Hey Everybody! Well, I'm slowly getting better. I took five months to update between chapters 58 and 59, and this installment only took four months to get out. Yay! Progress!

Haha, but seriously, I have some great news if you're a fan of this fic! Including this installment, I actually have three chapters already completed and ready to be published.

"SO WHY DON'T YOU POST THEM?!" I'm sure you're asking calmly at this moment.

Well, the answer's a little complicated, but here goes:

First, I graduated from the University of Texas in May! So yay me, right?

Anyway, my last six months of school, I was actually in competition for a spot at Navy Officer Candidate School. For those unfamiliar, it's basically Marine boot camp on steroids. It's a three-month program, at the end of which you receive a commission as an officer in the Navy. The same week I finished school, I was informed I had earned a spot at OCS starting July 20…AKA, today!

So, over the last couple months – my last months of summer vacation ever, sadly – I decided to write as much as I could so that while I was gone my readers could have some regular updates. It probably sounds weird that I worked hard to have chapters ready for while I was gone when I could have just updated before I left, but honestly, it's comforting to me to know that while I'm being tortured over the next few months, this story is going to continue and my fans will be getting what they deserve.

Also, even though I'm not "supposed" to have any contact with the outside world during these coming months, I've been told by many people you have chances to sneak glimpses at the internet from time to time. So being able to come on here and read what people think of the new chapters will be such an uplifting and relaxing experience in the middle of all that stress.

Anyway, as for how I'm going to update without internet; I'm assigning that responsibility over to my biggest fan, Pokémon-Princess.8! She thankfully agreed to both edit the next two chapters, and publish them for me at regular intervals. So, today is July 20. The next update will be put up around midnight August 24, and then the next will be published the same time on September 21. I should be commissioned around October 10, and if possible I'll try to update later that month as well, but at the very least you have three months of scheduled updates ahead.

Each chapter has already been written with its own author's notes from me, and PP8 has said she'll probably add her own as well to let you know her thoughts on the chapter, so I hope everyone enjoys the upcoming chapters and appreciates PP8 as much as I do for taking time from her busy schedule to help a fellow FF writer out.

As I said before, though I won't have regular internet usage, I will from time to time and I really hope – more than usual – everyone will take a moment to review the coming chapters when they have a chance. It really would be such an encouragement to read your thoughts (good or bad!) and know that people still enjoy this story.

Anyway, that's all for now. Like I said, I have author's comments in the upcoming chapters as well, so you'll hear from me then, but I want to thank everyone in advance for their well-wishes and reviews! You're all the most amazing fans!

Anchors aweigh!

Sincerely, TL

Disclaimer:I do not own Pokemon, or any of its affiliated companies including, but not limited to, 4Kids, The Pokemon Company, Game Freaks, or Cartoon Network. The characters written within this fic are soley based upon the fictional characters created by these companies, and the story is not meant to, nor will it, receive any monetary funding.

Characters' Ages:

Ash: 17

Brock: 22

Misty: 18

Delia: 41

Oak: 56


A blast of dark energy shot overhead, narrowly missing its target. Ash's Gengar pursued the Magmortar as he charged another Shadow Ball.

Roaring, Glalie supported her comrade by blasting an Ice Beam at a pursuing Skarmory coming in from Gengar's back. The enemy steel type was shot back, and Glalie turned her attention to Ash's direction.

Ash dove to dodge a Flame Burst as it whizzed past him. Looking up, he saw a Flamethrower powering its way forward now, and he immediately fell flat on his stomach. The heat was so intense, his back felt as if it were melting as sweat dripped down. The moment the attack's violent hiss ended, he rolled and jumped back up. However, he was no sooner up than he had to dodge another shot from the fire type.

From his periphery he caught a glimpse of Glalie swooping in to assist. "Give him a Headbutt!"

With a grunt, the ice type dove in for a quick tackle, knocking the fire type back.

"Thanks," he sighed, wiping his forehead and standing back up. Scanning the battlefield, he had difficulty knowing where to focus. The floodlight barely provided a visual field beyond five feet, and though the attacks and roars were lighting up and echoing throughout the cave, he wasn't sure which fighters were his. The walls, which he now realized almost touched the ceiling hundreds of feet above, were crumbling all around as attacks were volleyed and combatants crashed through, making the battle arena larger in scope by the second.

Grabbing the pokéball to his right, he threw it in the air and unleashed Charizard for visual support. Though the fire type was probably too tired to carry anyone, Ash hoped he was at least strong enough to support his own weight.

As he flew up and lit the area with short blasts of flame from his jaw and tail, Glalie was suddenly visible; taking a direct air tackle from the Skarmory.

Scanning the floor, he found Pikachu and Squirtle battling their duplicates in the distance.

"Pikachu, remember to use your speed! Squirtle, use your accuracy! Dodge and Water Gun!"

As he shouted orders to Glalie, an angry Crobat sped past the trainer, knocking his hat off and causing him to stumble with a sharp Wing Attack. Ash reached for the back of his head and felt blood.

His anger flared at the sight. "Get down here and try that again!" he demanded as he shook his reddened fist.

Apparently pleased with the invitation, the bat swung around and came back in for another attack. This time, though, Ash used his hat and perfect timing to jump out of the way and narrowly catch the Pokémon.

"Ha! Got you!"

He kept the hat pressed firmly to the ground while the four-winged beast shook violently within. Its wingspan was far too large to contain, though, and they had soon built up a gust of wind that knocked Ash on his back.

"Uh-oh."

Baring its fangs, the bat came in as Ash swatted wildly with the flashlight. Out of pure luck, the metal made contact; upon which he saw the Pokémon's left fang fly from its jaw as the poison and flying type was knocked backward.

"Glalie, freeze him!" From somewhere behind him, a blast of frozen air encapsulated the Crobat as it tried to correct its flying – leaving it on the floor motionless.

One down…

"Gengar!" the Pokémon cried as he was blasted through the air by a powerful Flamethrower. The Magmortar and an Electivire followed close behind.

"Gengar, use Protect! Pikachu, Agility! Squirtle, Withdraw!" He shouted commands as he swung the light in wild fashion attempting to keep up. Deciding he needed a better view, he ran to the ladder. Climbing quickly this time, while dodging flying attacks at various intervals, he reached the top rung and let go with his right hand. Grabbing the flashlight and changing it from flood to beam, he used his higher vantage point to see a wider area of the battlefield, although the new perspective did little to quell his concerns.

On all sides, his team was surrounded. The intricate stone labyrinth had been flattened by the battling, and more Pokémon seemed to be continuously joining in the melee. He saw that Pikachu and Squirtle had taken care of their doppelgangers, but now a pair of Ursaring and an Absol were beginning to attack. At the same time, more Electabuzz, Magmar and Magmortar had joined in the fight against Gengar, while Glalie flew from one opponent to the next with a variation of Headbutts and Ice Beams. All around him flying Pokémon were also swooping in, hoping to get some of the prey.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he tried to cancel out all the noise and battling below.

C'mon Ketchum. There has to be a way out of this. You're not thinking hard enough!

He opened his eyes in realization. He slid down the ladder once again and looked up.

"Charizard, we need more light!" With a Flamethrower powerful enough to brighten the entire cave, the fire type roared his consent.

Over the roar, Ash called above. "Keep it up for a minute!"

Nodding, the dragon awaited his next order.

"Gengar, Glalie, Squirtle, go to Pikachu!" he bellowed over the roar of battle. After repeating himself a few times, dodging attacks, and having to physically remove Squirtle from his battle with the Ursaring, they were all together, slowly being circled by their opponents as they patiently waited for Ash's plan. "Gengar, use Protect and keep us safe! Pikachu, jump as high as you can and give me your best Thunderbolt! Charizard, quit the Flamethrower and come down!"

Understanding, Gengar brought up a strong psychic shield to keep the group safe as Charizard entered, and Pikachu launched himself several feet in the air from the crown of Ash's head. At his highest point, the yellow mouse unleashed a powerful electric attack that lit up the entire cave for a moment, followed by a horrendous thundering that seemed to ring forever throughout its chambers.

When the dust settled, all the flying Pokémon lay on the ground completely paralyzed or unconscious, along with most of those on the ground nearby. Further from ground zero, the other Pokémon were already beginning to stand back up and revive their assault, though even they seem staggered by the attack's power.

"Now, everyone, use the Earthquake attack we practiced!" With a lob, he cast Donphan's pokéball before them.

Having practiced the move several times at Oak's laboratory, the group instantly recognized the order and filed into formation. As Pikachu fell back to Earth, his friends surrounded him. Next, Gengar used his psychic and ghost powers to lift Pikachu, Squirtle, and himself a few feet above the ground as Charizard and Glalie provided protective cover from any remaining flying types. Meanwhile, Ash jumped on top of Donphan and pointed ahead.

"Earthquake! Full force!"

Donphan reared far back on her hind legs, almost causing Ash to fall off, and – with a declarative trumpet – brought her front legs to the ground with such force that the cavern itself shook and began to fall in.

"Charizard, grab her!"

As the ground beneath the trainer and elephant gave out, the fire type used the strength gleaned from multiple Seismic Tosses to wrap his arms around her torso and pull both of them up as that entire floor of the mountain collapsed and fell into the lower levels, along with all of its wild inhabitants. To Ash, it looked like a black hole; beginning at the point of Donphan's attack and rippling throughout.

"Charizard, Glalie and Gengar, fly up now!" Waving them on, the ice and ghost type were soon past Ash, followed closely by Charizard and his heavy passengers. With a final glance, Ash saw only a cavernous dark pit where just moments ago had been an intricate stone labyrinth. Shaking his head at the close call, he disembarked from Charizard's grasp as soon as they got past the rope ladder and were safely on the next floor.

Seeing they were clear of enemies for the moment, he focused on their entrance; worried the flying Pokémon from below would soon follow and exact their revenge for the Thunderbolt.

"We need to cover this hole." Looking around, he was immensely relieved to find boulders in a corner of the cave. Getting behind one, he tried giving it a shove, but soon realized the futility.

Maybe a Pokémon can move it?

"Donphan, can you push this boulder over to that hole?"

Without another word, Donphan used her strength to slowly push the rock over the opening.

Not a moment too soon, the former champion realized, as he heard the general groans from the previous floor slowly turning more into hostile growls.

For the next ten minutes, the trainer and his Donphan and Gengar scoped out the new level. Though they couldn't be sure, it seemed to be uninhabited.

"Maybe the Pokémon move up and down floors like we did, and they all came down to the battle when they heard us fighting earlier." It did seem as if the number of enemy Pokémon had numbered close to a hundred before the floor collapse.

Regardless, they were all tired and, wild Pokémon or not, needed to rest. Ash in particular felt very exhausted, although he refused to allow his friends to see it. After all the battling they'd been through, he felt spoiled by their care.

Before returning them to their pokéballs for a well-deserved break, he inspected each one carefully. In his small pack, along with basic toiletries, he'd brought five Full Restores. After looking each friend over, he carefully applied the medicine where it was most needed.

Wiping his forehead, he wondered if he should have brought a bigger pack. By the time he was finished healing everyone to his best ability, he'd gone through two bottles and started on a third – and that was being conservative.

Regardless, he hoped a good night's rest would make up the difference. Especially for Charizard, who, already tired, had been forced to fight dozens of flying types and then carry Donphan and Ash together up to the next floor. He was wheezing hard as Ash treated his wounds, and simply grunted when his trainer suggested he get into the pokéball.

It's not like him to obey me so easily.

Unfortunately for Ash, despite his own exhaustion, his job wasn't over yet. Pikachu nestled into his lap as he rested against a smooth curve in the damp cavern's walls. Returning the flashlight to flood, he decided to hold the first watch of the night himself. After a few hours of sleep, he'd call on Pikachu to stand guard while he got what little relaxation he could from the uncompromising floor.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

As he sat there, with Pikachu muttering quietly in his arms, his mind slowly went beyond the mountain.

He thought of Misty. The previous night had been momentous, and its memory restored a smile to his face. He remembered how she felt, and he wished she were in his arms as had been the case only twenty-four hours earlier. If he focused, he could almost smell her shampoo, and feel her soft skin in his grasp.

The temptation to dwell on what happened was strong, and he didn't wish to resist. His harried mind, though, wouldn't stay at rest for long despite his wishes, and, like a strong current, it pulled him against his will and pushed him toward the future. He began considering his upcoming plans for the first time in a long while. Having been so entrenched with the deaths of his friends and the recent trauma, he'd been forced away from any thoughts beyond the immediate present for what felt like an eternity.

She was obviously going to get that scholarship. He knew it even if she didn't. Having him as a coach would certainly be a boon in that regard, but even without his help he had no doubt that – Misty being Misty – her stubborn pride wouldn't allow her to fail twice.

Given, then, that she was going to receive the scholarship, and was going to college, he needed to figure out his own plans. He had no doubt they could get in together, but it wasn't the academics that worried him; it was the changes. College, just like any milestone, promised to bring with it its own problems and drama. After all that had happened in the last couple of years upon his ascension to Sinnoh Champion, he worried what more change would bring.

Maybe I'm worrying too much. It was, after all, just school, right? There shouldn't be anything there more daunting than he had faced before.

Still, with all the negativity surrounding the changes in his life recently, he couldn't suppress the unease in his gut over the thought of yet another.

He sat there, in the near-complete darkness, idly spinning his thumbs for several moments as he contemplated these worries. He turned them over in his head again and again, like his mom's pancakes on the stove. No matter how he looked at it, though, he knew there was no way to quell the risk.

They both needed college. Misty, so that she could have a career she'd always wanted to pursue to some degree, and Ash, so that he could mature and better handle his responsibilities as Champion.

Which brought him to another problem. Would he ever be Champion again? It hadn't been long since his title had been stripped, but already it felt like an eternity.

As soon as these thoughts entered, though, he immediately felt himself get pulled away by the past once more. Was it right for him to be wanting a return to his Champion status? He'd only just announced his retirement from training, and now he was suddenly training Misty and trying to reclaim his title?

Venusaur…Heracross…all of them.

Was it fair, to the Pokémon he lost, or the Pokémon he almost lost? He put their lives on the line in the name of a hobby. The thought made his fist clench in self-loathing.

He looked down at Pikachu and remembered his earlier revelation. It was a comforting thought, to think that humans and Pokémon needed to battle in order to sustain harmony. At least on a primal level, it seemed to make sense.

But was that all there was to battling? Its only purpose was to make peace between humans and wildlife and create friendships? Of course he loved his Pokémon, and couldn't imagine life without any of his friends, but it was that same friendship that forced him to reconsider the very position he'd staked hours earlier climbing the mountain.

Without battling, would he love his Pokémon any less? Would they, him?

The deeper into the rabbit's hole he followed his logic, the more confused he became.

He knew he would love his Pokémon even if they all became self-aware pacifists. He'd never force them to do anything they weren't comfortable with – especially fight. But he wondered if the same went for them?

He shook his head. Of course the answer was yes. He even had proof of this when he remembered how Pikachu had handled the news of his quitting battling when he'd accidentally let it slip while talking to Gary. There was little doubt his Pokémon wanted to be with him regardless.

But if battling isn't what keeps us together, then what's its purpose?

And perhaps more pertinent to his situation, why should he continue battling if there was no purpose to battling beyond entertainment?

The realization had struck him earlier that many of his views had changed. He knew he was no longer the same person he'd been even a year ago. As much as he'd fought it, all that had happened jaded his perspective of the world. Given that, could he honestly live with himself if he allowed his Pokémon to become tools of the world of battling with which he'd become so skeptical?

If battling serves no purpose, then neither does my future in it. His heart sunk at the idea. Has everything I've done been pointless?

Pikachu yawned and rolled a little in his lap, causing an involuntary smile. As he looked down, he remembered all that he and his friends had accomplished over the years. First, he remembered the various tournaments and battles they'd conquered. Soon, though, his mind turned to all the people they had helped.

With his Pokémon, he'd saved romances and friendships…he'd saved cities…he'd saved lives.

And like a bolt of Pikachu's lightning, the purpose of battling struck him.

"Battling to become stronger isn't the point by itself. We became stronger, and with that strength we helped others."

A trainer must help his fellow man, regardless of the danger it presents to him or herself, whenever possible.

His mind flashed back to the time right before he began his journey as he went through Trainer Indoctrination with Professor Oak. A few days ago, Misty had informed him, she and Brock had bumped into some rookie trainers who quoted this rule when they helped the two get out of the forest. It was an old rule. The first, in fact, among the "Trainer's Core Principles." Part of the course was memorizing these principles verbatim. At the time, they had been nothing more than obstacles to the young Ketchum in the way of his becoming a trainer, but now that he looked back, he realized with a swell of pride that the first Pokémon Masters knew exactly what they were doing when they penned it.

Being a trainer: raising Pokémon, fighting alongside them, capturing new ones. It wasn't about becoming strong for the sake of strength, and it wasn't about the fame or glory of trophies or championships.

It was about helping others.

All the good that he and his friends – human and Pokémon alike – had accomplished were all done at the hands of cooperation between the two.

What moments ago seemed like two separate problems instantly conjoined: Why did he battle? Should he continue in the League?

The "why" had to justify his answer to the second.

He sighed. Of course he wanted to help others. He was proud of the work that he and his teams had done over the years to make a difference. He'd always believed himself to be a hero, of sorts. He knew he had a long way to go before he reached the level of greatness those Pokémon Masters of history possessed, but with every adventure and town he encountered, he'd felt himself grow stronger and surer of his destiny.

The funny thing though, he realized, was that this feeling of destiny must be how everyone felt.

Doesn't everyone my age see themselves as the star of their own lives? Don't we all just believe we're "destined" for more than everybody else at some point?

But, clearly, he didn't live in a world of heroes. He lived in an average world with largely average people. People who woke up, went to work, paid bills, went to sleep, and did it all without glancing up from their phones or computers for a moment.

Though he felt guilty, he thought of his mom. Surely, when she first left home and tried training for herself, she dreamt of something bigger than owning a small flower shop? No one left on a Pokémon journey unless they had at some point imagined themselves at the top of the heap.

How did people like her come to exist? How could you start life so strongly believing in yourself as the "star," and ten years later find yourself contentedly a cog in society? If you asked a child if they believed they could become President, most would unabashedly affirm they could and, in fact, would someday. If you asked a thirty-year-old the same question, they'd most likely laugh in your face.

More silence. More thinking.

Then, a realization.

It's moments like these.

Moments like these were what separated those who changed the world from those who were simply swept by its current. Times like now; surrounded by darkness, a mind reeking of doubt, a heart drenched in pain, a body bloodied and battered. These were the moments that weeded out those who could not handle the pain.

It was why he'd wanted to quit. Gary had helped him realize his desire to leave the League had little to do with his concern for his family or friends. It had been a largely selfish motivation, and one that he now saw as part of a macrocosmic scheme.

Now he saw that his desire to quit and just go home was something everyone faced at some point in life. It may not be as dramatic in fashion, but it must be universal.

We all have a moment in our lives where we're forced to choose our fate. When we have to decide if we'll risk it all to reach for the stars, or stay safe with everyone here on Earth. For me, the moment's now. I have to decide if I'm strong enough. Strong enough to make it up this mountain, to face Red, and to face everyday knowing Team Rocket might be waiting to attack.

It was this fear that initially kicked him out of training. In fact, if not for Gary, he would probably already have announced his retirement. But now, here he was, seriously contemplating this crossroads and its significance for the first time.

On the one hand, a nice, quiet life awaited him. He could go to school, get a job, and be home everyday by five in time for supper with Misty. He'd never have to leave, never be thrown into danger, never worry about losing his job to an up-and-comer, or his life to a vengeful Giovanni.

It was a pleasant thought. Quaint. But when he closed his eyes and tried to envision growing old in Pallet, uneasiness took hold that he'd become familiar with when he first considered quitting.

As much as he liked the idea…it wasn't him.

He had a spirit for adventure. He had a heart for compassion. No matter how right the decision to drop training seemed, at its base he knew it was corrupt and always sensed it, though only now could he identify its source.

On the other hand awaited a life of constant pressure. Pressure to restore the Pokémon League to his glorious vision. Pressure to become the best and stay the best trainer in the world. Pressure to keep Misty safe from any danger associated with his job.

It was a choice that seemed easy to make a couple of years ago before he realized how much this stress cumulated. But now, in Mount Silver, he could honestly assess the situation and make a decision with the weight of experience backing him. Now that he'd had a taste of what greatness would cost, the question became would he take the leap?

His eyelids were beginning to grow heavy, but he forced himself to stay awake and give Pikachu as much time for rest as he could. Besides, he needed to see this train of thought through to the end.

When others saw what greatness required, they backed down. Most never received an education as painful as he did in learning the costs, but they still backed down. They backed down and decided to live with the regret rather than try for something greater. Rather than try to be something greater. It was evidenced by the world he saw everyday. It was the source of midlife crises, divorces, affairs, and suicide. People unhappy with the decision they made all those years ago…

He suddenly smiled at himself.

He tried to act deeply complicated, but at the end of this train he already knew where he would arrive. As much as he hated all that had happened, he hated even more the seed of disgust he knew would plant in his gut the moment he quit training. He was here to help people. He didn't care about the fame or the money, but making the world a better place was something he'd always known was his calling. He wanted to be a hero; regardless of whether or not he was ever recognized as such.

It hadn't been an easy journey to this decision. There were plenty of doubts and cliff-edges along the way. But here – at his metaphorical lowest point – he still knew this is what he wanted. In spite of the pain and the stress.

It's time for the pity party to end. The realization came with the same satisfaction one had when closing a long-read book for the final time. He knew that he would always love and miss Heracross and Venusaur. However, he also knew he could never move forward with his life if he continued to dwell in the past.

Their deaths had dragged him into a state of constant nostalgia. He had been virtually unable to focus on future plans. Instead, he longed for the days of his youth when life was a series of towns and badges with Misty and Brock. Now, though, he felt his eyes opening to the truth: his Pokémon weren't coming back, and neither was the innocence of childhood. He was growing up, and if he wanted to change the world, then he needed to accept this maturity rather than strive against it or aim to the shoreline for reprieve.

He gave a slight nod at the thought, but still felt anxious. That makes sense, though, he reasoned. It's not like I'm gonna immediately feel 100% after realizing all this. At least I know for sure what I want, and why, though.

And he finally felt able to think about his future for the first time in a long time.

Misty.

There was that future that he still needed to figure out, and was oddly the one he was simultaneously most nervous and excited to decipher.

College would be needed regardless of whether he was allowed to become a champion again or not. So there was no doubt if he would go and where in order to stay close to her.

But beyond college, a distant ringing filled his heart with what could only be explained as a joyful dread. His mom's words about a larger commitment buzzed in his head. He knew marriage was still years away, but the fact that the thought had already crossed his mother's mind made it seem very real. On top of that, she'd told him she was sure Misty had thought about it too! If that were true, he needed to find out what she thought.

Shaking his head and slowing his heartbeat a little, he moved backward.

College would be a weird time. He hadn't sat in an actual classroom in quite a while, and he wondered if he could actually sit still and quiet like long enough to endure. He also worried about what he was going to study. Misty had her marine biology, but he was completely clueless as to what he was interested in learning.

This was really why he'd wondered if college was necessary. He often found himself only thinking of doing it for Delia's benefit. He didn't hold much interest in higher learning and he worried that his disinterest would weed him out by his first semester.

But he knew growing up meant doing things you weren't always interested in. At the very least, then, college would teach him to work hard even when it wasn't enjoyable.

Who knows? Maybe school will be a nice vacation from all the work of training. He'd be able to spend more time with Misty, after all, and he could go home more often to see his mom and Professor Oak with his Pokémon.

But first things needed to be first. College, marriage; these things could wait until after this climb was done. He reached into his pack and pulled out a cup of peanut butter with crackers. He snacked and thought about the most pressing issue – regaining his champion status.

After he climbed and confronted Red, he'd walk out of here a normal civilian once more. No titles, no power. As exciting and exhausting as this trip was, he couldn't forget that another pressing issue lay in wait for him just beyond the mountain's walls.

I guess I'll need to talk with Goodshow. Hopefully after everything that's happened he'll know he can trust me. If that doesn't work… He didn't want to consider what the case may be if he failed to convince Goodshow. Losing his title on top of everything else would be devastating, and it had to be avoided.

I guess I shouldn't worry until after I get up this mountain. In a moment he would ask Pikachu to take the next shift, but first, some quick math was in order. They'd made it at least halfway up the mountain from the outside, and had climbed two more floors since entering. He couldn't be sure, but it seemed like there would be at least a few more. Hopefully, though, with an early rise they could reach the top before the next day's end.

"Hey," he nudged Pikachu awake. "Can you lookout for a while, while I rest?"

The mouse tiredly nodded and sat up. Twisting the cape around, Ash nestled himself as tightly as he could into the rocky ground. Within moments, he entered a dark, dreamless sleep.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

They just kept coming.

After four hours, the Pokédex's alarm had rung clear through the cave and forced Ash back to his feet. After a swig of mouthwash and allowing all his Pokémon a moment to stretch and relieve themselves, he returned them and started towards the next ladder.

Unfortunately, this had been more difficult than expected.

First, a new flock of Skarmory had appeared. Pikachu had handled that threat fairly easily.

But then a wickedly powerful Mr. Mime had walled them off.

Then a Jynx enamored Charizard.

Then a Ditto had copied Donphan and he lost track of which was the real one.

They had finally made their way to the next floor, when Ash's head was almost immediately crushed by an Onix's rollout.

As it turned out, the Onix was the baby of a clan that consisted of four Steelix, two more Onix, and a rogue Graveler for some reason. That battle had taken up the rest of the morning, and had required the use of all his Pokémon.

The rest of the floor had been as challenging as the level before it. The only difference seemed to be in the variety and types of Pokémon, though their hatred and bloodlust were equally unquenchable.

Finally having made it to the next ladder, though, he climbed quickly despite his exhaustion and was relieved when his head poked through the level's floor to find no new Pokémon in sight.

Deciding they needed a rest, and would find no better time for one, he had no sooner sat down before coming face-to-face with a disgruntled pair of Raichu.

They must've been hiding in the shadows. He was surprised to see the mouse Pokémon this elevated and far from a forest, but they seemed unhindered by their unfamiliar surroundings. The moment their eyes made contact with his, the pair charged Ash with a dual Volt Tackle.

Fortunately, Pikachu sensed the attack coming, and charged at them in the last second with his own Volt Tackle – forcing them backward, but causing the yellow mouse to collapse in exhaustion.

Picking Pikachu up in one arm, Ash quickly went for Donphan's pokéball.

"Now!" With a thrust, the ground type was out and immediately unleashing another Earthquake. The two electric types were toppled mid-attack, and quickly scurried back into the darkness.

"Okay, this is ridiculous," he sighed as Donphan played bodyguard. He laid Pikachu on the ground and used up the fourth bottle of Full Restore to bring him back from near-faint.

"You okay?"

"Pi."

He sat back and looked ahead into the looming darkness. Ahead he could hear the rattle and snarls of more opponents.

If this is where Red spends all his time training… He shuddered at how strong the Master's Pokémon must be at this point.

"Stay alert, Donphan."

The elephant trumpeted in response as a declaration of readiness; though a squeak of exhaustion was unmistakable.

His stomach growled, and he reached in for another peanut butter cup. The cups weren't very filling, but at least the snack stuck to his ribs for a while and gave him energy. Reaching for his canteen, he felt it was almost empty and placed it against the wall where a steady flow of melted snow from outside dribbled through the mountain's cracks. Pikachu sat next to the canteen and lapped at the water as well.

He was proud of how well his team had held up. Most Pokémon wouldn't have made it one-on-one with the beasts they had faced – much less survived the last five floors from Hell. More impressively, they were managing to do so despite his increasingly conservative nature with the Full Restores. He didn't like withholding medicine, but the wild Pokémon were growing stronger as he climbed, resulting in more serious injuries at every level for which he needed to preserve the medication.

In fact, he realized, the wild Pokémon hadn't just been growing stronger – his had been growing weaker. The thought struck him as he listened to Pikachu's wheezing between gulps. Not only was the battling dwindling their endurance, but the thinning oxygen was taking its toll as well. He had researched before leaving, and learned that oxygen tanks wouldn't be necessary at the mountain's peak. However, they were still nearly ten thousand feet in the air, and destined to reach over eleven before finding Red.

For this reason, packing light had its advantage in not tiring his body too quickly on the climb. It also kept him from worrying about losing everything in a rough battle. However, this convenience came at the price of how much food and medicine he could bring. Besides some berries for Pikachu and medical purposes, he'd brought virtually no sustenance for the Pokémon, hoping their pokéballs would conserve energy and prevent hunger from kicking in.

Sighing, he grabbed his canteen and took a hard swig before returning Donphan and wearily getting back on his feet. They, just like everything else, ached at this point.

"Jump on my shoulder for a while."

"Pika."

The pair began moving forward again by the dim glow of his flashlight.

To his silent relief, the mountain gave very little in the way of opposition the rest of the floor. He didn't dare want to note the abrupt quiet, fearful of some jinx he might incur the moment he did. Instead the two wandered quietly through the darkness, with only Ash's steps resonating throughout.

In this quiet, they trekked for a couple of hours. Occasionally they heard the flutter of wings, or the steps of something heavy. When this happened, Ash would turn the light off for a few moments and hold his breath. They would pray whatever was passing wouldn't notice, and fortunately, it never did.

At one point, another winding slope graced the walls of the mountain, which Ash climbed with slow, meaningful steps. It was a tedious walk, but nothing compared to the last few floors where they were battling and climbing simultaneously.

They later came across various boulders and ledges that were either pushed away with Strength, or climbed over.

By the end of the level, when Ash ran up a small staircase carved into the stony ground, they saw the next rope ladder and realized they had managed to avoid any battling.

He sighed, seeing the ladder went higher than even his light could shine. Grabbing hold, he summoned all his strength and climbed with purpose. At one point, he heard another fluttering and shut off the flashlight once again. Barely a foot beneath him, he could hear the screeches of Golbat, but not one bothered to acknowledge him.

Maybe they somehow found out what we did to their friends below?

Regardless of why they didn't attack, Ash decided to not waste time thinking about it as he turned back on the light and scrambled up the rest of the way.

At the top, all was quiet once more. "We might make it the rest of the way without seeing another Pokémon."

"Pika." There was a cautious optimism in the mouse's tone.

Each floor had grown progressively narrower as they climbed. However, this was the first time Ash could virtually see the walls of the cave on the other side from his position. They were distant, but visible due to soft electric lights hanging from them at ten-foot intervals.

"It's colder up here." It was also noisier. The snow's cold and howl of the wind were prevalent throughout the climb, but now they spiked from minor background noise to major distraction. "Where's it coming from?"

Wrapping himself in the cape, he began walking along the wall. Unlike the previous floors, there didn't seem to be any tricks here; no mazes, no stairs, no inclines carved into the siding. The level was completely flat and appeared almost perfectly round.

"Wait…is that…?"

His already strained heart began pumping even more furiously as he stared ahead at what appeared to be a small doorway to the outside. From a distance it was hard to differentiate between the dark of the cave and the gloomy grey of the outside storm. Now, though, as he drew closer he became more excited.

The entire level was flat, and he could see no other ladders to take him any higher. This had to be the highest level in the cave.

Which means…

"Pikachu, it's finally time!" His voice was hoarse from shouting commands, but the excitement in it still shone through. His tired muscles jumped to life as he started a sudden sprint for the opening.

With every step, he felt the anticipation reach to a higher fever pitch, and he was only a few feet from the doorway when a growl from the shadows startled him from his focus.

From the darkness leapt a Machamp. Unsurprisingly at this point, Ash found it to be significantly larger than its average counterparts. The fighting type stood at least a dozen feet tall, and his four arms had a span almost as long.

Ash grimaced. "I guess we jinxed ourselves, huh?"

"Pi."

"And I guess you didn't hear what we did to your friends down below?"

The Machamp's eyes simply narrowed at the question. Ash doubted whether he could understand human speech – much less considered whether he cared.

Just like everyone else here…hungry for a battle…

"Then let's give 'im what he wants! Thunderbolt!"

"Piiiii-ka!" A flash of yellow lightening struck across the rocky cave floor and hit Machamp directly. However, Pikachu was weak, and the attack was finished far too soon for any real damage to be done.

Shaking his head, the monstrous creature raced forward. "Pikachu, get behind me. Gengar!"

Dropping the pokéball, Gengar opened with a Shadow Ball that sent his opponent spiraling backward. "Good job! Follow after him and try to use Hypnosis!"

He nodded and flew off. Unfortunately for the ghost, Machamp was predictably well-trained. As Gengar clapped his hands and began to emit hypnotic waves to the grounded fighting type, he was interrupted by a left-handed Thunder Punch.

He knows elemental attacks!

"Are you okay?"

Gengar took a moment to lie there before slowly getting up. The moment he moved, Machoke was flying high in the air, barely missing Gengar's head upon contact with the ground, which rolled upon his landing.

Earthquake! If Gengar had been on the ground when he hit, it would've been over!

"Stay in the air and keep hitting him with Shadow Balls!"

If all his Pokémon hadn't already been so tired out, this strategy would have been a viable one. The ceiling to this level was dozens of feet over their heads, giving Gengar plenty of room to maneuver and dodge using his superior speed.

Machamp, though, was the better-rested fighter, and he proved with every leap and bound that he could reach Gengar no matter how high he flew.

For a moment Ash considered calling someone else out, but his training experience came to three conclusions. First, he had no one to call on in this battle more reliable than Gengar. Even Charizard - his next best option - was almost depleted and probably wouldn't even be able to get in the air - leaving him susceptible to both Machamp's ground and electric attacks. Second, even if he sent his entire team out, it would only get messy. Machamp was rocking the top of the mountain with every Earthquake, and Ash feared a repeat of his Donphan experiment from the day before. If he sent his entire team to take down this one Pokémon, there was little chance he could rescue them all if the ground suddenly gave way. Third, he still couldn't be sure if this was the final floor. Despite the positive omens, there was always a chance he still had higher to climb. If that was the case, he couldn't afford to expend what little energy his team had left on this one Machamp.

So he gave Gengar the best commands he could, helping his Pokémon time his dodging at the right moments and telling him exactly when to strike. It was a sloppy affair, and as his friend grew more exhausted he took greater hits directly.

Ash grimaced. He didn't want this to happen. His plan had been to keep all his Pokémon conscious to the top in case he needed them on the climb down. But it was looking grim here at Red's doorstep.

He had a plan that was guaranteed to take down Machamp. But I'll have to sacrifice Gengar completely. His fist clenched for a moment trying to decide.

"Geng!" His ghost took another Fire Punch and withdrew into the second dimension lining the cave's walls. Ash knew he couldn't stay out of their reality for long, though, given his weakened state.

Fine.

"Gengar, come out and use Destiny Bond!"

Sneaking behind the fighting type, Gengar leapt from the shadows as his eyes glowed violet. He clapped his hands and the light left his irises and began to spin around Machamp as the wild Pokémon charged a Fire Punch in his left fists and a Thunder in his right.

Time seemed to stand still in that moment as Gengar awaited the final blow. Ash saw the broken expression on his Pokémon's face, noting his ghost type could barely hold his form any longer. Though he was a gaseous creature, he was wheezing and straining to stay alert harder than any other member of his team.

And he's about to take another hit for me.

With that, Ash's legs suddenly sprang to life. As Machamp's arms reared back in preparation for the final blow, Ash lunged forward with all his might, crashing into the fighting Pokémon's side.

It was like hitting a brick wall. The wild fighter was pure, hardened muscle. Even so, the surprise attack forced him to stumble sideways several steps as the flames and crackling sparks surrounding his fists flickered out.

"Gengar, get out of here! I can't let you take another hit after all you've – ah!" He fell to the ground hard and scurried away as an elbow narrowly missed his head. Machamp refocused on the trainer as Gengar sank into the shadows.

"Pika!" The yellow mouse ran in and jumped off Ash's back to deliver an Iron Tail. Before the attack made contact, though, Machamp grabbed his steely ligament and used it to throw him across the cave into the opposing wall.

"Pikachu!" Ash cried as he rolled out of the way of an incoming foot. Another narrow miss, but when the foot made contact with the ground it shook the entire floor. The resounding Earthquake incidentally knocked Ash back to his feet as the ground rolled beneath his gut.

I've gotta get him madder. The angrier he is, the less he'll think before attacking.

"You're a strong one, Machamp, but can you touch me?"

As he beckoned the wild Pokémon with his hand, Machamp roared in a rage. Several punches flew at Ash simultaneously which he managed to dodge. Any one of these could break me. Gotta be careful and buy time till Gengar's feeling better.

Jumping back, he felt the sweat drip down the back of his neck as Machamp's pupils dilated further.

Despite the nausea he felt at the sight, he flashed another cocky grin. "Your strength is costing you accuracy and speed. You're too big…reminds me of a Raichu I knew once…"

Machamp cried out as he jumped in the air and clenched his four fists together. As he came down, Ash jumped from his spot at the last second as the resulting attack broke through the ground and created a new hole connecting their current level to the one beneath them.

Yikes!

Wasting no time, the fighting type pivoted and leapt for Ash with outstretched arms. This time, the trainer was too slow.

"Ah!" With ease, Machamp took hold of Ash's right side and held him high over his head. The fighting type's grip was far too tight and, deep inside, he felt several things instantaneously break.

"Pi!" In the distance, Ash saw a minor spark of electricity rush toward them.

That's not gonna work…

"Machamp, just put me down. We don't wanna fight you!"

The wild Pokémon simply roared in reply and increased the strength of his grip. Ash was fading quickly. Though his mind was foggy, he could tell the fighting type was preparing to break his spine in half. The pressure on his back was increasing exponentially by the second, and he would have screamed if he didn't feel so fuzzily distant from the pain.

C'mon, Gengar.

He clumsily reached for the pokéballs on his left, but was having trouble grasping them as his own breathing grew more labored. I feel them…why can't I grasp them?!

Summoning the rest of his strength into a final breath, he suddenly cried out "Gengar, now!"

Just as he was about to black out completely, he noticed the ground coming closer to his face. Wait, I'm falling!

Hitting the floor, he turned to see Gengar and Pikachu both hitting Machamp with everything they had. Gengar was pummeling the fighting monster with Shadow Balls while Pikachu was slicing his ankles and shins with Iron Tail attacks.

"You made it…"

He smiled as the two kept the fighting type preoccupied and slowly whittled his energy.

The hole.

"Pikachu, Gengar," he called, huffing and puffing as he tried to lift his head. "You're not gonna win this battle. He-he's too strong still. You have to push him off this floor. Use the hole he made there."

Pikachu nodded along with the ghost as they continued their assault. Slowly, and without Machamp's notice, they moved the battle inches closer to the crater he'd created chasing Ash.

"N-now! Shadow Ball and Thunderbolt!"

Jumping back, the two Pokémon launched a final attack that sent the fighting type stumbling backwards and through the trap. Below, they heard the echoes of his descent as he fell hundreds of feet down the sprawling mountain.

Grunting, Ash stood up as his friends came to check on him. "Cut it a little close, huh, Gengar?"

The ghost type gave a weak smile and scratched the back of his head.

The trainer winked. "Don't worry. Thank you, guys, for saving me."

The two waved off the gratitude as Ash clutched his abdomen. "Ugh, it feel like he broke my ribs…probably did." Slowly, a little scared to see, Ash lifted his shirt.

He was right to be scared.

Underneath the material, his skin was blackened to the point of almost matching his shirt. He could see the indentations from the Machamp's grip around his side and back and winced.

"Well, Misty won't be happy to see this on top of everything else."

Sighing, he released the shirt's hem. "I'll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it, I guess…now, we have work to do." He pulled out the last bottle of Full Restore. "Show me where you're both hurting the most and I'll take care of it."

After a few more minutes inside the now-quiet cavern, carefully applying the last of the medicine to his injured friends, Ash returned Gengar to his pokéball and put Pikachu back on his shoulder.

"Now it's time."

Slowly making his way back to the opening, he looked out. All he could see was a dark flurry of snow and ice. Nothing yet.

He felt nervous. Waiting to step out here was somehow scarier than walking into a stadium filled with a hundred thousand screaming fans.

Taking another deep breath, and grimacing at the resultant pain, he looked to his shoulder. His battered Pikachu returned the glance.

"Ready?"

"Pi."

He nodded. "Then let's go!"

He closed his eyes and ran out the door as his cape flew back in response to the howling wind. Opening his eyes, he saw he was on a ledge of some sort. It was some fifty feet wide, and he couldn't quite make out how far it went, yet. As he expected, the snow and ice flew thickly around his face, and they seemed to be in the middle of a snow cloud itself as evidenced by the porous grey haze seeping through the environment.

"You see anything yet?"

"Pika?"

He took several more steps as the snow crunched beneath his feet. It was literally freezing cold here, and he was almost blinded by his own breath with each exhalation. As he continued to trudge forward, though, something caught his gaze that stopped him mid-stride.

Ahead, there was another stony staircase. It only held three steps before plateauing at the edge of the cliff.

There, on the edge of the eleven thousand foot summit, stood a stoic, solitary figure. In contrast to Ash's chattering teeth, the shadow remained completely still, wearing nothing but a flimsy jacket that fluttered violently in the gale-force winds.

Ash couldn't see much more of the stranger from this distance, but what he could clearly make out - even in the storm – was a pokéball being held at arm's-length.

Oh no.


Author's Notes: Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time to write notes, but before I go, I want to do two things.

First, please, please REVIEW the chapter if you have even a moment. As always, more reviews mean more views, and more views mean more people who read this awesome story we've all built together here. On top of that, I really meant what I said earlier about your reviews meaning a lot to me personally. Your thoughts and opinions have always been so enjoyed by me, and now that I'm going to be away at OCS these next few months, I will crave your helpful and encouraging words more than ever.

Second, I want to recommend to everyone a story I came across a couple of months ago by one of my own fans: nyislandersgirl. She's written a collection of one-shots entitled "Family Matters." All these one-shots are about Ash and Misty and their future family. Some of the stories are sweet, some are fluff-filled, some read like sermonettes, but one thing they all have in common is how entertaining and light-hearted they are. I truly read this story anytime I need something to lift my spirits, and I think this author needs as much empowerment as she can get so she continues this story into the far future!

Anyway, that's all for now! Keep your eyes open for Chapter 61 on August 24!

Later Days!