AN: I'm terribly sorry for the delay in releasing this chapter. It was nearly complete before an unfortunate accident left me unable to write for the better part of two weeks. I'm thankful to have been able to dive back in and finally get the chance to button it up and post this story's penultimate chapter. I hope you enjoy.

The Long Road

Chapter 16


"Look, uh, I'm still not good with this whole "intimidating speech" thing. Can we just battle? I promise I'm better at battling than looking fierce."

Still recovering from the initial shock, Steven found himself nodding…

...There was no way she could be as innocent as she appeared to be…

"Great!" she chimed, grabbing her first pokeball with a smile. "Let's get started!"

Or maybe she really was...


Her Dusclops hit the ground with more of a thud than any ghost had a right to. Steven's eyes narrowed. If her first pokemon was a heavy hitter, then his would be too.

"Armaldo, it's your turn!"

The more offensive-minded of his two fossil pokemon also shook the earth as it materialized on the battlefield with a trill. Its fins stood on end as its gaze landed on the bandage wrapped ghost that stared back with one unblinking eye.

"Ready?" asked Phoebe, face alight with anticipation.

Steven nodded again, staring hard at the overly-cheerful Elite. There had to be some trick afoot…

But when Dusclops opened with a standard looking shadow punch, which Armaldo neatly dodged, the battle appeared fairly normal.

As the large mummy-like pokemon followed through on its next punch, Armaldo side stepped around the blow and perked up at Steven's command.

"X-scissor!"

Crossed claws came down on Dusclops' back and the sound of ripping fabric filled the air mixed with a hiss of pain as it stumbled from Armaldo's strike. One massive hand clamped down on the open wound, dark mist seeping out from between its fingers as its single eye slid to where Armaldo stood frozen in wide-eyed terror. Steven, too, paled at what his pokemon had seen; the slicing attack had torn away some of the graying bandages that wound around Dusclops' body, but instead of something tangible beneath the cloth, there was nothing but emptiness.

Taking advantage of the stunned silence, Dusclops fixed Armaldo with a leering stare, and Armaldo shivered under its gaze. Defense lowered, the follow up shadow punch that caught Armaldo's midsection sent the prehistoric pokemon tumbling. With its foe momentarily dispatched, Dusclops balled its hand into a fist, crumpling bandages over its wound and effectively sealing the hole.

Armaldo struggled back to its feet, one claw gingerly protecting where the ghostly energy lingered from the blow, and Steven frowned as he spotted a small smirk on Phoebe's lips. He couldn't simply trade blows and hope to come out on top. Her Dusclops could hit hard.

"We need speed," he muttered before throwing a hand outward. "Armaldo, use rock polish!"

In the same moment, Phoebe also issued her next command. "Future sight!"

Both pokemon sprung into action on their respective sides of the battlefield, Armaldo crouching low and polishing his wings while Dusclops' palms raised up toward the ceiling as its eye rolled back in the socket, a psychic aura hanging heavy above its head.

Steven tensed as he watched the psychic attack form. Future sight was a slow building move, if Armaldo could finish its speed boost early, they could strike while Dusclops was defenseless.

Just as the thought crossed his mind, Armaldo grunted confirmation that it was ready.

"Go! X-scissor now, while it's vulnerable!"

With a sharp cry Armaldo shot across the battlefield, claws raised at the still-motionless ghost type. But Phoebe was ready.

"Dusclops, earthquake!"

Its single eye rolled back forward at its trainer's command, and Dusclops raised a stocky leg before slamming it into the arena floor. The shockwave rocketed away from the stomp, and Steven jolted forward in his trainer's box from his desperate shout.

"Jump!"

On high alert, Armaldo's powerful tail instantly snapped down against the ground and sent him skyward. Steven stumbled from the force of the earthquake, but he allowed himself a small grin as his pokemon's forward momentum vaulted it up and over the deadly attack.

Phoebe too watched in amazement with a whispered, "Whoa," as the armored pokemon gracefully arced over Dusclops' head before landing on its feet with a heavy thud.

But the evasive maneuver was only part of Steven's plan.

"Aerial ace!"

Spinning on its heel, Armaldo launched itself back at Dusclops in one smooth motion, nearly vanishing in a white blur of light.

"Oh no you don't." Phoebe's cheeks puffed out in indignation. "Catch it, Dusclops!"

Shadowy energy swirled in Dusclops' palms as they turned outward just in time to stop Armaldo's charge. But the white light of Armaldo's attack didn't fade as it slammed full force into Dusclops' defense. Stalemated, both pokemon dug deep as they shoved back and forth, trying to topple the other, grunting with effort. Slowly, Dusclops struggled to turn and fix Armaldo with another leering stare. Armaldo's once determined grimace faltered, and it wobbled momentarily, giving Dusclops room to shove back, forcing Armaldo to one knee.

Hand on his chin as he watched, Steven frowned. "Wait a minute…"

His eyes widened in realization. "Armaldo, get out of there!"

At his shout, his partner's gaze snapped over Dusclops' shoulder to find its trainer's panicked stare just as its fins twitched skyward in alarm. Shimmering psychic energy split the air above both combatants and future sight's delayed attack finally rained down all around.

Yanking backwards from Dusclops' grip, Armaldo threw itself free of future sight's range with a leaping dive.

As dust and silence settled across the battlefield, the bubbly tone of Phoebe's giggling floated over the quiet.

"Oh, we almost had you too!"

Steven watched as Armaldo dragged itself back upright, dusting off its plate armor, before narrowing his gaze at the cheery Elite. Was she even taking this battle seriously?

"Okay, Dusclops. We'll get them this time! Give it the staredown!"

Finding its opponent with another chilling leer, Dusclops closed the distance between them as Armaldo again found itself withering under the ghost's otherworldly stare.

"Armaldo!" Steven shouted, hoping to snap his timid partner from its stupor. "Retreat and let's regroup!"

Even though its knees shook and it couldn't tear its gaze away from Dusclops' lone red eye, Armaldo heard Steven's shout, and it straightened with a low growl. It wouldn't run away in fear. Not with so much at stake.

"Armaldo?" Steven called, watching as Dusclops drew closer and closer.

Phoebe simply giggled again, "Looks like it's scared stiff. Go Dusclops!"

Shadowy energy gathered around Dusclops' clenched fist as it trudged closer, so close now that its raspy breathing ruffled the fins at Armaldo's neck.

But in that instant, Armaldo's stare shifted, and Steven caught the determined glint in its eye. As Dusclops' fist drew back, Steven flung his own skyward.

"Do it!"

The stone edge exploded beneath Dusclops' feet, skewering the ghost pokemon on its rocky spires. Darkness spilled from the gaping holes in its cloth bindings, and a horrifying groan gurgled from deep within its body as its fist dropped limp to its side, energy dissipating in a harmless puff.

Panting, Armaldo withdrew its foot from where it had driven it into the earth.

With a small chime, the first of Phoebe's icons grayed out on the scoreboard, and for the first time, Steven noticed some of the Elite's initial nervousness creep back into her expression.

"Great job, Armaldo."

He praised his partner as its toothy grin vanished in the recall beam of its pokeball, and he watched Phoebe do the same. Wordlessly, both trainers selected a new pokeball from their arsenal and tossed them to begin the second round.

Skarmory's shriek echoed through the chamber as it appeared in mid air with wings unfurled, and a quick scan of the battlefield revealed Phoebe's next pokemon. The shadows at the edge of the chamber seemed to close in around her Banette as it floated just above the arena floor. The wispy ribbon at the back of its head slithered to the floor as it tilted its gaze skyward to take in its airborne opponent.

"Okay, Banette," Phoebe breathed, a tiny waver in her voice as she exhaled, "Let's do this."

Steven watched as Phoebe rolled her shoulders and squared up to the battlefield, grin renewed across her face. It was almost as if she was trying to reassure not only her pokemon, but herself. Burying the oddity in the back of his mind, he too focused on the next round of battle and seized the first move.

"Skarmory, screech!"

His flying type didn't need to be told twice, and it wheeled to stare down Banette and unleash its signature ear-piercing cry. The golden glint of Banette's zippered mouth turned downwards in a scowl as it was forced to shield its ears from the defense-lowering technique. One eye cracked open just in time to spot Skarmory's follow up dive-bomb, wings aglow with energy. Too slow to dodge, Banette took the full brunt of the steel wing across the midsection, but not before its mouth flicked upward in a smirk.

As Skarmory drove its wings through the ghost-type, a movement caught its eye. Banette had taken the attack right to its midsection, but not before raising a hand high over its head. Red eyes met yellow, and with a wink, Banette's hand came down in a vicious chop, striking Skarmory at the base of its neck. Instantly, a shock of numbness flooded Skarmory's wing. Now off balance, its attack faltered, sending it spiralling to the ground with a pained squawk.

Banette settled lightly on its feet as Skarmory skidded by in a cloud of dust, but not without a wince and a large, jagged scrape across its stomach. Skarmory had done a good deal of damage, but it didn't escape unscathed either. In a mess of angry steel feathers, it scrabbled back to its feet, armor covered in dents and scrapes from its crash landing. One wing drooped at an odd angle, but instead of worrying about its injury, Skarmory's eyes darted around the battlefield, seemingly searching for something.

"Skarmory, what's wrong?" Steven shouted, eyes on his partner's increasingly frantic efforts.

It wasn't until Steven noticed that Banette, too, was searching for something through the dust cloud. But Phoebe was the first to spot it.

"There!" she shouted with a point, "Get it, Banette!"

All eyes turned to find a single Sitrus berry resting at the far edge of the battlefield, recently dislodged from Skarmory's grasp by Banette's knock off attack.

Simultaneously, both pokemon locked eyes on the fallen berry, and before Banette could move, Skarmory leaped into action. Its long legs gave it the clear speed advantage, but Phoebe had another trick up her sleeve.

"Feint attack!"

Steven watched as Banette flickered where it stood before fading into nothingness.

"Skarmory, look out!"

Its trainer's shout snapped Skarmory from its single minded pursuit of the lost berry, and it skidded to a halt just as Banette phased into existence right in front of its beak. With a hiss, Banette bared its claws in a threatening display, and Skarmory flinched back, bracing for the blow that never came. Instead, Banette phased back out and reappeared across the arena, hovering atop the liberated berry.

With a dismayed cry, Skarmory watched as its opponent skewered the Sitrus berry with a claw and in one swift motion, unzipped its mouth and slurped the berry down with its tongue.

Phoebe's giggle echoed through the chamber as her pokemon fixed Steven and Skarmory with a smug smile. But Steven was too busy watching his partner to notice. Calmly shaking the feeling back into its injured wing, Skarmory tipped its head to the side with a clack of its beak. From the way Skarmory only looked on in silence, Steven knew that things were about to get ugly, and fast. Beneath that calm exterior was a bubbling cauldron of rage that was mere inches away from boiling over.

"Skarmory -" his tone was placating, if only to keep some level of control over his seething pokemon as he continued, "It may have regained health, but its defense is still lowered. Gain some speed with agility and then finish it."

The clatter of ruffling feathers answered him, and he allowed himself a small breath of relief. Skarmory hadn't totally snapped… yet. With a swift push, the steel pokemon went airborne and began to climb, gathering speed.

Phoebe, though, was not willing to sit back and wait. "Banette, don't let them set up! Shadow ball it from the sky!"

Steven watched as a dark mass began to shape into a sphere between Banette's palms. Soon, the sphere was nearly the size of the ghost's head, and without warning, it fired the attack skyward.

"Skarmory, dodge!"

Still building speed, Skarmory's sharp gaze focused on the incoming projectile, and at the last minute it barrel rolled out of the way.

Phoebe frowned at the miss, but urged her pokemon to keep firing. "Again! Rapid fire!"

Nearly faster than Steven could follow, Banette shaped and launched shadow ball after shadow ball, filling the arena with a minefield of ghostly energy. But Skarmory was nimble on its wings, and it cut a neat path through the barrage and emerged on the other side untouched.

"Ugh, fine!" Phoebe huffed in frustration. "Use it, Banette!"

Ceasing its non-stop attack, Banette's zippered mouth glinted into a smile as it reached behind its back and slid a wicked looking needle from out of thin air.

Dumbfounded, Steven looked on as the ghost pokemon wielded the needle in a sword-like manner, pointing the tip toward the onrushing Skarmory. How could Phoebe hope to take on the full-speed charge of Skarmory's attack with that flimsy thing?

But just as Skarmory nosed into a dive, wings brimming with the signature glow of steel wing's light, Banette did the last thing Steven ever expected.

The point of the needle wheeled 180 degrees and plunged straight through Banette's own chest. The ghost shrieked in pain as the needle drove itself out the back, point dripping with black ooze.

"-What?!"

Steven blanched at the sight of the impaled pokemon, and his incredulous gaze swung to where Phoebe stood, unfazed by what her pokemon just did.

Except he wasn't left to stare for long, as a tormented cry sounded from overhead. Mid-flight, Skarmory had begun to jerk and twist side to side, screeching in pain from some invisible force.

Wheeling back to face Phoebe, Steven paled further as he took in the distressed state of both combatants. "What did you do?!"

Phoebe shrugged, nonchalant. "Laid a curse on your pokemon with Banette's life energy."

By now, Banette had begun to succumb to the self-inflicted wound, breathing heavy as a puddle of black liquid pooled around where it kneeled, one hand braced against the ground.

Steven grit his teeth as his attention turned back to where Skarmory struggled to stay airborne.

"Skarmory!"

The sharp tone of his shout cut through the air, and he saw the yellow eyes of his flyer flick toward him, hazy with pain.

"Finish this fight!"

A fresh wave of pain hit Skarmory, and its eyes squeezed tight as it veered dangerously low. But it refused to succumb to the curse's effects, and with a defiant shriek it righted its flight and squinted down at its incapacitated foe.

Steel wing's bright light formed around Skarmory's wings once again, and it nosedived right for the target. Banette could do nothing but watch as Skarmory bore down and slammed into it full force. The dust settled quickly, and Skarmory stood tall over the unconscious ghost. Eyes sharp it raised its head in victory, but before it could cry out, the curse struck again and Skarmory winced, retching until it ejected a sticky black clod from its throat out onto the arena floor.

Hurriedly, Steven grabbed Skarmory's ball and returned the afflicted pokemon before any more damage could be done. With a grimace and a mental note to pay special attention to Skarmory's health after the battle, Steven selected another pokeball from his belt.

As Cradily materialized onto the battlefield, Steven noticed that the shadows that appeared during Banette's fight hadn't vanished, and oddly enough they began to pool on Phoebe's side of the arena. Cradily trilled, sensing his nervous glance at the lingering darkness, and he gave her a reassuring smile.

"They're just shadows, but stay on your guard just in case."

Cradily nodded and swiveled her gaze back toward their opponent, narrowing her eyes as she waited for Phoebe's next pokemon. The Elite's expression was tight as she brought forth her third pokeball, and as she threw it, Steven swore the darkness that hung heavy around her feet seemed to swirl in a non-existent breeze…

The hollow roar of a Dusclops cut through his thoughts, and his focus snapped back to the battle at hand. As Cradily bristled with nervous energy, Steven scowled, deep in thought. A repeat pokemon on Phoebe's team surely wouldn't be a carbon copy of the first; she had to have a different trick up her sleeve. They'd just have to play it safe until they figured it out.

"Cradily, keep your distance. Use ancient power!"

Chunks of rock lifted up and shot toward Dusclops as Cradily made the first move. But as boulders rained all around, Phoebe watched quietly as her pokemon's two massive hands came up and caught the largest of the projectiles and crushed it between its palms.

Cradily squeaked in surprise at the way her attack was so easily shed, but she buckled down and prepared a second volley. Except she never got the chance to unleash it.

"Disable!"

Phoebe's voice rang out in time with Dusclops' movements, and it faced Cradily with both palms turned outward, launching a shockwave that left Cradily stunned. Her tendrils drooped, and the beginnings of her next ancient power died mid-air and crumbled to the ground.

Steven grimaced at their predicament. Cradily had no other ranged attacks, and after Dusclops' raw display of power, he had no interest in getting up close and personal with their foe. But if they had no choice...

"Confuse ray, Cradily!"

His partner obeyed, and this time her tentacles lifted back up, waving to and fro in a dizzying display. Dusclops' eye drifted side to side in time with Cradily's movements until it finally settled at the bottom of its socket, half-lidded and unfocused.

But as the ghost wobbled unsteadily on its feet, Phoebe's hand came to bare, and with a thrust she urged her partner forward.

"Dusclops! Ice punch!"

The confused pokemon wobbled only a moment longer before it snapped to attention as if by the sheer force of Phoebe's will. Fully alert, its eye focused on Cradily for a split second before it launched itself across the battlefield faster than such an unwieldy pokemon had any right to be moving.

Dusclops' right hand drew back as it closed in, an icy blue aura surrounding its fist.

Eyes wide, Steven jolted forward in the challenger's box with a panicked shout, "Catch it!"

At the last minute, Cradily's tendrils shot forward, wrapping tight around Dusclops' body and halting its advance. Several other tendrils had wound themselves around its fist, trembling in the effort to keep its punch at bay. Cradily's neck strained against the powerful ghost type, and it slowly pushed back against her tenuous hold, inching closer and closer until the red glow of its eye cast an eerie light across Cradily's armor. The icy air around Dusclops' restrained hand continued to swirl, and soon the cold seeped into Cradily's tentacle, sending a wince through her frame as her strength began to fail.

"Cradily, you can do it! Giga drain!"

But Steven's shout came too late. He had been so focused on Dusclops' right hand that he completely missed how its left had taken on a red-hot glow of its own.

The fire punch connected with the side of Cradily's head in a vicious blow, and as her head snapped to the side from the force of the punch, her hold of Dusclops' other fist let go. In an explosion of frost, the second punch landed squarely to the top of Cradily's helm, driving her face-first into the arena floor. The follow through of the attack was so strong, it uprooted her grip on the ground, and her legs writhed uselessly as she curled in on herself from the pain with a shuddering wail.

With a satisfied huff, Dusclops phased through the few tentacles that feebly clung to its midsection. It regarded the downed fossil pokemon with a look of distaste, and Steven paled when instead of backing off, it raised one massive foot in a stomp aimed right for Cradily's head.

Hand shaking, Steven stared in disbelief as Dusclops' foot came down on nothing but the remnants of Cradily's recall beam.

"Hey! What were you thinking? That round was already over, you didn't have to have your pokemon attack again!"

Steven definitely did not withhold the accusatory tone in his shout at the ghost-type specialist. But his sharp stare faltered when Phoebe met his gaze from across the battlefield. An unsettling smile tugged at the corners of her cheeks, and the way her eyes seemed to have sunk deep into shadow set the hair at the back of his neck on end.

"We have to win…" Any trace of the lilt in her voice had vanished, the words unnervingly hollow as they droned from her lips. "We can't let it happen…"

"What?" He only dared to whisper the first question before he asked the second aloud. "Let what happen?"

"You wouldn't understand…" came the cryptic reply. "Only they understand. So pick your next pokemon."

Warily, Steven obeyed the Elite's directive, distinctly aware of the clamminess of his palms as he selected Aggron's ball from his belt. The massive steel type appeared with a roar, and this time Steven was sure he saw the shadows dance and curl around Phoebe's ankles like dark serpents.

But Dusclops gave him no room to confirm his suspicions, and Aggron was immediately on the defensive as the ghost type lunged, fists aglow. Its first two swings were parried by Aggron's claws, but the elemental power of each attack lingered whenever Dusclops made contact, and Aggron winced as a third blow only made glancing contact.

Steven frowned as Dusclops made ready to throw another punch. The flurry of its attacks was too heavy to rely on pure defense. "Drive it back and keep it at bay with thunderbolt!"

As Dusclops swung, Aggron spun, pivoting in time with the blow so that the fire punch only left a blackened scrape against its armor. From the momentum of the spin, it then brought its tail around and clubbed Dusclops in the side, sending the ghost stumbling backward.

By the time Dusclops had gathered itself and prepared to renew its attack, electricity rained down from above, and its eye squeezed shut as it shuddered to a halt.

But it only faltered momentarily before it brought a palm to bare and sealed Aggron's attack with another wave of disable. The electricity fizzled out on Aggron's horns, but Steven wasn't worried. He already came up with their plan of attack . Except that yet again, the Elite's ghosts had another trick up their sleeve that threw all of his plans out the window.

"Infestation."

Phoebe's single command sent her pokemon into a frenzy. With a shuddering lurch, Dusclops' fingers curled inward as it screeched, and Aggron's eyes went wide as the bandages encircling the ghost's body began to loosen. From between the gaps in the cloth something began to stir. Shivering, Dusclops howled, expelling a massive wave of shadowy bugs from deep within its bandages. The chittering swarm of legs and wings poured forth and swept over Aggron, toppling the beast beneath its sheer weight.

"Aggron!"

Steven's shout nearly was drowned out by the hissing and shrieking of the creatures, but as he held his breath, one silvery claw surfaced through the wave of insects and swatted a clump of the swarm away.

Dragging itself upright, Aggron roared as it swung its tail through the mass, batting bugs left and right. It was panting from the effort by the time it stood back on both hind legs and patches of its armor were still full of the squirming creatures, but its gaze was locked on Dusclops with a fiery determination.

The ghost pokemon narrowed its own stare at the steel type and hunkered into a ready stance, palms outward, each glowing with their elemental auras.

Steven's pulse thrummed in his ears as the battlefield lapsed into a silent standoff, neither pokemon willing to make the first move. It suddenly felt a lot harder to breathe, the air was thick with shadows and dust.

Then without warning, both pokemon lunged at once. Aggron's head met Dusclops' ice-coated fist in a vicious clash that sent the ghost-type reeling back, but not before its fiery hand clamped down on Aggron's neck and squeezed, heating the armor plates until they glowed red.

Aggron howled in anguish and lashed out with its tail, batting the ghost pokemon away. Dusclops stumbled backward but quickly regained its composure and leaped forward with another fire punch primed to strike. But this time Aggron was ready and Dusclops' fist bounced harmlessly off the blue energy of protect's shield.

Off balance again, Dusclops was unable to set its feet before Aggron drove forward with another iron head. Its helm met Dusclops' right hand in defense, but the force of the lunge drove Aggron's horns through the ghost's palm, garnering a roar of pain as its horns lodged into Dusclops' chest.

Steven had watched the furious exchange with bated breath, mentally counting down the seconds, and seeing their chance materialize he shouted as loud as he could, "Thunderbolt, now!"

A snarl ripped from Aggron's throat as Dusclops' eye widened in surprise. Disable's effect had worn off, and the crackle of electricity sounded from within the hollow shell of its body. Sparks surged from Aggron's horns, and the ghost pokemon jerked backward as the thunderbolt fried its bandages until they began to smoke. Sliding its horns free, Aggron let Dusclops slump to the ground, paralyzed. It quivered as it tried to stand, moaning pitifully with each failed attempt.

Sparing a glance across the battlefield, Phoebe seemed to be frozen in place, wide eyes locked onto where Dusclops had fallen. Her hands had balled into fists at her side in an attempt to stop them from shaking. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.

He didn't need to hear her whisper, the desperate word was clear on her lips.

"No…"

But the round was not over, and with the image of Dusclops' stomp fresh in his mind, Steven ignored Phoebe's silent plea and coldly gave his next command.

"Earthquake."

Aggron's jaw twisted into a nasty grin as it brought its leg down in a thunderous stomp, triggering the quake. Dusclops' wail of pain was drowned out by the rumbling earth, and it quickly succumbed to the sheer power of Aggron's attack.

"No."

This time Steven did hear Phoebe's voice drift over the battlefield, and when he looked to her again, his brow knitted in confusion.

"No, no, no…"

The Elite was hunched over in her box, both hands flat against the side of her head, as if she was being overwhelmed by some intense sound. Eyes scrunched shut, her shoulders shook as she rocked back and forth with her chant.

"No, no…"

Something wasn't right, she looked to be in physical pain. Hesitantly, Steven stepped to the front of his trainer's box and peered through the darkness. Wait, why was it so dark? The overhead lights were still on, but it was suddenly so much harder to see the far side of the chamber. He called out to the Elite with a nervous glance around.

"Phoebe?"

Just as her name left his lips, a howling gust of wind suddenly whipped through the arena, and Steven was forced to shield his eyes from the vicious gale.

Peeking out from behind his arm, Steven's eyes went wide.

The wind was swirling around Phoebe, trapping her within the vortex. But it wasn't just the wind that was circling. The air had become laced with inky shadows, and the darkness grew heavier by the second. Phoebe still was hunched over, head in her hands, but now her fingers dug into her skin, her eyes wide and staring.

"No. No. No. NO!"

She fairly screamed the last word, and Steven watched as Phoebe jerked back, face upturned to the dark ceiling above. All at once the wind exploded outward, sending him stumbling back from the force. And just like that, the vortex was gone and an eerie silence hung heavy in the chamber.

Then slowly, lifelessly, Phoebe began to move, producing two pokeballs from beneath her sarong. But she didn't recall her fallen pokemon. Instead, both pokeballs fell from her limp grasp with a clatter, and she slumped forward like a marionette that had lost its strings. They each bounced once, and then lay still.

"... Phoebe?" Steven's voice came out gravelly, his throat dry.

Suddenly, both balls sprung open without warning. But nothing emerged. Squinting, Steven peered through the darkness; something was pouring out of the opened balls. A black puddle of ooze formed at Phoebe's feet, slowing growing until in a blink, it vanished, seemingly sucked into the floor of the arena itself.

"What…?"

Were those her pokemon? Did she just send two out against him at once? Steven quickly turned to the scoreboard, but sure enough only one icon was illuminated under Phoebe's name. But there were two empty pokeballs right there on the ground. And her fallen Dusclops was now nowhere to be seen. What on earth was happening...?

Steven was jolted from his thoughts as Aggron roared in pain.

In an instant, his partner had been encircled in a ring of floating purple flame. The otherworldly firelight danced and flickered as Aggron squirmed with discomfort, accentuating the black scorch marks that covered its forelegs and tail. For when it had swiped at the flames to extinguish them, instead of vanishing they clung to its hide, inflicting a nasty burn.

As both trainer and pokemon scrambled to find a way out of the sudden predicament, they both froze as a cackling laugh rose from the Elite's side of the field. Just beyond the flames, Steven could make out Phoebe's slumped form where she had sunk to the ground in a kneel. Her head was bowed, seemingly lifeless. Then who had…?

Two fuschia eyes snapped open in the dusk and slowly rose from the ground until they stood in front of the fallen Elite, the creature's silhouette completely blocking Phoebe from view. The haunting laugh drifted over the battlefield once again, and this time Steven saw the golden glint of a Banette's cheshire smile, and he tensed with a scowl. Clearly the battle was still ongoing despite the unnerving turn of events. Was this all some trick meant to scare him into losing his composure?

Aggron picked up on his trainer's demeanor and grunted through the pain to affix the Banette with a glare of his own. But just as Steven steeled himself for the continuation of the match versus the trainerless pokemon, Banette twitched into action. Even though the hissing screech was muffled by the zipper binding its mouth shut, the force of its cry caused Steven to wince and cover his ears. Its pupils dilated until the pink was erased by black and with a shudder, a swath of darkness seeped from deep within its body, curling and writhing across the arena floor in a mass of black tendrils.

Bravado withering under the growing shadows, Steven watched in stunned silence as the tendrils twitched and dragged themselves toward where Aggron still was trapped within the flames. He tried to shout something to his partner, anything to try and break free, but his throat was too dry and he only managed a feeble noise before it was too late.

The first of Banette's tendrils reached through the flames and lashed itself around Aggron's leg, and the massive steel type jerked back in surprise. But the tendril held strong, and soon a second tendril joined it, anchoring itself to a foreleg, and a third wrapping around Aggron's tail. Another roar of pain sounded as Aggron reared back trying to free itself, but the shadows would not be thwarted. They squeezed tight around the seared flesh of Aggron's burns and dragged the beast to the ground.

"A-Aggron -" Steven finally managed to choke out, "Thunderbolt!"

His pokemon may have been incapacitated, but the elemental move didn't need any free limbs to be unleashed. Except that as Aggron opened its jaw to begin charging the attack, another tendril shot from the shadows and wrapped around its snout. Then with a mighty tug, the shadows contracted and dragged Aggron straight toward Banette where it was sucked into a wall of darkness.

Steven was left staring at his empty half of the battlefield; the only side of the chamber still illuminated by the arena lights. Long drag marks pointed to where Aggron had vanished into the empty void of nothingness. Heart hammering in his chest, he tried to shout to his pokemon, but it felt as if one of Banette's tendrils had encircled his own neck. He coughed as he tugged at the now-suffocating pressure of his dress shirt's collar.

And then, just as suddenly as the darkness had approached, it retreated. Sucking back to a puddle at Banette's feet and leaving behind its victim. Aggron lay in a heap on the ground, unmoving.

The red light of Aggron's recall beam flickering in the metal of its zipper, Banette's neon eyes slowly slid upward until they locked onto Steven's own. Frozen from where he had begun to reattach Aggron's ball to his belt, a vivid image flashed across Steven's vision; Banette appeared mere inches from his nose, eyes alight with a hungry glow, zippered mouth cracking open in a wicked grin.

Steven flinched back in surprise and as Aggron's ball clattered to the ground where he dropped it, he blinked in confusion. Banette hadn't moved from its spot on the battlefield. But Steven swore he felt the hiss of its breath on his face. Rattled, he quickly retrieved his pokeball and selected another from his hip. Perhaps Skarmory could continue its dominance over the familiar ghost type.

Thankfully when it emerged, Skarmory showed no sign of the curse's affliction, and Steven drew in a steadying breath as his flyer gave a sharp caw at the sight of its next opponent.

"Just like last time, Skarmory." His words felt hollow considering what he just witnessed, but he couldn't let his confidence falter now. "Just be sure to stay out of the shadows."

Nodding, Skarmory caught onto Steven's cautionary tone, and rather than rushing in, it drew itself up and eyed Banette with a wary look, waiting. The ghost still hadn't moved, frozen like an eerie statue.

Steven tensed, waiting another moment to see if Banette would go on the offensive, but when nothing happened save for the slight clatter of Skarmory's ruffling feathers, he threw his hand forward with a shout, "Air slash, now!"

In a flash, Skarmory wound up and unleashed two gleaming blades of air straight for Banette with a shriek. The ghost watched until the attack was nearly upon it, and just as the blades were about to strike, it slipped into the pool of shadows at its feet as if they were made of water.

The attack sent dust and dirt flying as it collided with the arena floor, and once again the shadows were spurred into action. They began to pour forth from where Banette vanished, coating the ground in a slick layer of inky darkness. With a squawk, Skarmory backpedaled away from the growing darkness, talons scrabbling as it retreated.

Again, the tightness found its way back to Steven's throat as he watched, and it took considerable effort to shout at his partner.

"Up, Skarmory! Get off the ground!"

With a push of its wings, Skarmory lifted off just as the spot it was standing was engulfed in shadow. Circling high overhead, it scanned the battlefield with a warble; there was no ground left to see. Nothing but a sea of black remained, and within it, Banette could have been hiding anywhere.

But so long as Skarmory remained airborne, it would be out of any immediate danger from the ghost's shadowy reach. Except that as a tightness seemed to spread across Steven's chest, Skarmory let out a cry; it spotted something moving within the darkness.

Two pinpricks of light bobbed in the inky pool of the battlefield, and before Steven could caution his partner to keep its distance, Skarmory curled into a dive, ready to close the distance for an attack.

The glowing eyes must have noticed they had been spotted, and as Skarmory bore down, they began to skitter left and right, running from the steel type's pursuit. Skarmory screeched as it swooped close, setting its wings alight with steel wing's glow. But as it prepared to strike, the eyes suddenly stopped moving and the shadows around them sprang to life, bubbling up from the arena floor.

With a vicious glint, the eyes leaped up to face Skarmory's charge, sharp teeth bared in a wicked grin. Skarmory squawked as it tried to pull up to avoid the shadowy foe, but it was too late. Its momentum carried it straight into the Sableye's fist. The follow through of the dark type's sucker punch sent Skarmory careening to the ground where it landed in a heap.

A cold rush swept over Steven as he watched Skarmory struggle to stand, the shadowy coating from the arena floor clinging to its feathers in black, sticky patches. Frantic, Skarmory screeched and tugged against the muck as Sableye approached, still grinning with cold, expressionless eyes. It sauntered to a stop right in front of Skarmory's beak and raised a clawed hand, palm out. Dark energy began to swirl and Skarmory let out a weak caw as it was helpless to avoid the point-blank attack.

And yet Steven found himself unable to do anything but watch. A voice at the back of his mind screamed for him to recall Skarmory to its ball, but his limbs wouldn't obey. The darkness that flooded the battlefield slowly poured into the trainers box, and although he couldn't tear his gaze from where Skarmory was trapped, he could feel the icy grip of the shadows roll over his feet, filling his veins with dread.

The explosion of Sableye's dark pulse reverberated through the chamber, sending a jolt of adrenaline through Steven's body that ripped through the paralyzing fear.

"Skarmory!"

He found his voice with a shout of dismay. Skarmory lay at the center of a small crater, unconscious. Black shadows slowly poured over the lip, pooling around its still form. Sableye stood at the rim, its eerie expression unchanged.

Recalling Skarmory before the black muck swallowed it whole, Steven's pulse pounded in his ears as he selected his next pokeball with a quaking hand. He wasn't sure which unnerved him more: the fact that Banette had switched seamlessly with Sableye without direction from their trainer, or the fact that he just lost two pokemon without laying a finger on either of the Elite's. Even though he was still ahead in the match, he couldn't stop the hint of desperation that seeped into his voice.

"Metagross, I need your help!"

Already on high alert as it landed on the battlefield, Metagross let loose a pulse of psychic energy that dispelled the pool of shadows from beneath its feet in a rush of air. The spiky tufts at the side of Sableye's head fluttered at the display of power, but still it simply stared, eyes vacant.

The familiar presence of his starter sent a reassuring wave over Steven, and suddenly it no longer felt like the shadowy walls were closing in around them. Bolstered by Metagross's confident rumble, Steven took to the offensive.

"Meteor mash!"

In a push that left cracks in the arena floor, Metagross shot toward Sableye with a roar. Its claw drove straight through the motionless pokemon, but instead of sending it tumbling, it was instantly obliterated in a cloud of tattered shadows. Metagross's eyes went wide at the remnants of its opponent fluttered to the ground, and Steven, too, frowned with worry.

"Sub...stitute…"

Both trainer and pokemon jumped at the first words Phoebe had spoken since her collapse. She was still slumped over on her knees, limp and lifeless. But Steven was sure she had said something...

But he no longer had time to worry about the Elite's condition, as up from the shadowy battlefield sprung no less than twenty identical Sableye copies. They climbed up and out from the pool of darkness and dragged themselves in a circle around Metagross, whose red eyes darted nervously from one target to the next.

Steven clenched his jaw at the rising lilt in its rumbling question. Metagross was strong, but the last time they had to fight a hoard of ghost types, things had not ended well… But if what Phoebe had uttered was true, then there was only one real target in the sea of clones.

"Take them out one by one, find the real Sableye!"

The plan had sounded good in his head, but as Metagross threw itself at the ring of substitutes, Steven realized it would not be so simple. For they all moved just like an actual Sableye, and as his partner would bear down on one target, another clone would twitch to life and fire a dark pulse that would catch Metagross unaware.

As the third sneak attack slammed into Metagross's flank, it sunk to the ground with a groan of pain. The familiar tightness snaked back around Steven's chest, and in a panic he began patting his pockets, searching for something.

"Metagross, retreat, now!"

His partner managed to rise back to its feet and lurched through the ring of substitutes back toward where he stood, finally having retrieved Glacia's Full Restore from his jacket pocket. Keeping a wary eye on the battlefield, Steven beckoned Metagross close and administered the healing item. It rattled a sigh as its fatigue melted away, and Steven allowed himself a shaky breath of relief as well.

"Okay…"

But just as the words left his lips, Metagross let loose a cry of pain. Sableye had used the shadows to slide across the battlefield undetected in a shadow sneak and dragged its claws across Metagross's rear leg. But the ghost type underestimated Metagross' reaction time, and before it could slip back into the shadows again, Metagross wheeled around with another leg and batted Sableye across the battlefield like a rag doll.

Sableye hit the ground with a screech, but instead of bouncing, it melted into the puddle of shadows that coated the arena, and so too did its substitutes, leaving the battlefield quiet and empty.

As Metagross slowly turned to face the center of the arena, Steven saw the lingering effects of Sableye's attack. Three claw marks were gouged deep in Metagross's armor, still sizzling with dark energy. He grimaced. Even with its strong defenses, its weakness to ghost-type moves meant it couldn't trade too many blows with their opponents.

But instead of Sableye, it was Banette that reappeared from the shadows, air alight with a will-o-wisp. But Metagross was ready. A pulse of its psychic powers surged forth, extinguishing the flames as it rushed forward. For the first time, Steven saw Banette's ever present smile falter just before Metagross's fist slammed into its face.

The ghost type bounced and skipped across the arena floor before several shadow tendrils lifted up from the floor to catch it before it skidded any further. Gingerly picking its way back to its feet, Banette wore a scowl as it held its cheek in its hands, displeased with its treatment as Metagross's punching bag.

"Keep at it, Metagross!"

But as Metagross bore down a second time, Banette had no interest in taking that attack again. Except that as it began to slip back into the shadows, Metagross changed its course. Its fist arced downward into the arena floor, sending chunks of earth airborne, effectively separating the shadows where Banette was intending to hide from the rest of the pool. Trapped, Banette made a desperate bid to dive back to the arena floor, but Metagross was waiting. With a gleam in its red eyes, Metagross's other foreleg swept through the air and caught Banette in the midsection.

Banette hung motionless for a second, its body folding neatly in half around Metagross's leg, before it gave a startled wheeze and rocketed away and into the sidewall of the chamber.

Chunks of rubble rained to the ground around where Banette had fallen, and Steven was barely able to peer through the darkness and spot the ghost quivering as it tried to rise. He frowned.

"Almost there, Metagross. Just a bit more..."

His voice trailed off as for the first time since the beginning of the round, a bright light pierced through the gloom of the shadowy battlefield and concentrated beneath Metagross's feet. Both trainer and pokemon glanced down at the unusual sight.

But before Steven could question the origin of the mysterious light, Metagross froze in place with a violent shudder and let loose a cry the likes of which he had never heard before. Equal parts animalistic howl and rising screech, Metagross writhed as the white light pulsed beneath it, somehow looking almost like it was alive, breathing, and slowly it saturated until it glowed blood-red.

"Metagross! Look ou-"

The words died in Steven's throat with a strangled noise as his hands flew to clutch at his shirt; a searing pain shot through his chest. It felt as if someone had jabbed a knife between his ribs, but when he looked down, there was no wound.

Metagross howled again, and Steven found himself trying to stifle another gasp as the pain rose once more, and he doubled over with a cough. When he withdrew his hand from his mouth, he was greeted with the sight of bright red droplets. He blinked, shocked, but in an instant the blood was gone, his palm clean of the sticky liquid.

"What?"

Squinting through the pain that had not disappeared, the light that engulfed his partner had vanished, leaving it even harder to spot Metagross through the heavy haze of shadows.

"What -" He choked on another short breath at the sharp discomfort. "What is happening?"

His answer came in the form of a rising giggle from where Banette had floated back to the battlefield. Her pain split had successfully sapped Metagross's restored energy and given it to her, saving her from succumbing to its last attack. Now back on her feet, Banette fixed the staggered Metagross with a wild eyed stare, faint chuckle still echoing about the chamber. Dark energy radiated outward from her petite form and seeped across the broken arena floor to puddle around the steel type's feet.

"Metagross, get out of there," Steven grated out, the stabbing in his ribs now dulled by an ache at the back of his head. Somehow it felt as if Banette was pulsing with malice, and the very heartbeat of her hatred was pounding inside of his skull.

But there was no time to worry about himself as Metagross' sluggishness hadn't worn off, and made it an easy target for Banette's tendrils to lash around its hide, pinning it in place. Unblinking neon eyes strayed from where his partner was trapped and pierced Steven with their gaze, sending a rush of ice through his veins. Without looking back at the trapped pokemon, slowly, Banette raised one hand, palm open, before clenching her claws tight. At the motion, hex's tendrils pulled taut with a surge of ghostly energy, and Metagross roared in agony as Steven watched, the overpowering menace from Banette's stare freezing him in place.

Spurred into action from the new wave of pain, Metagross surged to life, thrashing beneath hex's grip, but as one tendril tore, two more snaked from the shadows to replace it. Another pulse of energy rushed forth, and Metagross buckled under the pain. Its underbelly hit the ground with a mighty thud, kicking up dust.

But Banette must have sensed that even though Metagross was down, it wasn't out, and just as the steel type tried to surge back to its feet with a push of its psychic powers, the ghost pokemon dove forward with a shadow claw at the ready and raked its attack directly across Metagross's face. Red eyes lost their blue psychic glow as they squeezed shut from Banette's assault, but the ghost type would not let up. Slash after slash lashed out until the four mighty legs tugging against hex's bonds fell slack. Banette paused mid-strike and smiled, lowering her claw. Metagross had succumbed, and Steven's heart skipped a beat.

He missed the way Banette's shoulders slumped with exhaustion as she grinned. He ignored the numbness that seeped into his limbs. He didn't care about how he was down to his final two pokemon. His mind went blank as he stared at the form of his fallen partner; his friend. Not a rumble, or a huff, or a hum. Just cold, dead silence that was more of a punch in the gut than any of Phoebe's ghostly tricks.

It was almost as if someone else lifted his hand and recalled Metagross to its ball. He couldn't have done it, not with the way the icy fingers of dread had closed around his neck. It had to have been someone else that released Claydol onto the battlefield despite its type disadvantage. It wasn't his voice that foolishly commanded the defensive-minded pokemon in an all out attack. It wasn't his lips that curled into a snarl as the shocked Banette crumpled, unconscious, beneath his pokemon's pinpoint extrasensory strike. It wasn't his eyes that watched Sableye drag Claydol into the shadows in retribution as it screeched in terror for him to help it. And it wasn't his hand that shook as his sixth and final pokeball arced through the air.

Things felt muffled and far away, like he was slowly being pulled further down a dark tunnel deep into the earth. As the shadows closed in at the edges of his vision and the pinprick of light at the center of his vision seemed to grow fainter and fainter, an echoing chatter bounced off the walls that closed around him, and he jolted to attention. He could recognize that sound anywhere. The mouth of the tunnel grew wide again, and the shadows retreated as his eyes frantically searched for the familiar source of the sound.

"Beldum?"

Armaldo blinked at the odd question from its trainer and chattered nervously again, wondering why it was so hard to grab his attention in the heat of battle. But when Steven's response was a dazed stare and nothing more, Armaldo ran out of time to wait for a command, narrowly dodging a dark pulse that sizzled its way.

Sableye hissed as Armaldo wheeled back around to face it head on, eyes narrowed. It was a battle between them in the purest sense; the last ones left, and both combatants were currently trainer-less.

Armaldo's fins quivered momentarily, torn at the prospect of battling alone. Steven always had placed his utmost confidence in his pokemon, even when Armaldo was just a small Anorith, and he had trained them to become strong and confident in themselves. Even if it felt better to battle with his trainer at his side, Armaldo knew Steven would believe in his ability to battle on his own. So as Sableye bristled with impatience, Armaldo set his jaw with a determined grunt. His teammates were counting on him.

Perhaps Sableye had picked up on Armaldo's momentary nervousness, because as the fossil pokemon's resolve strengthened, Sableye's ever-present grin faltered a bit and it took a hesitant step backward, no longer able to prey on its wavering emotions.

The stone edge exploded from the ground right in front of Sableye, mere inches from delivering a critical hit. The ghost pokemon stumbled back from the glancing blow, and as it fell toward the ground, it vanished into the puddle of shadows still blanketing the battlefield.

Armaldo had to resist the urge to look back and see if the impact of its opening attack had jarred its trainer back to the present, but with no sign of its opponent, it had to remain on guard.

But the sea of shifting shadows would not give up its secrets, and Sableye slipped up from the darkness undetected, raking its claws across Armaldo's unprotected back. The armored pokemon roared in pain, but with its back turned, it missed the way its trainer flinched at the cry.

Without turning around, Armaldo released a blind stone edge where Sableye's strike had come from, forcing the ghost to leap backward away from the haphazardly thrown attack. The dodge proved to be successful, Armaldo was ready. This time, it didn't give Sableye time to hide in the shadows. Before the ghost even touched down from its jump, Armaldo spun on its heel and sliced clean through the remnants of its stone edge with a powerful aerial ace. Stone chunks exploded out from the impact as Sableye was driven backward before its cries were muffled under a pile of rocky debris.

But Armaldo wasn't paying attention to the fallen ghost. The force of its surprise attack had sent debris tumbling right at his trainer's box. Too far to shield Steven from the impact, Armaldo did the only thing it could think of. Eyes wide and fins standing on end, it screeched as loud as it could.

Steven jolted back to the present with a gasp and a shout of, "Armaldo!" just in time to register the imminent danger bearing down on him. Throwing a hand up to shield his face, he pivoted to the side as the largest boulder flew by close enough to send his suit jacket dancing in the breeze.

Somehow unscathed, Steven could only gape at the mixture of joy and relief on Armaldo's face. How long had the battle had been ongoing without him even realizing? His heart was still hammering in his chest, and the more he blinked, the more he realized that the single icon beneath both his and Phoebe's name on the scoreboard wasn't just his imagination.

He also realized that the shadow that reared up behind Armaldo wasn't his imagination either, and he pointed over his pokemon's shoulder, finally finding his voice with a shout.

"Look out!"

Armaldo screeched as Sableye launched itself from a wave of shadows, sucker punch aimed at its snout.

His partner staggered as the blow connected, but Steven caught the way Armaldo never took its eyes off its opponent, even as it grimaced in pain. Armaldo wasn't giving up, and neither was he. Ignoring the pounding in his head, Steven flung a hand forward.

"Counter with aerial ace!"

Obeying with a chattering cry, Armaldo's claws glowed bright with energy as it coiled low on its hind legs, transferring the force of Sableye's strike into a powerful push straight at the surprised ghost type.

With a shriek, Sableye threw its hands out, conjuring a shadow substitute as a sacrificial barrier. Except with its energy running low, the clone offered little resistance and easily tore to shreds under Armaldo's attack. But it had done its job, and the light of Armaldo's attack faded after it made contact with its initial target, even if the larger pokemon still kept its momentum from its jump.

Sneering, Sableye charged a dark pulse between its claws, ready to unleash it point blank as Armaldo flew closer. But its grin faltered as Steven's voice rang out.

"We're not done! X-Scissor!"

The claws crossed by Armaldo in self defense took on a green aura, and the growing light did little to hide the fierce glint in Armaldo's eyes. In a panic, Sableye threw its hands forward, teeth flashing as it opened its maw in a desperate scream.

Both pokemon's cries were drowned out as the attacks clashed in a mighty explosion.

Lowering his hand from where he shielded his face, Steven's eyes were wide with shock. Armaldo was down on one knee, dark energy sizzling from its hide, and across from it stood Sableye, stock still, lifeless eyes somehow still staring straight ahead. There was no time to process his disbelief as a wave of dizziness overtook him, and as the floor lurched beneath his feet, he clamped a hand down against his head to stave off the nausea. But as he squinted through the throbbing pain in his temples, he nearly choked at what he saw. Armaldo suddenly began to lean to the side, and a sinking feeling knotted in Steven's gut. It must have been too exhausted from its first battle to withstand the punishment of another one.

Phoebe's ghosts had toppled all six of his teammates, and the edges of his vision began to go dark as he watched Armaldo fall toward the ground. That was it. They had lost. Their journey was over. He braced himself for the sound of its collapse.

But it never came.

Instead, he jolted to a stop as a pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders and tugged him upright until his back hit something solid and warm.

"Whoa, hang in there, trainer! Don't pass out on me now!"

Iona's voice cut through the disorienting sensation, and for a moment he struggled in her grip, convinced he was now hearing things from another trick by Phoebe's ghosts. But as a second voice rang out accompanied by a rush of air from the open chamber door behind him, Steven snapped back to his senses and let Iona gently steady him on his feet.

"Phoebe!"

Blinking away some of the haziness, he caught sight of the ice-type Elite striding across the battlefield past where Armaldo stood tall wearing a look of concern to where its trainer was slumped against Iona's chest. Glacia arrived at Phoebe's side and knelt down, roughly grabbing her shoulders and giving her a firm shake.

"...What?" Steven mumbled, but Iona cut him off.

"Take it easy, you almost hit the deck for a second there."

She gave him a pat on the arm as he wobbled a bit in her grip.

"But… why?"

Iona sighed, "I'm gonna have to let Glacia handle the full explanation, but for now just know that you'll be right as rain once Froslass here does her thing."

The ghost type in question floated in front of him with a solemn look. Still thoroughly confused, Steven made to ask another question, but before he could find the words, an icy sensation suddenly pierced through his chest, and he gasped in discomfort.

"Sorry, this isn't fun. She'll try to be quick about it."

"W-wh-" The question died on his lips as he glanced down and saw that Froslass had plunged her hand straight through his chest. She rummaged around for only a moment before withdrawing her hand. Clutched in her grasp was a writhing mass of wispy shadows, and he shivered as she pulled, dragging the rest of the captive shadows out in a long, dark strand.

As the last tendril slid free, Steven slumped back against Iona again. He felt immensely better; lighter, more alert, but at the same time thoroughly exhausted.

By now, Armaldo had padded up to stand before him and lowered its head with a worried whine.

"I-I'm fine, Armaldo," he said, voice shaking, but finally not his knees. He straightened in Iona's grasp, and with a smile the Elite gave Steven one last pat on the arm before stepping back.

Thankfully, he managed to stay upright on his own, at least until Armaldo buried its head into Steven's chest with such force it would have knocked him over if he hadn't embraced his pokemon so fiercely. Trilling happily, Armaldo nuzzled into Steven's grasp.

"Congratulations, by the way," said Iona, beaming as she watched the pair.

When Steven turned to give her a shaky, albeit puzzled look, she simply pointed to the scoreboard. The only icon left glowing sat proudly beneath his name.

"You won."

Staring dumbfounded at the scoreboard for a moment longer, his gaze trailed back to the battlefield where Sableye was laying flat on its back, out cold. Armaldo made a happy noise and gently headbutted his chest again, and finally it all sunk in and left him a bit lightheaded. He couldn't keep his relieved laughter from bubbling forth, but it was short lived as he spotted Glacia marching toward him with a protective arm wrapped around Phoebe's shoulders. The younger Elite was shaking as she walked and Steven could see the remnants of tears that had streaked down her face.

"- I swear this has never happened before, Miss Glacia."

The ice-type specialist said nothing, offering instead a subtle squeeze of Phoebe's arm, and Steven swore Glacia looked even paler than she had when they first met. But when the pair arrived at where he and Iona stood, Glacia's attention was trained on her own ghost type. Froslass met her trainer's gaze and gave a silent nod, eliciting a quiet, "Thank god," to slip out under Glacia's breath. With a reassuring, albeit thin smile, the tension in her stance melted, and she gently nudged Phoebe forward.

"Go ahead, it's all going to be okay."

No longer being guided by Glacia's hand, Phoebe turned and found Steven staring at her with what he was sure was a jumble of emotions. Her eyes went wide and she nearly burst into tears again.

"I-I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for any of this to happen. What they did, I did, to you and your pokemon…"

Steven could only blink in quiet confusion, too many questions tumbling in his head to get even one out.

Glacia's lips were pressed thin, and she shook her head before offering the explanation she knew Steven was searching for. "What Phoebe is trying to say," she paused with a sigh, "...Is that she is a gifted trainer when it comes to communing with ghost type pokemon. She is strong in her own right, but she is also here under our tutelage."

Phoebe nodded, fearful eyes still locked onto Steven. Glacia's tone softened as she continued.

"Phoebe is from Mount Pyre, a place where the spirit energy of ghosts and psychics is strong. Ever since she was young, she had a special talent for being able to connect with ghost type pokemon. But as she got older, her abilities began to become more and more... erratic. Phoebe's grandmother asked the League if we could take her in and teach her how to control them."

"I just got so flustered, I-I don't know what happened," Phoebe blurted but then her gaze fell and her shoulders sagged, making her shrink even smaller beneath Glacia's arm. "I try to be positive all the time, since ghosts feed on negativity and... I think I got so nervous when we were battling, this was only my third battle since Iona and Glacia usually take care of most of the challengers before they get to me. It's just, you were so strong, and I… I didn't want to lose and let anyone down. I just wanted to do well and show the League that appointing me wasn't a mistake... So I panicked… I let the ghosts take over. And they…they must have laid a curse on you… and..." She swallowed a sob. "I'm so sorry."

Glacia shook her head, but her expression lost the characteristic edge it normally held. "What's done is done. In the end, you're both okay, and officially, the match wasn't technically illegally conducted, so," she looked to Steven, "the victory counts."

But victory was far from Steven's mind as he watched Phoebe swipe away some stray tears with a hiccup.

"I-I'm sorry, this isn't very becoming of a member of Elite Four."

"Phoebe, I don't blame you."

She hiccuped again at the sound of Steven's voice.

"Huh?"

"What happened in our battle… I know it wasn't on purpose." Armaldo rumbled in agreement from his side. "And I can't say I know much about how the League works, but if I were your superior, I wouldn't demote you just for losing one battle."

Phoebe sniffed. "Really?"

"You're an incredibly strong and talented trainer. You wouldn't be here otherwise. Besides, two other Elites already lost today, too."

He hadn't meant it as a jab, but Iona's stifled laugh told him the sour look on Glacia's face was directed at him. Wincing mentally, he quickly continued before Glacia could interject.

"Although after our battle, I can only imagine what's in store for me in the next chamber."

This time though, Glacia did butt in.

"You'll be fine," she very nearly grumbled. "Don't give me that dumb look. Believe it or not, I'm actually glad to see someone who will finally be able to put Simon in his place."

"Simon?" Steven still was unsure how Glacia could be so certain of his next battle's outcome.

"If I told you it's the same Simon that used to run the Slateport Gym, would you believe me then?"

A look of understanding washed over Steven's face as it dawned on him. The former poison type Gym… Glacia smirked as she watched his expression change.

"We brought him on to help train Phoebe, he had said something about mastering the tricky nature of dark type moves, but I think he made that all up to get out of Slateport. The old git never leaves his chamber, let alone tries to teach Phoebe anything. He probably took the offer just to have another notch on his training belt before he retires… He just sits and swaps war stories with Drake all day." Glacia huffed and crossed her arms. "Those are probably all lies too. Like I said, you'll be fine."

Iona cleared her throat with a nervous glance at the way Glacia silently fumed with her dislike of the fourth Elite before addressing Steven. "Unfortunately, we really can't grant you any extra time to rest before your next match, even though things went a bit haywire. League rules," she finished with an apologetic shrug.

Armaldo rumbled a sarcastic noise, but Steven shook his head. "I understand." He thumbed through the five remaining Revives in his pocket and nodded; his heart finally didn't feel like it was going to beat out of his chest. "We'll be fine."

Iona smiled and nodded in return, and Glacia joined in the sentiment with a hand on her hip. "Then good luck, trainer."

Deftly, he returned Armaldo to its ball and set off toward the door at the far end of the chamber.

"Wait!" Phoebe's voice called out behind him, and Steven turned. "Here, as an apology for what happened."

She handed him two berries, both hard and pod-like with an orange tint to their leathery casing. "These are Occa berries, and I think you'll find them useful against the Champion."

He nodded, and looked up to find Phoebe staring at him, suddenly looking very serious.

"Good luck. If anyone can do it, it's you."

The way she said it so earnestly caught him by surprise, but the weight that had been resting in his chest seemed to lighten, and for the first time he allowed his thoughts to stray to the "what if". He'd taken on lightning speed, icy strength, and ghosts that tried to kill him, and he'd made it through. They were past the halfway point, and if the Elite's vote of confidence was any indication, he was one short battle away from the final hurdle.

Steeling his gaze, he brushed a hand along the pokeballs at his hip before pushing the chamber doors wide and striding through to the hallway beyond.


…It has long been shown that the best aspects of trainer and pokemon arise in the heat of battle. Champion caliber trainers are few and far between, but those that are worthy will rise to the occasion and claim their place in Pokemon League history.