Chapter 11 – Where Angels Fear

Ash stirred, sucking in a dry breath that filled his lungs with dusty air. He clenched his fists. He thought he felt the floor beneath his stomach, but the aching all over his body made certainty impossible. He grudgingly opened one eye, but took a moment to adjust. He indeed lay on his stomach, on a floor strewn with broken glass and shattered stone. Right in front of his face lay what he guessed to be the remnants of some stone, long ago carved into a defined shape though now all that remained was rubble. He pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, staring down at the grey floor, and took a deep breath. His head ached, his face burned, and little drops of blood fell into his view and plipped in a small red pool.

"Where am I?" he asked quietly, reaching up and finding that his face had been cut along his forehead and left cheek. Shallow wounds though they were, they bled badly. "And when- what-" the question died, half formed in his mind. As near as the trainer could tell, he'd lain motionless long enough for his wounds to form a small puddle of blood which had stained the side of his face.

A cold mass nudged Ash's arm and he looked down, spotting Pikachu looking up at him, worried. The trainer smiled and nodded to the Pokemon, then gasped. "Fearow," he pushed up to his feet, swooning for a second in a lightheaded daze. He cast about and saw his other Pokemon, laying in a heap just inside the shattered floor to ceiling windows. He rushed to her as quickly as he could and dropped to his knees by her head, looking her over.

"Hey," he whispered, setting one hand on the side of her face and trying to wake the bird. "Hey," he repeated louder, pushing her a little more. "C'mon, wake up. We can't stay here."

Fearow's big eye remained shut and when Ash sat back her head lolled back into the same position in which it had lain. The trainer looked the bird over again, this time spotting the large clump of matted feathers, completely congealed in dry blood, running the length of her side. "Ah shit," Ash muttered under his breath, reaching up with one hand to draw his fingers across his own wounds, his head pulsing.

Pikachu walked up next to Ash and bumped his trainer's flank with the side of his face, prompting Ash to reach down and scratch behind the Pokemon's ears. He quickly felt along Fearow's neck for a pulse, but found nothing. Combing through the crust of bloody feathers to get a better look at the wound, he saw the wide and deep gash, while still open, had stopped bleeding without a pumping heart to force the blood along.

"So we need to get to the top of this damn tower and destroy whatever it was Team Rocket is building," he said, guts twisting as he spoke through a quivering lip. "Then get back to-" An image of Misty, knocked from Fearow's back and falling through space, flashed through Ash's mind and his fists instantly clenched. "Shit," he spat, shutting his eyes and doubling over, his blood flash boiling in his veins as a guttural growl escaped his throat. "Shit shit shit." A tear rolled from the corner of one eye and watered down the blood staining the side of his face as he stopped and watched over and over in his mind as Misty fell.

"And Misty," he choked, the name was bitter in his mouth, positive she was dead. He dropped to his knees, rooted in place and knocked one white knuckled fist against his forehead. He wanted to scream. "First mom, then Misty and Fearow," he rumbled, his racing pulse drowning out the sound of the wind hissing in through the broken window. "I'm gonna- Why should I fucking bother? What's the-" His mother's smile flashed before his eyes and made his heart thrum at a feverish pace. He saw red and slammed his fist into the hard concrete beneath him.

"Damn it!" he shouted, making Pikachu flinch. "God damn it all!" He took a huge breath and screamed as he smashed his hand into the concrete again, then again. "God damn it! I can't do this anymore! I give!"

His third attack on the concrete filled the room with a snapping crunch, though he felt nothing even as his fingers went rigid in his glove. He stopped and dropped his forehead to the ground, muttering and cursing under his breath. He slumped there for a minute, breathing heavily as Pikachu stood off. Feeling, hot pain, gradually seeped into Ash's hand and he realized through the bloody haze in his mind that he had probably bruised if not broken his hand.

Slowly, Pikachu approached his still trainer and sniffed Ash's hand, then gingerly licked at his fingers through the trainer's glove. Ash looked down at the Pokemon and his face broke, he pulled himself into a sitting position and picked up Pikachu, holding him close and shivering. Pikachu licked Ash's face, cleaning away some of the red stain as they sat for several minutes.

"Sorry," Ash muttered, voice dry and cracking. Again he saw his mother. I never said goodbye, he remembered. The thought made his chest scream and he again fought back tears. "I didn't mean to freak," he said when he could speak again. Eyes still watering he hollowly laughed once and shook his head. "I've got to be going insane..." he said as he ran a hand through his hair and tugged at it in frustration. "If I'm not already."

Then Ash noticed the hissing wind. Turning towards the broken window and Fearow's body he saw the purple mist seeping into the room and hanging in the air like a poisonous fog and his blood chilled. "Thunderbol-" he tried to shout. Pikachu noticed an instant too late and looked up and around as the rushing gas slammed into Ash like a tidal wave, propelling the trainer back to the ground. The rodent's cheeks sparked as it rolled off Ash and took aim at the cloud, but Pikachu hesitated, suddenly stunned and frozen to the ground in mid battle cry.

Congealing from the darkening mist, the Gengar pinned Ash to the ground, eyes flashing red as the helpless trainer struggled and twitched. Rows of fangs flickered as the ghost laughed and shoved its clawed fingers into Ash's temples, insubstantial thumbs driving into his eyes. "Help!" he shouted, trying to wrench his head away. His breathing quickening, the trainer's eyes rolled back in his head and his jaw went completely slack. Ash's hands bolted up into the air, through the laughing Gengar, and flailed wildly.

In an instant something ripped away Gengar and Ash went limp. His head rolled to one side and, barely lucid, he saw the ghostly shape roiling backwards from the onslaught of a wispy white and silver light. The Gengar snarled, a sound like rubber boiling, and tore itself loose of the light which reformed into a translucent humanoid shape between the Pokemon and Ash. The glowing shape's long tail snapped through the air like a lightning bolt as it's pale eyes locked on the ghost.

As the angelic figure charged and barreled into the ghastly apparition, the two shapes colliding, disintegrating, and reforming like pillars of mist, Ash felt himself being dragged away. Something had grabbed his arm and was pulling him away from the action. Regaining just enough motor control to shift his head around, Ash turned and saw the ghostly purple hand let go of his arm as the odd collection of floating body parts faded into nothing.

"The... hell...?" he muttered, just before dropping his head back.

SC

"Misty!" Brock shouted, throwing his shoulder into the heavy metal door, slamming it shut.

"I know!" the girl shouted back, tearing through a pile of garbage and pulling out an ax with an unusably rusty head, but bearing an especially long and sturdy haft.

Brock lurched back as the door jumped partly open and a cadaverous arm reached through and clawed at the interior wall. Brock charged and threw himself against the door, closing it with a violent snap and a crash as the hand dropped to the ground. "Now!" he ordered.

Misty turned with the ax and jammed it against the steel door's handle and braced it against the ground, barring the door and firmly jamming it shut. She sighed in relief as the pounding of fists continued against the door like a drum roll, and turned her back to the wall. "That was way too close," she said, breathing in quick draws, sliding down and sitting against the cold wall and the colder tile. "Why didn't you just have Golem hold the door?" she glanced up at Brock, an undertone of venom in her words.

"Look around," said the Gym Leader, gesturing about the small storage room in the back of the run down Pokemon Center into which they'd fled. "He wouldn't fit in here. But along that line, why didn't you have have Blastoise out and fighting when that old woman's Golbat went down on the roof?"

"Why do you think?" Misty retorted, ignoring now the fists beating against the door. "You two flew down to pick me up and then we instantly got swarmed by those flying bugs and crashed on the roof. As soon as we landed all three of us were running for our lives. I didn't exactly see you scrambling to get Onix out."

Brock drew back and crossed his arms. "Point taken," he admitted. "There wasn't a whole lot of time. You're right." He sighed and looked around the little room, scanning the barred door, the one window on the opposite wall, also barred, and the utter lack of any useful tools laying about. "And now we're stuck here..."

They slipped into silence for as both considered the predicament. Daylight had since faded and had taken with it any real hope Misty felt for escape. Her curse induced wounds were spreading, leaving her uncomfortable and dirty at best, and the trainers had been split up. Ash had flown off towards the tower and crashed into it according to Brock, Misty had completely lost her bearings after her impossible survival, and the old woman had vanished.

The beating on the door intensified, but the thick steel hinges and bolts held firm, showing no signs of giving. Though they were ostensibly safe, as the minutes wore on the sound began to wear at Misty's nerves. "Would you all," she growled, getting up and walking to the door, voice rising, "just shut the fuck up!" She slapped her hand against the door for emphasis, though it failed to deter the monsters on the other side. "Great..." she sighed. "So we're just going to sit here and wait for them to go away?" she asked.

"Or we could sit and wait for rescue," said Brock. "But I'd rather try to come up with an escape plan," he amended.

"Yeah," Misty sighed, setting her forehead against the door. "There's that too... I just hope Ash is OK," she muttered. She shook her head and bit her lip.

Brock glanced at her from the corner of his eye, eyebrows furrowing into a grimace. Leaning against the wall he uncrossed his arms and dropped his hands into his pockets. "So does Ash know about you? I mean your real story?"

Bristling, Misty twitched and shot a venomous glare at Brock. "What story?" she asked.

Raising one eyebrow, Brock didn't answer. He just watched as Misty eyed him.

"Probably not," she said when Misty saw the Gym Leader shift one hand closer to the pokeballs at his belt. They stared at each other for a moment, the air thickening between them. Misty's face softened but grew no less icy when Brock's hand moved back to his pocket. "I suppose you picked it up somewhere?"

"Bits and pieces," said Brock calmly. "I heard rumors here and there, nothing substantial, you were cautious after all. But I suspected something wasn't right up north. I pieced most of it together when my little brother came back from Cerulean with news that you were gone, your sister was dead, and Kasumi had assumed control of the Gym overnight. Little things Ash told me about your time with him on the road confirmed my suspicions about you and Team Rocket."

As all the air around her seemed to chill, Misty smirked, eyes narrowing only a little as she stood up and turned to face Brock, crossing her arms behind her back. The wound on her cheek, bandage long since lost, grew slightly as her features changed. "Then why haven't you tried to kill me yet?" asked Misty nonchalantly. Her finger twitched behind her, almost going for the pokeball magnetically clipped to the back of her belt.

"Well you haven't tried to kill me yet," said Brock. "And you're helping us against Team Rocket. I figured you can't be all bad since you don't stand to gain anything from all this fighting and danger, at least you wouldn't if you were working for Team Rocket. Still," he stiffened, "Even though we're working together, and even if Ash trusts you, I still want to know your side of the story."

Now Misty raised an eyebrow. She watched Brock carefully, noting that he had made no move to go for any kind of weapon... not a pokeball, not his boot knife, nothing. "Why bring all this up now?" she asked. "What do you want to know that you haven't already heard?"

Shrugging, Brock rolled his shoulders back and spoke evenly. "Just because you're against Team Rocket doesn't mean you're not one of the bad guys. I know you're a criminal but I want your side of things. Call it due diligence."

Folding her arms in front of her chest, Misty chuckled briefly. "Sure, why not?" she said, shaking her head once. Looking away to collect her thoughts, she stared at the blank wall, then turned back to Brock. "I killed people... and I made a lot of money doing it. I ran my Gym as a front for Team Rocket, but my sisters caught me." She paused for a deep breath. "The only thing I can tell you that you don't already know is that at first I agreed to leave, knowing I could go to any one of a dozen Rocket hideouts. Kasumi insisted on a fight though. Maybe she knew I'd just go back to my bosses and didn't want me loose, or maybe she wanted me dead so she could take over the gym with no fear of a rival. Either way we fought, and Violet died."

"Assuming I believe you," said Brock, taking advantage of Misty's break. "Why didn't you go back and kill Kasumi?"

Misty turned and stared at the dark window, tracing the lines of the bars with her eyes. "I'd planned to," she said. "For what she did? Yeah, I wanted to kill her, but she had all of the gym's considerable resources behind her after I left, and I needed to regroup. So I went to the nearest Rocket base, but they turned me out on my ear... said that taking back the gym without drawing a lot of attention wouldn't be feasible. What's more, they tried to finish me off and chased me all the way to Mt. Moon. I lost them in the Deep Roads but got lost myself too. Those are three weeks I... don't remember fondly."

She spoke casually, but Brock's sharp senses caught the minute shiver that ran down her frame. "So there you were," he prompted.

"So there I was," Misty said, "out in the world, out for revenge, and out of luck."

"What changed?" asked Brock. "This started out as a quest for revenge, but now... what? What's your motivation?"

"I'm fighting Team Rocket," said Misty, verbally raising her guard. "You're a valuable asset in that fight and that should be good enough for you. I don't have any reason to make your life difficult... or short."

"There's more to it," said Brock, taking a step forward. "You're out for revenge, on Team Rocket and your sister, but when we're in Cerulean you avoid the gym like the plague, even though you're more than smart enough to turn Ash, and in turn me, against Kasumi. You wanted nothing more than to kill Kasumi, but instead you go out of your way to try and get away from her. I don't buy it."

"You don't have to," Misty retorted. "Take it's for what it's worth. Are we done?"

Going silent, Brock moved one hand up to his chin as Misty walked away and stood in front of the window. Scratching at the stubble, Brock watched her for a moment. "Ash changed everything, didn't he?" said Brock, loudly enough for her to hear, though Misty didn't move or answer. "You were traveling and plotting your revenge when you met Ash. Hell, you probably incorporated him into your plans to fight Team Rocket which is why you stuck with him in the beginning... he was a useful tool. But somewhere between Pallet and Cerulean, all that changed. Suddenly there was a risk of Ash finding out about your past and you wanted nothing more than to bury it all."

"Shut up," Misty warned, not turning around.

"As Ash became more important, revenge became less important. Is that it?"

"I said shut up," Misty growled.

"He showed you the kind of friendship you'd only ever heard of," Brock pressed. "And it was wonderful, so wonderful that you couldn't bear losing it. That's it isn't it?"

"And is it wrong?" Misty barked as she turned on her heel, a tear dripping down her cheek and into the lesion. "So I found a little bit of happiness. What's the big deal? I'm human! Get off my case!"

Sighing, Brock put up his hands in surrender and went quiet as Misty turned back around. It's good to know I can trust you, thought the Gym Leader, satisfied now that he thought he understood more.

Glaring out the window, Misty took short quiet breaths as her eyes flitted about from figure to figure moving in the dark mists below. Her mind spun, reeling for evidence to prove Brock wrong. Ash had nothing to do with it, she told herself. It just wasn't the right time to take Kasumi out. I'm still doing this just to get back at Team Rocket... Even in her head, the words were hollow and meaningless and she knew it.

SC

At some point between two and three in the morning, Ash realized that his consciousness was gradually returning to him. At first he simply stared straight ahead at the featureless grey wall, but then he gained enough mental strength to realize that's he'd been hoisted into a sitting position with his back to a crumbled stone. Shortly thereafter he grasped that Pikachu sat beside his leg, and a few moments later he saw the almost imperceptibly faint silver glow around his legs, arms and torso. The aura, he reasoned, likely enveloped all of him.

You are awake, the voice sounded in Ash's head, echoing a little. Good, you rested quite long enough.

Ash's vision focused and sharpened and he looked around for the source of the voice without success. "Who?" he started to ask.

Down here, said the voice.

Glancing down, Ash met Pikachu's gaze, looking into the Pokemon's purple and slightly luminescent eyes. "Oh great," said Ash calmly, leaning his head back against the stone. "Now I know I'm crazy."

This is a great deal to take in, but I promise you that you are more or less mentally sound. I am psychically overshadowing your Pikachu in order to communicate with you.

"Wait, what?" asked Ash, ears perking up as he turned to look at Pikachu, now able to tell that the voice, while he only heard it in his head, seemed to radiate from the rodent. The look on the little Pokemon's face was completely blank and vacant. Only the eyes showed any intelligence at all, and even then, the presence felt completely alien to Ash. "Get away from my Pikachu!" he barked, sitting up and glowering over the Pokemon. "If you hurt him I'll-"

Your Pokemon is fine, said the voice. He is sleeping. Rest assured that I only want to help you stop Team Rocket.

Ash glared at the glow in Pikachu's eyes. If his instincts were anything to be believed, the voice was telling the truth, or at least Ash sensed no active lie in the words. "Fine," he said incredulously, relaxing only a little. "So what can I call you? And how can you help me? I thought Psychics were powerless against ghosts."

I am no ordinary psychic, said the voice, haughtiness plain in the words. You may call me, Ash sensed a tiny and cautious pause before the voice continued, Mewtwo, if you must address me as anything, though I will insist you keep our exchange here a close secret. As for helping you, look at yourself.

Holding up his hands, Ash watched as the silver glow hovered over his skin, fading to an impossibly faint barrier between him and the rest of the world. "I noticed this," he said. "What is it?"

An envelope of psionic energy, a shield between you and the ghosts here, said Mewtwo. It is not much, but it will keep the ghosts from using their material manifestations to harm you directly... It will not protect you from other, more mundane dangers however, so you must be cautious on your way to the roof.

"Right," said Ash as he stood up. "We need to destroy that machine. I assume you're here to show me the way then?"

Correct. Because of the ghostly interference here, there is little I can do to directly help you. Driving away that first ghost drained most of the energy I could spare to invest in this venture. It was, however, necessary to keep you alive.

Ash paused and looked around the room, stopping briefly on Fearow's corpse. He felt a pang of guilt, but pushed it to the back of his mind and told himself she did a good job right up till the end. "So you're the one who saved me."

Ash felt confirmation echo in his mind as Pikachu's body walked up beside him. Yes, while I dealt with the Gengar, another ghost pulled you away and kept you safe until I could erect the shield around you.

"Where did it go? Was that the thing I saw before I passed out?"

Yes and it vanished after helping you, to where I am not sure... I know you have questions, but walk with me. This level of the tower is safe enough for the present. Still, we must not delay. The longer we wait, the longer the ghosts have to grow stronger, and the smaller our chances of success, Mewtwo said quickly and calmly as, via Pikachu, he lead Ash around the crumbled stones and piles of bones in the room.

Passing through the empty door, trainer and Pokemon entered into a long, dim hall. Any decorations or aesthetic adornments had long since rotted away from the walls, leaving exposed the bare stone and brick of the tower's skeleton. Ash shivered. The dozens of unmatched skeletons laying perfectly still, enveloped by the dark mists in the hall, all seemed to watch him through empty eye sockets. "How many Pokemon were buried in this place?" Ash asked, fighting off another uncomfortable twitch.

Many thousands, said Mewtwo. Ash caught the almost mournful undertone in his protector's voice. When the slavers attacked this place a century ago they brought with them many, many Pokemon, as many as a dozen per trainer in hopes of overwhelming the city's defenses with numbers. Most of those dead are interred here. Ash Ketchum, Mewtwo said quickly, turning Pikachu to face the trainer. He stopped the pair in front of a large set of wooden double doors near a bend in the dark hall. A since faded plaque above the door read 'Stairs'.

"What?" Ash asked, crossing his arms, only now noticing he could see his breath, even in the smoky mist that surrounded him.

Clarification, the ghosts cannot assault you with their physical forms as long as I protect you, Mewtwo repeated, but that is not to say they will not try, and whenever they do, it will weaken the barrier and drain some of my energy. Likewise, they are not prohibited from laying traps for you or confronting you with nightmarish apparitions. You must still be on your guard all the way to the top of the tower. I am pouring as much energy as I can afford into your safety, but there are other, more pressing matters to which I must simultaneously devote great resources. Do not think yourself my highest priority.

"I understand," said Ash, reaching out for the doors as Mewtwo nodded Pikachu's head. Ash reached out and pushed open the doors, and carefully looked through. "This might take a little more planning," he whispered. Even staring intently, Ash's eyes barely penetrated the utter darkness beyond the threshold of the door. The mists seemed to congeal into a wall, through which Ash could only make out the rough angles of the stairs in the largely hollow room beyond. Taking a step forward, he passed through the barrier and felt the breath rush out of his lungs as the hair on the back of his neck bolted upward.

Taking a quick step back out, into the comparatively bright hallway, Ash shook his head. "No way," he muttered, cold sweat beginning to break out on his forehead. "I can't go in there."

Now is not the time to falter, Mewtwo said through his vessel. The path to the machine is far shorter than the path out of Lavender, and both require you to go through that door.

Ash turned and looked back through the darkness. "Shit," he mumbled under his breath. Tightening his jaw and squinting, he walked over the threshold again and made himself stand there as Pikachu's body walked up next to him. "OK," he said to himself. "From here..." He looked around, holding his breath as he did so.

Unlike the world outside the tower, Ash's altered sight seemed to do him little good. He could make out only the outlines of the narrow stairs leading away, up on the left and down on the right, from the landing on which he stood. The wall opposite the door was completely invisible, as was anything more than a few feet away. Slowly Ash stepped out, feeling with his boot, and navigated the first few stairs leading up, simply making sure the faint lines, solid black against a hazy black background, he interpreted to be the edges of stairs, were actually solid.

"You coming?" Ash asked, looking back behind him and flinching for a moment. Pikachu he saw only as a faint purple aura hovering around where he guessed his Pokemon to be.

Interesting, Ash heard Mewtwo's voice. Your Pikachu's exceptionally acute eyesight is useless in this place. He might as well be blind.

"You're good though," Ash asked. "Oh geez," he reached out for the wall to steady himself after he'd briefly looked over the edge of the stairs. He realized only after looking down that the darkness made the ground seem impossibly far away, and the lack of a handrail on the inward face of the spiral staircase only enhanced the effect.

I can see as well as ever. Again Ash caught the unveiled arrogance in the tone. He said nothing as he, keeping one hand on the wall for reference, took the stairs, one step at a time, and began working his way up the spine of the tower. Despite the motions remaining the same as he climbed, taking each new step remained as difficult and uncomfortable as the last step. Every time he set his foot on the solid stone he felt as though it were ready to crumble beneath his feet. And then he heard something and looked up.

"Oh shit!" he gasped, snatching up Pikachu in an instant and bolting forward, climbing five or six stairs between each heartbeat. A colossal body of rock, only the outlines of which he could see, came rushing downwards in silence until its outermost edge impacted the stair just behind Ash's heel with a thunderous crash and a shower of debris. As the stone sheared away, Ash felt reverberations in the stairs, beyond just the initial shudder from the impact.

Run, Mewtwo prompted as Ash's foot seemed to fall out behind him. Shifting forward with a grunt, Ash sprinted up the invisible stairs, barely seeing what was ahead of him and relying solely on his best guesses as the stairs collapsed and fell away behind him. The sound of rock slamming and breaking against rock filled Ash's ears as he ran, completely losing track of how many steps he'd taken or how many floors he'd cleared. Eighteen more steps and then through the door, Mewtwo directed, tone quickened.

Desperately trying not to focus on each stair collapsing just after he'd cleared each step, Ash counted off the paces, mentally, then verbally as his lungs began to scream for air. Whether in his head or in reality, Ash thought he saw ahead of him the faint silhouette of a cracked door and, real or not, he threw himself at it. With a clang and crash, Ash fell through the door as it swung open before him. Puffing, he got quickly to his feet to look back at the empty stairwell door, through which he could no longer see even the outlines of the stairs.

"That was too close..." he muttered, leaning against the wall and puffing for air. "Was that what you meant by 'more mundane' dangers?"

Pikachu's body didn't move, nor did Mewtwo answer.

"Hey," said Ash, looking over his shoulder and focusing all attention on Pikachu. "I'm talking to you," he went on. "I know I'm just some expendable asset to you, but you could at least answer me. How did the gho-" he stopped and his gaze followed Pikachu's empty stare. "You've got to be kidding," he choked, heart leaping into his throat as his stomach began to dance beneath his ribs.

Seeming to glow faintly red, accentuated by mortar long ago blackened by filth, the exposed red brick hallway before Ash stood crowded with figures. Only a few yards in front of Ash, human shapes suspended by wires that wrapped around their wrists, elbows, and their necks hung like marionettes in the hall, so clustered and numerous that they formed a wall, beyond which Ash could not see.

The young trainer stood up straight and stared, jaw loose. His gaze focused on the faces of the first rows of bodies, and he shivered. From every drooping head, thick black hair, matted and streaked with brown and dull red obscured every face. "What the hell is this?" he whispered, bristling, eyes wandering over the pustular sores that dotted each and every body. "What did this to all of them?"

Cadavers, Mewtwo responded. These are likely victims in the final stages of the ghost's plague. I warned you they would likely confront you with ghastly scenes, the psychic prompted as Ash stared, transfixed. And unfortunately the exit to the roof lies beyond this hall.

Ash looked up towards the ceiling, though he saw nothing. The wires supporting the bodies ran up and disappeared into the thick black mist concealing everything more than ten feet above the floor. Getting to his hands and knees, Ash crouched and tried to look under the wall of cadavers, but the mist again preempted him. The rank ooze, seeping down the bare legs of the bodies from their countless wounds dripped from their gangrenous toes and plipped invisibly to the mist-obscured floor.

Putting his hand over his mouth and standing up, Ash turned around and looked back into the blackness of the empty stairwell. He glanced over his shoulder at the morbid scene in the hallway and all but gagged. He swore that from under that matted hair they were all staring at him. Dead or not, they were all watching him with diseased eyes. "There's no damn way I can do this," he said, turning away from the hall again. "There's got to be some way around all of this. Find another way."

There is no other way, said Mewtwo. These bodies are assuredly dead, and as you have already contracted the plague you have nothing to-

"I've what!?" Ash barked. "What do you fucking mean I've caught the plague?!"

I assumed you had guessed it already, said Mewtwo, looking up at a seething Ash through Pikachu's eyes. Given your level of exposure to this place it is only logical that you contract it. Also you have begun to show symptoms... the speckled flesh around your lips for one.

Ash ran the back of his hand over his lips and cursed. "Shit," he hissed, hair standing on end as he looked back at the hallway, and the drawn bodies filling it. "Shit," he cursed again. "This is insane."

So now your options are die, or end this, said Mewtwo, not a hint of sympathy in his tone. And we both know which option benefits both of us.

"Where do you get off?" Ash snapped, bringing his foot back to kick the little yellow rodent, before suddenly remembering that it was not really Pikachu provoking him. He steadied himself and took a deep breath. "You just show up, take control of my Pokemon, and start ordering me around like you're my boss. Then you just tell me I either have to do what you say, or die."

And? Mewtwo asked.

"And?" Ash growled. "And you're a frigid, hardhearted, son of a bitch!"

Which does not alter the facts, said the overshadowing psychic. Either you destroy Team Rocket's machine, or you die. I did not thrust this situation upon you but now that you are involved, I am simply seeking the outcome that most benefits both of us. So will you or will you not press forward.

Glaring at the purple glow in Pikachu's eyes. "Go to hell," he muttered after a long minute. Ash turned back to the hallway, facing down all of the strung-up cadavers, and took a few cautious steps forward. As he came close enough to reach out and touch the fleshy wall, Ash paused, his boots beginning to stick to the floor and peel away with a quiet sucking sound. He thought about loosing Arcanine, but quickly dismissed the idea.

Closing his eyes, Ash reached out and put his hand on one corpse's shoulder and began pushing the body aside. If the weight was anything to be believed, these cadavers were very real. Ash lost track of Pikachu as the trainer slid between two shapes and into the hanging mass. His blood chilled and seemed to stick in his veins as one of the hands he pushed aside flopped down on his shoulder. A rough hissing of air right beside his head rooted Ash to the ground. Glancing to the side Ash caught the last motion of the black hair falling back before the obscured face. Ash twitched and looked over to another face, drawn by the sound of a dry sniffing.

Stop moving, the trainer heard Mewtwo warn.

Not so dead after all? Ash wondered, holding his breath and freezing. His lungs began to burn before a minute had passed and still the cadaver on his left sniffed the air, or at made such sounds. The dead hand still resting on his shoulder, Ash's eyes flitted from side to side. He tried not to imagine the fingers laying so close to his neck.

A trick of the ghosts, said the psychic as the sniffing sound stopped. It would seem that the ghost's attention is largely focused elsewhere.

"How can you tell?" Ash half whispered, half gasped as the rigor mortis in the arm across his shoulder finally pulled the limb back into its position, hanging from the wire.

Ghosts need to work in great numbers to accomplish anything here in this world. The more of them in a given location, the more power those ghosts possess. One or two can perform small tricks, while a few dozen might be able to animate a corpse.

"Fascinating," said Ash, looking up at the obscured ceiling to take his eyes off the ghosts. He took another step, trying to move as carefully as he could through the macabre forest. "But right now I don't really care."

Perhaps it is for the best that you were separated from your companions, toned the voice as Ash picked his way through. You divided the ghosts' attention, lessening their capabilities in a given area.

Ash swallowed hard, the smell of decomposition growing stronger as he waded deeper, fluids from the cankerous sores beginning to cling to his body armor only intensifying the stink. His hair rose up on end as a sharp hissing sniff shattered the quiet and a corpse leaned forward on its wires, its face right in front of Ash's. The trainer yelled and brought his hands up for defense, catching the head across its face and knocking it aside. Ash heard the clicking of teeth falling to the floor and opened one eye, seeing the head lulled and unmoving on a neck half severed by the wire.

Keep walking, the voice sounded in Ash's head as the trainer slapped his hand over his mouth.

Walking and fighting back dry heaves, Ash became less and less concerned with making as little noise as he could. He stumbled forward, knocking bodies out of his way, screwing his eyes shut, and fighting to ignore the hands that bumped his face and the growls rumbling in the dead throats all around. Finally he came to a solid wall, feeling the wall of smothering bodies disappear. The young trainer leaned forward and put both hands on the wall, lurching once and throwing up.

"I..." he muttered, opening his eyes and wiping his mouth with one hand, "am so sick of this." The rancid smell of decay clung to him like a shroud, but looking back at the butcher's hall, he saw he had cleared the forest and reached a bend in the hall. He turned when he felt the psychic presence behind him pass beside him.

This way, said Mewtwo. We have no way of knowing how long until the ghosts focus more of their attention on you.

Ash nodded. "Right," he sighed, face drawn. "We should keep moving." He followed Pikachu's form down a series of brick hallways, noticing on more than one occasion that there was no natural illumination in the building, or that any such source of light was hidden and its glow muffled and dissipated by the smoky haze. He assumed it was a trick of the mists. The sounds of moans echoing and blowing through the halls and stairwells, sometimes quiet and sometimes ear-splitting, became a constant cacophony, a backdrop for the sounds of dripping liquid and falling rock that seemed to click and drip from nowhere.

Through doors and around blind corners Ash would hear people calling out, sometimes in pain and sometimes in twisted mockeries of pleas for help. The first time he stopped to look, a woman's emaciated form, crucified with heavy spies on a concrete wall greeted him with a deafening scream and a streak of obscenities. He was still rubbing his ears and trying to clear the image from his head when Ash heard another voice, this one barely audible, calling out from behind a closed door down a side hall.

Pikachu's body stopped and Mewtwo's eyes focused intently on a bend in the hall. There is someone down there... alive I think. He looked up at Ash. Though it could be a trick.

Shaking his head, Ash walked down the hall and around the corner without a second thought. Fatigue hung in his eyes, making them glassy and slow to focus, but his face hardened. "Doesn't matter," he said. "If someone is alive we need to help-" He stopped with a scream in front of the open door as a jet of flame blasted out in front of his, dazzling his vision and throwing him against the wall.

"Hold on," said a weak voice from inside the room. "I don't think it's one of them."

Gasping for air, Ash got to his feet and put his back to the wall, next to the door. "Whose there?" he asked, reaching behind his back and grabbing Arcanine's pokeball. "Answer me," he ordered.

"You first," said the voice, a woman Ash guessed. "I'll have Charmeleon roast you alive, I swear I-" the voice trailed off and Ash heard a thud.

"Hell," Ash muttered. "I'm coming in," he called through the door. "I'll help you if I can." He looked around the jam of the door and stepped inside, hands out in front of him. Instantly greeted by the sight of a large, very agitated Charmeleon glaring at him, Ash froze, but didn't back up. He stared the Charmeleon down, glancing between the heavy lizard and the the young woman slumped on the ground beside it, and began walking slowly in an arc around the Pokemon towards the girl.

Poking its head around the door, Pikachu's form popped into view. This is unwise, Ash heard Mewtwo warn. We should not be wasting time here.

"She's obviously hurt," said Ash, not taking his eyes off the Charmeleon, paying special mind to the Pokemon's open maw, rows of teeth, and twitching, torch-tipped tail. "And she's not a ghost," he added, coming up next to the doubled over figure, not missing the blood, a sight he was by now very used to, forming a little pool on the ground around her. "Hey," he said, kneeling down beside her, despite Charmeleon's furious growling. "C'mon, stay with me."

Settling down just a little after a purple spark flitted across its eyes, Charmeleon's growls faded into low, guttural rumbles. Be quick about this then, said Mewtwo.

Ash slid one arm under the girl's shoulder and gingerly pulled her up to lean against him. "What's your name?" he asked, trying to get her talking once he saw her eyes struggle open.

"Johanna," said the girl, looking up at Ash. She gritted her teeth and flinched. "Yours?"

"Ash Ketchum," he answered. I don't have anything to bandage her up, he realized, almost positive she wouldn't last much longer once he saw the wounds running down her neck and the whole right side of her body. "What were you doing here?"

"Well you're not one of the ghosts," said Johanna. "I tended the..." she paused and a cynical look settled on her face as her brown eyes faded a little. "Aw hell, I'm dead right?"

Ash shook his head. "No, you look good," he lied. "As soon as I take care of Team Rocket we'll get you out of here and you'll be fine in a few weeks."

"You're a bad liar, kid" she replied, stone-faced. "But you know about Team Rocket here?" Her eyes focused before going glassy again as she looked him over. "You're not with the Elite Four are you?" She sat up some, hopeful. "Did they get my message? Are they here?"

Ash took a second in surprise. "Afraid not," he answered, watching the hope fade from Johanna's face. "I was traveling through Rock Tunnel and one of the ghosts attacked my friends. I came here to stop it all."

Johanna sighed and leaned back again. "Great..." she muttered. "I wanted the army and I don't even get the militia... Sorry" she looked up at Ash. "I'm a Ranger from Indigo," she said quickly, beginning to breathe in quick gasps for air as her grip on his collar tightened. "Listen, take my Charmeleon. He's loyal and obedient." She turned to the still growling Pokemon and nodded to Ash. "Do what he says, he's your boss now," she ordered, mustering what force she could. "If he's trying to fix all this he can't be all bad... bad." Johanna's eyes looked suddenly hollow as she whimpered and stiffened. "Stop them, stop Team Rocket, stop them," she muttered several times before she went completely still and stopped breathing.

"Well," Ash sighed, letting Johanna down slowly and closing her eyes. "One more to Team Rocket," he said, venom seeping into his tone. He looked down at his hands, not sure whether the coating of blood was his or the Ranger's. Wet, he thought, so probably Johanna's. He turned and looked at the Charmeleon. Much to his surprise, Mewtwo's purple hue had left the Pokemon's eyes, and Charmeleon still stared at the dead girl.

"So," said Ash, grabbing the Pokemon's attention. He stood up, eliciting a small growl from the lizard and took the empty pokeball from his belt, Fearow's old pokeball. "You think you can tolerate working for me long enough to kill the people who killed your partner?" That is one big Charmeleon, Ash thought, guessing the Pokemon's length to be well over five feet from its nose to the thick base of its tail.

Still growling, more now loudly than before, the sides of Charmeleon's muzzle twitched up and down, exposing gleaming white teeth. The Pokemon sat on its haunches though, looking at Ash and slapping its tail around on the ground like a club. Ash took that to be a yes, and flicked the pokeball towards Charmeleon. The Pokemon made no effort to move away or dodge the ball, but simply sat still, staring at Johanna's body as the white light enveloped it.

I would not recommend using that Pokemon unless absolutely necessary, said Mewtwo. We are still, after all, trying to avoid detection.

"I know..." Ash answered. "I was actually wondering how you want me to take the machine down though." He watched as Pikachu's tail twitched once and Mewtwo failed to answer. "I see," he went on. "Torch it, attract all the ghosts at once, and hope they all fade back to wherever they came from before they get me, right?" Still, Mewtwo remained silent. "Don't worry about it, I'm committed," said Ash, walking back into the hall. "Regardless of how it ends, I'm ready for this to be over."

Good, said Mewtwo, slipping into silence as he lead Ash through the halls, passed horrific images and hallucinations defying description that Ash muscled through with guts turning and heart thrumming. After navigating a network of red brick hallways Ash came to a heavy steel door leading into a narrow, nearly black well the only feature of which Ash could see was a rusty, cast-iron ladder.

"Greaaaat," Ash muttered, leaning against the ladder and looking up the well into the black. "Let's go defenseless into the scary black confined space." A howl echoed down the well and made Ash shiver.

Maintenance access tunnel, said the Psychic, hopping up onto Ash's shoulder. It is at the center of the tower, parallel to the innermost stairwell, so it will be stable. It will likely emerge on the roof or one of the uppermost floors allowing us to bypass dozens of floors that might otherwise be trapped.

"Sure," said Ash, stepping out onto the ladder and listening carefully as the rungs groaned under his weight. He took a few steps up and one of the rungs snapped under his foot, filling the entire stair well with a resonating 'bang.' "Not how I pictured going out," he said, clutching at the ladder and continuing up. "But everyone has to buy it somehow I guess. There are worse ways. I guess this is better than growing old and sick and going out with a whimper." He laughed a little to try and ignore the howling wind echoing in the distance above him. "It's not quite as cool as saving the world, blowing up some secret bad guy base like in the vids but it works..."

You could survive this, Ash heard. Being fatalistic only hurts your chances.

"It's a coping mechanism," said Ash, dropping the subject.

As the howling picked up in intensity and began to manifest with both roaring screams and wind that dried Ash's eyes, the young trainer continued on, leaving all light behind him and climbing the ladder by guessing the positions of the rungs, feeling for them, and later by muscle memory. The hundreds of rungs seemed to blur together, aside from those dozen that snapped under his feet or slashed his hand as they gave under his weight. After thirty minutes of climbing and stopping more than once to check and make sure the cuts on his hands were manageable, Ash looked up and saw, what he thought was a crescent of less dark space in the black above him.

Reaching up, feeling nothing, climbing a bit farther, and feeling again for the ceiling, Ash quickly discovered that the crescent, actually subdued red light filtering in through a breach in the hatch capping the well. Taking a deep breath, Ash grabbed hold of the handle above him and heaved the heavy steel hatch up on decrepit and creaking hinges. Instantly buffeted by driving winds, Ash nearly lost his grip on the rusting ladder and scrambled for a footing. He pulled himself up and put one hand on the rough stone roof of the tower, high winds blasting him to his knees as he crawled from the well.

"Where?" he groaned, squinting as the wind instantly made his eyes water. He scanned all around him, trying to penetrate the whipping mist and see by the flickers of red light that came and silently went like will-o-the-wisps. Guided by the flashes, Ash tried to map the surface of the tower and find the machine. As near as he could tell, the roof was roughly circular, and maybe sixty yards across, leading him to wonder how the heavy stone and brick tower stood up to the winds with such a wide crown.

Don't fall, said Mewtwo. Ash couldn't judge the level of cynicism in the Psychic's words. Look to your left, nine o-clock.

Ash turned based on the Pokemon's suggestion and quickly caught sight of the silhouette sitting against the northernmost edge of the roof. How is it staying on the roof? Ash wondered, immediately thereafter noticing that all of the black mists in sight seemed to be both flowing from, and swirling back to the sofa-sized machine. "There you are," he grinned.

Ketchum, look out, the Psychic barked through Pikachu.

Ash turned on his heel, watching as the black mists swirled in around him like a closing fist, exciting the silver barrier which leapt to life and vibrated furiously, holding the mist at bay just long enough for Ash to jump away. Reaching to his belt and snatching up two pokeballs. Snapping open, the pokeballs loosed Arcanine and Charmeleon, both of whom dropped to the ground with heavy thuds, finding their footing immediately even in the treacherous conditions.

As the two Pokemon glanced at each other warily and then around and at Ash, two red flashes, each the size of a fist, persisted and hung in the air only a few yards in front of Ash's team. The two orbs split down the center, forming black feline pupils as the mist coalesced into the twisted shape of a Gengar, snarling furiously and glaring at the two fiery Pokemon standing between itself and Ash.

Ash felt the words before he heard them, a terrible grinding in his head. "Die Now," the ghost screamed as its rows of teeth snapped together.

"Firespin!" Ash ordered, slapping Arcanine on his side. The canine bolted forward as his mane exploded into flame, burning eyes locked on the ghost. Arcanine's paws lit the ground as he charged in a blurring orange circle and whipped his tail at Gengar, all before the ghost could react. A jet of flame twined out of the flying embers and snapped out for Gengar, lancing through the ghost's frame and curling back to pierce it a second time.

Gengar screamed and Ash clapped his hands together. "Not so tough when you're in a real fight, you son of a bitch!"

Acting on Ash's unspoken order, Arcanine leapt up in the air and flashed, throwing out a thick wave of embers that seemed to set the air all around on fire. The burning flecks tore into Gengar's frame and seemed to tear the Pokemon apart as Arcanine landed, off balance in the wind. Gengar vanished in a puff of purple mist and Ash, turning as he heard the howling gale die off behind him, raised his arms to depend against the onrushing red eyes.

Forming a cannonball in the mist, Gengar plowed into Ash, breaking into vapor against the vibrating shield, but throwing Ash to the ground. His glowing shield disappeared in a flash and he, with a quick glance away, saw Pikachu drop and pass out, the purple glow gone from his frame. "Goodbye Mewtwo," said Ash quickly, scrambling to his feet and bracing for a second attack as Gengar charged and Arcanine just then regained his balance. The trainer gawked as Charmeleon scuttled into position between Ash and the onrushing ghost. "Flamethrower!" he shouted.

Charmeleon, digging all four legs worth of claws into the roof opened its mouth and lit up the mist with a roaring jet of flame that ripped into the ghost and scattered it into a thin ether. "Arcanine!" Ash yelled, pointing first to the glowing dog and then to the silhouette of the machine as the ether began to reshape, "tear that damn thing apart!"

Curiosity flitted across Arcanine's face but the canine charged off towards the machine. Gengar pivoted in mid air, still half formed, to track Arcanine. The ghost snarled and rushed to intercept the Pokemon, but another searing jet of flame from Charmeleon forced it to roll defensively to the side and refocus on Ash. "Bring it!" Ash shouted, new life flickering in his eyes. "Flamethrower!"

A third blaze tore through the air towards Gengar, this one connecting with and tearing away the Pokemon's entire left flank. Gengar only growled and kept coming, dodging and weaving towards Ash and diving for him when it came within range. Ash rolled away and Gengar changed course, attacking Charmeleon and morphing into a choking cloud of gas. The scaled Pokemon snapped its jaw shut and closed the flaps over its nostrils as the gas tried to force itself into the Pokemon's lungs. "Slash it!" Ash ordered.

Charmeleon's back legs lashed out, raking the air with bony claws but doing little more than scattering the mist around Gengar's eyes. The wingless dragon's muzzle began to blacken in the presence of the toxic gas, the smell of which drove Ash to tears. "Arcanine hurry!" Ash bellowed to a very confused Arcanine. The canine's illuminated form lit up just enough of the machine to reveal what looked like little more than a solid metal shell with a few flickering lights set low in its frame.

"Fireblast!" Ash ordered.

Arcanine's ears perked up and, as if the word triggered a conditioned response, the canine's jaw stretched open and a roaring inferno bellowed from within his frame. A solid rocket of flame blew from between Arcanine's teeth and opened up into a colossal blazing wall that washed over the machine and instantly heated it to glowing. Still Gengar accosted Charmeleon, maneuvering to encompass it completely and drown it in toxic fumes. Even as a light on the side of the machine nearest Arcanine blew out and left a sparking hole, the ghost kept after Charmeleon, leaving Ash praying that the Pokemon wouldn't join its first trainer.

From the sidelines a yellow bolt of energy crackled through the air, snapping into a net of electrical current and wrapped around Charmeleon's frame. Instantly dissipating through the cloud and crackling across Charmeleon's frame, the bolt of energy drove Gengar back into its vaguely human form and away from the lizard. Gaze bolting to the side, Ash saw a sparking yellow Pikachu charging into the fray, fur needled out and current charging for the kill. "Thunder!" Ash shouted.

Hissing like a viper, Pikachu stopped in midair and exploded in yellow light. A searing bolt of white hot energy, boiling the air before it slashed into Gengar's form and broke into dozens of daggers of energy that ripped apart every inch of the ghost, shredding it like paper and flinging out bits of ash and charred debris. At that same instant, a second blast of raging fire from Arcanine washed over and wrapped around Team Rocket's machine. Enveloped in what looked like liquid fire, the machine warped in on itself, seemed to begin burning and adding to the titanic flames, before caving in and then exploding into shrapnel and sparking mechanisms melting in the flames.

Pikachu dropped to the ground and swooned from exertion, laying down and shaking its head. Ash collapsed and covered his ears, pressing as tightly as he could to block out the sudden roar of wind that ripped at him. If his eyes had been open, the influx of black mist would have blocked out all light as it raced in towards the remnants of the machine and gathered into a single cloud the size of a melon. Feeling the warmth of Arcanine at his side and Pikachu's tingling fur bump into him, Ash grabbed hold of Pikachu and wrapped his free arm around Arcanine's neck as the canine hunkered down.

Opening one eye, Ash saw Charmeleon's hazy shape clinging to the roof as hurricane force winds whipped across the roof, tearing up unsecured stone tiles, pulverizing them in the air, and adding them to the unimaginably dense orb on the norther edge. A wall of black rushed passed Ash and wrapped up the orb like a skin, before it all vanished in an instant, leaving Ash's ears ringing in the new silence. Ash looked up, stunned but sighting Charmeleon immediately. He could see the sky, he realized. There wasn't a cloud above him. Pokemon Tower, he saw, actually stood above the clouds that hid everything beneath the upper floors of the structure.

"Wow," he whispered.

SC

Clutching at a lamppost, both arms wrapped with crushing force around the iron structure, Brock held on for dear life in the tornadic winds. He felt that his body armor was barely more than padded cloth in the winds, whipping itself towards Pokemon Tower in the gale and threatening to take him with it. A screaming corpse, animated by the ghosts, slammed into Brock's leg, clawing at the Gym Leader's boot before continuing on to be sucked up into the air where it vanished.

Then in an instant it was over. The trainer's ears rang deafeningly as he stumbled int to the street, thanking the sense he'd had to return Onix and Golem to their pokeballs as soon as the first monster lost its footing in the winds and rocketed skyward. "Arg, Misty!" he shouted, twitching at how loud his voice seemed. "You out there?"

Misty stumbled out of an alley, knuckled white as she clutched Blastoise's pokeball. "What - the hell - was that?"

"Hey," said Brock, grinning and raising one finger to point as he walked through the thin white mist. "The cuts on your face are gone."

Misty gasped and raised one hand up to her cheeks, tracing the lines where the lesions had run, and broke out into a tearful laugh. The skin still bore rough reminders, faint scars where the wounds had marked her, but the lesions had closed and for Misty, that was more than enough. "Thank god," Misty whispered. She looked up at Brock. "Let's go find Ash..."

Brock nodded, turning towards the large tower a few blocks away. "I'll bet anything this is all him, and he was headed that way."

Misty set off, without another word towards the tower, Brock in tow. The otherworldly mists, permeating everything, gave off enough light for Misty to successfully navigate the streets, and she quickly found herself standing a stone's throw from the big arched doors, leading into the tower. In a scene she could bare believe, a single human figure flanked by two big Pokemon and one small creature, sat with his back against the pillar running up the wall by the door.

Scratching Pikachu behind the ears, Ash turned when Arcanine looked up and barked excitedly, then got to his feet. He stared in utter disbelief as Misty and Brock emerged from the haze. "Misty?" he muttered, mouth dropping open. "Misty!" he laughed, beaming and hopping down the steps three at a time. In an instant he closed the distance between them and snatched the stunned girl up in a bear hug, spinning her around and holding her close. Likewise, Misty's arms closed reflexively around Ash's shoulders and she buried her face in his neck, not sure whether she was laughing or crying.

"I thought," said Ash, setting Misty down but still holding her to him. "I mean when you fell... I was sure you were gone." His smile widened even more, even as a tear dripped down his face.

"Me too," she said back, "about you, that is, and me too but..." she went quiet and fell against him, wrapping her arms completely around him. "I was scared to death," she whispered into his chest.

"Me too," Ash answered. He stroked her hair with one hand and hugged Misty close with the other arm. "I thought I'd lost you," he said.

The two of them just stood there for a minute, completely oblivious to Brock and the Pokemon, all of whom stared at them for only a second before looking elsewhere, as if on cue. Misty breathed several deep sighs of relief, a heartbeat thumping in her ears and drowning out everything else. Is that mine or his? she wondered.

Ash took in a deep breath, feeling like every fiber of his body relaxed on command. I can't believe she's alright,he nearly cried at the thought. He leaned back and Misty looked up at him. "Hey," Ash said bringing one hand up and holding her face, touching her cheek with his thumb. "The cuts are gone," he said.

Misty could barely nod, her chest so tight she felt like she'd implode. "Yep," she said, a grin fighting to stay on her lips. "Left some nasty marks though."

Ash shook his head. "Hadn't noticed," he said, tracing one of the faint lines with his fingers. "Just as beautiful as ever."

Brock could only smile and fold his arms in front of his chest.

SC

Red light from numerous torches reflected off polished marble floors and walls as the old crone walked quickly down the hall. The heavy metal doors closed behind her. Youthful vivacity evident in her steps, the facade of her age seemed to crumble away from her, leaving behind a wizened, but healthy and strong old woman. She came to the end of the hall, passing beyond the reach of the torches' light into the shadows gathered in the back, and bowed slightly at the foot of the obsidian throne, on which sat a figure wreathed in smoke.

"Lavender is secure," she said as she stood up. "Though the condition of the remaining townsfolk can't be spoken for." She paused as the figure's almost luminescent eyes glinted red in the subdued but bloody light. "It was worse than any of the Rangers or Outriders had said, and you were right to break tradition and have one of us investigate personally," she went on. "Team Rocket had indeed developed a machine capable of drawing ghosts into our world, but the technology was farther along than we'd feared and the ghosts were stronger and more malicious than any I've ever encountered. If not for the help of some young trainers traveling that way, the ghosts might have overtaken the survivors before the device could be dealt with."

"But Team Rocket's device was destroyed?" questioned the figure on the throne, his full but quiet voice echoing off the walls.

"Of course, Lance," said the old woman. "Though to be honest, it was not I who destroyed it." She cleared her throat and went on when Lance remained silent. "You recall Professor Oak? I met his grandson and two of the boy's companions along the road, Brock of Pewter – that guard who used to patrol here if you'll remember, and Misty of Cerulean. The four of us entered Lavender after I'd briefed them on what needed to be done, but the mission went bad as soon as we arrived at the Bonegarden. We were attacked and separated. Ash Ketchum made it to Pokemon Tower, but when the ghosts attacked in force I lost him in the fray. I tried to ascend the tower but the ghosts kept ignoring Ketchum to attack me and," she grinned just a little. "By the time I reached the top where Team Rocket had set up their machine, Ketchum had already destroyed it so I took my Golbat and left before he saw me.

"It seems that without the machine to hold them here, the lesser ghosts causing the plague have vanished and the victims of the disease have recovered almost as if by miracle. If we get the chance we should find a way to repay Ketchum. He saved hundreds of lives... possibly thousands. With as fast as the ghosts were spreading they could have reached as far as Saffron before I would have been able to stop them. I would also advise taking action against Team Rocket, now that we know for sure that they're up to something more than money-laundering and petty murder."

Lance shifted on his black throne. "We'll see," he said.

"I'll return to my post then," said the woman, bowing again and walking away. As she reached the big doors they opened before she could lay a hand on them and another woman stepped inside. She was tall, with pale skin and icy blue eyes. Her long cerulean hair glistened in the red light and she stopped.

"Agatha," said the new arrival respectfully. "My cousin is here?"

"Waiting for you I'd imagine, Clair. It's good to see you again child."


AN: Sorry about the late update. Stuff happens, yeah?

Anyway, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Also, thanks to the usual beta, this would be a much shittier production without him.