Chapter Two: The Earth Master

When nighttime rolled around, Ash sat down on the training field with his exhausted partners. He'd spent the last six hours doing nothing but training Pyro and Pichu, both of whom had worked hard to improve and were now totally burnt out.

They'd only really focused on two things: teaching Pyro Metal Claw and making Pichu stronger in general. The best way to learn Metal Claw (or so the Pokedex claimed) was by having Pyro scratch at hard rocks repeatedly. Fortunately, there were plenty of those around the training field. Pyro had slashed at the stones for hours until his claws began to harden and gained a metallic glint to them. It was far from mastered, but at least Metal Claw was a viable option in battle now.

Pichu spent the whole time doing little more than discharging electricity and running around to charge it back up once he ran out. The mouse was furious that he'd lost to Leaf's Spearow, but he put his frustration to good use by training relentlessly. His stamina needed a lot of work. Ash had to bring him into the Pokemon Center three times to feed at the charge station for electric-types just to get his power back to full capacity.

Their hard work was already bearing fruit. He wouldn't be knocking out Pewter City's rock-types anytime soon, but he'd probably make Talon rethink a direct attack the next time they battled.

For now, Ash and his Pokemon were sprawled out in the dirt on the training field, getting their breath back as the moon started to rise in the sky.

Ash felt a cool breeze blow over his skin and finally sat up, looking at Pyro and Pichu's exhausted frames. The young trainer pulled out their Poke Balls and called to them softly. "Both of you worked really hard. Take a break now, okay? We'll heal you up and then we can go to sleep afterwards."

His Pokemon just nodded. Even Pichu was too tired to complain about being put back into the Poke Ball. The electric-type hated the device with a passion, (apparently suspended animation wasn't for everyone) but he didn't mind it as much when he was dead tired. Ash figured Pichu liked to be outside the ball when he was full of energy so he could enjoy the fresh air and run around. Sitting in a Poke Ball when he could be doing something exciting probably seemed like a waste of time.

Ash recalled the pair and forced himself to get up, wincing at the soreness in his legs. He trudged his way back to the Pokemon Center, too tired to be rushed.

As he walked over to the front desk, Ash blearily wiped some of the sleepiness from his eyes. Without thinking, he ended up bumping into a person in front of him. He stepped back quickly and made to apologize. "Sorry, sorry. I wasn't looking…"

He trailed off as his gaze went up, staring at a tall man who was now eyeing him from over his shoulder. The man had dark brown hair and wore a black suit with dark pants. His eyes were dark as well, with some quality to them that made Ash shiver slightly.

The man turned away after a second and grunted. "Just don't do it again."

Ash nodded and averted his gaze, embarrassed by the accident. He waited while the man received six Poke Balls from Nurse Joy, who smiled at him somewhat hesitantly.

"They're all ready to go. Just don't send too many injured Pokemon back to me, alright?"

The man smirked. "I make no promises. Anyone willing to challenge me knows the risks. They will have to deal with the consequences of their decision."

Joy sighed. "Well, you can't say I don't try…"

He grunted and turned around, walking past Ash with a muttered. "Excuse me."

Ash watched the man go and then approached Nurse Joy. She smiled more brightly than the man before him. "Welcome back, Mr. Ketchum. Finally finished training for today?"

"Yeah," Ash yawned in exhaustion as he handed her his Poke Balls. "I think Pyro and Pichu are too tired to train more anyways. We've almost got Metal Claw down, though…just a little more."

"I think you'll have it completed by the time you get through Viridian Forest," Joy replied. She took the Poke Balls and gave them to her Chansey on a tray. "With all the bug catchers running around in there, your Charmander will have many chances to use it in battle."

The boy nodded tiredly and Joy's smile became sympathetic. "Why don't you go get something to eat in the cafeteria? I'll call you on the overhead when your Pokemon are ready."

Ash thanked her and headed off to do just that. He was too tired to focus on anything else and didn't notice the man he'd bumped into earlier watching him curiously.

Ash sat down with a plate full of food and dug in. Now that he was getting some food into him, thinking was a bit easier. He decided to read about his current team's attributes while he ate, so he pulled his Pokedex out and selected the overview feature for Pichu. Ash knew Charmander's information like the back of his hand, but he didn't actually know too much about Pichu's.

From what he could tell, Pichu grew fairly quickly. They were among the few "Baby" Pokemon that were rarely produced by parents in the wild. Baby Pokemon like Pichu, Igglybuff, and Azurill rarely occurred outside of captivity unless the conditions were favorable enough to support them. The reason for that wasn't well known, but researchers speculated that it was an adaptation to give the offspring a better chance of survival. Only the strongest and healthiest of their adult forms would produce Baby Pokemon because they were the best of the species.

Scientists had wondered then, why would the strongest adults of a species produce the incredibly rare, but weak Baby Pokemon at all? The reason turned out to be, of all things, power. Baby Pokemon seemed to have greater potential overall than those of their species that did not go through the extra evolutionary stage. Moreover, some of them had the capability of learning extremely rare moves only while they were in that stage, though they did have to evolve to utilize their full power.

Pichu was a perfect example of that. If a Pikachu hatched from an egg, it would be stronger than Pichu initially, yes, but it would miss out on the opportunity to learn what was decidedly one of the most powerful electric-type moves out there: Volt Tackle.

The technique was exclusive to the Pichu line and considered the signature of an expertly-trained Pikachu or Raichu. Even in the hands of a Pikachu, Volt Tackle was impressive. Ash had never actually seen the move before, but it was rumored that Lt. Surge of Vermillion City had a Raichu capable of using the powerful electric attack.

He would find out one day, when he faced Surge in the Vermillion Gym.

The problem was that Pichu would evolve before too long. Baby Pokemon grew incredibly fast compared to the majority of other species. That was great in the long run, but it gave Ash a very short amount of time to teach Pichu a move that he hadn't ever actually seen before.

The good news, as he understood it from reading the data in the Pokedex, was that Volt Tackle didn't have to be perfected in that time—Pichu just had to get a rough grasp on it in his current evolutionary stage. If he evolved into Pikachu before getting even a basic semblance of the technique, he would likely never learn it.

Ash decided that Volt Tackle would take priority for Pichu. From what he could tell by reading about it, the move followed his plan for training Pichu anyways—it required a large amount of power and speed to perform. Those attributes were important to the Pichu line regardless, so the training would work out nicely. That was the theory, at least.

If he didn't teach Pichu Volt Tackle, he supposed that the move Wild Charge could take its place. But Volt Tackle and Wild Charge were, in fact, very different, despite their similarities. Both moves required the user to charge a cloak of electricity around their bodies, then recklessly ram into the target. There was a major difference, though—Volt Tackle required a much higher speed to pull off. Wild Charge used sheer mass and power to attack. It didn't have to be fast. Like Take Down, it just needed blunt force to be effective.

But Volt Tackle was far more devastating because it forced the user to charge far denser electricity and rush at blinding speed, essentially turning them into a lightning missile. The resulting impact was far more precise and made the recoil damage greater, but the payoff would be worth it.

It was an odd conundrum, why Volt Tackle was a move exclusive to the Pichu line. Researchers had pondered this curiously—there were many other electric-types that were even faster than their evolutionarily line, yet Volt Tackle simply could not be taught. There was no documented case of a Jolteon, Manectric, or even the incredibly rare Raikou using the technique. The move was a mystery.

In fact, Pichu itself was the answer.

While studying Baby Pokemon, researchers discovered that Pichu were born with a completely unique charge organ attached to their main electrical organ. The organ stored a separate source of electrical energy for Pichu to access. However, it would not react if a Pichu used a common electric attack like Thunder Shock.

The reason became clear when Pichu used Volt Tackle.

Pichu's secondary charge organ was specifically for Volt Tackle. The move switched on a kind of "backup generator" and unleashed the steady surge of dense electricity needed for Volt Tackle. It was a unique adaptation only possible because of the Baby Pokemon stage.

Pikachu that hatched from eggs would never be able to access the secondary organ because their primary electrical organs were larger than Pichu's. The size difference would cut off any flow of electricity from the second organ, thus making it benign. For the secondary organ to be of any use, it had to be accessed in the Pichu stage and connected to the primary organ with the electrical surge produced from using Volt Tackle. Once the electrical stream was initiated, the organ would stay active and grow even after Pichu's evolution.

Ash wanted Pichu to learn Volt Tackle. Not only would it be an incredibly potent weapon once the little mouse evolved, but it would allow Pichu to truly reach his full potential.

He finished reading up all he could on Volt Tackle and found that all the research had tired out his brain along with his body. Setting his Pokedex aside, Ash made to take another bite of his dinner. Before he could though, he heard the sound of heavy boots step near.

"Excuse me, young man."

Ash looked up and managed not to gulp at the sight of the same trainer he had bumped into earlier. He was an imposing figure—dark and tall, with a hard look on his face.

"Can I help you, sir?" Ash asked, trying not to stutter.

The man cracked a slight smirk and glanced at the chair across from the boy. "Do you mind if I join you?"

"Oh, um, not at all," Ash hesitantly gestured to the seat.

"Thank you," the man replied. He sat down and settled into the chair, leaning back to relax a bit.

An awkward silence took over the table as the man's dark eyes trained onto Ash and studied him intensely. Ash had no idea how to react and thought about saying something, but the expression on the older trainer's face made him think better of it.

Minutes must have passed before the man finally broke the uncomfortable silence. "I should introduce myself. My name is Giovanni."

Ash's eyes widened. "Giovanni? Wait—the Gym Leader, Giovanni? The ground-type Master, Giovanni?"

"The very same," Giovanni seemed slightly amused by the boy's surprise. "You seem to be a new trainer, are you not?"

"Yes-yes, I am," Ash replied shakily. "I started traveling the day before yesterday—oh! Sorry, my name's Ash. I'm from Pallet Town."

"Ash. A good name," the Gym Leader said thoughtfully. He noticed Ash looked confused and continued. "I would assume you're going to Pewter City to challenge Brock, then?"

The boy nodded. "Yes, sir. But I think it's going to be difficult for my Pokemon."

"How so?"

"Well, my starter Pokemon was Charmander," Ash began. "He's growing fast and I'm teaching him Metal Claw to fight Pewter Gym's rock-types, but I don't think it'll be enough. I've got a Pichu as well that I'm going to try and teach Volt Tackle to, but he probably won't be able to fight at all against Brock's team. And there aren't really any Pokemon around Viridian or Pewter City that really have a fighting chance against them, either. The bugs in Viridian Forest would get squashed by rock-types."

Giovanni smirked. "An accurate assessment, particularly in regards to the bug-types."

Ash wasn't really sure how to reply to that, but Giovanni kept talking. "You are correct in your analysis—your team clearly stands at a disadvantage against rock-types. Even if Charmander perfected Metal Claw at its current stage in training, it would not be enough to conquer Brock. His Geodude would likely fall to your Pokemon, but he uses an Onix as well."

That made Ash gulp. Onix were gargantuan rock-types with hard stone armor covering their entire bodies. Even though they had plenty of weaknesses, a well-trained Onix handled by an experienced trainer like Brock was a threat to be feared.

Giovanni was right. Charmander might be able to beat something as small as a Geodude with Metal Claw, but an Onix was entirely out of the question. He would probably just annoy the behemoth before getting crushed in the rock serpent's stone coils.

Ash deflated once he realized that. "I guess I'll just have to pass up Brock and go to Cerulean City for my first badge. Pichu will probably evolve by then and I could catch a water-type to beat Brock when I go back to Pewter City."

"That is a reasonable plan," Giovanni agreed. He was quiet for a bit, then spoke again. "Although…"

Before he could say another word, the overhead speakers beeped and Nurse Joy's voice echoed throughout the Pokemon Center. "Ash Ketchum, your Pokemon are waiting for you at the front desk."

Ash stood up and excused himself politely. "Sorry, I have to go get my team."

"It's quite alright," Giovanni replied. "It is about time I headed back to the Gym."

The boy nodded and walked to the front desk to retrieve his healed team. Giovanni quietly followed.

"Thanks a lot, Nurse," Ash said gratefully as he released Pichu from his confines. He knew the electric mouse would be annoyed with being in the Poke Ball before too long. Pichu shook himself once he was released and immediately hopped onto his trainer's shoulder, smiling cheerily.

Joy smiled at him. "You're welcome, Ash. They should be good to go for the trek through Viridian Forest, as well. Just make sure you're stocked on Antidotes and Potions. Poison is a constant problem because of all the bug Pokemon."

He nodded. "I'll remember that. By the way, I was wondering—"

Suddenly the lights cut out and Ash's question died in his throat. He and Joy both looked around, confused. The boy frowned. "A power outage?"

"That doesn't make sense," Joy replied, glancing towards the glass doors of the Pokemon Center. "The lights for the rest of the city are still active. But our generator wouldn't just cut like this unless someone turned it off…"

The Nurse suddenly paled and whipped around towards the back of the building, where the Pokemon storage was. "It's those thieves again! They cut the power to get past the electronic lock!"

Before Ash could react, the glass doors at the front shattered. He spun around with wide eyes to find three figures standing in the rubble. It was a man, a woman, and a small, feline Pokemon he recognized as a Meowth. The two people wore white uniforms with a large red "R" on the front of their shirts. Ash realized it was the symbol for Team Rocket.

Joy's eyes narrowed. "You three are awfully bold breaking in here while I'm still on duty!"

"Oh, please," the woman drawled. "You and that pink egg are about as threatening as an angry Caterpie. You're taught to heal, not fight."

Her male partner smirked. "Now, hand over the Pokemon in the storage room and no one has to get hurt. Little boy, you will be handing yours over as well. It wouldn't do for you to interfere with our work."

Ash glared at them. "I refuse."

"Huh, the twerp's got some backbone," the Meowth sneered. "I think he needs a lesson in pain."

Normally, Ash would have been utterly surprised that a Pokemon had spoken like a human, but he had more important things on his mind. He grabbed Pyro's Poke Ball and released the fire-type, then glanced at Pichu. "Get in there, buddy. We'll fight them off."

Pichu leapt down from his shoulder and landed beside Pyro, his cheeks sparking. Pyro glared at the thieves and swished his burning tail aggressively, a hiss rising in his throat.

"Oh? They aren't rare, but those are uncommon Pokemon," the man mused. "Now we'll definitely have to take them. Shall we?"

The woman nodded and released an average Ekans. The serpent hissed and eyed its prey with pale yellow orbs. It didn't look evil, but it was obviously ready to fight. The Koffing which was sent out beside it looked the same way.

Ash looked at his opponents and ran everything he knew about them through his head. Unfortunately, it wasn't much. Ekans and Koffing were both poison-types. Alone, they weren't especially powerful, but in numbers they could be dangerous. Ekans was fast and used bites in order to attack. Koffing could smash its tough body into foes and expelled a stinking toxic gas. It also had the ability to use Self-Destruct once it was well trained. Ash didn't think this Koffing looked strong enough for that, but he didn't really want to risk that either.

He muttered lowly to Pyro and Pichu. "Keep your distance and feel them out with Ember and Thunder Shock. Pyro, you're the main force here. If they get close, hit them with Scratch or Metal Claw. Pichu, run around them and keep jolting those two. Try and paralyze them."

His Pokemon nodded and tensed as Ekans and Koffing began to approach. The woman, who apparently was the leader of the group, shouted at Ash. "Last chance, kid! Obey your elders like a good little boy and hand over your Pokemon, or you will regret it!"

Ignoring her, Ash initiated the fight. "Attack!"

Pyro immediately spat flames at Ekans while Pichu unleashed an electrical shock. The snake quickly slithered away and avoided its enemy's moves, hissing angrily. Koffing just tanked the shock, but winced. Ash grinned when it showed visible pain. Training with Pichu all afternoon had paid off.

Ekans darted towards Pyro with its mouth agape. The Charmander spat flames until the last second, then leapt out of the way and slashed at the poison-type with Metal Claw. He scored a hit on the thin scales, causing it to wriggle away quickly. Ekans retreated and shifted into a coil, hissing while Pyro growled.

Pichu was running circles around Koffing as he dodged its clumsy Tackles, stopping now and then to shoot off a Thunder Shock. The mouse wrinkled his nose in disgust whenever Koffing got too close—those fumes almost had Ash gagging even at this distance. But Koffing couldn't hit the faster and more agile electric-type, so it was on the losing side of the battle. Apparently, the Rockets agreed.

"The mouse is annoying," snarled the woman. "Ekans, help Koffing squash it!"

The snake spun towards the fighting pair and made to spring at Pichu, but Ash wasn't having it. "Pyro, pin it down!"

Ekans hissed furiously as the Charmander leapt onto the back of its scaly neck and smacked it against the ground. Pyro gripped the snake firmly by using Metal Claw to dig into its scales. It kept him from sliding off and out of range from Ekans' furious bites. The female thief screamed furiously at her Pokemon, but Pyro was far too stubborn to shake off. Meanwhile, Pichu jolted Koffing again with Thunder Shock, this time slowing it down a bit as paralysis began to take hold.

Ash grinned. He had them on the ropes. But his smile faded a moment later when he realized something.

Meowth was missing.

He glanced around frantically to locate the cat and found it trying to sneak past the fighting Pokemon. Ash narrowed his eyes at the mocking glee Meowth exuded. Obviously, the thieving cat thought it was clever by trying to steal while he was preoccupied fighting. That irritated Ash more than he was entirely happy about, so he watched the battle a second longer to ensure his Pokemon were okay for the moment before taking the matter of Meowth into his own hands.

The cat was watching the fight while it snuck around the edge of the center and never saw Ash coming.

Meowth yowled when a well-aimed kick from Ash punted it clean across the room and right into the female Rocket's face. The cat was so shocked that it'd been caught and repelled that it forgot to sheathe its claws, which had come out as a reflex of being attacked. Its partner shrieked as Meowth's own claws dug into her skin.

The woman scrambled to get the feline off of her and only made matters worse by startling Meowth even further. Her male partner just watched, dumbfounded by what was happening. Even their Pokemon stopped to just stare in utter bewilderment. The pause gave Pyro and Pichu a chance to catch their breath and get ready for the next stage of the fight.

Ash smirked as the woman finally pulled Meowth off of her and stared at the boy. Her face was all scratched up, red and puffy and her shocked expression quickly became furious.

"You little shit! We'll see if you're smirking when I get my claws on your face!"

Ekans and Koffing prepared themselves to attack and Ash got ready to react and give his team orders. But just as the poison-types lunged, a flash of white light burst through the dark room.

Ash yelped as a tremor went through the ground and he scrambled to keep his balance. When he looked up to see what had caused it, any and all thoughts of battle left his head.

The biggest Pokemon he'd ever seen was standing in the middle of the room, pinning the now unconscious Ekans and Koffing down with stone arms as thick as tree trunks. Two large drills rested on its head and the entirety of its grey body was covered in thick red plates of armor. A long tail with a heavy club on the end was responsible for the tremor, cracks spreading along the floor like spider webs where it had crushed the ground.

Ash had no idea what it was, but he was more concerned about where it had come from. He spun towards Nurse Joy, but she just had her hands over her mouth to cover up her shock. They got their answer when a deep voice cut the stunned silence.

"That's quite enough of that."

Giovanni stepped out from the shadows with a stern expression. He stared at the Rockets and growled menacingly. "Out."

That one word was plenty to get the message across. The Rockets quickly recalled their unconscious Pokemon and ran so fast out of the building that Ash thought even an Arcanine would have trouble catching them. They were certainly quick on their feet, he'd give them that.

Giovanni's massive Pokemon let out a rumbling sound which made him jump as it turned to look at its trainer. The Gym Leader nodded to the behemoth. "Good work, Rhyperior."

Rhyperior snorted and turned to eye Ash and his comparatively tiny Pokemon. Pyro and Pichu did their best not to cringe under the stone giant's crimson eyes, but it made its judgement quickly and proceeded to simply ignore them.

Nurse Joy was still pale, though she managed to find her voice. "Mr. Giovanni, I didn't know you were still here…"

"I was actually just leaving when the power went out," he grunted. "The League ordered me to deal with those thieves personally if I ever encountered them. Though I must say, I'm fairly certain given how weak they were that Ash here could have run them off without my help. I only stepped in to settle the matter slightly faster."

Joy nodded. "Thank you very much for protecting the Pokemon Center. And you as well, Ash. Your quick thinking probably just saved dozens of Pokemon."

"We didn't do much. We just kept them busy," Ash replied, still staring at the behemoth with wide eyes. The huge Pokemon glanced at him momentarily, but it was utterly impassive. It was uncomfortable to see such a creature with little to no emotion like that. Rhyperior just looked bored.

Giovanni noted the exchange and looked at Ash pointedly. "You don't give yourself enough credit. Even though you've only trained your Pokemon for a few days, they reacted well to this battle. I was impressed. They got out of the fight without so much as a scratch."

He smirked then. "And you showed plenty of willingness to jump into the fight yourself. I can't say I've ever seen anyone reckless enough to try and kick an enemy Pokemon across the room."

Heat surged through Ash and he glanced at the floor. "Pyro and Pichu were busy fighting, so…"

"It was quick thinking and it worked. Just don't make a habit of it," Giovanni told him. The Gym Leader then looked at Joy. "I believe calling the police would be appropriate, although I'm certain the commotion will bring them here in a matter of minutes. I doubt the thieves will return. However, I shall remain here until the officers arrive."

"Thank you. Excuse me, I need to go turn on the backup generator," she replied and quickly strode off. Chansey, who had been hiding behind the desk during the event, scurried after her.

Ash found himself once again drawn to the massive form of Rhyperior. The nine-foot tall stone beast was now lazily spinning its drills. Giovanni saw Ash's interest and commented on it. "You seem impressed by Rhyperior."

"Yes, sir," the boy answered. "I've heard of them before and Professor Oak let us see a Rhydon once, but I've never gotten to see a Rhyperior in person. It's…it's huge."

"He's actually a fair bit bigger than the average Rhyperior," Giovanni admitted. "Most of the breed top out at eight feet tall. He's nearly ten. Heavier and slower, perhaps, but Rhyperior really have no need for speed of any kind as long as they have strong armor."

"I see," Ash murmured. Rhyperior spun his drill again and growled deeply.

Giovanni recalled the huge Pokemon and put the Poke Ball away. "He prefers to stay in suspended animation outside of combat and training."

Ash nodded in understanding. Professor Oak had a few Pokemon like that.

Several minutes later, the police arrived and took over the situation. Power was quickly restored to the Pokemon Center and Ash felt even more exhausted after the raid by Team Rocket. His eyes were closing against his will.

Giovanni seemed to tell the boy was about to crash and grunted. "Get to your room, Ash. Get some sleep. Come by my gym tomorrow morning."

Ash was too tired to ask why and simply turned away with a mumbled, "goodnight." He led Pyro and Pichu to his room in the Pokemon Center and fell asleep the second he hit the bed.

The next morning, Ash found himself in front of the Viridian City Gym. He stared at the imposing building and swallowed. Why did Giovanni want to see him again? Hesitantly, he knocked on the huge doors and they opened automatically. Ash walked inside and relaxed a bit once he saw Giovanni standing alone in the middle of the large room that took up most of the gym.

Giovanni looked completely unaffected by the events of the night before as he looked the younger trainer over. "Good morning, Ash. I expect you're wondering why I wanted you here."

"Yes, sir," Ash replied.

"Good. The reason I requested your presence was to engage you in a battle."

Ash froze. "Wait, what?"

Giovanni smirked. "Relax, boy. I'm not talking about an actual gym battle. We won't really be fighting. It'll be more of a test than anything for you. Call out your Charmander."

Still uncertain what to make of the situation, Ash set Pyro loose and Pichu leapt down from his shoulder to watch. The two little Pokemon gazed up at the Gym Leader curiously, recognizing him from the night before. Giovanni inspected them with measuring eyes and pulled out a Poke Ball of his own.

"Most of my Pokemon don't play well with others, particularly Rhyperior or Nidoking. But this one is the most mellow of my main team," Giovanni explained as he tapped the release and unleashed the Pokemon from its confines.

Ash's eyes widened at the large Nidoqueen that appeared. She was a lot smaller than Rhyperior's sheer bulk, but held an air of royalty and power that Rhyperior simply didn't possess. Nidoqueen was slightly taller than Giovanni and looked at Ash and his Pokemon curiously. He felt more relaxed around her than he had with Rhyperior. She seemed more prone to showing her emotions. It made it easier for him to tell what she was thinking.

"Nidoqueen is going to humor you," Giovanni explained, folding his arms behind his back. "None of your attacks now will scratch her, but I'd like to see you give your best effort. Understand this—power can only get you so far. Without knowledge and control, it is meaningless. Now, you may begin whenever you're ready. Nidoqueen will wait for you."

Ash didn't have the foggiest idea where to begin. Pyro's Metal Claw wouldn't pierce her thick armor at his current level and Ember might warm her up a bit. He thought as quickly as he could before deciding to take a risk. "Dragon Dance."

Pyro squeezed his eyes shut and tensed, focusing energy in the core of his body. It took nearly twenty seconds for it to show any kind of effect, however, and obviously wouldn't be useful in any real battle Pyro participated in at this stage. Ash had to risk it, though—without some kind of boost to Pyro's attack, he wouldn't be able to even make Nidoqueen twitch.

Giovanni nodded approvingly. "A good start, though you obviously lack training for such a technique. What will you do next?"

Ash knew exactly what he was going to do. "Metal Claw. Don't stop."

Pyro rushed Nidoqueen, slightly faster thanks to the weak Dragon Dance, and began to slash at her legs. He darted around and scratched with his metallic claws wherever he could touch the much larger Pokemon. At one point, Pyro even used Nidoqueen's tail as a platform to jump high and scratch at her face, though she just snorted in amusement.

The Charmander was beginning to look rather frustrated, but Ash called out to him. "Keep at it, Pyro! Just keep using Metal Claw."

"You may consider a different strategy. Only using one move isn't going to increase your chances."

"Metal Claw will," Ash replied, garnering a raised eyebrow from the Earth Master. He saw a glimmer of light as the glow of Metal Claw increased. "It's attacks can get stronger the more we strike."

The Gym Leader's mouth twitched, though he didn't seem too surprised. "I see. It's a decent plan. However…"

Giovanni's smirk returned. "How will you deal with Nidoqueen once she starts to move?"

At his cue, the matriarch let out a bellow and a shockwave blew Pyro away. Ash's partner hit the ground with a yelp and scrabbled back to his feet. Nidoqueen took a step forward and swept her tail towards the Charmander, but Pyro dodged by jumping up and clinging to the thick appendage.

"Ember!" Ash shouted.

Pyro growled and spat little flames over Nidoqueen's back, but she just huffed, not even annoyed, and made a swift turn. Her smaller opponent was hurled from her spine and hit the ground roughly. Despite the tough landing, Pyro got back up and stubbornly hissed at his behemoth foe.

Nidoqueen made a rumble that caused the ground at her feet to quake. Pyro almost lost his footing and staggered back from her, looking hesitant for the first time since the fight began. The matriarch lifted her chin and looked down on the tiny lizard, a silent command in her stern eyes that demanded respect.

Pyro was stubborn, but he wasn't stupid. He quieted his growl and bowed his head. Nidoqueen snorted in what might have been approval.

Ash blinked. He didn't understand what had just happened.

Giovanni broke the silence. "You have talent, but it's obvious you have a lot to learn. The wise decision would have been to recall Charmander the moment Nidoqueen began to move. Your Pokemon realized that before you did."

He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. Giovanni made a good point. Nidoqueen had played possum for a while so that Pyro could attack, but the second she got into the fight it was over. There was just no way for him to inflict any kind of damage on the massive poison and ground-type.

"A strong, trained Pokemon can take a good deal more punishment than those as young as your Charmander or Pichu," the Gym Leader continued. "At their current level, it would be best not to let them take inordinate amounts of damage from far stronger adversaries. Serious injuries could result in problems later when they evolve. Do not be foolish enough to risk that."

Giovanni recalled Nidoqueen and looked at the boy. "You must not fight so rigidly, either. Against a foe with such a vast difference in experience, no manner of head-on attack is going to have an effect. Think outside the confines of what seems to be possible and impossible. Improvise. But do not act stupidly."

He took out a new Poke Ball and held it out. "Take this."

Ash stared at the ball and carefully took it from Giovanni. He looked it over curiously. "What's in it?"

"A Sandile," Giovanni informed him. "A ground-type. Obviously, a specialty of mine. You could make greater use of it than I. My team already has plenty of power, and this one requires time to train that I simply do not have. If you work hard with it, I believe it could be of use in your battle against Brock at Pewter City."

"You're just giving it to me?" Ash asked hesitantly. "I've never even heard of Sandile before. Is it rare?"

"You won't find it in Kanto," Giovanni agreed. "But it's rather common in the deserts of the Unova region. A well trained Sandile and its evolved forms are useful assets for any trainer. They typically are not easy to work with, but I think you might be talented enough to handle it with time and training. I suggest you research it extensively. You'll need a firm understanding of their species if you're to properly work with their adult forms."

"Why's that?"

"Uncontrollable aggression is a common trait as they mature. You'll understand in time."

The words "uncontrollable aggression" made Ash certain this was going to take a lot of research and hard work. He wouldn't open that Poke Ball until he felt like he could handle Sandile safely. Even if it wasn't yet fully grown, that did not necessarily make it easy to work with or tame in his book. Ash didn't even have the foggiest idea what a Sandile looked like.

Still, he was grateful for it and wasn't about to turn it down.

"Thank you very much, sir," Ash dipped his head politely.

Giovanni nodded back. "You may thank me when that Sandile proves to be useful. Now, you'd best get going. There's plenty of daylight left for trekking through Viridian Forest and I have a meeting in ten minutes. Farewell, Mr. Ketchum."

Ash took his leave quickly, pocketing Sandile's Poke Ball and recalling Pyro. Pichu climbed back onto his shoulder and the boy left the Viridian Gym without another word.

He felt the Gym Leader's eyes boring into his back right until the door closed behind him.

He pulled out his Pokedex again before leaving for the Viridian Forest. It was the last obstacle before Pewter City and frankly his only opportunity to give Pyro, Pichu and the newly-acquired Sandile experience in battle. If Ash was going to use the ground-type in his battle against Brock, he had to train with it to get an idea of its capabilities. Holding up Sandile's Poke Ball to the Pokedex, he let the scan feature activate and waited patiently as the computer retrieved and recited the data to him.

Sandile, the Desert Croc Pokemon. It moves along the desert just below the surface of the sand, except for its nose and eyes. A dark membrane shields its eyes from the sun. Female Sandile bask together in sunlight to warm up their bodies every morning. Male Sandile fight each other by inflicting vicious bites to show their dominance. Trainers must exercise caution when handling this Pokemon.

This Sandile is male and knows the moves: Bite, Dig, Sand Tomb, Leer, Fire Fang, and Thunder Fang. Its ability is Moxie, which boosts Sandile's attack power in battle every time it defeats an opponent. Warning: Sandile with this ability can be highly volatile.

Ash groaned. Sandile had every bad trait its species was known for—it was male, for one. Apparently, that made him more aggressive than the supposedly more mellow females. He also had the Moxie ability that, together with his gender, actually warranted a warning from the Pokedex. Ash would not be forgetting that anytime soon.

He also didn't realize until now that Sandile was a dark-type in addition to being a ground-type. That only made matters worse. Dark-types commonly had highly aggressive behaviors or negative dispositions compared to other Pokemon. There was just something about them that didn't mesh well with others. Of course, not all dark-types were like that, and there were a fair few (Umbreon, for example) that did quite well around people and other Pokemon. It seemed to just be a matter of which species to watch out for.

Ash had no doubt Sandile and its evolutionary line were high up on that list. If they were so violent with members of their own kind, he could only imagine what they were like around people or other Pokemon.

Still, if he didn't meet Sandile, Ash would feel as though he was being unfair towards him. So just before they set out for the forest, Ash set Pyro loose and let Pichu hop off his shoulder. He crouched in front of them and fondly scratched the pair on their heads before talking.

"Listen, I want to try and get along with the Sandile Giovanni gave me, okay? But I don't know if he'll be aggressive or not. So I need you two with me, just in case he gets snappy. Don't attack him when he appears and do your best to look friendly. If he attacks, stay away from his jaws—that'll really hurt."

His two friends nodded, so Ash pulled out Sandile's Poke Ball. He took a deep breath and tapped the release, unleashing its contents.

The Pokemon that materialized following the white flash of light was the color of sand, with a few thick, black stripes along its top jaw, midsection, and tail. Its eyes were jet black and gleamed beneath the dark visor that had evolved to protect Sandile's eyes from the harsh desert sun. It stood on four short, stubby legs and for the most part, didn't look too threatening.

That is, until Sandile opened his jaws in a yawn, gaping nearly ninety degrees to flash rows of white fangs. Ash blinked when he realized that Sandile's head and mouth took up nearly a third of his total body size. That was…kind of ridiculous.

Sandile peered up at him with a curious expression. Ash decided to introduce himself. "Hey, Sandile. Are you feeling good?"

The croc considered that for a moment before shrugging. He looked over Pyro and Pichu, then back to Ash, who crouched down to avoid looking like a threat.

"My name is Ash. This is Pyro, and that's Pichu," he gestured to each of his Pokemon in turn. Pyro waved his stubby arm and Pichu squeaked politely. Ash went on. "Listen, I'd really like you to travel with me. I'm traveling with Pyro and Pichu to become the greatest Pokemon Master in the world, so I'll need a team of the best Pokemon out there working with me. If you decide to travel with us, I promise I'll train you into the strongest Krookodile that there is."

Sandile's eyes gleamed at the prospect. Ash had his attention now. He was just glad he remembered the name of Sandile's final evolution from his brief glance at it in the Pokedex. Ash wanted to get across to Sandile that he knew what he was doing, so he could better earn the ground-type's friendship and respect.

"What do you think, Sandile? Would you like to come with us?"

The croc thought about it a moment longer before nodding. Ash smiled at him. This was easier than he'd thought it would be. Maybe Sandile wasn't going to be as aggressive as he'd feared.

"Would you like a nickname? Pyro has one. Pichu didn't want one, but it's up to you."

Sandile seemed to ponder that and eventually emitted a crooning sound by causing his jaws to shiver. Ash took that as a yes and thought about it. He would admit he'd had trouble thinking of names for Sandile off the top of his head, so had cheated a little by looking up acceptable nicknames for crocodile-like Pokemon. Only one had really stood out to him, but would Sandile like it?

"How about Sobek?"

Sandile bared his many sharp teeth in a fierce mockery of a smile. Ash grinned. It seemed as though the ground-type agreed it was a good name.

Sobek it was.

Ash didn't get a chance to think any further as the newly dubbed Sobek stepped forward on his short, stubby legs and brushed the tip of his nose against the boy's leg. He froze, uncertain as to what the ground-type was trying to do. The Sandile's throat vibrated again and the resulting sound was almost…relaxing.

Hesitantly, Ash reached up and carefully set his hand against Sobek's head, feeling the tough, firm scales under his fingers. Sobek's only reaction was to (for lack of a better word) purr even more.

He frowned briefly. The Pokedex was completely inaccurate for this particular specimen of Sandile, it seemed. He…wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not. Sure, he'd much rather have a calm Pokemon than one with uncontrollable rage, but this was pushing it given the reputation of the Sandile line. He made a mental note to ask Professor Oak about Sobek at some point.

Ash stroked Sobek's scales again and turned his frown upside down. He and Sobek were getting along, and that was the best he could ask for right now. "Listen Sobek, I'm going to recall you now. We're about to go through a big forest. There will probably be a lot of trainers in there, so I'll probably call on you at some point to battle. Is that okay?"

Sobek grinned toothily again and nodded. Ash felt more relaxed seeing the Sandile's eagerness to fight—maybe his aggression would come out more during combat. If Sobek had even a touch of his breed's typical fury, the place to see it would be in a battle.

"Alright. I'll let you out as soon as I can, Sobek. Rest up."

Ash recalled the Sandile and let out a sigh of relief. That had gone well. Pyro and Pichu both made small noises to get his attention and he was pleased to see they both looked happy.

"Well, you guys know the plan. Hop on, Pichu. We've got a forest to get through."

His Pokemon chirped and squeaked agreement. Ash grinned, recalling Pyro as Pichu hopped onto his shoulder and started walking towards the vast green curtain that was Viridian Forest.

Their first day of trekking through Viridian Forest saw a lot of action. Ash must have battled a dozen trainers, all of them bug catchers. Each and every one of them was using freshly caught bug-types from the surrounding woods, except for a couple that seemed to actually train the bugs they captured.

Pyro, Pichu, and Sobek all saw a good bit of action. Pyro could torch the bug-types with ease, but his flames were getting stronger and stronger every time he won a battle. It was at the point where lesser bug-types like Caterpie and Weedle would get knocked out by a single Ember. Even the chrysalis stages Metapod and Kakuna were wiped out quickly before long.

The only Pokemon he'd battled thus far that had given him a hint of trouble was a Butterfree, and even then Pyro had won by shooting the bug out of the sky with Ember. His tail flame was starting to get hotter and Ash could see a faint trace of red in his scales, signaling that Pyro was getting closer to evolving.

Pichu had made a great amount of progress as well. Ash only used him to battle the weaker bugs, (he still wasn't strong enough to take on something like a Butterfree or Beedrill) but took the opportunity to try and get Pichu started on Volt Tackle. The easiest way to start was by having Pichu just Tackle his opponents while using Thunder Shock. It was an effective combination anyway, but hopefully it would start to channel electricity into the secondary charge organ that was necessary to learn Volt Tackle.

But Sobek saw the most use, especially after Ash battled with him the first time. In battle, Sobek wasn't especially fast, but his biting attacks instantly defeated pretty much everything he met. He didn't waste the croc's time against Caterpie and Weedle (though that was mostly because he was afraid Sobek might fatally injure them) and tested his power against Metapod and Kakuna instead. Their shells could stand up to the bites, though they fainted immediately after taking one or two of the attacks. Those battles weren't where Sobek truly stood out.

No, where Sobek had impressed Ash was when he snagged an enemy Beedrill out of the air with Fire Fang and knocked it out by shaking it ruthlessly. The ground-type had finished off the strongest Pokemon they had encountered in the forest thus far in a grand total of ten seconds. Ash could see the aggression he had been warned about when Sobek fought, but he mellowed quickly when he wasn't fighting. He felt much better about the Sandile's health now that he'd seen the sheer fury Sobek tapped into when he was in combat.

By the time the sun began to set, Ash had covered only about a third of the forest. He had been slowed down by all the battles, but was in no mood to complain. On the contrary, he couldn't stop smiling. His Pokemon had gotten a good deal stronger by constantly fighting the bug catchers. They'd also been fortunate enough to avoid getting poisoned.

Ash set his team loose once he found a decent spot to make camp for the night. Pyro smiled happily upon seeing him again, though Sobek blinked in confusion when he found there wasn't a fight to be had.

"We're about to sleep for the night," Ash explained to the croc. Sobek blinked and nodded in understanding, so he pressed on. "I usually set everyone loose at night so that you can enjoy the fresh air. Would you like that, or would you prefer staying in your Poke Ball?"

Sobek snorted and immediately found a patch of ground to dig a shallow hole into. The ground-type nestled himself into the small ditch with his head exposed, allowing him to keep an eye on Ash and the others, but he seemed content to close his eyes and fall asleep quickly. Ash smiled at his newest partner.

He got his sleeping bag out and made himself comfortable. Once Ash was settled, Pichu crawled onto his stomach as usual and Pyro curled up beside him, careful to keep his tail flame away from anything flammable.

Ash slipped into a peaceful slumber before long, tired out by the day's events and all they had accomplished.

His awakening was not so pleasant.

Ash felt something cold touch his throat and frowned as the sensation woke him up. He blinked and froze immediately. Above him was a figure clad in strange armor, holding a katana to his neck. Pyro, Pichu, and Sobek were all still asleep.

"Are you from Pallet Town?" The intruder asked quietly.

Ash kept his eyes on the sword at his throat and nodded shortly, scarcely remembering to breathe. The figure's eyes flashed and he raised his voice. "I was defeated by a trainer from Pallet Town once! Now face me in battle so I may redeem myse—AGH!"

His scream was caused by a rush of sand scales and a furious hiss. Sobek had woken because of the intruder's raised voice and immediately attacked when he saw that his trainer was in danger. The Sandile's jaws snapped shut on the sword, yanking it away from Ash and then ripping it from the intruder's hands. Sobek glared furiously at the intruder with the sword still in his jaws. His jaws clenched tightly and the blade snapped like a twig.

The commotion brought Pyro and Pichu out of their sleep and they immediately got between Ash and the intruder. Pyro and Sobek were hissing aggressively and Pichu's cheeks sparked with electricity. Ash quickly got up to call them off before they could seriously hurt the guy.

"Hey, hey, it's alright, guys! Settle down! He just wants to have a battle!"

They didn't really settle down, but his Pokemon didn't attack, either. Ash figured they would control themselves for now and glared at the intruder, who he realized now was a boy barely taller than himself.

"What's wrong with your Pokemon?!" The kid exclaimed furiously. "It just up and attacked me out of the blue! It even broke my precious katana!"

"What's wrong with my Pokemon? What's wrong with you?!" Ash snapped back. "What kind of idiot wakes up a guy with a sword at his throat? Did you think my Pokemon wouldn't try to defend me when they saw you doing that? You're lucky Sobek didn't take your hand off!"

The kid reddened with anger and grabbed a Poke Ball. "I am Samurai. I challenge you and that little monster of yours to battle. My Pokemon and I shall regain my honor!"

"Pyro, Pichu, step back," Ash ordered, still furious. "Sobek, get ready. We're going to crush whatever bug he's got and get out of here."

Sobek hissed agreement. After Pyro and Pichu moved back to stand beside Ash, Samurai walked off a few paces and then spun around to face him. He threw the Poke Ball and yelled. "Pinsir, to battle!"

Ash blinked in surprise when the Stag Beetle Pokemon appeared. He hadn't expected to see a Pinsir in this forest, even if the only trainers here used bug-types. Pinsir were rare and notoriously aggressive. Ash kind of doubted the kid was a skilled trainer, but the sight of Pinsir gave him pause.

"Watch out for those claws on its head," Ash muttered to Sobek. "If it gets too close, try to bite one and smack it around."

The Sandile's hiss rose in pitch. Evidently, he was more than ready to beat the piss and vinegar out of this bug. He certainly wasn't fazed by it, even if Ash was being more cautious.

Samurai struck first. "Pinsir, attack! Use Vicegrip!"

Pincer menacingly clicked its pincers together and began to stalk towards Sobek. It was fairly slow, so Ash had plenty of time to respond.

"Dig. Trap it with Sand Tomb," he ordered.

Sobek quickly dug underground. That was something Ash had noticed about the Sandile after all the battles they'd fought yesterday. He wasn't especially fast on the surface except for short bursts, but he could practically swim through the earth. Underground was where he was at home, and his strikes were far quicker when they came from below an enemy's feet.

Pincer paused after seeing its prey disappear and looked around dumbly. Samurai yelled at Ash. "Hey! That's an underhanded tactic! You have no honor!"

"It's completely fair and I'm pretty sure Pinsir can learn Dig too," Ash retorted. "Maybe you should train your Pokemon better."

Samurai looked furious, but didn't get another word in as Pinsir suddenly sunk into the ground at its feet. It clicked its claws frantically and struggled to escape Sand Tomb.

Ash liked this particular combination. Sobek would use Dig to get beneath an enemy, homing in on the vibrations they produced through his sensitive crocodilian nose, then used Sand Tomb to weaken the earth they stood on and trap them. The move could immobilize pretty much anything that didn't fly and the heavier the target, the more effective it was. It essentially turned the ground their foes stood on into quicksand.

He had been thinking about just shortening the combo's name to Ant Pit, after a type of desert Pokemon that trapped its prey in an identical manner. It seemed appropriate, although there was one more step before the move was actually complete in his eyes.

With Pinsir trapped in the sand, Ash ordered Sobek to complete the process. "Bite!"

Pinsir made a shrieking sound as Sobek erupt from the quicksand around it and snapped his fangs into the bug's midsection. The Sandile's powerful jaw muscles punched right through the armored carapace.

"No! Pinsir, shake it off!" Samurai commanded frantically.

Ash was impressed that Pinsir still had fight in it. The bug was obviously at a low level and had probably only hatched a short while ago. Looking at it, it was a fair bit smaller than the description of Pinsir in the Pokedex. Even so, Pinsir were tough to knock out. Ash decided a follow up move was necessary.

"Fire Fang."

Sobek's jaws flickered with hot embers as he added fire-type elements to his assault. It was a move that Sobek still had to work on a lot—he couldn't generate much fire yet, but the heat and small embers that he could produce would get the job done in this instance.

Sure enough, Pinsir tried to wriggle away from the heat furiously, but collapsed after just a few seconds. Samurai seemed utterly beside himself from the loss and recalled his Pokemon with a large frown.

"That was a dirty trick. Using super-effective moves is not an honorable way to battle!"

Ash shrugged. Samurai could keep his opinions, but fighting the way he had was strategic. He still had a long way to go in Viridian Forest and didn't want to risk Sobek getting injured by a potentially dangerous foe. Besides, the warrior-wannabe annoyed him.

Sobek looked at Ash now that the battle was over. Ash smiled and nodded. "Good work, Sobek. That was excellent."

His Pokemon grinned toothily, but turned back to glare at Samurai a moment later. The kid hadn't left yet.

Samurai glared at them. "I shall train harder, and if you should ever return to my forest again, I shall defeat you!"

Ash smirked. "I'm looking forward to it."

The kid practically growled at him and then stomped away into the trees, not even bothering to pick up the sword Sobek had destroyed. With their opponent gone, Ash's Pokemon relaxed.

"Alright guys," Ash turned back to their camp and went to grab the bags of Pokemon food in his bag. "Who wants breakfast?"

Ash and his team ended up spending two more days in Viridian Forest, battling many more opponents and the occasional wild Pokemon. They got some serious training and combat experience in that would no doubt be useful when it was time to face Brock in Pewter City.

Pyro had finally perfected Metal Claw. There weren't many rocks in Viridian Forest, but the armored bug-types they fought helped a lot, not to mention that Ash had the Charmander slashing at thick trees whenever they stopped to make camp. He had also tried working on Dragon Dance, but that was a completely different can of worms. Pyro still took about twenty seconds to actually build up enough dragon-type energy for the boost to take effect. It would probably get easier when he evolved, but it would still take a long time to master.

Pichu got a good bit stronger while in the forest. Right towards the end, Ash began to let the mouse battle against some of the stronger bugs they met. He was pleased when Pichu managed to take out a Venonat that belonged to one of the more skilled trainers. Pichu's electric attacks were becoming a lot more formidable as well. Ash was still having him work on using Thunder Shock and Tackle in tandem, hoping that it would be enough for Pichu to learn Volt Tackle before he evolved.

Sobek had easily mastered the Ant Pit combo Ash had him working on. It was instinctive for the Sandile to use anyways and quite effective against most terrestrial foes. He was glad Sobek had gotten used to battling with him while in the Viridian Forest, because Ash intended for the ground-type to be his trump card against Brock.

Sobek was Ash's only chance at defeating the Onix Giovanni had told him about. If he couldn't do it, then Ash would have no choice but to go to Cerulean City first and try to capture a water-type. It was going to be a trial by fire, but Ash had full confidence in his team.

The boy finally stepped out of the Viridian Forest immense tree line and grinned. He could see Pewter City's lights just a few miles away. The sun was still out, but Ash figured he would spend the rest of the day training once he actually made it to Pewter—he would challenge Brock tomorrow.

On his shoulder, Pichu nudged him to get moving. Ash smiled at the mouse and scratched his furry ears before turning towards Pewter and walking down the trail that would take them to their first gym battle.

A/N: Version 2.0

Again, the changes for the story will remain minor early on, but become much more noticeable over time as I essentially clean house in the later chapters. Ash will most likely retain the original team he possessed, but expect a few changes for the teams of the rivals and overall lore changes for the world of Challenger. There's a lot I'm working on.

Also, for the foreseeable future, I plan on posting one updated chapter per week throughout this overhaul of the story. It will be a time-intensive process and I want to be able to dedicate more of my writing time to my other stories as well, so just bear with me as each update rolls out.

That'll be it for now. Remember, if you're unsure which chapters have been updated, go and view Challenger on my ao3 account, which operates with the same pen name I have here. It's only got the updated chapters available, so it might be easier to follow my progress there.

Thanks for your patience!