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.

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The Game of Champions

Chapter 8

Character Assassination

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"...besiege Wei to rescue Zhao. Kill with a borrowed sword...make a sound in the east, then strike in the west...openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang...remove the firewood from under the pot...replace the beams with rotten timbers...chain strategems..." -strategems 2, 3, 6, 8, 19, 25 and 35 of the Dark Age tactician, Wang Jingze.

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The operation is scheduled to take no more than one hundred and twenty seconds.

Two blocks away from the target in a suburban neighborhood, in the darkness between two houses, the night convulses before expelling two operatives, clad in head to toe in dark fatigues, even their faces obscured by masks. Dark heavy-repeaters, tethered by straps, hang from their hands.

Both of their microphones cough once in their ears, and without further prompting, both of them release a single pokemon; an exploud and a banette.

The exploud's pipelike crest begins vibrating subtly, emitting a potent white-noise, muffling the sound of their movement.

The banette, formerly some sort of bear doll, unzips, beginning to leak thick, pungent smoke from every rip and tear in its abused, abandoned frame. The haze will smell different to any given person - garbage, spoilt milk. Whatever that particular victim finds gag-inducing. The two operatives bear it without comment.

The smoke's secondary function - and primary purpose - will be to shield them from the psychic sweepers who patrol this settlement, clouding out their individual signatures with it's unique brand of spitefulness and hate. Any extrasensory pokemon will likely mistake their presence for an argument taking place in a typical suburban marriage, or an overturned wastebin.

One of the operatives makes a curt hand signal, and they bolt forward, crossing the street in a dark blur, moving from cover to cover.

At ninety-three seconds, they hear a growlithe start barking, and freeze, taking cover behind the eaves of a porch. Listening for five seconds more, the exploud begins moving again, and the rest follow his suit, leaving the hound to grow dim in the distance. Delays like this had been accounted for.

At eighty seconds, they reach their target. All four halt, and the two humans survey the house to verify, the pre-op brief having long since been committed to memory.

Two stories. Recently finished construction on upper level. Low-income neighborhood. One of them slip on a pair of goggles, tabbing them to infrared. Two heat signatures - one in bed, human, one bustling around kitchen, humanoid.

There is no trace of fire in the fireplace. Good. That would have been a complication.

With a muted flash, they release another pokemon. A belabored weezing comes into being, whimpering with overstuffedness.

"Quiet." One of the operatives hisses - male - and the pokemon's whimpering dies down to muffled sniffling at the command of its master.

Following its orders given prior to their arrival, the weezing floats upwards slowly, churning its gases into a helium dominant mixture, until it arrives at the chimney. It churnes again, changing the helium into a heavier gas before dropping like a wet sack onto the openings.

One of the older shingles rattles and slides loose, clattering noisily down the roof until it lands soundlessly on the grass.

"I still say we should have gone with my plan and strapped it to it." The other operative, female this time, comments petulantly.

The male chuckles softly. "Be nice."

At twenty five seconds, the weezing has emptied itself of its payload, laying flat on the chimney like a deflated tire. The master rises from his prone position briefly to recall it with his pokeball.

The female operative scans the house again. The target in bed is motionless. The pokemon in the kitchen shows no deviation in behavior. But then, it has no olfactory sense.

"Call it in." She orders tersely.

The male operative smirks behind his mask, and thumbs his mic. He loves calling it in.

"Outlaw Actual, this is Outlaw-1, how copy?"

The mic hisses, a cool, female voice answering. "Good copy. Verify; motto, first line."

At nine seconds, he pouts slightly. "Not the whole thing?"

Silence is his answer.

"Fine. Prepare for trouble."

At seven seconds, an absol appears, twisting its way out of the darkness the same way that had brought them here. They recall the exploud and banette, and the female operative tosses a small object onto the back porch of the house.

At five seconds, she slaps the absol's hindquarters twice, and with a voided twist, they are gone.

Three seconds passes in silence. Then the sparkplug activates, igniting the massive quantity of gas that has been pumped into the house.

In a massive gout of flame and destruction, 10 Natochenny Lane in Pallet Town disappears.

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I could feel the beating of my own heart, so still was I, the subtle pounding sending my torso rocking to and fro. Stillness, and blood. That is what I remember of it.

I would tell what I remembered of the crowd, but my world had narrowed to three things - myself, my enemy and the field between us.

There was no crowd.

Misty's monster appeared in a jagged slash of lurid light, resolving into a fell star that rose above the battlefield.

"THERE'S NO MISTAKING IT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! THE POKEMON YOU ALL HOPED BEYOND HOPE TO SEE!"

A ruby light bathed the battlefield as the starmie flourished, spinning suspended on nothing in the air, psychic gem alight.

"THE LEGEND! THE KINGSBANE! AION, THE IMMORTAL!"

There was a considerable din after that. Aion's rise to fame was still a popular story, even several years later.

It would be easy to brush it off. The championship pokemon didn't look so impressive - it was neither large, nor bore any especially distinguishing marks or scars. Maroon purple and average sized, it had stopped stock still in midair.

But that would be the most dangerous thing to do. Aion's power wasn't in what was shown, but what was revealed in the course of fighting him.

No, best to remember, and take heed. All of this pokemon's titles had come from deeds, not words.

With a snap, I released Daikoku. Understandably, there was little fanfare after the act he had been forced to follow. I settled in to wait.

"BEGIN!"

Without a second's delay, the screen zoomed in onto Misty's face. She'd probably coordinated this on the side.

Then again, it wouldn't take a prophet to see this coming. Sending out Aion alone, with no other pokemon in her pool - it was a mirror of that infamous match that had brought a member of the Elite Four to ruin, so it was only good sense-

Misty smiled indulgently, anticipating her fans' desires, and held up her hands for silence, completely ignoring me.

I allowed it, giving no orders to my pokemon.

The stadium dropped to a hush.

Slowly, her smile twisted into a smirk, and she spoke the words that had won the position she owned, magnified ten thousand times by the speakers.

"After you, trainer."

The Gym exploded in noise. If you asked any Indigoan the count the most famous words spoken in living memory, Misty's quip would probably appear in the first ten, if not five answers.

It wasn't Giovanni the Tenth's resignation speech by any means, but it had its own memorability in absurdity.

After all, what pokebattler who cared about their victory would ever even consider giving the opponent the first blow?

I paid no mind to the slight. My eyes were riveted to the prize I sought. I barked an order, and Daikoku wobbled to the water's edge.

"AND WE'RE OFF! IT SEEMS that TRAINER RED seems more RECEPTIVE of THIS ONE of LEADER MISTY'S offers..."

The crowd laughed.

And why not? As far as they were concerned, they were watching an execution.

Roots dangling over the rim of Daikoku's bulb dipped into the water, with a surge, he began to soak up the water with almost desperate fervor, the roots actually bulging with the force of the absorption.

My bulbasaur's thirst wasn't a typical one. I'd dehydrated Daikoku over the course of the last few days, bringing him to dangerous but manageable levels. It would have been irresponsible if I hadn't already known there'd be an abundance of water in his next battle.

Misty, massive pixelated face overflowing with bemusement, snapped her fingers.

A thirty second timer appeared, superimposed over her face, much to the delight of the crowd. No explanation was needed. My eyes narrowed.

More than enough time.

I spoke a terse word, and Daikoku exploded.

Green vines erupted from beneath the pokemon's bulb, creeping limpet along the ground of his platform like an invisible carpet had been unfolded. Then, another layer joined it. And another. I smirked, catching a burst of the commentator, who had recognized his tactic.

"-is UTILIZING a TRAINING TECHNIQUE known as WATER DOPING-"

Hypergrowth.

By dehydrating Daikoku for several days, I'd forced his metabolism into overdrive, his internal ecosystem learning the hard way how to make do with less. Now, with so much water introduced to so efficient a system, his body was now growing at several times its normal rate.

Growing, and moving.

I didn't have to point. I just roared.

The mass of viney whips leapt up from the ground, seizing up Aion by his purple crests. The champion pokemon didn't respond or even try to dodge. The vines curled, crushing his tentacles in cruel, twisting grips, and with a mighty heave, spiked the legendary starmie into the ground.

The crowd gasped, but we weren't done. Again and again, Daikoku slammed the enemy pokemon into the platform. I glanced at the timer.

Twelve seconds.

With a short command, Daikoku racked Aion before him, vines pulling at every tentacle, like a child pulling on the legs of a spider.

Then, my newest addition braced himself, as great, rigid leaves unfolded from the underside of his bulb.

"A CLEVER RUSE REVEALED by TRAINER RED! The RAZOR LEAVES leave NO DOUBT! What a SHOCKING turn of EVENTS!"

I stared Misty down across the length, allowing the ramifications to sink in for a full moment.

My first trap was sprung. Since the beginning of the match, there'd never been a bulbasaur on the field.

Daikoku had been an ivysaur for two days.

Normally, the spots on his skin and coloration of his bulb would have given him away, but so newly turned, his bulb was still mostly green, and it was amazing what a little swamp scum and dirt could do to paint a hide.

Ruthlessly, and without pause to let her contemplate, the razor leaves were let loose, striking with no mercy.

The crowd screamed as their immortal star dropped to earth, divested of its limbs.

But I didn't let up. Daikoku pressed forward, vines crawling hungrily over the fallen form of Aion, the red glow of his jewel being swallowed under the mass of crushing tendrils.

I grit my teeth. These were the critical moments. In these last four seconds, if I could just...

Three. Two.

The timer flashed 00:00 once, and faded, leaving only Misty's face filling the titanic screen.

She arched one perfectly-waxed, tangerine eyebrow and grinned.

"My turn." She said. And then...

The Cerulean Gym exploded in crimson light.

The vines were blown back by massive kinetic force, as Aion rose, like a phoenix from the ashes, out of the entanglement Daikoku had trapped him in.

The starmie was a mess. Blood leaking from stumps, meat squeezed and insides scrambled from the binding.

But all that damage was unimportant. Because the crown was intact. The psychic ruby glowed, and I watched with wonder and horror as time was rewritten.

Muscle and sinew grew as if pulled from some hidden reserve. Skin stretched as if pulled from some endless, macabre bolt of cloth, pulling itself over the newly formed tentacles and meeting neatly at the ends. Ichor dripped and psychic energy resonated as the regenerating pokemon undid the brutal gauntlet of damage inflicted upon it in the course of seconds. And all the while, the red crown jewel burned with a cold, mad light.

And then, it was over. With a dismissive effort of will, the bodily fluids left on the outside of Aion's body were flicked away, and the champion rose again into the air.

He stopped in the exact position he had started, and waited for his master's commands. As if nothing had ever changed. As if nothing could ever change.

Unchanging. Eternal. That was Aion the Immortal.

Bathed in the terrible illumination of his jewel, I felt a worm of fear settle deep into my gut.

Aion's counterattack began.

His jewel pulsed once, and a ray of force, imperceptible except for a slight discoloration, lanced out, crushing the edges of Daikoku's web of vines into a viridian pulp.

I reacted immediately, ordering my ivysaur to do so as well. Move.

Daikoku lurched away, frantically fleeing across the sparse platforms of land the Gym provided.

The starmie pursued at a measured pace, strafing my pokemon with blasts of psychic energy. Each time a beam connected, Daikoku would be jerked to a halt, forced to tear himself free of the pinned vines, a process that couldn't be comfortable for the plant-pokemon.

A child pulling the wings off of flies. This was sadistic.

I forced my jumpy nerves down and swallowed, issuing an order.

With a twist, Daikoku angled his razor leaves sharply downwards, the net of vines being severed with a pained bray. At this point, all they had been doing was weigh him down.

Then, the ivysaur twisted, sending a salvo of razor leaves spinning up at the airborne starmie.

"OH! It LOOKS like RED'S DAIKOKU still has some FIGHT left in him-!"

Aion blasted all but one of the leaves out of the air with pinpoint accuracy. As the last razor sharp projectile approached, he juked slightly left and donwards, tentacles parting the minimum amount necessary for the leaf to pass through the gap.

"-for ALL THE GOOD it DOES HIM!"

The crowd gasped and laughed, and I pounded the console furiously with one fist.

This pokemon was toying with us.

Allowing the anger to show on my face, I schooled my inner thoughts to stillness. This was fine too. The longer he prolonged this, the better.

Time was our ally, not his.

I ordered Daikoku to continue his retreat. My pokemon obliged, bounding off around the edges of the stadium, fleeing the maroon star at his back.

Misty, who'd assumed a relaxed position at her console, chin on the heel of her palm, spoke a few words into her microphone.

"Who's up for a game?"

The crowd's cheering increased slightly as they attempted to respond. My eyes were only on Aion, who, at the sound of his trainer's voice, had suddenly zoomed across the coliseum back to her side, now floating just above her podium. Warily, I waited, unable to discern her intentions.

"I like to call it-"

Squinting one eye shut, she made a finger-pistol, which she carefully aimed at Daikoku, a speck to her across the field.

In response, Aion's jewel glowed brighter.

My eyes widened, and I snapped into my microphone.

"Water Gun! BANG!"

When she had begun speaking, a pillar of psychic light hit the water below her podium, funneling it upwards against the pull of gravity and crushing it into a high pressure ball which belied the volume contained within, a circular well floating suspended in midair beside her immortal champion. Now, at her command, Aion released it.

At Daikoku.

The water traveled faster and more compressed than it had any right to. Daikoku, forewarned by me, leapt frantically out of the way of the jet of ultradense water.

It hit the platform at his feet. When the froth cleared, a hole had been uprooted, an inch or two deep.

In concrete.

That...bitch.

Wordless with horror, I stared at Misty. She grinned cutely and 'recocked' her pistol.

Bitch!

"BANG! BANG BANG BANG-!"

Dodge! It was the only thing I could tell him. Daikoku, terrified as I was, scrambled into motion as Misty unleashed the element of her Gym in a deadly fashion.

As my pokemon struggled not to be drilled through by bolts of water, I ruthlessly squashed my nervousness. There had to be an edge to find here. Something to use.

I scrutinized Aion, blasting away in his role as Misty's 'Water Gun', searching for any sign of faltering or weakness. Nothing.

Still!? The pokemon, despite the damage it had taken and power it was flinging about, still looked as fresh as it had come in.

There were no advantages to be found on the field - it was a very simple design, land platforms and rings of both fresh and saltwater divided by platforms. I wouldn't be pulling my victory off the environment.

Which left Misty. Who was currently busy trying to blast my pokemon like a 8-bit enemy in an arcade game.

Misty was shooting my pokemon. Misty.

Like a trigger slamming, neurons fired and synapses connected. An idea. But Daikoku was out of the range I needed.

I gave an order.

Charge.

For an aching moment, he seemed to hesitate. A blast of water exploded at his feet.

All at once, I realized how absurd it sounded. Charge this clearly superior enemy? At the orders of this trainer, who he'd barely even known for a week?

One aching moment, where doubt overcame me, and I wondered if the fragile bonds I had formed with this ivysaur, now mine, had been stretched beyond their limits.

The doubt spread like a toxin. Should he trust me? Was I making the right decision? Had throwing Daikoku into this unfair battle placed him straight on the path to ruin, all in the name of my own ego?

I remembered the charizard's mocking epithet.

Conqueror.

Time rushed back as a wave. I blinked, and the moment was gone.

Looking, I felt my trepidation dissipate.

Daikoku hadn't hesitated - it'd merely taken a moment for him to adjust directions. Now he was charging, heading straight at Misty, narrowly ducking aqua lances that would do more than break skin.

The weakness had been mine, and mine alone. I almost chuckled and gave the whole act away. If there was a doubtful bone in the ivysaur's body I would be surprised.

All this time, and he'd been the calm one, the strong one, not me. From Green, I'd inherited a better pokemon than I deserved.

A painful squeal brought me out of my reverie. The audience gasped with ten thousand mouths.

Disaster had struck.

Daikoku was hit.

Misty had nailed him in the right foreleg - I knew instantly from the looks of it, high-tech cameras zoomed all the way into it, that Daikoku would be moving no further.

Misty had 'holstered' her pistol upright, clearing the 'smoking barrel' with a cutesy little blow. In that split-second, I gauged the distance remaining.

Too far? Just on the edge?

Irrelevant. I gave my order.

Daikoku, concentrating through the pain, collapsed his other foreleg, angling his bulb forward.

It wasn't a question. Timing and aim would have to be perfect or it wouldn't work, so it would be, because there was no other option.

On my command, Daikoku's bulb bulged and undulated once, ejecting a dark blur at high speeds. At first glance, the arc seemed far too low to hit Aion.

That first glance would be right. It was aimed at Misty, not him.

The dark blur separated and dispersed in midair, resolving into clarity - several dozen hard-shelled seedlets, half the size of a fist, heading straight for the leader of the Cerulean Gym.

A seed bomb. In the wild, it was used to redisperse seeded fruits into the wild. In terms of combat usage, getting hit by walnuts traveling nearly one hundred miles per hour wasn't debilitating, but certainly wasn't easily shrugged off.

But in this setting, and this arena, I'd found it's third usage.

The seeds, now a wide net in the air, struck the psychic barrier in front of Misty's podium almost as one. Each one struck and fell nearly straight down, robbed of their momentum by the barrier - a measure put in to avoid perfect ricochet shots that wouldn't be present in nature.

Each seed's momentum was translated into heat, which dispersed itself as a small multicolored ripple, over roughly a second.

Dozens of seeds, all at the same time. Dozens of multicolored ripples, all over the front of Misty's podium.

For about a second and a half - the extra half accounting for the seeds that had moved slightly faster or slower in the cluster bomb - Misty was blind in her own Gym.

More than enough time for the razor leaves sent behind it to hit. The immortal starmie jerked, concentration broken as it was riddled with the sharp, rigid fauna, and for the second time, like a shot Flying-Type, Aion was sent plummeting to earth.

The crowd reacted in shock, gasps and disbelief. Most of them had expected him to simply dodge again, or blast them out of the air like he had before.

I suppressed a knowing smile.

It'd started when I noticed Aion's blasts of water going to where Misty pointed with perfect accuracy; unerring, for a creature at an entirely different angle and elevation.

That's when I realized what I had. That Misty's 'Water Gun' was truly that - hers. Aion had psychically slaved his visual senses to Misty's, so that the Gym Leader would be aiming with only her own eyes.

Meaning that blindness for one, meant blindness for both.

Aion impacted the ground with a wet thud, the well he had been using for the Water Gun falling down on top of him in a splatter of liquids.

"A SURPRISE BLOW by TRAINER RED! He's certainly HANGING ON longer than-"

Misty, view now cleared, saw this with perfect clarity. I saw her face ripple with surprise briefly, before her face twisted through anger into coolness. She made a sharp gesture, and Aion's jewel flared to life.

The meaning was clear. The time for games was over.

With mounting dread, I watch Aion rise swiftly back into the air, razor leaves plucking themselves out of his skin.

Can truly nothing-?

And then, at long last, my second trap was sprung, as Aion jerked abruptly in his ascent, spasming slightly

It was a slight motion, but I recognized it all the same, having searched desperately for it since the near beginning of the match.

I took out Daikoku's pokeball and manipulated my console.

"TRAINER RED has signaled a RECALL!"

Triggering the ball's return mechanism, the stadium barrier opened up slightly as I called my ivysaur back. Good work. I bid him wordlessly.

He'd played his part to perfection.

"It seems...it SEEMS as though SOMETHING is WRONG with AION!"

The announcer had noticed it too, now. Aion was twitching in midair, unable to stop the involuntary motions of his body.

Or rather, what was inside his body.

I gave no quarter. Daikoku came back, and I sent out my ace.

"TRAINER RED has sent out his PIKACHU!"

I banged the console twice, and my starter leapt up and out into the stadium. There was a slightly upsurge in stadium volume. Pikachu was the member of my team of any renown, though that was some renown at that. They expected a show.

I'd give them a show.

Pikachu landed, on the outermost ring, and lit up like a yellow flash, cheeks crackling with errant light. He was fully topped off and raring to go.

I looked across the way to Misty, who was scowling unattractively and muttering nonstop into what was no doubt a feed to her strategists.

I tabbed my mic, and Pikachu fired, letting off a test shot.

Aion's gem flared, and the bolt of electricity splashed and dissipated against a translucent barrier that bubbled outwards from the starmie's crown. It hung in place - Misty would get to the bottom of her star pokemon's dysfunction.

A ghoulish smirk tugged at my lips. That was fine.

At this point, that kind of expenditure of energy would only accelerate it.

It didn't take long for the answer to present itself.

Bloodily.

Amidst shrieks of disgust and shock, the immortal's skin bulged and tore open as hard, shiny growths forced their way out of its body in several places, each pulsating rhythmically as they took their parasitic penance of the starmie's power.

It was a grotesque sight. Each wound widened as the invaders grew slightly larger, and Aion shook every time they pulsed. Even the announcer, no doubt a veteran of the sport, seemed hesitant.

"THOSE look like...LEECH SEEDS?"

Leech seeds.

Planted in that very first thirty seconds that Daikoku had struck, right on Aion's crown. Being fed every second he invoked his psychic power - which was constantly, with him levitating - and gorged even more as he used his gem's power to regenerate and attack.

How much extra had it cost for each psybeam? For each regeneration? With how many seeds had been planted...twice as much? More?

I smirked and leaned forward on the console, feeling something give briefly, staring across at my enemy.

Maybe you should be more careful about who you let inside you.

The volume of the stadium skyrocketed suddenly, fans and audience hooting and hollering, and I blinked, unsure of of the cause - nothing had changed on the field. Then I looked down and found my thumb pressing a switch labeled TRAINER MIC/STADIUM MIC firmly onto the STADIUM MIC side.

Then I realized I had spoken out loud. I winced and looked up, seeing Misty's face across the giant screen, features now tight with fury. Gingerly, I flipped my mic switch back.

Well, there went diplomacy.

"Aion." Her voice echoed icily. "Re-rack."

And Aion exploded in meaty chunks.

An even greater uproar arose at that, but I saw past it.

The starmie's crest remained floating, along with the tatters of its body. It had simultaneously divested itself of every leech seed infecting, by removing the organic components the seeds had grown their roots into, smashing its body with its own psionics to make a new start. Such a method would likely even work for poisons.

Well, most poisons.

Now Aion's body was regenerating once more, reforming. All the while, his jewel was burning red.

But the ruby light no longer filled me with dread. Now, it held my hopes. As out of nearly nothing, Aion came again, I watched...and watched...

...and watched it flicker, once.

So fast, it might have never happened.

My heart leapt, I keyed my mic twice, and Pikachu attacked.

In a blur of gold he dashed forward. Aion, fully reformed, shattered his shield, crown jewel glowing.

The fight was more even now, despite Misty's change in attitude.

Aion's blasts were faster now, but his opponent was faster too. Human eyes couldn't perceive as well the spectrum of light psychic attacks typically operated on, but Pikachu's eyes had no problem, as he juked and dodged, his way through the maze of attacks the immortal built...

...and returned fire, letting loose a salvo of lightning bolts the starmie was forced to respond to, raising his shield once more. My pokemon wasn't tossing leaves anymore. There'd be no artful dodging of thunder.

It was a slugfest, the kind the masses loved. Especially the announcer.

"-Pikachu DODGES RIGHT, ROLLS UNDER AND BLASTS BACK! One bolt INTERCEPTS A PSYBEAM! AION just CAN'T PIN THIS RAT DOWN!" I chuckled, despite the situation. "MAKE NO MISTAKE, ladies and gentlemen - THIS CHALLENGER is NOT GOING DOWN WITHOUT - what's this?"

I focused my attention on the field, Aion had projected a pillar into the water-

I hit my mic. Dodge.

Instantly, Pikachu put on a burst of speed. A second later, a massive geyser of water erupted in the place he had been.

Sly. He's manipulating the water from beneath. Pikachu would have to watch his feet, and I told him so.

But my attention wasn't focused fully on my own pokemon. My gaze was riveted to Aion's jewel.

Give me another one. Just a little one. They should be coming faster now.

Flicker.

I smiled wolfishly, and keyed my mic.

Obliging, Pikachu redoubled his attack.

"AION is OPENING UP THE ICEBOX! THIS is a BRUTAL-"

With his psychic powers, Aion pulled the heat from his well of water, instantly crystallizing it into shards nearly as long as my starter at Pikachu. They exploded as they hit the platform around him, peppering him with fragments.

In response, Pikachu snarled, before letting off a bolt so mighty it splashed over Aion's barrier and into the stadium barrier itself.

"THIS PIKACHU does NOT LIKE THE COLD!"

Flicker.

Aion forced the surf onto the platforms and began blasting them with heat-stealing icebeams, turning everywhere he touched into a slick surface. In my mind, I noted that given enough time, he'd turn the entire landmass of the coliseum into difficult terrain.

The starmie formed another flurry of icicles-

-and Pikachu turned his trick back on him, blasting them into shards before he could launch them.

"-a TASTE of HIS OWN MEDICINE-"

Flicker. Flicker.

There was no mistaking it. Now, all that was needed was...

A feint. I keyed my mic three times.

Pikachu stopped running, and let loose the storm.

A barrage of thunderbolts assaulted the starmie, forcing him to bring up his shield to avoid getting blasted. Unlike the shots traded before, these were one after another, sometimes two or three at a time.

"-looks like PIKACHU is GOING ALL OUT!"

Pikachu continued peppering his opponent with bolts as I kept my eyes on the prize.

Flicker. Flicker. Flicker.

That burning light, telling me to seize victory.

I keyed my mic, four times.

Pikachu's bolts started slowing. Getting weaker. And-

"-this RAT is OUT OF JUICE!"

-then there were no more bolts.

Aion's retaliation was swift. All his previous attacks began forming at once - the waters of the stadium began churning, ice formed in the air, his gem blazed brighter and...

...blinked.

There was no missing it, even more the most oblivious of observers. The realization was slow, but spread like wildfire as the immortal star's light began blinking in steady flashes.

Anyone who'd read up on starmies - which was now likely more than half the coliseums on their phones - knew what the blinked. It was just too unbelievable to say out loud.

"It-...IT SEEMS as though AION the IMMORTAL-"

Unless, of course, it was your job.

"-is...near THE END OF HIS ROPE!?" The last part was nearly yelled despite the sound equipment, a result of the announcer's disbelief.

One couldn't blame him. No one had ever seen Aion, whose well of psychic power had destroyed the bell curve for his species, go into his biological distress stage. Mainly, because none had ever managed to push him that far. Even if all that was left of him was his crest alone he'd managed to regenerate over and over with no sign of tiring.

Until now. The dying light did not lie.

Unlike me. I keyed my mic three times.

In a cacophony of screeching light, Pikachu's cheeks lit up once more as he began charging power for his attack. As his lightning began building, the golden light of my starter began overtaking Aion's flashing red that had dominated the Gym for so long, as the starmie fell back to Misty's side of the arena.

Feeling churlish, I flicked to STADIUM MIC.

This crowd wanted to see all out?

The audience roared their agreement-

-and were slowly drowned out. By a horn.

I looked up at the screens, and the two words written across them.

On her screen, FORFEIT.

On my screen, VICTORY.

I closed my eyes and let the cheering roll over me. Victory indeed.

(=0=)

She had to have her say, of course.

Misty met me at the intersection of the press exits. The series of tunnels snaked underground throughout the entire stadium complex, letting out at dozens of different points; an effort to at least reduce the media exposure the trainer received if they so wished, as well as a secure way from coliseum to coliseum in the case of emergency or such.

In the forms I'd filled out prior to the match, I'd expressed a desire to have the badge express mailed to my lodgings rather than receive it by hand. But I suppose Misty was Gym Leader and did what she wanted.

Including ignoring the purpose of the tunnels, I noted, judging from the photographers. Zipping up my red pokebattling shirt I made a pocket, which Pikachu readily crawled into to escape the flashbulbs.

Misty was beaming beauteously as she took my hand and shook it, pressing the Cascade Badge into the palm of my hand.

"Great work!" She enthused brightly. "I don't know what had Aion feeling so under the weather, but it was good luck for you, I guess!"

I said nothing in response, smirking as I allowed the handshake to peter on into awkwardness. Misty's facial expression, too well-trained to let anything slip in front of the paparazzi, didn't change, but I did feel her flounder for a moment.

"...Good job!" She finished lamely, pulling me in.

I let her. What could she do now?

I'm sure it looked like a pat on the back in the news, but a lot can be said in a few pats. Or rather, hissed in one's ear.

"I do know you just made an enemy of the biggest bitch in Kanto."

I'm sure her expression didn't even change as she said it. The edges of my newly won badge bit into my palm as she squeezed it painfully tight.

"Count the days, Red. The acceptance letter to my shit list will arrive in the mail sooner than you can believe."

The biggest bitch in Kanto? Maybe if we were only counting everywhere north of Saffron and east of Celadon. Misty was just a particular loud magikarp, who thought herself a gyrados because she'd managed to swim upstream a ways.

As for the rest, that threat had been old when the Ainu Clan tried it.

I told her as much, before we separated. Feeling a bit ostentatious, I curled the inside of my shirt outwards for the cameras as I pinned the Cascade Badge on, right next to the Boulder Badge I had won less than a month prior.

One of the cameramen almost jostled her as they surged past her to capture the moment. I actually laughed out loud as I made my way down the tunnel in a random direction.

I pulled out my pokedex and emailed Blue.

Two down.

(=0=)

Misty wasn't kidding about her ire being known sooner than later.

I didn't know much about the tunnels other than their purpose, but I did know that it took more than a lucky guess for every major news outlet in Cerulean to congregate at the same exit.

I wondered for a moment if there was a rule against tipping off the press, before irritably discarding the notion. Misty would never get hit for this.

Bitch.

The lights and microphones surged forward as soon as I stepped into the light, and the world around me devolved into a chaotic, writhing horde of blazers and shouted questions.

"-first in the-!"

-nection to Gary O-!?"

"-chu originated fr-!?"

"-where do you-!?"

With a start, I realized I hadn't arranged to transportation afterwards. For a horrid moment, I was treated to a waking nightmare of myself having to walk all the way back to my room at the motel on the other side of town, every step hounded by a pack of houndours carrying microphones in their teeth.

Salvation came in the form of a loud voice, whose familiarity pierced through the clamorous haze of twenty-four hour journalism.

"Yo, champ-in-the-making! Need a lift?"

It was Richie, the reporter from Viridian and Pewter. Another time, I might have questioned what he was doing here - first, so conveniently, and second, so far away from his outlet headquarters -

-but when drowning, one seizes upon all floatation, without hesitation.

It was a difficult slog to push my way through the mass of flesh and curiosity, but eventually I managed to make it to Richie's van and slam the door closed.

The stubbled reporter twisted around in his seat, grinning. I noticed his partner, fiddling around with a pad in his lap. "Where ya staying, kid?"

After about a minute of driving, he spoke up again.

"Do you mind if we go on the record? Can't say it wasn't what I was here for, but I can promise I've got better questions than those jackals."

Having had a minute to calm down, I suppressed a smile. I should have known. I had thought he was after Blue's story, though.

Richie grimaced. "Nothing for it. Oak's got people, now - managed to get some old money clan behind him. Now, I write anything he doesn't like, my ass is grass. I'll tell my boss to pet a sandslash any day of the week, but I don't mess with Imperial comm directors. Mean as sneasels and twice as bloodthirsty."

I deliberated a moment, running my fingers slowly through Pikachu's fur - I'd let him out in the back seat, where we were now curled up.

Ultimately, I couldn't see the harm. Richie had done me a favor, and it couldn't hurt to control speculation at least a little bit. It went a long way that he'd been honest and polite about it.

"All right...first question. And the only really important one, I think."

Richie kept his eyes on the road as he spoke. I noticed his partner attaching a keyboard to his pad, fingers poised to type.

"During the Elite Four match which made him famous, Aion must have regenerated from fucking scratch a dozen times, and if you uprooted the entire Saffron Gym and rolled it down a hill like a golem, you'd have less psionics in motion than he threw in that famous match - therefore, you are higher than the fucking Rayquaza if you think I'm gonna believe you tired out Aion the Immortal with a slapfight and a few leech seeds. How did you really beat Aion?"

Like a bidoof's dam bursting, all of the emotions I had been holding in during the match came rushing out.

The third trap.

I began to laugh. The uncertainty, the dread at Daikoku's injury, the trepidation waiting for my first two traps to take effect, that had been real, certainly. But the rest?

All of it, an act. I'd won that match in the first thirty seconds.

To understand how I won, it was first necessary to discard all notions of 'immortality'. Aion could heal, yes, but others could do that.

What made him different was that he could do it over and over again, while duking it out on a championship level, with no sign of stress. The common belief which granted him his moniker was that there was no way of stopping him bar destroying his crown jewel, since you weren't going to win a test of endurance.

So I looked into that. It wasn't impossible, certainly - starmie crests weren't indestructible by any means. So I looked for archived matches where it had sustained damage.

Only, there weren't any. Whenever a match came up with any pokemon who had the potential - Titan-classes, heavy psychics and the such, Misty simply used others, saving her flagship pokemon for shock and awe matches (which was, additionally, how I'd known for almost certain who'd she'd sent to 'shame' me).

In other words, the list of Aion's weaknesses was written in the matches Misty kept him out of. And in that unwritten list I found another answer, one I hadn't considered despite it slapping me in the face.

Poison. Specifically, the Fuschian-strain complex poketoxin Oda's Ire. It required Violet-level clearance to purchase, but then, Professor Oak had issued me Indigo-level, which was two levels above that, an advantage I had already decided to exploit.

Poketoxins weren't like simple poisons. Toxic and extremely adaptive, they invaded the body like a living thing, turning it against itself, using the enemy's own power against it. The longer it remained, the more deadly it got.

It was a testament to Aion's monstrosity that he'd gone more than two minutes without a single ill effect, and would, if I had to bet, survive with no last adversity. The only constitution I could compare his to were snorlaxes, which in this case was not hyperbole.

Richie, who'd been silently listening the entire time. "You're telling me your ivysaur who just evolved can already digest and secrete Fuschian poketoxin feed?"

I was silent for a moment.

Unlike the feeding regiment for other attacks, poison feed was dangerous, and poketoxins doubly so - if your pokemon's constitution was of insufficient caliber, it would become infected, sicken and shortly thereafter die. In truth, I had held the same concerns Richie did. It was another reason I'd gone with the water doping strategy - the explosion in his metabolism had rushed the gang-loaded toxin through his system and into his leech seeds, eliminating the danger at least for that dosage. I couldn't be sure Daikoku could handle it under normal conditions.

But Richie didn't need to know that. And I had seen first-hand today the power a reputation could wield, for better and for worse.

So I said yes. It was theoretically possible, after all. Richie's partner whistled briefly, but said nothing more on the subject.

"All right, next question. Where you headed next, kid?"

I snorted. Not a chance. I'd had enough of a problem being recognized in this city. Richie shrugged and dropped it, and my respect for him went up several notches.

"Future goals?"

The Championships. That was vague enough, and left out the detail that I intended to be at this year's, which certainly would have kicked up more fuss than I already had.

The pokebattling reporter scratched his head while his partner typed. We'd pulled into my motel parking lot a while ago, but I'd remained in the van out of courtesy.

"Lastly, any comments to make of your own? I'd normally ask more questions, but this poketoxin thing is already gonna blow what everyone else has got out of the water - Misty's people already put out a press release saying she forfeited out of respect for your determination and drive, so I've got plenty of waves to make. I just wondered if you wanted to get anything across."

I thought about it. Did I really want to devolve to her level?

Then I decided that yes, since she had shot my pokemon in the leg and poisoned an entire generation of trainers with delusions of competency, I really wouldn't mind adding my own handful of mud to the slinging contest while the slinging was good.

I told Richie I was looking forward to my next Gym battle, where I would be facing my second real Gym Leader.

Richie cackled, and his partner snorted, adding a few lines to his typing.

"That's gonna fucking sting in the morning, Red. We'll make a petty celebrity of you yet." Rummaging around in his pockets, the reporter found a piece of paper and quickly scribbled onto it, before handing it to me as I stepped out of their van.

It read jrgai-viridianchronicle . pkn

"That's my email. I'd ask for yours, but I figured you wouldn't gimme it, you seem like a private guy." And he'd be right. "Message me if you've got something interesting to share, wouldja?"

I nodded my understanding, and watched as the two rebel reporters drove off around the corner.

(=0=)

Almost as soon as I stepped inside my room, my Pokedex dinged. It was an instant message from Blue, which rapidly became many.

cloysterexploder12: you fukken show off prick

cloysterexploder12: how even

cloysterexploder12: wait fuk u i got it

cloysterexploder12: toxic leech seeds? im rite, arent i

cloysterexploder12: red?

cloysterexploder12: reeeeeeeeeeeeeeed

I checked the web briefly. No, Richie's article wasn't out yet. Plenty of amateur videos of the fight were, though, taken illegally on PEDs and phones.

From just that, Blue had already intuited my trick.

It was scary but exhilarating, seeing his mind in motion. Not that this time was particularly difficult - there was only a certain number of things within the capabilities of an ivysaur, and a certain number of things which might affect Aion. It spoke volumes that he knew the entirety of both lists and was able to narrow the answer down in seconds.

I'd never be able to use this trick against Blue, now that he'd seen it. Not that it was terribly applicable in other circumstances, of course.

In a good mood, I confirmed his suspicions.

cloysterexploder12: haha shiiieeeeeet

cloysterexploder12: wanna see something cool

cloysterexploder12: shibbywhatloser

Warily, I regarded his link. Last time he'd sent me a picture, it had been a dick.

cloysterexploder12: not a dick this time

cloysterexploder12: sware on ur mum

Well, if he's that serious. I thought sarcastically, and clicked it.

It was a thankfully normal picture this time - Blue and the instantly recognizable Bugsy, the leader of the Gym in Azalea. Blue had Bugsy in a headlock, and was giving the younger man what I knew from experience to a ferocious noogie.

Off to the side, a slightly scandalized looking League official stood, presenting the Hive Badge in a velvet case.

cloysterexploder12: KA CHOW

cloysterexploder12: cute kid, but bug-types and ninetales don't mix

cloysterexploder12: race you to vermillion bitch

I chuckled ruefully. I would have taken him up on his offer, but I had searched the shuttle times at the Cerulean transit authority, there weren't any shuttles leaving for Saffron for a while. All forms of public transportation were currently enlisted in bringing water and supplies to the great fortress city, whose hydroelectric plant and resorvoir had been destroyed and consumed by the snorlax Themis, who had awoken nearby from her impenetrable slumber to carve a swath of destruction through the outermost boroughs of Saffron and back out into the wild. Speculation had her somewhere between Lavender and Fuschia, now.

With the city running on reserve power and water having constantly to be brought in by hand in packages and tanks, it'd be two weeks for a shuttle to Saffron, and another two weeks to catch one out of there.

Moreover, the crisis of water and power had drawn a shortage of manpower, as well. With such a massive increase in transit on the roads, they'd had muster many times as many rangers to protect the convoys and highways from pokemon angered by the massive upsurge in noise and pollution, leaving none to patrol the walking Routes that people might have otherwise used to travel. And so, the Routes leading to and from Saffron had been closed down.

Saffron City was officially cut off from the Indigo League. And all because of the actions of one pokemon, albeit one of a species recognized more as natural disasters than living beings.

It was easy to forget how fragile our society still was, despite the hundreds of years we'd survived.

With regret, I informed Blue that I would have to turn him down, and why.

That shut him up. For about an hour. Getting out of the shower with a toothbrush my mouth, I found a email waiting in my inbox, which I opened.

Attached was a large file, which didn't make sense to me at first. It was all news clippings and what seemed to be schematics - maps and computer scanned hand drawings of interlocking tunnels and curving rail lines. The news clippings ran a timeline, of when the lead engineer had first suggested the building of a massive subway system, which would have made Saffron the travel hub of the entire Kanto region, all the way to the project's failure due to massive diglet interference. Some of the clippings were nearly one hundred years old.

cloysterexploder12: what would you say if I could get you to Vermillion City and lose the press all at once

cloysterexploder12: how much do you know about the Underground?

And that, if you were wondering, is the secret of how I bypassed the great Saffron Quarantine. Subways. It's how I made it later in my journey from Lavender Town to Celadon City and back, without a single soul knowing how. Finally, it's how I beat Blue, with all his resources, to Vermillion City on nothing but my own two feet.

Vermillion City. I remember it with melancholy. The port of exquisite sunsets, the seat of naval power in Kanto, and the home of the Vermillion Gym.

The place I came to know the terrible power of my own ambition, and nearly died because of it. The place I found and enlisted the third member of my championship team. The place I met one of the wisest creatures I ever knew, and watched him die.

And, perhaps most or least importantly, the place where I first met you.

Lt. Surge.

(=0=)

Kanto Pokemon Encyclopedic Index Entry #121 (J. # 170): Starmie

Basic Characteristic: Water-type, Psychic-type, second form evolution of staryu. Blue-to-purple coloration (spectrum dependent on salinity of habitat), echinoderm, large ruby centerpiece set in gold. Avg. height 3'07", avg. weight 176.4 lbs (with all arms fully intact).

Description: A private, mysterious pokemon, rarely ever seen outside the deep sea. Subsists on a diet of shellder and bacteria gleaned from the water, this pokemon spends a great deal of time draining mineral reefs and using them to refine their gem and crest, which increase the amount of psychic power it can retain. Unlike other Psychic-types, starmie prefer to communicate with each other via radio frequency and light transmission, believing it to be a more private and civilized means of discourse. Listening in on these conversations using transceivers reveals a very intelligent species of pokemon capable of complex thoughts, though their gem-language has yet to be translated.

Nickname(s): The Mysterious Pokemon, trench-novas, spinnerblinks, coldstars.

"...And I'm tellin' yeh, you can see'em at night. Those damned spinnerblinks, flashin' their signals up int' the sky, speakin' wit' the cosmos. Every single one of 'em, calling home, right down on our 'eads..."

(=0=)

Heavy-repeaters: Powerful weapons which propel a heavy, spade-headed dart at extreme speeds. Currently, the most deadly known brand of personal ranged weapon on the open market.

Aion the Immortal: A name won by his solo defeat of the General , until then brand-name of the Indigoan armed forces and Electric-type master of the Elite Four. Facing each of the General's pokemon, Aion allowed them each to expend their electric charge upon his body before regenerating and taking them apart. Facing massive criticism and humiliation, the normally genial man resigned his seat and fled Indigo, accepting a position as a gym leader in Hoenn, thereby cementing Aion's place in infamy. Aion's other name, Kingsbane, comes from the Imperial translation of Elite Four as 'Four Heavenly Kings'.

Snorlaxes: To this date, no snorlax has ever met death or capture at human hands. Their immune systems are so powerful that they are actually capable of fighting off conventional pokeballs, and any damage dealt is healed rapidly when they slip into their regenerative comas.

Themis: Less than thirty snorlaxes exist within range of human civilization, and are all tracked as part of a co-regional effort to protect human settlements. This small group has been nicknamed the Titanomachy, and each snorlax is given a nickname accordingly from the same legend.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Told ya I'd be back.