ACT I - A Fragile Identity

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

Little orange embers rose from the ground as the fiery field burned, lighting the black night sky with smoke. The plumes glowed from the fire, giving the open field a claustrophobic, oppressive backdrop.

"OWEN!" cried a Gardevoir with blue hair.

"Mom!" Owen mouthed.

Behind the Gardevoir was a Magmortar. With fire in his eyes, he launched another fiery volley from his cannons that exploded right next to the Seviper-Tyranitar. It hissed in pain; the Flame Burst sent it flying. Owen rolled with it but its coils loosened enough that he slipped out and crumpled into ashen dirt instead. The bursts lit up the surrounding field of formerly lush grass, cutting through the evening twilight's darkness. Then the flames died, their fuel exhausted. Only the fading fire of Owen's tail and the Magmortar's shoulders remained—making them easy targets.

Owen was free for only half a second. The thing arched its back, jettisoning a series of rocky spikes toward his father, the Magmortar. Three hits. They went straight through him. Blue fire erupted from the resulting holes. And then, his father exploded in a flurry of embers.

Dad? Owen couldn't comprehend what happened. He tried to stand.

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

"Get AWAY!" the Gardevoir, his mother, screamed for him. An incredible heat washed over Owen's back, and then a horrible, shrieking wail rattled his skull. He fell; the tail slipped out from behind. Blood gushed on the dirt beneath him. Blue flames filled his vision, coming from below.

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

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

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

"Shh, it's okay," she said, placing her hand firmly on his back. The pain was unbearable. He loved it. He laughed a little, wondering if he could still fight. Primal delirium flooded his mind.

"It's okay, it's okay," whispered his mother. "Calm down. Sleep…"

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

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

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

It felt awful. Energy drained from his core. His vision faded. He reached forward. His scales peeled off his body like dust in the wind, turning into blue fire. It didn't hurt. It didn't feel like anything.

Everything went dark. He heard his mother sobbing softly. Sighing with relief. That, too, faded into warm silence.

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

Wait. What happened? Wasn't he—

"No resting on the fire, Owen."

"Wh—huh? I wasn't!" He rolled away and quickly hid beneath his bed of leaves. Some of them turned black from the fire, but they didn't burn.

"Ngh," He held his chest. It felt bruised. And his back was killing him.

The blue-haired Gardevoir peeked into the room, her white dress aglow from the mushrooms and the fire. She sighed, smiling. "You're lucky we got you that special Rawst bed, or we'd need to replace it every night!" She laughed, but then walked over, patting him on the head.


Another voice whispered from the other room. "Amia, is he okay?"

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

"It's very late, Owen. Get some rest." Amia gently pressed her hand against his back.

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

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

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

"What's wrong?" Owen asked.

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

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

"Mmm. How are you feeling, Owen?" she asked.

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

Owen noticed the subtle, shocked expressions in his parents' eyes, but he didn't acknowledge it. Sometimes he liked to act like he noticed less than he did.

"I had one of those," Owen continued. "But I can't remember any of it. I think I was having a really big fight. I remember my heart racing!" Owen played with a lump of a potato in the stew. He chomped on a glowing mushroom. It tasted tangy, which helped balance the stew.

He grabbed his bowl and downed half of his breakfast. His parents' expressions were grave, but they feigned a smile when he looked at them again.

Owen knew this but chose not to point it out. "Weird, huh? Dreams are funny."

"Oh, Owen, maybe you're just nervous about all this," his mother said. "Becoming stronger, more responsibilities. Being part of the Thousand Hearts is a big deal, after all! …If you get in. Remember, there's no shame in failing the exams. Only a thousand can ever be in their combat division, hand-picked by the Heart of Hearts himself…"

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

"Yes, exactly," Alex stammered. "Are you sure you want to do this? It's not too late to… live quietly? Perhaps take on a farming job."

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

Fighting his favorite rock didn't scratch the same itch.

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

"Oh, Alex, you weren't up all night, were you?" Amia asked.

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

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

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

Alex gulped. "Amia, don't you think it's a little early?"

"Oh, Alex, we can't baby him forever. He's an adult!" Because someone had to admit it. "It's just one exploration. Into a known area. In a Dungeon, sure, but nothing he can't handle! He'll be just fine."

She fidgeted with her hands. It was a telltale sign she was trying to convince herself it would be okay. Owen chose not to acknowledge this, either.

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

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

"Well, if wild Pokémon think it's safe," Owen said, "then it must be nice, y'know? Heart of Hearts Anam blessed it, even! I bet if I get warped out, it'll even heal me! That's usually why ferals use it as a home, remember? They write all about it in Dungeon Basics." He paused. "Ever since the second edition, at least."

"B-but…! That's…!" Alex looked like he was going to collapse into himself with worry. "Wh-which Dungeon is it again?"

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

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

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

Owen hopped out of his seat.

"W-wait!" Alex called. "Did you meditate?!"

"Did this morning!" Surprisingly, this was the truth.

He grabbed a small, lightweight, golden Badge with a heart-shaped insignia from a nearby rock, and then grabbed his little exploration pouch from the front, wrapping it around his back. He glanced at the Provisionary Heart Badge within his claws, nodding to himself.

Alex's fire had finally returned to something normal in size. Amia put away the ceramic dishes, washing them with blue-hot embers coming from her hands, rendering it all to ash that blew away into the rest of the cave outside.

"I hope he isn't self-conscious of his size," Alex hummed. "It might affect how strong he is, even if he's stronger than the average Charmander, you know, given the…"

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

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

Amia bit her lip. "I know, dear. But you know it's me they're after, not him. Besides… He won't die. You know that."

"That doesn't make me feel any better. What if he's captured instead?" Alex rubbed his cannons together. "If I was just a little stronger, I could have defended us both. But I just… evaporated after the first strike. Curse this body. It's so foreign. Sometimes I wish I…"

"It's not your fault, dear," Amia said soothingly, holding his shoulder a bit tighter. "It's my fault, too. I should have been more careful when leaving the caves."

Alex frowned, but then the Magmortar forced a smile to the Gardevoir. "I'll try to relax," he said. "And—and if he isn't back by the evening… N-no, late-afternoon…!"

"We'll call the Hearts. I promise."

Author's Note:

This chapter was most recently updated on December 1st, 2023, as part of my (hopefully) final edit wave of the early chapters as this story gets close to its conclusion. You may notice a change in prose after a few chapters. I like touching up the earliest chapters to showcase how much my style has improved. Thanks for bearing with it as you read on!

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