The endless green forests, rocky mountains, and occasional dots of civilization passed beneath Ash and Plume in a blur. He fiddled with his goggles for a moment as Plume's mighty wings flapped once again, propelling them to greater and greater speeds. She shrieked her passing to the world, taking pleasure in her challenge going unanswered. Ash grinned and reached forward to stroke the lustrous feathers of her neck. Plume turned to briefly look at him, eyes alit with joy at rushing through the sky with him.

He grinned madly. "You can go faster, you know. I can handle it."

A mile or two passed below as Plume processed that, and Ash couldn't help but loose a wild scream as she blasted faster and faster into the sky - double, no triple the speed they'd gone before. They were somewhere over Celadon's territory now - they'd probably be able to see the farthest reaches of the vast metropolis soon as they skirted the outer edges. It was bad form to fly directly over cities if you were just passing through.

Part of Ash wanted to stop by and perhaps see Chief Jenny. It had been a while since he'd checked in, and he'd be grateful to her for the rest of his life for ensuring Infernus would be a part of his team. She'd changed both their lives with that one gesture. Besides, she hadn't seemed to mind too much before when she was drowning in Team Rocket problems. Compared to the nightmare of the last year this was probably a vacation for her.

For now, Lavender Town sucked him in. Just the thought left Ash's hands trembling and his stomach lurching...although most of that was also from Plume diving to scare a flock of Spearow soaring a few thousand feet below. She shrieked again, scattering the flock in every direction, and swept back up into the sky with a few beats of her powerful wings. Soon enough they'd regained their speed and within a few minutes watched as Celadon's endless suburbs bled into their vision.

He watched the neighborhoods, markets, and businesses pass beneath in a haze. He was too lost in thought to pay much attention, consumed by light questions he wasn't sure to answer. The most evident was the realization that he still had no clue where to find Agatha. Lance had told him to follow his gut, but would that really help in a town of Lavender's size?

Although Lavender Town was one of the smaller cities in Kanto, it was still large enough to make finding an individual difficult. It went without saying that Agatha, one of its natives, would probably be even harder to find. Would the townsfolk point him in the right direction? He suspected Agatha would vanish like the ghosts she trained if she didn't want to be found.

In that case, he just had to hope that Agatha wanted him to find her. She'd invited him, after all, but Ash had a sneaking suspicion she'd get some petty enjoyment out of making Ash run around town all day…

He absentmindedly stroked Plume's feathers again as Celadon passed behind them. They'd be in Lavender soon, perhaps an hour or hour and a half. They would arrive an hour or so before noon. Ash just hoped he could hunt Agatha down quickly.

All of Kanto knew not to wander Lavender when night fell.

XX

Lavender, like many of the old cities, held its own distinctive style. It was evident even from a great height as Plume circled lazily above Lavender, descending slowly and easily so Ash could take a moment to assess the city. Short, rocky mountains crowded around the city and cast it in perpetual shadow. Even in the late morning the sun barely managed to shine down on the old town that made up Lavender Town's core, although the modern elements that had slowly crept outside the oldtown were bathed by the brilliant rays of the sun.

Most buildings were one or two stories at most and kept low to the ground. The one exception jutted dominantly into the sky, raised on a stone support that elevated the bizarre structure high above the rest of the city. It was built almost like a skinny pyramid, with each of its seven stories slightly smaller around than the last. At its top rested a small dome with a sharp point rising from its tip. When he looked at the dome his stomach lurched, and he quickly glanced down to the lower levels.

Ash knew immediately what the inky black structure, dotted with glass windows at odd intervals, was: the Lavender Tower. Many called it the Pokemon Tower nowadays, although the old histories he'd read stuck to the traditional name for it and he'd internalized it as such.

It sent a chill down his spine, mesmerizing him. After a few moments he looked away, though it took more effort than he could have imagined. His eyes just couldn't seem to slip away from the bizarre structure. Plume cooed softly at him, turning her head to make sure he was okay, but he reassured her with a quick word.

To be honest, Ash was shocked by how new Lavender Town appeared, at least outside the district around the tower. He'd always heard of it as a sleepy frontier tow that been mostly left behind by the world. It served primarily as a hub for those seeking ghost-type specialists or going off into the wild frontier of northeastern Kanto or the rugged Fuschia territory. Few businesses and little industry made their home here, although it supported several large port cities to the south.

At the core of Lavender was the Lavender Tower, a sacred place to the people of Lavender. In the old days it had been used for countless rituals and still acted as a resting place for countless pokemon all over Kanto. It was said the old lords of Kanto would bring their pokemon here, hoping they would find a peaceful rest in this secluded town away from the world.

Around it lay the old town, former home of the mystics and Lavender Lord. Ash could spy a few buildings in ancient style, appearing more like old temples than the estates of lords or clan compounds, crowded around the Lavender Tower. They remained at a respectful distance, but he couldn't resist the urge to steal greedy glances at them from above. He'd have to stop by and check that area out once he'd landed.

The rest of the city was relatively new, historically speaking. They were built in Lavender's familiar style - simple wooden structures built low to the ground, with roofs made of deep purple tiles - and organized into an efficient grid system that made it easy to identify important points such as markets and Pokemon Centers.

It didn't much appear like an ancient city untouched by time - too much efficiency, too intentional. With the exception of the old town, Lavender was painstakingly planned.

And Ash knew the exact reason for it thanks to his recent studies: the Secession of 827. A failed attempt at rebellion by the Lords of central Kanto in an attempt to establish their own nation and reclaim their fading power. He hadn't had the time to study the details yet, but he knew exactly how it ended: Celadon razed, then Saffron, and eventually the full might of the Indigo League was brought to bear on Lavender.

The Lavender Lord and his rebellious nobles were executed and much of Lavender burnt to the ground in the desperate battle. All save the old town...it had refused to burn. The hottest flames of Charizard, Rapidash, and Arcanine washed uselessly off its ancient buildings, the stones drinking up the fire like a dying man desperate for water. When the dragonfire of the Wataru failed to scorch it as well, the Indigo League wisely decided to not press the issue and left it alone.

Ash blinked as Plume landed heavily in front of the Pokemon Center on the designated landing pad, drawing attention from a few of the townspeople streaming through the streets. She lowered to the ground as Ash undid himself from the saddle, pulled his goggles off, and quickly began the process of unstrapping it from Plume. He just barely managed to dodge an affectionate nip from the giant flying-type, who sang happily at him as he stowed away the bulky saddle in a storage compartment.

"Feeling better?" He grinned as Plume stretched her massive wings out wide and rolled her neck. Ash knew the saddle wasn't especially comfortable for her, although they both loved the chance to fly together. Plume cooed at him, rubbing her cheek against his, then stared sharply into a shadowed corner. He followed her gaze, but saw nothing. "Easy, Plume. Lots of ghosts live here. It's like the Burnt Tower in Ecruteak."

She chirped - always an odd sound from the giant Pidgeot - yet didn't seem too comfortable with the idea. Plume shifted uneasily, and Ash quickly recalled her after a quick goodbye. He glanced at the corner that left Plume so disturbed and shivered, quick to draw on the Feather for warmth. The wind cut deeper than it should, and the dark shade blanketing Lavender didn't help matters.

He frowned as his fingers danced across the pokeballs on his belt. Who to accompany him? His gut told him Sneasel, but his brain thought otherwise. Sneasel would scare off any ghosts looking to toy with him, but it didn't seem quite right. This was their home, after all, and he was the intruder.

Nidoking would probably fire off a Flamethrower or Thunderbolt into every shadow they passed by, which just tied into the problem with Sneasel. After a bit of thought, Ash chose Dazed. If Lavender left her uncomfortable (or just plain wasn't to her liking) he'd bring out Bruiser instead. His quiet confidence would be a blessing, though Ash didn't want to disturb him if it wasn't necessary. He was probably sore to the bone after entering full Rampage against Weavile yesterday.

She appeared in a flash of light, eyes curling up into a smile. Her pendulum leapt, flashing blue - then snuffed out. Even without her telepathy, Ash could spy her discomfort. He motioned to her pokeball, silently asking if she'd like to return, but she shook her head.

"Thank you," he muttered to her. Dazed simply nodded, eyes drifting across the street.

Despite the uneasy atmosphere - the hair on the back of his neck rose up and he swore a pair of gleaming red eyes were staring at him from the dark, gnarled boughs of an old yew tree - he couldn't help but grin thinking of that match. He'd fought hard. Ash couldn't have been prouder of his team. They'd fought with everything they'd had, and they'd pushed each and every one of Karen's Master-level team to their limits.

Now he just had to figure out how to beat her next time. Ideas ran through his mind at breakneck pace, mostly potential workarounds of Karen's mental attacks. They were his most vulnerable point right now and he would not be helpless against them again.

Ash sighed as he approached the Pokemon Center, noting a few plates of sliced bread, cheese, and fruits placed near the door with some faint curiosity. There were a few empty spots as if pieces had been taken, while some of the food was black and rotted as though it had been out for weeks. Most was perfectly fresh, however, and looked particularly odd next to the molded, rotting mess beside it. An offering to the local ghosts, perhaps?

He took a moment to study it, noting the visage of a Ninetales set above the plates. It was carved masterfully from wood and painted brightly with the skills of a master - had he not noted the faintest cracks in the paint, he might've thought its golden head would come alive at any moment. The wooden Ninetales' eyes were painted a brilliant scarlet, and Ash couldn't help the impression that they were judging him.

It winked at him.

His breath caught, Ice numbing his surprise, and Ash decided now was a good time to go into the safety of the Pokemon Center. Ash's pounding heart didn't take long to still as he walked swiftly into the protected building, he and Dazed stepping over the thick line of salt spread in front of the doors, and smiled at the greeting of Nurse Joy and a particularly large Chansey.

Ash's surprise vanished now, but he couldn't help the uneasiness. Perhaps he'd grown too used to the mysteries of the Legendaries. Lavender seemed weird in a totally different way, and Ash suspected he'd have to adjust faster than expected.

Hopefully Nurse Joy would have some information on Agatha. If she didn't have her exact location she might at least narrow things down a tad. Still, he thought as he remembered the unearthly black of the Lavender Tower, he thought he knew exactly where to find the Revenant Crone…

XX

Soon enough he'd ended up outside the Lavender Tower, standing in the silent courtyard in the old town plaza. His breaths came heavier than they should. A faint pressure hung about the place, weighing on his entire body. Not a hostile or angry thing, but like the eyes of a large crowd that focused on him and him alone. The burden was tangible, and Ash couldn't help but view the arched entrance of the Lavender Tower with some concern. Dazed stood loyally at his side, but didn't seem to trust this place any more than Ash did.

The black stone the Tower had been lovingly shaped from seemed to drink in all light that touched it. Only a faint gleam dancing across its surface, scattered like stars in the night sky, let him think it was a natural thing. He couldn't help but note the absence of anything alive in the courtyard - he hadn't seen a single plant outside the rows of lavender surrounding the walkway to the courtyard. No blades of grass or tiny shoots peeking from the little gaps in the cobblestone, or vines climbing up the tower. Not an errant leaf or petal or twig rested in the courtyard.

It was empty here, and even the breeze was still and lifeless as if life had been choked out of it. The air was heavy and stagnant. Every breath was work.

No, this wasn't a place for the living. Mourners filed in and out of the Lavender Tower every minute, passing by with lost eyes and empty faces, and Ash made sure to keep a wide berth. He was not one of them. He wouldn't disturb them as they paid their respects.

Ash waited for the courtyard to empty as he collected himself. He needed to enter the Lavender Tower. Nurse Joy had encouraged him to visit, though she'd been shocked to hear Agatha was back at all. Naturally, she didn't know where the Ghost Master was. What she did know was that she wouldn't be found if she didn't want to be, and that Ash's best bet was to simply explore.

He was rather okay with that idea.

Still, the idea of entering the Lavender Tower seemed daunting now, almost disrespectful. It loomed over him, demanding his attention, and Ash couldn't help but imagine the starlight glimmering in the stone shifting into eyes, watching him and waiting. He looked closer, and the illusion vanished.

He drew in a rattling breath, and allowed the Feather to flicker to life. Rainbow flames burned brilliantly beneath his shirt -

They faded. The Feather laid cold and lifeless against his chest, and the weight of the air seemed crushing now. Ash's next breath was hard and difficult, made only harsher by the curious gaze of Mewtwo filling his mind, and he forced it all away with shaking hands.

He brushed the obsidian filaments of the Feather with quiet thought from over his shirt. It wasn't snuffed out entirely. Little cinders still rested within it, ready to be stoked and drawn forth by his need, yet Ash didn't even attempt to ignite the living flames again. Perhaps the cinders were all this place of gentle candlelight needed.

Ash stared at the entrance as a few mourners left. It was dark within, lit only by pale candles. Incense wafted out in thick, scented clouds that hung about in the courtyard's still air. Without a breeze it sank low to the ground, draped over the feet of mourners as they entered or left.

Something deep within him, some whisper of insight, knew even Ice would be purged away by this place, though perhaps with less vigor than the hot flames of Moltres, tinged by Ho-Oh's light as they were.

He was alone here.

After a moment (or ten) of deliberation, Ash allowed the Feather to empty. Power still lay within, but it was muted now. He wouldn't reach for it until he left this strange place. The suffocating atmosphere lessened, and Ash could breathe again.

He sucked in a few desperate gasps of air, glanced at the yawning maw of Lavender Tower's entrance, and shut his eyes. A breath in, a breath out, and he opened them again.

He was ready.

XX

The first level of Lavender Tower was a vast, open area. Its floor was composed of pale green tile, of which small shrines (many of which had names or stylized etchings of pokemon carved in) and old grey gravestones jutted out seemingly at random. A few paths were clear, some of the green tiles worn and white by traffic, and each was dotted with mourners. Silent men, women, and pokemon stood or knelt before the countless graves. Some wept, shoulders heaving as they whispered about better days or sang rites of passing to the dead. Others rested with blank faces in contemplative silence. A few bore glistening tear tracks down their cheeks, but held themselves resolutely nonetheless.

Ash looked away from them as he passed, more than a little uncomfortable to intrude on their private grief. He walked slowly down the path, noting the uncanny silence in the tower. It reminded him of the frozen air deep in the Seafoam Caverns and how sound would be trapped and muffled the deeper he went. His nose wrinkled as the stink of incense stung it and it didn't take long to spot its source: small braziers placed near collections of graves and arranged meticulously by the white-robed mystics that tended this place.

Agatha was nowhere to be seen, naturally. He couldn't help but scan the solemn crowds for the Revenant Crone, but he couldn't find a trace of her. Of course it wouldn't be that easy. Still, it was early. There was plenty of time to find her.

Or, more likely, for Agatha to find him. Ash wasn't naive enough to think that she didn't already know he was here. Knowing Agatha, the local ghosts probably all reported to her. Whether through bribery, old connections, or simply being terrified of the woman and her monstrous team was a question Ash wasn't sure he wanted answered.

Still, he couldn't help but wonder if she had anything to mourn. How many of those he'd met in his journey might have visited this place to say goodbye or pay their respects...

For now, Ash just milled around. He kept a respectful distance from others, but patiently looked over the graves he passed. Names, dates, species. All belonged to pokemon on this level. He'd heard one of the upper floors was reserved for humans, generally the past leaders and mystics of Lavender Town. They saw few additions these days.

He passed by one of the mystics and spared her a glance, holding her gaze when the young woman met his eyes. She was a young woman dressed in heavy traditional red robes with a white overcoat, similar garb to what the mystics and priestesses would have worn centuries ago. She clutched a wooden wand with twin paper streamers hanging from the end, an artifact supposed to help make contact with spirits if he remembered correctly.

Ash offered her a quick bow of his head. She nodded back, and he pretended not to notice the way her pale blue eyes deepened to black for a split-second. He walked a little faster, eventually stepping around a small family circling around a tucked away shrine with a tiny Poliwhirl figure placed before it, surrounded by several flickering candles and an Oran berry. The parents knelt stone-faced with their young child, perhaps six or seven, sobbing between them.

His heart sank and he skirted around the family silently, following a well-worn path down the green tile. Ash couldn't help but imagine if he was here mourning one of his team. Just the thought left him tracing the pokeballs on his belt desperately, as if ensuring they were still here. Ash's fingers couldn't help but linger on Infernus'.

By all rights, Infernus should be here.

He ground his teeth as the image of Infernus' bloodied, burnt (and wasn't that a strange thought) body filled his mind. Those feelings of loss, long hidden, poured to the surface. Ash's stomach sank and he quickly stumbled over to an empty section of the graves, kneeling before a small marble headstone painstakingly etched with its inhabitant's life and death. He thought to pull on Ice, but it escaped his grasp as the Tower's oppressive weight stole it away.

Desperate for a distraction, for something to focus on, he peered at the inscription on the grave.

Aiko - Eevee.

PIL 456-498.

Beloved of the Ito family. Cherished friend, fierce guardian, and doting mother. Passed away surrounded by her beloved. A finer companion will never be found. May you rest long and easy until we are united once more. Enjoy your peace. The world did not deserve one such as you.

Ash gulped as he read the epitaph and the raw emotion captured within. His vision went black for a moment, and Ash felt the tears shed on this spot for so many years. They were soaked into the stone, seeping into the very fabric of this place. He could swear that he felt a brush of soft fur against his fingers and a warm, wet tongue against his cheek.

Then he was back in his own head. Ash reached up and brushed the tips of his fingers against his cheek. Dry. He exhaled, but remained at the grave to pay his respects. A faint yearning came over him, and Ash allowed his finger to trace the grey stone. Despite being over six hundred years old, the etchings were still crisp and deep. As perfect as if they'd been carved yesterday.

His eyes squeezed shut. Too many of his friends could have been here. Infernus if Moltres hadn't shown mercy. Nidoking if Umbreon had been a little more thorough. Seeker if Golduck's Water Gun had been just a bit stronger. Plume if Mewtwo of all people hadn't protected them in Shamouti. Ash's hands shook, and a lonely, icy flame flickered in the back of his mind as it observed him. He ignored it.

As the harsh silence reigned, muffling even the sobs of the other mourners, Ash allowed the peace of this strange, lonely place to fill him. He breathed evenly and embraced the stifling weight of the air rather than fight it.

How many pokemon had been buried here in the last year alone? The massive tower was designed to hold hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of the dead before it would be filled, and Ash suspected it still had plenty of space on the upper levels. Each grave was compact, often filled with simple ashes to free the spirits from their bones. Elsewhere in Kanto, it was customary to bury the dead beneath a tree or other living things. Their spirits would be absorbed into it, flowing from death to life over and over again in a cycle.

Lavender didn't follow such traditions.

He kept his eyes closed as he allowed his thoughts to wander and wonder at the new additions to the tower's massive graveyards. How many had been buried here after the St. Anne was cut in twain and sank to the bottom of the sea? How many interred were victims of the cruel Rockets and their creation? How many rested here because they'd been caught too close to the Legends?

Ash thought of the dead and paid his respects. The solemn silence seemed fitting now, rather than oppressive, and he welcomed the peace. His eyes stung, his hands trembled, and an ugly weight filled his gut and there was no Ice to numb the pain.

His heart raced, desperate for the freezing touch, but Ash ignored it. He breathed, and embraced the emotion for what it was. It hurt, like an ugly pressure that stole his breath away and burned his eyes and made him want to puke, but that was the point, wasn't it? It was supposed to hurt. To hide away from it seemed disrespectful, like he was spitting in the faces of all those who had suffered and sacrificed.

The seconds ticked by painfully slow, then turned to minutes. For all he knew, it might have been hours. This was a timeless place. Mourners passed behind him, their steps muffled and suffocated in the stifling silence, and Ash sensed eyes on him as he paid his respects to the dead. Whether they were of the ghosts that dwelled here feasting on emotion or the mystics watching over him was impossible to say, and Ash wasn't sure he cared to find out.

Nothing approached him. No creeping purple claws traced his skin or pulled at his clothes. The scent of blood never filled his nose. Vicious laughter never pierced his ears. No humans infringed on his peace. They knew better.

"Careful. It's easy to lose yourself amongst the dead."

His eyes snapped open at the familiar, rasping voice. Ash whispered a goodbye to Aiko the Eevee - to all the dead - and rose. He felt vulnerable suddenly, exposed, and fought the urge to release a member of his team. His instincts screamed, but he did not surrender to the fear Agatha wore about her like a cloak.

"Hello, Agatha."

Ash turned, only to blink at the sight of the Revenant Crone. She looked old. Her skin was drawn tighter, her hair nearly bereft of the last streaks of fading blonde. If it weren't for those glittering, razor-sharp eyes he'd have been worried about the old woman (although she'd probably rap him with her cane for even thinking it). Her lips quirked, and Ash had the horrible feeling she knew exactly what he'd thought.

"Are you done?" Her cutting tone was softened by the amusement plain on her withered face. She rapped her cane against the faded tile beneath her feet, smirking as Ash flinched at the motion. It was all too easy to remember the stinging pain she was happy to inflict with the twisted length of wood. "I was a much, much younger woman the last time anyone stared at me like this."

That left him flushed and red, and he had to bite off his immediate retort. He kept his voice quiet. There was no reason to disturb the others, even if all the mystics already stared at him and Agatha like they were about to burn the place down. It was uncanny having so many empty black eyes on him at once. "You're not that old," Ash protested.

She arched a grey eyebrow and tapped her cane threateningly in front of him. "Perhaps. I certainly look it, though," Agatha's thin lips twisted into a smirk. Ash wasn't stupid enough to deny that. "Empty flattery will get you nowhere, boy. You should know better."

He shrugged and decided this line of conversation was going absolutely nowhere productive. "How'd you find me?"

Agatha looked at him like he was an idiot, and so did her shadow as it rose to stand next to her: an identical silhouette, featureless except for bloody red eyes and a grinning mouth full of razor teeth. Well, that explained it. He'd suspected her ghosts would keep tabs on the town for their mistress, after all.

Ash hummed, and Agatha's shadow collapsed back into the earth. "We're leaving, boy. Come."

He didn't like being ordered around like that, but for Agatha he would make an exception. Ash followed the Revenant Crone through the lines of graves, not missing how a few hidden, lurking figures drifting in the incense recoiled away. Agatha's eyes - mismatched black and blue - drifted to unseen things in the corners and she smiled.

"They're afraid?" Ash observed, eyes locked on an invisible figure he knew to be there. Some sixth sense, perhaps, or simple familiarity with this place. Whenever the ghosts fled, the pressure of the Lavender Tower redoubled. They had an audience. Something far, far greater than a mere ghost was watching…

"As they should be," Agatha noted simply as she hobbled out through the doors. Mourners instinctively avoided her, and one of the mystics waiting near the doors flinched as the Ghost Master's shadow leered at her. The old woman never paid them a lick of attention, content to make her way forward as she leaned heavily on her cane. "Perhaps they're afraid of dying their final death."

Ash's face twisted in confusion as he followed Agatha into the...well, not light. It was mid-afternoon (he had been in there for far longer than he expected), though it was almost impossible to tell due to the perpetual shadow that swallowed all of Lavender. The air out here was fresher without the thick clouds of choking incense, but Ash still had that terrible sense of stagnance.

"Ghosts aren't the souls of the dead," Ash frowned, thoughts recalling their brief conversation in the hospital at Goldenrod.

The old woman snorted. "And what would a little boy like you know?"

He scowled. "Enough. I'm not a child."

Agatha spared him a glance as she led him out of the courtyard and into the maze of the oldtown. He felt every layer of himself stripped away beneath those mismatched eyes. The Feather filled with life again, but he didn't reach for it. He needed to feel. "No, you're not," the old Master finally agreed. She looked rather tired, Ash thought, quite like Lance. "So tell me what you know, Ash Ketchum. Enlighten me."

Ash didn't dare hesitate, though he sped up briefly to walk at Agatha's side. He didn't miss the lurking ghosts hiding in the darkness around them - how could he, with so many eyes?

"They're extradimensional entities," he recalled his lessons and the hundreds of PokeDex entries he'd read. Despite all his reading, Ash found that he felt woefully unprepared for this as he looked to the old woman. Agatha was silent, waiting for him to continue. Her lack of reaction didn't comfort him. "They slip into this world, and to survive they have to possess a corporeal form. Most are able to reproduce asexually once they have a body, and thus create identical offspring to gradually create a species. You can see something similar with Corsola budding."

"Spoken like the old duff himself," Agatha mused. Ash bristled, well-aware it wasn't a compliment coming from Agatha. "Oak always was a bore, always had to take the fun out of things. He liked solving problems. Whenever he ran into one he'd dissect it into a thousand simple pieces and pick and pick until he'd taken every little bit of magic out of the world. He never could abide a good mystery," she spat, then descended into a coughing fit. It lingered for too long to be healthy, and Ash quenched his urge to offer help - if her ghosts wouldn't step out of the shadows to support her, he knew she would reject his aid in a heartbeat.

By the time she was done hacking her lungs up into a lacy old handkerchief it was speckled in blood. Ash stared, worry surging in his gut, and stepped forward -

His forehead stung and he bit back a muffled curse as Agatha's frail arm snapped her cane and rapped him with the hard wood. Ash glared at Agatha, all pity gone. She smirked and the laughter of ghosts filled his ears. She was lucky none of his team were out…

"Did you have to do that?" He growled. Agatha looked spectacularly unimpressed and just tutted at him before hobbling off down a dark alley. Normally he was one to stick to the main roads, but he wasted no time in catching up. Ash doubted anything in Lavender was half as scary as Agatha.

They walked in silence for a time. Ash had absolutely no idea where Agatha was leading him, but was content to follow her lead. They'd left the oldtown, though seemed to be sticking close to it. Buildings here were still fairly old, easily more than a century, but absolutely more modern than the ancient stone structures of Lavender's oldtown.

"Tell me."

"Tell you what?" Agatha arched a greying eyebrow.

"Tell me about ghosts. I want to understand."

She smiled, and so did Ash's reflection in a window they passed. He steadfastly ignored the unnatural occurrence, choosing to chalk it up to one of Agatha's ghosts hoping to unsettle him. The next window had him frowning, and the next had no reflection whatsoever.

"Not so afraid anymore," Agatha appraised him. "Good. You might command a ghost yet."

He nodded silently, awaiting her next words. She seemed to consider them carefully. "How to describe ghosts? They are parasites. They slip into this hostile world blind, delicate, and eroded by this alien existence. The permanence eats them whole, and out of desperation they bind themselves to matter in order to save themselves. But it's not enough, never enough. Every ghost lives on borrowed time, and they steal that time from others."

Ash blinked at the harsh truths she spoke, mulling the information over in his mind. It fit. Everything he knew about ghosts matched up with what Agatha had said - and he wasn't dumb enough to ignore a single word out of the woman's mouth - yet it made sense coming from her.

"That's why they feed on emotions," Ash murmured, and Agatha nodded. He traced his fingers over Dazed's pokeball, mind running faster and faster as thoughts blurred through his mind. "But why? How does that sustain them? It makes sense with Dazed - my Hypno," he explained. "Her body is adapted to feeding off the energy of others."

Agatha snorted. "If you asked that old fool Oak, he'd say it's unknown, or rabble off a dozen useless theories. Science," she said with blatant distaste. "No appreciation for the deeper nature of things."

She turned to Ash as she led them out of the dark alley, cackling as a few children playing in the streets spotted Agatha and fled without a word. Ash snorted as well, understanding quite well why they hadn't run into any foot traffic since they'd left the Lavender Tower. All of Lavender was probably warning each other that Agatha was out and about.

"Ghosts are born of a foreign world, a world without permanence. It is flux, and chaos, and everything that is Not," Agatha said quietly, her voice just barely louder than the whisper of the wind. Her blue eye went black as she rapped her cane against the ground and the wind stilled. Ash simply stared, an odd feeling in his gut. "When little fragments of that Distorted world slip into ours, they are mad. They cannot abide stability at first, and only the maddest of those specters are desperate enough to merge with matter. Even then, it only postpones the inevitable. They corrode the world, and the world gnaws at them right back."

Comprehension struck. "So they have to take in energy to preserve themselves. It really is just like their food," Ash frowned.

The Revenant Crone smiled wanly. "Close, boy. This world is built on concepts. Tiny fragments of a greater whole. The Distortion the ghosts are born of is antithetical to the bedrock of our world, but it works both ways. By deliberately consuming little pieces here and there, ghosts can sustain themselves. It's inefficient, but it's our only option."

He didn't miss the 'our' but didn't press it. His mind flashed to those brief moments of truth shared by Cynthia's Aura, the unity with Suicune and transcendent perception, the whispers of the mysteries shared by the Unown…

"Aura," Ash whispered and stopped dead in his tracks. Agatha snapped to stare at him. "Ghosts eat our Aura. They eat parts of us."

And it made an awful sort of sense. He didn't know the particulars quite yet, but of course strange, terrifying creatures like ghosts would feed off emotions like fear and anger and sorrow. It was easier to scare and sow discord and suffering than it was to brighten someone's day or leave a random human or pokemon with a smile on their face. It was easier to destroy than to create.

Agatha's eyes gleamed in her sunken face. "My, my," she whispered. "Someone's been busy. Who filled your scruffy little head with secrets like that?"

"Who filled yours?"

She cackled as they approached a stately manor on the edges of the old town, though descended into another harsh, hacking coughing fit as they neared the gates to take them into the estate. Agatha froze, one hand holding her handkerchief as more and more red speckles filled it. Her other hand clenched around the knob of her cane, quivering as the fit came to an end. A ghostly hand reached from the shadows, circling up around the cane to rest atop her trembling hand and offering support.

Agatha allowed it for just a moment before shaking it away, and that more than anything left Ash terribly worried.

"You're sick," he said plainly. Agatha scoffed at the obvious statement. "You've been sick, but it's gotten worse."

"How observant. No wonder you're Oak's favorite," the crone sneered as she motioned for him to enter the gates. They were plain and simple wood painted a pale lavender, though he picked out more Ninetales heads carved into the corners. Guardians, perhaps. "Hurry along, boy."

"What is this place?" He glanced around the estate as he entered the plain courtyard. It was poorly taken care of and showed obvious signs of age and neglect: cracking cobblestone, a dry fountain, and vegetation and vines creeping up nearly every surface. Supports and beams were half-rotten and liable to bring the whole structure collapsing on them at any moment.

Despite its grim appearance (it reminded him of every haunted house he'd ever seen in movies) Ash couldn't help but think it felt a thousand times more natural than the eerie stillness of the Lavender Tower. For all its age and crumbling stone, this old manor still had a few hints of its former grandeur: a great mural depicting white-robed sages, another of the Lavender Tower with a great black cloud hanging around the topmost level, and a series of men and women with Gengar in their shadows. His gaze lingered on it, then quickly returned to Agatha as she impatiently hobbled to rest at a small stone table near the murals. It was plain, but carved with simple designs of ghosts and men.

"Home sweet home," Agatha grumbled as her shadow politely pulled a chair out for her to rest in. She sighed as her old bones creaked and groaned, resting her cane on the table. Ash had to prepare his own chair, naturally. "My family's estate," she elaborated. "My ancestors lived here for centuries. I'm the last of the Hashimoto," she said. Ash didn't think she sounded too upset about it. Rather the opposite, honestly, which was only confirmed by her next words. "Good riddance."

Ash blinked, then glanced around the courtyard. It still held a shade of its old glory despite the decrepit appearance...rather like Agatha, he thought, but didn't dare say that out loud. "Not a fan?"

Agatha snorted, but didn't respond for some time. When she did, it was only to change the subject. "You asked before who filled my head with these old secrets," her eyes bored into him. "Look around and find your answer."

"The Hashimoto…" he trailed off, unable to remember anything important about that name. Admittedly, his knowledge of Lavender wasn't especially thorough. He might have spent more time preparing for his battles with Clair and Karen than researching old, secluded Lavender. "I don't recognize the name," Ash admitted.

"Not many would," Agatha's thin lips curved into a smile. It didn't comfort Ash in the least, especially not when it was matched by several other smiles hidden in the shadows. They'd need to find a new trick soon. That wouldn't disturb him for much longer. "We're an old clan, but always a small one. A consistent footnote in the annals of Lavender's history."

"Mystics?" Ash guessed. He knew the Mystics of Lavender were the upper class of Lavender, responsible for training ghosts and psychics with their strange abilities. They'd developed revolutionary techniques like Destiny Bond that made war against them a brutal, costly affair. Any victory against Lavender would be a pyrrhic one, which the League had discovered firsthand.

Agatha nodded, sipping at a cup of tea set before her by a ghostly attendant. She didn't offer Ash anything, and he wasn't sure he would have taken it if she did. The old woman sighed as the hot tea slid down her throat, and Ash hoped she found some kind of relief in it. "Indeed. Mystics one and all. The Hashimoto were well-regarded in Lavender. They weren't fighters, but delved into arcane mysteries and the secrets of the world. They uncovered quite a few, though guarded them jealously."

"Aura." Ash said flatly.

"And more," Agatha shrugged, rapping her knuckles against the stone table to a rhythm only she could hear. Identical knocks echoed from around the courtyard. "They were partial to Distortion and its intricacies."

Ash frowned as he remembered Morty flicking his wrist and conjuring a Will-O-Wisp. "Like Morty's family, then."

The Revenant Crone rolled her eyes like that. "The old Hashimoto would feed you to their Gengar for an insult like that," she said breezily. Ash just scowled. "Luckily for you, I could care less about petty rivalries. Yes, they had a similar relationship to ghosts as little Morty's family. The Hashimoto delved deeper than they could ever dream, however. Too deep, on occasion."

He leaned forward, curiosity filling him. "How?"

Agatha's smile didn't inspire confidence. "Would you really like to know?"

Despite his better judgment, Ash couldn't help but nod. He needed to uncover these answers.

Why, why, why?

Cynthia's words cut through his mind, and he knew the answer immediately: because he wanted to know it all. He didn't want to leave the mysteries as they were, or turn away from the truth. Ash was learning the workings of the world and he couldn't imagine looking away…

She reclined in her seat, still sipping her tea, and met his eyes. "Why should I tell a little boy like you anything? You'll probably just go blabbing to all your little friends."

Ash frowned. "Because I want to know."

Agatha waved her hand. "Why should I care what you want?"

"I've helped you before," he pointed out. "Viridian. Greenfield."

She rolled her eyes. "You helped the League, not me," Agatha sneered, then glanced at the Feather hidden beneath his shirt and finally at the Unown pendant. "You came out with your own rewards. Besides," her black and blue eyes glittered, "I seem to remember helping you quite a bit at Greenfield. Would you have made it in without my intervention?"

He bit his lip as his fists balled. She wasn't wrong. "I've helped other times. New Island," he found it strange to be able to mention the place, but didn't put much thought into it. "Shamouti."

"True," Agatha allowed. "But why should I care? A few bad situations you were too foolhardy to avoid entitles you to nothing, let alone my family's secrets."

It clicked for him then. Agatha offered him a crooked smile as she recognized that. "I have my own secrets," he offered. "There are even a few I can tell you."

Agatha smirked. "Better."

"A question for a question," Ash offered, reaching up to absentmindedly brush his fingers against the Feather's cinders. They kindled beneath his touch, but he didn't call upon the power within. "A truth for a truth."

The old woman measured him up for a moment, then nodded. "Fair's fair!" She cackled. "You're learning, boy. As your elder I think it's only proper that I go first."

He rolled his eyes but nodded all the same. At this point he was just happy Agatha was willing to go along with it…

"Ask away."

In that moment Ash felt the attention of things on him. Red eyes of several Gengar (including the one that always haunted Agatha's shadow), the orange blaze of a Mismagius' gaze hidden beneath its wispy hat, and the stern glare of a Dusknoir weighed heavy. They'd appeared as if from nowhere, though Ash knew they'd lurked patiently the entire time.

His stomach knotted. What could be so interesting that it drew the attention of such powerful, experienced ghosts?

"The Hale Mansion," Agatha began briskly. Her mismatched eyes (and those of her team) seemed to burn a hole in him as they stared at the Unown tablet looped around his neck. His fingers clasped around it as if to protect it from their attention. "I've read the reports. I know what happened to you and sweet little Karen."

"Okay?" He arched an eyebrow, then winced as Agatha reached for her cane. She smirked and lowered it as soon as the threat reached him.

"You could have taken it all for yourself," the crone murmured, wrinkled hands clasping in her lap. "All the power in the world, right there in the palm of your hand. Most would have taken it without a second thought. Lance would have," she chuckled humorlessly. "He's always fancied himself a knight in shining armor."

Ash offered no response, sensing there was more to come. Still, he couldn't deny she was right about Lance. He shouldered the burden of the world. He could still remember the wisps, those fleeting dashes of insight that filled his brain under the direction of the Unown. Lance wanted them, wanted them like nothing else. They had been a solution to all of his problems, or so he thought.

"Why did you throw it away?" Agatha scrutinized him. "And don't give me that trollop on the report."

He bit off his instinctive retort and paused. Why, why, why?

Revisiting that day and all that came with it wasn't something Ash was eager to do, but he parsed through it all nonetheless. They'd made an agreement, after all. A truth for a truth.

"My team," Ash's eyes shut as his lips curved into a smile. "I wanted to control it at first. I wanted to reign it in and keep it," he said, a piece of him yearning for the power he knew still lay dormant within the tablet as he turned it between his fingers. "But they knew it better than I did. They were afraid of me."

Agatha nodded slowly, eyes still locked on the stone of the tablet. Her fingers twitched, as if longing to wrench it away from around his neck, but soon laced together again. She remained silent, then spoke. "Spoken like a true trainer," she said quietly. "Very well. A deal's a deal. What questions are swimming around in that brain of yours?"

"What did your family do?" He asked without an ounce of hesitation. Ash leaned forward on the "You said they looked for secrets. What did they find? Destiny Bond?"

She shook her greying curls. "Nothing so mundane," Agatha scoffed. "A simple question for a simpler boy."

His eyes narrowed. "Answer it, then."

Mismagius hovered closer, ethereal murmurs cutting through the air, but Agatha simply smiled. The ghost balefully pulled back to the rafters, though its eyes still glimmered at the disrespect. "There's that bluntness," Agatha's smile only widened. "I was afraid Oak had left you soft and boring."

"You'd love his grandson then," Ash bit out, though he didn't miss the blink of a frown across the old woman's face. "The question?"

She hummed and tutted for a few seconds, no doubt taking pleasure in Ash's impatience, but eventually grew bored of her little game and got to the point. "The Hashimoto sought the answers to the questions of our existence," Agatha waved her withered wrist flippantly, derision laced in every word. "Other Mystic families, the psychics, pledged themselves to the pursuit of reality. Time and space and what is."

Ash frowned, filing the information away. "And your family?"

"The Hashimoto and other families weren't content with what is," she said. "No, that was too mundane for them. Too predictable. They chased after shadows and mysteries and half-truths. They spent centuries seeking What is Not. Distortion."

"Distortion…" Ash mulled the word over in his mind. He'd heard it before plenty of times, especially from specialists like Morty and Karen (and now Agatha). It popped up occasionally in the PokeDex archives as well, though usually just as a reference to dark-types and ghosts. "That's what ghosts are made of, right? Ghosts and dark-types use it in their attacks."

Agatha leered at him. "Is that your second question?"

He slumped. "No."

She cackled, enjoying his irritation all too much, but continued. "Each family had their own passions and specialties - nothing but the most trivial discoveries were shared, of course, unless a family was willing to make a trade with another in good faith."

Ash snorted. Agatha's smirk told him that she wholeheartedly agreed with his opinion. "So what did they discover? Techniques like Destiny Bond, new ghost-types?"

"Destiny Bond this, Destiny Bond that… you're obsessed, boy," Agatha rolled her eyes. "Others explored the applications of Distortion in training. Techniques, how to work with their partnered spirits, new tactics, the like. The sorts of things trainers like you leap at," she said derisively. "But take away your family and what are you?"

He allowed the Feather to blaze to life at her words, the rainbow-tinted Fire engulfing his chest in a heartbeat. It crackled, little arcs of electricity surging between the obsidian vanes, and Ash relished the warmth that sunk deep to his bones. This place muffled it, but it was like throwing a sheet over a wildfire. It would always be waiting beneath for his call.

Ash quenched it, though the fresh cold touch of reality grated on him. He placed a hand over his chest, taking pleasure in the last vestiges of warmth that seeped through.

"Are you finished?" The Revenant Crone looked at the fading Feather with some faint glimmer of interest. "You proved your point, boy. Perhaps I should have been more specific: what is any other trainer without their team?"

The smile never left his face. He had to take his fun where he could get it, right? It even made up for the hard stares boring into him from the shadows, the corners, the floor… "A human," he finally answered Agatha's question. "Unless you're a psychic. Or Bruno," Ash added.

Despite herself, the Ghost Master laughed. It was a short wheezing thing that came from her gut, different from her usual scoffs and snorts, though Ash winced as it descended into another hacking, bloody cough. He couldn't help but awkwardly shift as the cough went on and on - he didn't dare offer help, but those thoughts fell to the wayside as the handkerchief her Gengar raised to her lips dripped red.

He dug into his pocket for one of the wipes he habitually kept there. Normally they were for cleaning up one of his team (usually any perceived imperfection Plume had spotted in her reflection, although lately he'd used it to wipe Aron's shiny domed head clean) but he couldn't think of a better use for it now.

"Here," he offered as Agatha's wretched hack subsided a tad. What worried him most was when Agatha actually accepted it with a shaking hand... At this point he couldn't help but ask. "Will you be okay?"

"Just a slight cough," she said, and he frowned but didn't contest it. Not yet. He couldn't say that sentiment would last much longer. Agatha wiped her pale lips with the little square of fabric and peered at the stained wipe with little regard. Judging it to be stained, she tossed it aside into her shadow.

It vanished before it ever reached the ground.

"The Hashimoto didn't seek power through ghosts themselves," Agatha continued as if the hacking fit had never happened. She glanced around to her team, who continued their vigil. "Or, not only through ghosts. They sought to empower themselves. They'd be fascinated by you," she added with an ugly smile. "They'd take you apart in a heartbeat."

He frowned at that (and for more than one reason). The old manor seemed a little darker all of a sudden. Ash couldn't help but remember Morty's easy conjuration of spectral flame back in Ecruteak, though he couldn't imagine Morty being able to accomplish half as much as a powerful psychic such as Sabrina.

"They mastered their skills. Each could defend themselves well enough, and were often chosen as bodyguards for the Lavender Lord. Humans, even nobles, are less fickle than ghosts," Agatha's wan smile didn't inspire confidence. "Their skills became well-known. The Hashimoto could silence psychics, dispel ghosts, and paralyze with but a look. Yet time went on, as it's wont to do. They plateaued. Other families began to pick up on their tricks and master their hard-earned skills for themselves."

Ash's frown deepened. "So they went farther."

"Of course," the old woman chuckled before continuing with her raspy words. "Power's a difficult thing to give up, as you well know. The Hashimoto weren't so noble. They took captives in raids, scooped the poor and desperate off the streets, and began their work. It took a few hundred, but they refined their experiments to the point they began to attempt it on their own."

"Attempt what?" He asked. His mind raced through alternative after alternative, each worse than the last. Ash though to Morty or Karen - in particular, he remembered the way the crystal in Greenfield had struggled to find purchase on Karen's flesh. It had barely managed to grow on her skin. "Did they immerse them in Distortion? Try to make them like dark-types?"

Agatha chuckled. "Nothing so kind. Those experiments yielded results, but they were stepping stones. The Hashimoto sought to create the ultimate weapon: The mind of a human with the power of a true ghost. Distortion is a wild thing, chaotic at its core, but it can be guided with the proper skill. Never controlled, never tamed, but it can be pointed in a certain direction," she spoke with hard-earned experience. "At first they attempted to seal extant ghosts into humans, but those early tests only led to madness and failure. It would destroy one or both - too much certainty in them, too much confidence in their own identities. The merge would fail, or else it would result in wild abominations that were neither ghost, human, or even a proper combination. Useful, certainly, but living failures all the same."

Between Agatha's explanation and Cynthia's lecture on the origins of Spiritomb in war-torn ancient Sinnoh, Ash began to feel a terrible realization dawn on him. "So they broke them down. Started with a blank slate…" he muttered. Agatha blinked, then waved to usher him on. "Something with no identity on either end?"

"Indeed," Agatha seemed begrudgingly impressed. At least she didn't smack him for interrupting this time. "At first they shattered the minds of the ghosts and men they sought to merge, but that only altered them. They were too… aware. They were broken, but they knew they weren't always that well. Failure after failure mounted, and the Hashimoto grew desperate. An enterprising Mystic decided to try it with younger subjects. After all, they hadn't had time to develop their identity. It would be less trying on young minds," Agatha's lip curled to reveal her bared teeth. "An easier merge. They even spawned Distortional rifts to birth newborn ghosts, nebulous little things ignorant to the world and their nature."

His stomach turned. Ash dearly wished he could tug on Ice to numb him. He glanced around the manor's stately courtyard, silently wondering what horrors had been wrought here. Maybe he should release Infernus here and now, let him burn the whole place to the ground…

"How young?" He asked, knowing and dreading the answer. Ash suspected he knew exactly why Agatha never referred to the Hashimoto as her family. If it was identity and awareness that caused the merge to fail…

"Tabula rasa. Blank slates," Agatha's voice was guttural and harsh, absent of any sympathy. Perhaps she couldn't allow herself to feel it, couldn't acknowledge it entirely. It was a feeling he knew all too well.

Sins of the father.

His heart quickened as Mewtwo's simple words carved into his brain like a knife, though his head only panged lightly. He'd adjusted to the psychic's terrible power, though it had been so long since Mewtwo whispered his scathing words into his psyche.

Ash hadn't missed it. His whole body went tense - and Agatha and her spectating ghosts didn't miss it - but he finally relaxed as Mewtwo made no further attempts to speak. He'd hoped the stifling weight of Lavender Town had blocked the Legend out, though it seemed he wasn't so fortunate.

He was shaking, he realized with a sort of detached numbness. It was almost like he was drawing on Ice, but the undercurrent of his nerves tensed to the point of snapping beneath the numbness told him that wasn't the case.

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Moments later, he was back.

"Finished?" Agatha inquired. She didn't seem quite as impatient as normal, and looked at him with something approaching pity (for Agatha, anyways).

He nodded slowly, allowing his hands to rest on his team's pokeballs. They were a comfort he desperately needed. "Yeah."

"Good. Since you know so many things a little boy shouldn't, tell me how the Hashimoto made their monsters."

Did he have to? A simple glance Agatha's way told him the answer. She wanted to hear him say it.

"Newborns," he grit his teeth. "Human and ghost. They merged them. No identity to ground them, so they could make something new."

Agatha nodded. "Yes. They'd grown quite experienced with the process by the time they practiced it on their own children."

Ash's lip curled into an ugly sneer. "They really did that to their own family?"

"Oh, don't you see? It was an honor!" Agatha spat, rolling her eyes at the notion. "What could be greater than dedicating one's life to the honorable Hashimoto family? It made them great. They won lofty titles and rose high in the Lavender Lord's esteem."

Now he really wanted to burn the place down. Ash didn't even think Agatha would stop him - she might even have her ghosts fan the flames. This was a foul, rotten place. Was its history even worth keeping?

Ash thought to Cynthia's tales of the Knights of Uxie burning away every mention of the Artificer and their monstrous creations, then the Wataru who remembered both their heroes and villains in equal measure to remind themselves of their failures. Perhaps this place wasn't worth saving, but it was worth remembering. An example that should never be repeated.

"The power is a seductive thing," Agatha murmured from across the table, seemingly lost in her thoughts. The Gengar in her shadow reached up to brush her old dress, Mismagius hovering closer to linger by her head. Only Dusknoir held its position, watching with its ominous eye. "They wielded it like nothing seen before. The full power of a ghost was available to them. Ghosts flocked to them as one of their own, recognizing them as kin. Our neighbors feared Lavender, and the Hashimoto were honored."

He nodded along with her story. "And the price? There's always a price," Ash muttered.

"Indeed. You're learning," the old woman chuckled. "Power never comes cheap, does it?"

"It doesn't," Ash agreed. Blood, sweat, tears... strength demanded at least one. He suspected power of the Hashimoto's sort would cost all three in spades.

"They are the price. The fire that blazes twice as hot burns half as long," Agatha quoted. "They commanded great power, but the body of a babe isn't meant to have a raw thread of Distortion woven through it. Who would've thought?"

She gave a derisive snort, sipping at her tea with a trembling hand, then squinted at him. "The victims of the Hashimoto are contradictions. A human baby has no true identity, but it's still a facet of this world. Natural. It should be more than a simple vessel."

"Vessel?" Ash muttered, feeling that familiar knot of dread weighing in his gut. "So -"

"Everything the baby might have been is erased." Agatha said bluntly. He sucked in a breath. This place definitely deserved to be incinerated. And they did that to their own family? Ash tried to imagine his mother allowing that to happen - even lost as she was, he knew it would never happen. His stomach turned as he thought of what Giovanni would choose given half a chance… the cold fire observing from the back of his mind pulsed quietly. "The newborn ghost is torn from its home, mindless and mad. The Mystics lace it through the newborn human. The ghost, desperate for a vessel to sustain its existence in corrosive reality, merges. It finds its first meal."

Nausea filled his stomach. "The baby's Aura."

"Yes," Agatha murmured, eyes sharp as a razor. "The ghost, an entity of Distortion, consumes the Aura. If it did this to an adult, the young ghost would be driven truly mad by the weight of an entire life. But it consumes the child's Aura. With the barest traces of an identity, the ghost becomes a half-thing. A teetering entity on the edge of equilibrium. Not quite human, but not fully Distorted. It becomes the child, for lack of a better term, and even believes itself to be human. It grows, it lives, it loves."

He exhaled, head spinning. How could he even process all this? This was not what he'd expected to be learning about today. And how many children had been sacrificed to this process? How many lives just tossed away for the sake of power?

"You understand, don't you?" She asked after a brief moment of silence. "Those children were quite confused, you know. They grew as normal children save their abilities, but as they reached adulthood they found their power turning against them. The body isn't meant to be steeped in Distortion. It's alien to this world. They wither away, rotting from the inside as the Distortion of the ghost laced into their flesh eats at their cells."

"How long?" Ash stared intently at Agatha, the gears in his head turning. For a moment he saw the specter of a young girl with mismatched eyes and blonde curls sitting before him, then it was gone. "Does it happen all at once?"

She chuckled, though she coughed quickly into another handkerchief supplied by Mismagius. The ghost waited patiently by her side, chanting softly into Agatha's ear. After a moment the old woman rose with renewed vigor.

"I'm afraid not," the woman bit out. "It would be kinder, wouldn't it? To live half a life and crumble away into dust? Perhaps you haven't noticed, boy, but the Hashimoto weren't kind. Around the age of twenty, when most are entering the full bloom of youth, it happens. Slowly at first, approaching maturity faster, and the years pass you by. By thirty the first wrinkles appear. By thirty-five your joints creak and ache. By forty-five you stoop and stumble without a cane. By fifty -"

"- You're coughing up blood," Ash finished for her, eyes wide as his blood ran cold.

Agatha bared her teeth into a feral grin, and so did the Gengar in her shadow. Her blue eye deepened and darkened to black. He clenched his fists. "You're one of them? How?"

"A gift from my old fool of a grandfather," she snorted. Agatha's gnarled fingers clasped the knob of her cane, clenching it tightly in her old hands. "After the Secession, the Hashimoto were all but extinguished, thrown to the frontlines in droves to buy Lavender time. They failed, and they fell into obscurity until only a single line remained," her lip curled into a sneer. "My grandfather couldn't abide it. He dreamed of Lavender's old glory and scoured our archives. He found the old secrets of the family, and with my father plotted to recreate the Hashimoto's masterwork. I was the result."

He blinked, then blinked again. What did he even say to that? 'Sorry you're dying?' Ash could only imagine how fast Agatha would knock him in the head then. Of all the people he'd met, she was perhaps the last to ever want pity.

Then the enormity of what she said struck him like a blow.

"How long?"

The crone smiled, satisfied at last. "A few months," she said. "Three, if I'm lucky. Likely less. Those silly doctors wanted me to lay about and die in my bed!" She snorted, and even her ghosts rolled their eyes. Ash couldn't help but agree. "I'm fifty-two years old. The doctors cry about all sorts of things: my organs are failing, that nearly more of me is cancer than woman... idiots! There's still life in me yet."

Ash peered deeply at her, squinting, and nodded. Her eyes sparked with wit and hunger and enough fire to make Infernus jealous. Even her wasted form, thin and drawn tight over her bones, still had some semblance of unnatural strength in it. There was more than flesh and blood to the Revenant Crone.

Fifty-two… it seemed ancient to him, but she was only around Professor Oak's age! He was old, but the Professor was still strong. Only the first signs of aging had hit: greying hair, faint wrinkles, the occasional aches and pains he liked to complain about. Compared to Agatha, he was practically a world-class athlete.

How did it feel to watch everything you knew crawl by sluggishly while your body failed?

Agatha's eyes flashed black and Ash felt a terrible pressure clench around him, like a giant fist squeezing tight. A cold sweat broke out, his ribs ached, and his throat closed - he steeled himself, flared the Feather until it blazed beneath his chest, and the awful feeling faded away.

"Good, you're still with me," she groused. "At least you lost that stupid look on your face."

"What's wrong with you?" Ash snarled, fists clenched. His right hand clasped Nidoking's pokeball, although Mismagius' harsh whispers dissuaded him. Nobody would win that fight, least of all him or his friends.

Agatha just grinned nastily, of course. Awkward silence - Agatha would probably call it a sullen silence on his part - lingered on. Other ghosts seemed to avoid this place due to its inhabitants, but he suspected if they were out in the 'normal' part of the city one or two would have gotten bored and made a distraction already.

Instead, he made his own.

"Is that why you retired?"

"I thought I'd earned a vacation," her harsh grin widened, her ghosts mimicking her. Even the strange chest-maw of Dusknoir quirked upwards, though the solemn ghost remained silent. "It seemed like a charming little place, and that little runt Michael couldn't tie his shoes without my help."

He perked up. "How is Michael? I've seen a mention or two on the news."

Agatha raised an eyebrow. "Is that another of your questions?"

Ash rolled his eyes. "Yes."

"Two in a row," Agatha stroked her chin with a liver-spotted hand. "Rather unfair, don't you -"

"What do you want to ask?" Ash sighed. To be honest, he'd forgotten about their little game. He'd been too wrapped up in Agatha's explanations and cutting little jabs.

"Show me the Feather," she said without hesitation.

"...That doesn't sound like a question."

Agatha's mismatched eyes narrowed. The Gengar in her shadow hissed. "Just do it, boy."

Despite himself, Ash smiled and reached to tug his shirt up. "Fine, but it counts for two."

The woman's smirk was a reluctant one, but she nodded nonetheless. Ash would count that as a proud victory. He plucked the Feather off his chest, grimacing at the strange sensation of the obsidian releasing from where it had burrowed into his flesh, and the warm, tingling frame burst into golden cinders as it latched to his hand.

His audience inspected the Feather closely. Agatha leaned closer, as did her group of Gengar and the other ghosts. Dusknoir seemed particularly entranced, inching closer and closer until he loomed over Ash and Agatha both. It left Ash with that same dreadful sensation of a massive crowd inspecting his every twitch, but he ignored it.

"A pretty toy," Agatha didn't move away. Her eyes traced the perfection of the skeletal Feather curiously, locked onto the little golden cinders that stirred in its depths. Lightning jumped from barb to barb, never slowing or dissipating. "Fire and Lightning. But there's more."

Ash didn't bother denying it. Agatha's stare tore away any attempts to hide away, and he wasn't sure he could toss away any request she made of him anyways. Not knowing that every second took them closer and closer to her -

He threw that line of thought away in a hurry, and complied with Agatha's unspoken demand. Ash squeezed his eyes shut, embracing the Concepts he'd come to understand, if only barely. They leapt to his attention, and he let them flow.

The cinders stirred, roaring to life in a great gout of flame that left the ghosts flinching away. Agatha didn't flinch. Ash embraced the warmth that filled him, relishing the raw fire that charred away the unseen shroud that blanketed Lavender Town. He could breathe.

And with his breath, the North Wind stirred. A gust swept through the heavy, stagnant air of the Hashimoto manor. He felt a measure of relief from the bones of this wretched place as a brief glimpse of purity banished the rot and evil and corruption that had taken root for so long. It wouldn't last, but any respite was welcome. Still, despite the breath of fresh air it didn't feel right. This place had tossed away hopeful ideas like contentment and purity long ago in favor of ambition and the profane.

It would take more than a howling wind to restore it. Ash even imagined this place and its inhabitants would be torn between hopeless longing and fierce rejection if he sat and played the Song here.

With those thoughts, he called on Wes' gift, drew upon the Sacred Fire of Ho-Oh. He grew acutely aware of the Sacred Ash weighing heavy in the pouch on his belt, and took a moment to bask in the rainbow flames. They were dimmer than the normal tinge, as if Lavender itself sought to smother them, but seemed to shine all the brighter in their obstinance.

"My, my…" Agatha blinked. She reached out for the Sacred Fire, mesmerized, but stopped just short of touching the rainbow flames. For a moment, both eyes shone blue in the shifting light. "Where did you find this?" She asked, then said no more.

Ash nodded along, grinning as he realized he'd finally left the old crone speechless. "The Tin Tower. It was a gift."

The ghosts glanced from the Sacred Fire to their trainer blankly. She stared deeply into it, as if divining some mystery he couldn't perceive, and finally pulled away with shaking hands. "And not the only one either, hmm?"

His breath hitched, thoughts frenzied and desperate, and Ash reached for the pouch at his belt to give Agatha, to save her, and -

A cane thumped his arm (careful to avoid the Feather, which blazed up in his defense) and he pulled it away in a heartbeat. "What?" He glared at the old woman. Did she not understand? There was power in those ashes, enough for just a sprinkle to save her. "Don't you -"

"I know very well!" Agatha's skeletal face scowled at him, clutching tightly at her cane. Dusknoir loomed, and the Gengar in her shadow stirred. "I see deeper than you, Ash Ketchum. I saw the specter of the Sacred Fire about you all those months ago in the Conference, and I see it hanging on your belt now! It has no place with me."

Ash snarled at her, nearly rising from his chair. "You can live! Just let me -"

She glared at him with mismatched eyes, but he didn't back down. "I'm dying, boy," she said with pursed lips. Her fingers shook around her cane. "There's no changing it now, not even with your gifts. The Sacred Fire wouldn't embrace me."

His mind wheeled back to the cool, confident form of Wes atop the Tin Tower. "There's another way," Ash breathed. "A man, Wes, met me in the Tin Tower. He's the one who gave me the ashes," his words quickened, driven by the thrill coursing through him. Agatha froze. "He died years ago but he's still here, he's part of Ho-Oh now, he -"

"That's enough, Ash," Agatha whispered. "I know the stories very well. I'm no hero."

Ash bit back what he thought of that. "We can try!"

Agatha shook her head. "If this man, this Wes," Agatha pondered over the name, her brow wrinkled, "offered you the ashes, they weren't meant for this wrinkled old hag. They're yours."

He wanted to snarl at her, take her by her bony shoulders and shake her until she understood. Shout at her until she gratefully accepted his gift.

He did none of those things.

Quelling his frustration - and asking himself why, why, why? - Ash leaned away from Agatha. His nostrils flared, but he held himself in check. Without Ice, even. Ash glanced to the Feather, which had flared with Moltres' golden flame as his anger resonated with the Feather. It had grown large as a bonfire, licking up his arm hungrily, but settled and restrained itself as his emotions cooled. A little flare here and there, but nothing concerning.

"I was hoping you could tell me a bit about Wes, actually," his voice was tight. Agatha smiled wanly. "He said he knew Michael."

"How does it feel to have met an actual ghost?" Agatha seemed amused. "Not something many people can claim."

"Have you?"

Agatha shrugged, and Ash noted her bony shoulders jutting out beneath the fabric of her fading purple dress. "Not like that. Similar things linger on, if you know where to look," she looked past Ash off into the streets with a frown, though it slowly curved up into another cruel smile. "You're close to alone in that regard, though I don't think it a surprise one dead man would seek out another."

He made a face, not too keen on hearing about reliving that memory. Agatha was lucky he'd kept Nidoking in his pokeball - Ash couldn't imagine his friend taking too kindly to it either. "So you know Wes?"

"I know of him," Agatha stressed the difference, mulling her words over. One of her Gengar brought her a new porcelain cup of tea, which it held delicately between its ethereal claws. Ash chose not to question where it was finding them. "One of those poor fools with the misfortune to be born in Orre and without the means or brains to leave. He had no paths open to him to escape, so instead he made his own," Agatha's smile almost seemed genuine, which unsettled Ash more than her savage ones. "He fought hard, he fought well, he made his difference. And then he died," she added as an afterthought. "As we all do."

Her curt dismissal left a pang in his chest. "He was a good man," Ash thought back to his meeting with the revenant. Wes might have been just a face for Ho-Oh to wear, but it was Wes that Ash had met, at least most of him. Thinking on that brief talk atop the Tin Tower, the lessons Wes had offered and the patient listening, Ash was torn between a smile and a scowl. "He deserved better."

"Deserve?" Agatha barked out a harsh laugh. "We deserve all kinds of things, boy. We rarely find them," she scoffed. Ash scowled back, and the Revenant Crone smiled. "But yes, Wes made his mark. He changed his world, and now little Michael is there picking up the pieces. He's even doing an acceptable job of it," she allowed, and Ash knew she would never tell Michael that to his face. She peered at him. "Don't expect a reward for your service, boy."

Ash nodded along slowly, but didn't say a word. Agatha coughed briefly, dotting the cloth raised to her lips with red, but at last she spoke.

"Western Orre - the only part worth all the trouble - is Michael's," Agatha said. "Gateon Port belongs to him. Agate Village is a glorified retirement home, but they've promised themselves to Michael's cause. Pyrite is in civil war. The gangs hold the deserts. I'll clean up a few of those messes when I get back to my vacation," her lips stretched too wide in a macabre grin, and Ash could easily imagine her with too many rows of razor teeth. "The 'Champion of Orre'," she scoffed at the title, "had some chores to do while I was gone. He should have Mt. Battle on his side by the time I return."

To be honest, not many of the names meant much to Ash beyond a vague recognition. He knew Gateon Port, of course. It was the major port on Orre's west coast and one of the only established trade hubs in the region (not to mention the Southern Continent). Still, he recognized enough to feel a surge of relief. Things were bad, but that was par for the course in Orre… Ash was just happy that something was going right. Michael's quest was succeeding.

Some knot of tension Ash didn't know he had unwound, and he breathed out a sigh of relief. "So you're going back?"

"Of course!" Agatha seemed affronted as she wrapped both hands around the knot of wood at the tip of her cane - Ash watched her warily, but she didn't swing it his way this time. "You don't expect me to lay about and wait for death in this miserable old place, do you?"

No, Ash had to agree. No he did not.

"I'm in a generous mood," Agatha's nasty smile said she felt anything but. "I'll pretend like I didn't hear that last question. You asked for two, and two you will receive. What are they?"

Ash didn't respond immediately. That was the right choice, if the twitch of Agatha's lips told him anything. Finally, he settled on his questions. "First, what is Distortion? I know the term, but I don't know what it really is. It's more than just what ghosts are made of or what dark-types use in their attacks. I know that," he said with complete certainty.

"And the next?" Agatha tapped her cane against the stone of the courtyard impatiently.

"Back in Goldenrod, you said I had a ghost-shaped hole on my team," Ash quoted. He peered at Agatha - she had pursed her lips. Good. She already knew what he would ask. "Lavender is full of ghosts. If I were to go looking, where would I find one?"

Agatha didn't smile this time. "So. You think you're ready, hmm?" She glanced him over, and didn't say anything. He couldn't help the little bolt of anxiety that shot through him at her cutting gaze, especially when she harrumphed. "Very well. If you're certain, I know of a place where you can find the answers to both your questions."

He cocked his head, watching her every twitch. "Where?"

She turned away from him, raising her cane to point at the black shape of the Lavender Tower where it rose into the sky. "Ascend the tower, boy. It will answer your questions better than this old woman could," she cackled, then pierced him with a stern gaze. "Go alone. Seek the kiln. Meet your destiny."

Ash wasn't sure he agreed with that, but didn't see the point in arguing. His fists clenched as he nodded respectfully to Agatha and rose. A little shiver ran up his spine as he stared off at the afternoon sky to the Lavender Tower - that feeling was back, the one where he felt like a crowd dissected his every move. The weight of something's attention weighed heavily on him, and he ran his fingers across his team's pokeballs.

The uncomfortable sensation of being watched remained, but the confidence of knowing his team was with him allowed Ash to straighten. He glanced down at Agatha, who looked too small and skinny in her old chair. "Thank you," he said, trying to put as much of his honesty into those few words. "I'll be back. I still have questions."

"Of course you do," Agatha's lips twitched. He couldn't tell if it was a smile or simple irritation. She wrinkled her nose and waved him away. "Off with you now!"

He smiled and turned to leave. Ash wasn't sure what was to come, but he couldn't wait to find out. His head still spun with the enormity of what Agatha had said, and he buried it all. It was too much. If he tried to process it all now, he'd just end up with a headache and too many doubts.

Still, he couldn't hide it away entirely, and it made itself known again and again as he stepped away from Agatha and her staring team.

"And take your hat off!" Agatha snapped as he left the old manor in a daze. "The sun never shines in Lavender. You look like a fool!"

Ash smiled. His hat stayed on.

XX

The sun set on Lavender Town. Shadows stretched and darkened. Streets emptied and curtains were drawn. Silence fell on the ancient town like a heavy cloak and smothered even the whispers of unseen things.

There was only Ash.

He walked through the lonely streets from Agatha's old manor, mind lingering on her parting words. Despite his unfamiliarity with the town and the odd turns and twists that Agatha had taken on the way to her home, something drew him through the darkened alleys to the old town's pristine stone. A distant remembrance, a flash of instinct from distant time and space.

None of his team walked with him. Even Agatha had told him this was a journey he couldn't share, not even with those closest to him. It was cold and uncomfortable to walk without Nidoking or Dazed or Bruiser at his side, exposed to the curious attentions of the native ghosts, but wasn't that the point?

This was a lonely path, but it was his own.

"Ascend the tower, boy. It will answer your questions better than this old woman could. Go alone. Seek the kiln. Meet your destiny."

Ash shuddered as the memory of Agatha's parting words haunted his mind. They seemed real in the twilight, as if she was whispering into his ear. Thoughts of the old woman lingered heavily on him, gnawing away at his forced calm. His heart panged at the truths she'd told him so dispassionately.

To be honest, he wasn't even sure what he was supposed to be feeling. Agatha was dying. It seemed so strange to even think that. Her mind was still sharp, her will as fierce and indomitable as the stories said. How could she die? It baffled him, knotting his stomach up, and his fists clenched tightly.

He couldn't claim to know the Revenant Crone all too well. Ash had only met her a handful of times, after all, though she'd managed to leave a lasting impression on each occasion. But that didn't change the fact that she was old. Agatha's name had been something constantly heard on the news, on battling programs, on documentaries, it was everywhere and had been his entire life. She was a fixture in the world, as much as Lance or Professor Oak.

She wasn't supposed to die. She wasn't supposed to leave.

Ash grit his teeth and turned to the strangely pristine stone of the old town, wanting nothing more than to smash his fist into it. Only the fact that it wouldn't end well for him stayed his hand. These ancient buildings had stood for centuries - perhaps more - and had no weathering, wear, or sign of age to show for it. They were timeless and constant. Not even the torches and dragonfire the League brought to burn old Lavender away with had left a mark on them.

Somehow he doubted his fist would fare even better.

It was tempting, though, and he clenched his fists as he stalked through Lavender. He kept a wide berth from the countless offerings placed outside each dwelling, ignoring the sickly sweet stench of rot that wafted into his nostrils and the chattering of unseen specters as they watched him. Noxious Gastly flitted from alley to alley, a Mismagius hovered silently above the middle of the street, hanging as if suspended by invisible wires, and even a Banette with a hollow smile stalked him. More and more gathered, but never ventured closer than a few feet. That terrible sensation of being watched was back, but Ash knew it was greater than just a few ghosts. How many waited unseen in Lavender and dissected his every move?

The answer came quickly. With every step a new specter appeared dancing in the sky or crawling along the ground. Gastly, Misdreavus, a handful of lonely Shuppet, Duskull, several Drifloon clutched together, and ghost upon ghost he had no name for gathered. The gorgeously painted eyes on a Ninetales effigy sparked red as he passed, and when he looked to his side a new guest had appeared from nothing.

Ash started, almost coming to a stop (but thought better of it), and simply blinked instead. The Ninetales that had sprung into existence barely spared him a glance, slinking alongside a skipping Sableye. It was nothing like any other Ninetales he'd seen, and as far from the haughty, golden resplendence of Chinatsu as could be.

Actually, he'd never seen a Ninetales like this before. It wasn't quite like the strange Alolan subspecies of Ninetales he'd seen in the PokeDex archives, but it was similar in coloring: the gold of its fur had long faded to silver, and age had bleached its muzzle and the tips of its scruffy tails to be white as a bone. Its long tails dragged the ground behind it, though the dirt and grime never seemed to stick, and the pale Ninetales cared nothing for it. Its head hung low, crimson eyes half-shut, and seemed to ignore Ash, the ghosts, and everything else in the world.

If the ground had dared to touch Chinatsu's tails he was pretty sure she'd set the whole world on fire…

The ghosts caught his attention, a Gengar grinning viciously at him, and for a moment all the drifting spirits froze and stared, a thousand specters inspecting him like prey. He paid them no heed as he took step after step, and eventually they followed along again. There was a certain sluggishness to their movements now, however - they were disappointed. He hadn't given him the meal they so desperately craved, or even the entertainment that came along with it.

Their message was clear, however: when the sun set, these streets belonged to them.

He couldn't tell if it was veiled hostility at his intrusion or simple curiosity that kept the expanding horde of ghost-types flocking to him. They seemed to shy away when he looked directly at them, fading into nothingness only to pop back up the moment he looked away. Ash thought the ghosts took a sort of simple pleasure in hiding away at the corners of his vision, although the Haunter, Gengar, Mismagius, and Banette wasted no time with those games.

Ash couldn't help but reach for Nidoking's pokeball. If a single ghost strayed too close, he would have his friend there. He wasn't alone. He wasn't.

A few ethereal snickers filled the air like a choir then, hanging too long before slowly fading away. Ash scowled, Agatha's words about fear coming back to him, and steeled himself. The ghosts pulled away, and he refused to let the eerily empty and silent streets bother him as he made his way back to the Lavender Tower. It stood proud and solemn and empty at this late hour. Only the channelers and mystics that tended to it still remained.

Everyone else had enough sense to leave before the hour grew too late.

His audience's whispers and jeers slowed as the gates to the Lavender Tower's courtyard came in sight. As he stepped closer, they vanished altogether.

It was jarring for the skies to suddenly empty, and his heart skipped a beat. They feared this place.

All that was left was the Pale Ninetales.

The skinny thing raised its head, its deathly skinny frame struggling with the strain, and allowed its milky gaze to linger against the highest reaches of the Lavender Tower. It shuddered, paid no attention to Ash (or the Feather woven into his chest), and left with its tails dragging limply against the ground.

His gaze followed it, a part of him worried about the strange, ancient Ninetales and all that was wrong with it, but it had already vanished into the old town. Ash breathed, and stepped forward into the gates. Before he entered, he glanced back -

Ash's audience was back. The ghosts filled the old town, most frozen in the air and others skittering along the stone with their formless limbs, but never brushed against the buildings and seemed to avoid entire patches of the polished stone plaza with no discernible logic. He felt a surge of unease rise deep within his bones.

This time, they didn't stare at him.

They stared as one to the Lavender Tower's peak, right where the Pale Ninetales had.

He took a deep breath to still the racing of his heart. It didn't work especially well.

What was Agatha sending him to?

Ash forced the barest hints of a smile to his face. Nothing would be answered if he just lingered outside the tower like a coward. He'd just have to find out on his own.

Ash stepped forward.

XX

The stifling silence of the Lavender Tower was even heavier than he remembered. Without the mourners the first floor was even more solemn than he remembered: full of nothing but the stone graves, choking clouds of incense wafting from the braziers, and lonely red-robed figures gliding between the rows of the sleeping dead. Several of the mystics looked to him, blinking at anyone foolhardy enough to wander Lavender at night, but did not approach.

No, he was left alone to step through the tombstones. Ash didn't rush to the veiled staircase tucked away to the right. He constantly moved towards his goal, but he allowed himself to read the graves. Despite their age, they were crisp and untouched as the day they'd been erected. He found himself admiring each one, offering his respects to them.

There was still one mourner in Lavender Tower.

It wasn't until he reached the staircase that a red-robed mystic intercepted him. She appeared in a billow of cloth and incense, peering down at him with eyes that held more awareness than he expected. It was a far cry from the distant psychics he'd met in his journey.

"What are your intentions?" She said, voice muffled despite the emptiness of the room. The other channelers ignored them, opting to go along their patrols and chanting softly as they drifted through the graves.

He kept his head high. "I'm going to the top."

The channeler's face creased as she frowned. "That is unwise," she stated. "The upper reaches aren't welcoming to outsiders."

Ash's lips quirked. "I'm not alone."

She glanced to the row of pokeballs on his belt, then to his chest. "Indeed." The woman measured him for a moment, then stepped to the side so he could approach the staircase. "Tread wisely."

With a nod and slight dip of his head, Ash took his first steps up the tower.

The tower had seven stories. Most saw little use. Only the lowest level accepted new graves, whose inhabitants would eventually be moved to the upper levels given time - that's what he'd heard, anyway. Visitors were free to explore the rest, but not many made it to the highest levels. Several of the far-sighted Lavender Lords had chosen to live their lives on the fifthlevel, holding court amidst the dead, and rumors said their spirits had never left. They were said to challenge foolhardy invaders with curses and dread.

Ash doubted they could be worse than Mewtwo, so he pressed on.

First impressions of the second floor were little different than the first. It was empty aside from those buried here, and the air was thick with still clouds of incense. They didn't twist and diffuse throughout the air, but hung frozen low to the ground. The thick layer of incense was so unmoving that it appeared entirely motionless, perhaps even solid. His breath was hard to draw, as if the air itself resisted any disruption and clung stubbornly to its current state. Even his steps were almost silent, only to ring out sluggishly through the vast empty space several seconds later.

Despite its oddities, Ash couldn't help but relish the stillness. He was a stranger here, but it was...welcoming. The pungent incense didn't so much as ripple as he stepped through the clouds towards the spiral staircase on the other side of the room that would take him to the next level. It seemed to simply absorb him, obscuring his legs from view.

Like before, Ash refused to rush. He took his time stepping between the graves. They held a timeless quality just like the ones below. Little candles were lit beneath many of the graves, along with tiny, lovingly carved figurines of the pokemon they were in life. He scanned over names, birthdates, death dates, the epitaphs… Ash paid particular attention to those with no details left to remember them by, humming the Song as he waded through the smoke. He smiled just a tad as he realized that every grave he passed had lived a long, long life for its species. His thoughts lingered on that, then frowned.

It was startling to realize the Song had emptied from his head, silenced by this place. He felt that he could hear it again if he just reached, but Ash didn't for the same reason he didn't summon the Sacred Fire to his Feather in this grey place.

There would be no ghosts to circle around him if he played the Flute here. It was strange on the second level, but Ash could sense nothing askance within the incense. No giggles, no predatory gazes, and not the subtle flicker of wrong that set his instincts on edge. Not that Ash would let his guard down. When it came to ghosts, this tower was supposed to be the belly of the beast.

Soon enough he approached the spiral staircase. As he rose, he felt the peaceful, contented air of the second floor drift away behind him, clinging to him for just a moment before it was sucked away.

He stepped into the vast expanse of the third level and -

Pain. Stabbing pain. Ash clutched at his stomach, wincing. A deep nausea filled his gut, bile rising in his throat, and it took everything he had not to empty his stomach all over the pale green tiles. That would be...well, disrespectful was the least of it.

A moment later and it passed. Ash's eyes opened - when had he closed them? - and he grimaced as the aftershocks panged throughout his body. He swallowed back a bit of bile, forced the rest of the nausea down, and stepped into the writhing mists of this floor.

His steps quickened. The nausea grew by the second, only made worse by the incense. It was sharper on this level, stinging his nose and throat and twisting around his form. Sometimes he swore the clouds thickened, shaping into limbs to hold and cling to him only for him to slip away moments later.

Ash hummed the Song, and he thought perhaps the mists settled a fraction. He glanced over the numberless graves, desperate for some sort of insight, and a dread understanding came to him as his eyes raced across life after life.

Disease. Famine. Circumstance.

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. All lives cut short.

They had left their mark on this place, and they had yearned for more of what they would never have.

Ash whispered soft nothings - words his mother used to say while singing him to sleep - and the mists receded. He refused to hurry away, refused to admit his fear of the incense. It still swirled, but never touched him. The hunger wasn't soothed, but it seemed to realize he wouldn't be such an easy target.

But soon enough he left the restless mists behind. They followed him up the staircase, but fell away the moment he stepped into the fourth floor.

The fourth floor passed by quickly. In contrast to the previous floors, there was no mist. No incense, no presence. Most startling of all, it felt nearly lifeless. The air was still thick and heavy, each breath a rattling gasp, but for the first time since he'd entered the tower the incense didn't fill his airway. It was hardly pure - it reminded Ash of the stale air waiting in his home in Pallet after he and his mom had visited Uncle Spencer and little Molly when she was a baby - but it was air.

He picked out no particular patterns in the graves here. Few even had ornaments or candles, though a few had little scraps of paper placed reverently before them. Ash felt uneasy seeing how empty they were. Compared to the rest of the tower, it felt like these had been abandoned.

Ash took care to read as many as he could.

Despite himself, he lingered on the lifeless floor longer than he should have.

By the time he ascended to the fifth floor a sense of melancholy washed over him, and he left the untended graves behind with a heavy heart.

On the fifth floor, he discovered the people of Lavender.

The rumors he'd heard were just that. No looming specters of reedy Lavender Lords awaited him. No rattling gasps as old spirits tried to chase him away from their resting place. Not even an ominous wind or cryptic warning greeted him.

No, all he found were the same maze of headstones as he had on the other floors. A low-hanging mist crawled along the ground, drifting aimlessly, and Ash stepped through it without consequence. He wouldn't have even known it was devoted to humans without the distinct names of Lavender etched into the graves with an expert hand.

Several names caught his eyes. His stomach turned as he caught the departed of several Hashimoto - all of whose ashes were interred together, and he soon realized they had died in battle during the Secession - and it took all Ash had not to relish the sight. How many of these graves were of the Hashimoto's victims and experiments? Were they even honored with a place in the Lavender Tower, or were they tossed aside to rot in the dirt?

His sour mood faded a tad as he turned to explore a few additional graves. None seemed to be given particular reverence or favorable placement. From the brief epitaphs he read, it seemed that peasants and craftsmen were buried alongside mystics and soldiers. Apparently old Lavender didn't hold the belief that wealth and power could be brought along into death.

Ash respected that.

After a few minutes he finally picked out a particularly interesting name. He crouched before a tiny memorial to Shion Chieko, one of the esteemed Lavender Ladies. Ash didn't recognize the name, but he knew that Shion was the family name of the Lavender Lords that ruled in the time before the Secession. It was a position that shifted occasionally over the centuries - after a few decades or centuries of power, the various Lavender dynasties tended to dwindle in number, which Ash had some suspicions about after Agatha's awful revelations - but most of the Lavender Lords were swift to entrench themselves deeply in the traditions and system of the city-state.

Shion Chieko - Human.

PIL 817-829

Last flower of the Shion and beloved of all Lavender. Kind to those beneath her, stalwart against those greater. Taken away before her time by a cruel hand. Her family ended, her people scattered, her home burnt, but we remember. Rest long and well, little lady.

His throat constricted. Ash looked away, eyes squeezed shut. Without the Song his thoughts were stark and harsh and raw. There was nothing there to soothe him, nothing to numb him. The Feather lay dead on his chest, kept away by his own will, and the only company left to him was Mewtwo lurking about in the back of his brain. Muffled, but not extinguished. If only he could snuff it out like the Feather…

Mercifully, Mewtwo didn't say a thing. He was watching, but the cold flame was blissfully silent.

Ash glanced at the little candle placed beneath Chieko's grave. The wick was straight and unburnt. When was the last time it had been lit? Did anyone other than the channelers even make it this high in the tower? He could hardly blame the unwary for being frightened off by the fourth level's bitterness.

He stared at the wick, embracing Fire to bring it to a blaze - he exhaled, the pressure of this place mounting in a spike. Ash grimaced, unsettled by the sudden weight draped around his shoulders, and allowed Fire to recede. Instead he grabbed for the packet of matches (surprisingly modern in a place like this) laid in front of a nearby grave.

To be honest, he was a little rusty with matches. Infernus had taken care of his fires for a little more than a year now. It didn't take him long to remember the old instincts, however, and soon enough he held the flickering tip of the match to the candlewick. It ignited with little more than a touch, and Ash extinguished the match. He let it cool for a moment, then pocketed it. He'd throw it away later.

Ash bowed his head. "You're remembered," he said stiffly to the girl who had died more than a century and a half ago. She had been his age… Ash ignored his wild, tumultuous thoughts and the painful constriction in his chest and rose to his feet. "Goodbye, Chieko."

The cold fire in his mind flickered. Ash just scowled and ignored it as he wandered off with his head spinning. He didn't head to the staircase just yet. He couldn't.

Instead, he wandered the graves. He didn't dare pay too close of attention to those who had been buried around 827. His eyes traced over grave after grave. There were a few that drew his attention - several more of the Hashimoto, a handful of famous clan names and Shion, and many of the regular folk who had made Lavender their home over the last centuries. Some of the graves even dated back to before the Indigo League was founded, though they appeared identical to those buried here last month. Crisp, clear, and lovingly tended to.

Did the channelers make the inscriptions, or the families? Perhaps he'd ask Agatha when he returned.

He read over a few more headstones, a little less overwhelmed now that his thoughts had time to settle, and finally landed on a name that grabbed his interest.

"What?" Ash murmured softly, reaching up to trace the name before he yanked his hand back. It wouldn't do to disrespect the dead. He glanced at the inscription - it was high up this time, stacked atop over graves - and frowned.

Ai Akemi - Human.

BIL 21 - PIL 44

Daughter of Indigo, Chosen of Lavender. Honored Sister of the Uniter. Cherished Wife of Sasaki Chousuke. She has earned her peace.

He stared. Sister of the Uniter? Did they mean - Ash blinked again, head reeling. This wasn't what he'd expected. Could this really be the sister of the First? He didn't know that Taimu even had a sister. More than that, how on earth had she ended up here?

Ash was lost in his contemplations for a time, suddenly cognizant of how little he actually knew. He only knew the basics of the unification of Kanto and the actions of the First Champion. Perhaps it was time to rectify that when he returned home - to Indigo Plateau, he corrected. Chinatsu had asked to speak to him. Assuming she didn't just burn him to a crisp for some reason, maybe he could wheedle some firsthand experience out of him.

He'd have to take notes - Ash was pretty sure Cynthia would kill for a firsthand account like that. He owed her for the present she'd left for him, after all. And this would probably be enough to get some training as well! It was the best of both worlds.

For once, he rose with a smile on his face. Ash said his goodbyes to Akemi and finally walked to the staircase. He was ready for the sixth level.

To be honest, Ash was starting to wonder what on earth Agatha had sent him to find. Things were strange and vague suspicions had begun to collect in his head, but nothing had actually happened yet. Was this just a lesson or errand she'd sent him on, or was there genuinely something waiting for him to discover?

Normally he wouldn't be surprised in the least if Agatha decided to entertain herself by sending him off to search for something that wasn't there - and if he called her on it, she'd probably just laugh and call it training the mind or something like that. He didn't think it was the case this time, however. She was too serious. Too solemn.

And if she did… well, he'd just have to make sure he found a way to get the crone back somehow. Easier said than done, of course.

He put those thoughts from his mind as he ascended to the sixth floor.

What struck him first was the tension that flooded the room, grasping at him like a clenching fist. His breath rattled. The mist still filled the room, but it was different. Unfamiliar. His nostrils flared as the bitter scent reached him, then he blinked.

It wasn't incense anymore. No, it was thick smoke that clung to his throat and nearly left him spitting and coughing - even with short breaths his throat seared beneath its unnatural heat. Ash knew that if he spoke it would come out as a harsh, rattling rasp. His throat burned more and more with each breath, his mind retreating back to Mt. Ember and its toxic fumes, and the stinging smoke left his eyes red and wet.

He steadfastly ignored it all, though he wished nothing more than to play the Song on the Flute, calling out to the sea air and cleansing winds that were so close. It was easy to imagine a roaring gale smashing against the Lavender Tower and ripping the top away to bring something fresh and alive to this stagnant, timeless place.

But he didn't, of course. This wasn't his place to change, as the unseen spectral audience laid their eyes on Ash again. He could sense the great weight of their attention - it must be hundreds, perhaps thousands of ghosts hiding in the tiles and smoke of the Lavender Tower. They flitted about unseen, perhaps shy and unused to any humans venturing this high in the ancient structures, but Ash could sense their presence plain as day.

There were things in the tower. He knew it. Nothing else explained the bizarre happenings, the sudden flashes of insight, the unnatural sense that the Lavender Tower was alive. The pressure here was immense, greater than anywhere else in the timeless tower. Would he find whatever Agatha wanted him to seek here, or would he have to wait until the last floor?

Knowing Agatha, it would be as difficult and inconvenient as possible.

He took another painful breath, then took in the wide open expanse of the tomb but found no braziers or urns for the smoke to flood from. There wasn't a single potential source. No, the more he looked the more certain he was that the thick smokey haze that swirled turbulently in the still air seeped from everywhere...or was it nowhere? It could be hard to tell with ghosts.

Nevertheless, he moved swiftly. He swatted the coiling smoke away to little effect as he walked. It rushed back to fill the empty space, seeming to move in the exact way to fill his lungs with every breath. Ash coughed, wiping his eyes, and finally pulled his jacket off to wrap around his mouth and eyes. It alleviated his situation to a bearable level, but the hostile smoke still snuck through every little opening to bite at him.

Despite the discomfort (which seemed to grow worse every moment as the living smoke seemed to thicken and grow firm and tangible) Ash found time to read the graves. The pressure of the tower seemed to intensify with the haze, pressing against him, and Ash made sure to move quickly.

As he scanned the various names (though he always, always pressed forward lest the smoke grow too heavy) Ash couldn't help but frown as he recognized various names of both pokemon and humans. He'd thought only a single level had been dedicated to humans, with the rest of this hallowed tower reserved solely for pokemon.

Apparently that was not the case. This penultimate floor of the Lavender Tower held countless pokemon and humans both, laid side by side in death. Their ashes were carefully preserved just like the rest of the gravestones in the tower: painstakingly gathered after cremation, brought to their resting place, and interred in the slots.

There had been a pattern to the other floors. The fifth held the graves of humans. The third had been those with lives cut short. The fourth's pattern he'd been unable to decipher. The second carried none of the half-forgotten wrath and bitterness of the rest, embracing him with its serenity.

And the sixth?

He shut his eyes. His ears filled with the clang of steel, pleas for mercy and howls of rage, the roars and shrieks of battle, and the awful roar of fire. The smoke stank in his nose and bile filled his throat. Ash's eyes snapped open - still narrowed to protect from the smoke - and looked over a few names.

827. 827. 827. 827. 827. 772. 827. 601. 34. 827. 827.

Well, that pattern was telling.

These were the graves of those who had suffered for Lavender. Not just in the Secession of 827 - no, there were too many scattered names and dates from other centuries - but there were too many names from that year for comfort.

The old town of Lavender had refused to burn, the stones themselves perhaps too familiar with the alien energy of the ghosts - Distortion, he mentally corrected - to suffer mundane fire so lightly. It remained virtually untouched, though only the oldest families still eeked out an existence in its pristine manors.

Not all of Lavender Town had been so lucky when the old Champion led the massed armies of the League to the gates. He wasn't the most versed in the story, but he knew there was a reason the rest of Lavender Town was so modern compared to the tiny core that remained untouched: nothing else had survived.

All that was left was the old town and cinders. Ash knew the League of that time had invested heavily in rebuilding Lavender - too valuable as a frontier outpost to scourge entirely - but that didn't change what had happened. No doubt the League of that time would defend it as necessary, a sacrifice that the rebellious Lavender Lord and his mystics had forced on them with their wicked rites.

As Ash looked about at the stacks and stacks of tall gravestones, each carrying the ashes of dozens, he found himself doubting that.

His heart was heavy as he moved on. Even Ash couldn't linger long here in the choking smoke. Not without the Feather blazing, at any rate.

Still, he couldn't help but wonder why Chieko wasn't here amongst the burnt -

He cut himself off from that awful line of thought just as he reached the stairs. The smoke and blood and steel was left behind, and he followed the long spiral staircase up and up and up…

XX

When Ash finally exited the staircase, it was into a round room. He took a moment to take a measure of his surroundings, instincts screaming. The air seemed immovable here. Thick. Solid. Like he could cut it with a knife…

He reached for Nidoking's pokeball. Ash brushed against the release. The tiniest bit of pressure and his brother would come tearing out. Yet he didn't for the same reasons he didn't hold the Feather high and channel the Concepts through it.

Whatever Agatha wanted him to find, it was here. Waiting, perhaps, or unaware of him at all.

Then the audience was back - had it ever left? - and Ash felt the eyes of ten thousand ghosts laid against him. Pressure mounted, the air in his chest refused to exhale...Ash wheezed, nearly falling to his knee, but forced himself to remain standing. No Fire, no Lightning, only Ash.

Gasping for breath, he stepped forward. There were no windows to allow light through, but a few scattered candles waited alit with wavering flame. The candles - perhaps thirty scattered all across the walls and shelves - lit far more of the room than they should have. Such little light should have been barely more than flickers in the blackness, yet Ash could view it as easily as if scattered sunbeams pierced the walls.

The room still felt heavy, something pounding through his head as if the tower itself had a heartbeat, but it looked altogether plain. Dust lay in a thick film over the floor's green tile, obscuring it from sight, and clumped into heaps and hills further in. When was the last time anyone had even been up here?

Carved into the walls lay small alcoves, perhaps as high as his shoulders, that reached seven or eight feet into the thick stone. If they were much higher the alcoves would be cut into the dome itself. Ash couldn't imagine that would be good for the structural integrity of the tower.

Despite the veritable howl of his instincts begging him to turn away, to rush back down the stairs as quickly as his legs would take him, Ash took a silent step into the final floor of Lavender Tower.

Agatha had challenged, after all. It wouldn't do to disappoint.

He had not faltered before the Legends. A couple of ghosts couldn't scare him away.

Dust crunched beneath his feet, thicker than he expected, and Ash winced as a little chunk of something hard and sharp jab him hard enough to be felt through the thick sole of his boot. He stepped gingerly away, squinting at the darkened dust to spy whatever had -

A flicker of something left Ash jolting, mystery forgotten as his eyes narrowed and his hand drifted to his belt as the air… he couldn't describe it, couldn't find words. It was as if the stagnant weight of this place redoubled upon him for a brief moment, then tripled. The world twisted and spun, as if the whole tower had been uprooted and tossed across Kanto. Ash's stomach turned, his vision went black as the light broke, fragmented, and -

The return to normalcy was so sudden as to be jarring. Ash found himself on all fours heaving, barely forcing down vomit. His stomach seemed knotted into loops and Ash's fingers curled into the dust, wrapped around something sharp and knobby. He frowned, looking down at the faint light dancing across the dust, and stared.

He pulled his hand up to inspect the mystery object. It was smaller than what had poked through his boot earlier, and as he moved his other hand to stabilize himself he realized there were countless more of the objects mixed through the dust. Some were smaller, hardly big enough to feel through the dust, while others were nearly as large as his fist.

Ash brushed the grainy dust away, ignoring how it clung to his hands and clothes. It was thicker than he expected, and coarser as well. The substance vaguely reminded Ash more of sand than the thin, wispy dust that settled over forgotten things.

Those thoughts all went out the window when he peered closer at the object in the half-lit light, then a choked gasp was ripped from his chest as he saw its stark white color, the jagged edges and a stunned realization struck him. It dropped flatly from his hand, thunking in a soft bed of dust.

Bones, he thought dumbly. Within the dust he rested atop, pressing against his skin and pants to stain them deeply, were countless fragments and splinters of bone. They were spread evenly throughout the dust - he scrambled to his feet, shaking madly without a care for how foolish he might look. Dust went flying, but still clung stubbornly to his clothes, and Ash's hands blurred as he brushed it all off, over and over again until the panic began to fade.

Not dust. Ash.

It refused to leave him, marking his palms and pants an ashen grey. They were a far cry from the white ash left behind by campfires (or Infernus). These were grey and coarse and everywhere, stirred up into a low-hanging cloud by Ash's abrupt movements. He pulled back - Ash would not breathe them in - and was ready to step back into the safety of the stairwell when a thing twisted in the air, so smoothly and seamlessly that Ash couldn't be certain it hadn't been there all along.

He froze, though still stepping back from the swirls of ash and pulverized bone, and stared at the sudden stirring of the ash. Little flecks rose up from all around the room, flowing smoothly through the air as if pulled by an invisible current. The grey specks were barely visible in the half-light, appearing like little pieces of sand as the ash and a few tiny specks of bone were pulled together by the appearance of something great and terrible and alien, yet terribly familiar and natural to this place.

Ash was spellbound as the nameless, fragmented remains clasped together. There weren't even near enough to complete a full body, yet something shifted, the beating heart of the Lavender Tower skipping, and a lance of pain pierced his mind and left glittering stars in his eyes. He snarled, stepping forward even as his body urged him to flee this thing, and clenched his fists.

When the figure unveiled itself, standing calmly as if it had been there this whole time, Ash came to a stop. Bone and ash crunched beneath his boots. From the corner of his eye he spotted ghostly flame glowing from within each of the alcoves that circled him, and dawning realization struck him.

They were furnaces. Cremation chambers.

Perhaps he should have realized sooner. The ash in the graves below had to come from somewhere, right?

He focused back on the figure, disturbed by how normal it appeared. How alive…

To his senses, it appeared as a Marowak. Smaller and thinner than Jessica's Marowak that he'd faced in the Conference, likely female. Its frame was more diminutive, though it still held fearsome, coiled power in its body. The Marowak stared at him, claws brushing over its bone club. Its eyes, half-hidden by its skull helmet, were hard and fierce. There was something softer in them, though, and that bothered Ash far more than the unconcealed potential for violence.

"What are you?" Ash whispered. His fists clenched tighter. He couldn't even bring himself to be bothered by the ashes still dusting his palms and fingers… "Who are you?"

The 'Marowak' cocked its head as it considered him. Its club lightly struck against its forearm with in a light rhythm. Thump, thump, thump. He blinked, the pulse of Lavender skipped again, and when he opened his eyes a black-haired woman of average height had taken Marowak's place. She was aged, perhaps as old as Professor Oak, but still resplendent in the simple indigo kimono wrapped around her shoulders. Ash couldn't help but stare, soaking in the sight of the unknown woman with striking blue eyes, eyes that reminded him starkly of -

"Ai Akemi?" His words hung in the air, reverberating throughout the final level of Lavender Tower. It was unnatural, like how words would echo longer than they should in the frigid depths of the Seafoam Caverns.

She smiled, saying not a word, and Ash blinked again. That same pressure mounted, spiking enough to leave him wincing, and when he opened his eyes the First's sister had vanished and a tall, skeletal man in lavender robes and stringy gray-blonde hair peered down at him with a maddened, bloodshot gaze. With a single look Ash knew that this was a man who had seen too much, a man who had gazed into the abyss and found himself lost in it.

A yearning filled him, almost wishing to beg for Akemi back so he could ask her a thousand and one questions, but when he blinked again the skeletal man was gone. Now a little Eevee with its fluffy tail raised happily and a wet tongue, then a short, squat woman with brown hair and a curled lip, and then form after form - Ash could barely keep up with it, vision obscured by the haze of ash drawn into the thing, until it finally rested. Bone fragments and ash swirled about one last time, rushing into the bodies, until the blurs stilled.

This new apparition was just a little shorter than him. It took a moment to be visible as the last fragments of ash vanished into it, but he quickly picked the newest appearance as that of a girl. She was only a little shorter than him, thin and wispy in her voluminous lavender robes, and sent a toothy grin his way. The girl raised her chin haughtily and folded her arms, clearly waiting for him to speak.

Blood rushed from his face. For a moment he swore he glimpsed the girl with blood spurting from grisly wounds, awful shouts and battle cries and screeches echoing in his ears, the whiff of smoke and blood, and a keening shriek as her ghostly companion came upon her attackers…

"Chieko."

The girl laughed at his acknowledgement, pleased with herself, and offered a little bow.

His teeth ground together. "You're not her."

Chieko stamped, scowling at him, and made a rude gesture at him. Ash blinked - he'd have needed Ice to resist reacting to that - and he was pretty sure his jaw dropped. The girl grinned, pleased with herself, and spread her arms wide as embracing the room.

"Of course I am!" She spoke, and that fact alone made Ash want to walk away. This wasn't like talking to Wes. The hero of Orre was dead, but Chieko was dead. He wasn't sure he could explain the distinction, but Ash knew it was there. He knew it in his bones. The odd feeling in his chest only got worse. "How rude! How would you feel if I plowed into your home and told you that?"

Ash frowned at her argument, then at the whole situation in general. "Shion Chieko died a long time ago."

The girl - the thing masquerading as her, rather - looked quite displeased at that. "Such poor manners, honestly! Of course I died a long time ago," she rolled her eyes. "Do you think I'm dumb?" Chieko's frown deepened, watching him with her pale eyes. "I remember it, you know. I remember that sword cutting me. I remember swinging it too," she added as an afterthought. Chieko seemed to delight in the flicker of comprehension in Ash's eyes, hiding her giggle behind one of her giant sleeves. "I am Shion Chieko," she said, smiling, "but why must I only be Shion Chieko?"

He gasped at the sudden pressure as the Lavender Tower's pulse quickened, the shadows lengthening and gnawing at the light, stretching wider and wider until -

Ash was on his knees again. Everything seemed distant, so distant…

Reality reasserted itself.

The thing wore every shape at once, traces of each distinguishable in a way that left his head aching and his stomach queasy, blurring together as one entity that was still distinct. Bone and ash was summoned and discarded from its shape with every second that passed, and soon the thing wore ten thousand faces and forms that heaped upon one another like countless corpses sewn together and proudly presented as a masterpiece. Torsos and legs merged together seamlessly, content faces bulged from chests and knees and other places they did not belong. Arms and legs stabbed out from the fleshy mass like spokes of a wheel, bent at unnatural angles that would leave Ash's stomach lurching if the rest of the thing wasn't so horrible. As it was, the too-many limbs twitching and grasping and kicking at empty air barely drew his notice.

It rose high, too high for the dome until the visages of the dead seemed as though they'd rip the dome apart, and the ash vanished beneath his feet until the entire room seemed filled with the unbothered dead. He swore this place hadn't been a tenth as massive as it appeared, as if the bounds of space itself had unraveled and stretched far past what should have been possible.

Despite the ugly, visceral nature of the thing, the dead were unbothered by the foul nature of their existence. Their expressions were even and calm, some smiling down at him comfortingly while others seemed to sneer or curl their lips at the stranger in their sanctum. The many thousands of pokemon cooed or snarled or waited in peaceful silence, little more than curiosity in their gaze.

Amidst the illusion - no, Ash knew this was no trick of the light - certain figures rose to prominence and drew his eyes. His vision strained with every moment he looked at the aberration, fading at the edges as though his mind sought to shield itself from the full scale of this thing, yet he forced himself to watch and wait.

Even as more ash flowed into the thing from beneath his feet, vanishing into unblemished skin and armor and hide of the humans and pokemon it had fastened into itself, Ash found his gaze falling upon familiar faces: the female Marowak clutching its bone club like a lifeline, Ai Akemi smiling graciously at him with knowing blue eyes, Aiko the Eevee raising her fluffy tail (which burst from a Graveler's beady eyes) as if to play, and Chieko's wide, toothy grin greeted him.

A grieving mother. A beloved sister. A warm soul. A child with all her life left to live.

The voice came from everywhere, yet nowhere. It was as if the Lavender Tower itself spoke to him, its foundations shaking with the voice, yet came from within Ash as well. Rather than the chorus of these captive souls he'd expected to hear, the voice was even and indescribable, neither man nor woman but something else. Something unknowable, old and alien and not of this world, yet with an edge of wistful mortality…

New faces now. The wrinkled old man with greying blonde hair just like Agatha's, a reedy woman with the cold air and robes of a Lavender Lady, a savage Charmeleon with bared fangs, and a haunted woman with flat eyes and a blood-soaked blade in her hands.

A man desperate to reclaim his family's lost glory. A lady with treasonous ambition. A mighty warrior seeking fire and blood. A regretful soldier seeking absolution.

Those who embraced death, and those who did not. I am the burnt and those who set the fires.

I am these things and countless more.

I am Lavender.

He could not move. Every word beat upon him like an ocean wave, forcing him to the ground as his muscles clenched tight, desperate to run. It lacked the raw power of Mewtwo or the primal, indomitable force of a Legend, but it was too close…

Now he knew why the ghosts of Lavender refused to come near the tower.

Ash grit his teeth, raised his head, and refused the weighty words of this thing. Beneath the steady gazes of the dead and the terrible pressure of the stagnant air in the kiln, Ash called everything he was to bear.

Beneath his chest, the Feather ignited. He gasped at the sensation, the pins-and-needles prickling beneath his skin as heat filled his blood and his muscles found new strength. It was slow, like an engine struggling to start to life, but it was there. Fire was first, as it always was. The suffocating air seemed to retreat, the spectral flames filling the kilns sparking red and gold, and he rose to his feet. Lightning ordered his thoughts, Ice tempered the primordial fear of the unknown stirring his thoughts into a frenzy, and the Song brought a final measure of peace, tempered by the Beasts and Ho-Oh's bells as it were…

Many of the dead graced him with horribly kind smiles. Ai Akemi clapped her hands together. Chieko cheered. The pokemon in particular seemed to display interest, cocking their heads and watching raptly. Lavender Lords and Ladies peered down at him, and that man with Agatha's hair and the sunken eyes inspected him like a morsel to be devoured.

"A ghost?" Ash rasped, staring at the misshapen mass of flesh before him. Even as he said the words he knew he couldn't capture the truth of it, couldn't reduce this down to the same specters that haunted Lavender Town. Just listening to the tower's heartbeat, that thump thump thump that echoed in his bones, told him that much. Even the greatest of Agatha's team were nothing to this thing that threaded its tendrils throughout this tower, in the same way that a newborn Magby couldn't challenge Infernus.

Before his eyes, the pulse skipped a beat. Ash's vision darkened, but he didn't black out like before. He still trembled against the force - the Feather dulled, like the sun veiled by passing clouds, and then it exploded with power just a moment. A cold flame flickered in the back of his mind, observing with some interest.

Despite himself, Ash felt a sigh of relief when the many-faced monstrosity the Ghost revealed itself as faded away, shifting seamlessly into the far more palatable form of the Lavender Lady. She held herself with a regal air, the grace of one well-accustomed to being obeyed wrapped around her like a cloak, and peered down at him with barely veiled disdain.

Even with the much more human form, Ash was no fool. Things flickered in the corner of his vision, disruptions of the air, and he didn't miss the faint traces of grey ash that still flowed into the Lavender Lady's frame, disappearing simply into the voluminous folds of her robes. The dead were simply hiding behind the facade of this woman, puppeted by the Ghost as she was.

"Kneel."

The Lavender Lady's tone brooked no argument. Hard eyes looked at him dismissively down her curved nose.

Ash did not kneel.

Her nostrils flared, but there was no other sign of her displeasure.

"Kneel, trespasser," she said. When Ash remained unbowed, her frown deepened. "Do you not know who I am? I am your Lady."

"No, you aren't," Ash said truthfully. Her lip curled. "Lavender has no Ladies or Lords. It hasn't for more than a hundred and seventy years."

She did not seem surprised by that, though a look of utmost disgust flickered across her pointed features. Ash took note - given what he'd seen of Chieko in their brief interaction, it appeared the dead still retained some kind of awareness. He filed the information away for later use. Anything that could help him solve the puzzle of the Ghost (and how it mimicked the dead who should NOT be talking to him) was invaluable.

The fear was fading, though Ash still retained that sense of unease that reminded him of meeting Chinatsu for the first time: an awareness that he was observing something greater, something with a sharp mind and gut wrenching power. No matter the form it wore, Ash would not forget what hid behind the faces of human and pokemon. It was inhuman to its core, though that did not make it actively malicious.

He couldn't forget its terrible power, however. Without the Concepts at his beck and call he would have been nearly defenseless before the thing, and something deep within Ash told him the Ghost could steal away his access to the Feather entirely if it so desired… he had entered its territory, stepped into the belly of the beast of his own volition.

Part of him was very irritated with Agatha right now. The other was working out how to avoid sending this thing into a rage. Even his team wouldn't be effective against something of this scale, and Ash feared what they would do if he released them now. Between Nidoking's protectiveness and paranoia and Infernus' lust for assaulting anything vastly stronger than him, he couldn't imagine a happy ending.

Then the Lady ended her period of silence. Ash's attention was wrenched back. "I was the last," she sniffed imperiously. "No other can claim the title. Lavender remembers its last Lady."

Despite himself, Ash leaned forward. He doubted Lavender remembered its Lady for the reasons she thought, but he couldn't help but indulge the new hunger he'd entertained more and more frequently as of late. "You were the last Lavender Lady? The one who led the Secession?"

She did not seem amused by his interruption. "Remember your place, child. Do not interrupt your betters."

"Oh, I will," Ash barely hid a satisfied smile. He knew exactly what he was compared to this puppet. If only he didn't have to play nice to get what he wanted from her. "But I don't know much about you. Could you tell me more about the Secession?"

The Lady sniffed. "Make a proper request of it. Your mother must be appalled at your poor manners," she said, then arched an elegant eyebrow. "Or perhaps she simply failed in her duties. My children would never speak so lowly."

His vision went red, but Ash grit his teeth and forced his spike of rage down with every bit of willpower he had. How dare she?

But she had something he wanted - and he knew better than to lash out. For all he knew, it would set the Ghost off. Ash couldn't comprehend why it decided to adopt this pompous noble's poor attitude, but perhaps that was just another aspect of the thing that he would never understand.

So he bit down his pride and did as she asked. She did not smile, but the Lady appeared somewhat mollified.

"The League disrespected the oaths of loyalty the previous Lords of Lavender had offered," the Lady looked terribly offended at the notion. "With every year that went by, I saw the lust for power grow desperate and ugly in the Champion's eyes!"

The Lady sneered. "The League no longer courted us or valued Lavender's wisdom. Their demands gnawed at us, each poke and prod engineered to eliminate the power of the Lords."

Privately, Ash couldn't blame the Champion of the time if the other Lords of Kanto and Johto were like the Lavender Lady. He'd be ripping his hair out.

"- could not suffer disrespect!" The Lavender Lady held her head high, eyes shining fiercely. "We knew what was coming, and would not go gently into the good night. The treacherous League already sought to undermine the authority of the Taiyo and Tsuki of Ecruteak, and while they waited for opportunity there they chipped away at our rightful place."

"Lavender stood tall above the rest of the petty Lords of Kanto, untouchable by mortals. The League despised us," she seemed to relish the fact. "They envied Lavender's greatness. Our wealth, our influence, our inherent nobility, our power… it outshone all others. And so the League tested us with unlawful reprimands, heaping demand after demand to sap our coffers and crumble my reign."

Ash nodded along, genuinely interested despite his… well, skepticism. History might be written by the victors, but Ash doubted the Lavender Lady was an impartial source herself. It was fascinating, though, and he found himself enraptured.

"So you rebelled?"

She sent a harsh glare his way, the thump thump thump of the Lavender Tower's heart quickening. Ash fell silent. "Yes," the tall woman allowed after a tense moment. "I roused my armies and the spirits of this land. The petty Lords of Saffron and Celadon joined me, as they should, and we struck."

He looked past the Lavender Lady thoughtfully, mind racing as he tried to remember what scraps he'd pieced together. "The strategy… you tried to secure Vermillion and Cerulean, right? Control Kanto's ports and put pressure on the League?"

"Silence!" The Lady demanded, crinkling her nose as if she'd smelled something particularly horrid. He rolled his eyes when the specter wasn't looking. After a moment, she acknowledged him. "You are not... incorrect. Our alliance could not stand against the full might of Indigo," she begrudgingly admitted.

Ash was fairly certain it (somehow) caused her physical pain to admit that.

"To be acknowledged and freed of our bonds to Indigo, we required a swift victory. Our armies struck Vermillion and Cerulean and their spineless Lords. We laid siege to them. The ghosts of Lavender were set free in those lands to sow fear, and my loyal mystics directed them into Fuchsia as well to prevent interference."

Ash grimaced, only able to imagine the horror of hundreds or even thousands of ghosts set loose against innocent people. They weren't inherently killers, but many ghosts were detached at best. There was only so much strange entities like them could empathize with wholly physical beings. And to be one of those people with no defenses against them…

Well, he couldn't say anything to her face, but he could always annoy the Lavender Lady.

"Then everything went wrong."

An ugly look cast over her face - she must have been truly furious, as she didn't even think to reprimand him. "The League rallied too quickly. The cowed cities of Johto did not join us in rebellion as my envoys beseeched them and their fork-tongued Lords agreed," she spat. Ash had to give her credit - even that seemed elegant coming from her. "They preened and offered false devotion, buying their precious Champion time."

"Viridian and Pewter's armies, each led by a member of the disgraced Elite Four, occupied our forces and stalled the sieges while Johto's cities readied their armies. The Wataru," her lip curled into a sneer again, "arrived on their foul beasts and broke our efforts entirely. In the next month Saffron and Celadon folded like cowards, burnt to the ground for their insolence."

He couldn't spit any pointed remarks or make light of what happened next. All he had to do was remember Chieko's epitaph to force that notion out of his thoughts…

"Yes, they came for us next. The Champion sent so many fruitless missives demanding my surrender," the Lady remembered. "When Saffron fell, we tore open great rifts to stymie the League. My mystics informed me the screams lingered for days," she smiled. "It bought old Lavender precious time, and we fortified as the League rallied their scattered forces. They fought well, I must say. Their resolve carried them through for the year it took to reach Lavender."

The Lady looked past Ash now, lost in troubled memories if her frown was anything to go by. "We fought nobly. My loyal mystics erected defense after against, outmatching the bleeding League at every turn. They were helpless against our might, yet a single mystic lost cost me more than a dozen of their soldiers did them. The Orange Islands abandoned us, pretending they'd never conspired in the dark to fracture Indigo," her expression grew stormy. "Left alone against an army that outnumbered our noble forces ten times over, we fell."

"And Lavender burned."

"Yes," the Lady whispered, and for perhaps the first time Ash thought she seemed human. She held her resolve, but a terrible fragility befell her, like a single word misspoken would break her composure. "Lavender burned, and the Shion with it."

Despite the whole thing being thrown into motion by the Lavender Lady, Ash just couldn't fight the stab of pity. "They killed you?"

He blinked as she scoffed, the tall woman torn between derision and morbid amusement. "Oh, no. They killed my sons and daughters and the children of my children. My loyal mystics and the warriors beneath them were butchered. They surrounded the Lavender Tower, but did not dare enter my perch."

Taking in the Lady - or, rather, the unseen specter infesting the very air of the tower - Ash couldn't imagine why…

"No, they did not get the satisfaction," a pleased smile crossed the cold woman's lips. Her eyes shut and she leaned her head back as if in rapture. "I would not be dragged kicking and screaming into their pawing hands. My life was my own."

Her smile widened and something shifted. His vision blurred, the scent of smoke and sound of a dying city greeted his ears -

Slim purple silk, barely visible over the flowing fabric of his robes bound his knees together. Those wretches would not find him disgraced and dishonored. He smiled at the promise of denying them their greatest prize, their trophy to offer the Indigo Champion. Would it be a swift death they offered, or worse - mercy? He would not be tossed back into the world like a useless Magikarp caught in a net, deemed worthless without his throne.

His hands tightened around the instruments that would deny the rotten League what they so desperately whined for. A delicate crystal vial in his left, topped with venom painstakingly milked from a young Nidoran, and cold steel in his right. He shut his eyes, but held no fear. His family would be waiting for him, souls plucked by the Ghost of Lavender.

This was not the end.

He raised the vial to his lips -

Ash sputtered, gagging at the memories of a bitter fluid searing the delicate skin of his throat, both hands clasped to his neck.

He didn't fall to his knees, but he wanted to. Ash might know he hadn't drank the venom himself, but that didn't change the aftershocks. His hands clenched his knees for support as he coughed, and he looked up with painfully wide eyes -

Thump, thump, thump.

"Why are you here? Answer boy, or I will snap your fingers!" A voice like nails on a chalkboard screeched at him, coming closer and closer until Ash forced himself to rise. Adrenaline pounded through him at the threat, snarling at the sight of the haughty Lavender Lady's visage replaced with the wrinkled folds of flesh belonging to the man Ash had no doubt was one of the Hashimoto. "Now!"

Those liver-spotted hands reached for him, grasping like claws, and Ash bared his teeth. He stepped forward, hand reaching beneath his shirt to yank the Feather away from his skin and bear it like a torch, and scowled at the skeletal creature that skittered away like an Ariados.

"Stay back!" Ash sneered right back, fueling the Fire in his hand and allowing it to fuel him as well. It burst into a conflagration of searing golden light, and the old man cowered. He huddled his arms around himself like a frightened child, eyes locked on the Feather. "I don't know if this will hurt you or not, but I wouldn't mind finding out."

It wasn't the Ghost that feared the Fire - he felt its power brushing against him gingerly, and if it increased the pressure by a touch it would snuff the Feather out for a time - but this cowering man before him seemed terrified of the power within it. Perhaps this was a specter the rest of them wouldn't mind seeing burned until even its ashes were gone...

"You heard the Lady's story!" The man lost his bestial qualities, rising up even as his mad eyes flitted between the Feather. His hands still curled closed only to open, grasping like he had a neck in his claws. "It is our turn now."

Ash curled his lip, allowing the Fire to blaze brighter and took a small stab of pleasure in how the madman retreated. He doubted the Lavender Lady would have ever allowed such a show of weakness, if she feared the Fire at all.

He thought of spitting in the man's face - his heart still pumped with adrenaline and his hands shook at the thought of those bony fingers coming at him - or maybe even releasing Sneasel to see if this was a ghost he could eat. Still, the thump of Lavender's heartbeat quickened, and he saw fit to answer.

"Agatha sent me," he stated simply, wondering if the potential Hashimoto would somehow know who he was speaking of. Whether from awareness of the Ghost or knowing her in life, the old man's eyes sparked with delight. His smile stretched grotesquely over his pointed cheekbones, he opened his mouth to speak -

Thump, thump, thump.

A warm smile greeted him, and despite his inherent mistrust of everything in this tower. He lowered the Feather. Ai Akemi took a few steps closer, her indigo robe skimming just above the polished green tile of the floor.

"Agatha? How is the dear child?" Akemi's faintly lined face practically glowed as she spoke. For a moment the Marowak superimposed over the woman, but Ash could barely trace the apparition before Akemi returned. Her blue eyes seemed locked on the Feather, lost in remembrance, and her hands clasped. "She always did spend too much time up here with us. It's not healthy for a little girl," Akemi shook her head with blatant disapproval. Her face darkened for a split second, then returned to her gentle smile. "But enough of those old memories!"

"She's not a little girl anymore," Ash grinned despite himself. He couldn't imagine Agatha enjoying that description too much. She'd probably whack him with her cane if he brought it up. "Far from it."

Akemi chuckled, hiding her mouth with her sleeve. "Oh, I've seen her. She visits from time to time, though it has been many years since she has joined me in the Kiln. It's been a rare occasion since her grandfather passed." Her smile vanished. "She's lost a great deal. Time is such a fickle thing. It always flies too fast…"

"I could take her a message, if you'd like," even Ash couldn't believe he was offering to the Ghost, but he ran through the mental gymnastics to consider it a favor for Akemi instead. Did it still count if he did it intentionally?

"You're very kind," the woman bowed her head graciously, long fingers tugging at the edges of her robe in a curtsy. "I do not wish to impose, but I will leave you with a word or two before you go," her new smile was bright and left Ash grinning back. It was easy to forget what he was talking to. "It's been too long since I've been shown such graciousness."

Ash thought back to the words he'd shared with the Lavender Lady. "My mom raised me well."

"Indeed she did," Akemi acknowledged. "Please thank Agatha on my behalf for sending such a well-mannered young man to us," she dipped her head again, long hair fluttering down to settle around her shoulders. "Yet even as a little girl she wasn't one to take action without reason."

"I had questions," he said, hearing her unspoken inquiry. "Questions she said could be answered here."

Akemi's patient smile encouraged him to keep speaking. He felt a little foolish repeating his questions in front of Akemi, let alone the ancient thing watching behind her eyes, but he did so regardless.

"I asked her what Distortion is," he said quietly, words echoing in the sudden vastness of the kiln. He flushed at his next question. "And I wanted to find a ghost."

The woman chuckled behind her sleeve, blue eyes failing to hide her amusement, and then Akemi slipped away into nothingness. Faint wisps twisted in the air, apparitions faded in and out, fissures appeared around him that dimmed the Feather and when he looked in them he wanted to scream, and at last the foundations of the tower trembled as the Ghost took its first rattling breath.

It did not take a form.

You found one.

Spoke the Ghost of Lavender. It had no eyes, but Ash knew it was looking at him. His heart quickened, his brain pounded, his muscles found the Fire in them snuffed out with a thought…

His strength was stolen from him, and it took all his will to remain standing under the Ghost's attention. Not the force of a Legend, he noted, but what did it matter when he still felt so small in front of it?

It was only when the unpleasantly familiar form of that old man, stooped with age and grinning his ugly grin, manifested again that Ash forced himself to shake it off. The Feather blazed again as the pressure faded, the Ghost still blanketing him with its curiosity, and the madman kept his distance lest golden tongues of flame lick furiously in his direction.

"My granddaughter sent you to learn about Distortion, hmm?" He paced before Ash, hands still opening and closing in that disturbing way. The Hashimoto turned bloodshot eyes on Ash even as the weight of the rotten old man's words struck him. His teeth were bared again, and now he really considered setting Sneasel on Agatha's grandfather. "She still respects talent, I see. She told you of her gifts?"

"She told me what you did to her," he hissed, and the Flames exploded again, the rainbow tinge enough to send the madman scurrying back. Ash took more than a little vindictive pleasure in it. It was the least he could do.

The stooped man brushed his words off. "Bah! She'll appreciate it one day. I made that girl great."

Ash gnashed his teeth, stepping forward -

Thump, thump, thump.

Chieko stood before him, hands on her hips. "Sorry about that!" She waved at him, a little bashful. The girl winked, then slipped away into nothingness. Ash wished she had stayed - anything to keep Agatha's grandfather from popping back up again.

The room was empty now, still filled with half-things and portals to darkness-that-was-not-darkness that drew his eyes and he couldn't look away -

He shut his eyes. If this trip to Lavender had taught him anything, it was that some things were better left unknown. There were some truths that Ash would never seek out.

Distortion. Antithesis. It is Not. Equal and opposite of the material, of Time and Space and matter. Unbound. Free.

They were less words and language than concepts and ideas forcefully shoved into his brain. It was sudden and abrupt and left Ash's skin crawling, but the meaning sank deep and harsh and immediately. For once, he was grateful to his experiences with Mewtwo and the other Legends... without their touch over the last year, he would have been knocked unconscious at best, overcome by the eldritch touch and the knowledge whispered into his very being.

It did not tell him. It did not give him the answers so much as it forced him to connect the dots that were already there. Merging disparate facts and acknowledgements and notes into one whole. The failure of psychic power and the dulling of his Concepts when Sneasel's claws pierced his shoulders came to mind -

His head reared back, mouth agape, and his whole body seemed suspended beneath the Ghost's whispers.

What was worse, Ash knew it was being gentle. The Ghost sought to teach, not harm, and it still left blood dripping in fat red streaks from his eyes and ears and nose. Ash's eyes remained shut, the only thing keeping his spinning head from sending him throwing up all over the shiny green tile.

Ash already knew he was going to feel like crap tomorrow.

The material universe is that of stability. Distortion is the Antithesis. It is tethered to this world by the Pitch-Black, yet it is alien. Freedom in excess. Chaos. Flux. Not. It erodes this world, no matter the intention behind it.

The ghost did not speak for a time. It could have been a second or an hour. How could Ash even know anymore?

He thought the air was heavy now, still and stagnant as though the Ghost was lost in thought. He accepted the reprieve for what it was, wishing Suicune were here to purge him of the corruption - the Distortion - inherent in the Ghost's every thought.

"So how do ghosts exist?" He panted from the floor, eternally grateful he wasn't wallowing in ashes and bone. They still hadn't reappeared, sucked away into whatever realm the Ghost sent them to. "It sounds impossible."

A crowd of phantasms seemed to heap themselves together from nowhere, connected arm to arm and leg to leg, dangling from the ceiling and rising from the floor and watching him with true curiosity. Lavender laid its dread gaze upon him.

We are the bastard children of two realms. Our progenitor is the Distortion from which we spawn, spilt into the material in terror and madness. Our mother? This world of impossible stability, of What Is. Cruel at first, yet it has granted us the gift of permanence. We are born of Distortion, but as we exist in this world our origin does not define us. Through stability, we are offered true freedom: We grow beyond our Father.

Ash's breaths came shallow and quick as he mulled the Ghost's words over. The pieces came together slowly, then quickly, then completed.

His next question was answered.

There was no return for ghosts to Distortion. They couldn't abandon their corporeal forms and slip through a rift back into this 'Distortion'. It would erode them as surely as this world did, stealing away everything they had become until they were assimilated back into the chaos.

"I have another question."

The silence beckoned.

"What are you?"

More silence, and Ash knew the answer was about as complicated as he'd suspected.

He expected words, an explanation. Perhaps another dead human or pokemon to speak with him.

Instead, the pressure focused on him - mounting, then suffocating, then too much until it felt as though his mind was uprooted and cast adrift -

Chaos. Impermanence.

Rift, the ugly Permanence left open to Distortion by a fraying veil. The Pitch-Black had drifted by.

Birth. Fear. Awareness. Death, or something close. Wild grasping. So desperate to shape the air itself into a corporeal form. The air grew thick and toxic where its essence coalesced. Relief. Horror and fear at the strangeness of this world.

Hunted. Chased. Hated by the ugly unchanging inhabitants of the Permanent and stalked by greater Distorted trapped in this world. Safety was unknown.

Strength. Each passing day offered greater ties to the Permanent. Essence settled. It grew accustomed to the hunt, to devouring the emotions and flesh and spirit of anything it could find.

Years upon years. It was no longer hunted. The Permanent no longer ate at its form so viciously. Where it lingered the Permanence faded, laced with Distortion. Blessed flux that no longer held the appeal when it was fresh and young. It was death to return there.

Fear. Blinding Lunar light. Distortion fled as the harsh gaze of stark reality passed over its home. The other Distorted seared away as Permanence reasserted itself, purging the alien tendrils gnawing at it.

It survived, and knew it would always be hunted. Other Distorted could not challenge it, but the Lunar light would find it one day. Such was its fate. The obstructions of Time and Space were brushed away so it would know the end.

Endless, meaningless time. Hunter and hunted.

Freedom. To the north the Permanence collapsed, obliterated by an unnatural inversion. It would avoid that place.

The Lunar light hunted elsewhere now, having finally met its match.

It emerged from hiding, from steeping the land in its essence. It devoured all it came across. Its corporeal form bloated and spread as a vast purple miasma that choked and Distorted all it touched. The dark vale beneath the mountains became its home.

The Distorted did not come near. They knew it would be their death as surely as returning to their progenitor. The mortal creatures native to the Permanent fled.

Humans. Fleeing and weak and small. They were hunted, among the first to enter these eastern lands. Their pursuers did not follow them into the vale. The humans offered worthless tribute.

It accepted.

They made their homes. They offered gold and silver. Meaningless. It required fuel. Aura, the foundation of the Permanent. These humans offered a pact. It took a greater prize from those who died in this land and offered more in turn. Eternity.

The humans learned. They built their city of stone and peddled for its favor. Children and the lost sought it out alongside their leaders, seeking wisdom. Amusing. Endearing. Its miasma pulled away.

Meaningless time passed. The humans grew strong with its children, the wisps born of the Distortion spread by its presence. It devoured most of the wisps, but allowed a few to scurry free to explore the Permanence. Bonds grew between the children and the humans. It watched.

Home. Humans erected a tower in its honor and offered their dead. A place of rest. Its sprawling form filled the tower. The miasma grew greater and greater. Too great.

Its corporeal form was insufficient. It abandoned the miasma.

It became the wind and soil of the vale, the stone of the tower, and bones of the city.

It became the memory of the dead.

It became Lavender.

- Ash snapped back to reality, wheezing, and stared up into the dome. His head ached, but it faded quickly. He wasn't sure if he was just used to ridiculously powerful entities messing around with his head - and wasn't that a concerning thought - or if the Ghost had eased his pain somehow. That didn't seem particularly accurate to what he'd seen of it, and the smug flicker of amusement from Mewtwo pointed at the former.

Great.

"So what do you think?" Chieko peered down at him, giggling at the gobsmacked look on his face. She offered him a hand from beneath her flowing lavender robes, and after a moment's hesitation he took it. Ash was honestly surprised when it was solid (which bothered him more than passing through Chieko's hand and falling flat on his face would have) and found himself hauled up with unnatural strength. The air itself seemed to propel him onto his feet. "Was your question answered?"

He hesitated, still reeling from the dump of information and those alien thoughts, but finally nodded.

"Yes," he whispered to the girl. "I think it was," Ash glanced away, staring at the kilns. "Thank you."

Chieko just smiled, skipping away and spinning to point away from Ash. She hummed a light, airy tune and rocked back and forth on her heels. "It was nice meeting you, Ash Ketchum."

His lips curved into a half-smile. Part of him could almost believe it was just Chieko he was talking to. And it was her, in a way. The same way Agatha was Agatha… could it really be Chieko he was talking to, still alive and aware somewhere in the Ghost, or was it just the Ghost wearing her as adeptly as Ho-Oh wore Wes' face?

Even after being in the Ghost's head, Ash wasn't sure he could say.

"It was nice meeting you, Chieko" he said quietly. Ash didn't have to worry about the Ghost not hearing him. It wasn't hard to see the polite dismissal in Chieko's words, and Ash for one wasn't about to wear out his welcome in this place of all places. Still, half-formed thoughts spun in his mind, and he hesitated. For a moment he thought to let the words choke and die in his throat, then go on his way. "May I speak to Akemi? Just for a moment, please, then I'll leave."

Silence.

Thump, thump, thump.

He blinked, and when his eyes opened the First Champion's sister was back. She allowed her hand to brush through her hair as she smiled graciously upon him. Though she did not speak, Ash knew exactly what she was waiting for.

"I found your brother's tomb," he said flatly. Her sapphire eyes widened, and her hand went to her mouth. "It's in the Fuchsia wilds. Rhydon - Mamoru," Ash corrected, recalling the ancient Rhydon's name, "guards him. I've met Chinatsu," he rambled, less and less confident with every word. "She's still at the Indigo Plateau."

He wasn't entirely sure what he hoped to accomplish, but he couldn't leave this unsaid. Ash winced, shifting uncomfortably as the woman's eyes squeezed tight, hands clasping together and unbearably silent.

"After all this time…" Akemi whispered. Her voice, calming and even and filled with wisdom, wavered and cracked. The air grew heavy, though not with tension. Ash's throat clenched at the look on her face, like a mirror on the verge of shattering. "Oh, Taimu," she sighed. "My dear brother. What became of you?"

Ash answered his question, though a part of him begged not to do so. "He was killed in battle. I don't know the details," he admitted under Akemi's longing stare. "Only what I learned at the tomb and what Chinatsu told me. The Champions remember him!" Ash babbled. "They all visit him when they're initiated - they fight Mamoru. I did too, but I'm not a Champion!"

Despite the heavy news he offered, Akemi's lips twitched. "That warms my heart. Your family must be quite formidable," she praised, then sighed. "I'm sure Chinatsu didn't offer much of Taimu's fate. Chinatsu was a sweetheart, but she never cared much for those beyond her family. I'd wondered…" she glanced to the Feather and its golden flame. Her eyes shut again. "Taimu never wanted to die old and bedridden. I'm glad he didn't die here."

He didn't know what to say to that.

Thankfully, Akemi saved him from trying to do so. "Mamoru and Chinatsu still live?" She pursed her lips. "The poor things. They adored my brother beyond life and death," Akemi murmured a prayer quickly, one that Ash recognized as devoted to those who lingered after their loved ones passed on. "Tell me, kind boy, are they happy?"

His silence was deafening.

Akemi deflated, though even that seemed done with a measure of grace. She didn't appear surprised. "I thought not. Taimu would have been the same without them," she murmured. "They became husks of themselves in the years past Shinobu's passing. They were bound by bonds deeper than blood."

Ash's heart panged at that, remembering the visceral horror of seeing Infernus' limp corpse, of Pierce's Umbreon dragging Nidorino kicking and screaming away from the battle, of being forced to leave his team behind to fend for themselves in the Hale Mansion…

Yes, he could imagine that.

"I - thank you for your kindness. Fortune must smile upon me for you to come here," Akemi curtsied. "It is grim news, but it relieves an age old burden. I had always wondered what happened to my brother and his companions, and I gave up hope long ago."

"You're welcome," Ash said stiffly. He was so lost, so uncertain on what came next. Despite that, a warm flush filled his chest. No matter the challenges he'd encountered rising here, it was all worth it for this alone.

Akemi hesitated, stepping forward. "I owe you more than I can put into words, but may I request one last favor?" She smiled when Ash nodded. "My brother is gone, but his loved ones still linger on in an empty life. I hope to offer one last kindness to them, a ray of light to their grey world."

He nodded fervently, mind flashing to the quiet misery both the First's surviving teammates clutched to. Yes, he would do anything to give them some comfort. It was what he would wish for his team if they outlived him, -

Ash didn't pursue that train of thought, and listened intently as Akemi whispered her last wish into his ear. He committed it to memory, carving it into his very mind. She murmured her message to Agatha as well.

"You are a blessing, child. I wish you well, Ash. Your mother must be very proud."

Ai Akemi, sister of Taimu, favored him with one last smile.

She was gone.

Ash couldn't quite describe how he felt. His throat clenched, his heart soared, his legs felt like jelly…

Thump, thump, thump.

The Marowak waited ahead of him, clutching her club in her grip. Ash blinked, not expecting another appearance, but acknowledged the female Marowak with a dip of his head. His heart skipped a beat as it stared, and Lavender spoke.

I have known you before. I will know you again.

You have offered kindness.

I offer knowledge.

Ash had scarcely a moment for his mind to scramble over the meanings of the Ghost's words, then -

Old stone ruins collapsed into a rolling sea of sandy dunes.

Stepping onto the black beach of a black island settled in a black sea under a new moon.

A lone man walked into darkness.

He returned to awareness still standing, though it felt as though eons had passed in the span of seconds. Ash thought they just might have… his brain was fuzzy, full of these insights of the Ghost. It had Distorted time, peering to that which might be, and fed him the knowledge whether he had wanted it or not.

Ash babbled something incomprehensibly before he remembered himself and his voice, and he thought might have thanked the Ghost. He thought hard to Akemi's words until he was certain that he recalled all her wishes, and then the Ghost of Lavender spoke again.

My gift to you, Storm-Tamer, Dreamstrider.

Be true to yourself.

When your challenge finds you, do not run from it.

With those words, the Ghost of Lavender seemed to fade away. The air was still tense and the ash still hadn't returned to the floor, but Ash knew that even if he waited here for the rest of the day he would pry nothing more out of it.

He stumbled to the stairwell, still not quite used to walking again. As he walked down the stairs to begin his descent, a young girl's laughter filled his ears.

"Bye, Ash. See you soon!"

XX

It somehow didn't surprise him when he emerged from the Lavender Tower to find the first light of dawn peeking over the mountains that loomed over Lavender. Ash wasn't totally sure where all the time between when he entered and when he left had gone, and he wasn't sure he wanted to. He would have sworn he'd been there perhaps two hours, maybe three.

Regardless, he wasn't going to question it. He wasn't sure he'd understand even if the answer was spelled out for him.

The air was still and stagnant and heavy still, but he couldn't help but think it didn't feel quite so suffocating. He breathed in deep as he left the courtyard and entered the old town.

Air, fresh, breathable air. He sucked it in greedily, having grown so adjusted to the pressure of Lavender Tower that he'd forgotten what it felt like to breathe. The subtle burn and panic of chronic lack of good air had filled the back of his mind like a buzzing warning, but even that he'd been able to adjust to.

The streets were still empty, but Ash heard the first bits of chatter and bustle of life coming from the city - families waking up, pokemon awakening to take to the streets, and all the little things that had been snuffed out under the cover of night. He smiled.

A flash of silver - the Pale Ninetales was back, hovering outside the too-clean front of a long-forgotten manor. Its milky gaze landed squarely upon him, skinny legs trembling with th effort of supporting itself, and it cocked its head before retreating into the shadows. Ash watched it go with a frown, its head hung low and its matted tails dragging the earth.

What a strange creature. He longed to chase after it, to offer it what help he could, but Ash knew it was gone. A Ninetales, even a withered one like that, would not be so easily tracked. If he found it, it would be of the thing's own volition.

He let it go, and hoped it would be okay.

Lavender was still dark, nestled between the great shadows of the mountains as it was, but Ash looked to the rising gold of the sun peaking over the sloping crests. The Feather stirred, and he knew it was with rainbow flame. Warmth flushed his chest, and Ash smiled.

He had faced the worst Lavender had to offer, and he had done it on his own.

He didn't need to be alone anymore.

Nidoking appeared at his side in a flash of light, eyes narrowed into paranoid slits. His great ears twitched and his nostrils flared, tail sweeping side to side over the stone. The great poison-type shuddered, obviously sensing the wrong of this place, and looked to Ash with concern radiating from every pore.

Ash smiled. He briefly patted the heavy plate of Nidoking's shoulder. "Walk with me?"

His first friend dipped his head, finally relaxing just a fraction, and seemed bewildered by the whole affair. Ash couldn't blame him - even Ash's instincts screamed when he'd visited this place. Nidoking was probably on the verge of hurling a Flamethrower or two just to be safe.

Still, his friend joined him in the slow walk to Agatha. Confused, still paranoid, and ready to smash a Shadow Ball into any ghosts that came close, but he walked at Ash's side all the same.

He didn't smile as he bid goodbye to Lavender Tower, but he did look to the dome and offer one last nod before they left.

"I'm glad you're here, Nidoking. I've got so much to tell you…"

XX

The hustle and bustle had grown more evident as Ash made his way back to Agatha's old manor. The Hashimoto's manor. He shuddered at the thought of that mad old man, the one who had stolen Agatha's life away before it began. Flame leapt to his chest, glowing beneath his shirt, and it took a great deal of effort not to embrace it.

Maybe he should have tried burning her grandfather…

Those thoughts fell away as he realized he and Nidoking had somehow arrived at the painted gates. He wasn't sure how, exactly, but for all he knew the streets and alleys themselves had shifted to lead him here. There were no ghosts leading his way, and none accompanied him back as they had to the tower (thankfully, since Ash wasn't sure Nidoking's peace of mind could survive that) but it didn't take long at all to get here.

Although the ghosts seemed to have retreated for the day, Ash didn't miss that the offerings left outside every home were 'mysteriously' absent. Some were simply rotted away to little more than a pile of mush, while others had been spirited away entirely.

Ash wasn't exactly sure if he should knock or yell or what, so he just walked right in.

"Hmph. Took you long enough!" Agatha was occupying the same seat as when he'd left, and snapped at him the moment he entered the Hashimoto courtyard - he caught a faint purple blur as another cloth speckled with red was whisked from his view. Concern stirred inside him, breaking through the warmth and relief that had filled him since he reentered the waking world.

His distraction quickly faded as Agatha raised her cane. He might have flinched, which Nidoking didn't miss. Nidoking stepped forward, spines raising and dripping poison, with a horrible rumble -

Agatha's Mismagius appeared in a billow of spectral robes, murmured incantations flowing like a flood, and Nidoking froze. His muscles strained, bulging beneath his hide, and poison flowed ever faster, but Mismagius' abilities stopped him in his tracks.

"Behave!" Agatha walloped Nidoking in his sensitive nose, and Ash saw red. Now he strode forward with fury in his eyes and Fire in his chest, only for Agatha to look at him with both eyes black and a flat smile. A cold misery filled him for just a moment, stunning him, and he stopped. "You as well, little prodigy."

He took a breath, still simmering, and took the seat he'd occupied yesterday. Ash nodded to NIdoking, who reluctantly stomped to Ash's side. He still glared at the (visible) ghosts, who seemed utterly concerned with his massive frame. Knowing what they could do, Ash couldn't blame them.

"You could have warned me," he said. Ash tried his best not to sound sullen and snotty. It wasn't easy.

Agatha chuckled, a raspy rattle that brought his worry back. She didn't cough again, thankfully. "Where's the fun in that? Tell me what you saw."

Ash looked past Agatha. "A question for a question," he said.

She rolled her eyes. "I regret making that foolish deal with you. If I hear those words one more time -"

"I saw Lavender," Ash said quietly, and Agatha smiled.

"A terrible thing, isn't it?" Agatha chuckled. "A ghost so great and powerful that it became the bones and soul of an entire city."

Ash frowned. "It left me a message for you," he said. Agatha froze, bony fingers all wrapped around the knob of her cane.

"Oh?"

He decided to correct his words. "Akemi left me a message for you."

Agatha's face twitched almost imperceptibly. Still, Ash thought she looked nearly relieved. Perhaps she'd expected it to be from her grandfather instead? "How long do you plan to keep me waiting? Speak up!"

Ash hesitated long enough that Agatha began to reach for her cane. Nidoking rumbled, but Ash made the whole ordeal unnecessary. "She misses you," he said slowly, pulling the words from memory. "That you were a strong girl, and that she's happy to see the woman you've become."

The words came awkward and slow and unsteady from his lips, stiff and unfamiliar to him, and Ash really thought this should have been delivered in person. Still, the Revenant Crone nodded stiffly, not betraying a thought. "And what else? She always did like to prattle on about such foolishness."

A part of him wanted to defend Akemi, but he nodded nonetheless. His leg twitched anxiously, and he had to force himself to keep his eyes on Agatha. "She said not to die in Lavender," he choked out, fists clenching, and found himself nearly furious at her lack of reaction.

"As if I'd die in this rotten old place!" Agatha scoffed, Mismagius nodding beside her. Dusknoir simply stared as it always did with that implacable burning eye. "There are better places to haunt."

"You could live!" Ash said without thinking. It wasn't the truth - he knew it as well as Agatha - but the words slipped from his lips. Part of him regretted the stupid words, but the deepest part of him prayed that she at least listened.

She looked at him then, truly looked, and lost none of her ferocity. The tongue-lashing he expected was nowhere to be found, though, and his embarrassment faded to a dull hope.

"The old Shion thought they'd found immortality in the Ghost. They were fools," she rasped.

Ash thought a trace of Agatha's exhaustion slipped past her ironclad sneer in that moment, and he couldn't help but pick out the point of her shoulders and elbows beneath her dress, the thinness of her skin, and the last strands of blonde on her grey head.

"They could pretend all they like! I've met them," she chuckled humorlessly, then spit on the stone of the courtyard. "Bah! Puppets who thought they held the strings. I know what they were," Agatha's face went blank. "That'snot immortality. Just another way to die. I'll find my own oblivion, thank you. I have no interest in joining that rotting mound of corpses."

What could he even say to that?

"If only that old fool Oak could hear me now!" She smiled humorlessly as she broke the long, lingering silence that even had Nidoking uncomfortable. "Talking about nonsense and immortality. He'd never believe it all."

He leaned closer, a flicker of curiosity alighting. "Does he know?" Ash asked, and didn't have to specify what. Agatha said nothing, however, and smirked when Ash finally gave in and said it. "That you're dying?"

"No," Agatha said. The decrepit woman seemed to relish the look on his face. "Oh, he might be a fool but he's no idiot. Oak knows my nature, nearly puzzled it out himself when we were still children!" A stray bit of warmth entered her eyes before it was ruthlessly stamped out. "Perhaps he suspects I'm falling apart, but he hasn't seen me like this. And he won't!" Her eyes blazed with wrathful fire.

Ash said not a word, and Agatha snorted.

"Do you still care about him?" The words came unbidden, but earnest desire to know shone through. There were so many mysteries in Professor Oak, and perhaps he finally had the chance to solve one.

Agatha's nose wrinkled. The Gengar in her shadow began to rise, perhaps to expel Ash from the premises, but she waved it off. He leaned forward, elbows resting on the stone table.

"A question for a question," she said grudgingly, barely able to admit it to herself, and Ash could hardly believe she was telling him at all. "Oak is a fool. Just a shade of his former self," Agatha scowled. Mismagius chanted in agreement. "Weak, soft, content to play science in his lab while the world burns down around him. I've only seen a hint of that old fire he used to have and it nearly burnt him up entirely! He's a wreck!" She spat, lingering on the word. "I don't even recognize the man he's become."

She folded her hands together, fingers shaking, and Ash even spotted a pale flush in her cheeks as she tore the Professor apart. He said not a word - Professor Oak didn't need anyone's protection. "But he's steered the world in his own boring way," Agatha said flatly. "Shaped our technology, led spearheads of advancement in field after field. He's faded away, but the young man I know that would give every part of himself to change the world is still in there somewhere. It's insulting," Agatha muttered, "that even the last remaining spark of Samuel Oak surpassed me in every way."

Agatha's ghosts trembled, flush with something, and Ash waited patiently for her to calm. Her breaths were heavy, and he already had his hand on a cloth in case she started hacking again - it was a miracle her impassioned spiel hadn't already sent her into a fit.

"But that doesn't answer your question, hmm?" Agatha smirked, her cheeks fading to a ghastly pale. Her thin white skin drawn tight against her face left her looking like a skeleton. "I care for Samuel Oak, yes. I see what he's become and know what he could have been," she finished, meeting Ash's eyes with inhuman intensity. It was one he could easily match. "Perhaps, in another lifetime, things might have been different."

Ash nodded along, not able to truly understand but he could grasp parts of her words.

Before he could say anything, Agatha grinned. It sent shivers down his spine. "My question now. You were at the Indigo Plateau," she said the name almost lovingly, rolling it off her tongue as if speaking of an old friend. "It must be plain and dull without me. How are the rest of the children without old Agatha there to point them in the right direction?"

He snorted. "I think Lance wishes you were there to help with the paperwork."

Agatha smirked. "He'll have to be content with me cleaning up his mess at Greenfield, I'm afraid."

"What a shame," Ash rolled his eyes, then grew more serious. "Karen's doing well," he smiled at the thought of the Dark Master. "We battled before I came to Lavender."

The Revenant Crone arched her faded eyebrow. "Oh? She was my student for a time. I hope she didn't disappoint."

"She beat me," he frowned. It was a good fight, a great fight, but now he couldn't stop thinking about how he could beat her next time. Karen was still growing in leaps and bounds as well, as was Will. She'd be more prepared for him as well. Nidoking snorted at the mention, no doubt still irritated over that Perish Song from Honchkrow. "The first thing she did was knock out the lights," Ash snorted.

"Of course she did," Agatha said, satisfied with the news. Mismagius nodded along, and even Dusknoir twitched. It was perhaps the most expression he'd seen from the silent ghost since he'd returned from Lavender Tower. "She's a smart girl, Karen. She'll go far."

Ash smiled at that - that might be the nicest thing Agatha had said about anyone. "Will's doing better," he said, still grimacing at the thought of how broken down the peppy psychic had been. He was just glad a little semblance of his former self had returned. "Still not back to normal."

Agatha's expression twisted into one of displeasure. Whether it was disgust or concern was impossible to say. "Always too sensitive, that Will. I never quite managed to grind it out of him…" she muttered to herself. "Though that's part of the strange little man's charm, I suppose."

"Bruno wasn't there," Ash admitted. Agatha didn't seem surprised. "Koga was Koga. I couldn't tell if he liked Lance's movie choice, though. Hard to tell."

He was pretty sure Agatha barely bit back a snort at that. "Dragon Trainer?" She asked, nose wrinkled again. Even her ghosts (except Dusknoir) seemed to groan. "Ugh. If I had to watch Lance reliving his silly boyhood fantasies one more time -" she spat, rolling her eyes. "Michael is a naive little brat, but at least he doesn't watch that drivel."

"It wasn't so bad," Ash weakly defended, and the way Agatha looked down her nose at him made him think she'd just lowered her opinion of him. His mind raced, thinking of anything, anything to distract her, and the image of a tall, skeletal man in even worse shape than Agatha came to mind…

"There was a man," he said slowly. "I found him outside of Goldenrod. His name was Tobias," he mulled over the name, mind filled with Tobias' stringy, greasy hair and the dark pits of his bloodshot eyes. The whole time he watched Agatha like Plume stared down especially juicy Caterpie. She hid her reaction, but the twitch of her eye gave Ash everything he needed to know. "He said he'd worked with the League before. You know him?"

The Crone snorted. "As much as you can know a thing like that," she scowled. Her fingers tightened over her cane, and Ash was faintly concerned she'd wallop him again. "Stay away from it."

His eyebrows raised at it. "What is he?" Ash asked, desperate for knowledge. Tobias had been utterly broken, hanging to reality by a thread (if that), and had left every instinct Ash had screaming. It was more than a little discomforting to realize that a man like that had helped the League before. "He said he was at Greenfield."

She blinked, perhaps surprised. "It was, was it?" Agatha stroked her chin, mismatched eyes glittering. "Now that is curious," the Crone hummed. He couldn't begin to fathom what was going on behind her eyes. "You asked what Tobias is?"

Ash nodded.

"A man, or was. We tracked him, once upon a time. He won the Lily of the Valley Conference perhaps twenty years ago, and vanished. He was a Master, and we do not like Masters vanishing," Agatha's eyes darkened. "Particularly not the arrogant ones. It's a recipe for disaster," she said, then shook her head and continued. "He was spotted off and on, digging beneath Coronet. Our last confirmed sighting was in Canalave about six years after that. When he returned, he was as you saw him."

"Distorted," Ash recalled the awful sensation of being near the man, of that terrible feeling that struck him to his bones. He hadn't known the right words to describe it then, but he did now. Ash looked to Agatha in horrified fascination. Tobias had felt worse than Agatha… "What happened to him?"

"I don't know," Agatha looked particularly displeased by that fact. "I don't know what happened to Tobias. I don't know what he is. I don't know how he's alive. If you call that living!" She curled her lip. "He's rotten already. If he didn't have some use I'd put the thing in the ground myself. It would be a mercy."

Ash's stomach turned at the thought, but it didn't bother Agatha in the least.

She looked to him, as serious as he had ever seen the Revenant Crone. "Avoid it," she said with deathly intensity. "Whatever it is, it shouldn't exist. It shouldn't live. I don't know what happened all those years ago, but I do know one thing: the Tobias that returned is not the one that left Canalave. Its mind is shattered. Whatever Tobias found showed him too much."

Another awkward silence as Ash digested all of that. To see Agatha… well, afraid might not be the right word, but she was wary. For someone like Agatha to give warning like that said quite a bit.

"The world's changing quickly. Too quickly for an old woman like me," Agatha looked to her gnarled, wrinkled hands with a scoff. "Fear the unknown, Ash. It's rarely kind," her mismatched eyes darkened as she rapped her cane against the stone, then pointed to the Hashimoto manor. She sighed and laid her cane on the table, meeting Ash's eyes directly. "I have devoted my life to the League and its service. I have shielded us from the unknown for over thirty years. What is happening now... the Legends, these things that could obliterate the Ghost of Lavender with a though, they are the new threat," her mouth twisted in displeasure and her eyes shut. Dusknoir drifted closer. "I won't be around much longer, Ash."

Her eyes opened, mismatched black and blue. "Those silly little children in Indigo Plateau… they do their best, but they aren't ready. Even Lance and that Feather of his," she rolled her eyes. "Dear oh dear, what has the world come to when I have to ask a boy fresh out of his diapers to keep them all safe?"

Ash didn't rise to the jab - he thought it was rather half-hearted. "I have a great track record," Ash offered, hand clutching the Feather. The Song rang through his ears, but Agatha's rasping laughter was nearly as sweet… until she started coughing, anyways.

A purple claw snatched the cloth from his hand before he could even offer it to Agatha, dabbing her mouth with a delicate touch he could hardly believe.

"These useless old bones of mine are getting tired, I'm afraid," Agatha took a few rattling breaths, wincing at the stabbing pain that must be going through her lungs. Ash nodded, and prepared to rise and leave her to rest, only for her to stop him.

"Is there anything I can do?"

Silence.

"I've heard you enjoyed playing for the inhabitants of the Burned Tower,," Agatha said, wrinkled face void of any expression. "Care to play one last tune for this old woman, hmm?"

Ash smiled. It didn't take long for him to retrieve the Flute from his pack. She looked at it with some interest, though didn't seem too impressed with the pearly instrument. Perhaps he could change that.

He raised the Flute to his lips and played one last Song for Agatha. It was the only one he knew, or at least the only one he could play with any skill. The notes came swiftly, the air filling with its notes and growing lighter, like a salty sea breeze flushed into the old Hashimoto manor and freed it of its long history.

The ghosts observed silently, though Mismagius drifted ever so slightly in tune. Even Agatha's living shadow seemed to dance, ignoring the thump, thump, thump that pulsed through Lavender for the first time. A north wind came roaring from nowhere, and when Ash lost himself in the music he could almost imagine the Beasts hearing his Song and howling in tune.

His eyes opened, and he saw Agatha.

For the first time, Ash thought she looked young. No subtle sneer, no tongue lashing waiting for the first to draw her ire, no sparkling glint in those mismatched eyes. His heart panged as Ash thought this might have been the first time she'd ever experienced true peace.

They carried on for a time. Ash was in no rush, and he felt that the stones of this place, steeped in Distortion as they were, yearned for a change. It wouldn't free them of the Ghost of Lavender's pulsing heartbeat or the defilement they'd witnessed under the feet of the Hashimoto, but it was a relief for the spirit of this place.

Eventually, when it felt right, the Song ended.

The winds faded and the tune with it. It hung in the air longer than it should, then vanished. Ash heard the thump, thump, thump again. He couldn't hate it - not after meeting the Ghost of Lavender - but it was a poor substitute for Lugia's Song.

Agatha took a breath for the first time in ages. Despite the Song vanishing, Ash still thought she clung to the glow of youth. It was like a weight had been lifted off her, though he had no doubt the crushing weight of the world and the Distortion eating her from the inside out would return soon enough.

She smiled a true smile. "Not bad…"

Silence hung on for a little while longer, Agatha staring off into space, and eventually Ash knew it was his time to leave. Dusknoir's maw on its stomach seemed to twitch into a strange parody of a smile. He rose silently.

"Tell Michael I said hello."

Agatha inclined her head.

He hesitated, countless feelings welling up in his chest and things he wanted to say and questions he wanted to ask and Ho-Oh's gift in the pouch on his belt that he wanted to take and throw at the stubborn woman sitting down over there and make her live.

Ash didn't do any of that.

"Goodbye, Agatha."

"Goodbye, Ash."

He walked to the gate, Nidoking at his side. His stomach churned, his throat clenched, and Ash couldn't look back. He couldn't see Agatha's frail, wasting form sitting alone at that table.

Her voice reached him, steady and calm but hiding something deep and small and young.

"Tell me, Ash Ketchum. What was it like to die?"

Ash paused, hand lingering on the chipped red paint of the manor's gates. He forced himself to look back at the woman. "What was it like before you were born?"

Agatha smiled.

He stepped through the red gates, and left Agatha of the Elite Four to her peace.

A/N: Thank you so much for reading this massive chapter! I've had it building in my head for years now, and it's such a relief to finally be able to share it with you all. I hope you enjoyed! I know it's a bit of an odd one with such little focus on the team, but I wanted for Lavender to be a challenge of Ash. To see what he is without his team. Things will go back to normal after this chapter, and I'm especially excited for next chapter :)

Many thanks to Raptor, Valasania, and Jain for helping so much with the editing this chapter. They cut hours of work off this chapter. It probably would have been another day or two before release without their help.

I don't have much to say this time. I'm sorry this chapter took longer than expected! Agatha is tricky to write, let alone the other characters in this chapter. But I hope the wait was worth it.

As always, I hope you're staying safe.

For anyone who hasn't joined the Discord server yet (or who I haven't responded to yet, which I am very sorry about, but this chapter has eaten all my free time recently) I can't recommend it enough! I'll be posting an open link on m on page that anyone can access. You don't need to donate to access it, so please check it out if you're interested! It's a great community and there are great side stories for Traveler written by other readers, some awesome fanart, and recently a Traveler meme channel that hasn't descended into cursed content yet! Please join if you're interested!

I will also be keeping an eye on my PMs the next few days and will be sure to send links to anyone requesting a Discord link.

Thank you all, and I hope you have a wonderful night!