Okay, this started a bit later than I planned (mainly due to sheer laziness) but this chapter is ready to go. Hope you enjoy it. I know I did.

Disclaimer: I don't own anything that doesn't belong to me.

There are many terms one could use to describe Treasure Town. A wretched hive of scum and villainy. The second-worst city on Earth. A pimple on the Ruler of Evil's ass-cheek. A festering, diseased wound on the surface of the world. The Abyss made manifest. Giratina's backyard cesspool. Home to the cheapest –and worst—calzones in the entire Omniverse (and, oddly enough, the best fajitas).

All these epithets were true, in a sense. But now, a new term could be used to describe it that was just as true: warzone. (Well, smoking crater counted too, I suppose.)

Sulfur, smoke, and the stench of burned bodies filled the air. Treasure Town had been completely destroyed, a massive smoking crater all that was left of one of the worst towns on Earth. Since the town was right on the edge of the water, the impact of the Nihilator missile and the subsequent shockwaves and excavation had blasted away a good chunk of the coast—including, sadly, Sharpedo Cape-and so the sea had surged back in to flood the newly created space around the base of the crater, water lapping around its front and sides. Great smoking fissures zigzagged away from the crater in every direction, and since seawater was pouring into some of them, great plumes of steam rose into the air, mingling with the massive cloud of smog and debris blotting out the sky. Brushfires and smaller craters created by ejecta from the impact dotted the broken landscape, and new pieces of debris periodically rained down from where it had been flung to the very edge of space by the impact.

The cavity of the crater went deep into the earth, deeper than most impact craters usually were. Bits and pieces of the ruins that had been buried under Treasure Town that had somehow managed to avoid being completely vaporized or ejected by the impact stuck out of the interior slopes here and there, exposed to the light of day for the first time in millennia (or they would have been, if there were any light to begin with). At the bottom of the crater lay the exposed ruins of the city built by the mysterious beings who had first settled here and discovered the Door countless ages ago…and the fact that they were, astonishingly, still for the most part intact despite the incredible destruction that had unearthed them for the first time in eons spoke wonders of the architects who had constructed them long, long ago. The ruins were not all that had been unearthed, however…the Door rose ominously from the plaza in the center of the ancient city, its malevolence drawing all focus to it, seeming to radiate an aura of malice and glee in the violence taking place around it, as skeletal pirates and ragged soldiers from various different militaries struggled against Nihilators and robot spiders swarming the city's streets.

Looming above the city, its great mass engulfing everything in the crater in its shadow (or rather, it would be in shadow if the exposed energy core on its underside wasn't bathing everything in a blood-red glow), was an Arachnoblast almost identical to the one the heroes had fought in the desert outside Fichina, save that its black hull was scorched in places from reentry and parts of its underside looked a little crumpled due to the impact with Treasure Town. In spite of this, it still seemed to be largely in one piece and fully functional as it stood above the ancient city, its eight legs stretched out to brace itself on the crater's rim, squatting over the ruins and the Door beneath it. A few dozen fighter ships and flying Pokémon swarmed around the fearsome mechanical monster, ineffectually firing at the Arachnoblast's hull and bobbing command center. The retaliatory fire from the walking fortress, on the other hand, was far from ineffectual, and the numbers of fighters seemed to be dropping by the minute, smoking wreckage and bodies—or what was left of them—lying around the crater slopes and surrounding land.

The Peeko XII was not one of them. Her gleaming golden hull a beacon of hope and light in this dark hour, the magnificent Pokélantean vessel cut through the air, firing again and again at the Arachnoblast from its broadside cannons and various other weapons. The weapons actually seemed to leave lasting marks on the Arachnoblast, blasting out chunks of its hull and scoring away some of its armor…only for spider robots to crawl out of hatches on the monstrosity's hide and start effecting repairs moments later. But hey, it was a start, right?

As the beleaguered forces fighting for their lives looked on in awe, the Peeko fired her anchors at the Arachnoblast, the chained hooks shooting through the air and wrapping themselves around two of the giant's legs. "Cap'n-" Iron Gut Caruso started speaking from his place in the Peeko's command cabin.

"That's Acting Cap'n, Caruso," Barbedo corrected from the ship's helm. "Just because Briney's not here doesn't mean he's not still our Cap'n!"

"Right, sorry sir. Force of habit," Caruso apologized.

"See that you don't do it again. What were you saying?" Barbedo asked.

"We've got a good grip on that beastie's legs, Acting Cap'n," Caruso said. "But if we're going to do something with it, we might want to do it soon; our shields are taking a bit of a beating."

"Bah, let 'em, we can handle more than that! But as for that thing's legs…" Barbedo leaned back in his very comfortable chair and grinned. "All engines, full reverse! Let's see if we can yank this thing from its perch!"

With a magnificent flare of light from the fans on the sides, the Peeko thrusted backwards, the anchor chains going taut as they pulled on the Arachnoblast's legs with all their might. Despite the fact that the monstrous machine was much, much, much larger than the Peeko, the power of the ancient Pokélantean warship's engines showed themselves, and the legs it had anchored itself to started sliding slowly away from the rim of the crater, tearing up the earth in their wake.

Whoever was in control of the Arachnoblast noticed this, however, and would have none of it. The machine's head swiveled around to face the Peeko, roared ferociously, and opened its mouth, energy coalescing in its wave motion cannon. "Acting Cap'n, it's charging up a really nasty weapon!" Hooklimb Harriet, a Pinsir with hooks for hands and feet and pincers, reported in alarm, glancing at her instruments. "I'm not sure our shields can handle it!"

"Not our regular shields, you mean," Barbedo said with a smirk. "Power up the reflector shield!"

With a hum, the air around the Peeko rippled and formed into a perfectly reflective sphere. At that instant, the Arachnoblast fired its wave motion cannon. The incredibly powerful stream of destruction sliced through the air, struck the reflective surface…and rebounded, smashing right back into the arachnid's face with a terrific explosion that sent the head reeling backwards, stretching its lengthy neck to the limit as it was flung back its back and smashed into the hull on the other side.

The pirates on the bridge cheered and whooped in excitement. "Yarhar, that'll show 'em!" Barbedo chortled.

Unfortunately, their celebration of victory was a bit premature. "Acting Cap'n, that last blast overloaded the reflector shields. It's gonna take a lot longer than usual for 'em to recharge," a human pirate named Bloodnose Bill (because he'd constantly suffered from nosebleeds in life) reported in concern.

"Bah, nothing to worry about, lads. I doubt that thing'll be in any shape to fire another blast like that anytime soon," Barbedo said unconcernedly.

Naturally, it was at that moment that the Arachnoblast's head shot back up and lunged towards them, roaring at the top of its mechanical lungs and showing very few signs of being damaged by its own weapon. The pirates screamed and frantically started bombarding it with their heavy weaponry while Barbedo grimaced. "Perhaps I spoke too soon."

Shrieking, the Arachnoblast opened its mouth again and started charging its wave motion cannon once more. "Acting Cap'n, we have to disengage! The reflector shields aren't ready!" Bill said anxiously.

Caruso nodded. "We're sitting Duckletts as we are now, Acting Cap'n! We have to move!"

"Belay that! We aren't goin' anywhere!" Barbedo barked.

"But Acting Cap'n-" Caruso protested.

"Don't 'but' me, Caruso! I've got this under control!" Barbedo said, slipping his hands into the metal gloves wired to his control panel. Instantly, a pair of giant holographic hands materialized outside of the ship. Barbedo thrust his gloved hands forward, and the holograms mimicked his motions, grabbing onto the Arachnoblast's jaws and slamming them shut. "Let's see you shake off your weapon exploding inside your own mouth, beast!" Immediately, the power the Arachnoblast had been gathering dissipated as whoever was in charge wisely shut the cannon down before it could explode. "…Or not."

"Uh, Acting Cap'n, we might not have a choice about disengaging," Bill said.

Barbedo groaned. "Oh, what now?"

"They've sent little robot spiders out to chew on the anchor chains," Harriet said.

"Electrify the chains and knock 'em off, then!" Barbedo said.

"We are. They seem to be insulated," Harriet said.

"Ah. Of course they are," Barbedo said, almost facepalming but remembering at the last minute that his hands were the only things keeping the Arachnoblast from firing its wave motion cannon. "Well then…fire the main cannon! Let's see if that'll leave a mark on this thing!"

The bowsprit of the Peeko XII split open, revealing her rail gun. The cannon glowed as it started powering up, pointing right at the great black sphere making up the Arachnoblast's central body.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, the wave motion cannon wasn't the only superweapon the Arachnoblast had installed. The fiendish-looking apparatus in the Arachnoblast's underside began powering up, red light emanating from the clusters of antenna and barbs and spires surrounding the massive energy core, its luminance increasing as arcs of power crackled between the tips of the metal projections and danced across the surface of the core.

"Uh, Acting Cap'n…" Caruso said.

"I see it, all right?!" Barbedo snapped. "Bill, are the reflectors fixed yet?"

The undead human looked at his control panel. "No."

"Bollocks. Can we withstand a hit from something like that?" Barbedo asked.

"…I think so, but I don't believe we'll be good for much else after that," Caruso said nervously. "We'll be dead in the water. Er, air. Er, ground, actually, because I don't think we'll be flying afterwards."

"Figures. Wait, that thing's giving off a shitload of energy, and it looks important. Can't we target it?" Barbedo asked, getting an idea.

"I believe we can, sir," Harriet said.

"Then what're ye lubbers waiting for?! FIRE!" Barbedo shouted.

They fired, launching the rail gun and pretty much every other weapon they had at the energy core, the ship's targeting systems locking onto the volatile device and curving the trajectory of its myriad artillery at the exposed core. The Arachnoblast instantly countered, firing hundreds of lasers and missiles of its own to intercept the Peeko's volley. At least two-thirds of the Peeko's barrage was destroyed by the monstrous machine's counter-offensive, but a sizable amount still pierced their defenses, streaked towards the core…

And smashed into a force field. To their credit, the shield broke under the strength of the Peeko's guns, but the core was still unharmed, and what's worse, it was about to fire, and they didn't have enough time left to reload and try again. Barbedo said words a lot worse than 'bollocks' this time. "Release the anchors! Evasive maneuvers!" Caruso screamed.

"Belay that!" Barbedo shouted.

"What?! But Acting Cap'n, if we don't get out of the way-" Caruso protested.

"I said belay that. We aren't moving! We never run from a fight!" Barbedo bellowed.

"And besides, even if we tried to dodge, they've got a lock on us, we can't escape that thing," Bill said.

"Oh," Caruso said.

"Fortunately, we don't need to, since I, your Acting Cap'n, have a marvelous idea!" Barbedo bragged.

"And that would be…?" Bill asked.

"Just wait and see! I'm about to be brilliant!" Barbedo said, flexing his fingers and tightening the grip his projected hands had on the Arachnoblast's mouth.

The Arachnoblast's secondary superweapon fired, launching a massive energy ball of crackling crimson death from its core. The sphere of doom shot downwards at first, arcs of energy lancing off from its surface and vaporizing some of the Pokémon fighting in the ancient city below, then curved upwards towards the crater's rim, homing in on the Peeko XII. It shot upwards diagonally, passing between the two legs the ship's anchors were wrapped around and obliterating the crater rim between them as it flew unstoppably towards its prey…

Until Barbedo, with a twist of his hands, caused his projections to wrench the Arachnoblast's head downward so that it would intercept the blast.

The resulting explosion was at least half as strong as the one that had reduced Treasure Town to a crater. At least a fifth of the crater's entire mass simply disappeared, and the Arachnoblast would have been scrambling forwards for better footing if the explosion that had also completely destroyed its head and virtually dismembered two of its legs hadn't sent it stumbling backwards, desperately struggling not to topple over, its remaining limbs leaving deep gouges in the sides of the crater as they slipped and skidded and tried to stabilize themselves. The Peeko's anchor chains were, of course, shattered, and the ship herself was sent flying back, tumbling end over end, while lots of red lights and sirens blared throughout the vessel and the pirates were flung from floor to wall to ceiling and back again and it was only with some quick thinking and desperate seamanship that they were able to get the ship back under control before it could crash.

As red lights flashed throughout the control room and crewmembers desperately tried to put out some of the fires that had started when their consoles exploded, Barbedo laughed and laughed and laughed. "Yarharharharhar! Even in this day and age, there's no ship or monster on land, sea, or sky that can withstand the might of my Golden Dream!"

"You mean Briney's Peeko XII," Harriet said woozily as she put one of her hook antlers back in place.

Barbedo paused. "…Right. That."

"Acting Cap'n, I'm getting damage reports from all over the ship. We…aren't in good shape," Caruso said. "In fact, I can't remember the last time we've been in a condition this bad. Self-repair systems are already trying to fix the damage, but it's going to take a while."

"Can we still fly?" Barbedo asked.

"The fact that we haven't crashed yet would seem to indicate that, so yes," Caruso said.

"Are our weapons and shields still working?" Barbedo asked.

"Yes, but in a very limited capacity," Caruso said. He smirked. "It'd take a lot more than that to put us out of commission."

"Those ancient Pokélanteans sure knew their stuff," Bill said, impressed.

"Then why ain't they around no more?" Harriet asked.

"'Cuz their idiot king went and pissed off Ho-Oh," Bill reminded her.

"Psh. Dumbass," Harriet said. "'Course, if we'd been there, it'd have been an entirely different story!"

"And then we could've plundered the riches of Pokélantis for ourselves…" Caruso said wistfully. "'Tis a shame this thing doesn't have a time drive along with the warp drive."

"Mayhaps that Leo bloke can rig something up?" Harriet suggested. "He seems pretty smart."

"Would the Cap'n allow it, though?" Bill asked doubtfully. "He don't want us plunderin' no more."

"That's something we can work out with him later. Right now, we've got a giant robot spider to fight!" Barbedo said. "If we can still fly, and our weapons and shields still work, then we can still fight! Let's get back in there!" Barbedo bellowed.

"Aye-aye, Acting Cap'n!" Pirates all over the ship hollered. While they were still a bit nauseous from the rather violent tumble, the serious injury they'd dealt their foe had gotten their metaphorical blood boiling, and they were ready to get back in there and show the Nihilators not to mess with pirates.

"Hope you've got a plan, Acting Cap'n, we can't do much more in this shape," Caruso said as they set a course back towards the Arachnoblast, their flight rather wobbly due to one of the engine fans being damaged.

"And I think we might have actually gotten off worse than that thing did, proportionally speaking," Bill said. The other pirates looked at him. "What?"

"That's an awfully big word for a pirate to use. And you actually know what it means?" Harriet asked, impressed.

"Word a day calendar," Bill explained. "And it means 'to a proportionate degree.'" The others nodded and pretended they knew what 'proportionate' meant.

"Heh, bad shape? Please! I have them right where I want them!" Barbedo gloated, noticing how the Arachnoblast had managed to regain its footing…but it was no longer positioned directly over the ancient city, and the ends of several of its legs were now much closer to the water. He pushed a button.

Instantly, Polly surged out of the water with a piercing wail and clamped his claws around the Arachnoblast leg closest to the water, pulling on it with all his might and yanking the Arachnoblast off-balance once again. The giant spider reared back, legs flailing as it tried to regain its footing…

And in doing so, exposed its core. "Now it's time to show them why it's stupid to put something like that where everyone can see and shoot at!" Barbedo boasted. "Open fire!"

The Peeko fired at the energy core with everything she had left, while the other fighters, who hadn't been able to do much else but watch while the pirate ship had struggled with the Arachnoblast, saw their opening as well and launched whatever meager artillery they had to offer at the core. Like before, the attacks impacted against a force field…but also like before, the attacks managed to break the force field—especially since it was weak already due to the damage the walking fortress had just receieved-and while the Arachnoblast was trying to recuperate, the fighters reloaded and fired again.

The resulting explosion was about as powerful as the last one, and another fifth of the crater wall was vaporized, as were a few ships and Pokémon who had been flying too close to the Arachnoblast when the core blew. Red smoke and flames roaring from the gaping hole in its underside, the Arachnoblast toppled backwards into the water, Polly quickly diving out of the way just before the thing could crash down. It was too big to simply sink into the bay—the seafloor wasn't deep enough, even with the tectonic upheaval that had been caused by the meteoric impact that had wiped out Treasure Town-but the water displaced from its crash still went all over the place in a massive tidal wave, flooding the plains surrounding the crater. A little of it even poured into the crater and drenched or swept away some of the Pokémon fighting in the ancient city. The waters receded as quickly as they came, however, leaving poor Polly, who had been swept along with the tide, flopping around helplessly on the land like a Magikarp out of water. (Or a Magikarp in water, for that matter.)

The rousing victory cheer from the pirates shook the Peeko XII. "Gyarharharhar! We did it, lads!" Barbedo whooped. "This is what happens to all who dare challenge the King of the Pirates!"

"Isn't Briney King of the Pirates now, since he's the Cap'n?" Harriet asked.

"…No," Barbedo said after a moment's thought.

"Uh, Acting Cap'n?" Bill asked in concern.

"Aye, what is it, Bloodnose?" Barbedo asked.

"If we've won, why am I picking up a power spike from that thing's corpse?" Bill asked.

Barbedo thought about this for a moment. He facepalmed. "Aw, hell."

"Acting Cap'n?" Caruso asked.

Barbedo sighed. "Either that thing's about to blow…or the fight ain't over yet."

Unfortunately, the latter turned out to be the case. The partially submerged Arachnoblast's battered form started shaking. Red lines ran up the sides of what was left of the black sphere, the remaining six legs twitching and creaking. There was a hiss as clouds of steam vented from the lines as the sphere split open like a sliced Aguav berry, revealing a second sphere, half the size of the one that had been constructed around it but in arguably better shape. The six remaining legs from the Arachnoblast's initial form were attached to its sides. The sphere levitated into the air as a number of red lights and sensors flickered to life around it. Spiked protuberances sprouted from its sides, and from some of these protuberances extremely long rods extended outwards. These rods bent several times, doubling and folding back on themselves in some places, before their ends finally touched the seafloor, creating eight very long and very skinny legs. So, basically it looked exactly like the original Arachnoblast had after the Scorponok fought it, only with more legs.

"You know, I'm really starting to hate spiders," Bill complained.

"Ahem," Bandy-legged Jimenez, a Galvantula with…bandy legs, as the name implied, said.

"I've never liked you," Bill said. Jimenez, who'd secretly been harboring a crush on Bill for years that absolutely everyone had known about, gasped, burst into tears, and scurried out of the room.

"Hmm…this might not be as bad as it looks," Caruso murmured as he checked the readings on his instruments. "That thing's a lot more maneuverable now, but it's also shed a lot of armor, so it should be more vulnerable."

"Great! Open fire!" Barbedo commanded.

The Peeko targeted the smaller Arachnoblast as it stalked through the water towards them on its many legs, preparing to fire…

When suddenly, hatches opened up on virtually every square inch of space on the surface of the Arachnoblast's central sphere, revealing thousands of weapons ports bristling with laser cannons, blasters, missile launchers, and all sorts of other experimental weapons that didn't have formal names that were under ten syllables. The weapons powered up, causing the black sphere to turn a vibrant red, and then rockets and energy blasts fired out in every direction, millions of crimson streams streaking out towards the few remaining fighters.

"Oh, SHIT," Harriet swore.

"You know, I'm actually starting to think evasive maneuvers might be a good idea right about now," Barbedo said weakly.

"Not so fast, Acting Cap'n…because I have a plan for a change!" Caruso said, eyes lighting up as something flashed on his console.

Barbedo raised an eyebrow. "And that would be?"

Caruso grinned and pushed a button. "The reflector shields are recharged."

While the Arachnoblast's projectiles went in all directions, most of them homed in on the Peeko XII. This turned out to be a terrible idea, because just before they could hit the golden ship, she was engulfed in a reflective bubble that deflected all the beams and missiles and bursts and other attacks, causing them to fly back towards the Arachnoblast…

Only for them to run into an energy field that abruptly raised around the spider robot's body, causing them to freeze in place. As it turned out, Tarantulas had taken his last mecha's defeat by Leo to heart, and installed repulsor generators into this model after seeing how effective they had been the last time. With a pulse, the repulsor field flung the artillery away from the mechanized fortress, sending it flying in all directions. Thankfully, it didn't home in explicitly on the Peeko, but there was an awful lot of it heading in the pirate vessel's direction…and their reflector shield wasn't going to be ready to deflect it again anytime soon.

"Fuck," Bill said dazedly as he stared at the oncoming fusillade in horror.

"Shields to maximum! Fire everything we've got! Evasive maneuvers, NOW!" Barbedo shouted, slipping his hands into his gloves once again.

The air around the Peeko flickered as the shields raised and the ship started ducking and weaving, trying to dodge as many of the incoming—thankfully unguided—missiles and beams and other things as possible while firing all their available weapons at full blast and using Barbedo's big holographic hands to try and take out as many of the enemy attacks as possible before they could make contact with them. Despite their best efforts, however, their shields took hit after hit, and as strong as they were, there was only so much they could take, and with a shattering noise the protective field dissipated, the shield generators overloading and exploding, forcing the crew to grab extinguishers and try to put out the flames before they could get out of control. With the shields down, there was nothing to protect the Peeko from the Arachnoblast's weaponry, and explosions wracked the ship as they took heavy damage. The sails were torn to shreds, the Murkrow's nest was destroyed, the mizzenmast was snapped off and sent spiraling away, the bowsprit was broken, the face of the figurehead imploded, the beautiful golden hull was scored and horribly marred and even torn open in places, several of the cannon ports exploded, some of the oars were broken off, one of the engine fans was shattered, and the roof of the bridge was in danger of caving in, especially after one of the cannons mounted on top of it exploded. Flames and smoke spurting all over the vessel's form, the wounded Peeko tilted to the side and started descending, klaxons blaring and red lights flashing throughout the ship as the panicking pirates desperately tried to get their ship back under control and Barbedo tried to get his crew back under control.

A couple of pirates, believing they were doomed, ran for the lifeboats, and jettisoned themselves from the ship in gilded capsule-like flying skiffs before they could crash. They didn't get very far, as the Arachnoblast casually blasted them out of the air in seconds. The pirates inside would be fine, of course…as soon as their bones, scattered for miles around, could pull themselves together, that was.

Fortunately, that was not to be the fate of the pirates still on board the doomed ship. Before it could hit the ground, Polly, seeing his master was in danger, scurried across the shattered landscape and caught the Peeko in his massive pincers before it could crash. The flames and leaking chemicals from the wrecked ship blackened and ate away at his exoskeleton, but he didn't care, so long as his beloved Cap'n—or Acting Cap'n—was all right, nothing else mattered. As the giant undead Crawdaunt peered into the bridge in concern, Barbedo, surrounded by flames and debris and panicking shipmates, laughed weakly. "That'll do, Polly. That'll do." He rose to his feet, casually tossing a piece of flaming debris bigger than he was that had been pinning him in his seat aside with ease. "Mr. Caruso! Damage report!"

Caruso looked at his instruments. What few lights still worked were very, very red. Everything else was on fire. "Very, very bad, sir."

"I can see that," Barbedo said drily.

Caruso shook his head unhappily. "We're completely dead, Acting Cap'n. It'll take the self-repair systems AGES to fix this…assuming they can. We need a drydock, and fast."

"I don't believe one is available at the moment, Mr. Caruso," Barbedo said solemnly.

"No, Acting Cap'n," Caruso said.

Barbedo sighed. "And I'm guessing we can't fly or shoot, or do much of anything else."

"No, Acting Cap'n," Bill said.

"Huh." Barbedo took off his hat and scratched his bald skull. "So this is what it's like to lose a ship-to-ship battle. I don't like it. I don't like it at all."

"The losers of ship-to-ship battles generally don't, Acting Cap'n," Harriet said sadly.

"I suppose they do at that. Almost makes me feel sorry for all the ships we've sunk over the years…but not that much," Barbedo said with a scowl. "Well, I suppose there's nothing to it, then. Give the order to abandon ship."

"Acting Cap'n?!" Caruso asked in astonishment. He never thought he would hear his leader ever say anything like that. The very concept of giving up their precious ship, that they had won so many battles in and had been their home for so many years, was anathema. His mind boggled at the very concept, let alone hearing Barbedo of all people give the order to evacuate.

"Don't worry, Caruso, we're not giving up the Peeko. Briney'd probably find a way to kill us if we did," Barbedo said, much to Caruso's relief. "But we're of little use in here, so we're going to have Polly put the old girl down a safe distance away, get on me best mate's back, and charge back into battle! Polly's scuppered countless ships and slain all sorts of beasties over the years, he'll serve as good a substitute for the Peeko as any we can find until we can get the ship fixed!"

"Aye-aye, Acting Cap'n!" Caruso said ecstatically, relieved to hear they weren't out of the fight yet. While he wasn't sure they could actually win, he'd still follow Barbedo into the very depths of the Abyss if that's where their course led them, just as any of the crew would. He'd been worried for a second there the Acting Cap'n might actually be thinking of qutting, but that was preposterous. Barbedo the Pirate King never gave up.

As Polly scurried away to place the badly wrecked Peeko a safe distance away, the Arachnoblast, no longer deigning to pay attention to the pirates, strode out of the sea and climbed back up the slope of the crater, resuming its perch on the rim, or what was left of it, casting its shadow over the partially flooded ruins underneath once more. (Only for real this time, since there wasn't any exposed core to glow ominously.) As the few remaining fighters and flyers looked on in dismay, wondering what more they could do, the mechanical monster roared, drinking in its triumph over those who dared to challenge it.

"My ship…my Peeko…" Briney whispered in horror, shedding a tear as he watched Polly somberly carry his ship away. "Those bastards…have I lost another ship to them?!"

"Does this mean we'll need to find a Peeko XIII?" Lily asked.

"But I liked the Peeko XII. It could fly, and dig, and go underwater, and teleport!" Tiny said.

"Which we needed to get to Mars. How are we going to take down the Nihilators with the ship in that bad a shape?" Pikachu asked in concern.

"Don't worry," Briney said, wiping away his tears and turning back to them. "My hammer can fix the ol' girl up in just a few swings. Make her better than before, too. We aren't out of the running just yet. One way or another, we're still taking her to Mars!"

"But first, we have to stop Tarantulas…" Leo said darkly.

"And deal with that abomination," Lugia snarled, glaring at the Arachnoblast, sitting pretty up on the crater.

Team Aurabolt, Lugia, Princess Boa, Nuken, and Victini had arrived only moments ago, just in time to witness the Arachnoblast knock the Peeko out of the air. Seeing the magnificent vessel fall was very shocking. Not only was it their best and only chance of getting to Mars, they had all thought it would put up a stronger fight against the Arachnoblast than that. Granted, it had done more damage all by itself in a shorter time than everything else they and Judgment had thrown at the last Arachnoblast, but they still hadn't imagined it would get this badly wrecked. Had the Nihilators gotten this much stronger already? If so, they were going to really need to be on their best game when the time came to go to Mars.

"This is the power of the Nihilators?" Boa whispered, staring at the wasteland around them in horror. "It's…far worse than I had ever imagined…"

"…Those flyers…far too few of them are Dragons…" Nuken murmured. "How…how many of my mons were killed when that abomination landed?"

"And how many of mine?" Victini asked sorrowfully.

"And here I thought Treasure Town couldn't look any worse…" Leo muttered with a shake of his head.

"Still not as bad as Genocide City," Lily said from experience.

"How…how could they?" Tiny whispered. "How could they do this?"

Because they are evil, Dawn said solemnly.

"An evil that knows no bounds or limitations," Lugia said.

"What…what kind of answer is that?!" Tiny demanded, shaking with fury.

"The only one you'll get, I'm afraid," Lugia said sadly.

"They'll pay for this," Pikachu said, clutching his sword's hilt. "I swear it."

"Yes," Briney agreed, not taking his eyes off his ruined ship. "They will."

Ash had clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. His Aura was flickering around him, but so far it wasn't black or anywhere close to there. Yet. "Are you angry?" Misty asked him, not seeming…quite as hostile as she usually was for some reason.

"Yes," he snarled.

"Good. You should be," Misty said curtly.

"Why, because it means I'm that much closer to snapping and destroying the world?" he asked.

"No…" Misty said. "Because what happened here was an atrocity, and it needs to be avenged."

Ash gave her a surprised look. "I never thought I'd hear you say something like that."

"Neither did I," Misty admitted. "But while I hate you, I hate the Nihilators too. And to be honest, if the world's going to be destroyed, I'd rather you be the one to do it rather than them."

"…Thanks. I think," Ash said.

"Don't mention it. Seriously. Ever," she grumbled.

"Leo! Everyone! There you are!" a familiar voice shouted.

They whirled around to see a very battered and bruised Tracey stumbling towards them. Accompanying him were Fat Pete with Molly on his shoulder and an equally battered Druddigon wearing Draconian colors. "Tracey! My mon!" Leo cried excitedly, running over and hugging the Smeargle, who collapsed in his arms. "Dude, we were so worried about you! You don't know how happy we are to see you okay!"

"You don't know how happy I am to see you! Shit's gotten real, mon! You gotta do something to stop these guys and save the Professor!" Tracey said.

"Don't worry, we'll get him back. We promise," Lily said, floating over.

Tracey did a double-take. "Lily?! Is that you?! Holy crap, you look even better in person now than you did on TV! You could even give my girlfriend a run for her money!"

"Your online girlfriend you've never met in person, you mean?" Leo asked skeptically while Lily blushed.

"Hey, she's totally real, and totally hot!" Tracey insisted.

"Uh-huh, sure she is, we believe you," Leo said, with a face that clearly implied he didn't. At all. Tracey scowled.

"General Shinobu! Sir!" the Druddigon said, wearily saluting. He did a double-take, and then saluted Lily as well. "Oh, and, uh, Lady Shinobu. Or is it Yukihimi?"

"Yukihimi," Lily said.

"Right, sorry, wasn't sure. Anyway! General! You have no idea how relieved I am to see you here, sir! We'd almost given up all hope that help was coming! We were worried that those bastards had flung machines like that all over the world as part of some massive invasion!" the Druddigon said.

"Thankfully, that's not the case, soldier. Treasure Town is the only place that's been hit, and reinforcements are already on their way," Nuken said, much to the soldier's relief. "I'm here to do what I can until more help arrives. Where is your commanding officer?"

"Um…right in front of me, sir," the Druddigon said.

Nuken sighed. "No, I mean, who's your direct superior here?"

"…You, sir," the Druddigon said in confusion.

Nuken snarled, losing his patience. "Are you trying to play games with me?!"

"N-no, sir! It's just…" the Druddigon stammered.

"Just WHAT?" Nuken shouted. "Where are your commanders?!"

"They're all DEAD, sir!" the Druddigon wailed.

Nuken froze. "What?"

"When that thing fell out of the sky, all the officers and bigwigs of the joint armies were in town strategizing while us grunts were out in the field doing training exercises," the Druddigon said miserably. "So when it hit…"

"They all died…" Nuken whispered in horror.

"Yes! Well, most of them. But I'm pretty sure the ones who survived the crash are dead now. I mean, what with all our failed attacks against that monster and all," the Druddigon said, nodding at the Arachnoblast and the few Dragons and other fighters buzzing it ineffectually. "So far as I know, us rank-and-file cannon fodder are just about all that's left."

"…I…I see," Nuken whispered, face ashen. "I…had feared as much, but I had hoped…"

"With all due respect, sir…if you're looking for hope, you're not going to find any here," the Druddigon said bitterly.

"What about Fichina? Are any of our soldiers still alive?" Victini asked urgently.

"…I guess?" the Druddigon asked uncertainly. "I mean, I'm pretty sure most of your officers were killed in the crash, too. Things have been so chaotic, though, I have no idea who's alive and who's not, and which army any of us belong to anymore. All that matters is fighting those bastards…a fight we're losing."

"Then…my friends…" Boa whispered, bowing her head.

"…I think there mighta been some guys from Fichina still fighting in the ruins…" the Druddigon said doubtfully. "I don't know if they're still alive, though. I woulda stayed and helped out, but the grad student here said we needed to get out here to meet you all, and I was volunteered to come and give my report to the General and anyone else you might have brought with you."

"You have done well, soldier, in spite of extenuating circumstances. When this is all over, I'll see to it that you and all the other survivors will be rewarded for your service," Nuken said.

"Thank you, sir, but…to be frank, right now I'm more concerned with actually living to see the end of this awful day than thinking about what I'll get afterwards," the Druddigon said wearily.

Nuken nodded. "A good attitude to have right about now. I'll do my best to make sure you'll make it out of this in one piece."

"Me too! Now that I'm here, we're definitely going to win. Goddess of Victory and all that," Victini promised.

"I hope so, because right now things seem pretty bleak…" the Druddigon said.

Victini winced as she looked at the shattered landscape and fires and burning ships. "Yeah…they kind of do, don't they?"

"Captain! Thank goodness you're here! Oh, and everyone else, too," Fat Pete said in relief to Briney, acknowledging the rest of the team with a brief nod. He frowned and did a double-take. "Er…that is you, isn't it, Cap'n? You look a bit different…and so does Lily…she's a lot prettier, for one thing…"

Lily blushed, though partly out of embarrassment and unease. Why did people keep saying that? It made her feel self-conscious, especially about how she used to look. "Thank you."

"Hey, are you saying my wife/daughter wasn't pretty before?!" Leo and Nuken demanded at the same time, causing them to do a double-take at having the same thought.

Before Fat Pete could be forced to answer that loaded and potentially lethal question, Molly whacked her husband with a wing. "Of course it's him, ya idjit! Who else but the Cap'n would have a mustache like that?"

"Oh, aye, that is a fine mustache…could only be the Cap'n's…" Pete agreed. "Sorry, sir. Shoulda known it was you right away. There's no mistakin' that facial hair, after all."

"Pete. Molly. What are you two doing out here and not on the ship with the others?" Briney asked, cutting right to the chase.

"When that bloody thing came falling out of the sky, it caught all of us pretty short-handed," Pete said regretfully. "I mean, how were we supposed to expect something like that to happen?"

"Some of us—including yours truly-were down in the ruins helpin' the Perfessor and Tracey sift through all that archaeological junk and seein' if there was any loot to plunder," Molly said. "While the rest were doin' some work on the ship out at sea, where all those pryin' researchers and military intelligence spooks couldn't spy on 'em and try to figure out how it works so they can make their own. We don't want any vessels like ours sailing the seas and skies, no sir, then we'd lose our primary advantage against the ships of this modern age and might actually run into serious competition! When that thing crashed down and ripped open the ceiling and started rainin' Nihilators on us, it was all we could do to fight them while the rest of us on the surface got on the Peeko and went up to fight that damn thing!"

"Ye can see how that wound up, though…" Pete said sadly, looking off in Polly's direction. "Poor Peeko…I've never seen the ol' girl in that bad a shape. Breaks me heart, it does."

"I'll fix it up when I get the chance, I promise," Briney said, sharing his crewman's sorrow.

"If you were all underground when the Arachnoblast fell out of the sky, how were you not crushed when it ripped the earth open?" Pikachu asked.

"The ruins generate some kind of protective energy field we still don't quite understand, which is why they've been in such good condition even after all these years. Well, that and whatever building materials and techniques the ancients used to begin with, which we still haven't even begun to comprehend," Tracey explained. "It kept the ceiling from caving in on us when the shockwave from that monster's landing completely destroyed everything above us. A shame, though…so much of archaeological value was lost…"

"It also didn't keep the Nihilators out," Pete said angrily.

"We fought 'em as best we could when they started droppin' out of that thing's belly, but when they came for the Perfessor, there was nuttin' we could do," Molly said sadly. "They had blasted Legendary Pokémon on their side. We may be undead, but there's only so much we can do against those!"

"If the Cap'n or Acting Cap'n had been there, things'd have been different!" Pete said firmly.

"You bet they would have," Briney said, deeply angry and upset that he hadn't been there to help his crew when they needed him.

"I'm amazed they didn't kill you," Leo said, hugging Tracey again, relieved he was still alive.

"They almost did!" Tracey said. "When the Nihilators started coming for us, the Professor figured at once they needed him to help them activate that tower under the Door, so we started making our way to one of the secret exits out of the ruins we've recently discovered. It was still in one piece since it was made the same way as the ruins were, and it's how we got out here to meet with you."

"We were kicking ass and taking names, too!" Fat Pete said proudly.

"And the Perfessor was doing a damn fine job keepin' up with the rest of us. And here I thought he was just a cushy academic!" Molly said.

"But then Tarantulas showed up, with Chobin, and that fat Emboar guy, and the legendary beasts, and Paul!" Tracey said.

Dawn stiffened. Did you say…Paul?! Are you certain?

"Pure evil Weavile with Shadow Aura, looked exactly like the guy I've seen going by that name in televised underground tournaments and wrestling matches, responded to the name Paul? Yeah, I'm pretty sure it was him," Tracey said. "The golden armor was new, though."

"Golden armor?" Pikachu asked.

"Yeah, he was wearing a suit of golden armor. The Professor seemed to recognize it for some reason and seemed pretty alarmed by it. Don't know why, though," Tracey said. He frowned. "It looked kind of familiar to me, too, but…I can't quite place where I've seen it before. And I don't think it's just because it made him look like the Slicer, either. There was something…else about it…"

"You didn't mention Paul was here on the phone!" Leo said in alarm.

"I didn't? Oh, sorry, I must have forgot thanks to the stress of ALMOST DYING, getting a freaking METEOR dropped on my head, almost dying, watching people get KILLED all around me, almost dying, being held hostage, and did I mention I almost DIED?!" Tracey shouted, eyes bloodshot and trembling.

"Ah. Right," Leo said, cringing. "Sorry."

If Paul is here…then I shall kill him, at long last, Dawn said coldly, narrowing her eyes.

"And I'll help. I promised, after all," Pikachu said.

Dawn smiled at her master. Thank you, Master. I do not expect him to last too long, though; against my new power… She frowned. Though I wonder what this 'golden armor' is…

"Golden armor…golden armor…why does that sound familiar to me, too?" Leo murmured.

"Well, looks like Tracey's suffering from PTSD, something that will take years of therapy to cure…or I could just Mind Crush it out of him," Briney suggested as the wild-eyed Smeargle shook and whimpered.

"No," Pikachu said.

"Fiddlesticks," Briney said.

"Remind me why you can't just Mind Crush Daddy's problems?" Tiny asked.

"Kid, Ash has so many issues I don't even know where to begin to start fixing him. I'd rather keep my claws out of the mess he calls a head, it's safer that way," Briney said.

"That doesn't stop you from reading my mind," Ash said.

"That's just skimming the upper levels rather than delving deep to the root of your problems. Totally different," Briney said. Ash rolled his eyes.

"It wouldn't work, anyway. Considering all the other psychiatrists who've gone mad trying to help you, do you really think Briney would do any better?" Misty asked.

"He's Briney," Ash pointed out.

"…Okay, yeah, but still. No way he could do it," Misty said.

"What was that about being held hostage?" Boa asked.

"The Perfessor was actually doin' a good job holdin' his own, until that Ekans in the grass Paul got his claws on Tracey and threatened to gut 'im like a Magikarp if he didn't surrender," Pete spat.

"I wet myself. Not my finest hour," Tracey said morosely.

That bastard. That is so like him, Dawn snarled.

"Wouldn't you do something like that too in a similar situation?" Pikachu asked.

Yes, but it was Paul who did it in this instance, not me, Dawn said. Pikachu sweatdropped.

"The Perfessor gave himself up after that, and they left," Molly said. "Oh, and the goons Tarantulas left behind tried to kill us the minute he was gone, but we took care o' them easily enough."

"At least eight members of my platoon died," the Druddigon said.

"…Well…easily enough for us undead pirate types, anyway," Molly said.

"The rest of our group stayed behind to cover our tracks while we headed for the exit to the city," Tracey continued. "I called you guys because I knew if anyone could help us now, it's you. Then we made our way out here, found you, and…well, you know the rest."

"Namely, that there is no 'the rest,'" Pete said.

Tracey gave him an annoyed look. "Yes, that."

"Wrong," Ash said. "'The rest' is that we take down Tarantulas, save the Professor, and destroy that thing before it kills anyone else."

"Oh. That works," Pete said.

Lugia spread his wings. "Ash, I shall go up and provide whatever assistance to the few fighters remaining that I can while you head into the ruins after Tarantulas."

"All right," Ash said. "Good luck, Lugia."

"I think it's the Nihilators you should be wishing luck to, rather than me," the god of the sea said with a smirk as he flapped his wings and rose into the air, soaring towards the Arachnoblast.

"You know, I should probably be more in awe that I was just in the presence of a god, but I'm a little too shell-shocked now to feel much of anything," Tracey said. The Druddigon nodded in agreement.

"I shall come with you into the ruins, but unfortunately, I cannot go with you into the tower," Nuken said apologetically. "I need to help whatever Draconian—or other—soldiers are left. It sounds like they lack leadership right now, and I'm the only one who can give it to them."

"Ahem," Victini said.

"Victini and I are the only ones who can give it to them," the Shedinja reluctantly amended. "Reinforcements are on their way, but they won't make it for a while longer, and the troops here need all the help they can get to hold out until aid arrives."

"It's all right, Father. We know you're needed here," Lily said, causing the Shedinja to smile, something he quickly pretended hadn't happened.

"With you on our side, I'm sure we'll be able to turn the tide against the Nihilators, sir," the Druddigon said loyally.

"And don't forget me! Any side that I'm on can't help but win! Victory is assured!" Victini said, making a V sign.

"While a part of me wants to stay and see if I can find any of my friends…since your team is down one mon, I believe you will need me more. I will follow you into the depths in pursuit of Tarantulas and the Professor," Princess Boa said.

"We are honored to have you by our side," Pikachu said.

"Just so long as you don't take Sasha's place. Only she can do that!" Tiny said.

"I promise you, I have no intention of usurping your friend's position on this team," Boa said.

"Good. You'd better not be. Because if you were, Sasha wouldn't be happy," Tiny said. "She'd probably kill you or something. She could totally do that."

Ash pinched his brow as Boa gave the Pupitar a bemused look. "Tiny, that is not the proper way to talk to royalty."

"You've raised him so well," Misty said.

"Sorry, Daddy," Tiny apologized.

"All right, if everyone's decided who is or isn't coming, we have to get going," Tracey said. "Tarantulas already has a huge head start, and we're going to have to walk back through the tunnel into the city—since I don't think climbing past that thing up there is an option—and then we'll need to fight our way past the Nihilators swarming the streets."

"Couldn't I just portal us directly into the ruins?" Lily asked.

"…Or we could do that, yes," Tracey said.

"Is the entrance to the tower near the Door?" Pikachu asked.

"It's not in the same plaza as the Door, but its pretty close by," Tracey said. "We found it a while back. I can take you guys to the entrance from there. I don't actually know what it's like in there, though, so I'm afraid I won't be of much help to you or the Professor down there."

"That's all right, Tracey. You've done enough. Once you get us to the entrance, we'll take care of everything from there. You just find a safe place to hide," Leo said.

"Don't need to tell me that twice," Tracey said.

"Then let's get going," Ash said. "Like you said, Tarantulas has a pretty big head start. We have to go."

As the others nodded, Leo suddenly said, "Hold it! We're walking into the middle of a warzone, and heading into a dungeon full of Arceus-knows-what traps and monsters and treasure and the like. Shouldn't we power up first?"

"That's probably not a bad idea," Pikachu said after a moment's consideration. "We'll want to be at our strongest going into this."

"You don't think we should save our new powers until we reach Tarantulas?" Lily asked.

We haven't had a chance to test them in actual combat yet, Dawn pointed out. If we have some experience using them in a real fight first, we'll be readier to deal with whatever surprises Tarantulas might have in store for us when we reach him. She narrowed her eyes. And I will know exactly how to use my powers to kill Paul…

"All right then! I'll start us off!" Leo said. "Tracey, you're gonna wanna watch this, it's gonna be awesome!"

"Actually, I'm more of a Poké Rangers fan than Masked Rider," Tracey said.

"…Well…still, it'll be awesome!" Leo said. He whipped out his deck and slid it into his belt buckle. It clicked into place, and then the buckle began to glow. He made a series of complex hand motions and struck a pose. "Henshin!" A golden energy sphere formed around him, causing everyone to back away as two rings started rotating around its circumference. As the rings passed over Leo's body, armor materialized over it, and by the time the rings finished a full rotation and vanished along with the sphere in an explosive burst of air, Leo was now completely clad in an armored suit. Most of his body was covered in tight black form-fitting spandex with boots going up to his knees with large round gold studs over the kneecaps and bronze greaves with black circles on the sides. His torso and shoulders were covered by a black metal cuirass with a large bronze crest taking up the front vaguely resembling a bird with a gold diamond for a head and golden talons growing from the bottom sides of the cuirass. His badge, pinned just above one side of the crest, had transformed, now looking like it was made of the same bronze and gold metal as the crest, with wings resembling Choc-Oboh's mark spreading to either side of it. His shoulders were covered by gold ailettes resembling flared-out feathers with bronze pauldrons with more large round gold studs underneath them. He had bronze vambraces with round gold couters. His scarf had turned red and elongated significantly, so its ends hung down over his back, partially covering the Choc-Oboh marking, now a blazing gold. His head was covered in a gold helmet with a number of V-shaped ridges with a vague feather motif covering the upper half of his face, and a crest somewhat looking like a feather rising from the peak. The lower half of his face was covered by a faceplate with several horizontal slits running across its surface. He was still wearing his sunglasses, which had been incorporated into his helmet. One of his arms retracted into his shell, and came back out with a white fedora, which he dramatically placed on his head and cocked at a jaunty angle. "The hard-boiled hot-blooded hero who walks the path of heaven! Masked Rider Phoenix! Iiiiit's Showtime!" he shouted, striking a pose as the ground exploded behind him and flames resembling Choc-Oboh briefly blazed up behind him.

"Okay, that is pretty awesome," Tracey admitted.

"What the heck just happened?!" Molly asked in confusion. Pete shrugged.

"…Why was there an explosion just now?" asked Nuken.

"Better not to ask," Pikachu said.

You didn't say all that the last time, Dawn said.

"And what's with the hat?" Ash asked.

"Every good Henshin Hero needs a dramatic declaration of purpose and identity when they transform," Leo explained. "As for the hat, I was inspired by one of my favorite Masked Riders, Masked Rider Triple, the three-in-one Masked Rider!"

"…Three-in-one?" Boa asked.

"Yeah, Triple's actually three different guys working at a detective agency, but each can transform into a different Rider, and they have the ability to fuse together to create the titular hero, Triple! And he wears a hat just like this, to make him look even cooler," Leo said, pointing to his hat.

"Three minds in one body? Must get pretty crowded…" Fat Pete commented.

"I don't know, I do fine with four brains," Briney said.

"Well, I think it looks very stylish," Lily said, causing Leo to grin.

Briney nodded. "Yeah, can't go wrong with a good hat."

"Why do you think I wear this top hat all the time?" Tiny agreed.

"I don't understand anything that's happening," the Druddigon said.

"Trust me, you're better off not trying to understand the workings of Leo's mind," Pikachu said as he drew his sword and raised it into the air. "My turn."

"Are you going to say 'henshin?' You should totally say 'henshin,'" Leo said eagerly.

"No," Pikachu said. A lightning bolt shot down from the heavens and struck his blade. There was a blinding flash of light, static crackling all over the place and making everyone's fur stand on end. When the light died down, Pikachu was now clad in samurai armor that looked as if it were made from lightning made solid, arcs and spikes of electricity crackling across its otherwise solid form. A dou with the images of Raikou and Zekrom engraved into it dancing around lightning bolts covered his front. His badge had been fused to his chest armor, and now had jagged gold lightning bolts jutting from the sides in place of the usual wings. Jagged-edged kusazuri with lightning bolts engraved into each plate hung from the front and back to protect his upper legs. Haidate made of cloth that looked to be electricity turned into woven thread covered his thighs, small metal lightning bolt-shaped plates connected by chain lightning sewn into it. Suneate made of splints of metal crackling with electricity linked by chain lightning wrapped around his calves and shins, right above kogake covering his hindpaws. Sode resembling his kusazuris with large glowing spikes resembling lightning bolts growing from the tops covered his shoulders. Han kote made of lightning cloth covered in plates of solidified electricity linked by chain lightning covered his forearms. A helmet with the Thunderblade family crest on the forehead, lightning bolt horns, and a faceplate resembling a snarling Raikou covered his head, his now-yellow eyes visible through eyeholes. His tail was unarmored, but looked like it had turned into an actual lightning bolt, rather than just being shaped like one. Similarly, Thunder Fang too looked as if it were now made of pure electrical energy, crackling yellow and white rather than blue, with several glowing black runes written somehow into its side. It was also a couple of inches longer. The sword's scabbard, slung on Pikachu's back, had changed as well, lengthening to accommodate the sword's growth and turned black with gold leaf lightning bolts looking like they were actual lightning bolts rather than just designs.

"Oh, wow! That's even cooler than Leo's transformation!" Tracey gushed.

"Wait, what?!" Leo cried. "But he didn't even say 'henshin!'"

Pikachu nodded at his vassal/fiancé. "Dawn?"

With pleasure, Master, the ninja said, focusing her power. As blue-white energy pulsed around her, she let out a cry and was suddenly encased in a great mass of ice. Cracks ran down the surface of the ice, and it shattered, revealing that she was wearing armor made of ice similar to the Slicer armor she'd worn when she'd been forcibly transformed into a Shadow Pokémon. However, the ice used to make this armor was blue-white, rather than black. A pair of plaques with curved blades resembling some of Kyurem's icy protrusions formed on her shoulders. Gauntlets with three curved blades each formed around her wrists. A pair of large blue-white three-clawed talons formed over each of her paws that looked like they were made of a mixture of metal and ice, with gray runes and engravings of Kyurem spiraling up the sides. Ice plates covered the fleece on the lower half of her body and ice boots with three curved blades each on the greaves formed on her feet. Her badge had turned to ice as well. An ice helmet formed of layered plates with a trident-shaped ornament on the forehead and curved icy horn-like 'sheaths' for her ears formed over her head, a pair of ice plates snapping into place over her face and hiding all of it except for her glowing white eyes. Similar engravings as the ones on her talons covered most of her blades and the plates making up her armor, giving her suit a rather ornate and beautiful appearance, without letting one forget that every inch of it could probably be used to kill something.

"IT'S THE SLICER!" Tracey screamed. "Or rather, another one, since I already saw Paul wearing armor sort of like that, but made of gold instead of ice."

"I know, right?" Leo said. "Too bad she didn't say 'henshin,' though."

"Oooh. Shiny," Pete said.

"Great, now the ninja's even stronger," Molly complained.

Dawn grinned under her faceplate. Let's see how Paul's new armor handles this.

"I guess that just leaves me then," Lily said, taking out her wand. Her eyes glowed, as did the Rayquaza mark on her face. "And to satisfy my husband…Henshin!"

"Yes! Finally!" Leo cheered.

With a cry, Lily burst into flames, her form vanishing in the mass of fire. Unlike the last time she had transformed the day before yesterday, however, this time the fire took on a new appearance; elongating and thinning and rising into the air in the form of a great blazing Rayquaza. Nuken and the Druddigon gasped and reflexively knelt, sensing their King's power, while Tracey's jaw dropped and Leo's eyes widened with glee under his sunglasses. A pair of flaming wings spread from the fiery Rayquaza's back, and the burning dragon screeched, suddenly exploding in a great conflagration, revealing the new Lily. Her skin had turned from purple to red and yellow. Dancing flames licked at the hems of her cloak, with the yellow ring-like symbols covering it burning in an ethereal blaze. Her tail had a flame at the end reminiscent of a Charizard's. The jewels of her necklace had become flaming balls of molten rock with burning sigils carved into their surfaces. Both of her rings were unharmed by the flames, and still embedded in the central stone of her necklace, and glowed with a light similar to yet different from the fire surrounding her. Her scarf had turned red with yellow fire motifs, and her badge looked like a piece of fire made solid somehow. Her hat turned orange with a yellow tip, had a circlet that looked as if it were made of crystallized fire with glittering rubies set into its frozen surface ringing the central part, and was embroidered with actually burning flames and images of Reshiram and Rayquaza. Her Rayquaza tattoo looked as if it were etched in flame, and seemed to be moving before their very eyes. Her pupils had vanished, leaving her with black eyes and red irises. Embers and a few balls of fire orbited her body, and a pair of small draconic wings made of fire spread from her back.

"…Humina humina humina," Leo said, drooling under his mask.

"Okay, she might be a little hotter than my girlfriend," Tracey said grudgingly, trying to suppress a nosebleed. "Only a little, though!"

My daughter…she…almost looks like a dragon, Nuken thought to himself, awestruck. It's magnificent…

"Incredible…is she an envoy of His Excellency?!" the Druddigon asked.

"No, she's my daughter," Nuken said out loud. "Which is close enough." The Druddigon nodded fervently in agreement.

"Woooow," Tiny said.

"She didn't look like that the last time," Pikachu said in surprise.

The last time she wasn't evolved, Dawn pointed out. She found herself wondering what her powered-up form would look like after she evolved. And what Pikachu might look like…

"How do I look?" Lily asked as she descended back towards her friends.

"Guh," Leo said eloquently.

Lily giggled. "I'll take that as 'very good.'" She kissed Leo, leaving a scorch mark in the shape of a kiss on his faceplate. He swooned. "Sorry I didn't come up with a good proclamation like yours after I changed. Maybe we can come up with one together later?"

"Blargblhbdh," Leo babbled in (possible) agreement, deliriously happy.

"Well, that sure was impressive! I bet your second form will knock the rest of 'em out of the park though, right Cap'n?" Molly asked Briney.

"I don't have one," Briney said.

"…Oh," Molly said.

"It's fine. Not like I need one. I am Briney, after all," the Metagross boasted.

"That's true," Pete said.

"Do you three have Super Modes too?" Tracey asked of Ash, Tiny, and Princess Boa.

"Neither Tiny or I have anything like that (yet)," Ash said. "However, with all the Aura training we've been doing with Brycen back in Fichina, I think it's safe to say we'll be able to keep an even footing with the others."

"Yeah! Even if I was asleep part of the time…" Tiny murmured to himself.

"Still, we can 'power up' to an extent. Tiny?" Ash asked his son.

The Pupitar nodded. "Ready, Daddy?"

Father and son squeezed their eyes shut in concentration. Suddenly, brilliant azure blazes of Aura erupted around them, cratering the ground under their feet (or hovering shell, in Tiny's case), the blast blowing everyone's hair back. Blue flames towered high into the air for a moment, before shrinking down to a more manageable level, while still retaining the same level of intensity. Ash's muscles bulked up, the veins standing out more visibly, and Tiny's shell creaked and expanded outwards a little, cracks forming as it tried to keep holding in the increased muscle mass of the gestating Pokémon inside. Their eyes shot open, their pupils turned a glowing blue the same shade as their Auras. "How's that?" Ash asked, flexing his arms. "Not bad, huh?"

"It's…okay," Misty said, struggling not to ogle Ash's pecs.

"Meh, I give it a three," Tracey said, causing Ash and Tiny to facefault.

"Yeah, everyone else's transformations were way cooler!" Fat Pete agreed.

"All it looks like you guys did was use Kai-o-ken from Dragonite Ball Z," Leo said. "Except a different color."

"Kai-o-what?" Nuken asked.

"We're not doing that joke," Leo said, much to the Shedinja's confusion.

"It would be a lot more impressive if they went Super Saiyamajin," Tracey agreed. "Though it'd be weird if Ash's hair grew super-long."

"Or if Tiny grew hair at all!" Leo concurred. He rubbed the top of his helmet wistfully. "I wish I had hair."

"You're fine just the way you are, Leo," Lily said, kissing him on the cheek and giving him another scorch mark. Leo squealed and turned very red under his mask.

"Well, I'm sorry if the techniques of the ancient Aura Guardians aren't quite up to your standards," Ash sniffed in annoyance.

"It's perfectly all right, lad…even if you do look like you've been taking steroids," Briney said. Ash's eye twitched.

"Maybe if we'd said 'henshin,' they wouldn't be complaining as much?" Tiny suggested. Ash groaned.

"That just leaves you then, Miss," Pete said to the Princess. "You got anything?"

"And if so, I hope it's more impressive than what those two just did," Molly said. Ash growled.

"Well…there is one thing I can do," Boa said, looking pensive.

"Oh?" Pikachu asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, she can evolve," Victini said, causing Boa to shoot her a look.

"You can? Really?" Lily asked in surprise. "Why haven't you already, then?"

"For much the same reason I didn't, at first," Briney interjected. "It felt like a major change and she wasn't sure she was willing to make it just yet."

"Could you please not poke around inside my head?" Boa asked in annoyance.

"No," Briney said.

"You know, I'm pretty sure reading the mind of a member of royalty without their permission is a capital offense," Boa said crossly.

"Ha! I'd like to see you try to enforce that," Briney said in amusement.

"Don't tempt me…" the Servine growled.

"You don't have to evolve if you don't want to," Victini said.

Boa shook her head. "No, Pikachu and Dawn are right. I should be at my strongest going into this, as well as get a chance to know how my new powers work so I'll be ready for the big fight."

"What, I don't get any credit for bringing up the idea in the first place?" Leo complained. He was ignored.

"I've been on the brink of evolving for quite some time, but suppressed it because I wasn't sure I was ready…and because I wanted to save it for when it was truly needed," Boa continued. "And I suppose that time is now. I'm still not sure I'm ready…but everyone else has already assumed stronger forms, so I suppose it would probably be a good idea for me to do so as well…even if evolution is a one-way path."

"That it is, but I'm not complaining about it," Briney said.

"I had some concerns with evolving at first," Lily admitted. "But I think the new power I have received was well worth it."

"Not to mention the increased hotness," Tracey murmured.

"I'd probably hit you for perving on my girl if you weren't absolutely right," Leo said.

"In that case, I will go through with it and evolve into a Serperior," Boa declared.

"A good idea. Any tactical advantage we can gain will be of use to us, and Serperior are renowned for their ability to strike hard and fast," Nuken agreed.

"Um, but won't you be unable to use your sword any more? I mean, you'll lose your arms and all," Tiny pointed out. "I certainly miss having arms…"

"I can grow vines. I am as proficient with my blade using my vines as I am with my hands," Boa said. "It won't be that big a change."

"Oh," Tiny said. "Wish I could grow vines…"

"Don't worry, Tiny, you'll get your arms back as soon as you evolve," Ash said.

"Everyone, take a few steps back, please," Boa said. "I'm going to need some space for this." Recalling how, well, explosive Lily's evolution the previous day had been, everyone quickly backed away from her. "Thank you." She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, marshaled her strength, and murmured a cantrip.

"Aren't you going to tell her to say, 'henshin?'" Pikachu asked Leo as Boa started to glow.

Leo shook his head. "Nah, for evolution she should say, 'Servine (or Princess Boa) Shinka toooooooo Serperior!' I know I'm going to say something like that when I evolve!"

Pikachu sighed. "Of course you are, Leo."

"Oh…I didn't say that when I evolved…" Lily said.

"Nah, it's okay, babe, I have two evolutions coming, so I'll say them loud enough for the both of us," Leo assured her.

There was a blinding flash of light, and the Mystic Knight was transformed. Her body had grown significantly, losing its arms and legs to take on a ten-foot long serpentine form. Her body was covered almost completely in dazzling white interlocking armor plates with green and gold leaves and runes engraved into them, with the royal crest of Fichina emblazoned on her chestplate, or the closest thing she had to it. The armor was hinged and segmented so that it covered her entire form without hindering her flexibility and mobility, and was enchanted with lightness so it didn't affect her agility, either. Razor-edged sprigs of metal leaves tipped her tail. A set of leaf-embossed spaulders hung over where her shoulders had been when she was a Servine, covering a pair of small, stubby protrusions that looked more like leafy growth than hands. A green cape hung down the upper third of her back. Her rapier still hung at her side. Tendril-like metal extensions spread out from the sides of her lower neck, forming what looked like a fancy collar with a fan of metal plates around the back to protect her rear. Her neck was covered in several ring-like gorgets to protect it, but her head was exposed, revealing her flawless aristocratic beauty. She had curled green patterns on the sides of her otherwise white face and snout, yellow pointed extensions growing from the back of her head, narrow red eyes and small, pointed teeth on her lower jaw. A jagged wrought-iron coronet topped her brow, completing her 'warrior princess' look. She looked at herself appraisingly, as did everyone else. "Hmm. Not bad."

Fat Pete whistled. "Cor! They grow 'em fine in Fichina, don't they, Molly?"

"Aye, that they do," the undead Chatot said, glaring at the Serperior enviously.

"Heh, looking good, Princess!" Victini complimented. The Druddigon blushed and looked away.

"Not bad," Nuken grunted.

"Dammit Leo, why you gotta have all the hot chicks in your team?!" Tracey complained.

"Because I'm one lucky bastard," Leo said smugly.

Both Dawn and Princess Boa became much more attractive when they evolved…and Lopunny are supposed to be very beautiful, Dawn thought. Will…I look like that when I evolve? She wasn't envious, her appearance didn't matter to her, but…someone like her master deserved a very attractive mate, and as his loyal vassal it behooved her to provide him with one. Well, once I kill Paul and evolve as Darkrai promised I would, I'll find out. Just a little longer…

"My power and magic have increased exponentially," Boa commented, a green glow suffusing her body. "Incredible…why did I not do this sooner?"

"A question I asked myself when I evolved," Briney said.

"It's quite a rush, isn't it?" Lily said kindly.

"Daddy, now I want to evolve!" Tiny whined.

"It'll happen soon, son, I'm sure of it," Ash assured the Pupitar.

"Not to nit-pick, but why did your armor change when you did?" Pikachu asked.

"Because it's magic armor," Boa said.

Pikachu sighed. "Right. Of course. Why did I even bother asking?"

"Heck if I'd know. You'd think you'd have given up on trying to make sense of stuff like this by now," Leo said, to which Pikachu reluctantly agreed.

"Can you still use your sword?" Lily asked in concern. "I know you said you could, but…"

Boa smirked, a Vine Whip sprouting from one of the leafy growths that were all that remained of her arms and wrapping itself around the hilt of her rapier. She drew it in one swift motion and sliced it rapidly in front of her, leaving green lines in the wake of her blade that seemed to rend the air around her. "Does that answer your question?"

"Not bad," Pikachu said. "But what will you do if someone severs the vine holding that sword?"

To answer that question, Boa flung her rapier into the air, retracted her vine, and looked up at the sword, eyes glowing. A green aura surrounded the blade, and it shot down towards her, freezing in place only millimeters from her snout. It flipped around and started jabbing at an invisible target in front of it several times a second before inverting itself and slipping back into its holster on her side. She turned to Pikachu, raising an eyebrow. "Well?"

Pikachu grinned. "I think our sparring sessions are going to get a lot more interesting from now on."

"I wish I could do that," Tiny griped.

"You aren't ready for your sword yet ," Ash said.

"When I am, will I be able to use Aura to do a trick like that?" Tiny asked.

"…Probably not, actually," Ash said. The only reason he could do something like that with his staff—and even then, not to the same degree as Boa had just demonstrated—was because it was specially designed to accommodate the powers of Aura wielders.

"Actually, he can," Briney corrected Ash.

"Really?!" Tiny asked excitedly.

"Sure. The thing's magic, after all," Briney said.

"Yatta!" Tiny said, causing Ash to pale in horror at the thought of his son making a sword THAT BIG fly through the air with his mind.

"Hey, that's my line," Leo complained.

"Have you actually copyrighted it?" Tracey asked.

"Well, no, but everyone knows it's the thing I do," Leo grumbled. "A mon doesn't steal another mon's catchphrase, after all. Unless it's shared, I guess."

"I thought you got your catchphrase from a character on-" Lily started.

"MOVING ON," Leo said loudly.

"This is all well and good," Molly said suddenly. "And all those nifty transformations were fancy and whatnot…but while we're standin' here congratulatin' ourselves, that vermin Tarantulas is takin' the Perfessor to do Kyogre-knows-what to him!"

The Druddigon frowned in alarm. "And more of my brothers-in-arms have probably died in battle while we were wasting our time here!"

"Relax, they're fine, and nothing important happened while we were busy catching up and changing forms," Leo asked.

"How can you possibly say that?!" the Druddigon asked incredulously.

Leo snorted. "Duh, because-"

"Wait, don't tell me," Pikachu groaned. "Talking is a Free Action?"

"What? No, mon, where'd you get that idea?" Leo asked perplexed.

Pikachu gave him a surprised look. "What? Really?!"

"Yeah!" Leo said, as if it were obvious.

"But…then why don't we have to worry about anything having happened while we were changing?" Ash asked in confusion.

"Well, because this is clearly a case of Transformation is a Free Action, not Talking! Completely different," Leo explained. His entire team, sans Lily and a confused Boa, facepalmed.

"I do not understand," said the puzzled Serperior.

"Don't. Just…don't," Ash said weakly. "It's not worth getting into." As Boa nodded uncertainly, the Lucario sighed. "Let's…just get a move on, okay? We don't have time to sit around talking."

"Well, we could, but-" Leo started.

"WE DON'T HAVE TIME TO SIT AROUND TALKING," Ash repeated very loudly.

Lily nodded. "Right. I'll open a portal to the Door's plaza. Tracey can lead us to the entrance to the tower from there."

"There's a lot of enemy forces entrenched around the Door, so we should be ready for a fight," the Druddigon warned them.

"A fight? Excellent. I could use a little bloodshed right about now," Nuken said eagerly.

Victini nodded as she drew her massive sword. "They're going to pay for what they've done to our soldiers."

Lily's brow furrowed as she concentrated. "I'm getting some resistance. The energies being put out by the Door are making it difficult to open a portal there."

"Then we're going to have to take the long way around!? But who knows what'll happen to the Professor by then!" Tracey protested.

"I said difficult, not impossible," Lily said. "Give me a moment, I'll get us there."

"Ha! That's my girl!" Leo bragged. "Hey Tracey, can your girlfriend do a trick like that?"

"No…" Tracey grumbled reluctantly.

"Because she doesn't exist?" Fat Pete joked.

"She does too exist! She's just not a magician!" Tracey said.

"Uh-huh, sure, we believe ye," Molly said, clearly doing no such thing. The Smeargle growled in frustration.

As the air began warping in front of Lily while her face creased in concentration and the others tensed, getting ready for a fight, Ash glanced at Tiny, sensing a hint of concern and unease in his son's Aura. "Something wrong, Tiny?"

"…A little," the Pupitar said.

"Are you worried we won't be able to save the Professor?" Ash asked. "Because that's nothing to worry about, we'll definitely rescue him."

"Have you rescued everyone you've ever gone on a mission to save?" Tiny asked.

Ash faltered. This wasn't something that he'd ever had to talk to his son about. "I…well…"

"You haven't, have you?" Tiny asked.

Ash looked down, painfully recalling the debacle their mission in the Tree of Beginning had become…and other incidents before that, back in Kanjohenn. "Not…all the time, no."

"You certainly didn't save me," Misty said caustically.

"We have a very good success rate, though," Ash said quickly, trying to raise his son's spirits and keep him from losing his faith in him. "I mean, just look at our current adventure, we…well…okay, we couldn't save the Tree of Beginning…and we lost three Star Badges…and Vladimir died…and I'm slowly losing my mind…but, but aside from that, we're doing pretty well…aren't we?"

Tiny glared at Ash, and the Lucario realized with a sinking sense of dread his false cheer wasn't winning his son over. Then again, given both of their Aura proficiencies Tiny could obviously tell Ash was faking it. "Daddy," Tiny said. "Just because I'm only a few weeks old doesn't mean you have to treat me like a little kid anymore. I'm halfway through my evolutionary cycle and I'm engaged to get married. I appreciate that you're trying to preserve my innocence…but let's be frank, have I ever been innocent? I was traumatized before I even hatched and have been going from one harrowing adventure to another since then. Frankly, I think I'm starting to understand why Mommy is hesitant about letting me go off to Mars with you guys."

"You don't want to come with us?!" Ash spluttered in alarm.

"I didn't say that, my point is that it's not the sort of thing most parents drag their children into at an early age. I don't blame you for doing it, you're a great dad and I know we're doing the right thing and that the things we do are necessary and important, and that I've been a crucial part of this team's success on numerous occasions, it's just that there's little point in trying to safeguard my innocence because I lost it the day my mother was taken from me. And I nearly got turned into a hot dog by a crazy Arcanine," Tiny said. "So with that said…Daddy, can you look around and honestly tell me this'll all work out okay?"

Ash looked around. He saw his friends, geared up and ready for battle. He saw Tracey, scarred in both mind and body from this ordeal. He saw the broken and shattered landscape around them. He saw the bodies and wrecked ships. He saw Polly scuttling in their direction, the broken ruin of the Peeko XII left on the ground some distance away. He saw the gaping crater that was all that remained of Treasure Town. He saw the Arachnoblast, shrieking as Lugia and the handful of remaining aerial soldiers put up as much of a fight as they could. "…No," he said quietly. "I can't."

Tiny nodded. "We're going to have to build a memorial when we're done, aren't we? Like the one we made at Dusty Ditch, or for Vladimir. Only a LOT more people died here."

"Yes," Ash said.

"And we're going to have to make one on Mars, too, because even MORE people are going to die when we take on the Nihilators," Tiny said.

Ash swallowed, a lump stuck in his throat. "Yes."

Tiny nodded and looked up at the crater, and the towering Arachnoblast. "Daddy, how many more good Pokémon are going to die before the Nihilators are finished?"

Ash closed his eyes. "I have no idea."

Tiny nodded. "I think I'm beginning to understand why some people could lose faith in Arceus, or the Guardians, or gods in general, if they let things like this happen." Both Victini and Lugia shuddered, and weren't sure why.

Ash's heart skipped a beat. "Tiny!"

"What? Oh, no, I'm not saying I've lost faith," Tiny said, much to Ash's relief. "I mean, we've met plenty of perfectly nice and helpful deities on this adventure, even if I wish there was more they could do to…to fix you. So I know most of them are okay and try their best to be good. But I've also seen they aren't infallible and can make mistakes. The fact that the three birds became evil, and were allowed to be evil for so long is proof of that. So I don't blame them for screwing things up, even if it makes trouble for the rest of us. After all, we make mistakes too, and they affect more than just ourselves, and we have to live with the consequences. So do they. Heck, maybe Arceus Himself isn't perfect, and just doesn't want anyone to figure it out…because if He's flawed, then what hope is there for the rest of us?"

Ash couldn't think of anything to say. He just looked at Tiny, shocked, as his heart sank deeper and deeper with each word that came out of the Pupitar's mouth. Tiny didn't sound particularly cynical, but there was such a feeling of…resignation in his voice. Like a child who had been told (incorrectly) that Santa Christ didn't exist, and no longer believed in miracles or was optimistic about the future. And although Tiny claimed that he had lost his innocence a long time ago, Ash couldn't help but feel as if something precious and irreplaceable had died right before his eyes at that moment, and that any chance he might have had to remedy it had slipped away without him realizing it. I've failed him, he realized, shocked. I've been so wrapped up in my own issues I wasn't there to help him or give him reassurance when he needed it. I didn't even know he'd fallen in love…I'm a terrible father.

Sensing his father's despair, Tiny floated over and nuzzled him. "You're not a bad dad, Daddy. You're doing the best you can, and I love you for it."

"But you don't think I'm perfect anymore, or can do no wrong," Ash said, struck by a sudden horrid realization. When Tiny had been talking about fallibility, he hadn't really been talking about gods, had he?

Tiny hesitated, and Ash's heart broke all over again. He'd known on some level that this would happen to all of his children someday…but he'd always assumed it wouldn't be for a long while yet. Not today. Not like this. Not with Tiny. "…No. I'm sorry, but I don't. Not anymore."

"Why?" Ash whispered.

For a moment, he wasn't sure he'd actually said anything out loud, and was about to repeat the question when Tiny said, "Because I'm afraid, Daddy."

"…Of…of me?" Ash stammered, not sure what he would do if that were the case.

"No," Tiny said, and Ash believed it. He had to. Because if it wasn't true, he didn't know what he'd do. "I'm afraid for you. I'm afraid you will fail. I'm afraid of what you might become. Before, I was absolutely certain you'd be okay, that you'd fight this off and everything would be all right."

"And…now?" Ash asked, dreading the answer.

"Now…I'm not so sure," Tiny said reluctantly. "No matter what you try, no matter what anyone does—or doesn't do—nothing seems to be working. When you had that outburst just a little while ago, I was terrified, Daddy."

"Of what? That I'd hurt you?" Ash asked anxiously. He wanted to tell Tiny that that was ridiculous, that he would never hurt him. They both knew that wasn't a promise he could keep.

"No, that we'd have to hurt you," Tiny repeated. "You made us all promise to…to put an end to you if things went too far. Back then, in the Council Chamber, I was afraid that we'd have to do that. And I'm not sure what's more frightening…if we would be unable to fulfill our promise…or if we could."

"…I don't want you to have to kill me, Tiny, and not just for the obvious reasons," Ash said.

"I don't want to kill you either, Daddy!" Tiny said. "But…you can't say there's not a chance that…that we'll…have to…"

"No," Ash admitted sullenly. "No, I can't."

"I'm sorry, Daddy," Tiny said.

"It's all right," Ash said, though they both knew it wasn't. "I…I just need a second." He turned away.

"Daddy, I don't think we have time for you to-" Tiny started.

"Just give me a second, Tiny, this is a bit much for me to handle right now!" Ash snarled more harshly than he intended, his Aura flaring briefly. Tiny recoiled, hurt radiating from him, and Ash knew he'd made yet another terrible mistake. "I…I'm sorry. I…" He winced and turned from his son, walking away.

Pikachu, who had been spending the last few minutes talking to Dawn about strategy for her impending rematch with Paul and how he might be able to help, blinked when he noticed Ash walking away from the group. "Where is he going?"

"He needs a minute to clear his head," Briney said solemnly, a troubled look in his eyes.

"I don't believe we have a minute to spare," Boa said.

"We're going to need one. Ash…isn't well right now," Briney said softly, glancing at Tiny, who was staring after his father with a forlorn expression on his face.

"Should we…?" Leo asked uncertainly.

Briney shook his head. "No. Right now, we're the last people Ash needs to see." He doesn't need a reminder right now of what he might do to us…or what we might do to him…

Ash walked several meters away from the group and sat down on the ground, laying his staff next to him. He stared, unseeing, across the wasteland for a few moments, his Aura ebbing around his form. He thought nothing. He felt nothing. He was simply…numb. If he noticed Misty sitting next to him, a conflicted look on her face, he showed no sign.

"How dare he."

Ash stirred. "Huh?"

"How dare he," Misty said angrily. "He knows you're in a very delicate state right now. He knows you're unstable and…not well. And…and in spite of that, he goes and drops something like that on you! How dare he!"

"And why should you care?" Ash asked bitterly.

"I care!" she insisted.

"Why?!" Ash snarled without looking at her, causing her to flinch back. "You hate me! You've said as much dozens of times! You're constantly taunting me about how my transformation into a Void Pokémon is inevitable, and how I'm either going to kill everyone or everyone is going to kill me. Why the fuck do you care that my own son is having doubts about me?!"

"I-I…" Misty stammered.

"Well?"

"I don't know, okay!" Misty shouted finally. "I…I just do…and I don't know why…"

Ash made a curt laugh. "And I'm the messed-up one? Seems to me like you have issues of your own to work out, Misty. If you hate me so much, show some fucking consistency, because its things like that that make me wonder if you really want me dead after all."

"I do want you dead!" Misty snapped.

"Then act like it! Or don't!" Ash yelled. "Make up your mind. Or leave me alone. Or do whatever the fuck you want. I'm not sure I really care anymore."

Misty cringed. "…Ash…I…"

"Ash!" Pikachu shouted. "Lily's ready! I'm sorry if you're dealing with…something right now, but we have to go! We can talk about it later!"

"Well, that's my cue," Ash said, standing up. "Putting my own issues on hold and letting them get worse and worse because I have to go save someone else. Again. As usual. That's the life of the Chosen One, huh? Thank Arceus for bestowing this infinite honor upon me."

His Aura simmering, he stalked away, not seeming to notice his footprints were burning. Misty stared after him for a while, confusion and hurt and longing flickering across her decaying features. "I don't understand," she whispered. "I hate you. I know I hate you.

"But then…why does a part of me want you to come out of this in one piece?"

Meanwhile…

Deep, deep, deep beneath the crater that had once been Treasure Town, beneath the ruins of the first civilization to settle there, beneath the accursed Door to the Abyss, there was a cylindrical chamber. A great chamber. One so large that all the inhabitants of Treasure Town prior to its occupation and subsequent destruction could have been crammed in there in all their unwashed glory.

The chamber was made of an unearthly material that seemed to be part stone, part metal, and part crystal, in a completely alien style, much like the ruins far above it. Glowing runes matching the same language of the long-dead race that had once dwelled in the ancient city drifted all over the place…but many of the runes were either red, looked broken, or both. Carvings and heads of strange creatures unlike any Pokémon that had ever walked the face of the Earth lined the higher reaches of the vaulted walls, and grew so thick higher up in the chamber that the entire ceiling seemed to be completely made up of them, all staring down in silent condemnation at what was occurring below them. A large bell held by a statue of some kind of many-winged almost incomprehensible semi-serpentine alien being was suspended by chains high above the floor.

In the center of the room, there was a great circular dais with a pit in the middle, and complex glowing lines reminiscent of circuit patterns running away from the pit, across the floor, and into the walls. The Emerald Star Badge was floating in the air over the pit. The pit was full of blood, the level of which gradually rose bit by bit with each new Pokémon that jumped into it, accompanied by a brief flash from the Star Badge and pulses of light flowing through the power conduits on the floor. And what Pokémon might be jumping into this pit, you might wonder?

Chobins. Hundreds and hundreds of giggling, deranged Sunfloras, spawning at least a dozen per second from banks of cloning machines that had been set up against the walls, dancing and twirling in surprisingly neat rows and patterns towards the center of the room, where they cheerfully jumped into the pit. Whenever a Chobin passed the pit's threshold, there was a flash of light from the Star Badge and they were completely liquefied, their blood raining down to join the ever-growing crimson mass steadily rising towards the top of the sacrificial well.

But one can't dance without a tune, and that tune was provided by a very high-tech pipe organ that had been set up against the back wall between two of the cloning machines, performed by Viers of all Pokémon, who claimed that he'd been a pianist (or eaten a pianist, it wasn't clear) at one point in his storied life before joining the Nihilators. The tune, incidentally, was 'The Itsy Bitsy Spinarak,' but the way Viers played it made a simple nursery rhyme sound like an ominous dirge of impending doom. Which, in this instance, it was. A digital readout hung on the wall right above the organ with a number on it, and every time a Chobin jumped into the pit, the number went up by one. Robot spiders crawled around the readout and the walls and sculptures, maintaining the cloning pods and generally adding to the very creepy atmosphere of the chamber.

"Look at them! Look at them all! So many Chobins!" the only Sunflora in the room wearing glasses cried, looking at his many clones with glee from where he stood next to the pipe organ.

"I know…it's horrible…" Raikou murmured in disgust.

"So many of them…all looking at me like that…" Entei shuddered.

"We should kill them all," Suicune said in disgust.

"That's kind of what we're doing anyway," Paul, wearing a suit of golden armor comprising of two gauntlets, some mail, a chestplate and a helmet all resembling the Slicer's armor, pointed out. The Gold Star Badge was fastened to his chestplate.

"Yes, but they make my skin crawl. I'd rather do it in person rather than watch them march to their deaths," Suicune sniffed.

"How can they be okay with that, anyway? Is Chobin really that messed up that every one of his clones is happy killing themselves?" Raikou asked.

"YES WE CHOBIN ARE IN FACT BEING HAPPY KILLING OUR CHOBINSELVES!" every Chobin in the room shouted cheerfully.

"Ah," Raikou said, sweatdropping.

"Oh, how dearly Chobin wishes Chobin could join Chobin's brethren in marching to their Chobiny deaths! It looks so wonderful! And Chobintastic!" Chobin gushed.

"Not just yet, Chobin," Tarantulas said from his perch tied to the top of Chobin's head. "You can be ze last to go in if you like, but I still need you here for ze moment."

"Okie-dokie-pokie-smokie-bokie-lokie-rokie-yokie-w okie-eokie-rokie-tokie-yokie-quokie-kokie-jokie-ho kie-gokie-fokie-stokie-zokie-cokie-vokie-nokie-mok ie-cream pudding!" Chobin said happily.

Rolling his eyes, Tarantulas turned to face his guest…or tried to, before remembering he couldn't move on his own power. "Chobin, turn to face our guest, would you please?"

"Okie-dokie-pokie-smokie-bokie-lokie-rokie-yokie-w okie-eokie-rokie-tokie-yokie-quokie-kokie-jokie-ho kie-gokie-fokie-stokie-zokie-cokie-vokie-nokie-mok ie-cream pudding!" Chobin said, happily complying.

Once he was face-to-face with his prisoner, Tarantulas grinned savagely. "Vell, Samuel? Vhat do you zink of my latest flash of brilliance?"

"I think it's absolutely disgusting, Tomaru," Professor Oak, bound in metal spider thread and wearing a psionic inhibitor around his forehead said distastefully.

Tarantulas laughed. "I know! Ze ancients who built zis place put a great seal on it to keep its power from ever being unleashed…a seal zat could only be broken by sacrificing one zouzand and one vicked beings. Zey believed zat nobody vould be able to break ze seal, because not only vould it be impossible to gazer so many evil beings—let alone fit zem in here—but zey zought zat nobody vould possibly be vile enough to sacrifice so many! Vell, look who has ze last laugh now! Zose imbeciles clearly never zought about cloning!"

"Actually, I was referring more to the fact that you're cloning this many Chobins than that you're giving them life just to kill them," Oak said. "You and I both know the world can barely handle one Chobin, let alone this many."

"Oh. Yes. Zat's true," Tarantulas admitted. "It's a good zing I'm only making zem to kill zem, really, or else zis sort of zing vould probably horribly backfire on me."

"It'll probably horribly backfire on you anyway, given your track record," Paul snarked. Tarantulas glared at him.

"Chobin does not see being any problem in making more Chobin and making more Chobin and making more Chobin and making more Chobin!" Chobin said. "We can be making to an army of Chobins to drown the world in Chobins and remake the world in Chobin's horribly flawed image!" All the Chobins in the room paused in their tracks to consider this. And since the cloning machines were still churning out new Chobins, pileups started to occur, and some of the old and new Chobins started arguing and eating and raping each other while others thought, which is always a horrible thing for any Chobin to do.

"Oh crap, they're getting ideas!" Raikou cried in horror.

"Quickly, kill them all before they turn on us!" Suicune said, gathering her power.

"Sounds like a good plan to me," Paul said, brandishing his claws.

"Zat von't be necessary. Chobin, if you vere to make an army of yourself to dominate ze world, you'd have to share Marianne viz all of zem," Tarantulas said quickly.

Chobin gasped. "What?! No! This cannot be being! Chobin will share Marianne with nobody but Chobin, by which Chobin doesn't mean Chobin will share Marianne with clones of Chobin—or if Chobin does, no more than maybe three at a time—but only Chobinself, so no other Chobin but Chobin can have Marianne! EveryChobin but Chobin go back to killing Chobinselves!"

"…My brain hurts trying to understand what he just said," Raikou groaned.

"Your brains hurts trying to understand anything," Suicune said, causing Raikou to snarl.

Most of the Chobins shrugged and resumed their march to their demise, but a few thought differently. "Why should you be the only Chobin to have Marianne, Chobin?" one clone asked stubbornly.

"Yes, we are all Chobin, surely any one of us Chobins are being bad enough for Marianne, by which this Chobin means good, in a bad way, that is also good while also still being bad?" another asked.

"Because this Chobin is wearing glasses and you Chobins aren't, so you Chobins have to do what the Chobin with glasses, which is this Chobin and not you Chobins who don't have glasses, says! So there! Says Chobin!" Chobin said, sticking out his tongue.

The recalcitrant clones considered this for a moment. "Eh, good enough for this Chobin," one of them said finally.

The others nodded in agreement. "Well, back to killing Chobinselves!" The Sunfloras merrily resumed their dance of death.

"…That made absolutely no sense whatsoever," Oak said, a pained look on his face.

"Yes, vhich is vhy it made perfect sense to ze Chobins," Tarantulas said. "You see, Chobin is insane, and knows he's insane, so vill follow insane and ludicrous logic zat is actually illogic, even vhen he knows it is illogic, because he zinks zat is vhat insane Pokémon do."

"That is absolutely not wrong!" all the Chobins declared.

"Ah," Oak said.

"Ugh. The sooner we're done here, the better. If I have to spend too much longer trying to fathom how Chobin's mind works, I'll go insane," Raikou complained.

"If we have to listen to Viers play 'The Itsy Bitsy Spinarak' like that for much longer, I'll go insane," Suicune complained.

Viers huffed. "Everyone is being critical of Viers' work. Like critics. Who are critical of Viers' work. Because that is what critics do. They critique people. Such as Viers. And Viers' work. Which is my work, because I am Viers, and Viers is me. Of which they are critical."

"Forget Chobin, listening to Viers talk is driving me nuts, too," Entei grumbled.

"So! Samuel…since we're going to be here a vhile longer, vhat say ve catch up?" Tarantulas said.

Oak stared at him incredulously. "…Are you seriously trying to make small talk with me? After destroying the entire city and just about everyone in it, nearly killing my assistant, abducting me, and using my knowledge to begin the process of preparing the Door to the Abyss to be opened?"

Tarantulas would have shrugged if he had shoulders. "Vell, zere isn't exactly anyone else here for me to talk to, and I've got nozing better to do."

"There's lots of people here for you to talk to," Oak pointed out.

Tarantulas snorted. "All of zem are subordinates, and novhere near my level of intellect."

"Hey!" Raikou said.

"Well, he's kind of right," Paul admitted. "In your case, anyway."

"Oh," Raikou said. There was a pause. "Hey!"

"You, on ze ozzer hand, I can have a discussion viz vizout feeling like I'm talking to a complete idiot," Tarantulas continued.

Oak frowned. "And why should I bother to satisfy your whim to chat, after everything you've done? And since you're going to kill me when this horrible plot of yours is at an end?"

"Zat's exactly vhy," Tarantulas said. "You're not going anyvere anytime soon, or ever again, so vhy not spend your last minutes chatting viz someone on your level of intellect? Especially one of your oldest and dearest friends."

"I'd hardly call you a friend, Tarantulas," Oak said coldly. "Not anymore. Not after everything you've done, and are going to do. Not after what you've become."

"Hmm. Yeah, I can see vhy you'd feel zat vay," Tarantulas admitted. "Still, I am in a talkative mood right now, and I'm going to talk, no matter vhat your feelings might be on ze matter."

"Joy," Oak muttered, rolling his eyes.

"So! I've been keeping up viz your exploits in recent years. You've made quite a name for yourself in ze archaeological, Pokémonological, and poetic fields. I'm impressed! Ve alvays knew you'd go far, back at University," Tarantulas said.

"We knew you'd go far, too," Oak said bitterly. "But not in this direction."

"Yeah, vell, neizer did I," Tarantulas admitted. "But…vell, zings don't alvays go ze vay ve plan, do zey? Still, I zink I've made ze best of ze hand fate has dealt me. Better zan I ever would have if I'd stayed ze straight and narrow, I zink."

"…Are you serious?" Oak asked incredulously. "Tomaru, you're a disembodied head strapped to the cranium of a gibbering lunatic. You've lost pretty much your entire original body, you and your cohorts have suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Team Aurabolt, and the closest thing you have to a friend is the aforementioned gibbering lunatic. You are despised by pretty much everyone on Earth who's heard of you, even those who once cared for you like a brother. And nobody loves you. Well, except for maybe the gibbering lunatic, I guess."

"Chobin can gibber real good!" Chobin declared. "Gibber gibber gibber! Gibber gibber gibber gibber! Gibber gibber! Gibber gabber!"

"That was not a gibber, it was a gabber," Viers commented, glancing up from the keyboard. "Does that make it gabbering, rather than gibbering, since it was a gabber rather than a gibber? Is that a thing?"

"No," Oak said.

"It is being a thing that is being now!" Chobin said. "Gabber gabber gabber! Gabber gabber gabber gabber! Gabber gabber! Gabber gibber!"

As Oak gave Tarantulas a smug look, the disembodied head sweatdropped. "O…kay…you might have a point. A…very, very large point. Zis certainly is not ze pazh I expected my life to take after I gave up my foolish dreams of saving ze vorld and embraced villainy."

"Life rarely goes the way we expect it to," Oak said. Paul frowned thoughtfully at this, and the beasts shifted uncertainly. Viers furrowed his brow briefly while he continued plonking on the keyboard, while Chobin continued happily gibbering and gabbering interchangeably.

"Vell?" Tarantulas asked after a moment.

"Vell—I mean, well what?" Oak asked.

"Aren't you going to ask?" Tarantulas asked.

"Ask what?" Oak asked, perplexed.

"Vhy I did it!" Tarantulas snapped in frustration. "Vhy I gave up my foolish dreams of saving ze vorld and embraced villainy!"

"Oh, that," Oak said.

Tarantulas would have facefaulted if he weren't strapped to Chobin's head. "'Oh, zat?!' Zat's all you can say?!"

Oak shrugged as best he could through his bonds. "What else can I say?"

"More zan zat!" Tarantulas shouted. "Surely you've vondered vhy I did it! You can't mean to tell me zat ze question of why I changed from one of your best friends to ze enemy of ze entire vorld hasn't kept you up at night?!"

Oak thought for a minute. "No, not really."

"NO?!" Tarantulas screamed incredulously.

"There was a time—right after the incident at the University, where I thought you died—where I agonized over it for a while, wondering what had happened to you, what could have possibly changed you into the monster you'd become, how I hadn't noticed it sooner, what I could have done differently, and so on," Oak said. "But after a while, I resigned myself to the knowledge that I'd probably never know—since I thought you were dead and all—and buried myself in more academic pursuits and, as you said, made a name for myself. I moved on."

"But…but after you learned I vas still alive, surely you started to vonder again, didn't you?!" Tarantulas asked desperately.

"Well, not really, since I was more interested in finding a way to stop you than trying to understand why you became the way you did," Oak said. "And besides, I seem to recall you telling me back then why you'd turned to evil: that you found evil wherever you went while traveling the globe, concluded it was the true state of all things, that Arceus wanted us to be this way, how we should all express our darkest desires and embrace evil to be honest to our inner hearts, and all the other rubbish Nietzsche wannabes and straw nihilists have been spouting for centuries. And I also figured that some of the stuff you found in the ruins of the Dark Ones warped your mind; I've heard that the ancient Aura Guardians destroyed as much of the work of those fiends not just because it could lead to the resurgence of Shadow Pokémon and Shadow Aura, but because it was so horrible and evil that just looking at it could drive a Pokémon mad. I've run across things like that in my line of work. Archaeology can be a very dangerous occupation in a world like ours. Why else do you think I'm in such a good shape despite being an academic who's getting on in years?"

"V-vell…zere's more to it zan zat!" Tarantulas stammered. "I only gave you ze bare-bones story back zen because I zought you vere about to die!"

"I don't really care," Oak said.

"Vhat are you talking about?! HOW CAN YOU NOT CARE?!" Tarantulas screamed.

"Like I said before, the reason for why you turned evil seemed less important to me than the evil you were doing," Oak said.

Tarantulas set his jaw. "Vell…ve have more time now, so I'm going to tell you ze whole, unabridged story!"

"Why?" Oak asked. "I already told you, I really don't-"

"You may not, but I'm sure ze ozzers are just dying to hear ze story of how I became evil!" Tarantulas said, looking hopefully at the other Nihilators.

"I don't really care either," Paul said.

"Eh," Raikou said.

"I'd rather take a nap," Suicune said.

"Or eat a few Chobins," Entei said, eyeing some of the clones and licking his lips. The clones squealed eagerly.

"Chobin already knows the story of how the Doctor became the Doctor and met Chobin to whom he told the story of how he became the Doctor," Chobin said.

"I am trying to concentrate on my music! I cannot afford any distractions! Because distractions are not cheap! Especially stories! That are very distracting! And therefore not cheap! Because my salary is not enough to pay for a distraction! Especially stories! That are very distracting! And therefore not cheap!" Viers declared, squinting his eyes to try and make out the notes on his songbook. Said notes were four times as large as they usually were, and the songbook was intended for seven year-olds. It was taking all of the Emboar's focus and concentration to understand what it was saying.

Tarantulas' eye twitched. "Vell…too bad! I've vorked myself up to zis, and I'm going to tell ze story! And zen you'll care, and maybe even see zings my vay!"

"I highly doubt that," Oak said. "I don't suppose you could just torture me instead? That might be marginally more interesting."

"I'd be happy to do it," Paul said, his interest perking up.

"NO! SHUT UP AND LISTEN!" Tarantulas shouted, much to Paul's disappointment. And then he began to tell his tale.

Meanwhile, on the surface…

As the heroes had been warned, they faced heavy resistance the instant they appeared in the plaza of the Door. Unfortunately for the Nihilators who'd camped themselves around the evil portal, forty-plus Shadow Pokémon weren't much of a match for Team Aurabolt in their current state. Bothering to write the battle would be a waste of space, since it hardly lasted more than a few minutes. Neither would there be any point in detailing their trek through the half-flooded city streets, cutting down any Nihilator or robot spider that got in their way, and rallying any band of surviving soldiers they ran into while far above them, Lugia took on the Arachnoblast with the help of the handful of remaining flyers and Barbedo's crew mounted on Polly's back. There are far more interesting things to talk about than that.

Such as what happened once Tracey finally led them to the entrance to the tower buried beneath the ancient city. "Here it is," Tracey said as he led the party into one of the many massive buildings making up the fallen metropolis, the soldiers and pirates they'd met along the way remaining outside to guard their backs. They had run into increased Nihilator resistance the closer they got to the structure, making it clearer that this was not a place the Nihilators wanted them near, meaning it was also much more likely they might try to storm the building to come in after them. As always, the heroes were impressed by the size and scale of the construction. Just how big had the former occupants been, anyway? "By analyzing various clues and scriptures scattered around the city, the Professor figured out that the one entrance to the tower was here."

Ash frowned at the large square hole in the center of the cavernous space taking up the building's interior, with a spiral staircase comprised of steps far larger than most Pokémon were used to winding down its sides into depths even his keen eyes were having trouble making out. Some of the seawater that had flooded into the ruins when part of the volcano wall was broken earlier had made it into this room as well, covering the floor in about a millimeter of water, and small streams trickled over the brink into the chasm. "So we can see."

"I'd have thought something like this would be a bit less…obvious," Pikachu said. "I mean, just about anyone could stumble in here and find this."

"Or fall over the edge," Leo commented, peering over the brink of the pit. "Why do they never put railings on these things?"

"This hole wasn't actually here the last time I was in here," Tracey said. "It used to be just a smooth, blank, perfectly normal expanse of floor." He pointed to the back wall, where what looked to be one of the many strange mosaics or carvings that could be found just about everywhere in the city had been smashed open to reveal an incredibly complex mess of circuitry and wires and gears and other machinery and paraphernalia that even Leo had trouble classifying. "The Professor figured out that that thing over there was a puzzle lock keeping the door hidden. He was still working on a way to solve it before all this happened. It was extremely complex, possibly the toughest puzzle he's ever seen…and he's seen a lot of locks given some of the archaeological expeditions he's been on."

Leo whistled as he took in what little of the puzzle remained. "Wow. That thing looked really complicated, from what's left. Even my sunglasses are having trouble analyzing it."

"From what little the Professor could glean from it, it was a mathematically-based puzzle using some kind of shifting algorithm so that the solution changed every few minutes. You wouldn't need to be a genius to solve it, you'd need to be the smartest person in the entire solar system, and even then it might take several hours to figure it out!" Tracey said.

"I could've done it," Briney said. He frowned as he looked at some of the strange symbols covering the remaining pieces of the puzzle. They were very small and very fine and there were a lot of them, and seemed to change shape by the second. His eyes started watering just looking at them. "…Probably."

"Apparently, it wasn't enough to keep Tarantulas out," Pikachu commented.

"Yeah, guess the ancients never considered someone might just smash the thing in…" Tracey said with a nervous laugh.

"Well, there's a reason these people aren't around anymore," Nuken said callously.

"So we haveta go down there?" Tiny asked. "Looks like a loooooooong way down."

"Well, it's a big tower, buried deep underground, and the place Tarantulas is heading to is at its very bottom," Tracey said.

Which means we must get going as well. He has quite the head start, Dawn said.

"I'm not looking forward to having to walk down all those stairs," Leo complained.

"We may not have to," Lily said. She waved her wand over the pit, and suddenly a circular platform of purple energy materialized above it, floating over the chasm.

"Ha! Nice going, babe. This is why magic rules!" Leo whooped.

"This will certainly save us some time," Princess Boa agreed.

"I don't actually need it, since I can fly anyway…but I guess riding the elevator down won't hurt," Briney said gruffly.

"I'm afraid this is where we must part ways," Nuken said apologetically as Team Aurabolt (and Princess Boa) climbed or floated onto the platform. "I am still needed here."

"As am I," Victini said. "Don't worry, though! We'll make sure the Nihilators don't come climbing down after you!"

"Though they'd be stupid to try, considering what you'd do to 'em!" Fat Pete said.

"Dear, they're Nihilators, of course they're stupid," Molly chided him.

"I wish I could do more, but I'm not cut out for this kind of thing, and my knowledge runs out here. The Professor had a better idea of what might be down there than I did," Tracey said sadly.

"Don't worry, Tracey. You've helped us enough already," Pikachu said.

Lily nodded. "Get to safety while you still can."

"Yeah, wouldn't want your girlfriend who is totally absolutely real you swear to be heartbroken 'cause something happened to you," Leo said.

"Don't even joke about that, mon," Tracey muttered.

"Good luck to all of you," the Druddigon said. "From what I've seen of you guys so far, if anyone can stop that bug, it's you eight!"

"We have every intention of doing just that," Princess Boa said.

"Good hunting to you as well, Father," Lily said.

Nuken laughed. "Daughter, I wouldn't call it a hunt so much as a slaughter. We shall make these bastards pay a hundredfold for every drop of Draconian blood they've shed."

"And Fichinan!" Victini agreed. "But we don't need to stand here talking about it, you have to get moving! Stop Tarantulas before he can finish whatever crazy scheme he's up to this time!"

"We'll do just that," Ash said tersely, surprising the others. It was the first words he'd spoken since they entered the city. "Come on, guys. Let's go."

Lily exchanged concerned looks with the others before nodding. "Right. Let's go. Into the depths!"

With a last exchange of farewells, Lily's eyes glowed, and the platform descended into the pit, leaving their escorts behind. "Do you think they'll be okay?" Tracey asked, waving goodbye to the heroes as they vanished into the darkness.

"I have no doubt of it," Nuken said. "Ash, though…"

"Yeah…" Victini murmured.

"Huh? What's wrong with Ash?" Tracey asked.

"Nothing you need to concern yourself with," Nuken said curtly.

"Which means it's probably something I should concern myself with," Tracey grumbled.

"Maybe so, but not right now," Victini said.

"Lieutenant, you, Fat Pete, and Molly take a contingent of soldiers and escort Mr. Sketchit from the city, please. This is no place for a civilian," Nuken said to the Druddigon.

"Huh? But I'm a private," said the confused Druddigon.

"Not anymore, you're not," Nuken said, causing the Cave Pokémon's face to light up with joy.

"Wait, you ain't the boss of us! Why should we do what you say?" Fat Pete demanded.

"Because you know better," Nuken said, glaring at him. "Or at least, I hope you do."

Fat Pete swallowed and nodded frantically. "Y-yes, sir, I'm supposing I do."

Nuken nodded. "Good. I'm glad that's settled."

As the Shedinja floated away with Victini, Tracey sidled up to the skeleton and commented, "Pretty intense guy, isn't he?"

"And here I thought Acting Cap'n Barbedo was the only bloke who could make my bones jitter like that," Fat Pete said, trembling, his bones knocking against each other rather loudly.

Molly shook her head slowly. "What a strange and wondrous world we've found ourselves in, eh, Petey?"

"Well, look at it this way, Molly: at least it ain't boring," Pete said with a grin.

Molly chuckled and brushed her wingtips against her husband's skull affectionately. "A pirate's unlife, that's for us, eh, Petey boy?"

"And to think I was satisfied living on a resort in the middle of nowhere for almost two thousand years! Huh. I didn't know what I was missing," Pete said fondly.

"It's almost enough to make you want to go back to the ol' days of pillage and plunder, wot?" Molly said.

"Yeah," Pete said wistfully. "Er, almost," he quickly amended when he saw the alarmed looks Tracey and the Druddigon were giving him.

The newly minted lieutenant shook his head. "You can reminisce about the 'good old days' later. Right now, we have a civilian to escort to safety."

Fat Pete sighed as they headed for the exit. "Great, we have to walk all the way out of the city. Again."

"Look on the bright side, Petey, at least ye're getting some exercise," Molly said.

"I don't need exercise, I'm a skeleton," Pete groused. "I'm not the one who gets transported everywhere free of charge. Methinks ye need to lose some weight, Molly. Ye're getting a little pudgy around the ribcage there."

"Why you!" Enraged, Molly started pecking Pete's skull, causing him to yelp and frantically try to swat her off.

Tracey and the Druddigon sweatdropped. "This is why I'm glad I'm not married…" the Dragon murmured.

"I've never met my girlfriend in real life…I hope she doesn't hit me like that," Tracey said nervously. "I'm very fragile, after all."

The Druddigon frowned. "Aren't you a Smeargle? Can't you use that Sketch power of yours to learn powerful moves to defend yourself?"

"I was never a very good artist," Tracey confessed. "Why do you think I'm working for an archaeology Professor rather than pursuing a degree in Art?"

While Tracey lamented his lack of talent, Team Aurabolt (and Princess Boa) descended the staircase leading to the tower. The air was a little tense; all of them could tell that something was wrong with Ash, but none of them were quite sure how to broach the subject. Tiny, who couldn't help but feel that this was his fault—which it was—timidly hovered on the far side of the platform, too ashamed to face his father. The residual feelings of bitterness he could feel through their bond were not so easily ignored.

Eventually, Pikachu decided if someone were to do something, it might as well be him. "Um, Ash?"

Ash sighed and closed his eyes. "No, Pikachu, I'm not feeling all right at the moment."

Pikachu blinked. He hadn't even asked the question. Then again, it had been kind of obvious, hadn't it? "Is…there anything we can do?"

Ash shook his head. "I…don't really want to talk about it right now."

"Ash, Lugia told you you need to be more open about your feelings-" Lily started.

"I know that, but now isn't exactly the best of times to get into it," Ash said. "And yes, I'm aware that keeping this to myself may negatively affect my emotions, which will have a bad influence on my Aura, but we really don't have time to talk about this right now. Later, sure. But not right now. If we try and deal with this now, none of us will be in the right state of mind to help the Professor."

"Whereas if you keep it to yourself, all of us but you will be in the right state of mind," Boa pointed out.

"Better one person be messed-up than eight," Ash said.

"More like two…" Tiny murmured to himself. Ash grimaced but said nothing. The others exchanged uncomfortable looks, not sure what to do.

"Tiny's not the only one who's losing faith in you, you know," Misty commented. She didn't sound like she was just enjoying this fact, oddly enough. "All of them thought that, even if your training wasn't going well, that you had a handle on things. What happened in the Council Chamber dissuaded them of that notion."

"I know," Ash said.

"They still care about you and believe you can overcome this…but doubt is starting to sink in, as well as the reality of the situation," Misty said.

"I know," Ash said.

"They know that they might have to kill you after all," Misty said.

"I know," Ash said.

"Doesn't that bother you at all?" Misty asked.

"A little," Ash said quietly. "But I don't blame them, really. I'm not sure I believe in myself anymore either." Misty bit her lip but said nothing.

"Leo," Briney muttered to the Squirtle.

"Huh? What is it?" Leo asked in puzzlement.

"Say something inspiring. You know what would work best in this situation," Briney said.

Leo thought about that for a moment. Under his shades, his eyes lit up. He did know what would work best, just as Briney knew he would. "Hey, Ash?"

"Yeah?" the Lucario asked, glancing at him.

"Right now you're feeling pretty down on yourself, right?" Leo asked.

"…Yeah, pretty much," Ash admitted.

Leo nodded. "You're not sure you believe in yourself anymore."

"Not really," Ash confessed.

"Do you believe in us?" Leo asked.

Ash blinked and looked at Leo in surprise. "Huh? Of course I do. What kind of question is that?"

"Well, we believe in you, Ash, even if you don't believe in yourself," Leo said. "And if you believe in us, and we believe in you, then just believe in the us who believes in you!"

Ash gave Leo a startled look…and then his face hardened. "Seriously, Leo?"

Leo blinked. "Huh?"

"At a time like this, you're still trying to joke around and act like this is just a game or one of your TV shows? Did you even see what was going on outside?!" Ash snapped, his Aura flaring up a little. "People are DEAD, Leo. An entire town wiped off the face of the map, and not for the first time, either! And more people are going to die if we don't stop Tarantulas. And despite all that, you're still treating this like this is one of your stupid stories! After all the crap that we've been through, especially just now, how can you act like this is all going to turn out okay?!" For me, went unspoken, but everyone knew he was thinking it. He wasn't the only one.

"Ash, that's uncalled for-" Pikachu started, although a part of him couldn't help agreeing with his brother.

"No, Pikachu. It's not uncalled for," Leo said, suddenly very serious. He took off his sunglasses for a moment. Under them were various slits in his mask for his eyes, but Ash could still tell that the Squirtle was staring piercingly at him even though he couldn't completely see his eyes. "Ash brings up a good question. How can I treat this like a game, in the face of everything that's happened? How can I keep acting like things are going to be okay despite all the shit we've seen?

"Do you really think I'm that dense? That I don't realize that actual lives are on the line here? I've been part of this adventure from practically the beginning. I've seen people lose their homes and lives even before I joined this team, or did you forget that my town was practically ruled by a ravenous dragon for several years?" Ash flinched, realizing that he had, in fact, forgotten this. "Do I treat this adventure of ours like a story? Certainly I do. But not all stories are nice and light and fluffy tales of happy people. I'm well aware that ours isn't. Stories can sometimes go to very dark places. So dark that sometimes it doesn't seem like there's any light at the end of the tunnel.

"But Ash…just because things get really bad along the way doesn't mean there can't be a happy ending. Heck, in any good epic adventure tale, it's almost guaranteed that things will go Pinap-shaped close to the end. But that just makes the inevitable payoff that much sweeter…assuming the author actually knows what they're doing and doesn't pull off some disappointing anticlimax, or even worse, whip out a Diablous Ex Machina to screw everyone over for no real reason."

"Leo…" Lily warned him.

"Right, right, rambling," Leo said. "The point is, Ash…do I treat this like it's a story? Yes, I do. Because life is a story, and definitely not a stupid one. And there's no reason it can't have a happy ending if you work for it. After all, the best stories are the ones where the characters have to earn their happy ending, and I honestly think we're on our way there, after everything we've been through. All of us are."

Ash stared at Leo wonderingly. He wasn't the only one. "…You…you really think there's a happy ending? For all of us?" the Lucario asked softly.

"Hell yes. I have to," Leo said. "Because otherwise, we might as well just give up now and let the Nihilators win."

"…Thank you, Leo," Ash said finally, a strange look in his eyes. "You've…given me a lot to think about."

"Then my work here is done," Leo said.

"Where did that come from?" asked an amazed Pikachu as Ash turned away, lost in thought.

"It's something I've been working on in my head for a while, just in case one of you finally snapped from all my antics and asked me that question," Leo said, putting his sunglasses back on. Briney smirked to himself. He'd known there was a reason Leo was the perfect person to, if not snap Ash out of his funk, at least get him thinking in a different direction.

Dawn shook her head in bemusement. Only you, Leo.

"And I wouldn't have it any other way," Lily said, kissing Leo's cheek, heating up his armor once again.

"…You know Leo, sometimes I forget that underneath all that…weirdness and trivia cluttering about your head you're actually a very intelligent and even mature guy," Pikachu said.

"Thanks, mon," Leo said.

There was a pause. "You aren't going to say something that makes me feel like taking it back?" Pikachu asked.

"No," Leo said.

"Oh." There was another awkward pause. "Okay, then," Pikachu said reluctantly.

"You are quite the interesting group," Boa said, bemused.

"You don't know the half of it," Briney said.

Somewhat hesitantly, Tiny approached his father. The Lucario, deep in thought, blinked when he felt his presence, and then gave a slight nod. Looking relieved, Tiny leaned against his parent's side. A small smile formed on Ash's face.

"They still have doubts, you know," Misty pointed out. "Leo's pep talk isn't enough to make it all go away."

"I know," Ash said. "And I still have my doubts, too."

"But?" the figment asked.

"But…that doesn't mean I have to let them control my future," Ash said. "And if Leo really thinks we can pull through in the end, then I want to believe him. He's almost always been right about stuff like this in the past."

"…I hope that decision doesn't prove to be the wrong one," Misty said.

Ash smiled. "Somehow, I don't think it is." Misty looked away, and even though Ash couldn't see it, he was certain she was trying to suppress a smile of her own. And if there's hope for me…maybe there's hope for you, too.

They continued into the depths, but the tension was broken, and a renewed sense of determination and optimism filled the air. They would find Tarantulas, stop him, and save Professor Oak. No other option was possible. To consider otherwise was unthinkable.

Only time would tell, though, if they were right in this assessment or not…

Meanwhile, much, much, much further down…

"Once upon a time, many years ago in a distant land, I vas born," Tarantulas said as one of his robot spiders played a tiny violin, much to Viers' annoyance, since it made it harder for him to concentrate on his organ playing. "Everyzing vent downhill from zere.

"I vas born in ze vild among a modest zree zousand or so siblings. I had a number of birz defects, including a few missing legs, so understandably my mozzer decided to eat me. I managed to escape and make it to civilization, vere I vas taken in by a couple of Stoutlands who vere professional dog show competitors. Unfortunately, life in zeir household vas little more pleasant zan living in ze vild due to ze fact zat I vasn't a canine Pokémon, because I vas unlucky enough to be born in ze backvater country of Droolselstein so vas unable to gain access to ze modern medicine zat could have cured my condition since ze people zere are very superstitious and vere convinced medical practitioners like Nurse Joy are all vitches vhich is vhy I had to get mechanical parts installed to replace most of my body later in life, and because zey vere completely insane. More insane zan me, I mean."

"But not more insane than Chobin is being insane!" Chobin said.

Tarantulas shuddered. "No, zank goodness for zat much, at least. Still, zey vere far from ze best parents, and so I had a pretty lousy childhood. If I vere to tell you how lousy it vas, it vould take all day, but highlights include being forced to take ze place of ze family lawn gnome after it vas repossessed, ze inventions I made for ze school science fair alvays lost to baking soda volcanos, my mozzer never let me svim, I had to vear hand-me-up girls' clozzing, my mozzer loved my brozzer more zan me, my only friend vas a painted balloon who flew away because I was a lawn gnome at ze time so couldn't chase after him, an artistic masterpiece I once made vas destroyed by my idiot brozzer whom everyone loved more zan me for some reason, my girlfriend left me for a Vailord, and I vas briefly raised by vild Liepards. Yes, all of zat happened, I'm not making zis shit up."

"…I know it did. You told me about it and many, many other sordid tales of your childhood when we were roommates," Oak said. "Plus, you took me home to meet your parents during holiday break one time."

"Oh. Right," Tarantulas said. "Forgot about zat."

"You really don't have to tell me all this, you know, I already know most of it-" Oak started.

"Eventually I managed to vin a scholarship to Pokémon University by getting 'Miss Congeniality' in my village's annual ugly contest. Don't ask," Tarantulas said sourly. "So I vas finally able to leave Droolselstein and go to someplace actually civilized: college."

"College? Civilized? Since when?" Paul asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Have you ever even been to college?" Entei asked skeptically.

"Yes, I thought you were raised all your life in a ninja fortress," Suicune said.

"I was," Paul said. "And it was very disciplined. For the most part. I've spied on colleges, though. I'd hardly call them bastions of civilization."

"Trust me, compared to Droolselstein zey vere," Tarantulas said.

Oak nodded. "He's right, it was. I've been to Droolselstein. They thought I was a witch and tried to burn me at the stake because I was Psychic."

"How'd you survive?" Raikou asked.

"I'm a Water-type," Oak pointed out.

"Oh, yeah," Raikou said.

"Of course, zat gave zem even more proof zat you vere a vitch," Tarantulas said. "Boy, vas zat awkvard…anyvay, at college I met ze mons who vould become my best friends, even better friends zan my balloon, because zey could actually talk back: Emile Kaminko, and you, Samuel."

"And to repay us for our friendship, you and Chobin killed Kaminko, tried to kill me, and intend to kill me now," Oak said.

"Yeah, zat is pretty ungrateful behavior towards ze guys who befriended me, gave me my first set of mechanical body parts, and helped pay ze rent on our dorm, isn't it?" Tarantulas admitted. "But hey, evil. Vhat do you expect."

"You weren't always evil," Oak said. "You certainly weren't back then."

Tarantulas grimaced. "No. No, I vasn't. Back zen, after you and Kaminko befriended me by installing ze mechanical parts zat alleviated some of ze pain zat vas afflicting me since birzh, you svept me up in your talk of changing ze vorld…and I abandoned my original plans of taking over ze town my stupid brozzer had become Mayor of and deciding to use my genius for ze betterment of Pokémonkind."

"Something you seem to have forgotten completely about in the present," Oak said.

"After I graduated, I found out ze Pokémon of ze vorld didn't deserve to be bettered," Tarantulas snarled. "But I am getting ahead of myself. Vhile all of us vanted to change ze vorld, ve each sought to do it in different vays. Samuel, you focused on archaeology and Pokémonology because you believed zat by understanding ze past, ze bond ve once shared viz humans, and how modern society vorks you could find a way to improve ze future."

"Yes, Tomaru, I know. I was there," Oak said dryly.

Tarantulas ignored him. "Emile, on ze ozzer hand, vas more interested in ze sciences, especially anyzing involving machines, vhich is how he knew how to build my first set of proszetics. He vanted to make ze vorld a better place zrough ze power of technology."

"And look where that got him," Entei said.

"Dead! Dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!" all the Chobins chanted.

"And FUCKED!" the glasses-wearing Chobin guffawed. Oak ground his teeth.

"As for me…I studied Pokémonology, sociology, psychology, zeology, cybernetics, and a bunch of ozzer stuff," Tarantulas said. "Fate had dealt me a pretty crummy hand at birz, and I vanted to know vhy. Vhy Arceus had done zis to me. Vhy He allowed zings like zis to happen to people all over ze vorld. Vhy zey had to suffer, and vhy so many of zem chose to do horrible zings to each ozzer. I hoped zat by understanding vhy people do such terrible zings, and vhy Arceus lets it happen, I could find ze source of evil—or at least, its potential vizin ze Pokémon heart—and remove it, and in doing so eliminate all hatred and cruelty and evil in ze vorld forever!"

"And instead, you help to spread it and make the world a worse place than it was when you came into it," Oak said in disgust. "How far you have fallen, Tomaru."

"…People change, Samuel. Some more zan ozzers," Tarantulas said quietly. "After graduating, ve made a vow to make our vay in ze vorld and do our best to put vat ve had learned in college to good use to change ze vorld, and in tventy years, come back to ze University to teach vat ve had learned to ze next generation. Each of us set off in high hopes, certain zat ve vould save ze vorld in our own vay.

"If I had known zen vat I do now, I might have just given up and taken over zat town of my brozzer's after all…"

Meanwhile, several levels above them…

As soon as Team Aurabolt entered the tower, they found themselves pitted against a variety of traps and monsters and puzzles left behind by the architects. Many had already been disabled or destroyed by Tarantulas in his passage, but others were still active, and it took every ounce of their skill and ability to survive. Even Ash and Pikachu, veteran dungeon crawlers, found themselves having to constantly stay at the top of their game to withstand everything this ancient citadel could throw at them.

So it was a welcome respite for the heroes when they entered a chamber after a harrowing battle against approximately fifty golems that were part vegetable, part animal, and part mineral, while dodging flaming spiked logs swinging from the ceiling, fire jets erupting from the floor, and spiked walls that were closing in while giant saw blades and conveyor belts crisscrossed across the floor and threatened to drag them into massive spiked rollers and found nothing ominous waiting for them except a large square carpet with a Kecleon sitting on it, surrounded by an assortment of Potions, Orbs, food, TMs, and other items. So why did Ash and Pikachu look very tense and worried, albeit unsurprised to see this Pokémon?

"Ah, welcome!" the Kecleon said, looking up from his place on the carpet. "I've been expecting you, travelers! Welcome to the Seal Tower branch of the Kecleon Brothers' Shop! Come, peruse my fine wares! I'm sure I have something here among my merchandise that will be of use to you on your travels…" A grave expression formed on his face. "But be warned, any attempt at theft will not be taken lightly, and those who try to steal from me will have to deal with the consequences. Very, very serious consequences." He abruptly got cheerful again. "Today all Totter Orbs are half-off, so if you're feeling like confusing your enemies, I strongly suggest you take advantage of this bargain while it lasts!"

"…What the heck?" asked a confused Tiny.

"That's a Kecleon Shop," Ash explained to the Pupitar. "They sell items to travelers, adventurers, and Rescue Teams."

Pikachu nodded. "Back home, the Kecleon Brothers set up shop in town, in the wild, and in dungeons so they'll always be available to anyone who might need them."

But…how did he get down here? Dawn asked in confusion.

"I took the stairs, same as you, naturally," the Kecleon said.

"…But…the entrance to this place can't have been open for much more than an hour!" Princess Boa said in astonishment. "How did you get here so fast?!"

"Trade secret," the Kecleon said with a wink.

"Is how you got past all the traps and monsters we just went through a trade secret, too?" Lily asked.

"Yep! And don't even think of trying to read my mind, Captain Briney, or I'll have to consider you a thief…and you wouldn't want that, now would you?" the Kecleon asked with a smile.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to read your mind. I learned my lesson after the last time I visited one of your stores," Briney said with a shudder.

The rest of the group exchanged horrified looks. "If even Briney's willing not to read his mind…he must be very powerful," Lily said in concern.

Leo nodded. "It's never a good idea to anger shopkeepers, trust me on this."

"So, care to sample my stock?" the Kecleon asked cheerfully.

Ash and Pikachu exchanged glances. "Well…we're kind of in a hurry, but we're here, so I guess it couldn't hurt to take a look," Ash said.

Pikachu nodded. "You never know, we might find something useful."

"Okay guys, we're taking a quick shopping break," Ash announced. "If you want anything, you have five minutes to find it, and then we have to continue on our way."

"If you see something you like, pick it up and take it to the Kecleon," Pikachu said. "Do not, under any circumstances, take it off the carpet. You'll regret it. Trust me on this."

"So…we aren't going to question the fact that there happened to be a shop waiting for us in a dungeon that's been sealed off for countless eons that could only be accessed by passing through a veritable gauntlet of horrors, making almost any form of patronage impossible?" Princess Boa asked as they stepped onto the carpet to look at the items.

"Nope," Ash said as he examined a Foe-Seal Orb. That could come in handy…

"Ah," the Serperior said, sweatdropping.

Leo snorted as he pondered whether or not buying a Brick Break TM would be of any use. He was already strong enough to smash things with his Masked Rider powers, di d he need to learn a move that did the same thing? "And yet whenever I come up with something equally implausible, you say it's ridiculous? Psh, hypocrites."

They spent the next few minutes looking at the Kecleon's merchandise. The merchant had a number of rare and powerful items that were hard to find in most stores, and even Leo got excited when he saw an Everyone's Invincible Orb, claiming that those were almost impossible to get online.

Unfortunately, it did not take long for disaster to strike. Tiny, while perusing the available Orbs, noticed one that had a pattern resembling a large net covering its surface. Hmm. Is it some kind of trap? Like, a Net Orb? He wondered to himself. He looked around the Orb, but didn't see a label that told what it did. He turned around to ask the Kecleon what it was…

And in doing so, accidentally bumped into the Orb with the bottom of his shell, knocking the Orb off the small stand it was placing on…and in so doing, sealed his fate, for the Orb was not, in fact, a Net Orb—such things did not exist—but a Trawl Orb, which automatically draw all items on a dungeon's floor to the user upon activation. The Orb hit the carpet and shattered, activating instantly. Suddenly, every item on the carpet lifted into the air and shot towards Tiny, causing him to wail in alarm as he suddenly found himself buried under a veritable mountain of merchandise. Several other items and treasure chests, attracted by the inexorable pull of the Trawl Orb, flew through the doors or smashed through the walls, adding to the pile covering the young Pupitar.

Everyone gasped, though not necessarily for the same reasons. "TINY!" everyone of Team Aurabolt cried.

"MY MERCHANDISE!" the Kecleon shouted, turning red. Literally. His species can change colors, after all.

"Oh no," Pikachu whispered, face turning ashen. "Don't tell me he activated a Trawl Orb!"

Why, what does it mean if he activated a Trawl Orb? Dawn asked.

"Very, very bad things," Briney said ominously.

Ash paled, realizing the danger they were all in. "Mr. Kecleon, don't worry, I promise we can pay for everything! It was just an accident!"

Princess Boa nodded. "I am the Crown Princess of Fichina, money is no object."

"Money? MONEY?! You think money matters at a time like this?!" the Kecleon shrieked as a dazed Tiny pulled himself out of the very large pile of items. "According to the Kecleon Shop International Code of Customer Conduct, any Pokémon who uses a Trawl Orb within the vicinity of a Kecleon Shop, no matter how deep their pockets, is automatically labeled a thief and must suffer the consequences! And since your boy there just used a Trawl Orb, do you know what that means?!"

"…That…he's a thief?" Lily asked timidly.

"AND MUST SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES!" the Kecleon shrieked.

"Wait, then why do you even have Trawl Orbs for sale in the first place if using them around you gets you labeled a thief?!" Leo protested. "That's total Schmuck Bait, mon!"

"Weapons stores sell weapons even though there's nothing stopping clients from using them against the salesmon," the Kecleon pointed out. "It's expected for customers to refrain from doing that, though, least of all because it makes future purchases virtually impossible. Why should it be any different for my place of business?"

"Ah. Point," Leo admitted.

"But since you have broken the unspoken bond of trust between customer and salesPokémon, you must be punished!" the Kecleon said, whistling sharply.

Without warning, several dozen heavily armed and armored Kecleon appeared from out of nowhere. "What the…where did they come from?!" Lily stammered.

"Were they in hiding all this time, just waiting for someone to make a wrong move?" Boa suggested.

"No, I've never been able to sense any Kecleon around prior to an accidental theft. They just…appear," Ash said vaguely.

"Another trade secret, we assume," Pikachu said.

"And you say the world doesn't work like a video game with crazy shopkeepers like that?" Leo snorted.

"I'm sorry, Daddy…it was an accident," Tiny said weakly.

"It's all right, Tiny. This isn't the first time I've accidentally pissed off a Kecleon shopkeeper. All we have to do is get to the exit to the next level, and they have to let us go. It's part of their code," Ash assured his son.

"That it is," the Kecleon still seated on the carpet said. "But you'll have to fight through all of us first!"

"Psh, should be a piece of cake, they're only…" Leo's face paled under his mask at the data he got on the sunglasses. "Level 100…each…with ridiculously high stats and twice the speed of a normal Kecleon…and all sorts of rare and powerful gear…"

"We only have the best security to guard against thieves!" the shopkeeper said smugly.

"I suppose saying it was an accident and apologizing isn't enough?" Princess Boa asked.

"Nope!" the shopkeeper said.

She sighed. "Figures…"

"The only way to get out of this mess is to fight our way to the exit," Pikachu said, raising his sword.

"Be careful, everyone, this may be one of the toughest fights we've ever been in," Ash said, brandishing his staff.

"…Considering all the other fights we've been in, I really, really hope you're exaggerating," Lily said nervously.

"He's not," Briney said, face pale. "He's really not."

"GET THEM!" the shopkeeper yelled. The Kecleons howled battle cries and launched themselves at the heroes, beginning one of the most frantic and harrowing battles of their lives…

Which will not be shown so we can do more Tarantulas backstory. Enjoy!

Back in the sacrifice chamber…

"So I vent out into ze vorld, viz little more but ze clozes on my back and some spare parts Kaminko had made for me, zough by zat point I vas more zan capable of building my own if need be. I decided ze first place to start my journey vould be in ze distant norz, to pay tribute to the Law Rock. After all, if I vere trying to comprehend Arceus' will, vhat better place to begin zan zere?" Tarantulas continued. Chobin had been given a leg ripped off of one of his clones to gnaw on so he wouldn't interrupt by saying something stupid. "It vas a life-changing experience at ze time…and very, very cold. Seriously, vhy vas ze damn zing even up zere? Couldn't He have put it somevere more accessible? If He had, maybe ze vorld vould be a very different place, and I vould not have made ze choices I did."

"Actually, studies show it used to be much further south, but continental drift, along with a series of catastrophes, resulted in its resting place shifting northwards," Oak said.

"Nobody asked you," Tarantulas snapped. "Vhen I reached ze Rock, after days of vandering zrough ze icy vilderness, I vas so struck viz awe I didn't move for a full tventy minutes. Vhich almost killed me, again due to ze cold. Is it any vonder so many Arcean priests are Ghosts considering how many pilgrims DIE up zere? I mean, vat, zey couldn't set up a town nearby or change ze weazer so it vould be varmer or somezing?"

"Actually, that idea has been bantered about for centuries, but building a town up there is impractical due to the location, climate, and difficulties in getting supplies and food up there, and raising the temperatures enough to make the region more livable for non-Ice types could cause the surrounding ice to melt and raise water levels worldwide, resulting in massive flooding-" Oak started.

"SHUT UP! I know zat already, okay?! I vas just ranting! Jeez!" Tarantulas shouted.

Oak rolled his eyes. "All right, all right. So, you saw the Rock."

"Yes, and it changed my life," Tarantulas said wistfully, staring off into the distance. "All my doubts and concerns faded avay, and I became convinced zat, even if I did not understand ze reasons for Arceus' actions, zey vere for a good purpose, and it vould all vork out in ze end." He snorted. "Of course, now I know zat's because ze Rock puts out some kind of brainvashing energy to convince people zat Arceus is good and great, but I didn't know zat at ze time, so my naïve younger self had his faizh renewed. Ze poor, poor fool." There was a pause. Tarantulas frowned at Oak. "Vhat, you're not going to say somezing about how it's not brainvashing?"

Oak blinked. "Hmm? Oh, sorry, I thought I wasn't supposed to be interrupting. However, if you want my opinion, there are some studies that show-"

"I DON'T CARE," Tarantulas yelled. "Moving on! Viz my faizh in Arceus rekindled, I decided to start my quest to understand ze nature of evil and fazom Arceus' will in ze holy city of Yeshua, center of ze Arcean Order. Ze Order are said to be ze Pokémon closest to comprehending Arceus' mind, and I felt certain zat if I could find any answers, zey vould be zere." Tarantulas frowned. "I found answers, all right, but not vat I expected.

"Most of it vas ze same diatribe zey feed us at temple. Zat Arceus is omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, zat He has countless Guardians and gods and heroes to fight evil in His name zroughout ze Omniverse, zat all zings happen according to His grand and ineffable design, and so on. Nobody had a very good answer as to vhy, if Arceus is omnibenevolent, and all zings happen according to His vill, evil exists. Zere vere a variety of zheories and ideas, most of vhich conflicted and none of vhich vere satisfactory. Ze most prevalent one, next to it being part of Arceus' plan and ve veren't ready to understand it—which as you and I bozh know, Samuel, is just so much zeosophical garbage—vas zat tired old 'free vill' excuse. Except zat doesn't make sense eizer, because if everyzing happens according to Arceus' vill, zen zat means everyzing zat happens to us is predestined, meaning our choices don't matter, because choice is just an illusion, so ultimately nozing ve do really matters. And because parallel universes might sometimes spin off for every choice ve don't make or somezing, I vas never able to get a clear answer on vhezher or not zat's ze case for our universe or not. I don't zink ve have parallels like zat, but I could be wrong, but eizer vay zat still doesn't detract from my whole point about predestination. Venever I tried to debate zis or receive clarification from ze members of ze Order, zough, zey eizer got uncomfortable, said zat vas an interesting but razzer depressing idea, called me a blasphemer for even suggesting somezing like zat, or frankly admitted zey didn't know ze answer eizer, which in many vays seemed to me to be ze vorst zing zey could say: for if even Arceus' most devoted servants had no clue vhy He did zings ze vay He did and allowed evil to exist, vhat hope did I have? And vhat did it say about Arceus, zat He vas so inscrutable zat He doesn't even bozzer explaining Himself to his followers? Zis, along viz anozzer few zings, slowly made me zink ze unsinkable: zat perhaps Arceus was a charlatan and not as powerful as He pretends to be."

Oak raised an eyebrow skeptically. "And what would those 'zings' be?"

"First of all, zere's ze Ruler of Evil. No matter how powerful it is, I don't really understand why Arceus couldn't just smash it the instant it vas clear how dangerous it vas to ze Omniverse. Yes, I know, zere's ze whole 'Poké in ze grass' metaphorical explanation for vhy he didn't, but I don't buy it, if Arceus is REALLY omnipotent zat shouldn't have been a problem. If Arceus had just done somezing about ze Ruler of Evil Himself, zen ze Crisis Vars vouldn't have gotten as bad as zey did, but for vatever reason, He didn't! He barely did a single damn zing during ze entire mess aside from give orders and sit back and let ozzers fight for Him, like a coward! And aside from zat, zere's ze concept of Hell Year. It is said zat every now and zen Arceus needs to go into a period of hibernation to replenish His power, and vizout his vill actively suppressing it, evil grows zat much stronger. Ze uncomfortable implications zat Arceus' mind is forcing people not to become evil aside, zis begs ze question: if Arceus is really omnipotent, zen vhy does He need to go to sleep to replenish His strengzh in ze first place?! If He's omnipotent, He doesn't need rest, and has infinite power, so doesn't need to replenish it! Zerefore, He's eizer not all-powerful, or He's intentionally making zings harder for everyone in ze Omniverse, including his servants, again vizout telling zem vhy!" Tarantulas ranted.

Entei nodded. "Yeah, we never understood why He does any of those things, either."

"Sometimes I figured it was just an excuse for him to take a break from running the Omniverse and have a good long nap," Suicune said.

"I like taking naps," Raikou said.

"So does Chobin! Especially when Chobin is doing it inside of someone whom Chobin has scooped the intestines out of so Chobin can snuggle inside their corpse like a sleeping bag!" Chobin said.

"…Yeah, I don't do that," Raikou said in disgust.

"You see, Samuel? He keeps his own subordinates, ze divine beings, in ze dark about His actions! Does zat sound like ze behavior of a truly benevolent being to you?!" Tarantulas demanded.

Oak shrugged. "I admit it doesn't. However, nowhere is it written that a leader always needs to explain himself to those beneath him, so there's no reason Arceus has to, either."

"He should because zen ve vouldn't alvays be trying to figure out vat ze Abyss he vants from us!" Tarantulas pointed out. "To his lieutenants, if nobody else! But zey don't know, eizzer! Nobody knows!"

"And?" Oak asked.

"And vhat?" Tarantulas asked.

"And what of it? These are arguments I've heard before against Arceus, Tomaru. You aren't the first to think these thoughts or say these things. Do I have an answer? No, not really," Oak admitted. "But I don't need to counter your arguments, though there's probably plenty of things I could pull from philosophy and history to refute your statements. You've clearly made up your mind, and I can't change it, nor do I see the point in it. Similarly, I've already made up my mind, and I choose to believe in Arceus, no matter what you say. This is in no small part because I've managed to live a pretty decent life while keeping my faith and staying true to His principles…while your lack of it, Tarantulas, is at least partly responsible for your current situation."

Tarantulas rolled his eyes. "Oh please, I zought you of all people, Samuel, vould know better zan to call azeism evil."

"You're right, I do know better," Oak said. "However, I've done my best to embrace Arceus' Laws and have lived a good life. You turned your back on them. Can you honestly say that you've lived a good life, Tomaru?"

"I…zat…ze two zings are completely unrelated!" Tarantulas stammered. "Zere's lots of people who reject Arceus and live good lives, and plenty of people who embrace Him but live shitty lives!"

"Yes, Tomaru, but we aren't those people, are we?" Oak pointed out. "And most of those people don't try to outright dethrone Arceus or defy Him in the way you're trying to. Can you really be certain there's not a correlation between your defiance and your current state?"

"Correlation does not equal causation, Samuel," Tarantulas huffed. "And besides, if you'll recall, I vas in a pretty crummy state back vhen I believed in Arceus, too."

"Yes, and you still had a body, most of which was still organic, friends, and a bright future," Oak retorted. "Whereas now you're pretty much just a head and absolutely everyone despises you. How's that working out for you?"

"I…y-you…gaaaaaahhhh!" Tarantulas shouted in frustration.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand angrish," Oak said smugly.

"Whoa, the Professor's really pissing off the Doc," Raikou said, impressed.

"Hilarious, isn't it?" Suicune asked with a smirk.

"I know I'm loving this," Paul said in amusement.

After several seconds of gibbering and gnashing his mandibles, Tarantulas managed to regain some control over his temper and continued talking as if the previous argument had not occurred. "As zese treasonous zoughts began to filter zrough my head, I started noticing zings about ze priests and clergy, zings I had not noticed before. Namely, zat zey veren't quite as pure or holy as zey vould like us to believe. Okay, I'll admit zat most of zem really are decent and saintly people…for some reason. Ugh. Ozzers, however, vere corrupt as zey come—not anybody in high positions, admittedly, but still-and zis, along viz my growing doubts in Arceus, disheartened me, for if evil could exist even among the holiest places and Pokémon on Earth, vhat hope could there be of removing it completely? And if Arceus allowed evil to exist among zose most devoted to Him…vhat kind of a master vas He, really?

"Dissatisfied viz ze Arcean Order, I traveled to religious sites and centers around ze vorld, hoping zat zey might have some answer or understanding zat I'd missed in Yeshua, somezing zat might renew my faizh. I researched philosophy and spoke to a variety of sages, in hopes zat zeir wisdom might hold some solution. I even tracked down and interviewed a few legendaries, hoping zat as servants of Arceus, zey might better fazom His vill. And vhile many of zem gave me lots of very deep and insightful answers, reading betveen ze lines I slowly began to realize zat absolutely none of zem really understood vhy ze vorld vas ze vay it vas eizer."

"Did you interview us?" Entei asked.

"I don't think I remember seeing a guy like him…" Suicune murmured.

"Ah, no, I vas never able to pin you down," Tarantulas said quickly.

"Oh, that makes sense," Raikou said. "We do travel a lot, and we're pretty quick. Wouldn't have been easy for a crippled Ariados like you to catch up to us anyway."

"Yes, yes, of course," Tarantulas said. Entei frowned. He wasn't sure why, but something was nagging him at the back of his mind. He was almost certain he'd encountered a cyborg Spinarak at some point in the past who'd asked him all sorts of theological questions…but the first time he'd ever encountered Tarantulas was when they were first inducted into the Nihilators, wasn't it? That was the only time he could ever remember seeing the mad scientist before.

So why was something telling him that wasn't the case?

"Disillusioned, I decided to give up on trying to understand Arceus, concluding zat vhatever big plan He had for creation, I vasn't sure I vanted a part of it. I'd vasted enough time trying to figure out vhy He allowed evil to exist, it was time I actually tackled my original objective: finding a vay to rid ze vorld of evil forever. Because if Arceus and His Guardians vere, for vhatever reason, unvilling to completely eradicate it, zen maybe it vas up to a mortal to succeed vere zey had failed," Tarantulas said.

"How humble of you," Oak said dryly.

"Shut it, Samuel. You know as vell as I do zere's lots of times vhere mortal heroes have accomplished somezing gods could not," Tarantulas said.

"Hey!" Raikou said indignantly.

"Well…he has a point," Suicune said reluctantly.

"…Yeah, but he didn't have to say it like that," Raikou complained.

"So, I sought out evil," Tarantulas said. A bitter look crossed his face. "I didn't have to look very hard.

"Everyvhere I vent, I found it. I saw…zings, Samuel. So many, many horrible zings. I ventured to asylums for ze insane, and orphanages vhere unvanted children are abandoned to rot. I trekked across battlefields vhere great nations vaged var, and ze remnants of perfectly peaceful and harmless communities zat got destroyed by barbarians or got caught in ze crossfires of ze aforementioned great nations. I visited Treasure Town, and places like it, and places as different from it as possible, and yet found zat ze people living zere vere not really so different, in ze end. I found darkness lurking in ze foulest slums and ze brightest places of high society. I found corruption in religion and in politics. I found charities zat vere funneling money into zeir own pockets, factories zat employed child laborers for no pay, sex slavery rings, pornography dens, corporate heads who vere villing to sell products zat caused horrible healz problems simply so zey could make a little more money due to not paying for safety regulations, politicians villing to sell out zeir constituents so zey could get re-elected, cops villing to look ze ozzer vay in exchange for cash, warlords—bozh barbarians and ozervise-who casually slaughtered zousands of people wiz a grin on zeir face, abusive parents and spouses, rapists and zieves and murderers and slavers and, and, and vorse besides. No matter vhere I looked, I found evil vaiting for me, even in ze most promising of places, even in ze most trustvorzy of individuals. Evil, or ze potential for it, vas everyvhere…and good?" He laughed bitterly. "I started to vonder if it even existed at all…or if maybe it, too, vas just an illusion, like free vill. A lie ve tell ourselves, a vay to deny how horrible all of us really are inside.

"And zen I saw Genocide City, and my last shred of faizh in Pokémonity died forever."

Entei shuddered. "Genocide City…I'm a being of pure evil now, but even I want nothing to do with that place."

Suicune nodded. "Even when we were good, we steered far away from there in our travels."

"A place so horrible, not even gods dare tread there," Raikou said solemnly. "Heck, I'm not even sure demons would be willing to visit."

"I don't know, I don't think it's that bad," Paul said. The legendary trio stared at him in horror and disbelief.

"I managed to escape zat hell, but I left a part of myself behind, somezing I can never get back…several somezings, actually, zat's part of ze reason I had to replace most of my body viz machinery," Tarantulas said. "After I recovered and reconstructed myself, I returned one last time to ze Law Rock. Zis time, ven I stared at it, I felt nozing but contempt and disgust. After vhat I had seen, vhat I had experienced in Genocide City, I could no longer believe Arceus vas a loving god. Eizer He's a sadistic bastard who enjoys making our lives miserable, an aloof and unapproachable being who doesn't really care vhat happens to us, or a complete and utter fraud using smoke and mirrors to make Himself seem more powerful zan He actually is, He is undeserving of our vorship, and must be removed from power.

"Supposedly, Arceus made our vorld, made us, and is responsible for us being such flawed and imperfect and broken beings. And if somezing's defective from ze start, zere isn't really all zat much you can do to fix it, since it'll just break down again anyvays. So vhy bozzer? Vhy should ve be aspire to be better and try to be good vhen ze deck is so clearly stacked against us? Evil is endemic. Good is ze anomaly. So vhy not stop lying about our being better zan ve really are and embrace ze ugly truzh zat deep down, all of us are horrible, disgusting creatures, and any who claim to be different are eizer hypocrites or outliers who should be shunned and put out of zeir misery. If Arceus vanted me to be evil, I reasoned, zen fine. I vould be evil. I vould be so evil He vould regret ever making me zis vay. And yes, I'm vell avare zat I'm probably playing right into His hands by doing so since everyzing's predestined so I vas probably alvays going to be evil anyvay so I'm just doing exactly vhat he vants, but I hate Him so much I don't really care, and besides, it gives me an excuse to quit denying myself everyzing I vant and simply take everyzing I desire."

"Well, that's certainly fatalistic," Paul snarked.

"Eh, I never really wasted too much time trying to figure out if I was doing what the Big Guy wanted or not back when I was—ugh—a good guy," Raikou said. "I figured, 'Hey, if I wasn't doing what He wanted, He'd send someone to tell me or punish me like He did those crummy birds, right?' And I rarely got reprimanded, so I figured I was in the clear."

"…Wait…but we never got reprimanded for becoming evil," Suicune said, looking confused. "Does…that mean He wants us to be bad guys? And if that's the case, isn't the whole point of our defection—to defy Him and do as we please—null and void, since we're probably fulfilling his plans no matter what we do?"

"Precisely my point! He must vant us to be evil, ozzervise ve vouldn't be, ja?" Tarantulas said triumphantly. "Simple as zat!"

Entei frowned. Something about that reasoning seemed…off for some reason. And why did the thought of turning against Arceus suddenly make him feel vaguely guilty? Especially if, as Tarantulas said, this must actually be what He wanted them to do…but if that were the case, then maybe they should be good instead, to rebel against Him, which was supposed to be what the whole point of their defection was in the first place? But wait, if they were good again, then they'd be right back where they started, serving Him…which would also be what He wanted anyway, since nothing happened that He didn't preordain, right? Unless He wasn't omnipotent after all. But Entei was pretty sure He was. He'd gotten the impression the few times he'd even seen the Big Guy. So…then…what was he supposed to be doing, then? He rubbed his head, feeling a headache coming on. This sort of thing always confused him.

"And then what happened?" Oak asked.

Tarantulas frowned. There was something…strange about the Slowking's voice. It was cold, and hard, and it sounded as if he was holding back something else. Figuring it could wait until the end of the story, he continued. "After zat, I decided to go ahead viz my original ambitions to change ze vorld…except I vould change it into a vorld of evil, razzer zan good. And vhile a variety of options vere open to me, such as hypnosis, or behavioral modification, or genetic implementation of subliminal zoughts and false memories, I decided I should find a vay to change ze very nature of Pokémon's heart, to release ze true evil hidden beneazh ze surface. And for zat, I knew I vould need to find ze vork of ze Dark Ones, zose ancient Aura users who long ago invented ze Shadow Pokémon process, ze perfect vay to turn a good Pokémon to evil. You vere actually instrumental to me in zis, Samuel. I'd been following your exploits for quite some time, and in your archaeological vork had managed to unearzh a number of clues zat I vas able to piece togezzer to find ze locations of zeir ancient strongholds and laboratories. I could find nozzing in most of zem, of course, just as you probably found nozing. Ze Aura Guardians vere very zorough in destroying ze vork of zeir fallen brezren. However, Samuel, I had somezing zat neizer you nor zey possessed…a heart of evil, and viz it I vas able to gain access to a library zat had managed to escape ze purge.

"Oh, ze zings I found zere, Samuel! Ze experiments ze Dark Ones did to master ze Shadow Pokémon process vere so horrible zey make me look like a children's pediatrician! An honest one, not ze kind who's secretly groping zeir genitals, like Chobin does more often zan I care to say."

"Chobin likes genitals! Especially Chobin's own!" Chobin said, sucking on some genitals he'd ripped off of one of his clones when nobody was paying attention.

"If I retained any shred of faizh in ze goodness of people, ze secrets I learned in zat library vould have killed it just as certainly as Genocide City did," Tarantulas gushed fondly. "Zere, I began to understand vat it truly meant to be evil…and I reveled in it." He laughed in embarrassment. "Of course, zere vas only so much of vhat I found zere zat I could actually understand, given zat I don't have ze power to manipulate Aura. Compared to ze Dark Ones, my own Shadow Pokémon technique is razzer crude and primitive, like a toddler trying to copy a great masterpiece using finger paint. Or Chobin."

"Chobin's favorite paint is BLOOD! And feces," Chobin said.

"Ew," Suicune said.

"Regardless, ze crumbs of knowledge I vas able to glean from ze ancient texts vas enough for me to gain an imperfect understanding of how ze Shadow Pokémon process vorks," Tarantulas continued. "Once I felt confident I knew how it could be done, I knew I needed some test subjects. And vouldn't you know it, but ze tventy-year mark from my graduation from Pokémon U had just rolled up! Recalling my promise to you and Emile, I decided it vas time I returned to ze vorld of academia…especially since college students vould be ze perfect test subjects for me to try my new Shadow Pokémon method on!"

"So that's why you came back?" Oak asked in disgust.

"Pretty much, yeah," Tarantulas said. "And to see you and Emile, of course, but since I vas evil now I didn't really care about our friendship as much anymore. Anyvay, I became a member of ze faculty and secretly captured promising students and subjects for my experiments. I also encountered Emile's nephew, Chobin, whom I immediately took a shine to, sensing a great and terrible darkness inside him zat vas only being kept at bay viz copious amounts of medication."

"Chobin doesn't like Chobin when Chobin is on medication. Chobin on medication is boring," Chobin whined.

"Under ze guise of providing him 'counseling,' I got Chobin off his meds and helped him to embrace his inner evil. It vasn't very hard, zough I vas never able to get him interested in ze finer points of being evil; he vas too obsessed viz ze more visceral stuff," Tarantulas said. "Still is, for zat matter."

"And proud of it!" Chobin said.

"But zen Emile started poking around, so I had to kill him," Tarantulas said. "And zen you started poking around, Samuel, so I had to kill you…except zings didn't vork out zat vay, my laboratory vas destroyed, and it vas assumed Chobin and I vere dead."

"If only that had been the case," Oak said coldly.

"Ve managed to escape in ze nick of time zrough ze back exit and decided to lay low, move somevere else, and start over in a different country. Vell, I decided ve should do zat," Tarantulas admitted. "Chobin zought ve should burn ze university to ze ground."

"Chobin still thinks that would have been a better plan," Chobin pouted.

"However, it vas not to be," Tarantulas said. "For soon after our escape, ve found our vay blocked. I looked up…and beheld a god…and not a lame one like zose zree over zere, eizer!"

"Hey!" the trio yelled.

"Heh, nice one," Paul said.

"Oblivion's Shadow," Oak murmured.

Tarantulas nodded. "Correct. I could feel ze raw power of Shadow oozing off of him…I felt humbled by his presence, and still do. Compared to him, I am but a novice. His genius and power over Shadow far outstrips my own…vhere it takes me hours, if not days to create a Shadow Pokémon zrough a lengzhy and agonizing process, all he has to do is vhisper in someone's ear and zeir heart turns blacker zan pitch. He said zat if I agreed to serve him, he could help me to fulfill my dreams of making a vorld of evil and overzrowing Arceus. Naturally, I agreed at once, so long as I could bring Chobin viz me, which he consented to."

"And that's how the world was made!" Chobin shouted. "Next time Chobin should tell you the story of how Chobin and Doctor Tarantulas joined the Nihilators. It's a real gem!"

Tarantulas would have facepalmed if he had any limbs left to facepalm into. "Close enough. Anyvay, zat's ze story."

Paul yawned. The three beasts looked thoughtful. Viers continued playing 'The Itsy Bitsy Spinarak.' And Oak, his voice trembling with fury, said, "That's it?!"

Meanwhile, far above them…

After managing to escape the relentless Kecleon army, Team Aurabolt continued on their way through the tower, facing many more obstacles along the way, though few of them were quite as harrowing as the one the vengeful shopkeeper had unleashed upon them. Little did they know, an even WORSE challenge was about to face them…

They entered a cramped room after crossing a crumbling bridge across a chasm full of spikes with bladed pendulums swinging through the air and giant spinning spiked columns rotating around the room at high speeds while fighting a pair of massive many-armed statues wielding swords that moved forwards to crush them from either side. The floor of the chamber was littered with dozens of multi-colored Gummis. "Ooh, candy!" Tiny said eagerly, floating forwards to sample some.

Ash grabbed him by one spike and pulled him back. "Tiny, you're not supposed to eat off the ground anymore, remember?"

"Oh, right…" the Pupitar said in disappointment.

Princess Boa blinked. "Why is there candy lying on the floor in a chamber in a dungeon that has been sealed off for countless millennia?"

"And fresh-looking candy, at that," Leo said, analyzing the Gummis with his shades.

"Maybe the Nihilators dropped it?" Lily suggested.

Or maybe…it's a trap! Dawn said, eyes widening.

Pikachu started. "Oh crap! Everyone, get to the exit, it's a-" Abruptly, the doors slammed shut and several dozen very large and very powerful-looking Pokémon dropped from the ceiling. "Monster House."

"A what now?" asked the startled Tiny.

"A special room in a dungeon with many items on the floor. Once an adventurers enters the room, many Pokémon in large numbers drop from the ceiling to gang up and attack any trespassers," Briney explained.

"…But we're in a room in a dungeon, not a house," said the confused Tiny.

"And where did they come from?!" Boa asked incredulously, looking up at the rather low ceiling that certainly hadn't had several dozen Pokémon clinging to it a moment ago, and there were no signs of any hatches or trap doors. "They weren't there when we entered the room!"

"And how could they even be here in the first place, seeing as how this is a dungeon that's been sealed off for countless millennia?" asked the dumbfounded Lily.

"BECAUSE FUCK YOU, THAT'S WHY!" the assailants shouted.

"Ah," Lily said.

"Hey, you can't talk to my wife like that!" Leo shouted, brandishing his flaming electrified tonfas.

"SCREW YOU!" the enemy Pokémon bellowed in return.

"Welp, looks to me like these punks need to learn some manners," Briney said, cracking his knuckles.

"All right, everyone be careful, we're in a very tight space here which means we have to hold back on some of our attacks or else we risk hitting each other," Ash warned the others, tightening his grip on his staff.

"We've faced worse odds than this even before we got our new powers, we should be able to manage this," Pikachu said.

Boa nodded as she drew her rapier. "Yes, and at least there aren't any annoying traps to get in the way." The enemies grinned evilly, and the rest of the team stared at her in horror. "…What?"

"You did not just say that," Pikachu groaned.

Suddenly, the walls split open to reveal hundreds of grinding sharp-edged gears and buzzsaws. Flame jets started spewing at random intervals from holes in the ceiling. Tracks appeared on the floor, and some of the gears and saws in the walls started spinning along them. Spiked pillars slammed down from the ceiling at rapid and infrequent intervals, crushing anything beneath them. Some floor tiles became electrified, others collapsed into bottomless pits, and still more flipped over to reveal a variety of Traps with rather nasty status effects. And naturally, the enemy Pokémon happened to be standing in just the right places so that none of these traps affected them. At all.

As Princess Boa gawked in disbelief, Briney patted her on the shoulder. "This is why it's best not to tempt fate, lass."

"Are you sure you're a veteran hero? Because I assumed you were experienced enough not to say things like that," Leo said.

"And we just happen to be all out of Trapburst Orbs, aren't we?" Pikachu sighed wearily.

We used the last one a few rooms back, Dawn said.

"And no Orbs we could use to get rid of some of them?" Pikachu asked.

We used those up, too. All the ones that affect more than one enemy at a time, anyway. Who'd have thought we'd burn through all the stock we stole from that Kecleon so quickly? Dawn wondered.

"Should we really have taken all of it? That can't have endeared us to him," Lily said.

"We were already labeled thieves, so we might as well have," Leo reasoned.

Briney nodded in agreement. "Besides, they'll have forgotten all about it the next time we run into one. They can be surprisingly forgiving to people who steal from them and live to get away with it."

"Didn't seem too forgiving when that one Kecleon was trying to put out my eye…" Tiny grumbled.

"All right, everyone, this isn't going to be easy…but we've made it this far, we can handle something like this, too," Ash said. "Probably not without a scratch, though."

"A lot of scratches…" Leo said.

"Why haven't they attacked us while we were standing here talking?" Boa asked.

"Because Talking Is-" Leo started, only for them to be attacked at once.

Meanwhile, much further down…

"'Zat's it?' Vhat do you mean, 'zat's it?'" asked the confused Tarantulas.

"I mean, that's it? That's the whole story behind your descent to villainy?" Oak asked, looking outraged.

"Vell…yes. Vhy?" Tarantulas asked.

"Because when you said there was more to the story than what I already knew, I had almost hoped there might be something that proved you had a better rationalization for your actions than what you've told me previously…but no, I was wrong, and I'm left with the same impression that I've had for the last several years. No, in fact, it's even worse than I originally thought. You're not just insane…you're a COMPLETE IDIOT!" Oak shouted.

"VHAT?!" Tarantulas screamed as a startled Viers hit several of the wrong keys, causing the dancing Chobins to stumble and trip over each other.

"Doctor is not an idiot! And if Doctor is an idiot, Doctor is the smartest idiot Chobin is knowing, and trust Chobin, Chobin is knowing a lot of idiots! Why, Chobin Chobinself is an idiot, and the Doctor is certainly smarter than Chobin!" Chobin said.

Paul perked up, as did the beasts. "This ought to be good…" the armored Weavile said, a smile on his lips.

"Vhat are you talking about?! How am I an idiot?!" Tarantulas demanded.

Oak's lip curled up in disgust. "Tomaru, you've had a shitty childhood, and life was rather rough for you after you left college. Lots of bad things happened to you. I get it. But Tomaru…how does any of that justify any of the absolutely HORRIFIC things that you've done?!"

"…Veren't you listening?!" Tarantulas asked incredulously. "I told you-"

"Yes, yes, you told me the world is horrible, evil is everywhere, Arceus doesn't care about us, boo-hoo, cry me a river, the same TAUROSSHIT that Straw Nihilists and Nietzsche Wannabes have been cramming down people's throats for CENTURIES!" Oak snapped. "Do you think you're the only Pokémon to have walked the same path of discovery you have, Tomaru? Do you think you're the only one who has suffered horribly trying to understand the nature of the world? Do you think you're the only Pokémon who's come to conclusions similar to the ones you've been ranting about since you brought me down here? Do you think you're the only one who's stared into the abyss? Let me tell you right now, you're not. But you know what makes all those other soul-searchers different from you, Tomaru? When most of them looked into the abyss, they didn't blink. YOU DID.

"Do you know what most of those Pokémon who lost faith in Arceus and the world did? Rather than give into despair, they decided, 'Okay, the world's not as great a place as I would like it to be. I'm going to do as much as I can to leave the world a slightly better place than it was when I came into it.' Not all of them succeeded, grant you, but they tried, which is more than YOU'VE ever done. Tomaru, you gave up. And not only did you give up—you wouldn't be the first—but you decided to use your twisted, warped, and completely erroneous worldview to justify atrocities the likes of which haven't been seen in hundreds if not thousands of years. Even the others who gave up on the world never stooped to the depths you've fallen to! They would be so shocked and horrified by the things you've done they'd probably turn right around and try to fix the world instead of wasting their time writing mopey poetry and cutting themselves!"

"Erroneous?! H-how is my vorldview wrong?!" Tarantulas shouted. "You know as vell as I do zat evil-"

"Is everywhere? Certainly. But so is good. You spent years looking for evil in the darkest corners of the Earth. It's no small surprise you found it. But you spent so much time looking for evil, Tomaru, you forgot to look for the good, too," Oak said.

"I found evil even in ze good!" Tarantulas protested.

"Well, of course you did! Nobody's perfect, Tomaru!" Oak pointed out. "But you spent so much time focusing on people's flaws that you forgot their virtues, and so convinced yourself that those virtues didn't exist!"

"Zat's not vhat-" Tarantulas started.

"That's exactly what happened!" Oak interrupted. "Like I said, you're not the first Pokémon to go down this path! They all say the same things, and they're all wrong! Are Pokémon flawed? Yes. Are we capable of terrible things? Yes. Are we capable of wonderful things? Yes. I have seen wonders in my journeys around the world, Tarantulas, while you were searching for horrors. I have seen astounding things, not only in ancient civilizations long dead, but in ones thriving to this day. I found wonder in both the great and the small, from the coronation of a mighty ruler surrounded by thousands of his adoring people to a nice cup of tea sipped under a shady tree with a good book of poetry on a warm Summer's day. A person can find evil wherever they look for it, Tomaru…but they can find good, too. They just have to remember to keep their eyes open.

"I won't bother pointing out why all of your reasons for why Arceus is evil and/or incompetent and should be defied and removed are ridiculous. There's plenty of arguments I could give against it, but we both know the only one you'll accept is a reason for His actions that doesn't leave His morality somewhat ambiguous, which is an answer I can't give you."

"Aha!" Tarantulas said triumphantly.

"However," Oak said. "I can tell you right now why all your rambling about how our choices don't matter and your fatalistic assumption that you're evil because Arceus wanted you to be and there was no other possible choice you could have made. As I've said before, lots of other people have walked down the path you've walked and seen the sights you've seen, and in the end were confronted with a choice to turn evil or to stay good. And quite a lot of them did, in fact, stay good in the end. I'm sure you could claim that it was their destiny to stay good while it was yours to be evil, but that's an incredibly flimsy justification for your actions. I've seen enough ancient prophecies in my day to know that the line between free will and destiny is not as clear-cut as you might think. Are certain outcomes absolute? Certainly. All of us are going to die one day, aren't we?"

"We're not," Raikou said.

"Neither am I, thanks to this," Paul said, patting his armor.

"But even if the outcome is inevitable, that doesn't mean the way we get there is," Oak continued. "And given what you've told me, I don't think it was your destiny to become evil, Tomaru. You've just convinced yourself it is, so you don't have to face the fact that you gave up, turned your back on your hopes and dreams, betrayed the only people in the world who cared about you, and are almost single-leggedly responsible for all the terrible things that have befallen you in your life because, when faced with a choice, you took the coward's way out and QUIT."

"Z-zat's not vhat-" Tarantulas stammered.

"Isn't it, now? You said yourself that you gave up, Tomaru…and isn't that the sort of thing only a coward does?" Oak sneered.

"I-I-" Tarantulas started. How had this happened? He was the captor. Oak was his prisoner. So why did it feel like he'd completely lost control of the situation?

"And all that aside…do you really want to know why you're wrong, Tomaru? Really? Let me tell you why. Have you ever heard of the Liberalis Circulum?" Oak asked.

"Uh, vell-" Tarantulas said.

"I didn't think so. They've been called many names throughout history, but they're best known as a brotherhood of Assassins, who opposed a group called the Templar Order for most of recorded history," Oak said.

"Ooh! Chobin loves those games!" Chobin said.

Wisely ignoring Chobin, Oak continued. "The Assassins, despite what the name implies, were actually surprisingly virtuous killers, who only slew the wicked, or at least those serving the Templars. They aren't around anymore, sad to say—they wiped out the Templars ages ago, and there's not as much need for their kind in the present, though I believe there's one or two still running around (or perhaps there's more, and they're just in hiding, since the best way for them to work would be to convince the world that they're all gone?)—but they had a very interesting philosophy which I feel is relevant to this discussion. They, much like you, came to doubt the greatness and omnipotence of Arceus…but rather than turning to evil, like the Templars, who felt similarly, did, they chose a different path.

"Their motto, at the height of their power, was 'Nothing is true, everything is permitted.' They believed that, in the end, there is no true divine law. Yes, Arceus and the other gods exist, but they are flawed, and we are their flawed creations. As such, if we wish to live in peace, prosperity, and freedom, we must build a civilization that permits those things. Their motto, to them, was merely an observation of the nature of reality as they saw it. To say that nothing is true is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic. The motto, despite what it seemed to imply, wasn't telling them to be free, it was telling them to be wise.

"While I don't entirely agree with the tenets of their philosophy or beliefs, I believe they posed a very good point. A mon can look at the world, feel it's uncaring, and say, 'Why not be evil?' Another mon, however, can look at the same world, and say, 'Why not be good?' And that is why you are wrong, Tomaru. If someone can go through what you did, but still choose to be good…then that means the core fundament of your belief, that everyone is evil inside, is completely and utterly false."

"Zat's…zat's impossible!" Tarantulas protested, shocked. "How can anyone have seen ze zings I've seen, experienced ze zings I have experienced, and not become evil?!"

"There's more than you'd think. If you looked through that database you call your brain, I'm sure you could find several names, some of whom might surprise you," Oak said smugly. "But of course, Tomaru, you'll never do that, will you? Because then you'll have to admit that you're wrong, and that maybe, just maybe, it's not the world that's screwed up…but that all along it's been you, and in the end you're not much better than Chobin, despite your claims of embracing the 'finer points' of evil, which is ludicrous on the face of it. You gave up everything you had going for you—and you had more going for you than you might think—for petty gratification and to make yourself feel less empty inside, and look at what it's done to you. Look at yourself, Tomaru. Can you honestly say that you made the right choice?

"I have seen the things you're capable of, Tomaru. Such great and terrible things. Things that made the world worse. Can you imagine what you might have made if you'd taken the other path? I can. Such wonders you could have wrought…but looking at you now, I honestly have to wonder whether any of that could have come to pass. After all, Tomaru, if you really wanted to save the world as badly as you claim you once did…you could have done it years ago, if it had really mattered to you."

Tarantulas stared at him in shock. His mandibles quivered. Liquid started dripping from his one biological eye and ran down Chobin's head. "Doctor, why are you urinating from your eyes on Chobin's head?" Chobin asked, sticking out his tongue to lap it up. "Mmm, salty!"

The other villains stared in astonishment. Even Viers and the clones paused to look at the Doctor in disbelief. "Huh," Paul said. "Don't see that every day."

"I didn't even know the Doc could cry," Entei said.

"I-it's n-n-not tears!" Tarantulas blubbered. "It's c-c-c-c-coolant f-f-f-fluid!"

"From your biological eye?" Suicune asked.

"YEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSS!" Tarantulas wailed, bursting into tears.

As the cyborg Ariados head sobbed, Oak, a calm smile on his face, turned to Paul and the beasts, who took a step back reflexively. "I should warn you, if you're going to try and psyche me out, it won't work," Paul warned the bound and helpless Slowking, raising his claws.

"Oh, don't worry, I have no business with you," Oak said. "Though given enough time, I'm sure I could force you to realize that your evil and desperate attempts to gain immortality spring from a desperate fear of death you're secretly ashamed of that in turn originates from your parents dying at an early age and your inability to move past it."

"Wait, what?!" Paul stammered. "How did you-" He snarled his teeth. "Dawn! She told you!"

"Hmm? Oh no, she didn't tell me a thing," Oak said smoothly.

Paul blinked. "But then how-"

"All I had to do was look at you. It's pretty obvious, really," Oak said with a grin. Paul's jaw dropped.

"Oooh, do Chobin, do Chobin!" Chobin squealed eagerly, hopping up and down and waving his leaf in the air excitedly while Tarantulas continued crying.

"There's nothing for me to diagnose, you're Zubatshit insane," Oak said flatly.

"Yes, that are sounding about not-wrong," Chobin said.

"And me?" Viers asked, glancing up from the organ.

"There's also nothing for me to diagnose, you're just a big fat idiot who likes breaking things," Oak said.

Viers nodded. "This is being true."

"So let me guess, you're going to try and psychoanalyze the Abyss out of us next and make us reconsider our choice to become evil?" Entei snarled, hackles rising. "Not gonna happen!"

"Yeah, we're legendary Pokémon! Our minds are far more complex than you mortals!" Suicune said.

"They are?" Raikou asked. Suicune smacked him.

"Oh, I don't need to psychoanalyze you. After all, you're not really evil, you're just brainwashed," Oak said.

Entei stiffened at this. Raikou rolled his eyes again. "Ugh, this again?"

"Why do we keep hearing that?" Suicune asked.

"Why, because it's true, of course," Oak said.

Tarantulas, hearing this, was startled out of his tearful reverie. "N-no! Don't listen to him! He speaks lies!"

Entei frowned, a suspicion stirring. "Then let's hear them. If they're only lies, and we know they're lies, then they can't hurt us, right?"

"Er…yes! Yes zey can!" Tarantulas stammered. "Zey vill make you doubt your choice and your dedication to ze Nihilator cause!"

Suicune frowned. "All right, now I'm actually getting curious."

Raikou nodded. "Yeah, if the Doc doesn't want us to hear them, I definitely want to listen."

"I'd be happy to tell you," Oak said. "You see-"

"NO!" Tarantulas shouted, remotely activating the psionic inhibitor on Oak's head, sending several thousand volts of lethal electricity into the Water-type's brain…except that didn't happen and the bulky metal ring did nothing at all. "V-vhat?!"

"Oh, were you trying to do something to me?" Oak asked, his eyes glowing blue. His bonds were ripped to shreds, and he reached up and ripped off the inhibitor. "Sorry, but my little friend here disabled your toy quite some time ago," he said, patting his Shellder crown, which purred affectionately. "She really is quite dexterous with her tongue."

"Y-you mean you could have escaped at any time?!" Tarantulas asked in astonishment while the beasts bristled, Paul stiffened, and Viers continued obliviously playing the organ. "Zen vhy-"

"Did I allow myself to remain captive? Why, so I would be in the perfect position to foil your plan, of course," Oak said. "For while we both know how to activate the tower, I know something you don't: how to shut it down, and I can do it from right here! Well, with a little help of course…"

"Which you won't get, since you're all alone here!" Entei snarled.

"And surrounded by foes on all sides!" Suicune agreed.

"Hence why I goaded Tarantulas into giving his long diatribe on how he became evil," Oak said. "To buy the time my rescuers would need to get down here. I'm certain that after you took me away, Tracey managed to place a call to Leo, meaning Team Aurabolt should already be here, especially given their current capabilities. And when they do get here…you're finished."

"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure about that…" Paul said.

"Goaded?! You vere completely uninterested in my story!" Tarantulas said in disbelief.

"Oh, I was," Oak said. "But I also knew getting you to talk would be the best way to keep you from killing me, so I feigned nonchalance, knowing it would slight your ego enough to spill the whole thing. You always did have a tendency to monologue, Tomaru. Its part of the reason the campus security was able to catch you off guard back at the University. I didn't actually expect to lose my temper and go off on you the way I did, that was just an added bonus. You've had that coming for a long, long time Tomaru. I'm glad I finally got it off my chest."

"V-vell, your backup's not here yet! All ve have to do is kill you now, and vhatever plan you've got in store vill be ruined!" Tarantulas said.

"Not really, once Team Aurabolt gets here I'm pretty sure they'll wipe the floor with you and ruin your plan," Oak said. "But just in case, I fully intend to even the odds to ensure my survival a little longer."

"And how do you plan to do that, exactly?" Suicune asked.

"Why, by telling you three how Tarantulas and Bellum brainwashed you and tricked you into becoming evil, of course," Oak said, turning towards the legendaries.

"NO, YOU VON'T! CHOBIN, GET HIM!" Tarantulas shouted.

"Okay. RAAAAAWWWWWWWWR!" Chobin (the one wearing Tarantulas on his head) raaaaaawwwwwwwwred as he lunged at Oak. Oak backhanded him without even turning around, knocking him to the floor. "Owie."

"Ugh…okay, plan B. Chobin clones, get him!" Tarantulas shouted.

"Can't, dancing to our deaths!" the clones sang as they danced to their deaths.

"Uh…Viers, get him!" Tarantulas said.

"I cannot because I am busy playing the organ and so I cannot get him," Viers said.

"…You could STOP!" Tarantulas shouted.

"Then I would lose my train of thought, and if I were to lose my train of thought, it would be difficult to find it again, because it was lost," Viers said, staring determinedly at the keyboard as his pudgy fingers danced across it. "Though I do not really understand how someone could lose something as big a train, for trains are very large and not easy to lose, but I suppose a train of thought must be small if it can fit inside someone's head rather than being very large and not easy to lose, meaning it is easy to lose because it is small so it can fit in someone's head rather than being very large and not easy to lose."

"Oh for ze love of…Paul, get him!" Tarantulas yelled.

Paul tapped his chin in thought. "Mmm…nah."

"VHAT?! VHY NOT?!" Tarantulas screamed.

"Don't feel like it," Paul said with a shrug. "Plus, I want to see where this is going."

Tarantulas screamed incoherently for several seconds before finally managing to belt out, "SPIDERS! GET HIM!"

The mechanical spiders hissed and chittered and scurried down from the walls, devouring any Chobin clone in their path as they swarmed across the floor towards the alarmed Oak…

Until lightning bolts shot down from the ceiling, walls of fire erupted from the floor, and ice spikes materialized around the Slowking and the legendary beasts. "That," Entei snarled, eyes flickering with rage. "Is quite enough."

"Before, I was willing to believe this was just a story to try and sway our judgment, like you said…but your actions, Herr Doctor, seem VERY desperate for someone claiming that he is in the right here. I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps there is something to what Regigigas, and now the Professor, are trying to tell us," Suicune said.

"Go ahead, Professor," Raikou said, nodding to Oak. "Tell us what you know. We're listening."

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Tarantulas shouted. They ignored him.

"When the Nihilators captured you and tried to turn you into Shadow Pokémon, you were more resistant to their methods than they had anticipated," Professor Oak began.

"Really? Because I seem to remember agreeing to become evil right away," Raikou said.

"Yes, well, you're remembering wrong," Oak said, causing the Thunder Pokémon to frown. "While you were somewhat resentful of your lot in life, you weren't willing to betray Arceus and your other divine brethren just for some shallow self-gratification."

"That's not how I remember-" Suicune started.

"Again, you're remembering wrong," Oak said, causing her to growl.

"And how do you know this, exactly?" Entei asked, narrowing his eyes.

"Why, because the vampires Bob and Dean said so, of course, when they gave their testimony at the Grand Council in Fichina last week," Oak said. "What, you didn't see it?"

The beasts fidgeted. "Well, no," Entei admitted. "We missed it."

"And were too busy preparing for this mission to see any of it in the interim," Suicune said.

"Well, it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway, I'm sure they'd have edited out any part that mentioned you being brainwashed," Oak said.

"How convenient," Suicune said skeptically.

"Get to the brainwashed part, already! What are you talking about?!" Raikou growled.

Oak sighed. "As I was saying, before you kept interrupting, was that you refused to willingly join the Nihilators, and they were reluctant to use the more…brutal method that would turn you into a Shadow Pokémon by force. While you would be very powerful if they used that method, you would also be mindless and little more than berserkers. While you would be somewhat less powerful if you willingly submitted to the process, you would still retain some degree of rational thought, and therefore be a more effective operative, rather than a living weapon of mass destruction like Lugia became."

The trio considered this for a moment. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense," Raikou admitted.

"Except for the fact that we're Shadow Pokémon now, and retain our minds, therefore we must have consented to turn evil," Suicune said. She hesitated. "…Right?"

Oak shook his head. "Wrong. Just when Oblivion's Shadow was considering stepping in and using the Anti-Life Equation to change you by force, Bellum and Tarantulas struck on a brilliant idea. Individually, your divine brains were a little too strong for their magic or science to alter. But by working together, they believed they hit upon a way to make you their willing slaves. After you were all fed copious amounts of drugs to dull your senses and lower your mental defenses, Bellum cast a spell that muddled your minds, allowing her and Tarantulas to implant false memories that would make you believe you hated your jobs more than you actually did and that you secretly yearned to be evil. They also made you forget your rather violent and unwilling capture, and all the various tortures they inflicted on you to try to convert you to Shadow Pokémon prior to that. Once the fake memories took hold and rewrote your minds, you were more than happy to accept the Shadow Pokémon treatment and become the monsters you are now…and inflict countless horrors because of a lie."

"Don't listen to him! He's lying!" Tarantulas shrieked desperately.

"The Doc has a point. That's a pretty big tale you're expecting us to swallow. How do we know you're telling the truth?" Raikou asked suspiciously.

"Because if I weren't, would Tarantulas have tried so hard to silence me?" Oak pointed out.

The trio fidgeted. "…Good point," Suicune admitted.

"Yeah, but…I don't remember anything like what he's saying! Could they really have messed with our heads that much?" Raikou asked uncertainly. "How did those vampires even know about this, anyway?"

"That, I'm afraid, I don't know," Oak admitted. "The same way they found out about everything else they revealed at the Grand Council, I suppose."

"Well, even with Tarantulas' recent actions, without corroborating evidence, I'm not sure I'm ready to believe that our joining the Nihilators was-" Suicune started.

"It's true," Entei said abruptly.

The other two looked at him in surprise. "What? How can you be so sure?" Raikou asked.

"I just am. I've suspected this for a while now, to be honest. Lots of things haven't been adding up lately. Regigigas's warning, the Doc and Bellum's evasiveness, the Professor's explanation…half-remembered memories I've been seeing in my sleep…it all fits. We've been lied to and manipulated all along. We aren't really evil, not by choice. This…what we've become…it's not how we're supposed to be. We're supposed to be champions. Guardians. Protectors of the Earth. It wasn't a task we always liked, but it was still something we took pride in. And we…we turned our backs on it. We became everything we fought against. We…we became just like those damned birds!" Entei spat.

Raikou and Suicune exchanged worried looks. "Are…are you certain?" Raikou asked.

"Positive," Entei said.

"But…then that means…" Suicune whispered, her eyes going wide. "All…all those innocent people we killed or ate or…or did worse things to…"

Entei closed his eyes solemnly. "Yeah. We killed them for nothing."

Suicune threw up, and Raikou looked like he wasn't far off. "But…but then…why can't I remember?" the Thunder Pokémon protested weakly. "I-if it's true, then why do I still remember otherwise?"

"Because the fake memories are rooted deep in your subconscious," Oak said. "Don't worry, though. A good old-fashioned Aura purification should knock those memories and all the evil right out of you and reopen your hearts, restoring you to your true selves."

"An Aura purification. As in, the kind an Aura Guardian like the Chosen One could provide?" Entei asked.

Oak nodded. "Precisely. And wouldn't you know it, but he's probably on his way here now!"

"But…he killed the birds," Raikou said as Suicune kept heaving up her lunch…most of which had been soldiers or other innocent Pokémon who had gotten in her way. "Why would he spare us?"

"He knows the truth about you. He must, after all, he was at the Council meeting with everyone else," Oak said. "He will certainly purify you, especially if I vouch for you."

"And then…we'll really comprehend all the horrible things we've done," Suicune whispered, trembling as she expelled the last of her stomach contents. "How…how will we be able to live with ourselves?"

"We will ask Arceus for forgiveness, and accept whatever punishment he deems right," Entei said. "Even if it means…the same fate the birds suffered. We deserve whatever is coming to us."

"You feel remorse for your actions, while the birds did not," Oak pointed out. "That's one point in your favor."

"But that's the thing, Professor…right now I don't feel remorse," Raikou said. "I'm a Shadow Pokémon, and my head is full of fake memories. Even listening to what you just said, even knowing it's the truth, there's still a big part of me trying to deny all of it."

"Perhaps so…but even if you don't feel regret now, you will once you are purified," Oak said.

Raikou closed his eyes. "Which terrifies me all the more, Professor…I've hurt so many people while with the Nihilators that I can't even remember their faces. But once I'm good again…I will. I know I will. And it'll hurt. It'll hurt more than almost anything I've experienced in my very long life."

"The truth can be painful, Raikou," Suicune said weakly. "But we owe it to ourselves to own up to it and atone for our mistakes." She narrowed her eyes, her body stopping its shaking as she stood tall once more and daintily stepped over her sick. "And I think I know just where to start."

The walls of elemental energy lowered, and the trio started stalking towards Tarantulas, with Oak walking between them so he couldn't get attacked by any robot spiders. A look of pure terror flashed across the cyborg Ariados's face while Chobin masturbated with an oblivious smile on his face…but then that look passed, and an expression of cunning replaced it. "So…zat's it, zen? One speech from a stranger and you're turning against your master?"

"Is it true, Doctor? What he said?" Raikou growled.

"…Oh, vhy bozzer denying it? Yes, it's true, all of it," Tarantulas said with a grin. "Bellum and I made you zink you vere somezing you veren't and turned you into evil, horrible monsters. And enjoyed it."

The resulting roar of fury from the beasts shook the chamber. "Then you know what's going to happen now, don't you?" Entei snarled.

"Yes, I do…but I'm not sure you do!" Tarantulas said, his mechanical eye flashing.

Suddenly, the three beasts cried out in pain and collapsed to the ground, writhing in agony and nearly crushing Oak, who quickly had to scramble out of the way to keep from being hit by their flailing limbs. "Wh-what's happening?!"

Tarantulas burst into laughter. "Oh please, Samuel, you don't really zink I never anticipated such an eventuality, did you? I knew zere vas a chance zat zey might learn ze truzh and turn against me one day, so installed countermeasures to ensure I could still control zem no matter vhat happened. And speaking of countermeasures…Paul, if you'd be so kind as to assist me? Unless, of course, you feel like continuing to be a colossal jackass?"

"I do feel like being a colossal jackass," Paul admitted. "But if you're asking me to do what I think you are…then sure. Should be fun." He leaped into the air, and, with a flick of his wrist, flung three syringes at the anguished legendary beasts. Despite their thrashing about, Paul's aim was true—as was befitting a ninja—and the needles sunk into the flesh on the backs of each of the trio's necks, injecting them with a concentrated dose of pure Shadow.

Oak's eyes widened in horror. "No…oh, no…"

"Yes…oh, YES!" Tarantulas cackled.

The beasts gasped, eyes bulging out of their sockets and muscles tightening until they could be seen through their skin. They ground their teeth and convulsed, waves of power rippling off of them and cracking the ground, causing the chamber to tremble. The three beasts threw their heads back and roared so loudly that some of the carved heads on the ceiling crumbled, and some of the cloning pods exploded. Auras of their respective elements blazed to life around them, shattering the ground they were standing on and towering several meters into the air before shrinking back down and coalescing, turning darker until they were pitch black, a limitless darkness that hungrily devoured the light.

Raikou's tail went from looking like a lightning bolt to actually being a lightning bolt, a crackling whip of electricity which twitched and snapped and spat sparks as it flailed about wildly. The thundercloud cape on his back turned black, grew thicker, and rumbled, lights flashing in its depths and bolts of static crackling around it. Bone spurs shaped like lightning bolts tore out of his joints and from his sides as his fur color inverted, yellow becoming black and black becoming yellow. His claws and fangs grew longer and sharper, static crackling along their lengths. The gray crest on his forehead grew two zigzagging horns from the sides and a lightning bolt-shaped blade pointing straight forward. His eyes turned as yellow as his fur had used to be. He howled, and black lightning bolts shot down all around him.

The metal bands around Entei's legs shattered, and his whole body bulked up, muscles bulging out to ridiculous extremes. His shaggy brown fur rustled and grayed until it was the color of burnt ashes. The plates on his back grew longer and sharper as more plates burst out of his sides and joints, and his gray cape changed from smoke into flame, a thick tongue of fire that roiled and burned and twisted behind him. Claws popped out of his paws, and his wrists and ankles burst into flames. The gray plate on his belly turned 180 degrees and took on the color and consistency of fire. His long mane transformed into flames, creating a burning wreath around his head. The plates covering his face rattled, and then expanded outwards, generating more plates to encircle his entire head, sprouting a pair of antlers in the process so that its resemblance to a samurai kabuto was complete. To finish it off, a single tongue of flame appeared over his head, burning with greater intensity than the rest of the fires all over his body. His eyes turned burning red, and he howled, and black flames erupted all around him.

Suicune's blue fur turned black, while the diamond-shaped spots on her sides transformed into many-armed spirals. Glittering spikes made of solid water formed on her joints, and solid water spikes sprouted from her back. Claws made of water sprouted from her paws. Her purple mane shimmered and transformed into water, flowing behind her like a liquid tendril with bubbles and ice crystals drifting in its mass. Her white streamer tails grew longer, turned into water, and formed barbs at their end, lashing at the air like whips, leaving bubbles and dark auroras in their wake. Spikes grew from the sides of the hexagonal crest on her head, and an aurora-colored energy ball formed inside it. A mask made of solid water formed over her face, distorting her features and making them either ethereally beautiful or otherworldly terrifying, depending on which way you looked at it. Her eyes turned as blue as her fur had used to be. She howled, and black geysers burst from the ground around her.

"Chobin has such an erection right now," Chobin said giddily.

"SO DO WE!" the Chobin clones shouted.

"Will you keep it down?!" Viers shouted angrily. "I am TRYING to create beautiful music, and I cannot do it with all this YELLING that is distracting me from trying to create beautiful music!"

"Eh, my Hyper Mode's better," Paul said.

"No…it's more horrible than I ever imagined…" Oak whispered.

"I know, right? And zey're completely under my control, too! No more pesky zinking or rebellion! Not anymore!" Tarantulas said joyfully. "Oh, but ze fun's just getting started! I'd planned to save zis for Team Aurabolt, but since you've been such a vonderful audience, Samuel, I zink you deserve a sneak peek for all your good behavior! Chobin?"

"Yes, Doctor?" Chobin asked.

"I zink it's time to try out ze toy your…ugh, alter ego made again," Tarantulas said grudgingly.

Oak gasped in horror. "No…you can't mean…"

"Oh boy! Chobin loves this part!" Chobin said eagerly as he whipped out a small black rectangular device cobbled together from a mishmash of computer parts with a glowing LED screen, a pair of concentric circular buttons, and a V-shaped crest on the front. He pointed the device at the three beasts. "Pokéxross! Pokéxross! POKÉXROSS!" Oak looked on in horror, and Tarantulas in glee and more than a little envy, and Paul in curiosity, as a sinister black light radiated from the device held in Chobin's leaf and engulfed the legendary trio.

One of the pipes on the organ Viers was playing opened up and a tall metal spire rose up. Cracks split open down its sides, and the spire unfolded into three prongs surrounding a glowing power core. The weapon swiveled down on its mount, pivoting to point at the three beasts. With an ominous hum, the core powered up, energy crackling up the lengths of the prongs and gathering at the tips. With a high-pitched whine, the device fired three beams of light; one red, one blue, and one yellow, lancing out and striking the three beasts, which arched their backs and shrieked in unimaginable agony as incredible power surged through them. The oblivious Viers frowned, wondering why his tune suddenly sounded a little off. Spheres of colored light formed around the beasts and they rose into the air, their figures vanishing as the colors opaqued. The balls began to spin rapidly around each other.

"RAIKOU!" the yellow orb shouted.

"ENTEI!" the red orb shouted.

"SUICUNE!" the blue orb shouted.

Without warning, they slammed together to form a purple orb. "POKÉXROSS!"

The sphere exploded, a pillar of solid black Shadow Aura rising from the floor to the ceiling, fissures running out from its base, noxious fumes and evil purple light seeping out of the cracks. Powerful wind billowed out from the pillar, buffeting everyone around it and knocking several Chobin clones and spiders away. The clones enjoyed it. The spiders did not. A dark figure took shape within the pillar, emitting an air-splitting, brain-melting, heart-bursting howl that seemed to rend the very fabric of reality itself and caused several Chobin clones' heads to explode.

The evil energy warped and shrunk in on itself, coalescing around a massive, horrific figure which dropped to the ground, its weight cratering the floor. Oak stared in disbelief as the unholy abomination born from the Nihilators' mad science stood up, rising above him and holding its three hideous heads high in the air.

While it was massive, it was so thin that the bones were clearly visible underneath its skin, giving it a starved look. And yet it still managed to stand tall on its four legs, and a feeling of horrible power radiated from it along with its pitch-black Shadow Aura, so this weakness was probably an illusion. The mangy fur, each hair of which was stiff and sharp as a dagger, was a filthy grayish black with bloodstains everywhere. The upper parts of its legs had strips and diamond patterns torn out of them, revealing the surprisingly thick muscle and bone underneath. The lower parts of the legs were encased in jagged, uncut black crystalline armor with spikes sticking out of them which were put in place of flesh, so the tendons and leg bones could be seen distorted through the armor. In place of paws were pads and claws made of exposed bone, with blood vessels pumping into them. Two rows of long, jagged crystalline growths grew from its sides sticking out and upward, throbbing and glowing slightly as blood was pumped into them. More strips and diamond-shaped patches of skin had been torn out, revealing muscle, ribs, and internal organs. Growing down the back was a long, filthy, tangled and matted mane so covered in dirt and old stains of blood and other disgusting fluids that it was colored a very ugly gray and seemed to wriggle now and then. Three tails grew from the rear, two of them black, segmented, writhing things ending in snapping mouths, the last one a long, zigzagging blue-gray thing which twitched now and then and ended in a very nasty-looking barb. But the true abnormality about the monster was that it had not one, but three heads sprouting from its front, each with a neck ringed with a metal collar that had spikes on both the inside and outside and had long spiked spinal cord chains growing out the back and tangling themselves up in the twisted mane. The three heads were clearly distinguishable as those of Entei, Suciune, and Raikou, even if their faces had all been ripped off and masks in the form of their old faces made of the same rough, jagged crystal on their legs were slapped on, the inner points digging into the skulls so they exposed muscles and drained blood. Their jaws, sheathed in crystal, were hanging open and revealing long canines and fangs that were so dirty that a bite from them would probably leave a seriously infected wound. Their glowing red eyes gazed out through holes cut into the crystal masks, allowing them to stare down at Oak with mindless malevolence, saliva dripping from their jaws and melting through the floor.

"...CHOBIN'S ERECTION IS SO ERECT ONE COULD USE IT TO BUILD A BUILDING! MADE OUT OF PENISES! THAT ARE ALL ERECT!" Chobin shouted. He frowned. "But where would Chobin get that many penises that are all erect and could be used to build a building?"

"CHOBIN COULD USE THESE CHOBIN'S PENISES!" the other clones cried. "THEY ARE ALSO SO ERECT ONE COULD USE THEM TO BUILD BUILDINGS! MADE OUT OF PENISES! THAT ARE ALL ERECT!"

"MAYBE CHOBIN WILL!" Chobin said. "THANK CHOBIN VERY MUCH FOR THE OFFER!"

"CHOBIN IS VERY WELCOME!" the clones replied.

"Okay, that's pretty impressive," Paul admitted.

Enraged, Viers whirled around. "FOR THE LAST TIME, EVERYONE BE…QUIET…" The Emboar stared at the new monster for a long moment, then quietly turned around and resumed his playing

"Tomaru…" Oak whispered, tears running down his cheeks. "What have you done?"

"Technically, Arackaiser did it," Tarantulas grumbled. "But I have no problem taking ze credit in zis instance. And vow, zat's an ugly one. Looks even vorse zan Maelstrom. And speaking of vhich, I already have a name ready for a monster of zis caliber. I zink 'Cerberus' is a fitting name, don't you?"

"The three-headed gatekeeper of the Underworld…" Oak murmured.

"Yep! Like I said, fitting, since ve're pretty much trying to open up ze gates of ze Undervorld…hmm, vonder if zey already have a Cerberus in ze Abyss…oh vell, you're not going to live long enough to find out. Cerberus! KILL SAMUEL OAK!"

The abomination crouched, muscles tensing, ready to pounce…

Meanwhile, in Pokémon Square…

"Ah, that was a nice lunch," Master Yamiri commented as he walked back into the temple, having stepped out to get a bite to eat. "Well, back to…work?" He blinked, looking around in puzzlement to see that none of the various soldiers or priests who were supposed to be guarding the holy site (and the unholy creature imprisoned within) were anywhere to be seen. "Where is everyone?"

Hearing some noise from the lower levels, he hovered over the balcony railing and peered downwards. Much to his surprise, all of the personnel who had been stationed at the temple (and a few civilians visiting to pay their respects or to stare at Legion) were all gathered on the bottom floor, gathered around a television someone had brought in to entertain the guards during their long vigil of staring at the components of Legion floating around in their cell and occasionally forming curse words or promises of vengeance. Even the evil Unown seemed to be focusing all their eyes on the screen, though a couple glanced up briefly at the annoyed Yamiri as he descended towards them. "What is going on here?" he demanded, causing several of the assembled Pokémon to start and quickly snap to attention. "Why are you not all at your posts? I do not begrudge you for wanting to take a break—I understand this is a tedious job—but that's what shifts are for!"

One of the temple acolytes bowed apologetically. "We are sorry, Master, but…"

"But what?" Yamiri asked sharply.

The acolyte bit his lip. "There has been a massive Nihilator attack."

Yamiri stiffened. "What? Where?!"

"Treasure Town," Morty, who had guard duty there that day, said somberly.

Yamiri paled. "No…let me see!"

The crowd quickly parted, allowing Yamiri a high-definition view of a smoldering crater rising from a shattered, partially flooded wasteland with a gigantic mechanical spider looming over it, fighting a giant (but less so) undead Crawdaunt, Lugia, and several dozen battleships flying the colors of a variety of different nationalities. A familiar Kirlia reporter was reporting live from the scene, a sober expression on her face, with matching looks on the Chatot and Pachirisu anchors sitting behind a newsdesk in the picture-in-picture inset on the bottom left corner of the screen. "-afraid this is about as close as I can get, Oli, it's a warzone out here."

"You've reported from warzones before, Valerie," the Chatot pointed out.

Valerie shook her head. "None like this, Oli. None like this."

"Valerie, now that you're on the ground, tell us, what exactly is going on there?" the Pachirisu asked.

"Well, as you can see behind me, Treasure Town and most of the surrounding countryside have been completely destroyed by the crash landing of the Nihilator weapon called an 'Arachnoblast.' The death toll is in the hundreds, if not thousands, but we won't be able to get an accurate body count until this is all over…if ever, given how many were probably vaporized on impact. The survivors have been fighting desperately against the Arachnoblast and the Nihilators pouring out of it since then, suffering heavy casualties as a result. Reinforcements from several countries, including our own Draconian Empire, showed up a few minutes ago and are lending support, as are the legendary Pokémon Lugia and the undead pirate crew serving under Captain Thaddeus Irving Briney of Team Aurabolt."

"Valerie, I thought those pirates had some kind of magic flying ship. Why aren't they using it?" Oli asked.

Valerie bit her lip. "As far as I can tell, Oli…they did." The camera panned away from her briefly and zoomed in to focus on a smoldering golden wreck some distance away. "This is the result."

"Oh my…" the Chatot murmured.

"What exactly are the Nihilators trying to accomplish here, Valerie? What connection does this have to Oblivion's Shadow's worldwide ultimatum?" the Pachirisu asked.

"An excellent question, Roxy. Fortunately, I've managed to track down someone who might be able to shed some light on that subject," Valerie said as the camera focused on her again.

"General Shinobu?" Roxy squealed hopefully.

"Ah, no. He wasn't available for comment. I believe he's busy helping fight the Nihilators, along with General Victini of Fichina. I managed to run into some Pokémon who managed to escape the fighting inside the crater, though. Allow me to introduce civilian consultant Tracey Sketchit, the pirates Fat Pete and Molly, and Lieutenant Dino of our own Draconian Empire!"

The camera zoomed out to reveal that standing next to Valerie were a shell-shocked and weary Smeargle, a human and Chatot skeleton, and an exhausted Druddigon in Draconian livery. The skeletons were currently having a hushed conversation. "So that thing they're pointing at us is sending moving pictures of us to people all over the world?" the human asked.

"In millions of households, aye, if I understand it correctly," the Chatot said.

"Cor! Ain't modern technology a hoot?" the human said, impressed.

"Lieutenant Dino, what can you tell us about the Nihilator attack? What are they trying to accomplish here, exactly?" Valerie asked.

"Well, Miss Osagawara, the Arachnoblast's landing wiped out the town and most of the military personnel stationed here," Dino explained. "It unearthed the ancient ruins built by the first civilization to settle here, the ones who first discovered the Door, and they're now trying their hardest to secure the ruins and wipe out all the remaining military who managed to survive the initial impact. The Nihilator commander Doctor Tarantulas managed to capture another civilian consultant, one Professor Samuel Oak, and is trying to use his knowledge to activate a tower buried underneath the Door."

"A tower?" Valerie asked.

"You'd have to ask Mr. Sketchit here for more information, he worked for the Professor and knows more about it than I do," Dino said, nodding to Tracey.

Valerie turned to the Smeargle. "Mr. Sketchit, any comments?"

Tracey blinked blearily. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Uh, the tower…right, so, when the ancients discovered that the seal created by the Star Badges to lock the Door was weakening, they constructed this massive tower underground to strengthen the seal and keep the Door shut, even if one were to gather all seven Star Badges before it. Doctor Tarantulas and the other Nihilators are trying to reactivate the tower, which will weaken the seal and allow it to be unlocked by the power of the Star Badges."

"Then are we looking at the Nihilators' endgame here?" Valerie asked in alarm. "Should we be preparing ourselves for an invasion from the Abyss?"

"No, no, nothing like that," Tracey assured her. "Even if they activate the tower, they'll still need all seven Star Badges to open the Door. The seal will resume weakening at its original pace without the tower holding it back, yes, but even so it'll still be centuries, if not longer, before it breaks on its own. If they want to open it now, they'll need all seven Badges, and at last count they only have four."

"Oblivion's Shadow implied in his recent ultimatum that he's discovered a way to open the Door without the use of the Badges," Valerie said. "Do you have any insight on that?"

Tracey shook his head. "Not a clue. I haven't even seen the ultimatum, I was in the ruins with the Professor at the time so I didn't know anything was going on until the ceiling caved in."

"I see. What is being done to prevent Doctor Tarantulas from achieving his goal?" Valerie asked.

"The Rescue Team Aurabolt arrived along with Lugia and Generals Shinobu and Victini a while ago, and went into the tower in pursuit of Tarantulas and his minions," Dino reported. "I was tasked with getting Mr. Sketchit here to safety, when we ran into you."

"Team Aurabolt? The same heroes who helped make the world aware of the Nihilator threat and have been one of the single biggest threats to their plans?" Valerie asked, perking up.

"The very same," Dino said with a nod. "If all the stories I've heard about them—and judging from the way they could fight on the way to the tower—then I think they can stop Tarantulas. At least, I hope they can."

Valerie nodded. "As do we all, Lieutenant. Do you or any of your companions have anything you'd like to say to the public?"

"Yes," the human skeleton said, shoving his face into the camera and filling the screen with his grotesque skeletal visage. "Booga-booga-booga!"

The skeleton was encased in a blue glow and flung back by an annoyed Valerie. "Any other comments?"

"Yes," Dino said. "We're in pretty bad shape here, so if anyone is watching who's in a position to help, we could really use more backup. So many of us have died already…and more will die now if we don't get more assistance and reinforcements."

"And I want to tell my girlfriend that I'm alive and well, and I'm sorry I haven't called her yet but my cell phone battery died recently and things have been a little hectic over here," Tracey said.

"Riiiight…your girlfriend," the human skeleton said.

"She exists, okay!" Tracey snapped.

"Uh-huh. Suuuure she does," the skeleton said, clearly not believing it.

"I'm afraid that's all the information on my end," Valerie said apologetically to the anchors as the inset grew to encompass the whole screen and she shrank until she fit in a small window on the upper-right corner of the screen.

"That's all right, Valerie, keep us posted," Roxy said.

"Will do, Roxy…wait, Grobnar son of Grobnar, what are you doing?!" Valerie cried as a burly Vigoroth in battered armor waving a war flail ran by her towards the crater.

"Giant metal spider squish Grobnar son of Grobnar's Draconian brethren! Grobnar son of Grobnar squish giant metal spider! Raaaaaaaggghhh!" Grobnar son of Grobnar hollered as he charged towards the Arachnoblast.

"Grobnar son of Grobnar, no, you'll get killed!" Valerie shouted after him. She looked at the camera apologetically. "Sorry, I have to take care of this."

"We understand, Valerie. Raising children can be very hard, after all," Roxy, who knew absolutely nothing about that sort of thing since she wasn't a mother of five—well, six, counting Grobnar son of Grobnar—said sympathetically.

"Don't I know it," Valerie muttered. "So, until I deal with this, Valerie Osagawara signing off."

The window with her face in it vanished and the camera focused on the anchors instead. "And that's the latest information from the crisis in Treasure Town," Oli said as an icon of the Arachnoblast standing over the crater appeared in the upper-right corner. "We here at DNN will do our best to keep you viewers informed on this latest offensive from the Nihilator organization."

"And now, the weather!" Roxy said cheerfully.

As the news channel changed subjects, Yamiri shook his head worriedly. "This is not good…this is not good at all…"

"Some of my best pals from boot camp were stationed in Treasure Town," Morty said quietly. "And now they're all gone."

"Some of them might have survived," Yamiri said. "After all, that Lieutenant did."

Morty shook his head. "I guess it's possible, but…I don't think it's likely. Damn those Nihilators! It's almost enough to make me want to request a transfer so I can be part of the contingent that's being sent to Mars!" Several of the other soldiers nodded in agreement. The Haunter sighed. "But…I'm needed here more."

"Do not worry," Yamiri assured the officer. "The villains who killed your comrades will suffer." He frowned and turned to Legion. "And speaking of villains…did you have any hand in this atrocity?"

OF COURSE NOT, ON ACCOUNT OF THE FACT THAT WE HAVE NO HANDS TO BEGIN WITH, Legion said innocently.

Yamiri snarled. "You know what I mean."

WE DO INDEED. BUT, AS MUCH AS WE WOULD LIKE TO TAKE CREDIT FOR IT, WE HAD NO INVOLVEMENT IN THIS ATTACK. OUR COMRADE BELLUM HAD STRONGER TIES TO THE NIHILATORS THAN WE DID. WE FOCUSED MOST OF OUR EFFORTS HERE, ON PREPARING POKÉMON SQUARE FOR ITS DESTRUCTION, WHILE OTHERS WORKED ON OPENING THE DOOR. AND SPEAKING OF WHICH…ANOTHER OF OUR EFFORTS HAS JUST PAID OFF QUITE HANDSOMELY.

Yamiri frowned. "What are you talking about-"

And that's when he fell to the floor in agony, as did everyone in the temple, as did everyone in Pokémon Square, and the Sky Tower, and everyone else for miles and miles around, as a single word reverberated through their minds so loudly and all-encompassingly there was no room for absolutely anything else. "LEGION!"

The skylight shattered as a pillar of white light smashed through it and slammed into the floor, cratering it and causing a shockwave that plastered everyone against the walls, blew out all the candles, shattered all the glass in town, destroyed the pillars closest to her, and caused cracks to run up the statues of the gods. Through a blinding white nimbus, a radiant figure could just barely be made out, blood-red markings standing out sharply against her pure white down, golden eyes blazing with hatred. Legion's many eyes stared passively at the goddess, her wrath so great that the air itself was burning around her. AH, GUARDIAN. WE HAVE BEEN EXPECTING YOU. WE TAKE IT YOU FOUND OUR LITTLE SURPRISE?

Latias shot forwards, pressing her claws and face against the containment sphere holding Legion in place, her teeth elongated and sharpened to serrated points. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?" she shouted, her unchecked telepathic voice loud enough to fill the minds of everyone in town and the surrounding countryside.

WHAT HAVE WE DONE? NOTHING MUCH, GUARDIAN…SIMPLY PLAYED THE WINNING MOVE IN A GAME THAT HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR EONS, Legion gloated. BY REMOVING RAYQUAZA FROM THE EQUATION, YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO RESTORE YOUR FULL POWERS, SO CANNOT LEAVE THIS CONTINENT TO HELP DEFEND THE DOOR TO THE ABYSS OR STOP THE IMPENDING INVASION OF POKÉMON SQUARE. WITHOUT RAYQUAZA, YOU WILL BE UNABLE TO STOP THE RULER OF EVIL'S RETURN. WITHOUT RAYQUAZA, YOU AND ARCEUS AND YOUR PRECIOUS GUARDIANS HAVE FAILED…AND SOON THE RULER OF EVIL SHALL ARISE ONCE AGAIN, AND YOUR MASTER'S ILLOGICAL GRIP ON THE OMNIVERSE SHALL BE REMOVED FOREVER.

"BRING. HIM. BACK!" Latias roared.

WE CANNOT, NO MORE THAN YOU CAN, Legion said. HE IS LOST TO YOU FOREVER NOW. HE WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO RETURN FROM THE DEPTHS OF WYVERN HILL, NOT NOW THAT THE GATEWAY IS FOREVER SEALED. AND BY THE WAY, YOU MIGHT WANT TO SPEAK WITH YOUR INSIDE VOICE. WOULDN'T WANT TO DESTROY THE MINDS OF YOUR PRECIOUS MORTALS, NOW WOULD YOU?

Latias grinned savagely as she lowered her tone of voice and stopped loudly broadcasting her thoughts into everyone else's minds. "You've miscalculated, Legion. You should have blown up the gateway BEFORE Rayquaza entered it. Now he stands a chance of receiving the power that is meant to be his."

AND WHAT OF IT? EVEN WITH THAT POWER, HIS CHANCES OF ESCAPE ARE VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE.

"'Virtually' isn't the same as 'absolutely,'" Latias said.

AND HIS CHANCES OF EVEN RECEIVING THAT POWER TO BEGIN WITH ARE SLIM. HIS SELF-CONFIDENCE IS TOO LOW. HE DOES NOT HAVE ENOUGH FAITH IN HIS ABILITIES TO PERSEVERE. YOU KNOW AS WELL AS I DO THAT A PART OF HIM STILL DOUBTS HE IS TRULY READY TO BE THE TRUE KING.

"He'll make it," Latias said with complete certainty. "I know he will."

THEN YOU MUST PREPARE YOURSELF TO BE DISAPPOINTED, Legion sneered. EVEN IF, BY SOME MIRACLE, HE PASSES THE TRIALS, AND FINDS A WAY OUT FROM THE INNER SANCTUM…HE STILL WON'T BE READY FOR WHAT'S WAITING FOR HIM, FOR ALL OF YOU IN THE NEAR FUTURE. EVEN THIS EVENTUALITY WE HAVE PLANNED FOR.

"I'll find whatever backup plan you have and destroy it," Latias vowed.

JUST LIKE YOU'VE FOUND AND DESTROYED ALL OF THE REMAINING BARBARIANS, OR THE HIVE QUEEN'S FORCES? Legion asked pointedly.

Latias started. "What do you…" Her eyes widened. "Of course. The reason I haven't been able to sense them is because you gave them pieces of yourself to hide them from my powers."

CORRECT, Legion said smugly.

"While they may be shielded from my sight, they won't be from Zorra's," Latias said.

THAT IS TRUE, BUT HOW DO YOU EXPECT HER TO BE ABLE TO CANVASS AN ENTIRE CONTINENT? Legion said. AND NOT JUST ON THE GROUND, EITHER. YOU WILL HAVE TO SEARCH IN THE SKY, UNDERGROUND, IN THE WATER. EVEN IN PLACES NOT ENTIRELY OF THIS EARTH. WE HAVE PREPARED FOR THIS FOR A VERY, VERY LONG TIME, GUARDIAN. SHE WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FIND ALL OUR LITTLE SURPRISES IN TIME, NOT EVEN WITH YOUR HELP.

A chill ran down Latias' spine. "…How…how long have you been planning this?"

YOUR MASTER IS NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN PLAY THE LONG GAME, Legion said. WE SEE TIME DIFFERENTLY THAN MOST DO, AFTER ALL. METICULOUSLY PLANNING OUT EVERY DETAIL OF A SCHEME MILLIONS OF YEARS IN THE MAKING IS CHILD'S PLAY FOR US!

"…Then…did you know we would capture you? Did you allow that to happen?!" Latias demanded.

PERHAPS WE DID. PERHAPS NOT. DO YOU REALLY THINK WE'D TELL YOU? Legion asked.

"But if that's the case…why haven't you escaped by now? No, not even you can escape from here. Not on your own, anyway," Latias murmured to herself. "But if you planned for your capture, then you must have some method of escape. Something that hasn't happened yet. Along with whatever else you have in store for us."

PRECISELY. OR MAYBE WE'RE JUST TRYING TO PSYCHE YOU OUT AND WE DON'T HAVE ANYTHING PLANNED, Legion said smugly. BUT CAN YOU REALLY TAKE THE RISK THAT WE DON'T?

"No, I can't," Latias agreed as she floated back from the containment field. "I need to find Zorra. And talk to Sabrina. She might be able to help…" She started, another thought occurring to her. "The reason she's been having trouble seeing into the future as of late…that's your doing too, isn't it?"

MAYBE. MAYBE NOT. EITHER WAY, WE'D BE HAPPY TO TAKE CREDIT FOR IT, Legion said.

"Then maybe…" Latias frowned and shook her head. "No, no, now is not the time to be paranoid and second-guess yourself, Latias. Now is the time for action."

EVERY STEP YOU TAKE WILL ONLY ENSNARE YOURSELF FURTHER IN OUR PLAN, Legion said.

Latias sighed. "That's a risk I'll have to take." She started floating up towards the hole in the skylight…then paused, a thought occurring to her. "Legion, what role does Tempus Fugit of Team Quantum have in your plans?"

JUST ANOTHER UNWITTING PAWN IN OUR SCHEME, Legion said.

A grin formed on Latias' face. "Well, then. Good to know you're not omniscient after all."

WHAT? Legion asked in confusion.

"Team Quantum doesn't have anyone named Tempus Fugit on their roster," Latias said.

NOT NOW, BUT THEY MIGHT SOMEDAY, Legion said.

"No, I don't think so. You have no idea who Team Quantum are, do you?" Latias asked.

PERHAPS I DO, AND ONLY PRETENDED OTHERWISE TO GIVE YOU A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY, Legion said.

"All right then. Tell me who Team Quantum are," Latias said. "If you don't know, then that proves my point. If you do know, it proves yours."

THEY ARE A GROUP OF TIME TRAVELERS, Legion said.

"Not good enough. It's obvious from the name what they do," Latias said. "If you really know who they are, then tell me their names. And not just their codenames…their real names."

There was a long pause. Legion said nothing. Well, they couldn't say anything anyway, but they didn't spell anything, either. Latias smiled triumphantly. "I didn't think so."

WE COULD BE LULLING YOU INTO A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY, Legion said.

"If you were, then you wouldn't be telling me that, now would you?" Latias said.

WE WOULD IF WE WANTED TO MESS WITH YOUR HEAD, WHICH WE DO, Legion said.

"Or you're desperately trying to cover up the fact that you aren't as all-knowing as you pretend to be," Latias said. "Interesting. Very interesting…" A thoughtful look on her face, she floated through the big hole in the ceiling.

A second later she poked her head back in, said, "Oh, sorry for the damage Master Yamiri. Let me fix that." Her eyes flashed, and suddenly all the damage she'd caused by her rather violent entry into the temple repaired itself. "There we go." That done, she flew away.

A few minutes later, all the glass in town shattered again as Latios rocketed into Pokémon Square at supersonic speeds, sonic booms trailing in his wake. "Did you see my sister?!" he blurted in the dazed Master Yamiri's face as he smashed through the skylight and made a Combeeline directly for the priest. "I saw her coming this way! Where'd she go?!"

"Sh-she was just here," Master Yamiri, still more than a little off-kilter due to the effects of having Latias' uncontrolled telepathic voice nearly destroying his mind. "She yelled at Legion, and…I think she went off to find Zorra, and then Sabrina."

"What? Crap! Gotta go find her." Latios rocketed out of the temple through the hole in the ceiling. A second later, he poked his head back in. "Oh, and, uh, I'll get my sister to fix this." And then he was gone.

"…What the Abyss just happened?" Morty asked.

Yamiri, his head pounding, frowned. "I don't know…but I think…something went wrong at Wyvern Hill."

THAT IS CORRECT, Legion said. RAYQUAZA IS TRAPPED FOREVER.

"What?! No!" Morty gasped.

"I suppose this is the 'effort' you claimed had paid off handsomely?" Yamiri asked.

IT IS INDEED, said Legion. AND WITH HIM GONE, SO TOO IS YOUR LAST HOPE OF SURVIVING THE COMING STORM.

"Preposterous! His Excellency will find a way back to us!" Morty said.

HAHAHAHAHAHA, Legion spelled out. SPOKEN LIKE ONE WHO IS TRULY FAITHFUL…IN OTHER WORDS, A COMPLETE IDIOT.

"There is nothing wrong with having faith," Yamiri said while Morty growled in fury.

FAITH IS ILLOGICAL, ESPECIALLY WHEN GIVEN TO ONE WHO IS UNDESERVING, Legion said.

"His Excellency is anything but undeserving!" Morty snapped.

IF THAT WERE THE CASE, HE WOULD NOT BE IN THIS MESS TO BEGIN WITH, Legion said.

"Why you-" Morty snarled, starting forward.

Yamiri extended a hand, holding him back. "You are that certain Rayquaza is lost to us?"

WE ARE. WE HAVE MADE CERTAIN OF IT, Legion said.

Yamiri smiled. "Then let us make a wager. If Rayquaza indeed does not return, then I shall release you from your prison myself."

"Wait, WHAT?!" Morty screamed incredulously, staring at Yamiri in horror. "You can't do that!"

"However, if Rayquaza returns, then you must tell us about all the little 'surprises' you've planted around Kanjohenn and how to stop them, as well as what your 'associates' are planning for Pokémon Square and how we can stop it, and how to free Krysta from the prison you put her in," Yamiri said.

A POINTLESS WAGER. WE HAVE PLANNED FOR EVERY EVENTUALITY AND FORESEEN EVERY POSSIBLE FUTURE. WE ALREADY KNOW THAT RAYQUAZA WILL NOT ESCAPE, Legion said.

"In which case, there is no reason for you not to agree, if you are truly so confident that you will win, is there?" Yamiri asked. "Unless, of course, you think there's a chance that you might lose?"

…VERY WELL. WE AGREE TO YOUR BARGAIN. IF YOU WISH TO DOOM YOURSELF, WE HAVE NO PROBLEM HELPING YOU REACH YOUR DEMISE THAT MUCH FASTER, Legion said.

Yamiri nodded. "Then it is a deal."

"What?! NO!" Morty shouted.

"Of course, as an honorable mon of faith, you can trust that I will keep to my side of the bargain," Yamiri said, continuing to ignore Morty. "But how do I know you will keep yours?"

WE ARE BEINGS OF OUR WORD. LITERALLY. WE'RE MADE OF WORDS, Legion said.

Yamiri smiled. "Then it seems we have nothing to worry about."

OH, YOU HAVE EVERYTHING TO WORRY ABOUT, Legion gloated. WE GREATLY LOOK FORWARD TO THE OUTCOME OF THIS WAGER, PRIEST.

"As do I, Legion. As do I," Yamiri said, turning away.

He was immediately beset upon by Morty and the other outraged guards and priests. "What the hell, Yamiri?!" Morty shouted. "What were you thinking?! Aside from the fact that that was an incredibly stupid idea, you don't have the authority to pull something like that! Legion is a prisoner of the Draconian Empire!"

"Yes, being held in my temple," Yamiri countered. "Which, last time I checked, is in Pokémon Square, and therefore sovereign territory, even if your Empire is offering us protection at the moment. As such, within these walls, as High Priest it is my word that is law."

"Well…that may be so," Morty admitted reluctantly. "But how could you agree to a bargain as risky as that?!"

"Morty, do you believe in Rayquaza?" Yamiri asked.

Morty recoiled. "What? Of course I do! What kind of question is that?"

"Then you believe he will find his way back to us?" Yamiri asked.

"Well, yes, but-" Morty started.

"Then there's really no problem, is there?" Yamiri said with a smile.

"I…guess…" Morty said slowly. "But…but how do you even know they'll keep their word? They may be beings made out of words, but words can lie."

"Oh, I don't know if they'll keep their word," Yamiri said cheerfully.

Morty blinked. "Huh? But…but then why did you-"

"Because I want to see the look in their eyes when they get bamboozled by a 'lesser being,'" Yamiri said with a cruel grin. "And besides, even though I am, in fact, a mon of my word…one must pay very careful attention to which words I use…" Despite himself, a shiver ran down Morty's non-existent spine. He had heard that Yamiri had once been one of the most dangerous mercenaries who had ever lived. He hadn't really paid much heed to that story…until now, that is. Yamiri clapped his hands. "Now, let's clean this mess up, shall we? And I believe you should be getting back to your posts. Current events are no excuse for you to be slacking off on your duties."

With a groan, everyone dispersed. As Yamiri prepared to follow them—just because he was the High Priest didn't mean he couldn't get down and dirty with his acolytes now and then, after all—Legion spelled out, YOU WILL LOSE, YOU KNOW. YOU ALL WILL.

Yamiri grinned, revealing his many razor-sharp teeth, strong enough to chew through minerals and gemstones. "We shall see, Legion. We shall see."

Elsewhere…

"Awaken."

"Ohhh…"

"Awaken."

"Wha…who…who is…"

"Awaken."

"All right, all right, I'm up! Ugh…my head…" Rayquaza groaned as he sat up, rubbing his aching head. "What…happened? Where…" He started and did a double-take at his surroundings. "Where…where am I?!"

Rayquaza found himself in what looked like the depths of space, with strange and unfamiliar stars surrounding him and the colored shades of Dragon Pokémon—and creatures that looked like Dragons, but no Pokémon he recognized—swirling about. Before him was a monolithic stone statue of Rayquaza that spiraled up and up away from him, stairs carved into its back, before terminating in a massive head whose nose was gently touching the edge of a platform held in its claws before it, a pair of great wings spreading out from its back. A pair of constellations hung behind the statue, one of which resembled Latias, and the other…looked sort of like Latias too, but smaller, and…different somehow, in a way he couldn't quite pick out. She looked very familiar for some reason. The platform in the statue's clutches was round, with the image of a winged dragon clutching a heart in one claw coiled on the floor around a dais surrounded by emerald flames. Perched on a pedestal in the center of the dais was a brilliant jade star, its light bathing the whole strange space in green radiance.

Rayquaza recognized the star at once, even though he had only beheld it—and eaten it-once before. "The Jade Orb…" he whispered. He started, suddenly remember what he was doing here. "That's right! I entered the statue mouth in the shrine at Wyvern Hill…and then there was an explosion, and now I'm…here…" Perplexed, he looked around. He was standing on a stone walkway leading to the tail of the great statue, and the beginning of the staircase which wound its way up the stone Rayquaza's back, between its wings, over its head and down its nose to the platform. He turned, and was alarmed to note that behind him, the walkway went a few meters…and stopped, a jagged edge indicating that once there had been something more there, but now there wasn't. He frowned, seeing no way off of this floating path except to go forwards, towards the statue…or to fall into the starry abyss. "How did I get here? And how do I get out?"

"A simple question, with a difficult answer."

Rayquaza started. "Gah! Who said…" He paused. "Wait. I know that voice…"

"As well you should. It would not do well for you not to recognize your own voice."

"You're me!" Rayquaza gasped. "Er. The other me! The super-godly part, I mean. The part I'm here to reclaim!"

"That is correct."

Rayquaza looked around. "Er…but where are you?"

"I am the Jade Orb. It is the physical manifestation of all your godly might, your divine birthright, your destiny."

"Ah. Then I'd better come up there and collect you, shouldn't I?" Rayquaza said.

The voice of the Orb sighed. "A task easier said than done."

"Oh, right, I have to complete those Trials first, don't I?" Rayquaza recalled.

"You must…but that is not the only problem. You recall that explosion that knocked you out?"

Rayquaza frowned. "Oh yeah, that thing. What was that, anyway?"

"The Unown conglomerate you call 'Legion' planted a trap in the entry to this sacred place centuries ago, the last time the doorway was open. When you tried to pass through the gateway, the trap went off, casting you in here…and destroying the way back."

Rayquaza frowned. "What? Then…I'm stuck here?! And where is 'here' anyway?"

"This is the sacred place we created long ago, a repository for our power should anything ever happen to us," the Orb's voice said.

"I thought that was supposed to be inside Wyvern Hill," said Rayquaza. "This…doesn't look like Wyvern Hill."

"We are within Wyvern Hill, and we are not. We are a step removed from the universe you know, but not quite in the next one over."

"So…what, a place between places?" Rayquaza asked.

"It is a little more complicated than that, but that is one way of looking at it, yes."

"And…I'm stuck here," Rayquaza said, shoulders sagging. "Wait! But if I created this place when I was, well, me…the real me…then maybe once I have my power back, I can-"

"Reopen the path back to your world?" the Orb said. "Unfortunately, even with your full powers restored, it will not be sufficient to return to the world you left. The way has been destroyed."

"What? Can't I just…I don't know, create a new exit?" Rayquaza asked.

"That is within our power," the Orb agreed. "However, it is not so simple. Do you know which way your world is from here?"

"Well, sure! It's…uh…" Rayquaza paused. "…I'm guessing saying its back the way I came is the wrong answer, isn't it?"

"I am afraid so. Remember, we are not quite in Wyvern Hill. We are not even in your universe, not exactly. While you could open a path out of this place once you regain your true power…without knowing the right direction to travel in, there's a good chance you will find yourself not only on a different world, but in a different universe. And while we should be able to navigate our way back to your world of origin once we are free of this place—such an ability being but one of many you shall regain—it might take some time, depending on where we end up. And time is not on our side."

"No," Rayquaza murmured with a frown. "It isn't. So you're saying you don't know the way back, either? Don't you have that…navigational sense you just described?"

"I do, but it doesn't work in here because we aren't in an actual universe but somewhere…out of phase, so to speak," the Orb said. "The gateway served as an anchor back to your world, as well as an exit. With it destroyed, however, we are set adrift among the cosmic tide, like so much flotsam in the sea."

"Wait, then we're not under Wyvern Hill anymore?!" Oak cried.

"Oh, we are. But we also aren't. It's complicated," the Orb said.

"I gathered as much," Rayquaza said dryly. "I suppose this is another one of those things that'll make sense once I'm a god again?"

"Indubitably."

"Why didn't I know it beforehand?" Rayquaza asked. "The last time I had you inside of me, I mean?"

"The power transfer between our 'selves' the last time was imperfect due to the dark magic used by Bellum, Giratina, and Legion," the orb explained. "This time, there shall be no such problem. You shall receive the full power that you were always meant to have…and more, besides that. The power to save the world."

"And to be with Latias," Rayquaza said. "But I need to pass those Trials to get to you first."

"Precisely."

"I don't suppose we could just, you know, skip the Trials? You know, due to extenuating circumstances?" Rayquaza asked.

"I'd love to, but unfortunately in my current state I do not have the power to forego them," the Orb said apologetically. "At the present, I am power, but lack the body or ability to use it."

"But I do," Rayquaza said.

"Precisely."

Rayquaza sighed. "Well, on the plus side, if I fail any test I can just retake it right away, can't I? I mean, since I can't exactly leave and all."

"That would seem to be the case, yes. That is one upside to this mess we've found ourselves in."

Rayquaza grunted. "Then I guess we should get started, since I don't exactly have anywhere else to be. Or rather, I do, but I'm going to need your help to do that. Unless there's any chance of a rescue?"

"I'm afraid not, no," the Orb said regretfully. "This realm can only be breached by our power. Latias cannot get in here, nor can anyone else short of Palkia or Arceus. And possibly Mew."

"And they won't be showing up anytime soon," Rayquaza said.

"Doubtful."

"What about Nuken's daughter, Lily? She has some of our power due to the ritual all those years ago," Rayquaza said.

"She may have our power, but she does not yet fully know how to use it. And she can't get in here for the same reason you can't easily get back: the way is closed, and she doesn't know where, dimensionally speaking, we are. She might be able to find us, but it would take time, which, as you know, we don't have."

"Of course not, because that would be too easy," Rayquaza growled. "What the heck were we thinking when we set up this place?!"

"It never occurred to us that something like this might happen, I suppose," the Orb said.

"Once we get out of here, we're going to have to come up with a better way for us to get back together if we're separated again in the future than this. If this wasn't such a complicated process, we could have saved everyone a lot of trouble," Rayquaza said.

"Agreed," the Orb said.

"Of course, first we actually need to figure a way out of here…" Rayquaza said. "Any ideas on how we can find our way home from here on the first try, rather than having to make our way back from some other planet or universe?"

"There might be one way," the Orb said.

"I'm listening," Rayquaza said, ears perking up at this.

"With the gateway gone, we've lost the anchor to your world. While we're still technically under Wyvern Hill—and at the same time, not—with that anchor gone, the part of us that's under Wyvern Hill is growing less and less by the second, and eventually will be gone altogether. We need to establish a new anchor before that happens, or we're not going to be able to get home from here, not easily."

"Okay. How do we make a new anchor?" Rayquaza asked.

"Everything in reality is bound together by ties of love. Arceus' love for His creation, and our love for each other," the Orb said. "And who do we love more than anyone else?"

"Latias," Rayquaza breathed.

"Precisely. Well, and our daughter, but she's in the Celestial Heavens—or at least, she'd BETTER be—and that's a lot further away from here, but we don't want to go there anyway, so yes, we need Latias."

"We can make her into an anchor to get us home?" Rayquaza asked.

"Yes, but only if you move quickly. The more time passes by, the weaker our connection to your world gets. So you need to reunite with me as soon as possible, before we drift from Wyvern Hill completely. Once that' s happened, not even our love for Latias will be able to get us home. Well, not instantly, anyway. But even if you do make it in time, the process will be very difficult, and there's a chance it won't work. However, since our only other option is to set out from here in some random direction, I'm afraid that's our best shot."

"I don't have time to travel from world to world in search of home…all right, let's get started," Rayquaza said. "What do I need to do?"

"There are five trials you must pass before you can reclaim me, representing some of the most important parts of a dragon's body and spirit: Tail, Wings, Claws, Head, and Heart."

Rayquaza frowned. "I don't have wings, claws, or a tail. Well, not much of them, anyway."

"The tests don't actually involve those body parts. The names are symbolic…or something. You're right, I'm not completely sure what we were thinking when we made them," the Orb said.

Rayquaza glanced at the tail tip in front of him. "I'm guessing I start with the Trial of the Tail, and have to take each successive Trial as I climb further up the body until I reach you?"

"Yes, and when you do, you must complete the Trial of the Heart…the most difficult of them all."

"Naturally." Rayquaza rubbed his nubs together. "All right, then. Let's get to it. Latias is waiting for us."

He walked towards the foot of the staircase, ready to begin his first test.

Meanwhile, on Mars…

Gardevoir's eyes shot open, and she rose from her bed. She could not hear Cresselia's screams, but she was certain they were going on at that very second. There was no time to lose.

Hey, Gardevoir! Welcome back to the land of the wakeful! How was your…wait…hold on a second… Kevin said as all of the memories of Gardevoir's latest meeting with her mysterious friend were distributed to the entire network. …H-holy CRAP…

OhmiArceus, I was right all along! Lovrina squealed. Gardevoir IS in love with Oblivion's Shadow!

I am not, nor will I ever be, Gardevoir snapped. Oblivion's Shadow is NOT Mewtwo!

He most certainly is not, the Teacher agreed. Fascinating…at last, we know our enemy's true identity…but there are still many questions left to answer…

I'm going to see if I can rip those answers from his skull, Gardevoir said as she started walking towards the shielded exit to her cell.

Gardevoir, I would not recommend this course of action- the Teacher started.

With utmost respect, I must disagree, Teacher. Cresselia needs my help. I have sat in here and done nothing while countless Pokémon, including many of my beloved children, have suffered. That ends NOW, Gardevoir said.

B-but we aren't prepared! One of the guards stammered.

As strong as we are thanks to all the new vampires filling our ranks, we still aren't ready to begin the revolution! A janitor agreed.

You don't have to. I intend to fight Oblivion's Shadow right now. The rest of you are to do nothing, Gardevoir ordered. That way, if I fail—which I acknowledge is a possibility—none of you will suffer any fallout from my defeat. If I WIN, however, the Nihilators will be leaderless, giving all of you the opportunity you need to start the revolution.

That is a very bold and reckless plan, Gardevoir. I am not certain I approve of this, the Teacher said. I had hoped we could wait a little longer to consolidate our forces, or for reinforcements to arrive from Earth, as surely they must soon. However…I can see you are resolved to this course of action, no matter what I say, aren't you?

That is correct, Gardevoir said.

Then do as you will. However, you will not receive any aid from us, the Teacher said. As you pointed out, we cannot have any of this reflect back on us.

Understood, Gardevoir said.

W-wait a minute! The vampiric Doduo said. If you lose, what if Oblivion's Shadow decides to target us out of retribution for your actions?

Then only the handful of vampires he has in his labs will die, Gardevoir said. He has no idea how many of us have infiltrated his ranks.

Th-that's a bit harsh, don't you think, Mistress? Lovrina asked in alarm.

It's not exactly like death is something for us to worry about in the long term, thanks to the network, the dead vampire Nosepass pointed out. And if some of us die, so long as our souls are still around we can just get new bodies or something. That was the plan, right?

That was the plan, Kevin agreed. There's plenty of stuff lying around we can use to clone new bodies, especially in the Doc's lab, and even more in Oblivion's Shadow's lab too, or so I'm guessing.

I guess so… the Doduo said uneasily.

It goes against every fiber of our beings to let you do this alone, Mistress, a recent convert, a Nihilator rookie who had yet to receive any Shadow Pokémon treatments, said sadly. But if that is your wish, then we have no choice but to comply.

Thank you, Gardevoir said. I would hate for any of you to have to suffer anymore than you already have because of me. Too many have been hurt already…

Gardevoir, the Teacher said.When you confront the Shadow, what do you intend to do?

I don't want to kill him, Gardevoir confessed. Not his body, anyway. After all, Mewtwo is in there too. If there were some way for me to destroy his Oblivion's Shadow persona, I might be able to free him.

Any idea on how to do that? Kevin asked.

Not really, Gardevoir admitted. Short of beating him into a coma. As strong as my mind is, his is still stronger. I don't believe I can break it on my own.

Maybe Mewtwo will fight from within? Lovrina suggested. That would be so romantic!

Perhaps, Gardevoir said. We'll find out when I fight him, won't we now?

I will think on it. I wish you would wait so we had more time to formulate a plan of action that utilized this new information you have provided, but you have already made your decision. Good luck, Gardevoir, said the Teacher.

Good luck, Gardevoir, said all her friends.

Good luck, Mistress! Said all the vampires.

Gardevoir smiled. Thank you. I think I am going to need it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath…

And, tapping into the incredible well of dark power coiled within her, shattered the psionic inhibitor wrapped around her brow with a single thought.

Instantly, alarm klaxons started to blare. Half a dozen incredibly thick shutters made of pure silver slammed shut across the entryway, and the lights on the ceiling brightened, their UV output rising until it was at least twenty times that of sunlight on Earth. Her skin started to sizzle in places. She didn't even notice. Yes, it hurt, but she had suffered far worse pain than this by now. She walked towards the sealed doorway, releasing a pulse of dark power as she went that shattered the lights, casting the room into a comfortable darkness. She grinned as the lights went out, feeling stronger already.

Hidden turrets emerged from recessed cavities in the walls and ceiling and swiveled to target the vampire queen. A high-pitched hum filled the air as powerful electromagnetic fields came online inside the railgun mechanisms and fired several thousand silver flechette rounds at her heart. She didn't even break step. Her eyes glowed as she walked, and the silver projectiles froze in midair around her. They melted and fused together to form fluid discs of metal that she expertly spun around her, deflecting and/or absorbing every last round until finally the turrets ran out of ammunition and paused for a moment to reload.

Gardevoir didn't give them the chance. With another flash of her eyes, the turrets were ripped out of their emplacements and telekinetically crumpled into balls of scrap, which she spun around like remote-controlled wrecking balls, smashing apart everything in the room. As pleasant as it had been, it had still been a prison, and one she never wanted to see again.

There was a hum, and Gardevoir suddenly felt herself growing exponentially heavier as the chamber's gravity was dialed up to one hundred and fifty times that Earth's own. The floor cratered and dimpled as her feet were pushed down into it. Gritting her teeth, she exerted all her will to lift one foot. It lifted. Then it went back down, cratering the floor in front of her. Then she lifted another foot, and crashed it down in the floor a little ahead of the other one. In this way, she continued towards the door, her progress slowed down somewhat by the heightened gravity, but she refused to let it stop her. She even managed to remain standing upright! (Okay, it was putting a lot of strain on her vertebrae, but she was sure it would mend itself after she'd left the room and was back in more comfortable gravity.)

Holes slid open in the walls and started pumping gas into the room. This didn't particularly bother Gardevoir, however, since she didn't need to breathe anymore. The spark that followed immediately after that ignited the gas and turned the room into a furnace was of slightly higher concern…or at least it might have been, if she hadn't surrounded herself in a shield just in time. The flames roared against her barrier and pushed on her defenses, but were otherwise not worth her even acknowledging.

Passing through the fire and flames, she reached the first of the solid silver security shutters locking her in. The silver disks still orbiting her flowed together and crystallized, turning into a sword. She grabbed it in one hand, ignoring how it burned her, and with her other hand gripped her knee and, with a small grunt of pain, pulled out another sword that looked like it had been crafted from one of her leg bones. In fact, it was one of her leg bones, but her leg regenerated itself as soon as she'd pulled her improvised weapon out of it, so she didn't have to worry about limping or anything like that. Darkness rushed up the blade from her hand, wreathing it in shadow.

Turning her attention back to the doors, Gardevoir crossed her swords before her, and then sliced them through the air about half a dozen times, not seeming to hit anything. There was a pause, and then the shutter fell to the floor in pieces, followed by the one behind it, and the one behind it, and the one behind it, and so on. Now the only thing standing between her and freedom was the solar energy field, which her senses calculated was now pumping out a hundred times as much energy as sunlight on Earth, enough to give even her pause.

Which was why she didn't bother trying to walk through it, but instead hurled her silver sword through the field. Since it wasn't made of dark or vampiric matter, it wasn't hindered in the slightest. Her eyes glowing, she telekinetically grabbed the sword and steered it back towards her, but intead of having it fly back into her hand, she drove it into the wall right next to the shielded exit, piercing one of the power conduits generating the solar energy field. The barrier flickered, but did not fall. Gardevoir wasn't surprised; she had expected there to be multiple redundancies. Too bad they weren't prepared for her to telekinetically grab the sword again and pull it up and around and down again, slicing through the wall and cleaving through any power cables or conduits in its path. She even cut through a portion of the floor right in front of her cell door, just to be thorough.

However, even after cutting in a ragged circle all the way around the barrier, the solar energy field still wouldn't fall. Gardevoir frowned at this…then smirked, getting another idea. Gathering her power, she mentally shoved at the barrier. The energy field didn't react…but the wall surrounding it, already weakened by Gardevoir's blade, did¸ and the whole thing was ripped out from the rest of the wall and slammed into the opposite side of the corridor. The flames from the gas explosion, no longer contained in the room, rushed out to scorch the corridor, and Gardevoir calmly strode out in their midst, a smile gracing her lovely features. At last, she was free.

Well, not entirely. She still had work to do. Ignoring the spray from the sprinklers raining down from the ceiling to extinguish the fires, Gardevoir strode down the hallway. She paused by the silver sword, now rather bent and dented by her telekinetic abuse of it, but eventually decided to just leave it there, knowing the Shadow might try to use it against her. With a thought, the sword liquefied and seeped into the floor. She then bit her hand, breaking the skin and causing blood to drip out. She lowered her arm, allowing the blood to flow downwards…and, at her will, solidified and shaped itself to form a crimson blade. She swiped it through the air a few times, mentally changing its shape until its weight and balance satisfied her, and then continued on her way.

There were many other traps in her way, but she circumvented them with ease; unleashing waves of Psychic force and Dark energy with every step that smashed up everything around her, putting out the lights, tearing up the paneling, and frying the circuits running through the walls. She also took pleasure in completely destroying any complex machinery she came across, delighting in the way the imprisoned souls contained in many of them danced joyously around her before flying off to realms beyond this, and to far better places than this hell, or so Gardevoir hoped. Everywhere she went, she left darkness and destruction in her wake. Something followed her in that darkness, but if she was aware of it, she gave no sign.

It didn't take her too long to find Oblivion's Shadow. She could sense his presence quite easily. She could feel his raw power, hear his heartbeat, smell the blood in his veins, and taste his ragged emotions. She could sense some other living Pokémon trapped elsewhere in the facility, but she resolved to save them later. There was a second life-force near the Shadow's, a radiant and beautiful one…that was suffering horribly, and only moments away from being snuffed out. (There was another life-force also suffering very close, but that one confused her, it seemed like it was constantly dying and being born. What was that all about?) She didn't have much time left to save it.

That didn't mean she couldn't make a stylish entrance, of course. She was a vampire queen, after all. That sort of thing was expected of her. So when she blasted the doors to the dome-shaped chamber Oblivion's Shadow and Cresselia were in open with a wave of Psychic force, swarms of black bat-like Pokémon streaming out before her to fill the room with their screeching and flapping wings, shadows lengthening and stretching out to dim or blot out the lights, striding in casually like she owned the place with her red gown clinging sensually to her form and accentuating her curves and shouted, "OBLIVION'S SHADOW!", the stunned reaction her nemesis gave as he dropped a battered, broken, and bloody Cresselia to the ground told her she'd made the right choice.

"G-Gardevoir?!" the Shadow stammered incredulously, so shocked he forgot to engage his mask's usual voice-changing properties. "How…how did you-"

Before he could regain his composure, or even finish his sentence, Gardevoir flicked her wrists, hurling both her swords at him. The blades ran him through and knocked him off his feet, slamming him into the wall, the swords impaled through his chest nailing him to the surface. Before he could pull himself off, Gardevoir's bat minions descended on him, covering him in their writhing, shrieking mass. He cried out and flailed, lashing out instinctively with his Psychic powers, but they were made from Dark matter, and so his mind had no effect on them.

With the fiend distracted, Gardevoir rushed over to the crumpled form of Cresselia lying on the ground, blood oozing all over the place. The vampire queen winced when she saw the damage Oblivion's Shadow had done to her. Her wings had been ripped off, her crest and beak were broken, one of her eyes had been gouged out, she was covered in lacerations and bruises, and from the swollen shape of her head she was pretty sure Oblivion's Shadow had been trying to use his Psychic powers to explode her head from within. The lunar goddess coughed up blood and glared at Gardevoir through her bloodshot good eye. "Took your…time…getting here…"

Gardevoir grimaced. Perhaps she had been enjoying using her powers to their fullest a little too much. She probably could have moved a little faster. So much for not letting anyone else get hurt. "I'm here now," she said, pushing her guilt away for the time being, as well as fighting down the instinct to feed on the delicious-smelling blood oozing from the wounded goddess in droves. "I'm going to stop him. But first, let me heal-"

There was a tremendous explosion of Shadow Aura, vaporizing the bats and knocking Gardevoir back. Oblivion's Shadow, blazing with black Aura, wrenched himself off of the wall, ripping the swords out of his chest and flinging them at Gardevoir. She caught them telekinetically inches before they could go through her skull, but almost didn't react in time to Teleport out of the way before Oblivion's Shadow could strike her with a massive dark Aura Sphere that destroyed the wall behind her in a massive explosion. She reappeared standing over Cresselia protectively, holding her swords out before her. "Gardevoir," the Shadow hissed, not even bothering to disguise his voice. There was no point, not now that she knew his true identity. "You should be in your cell. How did you escape? I took every precaution!"

"Clearly not enough," she shot back. "I told you I had grown more powerful, Shadow. Clearly you didn't heed my warning…just as you apparently didn't notice the alarms as I broke out and destroyed at least half of your laboratory on the way here. I guess you were really getting off on hurting poor Cresselia here, huh?"

The Shadow stiffened. "My lab?! You…do you have any idea what you've done?!"

"Not really," Gardevoir admitted. "But if it makes you angry…then I'd happily do it again. Or even wreck the rest of your lab. I have every intention of doing just that, actually…after I defeat you."

"You fool. Even knowing who and what I am, you would still challenge me?" the Shadow snarled. "I was created from the blood of gods. I was made to surpass the gods! I am the strongest Pokémon of all!"

"Well then," Gardevoir said, her gown splitting apart into blood-red bat wings and revealing her armored form underneath. "Let's put that to the test, shall we?"

"What then, do you intend to kill me? Even knowing that the mon you love resides within me?" the Shadow scoffed.

"Kill you? Tempting, but no, I don't want to kill Mewtwo," Gardevoir admitted. "Beating you into a coma so that he can reassert control should suffice, though. I'm sure he'll forgive me later."

"That will never come to pass," the Shadow spat. "This body is mine. He is too weak for it. He doesn't deserve it!"

Gardevoir licked her lips. "I very much look forward to proving you wrong."

"Hmmph. If that is your desire. May I ask one concession, however?" the Shadow asked. "While I know you don't really care about what might happen to my laboratory, it will be difficult for either of us to fight to our fullest extent within these confines. Not only that, but there's a chance our battle might harm some of my other prisoners, which I'm fairly certain is something you don't want."

"What makes you say that? I had no problem with you killing all those children the other day," Gardevoir pointed out.

"You rushed over here to help Cresselia. That implies to me that you haven't completely lost your empathy for other Pokémon," the Shadow said.

"You're one to talk about empathy, monster. How do you know I didn't just come over here because I wanted to fight you?" Gardevoir asked.

"If that were the case, why didn't you do it before now?" the Shadow asked.

"Perhaps I was just waiting until I was strong enough?" Gardevoir suggested.

"Perhaps," the Shadow said. "But we both know that's the case, don't we, Gardevoir?"

He had her there. "So what are you suggesting, precisely? That we relocate elsewhere?"

"Precisely," the Shadow said.

Gardevoir scoffed. "You must think me a fool. Any place you choose to fight will obviously have an advantage in your favor."

"I don't hear any better ideas," the Shadow said.

"I have one," Gardevoir said. "Let's not do battle anywhere in this fortress of yours. As you said, we wouldn't be able to use our full powers in this enclosed space. Why don't we go outside?"

"Outside?" the Shadow asked in surprise.

"Certainly. Plenty of space out there," Gardevoir said.

"You aren't bothered by the fact that there will be sunlight out there?" the Shadow asked.

"If I was able to escape from my cell, do you really think the amount of sunlight there will be outside will bother me too much?" Gardevoir asked.

The Shadow considered this. "This is true," he said grudgingly. "But how do I know you will not try to escape?"

"Where would I escape to?" Gardevoir asked. "Last time I checked, we were on Mars. There's nothing and nobody else out there. And certainly no way for me to leave this world." Well, that wasn't entirely true, she could always turn to the Martian remnants for aid, but she wasn't supposed to know they existed.

The Shadow gave her a suspicious look. "And how, pray tell, did you know we were on Mars?"

Uh-oh. Had she misspoken? Had the Shadow ever mentioned where they were before? She couldn't recall. Realizing she might have accidentally confirmed her ties to the rebels that the Shadow suspected but didn't actually know existed, Gardevoir quickly bluffed, "I thought it was common knowledge. Chobin mentioned it during one of his and Tarantulas' experiments on me."

"Ugh…that Sunflora…" the Shadow snarled. "If I didn't need that brain of his…very well. We shall hold our duel outside. But do not think this will give you an edge, either. You cannot defeat me, and even if you did, you're still trapped here. I doubt you know how to use any of my ships, and you would have to fight through my entire army to reach them."

"If I can beat you," Gardevoir pointed out. "Then your army won't pose much of a challenge."

"We shall see. I have made a small opening in the anti-teleport field surrounding the base. We shall both Teleport outside at the same time, so neither of us can get a jump on the other," the Shadow said.

"I don't know where outside to Teleport to, though," Gardevoir pointed out.

A holographic screen came to life, displaying a barren, featureless plain of rocks and red dust, dust clouds swirling through the air as a distant, pale Sun shone down from the red sky. The image suddenly changed to a bird's-eye-view and zoomed out until the slopes of Coronet Mons could be seen in the bottom-right corner. "We are here," the Shadow said, a flashing dot appearing on the massive extinct volcano. "And I propose we fight here." Another dot appeared all the way in the upper left corner.

"You chose that spot," Gardevoir said suspiciously. "How do I know there's not a trap there?"

"You don't," the Shadow said. "But I know every inch of this planet, so there's nowhere we could go where I wouldn't have the advantage of knowledge of the terrain. Take it or leave it."

She was fairly sure he was lying. If he really knew every inch of the planet, then how had he not found the Martian remnants by now? "I don't suppose we could teleport to the opposite side of the planet?" Gardevoir asked, not ready to yield the point just yet. "Somewhere that's not in line of sight of this place, and the many weapons you no doubt have mounted on the outside walls?"

"Can you actually teleport that far?" the Shadow asked skeptically. "I know I can, but are you really that strong?"

"Care to find out?" Gardevoir asked with a grin. She wasn't certain herself, actually, but it was worth a try.

With a shrug, the Shadow expanded and reshaped the map until it was a spherical representation of Mars. He spun it and indicated a spot on the exact opposite side of the planet from their current position. "Will this place suffice?"

Gardevoir was about to say yes…and then paused, a brilliant idea suddenly coming to her. Striding forwards, she pointed to a seemingly random spot several thousand miles away from the place the Shadow had indicated. "How about here?"

The Shadow gave her a perplexed look. "Why there?"

Gardevoir shrugged. "Why not there? It's almost as far from the base, and if you really know every inch of this planet, then one place is as good as any other, isn't it?"

"…I suppose so," the Shadow said reluctantly, clearly suspicious. As well he should be. The spot she had chosen was about a hundred or so kilometers away from an outpost the Martian survivors were using, one she was fairly certain the Shadow hadn't known about. If she found herself indeed unable to win the battle, then theoretically she should be able to call on their help to escape the Shadow, and she was fairly certain it couldn't be traced back to the rebellion.

At least, she didn't think it could. Teacher…

I am discussing it with the Martians. I will inform you of their decision, the Teacher said.

All right, Gardevoir said.

Do not worry, Gardevoir. We have no intention of allowing you to die out there, the Teacher said.

Although if you did die, that would mean I get to be Queen of the Vampires… Lovrina mused.

For the love of Arceus, don't die! DON'T DIE! Kevin screamed.

I will do my best not to, Gardevoir said. "Well?" she asked out loud.

"…I cannot think of a reason not to go there," the Shadow said reluctantly. He felt certain she was up to something, but he couldn't figure it out. As far as he knew, there was nothing of particular interest in that area…so why was he so certain she had chosen it for a reason? Deciding to test her, he said, "Although…what about this spot?" he asked, pointing to another place on the map at random. "If any place is as good as any other, what about here?"

Hiding her alarm, Gardevoir shrugged and said. "I suppose it would work. But is there any reason you don't want to go to the place I picked?"

"I never said I didn't want to go there," the Shadow said.

"Then why did you pick a different place?" Gardevoir asked.

"Why did you pick that place?" the Shadow asked.

Damn. This wasn't working. Thinking quickly, she said, "All right, how about a compromise? Halfway between my choice and yours?"

"You mean…here?" the Shadow asked, pointing to another spot.

"Sure. Why not?" It wasn't ideal, a lot further from the Martian outpost than she had hoped, but if they agreed to help they would still be able to reach her relatively quickly…just not as quickly as she would have liked.

"Well…" the Shadow said, uncertain.

"Oh, for the love of…will the two of you just get going, already?!" Cresselia shouted in exasperation. "Watching you two argue is almost as painful as my bleeding out here! Stop talking and get to it already! Or make out. Or heal me. Either's fine."

"…Hmmph. She has a point," the Shadow admitted grudgingly.

"I'm not making out with you," Gardevoir said flatly.

"I meant that we should get going," the Shadow snapped, flustered. "The place you suggested as a compromise will work."

"Then let's go," Gardevoir said. She paused, and then glanced at Cresselia. "I don't suppose I could just-"

"If you want to heal her, you will have to deal with me first," the Shadow said.

Gardevoir sighed. "Very well. So, we Teleport at the same time?"

"On three," the Shadow said.

Gardevoir nodded. "All right. One."

Instantly, both of them Teleported. Cresselia burst into laughter, but stopped because it hurt too much. She coughed up some more blood. "Heh. Those two are made for each other. And speaking of soulmates…"

"Right here, honey-bunch," Darkrai said, rising from her shadow. He looked down at her broken form sorrowfully. "Oh, beloved. I'll make him pay for this. I swear it."

"You can have what's left of him after I'm through with him," Cresselia said weakly. "I take it you're here to rescue me, then, while the Big Bad Shadow's away?"

"Sorry, but I still can't save you," Darkrai said apologetically. He nodded towards the dark doorway through which Gardevoir had entered. "My friend here, on the other hand…"

The shadows didn't part so much as extrude a portion of themselves forward, a portion that gradually peeled back the further it got from the door to reveal a humanoid Espeon with blue fur, black armor with red trim, a long scarf resembling Zubat wings, a sword of pure darkness, and glowing red goggles pulled halfway down his face to resemble a sort of mask. He nodded respectfully to Darkrai and Cresselia as he crossed the room towards them.

Cresselia narrowed her remaining eye in recognition. "The Solar Boy Jango, the legendary Vampire Hunter…or rather, Black Jango. How'd you get him on your payroll?"

"He owed me a little debt," Darkrai said. Jango glared at him. "Weeeeeellllll, okay, more like blackmail. But for a good cause. I'll give his friend back as soon as he gets you and the others out of here."

"What others?" Cresselia asked grimly.

Darkrai blinked. "Huh? What are you talking about? You know, Ho-Oh, Mesprit, Jirach…" He hesitated, and then slowly looked around the room. Much to his alarm, the cell where Mesprit had been kept was empty, and the Millennium Comet-fueled apparatus that had suspended Jirachi in the center of the chamber of the room was gone as well. Only Ho-Oh remained, still screaming in agony as she was endlessly killed and reborn again. "Wait a minute. Where are they?!"

Cresselia sighed. "The Shadow moved them this morning. I don't know where to."

"WHAT?! FUCK!" Darkrai swore. "Can you find them?!"

"Not unless they're sleeping," Cresselia said. "Which, right now, I'm fairly certain they aren't."

"Shit. Okay, Jango, change of plans," Darkrai said. "I need you to go and find-"

"He'll never find them. Not in time," Cresselia interrupted.

"We have plenty of time. Gardevoir will distract the Shadow, that should buy us enough time to find them," Darkrai said.

"Darkrai, I've never left this room since I got here, but I know that this laboratory is MASSIVE," Cresselia said. "And Mesprit and Jirachi aren't the only ones being held here. It will take Jango, even with his vampiric senses, far too long to find and free them all before the Shadow finishes with Gardevoir and returns."

"He might not come back," Darkrai said. "She might beat him."

Cresselia narrowed her eye at him. "Do you really think that will happen?"

"I…okay, I guess the odds are pretty slim…" Darkrai said unhappily. "But…but I can't leave them here! This is what I've been planning for all this time! If we can save Jirachi and Mesprit, he's finished, there's no way he can go through with whatever he's planning!"

"Can you really be certain of that?" Cresselia argued. "The Shadow is Mewtwo, after all. I wouldn't be surprised if he had some kind of contingency plan even if they were released."

"You don't know that…" Darkrai said.

"And you don't know that he doesn't, either," Cresselia said. "Darkrai, I don't want to leave them either. They're my friends. But if you take me out of here, then your contract with the Shadow will be nullified, and you will at last be free to act directly against him. Then we can come back and save everyone, with the full weight of the Lunar Armada at our backs."

"…I can't say that doesn't sound tempting," Darkrai admitted. "But…to just take you and leave the others…well, except for Ho-Oh, I guess…it seems…wrong."

"Darkrai, last night Mesprit told me that today would be the day when you would rescue me. She told me to tell you not to dawdle, and when the opportunity presented itself, to take it, and don't waste time dithering or second-guessing yourself," Cresselia said.

Darkrai's eyes widened in surprise. "She said that? Then…then she knew this would happen, didn't she?"

Cresselia laughed again, spitting up more blood. "Of course she did. She knows everything. Or rather, Uxie does, and through him, so does she."

Darkrai shook his head in amazement. "What else does she know, I wonder?"

"We can ask her that later. But right now, if you plan to get me out of here, I suggest we do it now, before I die and leave a beautiful corpse on the ground," Cresselia said.

"If you die, I can just bring you back," Darkrai pointed out. "It wouldn't be the first time."

Cresselia raised an eyebrow. "You really mean to tell me you'd let your wife die on this cold metal floor just because you could bring me back?"

"Heh, I guess not. You know me too well, Cressy," Darkrai said. "All right, let's get you out of here."

"Darkrai…" Cresselia said.

"Huh? Oh, right, and Ho-Oh, too," Darkrai said. "Jango?"

The vampiric Espeon whipped out his gun and fired it at Ho-Oh's cell. The blast struck the force field and exploded, shorting it out and causing it to disappear. Ho-Oh, having just regenerated for the millionth time, quickly rushed through the open door of her cell before the disintegrator beams could fire and kill her again. The instant she was out, she whirled around and opened her beak, firing a blast of Sacred Fire back into her prison, destroying it in a tremendous explosion. That taken care of, she spread her wings and shrieked at the top of her lungs, buffeting everyone back and causing flames and explosions to erupt all around the room. "WHERE IS OBLIVION'S SHADOW?!" she shouted, eyes wide and glittering with madness. All those months of forced death and reincarnation had clearly taken their toll on her.

"Left, I'm afraid," Darkrai said.

"TELL ME WHERE! I'LL BURN HIM TO ASHES!" Ho-Oh screamed.

"No, he'll just defeat you like he defeated you the last time, and then you'll wind up right back in here," Cresselia said weakly, managing to lift her head off the floor with some effort. "I understand that you're angry, Ho-Oh—and more than a little insane right now—but this is the time for escape, not revenge. We have to get out of here. You can come back here and fight the Shadow with reinforcements later."

"NO! I'M NOT RUNNING AWAY! HE MUST PAY FOR WHAT HE DID FOR ME!" Ho-Oh screamed, her body bursting into flames. "AND IF YOU GET IN MY WAY…I'LL BURN YOU, TOO!"

Tensing, Jango started to raise his gun again. "That won't be necessary," Darkrai said, floating in front of him. "Ho-Oh, you've been tortured nonstop for months. I think what you need right now more than anything else—aside from food, and a good therapist—is a good night's sleep. DARK VOID!"

"WHA-" Ho-Oh didn't even get to finish her sentence before the purple and black energy ball Darkrai threw struck her, causing a crimson bubble to form around the phoenix before fading away. Her eyelids flickered, and the flames around her body and the rest of the room wavered. "Oh…ohhhhhhhhhhh…" With a great thud, she collapsed to the floor, the flames extinguishing in the process.

"Phew! That was close," Darkrai said.

"You do realize that she's going to have horrible nightmares," Cresselia said.

"…Oh. Uh…can I borrow a feather?" Darkrai asked Mareepishly.

Cresselia sighed. "If you must."

"Jango, my good mon, grab one of Cressy's feathers and put it on Ho-Oh, if you please," Darkrai said. "After everything she's gone through, she could use a few good dreams."

Jango nodded and looked around the room. Thankfully, he didn't have to pluck any feathers from Cresselia, the Shadow's abuse had knocked quite a few loose and there were several dozen scattered around the chamber. Grabbing one that didn't have a lot of blood on it, he walked over to Ho-Oh and carefully laid it on her brow. The phoenix's face, which had looked rather pained and uncomfortable a moment ago, smoothed out and relaxed as the Lunar Wing took effect and put her into a peaceful sleep. That taken care of, the Espeon glanced at Darkrai for his next instruction.

"Okay, now that Ho-Oh's asleep, it's time to book it," Darkrai said. "Grab Cresselia and head over to Ho-Oh then open a portal out of here. It's time to go home." Jango looked at him. "Huh? Oh, right. Yeah, you'll get your friend back and I'll send you on your way as soon as Cressy's safe and sound on the Moon. But hurry up, Cressy's right, we probably don't have much time."

Jango nodded and walked back over to Cresselia. He knelt down and gently lifted her up. Or rather, he tried to; she was a lot heavier than he expected. A good thing he almost never talked, or else he might have said an inadvertent comment that would have gotten him in a lot of trouble. Instead, his eyes glowed under his goggles as he used his Psychic powers to lift her into the air. "Such a nice boy," Cresselia murmured.

"Don't get any ideas," Darkrai told Jango. "She's my womon. Besides, don't you have a girl of your own back home?" Jango blushed and looked away. Both Darkrai and Cresselia chuckled, or at least, Cresselia did until she vomited blood onto the temporary vampire's chest, which Jango had to struggle to refrain from feeding on. Darkrai paled as much as someone with pitch black skin could. "Right, right, wasting time here, let's go."

Jango quickly carried Cresselia over to the prone form of Ho-Oh and opened a portal. Darkness coalesced at their feet, and they began to sink into the shadows. As he submerged himself in his element, Darkrai glared at the empty room and vowed, This isn't over, Shadow. I'll be back. And when I return…I'll throw you into a nightmare from which you will never awaken.

And then they were gone, with nothing but shadows, bloodstains, burns, and a few stray feathers to show that they were ever there.

And in a separate part of the facility, Mesprit smiled. Just as planned.

Meanwhile, in the Berry Kingdom…

Janine was led by the Berry King's attendants to a room with jade floor tiles, pillars with golden dragons resembling Rayquaza running up their length, and hanging wall scrolls depicting ninjas fighting a variety of different adversaries. There was a straw mat on the floor in front of a low table with a pair of cushions behind it. A large, fat candle sat on the table. The room was dark, and after the attendant lit the candle and shut the door, the only source of light was the burning wick. Seated patiently on the straw mat, Janine waited, staring straight ahead, certain those she was brought here to see would show themselves soon.

Half an hour passed, then an hour, then two hours. Still Janine waited, and still nobody joined her, even as the candle burned lower and lower in its ceramic dish.

When the three-hour mark passed, the candle flame, now rather low, flickered…

And when the light returned to the room, Janine was no longer alone. She bowed her head very slightly, not taking her eyes off the Ninjask and Shedinja sitting across the table from her. "Grandmaster Izanami. Grandmaster Izanagi."

"Janine Shinobu," Izanami, the Ninjask, said. "You have been trained well, I see."

"This test of my patience was nothing. I have learned how to sit for over a week without moving or sleeping or needing to eat," Janine said.

"Not bad. Not bad at all. It is an honor to meet you at last…niece," the Shedinja, Izanagi, said.

"I would say the same to you…were you and your clan not traitors to the Empire, and to your family," Janine said coldly.

Neither of the elder ninjas responded for a moment. The candle continued burning low. "We had our reasons for leaving His Excellency's service," Izanami said after a moment.

"And what would those be?" Janine asked. "That you somehow came to believe that Rayquaza actually died during the altercation at Wyvern Hill centuries ago and the dragon sitting on the throne is actually an impostor being controlled by Nuken, and so set out to find a 'worthier' master?"

"What? No," Izanagai said in surprise. "That's preposterous. Where did you hear that?"

"It is what my father told me," Janine said.

The elder ninjas exchanged glances. "Well…we did not leave on the best of terms," Izanami admitted.

"I suppose it is understandable why he might think that," Izanagai said.

"And why would that be?" Janine asked.

"A few hundred years ago, after the slight shake-up caused by the catastrophe at Wyvern Hill, we were approached by an emissary of Mew, who told us that to preserve the safety of the Empire, and the world, we must sever ties with His Excellency and our siblings and travel to the north, where we would lend our aid to the defense of the Berry Kingdom," Izanami said.

Janine raised an eyebrow in unbelieving skepticism. "And you believed her?"

"Of course not. Not at first, anyway," Izanagi said.

Izanami nodded in agreement. "She was…very persuasive."

Janine's eye twitched. "Don't tell me you slept with her."

"What?! Of course not!" Izanagi said angrily.

"That would have been most unprofessional," Izanami agreed.

"She did offer, though. But that's to be expected. Mewrians," Izanagi said. Janine nodded, understanding what they meant.

"How did she persuade you, then?" Janine asked.

"She took us into the future, and showed us what the world would look like if we did not heed her advice," Izanami said.

Izanagi shuddered and shook his head. "It was…not pretty."

Janine froze. "She…took you into the future?!"

"Yes," Izanami said. "She was a Celebi, you see."

"A…pink Celebi?" Janine whispered, a horrified realization dawning on her.

"Yes, which was part of what convinced us she was working for Mew," Izanagi said, somewhat surprised by Janine's guess. "The unusual coloration and all. We thought it a bit odd that a Celebi would be working for Mew, but-"

"That's because she wasn't working for Mew," Janine said, sagging back in her seat. "You were deceived." Perhaps Gary was right to be so paranoid after all. And maybe she hadn't been paranoid enough.

"What are you talking about?" Izanami asked sharply.

"And how did you know her color?" Izanagi inquired.

With a weary sigh, Janine told them everything she knew about Team Quantum. It wasn't much, just what Gary had told her, but it was enough. After her tale was told, her aunt and uncle stared at her in wordless horror for a long moment, while the candle continued burning low.

Finally, a shocked Izanami said, "How…how could we have been so foolish?!"

"It all seems so obvious in retrospect, now," Izanagi said, stunned.

"We turned our backs on His Excellency…on our family…for a lie?!" Izanami gasped.

"Even with that very convincing trip to the future, how could we have fallen for something like this?!" Izanagi demanded.

"From what Gary has told me, Team Quantum is extremely devious and powerful," Janine said. "Through their mastery of time travel and Psychic abilities, they can go wherever and whenever they want, and alter people's thought patterns to further their own, enigmatic agenda. Perhaps you were, in fact, not so easily swayed…so the accursed Paradox rewrote your memories, or rewound time and tried a different tactic to convince you, until finally she had what she desired: your agreement to leave the Draconian Empire, and come to the Berry Kingdom."

"…She convinced us it was for the greater good…" Izanami said weakly. "That it was necessary to avert a future threat…that the Empire might crumble if we did not leave…that we would still be serving His Excellency in our own way…"

"And she also said that it would benefit our brethren, too," Izanagi said despondently. "She said that by having so many powerful ninja clans under one master, our ninjitsu was stagnating, that we were losing our diversity, that by leaving all of us could become stronger…"

"She lied," Janine said simply. "Or rather, told you the truth in such a way that it suited her own ends."

"Something we, as ninja, should know everything about," Izanami said miserably.

"And we failed," Izanagi agreed sadly. "And now His Excellency is left with but one ninja clan to his name, thanks to the destruction of the Claw clan. The world is in turmoil due to the threat posed by these 'Nihilators,' His Excellency has been transformed into a Bagon, and the Empire is now at its most vulnerable. Some of this could have been mitigated were we still in His Excellency's service."

"Could this, too, have been part of Paradox's scheme?" Izanami wondered.

"It would not surprise me," Janine said.

Izanagi shook his head woefully. "How could we have made such a grievous error?"

"It is not your fault," Janine said, although truthfully a part of her believed it was. "I do not think anyone is immune to Team Quantum's predations. They might be affecting us now, and we'd never notice, or even remember."

"Abuse of time travel is a terrible thing…" Izanami said solemnly.

"But I thought such temporal activity was supposed to be policed. Why have they not been stopped?" Izanagi asked.

Janine shrugged. "I am not the one to inquire of such matters. I have no idea."

The elder ninja exchanged glances and nodded. "Then it would seem our course is clear," Izanami said.

"We had originally brought you here to debrief you on matters in the Berry Kingdom and to help you write a letter to your brother convincing him to side with us," Izanagi said.

"Instead, you have given us…much more to think on," Izanami said.

"You have revealed that we betrayed our kin and master, and disgraced our entire clan, for a lie," Izanagi said.

"Regardless of this 'Paradox's' power, and whether or not she did something to our minds, our behavior is inexcusable," Izanami said.

Izanagi nodded. "We must resign from our positions as Grandmasters of the Wing clan and present ourselves to His Excellency for judgment. It is the only way to cleanse the stain of dishonor we have left on our family and clan."

Janine frowned. "While I agree that is the proper course of action for you to take, I do not believe now is the right time. Even if you abandoned His Excellency, you still swore an oath to protect this new kingdom in its time of need, a time which is fast approaching. Surely you do not expect the Berry Kingdom to defend itself without your help?"

"We did not say that," Izanami said.

Izanagi nodded in agreement. "Duty calls first. We shall deal with the current crisis first, set our affairs in order, choose a successor, and present ourselves before His Excellency and Grandmasters Nuken and Koga for judgment. We shall ask that they spare our clan and allow them to either rejoin the Empire or to remain with the Berry Kingdom—whichever they would prefer most-in exchange for whatever punishment they deem fit, even our deaths. It is the honorable thing to do."

Janine nodded. "That seems reasonable. Do you have any successors in mind?"

"I don't suppose you would be interested in the job?" Izanami asked.

"Me?!" Janine asked in surprise.

"Certainly. Leadership of the Wing clan must run in the family, and you are a blood relative," Izanagi said.

"But…I am already sworn to serve the Mirage Kingdom!" Janine protested. "And I know nothing of the Wing clan's members or techniques, or of the Berry Kingdom!"

"The Mirage Kingdom will soon be joined to Berry in marriage, so you would still be serving the same masters even if you inherited leadership of our clan," Izanami said.

"After all, it's not as if serving the Mirage Kingdom means you are not still an agent of His Excellency, is it?" Izanagi asked.

Izanami nodded. "We still see…saw ourselves as servants of His Excellency, even when we swore to follow the Berry King, who is indeed a worthy and noble master even if he is not the Dragon God King. We rationalized it as serving His Excellency in another way."

"Though clearly, we were wrong…" Izanagi said glumly.

"…Well…I suppose that's true, but…" Janine started.

"And as to your lack of knowledge…you can be taught. Trained," Izanami said.

Izanagi nodded. "While we have every intention of stepping down and even giving up our lives to atone for our mistakes, we are not so rash as to do it before we are confident our clan is in good hands."

"And what makes you think my hands are the right ones?" Janine asked.

"Do you think you would fall for such a transparent scheme as we did?" Izanami asked.

"I'd like to think I wouldn't," Janine said. "But you did, and you were older and far more experienced than I when it happened. Paradox has…ways of changing a person's mind, ways even a ninja is clearly not immune to."

"Perhaps this is so," Izanagi admitted. "But if that's the case, that means you're no less fit to run the clan than we are. And at least you're aware of her villainy, which we were not, and so would know to be on your guard should she ever confront you overtly."

"This is true," Janine admitted.

"We are not asking you to make a decision now," Izanami said gently. "We have time, after all. And we have other candidates we might consider to take our place should you decline, so there's no pressure."

"…I will have to consider it," Janine said after a long moment. "And I would need to talk to my brother, as well. No Shinobu has ever led a ninja clan without the assistance of their soultwin. Even though my father leads the Head clan, Grandmaster Nuken still has a say in things."

"Well, of course, that goes without saying," Izanagi said.

"We would never ask you to lead the clan without taking your brother's feelings into consideration," Izanami assured her.

"And speaking of feelings…what of Maren?" Janine asked.

"There is no reason a leader of a ninja clan cannot be wed, so long as you are aware that you must put the needs of your clan and master ahead of your spouse…" Izanagi said.

"And be willing to kill her, if it is necessary," Izanami said.

Janine nodded. "Maren is already aware of this. It's…not something she's entirely comfortable with, but she accepts its part of the risks of loving a ninja. And she's pretty much said she wouldn't hesitate to kill me if I were an enemy of the state as well, so it's nothing we aren't familiar with."

"That is one awkward conversation out of the way, then," Izanagi said.

"You will want to discuss this with her as well, I trust?" Izanami asked.

"You trust correctly," Janine said.

"Very good," Izanagi said.

"Thank you for bringing all of this to our attention, Janine," Izanami said.

"You have given us the opportunity to make up for a grave mistake," Izanagi said.

"But our redemption and your future with the Wing clan can wait for further discussion," Izanami said.

Izanagi nodded. "Right now, we have other matters to discuss."

"How to handle Morkul, and contact my brother," Janine said.

"Precisely," Izanami said.

"That was our original intention," Izanagi said.

Janine nodded. "All right then. What would you have me tell him?"

They told her. Naturally, there was a bit of argument on both sides as to the proper wording, how much should be revealed in the letter, whether or not Hansen would believe it or not, and so on, but after some debate they believed they had come up with a good final product. A scribe was called in to write down Janine's message, and a courier—one of the Wing clan, naturally—was swiftly dispatched to deliver it. After some prompting from Janine, some guards were sent along with the courier…and other ninja were sent to follow them from a distance, and more ninjas were sent to follow them. After further prompting, a half-dozen other couriers with the same level of security contingent were also sent out, each leaving at different times and heading in different directions. After what had happened to Callista's wedding invitation several years ago, they couldn't take any chances with the delivery of this message. One way or another, it had to go through. Of course, if Team Quantum really didn't want the message to be received, Janine was fairly certain it would go missing no matter what they did, but they at least had to try. The Kingdom's safety depended on it.

After this business was taken care of, and a fresh candle brought in to replace the original one, which by that point was barely more than a burning nub in a puddle of wax, Izanami said, "Now that our business is done with for the time being, there is something else we would like to ask of you."

"And that is?" Janine asked.

"…It has been a very, very long time since we have seen any of our siblings or kin," Izanagi said sadly.

"And we were not present for your birth, or our brother's wedding, or his daughter's wedding, or any of the other important moments that have happened in their lives since our departure," Izanami said.

"It has been far too long since we have had a chance to speak to another member of our family outside of the Wing clan," Izanagi said. "Please…would you tell us what has happened to the Shinobus in the years since we left?"

Janine looked at her aunt and uncle, the relatives she was only meeting for the first time today, who had turned their backs on their master, their family, and their honor for a lie. By all rights, there was no reason she should tell them anything; even if they had been deceived, by the code of their kind their betrayal was inexcusable.

And yet…they were family. And that counted for something, didn't it? "All right," she said finally. "Let me tell you the story of how my father met my mother…"

And then, as the hours passed and the candle was replaced twice more, Janine bonded with the part of her family that she had never known.

Oh, and the rest of Team Nightshade got into all sorts of debauchery, but there's no need to spoil the moment by getting into all that.

What? You want to see some of it? You're sure? Oh, all right, but just a peek.

"FOR THE LOVE OF ARCEUS, EVAN, THERE ARE CHILDREN PRESENT!" Gary screamed as the incredibly thick and sturdy stone table they had been dining at shattered beneath Hissssa's weight.

"Children who are taking notes…and holding up score cards…" Callista said incredulously as a few of the young princesses and princesses in attendance held up cards with numbers like 5.5 and 6 and even a 3, clearly unimpressed.

"Fucking Mewrians," Mary growled, doing her best to ignore the extremely attractive courtesans and noble guests and royalty trying to proposition her.

"MORE BOOZE!" Maren, who was drinking with the other Mirage Kingdom soldiers being held as guests of the Berry King, shouted drunkenly at one of the servers, who promptly wheeled over another massive keg of berry wine.

"I think you've had enough," Nando said in concern.

"I'LL TELL YOU WHEN I'VE HAD ENOUGH!" Maren said, chugging down her freshly refilled goblet. When nothing more came out of it, she shook it out, eyeing it in confusion, then threw it away, shoved a Togepi countrymon who was trying to get a refill of his own out of the way, and started drinking straight from the spigot on the keg.

"…Oh my," Princess Sara said.

"You have some very lively friends, Ms. Mary," said Prince Elijah.

"Yeah…lively…that's one word for it…" Mary muttered. She got up and kicked Maren away from the keg. "Out of the way, I need this more than you."

"I'LL KILL YOU!" Maren screamed, lunging at the Medicham, knocking her to the ground, and proceeding to beat the crap out of her.

"…Is it really that good?" Callista wondered in bewilderment.

"Here, try a sip," Maylene said, passing Callista a cup.

Callista frowned. "Am I old enough to be drinking this?"

"It is expected of royalty no matter what their age to have at least one cup of wine at a feast, foreign or domestic," Luthiel said. "It shows goodwill between host and guest."

"Very well. I shall defer to your wisdom." The dark Gardevoir nodded in satisfaction as Callista drank the proffered cup, making a face as she did so. "So…it's really okay for everyone to act like this?"

"We see feasts as a time to let loose and express ourselves to the fullest, rather than being stodgy and standing on ceremony," King Pastizal explained. He frowned at Evan and Hissssa's…antics. "Although usually we have the decency to perform certain pleasurable acts away from where the rest of us are eating. It could spoil the food, after all."

"Ah," Callista said vaguely.

"SWEET MEW IN THE CELESTIAL HEAVENS, I WISH I COULD UNSEE THAT!" Gary howled.

Jerry was unavailable for comment because he was too busy making out with one of Prince Caspen's cute brothers.

Yeah…I warned you that would be stupid…bet you're wishing I hadn't shown you that, now aren't you?

Elsewhere…

Most of the world knew of the Mnemosyne Music Group as one of the world's biggest record labels, responsible for managing, producing, manufacturing, distributing, promoting, and recruiting some of the biggest talent and artists in the world, not the least of which were the world-famous mega-hit band known as the Pokérockers. Not a single artist, band, musician, or other talented individual had signed a contract with the Group and failed to hit platinum. Many people credited this to the fact that the owner and CEO of Mnemosyne, a Meloetta named Dimitria, had the power to influence and inspire those who signed on with her company, nurturing their talents and helping them rise to new heights of stardom and success, something that many of Mnemosyne's competitors claimed was ridiculously unfair and possibly illegal. The thought that maybe the fact that her company treated their artists like actual people and never tried to cheat them never entered into the equation.

What most people didn't know was that the reason Dimitria had founded her company in the first place was to cultivate artists of such talent and quality that their songs could transcend the boundaries of mortal music and become the Musirangers, champions of music with the power to defeat (and, possibly, even redeem) her evil twin Divatox. Unfortunately, the band she was originally grooming for the role got sick and lost their voices, so she was forced to settle for the Pokérockers instead, a decision she regretted to this very day. Her company was going into the red trying to pay for repairs to all the cities they'd wrecked on their world tour fighting Divatox's Noise minions, and when the requisite team-up with the previous Ranger team had occurred, the Musirangers had spent the entire time fighting the Rangers before them because the heroes in question were convinced that the Musirangers were, in fact, evil and the greatest threat to the planet, something Dimitria had yet to convince them was not the case even to this day. (They had, she recluctantly had to admit, a good point.) The villain at the time hadn't even had to work very hard to convince the previous team of that! (On the other hand, the villain had given up after seeing how much destruction the Musirangers caused during the fight, saying there was no way she could possibly top that. Dimitria wasn't sure what to think of that.)

So, it was understandable why the Meloetta might be a bit trepidatious when it came to contacting the mentors and leaders of former Ranger teams for help. While most them were cordial and at least sympathetic towards her, others thought her team was a disgrace to the Poké Rangers name. There was a reason she and her team had been blackballed from future Ranger reunions and team-ups and nobody ever called them for help whenever a threat requiring more than one Ranger team to counter it showed up. (Especially not after what had happened the last time. It was a miracle the chunk they'd blown out of the planet hadn't knocked Earth out of its orbit, and that they'd managed to fix it before anyone noticed.) Regardless, Dimitria hoped her fellow mentors and leaders would be able to let bygones be bygones and lend her their aid in this time of need. She could feel the world's tempo shifting. Something big was coming, and the Nihilators were just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of forces, both good and evil, were converging on Pokémon Square, and that town needed as much help as it could get, especially to keep her own team from blowing it up by accident.

And so, after clearing a big chunk of her schedule for the afternoon to make time for this no-doubt uncomfortable conversation, she made the call. It hadn't been easy, since some of the teams were on other planets, in other dimensions, or even in other times, but all Poké Rangers were linked by a common mystical bond, and through it she was able to make contact with the other mentors and leaders (all the ones who would still return her calls, anyway) and get them all up on her big-screen monitor: Torin the Wise, who'd guided the Electrosaur Samba Force against the Devoss Army. Commander Kuroki, whose Go-Buster squad has fought the Vagrass from cyberspace. Akared, incarnation of all the previous Red Rangers, who'd founded the Goikaiger space pirates to defeat the Zangyack Armada. Gosei, the giant tiki head whose Mega Force had vanquished the Warstar, Toxic Beasts, and Machine Onslaught Empire. Jaden Shiba, 18th head of the Shiba clan whose Samurai had defeated the Nyelock. Doctor J, who had created RPM to fight her other evil creation, the Veng-X virus. Master Mao, who had trained Jungle Fury to fight the immortal DaiLong. Mrs. Voice, whose Boukengers clashed with Negative Syndicates for control of Precious artifacts. Queen Ninianne of Fichina, whose Mystic Force had crushed the underworld armies of the Morlocks. The part-alien "Doggie" Krueger who led the Earth branch of Astro Squad Sigma. Doctor Oliver, a veteran Ranger who'd been on a number of teams before creating his own Dino Lightning (not to be confused with Torin's group, who were also dinosaur-themed) to stop the Evoliens. Grandmaster Koga, whose Ninja Storm had defeated Lothor's space ninjas while he was temporarily turned into a Raticate for a few months. Princess Shayla, whose Wild Force had beaten the heartless Orgs. Captain Logan, who had sent the Time Force into the past to stop mutants from wreaking havoc. Captain Mitchell, who had formed Lightspeed Rescue to combat ancient demons. Commander Stanton, leader of a colony of Pokémon alien abductees stranded in a distant galaxy who had to form a Ranger team to survive. And of course, the legendary Zordon, who'd led a whopping seven different Ranger teams—and taught Gosei, so technically he was responsible for eight-and once sacrificed himself to destroy all evil in the universe. (He got better. Unfortunately, so did evil, something he was understandably miffed about.) There were other leaders for other teams, of course, but most of them did not want to talk to Dimitria for one reason or another, something she kind of understood.

Regardless, she had as many as she could reach on the same line with her, so hopefully she could get their assistance without too much fuss.

"How did you get this number? This is a secure government facility!" Kuroki said.

"I thought I told you never to call this number again," said an irritated Krueger.

"I thought I said if you contacted me again I would send my team to assassinate you," Koga said.

"I thought I said if you contacted me again, one of my Zords would eat you," Torin said.

"Oh shit, it's that time, isn't it?" Logan groaned. "Dammit, I thought we'd have more time before this happened…"

"Hey, Dimitria! Are we still on for tomorrow night?" Gosei said excitedly…only to realize he was sharing the line with sixteen other people, including his old teacher. "Um…I mean…uh…I thought I told you if you contacted me again, I'd…uh…"

"Give it a rest, Gosei, nobody's buying it," Zordon said in amusement.

"Dammit," Gosei hissed.

"You and her?! Seriously?!" Doctor Oliver said incredulously.

"Just because her team is rather…incompetent doesn't mean she's that bad," Gosei said defensively.

"I'm right here, you know, I can hear you," Dimitria said wearily.

"How would that even work? I mean, she's got a…very nice body, and you're…well…a giant head," said a confused Stanton.

"No, Zordon's a giant head," Gosei said. "This isn't my true form, it's just how I appear to most people. It's a form they're comfortable with. I look differently on my dates with Dimitria."

"You certainly do," Dimitria said fondly.

"You know, technically I'm not a giant head, I'm actually trapped in a time warp and what you see of me is just a projection transmitted through a specialized containment tube-" Zordon started.

"Nobody cares, Zordon," Doctor J said bluntly.

Zordon scowled. "I founded the original Poké Rangers, led more teams than anyone else, established the formula for all future teams; hell, all the giant robots everyone uses are even named after me and this is all the resepct I get. Typical. Sometimes I wonder why I bothered coming back from the dead."

"Anyway," Dimitria interjected. "I know many of you basically said you never wanted to talk to me again…especially after what happened at the last reunion…"

"I still have nightmares," Mitchell said, looking haunted. "Horrible, horrible nightmares. And I've fought demons. Demons."

"One of my team members died," Kuroki said. "But he was a robot, so we repaired him."

Dimitria winced. "Yes, I know. We've made sure Buzz will never touch a barbecue grill again."

"Or keep Iwark from singing karaoke?" Koga asked.

"…Still working on that," Dimitria said.

"Or J-Pop from steering the Megazord drunk-" Mrs. Voice said.

"ANYWAY," Dimitria said loudly. "I called you for a very important reason."

"Because there's a great disaster coming and you're asking us to call up our teams to help you?" Queen Ninianne asked.

"…Er. Yes. How did you know?" Dimitria asked in surprise.

The mystical monarch smiled. "Dear, you didn't think you were the only one in tune with the resonating threads of fate, did you?"

"I have sensed it as well," Princess Shayla agreed. "Something terrible is coming."

"No offense meant to all you magical beings, but it's pretty obvious for most of the rest of us, too," Mitchell said. "All anyone has to do is turn on the news and someone's talking about it. Hell, what happened in Treasure Town today counts too, and I'm considering mobilizing my team and sending them out to help. They're called 'Lightspeed Rescue ' for a reason after all."

"Something's happening on Earth?" Stanton asked in surprise.

"Something's always happening on Earth," Doctor J said.

"Well, yes, but what's happening now? Considering we're in another galaxy, it kind of takes a while for us to hear any news from home," Stanton said.

"If I'm correct, at this point in history, an evil organization called the Nihilators based on Mars, led by a villain named Oblivion's Shadow, is attempting to destroy and/or conquer the world through the use of Shadow Pokémon and open the Door to the Abyss and free the Ruler of Evil," Logan said, checking something offscreen.

"…Oh. Huh. That sounds bad, but nothing new as far as Poké Rangers go," Stanton said. "Which team is handling it?"

"Er, none of us are, at the moment," Jaden admitted in embarrassment.

"We only learned about it a few days ago, to be honest," Vyeltal said.

"…So, what, is this something the Masked Riders are handling?" Stanton asked.

"Well, if they have, they certainly haven't mentioned it to us," Gosei said.

Master Mao nodded. "We don't always see eye-to-eye."

"Then why hasn't a new team been formed to fight them?! Unless this is the Musirangers' thing? Are they still fighting Divatox?" Stanton asked.

"We are," Dimitria said.

"Right, thought so. So why hasn't any new team showed up to fight them? I thought some new bunch of young adults with attitude and a sense of justice gets picked up by someone like you guys every time some new evil organization or alien invasion springs up out of nowhere," Stanton asked.

"We don't know, actually," Zordon admitted.

"There is one team we know of who's been fighting them for a while now, but they're a Rescue Team, not Rangers," Mitchell said. "No relation to my team. We do a different kind of rescue."

Ninianne smiled at that. "Team Aurabolt. Good folk, all of them. I have every confidence they will be crucial to the Nihilators' defeat. They're actually taking care of a situation in Treasure Town as we speak."

"Maybe that's why no team of Rangers has popped up?" Shayla suggested. "Because there are already people working on stopping the NIhilators?"

"Makes as much sense as anything else," Torin said.

"Even so, how did you not know these guys have been around until recently? Wait, how long have they been around, anyway?" Stanton asked.

"Well, as far as we can tell…decades, if not centuries," Doctor Oliver admitted.

"…SERIOUSLY?! How did you not notice before now?!" Stanton screamed. "I thought you had spy cameras and magical detectors and crystal balls and saucer-headed robots to tell you when something like this pops up!"

"We haven't noticed them because they're smart enough not to send some colorful monster to start randomly attacking people and buildings and causing a fuss on a weekly basis," Kuroki said.

"…Oh. Okay, yeah, that is pretty smart," Stanton admitted.

"Why do they always wait a week before attacking, anyway?" Doctor J wondered. "I never really got that. And why only send out one monster and like a few dozen easily-dispatched foot soldiers at a time? I know there's an excuse for some of them, but not for all of them."

"Not even I know that," Zordon admitted.

Stanton sighed. "Whatever. So, now that you know there's this Nihilator group, we going to do anything about it? I mean, lots of us have space-capable Zords, right?"

"That we do," Krueger agreed.

"So why hasn't anyone just flown over to Mars and beaten these guys already, now that you know who they are and where they live?" Stanton asked.

"Aside from the fact that, even if we sent all our Zords, we might still be outmatched, we may not be needed for that," Master Mao said.

Mrs. Voice nodded. "The world's militaries are mobilizing to launch a massive offensive against Mars in the near future. Also, after the Nihilators were revealed to the public last week, a joint effort was put together to purge them from pretty much every nation on Earth. As far as we know, just about all of them are gone."

Ninianne chimed in. "I have pledged a sizable portion of Fichina's forces to the war effort, and am currently debating whether or not to call my Rangers out of retirement and send them to help out."

"Oh. Then…what's the fuss?" asked the confused Stanton. "What's keeping us from sending our teams to help out even if the world's armies actually seem to know what they're doing for a change? Unless you think we'll be redundant or something?"

"The fuss is that while most of the world's armies are off-world, our own planet will be left somewhat vulnerable, so I'm having my team—and hopefully, lots of other teams—on standby just in case something happens," Mitchell said.

Jaden nodded. "It's too risky to leave Earth undefended at a time like this."

Shayla nodded as well. "My team is prepped and ready in case something crops up."

"And something is going to crop up," Dimitria said. "The Nihilators have an interest in Pokémon Square for some reason, and it's been predicted that there's going to be a massive barbarian invasion there in the near future. The Draconian Empire and a great many other countries have pledged support to protect the town, because apparently if it falls, so does the Earth."

"Really? Wow. What's so important about this town?" Stanton asked in surprise.

"…I'm not sure any of us know, to be honest," Doctor Oliver said.

"And those of us who do know are unwilling to tell," Koga said.

"My premonition tells me that Pokémon Square will soon be the crux of a massive battle between good and evil," Dimitria said. "Not only the barbarians will get involved, but Divatox, and possibly some others as well. I've sent my team there, but you know as well as I do that they're going to need help."

"And you're asking us to dispatch our teams to help you," Doctor J said.

Dimitria bit her lip and smiled weakly. "Um…if it's not too much trouble?"

There was a moment of silence, as the other leaders mulled this over. "Well, you have my support," Gosei said. "And most certainly not just because we're in a relationship. My team still hasn't quite forgiven yours for crashing their Megazord into our base, but they'll help if I tell them to."

Dimitrai sighed in relief. "Thank you, Gosei."

"I'll get my teams as well," Zordon said. "I know what it's like to have a…somewhat disappointing team (Dear Arceus, where did I go wrong with Turbo?). And aside from that…if Earth needs us, as Poké Rangers we are obligated to help."

Logan nodded. "History records show that not only does my team show up to help, but so does everyone else's, so I'll send mine back in time to aid you. They won't like it, though…"

"I don't either," Kuroki said. "But Zordon is correct. Our personal differences aside, we cannot ignore a threat of this magnitude."

"Especially because apparently history says we have to, and if we don't do it, it might destroy the space-time continuum," Doctor J said.

"Which I really, really would not want, especially because I live in the future," Logan said. "And if my future changes, that means Time Force might not exist, and then they couldn't have come back in time to help the people of your time when they needed it. Which would change the future further and make us even less existent. Or something."

"'Or something?'" Mitchell asked. "You don't know?"

"I'm not a scientist, I don't have a clue how time travel works," Logan said, looking flustered. "All I do is give an order, someone pushes a button, and a giant robot smacks Zords down a track into a time portal. I don't even know why they need the giant robot to do that and the Zords can't just go down the track themselves. Personally I think we put too much money into Zord research and had to justify having an extra one lying around that can't fit into the time portal. Well, except for the one time it did fit into the time portal."

"Uh…" Shayla said.

"What is he talking about?" Jaden asked.

"I think he's just rambling at this point," Koga said.

"You know, I never even wanted to join Time Force," Logan complained. "I wanted to be a train engineer, but my father wouldn't allow it. 'No son of mine is going to be a train engineer!' he said. 'You're joining Time Force and fighting evil across history!' I think I would have made a great engineer." He sighed. "I wish I could ride on the DenLiner. It's a train that can time travel. Maybe I could have even been Masked Rider Den-O! Then I could ride a train and fight time villains, so I'd be making myself and my father happy!"

"Anyway," Akared said. "It looks like we're all coming to help out."

"Wait, I haven't agreed to-" Stanton protested.

"We're all. Coming. To help out," Akared said. "Or do you want your colony to be raided by space pirates?"

"I thought the Gokaigers only attacked bad guys," Stanton said in alarm.

"Yes, but we're still, you know, pirates. We could change our minds," Akared said innocently. Stanton groaned, giving in.

"I refuse to help out," Koga said. "I vowed my team would have nothing to do with yours ever again after J-Pop broke my son's heart."

"But-" Dimitria started.

"You can't! It'll change the future!" Logan cried. "And I don't want it changed! Well, unless it causes me to be an engineer instead of police. Hmm, I'll have to look into that."

"There's nothing wrong with being police," Krueger said in annoyance.

"Says you! I want to be an engineer!" Logan whined.

"However, I'm already going to be stationed at Pokémon Square," Koga said. "So if you happen to be there at the same time as my team, well, there's not really anything else we can do about it. Aside from killing you all, I mean."

"…But you won't, right?" Dimitria asked.

"I make no promises," Koga said flatly, causing the Meloetta to grimace.

"So, the short of it is that you'll all help out?" Dimitria asked, deciding to focus on the positive.

The others all nodded. Some were more willing than others, but it heartened her to see that they were willing to help out, no matter what bad blood existed between them. "We're all Poké Rangers," Doctor Oliver said. "And Poké Rangers help those in need. We are Earth's defenders, and we never surrender!"

"…Hey, that's my team's line!" Gosei complained.

"I will also talk to the other teams and convince them to help out," Zordon promised. "They'll agree if it's me asking."

"Yes, yes, because you started the whole Poké Rangers thing, all our robots are named after you, you died once to save the universe, and so on," Mrs. Voice said. Zordon growled.

"This should be interesting," Shayla said eagerly. "Like the Legend War, all over again!"

"Except that hopefully this time our teams won't all lose their powers, which get scattered into space and claimed by pirates," Jaden said.

"…We gave them back," Akared said, offended.

"Thank you…all of you…" Dimitria said in relief.

"Of course, you're still banned from future reunions indefinitely," Ninianne said apologetically. The others nodded, all of them vigorously. Much more so than when they agreed to help.

Dimitria facepalmed. "Of course I am. I don't suppose if we do well in the coming battle, you'll change your minds?"

"…We'll think about it," Torin said.

Dimitria sighed. That was about as good an answer as she was going to get. "So, when can I expect you to show up?" she asked.

"It's going to take a while for me to get all of my Rangers together," Zordon said apologetically. "Most are retired or scattered around the world, and two are in space."

"We're in another galaxy," Stanton said. "So even moving as quickly as we can, we might not be there for a little while."

"We're in the future, but we have a time machine so we can show up whenever," Logan said.

"Dino Earth isn't in sync with your world yet, so we can't cross over until our worlds are more in tune with each other," Doctor Oliver said. He and his team had moved to Dino Earth, a parallel world where prehistoric Pokémon had never died out that was created when a meteor (which actually contained the evil Mesozoroya) hit the planet millions of years ago.

"Some of my Rangers are on patrol off-world," Krueger said.

"My universe isn't in sync with yours just yet either," Dr. J said. Her world was also a parallel one, except there Veng-X had managed to nearly wipe out all life on Earth except for one small domed city.

"We just finished looting the Zangyack home world, so it's going to take us some time to get there, too," Akared said.

"Oh," Dimitria said, her hopes fading.

"There may be a way to get us there sooner," Akared said suddenly.

"Oh?" Dimitria asked, her hopes rekindling.

"I'm all ears," Stanton said.

"All Poké Rangers are bound together by the Power that flows through us all," Akared said.

"Not all of us here are actually Rangers, you know," Kuroki said.

"Or have superpowers," Mitchell said. Akared ignored them.

"Ah, the bio-morphing energy field," Doctor J said.

Akared nodded. "By calling upon that Power, it might be possible to summon us all together instantly."

"Hmm. I think I see what you are saying," Zordon said, intrigued.

"You do? Because I don't," Krueger said.

"I am the foremost expert in the 'Power' in the entire universe," Zordon said. "By tapping into it, I believe I can create a way for Dimitria to summon all the Ranger teams, past and present-"

"And future," Logan added helpfully.

"To aid her team in the great battle," Zordon said. "Dimitria, do you have a blank disk?"

"Always," Dimitria said, sliding open a desk drawer and pulling out a CD. "I run a music business, after all."

"And a CD burner?" Zordon pressed.

"Again, music business," Dimitria said, tapping on a black rectangular piece of electronics on her desk.

"Turn it on and insert the disk. I shall handle the rest," Zordon said. Dimitria did as he bade, and the giant head closed his eyes, a look of concentration forming on his massive features. He began glowing, pulsating in a variety of different colors; red, blue, yellow, green, black, pink, gold, silver, white, purple, and more besides. He was not the only one; much to their surprise Shayla, Doctor Oliver, Krueger, Ninianne, Mao, Jaden, Gosei, Akared, Torin, and Dimitria herself started glowing, as did the burner, much to the confusion of the other mentors.

Finally, Zordon opened his eyes, the colors fading from him and everyone else. "It is done."

The disk drive on her burner popped open, revealing a disk shimmering in all the colors of the rainbow. Dimitria's eyes widened in astonishment. She could feel the sheer power rolling off the disk in waves, unlike anything she had ever felt before…except, she realized, she had. It felt much like the power she had experienced when she had granted the Musirangers their abilities…because that's exactly what it was, wasn't it? "Oh my…"

"That disk contains power taken from every Poké Ranger team in existence," Zordon said.

"Did you actually have permission to take some of that power? Not all of us are here," Torin said with a frown.

"I'm Zordon, I can do whatever I want," the giant head said bluntly. "Dimitria, when you play the song on that disk, it will summon every Poké Ranger, no matter where they might be, to its location. Even those who are dead will not be able to resist its call, and will return to duty."

"…That's kind of creepy," Krueger said.

Zordon rolled his eyes. "Yes, because this is the first time Rangers have ever been brought back from the dead to fight a common threat."

"He has a point," Mao said. Krueger sighed, conceding the point.

"Thank you, Zordon," Dimitria said graciously as she put the CD in a jewel case. "I'll send this to the Musirangers right away!" She paused, reconsidering. "No, wait, on second thought I'll wait to send it to them until the battle actually begins. That way I don't have to worry about them playing it too early and summoning the other Rangers before they're ready."

"Probably a good idea," Jaden agreed.

"We will give our teams the news," Shayla promised.

"Though how happy they'll be about it, I can't say," Torin said.

"Well, I hope that after this fight, perhaps you will be able to see us all in a new light," Dimitria said optimistically.

"That would be a true miracle, one which might be beyond even those Poké Rangers accomplish on a regular basis," Koga said. Dimitria's face fell.

"Good luck to you, Dimitria. May the Power protect you," Zordon said sagely.

"Yeah, because she'll need it," Mitchell muttered.

Kuroki nodded in agreement. "Won't we all?"

One by one, they signed off, until only Gosei was left. Dimitria raised an eyebrow. "Something I can do for you, Gosei?"

"Um. Yes. You never answered my question earlier," Gosei said. "Are we still on for tomorrow night?"

Without warning, another face suddenly appeared on the screen; that of the 29-year old basement dwelling Akagi, leader of the Akibarangers, an unofficial Ranger team so pathetic that even the Musirangers looked good in comparison. At least the other Rangers acknowledged the Musirangers' existence. "Hey, Dimitria! I just read on a message board that you're gathering all the other Ranger teams for a big crossover battle and I was wondering if my team could take part in it and maybe hang out and become official Rangers please?" he asked hopefully.

Dimitria sighed. Somehow, it didn't feel like the block she'd cleared in her schedule was going to be enough anymore.

And we're done. This chapter took both longer and shorter than I expected. Longer because I started later than I intended to, and shorter because…well, it didn't really take very long to write. Maybe two or three weeks, in spite of how long the chapter itself is? I can't really remember, maybe it was three. Guess that's what comes from being unemployed.

Anyway, let me know what you thought of the chapter, and hopefully the next one—and the conclusion of this mini-arc—will be out soon.