ACT I - A Fragile Identity
Poison-tipped fangs plunged into Owen's chest. The Charmander cried out, struggling through his pierced lungs, and pushed against the stone serpent wrapped around him. He didn't know what it was. It had the face and colors of a Tyranitar, with its rocky edges and black gaps in its armor. Yet it had the winding, coiling body of a Seviper, a poisoned blade at the end of its tail, and long, sharp fangs stuck deep within him. He tasted blood; he couldn't breathe. His lungs were full.
"OWEN!" cried a Gardevoir.
"M-Mom!" Owen mouthed.
Behind the Gardevoir was a Magmortar. With fire in his eyes, he launched a volley from his cannons that exploded right next to the amalgamation. It hissed in pain; the Flame Burst sent him flying, along with Owen. The bursts lit up the surrounding field of lush grass, cutting through the evening twilight's darkness. Only the fading fire of Owen's tail and the Magmortar's shoulders lit the area—making them easy targets.
The impact on the ground gave Owen just enough time to escape, wriggling out of its rocky hold. He felt free for only half a second. Owen turned his head and saw the thing launch a succession of large rocks toward his father, the Magmortar. Three hits. They went straight through him. Blue fire erupted from the resulting holes. And then, his father exploded in a flurry of embers.
D-dad? Owen stared with wide eyes, distracted.
The serpent hissed and swung its tail forward—a sharp pain surged through Owen's back. A jerking motion forced Owen's head down. He saw the blade coming out from his chest. He had no way to scream.
"Get AWAY!" the Gardevoir, his mother, screamed for him. An incredible heat washed over Owen's back, and then a horrible, shrieking wail filled his ears. He fell; the tail slipped out from behind. Blood gushed on the dirt beneath him.
Owen fell face-first into the dirt, but despite this, it felt like the coziest pillow in the world. Everything felt cold, and then warm.
"Owen! Owen!" She rushed toward him, paying no mind to the fire on the ground. It didn't look like the flames affected her body at all. "Owen, it's going to be okay!" She held his back, pushing wave after wave of healing energy through his body. His breath returned to him; he coughed the remaining blood out.
What happened to his Dad? Owen's eyes darted in all directions, his expression asking what his mouth couldn't.
"Shh, it's okay," she said, placing her hand firmly on his back. The pain was unbearable. "It's okay, it's okay. Calm down. Sleep…"
The world curled itself up in a tiny circle in front of Owen, darkening into a distant tunnel. But then, the world uncoiled, much to Owen's displeasure. He just wanted to sleep.
The Heal Pulse intensified, the warmth almost too hot even for his Fiery body. He gasped his first breath, life—and pain—returning to him in full.
But then he felt a different energy course through him. It wasn't healing him. "Shh," Amia said softly. "Just sleep. Just sleep…"
It felt awful. Energy drained from his core. His vision faded. And then, darkness.
The dim glow of nighttime mushrooms colored the rocky walls of the cave. Mixing with this light were flickering embers of orange and yellow. Owen was lying in the middle of these flames, enjoying the warmth; they licked at his scales and washed over his back. The flame at the end of his tail got hotter, brimming with energy. He rolled over to sear his belly next.
Wait. What happened? Wasn't he—
"No resting on the fire, Owen."
"Wh—huh? I wasn't!" He rolled away and quickly hid beneath his bed of leaves. Some of them turned black from the fire, but they didn't burn. "Ngh," He held his chest. It felt horribly bruised. And his back was killing him. No wonder he was sleeping on the fire! But why did he feel that way? He remembered a fight. A fight that he'd lost. Badly. But was that just a dream? He remembered a rocky serpent. And fire, and explosions. It was all so garbled—he wasn't sure what was real.
The Gardevoir peeked into the room, her white dress aglow from the mushrooms and the fire. She sighed, smiling. "You're lucky we got you that special Rawst Leaf bed, or we'd need to replace it every night!" She laughed, but then walked over, patting him on the head. "Go to sleep, dear. Tomorrow's a big day for you, isn't it? Another expedition as a trainee. You don't want to do that while sleep-deprived, do you? When you get up, Alex and I will get you a good meal ready."
Another voice whispered quietly from the other room. "Amia, is he okay?"
Owen saw the burning shoulders of his Magmortar father. A vague image flashed in front of his mind of that very same Magmortar bursting into an explosion of blue embers. Bluer than his mother's hair. That must have been a dream.
"It's very late, Owen. Get some rest." The blue Gardevoir gently pressed her hand against his back, making him reflexively tense. She frowned at this, biting her lower lip with concern. "Owen, did you have a nightmare?"
"I think so…"
"Well, it's gone, now," Amia said. She looked back to Alex, who shuffled to the other room. "Get some sleep. It's still late at night."
Owen eased himself onto his bed of leaves again, giving a defeated nod. "Okay, Mom."
Right before going to bed, his mind felt muddled again. In the corner of his eye, he saw an eerie glow. His consciousness abruptly cut out.
Breakfast was a hearty stew. The table had three seats. Two were sized for the smaller frames of the mother and son. Both were approximately the same width, albeit oversized for Owen. The third seat was much larger than the rest—in order to accommodate for its usual occupant. Alex, bumping his cannon-arms nervously, looked down at his food without a hint of an appetite.
"What's wrong?" Owen asked.
"N-nothing," Alex said. He refused to make eye contact.
Owen squinted suspiciously. He glanced at Amia, who giggled nervously and looked at her half-eaten bowl.
"Mmm. How are you feeling, Owen?" she asked.
"Perfect! But, uh, I don't know. Did you ever have that feeling where you had a really good dream, but then you can't… remember it?"
Owen noticed the subtle, shocked expressions in his parents' eyes, but he didn't acknowledge it.
"I had one of those. But I can't remember any of it. I think I was having a really big fight. I remember my heart racing!" Owen played with a lump of a potato in the stew. His parents always got uncomfortable when he talked about his dreams, and he never knew why. He did admit that they felt too real to be dreams, but what else could they be? He had decided long ago not to press the issue. He grabbed his bowl and downed half of his breakfast. His parents' expressions were grave, but they feigned a smile when he looked at them again. "Weird, huh? Dreams are funny."
"Oh, Owen, m-maybe you're just nervous about all this," his mother said. "Becoming stronger, more responsibilities. Being part of the Thousand Hearts is a big deal, after all! …If you get in. Remember, there's no shame in failing the exams."
She was trying to help him feel better, but that didn't help the knot of inferiority tightening in his gut. How many times had he tried and failed to get in? No, this would be different. That was the whole reason he was going out on a practice exploration in the first place.
"Y-yes, exactly," Alex said. "Are you sure you want to do this? It's not too late to… live quietly? Perhaps take on a farming job."
"No way!" Owen said, beaming. "Fighting is the way to go. I can't live without a good fight. And what better way to fight than to, uh, y'know, fight bad guys?"
"Of… of course." At this point, his father's flaming shoulders were mere cinders. Owen's mother put her hand on Alex's back, shaking her head.
Owen returned to his meal.
. "So… today's the day, right?" Alex asked, breaking the tense silence.
"Oh, Alex, you weren't up all night, were you?" Amia asked.
Owen wouldn't doubt if Alex spent all night fretting over his planned excursion.
"No! I shut my eyes," he said. "…Owen, are you sure about this?"
"Super totally!" Owen said, tipping his bowl of stew directly into his mouth.
Alex gulped. "Amia, don't you think it's a little early?"
"Oh, Alex, we can't baby him forever. He's an adult!" she said. "It's just one exploration. Into a known area. In a Dungeon, sure, but nothing he can't handle! He'll be just fine." She fidgeted with her hands. It was a telltale sign she was trying to convince herself it would be okay. Owen chose not to acknowledge this, either.
"Yeah," Owen said. "And if I get horribly maimed, I'll just warp back to the entrance! It'll be fine!" He grinned, but he wondered if his word choice could have been better. He was trying to be funny, but he practically heard his father's heart explode through his giant torso.
"B-but it will still be dangerous! You'll be badly hurt, Owen! There are stories of bandits and outlaws and even ferals waiting for defeated Pokémon to return to the entrance. You'll be too weak to fight back, and then—and then—" Alex's shoulder fire nearly touched the ceiling of the cavern. "And what if you bring something important with you? If you get kicked out of a Dungeon in that way, you'll—lose it! You'll lose almost everything on you! Perhaps even your—your life!"
"Well, if wild Pokémon think it's safe," Owen said, "then it must be really nice, y'know?"
"B-but…! That's…!" Alex's arms heated up. He looked like he was going to collapse into himself with worry. "Wh-which Dungeon is it again?"
"It's only the Wooden Wilds, dear," Amia said. "It isn't even very far. And it's mostly just Bug and Grass Pokémon—you have nothing to worry about! He won't strain himself." She nodded at both of them.
Alex hummed against his lips, expression twisted with an endless pit of worry. "Okay," he said. "Okay. Then… then, you can go, Owen. But—be careful! Very, very careful. And if you ever run into trouble, we'll tell the Hearts about it right away."
"I'll be fine, Dad," Owen said. How humiliating would it be for his parents to ask the Hearts to rescue him? He was supposed to be part of them, not one of their clients! He hopped out of his seat. "Okay! I'm gonna go now, alright? See you!"
"W-wait!" Alex said. "Did you meditate?!"
"Did this morning!" Surprisingly, this was the truth.
Owen hopped out of his seat. He grabbed a small, lightweight, golden Badge with a heart-shaped insignia from a nearby rock, and then grabbed his little exploration pouch from the front, wrapping it around his back. "See you!" He glanced at the Provisionary Heart Badge within his claws, nodding to himself.
They watched Owen leave. Amia leaned into Alex's chest, sighing.
Alex's fire finally returned to something normal in size. "I hope he isn't self-conscious of his size. It might affect how strong he is, even if he's stronger than the average Charmander, you know, given the…"
Amia giggled, patting Alex on the shoulders, completely unaffected by the flames. "He's got a strong will, though, and he's resourceful, too. He'll make up for it. And who knows? Maybe this adventure is what he needs to control that spirit of his." She sighed, staring at the empty bowl Owen left behind. "I wish Rhys was still here. Maybe we wouldn't have had to…"
Alex hummed worriedly. "That was a close call, yesterday," he said. "I've never seen one of those mutants so powerful before. What if he runs into another of those—those things in the Dungeon?"
Amia bit her lip. "I know, dear. But that Dungeon is safer than most. If he runs into any trouble, well, it'll be better there than anywhere else. You know it's me they're after, not him."
"That doesn't make me feel any better." Alex rubbed his cannons together. "If I was just a little stronger, I could have defended us both. But I just… evaporated after the first strike. Curse this body. It's so foreign, even now. Sometimes I wish I…"
"It's not your fault, dear," Amia said soothingly, holding his shoulder a bit tighter. "It's my fault, too. I should have been more careful when leaving the caves. If we just stayed put, we wouldn't have had to put Owen through all that again."
Alex frowned, but then the Magmortar forced a smile to the Gardevoir. "Let's clean up the table," he said. "And—and if he isn't back by the evening… N-no, late-afternoon…!"
"We'll call the Hearts. I promise."
(Don't worry, I don't give out too many of these.)
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