupted with blades of steel. The sound was quick and decisive. Dull thuds from them digging into the dirt came first, but then came cracks of metal clashing against stone, destroying the outer layers. Last, but only by instances, were the ethereal clangs of the blades that bounced off of Spice’s black Protect barrier.

    All but a few. Spice hadn’t felt it at first until she tried to move again, but a sudden, searing pain in her chest made her buckle to the ground.

    “Spice!” Leo cried.

    There were three blades jammed into her. They’d slipped through before her Protect. One was in her shoulder, which made moving her right arm too painful. The other two were in her chest, and she wasn’t sure how serious those ones were. She could breathe. That was a start.

    Tyranitar crouched down again, more blades rapidly regrowing. Another volley, already? Spice didn’t have the strength to block that one again.

    A plume of fire spontaneously enveloped Tyranitar’s head. Spice heard the sound of metal grinding against metal as it clawed at its own face, trying to put out the flames that didn’t go away.

    Behind Spice, Leo held his mother’s arm and aimed it forward. Grasped in her paws was her stick, which glowed a bright orange at the tip like a burning coal.

    “Am I hitting it, Leo?” Aries asked, her unseeing eyes narrowed.

    “Yes,” Leo said. “Keep it up and maybe we can keep it back.”

    “Like I’m gonna let my mate fight without me!” Tari declared while an orange glow danced in the back of his throat. Before anybody could object, a stream of flames joined the ball of heat around Tyranitar’s head, and Spice had to duck to make sure she didn’t get a scorched scalp.

    “Your parents are strong,” Spice remarked; even she couldn’t stand too close to the heat.

    “Just because our bodies are frail doesn’t mean our spirits are,” Aries said, firing a second fireball from her wand when Tari cut his flames. He coughed a few plumes of smoke, licking his lips with a confident smirk.

    Tyranitar slammed its face into the ground. The impact left Spice wobbling where she stood, and she’d looked away from Tyranitar for only a second. That one moment was all that she needed to lose track of it. Gone! Where did—

    There was a shadow on the ground without a body.

    “Up!” Spice shouted.

    It had jumped at least twenty feet into the air and had curled up into a ball of spikes. Tiny shadows speckled the ground, each one a knife that rained down onto the whole street like rain. Blades stuck into the rooftops and clanged off of boulders; they dotted the soil like macabre flowers; but, somehow, the ground around Team Alight and Leo’s parents was completely untouched.

    A thin, wide barrier above them all turned the sky orange. Flying in from the west was a Smeargle with—was that a Smeargle with wings? Spice squinted, trying to make sure her eyes weren’t seeing the wrong thing, but no, that was definitely a Smeargle with black wings. Though, it looked more like a painting.

    That was confirmed when the wings disappeared upon landing. A Sketched Fly. His eyes darted left and right, and he called, “Get this way! We’re going to evacuate while the Elites can step in!”

    “Elites? We have them still?” Spice called back, but she wasn’t going to complain. “Angelo, how did you block that?”

    “Wide Guard,” he replied breathlessly. “Now please, can we hurry? I—I’m not strong enough to fly people too big, but I can at least get us away where we’ll lose its trail!”

    “Well what about our home?” Tari said. “You expect us to abandon our homes just like that?!”

    “Yes, I’m sorry,” Angelo replied desperately, but then Tyranitar landed on the ground with a heavy thud, shaking the earth. “No time! We need to run!”

    Spice ignored the pain in her chest every time she moved, but it was a struggle. She grunted and was about to pull the spikes out.

    “Ah—you’re hurt,” Angelo said. “L-later. We need to—AAH!”

    Tyranitar rapidly shook its body, countless steel knives falling away from its once armored frame. Leaner and lighter, it revealed a disturbingly thin frame that only slightly resembled the bulky Tyranitar it used to be.

    “Automatize,” Spice hissed. “RUN!”

    She didn’t have to shout twice, but the Salazzle herself tripped and landed on some of the extra spikes in her chest, driving them further in. She gasped—but her lungs didn’t cooperate.

    Tyranitar was upon her, claws primed. For just a second, Spice saw something black and sinister in the corners of her vision that nobody else seemed to see. Her heart raced but her body felt cold, scales crawling with something horrible. She felt like laughing in the midst of terror.

    But then something wrapped in gold knocked Tyranitar away. Red fur and a black, striped tail—Incineroar? The nurse?

    Tyranitar, dazed, shook its head, and Phol followed up his Protect bash with an uppercut wreathed in flames. His flaming knuckles knocked Tyranitar in the jaw, smashing a few steel teeth. Phol spun and raised his leg, smashing it into Tyranitar’s side with a thud that shook the knives in Spice’s chest. Tyranitar went flying into one of the empty buildings, which collapsed over it.

    Phol plucked Spice off the ground. “Let’s go!” he shouted. “Elites are here to clean up! I’m part of rescue! Angelo! Ready Trick Room!”

    “Trick—right! Right! I forgot!”

    “You shouldn’t have!”

    Mid-stride, Angelo grabbed his tail and sketched another wall of symbols. The ink-black paint twisted and flattened in the air and fell into the ground. Where the drops landed, perfect squares of light appeared.

    “What’s taking so long?!” Spice hissed as Tyranitar roared. Rubble from the building that should have buried it went flying in all directions.

    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! This takes a very long time to manifest!” Angelo drew more symbols in the air, faster than before, though he occasionally cursed with each mistake he made. His hands were shaking uncontrollably.

    Phol abruptly stopped and crossed his arms, forming a Protect just in time to block a volley of knives, and then kicked away to keep up with the crowd. Tyranitar chased them on all fours with limbs far longer than they should have been.

    “Done!”

    Tyranitar was seconds away from them, and suddenly a pulse of deep blue light radiated off of the squares that Angelo had left behind, and continued to radiate the more Angelo wrote.

    “Everyone, stop running! Walk! Walk slowly!”

    Not like they had a choice. Suddenly, the air around them felt thick, like the more they moved, the more the air pushed back against them. It was like quicksand; breathing itself felt difficult and uncomfortably stuffy. Angelo, more practiced with this technique, took slow, steady breaths and walked in a mock-leisurely pace. His eyes were wide with terror.

    Angelo whimpered. “Walk… slowly… away.”

    Behind them, Tyranitar roared, but despite the great strain in its muscles, it could not move more than a few inches every second. It wasn’t smart enough, or perhaps it was just too focused on chasing them, to counter the Trick Room’s resistant atmosphere.

    “Got any more in that bag of tricks you call a tail?” Spice asked, spitting a glob of blood on the ground. “How many moves do you even know?”

    “Um—l-lost count.” Angelo walked ahead of everyone and helped demonstrate to them the proper pace. “An old blessing that runs in the family.” The edge of Trick Room’s radius wasn’t that far away, and Tyranitar was still trapped in place.

    A green-black canine stood at the edge of the Trick Room. When they drew closer, he stepped aside and nodded at them.

    “The area west of Yotta Outskirts is clear of mutants and other hostiles. Wait there,” the canine reported.

    “You’re that… what was your species again?” Phol asked.

    “Zygarde.”

    Phol hummed in recognition. “Thank you, Zygarde. What will we be waiting for?”

    “I ain’t waiting!” Tari shouted, glaring daggers toward Tyranitar. “I’m gonna fight!”

    “I shall do the fighting,” Zygarde said. “You will be waiting for a Joltik to fly you back.”

    “Oh. That Joltik,” Phol said, growling.

    “Joltik?” Aries asked, frowning. She tapped her wand against her chin. “I don’t think she can carry all of us, let alone a Delphox like me…”

    “It will make sense later,” Zygarde said with a nod. “Now, excuse me.”

    He stepped into the barrier and gently waved a paw forward, like rolling a ball. All around Zygarde, tiny, green arrows emerged from the ground. With another flick, the arrows launched from invisible bows and rained down on Tyranitar, who roared and fought against its invisible binds in vain.

    “Go, go, go!” Angelo begged the others. By now, Phol was dragging Tari away, with Leo guiding Aries. Finally, they were able to leave the battlefield behind, but not without seeing the ruin that Yotta Outskirts had been reduced to. Tyranitar had not been the only mutant; a whole slew of them had appeared in a wave of destruction. Where had they come from? As if the world had not already fallen into chaos…

    “Angelo,” called Zygarde, which confused Angelo. Had Zygarde not been fighting Tyranitar? But no, there was another one beside him, keeping pace as they walked.

    “Yes?” Angelo said, looking back, then back at Zygarde.

    “You are an inheritor of Mew’s Blessing, correct?” Zygarde asked.

    “Mew’s…” Angelo’s voice dies in his throat. All eyes were on him, most of them puzzled.

    “Blessing?” Tari said. “Bah! As if someone as scrawny as him would inherit something like that! Besides, kinda meaningless on a Smeargle, eh?”

    “I do,” Angelo replied. “But…”

    “I would like to visit you later,” Zygarde replied. “Phol. Your Protect is golden, correct?”

    “It is. But my services are dedicated to enchanting empty orbs right now, if you’re asking me for something else.”

    “I see. I will remember that. Thank you. Spice.”

    “Mine’s black. I don’t know why,” Spice said.

    “I understand. Please report to me if or any of the Elites if you learn anything about that.”

    “Sure. You’re an Elite?”

    “Yes.”

    “Never saw you as part of the Hearts.”

    “They did not have enough badges for all of my bodies. Also, my status as a Legendary Pokémon should be enough.”

    That was when it all clicked, and Angelo stopped walking to stare, wide-eyed, at Zygarde. “Th-that’s right! You… you are a—but I thought the Legends simply disappeared!”

    “That is true. I did not.”

    “Disappeared?” Phol said, frowning. “Not, never existed at all? The Book of Arceus, just like the Book of Mew, is nothing but stories to convey values.”

    Aries gave Phol a disapproving look.

    Phol cleared his throat. “In my opinion, at least.”

    “It is a mystery that I am trying to decipher now,” Zygarde said. “But that is not something you need to worry about. Was I clear with my instructions?”

    “Wait for a Joltik,” Angelo repeated uncertainly.

    “Correct. Goodbye.” Without so much as a smile, Zygarde left in an expressionless sprint into town. Angelo, Spice, Leo, and Phol exchanged uneasy glances.

    If there was any omen for the world’s end, it was the return of Zygarde, the embodiment of balance. The legends stated that it would bring the world to order… but how it did so was ambiguous. It could either be by eliminating the power that was causing the world such strife… or by wiping the slate clean entirely.

    <><><>​

    71. Approaching Arachno Forest interior. Decayed webbing is abundant.

    12. Accompanying 71.

    1. Where is 62?

    71. Left behind due to getting captured in webbing.

    62. Currently captured in webbing. A mutant is near. I may die.

    1. Continue onward. You are close. 62, continue attempts to escape and catch up with 71 and 12.


    Damp, smashed, decaying spiderwebs covered every inch of this portion of the forest, and the two remaining Hectos had to tread lightly through uneven terrain. This had once been a great labyrinth held by Trina, the heart of her Bug domain. All around them, remnants of that isolated civilizations stood, proud but feeble. There were domes that operated like little huts for Pokémon to live within, propped up, under, and between the trees. Further along, large swaths of webbed fields made for squishy, lumpy silk that they had to regularly help one another out of while in search of what was left of their mutant, former-outlaw civilization.

    There was a dim glow of a flame ahead—one that was not part of a forest fire. It had recently rained here, so perhaps if there was a fire, it would have been small or diminishing. But this was the flame of a Charizard—the second Owen, the replacement Owen, Har.

    62. False Owen in sight. Very likely to be the new leader.

    12. Approaching now.

    1. His name is Har.

    62. Requesting verification: Har is the preferred title?

    1. Most likely.


    The webbing dulled their steps, and at first they wondered if Har would be able to see them. Of course he would—he had Perceive, after all. But there did not appear to be anyone else around…

    The two Zygarde scanned the immediate area before advancing. This particularly lumpy field was otherwise empty, and Har was slumped over.

    62. Subject is not moving, but has a flame.

    1. Verify that he is sleeping.

    12. There is little reason to sleep out in the open.


    The pair approached cautiously, but even that wasn’t enough. Without warning, Har abruptly spun around and blasted 12 with a great sphere of fire from his maw, solid and explosive. All 62 could see by the time he had a chance to react was black smoke, and all he heard, aside from the ringing in his ears, was a dull thud of 12 hitting the web behind them.

    Har was on his feet, crouched down with a crazed look in his eyes, several feet away from where he had been seconds earlier.

    “Hello,” 62 greeted. “You are Har?”

    His tail kept crackling and flaring like an overfed campfire. 12 didn’t move, but he was still alive, because 62 did not receive any of the memories that 12 would have transferred over upon death. He did, however, get a set from 46 a few moments later, though he would sort through that death later, or wait for another copy to report a summary.

    “I am here to speak to Trina’s allies,” 62 reported again. “My name is Hecto.”

    The crazed look softened. Good. Progress.

    “Where is the rest of your team?”

    Har watched a while longer, waiting for sudden movements. The pair realized shortly after that perhaps it was because Har was trying to read them. Hecto was notoriously difficult to read. What was it that Star said he had to do in order to be more friendly? Smile, yes. He had to smile.

    Hecto curled his lips upward and showed some of his teeth, and tried to flicker his eye lights in a more friendly manner. He did not know what that meant.

    Har’s eyes softened more, though they were replaced with confusion.

    Smiling efforts were less than successful, but the goal was still accomplished. He could work on that later.

    “Right, my…” Har rubbed his head. “Sorry. I was… We were in the middle of chasing someone down who had gone berserk, but they had sleeping spores. I took a hit so Lygo could keep going…” He looked back. “They should be ahead.”

    “Then Trina’s former allies are losing themselves?”

    Har nodded. “A lot of us are fine, but there are a few that are less stable. They weren’t under Trina for as long.”

    Commenting on the fact that Har also seemed to have lost himself was not worth the risk.

    “How many of you are stable?”

    “Why are you asking?”

    “We are in the process of consolidating power. Anyone capable of fighting Dark Matter and his related forces should gather at Kilo Village for safety.”

    “Sorry, can’t,” Har said. “Like I said, we aren’t stable enough for that anymore.”

    “There may be a way to assist in taming that,” Hecto said. You will only lose more of your numbers if you continue to stay here and stagnate.”

    By now, 12 was finally returning, though he had a noticeable limp.

    “Sorry for that,” Har mumbled apologetically. “Look, we’re mutants. We don’t pass as safe. I don’t know if it’s a good idea. One wrong move and…”

    “We will vouch for you. Guardians who knew of Trina are there. I highly recommend you gather who you can and arrive. Are you their leader?”

    “I guess I am…”

    “Understandable. Will you need assistance convincing them?”

    “No, I think I’ll… Are you really sure we’ll be accepted?”

    “No. But I will help.”

    “At least you’re honest.” Har’s wings drooped. “I’ll do what I can. Wait here?”

    “Of course.”

    12. Har is leaving to rally the mutants. They are few in number, but they are the most sane of them.

    1. Then the others?

    64. Likely among the berserk mutants.

    1. That explains the increased rate of mutant attacks in this area, particularly Milli Town and Yotta Outskirts west of it. Very well.

    12. We will wait for Har to gather them and lead them to Kilo Village. Who will alert the Guardians?

    1. I will coordinate. Continue your tasks.


    <><><>​

    It had been at least a week and Nevren hadn’t left his room in all that time. Lavender was starting to get worried. The behemoth paced around the halls that connected to Nevren’s room, occasionally stopping to press his head against the doorway that wouldn’t open for him. His crest bumped against the steel, but then he pulled away, not wanting to irritate Nevren with all his noise. He was probably deep in concentration.

    Lavender didn’t know when it happened, but perhaps during the night, Nevren left that room to get food. He still had to eat, right? Or did he have a secret stash of food in his research room? The fiend! He probably kept all the best snacks in there for himself. Like the Leichi Berry Pops that always went faster than the rest. Or the Exeggupuffs. Sure, Eon always said they were unhealthy, but they tasted so good

    The heavy pitter-patter of paws on tile made Lavender’s cheek bolts whirr. “Hmm?”

    It was Lucas, back in his Mega Houndoom form. That was risky, but as long as he stayed calm, it would be fine, right?

    Lavender’s concern redoubled when he saw a Cherrim riding on his back. “Um, Lucas!” The Silvally rushed, but then slowed his pacing. “Are you sure you should be carrying Auntie Rim around? She’s…”

    In reply, Lucas let out a defiant growl and then a snort. How rude to assume he couldn’t handle himself around his auntie! Rim was stronger than she looked, even if she was in an unfamiliar body and more or less helpless.

    Wait…

    A bark snapped Lavender out of his thoughts and he shot to attention.

    “Oh! Okay, well, if you’re so sure,” Lavender said.

    And suddenly, the doors to Nevren’s door opened, and Lavender as alight with glee. “Father! You’re up!”

    “Up? I’ve always been up.”

    “I mean, out!” His tailfin wagged and he lunged toward Nevren for a tackle.

    Nevren disappeared and reappeared behind Lavender, scratching Lucas behind the ears. “Hello, Lucas. Rim, are you feeling well?”

    The Cherrim tried to look toward Nevren, but her huge, purple petals got in the way and she fell over. By a Psychic barrier, Nevren kept her up.

    “I’m…” Her voice was similar, but still a little off compared to how she used to sound. It was scratchier and had a warble to it.

    “I suppose it is quite an adjustment, but unfortunately we cannot afford to spare much power right now to give you your old body,” Nevren said with a sigh. “In any case, I shall be going to my motivation quarters. Take care.”

    Nevren had a room just down the hall that he frequently visited, though he disallowed anybody from entering on their own. Lavender knew what was inside, and it wasn’t all that interesting anyway, but the fact that Nevren called it his motivation room always made him curious.

    After seeing Nevren holed up in his research quarters for the better part of a week, Lavender had to know. “How come? What are you gonna do in there?”

    “Get a few fleeing reminders. It is typically enough.”

    “Does that mean you aren’t feeling very motivated right now?” Lavender trotted after Nevren, and Lucas followed with Rim still on his back.

    “I suppose I am,” Nevren replied. “A week of nonstop toil can do that to a man. Though I also have lost track of the end goal of some of my inventions and would like to remind myself of them.”

    In Nevren’s hands was a small notebook that looked well-worn but also well-maintained. Lavender tilted his head, wondering which one it was. He kept a lot of those. This one could have been a calendar, or maybe a logbook from his experiments. He was very rigorous about those.

    Nevren held his hand in front of the metal door. It slid into the frame, revealing a gray room with countless drawings, posters, words, symbols, and arrows scrawled on all parts of the wall, with a large, brightly-colored word, ‘START,’ at the very center of the square floor.

    It was the ‘crazy room,’ as Lavender called it, and Nevren stepped in the middle.

    “…Would you care to join?” Nevren asked Lavender, whose cheek bolts whirred. His eyes flashed a nervous cyan.

    “Okay,” Lavender agreed, but then looked back at Lucas and Rim. She seemed very tired. “Um, Lucas? Maybe you should take Auntie Rim back to her room so she can rest.”

    “Better yet, take her to get some sunlight. Do be careful. Her body will appreciate the sun much more now, after all. Though, Rim, I must say… All things considered, you’ve adjusted to the Grass type very well. Had I not known any better, I would have assumed you’d always been one.”

    With her petals in the way, there was no way to tell if she had smiled at that or not, but she did shiver a little. A laugh.

    “Rest up, Auntie,” Lavender said, nuzzling between two petals.

    The great riddle began, of course, with the ‘START’ in the middle. From there, it pointed forward toward some words Lavender couldn’t see from where he stood. Nevren’s eyes darted about, and then he scribbled into his notes.

    “Now, I know you have quite a few questions,” Nevren said. “I will answer them all, but afterward, I expect you to be respectfully quiet. Will that do?”

    “Um, okay.” Lavender looked at the notebook. “What’s that for?”

    “These are my questions,” Nevren said. “I write down my questions, and then consult this room for answers. I write them down when I realize what it is, before I lose that answer mentally. When written down, it is immortalized, so I may remind myself of my goal on a practical level.”

    “…How come you don’t just write down all your reasoning immediately?” Lavender asked. Scrawled on the eastern wall was a symbol that looked like an eight-sided star, the cardinal directions much longer than the diagonals. But the drawing itself was basic, like lines. Like it should have been colored in.

    “Because complete thoughts are erased,” Nevren replied. “I can only give myself instructions based on partial data. Any memories and thoughts I do have about what I realize in this room are fleeting, and must be immortalized in writing. But even then, the writing shall become impossible to perceive if I am too thorough.”

    Lavender stared dumbly toward the southern wall. Here, there were two symbols and a noticeably empty space between them. One was a small, pink creature with a long tail, and another was a large, white creature with a golden ring around its body. Lavender recognized those creatures; he was based off of one, after all. But the way this was arranged, there was something missing between the two of them.

    Meanwhile, Nevren stared at the ground, his eyes following arrows faster than Lavender could reason them out. Some were simple words. ‘Brightness’ or ‘after second.” Lavender saw a drawing of a strange circle with numbers on the edges, starting from “1” and going to “11.” At the top of the block, between 1 and 11, was a skull. Beside the clock were the words, “One hour is three hundred seasons, plus more.”

    “I don’t get it,” Lavender said. “These are all weird… drawings, and words, and it doesn’t mean anything!”

    “It can’t mean anything,” Nevren replied calmly. “If it meant exactly what the truth was, it would be rendered invisible. Useless. I’ve had many missteps before I was able to deduce something close enough to the truth that it would not be erased. The great, hidden history that the gods did not want known. I suppose that was due in part to the flaw in the Decree they had hastily cobbled together to hide it.”

    “Oh… So you can’t ever know the full story, but you can give yourself instructions on little pieces before you forget?”

    “Yes. Whatever this Decree is hiding, it is only hiding the event itself, and does not seem to prevent me from taking action against whatever it is trying to hide. Thankfully there is no Decree that prevents me from realizing something is hidden in the first place. Now, I do not know what I called this creature before, but I shall refer to it as Prism, based on the symbols that seem to be associated with it. Prism… Prism, Prism, what is important about it…”

    Nevren looked at the great symbol on one wall, then at the empty space in another. “That missing space is in the same dimensions as the large symbol there. Ah, yes. I must have done that intentionally… Or perhaps the symbol is already there, and I cannot see it?”

    There were many blank spots on the wall where it seemed like the drawing was supposed to continue, yet didn’t. “All of these empty parts on the wall.” Lavender pointed at one of them. “Is something actually there?”

    “Certainly. And at some point, as I drew it, it vanished before my eyes. That is how I knew how to hint at it. I drew hints around the blank spots. I am tiptoeing around the event horizon of the Decree’s erasure to deduce properties of what was hidden within.” Nevren sighed, wistful. “Perhaps overly poetic, but there is a certain elation in being able to outsmart a god.”

    “So, the Decree is the thing you’re supposed to not know, and this room gives you hints on what you’re not supposed to know?”

    “Essentially.”

    They spent a while longer looking through the strange symbols, glyphs, and scribbles, but Lavender couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

    “…There we are,” Nevren said. “Fascinating. I do keep forgetting that Arceus and Star are not our enemies, yet every time I write that down it seems to erase itself. A shame. I need to find a way to keep myself from misattributing malice. Regardless, I believe I have the information I need. We must continue constructing artificial Dungeons. Recover Owen and the rest of Team Alloy. That is our best bet so far, yes.”

    “Why?” Lavender asked.

    “I believe these recent events have solved a longstanding mystery.” Nevren jotted down his final few notes. “The Legendary Pokémon, those who used to guard this world, were erased from history some time ago. Their names are stated in the Book of Arceus but are never seen nor remembered. All we have are the likes of Hecto and Emily, and the latter’s history is also muddled.”

    He continued to ramble, writing down more notes in vague instructions, sometimes saying them in repeated or vague ways, as if one that was too specific ran the risk of erasure.

    “I’m certain I saw Dialga and Palkia emerge from Anam very briefly during his outburst,” Nevren continued. “Anam is connected to Dark Matter, as are these wraiths, and the Dungeons that spawn them. There is a very strong chance that Dungeons are a connection between our world and the world of Dark Matter. I have artifacts from both Dialga and Palkia with me; perhaps I can tune to them wherever they are sealed. If we can control that connection, we may be able to rescue them and resume with our original plans.”

    “Original plans. Saving the world?”

    “Of course.”

    “From who?” Lavender asked.

    Nevren paused, looking at his notes, then at the symbols on the wall. “That is a good question.” He shut the book. “I do not believe there is a single person we are saving the world from. Unfortunately, that is too shrouded in secrecy for me to find the true answer. If I had to guess…” He pointed at the blank space on the far wall. “The third god is a risk, as is Dark Matter, and perhaps Arceus and Star themselves. All for different reasons.”

    “That’s… a lot.”

    “Indeed! Still, we must fight.” Looking satisfied, Nevren exited the room. “And as far as I can tell, our first step is harnessing Dungeons the same way Dark Matter is. Ah. Hello, Hecto.”

    Standing at the entrance was the canid Zygarde, who bowed in greeting.

    “It has been quite a few days,” Hecto greeted. “Have you found Star?”

    “I have not.”

    “Ah. Anything you are able to tell me?”

    “I have halted Step’s slaughter of the mutants.”

    “She has been slaughtering them?”

    “Yes.”

    “That is strange. They have not returned to the Reincarnation Machine.”

    “That is why I had her stop.”

    “Ah. That is troublesome.”

    Lavender didn’t quite understand what they meant by that. So, they had to find some of the other mutants, too? Were they okay? When Lavender tried to ask, both Hecto and Nevren did not answer directly.

    “Optimistically, they are in the same place Owen and the others have been taken to,” Hecto continued.

    Nevren nodded, and then said, “Then I shall continue my research on Dungeon harnessing. I suppose you should tell Step to hold off on destroying the mutants, then. I shall try to salvage what I can with the ones we have remaining, who are all stable.”

    “How many mutants remain with you?” Hecto asked.

    “Not very many. Only twenty sets, totaling roughly fifty souls, though we have another few hundred in the power generator. But withdrawing them now would power down the Reincarnation Machine and the rest of the lab’s facilities. Quite a conundrum.” Nevren studied Hecto. “The Beammaker is next to useless… Ah, and what is your plan?”

    “I am nearly done with gathering everyone in Kilo Village,” Hecto said. “I assume you shall not be doing this?”

    “Oh, certainly not. Many of them likely want my head. I shall remain here in Quartz HQ. If I can assist in the efforts against Dark Matter from a distance, I shall.”

    “Of course. Then, take care.”

    Hecto turned, about to leave, but stopped after only a few steps. “Nate,” he said. “Do you know anything about him?”

    “Unfortunately not.”

    Lavender made a small barking noise, earning both their attention. “Not even in the crazy room?”

    “No, not even in my motivation room. I was not able to deduce much about who or what Nate is yet, as he was only a relatively recent discovery. Before, we thought the pit in the Chasm was merely a manifestation of his Dark power, but it seems that was only a disguise for his true nature. Which we cannot deduce yet. I did not spend time on it.”

    “His basic shape is something that has been seen in worlds beyond,” Hecto said. “A Pokémon of nearly apocalyptic strength and immense, reality-distorting powers. But Nate’s form is highly corrupted from what they usually appear as.”

    “He’s certainly friendly, though, is he not?”

    “Yes. But as a great unknown, it is still a concern. I advise that you deduce more about him when you can. However, he was the source of a strange attack filled with life energy that was able to severely dampen Dark Matter’s assault from Hot Spot. We are going to make use of that again for a counterstrike when everyone is gathered in Kilo Village. Perhaps there is something within Hot Spot cave that can assist us, too.”

    “I see… Yes. That would certainly help, if he’s gathered that power again. An assault… Perhaps that can help us free the spirits Dark Matter has seized. I can only hope they are recoverable. And I imagine you will be trying to find Star?”

    Hecto paused for longer than usual. “I am not going to prioritize my feelings over the greater mission.”

    “Of course. Then we are to gather those who Dark Matter might have imprisoned, including Star.”

    “That is correct.” The Zygarde’s eyes flickered. “Then I shall be going.”

    He left as silently as he had arrived, and Nevren turned his attention to Lavender. “I am going to write a message for you to send to Kilo Village. You must go on foot due to the destruction of the Waypoints, and it may take several weeks on foot.”

    “Several weeks?” Lavender complained. “But what about Auntie Rim and the other mutants?”

    “I shall tend to them. If things go as planned, your trip back will not take nearly as long.”

    Lavender’s cheek bolts whirred and his eyes turned a gloomy blue.

    Nevren sighed. “Go with Lucas and Rim, then. But you are to keep her safe.” Tending to her would be a bother anyway, and he wanted to focus entirely on his research without those trivial matters. He can keep all the other mutants in Poké Balls anyway. They rarely put up a fuss after that. Submissive by design. Convenient.

    “Okay!” Lavender’s eyes shifted to an energetic yellow. “I’ll get them right now!”

    “Take care,” Nevren said. “Ah, and don’t forget—” Lavender was already gone. “…Your supplies. Mm.” He was tempted to revise that moment… but Lavender had already exhausted so much of his patience. It was time to get back to work in peace.

    If everyone listened to him obediently, perhaps this mess could have been avoided altogether. That was what Nevren always thought, and the more the world plunged into its inevitable chaos, the more he knew that was true.

    <><><>​

    1. Announcing that most tasks have been completed. Gather all units to Kilo Village to prepare for an assault against Dark Matter in Hot Spot. Once mobilization is complete, prepare for delving into the labyrinth for supplies.

    100. I have another announcement.

    1. 100. Your task was to search for Star.

    100. I have found a trail toward Star.

    1. R-requesting location.

    100. Void Basin.
     
    Chapter 101 - Dark Approach
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 101 – Dark Approach

    In the outskirts of East Null Village, Anam stood with the guards at the edge of the encampment that had been formed within the trees. Clearing out the Void Shadows that were hidden in the roots and underground were easy with how practiced the guards were, some of them with centuries of experience.

    Anam was ready to confront Dark Matter right then. He wouldn’t let Dark Matter take the fight to the innocents. He walked through the hastily formed tents, past the crystals buried in the ground as wards against Void Shadow attacks, and finally beyond the loose ring of guards at the edges of the expansive encampment. It was impressive how quickly they had mobilized to evacuate, considering the fact that the town’s size rivaled the basin of Kilo Village. In less than a quarter of a day, according to their clocks, the town was completely abandoned. Dropped everything and left.

    They had drills for such a thing, after all. If a Titan came too close, or some other emergency. It was sad, but effective, that they could leave so perfectly.

    “I’m glad you have everything taken care of!” Anam said cheerfully, smiling at the guards, who were still unnerved. One of them was the guard that had punched through his chest, and he was avoiding eye contact.

    “Er, yeah. So, we have everything taken care of here, I think. Dark Matter is…?”

    “He isn’t coming right now.” Anam frowned, trying to assure them that he was competent. Without Dark Matter’s advice, he could no longer tell with certainty whether they had negative feelings about him or not. “He should be here soon, though. So, I’m going to go out and fight him and try to keep him away from your group, alright? It should be safer. If you can see him coming, keep moving. You can do that?”

    “Won’t be hard,” said a Rhyperior to the left, scoffing proudly. “You saw how quickly we moved on our own. We know our formations.”

    “Great!” That was good enough. Anam turned, flinging a little slime with his momentum. The guards grimaced and distanced themselves. “I’m gonna go, then. I’ll fight Dark Matter, and then you’ll be safe. I should be back in a few days, but if I don’t, um, well, do as usual until Latios and Latias come back. They’ll know what to do, right?”

    “We were fine without you before and we’ll be fine without you after,” Rhyperior said, nodding.

    Anam could only hope that was true.

    <><><>​

    That had been at least a day ago. From there, Anam departed from the camp and headed northwest, following where he had last felt Dark Matter. He first checked the abandoned East Null Village for any sign of his twisted aura, but found nothing but abandoned buildings. Chores and tasks had been left completely undone, and only the occasional winds of the Voidlands accompanied the soft, slimy steps the Goodra made.

    Did Dark Matter simply ignore the village entirely?

    He surely would have sensed Dark Matter if he tried to go past him to the camp. Anam made sure to be careful of that, even making irregular, zigzag-like flight patterns to cover more ground in case Dark Matter tried to go around him. Even with the delay of getting an entire city’s worth of Pokémon evacuated, they had had a great deal of a head start.

    Do you sense anything, Anam? Madeline asked.

    No, I don’t.

    Then perhaps he has gone someplace else,
    James said. I was watching your flight path. Dark Matter wouldn’t have been able to go past you unless he went so far around that you’d beat him back to camp. Which you should do.

    Right…
    If he delayed for too long, then a clever way around would have led to an ambush. If Anam wasn’t there to defend them, he wasn’t sure if they’d stand a chance.

    Something bothered him, though. He didn’t think Dark Matter would be going for the town in such a roundabout way. He was clever, but that was too much trouble. It would surely get him caught; is how Dark Matter would think. Anam knew Dark Matter for five hundred years. There was a thing or two he could deduce from guts alone.

    So, where would Dark Matter have gone otherwise?

    Anam stopped walking, placing all of his focus on that question. Where could he have gone? He rubbed his forehead, digging his hands into his skull in deep concentration. He pulled out, then rubbed his cheeks, then under his eyes, like it would help him think harder.

    …Oh no. Anam stiffened. He saw it in his mind; Null Villages in a circle around Cipher City, in the cardinal directions. Dark Matter had briefly gone to the north, which repelled him. Then, he seemed to be going east, so Anam sped ahead to warn East Null Village.

    The map confirmed that, didn’t it?

    But then, what if he redirected? He couldn’t strike Cipher City; Dark Matter always feared that place, or at least knew not to strike directly.

    That only left…

    “South Null Village is in danger,” Anam said to himself. “Ohh, I hope my friends aren’t there…”

    What do we do? Madeline asked.

    I suggest we return to camp to make sure Dark Matter isn’t nearing it, proposed James. Then, perhaps we should play catchup.

    That was sound advice. With a nod, Anam turned and rushed back for the East Null Village camp. Dark Matter couldn’t have gotten to the South by now, right? Though, the time to travel from the North to the East, compared to the North to the South, with only a small bend to avoid the center…

    No, no! Dark Matter couldn’t be that fast. It was fine. He’d just have to be faster.

    Anam refused to acknowledge the fact that it might have already been too late.

    <><><>​

    Marshadow couldn’t sleep. Aster was too noisy.

    It was supposedly nighttime, but all Aster could do was toss and turn in the bed that Marshadow had provided for him. The Mewtwo’s tail flicked. Marshadow rested within the darkness of another bed, though even if his eyes were closed, he could feel the Psychic radiance of his guest at all times. Fighting Pokémon were naturally sensitive to that sort of thing.

    He’d never felt so trapped before. In mere days he’d gone from the monotony of keeping Null Village afloat to finding a slew of radiant spirits, and then Aster came and threatened to take them all with him.

    What was he supposed to do about that? And not only were they radiant spirits, one of them was Owen. This would have been a whole lot easier if Owen had found Jirachi in West Null first.

    “Marshadow?” Aster asked.

    Marshadow’s thoughts froze like the rest of his body.

    “I’m sorry. For being here, and everything.”

    Too little, too late, buddy. Marshadow didn’t know what he could actually say in response. Aster may have been a victim in all this like everyone else, but the difference was Aster was still following Alexander’s orders. In the end, that made them enemies.

    “I know you know where that big power is.”

    He figured it was obvious. After all, Marshadow was only playing with Aster’s mercy here. If he got reckless, he could simply destroy the place or kill the civilians until he found what he was looking for. The fact that Alexander sent Aster meant he wasn’t taking this seriously yet.

    “Please,” Aster begged. “I don’t want to do anything bad. Just tell me…”

    And let Alexander get one of the few hopes in upsetting this balance? Marshadow thought not.

    “It isn’t like it’s enough to beat Alexander anyway,” Aster dismissed. “Please? He just wants it. And if he does, maybe he’ll help out this place in return, right?”

    Didn’t need it. Didn’t want it, either.

    “Okay,” Aster finally said, and it just occurred to Marshadow that he might have been trying to read his mind. That wasn’t good. “If you aren’t going to talk, I’ll tell Alexander that you did. That you were really nice. That you eventually decided it was better to give it to me.”

    What? Where was this—did he figure it out? How? Marshadow would have sensed an intrusion on his mind.

    Aster got up. Marshadow did, too. The height difference was the least of the shade’s problems.

    “Yer makin’ a mistake,” Marshadow said. “It ain’t worth it.”

    “If Alexander says so, it’s worth it to me,” Aster said with dull eyes. “I’m sorry,” he went on, his voice trembling.

    There was a small, blue orb in the Mewtwo’s right hand. At first he thought it was an Aura Sphere, which would have been a useless effort against someone like him. But then he realized it had a solid appearance to it—glassy, smooth, rounded. Wait—that was one of Leph’s orbs. There wasn’t any light inside, though. It could become anything Aster wanted.

    “Aster,” Marshadow said steadily, “this ain’t you. You don’t gotta do this.”

    “Please tell me where it is.” Aster held the orb tighter. It started to glow, wisps of light swirling inside. It was listless, resembling a lazy pond of stagnant water.

    Marshadow braced for whatever torment he was about to endure. Aster wasn’t going to get it out of him.

    The orb shattered and a wave of energy coated everything but Aster in a fuzzy, blue light. It seeped into Marshadow’s body and left him feeling muddled and groggy. He stepped back and sighed, his clenched fists loosening as he stared dimly at the ground.

    It was suddenly so hard to care.

    “Marshadow, where are you hiding it?”

    Marshadow continued to stare down, though his mind wandered to that little Charmander, where he’d carried him off to Hakk and Xypher’s home, the tiresome route he took to avoid detection. So much effort, and for what? To draw out the inevitable?

    But he couldn’t tell Aster, right? He felt the Mewtwo’s presence in his mind. He was going to find out. Did that matter? It did. But fighting him off was so tiring.

    No—no! He wasn’t supposed to let it happen! How much did Aster find out? Marshadow repelled Aster from his mind with a halfhearted effort, but it was enough. Aster’s hold on his mind was gone.

    “You’re hiding… a Charmander?” Aster said, frowning. “Well… alright. I guess I’ll have to see for myself.”

    “Wait,” Marshadow said, but made little effort to go after him.

    “It’s okay,” Aster said. “This way, everyone will be happy. I’m sorry I had to use an Apathy Orb on you. It’ll wear off soon, but don’t go after me, alright?”

    The door opened. Marshadow stood up, forming a ball of darkness in his hands. He fired too late; the door closed, scattering the attack into a small blotch against the stone.

    <><><>​

    Hakk awoke to three taps to the front door. And then three more. The icy Sandslash groaned and rolled to look at the clock, which showed in its digital lights a bleary three in the morning. So, this was what it was going to be like, was it? Now he just had to wait for a third set of three—

    There it was. Perfect. Now he could begin his ungodly-hours morning with everything lined up perfectly.

    “Hang on, hang on,” Hakk called, sitting up. Xypher was already looming over him and waiting anxiously for Hakk to answer. Xypher was never good at talking to strangers. Maybe when he was Class C he’d be better at it, but he needed more of his sanity before that happened.

    Hakk gently pat Xypher on the head. Satisfied, the Corviknight trotted down the short hall and in the center of the living room, looking, uncharacteristically, graceful. Reminded Hakk of a proper guard, and he let a tired, small smile trace his lips.

    Before opening the door, he glanced to the door’s left. Buttons to open and close. Then he looked to the right. A third button, which he silently pressed. A small square in the middle of the door lit up, revealing who was standing on the outside through a video feed.

    Hakk’s stomach dropped.

    Mewtwo Aster.

    What.

    Why?

    How?

    Was Marshadow okay? Did he follow those team members? They better know how to fight, because he wasn’t about to risk his hide for them.

    Or was he? That was Marshadow’s orders. But this was Aster. He didn’t stand a chance.

    “Uh, yeah?” Hakk dumbly said when his thoughts finally sorted themselves into something coherent.

    “Can I come in?” Even though Aster was asking, what was he supposed to say? No? And have him blow the house up? If Aster wanted something, he was going to get it.

    “Sure.” Hakk did his best to stay calm and prayed to the god that couldn’t hear him that Aster wouldn’t read his terror.

    The video feed disappeared and the door slid open, revealing the Mewtwo that towered over him. At least twice his height. That helped nothing. Gods, why was he so huge? Wasn’t Mew supposed to be adorably tiny?

    Aster moved past Hakk without so much as a nod and looked left and right. “Where is he?” Aster asked. “The one you’re hiding.”

    “Guest room,” Hakk replied immediately. He glanced up at Xypher, who may as well have been a metal sculpture. Aster disappeared into the guest room and the door closed behind him. Hakk shakily stood near the exit to their home, not sure what else to do.

    It wasn’t that he wanted to help Aster. He just didn’t want to turn into a brick. And between having Marshadow be angry at him and Aster killing him or worse, he picked angering Marshadow. Besides, if Aster figured out where the kid was being held, then that probably meant Marshadow already failed his part of the plan. Or he was dead. That’d be wonderful; this crummy place could finally collapse in on itself! He’d be able to ruin his life all over again. Maybe he’d take up a soldier position under Alexander.

    No, that’d never happen. Xypher didn’t like Alexander, and even though the southern settlement of Null Village was technically a large town, Cipher City would be way too large and overstimulating. Pretty sure they didn’t allow Class D Pokémon either. Also, Alexander was evil. Nobody who could control Titans was a good person. Not to mention his iron rule. Any challenge would be faced with death. Hakk wasn’t sure if he could get over that part yet.

    Aster reemerged from the guest room and Hakk was fully expecting there to be a Charmander struggling in his arms. Yet the Mewtwo emerged with nothing, and Aster frowned at him.

    “He’s not there,” he said.

    “…What?”

    “Nobody’s in there.”

    “But I—but they’re—what?”

    Aster studied Hakk momentarily, and the icy Sandslash felt something wash over his thoughts. It was like a stifling static, like he was waking up all over again. Then, the haze was gone, and Aster was leaving the house.

    “Sorry,” Aster said. “I guess he ran away already.”

    The door closed and the two were left alone.

    Hakk had never seen Aster look so serious before. Didn’t even bother smiling. He had that same, cheerful tone, but his expression was like he’d seen a dead body.

    Or would Aster just smile at that? Hakk didn’t know.

    “I made a mess,” Xypher whimpered.

    Hakk glanced at Xypher, then below, and then frowned back up at him. “It’s alright,” Hakk said gently. “C’mon. Let’s wash up and go back to bed.”

    Or try to.

    <><><>​

    Owen had let Mispy smuggle him out when Hakk and Xypher fell asleep. He felt a little bad about betraying their trust, but it would have been for their safety, too, if this all went badly. Mispy seemed to have a hunch that Aster would have figured out where they were soon.

    They went the long way around where they thought Marshadow had gone and navigated to the large evaluation buildings. The secretary and guards had apparently been prompted to allow them through without a fuss, and they soon gathered together with the others to discuss what to do. Eon, however, hadn’t made it, and while Owen wondered why, he didn’t think it was worth it to go searching for him when time was a factor.

    Dialga was surprisingly accurate on where he sensed Palkia. Not only did he know the direction that Palkia was held, but also how far away he was. That, combined with some estimation on travel time, led to an inconvenient conclusion: Palkia would be seven days’ travel into the Nil Plateaus, and by then perhaps another day simply searching for his Titan.

    But what if they had Gahi? By their estimates, even if they were inexperienced with the plateaus, if Gahi went out with the others, travel would perhaps only take four days. Though, that was in itself a big unknown…

    Still, if they could get Palkia in time, perhaps that meant they would be able to return instantly with the help of his warping. They were putting a lot of faith into that possibility—did they actually know if Palkia could warp them?

    They only had five days to get this done. After five days, according to Marshadow, his hand would be forced. They would either take on Aster, let Owen be taken to Cipher City, or let Marshadow go in their place.

    When they found it safe enough to leave, Mispy snuck Owen from Xypher and Hakk’s home to Dialga’s abode by stuffing him in her vines. Aster must have been distracted by Marshadow, because they hadn’t run into him along the way there, and they quickly hashed out their plans from what they knew.

    They could easily assemble a small team to go after Palkia. They knew how to defeat those Titans. Weaken them with Owen, and then strike with Crystal-enhanced moves. They were weak now, but by the time they found Palkia, their strength would have returned. They knew that Eon and Gahi were a sure success in landing one, but perhaps there were other combinations they weren’t aware of.

    They had to go as one or two flying units. They had to be fast; Eon would be able to mimic Gahi’s form, but what of the others? Jerry would be too slow to fly and too large to carry; the same went for Zena. They would have to stay behind in Null Village, perhaps to keep an eye on things.

    They seemed to have everything settled on what to do, except for one snag.

    “Alright,” Jerry said, sitting across from Owen in the large circle in Dialga’s room. “Seems like an easy plan. Gahi and some passengers take down the Titan. We can grab Marshadow and make it like before, right?”

    “Gah! Marshadow. I forgot.” Owen rubbed his forehead. “No, we need Marshadow to take down that Titan. I don’t think we have the strength on our own. But there’s no way Marshadow is going to let us go. Aster’s right here, and if Marshadow’s gone…”

    “Hold on,” Trina said, holding up a tiny hand. “What exactly are your options here? This Aster apparently wants to take you to Cipher City, correct?”

    “Cipher City being the Voidlands’ capital,” Dialga clarified. “Ruled by one Hydreigon Alexander, whom we know little about, though he sounds both powerful and, well, not someone with your best interest in mind.”

    “Right, yeah.” Owen kept his arms and legs crossed, staring at the floor in front of him like it had an invisible map. “So, I can’t get caught by Aster, or it’s all over.”

    “Of course. And therefore, your top priority should be to get away from Aster, yes?”

    “Yes…? But we can’t really do that out in the open. He’ll know for sure if scouts leave, right?”

    “That is a possibility,” Trina said.

    “But the alternative would be hoping he goes away,” Zena pointed out, curling her ribbons worriedly. “Or… fighting him.”

    “We don’t really know enough about this place to make an informed move,” Jerry said. “And let’s face it, if we can’t stand up to Marshadow, then we can’t stand up to Aster. We should ask the guy what our options are and have him help.”

    “I guess so,” Owen said. “You don’t think he’s going to cave to Alexander’s pressure, though, right?” Saying ‘Alexander’ still felt odd on his tongue. He had to remember it wasn’t his father.

    “If he does, we’re done anyway,” Jerry said. “Then we go with the old plan of flying on our own.”

    “Right…” Owen looked to the others. “Can one of you get Marshadow? I probably should stay here for now.”

    “Shouldn’t we smuggle you back to Hakk’s place before they panic? By whatever they call ‘morning,’ since that’d probably be when Aster would’ve tried to find you.” Demitri looked at the ceiling, and then through it, as if he was trying to judge the perpetually dim sky. “I don’t really know their sleep patterns, but…”

    “Right, er, sure. I guess, Mispy, hide me again?”

    Mispy wrapped a few vines around Owen and pulled him under, where the Charmander tried to position himself in something at least vaguely comfortable among the thorns. Mispy was courteous enough to form a small dome under her belly that allowed for something less precarious, and his fire kept the hideout well-lit.

    Owen heard Zena’s characteristic slither. “Well, Dialga,” she said, “I suppose we shall leave you to continue your recovery. Thank you for the directions.”

    “Of course. Take care. I do hope when Aster leaves, I can leave this dreary room.”

    “Are you coming with us?” Demitri asked. It sounded like he was on top of Mispy.

    “If it isn’t any trouble,” Zena replied. “As long as Aster doesn’t see us, right?”

    The door opened and closed, and Owen leaned back with his hands folded over his abdomen. There wasn’t much he could do, now, and it had been a long walk just to get to the facility. This village, like the so-called Kilo Village, was a lot larger than it had any right to be with that name. Maybe he could try some meditation. He knew that Klent and the others were there, but he couldn’t hear them yet. That must have been terrifying for them—he hoped they’d come back soon so they’d at least have something to do.

    Owen tried anyway for the whole trip back, which proved fruitless. Couldn’t even turn his scales green, or dim his flame into a flower. Though, the thought of losing that flame, and therefore the darkness that would follow, awakened a primal fear. Could that be holding him back?

    Suddenly, after what Owen estimated was three quarters of the trip, Mispy jerked to the side and Owen tumbled around in his dome, bumping his head against a few thorns. He suppressed a squeak and clutched at his chin. No blood.

    “What’s going—”

    Vines wrapped around his head, silencing him.

    Owen really wished he had his Perceive right about now. When was he going to evolve, anyway?! His old track record was only a few days before that came along. This whole Charmander schtick was getting really old.

    Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t nearly as strong as he used to be, either. Perhaps even weaker than when he’d first become a Heart.

    Had being killed in the Voidlands actually stripped him completely of his power? It could take years to evolve at that rate… No, there had to be a way to accelerate it.

    Mispy’s frantic shuffling finally slowed down. Good, because he was pretty sure he had a few new cuts under his scales from all the stray thorns. She finally let go of his face and he took deep, long breaths.

    “What was that for?”

    “Aster,” Mispy replied simply, and Owen thought at first that he’d misheard.

    “What? But Marshadow should have…”

    Could Aster have spotted them? Now that he thought about it, Mispy really stood out… Aster couldn’t read auras, right? Was his aura disguised if he was hidden under Mispy?

    By the time Owen was done sorting out all of his questions, though, they all came tumbling out when Mispy rolled him onto the floor into Hakk and Xypher’s home. Hakk, looking annoyed, and Xypher, looking frazzled, stood before him, and Owen realized they were back in their home.

    “Alright,” Hakk said, “so I don’t know whether I should call you lucky or stupid.”

    “Wait, I—”

    “What do you think you’re doing, getting smuggled out in the middle of town where you could have been caught?” Hakk jabbed a claw in Owen’s chest. “But you know, maybe that was the right choice, because during sleep hours, guess who visited? Freaking Aster.”

    He spun back and puffed out a frosty, snowflake-riddled breath into the air away from them. Something about those cyan eyes of his made Owen look down, apologetic. “Aster came here?” Owen asked, glancing back worriedly.

    “Yeah, and you know what, so what? I didn’t sign up to harbor someone that the Void King wants. Waaay above my pay grade. You want my opinion on this craziness? You’re dead. Stop thinking about escape, alright? You don’t just come back from the dead.”

    “I’ve done that, like, twice.”

    Hakk squinted. Owen tittered.

    Xypher lectured Owen. “Danger. Danger, danger.”

    “Look,” Hakk went on, claws pressing into his wrists. “Maybe Alexander would give you a good life, y’know? He clearly needs you for something and he’d want you to stick around, and I heard he gives a pretty cushy life to his immediate subordinates.”

    “Sorry, that’s not really something I want to do,” Owen replied with a hint of venom. Mispy and Demitri shared a glare toward Hakk, who, outnumbered, backed down with a scowl.

    “I know it was dangerous,” Owen went on. “Sorry, but it was even more dangerous for us to do nothing at all. And we have a plan. Dialga told us where Palkia is. We can find him, take that Titan down, and—”

    “That’s way freaking easier said than done.” Hakk looked at Owen like he was denying basic math. “You took down one Titan. One. With the help of Marshadow and a whole ton of luck and at least two different flukes. And you almost dying. Do you really think you’re going to pull that off again?”

    “Yes.”

    “How?”

    “We know their weaknesses and we know how to take them down.” Owen refused to back down and carried his momentum. “With that knowledge we can—”

    “Alright, wise guy, listen to me again, and this time I want you to put your big boy brain on.”

    Owen glared, flame popping a few times, but he listened in silence.

    “It takes huge amounts of Z-Energy to take down a Titan the way you did. That was the very thing that drew Aster here in the first place. No other reason he’d be making a weird visit like this. So, if that happens a second time, what do you think follows?”

    That was a good point. They’d know for sure that something was wrong then. Once was a coincidence, or at least something that might have a little doubt. Twice? That would be enough for someone like Alexander to send a lot more than Aster.

    Owen glanced around for what the others might have to say, but then realized that Mispy and Demitri were alone. “Where’d Gahi and Zena go? And Trina?” Sure, she was a lot smaller, but she had been on Gahi’s shoulder again. Probably out of habit.

    “We split up to lose Aster,” Demitri said. “Which means… they probably didn’t know how to get back to us.”

    “Should we look for them?” Hakk asked. “Aster’s on the prowl for you. And he can read minds. If he finds out that they helped smuggle you away…”

    Silence followed, Owen looking at the flame of his tail.

    There wasn’t really any backing out of this, was there?

    “Oh, no, don’t get that look,” Hakk immediately said, grabbing Owen by the shoulder before he could think to act on his morale. “I’m under orders to keep you here and I already failed that once. Aster checked here so he’s less likely to check again.”

    “But what if Aster attacks the city?” Owen countered immediately, gears turning in his mind. “Hiding me would just cause even more bloodshed, wouldn’t it?”

    Hakk narrowed his blue eyes, then looked to Xypher, who squawked confusedly.

    Finally, Hakk stared at Owen again, and the Charmander, staring up, didn’t look away. “You aren’t going out until it looks like that’s what’ll happen.”

    The timing was too perfect; the moment Hakk turned to leave for his room, the ground shook, and the Sandslash groaned.

    Xypher chirped curiously.

    A mixture of self-satisfaction and dread filled Owen—he was right. And that was bad.

    Demitri pressed the button to open the door. Gahi’s war cries mixed with water cutting through the sky filled the town’s atmosphere.

    “Get out,” Hakk relented.

    “Stay here,” Owen replied. Nodding to Demitri and Mispy, the Charmander rushed for the exit.

    <><><>​

    Have to hurry, have to warn Marshadow, I can see the beacon! It’s right there!

    Latias had flown nonstop over the Voidlands for the past few days, only slowing down to powernap mid-flight. It was risky, but it had paid off. High altitudes were risky—the clouds in the sky weren’t hospitable—but just below allowed her to avoid most Titan blasts, or sense them coming.

    Once, she had to stop briefly to rest, and she was sure she’d gotten a far enough head start that Dark Matter or a Titan or anything else wouldn’t have found her. That was the advantage of being a small Legend. Long ago, most of the larger Legendary Pokémon had been simply too big to hide from Titans and Void Shadows. No matter how much strength they had, a few decades of constantly whittling them down and waiting for an unguarded moment was all they needed.

    Smaller Legends, though. They were the lucky ones. But this was the riskiest move they’d made in a while. Latias was surprised at how eager her brother had been to take it. Sure, Dark Matter had changed around his strategy, and Alexander was making weird moves, but why now? What set it all into motion?

    Oh, what did it matter? She’d spent too many hours ruminating over that. Now that South Null Village was in sight, she could focus on the task at hand. Warn Marshadow that Dark Matter was approaching, maybe about finding some of Anam’s allies, reunite them, and they could make more decisive moves.

    Easy, easy, easy.

    She tried to ignore the fact that they had no idea what those decisive moves were.

    A strange energy was coming from Null Village. Tasted like purple. Latias focused a little harder, furrowing her brow, and saw a flash of a smiling, happy face in her vision and her heart skipped a beat.

    Aster’s here!

    What was she supposed to do now? No, no hesitating. She was here on a, what could she say, scouting mission! That would do it. Wait, no, no! That was the exact opposite thing she was supposed to say!

    Maybe she—

    Something dark caught her lower vision and she swerved left in a spiral. A dark beam of energy scorched her left wing, shriveling the very tip into a dry husk whose feathers flaked off in black ash. She winced and maintained her course, but a second blast forced her to twist in the air again. Time slowed and the beam, the same size as her neck, grazed her arm, leaving another black scorch where it touched.

    She lost her momentum. Countless thin wires snapped from the ground and into the air, wrapping around Latias by the neck and body, and an overwhelming force pulled her from the skies.

    The black strings slammed her hard into the ground and her inertia toppled over a few trees in the way. Up was down and she couldn’t see well. The nausea left her dry-heaving, but for better or worse, she hadn’t eaten in a while.

    Making a sound somewhere between a groan and a whimper, she lifted herself off the ground, only for more of those shadowy threads to hold her in place. They were cold. Too cold. Her body felt like it’d been flying through a blizzard.

    “H-help!” Latias cried. “Someone! I’m tr—brother?”

    Were her eyes playing tricks on her? She saw her twin, blue feathers and red eyes, yes, that was him! Latios!

    “Try again.”

    Her relief mutated into horror.

    The Latios form melted and changed, thinning out into a lighter frame and red feathers until Latias stared at an expressionless double of herself. It drifted toward her idly like a predator after its injured and trapped prey.

    Latias conjured a ball of psionic mist above her. It hummed in the air and illuminated the dark, but when she fired, she missed completely in her panic. It flew past Dark Matter’s head and into the tree behind him, disintegrating the parts that it touched and then flew further ahead. It finally exploded, shredding several trees and creating a new clearing where they’d once been. Ashen splinters rained down on them both.

    So, she fired again. Not only did he take the blow, but he made no effort to dodge out of its path. The attack had simply been absorbed into him. Nullified. Like she didn’t even matter.

    “Hello.”

    “Please, don’t… I…”

    “No.”

    Dark Matter’s arm reached out to Latias’ forehead.

    That was when she screamed. She didn’t know how far the cry would go or how long she could hold it, but that was all she could do. She readied another Mist Ball, and then his claw tapped her on the forehead. Why was she attacking Dark Matter? She stopped screaming, feeling silly. The Mist Ball evaporated on her own volition.

    The threads of Shadow Hold released her. Latias floated up, shaking her head and coughing.

    “You’re very loud,” Dark Matter commented.

    “You didn’t have to be so rough,” Latias muttered back, poking her claws together.

    “Mm.” Dark Matter seemed annoyed at something, but then shrugged it off. “Stay here. You’ll know if you’re needed.”

    Dark Matter continued to Null Village, and Latias waited patiently. Though, she was curious about something. “Did you get my brother?”

    “No. He must have taken another route.”

    Latias shrugged. Probably. “If you talk like that, they’ll find you out immediately,” she pointed out.

    “…Right.” He cleared his throat and something about him changed. The oppressive aura swirled around him, but it was compact, hidden. “Better?”

    “I guess so…” She didn’t really care for him using her voice, but he could do what he wanted, she supposed.

    Without another word, the disguised Latias took to the skies and flew for South Null Village.
     
    Chapter 102 - Clash at Null Village
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 102 – Clash at Null Village

    Owen, Demitri, and Mispy emerged to a sky carved in two by a Hydro Pump, and then further impacted by purple crescents of energy that cut the water into strange, oblong and jagged shapes. The Hydro Pump stopped, and a Mewtwo reappeared in the middle of the sky, looking left and right with a wide grin. Owen quickly hid behind Mispy’s foreleg, but Aster wasn’t looking for him.

    In a blink, a starry Flygon rammed into Aster from behind, digging his claws into flesh. It left barely a scratch by the time Aster propelled himself forward with a kick, Psychic energy bursting from his feet.

    “Gahi’s fighting Aster?! When did that happen?” Owen tried to keep up with them, but both Gahi and the Mewtwo were teleporting across the sky every few seconds, occasionally clashing in random spots in the air. It seemed like Gahi was holding his own, but Owen feared that Aster wasn’t taking the battle seriously.

    “You two need to help him,” Owen said, staring up. “I—I don’t know what I can do against…”

    “No.” Mispy used several vines to wrap around and then guide Owen to her back.

    “If we leave you alone,” Demitri translated, “Aster might pluck you right off the ground mid-battle. If we’re fighting Aster, you’re coming with us!”

    It was unintuitive, though it was better than hiding and hoping he wouldn’t be found. But what was he supposed to be able to do to help?

    “Let’s try to get closer. Follow the streets!” Owen could use the time to think.

    Owen could see several townsfolk were either watching from their doorways or windows. Shadows deeper inside suggested more were hiding. The streets were empty aside from guards rushing to secure the premises, but none of them looked eager to fight Aster directly. Owen could imagine why. One strike from him ran the risk of instant death, and then who knows where they’d wake up in the Voidlands—and how much of their selves would remain.

    Owen could only imagine that terror… And was thankful, in a morbid way, that he was apparently immune to it. Perhaps that was one reason he could afford to risk himself more.

    Think. What could he do? He didn’t have strength behind him. He had already realized long ago that he wasn’t going to rapidly evolve. Whatever happened when he had first died in the Voidlands, it stripped him of his power, even if it couldn’t take his memories. He had to be clever. His most useful technique had been Protect, but what good was that if he couldn’t get into the fray?

    They made more turns through the streets but had to stop when a stray Shadow Ball vaporized the ground only a few feet ahead of them. A crater of rubble that crackled with black electricity remained—that wasn’t a normal Ghost attack.

    “It’s rot,” Owen said to himself. “We need to be careful. It’s the same power Anam has!”

    Balls of psychic energy followed in a rapid-fire line that hammered into several buildings.

    “This guy’s way out of our league,” Demitri panted. “What’s Gahi thinking?!”

    “He doesn’t,” Mispy concluded, though her serrated flower petals were glowing.

    Owen’s eyes widened. “Uh—Mispy?”

    “Shh.” Mispy kept following Aster’s movements. She was waiting for the right moment to launch a Solar Beam…

    If only he had Perceive. He could have potentially read where Aster would appear, maybe try to sense distortions in the air. Would that work? He didn’t know. It could also overwhelm him.

    No use thinking about things he didn’t have. He needed to find a way to get them to Gahi to help. There was a Hydro Pump back there—Zena! Where was she? She had to fire another so they could figure out her location.

    Mispy suddenly jerked to the left, changing course mid-stride. Owen fell off and into Demitri’s arms with a yelp.

    “Mispy?” Demitri called. “What’s going on?”

    Aster managed a powerful kick on Gahi, slamming him into the ground a few streets over. Not even missing a beat, Gahi appeared in a flash of light above Aster and slammed down on him with his cosmic tail, dealing the same blow.

    Then, he whipped around and clawed at the air behind him—where Aster had appeared, only to get a slash across the chest. Aster gasped; Gahi smirked. Then, they both disappeared to opposite sides of the town.

    “I can’t believe he’s holding his own against him.” Demitri tripped, but regained himself.

    Owen tried to ignore the odd warmth in his chest. This was serious. “Aster might be holding back for fun, or something. Or maybe he’s trying to draw me out. This—this isn’t a trap, is it?”

    “Gahi will die,” Mispy replied immediately.

    “Right, we don’t have a choice…”

    Aster was standing still in the air for too long; a second Hydro Pump smashed into him from the forward-left of the town from Owen’s perspective. That was only a few streets off—and Mispy was already running that way to regroup. Aster formed a barrier after getting soaked by some of the blast. The rest of the water split the low clouds. Behind the gray splotches was a bright, crimson sky of even thicker fog. It coated the town in a malevolent, red tint. Aster stood in the middle of it with a wide grin.

    “You really are hiding someone!”

    He raised his right hand. Psychic crescents whipped around it like a small tornado.

    “My turn!”

    He swung, unleashing the twister of Psychic blades toward Gahi. The Flygon disappeared in a Teleport’s flash. Aster dramatically swung his arm to the left and the tornado followed, curving toward Gahi again. The Flygon disappeared higher and it curved toward him again. Gahi disappeared next to Aster, but then must have realized how terrible of an idea that was because he disappeared milliseconds before Aster could grab him.

    Demitri hopped off Mispy and went below her after some brief communication. He hefted Mispy into the air and threw her onto the rooftop of a nearby building. After a rough landing—and wrapping a vine around Owen to secure him—she reached down and pulled Demitri up next. At this vantage point, they saw a third Hydro Pump coming from two streets over.

    Gahi disappeared low to the ground, like he was about to bait the psionic tornado into the ground.

    “Gahi, no!” Demitri cried. “There are people in there!”

    Gahi seemed surprised that they were there at all, but he hissed and disappeared again, redirecting the tornado toward him.

    Aster was preparing a second twister with his other arm, weaving around another Hydro Pump. He launched that second twister toward the source.

    “No!” Owen cried.

    Then, Mispy fired. Blinding light forced Owen to cover his eyes just in time for the Solar Beam to connect. The explosion rocked the ground and cracked the reinforced rooftops of the nearest buildings. The ringing in Owen’s head didn’t stop for a while, but Mispy had sighed with relief. So, it was deflected? But Aster had prepared it so quickly. Mispy took far too long to charge an attack to deflect it; the next one wouldn’t be so easy.

    “We have to do something,” Owen yelled over the ringing.

    “They’re flying through the air,” Demitri said. “We can’t fly! And Zena would just be exposing herself if she went out now!”

    Demitri threw Mispy over to another rooftop across the road, and Owen heard the rooftop beneath them groan from the force. Mispy grabbed Demitri mid-throw and pulled him along. In the arc above the road, they had a much better vantage point for the battlefield. Owen scanned the roads. Demitri’s throw had been so strong, and Mispy was so much heavier, that even after she picked Demitri up, her momentum in the air had been barely affected. The rooftop once under Demitri, though, had cracked…

    Zena was in an alleyway, occasionally peering out to look for Aster to fire. Good, she had cover, though that would be meaningless if Aster teleported.

    Trina was on Zena’s head, unable to do anything, so instead she behaved as a second pair of eyes.

    On another side street, a trail of shadows that Owen knew was Marshadow ran swiftly toward Aster’s location.

    “Marshadow’s alive and heading to Aster,” Owen said quickly.

    “Okay, so Gahi won’t be alone, but we still need more help.” Demitri looked up, frantic. “Aster’s too far away for me to hit with my axes. If I miss, that’s it!”

    That was it. Aster was too far away. The only way they could even hope to keep up would be if they could Teleport, too! And Gahi only could because of his Psychic Orb. How was he supposed to—

    Something clicked at around the same time the ringing stopped, and Owen’s pupils dilated and focused in on Gahi.

    He just needed time.

    “Distract Aster a little longer,” Owen said, suddenly crossing his legs and grabbing onto one of Mispy’s vines for leverage. “I need to focus.”

    Because he had it. He knew he had a way to help. It wasn’t at the forefront of his aura—he needed to tune himself first. Breathe, breathe…

    By Necrozma, he hoped this would work.

    It was somewhere. Somewhere deep. He had to think back. A time when Tim was still training him, a time when he needed to protect him, when he had to learn about his opponents on the fly. When he had to be ready for any Pokémon, not just the ones he’d have an advantage over. When Tim’s whole world was on Owen’s shoulders.

    Demitri had, in his desperation, tore off a small fragment of the roof and threw it at Aster, who was now controlling two twisters at an ever-more-tired Gahi.

    Mispy’s petals glowed once more.

    Zena hadn’t fired another Hydro Pump, but she was certainly on standby.

    What was Marshadow doing?

    …There. Owen was ready. “Gahi!” Owen shouted, and then said, “Demitri, call Gahi!” Owen, meanwhile, made sure he was hiding behind Mispy’s neck so Aster couldn’t see him.

    They both called again, and Gahi, between his dodges, turned to them.

    “Come here!” Owen ordered, and then Demitri and Mispy looked at him like he was insane.

    But Gahi obeyed without question, disappearing and reappearing.

    “What?!” Gahi said. The Psychic twisters were upon them, seconds away.

    “Okay, Teleport away,” Owen immediately replied.

    The Flygon squinted exasperatedly.

    “GO!”

    “Alright, alright!” Gahi disappeared, and the Psychic auras twisted away.

    Okay, worst part of the gamble was over with. Owen was banking on Mispy being able to take a hit or two, but they didn’t even have to worry about it. He had a Protect ready in case that didn’t work. But now—even more time.

    Owen focused on the space that Gahi had once been, feeling a strange, new trace, like a sixth sense, where he had been. Gahi didn’t go far, either, and that residual trace of energy was even stronger when Owen focused on that.

    Mentally, he reached for it. Grabbed it, seized it, pulled it forward. That energy was what Gahi used to Teleport. And with that old technique from Ayame…

    “Demitri,” Owen said. “I want you to get ready to throw your ax as hard as you can at Aster.”

    “But he’s too—”

    “Trust me. You’ll know when. Okay? No time.”

    “Okay.”

    Mispy glanced back at Owen with a combination of recognition and disbelief. Yes, Owen could tell; she was smart enough to figure out what he was planning. But she probably didn’t know how.

    She wrapped a vine around Demitri and nodded, then wrapped one around Owen.

    “Here goes.” Owen concentrated on that new kernel of energy. Mimic.

    That stolen power was his, at least temporarily, and now it was time to use it. He let his mind fall into his instincts, and then let those guide him. He envisioned Aster, dancing with his blades as Gahi’s Teleports became slower and sloppier. He saw where Aster was and then focused on the space above and behind the Mewtwo.

    That new part of Owen’s core, malleable and adaptive, coursed a tingling energy from his mind into his claws.

    And suddenly, they were behind Aster, in freefall.

    Demitri overcame his split second of panic and pulled his arm back. Aster was mere feet away from him.

    Owen remembered that Demitri was afraid of heights.

    Yet he pulled through. The natural tomahawk soared through the air and lodged itself firmly in Aster’s back with a loud, dull THUD, and Aster went spiraling forward with blood streaming behind him.

    “The other one!” Owen barked.

    Demitri reached for his second tusk, but then looked down and froze.

    “No, Demitri, throw! THROW!”

    Demitri’s gaze was frozen at the ground.

    “Demitri,” Mispy pleaded, and he snapped out of it.

    He squeezed the tusk tight and readied another throw, but when they all looked for Aster again, he was gone. And Owen noticed, thanks to the brighter sky, a shadow above them.

    Owen didn’t even look up. He grasped Mispy again and focused, and they were suddenly above Aster instead of below. His body interrupted their descent; Gahi sped toward them and rammed into Aster headfirst, indigo flames coating his body. Mispy wrapped a vine around Owen and Demitri to keep them near, but the impact sent Owen flying. It was only with another quick vine that he didn’t freefall on his own.

    Aster curled up into a ball and formed another barrier around him, this one a bright sphere tinged with black ripples. It expanded rapidly, and then bent off of Aster and around Team Alloy.

    Demitri, coming to his senses, pulled his fist back and readied a punch. Aster hurled the sphere into the town below. Owen’s stomach was in his throat as they went tumbling in the air, the ground rapidly getting closer.

    “Sorry, guys,” Owen said, and then crossed his arms, forming a Protect that pushed the others away from him. He could afford a rough landing, but risking a crushing landing from any of his larger teammates wouldn’t do.

    It was surreal. Aster was probably trying to pull out one of Demitri’s axes from his back; they were plummeting to the ground in tense, prepared silence. Another crystal-clear beam of water soared through the air and Aster shrieked like he’d been doused in ice after a warm shower. Mispy held Demitri a little tighter. Demitri held his breath and closed his eyes.

    Gahi muttered, “Get ready ter heal.”

    Mispy replied with a silent, “Mm.”

    “Get ready, Owen,” Gahi added.

    “I’m ready.”

    Within his golden barrier, Owen smiled. He knew they would survive the landing. An odd serenity washed over him, because that brief silence in the battle let him finally stop to think. Was this what he had been looking for all this time? A team he could put his complete faith in? Someone he could trust completely, who’d always shared the same goal as him—to be together.

    Together…

    A Flygon stood in front of him, barely half his height. Flygon had his hands on his hips and his tail flicked irritably; just behind him was a Meganium and Haxorus. Meganium shuffled her feet, kicking at a nearby pebble.

    “So, how’s that sound?” Flygon asked. “You’ll join our team. And you aren’t allowed to worry about us dying off while you get to live with Legends. And in exchange… you train us to climb Destiny Tower, just like you.” He held out a hand. “Deal?”


    Owen had blacked out. He hoped it had only been for a few seconds. Demitri groaned to his left; Mispy’s vines writhed to feel for everyone.

    “Get your butt outta my face,” Gahi said, muffled.

    “That’s me,” Mispy grunted; she moved as if something in her chest had broken.

    “You have one?”

    They rolled off of each other, Gahi in particular wheezing.

    Healing energy washed over them, and Owen remembered where they were. He shot up into a sitting position; the sky was still a bright crimson and Aster was inspecting the ax that had once been tossed at him. It had a small trickle of blood on it, but little more. That had been a direct hit from Demitri…

    But they were still standing, and they were together. Together, that word, why did that…

    “Guys!” Owen stood. “I think… I think it’s time to fuse. You three.”

    “What? Fuse?” Demitri glanced at Mispy, who shook her head.

    “Yer nuts,” Gahi stated flatly. “We’ll lose it! Never fused since we got ‘ere, an’ this place messes with yer head, I swear!”

    “It’s our best shot!” Owen pointed skyward. “We gave them everything we had and even new tricks and—”

    “Look out!” Gahi tackled Owen, but Gahi was struck in the back by a stray Shadow Ball. He roared and curled up, squeezing his eyes shut, and Owen smelled something exposed on Gahi’s back. Demitri looked horrified, but Mispy was reflexively channeling healing energy into her ally.

    By the time Owen was unfocused on Gahi and looking for Aster, Demitri shrieked next.

    “Hi!” Aster had appeared right next to him.

    Demitri threw a punch, hitting air when Aster appeared on his other side. Mispy tried to grab him next, but a Psychic barrier blocked her advance.

    “You did a nice shot on me,” Aster said, turning around to show the vertical scar where the ax had once been. It must have been a hasty heal to leave a mark at all…

    Demitri stepped back, his foot slipping on a patch of loose dirt. Aster appeared next to Demitri again and grabbed his tail. He grinned wider. Demitri did not.

    And then they both disappeared.

    Aster appeared several houses away, holding Demitri by the tail like he was a toy. He lifted him up, swinging, and made a motion like he was going to slam him on the ground, despite being in midair.

    Another flash and Aster was suddenly just above a rooftop, slamming Demitri hard onto it. Demitri cried out, but before he could flail out of Aster’s hold, the Mewtwo swung him in the opposite direction and disappeared, smashing him into the wall of a separate building. Aster’s laughter filled Owen’s ears with each hit, the disorienting movements leaving Demitri no room to figure out how to block the blows or where the next one would take him.

    Owen could only watch in horror. He had copied the Teleport for now, but he had no idea how to keep up with that. Aster had lifetimes of experience with the technique. Owen had just learned it, fleetingly.

    “You’re strong and sturdy!” Aster said, lifting Demitri higher. He let go, a Psychic grasp keeping him in place so they stared face-to-face, Demitri upside-down. He was barely conscious, one eye open. “I think you’re the one I’m looking for. I’m gonna take you to Alexander!”

    Bad to worse and Owen still had no idea how to counter it. Demitri—he was going to take Demitri away? Teleport, he could Teleport and try to—no, he had no power. Where was Marshadow? Waiting for an opening? There was no time to wait anymore!

    A vine wrapped around Owen’s torso and pulled him up. He had been so involved in planning how to take down Aster, or at least free Demitri, that he didn’t realize Mispy and Gahi had already planned something. What were they—

    That wasn’t Mispy or Gahi.

    The petals that had once been around Mispy’s neck had migrated to the fusion’s back as wings, lined and reinforced by vines. Several more trailed behind him, ready to block or jab at anything that came their way. The two antennae that Mispy used to have were now merged with Gahi’s, which turned a yellower color, longer and thinner.

    While the base body was still a Flygon, the legs and arms were longer and thicker—just more of Mispy’s base form. Owen wasn’t sure how they were going to run in a form like—

    Owen lost his breath when the fusion jumped into the air, massive acceleration pinning him into the vine that had wrapped around his torso. Then came a rapid deceleration, his balled up left ‘arm’ smashing into Aster’s chest in less than a second’s time to move. Owen wasn’t even sure if they’d Teleported or if that was just Gahi at full speed.

    Aster was equally surprised, his grip on Demitri loosening enough in that split-second for the fusion to grab Demitri and disappear.

    “Ah!” Zena flinched.

    They were in the alleyway where she had been hiding.

    “I’m sorry I couldn’t help,” Zena said quickly. “I can’t find an—"

    “Guard him,” the fusion said, shoving Demitri into Zena’s hold.

    Were they about to hand Owen off? No, he couldn’t let that happen. He still needed to help, and being thrown around like this was giving him an idea. “Mispy, Gahi, we—”

    “Gami.”

    Whatever, just, keep me with you! I can help!”

    “I know.”

    And then they disappeared, and then Aster was right in front of them again.

    “Oh!” Aster tilted his head. “You look different.”

    It was like Gami knew their body innately. Tendrils rose from over his shoulders and split open, revealing black mouths that parted four ways. A bright light formed in the back of each one’s throat, and then blasted where Aster had once been with a scattered Solar Beam—Gami had charged it so fast! But Aster had already disappeared. Gami’s antennae twitched, and both Gami and Owen disappeared, reappearing several feet away, right behind Aster. Gami went for a swift jab, but Aster disappeared again, and Owen started to get dizzy with how often they tried to out-Teleport each other.

    At some point, they’d both landed a strike and blasted each other away. Aster stopped earlier and Gami could only hold a vine forward on reflex. Owen’s vine, and now he was the only thing between a ramming attack from Aster and the prone fusion.

    His trained reflexes kicked in and he crossed his arms, staring Aster down. A golden shield blocked Aster’s advance with an ethereal clang. The Flygon-Meganium then swung forward, parrying Aster and staggering him back.

    Finally, something connected: another Solar Beam sent Aster flying back, and then a shadowy blob struck Aster from below. The Mewtwo’s eyes bulged—a sign of actual pain?—and he reappeared a few streets down, rubbing at his plexus.

    Gami appeared below Marshadow, letting him land on his head. “Took you long enough.”

    “Feh, waitin’ fer an opportunity,” Marshadow replied.

    Gami’s antennae twitched and she glanced to the northeast. Owen tried to follow his gaze, but it wasn’t very easy with all the vines in the way. Through the dreary crimson light, something red flew toward them from the town outskirts. Owen recognized that general shape from books, but he couldn’t recall the name. But it was certainly a Legend.

    “Latias?” Marshadow said.

    Sounded familiar. “Is she here to help?” Owen asked.

    “Probably, but she ain’t s’posed ter be here,” Marshadow said. “No time!” He pointed left, but Gami already held Owen up. He cast another Protect just in time to parry another of Aster’s strikes. Marshadow tried to follow up, but Aster offset his own position a few feet up. Then came a Psychic blast that rumbled Owen’s chest and sent Marshadow into the streets, upending the tiles and leaving a crater upon impact.

    “Aster knows it’s one of us,” Owen said. “We can’t beat him. We have to run!”

    “But how?” Gami said. “We can’t just leave everyone behind!”

    “They’ll chase us,” Owen said. “Aster wants me!”

    Far ahead of them, Latias and Aster were in a Psychic power struggle. Latias didn’t seem that strong, and she moved like she wasn’t used to her own Psychic attacks. Owen didn’t have time to think about why. For all he knew, she had been flying for days.

    “I can’t outrun Aster like this,” Gami said. “I’ve got speed but I’m too heavy—I don’t have the stamina to…”

    Owen refused to let this hope of escape slip him by. They had Gahi in there! Psychic Gahi! There had to be a way to power that up and make up for the lost weight.

    Power…

    “Demitri,” Owen said. “Let’s get Demitri! T-triple fusion!”

    Gami gasped.

    “Either that or fight Aster.”

    “But what if we…”

    Owen hesitated for only a second, but then he twisted himself around to face Gami, staring him in the eyes. He saw their fear—he knew what that was like. He knew that fear of losing himself. But he also knew how to combat it.

    “You’ll make it,” he said. “Just think about all we went through. Now and way back. Because we’re Team Alloy, right?”

    Gami stared, then smiled wryly. There was a snide comment in his throat, but he never said it. Instead, they were suddenly on the ground in a flash, startling Zena again.

    “Will you please give advance warning when you Teleport?” Zena begged.

    “I don’t think you can warn for that,” Trina remarked.

    “What’s happening?” Demitri asked, delirious. He was covered in crushed scales.

    “Hi.” Gami tossed Owen to Zena, who caught him in her ribbons. “Demitri. Fusion time.”

    “Just a short nap…”

    “Too long.”

    The vines wrapped around Demitri and pulled him under, but Zena was more focused on Owen, whispering, “What’s happening up there?”

    Aster cried out, dull thuds popping their ears. A nearby building’s wall cracked from the shock.

    Owen scaled Zena’s neck and used her horn as a pillar to hold while looking up. From where they were standing, they couldn’t see anything. It sounded like three people were fighting, and Aster and Marshadow were the ones in melee.

    “Latias is here,” Owen told Zena. “She’s helping fight Aster, so I think we should ask her what’s going on when we can, but we need to run.”

    “But what’s our end plan?” Zena said. “How can we outpace them?”

    Owen gestured to the fused Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi, trying to shake off the nerves. He had faith in them. If he showed weakness now, it might make them panic, and their mental state would collapse. This was the closest they’d ever come to the Alloy, under a time of stress, in the middle of a fight between three Legends. There was far too much that could go wrong for him to lose his nerve now.

    “Guys?” Owen called. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

    “Shh.”

    Owen flinched. New voice. Gahi and Mispy together was already strange—his voice had been like sandy winds, or a grassy beach. But Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi together all at once had a deeper undertone to it. It had Mispy’s soft whisper with Gahi’s sharp cut, but Demitri’s gentle depth.

    Owen searched for the parts he could recognize. Gahi’s eyes and general head shape was there, but his scales had toughened and yellowed to match Demitri’s hard armor. The Flygon’s swiftness remained in the generally lean build for the upper half, but it thickened and transitioned into a Meganium’s, green vines along his lower half. Jutting out from the rear was a tail that had a Flygon’s length but a Haxorus’ colors, with three pairs of blades flexing at the tip like fans. His arms seemed a little longer and thicker, and Owen feared that he’d be snapped into a thousand tiny pieces by a single punch. A punch that, he was sure, would smash through even his Protect…

    And he’d been silent for a while. Owen dared not speak. Trina and Zena had the same idea.

    The triple fusion slowly breathed in, then slowly breathed out, even amid the clashing above. Aster had no idea where they were.

    “Thank you,” the fusion finally said. “I’m Migami.”

    “Not surprised,” Trina said with a mixture of disappointment and relief. “Never had a talent for creativity…”

    “Hey,” Owen growled.

    “I wasn’t referring to you,” Trina replied.

    “I know.”

    “Shh.” Migami held up an arm. “No arguing.”

    “Right, sorry.” Owen nodded.

    “We’re running?” Migami asked.

    “We need to. It’ll draw Aster away. So we—”

    “Nah.”

    “Uh—”

    “Fight first.”

    Owen held his arms up. “Okay, hang on—”

    “Convince him we’re strong.”

    Owen’s fingers flexed in the air, and then he looked down at Zena, who tried looking up.

    “They have a point,” Trina commented.

    Migami smirked at Owen.

    Oh, no, Gahi’s attitude was still there.

    Owen had to be the voice of reason. “Only enough to guarantee he goes away from town.”

    “Why?”

    This was bad. There was a manic grin on their face. They were losing themselves.

    “Guys, breathe. Calm. Remember, we need to protect people. No fighting. No fighting.”

    Migami grinned a little wider, stretching his wings. “Fine,” he said. “Zena, Trina, go hide. We’ll be fine on our own.”

    “What? But what if Aster catches up?” Zena asked.

    “Catch up? Pfft.” Migami grabbed Owen by the scruff of his neck and used a vine for extra security. The fusion’s wings seemed to expand with petals, reinforced by vines to catch even more updraft. “I’m gonna drive him away.”

    “Just hide,” Owen said, defeated, to Zena.

    “Don’t do anything stupid,” Trina lectured, pointing a tiny hand their way.

    “I won’t, I won’t,” Migami lied.

    Zena left with Trina, and once they did, Owen turned incredulously to Migami, ready to lecture him. Gahi’s side was far too strong, and—

    “Tell me when to run,” Migami said. “I’m gonna be too involved. I’ll listen.”

    Migami looked skyward, waiting for the right opportunity, and Owen sputtered. “What? What was all that bravado, then?”

    “Bravado.”

    “Oh.”

    Just then, Marshadow shot across the sky, and Migami caught him like a ball. Owen didn’t even remember going to the sky. Was that a Teleport or did he just move really quickly? He would have felt the force involved in moving, right? Or was this part of his power?

    “What the—” Marshadow tried to fight back, but Migami tossed him in the air.

    “Oi, oi!”

    “It’s just us,” Migami said, and then held Owen up. “Help us fight As—”

    Migami thrust Owen forward and he reflexively formed another Protect, narrowly parrying another barrage from Aster. Aster disappeared behind Migami, but Migami answered with a cutting tail whip. With a flick of his tail, the three twin blades went spinning off and in midair, converging toward Aster in a wide arc. He disappeared, but a Psychic glow course-corrected the blades toward Aster’s new spot.

    “How’d you know you could do that?” Owen formed another Protect, which Migami used to block a flurry of Shadow Balls.

    “I guessed.” Migami then beamed Owen at Aster, which was a genuine surprise, but he had complete faith in Migami by now. He readied a ball of fire with his momentum. Aster and Owen locked eyes, and a flash of confusion crossed the Mewtwo’s expression.

    He was getting used to Migami’s lightning movements. He didn’t understand—Gahi used to be a lot slower when part of Owen. But perhaps as a triple fusion, they covered their weaknesses?

    Migami appeared beside Aster and rammed into him. With a connection, Migami fired a Solar Beam point-blank into Aster’s chest. Aster yelped in surprise, but not before Marshadow slammed into Aster from below with rapid Shadow Punches, sending him sky-high and into the ashen clouds.

    “You dropped this,” Latias said, catching Marshadow on her back.

    “Oh, sorry,” Migami said. “Thought Marshadow could take the fall.”

    “I can,” Marshadow defended, green flames rising. “Still real rude!”

    Migami tittered a little, but then looked up. Latias flew around Migami and touched him on the shoulder. “Be careful,” Latias warned. “If you can’t see Aster, he might see you from another place.”

    Migami stiffened and Latias drifted away, Marshadow readying for another rapid Shadow Punch.

    Then came Aster, this time from the left. Migami took a hit—Psychic powers twisted at the scales along his side and the rest of his body followed, spiraling downward. Owen screamed and held tight, crossing his arms for another Protect out of panic.

    “Ghh—” Migami lost focus somehow. He slammed into and then through a building’s reinforced wall. Owen smelled something cooking, a passing scream, and then they were outside the house again.

    “S-sorry,” Owen mumbled. “Guys? Are you okay?”

    They were in a garden of red void plants, gnarled things that resembled mourning, bipedal creatures. Migami was letting out slow, shaking, deep breaths. Owen searched for a wound but couldn’t find any. Had Migami already healed from it? Then what was getting him all shaken up?

    “Is he too strong?” Owen asked.

    Latias floated high above, but couldn’t descend in time. She clashed with Aster again, and then Migami grasped Owen by the shoulder.

    “That’s not Latias,” Migami said. “I… We need to go.”

    “What?”

    But then they were in the outskirts of town, and Migami jumped into the air. The wind blinded Owen; by the time he could see again, they were speeding away from Null Village, going south. Far along the horizon was the edge of Nil Plateaus.

    “Migami!” Owen shouted. “What about everyone else?!”

    “You said they’d chase us, right?!” Migami went faster. “Then let them! But we can’t fight now!”

    “Why?! What’s going on?!” This made no sense. Only a little while ago, Migami was saying he’d wait for Owen to say to run. They could have at least waited for Zena and the others to rendezvous somewhere!

    They were so far away that he couldn’t see Null Village through the trees. Instead, when Migami sighed in an impossible mixture of relief and dread, they saw Latias flying after them. It was odd, because she’d come from a direction away from Null Village; had Aster knocked her far away?

    “What do you mean, that isn’t Latias?” Owen said. “Are you sure we shouldn’t slow down?”

    Something black was glowing in the back of the pursuing Dragon’s throat. Seconds later, a Shadowy blast flew toward them, easily dodged by Migami.

    “Okay!” Owen squeezed at the vine around him. “Run away time!”

    And while Owen wasn’t sure if leaving everyone behind in Null Village was a good idea, they also knew that Aster wanted them, and that some kind of Dark Latias was after them, too. Fighting in Null Village was out of the question. With luck, they could circle back and meet up again.

    But right now, Migami was too shaken to fight, and Owen had to find out why.

    <><><>​

    The clash could have gone better. Even as Aster slammed Dark Matter into the ground from yet another Psychic pulse, Dark Matter bided his time and calculated his next strategy.

    “Huh?” Aster stopped the onslaught and turned around. “Wait! Where’re they going?!”

    Perfect opportunity. He left Marshadow behind and jumped into the air, touching the distracted Mewtwo on the arm. Contact. Finally.

    Aster looked at Dark Matter with a confused blink. He lifted his other arm and conjured a Shadow Ball.

    What—

    It exploded in Dark Matter’s face and Dark Matter lost his grip. He spiraled into the wall of a nearby building, leaving a Latias-shaped imprint in the stone as the rest of the wall cracked and collapsed. The crystals of light embedded within them stung his feathers like solid acid.

    Dark Matter stared in disbelief. From his angle, he could barely see the Mewtwo flying after Latias, whom he’d sent to pursue Owen.

    And then it hit him. “Alexander,” he hissed, slamming his fist into the wall, which shattered the rest of it.

    “Hey,” called an annoyed-looking Sableye from within the broken home. “I hope you’re gonna pay for—”

    “Shut.” Dark Matter flicked him on the forehead and he stopped talking. He floated up and levitated higher, scanning the horizon.

    He growled lowly. This was less than ideal. But no matter. Owen was effectively his, now. All that was left was a little insurance.

    Marshadow, Dark Matter called. Contact Alexander and tell him I’ve come to say hello.
     
    Chapter 103 - Legendary Friendships
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 103 – Legendary Friendships

    Latias was getting closer.

    “Migami?” Owen couldn’t figure out how fast they were going. The Teleports were so far he couldn’t see what the previous landmarks were. Everything in the Nil Plateau looked the same, from the deep violet rocks to the lighter magenta tops. What Owen did notice, however, was how much less frequent the Teleports were becoming, and his flier’s labored breathing.

    “We can’t keep running,” Owen said after Migami didn’t answer.

    “Gotta run,” Migami replied, their voice ragged like something was stuck in his throat. Owen caught a thin splotch of blood in the corner of his cheek.

    “Migami, you’re pushing yourself way too far,” Owen urged. “Find a plateau to disappear behind!”

    Latias was a dot in the distance, but that meant she could still see them. Aster was much further behind, but Migami was much more afraid of Latias, and they never explained why.

    “Just hide now! We can’t keep this up!”

    “No… gotta—” The sky’s jittering position told Owen that they’d Teleported again, but that was when Migami’s flight suddenly hit turbulence. Migami coughed, tiny drops of blood blowing in the wind, spraying Migami’s chest with a spatter of crimson.

    “Migami, please,” Owen begged. “As… as leader, I’m commanding you to hide instead of run. Understand?”

    Migami scoffed, though it was strained. The vines tightened around Owen, but Owen held his glare and refused to let out even a wheeze.

    This was for Migami’s own good. They were too stubborn. This team needed a steady hand, one that wasn’t hungry for battle. And while Owen was still that, he was the sanest of the four right now.

    Now, Migami,” Owen said firmly.

    “Tch.”

    Migami flared their wings, the petals looking a little stretched from all the flying. Owen had been unsure of its aerodynamics before, but now they seemed like they were only there for decoration. That was made a lot clearer when Owen realized that, despite their flight stopping, they were still floating.

    And then, in a blink, they were on the ground of another cave. A cold chill ran through Owen’s spine at the similar scents and sights. Dark purple, shadowy alcoves. The dry, oppressive, vaguely foul stench of void dust, like an ancient and uncleaned room. Owen thought he smelled the beginnings of rot, and then he saw Amia’s face.

    Migami collapsing snapped him out of his thoughts, but Owen’s heart was already racing. “Migami?” he asked automatically, but received no response. They were still just outside the cave that he’d spotted.

    “Come on, we have to get inside,” Owen begged, struggling out of his hold. He pulled at the vines, thought of pulling at the tail but decided against it after seeing the blades, and then sprinted around to the head. “Migami?”

    They were breathing and they were conscious, but not completely responsive. He waved his hand in front of one eye, and the pupils followed him, but when he said their name again, he got little reaction.

    Owen stepped away, steadying his heart. He wasn’t strong enough to pull Migami in. The three of them together were at least an order of magnitude larger than he was, and several times more than that in mass. He needed incredible force to get them inside, even a little.

    An indifferent wind blew past them, and Owen briefly wondered if he could find some way to fashion sails to sweep them in with the wind, but that would take too long.

    Time was short. Latias would be here soon if they were unlucky.

    His eyes darted left and right, but there was nothing to use other than himself and what Migami could provide.

    …Maybe… that would be enough.

    Better than nothing. Owen rushed to Migami’s back and stomped several times on the ground, channeling energy from his core to his feet. This time, he didn’t store Flame Bursts, but a more gradual, yet intense flame. Then, he moved to Migami and climbed their body, traversed the vines, and finally stood atop their back, where he squatted down and tried to heft their wings up. The vines fell away, revealing nothing more than useless, floppy petals. Needed to be reinforced.

    “C’mon, c’mon…”

    Owen thought back. There had to be something in his memories that could be useful here. Another breeze blew. A distant thundercrack shook the air. Owen didn’t know it could storm here. Was that even a storm?

    Storm—rain. He’d seen barriers fashioned into bowls to capture the rain. Could he do the same to capture the wind?

    Owen crossed his arms, forming a golden Protect. He knew how to concentrate the barrier ahead of him, how to make it a sphere around him, and he saw it twist and turn itself inside-out. Could he reshape it another way?

    Slowly, he uncurled his wings and concentrated on the barrier. He envisioned wings, his Charizard wings. Maybe like an armor around them, like a Steel Wing strike. Something vaguely flight-worthy formed in front of him.

    Now the hard part. The part where he didn’t know if it was possible or not.

    Owen clutched at the base of Migami’s wings and held them up. He stared at the gold, concentrating as hard as he could, digging into parts of his aura that felt weak from atrophy. Small flashes of memory raced through him. The storage of his techniques, his Fire, into the ground. Of Har, storing even more techniques the same way. Marshadow’s words, that he could somehow transfer power into simple objects. It was like Anam’s blessings. And Jerry, that time he’d been so desperate to save him.

    Why did all of that feel related?

    A dragon of light was before him, four wings outstretched, standing tall. His prismatic eyes shined a little brighter, and the great Charizard’s heart thumped with awe and anxiety. “This is my power,” Necrozma said. “The same power I am using to give it to you: Bestow.”

    Owen didn’t realize it until a second later. The Protect disappeared from the front and curled around Migami’s wings. Now they were at least twice as large with the golden extensions, and when Owen gave them a testing flap, they held. It was no heavier, but it was larger.

    Next, he concentrated on the spots he’d stepped, curled his toes, and spat an ember at the base of his target. He braced for impact.

    A pillar of fire several feet tall—but relatively quiet—burst into the air. The energy pelted his body and cut through his own Fire resistance, and some of the scales of Migami’s body turned dark from the scorch. The wind nearly blew Owen away, had it not been for his grip. The ground heaved—and the ground, for Owen, was Migami themselves. The wings caught the burst of wind and dragged Migami’s entire body back several feet into the cave, but then their body caught on the soil and bumped Owen off.

    Migami crushed his lower body, and then rolled further and on top of Owen—and then it all went dark.

    <><><>​

    It was still dark, and Owen wasn’t sure how much time had passed. He felt fine, but he couldn’t move properly. And he couldn’t feel properly, either. Was he falling? Floating? There was no floor, and his flame wasn’t lighting anything but the parts of his body that its light touched.

    Tentatively, he tried to move his arms. They felt longer, and his three claws told him the rest of the story. Charmeleon again, so he was dreaming.

    “You’ve got this, Owen! Mimic that Ice Beam!”

    He tried to shape his aura into the icy, chilly stance required to channel that cold energy, but there was nothing to draw from. These were blurry memories, less significant to him. Training, over and over and over, getting ready to take on that organization that stole away the rest of the team.

    “Owen?” someone called, to his left.

    “Oh, Klent.” Owen turned. In the void, all he saw was the Jumpluff.

    “Asleep again, are we?” He tried to be funny, but his tone had a hint of gravity.

    “Yeah.” Owen sat up, swishing his tail. Looks like I got crushed or something, or the exhaustion overwhelmed me. I extended myself too much.”

    Klent rubbed his pompoms together. “You’re oddly calm about it.”

    “Because if I wake up, I need to think of my next move. I get really groggy when I get up but I might not have the time to react.”

    “That’s great! Keep it up! Blast them with Ice Beam some more!”

    “Ire, don’t let a little ice take you down!”


    Owen chuckled. “That hardly feels like me anymore. It’s not, is it?”

    “What do you mean?” Klent asked.

    “Smallflame. I’m not… really Smallflame, am I?”

    Klent frowned, pensive. “I suppose, no more than when I had been a mortal Pokémon. Give enough time and your past self will be unrecognizable. But what does it matter?”

    “Mm.” He had a point there. “Guess that means the same is for Tim, then. And what Eon is now.”

    Klent looked relieved just then, but Owen’s disapproving stare brought some of that fear back.

    “I’m not dismissing all of it,” Owen said. “I still want to get everything back. There’s still more I need to know. But I won’t forget the present.”

    “Mm. Of course.” Klent looked up. A glimmer of light cut through the void. “It looks like you won’t be asleep for much longer.”

    “Yeah. Klent, were you watching?”

    “I was, but I don’t know more than you do.”

    “Did it feel like you were closer to being summoned?”

    “No, I’m sorry.”

    “That’s alright. I’ll keep trying.” He stood, knowing time was short. “Again, sorry that these memories don’t make you happy.”

    “That isn’t…” Klent sighed. He was about to say something else, but then Owen woke up.

    <><><>​

    “Migami,” Owen slurred, sitting up despite the dizziness. “Migami, are you okay?”

    “Just fine,” Migami half-wheezed.

    Owen groped for any sign of him, touching dust and rocks before finding a vine. “I’m right here.”

    “I know, I’m not blind.”

    Owen almost was. Everything was so blurry. With a free hand, he rubbed at his eyes, blinking.

    Migami was holding their forehead with one hand and a few vines with another, breathing steadily. “I need… I need to fight.”

    “Well, there isn’t anyone you can fight right now,” Owen said.

    “There… there is.”

    Owen wasn’t sure what they meant at first, but then sighed when several vines rushed him. Owen stepped back and crossed his arms, parrying most of them. He weaved left and dodged a few more, which lacerated the rocks behind him. Before Migami could strike again, Owen spat a small ember at Migami’s chest, which barely did anything, and Migami struck at Owen for a second time. And again, the Protect parried the vines away.

    It was like a twisted dance, though there were only a few steps, and it lasted only seconds. By the end of it, Owen was trying to hide a smile, and when he finally managed to land another little ember at Migami, he went for the kill. Owen leapt for Migami’s face, using one of the vines as a spring when it had pulled up, and bopped Migami on the snout before clutching at their shoulder.

    Owen giggled. “Got you.”

    Migami sneezed, vines slashing at more of the rocks, and then let out a bestial growl. “…Cheater.”

    A vine wrapped around Owen’s abdomen, holding him in midair so they could stare eye to eye.

    “Feeling better?” Owen asked.

    Migami’s intense, brown eyes dilated, and then he looked away, shameful.

    “Hey, it’s alright,” the Charmander said. “I knew you wouldn’t really hurt me.” When Migami didn’t say anything in response, Owen added, “You didn’t break my Protect. There’s no way you lost that part of Demitri.” He reached up and patted the vine that held him. “Good job. You held on. That’s the important part, right?”

    “I still… attacked you.”

    “Well, hey, uh, every hatchling takes their first step, right?” Owen pried one of the vines loose and the rest fell away. He landed with a stumble at Migami’s feet. “Migami, can you sense Latias or Aster?”

    “Oh.” The task, Owen hoped, would distract them from that urge to fight. Migami closed their eyes and hummed, and Owen waited nervously. He tried to feel around for a bag, but then realized that they hadn’t brought anything with them. They had been in such a rush to flee…

    A creeping sense of dread washed over Owen. They were lost in the plateaus again. No food, no equipment, nothing but their scales.

    But panicking would only make Migami’s psyche worse. Steadying his breath, Owen said, “It’s alright. We got all the way out here, so when we get our strength back, we can make our way back. We just have to lose them. If we don’t have anything on us, then that means there’s no way they can track us, either.”

    “About that…”

    So much for optimism. “They’re getting closer?”

    “I can feel Latias getting closer. Not… not Latias. Dark Matter.”

    “What?” Owen’s flame snapped and he tried to hide it behind him. Now was not the time to show fear, for Migami’s sake. “Is she coming this way right now?”

    The cave didn’t look deep enough for them to hide at all. It only went a few more feet inside from where they were hiding. Latias would find them easily if she knew where to look.

    How long had they been out? Last Owen remembered, Migami had been bleeding from the mouth, barely conscious, and now, they were standing and ready to run. Latias had been perhaps only minutes away from them… Mispy’s part didn’t heal that fast, did it?

    “She—he, she knows where we are,” Migami said. “He’s coming right for us.”

    “Can we run?”

    “I don’t know.” Migami tested their wings, but winced. “I feel fatigued.”

    So, running wasn’t an option. Not yet. “Can you gather your strength for one Teleport?”

    “Maybe,” Migami said. “I’ll need time.”

    “Then get that ready,” Owen added, stepping to the mouth of the cave. “I’ll, uh, stall for time?”

    You?”

    “Just be fast.” Owen approached the cave’s mouth, steeling himself. He just had to keep Latias out, maybe parry a few attacks with Protect, and if he was lucky, that Teleport was still part of his aura thanks to Mimic.

    “She’s right around the corner,” Migami whispered, sliding further into the cave. “I’ll support from behind.”

    “Focus on that Teleport,” Owen replied flatly.

    “Don’t let her touch you,” Migami suddenly added.

    “What?” Owen glanced back.

    “Trust me.”

    So, not enough time to explain. Alright. Owen could ask later.

    A dim shadow crept to the mouth of the cave and Owen readied himself. He was just one Charmander about to face off against a lower Legend, but he knew all he had to do was stall. He had to bank on the idea that they wanted him alive. Killing him would only send him somewhere else to find again. If that was the case, they’d be forced to hold back. And he would just become a Charmander again. There was little to worry about. He literally could afford to die.

    Migami did not have that same luxury.

    Latias swooped down like red lightning. Owen quickly erected a barrier, blocking a predicted Psychic blast, but nothing came.

    “What’s taking you so long?” Latias said, glaring at them. “We have to get back to the village!”

    Owen remained skeptical and Migami refused to move. That was reason enough to retreat further into the cave.

    “Hello? What are you doing?” Latias angrily gestured for them to come out.

    “How do I know you aren’t Dark Matter?” Owen said. “We saw that blast of black energy. That was…”

    “Shadow Ball? What, you never played around with how your moves are shaped?”

    “No, I just did for Protect, I—there’s no way that was Shadow Ball. That was the same thing Anam did when he was corrupted!”

    Migami was breathing quickly and shallowly. They didn’t have Gahi’s nerve; Demitri’s flighty tendencies were starting to take over. If Owen didn’t do something soon, they might panic, or worse.

    “Just stay calm,” Owen assured. “She isn’t coming in because she knows she can’t take us.”

    “Take you?” Latias jettisoned forward. “I’ll show you taking, I just need to—”

    Owen crossed his arms and formed another Protect; Latias bumped her hands against the barrier, and Migami, screaming, fired a charged Solar Beam over Owen and into Latias’ face. She had been staring, transfixed, at the barrier for that split-second, and that was all Migami needed to send her skidding outside the cave. She didn’t get back up; she trembled and curled, hugging herself, sniveling.

    “That… was too easy,” Owen mumbled, gesturing for Migami to stay put. This could be a trap. “Get another Solar Beam ready, just in case.”

    “Don’t let her touch you.”

    “Right.”

    But he still had to get closer. They were at a stalemate now, and unless they forced Latias to flee, the stalemate would remain. “Hey,” Owen said. “Dark Matter. I know that’s you, so drop the disguise.”

    He wasn’t sure what Dark Matter actually looked like, now that he thought about it.

    “I’m—I’m not Dark Matter,” Latias choked out, though she still trembled on the ground. The dusty ground dirtied her feathers.

    “Okay…” Owen carefully approached. “Then who are you?”

    “Latias. I’m Latias, I’m… oh, gods, I can’t… I’m sorry, can you give me a second?”

    This seemed too genuine to fake, but Owen didn’t have his Perceive to tell for sure. Afraid to so much as take his eyes off of Latias, Owen called back, “Migami? Did her aura change?”

    “I… don’t know.” Their vines uncurled. “Maybe? She’s really distressed. It wasn’t like before.”

    “I was under his control,” Latias said. “I was… I was just, it was in my head, I just felt like it was perfectly n-normal to follow what he said, like s-suddenly I… oh, gods…”

    Owen’s compassion was forcing his legs forward, but his mind halted him after one step. “You’re saying he controlled you?”

    “She’s safe,” Migami suddenly said.

    “What?”

    Migami emerged from the cave with much less fear than before, and Owen finally took his eyes off of Latias. When she moved again, though, his head snapped back to her and he crouched into a defensive stance, arms tense. But nothing came.

    Latias tried to rise, but she was so unfocused that she couldn’t even levitate. She thumped on the ground and curled up again, sniffling. A few tears fell into the dust, turning that part of the purple ground a deep red.

    “Hey, it’s… it’s going to be okay,” Owen said, and he finally took those last few steps forward. “I’m going to hold your shoulder, alright?”

    She was soft like a pillow; a little deeper, below the feathers, her collarbone revealed a lithe frame meant more for stealth and flight than combat. Perhaps her psionics made up for it, but Owen still didn’t think she was much of a fighter.

    She lunged for him, pulling him into a hug. Owen yelped and tried to break free, but no matter how weak a Legend may be, he was still a Charmander. Latias sniveled and cried and squeezed the Charmander into her chest, where his face drowned in sleek feathers.

    “You’re… squishing me…!”

    Latias sobbed, and between her sputters, she said, “I’m so glad you’re alive, Owen.”

    Owen furrowed his brow even as his breath left him. Struggling to turn his head, he saw a similarly dumbfounded expression on Migami’s face.

    Mercifully, Latias released Owen, and the Charmander plopped on the ground, gasping for breath.

    “Sorry,” Latias said, laughing between sobs. “That was just… really scary. Like a nightmare where I was in total control, and yet… wasn’t.”

    “I know what you mean,” Migami said, holding a hand to their chest. “Felt the same thing when that other Latias touched me. That’s what happened, wasn’t it? Dark Matter transformed into you…”

    Latias nodded. “Can… we go in that cave?” And just then, the ground rumbled. “I think we have a lot to talk about.”

    <><><>​

    “So Anam’s in East Null Village,” Owen said, sighing. “At least he’s okay. And he can fight off Dark Matter…”

    Latias nodded. “My brother is probably warning the other towns right now. We’re doing it manually so Alexander won’t intercept. But… Owen!” Latias laughed, a direct contrast to her trembling form only a little while ago. “I can’t believe it’s you! I mean, you certainly, um, downsized, but—”

    Small, small, always with the small remarks. “Yeah, well, before I died, I was a Charizard, you know.”

    “I know!” Latias giggled. “Which is why it’s so cute to see you like this!”

    Migami was puffing their cheeks, holding back what must have been a bellowing laugh.

    Owen liked her better when she was trying to kill them. “So, you knew me before.”

    “Of course I—what? What kind of question is…Well. That’s fair.” Latias frowned, looking away. “After all, it’s been… how long? Lifetimes… So, you must have forgotten.”

    “Yeah.” Lots of forgetting lately. “My memories are really spotty right now, but I’m getting a lot of them back. Maybe I’ll meditate to get more of them. Fill me in?”

    “That’s a big request! But, sure. I’ll try.” Latias settled into a more comfortable position, laying her body flat on the ground. Then, she rotated and curled her neck so she could look at Owen. “Hmhh, where to begin…”

    “Who is Necrozma?” Owen immediately asked.

    Latias looked taken aback. “Oh, Owen… You can’t be serious?”

    While Owen and Latias talked, Migami started to pull apart into their components, starting with Gahi. He, in turn, tried to shake away and grab Demitri with him.

    “I am serious.” Owen dug his claws into his thighs. “I have little fragments of it, but that’s all. I barely remember anything about my time with Legends. That’s crazy to think ab—just a few months, I mean, moons ago, I thought you guys were just that! Legends! Myths! And now apparently I used to live among you guys like it was a thing to do.”

    “That’s awful…” Latias squeezed her claws. “I’ll try. And I hope those memories come back, Owen. Necrozma was your master, after all. Or, well, not master. Teacher?

    “He was just another Legend?” Owen asked.

    “Not at all.” Latias nearly gasped. “He was in charge of everything! In fact, I was a little worried about how Star and Arceus were going to take up the mantle since he’s stuck in the Voidlands with us…”

    Necrozma… was above Star and Barky? How? Owen frowned. How did they not know about him, or even acknowledge him? Were even they under the effects of a Decree? Because despite everything, Owen did not think that was something they could keep a secret for so long. But it didn’t look like Latias knew much more.

    “Either way,” Latias said, “you worked under him. You and a few other students, a lot of them Legends themselves…”

    “Which ones?” Owen asked.

    “Well, Lugia, Rayquaza, oh, Giratina, too. Azelf…” She winked at him there. “And er, um… and Lunala.”

    Owen tilted his head. Why the awkward hesitation? Why the wink? Before Owen could hide his incredulous expression, Latias frowned and said, “Oh, you… you don’t remember them.”

    “I remember Lugia,” Owen said. “She’s still in Kilo. I don’t remember partnering up with her, though, or anything. I didn’t know she existed for a while. She also, uh…” Not worth bringing up. “A little eccentric.”

    “You don’t remember Rayquaza?”

    “I remember… wondering about him, I guess,” Owen said. “But only as in, wondering where a Rayquaza was in this world, like Lugia. And Azelf… Isn’t that from the Creation myths?”

    “The being of willpower,” Latias said, nodding. She waited a little while, but when Owen didn’t say anything, she frowned and sank lower. “He’s very strong-hearted. And he’s still himself, here, in the Voidlands. Most of the smaller Legends had a better time hiding from Dark Matter, you see. Until recently…”

    Owen kept digging his claws into his arms. There was this burning, heart-pumping frustration that kept crawling up and down his spine and it made the back of his head feel cold and tingly. All of these people Owen knew that weren’t triggering even the slightest sense of familiarity to him now.

    “You don’t remember him?” Latias asked.

    “I don’t remember any of them in that way,” he said. “Just Lugia because we met recently. And she didn’t recognize me, either. She was really nice, though.”

    “Nice?” Latias asked. “To you?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Hmm…”

    “Was she… not supposed to be?” Owen released his arms, the puzzled expression on Latias distracting him.

    “No, unless she got over it,” Latias mumbled. “You were on opposite sides of the war. Lugia had aligned herself with Dark Matter, even! There’s no way she’d…”

    “You know, maybe it was a different Lugia,” Owen said flatly. “Emily wanted nothing more than to help others. She’s a benevolent sea monster.”

    “Emily… I don’t know if that was the name she went by.” Latias floated a little higher as her strength returned more. “As part of becoming a Legend, you’re supposed to abandon your mortal name. Erased, practically, so you can make a proper transition to being a Legend…”

    Owen stared at Latias like she’d suddenly started talking in a different language.

    “What? You don’t remember?” Latias asked.

    “Just assume no. Actually, before we go further into that, please don’t tell me I used to be a Legend.”

    “No. You denied your ascent, remember?”

    “Just said not to ask if I remembered,” Owen replied with a smile both jovial and annoyed.

    “Oh. Um, right. No, you didn’t. That made Lunala pretty upset, actually. You two broke up.”

    Owen clapped his hands together and closed his eyes. Some small part of him had been expecting this.

    “Um, Owen—”

    Owen held up a hand and Latias silenced herself. He brought them back together and took a long, slow, deep breath. Then, a few more.

    Finally, he moved his hands to his lap. “Okay. Say that again?”

    “You… and Lunala broke up because you denied, um, you didn’t…”

    “This ain’t a giant fib, right?” Gahi asked.

    “It’s… incredible,” Demitri added, looking at Owen with a mixture of awe and disbelief. “Owen with Legends, sure, but courting one?”

    “It’s not quite like that,” Latias said. “He knew her from before she ascended Destiny Tower and succeeded. They had trained together under his partner, erm… I’m sorry. He ascended, too, so much of their mortal time was—”

    “He became Jirachi?” Owen asked.

    “Yes! That’s why you worked under him, actually. You guys went way back. That’s all I really knew.”

    “Right.” Owen didn’t need to know more.

    Eon…

    “And what was my relationship with Rayquaza?” Owen asked.

    “Hmm… Not much. Rayquaza was more interested in Dialga.”

    The image that appeared in his mind wasn’t pleasant. “Right, uh, okay—how about Azelf, then?”

    “He was your rebound.”

    “What.”

    “You and Azelf. Um. It was kind of the talk of the town for a while, but—”

    “So, not only did I court, break up with, and forget Lunala,” Owen said slowly, “but I also then got together with Azelf right after?”

    “Not right after. A lot of time passes for Pokémon! And well, it’s complicated. We’re gods, yes, but we came from mortals. We still have remnants of that time even if we’re given minds to whether eternity. And part of that is companionship, simple petty desires, and things like that.”

    “Why in the world are gods acting like mortals?!” Owen shouted, a sudden, throbbing anger surging through his temples. “I didn’t even believe in you guys a few seasons ago! And now this! Maybe you were better off as mortals! What’s the point of gods if all they’re going to do is gossip about who’s with who and, and, how can we trust something like that?! No wonder I denied ascent!”

    “I-I’m sorry,” Latias squeaked, shrinking away. “G-gods, even as a Charmander, you’re scary when you get mad, Owen…”

    “I,” Gahi said, “think it’s cute. And he’s right, y’know.” He seemed to be ignoring Mispy’s incredulous expression. “Sounds ter me like Arceus, I’m gonna guess, ain’t got his head screwed on right if that’s how he wound up makin’ all the Legends. Can’t just make ‘em from scratch?”

    “Why need them at all?” Owen muttered, taking some time to quell his flame, physical and mental.

    Latias bit her lip.

    “Sorry, sorry.” Owen sighed. “I’m not mad at you, just… What’s more? I was with Azelf, so I knew them as a mortal. Do you remember who they were?”

    “No, sorry.” Latias sighed. “It’s strange, actually. I know who I used to be as a mortal, but I simply can’t remember for some of them. Maybe it’s just been so long…”

    Owen squinted. “You do?”

    “Mhm. I used to be a Blissey!”

    “…Not much correspondence between mortal body and Legendary body, then?”

    “No. It’s more based on your personality and mental aptitudes.”

    “See, that’s strange, because Marshadow never told me any of this.”

    “Marshadow’s one of the ones I don’t remember,” Latias said. “Jirachi, too.”

    “Lunala and Azelf, too, then?”

    “Lunala… I can’t remember as easily, but it’s strange. I feel like it’s always on the tip of my tongue, just barely there, but it slips away. I know that you two were around the same size before, uh, getting bigger, though. In fact, I think you were almost the same height… Ohh, and she was probably Grass, too. You always had an affinity for Grass.”

    “You don’t say.”

    “Hmm… and Azelf…” Latias hummed, then sighed. “Nope. Same as Marshadow.”

    “Strange,” Mispy remarked.

    “So, there are some Legends that you simply can’t remember who they used to be, and others that you can?” Demitri leaned against Mispy, humming. “Why?”

    “Like everything else,” Owen said, “there’s a reason for it. It’s too… distinct. What are some other differences they have?”

    “Hmm… They’re weaker,” Latias said. “Dialga, Palkia, Giratina? The three Dragons of Creation? I don’t know what any of them used to be, and they don’t, either. And they’re a lot weaker than they should be for their status. Jirachi barely has any wishing power, not like he used to. The same goes for Azelf and his partners.”

    “So, they don’t remember their pasts, and they’re weaker.”

    “We think Dark Matter had gotten their spirits more strongly upon entering the Voidlands, and they simply haven’t been able to recover their strength.” Latias lowered herself a little and covered her eyes when another breeze sent dust into the cave.

    “Suppressed…” Owen nodded. “That’s possible, but…”

    Jirachi was among them.

    He wasn’t sure why Lunala was such an anomaly. He’d ignore that for now and focus on the easy pattern.

    “Why only Azelf?” Mispy spoke up.

    “Huh?” Latias asked.

    “Azelf, the…” She tried to speak more, but her words halted. Her vines curled, and Demitri whispered something to her, and she whispered back.

    “Mesprit and Uxie are the other two, right? Why didn’t they align with Necrozma?”

    Latias shrugged. “Necrozma was very picky. Just because they were part of a set doesn’t mean he’d accept all three to be his students. Though… if you ask me, he played favorites. It might have been because Owen taught him how to play on his good side.” Latias smiled a little, but nobody else did.

    It was all so strange…

    But Owen was focused on something else. “Azelf and I were close… and he had the same marking as me, then? Necrozma’s mark?”

    “Oh, he did. You two got matching positions, too. Right in the middle-ish of your back.”

    Mispy gasped quietly, and had it been any other time Owen would have mistaken it for a sharp breath or the beginnings of a sigh. But Owen’s heart had leapt at the same time.

    There was no way—

    But just then, the ground shook, followed by an ear-splitting roar. Owen covered his earholes and tried to see through that hammering pain. It was something that, at first, was foreign to him—bright, white light. It was coming from the right side of the cave’s mouth, skyward. Without thinking, he walked toward it, and Latias did the same. Mispy took more initiative and shoved past them both, shielding them from the unknown threat. Demitri stayed behind, nervously playing with his claws, and Gahi disappeared completely.

    “Oi!” Gahi pointed up, now outside the cavern. “Sky’s fallin’ again!”

    It was like someone had ripped a hole in fabric. A great gap had torn itself open in the sky, revealing what appeared to be a white background and little else. At the edge, Owen saw someone, a figure, something Pokémon-sized that showed the sheer massiveness of this rip in the sky.

    They also saw a Titan a few plateaus over, bipedal and wide, running toward the hole.

    “Should we investigate?” Owen said, the roaring finally subsiding.

    “We fusin’ again?” Gahi asked, stretching his wings.

    Owen looked at the hole, then at the Titan, then at Latias. Finally, he nodded, saying, “Let’s go.”

    <><><>​

    “Fascinating. It actually worked.”

    Nevren stood in what had once been a large chamber for training, having fashioned the Beammaker into a conduit for the first Dungeon prototype. He was on the observational deck a few stories higher, looking down at his handiwork—or at least, the center of it. He’d turned all of Quartz HQ into a Dungeon.

    An artificial Dungeon… The technology was large, bulky, and required extensive configuration, and also needed a linking catalyst—he used an old gemstone from Palkia from long ago—but it was enough.

    Now that it was working, and he had created a Dungeon, he also got to finally bear witness to a Dungeon Core. It certainly wasn’t what he was expecting. It wasn’t a core at all—without the shadows and dark fog obscuring his vision, it was a gateway. It was more like a long, eight-sided star, the cardinal directions longer than the diagonals. Something about it was familiar.

    There were so many things to derive from this! It had to be studied further.

    Several notepads hovered above Nevren, each one with its own pencil. Each one frantically scribbled down as many notes as he could in what little time he had to observe it. Nevren did not know how long the Dungeon would last, but with the energy required, and their already somewhat scarce resources, he predicted only a Revisor’s worth of time.

    The other side of the gateway was clearing. He saw a great landscape from high above. Red, perhaps a magenta color? It was like a desert in twilight, with many rocky plateaus. He saw a few black figures running about, but one was much larger than the rest. It was gazing up at him.

    Nevren’s writing halted. He heard something. Wordless, thoughtless, but it was there in his mind, when he stared at that creature. It pulled at something deep within himself, and he knew in an instant who it was.

    “Palkia?”

    The gemstone had linked the Dungeon’s gateway directly to…

    No, that simply was not possible. Palkia, Nevren knew what Palkia was supposed to look like. But this gateway, what was it? Where did it lead?

    The thing reached out toward the gateway, and Nevren realized that it was tall enough to grasp the edge. A great hand emerged from the gateway, its black body practically absorbing the light around it. Its arm was made up of countless smaller organisms, all meshed together into a great being, an abominable mockery of the work Nevren had designed long ago.

    This was too dangerous. Time to close the gateway early.

    With a few button presses, Nevren cut power to the gate. The hole shrank, but then the creature reached out with a second hand and held either end of the shrinking portal…

    And it stopped.

    “Ah.” Nevren distanced himself from the observation deck. “Time to go.”

    In a flash of light, Nevren Teleported away…

    And reappeared directly in front of the Titan, his feet inches away from the gate.

    That wasn’t intended.

    When the beast roared again, stretching the portal even further, Nevren realized that this experiment had been far longer than a moment to rewind away.
     
    Chapter 104 - Gateways
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 104 – Gateways

    It was only with quick thinking that Nevren had survived the first Shadow Blast. Staring at the beam was like going blind. What in the world was he supposed to do against an attack that literally incinerated the reinforced concrete ceiling?! Nevren’s own thoughts had transitioned from befuddlement to terrified incredulity. There was a hole in the ceiling meant to take the Beammaker’s blasts. Its head was large and its neck even longer, with a wide frame and a draconic face. Even with its dark colorings and miasma, something about it was familiar…

    Was this Palkia?

    “Father?” someone called from the far end of the chamber. “What’s going—AAAH!”

    “Keep the door closed!” Nevren called in as casual a tone as he could muster. He considered using a mutant or two as a decoy to get away, but not only was that impractical in terms of how far they were, but he wouldn’t hear the end of it from Eon if they ever recovered him. Along with that, they weren’t going to the Reincarnation Machine anymore. They might actually die, or worse.

    What to do next? If he stayed there, he would surely die, which would be troublesome. He could escape, seal this thing inside, and that would at least buy some time to evacuate. Yes, short term, he would do that. Better plan later.

    Nevren sprinted away, kicking off of psionically conjured platforms to give him an even greater stride. It was like surfing, only with a lot more death nearby.

    With a sudden pivot, Nevren avoided a predicted Shadow Blast that had hit where he was going only a second prior, and then he kicked off the ground to avoid the blast’s turning radius. The blast itself was several times his height; one wrong read and he might not be able to dodge in time.

    The draconic Titan couldn’t raise its head fast enough, and its mobility was limited by the portal it was dangling out of. Another advantage for Nevren. With its arms occupied, it could only attack with its head.

    Nevren readied his Revisor in case things went south. He didn’t want to know how those Shadowy attacks would feel. They were familiar, yet so much worse than that time in the swamp where Anam had been discovered. And therefore, Nevren knew that this was a more concentrated evil than whatever had been filtered through Anam’s purity.

    Why did the air taste of rot?

    Another blast forced Nevren to swerve out of the way for a third time and he tried to steady his heart. His breaths were becoming ragged. Panting, he looked down and saw a drop of crimson land on the otherwise pristine floor.

    In disbelief, he rubbed the back of his palm against his mouth—his entire hand had turned red.

    The very air around that thing was corrosive. The atmosphere around those blasts stripped away at his insides.

    Picking up the pace, Nevren dodged another blast and tried to avoid the black haze it left behind, assuming that would only accelerate his death.

    The door was closer. Logically, this was true. Why, then, did it feel so far away? He had to hurry. A little more. Now, a nap. That sounded wonderful. However, he knew that, right now, the need to sleep was only death’s call, and he was far too busy to answer.

    His psionics were weak. Once solid platforms for boosting his stride had become jellylike in texture, his feet sinking into his own weakened force. His heel brushed against the ground. Accelerated levitation would be even more work, and he could barely concentrate as it was. Could he revise this moment and find a better path? Perhaps. But it was so tiring. He’d already gone nearly optimally with those blasts in the way.

    Those blasts had become a lot less frequent. He could hear again, aside from the dull ringing that accented everything else in his senses. Daring to look back, Nevren realized that the thing had company… only it seemed they were feuding with one another—much smaller, emerging from the portal behind the behemoth.

    This thing was a lot smaller and more well-composed, but still clearly an amalgamation. Its black body weaved through the air as the titan’s head struggled to keep up with its movements. There was something else in the smaller wraith’s tendrils: a creature of the same variety. Could it be two distinct creatures, or a part of the amalgamation that was trying to break free? Nevren’s curiosity overpowered his need for survival and he stopped when he felt he was a healthy distance away. He didn’t have the energy to keep running. Mostly because he’d tripped and fallen to the floor, but that was irrelevant. What were those creatures doing?

    Were they wraiths? They looked so much like them, and yet, they behaved… differently. They were more advanced.

    What was Dark Matter doing in that realm?

    The Shadow Blasts were all wildly off the mark, but each one left huge scorches and craters in the walls. The smaller wraiths were getting small but meaningful hits against the great titan’s head. But then, one of the Shadow Blasts finally found its mark, and Nevren was certain they were finished—only for a flash of gold cut through the darkness.

    Nevren mouthed, “Pardon me?” but his throat, he realized, wasn’t working well enough to actually form the words.

    But there it was, gold. Gold, in the darkness! And he recognized that particular glow, too. It was the same color that came from Protect, from Pokémon that had that odd sheen. Owen was among them. Was there a chance…?

    Nevren tried to focus his gaze on the battle. The amalgamation, the shape, the movements.

    They were winning. They were at an advantage from the giant wraith’s positioning, of course, but they were still winning. They flew too fast for the lumbering beast to keep up. Each counterattack pushed creature further into the portal until it was hanging by the claws—and then, without warning, the smaller wraith darted toward him at bullet speeds. Nevren couldn’t react. He barely had the strength to press the revisor. But he knew that all he needed to do was send a psychic blast toward it to activate it all the same. Or, alternatively, if he died, surely the dead man’s switch would still work. Right?

    “Nevren?” said the voice, and a few dark tendrils wrapped around Nevren’s body. He tensed, trying weakly to struggle out of its hold, but he was weak. He tried to speak and only tasted blood.

    The smaller wraith on its back said something frantically, but its voice was so warped that he had no idea what it said. And the larger one said something back, and that was just as impossible to comprehend.

    To Neven’s surprise—just as he was preparing to wipe away these moments to try again, a great amount of energy channeled into him. With a cold, shuddering gasp, his lungs filled again with air, and he hacked up whatever had been melted from before. He didn’t want to look. The taste was enough of an indication.

    And then it dropped him, rudely. He hit the floor and they flew back to the titan, where yet another wraith, this one speedy and flying with seemingly unmoving wings, pushed the titan deeper and deeper into the portal. It sent a few more helpless blasts skyward, scorching and disintegrating more and more of the ceiling.

    When the beast’s roars were finally and abruptly silenced, Nevren took a few seconds to recover his composure. The cool air stung his reformed lungs. A welcome feeling. It meant he was alive.

    That hadn’t been so bad. A few moments of mortal peril, yes, and he’d certainly get a nightmare or two, but it was nothing he couldn’t move past. More important, though, were the countless notes he’d be able to take from this discovery! How many pages could he fill with just the observations alone? He’d have to prioritize what to explore later.

    But then more roaring, more panicked chittering, echoed from the center of the room. Nevren stood to see that the smaller beasts were writhing in agony, their amorphous bodies evaporating before his very eyes. The Dungeon’s twisted dimensions were fading, too, with the closure of the gateway.

    Were they not able to exist outside of that realm?

    The smallest creature, the one that had used Protect… He was the most solid. He seemed to be panicking for the others, who were fading fast.

    Should he flee? No, that wasn’t very useful. There was still more to learn! For example, would they survive if tossed back into their realm? For healing him, it was the least he could do. And more importantly, he had a strong suspicion on who some of those wraiths were.

    His Teleport was back in working order. With a flash, a blip, and a few missteps that had to be revised, Nevren stepped over to the control module at the top of the observation deck.

    “Now, now,” Nevren called. “I’ll be sure to send you back. Try not to evaporate too rapidly, hm?” Nevren quickly pressed a few buttons, adjusted the charge capacity—there was no need for a large one this time. It would require additional power from the lab, but he would be able to make a small portal.

    A few pushes later—their panicked cries were very distracting and not at all productive—the portal opened. Nevren disappeared down and by their sides, where he said, “Well, go on. Take care. I shall try to contact you later. Owen, is that you?”

    The smallest wraith said something frantic and Nevren couldn’t discern the words.

    “Speak slowly, please.”

    With a frustrated growl, the wraith said, “Help me push them in!”

    One of them was practically smoke with a vaguely central core.

    “Ah. Of course. I shall try.”

    With a leisurely flick of his wrist, a Psychic wave gently rolled them into the portal, where the largest one fell first, and the medium-sized wraith fell next. Nevren peered downward even as the smallest one—who looked a little hazy—ran for the portal.

    “How will you find us?” the wraith asked.

    “I’ll figure it out in time. Take care, Owen.”

    The wraith seemed to nod, and then jumped down. The portal closed, and Nevren watched the empty floor for a long while. The notebooks were overflowing with scribbles and sketches and words and ideas.

    All in all? This experiment was a grand success.

    Hm?

    There was something on the floor…

    A bag. Interesting.

    <><><>​

    It was a miracle that they had survived, and it left a bitter taste in Owen’s mouth when he thought that it was Nevren who had facilitated it.

    Seeing him after so long, after knowing what he had done to Anam, he didn’t know whether to be mad or confused about it all. He still had no answers on what Nevren truly wanted from Anam, or why he had betrayed him. Dark Matter… wouldn’t have lied so specifically about that, would he?

    Hopefully he could ask Eon about that later, when they returned. For now, though…

    Migami had carried a severely weakened Latias back to the caves, evading detection by Void Titan Palkia. Still, it was nearby, and they had to defeat it. But they couldn’t do that while Latias was unconscious.

    After some time, she came to, but then frantically searched her neck and shoulders. “My bag!” she shouted. “Where’s my bag?!”

    “Your… bag?” Realization hit him. “Did it fall off during that attack?!”

    “I was practically e-evaporating up there,” Latias said. “Did it fall right through me?”

    “…Gahi remembers that happened to Trina,” Migami reported. “She evaporated after passing through a gateway, and… then woke up as a Snivy. Demitri and Mispy nearly had that happen, too.”

    “I remember…” Latias rubbed her eyes. “I remember it fell on the ground! It was still solid! It’s… it’s still up there!”

    “No, the gateway closed,” Owen said. “It’s probably with Nevren…”

    “Who?”

    “Someone I know,” Owen said, but then quieted down. Another rumble outside. Close. Palkia was close.

    “Consider it gone for now,” Migami said. “What do we need to free Palkia?”

    “Um… I, what? I thought you knew.”

    “Right. Right.” Migami glanced at Owen. “We need a crystal thing for power… And we need someone to draw that power from… Eon was the one who did—” They were missing Eon. But someone else could channel that power, right?

    “Crystal?” Latias looked around. “There are a lot of those all over Nil Plateaus and the forests up north. But they aren’t easy to find…”

    Migami winced at something, and Owen noticed his vines squeezing the air. “You should split up for now,” Owen said quietly. Migami looked away, ashamed once again, but started the same process as before.

    Owen rubbed one of the vines reassuringly, then answered Latias. “I can find them. I know the way once I get close. We just need to—”

    The rumbling was getting noticeably louder. Owen still didn’t know how sensitive their hearing was, if they even had hearing, or if all the individual bodies that made it up simply heard… collectively. He lowered his voice to a whisper.

    “If I concentrate, I might find one.”

    “If you want to use it, it needs to be of a type that you’re capable of using,” Latias said.

    “What? Type? Like, Fire?”

    “One I got was pinkish,” Gahi said. “Felt like Psychic energy.”

    “You know a Psychic move?” Latias asked, squinting. “You don’t look very… you know.”

    “What’s that supposed ter mean?”

    “Um. Nothing. You had a Psychic move?”

    “Kinda. Psychic Guardian.”

    “I don’t know what that is, or why you’d be one…” Latias sighed. “But okay. And Owen, what types of moves can you use?”

    “I—a lot, I think. Metal Claw, so, Steel… I’m the Grass Guardian… Fire, obviously… Pretty much everyone has a Normal technique or two…”

    Latias glanced outside, trying to discern where Palkia was. “Let’s try to find one. Owen, I think you’ll be able to use those crystals on your own. They’re part of Necrozma, after all. You might not even need to draw from someone else like you said.”

    It was as good a shot as any. “And if we fail, we should fly back to Null Village,” Owen concluded. “Sound good, team?”

    “If that’s the case,” Demitri said, “I think we should stay here for now. You guys don’t stray too far, but… we need to recover our strength if we want to fuse again.”

    “Mm. Teleport…”

    Gahi sighed, grunting. “Yeah. Not gonna be able ter do that if I’m tired. Need ter recover.”

    “That’s alright. I’ll fly Owen around and we’ll come right back. If something bad happens, umm…”

    “Solar Beam,” Mispy said.

    “Oh! We’d notice that!” Latias beamed. “Perfect! Okay, Owen. Ready to go?”

    Owen half-nodded, but stopped himself. And he paused, which left Latias looking uncertainly at Mispy and the others.

    “Um…” Latias tried to break the silence, but Mispy, Demitri, and Gahi all looked at Owen expectantly.

    Could this all be a ruse? What if Latias was still under Dark Matter’s control? And she was waiting for him to be alone, and she’d abandon the rest of his team right then? He couldn’t afford that kind of risk. How could a single touch from his Protect cure her?

    “Owen, what’s wrong?” Demitri asked. “You look… stressed, or something. Like you flashed back to something. It’s—we’re still here, alright?”

    “Yeah, sorry.” Owen glanced uneasily at Latias. “I don’t know if you’re still under Dark Matter’s control.”

    “Oh.” Latias looked down. “Right. That’s… that’s fair. That’s fair. I might not know myself…”

    Owen felt rotten. How could he have said that to her? Still, it had to be said. He couldn’t harbor something like that to himself.

    “No,” Mispy spoke up. “She isn’t.”

    “Mispy, what if your aura sense doesn’t get that?” Owen asked. “You couldn’t tell when Latias first showed up. He can suppress his aura.”

    “Don’t need it.” Mispy looked a little more firmly at Owen, practically like she was ready to go off on a lecture. Not that she was wordy enough to get into one.

    Owen stared dumbly; was he forgetting something?

    “We were, too,” Mispy pointed out.

    They were… too? Owen gasped. “He touched you, too.” An icy pit formed in his stomach at first, but then a wave of realization. “Wait, then… why haven’t you tried to abduct me already?”

    “Mm.” Mispy smiled.

    “Because we aren’t under his control!” Demitri laughed, holding his chest with relief. “You had me going there for a second, Owen. I was ready to tie myself up so I couldn’t hurt anyone! E-especially because, while we were fused, we had some crazy thoughts…”

    “You don’t always have those?” Gahi asked.

    “I mean, kinda, but they were stronger…”

    “Crazy thoughts?” Latias asked.

    “Uh, not important. Fighting instinct stuff.” Demitri tried to dismiss it with a wave.

    “Bah, talkin’, talkin’, so we’re safe?” Gahi thumped his tail impatiently. “Owen, go with Latias and Mispy’ll keep an eye on yer auras. If somethin’ goes wrong, we know we c’n catch up.”

    “Right. Um, sorry, Latias.”

    “No, no! It’s fine.” Latias tried to grasp at the bag around her neck, but when she only touched air, she frowned and said, “We’ll be, um, back as soon as we can. Don’t move from here, alright?”

    Owen carefully mounted Latias and waved back at the trio. With a little care, they’d be able to get a crystal and take down Palkia. From there, long travel would be a thing of the past…

    <><><>​

    Alexander steadied his aim and fired a beam of darkness into the wall, leaving deep craters in the presumably element-proof material. Seething, blinding rage clouded his vision and his heart thumped in his ears. He visualized ripping that Mewtwo into tiny little pieces, piecing him back together with his dark power, and doing it all over again. Twice, maybe three times. No, that wouldn’t be enough.

    Why did he trust him to do this trivial mission alone?

    Not only did they escape his clutches, they also attracted Dark Matter to South Null Village. And Aster’s cheerful summary of his complete failure—

    Alexander fired another blast into the wall, leaving a deeper crater.

    There was no chance that he would catch up in time. Dark Matter was going to claim the source of power first, no matter how much of a dead end it was. This wasn’t a game for resources anymore. It was pride. Dark Matter had defiled his pride. Aster squandered an easy recovery mission. If he had an ounce of logic, he would have razed South Null Village until Marshadow caved and revealed the source.

    He should have ordered that outright. But he had been too cautious of Aster’s inability to perform under pressure.

    Leph would have been back already. Mhynt, the same. Yet he chose Aster. Why? Why?

    Alexander roared and used his central head to blast a hole clean through the wall, revealing another room where a Treecko stood, reading a half-annihilated book. She stared at the empty space where it had once been, and then turned her head casually to Alexander.

    Alexander growled. “How long have you been there?”

    “Mm, only one blast ago,” she said. With a flick of her wrist, the book disappeared, and the empty husk of a Honedge reappeared. “Tell me,” she added, setting the blade’s tip on the ground and resting her chin on the hilt, “did the mission go well?”

    “Do not test me.”

    Mhynt hopped over the hole made in the wall and landed in a slow fall. “If this mission was so trivial that you sent Aster,” Mhynt said, “why are you so worked up over it, if I may ask?”

    “You may not ask.”

    “Mm. Of course.” She craned her neck to meet eyes with him. Her expression was blank, bored, unintimidated. He hated it. She was the one Pokémon who refused to fall in line, yet she still followed his orders. But only because she wanted to. Of course, he could always force her, yet it never came to that. She always complied. Yet why, then, was it so frustrating to give them?

    His badge buzzed. He looked to Mhynt, who wasn’t moving. Alexander snorted and spun around. It was from Marshadow. His muzzle crinkled with disgust and he answered. “If this isn’t about turning over that source of power, I want nothing of it, and I will command Aster to start his death count early.”

    He’d start diplomatically.

    “Well, that power source ran off. Yeh probably figured that out.”

    “Then will you be recovering it?” Alexander asked, voice even.

    “Figure that’s already gonna happen. Called fer somethin’ else.”

    “My time is far more valuable than you’re presuming.” Alexander would raise their taxes in retaliation, maybe send a controlled Titan or two on their town to put them in place. Something to give their defenses a scare. He still needed their resources for Cipher City. “Go on, then. I’ll give you one sentence.”

    “Dark Matter says hello.”

    The call disconnected.

    Alexander could barely hear whatever it was that Mhynt had said after that silence. Some quiet rushing of blood through his head muffled it all. His vision blurred with every second, until he caught himself and took a breath. Calm. He was past this. After holding that breath, he turned toward Mhynt, who was waiting patiently for him, her expression blank.

    “It’s probably Owen after all, you know,” Mhynt said.

    “Owen…” The very name was like bile in his throat. “The one that refuses to die.”

    “And to think, Necrozma himself killed him, and yet he remains. Do you think that was part of his plan, too?” Mhynt tilted her head, feigning innocence.

    “Don’t get wise with me. You’d know Necrozma’s mindset far better than I would.” He growled, drifting toward one.

    Mhynt stepped toward Alexander and kicked up a pebble, grasping it in her hand. She seemed to be looking at the way his Shadows had broken the stone apart.

    “It must be so frustrating,” Mhynt said. “Of Necrozma’s disciples, you only have little old me. And another one is all the way across the Voidlands, probably trying to drink the contaminated water, knowing him.”

    “I don’t just have you,” Alexander snarled. “Azelf is effectively—”

    “None of them truly listen to you, though,” Mhynt pointed out. “I could try to convince them again, you know.”

    “I can’t afford that risk.” Alexander drifted to his desk on the opposite wall. Without Aster there to constantly relocate it, he was actually able to get some work done.

    “Mm, speaking of not taking risks,” Mhynt said, like she’d been waiting for him to bring it up.

    Of course she had an ulterior motive for approaching him. Always asking for assignments. If he needed something, he’d speak to her, not the other way around. Pest.

    “If it is Owen,” Mhynt continued when Alexander didn’t answer, “how do you suppose Aster will react?”

    That stopped him.

    “They were very good friends, you know,” Mhynt said. “And Aster isn’t very observant. He might not realize until someone says something in the heat of battle. With how unpredictable he is…”

    She always knew how to push his buttons, and what he hated more was the fact that she was right. “He’s under orders to return the strongest creature there,” Alexander said. “He isn’t foolish. If he sees Owen, he will know that even if he isn’t strong, he is still valuable. He wouldn’t spare him.”

    “Oh, spare him? You’re more merciful than I thought.” Mhynt tutted and ran her empty Honedge blade against the ground. The Treecko went on, “I heard that Leph gave Aster two Wonder Orbs, as he calls them. Blank ones, to his whims.”

    “She what?” Alexander snarled. “Why did I not hear of this?”

    “Your reaction, most likely,” Mhynt hummed.

    “Do not get smart with me.” Alexander drew toward Mhynt, staring her down from his great height. She returned to him that same indifference. “Or would you like to spend a day among the Shadows again?”

    A flash of fear. Yes. That would do. Mhynt would never acknowledge it, but he saw it, and he smirked. By the Void, he loved that look. He’d etch that into his mind later tonight. But he had to keep things professional, so he spun around. “Two God Orbs, and the chance it’s Owen. If he gets reckless, Dark Matter will get him first…”

    “What are your orders, King?”

    With another annoyed grunt, Alexander conceded. “Fine. You’re fast enough to catch up to Aster anyway, I suppose…”

    “I think I am going to meet Owen when he returns to Null Village. That is the most likely outcome if Aster panics. I do not think there will be much hope in intercepting them now that so much time has passed.” Mhynt put a finger under her chin, pensive. “I’ll need a motivator, too. I am going to try my hand at convincing that Zoroark to help us again. I suspect she may know Owen.”

    “Oh? You’re so sure?”

    “The pieces are fitting together,” Mhynt said. “She has a piece of Necrozma’s power in her, too. We’ve seen it. A dim glow, weak psychic powers, levitation… Hmm, perhaps she has a fragment that he had left behind. There must be a link. I will check.”

    “Fine. She wasn’t being cooperative anyway, and she isn’t that strong. Do what you want with her. But if you need to kill her, make sure you absorb her spirit.”

    “Always,” Mhynt replied leisurely, holding up her blade. “It’s empty, after all. I have plenty of room.”

    <><><>​

    Cipher City’s capitol building had several underground floors carved into the dust and rock that made up the Voidlands’ surface. After only a few stories, solid, impenetrable rock impeded any further progress down. That made deep basements impossible when on the surface, but it still allowed for a few floors to make captive retainment chambers.

    Compared to the more polished halls of the surface floors, the underground levels were dull and less refined. No cracks, of course, but they certainly weren’t meant to be presentable to the general public.

    Past the cold halls and through one of the doorways, Mhynt entered one of the observation rooms, manned by a single guard. The Swampert had a bag of chips larger than his head on one side and his belly pressed heavily against the desk in front of him. Mhynt grimaced when he wiped his hand on his slimy chest, then licked his fingers.

    “Ah-hm,” Mhynt announced.

    “Buh?” Lazily, he glanced with one eye toward her. In an instant, he yelped and hopped out of his seat—the most exercise he’d done in weeks, she imagined—and stood with his back straight. “M-Mhynt! A p-pleasure to—everything is safe and secure!”

    “Mhm.” Mhynt tapped her blade on the ground idly. Swampert’s eyes followed the blade’s edge. “What is the status of Zoroark?”

    “The same as always, sir!” He quickly pressed a few buttons to focus in on the screens, putting one on display, which revealed Zoroark curled up in the corner of a white room. There was a plate of half-eaten food near her. “We’ve been able to condition her perfectly. If she puts on the Nullify Looplet, she gets food. Intelligent ferals are very easy to train.”

    “How long did it take to condition her?” Mhynt asked.

    “Only a few days. She’s been like this for a while.”

    “And there were no security breaches? She is a Zoroark, after all. Why did you not simply attach the Looplet to her so she couldn’t remove it?”

    “We tried, s-sir, but she somehow kept taking them off. We had to go with psychological conditioning.”

    “Mm. Talented at escape, then. Yet she never left the room?”

    “No, sir. Never. Sure, there were a few times where she kept running away from us and took the Looplet off, but that was when the door was closed. There was no way she’d be able to escape.”

    “Tell me, were you the one they assigned to chase and capture her, should she escape?”

    “No, sir.”

    “Why do you think that is?” Mhynt tapped her blade again, then released it. By a dark force, it floated above her and then behind her, completely vertical.

    “B-because I’m… not… with the pursuit division. I’m observations. Monitoring. Security.”

    “I see.” Mhynt looked at Swampert’s belly. He sucked it in and puffed out his chest. “I’m going to see to it that you get increased access to the castle’s eateries.”

    “B-huh?” His gut popped out again, jiggling like an ocean’s waves.

    “Yes. Specifically, the healthy foods we serve. I will also be sure to give you access to the recreational and exercise facilities in the entertainment district.”

    Swampert gulped. “But, um, but why, sir?”

    “Because your physical shape is unacceptable. If Zoroark escapes, you will never capture her. Now, I’m going to be going on a mission very soon. If I come back and I see you are even fatter”—the blade tilted so the light reflected in Swampert’s eyes—“I will remove it myself. Now, go.” Mhynt flipped her hand and produced a card with a note on it, written with dark, shadowy burn marks. “Those are my orders. You can’t forge my scorch writing.”

    “S-sir!” He sprinted out of the room, leaving his chips behind.

    Mhynt sighed, shaking her head, and then eyed the bag.

    And paused.

    With a small exhale through her nose, she flicked her hand and pulled a single chip from the bag. It smelled like Cheri. Perhaps Tamato. She always liked spicy. Crunch, crunch…

    She snapped her fingers and the chips were engulfed in shadowy flames. Nothing was left behind.

    All things considered, she saw why he loved them so much. The flavor gave her a hint of nostalgia, though she pushed the thought away.

    Time to focus on Zoroark.

    That Swampert had been even more unobservant than she’d thought. Near the very edges of the doorway into the containment chamber, there were tiny strands of fur on the ground. Brown on dark gray didn’t stand out, but someone in observations surely would have noticed. There was always the assumption that Swampert or someone else had gotten into a scuffle with her, but that wasn’t good enough.

    No, Zoroark had escaped a few times. But she did not leave completely. She was scouting the area. Searching for a way out. Planning her path.

    This wasn’t an average feral. Zoroark were clever, and this one even more so.

    She opened the door an inch, then a little more, and then slipped inside, shutting it behind her. Now, she was in a featureless hall meant to separate the observation room from the main chamber.

    After taking a few steps forward, she eyed her surroundings without moving her head. Her movement was silent, and she focused on the scents instead. Yes… Just as she thought.

    Mhynt slid her foot forward and conjured a rippling darkness through the floor. It bounced off of the walls like a pebble’s waves through water, and then hit a disturbance only a few feet ahead of her, then to the left. Mhynt pointed her blade forward in a gliding motion and pointed directly at the ripple. She narrowed her eyes, then smiled wryly.

    “Shall we talk in the main room?” she asked the air.

    No reply audibly, but the ripples on the floor told a different story. A step forward, then a step back. Weighing her options. Considering whether the tiny Treecko was a danger or not. In the end, the Zoroark chose wisely.

    When the disturbances in the dark ripples moved toward the chamber, Mhynt brought her blade down and followed her inside.

    Mhynt approached the half-eaten food and prodded the plate with her blade. Solid, so that wasn’t an illusion, though she suddenly heard a growl behind her. “Hm?”

    The Zoroark loomed over her, snarling.

    “Oh, I don’t intend to eat it.” Mhynt pulled her blade away. “I was testing how elaborate your illusions were.”

    Zoroark growled, backing away and crouching down.

    “You seem like an intelligent Pokémon,” Mhynt said. “I don’t think the others have been giving you the respect you deserve. Even now…” Mhynt pointed at Zoroark, blasting a small beam of Shadows into her chest. It passed through harmlessly, “You are misleading me. That’s something to commend.”

    She growled again, then snarled.

    “Hm?”

    “Big words.”

    And to this, Mhynt blinked. Her stoic mask cracked to reveal a hint of surprise. Then, she slipped it back on. “You can talk.”

    “Stupid.”

    “You certainly gave the wrong impression.”

    Zoroark snarled again.

    Mhynt held up her hands, eyes closed. “We didn’t know,” she rephrased.

    Zoroark huffed and crouched down again. Mhynt, meanwhile, crossed her legs and slid her blade across the floor. It clattered and clanged against the wall. Zoroark, perplexed, flicked her ear and leaned forward.

    “I’m only here to talk,” Mhynt said. “Why don’t we begin with names? My name is Mhynt.”

    Another growl was all that she replied with, and then she snorted and turned away.

    “Do you not have a name?” Mhynt asked, tilting her head. “Surely you do.”

    “Small,” Zoroark replied.

    “Your name is… Small?” Mhynt asked.

    “You,” Small replied.

    “…Me. You’re calling me… Small?”

    Zoroark nodded. “Not interested.”

    Mhynt squinted. “Interested in what?”

    “Bad father.”

    Mhynt brought her hands together and held her chin between her fingers. She stared at nothing, contemplative. This wasn’t expected. What part should she correct first?

    …Not worth it.

    “Do you know Owen?” Mhynt asked.

    Zoroark narrowed her eyes at this, like she was suspicious. “He sent… you?”

    For what? Why would Owen send her? What did she mean? Was Owen organizing an army? But that did answer a question, that she did know Owen. Perhaps he was more competent than she gave him credit.

    “Still not interested.”

    All gone in an instant.

    “Zoroark,” Mhynt said, “I would like to take you to see Owen. You must be confused about why you’re here. If you work with me, I can take you back to him. Would you like that?”

    “Hmm…” And then, a nod. “Okay.”

    “Good. Now, I’ll ask again. Do you have a name?”

    “Enet.”

    Finally. Now, they could work together. “Then it’s good to meet you, Enet. I am Mhynt.”

    Enet flicked her ear, then leaned forward, sniffing a few times. Then, she nodded, as if approving of something.

    No. No, she wasn’t going to ask.
     
    Chapter 105 - Titanic Rescue
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 105 – Titanic Rescue

    “Fascinating…”

    Nevren spent several Revisor cycles looking through different parts of the bag that had been left behind from those wraiths. There was quite a lot that he could learn from it. It appeared to have a connection to some form of long-distance communication. However, that connection was not operational. Nevren suspected that it would be open if he turned Quartz HQ into a Dungeon again, but he still needed to work on making that technology portable.

    He also learned that perhaps the reason these wraiths were different was because they were sentient—perhaps even sapient. Were his suspicions true? They were very familiar. It had been a spur-of-the-moment assumption, one in particular seemed like Owen. And that giant one… there was something about it that felt… familiar. The fact that Nevren had no proper words for it was a mild source of irritation.

    Speaking of mild sources of irritation…

    Arceus, are you there? Nevren called. I trust Dark Matter has not made any advances.

    “He has not. The storm above Hot Spot has calmed, but the area itself remains corrupt.”

    Where is Lavender?

    “Still quite far from Kilo Village. You know, you could have asked me to relay a message if you needed to…”

    I could have, yes.


    A pause. “You just wanted him gone.”

    Not just that,
    Nevren replied coolly. These experiments are becoming very risky. I’d rather Rim be in Kilo Village where it is safer for now.

    “But essentially so Lavender would be away.”

    In any case, I do actually want you to relay a message to Kilo Village. Tell them to be careful when entering Dungeons and approaching cores. If a wraith appears to be sapient, act cautiously and not aggressively.

    “Excuse me?”


    Nevren decided to stop inspecting the bag, placing all of the items where they had been previously. Yes, he said, halting his notes. I recently performed a successful Dungeon creation and destruction event. There were wraiths emerging from it. One was a gigantic, hostile creature that was perhaps once too large to pass through other rifts. There were several smaller ones that were fighting against it, going so far as to protect me.

    “This… is unprecedented, you know. I don’t know if I can believe you.”

    Perhaps it is too unbelievable to make up. I doubt you can see any reason for me to fabricate this.

    “We aren’t exactly on the best of terms, Nevren. You caused this by trying to tamper with Anam, who wound up being the seal to Dark Matter.”

    None of us were aware of this. In any case, I do have another piece of information. Regarding those sapient wraiths…

    “Potentially sapient.”

    One behaved like Owen.


    Silence, then. Nevren could understand as much. It was hard to believe himself. But there was no questioning those gestures—and that amalgamation… He would not mistake his own creations, even if they had been warped and distorted. That was the Alloy.

    “You aren’t one to make such bold claims normally,” Barky finally said.

    I am not.

    And then, more silence. Nevren was finished packing the bag again.

    They have great technology, Nevren continued. The world the wraiths come from seems to have its own small society. Advanced. Perhaps that is where they went. Perhaps that is where a lot of missing spirits have gone.

    “Then Star could be there.”

    Indeed. And all of the others as well.

    “How can we help them?”


    Finally, some progress. Nevren started with his plans. We have a means to enter their realm. Next, we should find a way for them to exit. They can’t seem to last when outside of a Dungeon’s space, which leads to even more questions. I’ll explain more later. For now, tell the others what I found.

    “Yes. Should we hold off on attacking Dark Matter?”

    …No. Continue. Perhaps it can give more data, and there are still things in Hot Spot Cave that we must investigate.

    “Very well. I shall see what those at Kilo Village are planning.”

    Do not tell them it was from me,
    Nevren said idly. I do not think they will take kindly to my advice right now.

    “…Of course.”


    <><><>​

    “Okay,” Latias said. “On three!”

    “Three’s too long!” Migami said, diving left to avoid a Shadow Blast that singed their antennae. “On two!”

    “How do you go by on two?!”

    “NOW!” Owen shouted.

    It was the best plan they could think of with the information they had, and Palkia’s strange abilities were starting to manifest from the behemoth. They didn’t want to see how far it could get with them, especially when it had somehow swapped the locations of two plateaus. Owen held a green crystal that they had found after careful scouting. Migami held another psychic one after swatting away a Void Shadow that had been trying to keep it.

    Latias had told them that the radiant energy within those crystals was something that could, if tapped and unleashed, defeat a Titan. If they had done it before, they could do it again.

    But why did it have to involve throwing Owen into it?

    “Get that Protect ready!” Migami shouted, and then hurled Owen toward Void Palkia’s shoulder.

    He’d fashioned his Protect into wings. Now it was time to fashion it into a spike. Owen crossed his arms and focused, first creating the sphere, and then narrowing the point in front of him into a dull cone. He was seconds away from contact, and Palkia charged another blast meant for Migami. Perfect.

    He flew forward even faster thanks to a Psychic from Latias. The wind whistled around his cone, and he hoped the rapid deceleration wouldn’t hurt too much.

    All became darkness, aside from the golden glow of his barrier. He’d pierced right into the shoulder and lodged himself somewhere in, if Owen had to guess, the upper chest. The Void Shadows that made up the Titan closed the gap behind him, and Owen balanced his feet on the bottom of the spherical barrier.

    Now he had to wait. He heard tremors, blasts, other indicators from outside that they were getting their hits in.

    The Protect shield was starting to crack. Owen concentrated more and the shield repaired itself. The crystal in his hands glowed bright and, despite his Fire nature, it burned him a little. It was ready. Just like Latias said, he could activate the crystals on his own thanks to Necrozma’s blessing. Could Gahi as well, if he tried harder? Perhaps Eon only made it easier…

    Please, work, Owen thought to the crystal. Guys? Are you ready yet? But, of course, they could not hear him.

    The barrier was cracking again, and this time it wasn’t repairing itself. The moment the barrier dropped, he’d have no choice but to attack. He didn’t know if he could trigger a radiant attack while Voided, even temporarily.

    He saw in his mind’s eye a little Ralts, confused and terrified. Those eyes, showing no recognition of him, yet they were very clearly his mother’s. He’d see them again. With some luck, maybe his father wouldn’t even have to find out until it was all over.

    The beast stumbled left, and that was as good a signal as Owen was going to get. He clutched the crystal tight against his chest and then raised it in the air just as his Protect shattered.

    Come on, Palkia. We need you!

    <><><>​

    “What’s taking Owen so long?!” Migami shouted, weaving around a claw strike from Palkia. The trailing darkness was like a miasma, rotting their scales on contact. They grunted and swooped down, focusing their powers on healing next.

    “Just give it time! That was a strong hit!” Latias called back, hurling several mist balls into the beast’s head. Smaller blasts came out from the creature’s side, striking Latias in the chest. She screamed, but Migami knew this cycle and blasted Latias back with healing light. Latias regained consciousness mid-fall and used her downward momentum to twist one of its limbs with Psychic.

    Up close, this thing was several floors tall, and they had no chance of taking it down effectively from afar.

    “Wait, I’m seeing something!” Latias shouted.

    Palkia must have been feeling it, too. The Titan held its chest, trying to pull something out, but it was already too late. Huge portions of its amalgamated body were falling away as cracks of light shined out from within; leaves and flower petals seeped out with an invisible wind.

    The Titan’s body expanded in a disturbing bloat, ripping at the seams where more light poured out. Finally, with an explosive and unsettlingly fragrant blast, the Titan burst. Migami and Latias flew backward and caught the gusts of wind. Latias had more trouble, getting caught by Migami so she didn’t go flying too far.

    Latias was a frail thing and Migami could feel the muscle and bone under her feathers. Her weak points. They were tempted to press against her neck to see how much give it had, how easy it would be to snap.

    After violently shaking the thoughts out of their head, Migami looked down. “Where’s Owen?”

    “I can’t tell,” Latias said, squinting. She was blinded, which made her vulnerable to attack. No, the fight was over—Migami had to stop thinking about that.

    There was something orange falling amid the scattered Void Shadows. Migami focused on that; in a flash of light, Void Shadows were now raining down upon Migami, but along with them was Owen.

    “Uff!”

    Owen landed on top of Latias, the wind in her chest leaving in a harsh squeak.

    Another frail creature in Migami’s arms. They could drop Owen and he’d be helpless; there was no counter for such a far fall. No, he could break it with Flame Bursts.

    “Migami, get us to Palkia,” Owen said firmly.

    “What?”

    “Palkia. Look down. Keep it together.”

    Keep it together? They were just fine.

    “Breathe.”

    “What’s wrong?” Migami asked, looking between the two of them. Latias seemed nervous for some reason, and Owen wasn’t taking his eyes off of them. What an intense look… They should listen.

    Migami didn’t realize until just then how firmly they’d been holding Latias. Releasing her, Migami watched a few feathers, tinged with crimson, drift to the faraway ground.

    “Palkia,” Owen said again.

    “Right, right.” Migami turned their attention downward. Palkia, Palkia… there! Among the mass of black sludge was the pinkish form of the Spacekeeper. “Okay, how about we—”

    Latias squeaked and pointed. “Aster!”

    “You’re kidding.” Migami turned, and indeed, he was seconds away. He must have been attracted by the fighting; that burst of energy was surely enough to guide him there. Had he been following them all this time?

    There was a hint of eagerness in Migami’s voice that betrayed the gravity of Aster’s arrival. Owen must have noticed because he was already shooting an ember in their face to get their attention.

    “We aren’t fighting head-on. We lost the first time.”

    “We lost because Dark Matter touched me,” Migami said. “We don’t have that this time. I’m gonna win.” And Migami believed every word of it. This time it was one on five, or three, however they counted. Owen sort of counted as half a Pokémon, and Latias was on even footing, so maybe it was two and a half. Or—

    “Migami, focus,” Owen pleaded. “Come on, we need to get to P—”

    Aster disappeared and the tingling to Migami’s left made them reflexively swing at the air. A vine grazed skin. With a manic grin, Migami met Aster’s gaze only a few feet apart.

    “Hey,” Migami greeted.

    “Hi!” Aster giggled.

    “Round two?”

    “No, no round two,” Owen said firmly, pointing at Aster. “You—leave us alone! What do you even want us for?!”

    “Alexander wants the strongest person here, and that’s you!” Aster pointed at Migami. “Who was the one who made that huge blast of light? I won’t hurt anyone if you just give that one to meeee!”

    “You’ll have to get ‘im over my dead body!” Migami held Owen forward like a prize.

    “Huh? Him? That little Charmander made that huge blast of light?” Aster wavered.

    The disappointment Migami felt was immeasurable. Were they not going to fight? Aster didn’t look like he was interested. “If I throw him away, can we fight over him?” Migami proposed.

    Owen gasped, staring at Migami, wide-eyed. “Migami, think! Don’t let your fighting instincts take over, alright? Please?”

    Fighting instincts? Was that this?

    “Wait a minute…” Aster frowned, but then drifted closer.

    Migami beat their wings back and searched for Latias. She was just behind them, on guard, but Migami could tell she was ready to run. Far below, Palkia was unconscious and the Void Shadows were scattering aimlessly. If they waited too long, they might coalesce around him again…

    “Our top priority is Palkia,” Owen whispered. “It’s like Aster doesn’t even notice him… And why is he staring at me?”

    “Let me see him!” Aster shouted. And Migami knew what was coming before Aster disappeared.

    They ran on instinct.

    Swinging left, Migami struck air, but the tingling feeling on their side was an easy read. Extra vines shot in that direction, swiping Aster’s arm. He disappeared and, predictably, appeared behind next. An easy target for Migami’s tail. Flexing a strange muscle, they swung their tail and ejected one of its tail-blade pairs, enveloping it in Psychic energy to guide it toward the assaulting Mewtwo.

    Owen was saying something, but Migami didn’t hear it, nor were they interested. Not when it was obvious that they were supposed to keep fighting. Aster’s little game of Teleport was becoming predictable, like he never had to actually fight someone at his level before. Inexperienced. Softened from too many easy beatings.

    Aster got a few lucky shots in, of course. Between using Owen as a Protect parry—which was starting to have more of an effect on Aster than before—and having so many bases covered, Aster couldn’t get a solid hit in. Only a few grazing shots. It was odd, actually. Was Aster being cautious of Latias, who didn’t know when to strike? Or was Aster holding back? He wasn’t this easy before.

    Owen shouted something again, and this time, Migami decided to listen.

    “Migami, run away!”

    Maybe listening could wait for later.

    Yet, only a few seconds later, Aster changed his rhythm. Migami faltered, and that was all Aster needed. The Mewtwo’s fist knocked Migami in the jaw and sent them spiraling down. They tried to pull Owen closer to his chest, but when they did, nothing but empty air separated him and his hands. Owen was gone.

    Migami slammed into the rock and the dull, loud cracks told him that several bones broke from the impact with a nearby plateau. Large rocks fell around them and to the dusty ground far below.

    “Owen—” Migami choked out, slamming their whole body against the plateau to get back in the air. They saw a flash, and that was all. Latias was frantically flying toward them, and Migami had half a mind to attack for approaching him too quickly.

    “I’ll look for him!” Latias said. “He disappeared, but he couldn’t have gone far! Oh—but what about Palkia? Do I stay back? Um, Migami?”

    All of that was pointless to reply to. Migami ascended, and Latias said something too soft to hear, and they scanned the plateaus. He was around here somewhere…

    “Owen…” Migami’s heart thumped in his chest. There was a lingering regret in their head and he wasn’t sure why. They weren’t done with his fight. Aster wasn’t about to run away from that. And Owen, he…

    He told him to run away. Owen had known it was coming. And they hadn’t listened.

    A wave of rage shook Migami down to his core. Their fists trembled; his tail whipped the air, his own blades slicing into bits of his scales. The fusion roared, psychic crescents splitting the air and the plateau behind him, leaving massive gashes in the purple stone. Latias squeaked and flew down to Palkia, spending her time brushing away Void Shadows from above.

    “I’ll kill him,” Migami hissed, clenching the air. “He’s here somewhere… Owen… hang in there…”

    They flew higher, throwing any sense of stealth away in the process. If Aster could see them, then they could see Aster.

    And then they wouldn’t have to apologize.

    <><><>​

    Even after being torn away from his team and tossed to the dusty ground, spending several seconds without movement, Owen’s world was still spinning.

    “Ugh…” He rolled onto his belly and pushed himself up. “Hello?” Was he rescued?

    Something wrapped around the back of his neck and pulled him. Owen struggled, but he was already off the ground and he couldn’t reach or strike anything. He made feral, chittering noises, tail blazing, but the assailant was unaffected.

    “What’s your name?”

    Aster. It was Aster. His grip was gentle, but firm.

    “Why do you want to know?” Owen asked back.

    “Do I know you?”

    “What do you—”

    Owen remembered a much smaller Mewtwo during that picnic. Azelf had been there, too, with the others of that trio. Quite a few Legends had been there…

    Aster spun Owen around, leaving the Charmander floating without anyone actually holding him. Aster wore an uncharacteristically serious expression, like he was afraid of something.

    “Just tell me your name,” Aster said.

    The psychic force around Owen felt turbulent. Owen’s tail was already sparking from his anxiety. If he said the wrong thing here, would he die? Well. That probably wouldn’t matter, but it would be inconvenient. Worse, he might be taken away. But if he didn’t answer… Aster was a Mewtwo. Would he simply… break his mind open to find the answer?

    “Owen,” he finally said.

    That Psychic grip wavered.

    “And… were you named after your dad, or something?” Aster asked, voice trembling.

    “No. My old human named me Owen.”

    Owen regretted giving that detail; Aster looked like he’d been overcome by a wave of sheer panic and confusion. There was a manic look in his eyes for half a second, some mixture of thrill and relief, and then a dark, dark horror.

    “Y-you’re really Owen,” Aster said, and then he laughed. “Owen, ha… h-ha, you’re alive, you’re really alive, and you’re here…”

    “Well, alive is stretching it…” Owen tried, subtly, to break free, but it was no use. Aster pulled him closer, but then suddenly shoved him away, and Owen toppled over the dirt with a grunt.

    “I—that means I have to… you’re the one he… no. N-no, I can’t! H-ha, Alexander wouldn’t know i-if I just… h-ha, I can’t… you’re Owen! S-so there’s no way I… we…”

    “Aster, what’s wrong?” The Psychic hold had completely disappeared. Maybe, if he was lucky, he would be able to convince Aster to work with him. “Aster, I remember you,” he said. It was the truth, even if the magnitude was probably being falsely implied. “Please, just talk to me. It’s okay.”

    Carefully, Owen stepped forward, and Aster took a single step back, more than making up for it.

    “I’m u-under orders… that i-if I see someone like you, I have to…”

    “Then don’t follow them. You don’t have to, Aster.” Owen had no idea what he was saying. “Please, just stay with us. Alright?”

    “No, I can’t, I can’t, I—” He laughed again, squeezing his forehead with both hands. “I can’t, I can’t, it’s his power, it’s his power!”

    “What’s his power? Aster, come on, talk to me—”

    “No. I can’t talk to you! You… aren’t even here!”

    This seemed like it was going badly. Owen searched, with just his eyes, for an escape, but he was on top of a plateau. He could probably try to jump, but Aster would catch him. No, he was stuck. He had to calm him down.

    While Owen had been thinking in those few silent moments, Aster pulled from a small bag a sphere. It reminded Owen of the Wonder Orbs he’d used in Dungeons, though this one did not seem to have anything in it. Just raw, white essence, ready to shape itself into anything. And that alone filled Owen with a strange, primal dread, like every single part of him was telling him, right then, to run away.

    “You’re not here… I’m… I’m not seeing Owen! You’re… not Owen! You’re not a Charmander! You’re… g-gone!”

    Aster slammed the orb at Owen’s feet; he had a second to run, but that was all. A wave of lethargy washed over Owen as strange threads of light wrapped around and dug into the Charmander’s scales. He felt its sting and then a gentle warmth, then an uncomfortable chill that only intensified. Owen tried to cry out, but nothing came. He felt immobile—he was shrinking. That cold feeling was digging into his brain. A horrible headache, just for an instant. He felt a sweet taste in his mouth and nostrils. The flame on his tail sputtered out, and then the tail itself seemed to recede.

    Then, he blacked out.

    <><><>​

    Migami split into three after having little luck in finding Aster immediately. They’d have to do extra scouting, or Mispy would need to focus her aura sensing, before they could find him—if that.

    Latias and Demitri tended to Palkia, who was still unconscious. The Void Shadows were dazed and injured, most of them already scattering away from the blast that had destroyed most of them. That made getting to Palkia trivial, with Demitri tapping on one of his pearls. “Palkia?” he said. “Are you awake?”

    “Palkia, wake up,” Latias said. “Can you hear me?” She floated to his head, frowning. He was massive—his head and neck alone were practically the length of Latias’ whole body.

    “Rrgh… Hm? Mm…” He opened one eye, and Demitri braced for some kind of panic or roar or space-shattering attack. “Ah. Am I awake?”

    “Um, yes, Palkia. You are.”

    “That’s wonderful!” He rolled over, crushing several Void Shadows, and got to his feet to brush himself off. Demitri yelped and stumbled away, falling onto his back. Mispy stood on her guard, ready to fight, but then Palkia clapped his hands together.

    It was so off-putting that Mispy lost her stance.

    “Goodness, I’ve lost track of the time. Tell me, how long has it been since I was uncovered? I do have a vague dream of fighting back very recently, yes, but that was after I believe I heard Dialga crying out. Ahh, but the passage of time while being sealed away is difficult to discern. Hm! Latias. How have you been?”

    “Um. I-I don’t know which question to answer first…”

    “Oh, nonsense, surely you can answer one of them! Ah, for example, where is Dialga? Do you know?”

    “He’s, um, back at Null Village,” Demitri said. “But we—”

    “Oh, wonderful! Point me in that direction and I can take us there right away!”

    He raised his arm, but Latias quickly cried, “Wait, no! Not yet! Um—we need to find someone else first! Do you remember Aster?”

    “Star’s child? Certainly! How is my adorable creation doing?” Palkia looked left and right, then at Latias with those same, bright eyes. “Where is he?”

    “Um. He abducted Owen and is taking him to Alexander.”

    “Alexander? That sounds familiar.”

    “Emissary of Darkness.”

    “Ahhh, right. Of course. And Aster is working for him, then? A shame.” Palkia sighed and pat down the rest of his scales of any Void mess. “Well, I suppose I should dispose of him. Truly unfortunate. Where is he?”

    “I don’t think you’ll be strong enough. He’s enhanced by that same darkness, and, um—”

    “Wait,” Demitri said, “you’re just going to try to kill him? Just like that?”

    “Well, he’s with Dark Matter now. I certainly must.” Palkia nodded. “It’s a shame, but he will only be a threat now. If we kill him, then he will be stripped of his power.”

    “Actually, Dark Matter is fighting Alexander for control.”

    “Oh?” Palkia hummed, arms crossed. “Are they both simply different sides of evil, then?”

    “Kind of.”

    “Well, I suppose that does complicate matters. If we take out too much of one side, the other may gain the upper hand and we can’t win at all. We will have to be more careful. Very well! No killing Aster today. You said you were looking for him, however?”

    “That way,” Mispy suddenly said, pointing in what Demitri thought was a random direction, yet she pointed with purpose.

    “Of course.” Palkia lifted himself off the ground, a gentle wind circling over his oddly small wings. “Hmm, I’m not as fast as I would like,” Palkia said. “My strength is certainly less than usual. You all go ahead! I shall catch up.”

    “After all the work we went through to get you?” Demitri said as Gahi flew ahead to where Mispy had pointed. “Um, also, can you carry us? Since Gahi’s… flying ahead.”

    “Well, if you sense something, I imagine he would want to go there soon,” Palkia said. “Goodness, what an interesting Flygon. I’ve never seen a color like that before.”

    “Yeah, he’s the Psychic Guardian.” Demitri climbed onto Palkia’s back with some effort, but then stiffened. “U-um, how high do you plan on flying?”

    Mispy climbed on next and made sure to grasp Demitri so he didn’t pass out. “Focus on me,” she said gently.

    “Y-yeah, sorry.”

    Mispy smiled. It wasn’t that bad when he was fused with someone else, but on his own, getting too far from the ground still gave him tremors.

    But Gahi was already returning, looking confused. Mispy sensed an aura—Owen’s aura, getting closer, too. He must be on his back. With relief, she said, “Gahi found him.”

    “No way!” Demitri tried to lean forward, but then realized that they were a lot higher off the ground than before. He yelped in surprise and pulled back. “G-Gahi, where’s Owen? Owen? Are you alright?”

    No answer. Instead, Gahi said, “I didn’t find Owen. Felt like he was s’posed ter be there… Aster was flyin’ away, but I dunno. Didn’t look like he had Owen with’m…”

    “Wait, what did you bring back?”

    “Was weird. Never saw one in… fer a while.” Gahi held out something that, at first, Demitri and Mispy hadn’t registered. It was so bright and vibrant compared to the desaturated purples and ominous reds that they had to make sure they’d seen it properly. An apple. An actual, red apple, even with a stem on top, the size of Gahi’s fist.

    Mispy was tempted to grab it, but something stopped her. Some strange feeling in her chest.

    “An apple, out here?” Palkia asked.

    “I’ve never seen one so pretty before,” Latias said, practically in awe.

    Mispy squeaked, her antennae twitching. “Owen…”

    “Eh?” Gahi looked around. “Where? He in trouble?”

    Mispy pointed at the apple. “Aura…”

    Gahi, Demitri, Mispy, Latias, and Palkia all stared at the apple, a mixture of feelings washing over Team Alloy. The stem, just barely, wiggled left and right.

    Palkia hummed. “Fascinating.”
     
    Chapter 106 - Brewing Darkness
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 106 – Brewing Darkness

    After the chaos of chasing Aster from Null Village, the whole town had gone into lockdown, leaving Jerry stuck with a lot of the others in the evaluation building. Aster had fled with Latias hot on his tail, and after that, it didn’t seem like anybody else had remained. The reason for the lockdown, though, was because Dark Matter had been detected rapidly approaching Null Village at around the same time Latias had been spotted, which led to a lot of cautionary procedures Jerry hadn’t even known they had.

    That left him stuck in a room with Zena, Trina, and a bubbling, growling Amia in her element-proof container.

    “So much for running off with them to find Palkia or whatever that plan was supposed to be,” Jerry muttered. “He ditched us!”

    “It wasn’t like he had a choice,” Zena said, though she’d been squeezing her ribbons repeatedly to pass the time. “I do hope he’s okay…”

    “I believe so,” Trina replied. “I caught glimpses of that fused version of Team Alloy. They’re fast. I don’t think Aster will be able to catch up very easily.”

    “I’m worried about how quickly Latias fled, too,” Zena hummed. “One was real, and I think the other… She used an attack I’d only seen from Anam, when…”

    “Kggrrr…”

    “Yeah, Amia’s got a point.” Jerry rolled his eyes. “You guys speculate too much. I just want to get out and see if my place is set up yet.”

    “Your place?” Zena tilted her head.

    “You know, for living here.” Jerry sighed. “Now that we’re cleared of corruption or whatever they search for, I’m going to get a Class and then a job to go with it. Didn’t they prompt you at all?”

    “No… They’re still evaluating my Class.” Zena looked rolled her ribbons again. “Since my memories aren’t complete, they said they’re determining if I’m B or C.”

    “Rough. I’m A here.”

    “They seem certain that I’m a Class B as well,” Trina added. “But I can’t recall what I forgot.”

    “Uh, duh.”

    Trina scowled.

    Light footsteps followed by a gentle knock at the door caught their attention.

    “Finally, maybe we can get outta here.” Jerry stretched his legs from sitting down for too long.

    The door slid open; in came Marshadow and a red-white, floating Pokémon. There had been a lot of unfamiliar Pokémon recently.

    “Lemme guess.” Jerry folded his wings. “Friend of yours?”

    “Yeh.” Marshadow gestured to her. “This is Latias.”

    “Sounds familiar…”

    “Legendary Pokémon, same ol’ same ol’.” Marshadow waved dismissively.

    “It’s nice to meet you,” Latias said, floating forward with her hand outstretched.

    Jerry tilted his head. She didn’t seem very friendly. Polite, maybe, but…

    Zena reached out with a ribbon and shook Latias’ hand, and Trina, struggling to reach, did the same while looking away.

    “The sooner I can evolve again, the better,” Trina muttered.

    Latias then approached Jerry, holding out her hand.

    “Kinda formal,” Jerry remarked.

    “It’s polite,” Latias said without a hint of a smile.

    “It’s not so hard, Jerry” Zena stared at him. “Be polite.”

    “It may be unorthodox, but we may as well.” Trina added.

    Something about this didn’t sit right with Jerry. They were all staring at him. What was going on? The air in the room seemed… different.

    “Bbgg…” Even Amia seemed a little more docile than usual. And that was probably the strangest thing of all.

    Whatever. This wasn’t important. “Alright, fine, fine.” Jerry reached out and shook her hand.

    As soon as he did, Latias let go and spun around. Wordlessly, she exited the room. Marshadow followed, but before Jerry could say anything in annoyance, Zena and Trina went next. Jerry blinked and, without thinking, followed after them in silence.

    What was that? Jerry glanced at Trina. She didn’t look back. Instead, she hopped onto Zena’s head and stationed herself there, anchoring herself to her horn using a vine. Zena, too, stared directly ahead, though she seemed conflicted about something. Did I black out? Did I forget a whole conversation? What’s going on?!

    But Jerry knew that speaking up about everyone else acting strange would only draw attention to himself. Then they might attack him or… something.

    Keeping his pacing normal, Jerry followed the others down the hall and out the main building. Dialga was probably somewhere nearby. Would he be under the same spell? That was the last thing they needed.

    The strange potted plants that lined the halls were a good distraction while they walked, and it didn’t seem like any of them suspected him as abnormal. Or, in this case, normal.

    Once out of the building, Latias growled and Jerry was certain that was going to be the end for him. But instead, she was focused on some speck of purple in the sky—and then Jerry growled, too. He’d recognize that shade of purple anywhere… And the fact that it was flying in the sky?

    Anam for sure.

    Wordlessly, Latias flew high and away from town. Zena, with Trina on her head, went in another direction. Marshadow sank into the ground, his black haze following yet another path. Jerry, following their behavior, took off next and flew in another direction entirely, heart hammering in his chest.

    Finally, some reprieve. Alone from… whatever just happened. That wasn’t right. None of that was normal. And it was right before his eyes, too. That handshake. It must have been the handshake.

    But he had no idea what to do next.

    Why did they run from Anam?

    A horrible realization came over him: Anam was who he had to talk to.

    Why? Why like this?

    Banking to the right, he redirected his path until he could see the flying Goodra descending. With a permanent scowl, the Aerodactyl lowered next. It seemed like some scouts were investigating whether Anam was safe to let through or not, but Jerry knew. He knew what Anam looked like when he was possessed by darkness, and this wasn’t it.

    But for now, he’d have to wait it out, and pray that Zena and the others, under whatever spell they were in, wouldn’t come for him next.

    By the time Jerry landed, he could hear only the last part of Anam’s plea.

    “You need to let me in! Dark Matter is right inside!”

    And that was really all he needed to know. “He’s right,” Jerry said automatically.

    “Oh, hi, Jerry!” Anam said cheerfully, waving at him.

    Jerry didn’t wave back. He addressed the guards, “Something weird happened inside with Marshadow and some of my friends. There was someone called Latias. She touched Zena, Trina, and me, and I think Marshadow before, and… it was like they just wordlessly followed him after that.”

    “He didn’t touch you?” Anam asked.

    “He did. But nothing happened to—back off!” Jerry beat his wings and hopped away when Anam had lunged at him. “You aren’t gonna slime on me again, no way!”

    “Please, I need to check!”

    The guards were having no effect on pulling him away. Any effort led to him literally slipping through their grasps. Several guards readied attacks. A nearby Luxray’s fangs glittered with ice, while a Marowak readied his club, which looked like it had been fashioned out of stone.

    “Check what? Words! Use words!” Jerry landed when Anam finally looked like he wouldn’t go for another awful Goodra hug.

    “I need to look if the darkness in your heart is there or not,” Anam explained. “I can purify it! I promise!”

    “Darkness in my freaking heart, wow, that’s something even for you.” Jerry couldn’t help but laugh. “Let me guess, you’re telling me that it’s the darkness in my heart that led to my whole life falling to—”

    “Yes! Actually!” Anam clasped his hands together, begging. “Please, just let me try something. It won’t hurt this time, maybe.”

    “You’re gonna explain exactly what you’re going to do, and then we’ll see.” Jerry couldn’t believe he was humoring him, but Anam, being so earnest… He probably wasn’t lying. He was misguided and he probably did a whole lot of bad that he didn’t even realize, but for once Anam looked like he knew what he was doing.

    And it was better than facing those spellbound Pokémon back in Null Village.

    Anam quivered, which left ripples in his semisolid body. “I’m… I inherited my mom’s power a long time ago, when she died. She gave it to me by breaking a Promise. Y-you remember those, right?”

    Jerry had no idea what Anam was talking about, but he had enough pieces to guess. “I’ll assume it makes sense.”

    “Part of her power was from Necrozma—his light could dispel corruption from Dark Matter. Some of his disciples had the same power. Cresselia, Celebi, um—and Mom, too.”

    “Was this the same thing you tried on me before?” Jerry asked, a phantom pain throbbing in his chest. “Back with my folks. My dad. You took away his power.”

    “It was evil, Jerry, I’m… sorry. It corrupts you. But it would have brought you to this world if you kept it…”

    “Wow, ain’t that something, I’m here now!” Jerry had half a mind to leave. He wanted to. He didn’t care what would happen. Just one step away…

    “I’m sorry! But… I need to try now. Okay? Please?”

    “Look, forget it. I don’t care anymore. Just tell me if you can fix what’s going on in town. You, guards. Any of what this guy says making sense?”

    “No.”

    “Do you think he’s telling the truth?”

    The guards hesitated.

    “Yeah, I get that feeling, too,” Jerry grunted. He hated how Anam somehow had that effect on people. Or maybe it was his sheer power. The guards wouldn’t be able to stop him if they tried. Was that it?

    “Can you show us what that purifying power looks like?” one guard, a Gallade, asked.

    “I’m kinda curious, too,” said a Greninja next to him. He poked his slimy fingers together. “Been a while since we had this much excitement.” To this, Gallade rolled his eyes.

    “I will,” Anam said. “But I need to see someone who’s like that first. Who was acting weird?”

    “Zena, Trina, Marshadow,” Jerry listed off, “and this Pokémon called Latias spread it.”

    “That’s Dark Matter. I can try to get him to go away, but… I can’t beat him.”

    Something about that was worrying. Of course Anam couldn’t beat Dark Matter—he had been possessed by him, for one. Yet if Anam had been so horribly powerful against Jerry and his father so long ago, and even he couldn’t beat Dark Matter…

    “Let’s just try to find Zena and the others,” Jerry said. “Maybe Dark Matter’ll just leave. He seemed pretty keen on doing that.”

    “What’s he doing here, anyway?” asked the Gallade guard. “What’s the point?”

    And as Anam stepped through the town, looking pensive, he said, “I think he’s trying to build an army.”

    <><><>​

    Poison spikes clanged against metal walls, leaving Owen startled by how loud it was. But he kept going, and right by his side was Tim, panting and nearly tripping over himself. Ayame had gone ahead with Ire. He and Tim had stayed behind to distract some of the humans and their Pokémon. Smoke Screen did wonders for that, but they had to maintain it and give false paths along the way.

    All of Ayame’s research and their contacts with the police had led to this moment—a lead in where the rest of his team had gone. It was amazing how the clues had practically fallen into their laps, like someone had been helping them from the shadows. And maybe they were!

    They’d infiltrated one of the hideouts hidden in plain sight. The place had a strange feeling of both danger and mysticism. Danger from the countless criminals that infested the place, ad mysticism because… Owen wasn’t sure. He felt a presence here. Were they keeping something important in the area, or was something else here, watching?

    But that didn’t really matter. They had to get in and get out. The police would have taken too long and they were already on the move, according to Tim.

    Owen had a feeling that wasn’t a good idea, but he also wanted to get his team back before they were gone forever. Tim knew the way, and he followed. He trusted Tim.

    Ahead was another set of guards, each one with a Poison Pokémon. This team really loved debilitating and wearing down their opponents, and Owen couldn’t be more irritated at it. Why did these Pokémon choose to side with them, anyway? Was it for the power? Or were they pampered? It didn’t make sense…

    Did some Pokémon not care who they were with, as long as they could fight?

    Another poison needle zipped past his head and he dove out of the way as a delayed reaction. That was a mistake; a violet glob flew through the air and directly toward his chest. He tried to swat it away, but that was his second mistake as it burst violently, smashing him into the wall. He heard Tim cry his name, then yelped as several needles struck where he’d once stood.


    No, Owen hissed, you don’t attack my human! How dare you!

    He shakily got to his feet and spewed a beam of fire blindly forward. Someone cried out—not a Pokémon. That was a human, and Owen abruptly cut off his flames. Through his blurry vision, he saw a human, standing upright, and a slightly burned Weezing.

    That was a trick!

    And then the Weezing spat up another Sludge Bomb toward him. He was so stunned by the underhanded move that he only barely dodged out of the way. Rewarded by sharp pains in his side, he tripped into the wall, crying out. That one got into his system. That cold, numbing feeling was starting to seep into more than just his arm. If that kept up, he’d be down in no time.

    Tim! Was he okay? Yes, and he was running past him.

    “Owen, this way!”

    “Hang on!” Owen called, panting, and Tim slowed down.

    “What’s wrong? Ah—you’re poisoned! I—okay, hang on, let me—”

    “Do it while we’re running.”

    “Okay, okay—”

    Now, Owen was ahead, but not by much. A stinging warmth spread over his back and his arm, potent chemicals seeping into him. Owen had no idea how those things worked, but after that initial pain, the relief that followed was worth every battle. Though, he wouldn’t have minded powering through the pain for a little while longer. But not now. They had to go ahead. What if they got—

    “Ayame!” Tim stopped by the fallen girl, who was clutching at a wound dripping with poison.

    “I’ll be fine,” Ayame hissed, though most of her left side was splotched with purple. Her eyes were tearstained, but it wasn’t because of the pain. “Ire. They took Ire. I couldn’t…”

    “Which way? Which way?!”

    Ayame pointed down the left hall. Tim was ready to go, but then hesitated, looking at Ayame. “Take this, okay?” he said, placing down a Pecha Berry for her. “We’ll go on ahead. Owen! Let’s go.”

    “But what if they hurt her again?” Owen asked.

    “Just go!” Ayame shouted. “I’ll catch up. I’m not letting them take Ire away.”

    That was enough. They ran for a few more halls, narrowly avoiding a few of the grunts that had ambushed out from the sides, and Owen wondered if they’d even find a way out at this rate. He was strong, but he didn’t know if there were any truly powerful Pokémon lurking about here.

    Most of them weren’t. They didn’t have strong bonds with their humans. They weren’t disciplined. But maybe there were a few that were.

    “There!” Tim shouted. He saw it, too. Ire’s Poké Ball was just ahead, with the little stickers that Ayame had put on it. It was in the hands of one of the grunts, out in the open down a dimly lit hall. They sprinted, but Tim was faster.

    “Stop!” Tim cried, like they’d listen.

    Owen breathed out another Flamethrower, torching a Zubat and a Golbat this time, but the moment they rounded the corner, metal clangs sounded behind him, and a cold feeling spread through his chest and gut. When he looked down, the searing pain followed, his whole front riddled with Poison Stings. He slowly looked left, dreading what he would see…

    Tim was slumped over, clutching at one of the worst of his wounds. His breathing was quick and shallow.

    “Owen,” Tim wheezed. “Pecha. I need…”

    Owen hastily grabbed one, hoping it would be enough. They weren’t as effective on humans, and he had several needles in him…

    Before he could pass the Pecha over, several more needles struck Tim, a few of them several inches into his chest. His eyes bugged out. Owen felt similar stings on his side; he turned in disbelief to see that the guard was still there, smirking, with his Nidorina by his side.

    Why were they still trying to fight? The battle was over! They won! But… he was still going to attack. And Ire’s Poké Ball was right there. He had to get past Nidorina.

    Owen stood between Nidorina and Tim, arms spread out. Nidorina crouched down and stomped and snorted. Owen took one step, and then fell to a knee with a pained howl, an older injury from earlier in the assault catching up to him.

    The trainer behind Nidorina laughed. “And here I thought it’d be hard! Whatever! Finish them off!”

    Everything moved so slowly. The Pokémon in front of him, the human behind her, and Tim… slower, darker. His mind was running as fast as it could, but his body couldn’t do anything more.

    And then, he heard a voice.


    Looks like you guys are having trouble.

    It came from inside his head. Was this… telepathy? He’d seen Psychic Pokémon do it before, but only powerful ones. But this voice was so loud, so clear, that Owen could not even comprehend how powerful it must have been. It felt like he was talking to his mother.

    These guys are bad news. But I can’t show myself to them. They’re too crafty, and they might catch me, too. But hey. If you promise to cause some chaos for them… I’ll get you out of this mess.

    I want to save my human, Owen replied desperately.

    Your… human? Why?

    Please… let me save him.

    You domesticated Pokémon make me sad. Buuuut okay. One miracle, coming right up!

    And then, time started to flow normally again. Was that a vision? A hallucination? Owen took a breath and realized that all of his injuries were still definitely there, if not worse. The poison was seeping into him. Miracle, what miracle? He glanced at Tim. The human was barely conscious.

    Miracles were useless here. He had to be his own miracle. Slowly, Owen staggered back to his feet, but Nidorina slammed into him. The Charmeleon went flying into Tim and a few of the poison spikes sank deeper into both of their bodies. Owen whimpered, trying to get back up, but Nidorina slammed into him again, and again, even more poison seeping into him. His scales darkened, closer to purple than red.

    Nidorina stomped again, snorting, looking back at her trainer for the next order. The grunt was reveling in this, giddy, ecstatic at some sadistic pleasure in what he was doing. “I’ve never gotten this kind of action before,” he said. “Nidorina, what do you say? They can’t fight anymore. Should we catch that Charmeleon next, or maybe… Mm, nah. He’ll never obey.”

    “Definitely not. He’s too loyal.” Nidorina smirked at Owen. “I’ll give you one last chance, Charmeleon. Leave your trainer and we’ll let you both live. How’s that sound? You know, fighting is fun, and you’ll get to do a lot of that with us. Your human will slink back to his home and forget all about you anyway. Partnerships aren’t meant to last.”

    What did that mean? Of course they didn’t last. Countless humans and Pokémon paired off and then split away when their journeys were over. They had different lives to live.

    But Tim was different. Tim was
    his human. And he wasn’t done with him yet.

    “I’m sorry,” Tim whispered. Owen knew he wanted to say more, but he couldn’t.

    But Owen had more to say. A seething, burning rage welled up in his chest. Power from someplace he didn’t know built further, ready to burst from his throat. Yet when he tried to breathe it out, nothing came, and his vision went white. The last thing he saw was Nidorina and her human flinching in surprise.

    Tim was his partner. He was the best human he’d ever met. Ayame and Ire were the same, and these humans were trying to split them apart.

    No, he
    refused to let that happen. Not again. Never again.

    He saw flashes of his former team. A Pidgeot, proud and boastful. A Nidorino, reckless and inexperienced but eager to learn… Gone. Taken. And that a sinking feeling that he’d never see them again came back tenfold in that white haze.

    Had they been convinced by these humans to fight without Tim? To forget Tim?

    Owen’s vision returned. Everything was… smaller. He felt heavier. There was a new weight on his back, and when he turned to look, he realized his head had a lot more mobility. His neck had grown.

    Wings.

    He had wings…

    Nidorina’s ears pinned to her head. A single Flamethrower took her out, and rather than withdraw her, the human kept running away.

    Running away with Ire.

    The rage wasn’t going away. That seething heat, that power, that
    elation was only getting better. Tim was propped up against the wall, trying to eat a Pecha. He got a bite.

    “Stay here,” Owen said, thumping his tail on the wall. So powerful. And that human. He loved to fight, didn’t he?

    “Owen,” Tim said, “wait—he dropped it. Look.”

    Ire’s ball was tossed to the side.

    Owen flew past it. The human was close. Slow. Weak. Weak. Weak. He wasn’t going to let him take away another Pokémon.

    The human looked back and screamed, pointing at something behind Owen, on the ground. Probably the ball. But the Charizard didn’t care about that right now.

    Nidorina’s trainer screamed; Owen roared. His claws sank into flesh. All he saw was crimson.


    <><><>

    Demitri was beside himself, and it took assurances from Latias, Mispy, and even Palkia to calm him down. He kept blubbering that Owen was dead, and that had sent him into a full panic, no matter what that really meant in the Voidlands. Mispy wrapped her vines around him and squeezed hard, rocking him left and right while gently shushing him. Gahi, rolling his eyes, tossed the apple from left to right in his hands absentmindedly.

    “Um, maybe you shouldn’t do that?” Latias said gently.

    “Eh?”

    “That’s… Owen, after all…”

    “Oh, right—eh…” Gahi had forgotten. “Look, it ain’t like I’m used ter an apple bein’… an apple.”

    “I’m recovered enough by now,” Palkia said, tapping his claws together while grinning warmly. “This has been very exciting! Though I’m still not sure how long I’ve been gone.”

    “Centuries,” Latias said. “And yet it’s like you hardly changed at all!”

    “Well, I imagine so! I don’t remember most of it. A shame. I was very curious what it would have been like to rampage as a Titan! Instead, I was placed in stasis. I suppose some Legends are simply too powerful to directly corrupt. Perhaps the higher ones such as myself.”

    Latias seemed unnerved. “Um, double back for a second. Did you just say you were curious about becoming a Titan?”

    “Most certainly!” Palkia nodded. “I feel cheated, really.”

    “But, um, if you actually Voided, you might forget who you are.”

    “Ahh, that is a disadvantage.” Palkia sighed. “Well, I suppose I should count my blessings. For example, some of my strength has returned, and I would love to see Dialga again. Where precisely is your village? I will warp us there immediately!”

    “O-oh, um, you need the exact location?” Latias asked.

    “Well, yes. I am the Spacekeeper, not the Locationkeeper. I suppose Zygarde would be more appropriate for such a task. Ah! Is he a Titan as well? I would love to witness a rescue of another Legend.”

    “This guy sure talks,” Gahi murmured to Demitri, who kept staring at Owen’s shiny, round, fruity form.

    “I’ll try to give a good guess,” Latias said. “Can you warp multiple times?”

    “Certainly!”

    After some descriptions and several back-and-forth frustrations on how far a ‘minute of flight’ was, Palkia nodded and raised his right arm. “Now, stand back! I shall carve a portal for us to go through. It’s not the most powerful use of Spacial Rend, but it does clear a path, so don’t go between it, yes?”

    Palkia slashed the air; the light itself seemed to part in that line before spreading into a black void. A faded image took its place, like a rip in fabric, and a cracking noise vibrated across Gahi’s head.

    “Geez, sounded like glass breaking,” Gahi mumbled.

    “Ah, that was not the portal.” Palkia clutched at his shoulder, where that large, pink gem inside had gained a few lines, ready to shatter.

    “P-Palkia! Are you—”

    “Hurry through, now!” Palkia urged cheerfully. “We can handle this later! I shall follow behind.”

    They didn’t hesitate and slipped through. It was surreal; it wasn’t like one of the distortions seen within Dungeons, passing through a vertical barrier of water-like ripples. It was simply a flat portion of space that, no matter which way they looked at it, seemed to transfer into a different place than it should have.

    In this case, only for a small portion of their vision, there was a forest, and everywhere else was more of the Nil Plateaus. Gahi, curious, quickly sprinted around this segment of space, and found that no matter which way he looked, the forest was always only there in that part of the flatlands. Palkia disappeared completely when he was opposite to the Spacekeeper, the tear in space between them.

    “Now, now, in you go! It won’t last too long,” Palkia added as his second gemstone made worrying crackling sounds.

    They all passed through, and Gahi made sure they still had Owen’s apple. Now they were in a forest, but Latias’ directions hadn’t been quite enough to direct them to the proper spot. Latias cautiously went above the trees, but not for too long in case there were hidden Void Shadows among the dead forest’s hideaways.

    “Not bad!” Latias said, descending. “We’re close. If we fly, it’ll only be a few minutes. I see the spire ahead!”

    “Flight… may not be an option,” Palkia admitted, and finally a hint of pain leaked through his expression.

    “Are you okay?” Demitri asked, stepping closer. “Those… those stones in your shoulders, they’re—”

    “A bit of a natural conduit of my power, yes,” Palkia said. “Unfortunately, under the strain, and my recent… recovery… I may have overexerted myself. Yes, very unfortunate.”

    “Then we’ll walk the rest of the way,” Gahi said, marching. “Gotta be some way ter fix Owen. I liked’m when he was a plant, not an apple.”

    Mispy whipped Gahi on the arm not holding Owen. “Oi! Plants’re nice!”

    “Careful with the apple,” Demitri squeaked. “Owen might be scared…”

    Mispy closed her eyes to check, then frowned. “He’s… dreaming.”

    “Apples c’n dream?”

    “Same… feeling,” Mispy explained. She looked at Gahi, then at Owen again. “Telepathy?”

    “Eh? Telepathy?” Gahi looked down. “With an apple?”

    “Mm. If he’s dreaming… then…”

    “Hey, yeah!” Demitri piped up. “If he’s dreaming, then maybe you can use some Psychic power to communicate with him! Try it, Gahi!”

    “You’d have… a strong connection,” Mispy said.

    “Eh? Why us?”

    Mispy stared. Like she knew something. Was it something from earlier? Not like it mattered.

    “Bah, whatever.” He pressed his head against the apple. Owen? Y’there?

    GAH!


    Gahi, pulled the apple away, staring. “Yep, he’s there.”

    “What’d he say?”

    “I think I startled’m.”

    “Ask him if he’s alright!”

    Gahi rolled his eyes and obeyed. You alright?

    No! I don’t know where I am! It’s dark and I can’t move or see or… I don’t know! Am I in the aura sea? It feels… kinda similar.

    Nah, yer an apple.


    Gahi didn’t get a reply, so he used the time to explain to the others, “He doesn’t know he’s an apple. I told him. He ain’t talking.”

    “Understandable.” Palkia nodded. “Goodness, I wonder what it would be like if I were an apple. Hmm, perhaps I could—”

    “No tests!” Latias peeped.

    The ground shook and a series of panicked cries emanated from town. The team picked up the pace, Gahi leading the way with Owen in his hands. “Dark Matter might still be fighting in there,” Latias said. “Be careful. Don’t let him touch you.”

    “How’d we recover last time?” Gahi looked to Demitri and Mispy, but they both shrugged.

    “It just wore off suddenly,” Demitri said. “Right when… When did it happen for you, Latias?”

    “When I bumped into Owen’s Protect, it was like Dark Matter flew right out of me.”

    “Protect…” Mispy nodded to herself. “That.”

    “Owen’s Protect did it?” Demitri looked at the apple.

    “Of course!” Latias flew a little higher. “His spirit is infused with Necrozma’s light. That Protect must be manifesting it. Just like Cresselia or Celebi!”

    More shrieks, and it sounded like a gushing blast of water had slammed into stone.

    Just at the edge of town, a Goodra stood beside an Aerodactyl, the former missing an arm. Instead of blood, the Goodra oozed purple mass.

    “Anam?!” Demitri shouted.

    Anam glanced back, then turned completely around. He gasped and leaned a little, like he was waving, but it was with the missing arm. He leaned the other way and waved properly. “I’m—”

    Another blast of water knocked his head clean off, sending it skyward. Jerry watched in horror before diving out of the way of another beam of water. Anam’s head landed in Demitri’s arms.

    “—so glad to see you guys!” Anam finished. The rest of his body wobbled toward them. “Can you guys help me get Zena? I already caught Trina, but Marshadow and Zena are still controlled. Eon’s trying to get Marshadow.”

    “Owen can purify, too,” Gahi held up the apple.

    “Oh! I didn’t know the Grass Guardian could do that.”

    “Well,” Palkia said, raising a claw, “I do not believe that’s the case here.”

    “Hey, can we do reunions later?!” Jerry shouted. “She’s getting away!” He gestured left, where the faint prismatic sheen of a Milotic slithered around one of the buildings.

    “I got this,” Gahi said, speeding forward. He pressed Owen’s apple form to his forehead. Hey, you awake?

    Am I really an apple?

    I want you ter try a Protect.

    Why am I an apple? How?

    We kinda need a Protect!

    Can I even do that? …Okay, fine, but answer me after. Hang on.


    Gahi saw Zena ahead. When she looked back, she glared and opened her mouth. Blue energy and mist circled around the edge of her mouth like a vortex; Gahi waited, timing things just right.

    I’m gonna do it, Owen said. Ready?

    The apple had a faint, golden glow. It wasn’t nearly as strong as Owen’s standard protects, and he had a feeling he’d have a lot less time to touch Zena, too. Would it even purify her? Gahi tried to channel some power into the apple, too. Maybe that would help. A light, fluttering feeling in his chest, accompanied by a brighter glow in the apple, at least gave him some confidence.

    Yeah. Do it when I say, Gahi replied.

    The mist flashed white and expelled a concentrated beam of water. The speed would have been too much for anyone but Gahi, who weaved out of the way as it carved a hole in the solid roads behind him.

    Now!

    Gahi disappeared and reappeared next to her. Zena reared up and slapped Gahi across the face with a watery tail. It stung and left a sharp ringing in his ears. But the apple was golden and Gahi slammed it on Zena’s side.

    The Milotic went stiff, gasped, and then leaned onto him. Gahi fell over and let go of Owen, grunting. “Oi, get off!” he hissed.

    “What happened?” Zena asked breathlessly. “I—why was I—I was attacking you, what did you do to me?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, there must have been a very good reason I wanted to kill you!”

    “There ain’t!”

    Zena narrowed her eyes, pulling away. “Well, I don’t anymore… I don’t understand. It… was a feeling that came over me—”

    “Dark Matter got yeh,” Gahi said. “Happened ter me, too. Yer fine now.”

    “I… what? When? How?”

    “Can we discuss this when we’re safer?” Latias asked. “Where’s Dark Matter now?”

    “Away,” Anam said. “I think he wants to avoid me…”

    “Good! Then let’s gather everyone. Who’s missing? I, um, I don’t know any of you…”

    “Eon?” Mispy asked.

    “He’s at Dialga’s,” Jerry reported.

    Palkia perked up.

    “Alright, then let’s go there,” Latias said.

    Palkia clapped excitedly. “This has been a wonderful first day back.”
     
    Chapter 107 - Dark Addiction
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 107 – Dark Addiction

    “What do you mean you lost sight of the power source?”

    Alexander stood in his office, opposite his table. He stared at the empty space, his thinking spot. The open area was good for leisurely flying under the high ceilings to keep his wings stretched and not make him feel so trapped, even if the furniture was therefore sparse. The wall had been mostly repaired by now, with the repair crew retiring for the day. For some reason a Swampert from the observational division had been among them under related orders from Mhynt, but Alexander decided that wasn’t worth questioning.

    What was? That Aster failed in his mission after being attacked by Dark Matter. And not only that, but finding it, then losing it, when it was supposed to be trivial.

    “I, um, I didn’t find it. I thought I did but I didn’t, because it died too easily. Um, so it wasn’t what we were looking for.”

    “You KILLED the potential power source?!” Alexander yelled into the receiver.

    “No, no, no, I didn’t kill anyone! I, um, I just blew him—uh, it away! But when I went to investigate, he ran off, and, um—”

    “Who? Who was he? Search for him now.”

    “No, he’s gone now. And he wasn’t what I was looking for. Um—”

    “WHO?!”

    “Ummmmm Leph! Someone who looked like Leph.”

    He was shaking. He could hear the blood rushing through his head. Seeing red. Seeing black. He was so mad he could destroy the whole city. “You’re lying to me.”

    “No, no, I’m not! I’m not! I wouldn’t lie to you, I just got out of the fight, I don’t remember it that well!”

    “Then tell me the truth. Who was it, and why? What REALLY happened?”

    He heard sniffling on the other side of the receiver. A sick grin crossed Alexander’s face. Good, he was scared. He’d actually answer soon. Aster deserved a little terror after failing so miserably. Dark Matter might have taken the source instead, and then he’d have to find another way to fix the setback.

    “Well?” Alexander pressed on, trying to hide the grin in his tone. “What did you do? If you’re honest with me, I won’t punish you as harshly. And you know what the harsh punishment is…”

    Aster gasped on the other side of the receiver. Alexander’s heart pumped more. Just a little more terror and he’d be satisfied. The Hydreigon was breathing heavier. Couldn’t let that get across to Aster, so he held his breath, waited for a few more sniffles, and then said, “Answer me, Aster. Now.”

    “It was Owen,” Aster sobbed. “I’m sorry! I couldn’t do it!”

    Whatever thrills he was getting evaporated instantly. “It was what?”

    “Owen. He’s alive! And he has Necrozma’s light! But I couldn’t do it, I—I… I’M SORRY!”


    “So you killed him instead?”

    “N-no, I… I used one of Leph’s Orbs and… turned him into something else. So now he’s just like that.”

    “Turned him into what? Get him and bring him back.”

    “I dunno where he went. I ran away, they took him, he’s an apple, I—”

    “Is he dead?”

    “No, I felt his presence inside. S-so he’s alive, um…”

    He could thank Mhynt later. “Come back to Cipher City, Aster. You’re done for now. Mhynt is going to see Owen instead.”

    “I’m sorry.”

    “You will be. Now return.”

    Aster’s whimper as the call ended gave Alexander no pleasure.

    Still shaking, the Void King looked at his papers, his reports, and then the rest of his empty office. Owen was here. Alive. He could have had him. But Aster ruined it. And Leph… Leph was responsible, too.

    Where was she?

    He needed to make up for this travesty.

    Alexander flew down the halls with his spectral wings outstretched, making leisurely curves around the corners. He considered knocking over a few tables to give the cleaning staff something to get busy with. He decided against it. While he was in an irritable mood, he could at least direct it at the proper offenders.

    He made it up one of the upper floors of the castle, passing by a window. It overlooked Cipher City, a twinkling network of buildings tens of stories high amid a cleared-out portion of the Void Forest, like an island of stars dropped in an ocean of darkness. The watchtowers were active and several Titans under his control loomed in the horizon.

    Just ahead was Leph’s door at the end an ornate and shimmering passageway of silver and gold. Her name was embedded into the center, and Alexander wondered if he could blast it open for an entrance. He had half a mind to. But he’d see if she’d open it first. He could sense her inside.

    “Leph!” Alexander barked, pounding the side of his left, smaller head against the wall. It, too, was snarling to suit his mood. “Open the door, now!”

    “It’s unlocked!” she called back, indignance in her voice.

    “I said open it!”

    She was mumbling something but he couldn’t hear it. That throbbing anger knocked against his temples. The door clicked and slid open.

    Leph’s room was filled with little, round, multicolored baubles like stars that infested the air like dust in an old library. All the bright colors annoyed him, reminded him of the Fae, and wondered if that was done on purpose.

    The younger Arceus herself, meanwhile, sat at the far end of the squarish room, curled up in a round, soft bed on the floor. She had a thick blanket over everything but her head, with the wheel around her abdomen shrunken down for comfort. In front of her, a book.

    So, she didn’t even get out of bed to open the door?

    “Why did you give Aster your power?” Alexander demanded.

    “He asked.” A soft glow overtook a bookmark, which slipped into the pages before they closed. “He said he needed it for the mission.”

    “I didn’t approve of this,” Alexander said. “And what you gave him ruined the mission entirely!”

    “What do you mean? How did I ruin this?”

    “You know Aster doesn’t work well with any toys he wants,” Alexander hissed back, drifting forward threateningly. He made sure the darkness in his body coursed visibly through his already blackened wings, giving off a menacing, dark haze.

    Leph tensed, avoiding looking at them. “He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I figured it was important enough. That’s all.”

    Not good enough. Alexander leaned forward again and said, “You simply didn’t care. You know well enough by now, and do you know what he messed up this time?”

    “Wasn’t it just a potential power source again?” Gaining her interest, she glanced at Alexander.

    “Not just any power source,” Alexander said. “Necrozma’s prized disciple.”

    Leph tried to hide it, but Alexander saw that disgusting glint of hope in her eyes. “What?” she asked. “Owen’s alive?”

    “And Aster turned him into nothing but an edible fruit.” Alexander snarled at Leph. “And then left him to the rest of his team instead of bringing him back. I lost my best opportunity at taking that stubborn flame here for good, all because you sabotaged the mission.”

    “Sabotaged?” Leph stood on her bed and hopped down. “How would I have known Owen was alive?”

    Alexander flared his wings again, but this time Leph didn’t back down. He drifted closer, but Leph didn’t even step back.

    “Well, what are you going to do next? Why are you in my room?” Leph tapped her hoof on the ground, making an ethereal ringing noise. “I was ready to take a nap.”

    “Do not take this lightly,” Alexander rumbled, feeling his anger tipping again. He was here to blow off some steam. And this… this insolence. Why? She was supposed to be cowering, showing respect.

    “I won’t,” Leph said, then gave a respectful bow. She had no fear. He couldn’t sense any. He was hungry for it. Starved. Ravenous.

    “What are you doing?” Alexander growled.

    “Whatever do you mean?” Leph asked, her near-featureless face staring at him.

    “You aren’t taking this seriously.” Alexander’s mouths leaked a bit of dark haze.

    “Are you going to send me to see Owen next?” Leph asked. “Because if not, I want to get some sleep.”

    “How dare you disrespect me.” Alexander rose higher, so much that Leph had to tilt her head. He was smaller, but she was weaker, and they both knew it. She’d better know it.

    “I would never,” Leph replied, closing her eyes. “You are the Void King, true ruler of the Voidlands and the rightful heir, by might alone, to its full powers.” She turned around, stepping toward her bed. “For now.”

    Defiance. Did she just—did she just—do that? Why? Since when did she have the gall to—

    Before Alexander could stop himself, he shot toward her and loomed over her shoulder. “What was that?” he spat, black smog sticking to the back of her neck.

    “I said”—she coolly turned her head back—“for now.”

    That throbbing, seething anger was back and stronger than ever. Darkness wormed its way into the corners of his vision.

    “You should be more careful if you want to keep your power,” Leph went on, like she could save face. “I wouldn’t want to see you fall because a light source is out of your control.”

    Like she was trying to be helpful.

    Leph continued, “If you want me to help, I can, if you’d trust me.”

    He knew what she meant. That slip-up when she’d felt emboldened. She was hoping that Owen would be coming for her. That was it, wasn’t it?

    The Creator’s daughter took another step away. “So, that’s all I meant.”

    For just a second, he sensed a flash of fear from her, and that was his tipping point. He needed more.

    The left diminutive head clamped down on the back of her neck and she froze.

    “What are you doing?” she asked, her voice stiff and composed, but by now her fear was growing.

    “Do you really think”—Alexander squeezed harder and she winced, but refused to crouch—“I’ll allow you to say something like that to me?”

    “I didn’t mean—"

    “LIAR!”

    In one fell swoop, Alexander hurled her into the wall, smashing several fixtures that had been in the way with a loud, silence-splitting clatter. Crimson mixed with black on the fur around Leph’s neck.

    “It seems that you’ve forgotten who’s in charge here.” Alexander formed a ball of darkness in his right head. The jaws widened, and he made sure Leph saw it before he fired into her side.

    She cried out, all of the fur incinerated, leaving gray, burned skin in its place. Black electricity and haze rose from the impact site. Alexander fired again, this blast even stronger than the last. The blast split the air and deafened them both; the shock rumbled through his chest, which meant it would be even worse for Leph, who was now gasping and curling away around a now bleeding, open wound where the blast had struck exposed skin.

    “St-stop!” Leph shouted, but that fierceness in her voice had all but evaporated.

    Now he was getting somewhere. Alexander moved closer until his shadow cast over her body. He readied another blast, a spiral of black energy coalescing in front of his left head’s jaws. This time, Leph deflected it with a tendril of light from the very wound that the Hydreigon had inflicted. The blast left a crater in the wall, destroying even more baubles in a harsh clatter.

    It flickered and faded; that was the extent of her strength against him. His dark energy, flowing through her, inhibited her too much. This time, he wasn’t allowing her the liberty of channeling her energy on her own accord.

    “You should remember who really controls your power, Leph.” He drifted closer and her fear grew, feeding him. His heart thumped in his head and his breathing deepened, more black haze pouring into the room, sticking to her fur like dust. “Let me remind you.”

    “N—”

    Another beam slammed into Leph, but this time it stuck, like it was solid. Leph couldn’t even scream; the spear broke something in her chest, then glowed, sucking the light out of the air. Leph’s eyes darted this way and that, at her hooves, her fur, her body, as it darkened and lost its shape. Her whole chest lost its fur; her hind legs looked more like black tendrils than limbs.

    And finally, she found her voice, and she used it to scream. “ST-STOP! PLEASE!”

    More of her body lost its definition, looking more and more like a common Void Shadow. Alexander made sure it was slow, until nothing but her upper body remained vaguely like what she used to be. All the while, she writhed and tried to crawl away, but it was all useless.

    And there, he stopped, by the time he had gone right up to her side.

    “Stop?” Alexander repeated. “Will you listen?”

    “I will, I will.”
    Black tar oozed from what had once been her eyes. “P-please…”

    Complete despair and hopelessness, just as he wanted. He was tempted, oh so tempted, to leave her this way, but she’d be of no use as a Void Shadow. He pulled the darkness from her core, draining it until just that usual filament remained in the center so he could maintain his hold. Her body became solid; her fur came back. In a much better mood, Alexander also restored the parts he’d wounded.

    She was sobbing, and Alexander ran his right head across her back as he rose above her. Leph stood, too, though she couldn’t look at him. To think that a failed god’s face could be so satisfyingly ugly when crying. An ecstatic grin spread across all three of his faces.

    “I’ll do what you want,” Leph finally said, sniffing. “I…” She looked like she wanted to ask to rest. She was tired. Perhaps she was telling the truth when she said she was going to sleep. And maybe he’d allow it. But there was one last thing he had to make sure of, first. He needed to see it. Just a little.

    “Kneel.”

    Leph tensed, letting in one last sniffle. And then, she did, golden hooves and forelegs pressed on the ground. She lifted her head, her teary eyes staring at his.

    And there it was. Amid all that sorrow and hopelessness, he saw boiling, bubbling, pure hatred. That, above all, was better than any feeling Alexander could hope for. He held his shuddering breaths for later, gestured with his left head for her to rise, and she did so.

    “You may rest,” Alexander replied sweetly.

    Leph nodded and walked shakily to her bed, though she put every effort into feigning composure. Alexander left the room and waited by the closed door, listening.

    A little longer…

    Muffled by the walls, Leph screamed into her blankets, pounding her hooves into the fabric. Alexander drifted down the halls with a long, deep sigh, ready to take on the rest of the day.

    <><><>​

    Anam said that Dark Matter was far away from Null Village, but he wasn’t going away. He also wasn’t coming closer, which suggested he was waiting for something. But that would be the best they were going to get for now, so the team headed for Dialga’s room. Seeing Palkia had, understandably, put the town in a mild uproar. With some shouts from Jerry to lay off, they were allowed through. They had to repeatedly stop Palkia from getting sidetracked talking to the locals.

    “Then it’s Marshadow and a handful of guards who are still missing?” Dialga summarized.

    “As far as we can tell,” Jerry said. “I went and tried to send a message over to Hakk and Xypher, those two who were assigned to us as, like, escorts or something, to see if they knew where he might’ve gone. But they might take a while to get here.”

    “Dark Matter must have gotten control of him,” Anam said, frowning. “Marshadow isn’t a higher Legend, so his spirit must not have been strong enough to resist Dark Matter… that’s too bad.”

    “Higher Legends,” Dialga repeated. “So, essentially myself, Palkia, Giratina… Rayquaza, Xerneas, Yveltal… as opposed to the lower gods.”

    “How do you guys know which ones are which?” Jerry asked. “I’m not really all too familiar with that pantheon junk.”

    “It’s mostly cognitive knowledge,” Palkia said. “There isn’t quite a pattern otherwise. Still, alright. What do we do?” Palkia tilted his head. “My powers over space need… work. Dialga, how are you feeling?”

    “I’ve only been able to pause local areas and not much more.” Dialga tapped a hoof on the ground, grumbling. “I’m far from my best. I feel as though I’m missing something…”

    “Hmm…” Latias looked to Anam. “Is there a way to stop Dark Matter? What does he want?”

    Anam winced, poking his claws together. “Dark Matter, um… he wants… he wants the Hands of Creation. Because he wants to use it to rewrite reality in a way where he can be happy.”

    “Happy?” Latias chirped.

    “Dark Matter can feel every negative emotion of everyone in all of Kilo, and probably here.” Anam clasped his hands. “He just wants that to stop! That’s all he wants… but…”

    “But he’s trying to flip the world upside-down to get it,” Jerry concluded. “So, these Hands or whatever. How many do you think he needs?”

    “I don’t know.” Anam toyed with his fingers. “But… if Dark Matter wants to rewrite something like that… something so fundamental to the whole world’s creation like him… He’d need at least half of them.”

    “Half.” Jerry looked back. “Let me guess. Star has half?”

    “Star has a third-ish,” Anam said. “Barky has another third-ish… and the rest are in Hunters and Guardians.”

    “So, he just needs to grab two of the three.” Jerry rolled his eyes. “Great. Cool. Who’d he already get?”

    “Mew is somewhere here,” Anam said. “And a bunch of Guardians. But… I dunno where Mew is… She’s been missing.”

    “Safe to assume Dark Matter’s already got her?”

    Anam shrugged.

    Jerry’s eyes trailed over to Gahi, who had been pressing his head against an apple. “Okay, Gahi, c’mon. What’re you doing?”

    “Talkin’ ter Owen. He’s askin’ why Necrozma doesn’t have any Hands if he’s supposed ter be more important than Star ‘n Barky.”

    Jerry glared. That had more questions than answers.

    “Oh, that’s right.” Demitri nodded. “Necrozma was supposed to be a god above Barky and Star for some reason. But that doesn’t really add up. Between Star, Barky, and the Guardians, that’s already supposed to be a thousand Hands. Where’d Necrozma’s go?”

    “Owen says the Orbs might be Necrozma’s power,” Gahi relayed. “Weird.”

    “Okay, no, hang on.” Jerry pointed at Gahi. “Is that apple seriously Owen? How? Why? I could accept the whole Florizard thing, but turning into an apple is where I’m drawing the line.”

    “Aster did it with Leph’s loaned power,” Latias said. “It’s… it’s blank magic. Raw divine power. Leph is Arceus’ daughter.”

    “Oh, well, excuse me,” Jerry said, followed by muttering various curses under his breath. “How is that even possible? Not even the Book of Arceus mentions a daughter.”

    “The more we hear about the outside world, the more it seems like we were somehow… forgotten, or erased completely from history.” Latias floated a little lower. “Even Necrozma…”

    “Where is Necrozma?” Gahi asked. “Y’keep talkin’ about the guy but never where he is.”

    “Far north,” Latias said. “That’s where everyone says he is. They call it ‘north’ but it’s just a general direction people feel his presence. Almost like he’s calling out to them… But the problem is, it’s far, far north, across the Abyssal Ocean. Anybody who’s tried to cross it either turns back half-Voided, or not at all.”

    “Sounds like a great place ter fly,” Gahi pointed out, smirking.

    “Not even Aster tries to go there,” Latias cautioned. “You’d need another way to get across. And if you tried, I’d bet money Alexander would try to stop you. He wants Necrozma, too, but not if someone else goes with him.”

    “Wants?” Gahi asked.

    “Let me guess,” Jerry said. “Necrozma’s the key to more power here, right? This Alexander guy and Dark Matter are competing for control over the Voidlands, and Necrozma is there holding down the fort.”

    “That’s… exactly it. H-how did you—”

    “Same thing is apparently happening in Kilo, except between Arceus, Mew, and their disciples.” Jerry snorted. “Except this time, they aren’t even trying to look trustworthy.”

    Eon tapped at the doorway before walking inside. He was still a Charizard.

    “Late,” Mispy said with a frown.

    “Sorry, sorry,” the transformed Ditto said, waving them down. “I wasn’t sure if it was safe yet, and—excuse me?”

    Anam held Eon by the cheeks. After a moment of stunned silence, Eon pulled away and winced. “Not interested,” he growled, wiping slime off his face.

    “He’s safe,” Anam reported.

    “Good to see you, too, I guess,” Eon growled, tense. His body shifted pink and lost some definition, but extra focus brought him back to normal.

    “We don’t have to be enemies anymore,” Anam said. “Mom thinks there are bigger things to deal with.”

    “M—wait, Madeline?” Eon asked, a hopeful uptick in his voice.

    “Mhm! She’s in my head right now.”

    “H-how is she doing?” Eon asked. “Er, aside from…”

    “She’s been better.”

    “Right…” Eon shuffled in place. “Right…”

    “Cool. So now that we’re nice and awkward,” Jerry said, “what’s our plan from here?”

    Demitri held up a hand. “Dark Matter might have Marshadow. Can we rescue him?”

    “If we get close enough…” Anam frowned. “But now that Dark Matter knows I’m here, and Owen’s here, and stuff, he might not want to come in…”

    “What, we can beat him here?” Jerry asked.

    “Not alone,” Anam said. “Which means… maybe someone else is making him worry? Do you think someone else is trying to fight him?”

    “Maybe Kilo is still fighting Dark Matter in the living world,” Demitri proposed.

    “Both sides,” Mispy added.

    “Just like when Starr took over Owen,” Gahi remarked. “She could beat us from one side, but if we’re fightin’ in the livin’ world and the spirit world, she can’t do both. What if it’s the same way here?”

    “Perhaps we can defeat him the same way,” Dialga said. “This is an unprecedented change in the tides.”

    “Ahh, but if we defeat Dark Matter, that may give Alexander some relative power.” Palkia glanced at Latias. “That’s what you told me, yes?”

    She hummed worriedly. “My brother is warning North and West Null Village. East Null evacuated a while ago… Anam! Is—is—”

    “Everyone’s fine,” Anam said, and the brief panic Latias had worn immediately disappeared. “Dark Matter skipped the town and tried to throw me off. That’s why I was late to get to this one… It’s kind of a good thing you were able to get away. I dunno what he wants with Owen or the others here, but…”

    “Orbs?” Mispy asked.

    “Oh, maybe…” Anam nodded.

    “Orbs? That’s the Guardian stuff, right?” Latias asked. “Hmm, if Alexander finds out, he might try to gather them, too. That’s the source of all that light crystal energy, isn’t it?”

    “…Oh, that reminds me,” Eon added, coughing. “I, er, I probably should have opened with this. The scouts told me to find Marshadow and let him know that Mhynt was coming, but if he’s not here—”

    Latias gasped. “Mhynt? Here? Now? How soon?”

    “They said she’d be here in an hour, about half an hour ago.”

    Latias bolted toward Gahi and shook him violently. “You need to hide.”

    “E-eh? Who’s Mhynt again?”

    “Treecko Mhynt—I—I know this sounds silly, but you absolutely need to stay away from her. No matter what. Okay? If you see Mhynt, run. Immediately. Maybe she won’t try to chase you.”

    Gahi narrowed his eyes. “I ain’t running from a freakin’ Treecko.”

    Please,” Latias begged. “Mhynt isn’t any normal Pokémon. There’s… there’s just something more to her. She’s too strong. I had a brush with her once, and I do not remember what happened. B-but I know what she’s capable of. She can absorb spirits, just like that. Like it’s nothing! And then… and then I don’t know where she takes them, i-if she takes them anywhere at all!”

    “How strong can she be?” Gahi asked.

    “Flygon, do not test this.” Latias’ expression was fierce, to the point where even Dialga and Palkia looked unsettled.

    “Why a Treecko?” Dialga asked. “Of all Pokémon?”

    “The rumor is that she was one of Dark Matter’s corrupt, but then stole some of Necrozma’s light for herself,” Latias explained. “So she has both. Nobody knows for sure. They say that anybody who finds out the truth gets Voided. Don’t. Fight. Her. Okay?”

    “Ehhh, I’ll think about it.”

    Latias clenched her fists and shook them at Gahi, but Mispy placed a vine on her shoulder and shook her head.

    “Can’t fix stupid,” Mispy explained.

    “Oi!”

    “Where can we hide? Do we distract her?” Eon asked.

    “I’m gonna take Owen someplace they won’t think ter find,” Gahi said, speeding away.

    “Um, where?” Demitri asked.

    “I ain’t tellin’!”

    And he was gone.

    Mispy sighed. “Hakk’s,” she predicted.

    <><><>​

    “Oi, Hakk!” Gahi pounded on the door. “Open up!”

    “Screw off!”

    “I’m gonna Teleport!”

    “Oh, for the love of—” The door opened, but by the time it did, Gahi had already disappeared inside. Hakk swung around and flicked a dull ice shard at the Flygon’s back. “Do that again and I’ll draw blood!”

    Xypher squawked loudly; Gahi shouted back; Xypher squawked louder, and Hakk waved his arms around to calm him down. Xypher beat his steely wings in response, then made a few chirps, and finally settled down.

    “What do you want?” Hakk said, collapsing into a bed that had near-perfect imprints of his spikes. Xypher eyed the apple Gahi was holding.

    “We gotta hide here fer a bit,” Gahi said.

    “…We?”

    Gahi held out the apple.

    “Oh, you’ve finally cracked.”

    “It’s Owen.”

    Xypher looked concerned. Hakk, sighing, said, “Alright, fine, sure. Keep ‘Owen’ nice and safe, alright? And make sure he’s not in the fridge because I might mistake him for food. That apple looks really good, actually, where’d you get it?”

    “I’m tellin´ you, it’s Owen! Aster did somethin’ and turned him into an apple.”

    “Aster—right, he was after you… Wait, how’d you escape Aster?!”

    “Teleported and fought a bunch.”

    “R-right…” This, of all things, shook Hakk. “You actually fought Aster and escaped alive.”

    “Yeah. And Owen’s an apple. But we’re gonna figure out how ter fix’m.”

    “An effect like that sounds like something Leph gave him.”

    “Leph?” Gahi had a feeling that name had been said before, but he hadn’t paid attention during their talking. It was all boring. In fact, he was getting bored now, and he’d realized that if he had to hide with Owen, that meant he was going to be cooped up in a little house again. Annoying.

    “Forget Leph—Aster’s still chasing you? Because he’s already been here. He might check again.”

    “Nah, Latias said ter hide from Mhynt.”

    Hakk audibly gasped, then looked at Xypher, who had gone stiff as a statue.

    “Get out.”

    “Eh?”

    “Nope. Out. That’s the line. I’m not harboring you from Mhynt. I like my soul right where it is, thanks!”

    “No yeh don’t, we’re in the Voidlands!”

    “Shut up and get out! I didn’t see you here!”

    “Explain why! What’s so scary about a Treecko?”

    “That’s not just some Treecko,” Hakk said. “She is the one person under Alexander who’s got power over light and dark. She not only has Alexander’s darkness, but she also absorbed the spirit of a creature of light.”

    “What does that even mean?” Gahi said, exasperated. “And I’m stayin’ until you do.”

    “It means,” Hakk said, “that she has the power of a Legend inside her.”

    <><><>​

    “Careful. You’re going to fall.” Mhynt leaned forward, holding Enet’s lower back.

    “Won’t fall,” Enet replied with a growl, adjusting her position atop her ride—a shadowy, winged creature with two great crescents at the edges of her large wings.

    “If you say so, but if you fall, I’ll be carrying you in rope.”

    “Hmph!” She flicked her head, making sure some of her mane got in Mhynt’s face.

    The Treecko sighed, brushing it away before pulling on the shadowy tendrils wrapped around her hands. Lunala, below her, stretched her wings and went into a gentle glide, wordlessly staring forward. Enet looked down at the shadowy creature, then at Mhynt with concern.

    “Hm?”

    “Hurts?”

    “Hurts? What hurts?”

    Enet pulled at one of the ropes that went from Mhynt’s wrists to Lunala’s body.

    “Oh. No, it does not.”

    Enet’s gaze narrowed, but then she turned ahead again. “Plan?”

    “You want me to go over the plan again?” Mhynt leaned left, trying to get a closer look at Enet’s face, but she was hiding it deliberately. “Well, yes. The plan is that you will help me find Owen and your friends so we can have a talk. After that, I plan to leave you there to stay near them.”

    “To spy.”

    “Yes, to spy.”

    Enet’s claws squeezed into her fur. “Don’t like that.”

    “You can tell them if you like,” Mhynt said. “How do you think Owen will react?”

    Enet looked away.

    “Oh? He won’t be happy?”

    “Don’t know.”

    “Well, it’s up to you what you say,” Mhynt said. “But you do want to see them again, don’t you?”

    “…Using me.”

    “I am.” Mhynt tilted her head. “Was that ever in question?”

    “Mean.”

    Mhynt smiled a little, looking down. “I suppose I am. But this is necessary. You have no choice. You want to see Owen.”

    “Maybe not.”

    “But you do.”

    “I don’t like you.”

    “You’re free to feel that way.” Mhynt tilted her head left, leisurely but narrowly dodging an arc of electricity. “We’re close to Null Village, by the way.”

    Enet growled lowly, crinkling her muzzle, and then looked forward with a huff. She made sure to brush her mane against Mhynt’s face again, and then draped it over her so she didn’t have to hear her at all. Mhynt tried to say a few things, but Enet didn’t respond.

    Mhynt reached for her blade carefully, but the moment she did, Enet spun around and hissed at her.

    “I’m only preparing for the landing.” Mhynt pulled it closer and brushed Enet’s fur away. “You wouldn’t want that clattering on someone, would you?”

    “Why?” She pointed at the sword.

    “Why? Well, it’s dangerous to leave a blade unattended.”

    “No. Why blade?” She poked at the lifeless eye of the Honedge, which of course did not respond.

    “It is a container for those that I vanquish,” Mhynt replied. “It’s convenient.”

    Enet frowned. “Who was it?”

    “The blade?” Mhynt turned the blade over, noticing a small nick in the edge. She’d have to fix that later. “Merely a shell.”

    Enet looked skeptical. “Lying?”

    “I am not in a position where I need to lie.”

    Enet leaned forward, sniffing Mhynt’s face. The Treecko narrowed her eyes and reeled back, suppressing the urge to sneeze.

    “…Mint.”

    “Yes, that’s my name.”

    “No.” Enet sniffed Mhynt’s face again, which was starting to disturb Mhynt. “Smell. Mint.”

    “Oh.” Mhynt sighed. “Yes. That was why my father named me Mhynt. It was because of the natural scent of my Grass attributes.”

    “So… if you smelled like… Lemon, you’d be… Lymn?”

    “…Yes.”

    “Weird.”

    She wondered how Owen dealt with this. “It was a bit of a family tradition,” she conceded.

    “Still weird.”

    “Well, I didn’t have an intention of following it with my own child.” Mhynt held her blade a little tighter.

    “Child?” Enet asked, tilting her head.

    “We’re done talking. It’s time to land.”

    Lunala disappeared in a sudden, black haze just as South Null Village came into view, and Enet yipped in surprise. She flailed and tried to grab something, eventually reaching for Mhynt, pulling her close.

    “Let go! You’ll hurt yourself on my blade!”

    Enet didn’t listen, squeezing her tighter.

    “Unbelievable.” Mhynt growled and freed one of her arms as the ground rapidly came closer. Their fall slowed, though Enet still clutched onto Mhynt for dear life until the Treecko found a way to squeeze through her arms and onto the ground.

    “There.” Mhynt frowned at Enet, who was trying to figure out why the fall had been so soft. “I have some of Necrozma’s power, just like you do, Enet. That includes levitation. Don’t you know you can fly?”

    Enet stood up, looking around uncertainly. “I forgot.”

    “Mm. Guardians all have the power of Necrozma, Enet. Light, levitation, some Psychic abilities, and all-around power. That you didn’t know this means perhaps even Necrozma’s fragments’ true origins are still lost to the living world.”

    Enet’s blank stare suggested she understood perhaps two of her words. Mhynt, exasperated, gestured forward. “Just help me find Owen. I’ll help.”

    The feral Zoroark sniffed the air, which Mhynt, by now, had realized was her means of sensing Pokémon energy. She led her down one of the roads speckled with light crystals and clay tiles. Enet scampered forward, waiting impatiently for Mhynt to catch up, and she tried, but her stride wasn’t the best.

    Several passerby Pokémon yelped and ran away when Mhynt passed, to which the Treecko rolled her eyes and wondered if the floating blade behind her was what frightened them. She could make it disappear, she supposed, but she also wasn’t in the mood to socialize. She’d rather get frightened looks than cooing or funny looks.

    Mhynt had a strange sense of familiarity, like the air was a little thicker. Many, many familiar energy signatures nearby, so much that it made her scales feel like they were brushing past thin water.

    Unown. Why did she sense Unown? And in such large numbers, all concentrated into a single—

    “Gahi!” Enet clawed at the door to one of the residential rooms.

    A muffled, hissed curse came from inside.

    “Gahi?” Mhynt repeated.

    “Owen’s friend!”

    “No, I know that,” Mhynt said, stepping toward the doorway. She knocked the hilt of her blade on the entrance. “Gahi? Are you in there?”

    “Who’re you?” Gahi called back.

    “Open the door, please,” Mhynt said, holding her blade in preparation, because she knew he wouldn’t.

    Someone else was talking, shouting in an angry hiss, and Mhynt tapped her blade on the door. “One.” Nothing. “Two?” And again, nothing. She sighed. “Three.”

    Silence. Well, she’d said three. She flipped her blade and made an upward, diagonal slash. With her free hand, she pushed forward, and a black gust of wind pushed the bisected door into the home.

    Before her was a Flygon, an icy Sandslash, and a Corviknight. The latter two looked frozen with fear, while the Flygon looked down at her with an impressed smirk.

    “Hey, ain’t that somethin’,” Gahi said. “Cool sword.”

    Mhynt weighed her options. It wasn’t Owen, but it was close…

    “And hello to you, too,” Mhynt replied, rotating her blade as it floated behind her. “Where’s Owen?”

    “I dunno,” he clearly lied, bringing his arms behind his head.

    Mhynt made sure the gleam of her blade flashed in Gahi’s eyes. “I don’t ask twice.”

    “An’ I don’t answer twice.”

    That gave her pause. She squinted. “You didn’t answer once.”

    “Guess that means I ain’t gonna do it twice neither.”

    The Sandslash looked like he was going to suffer an aneurysm. The Corviknight might have passed out upright.

    Mhynt chuckled. “You haven’t changed much.”

    “Eh?”

    In a deft motion, Mhynt grabbed her blade and sped toward Gahi in a blink.
     
    Chapter 108 - The Reaper
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    Chapter 108 – The Reaper

    Mhynt hit empty air, sticking her blade into the wall instead. The Sandslash shouted in lamentation and anger, but then covered his mouth when Mhynt flashed a glare at him.

    “Uh—he broke in, by the way,” he said. “I’m not harboring—”

    “Stop talking.”

    “Y-yeah, okay.”

    The Corviknight fell over, unconscious.

    “Hm…” Mhynt slowly pulled her blade from the wall, eyes closed. Enet had run off somewhere. Gahi, where did he go? She couldn’t sense him anymore.

    Except for one instant—right beside her. He grabbed her arm, and suddenly she was high in the air above Null Village, hanging by his grasp.

    “Nice try,” Gahi said, smirking.

    Mhynt hissed and swung her blade, knowing she’d miss. Gahi was too fast to fall for something so basic, and indeed, he disappeared and left her to fall. The Treecko grasped the air and caught a ledge she’d conjured from the darkness. There, she feigned helplessness, dangling in midair.

    …He wasn’t falling for it. How could someone so dumb be so sharp? No wonder he paired off with Owen.

    Letting go, she landed on a dark platform just large enough for her feet. She adjusted her stance and the platform adjusted with it. From high above, she could see the buildings of South Null Village and the many Pokémon staring in awe from the ground. Gahi was probably among them, looking for an opening, because distance was not a factor for him. How long had he been with her Orb? Apparently long enough to become adept at Teleportation. She was almost jealous. Almost.

    “Hah!” Gahi was behind her, so Mhynt swung around and blocked the claw attack with a conjured, circular shield. Gahi’s speed forced her to skid back on her platforms, which followed her feet.

    “You telegraphed your attack, you dolt!” Mhynt spat. “Who shouts just before they’re going to strike?”

    “Someone who’s totally gonna win and doesn’t gotta be careful!”

    Mhynt twitched. “Are you seriously doing this right now?”

    “I think so. Dunno, feelin’ playful.”

    “Things aren’t the same between us anymore, Gahi.” Mhynt tilted her blade behind her. “I’m not here to spar.”

    “Eh?”

    Mhynt kicked off of the shadowy platforms and accelerated through a dark vortex. Her blade followed behind, inches from Gahi’s chest before he’d vanished again. She looked up; wrong guess. Indigo flames crawled across her eyes and a sharp pain in her chest sent her flying higher. Half-blind, she grabbed at the air and slowed her fall, but another blow sent her plummeting to the ground. She twisted in the air and landed on her back, leaving a small crater from the speed. Clay tiles and dust rained down.

    Gahi was shouting something, but he was too far away to hear. Mhynt grumbled, arms crossed in thought. So, he was fast, but his attacks weren’t very strong. Typical. He hadn’t improved much, it seemed, even if his appearance had changed. And why was he carrying that apple? Was he toying with her?

    And that aura of all the Unown in his system was messing with her senses. She wasn’t going to be able to find Owen like this. Restraining him, or perhaps even subduing him to find Owen, would be the right plan of action here.

    And then Gahi disappeared.

    Right. What trick was he doing this time? She couldn’t feel him nearby yet, but—

    And now she was doing cartwheels across the ground and out of town. Another strike; she didn’t even know what it had been this time. His tail? He wasn’t this fast before. Not even the Psychic Orb could do that.

    “Uff!” Mhynt hit one of the trees at the edge of town hard, smashing further into the wood. She came to a stop on her back and stared at the sky, eyes narrow.

    So, he was too fast to hit. Hm. She’d have to get him while his guard was down. Thankfully, he was an idiot. Perhaps some acting would do.

    Mhynt clutched at her blade and staggered to her feet, feigning weakness. “Ngh, don’t think a lucky shot or two is going to be enough to win, Flygon!” she shouted, wincing at how humiliating this was. Like she was acting out some kind of play. “The… the darkness will claim you!”

    “The darkness will claim me? What are ya, a comic book villain?!”

    He had a point. But she couldn’t drop the act now or he’d get suspicious. “We’ll see who’s laughing when I’m through with you!”

    Gahi liked attacking from the left. Or perhaps that was coincidence because of the way she often rotated when fighting. When he approached, Mhynt knew that he would be at the highest alert. She’d have to focus her efforts on withstanding the hit without losing her stance, and then counter with a jab. He was fast, but he was predictable.

    Countless lesser souls were watching her. Guards, civilians, those of Null Village seemed surprised at how she was being attacked by Gahi. If she didn’t demonstrate her power soon, they’d pester her about her true strength. As a Treecko, she only had her reputation to go by. If that was tarnished, it was square one again for building it back up, no matter how established the truth had been in the past.

    The air shifted and the tingling on Mhynt’s scales meant Gahi was approaching from the left again. She planted her feet on the ground, firm, and spiraled tendrils of darkness from her ankles into the dirt, deep and hooked.

    Gahi’s claws slashed along her scales, leaving only a small blemish, but that alone surprised her. It cut through the dark armor just beneath her skin. So, Gahi really did still have Necrozma’s light in him, and not just from the Orb…

    Just what she was hoping for.

    <><><>​

    “This way!” Demitri shouted, riding atop Mispy’s back. “Mispy sensed him fighting on this side of town!”

    “Why does he have to be such an idiot?” Jerry beat his wings to fly higher.

    “Condition,” Mispy theorized, charging a Solar Beam as she kept up.

    “It’s rhetorical!” Jerry dipped below when Mhynt glanced his way. “What are we supposed to do about this Treecko? How is she taking such a beating and looking like she’s not even hurt?”

    “We keep being told that we just don’t beat her,” Demitri said. “We need to hide. And especially hide Owen! They’re after him, right?”

    “Don’t say that out loud!” Jerry hissed. “We don’t know how good her hearing is, either!”

    “Oop! S-sorry.” Demitri lowered his head, then pulled one of his tusks, ready to throw. “They’re so far… I can’t aim from here. Gahi was the one who guided them last time.”

    Gahi and Mhynt were still clashing in the air. Mhynt lacked wings, but she made up for it with platforms that appeared to be made of nothing but black haze. She didn’t have any maneuvers otherwise, and Demitri wondered why this was the one they were so afraid of. The sword did look kind of scary, though. Did she kill a Honedge just to use it like that?

    “Gahi!” Mispy suddenly fired a Solar Beam at him. The flash caught his attention and he weaved out of the way, which was just in time to dodge an upward slash from Mhynt.

    “Oi! I don’t need yer help!” Gahi shook his fist at Mispy, but then dodged out of the way of another slice. This one grazed his thigh, leaving a tiny trail of blood.

    “Gahi! Watch out!”

    Mhynt didn’t move naturally. It was like some other force was moving her body, but nobody could see it. But Mispy’s eyes were darting in odd directions, too.

    “Mispy, what is it?” Demitri asked in a whisper.

    “Something’s… moving with her,” Mispy said. “It’s dark…”

    “More of that dark power? What’s it look like?”

    Mispy shuddered, not wanting to look for long. “I don’t know.”

    Gahi flew down, narrowly dodging another slash. He was losing his momentum. No matter how much he struck Mhynt, she didn’t tire out. Every scratch he made closed up before she could even bleed. Every pummel that should have broken half the bones in her body only tossed her around like a dense bag of sand. Gahi was panicking. Demitri could feel it. They had to help. Maybe if they—

    “Here.” Gahi had appeared right in front of Demitri and handed him an apple. And in another blink, he was gone.

    “Ga—”

    They were clashing again, but Gahi had a more desperate look in his eyes. And that’s when that playful look in the Flygon’s movements had transitioned into something more primal. He was acknowledging what he verbally couldn’t, and what the others were realizing… Mhynt really was stronger.

    And she wasn’t even trying.

    She said something to Gahi in midair that made Gahi stumble.

    “Like I’ll tell you!” he shouted back.

    Mhynt tilted her head. She seemed to be smiling, amused.

    “Shut up! Y’don’t know! I’m way too—”

    Mhynt said something else, then gestured to Demitri, whose blood ran cold.

    Gahi turned toward them and shouted, “Look out—”

    Mispy suddenly pushed herself off the ground to look larger. “Gahi, up—”

    A shadowy figure materialized above Gahi. The silhouette of a Sceptile. It smashed into Gahi’s back, sending him tumbling into the ground. The Flygon wailed and roared, cut short when he hit the clay roads. Tiles clattered against tiles; a plume of smoke and debris obscured the state of Gahi’s body, aside from the silhouette where he stood. Mhynt’s small figure rushed toward it; Mispy, Demitri, and Jerry all fired at once, a Solar Beam, tusk, and rock flying toward her at the same time. Every single one was dodged.

    She pulled her blade back—

    “GAHI!”

    —and plunged it into his spine.

    His head jerked upward and he froze in place; Mhynt jammed the blade a little deeper, a faint glow radiating out of the impact site. Gahi’s wings drooped and his arms went limp.

    Mispy choked. “No…”

    The sword trembled a little. As the dust settled, they saw Mhynt pushing the blade lodged into Gahi’s back, her feet planted on his upright body like she was bracing for a climb. Her fingers wrapped tightly around the blade, and then, for an odd moment, she looked like she was bracing for something else.

    Mhynt’s eyes widened. “Ng—”

    A bright light erupted from Gahi’s back and Mhynt was jettisoned across town, into the outskirts, and against a tree. The blade followed, soaring so fast that its metal whistled in the air before landing with an audible thud. Mhynt shouted, but it had been cut short—the blade was lodged directly through her chest, into the wood behind her. She was pinned.

    Gahi’s body moved on its own and disappeared toward the rest of Team Alloy. He looked at the others unblinkingly, his wings twinkling with cosmic light. They were see-through, and his body darkened until it looked like a starry sky.

    “Gahi? You… your back,” Demitri pointed at the wound, which was slowly closing.

    It was not Gahi, but the Unown inside of him.

    “What?” Demitri blinked. “The Unown? Since when did—”

    “Psychic Guardian,” Mispy said. “They’re still there?”

    They were, and with Gahi’s spirit taken away, the Unown took over. They had to get away and devise a strategy to rescue him.

    “Wait, we need to get away?” Demitri repeated. “H-how are you—wait, you all heard that, right? Gahi isn’t talking.”

    The Unown were communicating with them in their usual way, and they shouldn’t be alarmed by it.

    “I’m kind of alarmed,” Demitri admitted.

    There wasn’t any time to waste. The Flygon gestured for them to follow, and then disappeared, because he had left further into town. They knew where Palkia and the others were.

    “Wait!” Demitri shouted. “Ugh, this is weird…”

    “Let’s go,” Mispy said, pursuing.

    Demitri glanced at Mhynt, who was still pinned to the tree. Did she really take Gahi’s spirit? How could they get him back?

    “Even like that, I get the feeling she’s still too strong to take on,” Jerry said. “Let’s go before she gets another one of us.”

    <><><>​

    The Ice Orb’s inner realm was starting to grow on Alex.

    Yes, for a while his true, Dragon nature—and his preferred climate being the Fire Orb—made the Ice Orb nearly inhospitable to him. Perhaps it was psychological, or perhaps it was due to the nature of his spirit, but Alex had barely been able to move in the icy tundra for quite some time.

    But now, his scales, and whole body, were transparent like the many other Pokémon that lived there. The bitter cold of the snow was like a welcome breeze, and now, he was nestled under a thick layer of soft snow. He wriggled, testing his six tendrils that made up his wings, and then flicked his tail.

    Aside from the snow, it had been awfully quiet lately. He still wasn’t adept enough at his new element. The other spirits that Step used for battle were much stronger. And so, the Hydreigon stayed behind, buried in snow with his thoughts.

    “Do you really think Owen and Amia are okay?” Alex said softly to nobody. Perhaps to himself.

    He pushed his left, smaller head forward, opening and closing the mouth like a puppet. “They’re too strong to simply be killed, aren’t they? They aren’t in the spirit world. They must be fighting somewhere else.”

    This comforted Alex a little. He always did this if he was truly conflicted. Alex brought the right head forward next, making similar motions.

    “But if they’re sealed anywhere, it’s in Hot Spot, amid all that darkness. If they’re fighting, it’s not a winning battle.”

    Alex whined a little. He didn’t like the right head. But he also knew he spoke the reality he often tried to ignore.

    “Xander, please,” Alex said for the left head. “Can’t we have some hope?”

    “Only if that also includes action,” Alex said for the right head, deepening his voice. “Look at us, moping around in the tundra!”

    The left head nodded. “We’ll do action, as soon as we—”

    “—As soon as someone tells us? That Aggron doesn’t take us at all seriously.” The right head’s face twisted into an annoyed snarl. “Meek as always, Alex.”

    The left head shrank away, as did Alex himself.

    “Owen is out there, lost and confused, no doubt. And Amia… She’s probably holding her own, but she could use our help, too.” The right head stared the left head down.

    The left head sank down. “We’re usually just in her shadow…”

    The right head glared. “What a better time to change than now?”

    “Um, what are you doing?”

    Alex shrieked and leapt out of his snow puff, spinning to face a Kommo-o standing only a few feet away. How had she come up so quietly? Behind her were two others of the same species, one a little smaller, and one much larger.

    “A-ah, hello. I, er, um, I was just resting.”

    The largest Kommo-o, Ra and mate to Step, crossed his arms, his large, icy scales clanging dully. “I overheard that you were talking about trying to help out?”

    The two daughters, Cent and Ana, seemed pensive.

    “To be honest,” Cent, the larger one, said, “trying to clear a safe route from here to the other side of the spirit realm would be nice, but even Hecto is saying we shouldn’t bother because of how strangely the aura sea is flowing.”

    “Sorry about your family, um, by the way,” Ana added.

    Cent and Ra both glanced worriedly at the smaller Kommo-o.

    “Um, we won’t bring it up if you don’t want us to,” Cent added.

    “It’s fine, it’s… well, it’s not fine, but I appreciate the concern. I just don’t know where to begin with trying to find them. How is planning for the assault on Hot Spot going?”

    “Mobilizing is taking a while.” Ra huffed. “We’re growing impatient, too.”

    “I suppose I’m the same way.” Alex poked his two smaller heads together. “Ohh… I just wish I wasn’t so…”

    “Meek?” Ana asked, repeating what the right head’s commentary.

    “Unaccustomed?” Cent asked, gesturing to his icy body.

    “You don’t have to say it,” Alex muttered, floating a little lower. “I’m not even used to this species in general sometimes. I haven’t used it for combat in such a long time…”

    “Right.” Ra frowned. “Despite this being your original form, why did you choose a Magmortar, of all things?”

    “Well—similar arms, for one, and it’s used to the fire…” Heads and cannons weren’t quite the same, but they were reminiscent. He did miss flying, though. But he also enjoyed not having to fear Amia’s Fae element… Ah! He shouldn’t call it that. Old terms. Fairy.

    “You alright?” Cent asked. “You’re kinda…”

    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Alex shook all three heads. “I’m all out of sorts. I don’t really like this body but I know that I’m ultimately better in it for fighting.”

    “How come?” Ana asked.

    “Y-you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” Cent added again.

    “Oh,” Alex said with a sigh, “it’s really okay. I’m just not proud of my father’s lineage. I suppose at some point I made the decision to change what I looked like to defy it. Silly when I say it out loud…”

    “Oh. Daddy issues.” Ana nodded. “I get it.”

    “Ana, please,” Cent begged in a whisper.

    Ra rubbed his forehead.

    “I’m, um, I’m sorry for your dad,” Cent went on. “It’s… fine, right? Your dad isn’t around anymore?”

    “Goodness, no.” Alex shook his heads. “He’s long dead. And g-good riddance, at that.” He felt awful for saying it, and the brief fire that burned in his chest felt like it’d melt him. “He’s… he was truly an awful person. I’d rather not get into it. But he held great power, the—he was the Fire Guardian, once.”

    The three all flinched.

    “What?” Ra whispered. “But is your mate not the Fire Guardian? How did she acquire it?”

    “Well… typically, to extract an Orb, you must kill the host.”

    “Then, your father is within the Fire Orb, or did he leave afterward?” Ra asked.

    “No duh he left,” Ana said. “I bet Amia rejected him the second she gained control.”

    “She didn’t need to,” Alex replied, feeling his mood plummet. “I’m not really sure what happened. But somehow, he’d been killed, and Amia took the power before anyone else could. After that… we fled.”

    “…Fled?” Cent said. “Why?”

    “There were a lot of people after that power,” Alex said, “as I’m sure you know. Whole wars had been fought over them in the past… Though I don’t think you were aware?”

    “I kept to myself per Star’s advice,” Ra said. “It was… lonely. But if the alternative was war…”

    “How big was the war?” Cent asked. “How long ago was it?”

    “Centuries,” Alex said. “So much was lost… We had to go into hiding before it got out of hand.”

    “What stopped it?” Cent leaned forward like a journalist getting a big scoop. “I don’t think I was around for this.”

    “This… feels familiar,” Ra said, “but I don’t remember, either. Too long ago, perhaps…”

    Alex shook his head. “I don’t know what stopped it. I was only a small part of something that ravaged the whole world. Civilizations and settlements wiped from Kilo. We probably don’t even follow the same calendar system after something like that…”

    “But this war—it was over the Orbs?”

    “Yes. A-and…” Alex hesitated. “And… my father was the lord of the losing side, so to speak. N-no… there were not really any winners here. But in the end, my father lost his power, and the southern area off Kilo was fragmented from its former kingdom.”

    A beat of silence passed over as the three considered Alex’s words. Then, Ana blurted, “Hang on a second! That means you’re a PRINCE?!”

    “Don’t… please do not call me that,” Alex begged. “I truly don’t want that.”

    “Oh, um. Right, sorry. It just—”

    “I don’t really think Ana gets it, but we won’t call you that,” Cent promised. “Right, Ana?”

    She nodded, and then said, “So, that means your father was the southern king way back when?”

    “Yes. I don’t really know if my lineage survived for very long, but I was not the only child. I’m certain that darkness carried on…”

    “Um. Darkness?” Cent asked. “As in… the same darkness above Hot Spot right now?”

    “It feels similar,” Alex admitted. “I don’t know. It’s been so long. Perhaps this is a new darkness, or something related to what my father had. Passed on by blood, I—”

    “But your spirit doesn’t seem all that dark,” Ana said. “What gives?”

    “Anam took it away from me,” Alex said. “Amia and I fled from the kingdom after my father was slain. And we took the Fire Orb with us. And for a while, we remained in hiding, hoping to not be detected or found by anyone. And goodness, we were good at hiding. But… Anam had a sense for darkness. When we met, we had a talk, and he asked me if I wanted to be rid of that power. I… don’t really know what kind of power it was, but, oh, I was more than happy to get rid of it if it had anything to do with my father.”

    “Anam was able to purify you?”

    “I think so. Just as he was able to seal Dungeons and make them safe to traverse. So… I suppose that’s how we became involved with the Hearts.”

    “I see…” Ra nodded. “Very… interesting. I did not know this about Anam.”

    “For some reason, he never talked about it much,” Alex said. “Still… oh, I’ve rambled…”

    “Well, regardless,” Ra said, “I hope this shame of your species won’t hinder you when we put it to use. Perhaps we can train, Dragon to Dragon.”

    “I, er, perhaps.” Alex shrank at Ra’s glare. “I-I mean, yes! I definitely would like to train under you. I, er, oh, dear, I don’t know where to begin…”

    “Hmhh.” Ra gestured to Cent and Ana, who went left and right. “We’ll start with some basic sparring to get your fighting instincts active. We’ll train you in the traditional Dragon way.”

    “Oh, I see. Er. Traditional Dragon way. What does that mean, specifically? I do not believe we are from the same regions…”

    “You’ll learn. Are you ready?” The icy Kommo-o entered a battle stance.

    “Um! Ah! Right now? We’re beginning training now?”

    “Yes.”

    Ra socked Alex in the jaw, spiraling him across the tundra.

    <><><>​

    Hakk emerged from his rudely destroyed home and checked the damage of the street where he lived. Somehow, only his house had been damaged in all that carnage, even if parts of the road had also been destroyed. Annoying. At least Xypher wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t sure about his tech, but he could at least replace those with time.

    “Xypher, let’s get out of here before—oh, come on.” Hakk spotted a bunch of guards gathering around Mhynt, who was pinned against a tree by her own bla—

    “Holy—”

    Hakk cursed several times, rubbing his eyes as if he’d been hallucinating. No, that was it. Mhynt was stuck against a tree, pinned by her own blade. She was reaching for the hilt, but he couldn’t tell what her expression was like. Morbid curiosity drove him closer.

    Xypher, finally outside, cawed at Hakk.

    “It’s alright. She’s stuck,” Hakk said. “I need to see this.”

    And a crowd was gathering anyway. If she broke free, he could scatter with the rest of them. He knew the way around, and from the outskirts, there was an easy way to escape while the others fled in the open.

    They only got close enough to hear what they were saying. It was easy since nobody dared make too much noise while in her presence.

    “Well, this is annoying,” Mhynt muttered. She reached for the hilt again. “Curse these short arms…”

    Hakk dared get a little closer until he could see the basics of her expression. Narrow eyes, gritted teeth, and the sword glowed a little. She really was stuck. Dark energy coursed through her arms in spirals, fizzling out when it tried to leave her scales. Something was sealing it away. Hakk had seen this before—her method of attacking by summoning the spirits of those she’d absorbed. That was the rumor, and apparently there was also a Legend or two. How much was true? Could he find out? Did he want to find out?

    But it was how she was so strong. How she could do that, he didn’t know… but he didn’t want to be her next victim, either.

    Most of the crowd was civilians. Several guards were telling them to disperse, but this unprecedented situation left them lingering. And who could blame them? Mhynt was their superior, yes, under only the Void King in terms of authority. And there she was, pinned and helpless. South Null Village didn’t view Cipher City in the most favorable light, either. What were they going to do?

    “Someone.” Mhynt had been glaring at them, the words at the tip of her tongue, yet she’d hesitated until now. Perhaps swallowing her pride? Something about that forced Hakk to hide a smirk. “If someone could remove this blade…”

    Nobody moved. They all hesitated.

    Mhynt growled again. “Now,” she snapped.

    Hakk’s claws twitched into a fist, but he didn’t move. He felt even more frozen than his breath. Just being around her made the air cool over his spikes, ready to snap into frost at a moment’s notice. This was Mhynt, the strongest hand of Alexander, pinned to a tree. What if they—

    “ATTACK!” shouted a nearby Espeon, followed by a wave of psionic energy warping the light around Mhynt. The rest of the idiots followed, blasts of water, fire, electricity, rocks, everything all at once concentrated on Mhynt. Several of them missed wildly; it was all topped off by a Hyper Beam where Mhynt was still pinned to the tree, which was amazingly sturdy. Hakk didn’t know why until he saw several vines curling around and reinforcing the trunk thanks to a nearby Venusaur.

    Unsurprisingly, Mhynt was still there, the blade still in her chest, and the Treecko still pinned to the tree. She was dripping with water. Lingering elemental energy danced around her body, dissipating into the tree behind her.

    “If one of you removes this blade from my chest,” Mhynt said, her lungs completely undaunted by the obstruction, “I will pretend that didn’t just happen.”

    Hakk was positive at least a few of the guards were looking for a way to run, now. Tails between their legs, ears pinned behind their heads… What happened to all that bravado?

    “You.”

    Her gaze pierced right through him. Hakk stiffened and gulped. Gods, was she looking right at him? She was! Why? Why him? No—it was because he’d been there when Gahi was—curse that Flygon!

    “Come here.”

    All eyes were on him, now. He could turn around. Ignore it. Walk away. But then he’d be dead later. Dead now, dead later? Maybe Mhynt would be in a good mood because he hadn’t tried to attack her.

    Just to survive. He just had to survive another day, and then another. This was the next step. And so, the icy Sandslash approached, his legs like lead.

    “Pull the sword out?” Hakk asked.

    “Yes. Thank you.”

    He was going to regret this. There was no way he wouldn’t. But he already had his claws over the hilt and, after pushing away one final doubt, and ignoring all the Pokémon that were staring at him, he tugged.

    It was really jammed in there. He grunted and pulled a little harder, sticking his foot on the trunk behind Mhynt. “Nnnngh! What did you do to get pinned like this?!”

    “I’m still trying to figure that out myself.”

    “Well, just remember, I was the one who helped—agh!” The lifeless Honedge broke free and Hakk tumbled onto his spikes, wincing. “Ugh. There. H-happy?”

    The blade lifted out of his hands, but not because Mhynt had grabbed it. It was floating on its own. Mhynt, still with a large wound in her chest, stepped forward. Darkness poured from the wound, and within her body seemed to be a core of golden light sealing itself away.

    “Yes,” Mhynt said.

    The blade spun until its point was aimed at his chest.

    Hakk couldn’t react in time. “Wait—”

    Hakk jolted and stiffened, trying to gasp, but it wasn’t working. He heard the crowd shriek and he looked down at the blade plunged into his chest. It didn’t hurt. Why didn’t it hurt? He felt warm. Too warm. His vision was going dark, and something tugged at his torso.

    Then, nothing.

    He was falling. He couldn’t hear anymore, and he only had a body because he remembered what having one felt like. He flexed his claws, and it didn’t feel real, even though he was sure he could.

    He couldn’t breathe, but he also didn’t need to. In this endless darkness, the only thing he saw was a slim Flygon floating in the void. The Flygon crossed his arms, looking pensive and irritable, floating in a slow rotation. Their eyes met.

    Gahi snorted, looking off.

    Hakk snarled back. “You’re an idiot, you know that?”

    Gahi dug his claws into his arm. They were intangible, and it seemed like they pressed far more than they should have. Despite this, he did not bleed. “So?”

    But before Hakk could respond, another tugging motion pulled him up and away. Gahi rapidly became nothing but a distant, green speck of light.

    And then he was standing again, taking his first breath, staggering forward before catching himself. “What? What happened? I—” He felt his chest. Bruised beneath his fur. But there was an odd color there, some mark. It looked like a star.

    Mhynt cleared her throat. “Your help is appreciated.”

    “Gah!” Hakk jumped away, then blinked when he realized he had to look down quite far to see the Treecko. “What? When did you get so small?”

    “Try again.”

    Hakk looked himself over, marveling at how everything suddenly looked a few heads shorter. He felt a little heavier… but the strength in his movements made him light as a feather.

    “Where is Owen?” Mhynt asked.

    “Uh?”

    “Owen. That is your first assignment under my command. Get him, bring him to me, and we can work from there.”

    The guards and civilians—those who remained, at least—watched with their breaths held. Hakk knew that they only didn’t move because they didn’t want to attract Mhynt’s attention, like she was some motion-based predator.

    “So, what, that’s it? Just like that, I’m under your authority?”

    “You always have. The difference now is I’m giving you direct orders.”

    “Fair.” Hakk still didn’t like it. He rubbed at his chest. “What’s this supposed to be?”

    “The mark of Necrozma. I have his power. Now, you have a hint of it as well. …The growth is a side effect.”

    “You don’t say.” Hakk tried to get used to his new size, unnerved at how he made the ground rumble a little more than he was used to after so many centuries being the same.

    Mhynt still regarded him with that cold, indifferent stare. She tapped her foot. “Are you going, or not?”

    “I’m thinking, I’m thinking,” Hakk growled back. “You know, I don’t really like this whole recruitment thing.”

    “You don’t need to like it. You just need to understand that you have to.”

    “Or what?”

    Mhynt tilted her blade.

    “Okay, okay! Geez, it was rhetorical.” Hakk steadied his heart, then looked down at her chest. Defiance was welling up inside him, though. He wasn’t going to let this Treecko get control of him without a fight. “I think this mark thing is pretty stupid, though. It gets in the way.”

    “A slightly different color gets in the way?” Mhynt frowned.

    “Yeah. Now people are gonna ask, and that’ll blow my cover, won’t it?”

    “Hm, perhaps you’re right,” Mhynt said, though her tone hadn’t changed in the slightest. “Do you want it somewhere else?”

    “Yeah, how about the same place you can kiss?” Hakk snapped, stomping his foot. “Why do you think some threats are gonna—” An electric feeling forced him to crouch and clutch at his chest. It had lasted only a second. When he looked down, the mark was gone. “What did—”

    “I put it where you wanted me to kiss.” Mhynt smiled wryly, crossing her arms.

    Hakk flinched and felt around his mouth, like the color would have a different texture.

    “Try again.”

    Hakk snarled. “You b—”

    “Pray I don’t change it further.” Mhynt’s glare intensified. “Is there anything else you want, or are we through here?”

    Hakk gritted his teeth, frosty air circling around his spikes. But before he could continue with his death sentence, he heard a squawk from far away. A Pokémon had bumped into Xypher, and he was trying to stay calm. The Corviknight kept muttering apologies and bowed frantically.

    He’d stared for too long; Mhynt had followed his gaze. Cursing under his breath, he looked back at Mhynt and said, “Don’t… hurt him.”

    Mhynt stared up at Hakk and tilted her head, inquisitive.

    “…Please.”

    And she continued to stare, calculating, thinking. Then, she closed her eyes and nodded. “Understood.”

    Some sort of caveat or snide remark was the next thing Hakk was expecting, but when none came, he hesitantly stepped away and said, “Well… okay. I’ll go find Owen.”

    He didn’t know why she couldn’t just do it herself.

    Wait, if he was trying not to be obvious, why was he twice as big?!

    Before he had the chance to question it, Mhynt was already gone.
     
    Chapter 109 - The Light of Hope New
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 109 – The Light of Hope

    Rhys stood at the top of the Thousand Hearts HQ, ready to address them now that he was back at full strength. Countless questions were flitting about, and he had a whole paper of them to answer, as well as notes for each one to guide him. Elder stood next to him, the giant Torkoal surveying the crowd with an anxious hum.

    "You don't suppose they will reject your assurances, Rhys?" Elder asked.

    As he spoke, a nearby Infernape, slightly transparent, stepped past Rhys to light the nighttime lanterns. Its orange glow flickered against the cool evening darkness. From the top of the stairway, similar lights dotted the wide, wide path that led all the way to the town square. The glowing eyes of nocturnal Pokémon stared back at him, blinking, occasionally looking at one another. Waiting for him to talk. But it wasn't time yet.

    "They might, but I have to try." He sighed, running a claw over no line, just the paper itself. The words wouldn't mean anything to him until he started talking. To what was rapidly looking like all of Kilo in his mind. Or all that was left.

    No, he couldn't think like that. Even with Waypoints ruined and most supply chains disrupted, there were surely other patches of civilization out there holding their own. Villages and towns and settlements that didn't rely on Kilo Village or its network for everything. They were few and spread far, but they were smart. Pokémon were smart. Especially the ones of this world.

    "Where are they?" Rhys muttered, looking to the left.

    "They had to wrap up a report from another of their rescues." Elder nodded at the Infernape, who made a wave goodbye before evaporating in a flurry of blue embers. "But if Roh was just here, that means Manny must be nearby."

    Rhys wished the Infernape had at least told them. "Right. Mm. I can start without them. Most of this is good news anyway." Relatively speaking. His empty platitudes of hope and perseverance were no longer bluster. Kilo Village had finally stabilized after a moon of uncertainty and decline.

    The hospitals were no longer beyond capacity. Injuries were frequent but manageable. Several Pokémon abandoned their old careers and took up a new passion of helping others with all they could. Those with innate healing abilities shined the most.

    Of course, the lowered demand was also because so many Pokémon had succumbed to their injuries. Mutants had run rampant, but they, too, were neutralized. And from what Arceus told them, unlike all the other times, they weren't reincarnating. They were gone.

    The lives that had been lost due to the world's collapse were impossible to estimate, even now that the initial crisis was over. Communication lines were severed. They had no way of knowing if, for example, Pyrock had been abandoned, killed off, or maintaining themselves in isolation. But for Kilo Village alone, of those who had been rescued or saved, the dents in their populations were a literal decimation. That did not bode well for settlements less equipped.

    But he couldn't focus on that. Low morale would only increase casualties. His speech was to show them all that despite the state of the world, they had a path forward.

    "Oi, sorry fer that."

    A muscular Lucario with fairy wings approached with a firm nod. "Rescued survivors over at Centi River. Lots."

    "They're fine?"

    "'T's why I took so long."

    A Joltik hopped onto Manny's head. "Five people called me a hero! How many times have you been called one, huh?" She raised her body threateningly.

    “Enough, enough.” Rhys waved them off. “I think it’s time I get to announcing. Thank you for coming, Manny, Willow. Please stand here while this happens…”

    “Fer confidence?” Manny asked, crossing his arms while folding his fairy wings back.

    “Essentially.”

    With Manny and Willow standing nearby on one side, and Elder firmly planted on his other, Rhys felt ready.

    The audience's murmurs died down and even more of those glowing nocturnal eyes were on him, watching and waiting like a sea of tired stars.

    The Lucario produced a small orb from his bag, one of the few that were made in the recovering industry. This one was simple, making his voice louder, now that the amplifiers they had once used had lost their enchantments.

    A gentle warmth from Elder helped him break through with his first word, and the rest followed.

    "Thank you," Rhys began, "everyone, for all of your hard work this past moon. It was not without the efforts of everyone here that we were able to stabilize Kilo Village and rescue countless Pokémon from the brink of death and societal collapse."

    The murmurs had come to a complete stop. Now, they were all listening in total silence. His voice, amplified by the orb in his hands, would only be able to carry across Kilo Village for a short while. He had to make this speech count.

    "Our work is far from over, but the initial storm has passed. Yotta Outskirts has been recovered with minimal casualties, and a supply chain of berries, grain, and other essential foods has been established along a secure trade route. The survivors of Milli Town and many others like it have been welcomed with open arms into our stronghold here on Kilo Mountain. Dungeons have been guarded to keep wandering souls from getting lost within. And thanks to the good graces of Arceus Himself, Dark Matter is unable to advance beyond his vortex to the north, nor can the shadows beyond the horizon come any closer to our homeland.

    "We have stabilized."

    No objections and no murmurs. Rhys saw in the eyes of his audience equal parts hope and exhaustion. They needed direction and the idea that the end of their struggles would be over. That helpless feeling couldn't win over the hope to press on.

    But they also had to stop and reflect. If they didn't allow that, they would burn out.

    "This newfound stability did not come without a cost. Many of us have perished during this new era, and some perished to save many more souls that are still with us today. We all know… at least one person important to us that we have lost. Those that we wished still here today to enjoy what will be a better tomorrow.

    "For those who have been lost… let us now have a moment of silence."

    Rhys lowered his head, clearing his mind. He used this time to consider the second half of his speech. He was surprised at how deafening the silence had suddenly become. Even the lanterns that dotted the walls had quieted down.

    Several important Pokémon had made their way to the front in their respective spots. There was Incineroar Phol, the keystone leadership of the medical facilities, who had risen not because of his natural abilities as a healer, which he lacked, but his clear dedication to organizing a once overwhelmed infrastructure. There was Smeargle Angelo, the multitalented but meek descendant of one of the strongest Hearts of modern history, barring the Elites and Mystics among their ranks. There was Team Alight, Spice and Leo and the rest of their team, as well as so many Hearts who had gone above and beyond to protect their fellow Pokémon. And then, he turned his gaze to the mutants who had come from Trina's former abode. Compared to the implied army that she had once held, more than half had gone missing. He could only hope they were lost, waiting to be rediscovered.

    Ani, the Meganium parallel to Mispy, was notably missing, but Rhys was not surprised by that. As one of the best healers left in the world, she was hard at work at the hospital, no doubt tending to the Pokémon Manny had returned.

    That silence was enough.

    "We can only hope that they have found peace across the aura sea," Rhys said, and while that was possibly reassuring to the Pokémon of Kilo, Rhys had a sinking feeling that it was not true.

    "But now that we have made it so far together to bring the world back from the brink, it is time now to seize what we once had. And to do that, our greatest and strongest have all been prepared and briefed on what their next mission will be."

    As he spoke, several Hearts straightened their backs and firmed their stances. Spice and Leo turned around to face the crowd. They both held dull badges, no longer imbued with the power of Heart of Hearts Anam, but symbolic nonetheless of their drive to carry on his wishes. Phol held a badge, now. It was new and shiny, and he looked reluctant to have it in his hands, but he held it nonetheless. His tail thumped against Angelo's back, and the black-brushed Smeargle jolted and stood with him. He, too, had a badge. His father, Rhys was sure, would be proud. And then Har, Lygo, and Ax, the mutant parallels to Team Alloy, turned around next, all three of them with the same emblems in their hands. Several in the audience cast them wary, reluctant stares, but the three stood strong and resolute.

    "These elite and many Hearts like them will be spearheading assaults against Dark Matter to drive him to the void from where he came. Our top researchers are finding solutions to push back against the dark storms covering the world as we speak, and our elite fighters are on standby to put our mission into action. Arceus, too, is prepared to give everything to save our world.

    "And I ask of you all, while we prepare for our most important mission yet, to do what you can at home during your daily lives. Support your neighbor and those in mourning. Conserve your resources and share excess with the needy. And most importantly, remember to care for yourself and those around you, no matter their origins, appearances, or powers. Our hearts shall beat as one."

    It felt like the world's eyes were on Rhys. What was left of the world. And then, their eyes trailed to one another, a few glancing toward the mutants that had aligned with them. Others looked at the Hearts, who were tired but resolute. And then, as Rhys' aura sensors twitched behind him, he could tell that many of them were hardened. And this fed into his own confidence. He stood even straighter and took a breath.

    "A thousand hands, a single heart, working and beating as one.”

    Tense silence. Rhys pressed onward. He had to ignite that hope.

    “Unite the lands, from worlds apart, until our battles are done.”

    There were a few murmurs. Those ripples spread as hesitant Pokémon followed the more eager ones. Their voices picked up…

    "We serve Kilo and all its parts. Under one name: The Thousand Hearts!”

    The sky rumbled. Surprised cries and yelps rippled across the audience, followed by shouts to look north. Even Nate, the great leviathan curled around Kilo Village, turned his many eyes to the sudden light that sailed over the horizon.

    The streams came from Destiny Tower to the east, bombarding the dark vortex above Hot Spot. The storm fizzled and shrank, snapping rumbles leaving bright, golden waves in the sky. By the time it was over, the vortex was less than half its size, having crept larger and larger over the course of several days.

    Awe washed over the crowd, and then, starting with a few enthusiastic Pokémon, cheers spread next. And then more, and more stomps and roars, flames and sparks and beams of energy tearing through the sky, the same beams that had driven away the darkness just one moon ago.

    Manny punched Rhys on the shoulder, smirking. "Looks like we've got work ter do," he said. "Go on, wave at 'em."

    He'd nearly forgotten. Rhys held his arm up and waved at the crowd, bowing and firing a small Aura Sphere into the sky. A sign of power, the light of hope. The applause only grew, and Rhys felt that now was the time to take his leave.

    As he retreated into the Heart HQ, a voice echoed in his head.

    Did that help? Arceus asked, and Rhys was positive he could hear a wry smile.

    Rhys found himself mirroring the expression. Immensely.

    <><><>​

    “And you killed the human because you feared for your life?” Alakazam asked, his gaze stone-like.

    “Yes.” Owen curled his tail forward, displaying his flame in a gesture of honesty. “And my human’s life.”

    The Charizard looked to his left, where Tim was sitting up in a hospital bed and talking quietly with a police officer, wrapped in bandages while drinking a bitter tonic.

    “Did, at any point, the human try to run away from you?”

    “Yes.”

    Alakazam’s expression cracked a little, like he didn’t want to hear that answer. He glanced at Owen’s tail, then back at his face. Owen felt a dull pressure in his forehead. Alakazam was trying to read his mind to see if it had been a lie, which was odd. He’d given the honest answer, and he knew the answer wasn’t favorable.

    “When running,” Alakazam said, “did you think he was going to try to hurt you again?”

    “No. But maybe my human.”

    “Did you feel provoked into attacking?”

    “Yes. They were trying to kill us.”

    “If you could do it all over again, would you have killed him?”

    Owen hesitated. He remembered that terrified look in the human’s eyes as the light left them and his face grew rapidly paler. He remembered that metallic taste in his mouth, that sticky feeling on his scales. Tim’s frantic look when he’d pulled Owen away from the human, who had been grasping at his wounds in futility. Ayame catching up with Ire, covering her mouth in shock.

    And he remembered that they had no idea where the rest of his team was.

    “I might have,” Owen said.

    Alakazam stared for a while longer, like he was waiting for Owen to elaborate. But he didn’t. He didn’t know. He still didn’t know if he regretted it. That human probably had friends and family. He probably had Pokémon that looked up to him. And maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t a terrible person like he’d been for the few minutes he’d known him.

    But he also tried to take Ire away, just like all his teammates. His friends. And he tried to kill Tim.

    Burning fury roiled in the back of his mind. It was only when Alakazam spoke again that he broke out of it.

    “Would you,” Alakazam said, “ever do it again?”

    More uncomfortable silence. Would he do it again? Was there a reason to do it again? …Yes, there certainly was. If he ran into someone who would try to steal from Tim again, or from Ayame, or anyone.

    But he also knew Alakazam was looking for specific answers. Owen wasn’t helping. If he gave the wrong ones, what was going to happen to him?

    “Only in self-defense,” Owen replied. “If the life of my human is threatened again. That’s fair, isn’t it?”

    “It is.” Alakazam said, and while he seemed to be staying neutral, it was clear that the answer gave him some relief. He asked another question, “Do you hate humans?”

    “Humans like them,” Owen said simply. “But Tim isn’t like that.”

    “Okay.” Alakazam stepped back, then looked at his human, who had finished talking to Tim some time ago. They stepped aside and spoke to one another, nodding quietly, and then the officer wrote something down. After confirming, she looked to Tim.

    “Alakazam says that Charizard is shaken, but not any danger to civilians. But… we’re going to recommend therapy. For both of you. It’ll be provided, and I’m also going to make sure you guys get protection against that organization you infiltrated. You’re probably a known target. Which means… well, if we get approval, we don’t really know if you’ll be safe in Kanto anymore.”

    Not safe in Kanto? Where would they go? How powerful were these humans if even the police didn’t know how to handle them?

    “But—but what about—I had a journey to go through, a… I was part of the program for, I…”

    “Like I said, we’re going to see. Right now, you need rest.”

    And after a few other things were taken care of, the officer left, and Owen and Tim remained in their room. The shock hadn’t really registered until then, and even now, Owen didn’t totally understand what that officer was talking about.

    Sometime later, maybe a whole hour, Tim started crying.


    <><><>​

    “Goodness! This Treecko sounds like an extremely powerful Pokémon. Imagine how strong she would be as a Sceptile!”

    Palkia tapped his claws together excitedly. His tail flicked against the pristine walls of Dialga’s chamber, and several rocks meant to accent the false mountainous environment rotated around Palkia’s head like moons. Palkia didn’t seem to be taking this with the same gravity as everyone else was.

    “I don’t think this is something to be excited about,” Demitri said. “We need to run before she gets Owen! He’s—just an apple. He can’t defend himself…”

    “Well, I think our first order of business is finding a way to transform him back,” Palkia said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of power at my disposal, nor does Dialga. And if this is power from Leph, I do not think anybody can very easily override it short of Mew or Arceus themselves. And Necrozma, too… but as we know, he isn’t available at the moment.”

    Gahi’s body had his head pressed against the apple.

    “Still talking to Owen?” Demitri asked.

    The Unown were, and Owen was a little disoriented at a new voice speaking to him. He did claim to have a plan. The Unown themselves, however, did not have the reality-altering powers necessary to override Leph. Unown were able to replicate such powers, but not now.

    “Wait, that’s right!” Demitri perked up. “Mispy, didn’t we read about a story once about how Unown and Arceus are kind of related?”

    They were. Unown could link their auras together with some of the greatest efficiencies, to the point where large numbers of them could replicate the powers of Legends themselves, like false Hands.

    “Ahh, that’s true. The Hands are not the only form of reality-bending powers. All Pokémon have some of that, to an extent.” Palkia leaned against a nearby boulder, which toppled over. He hopped away, shrugging at the glare Dialga shot him. “But I suppose with that option also off the table, perhaps we can work within the bounds of what we have. Owen is an apple. If we channel more power into him, can he return to his former self on his own? He can use Protect, albeit limited. His power isn’t entirely gone.”

    “He’s also the Grass Guardian,” Demitri said. “So, what if—”

    This was related to Owen’s idea.

    “What?” Mispy looked at Gahi. “What did… he want?”

    It was a similar idea to what Haxorus might have been thinking of. He needed a source of power, and the help of Dialga, Zena, and Eon.

    Zena, who had been pensive and staring at the apple, flinched at the sound of her name. “Me? What could I do?”

    “Where is Eon, anyway?” Jerry asked, looking around. “I thought he was with you.”

    “I am.”

    The tiny voice startled Jerry and he looked down. “Oh.”

    “I’ve… had a lot on my mind.”

    It was an Applin. The little fruity dragon, nestled within the shell of an apple, looked up at the Aerodactyl apologetically.

    “You know, that Impostor thing is pretty rough,” Jerry commented.

    “I know.”

    The Unown waited for the others to stop talking.

    “Oh, right. What was Owen’s plan, then?” Jerry asked, looking at the apple.

    Power from Eon, water from Zena, fertile ground, and a lot of time.

    “...No.” Jerry pointed at the apple. “His brain’s applesauce. Don’t listen to him. We aren’t about to—”

    “Oh, that would work,” Palkia suddenly said. “At least, it might. Better than what we currently have planned. That is to say, nothing.”

    The Unown were keen on trying to get things started now before Mhynt caught up to them.

    Someone knocked on Dialga’s door.

    The Unown had a feeling it wouldn’t be friendly, but it did not feel like Mhynt.

    “I guess we have to check anyway,” Demitri said, glancing at the others. “Um… Who wants to answer?”

    Palkia was about to suggest it, but Latias smacked him on the thigh. “It can’t be us! That would give us away.”

    “Well, I don’t see myself hiding very easily,” Palkia said.

    “Just--hide in the corner or something!” Latias urged, then motioned for Jerry to answer.

    “What? Why me?!”

    “Hey! Open up!”

    “Oh, it’s just Hakk.” Demitri sighed, relieved. “Okay, we can answer.”

    Gahi’s body took on a cautious stance anyway, legs tense and galaxy wings flaring to life.

    “Hey, is it just me, or does Hakk’s voice sound a little deeper?” Demitri asked just as Jerry opened the door, revealing a Sandslash that had gone through quite a growth spurt.

    “H-Hakk!” Jerry hopped away. “You, uh, since when can Sandslash learn Growth?”

    “Is that a southern thing?” Demitri asked. “Pretty sure Sandslash are usually, you know, sandy. Maybe this is—”

    “Listen, I don’t really know what’s going on, but can you just hand over the apple?” Hakk interrupted, holding out a hand. “Mhynt sort of… needs it. Needs Owen. And if that’s gonna be what gets her out of here, better sooner than later, alright?”

    “If we refuse?” Mispy slid between Hakk and the Unown controlling Gahi’s body.

    “Uh.” Hakk looked at Mispy, then at Gahi’s body, then the literal Legends behind him, and he likely realized that he stood no chance. “Okay, hey, you don’t have to spell it out to me,” Hakk growled at the Flygon. “And what’s with the new look? That more of that… whatever you guys have going on?”

    “Leave.” Mispy loomed over Hakk.

    “Or what, plant?”

    Several of Mispy’s vines split open into mouths.

    Wordlessly, Hakk spun on his feet and walked out of the room.

    After he left, and closed the door behind him, the group silently agreed that he was about to report to Mhynt. Hakk was under her command for one reason or another and probably didn’t have much of a choice. The fact that he hadn’t even put up a real fight meant he was only doing the bare minimum. But that also meant Mhynt would be coming next, since Hakk knew where they were.

    “Right.” Demitri looked at the Unown. “Can you do anything to, um, hide us?”

    Mhynt would easily detect the Unown. There was someone who could help. She was in the corner of the room. She was going to attack Hakk, but when he turned around, she stopped.

    Heads turned to an empty corner between two large boulders. Mispy closed her eyes and scanned it, only to see more nothing. When Mispy shook her head, the Unown explained that the illusion had distorted just before the strike, and it was a Zoroark.

    “Wait—Enet?” Demitri said. “Enet! It’s alright—you can show yourself!”

    “Lucky,” Mispy remarked.

    It was brief, but Zena, Mispy, and Demitri all gathered around her to ask how she was doing, and the Zoroark looked pleased with herself. She growled and nudged against Zena, nipping at a ribbon in greeting. Zena, a little unnerved, smiled and patted her on the head.

    “How did you even get here?” Demitri asked.

    Enet came with Mhynt. The fact that she attacked Hakk meant she wasn’t aligned with her. Probably.

    “Okay, so we can hide from Mhynt. Let’s not waste any time and try whatever stupid idea Owen has, because it’s better than standing around here and waiting. Alright? Where do we have to go? What’s a good power source?”

    The Unown had been observing from within Gahi for a while and knew a good place to start.

    <><><>​

    The Unown called out to Owen, informing him that they were nearing the central pillar of Null Village.

    Okay. Thank you. Do you think this will work?

    It was likely, eventually.

    What?

    No reply. Owen was getting really sick of not being able to see. Everything was cold and stiff; he had nothing to move and yet he felt cramped. Gahi had been dropping him and he was pretty sure, based on Gahi’s worried questions before getting replaced by his Unown, that he’d accidentally punctured parts of his skin at some point. He hadn’t felt a thing.

    The most Owen had felt was a jostling sensation when Mispy had knocked the apple away from Gahi’s mouth which, after some interrogation, had been because Gahi forgot he was holding him, not a regular apple.

    But even then, Owen hadn’t felt anything. Was that good? Was that bad? The most he could do was try to wiggle, and even that had faded out.

    Which meant he was probably something deeper in the apple. Was he a seed? Wonderful.

    Being in total darkness, Owen had taken to meditation. Getting back some of those memories was nice. Occasionally, he felt flashes of seeing something, or someone, or perhaps hearing them. He wasn’t sure if he could hallucinate if he didn’t have a proper brain anymore. It must have been a manifestation of his Mysticism. Unfortunately, he could still not tap into Klent, Amelia, or the other Grass spirits, but he could feel their presence. Despite being unable to hear them, he felt comforted anyway. He occasionally sent them thankful thoughts.

    They have arrived at the pillar.

    Okay, plant me at the base and have Eon try to channel energy from the pillar into me. Just a little. It won’t take too much energy, right?

    That was doubtful.

    Owen missed talking to Gahi. The way he spoke was always so casual and comforting. These Unown felt like they didn’t have any sense of tone to them; it was practically a thought in his head. A thought that wasn’t his. Creepy. Did he even have a head? Was the seed his head or his body? Maybe this was how Jerry had felt when he lost his body…

    Owen had given the plans to the Unown, and with any luck, he’d have enough power to get away from Mhynt. As an apple, he had a lot of time to think and plan for a lot of scenarios and thank goodness Gahi realized he could talk to him so he could stay updated. It wasn’t totally hopeless. First, he needed to stop being an apple, and chances were whatever Aster did wasn’t going to be easy to reverse.

    It was silly. But it was all he had. He was the Grass Guardian. He had total manipulation of plants and his element. He could summon spirits. He could even change his form. If he had enough power and time, could he do the same now?

    There was an odd, tingling sensation on what Owen could only assume was the equivalent of his back. What’s happening? No response. Anxiety started to build within his fruity core. Hello?

    The Unown assured him that everything was okay. Mhynt was nearby, but she could not see them.

    Then, all was quiet, and a few seconds later, the Unown asked Owen how long it had been since they’d last talked.

    What? You just talked to me.

    This was good, because Dialga had tried something on Owen’s body, but thankfully not his spirit. And now, Owen had to brace for the next step.

    The former Charmander wanted to enter his usual meditative stance, then, but he had no eyes to close, no legs to cross, and no flame to quell. It had to be something purely mental. Ease his mind, steady his spirit...

    He felt hot. Too hot. Energy flowed through him with nowhere to go but up and out. He wanted to shout or yelp but that, too, had no way to escape. Flashes of white filled his vision after what had once been total darkness. Images of familiar faces surrounded him. He saw the outline of Dialga, Mispy, and Demitri, their auras, the flames of their life force radiating like little, anxious infernos. Zena was there, too, channeling energy toward him in the form of a rapid beam of water. He saw Enet, but her aura was all around them—that was her illusions, suppressing detection from anyone else. He saw an aura he only recognized from ancient memories—Palkia.

    Jerry looked worriedly to his left, where a Treecko was walking toward them. She didn’t seem aware of them, but she was also drawing near. Something about the Applin near Jerry’s feet was familiar, but he wasn’t sure why. And it was hard to see much more from Owen’s current angle so low to the ground.

    Can you—

    He could only get that thought out when a searing, splitting pain felt like it was cutting him in half. Again, he tried to scream, and again nothing came of it. He tried to kick without feet and flail without arms. Parts of him he didn’t know he had felt like they were growing and stretching impossibly. He felt like he was both drowning and taking in too much air. And he still had no way to scream.

    He instead yelled in his thoughts, desperately, for them to stop whatever they were doing. His vision of them had been completely blinded by white energy.

    And finally, amid all the pain and heat and chaos, a new sensation overtook him. Legs. Did he have legs? No, he had far too many of them, but they were on his lower half, like tendrils that dug through the dirt and tile. He saw flashes of the town around him in more detail, the many souls that lived in the buildings giving enough of an outline of where everyone was. And he saw something else, a great structure wrapping around and completely engulfing that great spire in the middle of town.

    More clarity came to him. He didn’t know how, but sight of some kind had returned. He was high above the town, atop an ever-growing and widening tree trunk. The leaves were of vibrant greens and reds, mixing his Guardian’s colors with the soil of the Voidlands. Gold flashes coursed through the branches in waves, each one like fire through his veins.

    No… he wasn’t on top of the tree. He still had no arms, no legs. He felt like he was still planted in the ground.

    Ah… Owen.

    Without thinking, Owen gasped. For the first time, he got the sensation that air had filled his lungs. He had arms, and legs, and he was a Charmander again, floating in a void. This was oddly familiar. He half-expected to see Barky standing before him, demanding allegiance.

    But instead, he saw a silhouette of a golden, tall star with eight points.

    “Necrozma!”

    The shape morphed, some of the points becoming wings, a tail, legs… But it was too bright to look at.

    This power is too much for you to contain, Owen, Necrozma told him.

    “Wait—where are you?”

    I am too far away for now… but you will always know where I am.

    “Do you need help?”

    Necrozma chuckled a little. Always. But right now, you need help more.

    It was true. Even now, Owen felt that heat running through his body. They’d given him too much power. If this kept up, he was going to explode!

    The heavens, Necrozma said. Shoot toward the sky… and make a statement for all of Void to hear.

    Owen’s vision was fading to white again. “How do I do that?” he struggled to get out.

    He had a feeling Necrozma was smiling. I will guide you.

    And then, Owen’s vision returned to the tree. Everything was searing. The tree would burst into flames at this rate, and Owen had a feeling that wasn’t going to feel good compared to his usual body. But then, a strange instinct took over. It felt like words from far, far away. The energy stopped flowing chaotically and instead swirled in spirals along the trunk, down into the roots, and then rapidly upward to the branches.

    Like fingertips. It was like scorch writing, but hotter. Upward, toward the heavens…

    The energy released all at once with shockwaves that cracked the ground far below. Nearby buildings trembled and fell despite any reinforcement; a shockwave kicked up dust and snapped several trees in the outskirts of town.

    Radiant, golden energy carved through the impossibly dense clouds and the red skies beyond, dissolving it like cotton candy in water. The red light disappeared, giving way to a deep, black sky speckled with tiny, white dots.

    Stars.

    <><><>​

    Arceus stood at the top of Destiny Tower as he always did, overseeing everything he could through the Mystics’ reports, Hecto’s regular updates, and his own eyes. The moon was bright tonight, not that it mattered, and Dark Matter’s vortex continued its steady expanse. He’d soon have to launch an all-out Judgement again to cut away at it again…

    This stalemate was becoming tiresome, both mentally and physically. Emily, on the opposite side of the world, continued to corrode the atmosphere and the oceans, and weather was becoming more and more erratic and hostile.

    Was there anything they could do other than this desperate assault? Or would the world simply rot away if they took no action?

    It was a suicide mission. Attacking Dark Matter when even his Judgements were only enough to stall him… whatever Nate had done to attack had left the leviathan completely lacking in energy.

    Arceus sighed. All he ever wanted was a world where Star was no longer in power, the Hunters were no longer a problem, and he could sit at the top, alone with his thoughts.

    Now he had all that. And yet now he wished… that perhaps Star had worked with him instead.

    Thunder sounded, and Arceus thought that it was another explosion from Emily’s maelstrom. But it sounded different. Nearer. And from another direction, too. Worried that perhaps Emily’s influence had expanded faster than expected, he turned his attention to the west.

    From the epicenter of the vortex, above Hot Spot Cave, a pillar of golden light erupted into the sky.
     
    Chapter 110 - Halves New
  • Dragon Enthusiast
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    Chapter 110 - Halves

    Hakk had forgotten what the sky was supposed to look like.

    He’d gone blind for a long while. Suddenly, everything had been a bright light, originating from the center of town. Only after some time passed did Hakk feel it was safe enough to open his eyes again.

    “Oh, you’re kidding me…”

    In the center of town, where the sentinel tower had once been, an even greater structure now loomed over Null Village. At first, Hakk didn’t recognize it; it was too foreign. Tall, cylindrical at the base, but with a great, overflowing bloom of prismatic leaves and golden lights. It hurt to look at for long and Hakk averted his gaze.

    Something brushed against his nose and he sneezed, blinking several times. His vision was spotty, glimmering lights obscuring his view, before he realized that the spots didn’t move with his eyes. He grabbed blindly at one and felt something in the air.

    Transparent leaves, like feathers, rained down. It got in his spikes and clung to his body.

    The leaves sparkled against the bright glow that the tree gave off, and for a while, despite everything that happened, Hakk could only stare at it, transfixed. He’d never seen anything like it in… ever? Had he ever seen something like this before, even when he was alive? He couldn’t remember anymore. It had been so long. Shimmering, prismatic rain.

    Someone pecked at his shoulder. He knew the feeling anywhere; there was no need to look. “Hey, Xy.” He rubbed his cheek, thoughtful.

    Xypher cawed.

    “Pretty, huh?” Hakk said.

    “You’re big. Big, big…”

    “Oh, yeah. That. Don’t worry about it. Hey, did Mhynt mess with you at all?”

    “No. No, no. We ate.”

    “You… ate?” His heart skipped a beat. “You didn’t cook anything for her, did you?” Trying to keep his tone even, he glanced at the Corviknight. He had to crane his neck a lot less to address him. This wasn’t so bad.

    Xypher cawed again. “She liked it! Good. Good, good.”

    But then, someone just down the road caught his attention. Mhynt was coming closer, though she was speaking into her badge.

    “Yes,” Mhynt said to it, “I am not able to get Owen at this time. The mission was a failure. I will be returning with my intel as soon as my powers return.”

    “Until your—what do you mean, return? Where are they?!”

    “The sheer radiance of that tree, combined with my encounter with the new Psychic Guardian, countered your power, sir. My powers are not usable. I will return once I am able.”

    “Is Dark Matter also there?”

    “Yes. He is likely also not going to be able to approach Null Village.”

    Hakk wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be hearing this. Mhynt was looking right at him. Oh, Stars, he was dead. He was supposed to get Owen and he just walked away. Did she find out? Suddenly, Hakk wanted Xypher to get away as fast as possible.

    “Rrgh, fine. I’m going to send guards your way to escort you back early so you can’t be attacked. Wait a day in hiding.”

    “Of course.” Mhynt shut the badge off, then stared at Hakk. “You are now my bodyguard. Understood?”

    “What?”

    “You heard this. Now, hide me in your home.” Mhynt gestured behind him. “I will be sure repairs are funded.”

    Hakk stood back in slight awe, but then sighed. “Well, guess I am under your authority,” he muttered. “Fine. But keep Xypher out of this, you got it?”

    “Very well.” Mhynt looked at the Corviknight. “I suppose he should be earning his ranks over time anyway.”

    “Right.” Hakk wondered if Mhynt could undo the memory locks within Xypher, maybe upgrade him to Class B… There was no telling with her. She kept those powers quiet. Only now did he realize how truly powerful she was, despite only being a Treecko…

    “Are you going to continue staring?” Mhynt asked.

    “Geh—no. Right. My place.” Hakk spun on his heel.

    “And how did acquiring Owen go?” Mhynt added with a knowing hum in her voice.

    “One of those freaking mutant things threatened to eat me, so that was way above my pay—way more than I could handle.”

    “A wise rephrase.” She tapped her blade on the ceramic tile. “Very well. And they evaded me, as well, so I suppose I cannot blame you completely.”

    Oh, completely? “Yeah, they’re clever. Y’know, they know where I live. They might find you.”

    “Hmph. Even if I’m weak, I can handle them,” Mhynt said leisurely. “Let them come.”

    <><><>​

    The peace and quiet that Nevren had to work on his projects had been a true godsend. And, ironically, it was largely because a certain god was not trying to speak to him. Nevren greatly preferred ninety seconds of silence so he could Revise as much as he liked to think and think and think over the same issue before finally putting something to work.

    Nevren was very particular about his free moments. If there was any little disturbance or any sudden noise, he’d reset his countdown. Any idle noise, any constant hum, even the smallest pitter-patter of a mutant walking outside counted as a disturbance. And once he was met with a completely empty moment, that was the best time to revise. Peace, for as long as he wished.

    And with all that time, he was finally able to get the next mockup of his Dungeon opener, and this time with a faster closure mechanism! He could only hope that whatever that pearl resonated with would not resonate again… or they were at least less hostile. Owen—or someone that was certainly much like Owen—had been fighting that behemoth. It would be safer now, yes? Or they were dead. That was also possible. But not knowing was worse. If they were dead, he could report that as a certainty to Arceus and the others. A decrease in morale? Likely. But they at least would get it over with and focus their energy elsewhere.

    Back to the repurposed Beammaker he went. Standing in the observation deck, he revved up the engines required, drew from the power like before, and idly wondered if Lavender would be back soon to exchange the spirits within so they didn’t get stir-crazy. He supposed it wouldn’t be much of a bother.

    The beam fired, forming another eight-sided star that constantly felt familiar and frustratingly at the forefront of his mind, yet unreachable. Cursed Decree. Nevren wondered how long it would torment him.

    Below, a truly unexpected sight greeted Nevren. This time, it was a town with a huge, glimmering tree in the middle, with bright bark and glassy, rainbow leaves. A town of dark stone and clay streets, which he saw from a bird’s eye view. Countless wraiths shuffled about inside, near the edges of town, and Nevren hopped down when he realized that there was no titanic monster this time. Still, he kept the remote shutdown switch in his hands to be absolutely safe.

    Several wraiths stopped moving and looked skyward—at least, he imagined so. Why else would they stop moving? Their undiscernible forms made it hard to read where they were looking.

    Nevren squinted. Could that be right? Were those… actual Pokémon? It was hard to tell with the rainbow leaves speckling the ground with color, but—

    Yes! They were! Though, they were only gathered around the tree. He recognized a few of them instantly.

    “Team Alloy!” Nevren called, hoping he was close enough and loud enough that they noticed. “Hello!” He waved from the edge of the portal, careful not to fall in. Curiously, the portal’s edge felt rounded and warm.

    And there was someone else there. Two someones that were so large they were hard to ignore.

    Nevren’s heart fluttered. Dialga. Palkia. He recognized them. Dialga especially, with an odd fondness. And Palkia… His form had been so thoroughly missing from his memory. He couldn’t look away. Those pearls within his shoulders glowed brightly. They looked cracked.

    “Ah…” That explained it. The pearl he had used for the Dungeon resonance machine and the power within Palkia were one and the same—yes! That meant if he had another means to resonate with someone, he would be able to create a portal above them! Frantically, Nevren wrote down several of these notes as Palkia ascended to the sky and toward the portal.

    Halfway there, his form suddenly dissolved into a monstrous, blackened creature that was only vaguely the same shape as before. Nevren steadied his heart and prepared to close the portal.

    “Hello!” greeted the beast, waving.

    Nevren was millimeters from pressing the button when he stopped.

    “From what I was just told,” it said, “you have opened the sky twice now! Congratulations! That means your experiments are slowly forming a pattern. Very good!”

    “Yes, very good indeed…” Nevren slowly lowered the device. It really was Palkia. Inhabitants of that horrible landscape appeared this way naturally, and yet when near that tree, the illusion was dispelled. Or was the realm itself the one casting an illusion? Or were they both real? So many questions… He could start with one he suspected the answer to. “You are… Palkia?”

    “Indeed! And you are Alakazam!”

    “Yes. I am Alakazam Nevren. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

    “Likewise!” He gestured below. “Do you recognize anyone else? Perhaps my comrade in arms?”

    “…Dialga?” Nevren said. “Yes. I remember Dialga fondly. I’m… afraid I do not recall why.”

    “Ahh. Erasure from history, and yet your bond with Dialga has not been shaken! How poetic! I do hope we can compare notes on how we have interacted with that phenomenon.”

    …He liked Palkia.

    The titan attempted to emerge from the portal, but once he did, he seemed to wince and fall back. “Ah… I’m afraid I do not think I can go through here. Quite painful. You are in the living realm, correct?”

    “Yes. And where are you?”

    “A place known as the Voidlands. It is Dark Matter’s domain, though I have recently been told that it is also Hydreigon Alexander’s, too. They are competing for power. Very curious.”

    “Hydreigon? Alexander?” Nevren tilted his head. “I know an Alex of the same species. Are they related? What is his temperament?”

    “Quite evil! Devious! Devilish!”

    “Ah, unrelated.” Nevren noted it down regardless. “In any case, I will be opening this portal regularly within the next few days to continue contact. Will that inconvenience anyone?”

    And he wondered why Gahi was not flying toward him. Surely, they felt a need to do that. In fact… where was Owen?

    Dialga was coming with Demitri and Mispy atop his back. Curiously, Gahi was not present. Their bodies also dissolved into shadowy wraiths, and once again Nevren suppressed his reflexes to close the portal.

    “Demitri, Mispy,” Nevren greeted, but then smiled at the four-legged titan they were riding on. “And… Dialga.”

    “Nevren. I can’t believe it… After all this time, you’re still alive.”

    “I could say the same to you, old friend.” Nevren’s heart fluttered a little. “I kept your charm safe all this time, by the way.”

    A horrible rumble that was supposed to be his laugh shook Nevren’s chest. He suppressed a wince. This darkness was truly awful; he had to find a way to free them.

    “Really!” Dialga shouted. “Well, I hope it was of use!”

    “It certainly was. But right now, I’d like an update on what exactly is happening down there. Who all is there?” Nevren pulled up yet another notebook. “We’re missing quite a few from Hot Spot,. But seeing everyone there is encouraging.”

    “Right, um, Zena, Jerry, Enet, and Trina are with us, too. It’s called the Voidlands, and we’re in Null Village. And Anam, but, um, he’s busy searching for Dark Matter. Owen’s that tree.” Demitri pointed down toward the radiant landmark. “Gahi got… attacked. We’re trying to find a way to get his spirit back. Right now, he’s under control of the Unown.”

    Nevren jotted it all down and decided to cover the more absurd statements later. “And what of Star and Valle?” he asked. “Those are the two still unaccounted for.”

    Demitri made what might have been a shrugging motion. “No idea for either of them.”

    “Hmm.” Well, Valle wasn’t very important, but the fact that Star was missing was worrisome. “Thank you. Now, I’d like to return to something you said.”

    “Okay.”

    “Owen is a tree.”

    “Yeah.”

    “How and why?”

    “Um, Aster turned Owen into an apple, and Owen had the idea to be planted with a bunch of energy so he’d become a tree. Actually, it was kind of both the Unown’s idea and his, or something.”

    That… led to more questions than answers. He wasn’t sure how much energy was left in the Beammaker to maintain the connection.

    “I see. Well. I will try to resonate with you again shortly,” Nevren said. “It was good to see you again, Dialga.”

    “Likewise,” said the Timekeeper.

    “Ah, and Palkia… from what Rhys has told me, I will be sure to send him your regards.”

    “Ah, perfect, perfect! So he’s alive as well? That’s truly wonderful.”

    “Rhys, Rhys…”
    Dialga hummed. “I don’t know who that is.”

    Nevren was about to explain, but then paused.

    Something… felt strange about that.

    Irritatingly, it was rattling around in his mind but he had no means of sorting it out with the Beammaker’s distracting hum in the air. “Right. I will contact you all later. Do take care, and—ah. I would like to return the bag that one of your companions dropped. One moment.”

    After a few Teleports, Nevren returned and handed it over.

    “Oh, that must be what Latias lost,” Demitri said. “Um… thanks, Nevren. So you’re helping us now?”

    “I always have been,” Nevren said.

    A tense silence followed, and Nevren was glad the Beammaker was starting to fizzle, because he did not have the time nor patience to explain himself again.

    “The portal will close soon,” Nevren said, “Goodbye for now.”

    “Right…”

    With a wave, they descended back into the Voidlands, and the portal closed.

    <><><>​

    The pillar of light had briefly turned the nighttime sky to something like the late afternoon. And when it faded, and after only the stars were left to light the sky, a meeting was held with all the top Hearts. Leo and Spice came first, followed by Phol carrying a half-asleep Angelo; Rhys, Step, and the other Guardians with their spirits were also there. Representing Trina’s mutants, Har also attended, though the Charizard’s dim flame suggested he’d barely gotten up from the mutant encampment in Kilo Village’s outskirts.

    “Right.” Rhys sighed. “This complicates things. What do we do? Was that a signal? Not even Arceus knows what that was truly about.”

    “All I know is when I first saw it, felt like I’d been in the sun for five days straight.” Spice rubbed her arms, as if the burn was still there.

    “It was very bright,” Leo agreed. “I was seeing spots for a while.” The Delphox gestured to the Salazzle next to him. “But it also looked like it really took out that dark vortex. Do you think it’ll happen again?”

    “If it does, that may be our best time to storm Hot Spot and eliminate the vortex completely.” Rhys paced in the middle of the main lobby of the Heart HQ. Bright lights countered the nighttime sky and felt somehow more intense, perhaps because most of the mortals among the crowd just wanted to sleep. “If only we knew when another strike like that would happen…”

    “Hey, so, what’s this mean for our current mission?” Spice asked. “I’m set to go to Void Basin, down southwest?”

    “That may still be necessary for scouting,” Rhys said. “But perhaps a smaller team, if we decide to go for that vortex. We’re communicating with Arceus now, who is speaking to one of our researchers to see if we can get more information before heading in.”

    “Speaking to Arceus,” Phol said with a wry smile. “To think he’s saying that seriously, and it’s true. What a time to be alive.”

    Elder stood by the Lucario’s side, leaning his shell against his thigh. “There is a lot that we still do not know, and yet that light is one of the greatest beacons of hope we’d seen in a long time.” The Torkoal smiled at the corners of his mouth. “Blinding as it was, I think everyone was filled with hope from that.”

    “Gyehh.” Nearby, one of the many shapeless things that came from Nate bobbed in affirmative. There were a few speckled around the conference area.

    Rhys tried to be cordial. “Nate, or, er, one of Nate’s… disciples… do you have any news?”

    The thing trembled and three of its seven eyes blinked.

    “That means… no, I believe. Well. It’s not a bother. Thank you. Has Nate’s strength returned at all?”

    “Nngg.”

    Spice shifted uncomfortably. “What are those things? They’ve been here for days and I don’t really know what to think of them. Do they eat? Breathe? Sleep?”

    “As far as we can tell,” Rhys said, “they appear to be the Dark Guardian’s spirits. But I’ve never seen creatures become so warped by a host’s influence—well, aside from ADAM, but that’s beside the point.”

    The Porygon-Z in question buzzed. “Systems are fully operational.”

    Suddenly, Rhys’ gaze shot to the ceiling of the Heart HQ. “What? …They—they’re really alive? That blast… was Owen?!”

    A ripple of surprise washed over the group, striking Willow the strongest. She jumped onto Rhys’ head in a single bound. “What? Owen? We talked to him?! Where? Let’s save him NOW!”

    Rhys plucked her from his head and placed her on Elder’s shell. “Owen… has apparently been residing in a strange world where the inhabitants all appear as wraiths. And not only that, but Legendary Pokémon that have been faded into myth are there, too. It must be a plane of reality that is beyond just our own. And if they’re wraiths…”

    “Whoa, that was five different crazies you just said there.” Spice raised a hand. “One more time, and slower.”

    “…It’s apparently called the Voidlands. Our top researcher is investigating it now, opening a portal several times to ask more questions while he can. And Owen has become something that can blast from within the Voidlands, and apparently to our realm. Since his body is probably still in Hot Spot, that must be where it manifested…”

    “Owen became something?” repeated Brandon, looking incredulous. His steel fingers tapped loudly against his biceps. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

    “Er. A tree. A large tree.”

    Silence.

    “Eh. I buy it.” Brandon shrugged. “Better question: can he do that again?”

    “We don’t know. But it’s likely he can, when he has the energy. I think we have our new mission.” Rhys faced them all. “Most of us will be preparing a timed assault on Hot Spot to see what we can do against that vortex and, if immediate action can be taken, eliminate it right then. Some of you will continue investigating points of interest.” Rhys nodded at Spice and Leo, who were tasked with investigating Void Basin. “Some will also remain behind in Kilo Village to continue defending the city.” And at this, he nodded at Phol.

    “Is everything clear? I will be setting out specific assignments to you all in the coming day.”

    There were various affirmations from most of the team. Rhys took note that Angelo had looked away, murmuring something. He’d have to talk to him later.

    “Good,” Rhys said. “Dismissed. Good work, everyone. Perhaps this will be over soon.”

    Mercifully, the rest of the night passed uneventfully.

    <><><>​

    “MUTANT!”

    “H-hey, get out!”

    “Get out!”

    “Seriously?” Ani snarled, her many vines thrashing in random directions. “I’m here to help!” She pinned the injured Croconaw down and channeled healing energy through one of her vines and into his shoulder.

    “G-get off! AAAH! It’s—it’s gonna eat me!”

    “Oh, shut up!” Ani tossed the terrified creature into a few of the other onlookers, several of them making empty, threatening gestures toward her. They scrambled behind tables and hid around the corner of the hallway that led into the patients’ room, where several recently rescued Pokémon lay injured. Healing supplies were short as usual and the usual healers were totally tapped out of energy. Ani had sensed their dying auras through the wall. How could she turn away from that?

    An Incineroar shoved his way past a few terrified nurses. “What’s going on in here?” he snarled. “We—oh. Ani.”

    “Can you get your idiot subordinates to lay off?” the mutant Meganium pointed an accusatory vine at them. “If they actually removed me, these Pokémon would have died!”

    “They seemed stable…” Incineroar pointed out.

    “Their auras were weak. I could tell from the outside,” Ani said. “In fact, everyone here seemed weaker, maybe from fatigue, but these ones were a flicker away from dying.”

    “…Ani, the walls here are Protect-insulated. It makes it harder to see through by elemental sight. For privacy.”

    “What?” Ani looked back again, even as the Croconaw and others pressed firmly against the wall.

    “They were healthy.”

    “O-oh.”

    The head nurse sighed and rubbed his snout. “Go back to the rest of your team, please. I—”

    “Hang on,” she said. “Is there anyone here who does need healing?”

    “I don’t know what you can do that we can’t on our own,” Incineroar said, “and there isn’t anyone who—hrm.” He stopped himself. “How powerful is your healing?”

    “Mutant injuries linger because they disrupt aura,” Ani said. “But I can heal even aura. What’s wrong?”

    “…Come with me.”

    Ani followed Incineroar—who, after asking, said he was Phol—and entered a small room that had several patients resting on small beds in different parts of the room, and then, curiously, a single empty bed that had and odd, red capsule. Ani recognized it immediately. “Why do you have a Poké Ball here?”

    “The Machoke who gave it to us called it the same thing but didn’t bother explaining what it was,” Phol said, gesturing to it. “Inside that ball is a Vaporeon who was very badly injured. We brought Rhys here to take a closer look, but he said that her aura was so badly damaged that her body can’t sustain itself. Vaporeon are known for relying in part on their latent energy to keep their bodies together… and something disrupted it for this one.”

    As Phol spoke, Ani inspected the capsule and saw a little, scrunched up ball of energy hidden inside. It was weak and faded, but stable, which was expected if they were stored in one of those. She didn’t know what would happen if they released her.

    “I can help,” Ani said. “Or, I’ll try. It’s hard for me to heal when they’re inside that, though. How much time do you think she has if you release her?”

    “I don’t know.” He looked pensive. “But she’s been in there for days. We don’t know how it’s possible to—”

    “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Just release her, but be ready to bring her back in, alright?”

    “Brandon showed me how to do that.” Phol picked the capsule up. “When you’re ready?”

    After some time for Ani to charge, Phol clicked the sphere, expanded it, and tossed it clumsily. Out came a Vaporeon that oozed with dark, blackish-purple liquid from several wounds, and radiated a horrid aura that made her antennae scrunch up. Ani fired her mutated Heal Pulse at the creature and—to her surprise—a significant portion of that dark energy had disappeared like brush to a flame. So, she pressed, and indeed, more and more of that darkness washed away until just a depleted, weak, and oddly melty Vaporeon remained.

    But she still sensed a dark nugget in the center of her aura, and Ani wasn’t sure how to get rid of that. Most of that had been rot, but that core of darkness felt… different. Worse. “Okay,” she said. “I did what I could. But she still seems like there’s something wrong. Can you do your other checks or whatever?”

    Phol was already on it, taking a few devices and tools from the nearby cupboard. He placed one on Vaporeon’s chest and looked at a needle that bobbed in a radial meter in his hands. “Hm.” Then, he grabbed a small towel and placed it on Vaporeon’s thigh, then pulled away and inspected the dry cloth. “Mmhm.” Finally, Phol pulled away. “She’s healthy. Weak, but healthy. You really are a miracle worker.” Despite his words, his expression remained stoic.

    Vaporeon stirred, one eye barely opening.

    “Tanneth, correct?” Phol said, looking over a notepad that had been by the wall. “You were rescued out at sea by a Machoke Brandon. Do you remember—”

    “No…”

    “Right. That’s okay. All you need to know is you’re safe now, and—”

    “No, I’m… I’m not… Tanneth.”

    Phol stared, eyes looking up from the notepad without moving his head. “You aren’t Tanneth? Who are you? Brandon seemed very certain—”

    “Tanneth… isn’t real. I was never real…” The Vaporeon weakly curled up, her voice barely a whisper. “I’m… Emily…”

    <><><>​

    “Thank you for the tea.” Mhynt sipped the cup that was two sizes too large. The starry sky was above them thanks to the destroyed roof from their recent clash. “How did you know I liked mint?”

    “…Hunch.” Hakk didn’t make eye contact. He kept struggling with all of his tools. Everything was so small. He had to be extremely delicate when pouring, delicate when putting things back in the fridge—how did Xypher deal with it all?! Maybe that’s why he kept breaking everything.

    “I will not be here for very long.” Mhynt took another quiet sip. “Escorts from Cipher City will be here in a few days to return me there, and I intend to distance myself from Null Village.”

    “I take it the roaming Void Shadows aren’t a problem for you, even if they’re out of Alexander’s control?”

    “Trivial,” Mhynt confirmed.

    Xypher kept eyeing the dead Honedge next to Mhynt. The Treecko finally noticed, following Xypher’s eyes. He squawked and preened his feathers.

    “It’s a sword,” Mhynt said. “A weapon from the era of humans meant to augment their fighting abilities, because humans themselves did not have much. They modeled swords after the effectiveness of a Honedge and, in fact, there are old, old tales of a human and a Honedge who worked together in combat.”

    “So, you killed a Honedge to make that happen for you? Why not craft a ‘sword’ yourself?”

    “Natural blades from Pokémon are simply much stronger than what can be crafted by underdeveloped metallurgical facilities.” Mhynt pulled the blade toward her. “They naturally sharpen themselves through Infinity Energy. I only have to channel some into it and the edge is good as new.”

    Hakk wondered if Mhynt would kill him if it would be more useful that way.

    “And for the record, I didn’t kill this Honedge,” Mhynt added. “I displaced his spirit and made use of the body left behind.”

    “Oh, that’s much better,” Hakk let slip, realized his mistake, and quickly added, “I mean—okay, sure. I, uh… take that back.”

    Mhynt eyed him, expression stone-like, and Hakk searched for the best thing to do to look busy. More tea. Yes, that would do. Hakk brushed aside a few feather-weight, glassy leaves from the counter and got to work.

    “So, uh.” Another bag in the kettle. “Why a sword?”

    “As a Sceptile, I made use of Leaf Blade at all times. As a Treecko, it’s not very large.”

    “Why not evolve? You’re probably, like, a bajillion times stronger than what’s needed for it…”

    “Simple.” Mhynt rested her chin against the end of the blade’s handle. “My strength is not drawn from my body nor my evolution. Evolving would only provide a marginal improvement in what I can do. Far less than the benefit being a smaller target provides. Using this blade to augment my reach is all I need.”

    “Still seems pretty out of the way,” Hakk said. “Especially since it looks like someone used it against you in a fight, eh?”

    Ah, he shouldn’t have said that. Mhynt held the blade, now.

    “N-not that—I mean, you were caught off guard and stuff. That’s no big deal—”

    “No.” Mhynt sighed. “You’re right.” Her grip relaxed, as did Hakk’s muscles. “I suppose… some of it is sentimental and nostalgic.”

    “Sentimental, huh…” Hakk knew not to pry there.

    “Yes. Someone important to me once said it was… appealing, the way I fought with Leaf Blade. And I’m used to the fighting style as well. There are simply a lot of factors that make it the best approach.” Mhynt tapped the blade’s hilt, thoughtful. “Of course, that was a long time ago. Perhaps now I’m just used to it on a practical level. Muscle memory.”

    “Yeah, that’s fair, too. Dunno how I’d be able to change up my strategies in a fight, either, after all this time.” Hakk sat down again, having to use one of the spare seats once meant for Xypher. “Y’know, you aren’t half bad.”

    “Don’t get comfortable, soldier.” Mhynt glared, but for the shortest, briefest instant, Hakk saw a soft look in her eyes. It… puzzled him. “You are still my subordinate.”

    “Right, right.” He raised his claws. “My bad, sir.”

    “That’s more like it.” She took another sip of her tea.

    Knock knock.

    Mhynt tensed. The door had been pieced together and then taped. It was still barely functional while awaiting repairs, so whoever knocked must have been very polite. So, not any of that Team Alloy crowd. Through the cracks of the door, however, Hakk was surprised to see that it was Gahi.

    Which was the last person he expected to kn—wait. Gahi was dead.

    “It’s the Flygon,” Hakk mumbled.

    Indeed, it was, and it would be nice to open the door. They wished to get their spirit back.

    “Bodies don’t move on their own! What’s going on!? You should be dead on the ground!” Hakk stepped back, his spikes bumping into the table behind him. “Ugh! It’s like you’re talking in my head! Who are you?”

    Open the door, Hakk.

    “Go away!”

    The door fell forward, nearly crushing Hakk’s toes had he not jumped left. Xypher squawked and Mhynt was already on her feet.

    “I’m not keen on giving up anything right now,” Mhynt said.

    The Unown knew Mhynt was vulnerable.

    Mhynt hissed and jumped away, her nimbleness allowing her to get to the broken wall’s hole in a single bound. The Flygon followed with a jittering, cosmic wingbeat, disappearing and reappearing in front of her and grabbing her by the throat.

    “Ghk—!”

    And then, she disappeared with him.

    It took a while for Hakk to find the courage to move. Slowly, he advanced to the tea, where a few more prismatic leaves had fallen in.

    “…Right… she’ll… be fine, I think.” Hakk didn’t want to help. He also didn’t know how to help. “You alright, Xypher?”

    Xypher was upright and conscious, but he’d gone mute until just then. He opened his beak, made a little, uncertain caw, and closed it again. He shook his wings and several fallen leaves drifted to the ground.

    “I want things to be normal,” Xypher said. “Normal, normal…”

    Hakk dug his claws into his fists. “Yeah,” he said. “Me, too.”

    The Sandslash patted the Corviknight on the back and gestured to the wall. “How about we relax in the basement for a while?” he asked. “Just for some quiet.”

    <><><>​

    Mhynt smashed against a tree near the southern outskirts of Null Village. The buildings were several stone’s throws away, and this was a dangerous place for anybody who didn’t know how to fight Void Shadows.

    Sliding down the trunk, Mhynt glanced to her right and saw her blade sliding along the dirt. She reached for it, only for the Flygon’s claws to plunge into the bark around her arm, pinning her there.

    “Tsk.” She eyed the Flygon directly, those blank, stoic eyes staring back. “It’s been a while.”

    It has, to a mortal.

    Mhynt smirked and the Flygon let her go. She reached for her blade and shoved it into the dirt, using it as something to lean on, like a tall desk.

    “What’s been happening in the living world, hmm?”

    Typical stagnation under the rule of the Thousand Hearts.

    “Oh, Thousand Hearts? Someone expanded.”

    Indeed.

    “And the… idiot that claimed your Orb. Was that your choice? Mm. Don’t answer. I suspect you had to pick the least of all evils.” Mhynt tapped her chin. “I think I’ve done enough. Owen’s smart, and between all the allies he’s amassed, they’re bound to realize Alexander’s weakness and how to exploit it.”

    The Flygon approached the blade and pointed at it, because that was something they intended to retrieve.

    “Yes, yes, but I don’t want him hearing this.” Mhynt sighed. “Don’t tell him anything. I still need to work by Alexander’s side, and I’m sure you know how unable he is to keep his mouth shut.”

    He was not the ideal host.

    “Indeed. And perhaps not the ideal mate for Owen, either.” She rolled her eyes. “I digress.”

    Owen was with another.

    That one gave Mhynt pause. “Oh?”

    The Milotic. They recently wished to only be friends as they discovered their codependency, but inevitably the Unown suspected they would rekindle.

    “I see.”

    The Unown were curious whether or not Mhynt harbored ill feelings because of that.

    “Do you really think I’m so petty?”

    The attacks against the Flygon’s body were more than necessary.

    Mhynt chuckled, shrugging. “It was part of the plan. I only added some flair.”

    The Unown stared, then gestured to the Honedge again.

    “Very well. I hope to see you soon. Be careful while you’re here. If Alexander gets too agitated, he may attack on his own, and that won’t be good. They aren’t ready, not until they become whole. They will hopefully think to go to West Null Village next.”

    The Flygon unearthed the Honedge and looked it over, but they were not familiar with how to retrieve Gahi.

    “I need to touch it and I can work from there.” She gestured for it to be handed over.

    Nodding, the Flygon flipped the blade in the air, grabbed it by the hilt, and then lifted Mhynt with a Psychic hold.

    “What are you—”

    The blade plunged into Mhynt’s abdomen, pinning her to the tree.

    Mhynt tried to gasp, then growled and tried to pull herself free. Once again, it was out of her reach, and her dark powers weren’t properly manifesting yet. “What are you doing?!”

    The requirement was needing to touch the blade; the Unown were only adding some flair.

    Confusion, befuddlement, then anger, and then resigned defeat in that order washed over Mhynt’s face. She sighed. “You win this round. Now, hold still.”

    Mhynt drew from the blade, tugging as if from a loose thread on a scarf. Out came a strand of gold, and then a hazy glob. She lobbed it toward the Flygon and, like a magnet, it flew into the body, and suddenly it went stiff.

    “Ngh—you pest!” Mhynt shouted, struggling against the blade as it started to loosen. “How dare you—consider yourself lucky, because I will not allow a—”

    “Hah! Well, lookie there, I really can beat yeh in my sleep!” Gahi sneered at Mhynt, leaning forward. “What’s the matter, eh? Couldn’t beat me over my dead body af’er all?”

    “You spent far too long in my blade coming up with those,” Mhynt said as she finally managed to get her palm against the base of the hilt so she could push.

    “Eh…”

    By now, Mhynt suspected the Unown were telling him something to get him to flee.

    “Geh! Yer lucky I ain’t gonna finish yeh, but I gotta make sure y’ain’t got an ambush fer the others. That’s right, I saw through yer plan. Y’ain’t clever.” With a smirk, Gahi disappeared in a flash.

    Left alone with her thoughts, Mhynt pushed the blade out as her wound sealed itself without even a scar. Some of her Shadow power was back.

    She picked the Honedge up and, if only to get out some pent-up frustrations, sliced the tree that she’d been pinned on. The trunk fell, and countless extra blades of darkness diced it into firewood.

    “Idiot.”
     
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