The Path of Destiny

Chapter 54 – Burning Ambition

Night had fallen upon Stonedust, but the city still shone brightly beneath the night sky. However, the building the group stood in front of was completely dark, and because the structure was so massive, it looked eerie as it towered over every other building around it. No light shone from the windows; the library was definitely closed for the night.

Damian and Justin stood in front of it, glad that there were only a few pedestrians around. There weren't even many cars passing by. The vehicles were not of great concern to them anyway; there was a pathway leading alongside the right wall of the library that people often took during the day, and it was from there that they planned to sneak in through a window. No one would think it odd for them to be taking a walk down a less-used path should they happen to be seen before sneaking in.

"Damian, are you sure about this?" Justin asked, giving the older boy a worried look. He had been confident about the plan earlier, but now that they were actually close to implementing it, he found he was growing increasingly nervous, and hoped Damian wouldn't notice.

"Yes," he replied, a smile on his face. "We've got it all figured out." He tried to give Justin a reassuring look, but Justin didn't find it comforting. Damian seemed to be completely oblivious to his nervousness, which didn't surprise him.

"I wish Katie would have come," Justin muttered under his breath, thinking of how Katie had gone back to her trainer hotel, wanting nothing to do with their risky nighttime excursion.

"Don't worry," Damian reassured him, "we have the pokémon with us."

"Uh-huh," Justin replied half-heartedly, giving Damian's pokémon an unimpressed look. However, as Spark rubbed his head against his leg, he felt a bit of his fear retreating and reached down to pet his jolteon, running his fingers through fur that was silky smooth, without a hint of the dangerous spikes it could become if he was angered. Sometimes Spark's fur would bristle a little if one of the other humans touched him unexpectedly or took him by surprise, but Justin knew that his pokémon completely trusted him.

Damian had brought Arien, Scytheclaw, and Inferno along with him, and each of them, even Scytheclaw, were calm and collected as they waited for orders. Scytheclaw, although sporting wounds from his battle in the pokémon park, held his head proudly and avoided the gazes of the other pokémon. Snowcrystal stood beside Alex. The floatzel had been the only other wild pokémon who had been both fit enough to travel and willing to go, aside from Redclaw, but it was quickly decided that an arcanine was too large to maneuver through the library easily.

"Are we going now?" Inferno whispered, the flareon's tail lashing in agitation as he looked up at the massive old building of brick and stone.

Snowcrystal turned her gaze toward it as well, and instantly remembered her first experience with the Stonedust City library. Now, however, it seemed even more sinister, knowing what lurked inside of it during the late hours. The growlithe scanned the windows, but she could see no sign of any ghost pokémon.

"Come on," Damian called to the pokémon, who padded forward after the two humans as they walked into the pathway running along the library's side. Snowcrystal didn't recognize this side, and she felt a bit agitated. She was more nervous than she normally would be, knowing what her role in the plan was. Stopping beside a window, Damian examined it, his arms folded as he looked at it thoughtfully.

"Come on," Justin muttered beside him. "Let's get on with it."

"These windows are being watched," Arien suddenly stated as he looked at the other pokémon. Snowcrystal was sure he was communicating with Damian through his psychic link as well. "But there's one near here that isn't. Follow me."

The alakazam made his way along the path, turning once he reached the back of the library and ducking into a narrow space between it and another building. The rest of the group did the same. There were windows here, and they had obviously been built before there was a large building behind the library to block them. At the moment, the curtains behind the windows were drawn. Arien walked past several of them until he came to one that looked a bit more secluded from the others.

"I can't sense anything here," he stated.

"Why is that?" Scytheclaw asked, his yellow eyes narrowing.

"I don't know," the alakazam replied. "Whoever was guarding it probably moved to another window for the time being. But it likely won't last long. Are you ready?"

Snowcrystal realized he was talking to her, and with a jolt she looked at him. "Y-yes," she stammered.

"Good," Arien replied before turning back to the window.

Damian leaned down toward her, and brought out a water bottle from his backpack. Together, he and Justin washed off the orange dye disguising her. It had been decided that Snowcrystal would lure the ghost pokémon away in her natural colors, for the library guard pokémon would be less likely to associate her with humans that way, remembering what Inferno had said about there being no human-altered white growlithe. That way, the ghosts wouldn't be as likely to search for other intruders. It was incredibly risky, but Snowcrystal herself had readily agreed to the idea. She very much wanted to help her friends, and this was a great way she could.

The dye, which had been a quickly applied, easily washable type, came off quickly and Snowcrystal stood on the street, shivering a bit before she shook herself dry, her white fur puffing out.

"All right. We are ready," Arien said in a serious tone, turning toward the window and lifting his hand. There was a click, and it slid open.

Justin's eyes widened, a surprised look clouding them. "Don't they usually have something to prevent pokémon doing that?" he asked, feeling that it was all a bit too easy.

"In newer buildings, yes," Damian replied. "But the library's old, remember?" He sounded so casual about it that Justin couldn't help rolling his eyes.

Snowcrystal readied herself to leap up to the windowsill, but before she could make the jump, a blue glow surrounded her body and she was lifted into the air and through the window space by Arien, who then deposited her on the carpet floor.

Taking a moment to regain her balance once the glow faded, she shook herself again and looked around. The hallway was dark, with no sign of any pokémon. She found it hard to recognize anything in the darkness; they hadn't often gone this way on their trips to the library, or at least not the ones where she had come along.

Knowing time was precious, she sprinted off down the hallway, distancing herself from the others in the direction they'd told her to run. The humans knew the layout of the library, and if all went as planned, the ghosts would follow her, and the others would be able to sneak much more easily to the place the secret books were kept.

-ooo-

"They're following her," Arien said in a worried voice as his eyes scanned the darkness.

"Can you tell where they all are?" Spark asked.

"No…but I could sense some passing by. We need to be careful."

"Are we going to go now?" Alex whispered as she hopped from one foot to the other in excitement.

"Hey, this is serious!" Inferno whispered to her.

"Oh, right" the floatzel responded, changing her demeanor to something closer to calm and giving the flareon a knowing nod.

"They'll notice the window if we don't hurry," Justin hissed to Damian through gritted teeth.

"Wait…" Damian replied, his gaze locked on Arien.

A few moments passed and the alakazam nodded. "Let's go," he said.

Carefully, the humans and pokémon all slipped inside, leaving the window open a bit to allow for Snowcrystal's escape.

"This isn't exactly a top security place," Justin noted as he looked around the hallway and then at the pokémon. "But I doubt it'll turn out being that easy. Keep your wits about you." He gave a glare first at Alex, who was looking around in excitement, and then at Scytheclaw.

"Gotcha," Alex stated, more to herself than to the human who couldn't understand her. "We'll be careful."

"This isn't a game, you know," Scytheclaw snarled under his breath at her.

"Hey, I'm just trying to lighten the mood," the floatzel whispered back. She still seemed completely unafraid, and Spark, who was beginning to feel nervous, especially for his trainer who, along with Damian, would carry most of the blame if they were caught, couldn't help but admire her a bit for it.

Alex turned around and peered down the hallway, pointing with her paw. "Let's go."

To Spark's surprise, she was pointing in the exact direction they needed to go, and it occurred to him that Alex actually did understand a lot more about their mission than he'd given her credit for. While she seemed to treat it like a big adventure, at least she knew what she was doing.

Now that their eyes had adjusted to the light, they crept along the hallway, keeping alert. The paintings of legendaries and other pokémon looked strangely spooky in the darkness, and after they passed the row of windows and turned into a new hallway, it was completely dark.

No one dared produce any sort of light with the thought of ghost pokémon around, but Spark and Alex led the way purely by scent and the feel of the carpet and walls, the humans and other pokémon keeping close behind. The jolteon's heart was beginning to hammer in his chest as a shiver raced through his body. He'd been in dangerous situations before, but as familiar as he was with human buildings, the thought of having to sneak around an enclosed space where he couldn't use speed to his advantage unnerved him.

"Stop," Arien's voice hissed to them, but he needn't have said anything. Up ahead, in the small room full of bookshelves carrying a section of library books, they had noticed strange purple-blue flames.

The flames were at a considerable distance, and as they watched, they circled lazily around the room before eventually moving out of sight.

"Chandelure," Alex hissed to the others, waiting for a signal from the two trainers.

"We should go a different way," Spark stated, and Arien nodded.

They followed a side hallway, taking a longer route toward the room dedicated to books about battling strategies that Nightcloud had told them hid the secret door. They knew that Snowcrystal should be leading most of the ghost pokémon to the other side of the building, but they would still have to go out of their way to avoid the chandelure, and it was possible that they would need one of the other pokémon to be a distraction. Spark narrowed his eyes firmly as he walked. If he had any say in it, it would be him. The twisting hallways might slow him down, but he was still the fastest of the group, and he wanted to help Snowcrystal. Yet the growlithe knew exactly what to do, and he tried to reassure himself that she would get out through the window again just fine.

-ooo-

The library was dark and eerie as Snowcrystal raced through the hallway, not entirely sure where she was going, but at least knowing that she could find her way back, as she had been making a mental note of the paintings she passed by so she could track her way back to the window. Thoughts of her first excursion into the Stonedust City library, what seemed now like eons ago, filled her mind as she ran. The library had seemed creepy and hostile then, but now it was exponentially so, as she knew what lurked in the building during the night.

Moving her head from left to right as her paws thudded dully against the carpeting, Snowcrystal wondered how fast the ghosts would be able to move and follow her, and how long she'd be able to keep up the chase before she was driven out of the library. Trying not to think about how well she would do, she focused instead on the others, who were relying on her, and threw back her head in a howl, trying to sound as if she were a lost and confused wild or stray pokémon. Surely, she thought, that would attract the attention of any of the-

Without warning, something darted into her field of vision from her left side, and she had barely begun to turn her head in surprise when a ghostly fist shrouded in dark energy hurtled her way. With a yelp of shock she jumped to the side, and for a split second she thought she would avoid the attack, but then the punch landed harshly against the side of her head, causing her to lose her balance and skid into the wall.

Shaking her head frantically after the impact, she ignored the dull throbbing pain and her own terror as she kicked off the wall and launched herself forward again, hearing nothing behind her but knowing her foe was right on her tail. In the back of her mind, she wondered if the attack the pokémon had used was shadow punch, and if that was why she hadn't been able to avoid it.

Fear leant her strength as she powered forward, avoiding the temptation to steer herself into a side room or a branching hallway, as she knew making a turn would only slow her down. As she continued to run, sheer terror of the unknown prompted her to take a quick glance behind her, seeing that her pursuer was a haunter, and he was closer than she'd feared. As she saw this, the haunter released some sort of strange, barely visible beam toward her, and she quickly ducked to the side, feeling an odd chill race down her spine as it whisked past her and struck the floor, though from the lack of an impact sound, she figured it hadn't damaged it. The beam must have been confuse ray or something similar, which made sense to her, as she knew the pokémon would not be allowed to damage the library. At the same time, however, the possible nature of the attack made her worry grow. Above all things, she needed to keep a clear head.

The hallway reached an end up ahead, forcing her to turn, so she raced into a room off to the side. She felt glad for all the running and traveling she had had to do to survive in her mountain home. It had given her plenty of stamina, and she did not yet feel like she needed to slow down. As she continued to frantically bolt through the room and into another, much larger one, she was glad that she was fast enough for the pokémon to have at least a bit of trouble aiming another beam at her.

As she darted between two towering bookshelves, barely visible against the rest of the room in the low light, she thought of darting up the next staircase to attract the attention of any pokémon on the second or third floors that hadn't heard her call. The battle strategies room that the others were heading to was on the third floor, and though she was sure her howl had to have reached the ghosts there, she wanted to make sure they'd be distracted when Damian and the others neared that room.

As she emerged from the bookshelves into a wider part of the room which had doorways leading to several hallways, she was suddenly met with the forms of two other pokémon – a misdreavus and a shedinja. With a cry of shock she veered to the right, but the haunter tailing her merely sailed through the bookshelf without having to turn around it and struck her with another dark energy punch.

This time, she completely lost her footing, and tumbled tail over snout into the wall near one of the openings to the doorways. Her head hit the wall and for a moment her vision faltered. Through the daze, she could see all three pokémon closing in on her. In a panic she staggered upright, swinging her head around toward her attackers and releasing a flame wheel at their blurry forms.

All at once the whole room was washed in a warm glow. The ghost pokémon seemed to forget about her as they turned their horrified gazes toward a book shelf. The top corner of the shelf was on fire, but the flames leaped quickly from book to book, beginning to eat up the wooden structure they were resting on.

Snowcrystal stepped back in horror. She had not meant to set fire to anything in the room; the thought that the fire might spread to the area her friends were sneaking through horrified her, and in spite of the seriousness of her situation, she couldn't help also feeling a twinge of remorse for the books she had just accidentally destroyed. Her time with the trainers had taught her just how valuable they were, not just to the humans but for the welfare of pokémon as well.

Tearing her gaze from the sight as the misdreavus hurried out of her line of vision with the other ghost types just behind her; presumably to get something to put out the flames, Snowcrystal sped into the hallway. If anything, she hoped that some small measure of good would come from her mistake, and it would be a big enough distraction that the ghosts would leave her friends alone for a few minutes or so.

She saw a set of stairs up ahead, and her eyes brightened, glad that she had a clear shot to the second floor. Preparing herself to run up the stairs and immediately search for the next set, she forced her muscles to move faster, her eyes focused on the dim sloping shape in the darkness.

As she neared the bottom steps of the staircase, she was suddenly met with the hulking form of something huge floating above it in the darkness. At first she couldn't make out what it was, other than that it was large and round and its eyes, small and red, were the only thing visible outside of its basic shape. Her glowing amulet did not allow enough light for her to see anything more. She frantically tried to change direction, but the large shape moved closer and from the corner of her eye, she caught a better glimpse of its form, realizing that the pokémon was a drifblim. She knew this only because she had seen one in a book; she had never come face to face with one before. The pokémon's massive frame dwarfed her as it approached with an almost unnatural-looking floating movement. As she tried to turn into a small room to her right, a gust of wind blew her off her feet and she slid across the floor, her body tumbling over and over until the wall halted her momentum. Only after she recovered from the initial shock did she realize that the pokémon was not using much force, and she remembered that it was there to protect the library without damaging it, and it likely wasn't trying to seriously harm her, either.

The growlithe leapt to her feet, taking off again, but she had hardly gone a few paces before another pokémon, one she also recognized from a book, zipped in front of her. This one was a rotom; unlike the drifblim, she could see its form clearly, as it glowed in the darkness. Its oddly shaped body sparked with electricity that lit up its surroundings before a small bolt was launched at her.

She dodged, feeling the fur on her back stand on end as the attack zoomed over her. Her gasped for breath as she charged around the rotom and further down the hallway, knowing that if she was paralyzed, the chase would certainly be over. A few more bolts of electricity zipped past her head, the sudden bursts of light making it all the more difficult to see in the darkness once they had passed.

"Go after it!" a voice called out behind her, which she knew was one of the pokémon. His companion shouted something back that she did not catch. "I'll help the others with the fire. You take the growlithe and make sure it doesn't leave!"

Snowcrystal's eyes widened with horror. Make sure it doesn't leave? She had thought the ghosts would simply chase her out of the building, or knock her unconscious and drag her out. She had assumed it was clear she was a wild pokémon, but she now knew that these ones intended to capture her. If they did, and she was turned over to their humans, she knew she would never see her friends again, at least not without Damian and Justin admitting to what they did and getting arrested by the police. This thought alone was enough to spur her onwards, but even as she did so, she could see more shapes emerging from the darkness out of the corner of her eye. Lots of them. Her plan to lure the ghosts to her section of the building had worked.

She ignored the tiredness that had been building in her muscles since she'd left the room where she'd used the fire attack, and put on an extra burst of speed, hardly believing that she had only just realized how dire her situation actually was.

-ooo-

"Right. We're on the third floor," Damian said triumphantly as he watched the others creep quietly up a staircase. They had found the means to sneak up from the last two floors undetected. Arien had done a good job of keeping alert for enemies for a stretch of time, but the alakazam's psychic abilities were not unlimited, and mentally searching around for pokémon was quickly sapping his strength, especially as he had been required to focus on many at once. They had quickly needed to resort to relying on the eyesight and hearing of the other pokémon instead, and having Arien search only when they were about to cross an open area or a staircase.

Alex surveyed the area at the top of the staircase, her gaze traveling to the hallway Arien pointed out as the correct path. "Haha, we've got this!" the floatzel whispered as she crept ahead.

"No, wait!" Damian hissed between his teeth, but nothing appeared to attack Alex as she strode into the next hallway, looking around intently.

"It's all clear," she replied. When the others hesitated, she added, "Well, if they were gonna attack me they would have done it already. Come on!"

"Just stick with the plan, okay?" Inferno whispered, lashing his fluffy yellow tail. "We need to be more careful."

"I got it, I got it," Alex replied with a roll of her eyes. "Do you think that if I thought there was any danger, I would've walked in here like that?"

"I don't think you want me to answer that," the flareon said with a sigh.

"Guys, quiet down!" Justin snapped, unable to understand what the pokémon were saying, but knowing they needed to be silent all the same. The boy motioned to Spark, who had been diligently guarding the rear of the group, and the jolteon came up beside him and padded into the hallway after Alex.

Damian turned to his three pokémon, who looked at him with varying expressions. Inferno seemed nervous and wary, and he held his body low to the ground as he hurried after the others. Arien walked calmly and with confidence, and Scytheclaw just gave the other pokémon a sneer before striding beside his trainer after the others.

"The room isn't far from here," Arien announced quietly. "I'll lead the way. Be careful."

The journey went without incident, and the guard pokémon on the third level of the building did seem to have already moved to the lower floors. Or perhaps, as Justin thought nervously while they continued on through the darkness, they had just had good luck not running into them so far. When they emerged into the large room they recognized as the battle strategies room, all of them immediately felt relieved when they saw windows bathing the room in a faint, dim glow, the space devoid of ghost pokémon, and their eyes were all drawn to the large lugia mural hanging on the opposite wall.

In the dim light of the windows on the wall to their right, which flooded the room with enough light that they could see the work of art clearly, the painting looked more majestic and mysterious than it had when they'd seen it in the daytime. The lugia in the painting was flying above a calm ocean beneath a star-strewn sky, and something about it seemed almost melancholy. The group had never paid the painting much attention before, but now that they knew what was hidden behind it, there was something about it that struck a sort of awe in them.

Looking at a shelf resting beneath the painting, which held some antique-looking candles and other decorations, Spark frowned. "So…is there a special way to open it?" he wondered.

"Whatever it is, let's hope it doesn't make any noise," Inferno whispered back nervously.

"Oooooh, maybe it requires a secret lock or a key!" Alex whispered almost excitedly, causing Inferno to shoot her an annoyed look.

"Um…well…" Damian muttered, walking up toward the painting. Though his footsteps echoed loudly in the room, there were no signs of any approaching enemies. He put his hand on his chin as if trying to appear thoughtful, though to the others, he merely looked confused. "How should we do this?" He turned to the others as if he expected them to begin showering him with suggestions.

"I don't know, you're the oldest, you figure it out!" Justin hissed at him, causing Damian to flinch.

"Okay, okay," he whispered back, eyeing the items on the shelf warily as if afraid his movements would knock them off. "Maybe, we could…take those off before we try to move the painting?" he stated hopefully, looking to Justin for support, but the younger boy only sighed impatiently.

"No, why don't we just throw them on the floor and see if the ghost pokémon notice!" he shot back sarcastically.

Alex tilted her head as she eyed the picture. "Well, maybe we should just push it gently to see which way the painting swings?"

"Well, someone else should do it," Inferno replied, his voice still showing a hint of irritation. "Not you."

"What makes you say that?" Alex replied. "After all this time we've-"

"Move aside," a low voice growled, and both Inferno and Alex were pushed unceremoniously out of the way as Scytheclaw moved past, his yellow eyes on the painting. His wings shot out of their protective casings, and without a word he launched himself upward toward the lugia portrait, sliding it upward along the wall until it clicked into place, revealing a door. Scytheclaw took one look at it, and, still using his momentum in the air, slowed by his buzzing wings, he prepared a metal claw attack and swiped his pincer at the small padlock hanging from the door, severing it with only a small clinking sound. The door swung outwards and a large but clean hole was revealed in the otherwise flawless-looking wall. He then landed back on the ground beside the others, his claw feet hardly making a sound as they touched the floor, the padlock held in his other claw.

Alex stared at him in wide-eyed amazement. "Wow!" she gasped. "How did you do that? And-and how did you know the painting would-"

"Well, if the library workers wanted to enter, the painting wouldn't have been designed to move downward toward the shelf," Scytheclaw spat back. "Having it swing to the left or right would have been problematic as well due to all this junk being in the way." He motioned his pincer toward the items displayed beneath the painting. "And the shelf is probably only there so the workers can stand on it before climbing into the hole. You really think it was there because they thought the room wouldn't be complete without those stupid candles?"

"Wow…that was so cool," Alex stated in an awed voice, hardly seeming to care about Scytheclaw's tone. She leaned toward the scizor, gazing at him as if she was looking at a legendary. "You have got to be one of the most awesome pokémon alive."

"Flattering," the scizor muttered sarcastically. He turned to Arien while the floatzel continued to gaze at him in admiration. "Now, are we going or not?"

"I'd appreciate it if you dropped the attitude," the Alakazam said disdainfully, before turning to the others. "And it would have been better if you had let me open the painting myself. The pokémon here might have heard that, and-"

"Then you should have thought of it sooner," Scytheclaw sneered back.

"Hey, hey! Guys!" Damian whispered worriedly, coming to stand between his two pokémon. "Stop arguing. Look, Arien, can you lift us up into that hole? We don't have a ladder, and I think after all we've been through, getting a ladder would be too difficult for us." He then gave a small smile that seemed randomly out of place.

"Oh, you think we'd want to waste time for that?" Justin muttered.

"I was…trying to make a joke," Damian replied, sounding a little confused at the others' reactions.

"I'm not even going to ask," Justin sighed.

One by one, Arien lifted the humans and pokémon into the opening, and then carefully climbed up himself using the shelf, managing to make it through without causing any of the items to topple to the floor below.

The passage was wide enough for each of them to comfortably fit through, but the ceiling was so low that the two trainers and the taller pokémon had to bend over. It was also completely dark, and after a short while of scrambling into each other or into walls during turns in the passage, Damian allowed Inferno to walk ahead of the others, lighting the area with a small flame.

"See anything up ahead?" Damian whispered as he crawled on his hands and knees after Justin, who was in the lead behind Inferno.

"No," the boy muttered in irritation, "all I can see is flareon butt."

"Excuse me?" came Inferno's angry reply. As he spoke, his flame flickered.

"Hey, just focus on giving us light," Justin muttered, knowing, although unable to understand the flareon's words, that the pokémon was obviously annoyed with his comment. "How long does this stupid tunnel go for anyway? Did that mightyena mention it? If so, someone remind me."

"Well, she-" Damian began.

"I was talking to the pokémon. You're just the translator," Justin retorted.

"Sorry," Damian mumbled. "But…she actually didn't mention much. Just that the tunnel winds through the walls for a while."

"Perfect," Justin growled. "Just who would build a secret passage like this in a library? Whoever constructed this place all those hundreds of years ago had to be insane. Or was this not even intended to be a library at first? Was there some other sinister purpose to it that I should know about? We've already got cursed attacks that create irreversible damage and make pokémon lose their minds, so not much else is going to surprise me at this point. I just want to know we're not going to run into any ancient booby traps or anything."

"What's your human going on about?" Alex whispered to Spark as Justin continued to ramble under his breath.

"I dunno," Spark admitted. "I think he's just nervous. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all."

"What?" Alex remarked, clearly surprised, and sounding even a bit unnerved herself at Spark's lack of confidence. "But I thought you-"

"Everyone…quiet," Damian interrupted, coming to a halt. "Arien thinks he hears something."

The entire group froze, Inferno's flame quickly fizzing out as the flareon shuffled backward toward Justin, who grunted in irritation and shoved him away as the fire type tried to huddle against his arm and shoulder. They waited in silence, wondering just what the alakazam had detected and fearing they would have to battle or make a run for it while in the confined space of the tunnel.

Then, as they waited, the pokémon with the sharpest hearing began to pick up a sound as well.

Spark's ears twitched as he angled them toward somewhere beyond the left wall of the tunnel. "It sounds like…something burning?"

"Arien!" Justin hissed in fear. "What's going on out there?"

"I…I don't know," the alakazam replied, and Damian gave an equally perplexed translation to the frightened boy. "I can detect several pokémon, but I don't know what…"

"Are they after us?" Alex asked. "Should we keep going?"

"Might as well before they find out we're here," Scytheclaw growled, shoving past the floatzel and then Spark and the two humans.

Inferno hurriedly produced another small flame and trotted at the scizor's side as he hurriedly maneuvered through the tunnel. Up ahead, the two could see the small room with a low ceiling. They recognized it from Nightcloud's tale as their cue that they were almost upon the door to the hidden books.

But something was wrong.

The two pokémon stopped in their tracks as they noticed that the room wasn't just shrouded in darkness; it was filled with thick, black smoke. Neither of the pokémon were sure where it was coming from, but judging by the fact that there were no flames to light the area, they knew it had to be creeping in from a vent somewhere. Some part of the library was on fire.

The rest of the group, coming up behind them, realized the exact same thing. "We've gotta go back," Justin cried, stumbling backward into Spark as he tried to retreat. His jolteon, just as alarmed, slipped aside to allow him to pass before following along with Damian, Alex, and Arian.

"But…the books! We won't get another chance!" Inferno responded, whirling around to face the boys and the other pokémon with wide eyes.

Arien stopped, turning to face the flareon, who was still standing beside the equally conflicted and frustrated Scytheclaw. "If they close down the library for repairs we might," the alakazam responded, and the flareon looked at him in disbelief. "This entire tunnel is going to fill up with smoke; there's no way we'd have time to get to the room the books are in." The flareon continued to look desperate, and he continued, "We will die if we stay here. Even a fire type like you would only last a bit longer than the rest of us in that much smoke. Don't be stupid; come back!"

The flareon cast Scytheclaw a distraught look before following Arien and the others who had begun scrambling to retreat. Even as they hurried through the tunnel, they could feel smoke creeping up on them, the air becoming harder and harder to breathe. None of them were sure which part of the library had caught fire and how fast it would spread, but even though the building was comprised of brick and stone, much of its interior, including the staircases, was flammable. More than just that, Spark could feel the fear and discouragement of his comrades. They had come so close, only to be defeated and sent back at the final milestone. The thought of finding out more about the Forbidden Attacks, and of stopping them, now seemed even more impossible than it had been before, now that their one solid piece of hope had been snatched away before they'd even had a chance to know for sure if it would help them.

-ooo-

Snowcrystal had at first found herself running, more frantically than she had ever remembered running before, through the maze of hallways and up staircases, dodging attacks by ghosts and climbing to her feet again whenever an attack struck her. She could almost feel fainting coming on when she noticed that the pokémon following her had started to pull back. Horrified, she knew that that could only mean one of two things; either the ghosts had found her friends, or the fire she had accidentally caused was getting too much for the other guards to handle. Suddenly terrified that it would spread through different rooms and endanger her friends, she frantically tried to remember how many staircases she had passed and whether or not she was on the third floor. The low lighting made the place look unfamiliar, not that she had had much time to look around or keep track of where she had been forced to flee.

Startled, she turned a corner to see a staircase completely ablaze at the other end of the hallway.'The fire's all the way up here?' she thought in horror. 'On the third floor?' She still wasn't sure if it was the third floor she was on, or if she had gone up to the fourth or even the fifth. In her panic, she realized that she had stopped completely, but the few remaining ghost pokémon simply sailed past her, abandoning the chase as they too realized the severity of the situation.

Snowcrystal knew that running towards the flames was a bad idea; even if her fire type would allow her to pass through mostly unharmed, she didn't want to put herself in the middle of a large group of ghost pokémon. Now that she had a chance to pause, though, she could get an idea of where she was. Noting the paintings on the walls, she turned into a hallway and recognized with relief that it was the third floor. Even more luckily, she knew a quick route to the battle strategies room. She hurried off toward it, hoping desperately that her friends were not in peril.

-ooo-

Justin was the first to reach the end of the tunnel and the door leading into the battle strategies room. He nearly slammed into it in his frantic need to escape, the smoke already making him cough. He quickly fumbled with the handle until he pried it open. Swinging his legs out of the opening, he stood up on the shelf, knocking several of the candlesticks off in the process, and then jumped to the floor below. Damian followed, more carefully, and the pokémon jumped one by one to the carpet below as Justin turned to Damian frantically.

"Snowcrystal!"

"Right," Damian gasped. "Let's find her and get outta here!"

Both the humans and pokémon raced out into the hallway, the ghost pokémon hardly on their minds. As soon as they left the room, they could see that the hallway was also filled with smoke, and in the distance they could see the orange light of flames.

"Let's just leave," Scytheclaw spat at Arien. "She's a fire type and she probably already found her way out!"

The alakazam looked to Inferno. "You're also a fire type. If you could-"

"Go looking for her? With the ghosts around?" the flareon shouted. "But…" He trailed off, noticing that the other pokémon in the group had all turned to him. "I…"

Sensing his obvious reluctance, Arien stood up straighter, pausing to glance at the raging flames far ahead of them down the hallway. "All right. I'll go."

"But…" Inferno began, looking at the psychic type doubtfully. He then shook his head, stomping a paw determinedly into the ground, his face showing sudden bravery. "No, I'll do it!"

"No need," Alex chimed in, beaming as she pointed toward the doorway they had just left. "Looks like she found us."

The group followed the floatzel as she rushed back into the battle strategies room, meeting up with the panic-stricken white growlithe standing in the center of the carpeted floor. "What happened?" Alex cried. "Did one of the-"

"Ghosts attacked me!" Snowcrystal gasped. "I got cornered and had to fight them, but…but I accidentally…"

Damian, who seemed to have come to the same conclusion on his own, darted in front of Snowcrystal. "You lit the library on fire?" he cried, the fingers on his outstretched hands clenching. He looked truly horrified and utterly bewildered at the same time. "Why did you light the library on fire?"

"I…I didn't mean to! I…" Snowcrystal trailed off, sensing the growing unease in the panicked group. "Look, there's no time for this! We've got to get out of here!"

Spark nodded to her. "We've got to get to the ground floor," he murmured, "unless Arien can lift us all down to the ground from here?" He glanced toward the alakazam for confirmation.

Arien, however, shook his head. "Don't have the strength for that now. Let's go."

The group of humans and pokémon poured into the hallway again, squinting their eyes against the smoke. Keeping at a brisk pace, they hardly had to bear it before emerging into a big open room. They ran through a set of double doors and down another hallway, and then emerged into the gigantic multistory room where they'd spent day after day studying books for the past two months.

Locating one of the staircases that spanned every floor, Justin rushed toward it and he and the others hurriedly clambered to the ground floor. Seeing smoke pouring in from at least two of the doors, they raced toward the opposite side of the room.

As they ran past, Snowcrystal couldn't help but glance at the chairs, pillows and sofas they used to sit at while listening to one of the trainers read from a book; the places where many humans and pokémon came to relax. She felt another pang of remorse for the place that had brought so many pokémon and their trainers happiness, and only hoped that at least this part of it could be saved, and the majority of the books recovered. She then thought of the ghost pokémon, worrying about them before remembering that they could easily phase through walls if they needed a quick escape. As she reached the doorway, she took one more look at the vast room, wondering if it would be the last time she saw it.

The group spilled into the next hallway, Damian pointing out a turn that led into another wide room adorned with many windows. The trainer immediately ran to one and started fumbling with the latch, but Scytheclaw merely smashed the one next to it with his claw and leaped outside, the others following suit.

Damian tumbled out last, looking a bit dazed as he glanced at his scizor. "Uh…thanks," he mumbled, following Justin as he led the pokémon around the building and into another alleyway between two buildings behind the library.

For a moment, they paused there, hearing sirens as several flashing lights told them that fire trucks had arrived on the scene. Too exhausted to go further for a moment, they merely stood in stunned silence.

"First the pokémon center and now this," Spark groaned.

Snowcrystal lowered her head, her eyes closing as she realized that the situation was her fault. Then, she opened them, lifting her head and turning to face the rest of the group. "I'm sorry," she stated, watching as each of their gazes turned toward her. "I did something reckless, and for that…this happened."

Spark shook his head, walking over to her. "Don't blame yourself," he told her, looking into her eyes with concern. "You did the best you-"

"I shouldn't have used a fire attack," she replied steadily, "That was stupid. But, I promise you, if there's any way I can help it, I won't make a mistake like that again. I want you to be able to trust me to help you with these things."

Spark looked a bit surprised, but then he nodded. "Of course I trust you, Snow. And hey, what's a mistake if you can't learn from it, right?" He gave her a nervous smile. "At least we all got out okay without the police finding us."

"The hidden books have to still be there, right?" Damian mused nervously. "If they were protected so strongly…" The thought of such valuable knowledge being destroyed worried everyone, but they all knew that since the books were so rare and valuable, great care would have been taken to protect them.

"At least it's the library burning and not us. C'mon, guys, let's get out of here," Justin muttered. "We won't know if we can try to sneak back until the fire's cleared out. And I don't want anyone spotting us."

"Eh-heh, heh, good point," Damian chuckled nervously. Reaching down for Snowcrystal, he lifted her into his backpack, quickly zipping it almost all the way closed so no one would glimpse her, and they set off into the streets.

They immediately noticed a lot of talking and chaos from the crowds around them. As they walked briskly through the streets, they heard people speculating about another Team Rocket attack. Many people had their strongest pokémon out of their poké balls beside them, and most were clustering in groups. A few police cars zipped past them, heading for the smoke rising into the night sky above the library building. An officer with several arcanine, each larger and much more intimidating than Redclaw, was trying to calm down a crowd. Damian took a turn that would lead them to the city outskirts, noting with a bit of discomfort that it would take them past the library.

"Hey! You with the scizor!" a voice shouted, and he stopped, turning to see the officer pointing at him. He glanced to Justin, who suddenly went white as a sheet, a look of horror on his face as he watched the policeman step toward them. "That area's being closed off. If your hotel's on that street, you can stay at another for-"

"Thanks, thanks very much!" Damian called, waving, as he changed course. Justin followed him, looking immensely relieved, but he still gripped Spark's fur tightly as they passed the policeman and each of his huge arcanine. "Guess we're going around," Damian whispered quietly.

"I don't even want to know what Katie's going to think about this when she meets up with us back at the camp tomorrow," Justin huffed as they picked up the pace.

"Oh, right," Damian muttered, slapping his palm to his forehead. "You're going back to the hotel, aren't you?"

"No way," the younger boy responded. "I sure don't want to be the one explaining everything. I'll camp with you and the pokémon tonight."

They continued through the streets, avoiding the throngs of worried pedestrians. At last, they reached the city's outskirts and slipped into the trees without anyone paying the smallest bit of attention to them in the confusion. They knew that, since they had moved their camp to the dusty ravine, they had longer to walk before they reached it, but none of them seemed to mind, too lost in their own thoughts and their mission's failure to focus on it.

They walked in silence until they emerged from the trees into the flat, rocky area that led to the camp. Even from a distance, they could see the rock formation marking the edge of the ravine where they had chosen to shelter from wild pokémon and prying eyes.

However, something was wrong.

Even from their distance, they could see that the pokémon, who had climbed out of the ravine, were agitated. Redclaw paced back and forth, while a group of the others huddled near the outcrop of rock, and as soon as he spotted the returning group, Redclaw let out a worried howl.

Justin and Damian glanced to each other before taking off toward the camp at a run. The pokémon, with the exception of Arien, who kept pace with the trainers, quickly overtook them and reached their friends at the edge of the rocky ravine.

"What happened?" Snowcrystal asked once the humans and Arien had caught up. She glanced from Wildflame to Redclaw and then at Nightshade, but each of them seemed speechless. She looked into the ravine and saw their supplies undisturbed apart from the fact that Damian's tent was singed.

"Did you guys…have a battle here?" Spark chuckled nervously as he looked at their wide-eyed faces.

"No, you idiot!" Rosie snapped. "Look over there." She pointed with her nose toward a place some distance from the camp.

Snowcrystal looked, seeing an odd lump in the middle of the flat stretch of ground, though other than that, she couldn't make out anything strange.

"I'll show you," Nightshade spoke up. He turned to the others. "Everyone, follow me." Even the fearful or agitated pokémon did not object, and they slowly filed after Nightshade toward the strange object in the middle of the plain.

"Hey, uh, what's going on?" Justin asked Damian, who only shrugged helplessly.

When they neared the object, it was quite easy to see why it had those who had been watching the camp spooked. It was the massive, charred body of a dead pokémon. The stench was so overpowering that several of them had to take a few steps back, and as Snowcrystal examined the body, she found that it was so damaged, she couldn't even tell what pokémon it had once been. A part of the ground near the pokémon was even more charred than the rest of its surroundings, a dip in the ground making it look as if there had been some sort of small explosion.

"Who…who was that?" Damian asked shakily, horrified as he stared at the pokémon's remains.

"Just look at that!" Wildflame growled, flicking her tail toward a smaller object a short distance from the burned heap of flesh, resting in the black dip in the ground. Everyone turned their gazes toward it, recognizing it as the remains of some sort of collar. "That thing detonated when it hit but that-"

"Detonated?" Spark cried. "When what hit?"

"Blazefang used Shadowflare," Wildflame said simply. The others stared at her in horror. "We're lucky we moved camp so it didn't spread to the trees…but we all could have been roasted alive if he'd used it any closer to the camp!"

Snowcrystal glanced to the others, realizing that she couldn't see Blazefang among them. If he'd run off, they would have to find him soon. She knew he was probably frantic, terrified, horrified at what he had done, but they could not afford to have him separated from them for long. It already looked as if it was becoming easier and easier for Blazefang to give in to using his attack, and he needed them to, at the least, be voices of reason. She only hoped the attack's influence over the houndour was not going to escalate further than it had. She turned to her houndoom friend. "Wildflame, what happened?"

"That pokémon," the dark type began, indicating the body, "was a nidoking that started coming closer to our camp. It was looking for strong wild pokémon. We would figure that out afterward. We were wondering what to do when Blazefang just…stepped out of the ravine and walked toward the pokémon, calmly. It must have thought he was crazy, and it charged him, and then…he used the attack." She paused, looking to the others, and Nightshade calmly nodded to her to go on. "It looked a lot more powerful than it was before. Burned that nidoking to a crisp. At least he died quickly…"

Snowcrystal felt chills creep over her body at the memory of the Forbidden Attack. If Wildflame could see that it was worse, then clearly that meant the attack was growing in power, and she was reminded all too well of exactly what they were dealing with. This was the fourth time Blazefang had used Shadowflare.

"Well, when the nidoking died," Wildflame continued, "some other pokémon appeared after the fire, then a trainer. And…and it was Thunder's trainer."

"What?" Spark gasped.

"The one she called 'Master.' He'd seen the whole thing!" the houndoom shouted.

Confused voices erupted from the pokémon who had come back from the library, and Damian was hurriedly explaining to Justin what the houndoom had said. "And none of you got hurt?" Alex asked, looking over each pokémon in turn. Snowcrystal was still trying to comprehend what had happened and what it all meant. Surely, they weren't safe there anymore. Would Master come back? Where were they going to go now?

"No, no one was hurt," Wildflame answered. She then turned to the others, her eyes passing over each of them. "But Master…he captured Blazefang."

To be continued...