And we're here at last. My fiftieth chapter. Unfortunately, I don't have anything special planned for this chapter save for it being the start of a new arc, so I suppose that will have to be the best way to celebrate this momentous occasion.

I always knew I'd reach here eventually, but I didn't think it would take so long! I figured the arcs would be shorter than this, or that the chapters would be, anyway, but the last one just went on and on and on. Not that that's a bad thing, but still.

Anyway, this arc will hopefully be shorter but no less sweeter, with lots of cool and exciting things happening to all our favorite characters, plus a few new ones. I'm sure you'll enjoy reading it as much as I'm enjoying writing it.

Disclaimer: I don't own anything that doesn't belong to me. I'd list all the stuff I've appropriated/ripped off, but that would take forever and isn't really worth the effort. Don't you agree?

"Well," Professor Oak said. "I have good news and bad news."

"Don't we always?" Tracey lamented.

"Which would you like to hear first?" the Slowking asked.

Ash glanced at his friends around the table: at Pikachu, who was fidgeting uncomfortably due to how close Dawn was standing to him and how…intimately she was staring at him; Tiny, who was hovering in place due to his recent evolution to a Pupitar and looking rather dapper thanks to the monocle Leo had given him and the stylish top hat he'd found in Barbedo's treasure hoard which he refused to take off because they made him feel distinguished; Leo, who was staring blankly into space with his sunglasses on, as he had been wont to ever since unlocking its latest power by confessing his feelings for Lily, the ability to surf the Internet and watch television using his mind; Lily, who was looking at Leo in frustration because he was spending more time with his sunglasses these days than with her; Sasha, who…had nothing new worth mentioning; Briney, looking even more fearsome than ever in his new pirate hat; and oddly enough, Barbedo, who insisted on sitting in on meetings like this since he was the vice-captain of the pirates now. (He'd claimed the title after waking up from his hangover and discovering he'd lost to Tiny. He'd handled it with surprising good humor, saying that if he'd been outdrunk by a child not even a month old, he probably didn't deserve to be captain anymore anyway.) "I guess we might as well hear the bad news first, so we can get it out of the way."

"Might as well," Pikachu agreed.

"Leo!" Lily hissed, nudging her boyfriend.

"Huh? Oh, right, whatever they said," Leo said, quickly putting his sunglasses away.

"Let's get it over with," Briney said. "Since I already know it's pretty bad, so the sooner we hear it, the better."

"Could you stop reading our minds?" Tracey asked in annoyance.

"No," Briney said.

"Yarr, tell us already, so we can get on to the fun stuff!" Barbedo said, pounding on the table and nearly breaking it.

It was a day or two after Team Aurabolt's return from Zero Isle. After Briney had secured his place as captain of the renamed Peeko XII, they'd set a course for Treasure Town, leaving a reluctant Polly behind to guard the treasure, since it would be rather awkward to have a giant undead Crawdaunt loitering about the Treasure Town harbor, an oddity even for a place like that. (That and Barbedo was worried the high toxicity of the water there would do something awful to the poor lobster's exoskeleton. It was surprisingly sensitive.) They'd activated the Peeko's warp drive and teleported directly to town, crossing a distance that would have taken them several days the old-fashioned way in mere seconds and causing Leo to intensely geek out. They'd reappeared underwater, so as not to alert any Nihilators in town to their presence, and docked in the grotto connected to the Sharpedo Cape library. Unsurprisingly, the pirates were familiar with these caverns, having used them as a hideout back in their prime, and were somewhat miffed that it was now full of books and other boring junk. For their part, Oak and Tracey had taken the appearance of the shambling undead surprisingly well. On the one hand, they were fascinated by the impossibility of such creatures and the fact that they had a (un)living example of pre-cataclysm history to talk to and learn more about, and on the other they were rather anxious by how the pirates kept trampling loudly all over the place, bristling with weapons, knocking things over, and making a mess of their nice library. Briney telling them to cut it out didn't make much of a difference, they were pirates after all, and 'neat and quiet' wasn't really something they were good at.

After learning the next Star Badge was in Fichina, Oak and Tracey had immediately set out to dig up as much information as they could (Leo had intended to help, but got too distracted by the marvel of directing his MMORPG PCs with his thoughts and lost track of time), and were now going to present their findings…along with something else. "The bad news it is, then," Oak said with a sigh. "We've translated more of the scriptures from the ruins under Treasure Town, and we think we've figured out what the Nihilators' plans are. It's even worse than we thought."

Pikachu groaned. "Of course it is…"

"I thought we already knew what their plans were," Tiny said.

"To release the Ruler of Evil," Sasha agreed.

"Aye, fer some daft reason," Barbedo added.

"Yes, but the Ruler of Evil is only part of it," Oak said. "You remember the Gaiavore, that universe-eating superweapon that went missing after the Ruler of Evil's defeat?"

"Yeah. What about it?" Ash asked.

"We know where it is, and, by extension, so do the Nihilators," Oak said.

There was a horrified silence. Ah, Dawn said, tearing her eyes with some effort away from Pikachu. That is bad news.

"Where is it?" Ash demanded.

"Right here in this solar system," Tracey said. "Jupiter, to be precise."

"Jupiter?" Leo gasped. "What's it doing there?"

"What's a Jupiter?" Tiny asked.

"It's the fifth planet out from the Sun, and the largest of them all," Briney said.

"Oh. Okay." Tiny blinked. "What are the others?"

"That's something we can talk about later. As for what the Gaiavore is doing on Jupiter…" Tracey started.

"It's like this," Oak said. "As you'll recall, the aliens who found the door millions of years ago built a city around it and installed a number of systems to reinforce its seal and keep the evil force leaking from the crack in it from growing. In spite of their efforts, however…somehow, the Gaiavore, which had been spending the millennia since the end of the Crisis Wars roaming the cosmos, sensed its master's energy signature and came to Earth in search of the Ruler of Evil. You can imagine how alarmed the aliens were to wake up one morning and find there was a huge planetoid of pure evil and destruction looming over them in geosynchronous orbit!"

"Geo-what now?" Barbedo asked, scratching his bald skull, which looked rather small without his old hat on it.

"It stayed directly over the city rather than spinning around the world like the Moon does," Leo explained.

"Oh," the former pirate king said.

"That does sound frightening," Lily agreed.

"It must have seemed like the end of the world to them," Sasha mused.

"It did, at first, but after their initial panic, they noticed the Gaiavore wasn't doing anything, it was just…floating there," Tracey said.

Oak chuckled. "You see, it had been programmed to find its master if they should ever be separated…but even though it had found its master, it couldn't do anything about it. The Ruler of Evil was the only being who could control the Gaiavore and unleash its power. The damage it took during the Crisis Wars forced it to revert to a more passive mode to heal itself, but even though it had managed to mend its wounds long ago, it was unable to reactivate itself and devour worlds again without the Ruler of Evil's authorization. So it went looking for its master, and it found it here on Earth, but since the Ruler was on the other side of the sealed portal to the Abyss and couldn't issue any commands…"

"It was completely harmless? Wow. That must have been a relief," Pikachu said.

"It certainly was," Oak agreed.

"However, they grew worried that the Ruler might find a way to somehow exploit the crack in the door and manage to send the activation command to the Gaiavore anyway, so they decided to take measures to make sure that wouldn't happen," Tracey said. "They towed it to Jupiter and threw it in, hoping that the gas giant's intense storms and gravitational pressure would, if not destroy it, at least keep it at bay for a while."

"Why didn't they just throw it into the Sun, then?" Ash asked.

"They were afraid it would cause the Sun to either explode, destroying the entire solar system, or implode, also destroying the entire solar system," Oak said.

"Ah," said Ash.

"Seems like a reasonable fear to me," Briney said.

"So it's been inside of Jupiter all this time? Right inside our own solar system? Geez…" whispered a shocked Leo. "It's been so close…just a few hundred million kilometers away…and we never knew…damn, I'm never going to look at the stars again without feeling a sense of dread and paranoia. More than I did already, I mean, worrying that a race of hostile aliens would try and invade us some day." The others sweatdropped.

"We have existed for so long without even knowing that not one, but two of the greatest destructive forces in the Omniverse were literally in our own territory," Sasha murmured in agreement. "How chilling. If either of them had managed to stir themselves, to break free from their prisons…"

"But that didn't happen," Tiny said. "And it won't now…right?"

"We'll do our best to make sure it didn't," Ash promised.

"Because if it did…it would be the end. For all of us," Lily said morbidly.

"To make sure it couldn't leave the gas planet's atmosphere, the aliens erected a locking mechanism similar to the one keeping the door sealed on Jupiter's moons, using the Star Badges as keys to bind the Gaiavore in place so it could never escape," Oak continued.

"Unless someone was able to gather all seven, somehow get them to those moons, and deactivate the seal…" Briney murmured.

"Someone like the Nihilators," Pikachu agreed. "But Jupiter's very far away, like Leo said! How would they even get there?"

"If there's a way, Oblivion's Shadow will find it…" Ash growled.

"But that Shadow guy can't do that without all seven stars…and ye already have two, right?" Barbedo recalled. "So…there's nothing to worry about, is there?"

"Perhaps, but…remember that the seal on the door is weakening, and the Nihilators are already looking for a way to break it even without all the Star Badges," Lily pointed out. "If they were able to do that, then they might be able to do the same for the Gaiavore…and if they freed both the Ruler of Evil and that horror…"

There would be no stopping them, Dawn said. They would devour the Earth, the galaxy, the universe…and beyond…

"Unless we used the Star Badges to seal them back up again before they can do any of that," Leo said. "Which is why we need to keep going as we are now, collecting the remaining badges so the Nihilators can't get their grubby claws on them."

Oak nodded. "That sounds about right, yes."

"So, basically, nothing's changed," Pikachu reflected. "I mean, yes, the stakes are a bit higher and the pressure on us is…significantly greater, now that we know we're trying to stop the revival of not one but two of the deadliest evils that have ever existed, but overall there's nothing more we can do to prevent something like that from happening other than what we're already doing, right?"

"Nothing more that we can think of, anyway," Tracey said.

"Speaking of which…" Oak smiled. "There's the good news. We know where the next Star Badge is!"

"I thought we already knew it was in Fichina…where the lads and I can't go," Barbedo pointed out regretfully.

"Yes, but now we know where in Fichina it is, who has it, and how to get it," Tracey said.

"That's great!" Pikachu said.

"So who's got it, and what do we have to do to convince them that we need it more than they do?" Leo asked.

"Well, as you can imagine, Fichina is full of mystical star-shaped jewels, being a land of magic and fantasy made real," Oak said. "However, after examining the Star Badges you've already collected and comparing them to the images and histories of many of those jewels, I believe we've deduced which of them is the one we're looking for: the Garnet of Animation, a jewel that is said to have the ability to grant life to the lifeless. Not just homunculi or golems, but inanimate objects too, and even dead bodies!"

"Which fits with the theme we've seen so far of the other Star Badges having some kind of power relating to life," Ash realized.

"Like how the Ruby Star allowed Brodie to steal Ash's, and the Sapphire one kept Barbedo and his crew from dying on the hangmon's platform," Briney said.

"And a good thing too, because where'd ye lads be without us?" Barbedo chortled.

"So who has the Garnet?" Pikachu asked.

"And how hard are we going to have to work to make them give it up? Because it sounds like something like that must be a very valuable commodity to whatever magician possesses it," Leo said.

Lily nodded in agreement. "If Mother had something like that, she'd never let it go, even if it weren't a Star Badge!"

"Then it's a good thing the possessor of the Garnet isn't your mother. In fact, she's about as far from your mother as you can get!" Tracey said.

"And that's because it's owned by none other than Fantina Fantasma, the world-famous sorceress and supermodel who has opposed Bellum for centuries, thwarting her schemes to cause mayhem and havoc whenever possible!" Oak said excitedly.

That raised the hopes of everyone except, oddly enough, Lily. "Now that does sound like good news," Pikachu said.

And since we are enemies of Bellum too, she may be willing to help us against our common foe? Dawn guessed.

"I dunno…mages can be stingy by nature…" Barbedo said skeptically.

"That's because most of the mages you've met you've tried to rob and/or kill and/or ravish," Briney said.

"Aye, there is that," Barbedo admitted.

"Well, Fantina is far from stingy. Among other things, she's a renowned philanthropist who's used her vast fortune and magical abilities to try and better the lives of magical and nonmagical Pokémon alike," Oak said.

"If you told her why you needed it, I'm sure she'd be happy to let you have it, even if it weren't because her oldest enemy was involved," Tracey said.

"That's great!" Tiny said.

"Would she give it to us when she finds out that her oldest enemy's daughter is part of the group asking?" Lily asked unhappily.

There was an awkward pause. "Oh. Uh…I hadn't considered that," Oak said.

"I'm…sure she'd be able to look past that," Tracey said uncertainly. "I mean…you're not your mother, Lily!"

"Even if I'm not…I've still done a lot of bad things in my time. What if Fantina decides I'm too much like my mother, and refuses to help us?" Lily asked.

Barbedo snorted. "Evil? You? Please, you're too nice to be really bad."

"Totally!" Leo agreed. "Babe, as I've told you a thousand times, nobody could look at you and possibly think you were evil."

"Leo, that's not exactly a good thing. Lots of evil people don't look evil at first glance," Pikachu pointed out.

"Er…yes…well…the point is Lily's not evil, as it should be obvious for anyone to see, even people who've never met her before," Leo said stubbornly. "And if Fantina's such hot stuff, she should be able to see that too!"

Lily managed a smile. "Thank you, Leo. I hope you are right."

"So, how do we meet this broad?" Briney asked. "I can't imagine it'd be easy to get an appointment with her, what with her being such a bigshot witch and celebrity and all."

"Then it's a good thing she's not at her estate in Fichina right now," Oak said. "You see, we have more good news. Have you heard of the Convocum Mysticus Fantastica?"

"Yeah, it's some really cool convention for magicians that only rolls around once a century, right?" Leo asked.

"Everyone is invited, even evil witches like my mother," Lily said. She pouted. "But she never let me go…she always took Marianne with her and left me with an impossible chore to keep me busy while she was gone, and when she got back she'd be in a foul mood because Fantina had upstaged her somehow and take it out on me even if I'd managed to do the task perfectly and…but anyway, that's irrelevant. What of it?"

"What of it indeed! You see, at every Convocum, the greatest mages in the world have a competition where they present their latest and most spectacular discoveries," Oak said.

Tracey nodded. "Fantina's won every competition for the last four hundred years, including the latest one, which is no doubt why Bellum was always so furious whenever she got back from a Convocum, since she and Fantina are rivals and all."

"She lost the recent one too? I'm glad I wasn't around for that, then…" Lily murmured.

"Well, I'm glad there's someone out there who's trouncing her other than us," Ash said. "But what does this have to do with us meeting her and getting the Star Badge?"

"We're getting there, be patient," Tracey said.

"I could just tell them all now, you know," Briney said.

"Don't, please, at least give us the illusion of being important," Oak said wearily.

Briney grunted. "Oh, fine…"

"Anyway, Fantina's presentation was apparently one of the best that's ever been done at any Convocum, as well as topping everything she's done in the past," Oak continued. "She's mastered the ability to use willpower to create objects from thin air!"

"Oh, cool! I've always wanted to be able to do that!" Leo said. The others exchanged worried looks, the possibilities of what Leo could do with that power scaring them.

Lily gasped. "She figured out the secret of matter materialization? Mother gave up on that decades ago! If she was able to discover such a power, Fantina truly is the world's greatest enchantress!" She sighed. "Certainly greater than I will ever be…"

"Awww, c'mon Lily, you'll be great someday!" Tiny said.

"Yes, but not now…" the Misdreaus said.

"What's the big deal?" asked a confused Ash. "Don't magicians make stuff appear from thin air all the time?"

"Not precisely," Briney said. "Most of the time when they do something like that, they're either conjuring a pre-existing object from some other location or removing it from a magical pocket dimension where they store their excess things. What Fantina has discovered is the ability to literally create objects out of nothing."

"Well, not nothing precisely, only the gods can do that. And reality warpers," Leo said. "What she's doing is exerting her will to force stray molecules to fuse together and become whatever she imagines. Am I right?"

Lily nodded. "Yes, that is how such an ability has always been theorized…and to think she's actually figured out how to make it a reality! Incredible!"

"Yarr, with an ability like that, I'd be the richest man in the world!" Barbedo said with a grin, eyes gleaming greedily.

"Wouldn't that much gold appearing from nowhere ruin the economy and make it worthless?" Briney asked.

"…D'arrgh. Good point," Barbedo said reluctantly.

"Well, you can tell her how impressed you are when we meet her, Lily," Pikachu said. "Speaking of which, you were getting to the part about how we meet her?"

"Right, sorry. Anyway, while her discovery was impressive, Bellum's quite nearly defeated her: she managed to present three live—well, undead—vampires, beings not seen in this world for centuries!" Oak said.

"Not true, we met one just a few weeks ago," Sasha said.

"Yeah, he had an army of zombies and stuff," Tiny said.

Barbedo snorted. "P'sh, not nearly as impressive as skeleton pirates."

"Yeah, totally," Leo agreed.

"Well, apparently the magical community—and Bellum—were unaware of that one," Tracey said. "Or the skeleton pirates."

"And I'd like to keep it that way for the time being," Barbedo murmured, remembering how unfriendly his last reception in Fichina had been.

"Their unawareness of that last guy is probably a good thing, considering how…fruity he was," Pikachu murmured.

"What does fruity mean?" Tiny asked.

"It's, uh…what that vampire was," Ash said.

"…I don't get it," Tiny said.

Ash will explain later, Dawn said.

"I will? But I'm not really sure what 'fruity' means either," Ash said.

There was an awkward pause. "Well…ANYWAY," Leo said. "Vampires, huh? Neat. Wonder where she found them. Think they came from another world like Jurgen?"

"Nope, they're local," Oak said. "But that's getting ahead of things…"

Lily frowned. "Vampires? But that can't be right…vampires are magical creatures, and it is forbidden to do experimentations on them. Well, Mother does those anyway, but she never makes it public. Well, I mean, everyone knows she does them, but she doesn't flaunt it…well, all right, maybe a little, but everyone's too scared of her to dig deeply or pay too much attention to it, so…"

"She came up with some Combusken and Tauros story about how they weren't actually magical and all their powers could be explained by science," Tracey said. "Thankfully, Fantina punched holes in it and revealed Bellum for a fraud, disqualifying her and freeing the vampires from the cages Bellum was keeping them in."

"Ha! Nice!" Leo said.

"Thank goodness," Lily breathed.

"Well, I'm glad she lost face and those people are okay, but…" Pikachu prompted.

"We're getting there. Geez, you're so impatient," Tracey said, rolling his eyes.

Tell me about it, Dawn said.

There was an awkward pause. Pikachu coughed. "Uh, Dawn, when you say that, do you mean-" Leo started.

"Right. Vampires. Relevance?" Pikachu said loudly as Dawn blushed, Ash and Barbedo snickered, and Tiny blinked in confusion.

"Well, once they were free to speak, they said they weren't the only vampires, Bellum's associates were holding some of their friends hostage," Oak said. A slow grin came to his face. "And those associates…are the Nihilators."

Everyone started at this. "The Nihilators? They're former prisoners?" Pikachu cried.

Ash gasped. "Of course! Sasha, didn't Darkrai say he'd turned Gardevoir into a vampire as part of some convoluted plan to slow down their evil plot?"

Sasha's eyes widened in realization. "That's right, he did…and she must have been able to turn some other prisoners into vampires as well, for there to be more than one now!"

"And if these vampires were former prisoners of the Nihilators, then not only does that mean they may have information on Gardevoir, but also about where the bad guys' main hideout is located?" Leo asked hopefully.

Oak nodded. "That seems to be the case, yes."

"When the Order of Merlin heard that Bellum was part of an evil organization that's trying to release the Ruler of Evil, they agreed to hold a hearing in Fichina at the end of this week to look into the matter," Tracey said. "The vampires have agreed to give their testimony and spill everything they know about the Nihilators and their plans…which apparently, is quite a lot."

"I don't suppose there's any way we can become involved in that?" Ash asked.

"Aye, the lot of ye probably have a lot to say about those blighters," Barbedo agreed.

"Given that I've spent the last ten years killing them, you bet I do!" Briney said.

"If you could convince the Order to let you tell of your own experiences with the Nihilators—which may be a bit difficult, since they're somewhat prejudiced against nonmagical Pokémon, but I suppose if anyone can find a way around that, you lot can—then it would strengthen the results of this hearing exponentially," Oak said. "You see, the majority of the international community paid little heed to the Draconian Empire when they issued their initial warning about the dangers of the Nihilators, chalking it up to typical warmongering and exaggeration."

"That wasn't very nice of them," Tiny said.

"Yes, well, that's politics for you," Briney said.

"And they still feel that way even after the battle at Mt. Blaze?" Pikachu asked, miffed.

"If anything, it's only reinforced widespread views that the Draconians are making all this up," Tracey said wearily.

Oak nodded. "Since there weren't any Shadow Pokémon in the fight and pretty much all the evidence which might have proven the barbarians had outside assistance and were gearing up for a major war effort were destroyed when the mountain collapsed, most people think they used the Nihilators as a drummed-up excuse to help rid a backwater town like Pokémon Square of some inconsequential pests in return for…something. Opinion on what that something is varies, but most of the rumors say that there's lots of valuable ore and other resources beneath Mt. Blaze, and claiming the barbarians there were working for a terrorist cell gave the Empire the perfect opportunity to grab it."

"…That's ridiculous," said a stunned Ash.

"Again, that's politics for you," Briney said.

Dawn nodded. And to be frank, things like that happen all the time.

"Yes, but it didn't this time," Pikachu insisted.

Dawn shrugged. And how is everyone else supposed to know that?

"Why didn't the forces that invaded the mountain take cameras or whatever with them to record what was going on and prove there was a credible threat?" Leo asked.

"The intense volcanic heat and ambient demonic energy being given off from the gestating Devil Golem eggs would have rendered them useless," Lily said.

"Oh," Leo said. He scowled. "That's lame."

"Another contrived coincidence…" Pikachu grumbled. "And one not in our favor, for a change. I never thought I'd miss having them on our side…"

"In any event, most countries have treated the threat of the Nihilators as a paranoid fable and nothing to worry about," Oak continued.

"But then how do they explain the destruction of the Tree of Beginning? Or the almost-eruption of Giant Volcano? Or the enormous fleet of warships we took down at Zero Isle?" Tiny protested.

Barbedo nodded. "Aye, I was there, and they were no more a fable than I be!"

"The Tree's destruction is being blamed on seismic upheavals, the Nihilator ship that caused Giant Volcano to nearly erupt is being regarded as a hallucination caused by toxic fumes and heat overload due to the lava containment field malfunctioning, and nobody saw the giant fleet because you guys sank all of them and they probably destroyed any vessels that might have spotted them on the way there," Tracey said with a sigh.

"…That's even more ridiculous," said a stunned Ash.

"How could they be so stupid?" Sasha demanded.

"Easily, they're government officials," Leo said. "Either they're too narrow-minded to acknowledge anything outside their world view, or the Nihilators are probably bribing them to look the other way."

"It's probably a bit of both," Briney said, knowing from experience.

Sasha sighed. "This is why I see little point in 'bureaucracies.' They only get in the way."

"I know, that's why I quit me job as a bean-counter and decided to become a pirate," Barbedo said. Everyone stared at him in astonishment. "What? Ye never knew I used to be an accountant?"

"That…seems to have been left out of the history books," said an amazed Oak.

Barbedo grunted. "Well, that's probably because I massacred everyone who knew me from back then so there was nobody left to tell the tale of me past. Ye know, to protect me reputation and all."

"…Right," Pikachu said.

"Anyway…I was saying that most nations currently think the Nihilator thing is a hoax, but with your testimony and that of the vampires, there should be enough corroborating evidence to force the rest of the world to recognize the threat they pose and do something about it," Oak said. "With knowledge of their existence made public, the Nihilators will no longer be able to operate as effectively worldwide, possibly giving us the leverage we need to destroy them once and for all!"

"That's great!" Ash said, excited.

Unless Bellum and the other Nihilators assassinate the vampires before they ever make it to the hearing, Dawn said.

"That's terrible," Ash said, crestfallen.

Lily nodded anxiously. "That sounds like something Mother would do. It wouldn't be the first time a case has been brought up against her, only for the witnesses to mysteriously vanish or recant their statements before the court date."

"Oh aye, that's common practice for crooks. I did it all the time too," Barbedo said. They gave him disgusted looks. "What? I'm a pirate! What d'ye expect?"

"Fortunately, Fantina seems to have had the same idea, which is why she's taken the vampires into protective custody and is personally transporting them to Fichina so they can make it to the hearing in one piece," Oak said.

"And that's where you guys get your shot at talking to her," Tracey said.

"Finally. I was wondering if you'd ever get to the point. I was considering just telepathing it to everyone if you dragged on for too much longer," Briney complained.

Pikachu rolled his eyes. "And you guys said I was impatient?"

"How are we going to meet Fantina?" Sasha asked, getting to the point.

"Once the Convocum ends, she, the vampires, and one of her daughters, the Lady Bow, will ride back to Fichina in style on the Enchanted Express, one of the finest trains in all of Sinnorre, if not the world," Tracey said.

Leo gasped. "Oh cool! That's that super-elite high-end ultra-luxury magitech train they only let mega-rich mages ride, right?"

"Oh, I've always wanted to see it," Lily said wistfully. "But Mother tore up every picture of it she had and told me I'd never get the chance to ride it because I was too ugly and weak and related to her after they banned her for eternity due to the incident with the attendant who mixed up her luggage. I wonder if they were ever able to find the patch of wallpaper she bound his tortured soul to…"

"What's a 'train?'" a confused Tiny asked.

"A connected series of vehicles for rail transport that move along a track to transport freight or passengers from one place to another," Leo said.

"Ah," said Tiny, not understanding in the slightest.

Sasha frowned. "A vehicle? As in…a confined space with lots of people crowded together? Oh dear…this already sounds unpleasant."

"Well, there's the matter of us getting on board first, which is something I'm not sure we can do, if it's as exclusive as Leo said it is," Pikachu said.

"Then it's a good thing Oak already got us all tickets," Briney said.

"You did?" the rest of the team cried in delight.

Oak threw Briney an exasperated look. "I thought you weren't going to do that!"

"I never said I wouldn't," the Metang said.

"You got tickets? That's great!" Tiny said.

But how? Dawn asked.

"Well, there are a number of mages around the world who owe me a favor or two for my helping them with certain archaeological endeavors," Oak said. "You'd be surprised by the number of people who want to hire an expert to help them poke around some ancient ruins! Hmm, on second thought, maybe you wouldn't be…anyway, I asked them for help, and they were able to hook me up with enough tickets for all of you."

"That's a relief, I was afraid we were going to have to go on a tedious sidequest to get tickets, possibly from that nutjob Don Wiggly, in which we'd need to somehow find his daughter and bring her back because he's on his deathbed and wanted to see her one last time before he bought it or something like that," Leo said. "Which would be rather difficult to accomplish since the last we heard of Julie, she was leaving the planet…"

Pikachu shuddered. "I hope we never see that guy again…"

"He's not still in power, is he?" Ash asked unhappily.

"I'm afraid so, and worse than ever since his daughter ran off with a Clefairy to the Moon," Tracey said.

Barbedo grinned knowingly. "Ohhh, is that what they call it these days?"

"No, she actually ran off with a Clefairy to the Moon," Pikachu said. "As…very odd as that sounds…"

"No more odder than Lily and I learning Brodie's name from a chain-smoking Berry addicted Dark Clefairy," Ash said. Pikachu had to concede the point.

"Then again…at the time, I did think they seemed a bit close in that way, if you get what I mean," Leo said thoughtfully.

"No," Tiny said. "What do you mean?"

Leo balked. "Er…"

"Like what Leo and I have, and Dawn and Pikachu," Lily said.

Pikachu blanched. "We aren't…I mean, we…I…um…" His face turned red and he looked at the ground when Dawn glanced at him. "I'm…I don't know anymore…"

"Ohhhh," Tiny said. "Okay." Ash sighed in relief, glad nobody had mentioned the Clefairy had been female…which would have made poor Tiny even more confused… Leo opened his mouth to do just that, but thankfully Pikachu kicked him to shut him up.

"So with these tickets, we can get on the train and meet Fantina and not only get some badly needed information on the Nihilators but also perhaps gain access to the next Star Badge, and maybe a new ally or two?" Sasha asked.

"Sounds like a good plan to me," Briney said.

"Yeah, except for the part where you have to do it in disguise," Tracey said.

The others gave him puzzled looks. "What do you mean?" Ash asked.

"Wait, I get it," Leo realized. "Since Fantina's got something that's very important to the Nihilators, that means she may be a target…but they don't know that she also has the next Star Badge. If any of their agents see us getting on the same train as her, though…"

"They'll put two and two together and realize she must have the next Badge, since why else would we be there?" Pikachu finished.

Dawn nodded. And they will go all out to not only take out her and the vampires, but possibly also to invade and destroy the land of Fichina.

"Heh, good luck to them with that. If I couldn't do it, I doubt they could, if the forces they threw at us back at Zero Isle are anything to go by!" Barbedo snorted.

"That may be true, but they could also cause a lot of collateral damage and kill innocent people, which is something we want to avoid," Ash said. "Which means Tracey's right, we're going to have to board the train in disguise."

Lily frowned. "I would cast a glamour spell like before, but…everyone on that train will be skilled magical practitioners as good as, if not better, than I, and would recognize our deceit in an instant. I doubt Fantina, or anyone else, will be inclined to trust us if we appear to her in such a way…"

"Which means we'll have to fall back on the tried and true costume routine," Leo said with a wicked grin, an absolutely horrifying look in his eye.

Ash and Pikachu exchanged worried looks. "Why do I have a very bad feeling about this?" the Lucario asked.

"Because you know as well as I do we're going to be abjectly humiliated," Pikachu said.

Not necessarily. I am rather skilled at disguises as well, Master. It comes with my line of work, Dawn said. I'm sure I could find something dignified and suitable for you.

"Thank you, Dawn," Pikachu said in relief. "I trust your intuition about something like this a lot more than I do Leo's."

"Hey!" Leo said.

But of course, Master, Dawn said, bowing and putting her face a…little too close to Pikachu's. You know that I would do anything to make you happy.

Pikachu gulped. "That's…um…that's very nice, Dawn. Thank you." Ash and Barbedo snickered. Leo, surprisingly, did not. In fact, he seemed to have taken Pikachu and Dawn's sort-of-not-quite-hooking up a lot more maturely than anyone had expected, congratulating them on taking care of what could have been months of humorous but frustrating unresolved sexual tension much quicker than anticipated and asking if they wanted to double-date with him and Lily sometime. Pikachu had not been amused, but Dawn had looked a little too tempted.

"Well, the Convocum won't be over for a little while, so we have time to work on your disguises and fabricate believable aliases," Oak said.

"You should probably reveal who you really are to Fantina if you want her to take you seriously, but anyone else could be a potential Nihilator or working for Bellum, so you'll need to have good covers to keep any of them from being suspicious," Tracey said.

"That shouldn't be a problem for us," Briney said confidently.

"There is one thing I do not understand, though," said the perplexed Sasha. "If Fantina is such a formidable sorceress, why bother riding a train at all? Wouldn't it be safer and faster for her to magically transport herself back to Fichina?"

They thought about that for a moment. "That's a very good question," Oak said finally.

"Maybe she just likes riding trains?" Leo suggested.

Briney shrugged. "As good an answer as any other."

"Enough to risk exposing herself and her charges to all the terrible things that could conceivably happen on the way?" Sasha asked skeptically.

"I'm sure she has her reasons," Lily said.

And we'll learn them as soon as we meet her, Dawn said.

"Which won't be too long from now," Tracey said. "The Convocum ends the day after tomorrow, and the Enchantment Express leaves for Fichina immediately after that. There aren't any train stations near Treasure Town—after all, who in their right mind would want to come here if they didn't have to?—but there's one at the famous Hot Springs near Lush Prairie, which I believe is within range of Lily's portal spell."

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean anything if she's never been there before," Leo pointed out.

"Oh, but I have been there before," Lily said.

Everyone looked at her in surprise. "Wait, you mean your mom actually took you to a nice place like that?" Ash asked in disbelief.

Lily nodded. "Yes, so that I could use my fire powers to turn up the heat in the springs to the point that they boiled people alive. I didn't want to, but…you know how she is…"

There was a long, awkward pause. "Lily, how many…" Pikachu started, before shaking his head. "No, on second thought, I'd rather not know."

"I know, and I wish I didn't…" Briney murmured uncomfortably.

"Uh…anyway, we've figured out when the train should arrive at the Hot Springs," Oak said, getting back on subject. "So you should have plenty of time to warp over there, change into your disguises, get to the platform—separately, of course, you wouldn't want anyone to think you were traveling as a group—and board the train when it pulls in."

"We're going to split up?" Tiny asked in alarm, clearly startled at the prospect of going anywhere without all his friends. It was a sign of just how far he'd come that this idea worried him so much.

"Just for a little while," Ash assured him. "And we'll all still be on the same train, just…in separate rooms. And we have to pretend we don't know each other." Although Tiny didn't have much of a facial expression in his current form, it was easy to tell that this still didn't sit well with him.

"It sounds like we have a plan, then," Pikachu said.

"Yes, but what about me?" Barbedo complained. "What're the lads and I supposed to do while all of ye are away? We can't go on any raids without our captain or drawing unwanted attention from those Nihilators…hmm, though I guess we could remodel this place into a lair more befitting scurvy pirates like ourselves…" Tracey and Oak exchanged horrified looks at this.

Fortunately, Briney had everything under control. "Belay that talk, Barbedo. You won't have any time for that what with the project I'm giving you."

Barbedo narrowed his eyes. "Aye? And what would that be, Captain?"

"As Tracey and Oak's minds have informed me-" Briney started.

"Hey!" both researchers shouted.

Briney ignored them. "The Nihilators are still holed up in the catacombs under Treasure Town. Have you ever been down there, Vice-Captain?"

Barbedo chortled. "Of course, what scalawag hasn't, looking for the legendary treasure? Admittedly, I've never made it as far down as ye lads have…not for lack of trying, of course, it's just that we never really got around to it, what with all the other loot to steal and people to kill. We meant to do it some day, though…until we got imprisoned on our own island hideaway, which was a bit of a setback, as you can well imagine! Why, what d'ye-" He gasped, getting it. "Ohhhh…I see."

Briney nodded. "That's right. Those bastards have controlled this town and defiled it (well, more than it was already defiled) long enough. It's time to clean house and liberate this place from their claws so Treasure Town can go from being a shithole hive of scum and villainy controlled by an evil organization to…a shithole hive of scum and villainy not controlled by an evil organization."

"Is that really a change for the better?" Sasha asked doubtfully.

Briney shrugged. "Abyss if I care. So long as Nihilators die, I'll consider it a victory."

"Good to know you have the best of intentions, Briney," Pikachu said sarcastically.

"Don't I always?" Briney said smugly.

"That actually isn't a bad idea," Ash said. "So long as the Nihilators have the door secure, then our job will never really be over. We'll always have to worry that they might find a way to break the seal even without the Badges."

"Plus, I'm not sure I want to think about what could happen to them if they get exposed to the corrupting influence of the door for too long," Leo said.

Dawn nodded in agreement. They are corrupt enough as is. They cannot be allowed to gain any more power than they already have.

"Well, the boys and I'll make sure that doesn't happen!" Barbedo boasted.

"Are you sure you're up to the job? There's some pretty nasty stuff down there," Tracey said. He shuddered. "Trust me, I know from experience."

Barbedo gave him an annoyed look. "And what do ye think I be, lad? Ol' Barbedo can handle anything Treasure Town can throw at him! We're immortal, after all. What's the worst the monsters down there can do? Eat us? Tear us apart? We'll just pull ourselves back together and rip 'em to shreds from within!"

"That's true…you guys really are the most capable bunch to handle a job like this, aren't you?" Pikachu realized.

Barbedo snorted. "As if it weren't obvious!"

"Uh, one thing," Lily said. "Didn't the Nihilators seal all the entrances to the lower depths of the catacombs?"

"They did, but Tracey found a passageway they missed," Oak said. "Considering how big the labyrinth is, it's not much of a surprise they'd have slipped up somewhere, really. They couldn't have plugged up all the tunnels, no matter how hard they tried." He frowned. "Though part of it might be because there's things moving down there, always making new routes of their own…"

"Nice going, Tracey!" Leo complimented his friend.

"Yeah, thanks," Tracey grumbled. "While you were out having adventure on the high seas and making out with your hot girlfriend, I was mucking about in the dark and trying not to get eaten by grues. And worse."

Lily blinked. "Hot? Is he referring to my proficiency with fire, or-"

"He was saying you're attractive," Briney explained.

Lily flushed. "M-me? Really?"

"Well, considering how few girls he runs into in real life, all girls are hot for him," Leo said, glaring at the Smeargle, somewhat annoyed Tracey seemed to be into his girlfriend.

Tracey flushed. "Come on mon, that's not fair…besides, I don't find Sasha attractive."

The Absol frowned. "Why?"

"Because you terrify me," Tracey said.

"Ah," Sasha said. "Good."

"And I don't?" Lily asked.

"No, you're too nice," Tracey said, causing Lily to blush and Leo to glare even harder.

And I terrify you as well? Dawn asked.

"Um. Yes," Tracey said, which was half of the truth, the other half being he found her grotesque burn scars to be a big turn-off.

"Ye need to learn to be less picky with women, lad. One day ye may find yerself without as many pretty lasses to choose from, and no prospect of seeing more for a very long time, and ye have to make do with what ye-" Barbedo started, much to everyone's horror.

"Can we not talk about this?" Tracey shouted, face turning bright red. "And besides, I have a girlfriend, you know!"

"You do?" Leo asked in surprise.

"Yeah, I met her on a chat room one night, and we hit it off. She sent me a picture of herself. She's really hot," Tracey said dreamily.

"…Dude, you realize that most of the time someone sends you a picture like that, they're really a grody old guy, right?" Leo said in disgust.

"Hey, don't go there, mon! She's the real deal!" Tracey said stubbornly. "And one day I'm gonna meet her for real and we'll be totally into each other and make out and stuff!"

"Yeah. Sure," Leo said skeptically. "In the meantime I'll be making out with my genuine girlfriend who's right here and totally sexy and not some creepy old guy trying to prey on impressionable kids he meets on the Internet."

"Hey!" Tracey snapped angrily.

"Um…can we please change the subject?" Lily asked, blushing.

"Gladly," Pikachu said in relief. "So. Tracey found a passage into the areas of the undertown controlled by the Nihilators, and Barbedo and the pirates are going to try and clear it out while the rest of us are on a train to Fichina. Am I right?"

Oak nodded. "That about sums things up, yes."

Barbedo grinned. "Yarr, ye can count on us to get rid of those pests! We'll clean out the place as thoroughly as whatever killed off the people who used to live there!"

Ash frowned. "Speaking of which…Professor, I don't suppose you've figured out what exactly happened to the people who built that city?"

Oak sighed. "Unfortunately, no. Admittedly, I haven't been able to investigate the ancient ruins as much as I would like what with all the Nihilators and monsters infesting the place, but…from what I have seen, there's no sign of the architects and inhabitants. No bodies or remains whatsoever. Whatever happened took place millions of years ago, yes, but there should still be some fossil, some remnant…either they all walked out of the city one day and never came back, or they vanished into thin air."

"Ooh! Maybe they managed to evolve into energy beings and left this physical plane behind! Or maybe they somehow got banished to another dimension. Or maybe they're actually still in the city but exist as invisible and imperceptible ghosts, unable to interact with material beings like us. Or maybe-" Leo speculated.

"Maybe all those weird statues are the aliens and they're hibernating or trapped in some kind of stasis?" Tracey suggested, getting into the swing of things.

"Yeah!" Leo said eagerly. The others sweatdropped.

"Well, you can speculate all you like, but I'd rather hold back on any theories until I can find evidence to back them up," Oak said. "And I won't find that evidence until we manage to take the ruins back from the Nihilators…which means, Barbedo, if you could please do your best not to cause too much property damage while you're down there, I would appreciate it."

Barbedo sulked. "Oh, come on! Not even a little looting and pillaging? Ruins of long-lost civilizations always have the best treasure! It's where I got me ship, after all!"

"My ship," Briney corrected him.

"Well, it used to be mine, anyway…" Barbedo murmured resentfully.

"Barbedo, I know you're used to taking everything that's not nailed down-" Oak started.

"And uprooting everything that is nailed down, just in case!" Barbedo said proudly.

"But that's not the way we…well, okay, not the way I do things," Oak said sternly. "So if we're going to be working together, I would like you to show a little restraint."

Barbedo scowled. "You aren't the boss of me!"

"Barbedo, do what he says while I'm gone," Briney said.

Barbedo deflated. "Oh, all right…he has a nice enough hat, I suppose he's worth listening to, even if he's an egghead."

"…The only reason you're going to listen to me is because of my crown?" Oak asked.

"Sure, hats are a big status symbol for pirates," Leo said.

The skeleton nodded. "Aye, why did ye think I became king of the pirates? It was because I had a nice hat!" Barbedo said.

"I thought it was because you were ruthless, indomitable, nigh-immortal, had an incredibly loyal crew, an unstoppable ship, and a giant Crawdaunt for a pet," Tiny said.

"The rest of that stuff's just side dressing. It's really all about the hat," Barbedo insisted, causing the others to sweatdrop.

"The hat which I am now wearing," Briney reminded him.

Barbedo sighed. "Aye, that ye are…I've got to get me a new one."

"So long as it's not as nice as mine, go right ahead. Don't think of overreaching yourself, Vice-Captain," Briney warned him.

Barbedo rolled his eyes. "Aye, Cap'n…"

"So I guess that's settled, then?" Ash asked. "To reiterate—yet again-We'll head to Fichina to get the Star Badge and spill the beans on the Nihilator and Barbedo and his crew will clear out the catacombs, hopefully without causing too much damage."

Barbedo sighed. "If I must…"

"Don't worry, it'll be an educational experience!" Oak assured him.

The pirate grimaced. "That be what I'm afraid of…"

"So, let's spend the time we have left until we need to head out getting ready for our parts. There's a lot riding on this, so we have to make sure there are no slip-ups," Pikachu said, glaring at Leo.

"Yeah, no slip-ups, Tiny," Leo said, glaring at Tiny.

Tiny blinked. "What did I do?"

And so time passed as the heroes prepared for their impending mission. While a beleaguered Tracey struggled to teach the rowdy and impatient pirates how to navigate the maze of caves and ruins under Treasure Town, Team Aurabolt practiced their roles and memorized the histories of their assumed identities so that they could carry out their disguises without a hitch. Additionally, they endeavored to increase their proficiency with a number of new items that had recently fallen into their possession. Just before leaving Zero Isle, they had decided to give the pirates' extensive treasure hoard a once-over to see if there was anything there that they might find worth taking with them on their journey. The ludicrous sums of money didn't interest any of them (except Leo) much, other than to bolster their wallets, but they managed to find a number of unique and very useful objects scattered among the glittering heaps of treasure. Briney hadn't taken more than a few trinkets, figuring that since he'd already gained a new ship, crew, and hat, grabbing for more would be selfish and greedy, so left the rest to the others.

Ash had been both delighted and dismayed to find a pair of sturdy crystal-encrusted gloves as well as a staff similar to Aaron's, which Barbedo bragged he'd wrested from an Aura Guardian that had been spent to dispatch him and used to run the poor bastard through…apparently before he'd become an undead monster, too. Ash had claimed the gloves and staff, and was taking lessons from Aaron via teleconference on how he could use them to channel and enhance his Aura, along with the other Aura training the blind Lucario was giving him at the same time as Rui so that both of their burgeoning powers could reach their full potential as soon as possible.

Pikachu had found a few old but serviceable swords that he could use as spares if Thunder Fang were ever unavailable for some reason, as well as a set of samurai armor just his size that he immediately snatched up before an envious Leo could, saying it might come in handy someday. While he would not be wearing the armor on the train—it didn't quite mesh with the background of his fake identity—he'd be using a couple of the extra swords, since the mystical Thunder Fang was too unique and easily recognizable for him to carry around, though he intended to bring it along in his luggage just in case he needed it, which he—and everyone else—were sure he would, sooner or later.

Leo hadn't been upset about the loss of the armor for very long, consoling himself by stuffing his shell with as much gold and jewels as he could carry. That wasn't enough for him, however, and he decided it was high time he got a weapon of his own. When it was pointed out that he had plenty of gadgets and other gimmicks that served the same purpose, he said he wanted to branch out a bit so he'd be more than just the goofy genre-savvy smart guy. Reluctantly, Ash and Pikachu had allowed him to take some tonfa he found, reasoning it would be harder for him to hurt himself or his friends with them. Several black eyes, bruises, and one near-asphyxiation later, though, the tonfas were confiscated for the safety of Leo and everyone else, leaving the Squirtle with nothing. Dawn promised she'd train him in the proper use of the tonfas when they had time, but that time was not now, so he'd have to do without them for the time being. He sulked for a while, but not even this fazed him for long, as he started spending a lot of time behind closed doors doing…something with several of the treasures he'd accumulated from the hoard as well as other places in their adventure. Lily had tried phasing through the walls to see what he was up to, but he'd shushed her out, saying it was a 'surprise.'

Sasha had found a surprise of her own in the form of the vestments of a high priest of Darkrai, which had apparently been lost for centuries. Darkrai had been looking for them for ages, in spite of his wife snidely commenting they were probably buried somewhere in the back of his closet. A shame she was currently being held hostage by the Nihilators, or he could have waved them in her face as proof that she had been wrong. The garments had been modified for someone of her dimensions—they had originally been meant for a human, not a four-legged Pokémon—and were incorporated into the disguise she'd be using on the train. She spent the time until their departure trying to get comfortable in her new robes, not used to wearing something other than a scarf or badge against her fur.

Tiny had puzzled everyone by picking a sword, along with the aforementioned stylish top hat. And not just any sword, but an absolutely massive zweihander that even Barbedo had a little trouble lifting. When asked why he wanted such a large and unwieldly sword, especially since he didn't currently have any arms to hold it with, he'd replied, "Well, Grandpa said he was going to teach me how to use a sword, so I figured I'd save him the trouble of having to make one by picking one that's already suited for a Pokémon the size I'll be once I'm ready to use it."

Lily had found a number of spellbooks, including a few rare volumes that her mother had apparently spent years looking for with no success. She was more than a little upset that the pirates had irreverently torn out many of the pages for napkins or toilet paper, but by poring over what remained she was still able to add a few new spells to her repertoire. Leo had hopefully asked her if there were any that would enable him to learn how to use magic, but she'd regretfully told him that it didn't work that way. "You either have the gift, or you don't, and if you don't, there isn't really anything you could do about it."

"Mon, this would be such a snap to solve if we were in a universe that operated on the rules of some of the RPGs I've played or fantasy settings I've read about. There, all you have to do is study a lot and you can learn magic just like that," Leo had complained.

"Yes, but we aren't in a world like that, so you'll have to leave the magic to me," she'd told him apologetically. "If it's any consolation…being around you is magical in a way unlike anything I've ever imagined." He'd turned Tamato red at that and said no more.

Dawn had found some new claws and a ninjato sword that had apparently belonged to a ninja that had tried and failed to assassinate Barbedo at some point in the past. She initially considered leaving them, since they had belonged to a failure, but eventually decided they were so well-made and effective she couldn't afford to abandon them. Pikachu was a little unnerved by how, well, sinister they looked on her, and considered forbidding her to use them, but she seemed happy with them and he didn't want to be responsible for ruining that. He knew if he gave her an order she would obey it in a heartbeat, even if it was something she might not like, which felt wrong, especially after…whatever had happened that night…he needed to talk to her about it some time, but he kept putting it off because he wasn't sure he'd like the answers he received.

In any event, they spent their time well, and when the appointed hour came, they put on their costumes, bid farewell to Oak, Tracey, and the pirates, and portalled to the Hot Springs, appearing in a secluded spot far from prying eyes. (Leo lamented the fact that they were missing out on a perfect opportunity for a 'Hot Springs' episode, something none of the others quite understood, and concluded it was probably for the best that they didn't.) Somewhat regretfully, they split up into groups and went their separate ways, going in different directions and taking their time so that they wouldn't arrive at the train platform all at once and nobody would suspect that they were associated with each other.

And so it was that, one after the other, a number of perfect strangers met each other for the first time while waiting at the train station for the Enchanted Express. They were just about the only people on the outdoor platform, actually, save for a few train enthusiasts and other people, since nobody else in the town had the magic or the money to afford passage on the magical train to Fichina. And who were these strangers, you might ask?

"Well, land's sakes, I was expectin' a bigger turnout than this!" Mother Leonora, a heavily perfumed matronly Squirtle with dark glasses carrying a flower basket in a green habit and wimple with a rosary that had a pink glass flower hanging from his-*ahem*-her neck, said. "Where're all the crowds of people waitin' for a ride home after a relaxing and scintillating vacation in these here Hot Springs? Where're all the happy couples and giggling chilluns and dirty ol' mons goin' home after a fling with their mistresses?"

"Most of those people don't live in Fichina, Mother," Leonora's companion, Sister Lilandra, a Misdreavus also in a green habit and wimple with a similar rosary necklace, pointed out. "So wouldn't be waiting for the train going there."

"Ah, tha's true, tha's true," Leonora said, nodding sagely. "Guess that means it'll be that much easier to make some new friends and bring the Flowery Path of Shaymin to these dreary souls! C'mon, Sister Lilandra, less introduce ourselves!"

"Yes, Mother," Lilandra said, feeling uncomfortable for three reasons: one was that she was calling her boyfriend 'mother,' which brought up bad memories of her real mother and had quite a few odd connotations, one was that her hair did not like being confined in the wimple she was wearing, and one was that her boyfriend was dressed like a womon, which didn't seem right somehow.

It probably doesn't seem right to anyone, actually, which is why some context may be necessary to explain why, exactly, Leo was disguised as a nun. For that, we'll need to backtrack a day or two into the past, when Leo first announced who he was going on the train as. "You're…disguising yourself as a nun?" Ash had asked incredulously.

"Yep," Leo had said.

"But Leo, you're a…male," Lily had said awkwardly. "And nuns are supposed to be female, aren't they?"

"Why?" Sasha had asked.

"That's just the way it is," Briney had said with a shrug.

"Leo, I'm pretty sure it's sacrilegious to impersonate a religious authority, let alone one of the opposite gender," Pikachu had said sternly.

Leo had frowned at that. "Who's pretending? I am a high-ranking member of the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea!"

There had been a long, stunned pause at that. What, Dawn had clicked.

"Are you…feeling all right, Leo?" Ash had asked. "Because either I heard you wrong, or you just said-"

"That I'm a high-ranking member of the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea," Leo had repeated. "What, is that so hard to believe?"

Nobody had answered him or looked him in the eye at that. "Could you maybe explain why you're a member of an all-female religious order?" Pikachu had asked finally.

"Unless there's something you aren't telling us?" Sasha had asked suspiciously.

Leo had sighed and rolled his eyes. "See, this is why I didn't bring it up sooner, because I knew you guys would react like this. Look, it's like this: back before I met all of you and was preparing for my inevitable heroic journey, I thought it might be a good idea to become an ordained priest just in case I ever needed to marry someone or exorcise a demon or christen a baby. So, I tried to join the Arcean Order and several other religious organizations via the web. For reasons I still can't comprehend, they turned me down."

"Gee, I wonder why…" Briney had muttered.

"Yeah, so did I!" Leo had said, missing the sarcasm. "Finally, I had no choice but to turn to the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea, which has the loosest membership policy of any religious group I could find other than the Mewrians…save for the fact that you have to be a girl to get in. I don't know why, it seems kind of sexist—I mean, it's not like all Grass or flower Pokémon are female, right?—but there it was. So, I figured I'd just lie about my gender on my application."

"…And they bought it?" Ash had asked incredulously.

"Yep," Leo had said. "The fact that I used some of my mom's makeup and fancy clothes for the face-to-face web interview didn't hurt, either."

"…Ah," a very disturbed Tiny had said.

"…If I were of a harsher denomination of Arceanism, I'd say you would go to the Abyss for pulling off something like that," Pikachu had said finally.

Leo had smirked. "Heh, no way, Shayminists don't believe in a hell for our sinners! Everyone winds up in a beautiful endless field of flowers."

"What, even the bad people?" Lily had asked.

"Yes, they just wind up in the section where all the weeds and stinky flowers are, and have to gain repentance by picking them for a few decades or something," Leo had said.

"My mother certainly deserves worse than that," a disgusted Lily had said.

"Yeah, but she's not a follower of Shaymin, so she'd never end up there," Leo had pointed out. "She'd wind up somewhere much worse."

"Oh, good," Lily had said in relief.

And you became a high-ranking member of this group without them ever realizing you were a fraud how? Dawn had asked.

"With great difficulty," Leo had said. Her eye had twitched.

And that had been that. Leo had turned himself into Mother Leonora, using a ton of perfume to mask his male scent from Pokémon with more sensitive noses (and also giving Ash and Sasha big headaches) and swearing Lily in as a new Sister, since she didn't look forward to the prospect of being on her own and insisted on staying with him on the train. The fact that she would feel more comfortable meeting Fantina with Leo by her side went without saying, naturally.

She was starting to wonder if that had perhaps been a bad idea, though, as Leo started harassing their friends, i.e. random strangers they'd never met before in their lives. "Howdy-do, sir! Have you opened your heart ta the smell of fresh flowers?" Leo asked Briney, who was wearing a tweed jacket, a pair of thick glasses, and had reluctantly removed his eyepatch, hat, and mustache so as to look more unassuming and less totally badass. He was also wearing a glass eye in place of Peeko's, since apparently scholars specializing in the field of magical history—which was what he was pretending to be—didn't go around wearing eyepatches or their deceased wife's eyes for some reason the sea captain didn't quite understand. He also didn't understand why he couldn't wear his hat, he felt naked and somewhat small without it.

"Well now, what's all this? Fresh flowers? That sounds smashing; shall we talk about it over a cup of tea then? Why yes, come and sit by me, mum, and we'll have a nice chat, eh wot?" Briney said in a clipped, almost effeminate voice that sounded weird to those who knew him best. Do I really have to talk like this? He complained telepathically.

Yes. Don't break character! Leo scolded him. "Well sir, today is your lucky day, 'cause we're members of the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea, here to bring peace to the world by spreadin' the scent of fresh flowers ta every corner of the globe! Would you like a Gracidea flower? They only cost one Poké a piece, and jus' bein' in the same room as one can calm down even the angriest of Pokémon!"

"Well, if it's only one Poké, chaps, I don't see why not," Briney said. Do I have to?

Yes! Leo replied.

But what am I supposed to do with it? Briney asked.

Stick it in your lapel or something, how should I know? "Sister Lilandra?" Leonora said.

Lily levitated a lovely pink flower from Leo's basket and sent it floating over to Briney. "Here you go, sir. May its sweet scent bring you happiness!"

"As do I," Briney said, taking a deep sniff and struggling not to look utterly disgusted. "So, might I ask what a pair of…lovely…young lasses like yourselves are doing here?"

"We're waitin' for the train to Fichina, where we hope ta grow acres of Gracidea flowers and let their scent coax those xenophobic mages out of their dark towers and inta the sunlight with the rest of the world!" Leo said cheerfully. "And what's a fine learned mon like yourself goin' ta Fichina for?"

Are you hitting on me? The Metang asked, disturbed. "Research," Briney said gruffly. "I'm Professor Emeritus Brindleworth of Pokémon University, a historian specializing in the study of magic and civilizations based on it. I'm going to Fichina in hopes of learning more about the origins of magic on our world as well as how it shapes the modern society of that country. I've applied many times for a travel visa to Fichina, and I was finally able to obtain one just recently, despite all my previous failures."

"Why did they turn you down so often?" Lily asked.

"Because the wankers don't care much for the nonmagical, or the world outside their borders, I suppose," Briney said with a shrug. "I don't know what changed their minds this time, but I intend to take advantage of it and make the most of my visit, eh wot?"

"Well, I hope you find everything you're lookin' for there, as do we," Leo said kindly. "That'll be one Poké, please."

"Eh?" Briney said.

"The flower. One Gracidea for one Poké?" Lily reminded him.

"Oh. Right." Rather reluctantly, Briney reached into the briefcase dangling from one arm and dropped a single coin into Leo's hand. I'll want that back later, boy.

Geez, it's just one Poké, Leo said.

Yes, my Poké, and you can't keep it, Briney said. "Thank you kindly for the flower, mum, and I hope you get to grow as many as you dream of." You cross-dressing freak.

"I'm sure we will," Leo said. You penny-pinching intolerant hardass.

Watch it, boy, I can hear you! Briney growled.

That's the idea! Leo replied, the two of them glaring fiercely at each other from behind fake grins. Lily sweatdropped, wondering if it was too late to take on a different identity.

Meanwhile, Ash and Tiny, both of whom were swaddled in orange robes with Ash's new staff slung across his back and the Pupitar without his monocle or top hat (much to his chagrin), approached Pikachu, who was wearing some wooden pauldrons, had a nonmagical sword sheathed on his back along with a smaller wakizashi blade hanging from his hip, a very arrogant expression on his face, and elongated head fur pulled back in a ponytail, grown out by Lily's magic. A kimono-wearing Dawn, her facial scars covered by a great deal of white makeup, her ears tied back in a braid, hung on Pikachu's arm while fanning herself with a fan that had an elegant design of clashing Weavile painted on it. Ash clasped his hands together and bowed to Pikachu. "Greetings, traveler. I take it that you are headed for the same destination as we?"

Pikachu scowled and reached for his sword. "Who are you that dares to approach me unannounced and unwelcome?"

"My lord, calm yourself. They are blessed, like myself," Sasha said as she came up next to Pikachu. She was wearing the priestess garments they had found on Zero Isle, a black robe with red trim and a high collar made of jagged red stones along with black streamers hanging down from her shoulders. Her tail blade was painted white for some reason. A cloth hung over her lower face, a gold sheath had been put over her head blade, and filmy white contacts had been placed in her eyes to make her look blind.

Pikachu relaxed a fraction and let go of his blade. "My apologies, holy ones. I meant no offense. I have been on edge of late…I am indeed on my way to Fichina, and it is there I hope I may finally earn some rest."

"What is the source of your strife, O warrior?" Ash asked.

"I am Ronin, a disgraced samurai. Due to circumstances I do not wish to go into, I have lost my fortune, my land, and my honor. I have recently been summoned to Fichina to receive an inheritance from a distant relative, however, and it is my hope that with it I can take back what is rightfully mine," Pikachu said.

"And your companions?" Ash asked.

"They are of little consequence. The wench on my arm is my favored womon, Mineko, and the Absol my soothsayer, Kutabe. They come with me because there is nowhere else for them to go, and I allow it because it does not do for a warrior to travel without a female to keep the bedroll warm," Pikachu said gruffly. Sasha bowed her head and Dawn fluttered her fan and threw Ash a flirtatious look that was…really weird, coming from her. "And what business takes you to Fichina, holy ones?"

"I am Hiori, a monk from a distant land," Ash said. "I came to Sinnorre in search of the Chosen One, a Pokémon spoken of in my order's prophecies that would bring peace to the world. I believe I have found the Chosen One in this young one here, Rico, and we go to Fichina to awaken his mystical powers so he may fulfill his destiny."

"A noble quest. I wish you success in your endeavors, young one," Pikachu said to Rico, who nodded but said nothing. Pikachu frowned and glanced at Ash. "He does not speak?"

"He has taken a vow of silence until our journey is at an end," Ash explained.

"I see. He must have a great deal of fortitude to maintain such a vow," Pikachu said, impressed. "All the more honor to him, then. Although…if he fulfills his destiny, I don't suppose there would be much room left in the world for someone like me."

Ash shrugged. "Everyone must find their own path, one way or another."

Pikachu laughed. "Ha! I suppose that is true. Very well, then…you shall go your way, and I shall go mine. Our paths run parallel at the moment, but who can say what will happen once we reach our destination? Perhaps we will part ways, never to see each other again…or maybe our fates will intersect again, no matter how unlikely it may seem."

"Everything happens for a reason, so if we are to meet again, there is surely a purpose behind it," Ash said.

"Then there had better be a damn good reason for what happened to me," Pikachu grumbled. "Hmmph. Keep your philosophizing to yourself. The only truth I believe in is that of the sword."

Ash shrugged again. "As I said, everyone must find their own path. I hope that yours will lead to happiness."

"As do I," Pikachu said. "As do I." Once Ash and Tiny had left, he winced and muttered to Dawn, "You don't have to cling to me so tight, you know."

Why? I am your bedmate. It is to be expected of me, Pikachu said.

"Well, yes, but…" He sighed. "Somehow I think you're enjoying this role too much."

Is it so different from reality, Master? She asked.

He grimaced. "I'd rather hope it was…"

There was a high, piercing whistle, and their heads whirled around to see a speck coming down the track off in the distance, a pillar of rainbow-colored smoke filled with strange shapes and figures rising from it as it approached at high speeds. "Ooh! Look, Sister Lilandra, it's the train! Ain't she a beaut?" Leo cried in delight

"I don't know, Mother Leonora, I can't see it very well," Lily said.

"Well, it'll be a beaut once it gets closer, of that I'm certain!" Leo said.

He was right. Their jaws dropped in wonder as the train became fully visible and ground to a halt on the tracks in front of them, steam hissing from its engine as the whistle mounted on the front car tooted loudly to announce its arrival. The train consisted of ten cars: a locomotive, six passenger cars, a dining car, a staff car, and a storage car at the rear. All the cars were blue with glittering stars and moons and comets decorating their sides that actually swirled about the more they looked at them. The locomotive car was sculpted to resemble a dragon's head, with a jutting lower jaw extending forwards into a cattle catcher, a pair of smoking nostrils from which clouds of rainbow-hued steam wafted out, and a pair of thick glass 'eyes' forming the front windows. A large pointed blue cone like a wizard's hat rose from atop the dragon's head, crackling with arcane power and covered in glowing sigils, as were the gleaming silvery wheels elevating the cars off the ground. The words 'Enchanted Express' were painted on the sides of the engine car in a style that made them look like the dragon's teeth, sparkling as the sunlight shone on them and some of the ambient magic energized them.

"Cor, isn't she something," murmured an impressed Briney as some of the train enthusiasts eagerly took pictures.

"Shaymin's mercy, if that ain't just the Meowth's…meow!" Leo said.

"It's amazing!" Lily agreed.

"Oooo," said Tiny.

"Chosen One, you're supposed to be silent," Ash murmured.

"Huh? Oh, right. I mean…um…" Tiny flushed and stayed silent.

"So this is the conveyance that will take me to my destiny?" Pikachu asked Sasha.

"The very same, my lord," she replied.

"Well, I suppose it'll be an interesting ride, at least…" he said. Dawn fanned herself.

Doors slid open on the cars and a handful of mages came out with their luggage. A couple of them had family or servants waiting for them on the platform, but the majority were just disembarking here because they wanted to try the hot springs. After a few moments passed and nobody else exited the train, a Gastly wearing a conductor's cap materialized near one of the doors and called, "Aaaaall aboard! We'll be leaving in five minutes, so anyone who wants to make it to Fichina had better get on quick, because we won't be waiting for any stragglers! We've got a schedule to keep, after all!"

"We're leaving so soon? What, no stop for refueling or systems checks?" asked an amazed Leo.

"Ma'am, this here's a magic train. We don't need to do any of that stuff," the Gastly said with a proud grin.

"He has a point," Lily said.

"Then what are we waitin' for, hun? Let's get on that thing, we don't wantna be left behind!" Leo declared, scrambling for the train. "Git a move on!"

"I hear you, mum," Briney said, floating after him.

The eight of them quickly boarded the train, presenting their tickets to the conductor as they went to prove they had earned their ride. Once they were all on, the Gastly scanned the platform to see if anyone else was going to get on, and when none of the few remaining Pokémon on the platform made a move, he shrugged and floated back inside the train. The doors slid shut, the whistle blew, the engine car's eyes lit up, and the cone started spinning, energy crackling around it and dancing along the cars, causing the decorations on the sides to gleam dazzlingly as magical mechanisms all over the vehicle powered up. Residual energy still crackling around them, the wheels churned into motion with a great screech, moving slowly at first but rapidly picking up speed as they carried the train along the track and past the station, moving faster and faster until the smoke rising from the exhaust was almost blown horizontally back and faint afterimages of stars and magical sigils were left in the locomotive's wake as it steamed off towards Fichina, whistle blowing loudly as if to exult in the sheer joy of being alive and running on the tracks. (Which, considering it was a magic train, it very well might have been.)

"That was so cool!" said an Igglybuff on the platform as she watched the Enchanted Express disappear over the distant horizon.

"One day, I'm gonna ride that train," her friend, a Kabuto, said.

"Don't you need magic to get on that thing?" the Igglybuff asked skeptically.

"I can do magic!" the Kabuto insisted.

"Yeah? Like what?" the Igglybuff taunted.

The Kabuto Tackled her, knocking on her rump. "I can make you see stars," he snickered as her eyes swirled in a daze.

"Actually, they're more like moons," she said deliriously.

He shrugged. "Eh, close enough."

"Huh. So this is what a train's like," Briney murmured as he looked out the window at the passing prairielands the train was locomoting through. "I think I like my ship better."

Turning away from the window, he took stock of his room. It was about the size of his captain's quarters on the Peeko XII and just as luxurious, with a plush carpet, a soft fold-out bed that could be modified to accommodate just about any body type by messing with its control runes, a small bookshelf full of ancient arcane tomes as well as more modern literature, a wall-mounted crystal ball with a connection to the Crystal Network—the magical world's answer to cable and the Internet—and a small bathroom that could also magically transform its contents and makeup to meet the needs of just about any Pokémon who might use it. Briney noted that both the suite and the bathroom looked far too big to fit on the car from what he'd seen of the exterior, but figured they'd just used some magic mass-shifting trick to make it all work, which he supposed was pretty convenient, though he wondered if all this space was really necessary. Then again, this was a train for the wealthy and powerful, and in his experience the wealthy and powerful didn't like having small rooms. Bunch of rich, spoiled snobs. Still, it looked nice…

He tried to extend his telepathic senses outward to make contact with his teammates or read the minds of the other passengers in the car, and was disappointed but unsurprised when he found himself unable to sense anything. He'd been warned ahead of time that powerful wards were in place to protect the privacy of the passengers, but had held out a faint hope he'd be able to circumvent them anyway. Now that hope was squelched, and Briney was starting to feel more and more uncomfortable being unable to hear anyone's thoughts but his own. Contrary to what the others thought, his habit of constantly prying into the minds of everyone around him didn't only stem from paranoia, but also from loneliness. Ever since Peeko died, he'd subconsciously reached out to others for companionship even while staying aloof and apart from them, some way to remind himself he wasn't alone in the world. He did it because some of the things lurking in his mind troubled him, and he didn't want to pay too much attention to them lest they overwhelmed his sanity. He'd done a lot of gruseomes things in his day, and it didn't do to dwell on them too much… "Well," he muttered to himself as he stowed his briefcase in a cabinet, the magic of the room guaranteeing that nobody would be able to open it but him. "I guess I'll just have to find out who my neighbors are the hard way, then."

He slid open the door to his room and floated out into the hallway in search of someone to talk to. The far wall was made up of windows looking out at the passing landscape, with comfortable-looking couches placed under them so people could sit and watch. The carpet was woven in a complex pattern with glyphs that made Briney's head hurt if he stared at them for too long, the wallpaper had a golden hue (Could it be actual gold? Anything was possible with magic), and the ceiling had been enchanted so passengers could look through it and see the skies overhead. Briney saw no reason they couldn't have just put a skylight in, it would have served the same function. Just another bit of extravagance to remind the passengers they were better than everyone else, he supposed.

The near wall of the corridor held the entrances to the passenger compartments, including Briney's own. There were three of them in all, with actual candelabras and magical paintings with moving pictures in them hanging on the walls between them. He looked back and forth between the two other rooms for a moment, and then arbitrarily picked the one on the left. Through the small window set in its top—which could be magically made opaque for privacy, of course—he saw a nervous-looking Rattata in spectacles and a necktie examining some documents he'd pulled out of an open suitcase. Briney knocked on the door, causing the Rattata to yelp and throw his documents all over the place. High-strung little rodent, Briney thought to himself. That can't be good for his blood pressure.

The Rattata frantically gathered up the papers, stuffed them in his suitcase, shut it, threw it in a cabinet, then scurried over to the door, sliding it open to peer furtively at Briney. "Wh-who is it?"

Briney forced a jovial smile. "Hullo, mate! My name's Professor Brindleworth, and I-"

"Go away," the Rattata said curtly, slamming the door shut. The window went dark a moment later, making it impossible to see into the room.

Briney stared at the door for a few moments, and then clenched his fists, trying not to lose his temper. Nobody shut doors in Captain Briney's face… "Well, that was rude…" he growled. "Maybe my other neighbors will be a bit more personable?"

Grumbling to himself, he floated back down the hall and peered into the other room. Through the window, he could see a family of three, two adult Claydol and a Baltoy. The adults, a gold-hued male and a silver-hued female, looked like they were arguing about something while the Baltoy was playing with a toy train on the ground, using either his Psychic powers or magic to make it run across the floor. Briney hesitated for a moment, wondering if perhaps he should leave this no-doubt domestic squabble alone, but he didn't really relish going back to his room, and while he supposed he could check on the others, it could possibly blow their cover. After all, for all they knew, anyone on this train could be a Nihilator. That Rattata had seemed rather suspicious…but there wasn't really much he could do about it without his mind-reading abilities that wouldn't get him in trouble or possibly thrown off the train. Or cursed. One could never tell with these magic types. With a shrug, he decided to give it a shot and knocked on the door.

The Claydols started, glanced at each other, and then one of them, the silver female, floated over to the door. After peering at Briney through the window, she slid the door open a bit. "Yes?"

"Hullo, mum," Briney said cheerfully. "I'm in the room just next door and I thought I'd take a stroll and see what sorts of chaps I was sharing this car with. How do you do?"

"Very well, thank you, but we're sort of in the middle of something-" she said.

"Didn't look well from where I'm floating, mum. Looked like you and the mister were having a bit of a squabble," Briney said, his natural nosiness urging him to investigate.

The Claydol narrowed her eyes. "That is none of your business, sir. This is a family matter, and you can stay out of it, Mister…what did you say your name was?"

"I didn't. Professor Brindleworth of Pokémon University, at your service," he said, doing a small bow.

The Claydol's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh! A Professor, you say? I don't suppose…what is your field of study?"

"The history of magic, mum," Briney said.

The Claydol glanced at her male counterpart. "What a coincidence, that's just what we were talking about, wasn't it Goldor?"

The gold Claydol sighed. "Dear, must we really involve a third party in this?"

"If it'll settle this argument, then I don't see why not," the silver Claydol said, moving aside to let Briney into the room. "Do come in, Professor."

"Don't mind if I do," Briney said, floating into the room. The Baltoy playing with the train glanced up briefly, decided he was of little importance, and went back to his game. "So, what's all the ruckus, then?"

"I am the Lady Silvia, and this is my husband, Goldor, owner of the Goldorrington corporation. You know what they do, of course," Sylvia said dismissively.

"Of course," Briney said, knowing no such thing.

"Anyway, we're going to Fichina for a family vacation and to visit little Buck's grandparents," Silvia said, gesturing to the Baltoy, who did not acknowledge her. "Goldor and I were trying to decide which areas we should visit while we're in the country. Buck's education is one of the most important factors to consider, naturally, so we want to take him to places with the greatest historical significance. However…"

"However?" Briney prompted.

"However, we can't agree on which places have the greatest significance," Goldor said with a sigh. "I would love to see the places where some of the world's greatest wizarding wars and duels were fought…you know, Chimera Hill, the Field of Gal'veris, the Upside-down Forest, Crisscross Keep, the ruins of the Yukihimi estate where the accursed Bellum and Fantina Fantasma clashed for the first time, and so on. They have excellent reenactments and recreations of the legendary battles that took place there I wouldn't mind getting a look at. Silvia, on the other hand, is more interested in going to more mundane places, such as the place where the Treaty of Kel'thulk'lk'op'fuh was signed, the workshop where the first crystal ball was invented, the courtroom where the ban against experimentation on magical creatures was passed, the first Fantasmagoria outlet Fantina opened…you know, dull things like that."

"There's nothing dull about any of those places!" Silvia huffed.

"If there's no explosions, it sounds pretty dull to me," Buck said from the floor.

"I have to agree with the boy," Goldor said.

Silvia huffed. "Well, I never! In any event, Professor, you can see the impasse we are at. Which would you recommend? The sites where some battles took place so long ago that very few people remember or even care about-"

"Hey!" Goldor snapped.

"Or places where real history took place? Politics, law, innovations that revolutionized magic and define the world we live in now?" Silvia finished.

Privately, Briney agreed with Goldor and Buck, explosions did sound more interesting. However, he didn't think Silvia would be very well inclined towards him in the future if he said something like that, so for the sake of preserving his cover he knew he had to come up with something else. Good thing Leo speed-read all those history books using his sunglasses then let me extract the information from his brain. "Well now, that is a bit of a sticky wicket, isn't it? All of those sites are well renowned and worth going to. However, there are a few other places I would recommend you seem to have left out."

That got both Claydols' attention. "Really? Such as?" Goldor asked.

Briney grinned to himself. "Well, just off the top of my head…"

As he spoke his mind, lecturing on the history and prestige of Fichina and the many sights worth seeing there, the couple paid more and more attention to him, hanging on his every word and forgetting their prior argument as the Metang laid out an itinerary that would help them get the most out of their visit. Even Buck stopped playing with his train so he could pay attention to Briney's discourse. Briney was surprised to find he was enjoying himself, something that usually only happened when he was snooping in people's brains or punching some punk's face in. Maybe this 'historian' bit isn't so bad after all, he admitted to himself. The accent still makes me sound like a sissy, though…

Meanwhile, in the next car, Tiny was looking out the window of his and Ash's room in wonder. "Woooow…this is so cool!"

"Yeah," Ash agreed. "Not too shabby, huh?"

"Have you ever been on a train like this before, Daddy?" Tiny asked.

Ash frowned, probing his hole-filled memory for an answer to that question. "I think I've been on a few," he said uncertainly after a moment. "But they weren't as nice as this one. And one of them was powered completely by an Ampharos."

Tiny frowned. "They forced an Ampharos to generate enough energy to run something as big as this? That's not very nice."

"…Huh. Yeah, I guess it's not," Ash admitted, surprised that he'd never really questioned it before now. "Come to think of it, we used Electric Pokémon to power a lot of things back then…I wonder how they felt about that."

"Well, you'll never know now," Tiny said, unbothered. "So…what do we do now? Should we try and find that Fantina lady?"

Ash shook his head. "No, we're letting Leo and Lily have the first shot at her. What with the threat posed to her and her guests by Bellum and the Nihilators, she's managed to get a whole car to herself and those traveling with her, and the security around it is pretty tight. That means it's unlikely she can be approached by a history professor, a disgraced samurai, or a couple of traveling monks like us…but Leo and Lily, as priests trying to promote a good cause, may have the best chance of getting in to see her. Fantina's a big philanthropist, so something like making the world a nicer and more beautiful place should at least give them a minute or two with her to speak their piece."

"Oh," Tiny said. "But wouldn't it be easier if we just went and told her we're friends who want to help her beat the Nihilators?"

"They might not believe us and think we're bad guys trying to trick Fantina into letting her guard down or mooch off of her or something," Ash said. "Bottom line, this is supposed to be a stealthy mission—for now, at least—which means the fewer people who know who we are and what we're really about, the better. We don't want to make the Nihilators realize the Star Badge is in Fichina and cause a war, now do we?"

Tiny shook his head. "Nuh-uh. That'd be bad, right?"

Ash nodded in agreement. "Very."

"Well, what should we do, then?" Tiny asked.

"Until we hear back from Leo and Lily, try to blend in and keep our heads down. Which means we need to go see who else is riding in the car with us," Ash said.

Tiny blinked. "What does that have to do with keeping our heads down?"

"We can't blend in if we don't know who we're blending with, can we?" Ash pointed out reasonably. Tiny had to admit that Ash had a point.

"So, we're going to knock on doors or something?" Tiny asked.

"Eventually. First I want to do an Aura scan to see what kind of people are riding with us on this train…whether they're good or bad, trustworthy and untrustworthy…and whether or not they're Nihilators," Ash said darkly.

"Okay," Tiny said. He and Ash closed their eyes…

And were enveloped in the world of Aura. Brilliant lights and colors were all around them, the magic contained in just about every nut and bolt of the Enchanted Express registering brightly to their senses. But brighter still were the people riding the train, the living (or undead) Pokémon who were either passengers or responsible for keeping the train running. They could see the Auras of their friends, in the cars ahead of and behind them. They could see the Auras of the various magicians and staff in the engine car, kitchen, storeroom, and the cabins on either side of them, and while some of them felt less than friendly or even downright wicked, none of them had the telltale black Aura of a Shadow Pokémon. They saw a beautiful blaze of Aura radiating warmth and kindness that they concluded had to belong to Fantina, and a complementing dark (not pitch-black or evil, just dark) Aura nearby that they attributed to the vampires she was escorting.

And that's not all they saw, too…

They gasped, eyes flying open. "Was that-" Ash started.

"Did you see what I saw?" Tiny cried.

"There's someone else on this train that can use Aura, and they're right next door!" they said at once.

They glanced surreptitiously at the far wall, wondering just whom was on the other side of it. They'd spotted a number of Auras, including one that signified an Aura-user like them, in the room next to them. The ambient magical energy made it difficult for them to pick out shapes, but they knew enough about color and feel to identify the nature and orientation of an individual when they saw it, including whether or not that other person could manipulate the power of Aura, which this one most certainly could. "Should we go look?" Tiny asked.

"We might as well," Ash said, standing up. "Whoever they are, they've probably spotted us too, so we should introduce ourselves. It's only polite."

"Can they be trusted, though?" Tiny asked doubtfully.

"Their Aura didn't feel evil. And besides, we don't have to tell them the truth to make friends with them," Ash said. While he wasn't fond of lying, he knew it was necessary for the time being. The people next door weren't Nihilators or associated with them or any other villains, but as he had said before, the fewer who knew the truth, the better. Accepting this, Tiny followed Ash out of the room and into the hallway.

They entered the corridor at the same time as the door to the room next door slid open and, much to their amazement, another Lucario stepped out! Only the fact that he was Shiny kept him from looking exactly like Ash. Well, that and the fact that he wasn't wearing robes, or carrying a staff, or…oh, you get the point. "Huh," he said when Ash gawked at him in disbelief. "I guess we saw each other at the same time, huh?"

"You…you're a Lucario!" Ash stammered in amazement.

"Last time I checked, yeah. And so are you," the other Lucario pointed out.

"Well, yeah, but…I mean, this is incredible! You're the first Lucario other than myself I've ever met in person! My mentor back home doesn't quite count, since we've only talked over the Internet up to now," Ash said.

The other Lucario sighed and nodded sadly. "Yeah, we seem to be a dying breed…you aren't the first other Lucario I've ever met, but it feels like it's been a really long time since I last saw a face like mine."

"You're one of a kind back where you come from, too?" Ash asked in disappointment.

The other Lucario shook his head. "No, but other than my parents, I'm pretty much the only Lucario in Frodomar City. Sounds like you didn't even have that luxury…"

"Not exactly," Ash said. "Until my long-distance mentor returned after a decade-long hiatus, I was the only Lucario back in Po—er, Pohatu Monastery."

"That must have sucked," the other Lucario said sympathetically. "At least you had the other monks to teach you about focusing chi and all that stuff so you still learned how to use Aura, right?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Ash said.

"Oh, but where are my manners? My name's Ritchie. Ritchie Getem," the other Lucario said. "And you?"

Ritchie? Why does that sound familiar? "I'm Hiori," Ash said, managing to remember not to give his true name out at the last second.

Ritchie frowned. "Hiori? Huh. You don't look like a Hiori."

"It's not my real name," Ash said honestly.

"Ohhh, this is one of those monastic things?" Ritchie guessed.

"Yeah, let's go with that," Ash said.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, Ash," Ritchie said, extending a paw.

"You too, Ritchie," Ash said, taking it…and starting as a surge of memories rushed through his head. He saw himself laughing and hanging out with a brown-haired boy who looked eerily like him, staring at the night sky, battling each other in front of millions of people only for their match to end rather in a rather humiliating and utterly ridiculous defeat, teaming up to save some Lugia from Team Rocket, and…

And that was it. That was pretty much all the history they had together. Ash couldn't help feeling rather disappointed, for some reason he thought they should have had more adventures together than that. Oh well, maybe they'd go on an adventure now? Ritchie blinked and withdrew his paw, looking dazed. "Whoa…hey, is it just me, or have we met before? Something about you seems…familiar…"

"It's probably because we can both use Aura or something like that," Ash lied reluctantly.

"Oh. Yeah, I guess that would explain it," Ritchie said. "So weird that we'd run into each other like this, two Lucario on the same train to Fichina…it must be fate or something!"

"Could be," Ash agreed, wondering if Ritchie might be right. How weird that they'd have a reunion like this, after so many years…except Ritchie had no idea who he was, and it'd probably have to stay that way…Ash hid the twinge of guilt this caused in him, though Tiny felt it anyway, just as he had felt all of Ash's other feelings at running into another reincarnation of a friend. Knowing he wasn't supposed to speak, he sent silent encouragement through their bond, to which Ash responded with profound gratitude.

Ritchie frowned, the sensory organs on the back of his head twitching as they faintly detected whatever was passing between Ash and Tiny, although he wasn't sure what it meant. "Anyway…what are you doing here? And who's the kid? He shy or something? He hasn't said a word at all...come on little guy, I'm nothing to be scared of."

"He's taken a vow of silence," Ash explained before Tiny could forget himself and speak up. "He will not utter a word until we fulfill our mission."

"Oh, another monastic thing…got it," Ritchie said. "And what is your mission?"

"My order dispatched me to find the 'Chosen One,' a being we believe will one day save the world from destruction," Ash said. "I believe that Rico here is the One spoken of in prophecy. We go to Fichina to awaken his dormant powers so he may fulfill his destiny."

"I see," Ritchie said. "And that power…it's Aura, isn't it? I could sense it in him."

Ash nodded. "He has great potential…and the intense magical field of Fichina should help us to unleash it, as well as everything else he is capable of, so that he can evolve into his full power and save the world."

"An Aura-using Tyranitar…well, that's something I certainly wouldn't like to fight," Ritchie commented. "The 'Chosen One,' huh? Funny, my parents said a Pokémon like that would appear one day too…but they were pretty sure he'd be a Lucario."

Ash and Tiny tensed. "Well, you know…lots of people have prophecies of a savior," Ash said quickly. "There must have been tons of Chosen Ones at one point or another. Huh, more like the Chosen Many, right?"

"Yeah, true enough," Ritchie admitted.

"So, why are you going to Fichina?" Ash asked.

Ritchie smirked. "Well, I don't mean to brag, but…my friends and I are on a mission to save the world, too!"

Ash's ears perked up at this. "Oh?"

Ritchie nodded. "Yep! See, there's this crazy religious sect of Arceans called 'Judgment' who want to destroy all evil and darkness in the world by force. Their leader, Light of Justice, is looking for seventeen plates corresponding to Arceus's seventeen divine Plates that he believes will give him the power of God so that he can bathe the world in light and purge all the sin and impurity in people's hearts, no matter how many die in the process. Me and the rest of Team Getem are racing to gather the last few plates before he can, and the next one's in Fichina, according to a magical map my girlfriend was able to mail to me before she was kidnapped by Judgment, who think they need to sacrifice her to unlock the power of the plates…which is kind of stupid if you ask me, since Arceus doesn't accept Pokémon sacrifices, but try telling that to these extremist types, right?"

Ash and Tiny blinked, feeling a very weird sense of déjà vu. "Er…right…"

"Anyway, would you like to meet the rest of the team? It took a lot of effort, but we managed to score ourselves both of the other rooms on this car by reuniting a softy mob boss with his daughter, who'd eloped with one of his enforcers," Ritchie said. As a bewildered Ash and Tiny processed this, Ritchie shouted, "Hey guys, they're cool! Come out and say hello to our new friends!" The doors on either side of Ash and Tiny's room slid open and seven Pokémon filed out. The fake monks stared at them in horror and confusion, feeling an even more profound sense of déjà vu and growing madness.

Ritchie pointed to Ash and Tiny. "Guys, these are Hiori and Rico, two monks heading to Fichina to save the world. Just like us, but not on quite as cool an adventure. Hiori and Rico, this is my posse, Team Getem!" Ritchie gestured to a Pikachu wearing a suit of Ameroupean armor with a broadsword sheathed at his side and a scruff of fur on top of his head. "This is my best friend and second-in-command, Sparky DeLux. He can be a little stiff and stuck-up at times, but that's on account of his training to be a knight to continue the family tradition of upholding honor and chivalry throughout the land."

Sparky bowed, armor clanking as he bent over. "A pleasure to meet you, gentlemons."

"Um, that sword of yours wouldn't happen to be a family heirloom that possesses magical powers, would it?" Ash asked.

Sparky blinked. "Why yes, how did you know?"

"Oh…lucky guess…" Ash said faintly.

Ritchie gestured to a Charmeleon wearing sunglasses and a rather gaudily-colored T-shirt. "This is Zippo. He's a bit of a slacker and talks funny, but he's a lot smarter than you'd think and a whiz at gadgetry and inane trivia. We recruited him after we saved his coastal town from a giant Sharpedo who held one of the plates and was keeping them from fishing or surfing."

"Until my mons Ritchie and Sparky here took out that uncool gitch so we could hang ten on the big waves again!" the Charmeleon said, sticking his thumbs up.

"…But…don't you die if you fall into the water?" Ash asked.

"Not if you keep your balance just right, dude," Zippo said with a grin. "Do I look like the kind of guy who'd wipe out?" Ash decided not to answer that.

"Meet Happy," Ritchie said as he pointed out a Butterfree. "She's an old friend of me and Sparky's who flew all the way from her home in the forests near Frodomar City when she heard we were in trouble and offered to join our team. She can be a little odd since she's not used to civilization as we know it, what with spending all her life in the wild and all, but for the most part she's a caring mother figure to all of us…when she's not thirsting for honey or pollen, that is."

"Hello," Happy said…happily. "It's nice to meet you. Do you have any honey or pollen on you, by any chance?"

"Uh, no," Ash said.

"Oh well," she said, wings and antenna drooping in disappointment.

"See what I mean?" Ritchie said in amusement. "Anyway, this," he said, indicating a Pupitar who looked almost exactly like Tiny, except he wasn't wearing orange robes. "Is Cruise. He may not be a Chosen One or under a vow of silence, but we like him all the same. We rescued him when he was just an egg from an ice cream salesmon who thought it would be a good idea to make ice cream out of eggs for some reason. He imprinted on me as his parent after he hatched and was initially antisocial and distrustful towards everyone else, but we were able to coax his heart open and help him learn to love life."

"Hi!" Cruise said to Tiny. "Is that blanket warm? It looks really snug on you. Daddy, can I have one like that?"

Ritchie chuckled. "Not unless you decided to spend the rest of your life in some mountaintop monastery, I'm afraid."

"Oh. Never mind then," Cruise said. Ash and Tiny exchanged stunned looks.

"Rose here," Ritchie said as a shy-looking Taillow wearing a black hooded robe with a gnarled staff clutched in her talons came forward. "Is one of our biggest success stories. She was originally one of our enemies, the daughter of a wicked druid who's one of Light of Justice's top lieutenants. We managed to convert her to our side after she helped save my life while trying to get the Spooky Plate, and now she helps us out with her magic. Also, she and Zippo are a couple as of our latest adventure. Nice, huh?"

"Totally!" Zippo said with a lewd grin.

Rose flushed at that. "Z-Zippo!"

"C'mon babe, you know you dig me!" the Charmeleon said with a wink. She giggled. Tiny shook in terror, and Ash's eye twitched.

"This is Captain Salty, the toughest Tentacool you'll probably ever meet," Ritchie said of a scarred Tentacool wearing an eyepatch and a sailor's hat. "We met him when we were looking for a boat to reach the island the Splash Plate was held on, and he decided to stick with us afterwards. His wife was killed by some of Judgment's goons years ago, and he's been looking to even the score ever since."

"I stung the bastards responsible for her murder to death, but I've still got lots of venom left in me…and I intend to take it out on Light of Justice!" Salty said.

"Um…good for you," Ash said faintly, trying not to pass out from shock.

"And finally, we have Lu," Ritchie said, pointing to a black-clad Eevee.

"Is she a ninja who's the last of her clan, save for her former friend who's now a member of Judgment, and is in a relationship with Sparky?" Ash asked deliriously.

Lu blinked. "What? No, don't be preposterous."

Ash sighed in relief. "Oh, good."

"I'm an assassin," Lu said.

"…Ah," Ash said blankly. Tiny's eyes turned into swirls.

"You were right about everything else, though. How'd you guess?" the Eevee asked.

"Yes, we were keeping our relationship a secret," Sparky said in surprise.

"Not really, all of us knew you two were together for a while now," Rose said.

Zippo nodded. "Totally, dude. It was mondo obvious."

"…Ah," Sparky said. He and Lu both blushed.

"Anyway, this is my team. My family. What do you think?" Ritchie asked Ash.

"They all seem very nice," Ash said. And oddly familiar. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"So, wanna hang out with us? We can swap stories. I'm sure you must've been through quite an ordeal or two on your way to find Rico and save the world," Ritchie said.

"Probably not as gnarly as the things we've done, though," Zippo said.

If only you knew, Ash thought. If only you knew. "Sure, why not?" Ash said out loud. "It's not like we have anything better to do at the moment."

Ritchie burst into a grin. "Cool! Come on in, this should be fun!" He threw an arm around Ash's shoulder and guided him towards his room.

"Daddy?" Tiny whispered, staying very close to Ash's side and eyeing Cruise worriedly.

"Yes, Tiny?" Ash whispered back.

"I'm scared," Tiny said.

"Me too, Tiny. Me too," Ash said.

Pikachu was a little scared as well, but for a different reason. Sasha kept pacing around the room in circles like a caged animal—which she was, technically—agitated by their relatively close quarters and unable to lie still due to the feeling of being in constant motion, making Pikachu anxious the more he looked at her. She wasn't the only thing making Pikachu anxious, though…there was also the matter of Dawn clinging to his arm and nuzzling him affectionately. "You know, we're in private now," he told her awkwardly. "You don't need to keep doing that anymore."

She gave him a puzzled look. You do not enjoy it, Master? She asked, tapping her fan against the wall.

He blushed. He did enjoy it, actually, more than he cared to admit. "I…it's just, I'm worried you're taking your role a little too…seriously."

Dawn shrugged. I do not see it as being much different from my regular role, so it does not require much extra effort.

Pikachu started, pushing her off. "Wh-what? Is that…is that what you think you're supposed to be to me?"

Dawn frowned. Master?

"Is that what you think you are? A slut, a floozy for me to use to fulfill my…desires? I thought you had more self-respect than that! I thought we had…more of an understanding than that," Pikachu said in confusion. "You're my friend, not my…my sex toy!"

Dawn rolled her eyes. Master, a geisha is more than a common whore.

"She is a high-end whore, then?" Sasha asked.

Dawn glared at her. She is a female companion and bodyguard. She may be used for sex, yes, but she is also there to stay by her master or client's side to protect him and make sure that he is not alone. That is how I interpret it, anyway, and I do not see it as being dissimilar to my duty as your vassal, except they do it for money and I do it out of loyalty.

"…Oh. Right," Pikachu said, flushing. "That's right, I…sorry. It's just…"

Yes? Dawn asked.

"Ever since that…that night, back on the ship, you've been acting different, and I…I'm confused," Pikachu admitted. "I don't really remember anything that happened, except that it felt…nice…and I know I should feel horribly guilty for basically using you that way after saying repeatedly that I wouldn't, but…from the way you're behaving, it's like you enjoyed it too, and I'm not sure I understand why."

What is to understand? Dawn asked. I have offered myself to you since I came into your service, and you have always turned me down. And then that night you finally took me up on my offer. I was able to please you and myself. Why should I not be elated?

Pikachu was shocked. "But Dawn, I was…I was drunk! I wasn't in control of myself!"

You certainly weren't, Dawn agreed. That's why I had to practically guide you through the whole thing. But despite your inexperience, you were a very good lover, Master.

Pikachu turned even redder and Sasha stifled an uncharacteristic snicker. "That's…that isn't what I…" He sighed and tried to start again. "Dawn, what I mean is…why did you sleep with me?"

Because you asked me to, Dawn said.

Pikachu grimaced at this. "I-I did? Oh, crud…And why did you accept? Because…because you wanted it, or because you saw it as an order?"

You are assuming there is a difference. The two are not mutually exclusive, Dawn said.

Pikachu blinked. "Aren't they?"

Dawn sighed and shook her head. Poor confused Master. She patted the seat next to her, and a bewildered Pikachu sat down. Do you remember why I became your vassal?

"Because you told me that if I didn't let you, you'd kill yourself?" Pikachu recalled.

Aside from that. It was because you defeated me and spared my life, despite my…well, not quite asking so much as implying that you kill me, Dawn said.

"Well, of course. You were an innocent victim, and…something like a friend, even back then," Pikachu said. "I would never have killed you. I felt bad about hurting you, but I knew there was no other way to snap you out of it or keep you from hurting the others."

Dawn nodded triumphantly. And that is why I desired to bed you.

Pikachu blinked. "Huh?"

Master, few other warriors would have saved me out of such altruistic reasons. Or at least, few of the warriors I have encountered before meeting you, she added before Pikachu could protest. They may have defeated me and let me live, but not out of kindness or mercy, but because they wished to dominate me, to make me their own, and by my honor I would have had little choice but to comply. But you, Master… She shook her head. Before I ran into you and the others, I had spent so much time in the dark corners of the world that I had begun to forget that the light existed, that there really were decent people out there. But…when you and the others helped me at the castle near Turtle Town, when you tried to bond with me in the Mystifying Woods…it helped me to remember who I had been before, and that Pokémon like you or Ash existed. And when you saved me from myself…when you spared me out of friendship, not just because it would go against your honor but because you genuinely cared for me and wanted to help me, I knew you were the best master I could possibly have. And when you tried to refuse me, when you turned down my advances so many times not because you thought I was repulsive or because you were disinterested but because you were concerned only for my own feelings…it was then that I knew my heart could never belong to any mon but you.

Pikachu stared at her, stunned. "Dawn, I…are you saying that…that you…"

Is it really such a surprise? You have known I have been attracted to you for quite some time now. And the others certainly seem to have teased you enough about it, Dawn said.

"But, but Dawn, I don't…I don't know if I feel that way!" Pikachu protested. "I'm not…I'm not worthy, especially if I took advantage of you after getting drunk and-"

I offered myself, Dawn pointed out.

"And I accepted, because I was so off my kilter from alcohol that I didn't know what I was doing!" he snapped. "Which is why I don't drink, because people do stupid things when they do, and lose their inhibitions, and…and…"

She shook her head. That is not what happened.

He blinked. "What? It's not? But…but then…what did happen?"

You truly do not remember? She asked.

"Not at all," Pikachu said. "It's all kind of a blur."

We had just finished the first dance and you were on your second drink…and already slurring and having trouble walking in a straight line. You really can't handle your liquor, can you? She asked sympathetically. I asked if you wanted to go 'celebrate' our victory over the Nihilators somewhere more private. Even in your inebriated state, you still had enough control over yourself to turn me down…but you'd lost enough control to admit why. You told me that if circumstances were otherwise and I was not indebted to you, you would have loved to, because you liked me a lot and I was one of the most fascinating womon you'd ever met. You told me that the main reason you've turned me down so many times in the past and were dubious about your mother's plans for marrying us was because you were still so hung up on my being your 'slave' or something foolish like that that you would never touch me, for fear that in doing so you were taking advantage of me, as I had allowed myself to be taken advantage of many times in the past. You believed that after the hard life I've had, I deserved more than that…and maybe a little because you wanted to prove everyone who's been teasing you about us wrong, even though deep down you suspected that they were right, just as you are right in believing Ash is in denial regarding whatever feelings he has for this 'Misty.'

Pikachu blinked, staring at her in amazement. "And…what…what did you say?"

I told you what I'm telling you now: that because you felt that way, because you were so considerate of my feelings that you would deny your own, even though you knew if you demanded it I would give myself to you in a heartbeat, that my devotion to you goes beyond honor or duty or tradition. That I serve you because I choose to, and the only reason I would be offering myself is because I wanted it, not because I felt obligated to. If you ordered me to do it, I would have obeyed out of duty. If you asked me, though, as you did after I told you this before, and only after making absolutely sure it was what I really wanted and I wasn't just saying it because I thought it would make you happy…I would have done it out of love, just as I did that night. She smiled. And what a night it was…

"….I…wow," Pikachu said after a long moment, stunned. "I…I don't…I don't know what to say…"

You do not need to say anything, Master, Dawn said. I know how you feel, and I know how I feel, and that is good enough for- She paused and glanced at the window set in their door. What the…no, it can't be…

"Dawn?" Pikachu asked in confusion.

Dawn rose from her seat. Wait here. There is something I need to check.

"What? Are we in danger?" Pikachu asked in alarm, reaching for his sword.

Sasha frowned. "I do not sense any trouble…"

It is nothing for you to worry about, Dawn said. Just…something I need to take care of. Do not concern yourself. I will be back shortly.

"Dawn, wait!" Pikachu protested too late as the ninja slipped out of the room. "Arceusdammit. Should I…"

"She should be fine," Sasha said, unbothered. "I do not sense any danger. There is nothing for you to worry about. Let her handle this on her own."

Pikachu sighed and sat back down. "I guess so…"

"So, now that you know the truth of what lies between you…what will you do about it?" Sasha asked.

"I…honestly don't know," Pikachu said. "If anything, I'm even more confused now."

"Hmm. I think you should mate with her again," Sasha said.

Pikachu blanched. "Wh-what?"

"It's what I do when my mate gets confused," Sasha said. "It usually makes him deliriously happy long enough for him to forget about it."

Pikachu groaned and put his face in his hands. "Sasha…"

Sasha shook her head. "Leo and Ash are right, you are such a 'prune.'"

"You mean prude," he said through his paws.

"Yes, that," Sasha said, a faint look of amusement on her face. "Perhaps if you mate some more with Dawn, you will-"

"I get the idea," Pikachu snapped. "Mating's the answer to all life's problems, is it?"

Sasha shrugged. "It is in my experience." Pikachu groaned.

Out in the hallway…

Master Palmer! Dawn clicked as she raced after a Dragonite in wizard's robes about to enter his room.

The Dragonite paused and glanced at Dawn. "I beg your pardon?"

Master Palmer, it's me, Dawn Hikari! What are you doing here? I thought you were dead! Dawn clicked.

The Dragonite gave her a puzzled look. "I'm sorry little one, but I have no idea what you're doing. If you have something to say, could you speak it clearly?"

Dawn gave him an annoyed look. Master Palmer, I know it's you. You can drop the act. I don't know what you're doing here or how you survived, but we need to-

"I'm sorry, but if you're going to just tap that thing at me, I'm afraid I have to be going," the Dragonite said, getting annoyed. "I have more important business to attend to, and-"

Master Palmer, your son is dead, Dawn said.

The Dragonite stiffened. "…What was that?"

Barry is dead. Paul killed him and everyone else…except me. I'm all that's left of the Dragon's Claw clan…except, apparently, for you, Dawn said.

For a long moment, the Dragonite said nothing. Finally, he turned back to Dawn, a steely look in his eyes. "Come in," he said, opening his door. "Tell me everything."

Back in their room…

"Maybe I should go after her," Pikachu said, rising from his seat for the dozenth time.

"Sit down, she'll be fine," Sasha said for the dozenth time. Pikachu sighed and did just that. "You're worrying yourself for nothing. If something bad were going to happen, I would-" She gasped.

Pikachu looked at her in alarm. "What? What is it?"

"It…it's not danger per se, but something's coming…something familiar…something unpleasant," Sasha whispered in dismay.

As if on cue, there was a knock on the door. Exchanging worried looks, Pikachu reached for his sword and slowly headed for the entrance, a tense Sasha on his heels. He tried to peer through the window, but it was too high up for him; thankfully Sasha gave him a boost with her head so he could take a look. He gasped in horror when he saw what was on the other side, stumbling back and falling off the Absol to the floor. "No…no, not them…not again…not again!"

"What? Who is it?" Sasha asked in alarm.

The door slid open, revealing…

"Hey neighbor, can we borrow a cup of sugar?" Sam the not-Lucario asked, peering into the room. "If Max doesn't get a fresh dosage of sucrose, lactose, and fructose every couple of hours, he goes into a semi-comatose fugue and starts singing bluegrass songs at the top of his lungs." He frowned. "Say, have we met before? You look familiar…"

"Hey look, Sam! It's that electric rat with the sword up his rear from before!" Max the not-Buneary said, poking his head around his friend to see who Sam was talking to. "And that sexy chick who's the same color as me that I'm not supposed to be interested in because I'm not into women despite being married with several children."

"Why, so it is!" Sam realized. "What an amazing coincidence that we should happen to be riding the same train to the same destination in the same car, with our rooms literally right next to each other!"

"I know, right? That'll make it much easier to have a sleepover!" Max agreed. "I call the bed. The chick can take the couch, Sam can sleep at my feet, and the rat can go under the bed where he belongs."

Pikachu and Sasha stared at Sam and Max in dull horror. "It's even worse than I feared," Sasha murmured finally.

Pikachu groaned. "And I dared to hope we'd seen the last of them, too…"

Max took out his gun and pointed it in Pikachu's face. "Okay rodent, speak up! Where'd you stash the cheese you stole?"

"Max, we don't have any cheese," Sam said.

"Exactly, because he took it all!" Max said reasonably, causing Pikachu to facepalm.

"I should have gone with Dawn after all," the samurai groaned.

"Yes," Sasha said apologetically. "You should have."

Meanwhile, in the next car over…

"Wow," Lily said in wonder as she stared out the window at the passing scenery. "Isn't this just beautiful, Leo?"

"Yeah…I had no idea all these channels existed!" Leo, who was watching the wall-mounted crystal ball, said as he eagerly tapped the control rune to flip through the channels, colorful images and magical glyphs flashing through the orb faster than most people's eyes could see. However, Leo, as a skilled channel surfer, had no problem making them out. "I've gotta find a way to upgrade my sunglasses to get these shows! To think that they've been out there all this time and I never knew!" Abruptly, the crystal went dark as Lily hit the power rune. "Hey, I was watching that!"

"Leo, shouldn't we be going to meet Fantina, not watching the crystal ball?" Lily asked.

Leo sighed. "Yeah, I suppose…all right, I guess I can watch TV later. Or is it CV? CBV? Eh, whatever." He grabbed his wimple from where he'd dumped it on the floor, put it on, straightened his robes, and applied some more perfume. "How do I look?"

"Er…sufficient," Lily said, deciding it would be best not to say what she really thought about his appearance. "Let's go."

They left the room and approached the door leading to Fantina's car. Leo frowned, noticing that it was shimmering and there were numerous glowing runes set into its frame. "Great, it's magically sealed, isn't it?"

"Actually, no," Lily said after examining the door for a moment. "These are intent-detection spells. They scan you as you pass through and judge whether you have hostile intentions or not, and let you proceed if you mean no harm."

"Really? I was expecting stronger security than that," Leo said in surprise.

"It seems like strong security to me," Lily said. "This way no assassin could enter the car, because the door would sense their intentions and keep them out."

"Oh…I guess that's true," Leo admitted. "But wouldn't it have been safer still just to key it so that it would only allow specific Pokémon or staff to go through, so no trespassers could enter the car at all?"

"Those kinds of spells can always be tricked by Confusion-inflicting spells or shapeshifting," Lily explained. "While admittedly this form of protection allows more people to go through, the only ones who could are those who have no ill intent towards whoever's in the car, so there's no reason to keep them out."

"…Huh. I guess that makes sense," Leo murmured. "And it's convenient for us, I guess."

"Not to mention they save the really strong spells for the rooms the passengers are staying in," Lily said. "And there'll probably be a few guards."

"Ah. That's a bit more like it," Leo said. "Has to be some ways to keep the crazy fans and vampirophiles away, right?"

"And so Fantina won't constantly be mobbed by all the petitioners who want some of her time," Lily said.

A worried look crossed Leo's face. "Oh…then…will we have problems seeing her?"

"…I really don't know," Lily admitted. "I guess we'll just have to give it a shot, and if that fails, let one of the others give it a try."

"And if that fails, I suppose we could drop the stealth thing and try to be straight about what we're up to with whoever's guarding her door," Leo said reluctantly. "Though I'm not sure if that'll work or be good for us in the long run. After all, we're trying to keep a low profile, and the sudden appearance of eight new witnesses for the big anti-Nihilator hearing isn't really doing that."

"And standing in the hallway talking is?" Lily asked.

Leo chuckled. "Heh, good point. All right, Sister Lilandra, les' go t'see the Duchess!"

Lily smiled. "Right after you, Mother Leonora."

They slid open the door and crossed to the next car. They felt a tingle across their skin as the spells in the doorway washed over them, judging their intent. They hesitated on Leo for a moment, debating whether or not the myriad objects in his shell counted as a threat, but since they couldn't detect any inclination to use any of them in the near future they decided he was probably harmless…but sent a signal to the other security spells to keep an eye on him, just in case. Since all of this transpired in less than a second, Leo and Lily were completely unaware of this as they were granted passage to Fantina's car.

The car's interior looked much like the one they had just come from, but even more lavish if that was possible, since this was where the high-rollers and VIPS usually stayed. Two of the doors leading to passenger quarters were shimmering with a very powerful-looking force field covering them, and the third had several other spells layered over it as well as a uniformed Dusclops and a Kirlia in a maid's outfit standing on either side. The Dusclops stared at them with a bloodshot suspicious eye. "If you wish to get the Mistress's autograph, you can wait until dinner. She will be feasting in the dining car with the other passengers…much to my disapproval…"

The Kirlia shrugged. "Well, she's a people Pokémon. She doesn't like being cooped up in one place away from everyone else very much…even if it would be safer…"

"We aren't here for autographs," Lily said.

"Actually-" Leo started, until Lily shot a glare at him. He coughed. "I mean, thas' right, we got other business ta attend to."

"If you want the vampires' autographs, you can't get those either," the Dusclops said.

"Or give them any of your blood, or ask to be their minions, or for them to convert you into one of them," the Kirlia added with a tone that implied people had been coming in to ask her about that all day. "They're sleeping, and are not to be disturbed."

"Ooh, in coffins?" Leo asked.

"No, in beds, like civilized Pokémon," the Ducslops said with a sniff.

"With the curtains drawn, and the windows opaqued," the Kirlia said.

"Oh," Leo said in disappointment.

"We aren't here to see the vampires, either," Lily said. Before Leo could open his mouth, she added, "We were hoping to speak to the Duchess regarding an important matter."

"No petitioners," the Dusclops said in a bored tone.

The Kirlia nodded in agreement. "She's had enough of those for the day, too."

Leo hesitated. "Er, not even some sweet ol' Sisters who just wanna grow some flowers?"

"It's for a good cause," Lily said helpfully.

"They always are," the Dusclops said, unimpressed.

"Then again, flowers are rather innocuous…" the Kirlia murmured. "Should I…"

"No, the Duchess said no more petitioners, and that's final," the Dusclops said.

"Well, then it's a good thing we ain't petitioners, right Sister Lilandra? "Leo said loudly.

Lily blinked. "Huh? Oh, uh, that's right, Mother Leonora. We're…um…"

"Gift-bearers!" Leo held out the basket of Gracidea flowers. "A whole basket of big bloomin' Gracidea flowers, ta show our thanks for Duchess Fantina's recent and most generous donation from everyone back at the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea!"

The Duclops glanced at the Kirlia. "Did the Mistress make a donation to the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea recently? She does that sort of thing so often it's hard to keep track of all the charities she contributes to."

The Kirlia frowned. "Let me check. Keep your eye on them, Butler."

"Of course," the Dusclops said as the Kirlia touched the door, causing the various spells on it to shimmer and dissipate. The door slid open, allowing the maid entry, then closed behind her, the spells reactivating to secure the portal. The Dusclops settled down to stare imposingly at them, causing Leo and Lily to fidget as the Beckon Pokémon fixed its eerie unflinching gaze on them.

"So…your name is Butler? You've got tha same name as your job, hun? That's kinda unusual, ain't it?" Leo asked awkwardly to break the silence.

"Actually, the job is named after me," Butler said. "Or rather, my family. The Butlers were the very first Pokémon to serve as monservants to the most wealthy and powerful individuals in the world. We defined our jobs through countless years of faithful and efficient service and unswerving loyalty to the point that eventually the roles we performed were named after us. Now whenever you see someone who claims to be a butler, they are indirectly paying homage to us, the origin of that title."

"Whoa. Cool," said an impressed Leo.

"And is your counterpart called Maid, from a family whose name wound up defining their job, too?" Lily asked.

"No, her name's Diane," Butler said.

The spells on the door dissipated and the Kirlia in question stepped back out, the enchantments reenergizing once she was back in the corridor. "The Mistress is fairly certain she already received a basket of Gracideas from the Sisterhood just last week, but her daughters are rather partial to the flowers, so she will accept your gift. I advised against it, but she seems determined to receive them in person rather than by proxy." Diane sighed. "The Mistress seems to have a habit of making our duty of protecting her more difficult than it needs to be…"

"We get to meet the Duchess in person, then?" Lily asked, both excited that their plan was working…and worried about what would happen when she met her mother's nemesis face-to-face.

"Yes," Diane said, the look on her face suggesting she wished otherwise. "However, the Mistress is a very busy womon, so I will accompany you to make sure you do not waste too much of her or the Lady Bow's time. If you try to pull something funny or—heaven forbid—ask either of them for an autograph or their ectoplasmic tendril in marriage, I will not hesitate to remove you from the room by force. Is that clear?"

"As crystal, hun," Leo assured her.

"We promise not to make a ruckus," Lily said, although privately she wondered if they would be able to fulfill that oath. "And you don't have to worry about us making marriage proposals, both of us are female." Leo blushed but said nothing at this.

"That hasn't exactly stopped anyone in the past," Valerie said flatly. "Very well. Come with me." Once again, the Kirlia dispelled the barrier, but this time she held the door open long enough for Leo and Lily to follow her inside.

Leo was immediately envious. He'd thought their own room was nice, but Fantina's was absolutely palatial, at least the size of the first floor of his house back in Turtle Town, with magnificent statues and paintings that seemed to move (and probably did) as he looked at them, wallpaper of a rippling pattern of interwoven magical signs that made him feel sleepy as he looked at them, a chandelier, a marble fountain, a massive canopy bed with beautiful privacy curtains, a crystal ball big enough for a person to fit in, a hot tub… Dude, how come she gets all the cool stuff? Leo complained. Well…other than being one of the richest and most powerful sorceresses in the world, that is…

There were two Ghosts occupying the room. One was an extremely pretty Drifloon with a pair of bows on either side of her head with bells dangling from them, and the other was a very beautiful gold-skinned Mismagius. The heads of the noble spirits turned as Leo and Lily approached, Diane curtsying and making introductions. "Miladies Bow and Duchess Fantina, I am pleased to present…er, what were your names again?"

"Mother Leonora and Sister Lilandra of the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea, sugah, and we're plumb happy to meet you!" Leo said exuberantly. He lifted the basket. "And we brought you gifts…some lovely flowers for a pair of lovely ladies!"

"Oooh, Gracideas! My favorite! Merci, dames!" Bow said as she rose from her seat by the great crystal ball and floated over, eagerly picking some of the flowers from the basket and sniffing them. "Ahhhh…tres magnifique!"

"We're very glad you like them," Lily said.

"As am I!" Bow chirped happily.

"Merci. Zank you very much for ze flowers," Fantina said graciously as she floated over to them from the windows on the far side of the room, the beautiful landscape rushing by as the train thundered across the plains. "Is zere anyzing I can do for you in return?"

"Mistress!" Diane said in alarm.

"Detendez, Diane. Zey deserve a little somezing for making my daughter smile," Fantina said as Bow happily wove the flowers into a circlet to wear on her head.

"It's funny you mentioned that, Your Grace, because there was a little somethin' we were hopin' we could talk to you about-" Leo started.

Fantina stiffened, focusing her gaze on Lily and causing the Misdreavus to flinch back in alarm. "Wait. Somezing…somezing is not right 'ere…somezing about you seems…familiar…" She gasped, eyes widening in alarm. "Bellum!"

Diane stiffened and Bow started and dropped her flowers. "Oh crap," Leo groaned.

"W-wait, it's not what you-" Lily started, only to be cut off when Fantina's eyes flashed and a tremendous wave of force knocked her and Leo into the air, slamming them into the walls and pinning them in place.

"Do not lie to me! I can smell 'er magic on you…Bellum's taint!" Fantina snarled angrily, flames bursting into life around her and giving her the appearance of a terrifying wraith as Diane and Bow scurried to get to a safe distance. "I don't know 'ow you managed to fool ze defense spells, but whatever Bellum offered you will not be enough to save you from my wrath for daring to try and 'urt my daughter and I!"

"W-wait! It's not like that! We have nothing to do with Bellum!" Leo protested.

"Non? Zen tell me why I can sense her magic! Answer me! Who are you, really? Because I 'ighly doubt zat you are really members of ze Sisterhood!" Fantina yelled.

"Actually, we both are, and I have the online certificate to prove it," Leo said, rummaging in his shell and pulling out a piece of paper. "See? Says so right here."

Fantina ignored him. "Well? Who are you?" she demanded of Lily, flames engulfing her and turning her lovely countenance into a demonic visage.

"L-Lily!" Lily cried, so terrified that she was on the verge of tears.

Fantina hesitated. "Que? Lily? Lily Yuki'imi?"

"Y-y-yes!" Lily stammered in fright.

The flames diminished, causing her to look normal again. "Lily Yuki'imi…as in, ze daughter of my worst enemy, Bellum, ze evilest witch alive or dead?"

Lily swallowed and nodded, expecting something horrible to happen to her at any moment. She knew this had been a bad idea. "Yes."

"Ze daughter who recently managed to escape from Bellum's clutches and find safety in ze ranks of a group of 'eroes opposed to 'er and ze evil she works for?" Fantina pressed.

Lily blinked. That had not been a question she had expected. "…Yes?"

"I see. Incroyable," Fantina said. She floated forwards. Lily flinched, expecting to feel terrible pain from the rightfully angry sorceress at any moment…

And was astonished when she found herself wrapped in a hug, ectoplasmic tendrils emerging from under Fantina's hat to envelop Lily in a warm, compassionate embrace. "J'ai pensé que ce jour ne viendrait jamais…Lily…you 'ave no idea 'ow long I 'ave wanted to meet you," Fantina said, closing her eyes and pressing her forehead to Lily's.

"You…you have? Why?" Lily asked in surprise.

"To rescue you, naturellement. Did you zink I was unaware of 'ow your mozzer was treating you? Of ze 'orrible zings she did to you, and made you do?" Fantina asked.

"I…to be honest, I didn't know you even knew I existed," said the astounded Lily.

"Of course I knew! I try my best to know everyzing Bellum does," Fantina insisted. She sighed, looking dejected. "Not well enough, zhough, if she was able to do so much wizout my noticing…if she was able to join a group trying to resurrect ze Ruler of Evil, and I never even knew…" She opened her eyes and fixed Lily with her gaze. "But believe you me, Lily, once I became aware of you, I never stopped searching for you. I looked everywhere, searching 'igh and low, seeking Bellum out wherever she went, 'oping and seeking and desperately trying to find 'er true lair. I never did, zhough, and I 'ope you can forgive me, Lily…for not being zere when you needed me. For not saving you sooner. Je suis si désolé."

"But…but I don't understand," Lily said, shocked and bewildered. "You…you expended so much effort for me, even though we'd never met? Even though I'm the daughter of your worst enemy? You tried so hard to rescue me…why?"

"Because, it's zanks in part to me zat you even exist," Fantina said.

Lily blinked. "What? I don't understand."

"Did you never zink it odd zat Bellum would 'ave a daughter of ze same species and elemental specialty as her worst enemy?" Fantina asked, conjuring a fireball. "While I'm sure Bellum 'ad a sinister arcane purpose in creating you…ze reason you are ze way you are is because…she shaped you in my image."

Lily's eyes widened in astonishment. "What?"

"Mes excuses. Allow me to explain. When Bellum and I were younger, we naturally went to all ze same schools and social events, since we were bozz from noble families. 'Owever, Bellum was next in line for ze position of Duchess of Fichina, while I was from a somewhat lesser family, and she lorded zat position over me, believing it gave her ze excuse to belittle and bully me, confident zat nobody would stop 'er…and ze sad zing is, she was right. While 'er mozzer, ze Duchess of ze time, was a fair womon, she was a little…in denial when it came to 'er daughter's indiscretions, and got razzer angry whenever anyone suggested zat Bellum was anyzing less zan perfect. Zankfully, zat is not a practice I share wiz my own children, is zat not right, Bow?" Fantina asked.

"Non, Mama," Bow said, sounding slightly resentful about this.

"Mother was stronger than you?" Lily asked in amazement. But Fantina was the greatest sorceress in the world, someone who drove Bellum into an apoplexy whenever her name was mentioned. How could she have once been inferior to Bellum?

Fantina smirked. "Non, I was ze stronger one. I excelled in magic and always got better grades zan 'er. Zat is why she singled me out to torment, naturally…'er inflated sense of pride could not comprehend zat someone from a lesser family could possibly be more powerful zan 'er, ze next Duchess, so she bullied me to make 'erself feel superior. And zere wasn't really anyzing I could do about it, since if I fought back, Bellum could just tell 'er mozzer, and create un désordre d'ennuifor my family."

"Oh my…yes, that does sound like something Mother would do," Lily said.

"When she went to ze dark side, zhough, and murdered her family, I no longer 'ad to 'old back, and assisted ze mages who defeated and banished 'er from Fichina. As a result, my family was elevated to take ze place of ze Yuki'imis and I was groomed to be ze next Duchess." She smirked. "So in a very real way, I would not 'ave gotten to where I am now if it weren't for your mozzer."

"Really," Lily agreed in wonder. "It's no wonder she hates you so much…I'm glad I wasn't unborn then, she would have been furious!"

"But as I said, it is because of me zat you are as you are, and Bellum treated you ze way she did," Fantina said sadly. "Since she found 'erself unable to beat me in our various clashes over ze years, boz professional and combative, when she became pregnant wiz you, she used 'er magic to shape your still-malleable ectoplasm so you would be a Misdreavus…a Misdreavus just like I was."

Lily gasped, finally understanding. "And she threw my egg into fire so I would be unborn with the power of flame, your specialty! Then…Mother made me like this because…"

"Because she 'ated me so much zat even 'urting me in effigy would 'ave been good enough for 'er," Fantina said sadly. "And you were zat effigy, Lily. Whenever she tortured you, whenever she beat you or cursed you or did experiments on you…she always pretended it was me zat she was grinding into ze dust."

"Then…then that's why…that's why she was always so cruel to me…" Lily whispered.

"Well, zat and because she's in general a very mechant person who is incapable of feeling love for anyone," Fantina said. "I imagine zat now zat you're gone, she 'as to find someone else to take 'er anger out on…I wonder if she ever asks zat Ditto of 'ers to take on my appearance?" She sighed. "Zat poor zing. And 'e zinks 'e's actually benefiting by associating wiz Bellum…"

Lily mulled this over for a moment. "Then…what you're saying is…is that even if I had done what it was Mother created me to do, even if I was as evil as she wanted…she would still have hated me, because…"

"Because whenever she looked at you, she saw me," Fantina confirmed. She closed her eyes in sadness. "I am so sorry, Lily. When I found out what you were, what Bellum did wiz you, I knew I 'ad to find you, to save you. But I failed, and because of it you suffered 'orribly. You suffered because of me." She looked away. "Now zat you know ze truzz…zat it is because of your mozzer's vendetta wiz me zat you are ze way you are, zat she has 'urt you all zese years…you must 'ate me for being ze source of your torment."

"…Fantina, I don't hate you," Lily said. She was still reeling from this rather disturbing revelation, but she was sure enough of herself to know this.

Fantina looked at her in surprise. "Que?"

Lily smiled. "Mother made me in the image of you, her greatest enemy…and in doing so doomed herself, because I'm her enemy now too, and if you have been able to best her for so long, then that means I must have the power to do so as well."

Fantina stared at her in astonishment, then burst into surprised laughter. "Oui, oui, so you do, so you do!" the Mismagius declared. "I shall teach you as much as I can, zen, so zat when next you run into your mozzer…"

"My resemblance to you will be more than just superficial?" Lily finished. "I…I think I would like that very much."

Fantina stared at her adoringly. "Comme je, Lily. Comme je." She hugged her again.

Diane blinked and scratched her head. "Huh," she said. "I certainly didn't expect this much drama from a simple flower delivery."

"Does zis mean I 'ave a new sister now or somezing?" asked the confused Bow.

"Well, this was all really sweet and shed light on a ton of fascinating backstory, but…can somebody get me down from here?" Leo, who was still pinned to the wall, shouted.

Fantina started and burst into embarrassed laughter. "Oh! Mes excuses." She waved an ectoplasmic tendril, and Leo fell to the ground. "I am so sorry…I was so caught up wizz Lily I forgot you were even zere! Lily, could you introduce me to your friend?"

Lily nodded. "Of course. This is Leo…my…'significant other?' Is that the right term?"

"Yep," Leo said as he brushed himself off.

Fantina blinked. "Oh, so you swing zat way? Well, I've dabbled once or twice myself, so I suppose I'm not one to-"

"I'm a guy," Leo said, taking off his wimple.

"Oh. Mes excuses," Fantina apologized.

"…Why are you dressed as a nun?" asked the very confused Bow.

"Part of a cunning disguise, no doubt," Diane said, clearly thinking there was nothing cunning about it.

"That, and I really am a high-ranking member of the Sisterhood of the Bountiful Gracidea," Leo said proudly.

They all stared at him blankly. "…Que?" Fantina asked finally.

Leo threw up his hands in exasperation. "Why does everyone keep reacting that way? Arceus! What, a guy can't get in touch with his feminine side or something?"

Wisely, none of them said a thing.

Meanwhile, in the storage car…

Moju, a Tangrowth conductor, whistled to himself as he walked through the aisles of the storage car, performing an inventory of the train's cargo and luggage. He examined each crate and suitcase and container, checking it off on his cargo manifest to indicate that everything was there and accounted for. As he expected, there were no irregularities…

Except for a plain and unassuming crate nestled between a box of spare blankets and a case holding several of the Duchess Fantina's spare dresses. Frowning to himself, Moju glanced at the list on his clipboard, then back at the crate, noting with growing alarm that there was no label or glowing magical indicator to signify that it had been loaded on the train and put down in the official record.

In other words…it was something that didn't belong. Worried, he touched a rune-embossed pin on his uniform. "Security, this is Moju in the storage car. I've found a crate that doesn't appear on the cargo manifest. I don't think it's supposed to be here."

"Have you touched it or performed any scans?" a voice spoke from out of the pin.

"No," Moju said.

"Good. Keep it that way. We'll be down to investigate in just a minute. It's probably nothing, but we can't take any precautions considering our passengers," the voice said.

"Roger," said Moju, some of his anxiety ebbing away now that he knew someone else was coming to take care of this problem. That anxiety returned, however, when he heard a loud thump from inside the crate. His heart skipped a beat. "H-hello?" There was another thump, and another, as something hit the side of the crate from within. Not strong enough to knock it over or visibly shake it, but enough for Moju to hear it. Sweat rolling down his numerous tendrils, the Tangrowth tapped his pin again. "Security, status update on the crate. There's something in there. Something alive. And it wants to get out."

"Hold your position. We're on our way. Don't touch it, cast any spells, or so much as breathe at it until we get there, understand?"

"Roger," Moju said nervously.

His poor nerves took another bad hit when he heard a frail, weak voice from inside the crate. "H-hello? Is…is there somebody out there?"

"Wh-who are you? What are you doing in there?" Moju demanded, trying not to panic.

"I…I don't know…where am I? It's so dark…and it hurts so much…ohhh…ohhhhhh…" the voice moaned in pain. "Please…please help me…h-help me…"

Moju frantically tapped his pin. "Security, another status update. The thing in the crate's a Pokémon. It…it sounds like it's in pain…"

"Moju, do NOT do anything! We'll be there shortly! Hold your position, and no matter what you hear, DON'T LISTEN!" the voice ordered.

Moju swallowed. "R-roger…"

"Please…please…aaaaahhhhh…" the voice wailed, before starting to cough. "I…I can't breathe…the air is running out…" The thuds turned into scrapes as whatever was inside desperately clawed at the sides of the crate. "Help…h-help me, please…I can't…I'm choking…" The voice caught off with a gasp, degenerating into an alarming series of coughs, wheezes, and what sounded an awful lot like throwing up. "Ohhhh…"

Moju tapped his pin. "Security, the thing's-"

"MOJU, FOR THE LOVE OF ARCEUS, DON'T DO ANYTHING! FOR THE LAST TIME, DON'T TOUCH THE CRATE!" the voice shouted.

Moju swallowed. "B-but…"

"DO! NOT! TOUCH! THE! CRATE!" the voice bellowed.

Moju moaned. "R-r-roger…"

The clawing noises grew more frantic. "No…no, no, no, no, no! *cough* Let me *cough* out! L-l-let *cough* *cough* *cough* me…ou-" The clawing slowed down, weakened, and finally went silent.

Moju's heart stopped. "Hello?" There was no response. "Hello?" There was no response. Moju reached for his pin…and lowered his hand with a groan. "Oh, Abyss, I just know I'm going to regret this." He rushed over to the crate, gripped the lid with all his might, and pulled it off. Surprisingly, it wasn't nailed on or even sealed, so it came off so easily that he nearly fell over backwards from the overexertion. Placing the lid on the ground and wondering briefly why the crate's occupant hadn't just climbed out (perhaps it was too small, or hurt?) he peered into the container, straining to see what was inside. "Hello? Are you in there?" he shouted into the darkness. "Are you all right?"

"I am now that you're here…sucker!" the voice shouted.

Moju blinked. "Sucker? What do you-" A wave of pink slime engulfed his vision, and then he knew no more.

A few minutes later, a Haunter and a Grumpig entered the car. "Moju? We're here. Sorry we took so long, one of the passengers was arguing with the chef and causing a big mess in the dining car, and we had to break it up. What's happened?" the Grumpig asked the waiting Tangrowth as he and his partner approached.

"Nothing much," Moju said. "The voice from the crate stopped talking a little while ago, and all sounds from inside went quiet. I was tempted to look inside, but I've heard the stories of what happens to guys like me who open suspicious boxes and get their brains splattered across several continents by a curse, so I decided to leave it alone."

"Good mon," the Grumpig said. He closed his eyes and mentally scanned the crate. "It's clear," he said. "I don't detect any spells or life signs of any kind."

"Oh no…did the thing die?" Moju asked in horror. "And I could have helped it, but…"

"Don't be so hasty to jump to conclusions," the Grumpig said. He nodded at the Haunter, who went intangible and passed through the side of the crate.

The Ghost came back out a moment later, holding a tape recorder. "Look at what I found," he said, pushing 'Play' and causing the tape to start.

There were some loud thumping noises, and then a frail, weak voice saying, "H-hello? Is…is there somebody out there?"

Moju blinked. "Wait a minute…you mean this was all some sort of hoax?"

"Looks that way," the Haunter said, angrily crushing the machine in his claw. "Some stupid prank to make us jumpy…as if we didn't have enough to worry about already!"

"We'll start investigations to see what idiot thought it would be funny to pull something like this," the Grumpig said. "Probably a waste of time, considering how we have so many other more important matters to deal with regarding our passengers' safety, but we can't let someone who thinks it's a bright idea to mess with our heads in such a heightened state of emergency go unpunished."

"Dang…gee, I'm sorry for wasting your time, guys," Moju apologized.

"No big deal, you were just doing your job, like we were doing ours," the Grumpig said.

The Haunter nodded. "And at least you had the common sense to call us rather than checking things out yourself. Yeah, it was nothing…this time…but next time we might not be so lucky."

The Tangrowth shuddered. "I hope there isn't a next time. Thanks for the help, guys."

"No problem," the Grumpig said. "Keep up the good work, and we'll do the same."

They left. And once they were gone…

The Tangrowth narrowed his eyes and chuckled to himself. "Heheheh. Suckers." He reached into the vines covering his body and pulled out an eerily glowing vial. "And now that I'm here, and nobody suspects me…it's time to put Bellum's plan into action. Fantina, you've shown her up for the last time! Gyahahahaha!"

Meanwhile, in Pokémon Square…

In the few days since the victory at Mt. Blaze, life had, for the most part, returned to normal. The few hundred ex-prisoners and slaves of the barbarians the heroic Rescue Teams and Draconian soldiers had rescued from the barbarians were slowly but surely regaining their health and starting to realize that this wasn't a dream, this wasn't a trick, that they were in fact free now, and their saviors weren't going to do anything bad to them. Naturally, there were several who were still utterly terrified and convinced it was all a trick, but considering the emotional scarring they'd all gone through during their long and traumatic captivity, this was understandable.

However, while the liberation of the prisoners was universally seen as a good thing, what to do with them all was another. There wasn't really room enough in town to keep them all. Even though several conscientious citizens had opened up their homes to the refugees, the sheer amount of recovering Pokémon far outnumbered these residences. They couldn't be installed in camps and settlements outside the town walls because they were still expecting that big siege to happen any day now, and they weren't really in any condition to be released back into the wild (although quite a few of the more claustrophobic and civilization-fearing Pokémon insisted that they were fine, and they'd really like to go home now, please, before they started screaming and chewing on the walls). Some of the refugees had been amenable to being relocated to Imperial-run wildlife preserves and cities on other continents, but many refused to go anywhere but back to their original homes in the Kanjohenn wilderness, ignoring protests that those homes probably didn't exist anymore and that they'd just get snatched up by another bunch of barbarians if they went out unprotected. The Draconians had been forced to keep the majority of the Pokémon housed in new annexes that were hurriedly grafted onto the sides of the Sky Tower in an attempt to keep them accommodated until something more permanent could be done, and while their settings were luxurious, there were still frequent complaints about being cooped up indoors which was supposedly unnatural for any Pokémon and many fears that they were going to fall through the cloudstuff making up their temporary homes and plummet to their deaths.

Feeding all these liberated Pokémon was also a bit of a problem. While both Pokémon Square and the Sky Tower had quite a lot of food stocked up in their vast storehouses, it wasn't enough to keep the townsPokémon, Draconians, and the refugees' bellies full for very long. Imperial supply shuttles flew in several times a day to drop off much-needed food and medicine, but even then there were worries it wouldn't be enough. The fact that most of the farmland and plains outside the town walls had been pretty much leveled to make room for training grounds for the Imperial forces and landing strips for the vessels too big to dock at and unload their cargo at the Sky Tower also garnered many complaints from the townsPokémon, who were beginning to wonder if the Imperial capitol's supposedly temporary anchoring over their town to protect them from the barbarian hordes was going to become a bit more permanent. Were they being turned into an addition to the Empire after all, without any say in the matter?

None of these worries could be seen by anyone by Latias, however, from where she and her brother were sitting on the cliff next to the Pelipper post office. From there, all they could see was the magnificent vista of the town, the majestic floating cloud palace hovering over it, and regular Pokémon bustling about their everyday lives. "It's this sort of thing that I work for," Latias commented.

"What?" Latios said in confusion.

"Ordinary people able to live their lives without having to worry about being destroyed by some horrible threat," Latias explained.

"But they are worried about being destroyed by some horrible threat," Latios pointed out. "I mean, my Psychic powers aren't as good as yours…now…but I can still tell how much everyone's afraid, deep down. Which is probably why Mrs. Thunderblade is so determinedly pushing that marriage plan of hers forward, to get everyone's minds off of what's going on, and the problems we still have to face in the future."

Latias nodded. "She certainly has a way of convincing people to do what she wants. It should be interesting, don't you think?"

After seeing that not everyone was one hundred percent pleased with the way things were going, the joy of their triumph over Gal's forces fading as the reality of the consequences of their actions became more clear, Mrs. Ketchum had decided what they needed to cheer everyone up was a wedding. Not enough engaged couples—including her sons—were in town for her to go ahead with the enormous multiple wedding she believed they should have once the crisis was all over, but she saw no reason they couldn't hold a preliminary wedding that would be but a pale shadow of the grand celebration she had in store for later. Since Delia always got in a rather terrifying state of mind whenever she'd decided it was time for someone to get married whether they liked it or not, most people had decided to just sit back and go with the flow, since those who tried to argue with her found themselves Miltanked into submission by Delia's surprisingly effective passive-aggressive arguments and bribes of excellent food. As a result, by the end of the week the couples of Nuken and Missy (Nuken insisted they get wed right away once he found out Missy was pregnant, not wanting his child to be born out of wedlock. Missy had been more than happy to comply.) Zeke and Sylvia (who were so relieved that the Zangoose had survived the last major engagement that they had no objections to pushing up their wedding date a little), Goku and Ete (who thought it high time they formalize their relationship and figured that in the process they could prove themselves as civilized Pokémon and earn some respect from those who still did not quite trust them), and Zoro and Rosa (who had protested that they wanted to be married back in their home village, but were very quickly shown the error of their ways). Delia had tried to bully Wes and Rui into joining the fun, but the Espeon had managed to resist her mind games, so she shrugged it off and figured she'd get another chance to push them together once the final battle had been won. And besides, a bunch of other couples whose names will not be mentioned had also decided (eventually) it would be a good idea to get married, so it wasn't as if she was at a dearth for people to pair together.

"I'm surprised you and Rayquaza aren't going to get hitched then," Latios said snidely.

"We…aren't quite at that stage in our relationship yet," Latias said.

Latios blinked. "Huh? But I thought-"

"It's complicated," Latias said vaguely. "And besides, something like that would probably go over a lot better once Rayquaza is restored to his true form."

"Heh. Yeah, I guess so," Latios admitted reluctantly. "Would be kind of funny to see you two side by side at the altar as he is now, though."

Latias smiled. "Probably, which is no doubt why Nuken won't allow it. He's kind of a tightwad, isn't he?"

Latios laughed. "Yeah, totally." They smiled at each other…and then Latios sighed and looked away. "I miss this."

"Miss what?" Latias asked.

"You, me, being able to talk about stuff. Not having to worry about destiny or the fate of the world or stuff like that. Just…being able to talk as brother and sister," Latios said.

She gently put an arm on his. "We're talking now."

"Yeah?" he asked, jerking his arm away. "Where's the intimacy? Where's the closeness? You say we're still brother and sister, Latias. You say I'm still important. Then why am I still shut out of your head? You can see everything in my mind…but I can't see a thing in yours. Does that sound fair to you?"

Latias sighed. "Brother…"

"I miss you, Latias. You're right in front of me…I can see you, I can touch you…but I can't…I can't feel you in here anymore," Latios said miserably, touching his head and his heart. "I can't hear your thoughts, I can't feel your emotions, and I can't even see the things you see. Why'd you do it, Latias? Why've you locked me out?"

"To protect you," she said.

"Protect me? From what?" Latios demanded.

"My mind, it's…it's different now. There are things in here that mortal eyes aren't really meant to see," Latias said apologetically.

"Mortal? I'm your brother! And a god too!" Latios retorted angrily.

"Demigod," she corrected him gently.

"Whatever! What's in there that's so horrible you can't even trust your own brother enough to see it?" Latios demanded.

"It's not horrible," she said, looking offended. "It's not horrible at all. If anything, it's the exact opposite. I'm worried that even touching it would cause you to be overwhelmed by the, the sheer beauty of it all…the music of the spheres, the radiance of the Celestial Heavens, the grand web that binds all things together, the indescribable magnificence that is Arceus, the One and Creator of us all…the only reason I can comprehend all this without it breaking my mind is because I'm a god high up enough to truly understand how everything fits together. For everyone else, even lesser deities, though…it's all so big and bright and wonderful that they just can't handle it. It's not that I don't trust you, Latios…it's just that I'm afraid that by letting you in, you would be consumed completely, letting your mind go so to better be a part of it all." There was also the fact that if he looked into her mind, she was worried he'd see her memories of what he'd done in his last life before the Omniverse had been born…and of the things he'd done. That was one of the few things, if any, that she had made sure the Guardian of Hope would never, ever learn. Some truths were just too painful.

This explanation did far from mollify Latios, however. "So that's it, huh? I'm…I'm too stupid and weak and insignificant to look into your mind, is that it?"

"Latios! No, it's not like that at all!" she protested.

"I'm just too damn mortal to possibly be able to understand you now, aren't I?" he asked angrily. "You've become so powerful that, even incomplete as you are, we're still less than Bugs compared to your oh-so-great divinity!"

"You're not Bugs!" Latias snapped. "I love you! I love all of you!"

"Yeah? As people, or as pets? Things to care for but never really connect with, just pat them on the head and give them a treat when they do as you please?" he sneered. "We're nothing more than playthings for people like you!"

"If you had any understanding of how things really work, you wouldn't even say something as stupid as that," Latias said, upset.

"Then make me understand!" Latios yelled.

She nodded. "All right."

Latios blinked. "Just like that?"

"Of course. All you ever had to do was ask," Latias said.

"No, I mean, this isn't one of those big things you said I wouldn't be able to comprehend?" asked the confused Latios.

"No, it's a medium-sized thing you can comprehend," Latias said kindly. "You're right, there are gods who view mortals as insects or playthings. They generally don't last long."

"Why not?" Latios asked.

"Because they fail to understand the true nature of the relationship between the mundane and the divine. Do you know what that is, Latios?" Latias asked.

"Uh…you guys need us for energy from prayer or belief or something, and we need you for…" Latios frowned. "What do we need you for?"

"Stability. Protection. A justified belief that somewhere out there, there is an order and purpose to all things," Latias said.

"I dunno. Seems to me we've done pretty fine on our own," Latios said skeptically.

Latias smiled. "Which is a sign that we're doing our jobs properly. When we're working at peak efficiency, few if any people notice all the disasters that fail to occur, the crimes that don't happen, the wars that don't break out, because it's not exactly easy to spot something that never took place, right?"

"I…guess," Latios said. "But lots of bad stuff's happening now, so doesn't that mean somebody up there's slacking off?"

She frowned. "More like we've got too much work and not enough people to do it. Same old story for law enforcement everywhere, even in the Heavens."

Latios grimaced. "Should I be reassured or disturbed by that?"

She shrugged. "It's up to you. Just like you, we try our best to make sure everything works right. Sometimes it doesn't, which is sad, but inevitable. The Omniverse isn't perfect, and neither are we."

"Well, I'm glad you can admit that much," Latios said. "But why is it imperfect then? And don't give me that TS about free will or things being better by being imperfect, because I doubt the Pokémon we freed from Mt. Blaze will like hearing that they were imprisoned and tortured because things are better off that way."

"It's the party line, but the truth is even we don't know why it's that way," Latias admitted. "There's plenty of people who think Arceus could have done things a little better, but we figure he must have had his reasons, and he'll clue us in on them…eventually."

"What if there isn't?" Latios asked pessimistically.

"There is," Latias insisted. "Your senses aren't fine-tuned enough, but…to someone like me, someone who can see the inner workings of reality…it's clear that, bit by bit, we're working towards something big. Something wonderful. We don't know what it is or when it'll happen, but we have to trust that when it does happen eventually, everything up to that point will have been worth it."

"Huh. Guess even gods have to believe in something, huh?" Latios murmured.

"It's that or buy too much into our own supposed omnipotence, which rarely ends well," Latias said. "Anyway, that's part of why those of us who understand the way things work don't look down on you or see you as playthings. Despite our differences, we're all cogs in the great machine that is the Omniverse, and the way we interact with each other affects everything, big or small, near or far, from one end of reality to the other. Some cogs are just a little bigger than others, that's all."

"Ah, and that's supposed to make me feel better about feeling smaller and less important than you?" Latios asked bitterly.

"In the great machine of life, we are all of equal importance. And besides, you're actually luckier than you think to be a little cog," Latias said.

Latios blinked. "Uh, how?"

"Would you believe me if I told you that a lot of gods are secretly jealous of mortals?" Latias asked. "I'm not, but that's partly because I enjoy my job and I regularly incarnate as a mortal, so I get the best of both worlds. Not every deity gets that privilege, though."

Latios frowned. "Why would they possibly be envious of us? We're smaller, weaker, and live shorter, often pointless and painful lives. And don't tell me something stupid like how mortality is the greatest gift of all, because we both know that's ridiculous."

Latias nodded in agreement. "Of course it is. There's a reason all living things strive for immortality. We know in our souls it's how we're supposed to be, but most of us haven't gotten bodies capable of perfectly fitting our eternal spirits."

"Then if it's not that, why do the gods envy us?" Latios asked.

"Because you have freedom," Latias said.

Latios blinked. "…Wait, what?"

"Our power, our positions…it comes with a price. We're bound by laws that mean we can only use our abilities in certain situations and ways. We're defined by our roles, rather than the other way around. We…we can't really be anything more than what we are now," she said. "Change is possible, but only incrementally. Attempts to go beyond that can lead to madness, or worse…becoming something like Giratina. A fallen deity, who only seeks to destroy rather than create, betraying everything she is out of anger and bitterness. Mortals, on the other hand…" She smiled and glanced at him. "You have unlimited potential. You have limits, just as we do, but while we can rarely if ever surpass ours, you never stop testing your boundaries, looking for ways to become more than you are. Your ingenuity and curiosity allows you to go beyond the roles that fate seems to deal you, and more often than not even we gods have been astounded by the sorts of things you're capable of when you really try. There have been many times when some of us have begun to lose faith in mortalkind, wondering why Arceus saw fit to create you when all you seem to be capable of is fighting and causing strife to each other. And then one of you has an inspiration, a literal divine spark that can set a fire that changes the world…and reminds us of how special you really are." She chuckled at the stunned look on Latios's face. "As I said before, even gods need something to believe in. I have seen some of the worst things any being, mortal or immortal, is capable of…as well as the best, things that seem even more beneficial and useful than the best efforts of the Guardians. And as a result, I choose to believe in you."

Latios blinked, astounded as he tried to process this. "That's…that's just…wow."

"I know. Blows your mind, doesn't it?" Latias asked with a gentle smile.

He nodded. "Yeah, really. But…" He sagged. "That still doesn't make me feel any less insignificant. I understand what you're saying, about how we have more leeway in choosing our own path, but…it seems to me like that path is taking me away from you. We're no longer equals, not even close. I can no longer protect you. I can't even function on your level anymore. I'm no longer privy to your innermost thoughts and feelings because apparently they're so…big they'd destroy me. And yet…" He clenched his fists. "And yet…you're going to be able to share all that with him."

"Rayquaza," Latias said.

Latios nodded, too upset to look at her. "I know he's really a nice guy. I'm even starting to like him in spite of myself. We…kind of bonded out on the battlefield. He's not the pampered royal jerk I thought he was. He's willing to risk himself for his people. I…I kind of respect that, and think I see why his subjects love him so much, even though he still seems to lack confidence in himself."

"Thank you for protecting him during the fight, by the way," Latias said. "You were able to be there for him when I wasn't. I'm very grateful to you."

Latios blushed. "Yeah, well…I did it for you, not for him."

"I know. And I'm grateful anyway," she said, causing his blush to deepen. "And as for the self-confidence thing, we're working on that."

"Yeah," Latios said somewhat resentfully. "That's what I'm afraid of. You and Rayquaza…you two have an awesome destiny together. You're both bigshot gods, and you'll probably be even bigger once you get your full powers. And where's that gonna leave me? You'll both go off to your happy ending ruling the world or empire or whatever, and…" He sagged. "And I'll still be here. Just regular old Latios, same as always…all alone…"

"Brother," she said, eyes full of compassion as she touched his shoulder. "Don't be silly. We'd never leave you behind."

"Oh, even better! I get to come with you and be the third wheel to your relationship!" Latios said sarcastically. "Yeah, I can see that…Latias and Rayquaza, the great and holy dragon gods…and their tagalong brother, Latios. Whoopee."

"Is that what you really think of yourself?" Latias asked in exasperation. "That our fates are really so dissimilar?"

"How can I not? You and Rayquaza being together is all the Draconians seem to talk about. The two of you have reincarnated constantly together, supposedly one of the Omniverse's longest-lasting romances. Where am I in that legend? What part is there for me to play in your story?" Latios asked unhappily.

"More than you think," Latias said firmly. "Despite what the Draconian sagas may say, you're every bit as important as we are."

"How? By providing you with another anchor to help get your powers back?" Latios asked cynically. "Hooray, I get to be a footnote in history…just what I always wanted."

"By being the third in a holy trinity," Latias said. "The Guardian of Light, the Guardian of Hope, and the Dragon-God King. It's not just Rayquaza and I, Brother. We need you as well, to balance us out."

Latios frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I am Arceus' sword, the Light which banishes the shadow of evil," Latias said. "Rayquaza is the great King who leads the forces of good, and helps rebuild the world that is devastated in the wake of evil's fall. And you…in many ways you are the most important of all, Brother, because you are Hope."

Latios blinked. "Hope? What's so good about that?"

"Everything," Latias said. "Without hope, what allows people to find the light to dispel the darkness? Without hope, why should anyone follow a leader, or believe that there's a chance they can remake what was destroyed? Hope is the fuel that keeps people running in the worst of times. Hope is the power that lets them survive, and to believe that one day, even the baddest of things can be amended. Without hope…what else do we have?"

"I…" Latios blinked. "I don't…know. That's…a really good question. And…what, you're saying I…I embody hope?"

"Pretty much, yeah," Latias said.

"…That's kinda gay. Isn't 'hope' supposed to be the job of a girl?" Latios complained.

She laughed and punched him in the shoulder. "It's an equal-opportunity job, silly. And besides, you have been a girl a few times."

Latios blinked. "Huh?"

"You didn't think Rayquaza and I were the only ones to reincarnate now and then, did you?" she asked affectionately.

"Oh. Uh, I guess that makes sense…" His eyes widened. "Wait, does that mean-"

Latias winced. "That you're the reincarnation of the Guardian of Hope? Well…no, I'm afraid not. He's out and about on the other side of the Omniverse, last time I checked."

Latios sagged. "Oh. Figures."

"But even if you aren't his direct reincarnation, that doesn't mean you aren't still him," Latias said, touching his shoulder. "We're multiversal entities. There's a core singularity, our divine selves on the Celestial Heavens, with aspects and reflections and shadows of us scattered across the worlds. You are the Guardian of Hope, as much as he is you."

"No I'm not, no more than a picture is the same as the thing it represents," Latios argued.

She smirked. "Sometimes a picture can be realer than the thing it's based off of. I know that you feel like you don't matter, that you can't catch up, that you have no real role to play in our story…but you have the same power as any of us, if you only looked for it."

Latios frowned. "What do you mean?"

"You are connected to the Guardian of Hope, just as I am connected to the Guardian of Light," Latias said. "Or rather, I am the Guardian now, but I wasn't before, and…oh, it's hard to express concepts like this in spoken language. You know what I mean."

"No, I don't actually," Latios said in confusion.

Latias tried again. "My body was the perfect receptacle for the Guardian of Light's power and spirit because I am her. I was her even before that ceremony we performed. Similarly, you are the Guardian of Hope, and have greater power than you're aware of."

Latios slowly started to understand. "Wait. Waitwaitwait. Are you saying what I think you're saying? That…that I could ascend and whatever? Become like you?"

"Not completely like me. You wouldn't possess the same degree of knowledge and power that I got from assimilating the Guardian of Light into myself, since your divine self is currently active and battling evil elsewhere," Latias said. "But…I believe that, once Rayquaza is back to normal and that sorcerer who ruined everything in the first place is dealt with, we may be able to help you awaken more of the Guardian within you, to draw upon your connection to the 'core' Latios and use it to make you more than you are now. Then you could fight by our side, and no longer feel left out."

"That…that would be awesome!" Latios gasped. He frowned. "But…"

"You are worried that if you did so, you wouldn't be you anymore? That the otherness of your godly self would destroy everything that is the mortal you?" Latias asked.

Latios nodded unhappily. "Pretty much, yeah."

"Brother, I've told you again and again that's not how it is," Latias said.

"And again and again I find it difficult to believe," Latios confessed. "I mean…look at you! You're just so, so different. You say you're still the Latias I knew as well as the great and glorious Guardian of Light, but…no matter how hard I look at you, I just can't see it. I mean…you've still got my sister's kindness and compassion, her sense of humor, her desire to help everyone no matter what…but this power, this courage, this sense of responsibility and wisdom and age beyond anything I can imagine, it…it's so alien and unfamiliar. It's nothing like you, the you I knew, I mean. I'm sorry, Sis, but I just can't reconcile it…the you of my memory and the you that you are now. I'm afraid that the Latias I remember is nothing more but a memory…and if I undergo a process similar to what happened to you, then…then who will I be? Will I still be me, or just someone completely new going around in this body, with little thought to who I was before?"

Latias considered this. "I see. None of that would happen, and your assessment of what happened to me is far from accurate, but I can see why you would feel that way."

"Yeah," Latios said unhappily.

She frowned. "There must be some way I can convince you your fears are unfounded. That I really am still the sister you love, no matter how much you think I've changed…ah. I have an idea." She extended her claws. "Take my claws."

"Uh, okay," Latios said, locking his claws with hers.

"Now, look me in the eyes," Latias said.

"Okay," Latios said, staring in her golden eyes. He found himself both dazzled and frightened by the way they swirled and glowed and seemed to hold the knowledge and weight of countless eons in their depths. "Um, why are we doing this?"

"Because we're going to sight-share," Latias said. "I'm going to show you the way I see the world…and, in the process, show you that you have nothing to fear, from me or from your own transformation."

"Um, I'm actually feeling really scared now, because you said that if I looked into your mind, it'd do something terrible to mine," Latios said in alarm.

Latias smiled reassuringly. "Not if I guide you. Just relax, and I'll take care of you."

"How can I relax after you say something like that?" Latios protested.

She laughed. "Like…this…" Warmth flowed up Latios's arms from where Latias was holding her claws, and despite himself he found his tension ebbing, his anxiety fading away. "Now…keep looking into my eyes. And remember, whatever you see…it's real. Realer than anything you've ever seen."

"Okay," he murmured, feeling more mellow and at ease than he had since this whole ordeal had begun. He knew she was probably using her powers to make him feel this way, but it felt so good right then he didn't really care. He stared into Latias's eyes, and kept staring as the gold seemed to seep outward to envelop her pupils and corneas, then leaked out of her eyes to turn the whole world gold, and then the world itself vanished and he could see nothing but gold…

And then…and then he saw…

When Latios came to, he found there were tears in his eyes and joy in his heart, and although whatever had just happened to him was already a swiftly receding memory, he knew somehow that it had been the most amazing thing he'd ever seen, and as long as he lived he'd probably never see its like again. This knowledge turned his joy to sorrow, and he found himself sobbing inconsolably, without even knowing why, curling up into a shivering ball of despair and loss. The emptiness faded, however, when Latias wrapped her arms around him and filled him with warmth and light. "Well?" she asked.

"It…it…it was so damn beautiful," he gasped, so overwhelmed with emotion that he found it difficult to breathe. "And that's…that's what you see…a-all the time?"

She nodded, a happy smile on her face. "I know. Amazing, isn't it?"

"How…how can anyone bear it? How can they get anything done with, with that…" Latios waved his arm vaguely, unable to describe the indescribable.

"When a person becomes as powerful as I am, powerful enough to see the way everything really is, one of two things can happen," Latias said. "They can either reject it, refusing to believe that the Omniverse could be so beautiful deep down, considering all the terrible things that happen on a daily basis. The other…is to embrace it, and spend your existence trying to make the worlds a better place, so that they will be more in line with the future you see, the golden potential off in the distance. Which do you choose?"

"The latter," Latios said without a second thought. "Anyone who'd want to become evil after…after seeing something like that is crazy."

"That's what I think, too," Latias said.

"And…and that's not all," Latios suddenly realized. "I saw…you. The real you. And me. And…and you were right all along, weren't you?"

Latias smirked. "It took you this long to figure it out?"

Latios shook his head sorrowfully. "You were right in front of me the whole time…and I…I just kept pushing you away…I'm a terrible brother."

"I could have been a better sister," Latias apologized. "I kept you out when what I should have been doing was making you more a part of things. I ignored you to focus on Rayquaza and whatever was going on with everyone else…I'm sorry, brother."

"Well…I think I can understand why now," Latios admitted. "You can see so much more of…of the big picture, right? And sometimes, I guess the little things slip away."

"You're far from a little thing," Latias assured him. "And I promise, I will never push you away again. We're in this together from now on, okay?"

Latios smirked. "Sure thing. You've got no complaints from me, sis." They embraced.

"Awwww, that's really sweet," Rayquaza said, startling Latios.

"Ack! How long have you guys been there?" he cried, seeing Rayquaza, Aaron, and Sabrina standing nearby.

"Several minutes," Latias said.

"And you didn't tell me?" Latios asked.

"I felt we needed to work things out first," Latias said.

"Well…okay, I guess that makes sense," Latios grumbled. "So, what's up?"

"I have had a vision regarding what we can do to remedy Latias and Rayquaza's current condition," Sabrina said.

"Ooh! What is it?" Latios asked.

"Well…it's not something that I actually know," Sabrina admitted, looking frustrated. "However, I know who Latias must see who can tell her the next step."

"Krysta," Aaron said. "My wife."

Latios blinked. "Oh yeah, she's that Ninetales chick who cursed Gardevoir a while back, right? That wasn't very nice of her."

"Why'd you hook up with her, anyway?" Rayquaza asked Aaron. "She doesn't really sound like your type."

"It was a long time ago. People can change," Latias answered for the Lucario, who nodded in agreement. "So, she can tell us what we need to do?"

"I foresaw you, Aaron, and Rayquaza discussing the matter with her, so I would assume so." Sabrina sighed. "I suppose you will have more luck using her clairvoyance to find an answer to this dilemma than you would with mine…"

"Your ability to peer into the future has still been of great help to us, Sabrina," Aaron assured her. "I'm sure we wouldn't have gotten this far without it."

"I suppose you're right," Sabrina said, though she did not sound mollified.

Why's she so hung up on this? Latios queried his sister.

She has a thing for him, and is unhappy he's married to Krysta instead, Latias said.

Oh, right, forgot that…kinda sucks for her, huh? Latios murmured.

I'm sure she'll find happiness of her own one way or another, Latias said. Aloud, she said, "I guess we should get going, then. Moving at lightspeed, I should be able to get us there in no time flat. Brother, would you like to come?"

Latios blinked in surprise. "Huh? You're inviting me?"

She smiled. "Well of course. I told you I was going to try and make you more of a part of our adventures, didn't I?"

Latios flushed and transmitted gratefulness to her, gratified to find that he was actually able to sense some of her emotions again. "Awww, thanks, sis!"

"Not to mention we need someone to carry me, and you've been a good steed in the past," Rayquaza said.

Latios glared at him. "Gee, thanks."

"That was a compliment. You performed very well carrying me about during the battle. I don't think I would have lasted nearly as long on any other Pokémon," Rayquaza said.

"Oh! Well…thanks, I guess," Latios said, surprised. "But, uh, I don't think I can keep up with you in your current form, sis."

"Well, I suppose I could slow down enough for you to catch up…" Latias said.

Latios bristled. "Hey, I don't need any charity from you! I'm faster than you think. For all you know, I may even beat you there!"

Latias smirked. This had, of course, been the reaction she had been hoping for. "Then let's get going. Aaron, would you like to ride on me?"

"I would be honored," the Lucario said graciously as he climbed onto Latias's back.

"Hang tight, Your Excellency, this is going to be one hell of a ride," Latios said as he levitated Rayquaza into the air and onto his back.

"I have every confidence in my safety…especially since Nuken will eviscerate you if anything happens to me," Rayquaza said, causing Latios to gulp.

The dragons rose into the air. "We'll be back soon," Latias said.

"Heck, you'll probably know what we've learned before we do!" Latios joked. "Seeya!"

They shot over Pokémon Square and off into the distance, leaving a rippling sonic boom in their wake. Sabrina sighed and looked into the water below. "Farewell, my love. I hope she makes you happier than I ever could…" She Teleported away.

Elsewhere in town…

"Fuahahahahaha! Fear me! I am the Lord of Flames, and I am evil for no reason whatsoever!" an armored Monferno roared from atop a craggy spire, plumes of lava erupting behind him as sooty clouds filled the red skies above. "All who oppose me shall perish!" He kicked rocks down the slope to cause rockslides, and hurled fireballs at the three Pokémon at the base of the peak.

"Incoming!" Pichu cried as the fireballs streaked towards them.

"Oh mon, why does it always have to be fire?" Max moaned.

"There's cover over here," Matthias said, dashing towards a big, sturdy rock. "Come on!"

They hid behind the rock, its thick stony mass serving as a shield to absorb the blasts from the fireballs. "Hey, no fair hiding! How'm I supposed to incinerate you like that?" the Monferno complained.

"That's kind of the idea!" Pichu yelled at him.

"Ha! Cowards!" the Monferno snorted. "I laugh at how you tremble before my obviously superior might, and will continue to throw projectiles from afar rather than coming down to fight you myself, because…um…I'm so superior that you wouldn't stand a chance against me! Yeah…I mentioned I'm evil, right? Just so you know, and all."

"…He's not very good at this," Pichu commented.

"Well, it's not like he's ever had any acting lessons," Max said.

"So, new guy, you're supposed to be some kind of genius tactician. How do we beat him?" Pichu asked the Treecko.

Max adjusted his glasses and cautiously peeked out from behind the rock, yelping and withdrawing his head before it could be hit by one of the fireballs the Monferno was hurling at their cover. "Well, he has the advantage of higher ground, and can throw as many projectiles at us as he wants from that vantage point. However, I think we might have a chance if we…" He paused, noticing the third member of the group wasn't paying attention to him. "Matthias, are you listening to me? This is important."

Matthias stared at the Monferno, who was laughing rather pathetically. "Fufufufu! You foolish fools are too foolish to defeat someone as…as…un-foolish as I! Yeah! Once I beat you I'll do some really evil stuff…like ravish your womon, and burn your homes, and, uh…eat all the food in your refrigerators! Yeah! That'll show you! Because I'm evil and that's the sort of thing I do! I'm bad to the bone, baby! Oh yeah! Hoo! Ha!"

"Matthias?" Pichu asked, frowning when he saw the look in his adopted brother's eyes.

The Monferno glanced at his wrist. "So…come on up here and face me already, this is getting kind of boring…you're not supposed to just sit there, are you? I mean, I'm up here, doing all this reeeeaaally evil stuff…don't you want to stop me? No? Okay, then I guess I'll just keep doing it. And being really evil while doing it! Mwahahahaha!"

Matthias clenched his teeth, eyes flashing with rage. "I'LL KILL YOOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUU!" he shouted, leaping out from behind the rock and dashing up the slope towards the Monferno on all fours.

"Matthias, wait! You forgot your sword!" Pichu cried in alarm, waving the wooden blade the Rattata had left behind. He raced after his brother.

"Oh, come on, guys! What happened to the plan? Which I never even got around to describing?" Max moaned as he watched Pichu run after Matthias.

"Finally! I was wondering what was taking you so long!" the Monferno said in relief when he saw Matthias and Pichu running towards him. He formed a big fireball and hurled it at the ground in front of them, causing it to explode and knock them back.

"Guh! Okay, that hurt more than I expected," Pichu groaned as he picked himself up. "But we can avoid something like that again if we split up to divert his fire and…" He sweatdropped when he saw Matthias had already gotten back up and was charging towards the Monferno again, howling for blood. "Gee, way to be a team player. And speaking of which…Max, get up here already!"

"But there's a lot of fire!" Max protested.

"You lived in an active volcano for several years, shouldn't you be over that by now?" Pichu asked in exasperation.

"I spent most of it hiding in an air-conditioned bunker, eating takeout," Max replied.

Pichu facepalmed. "What about your sister? She's a Fire-type!"

Max grimaced. "Hence why I'm still very nervous around fire, since she often set me on fire when she got really upset. Not on purpose, mind you, but…"

Pichu groaned. "Okay, I can understand you're not happy going up against an opponent with such an obvious advantage against you, and that you're still very new at fighting since you spent most of your childhood strategizing instead of battling, but part of being a team means you have to swallow your fears to help your comrades-"

He was interrupted when a fireball hit him in the back of the head and exploded, knocking him to the ground. "Yes! Direct hit!" the Monferno cheered. "And now I shall revel in your defeat, because I'm evil and that's what evil guys do! Hahahaha!"

"RAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!" Matthias screamed as he reached the top of the peak and lunged towards the Monferno.

The Monferno lashed out with a Mach Punch, knocking the Rattata away and sending him rolling back down the side of the mountain. "Yes! I punched a child in the face! And I will laugh about it, because I'm evil, as I have said several times already! Ahahahaha!"

Max gulped, seeing he was the last one standing. "Um, is it too late to surrender?"

The Monferno frowned. "Come on, that's it? Seriously? You're giving in? I was expecting you guys to be a lot tougher than this. What a letdown."

"I agree," Chuck said with a disappointed sigh as he appeared nearby. "End simulation."

The mountain shimmered and resolved into the familiar setting of Chuck's dojo back in Pokémon Square. The Makuhita frowned and crossed his arms as he glared sternly at the cowering Max, the groaning Matthias, and the disheartened Pichu. "Well? What do you have to say for yourselves, boys?"

"Um…can we have a do-over?" Max asked Mareepishly.

"If it means I get to beat you up again, sure!" Ignik Firebottom said as he took off the big evil-looking helmet he'd been wearing. "You're the first opponents I've actually managed to defeat since I started serving my community service here as a punching bag, and I'd be more than happy to keep winning against someone so I won't hurt as much at the end of the day as I have so far."

"Your victory was against poorly-trained children who failed to work together as a team. That doesn't make you feel the least bit embarrassed or ashamed?" Chuck asked.

"No, not really," Ignik said. "Considering how low my self-esteem is by now due to how many times I've gotten the crap beaten out of me since I started working here, any fight I can actually win is good enough for me." Chuck shook his head in exasperation.

"Raaaaargggh!" Matthias shrieked as he lunged at Ignik, knocking him to the ground.

"Aaaahhh! Get him off! Get him off! Get him off!" Ignik screamed as the Rattata clawed and bit at him. Chuck grabbed Matthias by the scruff of his neck and flung him into a wall. "My hero!" Ignik sighed in relief. Chuck kicked him. "Ow! What was that for?"

"For needing me to do that at all. The kids aren't the only ones whose performance is being evaluated," Chuck reminded him.

Pichu winced, ears lying flat against his head as Matthias moaned and picked himself up. "Was that really necessary?"

"Yes," Chuck said. "Matthias! What the hell did you think you were doing? The session was over! There was no reason for you to keep attacking him!"

"No reason? No reason?" Matthias snapped angrily. "He's a barbarian! The barbarian who destroyed my family!"

"Hey now, they're still alive," Ignik said helpfully.

"Only a handful! I used to have dozens of siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles! Now all that's left are a few of my sisters and one of my aunts! Everyone else is dead!" Matthias snarled.

Ignik cowered. "Yes…well…technically, that's not my fault. I mean, yeah, I led the attack on your home, but it was the other guys who killed your family, I was too busy chasing after you to partake in that. And later on I was too busy doing grunt work to do anything to your family once they were our prisoners, too. So really, it's totally unfair for you to hold me accountable for all that…" Pichu and Max sweatdropped.

"But none of them are here now, so all I have is you to blame! Besides, you led the attack in the first place, so it is your fault!" Matthias retorted. "And you killed my grandfather!"

"It was self-defense! He was coming at me with a weapon!" Ignik protested.

"It was a walking stick!" Matthias yelled.

"Yes, one with lots of sharp-looking splinters! Besides, the way he was brandishing it and whacking the others with it, I figured I might as well kill him before I got a bump on the noggin too, those really hurt," Ignik said reasonably. Pichu and Max facepalmed.

Chuck bonked Ignik on the head. "You have one now. Matthias, while you have every reason in the world to hate Ignik, that doesn't give you the excuse to kill him."

"Yeah!" Ignik jeered. Chuck hit him. "Ow…"

"Why not?" Matthias demanded.

"Because we gave him sanctuary. We held a fair trial-" Chuck said.

"Completely rigged, you mean," Ignik said. Chuck hit him. "Ow…."

"And gave him a sentence befitting his crimes," Chuck continued.

"Fair? It should have been a death sentence!" Matthias insisted.

"Well, normally it would have been, but we made a deal with his brother and agreed to spare Ignik in exchange for Goku and his mons joining us and rescuing the missing Rescue Teams from Vientown and Seasonsburg. As a result, he's performing community service indefinitely rather than swinging from a noose in town square," Chuck said.

"There are times I'm starting to wonder if I'd have been better off at the gallows…" Ignik muttered. Chuck hit him again. "Ow…you're kind of proving my point…"

"I thought Pokémon Square was supposed to be a refuge from barbarians…since when do we make deals with and shelter them?" Matthias demanded.

"We don't," Chuck said.

"Then how do you explain him or Goku or the others?" Matthias yelled.

"They aren't barbarians anymore," Chuck said.

"Yeah, we aren't barbarians anymore!" Ignik jeered. Chuck hit him. "Ow..."

Matthias growled in frustration. Chuck sighed. "Matthias, look, I understand how you feel. You aren't the only one in town who's not one hundred percent happy with our new residents. But we need their help, and they aren't going to be leaving anytime soon, so there's nothing else we can do but present a stiff upper lip and move on."

"You're asking me to forgive him, after everything he did?" Matthias demanded.

"I already told you, I didn't even do that much!" Ignik protested. Chuck hit him. "Ow…"

"I'm not asking you to forgive him, just…try and be mature and not go into a blind frenzy and try and kill him whenever you see him, okay?" Chuck asked. "You can hate him all you want, just so long as you don't let it interfere with what's really important." He frowned. "And speaking of which…that's why you failed today's test. You forgot your training, discarded your weapon, and abandoned your teammates just to get a shot at Ignik. Is that the sort of thing a member of a Rescue Team is supposed to do?"

Matthias looked at the ground, ashamed. "I…no, I guess it's not."

"That's what I tried to tell you," Pichu grumbled.

"Don't think you're getting off easy either, Pichu. You and Max both screwed up immensely as well," Chuck said.

Pichu blinked. "Huh? What did I do? I went after Matthias to provide backup and tried to give Max an inspiring speech to come and help out, just like a team leader should!"

"Yes, but you also let down your guard and got a fireball to the back of the head," Chuck pointed out. "Out in the field, something like that would get you killed. Would your dad fall victim to something like that?"

"…No, I guess not," Pichu admitted.

"And Max, I'm almost as disappointed in you as I am in Matthias. At least he tried attacking, even if he abandoned his teammates to do it and showed no tactical forethought whatsoever," Chuck finished, glaring at the Treecko.

Max grimaced. "Sorry. I'm…not used to combat. I left that more to my sister…"

"Well, you're going to have to get used to it, because you'll be seeing a lot of it in the future," Chuck said.

"Do I have to? Can't I just train to be an Operator or something?" Max begged. "I don't even want to be on a Rescue Team!"

"Your father's rather insistent on you joining one, so no," Chuck said. "And in any event, even if you did become an Operator, you'd still need to learn how to defend yourself in case of emergencies."

Max sighed. "I guess so…"

Chuck glanced at a clock on the wall. "I'm afraid our time's up for the day, boys. Meet me back here same time tomorrow and we'll try this again. I hope by then you'll have managed to work out some of your issues, or else I don't see much of a future for any of you as protectors of this town."

"But don't hurry too much to resolve them," Ignik said hopefully. "I'm rather enjoying being actually able to win against someone for a change!" Chuck hit him. "Ow…"

Dejected, they left the dojo. "Well, that could have gone better," Max said with a sigh.

"Tell me about it," Pichu grumbled. "Geez, I thought when I picked both of you guys for teammates, I'd be getting real winners, not…what you were back there." He didn't mention the other reason he'd picked them to form a Rescue Team…how he hoped that together, they might be able to accomplish a feat great enough to earn him a name of his own. Before, there'd been little pressure, since he was only the second son and everyone knew that Pikachu would probably do something really big and important enough to warrant getting a name before he would, but now that his mother had laid her third egg, tendrils of desperation had slowly worked their way into his heart. He needed to find some way to get a name, and soon, before the egg hatched, because otherwise there would be two Pichus, and he'd probably be renamed Pichu One or Pichu A, and he didn't want to be called Pichu One or Pichu A! What kind of a name was that? Even if it would only be a temporary designation, it implied there was something common and unoriginal about him (admittedly, so did being named Pichu, but at least he was the only person he knew that was named Pichu, which would only last until his new sibling hatched), and he desperately did not want to be thought of as common and unoriginal. So he sought to do the impossible by forming a Rescue Team in hopes that they would manage some epic adventure big and impressive enough to award him a true name…before his brother got his own name, and his new sibling hatched, as implausible as that sounded. Now, as he saw just how far he and his teammates had to go to even consider accomplishing something like that, he realized how very slim his hopes of getting a name this way were. Maybe I should reconsider my options…there has to be some way for a kid my age to make a name for himself around here! He thought to himself.

"Sorry," Matthias apologized. "I'll try not to let it happen again, okay? It's just…that monkey makes me so angry…"

"Me too, but you don't see me doing a suicide run like you did," Pichu said. "Look, I know you have every reason in the world to want him dead, but like Chuck said…you have to put it behind you and move on. You don't have to forgive the guy; just try not to kill him all the time, okay?"

"Okay," Matthias said reluctantly.

"And Max, we've gotta toughen you up somehow, mon. We can't have you hiding behind a rock whenever we get into a real fight!" Pichu said to the Treecko.

"I know," Max said unhappily. "I guess I'm so used to watching fights from a safe distance on a screen I'm just not ready to actually be a part of one."

"Well, we're supposed to meet Team GX, Team Pokepals, and Team Go-Getters at the beach now that we're done with training, so maybe we can beat the wimpiness out of you in a few practice rounds," Pichu said optimistically. "It's worked wonders for Matthias."

The Rattata grimaced. "'Wonders' isn't really the word I'd use to describe it…"

"Yeah, but you're walking on your hind legs more often and are better with a sword now, aren't you?" Pichu pointed out. "Max is already halfway there with the walking part, now we just need to make him a fighter. He's got the mind of a genius strategist, now we have to give him the body and reflexes to match. Then he'll be as cool as his dad…both of them, that is!"

"I hope so…" Max said dubiously. "Though I've got a long way to go before I'm anywhere near as cool as Dad or…Lucas…"

"I don't think I'll ever be as cool as our Dad, either," Matthias confessed. Pichu smiled, pleased that his adopted brother finally seemed to be comfortable with referring to Raiki as his father, unlike Max, who'd only recently learned that Lucas Emeril was apparently his genetic father by a Tropius who he'd had a fling with long before settling down with Mika (Something the clingy Meganium was still rather enraged about, even though it had been years and years ago. She'd always thought that Kira had been her mate's first offspring, and was more than a little pissed that someone else had apparently beaten her there first.) and was still coming to terms with it. "But…I'm willing to try. It's the least I can do for the town that took me in and saved what's left of my family, right?"

And speaking of his family… "Matthias Shorttail! There you are! I've been looking all over for you!" a female Raticate growled as she scampered over, a peeved look on her scarred face. Her whiskers twitched in displeasure when she noticed who Matthias was with. "Oh. And…I see you're still hanging out with them, are you? Matthias, I've told you you're not to be hanging out with the likes of them! They aren't like us!"

Matthias sighed wearily, having heard this diatribe several times by now, ever since she'd recovered enough from her ordeal in the breeding pits to regain the ability to speak. "They're my friends, Aunt Mollie. And they're more like us than you think."

"They live in artificial dwellings, they rely on weapons and devices that do the work for them and make them grow soft, live in groups far too big that do untold damage to the environment…how are they anything like us?" Mollie, Matthias's aunt, demanded.

"We could probably make a list, ma'am, but you wouldn't listen to me…and to be honest, right now I wouldn't want to be anything like you," Pichu said drily.

Mollie glared at Pichu. "I wasn't talking to you, abomination. I'm talking to my nephew. Matthias, get away from them, I'm taking you home. We're leaving this wretched place."

"No, Auntie. I've told you already, I don't want to leave. This is my home now," Matthias said, gnashing his teeth in frustration.

She gave him an incredulous look. "This is your home? Living in something shaped like a Pikachu's head, being part of a 'family' of mixed species without true blood ties, walking on your hind legs, wielding a sword…what are you thinking, Matthias? Have you been with them so long you've forgotten who you really are? This is not natural, Matthias! None of it is! This is not where you belong!"

"And where do I belong, Auntie?" Matthias demanded. "Living in the wild, having to forage for food and shelter, huddling against others to keep from dying of cold or rain in the wet seasons, always hungry, always fearing that my next day will be my last as I die at the claws of a bigger predator or worse, a barbarian? That's where I belong?"

"Yes!" Mollie insisted. "It may not be the best life, but it's the one Arceus created you to live! Pokémon like these, who try to make their own way, are defying His will. They have the arrogance to think they can presume His intent, that they know better! Are you saying that you, too, now think you know better than the Creator, Matthias?"

"Well, no, but-" Matthias protested.

"But nothing! This way of life is unnatural and an affront to Arceus! It's nothing more than a mimicry of a dead race…humanity lived this way, and they're dead now, so clearly they were wrong to do it, and Pokémon trying to imitate that style are even more in the wrong! All they are doing is dooming themselves!" Mollie insisted.

"Lady, Pokémon have been living like this for almost a thousand years now, and while civilizations have risen and fell, the fact that so many of us still live like this must mean we're doing something right," Max argued.

"Oh? Then why have so many cities been destroyed in the past year? Why is this foul place the last holdout against the natural way on the continent?" Mollie shot back.

"Uh, because the barbarians destroyed them all?" Pichu said.

"Sort of like they destroyed our family?" Matthias pointed out.

"If they did so, they were only carrying out Arceus's will. This is his Judgment upon you blasphemers who seek to defy nature!" Mollie spat.

"Then was it Arceus's will that our family was destroyed, Auntie?" Matthias snapped, fed up with his aunt. "That you be enslaved, most of you killed by overwork or being raped to death by the barbarians? That you and my sisters were forced to lie at the bottom of a pit, serving as sex toys? Are you saying Arceus decreed that happen, too?"

"I'm pretty sure that you're the blasphemer here, not us, if you're saying He'd do something like that," Pichu agreed.

"…Life is about survival. The strongest live, while the weakest do not," Mollie said after a moment. "Our ordeal was terrible, yes, but it was also a test to see which of us truly deserved to live. My suffering was horrible, but at the end of it I was one of those lucky enough to deserve to keep my life. Your parents and most of the others…sadly, were not. It is regrettable, but that is what happens. It is the way of the world and of nature, and it cannot be changed. It is madness to even think of such a thing."

"…Auntie, you're insane," said a disgusted Matthias.

"And you are not, for choosing to live with these abominations?" Mollie demanded. "You walk like them, act like them, talk like them! The same Pokémon who shelter our family's killers…these are the people you wish to emulate?"

Matthias hesitated at that. "I…"

"We're also the same people who saved your ass," Pichu said, getting annoyed. "Or did you conveniently forget that? Would you have preferred we left you there in the breeding pit to be rutted and impregnated and blown up with the rest of the volcano?"

"If I was there, it is because I was meant to be," Mollie raved.

"Then by the same logic, if you're here, it's because you were also meant to be," Max pointed out reasonably. "You claim to hate us because we're 'unnatural,' but aren't the barbarians as well, since they band together in overlarge groups and seek to dominate and subjugate weaker Pokémon? Yet you seem to hate our kind, who rescued you, more than you hate the ones who imprisoned and violated you? That doesn't make a lot of sense."

"They are cruel, but so is nature. They seek to restore the world to its true state. If there are Pokémon not strong enough to survive it, that's their fault, isn't it?" Mollie said.

"…Then you're saying our relatives, my parents and siblings and your parents and siblings, died and it was their fault?" Matthias asked incredulously.

She blinked in confusion. "Of course. If it hadn't been, why would they have died?"

They stared at her blankly. "Okay, I give up. Trying to understand her reasoning makes my head hurt," Pichu complained.

"It's an insult to logic," Max agreed.

Matthias shook his head wearily. "Whatever. Come on guys, let's go to the beach."

"Wait! You're leaving?" Mollie asked in confusion when Matthias turned away.

"Uh, yeah. My friends are waiting for me," Matthias said.

"They are not your friends! They are not true Pokémon!" Mollie insisted.

"And you are?" Matthias asked skeptically.

"Yes, as are you! Which is why we must take your sisters and leave here before it is too late, and your transformation into…into them is complete!" Mollie said.

"Auntie, my sisters are currently pregnant, still recovering in the Pokémon Center from all the abuse they went through, and half-insane," Matthias said flatly. "They're in no condition to go anywhere, especially with you."

"If they are unable to survive, then it is regrettable, but there is nothing more that can be done for them," Mollie said.

"Then there's nothing more that can be done for me either, because I'm not leaving," Matthias said stubbornly. "You may think that lifestyle is the ideal way to live, but not me. Not anymore. I've had a taste of what life really is, and I don't want to go back to spending every second fearing it will be my last again. If that's what you really want, then go ahead and leave. I'm staying here."

"But…but I can't leave!" Mollie protested. "Not without you or your sisters…"

"Why not?" Matthias asked angrily. "Didn't you say the strong survived, and implied you were strong enough to do so, stronger than us? Why would you possibly need 'weaklings' like us to tie you down?"

"Because…because you're all I have left," Mollie said weakly. "Everyone else is gone. I don't…I don't want to be alone…"

Matthias hesitated at this, his heart softening. "…If you want to be with us, then stay here. There's plenty of room, and you'd be more than welcome to join the family."

"She would?" Pichu asked doubtfully. Matthias glared at him. "Er, I mean, sure we would. Yeah."

"It wouldn't be the weirdest addition to the Thunderblades," Max noted.

"You've only been here for a few days," Pichu said in annoyance. "I don't think you're in any position to judge that!"

"Oh, I think I've seen enough by now to make a reasonable assessment," Max said.

"Join the…you so callously discard your family for people like them?" Mollie asked incredulously. "And dare to ask me to do the same?"

"I didn't discard anyone, Auntie. They took me in. They may not be related to me by blood, but…they're my kin just as much as you are," Matthias said. "And they could be your kin too, if you'd let them."

"…I cannot. I do not belong here, Matthias, and neither do you," Mollie said. "No matter how much you deny it, no matter how much you claim otherwise, you are not like them, and you never can be. Give up this farce and come away with me to the wilds, where both of us belong. There we can begin anew."

"…I'm sorry Auntie, but I can't," Matthias said. "I've already begun anew…and I have no intention of ending it like this. Hopefully my sisters will feel the same way when they're fully recovered…as will you, someday."

"Matthias!" Mollie shouted as he walked away. "You cannot turn your back on me! You cannot turn your back on who you really are!"

"I'm not," Matthias said as he rejoined Pichu and Max and headed for the beach. "I already know who I am."

"Dude, that sounded totally awesome," Pichu said once they were out of earshot.

"Yeah, really hardcore!" Max agreed.

"You don't think it was overdoing it a bit much?" Matthias asked anxiously, expressing the doubt he'd been feeling for the entirety of his confrontation with his aunt. "I didn't want to hurt her feelings…and she's clearly not doing too well. She needs help…"

"She was hurting your feelings and insulting our town and family, so you were well within your rights to hurt hers," Pichu said. "But…you're right, she does need help. Hopefully she'll let us give it to her rather than letting her madness destroy her."

"I guess…" Matthias said dubiously.

"You didn't say anything that didn't need to be said," Max assured him. "Maybe it'll help her reconsider her choice of lifestyle and think about settling down here."

"Or maybe it'll make her kill herself," Pichu said. Matthias gasped, and Max glared at him. "What? It could happen!"

"Maybe I should go back and apologize," Matthias said, feeling overwhelmed with guilt.

"No mon, that'll ruin any progress you might have made," Pichu said.

Max nodded. "He's right. I doubt she gave up that easily, so she'll probably show up later to harangue you some more."

"I suppose…" Matthias murmured.

"Now come on, let's get to the beach," Pichu said. "The others have been waiting for us long enough, don't you think?"

Max nodded. "The girls will have more than a few words for us."

"Is your other sister anything like Collette and Kira?" Pichu asked.

Max laughed. "Ha! She's worse. At least she's gotten old enough to start looking at boys rather than bothering me…though I don't know what she sees in Drew. He's so…girly. Well, not as girly as that Harley guy, but still…"

Pichu shuddered. "I hear you, mon. I can't imagine what Collette's going to be like when she finally shows an interest in guys…and I bet poor Gilbert wished Kira hadn't hit that stage in her life so early. I blame her mother's genes, there's something about them that seems to be hardwired for obsessive stalker-ish tendencies."

Max nodded in agreement. "Certainly not what I expected in a younger half-sister. Matthias, what are your sisters like?"

Matthias blinked. "Huh? Well, I don't know what they're like now on account of their having lost most of their sanity due to their weeks of Abyssal torture and repeated violations in Mt. Blaze, but before all that they were…"

As the three friends walked away, talking about girls, Mollie sighed in despair, whiskers sagging in sadness. "Nephew…why do all my attempts to reach you fail?"

Meanwhile, in Almiore…

"Are we there yet?" Evan asked.

"No, Evan," said Gary.

"Are we there yet?" Evan asked.

"No, Evan," said Mary.

"Are we there yet?" Evan asked.

"No, Evan," Maren said.

"Are we there yet?" Evan asked.

"No, Evan," Jerry said.

"Are we there yet?" Evan asked.

"If you ask that again, I will cut your tongue off," Janine said. Evan was silent after that. This may have been a bit of a bad thing, though, because now there was nothing to take their minds off the fog.

They were traveling through the Chroma Highlands, a misty realm of high buttes and cliffs, rocky plains, and lots of rather dense fog. They hadn't been able to see the Sun since they had arrived at the Highlands a day or two ago (Or had it been longer? Shorter? It was a little hard to tell time, especially when their watches had broken due to Evan accidentally getting them wet.) after departing Pueltown, and the dim light and inability to see very far ahead was rather unnerving. They had to stick together to keep from getting separated by accident or picked off one by one by the hostile Pokémon in the area. Not that there were many of those, either…even they seemed spooked by the fog.

"Remind me why neither of you have used Defog to clear the air yet?" Mary asked the two Flying-type Pokémon in the party.

"Because if we can see clearly, then so can any enemies in the area," Janine reasoned. "And since we are uncertain what happened to the Mirage Kingdom soldiers who came to this realm, it may be best if we tried not to attract too much attention to ourselves."

"OW!" Evan shouted extremely loudly as he slithered face-first into a rock. "Where'd that come from? Ssstupid rock! Diiiiiieee!" He spat Acid, causing it to melt in a very noisy sizzling mess. "Hahahaha! Yeah, take that, rock! Who'sss the mon now, huh?"

"Yyyyyeah, that's gonna be a problem," Gary said flatly as the others sweatdropped.

"I guess that means I shouldn't use Sunny Day, either," Jerry lamented. "Which is a pity, because I could use some nourishing sunlight right about now."

"What, you don't like our rations? They're good for you!" Gary said.

"That's debatable, especially the way you make them," Mary said.

"Hey!" Gary said indignantly.

"So, any idea how much farther we need to go?" Maren said loudly to change the subject.

Gary took out the incomplete Magnificent Compass and examined it. "Well, according to this, we're going in the right direction towards the Chroma Ruins."

"However, there's no way of telling how much more we have to travel before we get to them," Mary said with a sigh. "Which means we may still have days ahead of us before we get to our destination."

"OW!" Evan shouted extremely loudly as he slithered face-first into another rock. "Where'd that come from? Ssstupid rock! Diii-" He paused, taking a second look at the rock, realizing to his surprise it wasn't a rock at all. "Hey guysss, I found sssomething!"

"Or we may be already there," Janine commented as they rushed over to Evan and found that he had bumped into a large, very old and worn statue of a Skarmory. There were statues of other Pokémon just ahead in various states of disrepair surrounding a crumbling staircase carved into the side of a cliff face.

"We have to climb all those stairs?" Jerry asked in dismay, seeing how they seemed to rise up until they vanished from view…though, considering the fog, that wasn't very far.

Gary checked his compass. "Yep. Looks that way."

"Good thing we can fly," Maren said, spreading her wings. "Well, half of us, anyway."

"I don't sssuppossse you could carry usss?" Evan asked hopefully.

"You're too heavy," Janine said, glancing at Mary, who flushed self-consciously.

"I'm not," Jerry pointed out.

"So you aren't," Gary said, picking up the Cherubi easily.

"But where doesss that leave usss?" Evan complained.

"Having to do things the hard way," Mary said with a weary sigh.

"I don't sssuppossse you could carry me?" Evan asked hopefully.

"No," Mary said bluntly. He groaned.

They started up the stairs, unaware that they were being watched by a mysterious figure that narrowed its eyes before bounding swiftly up the cliff, so that it would arrive at the top before the travelers. Team Nightshade made it to the apex of the stairs several minutes behind it, Evan complaining all the way about how much he hated slithering up stairs because it made his belly hurt from having to kink and unkink so many times. Janine's repeated threats and even her holding a knife to his throat had failed to shut him up, so they were all in a rather foul mood when they reached the plateau at the top of the stairs and saw what lay before them.

"What, these are the Chroma Ruins? I thought they'd be bigger," Maren said cynically as she appraised the numerous tall pillars surrounding a thick stone slab with strange carvings on it standing before them. There was nothing else on the plateau, aside from some oddly-shaped boulders scattered all over the place.

Gary checked his compass. "Well, we're in the right place…unless this stupid thing is broken, which, considering we're still missing a few pieces, is not implausible."

"Ssso we came all thisss way and climbed all thessse ssstairsss only to hit a dead end?" Evan screamed in dismay.

"You're lucky I didn't knock you back down the stairs when you were whining incessantly, then you'd hit a dead end of your own…" Mary grumbled.

"I believe the ruins are beneath us," Janine said, glancing at the ground and noticing how the slab was surrounded by numerous very old tiles that looked like they once had colorful mosaics etched on them. "That slab is covering the entrance."

"So we have to push it off?" Mary asked dubiously, eyeing the thick black mass of stone. "I'm strong, but I'm not sure I can push something that heavy on my own."

"What about us?" Gary asked.

"I'm strong, but I'm not sure I can push something that heavy on my own," she repeated pointedly. Gary sweatdropped.

"Maybe we can melt it?" Jerry suggested. "Evan, do you think you could dissolve that slab like you did the boulder earlier?"

"Good idea, then he could be useful for a change," Janine muttered.

Evan glared at her. "Sssure, I could give it a go." He slithered over to the slab, reared back his head, inhaled deeply, and…

"HALT!" a shrill voice rang out across the plateau, causing Evan to swallow the Acid he'd been about to hock up and nearly gag himself. "Desecrate that slab in any way, and it shall be the last thing you ever do!"

Everyone tensed and glanced around warily, looking for a threat. "Who's there?" Gary called, half-expecting to be attacked at any moment.

"I am the guardian of these ruins…leave this sacred ground at once, before you are interred here, like the rest of the honored dead!" the voice warned them.

"Janine, can you tell where it's coming from?" Maren whispered to her lover.

"No, the fog and the acoustics on this plateau are making it difficult," Janine replied.

Maren smirked. "Then let's see if we can't do something about that, shall we?"

Janine nodded, and the two rose into the air, flapping their wings vigorously and sending blue energy waves in every direction as they used Defog. As the blades struck the mist, it dissipated, melting away bit by bit to reveal more of the plateau. Gradually, more details of their surroundings became visible, so that they could see more of the weathered old carvings on the pillars, notice more of the intricate design on the mosaic surrounding the slab…and realize, much to their horror, that what they had taken to be boulders weren't boulders at all, but grave markers. Lots of grave markers.

"Are those…the graves of everyone who's come here before us?" Jerry gasped in alarm.

"Well, at leassst we'd get a niccce view if we die here," said Evan, marveling at how much of the highlands they could see from their vantage point now that the fog had been partially cleared away. "Well, assside from the fog, anyway."

"Yes, except we'd be too dead to enjoy it," Mary pointed out. "As well as underground."

"Not if we came back asss a Ghossst like Gary," Evan countered.

"Yes, but I think I speak for all of us when I'd say I'd like to avoid that option if at all possible," Maren said.

Janine nodded in agreement. "Indeed."

With the disappearance of the fog also came the discovery of the ruins guardian's location: standing atop one of the tall pillars surrounding the slab. The petite figure jumped from its perch, flipped elegantly through the air, and landed neatly on its hindpaws atop the slab, glaring at them angrily. They gasped, for much to their amazement their antagonist was…

"That's…a Riolu?" Maren cried in amazement.

"And one who seems to think she's a Cubone, too," Mary commented, noting how the small blue pup was wearing a helmet made from the skull of what looked like a Lucario over her head, her red eyes looking at them furiously through the skull's eyeholes. "You don't suppose that's her mother's skull, do you?"

"I alwaysss found that practiccce kinda creepy," Evan said, turning green.

"My patience is running dangerously low," the Riolu warned them ominously. "I warned you once to leave, and you did not heed me. The only reason you were not slain on the spot is because you have one of the holy dead with you…but not even that will spare you from my wrath! Depart from this place, or you shall become a part of it, forever!"

They blinked. "Holy dead? What's she talking about?" Jerry asked.

"She can't be talking about…Gary, can she?" Maren wondered dubiously.

Evan nodded. "Yeah, he'sss about asss far from a holy ghossst asss you can get without being Giratina."

"Hey!" Gary shouted. Fuming, he glared at the Riolu. "Look, kid, we mean you no harm. We aren't here to desecrate your ruins or the remains of your ancestors or whatever you're guarding this place for. We're here for one thing and one thing only: a fragment of the Magnificent Compass. If you let us get that, we promise we won't touch anything else. We'll be in and out of the ruins, just like that. You won't even know we're there."

"What!" Evan cried in disbelief. "No more treasssure looting? Blasssphemy!"

"Evan, you're not helping," Mary hissed, elbowing her…close relative hard.

The Riolu narrowed her eyes. "The shard of the Magnificent Compass? That is what the Pokémon who came before you desired as well."

Maren gasped. "You mean the Mirage Kingdom soldiers we sent out to find it? What did you do to them?"

"Killed them, obviously," Janine said. "It's what I would have done."

The Riolu shook her head. "No, but I would have had they not run off into the mists with their tails between their legs when they saw what power I brought to bear against them. The shard is the greatest of treasures held in these ruins. All who seek it must die. It must not be removed from its resting place."

"But we need it for a good cause!" Gary protested. "We don't want any trouble!"

"Your cause matters little to me. I am tasked with protecting these ruins from all outsiders, no matter which way their hearts incline. If you desire the shard, then I have no choice but to grant you death's blessing, and free you from the constricting chains of life," the Riolu said coldly. She pulled off a thick stick that had been tied to her back and flicked it, causing it to extend on either end with a loud snap and for a wickedly curved blade to unfold from its tip, creating a ghoulish scythe. Light purple Aura blazed to life around her body, channeling up her arms and into the scythe, causing it to glow with an eerie light. With a great cry, she swung the blade downwards, driving it into the ground, splitting the tiles and causing lines of energy to surge out in every direction.

Team Nightshade jumped back in alarm, but were surprised to see the energy lines weren't going anywhere near them. Rather, they were flowing towards the grave markers… "Why do I have a very bad feeling about this?" Jerry moaned as the carvings on the markers started glowing and the ground started to shake.

"Because I think we just stepped into a zombie movie," Mary said as the ground around the markers erupted and several dozen very dead Pokémon burning with the same Aura as the Riolu clawed their way to the surface, ornate cloth and ceremonial jewelry hanging from their desiccated flesh as they rose from their graves.

"Actually, thossse are mummiesss, not zombiesss," Evan corrected as the animated corpses lurched towards them.

"How can you tell?" Gary asked.

"Zombiesss are generally rotting and have flesssh conssstantly falling off. Thessse guys ssstill have mossst of their ssskin, and it looksss rather dry and ssshriveled, indicating it'sss been embalmed to lassst longer rather than jussst being ssshoved in a coffin and tosssed wholesssale into the ground," Evan explained. "Additionally, the ssstuff they're wearing resssemblesss the sssortsss of ssstuff other culturesss often bury their mummiesss with to help them ressst peacccefully in the hereafter, while zombiesss usssually don't get anything nearly asss niccce to wear to their gravesss."

"That's very nice and all but WHY SHOULD WE GIVE A DAMN?" Mary shouted.

Evan recoiled, hurt. "Well, becaussse we don't have to worry about turning into a mummy if we get bitten by one, that'sss why."

"…Oh. That actually is a good thing to know. Thanks, Evan," Mary said apologetically, causing the Ekans to beam.

"How do you know all this anyway?" asked an amazed Gary.

"I watch too many horror moviesss," Evan explained.

"Mummy, zombie…either way, they are dangerous undead, and we must destroy them before they add us to their ranks," Janine said, drawing her kunai.

"Well, at least it's not demons," Maren said.

"I'm sure we'll run into my Dad and the others again sooner or later," Jerry said.

"Yes, but not now," Gary said. "Right now we've got other problems to deal with…huh, I bet Team Aurabolt never had to worry about mummies! This'll certainly be something to brag about later!"

"Your confidence is surprising…but rather misplaced, since nearly every adventuring party who has come before you has felt the same way before succumbing to the loving embrace of death," the Riolu said. She pointed her scythe at Team Nightshade. "Go, my brothers and sisters! Grant them release from the prison of the flesh! Welcome them to their new home by your side!" The mummies shambled forwards to do just that.

"Okay gang…this is going to be our first real fight as a team, so let's make it count!" Gary said.

"What about the fight against Team Perdition?" Maren asked.

"We weren't a team then, officially," Gary pointed out. "So…let's do this! For lack of a better battle cry, RAAAAAHHHHHH!"

"RAAAAHHHHHH!" the others echoed as they charged forwards, ready to meet the undead and their maker in pitched battle.

The Riolu smirked as she brandished her scythe and bounded forward to join the fray. This should not last too long…soon I shall have some new siblings, and perhaps I, too, will at long last be granted the secrets of undeath!

Meanwhile, in Mahjong City…

The Pokémon filling the floor of the Mahjong City Convention Center burst into wild applause as a one-eyed purple-maned Rapidash and a Bastiodon walked onto the stage, spotlights focused on them and a Jumbotron screen overhead magnifying them so those furthest from the stage could see what they were doing as they approached a podium. The Rapidash leaned forward so his muzzle was almost touching the microphone on the stand and said, "Greetings, aspiring Duelists of all ages! Welcome to the 10th Annual Lu-Gi-Oh World Championships!" The Pokémon cheered raucously, raising their favorite cards in the air, quite a few of them dressed as their favorite characters from the anime or manga. "I'm Mr. Bellerophon, head of Conaneye's Lu-Gi-Oh division, and I'll be your host and the judge of this tournament! And with me is our celebrity guest judge, a personage I think all of you should recognize, legendary voice actor Dan Yellow!"

The Pokémon cheered even louder, and the whole building seemed to shake as the Bastiodon approached the microphone. Bellerophon frowned, slightly miffed that Yellow had gotten more cheers than him. Sure, he'd voiced some of the most popular characters on the show, but he was the guy responsible for putting out the children's card game and making it such a big hit… "Greetings, Duelists!" Dan Yellow said, his deep, sonorant voice causing many fans to squeal in delight, because he sounded exactly like their favorite character from the show, Yami Lugi, the ancient Pharaoh's Spirit who possessed Lugi's magical Centennial Puzzle and swapped bodies with the younger Lugia for major Duels, without anyone seeming to notice the size, voice, and personality change whenever that happened. "It is an honor to be here today to bear witness to this tournament, to all you passionate young souls Dueling it out for fame, glory, and the coveted title of the world's greatest player of a children's card game!"

"And that's not all they're playing for," Bellerophon butted in, well aware that if Yellow had the microphone for too long the Duelists would forget he even existed. "The grand prize for this year's tournament is the ultra-rare one-of-a-kind Spell Card, Ultimate Fusion, a card so powerful even we're not sure just what it's capable of!" A spotlight shone down on a case nearby where a card with the image of millions of multicolored lines converging on a single point was displayed. The crowd gasped in awe.

"This coveted card will go to the last Duelist standing, the Duelist who proves him or herself to be the best the world has to offer," Dan Yellow explained. "With subsequently lesser but still valuable prizes for those who can't quite make the cut: second place gets a ride in a Blue-Eyes White Dragonite jet like the one Saiba has on the show, and third place gets a dinner date with Internet celebrity BigKuriboh of Lu-Gi-Oh the Abridged Series, who Conaneye threatened to sue for copyright infringement if he didn't comply."

"And everyone else will receive a special limited edition Dark Mage card simply for attending," Bellerophon said. "So, without further ado, everyone form up into pairs for the elimination round, as designated by the diagram above me." As he said this, the Jumbotron's display changed from a close-up of him and Dan Yellow to a rather complicated-looking tree diagram, with little pictures and names of the various Pokémon competing assigned to each branch. "Remember to play fair and not use any broken or illegal cards, or you'll be sent straight to the Shadow Realm." There were numerous laughs at this. "But most importantly, have fun! It's time to d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-Duel!"

He waited, but nobody applauded. "We wanna hear Dan Yellow say it!" someone shouted, much to his chagrin.

"Yeah! Dan Yellow! Dan Yellow! Dan Yellow!" the crowd roared.

Dan nudged the dismayed Rapidash out of the way of the microphone and said, "It's time to d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-Duel!" The crowd cheered, and Bellerophon fumed enviously.

With the opening remarks out of the way, the Duelists paired off, took out their decks, and…sat down at the tables that had been placed in neat rows all over the convention floor, laying their cards on the waiting game boards so they could start playing. (What, you thought they were going to Duel using arm-mounted holographic projectors? Please, do you have any idea how expensive those things are?)

Dan frowned as he watched the Duelists lay down their cards, summoning monsters, declaring attacks, casting spells, and triggering traps. Even with the players shouting their moves at the top of their lungs and making dramatic flourishes, it all seemed rather…dull to watch. "Funny, it looked more exciting than this on the show."

"That's reality for you," Bellerophon muttered. He scowled. "And speaking of which, why do they love you so much, anyway? You don't even know how to play the game!"

"No, but I play a character who does," Dan said smugly, causing the Rapidash to fume.

The orderly children's card game proceeded sedately for several minutes…until…

Suddenly, one of the walls caved in with an explosion that shook the building and knocked many cards off their tables. The Duelists cried in alarm and scrambled to gather up their scattered cards, more concerned with rescuing their precious desks than worrying about any threat to their lives. "Holy Crap on a Crapsicle, what was that?" Dan cried.

"I-I don't know! Is that…" Bellerophon stared in disbelief at the being who strode into the room through the hole in the wall. "Sefirot?"

The dark-skinned swordsman grinned sinisterly as the shocked Duelists stared at him in horror, unable to believe that one of the evilest video game villains of all time was in the same room as them. They were so shocked, in fact, that they didn't even notice Mewgle coming in behind Sefirot until the demon was standing right beside him. "Well, well, will you just look at this, Sefirot?" Mewgle cackled as he gazed out at all the stunned and staring faces. "Look at all these children, playing games, dressing up as their favorite characters from a show designed solely to coerce them into buying a line of cards…aren't they adorable? Go kill 'em all!" Sefirot grinned and raised his sword.

The Duelists started panicking, rightly so. "W-wait, that's just a hologram! It can't hurt us!" one very stupid and very wrong Kricketot dressed as Weedle Overwood protested. Sefirot's sword flashed through the air, and his head and his body fell to the ground separately. The Duelists stared at the corpse in horror, then screamed and started running for their lives. Smirking sinisterly, Sefirot slowly advanced after them.

Mewgle cackled. "Gyahahaha! This is gonna be great! Oh, but just so you don't get all the fun…I think I'm gonna invite a few friends of yours to the party! You don't mind, do you?" Morphing his arm into a grotesque organic Duel Disk in sickening fashion, the demon drew a number of cards and spread them out on his Disk's panels. One by one, nine more monsters appeared throughout the room, recognizable instantly to the Duelists who were more familiar with the Last Legend video game series: Herb, an armored and caped warrior wielding a tremendous sword; the Imperator, a very effeminate male human in rather…gaudy purple and yellow robes; Storm of Light, a voluptuous pale-haired Gardevoir without a dress that had a pair of Ekans growing from her sides; Golubaeser, a black-armored Scizor; Zeedeath, a white-armored Tropius who was far eviler than he looked; Kafka, the white-faced utterly terrifying Mr. Mime whose colorful robes did little to hide his boundless malevolence and pure insanity; Ultimania, a gorgeous white-haired Jynx with black feathery wings and an odd hairstyle (then again, considering some of the others, that wasn't saying much); Koja, an extremely effeminate white-furred Infernape in frilly white and purple robes; and finally Jacht, a very burly (and monly) Machamp with a large black tattoo on his chest and enormous sword. Mewgle grinned with delight. "It's a Last Legend: Dissido bad guy reunion! Gyahahaha! Kill EVERYONE!" The summoned villains proceeded to do just that, gleeful smiles on their faces as they proceeded to massacre the Duelists. More than a few Pokémon tried to fight back with their attacks, but the villains shrugged them off and utterly destroyed them with their ludicrously powerful spells and physical blows. Other Duelists, apparently believing that they were now in an episode of the TV show, drew their most powerful monsters from their decks, believing they would appear to save them. They very quickly learned that they were horribly, horribly wrong.

Leaving his minions to the slaughter, Mewgle floated over to the stage, where the terrified Bellerophon and Dan Yellow were cowering. "Ooh, and who do we have here? Mr. Bellerophon and Dan Yellow, two of my favorite people related to Lu-Gi-Oh! Do you know what I'm gonna do to you?"

"L-l-let us go because you like us so much?" Bellerophon asked timorously.

Mewgle's claw shot out, ripping Bellerophon's remaining eye from its socket. "Nope." As the Rapidash howled in agony, blood spurting from his face, Mewgle licked the eyeball and laughed. "So this is what it feels like to be Yami Makura! Neat!" As he swallowed the eye, he casually backhanded Bellerophon, ripping his head off and sending it flying into the bloodbath below. "Now…what am I gonna do with you?" he asked, turning to the terrified Dan Yellow as Bellerophon's headless body fell to the ground.

"Y-y-you c-c-can't k-k-k-kill m-m-m-me," Dan stammered in abject fear. "I-I-I'm o-o-o-one of th-th-the m-m-most p-p-p-popular v-v-v-voice a-a-actors o-o-of a-a-all t-t-t-time!"

Mewgle considered this. "Hmm…you have a point there. I am a big fan of your work…even I'm not evil enough to kill someone as talented as you!" Dan sighed in relief. "So I'll just add you to my collection instead!" Mewgle said cheerfully, whipping out a blank card and holding it in front of the Bastiodon.

Dan's eyes widened in panic, realizing what was about to happen. "No…no! NO!" he screamed, frantically backpedaling.

But it was too late. "Prepare to spend an eternity in the second dimension! Don't worry, I'll keep you right next to my sexy lady cards, so you won't be lonely…though some of them have a thing for eating Pokémon flesh, but hey, your hide's probably too thick for them…right?" The card started glowing, and a powerful force began dragging Dan towards it. The Bastiodon dug his heels into the ground, desperately trying to gain some purchase…but it was no good, and he was pulled, screaming, into the card, his great mass shrinking down to fit in the thin piece of cardboard. The blank picture on the card flashed and resolved into the image of Dan, face twisted in a mask of utter terror and agony. "Score!" Mewgle said gleefully as he flipped the card around so he could get a good look at it. "I'll bet I'm the only guy in the whole Omniverse with a card as rare as this!" He grinned and put the card away as he strode to the nearby case containing the Ultimate Fusion Spell Card. "And soon…I'll have an even rarer one." He opened the case and stared reverently at the card nestled inside. "At last…with this card…all my dreams shall finally come to fruition…" He reached for the card…

When suddenly the lights went out. "Hey, what gives?" Mewgle cried angrily as his minions grunted in surprise and paused in their mass murder. A second later, a spotlight switched on, focusing on the main entrance to the room and illuminating…

"If we were asked…" Jessie said.

"The answer for tomorrow will be given!" James said.

"Future! White is the color of an evil future!" Jessie said.

"Universe! Black is the hammer of world justice!" James said.

"We will remember the name of this place!" Buzz…buzzed.

"Destroyer of passion, Jessie!" Jessie declared.

"Pure heart of darkness, James!" James shouted.

"Infinite intelligence, Buzz!" Buzz cried.

"Come gather! Under the name of Team Rocket!" the trio declared in unison, striking a pose as a big red R appeared from…somewhere behind them and lots of little explosions broke out all over the place.

There was a long pause. Mewgle's minions exchanged confused looks. The few Duelists still alive stared at the trio in disbelief. Mewgle facepalmed. "Oh, Ruler of Evil…I do not believe this…what are you three doing here?"

"We're here for revenge!" Jessie said. "We heard there was going to be a big card tournament here, and knew you couldn't pass up a chance to make an appearance!"

"Mewgle!" James shouted, dramatically mounting a Duel Disk onto his arm and pointing at the demon. "You killed the mon I loved and fed his soul to a horrible monster…and for that, you will pay! I challenge you to a Duel!"

"No," Mewgle said.

James blinked. "Wait, what?"

"I said no," Mewgle repeated. "I don't want to Duel you."

James stammered in confusion. "But…but you're a gaming demon! You love playing twisted games of fate against other people! And Duelists have to accept a challenge whenever it's offered, those are the rules!"

Mewgle snorted. "Psh, yeah, on the show. In real life, we can be a lot more picky when it comes to who we Duel. The same applies to my status as a demon of games. Yeah, I love playing games against hapless victims…but there's no fun in completely trouncing an opponent who I outmatch in every conceivable way, like you. Only Leo is worthy of a true game…and you? You're so far beneath me beating you would be nothing more than a waste of time. In fact, you're so irrelevant I'm not even going to exert the miniscule amount of effort necessary to kill you, I'll just let my friends do it for me. Guys? Kill them all, with extreme prejudice." The villains grinned sinisterly and advanced on the horrified Rockets. Seeing a chance to escape, the few living Duelists made a break for it, only for Mewgle whip out some cards and fling them at the Pokemon. The pieces of cardboard whizzed through the air and slashed through their necks, severing their carotid arteries and causing them to collapse in showers of blood as the razor-edged cards doubled back and flew into Mewgle's waiting claws. The demon cackled, licked the blood off their edges, and replaced them in his deck, exulting in the senseless violence.

"Th-this isn't right! This isn't what was supposed to happen!" James cried shrilly.

"I knew this was a bad idea," Buzz moaned.

"I told you we should have gone with a giant robot! But noooo, you just had to insist on challenging him to a children's card game!" Jessie snapped.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time!" James wailed.

Mewgle grinned as his minions drew back their weapons and readied their spells, preparing to kill the Rockets in an incredibly gratuitous manner…when suddenly one of the cards in his deck started glowing. "Hmm?" He removed the card and examined it. It was the card he'd used to form his pact with Leviathan. He frowned as the card pulsated, almost as if it was…communicating with him. "What's that? You say you do want me to Duel him? But why? He and his friends are so pitiful, their souls won't come anywhere near satisfying your appetite." The card glowed some more. "Oh, I see…their suffering will make it that much more palatable, will it? Well, if you insist." He slid the card back into his deck and raised his voice. "Change of plans, guys! Looks like we're going to have a Duel after all!" The RPG villains hesitated and turned, shooting their master puzzled looks. "My partner here's hungry and in the mood for a light snack, and he figures a few souls like those three will hit the spot." The villains looked at each other, shrugged, then turned into balls of light and flew back into Mewgle's deck.

"Then…then you're going to Duel me after all?" James asked hopefully as his friends sighed in relief.

Mewgle's face split into a slow, cruel grin. "Oh yes, Jimmy-boy, we're going to Duel. We're going to Duel so hard that when I'm through with you, there'll be barely enough left of you to comprehend just how phenomenally stupid you were in thinking you actually had a chance against me, and when you spend the rest of eternity being digested in Leviathan's belly, every second of your existence filled with unbearable agony and torment, all you'll be able to think about is how everything that's about to happen to you and your friends was your fault, and that you should have done the smart thing and stayed away when those stupid commandoes who weren't actually wearing rubber pants sacrificed their lives to let you escape. By throwing away the reprieve they gave you, they died for nothing…and even once you've been devoured by Leviathan, you'll never, ever see Mickey again, so you won't even have the solace of being with the mon you love as you are tortured for the rest of forever. Do you begin to understand just how monumentally you've screwed up in coming here and having the balls to think that a worthless little clown like you could beat me?"

James and the others turned very pale. "Um…I-I don't suppose it's t-too late to back out of this, is it?" James asked timorously, as he slowly began to realize that he may have bitten off just a little more than he could chew.

"D-do we have to die? I mean, we're not actually fighting, just watching from the sidelines, so no need to kill us too…right? Right?" Jessie asked desperately.

"Oh dear," Buzz said weakly, realizing he was going to die.

Mewgle laughed evilly. "Oh, you poor fools. This is going to be so easy I'm not even going to be able to enjoy myself properly as I cream you so badly there'll barely be enough left of you to feed to Leviathan. It's a good thing I have a whole city to offer him as well, or else the poor thing might starve, which isn't something we can have, now can we?" He spread his arms, the mark on his chest glowing. "So…let the game begin!"

The entire city started shaking. The citizens looked up in surprise as black clouds swirled together overhead, blotting out the sun and engulfing the city in darkness. Twin streams of purple fire erupted just outside the city limits, racing across the ground to encircle Mahjong City in a burning figure resembling a serpent eating its tail. The clouds rippled, and a similar emblem appeared on their underside, reflecting the one below. The Pokémon looked at each other in alarm, having no idea what was going on…but sensing something very bad was about to happen.

Inside the convention hall, a similar ring of purple fire had appeared, encircling Mewgle and the Rockets and creating a ring around them and the mutilated corpses littering the floor. James gasped in horror. "Oh no! It's a Shadow Duel!"

Buzz frowned in confusion. "Shouldn't we be in a dimension of pure darkness, then?"

"No, that's a Shadow Game, this is a Shadow Duel, it's completely different," James said, causing Jessie and Buzz to sweatdrop.

"Different how?" Jessie demanded.

"In a Shadow Game, if you lose, the darkness devours you," Mewgle said. "In a Shadow Duel, now, if you lose you get devoured by a giant monster of pure evil. Admittedly it's not that big a difference, except that Shadow Duels can also be conducted on motorcycles, whereas Shadow Games can't. Plus, Shadow Duels have a neater visual effect, if I do say so myself. Anyway…the stage is set, and now our game can begin. Are you ready to lose, James?"

James clenched his teeth, drawing on a hidden core of strength he hadn't even realized he possessed. "I'm ready to fight to my very last breath to avenge Mickey and save his soul and everyone else you've devoured…if I have to die to defeat you, then so be it!"

Mewgle laughed. "You are going to die, James…but defeat me? There is no world in this universe or any other where such an implausible scenario could possibly come to pass, certainly not this one. But with that said…let's get this farce over with."

James nodded. "Yes…let's."

They locked their eyes and raised their Duel Disks, the displays on both of them lighting up to show the number 4000. "LET'S DUEL!"

And so the epic children's card game for the fate of Mickey's soul, Team Rocket, and all of Mahjong City began…

Elsewhere…

"At last! We've found it!" Tarantulas declared triumphantly as he and the rest of his party mounted a rise and stared down at a glacier sprawled across the mountainside before them. A trail wound down the side of the hill and cut across the surface of the glacier, terminating in the façade of a massive temple made of ice, metal, and stone that had seemingly been carved from the face of the great frozen mass. It was immense, and done in vaguely classical style, with towering pillars engraved with the forms of legendary Pokémon, particularly the three golems, covering its front…and a statue of a massive creature placed behind the pillars, as if caged in. Beneath the pillars was a sealed door set into the base of the structure with what looked like Braille covering its surface. "Ze resting place of ze king of ze giants! Is it not magnificent, Chobin?"

"Look Doctor, Chobin is making an angelic snow angel in the snow in the figure of an angel fallen in the snow!" Chobin said, lying on the ground and wiggling his arms and legs to make an impression in the snow. He jumped out and turned to look at his creation…and frowned when he saw that it looked like there were horns growing from his angel's head. "Awww, why are that always happening to Chobin whenever he is making an angelic snow angel in the snow in the figure of an angel fallen in the snow?"

"Because you're an idiot," Suicune said cuttingly. "So, that is our destination?"

Tarantulas nodded. "Indeed it is."

"How come we never got a temple as nice as that?" Raikou complained.

"Because nobody gave a shit about us as gods," Entei snorted. "As far as deities went, we were third-rate, always running about cleaning up other people's messes and doing the dirty work of the higher-ups…but that's all changed now that we've thrown our lot in with the winning side."

Suicune nodded. "Indeed. Once we dominate the world, I will have an enormous palace erected in my honor, one whose beauty is only rivaled by my own, with an endless supply of pleasure slaves to feed my…appetites."

"Sounds good," Raikou said. He frowned. "Hey wait, what about us?"

"I assumed you'd be too busy with the pleasure slaves in your palace to bother paying me a visit," she sniffed.

"We'll always have time for you, Suicune," Entei assured her softly.

She smiled. "Well, I suppose I could make room in my busy schedule for you as well…"

"What about Chobin? Could you be penciling Chobin in for a good appointment of sex and fucking and sex and shagging and sex and rutting and sex and mating and sex and raping and sex and sex and sex?" Chobin asked hopefully. "And sex?"

"No," the three beasts said flatly. The Sunflora sulked in disappointment.

"Come," Tarantulas said, skittering past them. "Ve've come all zis vay. It's time to collect vhat ve came for."

They trekked down the trail and across the glacier towards the temple, the Nihilator troopers and the three bound golems taking up the rear as Tarantulas eagerly scurried ahead to get a better look at the temple. A handful of Nihilators slipped on the icy surface and fell to their deaths, but nobody cared very much, they were expendable after all. By the time they caught up with the mad scientist, they found the Doctor scanning the Braille markings with his robotic eye. "Hmm…yes, I see, I see…fascinating…" he murmured.

"What's it say, Doc?" Raikou asked.

"To open ze pazz to ze king of ze giants, ve must place his servants on ze pedestals zhree," Tarantulas translated.

They looked around. "What pedestals?" Suicune asked. "All I see is ice."

"And pillars…which Chobin is humping, for some reason," said a confused Raikou.

"Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Baby, be giving it to Chobin hard! Uh!" Chobin gasped.

"Why is he-" Entei started.

"Best not to zink too much about it," Tarantulas said. "Hmm…ze pedestals must be here somevhere…" He looked at the ground. "I vonder…" His robot eye turned green as he shifted into X-ray vision. "Ah, of course! Zey are right underneaz us. Entei, if you could please get rid of some of zis ice? It's getting in ze vay."

"Sure thing, Doc," Entei said. He exhaled on the ground beneath their feet. The ambient temperature of the area went up several degrees, and the ice evaporated in a cloud of steam, fogging up Tarantulas's mechanical eye and causing everyone to get all sweaty.

Tarantulas wiped his eye clean in annoyance and looked back at the ground. He grinned in delight when he saw that Entei's influx of heat had removed several layers of ice covering three pedestals placed in a triangle before the temple. Each pedestal was embossed with a series of Braille dots, and bore a remarkable resemblance to each of the three golems. "Ahhh, excellent, excellent! Just as I zhought. Quickly, bring zem over, place each golem on ze pedestal corresponding to zem!"

The Nihilators hurried to comply, pushing the floating platforms carrying the bound golems across the frozen terrain towards the pedestals. "Doctor Tarantulas, for the last time, we beg you not to do this," Regirock said.

Tarantulas and everyone burst into laughter. "Vhat, really? You really zink somezing like zat vill vork on me?" the Ariados asked incredulously.

"They don't know you very well, do they?" Raikou sneered.

"You have no idea-" Regice started.

"Vhat forces I am unleashing, how I am tampering viz powers beyond my control, yadda yadda yadda," the Ariados said, rolling his eyes. "I've heard it a zhousand times before. Get some original lines, vould you?"

Within moments, the golems were placed on their respective pedestals. The Braille dots on the pedestals glowed, as did the markings on the door, and with a great rumble it split down the middle and receded to the sides, leaving the entrance to the temple open. "Vonderful!" Tarantulas cheered eagerly. "Now ve can get inside! Come, Chobin, let us go to see ze king of ze giants…so at last, I can create ze ultimate Shadow Pokémon!"

"I, uh, can't, Doctor," Chobin said Mareepishly. "Chobin seems to be, ah, stuck fast to this pillar like something that is very sticky and cannot be removed without a great deal of exertion and pain and lots of screaming."

Tarantulas facepalmed. "Oh, Chobin, vhat am I going to do viz you? Somebody get an ice pick!"

Chobin paled in horror as one of the Nihilators pulled out a very nasty-looking spike. "N-n-now, th-that is not being the n-necessary, is it? Chobin does not want to be v-violently separated from Chobin Jr.! Chobin loves Chobin Jr. very much! So much so Chobin and Chobin Jr. are having their 'super-special fun time' several timings a day!"

"…Ew," said a disgusted Raikou.

"Don't vorry, Chobin, it'll grow back," Tarantulas said. "I zink." He gestured to the Nihilator with the ice pick. "Get him off of zere already, ve don't have all day."

The Nihilator, an Armaldo, nodded. "Yes, Doctor." He approached Chobin, who squealed in alarm and tugged at his frozen member, not wanting to be castrated, since it would hurt quite a lot and cut down significantly on his favorite activity.

Fortunately for Chobin and unfortunately for everyone else, before he could be emasculated, one of the other Nihilators cried out a warning. "Doctor, we've got inbound!" an Abomasnow shouted, pointing at a herd of a few dozen massive Mamoswine stampeding towards them across the glacier.

Tarantulas frowned. "Vat's zis all about, zen? Everybody, on your guard!"

As the Nihilators tensed and prepared for battle, Entei grinned in anticipation. "Think this means we're finally going to get a decent fight?"

"I hope so," Suicune said. "I've been bored all day. A good slaughter should get the blood pumping."

"Yeah, and not just your blood, either," Raikou said with a grin.

The Mamoswine trampled to a halt a few meters away from the Nihilators. "Intruders! Leave this sacred ground at once, or we shall drive you from here by any means necessary!" the largest and toughest-looking of the Mamoswine bellowed.

"Mmm, no, I don't zink ve vill," Tarantulas said with a yawn. "And you are?"

"We are the Snowtusk clan! We have guarded this temple for generations against all who would seek to release the king of the giants!" the Mamoswine boasted.

"Really? You're not doing a very good job of it, then, since you weren't here to meet us, and got here after we opened the door leading inside," Entei said, unimpressed.

The Mamoswine turned red with anger. "Why, you…w-wait a minute. You are…you are the three legendary beasts! What are you doing, assisting these villains?"

"We got tired of being such goody-goodies…and figured it was about time we finally did something for ourselves, rather than always running around keeping imbeciles like you from getting themselves killed!" Raikou said.

"So we joined the strongest side, so that when the Nihilators prevail, we will at last have everything we ever wanted!" Suicune added.

"Th-this cannot be…what sort of spell have you cast over them to make them say such things?" the Mamoswine cried in disbelief.

"No spell," Entei said with a smirk. "We chose this of our own free will!"

"That, and Bellum was-" Chobin started, until a horrified Tarantulas covered his mouth in webbing. "Mmphmphmphmmmmpph!"

"Vhat vere you doing? Zey aren't supposed to know about zat!" Tarantulas hissed.

"Know about what?" asked a confused Raikou.

"What was that he was saying about Bellum?" Suicune asked.

"He vas saying zat Bellum is vorking on a vay to make you even stronger, but it vas supposed to be a surprise," Tarantulas lied. "And now you know. Sorry."

"She is? Wow, that's awfully nice of her," said the surprised Raikou.

Entei frowned. "Yeah…almost uncharacteristically so…"

"She's not making you stronger for your sakes, it's for hers," Tarantulas elaborated.

"Oh, all right then," Entei said, mollified. "That sounds more like her."

"It is a pity you do not have that extra strength now," the Mamoswine said, recovering from his shock. "Because without it, you have no hope of defeating us!"

All the Nihilators burst into laughter. "Oh, isn't zat adorable? Zey actually zink zey have a chance," Tarantulas gasped, wiping away a tear.

Chobin giggled, and then winced in pain. "It is giving Chobin chortles of amusement! As well as pain of ouchies…because my guffawing of joy hurts Chobin Jr…."

"We admire your courage, but please! You must get out of here!" Registeel warned the Mamoswine herd.

"They are far more powerful than you think…we believed that we were strong enough to defeat them before…and we were wrong," Regice said.

"You cannot possibly win! Leave now, while you still can!" Regirock urged them.

The herd leader frowned. "I'm sorry, honored golems, but I must respectfully disagree. We are stronger than you think, too…and we cannot turn our backs on our duty! We must prevent the king of the giants from being awakened and used for diabolical purposes by the likes of these fiends! How could we possibly do anything less?"

Entei shook his head pityingly. "You know, once I was a lot like you…blindly focused on duty, always rushing about to help others and do the bidding of the gods, never taking a moment to rest or slack off out of fear that it would be dishonorable…and I never realized how much of a slave I was, a puppet of higher powers. In my blind devotion to duty, I made myself a prisoner. We all did."

"But now we are free to do whatever we please…while fools like you continue to strut about, full of self-importance because you think that having some great and noble charge makes you special," Suicune sneered. "But it doesn't. All it does is make you a pawn."

"And the only purpose of a pawn is to be sacrificed when it's no longer needed," Raikou growled. "And if you're so committed to keeping us out of this temple…then right now, that sacrifice is going to be to us."

"We do not care," the Mamoswine said. "It is our purpose to protect this place. We will give our lives to do so, if that's what it will take."

Tarantulas chuckled. "And zat's vhat it vill take…and in ze end, it von't be enough. Entei! Raikou! Suicune! How vould you zhree like to handle zese buffoons?"

"It would be our pleasure, Doctor," Entei said, baring his fangs in a grin.

"Juice us up, and we'll show them what real power looks like!" Raikou said eagerly.

"And beauty," Suicune said. "For power is beauty, and I am at my most beautiful when I am at the peak of my strength."

"Eh, actually, Chobin is kind of being turned off by your Mode of Hyperness. It is not making Chobin Jr. stiffen with lust at all," Chobin said. Suicune responded by hitting him with an Ice Beam, freezing him solid.

Tarantulas sighed. "It's a good zing I brought along some extra cloning pods, just in case…all right! Prepare for Shadow infusion!" Three of his mechanical spider minions lit up, jumped off his body, and scurried across the ice, leaving tiny little pinprick footprints in the snow as they went. They crawled up the legs of the legendary beasts, climbed up their backs, and bit them in the back of their necks, injecting pure Shadow into their bloodstreams. They gasped, eyes bulging out of their sockets and muscles tightening until they could be seen through their skin. They ground their teeth and convulsed, waves of power rippling off of them and cracking the ground, causing the glacier to tremble.

The Mamoswine stepped back in alarm. "What…what is happening?" the leader cried.

"Your end," Tarantulas said sinisterly.

"No…" Registeel whispered. "You should have run while you had the chance."

"Now…it is too late. Far, far too late," Regice said sadly.

The three beasts threw their heads back and roared so loudly that parts of the glacier collapsed and avalanches rolled down the slopes of several nearby mountains. Auras of their respective elements blazed to life around them, shattering the ground they were standing on and towering several meters into the air before shrinking back down and coalescing, turning darker until they were pitch black, a limitless darkness that hungrily devoured the light. The Mamoswine stared in horror as the beasts began to transform before their eyes, slowly starting to realize that they might have made a mistake.

Raikou's tail went from looking like a lightning bolt to actually being a lightning bolt, a crackling whip of electricity which twitched and snapped and spat sparks as it flailed about wildly. The thundercloud cape on his back turned black, grew thicker, and rumbled, lights flashing in its depths and bolts of static crackling around it. Bone spurs shaped like lightning bolts tore out of his joints and from his sides as his fur color inverted, yellow becoming black and black becoming yellow. His claws and fangs grew longer and sharper, static crackling along their lengths. The gray crest on his forehead grew two zigzagging horns from the sides and a lightning bolt-shaped blade pointing straight forward. His eyes turned as yellow as his fur had used to be. He howled, and black lightning bolts shot down all around him.

The metal bands around Entei's legs shattered, and his whole body bulked up, muscles bulging out to ridiculous extremes. His shaggy brown fur rustled and grayed until it was the color of burnt ashes. The plates on his back grew longer and sharper as more plates burst out of his sides and joints, and his gray cape changed from smoke into flame, a thick tongue of fire that roiled and burned and twisted behind him. Claws popped out of his paws, and his wrists and ankles burst into flames. The gray plate on his belly turned 180 degrees and took on the color and consistency of fire. His long mane transformed into flames, creating a burning wreath around his head. The plates covering his face rattled, and then expanded outwards, generating more plates to encircle his entire head, sprouting a pair of antlers in the process so that its resemblance to a samurai kabuto was complete. To finish it off, a single tongue of flame appeared over his head, burning with greater intensity than the rest of the fires all over his body. His eyes turned burning red, and he howled, and black flames erupted all around him.

Suicune's blue fur turned black, while the diamond-shaped spots on her sides transformed into many-armed spirals. Glittering spikes made of solid water (water, not ice, mind you) formed on her joints, and solid water spikes sprouted from her back. Claws made of water sprouted from her paws. Her purple mane shimmered and transformed into water, flowing behind her like a liquid tendril with bubbles and ice crystals drifting in its mass. Her white streamer tails grew longer, turned into water, and formed barbs at their end, lashing at the air like whips, leaving bubbles and dark auroras in their wake. Spikes grew from the sides of the hexagonal crest on her head, and an aurora-colored energy ball formed inside it. A mask made of solid water formed over her face, distorting her features and making them either ethereally beautiful or otherworldly terrifying, depending on which way you looked at it. Her eyes turned as blue as her fur had used to be. She howled, and black geysers burst from the ground around her.

The herd leader's eyes widened in horror. "No…" he whispered. "What…what is this atrocity? What have you done to yourselves?"

"We have made ourselves perfect, undying," Raikou barked, his voice snapping like a crack of lightning.

"Powerful beyond your imagining," Entei boomed, his voice like a great explosion.

"And beauteous beyond mortal ken…gaze upon us and weep, fools, for we are your end!" Suicune hissed, her voice like a raging waterfall.

"We tried to warn you…" Regirock said sadly.

"And now…now it is too late. For all of us," Registeel whispered.

"Shall we kill them, Doctor?" Raikou asked eagerly.

Tarantulas grinned. "Go ahead. Electrocute zem to deazz. Burn ze flesh from zeir bones. Drown zem beneazz your unstoppable power. Show zem zat Shadow is ze future…and zey have no part in it!"

"With pleasure!" Entei snarled.

"Come, my brothers! Let us have some fun!" Suicune said wickedly.

The corrupted trio charged towards the horrified Mamoswine as the Nihilators watched eagerly and the golems looked on in despair…knowing that before this day ended, far more people were going to die…

And there was nothing they could do about it.

Elsewhere…

Gardevoir opened her eyes…and was surprised to find herself inside her subconscious. "What am I doing here?" she wondered as she looked around the black space.

"You're asleep," the vampire that was the representation of her 'balanced' self said, appearing next to her.

"Well yes, I know that, but usually when I fall asleep I dream. I don't come here," said the puzzled Gardevoir.

"You came here because you are needed here," the vampire said with a frown. "Something inside us has changed…and we aren't sure what to do about it."

Gardevoir frowned as well. "Change? What do you mean?"

"Come and see for yourself," the vampire said, beckoning her. Gardevoir followed the figment of her imagination into the darkness…

And soon enough came upon her other two figments, the angel and the devil, standing with trepidation before a plain-looking door, bickering as usual. "I say we leave it alone. No good can possibly come of it," the angel said.

"Oh, come on. You can't tell me you aren't the least bit curious what's behind it?" the devil asked teasingly.

"Oh, I'm very curious. But something like that doesn't belong here. It is not…of us, and something that's not a part of us shouldn't be inside us," the angel said. "Therefore, it can only be something very bad or very dangerous…and therefore we should destroy it, or leave it alone and hopefully it'll disappear on its own."

The devil snorted. "What, you're serious? That's really stupid."

"So is opening the door and getting attacked by whatever horrible thing might be behind it!" the angel retorted.

"Please, we could take it," the devil scoffed.

"Could we now? What if it's a trap of Oblivion's Shadow?" the angel asked skeptically.

"Then we'll just kick him out like we did before," the devil said. "No problem."

"No problem? We only barely managed to do it before. The next time we may not be so lucky," the angel said.

The devil rolled her eyes. "Geez, you're such a pessimist. I thought angels were supposed to be more optimistic."

"We are, but there's not much to be optimistic about these days," the angel pointed out. "So I find the sudden appearance of this…whatever-it-is to be very suspicious."

"So do I, which is why I think we should open it up and get this over with already, the curiosity is killing me, and I'm not even a Meowth!" the demon said.

The vampire cleared her throat, and the other two glanced at her in annoyance. "What is it?" they asked simultaneously…and did a double-take when they saw Gardevoir.

"Wait a minute…are you…" the angel started.

"The real us? Oh wow, I've always wanted to meet you!" the devil said excitedly, rushing over to shake the startled Gardevoir's hand. She frowned enviously. "You look even prettier than I expected…"

Gardevoir blinked. I'm being complimented by a figment of my imagination. What does that say about myself? "You look quite well yourself, er…me?"

The demon blushed. "Awww, thanks!"

"What are you doing down here on our level?" the angel asked. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, it's just…you really aren't supposed to be here…"

"That's something I was hoping one of you could explain to me," Gardevoir said.

"It was my doing," the vampire said. "As you might have surmised, we have a bit of a dilemma on our hands."

"Oh?" Gardevoir asked.

The vampire gestured to the door. "What do you make of that?"

"It's a door," Gardevoir said, stating the obvious.

"Precisely. A door that doesn't belong here," the vampire said.

The angel nodded. "The three of us are the only things that are supposed to exist on this level of your consciousness. That door, though…it's not part of us. Not part of you. It comes from somewhere else entirely…somewhere outside of you."

Gardevoir frowned. "Oh my. That does sound rather worrisome. How did it get here?"

"We don't know," the demon said. "The most likely explanation is someone is trying to gain access to our—to your—mind."

"But it doesn't feel as intrusive as Oblivion Shadow's mind probes, or have the same…presence that we experienced a few of those times we tried contacting that Absol traveling with Ash," the angel said.

"It also doesn't feel like the Teacher either, or any of our friends," the vampire added. "It's kind of a mystery."

"So it would seem," Gardevoir agreed. "You were right to bring me here. This seems very important. What should we do about it?"

"That's up to you to decide," the vampire said. "This is your mind. We're just fragments of your consciousness, so we shouldn't do anything major without your approval."

"I believe we should leave it alone, or try to repel it, banish it from our self," the angel said. "It is a foreign presence that does not belong in our consciousness. I do not trust it."

"Neither do I, but I think we should at least open it up and see what's on the other side, who's trying to contact us," the demon said. "If it's something hostile, we'll use our combined power to destroy it."

"And what if it's too powerful for us?" the angel asked.

"Then we'll just slam the door closed in its face again, and lock it," the demon said.

"What if we can't? What if the very act of opening the door allows it a permanent connection inside of us?" the angel countered.

"We have a permanent connection to the Teacher, and our vampire minions, and that hasn't worked out so badly," the demon pointed out.

"Not all the beings who want to contact us may have such benign intentions, though," the angel retorted. "We have been lucky so far, but remember that we are right in the lair of our greatest enemy, a being of unfathomable evil and boundless Psychic powers. We have been able to repel him so far, but if we open the door, let down our defenses, there is no guarantee we will be able to do so again. He will have gained a foothold inside of us, and it will not be easy to remove him once he has it."

"…I guess that's true," the demon admitted. "But doesn't it work both ways? If this is a trap by the Shadow, maybe we can turn the tables on him…gain access to his mind, and learn all his secrets…maybe even a way to defeat him? If that's the case, it's an opportunity we can't pass up!"

"Yes, but it could still be a trap…to lure us into his mind, where we will be unable to escape his grasp!" the angel argued. "It is simply too dangerous. We cannot take that risk. There are too many people depending on us."

"But isn't the risk of not doing it even greater? We can't turn down a chance like this…it might never come again!" the demon said.

"Assuming it's even from Oblivion's Shadow," the angel added. "It could just as easily be from someone else."

"And it could be someone who can help us!" the demon said impatiently. "We have to try! We can't just do nothing!"

"Well? What do you think?" the vampire asked, turning to Gardevoir.

Gardevoir blinked in surprise. "Me? What do you think?"

"I'm you, more than either of them are," the vampire reminded her. "My opinion is the same as yours, pretty much. So…what do you believe we should do with this door? Ignore it, try and get rid of it…or open it?"

Gardevoir considered this for a moment. "Open it."

"Yes!" the demon cheered.

The angel was crestfallen. "What? But why?"

"Whoever put this here is clearly strong enough to at least partially penetrate our mind…but the fact that they didn't come all the way, but gave us a choice in whether or not we should complete the connection, indicates they have a sense of decency…a decency that Oblivion's Shadow has so far failed to demonstrate," Gardevoir said reasonably. "If they went to this much effort and were courteous enough to allow us the final say in how we deal with them…I think it's only polite of us to try and return that courtesy. And besides…it doesn't feel like the Shadow. Even if it is some sort of trap…I rather doubt it could be anything as malevolent as whatever he could throw at us."

The angel looked at the door for a moment. "Well…I suppose that's true. I don't really sense any malicious intent…that still doesn't mean it's not a trap, though."

"No, but it's a trap we can probably handle," the demon said confidently. "With all four of us working together, I'm sure we can take whatever's waiting on the other side."

"Well, technically it's just the one of us, but one-is-four in this case, so I suppose it still counts," the vampire said.

"It's settled, then?" Gardevoir asked. "We shall open the door?"

The trio nodded. "You're going to have to be the one to do it, though," the angel said.

"Yeah, this is your mind after all," the demon said. "We're just parts of it."

"Don't worry though," the vampire assured her. "We've got your back."

"Very well." Gardevoir reached out and grasped the doorknob. "Here we go." She took a deep breath, turned the knob, and wrenched the door open.

They tensed, ready for anything.

Nothing happened. No malevolent force rushed through the portal to destroy them. No horrible monster crawled out to try and consume them. All that lay on the other side of the door was a blackness much like the darkness of her subconscious, but…there was something…different about it…

The angel sighed in relief. "Thank goodness…"

The demon frowned in disappointment. "Awww, I was hoping something would happen. How anticlimactic."

Gardevoir frowned and turned to her vampiric twin. "Do you…feel that?"

The vampire nodded. "There's another presence on the other side of that thing…a subconscious figment, much like ourselves. It's weak…barely alive…barely existing…"

The angel gasped. "Oh! We have to help it, then!"

"What happened to worrying about a trap? Sounds like bait to me," the demon said.

"Even if it's a trap…if someone's hurt and in need, we have to help them!" the angel said stubbornly. "It's the right thing to do! You know that as well as I do!" The demon grimaced, begrudgingly admitting the point.

"This door leads into someone else's subconscious plane," Gardevoir intuited. "If I pass through…will you be able to follow?"

"It's someone else's mind…but I believe so, so long as you concentrate on keeping us real and by your side," the vampire said.

The angel nodded. "Since we're figments of your imagination, that means if you stop thinking about us, we'll cease to exist."

Gardevoir gasped in horror. "What?"

"It's not as bad as you think," the demon said quickly. "We're a part of you, so we can never really be destroyed. If we happen to vanish over there, we'll just reappear back here. You don't need to worry about us."

"But if you want us to help you on the other side, you need to make sure not to lose your concentration or be distracted by whatever you might find there, or else you'll be on your own," the vampire said.

Gardevoir nodded, understanding. "I see…what about myself? Can I be…damaged?"

"…Possibly," the vampire admitted. "Unlike the rest of us, you're real. Since you're sending a significant part of yourself into someone else's consciousness, if something bad happens over there and you can't get back, the…physical you may never be the same. Your psyche will be radically altered forever."

"Knowing this, will you still go through?" the angel asked.

Gardevoir nodded. "There's someone over there who needs our help. I can feel it. We can't turn our backs on them, now that we know they exist."

The angel smiled. "Well said."

"And if anyone tries anything funny…" the demon muttered darkly, narrowing her eyes and flexing her claws. "There'll be hell to pay."

"Then let's go," the vampire said. "Off into the unknown." She smiled, baring her fangs. "This should be interesting."

Together, the four Gardevoirs passed through the gateway, unknowing of who or what lay on the other side, making sure not to close the door behind them. It might be locked from the other end, after all.

And that is that. Dang, I'd hoped to get this chapter out sooner, but…well, you know the same old excuses.

Anyway, cheers to the start of an exciting new arc, and to my fiftieth chapter! It's not as long as some of the other milestones I've hit, but it's still a significant marker in the progress of this story all the same.

And as usual, with a new arc comes new mysteries. What is Dawn's connection to that mysterious Dragonite? How did Sam and Max get on the Enchanted Express? What does Brodie, Bellum's evil henchmon, have in store for the Duchess Fantina? What answers does the mystic Krysta have for Rayquaza and Latias on resolving their current afflictions? Can Pichu win a name of his own, Max overcome his fear of fighting, and Matthias resolve his issues with his surviving family? What's the deal with that weird skull-wearing Riolu? Does James stand a snowball's chance in the Abyss of beating Mewgle? Will Tarantulas acquire the power of the king of the giants?

And what secrets will Gardevoir and her figments find on the other side of the door?

The answers to these questions and more will be revealed…next time! Hopefully, before the end of the month, though I wouldn't count on it. Thanksgiving's going to be as much of a time-consumer as school, after all.

In any event, I'll see you then.