=Author's Note=
Well, somehow it's happened. I've made it to my tenth fanfiction. Who'd have thought, huh? I'd like to take the time to thank some of the people who make BadgeQuest possible...let's start with me :). Okay, okay, moving right along; my sister, Sabermew64, my newest friend and critic Quokka, and of course, The Jolt Master. Without Jolt, the precious space my stories take up would doubtless be filled by a better author. Kudos, Jolt, and kudos to all of you who read my fiction. You're the real heroes...believe me, I've read some of my own stuff. I know.

=Legal Disclaimer=
Do I own Pokémon? Let's take a look around, shall we? I'm poor, shabbily dressed and living in a manner that would make college frat rats cringe with disgust. I think the question to ask is "Does he own 'anything' at all?"

BadgeQuest #10
Destiny's Gambit

An endless white field, stretching onward for an eternity in every direction, obscured with a misty white haze; it was a scene Ash was quickly becoming familiar with. Thrice now, Ash had been whisked away to the cool bright floors of the Goddess's realm...but this time was slightly different. This time, he had company.

"Oh man, Ash...not you, too!" Richie groaned loudly at the sight of his friend and fellow trainer. Like Ash, he was robbed of his Pokémon, at least for the duration of their stay. Almost in unison, Ash and Richie looked to their hostess; a pale, beautiful, raven-haired woman who seemed to float above the ground in her translucent cream gown.

"Greetings, young ones." she intoned in a soft, musical voice. She glided forward effortlessly, coming to rest in front of the two bedazzled trainers. "There is much work to be done."

Ash smirked, pointing at the woman and addressing her in an almost arrogant manner. "Oh no you don't; no more of this mysterious crap. You've had me at a disadvantage before, but I have your number now." He beamed, as if making a miraculous revelation. "You're the Pokégoddess, aren't you?"

Richie blinked, looking to Ash as if he were the largest idiot in the universe. "Of course she is, Ash. You didn't know that before?"

"Um...yeah, of course I did." Ash scratched the back of his neck nervously. "I was just making sure you knew."

The Goddess, in the meantime, had suffered Ash's outburst with good humor. She smiled, continuing in a low tone, "There is much to be done." The air shimmered at the merest wave of her hand, transmuting into a crystal-clear image; a dark mountain range, surrounded on either side by deep green forest. "You must journey to the Mountain of the Moon. There, all will become clear."

"Mount Moon?" Richie mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I guess I could swing that."

Ash, on the other hand, wasn't as accepting. "What do you mean, 'all will become clear'? I want answers now, not after some stupid seven-hour bus ride!" But it was too late; the Goddess had turned her back and was already walking off. The mists seemed to wrap themselves around her slender form, swallowing her into nothingness...
* * *

"Ash? Ash, honey, are you all right?"

Mrs. Ketchum placed a slender, soft hand on her son's shoulder, shaking him gently; he had simply spaced out of reality, staring off into nothing with a stillness that was uncharacteristic of the energetic youth. He came back to reality without warning, shaking off his minor excursion into dreamland like a bad headache. Ash's mother was a bit distressed to see Richie doing the same.

"Hey Ash," Misty, the fiery redheaded Mistress of Water, tugged on Ash's arm in an attempt to get his attention. "Don't you want to eat that cake of yours? Speedy put a lot of effort into it."

Speedy, the restaurant's corpulent owner/manager/chef, nodded in agreement, holding out a plateful of moist, golden spongecake. "It ain't just *any* chef that can fuse banana and peanut butter flavor, y'know."

Ash ignored them, grunting with frustration and pushing the cake away as he started to stand. Halfway out of his chair, he changed his mind; Ash grabbed the half of his piece of the cake straight off of the plate and stuffed it into his mouth. The rest of the group grimaced in disgust as he chewed noisily, slipping his new Silph Co. jacket over his athletically muscular shoulders. "Mer moing mo Mount Moon, meople." he sputtered around a mouth full of cake. Pikachu, who had been sitting on the counter, chose to attack what was left of Ash's piece. Speedy set the plate down, afraid that the tiny mouse was going to take his arm off. Pikachu took one bite of the cake, promptly spitting it out. The electric rodent rubbed its tongue in a futile attempt to get the flavor out of its mouth, squirming and whining.

"Mount Moon?" Brock was thoroughly confused. "We haven't gone back to that place in years...not since we passed by there on our way to Cerulean City." He scratched his head. "Why on Earth would we need to go there?"

"We just do." Richie had uttered this, which surprised the rest of them; he was always in high spirits, win or lose, good times or bad. To see the boy act in such a serious manner drew a feeling of worry for them all, except for Ash. "Pack your bags, guys. Mount Moon will have to come first."

There was silence for a moment, until Misty broke it; "Eh," she waved his grim mannerism off, "America will probably still be there in a few days..." A mischievous look danced in her eye. "Though it probably won't be once Ash is done with it."

A weathered voice interrupted the group's discussion of their newest destination, calling their attention towards the Velocity Burger's front entrance. Professor Oak stood in the doorway, wearing his ever-present, enigmatic smile. "Mount Moon, did you say? It sounds mysterious."

"Professor!" Ash exclaimed, the cake slamming down his throat.

Oak took a few steps in, closing the door behind him. "I'm sorry to intrude, but the door was open, and..." he trailed off, spying the birthday cake on the counter. "Oh my, is that cake?" He walked over to the dessert, dipping his finger in the frosting and popping the tidbit into his mouth. He was immediately sorry he did so; his face contorted with disgust.

"Uh, Professor...we didn't expect to see you so soon after the ceremonies." Brock offered, trying to hide his amusement at the researcher's reaction to Ash's cake. "Why aren't you celebrating with your grandson?"

"Oh, Gary has enough people basking in his glory for the moment. I've already paid my respects to our new League Champion." He flashed Ash a wink. "I wanted to congratulate young Mr. Ketchum on his excellent performance yesterday, as well as his sportsmanship a few hours ago."

Ash was truly shocked at this; Professor Oak had normally stayed neutral in his rivalry with Gary, not taking one side or the other. Now it seemed as if he had finally gotten the old man's support in something, which was a pleasant, if unexpected, surprise.

"Anyway, I was wondering if you could help me with a few things, Ash." Oak admitted to his ulterior motives, drawing a small device out of his jacket. "I have here a new device, one of great potential...however, it needs to be field-tested." He handed it to Ash, who took it tentatively.

"What is it?" the boy asked, partially smothered as everyone else gathered around to catch a glimpse of the object. It was a small screen with several control surfaces affixed below and to the side, mounted on a metal wristband.

"It's a second-generation communication device, meant to replace your Pokédex's substandard comm functions."

"Hey!" Dexter's voice, though muffled by Ash's jacket, was nonetheless indignant and loud. Oak, however, didn't pay him mind.

"I call it a 'Pokégear'." Oak beamed proudly at his device. "It has one other feature you might find interesting; a Remote Transport System uplink. You'll be able to transport Pokémon anywhere, not just at a Pokécenter."

Ash scratched his head, turning the small device upside-down and rightside-wrong as he looked it over. "Cool. How do you turn it on?" As if on cue, the device flared to life, beeping and glowing with a soft blue aura.

"Greetings. I am Gear, a Pokégear created by Professor Oak for Ash Ketchum of Pallet Town. Please select function: Radio Receiver; Tele-Communications; Remote Transporter System." The voice was completely different from Dexter's; soft and feminine, with a pleasant ring. It was a nice contrast from the Pokédex's sharp, mechanical drawl. Even Dexter quieted at Gear's polite, friendly voice.

"Co-ol!" Ash said again, this time more enthused. He slid the Pokégear onto his wrist, snapping the metallic clasp into place. "The perfect gift for the trainer on the go." he grinned, hefting his wrist experimentally.

"Speaking of going, we'd better jam out." Richie brought Ash's derailed mind back on track, motioning towards the door. "We've got a holy mission to perform."

"Right." Ash stood, grabbing Pikachu up off of the counter and stalking off towards the door. He was stopped, however, when Brock and Misty each laid a firm hand on either one of his shoulders, stopping him in his tracks.

"Hold it right there, buster." Misty prompted threateningly.

"*What* holy mission?" Brock interrogated him.

Ash merely sighed, motioning them to follow. 'They aren't going to believe this...' he thought.
* * *

"I don't believe it."

Brock had beat Misty to saying it, but only because she was currently tangled in a sharp thorn bush, trying to wriggle free. Her bulky new Silph jacket wasn't helping. Sighing heavily, she got managed to squeeze through without tearing the fabric of her new apparel...her skin was another matter.

"Gee, why am I not surprised?" Ash spat sarcastically as he stopped to rest on a mossy boulder half-buried in the shadow of Mt. Moon. He lowered himself onto the gray rock with a groan as pain lanced through his aching muscles. His Pika-partner did likewise, scrambling up the damp, slick side of the rock and leaning up against Ash as it fanned its burning, throbbing feet. "What is it with you guys and not believing me?"

Misty grunted, hauling herself back up to her feet. "You aren't going to let that go, are you?"

"Not in this millennium."

She snorted loudly, rolling her eyes with exasperation. "Okay, let's see; someone with a wild imagination tells me that he's the chosen messenger of an ancient deity sent here to stop ultimate evil from destroying our world." She brought her hands to her cheeks with mocking embarrassment. "Gosh-oh-golly-gee, Ash. I'm sorry, I'll never doubt you again."

Ash blinked, giving Misty a funny look. "You know, you can be downright heartless when you try."

"Not only that," Richie intoned, pulling himself out of the bushes after Misty, "but she's wrong, too." He brushed the leaves off of his heavy teal cap, placing it back on his head at a rakish tilt.

Brock squinted at the two 'chosen ones', still unconvinced. "Look, just because you guys had weird, albeit similar, dreams, that doesn't mean you have to stop some ancient evil." He pulled out his canteen, taking several good drags of mountain water. "I mean, everyone has nightmares; Ash, don't you remember that time you dreamt that the one Kabutops was coming to kill you? It was right after we saw that slasher flick. You couldn't sleep for weeks..."

Misty's jaw dropped in surprise. "*That's* what it was? You told me you just had insomnia!" She began to laugh long and hard as Ash stood there with a humiliated look plastered on his face. Misty had to clutch her sides for fear of a rib splitting from her own raucous laughter. Pikachu chided Misty for her heartless ridicule, but inside the mouse was just as amused as she was. Ash could easily tell that his Pikachu found it equally amusing; the small, toothy smile was impossible to miss.

"Gee, thanks for bringing that up, Brock..." Ash grumbled, casting a malicious glare first at his loose-lipped friend, then at the hysterical Mistress of Water. He looked up towards the peak of Mount Moon, trying to sort through everything that was happening to him...and now to Richie. After a moment (in which Misty's laughter found time to die down), he looked off towards the east, along a densely foliated section of the forest leading up to the base of the mountain. "I'm not sure, but I think we go that way." Catching a nod from Richie, he managed to get everyone back on foot, herding them towards the intended direction with a minimum of grumbling.

"Hey Ash, look out! It's 'Kabutopper', and he's coming to get you!" Misty mimicked the claws of a Kabutops with her fingers, giggling at Ash's expense.

"Very funny." he gave her a not-too-gentle shove ahead, rolling his eyes.
* * *

"Ow!" Jessie squealed, clutching the newest of the gashes on her arm. She snarled at the small thorns of the bush that currently had her entrapped, wishing desperately to be anywhere but that awful leafy prison. Shrieking out several questionable curses that won't be repeated in a PG fanfiction, she hauled herself at last out of the tunnel of thorns. "Why did those twerps have to come back to this God-forsaken mountain anyway? Didn't they do enough when they saved those blasted Clefairy?"

James struggled through after Jessie, grunting and groaning. If possible, his uniform was shredded even worse than Jessie's. He whimpered, clutching the remains of his treasured Rocket jacket close to his chest before tossing the rag aside. "I don't know. Maybe the boy dropped something six years ago, and he's only coming back for it now."

Meowth emerged from the hedges almost untouched, swiping aside the sharp bushes with his even sharper claws. He looked left and right, trying to spot their targets. "Where'd dey go, anyway?"

"You mean you haven't been following them?" Jessie's voice betrayed disbelief.

Meowth became upset. "Me? I was followin' James!"

"Me? I was following Jessie!"

Jessie put a hand to her breast. "Well, don't look at me. I was following Meowth."

Together as one, they looked off to their left. Half-hidden among the bushes and trees was a large patchwork hot-air balloon, resembling the gruesome, disembodied head of a less than fortunate Meowth. Jessie and James, of course, took the news as well as they always did.

"YOU MISERABLE, WORTHLESS LITTLE FLEABAG! I SHOULD MAKE A HANDBAG OUT OF YOU!" Jessie shrieked, pounding the poor cat's head into his stomach with blinded rage.

"DON'T YOU KNOW BETTER THAN TO FOLLOW JESSIE? SHE'S TERRIBLE WITH DIRECTIONS!" James punted whatever remained of the cat like a white-brown football, driving Meowth into a particularly large and painfully solid tree.

Jessie's anger immediately re-focused on James. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN, TERRIBLE? I'M THE REASON WE EVER FIND ANYTHING, MORON!" She backhanded him, sending him spinning to the ground. Most of her (temporary) rage spent, she crossed her arms and huffed in frustration. "Well, we'll just have to start tracking the twerps all over again. And this time," she drew in a large breath of air, "WE'RE GONNA DO IT RIGHT, AREN'T WE?" James nodded, nursing a black eye. Meowth pulled himself across the ground, his face resembling a car wreck.

"Good." Jessie smiled sweetly, patting them both on the tops of their heads. "Now stop lollygaging, you sillies. We have our work cut out for us."
* * *

"Man, we really have our work cut out for us..." Brock leaned back, trying to see the top of the dark, damp mountain. The only reward for his efforts was a small crick in his back; the peak of Mount Moon was, is, and always will be perpetually masked in a halo of mysterious mist. Leaning forward with a groan, he looked to the two "chosen ones" with confusion. "I don't get it...why bring us here? There's nothing here but rock, moss, and the occasional unpleasant possibility for rock slides."

Ash ignored him for the most part, frowning as he took in their surroundings with an equal amount of annoyance. "Look, will you just quit whining? I don't know 'why' we're here. I just know that 'here' is 'where' we need to be." Pikachu, though not worried, was hardly convinced. The foot-tall mouse had been there for those Kabutopper nightmares (though it hadn't know what all the fuss was about at the time); Pikachu knew how vivid Ash's dreams could be. It looked up at its trainer, tipping its head in question.

Richie nodded. "If I know my deities-and I think after watching "Machampulese: the Series," I do- things will start getting clear any moment now." He leaned up against a blue-black rock outcropping with a relaxed pose, confident that things would work themselves out. As if on cue, the bushes next to Richie, which had been obscuring the regular path, began to rustle and part. Ash, Misty, and Brock instinctively brought out their Pokéballs, attempting to be ready for anything. Pikachu took a battle stance, sparks and tiny rivulets of energy spiking from its electric sacs. Richie, on the other hand, waited to see what would unfold.

To everyone's surprise, it wasn't an attacker, nor was it a Pokémon.

"I think I'm in love..." Brock's squinted eyes glazed over as he immediately went into "Joy Shock."

A young, stunningly gorgeous girl emerged from the leafy barrier, struggling to keep her stylish mini-skirt, designer tennis shoes, and hooded sweatshirt from getting tangled among the sharp twigs. Her raven hair, drawn behind her in a ponytail that swished down at the small of her back, managed to escape the majority of the tangles and snares. Despite the obvious lack of people for miles around, she had taken the time to apply a variety of soft, subtle make-up to her face, pinnacled by the crimson hue of her full, pouting lips. Misty sneered in disgust. She had worn what she always worn; a pair of cutoff jeans, a ragged, half-destroyed T-shirt, a pair of old combat boots and her new Silph jacket. The thought of someone dressing up to go hiking was enough to make her wretch. What was worse, though, was the way Ash was staring at her.

The beautiful wood nymph glanced up at her audience, tilting her head to the side. "What in blazes are you people doing here, sitting out in the middle of nowhere?" she asked in a demanding but melodious voice. Hands on hips, her gaze traveled around the various faces in front of her, finally coming to rest squarely in Ash's amber eyes.

"Um..." Richie was the first to speak, completely awestruck by the vision of perfection standing in front of him. "Um...um...um...Hi." he got out at last, tongue-tied. Red blush began to creep up his neck and pool in his cheeks as he appraised the newcomer appreciatively.

"Eyes to yourself, short-stack." she admonished Richie off-handedly, as if she was used to it. She quickly brought her attention back to Ash, giving him an appraising eye of her own. "Hmmf. Well, whatever you're doing out here, scram. I've got business here."

Ash wracked his mind, trying to figure out who she was; she seemed 'so' familiar. "Just who do you think you are?" he demanded with fire lighting in his eyes. Pikachu mimicked its trainer, shaking a tiny clawed fist at the interloper, still sparking at its red cheeks.

"Pika PIKA!"

The girl sneered, waving a hand at Pikachu. "People call me a star..."

"Oh God..." Misty murmured, her suspicions (and fears) were confirmed.

"But I'm just Giselle." With a wink and a flip of her long, luxurious hair, she blew a kiss at Ash. The cute antics, however, were short lived; "And you're a couple of jerks who are in my way. Now scram!"

"Listen Gazette-" Ash started angrily.

"GISELLE!"

"-Giselle, you don't have the right to-"

Before Ash could finish yelling, Brock stepped in and shoved his younger friend aside. He took Giselle's hands in an obsequious manner, his eyes still glazed over and cheeks still apple red. "Please ignore my rude friend, young, pretty lady. We'll be more than happy to move to a different spot." Brock stopped, waiting for some sort of reply. He was a bit surprised to find that she wasn't melting into his arms, and even more surprised that she hadn't slapped him yet, either. "Uh, hello?" Giselle's eyes had become glazed over, much as Brock's were. She was hardly love-struck, however.

"She's just staring off into space..." Misty exchanged a questioning glance with Pikachu, whom could only scratch its head between its yellow, pointed ears.

"Pika. Pikacha-choo-kacha?" It walked up slowly, poking Giselle in the leg; nothing, not even a twitch.

"That's bizarre..." Misty was more than a little confused now. Why would an airheaded, obnoxious, loudmouthed prick like Giselle suddenly go comatose? "Ash, what in the world is going-" she turned, crying out in horror. "Brock!"

Brock turned around, leaving Giselle's hands frozen once released from his grasp. "Misty, what is it?" He soon found out; Ash, as well as Richie, was frozen like statues as well. Their eyes were dull and lifeless, dead to the world around them. "Ash!"
* * *

White: the color, or lack thereof, was quickly becoming Ash's least favorite sight. This was unfortunate, as he and Richie were once again in the realm of white mists, totally alone except for each other. Ash groaned, cradling his face in his hands.

"Not this again..." he grimaced.

Richie, however, was more excited than fearful. He eagerly looked around for the Goddess, wondering what she was going to tell them next. "Oh, c'mon Ash. What did you expect to find when you go out on a little adventure that the Pokégoddess sent you on?" Try as he might, he couldn't seem to find the tall, beautiful deity anywhere.

"I'm just getting the feeling that it's going to turn into more than just a "little adventure." Way more..."

"You would be correct, young Disciple." The soft, familiar, reverberating voice startled them from behind. They whirled around to face the Goddess, but were once again caught off guard when they found another already in the company of their godly benefactor.

"Giselle?" They harmonized, Ash's voice laced with shock and Richie's with subtle delight. Standing at the Goddess's side was the illustrious PokéTech graduate, arms folded across her rounded chest and lower lip jutted out defiantly.

"What the heck are you two clowns doing here?" she demanded once more, just as surprised as they were.

"We were about to ask you the same question." Ash glared back at her. His gaze shifted over to the Goddess's face, which looked down upon her collection of 'guests' with calm serenity. "Okay, Poké-Goddess, no more games. We want some answers, and we want them now! Right, Richie?" he tossed his friend a glance; Richie, however, only had eyes for Giselle, which was making the feminine trainer more than a little annoyed. "Well, *I* want some answers!" Ash demanded, frustrated beyond recognition.

The Goddess didn't seem fazed by Ash's anger. "Calmness, young one. You will have your answers." This seemed to get all of their attention; they gathered around her as if small schoolchildren, waiting quietly for a story. "I have brought you here so that your world may have a chance for life."

"Ah-HAH!" Ash cried triumphantly, springing into the air. "I knew it, I just knew it!" He crossed his arms, shaking his head so hard it was a miracle that it didn't unhinge at the neck. "Forget it, lady; I've saved this planet more than once already."

"Ash, will you just shut up and let the lady finish?" Richie shot up at his friend, thoroughly annoyed. Reaching up, he snagged Ash's jacket and dragged the boy down to the cold, slightly damp ground.

Without missing a beat, the Goddess started again. "Two thousand years ago, the isle of my children was ruled by a race that your people refer to as the 'Pokémopolitans.' They ruled their realm with a fist of iron. Their warriors, armed with fierce Pokémon, dominated all that they sought."

"Bo-ring!" Giselle called out. She received shushing from Ash and Richie, which she responded to with a well-timed raspberry.

The Pokégoddess somehow remained calm under the agonizing interruptions. "However, the Pokémopolitans believed themselves greater than the Gods. They sought to recreate the gift given to them from on high." Her pleasant demeanor took on an uncharacteristic frown, if only for a moment. "They bred their own children...some cherished...and some dark." The frown disappeared, replaced with her neutral radiance.

After a dramatic pause, she continued; "Their creations, however, soon got the better of them. In a great battle, the Pokémopolitans were forced to destroy all the children of Shadow, save for six that could not be vanquished. A young warrior named Ma'kala defeated the Dark One, and his children of evil. In doing so, he lost his sight. The children were separated, spread to the Four Corners of the globe in an attempt to dilute their power. The Dark One, however, was locked away forever, confined in a black prison."

Ash scratched his head, thoroughly confused. "So what does that have to do with us?"

"Once unable to see, Ma'kala gained the ability of foresight. From his visions came the Foretelling of Ma'kala. They spoke of a child, one who would vanquish the Dark One on his eve of destruction." Her gaze wafted across the three teens, meeting each of their eyes with her own piercing, haunting glance.

Ash waited in silence for exactly two seconds, then exploded with curiosity.

"Well?"

The Goddess hesitated. "I am unsure as to which of you is the foretold champion." They groaned in unison, cradling their faces or snorting with disgust. "You have all passed the first test; each of you possesses a Legend of the Elements."

"Wait a minute..." Richie mused thoughtfully. "I have Moltres. Ash, you have Articuno..." Ash nodded an affirmative, then joined in with Richie as the trainer shifted his attention to Giselle. "So that leaves..."

"Zapdos." Giselle beamed arrogantly, snapping her fingers. "My powerhouse makes that Pikachu of yours look like a nine-volt battery, Ketchum. You'd better put your toys away and leave the evil fighting to the *real* heavy-hitters."

"Pikachu could mop the floor with whatever you've got, you little-" but he was cut off when the Pokégoddess intervened. With her commanding presence, it took a mere wave of her hand to recapture their attention and bring them back to the focus of their being in her realm; namely, the life or death of the planet itself.

"Peace, young ones. A simple task will decide the future." she assured them, her voice never wavering, never changing pitch.

"Task? You mean, like, a test?" Giselle asked, her interest peaked. If there was one thing she enjoyed, it was testing her abilities...especially when it meant outshining a pair of outclassed outcasts. "I'm great with tests!"

"This is no mere test, young one. It is a mission, one that holds much danger."

Richie stepped forward, his fist clenched with determination. He held his chin high as he proclaimed, "Whatever it is, Goddess, I know we can handle it." Giselle voiced her agreement. Only Ash remained silent, pondering the situation.

"Very well." the Pokégoddess folded her hands as if praying, her gaze falling to the ground below. Her voice became low and soft, as if possessed by a demon. "In the Mountain of the Moon rests one of the five Cages, built by the Pokémopolitans to keep the Children of Darkness at bay. Unfortunately, the Child kept in the Caverns of Moon has been released. You each have caught a Legend of the Elements; you are ready. Find the Child, and vanquish him."

"How will we find him?" Richie inquired.
Her eyes never left the ground. "Follow your hearts, always. Good luck, young ones." In an instant, her form began to take on a blanketed haze of fog. It swirled around her, swallowing the beautiful, willowy woman into the misty backdrop.

"Wait, Goddess!" Richie stepped forward-
* * *

"Don't go yet!" Richie blinked, suddenly attacked by an odd chill. He shivered, hugging himself in an attempt to warm up. "Wah? Huh? Where am I?"

"Richie? Are you okay?" Misty put her hand on his shoulder, causing him to cringe in surprise. She immediately withdrew the hand, her voice filled with concern. "Richie, it's me. We're in the forest, remember?"

Looking around, he found that she was absolutely right; trees, rocks, trees, filthy mud, and more trees surrounded the quintet on three sides, the ominous mountain comprising the fourth. "Yeah...sorry. How long was I out?"

Before she could answer, Ash spoke up from his place only a few feet away, sitting atop the boulder just as he had before their vision had started. "About thirty seconds..." He shook his head, trying to get the fuzz out of his brain. "Seems like a lifetime ago. Hope I don't have to get used to that..."

"You won't have to, Dork." Giselle sneered, having also come around at the same moment Ash and Richie had. She caught Brock leering at her, and waved the burly Rock Master off with a snort. "Cut the drool act, Squinty. I've got monster hunting to do, and I don't need a cheering section." She began to walk off, but was stopped by Misty.

"Listen, you...you..." the Mistress of Water had to take a deep breath, choking down several more specific, if somewhat unflattering, commentary. "Listen," she started again, "No one's going anywhere. There's about an hour of daylight left. We need to head back, find a Pokémon Center before it gets dark."

Giselle rolled her eyes, casting a glare at Ash and his Pikachu. "Is your girlfriend here *always* afraid of the dark?" Lucky for Giselle, Brock's reflexes were like a Persian's; he leapt forward and put Misty in a Full Nelson a mere instant before the fiery redhead could rend the obnoxious PokéTech graduate limb from sensuous limb. Even with his large, rocky build, he struggled to hold Misty back. Giselle, though, didn't seem to notice Misty's blinding rage. "Come one, we go this way." She started off in a westward direction.

"Wait!" Ash called out, his arm outstretched. "How do you know that you're going in the right direction?"
Giselle turned, a look of confusion passing briefly over her features. "I just...feel it. Don't you?"

Surprisingly enough, he did. A quick glance over to Richie told him that his friend felt it too. "All right, let's go. But stay together; we don't want to lose anyone in these mountains."

"Whatever." She started off again, not looking back, "Don't get any ideas in your head, *Champ*. Just because the Goddess is in your head too doesn't make us partners...or friends."
* * *

James heaved a large sigh, leaning up against a dark, twisted oak as he panted with fatigue. Forest, forest, and more blasted forest; that was all he had seen for the past three hours, and it seemed very likely that it was all he was going to see for the rest of his life. Why couldn't Jessie ever give up?

"Stop huffing, you mollusk, you're taking all the good air." Jessie grumbled, leaning her back against the same tree.

Of course Jessie could never give up. She was just too stubborn; you'd sooner see Jessie performing a striptease for a collection of angry nuns than to give up the hunt. Still, it was nice to see her slowing down a bit. It served as a reminder to James that Jessie was 'almost' human. "Jessie, the twerps could be anywhere...and this forest is huge...and the mountain is even 'more' huge!"

Despite the agony in her feet and thighs, Jessie managed a snort/grunt of disgust. Standing straight and puffing out her chest, she stood proudly. "We are Team Rocket, and we will *not* rest until those little punks and their Pikachu belong to *us*." Her speech didn't last, though, and neither did her posture. She quickly took back to leaning against the tree, wiping her brow with her black vinyl glove. "It'll be easy, James. Why, they could be right under our noses."

Meowth sat down by their feet, using the tree's network of roots as a sort of painfully hard recliner. "Yeah, I'm really sure, Jessie..." the Hollywood tabby groaned sarcastically, waving a paw in the general direction ahead of them, "Dey could wind up right'n fronna us any moment. Surrrre." He stared into the cliff face, which stared right back at him. There was one particular, peculiar mar in its flawless surface; a cold, dark, jagged opening that seemed to tunnel on forever into the very heart of the mountain. The verbose cat Pokémon shivered, a dark feeling coming over him suddenly. "Just outta no where, right in front of us. Keep dreaming, Girlie."

It took exactly one instant for Ash and company to walk up to the mouth of the cave, right in front of Team Rocket's disbelieving eyes. Fiddling around with their supplies for a moment, they each drew a small electric lantern out of their packs and, steeling their collective nerves, entered the cavernous maw, disappearing into the backdrop of inky blackness with nary a trace.

James was the first to get over the shock. "Jessie, I'll never doubt you again!" his energy returned from out of nowhere as he leapt up in the air, grabbing his partner's hands and dancing around gleefully. She danced with him, beaming with pride and hope.

"You see? Just have a little faith!" she exclaimed. After a moment, though, the woman was all business. Clearing her throat, she began rallying her troops. "Okay, let's go get that Pikachu!" She took off at warp speed, her companion hot on her heels.

Meowth, however, could do nothing but groan. "When I said 'appear outta nowhere,' I didn't mean right dis second!!!" he whined, hauling himself to his awkward hind legs and giving chase.
* * *

"Boy, it sure is dark in here..." Richie turned up the juice on his electric torch, brightening their journey just a little bit more.

*Dark in here...*
*Dark in here...*

Ash led the way into the narrow passage. Despite the random, erratic manner in which it twisted and turned, it didn't seem natural; just the opposite, in fact. The tunnel's smooth floors and smooth walls gave the young trainer the suspicion that something-or someone- had carved this route. "Just stick close."

*Stick close...*
*Stick close...*

Ash drew just a tiny hint of satisfaction when Misty drew closer to him, practically walking on his shoes. He quickly chased away the thoughts, though; there was only room for one impossible task at a time, and unfortunate as it was, the Goddess had commandeered his full attention with hers.

Pikachu walked alongside Ash, black eyes gleaming as it adjusted to the dim lighting and eerie darkness. Being a mouse, it had little trouble with caves and tunnels. "Pika..." it cooed softly.

*Pika...*
*Pika...*

"Cool echo..." Richie commented offhandedly, clutching his Silph jacket closer to his ribs. The chill wasn't coming from the cold...it was something else.

*Cool echo...*
*Cool echo...*

Brock suddenly grinned, cupping his hands to his mouth. "All the ladies love the Brock-Man!"

Deafening silence bombarded the group, giving pause to their march at a particularly dark threshold.

"Stupid echo..." Brock muttered.

*Stupid...Brock-Man!*
*Stupid...Brock-Man!*

Giselle tilted her head, amused. "Looks like the cave has a sense of humor."

"A dark sense of humor..." Richie muttered, clutching his jacket tighter and tugging on the collar. "I don't like this...there's a presence here."

"Just stick close, and you'll be fine." Ash assured him with far less confidence than he would have liked. He started forward again, a few steps ahead of the rest of the group. Once he rounded the corner of the threshold, his breath was stolen away.

"Honestly, Ketchum, we're in a six-by-six tunnel...what could possibly go wrong?" Giselle walked flippantly to join him. When she saw what he saw, her attitude evaporated and made way for genuine fear. The rest of the group saw their upset reaction and rushed forward.

"Well...there's one thing." Richie's voice quavered.

It was a room. It wasn't a big room, yet it had many doors; there were at least twelve tunnels leading out in different directions from the circular domain, each one of them black as midnight under a moonless sky. The walls of the cave were blanketed in ancient runes and hieroglyphs, spraying gibberish texts all over in volumes that the teens could never imagine, or ever hope to read. The room itself was empty, save for five objects. The first of which was hardly frightening; it was a small gray pedestal upon which rested a gleaming obsidian sphere. Objects two through five were a bit more disconcerting.

A young man in a labcoat, a Clefable and two Clefairy were each sprawled out on the ground around the pedestal. Their eyes were open wide, unblinking and lifeless. Whatever sparks of a soul their eyes had once held was now gone, replaced by massively dilated pupils.

"W-what happened here?" Richie shivered, taking a step back. Ash and Pikachu held none of his reservations. They both rushed in, regardless of whatever had caused the small group to go catatonic. He rolled the body of the researcher over, taking a good look at his glasses-framed face.

"I recognize him...he's that geek we saw when we were here last time. Eyesore...Eigore?" He snapped his fingers, the name springing back to his mind. "Seymour! Seymour and his Clefairy!"

Brock knelt down by the young scientist, feeling his neck. His thick eyebrows descended onto his squinted eyes in a confused frown. "He's still alive...It's like they're in some sort of really deep sleep." The brawny teen looked deep into Seymour's eye, trying to figure out what had happened. "But there's nothing going on upstairs. It's like his brain was just sucked out, or something."

"Pika..." Pikachu waddled over to the Clefable, poking the pink, cadaver-like Pokémon with its claw. "Chu?"

*Sssssssssssssssssssss...*

"What was that?" Richie's head shot over to one of the openings, his fists clenched tight, shaking with fear. "Did you guys hear something?" Brock, Misty and Giselle nodded, scanning the room warily. Ash and Pikachu paid no mind, though. Their eyes were transfixed to the small orb sitting atop the pedestal.

Ash reached out slowly, hesitating to touch the small black sphere. What if it had been the cause of Seymour's "brain drain?" After an eternity of reaching, his fingers brushed up against the ball for an instant before he jerked them away. It was cold, but hardly dangerous. With more certainty this time, he slowly palmed the ball, hefting it in his hand. The smooth obsidian ball was much heavier than it looked.

*Miiiiiisssssssssinnnnngnnnnooooooooooo*

"Pika..." Ash's Pikachu visibly shook at the mysterious hissing. It tugged at Ash's leg as they boy pocketed the black ball, trying to grab his attention. "Pika! Pika-pi, cha-pikachu!" the mouse cried out desperately.

"Relax, Pikachu...whatever did this to Seymour is probably long gone by now." Ash tried to reassure his Pokémon, his own confidence rapidly dwindling. "We're as safe as can be."

*Miiiiiisssssssssinnnnngnnnnooooooooooo*

"Wanna bet?" Misty moved in closer to Ash and Brock despite her flippant remark. "We should leave...and when I say leave, I mean 'run as fast as our legs can possibly take us'."

"N-no!" Richie protested, forcing his knees to stop knocking. His outburst drew surprise from the rest of the group; the chestnut-haired, teal-capped boy had seemed the most fearful of them all in this place. "We can't go...not until we find whatever it is that did this and destroy it."

Giselle held her lantern higher, trying to cast light into the dozen openings along the far end of the circular chamber. "Gotta admit, the kid's got guts. Let's just hope they don't get splattered all over this stupid cave." She began walking towards the middle right passageway, poking her head in. "Well, the only way to find this thing is to start looking."

"Right. We'll split into teams." Ash walked towards another of the passageways, turning to face his friends. His face was a mask of grim uncertainty, but his voice was calm and steady. "Pikachu and I will take this passageway. Brock, you and Giselle try another. Misty, I want you to go with Richie and-"

Giselle laughed mockingly, holding her hand up to stop Ash in mid-sentence. "Who died and made you Master, Ketchum? Screw your plan anyhow; *I'm* the chosen one and I'll find the monster first. And I don't need any of your screw-up loser friends getting in my way." Before he could say another word, she turned on her heel and plunged into the inky blackness, moving around a bend and out of sight.

Ash was about to call out for her to come back when Richie placed a hand on his shoulder. "Hold on, Ash...she might be right." Ash gave him a questioning look, giving cause for a further explanation. "Look, she's right; only one of us is the one meant to stop this thing. I think we should each go our separate ways, try to find this thing."

This didn't bode well with any of them. "I don't know, Richie..." Brock voiced the group's concerns, "It's insanely dangerous to explore caves when they *aren't* inhabited by ancient evil. It would be plain suicide to try and go it alone."

"No, really, I'll be okay." Richie assured them, hefting his lantern and walking to another of the thresholds. He gave them one last smile, putting as much confidence into his face as he could so they could not see his overwhelming terror. "This is what's right, I'm sure of it. The Goddess said to follow my heart, and that's what I'm doing."

"The moment we hear anything, we'll come running." Ash told him in no uncertain terms. Pikachu gave him its own little lecture, trilling and scolding in its own Pika-tongue. This brought a genuine smile to Richie's face.

"I'll be fine." And with that, he took a deep breath to steel his nerves and began his journey down the long, winding pathway. After several bends and corners, the light from Ash's, Misty's, and Brock's lanterns was nothing more than a memory. The only sounds he could hear was the furious beating of his own heart, which threatened to burst out of his chest and bounce merrily down the corridor ahead of him. Richie swallowed hard, forcing any doubt or fear deep down inside, then locking it away.

After several minutes, it seemed to get much better. His eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, allowing him to see a bit farther down the long passage. And what a long passage it was; it seemed to go on forever. Minute after minute, hour after hour, Richie explored the narrow passage. Every so often a fork or split would surface up, and he would explore it. Each detour resulted in the same thing; a dead end in the form of a small, empty chamber that would force him to backtrack and continue. The task was becoming frustrating and dull. His attention was just beginning to drift when he felt something brush his shoulder.

"GAAAAAA!" Richie leapt upward in fear, smacking his head into the low ceiling with a sharp thudding sound that he felt all the way down to his toes. Brushing the probable concussion aside, he ripped a Pokéball from his belt and spun around to face his adversary.

"Woah, easy champ!" Giselle's sleek, slender form raised its hands in the dim lighting. When his lantern bumped into her arm during the confusion, she winced and pulled it away as if it had been burnt. "Take it easy, watch where you're swinging that thing."

"Oh! Giselle? Sorry...are you all right?" Richie could hardly believe his eyes. Despite the enormous fear-inducing qualities of their surroundings, his heart began to flutter and soar. Even in the dim lighting, Giselle was the model of perfection, a woman every inch from top to bottom...with plenty of inches to spare.

"Yeah, I'm okay...your lantern burnt me, that's all." This puzzled Richie; his lantern was electric, and it was specially designed to emit as little heat as possible. He shrugged, and chalked it up to shoddy craftsmanship. "How about you?" her voice became low and throaty.

"What on earth are you doing here? Did you find the creature?"

Giselle looked confused for a split-second. "The...Creature?" She shook her head. "No, I didn't find anything. My passage ended about a hundred yards from the first room, so I doubled back and decided to follow you."

He frowned, filled with curiosity. "Why?"

She gave him a beaming smile and a flirtatious wink. "I wanted to make sure nothing happened to you, silly."

"Oh..."

Her eyes glanced at his lantern again, watering ever so slightly at the glimmering radiance. "Richie, could you do me a favor? Could you turn your lantern down a little bit? My eyes have gotten adjusted to the dark, and it sort of hurts to look at it."

"Huh? Oh, sure." He twisted a knob on the side of the small glowing cylinder, lowering the lighting to about half of what it was.

"Thanks...do you think you could do me one more favor?"

"What's that?"

She reached over, clasping his free hand in hers. "Think you could hang onto me? I don't want to get separated in these spooky ol' caves."

Now it was his turn to smile. "I-I-I think I can handle that." he squeaked, his voice cracking at the worst possible time.
* * *

Ash groaned, leaning heavily on the central chamber's wall. Glancing over towards the pedestal, he was slightly comforted to see Seymour and his contingent of Clefairy and Clefable still where they had left them. Pikachu scampered to the fallen scientist and sat on his head, chirping happily at being out of the black corridor. "Pikachu, get off of that! You don't know where it's been."

"Ohhhhhh," Misty groaned, slumping against the wall and sliding onto her bottom. "I hope I never see a tunnel again." she griped, wiping her grimy brow with an equally filthy hand. She looked over at Pikachu, who was lying on top of Seymour's hair as if it were a pillow. "Pikachu, that just isn't nice." Pikachu dejectedly climbed off of the researcher's hair, grumbling and kicking a small pebble.

Brock, in the meantime, was checking the map that he had been making on a small scrap of paper. "It just doesn't make sense...what were all those different rooms for?" he scratched his head. "This layout doesn't make any sense...they're all haphazard."

"No they aren't. You just drew them haphazard." Ash got up, wincing as the muscles in his legs and back protested with every step.

"Are you saying that my map sucks?" Brock snapped indignantly. His anger wasn't surprising, though; they were all on edge after a three-hour hike through a dark cave. "Is that what you're saying, Hat-Boy?"

Tugging on his cap and frowning with disgust, Ash reached with his right hand to his left wrist and began to manipulate Gear's interface a bit uncertainly. "I had my Pokégear mapping out as we went. Here, take a look." he said with a forced calm air, tapping a button. In an instant, Gear began projecting a series of tunnel maps, depicting their path through the inside of the mountain with crystal resolution. "See? They're placed about every...Gear, what's the interval on these chambers?"

"One per six hundred feet." Gear's feminine voice replied crisply. Brock just scowled, throwing down his scrap of a map with frustration.

"Fine. Whatever. Let that stupid watch lead you around, for all I care." he spat.

This evoked a response from Ash. "Hey! Gear is 'NOT' a watch, Explodo-Hair!"

"Actually," Gear corrected him, "I am able to keep time in all major cities down to the nearest millionth of a second."

"Oooooh," a muffled mechanical sneer erupted from Ash's pocket, signaling that Dexter was putting his two cents worth in. "Gee, isn't *that* useful. You stupid C-Watch, I can do anything you can do, only better. Ash, why don't you turn that-"

"Shut up, both of you!" Ash shouted at his digital duo, his head pounding.

"Why don't you shut up?" Brock and Dexter shouted in unison.

Misty couldn't take it any more. "Oh, both of you shut up! I swear, it's like being with a couple of children."

"Like you're any better." Ash began to mimic Misty's voice, raising his pitch about two octaves higher than it normally went: "Look at me, I'm Misty; oh, I'm tired. I'm bored. I'm thirsty. Can't we go back? I don't want to fight ancient evil, I might break a nail. I- " The rest was drown out by the sound of Ash's own choking. Misty had her fingers wrapped around his throat before he knew it and was throttling the life out of him for all she was worth...and Misty was worth quite a bit.

"Misty! Ash! Stop killing each other!" Brock shouted at the top of his lungs. That was a bit overstated, though; it was fairly clear just who was killing whom. "Stop it!"

"Pika pika!" Pikachu decided to take matters into its own claws, and supplied a short blast of not-so-mild electricity to the feministic rage and her blue-hued target. Both fell to the ground, one breathing heavily to try and expunge the fury she felt, and the other breathing heavily to try and restore the needed oxygen back to his brain. "Cha! Pikachu pika!" the Pokémon scolded the pair, shaking a clawed finger at them with disappointment in its tone.

"Gee..." Giselle's voice echoed in the tiny room, drawing their attention towards the threshold that she had chosen several hours before. "What great team spirit you guys have. It'd bring a tear to my eye, 'cept I don't wanna smudge my mascara." She sauntered into the chamber, smirking at them contemptuously. "So where's your little friend? You know, the one that keeps staring at me." she grimaced, sticking out her tongue and making gagging noises.

Ash, having put some air back into his lungs, redirected his anger and frustration towards the obnoxious Prima Donna. "Okay, first off, you could do a *lot* worse than Richie. And second..." he paused, his rage vanishing for the moment. "Hey, wait a minute...if we're back...and you're back...then why isn't Richie back?"

Misty stood as well, a look of concern growing on her face. "He could be in trouble!"

"Let's go guys!" Ash raced down the doorway that Richie had disappeared into, Pikachu hot on his heels. Misty and Brock exchanged a brief glance, then took off after their impulsive 'leader'. Giselle just looked on in confusion, shaking her head.

"Crazy buncha kids..." she muttered, hauling tail to catch up with them as she returned her lantern's output back to full.
* * *

"Giselle, where the heck are you taking us?" Richie allowed the spry starlet to pull him down the dark path, his heart stuck up in his throat. They had reached the anticlimactic end of the tunnel almost an hour before, and had been heading back for the main chamber ever since. Only a moment ago did Giselle grab his hand and skew their course down one of the tunnel's many offshooting rooms. Once they had reached the small space at the end of the brief tunnel, Giselle took his other hand in hers and swung them playfully, teasing him with a smile.

"I just thought it might be fun to spend a little time exploring one of these rooms...together." her crimson lips seemed to gleam in the dim light of Richie's lantern.

"Oh." he swallowed, tugging on the collar of his shirt, which all of a sudden had become too tight. Or perhaps his heart, still in his throat, had swelled to three times its normal size...Richie wasn't sure which, and at the moment he didn't particularly care.

The brash beauty ran a finger down Richie's chest, tickling his ribs. "Tell me the truth, Richie; you felt it too, didn't you?"

"It?" his voice cracked. "Felt what?" He set the lantern down, trying not to let Giselle notice that his hand was shaking badly.

"An attraction..." she whispered, stepping in even closer. Unconsciously, Richie took a step back, retreating until his back was forced to the wall. "A spark. Whatever you want to call it, it spells magic to me, Cutie." She reached up to his shoulders, slipping the heavy Silph jacket down and off of his arms, letting it drop to the ground.

"Uh, Giselle, I-"

"Hold me."

"Okay." Without even thinking, his hands slipped around her slender waist, drawing her in close. She leaned against him, pressing her body against his, her hot breath rolling across his face. "H-how's this?"

"Perfect." she muttered hoarsely. Placing one hand on his back and the other behind his head, she stood on tiptoe and brought her lips to his. Richie gave in, drinking in his lust for this beautiful girl that he had met only hours before. Her lips seemed unnaturally cold, which was odd; the cold hadn't seemed to bother Giselle. A moan of pleasure coming from the other end of his lips soon chased off any stray thoughts, though, as he brought his mind back to the moment.

For a moment, it was complete bliss. Richie relished the feeling of her tongue wrestling with his, playing inside of their collective mouths with a joy he hadn't experienced in so very long...practically never. Then, without warning, her tongue seemed to expand, exploding to fill his mouth and moving down his throat with a cold, unstoppable force. His eyes snapped open to find the horrifying image of what was once Giselle, leering at him with glowing pinpoint pupils.

She had pulled back, but the coldness remained inside of him. Spreading rapidly within Richie, it sapped the very life force from him, stealing any strength he might have used to fight it off. A single tendril of black ecto was the connection between them, protruding from her mouth and snaking its way past his lips and spreading the black force within him.
Richie tried to scream, but his voice was smothered before it even reached his throat. After an eternity of chill and pain, the force reached his mind. With a terrifying jolt, the young trainer could feel pieces of his life flash before his eyes before they vanished, as if never there to begin with.

*+* *+* *+*
Professor Young held out the Pokéball to a youthful, foolish ten-year-old boy, grinning at the child's enthusiasm. "It's a Charmander. Remember to take good care of it, and be careful; beginners sometimes have trouble when their Pokémon evolve."

"Oh boy!" the young Richie squealed, taking the Pokéball from the aging Professor's hand. He twisted his brand new heavy teal cap backward on his head, clipping the ball to his equally new leather Ball Belt. "My first Pokémon! I'll call him..." he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, mimicking his father's favorite pondering pose. "I've got it! I'll call you Zippo!"
*+* *+* *+*


*+* *+* *+*
"I'm sorry, Richie," Karen looked deep into his eyes, her soft brown hair swirling about in the wind, obscuring her tear-filled eyes for a brief moment, "I'm so sorry. I can't love you..." Together, they stood on the docks by the moonlit bay, crying together with the pain of a broken heart, knowing that they would never see each other again.

"I know...I know..." was all Richie could think to say as he stroked her hair, clenching back sobs of anguish as his tears fell to the creaking wood of the dock. His stomach felt as if it were twisting and wrenching its way out of his body, and his chest felt as if it would burst. As they wept, a small part of him couldn't help but wonder if the pain would ever go away.
*+* *+* *+*

Richie's life was vanishing with a kiss. He desperately clutched at his memories as they slipped away, trying to keep a shred of what he once was. It was all for naught; Giselle, or what he had thought to be Giselle, had total possession of his mind and had no intention of leaving a single thought in his head. As he slumped against the wall, whatever remained of Richie shivered with pure, unbridled fear as a soft, dark voice whispered in the bottommost reaches of his rapidly vanishing mind.

**You belong to me now...**
* * *

"Richie!"

For an hour now, the group hadn't been able to find a trace of their wayward companion in the pitch black of the tunnel. Just now, though, Ash had thought he had caught a glimmer of light for just a split second down one of the empty chambers jutting out of the main corridor. Filled with a sense of relief, Ash began dashing down the side passage with Pikachu scampering at his side, his lantern lit at full. "Richie, are you..." As he rounded the last twist in the passage, he skidded to an abrupt halt with shock. "Okay?" his voice squeaked with terror.

"Pika?"

The thing that looked like Giselle turned around, snarling at the intruders with the ectoplasm tendril still jutting from its maw. Frozen with fear, Ash and Pikachu were horrified by the mere sight of the being as it held Richie's limp form several inches off of the ground. His mind was too filled with terror to notice when the rest of the search party caught up with them.

"Ash, what-OH MY GOD!" Misty screeched, smacking into Ash. Her rough halt caused Giselle to slam into her, which in turn sent Brock bowling into her. Unfortunately for Ash, the laws of Physics were still in full force in the demonic chamber; he was sent flying forward like a billiard ball, stumbling to his knees at the monster's feet.

The creature that was not Giselle released its hold on Richie, retracting the black tongue of evil back into its mouth with a sickening slurp. The brain-drained boy dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes, shuddering and reeling, curling up and clutching himself tightly. The creature proceeded to grab Ash by the throat, lifting him to his feet and sneering.

"Such a troubled face..." it leered, clamping its hand tightly around Ash's windpipe, "I'll bet your memories are deliciously anguished."

"PIKA!" Pikachu was snapped out of its stupor, and had launched itself at the monster. The thunderous mouse's skin was alive with pure energy, rolling and sparking across its fur with a fury it had never felt before. "PIKA! PIKA-CHA!" Pikachu let loose with a pinpoint thunderbolt, barely a centimeter in diameter but with more force than a bolt of lightning. The monster wasn't even fazed as the bolt passed straight through its body, slamming into the cave wall behind it. Almost as a second thought, it reached up and caught the Pikachu in mid-air, its fingers stretching and warping to encompass the mouse's waistline.

"ASH!" Misty and Brock both screamed out in unison, too afraid to move but wishing for all the world that they could save their friend. Giselle, on the other hand, could only wonder how something so vile could have a face exactly like hers.

Ash squirmed, trying to get free. His fists pounded on the monster's chest and arm to no avail; its grip was like steel, but a thousand times colder. Its face drew closer and closer to his, its mouth now open. Thousands upon thousands of black, dark tendrils were rolling about in its mouth, hungry for another mind...his mind. 'This is it,' his inner voice wailed, 'This is how I die? Some stupid thousand-year-old monster eats my guts?' It certainly wasn't the death he had envisioned, or the one he would have preferred.

As it turned out, it wasn't death for Ash at all; inches from his face, the monster froze. It's gaze drifted down to Ash's jacket's pocket as it sensed something familiar...something it feared. As if by magic, a blood-red light began pouring from the pocket, bathing the room in a hellish glow. Terrified, the monster dropped Ash and his Pikachu unceremoniously on their rumps, then pressed its back against the wall, trying desperately to get away from the horrible light. "The Demon Ball!" it hissed, its face of Giselle twisted in fear.

Ash coughed as he shifted on his hands and knees and tried very, very hard not to vomit. As he did so, the small black orb he had plucked from the pedestal in the central chamber dropped to the ground, no longer black; it now shone with a blinding red aura, the source of the new light and also the demon's terror. He looked up with total confusion as he saw the demon hissing and spitting at the ball.

Then the demon exploded.

'Exploded' wasn't quite accurate; the demon was in semi-human form one moment, then simply was not the next. Its skin shifted, expanding into a cloud of black mist that swirled in an almost cohesive manner. In another instant, the mist leapt forward, rushing past first Ash and Pikachu, then Brock, Misty, and Giselle, escaping down the tunnel with an echoing cry.

**Msssssssssssiinnnooooooo**

The moment the creature left, Misty and Brock rushed forward to help their friend to his feet. He waved them off, picking up his dazed Pikachu and standing slowly, rubbing his throat with his free hand uncomfortably.

"What in the name of the Goddess was that?" Brock looked back towards the path of the departing demon, his eyes clenched tightly together in an even heavier squint than normal. Ash just shook his head, bending over to pick up the fallen orb. The younger boy examined the now-silent black orb, dead since the monster's exodus.

"Nothing in the name of the Goddess, Brock...probably just the opposite."
* * *

It had taken nearly two hours to move Richie's twitching, shivering form back to entrance of the caves, and another half-hour to transplant Seymour and his Pokémon entourage out as well. By the end of the arduous task, the remaining teens were sweating despite the cold midnight chill of the dark forest. Brock had carefully laid out the catatonic quartet on the ground, laying out a bed of pine needles to soften the hard woodland floor. Pikachu was aiding him, jumping from tree to tree and knocking down the loose needles. Misty, in the meantime, was tending to Richie. The boy had his back leaning against a boulder, his teeth chattering, and his skin cold and clammy.

"Here," Misty draped a blanket over his shaking frame, "Try to keep still..." He flinched at first, but eventually accepted the blanket with some reluctance. Giving him her warmest smile, she squeezed his hand for comfort, and was glad to feel him squeeze back. She then stood and joined Ash and Giselle a few meters away.

"Gear," Ash spoke quietly into the small device on his wrist, "Uh...we need to get help out here."

"Specify." the Pokégear's cold feminine voice requested.

Ash grumbled, glancing over first at Brock tending to the fallen mountain dwellers, then to his memory-mugged friend. "Look, Seymour's been brain-drained and Richie just got mauled by some sort of evil smoke thing. We need 'help', Gear, and we need it fast."

Gear immediately interpreted the trainer's request, buzzing slightly against Ash's wrist. "Searching for closest medical aid facility." There was a pause. "Suitable match found; Mount Moon Emergency Rescue Volunteers, located twenty miles north-northeast, approximate. Shall I place a request for immediate aid?"

"YES!"

"Acknowledged. Transmitting now." Ash sighed in relief, his shoulders slumping. He caught the worried look on Misty's face, following her gaze back to Richie.

"Is he going to be okay?"

She shook her head, lifting her hands in a shrugging gesture. "I'm no doctor, but from what I can tell, I think he may be going into shock." She glanced back again, watching the troubled boy clutching his shoulders and shaking like a leaf in a typhoon. "The blanket will help, but what he needs is a 'real' doctor."

"I just put in a call..." Ash looked down at Gear, which had displayed a message telling him of the message's departure. Heaving a sigh, he let his thoughts drift back to the clutches of the horrible monster. Hoping against hope, Ash pulled out Dexter and activated the machine's power. "Dex, you were active for the fight with that...whatever-it-was, weren't you?"

"You mean Smokey the Evil Mist? Sure, I managed to take a peek out of your pocket when he had his...whatever-it-was wrapped around your neck." The Pokédex responded crisply, its annoying jokes and celebrity impressions put aside for the moment. "And before you ask; No, I don't have a clue what that thing was...It doesn't correlate with any data I've ever seen."

"Great." Giselle drawled sarcastically, crossing her arms and snorting with disgust. "Some help you two have been. Outta three possible Chosen Ones, one of them got his brain sucked out and the other was nearly strangled."

"Don't forget the third one," Misty sneered, "She nearly wet her pants when she saw that thing."

The starlet whirled on Misty, raising a fist in anger. "Listen you red-headed bimbo, I don't need to take any guff from Ketchum's scrawny, ugly little wench right now. Why don't you take a long walk off a short cliff, 'kay?"

Before Misty could murder Giselle, Ash snapped at both of them, "Will you two pu-LEASE shut up? I'm trying to think!" His head was pounding, and it wasn't likely that the migraine would disappear anytime soon. If only he had some kind of information on that...that thing, that monster. He needed to know what it was they were up against. The problem is, there wasn't too much data on ancient demon Pokémon anymore. Practically the only information Ash knew about would have to be in the Foretelling of...

"That's it!" Ash cried out, startling the entire group. Pikachu had been unfortunate enough to be perched precariously on the end of a limb; the Pokémon took a painful tumble to the forest floor, landing in a heap at Brock's feet. Ignoring their protests and inquiries, Ash once again began to address his Pokégear. "Gear, get me the Oak Institute for Pokémon Research. If I'm right, only one person will still be up...if he's back from his study on African Pokémon genealogy."
* * *

Tracey Sketch, clad only in silk boxers, a tank top, and fuzzy pink Snubble slippers, shuffled across his neat, orderly apartment above Oak's research complex with short, stumbling steps. The phone continued to buzz and ring at him, continuing to annoy the drowsy Watcher after tearing him from dreamland. "Yeah, yeah, I'm coming already..." he muttered, reaching out with a heavy hand for the phone's headset. After three tries, he managed to grab hold, plopping himself down at his terminal in case there was a visual attached to the phone signal. "Hullo?" he yawned into the microphone.

"Tracey? Is that you?" An all-too-familiar voice echoed over the link, snapping Tracey back to consciousness. "Hello? Tracey, are you there?"

"Ash? Ash Ketchum, is that you?"

"Yes! Tracey, am I glad to see you...er, hear you, I mean."

Tracey glanced over at the clock, instantly remembering that he was tired. "Ash, do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Yes. It's time to ask for a favor." Ash's voice went from friendly to desperate in under a second, pleading with Tracey for an unknown need. "Tracey, I really need your help."

"Where are you? What's going on?" The researcher was now more confused than irritated. He stood up, ready to wake the Professor should the situation warrant it. "Are you hurt?"

"Not yet. Tracey, listen to me: do you know about Professor Oak's new book. That 'Foretelling of What's-his-name', or whatever it is?"

"Ma'kala? Sure, that's all he's been able to talk about. That, and Gary winning the League Championship. Ash, how on Earth did you lo-"

"Later. Look, I need to know what that book says."

Tracey laughed. "Well, gee, let me get it and start reading it for you. Ash, the thing is written in ancient Pokémopolitese...I can't read it. It's taken the Professor months just to translate a fraction of it-"

"And knowing him, he's got it all on a computer file for backup, just in case something ever happened to the book."

Tracey was dumbfounded. "No," he said slowly but firmly, "Absolutely not. Professor Oak's computer files are sacred to him. If he ever found out that I tampered with them..."

"I'm linking my Pokédex to the satellite signal now, Tracey." Ash's voice stated simply over the link-up. There was a long pause, as if Ash were waiting expectantly.

At long last, Tracey sighed heavily. He flipped his terminal on, accessing the Compound's central database. "You owe me *so* big for this, Ash." He said as he found the file. With a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, the translated texts of the Foretelling of Ma'kala was sent across the airwaves.
* * *

"Add it on to the tab I already owe you, Tracey. Thanks." Ash checked his 'Dex's files, noting with satisfaction that his old friend hadn't let him down.

"Whatever you need it for, I hope it's import enough to sneak around behind the Professor's back like this." Tracey's tinny voice rang out from Gear. "I'm going back to bed. Look me up the next time you're in Pallet, will you?"

"I promise. G'night, Tracey." Ash closed the link, grinning despite the seriousness of their situation. He looked down at his Pokédex expectantly, restating his previous questions to the palmtop computer. "Okay Dexter, show me the demon."

"Wellllll," Dexter drawled, scanning the newly acquired files, "Based on what Pen Man sent us, I'd have to say it's this charming fellow." With a beep, the Pokédex's program shifted from interactive guide to informational database. Its voice now monotone, Dexter was all business. "Missingno: the Mist Pokémon. Created by the ancient Pokémopolitans, Missingno's diet consists entirely of memory patterns removed from a victim's head."

"Any weaknesses?" Misty inquired hopefully, peeking over Ash's shoulder. Pikachu had taken to the other shoulder, and had leaned out far enough that it became necessary to grab Ash's hat before it took its second plummet for the night. "Please, tell me it's weak to water."

Dexter searched for a moment. "No known elemental weaknesses found in database."

"Rats..." Ash muttered, tugging on his cap and, consequently, sending Pikachu tumbling off of his shoulder. Of course, he was hardly surprised. If something had been able to worry the greatest empire in the history of the world, it certainly wasn't going to be easy for a bunch of teenagers to take out. "Okay...it will probably be a while before the cavalry gets here, so what we need now is a new game plan."

"I don't know about you," Giselle quipped, cracking her knuckles, "But I'm heading back in."

Brock froze in his treatment of the KO'ed scientist and his equally unconscious friends, looking at her as if she had just claimed she was going to put out Richie's Moltres with a dixie cup filled with gasoline. "Have you lost your gorgeous mind?" the Rock Master cried, leaping to his feet. "That *thing* ate Richie's brain, it doesn't have any weaknesses, and it doesn't seem to have a problem moving around in those pitch-black tunnels..." He slammed a fist into his open palm. "We're talking 'Death Wish', here!"

"Please." she scoffed, waving him off like a bad odor. "I don't care what happened to your little friend there. I've been handpicked by the Pokégoddess to stop Missingno, and that's what I'm going to do. End of story."

"Not end of story." Ash rasped, snapping Dexter shut and brushing past Misty. "You seem to be forgetting something; the Goddess wasn't sure 'which' one of us was the right one." Folding his arms, he took a confident tone to his voice, pulling himself up to his full height; an entire inch above Giselle's crown of chestnut brown hair. "Richie may be out of the picture, but don't count me out just yet."

"Fine." Giselle scowled, grimacing with disgusted annoyance. "We both go back into the cave. The first one to bag Missingno is the Goddess's Right-Hand-Woman."

"*MAN*!"

"We'll see." With that, she pivoted on her heel and stalked back into the fearsome dungeon of evil. Ash was about to follow right in her footsteps when a pair of strong hands grabbed him from behind.

"Hey!"

Brock grunted, holding his friend back. "Sorry, Ash, but I'd have to be nuts to let you back in there." As Ash struggled, he could feel another set of smaller hands close around his leg. Glancing down, he saw Pikachu tugging him back, trying with all its Pika-power to keep him from going back in. "It's suicide," Brock continued, keeping Ash's arms locked behind his back.

Misty stepped in front of the struggling trainer, her arms akimbo as if to block Ash's path to the cave. "Listen to him, Ash...we're worried sick about you right now." Her voice grew sad as she glanced briefly over to the shivering form of Richie. "This whole Goddess dream thing is getting out of hand."

Ash stopped for a moment, his fiery eyes locking into her gaze. "You think that's all this is? Just someone chasing after a stupid dream?" he spat, the volume of his voice growing in tandem with his rage. "You think I'm crazy? You 'still' don't believe me, even after you saw it with your own eyes?" With one smooth, fluid motion, Ash jerked his arms free of Brock's iron grip, stumbling forward. The only thing that kept him from falling to the ground was Misty, who inadvertently wrapped her arms around his waist, catching him.

"I...I believe you..." she murmured.

His steely amber eyes drilled a path straight through her skull, frightening her with an intensity she hadn't seen in them ever before. "Let go of me."

"I'll kick the living crap out of you if I have to, Ashlan Ketchum!" she threatened him. The quaver in her voice, however, told them all that she didn't mean it in the least. "I mean it!"

"Let...go...of...me."

Slowly, Misty released Ash, loath to break their embrace. Ash began to stalk towards the cave. He did not look back...to see the hurt look on his dearest friends' faces would have torn his heart to shreds.

"Pika! Pika-pi!" Pikachu scrambled after its trainer, desperate to catch up. It took one last, long look at Brock and Misty before following Ash into the inky blackness of the tunnels, leaving the Master of Rock and the Mistress of the Sea to tend to the fallen.

Brock sighed, turning to glance at their charges with grim pessimism. "Well, I guess we're on our own now, huh Misty?" There was no reply. "Misty?"

He turned back. Misty was no where to be found. Brock was completely alone.

"Crap..."
* * *

"Pika...Pika pikacha?" Pikachu looked up at its oldest friend worriedly, wondering what had brought about this sudden change in the boy. A mere day ago Pikachu had known exactly who Ash Ketchum was. Now it kept hearing Misty, Brock and even poor Richie talking about some Goddess that it had never heard of before, and of destinies and world-saving and other such things that it didn't like to think about. Ash had been uncomfortably quiet over the past ten minutes, since parting with the others. "Cha?"

"No, Pikachu, I'm fine." Ash assured his Pokémon unconvincingly with a cold, dead tone, "I'm fine. I just...know what has to be done now, that's all." He held his lantern up, inspecting the tunnel carefully as they made their way down the narrow passage.

"OH!"

The shout had come from behind them. Throwing caution to the wind, Ash and Pikachu whirled around one-eighty degrees, dashing back the way they had come. Ash attached the lantern to his belt, then pulled several Pokéballs out and expanded them to full size. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn't what he found.

"Help me up, will you?" Misty's soft, feminine voice coughed from beneath a shock of red hair, barely visible in the dim light. He groaned, pushing herself up to her hands and knees, her clothes covered with sticky brown dust from the fall. "Man, those stupid rocks come out of nowhere, don't they?"

"Misty?" Ash couldn't believe it. He slapped the Pokéballs back onto his belt and retook the lantern in hand, holding it next to her face as if to inspect what he had found. "What in the world are you doing here?" Pikachu shouted its own inquiries at the young girl, sparking with excitement and happiness to see its friend once more.

"Ah!" Misty winced, twisting her face away from the bright lantern. "Watch it, will you? You shone that stupid thing in my eyes!" After he helped her to her feet, she began to brush herself off as she explained. "Look...I, uh..."

"You came after me."

She sighed. "If I can't stop you from risking your life stupidly, at least let me risk mine right alongside you." Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle in the darkness, casting a spell over Ash in a way that he hadn't felt in ages. How long had it been since she had looked at him like that? "I won't let you do this alone, Ash."

"I...uh...fine." he managed to get out. Turning back in the direction of his and Pikachu's attempted exploration, Ash began to blaze a trail in the search for Missingno once more. The boy was frozen in his tracks when he felt something warm slip into his hand hanging down at his side. Tracing a line of sight down his own arm, he found his gaze led to his hand, which led to Misty's hand, then trailed up Misty's arm, finally arriving at her warm, smiling face. "What-"

"So I don't get lost..." she explained quickly.

"Oh...okay." He felt a giddy rush as they continued onward into the darkness, hand in hand. Pikachu stopped for a moment, sniffing the air suspiciously. Something was wrong.

Something was very wrong.
* * *

"Misty?" Brock called out at the top of his lungs, walking around the immediate perimeter of the cave's mouth. He had been searching desperately for the young girl to no avail. It was as if she had stepped off the face of the Earth itself. "Misty! Where are you?" A strong hand gripped his shoulder suddenly, causing him to jump in fright. A few seconds later, once he had landed, he spun around to face whatever it had been to grab him.

"Woah, take it easy, cowboy..." Misty held up her hands, trying to calm Brock down. "I'm right here...you can stop shouting." She lowered her voice as if to prove what she had claimed.

Brock tried to force his heart rate back down, wiping his brow with relief. "Misty, thank God...where the heck have you been?" he demanded, "I've been searching for you for almost fifteen minutes!"

She looked down at the ground, toeing a small mound of dirt up with embarrassment. "I, uh...I tried to follow Ash, but I lost him at the main chamber...I didn't know what to do, so I came back here." She looked at him, overcome with concern. "Are you okay? You look like you're scared out of your wits."

"I am!" he exclaimed, "But I'm a little less scared now that I found you." They were both silent for a moment. "So what do we do now?" he finally asked.

She closed her eyes for a moment, lost in contemplation. There were so many different things going on; the search for this Missingno thing, the injured people that no doubt needed careful attention...and rising above them all was her feelings for Ash. She quickly tried to squash those feelings, knowing full well that they would not only fail to help her think more clearly, but also knowing without a doubt that particular road would only lead back to heartbreak.

Well...almost without a doubt.

"C'mon," she said, starting for the cave's mouth. "We have to find Ash." Somehow, she knew that if they didn't, he wouldn't live through to see the next dawn.

"Right." Brock nodded, following. Then he stopped, taking a moment to think the situation through. "Uh, Misty? How are we gonna find him?"

"Simple." she told him with complete sincerity, "We follow our hearts."

"Oh...I knew that." he said a little uncertainly. Still, something about chasing after Ash didn't feel right. Something was wrong.

Something was very wrong.
* * *

'Back...go back...'

Ash tried to shake the voice out of his head, growling at the murmuring tone buzzing in the back of his mind. Ever since he had met up with Misty inside the tunnels, he couldn't seem to shake the feeling that the right way was the way they had already been. Pikachu seemed to share his feelings, looking up at him with its dark brown eyes and continuing to glance over its tiny yellow shoulder.

"Ash?" Misty asked, giving his hand a squeeze, "Is everything all right?"
He stopped in tandem with his Pokémon, turning around. "We need to go back." he stated simply, dragging Misty back the way they had come with absolution.

"What? Back? A-are you sure?" Misty asked, her voice laced with confusion. "Why back? Missingno isn't that way, is he?"

"I...Yes. No. I don't know."

"Then why go back?"

"Pika..." Pikachu cooed softly, its dark eyes glimmering. It began to walk back, its feet padding against the cold brownish-gray stone of the floor with each step. Ash looked on as his Pokémon receded into the blackness, now sure of what it was he knew he must do.

He frowned, trying to explain what it was he was feeling. "I...I'm not sure. It's just a feeling."
* * *

Finally, after what had seemed an eternity of walking (and was, in actuality, a mere seven and a half minutes), Misty and Brock reached the central chamber, now devoid of everything save the empty pedestal in the center. Sweeping their lanterns' light across the text-filled walls, they searched in vain for some sign of Ash or Pikachu.

"They aren't here..." Misty said, weighed down with disappointment. She set her lantern down on the pedestal, trying to cut through the solid black of the dozen passageways with her aqua blue gaze. She had hoped that Ash would still be here, possibly figuring out some sort of plan for searching for the demon. Of course, that was just wishful thinking; Ash never planned for anything.

"What did you expect," Brock voiced what her mind had already told her, "That he would just sit here, twiddling his thumbs?" He poked his head into one of the tunnels, looking about for a moment before pulling back out again. "Guess we'll have to wait for him to come back."

Misty nodded glumly, her eyes playing across the circumference of the tunnel. In an instant, her eyes as well as her demeanor brightened significantly. "Looks like we won't have to wait long. Look!" She pointed excitedly to one of the openings, which had begun to glow with a light that was clearly not coming from either Misty's or Brock's lantern. Brock walked over to join Misty by the pedestal, beaming with a broad smile that was rivaled only by hers.

As the light grew brighter, they could hear footsteps accompanying what they assumed to be Ash and Pikachu. After several eons and an epoch of waiting, Ash's athletic, jacket-obscured frame rounded the corner, followed by the tiny form of Pikachu...

...and then by the lithe, slender, strong Mistress of Water, looking as happy as could be as she held Ash's hand delicately clutched in her gentle grip.

Misty froze in mid-shout of joy, staring at her as 'she' stared right back at 'her'. Then, in unison, they began to speak.

"What is *that*?"

Ash, in the meantime, was in danger of losing his head as it snapped from one Misty to the other, then back again. The power-packed Pikachu could only park itself on the cave floor, pondering the problem. Brock was similarly confused, but collected enough wits to formulate a cohesive sentence. Given the circumstances, up to and including the sight of a double dose of Misty, it wasn't an altogether bad observation.

"Hey! There's two of them!"

"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock." each of the youngest Waterflowers snorted sarcastically, rolling their collective eyes. Then their gaze locked on one another, all else forgotten. "You fake!" they harmonized loudly, pointing a finger of accusation at the other.

"Pika! Pika-pika!" Pikachu shouted at them, snarling first at one, then at the other.

"Pikachu..." they both turned to the electric mouse, holding out their hands and pleading to the Pokémon, "Don't you recognize me? She's the fake, not me!"

Ash stepped back from 'his' Misty, eyeing 'Brock's' Misty warily. "Two Mistys...but no way of telling which one is real." As he scratched his head, a piercing glow erupted from his pocket, just as it had done several hours before, deep inside the heart of the mountain. All the arguing and shouting stopped momentarily as everyone's eyes focused on his pocket. "Huh?" Ash reached into his pocket, drawing out the black orb. Exactly as before, it was alive with a blood-red glow that lit the room with a demonic aura.

"Ash, that's the thing that went haywire when Missingno attacked us before, remember?" Brock cried out, rushing over to Ash. He grabbed the ball from Ash's hand. Almost immediately, the ball lost its glow, returning to its obsidian sheen, as it had possessed when it had rested on the pedestal. "Hey...what's wrong? Did it run out of batteries?" Curious, he returned it to Ash's hand, who took it with some hesitation. In another instant, it began to glow again, shining even brighter than before.

"What *is* this thing?" Ash muttered, examining the ball. As he did so, a small portion of the ball darkened, forming several black characters in ancient Pokémopolitese on its curved surface. This would have been amazing enough, but what was even more incredible was the fact that Ash could now understand what the letters had said. It should have been impossible; he had never learned a single word of the ancient Pokémopolitan language, but the letters were as clear to him as plain English or Japanese.

Child of darkness, trapped by light,
Come thy hence unto this urn,
Dark creation, carrion of plight,
Cry thy name, and now Return.

Reading and understanding, however, were two very different things. Try as Ash's rusted cogs might, they could not begin to formulate the meaning of the jumbled, garbled message.

No one bothered to look up as Giselle made her entrance from the opposite side of the room. She entered with a swagger, making protests to all their sudden noise, but froze in her tracks as she saw what lay before her; a pair of Mistys, a glowing orb patterned with unreadable text, and Ash Ketchum, standing at the center of the entire swirl of mystery. "Just what in blazes is going on?"

"I..." Ash was speechless, trying to comprehend the profound moment. The ball, the text, the visions...they all pointed to what he had feared, and secretly hoped. Ash Ketchum was the chosen Disciple of the Pokégoddess. Now, if he could only figure out who was who, at least as far as Misty went. But how could he tell them apart? They were identical, both in appearance and mannerisms. How could Missingno put on such a convincing performance of Misty when it had just seen her...Richie. 'Richie's memories inside of that thing,' Ash forcefully reminded himself. Everything Richie knew, the Missingno-Misty knew.

Giselle wasn't the least bit concerned with Ash's dilemma. She didn't care about the fate of the world, or what happened to any of them at the moment. All that she could think about was the sheer unfairness of the situation. She was the top student at PokéTech, one of the top contenders in the Indigo League, and one of the most beautiful women in the world...and *he* was the one that fate had chosen. Him, not her. Ash...not Giselle.

"What?" she roared, screeching loud enough to shatter glass, "Him? I don't believe it!"

The Misty on Ash's left...the one that had been with Brock...immediately reacted, looking straight into Ash's confused eyes. "I do."

"What?" The other Misty looked over at her with confusion, "What are you talking about?"

The first Misty ignored the second. She kept her eyes locked with Ash's, speaking slowly and calmly. "I believe you." A slow smile blossomed on her face as she hoped and prayed that he would remember...that he would believe her in turn.

A sudden rush came over Ash, as if someone had flipped a switch inside of his soul. The ball, the monster, his destiny...he somehow understood it all, yet he had no idea just what it was he understood. He drew his hand back and aimed straight for the Misty on his right, teeth bared in a vicious growl. "It ends now."

"Wait, Ash don't!" 'Misty' screamed, but it was too late. Ash had thrown the black sphere, hurtling it straight at the Misty's head. A split second before it hit her head, it seemed to pause, freezing in midair and defying any and all laws of physics. The Newtonian nightmare hovered, flashing brighter than it ever had before. The Misty that Ash had targeted began to melt under the crimson light, evaporating into the black mist of Missingno. The creature shrieked in anguish as the ball began to draw it into an unseen orifice, sucking the demon up as a high-powered vacuum would. With one final scream, Missingno vanished into the black ball. Its mission now complete, the glowing sphere dropped to the ground, its light dying with one final flair of brilliance.

"Misty, are you okay?" Ash stepped forward, relieved to see his friend in one piece. Misty smiled at him, then brought her fist across his jaw in a stunning right hook.

"You IDIOT! Can't you tell me apart from ultimate evil?" Misty started bawling him out, waving her arms at him as if she were about to start strangling the very life out of him. "I mean, could you have 'possibly' taken any longer to decide which one of us to kill?"

The ball, which had lain still for a moment, now began to blink from red to black intermittently. Pikachu made its way around the furious Misty to investigate the ball, poking at it worriedly. "Pika..." Pikachu called out to them, trying to get their attention. Ash, however, was too busy being beaten to notice his Pokémon or its problem at the moment. Brock was occupied as he attempted to hold Misty back, and Misty was, naturally, trying to kill Ash.

Giselle, in the meantime, had remained frozen to the spot after witnessing Ash's fantastic capture of Missingno. She still could not believe that she was just an ordinary trainer...beautiful, to be sure, but not ordained by the gods to save the planet. So distraught was she that she didn't even notice three shadowy figures entering the chamber. Giselle continued to raise a blind eye to them as they set up several equipment stands and lighting fixtures, only coming to notice them as they began to shout.

"Prepare for trouble!"

"And make it double!"

The brawling trio of Ash, Misty, and Brock paused in their fight, looking over as several blinding spotlights created a small stage of light on the chamber floor. Standing in the middle of the spectral theater were Jessie and James, dressed in their usual Rocket fatigues. A large, undoubtedly overpriced sound system began to play accompanying music as they started their dueling monologue.

"To protect the world from devastation," Jessie started, pulling out a rubber-coated steel cable net, slinging it over her shoulder. She posed for the teenagers, throwing modesty to the wind as she blew them a kiss.

"To unite all peoples within our nation," James produced a large fishing rod from behind his back. He grabbed the end of Jessie's net, attaching it to the sharp hook in the end of his line. Then, getting a bearing on his target, wound up and launched the net line straight at everyone's favorite yellow Pokémon.

"To denounce the evils of truth and love," Jessie squealed with delight as the net closed around the squirming, shouting Pikachu, trapping it tightly in the shockproof net.

"To extend our reach to the stars above." With a grunt, James began to reel the Pokémon in. Ash cried out in protest, lunging to try and catch the net before it could get past him. He was a second too late, and crashed into the ground just shy of the dragging bundle of steel and Pikachu.

"Jessie."

"James." The blue-haired Rocket caught the netted Pikachu, throwing the squirming sack of energy over his shoulder with a haughty laugh.

"Team Rocket blasts off at the speed of light!" She thumbed a small remote, activating the swirling red backup lights for the grand finale.

"Surrender now, or prepare to fight!"

Meowth leapt on top of the small marble pedestal, mocking Ash with the teen's signature V fingers. "Meowth! Dat's right!"

"Oh, good night." Misty moaned.

"What a fright." Brock snickered.

"Hey!" Jessie cried out indignantly, "Stop making fun of us!"

"Give me back my Pikachu!" Ash used one of his many, 'many' cliches, jabbing a finger at the Rockets Three with extreme prejudice. They responded with a sloppy raspberry, pulling their lower eyelids down in what is no doubt an untranslatable Japanese gesture of insult, jeering him and waving the Pikachu in front of them, taunting him with the snarling rodent.

"Nyaa nyaa! We've got a Pikachu and you don't, twerp!" James cackled, poking Pikachu through the rubberized cables with a gloved finger. Pikachu promptly rewarded the slow-witted move by clamping down on his finger with its viselike jaws. "GAAAAAA! He's biting me! He's biting me!" He began to dance about, waving the netted Pikachu around with total disregard for anyone around him. Meowth was the first to suffer somewhat indirectly from Pikachu's fangs; he was in the path of the rogue net, taking a blow straight to the head and toppling from the pedestal. "Get it off get it off get it off!" James squealed, whimpering.

"Hold still, you moron!" Jessie snapped, grabbing his arm. She tugged on Pikachu, trying to yank the Pokémon off, but its teeth wouldn't budge. "Maybe if you weren't so stupid, you wouldn't get yourself into situations like this."

Ash's throat rumbled with a feral growl as he reached for his Pokébelt, drawing a red and white marble-sized ball out of its socket and expanding it with a flick of his thumb. "Charizard is gonna carbonize these pests." he uttered. "Brock, get Vulpix ready. Two Flamethrowers are better than one."

Brock however, had turned his attention elsewhere. He had noticed the flashing black orb that Pikachu had so desperately tried to warn them about, and bent over to pick it up. It quivered in his palm, emitting an unnatural heat onto his night-chilled skin. "Uh...Ash? This thing is going crazy." he tapped his friend on the shoulder, but the teen had his fury filled eyes set on Team Rocket. "Ash? Um, Ash, you might want to take a look at this." The ball had begun to visibly shake now, its light growing stronger and faster by the second. "Ash?"

"Not now Brock."

"But Ash-"

"What?" Ash exploded, whirling around. Brock brought the ball within inches of his face, letting the trainer get an eyeful of the flashing orb. "Oh...crap."

"Crap?" Misty grabbed his arm, crushing it out of desperation. "What crap? Haven't we dealt with enough crap today? Ash, please don't say 'crap'..." her voice quavered.

As the three teens watched the demon's prison going crazy, the room's Rocket triumvirate had managed to remove James' finger from the Pika-trap. After a brief celebration, they turned to resume their argument with Ash. After seeing the demonic ball dancing in the palm of Brock's hand, they stopped in mid-insult, their eyes going wide.

"What's dat?" Meowth tilted his head curiously.

As if to answer the talking cat, the orb exploded with a blinding flash, black mist quickly filling the entire room. All throughout the chamber, a mysterious, haunting shriek could be heard echoing in each of their minds.

**Too bright! Too bright!**

"The light!" Giselle screamed from across the room, cupping her hands to her mouth as she tried to get Ash's attention. "It can't stand the light."

"Team Rocket!" Ash whirled about, taking several steps through the swirl of dark mist over to the triple-trouble trio. He snatched Pikachu from James' clutches, getting very little resistance from the stunned thief. "Does that contraption of yours have any more lights?"

"Ha!" Meowth cackled, pulling a small remote from behind his back. "Does it have more lights? Dat's a good one, kid. Watch this!" As he thumbed a switch, several ports on the sound/light system began to open up, sprouting spotlights as if they were mechanical daisies.

"Cover your eyes!" Jessie warned them, "This thing has more watts than an Electabuzz!" She did just as she had suggested, and the rest of them soon followed suit. With another button pushed, the lights came to life and drowned out the red ambiance of the ancient ball, literally turning everything in the room pure white.

**AAAAAAAA! THE LIGHT! THE LIGHT!**

Missingno coalesced into a single small black cloud and rushed down the tunnel leading outside. Once the lights had been turned off, the small battalion of trainers and Rockets followed as fast as their feet would carry them. After a moment of running, they were back out under the stars, looking wildly about for some sign of the demon Pokémon.

Brock jabbed a finger up towards the sky, spotting the receding cloud superimposed on the full moon. "There he is!" he cried. He was about to pull out his Onix and help give chase when Ash laid a hand on his brawny shoulder.

"Let him go, Brock..." Ash shook his head, trying to untangle Pikachu from the net with his free hand, "There'll be another time."
* * *

Team Rocket had "blasted off" in the exact opposite direction of Missingno as soon as they were sure that there wasn't any chance of his finding them, and the rescue teams sent by the Mount Moon Emergency Rescue Volunteers had come just after the nick of time. Nevertheless, Misty was relieved to see friendly faces that could help Seymour, his Pokémon, and Richie as well. The latter of the injured was just now being carted out on a stretcher, still quaking, his eyes darting about as if searching for something. As the paramedics passed her by, the boy reached out and snagged Misty's wrist, holding onto it with uncanny strength.

"Please..." he whispered. Misty wasn't sure what he was pleading with her to do...she wasn't sure if Richie knew, either.

"Don't worry Richie," she patted his hand, gently removing it from her arm and paying it across his chest. "Everything will be all right...you'll see." He nodded gratefully, laying his head back down on the stretcher and allowing them to carry him off without further fuss. Tears of sadness dripped down her face as she watched them haul the patients into the ambulance helicopters.

"Part of him still knows who he is." Ash's voice uttered from behind her. She didn't need to turn around to know that he was crying as well, though doing a much better job of hiding it than she was. She nodded, hugging her arms to her chest as she felt a chill run up her spine. Missingno had almost gotten them all...so why was it that Richie had to be the one to suffer? "I swear to you, Misty," Ash continued, wiping his eyes, "We'll find Missingno. We'll make him pay, and we'll get Richie's memories back."

"Pika." Pikachu watched the paramedics load Richie's quaking form onto the Huey, gritting its teeth at its own inability to fight the powerful demon that had wasted its friend. "Cha. Pika, pikachu chu pi."

"Strong words, Ketchum." Giselle appeared from Ash's flank, interrupting the two friends' shared moment of silence. "But you won't be the one to find Missingno. 'I' will." She looked off into the dawn-kissed sky; its brilliant colors were a welcome change from the gray-black cave walls that had haunted their nights. "He can't travel during the day, and he's obviously not in the cave anymore."

Having thanked the paramedics and collecting Richie's Pokébelt, Brock jogged away from the helicopters as they took off. "Hey guys." he quipped, unaware of the grim discussion taking place. "The Volunteer guys were nice enough to let me hang on to Richie's Pokémon for him." He held up a single Pokéball from the others, examining it. "Even his Moltres..."

Faster than Brock could react, Giselle's hand snaked out and snatched the contained Moltres out of the brawny trainer's hand. Before any of them could even get out a cry of protest, she unsheathed one of her own balls and tossed it out. With a bright flash and a storm of energy, the massive form of Zapdos erupted from the Pokéball and took flight. It made a single swooping pass, scooping Giselle up and climbing high into the air with a powerful screech.

"What's her deal?" Ash scowled, his sadness replaced with annoyance. Misty and Brock merely shrugged, turning to leave. They were all too happy to leave the cursed prison of the Pokémopolitans, more than ready to let the past rest peacefully. Ash, on the other hand, let his thoughts stray to the path of the ancients. It seemed so much like his own now; fighting a war against evil creations. He pulled out the "Demon Ball", examining it as his mind wandered. He hadn't forgotten what the Goddess had told him. Missingno was only the beginning of his battle, and there were others like him that would test his skill. "What do you think, Pikachu? Think we can save the world one more time?" he asked his Pika-pal.

"Cha!" Pikachu gave him a claws-up, grinning its toothy smile and jumping on top of his head. "Chu, pikachu!"

"That's right, bring 'em on!" Ash laughed with his Pokémon, running after Brock and Misty. Despite everything that had happened... despite the enormous weight he had inherited onto his shoulders...Ash was actually laughing. A sinking feeling told him that he might not have much to laugh at in the future. Destiny had played its opening move, and now it only had one piece left: it was now down to one Ash Ketchum against an army of darkness.

"Bring them all on. We'll take 'em down, just like we always have."

End

Quiet Hindsight
Thanks to everyone who answered the call and wrote me after they read The League Games, Part II. Authors crave attention, that's why we write. I guess you could kind of call this story the end of "Season One" of BadgeQuest. That doesn't mean that there'll be a summer of repeats, though. I'll be gearing up for season two lickety-split, don't you worry. Until then, this is Cyberwraith9 giving a shout out to my peeps and saying:
"The best thieves are writers, and the best writers are thieves."


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If At First You Don't Succeed...