This chapter took a little longer for me to start up then I would have liked. I blame work, new video games, and my reluctance to actually get cracking and get to work, which I thankfully got over, as you can clearly see by the fact that you're reading this.
And so we have the latest chapter in this epic saga. I have no idea when it's going to end either. I highly doubt it'll be next year. Maybe not even the year after. Jesus, I've been doing this a long time…
Oh well, let's get to it, shall we?
Disclaimer: I don't own anything that doesn't belong to me. Credit goes to tazkolofthemasteremeralds for helping me create the Berry Kingdom.
The day after Leo and Lily's wedding…
Breakfast in the Fantasma household was always an interesting affair, and rarely if ever dull. Like pretty much everything else in the Chambre de Fantasma, conventional wisdom and the laws of physics had been completely thrown out the window when it came to the dining room…namely, in that there wasn't actually a room at all. Instead, at every meal the staff randomly chose one of the thousands of other dimensions or planes of existence that could be magically accessed using the many, many doors to other realms littering the household and transported the diners there so that they could eat at leisure while being surrounded by the sights and sounds of a whole other reality without having to worry about being bothered by pesky matters such as hostile natives or a breathable atmosphere thanks to a special membrane that had been devised by Agatha Fantasma—demonstrating once more that Fantina's many daughters had inherited her genius at spellcrafting as well as her looks—that made them invisible and impermeable from the outside, but also basically maintained a pocket of their own world around them, so that the instant any of them crossed the boundary of the membrane they'd find themselves right back in the Fantasma estate, and all one had to do was terminate the spell and they'd all find themselves snapped right back to Fichina, so nobody had to worry about getting stranded in another world. Which would probably be a bad thing, since many of those other worlds were anathema to the kind of matter Pokémon were made up of.
As such, this is why the morning after the wedding, the Fantasmas and their guests—Ash, Tiny, Pikachu, Dawn, the Thunderblades, and the DeKappas—found themselves sitting amiably around a long table hovering over the realm of Muspellheim, elemental plane of fire and home of Fantina's old 'flame' (ha ha) Surtrit. It actually looked a surprising amount like their own world…except for the fact that everything was made of fire. Everything. The hills, the trees, the clouds, the creatures, the buildings, even the water were all made of fire of different colors, burning brilliantly and dancing around the cozy little bubble they were all eating in. When Pikachu had realized that even the air was made of fire, he'd asked how a world made completely out of flames could possibly exist without oxygen to feed it and keep it from suffocating. The Fantasmas had stared at him blankly. He'd grumbled something about 'stupid magic' and went back to enjoying his breakfast, which was actually better than his mother's cooking, not that he'd ever say that, especially not with her in earshot.
The meal itself, which was constantly being replaced with new dishes teleported in from the kitchens to feed the voracious appetites of the guests (mainly Ash, Junior, and the young giant Gibles), was rather difficult to describe, like pretty much any food—or anything else, really—in the Fantasma house was. Some dishes were in colors Ash was sure didn't exist, others all he had to do was smell or look at to feel instantly full, and on one memorable occasion he'd been told to stick it in his ear to properly eat it. That last one had actually been a prank, but he hadn't been very surprised when he was later informed that they sometimes had food that could only be digested by putting it in your ear. Or belly button. Fichina was weird like that.
They'd even managed to find something for Leo's father, much to his astonishment, seeing as how he didn't have a stomach, or even tastebuds. All he had to do was look at the…thing on his plate and he'd feel like he'd eaten a five-course meal. "How is this possible?!" he asked constantly, not taking his unblinking (not that he could, no eyelids) gaze from his dish.
"Magic, dear," Judy said, nonchalantly smashing her face into her plate and rolling it about so that her facial pores could absorb the nutrients of whatever the heck she was eating, because apparently Pokémon stomachs weren't intended to digest it the usual way.
"The answer to everything around here," Pikachu muttered as he poked uncertainly at his breakfast, which he was sure moved every time he took his eyes off it. Would it be too much to ask for some waffles or pancakes that he didn't have to eat by turning his back to it, hopping on one foot, and singing a nursery rhyme to make it instantly vanish and reappear in his belly? (He wasn't entirely certain all those steps had been necessary. It could have been another prank, but he didn't want to risk it.)
Dawn looked down at her fur, which had turned pink with neon green polka dots the instant she'd stuck her fork (at least, she thought it was a fork) in her breakfast. This is temporary, right? If not, I may need to have words with your chef.
"Don't worry, it'll go back to normal," Morticia assured her.
Dawn sighed in relief. Good.
"Assuming you eat every last piece of it, zat is," Morticia continued.
Phoebe nodded in agreement. "If you don't, not only will it become permanent, but you'll grow twice your size, sprout a zird eye in a razzer embarrassing place, and one of your feet will be stuck in your mouz forever."
Dawn sighed wearily. Of course it will. She stabbed her fork in her meal once more, carefully reading the instructions that had been helpfully included with the plate to make sure she was eating it properly.
"Hey, do you think we could visit Surtrit while we're here?" Tiny asked, having difficulty taking his eyes off the flaming vista below them, which was bad for his stomach because Junior kept trying to steal whatever was on his plate when he wasn't looking. This was often bad for Junior's stomach too, because he kept trying to put it in his mouth, which was apparently not how it was intended to be eaten, which was why he had spontaneously inflated like a balloon, his colors had V, and his face had turned upside down. That didn't stop him from trying to steal from Tiny's plate, naturally. He wasn't very bright.
Fantina shook her head. "I'm afraid not. It's impossible to properly enter 'is realm wizzout ze proper protection. If we tried, we'd be incinerated instantly."
"Same if we let 'im in 'ere," Mirami said. "If ' e's not summoned properly, it can 'ave disastrous consequences."
"Like incinerating instantly?" Tiny asked.
"No, like exploding," Shauntal said.
Tiny gulped. "Ah."
"It probably wouldn't be a good idea to visit 'im, anyway," Fantina said. "'e'd smell ze ice on us from being at ze Yuki'imi place yesterday and be outraged we'd brought traces of 'is least favorite element into 'is realm."
"And then he'd incinerate us?" Tiny asked.
"No, zen 'e'd get into a 'issy fit and not talk to me for several decades, ze prima donna," Fantina said.
"Oh," Tiny said.
"You're taking this whole being surrounded by fire that could evaporate you thing pretty well," Pichu commented to Mizula, who had turned himself into a large blob of water and was consuming his food by wrapping his liquid body around it.
"It's just an illusion, like one of Zachary's pranks," the Phione said. "So long as I don't believe in it, it can't hurt me."
"…Um, actually, this is real. All of it," Pichu said.
Mizula paused. "It is?"
"Yeah. We're really here, in another dimension of pure fire," Pichu said.
Mizula's eyes widened in horror. "Oh. Oh dear." He started quivering like a block of gelatin.
"Relax," Matthias said as he uncertainly prodded his plate with his fork (?), trying to find his food, which was apparently not only ridiculously small but invisible to the naked eye. "If I'm not worried, neither should you be."
"You're not worried at all?" Pichu asked in surprise as Mizula calmed down gradually.
Matthias shrugged. "After all the weird and horrible shit I've seen over the years, now that I actually have a degree of courage it'll take a lot to frighten me, because it's probably not as awful as my childhood. And I realize now that if I could survive that, I can survive just about anything."
"Well said, son!" Raiki said proudly. "Both uplifting…and kind of depressing."
"So…why aren't you scared, exactly?" Pikachu asked.
Matthias shrugged. "I'm not exactly fond of magic, but I don't think our hosts would have taken us here if they weren't absolutely certain it'd be safe. And since nobody else seems to be very concerned, I don't see much of a point in wasting energy freaking out when I could spend it trying to figure out how to eat this…whatever it is. It's really delicious. One of the best things I've ever had, actually. What is it, again?"
"Unfortunately, its name is incompre'ensible in our language," Mirami said. "Namely because ze language where it's from is a series of rapid shifts in color."
"Ah," Matthias said.
"What, are the people there Kecleons or something?" Ash asked.
Mirami considered this for a moment. "Yes, if by 'Kecleon' you mean sentient masses of color ze size of entire star systems."
"…Do they look like Kecleons?" Ash asked.
"No," Mirami said.
"So…they aren't actually like Kecleons at all," Ash concluded.
"No, zey're not," Mirami said. Ash grunted.
"Sounds fun. Maybe we should go there for our next meal," Brad commented.
"I wouldn't recommend it if any of you 'ave epilepsy or are prone to seizures," Nefertari said.
The guests looked at each other uncertainly. I don't think that's a problem for any of us, Dawn said.
"Trust me, it would be," Nefertari said grimly.
"Grandma, you've barely touched your plate," Collette noted, frowning at Delia.
"Well, maybe her breakfast is one of the things you can't actually touch to eat otherwise it'll turn you inside out or something?" Sapphire suggested.
"No, zat's what Iggy 'as," Shauntal said. Iggy, who'd been about to grab his meal with his bare hands and stuff it in his mouth, hesitated and slowly drew his claws back.
"Oh. Then why aren't you eating, Grandma?" Sapphire asked.
"I mean no offense to our hosts or their chefs, but I don't trust anything I don't know how to make myself," Delia murmured, eyeing her plate suspiciously.
"I zink zey would take offense at zat, actually," Bow said.
"Oh. Well…it's good they can't hear me, then," Delia said.
Abruptly, her plate vanished. "Actually, zey can," Fantina said.
"Ah," Delia said, face falling. "Er…Raiki, I don't suppose you could spare a bite?"
"Oh, now you want to try some?" the Raichu asked in amusement.
"Raiki, I'm hungry and my head's still pounding from the party last night. Feed me. Now," Delia growled.
Gulping down his current mouthful, Raiki speared a large portion of…whatever he was eating on his fork (?) and held it out to Delia. She opened her mouth to swallow it…
And it disappeared the instant it passed her lips. "Oh, come on!"
"Wow, you must 'ave really upset zem," Morticia said.
"I zink you should apologize. You really 'urt zeir feelings," Phobe said.
Delia sighed. "All right, I get the hint. I'm sorry I insulted your cooking. Could I please have some breakfast now?" There was a pause, and then her plate reappeared…upside down…in the air above her. It fell on top of her head, splattering her. Her eye twitched as everyone stared at her for a moment in astonishment and burst into laughter. "Real classy, guys…"
"Actually, zat's ze way it's supposed to be eaten," Agatha said as the food seeped into Delia's flesh and disappeared. "You should be grateful zey didn't send back a dish zat would curse you if flipped or made contact with flesh."
"Thank goodness for small blessings," Delia grumbled, feeling disturbed and somewhat violated.
Kageie, who had been rather enjoying her breakfast after spending a few minutes trying to figure out what it was and how to eat it, frowned, something occurring to her. She glanced around the table and said, "Aren't we missing someone?"
Ash blinked in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"Some of your friends aren't here," the Tyranitar observed.
"Well, Leo and Lily stayed behind at the Yukihimi estate last night for…obvious reasons, so they're having breakfast there," Pikachu said.
"I bet that's not all they're having," Raiki said lewdly.
"Brunch?" Tiny asked innocently.
There was an awkward pause. "Er…yes. Brunch. Let's go with that," Raiki said after a moment.
"And Sasha's not here because after she took off her robes once we got back from the party last night she immediately fell asleep and won't wake up for quite some time," Pikachu continued.
Kageie nodded. "All right. And the sea captain?"
"Briney is…" Pikachu paused, blinked, and looked around in surprise. "Hey, that's right, where is Briney?"
Maybe he's sleeping off a hangover? Dawn suggested.
"I don't think it's actually possible for him to get a hangover, since he's a Steel type," Tiny said, who knew a thing or two about hangovers thanks to his little vice.
"Around 'ere, you can," Mirami said.
Ash frowned in thought. "Come to think of it…I don't think Briney actually came home with us last night, did he?"
"Oh yeah…" Pikachu recalled. "He said he had to go talk to that Smithy guy who made Leo's Masked Rider belt…something which I will never forgive him for…and said we shouldn't wait up for him."
"Oooh, sounds like someone got lucky," Shauntal said lewdly.
"Briney doesn't swing that way. At all," Pikachu said flatly.
"And he's fanatically loyal to his dead wife. He took his wedding vows seriously. He'll never…um…be with another womon again, so long as he lives," Ash said awkwardly, remembering Tiny and some of the other kids were within earshot.
Fantina's daughters sighed wistfully. "More's ze pity…" Bow said.
"Why are ze best ones always unavailable?" Phoebe said, looking meaningfully at Raiki, who spluttered and nearly choked on his food. He and Delia turned red, one with embarrassment and the other with rage. Or maybe it was a side effect of the food. Hard to say.
…You're into Briney? Why? Dawn asked incredulously.
"'e's strong, rugged, experienced, and 'andsome in 'is own way," Nefertari said dreamily. "What womon wouldn't want 'im?"
"NOT ME!" Dawn, Delia, Judy, Collette, and Sapphire all said loudly. When Wendy said nothing, they all looked at her. "What?" the Gible asked, turning red. "I think he's kinda cute."
"…Right. Anyway," Ash said, deciding not to address everything wrong with that statement. "Has anyone seen him since last night?" Everyone at the table shook their heads in uncertainty. Ash frowned. "Then where the heck is he?"
"Right here," said someone who most certainly was not Briney as he abruptly appeared at the table. "Sorry I'm late, evolution takes a lot out of you and I had to sleep in to restore some of my energy. And now I need to eat to restore even more of my energy, which I have much more of than ever before." He frowned at the plate in front of him, already heaped with…something. "That's not gonna be enough." Half a dozen more plates appeared. "Still not enough." Approximately twenty plates appeared. "Eh, it's a start." His eyes—of which he had two—glowed, and the food started lifting off his plate and flying down his rather large, metal fanged jaws. He paused when he noticed everyone staring at him. "What? Is there something on my face?"
There most certainly was something on his face: a giant metallic cross, due to the fact that he was a Metagross. He also had a very impressive (and sharp) metal moustache and a thick beard of metal curls that Santa Christ might have envied if he were a robot or a Steel-type, along with bladed eyebrows that would have been considered bushy if they weren't made of metal rather than hair. A yellow star was welded to his forehead between the upper legs of the metal cross. One of the legs on his left side looked as if it was made of a different material than the rest of his body, with visible hinges and a larger and more powerful-looking claw at the end of it. Studded metal bracers were wrapped around each of his wrists. His metallic hide was covered in nicks, dents, scratches, and all sorts of scars, but still shone with a fine polish. He also wore a pirate captain's hat with gold points like those of a crown growing from the brim.
"…Briney?" Ash asked finally in astonishment.
The Metagross frowned at him. "Well, yeah, who else would I be? Well, except for Smithy. Since I'm him too. So I'm Briney, but I'm also not, if that makes any sense."
"It doesn't," Ash said.
"Figured," Briney grunted.
"I don't get it," Morton complained.
"That's nothing new," Ludwig snickered.
"Wait…did you say Smizzy?! Does zat mean you're Smizzy, too?!" Mirami cried in astonishment.
"That's what I just said, isn't it?" the Metagross said in annoyance.
"I thought you said you were Briney," said a thoroughly lost Ash.
"I am. I'm also Smithy. I'm both," the Metagross said.
"…Uh?" Ash said blankly.
"I'm confused," Tiny said.
The Metagross sighed in exasperation. "Look, when two Beldum fuse together, they become a Metang. When two Metang fuse together, they become a Metagross. Briney and Smithy fused together to make me. As such, I am both Briney and Smithy, and also neither. Something new. And yet not. Simple."
"Ohhhh," Ash said.
"Wait…then you evolved?!" Pikachu cried.
"Uh, yeah? Kind of obvious, isn't it?" Briney said, gesturing at himself.
"When did this happen?!" Pikachu demanded.
"Last night. Obviously. When else would it have happened?" Briney asked drily.
"But…but…you never told us you were going to do this!" Pikachu said helplessly.
Briney blinked. "I didn't?"
"No!" Pikachu said.
"Oh. Sorry," Briney said. Pikachu facepalmed.
"Wait, wait, wait. Back up. You evolved?" Ash asked.
Briney gave him an exasperated look. "Are you going to keep asking me the obvious all day? Yes, I did."
"By fusing with another Metang," Ash continued.
"Yes. As I said a moment ago," Briney said, getting irritated.
"And…he was okay with this?" Ash asked.
Briney gave him a confused look. "Why wouldn't he be?"
"Well, um…it just sounds…er…like…a very, very big decision to make. Completely life-altering," Ash said awkwardly.
"Well, considering he was going to die if he didn't evolve with me, I'd say it was," Briney said.
"He was going to die?" Tiny asked in astonishment.
Fantina nodded. "Smizzy was struggling for years wiz a disease endemic to Steel-types called Cancerrust. It would 'ave eventually killed 'im, despite ze best treatments of modern magical medicine. Evolving is one of ze only ways 'e could 'ave possibly gotten rid of it."
"What, you couldn't just magic it away?" Delia asked.
Fantina smiled sadly. "As I'm sure your son can tell you, magic can't fix everyzing." Ash grimaced at that uncomfortable reminder.
"It certainly can't," Misty said cheerfully, eyeing his plate hungrily. "You gonna eat that?"
"Can you?" he muttered under his breath.
"I have no idea, but I'm willing to try," she said.
"So you combined with him to save his life…by ending it…and turning it into something else? That's very noble…I think…" Raiki said uncertainly.
"Well, there were other factors involved too," Briney said. "Like the fact that I became exponentially stronger. So strong, in fact, that I can now read all of your minds again. Even the ones with mental wards up that should keep me from reading their minds. Even the ones whose minds can't normally be read by Psychic-types."
"WHAT?" everyone screamed in horror, especially the Fantasmas, who had a number of things in their heads that they weren't exactly comfortable with anyone knowing. At all. Ever. Both state secrets and mysteries of their craft and more…personal information.
"You've been reading our minds?!" Delia cried, horrified by the violation of privacy.
"Lousy Psychics," Matthias grunted.
"Not cool, mon!" Pichu yelled.
"I didn't know my mind could be read," said a surprised Brad. "You know, since I'm a skull in a robot body animated by necromancy and all."
"Wait, what? Can he see me, then?" Misty wondered in surprise. "I don't think even Lugia was able to hear me before…then again, he's not nearly as intrusive as Briney is…"
"But…I'm a Dark-type! My mind can't be read!" Kageie protested.
"Actually, if a Psychic-type uses Miracle Eye first, they can," Collette corrected her. "Which…isn't what's going on here, I think."
"No, it's not," Briney agreed. "The magical ability I've picked up by fusing with Smithy has augmented my Psychic powers so pesky limitations like that don't bother me anymore. But don't worry, ol' Briney knows when to keep a secret. Unless it amuses him not to. Of course, I'm not exactly Briney anymore, so…" he said cheerfully as he shoveled more food down his gullet.
"Zis…zis is 'orrible!" whispered a shocked Agatha.
"Zen…does zat mean you know about-?" Phoebe asked.
"Yes," Briney said.
"And 'ow I like to-"
"Yes," Briney said. The Ghost turned very, very red. "If you think that's embarrassing, though, you should see what Morton does when he thinks nobody is looking."
Everyone turned to look at Morton, who had at that moment been trying to pick his nose with his tongue. "What?" he asked awkwardly.
"I…zink we're going to need to work on strengzening our wards later, Mama," Mirami said anxiously.
"Won't work," Briney said. "Especially not if you try what you're thinking of."
The Sableye shot him an angry look. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell us somezing zat might work, zen?" Bow asked, fluttering her eyelashes flirtatiously at him, something that turned most mons (and quite a few womons) to goo in seconds. Not literally, thankfully. Though she did have a spell for that.
Briney was not most mons. "Nope," he said, finishing the last of his plates. "Still hungry. More, please." Another couple of dozen plates laden with food materialized in front of him. "Thanks." He started digging in again. The Gibles and Junior, who'd all already had close to ten dishes each, stared at him in awe.
"Don't worry, I highly doubt Briney's going to make any of the things he's found out about you public unless he feels like embarrassing you," Pikachu said wearily.
"…So…we should be scared for our reputations and images, zen?" Shauntal asked nervously.
Pikachu thought about this for a moment. "Yeah, that sounds about right." The Ghosts exchanged worried looks.
Tiny sighed. "And I was just getting used to the Captain not constantly prying in our heads, too…wait, then does that mean…"
"Yeah, I know about that, but I'll let you tell them on your own time," Briney said. Tiny sighed in relief. Ash gave him a questioning look, but the Pupitar just shook his head, not ready to talk about it.
Dawn frowned. Wait…can you…read my mind now?
"Yes," Briney lied. He actually still couldn't read the minds of Dark-types or those with Dark-type attributes despite what he'd just said, but he saw no reason to tell anyone that. Why spoil his fun?
Dawn rose from her seat, materializing several ice blades. Then by ninja law I must kill you to keep the secrets you have stolen.
"Heh, I'd like to see you try," Briney said in amusement, not even looking up from his latest dish.
Bristling, Dawn was about to step forward to do just that when Pikachu held out a paw. "Dawn, not at the table."
But Master- Dawn protested.
"Dawn, Briney is one of us, you can't kill him," Pikachu said, not voicing that he wasn't sure the Buneary could. A chuckle from the Metagross indicated Briney'd sensed that, much to his chagrin. "While I know you're probably supposed to kill him because of whatever he's learned that he's not supposed to, Briney isn't Leo, and he's not going to leak it all onto the Internet if he thinks it'll be cool."
"That's right, your secrets are safe with me," Briney said. "Even the stuff you aren't telling Pikachu."
Pikachu blinked in surprise and glanced at Dawn. "What? What haven't you told-"
BRINEY! Dawn roared.
"SO!" Ash shouted desperately, trying to change the subject. "Briney! You're both the Captain we know and…tolerate, and this…Smithy guy we don't know very well now, right?"
"Yeah, that's pretty much it," Briney said while Pikachu struggled to get Dawn back in her seat and calm her down.
"So…how's that work, exactly?" Ash asked. "Is one of you dominant, or…"
"It doesn't work like that," Briney said. "There aren't two minds in one body. Well, technically it's four brains, but I digress. When we evolved, we…synthesized. Briney and Smithy became one, the inverse of what happens when Nincada evolve into Ninjask and Shedinja. I have the memories and personalities and powers of both of them. I am me, and I am them."
"Then Briney is…dead?" Tiny whispered.
"No, I am Briney. And Smithy. I'm still here," Briney insisted. "Just…not the way you might remember me. I've evolved. I guess that's the best way I can put it."
"Then…what should we call you, exactly?" asked Ash while Pikachu said soothing words to Dawn and stroked her ears in the way she liked that he didn't usually do in public, very aware that his little brother and parents and nephew and nieces and Leo's siblings were watching and snickering. "Since you're not quite Briney or Smithy?"
"Brithy? Sminey?" Junior suggested.
"Eh, it doesn't really matter what you call me," the Metagross said. "But you can call me Briney if it'll make the transition easier to you, though around my—er, Smithy's old colleagues, I'll be Smithy."
"I guess that would work," Ash said.
"Good," Briney said. "Now that that's settled…" He frowned when he saw he had finished all his dishes again. "More, please." A third massive helping of food materialized before him. "There we go." He resumed eating with a flourish.
"Wait, wait, we're not doing anything about this?!" Delia asked.
"About what?" Raiki asked.
"He's been reading all our minds! Without permission! And has no intention of stopping!" Delia pointed out.
"Got that right," Briney said while slurping down…something.
"What's more, he's been traveling with our children all this time and reading their minds without permission!" Delia continued. "And we're not going to do anything about this?!"
"Zere…isn't really anyzing we can do," Fantina said weakly. "Before our spells were able to keep him from reading everyone's minds, but now zat 'e 'as Smizzy's magic and formidable mental powers combined wiz 'is own, I don't zink zere's anyzing we can do about it."
"It's a good thing I'm not a perverted sicko or evil bastard or I could totally be doing all sorts of horrible things to your heads right now and there'd be almost nothing you could do to stop me," Briney said cheerfully, which did not alleviate their concerns in the slightest. "On the plus side, there are perverted sickos or evil bastards who would be perfectly happy doing all sorts of horrible things to your heads and the heads of your children, but so long as I'm with them, they won't be able to do that now. I think I might even have a shot at repelling Oblivion's Shadow's Psychic attacks."
Ash's head snapped around to look at the Metagross. "You think so?"
"Well, I'm a heck of a lot stronger now. I think I've got a pretty good chance of it," Briney said. "Certainly won't hurt the next time we run into him."
Ash made a face. "Yeah…"
"Next time, he might have to worry more about you losing your mind than stopping Oblivion's Shadow," Misty said cheerfully. "On the other hand, he might be powerful enough to actually kill you if you go into Void form now, so I guess either way it's a win-win for me."
I…suppose that's a useful tactical advantage, Dawn said, still somewhat miffed Briney had seen into her head (only not really), but since Pikachu was playing footsies with her under the table at the moment it was hard to remember to stay angry at him right then.
"I'm sorry, but I'm just not comfortable with having someone that strong and…and flippant of social mores around our children!" Delia said, putting her hands over Pichu and Matthias's heads as if to shield them from the Psychic's mind probes, which it didn't. Mizula frowned, feeling somewhat left out.
"Me neither," Kageie said.
"I'm fine with it," Judy said. When the other parents gawked at her she said, "What? He's traveled with them this long and hasn't done anything to them, so it's unlikely he'll do anything now rather than occasionally embarrassing them. Plus, as far as I know you didn't object when he joined their group in the first place, so it seems a little hypocritical to be complaining about it now just because he's reading your mind, too."
"She has a point, dear," Raiki said.
"You're supposed to be on my side!" the Raichu hissed.
"Plus, he has a very trustworthy mustache. You can't go wrong relying on someone with facial hair like that," Brad said.
"…It is a very nice mustache…" Delia admitted. "And a beard now, too…"
"Scotty would be very jealous," Raiki said in amusement.
Briney sighed. "If I gave you my solemn oath as a mon of the sea and the forge that I won't abuse my absolute mental powers around your kids other than to rile them up a little now and then, will that make you feel better?"
"You can't promise just to stay out of their minds altogether?" Kageie asked skeptically.
"No," Briney said flatly.
"Why not?" Delia asked.
"How else am I supposed to know if some bad guy's trying to probe around the insides of their heads if I'm not there already to stop them?" Briney asked.
"…He's got a point there," Raiki admitted.
"Has that actually happened yet?" Kageie asked.
"No, but it might. I mean, Oblivion's Shadow has psychic powers and all," Briney pointed out. "Plus, it seems like just about all of us is talking to SOMEONE inside their heads occasionally, so you might as well have someone trustworthy there too to monitor their conversations. Like parental controls on your kids' web browsing."
"…I suppose that's fair…" Delia admitted reluctantly.
"Wait…parental controls? Mom, have you and Dad been keeping tabs on what I've been looking at online?!" Pichu asked in horror.
"Yes dear, and I'm not sure you should be getting so familiar with some of those people you've been chatting with. You have no way of knowing if they're actually who they say they are or if they're really some sort of forty-year old sexual predator," Delia said sweetly.
"Moooom," Pichu groaned as the other children started snickering.
"I rest my case," Briney said smugly.
"You do realize that these two things aren't that similar, right?" Pikachu asked.
"Hush boy, I'm winning your parents over," he grunted. "So, that good enough for you folks?"
Delia sighed. "Well, in lieu of a better option—or a way to make you stop—I guess it's the best we can hope for. It'll have to do."
"Good. Glad that's settled so we can get back to eating," Briney said. "And don't worry, the minds of your kids and their friends are in safe hands. Namely, mine."
"Why am I not reassured?" Kageie grumbled.
"Don't worry, we'll find a way to block 'im out again," Bow's voice whispered in Kageie's ear even though she was several chairs away, carried on the wind by the Drifblim's mastery of air magic.
"No you won't, especially not the way you're thinking of," Briney said without looking up.
"Merde!" Bow swore in frustration.
"So…Captain Briney? You said you can do magic now, since you fused with Smithy and all?" Collette asked.
"Yep. I know everything he knew about magic and blacksmithing, which, let me tell you, is quite a lot," Briney bragged.
"Can you show us a trick?" Sapphire asked eagerly.
"Ooh, I wanna see!" Tiny said eagerly.
"Us too! Us too!" the Gibles chanted.
Morticia frowned. "What, our magic isn't good enough for you?"
"We've seen lots of magic from you, but none from Briney!" Junior said giddily. Morticia grunted, not quite pleased with this.
"Oh, very well." Briney telekinetically swept some of his plates out of the way, though he still kept hold of a plate in one hand and kept shoving whatever was on it into his mouth with a second hand, so he still had two claws free. He telekinetically arranged his many, many pieces of silverware in a neat row with their various tines and splines and slots and other protrusions nicely interlocking. Then, he pulled off his hat and reached inside with his free hand, sticking it in all the way up to his shoulder even though his hat shouldn't have been big enough to accommodate it; while he finished off the plate he was eating, grabbed another, and stared scarfing down that one. Truly he was a master of multitasking. After a moment he pulled out an absolutely massive hammer with a head about the size of his own and a handle twice as long as one of his legs that could not possibly have fit inside the hat. The head was made of a dull black metal with various runes carved into its surface, with similar runes running down the side of the handle.
"Ooooh," the kids all said in awe.
"What is he, Leo now?" Pikachu grumbled.
"Briney with magic…why am I suddenly concerned for my safety?" Ash muttered.
"You should be, since it'll be that much easier for him to kill you," Misty said.
"Wait, what's he doing with that?" Raiki asked in confusion as Briney grabbed the handle in both hands and lifted it high into the air.
Fantina's eyes widened in horror and she surged out of her chair. "Not at ze table, not at ze-"
With a cry, Briney swung the hammer down on the silverware, causing a blinding flash of light on impact. It also split the table in two and catapulted all their dishes into the air, causing them to yelp and duck for cover to keep from getting hit by anything that might turn them into a Politoed. Fortunately, the chefs were on the ball as always and the plates and the substances on them were quickly teleported out of the way before they could hit anyone.
And as for the silverware…
Putting down the hammer—which leaned against thin air, even though there was nothing to keep it from falling—with one hand Briney lifted the gargantuan zweihander now lying in the splintered wreck of the kitchen table and looked at it appraisingly. It was almost three times as long as Kageie was tall and about as wide as her tail, had a thick blade that was a darkish-green hue with glowing blue runes and the faces of roaring monsters chiseled into it, several extra barbed points growing from the tip, and a large jagged notch cut into the tip causing it to somewhat resemble a fanged mouth, and a big bright blue jewel set in the hilt. "Hmm. Not my best work, but it'll suffice. Tiny, this is yours when you're old enough to use it, by which I mean when you have two arms."
"Wooooooowwwww!" the kids and most of the adults said in awe.
"My table!" Fantina cried. "It belonged to my mozzer!"
"Mozzer, we can fix it," Mirami pointed out.
"And it wouldn't be ze first time it broke," Nefertari said.
"It's ze principle of ze matter!" Fantina sobbed.
"Whoa, that's my sword?!" Tiny asked excitedly.
"…Should he be using something that big?!" Ash asked incredulously.
"Well, once he evolves it'll be around the same size he is…" Pikachu said dubiously.
Wait, didn't we already get Tiny a sword from Barbedo's hoard? Dawn asked.
"We left that back in Treasure Town because we couldn't exactly drag it along with us," Pikachu reminded her.
"And besides, this one's better. Because I made it. Oh, and it's enchanted and stuff," Briney said.
"Ooooh," Tiny said, eyes going wide.
"What?! But I was making a sword for him!" Raiki protested.
"Yes, but Tiny'll probably evolve while we're out fighting the Nihilators or some other baddie, and you'll be back in Pokémon Square, so wouldn't it be better for him to have a sword handy when that happens rather than wait until the next time he sees you again?" Briney pointed out.
Raiki hesitated. "Well, yeah, when you put it that way…"
"Now hold on a moment, I still didn't give my okay for my son to have a sword in the first place!" Kageie protested. "Or to go to Mars!"
"But mom, I'm a Thunderblade now!" Tiny protested. "And every Thunderblade has to use a sword!"
"Except me," Junior grumbled.
Delia nodded. "He's right, it's the rule."
"But-but-" Kageie protested.
"Pleeeeeeeease?" Tiny asked, eyes wide and glistening hopefully.
Under those puppy-Growlithe eyes, Kageie didn't stand a chance. "Ugh…fine. But you can't use it until you're old enough to wield it properly, okay?"
"Okay!" Tiny said eagerly.
At the rate we're going, that shouldn't be far off from now, Dawn commented. Pikachu nodded in agreement.
Raiki sighed. "It is a nice sword…still, I would have liked to give Tiny something I made myself…"
"You could pay for it, and then technically it'd be a gift from you to him," Briney said.
"I'm not giving you money for a gift you were already intending to give Tiny on your own," Raiki said. He shrugged. "Oh well, I'll just have to give the sword I'm working on to Kageie instead."
The Tyranitar started. "Wait, what?!"
"That was a pretty awesome trick, Captain!" Collette said as Briney somehow stuffed the giant sword he'd just made into his hat.
"Can you make weapons for all of us?" Junior asked hopefully.
"Or us! Or us!" the Gibles chanted.
"NO!" Brad and Judy shouted in horror.
"I'd love to, kids, but I'm not sure your parents would like it. Plus, I think I've ruined enough of Fantina's furniture and silverware for one day," Briney said, glancing at the sobbing Mismagius, who was being awkwardly comforted by her daughters. "Hmm…I can fix this." He grabbed his hammer, rose into the air, and, ignoring the screaming protests of everyone else, brought it down on the broken table. There was a flash of light…
And the table was miraculously restored back to its original condition, as if it had never been broken at all. Fantina squealed with delight. "My table!" Launching herself at the piece of furniture, she started kissing and stroking it excitedly, much to the embarrassment of her daughters.
"How did you do that?" asked an impressed Raiki.
"Magic!" Briney said. Pikachu groaned. Rolling his eyes, Briney elaborated. "In my hands, this here hammer has the power to not only repair just about anything with a single swing, but can also craft practically anything I want out of any materials available. In fact, I could probably have made this table into a dozen chairs or a totem pole or a ballista or even a giant digeridoo if I felt like it, but I doubt Fantina would have appreciated it very much."
"No, I wouldn't 'ave!" Fantina said, glancing up and shooting Briney a furious glare. "Never do zat again, especially not at ze dinner table! Or at least, not wizzout warning me first!"
"I'll try to keep that in mind," Briney said, putting his hammer back into his hat and replacing his hat on its rightful place on his head, ignoring whether or not it was impolite to wear a hat to breakfast.
"How did you make a sword that big if there was less metal in the silverware than there should have been to create something of that size?" Pikachu asked.
"Magic," Briney said.
Pikachu sighed. "Ah. Of course."
As more food materialized in front of them to replace the dishes that had been lost in Briney's impromptu blacksmithing session, a piece of paper appeared before Fantina in a burst of flame. She glanced at it, and after a moment her face lit up. Dismissing the paper in another burst of flame, she said, "Everyone, I 'ave wonderful news! Leo and Lily 'ave just arrived at ze Chambre de Fantasma and will be joining us shortly!"
Team Aurabolt perked up at this. "Oh boy! I can't wait to see them again!" Tiny said eagerly. "I hope they enjoyed their wedding night!"
"So do I," Pikachu said, though he probably had different ideas about that enjoyment than Tiny.
Ash frowned. "Why didn't they have breakfast at their place?"
Fantina flushed. "Well, ah…according to ze note, zeir 'ome isn't exactly in any condition to 'ave a suitable breakfast in at ze moment. Zey were extremely…er…enzusiastic in how zey…ah…celebrated zeir marriage."
"Wow, they must have played some really intense games," Tiny said innocently as his father and Pikachu turned green and Briney burst into raucous laughter.
"That's my boy!" Brad said happily. "The wife and I trashed our honeymoon suite too on our wedding night!"
"Dear, not in front of the children!" Judy said, blushing.
"Did you play some intense games, New Mama?" Wendy asked innocently.
"…Something like that, yes dear," Judy said, her blush deepening.
"And they're more intense than ever thanks to this new robot body!" Brad boasted, much to Judy's horror and embarrassment. "It's fully functional in every way that matters. Well, except for the lack of a digestive tract. Yet another thing to thank Leo for. Such a thoughtful son."
"Dear!" the Torkoal hissed.
"…They can make machines capable of doing that?" Raiki asked in wonder, staring at Brad's body.
"Honey…" Delia said warningly.
"What? It's an honest question!" Raiki said Mareepishly.
"Yes, zey can," Morticia said.
"We know from experience!" Phoebe said. The Fantasma girls tittered, while many of the table's other occupants turned red.
"Wonder if it's anything like the 'games' Mom and Dad play when they think we're asleep," Pichu murmured to Matthias, who groaned and shook his head.
"At least it's not as bad as having to listen to some of my family doing it…often while lying right on top of me…" the Rattata murmured, a haunted look on his face. "The…fluids got everywhere…my eyes, my ears, my nose…my mouth…"
"…Ew," Pichu said in disgust.
"That sounds very unpleasant," Mizula agreed.
"What does?" Junior asked innocently.
"Just another horror story from my childhood," Matthias said morosely.
"Oh, that again," the Donphan said, sticking out his tongue.
"Junior!" Collette hissed.
"What? I don't like hearing about his childhood! It's scary and depressing!" Junior complained.
"I don't like thinking about it," Matthias admitted. "Which is why it's nice to have so many happy new memories to take their place," he said, smiling at Collette. The Togetic blushed and looked away.
"Anyway, since it'll take a few 'ours to repair and Lily's too…ah…exhausted from ze previous night's…and most of ze morning's…activities to fix ze manor 'erself, zey decided to come and join us for breakfast instead," Fantina said.
"Ooh, 'ow wonderful! I 'ope she and Leo had a lovely night to zemselves!" Agatha said.
"Yes, and we can find out later…'opefully wizzout any children present…if any of ze advice we gave 'er on 'ow to please a mon was 'elpful!" Bow said. The Ghost girls tittered.
A few minutes later, Leo and Lily arrived. From Fantina's vague description of their…activities, Ash had half-expected them to show up thoroughly disheveled and perhaps a little burnt and bruised (hey, a fire mage was involved, who knows what sorts of things she could do?), but the newly married couple had taken the time to freshen up before coming over, so they looked like they would on every other day, except for the bags under their eyes and the almost palpable glow of joy and happiness radiating from them. Literally in Lily's case thanks to magic, she was practically luminescent. Actually, Leo seemed to be glowing too, either due to some lingering spell cast by Lily, something done by Choc-Oboh, or possibly a side-effect of any one of Leo's…toys that nobody wanted to think about too much. "Hey guys. 'Sup," Leo said with a yawn in a raspy voice. Ash did not want to think about how he might have worn it out.
"Hello, everyone," Lily said with a tired but content smile and a rather hoarse voice. Ash did not want to think about how she might have worn it out, either.
Hi, B and Choc-Oboh said to those who could hear them.
"Hello," everyone said in return, gratified to see the newlyweds.
"How are you all this fine morning?" Lily asked.
"Wonderful. And yourself?" Fantina asked pryingly.
Lily's smile broadened. "Better than I've ever felt in my entire unlife."
"Best. Night. Ever," Leo said with another yawn. "But right now I need coffee, and lots of it, or else I'm gonna pass out." Instantly, a steaming mug about twice the size of his head appeared in one hand. Without batting an eye, he started guzzling it down. He wiped a coffee mustache off his upper lip with a contented sigh and plopped himself down in a seat that magically (literally) appeared behind him and pulled himself up to the table. "Ahhhh, that's a good cup o' joe."
"Who's Joe, and why did you drink a cup of him?" Drakor Junior asked.
"Heck if I know," Leo said with a shrug. He paused, noticing Briney's new look. "Huh. Briney, you evolved."
"That I did," the Metagross said.
"Cool," Leo said.
Pikachu raised an eyebrow. "That's all you've got to say about the matter? 'Cool?'"
"Well, I think his new look suits him very well, if that helps," Lily offered.
"Thanks," Briney said.
"I'm a little too worn out from the night I've just had to muster much surprise. I need more coffee before I can do that," Leo said. His cup refilled itself. "Nice. And some breakfast." Plates laden with food appeared in front of him. "Now we're talking."
Lily moaned in ecstasy when her own breakfast appeared before her. "Ohhhh, I need this. I'm starving."
"Heh, after the night we had—and morning—I wouldn't blame you," Leo said. They both chuckled in amusement and started stuffing their faces, while everyone else exchanged curious looks.
"So, son…how's it feel to be a real mon now?" Brad asked coyly.
"Wasn't he already a real mon?" Ludwig asked.
"Well, more of one now," Brad admitted.
"Awesome," Leo said tiredly.
"And Lily, did, ah, any of zose zings we talked about…?" Bow prompted.
Lily considered for a moment. "Leo, would you say what I did last night pleased you?"
I can say without a doubt that it did, B said.
"YES. HELL YES," Leo said. "And—so long as it's okay with you-we are going to do it every night for the rest of our lives, which, since I'm going to become immortal, will be forever or something."
Which I am starting to regret, Choc-Oboh said.
"I'd say that answers that question," Lily said to the Fantasmas with a straight face, causing them to giggle. "And yes, Leo, I am okay with it."
"Awesome," he mumbled around a very full mouth.
I'm not, Choc-Oboh said.
You don't get a say in it, B said.
I'm sharing his body, doesn't that count for anything? The phoenix complained.
"So, uh, I take it you guys had a good night," Ash said awkwardly.
"We consummated our marriage properly," Lily said dreamily.
"And then some," Leo said with a grin.
And then some, B said in amusement.
And how I wish they hadn't… Choc-Oboh said with a shudder.
"Ah," Ash said, blanching.
"Ew," Misty said.
I take it you're no longer…ah…averse to the act anymore, then? Dawn asked.
"The only reason I haven't slammed Leo onto the table so we could engage in another fifty-seven hours of making him scream my name and 'yatta' until his vocal cords collapsed is because we're both hungry, tired, and I think his body might give out on him if we tried something that intense again so soon," Lily said very matter-of-factly. Everyone stared at her with very wide eyes.
Ah, Dawn said vaguely.
"I did not need to know that," Pikachu said weakly.
"Of course, thanks to Choc-Oboh I'd pop right back to life a second later," Leo commented. "And I think there's worse ways to go than that. Much, much, much worse ways."
"…Damn," Raiki said, eyes wide.
"And another reason you wouldn't do that on the table, other than it being incredibly inappropriate, is because it would set a poor example for the children, right?" Delia asked icily.
"Why did you spend fifty-seven hours making him scream? That doesn't sound very nice," Iggy asked innocently to underline this point. Everyone pretended he hadn't said anything.
Leo blinked. "Huh? Oh yeah, they're not old enough for that kind of show, are they. Sorry, forgot they were there. It's a little hard right now to focus on anything other than the absolutely gorgeous and incredible womon sitting right next to me who can do all sorts of incredible things with her-"
"TMI! TMI! TMI!" Ash screamed like a child.
"Oh, right. Sorry. Forgot we shouldn't be talking about that sort of thing outside the bedroom," Leo said.
"I wouldn't mind 'earing more about it…" said an aroused Phoebe.
"Maybe later, when zere are less prudish guests around?" Agatha suggested. Delia glared at her.
"Why do adults always gotta keep all the most interesting stuff from us? I wanna know what they did in the bedroom," Junior complained.
"No you don't," Matthias said from experience.
"Yes, you don't, you really don't," Briney said, looking disturbed. "There are few times I regret being an incessantly nosy snoop who constantly peeks into other people's minds and this is one of them. I did not need to see that."
"Wait a minute; did you say fifty-seven hours?" Pikachu asked in confusion, suddenly realizing something Lily had said a moment ago.
"Fifty-seven hours, forty-two minutes, and seventeen seconds. I timed it exactly," Leo said without looking up from his plate.
The longest fifty-seven hours, forty-two minutes, and seventeen seconds of my life, Choc-Oboh said. I'm starting to realize there are drawbacks to being bonded to a mortal host. I know every dating sim in existence, even the X-rated ones, and they STILL managed to do things I've never even imagined.
I didn't think it was so bad, B said. My parents have done it for much longer, and with even greater…intensity. There was just as much love in either of them, though, and it was just as sweet…and delicious. I'm glad Lily took advice from the Fantasmas as well as from me; she did great for her first time! That doesn't always happen.
And her second time. And third time. And fourth time. And fifth time. And seventy-eighth time. I lost track after that. Choc-Oboh moaned.
I didn't. I can't wait for number three hundred and ninety-two! B said, causing Choc-Oboh to groan in dismay.
"…Wow," said a stunned Brad. "I did not know he had it in him."
"Neither did I," said a shocked Judy.
Lily giggled. "He wanted to see if we could break the world record. Unfortunately, we couldn't quite make it."
"Yes! Still world champion!" Bow Murkrowed.
"That's something to be proud of?" Kageie asked in confusion.
"It is for a Mewrian," the Drifblim said.
"Ah," the Tyranitar said, still confused. She did not understand civilized Pokémon at all.
"I half-expected that title to go to you, Fantina," Brad commented.
"It used to," Fantina admitted. "But my daughters constantly surprise me in 'ow zey find ways to surpass zeir dear old Mama." Her children giggled at that.
"…But…but it hasn't even been that long since the last time we saw you!" Pikachu protested. "Not even twenty-four hours! Heck, it's barely even been twelve!"
"I think there was some sorta time magic involved," Leo said. "Lily was throwing so many spells around in her throes of passion it wouldn't surprise me. Things got a little kray-kray for a while there."
"Kray-kray?" asked the confused Ash.
"Crazy," Pichu, who was secretly a fan of terrible reality television because he liked to make fun of how stupid the people on the show were, translated.
"Oh," Ash said.
"I hope the staff don't mind the mess we left behind…melting one of the wings into a puddle of water is the least of what we left for them to deal with," Lily said, blushing.
This is much, much more than I ever needed to know, Dawn said in horrified fascination.
"Yeah," Pikachu said vaguely, surprised to find himself marginally envious of Leo. He and Dawn had never managed something like that.
"Hey Ash, now that I'm no longer the team's designated virgin—you know, nerd and all—maybe I can give you a few pointers for when you and Misty finally-" Leo started.
"THAT WILL NOT BE NECESSARY THANK YOU VERY MUCH," Ash said very loudly, desperately wishing that this was not happening to him in front of his parents and siblings and children who were divided between struggling not to laugh and wondering what in the Abyss everyone was talking about.
Misty snorted. "Please, you'd never get past first base with me. You were barely even comfortable with kissing back when we were together before."
"Is this really something we should be discussing at the breakfast table?!" Ash hissed indignantly.
Tiny whistled. "Wow. Fifty-seven plus hours, huh? That is a LOT of sex."
"Yes, it was," Leo said fondly. There was a pause. He blinked and did a double-take. Then he drank some more coffee and spat it out in Pikachu's face. "Wait, WHAT?!"
"MY EYES! MY EYES!" Pikachu screamed.
Master! Dawn cried in alarm, rising to her feet. Don't worry, I shall avenge you!
"Don't avenge me, HELP ME!" Pikachu screamed, and Dawn reluctantly abandoned her quest for vengeance to help wipe the coffee out of her master's face.
Nearly everyone at the table did a double-take and spat up whatever they were eating or drinking. Except for Briney, who'd already known, of course, and the children too young to know what he was talking about. Tiny turned red when he realized what he'd just said. "Ah, crud. Shouldn't have said that."
"W-wait a minute…Tiny, you know?!" Ash asked incredulously.
Tiny sighed, aware the jig was up. "Dad, we've been staying with a family of Mewrians for the past week. It was kinda inevitable I'd find out sooner or later."
"…Good point," Ash said.
Fantina blushed and glanced at her daughters. "It looks like we did not do as good a job of child-proofing ze place as I zought we did."
"Sorry, Mama," the daughters chorused Mareepishly.
"Huh. Well, I guess that saves either of us from having to tell him, Ash," Kageie said, a little miffed and a lot relieved that she couldn't give her son the same talk her mother had when she was Tiny's age. "When were you going to get around to doing it, anyway?"
"Uh, well…" Ash said, turning red.
"He was actually planning on foisting the job off on either me or Leo," Briney said.
"Briney!" Ash hissed.
"Ha! You're such a pussy!" Misty laughed.
"Giving someone else the responsibility of 'the Talk?' Very immature, son," Raiki scolded.
"Dad, you sent me to Nurse Joy for sex ed rather than telling me about it yourself," Pikachu said, eyes still red and squinting from the coffee burns.
"…Yes. Well. She can explain it much better than me," Raiki said defensively. "She's a licensed medical practitioner and all."
You were going to let Leo do it? Dawn asked Ash incredulously.
"He made a very educational multimedia presentation about it," Ash said, completely and thoroughly humiliated. "I certainly learned a lot from it."
"I'll bet you did," Misty sneered.
"That's right, I did!" Leo said. "Though since it's too late for Tiny, I guess I can save it for my siblings, or your other kids." He paused and glanced at his siblings, who were staring at him in puzzlement and interest. "On second thought, maybe just your other kids."
"Actually, Junior's the only one of us who doesn't know about it," Sapphire said.
"Know about what?" Junior asked in confusion.
"What! When did you two find out about it?!" Ash asked incredulously.
"Mimi told us. In great detail," Collette said. A haunted look crossed over her face. "So much detail…"
"And how did she know about it so soon?" Pikachu asked.
"Her mom pops out new babies all the time and she wanted to know where her sisters come from, since she wants to be a mother too someday," Pichu said. "And Nurse Joy, being a medical practitioner and mother to more medical practitioners, saw no reason why her daughter shouldn't know about some of the more delicate aspects of biology and reproduction as soon as she was ready to ask. She then spread the information around to everyone who wanted to know. And others, like myself, who didn't. Or rather, I thought I did, until I found out, and now I wish I did not."
"I've known about it ever since my fifth cousin six times removed Minnie did it with her uncle Louis right on top of me," Matthias said.
"…Why…why were they…" a shocked Raiki asked.
"My family was a little messed up, in case you haven't noticed," Matthias said.
"I have always known about it since that information was encoded in my cellular structure, along with knowledge about pretty much everything under the sea, while I was still in the egg," Mizula said. "It's not a big deal for my kind, though, since my father either laid new Phione eggs on his own or we reproduced asexually, though we could theoretically reproduce by mating with another Pokémon of any gender due to our hermaphroditism, if we felt like it."
"…Wait, your father laid you?!" Judy cried incredulously.
"Well, yes. Males of the Horsea line do as well. Is it that much of a surprise?" Mizula asked.
"Yes, but your father wasn't a Horsea," Brad pointed out.
"Actually, his DNA is a synthesis of the genetic material of almost every Water Pokémon, so there's probably some Horsea in there somewhere," Mizula said.
"Oh," Brad said.
"What are you all talking about and why am I the only one who doesn't know about it?!" Junior demanded.
"We don't know either!" Iggy said.
"You don't count!" Junior said. The Gible pouted.
Tiny, if you knew about…that all this time, why did you play dumb? Dawn asked.
"Because it was hilarious watching you all go out of your way to keep me from finding out about it," Tiny said.
Briney burst into laughter. "Ha! A mon after my own heart!"
"You're such a troll, Tiny! And I'm not sure if I mean that in a good or bad way," Leo said.
"I can't believe you've been keeping this from us all this time," Ash said, shocked.
"Actually, now that the Meowth's out of the bag, I guess there's something else I should tell you all," Tiny said.
Kageie started. "What?! Son, don't tell me you've-"
"What? No! No no no no! I'm way too young for that!" Tiny said, turning red. "Though, ah, it's sort of related."
"I'm dreading to find out, but what is it?" Ash asked morbidly.
"It's not that bad, trust me," Briney said. That didn't help Ash much.
"I was sort of hoping all my friends could be here to hear this, but since Sasha's still asleep, I guess she'll have to wait until later to find out," Tiny said. He cleared his throat. "Everyone, Nefertari and I are in love and are going to get married!"
"WHAT?!" everyone (except Briney) screamed.
Well, that was unexpected, Dawn commented.
Wonderful! The more love, the merrier! B said in delight.
"Zat's right!" the Yamask said, floating away from her seat to hover next to Tiny, grabbing one of his spines in her limbs. "I can't 'ide it anymore, Mama! Now you know ze truzh about 'ow I feel! I don't care what you say! We're in love and we're not going to let anyzing stop us!"
"Why zat's wonderful news! Congratulations!" Fantina said, delighted. "I 'ad expected one of your sisters to marry first to be 'onest, but if you truly zink you've found ze one you wish to spend ze rest of your life wiz, I'm all for it! Especially a fine, upstanding young mon like Tiny 'ere!"
"Oh," Nefertari said, somewhat deflated by the realization that her mother had no objections whatsoever to her no-longer-secret relationship.
"Nefertari is going to get married?!" Phoebe asked incredulously.
"But she's so young! Younger zan all of us!" Agatha said.
"And none of us are married…" Morticia said sourly.
"Now I'm starting to feel old," Bow said mournfully. She conjured a mirror and examined herself in it. She perked up in seconds. "Oh well, at least I'm still ravishingly beautiful."
"Wait, you and Nefertari?! You're getting MARRIED?!" Ash screamed in disbelief.
"Way to go, Tiny!" Leo whooped.
"And Nefertari. I'm very happy for you!" Lily said.
"Yeah! Well, not now, obviously. I mean, I'm not even one yet!" Tiny said.
"We've agreed to tie ze knot, zough, and once 'e's a bit older, we'll get married," Nefertari said.
"And I'll be the one to plan the wedding! It'll be wonderful!" Delia said excitedly. "Why, Tiny might be the first of our grandchildren to get married, which means I could have great-grandchildren in just a few years! Isn't this wonderful, Raiki?!"
"…Sometimes I honestly wonder what goes through that head of yours, Delia," Raiki said, dumbfounded.
"Tiny's getting married? But we just came from another wedding! And another one before that!" Junior complained.
"It's not for a few years, Junior," Collette pointed out.
"Yeah, but who knows how many other weddings we're gonna have to sit through between now and then?" the Donphan whined.
"Who can say?" the Togetic asked, glancing at Matthias, who blushed and glanced away.
"I…I don't…I don't understand," Ash stammered, shocked and bewildered. "The two of you…together? But…but how? When? Why?!"
"We hooked up not too long after we got settled here in the Chambre de Fantasma," Tiny said.
"It was love at first sight," Nefertari said wistfully, causing her sisters to sigh longingly.
"And we smooched a lot. It was really hot," Tiny said, causing Ash to blanch and Leo and Briney to laugh.
"But-but you're too young to have a girlfriend! And you just met! And she's much older than you!" Ash stammered in protest.
"We're close to the same age emotionally or something. You know how weird Pokémon maturity and aging is. Plus, Leo decided to hook up with Lily after only knowing her for like a week or so, and they just got married, and she's a few hundred years older than him too, and nobody's making a fuss about that," Tiny pointed out.
"Let's not bring me into this," Leo said.
"So why's it so wrong when I want to do the same thing?" Tiny asked.
"Because…because you're my son, and Leo isn't!" Ash said lamely.
"You couldn't handle being my dad," Leo said.
"No, he couldn't," Brad agreed.
"And it's not like we're getting married now. Like I said, we're gonna give it a few years. We're just engaged now is all, though I haven't gotten her a ring yet since I'm not as resourceful as Leo. So what's the big deal?" Tiny asked.
"I…well…the big deal is…" Ash stammered, trying desperately to articulate how wrong this whole thing was and failing. "I…Pikachu, give me a paw here!"
Pikachu sighed wearily. "Ash, by now I've just about given up trying to make any kind of sense out of the illogical and mind-bogglingly weird things our friends do on a regular basis, since trying to do so is an exercise in futility and madness. If he really thinks he's in love and wants to get married, good for him. Besides, he's your kid, not mine. Not my responsibility."
"But he's your nephew!" Ash protested.
"Yes…but I really, really don't want to get involved in this," Pikachu said.
Dawn nodded. A wise decision.
"Kageie! What about you? You've just met your son, and your son's girlfriend! Surely you have an objection to this?!" Ash begged the elder Tyranitar.
The Tyranitar thought about this for a moment. "Tiny, do you love Nefertari?"
"Yes," Tiny said.
"You're sure it's not some childish crush?" Kageie pressed.
"I'm pretty sure I feel as strongly for her as Leo does for Lily," Tiny said.
"Well, maybe not that strong," Leo said.
"Actually, he does," Briney said.
"…Huh," Leo said.
"And Nefertari, do you love Tiny?" Kageie asked.
"Wiz all my heart," the Yamask said.
"Even though you've only known him a few days, and he's only a few weeks old," Kageie said.
Nefertari hesitated. "Yes, zough I admit it sounds a little creepy when you put it like zat."
"Meh, still less disturbing than when Jakob fell in love with Belle's daughter like right after she was born in Midnight: Shattering Dawn," Leo said.
"…Yeah, zat was kind of gross, wasn't it?" Nefertari admitted reluctantly, not wanting to speak ill of her favorite book series no matter how many times her mother had destroyed the copies she'd stashed all over their holdings.
Kageie rubbed her chin for a moment. "But you don't want to get married or do anything too…mature just yet."
"Not until I'm older, Mommy," Tiny said. "Which makes it a bit better…right?"
"…Perhaps. And Nefertari…I know your mother and sisters are a little…ah…" Kageie said awkwardly.
The Fantasmas glared at the Tyranitar. "A little what?" Shauntal asked coolly.
Kageie coughed and tried again. "Um, what I mean is…er…Nefertari. Have you ever…ah, been with anyone…?"
"Oh!" Nefertari blushed while Tiny glared at his mother. "No. No, not like zat. Just a few crushes is all."
"And what you feel for Tiny is no crush?" Kageie pressed.
"I've never felt like zis for anyone before," Nefertari affirmed, causing her sisters to sigh.
"And you want to marry him," Kageie repeated.
"Yes," Nefertari said.
"And Fantina…you're all right with this?" the Tyranitar asked.
"More zan all right! I can't zink of many matches for my daughter better zan Tiny!" Fantina assured her.
Kageie drummed her fingers on the tabletop for a moment, causing all their plates to vibrate. "…Well, son, if it'll really make you happy, I suppose you have my blessing."
"Yay!" Tiny cheered while Nefertari sighed in relief.
"WHAT?!" Ash cried.
"She's wealthy, powerful, beautiful, and genuinely seems to like Tiny. Seems like a good match to me. Certainly better than most of his prospects would have been if he had grown up in the wild and we hadn't…been separated," Kageie said. "I admit it seems a bit fast, but…I suppose you civilized folk do things differently, and Tiny's been around you lot long enough to pick up on that sort of thing. I'm not quite sure I understand it myself, but if it will make my son happy and ensure he has a successful future, I suppose I can get behind it. Besides, I'm still debating on whether or not I should allow him to go with you lot to Mars, and that's much more dangerous than getting married."
"Depends on who you ask," Raiki muttered. Delia kicked him under the table.
"Thank you, Mommy!" Tiny said ecstatically.
"Just make sure I have grandkids. But not soon. No. Not anytime soon. Are we clear?" Kageie said gravely.
"Yes, Mommy!" Tiny promised the Tyranitar.
"Misty! I don't suppose you have anything to say?!" Ash pleaded, down to his last resort.
"I can think of a few things…" Misty said, reveling in the look of naked, undisguised hope that filled Ash's face. "Nothing that would help you in this situation, though, and even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. Because I hate you." She laughed cruelly at the utterly crestfallen look that took up his face as his hopes were completely and utterly dashed.
"Daddy, I know this may be a big shock, but…I like Nefertari a lot, and want to marry her. Not right now, but someday. Just like you're going to marry Misty someday," Tiny said. "Whenever she gets back from space. I intend to marry Nefertari no matter what, but…it would really mean a lot to me if you gave me your blessing, too."
Ash cringed, unable to resist the pleading expression on his son's face or the affection surging through their bond. How could he possibly have missed his son falling in love over the last week? Had he really been that busy training and struggling with his own problems to fail to notice something like that, fail to notice the increased feelings of love pulsing up their connection? What kind of father was he, to ignore something like that…or to deny it? Sighing, he closed his eyes. "This is all rather sudden. I'm…going to need a little time to work this out, okay?"
"Okay, Daddy," Tiny said in disappointment, and the waves of sorrow rippling up their link nearly changed Ash's mind then and there.
"I'll give you my decision soon," Ash said, struggling not to let his emotions sway him. "And…Tiny? No matter what, I'm proud of you, okay?"
Tiny's expression and emotional wavelength reversed polarity immediately. "Awww, thanks Daddy." He hugged his father, causing the others to coo or boo, depending on their level of emotional maturity. (Or vindictiveness, in Misty's case.)
"I don't suppose there's anyone else here who wants to announce an engagement?" Delia asked, looking around the room hopefully.
"Nope," Briney said. "I think that's everyone."
"Darn," Delia grumbled. "Oh well, at least I can start planning Tiny's wedding. And Ash's. And Pikachu's."
"Mom, Misty hasn't even come back for me to ask her to marry me yet," Ash said in dismay.
"And there's no guarantee she'd say yes anyway, I certainly wouldn't," Misty agreed.
"And Grandma, I'm too young! It's not gonna happen for another few years!" Tiny protested.
"It's never too early to start planning, dear," Delia said rather manically.
"Don't argue with her, kiddo, there's no use when she gets like this," Raiki said resignedly.
"No use at all," Pikachu agreed glumly.
Fantina chuckled. "Well, you're free to use any of our country's fine venues to 'ouse ze wedding, zough I zink we 'ave quite a few places 'ere in ze Chambre zat will suffice. Some of zem are even in ze same dimension we normally occupy!"
Delia blinked. "What? No, of course not, the wedding will be held in Pokémon Square!"
Fantina paused. "…I beg your pardon?"
"Tiny's home is in Pokémon Square now! As such, that's where he will be married!" Delia insisted.
"But I've never even been to Pokémon Square," Tiny protested, only to be ignored.
Fantina frowned. "And Fichina is Nefertari's 'ome. It is our family's 'ome. If zere is to be a wedding, it is to be in 'er 'omeland, and nowhere else!"
"Um, actually, I don't mind where we get married, so long as I'm wiz Tiny," Nefertari protested, only to be ignored.
"I'm sure your overwhelming grandeur and needless opulence and extravagance and sorcery all make for a very nice show, but Tiny is a simple lad, and a wedding in a more homey and less overwhelming setting is exactly what he needs," Delia said coldly.
"And I'm sure a charmingly rustic town like Pokémon Square is a perfectly comfortable and 'appy place to live, but ze only place wiz ze 'istory and magic and prestige suitable for ze wedding of a mage of such power and social standing as my daughter is right 'ere in Fichina," Fantina replied icily.
"Oh boy, this won't end well," Raiki muttered.
"I hate it when Mom gets like this," Pikachu groaned.
What's going on? Asked a confused Dawn.
"One of the most horrifying and terrible aspects of getting married and bringing two families together," Leo said sagely while continuing to stuff his face. "The inevitable rivalry between the in-laws. Good thing that wasn't a problem for Lily and I."
"Actually, I don't think Nuken likes us very much," Brad commented.
"Father doesn't really like anyone very much, it's nothing personal," Lily assured him.
"What's wrong, Your Grace, a backwater town full of magicless plebes isn't good enough for you?!" Delia hissed.
"Or maybe a land of parlor tricks and fairy tales and excessive wealzh and food you won't eat because you don't know 'ow it gets made isn't good for you!" Fantina snarled.
"Do you have a preference as to where our son gets married?" Kageie asked Ash, who flushed at the awkward wording while Leo and Briney snickered.
"Um…I'd be happy with Pokémon Square, honestly, but wherever Tiny wants to get married is fine with me," Ash said. "Not that Mom is exactly in a position to listen to my input right now."
"Pokémon Square!" shouted Delia, proving Ash's point.
"Fichina!" Fantina retorted.
"Zis is awful!" Nefertari gasped in horror as they watched Delia and Fantina start screaming at each other across the table while everyone else looked on in alarm or kept eating their own meals apathetically. "I zought our engagement would bring our families togezzer, not drive zem apart!"
"Maybe we should elope?" Tiny suggested.
"ABSOLUTELY NOT!" Delia, Fantina, Kageie and Ash bellowed.
Nefertari flinched. "Well, at least we got zem to agree on somezing."
"I thought you said you were fine with me getting married wherever I wanted," Tiny complained.
"I am, so long as it's not that. No son of mine is running off to get hitched at a drive-through chapel in Neon Town!" Ash said.
Kageie nodded. "I have no idea where that is, but he's absolutely right!"
"That's right; you're getting married in Pokémon Square, and nowhere else!" Delia said firmly.
"No, zey're getting married in Fichina and nowhere else!" Fantina countered.
"Pokémon Square!" shouted Delia.
"Fichina!" Fantina retorted.
"You know, I could marry them both now and put an end to this nonsense," Briney offered.
"NO!" Delia, Kageie, Fantina, and Ash bellowed.
Briney huffed. "Well, fine. Be that way. Leo and Lily didn't think they were too good to get married by ol' Captain Briney…"
"Girls, if and when any of us decide to tie ze knot, we should probably make sure it 'appens 'ere. It'll make Mama 'appier," Mirami murmured to her sisters.
They nodded in agreement. "And zere will certainly be less shouting," Shauntal agreed.
"I don't suppose suggesting zey get married somewhere else entirely will work?" Bow asked.
"Let's wait until zey calm down a bit to bring zat up," Agatha said.
As the volume of Delia and Fantina's hollering increased, things got a lot louder when the Gibles, having no idea what was going on, cheerfully started screaming as well because it seemed like fun. Leo was starting to hand out noise-canceling headphones to everyone so they could resume their breakfast in peace when suddenly another note appeared before Fantina in a burst of flame. Shooting a glare at Delia, she said, "We'll continue zis later," before glancing at the note. Then she did a double-take and read it over again. Disintegrating it with a thought, she levitated out of her seat, a grave expression on her face. "I am afraid we are going to 'ave to cut breakfast short."
"What? But we just got here!" Leo complained, looking up from his dish.
"I'm afraid you will 'ave to finish eating later. Your team and myself 'ave been summoned to attend 'er Magisty in New Avalon. Somezing very big 'as come up, somezing zat concerns all of you," Fantina said gravely.
The members of Team Aurabolt exchanged shocked looks, except for Briney, who'd known what Fantina learned the instant she saw the note. "Then…that means…" Ash whispered.
Fantina nodded. "Zey 'ave finished formulating ze stratagem for ze invasion of Mars."
As a stunned silence filled the room, Misty cackled. "Oh, this is gonna be good."
Shortly afterwards, in the Grand Council chamber in the Queen's palace in New Avalon…
The Grand Council chamber, with its astronomical motif that some might say went above and beyond motif and into the realm of outright imitation or universe-crafting, was as grand as ever…but without the thousands of Pokémon usually occupying it for the standard Council meeting, it seemed eerily empty, which some might say was another step closer to making it a dead-on model of outer space. Only the Queen, Team Aurabolt (sans Sasha), Nuken, Princess Boa, Lugia, Victini, the Tao Trio, Dean and Bob, Fantina, and Professor Fennel were present. The matter they were about to discuss was of the utmost secrecy and importance, so the fewer Pokémon that knew about it, the better.
"Over the course of the last week, the greatest minds in Fichina and the rest of the world have been trying to formulate a solution to what is, at present, the greatest threat to our world since the cataclysm a thousand years ago," Queen Ninianne began. "The Nihilators, the enemies of every living thing on Earth, have been all but eradicated from the face of the planet, except for a few stragglers and remnant groups scattered around the world and any hidden agents that Dean and Bob's excellent but by no means complete or up-to-date information failed to uncover." The two vampires grimaced at this but said nothing. "However, our enemies are still out there, taunting us from their stronghold on the red planet, millions of miles away from us and seemingly out of our reach…" A smile formed on the mystic monarch's face. "That is, until now."
She snapped her fingers, and suddenly the council chamber took yet another step towards becoming an accurate scale model of the solar system when all of the various platforms scattered around the chamber symbolizing the numerous planets, moons, and planetoids of the system flashed and abruptly took on the appearances of the celestial bodies they were supposed to represent. Team Aurabolt and Nuken were understandably startled to find themselves standing on what looked an awful lot like the planet Mercury, while the Queen and her retinue now appeared to be sitting on top of the Sun.
Victini levitated into the air. "All right you lot, listen up, because what you're about to hear is the top-secret plans to what may be the greatest joint operation in the history of the planet, so pay attention because I'm only gonna explain it once! And I'm not going to bother warning you not to tell anyone outside this chamber what I'm about to say, since the geass of silence that was placed on you without your noticing when you came in here will make sure you keep your mouths—and minds—shut."
"Wait, what?!" Ash stammered.
Pikachu sighed. "Great, another one of those."
"It's not like I was gonna blab it to everyone on the Internet or anything…" Leo grumbled.
"Great, more restrictions," Briney grunted, who was still miffed to discover that despite his increased mental powers he was still unable to read the minds of the Queen or any of the gods in the room without their permission. Trying had just given him a headache. It seemed he still wasn't strong enough to see into their minds…yet.
"Um, what about Sasha?" Tiny asked.
Victini blinked. "Huh? What about…wait, where is Sasha? I only count seven of you."
"She's sleeping off the effects of being on her feet for almost a week straight, so we thought it best to let her stay in bed," Ash said.
"…You were summoned to stand before the Queen of Fichina and receive information of vital importance to the future of the planet and she's not here because she decided to SLEEP IN?!" Victini screamed incredulously.
"Well, none of us were exactly keen on trying to wake her, due to what she promised to do to us if we woke her up too early," Pikachu said.
"Actually, I tried to wake her up, but Darkrai said no," Briney said, disgruntled.
Sasha's done enough for me for the last several days. She deserves a rest, Darkrai said.
I'm guessing you'll tell her what she missed? Ash asked.
Nope, can't. Against those stupid rules of the contract I had to sign. You're on your own, Darkrai said.
Victini sighed in exasperation. "Ugh, fine, you can tell her, but nobody else, okay?"
"Okay," the heroes chorused.
"Anyway. Let's begin the briefing." Victini floated to the platform representing Earth, which was the Earth, now. "First things first. We're here." She then flew across the room to the crimson sphere of Mars. "And they're here. Specifically, right here." Victini pointed to a spot on the orb, and suddenly the illusionary planet grew in size until they could clearly make out various features on its surface, including a very prominent mountain. "From Dean and Bob's intel, and other corroborating information we've collected since then, it's become clear that the Nihilator headquarters is in Coronet Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system. Ages ago, it used to be the center of the thriving Martian civilization, made up of Elgyem and Beheeyems, a utopian super-society that flourished due to their psychic network, high technology, and mastery of the Life Equation, something that still eludes many of us here on Earth." Ash stirred at the mention of this fabled formula, which was apparently in his book and had the power to save him but wouldn't show itself for whatever reason. Victini scowled. "A society that came to an end when Oblivion's Shadow appeared suddenly and unleashed a telepathic plague on the populace, nearly wiping all of them out, including many Martians off-world at the time of the plague's release. The network linking their minds together made it that much easier for the plague to spread and kill most of their population, no matter where they were at the time of the initial outbreak. There are only a handful of them left, most slaving away for the Nihilators, with the rest hiding at the bottom of the Valles Marineris, the deepest canyon in the Solar System…which is probably why it's been a while since we've gotten a visit from them, come to think of it. It's due to their technology that the Nihilators have been able to build such superior ships and weaponry, though with the salvage collected from the battle outside Fichina and other things we've recovered from bases around the world since then, we're getting pretty damn close to closing the tech gap through the miracle of reverse-engineering."
"This is all interesting, but we already know most of this. Why is she telling us this again?" Pikachu asked. "Especially since we heard it already from Dean and Bob like a week ago?"
"For the sake of exposition," Leo said. "Plus, Nuken wasn't here then."
"No, but I was watching it on television," Nuken pointed it out. "So I already know it, too. In fact, I know the entire plan, especially since I've helped to come up with it along with the rest of the world's greatest military minds."
"Then what's the point of her repeating information we already know?!" Pikachu demanded.
"She likes to 'ear 'erself talk," Fantina whispered. "Now be quiet, she's going to start getting into details you don't know."
"However, while we're catching up to them tech-wise, we're no closer to getting to Mars, as I believe Professor Fennel can explain," Victini said, nodding to the Musharna.
The scientist floated away from the Sun and hovered over the illusion of Earth, which enlarged while Mars returned to its original size. "While we now have an understanding of how Nihilator vessels work due to the intact ones Team Aurabolt and the passengers of the Enchanted Express captured, they will not provide us with an avenue to reach Mars. The Martians never developed FTL technology, unlike the inhabitants of the Moon, and instead contented themselves with using 'jump-gate' gravity slingshots to travel across the solar system. While the Lunar civilization, which has had a friendly relationship with the Martians for quite some time, offered to teach the Martians how to make FTL drives more than once, they always declined because they feared that straying too far from their homeworld would stretch the telepathic network that is the backbone of their civilization to its breaking point, which is why they've apparently never left the solar system. More's the pity, because then some of them might have escaped the psychic plague unleashed by Oblivion's Shadow. Even more unfortunately for us, we are nowhere near ready to build our own jump-gate to launch a fleet to Mars, even if we could get one that's space-worthy before the Nihilators launch their next attack, which could be any day now." She hovered over to a small silvery ring floating some distance away from the Earth, and somewhat close to the Moon. "The Nihilator jump gate near the Moon is still operational…but as I've said, other than the captured ships we don't have anything that can fly out there past the Earth's gravity just yet, and even if we did the Nihilators would probably destroy it before we could use it. And the Lunar civilization will be of no help to us either, since their hands are tied due to the abduction of Cressellia and the non-aggression treaty Darkrai had to sign, so we can't get any help from that quarter."
That is inconvenient, Dawn said.
Sorry, Darkrai said apologetically. I promise, once we rescue Cressy, I'll send in as much help as I can. And trust me when I say I can send in a lot.
"The living vehicle owned by that strange Mienshao from another universe, Sam, is capable of traveling to Mars through means I have not yet been able to fathom—since she won't let me study her—but we can't exactly pack an entire army into a single small vehicle—well, actually we could, but I doubt she'd agree to having the rather complex enchantments necessary for something like that get cast on her—and aside from that, there seems to be no way to get in touch with her or Sam. They just…show up whenever they feel like it, without warning. Which is frustrating, since it makes it difficult to factor them into any strategy," Fennel said in annoyance.
"Tell me about it," Victini grumbled.
"Heh, yeah, that sounds like Sam and Outlaw," Leo said.
"I'd have thought they'd want to be working with us on this. Isn't Max on Mars?" Pikachu asked.
"We don't know that for sure," Briney pointed out.
Lily nodded. "Mother might have him. And…we still haven't found her iceberg lair…"
"Still working on it," Victini said, looking even more frustrated.
"Last night at the reception Sam said they might have found a lead as to where they can find Max, so not to wait up for them when the big thing goes down," Leo continued.
Pikachu's ears twitched. "I am both relieved and disappointed to hear that. Mostly relieved, though."
"Weren't they a big help against the Nihilators and the forces of Niflheim?" Tiny asked.
"That's why I'm mostly but not completely relieved," Pikachu said.
"So, technology is out. Does magic hold a solution to our problem?" Fennel nodded at Fantina.
The mage floated over to Fennel and shook her head. "Unfortunately, it does not. While teleportation and creating portals to places all over ze world, or even to ozzer planes of existence, is simple enough…" She drifted over to hover by Victini next to Mars. "Travel to anozzer planet? Not as easy."
"Really? Why is that?" Ash asked. "I'd have thought it'd be harder to travel to another dimension than to another planet."
"Heh, you'd think so, wouldn't you?" Leo said, shaking his head. "It's not that simple, though."
"Most other dimensions or planes are basically parallel to our own, so traveling to them is essentially a matter of stepping sideways through magical means," Lily explained. "Traveling to other planets is more complicated because you have to factor in orbital mechanics and planetary rotation and gravity and geography and a variety of other incredibly complex calculations that even the most brilliant of mages struggle with to make sure you materialize safely on the surface rather than out in space or several miles beneath the crust or inside a mountain. Plus, none of us have ever been to Mars, which makes things trickier, since it's difficult to transport to somewhere neither you nor any other mage has ever been to."
"You can't just use your matter creation spell to…I dunno, whip up a portal to Mars?" Ash asked Fantina.
The Mismagius shook her head. "I can only create somezing if I know 'ow it works. I 'ave no idea 'ow a portal to Mars would work, so I can't make it." There was another reason she couldn't make a portal to Mars, but out of pride and embarrassment, she did not voice it.
"Theoretically, I could craft one with my hammer by using a pre-existing solid state anchored portal as a base," Briney spoke up. "But it would be incredibly difficult due to all the calculations necessary to make sure the endpoint was safe and stable, just like Lily said. I could do those calculations—having four brains is pretty handy for something like that—but it would take more time than I think we have available, especially since—as Lily said—none of us have been there, so we don't have any pre-existing destination coordinates to work off of."
"Doesn't Bellum have some way to get to Mars, though?" Tiny asked.
"Yes, but we don't know what it is or how it works, and we'd actually have to find her first, which is proving more difficult than I would like," Nuken growled.
"Oh. Great," Tiny said unhappily.
"If I knew how Mother got to Mars, I would have told you a while ago," Lily said apologetically. "But…I don't. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Lily. It's not your fault your bitch of a mom didn't clue you in on her evil plans," Leo said.
Ash nodded. "Plus, knowing Bellum, her method of transportation probably involves, like…I dunno…sacrificing a hundred children's souls to Giratina, or torturing a blind orphan with cancer to death, or deflowering a dozen virgins, or something else needlessly and pointlessly cruel. Nothing we'd want to try ourselves."
"That does sound like Mother," Lily admitted.
"What did I ever see in that womon?" Nuken muttered to himself. He glanced at Lily, and his mood lessened somewhat. At least one good thing had come out of that awful encounter. Eventually.
All you have done so far is tell us how we're not getting to Mars, Dawn asked in annoyance. How, then, are we going to get there?
"A good question!" Victini said approvingly. "Now, answer me this: did you or did you not recently acquire a Pokelantean vessel from undead pirates?"
They stirred at this. "The Peeko XII? Why, what about it?" Ash asked.
Briney's eyes lit up. "Of course! It's so simple!"
"What?! You got to it before me?!" Leo complained. "Oh well, it is your ship."
"And I'm smarter than you now," Briney said.
Leo narrowed his eyes. "That has yet to be seen."
"Um, what does the Peeko XII have to do with anything?" Lily asked in confusion.
"The Peeko's got a magitek engine that lets it warp to anywhere so long as it has something from the place it's jumping to for reference," Briney reminded them.
The other heroes gasped at this. "Of course! Then that means we can use the Peeko XII to get to Mars!" Ash said ecstatically.
"Yes! And all we need is…something from Mars…so it knows how to get there…" Pikachu's ears drooped, as did everyone else's shoulders.
"Except we don't have anything from Mars," Tiny said morosely.
"Well, I still have the Moon rock we got off of Ciela," Leo said, rummaging in his shell and pulling out the stone that had helped them to slay Yamatorochi. "Maybe we could plug it into the Peeko XII's engine and jump to the Moon? I mean, the Lunar civilization has FTL drive, and they were apparently pretty chummy with the Martians since they're both utopian super-societies from space so go to all the same conventions and parties and get-togethers that enlightened alien races attend and don't bother inviting us 'lesser' races to, so they must have something from Mars…"
A good thought, but no, Darkrai said. They can't help you get to Mars any more than I can. While you could ask them for something Martian, the terms of the treaty means they can't give it to you.
Maybe we could steal it? Dawn suggested.
…You could try, Darkrai said doubtfully. Pretty sure my nightmares'd make mincemeat of you, though. You guys are good, but I don't think you're good enough to survive some of the things that lurk on the Dark Side of the Moon. Plus, Sasha wouldn't have my protection or blessing if she tried something like that, so she'd be just as vulnerable as the rest of you.
"Something as risky as that will not be necessary, fortunately," Reshiram spoke up.
Zekrom nodded. "We already have an artifact from Mars you may use to reach the Red Planet."
The heroes' spirits rose at this. "You do?!"
Queen Ninianne nodded. "Much like the Lunar civilization, emissaries from Mars have visited Earth now and then, to observe us and gauge our development, to see whether or not our planet has advanced to the point where they may enter into open relations with us without fears that they may negatively affect our growth...or be negatively affected in return. The mystical nature of Fichina has long been of special interest to the Martians, since their world lacks the same degree of innate magic that parts of Earth or the entirety of the Moon does. Many years ago they entered into a limited—and secret—trade agreement with us: we provide them with magic to study, and they give us some of their super-science and art to help us better Fichina and-once we figure out a proper application for it, because much of it is not easily replicated by the resources currently available to us-the rest of the world."
"Understandably, many countries were rather displeased to learn that you've been dealing directly with envoys from the Red Planet for quite some time, while they tend to pop in and out without warning everywhere else," Nuken said snidely.
"Perhaps when they have less reason to believe you might use their gifts to wage war against your rivals, they will pay you a more formal visit?" Victini sneered. Nuken growled at her but said nothing.
"The Nihilators, no doubt anticipating this course of action, had their agents destroy any artifact of possible Martian origin on Earth just before we were able to crack down on them, to the detriment of many museums, private collections, and government storehouses around the world" the Queen continued. "Fichina, on the other hand, has ever been free of Nihilator infiltration, so still has everything the Martians have ever given us locked away safely. If we provide you with a relic from Mars, you can use it to transport the Peeko XII to the Red Planet safely."
"Yatta!" Leo gushed. "We're going to Mars! And meeting real Martians! That's awesome!"
"Heh, I've never sailed to another planet before…this should be interesting…" Briney said.
"So you are sending us, then?" Pikachu asked, just to be clear. "You're not going to try and commandeer the Peeko XII and send some commando team instead?"
"If they tried to take my ship from me, I would kill them all," Briney promised.
"If you are willing to go, then yes, we wish to send you," the Queen said.
"While there are some countries that believed we should do just that—take your ship from you, I mean. Clearly none of them truly understand just how dangerous Captain Thaddeus Irving Briney can be," Nuken said. Briney smirked in amusement at this. "The eventual consensus was that you eight…well, seven plus Sasha…should take the Pokélantean ship to Mars yourself to establish our beachhead. You have more experience fighting the Nihilators than anyone else, and we will need your expertise on the frontlines of this battle, especially with the new powers you have manifested. Even I would have trouble fighting against your team as they are now."
"…That is an incredible compliment coming from you, sir," Leo said in awe.
"…Yes. Well. Don't get used to it," Nuken said gruffly.
"Thank you, Father," Lily said, kissing the Shedinja on the cheek.
He flushed in embarrassment and quickly floated back. "L-Lily! Not in public!"
"Yeah, not in public…especially where I can get pictures," Leo said with a smirk, quickly stowing a camera away in his shell.
Nuken glared at Leo. "I will expect that picture and all copies of it deleted, DeKappa."
"I'll think about it," Leo said, calling the Shedinja's bluff. Nuken gasped and grunted and twitched, finally degenerating into a menacing growl, which Leo took no notice of. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
"One of these days, I'm going to…do…absolutely nothing…" Nuken trailed off Mareepishly as Lily glared at him. Leo chuckled, causing the Shedinja to tremble with barely repressed rage.
Excellent. I would not have had it any other way, Dawn said.
"We'll be going with you too, of course," Dean said.
Bob nodded. "Once we reach Mars, we'll be able to reestablish contact with our Queen and the resistance forces within the Nihilator fortress, so we can find out what's happened in our absence, how we might need to adjust our strategy accordingly, and prepare to launch the long-awaited rebellion to wrest freedom for our people away from our tormentors."
"We'll be happy to have you with us," Ash said.
"So long as you respect my authority while on board my ship," Briney said gruffly. "Your Queen might be on Mars…but on the Peeko XII, my word is law. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," the vampires chorused.
"I shall come as well," Lugia informed the heroes. "You will no doubt be going up against the Shadowed form of my wife, and they still hold my son captive. You will require my assistance to free them both."
Ash broke into a grin. "It'll be good to fly with you again, Lugia."
"And I with you, Ash," Lugia said warmly.
"Blech!" Misty said in disgust.
"Um, not to disparage this clever stratagem, but…aren't you forgetting something?" Pikachu asked. "The Peeko XII is just one ship. While you could stuff us and as many soldiers as it could carry on board, that still won't be enough to lead a successful assault on the Nihilator stronghold."
"Balderdash! The Peeko XII can take on anything!" Briney bragged. "Why, if we'd had her during our last sortie, we'd have cleaned things up much quicker, and…maybe not have lost one of our own…"
The vampires flinched at this. "Be that as it may," Dean said. "The enemy force that will be waiting for you on Mars will be at least ten times as big as the fleet we battled outside Fichina. Even your ship might have trouble taking it on alone."
"We'll see about that, o ye of little faith," Briney chided. "I've been fighting the Nihilators for over a decade, and I know my ship's and my own capabilities enough to judge what we can or can't do."
"And we've been prisoners of the Nihilators long enough to know their capabilities!" Bob snapped. "As well as what they can or can't do! If you try to take them on all by yourself, you'll lose! You'll take down most of them, but you'll still lose!"
"Oh yeah?" Briney growled.
"Fortunately, we will not need to test that out," the Queen interjected. "Because you are not taking on the Nihilators alone."
Ash blinked. "We're not?"
"Well, no, once we start the revolution they'll be just as busy fighting enemies from within as from without," Dean said.
"Oh yeah," Ash said.
"But will that be enough to give us the edge we need to survive?" Pikachu asked skeptically.
"Nope! Fortunately, that's why you'll have this!" Professor Fennel said, producing a stone carved in a geometric formation with glowing runes set in every surface.
"And that is…?" Pikachu asked as the stone floated over and dropped into Ash's paws.
"My latest invention!" Professor Fennel bragged. Fantina coughed. "…With help from Her Grace, of course. It's a portalstone!"
"Ooooh," Lily and Tiny said, eyes wide.
"Oh, sweet!" Leo said.
"And this does…what, exactly?" Ash asked, prodding the stone with a paw skeptically.
"As the name implies, it opens a portal!" Fennel said, as if it were obvious. Which it probably was, come to think of it.
"But I thought we couldn't open a portal to Mars," Tiny said in confusion.
"Zat's because it's not a portal to Mars, it's a portal to Earzh," Fantina said.
Tiny blinked. "Huh?"
"Identical stones have been distributed to every nation on Earth with a standing army that has agreed to help us invade Mars," Victini has said. "Each of those stones is slave-linked to the one you hold now, which is the master stone. Once you have reached Mars and made contact with both the Nihilator prisoners and the free natives—who, according to Bob and Dean, are also members of the resistance, lying in wait for the chance to retake their planet—and assessed the situation, Lily can use her magic to activate the stone. It will send a signal to the portalstones here on Earth, causing all of them to activate and open portals triangulating on the coordinates of the master stone on Mars, allowing us to march our armies through the resulting gateway and launch a full-scale assault against the Nihilator horde!"
"While your armies are attacking the Nihilator forces, our brethren will launch their rebellion from within the fortress," Dean said.
"The Nihilators will be divided on two fronts," Bob said with a fierce grin. "And an enemy divided is an enemy easily conquered!"
"Well said," Nuken purred approvingly.
"…Badass," said an awestruck Leo.
"Huh. Not bad," Misty said grudgingly.
"That…might actually work," said an impressed Pikachu.
"Yeah, but they'll take away all the fun!" Briney complained.
"Our strategy is sound—it should be, since I came up with it—but to ensure our victory, I'm coming myself," Victini announced. "As the goddess of victory, whichever side I choose to give my support to will win. As such, I need to be on the battlefield to maximize the effect my powers will have on the allied forces." She burst into a very toothy grin. "Plus, there's no way I'm missing out on cleaving in the heads of bastards as big as the Nihilators."
"Wow, and here I thought we were going to have to take on the bad guys all by ourselves! That's the way it usually is in most of the stories and games Leo's shown me," Tiny commented.
"This is real life, Tiny," Pikachu pointed out. "And no matter how similar it sometimes is to fiction—much to my exasperation—not everything happens the way it would in a story. The world's leaders aren't just going to sit back and leave the fate of the planet in the hands of a ragtag group of heroes."
"More's the pity," Leo complained. "Oh well, at least we get to lead the fight rather than sitting back and watching someone else do it."
What would you have us do after we open the portal? Dawn asked.
"Fight alongside us, naturally. Your powers and the Peeko XII's heavy weaponry will be extremely useful," Victini said.
"Additionally, during all the chaos caused by the battle outside and the revolt inside, we were hoping you might be able to slip inside and help free the prisoners as well as retrieve the four Star Badges the Nihilators possess," Nuken said. "We'll be sending our own stealth operatives, of course, but they don't have nearly as much experience fighting the Nihilators as you do. Plus, any distraction you cause fighting will make it easier for our agents to get the job done."
"You can count on our brethren to help you with that, too," Dean said.
Bob nodded. "We don't actually know where the Star Badges are, but they're probably in Oblivion's Shadow's quarters, along with our Queen."
"You also need to rescue the leader of the rebellion, the one called 'Teacher.' We would not have made it as far as we have without his support and wisdom," Dean said.
"We aren't going to leave anyone behind," Ash assured them. "We're a Rescue Team, and saving those in need is what we do!"
"Like you saved me?" Misty asked bitterly. Ash strived to ignore her.
"And we do a pretty damn good job of it, too," Leo said smugly.
Lily frowned in thought. "Wait, something just occurred to me. Don't the Nihilators have orbital defenses? Weapons satellites and ships patrolling the outer reaches of the atmosphere and all that? If we bring in a giant army, what's to stop them from bombarding us from the skies?"
"Glad you asked. We'll be bringing in a number of surface-to-orbit weapons and anti-satellite tech that should help stave off the risks of death from above," Victini said.
"Additionally, the Empire will be sending several members of our elite Sky High division," Nuken said. "Dragons specially trained to fly almost as high as His Excellency himself, to the very edge of space. Their purpose is to patrol the outer limits of the atmosphere and help maintain and/or destroy satellites, as well as to eliminate any stellar object that gets too close to the planet that may pose a threat to the population. They will be perfectly suited to seek out and destroy any defenses the Nihilators have circling the Red Planet."
"That'll make things a lot easier for us, not having to worry about getting shot from space," Leo commented as Lily sighed in relief.
"While I'm thrilled that we're going to be getting so much help," Ash said. "Um…is it safe for all the world's armies to leave to invade Mars? What if the Nihilators left some trap behind or something else happens while we're gone?"
"Don't worry about that," Victini said. "We're not stupid enough to send all our forces to Mars. Every country is leaving behind a sizable detachment to protect their borders while the rest are off fighting the Nihilators, to make sure none of their greedy neighbors try to take advantage of their weakened defenses. Also, the divisions that have been sent to safeguard Pokémon Square will still be in place while we're gone, since the absence of a large portion of the world's military forces seems like a perfect opportunity to launch an attack to me."
"That's good to hear. I'd hate to think our home would be left defenseless while we were gone," Pikachu said in relief.
"Heh, trust me when I say your home will never be defenseless again!" Victini boasted.
Ash and Pikachu exchanged uneasy looks at this. They weren't sure how they felt about that. While so far only a very, very small number of Pokémon knew the reason Pokémon Square was so important, it wouldn't be much longer until other countries started wondering why Fichina, the Draconian Empire, and the Nihilators were all so convinced of its worth…and began to covet it for themselves. While currently all the world's nations were united in protecting Pokémon Square, once this was over, would that arrangement remain, or would their town be the impetus for a new world war? And no matter what happened…with their home now under the scrutiny of so many powerful foreign entities, would Pokémon Square ever truly be free again?
"When do you want us to ship out?" Briney asked. He was aware of Pikachu and Ash's concerns, and while he knew they were reasonable, now was not the time to worry about something like that. They had the Nihilators to deal with first, after all.
"As soon as possible," the Queen said. "The longer we wait, the more time the Nihilators have to bolster their defenses and launch a counterattack. All the world's armies are ready for the signal to march. All you need to do is open the way for them." She raised an eyebrow. "Assuming, of course, you wish to go. We will not send you if you do not want to."
Ash exchanged glances with the others, who nodded resolutely, even Leo and Lily, who should probably have been celebrating a honeymoon right about now rather than getting involved in this conflict once again. They were all ready for this, even though it would probably be their greatest and most dangerous mission yet. And, he supposed, so was he. While the last week or so of relaxation in Fichina had been nice—aside from the increasingly frustrating failures at curing him, that is—their vacation couldn't last forever, and they all knew it. It was time to get back out into the real world and finish the Nihilators—and Oblivion's Shadow-once and for all. "We wouldn't miss this for the world, Your Magisty."
"I would," Misty said.
The Queen smiled in gratitude. "We are delighted to hear it."
"We'll need about a day to pack up everything we'll need and say goodbye to our family and friends first, though," Ash said.
"That should be fine," the Queen said.
"As well as access to any resources you might have which could be of use to us," Leo piped up.
"Done," the Queen said.
"Heh, you might wish you hadn't been so quick to agree to that by the time we're through…" Briney said, bemused.
"We're also going to need to get to Treasure Town, since that's where we left the Peeko," Pikachu pointed out.
"Transport can easily be arranged, especially since teleporters have been set up between the capital and Treasure Town," Victini said. After the Nihilator threat had been exposed, the militaries of several nations—including Fichina and the Draconian Empire—had swiftly moved on Treasure Town to secure it and the Door lying beneath it from the Nihilators. The town had been evacuated of all its inhabitants and a level-by-level purge of the underground maze of the lingering monsters and Nihilator insurgents was conducted, with assistance from Barbedo's crew, who were more than happy to help kill things. Professor Oak and Tracey, no longer needing to live in hiding at Sharpedo Cape, had been brought on as consultants, since they not only knew the layout of the underground fairly well but also had detailed knowledge of the civilizations buried beneath the town and the workings of the Door. Archaeologists around the world were tearing their hair out in envy at the opportunities they were missing out on and all the discoveries Oak and Tracey were able to make without any pesky monsters or Nihilators to interfere with their research. It was pretty much all Tracey could talk about whenever he and Leo chatted anymore, that and expressing outrage he hadn't been able to make the wedding due to Oak and the military keeping him on a short leash, and his continued insistence that his long-distance girlfriend was very much real and very much super-hot. Nobody believed him, naturally.
"That won't be necessary, actually," Lily spoke up. "My magical abilities have grown strong enough that I can now open a portal between here and Treasure Town without much difficulty."
"Whoa, really? That's awesome!" said an impressed Leo.
"And incredibly convenient for us," Pikachu agreed, deciding not to complain about it too much.
"You can? Zat's wonderful, Lily!" Fantina said. "I've never managed to…I-I mean, I'm very proud of you. Well done!" Only Briney seemed to catch her slip. Then again, he already knew what her secret shame was, but saw no need to bring it up. He wasn't that cruel. Unless he felt like it.
"In that case, I guess we can leave whenever we're ready," Ash said.
"Great! The sooner, the better…my sword's itching to taste some Nihilator blood!" Victini said.
"And the sooner we leave, the sooner we can save my family," Lugia said gravely.
Ash nodded. "Okay then. Let's head back to the Chambre de Fantasma to say goodbye to our families. Leo, you, Briney, Nuken and Pikachu put your heads together to figure out what we'll need to take with us. Fantina or Professor Fennel should be able to help get our hands on or make anything we need, and if they can't, I bet Briney can forge it."
"You bet I can," Briney said.
"Wait, why are you asking Nuken for help and not me?" Victini protested.
"Maybe because Nuken's one of the most brilliant military strategists on the planet?" Leo suggested, always looking to ingratiate himself to his father-in-law. It didn't work.
"…And I'm not?!" the war goddess yelled.
"When is the last time you personally supervised a war?" Nuken asked smugly.
Victini hesitated. "Uh, well…it's been a few years…"
"Whereas I was in one just the other week. I rest my case," Nuken said. Victini growled, eye twitching.
"Your Magisty, gather anyone you want to send with us—I assume you are intending to send others with us?" Ash asked.
The Queen nodded. "While I trust your skills, Ash, and those of your friends, I would be foolish to send only eight—well, and a crew of undead pirates—on their own to establish a foothold on Mars. Some of Fichina's finest—and a few from other places, as well—have already gathered here in New Avalon to go forth with you to the Red Planet. If they may have your permission to come aboard, Captain?"
"Well, I suppose so, since you asked nicely and all. So long as they know how to follow orders—specifically, my orders—and know how not to bump too many elbows and can pull their weight and clean up after themselves, I think we should get along fine," Briney said reluctantly.
Ash nodded. "Okay, then send the call to all of your specialists and have them get ready. Once we've got everything we need—and Sasha wakes up, and we've filled her in-we'll let you know, and you can send your troops to the Chambre de Fantasma so we can all head to Treasure Town together. Once there, we'll round up the crew, get in the Peeko XII, plug in the artifact, and head off to Mars."
"We're going to need that artifact before we go, by the way," Pikachu pointed out.
Leo nodded. "Yeah, it would be embarrassing if we made it all the way to Treasure Town only to realize we left the darn thing here in Fichina."
"A good point. Here." The Queen opened her palm, and suddenly a small figure of an Elgeyem made of red stone appeared floating in the air above it. "This statuette is carved from stone taken from the Valles Marineris. Since that is where the last Martian survivors are hiding, and where Nihilator control on Mars is at its weakest, that makes it the ideal place for you to arrive at."
The statuette floated through the air and into Ash's waiting palms. He looked at it appraisingly. The object was flawless, with no visible seams or cracks, and while the Queen said it was made of stone, it didn't look quite like any stone he'd seen on Earth…and by now, he'd seen a lot of stone. Then again, it was from another planet, which probably explained it. It almost looked just like a real Elgeyem, only much smaller, and made of red stone. "Do they know we're coming?"
"Unfortunately, no," Victini said. "We have no way of contacting them."
"But we can communicate with them since we're all linked through the rebel network established by the Teacher, so the instant we get there they'll know we're friends and won't try to blast us out of the sky," Bob said.
"Psh, like they could," Briney scoffed.
"This is so cool…we're gonna meet real live Martians! Yatta!" Leo cheered.
"Um, I don't know if this is a stupid question or not, but…ah…will we be able to breathe there?" Tiny asked timidly.
"Why wouldn't we be able to?" Ash asked.
"Actually, Tiny brings up a good point. Other planets don't necessarily have the same atmosphere that we have on Earth," Leo pointed out. "However, all of Earth's extraterrestrial visitors from within our system have been able to breathe our air without difficulty, which implies we shouldn't have any trouble breathing on their worlds, either."
Dean nodded. "I've never actually been outside the Nihilator fortress, but I know there's an atmosphere similar to Earth's out there. It's a bit colder than we're used to, though, since it's further away from the Sun. Other than that, it should be okay."
"Cold as in…like, Lily's place, or Niflheim, or…?" Pikachu asked.
"At its warmest it can be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit," Bob said. "At other times it can be 1 degrees, or even -178."
"So you might want to bring a jacket," Dean said.
"Lovely," Pikachu said miserably. "More cold. Can't we adventure somewhere warm for a change? The desert we fought the Nihilators in doesn't count because of how screwy the weather became thanks to the corrupted legendary birds."
"What about Big Volcano?" Tiny asked.
"That was a while ago, Tiny, and the…" Pikachu grimaced. "Musirangers froze it solid."
"Oh, right," Tiny said.
"That was so awesome!" Leo gushed.
"Leo, they deprived Battlus of its primary source of power as well as forcing hundreds of Pokémon out of a job due to the arena getting destroyed, and many of them were unqualified to work at the new winter resort they had to open up instead so may still be unemployed," Pikachu pointed out.
"Oh. Well, yeah, other than that," Leo admitted. "Mon, you have a way of making just about anything sound bad." Pikachu sighed.
What of Zero Isle? Dawn suggested.
Pikachu considered that. "I suppose so, but we also spent a fair portion of that part underwater, so I'm not sure it counts either."
"I'll always remember Zero Isle," Leo said fondly, sharing an adoring look with Lily. "It's where Lily and I shared our first kiss, and I went completely insane and thought I was a pirate from a computer game."
Good thing Sasha's the only one of us who had to deal with that for a prolonged period of time, Dawn said. The others nodded in agreement, except for Tiny, who'd thought Leo was funny when he believed he was a Mighty Pirate™.
"You did a pretty good reprise of Monscrub Fourplank during some of our roleplay last night," Lily said with a blush.
"I did, didn't I?" Leo said proudly. "And you made a great Elayne. You even got the accent right! I'm surprised you managed to keep it even while you were screaming my—er, Monscrub's name."
"It wasn't easy, I'll tell you that much," Lily said.
"…Okay, we really didn't need to know about that," said a horrified Ash as he and the others turned green.
"Neither did I," Briney said morosely.
Or me, Choc-Oboh moaned.
I thought it was fun, B said.
You would, Choc-Oboh complained.
"I wouldn't mind 'earing more," Fantina said. When lots of people gave her looks, she flushed and said, "Er, but now's not ze time. Unfortunately."
Victini facepalmed. "Are these guys really the best we've got?"
"So it would seem," Kyurem hissed.
"Good thing they're not all we're sending," Princess Boa said, causing her mother to shoot her a look.
"Back on subject from Pikachu's whining and hearing more about Leo and Lily's sex life than anyone here really needs to know, the Peeko's shields should keep us nice and toasty for the most part, but outside it's gonna be a whole other story," Briney said.
"I can use my magic to keep us warm, if we need it," Lily assured them.
"And I can use my latest Thermonuke to keep the chill away!" Leo declared.
Pikachu groaned. "You still have one of those things?!"
"I always have a Thermonuke handy! It's too useful not to," Leo pointed out, to which Pikachu had to admit he might be right. Those things had proven useful more times than he could count.
Is there anything else we need to know about the Martians ahead of time? Dawn asked.
"Probably, but we'll tell you on the way there," Dean said. "It's not as high a priority."
"Then I think that's everything," Briney said.
Ash nodded. "All right guys, let's get packing-"
The Queen stiffened. "Hold. We are receiving a transmission."
Everyone looked at her in surprise. "From where?" Nuken asked, instantly suspicious.
The Queen's eyes narrowed. "Mars."
As this shocking news sank in, a giant holographic screen suddenly appeared in the air. On that screen was a figure wearing floor-length cloak hanging from a wide silvery mantle on its shoulders, the cape-like fabric woven from a material so black it absorbed all the ambient light around it. The body beneath the cloak was seven feet tall and bipedal, clad in black armor and a black bodysuit that also seemed to absorb the light around it and filled out a lean rather than muscular form, with a thick cord wrapped around its waist like some sort of belt. Its head was no less enigmatic, a black cowled helmet with no particular adornments aside from a pair of long curved horns growing from the top of its head. In place of a face, there was a mirrored faceplate with a faintly embossed N-on-Earth symbol.
Ash knew the figure on sight. He was so taken by surprise that he was unable to stop the familiar rage from flooding his body, his training forgotten as Aura exploded uncontrollably out around him, driving the others back. "Oh no!" Pikachu cried in horror.
"Daddy, stop!" Tiny screamed, grimacing in pain as he felt Ash's fury and negative emotions surge through their bond, causing his own Aura to flare up.
"Oh crap oh crap oh crap!" Leo squealed.
"What is this?! I thought he was training to prevent something like this from happening!" Nuken cried in alarm.
"He has! It…hasn't been going very well!" Lily said, eyes glowing as she prepared various spells in preparation for…for…for what? Containment? To attack Ash? Although they had all promised to…do what was necessary, was she really ready to strike down her first friend? She hesitated, uncertain.
"Oh, yes! It's happening! It's really happening!" Misty cackled excitedly.
"Calm down, Ash!" Briney boomed, eyes glowing as he grabbed Ash in a telekinetic grip. He clenched his teeth as Ash's out of control Aura seethed and struggled against him. Even with his new power boost, the Lucario's rage was almost too strong for him to hold back. "That's not really him, it's just a projection, from millions of miles away! And unlike the one in Treasure Town, you can't fight him!"
"Don't you…nngh…think I…hrrgh…know that!" Ash snapped, squeezing his eyes shut and grinding his teeth as he struggled to get his emotions under control. "But-but I…every time I look at him, I see…"
He clutched her dead body to his chest, sobbing, refusing to believe her life had been snuffed out as easily as a candle even as her blood soaked into his clothes and stained his hands and face.
"I'm so sorry…"
"That's what you should see, Ash. What you did to me. Face up to the consequences of what you've done. Admit the truth you're hiding from yourself. Give in to the darkness!" Misty shouted.
"No! I…I won't!" Ash screamed, but the way his Aura was roiling and darkening in hue put the lie to these words.
"Daddy!" Tiny screamed, tackling Ash, his Aura blazing up as he added his power to Briney's to try and keep Ash pinned down. "Don't lose control, Daddy! Please!"
"We're here for you, Ash!" Pikachu said, taking his paw away from his sword and approaching carefully, making sure not to make any threatening movements. "Don't give in to your anger!"
"No, do give in! Do give in!" Misty chanted.
"Oh, be quiet, you!" Briney snarled angrily.
"Uh, this isn't good," Victini said, glancing around to the other Fichinans, who were either uncertain about what action to take…or tensing up, preparing for the worst. "Should we do something?"
"No," Lugia spoke up before anyone could say anything. "Let me handle this." He took flight, landing on the Mercury platform/planet. "Ash, look at me!"
Squinting, eyes trembling and body shaking, Ash looked at Lugia. "L-Lugia?
"Look at me, Ash. Focus on my voice," Lugia said calmly, beaming soothing waves of calm into the Lucario's mind. "You are among friends, Ash. He is not here, and he cannot hurt you."
"It's…not him hurting me…that I'm afraid of…" Ash hissed.
"Nor should it be," Misty gloated.
"Listen to me, Ash. Remember your training. Take deep breaths. Release your anger, and let in peace. Release your anger, and let in peace. In and out. In and out," Lugia calmly intoned.
Ash took deep, ragged breaths. With every exhalation, his body shook a little less, and his Aura gradually diminished and regained its regular color. Within a few minutes, his Aura was still simmering around him, and his fists were still clenched, and his chest was heaving, but other than that he seemed to be all right. "I-I think I'm okay," Ash gasped. "I mean…I can still feel the anger raging, burning to be released, but I think I've got a hold on it…for now. Thank you, Lugia. Thank you…everyone."
"Daddy!" Tiny sobbed, hugging Ash. One by one, the rest of his friends joined the embrace, even a somewhat embarrassed Briney. Lugia smiled, relieved things were under control. For now, anyway.
"Ugh! So close!" Misty snarled, snapping her fingers.
"Phew! That was…interesting," Victini said, wiping away some sweat.
"That was a very close call…" Zekrom murmured.
"That poor boy," Reshiram said sadly.
"Hrmm…he still has not achieved balance," Kyurem hissed in disappointment.
"Did…you feel that, Mother? The power inside him?" Princess Boa said, not having removed her hand from her sword even though the danger seemed to have passed.
The Queen nodded slowly. "Yes…I think even I might have had difficulty fighting him if he were to lose all control."
"Oh, Ash…" Fantina whispered.
"…Interesting…" murmured Nuken.
"More like fascinating," Fennel said, glasses gleaming.
"Uh, while this is all very touching and stuff, shouldn't we be focusing more on the fact that we're apparently receiving a call from our greatest enemy?!" Dean pointed out.
"Oblivion's Shadow…" Bob hissed.
Remembering what had brought on Ash's near-breakdown, they all turned their focus back to the holographic screen. Now that they were paying more attention to it, and not Ash losing his mind, they realized the Shadow was standing outside somewhere, but it didn't look like anywhere on Earth. (Well, except for some deserts in Ameroupe.) He was standing in the middle of a dry, rocky landscape coated with fine red dust. The skies were reddish as well, a hue skies on Earth rarely if ever took.
"So…that's what Mars looks like?" Tiny asked.
"I can see why they call it the Red Planet," Pikachu commented.
"Most of the red is actually from a dust called iron oxide," Leo said. "It's like rust-colored talcum powder. Pretty much everything on the planet is covered in it."
Dean nodded. "Maintenance crews at the Nihilator fortress are always struggling to keep it out of everything. It has a nasty habit of jamming up gears and shorting out circuit boards and clogging the drains. Of course, not all of that dust winds up there by accident…"
"Certainly made it easier for our friends to perform acts of sabotage," Bob agreed.
"So…that is Oblivion's Shadow…" the Queen murmured. "Our enemy, at last…"
"What is he?" Boa wondered.
"A question we have been pondering for the last thousand years," Zekrom growled, his face twisted into a snarl as he gazed again on the being who had once destroyed the world…even if he looked different now than he had then. He was shorter, for one. And in black, rather than white.
I know who he really is, Darkrai pondered to himself. Too bad I can't tell any of them. Yet. Stupid contract. Oh well, that shouldn't be a problem for much longer.
"He wears a mask that looks like a mirror…he is not only hiding his face from the world, but from himself," Reshiram mused. "I wonder what truth he does not wish to face?"
"What do you want, Shadow?!" Ash snarled hatefully, his Aura flaring up briefly.
I think that's a one-way transmission. He can't hear us, Dawn said.
"Oh," Ash said, nonplussed.
"Idiot," Misty grunted.
"People of Earth," the Shadow said in a heavily distorted, synthesized voice that made it impossible to tell what he really sounded like. His mask reflected a floating spherical device, probably some sort of automated camera, so he didn't have anyone else's voice or face to mimic at the moment. "I am Oblivion's Shadow, leader of the secret society of Nihilators, and I wish to speak with you about an important matter: the future of your planet."
"People of Earth? He's not just talking to us?" Lily instantly intuited.
The Queen shook her head. "It is being transmitted all over the Earth."
"Patch me into the Draconian Embassy immediately, I need to get in touch with the Empire to deal with this!" Nuken commanded.
Fantina rolled her eyes. "You could 'ave said please," she grumbled as a holographic screen appeared next to the Shedinja showing the face of one of the Dragon Pokémon in charge of the embassy. Nuken immediately began conversing with him.
"Over the last several days, you have probably heard a lot about me and my organization," the Shadow continued. "And none of it good, I'd wager."
"Got that right," Dean snarled.
"If he's going to try and deny our allegations on air, he's got another thing coming!" Bob growled.
"I wish to inform you that everything you've heard about us is true," Oblivion's Shadow said.
They blinked in surprise. "Okay, didn't see that coming," Dean said.
"He's not going to try to deny his crimes or spin them to his own advantage? Weird…what's he up to?" Leo wondered.
"In fact, we may even be a bit worse than what you have heard," Oblivion's Shadow said. "We take pride in our evil. There are many villains who would deny their evil, to try and justify their actions…but let's face it, we're trying to release the Ruler of Evil and destroy the world, and we've made thousands of Pokémon suffer in the process. How can that possibly be justified?"
"Got that right," Briney said.
"You have no doubt been told of my goals: that I seek to open a great door beneath Treasure Town, and release the Ruler of Evil from the Abyss. To do that I have been seeking seven very special keys. You have also no doubt been told that I only possess four of those keys, and the other three are out of my reach, seemingly for good. You believe yourself safe, since almost all of my minions have been wiped off the face of the planet, and the way for me to free the Ruler is forever denied to me. You believe that I am no longer a threat, and will soon be removed from power, and relegated to the annals of history.
"You believe wrong. Even here on Mars, I still have the power to inflict unimaginable suffering on the people of Earth whenever I choose. I am the most dangerous being you have ever met, and your destruction shall be by my hand and mine alone. Look to the skies, and you will witness my power firsthand," the Shadow said ominously.
"Look to the…what is he talking about?" Boa wondered in confusion.
Victini gasped. "Your Magisty, render the illusion of Earth into a real-time display from space! And enlarge it so we can actually see what's going on!"
Without even asking for clarification, the Queen did as her military commander bade. At first, it didn't look as if the hologram of Earth and the Moon had changed at all, other than growing significantly larger so they could more easily make out individual continents and even cities, including the one they were in now. And then they noticed the jump-gate by the Moon was glowing.
"He's powering up the jum- gate," Leo breathed. "He's sending something through!"
"Wait, how exactly are we getting this image to begin with? Do we have some kind of magical camera out in space or something?" asked a confused Pikachu.
"Somezing like zat," said Fantina.
"…Ah," Pikachu said.
"What is it? A fleet like the one Tarantulas led against us?" Lily wondered.
"Whatever it is, we're more than ready for it," Nuken said, turning away from his conversation with the Embassy representative. "I've ordered the Sky High division to be deployed immediately, and have received word that every capable nation is arming surface-to-orbit missiles and powering up their defense satellites. It's a good thing we aren't the only ones to have received this message. The Shadow will regret telling us about this attack ahead of time!"
Lily frowned. "Why is he doing that, anyway?"
Dawn narrowed her eyes. You're right. Why warn us that it's coming? Something…doesn't feel right…
"I am readying Fichina's defenses as well," the Queen said.
"And raising the planetary defense shield?" Leo asked.
There was a pause. "We…don't have one of those," Victini admitted.
Leo sighed in exasperation. "We really need to get around to installing one of those…"
The jump-gate flashed, discharging not a ship or even a fleet of ships but a massive chunk of rock that started hurtling on a direct course for Earth at alarming speeds. "It's a meteor!" Tiny cried unnecessarily.
"Just like in all those old disaster movies that are no longer quite in style! Mon, I liked those things before they started using unrealistic climate science to think of admittedly impressive and flashy but ultimately unlikely ways for the world to end with even flimsier excuses for how the main characters manage to survive everything collapsing around them," Leo groused.
"That meteor looks about as big as the one that nearly struck the Earth last year," Fennel observed.
Ash and Pikachu exchanged glances at this. Was this how the Nihilators had thrown a meteor at the Earth back then, too? "Last time we had Rayquaza to stop it," Ash said anxiously. "That's not an option now…"
"Nor is it necessary, not to disparage His Excellency at all," Nuken said. "After that…incident, we increased funding and training for the Sky High division so that they could perform meteor-smashing duties in case His Excellency was ever…indisposed, as he currently is. Plus, it's not like the rest of the world is sitting idly by, either. As soon as the meteor is in range, we'll let loose with everything we have!"
"The meteor is in my sights," the Queen said, her eyes fixed on some faraway place only she could see. Almost barely noticeable, a complicated glyph formed on the hologram of Earth right about where Fichina was located. "The spell is fully charged. Firing in three…two…one…"
In unison, thousands of threads and dots of light streaked out from the image of the Earth and shot towards the meteor (with one significantly larger and more colorful beam blazing out from Fichina). Individually they didn't look that impressive, but in unison, they made for quite the stunning light show.
"It's pretty," Tiny commented.
"The Earth is firing a Macross Missile Massacre?! Sweet!" Leo gushed.
The thousands of points of light pierced the meteor. At first, it looked as if it had no effect, and everyone's tension and worry rose to even greater levels. And then…
One by one, shafts of light shot out from the surface of the meteor. Massive cracks zigzagged across its irregular form. With what would probably have been a terrifically loud explosion if it hadn't been in space and they weren't watching a hologram, the meteor shattered in a terrific conflagration, bits of debris flying everywhere and vaporizing in the massive fireball erupting from the space rock's core.
The Council chamber burst into cheers. "YATTA!" Leo yelled, kissing Lily full on the lips, leading to a make-out session that would probably have turned into something a bit more heated if they had been alone.
"Excellent work!" Nuken laughed. "I knew pouring so much money into the Sky High division would pay off!"
"Yeah! Take that!" Tiny cheered.
"In your face, Oblivion's Shadow!" Lugia, of all people, shouted.
"Well done, Your Magisty!" Fantina said as the Queen slumped back in her seat, taking a deep, shuddering breath while Boa and the three dragons leaned forward in concern.
"That spell always takes a lot out of me…still, I am glad I did not have to perform it alone," the Queen said with a smile. "Wasn't it wonderful, though? All the nations on Earth, working together in unison? Perhaps in trying to destroy us, the Shadow has given us the chance for something that has eluded our world for centuries…the possibility of true peace and unity between all the peoples of Earth."
"A lovely dream, Mother," Boa said with a smile.
"Yeah…but with no more wars, I'll be out of a job!" Victini complained.
"Couldn't you go back to being just the goddess of victory?" Fennel asked. "For sporting events and games and the like?"
"Yeah…but it wouldn't be the same, or satisfy my bloodlust," Victini complained. Fennel sweatdropped.
"Where was all of that ordinance last year, when we had to beat up Rayquaza to get him to do anything about it?" Pikachu wondered in astonishment as Dawn hugged him ecstatically.
"Who knows? At least we showed Oblivion's Shadow not to mess with our planet!" Ash said excitedly.
Briney frowned. "Did we, though? That seemed a bit…too easy…"
Seeming to agree with this, Oblivion's Shadow spoke up again. "Ah, so you think you've managed to thwart my evil plot. Well done. Well done." He clapped mockingly, and then leaned towards the camera menacingly. "Except it's not over yet."
Without warning, a large, dark object shot out of the dying flames from the destroyed meteor and streaked towards Earth.
They gasped. "There was something else inside the meteor?!" Fennel cried.
"Just like King Ghidragon, and more monsters from B-movies than I can count!" Leo said.
"Quickly, fire again!" Lugia shouted.
"I cannot," the Queen said, face white with horror. "There is no time to recharge the spell."
"Or for the land-bound forces to reload…and it's already passed into the zone where it's too dangerous to fire at it with whatever else we have without risking igniting the atmosphere or causing pieces of debris to impact all over the Earth, rather than in just one place!" Nuken cried.
"Then…then what can we do?!" Tiny yelled.
"…Nothing. Nothing at all," Briney whispered.
"See, this is why we need a planetary defense shield!" Leo yelled.
The dark object, whatever it was, smashed into the Earth. There was a flash of light, and then a pillar of flames surrounded by shockwaves of dust and smoke and fire rippling out in every direction rose into the air, obscuring the spot the object had hit as a dark cloud formed over the impact zone.
They all stared at the representation of the planet in wordless horror for a long moment. Then, Leo, nervously trying to break the mood, said, "W-well at least the planet didn't explode…"
"Where…where was that?" Pikachu whispered.
Fennel studied the globe for a moment. Her eyes widened in horror. "Treasure Town."
"No!" Fantina gasped.
"Treasure Town?!" Tiny cried.
"My…my mons…I had troops stationed there…" Nuken whispered.
"So did I," Victini said. "Trained most of 'em myself…"
"Some of my friends were there," Boa breathed. "I just spoke to them a few hours ago…"
Nuken whirled on the embassy official. "Get me in touch with Treasure Town! SOMETHING must have survived that! They…they can't all be…"
"There must be someone left," Victini said, desperately trying to get in touch with her own soldiers. "There must be. They…they wouldn't let something like that wipe them all out…"
"This…is a very dark day for all of us," the Queen said solemnly. She shut her eyes in grief. "And one that started out with so much promise…"
"Oh no…" Pikachu gasped, eyes widening in realization. "Professor Oak…Tracey…"
"My crew…" Briney whispered, clenching his claws.
"I'm on it!" Leo cried, whipping out his phone. He quickly dialed Tracey's cell number and held it up to his earhole. "It's ringing. Come on, Tracey, pick up. Pick up. Please, please pick up…" It went to voicemail. Frantically, Leo immediately redialed, tears starting to roll down his cheeks while Lily hugged him from behind, crying as well.
We will kill them, Dawn said quietly. We will kill them all.
No…no… B whispered.
…Mewgle is not the only monster that needs to be stopped, Choc-Oboh said.
That…THAT…BASTARD! Darkrai roared.
Lugia and the Tao Trio bowed their heads in sorrow. Ash was trembling again. "How…how dare he."
"How…DARE he…" Ash growled, clenching his paws so tightly they drew blood. His Aura started to flare up again, its hue steadily darkening as his eyes started flickering white.
"I'm so sorry…"
"Yes," Misty whispered, actually looking remorseful. "How dare he…"
"As you can see, I have just wiped Treasure Town off the face of the Earth," Oblivion's Shadow said smugly, reminding everyone he was still broadcasting. "Why did I do this, you might ask? Why Treasure Town, rather than some other populated center? Because, simply put, clearing away Treasure Town will make it easier for me to open the Door. Yes, don't think I've given up on that. Do you really think my lacking all seven Star Badges is going to stop me? I have obtained a method by which I will soon be able to open the Door, no matter how many Badges are in my possession! Within a matter of days, if not hours, I will open the portal to the Abyss and release the Ruler of Evil…and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop me.
"Oh…and in case any of you are thinking of coming up here to stop me or to avenge whatever friends or family members or comrades I might have just killed…you may want to reconsider."
The camera swiveled around to reveal a towering mountain the same reddish hue as everything else on the planet, one so absolutely massive the camera couldn't even begin to capture the whole thing. The image blurred as the camera zoomed in on the foothills at the base of Coronet Mons, resolving itself to show that there were metal stakes driven into the ground at the foot of the great mountain…and chained to each stake by fetters that had hooks driven into their flesh rather than manacles were Pokémon. Starving, emaciated Pokémon, so thin many of them practically looked like skeletons with a thin layer of skin covering them, open wounds and sores surrounded by dried blood and the festering crusts of diseased flesh gaping all over their bodies, many missing limbs or eyes or ears or digits or other parts of their body, their lips blue and their extremities black from the cold. If it weren't for the fact that their chests were moving slightly to show they were breathing, it would be easy to assume that they were dead; they were lying very still, and covered with the same red dust as the rest of Mars, implying they had been there for a while. They didn't even have the strength left to shiver anymore.
In a flash of light, Oblivion's Shadow reappeared next to one of the prisoners, a Snubbul missing one of its ears, one of its eyes, and most of its nose, and telekinetically raised it into the air. The Fairy Pokémon gasped, new blood flowing from its wounds as it dangled limply in the air, red dust and droplets of blood sloughing off its form to spill to the ground below. "I am currently holding a number of Pokémon hostage, at least a few from every nation on Earth and several that are unaffiliated. The instant any of you set foot on Mars, they will die. Not all at once, but one for every minute you do not leave my world. And it will not be a pleasant death by any means. Allow me to demonstrate." He raised a four-fingered hand which he clenched into a fist, burning with Shadow Aura. With a fearsome shout, he thrust his fist forwards, burying it in the Snubbul's chest.
As the Snubbul jerked and coughed up blood, and the heroes gasped, Lugia's eyes widened in horror. "No…it can't be…"
Shadow Aura blazing up around him, with another cry Oblivion's Shadow wrenched his hand out of the Snubbul's chest…and in so doing, took something with him. It looked like a skeleton made of pure blue flames…flames that looked an awful lot like…
"Is that…Aura?!" Tiny whispered in horror.
"What…what is he doing?" Ash asked, eyes wide. His stomach was roiling, every Aura instinct in his body screaming that something unimaginably wrong was happening.
"No…no, no, NO!" Lugia cried, eyes wide in disbelief.
The Snubbul screamed as the Shadow ripped the burning skeleton out of its body, a scream so full of agony and anguish and torment that even Nuken, long since used to tortured screams, actually flinched and shuddered at the sheer amount of pain and suffering in that exclamation. The Shadow looked at the skeleton clutched in his hand, and it compressed into a sphere of bright blue Aura that fit into his palm. He examined the sphere for a moment, then shook his head dismissively and crushed it with a simple flex of his fingers. The Snubbul gasped, shuddered, and spontaneously crumbled into ash, the gray and black matter staining the red soil around the stake. Oblivion's Shadow's Shadow Aura flared up again, a hint of blue in it that quickly turned pitch-black. "Ah…haven't done that in a while."
"What…what did he just…" Pikachu started.
"He removed…and CONSUMED…that Snubbul's Aura!" Lugia cried, a haunted look in his eyes.
They looked at him in astonishment. "WHAT?!" Tiny shouted.
"You…you can do that?!" Leo stammered.
"No, I cannot…but Aura users can, specifically, masters of Shadow Aura," Lugia whispered as old nightmares played before his eyes. "It is a forbidden technique, ranking up with the Anti-Life Equation as one of the vilest things the Dark Ones have ever conceived of…and Oblivion's Shadow knows how to use it! This…this is bad. This is VERY bad!"
"I take it it's not as simple as just killing someone, then?" Briney asked.
Lugia shook his head. "Not at all. Aura is the life force of all living things. Removing it is bad enough…but to consume it, too? Not only does that prevent the Aura from flowing back into the Omniversal life source, but the consumer grows stronger, adding the Aura of their victims to their own!"
"Then he's devouring souls?!" Lily gasped.
Lugia blinked. "What? No, of course not. Aura is a completely different source of energy than souls, though they are somewhat related, granted."
"Oh," Lily said.
"I have never heard of such a thing…Brycen has certainly never mentioned it in his studies," the Queen commented.
"He would never have heard of it," Zekrom said gravely.
"After all, it is forbidden," Reshiram pointed out.
"And known only to the Dark Ones, whose knowledge was taken with them after their defeat…or so we all thought," Kyurem hissed.
"That is just a taste of what is in store if you choose to darken my doorstep," the Shadow continued, cape blowing ominously as the Martian wind blew up dust in the background, obscuring the other prisoners and making him look like a black shadow set against a cloud of blood. "So, I recommend you do nothing but wait…until your world comes to an end." With that, the hologram vanished as he terminated his transmission.
"That…that…BASTARD!" Ash screamed. "Nng…ggghhhh…grr…GRAAAAAHHHHH!" His Aura blazed up again, cracking the platform and flinging his friends back, darkening at a prodigious rate. It would only be a matter of seconds before it reached pitch-black…and then, it would be too late.
"No! Ash, stop!" Lily cried.
"Oh come on, not again!" Leo yelled.
"Daddy, no!" Tiny cried, face scrunched up in pain from the negative emotions feeding back into him.
Lugia tried to connect to Ash's mind…and recoiled, features twisted in pain. "He's too far gone this time…I can't connect to him!"
"He can't be stopped now! Do it, Ash! Destroy! Destroy EVERYTHING!" Misty shouted.
"Ash, don't, we're all here for you! What the Shadow did is horrible, but don't do this!" Pikachu cried in alarm. But it was to no avail; Ash was so lost to his rage he didn't seem to be aware that anyone else was around him, even his best friends. His paw twitched, reaching for his sword. Was this it? Was he really going to have to keep his promise? Was he…was he going to have to slay his own brother?
Fortunately, it didn't come to that. "Sorry about this, kid," Briney said, drawing back his hammer.
Pikachu's eyes widened. "What are you…no, wait, don't-"
Ignoring Pikachu—like that's a shock—Briney swung his hammer through the air and smashed it into the back of Ash's skull just before his Aura could turn black. Instantly, his Aura dissipated. The Lucario blinked, a dazed look in his eyes…
And then he fell face-forward, collapsing on the platform. "Daddy!" Tiny cried, urgently rushing to his side.
"Dammit!" Misty cursed in disappointment.
"There. Problem solved. You're welcome," Briney said, putting his hammer away.
"Was zat really necessary?!" Fantina asked.
Briney shrugged. "Wasn't like any of you were doing anything other than gawking at him or trying to talk him down. Which wasn't working, might I add."
Fantina sighed. "No, I suppose it wasn't…"
Misty glared at him. I should be angry he did that. Ash was about to finally lose it. So… She frowned in puzzlement. Why am I…relieved that he didn't?
"Dude. That was intense," Leo said, stunned.
"Um. Wow," Victini said. "That was kinda scary. Even more than the last time"
"I thought he was training so this wouldn't happen to him!" Boa said, shocked.
"That's what I said before," Nuken said in annoyance.
Lugia sighed wearily. "It looks as if it wasn't enough."
"Which is what I said earlier," Lily pointed out, miffed.
The Queen closed her eyes. "…Perhaps…we should reconsider sending Ash to Mars. In his current emotional state…if he should snap like that when next he sees Oblivion's Shadow…it is too great a risk to take. He is not ready for a mission of this magnitude."
"Oh, I don't know…" Nuken said, an eerie gleam in his eye. "If he were to react like that again…imagine what he could do to the Nihilators."
And the rest of us. If Ash goes Void, he won't be able to distinguish between friend or foe, Dawn said, glaring at the Shedinja. He will destroy everything.
Nuken blinked, surprised that Dawn, who was supposed to be an obedient subordinate, was actually talking back to him like that. "…Perhaps you are right," he admitted. "But from a tactical standpoint…you can see why it might be appealing."
"And from a scientific viewpoint, it would be fascinating!" Fennel said.
"And from the viewpoint of a friend, it's not," Lily said angrily. Nuken bowed out, seeing there was no point in arguing further. Fennel Mareepishly did the same, realizing she might have gone too far.
"Ash has to go," Lugia said sorrowfully.
Pikachu looked up at the sea god in alarm. "Are you serious? After what just happened?!"
"It is his destiny. He must go. And so must I," Lugia said, though clearly he wished it were otherwise. "I…did not do a good job of restraining him just now. I am sorry. I was…as shocked and distraught by what happened as everyone else. It will not happen again."
"It had better not," Briney said. "Or else the next time I swing my hammer at his head, it won't be a love tap." Lugia nodded in understanding.
Suddenly, Leo's phone rang. Everyone looked at him in surprise. "Uh, whoops, that's for me," he said in embarrassment. "Forgot to put the darn thing on vibrate before we got here…" He quickly answered it. "Hi, sorry, this isn't a good time…" He stopped, his eyes widening. "…Tracey? Tracey, is that you?!"
"He's alive?!" Lily asked excitedly.
"Yay!" Tiny cheered.
"Oh, thank goodness!" Pikachu said in relief.
"And if he's alive, then maybe so are my soldiers!" Nuken said excitedly.
"And mine!" Victini said.
"And my crew!" Briney said.
"And some of my friends who were there!" Boa agreed.
"Tracey, dude, you have no idea how glad I am to hear from you! I thought you'd bit it! I mean, that was pretty…" Leo frowned. "Wait, wait, slow down, I can barely understand you. What was that?" His eyes widened. "Say that again." Evidently, Tracey did, because he said a very bad word that Tiny was not supposed to know. "Oh, SHIT!" No, that wasn't the word Leo had said. He said this after the word Tiny wasn't supposed to know.
"What did he say?" Ash asked, sitting up.
Everyone did a double-take. "What the…Ash?!" Pikachu cried in astonishment.
"Daddy!" Tiny squealed, glomping the Lucario.
"Yes?" Ash said, hugging his son absent-mindedly.
Shouldn't…shouldn't you be unconscious?! Dawn asked.
"That hammer blow should've put you out for a LOT longer than a few minutes!" Briney said in disbelief. Surely he'd swung harder than that, hadn't he?
"I've gotten a lot stronger than I used to thanks to my training with Brycen," Ash explained. "You'll need to hit harder than that to put me down for the count for long. Well, that and I have a very hard head."
"You don't say," Leo said flatly.
"I…see," Briney said, very concerned to hear this. If that was true, how was he going to be able to…put down Ash, if the time came?
"Are you…okay? I mean, you were a little…" Pikachu trailed off.
"About to blow?" Victini prompted.
Pikachu glared at her. "Yes, that."
Ash grimaced. "I'm really sorry about that. That thing Oblivion's Shadow did, it…it was just so awful. A perversion of everything Aura Guardians stand for! I…kind of lost my cool. I'm sorry. I'll try not to do it again. In any event, I'm still really, really angry, but I have it under control. Briney knocked some sense into me. Literally."
"No problem," Briney murmured, still understandably concerned that his strength might not be enough to take down Ash in the end, after all.
"Leo, what did Tracey say?" Ash continued as he stood up while holding Tiny in one hand, rubbing the back of his head with the other.
"Bad news, mon! While Tracey and Barbedo's crew—oh, and a few of the soldiers, I guess, but not a lot of them—" Nuken, Victini and Boa exchanged worried looks at this. "Are all okay, Treasure Town's been totally wasted. That thing that fell from the meteor was another Arachnoblast; it's turned the town into a crater and exposed the ancient city at the bottom…and the Door."
Ash's blood ran cold. "That's not good."
"Oblivion's Shadow said he had found a way to open the Door without all seven Star Badges…" Lugia murmured. "This must have something to do with that."
"Some of the surviving soldiers and ships are fighting the Arachnoblast alongside the Peeko XII," Leo continued.
"Well that's good news, my ship should be able to make mincemeat of that giant bug in no time!" Briney said.
"But it gets worse! Doctor Tarantulas has kidnapped Professor Oak!" Leo continued.
"WHAT?!" Team Aurabolt cried.
Leo nodded. "Yeah! Him and Chobin and that fat Emboar guy and the three legendary beasts! They snatched him in the chaos after the Arachnoblast crashed and dragged him off in the vicinity of the Door! He thinks they're heading for the tower!"
"The…tower? What tower?" Ash asked in confusion.
"There aren't any towers in Treasure Town. Nor would there be, if the town was destroyed," Lugia said.
Pikachu gasped. "They must be going for the tower underneath the Door!"
"The what now?" Ash asked blankly.
Pikachu gave him an annoyed look. "Don't you remember? The aliens that found the Door millions of years ago discovered the seal on the Door was weakening, so they constructed a barrier tower that mimics the same wavelengths of the Star Badges to help keep the Door shut. The Door is on top of it, the rest is underground."
"Oh, right," Ash said.
"There are even more levels beneath that wretched place?! How far down does it go?!" Nuken wondered incredulously.
"The Professor's research indicates there's about a hundred levels below the city built by the aliens, actually," Leo said. "You know. For the tower and all."
Nuken's eye twitched. "Ah. Of course."
"Even if one had all seven Star Badges, the tower would still need to be unsealed before the Door could be opened," Lugia said. "They must be trying to activate the tower to prepare for whatever method Oblivion's Shadow was talking about!"
"And Professor Oak knows more about the workings of the civilization that built the tower than anyone on Earth, so they took him because he must know how to make it function!" Lily realized.
"We have to stop them," Ash said. "Lily, open a portal to Treasure Town! We're going after them!"
"Right!" Lily said.
"Wait! You're going to Treasure Town?! After what just happened there?!" Victini asked.
"We have to. From what Tracey's said, it sounds like the remaining military is too busy fighting the Arachnoblast, so nobody's left to go after Tarantulas and the Professor; and it'll take too long for you or anyone else to get reinforcements there in time to help. We're in the best shape to do something about this, especially since we have experience fighting Tarantulas and his cohorts," Pikachu said.
"Then…I'm coming with you!" Victini said. "If there are any Fichinan troops remaining, they'll need my leadership."
"And mine, if any Draconian forces remain," Nuken said.
"I shall go as well, to help against the Arachnoblast," Lugia said. He grinned Mareepishly. "Besides, I don't think I'd exactly fit in the underground tunnels."
"And since you are currently down one member, I shall go with you to fight Tarantulas," Princess Boa volunteered. She glanced at her mother. "If her Magisty permits, that is?"
The Queen nodded. "Go. You will be of more use there than here. I will send reinforcements as soon as possible."
"Thank you, Mother," Boa said with a smile as she jumped in the air and landed on Team Aurabolt's platform.
"I guess this makes you an honorary member of Team Aurabolt," Ash said, handing her a scarf and a badge. "We'd give you the oath, but I don't think now is the time."
"Thank you. I will wear these with honor," Boa said, wrapping the scarf around her neck and pinning the badge to her breastplate.
"Sure is convenient we just happened to bring all our stuff with us to this meeting just in case something big happened," Leo commented wryly as he put on his sunglasses and strapped on his AdventDriver.
"For once, I'm not going to question it," Pikachu said.
"Will Sasha be okay with us replacing her like this, even temporarily?" Tiny asked uncertainly.
She made the mistake of sleeping in. It's her loss, Dawn said bluntly.
Heh, won't she be angry when she finds out what she's missed? Darkrai said.
"Fantina, will you come as well?" Lily asked as she started mustering her power to open a portal.
Fantina shook her head in bemusement. "I zink you 'ave zings well in 'and. Plus, ze girls would be upset if I went on anozzer adventure wizout zem, after what 'appened on ze Enchanted Express. I'll go round zem up and come down wiz ze reinforcements."
"We'd go, but…you know, its daylight, and we should probably save our strength for the Mars mission…" Dean said nervously.
"And you're scared," Bob said flatly.
"Hey! I am not!" Dean said angrily.
"It's all right," Pikachu said. "You guys are too important for the Mars mission. We can't risk taking you into a danger zone like this."
Dean smirked triumphantly at an annoyed Bob. "Yeah, what he said."
"All right. Is everyone here that's coming?" Lily asked. The ten other Pokémon nodded. "All right…then let's go!" She pulled out her wand, the crystal on the tip glowing. She drew a circle in the air, the crystal leaving a line of red magic behind it. When the circle was complete, the void in the center opened up to reveal a chaotic battlefield covered in smoke with a massive eight-legged monstrosity standing over a giant crater, screeching and firing lasers and missiles at the Pokémon and ships and one golden pirate vessel swarming around it and ineffectually firing their own attacks at it.
"And here I thought Treasure Town couldn't look any worse than it already was," Briney commented.
"Tracey? Sorry, but I'm gonna have to hang up on you, mon. Don't worry, though. We're on our way. We're gonna rescue Oak and set everything right," Leo said to his phone, a grin forming on his face.
Ash nodded. "Because we're a Rescue Team, and that's what we do!"
"Arceusspeed, all of you," the Queen said as Leo hung up.
"Thank you, Your Magisty," Ash said. "Okay, everyone…let's do this!" With a battle cry, the heroes charged through the portal and onto the battlefield, the gateway closing behind them.
"Such brave souls," an impressed Fennel commented.
"Indeed they are," the Queen agreed, while the Tao Trio nodded. "And I do believe…that they have what it takes to save this world."
Fantina frowned, remembering the out-of-control monster Ash had almost become. He had been nearly unrecognizable close to the end. "Or per'aps…to destroy it…"
Meanwhile, in Kanjohenn…
Wyvern Hill, located in the southeastern reaches of the Kanjohenn continent, was the most sacred place in the Draconian Empire, second only to Rayquaza's holy Sky Tower. The site where the famous treaty was signed swearing fealty from all the world's Dragon clans to His Excellency Rayquaza, the Hill was regarded by all as the birthplace of the Draconian Empire, and visited year-round by tourists and pilgrims and historic reenactionists.
A massive greensward lay before the hill, the field where the final battle of unification had been fought and the Treaty of Draconis signed, tended constantly by the site's caretakers to make sure it stayed clear. A great monument stood in the center of the field, right over the spot where the treaty had been signed; depicting a triumphant Rayquaza with the treaty-scroll clutched in one claw towering over the leaders of the dragon clans, who were bowing in submission to his awesome might. Around the base of the monument were inscribed the names of the loyal followers of Rayquaza who had died in the last battle, along with a plaque commemorating the forging of the Empire. The hill loomed up over the greensward, towering over the surrounding trees, shaped somewhat like a sleeping dragon curled around itself. On the hill's summit was a small marker where the child of legend who had called out to Rayquaza and stirred the Dragon God King's heart had stood when uttering his/her/its prayer to the heavens…and also where that child had been buried. It was a nameless grave, for Rayquaza had never learned the name of the child, something that aggrieved him to this day, or so the stories said. Flowers were deposited daily at the foot of the grave by Imperial citizens, to thank the child for bringing their divine ruler closer to Earth and creating the great nation they were proud to be a part of.
A small temple jutted out from the foot of the hill, a stone structure constructed to resemble the head and foreclaws of a dragon similar to Rayquaza, eternal flames burning in the claws while the dragon's jaws were open to allow entry to the chambers within its gullet and inside the hill itself. Deep within the temple, in the center of the hill, there laid a most sacred chamber; a shrine where Rayquaza was said to have slumbered for seven days and nights after the signing of the treaty, to rest after the many battles he had fought to build his empire. The shrine was a domed chamber with marble floors veined with jade, jade pillars with golden dragons wrapped around their lengths rising up to the ceiling, a mosaic depicting Rayquaza descending to meet the child of legend atop Wyvern Hill covering the ceiling, friezes of the many battles that Rayquaza and his followers had engaged in to unite the dragon clans covering the walls, a circular pool in the center of the room, and a massive jade sculpture of Rayquaza's head jutting from the back wall. Like the temple's entrance, the mouth of the sculpture was open…
Except it wasn't supposed to be. It had never opened in living memory. Not until the day before, anyway.
"Remarkable…" Rayquaza murmured as he stared at the open mouth. "It's been here all this time, and I had no idea…"
"How did you not know you had a place this sweet dedicated to yourself?!" Latios asked incredulously as he looked around the room in wonder.
"He was referring to the second, secret temple, not the shrine," Latias corrected her brother.
"Oh," Latios said.
"I had no knowledge that this place existed, either, until Your Excellency told me about it," Claire, the beautiful Dragonair High Priestess of the temple, said, bowing her head in reverence to her King. "Even so, I had not expected the way to open so soon…the Dragon Star is still a few days away from its zenith!"
"The power surge caused by Lily Yukihimi's evolution yesterday must have reacted with the Jade Orb's divine energies and caused the temple to open prematurely," Latias concluded. "Since the power that was sleeping within her was taken from Rayquaza long ago by her wicked mother, it was understandable that awakening it might cause a sympathetic reaction from a similar power source."
Rayquaza looked at Latias in concern. "I'm…not going to have to take that power from her, am I?"
Latias shook her head. "You no longer need it. It is hers now and hers alone. She will make good use of it, just as you will make good use of the power awaiting you within."
"I am sorry that I cannot tell you anything about what you may encounter in there, Your Excellency," Claire said regretfully. "My predecessors never left any information about this place or what these 'Trials of Kinghood' you must take entail."
"Much has been lost over the millennia," Rayquaza murmured.
"And much will be regained," Latias said confidently.
Rayquaza sighed and closed his eyes. "I wish you could come in with me, Latias. I…do not feel comfortable doing this on my own."
"What awaits you is something you and only you can accomplish," Latias said. "The power is meant for you. I have no place there." She smiled. "Don't worry, though. I shall wait for you until your return, no matter how long it takes."
"Me too," Latios said. "Er…I mean, not like I have anything better to do anyway," he said quickly. It wasn't like he cared that deeply what happened to Rayquaza after all. Obviously. Nobody bought it.
Rayquaza smiled gratefully. "Thank you, both of you. I bet Nuken is beside himself that he cannot be here as well."
"I'm sure that the instant he gets back from Fichina, he'll zip right over here," Latios said. He chuckled. "Heck, I doubt even the barbarians attacking Pokémon Square would make him leave this spot! He'd probably conduct the whole war effort from right in this room!"
"I hope he doesn't," Rayquaza said in alarm. "And that you do not miss the fighting for my sake. The Pokémon of the world need the Guardian of the Light. You are of no use to them sitting in here."
"And I am of no use to you away from your side," Latias said softly, touching his cheek. "My king."
Rayquaza's eyes widened at this, and a smile crossed his face. "Then…then I will endeavor not to be away from you for too long…my Queen."
Latios made a face as they stared at each other lovingly for a few moments. "Are you two going to kiss already?"
Latias smiled as Rayquaza flushed and Claire averted her gaze, not considering herself worthy of watching her exalted king and destined love…er…make out. "I certainly wouldn't be averse to it."
"I would be," Rayquaza said much to her disappointment. "I dearly wish to kiss you, Latias, and be with you always. But in my current state…like this…I am unworthy of your affections."
"I already love you, Rayquaza. I always shall. You know this," Latias said in disappointment. "You don't need to prove anything to me."
"Perhaps not…but I must prove something to myself, first," Rayquaza said, gently pushing her claw away. "Until I am a God-King once more, equal in status and power and divinity to one such as yourself, I am a mortal like any other…and undeserving of one such as you."
"Gods have taken mortal lovers before," Latias pointed out.
"I do not seek to be your lover. I seek to be your husband," Rayquaza said firmly. "And I cannot be that until I am again what I once was, what I am meant to be…Rayquaza, Dragon-God King, ruler of the Draconian Empire, Master of the Skies, Guardian of the Omniverse…and father of our daughter."
She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, causing his whole form to feel full of light. Literally, he actually glowed for a few moments. "Then go, my love. And become again the dragon you were meant to be."
"I shall not return until I am," Rayquaza promised, reluctantly pulling away.
"Hey," Latios said, drifting over and putting a claw on Rayquaza's shoulder. "Take care, in there. I don't want my sister to be a widow before she's even married…again…however that works."
"I have no intention of losing my life. Especially since I'm not sure I can, in there," Rayquaza said. "But I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless. Thank you, Latios."
"Hey…no problem," Latios said with a smile. And to think, I once hated the guy…
Funny how things change, isn't it brother? Latias asked with a laugh.
Yeah…I guess it is, he agreed.
Rayquaza took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and turned to face the open jaws. "All right. It's time to face my destiny." Slowly and with great purpose, he started walking towards the stone mouth.
"You know, something as momentous as this kinda deserves more attention than just the three of us, don't you think?" Latios asked.
"We wanted to have a great celebration, with musicians and singers and dancers and the like, but His Excellency vetoed it," Claire said sadly. "He said that this should be a 'private affair.'"
"And he was right to do so," Latias agreed. "This is not something too many people need to see." She smiled as Rayquaza pulled himself over the lower lip of the statue's jaws, squeezing between two of the teeth, and started climbing up the tongue towards the mysterious void at the back of the throat, one that not even Latias' eyes could penetrate.
That smile faded, however, when she found herself struck by a sudden premonition. Something…something's not right. Something's…off. But what? What's-
And it was then, and only then, that she noticed a piece of paper affixed to one of the interior joints of the stone jaws, a paper with a 'D' written in Unown script on it…a 'D' that started flashing red the instant Rayquaza walked past it, unaware of its presence. "RAYQUAZA, LOOK OUT!" she screamed both vocally and telepathically, her voice shaking the entire temple and causing everyone within several miles to flinch as their minds were bombarded by her psionic shout.
Startled, Rayquaza looked back. "Latias? What-"
And that's when the slip of paper exploded.
Rayquaza cried out and vanished into the darkness as the blast flung him down the statue's throat, while the jaw joint (known in the medical field as the temporomandibular joint, in case you were wondering) shattered, causing the stone mouth to slam shut with an impact that shook the chamber and boomed throughout the temple with a rather ominous finality.
"No," Latias whispered when the dust cleared and she saw that the great stone mouth was closed. "No…no, no, no, NO!"
"What…what just-" a startled Latios stammered, barely able to think over the waves of crushing sorrow and despair surging from his sister, their intensity almost overwhelming him since she seemed to have forgotten, in the heat of the moment, that mortals (or lesser immortals) weren't quite equipped to handle the emotions of a greater divinity.
"It was Legion!" Latias cried. "They planted a trap for Rayquaza!"
"What?! But how?! They're locked up in Pokémon Square!" Latios protested.
Claire nodded, shocked by what had just happened. "And the statue only opened just last night, and has been heavily guarded since then! When could that foul creature, or anyone else, have put that bomb there?!"
"Was it as heavily guarded a few hundred years ago, the last time the Dragon Star arose?" Latias asked grimly.
Claire's eyes widened in horror. "Oh…oh no…"
"What?! No way! They couldn't…they couldn't have planned this that far in advance, could they?!" Latios asked in disbelief.
"Unown don't see time the same way most people do," Latias whispered. "There's no reason they couldn't have anticipated that something like this might happen, and prepared for it."
"They sure didn't seem to anticipate Ignik of all Pokémon capturing them," Latios pointed out.
"Which is precisely why we chose him, since he was someone they would never expect." Latios frowned, her face creasing in concern. "Unless…could they have planned for that too, and let themselves be caught to further some nebulous plot, that we haven't even begun to fathom yet?!"
"We can worry about that later, when we get back to town and kick their collective heinies!" Latios said. "Right now we need to get that thing open and help Rayquaza!"
Latias sank to the floor, her psionic powers failing her as despair took its grip in her soul, her wings drooping to the ground, her luminescence fading and the whole room seeming darker and grungier in its absence. Sparkling tears fell from her eyes and landed on the ground, causing beautiful glowing crystals to briefly sprout up, then splinter and fall to pieces. Latios found himself feeling like crying as well and wasn't sure why. "We cannot."
"Huh? What do you mean, we can't? You're the Guardian of Light, use your Guardian powers or something!" Latios said incredulously.
" I…I cannot." She sobbed and shook her head. "Useless, yet again. Always useless!"
Claire shook her head sorrowfully as Latias started blubbering and screaming about how useless she was and Latios looked on in confusion. "She cannot. The only thing that can open that door is the power of the Dragon God King…except that the gateway has now been destroyed. It cannot be reopened, not even when the Dragon Star reaches its zenith."
Latios' eyes widened in horrified realization. "Then…wait…you're saying that…Rayquaza's trapped in there?!"
Claire's big dark glossy eyes moistened with grief as she miserably shook her head. "Even if—no, when—His Excellency passes the Trials of Kinghood…he might not be able to return to us."
And it was then that Latios joined his sister on the floor, wrapped his arms around her like a good brother should, and wept alongside her. And back in Pokémon Square, in their prison, Legion spelled out HAHAHAHAHA over and over again, which confused the heck out of the soldiers guarding them, let me tell you that much.
Meanwhile, on Mars…
Being one of the leaders of a secret rebellion inside an enemy stronghold was a very stressful position. You had to pretend to be a prisoner and allow your captor to do all sorts of horrible things to you while resisting the ever-increasing urge to rip his head off and feast on his blood. You had to watch on helplessly as your friends and subjects were tortured and abused by your foes, and bite down on the urge to do something about it because the time was not yet right to strike back and claim freedom. You had to listen in ever-growing frustration as the enemy continued plotting and doing horrible things to your home, and again, be unable to do anything about it without blowing your cover.
Plus, having the thoughts and feelings of hundreds of different Pokémon running through your head day in and day out could get kind of tiring after a while. As much as she loved her co-conspirators and vampiric servants, now and then Gardevoir couldn't help thinking to herself that a little private time might be nice once and a while. The fact that everyone else could hear her thinking that and were understandably offended didn't help matters.
As such, it was always a relief whenever she got a chance to enter her meditative state, delve into her subconscious, and enter the door leading into the mind of her dear friend—whom she was growing fonder and fonder of by the day—and sit down for tea, just the two of him. Well, him, her, and her three split personalities, anyway. It was always refreshing to be able to just relax and vent about how exhausting her day had been, how frustrated she was getting at how slow this rebellion was moving and how Lovrina's continued assertions that she had a thing for her captor were getting on her nerves, and how more than anything she wanted to smash Oblivion's Shadow's mask, drive fragments of that godsawful mask into his eye sockets, and thoroughly dominate his mind and will to the point where he would be an obsequious slave crawling at her heels so desperate for her affection he would even allow her to beat him half to death just so that he might feel her touch. (Disturbingly, the idea had come from her angel self, not the demon, although the demon had agreed that sounded like a lot of fun and 'very kinky.') Her friend always had a kind word and a soothing cup of tea ready to make her feel better. It was getting harder and harder to leave his mind every time she visited, though, and once or twice she had half-entertained the notion of just staying there permanently and letting the rest of the world take care of itself. It had done so long before she'd become involved in it, after all.
She never took such thoughts seriously, of course. There were too many people counting on her, and she could never really even think of turning her back on them. Still, it was nice to have this little refuge away from the unpleasantness that was the rest of her life and one friend who wasn't counting on her to save him. Yes, she'd promised to rescue him, but he'd told her to take her time and not to rush things, which she found a welcome change from the desperate pleas of some of the unluckier Pokémon in the rebellion's ranks whose living circumstances were…far less comfortable than her own. She sympathized with them, of course she did, especially when she could literally feel their pain, but there wasn't really a lot she could do about it at the moment. She felt selfish thinking these things, of course, which was another reason it was good to have a friend to talk to about it that wouldn't judge or get angry at her about how she was feeling.
But of course, she didn't spend all her time with her friend complaining about her imprisonment. The more they talked, the clearer his appearance became, and the more of his memories he started to recover. The more he remembered of himself, the more Gardevoir found she liked him, for he was very passionate, compassionate, and well-learned about all sorts of fascinating subjects, and it was a pleasure to converse with him about all sorts of books she'd read and plays she'd seen that few of her friends back home had really cared that much about. They both learned from each other in equal measure; he had been imprisoned for so long that he knew very little about how culture had advanced in the outside world, and she in turn learned things from him that must have come from before the great cataclysm, things that were lost when the world was destroyed. Which was no surprise, really, since he'd apparently been around back then. (Well, so had she, but she remembered a lot less of it than he seemed to, even though both of them had lost much of their memories of those days.) She adored listening to his stories of the world as it was back when humans had still been around, which he seemed to recall more and more of the longer they conversed, and it filled some holes in her own memory of the time she had once belonged to. It was fascinating listening to him tell tales of the peoples and cities he had seen, of the everyday lives he had witnessed and occasionally interacted with. It reminded Gardevoir of many of the things she'd seen while she was a disembodied spirit, though she couldn't remember many of her experiences from that thousand-year state very well either.
However, the more he remembered, the more…uneasy he became. "I do not know why," he confessed one day as they had biscuits on the balcony of his palace overlooking the vibrant valley that, he believed, he had once called home. "But the more I recall of the past, the more I am worried about what I will discover of myself. I have experienced…flashes, of violence, and pain, and great anger. An anger that could have ended the world."
"You don't seem very angry now," the angel had pointed out.
"That is because I do not remember," their friend had pointed out. "I am concerned that, once I truly remember everything, I might be angry once more…and no longer the person you call friend."
"No matter what kind of person you become, I promise you I shall always be your friend," Gardevoir said earnestly.
"And maybe more, huh?" the demon murmured under her breath, causing the vampire to smirk and the angel to elbow her.
Their friend sighed. "I hope you are right to put such faith in me."
"I know I am," Gardevoir said. "After all, I can't imagine someone who's truly evil could create a place as wonderful as this," she said, gesturing to the valley below.
Her friend looked out at the valley, and the thriving Pokémon below, and considered this. "Perhaps you are right," he said, though he did not seem entirely certain. "In any event, I'm still a long way off from regaining all my memories, so until then we might as well turn our conversation to other matters. Tell me, have you ever read the works of Volbeataire?"
She had, in fact, and they had spent many hours discussing literature and poetry after that before she'd had to leave once again. The topic of their earlier conversation was never far from their mind, though. Despite her friend's concerns, she desperately wanted to know who he was and what he looked like. She wanted a face, and a name to attach to that face. She knew what it was like to be without a past, or even a name, and while she had come to terms with it for the most part, if there was a way to help her friend remember who he had used to be, then she wanted to do everything possible to assist him.
The fact that she couldn't exactly kiss him if he didn't have a face to kiss had nothing to do with it whatsoever. Really. No matter what the demon said.
So, she was understandably excited when one day she came to call…and found that her friend's appearance was no longer blurred at all. "I-I can see you!" she said in astonishment.
"And what a sight to see," the demon said, eyes wide in admiration. The angel blushed and looked away.
"Then…does this mean…" the vampire asked.
Her friend sighed, looking oddly melancholy for someone who had apparently just gotten their identity back. "That I remember my name, and who I am, and how I got here? Yes. Yes, I do."
"Then tell us!" Gardevoir said excitedly. "We want to know everything!"
Her friend looked away, a pained expression on his face (which she could see at last!). "I…am not certain that is a good idea."
She was taken aback. "What? But why not?"
He took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes (and what lovely eyes they were) shut. "Because…once you know who I am…who I really am…I am not certain you will wish to be my friend any longer. And, more than anything else, I do not wish to lose your friendship, Gardevoir. It has been…a great comfort to me in my isolation, and I am not certain I would be able to survive our parting."
Gardevoir frowned. "That's preposterous. I already promised that I will always be your friend. Whatever you have to tell me can't possibly change that!"
Her friend winced. "You…may have been too hasty in making that promise."
The vampire laughed. "Well, it's not like you're actually Oblivion's Shadow or something like that, because that's the only thing I can think of which would make us hate you! And we all know that's preposterous, right?" There was a long, long silence. The vampire's smile faded. "…Right?"
"No…no, you can't…please tell me you're not…" Gardevoir whispered in horror as her other three selves tensed.
"No! No, no, no!" her friend said quickly, much to her relief. "Well…that is to say…it's…complicated."
Her sense of dread, which had faded when he had denied that he was Oblivion's Shadow, rose back up again. "What are you talking about?"
He sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat. "Very well. I suppose you deserve to hear this." He gestured at the waiting chairs. "Please, sit down. I need a moment to prepare myself."
Somewhat warily, they all sat down around the tea table while their host walked to the edge of the balcony and stared out at the majestic landscape below. He cut a striking figure, especially since he now actually had a figure. He had a humanoid posture, but with a few feline features. His body was grayish-purple with a purple underside and a long, purple tail. He had three circular digits on each appendage. He had an opposable toe on the inside of each foot, as well as two others that faced forward. He had purple eyes and two short ears. He also had a tube extending from the back of his skull to his spine. He didn't look like any other creature Gardevoir had ever seen before, and she couldn't stop looking at him…for more than one reason.
Finally, he turned around, and she felt a thrill of pleasure when he focused those deep purple eyes on her. "First of all, I suppose you need to know my name. I am called…Mewtwo."
She blinked, snapping out of her reverie at that. "Wait…Mewtwo? That sounds almost like…" the demon started.
"Exactly what you think it means. I am a clone of Mew, made long ago by wicked humans for…unscrupulous reasons," Mewtwo said, a look of old pain flashing across his face.
They looked at him in awe. "Then…does that mean…you are a god?" the angel asked.
"I am not sure what to call myself, really," Mewtwo confessed. "I am a clone of a god, of one of the highest gods of all, and yet I am not like Her. No…I will never be able to reach her level of purity, of compassion, of-"
"Unbridled libido?" the demon joked, breaking some of the tension and causing them all to laugh.
"Thankfully, no," Mewtwo said. "But I am, ah…fully equipped, in that respect."
"Really," the demon said, a hungry look on her face.
"You do not look like Mew, though," Gardevoir pointed out.
Mewtwo grimaced. "The humans made some…modifications when they created me. They were trying to surpass Mew, to create a being mightier than the gods themselves, the strongest Pokémon in the world. But while my powers are indeed vast—I have surpassed many of those called Legendary Pokémon in strength and skill, and am indeed probably the strongest Pokémon alive- I am still nothing compared to Mew. Once, I was unable to accept that. I desired to prove myself better than Her, that I was more than just a clone. I…failed, thankfully, in part due to our mutual friend."
"Ash…" Gardevoir whispered.
Mewtwo nodded. "In my anger, I sought to destroy the world. He and Mew stopped me and showed me that even if I was a clone, I still was a person, and that there was worth in my own existence."
"That sounds like Ash," the vampire said fondly.
"Wait, you tried to destroy the world?!" the angel cried.
Mewtwo winced. "I, ah, may have created a super-cell storm intended to wipe out all life on Earth and repopulate it with my own superior cloned Pokémon. Don't worry; I was stopped before anyone got hurt, though. Well, Ash died, but he got better."
They blinked. "Wait, what?!" the demon asked in confusion.
"Yeah, I still don't really know how that happened," Mewtwo confessed. "He stupidly threw himself between attacks Mew and I were throwing at each other and died, and then everyone cried and he was miraculously back to normal. I think Mew used Her powers to bring him back to life because he's the Chosen One and She still needed him for something, but whenever I asked Her about it, She's been rather evasive."
"Then you're on a first-name basis with the Holy Mother?!" the angel asked in awe.
Mewtwo blushed. "Actually, I…took to calling Her mother. She encouraged it, really." They all cooed at that, causing his blush to deepen. "Of course, that never stopped Her from trying to proposition me, but…you know. Fertility goddess and all."
"Did you and She ever…?" Gardevoir asked, feeling oddly possessive of Mewtwo.
"No! No no no no no. No," Mewtwo said, even redder now, much to her relief. "There, ah, were times I considered it—I mean, really, who wouldn't want to do that? She's pretty much the most beautiful creature that's ever lived anywhere—uh, no offense to you, I mean, you're very beautiful too, in a different way, and, uh, maybe I should just shut up and keep going before I say something incredibly stupid-but I honestly thought it would be strange to do it with someone that was sort of my mother, even though she said that since we were both deities—or close to deities, in my case—it would be fine."
"Darn," the demon grunted, causing everyone else to stare at her.
"Anyway," Mewtwo said with a cough, continuing. "It's a good thing Mew did revive Ash, because he wound up saving my life some time later. I took my clones and relocated elsewhere to live apart from the rest of the world, but the humans who made me found me, and Ash helped to rescue the lives of myself and my friends from those villains."
"It's what he's best at," the vampire said, to which they all nodded in agreement.
"After that incident, I decided it might not be a good idea to have a set address where my enemies could find me, so I scattered my clone Pokémon—my children—around the world, and started wandering from place to place. I had many adventures along the way, some of which I've already told you about, and others of which you have yet to hear," Mewtwo continued.
"That sounds fascinating! I'd love to hear about more of them!" Gardevoir said.
"And I hope we will have time to speak of them…and that you will still want to hear them, after you hear the end of my tale," Mewtwo said quietly. "For years, I wandered, making friends as well as enemies. Once or twice I even ran into Ash again. Other times my creators found me and I was forced to flee. Eventually, however, I grew weary of my travels and decided to settle down in a peaceful little valley in the middle of nowhere. This valley, to be precise," he said, gesturing at the landscape surrounding them.
"You picked a beautiful place to call home," the vampire said admiringly.
Mewtwo laughed. "Actually, when I first found this place it was rather barren and lifeless. However, using my powers and intellect—I do not mean to brag, but I am not only the strongest Pokémon alive, but quite possibly the most intelligent as well—I was able to bring life to this valley and transform it into the paradise you now see. Somehow my clone Pokémon, who had been traveling as well, one by one found their way here and settled in the valley. While I was surprised that they were willing to give up whatever lives they might have made for themselves and come back to me, I cannot say I was unhappy to see them all again. Desiring to be a better mon than I once was, I used my experiences and knowledge to craft a nearly utopian society for them to dwell in and prosper, free of strife and sorrow. I watched over them from my castle here on the hill, spending my days thinking of new ways to improve the lives of my people and further push the boundaries of science. And while we lived in solitude, hiding from our enemies and those who might capture and exploit us, I always resolved that, once the world was ready for us, I would share the wonders I had created with the rest of the world."
"…It sounds beautiful," Gardevoir whispered, enthralled by how passionate, how alive he looked when he talked about his accomplishments.
Mewtwo smiled wistfully. "It was." He closed his eyes and turned back to the edge of the balcony. "And then…the betrayal came."
And suddenly, they were cast from a paradise into the Abyss. Mewtwo's marvelous palace lay about them in smoldering ruins. Beneath them, the valley floor was damp and muddy and strewn with broken branches and trees in parts where floods had washed across the plains. In other places, the rock had been baked so hot that it fused into glass, or even melted down into bubbling pools of magma. Some of the forest was still burning, while the rest of it was almost paradoxically frozen solid, turning it into an arctic wasteland. It was as if the seasons and the very elements had converged on Mewtwo's home and torn it apart.
And everywhere, everywhere there were bodies strewn about in varying states of disrepair. Some were simply lying still, as if they were only sleeping. Far more were dismembered, or frozen into blocks of ice and shattered, or turned into crackling skeletons, or reduced to soot and ashes.
The four Gardevoirs staggered in shock and horror, the smell of charred and burned flesh filling their lungs, making it difficult to breathe; their ears filled with the sound of crackling flames…and somewhere, from the valley below, a howl of heartbreaking anguish could be heard, the bereaved wails of one who had lost absolutely everything. Gardevoir looked around in a daze, jaw dropped and eyes wide in shock, unable to take it all in...and wondering why something about it seemed familiar. "What…what is…"
"What the fuck HAPPENED?!" the demon cried.
Mewtwo did not turn from the balcony, but Gardevoir could still tell that he was crying even if she couldn't see his face. "During my years of travel, I met many Legendary Pokémon. Most of them I befriended, or at least became acquaintances with, though some I got off on the wrong foot with. Once I settled down, Mew introduced me to the others on one of Her infrequent visits. We became…close. Friends, even. They named me an honorary Legendary Pokémon and inducted me into their ranks as guardians of the Earth. I was…elated. I felt at last as if I truly belonged somewhere, among friends and others like me. As the years here went by, they visited me frequently, and we became better and better friends, as I helped them with some of their troubles and they helped me with some of mine.
"And then one day, without warning, several of them showed up on my doorstep and laid waste to the valley. They destroyed everything I had created and killed all of my people. They even tried to kill me, and very nearly succeeded, but they underestimated just how much like Mew I was…and did not realize that, even if killed, I cannot stay dead." He stared down into the valley. A lone figure could barely be seen staggering among the ruins and bodies, wails of grief rising from its form. "There are times I wish I had not come back."
"That…that can't be!" the angel protested. "Why…why would they…"
"How could they do something as terrible as that?!" the demon demanded.
"Because," Mewtwo said, turning to face them once more, his eyes red and tears staining his cheeks. "Of a grave misunderstanding."
"What…kind of misunderstanding?" Gardevoir asked.
"They told me that Mew had approached them and told them that my creations and I were abominations, that in our valley we were secretly plotting to take over the world as I had once before, and that in my castle I had created a number of horrific weapons of mass destruction that I would soon unleash upon the rest of the world, and wipe out all life on Earth," Mewtwo said sadly.
"WHAT?!" the Gardevoirs cried.
"That's preposterous! Mew would never do something like that!" the angel insisted.
"Not unless you actually were doing something like that, which we all know you weren't!" the vampire said, though there was a hint of doubt in her voice.
"You are correct on both counts," Mewtwo said. "I was not trying to destroy the world…and Mew had not ordered them to destroy my home."
They were confused at this. "Then…what happened?" asked the puzzled Gardevoir.
"Aha! They were lying and secretly jealous of how prosperous your people were, so wanted to wipe you out so they didn't look as bad!" the demon guessed.
"That's preposterous!" the angel said.
"You're right, it is," Mewtwo said, much to the demon's surprise. "You see, even though they were indeed ordered to destroy my home…the one who did so wasn't Mew. It was an impostor, pretending to be Mew. They never questioned Her orders, as out of character as they sounded, because it never occurred to them that anyone would have the audacity to pretend to be the Holy Mother. Even the legendaries who refused to follow Her order never thought that She might have been a fraud, and just assumed it was some sort of test of their moral fiber, the kind the Higher Powers occasionally give to their subordinates to see if they are truly worthy to continue being gods."
"Then why did the others obey an order so obviously out of character?!" Gardevoir demanded.
"Because they assumed it was a test of their obedience, the kind the Higher Powers also occasionally give to their subordinates to see if they are truly worthy to continue being gods," Mewtwo said flatly.
"…Ah," Gardevoir said.
"Yeah, I can see where that sort of thing might get confusing," the demon said bluntly.
"But…who was the impostor? Who could possibly have been so horrid as to do something like this?!" the angel demanded.
"The impostor was a servant of the Ruler of Evil," Mewtwo explained. "Though I did not learn this, and the reason why, until after…" Mewtwo hesitated, and then looked away. "…What happened next is the part you may not wish to hear."
"Tell us," Gardevoir ordered…although a small part of her was slowly starting to put together what he might be about to say.
"…As you can no doubt understand, I was in a…very dark place," Mewtwo said quietly. "Everything had been stripped away from me. Destroyed by those I thought I could trust. I had thought I finally had a place to call home. A respite from my struggles against an uncaring world. And once again, my hopes of living in peace had been cruelly dashed before my eyes. 'When would I learn? When would I learn to stop hoping things would change, that so long as I existed, everything in this world, even the powers that be themselves, would seek my destruction, just because of what I was?' Thoughts like these were racing through my head as I stared at the corpses of my friends…my family…"
"And you decided…that if the world would so callously throw you away…then maybe it was time you did the same to the world," Gardevoir whispered.
Her other selves looked at her in horror, remembering as well as she where they had last heard that sentiment. "No…you can't mean…" the angel said incredulously.
"Overwhelmed by grief and betrayal, my mind…split in two," Mewtwo said. "A part of me, the…better part of me, I like to think, unable to accept what had happened to it, retreated into itself and shut out the rest of the world, until it forgot everything, even itself. And the rest…" He clenched his fists. "That old anger and hatred…that feeling of inadequacy and alienation, the darker side of me, rose to the surface and took over…and in so doing, was Mewtwo no more, but…"
"Oblivion's Shadow," Gardevoir breathed.
Mewtwo nodded. "Yes. Well, Lord Null first, but Oblivion's Shadow after."
"Then…then you are…" the angel stammered in horror.
"You're our fucking greatest enemy!" the demon screamed, backing away from Mewtwo.
Mewtwo closed his eyes sorrowfully. It was just as he had feared. "Yes," he said. "In a very real sense, I am. I am the destroyer of Earth, the founder of Annihilation and the Nihilators, the restorer of the ways of the Dark Ones, and the cause of all the pain and suffering that has been inflicted on you since your abduction and imprisonment."
"And in an even realer sense, you're not," Gardevoir said firmly, surprising everyone except for her vampire figment, who nodded approvingly.
"Wh-what?! What are you talking about, Gardevoir?! He's-" the demon started.
"As much a prisoner of Oblivion's Shadow as the rest of us," Gardevoir said decisively. "The mon I've become friends with over the last few days, the mon I've grown close to and even…even started to have feelings for…that is not Oblivion's Shadow!"
Mewtwo recoiled in astonishment. Had…had she just said… "Gardevoir…"
With great strides, Gardevoir crossed the broken patio and put a hand on Mewtwo's cheek. "You are a good mon, Mewtwo, even if you have had a troubled past…a very, very troubled past. What happened to you was horrific. Burying a part of yourself, to escape from the reality of it all…is tragic, but something that many victims of traumatic incidents do to hide from their suffering. That…thing, that darkness controlling your body and calling itself Oblivion's Shadow is not you and never was! It may have been born from you, it may have once even been a part of you, but it has grown into something so awful it might as well be another person altogether! Even at your worst, were you ever capable of anything even as remotely as evil as what he has done?!"
"I-I tried to wipe out all life on Earth," Mewtwo protested.
"With a storm, a natural disaster. The Shadow waged a massive campaign of devastation and destruction when he was Lord Null that succeeded in destroying the world, and is now committing torture, genocide, and countless other atrocities to release the Ruler of Evil, who will probably destroy the entire Omniverse! Even when you were full of anger at the world and everyone in it, would you have ever sunk to such depths?" she pressed.
"…No. No, I wouldn't have…" he murmured, light rekindling in his purple eyes.
"Because even then, you were a better mon than the Shadow ever was!" Gardevoir insisted. "And you are a better mon now. Even if you ran away from your problems back then, at least a part of you was still able to remain good, even while the rest of you descended into madness and evil. And now that you are awakened again, now that you remember who you used to be, you can put a stop to the wickedness your other half has wrought! Together, we can restore you to control of your body…and put an end to Oblivion's Shadow once and for all!"
And then, she thought to herself. Perhaps…we can be together.
And ever so slowly, Mewtwo began to smile. "…You are right, Gardevoir," he said, hope lighting up his face and making him more appealing than ever. "As always, my tendency to angst and bemoan my fate has gotten the better of me…and as always, I needed the help of a close friend to pull me out of it."
Gardevoir smiled back at him. "Then you will help us?"
Mewtwo nodded, even as her heart soared and her other selves squealed behind her. "I am Mewtwo, son of Mew, strongest Pokémon in the world, and once-defender of Earth. I shall put a stop to any evil I see before me…even if that evil is myself, or a part of it! I promise you that, together, we shall put an end to all the wickedness Oblivion's Shadow has created!"
Gardevoir grinned, and had to repress an urge to kiss him and/or suck his blood. "I would not have it any other way." Her other selves squealed again.
"So, how are we going to get you control of your body again?" the angel asked.
"And stop Oblivion's Shadow from opening the Door to the Abyss?" the demon asked.
"Why does he want to do that, anyway? Didn't you say it's a servant of the Ruler of Evil who ruined his—er, your life?" the vampire asked. "Why would he want to free the person responsible for that?"
"Oblivion's Shadow has a very good reason for releasing the Ruler, or at least, he thinks he does," Mewtwo said. "He is unaware, or willfully blind to, the sheer wrongness of his actions, or the consequences thereof. He believes he has everything under control and it will all be worth it in the end. He is wrong. We must put a stop to him before he does something that cannot easily be set to rights!"
"So you know his plan?" Gardevoir asked hopefully.
Mewtwo nodded. "Now that I am fully myself again, I am more aware of the machinations and thoughts of my other self than I was before. We share the same mind, after all." Gardevoir shuddered slightly at this, realizing for the first time that they were inside Oblivion's Shadow's subconscious…not a pleasant thought at all. "What we must first do is-"
"Nothing," said Mewtwo's voice…except it wasn't Mewtwo who said it. Their eyes widened in horror when they suddenly realized there was now a sixth being standing on the ruined palace patio.
"You," Mewtwo snarled as Oblivion's Shadow glided towards them, his black cape and armor immaculate in spite of all the grime and destruction surrounding him, his mirror-mask as polished and perfectly reflective as ever.
"You," the Shadow retorted, speaking with his true voice for the first time since Gardevoir knew him. It was eerie how much he sounded exactly like the Pokémon Gardevoir had grown so close to, his usual voice mimicry trick aside. Their mannerisms, their posture, even the way they moved and spoke were disturbingly similar. It was rather unnerving. "You should not be awake, brother. You put yourself to sleep forever. Running from your problems like the coward you are. You were always the weaker of us."
"I'm weak?" Mewtwo sneered. "You're the one who's wearing a mask, even inside his own head. Are you finding it that difficult to face what you have truly become? It must be jarring to look upon your own face again. I wonder when the last time you saw it reflected in that mirror of yours was? Or when you last heard our Mother's voice?"
Oblivion's Shadow clenched his fists and tensed visibly. "…Your taunts mean nothing to me, brother," he said, though it was clear the opposite was true. "Go back to sleep. It's what you're best at. Leave all the heavy lifting to me."
Mewtwo narrowed his eyes, blue Aura blazing up around him. "I've had enough sleep for quite some time, brother. Perhaps it's you who should take a nap? You must be very tired, doing nothing but plotting evil for the last thousand years or so."
"I am in control of our body, brother," Oblivion's Shadow said, Shadow Aura blazing up around him. "You do not stand a chance against me."
"A Psychic's greatest asset is its mind," Mewtwo retorted. "And we are in my mind, brother, and I am one of the mightiest Psychics of all time. I think I have the advantage here."
"You forget, brother, it's my mind, too," the Shadow pointed out.
Mewtwo grinned. "Well, that'll just make things that much more interesting, won't it?"
"…Girls, we might want to leave now," Gardevoir murmured. "I don't think we should get in the middle of this."
"What?! But this is our chance to finally fight the Shadow!" the demon protested.
"Inside his own head, where he's strongest?" the vampire retorted.
The angel nodded. "I think Mewtwo would be better suited to handle him. We'll have our chance another day."
The demon grumbled but reluctantly acquiesced. They slowly started for the door…
And then Oblivion's Shadow realized they were there, and what they were doing. "Wait. You…you're actually here?" he said in surprise. "You're not figments my pathetic brother made to entertain himself and keep himself company?"
"Wh-what? Oh no. We're definitely figments," the demon said quickly.
The angel nodded frantically. "Y-yeah, he dreamed us up to…um…have our way with us! Yes. Because he, I mean you, I mean, uh, someone has repressed sexual desires for us!" The vampire facepalmed, as did Mewtwo.
Gardevoir, seeing the Shadow wasn't buying it, saw no point in keeping up the deception. "That's right, Shadow. We're really here. I've managed to penetrate even your mental defenses."
The Shadow reeled in astonishment and disbelief. "That's not possible! The psionic inhibitor should be restraining you!"
She grinned, showing her fangs. "Perhaps it's not as strong as you think it was."
"…Perhaps so, but even if that were the case, there's no way you could have penetrated this far into my subconscious! Unless…" He stiffened. Then he shook with rage, his Shadow Aura growing in intensity. The entire valley started shaking, the patio began to crack up even more, and more cracks started to appear in thin air, as the structure of the mindscape started to destabilize from his fury. "Of course." He turned to face Mewtwo. "I will deal with you and your girlfriends later. Right now, I have a lunar goddess to do horrible things to. Nobody messes with my mind!"
With that, he vanished, leaving them all bewildered and confused. "Uh…what just happened?" asked the dumbfounded demon.
"And did he just call us Mewtwo's girlfriends?" the angel asked, blushing.
"Lunar goddess? What was he talking about?" Gardevoir asked.
Mewtwo gasped. "No…he has Cresselia!"
"WHAT?!" the Gardevoirs cried in alarm.
"The Shadow managed to capture Cresselia a while back and used her as a bargaining chip to force Darkrai not to hinder his efforts…and even to help in certain ways!" Mewtwo said.
"Cresselia is the goddess of dreams. She must be the one who opened the passage we used to get here!" the vampire realized.
"But now the Shadow knows…and he's going to do something horrible to her!" Gardevoir gasped.
"We have to stop him!" the demon said.
"But how? If we break out, won't that jeopardize the revolution?" the angel asked.
Gardevoir narrowed her eyes. "Not necessarily. Not if we do it right. Not if we tell the others to stand down and do nothing while we act, so that if we fail to defeat the Shadow, there will be no reprisals against them."
"Will they go for that?" the vampire asked doubtfully.
"They're going to have to, because that's what we're going to do," Gardevoir said forcefully. "I am tired of sitting in my cage and doing nothing while others suffer around me. If I can save even one person from that fiend's clutches and make him feel less secure and sure of himself, then I'll have won."
"Yes! Finally, some action!" the demon cheered.
"…You're right. I'm not sure this is the best idea, but…we can't just sit back and do nothing anymore," the angel said. "Cresselia helped us to meet Mewtwo, and in turn helped him to remember himself, which may help defeat the Shadow. We need to return the favor!"
"I don't know how much I can help from in here, but I will do whatever I can," Mewtwo said. "You must hurry. Even as we speak he's heading for Cresselia…and he is very, very angry."
Gardevoir nodded. "Right. Let's go, girls! And Mewtwo…"
"Yes?" Mewtwo asked.
Without warning, she kissed him. She also bit the inside of his mouth a little and drew some blood (or a facsimile of it, since they were inside a dreamscape), but hey, vampire, what do you expect. As he stiffened in astonishment (and perhaps a little arousal), and her other selves grinned, she licked the blood off her lips, said, "For good luck," and then hurried for the door back to her mind, her other selves trailing behind her.
"…Wow," Mewtwo said a moment after they had left, eyes wide.
"She's one hell of a kisser, huh?" Darkrai said as he rose from Mewtwo's shadow.
"So it would seem," Mewtwo said in a daze. "I guess all those things they said about the kiss of a vampire are true."
"Well, teen supernatural romance novels can be right occasionally. Very occasionally," Darkrai said.
"Do…do you think she can beat him?" Mewtwo asked.
"Maybe, maybe not. Either way, he's going to be in for one hell of a fight!" Darkrai chortled. "And while he's distracted, it'll be time to finally make my move and get my wife out of there."
"You've been planning this for a while, haven't you?" Mewtwo asked.
Darkrai nodded. "For her to become of interest to the Shadow and be in a position to strike at him, giving me an opening to save Cresselia? Yes. For her to find you and wake you up? Nope. That was all Cresselia's idea. Heck, I didn't even know you were in here until recently. For the longest time, I thought that the Shadow was…well, that he was the real you. You don't know how happy I am to find out that there's still a part of one of my best friends in here, so that I don't have to keep thinking that another one of my buddies had gone over to the other side. I'm…really glad to have you back mon."
"And I am glad to be back," Mewtwo said. "Or rather, I will be once I regain control of my body and put an end to the evil the Shadow has wrought in my name. Er, aside from the fact that he hasn't actually used my name. Or face. You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do," Darkrai said. "Anyway, I hate to cut this reunion short, but I have to go get my guy ready to bust Cressy out. I'll talk to you again later, when I get the chance."
Mewtwo nodded. "I am looking forward to it, old friend."
"Until later, then," Darkrai said, starting to sink back into shadow.
"Darkrai," Mewtwo said suddenly.
"Hmm?" Darkrai said, pausing in mid-phase.
"…When so many of the others turned against me a thousand years ago…thank you for not being with them when they attacked the valley," Mewtwo said.
Darkrai smiled. "Hey, I knew there was no way you could possibly be doing all the things Mew had said when She came by with Her orders. I figured it was just another one of Her tests or pranks. I…never imagined the others would have gone as far as they did, though. Or that it wasn't really Her. I'm sorry I couldn't stop them, mon. Or you, er, the other you, when…"
"…It is all right," Mewtwo said after a moment. "It's in the past. The future is all that matters now."
Darkrai nodded. "Which is why I've gotta save Cressy, to make sure we still have one."
"Give her my regards, will you?" Mewtwo asked. "If it weren't for her, I would not be here right now. And…thank her for not being in the valley either, please?"
Darkrai chuckled. "Sure thing, buddy. She's always had a soft spot for you. She'll be tickled pinker to know you're in the right frame of mind again." They stiffened as they heard a sub-psychic scream of agony echo across the dreamscape, causing it to tremble and the cracks in reality to deepen. "Aaaaand that's my cue. Toodles!"
And then Mewtwo was alone once more. Closing his eyes, Mewtwo willed the valley back to its original state, smiling when he saw it was no longer a smoking, corpse-littered ruin. "Gardevoir…" he murmured. "Be careful. If I am to make amends for the crimes of my other self…and to one day rebuild the home I once lost…I do not want to do it alone. Not again."
He sat down and meditated, focusing his mind and probing the edges of his prison. If Gardevoir was going to take on his darker self, she was going to need all the help that he could give her.
She had believed in him, when he had lost faith in himself yet again. It was time to see if that faith was well-placed.
Meanwhile, in the Berry Kingdom…
The trip from the edge of the Berry Kingdom to the great palace built around Altru Tower was a rather interesting experience for Team Nightshade. (Well, every member except Evan, who was being doted upon by Hissssa, anyway.) Despite some lingering concerns that the Kingdom was, in fact, being ruled over by a tyrannical overlord who was mind-controlling its populace, the place seemed completely on the up-and-up as far as they could tell. The farmers and soldiers and townsfolk they passed by as they journeyed through the kingdom seemed perfectly friendly, personable, and showed no visible signs of being brainwashed that they could discern. (And they could discern a lot. Maren and Janine were involved in some shady ops for the Mirage Kingdom now and then; they had enough experience to know what it looked like.)
This was further demonstrated when they passed through a bustling town on the way to the palace. Like everyone else they had passed so far, the townsPokémon bowed graciously to the Prince and his soldiers and were courteous in greeting Gary and his friends. Berries and trinkets were proffered on them, and like everything else they'd sampled so far in the kingdom the food was delicious and each gift was probably worth more than Maren made in a year, much to her chagrin. Naturally, they stowed away every valuable item they were given along with the rest of the treasures they'd collected on their journey, but with all the gifts they'd received from nearly everyone they'd met since setting foot in the Berry Kingdom, it looked as if they'd need a new container to keep it in before long. Or possibly several. Naturally, the instant Gary commented on this, the next Pokémon to greet them handed him a beautiful wooden chest with silver filigree and inlaid sapphires that made a tracery of a reclining Mew in a somewhat…provocative position on the lid. "Uh, wow, thanks," Gary said in surprise to the very generous Gurdurr who'd handed him the box.
"No problem. I heard you could use something like that, and I thought that might come in handy," the Gurdurr said.
"This looks pretty valuable. You sure you want to just give it up?" Maren asked.
The Gurdurr shrugged. "You said you needed it, so you can have it. Besides, I've been meaning to get rid of that old thing for ages anyway, I have like ten more just like it back home. You can probably make better use of it than I could."
"…Huh. Thanks," Gary said.
"Just how wealthy is the average Berry citizen if they can give away something as valuable as this with no problem?" wondered an amazed Janine after the generous Gurdurr departed.
"Depends on your definition of wealth," Prince Caspen said.
Nando nodded. "They don't use money here in the Berry Kingdom."
"What? Then how does your economy work?" asked a confused Maren.
"Maybe they exchange services for sex?" Mary said snidely. "They are Mewrians, after all."
"No, if someone needs something, we give it to them. Simple as that," Caspen said. "We have more than enough resources that there's always a surplus of almost everything but land, so very few of our subjects ever want for anything."
Gary glanced at the shining yellow bricks making up the road under their feet. "That would explain how you can afford to make roads with actual gold." He'd managed to pry a few loose bricks and stow them away when he thought nobody was looking. Hey, if they had enough to make a road of solid gold in the first place, they probably had enough extra lying around that they could replace a few bricks. It's not like anyone was using them other than something to walk on, anyway.
"And how that statue over there is made of solid diamond," Jerry said, staring at a nearby statue of a valiant Gallade. It wasn't even a very large or prominent statue; it was just sitting in a little alcove out of the way, easily missed by passerby. And it was made from a single diamond. And it wasn't the only one nearby. He was pretty sure that the red tiles covering the roofs of several of the buildings were made of rubies, the white walls were made of marble and crystal, and the tiles used in the ubiquitous mosaics were each fashioned from a glittering gemstone as well.
"And here I thought our kingdom was wealthy," Maren murmured in disbelief, staring at the townsfolk walking by, some of whom were wearing jewelry that was probably worth more than the entire Mirage Kingdom treasury without a care in the world. "We may be able to give even the commoners houses made of semiprecious metals, but we certainly don't have a big enough surplus of resources and materials to have an excuse not to use any form of money or economic system whatsoever!"
"Hey yeah, if you don't pay anyone with money, why does anyone do their job at all? What do they get out of it?" Gary asked.
"The pride in knowing that they are serving their nation and bettering the lives of their fellow Pokémon," Coballion said.
"Ah, so you're communists," Mary said.
Coballion blinked. "We're what now?"
"Our kingdom's not perfect, though," Caspen said.
"Coulda fooled me," Mary muttered.
"We have squabbles between classes, and crimes still exist," Coballion said. "Hence why our job doesn't consist of sitting around and doing nothing all day."
"More's the pity," Terrakion grumbled.
"If there's enough resources for everyone, what kind of crimes could there possibly be?" Maren asked.
"Passion, mainly," Virizion said.
"Oh," Maren said.
"The government does its best to minimalize crime, no matter what the cost," Keldeo said. "That's part of our job."
"As a result, the civilians have their own representative in the king's court to make sure all sides of an issue are heard and justice can be fairly issued to all," Caspen said.
"Sounds good," Gary said, not really caring that much. Although now he wondered if he might get in trouble for swiping some of those gold bricks…
"What was that about a surplus of everything but land?" Callista asked.
Caspen looked somewhat Mareepish. "While Mew has given our land many blessings, there are a few…drawbacks. All of us have rather long lives, and are…fertile. Very fertile."
"That would explain all the children," Janine noted, glancing at the townsPokémon. There seemed to be almost more children than adults. And they were playing with toys that looked more expensive than what even the wealthiest children back in the Mirage Kingdom could afford, too.
"So you're facing a risk of overpopulation?" Maren guessed.
Caspen nodded. "We haven't reached the threshold just yet—we still have several years to go—but we've already had to destroy a number of forests and Berry fields which have stood for generations to make room for more homes and towns, and implemented food rationing to ease the burdens of our farmers, while researching ways to grow crops that can provide more nutrients and energy per berry, so that our people can eat less but still receive the same level of nourishment per meal. Even so, it's only a stopgap measure, and eventually we may have to do the unthinkable and expand the Kingdom to make more room for everyone."
"Why is that unthinkable?" Jerry asked.
"Partly because if we expand too far, we'll encroach on lands already occupied by other Pokémon," Landorus said.
"Which could lead to rather messy conflicts," Coballion said.
"Plus, the rest of the continent would notice if the wasteland around Altu Tower grew larger and started investigating, which led to them discovering our existence," Virizion said. "And while we do plan to reveal ourselves someday, we can't do it so long as the King of Pokélantis is still out there."
"Then again, since he's already figured out where we are—no thanks to this lot—there may not be a point in staying hidden for much longer," Terrakion growled, causing Team Nightshade to flinch.
"There's also the fact that if we expand our territory too far, the energy from the Luminous Crystal will grow diluted as it tries to supply power to the entire Kingdom," Caspen continued. "Which could lead to our people suffering from the dimming of Altru Tower's blessed light."
"Yes, because Celestial Heavens forbid any of them live without that thing forcing peace and happiness on them," Mary grunted.
"The continued existence of our kingdom is due almost entirely to the light of the Crystal. If that light were ever to falter, the consequences could be…catastrophic," Caspen said ominously. They exchanged concerned looks at this.
"Well, that's almost certainly asking for something terrible to happen…" Gary murmured.
"Especially with us around," Jerry agreed soberly.
"Didn't the Crystal's power once cover the entire continent?" Maren asked. "Why can't you just do now what you did then? Er, not that we're asking you to try and claim all of Almiore as your territory, that is."
"Of course, they were granted the right to rule the continent by Mew once upon a time," Janine pointed out. "If they wanted to, they have precedence and divine right on their side to rule again…"
"Janine, don't give them any ideas!" Maren hissed.
Caspen nodded. "Our light once covered all of Almiore, yes…but much has been lost in our many battles against the King of Pokélantis, including whatever method we once used to shine the Crystal's light across all of Almiore. Our researchers are working on ways to either increase the Crystal's power or build relay stations that could receive and spread its light further from home, but so far, we haven't accomplished anything conclusive. Still, we have a few years left before it really becomes a problem, so we're fairly optimistic we'll find a solution in time."
"You will need to find a solution much quicker, since I will be taking that Crystal," Callista said.
Her teammates tensed. The Berry soldiers shifted a bit. Caspen frowned at her. "…I told you, that is something we must discuss with my father."
"And what's to stop him from saying no?" Callista asked.
"Nothing," Caspen said. "But so far, our need for the Crystal is greater. If that were ever to change, then we might reconsider giving it to you."
"I wouldn't count on it, though," Tornadus said. Thundurus elbowed him.
Callista bristled. "Callista, relax. We'll get that Crystal one way or another," Gary said.
"Probably by stealing it," Mary said bluntly.
"You probably shouldn't mention that in front of all these very strong-looking guys," Jerry pointed out.
"If the prophecy says it'll happen, it'll happen, no matter what they've got to say about it," Mary said.
Caspen frowned. "We shall see about that. Prophecies have been incorrect before."
"Not this one," Gary said. "Especially since there's a trio of time-traveling jackasses making sure it comes true."
"What?" asked a confused Caspen.
"We'll explain later. Or not," Gary said. The Gallade frowned at him.
"Hey, Callista. You want to be undead, right? You've said as much, like, a dozen times," Terrakion said.
The Riolu frowned. "Yes. What of it?"
"The Berry Kingdom has very few limitations on magic," Virizion said. "Even necromancy, which is outlawed in most other countries, is allowed, so long as the life force being used and the subsequent undead are voluntary."
The Riolu narrowed her eyes. "Is that so?"
"It is," Coballion said.
"And you're implying that, if I pursued such magic here, I might be able to fulfill my dream of undeath?" Callista asked.
"That's the idea," Keldeo said.
"…Hmmph. Nice try," Callista sniffed. "While I don't think you're lying, if you're trying to buy me off by fulfilling my lifelong dream, it won't work. I will not be dissuaded so easily from following my destiny."
Coballion frowned. "That was not why we brought it up. We genuinely desire your happiness."
"And if my happiness should make things easier for you by making me more positively inclined towards you, I suppose that's just a happy coincidence?" Callista shot back. Coballion narrowed his eyes at her.
Before they could discuss or argue the point further, Gary suddenly realized two of their party were missing. Well, nine, technically. "…Wait a minute. Where's Hissssa and Evan?"
They glanced around. Somehow, the giant eight-headed serpent and her much smaller boyfriend had disappeared. Callista closed her eyes briefly to scan the area with Aura-sight. Under her helmet, she blanched. "Ah…I believe they are…over there…" she said, pointing to a nearby street running perpendicular to their own where several children and more than a few adults were gathered, eyes wide in amazement. A large barbed tail with bells wrapped around it could be seen occasionally flailing around the corner. A LOT of hissing could be heard.
Gary facepalmed. "Oh for the love of…REALLY? REALLY!? In front of the KIDS?!"
Caspen sighed. "It never fails. There's always at least one couple who can't wait to start worshipping until they're in the privacy of their own homes. Coballion?"
Coballion nodded. "All right, Swords of Justice, let's go."
"Ugh, I hate this part of the job," Keldeo complained as the Swords of Justice peeled away from the rest of the group to…reign in Hissssa and Evan.
"I don't," Terrakion said eagerly.
Landorus started to drift after them, when each of his brothers grabbed him by one arm. "Hey, what are you doing?"
"Where are you going?" Thundurus asked.
"I was, uh, just going to offer my assistance," Landorus said.
"Nice try. The Prince sent the Swords because at least they know when to keep a leash on it," Tornadus said.
Landorus sulked. "When did worshipping the goddess become so heavily regulated, anyway?"
"Since we're on the brink of a population crisis?" Thundurus said. "Which you haven't exactly been doing a particularly good job of slowing down?"
"Oh yeah, that," Landorus said in embarrassment.
"'Worshipping the goddess,' huh? That's a new euphemism for the books," Gary said.
"On the Moon, we call it 'choking the nightmare,'" Nando said helpfully.
Gary stared at him in horror. "…Why…why would you…never mind, I don't think I want to know."
"That is probably for the best," Nando agreed.
"You know, if it's that big a problem, couldn't you just use contraceptives?" Mary asked.
"We do, even though technically it's against our religion," Caspen said. "It's the only reason the country didn't collapse under its own weight centuries ago."
"Oh," Mary said.
"You could also, you know, worship less," Maren suggested.
The Berry soldiers stared at her blankly. "There are words coming out of her mouth, but I do not understand them," Landorus said. His brothers and pretty much all the other soldiers, and Prince Caspen, nodded in agreement.
Maren sighed. "Never mind."
"Mewrians," Mary grumbled.
After that horrifically mind-scarring incident was done with and firmly repressed, the group continued on their way. After some more hours of travel (Gary wondered why they hadn't just Teleported or flown to the palace, to which Caspen said he enjoyed taking the scenic route, causing the Gengar to decide he hated him with a passion), they finally reached the royal palace.
Or rather, the training fields in front of the palace, where hundreds of Pokémon in armor were doing drills. It was awe-inspiring, seeing so many Pokémon moving in unison, their muscles flexing and sweat rolling down their perfect forms as they toiled and trained and pressed their flesh together under the sun and sorry what was I talking about? "Quite a lot of guys you've got here," Jerry commented as they walked down the road between the training fields, the soldiers so disciplined they didn't even break their drills to acknowledge their presence.
"And this isn't even the full extent of our army!" Landorus bragged. "When our old foe comes-a-calling, he won't find us unprepared!"
"To be fair, while our soldiers are trained well, they lack battle experience," Coballion said, much to Landorus's annoyance. "We don't have the might of the Draconian Empire or the magical power of Fichina on our side. Our mages are strong, but nothing compared to what they can do in that mystical country."
"What we do have is unity," Virizion said.
Terrakion nodded. "A willingness to die for each other, a belief that there is a greater good, and if even one of them can die to save an innocent, then that is how they will save a life."
"It is that willingness and unity of belief that makes us a force to fear," Keldeo finished.
Maren and Janine exchanged worried looks at this. "Your Majesty…as far as I know, none of the Mirage Kingdom soldiers are aware that our King has been possessed," Maren said to Caspen.
"If you're worried we'll hurt them in the coming battle, don't worry. We're trained in both lethal and nonlethal combat. We won't kill any of them if we can help it. They're innocent Pawniards, for the most part," Caspen assured him. "Any Nihilators that are present will not be so lucky, however. From what we have learned, they are truly wicked Pokémon, and every last one of them deserves to be slain."
"That's good to know," Maren said in relief.
"And even if they do get killed, our necromancers are good enough to bring them back to life so long as they get there in time," Keldeo said.
"…Oh," Maren said, not sure what to think of that.
"You don't say…" Callista said, interested despite herself.
"Even if you aren't fighting with lethal intent, they certainly will be," Janine pointed out. "If your soldiers are not fighting at full strength for fear of harming others, they will be easily routed. Their opponents might not be as forgiving."
"If you can bring your brother over to our side and deprive our foe of most of his fighting force, it might not come to that," Caspen said.
The Ninjask nodded. "I will do what I can."
Soon enough, they reached the gates of the palace, a pair of massive golden doors with a massive image of a winged Mew cradling a pawful of berries to her chest set in the great wall surrounding the royal compound, its towering heights looming over them. The glare from the sunlight and the light generated by the Crystal far above them and on the other side of the wall shining off the doorway was so bright they had trouble seeing what was in front of them. "I could really use some sunglasses right about now," Gary said, squinting. "Don't suppose we thought to pack any?"
Mary checked their Rescue Kit. "I don't think so, no."
"Eh, figures," the Gengar said.
"The Luminous Crystal," Callista whispered, staring upwards at the jewel atop Altru Tower in awe, her eyes watering in joy and because the light was too much for them. "My birthright, at last…it's more beautiful than I had ever imagined…"
"Yes," Caspen said with a fond smile. "It is, isn't it?"
They didn't have time to admire the beauty of the sacred stone that gave power and prosperity to the whole kingdom, however. They had an audience with royalty to attend. With a nod from Caspen to the two massive Golurk standing guard on either side of the gateway, the doors slid open silently, allowing them entry into the palace compound. The interior of the palace walls seemed to be a massive park, with rolling green hills and streams and trees laden with berries, marble paths winding their way through the well-tended trees and hedges and monuments of stone and glass and crystal. Very beautiful Pokémon, many of the Ralts evolution line but also of several other different species, walked or floated serenely through the trees either on administrative business or for their own pleasure. The palace's numerous buildings and spires and towers seemed to rise almost organically from the peaceful setting, as if they had grown naturally from the ground rather than being built. Directly in front of them was a clearing with a plaza of marble tiles in the center, surrounded by four fountains with statues of Mew pouring water from large jugs that fed into streams leading out into the park, and paths leading away from the center in the four cardinal directions, one of which led right to the gates they had just passed through. In the center of the plaza a dais rose from a square pool, with water flowing from sculptures of Water Pokémon jutting from the sides of the dais into the pool. Sitting atop the dais, surrounded by about a dozen or so Ralts and Kirlias and children of other species, was a gorgeous Meloetta playing a harp similar to Nando's, singing a song of such beauty and perfection it nearly brought them to tears.
"Euterpe, I take it?" Gary asked when Nando looked at the musician fondly.
The Clefable nodded, a dreamy smile on his face. "She's quite good, isn't she?"
"And music to entertain my siblings is not all her music is good for, either," Caspen said.
Tornadus nodded. "She has a song that, in conjunction with an artifact in the Berry King's keeping, can help us three kamis reach our full power, which will certainly come in handy in the coming battle."
"She can also fight as well, though she is a pacifist by nature. She has a song that can calm even the most angry of hearts," Landorus said. He frowned. "Whether or not it will be of use against the King of Pokélantis, or his Nihilator allies, I cannot be certain, however. There will probably be a fight, no matter how much we would wish there wasn't one." The team exchanged worried looks at this. They had started this quest as a rescue mission, then to restore a lost kingdom. Now were they going to be dragged into a war?
"Those are your siblings?" Jerry asked.
"My youngest ones," Caspen explained. "I have quite a lot, actually. My father has several wives from all over the Berry Kingdom, which of course leads to several children. It helps to maintain ties between the various powerful families and clans occupying our realm for them to be related by marriage to the King."
"The fact that he gets lots of nooky is just a welcome side-benefit," Mary said blandly.
Caspen smirked. "What can I say? Politics don't always have to be dry and boring."
"Now that's the kind of politics I could get behind," Gary commented, causing Mary to frown at him.
"Almost everyone you will meet here is related to my family in one way or another, either by blood or adoption," Caspen continued. "Even many of the servants. Keeping it in the family—and enlarging the family—is a good way to increase solidarity and ensure loyalty."
"Then does that mean when you're…ah, 'worshipping the goddess' with your courtesans, you're actually…" Jerry trailed off.
"No," Caspen said flatly. "Especially since the courtesans are only for the use of our guests. We have our own loved ones (or harems) to worship the goddess with. Ones who are not our cousins, or siblings, or close relatives, just to be clear. We do not tolerate inbreeding."
"Ah," Jerry said.
"Well, not by blood, anyway," Landorus said lewdly. Tornadus smacked him.
Caspen dismissed the Poffin Mons, who bowed and left to go about their business, and then the prince, the kamis, and the Swords of Justice led Nando and Team Nightshade through the plaza towards the main keep, which was on the opposite side of the plaza from them. The great winged statue of Mew, the androgynous statues on both sides, and the great tower with the radiant Crystal at its peak loomed over them, but not threateningly, more like a loving mother watching over her children. It was kind of weird. As they passed the dais, several of the children noticed Caspen and waved to him, but were too busy listening to Euterpe's melody to come and say hello, although the prince said after they'd passed by that they had exchanged greetings telepathically. "We are very close like that, and used to each other's thoughts. There are some days where none of us say anything at all, and communicate purely by thought," he explained.
"And how does everyone who's not a Psychic-type handle that?" Maren asked.
"We have a telepathic network over the entire compound, so all of our family members can communicate with each other, no matter what their species," Caspen said.
"Even the Dark-types?" Callista asked.
Caspen hesitated. "…We're still working on that."
"The Queen may be close to a breakthrough, though," Coballion said.
Virizion nodded. "And considering who she is, she is uniquely suited to solving it."
"What, is she a Dark-type?" Mary asked.
"Yes, but not by birth," Terrakion said.
"So…what, she's an Umbreon? Tyranitar? Cacturne? Crawdaunt? Drapion?" Gary asked.
"None of the above, my mother is a Gardevoir," Caspen said.
They blinked at this. "But Gardevoirs aren't Dark-types," Mary said, stating the obvious.
"Not normally, no," Caspen agreed. "But my mother isn't an ordinary Gardevoir. When she was younger, a Kecleon assassin we believe was sent by the King of Pokélantis tried to kill her using a very powerful Dark-type technique after poisoning her food so she wouldn't be able to defend herself. Fortunately, my mother was much stronger than he had expected, and used her Synchronize ability to copy the assassin's Color Change ability before he struck so that she gained a Dark-type thanks to the attack. She quickly bested the assassin and managed to retain the Dark power through force of will, and still has it to this day. It has…altered her appearance somewhat compared to most Gardevoir, but many think that makes her that much more alluring. My father certainly does."
"Ah," Mary said.
"That sounds familiar for some reason…" Gary murmured. Hadn't the Spirit of the Mirror said Gardevoir had undergone something like that, or was working on it before being turned into a vampire? Curious…interesting to know that the principle worked, even if Gardevoir didn't quite get there before receiving a different kind of Dark power…
"Wait, she's the Queen?" Jerry asked.
Caspen nodded. "Yes."
"But…doesn't your father have lots of wives? How can any one of them be Queen?" Jerry asked.
"Because she is his first and favorite, of course. I believe that is the custom," Janine said.
Caspen nodded. "My father loves all his wives, but my mother most of all. And since I am the firstborn of his first wife, I am his heir."
"Oh," Jerry said.
"Will we meet her, too?" Maren asked.
"You will meet all of my family eventuall—which will take a while, since there are a lot of us-but my mother should be present for this audience," Caspen said. "As Queen, she shares my father's administrative duties."
"Any other bigwigs we should expect?" Gary asked.
"My father's three chief advisors: Lavana, leader of our military; Ice, leader of our magi; and Heath, leader of our civilians," Caspen said.
"Leader of the civilians? What do you mean?" Mary asked.
"While Lavana and Ice each lead their respective divisions, Heath is more of a representative of the interests of our citizens who are neither in the army or part of the magical community," Coballion explained. "The farmers, the merchants, the artisans and workers and local politicians…the ordinary folk without whom our kingdom would not function. It is a position with great responsibility, and he is highly respected across the realm."
"Even if he has a funny way of talking," Keldeo said. The other Swords frowned at him. "What? He does!"
"Yeah, he kinda does," Terrakion admitted. The other Swords (except Keldeo) frowned at him. "What? He does!"
"Speaking of respect…Gary…" Maren said warningly.
Gary nodded. "Right, no trying to antagonize the guy in charge of the entire nation we're in. Got it, Callista?"
"…I will do my best," the Riolu said stiffly, crossing her arms.
"Speaking of which, we might want to pull Evan away from Hissssa. No matter how…loose Mewrians are, I can't imagine they'll be okay with someone doing it right in front of them in the middle of an important discussion," Mary said, glancing at the heavily intertwined serpents, who had been more interested in each other than the conversation.
"NEVER!" Hissssa screamed, tightening her coils around Evan, who gasped from lack of breath and his ribs starting to crack. "YOU'LL NEVER TAKE HIM AWAY FROM USSS!"
"Then could you at least not make out with him while we're meeting the Berry King?! It's kinda grossing me out!" Gary shouted.
"We make no promisssesss," Hissssa said, turning all her noses up.
Gary sighed in exasperation and glanced at Caspen. "You see what I have to work with here?"
The prince nodded sympathetically. "I know exactly what you mean," he said, glancing at Landorus.
The fertility kami blinked. "What?"
Gary smirked, feeling a bit of camaraderie for the stupidly handsome Gallade. "So, we have some advisors to deal with. Any other takers?"
"Princess Sara and my brother will be joining us, since what we have to discuss concerns them as well," Caspen said.
"We're going to see Princess Sara?!" Maren said excitedly.
"Finally! We're going to at long last meet the princess we're supposed to rescue!" Gary said.
"Except we aren't actually rescuing her," Mary pointed out.
"Yeah, but hey, at least we'll finally meet the girl we started this whole adventure out to find," Gary pointed out.
"What of the…heads of your ninja clan? Will they be present?" Janine asked.
Caspen paused for a moment. "They will be observing us, but they will not be present. They would rather speak to you in private. There are things they would discuss with you."
"Just as I have things I would discuss with them," Janine said coolly. Such as why they abandoned their duty to the Dragon God King to serve a living Clefairy tale!
"There will, however, be someone who Callista may find familiar in attendance," Caspen continued with a smirk, glancing fondly at the Riolu.
Callista frowned and gave him a blank look. "I don't believe there is anyone in this kingdom I would possibly be familiar with."
Caspen looked puzzled. "Not even your sister?"
Callista blinked. "What? My sister? My sister is dead."
Caspen started. "Dead?! What are you talking about? Why would you think she's…" He frowned. "…This Beartics looking into. Come along."
"You have a sister?" Jerry asked in surprise as they started walking again, at a noticeably quicker pace.
"Yeah, don't you remember? Callista mentioned soon after we first met her—and got beaten up by her-that she had an elder sister who went searching for pieces of the Compass a while back and never returned," Maren said.
Callista nodded. "My sister, as the elder one of us, was originally supposed to be Queen of Lemewria, if and when we were able to revive it. When she never returned from her sojourn, we thought her lost and I was named Queen in her place."
Caspen glanced back at the Riolu with a frown and heightened his pace further. "Something is wrong. Something is very wrong," he muttered to himself. "Why doesn't she know about…"
They continued along the path leading away from the plaza towards the central keep, which seemed to get even bigger and more imposing the closer they got to it. Soon they found themselves at the bottom of a short, broad staircase leading up to the entrance, a pair of golden doors similar to the ones they had passed through to enter the palace compound, only on a smaller scale. A pair of Gallade wearing Poffin Mon armor were guarding the gates, but with a (presumably) telepathic signal from Caspen they telekinetically opened the doors and allowed them inside.
They found themselves inside a massive hall with walls and floor made of solid jade. A long red carpet ran from the gate they had just walked through to a raised dais at the back of the chamber. Atop that dais sat a wooden throne carved out of a berry tree. Literally. There was a tree growing from the dais, and a chair had somehow been carved into it. However, the tree was dead, and looked as if it had been for quite some time. A giant stained glass window made up the back wall depicting a winged Mew descending and offering a paw to an awestruck Ralts who had fallen to the ground before her, and a ray of sunlight alit upon the throne, which was, for whatever reason, vacant. Great pillars made of solid rubies, sapphires, and topazes rose to the ceiling, their tops spreading out like the branches of a tree and melding into the ceiling, causing veins of red, blue, and yellow to shoot through the green jade in every direction, creating a complex and rather elaborate weave of color that had some vast, strange pattern to it if you looked carefully enough. Interestingly, pulses of light passed through the columns and veins, making it look like they were alive. Crystals that looked like miniature replicas of the one perched atop Altru Tower orbited the room, with tiny chips of red, blue, and yellow stones circling them in turn, shining light across the chamber. Banners depicting berry trees hung from the ceiling in between the columns.
Sitting on a surprisingly ordinary stool at the base of the dais was a shiny Gallade. He looked very much like Caspen, only older, and with a different color scheme, and if his looks were anything to go by his son would age very well. Unlike his son, however, his features, while still handsome, were imperfect. His left arm was completely made of some silvery metal that looked and moved just like one of flesh, and both the back and left side of his head were completely made of metal, as was his lower jaw. A device like a loupe with a ruby for a lens sat over his left eye, but judging from the old scars around it, it was quite possible that that was his eye. He wore a crimson cape and a ceremonial golden breastplate with a winged Mew seated in front of a berry tree embossed on its front, and a circlet with jewels shaped like berries was perched on his brow. This, then, was the legendary Berry King.
Next to him was a Gardevoir of such beauty and grace that Gary had to reluctantly admit that even Gardevoir might have some competition with her in the looks department. She also looked, as Caspen had warned them, different from most Gardevoir. Her dress and skin were black as midnight, her eyes blood-red, small fangs grew from her mouth, and her hair and arms were purple. The red fins growing out of her chest and back had serrated edges vaguely reminiscent of Darkrai's collar. The spikes growing from the side of her head were also longer and sharper than the norm. She wore a ring on each slender finger, a necklace with a ruby, sapphire, and topaz shaped like tears around her slender neck, and a circlet much like the Berry King's. This, then, was the Berry Queen, and Caspen's mother.
Standing behind the King were an Infernape, a Froslass, and an Electivire. The Infernape wore gold and crimson armor with a gilded sword shaped like a flame strapped to her back, the Froslass wore blue and white robes and held a staff with a snowflake-shaped crystal on the end, and the Electivire wore a yellow and black cloak with a thick chain made of lightning bolt-shaped links draped across his chest. Each of them also wore necklaces with teardrop-shaped gems, but only had one apiece: a ruby for the Infernape, a sapphire for the Froslass, and a topaz for the Electivire. These, then, were the King's advisors: Lavana, Ice (Kind of an unoriginal name for an Ice-type, wasn't it?) and Heath.
Standing off to the side was a very pretty Togekiss wearing a purple and white ermine cape and a tiara with a jagged glass shard set in the crown. Standing next to her was a male Kirlia wearing a circlet and a short cape. Maren and Janine stood at attention upon seeing the Togekiss, and Gary broke into a grin, realizing they were at long last standing before the original goal of their quest, Princess Sara. (Oh, and apparently the prince she'd fallen in love with.)
Standing on the other side of the room, looking somewhat nervous, was a lovely female Lucario wearing a necklace, bracelets, and anklets made of carven bone. She also had some bone earrings in one ear. Callista stiffened in shock when she saw her, and the Lucario gave her a somewhat anxious smile. The rest of Team Nightshade (except for Evan, who was too busy being…busy with Hissssa to pay attention) exchanged puzzled looks, wondering what that was all about.
With Caspen, Nando, and the Swords of Justice before them and the kami trio hovering in the rear, Team Nightshade approached the Gallade seated on the stool. Once they were a few meters away, Caspen respectfully knelt on the floor and bowed his head. Nando and the Swords of Justice knelt as well, and the kamis bowed in midair, and Janine and Maren curtsied. Even Hissssa reluctantly pulled her attention away from Evan and bowed all eight heads, much to the Ekans' disappointment. Realizing they'd fallen behind, Gary, Mary, and Jerry quickly bowed as well. When he noticed Callista was gawking incredulously at the Lucario, Gary quickly yanked on one arm, causing her to lose her balance and tumble in a manner that might, if one were very near-sighted and it was quite dark, be construed as a bow. "Honored Father and Mother," Caspen said. "As commanded, I have returned from the border with the intruders we have been anticipating."
The seated Gallade nodded. "You have done well, Caspen," he said in a deep, strident voice. "And there were no…incidents along the way? If the many stories I've heard of these outsiders are true, they have a habit of bringing chaos everywhere they go." Team Nightshade flinched at that.
"Nothing more than a…minor delay," Caspen said, eyes flicking at Hissssa, who squirmed and had the grace to look Mareepish.
A smile creased the King's face. At least, they thought he was smiling, it was a little hard to tell since his entire lower jaw was made of metal. "After being separated for so long, it is understandable that the hearts of those in love might be desperate for intimacy upon their return. I myself have trouble keeping my hands off of your mother even if I've only spent a few hours away from her presence! Their actions shall not be held against them this time, but I ask that in the future you and your consort will exercise more restraint, Lady Hissssa."
"We will do our bessst, Your Majesssty," Hissssa hissed, chastened.
"Awww, do we have to?" Evan whined. Hissssa bopped him on the head with her tail to shut him up.
The King rose to his feet and made a gesture. Caspen and the Swords of Justice rose and parted to the side, revealing Team Nightshade and bringing them face to face with the elder Gallade. Gary found himself rather intimidated and taken aback by the sheer sense of power and presence the mon radiated. This was a mon with absolute confidence in his power and place in the world, an unquestioned leader and figure of legend who looked as if he'd just walked out of some myth of ancient heroism. It was easy to believe that a mon like this had once ruled a continent, and still ruled a nation that was—if what Gary had seen so far was anything to go by—one of the most prosperous on Earth. "So, this is the infamous Team Nightshade," the King said after examining them for a moment. Gary hadn't felt any psychic probes, but he somehow got the feeling that the King didn't need Psychic powers to read someone's heart and mind. "I have heard much about you…and little of it good."
"We've…had some mishaps along the way, Your Majesty, I'll be the first to admit that," Gary said when Caspen nodded at him that it was okay to speak. "But…we're trying to better ourselves and not make the same mistakes we have in the past."
"So I see," the King said, ruby gaze piercing Gary's soul. "A great change has come over you recently. I approve."
"Th-thank you, Your Majesty," Gary said timidly.
The King sighed. "I must confess, there was a part of me that had hoped we would never have to meet face-to-face…but your tenacity—and sheer dumb luck—surprised me, and despite our best efforts, you and your friends now stand before me…and our greatest enemy follows in your wake."
Gary cringed. "S-sorry about that."
"What is done is done," the King said. "You are here now, and soon so shall be our foe. We shall rout him, as we have before and—unless this time is any different from the last ones—most likely shall do again. And perhaps you and your friends yet have some part to play in the coming battle." A faint smile creased his face. "But come, where are my manners? Before we speak of weightier matters, I would know to whom it is I am speaking. What do you call yourselves?"
"Gary Oak, sir," Gary said. Mary gave him a surprised look. He was going by his human last name, now?
When the King glanced at her, the Medicham said, "I'm Mary, from Pokémon Square."
"I'm Evan, Mary'sss cousssin, or brother! I'm not alwaysss sssure which it isss. I think we ssshare at leassst one parent, though we might not," Evan said. "Hisssssssa'sss probably told you all about me!"
"You have no idea," the dark Gardevoir murmured.
"My name is Jerry, from Chicole Town," Jerry said.
"I'm Maren, of the Mirage Kingdom. Um. Not that I'm a spy from the possessed King or anything like that," Maren said quickly, even though, technically, she was, or had been.
"Janine Shinobu, also of Mirage Kingdom," Janine said.
"Callista of Chroma Ruins, uncrowned Queen of Lemewria and the Last Remnant of the Lemewrian bloodline…" Callista narrowed her eyes at the Lucario, who looked away. "Or so I thought…"
"I am honored to meet all of you, though I wish it had been under different circumstances," the King said. "Now I suppose it is my turn. I am Pastizal, King of the Berry Kingdom. This lovely creature at my side is my Queen and First Consort, Luthiel."
"Greetings and well met," the dark Gardevoir said.
"You have already met my son and heir, Prince Caspen, as well as the Swords of Justice and Kami Trio," the King said, nodding at his son and the seven legendaries. "And are familiar with your old friends Nando and Hissssa, of course."
"Very familiar, in our cassse," Evan purred, causing Hissssa to giggle.
"Behind me are my advisors and ministers; Lavana, Ice, and Heath," Pastizal continued.
"Welcome to the Berry Kingdom, and thank you for giving us the first opportunity to actually field our army against an enemy in quite some time," Lavana said.
"…Uh, thanks?" Mary said uncertainly.
"Congratulations on making it this far. Few others have managed to penetrate our defenses," Ice said. "There's something oddly suspicious about that, actually. I have been studying the amount of luck, both good and bad, that seems to surround you in your travels. So many strange coincidences and conveniences happen for you. It's almost as if some higher power is aiding you…or making things worse for you, depending on its mood."
Gary narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, it's something like that."
"Welcoming to the Berry Kingdom, and am thanking you for not cause mass destruction and chaos like you is seeming to everywhere else you been!" Heath said cheerfully in broken English. "Course, I keep eye on you, so not thinking you off hook yet!"
"…Gee, thanks," Jerry said.
"They have ssso little faith in usss," Evan complained.
"Gee, I wonder why that might be. I mean, it's not as if we deprived a town of its main source of income, or ruined the lives of a bunch of Pokémon who gained demonic powers and swore vengeance against us in retribution, or blew up a theater," Mary said sarcastically.
"Exxxactly!" Evan said, completely missing the point. Mary facepalmed.
"Dear, be quiet and sssit there looking pretty. It'sss what you're bessst at," Hissssa's lightning head said.
"Okay!" Evan said happily.
"And here we have someone I believe you will be very happy to see," the King said, nodding to the Togekiss, who stepped forward with the Kirlia. "The original objective of your quest…or so you were lead to believe, anyway: Princess Sara of the Mirage Kingdom, and her fiancé, my younger son Prince Elijah."
"Greetings, Team Aurabolt and kinsfolk from my homeland," the Togekiss said in a lovely, lilting voice that spoke of a pure heart without malice or hatred. "Welcome to the Berry Kingdom. I am sorry you had to come all this way for nothing, for as you can see, I am in no peril."
"Well, some could say getting married is extreme peril," Gary joked. When Mary glared at him, he said, "Uh, but not me, of course."
"Your Majesty! We're elated to see you all right!" Maren cried. While she had come to believe Prince Caspen's assurances, a small part of her had still doubted his honesty about the Princess's condition. Seeing her like this, clearly healthy and in good shape, dispelled the last of her concerns…though the fact that she would now have to turn against her king, who was apparently possessed, still weighed deeply on her spirit.
"More than all right, I am in love with my dear Elijah here, and we shall be married as soon as this current mess is dealt with!" Sara said, brushing Elijah with a wing. Her face fell. "Including…my father…"
"Then he truly is our foe?" Janine asked, who had ridden herself of her doubts already but just wanted to make sure. "And your abduction was a rescue, not a kidnapping?"
Sara nodded. "I am afraid so. It pains my heart to think of what my father must be going through right now, trapped in his own body while one of the vilest villains to ever walk the face of the Earth uses him like a puppet. Still, it is my hope that he can be saved and the wicked King banished once more, so that he may attend Elijah and my wedding once peace has been restored."
"That is our hope as well, Your Majesty," Maren said.
"And while I am sorry you came all this way for nothing, on this fool's errand arranged by the fiend wearing my father like a cheap suit, I am gratified that you and the soldiers who came before you made it this far all the same. It speaks to the depth of your character, and your determination, to press forward even when the entire world seems arrayed against you. You honor me by your presence and dedication, and not only shall you be invited to my wedding, but once everything has been settled, you shall be knighted for all the efforts you undertook to come and find me!" Sara declared.
"We're gonna become knightsss?! Sssweet!" Evan said excitedly.
"I'm not exactly sure the things we've done are worth getting knighted over, but I'm never one to turn down a celebration in my honor!" Gary said. "Especially since…I can't remember the last time I've had one…"
"And we get to attend a wedding that's not planned by Delia for a change," Mary commented. "That'll be an interesting change of pace."
"Y-Your Majesty…we are not worthy! Thank you! Thank you so much!" an overwhelmed Maren cried, bowing repeatedly.
"No, thank you, Maren," the Togekiss said warmly. "For showing that good can still come of evil intent. The wicked king may have sent you here as part of an evil plot, but I am certain that in coming you have sown the seeds of his destruction!"
"…I certainly hope so," Maren said uncertainly.
"If worse comes to worse, we could always throw Evan at him and see how badly he fouls things up for the guy," Janine suggested, much to Hissssa's horror.
"Yeah, that'sss a great idea!" Evan said. They waited several seconds for him to realize he'd been insulted. He did not. Somewhat awkwardly, they continued on.
"So, uh…you and the Princess, huh?" Jerry asked Prince Elijah.
The Kirlia nodded. "It was love at first sight," he said in a soft, almost effeminate voice. "That sort of thing happens a lot around here."
"I'll bet," Gary said with a smirk.
"Mewrians," Mary grumbled.
"What happened to being respectful?!" Maren hissed.
"We are being respectful," Gary said.
Mary nodded. "You don't want to see us when we're disrespectful." Maren sweatdropped.
"And finally, someone I think young Callista may be very familiar with and happy to see again," the King said, nodding at the Lucario standing some distance away. Somewhat nervously, she stepped forward. "Team Nightshade, this is-"
"Maylene," Callista said coldly, causing the Lucario to flinch.
The Riolu's companions looked at her in surprise. "How did you know her name?" Gary asked.
"Because…she is my sister," Callista said icily. "Long thought deceased."
"WHAT?!" Team Nightshade cried in alarm, while at the same time Evan yelled, "Hey, wait, were you insssulting me jussst a minute ago?!"
"I thought you said your sister was dead!" Jerry said.
"Because I did not know she was still alive," Callista said angrily.
Pastizal blinked in surprise. "Dead? Why would you think she was-" Caspen shook his head. The King frowned, realizing something was wrong here. He exchanged looks with the Queen, who now had a grave look on her face.
"I…I'm sorry, little sister," Maylene, the Lucario, said softly, though there was also a hint of confusion in her voice. Why had Callista thought she was dead?
"Sorry?! All this time, we thought you were DEAD! And instead, you've been here, living it up like a Queen, practically inches from our birthright, yet you have done NOTHING but let it SIT there instead of restoring our kingdom to its former glory?!"
"I…it's complicated," Maylene said uncomfortably, startled and confused by the Riolu's behavior. Caspen moved protectively to her side.
"Then make it uncomplicated!" Callista snapped.
"See what we were talking about? We're way respectful compared to that," Gary muttered to Maren, who facepalmed.
"Are you a prisoner here, sister? Is that why you never came home? Because it looks to me like you are free to do whatever you please!" Callista said angrily.
"I am! It's just…I…" Caspen took Maylene's paw. She took a deep breath, then looked at him and smiled. "I fell in love!"
Callista's eyes widened. "What."
"I did not see that coming," Mary said.
"Well, I guess Sara's not the first member of outside royalty to fall for a Berry Prince," Gary commented.
"No, I'm not," Sara agreed.
"Darn," Jerry muttered. "I kind of hoped he was single." The others looked at him. "What? I'm gay, remember?"
"Oh, right," Mary said.
"Dude, I'm pretty sssure he'sss way, way , way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy yyyy out of your league," Evan hissed.
"A guy can dream, can't he?" Jerry grumbled.
"Explain. Now," Callista demanded.
Caspen narrowed his eyes. "Even if she is your sister, you will not speak to my wife like-"
"Caspen, it's all right. She has a right to be angry," Maylene said quietly, though she wasn't entirely sure why Callista was this angry. Why had she thought she was dead? Reluctantly, Caspen nodded and let her speak. "Callista, I…I'm so sorry things turned out this way."
"How did this happen?" the Riolu asked angrily.
"As you know, I left the Ruins several years ago to try and find the lost pieces of the Lemewrian Crest, to restore our lost kingdom," Maylene said. "I journeyed to Altru Tower, believing that, since nobody in living memory had made it there, that perhaps a piece might be hidden there. I thought my Aura powers would help me find a way through the wasteland, even though nobody had before." She blushed. "Imagine my surprise when I passed through the terror field and barrier and found myself in the lost paradise of the Berry Kingdom, greeted by the most handsome non-undead Pokémon I had ever seen."
"What, are you there to greet everyone who comes in here?" Gary asked Caspen incredulously.
"As Crown Prince, one of my duties is to patrol our realm's borders and be on hand to deal with anyone who manages to make it through our barrier," Caspen said.
"Oh," Gary said.
"I was detained and—very politely—interrogated. After they decided that I was not, in fact, an agent of the King of Pokélantis, they gave me a choice. I could either stay in the Berry Kingdom for the rest of my life, or they could erase my memory of this wonderful place and send me on my way. And…while I did want to come back to the Ruins, and to you, Calli…" She turned to Caspen and smiled. "There was another part of me that didn't want to forget."
"…So you abandoned our duty, abandoned me, for a boy?! And a living one at that?!" Callista screamed indignantly.
"You've never been in love, Calli. It makes you do funny things," Maylene said apologetically.
"Things like letting all of us think you were dead and lost forever?! Things like not even bothering to send a message to let us know you were all right?!" Callista demanded.
Maylene blinked in confusion. What had she just said? "You never got my message?"
"There was no message!" Callista insisted.
"But…but I sent a message! Caspen, didn't we…" Maylene asked her husband in confusion.
"After we'd decided to wed, I dispatched an emissary to Chroma Ruins to invite Callista and the rest of your family to attend, and stay with us, if they so wished," Caspen said. "However, when I mentioned you to Callista before, she had no idea what I was talking about. I'm not sure she ever got the message…and come to think of it, I'm not sure the messenger ever came back either."
Callista was dumbstruck. "You…you sent…but then…why…why didn't we…"
"Callista," Janine said, struck with a thought. "You and your friends at the Ruins drive off any trespassers, don't you?"
"Yes, but-" Callista froze. "You…you don't think we scared off the messenger by mistake?!"
"But that can't be!" Maylene protested. "We chose a Ghost as the messenger because I knew spirits are always welcome at the Ruins and you would trust him, since you despise the living!"
"…Many Ghosts have passed through the Chroma Plains since you left, but none of them ever carried a message from you," Callista whispered in confusion.
"Then what the heck happened to him?!" Mary demanded.
"That is something which Beartics looking into," the King said gravely. "Coballion?"
The leader of the Swords of Justice nodded. "We'll go investigate, Your Majesty. However, the Prince and Princess's wedding were years ago. The trail will have long since gone cold. Archmage Ice, may we borrow one of your mages to help us find out what happened all those years ago?"
The Froslass nodded. "You have my permission. Go to the Academy and tell them they are to assist you in any way possible."
Coballion smiled in gratitude. "Thank you, Archmage. Swords of Justice, let's move out!"
"Aww, and I wanted to see what happened next," Terrakion complained as the four warrior Pokémon left the hall.
"We'll learn about that out another day. For now, we have an important mission to accomplish," Coballion said sternly.
"You didn't send anyone out to find out what happened to the messenger when he never came back?" Mary asked once the Swords had departed.
"Shortly after the wedding, we detected activity from the King of Pokélantis and had to move quickly to stop him. The fate of the emissary became…forgotten in the middle of it, it would seem," Caspen said apologetically.
Gary frowned, a sudden alarming thought occurring to him…as well as the sudden suspicion that the Swords of Justice wouldn't find anything. If the messenger had reached Chroma Ruins, then Callista and her family would have gone to the Berry Kingdom, and might have been persuaded to stay there, despite Callista's vehement insistence on following her destiny. And if they had left the ruins, that meant they wouldn't have been there when Team Nightshade showed up looking for the Compass fragment, meaning they'd never have been able to find it and might have been forced to give up and move on to the Berry Kingdom, where they were now…without having learned of the prophecy, or gathered all the pieces of the Compass together in one place. And if that had happened…well, that would certainly make things difficult for the plans of a certain group of time travelers, wouldn't it? So perhaps they took it upon themselves to remove the one thing that might have stood in the way of history unfolding the way they wanted it to, causing it to go down an entirely different course instead. Amazing how the slightest of changes could have such vast and far-reaching consequences. For want of a nail, and all that.
Was not even the Berry Kingdom safe from Team Quantum's manipulations? Those bastards had plotted for Team Nightshade to come here, bringing all the pieces necessary to restore Lemewria in one place…and leading the villain who coveted the lost continent's power the most right to the location of everything he needed to take control of it for himself. Had the prophecy been just another lie, another set-up? But if that was the case…how could Team Quantum possibly benefit from letting the King of Pokélantis gain control of Lemewria?
While Gary was thinking these troubling thoughts, Callista's confrontation with her sister continued without him. "Just as I was apparently forgotten," Callista said bitterly.
Maylene winced. "Calli-"
"As well as our destiny!" Callista accused angrily. "How could you turn your back on our duty, Maylene?! I don't even care that much that you got married—every Queen needs a consort, after all—it's that you just decided to abandon your dream of being a Queen and settled for being a Princess! The Luminous Crystal, one of the keys to raising Lemewria again, is right here, Maylene! And you did nothing with it!"
"The Berry Kingdom needs the Luminous Crystal to survive, Calli!" Maylene protested.
"And our kingdom needs it to live, Maylene!" Callista retorted.
"Then maybe it should stay dead!" Maylene snapped.
Callista reeled back in shock. "What?!"
"Lemewria has been dead and buried for thousands of years, Callista," Maylene said. "Our people have dwindled and died out for centuries since then, clinging to dreams of a faded glory, living in the past and unable to move on into the future. Lemewria is dead, sister. The Berry Kingdom is alive. Mightn't it be better to be a part of something that's still living, rather than try to bring back something that's dead and gone?"
"We have been raised by the dead all our lives, Maylene!" Callista said angrily. "We both know death isn't nearly that permanent!"
"Bringing back a dead Pokémon is one thing, Calli…but an entire civilization?" Maylene pointed out.
"The prophecy foretold that Lemewria would rise again!" Callista shouted.
"And that prophecy has kept our people living in a dank crypt for thousands of years guarding a stupid mirror when we could have been part of the rest of the world, experiencing sunshine and real food rather than constant fog and moss and mushrooms!" Maylene shouted back. "I hate that prophecy, Callista, and you should too! It's kept our people shackled for millennia, killed us off one by one, until the two of us are all that's left!"
"…No. There's only one of us now, Maylene," Callista said coldly.
Maylene flinched. "Calli?"
"You are dead to me. You have turned your back on our people, on our destiny…and on me," Callista whispered. "I have no sister."
Shocked, Maylene sank to her knees. "Calli-"
"You will never call me by that name again," Callista snapped. "I always hated that nickname, anyway. I am Callista, uncrowned Queen of Lemewria, and the Last Remnant of the Lemewrian royal family. One way or another, I intend to restore our kingdom…no matter who stands in my way. Even you."
Maren facepalmed. "Oh, for the love of…"
"See? What'd I tell you? We're way more respectful than that!" Gary said.
"I knew this was coming," Mary said with a weary sigh.
"So…think this means they're going to throw us in the dungeons?" Jerry asked nervously.
"We're not with her and do not ssshare her opinionsss in any way, ssshape or form!" Evan said loudly.
Hissssa nodded. "What he sssaid!"
As Maylene crumpled, tears running down her cheeks, an enraged Caspen stepped forward. "How DARE you-"
"Caspen," Luthiel said suddenly. The Gallade froze, glancing at his mother. The dark Gardevoir glided forward, piercing red eyes fixed on the angry Riolu. "Young lady, while your anger may be justified, that does not excuse such behavior towards your sister. You are a guest under our roof, and I expect you to behave with all the courtesy and respect towards your hosts that that entails. Any threats against my family or my realm will not be taken lightly. We will forgive this trespass this one time, but if you act like that towards my daughter again we will have words."
"Daughter?!" Callista said, startled.
"She married my son. Does that not make me her mother?" Luthiel pointed out. "And yours, too, I should think."
Callista stiffened. "The only mother I need is with me always," she said, touching the Lucario skull she wore at all times.
"And you have clearly forgotten whatever she taught you about manners," Luthiel said coldly. "You say you wish to be a Queen? Then perhaps it is best you start acting like one, rather than like a child denied a piece of candy."
"The Luminous Crystal is more than just a piece of candy!" Callista said angrily.
"You are correct. It is the source of power and prosperity for an entire kingdom," Luthiel said.
"And was once the source of power and prosperity for my kingdom!" Callista argued. "It is my birthright! I need it just as much you! Perhaps more so, since while your kingdom is still alive, mine is already dead and has been that way for millennia!"
"It is our birthright, too. And our need for it is great as well. And so, it seems, we are at an impasse," the King said.
"Not necessarily," Ice spoke up abruptly, surprising everyone. "Your Majesties, a moment of your time?"
Shooting Callista a glance, the royal couple moved over to consult the sorceress while Caspen comforted Maylene, Sara and Elijah fidgeted awkwardly, Nando idly strummed his harp, and the kamis deliberated amongst themselves whether or not they should smite Callista. "You probably shouldn't have done that, you know," Gary said to the Riolu.
"She turned her back on her heritage. She deserved every word I said," she said angrily.
"You sure that's the future Queen of Lemewria talking, or a little girl who feels like her older sister's betrayed her?" Mary asked. Callista clenched her teeth but said nothing.
After a moment, the King and Queen returned, with Ice in tow. "Archmage Ice has made an interesting proposition which might prove to be an acceptable compromise," the King said.
Callista frowned. "And what would that be?"
"Callista, do you believe a fragment of the Luminous Crystal would be enough to revive Lemewria?" the Froslass Archmage asked.
Callista blinked in surprise. "A fragment?"
"Occasionally, we chip off pieces of the Luminous Crystal for study, to understand how it works and think of ways to better channel its power," Ice explained. "The Crystal slowly regenerates, so if we're careful with how much we take we don't have to worry about causing any serious drop in power."
Callista frowned. "And you are suggesting that I take such a piece and use it to reactivate Lemewria?"
"That is my proposal," Ice said.
Callista shook her head. "It will never work. Lemewria is an entire continent. Only the full Crystal has the power necessary to raise it into the sky once more."
"Normally that would be the case, yes," Ice said with a grin. "But my students at the Academy are on the verge of a breakthrough. We've been working on power amplifiers designed to work with shards of the Luminous Crystal for quite some time. We think we may soon be able to find a way to increase the power output of a shard of the Crystal so that it equals that of the source stone! With a device such as that, it should theoretically be possible to raise Lemewria once again with just a small piece of the Crystal, without having to deprive us of our source of power and prosperity!"
Callista considered this for a moment. "That…sounds promising…how certain are you that this would work?"
"Well, small-scale experiments with Crystal shards have proved promising so far," Ice said. "We haven't tried it out yet on anything the size of Lemewria, but the principle is sound, and if we use a large enough shard and a strong enough amplifier I see no reason it wouldn't work. And if it fails, we'll just take a bigger fragment, recalibrate, and try again."
Callista frowned. "And if it turns out that only the original Crystal will suffice?"
"Then we'll have to figure something else out. But until then, we don't know this won't work, so I think it's worth a try, don't you?" Ice said.
Callista thought about this for a moment. "…Very well. I would prefer the whole Crystal, but…I suppose it is unrealistic and unfair to deprive an entire kingdom of their light just to restore my own."
"You think?" Mary said. The Riolu ignored her.
Maylene, eyes red and puffy, blinked and looked at Ice in surprise. "Why…why didn't you mention something like this when I first came here? Back when I still thought I had a chance of raising Lemewria?"
"Back then, our power amplifier tests hadn't reached the stage they're at now, so it wasn't even a viable option," Ice said. "In addition, we did not have all the fragments of the Lemewrian Crest under one roof, so even if we had a working amplifier there wouldn't be much point. Yes, we could gather the Crest pieces ourselves, but doing so might alert our enemy to our location and make it easier for him to take what he desires, so it was deemed not worth the risk."
"But, since that is currently a moot point due to the actions of Team Nightshade…" the King began.
"We said we were sorry," Gary said sullenly.
"We now have the opportunity, and there is little reason not to seize it," the King said.
"If you could help me take my throne, I would be eternally grateful, and my nation would be forever in your debt," Callista said.
"Which is another good reason to seize this opportunity," the King said, amused.
"See, father? I told you we should help raise Lemewria!" Elijah said excitedly.
The King rolled his eyes. "Yes, son, you were right. Don't rub it in, it's unbecoming of a prince."
"There is, however, one condition," the Queen said.
"Naturally," Gary said as Callista blinked in surprise. "What is it?"
"We will provide Callista with everything she needs to restore Lemewria…if she can prove she is worthy of it," Luthiel said.
Callista bristled. "What?!"
"Callista, you claim that you seek to restore your destroyed country and rule over it as Queen," Luthiel said. "However, so far you have not exhibited the sort of behavior, mannerisms, or maturity a true ruler should demonstrate. I am not entirely convinced you are ready for the responsibility that comes with ruling an entire continent. You may have the blood, yes, but do you have the experience?"
Callista was about to retort that no, she hadn't really gotten much of a chance to learn how to be a Queen since she'd spent her entire life living in a crypt, until a look from Gary reminded her that the restoration of Lemewria rested entirely on these peoples' willingness to help her, so it might be best if she were to remain in their good graces. "I…suppose not, no," she admitted sullenly.
"Then let us strike a bargain. I shall train you in leadership and do my best to teach you what it means to be a monarch and a leader of a nation," Luthiel said. "When I judge you to have successfully completed your training, you shall receive a fragment of the Luminous Crystal and the means to use it to raise Lemewria with the full blessings of the Berry Kingdom."
"And how long will this training take?" Callista asked suspiciously.
"Let's say…a month. If you are not ready at that time, we will reevaluate and try again," the Queen said.
"And how am I to know that you will not simply prolong my training indefinitely to keep me from claiming my birthright?" Callista accused.
"What benefit could I possibly have in doing so? If you were to raise Lemewria with only a fragment of the Crystal rather than the whole thing, it would only be beneficial to both our realms," Luthiel pointed out. "Denying you that power indefinitely wouldn't help either of us in the long run. If you doubt the impartiality of my judgment, however, we can have a third party assess your worth."
"And who would that third party be?" Callista asked.
"How about your sister?" Luthiel suggested.
Maylene started. "Me?!"
"Her?!" Callista cried.
"She knows you better than anyone else here, and has received training of her own in how to rule. As such, she is better suited than I to judge whether you are truly ready to be a monarch," Luthiel said. "In addition, since she has renounced any stake that she might have had in ruling Lemewria, she gains nothing from seeing you fail or succeed. Additionally, you'll be less likely to accuse her of going along with whatever decision I make out of loyalty to me."
"…I…suppose that is acceptable," Callista said grudgingly.
"If…if it'll help my sister trust me again…I'll do it," Maylene said, smiling tentatively at Callista. The Riolu frowned, but did not look away.
"An excellent test, my Queen. My father set a similar challenge for my brother and I when deciding which of us should inherit the throne," the King said.
"Wait…your father?" Gary asked in confusion.
"Are you saying you're not the original Berry King?" Jerry asked in surprise.
The King shook his head. "No, the original Berry King, the legendary ruler who united an entire continent, was my father. He was slain in battle with the King of Pokélantis—the same battle which left me with these wounds I still bear—and I was forced to take his place." He glanced wistfully at the dead tree that had been shaped into a throne. "But even though I rule his kingdom, I shall never sit in that throne. It was meant for one mon, and one mon only…and I am not he."
"Oh," Maren said, oddly heartbroken. The Berry King had been one of her favorite childhood heroes growing up, and when she had learned his kingdom was real and still existed, even if he was apparently her nation's enemy, a part of her had been thrilled that she might meet him. And now, she found out, she never would.
"Just who is this guy, anyway?" Mary asked. "I mean, we know he's an ancient evil spirit of some long-dead human who wants to claim Lemewria for himself, but why is he so powerful? How come you haven't been able to get rid of him yet?"
"And what'sss hisss name?" Evan asked. Everyone looked at him. "What? We gotta call him sssomething. We can't jussst keep calling him the King of Pokélantisss, essspecccially sssinccce Pokélantisss isssn't around anymore."
"Lemewria isn't around, but I'm going to be its Queen," Callista pointed out.
"Yesss, but Pokélantisss isss gone and never coming back," Evan said. He paused. "I think."
"Strange as it may sound, Evan has a point," Maren admitted. "Does our enemy have a name?"
"Whatever the King's original name, it has been lost to the mists of time," Pastizal said. "Now, though, we call him 'Morkul.' "
"Oooh, how Tokiensssque," Evan hissed.
"In an ancient tongue, it means 'King of Evil,' which is as apt a description for him as anything else," Luthiel said gravely.
"So which part means King and which part means Evil?" Gary wondered.
"And which part meansss 'of?' There'sss only two sssyllablesss," Evan said. Everyone stared at him. "What? It'sss an honessst quessstion."
"The reason the King is so dangerous," Lavana spoke up as though Evan had said nothing. "Is because he's pretty much immortal. Nothing we've thrown at him can affect him, just whatever host he's occupying at the moment."
"We at the Academy believe that his hatred, greed, and lust for power and revenge against Lemewria are able to sustain his life-force even though he's been dead for thousands of years," Ice said. "The only thing keeping him out of the Berry Kingdom is the pure positive energy generated by the Luminous Crystal, which is anathema to him, though he still covets its power, enough to ally with the wicked Nihilators to try and get it for himself. Even that light can do little more than repel him, however, rather than destroy him, and if he were to take the Crystal for himself, even its light might not be able to outshine his darkness."
"He is also being capable of possessing anyone excepting citizens of Kingdom Berry," Heath said.
"Why is that?" Mary asked.
"The Crystal's light shines upon us from birth to death, and makes citizens of the Berry Kingdom immune to his power," Pastizal said. "Hence why he has to possess others to strike at us, or send agents."
"Like the Mirage King," Maren murmured.
"Or us," Janine said quietly.
"His immortality is also one of his greatest assets, since it means that he may potentially outlast all of us and our descendants," Lavana said. "We of the Berry Kingdom are long-lived, but not immortal for the most part."
"Well, we are," Thundurus said.
"But we aren't strong enough to defeat him," Tornadus said embarrassedly. "We're only lesser gods, after all."
"We believe it might be possible to imprison him, however," Ice continued. "He was sealed away once, after all, so it should be feasible to do it again. Of course, we'd have to actually catch him first."
"Which may mean his current stratagem might prove fortuitous for us," Pastizal said. "We know who his current host is, and that he will come here. That may give us the opportunity we need to capture and imprison the King, if we can remove him from his host first."
"Great! How do we do that?" Maren asked, leaping onto any suggestion that might save her liege.
"The power of Aura should suffice," Princess Sara said.
Maylene nodded. "An Aura Purge has the power to cleanse the body and spirit and remove poisons and evils. I, or any of the other Aura Masters in the Berry Kingdom, should have the power to exorcise Morkul from the Mirage King. It may be the only effective way to expel him from a host, since his spirit is too strong to be removed by most other forms of exorcism without damaging his vessel."
"Unfortunately, he knows that too, so he'll probably run whenever someone with Aura confronts him," Lavana said. "We're working on a strategy to trap him and make it impossible for him to avoid a good Purging, though. After that, it'll be up to Ice's magi to seal him away."
Ice nodded. "And we think we've found a good way to do it, too. Once upon a time, our own Luminous Crystal was a foul Shadow Crystal. The gems known as the Tears of Princes, however, were able to cleanse it and continue to make sure its light is pure even to this day. If we could trap him in a fragment of the Crystal, then bathe that fragment in the light of the Tears or pieces of the Tears, it should—if not outright destroying his evil soul—imprison him in a cage of light, hopefully forever."
"Sounds like a plan," Gary said.
"What part do we play in this?" Mary asked.
The King blinked in surprise. "None. You are civilians, not soldiers, and this is not your battle. Morkul has been our foe for centuries, and we are best suited to combat him and his Nihilator allies. You lack the same resistance to his evil magic that we do, so would be more vulnerable to his influence, and therefore might prove a liability on the battlefield."
"That, and you aren't very good fighters," Lavana said.
"…Gee, thanks for the boost to my self-esteem," Gary said sarcastically.
"I am a soldier," Janine pointed out.
"And I would not mind helping out as well," Callista said.
"Janine, you'll be helping us in your own way by getting in touch with your brother and assisting him in wresting control of the Mirage Kingdom back from Morkul," Caspen said. "As for you, Callista…you are too important for us to risk. Like Maylene, you are one of the keys to reactivating Lemewria due to your bloodline. If Morkul were to possess you and escape…"
"…I see your point," Callista admitted reluctantly.
"Then what exactly are we supposed to do while this whole big battle is going on?" Jerry asked.
"Remain here, where it is safe," Luthiel said.
"Oh. Yeah, I'm okay with that," Jerry said.
Gary nodded. "Yeah, I'm not really relishing fighting in a war either." Though why do I get the feeling we'll get dragged into it anyway?
"Ssso long asss I can ssstay with Hisssssssa, I'm happy asss can be!" Evan hissed
Pained expressions appeared on all eight of Hissssa's faces. "Actually, Evan, we've agreed to help out during the battle," the fire head said regretfully.
"WHAT! WHY?!" Evan screamed in horror.
"My new powersss make me a big assset on the battlefield," the water head said apologetically.
"Plusss, the people here have been ssso niccce to me. They helped me unlock my true potential!" the earth head said.
"Ssso I feel like I have to pay them back in whatever way I can," the lightning head said.
"But-but-but you might get hurt! Or lossse one of your headsss!" Evan protested. "And I love all of your headsss, I can't bear to lossse a sssingle one!"
The poison head laughed. "Don't worry, Evan. Thanksss to tapping into the power of my ancccessstor, I've become virtually indessstructible now."
The wind head nodded. "My ssscalesss have hardened thanksss to the power passsed down from Yamatorochi, ssso now the only thing that can pierccce my flesssh isss a sssacred sssword, blesssed by moonlight…and I highly doubt a bad guy like Morkul'sss gonna have one of thossse lying around!"
The dark head kissed Evan on the head, nearly engulfing it in her mouth. "Don't worry, sssweetie, we'll help the niccce Berry people wrap thisss up and be back in time for sssome more sssexxxy fun time before you've even had breakfassst."
Evan considered this for a moment. "Well, sssexxxy fun time doesss sssound good…and ssso doesss breakfassst!"
"There'sss my boy!" the light head hissed, nuzzling Evan affectionately.
"…Sexy fun time with Evan…yeah, didn't need that mental image…" Gary muttered.
"And what will happen to us after this crisis is over?" Janine asked.
"My wedding, of course!" Sara said.
Elijah nodded. "And once we're wed, the final piece of the Lemewrian Crest can be removed from her crown and Callista can use it to restore Lemewria and fulfill her destiny. After her training with my mother is complete, of course."
"Of course," Callista grunted.
"After that, all of you are free to either stay here in the Berry Kingdom or go wherever you choose," Pastizal said. "If our plan to imprison Morkul works, we will no longer need to hide ourselves from the rest of the world; it was only because of him that we cut ourselves off from the rest of Almiore to begin with. As such, there will be no need for us to keep you here or to erase your memories of our realm."
"Well, that's a relief," Mary said.
"Yeah. As nice as this place is, we should probably head back to Pokémon Square after things are settled here and we fulfill that prophecy and get Callista set up in Lemewria," Gary agreed.
"I'll go wherever Hisssssssa goesss," Evan said loyally. "Though I'd rather not ssstay in thisss Mary Sssuetopia if I can help it. What with the way everything ssseemsss ssso gossshdarn perfect I'm sssure there'sss either a horribly dark sssecret you're hiding or you guysss are gonna get completely thrassshed in the near future. No offenssse, that'sss jussst the way thessse thingsss tend to go."
"…What did he just-" the Queen started to say.
"Ignore our friend, he's an idiot," Mary said.
"Aw, hun, of courssse I'll come back with you to Pokémon Sssquare! I'd love to meet your parentsss!" Hissssa's fire head said.
"Yay!" Evan said ecstatically.
"Oh, joy," Mary groaned. "And then my parents are gonna nag me about my hookup with Gary…and why I only settled for one guy…"
"I guess I could head back to Chicole Town…" Jerry said uncertainly.
"Janine and I will probably return with Princess Sara and her new husband to the Mirage Kingdom," Maren said.
Sara nodded. "While I love it here, the Mirage Kingdom is my home, and it'll need me more than ever once this is all over."
"And my place is with my bride, so I will go wherever she does," Elijah said, earning him a warm smile from the Togekiss.
"And you all know where I shall be," Callista said. "In my new home, floating through the skies above."
"And I shall return to my beloved Pueltown, so I may finish composing the epic ballad I've been writing based on this series of events," Nando said. "What a song it shall be! And I bet it'll make a great musical too, a true comedy of errors!"
"…Yeah, that's pretty much our life in a nutshell," Gary said, disgruntled.
"It is settled, then," Pastizal said. "We shall be sorry to see you go, for it is always sad to part with guests and good friends. But if that is where your paths take you, then so be it. In any event, I believe we have covered everything of importance. Tonight we shall have a feast and celebration in your honor, but until then you may do whatever you please."
"Except for you, Janine. We need your help to send that message off to your brother," Lavana said. "But after that, your time is your own."
The Ninjask nodded. "Very well."
"Do you wish to start training me now, Your Majesty?" Callista asked the Queen.
Luthiel shook her head. "Perhaps tomorrow. After your long journey here, I'm sure you will want a chance to rest and unwind…and perhaps to get reacquainted with your sister?"
Callista glanced at Maylene, who gave her a nervous, hopeful look. "…Perhaps," she said grudgingly.
"Almost all of my palace and its myriad pleasures and pursuits are at your service while you reside under my roof," the King continued.
"Including the royal harem?" Evan asked hopefully. When Hissssa glared at him, he said, "What? I only asssk for the othersss! You're all I need, baby!"
"Oh, Evan," the dark head cooed, nuzzling him.
"No, not that," the King said. "We have courtesans to satisfy that need, though."
"That, uh, is very generous," Gary said, feeling Mary's eyes on him. "But I shall respectfully decline."
"As will I," Mary said.
"I won't take anything that has a pulse," Callista said warningly.
"Janine and I are exclusive," Maren said. The Ninjask nodded.
"I wouldn't mind one. So long as he's a guy," Jerry said. Everyone looked at him. "What? I'm gay."
"Neither of those should be a problem," Pastizal said, much to both Callista and Jerry's relief. "We have prepared rooms for you that should, I pray, meet your satisfaction. My servants shall take you to them, and if you require anything, speak into one of the communication crystals and someone will be there shortly with whatever you need, or to escort you around the palace, if that is what you desire."
"That is most generous of you, Your Majesty, and my team and I thank you for your hospitality," Gary said with such humility that Maren did a double-take, wondering if he'd been replaced by an impostor while she wasn't looking. "However, before we part ways and this audience is at an end…I'm afraid that you were mistaken earlier."
The King frowned, as did everyone else, wondering what he was getting at. "About what?"
"We haven't covered everything, Your Highness. There is one last matter we need to discuss that I think you should be concerned about. A threat to your kingdom, your subjects, your centuries of prosperity…and possibly even your own life. A threat potentially greater even than Morkul," Gary said.
The King narrowed his eyes, a puzzled and concerned look on his face. "And what threat would that be?"
"The Faceless One, the enigmatic leader of these 'Nihilators' whom Morkul has allied himself with?" Callista guessed.
"No, not him," Gary said. "Well, yeah, I guess he's a problem too, but he's not who I was talking about. No, I'm talking about the ones who wrote the prophecy that led to Callista and her ancestors spending thousands of years living in a tomb, who robbed me of a dear friend while I was alive, who twisted my mind to make me what I am now, and who have been pulling our strings—and possibly the strings of everyone else in the world—for longer than I dare to even imagine."
Pastizal's frown deepened as his family and vassals exchanged concerned looks. "Enough of these riddles. Out with it. Who are you speaking of?"
Gary's eyes narrowed. "Tell me, great King…have you ever heard of a group of time travelers going by the name of Team Quantum?"
The dramatic moment was ruined when Evan abruptly yelled, "Hey, did you guysss call me an idiot?! And insult me?! And what'sss that about me being a consssort?!" Hissssa facetailed. Eight times.
Ritchie wasn't sure what he had expected Judgment's central headquarters to be like, but it certainly wasn't this. A fortress, perhaps, or maybe a giant cathedral out in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps even a small city, with statues of Arceus and pictures of Light of Justice everywhere.
He certainly hadn't expected to find a lush, paradisiacal landscape of green hills and lush forests and sweeping rivers and lakes with several pastoral settlements dotting the countryside. He hadn't expected tall mountains rising up around the outskirts of this beautiful realm, surrounding it completely. He hadn't expected an unusual sky, shimmering with a variety of colors rather than just being blue and cloudy due to the powerful illusion Light of Justice himself had created to shield this place, called 'New Eden,' from the rest of the world. He had expected the massive cathedral looming over the hidden realm hewn from the surrounding mountainsides, but it looked less like the home of an oppressive religious sect and more a place of Arceus, which he supposed had been the intention.
He also hadn't expected there to be so many Pokémon, and a good number of them not even members of Judgment itself! As Light of Justice himself had explained to him, most of the residents of New Eden were Pokémon who had been liberated from troubled places around the world. Refugees of battered homes and impoverished nations, freed slaves and unjustly arrested political prisoners, victims of wars and abuse and suffering, granted a safe place to live from the hell that had been their pasts. And while he had expected them to be overly religious and fanatical towards their cause and leader—which they were-he hadn't expected them to be, for the most part, friendly and rational people, although there was an undercurrent of hostility against him and his team for reasons he didn't quite understand that he felt went beyond them being on opposite sides from their beloved leader, especially since said leader had publically announced that they would be allies for the time being. They also seemed genuinely happy, and didn't look or behave at all like they were being ruled by a corrupt theocracy, like Zippo had expected. They didn't seem to live in constant fear that they would be horrifically punished for sinning or somehow failing to carry out Arceus' will; if they screwed up they confessed at the cathedral or a local temple—even if it was for something unimportant—and went on with their lives, simple as that. When asked about this, Light of Justice had told Ritchie that it was easier to draft loyal and honorable soldiers from a loving populace with a (mostly) gentle hand, because ones who were broken and trained through terror and brutality tended to be too screwed up to actually fair well on a battlefield and were routed on their first encounter with a genuinely well-trained and prepared opponent.
And Light of Justice was also not quite what Ritchie had expected. He'd run into the Zoroark a few times in the past, and he'd seemed a decent enough guy he'd felt he could be friends with if it weren't for the fact that he was a terrorist leader trying to violently remove all evil from the Earth with an alarming amount of collateral damage. But after spending a few days under his (surprisingly humble) roof and getting to know him a little better, Ritchie slowly started to feel like he was actually growing to like his archenemy. He was decent, honest, honorable, a benevolent boss to his subordinates and a father to his mons, and seemed to genuinely regret not only that circumstances had forced them to be on separate sides, but that he had taken the actions he had so far in his crusade against evil.
That did not excuse the fact that he'd still taken those actions, however, and that innocent people had been hurt in the process. Ritchie had to remind himself more and more of that as time went on, though. He'd privately asked Rose to check to see if any mind-altering magic or drugs were being used on him and she reported that his perceptions were his own, and anything he might be feeling towards Light of Justice was genuine. He wasn't sure how he felt about that.
Still, despite whatever misgivings he might have about the guy, when Light of Justice appeared at the door to his suite in the early evening and asked if he'd like to take a walk with him, Ritchie had seen no reason to refuse. Unlike that Ghetsis guy whom Ritchie was growing to dislike more and more whenever he saw the Hydreigon, he knew Light of Justice could be trusted for the most part, and that nothing untoward would happen to him or his friends while they were separated from each other.
"Where are we going, exactly?" Ritchie asked as they left the cathedral and started walking across well-manicured lawns and down smoothly paved roads across the countryside of New Eden. Along the way, they passed gardeners and priests and soldiers of Judgment and even just regular townsfolk coming to or from the cathedral to pray, and they always bowed respectfully to Light of Justice, who never failed to greet them by name and ask how they were doing. Ritchie marveled at this. Did Light of Justice know not just everyone in his organization, but everyone in his entire realm?
"I want to show you something. Something that I hope will help you to understand my organization, and perhaps me, a little better," the Zoroark said enigmatically.
"O…kay," Ritchie said somewhat dubiously.
"By the way, you'll be happy to know that work on de-petrifying Melody is going quite well," Light of Justice said. "And that I've finally managed to convince everyone we're not going to sacrifice her to unlock the power of the Plates. I have no idea how that rumor got started in the first place."
Ritchie sighed in relief. "Thank you! You have no idea how glad I was when I found out that was just a load of hooey. Do you know when Melody will be back to normal?"
"With our top scientists and sorcerers, your friends Zippo and Rose, and Vulgara all working on it, it shouldn't be much longer. The fact that we have all sixteen Plates under one roof at last so we can utilize their combined power doesn't hurt, either!" Light of Justice said. "Sorry again for her getting cursed in the first place. That was never supposed to happen. Vulgara's always been a little…overzealous with her spell-slinging."
"So Rose has told me. And thank you again for reuniting Cruise with his biological father," Ritchie said.
"It was no problem. I can't imagine where he got the idea that he was a brainwashed slave, though. We don't do that," Light of Justice said, perplexed.
"Er, yeah, I wonder where," Ritchie said awkwardly. "So, uh, how's planning the offensive against the Nihilators going?"
"Very well. We have recently acquired an item which will facilitate our travel to Mars," Light of Justice said. "A magical stone from Fichina."
"Really? Cool!" Ritchie said. "When will we be going, then?"
"We'll need to wait for your friends from Team Aurabolt to act before we can do anything," Light of Justice said. "They need to reach Mars first and open a portal before the stone we obtained will activate. Once it does…"
"We'll go right through, and can fight alongside Ash and anyone else who's getting involved in the fight against the Nihilators! Sweet!" Ritchie said. "It'll be fun to fight next to Ash again!"
"I was rather hoping that when we went into battle, you would be by my side, actually," Light of Justice said.
"So you still want to go to the front yourself?" Ritchie asked, flattered.
The Zoroark nodded. "I have sat in my cathedral and watched my followers fight and die in my name against the forces of evil for too long. The Nihilators are among the greatest villains who have ever threatened the Earth. I want to be there in person to pass Judgment on them."
"Heh. I'll bet Ghetsis doesn't like that," Ritchie said.
Light of Justice's face darkened. "Ghetsis is not the leader of Judgment, no matter how much he likes to pretend he is. I am, and I will do as I see fit."
Ritchie made a face. "What's that guy's deal, anyway? Nearly everyone here loves you…but he seems to hate you and is constantly trying to second-guess and undermine your decisions."
Light of Justice sighed. "The story behind Ghetsis and I is a long and sordid one, and not one I wish to discuss. Simply put, when he and the Sages put me into power, I was not the obedient puppet they expected me to be. I believe they are dearly regretting making me the King."
"Well, it's not like they can do anything about it. Other than kill you and put someone new in your place," Ritchie joked. When Light of Justice's expression didn't change, Ritchie's face paled. "Wait…you don't mean-"
"Let's just say that I don't keep Anthea and Concordia around solely because I love them and they're good bedmates," Light of Justice said grimly.
"And you haven't done anything about it?!" Ritchie asked incredulously.
"While I am more well-liked than Ghetsis by far, he still has a very sizable power base, and I have no proof as of yet of any connection he might have to the assassination attempts. As such, if I were to excommunicate him at the moment, it would tear Judgment apart," Light of Justice said. "So for the moment I have no choice but to keep that wretched Seviper close to my breast, and wait for the time when I may finally be rid of him…a time which fast approaching, I believe."
"Good," Ritchie said. "That guy creeps me the heck out."
Light of Justice nodded. "It is in part because of him that our organization has taken so many innocent lives in our crusade against evil…though I freely admit I have a share of the blame in that as well. And speaking of which…I do believe we're here."
Ritchie frowned, realizing they'd reached a small park dominated by two large semicircular walls, one white, and the other black. A small bubbling fountain stood in the center, surrounded by trees and flowerbeds, with benches lining the short paths. There was writing on the inside curve of both walls, and several bouquets, photographs, toys, candles, pebbles, and other trinkets were piled at the base of the white wall. The sun was setting now, beyond the illusory veil covering the sky, and the rippling lights above cast a rosy glow over the wall, illuminating the writing on it…writing that, Ritchie suddenly realized, were names. He noticed that a Chingling was placing a set of bells among the other objects lying with care before the white wall. The Chingling was crying. "What…is this place?" Ritchie asked.
"The Garden of Remembrance," Light of Justice said. "Come. This is what I wanted to show you."
They approached the white wall. The Chingling, its weeping sounding like the jangling of discordant bells, started and stumbled back when it noticed Light of Justice, its whole body ringing as it did so. "O-Oh! My Lord Light of Justice! P-please forgive me, I didn't notice-" The Chingling stiffened and glared at Ritchie with a look of pure, unbridled hatred that startled the Lucario. "You! What are you doing here?!"
"I-I'm-" Ritchie started.
"He is with me, Marilyn," Light of Justice said. "I came here to show him the Wall." He smiled and crouched to the ground so he could get a better look at the bells the Chingling had just deposited. "You did good work on these bells. Your mother must be proud. Another gift for your father?"
Marilyn nodded, her body making a jingling sound as he did so. "Y-yes. They were always his favorite kind of bells, and…and I thought he'd like them."
"I'm sure that wherever in the Heavens he is, he loves them, just as much as he loved you and your mother," Light of Justice said calmly.
"Y-yeah…and I know he loved you, Lord Light! We all do!" Marilyn said excitedly. "Someday, when I get older, I want to join Judgment, and do Arceus' work just like he did!"
Light of Justice stiffened slightly as Marilyn said this, but only Ritchie noticed. Smoothly, the Zoroark said, "Well, I hope that day doesn't come for a long, long time, Marilyn. You still have a lot of growing up to do. But when you're older, if you're still sure you want to join us, come see me and I'll see what I can do about finding a place for you in my organization. Okay?"
"Okay!" Marilyn said happily.
"Now run along home to your mother, it's almost dinnertime, and I'm fairly sure you're not supposed to be out after dark," Light of Justice said.
"Okay! May Arceus's light shine on you, Light of Justice!" Marilyn said cheerfully. "Oh, and I hope you burn in the Abyss forever, you horrible murderer," she said to Ritchie before skipping away, jingling.
Ritchie blinked. "…The heck was that all about?"
"Not much, you just killed her father," Light of Justice said.
"Oh, ok…wait, WHAT?!" Ritchie cried.
"You killed her father," Light of Justice repeated.
"Wh-what?! No I didn't!" Ritchie protested.
Light of Justice raised an eyebrow. "Then you're saying you've never, at any point during your encounters with my forces, killed a Duosion with some bells wrapped around his wrist?"
"What? I…I dunno, I've killed a lot of…your…soldiers…" Ritchie said slowly.
"Yes," Light of Justice said pointedly. "You have."
"…Light…how…how many of your guys have I killed?" Ritchie asked, horror dawning on him.
"More than I think you want to hear," Light of Justice said.
"And…" Ritchie swallowed. "How…how many of them…had kids like Marilyn there, or…"
"Or spouses or siblings or parents or families living here in New Eden?" Light of Justice finished. Ritchie nodded. "More than I think you want to hear."
Ritchie's stomach lurched. "But they…they were trying to kill me, I had to defend myself, a-and they…if I hadn't stopped them they'd probably have hurt lots of innocent people!"
"You are absolutely correct on all counts," Light of Justice said. "But while to you and your friends, my soldiers were simply enemies that needed to be stopped, and cutting them down and not thinking about it later was the simplest and quickest option…to many of the people here in New Eden, they were friends. Family. Heroes. And you killed them. And while you're right, they probably would have deprived other people of their friends and families if you hadn't stopped them, do you think that really means a thing to the people they've left behind, who loved and revered them and believed they were doing Arceus' work?"
Ritchie threw up then. He at least managed to do it in some bushes rather than covering some of the gifts at the base of the wall—and how many were left for people he'd personally killed, he wondered—in his sick. "What…what is this wall?" Ritchie moaned, feeling lower than he had in quite a long time, Marilyn's look of rage and hatred, fueled by pure grief and loss, fixed in his mind. Was this, then, why so many people here despised his team? "Why have you brought me here?"
"This, Ritchie, is the Wall of Martyrs," Light of Justice said, using his illusion powers to illuminate all of the names on the wall so that they stood out from the white stone. "Here are inscribed the names of every agent of Judgment who dies in my service."
"…There are so many…" Ritchie whispered.
"Too many," Light of Justice said sadly. "Do not concern yourself, Ritchie, your team is only responsible for a fraction of the names on this wall. I did not bring you here to make you feel guilty for your actions or doubt the choices you have made, although I did want you to realize that, while you did the right thing and saved lives, in doing so you have broken hearts and ruined others. Actions have consequences, and even doing the right thing doesn't mean it'll all be good in the end. Not for everyone."
"Why did you bring me here, then?" Ritchie asked, trying to quash down the sense of overwhelming guilt he was feeling, despite Light of Justice's words.
"To understand my guilt," Light of Justice said. "And how I have come to the decision I am about to make."
Ritchie blinked in surprise. "Huh?"
"Ritchie, while you are responsible for a fraction of the names on this wall, I am responsible for all of them," Light of Justice said. "For while I never killed a single one of them myself, their deaths are on my conscience. I sent them out on missions I knew there was little chance they would come back from. I sent them out against the forces of evil time and again, knowing they would risk their lives. I sent them out on assignments I knew without a shadow of a doubt they would not survive. All of them died because they put their faith in me. All of them knew they would probably die…and yet they went anyway, because they loved me."
"Then why didn't Marilyn hate you? Or any of the families of those soldiers?" Ritchie asked.
Light of Justice laughed bitterly. "Because I am the King of Judgment. I am perfect and can do no wrong, the prophesized messiah who will bring peace and order to the world. No, they cannot hate me, Ritchie. They revere me, even if I am not worthy of that sentiment." He shrugged. "Of course, the fact that I strive to play a part of all of their lives, come in person to tell them when their loved ones have fallen in my service, and do my best to pay reparations and care for the families they left behind probably helps."
"That's an awfully decent thing for you to do," Ritchie said, impressed.
Light of Justice snorted. "Ghetsis doesn't think so. He believes that knowing that their loved ones died in Arceus' name and have assuredly earned their place in the Celestial Heavens should be reward enough. I think otherwise. I think otherwise about a lot of things Ghetsis believes."
"I'll bet," Ritchie said.
Light of Justice touched the wall. "Once, Ritchie, there was no wall here. Before I rose to power, Judgment was a very different place, under the rule of the Seven Sages. They controlled the populace through fear and terror. Threats of excommunication, torture, and visits from inquisitors were almost constant. When a soldier died, his sacrifice wasn't acknowledged, and certainly received no memorial. When I became King, though, that all changed. I believed that our organization would be more effective if ruled through love rather than fear, and made sweeping changes that have led to the current, more peaceful climate in New Eden that you might have noticed. I also ordered this wall to be built, so that those who died for Judgment…for me…would not be forgotten. It's safe to say that Ghetsis and the Sages didn't like that one bit. They'd expected me to be their perfect figurehead and do whatever they say." His expression darkened. "They thought wrong. I will be nomon's puppet."
Ritchie tried to think for a moment about what Judgment might have been like if led by Ghetsis. He didn't like it very much. "You've done a good job. Even if you're still an extremist who sacrifices his own soldiers and harms countless innocents for the 'greater good.'"
A pained look crossed Light of Justice's face. "Yes, well…that might not be the case for much longer."
Ritchie blinked. "Huh?"
"Building a wall to commemorate those who died in my service wasn't enough. I wanted to know who these brave souls were that were willing to die in my name. If they wanted to entrust their life in my hands, I wanted to make certain I knew just how much that life was worth," Light of Justice continued, looking at the names. "Whenever someone wished to join the organization, be they from within New Eden or from without, I personally conducted the interview whenever possible to see whether they were truly ready to be part of my cause. I learned not just their names, but who they were, their friends and family, why they were so determined to give their lives up for me. Some I allowed to join. Others I did not. Suffice to say, the number of new recruits decreased for a while after that."
"And Ghetsis wasn't pleased?" Ritchie asked.
Light of Justice shook his head. "No, he wasn't. I thought that getting to know my soldiers better would make it easier for me to send them out on tasks which I knew might result in their deaths. I was wrong. If anything it made it harder, because I knew them now and had faces to attach to every name, and it made me more keenly aware of their loss, especially when I saw the tears on the faces of their families when I told them of their demise. Out of guilt, I tried to impress upon my followers that they didn't have to sacrifice themselves if they didn't have to to complete a mission, and that willing to live for a cause and for the people you left behind is better than being willing to die for it. Death tolls dropped quite a lot after that, but never enough to completely satisfy me, especially since Ghetsis and his ilk keep trying to undermine me and convince our soldiers that the opposite is true, and that dying for Judgment is the greatest thing that they could ever achieve with their miserable lives."
"That asshole," Ritchie growled.
Light of Justice sighed. "For the longest time, I convinced myself it was for the greater good, that all these deaths, no matter how unpleasant or even senseless, served Arceus' cause and it would be justified in the end. I continued to tell myself this in the faces of all the sorrowful widowers and widows and children and parents and siblings whose hearts I broke when I told them their loved ones weren't coming home again. And then something happened that caused me to doubt once again."
"What?" Ritchie asked.
"Let me show you," Light of Justice said.
He led Ritchie across the garden towards the second wall, the black one. The sun had fully set by now, and the colors overhead had grown muted, darker. Neither of them required a light, though, since Ritchie had Aura-sight and as a Zoroark Light of Justice had night vision. As they approached, Ritchie realized that the black wall was also covered in names…many more names than the Wall of Martyrs, written in much tinier script so that they could all fit in. "Who's on this wall?"
"This, Ritchie, is the Wall of the Innocent," Light of Justice said. "The names written here belong to bystanders and civilians who we have either directly or indirectly harmed in our pursuit of justice."
"All these people have been killed because of your organization?!" Ritchie cried in horror.
"What? No!" Light of Justice said, startled. "I mean…yes, many of the people on this wall are dead, but those aren't the only ones written here. I said people we have harmed, not killed."
"Oh," Ritchie said. He made a face. "There's still an awful lot of names here, though. Even more than on the Wall of Martyrs. It's enough to make some of the sympathy I was starting to feel for you just a minute ago feel a little misdirected."
"You are right to feel that way. There are far, far too many names here for my liking," Light of Justice said sadly. "Your name is on here too, you know."
"It is?" Ritchie asked in surprise.
"Certainly," Light of Justice said, using his powers to highlight Ritchie's name. "And so are Melody's, and Cruise's, and Rose's, and Captain Salty's. All of them, and you, have suffered due to my organization and some of the Pokémon in it. I am debating whether or not to add the rest of your teammates to the wall as well, since even though we have had nothing to do with whatever hardships they may have suffered in life, they have probably been hurt fighting us."
"That's…that's really sweet of you, Light," Ritchie murmured, staring at the names of him and his friends in disbelief. It felt weird, seeing them up there along with the rest of Judgment's victims. He knew he should probably feel angry at Light of Justice for hurting so many people…but the guy seemed so torn up about it, Ritchie found himself feeling sorry for him again, and decided to hear him out. The leader of Judgment was working up to something; Ritchie was sure of that…he just didn't know what yet.
"Sadly, this list is by no means completely accurate," Light of Justice said sorrowfully. "It is an even more recent addition to New Eden than the Wall of Martyrs, which means there's no telling how many innocents were hurt before its construction whose names were never recorded…and how many we continue to harm who fall through the cracks and never even make it on here."
"What inspired you to make something like this?" Ritchie asked.
"Much like the Wall of Martyrs, guilt," Light of Justice said. "A few years back, we passed Judgment on a particularly notorious ring of sex slavers and child pornographers located in a major city. As is standard procedure, we secured the facility, freed the victims, and then had our Jurors pass Judgment and our Executioners carry out the sentence on the criminals responsible. We then destroyed the entire facility."
"Why didn't you call the cops?" Ritchie asked.
"They were in on the take," Light of Justice said. "In fact, quite a few were patronizing the establishment when my soldiers struck. The Executioners took pleasure in making them pay for desecrating their service to the pursuit of justice."
"Oh," Ritchie said in disgust.
"After receiving a report of the successful venture and welcoming the freed Pokémon to New Eden—those whom were unable to return to their families, that is—I decided to see what the media had to say about our endeavors. While I was delighted that the evidence we had left behind implicated a variety of wealthy backers around the city who'd bankrolled the slave ring and exposed corruption among the police department as well as the upper echelons of the city's government, I was appalled to discover that the explosion caused by the slavers' base of operation had caused several other tenements to catch fire, and dozens of Pokémon had been hurt or killed. This troubled me, for while I had objectively known that innocent bystanders occasionally got hurt in our operations, I had never really thought about it beyond regretting it as a necessity for our cause. This spurred me to look up write-ups of the consequences of many of our past missions to see what it said about civilian casualties. The…results were far worse than I had expected."
"I can imagine," Ritchie murmured.
"I was almost driven to stop our operations altogether, but I was convinced that our duty was too important to cease just because a few people got hurt along the way," Light of Justice said angrily.
"Let me guess: Ghetsis?" Ritchie asked.
Light of Justice nodded. "He can be very persuasive. However, I am wise to his tricks now, and will no longer allow him to manipulate me."
"That's good, but you didn't stop your operations," Ritchie pointed out. "In fact, a lot of innocent people got hurt because of the things your guys did when we fought them. So far I haven't seen any big change."
"Actually, I've done my best to make sure casualties have dropped, as well as sending reparations to the families of any victims of our operations I can locate," Light of Justice said. "I have deep pockets, and many fronts and dummy corporations through which I can send philanthropic aid and try to rebuild that which I have destroyed. That, and I made this wall here to remind me of all the people I have hurt in my quest to punish the wicked."
"That's nice, but it doesn't make up for the fact that those people were hurt or killed in the first place, or that you didn't stop hurting people," Ritchie argued.
"I am aware of that," Light of Justice said with a sigh. "That is because back then, I was still able to justify those losses as necessary to the greater good. However…" He shook his head despondently. "However…I can't do it anymore. There are too many names on both walls. I can't keep telling myself that this is all for the will of Arceus…because I cannot imagine a loving God would ever want this many deaths in His name."
Ritchie snorted. "About time you figured that out. What changed your mind?"
"Would you believe that it was you and your friends?" Light of Justice said.
"Oh yeah?" Ritchie said, intrigued.
Light of Justice nodded. "For ages, Judgment has pursued the Plates of Arceus, so that we may use their combined power to purify the world. I was told all my life that the Plates were our destiny, and that I was the chosen one who would unite their power to eradicate all evil in the world. The fact that I can use one of the Plates, the Dread Plate, seemed like a sign that Arceus was with us, for if He was not, then why would one of His most sacred relics work for me at all?"
"And then we showed up and were able to use our own Plates," Ritchie guessed.
Light of Justice nodded. "It was inconceivable. If we were the chosen ones, then why would the Plates work for anyone else? And not just anyone else, but a group that was actively opposing us? It made no sense. If we were doing Arceus's will, then why would He allow other to use His power against His appointed servants? At first Ghetsis convinced me it was a test of our resolve, to see if we were able to overcome the very power we sought to tame…but I don't think so anymore. No, I am convinced that the reason you and your friends were given the power to wield the Plates…was to stop me from making a grievous mistake, and making me see the error of my ways. And in that, Ritchie, you have succeeded."
"…Then…what, you've seen the light or something?" Ritchie half-joked.
"Something like that, yes," Light of Justice said.
"That's…that's really good to hear, actually," Ritchie said, more relieved than he had expected to find himself. "I've grown to like you a lot in our time here. I wasn't looking forward to having to fight you once this stuff with the Nihilators is all over."
"I assure you, my friend, that will never be a problem now," Light of Justice said. "That does not mean, however, that Judgment itself will go away."
Ritchie stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"Judgment is too big an organization for me to simply dismantle. For one thing, Ghetsis and the other Sages would never allow it. For another, there are too many people invested in and depending on us, here in New Eden and elsewhere around the world. If I were to get rid of Judgment, they would all be cast adrift and left without any support," Light of Justice said. "So, instead, I will try and retool Judgment. Redirect its resources towards more Pokémonitarian efforts. No more delivering clandestine punishments to those we deem guilty or taking extreme and violent and messy measures to rid evil from the world. Too many have been hurt doing that, both within and without our organization. It will not be easy, for most of our soldiers have been force-fed propaganda on the righteousness of our cause all their lives, but if I speak, they will listen and obey, no matter how reluctantly. Our march against the Nihilators shall be Judgment's final Crusade…which is part of why I must go in person, to show them how committed I am to changing Judgment's path and giving us a different future. That I will not be controlled or sit back and let others die for me anymore. That I will seize our future in both hands and drag us into it, even if I must pull the entire organization kicking and screaming behind me."
"That's a pretty bold move," Ritchie said, impressed. "Maybe even bolder than just trying to get rid of Judgment completely. You're going to face a lot of opposition, though. Not just from Ghetsis and the Sages, but from some of your own supposedly loyal soldiers, because no matter how much they love you, they may not like being told that the way they've been expressing their faith all this time is wrong."
"I know it will not be easy, but it must be done, regardless of the risks," Light of Justice said. "I have already begun laying down the groundwork for the necessary changes to revamp Judgment into a kinder, friendlier organization truly dedicated to doing Arceus' work. Additionally, I have also started a plan that will, with any luck, remove Ghetsis and the Sages and those who would follow their brand of extremism from any position of power they might use against me."
"Well, that's good to hear," Ritchie said.
"However, there is one more thing I require…your help," Light of Justice said.
Ritchie blinked in surprise. "Me?!"
Light of Justice nodded. "Yes, you. For one thing, I trust you. I know you can be depended on to help your friends when they need you…and we are friends now, aren't we Ritchie?"
Ritchie considered this for a moment. "Yeah…yeah, I guess we are," astonished to realize this…and that he was completely okay with it.
"For another thing, it will be easier to convince my followers of the rightness of this new path if I have the support of the bearers of all sixteen of the Plates and therefore the full backing of Arceus, or the appearance of it. I already have eight on my side…well, for the most part, I'm still working on making sure I have Pokémon I can absolutely trust wielding them…but if you could convince your group to back me as well, it'll make the transition that much smoother," Light of Justice said.
"…I'll have to talk to the others about that, but so long as this isn't part of some ploy to take the Plates for yourself, I think it'll work out," Ritchie said.
"Do you think this is a ploy, then?" Light of Justice asked. "If you doubt my sincerity, you may read my Aura. I am a skilled illusionist, but that is beyond my power to manipulate."
Ritchie considered this option for a moment, and then shook his head. "No, you're an illusionist, but you're no liar. If you say something, you mean it…which means I believe you when you say that you honestly want to do the right thing and make up for your mistakes. I'll convince the others to help."
"And finally," Light of Justice said. "I will need your protection. I am a skilled fighter, even more so with the power of the Dread Plate, but even with myself and my allies watching my back, I worry I will not be able to handle every trick Ghetsis might throw at me."
"So you want my team and I to back you up when you finally confront him?" Ritchie asked.
Light of Justice nodded. "If that is all right with you?"
Ritchie smirked. "No problem, I wouldn't mind smacking around that bastard a few times myself. Plus, you said yourself…I can always be depended on to help my friends when they need me…and you're my friend, Light. You can count on me."
A broad smile came to the Zoroark's face. "You don't know how happy it makes me to hear that, Ritchie. To be honest, I think you are the first genuine friend I've ever had aside from Anthea and Concordia. Everyone else, even those I trust most, still see me as an unapproachable messianic figure. You are probably the first Pokémon to treat me like an ordinary person…and for that, I am eternally grateful."
"Hey, no problem," Ritchie said. "However, if we're going to do this, then I'm going to need something from you."
"Your fiancé? Certainly. She will be restored shortly-" Light of Justice started.
Ritchie shook his head. "No, that's not it, you already promised you were going to do that. That's not what I want."
Light of Justice blinked in surprise. "It's…not? Then…what? The remaining Plates? I can't give you those now, and I'm not positive I can give them up later-"
"That's not it either, though it would be nice to have them all and make sure that nobody else—even you, sorry—might be tempted to abuse their powers again," Ritchie admitted. "Though since I trust you now, I guess it might be okay to leave some with you…but no, what I want is something else."
"What, then?" Light of Justice asked, genuinely mystified.
Ritchie grinned. "Your name."
Light of Justice blinked. "My…what?"
"Your name. You can't honestly tell me 'Light of Justice' is your actual name, can you?" Ritchie asked. "Well, I guess it could be, but…I don't think so. If we're gonna be friends, I can't call you something as cumbersome as that all the time."
"You could call me 'Light' as a nickname," Light of Justice pointed out. "You've been doing that already."
"I could, and I might," Ritchie agreed. "But that's still not your name, is it? C'mon, fess up. What's your real name?"
"My real name…" Light of Justice murmured. "I haven't thought about that in so long. Not even Anthea or Concordia call me by it anymore. I think you're the first person to ever ask me what it is."
"Then let's hear it! What's your real name?" Ritchie asked.
Light of Justice nodded. "Very well. My real name is Natural Harmonia Gropius."
"…What," Ritchie said flatly.
"Natural Harmonia Gropius," Light of Justice repeated.
"…Wow," Ritchie said after a moment. "And I thought 'Light of Justice' was a mouthful. I'm just gonna call you 'N,' okay?"
The newly christened N smiled. "Very well, N will suffice, but only so long as you do it in private. It wouldn't look good for you to call me that in front of my followers. They might think you're disrespecting me, and they have reason enough to despise you already."
"Heh, sure thing…hey, are they gonna be okay with me working with you and spending so much time with you?" Ritchie asked.
"They will not have a choice in the matter," N said.
"Oh," Ritchie said. "Cool. So, um, what now?"
"Now, we return to the cathedral and have dinner. Our plans for the future can wait for now," N said.
Ritchie's stomach rumbled, and he laughed nervously when N chuckled. "My stomach agrees with you. All right, let's go. Oh, and one other thing…"
N frowned. "Yes?"
"…I want you to tell me about Marilyn's father. And everyone else who had a family here that I might have killed," Ritchie said seriously. "If…if I've really taken someone they cared about away from them…the least I can do is apologize, no matter what they were trying to do to me."
N looked at Ritchie appraisingly for a long moment, and then nodded. "Very well. If that is what you desire. The first time I met Marilyn's father was about a year ago when he walked into my office and asked to join Judgment. My forces had saved his town from some rather bad straits involving barbarian raiders and helped them resettle in New Eden, and he wanted to return the favor…"
As the two of them walked off, deep in conversation, they were unaware of a trio of Pokémon perched atop the Wall of Martyrs who had overheard the whole thing. The trio, an Absol, a Banette, and an Accelgor, exchanged looks. "Ghetsis will want to hear of this," the Absol said. The other two nodded.
"How tragic. It looks as if our King has lost his way," the Banette said.
"Let us see if he can be turned to the light once more," the Accelgor said.
The Shadow Triad dropped down from the wall and vanished, as ninjas do. Whether or not it was coincidence or intention that they landed on and smashed the bells Marilyn had left for her father would never be known for certain.
And in only two months, too! Wow. That got done faster than I had hoped. Bet you're pleased about that, huh?
And how many of you saw that twist with Oblivion's Shadow coming? All of you? Yeah, I thought as much.
In any event, looks like this next arc has been kicked off in style. What awaits our heroes in the ruins of Treasure Town? Will Rayquaza be all right, and how will he escape the secret temple? Can Gardevoir truly fight Oblivion's Shadow, especially now that we know who he REALLY is? What awaits Team Nightshade in the Berry Kingdom? And what will come of the Shadow Triad's spying on Ritchie and the guy who was obviously N the whole time? Some of these questions will be answered next time…whenever that is. Hopefully in the near future.
Until then, thanks for reading!