I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder: one of the three beasts saying, "Come and see." And I saw. And I went forth conquering.

I. The Burial of the Dead

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

I had run out of Goldenrod, the storm following me.

I was a god. I wasn't supposed to weep over mortals. But I did.

I ran through the forest, ran into the mountains, ran into the wild places where humans feared to tread, and I found again my kingdom.

The air was hot and dry, scratching in my lungs, but in the afternoon the cold air would whirl over the mountains into storms. I had been strong when I left, and now I was stronger still, honed with the whetstone of competition against a thousand mighty battlers.

I crossed the ridge, lightning cracking over the queen of peaks, and I was home. Power hummed in the air, and I felt it stir at my call.

Far to the north of Johto was the wild country called the Stormlands, the place of Raikou, the Beast of Thunder.

Proudly, boldly, I announced myself to a murkrow flock, the bird pokémon arrayed in a spruce like dark scraps of cloth, winged harbingers of my arrival and my ascension.

"Stormlanders! Tell your flocks, spread the word—the queen has returned. I am Zulia, Lord Raikou, Queen of the Stormlands."

A silence.

"Sorry… who?" someone squawked.

I cleared my throat. "Lord Raikou."

"Never heard of 'im."

"God of thunder? Queen of the Stormlands? One of the three beasts?"

"Queen of the Buttlands, maybe," I heard behind me, and felt a beak twitch my tail.

The murkrow screamed and fled amusingly after I Thundershocked their tree, exploding its sap and splitting it in half, its smoldering crown tumbling down a cliffside.

No problem, you couldn't expect a reverent reception from dark-types.

I ran on, through the forest and the grassland, up the river and into the mountains below Suicune's country, announcing myself as I went, and my confidence faltered. Pokémon either ran from me or cowered (understandable), and few seemed able to recognize me (unacceptable). They tried to placate a wild-eyed, powerful stranger. I looked like a monster to them.

I was a god, and my congregation didn't exist.

I raced up a mountain peak, higher and higher, and at last I found an old, old jynx. Her hair was lank and white and her skin the color of twilight, and she grinned at me when I found her among the stones where the snow didn't melt.

"Hail, elder," I said, trying politeness. "I am Zulia the raikou, and I return from the human lands."

"So, the tyrant comes slinking back," the jynx croaked. "Did the humans throw you out at last?"

I was flabbergasted. "I have come to resume my ancestral governance," I said, as if she hadn't said anything. "Direct me toward other elder pokémon of your knowledge."

A more cackling laugh I'd never heard. "We have no need of gods," she said, "nor of tyrants. We have no need for your hunger. Go back to the humans, glutton, thief, miser, tormentor."

"I wasn't a tyrant," I said, incredulous. "I was your protector!"

The jynx pointed a gnarled, clawlike hand at me. "A conniving, overbearing queen who meddled endlessly and demanded tithes of energy, even in lean years. Many of my brothers and sisters could not have offspring, and instead their strength went to you."

"It's what I was owed," I said helplessly. "And anyway, I don't need it anymore, I went with the humans and became stronger than you can imagine. I don't—just have your eggs or whatever. I just want some respect!"

"Respect is earned, little queen," the jynx croaked. "Did your mother not teach you this? Huh! I may have to become an atheist."

I'd thought I was done earning it, to be honest, but I didn't say that in front of her. The crowds had loved me. Trainers would have killed to have me on their teams. But I didn't—

Well. Of course they didn't know me here. They didn't get TV service.

I'd just have to show them.

I ran back down the mountain paths, leaping from stone to stone above icy snowmelt streams. I remembered more and more as I smelled the pure air, the clean wind off the high mountains and the prairie breeze redolent with secret flowers. In the center of the forest there would be elders who would remember me and acknowledge my authority—and the stones of power.

The stormstones. It had been a long time since I'd last visited them—they were ours, my mother had said. The storms charged them up and our subjects gave us gifts, stored in the stones, and we could tap their energy to make ourselves more powerful or to heal—or, rarely, at great cost, to have an egg.

I thought about what the jynx said. Thief? Miser? She was talking about the energy in the stones. It was a gift. It was supposed to be for me, but, I mean, if someone needed it—if someone was hurt and dying—If you wanted to have a kid then have one, you didn't have to give it all up for me!

And I'd been gone. Who even had been going after people to donate—to tithe energy? I racked my brains, trying to remember what my mother had told me. What were the rules? I didn't remember. I remembered tournaments and strategies and field moves, moments with the team and my trainer. I remembered my mother, and I remembered this place, but—I'd been a kid, not even forty years old. It was a bit of a blur.

I was starting to concede that it had perhaps been a little foolish to come back here and expect to get a parade and a fanfare. Bailing on my kingdom to go battle had been a kid's reckless decision, and here I was having to sleep in the bed I'd buttered.

The stones, at least, were where I'd left them, tall and black and glassy against the blue sky, levitating gently. Pokémon had built huts around them, draped them with garlands and flowers, and the big apricorn trees still grew in the center, feeding off the ambient power.

Villager pokémon saw me coming and they stared, open-mouthed, and finally threw themselves flat on their faces as I passed.

"Raikou! Raikou!" the whispering grew.

I purred to myself. This was more like it.

In the center of the trees, ampharos and flaaffy were milling around and tending saplings, only to freeze when they saw me, a still life of country farmers.

"Lord Raikou," a big ampharos said, loud enough for the clearing to hear. "Welcome. Welcome at last." His hide was bright yellow, striped with black, and red gems glittered on his tailtip and forehead.

"I have been absent for some time," I replied, expansive. "But it's good to be back. I feared no one would recognize me."

"Come with me, if it please you, my lord," the ampharos said, directing me toward a hut. This was someone with the assurance of a leader, but who knew to be deferential to me. Much better.

It was large enough for me to enter without stooping, and it had a few items of comfort: a bed in the corner, a table, knitted cloths; and a few items of wealth: vases of preserved berries, shining stones, scrolls. The ampharos set out fired clay cups and poured berry juice that I lapped at politely. It was a rich vintage, the energy from the berries jolting up my tongue.

"So," I said, "who are you, exactly?"

"I am Denno, chiefest of your priests here in the Stormlands," the ampharos said smoothly, not commenting on my ignorance. "I administer your lands, crops, and collected energies. Now that you have returned I expect you will require a full accounting—"

Ugh. Too much math.

"—but I must confess…" He broke off, as if in pain, and took a breath. "We no longer control them all."

I blinked. "All the accountants?"

"Some of the stormstones have fallen into the influence of… rival factions. Pokémon that have strayed from your worship. They reject your authority."

"Oh, well, I expect that's because I've been away. If they see me back I'm sure they'll cooperate. I mean, I don't really need the stones, since I've been training with humans, but they'll be useful in the future. That said, it's been a long journey, could I—"

"The stones are charging at the moment, my lord," Denno said quickly. "Forgive my presumption, but if you could allow them to continue—"

"Sure, no problem." Well, no time like the present. "Where are some of these lost stones?"

He went to a shelf and fetched a scroll. He rolled out a map on rough, gummed-together paper: there was a crude drawing of the boundaries of the Stormlands, the natural barriers of the mountains, and the lakes and rivers. The stormstones were marked out with slashes of lightning bolts. The five in the village had been circled in wax; others, further out, in colored berry juice.

"The clefairy control this one," he said, tapping it with a claw. "The graveler, this one…" he added, indicating a bolt deep among the dark V's of mountains, "and, ah… 'Mama Bear' holds this one. You may have more luck persuading them to return the stones. I certainly have not. It may take more… earnest efforts."

I didn't like his expression as he said that. But here, at last, was someone paying me my due and speaking to me with respect and reverence. I'd make it work.

As we stepped out of the hut, the crowd of pokémon had grown: the flaaffy and ampharos were still there, and heracross and stantler, butterfree and pidgeotto and spearow in the trees, chikorita and bayleef, and a cloud of drifting skiploom and hoppip.

Denno strode forward to address them. "My friends! Lord Raikou has returned to us! She is on a sacred mission to recover the lost stormstones!"

A ragged cheer went up from the crowd, mostly the electric- and plant-types. They looked uncertain, looking more at Denno than at me, and I wondered what that was about. Maybe they were shy. The birds and bugs watched warily, and I sensed I'd have more work to do to win them over.

I wondered if they all were mad at me. I'd been gone a long time, and my treasures had been fought over, it sounded like.

"Lend Lord Raikou your faith!" Denno said, and he bowed to me, and so did the other pokémon.

"It's Zulia," I said. "Raikou is my mother's name."

No one laughed; a few of them lifted their heads and then ducked them again when they saw that not everyone had risen already. I stifled a giggle.

They seemed to be waiting for something, so I said, "Rise,"—uhh—"faithful gardeners." Nice recovery. "Please go about your work with glad hearts. There will be no more conflict in the Stormlands now that I have returned. Let me know if you have any concerns I can assist with."

x.x.x.x.x

My first stop was the clefairy flock. Denno gave me directions to their settlement, which was in the hills to the south, near where I had scared the murkrow, in fact. I raced over, the sun high in the sky; the air was hot and parched, though it was cooler under the trees.

The cave was large enough for me to walk in—probably an old onix borehole, and the dust on the ground was dappled by horned clefairy feet. I made my body glow with Flash; a sandshrew and a dunsparce squeaked and fled, seeing me, and at last I rounded a corner and ran into a number of young clefairy.

"Hi!" I said, lifting a paw at their wide-eyed stares. "Are your parents around?"

The fairy-types squeaked and ran, and I chuckled, following them. The borehole opened up into a chamber lit by a skylight, with paths and galleries spiraling upward along the rock walls—and in the center was one of the stormstones.

"Raikou! Raikou!" came a now-familiar whispering.

"Greetings!" I called out. "Uh… I am Raikou! I have returned from a long journey among humans, and I have come to restore order in the Stormlands!" A long silence; no one came forward. "Please, who among you is my storm-priest?" I hazarded.

"We do not follow the storm-priests," came a voice.

A large clefable flew down from one of the upper galleries and landed before the stormstone, and two others followed it. I suddenly noticed a lot more pointy ears and glittering eyes looking down at me from above.

"I am Luna, and I speak for the People's Republic of the Southern Ridge," the clefable said, her expression stern despite her pink hide and bushy, curled tail.

"I am Raikou, Beast of Thunder, Queen of the Stormlands," I answered, putting all of my elite battler's arrogance into it, arching my neck and letting my electricity spark a little in the cavern. "That stone is mine."

"We will not have lords here, nor priests, nor gods," Luna declared, advancing on me with her allies.

I smothered a laugh; their ferocity was quite comical.

"Listen," I said, trying a different tack. "I was your protector once, and the stormstones and their energy kept me strong, and your gifts were payment for that. We can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement—"

"Never again."

"Look, I don't want to hurt any of you—"

Luna began to sing, her voice clear and melodic in the cavern, and the others joined her in chorus until it was echoing from the hidden clefairy up above.

"Free we are we are, hear the sound of our voices: never again will we be ruled—"

Wait—Singing?

I felt my limbs get heavy.

An instant later, I was waking up outside of the cave, its entrance blocked by a big boulder, though not completely—the tittering and patter of the clefairy were still audible beyond it.

Anger shot through me like lightning.

"I am your queen!"

"Well I didn't vote for you," someone muttered.

I snarled, roaring and slashing at the boulder. It was a bad type matchup and I just jammed my claws painfully, but the remaining clefairy screamed, running up and away down the tunnel.

I growled, licking my paw. I could break the boulder with the right move, but I'd need to take the stormstone out of the cavern through the ceiling anyway, so—

"Hey!"

I whirled, and a pink shape darted behind a rock.

I'm not proud of this, but I let loose on it with a Thunder Wave that could have paralyzed a tyranitar, and Metal Clawed the stone to powder. Behind it was my fierce enemy, a runty clefairy with a squint and a spiky forelock. I felt instantly bad and recalled the energy, freeing it.

The clefairy gasped, its limbs jerking, and it stared at me, terrified.

"B-boss—don't—"

"You're fine," I snapped, turning away. "Can you move?"

It scrabbled to its feet, but it didn't run. It kept looking at me, torn between wanting to flee and something else.

"What is it?" I growled.

The clefairy flinched, but it said, "Listen, Boss, I got a proposition to make you."

"I'm listening."

"I liked what you said about protection, right? Not all of us are in old Luna's good graces, you get me?"

I peered at it. "What did you steal?"

"Nothing! Nothing. A couple of small things. Once or twice. Nothing anyone would miss."

"Uh huh," I said, already moving on.

"Look!" it called, chasing after me on stubby legs. "I'm unfairly persecuted, see? So are you! Nobody doin' you tribute! But maybe if I got to hang out with a big hotshot like you, we could talk about gifts, right?"

I halted, my lip curling, but this loser clefairy might be all I had. I could set up a Safeguard to deal with their Sing attacks, but even I would have trouble trying to magnetically pull the stone out of the cave with a swarm hitting me. No, I needed allies first, and I knew the rules there from traveling with Kin. Pokémon that were well-off in the wild didn't need trainers, and so they didn't follow them; the freaks and geeks did. All kinds of little monarchs had sprung up in my absence, and to depose them, I needed knaves.

The graveler would be good candidates for busting into the clefairy's hideout, but I suspected that their stone would be protected, too. Mama Bear's, meanwhile, was in the forest and perhaps less defensible—or at least not so well-shielded from my power, deep under the grounding earth. It would need scouting, I was beginning to realize.

"Come on, then," I said to the clefairy. "Hop on."

It stared at me for a moment before whooping and skittering up one of my legs to sit on my neck. "Anything you want, Boss, just say the word!"

I grunted. "What's your name?"

"Call me Chumley, Boss!" he said.

Well, it was a start.

x.x.x.x.x

II. A Game of Chess

Mama Bear and her stormstone weren't at the location I'd assumed from Denno's map, or had moved, and after a fruitless search spiraling outward I decided to take a chance on the graveler stone before heading back to the village. It was out to the east, into the rocky hills that were an offshoot from the Indigo Ridge that separated Johto and Kanto.

As I raced down a defile, the ground shook, and an onix burst out of the rocks in front of me, fixing me with its dark gaze. Chumley screeched and I grinned, leaping onto its back; onix burrowed fast, but they lost momentum in the open air. My claws glittered as I charged them up with steel-type energy, and I stabbed them into the onix's hide, sending rock scales flying. I leapt away—it was a minor wound meant as a warning, and I expected to be on my way again shortly.

An enormous cascade of boulders was tumbling down the mountainside at me.

Some of them were boulders—others were graveler, tumbling in charged-up Rollouts, their rough hides taking on the appearance of the natural stone of the area. A few geodudes joined them, lobbing stones at me that fell short. I rushed them, leaping, dancing from stone to stone and shooting past the graveler with Quick Attacks, although they had gravity on their side and were terrifyingly fast.

The first peak of force from the Earthquake sent cold, numbing energy shooting up my legs and throwing me high into the air. I stumbled as I landed, trying to avoid the next peak, but it got me, disorienting me as the ground-type power battled mine. Thrown rocks connected, and I tried to dodge the follow-up Rock Slide. I roared as a boulder hit me in the side—and squeaked as another one knocked the wind out of me.

I was down, gasping.

"Boss! Boss!"

Chumley's chittering reached me in my pained haze, and I looked up to see the golem barrelling right for me.

It had taken me ages to learn this move; I must have visited the tutor a dozen times just to get the energy flowing properly in the first place, let alone actually execute it. Even now I preferred to lean on the weaker Metal Claw, easier to focus the energy into a familiar motion.

The black plate on my forehead glowed, and I punched into the golem with all my might, firing a Thunderbolt backward from my off my tail to give it extra oomph. Iron Head.

Still, she outweighed me, and we ended up tumbling down the hill together to lie in the gravel. But I rose first, and I flipped her over to look at me, planting my claws in the weak points under her throat and armpit.

"You tried to assassinate me," I roared at her, heart pounding, furious. I looked around at the graveler and geodude, who were encircling us warily. "Step back!" I snarled. "I'll kill her!"

Thundershocks were sparking off me and grounding themselves in the dirt and on the golem's face. She didn't notice.

"That's a big word for killin'," the golem said slowly. "I did try."

"Why?" I asked, breathing hard, trying to get under control.

"To see if I could. No love for gods. A moltres drove me and my people out of Victory Road. We had a nice place there." Her scaled eyelids fell and rose glacially. "And Denno said we could have their stormstone if we got rid of the clefairy. He said we could have three if we got rid of you."

I hadn't liked that guy.

"Let my kids go," the golem said. "I'm their elder. They do what I tell 'em."

I thought about killing her. Fair's fair. I looked down at her, my iron-shod claws digging into her carapace.

"Do you trust Denno?" I asked her.

The golem laughed like river stones hitting one another. "Nope. 'S why I never went after the clefairy. That's a lot of murder for nothing. But if I killed a god, well, that might be worth stainin' your soul over. I think we could've held the stones then."

I sighed; I was starting to feel my injuries, and Denno's sudden but inevitable betrayal nevertheless weighed on me. "I beat you," I said to her. "Are you gonna do what I tell you?"

She blinked, throat working. "Yeah, alright."

I let her up, and she crouched, watching me, hunched under her round, rocky carapace.

"I'm Raikou, and I'm back," I said to the assembled ground- and rock-types. "I'm not here to be a terror, or whatever, I just want what's owed to me. But I'm gonna take back the stones, and you can be behind me when I do or you can be in front. Your choice."

I looked down at the elder golem.

"The moltres in Victory Road, that was Jezerain. She's kind of an asshole."

The golem's pupils widened, and she laughed.

"She and the other moltres all went back to Cinnabar when it blew up. You could go back to Victory Road if you wanted." I flicked my ears. "Probably," I amended. "Humans do mess with it a lot."

The golem tilted her head, allowing this. "I think I wanna see what you do first, Lord Raikou."

"It's Zulia. Lord Raikou is my mother's name."

She laughed again. "Torasol," she said. "Thanks for being a good sport. You c'n call on me to repay my debt for my blasphemy, but after that… we'll see. Good luck, conqueror."

I watched them roll off up the mountain and into tunnels. The onix dragged itself away underground, and I caught sight of some lurking gligar and sneasel as they scurried away.

Chumley popped out of my mane.

"Damn, Boss. I ain't think my heart will ever slow down."

"Mine too," I muttered. "Come on."

x.x.x.x.x

It was night by the time I stumbled into Mama Bear's village. I'd followed my nose in the end, doing my best to sense the energy of the stormstone, although I wasn't anywhere near as good as my sister Atlitzin. I vowed to practice energy sight with her the next chance I got. Spitefully, I considered draining the stormstone to restore my health, but I had gotten the hint that the pokémon would be less inclined to negotiate with me in the morning.

All I needed was a rest, and I could steal it later if needed.

By day the village was a mirror of Denno's, the huts circled around a single stormstone and a grove of apricorn trees, although in this case I suspected the pokémon had moved the stone to a place of power, rather than its site becoming one.

Mama Bear was waiting for me; she was an eight-foot-tall ursaring, and she towered over me, other pokémon watching from the shadows and the hut doorways. It looked like mostly normal- and fighting-types here: other ursaring and furret and raticate, machoke and chansey.

"Hi," I said to her. I was still sore from the previous day's fights, and I already sensed how this was going to go.

"Howdy. What're y'all up to today?"

"Denno played me," I said, abandoning the preamble. "If he said he'll give you stormstones for killing me, I'm pretty sure he's playing you, too. And I'll kill you." Probably. Mama Bear was big. She was a petty queen for a reason.

"That ain't new information," Mama Bear said. "And I'm gonna ask you to leave unless you have something I can use."

"I'm gonna fight Denno instead," I heard myself say. "You in?"

The ursaring grunted. "Let's take a walk, Raikou."

x.x.x.x.x

The morning dew didn't last long. It was cool beneath the trees, but the ground was dry between them, the vegetation subdued.

"I left when I was a kid," I told Mama Bear. "My mother died and I met a strong human, and I battled with her for years. Until… Anyway. I don't actually remember what it was supposed to be like, only that it's not fair now, I think. I want to fix it."

"We gave you gifts of energy," Mama Bear said slowly. "And you protected us from evil powers. Is what my mother used to say. Was before my time. All I know is, the stones take too much, and I won't deal with Denno. If you take 'em back, maybe I'll deal with you. But it's enough for me to hold what we have. The stone feeds my people. I won't give it up 'nless you kill me, or you find some other way to feed 'em."

I chuffed agreement. "How do you use the stormstones?"

"Whaddya mean?"

"The power they absorb, how do you tap it?"

"The energy is there, ready," she said, eyes narrowed. "You direct it like in battle." She grunted. "Guess if you don't know how to do that, you can't use it. Anybody who's powerful must be able to."

"Who gets some? The energy? Just your friends?"

"Anybody who follers me. We tap it now and then to keep our strength up. If yer too new or you been doin' wrong, then no."

"Does it work? Have there been fights?"

Mama Bear shrugged. "Seems to work well enough. What happened to yer trainer?"

"She died," I said.

"Sorry to hear."

"I had good memories of the Stormlands," I said to her. "I used to live here with my mom and my sisters—well, they were a lot older than me, but a lot younger than her. They took care of the water and fire, and I took care of the storm. Or I was supposed to. But I ran off, and eventually they came too, and they settled in to living with humans. So did I."

"I had a trainer, too. 'S why I'm strong," Mama Bear said. "It's easier out there. Hurts to leave home. Hurts to leave again. But it lets you keep what's yours. I made my place here. I knew I'd be nothin' when I came back, but eventually I got noticed. You just walked in like you owned the place. Bit of an affront, yer lordship."

Kin would never have put up with me swaggering around like that, that was for sure. I covered my face, sorrow and humiliation bubbling up, and I groaned sadly.

Mama Bear pitied me, and she threw an arm around my shoulders like I was her huge, yellow, stupid cub.

"I thought I had something to come home to," I said eventually. "I thought I would just come back and it would be like how it was."

"You might, yet," the ursaring allowed. "But it ain't how it was. You gotta earn back that place."

x.x.x.x.x

There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain

I set out from Mama Bear's village better-rested, but with a heavy heart.

"Watchu gonna do, Boss?" Chumley asked me.

"I think I can bring down Denno, but after…" I huffed a sigh. "I was away too long. Nobody trusts me."

I didn't think it had been that long, but my life was longer than most people's. Too many generations had passed since my mother had ruled in the Stormlands. Forty years had been a lifetime to some pokémon, or half that, and they didn't remember me, or they remembered someone who ruled poorly.

I could change their minds, but deposing Denno and taking his stones by force might not be enough. The other pokémon—Luna, Torasol, Mama Bear—were strong, but they hadn't attacked Denno, so he and his followers were stronger, and Torasol had given me a run for my money due to the type matchup.

We might even end up destroying a stone, or messing up the apricorn grove and energy source at the very least. Humans called that a Pyrrhic victory after some dead guy. What if I killed someone accidentally?

Why was I here, anyway?

I'd thought it was a home I could come back to. I didn't sign up to play diplomat and try to fix all these people's problems. Hell, the way they were acting it was plain it wasn't any of my business.

I thought of Kin dying again, the last needle, her last breath fluttering away, the sadness lancing up and down my body. And I realized I'd run out on the rest of the team, too. Knucklehead.

I thought it was about time my little vacation ended.

I turned and I leapt into the air, and I started racing for Goldenrod.

I ran faster and faster, wood and grassland parting before me. Chumley whooped on my back, his pink claws clutching my mane. I breathed in great lungfuls of air and felt my muscles work, felt them pulsing with electricity until I was as fast as the wind, as fast as lightning, and my feet barely touched the ground.

I raced south to the ridge, and I turned to get a good look down at the Stormlands. One last look.

Thunder rolled as lightning cracked on Catatumbo, the queen of peaks. The trees shivered, crowns whirling, as the wind raked over them. There were lakes below, crystal blue, and volcanic calderas further north; I wondered what my sisters were doing, if they'd ever felt compelled to return here. I'd have to ask them.

"That's beautiful, Boss," Chumley said, sliding off my head and taking in the view. He sighed. "Still ain't gonna rain, looks like."

And I saw how the massed clouds stopped at the mountain ridge where they should have spilled over, and I felt dry dust and parched leaves and claw-sharp grass stems under my paws.

"How long has there been a drought?" I asked Chumley.

"Uhh." He itched in one of his ears with his back leg. "Many summers. I ain't good at counting."

More than four, although that was probably an unfairly dim view of his counting ability. Then again, I watched the clefairy eat his earwax and revised that judgement to accurate.

I looked behind me, south toward the humans and normalcy, and north again, at my sad, divided, parched Stormlands.

"Do you know who would know for sure?" I heard myself asking.

"Yeah, the poindexters," Chumley said. "They know ev-ry-thing."

x.x.x.x.x

Chumley's directions led me to another part of the forest, low-lying and swampy. Here totodile and croconaw lay in wait among the reeds, and ledyba and yanma buzzed overhead. Wooper burbled quietly to one another as I passed by, and poliwag swam away into the hollows of trees shiny with rot.

Eventually the ground started to slope upward, and I found myself walking through a grove with an ancient tree at its center, huge and pot-bellied. I leapt from root to root and finally found the doorway, the hollow stuffed with piles of dead leaves to hide the opening from a cursory glance.

I hopped down and knocked, my back paw rapping against the wood.

After a few moments, a spyhole slid open further up the trunk.

"Who is it?"

"I'm Zulia the raikou," I called up to the pair of glittering eyes just visible in the shadow. "I'm looking for—"

"Can you prove it?"

"Prove what?"

"That you're Raikou."

"Uh…" I sat back on my haunches and spread my forelegs. "It's me? God of thunder? One of the three beasts?"

"Prove it."

I looked around, picking a dead log that didn't look load-bearing, and exploded it with a bolt of lightning. Wood chips and beetles pattered against the tree.

"Haha, sick, Boss."

"I suppose," said the speaker, and the hole slotted closed. A moment later, the doorway opened.

Chumley went ahead, and I squeezed myself through, shedding fur and dignity along the way.

Inside, the tree was hollow. The dead heartwood had been pared away by grass-types, the wood taken away and shaped into tools or artifacts, carefully avoiding compromising the structure or damaging the living plant. Psychic-types had moved in and made the ripples in the wood into a network of rooms and ramps all the way up to the hollow crown: in the glow from bioluminescent orbs, I saw drowzee look down at me and then shrink away, and up high there were floating natu and abra.

A kadabra scuttled in front of me, her exoskeleton clicking, and she stroked her half-grown moustaches.

"Huh, so you are Raikou," she said. "I'm Neili. What do you want?"

Rude, but she wasn't trying to kill me, so I'd let it slide. "How long has there been a drought?"

The kadabra watched me, and I felt the faintest touch of her mind as she picked up subtext from my transparent thoughts.

"Come with me to the library," she said.

Neili led us deeper into the tree, where there was less light, and I used Flash to compensate. The air was moist, vegetable-smelling, until suddenly it wasn't.

A side room held books and scrolls that were stacked high up into the dimness of the trunk, and above us natu and xatu fluttered, sorting and levitating the documents, the environment changed to preserve them. A solemn whispering of paper filled the library, and I wondered what secret knowledge, what wisdom that only pokémon knew was stored here—although the effect was somewhat spoiled when I got close to the spines and realized one row was the entire run of Mega Pokémorphs.

"They're exciting, okay," Neili said defensively.

"No arguments here," I said, pulling Chumley back from nibbling on a scroll. "My trainer read them aloud to us. We had to battle an Elite for a copy of the last book when they didn't print enough."

An alakazam joined Neili, her moustaches sumptuous, though her brown exoskeleton had a significant chip out of one shoulder.

"I'm amazed you can read," the alakazam said, her psychic voice a trifle condescending. "No offense. It doesn't come easy to most pokémon."

"You pick it up, here and there," I said lightly, levitating a scroll down to eye level.

I was illiterate to these glyphs, and the crude paper and bark cover was another clue—it was written in the system psychic-types had devised and kept secret from humans. I slid it back into its place on the shelf.

"I didn't know your kind had telekinesis," the alakazam said, interested.

"The three of us can use Extrasensory," I said, "but not the main stream of psychic attacks. As humans reckon them," I added, hurried.

"I am Aili, the caretaker here. We hold knowledge. I understand you have a question?"

"Yes. How long has there been a drought?"

"Average rainfall has declined each year for several decades," Aili said. "I can show you the record, if you like."

"Since what date?" I asked, a cold feeling in my stomach.

"Well, there are variances, micro-climates—"

"When?"

"About thirty years."

I'd left the Stormlands about forty years ago, and my mother and I had quarreled. Atlitzin had left next, and then Tambora, and the entei had told me that my mother had died. About thirty years ago.

I knew what I had to do.

I stood, electricity crackling along my mane. "I need to take back the Stormlands. I need to reconquer them—and bring back the rain."

Neili snorted.

"No, you don't," Aili said.

Oh.

"Uh…" I stared at them. "What? I'm Raikou. I'm the thunder god! I bring the storms! Where is the rain, if—"

"Oh please," said Neili. "Don't try that Fisher King crap. There's a drought because there's a drought."

"It's a cyclic climate variation," Aili said. "It will come back in time."

"Well—"

"It is, however, true that the drought is hurting us," the alakazam went on. "The principal means by which new energy is brought to the planet is, of course, the sun, but rain and storms are a powerful force by which energy is redistributed." She twirled one of her moustaches. "And, of course, natural upwellings from underground springs and aquifers—"

"Tectonic activity and magma," the kadabra added.

"Yes, but—"

"But," said Aili, rounding on me, "were it not for your mismanagement, we would have the resources and stockpiles to see us through the drought!"

"Me?" I asked, taken aback.

"Boss?" Chumley echoed.

"Yes!" Aili said gleefully. "What do you think is the purpose of the stormstones? They are mobile! You could take them up to Catatumbo to absorb electric energy and then bring them down to the grove to transmute! Everyone could benefit! And instead"—she jabbed at me with a wooden spoon—"you greedily drained them dry!"

"What? No!"

"Yes! Who do you think you are, setting yourself up as a god over us—"

"We kept the forest safe from evil spirits and dark powers," I heard myself protesting. "My mother said—the Stormlands could have been destroyed many times if not for us! That's why we controlled the stones! It was our right!"

"The stones belonged to all of us!" the alakazam said. "Raikou was the caretaker, and you squandered them!"

"And what," Neili asked, interjecting, tail and whiskers bristling, "were you even doing with all the energy? Last year your storm-priests were even demanding more tithes—to bring the rain back, they claimed. How can you come here and lie to us—"

Last year?

"Neili, Aili," I said to them, lowering my voice to normal. "Please listen to me. I've been a battle pokémon, training with humans. I haven't been here in the Stormlands for forty years."

The psychic-types' mental voices shut off with a buzz. It was fascinating to watch their eyes grow wide as they spoke to one another, thoughts shooting between them as fast as lightning.

"I've never liked the storm-priests," Aili said eventually, stroking her moustache.

"What would happen if they were gone?" Neili wondered aloud.

They both looked at me.

"So. Why are you here, then, battle star?" the alakazam asked me.

I told them everything that happened: Kin's death, my return, the disarray of the Stormlands that I'd observed, and the pokémon factions I'd met with. The psychic types' ears twitched as they listened.

"What's your plan, then?"

"Denno invited people to kill me, so I'm gonna take his stuff," I said. "I think he's misusing the stones he has. After that… I, look, I wasn't thinking straight and I bailed on the rest of my team. I need to head home. To them. So, maybe I can defeat Denno and give the stones to someone—"

"No!" Aili said, grabbing my whiskers. "Stars, no! Occupation governments always collapse—"

"Ow! What? Ow! Stop! What then?"

"Look, if you're going to conquer the Stormlands—" Neili went to the Mega Pokémorphs shelf and grabbed one of the later books. "It's like when Alyssyyn destroyed Egadei. She turned into a tyranitar and rampaged through the slave district and freed all the clone-slaves, right? Woo-hoo, great, happy ending—but the slaves had never actually known independence, and she had to go back a second time to free them from the cheats and tricksters that took advantage of them. If you use strength to change the order of things here, you need to stay, because all that follows will be built on fear and your ability to manage it. Do you get it?"

I did; those later Pokémorphs stories had been really depressing.

"I don't… actually want to do that, to be honest," I said. "I think I might just head home."

"You don't want to rule?"

"Sure, but I like the 'adulation of my subjects' part, not the 'governing' part, and I can get that battling and have fun doing it," I told them. "I came back here because I thought it was, like, my fallback plan, but it's been too long. I don't want to be here."

I heard a little voice: "Boss…"

Ah. I'd forgotten about Chumley.

"You can stick with me, kid," I told the clefairy. "You gave me fealty so I'll be your trainer or whatever. Like Kin did for me."

"You promise?"

"Yeah, of course. Human kids do it all the time and they're as dumb as two rocks stuck together with pine sap."

Neili and Aili were watching me.

"What is a trainer, to you?" the alakazam asked me.

I shrugged. "Humans are… they can hold more in their heads, more thoughts, more plans, more worries. They can direct a whole team and think ahead."

"Humans don't rule you?"

I waggled a claw. "It's not about ruling, it's about working together toward the same goal. You do what they say not because you're intimidated, but because it's a good idea."

And, thinking about it, I had to curse a little, inwardly: I'd forgotten so much about the Stormlands, my head full of moves and type matchups and counters and my rivals' abilities. Like Kin. As we'd grown closer and closer, I'd become more like a human—powerful, fed by our bond, but there had been… drift. I'd learned how to read. I'd started to see more, plan further—

Pokémon aren't stupid, Kin had explained once, you just have different priorities than humans. It's fine. It's not bad. You have other strengths.

Even gods could benefit from a human: they could plan better, consider more angles, juggle potentialities. But that foresight made them worry about the future; it made them break down, sometimes, under the weight of all those possibilities, minds running in circles—

They were fragile. Kin had grown frail, eaten by disease, and she had chosen to die.

I hated her, a little.

I wondered if I, too, had become fragile.

The pokémon thought I was a tyrant? Maybe I should be one, then, and take what was mine: kill Denno, kill Luna, kill Torasol, kill Mama Bear. Queen Raikou. Conqueror Raikou, avenging god.

How dare they challenge me?

But I started to think that it wasn't mine, thinking of the clefairy and their carefully hollowed-out caves, Denno's people caring for the apricorn trees, the psychics with their books, the rock-types making the mountain paths.

Maybe it was ours.

Could a country be a team?

Aili put a claw on my foreleg. "Listen," the alakazam said. "We don't want to be ruled. We don't need gods, we don't need queens, we don't need priests. But what we could use, when monsters and darkness come, or when we fight over who has to give energy and who gets to use it, as we learn to work together instead of against one another, what we could use, is a peacekeeper. What do you say? Can you stay for a while?"

You should be worshipped, you should be feared, you should be obeyed, said a voice in my head.

I didn't want that.

I had all the attention in the world in the arena. Why had I run?

Because I'd wanted something else, and when it died I left.

No good can come of putting your heart in a human being's hand. They never last, not like we do. Not like gods.

You had to love something that would last. You had to become something that would last.

x.x.x.x.x

What had Denno done with the energy?

The stormstones glistened in the moonlight, the village dark and still. A noctowl passed by overhead but didn't cry an alarm. I crept up to the stones and stood at their center, the pillars standing over me like judges, and I touched one of them.

It was utterly drained.

I moved from stone to stone, my claws noiseless on the glassy rock, and they were all powerless, with only the faintest whisper of gathered ambient energy on their surfaces, and I had to suppress a laugh. This whole time we'd been fighting over an empty vault.

I didn't understand where the energy had gone: by all accounts, the pokémon in the village had been giving up measures of energy regularly, energy that could have strengthened them or a child, or been used to make an egg. And they were upset about it; the tax was too much, and their discontent had reached the other pokémon factions, had caused the other petty rulers to split away.

I racked my brains trying to think what you could do with energy; all I knew about was eating it. Could you sell or trade it? Was there some kind of energy black market I didn't know about? Where had it gone? Was there a secret army of ampharos goons waiting for an uprising? If Denno had that, then why had he pit me against the other stormstone masters? To weaken us for his push, I guessed.

I sighed. Even a god needs allies.

x.x.x.x.x

III. What the Thunder Said

Humans and pokémon stared as two gods rounded the corner and ordered drinks at a Goldenrod coffee shop. I had to admit, I never got tired of this.

My sister Atlitzin, Queen Suicune, Lady of the Waters, licked the whipped cream off her drink. "You always were a showboat," she muttered. "What happened to your groupies?"

"Ate 'em," I said, and she laughed.

I'd left the forest recklessly, the youngest sister, and Atlitzin had followed—not to battle, but to become a ranger-pokémon, sworn to defend humans and pokémon from criminals and monsters. She had many allies, though they would always put their ranger duties first. But surely only a few gods would be needed.

She listened to me detail the situation in the Stormlands, eyes glinting as she considered strategy.

"Why do you want to be back there, anyway?" she asked me later, after we'd fallen to silence. A kid with a camera was snapping photos of us. "It was boring. You think I want to stand around on the lake looking mysterious all day? I have stuff to do."

"Humans made us feel like that, like we have to be doing something all the time," I mumbled. "Maybe it would be good to go back. It was simpler."

"Was it? Or were you so bored it wasn't even a thing you could name? So bored it was like a scream building to burst out of you? Humans say, 'fish don't have a word for water', which is horseshit, but you know what they mean."

Yeah. Yeah I did.

"I don't want to exile myself," I said slowly. "I just… We abandoned the Stormlands. I'm starting to feel like."

The suicune looked uncomfortable. "When you left," she said, "something was missing. And I felt like I could go too, and I went further and further until I found something else. I think Tam did too. She's in town."

The suicune took a long sip of her coffee.

"I could help you reconquer the Stormlands, sure, but you won't hold them," Atlitzin said. "I think you have to win them back. And still, all you'd be is some backcountry lord."

"I know. That's why I don't want them. I don't want to be their god. But… I think they need a trainer. You know?"

Atlitzin stared at me.

x.x.x.x.x

I remembered Chumley; I'd promised him opportunities in return for his loyalty, and so far I'd just let him ride around on my neck and bought him an ice cream. I looked around on the street and spotted a young kid with pokéballs.

"Hey! Boy!"

The kid was an interchangeable young trainer with cap and backpack, and when he turned and saw me his jaw slackened.

"How many badges do you have?"

Dreamily, he showed me the Zephyr and Hive badges pinned to his coat. That was probably fine.

"You want to battle?"

A pokéball slipped out of the kid's nerveless fingers, which opened to reveal a bayleef. It took one look at me and turned, saying, "Kenta! What the hell!"

"Not me!" I said quickly. "My friend. Chumley, you want to battle?"

"'Chea Boss!"

The clefairy hopped down onto the street and the bayleef relaxed considerably.

The two of them tussled, trading Vine Whips and Disarming Voice attacks until Chumley looked tired, and I called him back over to me.

"Thanks," I told the bayleef. "Listen, your Razor Leaf—you want to sort of spit the energy, like this—" I conjured blobs of electricity one by one, exaggerated, and then let go. They whizzed into the ground. "You try it."

The kid stared blankly as I coached his pokémon, and then started to call encouragement. Shortly there were flurries of leaves flying off the bayleef's stem, and I nodded a farewell as I went to take Chumley to the pokémon center.

x.x.x.x.x

I knew of a power greater than steel, greater than the storm, greater than the ocean.

Lawyers.

My sister Tambora, Queen Entei, Beast of Fire, stood on the courthouse steps, her ash-cloud mane waving above her coarse brown fur. She was wearing a necktie with igglybuff on it and was levitating a pokédex, peering at it and pressing buttons with her flat nose. Words scrolled by on the projected screen.

"Tam?"

The entei looked up. "Zulia! Zulia, you complete idiot, come here—" She headbutted me fondly, pawing at me and washing my fur.

"Tam! Quit it!" I swiped at her playfully. "Seriously? The necktie?"

Tambora grinned. "It throws 'em off. Humans're already off-balance when I come in, then they see the tie? Butts. Wrecked. They cannot recover. Fools, inviting pokémon into an adversarial legal system!"

"You're doing well?"

"Very well," Tambora said. "I'm in high demand as a pokémon that can speak mind-to-mind as well as in human languages. Pokémon testimony can turn cases completely around. And if I'm losing I can threaten to eat the other side." She barked a laugh. "Anyway, what's up?"

"Kin died," I blurted out.

"Ah, shit, I'm sorry, kid—"

I told her the rest. "And so now I've got two problems, basically—I want to take back the stones and try to make them work for the pokémon again, but also, what happened to all that energy, and how do I plan for it coming back as something I'm going to have to fight?"

"Embezzlement!" Tam crowed. "Well, chances are—that money's gone. Energy, I mean. It gets chipped away at in little ways, and then bigger and bigger with more justifications, on petty luxuries and indulgences. And it's gone."

"In humans, sure, but—"

"They're not so different, sometimes. I bet this ampharos guy spent it all on wooing mates so he could feel like the big bull with a lot of lambs. He's no chessmaster," the entei said scornfully. "Now, he'll probably have followers that he bribed with the energy, so you have to be ready for them. Most likely family, so you're safe from the Thundershocks. Ha!"

"Yeah. I hope so. Tam, do you know what the stormstones are? How were they made? Did somebody dig them up back in the day or what?"

"Dunno, kid," the entei said. "If anyone did, it was your mom." She guffawed suddenly. "You better not kill this Denno guy, he might be the only one who still knows how to use 'em."

I growled and swiped at her. "Come on, Tam, I haven't forgotten that much!" I grew solemn. "What was she like, Tam? At the end?"

Tambora put a paw around my shoulders. "She slept a lot, up on the mountain. We brought her berries now and then, but she got energy from the lightning. Eventually it wasn't enough. She slept and didn't wake up."

"The wild pokémon said she—I—that Raikou had been a tyrant, a thief who hoarded energy. I couldn't say if that was true or not."

"We did what we could to protect our lands. We always tried to do right by them," Tambora said gruffly. She looked up at the courthouse. "We did our best. Might be… might be we have the power to do better, now. We always fought for our people. The three of us kept doing that in our own way. Take what you learned and make something new, kid. Give 'em hell."

x.x.x.x.x

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

Denno the ampharos appeared out of the twilight, his gems glowing softly and casting looming shadows off the stormstones' bulk.

There was a crowd of pokémon before him, and they were nervous, restless, angry: flaaffy and pikachu sparking at one another, stantler pawing the ground, a donphan and phanpy at the edge of the crowd clearly considering leaving. The villagers were present, but also pokémon from around the forest, drawn in by tales of a god.

"Please!" Denno cried, a couple of his flaaffy assistants joining him. "Let us have order!"

"Order!" a granbull roared, the noise echoing. The crowd quieted, frightened.

"Where is Raikou?" someone yelled in the silence.

"Where indeed?" proclaimed the ampharos, arms raised theatrically. "Raikou has left us!"

Shock, and then rising chatter.

"Why?"

"For years I have begged, I have worked tirelessly, to please Him, to funnel a little of your selfishly hoarded energy to Him—and it has not been enough!" Denno cried. "I weep, and I go hungry, and children go hungry, plans for eggs are set aside, and it has not been enough! It is your greed that is holding Him back!" He pointed, accusing the crowd. "Were it not for you—yes, you, every one of you—He would even now be among us!"

"Let Him show Himself then," a noctowl said from up in a tree.

"I've come all the way from the river to see Raikou," said a golduck. "Was He even here?"

The crowd was clearly insufficiently chastened. The ampharos priest shook his head sadly, a father educating his lambs. "You think He can come at your call? He is not a tame pokémon!"

"I do tricks, though."

I jumped off the pinnacle of one of the stormstones and landed beside the priest, landing lightly on all fours.

He screamed and Thunderbolted me, and I knew where the drained stormstone energy had been going. Ouch. I don't think he spent it on a new car, Tam.

It blasted me back in a huge ball of yellow light, and I skidded, clawing the dirt. The crowd cringed at the light and noise, and then people started screaming at the glassed sand and smoldering plants the electricity had left behind.

"I am Raikou," I shouted at Denno, "and you are a fraud! I abjure thee, storm-priest! Give back the energy you stole!"

A silence, and then murmuring from the crowd, and I hoped they were taking the available information and coming to the right conclusion.

"I see," Denno said quietly, and then louder, to the audience, "I see now. I see where the energy has been going. Frittered away, as you failed to protect us—and cavorted with humans!"

Uh-oh. "I have failed you. I've been traveling with humans, and I abandoned my duty by failing to return after my mother died. I am here now, to make things right—"

"So! You admit it!"

"Yes, but—"

"I am sorry, my friends," Denno was saying to the crowd. "I was wrong about Raikou. I was so wrong."

"You took their energy! I haven't been here for forty years!"

"I vow to put things right," he said, and he touched the gem on his forehead.

Denno mega-evolved, growing larger in a burst of yellow light, white wool growing into a mane and on his tail, with carmine gems throughout.

The ampharos screeched and dove at me, launching a searing, blue-white Thunderbolt. If his previous one had been bad, this one was a humdinger: it half-deafened me, exploding the dirt of the village square into a cascade of burnt sand.

I desperately needed to drag him away from the villagers and the stones, and I whipped off my own Thunderbolt and shot out into the forest with a Quick Attack.

"You took their energy, liar!" I called back.

Denno followed, levitating and surrounded by a halo of electrical energy. Floating white spores began to float around him in a Cotton Guard. I kept running, zigzagging to avoid the Electro Balls following me along the ground.

My own Thunderbolt, the hammer of a god—okay, I'll stop—it had done jack shit against the electric- and dragon-type, while Denno's attacks, replete with stolen energy and the power of the mega evolution, were, frankly, kicking my ass. He'd win in a war of attrition.

But I prayed—hah—that I'd learned enough in the arena to do something about him. I knew what to do about incautious bruisers.

I let him fire off his attacks—and then I was back upon him with a Quick Attack, darting in to Slash at his flanks and then away again. I led him deeper and deeper into the forest, the trees looming over us. Next I would—

Thunder stabbed down out of the sky.

Tree roots under my paws exploded, hurling me into the air, stabbed with splinters and rock shrapnel. The concussion left me dazed, head ringing, and I struggled to my feet just in time for Denno to plant a hoof in my gut.

I scrambled away. I was losing the initiative and I needed to recover, fast. I'm sorry, Kin—I know I should have worked more on my defensive moves—

I Mimicked Denno, surprising him briefly with his mirror image and giving me enough time to run further up the path to the ridge.

"Give the stormstones back, Denno! End the lies!" I called back at him.

"Tyrant!" Denno spat. "I took the stones! I took them and gave them back to the people! And here you steal them and call it justice!"

I grit my teeth. "You spent their energy on yourself!"

"It was needed to protect the Stormlands! While you were away feasting and gadding about with humans, we were beset by monsters and drought! I have only ever done what I needed to do, for my people! I brought health and prosperity to the forest—and no gods! At least I am one of them, not some freak foisted upon us by tradition!"

I dodged Thunderbolts and a Dragon Pulse as Denno ranted, leaping my way up to higher ground. I fired off an Extrasensory at him and caught the edge of the Confuse Ray that followed, and I tumbled off the cliffside into the forest, my vision spinning.

"False god! I strike you down!" Denno shouted.

I saw trees shuddering as he charged in after me, and I tried to rise, tangled in thorns and branches.

All at once the mega ampharos was looming over me, and I swiped away the brush with a Metal Claw. I wasn't sure how much I had left.

"I need to do this," Denno was muttering. "It will free everyone. We can start again without her."

I slashed at my mane, freeing it, purple fur falling.

Yellow energy crackled around Denno, and then blue, and they swirled together into a raging teal Dragon Pulse.

"I abjure thee," Denno said softly. He twitched as a small stone hit him in the head.

He turned to get the boulder full in the face.

The dragon-type energy dissipated as he staggered backward, graveler appearing among the trees to pelt him with stones and earth clods. There was a rumbling, and suddenly he was flying away into the air and made an ungainly landing. Torasol the golem shook herself, shedding dirt from her carapace.

"Owed you one, yer majesty," she said to me.

She rolled up again for another Earthquake on Denno, but he was already loosing another Dragon Pulse and reinforcing his Cotton Guard. I swore; if I could get a heal, we could wear him down, but rolling graveler couldn't carry me up a mountain.

"Hey! Boss!" I heard someone say, and sharp little clefairy nails were stuffing sitrus berries into my mouth.

"Chumley! You made it!" I said, chowing down on the berries. "What did Luna say?"

"Well—"

I sighed. "It's okay. It was a long shot—"

"I just had to return what I stole, so I did." Chumley grinned, squinting at me. "Didn't feel so important now."

I heard an ursaring roar, and Mama Bear Bulldozed into Denno, striking him with a wave of dirt and bulling into him. The ampharos screeched and Thunderbolted her, and she groaned, the electricity sparking along her body and making her drop to one knee. So much for that old battler's strength.

"Damn, Boss," Chumley muttered. "Let's get out of here."

"I can't run, kid." I sighed, rising. "You can, though. God's blessing."

Luna the clefable fluttered down out of the twilit sky.

"Denno," she said.

"You!" the ampharos cried. "Long have I awaited—"

"One fine night," Luna sang, "I dreamed that the sky was falling."

"And all the gods turned their eyes to the sky—" sang the rest of the clefairy, perched in the trees.

Denno swayed, lashing out at them, but his Thundershocks went rogue, crackling ineffectually along the ground. He blinked blearily, fighting the technique as the clefairy and clefable directed the song at him.

With a pop, Neili the kadabra was beside me, stuffing another sitrus berry into my mouth.

"When he's asleep," she said, "you need to finish him off! Come on!"

Neili teleported me in close to Denno and I gamely tried to stay conscious.

"All of us!" I called, to the surrounding pokémon. "Together!"

I charged up a Shadow Ball and flung it at Denno. Rock Throw and Moonblasts followed, Psybeam and Hyper Beam, the liberated energy dissipating into the environment. And finally, finally, the ampharos lost his mega evolution and shrank, mane disappearing. He lay beaten and unconscious in the clearing.

"What do we do now, Boss?" Chumley asked.

The other leader pokémon looked at me and watched each other warily. They were probably wondering how many followers each of the others had left behind to guard their stormstones, and to be honest, I was thinking about how I could beat all of them to any stone I picked, even injured, but I let it be. Time to start fresh.

"I need a rest," I said, "and then I'm going to take a stormstone up to Catatumbo to charge it up. Who wants to help?"

x.x.x.x.x

The villagers had put together an elaborate collection of handmade ropes and vines, but in the end all I needed to do was magnetically carry the stone up the mountain. I had an honor guard for some of the way, but as they grew tired I let them peel off. I didn't think there was much up here to challenge me.

Above the frostline, the old jynx reappeared, frost following the tracery of her mollusc-like foot.

"So! Hail, tyrant! You took back the stormstones?"

"I won a few of them back, I like to think," I replied. I was beginning to wish I'd taken the ropes; I levitated the stone higher over the scree on the mountain path.

"Oh ho!" she cackled. "And now you think we can be bought back with gifts? What gifts do you have for Obaba?"

"This stone is fairly empty, but you can tap it if you like," I said mildly.

Obaba skimmed some of the environmental energy the stone had collected—not much, I thought, but she seemed happy. She pinched my cheeks with gnarled hands and made me promise to visit her.

At the top of the mountain, I set the stone up among the burnt and glassed rocks where the lightning danced, and I waited.

I don't know what I expected. Haloes of light, mystical portents, messages in starlight, a giant vision of my mother made out of thunderheads to give me advice or a warning. There was nothing on Catatumbo but the lightning, fast as a blink, and echoing thunder.

I felt better, though.

x.x.x.x.x

The stone looked no different after its journey, but as I slotted it back into place in the apricorn grove, I felt—a calmness. A harmony.

The stormstone glowed and its power flitted between the other stones, equalizing them. The apricorn trees looked better, shinier, somehow.

And thunder rolled, and the swollen clouds opened, the rain coming down on the parched grass.

"This is a coincidence," Neili said to me, rain sleeting down her moustaches.

I grinned at her as the cheering grew from the villagers, although I suspected that Torasol and her graveler were hunkering down somewhere underground. Mama Bear was sitting with her mouth open, drinking rainwater, while hoppip and jumpluff were herded into a protective hut so the wind wouldn't get them.

I'd been planning to charge up all the stones, but if one did this—post hoc ergo propter hoc, said Neili—I probably needed to hold off or I'd drown the village.

Aili the alakazam teleported in, using a broad leaf as an umbrella. "So, Lord Raikou reigns again," she said, bushy eyebrow raised at me.

"Just Zulia."

"Queen, Lord, Dictator-for-Life—"

"None of those, I think."

The alakazam smiled. "We're going to need some changes made around here," Aili said. "No more of this tithing business. We get a say in the stones and how they're used."

"Good. I don't need their energy, I got all the strength I needed from battling. I want to pay you all back."

"Even after Denno nearly beat you?" Aili asked, a twinkle in her eye.

I laughed ruefully. "There's still time to embezzle energy for later. You all helped me beat him—and that's the strength I want to nurture."

"Even a Queen needs advisors," Neili said. "Are you hiring?"

"Absolutely," I said. "I need help. I can't do it alone. It needs to be fair."

"I have one or two books that may be a good starting point," Aili said.

I grimaced. "Can you give me the Cliff's Notes?"

x.x.x.x.x

Epilogue

Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains

"This is a level two wild area," the ranger-captain was saying. "No human habitations, satellite connections only. No less than pairs going out, and keep your pokémon fully healed. Any questions?"

One of the ranger cadets put up a hand. "Sir, where is—what is that—"

The rangers' pokédexes all buzzed aura proximity warnings. Something huge and yellow darted around them, crackling with electricity.

"Oh god!" someone screamed. All around pokéball reconvergence effects were sounding as the rangers summoned their pokémon.

A legendary pokémon, a raikou, stood atop a boulder, looking down on the rangers, its jagged whiskers standing out straight and its purple mane sparking. Something pink—a clefairy—was perched on its head, grinning at them.

"How came you to this place," the raikou's voice boomed, "the Republic of the Stormlands?"

"Chumley!" the clefairy cried, "That's right!"

x.x.x.x.x

Author's Notes:

Hope you enjoyed! Comments, critique, corrections, castigation, or any kind of response whatsoever are valued in the review box and don't forget to like and subscribe!

- Is this story set in the Gods and Demons universe? Yes, but I've elided a lot of the concepts (energy ecology, ronin, daikaiju, fainting, eggs and inheritance) so that you can drop in on this one without having read Gods and Demons. Zulia, Atlitzin, and Tambora are contemporaneous with Moriko and the gang.

- Why is there more than one of each legendary? Legendaries can breed (albeit with high investment) in the Gods and Demons universe; there is more than one of many legendary types in the games; there is more than one of many legendary types in the anime; take your pick.

- Is this what wild pokémon society looks like in the Gods and Demons universe? Not at all, wild pokémon have a wide variety of different social setups ranging from totally solitary and barely able to mindspeak with other pokémon, to the elaborate multi-species hierarchical PMD-like setup that happened here. The Stormlands are an unusual result of the influence of the presence of multiple pokémon species, legendaries, the energy storage stormstone artifacts, AND the relative proximity of human Johto. Without those factors the most common social setup for wild pokémon is a single family group or multiple related family groups defending a territory on which they can collect ambient energy.

- If pokémon can talk to humans, then— No, I know, holy shit I know. Hit up Gods and Demons for more discussion of this, but suffice it to say that in this universe pokémon can escape their pokéballs, seek help at pokémon centers, are protected by law from abuse, and can give testimony against human trainers. Abuse still happens, because people suck, but there is a system in place to try to stop bad shit.

- Pokémon can talk to each other but also eat each other, right? That's fucked up. Yes it is. In the Gods and Demons universe, pokémon only eat small amounts of matter, and get spiritual energy to live from the environment, battling, and other less-common ways. They can also eat each other, but it's, uh, frowned upon, and has… side effects.

- Do humans eat pokémon? No, animals still exist.