In Cynthia's book, Forina was described efficiently - and succinctly - as 'a breathtaking landscape composed of a unique blend of natural features such as immense sandstone pillars, ravines, and waterways.'

When he and Steven crested the pass that led into the wild land, he realized Cynthia's words could never have hoped to capture it. Maybe that was why she'd barely bothered to make an attempt.

From this height, he could take it all in.

Wind whistled past his ears and rushed down to fill the vast valley of Forina. At first, all he could think was green. For miles around, nestled between the great mountains that branched away from Mt. Chimney like enormous vertebrae, lay a huge expanse of verdant canopy. It wasn't as dense as the thickly-packed forests of Indigo, but still formed a loose layer that hid the forest floor from view.

But more than that, there were the towers.

...No.

Towers might not be the best way to describe them. Pillars. Spires. Columns. Peaks… thousands upon thousands of standing stones, some rising hundreds of feet tall, and anywhere from ten to fifty feet in diameter - high enough that they were on level with Ash and Steven in the mountain pass, and wide enough that he could comfortably camp and explore some.

They were clustered heavily all over, sometimes so dense that they seemed like a great stone forest. Most of the sandstone spires were barely visible beneath countless vines, hanging plants, and even thin trees desperately clinging to the sheer faces of the spires.

He tried soaking up the view, tried to memorize every little detail of the Forina, and found he couldn't.

Glittering streams which wound their way through the forests and stone towers, shining like sapphire in the late afternoon sun, fed into countless ponds and a handful of great, mirror-like lakes visible from the peak. Even from here he could spot flocks of Taillow fluttering around and numerous pokemon - just tiny specks from this distance - gathering round the waters to drink in the shade.

It was alive.

For a moment, he forgot the leaden weight that gripped his chest and had settled in his gut the moment he'd approached the mountains. All he could do was watch and listen and breathe in the fresh breeze, which was a welcome change from the smokey belches of Mt. Chimney.

Forina was pristine. Untouched. Preserved.

Normally that would be surprising given how close it was to Lavaridge, but he knew from his reading that the Hoenn League had specifically marked it as a preserve. Trainers were free to travel through or train here, but development was prohibited.

Ash looked to Nidoking, his friend staring out at Forina alongside him with glittering eyes. There was a lightness to him now, and Ash had to smile as Nidoking's nostrils flared to suck in the sweet air. Plume flew overhead, high above, and shrieked from those heavens to herald their arrival.

Forina went silent for just a moment, then the chatter of the thousands of pokemon that called it home began again. Several Swellow shot out of the canopy, crying out their own challenges. Ash could feel the thrill in his friend from the ground - Plume tucked in her wings and dove towards her competition, and the contest began.

Steven seemed pleased with their reaction and outstretched his arms as if attempting to embrace the entire scene.

"Welcome home."

XX

"So what would you like to get out of this month?"

The question came as they warmed their hands over an open campfire. It sounded like it should have come from a therapist instead of Steven Stone, but he didn't linger on the thought.

Ash moved his palms closer to the fire. He didn't need the heat, but he did enjoy how Fire stirred within him with every moment he spent staring into the dancing embers.

He gave the answer some thought. Somehow, he knew that a quick, effortless response wouldn't be appreciated by Steven. The man gave no sign of impatience as Ash deliberated.

"I can't choose just one answer," Ash finally admitted, pulling his hand back to rest against Sneasel who was curled up in his lap. His fingers parted his friend's velvety fur and tugged a satisfied groan from the sleepy dark-type, who lazily rolled over to give Ash access to his belly. He was just tired enough that Ash didn't feel like it was a trap.

"We want to progress our techniques. We want to grow," he clenched his fist and met Steven's eyes. "We want to win. It's a long path and we need to know every part of it."

Steven cracked a smile. He sat easily atop Metagross, whose blood-red eyes locked on Ash. There was no doubt in his mind that the creature kept track of every rustling branch and curious Poochyena that shifted in the darkness. Their psychic scans illuminated the towering stone spires of Forina better than any torch.

"A good goal," the former Champion acknowledged. He'd been typing something on his fancy next-gen PokeNav, but at Ash's words had finally lowered it to his lap. "I presume you have specifics though? I'm certain it's crossed your mind."

Ash snorted. "Of course."

He lazily ran his fingers through the thick, silky fur of Sneasel's belly. His friend stretched, satisfied with the touch, until his lanky limbs fell completely off Ash's legs. Nidoking snorted as Sneasel's foot nearly smacked him in the face from where he lay loyally at Ash's side. Ash was quick to adjust him - waking up to Nidoking's spikes spearing Sneasel's soft paw would not be pleasant for any of them.

"We've been working on a few things while we were back in Indigo," Ash explained. "Refining Nidoking's psychic skills. Improving Torrent's water manipulation. A few new techniques for Infernus. Sneasel's Mind Breaker. Storm Surge for Oz. Reducing inefficiency." Ash raised a finger for each project he listed off. "We've made headway across the board."

"Excellent," Steven nodded, pleased. "I know you had plenty of time to work with the Indigo Elite Four. You mentioned you spent quite some time with Karen?"

He smiled as memories of facing down the Dark Master in battle surfaced, then wider as other, equally pleasant ones emerged. Movie night with Lance, Karen, and the rest of the Elite Four. Will and Karen popping in at random to check in on him. Karen dragging him off to Celadon. Karen pressing the Razor Claw into his hand.

A sharp pang pierced his heart, and Ash soon pressed his thoughts to more productive places. "Yeah." Ash cleared his throat. "We did. Learned a lot."

"I can imagine," Steven smiled. "That's excellent. Dark Masters are a rare find. Not many have the right temperament. In a similar vein, it's a shame you weren't able to train with Agatha," he added. "Her knowledge of the ghost-type is unrivaled."

His throat tightened for a different reason. Ash looked away, deeper into the flickering, unyielding flames that forced the suffocating darkness away.

"I wish I could have," he admitted. Each word was like tearing a scabbed wound open again. Nidoking grunted softly and landed a gentle claw against Ash's leg. "I think I could have learned a lot from her. But she's in Orre now. She has her duty."

A little flicker of knowing - a ghostly sorrow - appeared on Steven's silver-haired trainer cleared his throat before he could try to put that into words. "Ah, of course," he said, fiddling with a sleeve, and they came to an awkward silence.

Ash's thoughts went in a hundred directions while Steven readjusted himself atop Metagross' iron body.

Had Professor Oak found Agatha yet? Dragonite would have gotten him to Orre within two days at most. It had been weeks since then… he had to have found her, even if the Professor hadn't seen fit to inform Ash.

Would he stay with her until the end?

Would Agatha let him?

Ash couldn't help but remember her stubborn insistence and the way she railed against the inevitable. The Revenant Crone wasn't the type to invite others to witness her weaknesses like that. And if Professor Oak tried to force the issue… well, Ash had to admit, a ghost of a smile worked its way onto his features when he thought of Agatha smacking Professor Oak with her cane.

"I have a suggestion."

He drifted out of his forlorn thoughts at that, even though the anxiety still lurked on the edges of his thoughts. "What is it?"

Steven's seemed to be trying to redirect the flow of conversation somewhere productive for both of them. "I recommend that you begin keeping more detailed notes and logs of your training. Everything from what you do each day, to the nutritional profile for each team member, to what progress has been made." He listed each point off with a gesture. "It makes it far easier to measure your progress and have an objective opinion of what you have done so far."

Ash snorted and raised his PokeNav. "Already on it."

Steven's mouth opened, then sealed shut. "Ah. I see... Well, I am certainly glad to hear that."

"It's been a big help," Ash shrugged. "Keeps my head straight and my plans organized."

His teacher nodded emphatically.

Steven tapped a finger to his forehead. "Indeed. Our brains are excellent at some things, and quite abysmal at others." He came to rest his hand fondly upon Metagross' cold chassis. "Metagross compensates for my failures on that front. They taught me the value of organization long ago."

Metagross' crimson eyes never left Ash for a moment. He watched back easily, until at last Metagross' eyes closed. Only then did Ash allow himself to return his attention back to the fire. His will stoked it even through the choked, muted Fire in his breast, and for a time it leapt higher and hotter than before.

"We have a lot to accomplish if we're going to take on Fino Moore," Ash mused.

Steven didn't respond other than to incline his head, but appeared to be in deep thought.

"Psychic training, working our new TMs into our strategies, honing our existing skills…" Ash listed each, just as his teacher had before. The fire wavered as a swift wind cut through the stone spires of Forina. He grabbed a branch and poked at the logs to rekindle it.

Sometimes it was good to do things the old-fashioned way.

"It's a long road," Steven acknowledged after a moment. "A difficult one as well. To contend with a Master never is. Certainly not at your age."

"If it was easy then everyone would do it."

Steven chuckled. "That they would, I suppose."

The Steel Master let the moment hang for a long moment, before hesitantly picking it back up. "I- I'm glad to have seen you come so far. Only twelve and willing and able to fight Fino Moore. I - well, it's a sight. Nothing I ever could have imagined when I first encountered you and your friends in Mt. Moon." Steven murmured. "It's been a pleasure, Ash. Truly.

Long-buried memories flashed through his mind - the noxious, suffocating stench of Pierce's Muk that pummeled the air out of his lungs, its awful weight engulfing him, Amelia, and Jon at Pierce's command - yet it faded away quickly enough, even without Ice's influence.

His Fire kindled; with that encouragement, he nodded back at his teacher, at a loss for words.

"I apologize. I'm not good at this. Not like Lance or Cynthia," Steven admitted ruefully. He wrung his hands from his seat atop the unmoving shape of Metagross. Nidoking and Ash both watched him raptly, the light of the fire dancing in Nidoking's beady eyes. "My part in your journey has been miniscule, but I am very proud of the trainer you have become," he stopped. "No - more than that. I'm proud of the person you have become."

Ash's face was probably as hot and red as the fire itself, but it wasn't unpleasant. He looked away from the face of his teacher and down towards Sneasel, who was still snoozing peacefully on his lap. His skin tingled - he couldn't decide if he wanted to run off into the night or break out into a big, dumb smile.

The glow in his chest more than mere Fire.

His throat refused to work at first, stubbornly staying closed until he forced his voice out. "Thanks, Steven."

The man coughed. "Of course," he seemed nearly as uncomfortable as Ash. "I just thought you should know."

The warmth won out at last, and even if he still couldn't quite bring himself to meet Steven's eyes, he could at least grin down at his chest, unable to help the expression from splitting his face. Nidoking grunted softly, chuffed to hear his trainer praised so, and finally allowed himself to rest.

Ash reached one hand away from stroking Sneasel (who sleepily grumbled his displeasure) and allowed it to rest on Nidoking's leathery head. He scratched him behind the ears just like he had when he was a Nidoran, and looked deeply into the fire. Its rich hues filled his chest with warmth that had nothing to do with the Feather embedded in his sternum.

The easy silence lasted a long time. They didn't need words, not when the most important had already been said.

"Goodnight, Ash."

Steven slipped off Metagross with the kind of casual ease that suggested he'd done it a million times. Cradily had set up his small grey tent against one of the spires earlier, and it was there that Steven went now. "Rest well."

He looked up at the man and nodded. "See you in the morning."

With that, the Steel Master left Ash to his thoughts. His team shifted in the darkness, their great frames rising to follow their trainer to bed. Ash watched them go.

He wouldn't be far behind them, but first, he needed to spend some time with his team. They hadn't had a moment to themselves since Mauville.

"Dazed," he called out softly. Her eyes flashed brilliantly in the darkness to his left, briefly outshining the campfire's radiance.

Yes, Friend-Trainer?

He reached into his pack to grab the journal gifted to him by Elder Yari. It already showed signs of wear and tear from how often he'd flipped through its pages, even though Ash had done his best to be gentle handling it. It wasn't like he could just pick up another copy at a Lavaridge book store. With the road being what it was, however, such things would occur.

"Care to do some reading with me?"

It would be my pleasure.

With Sneasel snoozing in his lap, Nidoking and Aron well on their way to slumber by the fire, and the others arrayed around or kept peacefully in their pokeballs, Ash began to quietly read aloud. Torrent - perhaps unsurprisingly - paid rapt attention. He enjoyed these tales. Tangrowth listened as well, but Ash suspected he liked to be a part of the group more than the stories themselves.

Ash cleared his throat.

"'Penned by Drake Ryoto the morning before the Battle of Mt. Silver,'" he murmured, setting the stage.

It was a familiar one. He'd found himself drawn to the Drake slain by Taimu and his team. When he first came across the man behind the myth, he'd expected to be repulsed - this was the Drake that united Johto behind him and crossed swords with the First himself.

Instead, he'd found himself compelled.

"'My heart weighs in my chest like lead. The dragonsblood demands my people conquer, and in the past I have lusted to follow its call. I still do. It calls to me like the drums of war, pounding hot in my ears, and I yearn to cross sword and fang with Champion Taimu and his legendary companions. Yet we have broken bread and drunk wine and discussed long into the early hours of our dreams and goals, and what we wish to do when our drifting fantasies manifest.

"'Though Champion Taimu is my earnest enemy, I weep to think that I will remove his brilliance from the world. Yet to offer him mercy would be to spit upon his dream, and I cannot bear it. No, the world is not large enough for both our dreams, and one of us must wake. We are brothers in spirit, if not blood, and one of us will die this day…'"

XX

A gentle mental touch prodded him awake. His eyes shot open and he lifted himself up on limbs still useless with sleep. It was still pitch-black outside. Dawn wouldn't come for at least another hour.

"Whassit?" He mumbled, only to jolt alert when Dazed's soft voice filled his head.

He's coming, Friend-Trainer. I have awoken you as you asked.

Oh.

Oh!

An uncharacteristically smug look made its way onto his face. Lightning, still muted and strangled, was sufficient to fully wake him up in moments. "Perfect," he rubbed his hands together. "Is he coming this way? Is Torrent awake?"

Yes. I've roused the Torrent. I will direct you to him.

He nodded distractedly as he stuffed some extra clothes he'd left out into his sleeping bag and made the painful decision to leave his worn cap atop it. It wasn't especially convincing, but it would do its job for now. It only took him a moment longer to shrug on a pair of dark shorts and a simple, grey T-shirt with a Nidoran decal that Karen had gotten him. "Thank you."

Dazed's telepathy nudged him in the direction of Torrent, who hovered silently just away from his bedroll. Ash hadn't seen fit to put a tent up - the sky was clear, and he would know if a storm was coming. Torrent awaited him behind a thin layer of foliage, which obscured him from human view. The Kingdra's scales seemed to drink up what scant light pierced the thin brush, and only his eyes glittered red in the moonlight.

What struck him more than anything was that Torrent looked eager. His neck craned forth, and his body trembled with an excitement that Ash would have expected to be beneath him.

Ash raised a finger to his lips. Torrent dipped his head and stilled. He still shook just a tad, however, but he'd levitated back to a point far enough away that he wouldn't give away their position.

And then they waited.

It took longer than expected. He'd chosen a slightly crouched position, and by the time his adjusted eyes were able to catch the faintest shifts of Steven and a hovering figure (Claydol, probably?) drifting along at his side, the muscles of his legs had started to burn. He bore it with resolute focus, however.

He watched Steven's shape draw closer to his bedroll. Claydol drifted at his side and one of its 'faces' spun towards him, but Ash didn't feel Claydol's easygoing voice manifest inside his skull. And, judging by the lack of reaction on Steven's part, Claydol hadn't seen fit to alert him either.

Good.

Steven tiptoed closer. He was surprisingly stealthy for someone whose favorite pokemon was a giant metal behemoth, but Ash didn't let his thoughts waver for a moment. Torrent looked to him, but Ash shook his head. Not yet.

The Steel Master snuck closer, just over Ash's sleeping bag, and the gently sloshing bucket of frozen water (drained of heat by Metagross until it was so cold that Ash could sense it through Ice) gave away his intentions.

Being on this side of things proved to be a fascinating experience. No wonder Lance and Steven enjoyed it so much.

He smirked as Steven dumped about half the ice-cold water onto the sleeping bag and barked out a question. "You face a Master specializing in ghost and dark-types! They outmatch you and you have no backup. How do you react?"

Ash allowed the silence to linger a moment, then two, then a long while. His teacher paused, then stepped forward and looked to Dazed uncertainly. She still waited patiently by Ash's bedroll and casually polished her pendulum.

"Ash?" Steven frowned and moved to tip the bucket over his sleeping bag again, and it was then that Ash made his move.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

The former Champion blinked as Ash stepped out of his cover. Ash folded his arms and shook his head. Steven looked at Ash, back to the bedroll stuffed with clothes to look like someone was sleeping within, then back to Ash. His eyes strayed to the soaking wet hat laid next to his sleeping bag.

Ash scowled. "Not even I sleep with my hat on."

Steven, still caught off guard, raised his hands placatingly. "I think there's been a bit of a mistake. I just wanted to test your-"

Ash hissed. "I passed. Torrent?"

The Champion didn't even have a moment to react before a low-powered Water Gun absolutely drenched him. His dark suit was left completely soaked, even more so than Ash's sleeping bag and hat, and Steven stumbled backward until he fell onto his back.

"Ash!" He sputtered, water dripping off a few strands of his fine silver hair and dribbling from his chin, then turned to his own teammate with a scowl. The psychic hung suspended in the air, casually spinning in lazy circles. "Claydol! Why didn't you warn me?"

Claydol was kind enough to broadcast his voice into all their heads.

It was funnier this way.

Steven leapt up with a sullen look and refused to even glance at Claydol. He flicked the water off his hands, but it was a futile effort. Torrent had managed to completely soak him. A deep rumble echoed from the Kingdra's throat, and Ash smiled right along with his friend.

"Very amusing," Steven grumbled, though the vitriol was already fading away. It wasn't like he could argue that he didn't deserve it. Not after the trick he tried to pull on Ash. "That's what I get for leaving you with Lance and a Dark Master for so long, huh?"

His smile widened. "Exactly."

The Steel Master snorted. "Fine, fine. It was my own fault for attempting to pull the same trick twice." He shook his head and sent little specks of water flying. Steven's lips curled at the edges. "I suppose I'll just have to get my payback during training. I'll have to revise a few of my plans…"

"Go ahead," Ash said with the utmost confidence. "We can take it."

A challenging glint sparked in Steven's eyes, still barely visible beyond the pale moonlight, and Ash knew he was devising the most brutal, intense, exhausting training imaginable to put them all through.

Perfect.

XX

"Tired yet?" Steven teased as he jogged alongside him. Ash panted and shook his head. His hair was dripping wet with sweat, probably just as bad as Steven's was this morning, and that thought managed to breathe some new life into him. He upped the pace, embraced the burn, and managed to drag his feet up over a few shattered tree trunks in their path.

Naturally, Steven just took advantage of his longer legs and slightly upped the pace. At least he wasn't still running in his suit. That would have been humiliating.

The saving grace was that the Steel master wasn't in great shape himself.

Oh, physically he was. Ash already knew Steven was much more of a runner than Lance, who preferred building muscle. But even though they were only in plain running gear instead of any suffocating League equipment (which Steven steadfastly refused to talk about when Ash asked him about it), the harsh sun and muggy heat of Hoenn did a number on the silver-haired man.

Steven being a miserable, sweaty mess at least made Ash feel better.

"You face a Champion-level Metagross. It is far superior to you in every way," Steven said casually between light panting as they wove their way around a spire. Ash groaned inwardly and really, really hoped that they'd reach Dazed's training spot soon. They'd been running around Forina for twenty minutes now, and he really wasn't in the shape to deal with this. "You only have Torrent and Infernus. What's your approach?"

Ash glared sidelong at Steven and wiped some sweat from his brow as he sucked in a rattling breath. He did not want to speak right now. Still, he'd quite literally asked for Steven to take it hard on them all. "I tell Infernus... To teleport on top of the Champion-level Metagross' trainer," he growled.

"A good answer," Steven acknowledged, although his words were broken up with gasps as well. "Of course, without their trainer as potential collateral, there is nothing to stop the Metagross from targeting you. Let's say that's… That's not an option."

"Have Torrent put on pressure. Draco Meteor or Dragon Pulse," Ash grunted as they finally circled around the most recent spire. Every step was like dragging a lead weight strapped to his feet… "Then have Infernus teleport on… Onto Metagross... And fire off an Overheat."

Steven hummed as he leapt over a twisted, gnarl root with ease. "Fair. You wouldn't care to exploit their new abilities?"

"Not against your - sorry, a random Champion-level Metagross." Ash cleared the root as well, though he stumbled a bit on his landing. Steven slowed just slightly in order to let him catch up, but still maintained a demanding pace. "Water manipulation doesn't have the kick to push them. Infernus' traps would be sensed. Pointless."

"Very well. And what of - ah." Steven finally came to a stop. Ash was happy to follow suit.

Both gasped in great heaping lungfuls of sweet, sweet air. They both leaned down to rest their hands on their knees, but Steven quickly pushed Ash to stand up straight and raise his arms over his knees. "Here we are."

His vision was still spotty, but Ash couldn't help but smile at the sight that awaited them: Claydol sat perfectly still in the air as if suspended by wires while Dazed sagged where she stood in a small clearing. Small pebbles littered the rocky earth around her.

Her eyes lit up when she saw him.

This morning might have been a mistake.

Ash snorted, then shook his head as he took a sip from his water bottle. "How are things going out here?" He inspected the site a little more. Claydol had considerately chosen an area without any cover. "Any luck with the remote teleportation?"

A measure of foreign frustration touched his mind.

My abilities have proven insufficient thus far. Slow targets are manageable. Faster and smaller targets -

She groaned into Ash's head as Claydol helpfully propelled a tiny pebble into her stomach. Dazed's eyes flashed and her pendulum trembled in an attempt to warp the projectile away, but she was far too slow. It thudded into her. Not powerful enough to damage, but enough that Ash didn't envy his friend.

Claydol's relaxed words chided them both.

You shouldn't get distracted by talking. You never know when someone might take advantage.

Ash couldn't help but sneak a look at Steven to make sure he wasn't about to pull something on them. Thankfully, the silver-haired man seemed distracted by one of the vegetation-tipped spires that jutted from the earth not far away. He reluctantly pulled his suspicious gaze away.

"No shields?"

Dazed didn't even bother telepathically replying to that one. She just shook her head and clutched her pendulum in a death grip. A faint light always pulsed behind her eyes, not quite the blaze of power that shone when she was serious but enough to make it clear that her psychic abilities were primed and ready to go.

A dirty boulder the size of Ash's head was lobbed right at her, only to be spirited away in a crack and brilliant flash of light. Ash squinted, then politely clapped when the boulder fell heavily to the ground about twenty feet away. It smashed heavily into the firm earth and left a fine indentation inside.

His eyebrows raised. That rock had been hurled at her from the side, and she'd angled it to go down? "You can change the trajectory?"

Dazed's fur was damp with sweat. Her large, unwieldy fingers shook as she answered.

A necessity. It requires additional focus, but if I move it to the side or behind me, Mentor simply flings it at me again from the other direction.

"So you can control the positioning of things around you?" Ash rushed out, mind already spinning with the opportunities. Setting up the right angles, defensive positions, and avenues for attack was easily half a battle. If she could master that advantage and remove it from others… "What's the cost? Is inertia maintained? How easily would you be able to move another pokemon in combat? Can you redirect their attacks to strike them? Can you -"

The earthen doll sailed closer. A few miscellaneous pieces of their surroundings - some tiny branches, little clusters of broken stone, and even a puddle of muddy water - became wrapped up by psychic power and immediately put Dazed on the defensive. None so much as twitched, but it would only take a moment's thought for a master psychic like Claydol to send them into motion.

She's distracted, I'm afraid.

Ash tracked the dirty water as it was silently scooped up from the mud, hovering as if cupped in the palm of a vast invisible hand. Dazed did too. Her pendulum danced furiously in her grip.

"I can see that."

I can offer a bit of exposition. Yes, it is possible to teleport her opponents. No, it's not something she is capable of yet. A tad more difficult to transport an unwilling target. She can do it, but she would be exhausted at this point in her training.

More projectiles rose smoothly into the air from the field and underbrush.

Much easier to transport attacks. Physical attacks are simpler, particularly for novices.

Claydol flung a log at Dazed, which she managed to teleport away and send spiraling off into the forest, to prove its point. Her breath came harder and harder, and Ash was almost tempted to have her siphon a bit of Mewtwo's power so that she could stay on her feet.

Almost.

Energy-based attacks or elemental techniques, on the other hand…

One of Claydol's 'arms' spun off its body in the blink of an eye to take aim at Dazed. Ash shouted a warning, but before Dazed could even react there was a thin, rainbow-hued Psybeam blasting straight at her.

Instead of bothering to teleport it away, Dazed forced a shimmering psychic shield into existence. The rippling azure strained under the force of Claydol's gentle Psybeam, but did not break. She collapsed afterwards, however, wheezing and clutching the earth with her fingers.

Ash was at her side in an instant. He sent a dirty look at Claydol as he rested his callused hand against her shoulder. Dazed didn't respond to his prompting, still too exhausted to make psychic contact.

Excellent decision. I'd expected you to attempt to teleport it away and fail miserably. You made my next point easier: Shields are more practical in most cases. They require less focus, less energy, and manage area attacks much better.

Claydol rotated in place, allowing the remainder of its projectiles to drop heedlessly to the ground.

Remote teleportation is an invaluable skill, but it takes years to work properly into one's skill set. Using it in the heat of battle requires breaking from previous reflexes.

That sounded like a challenge to Ash, and he thought Claydol knew exactly how it came off.

Years? Please. They'd get a working version in months. Weeks, even. It might not be perfect, but the possibilities were endless.

Dazed's weary mind brushed his. Her voice reminded him of when she'd first learnt to communicate telepathically - wispy, frail, and indistinct. It echoed and reverberated in his head, a far cry from her crisp tones nowadays.

I concur.

And with that, Dazed's eyes shut and she gave into the exhaustion and slumped against him. Ash squeezed her hand in his and wondered whether he should recall her, but Claydol was quick to dissuade him of that notion.

Oh, that won't be necessary. She's earned a short rest. I'll wake her up soon enough. She isn't getting out of training that easily.

Ash snorted and gently lowered her to the ground. "She can handle it."

"Can you?" Steven appeared over his shoulder. Apparently he'd wrapped up his hourly rock inspection. "It seems like things have wrapped up here. Oz and Metagross aren't too far away, only a mile or two."

He groaned, but took one last drink from his water bottle. The water wasn't even cool anymore, but anything was a relief for his parched throat in the sunny, humid lands of Hoenn. At least he knew running a few miles was nothing on whatever training Oz was working on with Metagross.

"Let's go!"

And with that, Steven raced off into the forests.

Ash resolutely followed.

He was going to be so sore tomorrow.

XX

Lush green vegetation surrounded him as he rested on solid earth and rock with only a fragrant breeze to disturb him. Their resting place was shaded and shrouded by the thin, wispy trees that engulfed Ash and Bruiser. At this altitude, every little scrap of vegetation was in constant motion as winds buffeted and blew them about.

For his part, Ash steadfastly kept his eyes closed and absolutely refused to look down - it was an easy hundred-foot drop to the forest floor beneath their stone pillar, and he was perfectly content with not thinking about that.

His fear of heights had faded since he'd begun to fly with Plume more frequently, but it was just a little bit different when he wasn't riding a giant Pidgeot.

Why was he up here again?

Ash cracked his eyes open to take in the sight of a peaceful Bruiser sitting cross-legged atop the pillar with him.

Oh yeah. That was a pretty good reason.

He paused just a moment to admire the utter serenity exuded by Bruiser as he meditated. It was too easy to imagine Bruiser sitting like this for years, or even decades in quiet contemplation. The Machoke was rarely so peaceful as he was now, and Ash fought a surge of distaste down at the idea of disturbing it.

The sun was just beginning to set, though, and distasteful or not, they'd have to make their descent soon.

For now though, he could take in the beauty.

Golden light danced off the countless quartz pillars and was soaked up by all the trees adorning their summits. Forina was a valley surrounded by great mountains - Mt. Chimney dominated the northeast, belching smoke and painting the atmosphere a rich blood red rather than the muted greys and drab browns one might expect.

It wouldn't be long until Forina itself - an insignificant speck against the backdrop of Mt. Chimney - went dark. Evening always seemed to arrive a bit faster than it would have normally as golden sun slid beneath the mountains and cast the whole valley in blackness.

But at least those shadows were nothing like Lavender's.

That thought brought him some comfort.

He rested, and reached for the Concepts. They were waiting for him. Fire's cinders eager to be stoked into an inferno. Sleeping Lightning ready to focus and sharpen all his senses. Ice prepared to dampen it all.

Then Ash's face twisted into a grimace. Fire and Lightning were still smothered. It wasn't impossible to reach them, but he likened the sensation to trying to force his hand through loose dirt.

A brief focus on the Song's peace reduced the cloying earth to mud, and after a moment he didn't have to work quite so hard to let Fire fill his veins and Lightning sharpen his mind.

Every second became twice as long, and he used the extra time well. He immersed himself in the Concepts, balancing each with the next when the strain grew too great to bear, and once he'd left himself in their depths for long enough he even braved the deep pool of anxiety knotted in his gut.

It was endless. Firm and deep as the world itself, and dwarfed him. This exploration wasn't something he could share. Steven? Absolutely not. Lance? Maybe. Even Bruno and Cynthia, immersed in the mysteries as they were, just couldn't quite understand. Not like Ash could.

Time slipped away like dust through his fingers and his sluggish mind struggled as if wading through quicksand.

In the recesses of his mind, he felt the rush of water crashing around his head. An awful voice rending his mind as it had the St. Anne. Sludge burying him, filling his nose and mouth and lungs. His heart pierced.

Rotten, twisted, misshapen thoughts and words spewed from the one person who should never have forgotten him.

Ash's heart pounded in his chest. His stomach went queasy, and Ash practically leapt at the chance to disengage when mighty wing beats and a gentle coo pulled him away from the remembrance.

His eyes opened. The sky was dark with only the faintest glimmer of gold spilling over the mountaintops, and he dreaded to think of how long he'd sat on this pillar while dead to the world. Ash glanced at Bruiser. Still restful and withdrawn, though his giant arms tensed when Plume's soft sounds reached him.

Bruiser stayed at rest, though, and Ash envied him for that.

Plume though, where she'd perched on the lip of the spire's edge, seemed eager for something, though similarly contented. She'd been working as hard as the rest of them and was replete with the day of rest. As quietly as an avian of her size could, she waddled over to nuzzle him.

"Hey, girl," Ash stroked the sleek feathers beneath her beak. Her eyes shut and she stretched out, relishing the touch. He smiled and rested his head against Plume's. "Here to pick me up?"

She made a soft, throaty noise. The vibrations soothed him, and his racing heart stilled. Her weight leaned against him, and it took all Ash had to not be crushed.

"Thanks." He smiled up at her.

Ash rose to his feet, but was careful to avoid jostling any of the branches surrounding him or scratching at the rock too much as he stood. The last thing he wanted was to disturb Bruiser. He took one last lingering look at the Machoke and smiled. "C'mon. How about we get out of here?"

Plume cooed again, rubbing against his cheek, and then leapt back to the edge with a rustling flap of her wings.

He silently crept out from the brush to the edge to meet her. Her full resplendent form waited patiently for him. Her saddle wasn't on, but Ash didn't hesitate climbing onto her back. Her glossy feathers weren't especially easy to cling to, and he felt himself slipping almost as soon as he grabbed on, but it would be fine for a short flight.

A few hundred feet down to the campsite? That was a joke for Plume.

He hugged her thick neck tightly. Ash embraced the heat pouring out from Plume, and closed his eyes. It wasn't the Concepts he reached for now, but Plume. Like he had to thank Karen. The trainer poured his affection, his thanks, his trust into her as he would his thoughts into the Concepts, and Plume froze.

Her head craned back to look at him then, eyes narrowed shrewdly, and she nipped his hat once before her great wings outstretched and they glided back into the untamed forest below.

The stupid smile never left him.

XX

Big blue eyes met Ash's.

His gaze didn't waver.

"I have a challenge for you."

Aron warbled happily, and plopped down on his bottom. His jaws steadfastly munched on a little rounded sphere of scrap metal that Steven had tossed to him. The screeching scrape of Aron's tongue tearing the metal to shroud absolutely tortured Ash's ears, but he didn't let it affect him too much.

Nidoking watched over them. His shoulders dipped low, exhausted by the drills Aggron had put him through, but he still made sure to stick close to the little steel-type.

"You've figured out Magnet Rise, right?"

Aron ripped the metal apart in his mouth and chewed. His giant eyes beckoned Ash.

Good enough.

"Alright," Ash said slowly, hands on his knees as he crouched in front of Aron. "How about this? Whenever you move, you use Magnet Rise. Train normally. Walk, run, whatever. But I need you to get comfortable with Magnet Rise. Levitate to get water. Levitate to get a treat. Levitate to walk. I'll tell you when to take a rest and move normally. Make sense?"

His friend nodded fervently up and down, and Ash smiled as Aron immediately used Magnet Rise to hover over to the little stream that he, Nidoking, and Aggron trained beside.

It wasn't perfect - Aron bobbed up and down like he was surfing waves, and seemed more focused on chewing his treat than maintaining stability, but it was enough, and even if he sank to the earth now, Ash knew it would do him good later. Given a few months, Aron would sail along unchallenged, and since he was already worn out from training with Protect and Rock Tomb, this extra effort would keep him busy for a while.

With that out of the way, Ash was free to focus on Nidoking. He'd come here without Steven shadowing him (apparently the former Champion decided he wanted to run some seismic tests with Claydol today), so he had free reign over Nidoking. Aggron would at least respect his questions, but had no interest in listening to anyone that wasn't named Steven Stone.

"Let's see your Sludge Bomb," Ash directed at Nidoking as Aron levitated off. "Let's use the new adjustments."

He pointed out a small boulder jutting from the earth. "Hit that. Use psychic adjustments."

Nidoking's eyes scrunched up in concentration. An azure psychic blaze exploded behind his eyes, and in the next moment he spat a fat glob of ugly purple toxins that slammed into the rock and drenched it in the Sludge Bomb. The technique was wreathed in blue flame, Nidoking's Sludge Bomb corrected by the psychic will to guide it against the rock. It bubbled against it, roiling dangerously, and blazed with a psychic flare.

"Good!" Ash nodded with satisfaction. It wasn't exactly easy, but guiding his techniques with subtle uses of psychic powers was usable. "Can you do it with Toxic as well?"

The poison-type nodded, a gleam in his eye, and Ash smirked. "Perfect."

He watched Nidoking bathe the rock in sludge again, and a deep measure of satisfaction filled his chest. "Excellent. That doesn't seem too difficult. Now," He glimpsed Aggron, who waited with a dark glare. "Can you split it up into two? If you can do that, let's focus on tightening up your Earthquake or Earth Power…"

Nidoking grunted, his eyes narrowed, His foot twisted and golden light surrounded it. He was ready to test the limits.

Sadly, Aggron put his foot down on that. The steel titan kept a fond eye on Aron as he zoomed around mid-air, but snarled at the thought of Nidoking throwing out too many Earthquakes. Ash couldn't figure out if it was out of concern for the beautiful geography that surrounded them or for Aggron's own comfort. Even if it could hover off the ground to avoid the Earthquake, it might be just enough of a hassle to make Aggron not want to deal with it. Not until Steven was around to study things, at any rate.

Ash grumbled. Annoying, but workable.

"I'll have to have you training with Infernus to focus on shaping your techniques," Ash muttered to himself. Nidoking's nostrils flared, but he didn't protest beyond that. "You're doing great," he assured his friend. "I just think you could teach each other a few things. Infernus guiding his flames, you guiding your toxins…"

Nidoking grumbled again, and Ash shook his head. "Yeah, yeah, I know. He can be rough. But just think! If you can match him here, you can handle him no problem."

His friend shrugged his comment off and fired off another glowing Toxic to swallow up the rock. Aron levitated over to sniff it, but Aggron shooed him away with a snarl and a wave of his claws. The steel-type was content to munch away at the little bit of scrap metal he'd left over earlier, but never strayed too far away.

Ash was too distracted with Nidoking's guided attacks to pay much attention.

"Yes, yes," he muttered as Nidoking guided another Sludge Bomb dead-on into the target. It wasn't too complex to guide something like a Sludge Bomb or Toxic into an opponent, but it was still worthy of celebration. It required additional concentration and effort, and Ash would never diminish that. "You're doing excellently. New target?"

Nidoking's eyes lifted then, and Ash knew he had his attention.

"See that branch?" He pointed to a thick, knotted branch on a nearby tree which was nearly the size of a Houndoom's neck. Nidoking's eyes flashed blue, and he saw the branch consumed with the same light. Cracks formed, and Ash smiled in satisfaction.

A little psychic power could go a long way, especially when applied by someone like Nidoking.

"Now break it off," he directed, and his eyes lit up as Nidoking's mental force snapped it right off. His friend sagged with the exhaustion that came with the psychic attack, but he remained steadfast. "Perfect, now smash it against the rock. Let's get some practice in…"

XX

Night fell over Forina. It came early, but Ash was used to it now. They'd spent an entire week out here, and by this point he'd come to enjoy the long hours spent in darkness. A blazing sliver of red light still peeked over the mountains that wrapped around the great valley, but the long shadows cast by the range still left them largely in the dark.

Seeker flapped about, finally willing to venture a bit beyond the restrictions. He could hear the Zubat chirping in the distance as she fluttered around, occasionally swinging back in above their campsite to check in. Bruiser kept a watchful eye on her, and Ash was certain that Dazed kept track of her through her psychic senses as well.

The valley was relatively safe - most wild pokemon were happy to give them a wide berth, especially with Metagross lurking around - but it paid to be cautious. Seeker couldn't protect herself like the rest of his team could, which left a nervous little twist in his gut.

She could detect danger before most of them, but if it managed to find her first…

He forced that thought away. It had been a long time since really had to worry about any of his teammates, especially from something as mundane as wild pokemon lurking around. Strength was power, and power was freedom. Certainly something his family had in spades.

Ash shook it off. No point worrying. He just needed to relax. It had been a long, long week. His whole body ached with all the running and climbing Steven put him through. The ache was deep and satisfying, but it was starting to take his toll on him. Every morning he woke up stiffer and stiffer.

Something just barely illuminated by their fire crept along the bare earth and stole his attention. Ash frowned first and Nidoking grumbled, but they both relaxed as they recognized it as one of Tangrowth's strong vines. Several wandered around as Tangrowth plopped himself down next to Sneasel, Oz, and Aron. Most of his vines sought out those nearby him to wrap comfortably around an arm or leg - Tangrowth's poor vision didn't lend itself well to night, and he was always more comfortable if he knew where they were.

One brushed against Ash's leg and he smiled. Ash reached down to pat the warm, rubbery vine and let his fingers rest against it for a time. Tangrowth's vine tightened subtly around his calf in his form of a hug.

Even Nidoking didn't mind the touch. He was used to it at this point, even if it left him shifting a little to find a better position to rest. His breathing was a comfort to Ash, even if it was just barely audible over the crackle of the campfire.

Ash closed his eyes and leaned back against the thin beech he'd set a log up against. Its bark was rough, but comfortable since he had his shirt on. The silence was nice, broken only by the occasional rush of wind through the trees, the shifting or low groan of his team as they adjusted to a better spot, and the occasional cry of a Mightyena or screech of a Nuzleaf in the distance.

Every now and then a Dustox would swing by as a result of their bright, flickering fire, but Dazed and Claydol politely dissuaded them with a mental nudge. They'd disappear in a rustle, though he could still hear their wings beating as they sought out food.

He allowed his mind to trail off to focus in on the next stage of Sneasel's training with Mind Breaker -

"Agh!" Ash jerked alert in an instant as an awful, air-splitting shriek pierced his ears. It was like someone stuck a knife in and twisted. His eyes snapped open and Fire rushed to the fore, blazing out from his chest in an incandescent glow.

His nerves had been on edge for a week now, and all that tension came pouring out. Hot blood pounded in his ears, pushed along faster and harder by Fire, and his lip curled up in a snarl.

Tangrowth moaned pitifully, and Ash's eyes narrowed at the sight of one of his vines writhing like an Ekans on the forest floor. It was severed cleanly, like a great blade had cleaved it apart. Its spasms slowed just a little with every second that passed by, but even when it largely fell still the vine would twitch and twist.

Something uncomfortable wriggled in Ash's gut at the sight of it, and he ground his teeth as he looked for the culprit - it was pretty obvious when Skarmory's wings flared with a noise like a sword being unsheathed and the steel-type avian took off with a screech.

The pragmatic part of his brain couldn't help the rush of excitement as something clicked at the sight of the squirming vine. There was a common thread in Tangrowth's battles: the severing of his vines. Tangrowth guided his techniques with them - with his vines, he dominated the battlefield. Without… well, Gary's Alakazam, Metagross, and Karen's Absol had all found that particular weakness.

What if he could remove it entirely? Endless propositions and hypotheses and ideas came together as one, and for just a moment he was yanked away from the current situation.

Then cold reality set in again as he pondered his friend's situation.

His fingers twitched toward Infernus' pokeball, but instead he shook it off and rose from his comfortable seat (and did his best to ignore the aches and pains of his protesting body) to meet Tangrowth. Several vines wrapped around him and he just barely managed to wrap a comforting arm around Tangrowth's warm, rubbery shell of vines.

"You okay?" He muttered. Nidoking loomed up behind him and the rest of the team closed ranks around them. Some were more curious than anything, but even Sneasel glowered over at the spot Skarmory had vacated.

Velvety paws twitched as long, curved claws unsheathed.

"What was that for?" Ash growled at Steven where he sat across the campfire. The former Champion had been logging their day so far, and looked up with a wince. "Tangrowth didn't do anything!"

Steven coughed into his fist. "I'm afraid he did," the Master winced as Tangrowth's severed vine contracted. It rolled dangerously close to the fire, but Claydol took care of that with a twitch of psychic power that hurled the vine off into the brush. Steven thanked Claydol, then pointed into the trees behind him.

Lightning focused his vision until the shadows melted away. His enhanced eyes easily picked out the dark figure of Cradily lurking between a few spindly trees and a nearby rocky spire. It was suspended in a hammock of strong, corded vines that easily supported the ancient creature's weight.

Cradily was always watching.

For a moment he pondered how Steven knew exactly where Cradily was without looking, but a quick glance at the iron body of Metagross gave him his answer. Did they ever let their minds unmingle? They were practically one and the same.

Imagine that.

Ash steadfastly ignored Mewtwo's snide words. The psychic had been relatively silent the last few days, and he had no interest in responding. It didn't much help his sour mood.

His hand still clutched at the Unown tablet. It might not be alive now, but maybe it would offer some token defense…

Mewtwo's trickle of laughter didn't offer him much confidence, but at least the psychic remained blissfully silent.

"And what does Cradily have to do with anything?" Ash stared at the fossil pokemon distrustfully. It was rare enough that he saw it move, even during battle. He wasn't even sure what the silent creature did beyond lurk and stalk.

Steven had the grace to look embarrassed. "Ah, I'm afraid Cradily wasn't always so friendly."

Ash stared at Cradily.

It stared back.

"Uh huh."

HIs doubtful tone didn't seem to affect Steven, who continued on without a second thought. "You see, he was rather antisocial as a Lileep. He didn't enjoy mingling with the rest of the team, despite their best efforts."

Ash skimmed over Steven's own family, each of whom seemed relatively surly or at least unapproachable… well, now that Claydol was gone. He wasn't sure if Steven saw a different side of his team or if he was utterly divorced from reality.

"Unfortunately, Cradily also became somewhat… protective of me," Steven said. "And that caused him to become quite obstinate. Whenever I worked with other teammates, Cradily had a habit of attacking. Quite viciously, I might add. I didn't even know vines could do that."

Steven's team all twitched. Aggron even shuddered. Only Metagross remained unshaken.

The fossil just bobbed its head up and down, as if agreeing with Steven. Its hammock of vines flexed, like they were threatening to come undone and give Ash an example.

He'd like to see Cradily try.

After all, it didn't sound like Steven's team would be leaping to back the fossil up.

"Cradily enjoyed binding Skarmory to the ground for a time," Steven admitted. "We broke him of the habit, but it left quite the effect on Skarmory. She… won't react well to Tangrowth's vines," he looked to Tangrowth, who was still surrounded by Ash's team. "We apologize, Tangrowth. I'll speak to her."

Tangrowth's vines wriggled and his eyes finally lit up again. He gurgled and his arms stretched out to mimic a hug. Even Steven couldn't miss the meaning. "Yes, yes," Steven chuckled. "I'm sure we'll be able to smooth things over. The hugs might have to wait awhile."

Ash smiled as Tangrowth's good cheer restored. He plopped right back on the ground, comfortably toasty with the flickering fire right there, and the rest of the team returned to their previous conditions. A small group stuck close to Tangrowth, though, which warmed Ash's heart more than the fire ever could. Aron crawled up to snooze beneath the grass-type's comfortable veil of vines, Oz leaned against a nearby tree, and Sneasel obstinately climbed atop Tangrowth's head so he could better glare at Steven's team.

"I'm very sorry," Steven apologized again. Ash looked away from the small pile of pokemon back to Steven. "Skarmory was simply taken by surprise."

He thought of what a few members of his team would do if a random vine snagged them in the middle of the night. "It's fine," Ash shrugged it off after a moment's pondering. His nerves were still on edge, but at least the blood had stopped pounding in his ears. "Tangrowth will win her over eventually."

Steven snorted. "I'd like to see that."

He sighed a moment later. Metagross' eyes flicked open for a moment, but quickly shut again. The former Champion looked at Ash curiously. "Lance mentioned you've mastered a nice tune on that flute of yours. Perhaps that would help?"

"Sure," Ash said after a moment's hesitation. It only took a moment to draw the flute from his pack. As always, he took a moment to marvel at the glossy length of luminescent material. Plain, yet elegant. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but he thought it always gleamed a little brighter under the silver glow reflected off the moon.

The flute was cool against his lips. Just before he started playing, the awful knot in his stomach tightened. His natural fears were fed by the heavy pressure of the tension that filled him, and he cracked his eyes open to peer at Steven looking at him from across the fire. The orange light danced across Steven's face, and all he could see in the man's expression was a faint curiosity and the slightest quirk of his lips.

Some of his self-consciousness melted away, and the familiar tones burst from the flute. At once the heavy, cloying weight on his shoulders seemed to ease up, and he found himself sitting straighter without thinking. He paused and let the instrument fall from his lips.

He could breathe again.

"Please, continue," Steven said as Ash drew in a blissful breath of Forina's sweet summer air. "I hope you didn't stop on my account. You're playing very well so far."

Steven's opinion might have changed if he realized this was the only song he knew, Ash thought wryly. Still, if this was the only song he knew then he could at least be glad that it was a good one. The best, even.

What was the saying? 'Fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but instead the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times?' Something like that - Bruno had repeated it a few times, and it had stuck with him.

Did the same thing count for music?

"It's not that," Ash said before he could be lost in his thoughts. Steven's concern was touching, though, and he offered the man a smile as he prepared to play again. "Just needed to get a good breath in. Felt a little nervous."

That was an understatement if he'd ever heard one, but it seemed to appease Steven. Part of him screamed to talk to the man, but what could he even say? 'Oh, I've been feeling extremely anxious for no reason. Can you fix it?'

He wasn't about to let Steven convince him to allow Metagross into his head.

Claydol's relaxed voice slipped into his head.

Oh, don't worry. Your brain is the last place Metagross wants to visit. That would be my honor, you see.

Ash froze.

I won't be spilling any of your secrets. Some of us understand the value of privacy.

Said the psychic currently whispering into his mind.

At least I don't feed everything to Steven like my dear friend Metagross. You're a smart little human, and I doubt my trainer would be of much help. You have the most interesting problems!

Ash didn't think it was a compliment, but he chose to take it that way.

Enough time had passed to where Steven had fixed him with an odd look again, so he hurriedly made to play the Song again. His fingers moved instinctively and his breath flowed like the wind to produce each note, and the air itself stirred around him. Cloying earth fell away, and Ash didn't think he imagined the refreshing gust that whipped through Forina in a mighty rush, dancing around the great stone spires as it wrapped around him in a friendly embrace.

Then his fingers fell away, the flute was lowered, and the weight was back.

Steven's eyes had been shut, but they opened now. "Beautiful," he murmured. "That song… it's familiar, somehow. Where is it from?"

"Lugia," Ash shrugged. Was it bad for him to enjoy Steven's dumbfounded expression so much?

Probably, but he wasn't going to beat himself up over it.

"What?" Steven choked out. Metagross' harsh eyes fell on Ash with something like curiosity. "Lugia?"

"Lugia," he confirmed. Ash rolled the flute around in his hand, admiring the mother-of-pearl sheen. "Back in Shamouti, I heard the Song. It hasn't left my head since - not that that's a bad thing," Ash added hurriedly.

Steven looked at the pale flute in a new light. He seemed to inch away a tad. "It's a lovely tune," he said measuredly. "Does Lance know?"

"Sure," Ash shrugged. "He knows a lot of things. I don't know everything," he admitted. "Who knows what the Feather is whispering to him?"

That didn't comfort Steven very much. "Who knows indeed?" He murmured. "Still, it's a beautiful song. Would you be interested in learning another?"

His mouth twisted into a grimace. "Maybe?" Ash said, doubt coloring his words. "I've tried, but it's difficult on my own."

"I've never played the flute, but I do have some minor music talent," Steven said proudly. His fingers twitched as if he were about to play the piano. "Part of my training, you see."

"From your parents?"

Steven chuckled. "Almost, but not quite. I learned to play with my parents, but Fino ensured I had a continued education. He loves literature and poetry, and never thought for a second that I wouldn't share his passions," he said fondly. "I was bored to tears and always tried to escape to geology, but Fino ensured I was well-rounded."

Ash smiled at the wistful way Steven trailed off. "That sounds really nice. How long did you train under him?"

"I received my invitation after my first Conference…" Steven muttered, his eyes flitting down to Metagross for an instant. "Two years, perhaps? It was off and on, and I revisited my training with him frequently. It took several years before I could best him."

"But you did it eventually. Even at a disadvantage."

Steven nodded along with him. "Oh yes, I won," he preened. "I studied my teacher for years, and one day it all went to plan. It didn't bother him, though," Steven shook his head. "It might have been the happiest I ever saw him, honestly. In the end not all that much of our time was devoted to battle."

"There's so much more to being a mentor than just making your pupil strong," Steven recited as if the words were seared into his skull. He raised a finger at Ash. "We live in a beautiful world. Strength will only take you so far into it. If I can show you a few new facets, I'll be satisfied."

Ash smiled. "I'd like that," he said simply. Silence held steady for a few moments, then he clutched the flute tighter. "Can you teach me a few tricks? I'm tired of scaring off the wild pokemon."

Steven barked out a laugh - it actually reminded Ash of Lance. "Of course."

He sat straighter on Metagross' body. "Get ready, and we can begin. I'm no expert, but I can teach you the basics, if nothing else…"

XX

Steven set a blistering pace across the forest. His long legs afforded him a much, much greater stride and set Ash to scurrying along after him. Thankfully his shorts and the light shirt he wore kept him cool, but his skin was still hot and flushed.

He didn't utter a word of complaint. Just drove his legs faster and made sure to clear whatever brambles, stones, and low-hanging branches that Steven brushed through. It would be so, so embarrassing if any of that slowed him down - at this point it just felt like Steven was taking him through the toughest areas on purpose.

Even as his muscles seared and every breath felt like it tore his lungs apart, his mind managed to find some incredible calm. Even the anxiety had withdrawn, overpowered by the exhaustion raking him.

With that came clarity.

How to build on that little strand of insight that flooded into his mind last night? It was all he could think about as his legs raced beneath him and propelled his body just behind Steven.

He'd known for a while that Tangrowth's biggest weakness was the loss of his vines. Any opponent worth their salt managed to capitalize on it - Gary's Alakazam had used a psychic blade to sever them en masse, for example - to leave Tangrowth nearly defenseless.

The threads slowly came together. He'd already sown the first seeds last night as he watched Tangrowth's writhing vine, but now he had focus. With nothing to distract him but whatever obstacles Steven threw in his way a complex problem gave rise to solution after solution.

Tangrowth already had the ability to heal himself. Giga Drain was always reliable, and with a little effort it wouldn't be hard to adapt that into Ingrain. Synthesis on this level might be a bit harder to teach, but at least it wasn't a stretch for Tangrowth's physiology. He already did it. Just at a slightly slower pace than Ash would like.

Right now, Tangrowth could regrow his vines in a matter of days.

But what if he could do better?

Ingrain absorbed nutrients from the soil to provide the raw materials for rapid cell division. Synthesis did much the same thing, but drew on reserves the body already had, and also primed the body for rapid, 'sprint' photosynthesis to offset the immediate loss of energy in the form of sugar.

It was exhausting and would leave the user utterly wiped out after the battle, but many grass-type specialists considered it an invaluable technique. Few pokemon could actively bounce back in the middle of a fight, after all.

Each technique was demanding on its own. Both combined would give Tangrowth the edge he needed to keep competing against opponents that could shred his vines like paper - so long as Ash prepared him properly. Right now, Tangrowth's weaknesses - just the one, really - were known, intuitive, and easily exploitable.

It would be difficult, but if he could remove that as a factor entirely…

"Steven!" He called out. His teacher wheeled around, still moving painfully fast, but slowed down just enough for Ash to keep pace. "I have an idea. Can you help?"

Steven's entire, sweat-streaked face lit up. "Of course. Let's hear it.."

Ash was happy to oblige.

XX

"It's just you and me today," Ash told Plume. Her talons gripped deeper into the rocky spire they'd landed upon, crumbling little bits and pieces off to tumble down the sheer cliff, as she crooned softly. He laughed and brushed his fingers against the soft feathers of her throat. "You ready?"

She fluffed her wings and puffed her chest out.

"I don't know why I even asked," he snorted, then looked down at Forina below them.

They'd chosen the tallest pillar for miles around, and even the spires that dotted the valley and ascended anywhere from sixty to a hundred feet off the forest floor seemed petty and insignificant from their peak.

Warmth filled his chest as he regarded his friend. "You've been training with Skarmory. How's your progress?"

The mention of Skarmory soured them both for a moment - she had made amends with Tangrowth when she'd returned to the campsite, but Ash would need a stronger sign than that in order to forgive her - but Ash shook it off soon enough.

Plume held her head up proudly, shrieking off to the sky. It left Ash's ears ringing, but he still smiled. "Good, good," he said. "You've got Protect all figured out?" His question earned another prideful scream. "How about the secret project?"

She reluctantly lowered her head. Ash shook his head. "No worries. That's why we're working together." He recalled the awesome sight of Lugia blowing away the Birds with that orange beam. The flute - he never let it go far, not with how just the touch soothed the tightness in his chest - called to him, and he soon had it grasped in his palm. "We're reverse-engineering a Legend's power. It's not like we can just break out a TM for it."

Ash was rewarded with a soft coo and a giant Pidgeot head shoved over his shoulder. Plume's wings stretched out as if to embrace him, and he smiled and wrapped his arms loosely around Plume's thick neck.

"See? We'll get it. Just a matter of time," he said. "We'll work on this for a while. At least try to build up a foundation we can build off. If we run into too much trouble… well, I have a new idea. One that might help you the next time we go against Metagross."

That snagged her attention. She pulled away and cocked her head and studied him with blatant curiosity.

His lip curled up into a feral smile. "I think it's time we start working on Curse. Metagross won't pick you off so easily if they can barely sense you."

Plume's indignant squawk told him everything he needed to know. His smile deepened - that was just the reaction he'd hoped for. She was a prideful Pidgeot, and being picked off by an earthbound (kind of, anyways) Metagross would not sit well with her.

Ash raised his PokeDex, which he'd already pulled up to the Curse technique. Plume wouldn't be able to wield it like a ghost could, but if she could begin to draw on that ghostly power it just might be enough to shroud her from Metagross' peerless psychic senses. At the speeds she could travel at, that could potentially give her the edge to outmaneuver them.

At the very least it would dampen the effects of their psychic assaults on her, though he supposed there was nothing stopping Metagross from blasting her with a Flash Cannon. The concentration required would keep her from reaching her peak speeds, but even half-speed from his friend would be almost impossible for anything to accurately strike from the ground.

He pulled away and cautiously scooted over to the edge of the sheer cliff to where his legs dangled off and kicked against the root-covered stone. Plume hopped over and crouched next to him with her wings folded against her side. Her sharp eyes raked out over Forina's forests and locked onto something wriggling around down below.

As he sat with his legs over the side, he winced as something dug into his thigh through his shorts. Ash grabbed the offender and felt an odd, hooked stone - it only took a glance to recognize it as an ancient fang. Judging from the size, it likely belonged to an old Salamence. Earth clung stubbornly to it, and there were long chips along the stained, serrated, tooth.

It had easily been here for decades going off the thick clumps of dirt bound to it, and he didn't see fit to disturb it. Ash placed it back, but spared it another glance. Salamence roosted in the mountains around Meteor Falls, so it wasn't unheard of for them to range this far. The sandstone pillars would make for a great perch as well.

The old Draconids claimed territory all throughout the mountains, so it could always have been one of their relics as well.

Plume's neck craned to get a better look at the pokemon who'd snagged her attention, and Ash looked away from the fang so he could handle that situation.

"Show me what you've got," Ash said to distract her from whatever unlucky pokemon had attracted her attention. "Slowly, please."

Plume nodded. She took off with a roar of rushing wind (he clung for dear life to the thick roots embedded in the rock) and swept off into the sky. It only took her a few lazy flaps of her wings to get to a proper pace. Painfully slow for her, the equivalent of Plume moving through molasses, yet still just a blur in the sky.

She made a few vast loops, ascending higher and higher every time she passed by him until she soared an easy five hundred feet above him. Her glossy feathers caught the light well, and he paused to admire her for a moment before her great head turned to face him. Plume snapped her head forward then, reared back as her beak opened -

A gale ripped forth, howling like a tornado as it burst out of her throat. Invisible and impossible for him to track, but the din was music to his ears. Her eyes flashed blue, and little flickers of psychic power wreathed around the blast of air in a futile attempt to confine the awesome power of her attack. Even from here he could see where it failed - Plume's psychic powers were meager at best, only used to enhance her speed with Agility. External use was… difficult.

Plume sloped downward, apparently realizing he wouldn't be able to properly visualize the technique in just the atmosphere, and skimmed about thirty feet above the forest canopy. Her head lowered and the windstream was redirected.

Branches were stripped bare of leaves, then shattered beneath the force. Saplings broke and sturdier trees bent. A wild storm of vegetation, rock, and dust that would have shredded his skin was kicked up as Plume propelled herself up with a single flap of her mighty wings, then circled back to land heavily on the outcropping near Ash.

She left a trail of devastation in her wake. Ash's heart twinged at the sight of broken trees, a wide rut carved into the dirt, and the gaping emptiness of the new clearing. Bare dirt and tossed trunks greeted him. Hopefully they weren't displacing any wild pokemon with their practice - there was only so much they could do to limit the collateral of their training.

It didn't take him long to look away.

A heavy lead weight sank in his gut when, instead of returning his gaze to Plume, he spotted a pair of white-furred quadrupeds prancing away from the destruction.

Recognition flickered, and the tightness worsened.

More Absol? This had to be the third group he'd seen in the last day or so. They'd been pouring into Forina, and plenty of the media announcements he and Steven watched together every now and then (Steven always managed to find a lesson to impart, of course) had made mention of other Absol reported to have had situated themselves in the general vicinity of Mt. Chimney.

Just another thing to worry about, he supposed.

"This isn't working," Ash muttered, returning to the task at hand.

Plume nodded - a jerky bob of her head, to her - eyes blank, but she was happy to accept his gloved hand as he rested it against her powerful wing. His mind rewound to the point where she'd taken her windstream to the trees: strong, but unrefined. She'd managed to mimic something along the lines of a Hurricane. Lots of raw force that covered a wide area, shaped and constrained by her flickers of psychic power - it was the same principle he'd applied to Infernus' flames to try to make them more intense.

Absolutely useful, but nothing new.

He thought back to the blazing orange beams loosed from Lugia's maw that carried with them the power of a compressed hurricane. Even now he could recall the roar of the wind that carried the Birds themselves away.

That was their goal.

"We've got to focus it, but we're doing it the wrong way" he thought aloud. Plume nodded along, her talons gripping even more tightly into the rock. Ash gently stroked her feathers as he pondered. "Trying to guide it with psychic powers won't work, not when your Hurricane overpowers the shell so easily."

His mind churned unendingly. Plume seemed to be in the same boat. She lowered her head and nipped gently on his hat a few times, cooing every now and then or leaning away to preen.

Ash's eyes shut and one of his hands reached down to touch the bare stone of the spire, though just that left him queasy. His anxiety always got worse when he was drifting off into his thoughts.

Working with his team or speaking with Steven could dull it - as could the exercise - but the moment he didn't have a distraction was the moment it hit him like a sledgehammer.

Blocking out all the visual stimuli helped him focus, even if the tightness in his chest began to clench harder and harder, soon to the point that it was nearly unbearable…

He hated to give in, but he raised the flute to his lips before he could beat himself up about it.

There was no way he was letting this stupid, pointless anxiety ruin his day with Plume.

Ash felt Plume calm as the first notes of the Song left the pearly instrument. With every breath he poured into the music, the constant dread left with it. The knot in his stomach uncoiled slowly. It never quite left, but it was finally bearable again. Quiet enough to let him think, at any rate.

He kept playing. Every fiber of Ash's being sought to connect with Lugia, to deepen that bond until he could know just how to guide Plume. The Song's peace flowed within and without, emanating out to soothe the whipping winds as they slashed the pillar and buffeted his skin, and the world went quiet at the sound.

It wasn't right, though.

Each note was a battle. Normally, the world was eager to listen. Eager to drink in these rare notes that permeated the universe. Flux and shifting winds would happily slow to a crawl, drifting over Ash like a cool blanket. Pelting sheets of water would give way to slow, fat rain drops.

Here?

The earth seemed to drown it out. Every little bit of the Song fell on deaf ears. The wind listened, as it always did, but the normal peace couldn't take hold. Heavy, cloying earth smothered it and drank the notes up like a parched man guzzling water.

Ash paused for a moment, and the effects were gone in a moment. The Song's power didn't linger. Without Ash fueling it and expressing it into the world, it withered and died helplessly in the strange land of Forina.

It unsettled him, though Plume didn't seem too bothered, and he quickly raised the flute again. This time he worked in elements of the Beasts' howls and rumbles and roars, drawing on half-forgotten memories to place each naturally into the Song.

They balanced it as they always did, fitting in seamlessly with the pauses or gaps in Lugia's Song, though it didn't seem to penetrate the earth as he'd hoped. It remained obstinate as ever. Everything was absorbed, and the seeds he'd hoped to plant failed to take root.

No, more than that. They were rejected. The thought left him more than a little uneasy, and his mind wandered to dark places once he'd made that observation.

Forina may be a paradise, but something terrible lurked beneath.

Still, he took pleasure in the howling of the North Wind that billowed in from past Mt. Chimney. It draped about him like a cloak, purging a measure of his anxiety, and Ash wished the real Suicune were here. He could use a bit of its serenity right about now.

Or a lot.

Sweet, cool air purged some of the stifling heat of Hoenn, though it left goosebumps all up his arms. Ash smiled nonetheless, and felt Plume coo, pleased at the unexpected freshness.

The purifying air of Suicune was something he'd missed terribly, and the effect only seemed amplified here in muggy Forina. He hadn't expected to miss the cool, crisp winds of Johto so much, but he wished for nothing more than to dip his toes in the Lake of Rage, or endure beneath the freezing waterfall with Pryce, or sit with Bruno or Lance in the lonely Ore Mountains again.

That nostalgia wouldn't get him anywhere, though, and he buried it.

Later.

Instead, Ash decided he needed to be productive. That's why he'd played the Song, after all.

The gears of his mind turned and turned and turned. He let the notes of the Song carry him away, and the focus let his thoughts flow like the wind itself. It was impossible to connect to Lugia like he'd hoped - the bond was stifled, just like the Song, if they were even distinct in the first place - and he wouldn't receive any revelations today. Not from the Song, at any rate.

Suicune's influence was strong, though, and with his eyes shut and the gales rushing through Forina it was impossible not to appreciate it. Purification. Serenity. Peace. Acceptance.

They were trying to capture that spark of power unleashed by Lugia into the world, to wield the weapons of the Legends themselves.

His lips curled up into a satisfied smile.

Why should he stop at Lugia?

Ash's eyes cracked open.

They'd made little progress on how to further Lugia's technique, but a smooth confidence had filled him. That would come in time. If focusing the Hurricane wouldn't work, maybe they could focus on raw air manipulation instead? Perhaps the North Wind could guide them, just as it had Torrent. To wield purification in her wind...well, he just had to wonder how a ghost would fare.

Something to think about. He'd need to spend more time trying to decode the actual mechanics of Lugia's technique before they could really make progress. Until he knew where to go, he could only determine where they shouldn't go, and lay a foundation on that knowledge.

That was enough for now, he thought, they had a better grasp on where they should begin.

It wasn't as much as they'd hoped, but it was a step in the right direction. A day wasn't wasted if they'd bettered themselves.

"Plume?"

She nipped his cap affectionately. He rolled his eyes, but didn't try to stop her.

"I'm going to need you to close your eyes," Ash said slowly. Each word was measured and careful, drawn from his crystal clear memories of Cynthia guiding him in the Hale Mansion. Plume cocked her head curiously, but followed along. "Clear your mind. Be calm. Listen."

Ash played the Song again, but this time favored the harmony of the Beasts. Soon enough the North Wind flowed forth, quick and pure and strong, and purged the dense stench of earth and fear away from this place.

It sang.

Ash and Plume listened.

XX

Volcanic ash fell like dark snow on the northern slopes of Mt. Chimney and piled up over weeks to build great drifts and walls. The grumbling volcano was a distant shadow on the horizon, largely drowned out by the steady flow of soot and ash gushing from its mouth. Lightning marked the occasional release of excess static in the ashcloud, illuminating spindly veins of even blacker ash and material in the glut.

By now he was used to the mountain's regular release of lava and smoke, so such sights barely fazed him.

Looking at Mt. Chimney for too long always left him feeling queasy though, and so he was quick to turn his eyes from the horizon. The tension drained out of his shoulders, though his fists were still clenched tight. It didn't help that his throat always felt raw and red around the ash, like his old injuries from facing Moltres were still ready to rip open at a moment's notice.

He shook it off and glanced past the ash fields. This area was practically packed full of isolated towns and villages as the mountains gave way to fertile plains and soil that was enriched by the falling ash. The majority of Hoenn's food was produced in these soils, and it was hard to walk a mile without stumbling into some field or farm.

Fallarbor wasn't far away, perhaps twenty miles? Close enough that it was just a quick dash on Plume. Part of him was tempted to visit the isolated town, but there would be time for that later.

They were here on a mission.

"Can you show us?"

"Hmm? Oh, of course," Steven gently brushed a few specks of soot off Skarmory's gleaming wings. The steel-type ignored the pointed looks from both Ash and Oz, and lightly headbutted Steven before soaring off to the north.

"Skarmory was born in these parts," the Master explained with an expression dripping with nostalgia. "On some days it feels like just a matter of hours since I stumbled across her cave. On others, it feels like decades."

Ash privately agreed with him. Sometimes he could hardly believe it had only been about a year and a half since he'd started training.

Steven coughed and looked to Metagross, who stood unbothered by the thin dots of volcanic ash that draped over their metallic chassis. The monstrously powerful steel-type responded without a word. Its eyes flickered momentarily to the ash in the sky, then focused.

Anticipation built in Ash's chest. He glanced at Dazed, who waited between him and Oz. This training didn't really have much for Dazed to participate in, but she needed a break and at least this gave her a chance to see one of the most advanced psychic techniques imaginable.

Elemental Synthesis.

Psychic powers enabled one to control the universe itself. Force, space, time - all fell under the purview of psychic abilities. Others were sensitive to the minds of others, able to nudge thoughts and mold false perceptions. Most psychics only scraped the surface of their potential. Others delved into the deepest mysteries and peeled back layer after layer of reality.

Metagross might not have the curiosity to delve too deep, but they were a master of the physical world.

Red eyes blazed with a furious scarlet light, though the effect was muted by the constant shadow of Mt. Chimney's ash. Ash felt Lightning flutter to life within him, the tingling racing through him like a livewire. The world slowed, and Ash, Dazed, and Oz as one waited with bated breath.

Light.

For a moment, the darkness was forgotten. A bolt of electricity burst from Metagross' maw, preceded by the faintest glow of psychic energies. It blazed forth like molten gold and leapt to strike an ashen tree nearly a hundred feet away. The electric lance landed squarely in the tree's center to shatter it, the entire trunk blasted apart with a sound like thunder rumbling forth, and Ash had no doubt the attack landed exactly where Metagross willed it.

Dazed's eyes widened. Her pendulum leapt to life in her hand, and Ash felt her greed as if it were her own. She wanted that power, the ability to conjure up the elements from nothing but her own knowledge and mastery, and they both knew she would earn it through sweat and blood.

He shared a glance with Dazed. No mental words were needed - they knew each other's minds by now. Oz watched eagerly, both tails thrashing against the soot-covered earth. Her flat teeth were bared and she took a half-step forward without even realizing it.

Ash felt a deep, deep satisfaction well up inside him. When it came to power, he wanted his team to be greedy.

"Electricity." Steven said simply. "Not a common weapon in a Metagross' armory. At least not at range," he added. "You know the prevailing theory on ranged electric-type attacks?"

The question earned a nod from Ash. All pokemon - and humans too, he supposed - possessed natural psychic abilities. Evidence suggested that many pokemon, particularly electric-types and fire-types, tended to use those psychic powers to assist with their elemental abilities. While some electric-types relied entirely on their physiology to produce and direct their electrical attacks, many also compensated by using psychic abilities to create a zone of opposite charge where they desired the electricity to flow.

He'd be lying if he said he could entirely wrap his head around the more technical jargon, but he could understand the gist. Mortals couldn't command the power of true lightning like Zapdos, so they did what they did best: find any loophole available and exploit it.

"Excellent," his teacher said, then looked silently to Metagross. Fire leapt to life in his chest a split-second before a brilliant cone of hot flame billowed out from Metagross' maw like a great red tongue. It blazed hotter - a blinding white, then a deep cerulean - and lashed out brilliantly against the ashen shade that shrouded the land.

The heat vanished as instantly as it arrived. Metagross' artificial fire had seared them all, sparking hotter and hotter, then snuffing out the moment the psychic stopped feeding the flame.

Steven's lips twitched at the enraptured looks offered by his pupils. His last demonstration came as he pulled his canteen off his belt and carefully allowed a small trickle of water to flow. Metagross' eyes flashed - the water was consumed in shining light, though it didn't slow whatsoever - and by the time it crashed to the ashen soil, the ice shattered.

"It's said that the powers of ghosts and dark-types degrade. They eat away at our reality and annihilate whatever they encounter."

Ash's eyes steeled at the thought of Agatha, the Hashimoto, Lavender, and the Ghost that bore its name. Or was it the other way around?

Yes, the power of Distortion was corrosive above all else.

"Psychic powers are different," Steven said after a moment. He brushed some of the soot off Metagross' chassis with a fond look. "They can't create or destroy, but only manipulate what is already there. Force, energy… all the playthings of psychics, and as versatile as they are useful," he hummed. "Theoretically speaking, there's nothing a sufficiently skilled and powerful psychic can't accomplish."

He grimaced at that even as the cold shadow in the back of his head reared up. Mewtwo was amused, which never left Ash in the best of moods.

Correct.

Steven frowned at Ash's visibly disturbed expression, but he just shook his head at the man. Even if Mewtwo would let him address it, he wasn't sure it was a topic he wanted to delve into with Steven. Lance, maybe. Perhaps Karen, even if he wouldn't want to burden her with the knowledge. The less she knew about his unique situation the better.

"Dazed can do it," he said with utmost confidence. Her eyes quirked up. "She's already made fantastic progress with remote teleportation."

"She has," their teacher acknowledged. "This is a serious undertaking, however. It demands utmost finesse and dedication. I'm hesitant to burden her with -"

I will master them both.

Dazed's words decisively ended whatever arguments Steven might have had. He just gave an amused, long-suffering sigh and brushed his silver hair away from his eyes. It was damp with sweat.

"Very well," he acknowledged, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "While we work with Oz, you and Metagross will lay the foundation for Elemental Synthesis. I have the strangest feeling you'd begin training for it regardless… perhaps we'll avoid a few unnecessary explosions this way."

Ash wouldn't bet on that.

Either way, it worked out in their favor. Steven shooed Dazed off to a safe distance so that she could work with Metagross - Ash didn't envy her for having one-on-one time with them. Metagross normally acted as Steven's shadow, and rarely deigned to even communicate with them.

Then again, with how integrated with Steven, it was like it didn't really need to. Steven and Metagross' words were practically one and the same.

"Are you ready to begin?"

All he had to do was release Torrent to confirm that. His friend squinted and tossed his great head as the soot rained down on him, but suffered through it silently. Oz bore it just as resolutely, though she'd already adjusted to the white flecks staining her coat.

"Can you set up a Rain Dance for us?" He rested a hand on Torrent's thick blue plates. Torrent rumbled, though Ash thought he sounded a little offended that Ash had phrased it like that. "Oh, I know you can do it. I'll recall you once you're done. I know this isn't the most comfortable place for you."

Torrent snorted and turned away.

Ash cracked a smile. "Or not. Think you'll be able to get some use out of this?"

The great Kingdra dipped his head in agreement even as soot collected around his horns. He raised his snout and fired a blue-hued sphere of power into the grey sky. It burst into gorgeous blue light, and soon enough he felt a gentle rain patter down upon his skin. The falling water mixed quickly with the soot and ash layered over the landscape, and soon enough it had morphed into a soggy, muddy mess.

It wasn't comfortable, but something about the rain eased the dread always lurking in his gut.

He only took a moment to thank Torrent. His friend wasted no time in drifting off, fueling his levitation with as much energy as possible to vanish into the woods. Ash trusted him to work on his own, but part of him rankled at the thought of not being there. Torrent had primarily honed his water manipulation - and practiced his draconic abilities - in solitude but direct attention could never hurt.

"Perfect," Steven smiled. "Oz, are you ready?"

That should have been his line. Ash's smile faded, but returned with a vengeance as Torrent steadfastly rushed off to attend to his own training. Oz whirred and plodded over, glaring down at Steven with her arms crossed.

"Yeah, she's ready," Ash laughed. "Think you can handle her?"

"I can only pray," Steven shook his head. "Let's begin. I admit that much of what we'll be attempting is to establish a baseline. This is unprecedented. I'll observe while you begin your work."

Ash nodded and looked Oz's way. "Let's show him what you've got. Lightning Bolt, max power."

Oz's tails thrashed as she squared herself. Her proximity to Ash drew a concerned glance from Steven, particularly as tiny bolts of electricity danced off her coarse coat and popped against his skin, but Ash paid no heed. By now he was used to it, and with Lightning he was safe.

The Feather trembled against his chest as Oz lit up like a beacon. Rather than banishing away the shadows as Metagross had, the world itself seemed to darken. Her brilliance outshone the meager sunlight that managed to pierce the veil of volcanic ash and clouds, and Ash had to fight the mortal urge to look away.

His eyes remained locked on Oz, and all he could do was admire her radiance. Every muscle rippled beneath her coat of fur as electricity burst out, channeled and controlled until -

A meaty fist punched forth, and the electricity went with it. Metagross' electric attack paled in comparison to the arcing lance that shot forth from Oz. Thunder rumbled, and Oz's Lightning Bolt filled the air with the familiar scent of ozone as it pierced the air. The Feather's trembling strengthened, and Ash's fingers traced over it as if to calm a wild pokemon.

The Lightning Bolt struck a tree just ten to fifteen feet past where Metagross' attack landed - Ash smirked, and thought Oz mirrored the sentiment as her point was made - and another tree exploded in a shower of splinters and steam.

Steven blinked. "Impressive," he stroked his chin as he peered over at Oz.

Ash's eyes, sharpened by Lightning, picked out the individual strands of Steven's silver hair that stood frizzy and out of the place. A small part of him enjoyed the fact that Steven wasn't as perfectly composed as he always seemed, even if it just came down to the static and humidity. Not everything could be controlled all the time. "The additional charge present certainly enhances the effect, but still…"

"This is working out a lot better than when we trained by the Lake of Rage. We only did a little prep, but the conditions here are much better" Ash admitted. Oz rumbled her agreement. He held his palm out and watched as little flecks of soot and rain intermingled. Earth and water...

Land and Sea, Behemoth and Leviathan… they breathe.

Ash hid a grimace as Lugia's ageless words slid seamlessly into his thoughts. He flicked his wrist and sent the mess flinging to rest with the mud.

"But the same problems keep coming up," Ash said. The faintest note of frustration, one which he knew Oz mirrored, colored his words. "Oz is able to use these conditions to enhance her electricity, but it's a big jump from that to directing true lightning. There's too much to control. Too much to manage."

Oz cracked her knuckles and glared up at the sky as if it were its fault. Both tails thrashed behind her, spitting sparks that died uselessly in the mud at her feet.

"Of course," Steven murmured. He drew closer, but still offered Oz a wary glance. It was probably wise to be cautious near a frustrated Electivire. "This truly is an incredible undertaking, Ash. I hope you don't take a lack of results to heart. An Electric Master would deem this an impossible task, or close to it."

"I know that," he cut in. Steven seemed pleased by his response. Ash glanced to Oz - her whipping tails, the electricity dancing across her fur, the resolute glare. "It will take months. Years, maybe. But we'll do it. Nobody else has, but that doesn't mean that we can't."

His teacher hummed approvingly, but didn't say anything. Steven kept his eyes shut. Ash could only imagine what sorts of thoughts were racing through his brilliant mind.

Ash supposed it didn't matter. What counted were the thoughts that filled his mind - of black stormcloud wings unfurled, a beak blazing like a spear of lightning, and an endless Storm. That was the power they chased, and this was just the first step.

He'd made a promise to Infernus when he'd surrendered the Fire Sphere to Ash - a promise to his entire team, really - and he would do his best to keep it.

"I'm not certain how much help I'll be," Steven said softly. "I'll do my best, but I'm afraid I've become a little spoiled by Metagross' psychic abilities. Most problems don't last long against those."

Wow, who could have imagined that? Ash didn't say it, but he couldn't help but roll his eyes. Everything seemed easier if you had unspeakable psychic powers on your side.

Yes.

He really could do without Mewtwo's commentary, but just ignored it again. There was no winning strategy there.

"Still, I have a few ideas…" Steven said.

Ash listened.

Fino would seek him out in less than a week. Only five days to prepare for a battle against a true Master, someone tempered by decades of experience. Karen and Will were good, but they hadn't had time to perfect their skills yet.

This was his next hurdle, and he couldn't wait to see how he fared.

XX

By now their campsite had actually begun to feel a bit like home. It wasn't the coziest - not surprising given how much space both their teams needed - but it was no longer jarring to wake up in his bedroll and see the rocky spire towering overhead. Even the wild pokemon had begun to lose some of their wariness after the first two weeks. Now it wasn't unusual for a few Taillow to flock around and watch Skarmory and Plume, or for the odd Vigoroth to rush in demanding a challenge.

One look at Nidoking's dripping venom and thrashing tail tended to scare them off.

For now he just rested his aching legs and typed up a quick reply to Amelia and Jon. His lips quirked as he skimmed over their letter - apparently their vacation to Altomare had gone smoothly. Nothing too exciting had happened beyond Amelia winning some race in the canals with Dewgong.

The smile deepened when he read that apparently Jon had tried to use Gyarados in the race.

Still, their descriptions caught his interest. Altomare sounded beautiful, an ancient city built on centuries of trade between Indigo and Hoenn. He'd picked up a few details from Cynthia's book, particularly in the notes on Sootopolis, Mossdeep, and Lilycove.

Altomare had been established back in the glory days of the old Volumo Empire as a trading outpost to bridge the gap between the far-flung coasts of the Johto and Hoenn regions. When the empire fell a millennium ago, Altomare relished a brief few decades of independence… which was then broken by a fine, long running tradition of being passed back and forth between the Indigo League and whatever Hoennic alliance ruled the waters at the time.

It was independent now, at least, and currently enjoyed a close relationship with the Indigo League due to its proximity to Johto. Altomare still carried its Hoennic roots, but those had intermingled in unique ways with Indigo's culture. Apparently, it was full of master craftsmen, and specialized in producing intricate, awe-inspiring creations of glass.

He'd love to visit someday, and his friends' descriptions only deepened that resolve.

Ash reread the message just to make sure he'd absorbed all the information, then typed up his response. It was brief, but he tried to address everything. Apparently Jon and Amelia planned to visit the Whirl Islands next for a training trip.

Even reading the name of the small archipelago left the Song humming in his ears, and some of the unconscious tension drained from his shoulders.

His mind wandered as his fingers raced to send his response.

Most of his team were out training for the day, but Steven had given him some rare time off - Ash was no pokemon, and overtraining would hurt him a lot worse than his team. They could switch over to technique-based training or work on any number of abilities that wouldn't strain their bodies, but the best Ash could do was to train his mind.

Which he did. Endlessly, in fact. Sometimes the headaches from the endless studying and Steven's simulated battles were worse than the runs from training ground to training ground - until Steven decided to test him while they were running, of course.

A sigh left his lips. No pain, no gain.

In this case, they'd managed to earn plenty of progress. Every inch was a fight, but one well worth working through.

He rested his notebook on his knee and skimmed the schedule for today. They'd played around with things as the weeks added up and his friends grew more and more confident with their abilities. Nidoking and Dazed were working with Claydol in a clearing not too far away - the psychics were helping Nidoking hone some of his psychic abilities, particularly the brittle shields he could manifest now.

It cost him a bit of a headache and several seconds, but it added a bit more to his defense than just digging away from all his problems. Even with the downsides, it completely outshone Protect in terms of efficiency. Turning away light blows or blunting elemental attacks could be a life saver.

Tangrowth was off with Cradily, of course. Bruiser had tagged along to hone his teamwork with the happy grass-type - their showing against Princess proved that Tangrowth's terrain control and Bruiser's raw power made an incredible pair, and he hoped to take advantage of it down the road.

That was only a side project, though. In the end, the true goal for Tangrowth was to prepare Perfect Regeneration. The mental effort to manage the technique was a lot to handle for Tangrowth, but Cradily had a similar technique that helped him lay the groundwork. The whole process was slow-going, of course, but at least Cradily had no end of patience.

Benefits of being an ambush predator.

Multitasking with his vines was one thing, but that was made infinitely easier by the countless neurons laced through each of the appendages. Each vine essentially had its own nervous system and could act semi-autonomously, though still guided by Tangrowth himself.

In theory, Perfect Regeneration was feasible. In practice, it really depended on how long Tangrowth could focus. Of course, that just left Ash thinking on how long Tangrowth had managed to remember Binder, the name Tangrowth had chosen back during their week with Bruno.

It didn't make him feel any better, but he had full faith in his friend.

Cradily managed it, after all

Ash's spirit lifted at the thought of taking down something like Cradily if it really possessedsomething close to what he hoped Perfect Regeneration would become. Even Infernus would be hard pressed to keep the fossil down.

A little chatter from inside his pack snagged his attention. "It's not too bright, is it?" He asked. The afternoon sun was only just starting to set, and it would be another few hours before Seeker would be comfortable enough to be out in the open. "I can return you if it is."

Another squeak, more insistent this time. He frowned, but just lifted the bag up to rest on his lap. Sneasel was lurking around here somewhere, just as happy to enjoy a day off as Ash was. He'd earned it after the last game of Hunt the Sneasel where Claydol joined in on the fun, but if he was using his offtime to mess with Seeker…

He'd have to keep an eye out. Aron rested not too far away on a nice, warm patch of soil. Ash would hate to wake him up from his nap (he smiled at the little bar of scrap hanging out of the steel-type's mouth) but no doubt Aron would enjoy the job. Lovingly greeting Sneasel with a headbutt was a favorite pastime of his.

With the coast relatively clear aside from a Volbeat and Illumise watching from afar, Ash went back to his notes.

Plume had the misfortune to be training with Metagross on evasion while they played electric 'catch' with Oz. Skarmory had gotten tired of Infernus' goading and dragged him off to a distant battleground somewhere, and Armaldo had taken Torrent and Bruiser for the day.

That was something he'd have to stop by one day. Armaldo rarely deigned to train his team, but from what Steven told him the bug-type was an absolute terror on the battlefield. Clad in heavy plates of armor and armed with pincers able to tear through steel, there were few pokemon able to stand against its piercing attacks.

For Steven, that was nothing special.

Instead, what made Armaldo stand out was its versatility. Though its speed and maneuverability were crippled by its heavy armor, Steven's Armaldo was able to exploit the cover of the whipping Sandstorms it called up to dig and tunnel all throughout the battlefield and strike wherever it needed. All it took was one pincer closing around the enemy's leg and the battle would essentially be over.

It was able to use Aqua Jet to propel itself in short bursts to close distance, but the real role it played on Steven's team was as its only aquatic fighter. Besides Metagross, anyways.

But then again, what couldn't Metagross do thanks to its disgustingly strong psychic abilities?

Aqua Jet and Armaldo's amphibious nature made it a ruthless opponent in the water. With a faster opponent, it would just spew toxins into the water to drive it out. Against a slower opponent… well, Armaldo's pincers could punch through a Gyarados' thick scales with ease.

That gave Ash all sorts of ideas on how to prepare Anorith once it had finished developing - it would only be a few months now, though Ash hoped to swing by and see it in the Devon labs if they ever ended up in Rustboro. Anorith was probably barely recognizable at this point, certainly not much to look at.

He shook it off. Thoughts best saved for another day.

Seeker squeaked again, and this time he heard something as well. His jaw tensed. Leaves rustled. Branches cracked beneath a foot.

His hand went to his pokeball. Steven would have alerted him with Claydol if he was returning, or even just called out for him. Normally something like this wouldn't bother him, but it was human. They'd only seen a handful of travelers passing through Forina so far, and those that did come by made it clear they wanted to get out as soon as possible.

It always came down to the shadow that loomed over the valley: Mt. Chimney. It was famous for frequent, low-level eruptions. There hadn't been any major volcanic events for the last few decades, but the people of Lavaridge had grown used to the common sound of a roar and a little bit of lava rolling down from the peak. The town itself hadn't been exposed to any danger, although apparently it was part of the Lavaridge Gym's responsibilities to make sure the town was prepared for a more major event.

Given the vast number of Absol that had started crowding these mountains...well, he could only put so much stock into Steven's claims that the mountain was just behaving as it always was. He trusted Steven's expertise, but Ash also knew that the rational explanations could only take you so far in his world.

The last year had been anything but rational.

More branches rustled. Ash eased up just a tad as Sneasel appeared in the tangled branches above the disturbance. He clambered silently from tree to tree, just light enough to avoid making any unnecessary noise. His claws flicked open, and the little dark-type's pupils were wide with anticipation.

At last, the brush was pushed aside -

"I finally found you!"

A Rapidash barreled through the undergrowth with a triumphant snort as it came to a stop not too far from Ash - Sneasel still eyed it viciously, though his attention ultimately landed on the undefended back of its rider. Ash took the mighty Rapidash and its proud rider in with a glance, then shook his head at Sneasel.

Rapidash loosed a satisfied whinny as a few vines and stems that had tangled around its powerful frame fell away in a burst of flame. It lowered itself and twisted its neck to offer support to the rider, who stumbled off rather ungracefully.

"Thanks a million, Brick!" Flannery pet the creamy fur of the fire-type. She turned to Ash with a different kind of fire in her eyes. "Elite Four Ash-"

"Just Ash," he interjected.

"Elite Four Ash!" She pointed a finger at him like he hadn't said anything at all.

His eyes curiously tracked her long hair as she jerked her head with the pose - was she always so dramatic? This wasn't quite how he expected their second meeting to go. He hadn't expected to see her until at least the battle with Fino. "As acting Gym Leader of Lavaridge, I challenge you to a battle!"

He could only blink, even if his lips twitched. "Now?"

Some of her fire fizzled out. Her finger lowered. "Uh, yes," Flannery kicked uncomfortably at the dirt. "Is that okay?"

Ash glanced at Aron, who was still passed out. That was actually pretty impressive considering the ruckus Flannery made as she rode in on Brick. He might be good for a quick bout. They'd just have to be sure to keep him from pushing too hard. Seeker had stilled and clutched tightly to him, though he could feel her ears twitch every now and then as she listened.

Sneasel was still lurking in the branches with his razor-sharp claws ready to rend and tear, unseen by Flannery or Brick the Rapidash, and to be honest it seemed like he had plenty of energy to burn.

"Sure, why not?"

Flannery's shoulders sank as she exhaled. "Whew, that's a relief!" She quickly scanned the campsite and frowned. "Where's Mr. Stone?"

It took him a second to realize she meant Steven. That was weird. Then again, she could only be a year or two older than Ash. She'd probably been in diapers the first time she met Steven. "Off taking some samples," Ash said. "He won't be back for a few hours. I could send him a message…?"

"Darn!" Flannery pumped her fist. "I'll just catch him another time then. Maybe he'll be around after our battle!"

Ash shrugged. He wouldn't count on it. Steven had a familiar, manic look in his eye that said it might be well after dusk when he returned.

Before Flannery could catch wind of Sneasel, Ash returned him from his spot in the trees, then Aron. No point giving Flannery more of an advantage than she already gained from her 'ambush'. "Two-on-two sound good? Most of my friends are off training."

Flannery's face fell, but she nodded. "This must be how you felt when grandpa set his terms," she sighed. "But I'll take what I can get - if you think you can take grandpa, you've got to be good! Even better than in the Indigo Conference, anyways."

He would hope so. It had been around five months - Ash didn't think Steven would bother with him if he hadn't improved in all that time.

"Not here," he decided. His team had gotten comfortable in this campsite now, as had Steven's. None of them would be too happy if he left a few craters in it - or worse, shattered one of Forina's stone spires. "There's a rocky spot not too far that we've been using. It should be empty."

"Perfect!" Flannery recalled Brick after patting his velvety nose in thanks. She flushed and scratched at the back of her neck. "Err, we're walking, right?"

That had always been the plan, but maybe Sneasel was rubbing off on him. Ash glanced to the pokeball that had just stolen away the mighty Rapidash. "We are now."

Flannery winced, but fell alongside Ash as they strolled out of the little clearing and into the woods of Forina. She craned her neck to admire the fifty foot pillars that speared from the earth in every direction. Ash felt the fondness washing over her.

"You saw me in the Indigo Conference?" He broke the silence. His curiosity had managed to outweigh the ease with which he fell into the quiet.

"Who didn't?" Flannery perked up with a wild, eager look on her face. She let out a long, keening whistle. "That Magmortar of yours is a beauty. Even grandpa was impressed - I've never seen anything ride a Salamence before, and when he blew up that whole gigantic field? Incredible! I'm gonna get me one of those…"

She went on and on about the battles, and Ash embraced the warmth that cut through the knot in his stomach.

At least someone else out there appreciated Infernus for more than his power.

XX

Wind whistled through the rocky outcrops, rushing by his face and carrying with it the heat radiating off his skin. His sweat did not do its job out here in the humidity, and so he exhaled in relief - Ice would have sucked the muggy hotness away in an instant, but he wasn't eager to call upon it.

Anything that might give Sneasel an advantage in the upcoming battle was something to be avoided… the Concepts being so distant here just made it even more of a hassle. It would take too much focus (and certainly raise questions from Flannery) unless he decided to bust out the flute and play Lugia's Song.

Which would certainly raise even more questions he'd really rather not answer, although at least then Flannery would just think he was strange.

It took just a glance at Flannery and her wild, burning passion for this fight to know he wouldn't want that. He wasn't sure how much of a fight this would be, but at least they'd both enjoy it. Someone chomping at the bit for a good battle wasn't someone he wanted to alienate.

"Nice place you got here!" Flannery shouted from across their impromptu battlefield. It was just a mostly bare stretch of dirt dotted with the occasional boulder, but Ash didn't think she was being sarcastic. "Grandpa used to take me to a spot just like this when we trained in Forina!"

Well, he supposed it made sense for fire-type specialists to favor this environment. He'd run into enough issues trying to keep Infernus' training from turning into a natural disaster, and that was with Torrent, Dazed, and Tangrowth to run interference.

She caught his attention with her words, though. "How often were you out here?"

"All the time!" Flannery's grin faded as she looked off into the green valley and the grey towers bursting from its soil like the spines of an enormous beast. "Not so much now though. My responsibilities as the ascending Gym Leader of Lavaridge Town keep me busy!"

Ash thought back to the reports and forms and requisitions that Steven had him filling out for practice (although the paperwork always seemed to mysteriously pile up whenever one of Ash's team, usually Sneasel, caused trouble for the Steel Master), and nodded. Gym Leaders were up to their ears in bureaucracy most of the time, and the recent Rocket troubles hadn't helped things.

Just thinking about the scum soured his mood, and all of a sudden he was really glad Flannery came looking for a fight.

Fire sparked to life in his chest, albeit still sluggish and slow and crawling like half-cooled lava in his chest. It was wrong, and he found himself humming the Song just to free up the blockage. The Song saturated the air, breathing some life back into the Feather, and he breathed in a rush of fresh air as the world seemed to do the same.

"Nice tune!" Flannery tugged at a strand of her red hair. She bounced on the heels of her feet, swaying back and forth with her eyes closed, and smiled. He ignored all that, and was more occupied with wondering how on earth she was able to survive wearing pants in this weather...all he had was a thin t-shirt and shorts and he was still drenched. "Feels like I've heard it before somewhere. Deja vu? Is that the right word?"

He shrugged.

"Ah well!" His opponent sounded chipper as ever, though Flannery's eyes narrowed to slits as her hand grasped for one of the nine pokeballs lining her waist. "We can talk about it after I knock your team around a bit."

Ash snorted. "Uh huh," he said flatly. "We'll see."

Flannery flicked hair out of her eyes and held a pokeball aloft. "As the challenger, I will release first!"

His lips curved upwards. It was odd to be challenged after so long as the challenger. Ash waved her along. The Gym Leader's expression turned to steel, though that cocky grin still tugged at her mouth. Ash couldn't wait to knock it off - in the nicest way possible, of course.

This would be fun.

Her Torkoal appeared in a brilliant flash of light. It squinted to take in its surroundings, though Ash wasn't sure how well it could see with the air rippling all around it. Heat absolutely poured off the fire-type, though Ash thought it would still sear under Infernus' molten touch. Then again, what wouldn't?

Torkoal's skin practically glowed a cherry red next, as if it had plucked the words from Ash's mind. It huffed, and great plumes of smoke erupted from its nostrils and its hard, craggy shell. He winced as a sound like a locomotive's horn pounded his ear drums, though Flannery paid it no notice. It stared Ash's way and spat a little burst of flame in challenge.

"We're ready for you!" His opponent folded her arms. "Piper's all loaded up with fresh coal. Challenger - uh, challengee? Is that a word?"

Ash shrugged.

"Whatever - challengee, how do you respond?"

He assessed Torkoal with a glance. Ash wasn't overly familiar with the pokemon, though he'd fought Leo's Torkoal with Aron way back in Slateport, but he knew enough to tell this was an impressive specimen. Pitch black smoke belching from its throat and shell, a deeper orange than most of its wild kin could boast, and the heat pouring off it was intense even from this distance. It was enough to scorch his skin and leave the air painfully dry as it entered his lungs.

It was hard to decide whether it was worse than the humidity.

Ash raised Sneasel's pokeball, and his friend manifested with a snarl. He sneered at Torkoal and unsheathed his claws with hardly a whisper. The heat was getting to him, though. It wasn't long before Sneasel breathed out a gust of icy air to cool him off, though it wouldn't last long.

Hoenn's weather proved enough of a challenge for Sneasel in general. Thick black fur meant for withstanding winter storms wasn't the best adaptation for this environment. Throw in Torkoal's heat and this would be a rough fight. Still, Sneasel regularly tussled (fight would be too generous of a term) with Infernus. He could stand a little heat.

Still… "Let's make this quick."

Flannery's mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. "You're using a Sneasel against a fire-type? What are you -" she relaxed, though Ash could almost feel how fired up she was. The Gym Leader's nostrils flared as she let out a deep breath, then pinched the bridge of her nose. "You're an Elite Four. Okay. Okay. Piper, let's do this!"

The Torkoal - Piper, he corrected - belched another pitch-black column of smoke. Its breath was laced with flames, and the heat pounding down on them both redoubled.

Ash met Flannery's eyes. "Ready?"

"Begin!"

He had to give her credit: Piper didn't hesitate. The moment the battle began, the Torkoal reared its neck back and loosed a howling Flamethrower that streamed right toward Sneasel. Smoke bled off it, curling away at the edges of the attack, but such a straightforward assault was exactly what they'd expected.

Sneasel dashed away from the attack, though the Torkoal swung her head to follow him, and he found shelter behind one of the many rocks dotting the battlefield. He winced as Piper maintained the Flamethrower, bathing the stone in the roaring flame until it glowed a beautiful cherry red, and Sneasel soon found himself pinned down.

Ash's knuckles rapped against the fabric of his shorts as he waited. He didn't say anything yet. Best to let Sneasel think his way out of this, though he was sure the dark-type was just waiting for the right moment. They'd trained too much and too hard for this little setback to be a problem.

After what must have been thirty seconds of a sustained Flamethrower - long enough for the very edges of the stone exposed to the attack to begin to waver and drip beneath its power - Piper finally had to take a breath. Smoke dripped from the corners of its mouth, and Sneasel pounced on the opportunity.

"Good boy," Ash murmured as Sneasel rolled out from behind the rock, hissing and spitting the whole time, and blasted the jagged arcs of an Ice Beam straight at Torkoal. They approached, carrying a white mist in their wake -

Piper's whole body radiated satisfaction, and the Torkoal spat another Flamethrower without a hint of a struggle. The red-orange column blazed forth, howling and screaming as it raced through the air and devoured the Ice Beam whole, and forced Sneasel to lope to another rock for cover in a casual burst of motion. The Torkoal maintained it for just a few seconds more, then cut the stream off.

A good trick, but nothing Sneasel hadn't expected. It put a little more pressure on Sneasel, especially in raising the temperature of the arena to nearly intolerable levels, but Sneasel managed to evade it just fine. Still, this couldn't be all there was to it. Flannery and Piper would know there was plenty of cover now, far too much for Flamethrower to be an effective attack. Logically, their next step would be to either remove the cover or attack in a way that wouldn't be affected by the boulders.

Ash took advantage of the tense silence that fell over the area to whisper, low enough for Flannery and Piper to miss, to Sneasel. "They'll try to attack through the cover next. When they do, strike. End this quickly."

Earthquake wasn't likely - too destructive, especially without a psychic here to protect the trainers. Hyper Beam? Most likely not. Too energy-intensive, especially since Flannery wanted to draw them into a protracted battle of endurance. Rock Tomb, Ancient Power, and Earth Power were feasible, as was Stone Edge. They were relatively precise.

Flannery said nothing, perhaps fearing that Sneasel's excellent hearing would catch anything she tried to say, but it didn't take long for Piper to take action. No doubt she'd fought plenty of opponents with similar styles in her Gym.

A faint silvery sphere shot forth from the Torkoal's open mouth and flew through the air to suffuse Sneasel's protective boulder in an outline of white light. It cracked and groaned as Torkoal forced the rock to obey its will, and that gave Sneasel plenty of time to escape the attack.

He vaulted over the rock just as Piper sent it blasting into his previous location, and yowled as he landed an Ice Beam straight into the distracted Torkoal's face. It didn't do much; no ice could form in the superheated air that guarded Piper, but it stunned the fire-type.

Sneasel didn't have much that could deal serious damage to the Torkoal - not without getting too close, anyways. He wouldn't stand up well against Piper's body heat, let alone whatever fire-type techniques it had stocked away. Overheat was supposed to be a favorite of Flannery and her grandfather, though Ash wasn't sure Piper would risk that without a psychic barrier between it and Flannery.

Either way, it was best not to risk it.

They could wear it down with Ice Beams. That would eventually do the trick, especially once Piper started slowing down and Sneasel wouldn't have to burn as much energy dodging and seeking cover.

But this was just a distraction for them, and he'd hate to burn too much stamina when they'd have training tomorrow. No reason to let Sneasel get too exhausted.

Besides, they'd needed a new test subject… one that wasn't a Master-level Weavile or Champion-level fighter, anyways.

"Mind Breaker!"

Their opponents recoiled - Flannery's face went white, and even Piper the Torkoal somehow seemed paler than before. Ash knew there was no possible way for them to know what Mind Breaker was, but nothing by that name could spell good news for them.

Ash clutched Seeker tighter, but on second thought recalled her. To Flannery and Piper's credit, they reacted quickly. "Uh uh, no way you're taking that hit! Rock Tomb - wall yourself up!"

Purple spheres sprayed from Piper's maw, distorted by the superheated air pressing out from the fire-type in suffocating waves, and struck the earth. Ash just watched and waited as Piper wrenched the earth to do its bidding, and even as earthen barriers began to lurch from the ground, a stray Rock Tomb smashed into the previously loosened rock that Sneasel had used as cover. The stone was yanked back at terrible speeds, hurtling towards Sneasel and Piper both, but the slightest twitch of his ears (and Ash's casual warning) alerted him.

Sneasel dove beneath the massive projectile, hissed with satisfaction even as Piper manipulated the stone to swing back for another blow, and froze. Every muscle tensed for three seconds, and by the end of it an awful, colorless film flowed from his fur.

It was all the warning they had before the world went wrong. A sickening feeling, not dissimilar to the terrible pressure which emanated from the Ghost of Lavender and saturated the very bones of Lavender Town, stained the air, the ground, the very spirit of the land...it lacked the suffocating weight of Lavender, but even an echo of that awful power was terrible to behold.

Every muscle in Sneasel's body went taut as the Mind Breaker was released - an overpowering Distortional wave, hurled forth screaming with all the velocity of a tornado yet dripping slow and steady like sap bleeding from a tree, that gnawed and shredded everything it touch.

He stumbled even as it struck him. It wasn't a physical force, of course. Not quite, anyways. Mind Breaker washed over him like a greasy, clinging wave that seemed to coat him within and without. Everything from his hair to his skin to the marrow of his bones was awash in the awful power, and every cell in his body howled to reject it.

Ash grit his teeth and withstood it, though it taxed his will to his limits. No psychic barrier to protect him this time. He'd trained himself to remain standing without any defenses - who knew when he might need that edge? - but Ash could expose himself to it a hundred times and never get more used to it.

There was no way he could say how long it lasted. Logically, it must have been a second, maybe two. But in the presence of Mind Breaker, time lost all meaning. It had no domain when Distortion itself bled into the world.

But in the end, he still stood. Fire filled his veins, and with it he purged the gnawing madness away in an instant. Flannery remained conscious as well - Karen couldn't withstand Mind Breaker like Ash could, so Sneasel had learnt (mostly at Weavile's claws) to be very careful where he directed it. He glanced to Flannery, a little worried for her, but relaxed.

Pale, shaking, probably a little nauseous… perfectly reasonable reactions. Nothing to be worried about, and if he'd pegged her right then she'd be more curious than upset. Part of him felt a little guilty for exposing her to the brutal power at all, but at the very least it'd be a good learning experience for her.

She certainly got off better than Piper.

The Torkoal was unconscious amidst a lumpy pile of rock and earth that it had erected as a defense, and a dull grey smoke sputtered from its shell and mouth. Physical barriers only meant so much in the face of Mind Breaker - at least compared to its full force, which Sneasel had drawn upon to end the battle so quickly.

Its unearthly touch had stolen Piper's control of the Rock Tomb and floating earth from the fire-type. When Mind Breaker washed over the animated stone, it ate away at the power controlling it and left it dead and lifeless.

Not the most satisfying of conclusions, but Ash had to admit there was a certain thrill in seeing Sneasel dominate like that. Mind Breaker wasn't viable in high-level competition, not when any seasoned combatant would leap on that opening in a heartbeat, but this was solid proof of concept.

"Gah! What just hit us?" Flannery sputtered. Her hands rested on her knees for support as she gasped in air, and Ash thought her face was a little green when she rose. Nevertheless, she recalled Piper before Sneasel could recover. The little dark-type was swaying on his feet, worn to the bone by the massive outpouring of dark power, and was reduced to stumbling towards Ash on all fours after the full force of Mind Breaker.

He recovered quickly, though, and had managed to go bipedal again by the time he arrived at Ash's side. Sneasel's limbs still trembled, though it was a sight better than when he'd first shown it off against Karen's Weavile. Mind Breaker consumed dreadful amounts of stamina - substantially more than Hyper Beam, if Ash had to estimate - and marked the end of any battle against a high-level opponent.

At this point, Steven's team were disciplined enough to withstand it. Most had defensive options to resist dark and ghost-type assaults anyways, which would at least blunt the effects of Mind Breaker. They'd weather it relatively unharmed, then ruthlessly punish Sneasel for using a technique that required so much time to prepare.

Three seconds was an eternity at their level.

Metagross simply refused to be exposed to it, and would telekinetically hurl pebbles at Sneasel until the dark-type hissed and loped away. To be honest, it was a pretty effective strategy.

"What was that?" The Gym Leader growled as she fumbled for her next pokeball. "Never been hit by anything like that before - was that a Confuse Ray? I hate mental attacks…" she grumbled.

Ash just nodded in agreement. So did he, which was probably why it felt so satisfying to be on the other end of them for once. "Not quite," he replied. "Just something new Sneasel and I have been working on. It's not ready yet," Ash added. "Still needs tweaking."

Flannery blanched. "Not ready?" She made a face. "I'd rather have Chimney take us all before going against the real thing. Still…" she trailed off and tugged at her hair. "Don't suppose you're using the little guy against grandpa, huh?"

He fixed her with a flat look. "And have you feeding him all my new techniques?"

"Worth a try!" Flannery said unabashedly. "Not like he'll need the help against you, but I've got to do my part. Plus I really want to see that in action again," she watched the exhausted Sneasel with blatant, hungry fascination that reminded Ash of a starving Fearow staring down a juicy Caterpie. Sneasel was too wiped out to care, though he did offer Flannery a halfhearted snarl. "Just don't want it to be my team that takes it. You understand, right?"

Ash thought back to all the times his team had been laid low by cruel, underhanded methods like Confuse Ray or other mental assaults. "Yeah."

"Great!" She pumped her fist. Flannery seemed back to her usual form, so he eased up a little bit. "Don't suppose you're sending the little guy back out again, huh? I know a few teammates who might like to get some payback for Piper…"

Sneasel's claws clicked together, eager as always to get into a scrap, but Ash shook his head. His friend wilted and whined petulantly, but Ash stayed firm. "We need you ready to train later," he said. "Besides, Aron needs some exercise. You'll cheer him on, right?" He snorted at Sneasel's disgusted look.

Flannery's red eyebrows rose. "Aron?" She mouthed. "Wait! Did Mr. Stone's Aggron have babies or something?"

"Unrelated," Ash waved her off. "New teammate."

She rolled her eyes, but a slow, steady grin spread over her face. "Don't think that means much when it comes to you. Let's go! Can't wait to see what this Aron's got in store for us! And don't think for a minute I'm taking it easy on your baby - I'm bringing out the big guns!"

Perfect.

He'd already shown his hand, so Ash went ahead and released his friend. Aron plopped down on his hindquarters and yawned widely, still a little drowsy from his nap. The light seemed a little intense for him if his squinted blue eyes were anything to go by, though Ash knew he'd adjust soon.

"Hey buddy. Feel up for a quick battle?"

Ash ignored Flannery's offended, "Quick? What do you mean quick?"

Aron stretched his stubby limbs, tossed his head back, and offered a happy little noise somewhere between screeching metal and one of Plume's coos. He might have been spending too much time with her. Plume had renewed hope for Aron learning to fly ever since he started hovering around with Magnet Rise.

Well, that was all he needed to hear. "We're ready."

A reckless flare sparked to life in Flannery's bearing as she clipped off another pokeball, this one right next to Piper's. "Let's do this! Come on, Caldera!"

What emerged earned an impressed nod from Ash. And how could it not? A ton and a half of bright orange fur, hide thick enough to shrug off Sneasel's savage claws, and the physical power to trample anything smaller than a Snorlax. Fourteen feet long from snout to the tip of its stubby tail and six feet at the shoulder, with the bony protrusions on its back reminiscent of volcanoes adding another four feet. They were larger than expected, so this must be a female.

Caldera the Camerupt cut an intimidating figure amidst the rent earth and boulders which had been left in disarray after Sneasel's battle with Piper. The imposing fire-type only appeared even more massive compared to Aron's relatively diminutive frame, and even sent a disdainful look Flannery's way.

"I know, I know. It's a cute little baby," Flannery waved off Caldera's concerns. It wasn't convincing, especially as Aron warbled a fierce challenge their way...which, unfortunately, just reinforced what Flannery had just said. She placed one hand on her hip and poked a finger out at Caldera. "But you take this seriously! You didn't see what happened to Piper just a minute ago. This is an Elite Four's pokemon, and I bet he's got some trick up his sleeves. Err, armor?"

Sneasel preened under the 'compliment' and flicked his claws back out as he leered at Caldera. The Camerupt's eyes darkened, and Ash had the funny feeling she would much rather have Sneasel out there on the field. Now that would be a good battle.

Flannery spent a bit longer trying to encourage Caldera to take the fight seriously, so Ash took the opportunity to call Aron over. His friend trotted over to look up at him, tongue lolling out of his mouth as it usually did.

"Do you want this fight?" Ash murmured as he laid one hand on Aron's cool chassis. His thumb rubbed over his domed head. For once, Aron didn't just lean into it - he did, of course, but he also kept his baby blue eyes open and nodded fiercely. Maybe that 'cute little baby' comment had gotten to him. "Good. I know you're ready for it. You've worked hard these last few weeks. Remember your training, and show them what you can do."

Sneasel hissed and tapped the side of his claw against Aron's head, though yanked his paw back when the steel-type gave into his curiosity and tried to lick it.

Ash gave him one last pat and rose from his crouched position. "Go get them."

Aron nodded and turned to trot back to his former position. He squared himself - quite a bit like Nidoking used to as a Nidoran and Nidorino, Ash noted with a smile - and lowered his head. A warble rang through the air, piercing all their ears with a metallic shriek.

When Caldera assessed Aron's challenge, set her massive shoulders, and bayed out a rumbling roar of her own, a fierce warmth stoked in Ash's chest and radiated out to the rest of him. This mighty Camerupt, one of a Gym Leader's (even if an inexperienced one) strongest, decided he was a fighter worth acknowledging.

He was young, but he'd been with Ash nearly three months now. Not long, but long enough to grow strong. It was time to prove it.

A black, furry figure quickly clambered up Ash's legs and back until it finally came to settle around Ash's neck. Sneasel's lean arms looped around for support, and he laid his head over Ash's shoulder to intently watch the battle.

"Maybe not such a cute little baby after all," Flannery cheered. "Alright! Let's get this party started. You ready?"

"Ready."

And with that, the battle began.

Aron wasn't as experienced as the rest of his team, so Ash offered him a bit more guidance. "Protect, low-grade!"

They'd trained it enough to where Protect wouldn't sap a substantial portion of Aron's stamina, but it still made Ash cringe to start off on such a defensive foot. It was a good call though - Camerupt immediately started the battle by spitting a fiery sphere that crackled as it sailed against Aron, then exploded in a terrible rush of heat and light as it impacted the iridescent green shield that sprang into existence just in front of Aron.

The Flame Burst sprayed sparks and licking tongues of fire in all directions as it impacted, but it washed harmlessly off of the Protect and found itself sputtering against rock and earth.

"Rock Tomb. Hit right under its belly!"

Aron's aim was flawless. An orb of purple light struck just below Caldera's body, missing her barrel chest by inches, and landed against the flat tan earth beneath its stomach. The Camerupt had only just refocused after the immediate use of the Flame Burst, and the sudden pillar of earth that erupted straight into her gut elicited a soft grunt.

Unfortunately, it barely phased Caldera. That kind of pain couldn't shake the mighty Camerupt for long.

"Alright, alright, alright," Flannery laughed. "You got yours! Now we're gonna get ours -"

"Mud Slap!" He ordered while she was distracted. If she was going to waste time talking, he was going to punish her for it. It was a good lesson. Aron was happy to provide it - one of his stubby legs kicked a massive spray of dust and dirt at the Camerupt, which temporarily blinded it. Caldera was used to the earth, however, and recovered before Ash could take advantage of her distraction. She fired a gentle spray of flame at Aron, something that wouldn't have even scratched Nidoking, but forced Aron to raise a rock wall between her and himself to keep fighting.

Flannery huffed. "Rude! But a good move," she added, a little more secure now that Caldera could keep Aron pinned down. There was no way for him to strike at her while the little steel-type huddled behind his rock wall, and Dig wasn't an option since Caldera would just loose an Earth Power or Earthquake to tear him apart. "But let's end this, shall we? Ancient Power! Bring the fight to you and finish this with an Eruption!"

He dared to hope. Was this their chance?

There was absolutely no way they could win a protracted battle. If Sneasel was at a disadvantage against Piper the Torkoal, then Aron was fighting a losing battle from the beginning with mighty Caldera in the picture. A Camerupt was a mighty opponent, and Aron just didn't have the firepower at this point to deal serious damage with his elemental techniques.

But if she was bringing him closer…

"Run!" He added, slipping a note of desperation into his words to make it more convincing to Flannery and Caldera. Aron stumbled from behind the barrier, doing his absolute best to flee before Camerupt could fling an Ancient Power orb into the earth below his diminutive frame, but it was too late. Caldera was too quick and too precise.

The earth groaned, then a great chunk of it was ripped away with Aron riding atop it. Caldera's black eyes flashed as the crumbling heap spun closer, nostrils flaring and a great rumbling coming from within the volcano-like protrusions on her back. Smoke belched forth, bringing with it a foul sulfuric odor, and hot, glowing magma dripped behind it.

A terrible light burst forth from the volcanoes, and it seemed like every muscle in Caldera's body flexed painfully tight. Awful power rumbled, cracking the ground beneath Caldera's heavy legs, and the Camerupt readied itself to unleash a full-powered Eruption against Aron as the little steel-type was hauled closer and closer atop the floating island.

In seconds, it would arrive. Then Caldera would erupt in a storm of magma, flame, and smoke that would take Aron out of the battle in a heartbeat. Even a Protect - at least one of Aron's - couldn't be sustained against that kind of prolonged firepower.

And it was all just as Ash hoped.

The rock sailed through the air, and when it was just ten feet away from Caldera, Ash shouted, "Magnet Leap, then Iron Head!"

Aron warbled out a fierce (and adorable) war-cry, and with a sudden crackle of electricity that burst from his metallic chassis, he shot off the spinning island with his stubby limbs stretched out. The Magnet Rise continued crackling all about him, sparking madly and erratically, yet with a growing steadiness as he mastered the rush of electricity, and lifted him.

Flannery rubbed at her eyes as if she couldn't believe what they were telling her, but Caldera didn't so much as twitch - the mighty Camerupt was still lost in her own world as she charged up her all-consuming Eruption. The Gym Leader shouted out a warning, but it was too little too late.

His friend wasn't quite flying. Magnet Rise was normally meant to push an electric-type off the ground for a brief moment to avoid ground-type techniques. A momentary thing, although it wasn't uncommon for some pokemon to sustain it for several seconds at a time or use it as a way to cross gaps in the battlefield.

Gliding might be a bit generous too - despite his small size, Aron was dense. He weighed around a hundred and fifty pounds the last time Ash had checked, and he hadn't mastered Magnet Rise to the point where it would do much more than hold him aloft. At most, he could use it to get around by essentially skating over the earth.

Or, if he really wanted to push it, let him jump much, much farther than something his weight should be able to. That is to say, it let him jump at all.

A little smile tugged at his lips as Aron sailed through the air like a cannonball, warbling the whole time like he was announcing his presence to the world. He'd already begun to sink as he neared Caldera (who had opened her eyes, only to widen them in alarm and try to step back at the sight of a rapidly approaching Aron) but his aim was true.

Caldera barely had time to blink, then one hundred and fifty pounds of metal, bone, and muscle crashed into her forehead with a resounding crack. Aron's domed head, shining white with power, collided directly with hers, and he didn't so much bounce off as roll off her orange-furred skull. He landed heavily on his side and struggled to roll over onto his feet, sort of like a Squirtle that had been knocked on its back. Once he did, he stumbled around like Ash imagined Lance would after a party at the Plateau.

If Aron was rattled by the collision, Camerupt was outright stunned. She fell backwards onto her haunches, glowing orange molten stone dribbling uselessly from her volcanoes amidst billowing smoke from her forgotten Eruption, and stared aimlessly into the sky. Her wide, flat tongue rolled out of her mouth and Ash couldn't help but wince. He could practically feel her head spinning as she uselessly tried to recover from the blow.

She outcompeted Aron in every way: bigger, stronger, faster, tougher, and much more dangerous at range. But nothing could just shrug off a high-velocity Iron Head from Aron to the skull. Ash would be absolutely shocked if the Camerupt wasn't concussed.

Flannery's jaw dropped, then her face went red. One of her hands tugged at her red hair while the other jabbed a furious finger at Aron. "C'mon Caldera! You've got this - he's right there! One more attack and this is over. "

A little reason slid into the behemoth's eyes. She struggled to focus on Aron as he stumbled to his feet and prepared for another charge, but managed to rise off her haunches. Caldera gurgled and tried to glare. At Flannery's behest, the Camerupt raised her great head for a Flamethrower, looked at Aron with her unfocused gaze…

And promptly threw up all over the crumbled earth. Camerupt made some of the worst, visceral noises Ash had ever heard as her neck extended and globs upon globs of puke blasted out. It steamed, heated by the incredible temperature inside the Camerupt's body, and sizzled as it landed against the ground.

Definitely concussed.

Ash wrinkled his nose as the pungent scent, but both he and Sneasel leapt to attention when Aron (who had politely waited for Camerupt to finish instead of attacking, which not all of his team would have done) curiously walked over to sniff at the vomit. "Aron! Don'teven think about eating that!"

He looked back at Ash, warbled softly as if trying to convince him otherwise, but moped back to his original position when Ash sternly shook his head. Sneasel made an obnoxious, exaggerated gagging noise by his ear before tightening his wiry arms around Ash's neck.

Yeah, that was about how he felt about it too.

"Uh, Caldera? You okay?" Flannery called out as the Camerupt seemed to finish. The fire-type looked absolutely miserable as she finished spitting up the last of her vomit, although a few strings of saliva still dripped from her muzzle. Caldera had just enough reason to rumble at Aron, and that was about all the warning they had before she loosed a weak, sputtering Flamethrower at the steel-type.

Aron wasn't at his best either, and he'd barely begun to erect a weak, immaterial Protect before the Flamethrower washed over him. The heat and intensity of it shattered his efforts, and Ash was quick to return him before he could suffer any real damage.

Flannery rushed over to Caldera the moment the battle was over, and laid a hand against her hot fur while whispering comforting words to her. After a moment she looked at Ash oddly. "Serious question. Do any of your teammates fight normally?"

He cracked a smile. "Why would they?"

She stepped around to inspect the giant lump on Caldera's skull, carefully avoiding the steaming pile of vomit that had seeped into the cracked ground. "Good point," Flannery muttered. She gently poked the bruised spot, but immediately yanked her hand away when the Camerupt groaned pitifully. "Never thought an Aron could do a number on Caldera like this. Poor girl."

"Aron's special." A note of pride tinged his words. "We didn't stand a chance conventionally. Not against Caldera." Ash admired the Camerupt. Even with what must have been an awful concussion, she was still an incredible specimen. She'd make a great fight for Infernus in a year or two. "She's a monster. If we gave her a chance she'd end the battle with one Eruption."

Flannery perked up a little at that, but still fussed over her teammate. She'd whipped out a Potion to spray the wound, though Ash wasn't sure how much good it would do. It might heal any superficial damage, but to recover from Aron's Iron Head would take days of rest, if not at least a week. Pokemon were much sturdier than any human, especially something as tough as a Camerupt, but internal damage was always trickier.

"Did you want to keep going?" Ash offered, though he didn't expect her to take him up on the offer. He pointed to Sneasel. "He's ready to jump in."

Sneasel's ears twitched at the comment. He leered at Flannery and Caldera and hissed, flicking his claws out for good measure.

The Gym Leader looked at Ash like Amelia normally looked at Jonathan. "You're joking, right?" She said flatly with a glance at her partner. "Are we looking at the same pokemon? I wouldn't have her fight a Wurmple right now, let alone your monster of a Sneasel. Pretty sure that 'Mind Shatter' thing and head injuries don't mix."

He snorted at that. "Just figured I should ask."

The teen softened a bit. Caldera tried to look at Ash, but her eyes were so out-of-focus that they squeezed shut shortly. When Flannery saw that she went ahead and returned the Camerupt. "Yeah, we appreciate it. It'd be one thing if it was just a normal injury, you know? Caldera can handle a broken bone!" She added proudly, then sobered. "But I haven't seen her rattled like that since she was a Numel. We're gonna have to bump up our training…"

Flannery trailed off with pursed lips, glaring at one of the rocks torn up by Torkoal as if it personally offended her. "You might, maybe, possibly stand a tiny chance against one or two of grandpa's team," she said grudgingly.

A little knot of tension unwound in Ash's gut, though it was still nothing compared to the constant tightening of his nerves. He'd started to grow accustomed to that, though. Flannery glanced at the pokeballs at her belt. "Sure did make me realize how far I have to go. Got a lot of miles on this road."

That earned a shrug from him. "At least you're already moving."

She barked out a laugh as she walked up next to him with her confident stride. Her defeat didn't seem to keep her down any - if anything, it'd set her spirit newly ablaze. Ash couldn't help but respect that. "Yep! Better now than two years from now. Or never," she grimaced. "I see a lot of challengers that never bother learning to walk before they can run."

Sneasel hissed as Flannery ventured a little closer, but a quick scratch behind his feather calmed him down quickly enough. "Too cocky?" Ash asked. He knew a few people who fit that mold…

The Gym Leader shrugged. "Sort of. I don't mind that," she admitted with a barking laugh. "It's nice to beat them down and rub their faces in it, you know?"

He'd fought Gary, so yes, he did know. Ash just nodded.

She smashed her fist into her other palm. "The others are no fun. Sometimes I see the same people day after day. It's so annoying!" Flannery exclaimed. "Always coming at me just the same as yesterday, and leaving with nothing to show for it. Some of them just don't want to put the effort in. They don't want to spend time or sweat on their team, and just keep trying the same thing over and over. Then they get mad when nothing changes…"

Ash snorted. "Humans are stupid. Most of them, anyways."

Flannery looked at him oddly, but nodded nonetheless. "We are kind of dumb, aren't we?"

"Yeah, we are," Ash echoed, though it didn't come quite as easily as he'd have liked. He absentmindedly raised a hand to rest against the Feather embedded in his chest, and was suddenly grateful for it being so muted as Flannery sent a curious glance at the motion.

Thankfully, she didn't press. Not about that, anyway. "So...what are you doing the rest of the day?" Flannery looked awkwardly around the battlefield. "Don't think this is what you had in mind."

He nodded stiffly and found some amusement in the uncomfortable way she rocked back and forth on her heels. "It wasn't," but after she stewed in that for a moment, he took pity on her. "This was good, though. Aron's needed a good fight. Guess I'll just need to get back to training later."

Flannery's mouth twisted at the reminder of Caldera's defeat, but she shrugged it off. "So...canIcomeandwatchyoutrain?" She babbled almost too fast to hear - it took a brief surge of Lightning for him to keep pace.

Ash blinked. "You...want to watch me train? You're not trying to spy on me, right?"

She'd gone red as a tamato berry, but pressed on nonetheless. "No tricks. Please," she scratched at the back of her head and couldn't quite make eye contact. "I thought I was good, but you? You're a monster," Flannery raised her head, and Ash saw a familiar glint in her eye. And with that, Ash knew her, or at least how she was now. She wanted. Not just power, not just strength. She wanted to win, and would stop at nothing to achieve it.

He understood that.

"I need to be a monster too," she grit her teeth. "For myself. For my grandpa. For my city. I don't know what I can offer you, but if you want it, it's yours. Doesn't matter -"

Ash turned around, his gut telling him which way to head to find Nidoking. He heard her suck in a rattling breath, but she didn't follow. "What are you waiting for?"

In that moment, he felt her glee as if it were his own. It was light and swift, rising up swift and strong as a volcano's eruption. "Really? She said. "I thought - uh, never mind that. So what do you want? As Gym Leader of Lavaridge, I pay my debts!"

Sneasel tightened his lanky arms around Ash's neck as he shook his head. As a Gym Leader, she had plenty to offer. Nothing that Ash would want, though. He'd have to keep that offer in mind, though - it couldn't hurt to remember the favors owed to him.

As a trainer, though, Flannery had plenty.

His grin was a dead ringer for Infernus'. "Become a monster," he told her. "Then we'll be even."

With that, Ash pressed on to find his teammates.

Flannery followed.

XX

"...sign there, then initial here." Steven directed with a tap of his pen against the final page of the dense packet of notes, affidavits, and training logs he'd had to document. He did just as his teacher commanded, even if he'd had to drag Ice out of its slumber to stave off the boredom. "Excellent. And just like that, you've filled out your first observation log!"

"Very exciting," his words came out dry and flat. Steven seemed to find it far more momentous of an occasion than Ash did, or Dazed for that matter.

I suspect you would feel the same if you had to experience this from multiple minds, Friend-Trainer.

Well, she wasn't wrong.

"Isn't it?" Steven replied, though the man seemed to barely pay attention as he scanned a picture of the report into his PokeNav. "There's quite a bit of paperwork that comes along with mentoring the Elite Four trainee of another region. Lance expects monthly reports, and it's an important skill for you to develop."

Ash thought of all the paperwork (none of it too important, he was sure) that Gabite had scarfed down. "Is it Lance asking for it, or the Indigo League?"

"Lance, of course. Your training is a priority for him. He pesters at least once a day asking about you." The former Champion shook his head with a fond smile. "Though most of the actual paperwork is from the League. It's a complex situation at the best of times, but particularly due to your age."

That last bit distracted him from the warmth which had spread all through his chest. "What's different about it?" Ash rose to stretch his legs and sidled over to rest next to Dazed. Her eyes quirked up at his closeness. "Didn't Lance train with Drake when he was just a bit older than me?"

"And I with Fino," Steven added. "Although we had developed close relationships with many League members, we weren't official affiliates at the time. Your situation is...unique," he wrung his hands as he finally settled on the proper word. "In truth, there have been quite a few critics of your appointment as a trainee."

Ash's mouth twisted into an ugly scowl as he thought of all he had seen, all he had done. The spot above his heart where Mew's psychic lance had pierced him ached for just a moment, and he raised his fingers to it. "I can handle myself."

"Yes," Steven said, rather unconvincingly in Ash's opinion. He frowned at the man, and felt the bubbling mix of emotions too numerous for Ash to separate, and then, just as he had with Plume and Karen, found that tenuous connection and clung to it. Ash needed to know, needed it like he needed to breathe. Maybe more.

All of a sudden the acrid, acidic taste of guilt laid like a greasy film over his tongue, and Ash grit his teeth as feeling welled up inside him. His fingers went to massage his temples, but he didn't quite let go just yet.

Rookie trainer, male, estimate: ten or eleven. Two others of similar age. Traitor-Thief-False Kin - Cousin Pierce, his human side knew - set his Muk on the male trainer. The black-haired boy appeared very small beneath its weight. Cold anger, then rationalism, then resolution: the children would not die.

The boy, small and fragile in the Vermillion hospital bed.

The boy, small and fragile in the Chronos Island hospital bed.

The boy, small and fragile in the Rustboro hospital bed.

The boy, small and fragile in the Goldenrod hospital bed.

And with that, he lost it. Ash's head pounded a hundred times worse than it had with Plume or Karen, like he'd overreached somehow. The cracking pain in his skull reminded him of grasping at a problem in school or approaching a battle that he just wasn't ready for, that he didn't quite understand just yet and had been punished ruthlessly for it.

Steven let out a rattling breath, but didn't say anything. He didn't seem too disturbed, but that might have been worse in Ash's eyes. When the man met his eyes, Ash feigned a cough and looked away. It felt wrong to even glance at him. Even if Ash didn't quite understand the how behind this, his mind was fairly certain of the why.

If this was the first, nascent steps of his form of self-expression… well, it felt wrong. With Karen, he'd wanted to share. With Plume, he'd wanted to show her his love and appreciation.

With Steven, he'd wanted to know, to greedily dig out the secrets and things the tight-lipped former Champion would never share. And somehow, he had.

He'd seen things that Steven hadn't seen fit to share with him, torn his privacy to shred, and that left an ugly, nauseous feeling welling up in his stomach. It only complemented the constant anxiety Forina left him bearing.

Worse than the choking sensation, worse than the nauseating realization he'd dipped into another's mind without permission (he knew all too well how that felt, and the dark shadow in his brain chuckled), was the pride.

He'd grown. He'd gained something of his own efforts, and not from running into yet another Legend. Ash had something of his own now, something that belonged to him and him alone. It was even something he'd found use in.

It was useful.

Ash couldn't control it, could barely feel that connection most of the time, but he'd at least done it once.

Dazed's smooth voice filled his mind.

Useful, but dangerous. It can be seductive to live in the minds of others, Ash. Particularly when you might not be able to leave. If you follow this path, I suggest you share, never take.

She'd used only his human name, and that more than anything stole his attention.

"Are you alright?" Steven asked.

He swallowed to rid the guilt - both his own and what he'd picked up from Steven - from his tongue. It didn't accomplish much of anything.

"Yeah," Ash said, though his chest felt hollow. "I'm fine."

"Good." Steven cleared his throat. "I thought… well, it doesn't really matter."

Uncomfortable silence. Tension which neither of them really understood.

"I do have faith in you," Steven said after a moment. His slender fingers drummed against his thigh in a discordant rhythm. "I would never imply otherwise. Not after the things you've done, Ash. It's just…" the man hesitated. "You're too young to be dealing with these things. You shouldn't need to."

Steven trailed off for a moment, just long enough for his words to sink in. "Even if your ability isn't in question, someone your age shouldn't bear this responsibility. I fear we're stealing your life away with every new title or responsibility. Endless training and waiting for the next monster to come around is no way to spend your childhood, and it's my fault for bringing you into all of this."

He frowned. "I wouldn't be who I am if you didn't."

"I suppose you wouldn't." Steven allowed.

Ash looked to Dazed. "I wouldn't have my family if you didn't," he touched his Feather, and allowed the power to resonate through his every cell, even suffocated as it was in this place. "Things would be different without me."

With that, the silver-haired man seemed to have aged a lifetime in just a few seconds. "A double-edged sword, if nothing else."

Steven still seemed lost in thought, perhaps even a little moody for the first time since Ash had known him, and so Ash just rested quietly. His thoughts drifted off to the strange intuition he'd experienced, as well as the flashes of insight he'd gleaned from Steven's thoughts. It ate at him, and he couldn't decide whether or not to tell Steven he'd slipped into his mind, even if just for a moment.

Would it even matter? What was done was done, and Steven was probably so used to having Metagross or Claydol in his head that it might not bother him. Ash supposed he was just lucky that Metagross was away for once. If this was Aura, would it be detectable by a psychic? Dazed knew, but that was probably just through her own perception into his thoughts.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized just how little he knew. How little he understood. Cynthia had given him a name and the barest knowledge, and it was only now that Ash understood that he had only scratched the surface of this force. Perhaps not even that much.

He was groping blindly for any hold he could find, and that struck a nerve deep inside.

Ash wanted to understand. Ignorance grated at his very being.

Before he could come to any sort of conclusion, Steven cleared his throat again. "It's only a few days until Fino arrives."

All his earlier concerns washed away in an instant. "Four days." Ash corrected. The subject change was transparent, but he wasn't complaining. He leaned forward and clasped his hands together. "Flannery said he'd probably arrive around dusk. She wanted to see it."

Steven nodded. "Best to have it after Gym hours in that case," he said, then a slow smile crept across his face. "You and Flannery seemed to have a nice time together the other day."

"She's a strong trainer."

"Of course, of course," he said agreeably. "She's skilled for her age, if a little reckless. Did you introduce her to Infernus?"

Ash snorted. "Not then. She wasn't happy about that, but I had no clue where Skarmory dragged him off to."

"A pity," Steven commented as he leafed through the packet that Ash had filled out. Seemingly satisfied, he placed it on his lap. "Flannery's uniquely suited to enjoy his company."

He laughed at that. After her display, he could definitely imagine them getting along. At least on Flannery's side, anyways. Infernus didn't take to most people unless they could help make him stronger in some way. Flannery wasn't quite there yet.

"Next time for sure," Ash said. "I'd like to see that. At least she can appreciate an explosion or ten."

Steven's mouth twisted upwards. "An inheritance from her grandfather, no doubt. Was training all you talked about?"

Ash shrugged. "For the most part."

"Oh? It's good for you to meet someone your own age," Steven commented with a rueful shake of his head. "What do you think of her?"

He squinted at Steven, who did a poor job feigning disinterest. Ash's mouth flattened to a thin line. Steven wasn't half as smooth as he hoped to be; not that Lance was any better, but at least Lance proudly threw subtlety to the wind in the name of messing with Ash.

"Strong trainer. Eager. Wants to be her best. Seems like she might need a dictionary," he said, then elaborated at Steven's confused look. "She forgets words a lot."

Steven didn't seem to know how to respond to that, and instead of pursuing it just gave up. That left a pang of satisfaction ringing in Ash. It looked like Lance's efforts had paid off. The Steel Master had way, way too much shame ready to be drawn out for him to rival Lance in this department.

"Well," Steven coughed, then brushed some nonexistent dust off his lap before he rose clutching the sheet of papers. "I believe we've dawdled enough. Metagross and I need to go take some samples."

"From Mt. Chimney?" He asked, even the name stealing his breath away like a great fist clenched around his lungs. At this point it was more annoying than anything else, and he'd made the habit of playing the Song wherever he went just to have some peace of mind.

The Master shook his head. "Oh no! Not this time. We've analyzed all the samples from Mt. Chimney that we'll need," Steven cast his eyes over to his grey pack that laid over by his equally granite-colored sleeping bag. The pack bulged with all the storage compartments that Steven had filled with countless ore, mineral, and related specimens that Metagross had extracted for him. "It should keep Professor Birch busy for a time. I'm moving my research to the cavern network below Forina."

Ash frowned. If Professor Birch was involved then it was probably involved with Project SCRY, the League's attempt to track the Legends. That just confirmed quite a few suspicions - well, things he'd already figured out for himself, honestly - and told him that he'd need to check with Steven later to provide his own input.

"Looking for anything in particular?"

"I suppose not," Steven shrugged. "There are local legends about the place, but the caverns are largely unexplored. With our time here coming to an end, I thought it might be good to indulge a little."

Well, that certainly sounded like something Steven would do. Still, Ash's curiosity was piqued. "What kind of legends?"

Steven did a quick stretch before answering. "Oh, just the usual. Voices to those who pass nearby, explorers who have gone missing, and other odd happenings. Most likely just the work of some ghosts lurking within. Perhaps I'll clear them out if they cause any trouble."

That certainly wouldn't be a problem for Steven and Metagross. Ash was pretty sure that Steven would bring a few of his other teammates in just for security, but he doubted that they'd be needed.

"We'll get to training then," he smiled and rose as well. Dazed shuffled closer, clutching her crystalline pendulum tightly in her thick fingers. "Remote Teleportation's coming along nicely, and I want to test Infernus' new control over his flames against it."

Joy.

Steven chuckled at Dazed's flat, unimpressed tone, but interjected before Ash could go into his many, many plans for the day. "Actually," he raised a finger, "I had a thought."

He could have asked, but instead Ash just waited patiently for Steven to continue.

"We have a favor to do for Fino and the Lavaridge Gym."

A flame stirred within Ash, and a familiar hunger filled his belly. "The Eruption?"

"Indeed. It would only be polite to fulfill our obligations before Fino fulfills his. Given your… previous encounters with powerful individuals," Steven said diplomatically. "I thought it might be a good experience for you to go alone. You've come far in your training, and I doubt you'll have any troubles regardless. The Eruption is largely peaceful unless provoked."

Ash nodded along, enjoying the race of excitement. Yes, he could definitely handle this. Beyond his hopes for a battle, the scant few descriptions he'd heard had piqued his interest. A living behemoth of stone and fire, a relic of the ancient world before the Volumo Empire fell that still walked the land wherever it pleased.

"Think it would want to battle?"

Steven massaged his temples and gave a long-suffering sigh. "I should have known…" he muttered, then emphatically shook his head. "No. Not after the last time that happened." At Ash's eager look, Steven refused to elaborate beyond, "When provoked, the Eruption lives up to its name."

That didn't sound like a bad thing to Ash, and certainly not to Infernus, but he'd take Steven's word for it. "Infernus is going to throw a fit," he muttered to Dazed, who sent a pulse of pure adoration at the thought.

He'd already spoken to Infernus about their meeting with the Eruption. Ash hadn't managed to find much more than a few passing references to it, but every scrap had gotten the Magmortar more and more eager. It wasn't that Ash had promised Infernus a battle, but they'd both looked forward to it.

Ash would have to make it up to him.

HIs eyes fell on Mt. Chimney, painting the sky black and grey as it always did as its rim burst with molten light in the distance, and shuddered. Something about it seemed terribly alive, and he grit his teeth at the trace of fear that danced down his spine to diffuse into his every nerve.

Unacceptable.

This fear and anxiety had plagued him for weeks now, haunting his every step like a specter. He'd put up with it for now, immersing himself in training and exercise and action to distract himself and purging it with the Song when it grew too heavy to bear, but he would never let it master him.

Mt. Chimney bellowed another great puff of soot and ash into the sky as if in challenge, and steely resolution sharpened like a blade inside him.

He knew just how he would pay Infernus back.

"Think I can borrow Claydol for the day?"

XX

Mt. Chimney was calm today with nary a rumble to show for it. For once the sky to the north was utterly clear; a vast blue canvas stretching as far as the eye could see (at least, everywhere the lesser mountains surrounding Mt. Chimney didn't block it from his view).

It didn't hurt that Ash had the best seat in the house. He held tight to the hardened saddle as Plume lazily soared a thousand feet above. She glided about easily, only flapping occasionally to maintain altitude. Her muscles flexed beneath her glorious feathers like tightened cords, and Ash knew just how badly she wanted to let loose. This type of flight was his equivalent of scooting forward an inch at a time.

Part of him longed to tell her to tear through the skies as she wanted (as they both wanted). They could ride the air current and soar over Rustboro, or Dewford, or Lilycove and probably be back in time for dinner, but they had a job to do.

He couldn't help but flush with pride as he surveyed the countless trees, mountain passes, and craggy hill tops below. Steven had entrusted him with offering the League's goodwill to the Eruption, and that purpose felt good.

"It says we're right above the Eruption's last coordinates," he muttered as they circled around Mt. Chimney's rim at a safe distance. Ash's vision swam as he stared deep into the caldera's fiery depths for a moment, locked onto the magma that pulsed like lifeblood within the crater. The tension that drained from him the moment that Ash and Plume took to the skies came back with a vengeance.

When he looked away, it ebbed. Ash already knew that Steven was wrong - that something was terribly wrong with Mt. Chimney, and he already had a fairly strong suspicion of what that something was after living in the fiery volcano's shadow for nearly three weeks now. This reaction just redoubled his determination to confirm those fears.

Ash would investigate closer once he'd met the Eruption.

With their eyes, they both raked the uneven surfaces below, eager for any sign of the Eruption. Ash wouldn't think it would be too difficult to find with a name like that, but so far it had proven itself subtler than Infernus.

Though that wasn't saying much.

They rounded the northeastern slope of Mt. Chimney, just a few hundred feet over the volcano's maw and the surrounding mountains, and it seemed a promising spot. Bare rock, charred and blackened, but not by the lava dripping down the rim-

Plume shrieked, startling a few groups of Grumpig snuffling around on Mt. Chimney's rocky slope, and dove. They scattered, but shouldn't have worried.

Ash glimpsed a great plume of smoke billowing up from behind another nearby pass, but before he could really analyze things for himself they had already arrived. Plume's great speed had them circling above it in just a few seconds, and he grinned with satisfaction.

"Good eye!" He praised. She couldn't strut like she normally would, but her feathers ruffled up just a tad.

Ash assessed the situation from above and found himself interested as he took in an immense retinue of fire-types and other natives of Mt. Chimney that had gathered below.

It was hard to make a good estimate, particularly since they were so clustered and quite a few of the Torkoal were blasting out the plumes of smoke that ascended to form a bit of cover for the group. Nothing could hide the characteristic glow of so many fire-types, and Ash's eyes lit up at the sight of a handful of surly Magmar standing near one another.

Rising from the smoke was a gigantic black boulder that was mostly embedded into the mountainside. Several Torkoal rested around it, as did a lone Camerupt that was easily larger than Caldera and still only rose to a quarter of the massive boulder's height.

Lightning would have made it easier to pinpoint them all, but it stubbornly proved nearly impossible to call on so close to the source of all the trouble.

Frustrating, yet another piece of evidence.

"This is our best bet!" Ash shouted to Plume.

His fingers drifted to Dazed's pokeball. She'd be the ideal diplomat here, and would need to be here anyway to transmit the information to him. Her teleportation would be a boon as well. If he needed to escape, she could easily take them far enough away that he could leave on Plume.

He pointed to a clearing nearby, just out of flamethrower-range. "Land just over there! Give us a bit of space!"

She did so easily. Plume landed with a piercing cry as she slowed, angled up, and pounded her wings against the air. A great wind kicked up and swept the noxious smoke away from their location, leaving them exposed amidst the haze as what must have been a retinue of over a hundred startled pokemon turned to face them.

Ash dismounted easily, whispering his thanks to Plume, and Dazed appeared beside him in an instant. She blinked as the last of the stinging smoke dissipated, and her eyes flashed as she took in the wild pokemon of Mt. Chimney. From here, he could spy that the majority were Torkoal, members of the Numel line, or one of nearly thirty Slugma and Magcargo that rested in the midst of the horde.

There were plenty of others as well, of course. The six Magmar he'd spotted before, who had tensed and roared the moment he approached. Younger pokemon such as Spoink, Machop, and even a Tyrogue were pressed back, closer to the rear of the black boulder, while their parents and the other mature, evolved pokemon stepped forward in challenge.

Definitely a good idea to leave Infernus and Nidoking in their pokeballs. It would have been a bloodbath.

He waited patiently as the wild pokemon watched warily. Ash wasn't the speaker here, not yet anyways, and Dazed would serve well in his stead. She'd get their foot in the door.

Several of the more aggressive-looking pokemon edged closer with teeth bared and smoke pouring from their nostrils. Not one of them relented when Dazed's eyes blazed and Plume's fierce shriek split their ears.

Ash sent a measured gaze their way. He intended to fill it with the dubious authority of the League, but decided there was a better alternative, one the testy vanguard would respect a thousand times more than a title and pretty words.

Fire glowed on his chest, bright enough to stand out against the pounding sun,revealing power of a different sort.

It took a moment for comprehension to set in, but then the aggressors shrank away with hisses and cries, falling back to their comrades

The rest of the horde stood away, still largely hidden by the veil of smoke.

Said smoke stung his eyes as it drifted his way, drawing tears as he tried to blink it away.

A stupid mistake - something Ash should have anticipated with all the time he'd spent around Infernus - but he didn't waver or reach up to rub away the irritation. Any weakness might be exploited. Through his squinting, he was able to tell that, nearer the boulder, the smoke darkened until it was uniformly pitch black, and all that remained visible was the little sparks and embers and fiery bodies behind the darkened wall.

Dazed shuffled forward as the immediate intermediary. Her eyes flashed as direct emotions, images, ideas, and impressions passed between herself and whichever of the horde acted as their representative.

It was brief, but stressful all the same. His palms grew slick with sweat and he wiped them against his shorts just to do something.

A crisp, satisfied acknowledgement from Dazed pressed against his own thoughts, and he nodded his thanks to her.

Ash cleared his throat and raised his voice to the wild pokemon. It was raspy and untrained, unused to being projected outside snapping orders mid-battle or calling out to distant friends. "Hello! We're representatives of the League," he said so they wouldn't think he was just a random trainer too curious for their own good. "The Lavaridge Gym sent us to greet the Eruption. We promise not to intrude for long."

The information passed between the pokemon swiftly. Growls and rumbling and a cacophony of other noises came from them and their smoke-veiled brethren as they collectively mulled his words over.

They waited patiently amidst the inhospitable heat and choking smoke, and Ash smiled at Dazed as she shuffled back to stand side by side with him. She raised her pendulum and polished away some infinitesimal speck of dust - or perhaps ash, given the environment - that had offended her.

Her eyes crinkled back at him and he felt a flush of warmth, before she peered back down at her project.

Behind him, Plume hopped up onto a craggy ridge. It offered her a better view, and there were several boulders she could take cover behind if they needed to make a quick getaway. A Hurricane or Hyper Beam could wreak havoc on the grouped fire-types and create enough confusion for them to teleport to her, though part of Ash wished they'd managed to advance enough with Plume's new techniques to try them out.

Only if it was necessary, of course.

You have polished your diplomacy by managing the Brute. I have my reservations that any number of ill-tempered free-fires could prove worse.

Dazed's flat words carried only the barest traces of her sarcasm. Even with the tense situation they'd walked (well, flown) into, it made him smile.

After a few minutes, their patience was rewarded. The dark cloud of smoke distorted, shifting almost imperceptibly as something truly massive took slow, purposeful steps through it. Each movement sent the smoke rippling, and from his position he could just barely pick out the edges of a coal-black shell scraping the edges of the veil.

A thrill emerged in his chest and his pulse raced - the uneasy pressure in his gut settled and took a backseat as the darkness stirred one last time. The traces of sturdy orange legs and a long, powerful neck, all radiating enough heat and light to shine through the smoke and outline an immense silhouette, appeared just before the smoke parted.

Choooooooooo!

He clapped his hands to his ears with a wince as the Eruption appeared, heralding its approach with a thundering bellow that hit Ash's ears in places he didn't know existed and rattled his ribs painfully in their soft, fleshy cage. Ash swiveled his neck so he could check on Dazed,gritting his teeth as the blaring noise continued and continued and continued, overwhelming her all the while.

She recovered quickly, plugging her ears with psychic barriers to take the edge off, and quickly did the same for Ash (and presumably Plume, who also had sensitive hearing). They both waited for the Eruption to finish its horn-like cry as endless torrents of smoke, black as a moonless night, burst from its nostrils and the vents in its shell at an incredible velocity.

The stinging of his eyes got worse, as did the awful heat that pervaded the area. Every step the Eruption took closer seemed to spike the temperature higher, searing every drop of moisture away without even trying. Each breath he took seemed to scorch his lungs anew, and he scowled as his lungs and throat burned, the old pain and injuries from their battle with Moltres acting up as they were exposed to all the heat and smoke.

If he hadn't been so used to Infernus, it would have crippled him. As it was, Ash took a moment to center himself, and then took the chance to admire the newcomer.

Piper, Flannery's Torkoal, was a fine specimen. Sturdily built, a solid three feet in height, and heavy enough to shrug off just about anything that could be thrown at it. Physically, anyways. Its skin was a deep orange, its smoke blasted out black and strong, and everything he'd read pointed to it as an absolutely stellar example of a Torkoal.

The Eruption had him rethinking all of that.

From its feet to the tip of its onyx shell, it must have stood eight feet tall and five across. Whereas most Torkoal had tough, leathery skin of a bright orange, the Eruption's was closer to red: a fiery vermillion barely visible beneath the wavering coat of heated air radiating out from it. Every bit of it was recognizable as a Torkoal, but sculpted to perfection.

Its hide would probably turn away Nidoking's horn. The heat pouring off of it could rival Infernus in his normal state. The Eruption's mass would even pose a challenge to a Rampaging Bruiser - Ash had no doubts that Bruiser could crack its heavy shell and throw it down, but it would take everything he had.

It was incredible, and he knew Infernus was going to throw a fit when he wouldn't be allowed to fight it. The Eruption could withstand Infernus' body heat, could be bathed in his fires and hardly be singed.

And they couldn't fight it.

"Hello," Ash greeted as politely as he could, though every word was a struggle, coming out rough and hoarse and almost impossible to discern. It was difficult enough to avoid coughing, but he managed it all the same. "My name is… agh, Ash Ketchum. I'm with the League. They ask… Asked me to come check on the Eruption - that's you, right? They gave me some food to bring as an offering."

The mighty Torkoal squinted at him, another sound like a locomotive horn accompanied by great belches of smoke bursting from its massive shell and nostrils, then slowly shuffled around. Despite its incredible size, the Torkoal seemed surprisingly agile for its enormous mass.

He frowned, but got the message without Dazed's help when the Eruption tossed its head with clear intent. Ash followed with Dazed shuffling along at his side, part of him rankling at the idea of wading into so many potential threats. They seemed to have settled down now that the Eruption had made its appearance, and some had even begun to disperse.

I can sense the intent of the free-fires. Difficult due to their numbers. Can only pick out sentiment. Overwhelming curiosity. Minor hostility, but waned. Little threat.

Every word came strained. It must have been grueling for Dazed to communicate at all as most of her attention was tied up in monitoring the other pokemon.

He nodded subtly to her, hoping she would catch his intent if not the physical motion.

The Plume will await our return. Ready to depart in haste. If needed.

He smiled faintly, though it felt like a grimace.

As they followed the enormous Torkoal through the crowds of fire-types and the cover of smoke, his clothes and her fur became utterly drenched in sweat and grime. Ash was eternally grateful to Dazed for constantly forcing the hot, stinging smoke away from them with great gusts of psychic power.

It didn't remove the irritants entirely, but at least they avoided the worst of it. Ash could tell it was taxing on her, however. She was already doing so much… When she nearly tripped over an errant rock that laid in their path, he grabbed her shoulder in a tight grip to steady her, suddenly grateful for his own training when he barely had to strain to do it. Dazed couldn't spare the focus to thank him telepathically, but he thought he caught a slight crinkle at the edge of her eyes. That one tiny motion imparted everything it needed to.

Ash stepped closer to guide her; the Hypno took the help in stride, allowing her eyes to shut entirely as she spent all her attention on keeping the smoke at bay and flitting in and out of the minds that surrounded them. Her pendulum leapt in her hand only occasionally, but steadily hummed and turned on its string.

Even battle rarely proved so taxing. When she fought, there was always a mission. One opponent to anticipate and defend against. It wasn't often she had to split her power in so many ways. Ash's grip tightened as another little stone came underfoot and Dazed stumbled.

Maybe…

The heat was nearly overwhelming, easily the harshest environmental factor but also the only one he could and was the only thing he could exert control over. Ash focused on the contact between his skin and Dazed's fur, and pulled from deep within him.

It came easier than Lightning, grounded as it was, though not quite as readily as Fire. Ice came all the same, though, and ever-so-gently, he guided the Concept into Dazed.

It froze her for a moment. Not physically, but nearly to the same effect. Her gait hitched, her nostrils flared with a sudden intake of breath, and the tone of her psychic aura shifted a few notches closer to searing, freezing white. It clearly came as a surprise, as the hand she had free from her pendulum tightened against Ash's back. ..

She started moving just a second later, though she shivered beneath his touch.

Ash knew she was sensitive to the Concepts, far more than Lance was, so he just barely fed the power into her.

It paid off soon enough; Ice did its job well. He couldn't maintain it for more than a few seconds, both because of how difficult it was to reach and due to Dazed's vulnerability, but it seemed to cool her off.

The added focus aided her quite a breathing came steadier, and her face didn't seem quite as scrunched-up.

With everything that was going on, he couldn't stop a small frown from appearing on his face - where were they being led? The Eruption took them deeper and deeper into the horde. They must have been nearly to the entirely opposite side now.

Normally, Ash would suspect an ambush, but Dazed gave no indication of such a possibility. Her senses wouldn't fail them.

Eventually, he got his answer as the Eruption came to a sudden halt. They stood near one of the sheer cliffs looming above the pass. The base was marked by the enormous black boulder they'd noted before, which was even bigger up close, though still hardly visible behind all the smoke that drifted through the area in a choking mist.

Ash and Dazed stayed a respectful distance behind, though even that left them buried in absolutely sweltering heat that left Ash's clothes unpleasantly damp and clinging tightly to his skin. Ice's influence receded at his command, pulling back like a melting glacier, and the terrible heat only redoubled. It was tempting to draw on it again, but such a foreign power in this place would only draw more attention.

The oven-like heat was bad enough that he had to take off his hat.

All other thoughts left him in favor of trying to cover Dazed's pointed ears with his sweaty palms when the Eruption saw fit to blare another siren-like blast of noise that would've given an Exploud a run for its money. He sighed in relief as Dazed's psychic powers shielded them both, though his ears still rang irritatingly.

He looked to Dazed, and she nodded as he released her hand and allowed her to stand under her own strength. They needed their full mobility in case things went south.

The sound, though muffled now, was still strong enough to hum through his flesh and bone. His teeth chattered with the vibrations, as did the solid stone beneath his feet.

For a moment, he was left wondering what the point of it was. Was this some sort of formality? A power-play? Was this the Eruption's signal to attack? A sign of intent that it was willing to communicate?

Torkoal tended to communicate with an intricate system of high and low-pitched whistles from the vents in their black shells, each frequency capable of imparting basic messages that could be blended to convey deeper meaning, but this went beyond that. A summons, maybe, or another signal to the horde?

They all waited. The Eruption allowed its roar to trail off.

A moment.

Another.

Then, the Eruption shifted impatiently on its feet and blared again. At this point, Ash's gloved hand began to stray to Infernus' pokeball.

Just in case.

The giant of a Torkoal roared another, impossibly long minute (how big were its lungs?), then allowed that one too to trail off, and then turned to face them, eyes scrunched up inscrutably.

Ash shared a glance with Dazed, but neither were in the mood for words. Feeling somewhat emboldened that they weren't being overrun by enraged fire-types, he took another moment to admire the magnificent creature. It really was no wonder Fino, Flannery, and Steven all spoke of it in such high regard. If the people who lived here centuries ago met it like this, a stellar Torkoal at the apex of its species, they may well have thought it a local god of sorts.

Salamence could rule the skies, after all. Wailord and Gyarados the seas. And the Eruption these volcanic mountains. No sane wild pokemon would think to oppose them.

Suddenly, some long-held instinct screamed.

Every muscle in Ash's body went taut and his fingers clenched tightly around Infernus' pokeball, thumb just a hair's-breadth from the release, but nothing happened. Dazed shifted restlessly beside him, her eyes flickering.

Ash had only just begun to relax again when he heard it.

A rumbling, grinding shifting in the earth. Dust and pebbles raining down from on high, pelting them all and streaking their clothes, fur, and skin brown and grey with grime. Ash coughed as the debris kicked up in a cloud and filled his throat in a choking mess. He spit to clear his mouth, and scrunched his nose up when it came out black.

"What's happening?" He shouted - coughed, really - barely heard above the crumbling of the earth.

Watch. It awakes.

Ash quickly put his hat back on for extra protection - immediately made redundant by a shimmering psychic barrier - ignoring the heat, and squinted to see the Eruption standing steadfast amidst the rubble.

Then, the grinding worsened; a deep groan, like a sigh of relief, and the smoke went billowing out in a great rush as something moved within it.

Cold fire ignited in the back of Ash's mind, and a terrible presence joined its mind with his.

Within the darkness, something shone like cooling lava, the barest glimpses of thick black pillars cracking to reveal a scattered network of bloody, burning veins visible beneath the swirling smoke...

It's alive. I never thought...

Dazed's monotone words lilted a bit, and her pendulum flung itself to the left as she swept the smokey, dusty veil away with a simple blast of psychic force, and laid bare a titan of heaping, molten stone and cracked flesh the hue of a volcano's lifeblood.

Its shell, the vast black boulder he'd spotted before, burst to life in a boom of steam and toxic fumes. They rushed out, sputtering and clogged at first, though still in such volume that the towering pillar of black smoke could probably be seen for miles around.

When the thing roused itself, such an awful cacophony exploded from its shell that he thought he might go deaf.

The ringing in his ears only worsened with the clamor, and Ash nearly gagged as his old wounds ignited again with the unstoppable quantity of smoke that gushed forth like a true volcanic eruption.

From here, the shell seemed to stretch as high as Professor Oak's house in Pallet town. It was an easy two stories tall, although it was difficult to tell exactly with all the smoke obscuring its edges. The shell looked as if it was shaped from countless centuries of resting near Mt. Chimney and bathing in eruption after eruption, resting and cooling and hardening only for the cycle to occur again. From within the impossible darkness shone a terrible glow like staring down the barrels of Infernus' cannons.

A great head emerged from within the enormous shell.

It slid out steadily but slowly, supported by a neck that went on and on and on. The enormous feature was almost as black as the onyx shell and marred by innumerable cracks in its outer layer of thick skin that revealed the same bloody veins he'd seen in the darkness…

It reminded Ash of the gleaming of fresh lava trapped beneath the cooling surface layer, and at times they seemed to pulse in a strange, hypnotic rhythm.

Just that dark head was nearly as large as the Torkoal - which was certainly not the Eruption, Ash and Dazed thought as one, the psychic's echo far more dry and ironic than his own befuddled realization- that had guided Ash and Dazed to this behemoth.

And the heat. It was like the sweat boiled off him in an instant. Somehow, his mind went to all those times years ago when his mom would try blow drying his hair before they left. That dry, hot rush that was pleasant enough when it was accompanied by a pair of gentle, firm hands and getting rid of the moisture he didn't want to keep.

Not so pleasant when it seemed to rush in from all around, scorching his skin and body both inside and out. Desperate - even Infernus couldn't do this, not on the scale they encountered here - he reached not for Ice, but for Fire.

The Feather burst to life, and the flame inside burned brighter and hotter than the Eruption could hope to.

It didn't take a genius to realize this wasn't a sustainable solution.

"Move! Safe space." Ash hissed, his voice barely more than a dessicated rasp. Dazed, already nearly unconscious from the heat, made to argue but he shook his head. "Now!"

She twisted away through space-time up to a nearby ridge that overlooked the pass; the horde, Ash, and the living titan molded from lava and stone all well within her psychic perception. His eyes just barely caught Plume soaring overhead, prepared to swoop in and buy him time at a moment's notice.

For all the pressure, for all the soul-sucking heat, for all that this diplomatic meeting had disintegrated into a mess even hotter than the Eruption itself, Ash couldn't really be afraid. In the face of an impossible challenge, of being pushed, it was his nature to push back twice as hard.

No. He'd sent Dazed away because she was about to keel over. Steven would never have sent him here alone if there was any chance he'd need to fight this.

His fingers twisted to lay against the release of Claydol's unfamiliar pokeball. It was odd to have that on his belt, and quite a bit of him rebelled at the thought. As much as he liked Claydol, the psychic didn't belong with his family.

Ash offered up one last admiring glance - he was past awe by this point - to what could only just barely be called a Torkoal. Its enormous head stretched high for a moment, as if cracking away a century's worth of slumber. The black, stone-like hide cracked, and more dust, now glowing cherry-red and showering down like a torrent of sparks, fell. Hot red vessels pulsed more freely now. Its head was the size of an Onix's, and its neck was about half as long as one of the average stone serpents.

"You're the Eruption," Ash murmured. How old was it? Two centuries? Three? Five? He couldn't really begin to guess, honestly. Torkoal were famed for their longevity, but he'd never heard of one growing even a fifth of this size. Up to now, he'd have said that first massive Torkoal (was it an offspring of the true giant?) was as large as they could grow.

His Feather flared again, fueled by his reverence and billowing out from beneath his shirt in great golden tongues that licked at his painfully dry skin, up his neck, at the air…

Holding onto the Fire for this long and this hot would have spelled Lance's doom. But Ash?

He could do this all day.

The Eruption swiveled to stare at him, stony eyelids sliding open. Ash sucked in a scalding breath when all that was revealed were two shriveled lumps set in enormous, mostly empty sockets. Both were black as coal and as large as his entire head, but it didn't take a genius to see that the Eruption was entirely blind.

Ash stared, more fascinated than horrified. Whatever had once been its eyes had changed over its long life, like all the moisture had been sucked out of them by its impossibly hot body. It looked as if whatever had been left accumulated dust and stone and soot until the solid mass rested like fossils in the skull.

It didn't seem to bother the titan, though. Out of old reflex, or because it had manifested some way of seeing the true nature of things like Ash had begun to, the Eruption still stared Ash's way.

For a moment both remained still, taking in the scale of the other.

Then, the Eruption screamed.

Ash stumbled backwards, eyes squeezed shut as an awful clamor assaulted him.

Words couldn't describe it - the only way he could put it into words was to say that this must have been what the primordial earth had sounded like. Great ventings of noxious gas, the furious rumble of a volcano, the ferocious grinding of tectonic plates slipping over and under one another.

It transcended what he could perceive as 'noise' and became a force battering him from within and without until the blood in his veins trembled and resonated with the explosive cry; Dazed reinforced the shields around his ears then, drawing on a cold, azure flame they both despised to sustain it. Without that there was no doubt his eardrums would burst and spill bloody fluid through the ruptured membrane.

If the first Torkoal's blaring siren call had been overwhelming, this was earth-shattering. Cracks formed in the stone beneath their feet, the cliff face shuddered, and the entire horde joined it.

The Eruption stumbled backward, each step an earthquake, and pulled its head back within its shell, an oddly defensive move for such a powerful beast to make.

Nonetheless, heat flared behind him, and Ash finally acted.

Claydol appeared at his side. It spun leisurely beside him, as if offering its many faces the opportunity to see the situation for themselves. Psychic power burst to life within the animate earth, and both 'arms' separated from the body to swivel behind them.

Perhaps we made a mistake sending you off alone like this.

A psychic barrier flashed to life behind them, blocking a thin stream of sparks. It seemed more like a warning shot, but the mighty Torkoal that had brought them to the Eruption proved more dangerous - it hadn't yet attacked, but a sound like a blaring horn heralded a massive outpouring of smoke in a threatening display.

Compared to the vast pillars curling like a great fist into the sky, it wasn't especially impressive. By now the choking smoke from the true Eruption had managed to darken the entire sky above them, though sunlight still beamed down elsewhere on the mountain.

Claydol's body flashed, and whatever it said to the giant Torkoal seemed to calm it down, though it still watched them uneasily. The rest of the fire-types followed suit, even if there was still a thick tension in the air.

"You guys said it was friendly." His voice must have sounded dull and slurred, each syllable just a bit misshapen by his tongue. Dazed's abilities had protected him from the worst of it, but the Eruption's roar had practically deafened him.

It is. Eager to eat, sleep, and occasionally find a cozier spot to rest every odd decade. It's actually quite impressive that you set the Eruption off like this. I didn't know it still had the capacity for fear.

Claydol said it all as casually as Ash might discuss the weather. It was hard to decide if Claydol was really this jaded, or just confident things would play out in their favor.

Ash looked to the Eruption, which had withdrawn its forelimbs into the vast shell just as it had its neck and blunt head. The crowd behind them still rested uneasily, but at least there were no more attacks. If there were, he'd have to release the less diplomatic members of his team.

Torrent for raw power and wide-reaching attacks to face down an army. Nidoking for precision and to handle any that came close. Tangrowth to twist the terrain and nullify the numbers advantage. Oz for precision Thunders and brawling. Bruiser to toss the giant Torkoal off the mountain.

Not a fight he wanted, but one he'd do his utmost to win.

Instead, Ash stepped forward cautiously, staggering only slightly as he adjusted to the differences in his sense of balance. The Eruption remained hidden within its shell, only the merest of flickers penetrating the shadows.

He steadfastly reigned in Fire. With all the adrenaline pumping through his blood, it was wild and eager to be unleashed. It begged him to manifest, and part of him wished that he could let it.

His nerves settled, though that tension from being near Mt. Chimney never quite left. Without Fire coursing through him, he felt hotter and colder and even a little drained, though nothing he couldn't soothe with a quick rush of Ice once he made it to safety.

"I'm sorry!" he said, hopefully loudly enough to reach the Eruption. That was easier said than done. Within its shell, he could see just the barest glow of its cracked skin. "I won't use it again."

Nothing.

Ash nearly pinched his nose and gave a great sigh of exasperation. Was he really that scary to a centuries-old monster of a Torkoal that could probably wade through Mt. Chimney's heart without any trouble? How could he even salvage this?

Could he?

Something bitter took root. This was the first thing he'd been entrusted with to handle on his own, and it had somehow gone completely awry. At this point he just needed to make sure the Eruption wasn't going to blow up Lavaridge in a panic.

Yes, that would be a satisfactory outcome.

Ash rolled his eyes at Claydol's commentary. It really wasn't helping.

Oh, my apologies. I had no idea.

"We'll leave in just a moment!" he called, though paused when a coughing fit overcame him as more and more smoke drifted over. The heat was utterly miserable at this point, suffocating and nasty and eager to inconvenience him as much as possible.

To be honest, Ash felt rather foolish trying to assuage the skulking Eruption. Even its tail was longer than Ash was tall and probably five times as heavy. "We're here on behalf of the League. I just wanted to offer a gift. A token of the League's respect."

The tip of its nose poked out.

No point wasting any time. Ash figured the only way for this meeting to end well at all was to wrap things up as soon as possible. It really was a shame, though. He'd have loved to see Infernus try and tackle the Eruption.

It might be the first thing aside from Moltres that burned hotter than the Magmortar did.

"Here you go," Ash said, more to himself than the behemoth. He slowly knelt and reached for the storage compartment that Steven had given him. With one tap, it released much, much more than Ash had expected in a brilliant flash of light.

Heaping piles of standard food, a wide assortment of berries that could be stretched to last a few weeks for the horde with proper rationing, enormous mounds of coal for the Torkoal, and other assorted goodies that would be useful for a group like this.

The Eruption poked its head out just another foot or so, but still refused to leave entirely.

Ash rolled his eyes, but stepped away and slipped the storage compartment back into his pack. At least the lesser Torkoal and the other wild pokemon seemed more interested.

All that was left to do now was to get out of here before he traumatized the Eruption any further.

Agreed. It seems to be a talent of yours.

Ash shot a withering look at the psychic.

Right. Not helping.

With that, they stepped away. Claydol teleported them up to the ridge where Dazed and Plume waited, and Ash took a moment to look over Dazed. Her fur was matted with sooty residue and absolutely drenched in sweat, but her red-rimmed eyes were still alert and conscious.

"I'm going to recall you now, alright?" Ash said quietly. Dazed was exhausted enough both mentally and physically to accept it without argument, and she vanished a moment later.

He smiled tiredly and recalled her. She'd earned her rest.

Ash wasted no time in pulling himself up onto Plume's saddle and strapping himself in. He did spare a look down from the ridge to see the horde swarming the food (although the first Torkoal blared a warning before any could get too close) and Eruption's mighty head and forelimbs stretching out to investigate the world.

His senses prickled, and Ash followed his instincts as they cried 'Up! Up!'

Beyond them all, well-hidden on a distant lesser peak and only visible due to the blinding reflection of their stark white fur, waited a large pack of ten solemn Absol. It was hard to tell, but Ash had the distinct feeling that their dark faces were staring right at him.

He frowned.

Well, onto the next stop. I've been looking forward to this.

Ash massaged his temples to try and ease the headache brewing like a storm. It was tempting to think that Claydol was doing everything in its power to throw fuel on that particular fire.

"Sure. I'll release you when we find a good spot. Shouldn't take too long," he said. After a moment, he took a deep breath and sighed. "Thanks for the help, Claydol."

You would have been just fine without me, but far be it from me to turn down gratitude.

That earned a snort from Ash, and he recalled the other psychic just before Plume eagerly stretched her wings once he was all settled in, both of them eager to be away from the crater. "Ready to get away from all this smoke?"

She peered back at him with gleaming eyes and cooed softly - it was strange to see it but not fully hear it above the ringing in his ears - and gave Ash just a moment's notice before he found them launching off into the open sky. He cast one last look down at the rocky mountain pass and its inhabitants, shook his head, and embraced his friend as she took them into blessedly clear winds.

Time to give Infernus his due.

XX

The breath was ripped from his lungs when his feet touched the ground. His boots crunched on sparse, weathered soil that barely provided enough anchorage for shrubs, young trees, and other light vegetation to root into. They'd landed on an elevated outcrop not too far from Mt. Chimney's rim. It was safe from any impromptu eruptions, but was near enough for easy access into the volcano's heart.

Ash barely managed to stumble and rest his hands on his knees as that awful, awful weight bore down on him. It bled from the earth, sucking him in like quicksand.

"I'm fine," he said when Plume nipped at him. She cocked her head, eyes flat and obviously unconvinced. "Please, don't worry about me. Just need a moment. Go stretch your wings."

Plume didn't even twitch. He sighed, but silently appreciated her gesture as he stared into the dark soil. His lungs were still raw from their brief encounter with the Eruption and its minions. He imagined this was what taking a cheese grater to his insides would feel like.

He'd had worse than this - which was actually quite concerning the more he thought about it- but it still wasn't pleasant by any means.

Part of him reached for Ice to give himself room to order his thoughts and dull the scraping pain, but Ash wasn't surprised when it didn't even react to his prodding. It was still there - it was part of him, after all - but it was like digging for a snowflake buried beneath a landslide. Could he find it? Yes. It wouldn't be easy, though, and it was definitely more trouble than it was worth.

Here, resting right above the center of the strange pressure, he doubted even the Song would carry much weight.

To be entirely honest, this was the true reason he asked Plume to carry him so close to the summit of Mt. Chimney. There was a mystery here, and one he intended to solve while he had some time away from Steven. If he could confirm his suspicions (or at least get some solid evidence) then he'd come to Steven. He would listen to Ash so long as he had more evidence to back his claims up than 'I just don't feel good around the mountain'.

If not, he'd look for more.

Mewtwo's insidious tendrils coming to life in his mind left Ash feeling a bit more confident that this was the way to go.

The Legendary stayed silent, not even bothering to drop a snide comment or ominous laugh at how pathetic Ash probably looked at the moment, but the psychic's presence said enough.

Ash reached for Claydol's pokeball before he thought about releasing Infernus. He might have truly come to Mt. Chimney for other reasons, but there was no reason to keep Infernus from his fun. Before he tried to investigate, he'd send Infernus off.

Claydol appeared immediately. It hovered leisurely, just as comfortable as it had been in the face of the Eruption.

Oh yes, this spot will do… Are you sure you're prepared?

"You can keep him safe?" Ash asked, ignoring the question. "Infernus can handle himself, but I don't like him being so far from any help."

The psychic hesitated, then sent a reluctant affirmative into Ash's head. It wasn't quite enough to settle his nerves. Beautiful as the view from the volcano's peak was, he couldn't escape the crushing pressure clenching his lungs and heart and throat. Whenever he thought he'd distracted himself, the unending, steady power would break through whatever defenses he had.

Ash shook himself out of those thoughts.

I confess that I can't feel what you can. Mt. Chimney feels as it always has to me. A bit more active, but nothing like your perception. But then, perhaps we're all inoculated to its effects. We've all grown up in Mt. Chimney's shadow. Our familiarity has blinded us.

He grunted. That could do it. Claydol spoke again, a little softer now.

Besides, only an idiot would bet against you on this. Everything that's happened to you proves that much. Whatever you are, you can see deeper than I can.

That didn't really comfort him, but something about it did ease the tension in his shoulders. At least Claydol had faith in him. "I appreciate it. Are you sure you can handle us both?"

Claydol spun ever-so-slowly through the air, its many pink 'eyes' staring at Ash as they passed him by.

Child's play. My body will be here, but my mind will be with Infernus. Try not to make the volcano angry, please. This job will be challenging enough.

Ash exhaled, but rolled his eyes at Claydol's sass. "Perfect." With that said, he released Infernus.

And immediately descended into a hacking, coughing fit as the renewed heat and dry air flooded his lungs. It took a minute, but he fought it off without the aid of any Concepts. He took pride in that.

The itching in his throat lurked, always riding on the edge of throwing him back into the fit, but he waved off Plume's butting head as she tried to comfort him.

Infernus didn't offer any sympathy, though his characteristic violent grin was nowhere to be seen. He just waited, though if Ash were being honest, he didn't seem at his best either.

His friend raised a claw-like hand to his great barrel of a chest even as Ash fought off another coughing fit, and appeared a little unsteady on his feet as if Mt. Chimney's enormous pressure bore down against him as well. The moment of weakness quickly vanished, replaced with fierce purpose. Soon enough, Infernus was good as new.

Silent. Motionless. Ready.

He hadn't spoken to him about this yet, but Infernus wasn't stupid. The Magmortar knew something was up.

Ash didn't have it in him for niceties at the moment. Thanks to the Eruption's racket he still couldn't hear himself properly, but he knew that his voice came out curt, raspy, and final: "You won't be fighting the Eruption."

The reaction was immediate: A fierce growl that rattled Ash's bones once more, and a redoubling of the dreadful heat that poured off Infernus' glowing body (but that dropped suspiciously quickly when Ash began coughing his lungs out again).

He snorted painfully, and a few clumps of soot shot out from where it had clogged his sinuses. "It wouldn't have been worth it, anyways."

Ash thought to the Eruption fleeing into its shell. One of the strongest pokemon in the world, and it wouldn't even look at him. That left all sorts of unpleasant emotions rearing their ugly heads. "I don't think it's fought in decades. Centuries, maybe. It felt a flicker of Fire and ran."

Infernus' lip curled into a sneer, but there was less rage in his eyes than deep, raw disappointment.

Ash coughed again, and spit another glob of black saliva into the earth. No blood, at least. Claydol would probably yank him back to civilization whether he liked it or not. At least his condition hadn't deteriorated too badly - Ash would not be happy if this trip ended with Steven forcing him into a hospital yet again.

He grimaced. After all the dust, smoke, and soot he'd probably be stuck getting all that garbage out of his system for the rest of the day. What had that doctor back in Sevii said? Humans weren't made for volcanoes?

He'd probably have to fight Steven to not go back on a ventilator at this point. At this rate he might as well invest in a field version that he could bring along with him.

Ash took a moment to uncap his canteen and take a deep swig of the too-warm liquid. Normally it wouldn't be refreshing in the slightest, but after all the sweat he'd poured out it was just about the best thing in the world.

Once his raspy tongue scraped up any water around his lips - catching too much grit and char in the process - and he'd wiped away the rest, he continued. "I've got something else for you."

His friend leaned forward, the old disappointment replaced by subtle intrigue. As subtle as Infernus ever got, anyways. Anyone else would have described it as the grotesque leer of a starving Mightyena.

Ash grinned. "Steven told me there's Magmortar and Magmar that live down in the volcano. Maybe a few other things." He shared a look with Claydol, who sent a brief flicker of confirmation. "Think they'd mind if you paid them a visit?"

It must be terribly lonely down there. They might enjoy the chance to entertain a visitor.

Claydol's dry amusement egged them both on, and Infernus' lips stretched into a fierce, ugly smile. He raised one cannon to the sky, and from its barrel burst a blaze of brilliant blue.

It twisted the air into a rippling mess, bleeding smoke and light for anything to witness from miles around, and joined the roar of the flame with a rumbling cry of his own.

That sounded like a 'yes' to Ash.

"Good," he croaked. At least that seemed to get Infernus' mind off the missed battle with the Eruption. "Claydol will send you down into the crater. Stick to any that accept the challenge. If anything goes wrong, get out of there. Claydol will pull you out if things get too bad. It might be tough for you to teleport out yourself."

His friend scoffed at that, but nodded regardless. That was all the time he got before Claydol's entire form burst to life with a steady, controlled aura of azure power. All at once, Infernus was gone, warped away in a masterful display of teleportation.

Infernus' great column of flame subsided without its master there to fuel it, and then it was just Plume, Ash, and Claydol.

Appearing deep into the Fire-Earth-Heart, exhilaration and rightness and glee, power filling his muscles and mighty flame filling his cannons. He was in a place that burned hot as he did, and there were others here... mighty foes just like Conqueror had promised! He did not roar a challenge, but instead loosed a brilliant plume of his true fire.

Shapes appeared, some alike to his own, others familiar, and others unknown to any that lived above…

They came, and he conquered.

The telepathic connection was cut off suddenly, Claydol having deemed its purpose served.

"Have fun." Ash said to empty air, wishing Infernus could hear it. Plume cooed and nipped at the bent bill of his cap now that the unpleasant heat had vanished. He just raised a hand to stroke her glossy feathers absentmindedly.

I don't think we need to be too worried about that.

Ash huffed out a laugh, but didn't feel the need to say anything. Why bother when Claydol would pick up on it anyways?

A fair point, although I at least try to maintain the pretense of privacy.

It was appreciated.

Ash sighed and pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the pulse of apprehension and disapproval radiating off the psychic.

Claydol had its duty, and Ash had his goal.

Now he just needed to find the best way to achieve it.

This was a nice little spot, full of little rocks and boulders that had fallen from up high and buried themselves in the dirt. The sparse trees were grey with soot, but little glimmers of green leaves were still visible beneath the ashy coating. Soon enough they'd turn orange, gold, red, and all shade of delightful colors. Fall was just around the corner.

Something here would ground him. He wanted to connect to the world here, just like Cynthia had guided him in Greenfield, but instinct told him that closing his eyes and breathing deeply wouldn't cut it here.

Ash needed an anchor.

He prowled around the little overlook with little rhyme or reason to his movements. Ash poked and prodded at the base of trees and observed how the earth clung to them. Occasionally he rested his hand on the dark stone of the volcano itself, and grimaced as he felt its lifeblood pulse deep within - something inside him spoke to a great tension, a yawning gullet, and the stirring of terrible forces within.

And he didn't even mean Infernus by that.

If someone asked him why he chose the spot he did to rest - this pressure was making him so tired - Ash would have been tongue-tied. His rough hand trailed over the wind-hewn grain of the stone, the sole of his boots crunched leaves and detritus underfoot, and at last something felt right.

He turned his back to lean against the volcanic stone and lowered himself until he was sitting against the rock, with his view becoming a handful of sparse, stubborn trees. It was a relief to fall, like the world itself demanded he bow to it. The oppressive feel of the mountain hadn't faded, but at least he wasn't fighting to stay on his feet anymore.

One less battle to sap him.

Ash wasn't entirely sure what he was doing, but the stirring of Mewtwo, the twinges of something suspiciously like fear -

I do not fear, stupid boy.

His lips twitched. It didn't even cost him a stopped heart this time, even though the dark shadow roiled like an oncoming storm.

Enough time had been wasted on games, though. Ash pulled his hat off with soot-stained hands and left great black smudges all into the fabric - he'd have to try and get those out later - and laid it in his lap. He shut his eyes, and waited.

Shockingly, nothing happened.

His heart still pounded. His skin still dripped cold sweat. His intestines still tied themselves in knots.

Somehow, he'd thought he'd just slip right into the world and see the Truth as easily as he'd see the waking world if he opened his eyes. Of course it couldn't be that easy.

Instead, he waited. He breathed.

And waited.

And waited.

Frustration mounted, roused faster than usual by the negative feelings crawling right beneath his skin and clenching his organs, but he forced it down without the aid of Ice. He couldn't depend on the Feather (or, rather, the Concepts) in this place.

Only himself.

And so he did.

Patience was a virtue, he had to remind himself. It almost became a mantra as he went longer and longer without that connection he craved.

After an eternity, he felt.

Information trickled into his brain like a sprinkling of dust, then came stronger and stronger until it felt more like a landslide than anything. His head ached, his breath weighed heavy, and even his spirit felt heavy, like a great rock pressed down upon everything he was.

It wasn't just the physical world he perceived, but the truth of which the physical manifestation was only a reflection of the ideal.

Stone - Wind - Water

Ash's fingers wound into the grainy dirt beneath him, and that's when he felt it.

Something enormous.

Something alive.

It was no wonder he hadn't perceived it before. How could he have, when he hadn't even known what to look for? Ash had wasted his time searching for anything that didn't belong. Anything that marked the natural ways the Legends twisted the world to fit their nature.

And that was where he'd made a mistake.

This Legend didn't shape the world in its image. It didn't need to.

Not when it was the world itself. The planet's mantle and crust were just its muscle and skin and bone, pulsing with molten blood and animate with a pure, primordial power. Every grain of sand, every clump of dirt… little cells of this titan. Each and all bore its influence.

The immense, steady force would be impossible to recognize normally. It was part of the world, after all, and there was no reason to look past that. The only time he would have noticed it without knowing to look was if the influence had been absent, in the same way he'd notice if someone suddenly sucked all the oxygen out of a room.

About the closest thing he could liken it to was cosmic background radiation - ever present, no matter how far back you look - something he'd learned just a little about as he dove into unraveling the mysteries of how the universe fit so seamlessly together. The little physics cheat sheet that Steven had given him during their first time training together was helpful, but if he wanted to push further he'd need to deepen his education.

Just about all of the specifics went over his head, but at least it gave him a starting point. The basic concepts were simple enough, but trying to apply that knowledge? Not so much.

Of course, all that learning went out the window when faced with this.

Its tendrils spread all throughout the world, radiating outward like the sun's corona, but they found their center here.

The sluggish power pressed upon him now that he'd recognized it, now that he thought to trace it and immerse himself in it. His nerves and every instinct of self-preservation in him screamed to turn back and flee the grinding force, but Ash quelled those. His trepidation never really left him, but how could he turn back now?

He couldn't just ignore it, not now that he knew it was there and felt it within himself. There was knowledge to be learned and mysteries to be solved… or at least partially unraveled. Ash wasn't foolish enough to think he'd be able to truly understand the depths he was tunneling into.

Fear was turned away, like batting away a spear before it could shove into his heart. It would rule him otherwise.

Ash took a deep breath. His fingers clawed deeper into the earth almost unconsciously, and he didn't stop until his hands were stained black and brown with the volcanic soil. Dirt crammed the spaces beneath his fingernails, but he couldn't care less now. He grasped deeper and deeper, like he wanted to reach into the Truth of this place and trap it between his hands.

For a thousand-year moment, he was the Earth. Eternal. Inexorably shifting and sliding across the eons.

Little things crawled atop him, living and dying, creating and destroying, learning and forgetting, all between his breaths. His mind stretched thin and taut like a wire pulled much too tight, like one man asked to bear the burdens of the world.

Panic filled him…!

But he pulled back and did not lose himself.

Every breath felt like a mountain rested atop his lungs, and his nails scrabbled deeper and deeper into the soil until blood soaked the tips and mingled with the dirt. Ash's teeth ground against each other like the tectonic plates slipping over and under themselves until he thought they might crack under it, and he forced his mind to turn outwards once again.

Ash's perception drove deep, burrowing outside his thoughts and physical body to be expressed into Mt. Chimney itself.

The planet, one body. Great islands rolling over seas of magma.

Oceans eroding rocky epidermis. Atmosphere layered over in a transparent cloak.

A Distorted blot itching across a continent, but ephemeral. Gone in a million years, perhaps more. Transient. Insignificant.

He uprooted himself, though not entirely, so he could think.

His mind was abuzz as enormous sums of information flooded his mind, leaving him a dull ache.

Ash suspected that it was only his previous Legendary exposure that let him manage it so well. Connecting to the world here had given him some brief, flickering insights to the state of the world, even if he struggled to retain it.

The feeling reminded him of when he'd spent hours upon hours at night preparing for his next battle in the Conference. Ash could still keep some of the information in his brain, but it was shallow if he didn't reinforce it, eager to slip away like smoke between his fingers.

Ash took a moment to gather what he'd learned, mulling it over for a short time, then immersed himself again. It took all his focus, but he refused to be caught up in the wide net of the power. He narrowed his 'gaze' to the volcano itself and the enormous force he sensed within.

It was an odd feeling. His perception seemed to sink through the soil first, worming beneath the earth until it struck rock and its true nature. The pounding in his head grew worse and worse the deeper he delved, but his will did not falter.

Dirt. Stone - living, almost, but not in a way he truly understood. Mt. Chimney's summit reached higher and higher into the sky, building faster and faster with every passing moment. A well of magma beneath it all, roiling and spitting.

A familiar warrior fought within, against nameless things immersed and bathed in the planet's superheated blood.

He gasped as his senses brushed Infernus for just a moment, but slipped past. Ash had a mission.

The sea of magma boiled. Heat from the planet's heart rose and rippled, spilling out into the atmosphere with every moment along with an endless stream of smoke. Power filled it all, animating it with unnatural force and ferocity.

But there was more… something even deeper than the magma, something enormous -

Curious as ever, an emotion balanced by the nauseating dread sitting in his stomach, he reached deeper. His perception pushed past the magma, ignoring the pressure that attempted to force him away like the rising heat, and elation surged as he found something dwelling deeper -

PAIN

Burning! His blood went thick and hot as molten stone in his veins and arteries, scorched from the inside out. It was relentless and his jaws wrenched open in a silent, visceral scream - his throat was whipped raw in seconds and his vocal cords threatened to fail under the strain. All his saliva dried up in an instant, and the complete absence of any moisture only made the pain worse.

Crushing! Ash's skin felt as if it had been laced with heavy lead. It bore down on his muscle and left his bones groaning under the awful weight. He couldn't breathe - he couldn't breathe!

HE NEEDED TO BREATHE!

Worse than the physical - which was just a reflection of what truly assailed him - was the mental.

Lava burst through his brain in an eruption, scouring him clean of all other thoughts. His eyes heated and he thought tears might have filled them, but his eyes stayed dry as his mouth. Even the blood at his fingertips crumbled and caked as the awful awful AWFUL heat filled him.

Just as the magma filled him, he left his own mark on the magma (insignificant as it was). Even as he screamed, shattered beneath the weight of the awesome force of Mt. Chimney - of the Earth itself! - he found a piece of his mind chasing greedily into the inferno.

Something lay beneath the blanket of magma roiling within Mt. Chimney.

Something vast.

Something terrible.

Vague impressions filled his thoughts, carried by the lava. He would never forget them.

A hunched shape, black and lifeless, curled for slumber but spanning mountains in length. The volcano burst from a small portion of its back.

The same shape stood shadowed by soot crackling with lightning, and brief flashes illuminated a molten red titan which could crush mountains underfoot.

Blood dripped from his eyes, but it dried the moment it left him. Streaks of crumbling red were left.

The Behemoth dreamt below Mt. Chimney.

Somewhere through the pain, Ash felt Claydol's psychic powers scrape uselessly - frantically, but uselessly all the same, like trying to dig up a mountain with just a trowel - against the lava.

It would burn Claydol up too, he noted absentmindedly. Mt. Chimney rumbled beneath them, stronger than he'd felt before, and he felt lava spilling forth in the wake of the quake which heralded the earliest contractions of the Behemoth being born anew in a storm of fiery stone, black ash, and rent earth.

And then, connected as he was to the Behemoth's catatonic soul, he felt something even worse. Just the realization pierced straight through the lava flooding his neurons and melting him from the inside out - even the pain seemed nothing in comparison to this.

When the Behemoth shifted, something else filled the entire planet. A slow, ponderous thing, more akin to the scattering of pebbles warning of a landslide than the abrupt release of force from an earthquake. It built, springing from the titan resting below the volcano and other mountains for miles around, then rumbled.

A single half-thought; the faintest strand of whatever primordial earth might dream of.

It was indecipherable, a collection of sensations and impressions and PAIN that ripped through his very spirit as the parts of his brain still mortal shattered and struggled and failed to make sense of the sensory input, neurons rewiring and severed and dying beneath just a wisp of the titan's mind -

His twitching hands grasped for the Unown tablet that lay lifeless around his neck, the smothered Feather on his chest, anything that would save him-

Cold so extreme that it burned like fire exploded in the back of his mind. It rushed through his every cell and knit ruined, burnt skin and shriveled eyes and his bloody throat. The fiery cold wasn't gentle, but it purged the physical damage in an instant with the masterful precision of a scalpel.

The spiritual pain, the worst of it, lingered.

That wasn't so easily fixed.

The Behemoth's latent power, not even a fraction of a fraction of what it would draw on when awakened, was stubborn and immovable as a mountain. Even the purging azure flame that filled Ash's closed eyes struggled to scrape its passive influence from his mind.

Although the Behemoth's barest touch remained an immovable object, the cleansing cold combustion seemed determined to prove an unstoppable force.

Where the blazing flame touched, the Earth's influence baked and hardened. It crumbled in some places, then was wrenched away by the purifying cold and excised entirely, but it felt like hours of agonizing warfare before Ash felt anything resembling human again.

The battle was over and the azure coldflame was extinguished, its strength exhausted.

He returned to himself. Ash was physically unscathed now (aside from the dirt and blood-stained mud that clad him like a second skin) but his mind was still slow and exhausted.

Raw - that was a good word - like when he and Gary had come back to his mom's house too dirty from a day in the Corral and had been scrubbed relentlessly until their skin was pink and exposed beneath the muck.

A great head lay against his chest, and his muddled mind could barely make out the curve of an enormous beak that cooed frantically in a frenzied lullaby.

Idiot! Meddling with things beyond our power. I will not save you from your own foolishness again, Ash Ketchum.

Mewtwo's tired, enfeebled baritone faded away. It echoed in his ears and brain, the words lingering long after the input had vanished, and he couldn't help the bitter taste in his mouth. Of all the Legends he'd met, Mewtwo had saved him.

The murderer of thousands had saved his life.

Ash's hands shook, whether with rage or disgust or the profound exhaustion he felt in the aftermath of the Behemoth's unconscious touch he could not say. His eyes stayed shut (especially as little flakes of ash drifted down to rest on his skin) and a storm brewed inside his chest.

A minute longer, seconds longer, Ash thought, and he would have died. The lava devouring his soul and body would have ripped his mind asunder and left him a burnt husk.

It didn't elicit as much emotion as it should've, and that struck a deep, unsettled cord inside. What would his team do? His family? Would his mom, already teetering between mirrored lives, shatter like a pane of glass? And what of Professor Oak, and Gary, and Lance, and Jon and Amelia and everyone else who cared about him?

And who he cared about.

His face went hot and frustrating, angry - childish! - tears collected at the edge of his eyes..

Ash had been greedy.

He'd become overconfident after all the Legends he'd encountered and all the Concepts he'd embraced, thinking that now that they had become a part of him he was ready to master them all. It had been a long time since Mewtwo's mere words had threatened to shatter his mind, or a Legend's simple presence and majesty had brought him to his knees.

After all this time, Ash thought he'd adjusted that much. His experiences had tempered him. Made him stronger. And perhaps he had grown enough to at least function and stand in the face of the Concepts themselves.

But not strong enough.

'Ash, listen to me. You are not ready for that fight.'

Had Professor Oak read him so easily all those months ago after the raid? Mortal issues like Hunter J were so terribly mundane compared to what dreamt beneath their feet, but the words rang true then as they did now.

There was so, so much more to learn. Ash had punched above his weight from the first days of his journey, and it had left him numb to the idea of being overmatched. Lance's first lesson had never truly sunk in, not when he'd made it through everything else on the merits of himself, his team, and occasionally a little protection from a Legend.

But he was arrogant and cocky in the stupidest way. Ash survived the last few Legends, even came to understand a few of them, and he thought he was safe?

'You're still just a boy.'

A foul taste filled his dry mouth. Blood and dust and fury. Fingers clawed the earth, wishing to tear it all asunder. His body twitched, even if it felt like he'd run a marathon and climbed a mountain on top of it. All the strength was gone from his limbs, but at least the movement served to relax Plume a bit as she sang softly to him.

It soothed the wild emotion pounding in his aching head, and he almost managed a smile as he raised his shaking hand to rest against her glossy head.

Emotion poured out in the form of tears and anger and sorrow, and soon enough his eyes ached and all that was left was emptiness and the faintest vestiges of relief.

I'm alive, Ash thought, and he swore to keep it that way. For his team, for his mom, for all of them.

He opened his eyes to see Plume standing right above him. She butted her beak against him as gently as she could, and renewed guilt flooded him.

Ash had been complacent, and it had almost cost him everything.

Earth had taught him his limits and he had to grow stronger to surpass them. The North Wind, the Guardians of the Sea and Sky and Life… the Birds and their wild freedom. Those he could stand against, if he was careful. If he was clever. If he was brave.

Not the Behemoth. Not yet. What was Fire, or Ice, or Lightning, or Life, to the Earth?

His fist clenched. He'd grow, but he had to be more careful.

Mewtwo wouldn't save him again. By all rights, staring into the Truth of the molten titan beneath Mt. Chimney should have killed him.

And, worst of all, now he had to send a twisted, paradoxical, confused thought of gratitude to Mewtwo. It rankled him, but he couldn't dive into all that now. That would just rip him apart again.

The utter silence from Mewtwo told him that the psychic must be as confused as he was.

He returned to the world, and forced everything else down. Later. That could be dealt with later.

"Plume!" Ash embraced his friend and wrapped his arms around her thick neck, happy to hear his voice again, loud and clear. She chirped (always strange to hear from such a massive avian) into his ear and tried to push in as close as she could.

No other words were needed.

They just sat there for a time. Neither was in a hurry to let go. Plume hadn't been party to what had occurred inside him, but she'd seen the physical effects and been privy to his suffering. That was enough.

Unfortunately, Claydol saw fit to slip in.

This really isn't how I expected this to go. You're well?

Ash hesitated. "I'm alive."

I've picked up on that, although I was worried. The power filling you was like nothing I've experienced, yet familiar all the same. Quite the conundrum. I couldn't even break through to your mind. I tried.

"I know. I'd have been impressed if you could," Every bit of his purged exhaustion returned with those words. "There was nothing you could do. Nothing any of us could do. Not yet," Ash muttered.

He finally dragged himself to his feet. After what had happened he wanted to be as far from the dirt as he could. "Metagross might have to give up their top spot."

Oh, I have my ways around Metagross. Quite a few, actually - excuse me.

Ash frowned, but waited patiently. Plume was kind enough to push her head up underneath his right arm to offer support. He was quick to offer his thanks.

A bright flash of psychic power burst into existence, and a heavy, hot shape pounded into the earth not too far from Ash.

"Infernus!" He rushed over to his friend as he laid limply atop the soil. Little patches of grass and a lone sapling ignited from the awful heat and globs of lava spilling off the Magmortar - without the psychic shields from Claydol, Ash's skin would've been in similar shape (again). Even with their help he had to maintain a fair bit of distance.

His breath came swift and rattling as he frantically raked his eyes over Infernus' brutally beaten body, though he quickly regained control of himself once he realized his friend wasn't in mortal danger..

Deep gouges in his shoulder, long and wide enough to leave his left arm hanging limply from his side. A gaping hole in his stomach, where it looked like something had slashed the outermost layers of muscle open with claws and then shoved a fist inside the wound, a litany of slashes, superficial wounds, and an eye so swollen that he could barely see it.

Even Pierce's Metagross hadn't left such awful wounds, and even the Birds hadn't been so visceral.

Whatever Infernus had fought had also managed to smash his lips open and leave steaming blood pouring from his mouth (along with all his other vicious injuries).

All that, and the Magmortar was still miraculously conscious… barely.

Infernus laid still against the ground and stared up at Ash with glazed, dizzy eyes. Probably a concussion, then. Blood gushed from his stomach wound, although Infernus had managed to pack magma into the injuries to enhance their healing and prevent serious blood loss.

At least it didn't look like anything that couldn't be patched up before the battle with Fino.

This was the worst he'd seen Infernus in a long, long time.

Naturally, the Magmortar had a massive grin on his face. He stared blearily through the field of stars that must have taken up all his vision, let out a wheezing laugh, and passed out a moment later.

Ash was quick to return him. The stasis would do him well. Still, he couldn't help but stare at the spot Infernus had vacated.

What on earth lived in that volcano? Aside from his own awful discovery, anyways…

"How did the opponent end up? Opponents?" Ash hedged. It was hard to imagine one wild pokemon doing such a number on Infernus, but he'd learned that anything was possible. Besides, who knew what the effects of living so close to the Behemoth were?

Oh, it's just fine. I can't detect much, but Infernus was on the losing side of that battle, aside from a few rather interesting turnabouts. He had a wonderful time, however. It proved quite the vacation. The next time he's being a handful perhaps we should toss him back in for a second playdate.

"Maybe…" Ash muttered, still leaning on Plume. "He'd probably get a kick out of that. I'll have to talk to him later," he decided. "But for now, we need to go talk to Steven."

Did you find what you were looking for?

"Yes," Ash said grimly, aware that Claydol was probably just being courteous.

I'm glad that you appreciate that.

"Lugia was right. Land and Sea, Behemoth and Leviathan… they breathe," Ash recited the words from all those months ago, and felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. "Now we know exactly where one of them is."

XX

Sparks flew against his fingers as Ash carefully wove a handful of bright blue orchids he'd picked earlier into Oz's thick fur. Ash felt awfully clumsy as he tried to remember the quick lessons that the woman in Lavender had given him. Braiding wasn't quite as easy as he'd thought, and the last thing he wanted was for the knots to tug painfully at Oz's fur.

She peered down at him from above, eyes alight with interest.

"Almost done…" Ash murmured. She whirred happily, one thick finger reached down to poke at two of the orchids he'd tied into the fur around her wrist. It wasn't likely to survive long during their harsh training, but he was glad it made her happy.

To be honest, it wasn't just the difficulty involved in working the flowers into her striped fur that was weighing on him. Steven rested on a stump just a few feet away. He was playing on his PokeNav, probably writing up training plans or finding some new resource to drill Ash on, and Claydol levitated just above his shoulder.

The psychic's presence was like an executioner's axe hanging over his head.

He'd returned just an hour ago, and found that he wasn't quite eager to tell Steven the nightmare that had occurred. Ash had already resolved to submit the Eruption report in writing to save him the trouble (and answer any questions Steven asked, of course) but the Mt. Chimney discussion had to be done in person.

That was the case for many reasons, not the least of which was that Ash absolutely did not want any of it to be on the official record.

It wasn't that he didn't want to do it. It was more that between his rapidly developing sensitivity to the Legends, the hunch he'd had since arriving in the area, the Absol stalking him, the fact that he'd nearly died - again, at that - and Mewtwo's entire involvement in the matter, he would have to explain far too much he wasn't at all ready to divulge.

And at any rate, even if he did want to, he had no idea how he would even begin to explain half of it.

Dazed's advice would be appreciated right now, but she was still in stasis, absolutely exhausted after the ordeal with the hadn't had the good fortune to be restored by Mewtwo… which was a whole other issue that he didn't want to think about.

Left to his own devices, he only had his diplomatic skills to rely on… if they could be called that.

"Groudon lives under Mt. Chimney." There, it was out.

Ash tied in another flower into the circle around Oz's neck. She stared at him, mouth agape at the non-sequitur - and then her thick coat quivered as she whirred out a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snigger. Like he was joking. He shot her a dirty look and finished his current braid.

Steven's PokeNav landed in the soft soil with a thunk. Ash's stomach dropped, and his hands threatened to shake as he picked up another blue orchid and rubbed the silky petals between his fingers.

"What was that?" Steven's voice was very calm. Steely, it could be said.

"Groudon lives under Mt. Chimney," he cleared his throat. "I thought you should know."

He gently laid the orchid down with the rest (much to Oz's displeasure) and turned to face Steven. The man had picked up a bit of color after spending so many weeks under the sun, but his face had gone a ghostly white.

The man licked his lips. Tapped his thigh. "I… Excuse me?"

Ash coughed, began to repeat himself, but Steven frantically shook his head. "I heard you! What do you mean 'Groudon lives under Mt. Chimney?' You were sent to speak with the Eruption, Ash! How did you even discover that?" Steven wheeled around to glare at Claydol. "Why didn't you tell me?"

I didn't want to steal his thunder.

Steven scoffed, his face going red now, and steadfastly ignored the psychic. "Is that where the dried blood came from?" he demanded, whirling back on Ash. "I thought it was just a training accident. The soot was expected due to your meeting with the Eruption, but -"

He cut Steven off once it became clear he wasn't going to stop on his own account. The sheer panic coloring the man's every word and action sent guilt worming its way into his stomach, where it settled right next to the anxiety that still filled his chest thanks to Earth's mighty presence.

"It's below Mt. Chimney. I'm not sure how big it is, but it stretches all the way across the volcano and out to some of the other mountains. The eruptions are small now, but they'll get worse the closer it comes to Awakening. That's all I could get." Ash kept his voice level despite the growing pit in his stomach.

Steven went even paler. "How? It must be miles long in that case… if - when - it wakes, it will… Lavaridge!" His eyes went wide and he grasped wildly for his PokeNav. Once it was in his hands he could barely type due to how badly he was shaking. "When it wakes up, Lavaridge will be torn apart. We have to evacuate the city!"

That earned a grimace. He'd been too caught up drowning in his own thoughts to even consider what would happen to the people living nearby. The Behemoth would cause untold devastation when it finally returned to the world - a single step could crush a town, and Lavaridge would be devastated in its entirety by whatever earthquakes and eruptions were unleashed when it awoke.

"There's time," he said firmly, yet quietly, trying to instill some amount of calm in the former champion. Oz stayed silent, but rested a powerful hand on his shoulder in support. Claydol's form flashed with psychic power, and some of the frenzied look in Steven's eyes fell away.

Fear, anger, horror - all still there, but muted.

"I couldn't get much from it, but it was still asleep," Ash clarified when the champion motioned impatiently for him to elaborate. "Rousing, yes, but I doubt it'll wake up tomorrow."

Steven's jaw clenched. "How much time?"

He hesitated. "Months? Maybe years? I don't know," Ash confessed, annoyed but resigned.

It was a good question - the most important question, arguably, for all of Hoenn and maybe the whole world beyond.

"I might be able to get a better guess if I went back, but I can't connect with it again," he said with a scowl. Dread redoubled as he thought of just how close he'd come to being consumed entirely by the unrivaled power of Earth. Without Mewtwo… "My guess? It's going to be slow. Stronger earthquakes and larger eruptions building up over time. We'll know when it's coming, but not exactly when."

The former Champion pointed to a wide stump just opposite his own. "Sit."

Ash shared a look with Oz, but followed Steven's command. His teacher was almost always serious, but rarely stern. Then again, this was probably a fitting time for that side of him to come out. He leaned forward once he sat on the warm wood and held his hands together.

Something told him he'd be here for a while, and he wasn't looking forward to a second of it.

Steven's knuckles were white as he scrambled through the menu of his PokeNav. Once he'd reached an audio recording function, he held the device angled toward Ash. He recited the date and time, then spoke to Ash. "This is Ever Grande League affiliate Steven Stone. I am interviewing Indigo League Elite Four trainee Ash Ketchum regarding an incident taking place earlier today in the vicinity of Mt. Chimney in the Lavaridge territory."

The man cleared his throat. "Elite Four trainee Ash, please give verbal confirmation of your identity and list your ID number."

Ash hesitated, then began to list his information.

Yes, he was going to be here for a long, long time…

XX

"I'm still not convinced you aren't here to sabotage my training."

Flannery scoffed. "Please! You sure have a high opinion of yourself, Mr. Youngest-Elite-Four-Ever."

"Trainee." Ash corrected as they slid through a narrow gap between two of Forina's hundred foot-high stone towers.

Flannery led the way, her steps steady as they crossed treacherous terrain. Rocky bumps littered the land; earth softened to sludge by the creek winding between the towers, and trees that elected to spend their lives growing at inconvenient places.

"It's just suspicious you show up the day before I battle your grandfather."

"That's not fair!" She fired back, although Ash didn't think she was really offended. Flannery was too good-natured for that. "You didn't have to come with me, you know." Ash had to admit she was right there. "You must've needed a break from training. I've gotta give you credit! You're working awfully hard to get thrashed by grandpa."

Her earnest smile belied the sly, teasing glint in her eyes as she looked back at him.

And there was that inconsistent focus. It was a wonder Fino hadn't trained it out of her yet.

Flannery's bright red hair bounced as she hopped over the little creek, not watching her step, and then suddenly yelped as she missed her leap and her boots scrambled for purchase on the slick mud bank.

Her arms waved wildly in the air, not unlike Oz when she windmilled to build friction and set up for an would've fallen backwards into the water if Ash didn't leap forward and lightly push her back upright.

"Thanks!" Her face went red as she turned back to face Ash while he cleared the bank as well. Flannery puffed out. "I totally had it, though!"

"Had what? A one-way ticket into the water?" Ash's lips twitched when her face went even redder. "I thought you knew this place like the back of your hand."

She growled. "I do! You know, maybe those glades and that old Draconid watchtower were good enough. Maybe you should get back to training."

Ash waved an apology at her, which seemed to mollify the Gym Leader. "Sorry. You're not wrong. Those were cool," he said truthfully.

As much as he enjoyed the three gorgeous natural spots she'd shown him, (one of which he'd stumbled upon himself a week or so ago, much to Flannery's disappointment) it was the Draconid watchtower that captured his interest.

To call it a tower was being… well, it was generous. The structure was little more than a crumbled foundation now, with the tower itself having eroded away and succumbed to the elements at least a century ago. He never would've spotted it on Plume's back - moss and lichens covered the actual stone, and nature had already reclaimed the area by growing tiny trees and shrubs between any gaps.

Most of the remnants were piled up on the stone spire upon which it had been built, while the rest must have been dragged down to the forest floor by gravity. It was built upon one of the highest hills in the area, the better to give the ancient Draconid sentries an optimal view.

Ash couldn't help but note that it wasn't far from where he'd found a forgotten Salamence claw. He'd have to swing back by that pillar to check for any relics of the Draconids that might've been buried beneath rock and soil over the years.

Flannery's cheery voice brought him back to earth. "I know, right? And I saved the best for last!"

"Where are we going?" Ash asked as Flannery took him deeper and deeper into the midst of a ring of tightly-packed spires. They loomed over them like enormous trees, high enough to block out all but the barest slivers of the sun. A thin layer of canopy blocked out an aerial view, though it wouldn't be anywhere near thick enough to inconvenience Plume if she picked it out and chose to investigate.

"Just wait and see! I used to come here all the time as a kid," Flannery confided.

She motioned to the gloomy, rocky clearing they'd entered with a wide smile.

It was kind of nice, Ash admitted. The ground was largely barren thanks to the lack of sunlight, but the soil was nice and soft beneath his feet and occasionally a few patches of grass clung to life.

Beautiful? Not really. It was peaceful, though. Cooler than the rest of Forina, and it was almost like something in the air changed the farther in they went. Hoenn's characteristic humidity wasn't quite as oppressive, and he felt like he could breathe for the first time in weeks.

It was curious enough to distract Ash and lessen the Earth's crushing weight, and for that he was grateful.

Such a thing was a nice boon, but on the whole it was not quite what he'd expected. Flannery had spent the last few minutes talking their final destination up. "It's, uh, great. Very peaceful."

Flannery tossed her hair. "Yep," she fixed him with a curious stare. "Wait! You didn't think this was it, did you?"

Ash shrugged, and she barked out a laugh.

"Come on! This is just a big empty clearing! It's a cool hiding place, though," she said, each word dripping with nostalgia. "Grandpa could never find me when I slipped in here. But this is just the start! Let's keep moving."

She'd stirred his curiosity now, and he was quick to follow in step with Flannery. It was clear that she had an intimate familiarity with the area, and whatever years had passed since she'd visited had done nothing to dull those dearly held memories.

The solid ring of pillars wasn't too large, so it only took a bit longer for them to reach the opposite side of the barren clearing. "See? Right up here."

Ash jogged up to stand beside the Gym Leader, and peered ahead. The object of Flannery's attention was immediately obvious: a narrow chasm in the rock of one of the spires, barely wide enough for a large man to slip through. Most of Ash's team (and certainly Flannery's) would struggle to fit.

Hanging from the roof of the tunnel were dozens of serrated Salamence fangs, similar to the one that he'd found on the spire. Each was anywhere from six inches to a foot long, with saw-like serrations for shredding flesh and bone on the back side that then came to a wicked point. He stepped forward to inspect them, and noticed with some small interest that they just kept going.

How many lined the tunnel? They weren't packed too tightly together, as if affording each tooth its own little territory where they were embedded into the rock, but if they continued deeper into the depths then there must have been thousands.

It left Ash with the impression that they were about to step into the greedy maw of a voracious predator. A tingle raced up his spine, and he felt the Feather flare to life in his chest as his excitement stoked it.

"An entrance to the tunnels?" Ash asked. "I know Steven was poking around there a while back. Is this the one he used?"

"No way!" Flannery waved his question away and puffed out her chest. "This is my secret - our secret now. Nobody else has been here. Even grandpa doesn't know about this one, so there's no way Mr. Stone does. The League has a few others marked, but all of these connect to the same network."

A flush of warmth filled his chest at that.

Flannery tugged at a lock of her hair. "Where's Mr. Stone, by the way? Brick and I didn't see him on our way in."

"Mt. Chimney," Ash said, uneasy at the reminder of the volcano (or, rather, what lurked beneath). "Research."

The Gym Leader's face fell and she kicked at the rock. "Dang it! I would've swung by if I knew that," she sighed, then a whole storm of conflicting emotions blitzed across her pale face.

"That makes sense, though. Grandpa's been running around like crazy the last few days talking to people and getting a bunch of stuff moved out. He says the League thinks there's going to be some big eruption soon. Guess that explains all the Absol." Flannery's face twisted with impotent fury and the grief of someone whose home was a moment's misfortune away from being obliterated. "We're already running evac drills. People are leaving."

Ash didn't know what to say, and felt conflicted between telling her the truth (part of him screamed for it) or just sympathizing. The League would have told her already if she needed to know...

"I'm sorry."

Flannery squinted at him. "You are, aren't you?" Her brow furrowed. "You get it."

More than she could ever know.

He didn't say that.

"My hometown got hit by that hurricane a while back," he came up with something to answer her unspoken question. Mewtwo's presence flickered to life in the back of his head, but he ignored it. "A blizzard hit it a few months later. Both times nearly wiped it off the map."

"I'm glad it didn't."

Ash forced down the ugly memories this whole conversation had conjured up, and offered Flannery a quick nod. Both sat in awkward silence for a moment, lost in their own thoughts, and (surprisingly) it was Ash who broke it.

"Who set the fangs up? The Draconids?"

"I guess so." Flannery shook off all her negative energy and rebounded into her usual chipper self. "It's not like anyone left a big sign up saying 'Fang Ceiling, made by Larry the Draconid, please enjoy', but they had a huge presence out here. Lots of scouts, lots of fortresses."

His eyebrows shot up. "Larry?"

Flannery grinned. "Traditional Draconid name. What are they teaching you guys out in Kanto?"

He rolled his eyes, but smiled all the same.

"Let's go! It's really cool in there - just be careful. You don't want to get your head chopped off!"

Yeah, dying again would be a real bummer.

They crossed the threshold, both careful to duck far below the hanging curtain of fangs, and stepped into the inky mouth of the tunnel. The walls stayed narrow enough that he couldn't easily release most of his team, and the two trainers found themselves fitting into an ever-more-cramped space the further in they went.

Things didn't get much easier once they took a sharp turn that cut off the scant light flooding in from the surface, leaving them both effectively blind.

The only light source remaining was the rainbow-hued tongues of flame licking out from the Feather. It danced out from beneath his shirt, glowing far more brightly than he'd expected given the choking influence of Earth in these parts… particularly since they'd literally entered the belly of the beast, as it were.

But no, the Feather still shone brilliantly.

Its light was slightly muted by his thin shirt, but easily illuminated the cramped tunnel as it evened out. The fangs still rested just above their heads, though they had thinned out a bit, and Ash bit back a gasp as Flannery nearly scraped her head against one as she maneuvered through a tight spot, either none the wiser to the danger or familiar enough with it to not worry.

He followed, his smaller frame making it easier on him, but wasn't expecting Flannery to be waiting right at the end. Ash's heart skipped a beat as he nearly stumbled right into the Gym Leader, who poked curiously at the glowing Feather burning on his chest.

"What is that?" She leaned closer until there were only a few inches between them. "I thought you had a glowstick or something."

Ash blinked as a bunch of bright red hair smacked him in the face, leaving him spitting follicles.

"Elite Four stuff," he said quickly, and he wanted to smack himself for how flustered he sounded. Weakness. "Classified."

Flannery arched a red eyebrow. It couldn't have been more obvious that she didn't believe a word he said. "Uh huh," she drawled, dripping with sarcasm. "Suuuuuuure."

"It is!" Ash protested. He made a mental note to check on that, and to ask Lance to seal it up if it wasn't already.

She poked at the Feather one last time, taking a moment to study what little of the structure she could see through his shirt, and watched with unabashed curiosity as Ash shielded it with his hand. It did nothing to hide the light, but he was able to dim it with a bit of thought… although his racing nerves did nothing to help him on that front.

"You could've just said you didn't want to talk about it," she turned around without any further questions. For now, anyway. Flannery was way too curious to leave it for long. "I've got no clue what that thing is, but it sure is cool! Can you make it turn different colors? That would be an awesome party trick."

He blinked. "Uh, kind of?" Ash scratched at his chin as Flannery continued through the thin tunnel. It was just tight enough to set off claustrophobic alarm bells in his head, but the odd question kept him distracted. He didn't want to give Flannery much information on it, but decided to humor her. "Red. Gold. Rainbow. White."

"Wait, so does it just look like a rainbow, or are you saying it can turn into all the colors of the rainbow, or what?"

This wasn't a conversation he'd ever thought to have, so he took a moment to gather his thoughts as they delved deeper and deeper into the labyrinth beneath Forina. Spelunking was dangerous - the trainer books had chapters dedicated to why it was a bad idea to tread off the established paths - but Flannery seemed to know her way. Besides, if worse came to worst then Dazed could easily teleport them out of a precarious position.

He'd never hear the end of it, but better to suffer her dry pokes and prods than be trapped in a subterranean nightmare.

"It just looks like a rainbow. Please don't ask me why."

Flannery grumbled but subsided, for which Ash was glad. Any farther down that road and he'd end up spilling something. Ash was generous to explain as much as he did.

They continued onwards, descending deeper into the earth.

Given the titan resting just a few miles away, Ash thought Earth's power would double, triple, quadruple... that it would continue growing stronger and stronger until it hammered down on him like a physical force anew. It only made sense that it would grow more potent in this claustrophobic, long-forgotten tomb; but, contrary to his expectations, it remained relatively constant.

If anything, it was lighter here. A little less weight on his shoulders, a tiny bit less pressure against his lungs.

Ash turned the odd happenings over in his head as they kept pushing forward, and by the time the tunnel began widening and flattening, he managed to calm some of the anxiety bothering him.

The fangs only came one every few feet now, and it was safe to release some of his team. He held off on it for now, since the tunnels could easily tighten back up in an instant.

"So…" Flannery broke the silence this time, her red ponytails bouncing with every step. "You don't want to - oh, sorry, can't - talk about it, but any chance I can get one? I could come up with all sorts of signals for my team with whatever that thing is!"

A good use - it reminded him of Cynthia's tactical use of sign-language with her Spiritomb. No doubt it would be a powerful boon for her team.

That didn't change his answer.

"No."

Flannery sighed dramatically. "Oh well, worth a shot. Can't blame a girl for trying!"

Ash grunted back, which just got him a peal of laughter in return. "Where are we going? We've been walking for a while now."

"Patience, my young - oh, we're here. Never mind."

"Here?" Ash lost track of Flannery for a moment as she took a swift turn and vanished from the light poured out by the Feather, and quickly caught up to her. The tunnel immediately opened up and flattened, and he saw Flannery waiting for him in the midst of a great field of impenetrable darkness.

"Brighten that thing up!"

He shot her a dirty look, but his curiosity got the best of him. Ash closed his eyes for just a moment, and Fire leapt to his command.

It was eager, coming out in a quick rush that shot out from his chest and sleeves in warm licks. The smokeless golden flames had to be wrested under control, and even still a single strand of the fire shot close to Flannery in a spray of cinders.

Ash steadfastly ignored her fascinated look, just as he ignored her trying to cradle one of the sparks in her bare hands before it fell to the ground. Not the best idea, but Ash doubted Flannery thought it was real fire. No normal person would.

Regardless, the Feather did its job. As a torch, it blazed steady, and warm, pulsing waves of light illuminated the entire cavern.

And what a sight it was.

It wasn't quite as large as he expected, just about thirty feet in diameter and roughly ten feet high. Only a few Salamence fangs hung from the ceiling here, but these tended to be a bit larger on average than the ones in the tight tunnel that had led to this place.

The cavern was dry and strangely pristine, like nothing living had passed through in centuries. No cracks in the stone, no scrapes made to mark territory by native pokemon, and not even the odd bone. Its only openings were the tunnel behind them, and two wide gaps that led deeper into the chasms.

There was more, though.

Something deeper - power. Muted, indistinct. Impossible to truly connect with or grasp, as if it was swaddled in a thick blanket or veiled beneath something much, much greater. It was close… so close.

He willed the Feather to fade by a hair, and when it waned, the touch of this place waxed. It drove forth in a steady tide, and he shuddered at the sensation as it reverberated through his being. All he could liken it to was the calm before a thunderstorm - invisible tension which filled the air and seeped into stone, saturating the entire world with charge.

Ash's breath hitched, and he cautiously reached out to brush his hand against the smooth stone wall beside him.

When his skin touched the stone, the power shrank back immediately. Not in fear, but as though someone had just kicked dirt all over a sparkling gem to hide its brilliance. It was still present now that he knew what to look for, but certainly obscured compared to its full force.

He pulled his hand away from the rock, and the influence came back like the rising of a tide.

Strange. It was almost like the original presence - what was flooding this whole area with its faint power - was hidden. Trapped below countless tons of stone and soil to smother it.

Immature thoughts of buried treasure came to mind, but he suspected he wouldn't appreciate what he found here. This wasn't the first mysterious force he'd found off the beaten track in this region, and he was zero for too-many for discoveries he liked.

Ash bit his lip even as Flannery circled around to investigate the place. She approached it with more comfort than he did, no doubt due to her familiarity.

"Just like I remember!" She declared, sounding quite satisfied. "I swear nothing ever comes down here. It's always a ghost town when I pop by."

There just might be a reason for that. Steven thought there were ghosts hiding away in these tunnels, and perhaps there were. But Ash suspected something much, much worse - more potent, at the very least - had claimed these sections of the tunnels.

"How many times have you been here?" He asked, deliberately casual.

Part of him wanted to take Flannery and turn right back around before they stumbled on the source of that energy, but he needed to gather information first. It was difficult to keep his tension from coloring his words, but he managed it with a little bit of help from Ice.

Flannery frowned when the light from the Feather dulled, though a bit of white glowed from beneath his shirt and cold air burst out to fill the cavern. He couldn't detect any interference from the latent power here with Fire or Ice, which relaxed him just a bit.

That meant whatever here might not have an elemental Concept like Fire, Ice, or Lightning. In his experience, the Birds tended to be the least agreeable, or at least the most wild and territorial. By no means did that mean it was safe, but maybe whatever lived down here wouldn't try to strike them down just for poking their heads into its home.

"I dunno. Twenty times? I was seven or eight when Piper and I found it," Flannery patted the Torkoal's pokeball fondly. "We always stop by when we get the chance, and it's always the same. It's cool once you get down here, right? I always feel tingly."

So she could feel it too. Flannery had no idea what was down here, but it wasn't just his sensitivity that let him feel it. He just had the freedom to go a little deeper.

Flannery was content to keep chattering on, not that he was going to stop her. He suspected this cavern would be much, much more foreboding without Flannery's warmth.

"See that tunnel?" She pointed to the left opening that would take them further into the network. "That goes deeper into the cave system. It opens into a few areas I'd been to before."

Ash felt his interest pique.

"I followed it once when I was kid," Flannery continued, scratching at her scalp as if embarrassed. "Pretty stupid of me to go alone, but I got out okay. Grandpa and I spent a lot of time in other sections and I ran into some of the maps we'd made for any travelers who got lost."

He nodded along. "What about the other one?"

Ash glanced at the opening. Just that much left him yearning to go closer, to cross that threshold and slip into the abyss. A dangerous urge, and one he

immediately made to quell.

But...

He squinted as he spotted something indistinct etched into the stone above the right tunnel, and called on Fire to provide a bit more light. Rows of strange, angular carvings - some kind of script that was unfamiliar to him - was revealed. "Do you know what it says?"

For once, Flannery didn't seem so eager to pipe up. She took a step back and refused to even look at it. "I've got no clue what's down there," she said without hesitation. "I've never been down that way, and I don't plan on changing that. It just feels weird, like it wants me to go down it. Probably just a ghost or something, but I don't want to find out."

Probably a good decision. It was a wonder she'd been so wise when she was younger. Younger him wouldn't have been able to turn back. Current him might not be able to.

Ash walked up to stand by Flannery, and every step brought him closer and closer to the source of the radiant power. His fingers reached out almost unconsciously to the tunnel on the right, but he curled them back into a fist before Flannery noticed.

"And the carvings?"

That perked her right up. "Well, not to brag, but I do know a little bit of Draconid." Flannery boasted unreservedly, then literally patted herself on the back.

He just stared, then went closer to get a better look at the etchings. They were cut deep and thick into the stone, and were practically pristine. If Ash didn't know better, he'd say the carvings were made yesterday.

"That's Draconid?" He was practically at the mouth of the ominous tunnel now, although it was so dark even the Feather wasn't much help in getting a good look at what lay within. Now he could see that the characters inscribed into the stone were more angular than most scripts, largely consisting of symbols made up of straight lines that could be put together rather than the curves and bends he was used to.

Flannery hadn't caught up with him, but he cast his eyes back to her as he investigated and tried to puzzle some of the pieces together to satisfy the burning curiosity in him. "There's something weird about this." Ash muttered. "Not just the lines. There's some stuff I recognize, but…"

It hit him like a brick.

The Draconids didn't use an alphabet derived from the Unown. Not entirely.

He could recognize a few familiar letters and symbols that were extremely similar, and some outright identical, to the script he was used to. It wasn't enough for him to piece anything together, especially since they could have used the same Unown symbols for entirely different meanings, but it was curious nonetheless.

All the Unown-based symbols used by the Draconids had one thing in common, though: they were all made up of straight lines.

"The Draconids' writing was made with their Salamence in mind," Flannery's soft words and warm breath brushed against his ear. He shivered, but didn't look where the girl had snuck up on him. "That's how they communicated at first - the humans and the dragons learned to write together. It's tough for their claws to do curves, especially in the stone tablets the Draconids liked, so they used lines."

To be honest, he would love to sit and talk about this all day. The Draconids had a few mentions in Cynthia's book, but nothing in-depth at this point. He just might have to read ahead after this…

"So what does it say?" Ash peered even closer. His fingers went to grasp at the Unown tablet looped around his neck, wishing he could unleash them for just an instant. If they could show him the truths of the world, then they could whisper the secrets of the Draconids and their language into his mind. That was a dangerous road to go down, but he supposed it didn't matter in the end.

The stone tablet was dead and lifeless, and it would stay that way.

Flannery's face reddened. "I might be a little rusty," she admitted, scratching at the back of her neck. "But I can still get the basics! This is old," one of her fingers went up to trace a few of the rows. "Not like the recent stuff. I'm better at that. Trying to figure this out is like reading one of those old poem's grandpa likes… if it was also a whole different language."

She cleared her throat and squinted to make the most of the Feather's light. Ash helpfully poured a bit more fuel into it until Fire blazed anew. "See this section?" Flannery skimmed her finger over the top two rows. "It's tough to figure out, but it says something about removing ourselves. Going down it talks about 'fearing our wants'. 'Safe earth' and some stuff I can't translate."

Her frown deepened as she got to the last row. It was the shortest and consisted of just a handful of carved words. "That one is fear - can't figure that next one out - and the last one is death."

That was grim, but not really unexpected. Ash stared deep into the abyss. There was still that unspoken urge screaming for him to leap in without a thought. It wasn't unlike the bizarre urges that struck him every now and then when he was resting atop one of Forina's spires or riding Plume. Every now and then, he'd look off into the distance and want to just leap into the sky.

Steven identified that feeling as 'the call of the void' when Ash had mentioned it offhandedly once. Dazed called it stupidity. A normal human reaction, albeit a totally bizarre one.

This yearning was like that, but subtly different. More demanding. The compulsion was born of an alien influence, not a product of his own mind.

It had no power over him - not enough to influence his actions, anyways. He'd handled much worse in the (recent) past, but nonetheless, he hesitated. The Behemoth had taught him what it meant to be in over his head, and it wasn't a lesson he would soon forget. He could well be in the shallows, unknowing of the drop before him

Ash bit his lip and pulled down the neck of his shirt so more light could escape and illuminate the entrance to the tunnel. Not much was revealed beyond mundane stone. He did his best to ignore Flannery's fascinated stare as she drank in the sight of the fiery tongues dripping from the Feather, but that was easier said than done.

She was quite distracting.

He had no idea what lay before him. His only clues were ominous, half-translated warnings from the Draconids, and those hardly painted a pretty picture. It had been just a few days since his last brush with death, and Ash found he wasn't too eager to repeat the experience.

Still…

Could he really just walk away?

Ash already knew the answer to that. Whatever was down here had to be investigated. He didn't know if it was a Legend or just a powerful, otherworldly artifact along the lines of the Moon Stone, but leaving it wasn't an option.

He could leave with Flannery, talk to Steven, and send a team down here to investigate. It was the right thing to do - by anyone else's standards. The responsible thing to do.

He could also try reaching out like he had on Mt. Chimney (and hopefully with better results). Open his spirit to the world, connect to whatever had claimed this dark place, and keep his fingers crossed that things went swimmingly. That wasn't the responsible thing to do - he'd just learned how badly it could go if his luck went south - but it could also be the path that kept the most people safe.

Admittedly - and he cursed this part of him, the arrogant part of him that was impatient to get moving, to tear this challenge apart and sort out the consequences later he sort of planned on doing the second part anyways.

Ash knew there was nobody more suited to investigating a potential Legendary than him. What could a human team hope to do? Psychics would be overwhelmed or burnt out - most could barely stand to be around Ash, let alone a Concept embodied. Those without the ability would be as blind as Steven had been to Behemoth's presence beneath the mountain. They'd do their best, but their best wasn't enough.

Pokemon might do better, but they had the good sense to keep a wide berth from these tunnels. They might not even enter with whatever Rangers or League forces were sent down here.

They had the same potential to muck things up as him, and there would inevitably be more of them. More collateral. Lives on his conscience because he didn't do it.

Ash was the best man for his job...

Plus, he really wanted to find the source for himself. That admittedly played a big role in his decision.

Still, he could do better than he had before. There was a right way to do this. A smart way to do this.

"I'm going in."

"What?" Flannery yelped. "Are you nuts? We just read an ancient, ominous warning sign. Did you forget that? The Draconids were dumb enough to raise Salamence, and they still decided they didn't want to mess with this place! Why do you think you think you'll do any better?"

Ash hated to give more fuel to Flannery's curiosity, but he tapped the Feather. "This. I can't tell you much," he admitted. "Not yet. But I've done this before."

The Gym Leader looked at him like Amelia often looked at Jon. It didn't really fill him with confidence, but he wasn't budging.

"You're serious!?" Flannery exclaimed. "You don't watch horror movies? I'm pretty sure rule number one is to not ignore signs like that."

He fixed Flannery with a stare and hoped she could read his conviction. "I'm going."

Flannery bit her lip. "Fine. Then I'm going too!" She pointed into the abyss. "There's no way you're headed down there alone!"

Ash shook his head. That wouldn't do. He was willing to risk his life, but not Flannery's, not any more than whatever other League operatives might be sent in his place. She didn't know what she was signing up for. If Flannery joined him, she might not come back. Even if she lived, the spunky Gym Leader might lose parts of herself… or, even worse, gain new ones.

He felt rather hollow all of a sudden, even as the Feather flared. Fire, Ice, Lightning, the Song, Mew and Mewtwo, the Beasts...

He couldn't do that to her.

"You're going back."

Naturally, Flannery protested. He would have too.

Ash cut her off with a scowl. "It's dangerous," he said firmly, but realized even as he said the words that it would just make her dig in her heels. Was this what Steven and Lance felt when they were dealing with him? Ash suddenly pitied them. "I'm going alone, but you have a job to do. Something important."

Flannery's eyes narrowed suspiciously. Her mouth curved down into a frown. "What is it?"

"Wait at the entrance for me. This could turn into a Greenfield if it's not handled right," Ash added belatedly, hoping that would impress the seriousness of the situation. Dawning realization struck her. Flannery was smart. She could connect the dots. "You're my insurance. If I'm not back in an hour, I need you to find Steven and let him know what happened. Can you do that for me?"

The Gym Leader - he had to remind himself of that fact, that this wasn't just a friend, this wasn't someone with no stake in things; this was someone who would be the guardian of this territory within the next few years, and he was asking her to trust him to handle this - bit her lip, conflict alight in her eyes.

Ash had to press. "Please?"

Mixed emotions warred, but eventually, reluctantly, she nodded.

Ash had no illusions that Flannery was happy about it, and she was probably going to give him a piece of her mind later. He saw lots and lots of additional training sessions in his future…

But he could deal with that. Flannery seemed more worried now than annoyed, the weight of the situation beginning to sink in.

Inspiration - like a flash of sudden lightning.

Her brow furrowed as Ash began to unclip pokeballs from his belt. He kept them in their miniature state, shrunken for portability, and hesitated. This was wrong.

When was the last time they'd left his belt?

Flannery's eyes widened as he offered her his team, one by one.

"Nidoking."

"Plume."

"Torrent."

"Dazed."

"Bruiser."

"Infernus."

"Tangrowth."

"Oz."

"Aron."

Flannery accepted them silently, but her hands shook.

She was a trainer. That was enough to understand.

She quickly stowed them away into her own pack, and Ash felt an awful sense of loss as they were hidden from him. Most were off training except for Dazed, Sneasel, Seeker, and Tangrowth, but he wouldn't let their pokeballs be trapped down here if something went awry.

He kept Seeker and Sneasel with him, though. They had the skills to escape in the worst case scenarios, and were the only ones who would be able to move effectively in the tunnel's tight confines anyways.

Ash hoped he wouldn't need either of them, but he could trust Seeker to guide him through any tough spots, andSneasel might prove essential against any psychic or mental effects, let alone if they encountered any resistance from local ghosts.

Mind Breaker would ruin anyone's day.

"If something happens…" his throat clenched, and he couldn't finish his sentence.

Ash thought back to that brief connection in Taimu's tomb, of the tragedy of Chinatsu and Mamoru. Locked away in self-imposed prisons suffering through half-lives. He thought of what this could come to - what he'd almost come to already, ignominiously dying in the middle of nowhere, without anyone around to even remark on his passing.

He was done gambling when it came to Legends. His resolve hardened to steel.

That would not be his family's fate. "Tell them to live."

The Gym Leader froze and pulled her pack off her back to clutch it in her arms. He could see her hands beginning to shake - he'd scared her, she'd never had to deal with someone making preparations for their own death. "I - Ash, I've got them. I'll keep them safe."

He couldn't meet her eyes, not when his whole life was cradled in her arms. Ash had to fight to look away. Hot tears threatened to fill his eyes, and he wiped them away as surreptitiously as he could. There was no shame in it, but he didn't want to make this any harder than it had to be.

It was hard to ignore the shake in his own hands, the slight tremble of his fingers that hadn't been present even when he'd given Sneasel the all-clear to try and assassinate a god.

Death taught and he was an attentive student.

"I'll be back soon," he whispered to the bag. Ash hoped his friends could hear him. "Don't worry about me."

Ash prayed this went well, but dreaded the thought of facing them after he reclaimed them. There was a good chance his team was going to kill him themselves after this stunt, and he couldn't say he blamed them. And if he didn't, and there was an afterlife, they'd probably kill him a second time.

Better that than the alternative. They wouldn't die for his mistake.

"Wait outside," Ash's voice was toneless and dull, like part of his spirit had just been ripped away. "I'll be back."

Flannery nodded. Before she left, she hesitated and raised her fist. Ash stared, but eventually got the memo and bumped his fist against hers.

A weak grin was all she could offer aside from some parting words. "Good luck down there. Show them what the youngest Elite Four can do! I'll be waiting."

He smiled back, and watched Flannery go silently. When she was gone, Ash faced the abyss and steeled himself. His lips went flat, and he took a deep breath. The compulsion begged him to enter.

Ha. He'd seen this trick before.

When he stepped forward, it was of his own will.

Mewtwo's presence, quiet but watchful all this time, roused to life.

Ash's hand reached to grasp the rim of the opening for support as he crossed the threshold into the great unknown, and when he touched it -

Leave. Fear. Greed. Death!

He let go immediately, exhaling, but didn't back away. There was something there... it was quite familiar, but just indistinct enough that he couldn't place it. Ash closed his eyes, centered himself, and brushed the stone again. The same awful dread flooded him, identical to the subtle foreboding he'd experienced ever since Flannery and he had entered.

It hardly left him with a clear head, but it did overpower the compulsion.

Ash frowned, and did it again. This time he tried to open himself to the world, tried to see the Truth of it all -

Yes! There it was!

Tied to these tunnels, anchored in the stone. No, anchored in the Earth. Ash's head spun as information filtered into his brain and he tried to piece together wispy images, ancient memories, and loss, trepidation, FEAR -

He pulled away before it became too much. Ash allowed his hand to fall away from the stone, and realized the Draconids had done more than just put up a sign. Whatever happened here, whoever had been the one to chisel the warning had invested parts of themselves into this place.

They'd stained the rock with their emotions and desires and regrets as they chiseled and etched and carved, kneading it into their work with the skill of a master.

But it wasn't just that.

Human works faded. Even those carvings would grow indistinct and useless one day, and the piece of the craftsman would bleed away with them. Instead, it had been tied to something that couldn't decay. Something permanent. Something timeless.

Whether or not they knew Groudon rested just miles away didn't matter. What did matter was that the Draconids had tied the warnings to Earth, ascribing to their creations a permanence no mortal could rival. Ash couldn't even begin to guess how they'd done it or what secrets they must have known, and his mind was whirling with the possibilities.

He wondered if those who built this were the same people who created the mural he'd found in Dewford. Had those people too etched their intention into mundane stone, making something more than mortality?

Were they too of the same ilk who'd anchored Fate and script his role in the prophecy of Shamouti?

What he'd done with the Concepts - stoking fires, controlling himself, influencing the world in subtle ways - was nothing, tantamount to a blind man feeling his way through the dark. Ash didn't think he could do something like this, not when so many of the Concepts he'd taken into himself were transitory or wild, but it was intriguing - enthralling - nonetheless.

In one more way than he'd felt before, he felt small, and saw the road stretching before him further than he could comprehend.

But… no. Questions for later. He couldn't afford to be distracted. Not now.

It did leave him wondering if he should turn back after all - the warning could not have been clearer: whatever was coming up would be dangerous.

But his mind was made up.

He pressed forward.

The tunnel was surprisingly mundane, even as more and more of the tight space became visible under the Feather's light. Fire proved a useful torch, even if he had to laugh at the mundanity of what he was using it for. Those Draconids had created an immortal warning from tying themselves to the stone, and he used Fire itself to light his way.

The ward still pressed on him, urging him to turn back, but it was nothing to his willpower.

It didn't last for long anyways, soon replaced with the enormous latent power trapped below the weighty influence of catatonic Earth. He didn't understand the nature of that power - not yet - but he could feel the wispy edges of that understanding, leading him ever onward.

He allowed the fascination imparted by the unknown influence to drive him forward.

It wasn't long before a sharp turn came up. A pale purple light leaked from around the turn, soft and gentle and beautiful. With every step, his curiosity and desire and yearning was emboldened, and he walked fast and faster. By the end of it, it was all he could do not to break out into a sprint.

He just wanted to understand! Something told him he was so close, and he would stop at nothing to find the source of this mystery.

Ash knew the power was just around this corner. It pounded out in great waves that battered against his resolve until his resistance was all but broken. Every bit of his willpower was needed as inquisitive tendrils poked and prodded his defenses, slithering in whatever cracks they found and taking root.

With every second, they turned his thoughts towards only one thing: More.

His heart pounded and a light sheen of sweat covered his body. The dry rock beneath his feet crunched, becoming uneven as he made the sharp turn to maneuver into a small, round chamber carved by human hands. The purple light pulsed steady, bursting forth from an upraised dias to illuminate the floor to reveal -

Bones.

The small space only had a diameter of twenty feet, and the dais which was the source of the pale light rested in the center.

Every inch of the space was covered in the dead.

Desiccated corpses of Zigzagoon, Mightyena, Shelgon, a Salamence that seemed massive in the small space, Vigoroth, and countless examples of other pokemon species were tangled together all over the flat stone floor, many piled on top of one another with interlocking ribs and joints. His throat tightened at the sight of a dead Gardevoir, mainly identifiable by mummified flaps of skin that still wreathed its thin form. Beneath its 'dress' lay an ancient, calcified egg, forgotten in the face of the spell that had enraptured its parent.

Some of the dead were so intermingled and broken that they resembled bizarre fusions of mammal and reptile, like their bones had been rearranged to create some awful new abomination.

There were easily dozens of humans as well.

They were barely distinct from the pokemon that had discovered this place. All were equal in death, and Ash nearly retched at the sight of so many.

Some were withered and frail, full of chips or even missing entire limbs. Others were dreadfully small, smaller than Ash…

Not all were fully decomposed.

Quite a few pokemon and humans still had vestiges of skin and dried tissue clinging to their skeletal frame, and a handful even still had brittle hair embedded to their scalps and skin. Almost as many had been mummified in this awful place as had been reduced to skeletons. The husks leaned whichever way gravity had guided them, wiry hair drifting down and grey, withered skin drawn tight over their hanging jaws.

He knew - truly knew, in that moment - that if he escaped this place, he would be revisiting it with the same frequency he found himself on the deck of the St. Anne, or New Island, or Greenfield or a dozen other hellish places.

He was glad he'd sent Flannery back. Was glad she'd had the intelligence as a child to heed the warning, so he hadn't found her dessicated corpse amidst the charnel.

Unceasing chills raced down his spine as he stood, paralyzed in the face of the graveyard he'd stumbled into.

His analytical side, the cold part of his mind that remained buzzing as the rest of him shut down, noted that the corpses were all arranged in the same way.

Every dead thing faced the dais in the center and the cool purple light that bathed them.

Horror overcame his lust to press on, and Ash stared with an open mouth at the macabre scene he'd just entered. Hundreds had died here. Hundreds had succumbed to the yearning power until their bodies had failed them and they became yet another addition to this awful tomb.

Fire dimmed, muted and smothered by the nightmare, and Ash did the only thing he could - he couldn't afford a mistake here.

Ice replaced Fire. The air went cold, his eyes narrowed, and his pulse steadied. He found he could breathe again.

Emotions still bubbled below the surface, which was somewhat troublesome, but they could be pushed aside for now. He had more important things to attend to.

For a moment, he looked at the source of this scene. The dais was simple and stone, likely carved by the same Draconids who had imbued the stone with their warning. Atop it rested something that would have struck him with its beauty under normal conditions.

It was the source of the light, and surprisingly easy to describe given the enchantment it laid upon all who found it. A large crystal, big enough he would struggle to carry it, that Ash thought greatly resembled an amethyst geode. Dozens of asymmetrical segments made it up, each a pale purple that pulsed with a throbbing light.

The more he inspected it, the more he thought it was almost translucent, like the contents could almost be seen lurking below the surface.

Despite the dead surrounding him - despite the warning of danger - he found himself enraptured. Ash had never seen anything like it, and he felt a relentless hunger fill his mind. He needed it.

No. Ash didn't need anything. He only wanted it, and he would claim it of his own volition.

He stepped forward. The why didn't matter.

Even through the clarity of Ice, Ash was careful not to step on the bones as he entered the tomb. That proved essentially impossible, and every step was met with a crunch as ancient bone splintered beneath his boots.

Ice couldn't keep his stomach from turning every time it happened, but he wasn't in danger of losing his lunch like has moments ago. Ash noted there was a thin layer of old, dried sludge and something close to soil that coasted the stone floor in a slick layer. It was most likely the once-putrid product of centuries of rot and decay, which didn't help matters.

The air was surprisingly fresh. It stank just a tad with the sickly sweet scent of rot, but most of the foul miasma would have diffused away centuries ago. Most of the corpses must have been here for decades at the minimum; only some seemed fresher.

Ash waded through the corpses as he would through a shallow lake. Sharp bones prodded him, mummified flesh brushed his skin, and occasionally he had to gently push some of the bodies aside or bend a stiff limb away to clear his path.

On the inside, he was screaming. Even the kiln where he'd met the Ghost hadn't been so awful…

On the outside, he remained composed.

If he broke now, he might stay that way.

He would not join them.

It was only his purity of purpose (and the hunger for that crystal) that pushed him forward. He'd come this far, and to turn back now would be to fail. Failure for himself, and failure for all those who had died here, sucked into this nightmare without a hope of escape.

The power dug its influence into him deeper and deeper with every step. Ash's breath hitched as he reached the vast ring of corpses which surrounded the dias. They were stacked highest here, almost as high as he was, and the crystal barely remained visible above them all.

Ash gulped, dreading what he was about to do, but did it anyway.

He climbed atop the skeletons. Ash pulled his shirt above his face before he did it, fearing his Ice-driven nerve would break and what if something dead touched his face or got in his mouth or he tried to breathe and it -

Those were the thoughts that haunted him as he clambered through the piles of dead pokemon and humans, and every time he felt a an elbow or vertebrae poke painfully into him or the horrifyingly soft, leathery feel of desiccated skin or stiff hair drag against his skin - IT JUST TOUCHED HIS STOMACH WHERE HIS SHIRT WAS PULLED UP -

It was over quickly, but Ash still felt as if he'd fought a war. His last cold thought was an observation that the skeletons nearest to the dais had the tips of their fingerbones all worn down and scratched away, like they'd spent their last days scrabbling uselessly at something, and then his sanity slipped away.

Ash fell to the clearing around the dias, clambered to his feet with shaking hands, and forced Ice away.

He puked all over the dais, but none made it onto the pulsing purple crystal. Ash heaved, hacking up more and more vomit until his body trembled with exhaustion and his throat burned (not with Fire) and his mouth was sour and his boots were sticky and and his nose was running and burning tears dripped - he felt sick and drained and wondering why he did this to himself.

Why didn't he turn back?

Mewtwo lurked in his thoughts, but blessedly chose not to taunt him. The silence was almost worse.

Ash must have been a wreck when he finally rose a thousand years later. He felt strangely empty and didn't dare turn around or focus on the corpses staring him in the face - one was a great Aggron, its inorganic ironclad armor preserved perfectly. It looked almost alive.

He wanted to keep crying, but he'd run out of tears. Instead, he just shut his eyes.

All that was left was a void. Ash felt like all his guts had been scraped out to leave an empty husk.

Why was he here?

His eyes opened, and he stared at the full radiance of the crystal.

Ash shuddered, whether in revulsion or desire he couldn't decide.

This was why he was here.

The purple light was soft, too gentle for the horror it had unleashed. His hunger only grew, and a rapturous bolt of lightning raced down his spine as he raised a hand to gently brush against the smooth crystal. It seemed to tremble at his touch, twitching in the same way Sneasel's egg had when it was about to hatch, and Ash wanted nothing more than to clutch the crystal close and never, ever leave it…

Its song grew ever stronger, whispering insidious thoughts into his head. Painting images, illuminating possible futures and victories, drawing out entire lifetimes...

With the crystal, he could leave the troubles of the world behind. Abandon humanity and take his family somewhere far, far away. Somewhere nobody could ever find him or drag him into human responsibilities. They could grow strong there together, honing their skills to perfection and relishing the connection no human or pokemon could match. The League couldn't reclaim him. When the Legends came, they would move on to a new place. They were at peace.

With the crystal, he could heal his mother. The Unown had broken her, shattered her memories like a rock through a window, but why did she have to stay that way? All he had to do was bring the crystal to her. She could be herself again, could forget Spencer and Molly and things could go back to normal. Things could be RIGHT!

With the crystal, he put the Legends back to rest. He would heal the earth as he had Greenfield. They would never return. Mewtwo annihilated and the Birds at peace. Ash could forget them. Lance and Steven - even Cynthia! - would congratulate him, he could become a Champion in full, and he could live up to all their expectations. Without the Legends, Ash could topple Lance and set him free. He could live without their shadow! He could live the life he should have!

With the crystal, he could fix all the wrongs in the world. Gary would have his parents back. His mother's heart would never be broken. The Rockets would never rise to power. Giovanni would never hurt anyone. The St. Anne would never have sunk. Infernus would never have died. Mewtwo's hurricanes would never have hurt so many people - Mewtwo wouldn't even exist. Agatha wouldn't have to die. Molly would have a mother.

With the crystal, he could make Giovanni suffer for everything he did.

With the crystal, he could learn all there was to know.

With the crystal -

Ash pulled away, gasping. He still held the thing in his hands, and almost his entire being begged for him to dive back in. So many possibilities, so many dreams, so many desires, and they all lay between his hands. It was captivating in a way he could hardly put to words.

This wasn't like the Unown. The crystal would grant his every wish in the most perfect way. It wouldn't construct a reality for him like the Unown had with Molly - it didn't need to.

All he had to do was find a seat, and wait for this egg to hatch… it couldn't take too long, could it? Then everything would be right. Everything would be exactly how he wanted it.

Everything.

If he were anyone else, he would succumb to the sweet temptation. No mortal could resist it - how could they?

He wanted to succumb.

But Ash wasn't mortal. Not entirely.

Surrounded by death, by all those pitiful souls caught in a web they could never hope to escape, he found himself marveling at this terrible, terrible thing.

Why? Why here? Why this?

Ash's voice came out cracked. "What are you?"

The crystal pulsed, warming beneath his fingers until the cool amethyst became pleasant to the touch. Ash didn't dare connect with it again, not yet when he was still so close to tipping over the edge, but something told him that the crystal wanted nothing more than to answer his question.

It wanted nothing more but to give and give until there was nothing left for itself.

Unbridled generosity - unlimited generosity - was a terrible thing. Or the temptation of it was. All it took was a quick glimpse around at this crypt of the damned souls which stumbled upon this place to recognize that.

Even the Concepts stirred to life inside him, roused by the presence.

They could be one. They could fly free. The could-

-But Ash clamped down on them before they could spill over into his own thoughts. Quick glimpses still trickled in, however, enhanced by his sensitivity to the place.

Stars burned out in a lifeless universe. Heat, energy, action, all things of the past. Cold stasis and entropy all that remained.

Thunder and lightning sparking all throughout the sky, storm clouds billowing all around. Upheaval, transition, change in an instant to unseat the old paradigm!

The world alight with passion. Consumption of the old, burning away rot and stasis to free the new. Burning apart, breaking down, kindling new fires in an endless cycle.

Enjoy the life it guided. Shield the little ones from what they could not protect against themselves. Watch, wait, and come up with something new to fill the eons!

A girl, pure and generous and kind and everything he was not, restored.

Maintain the balance of the seas and preserve it against conflicts between Fire, Ice, and Lightning and the living Earth.

Maintain the balance of the skies and preserve it against the disruptions of Sea and Earth.

Serve the master, as they did the One…

Strike! Ignite the fires that will change the world.

Burn! Usher in the destruction of the old and the birth of something new.

Wash! Soothe the pains of the burn and purify corruption.

...WAKE… GROW… CLASH...

Ash's head pounded with the fury of so many minds infinitely deeper and more complex than his own flooding his perception, and redoubled his attempt to force them all down. All but Mewtwo fell away, and the azure flame seemed as lost and empty as Ash himself.

It was disturbing, honestly, but Ash found himself more concerned by the barest, faintest flicker of life from the Unown tablet. He clutched it, horrified that it might be unleashed and make a bizarre, difficult situation a thousand times worse, but it remained lifeless in his grip.

Just a twinge… one tool recognizing another, like recalling like…

He frowned, then looked at the pulsating crystal with new eyes. Ash took in a deep breath, focusing on the purity of the North Wind inside him rather than the stale rot of the crypt, and opened himself to the world.

The connection with the crystal was faint, but quickly widened. Whatever lay within was practically comatose, only the tiniest portions of its dreaming mind aware, but it wanted him to know, and even this unhatched egg was still capable of that much.

Years, decades, centuries, millennia, tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands then millions then billions -

It was faint, the information simply too much for his brain to handle without falling apart, but he caught glimpses of a billion wishes granted, a billion desires satisfied, and just as many cycles. Rest, store power, wake, and give all it had over and over and over again until it was time for the cycle to repeat.

With that, Ash knew what he'd found.

"You're the Wish Maker," he marveled, and for a moment forgot the piled, rotten dead in favor of a scant few tales whispered to him by his mother as she laid in bed with him. Ash always loved her stories, and there was nothing he desired more than to have her rocking him, remembering… no, that was a trap, he realized. "Jirachi. You're real."

A wisp of insight trickled through his mind, an old memory from his time as master of the Unown.

"Earth and Sea comatose when the star-shaped Desire granted humanity's wish, gouging out twin orbs of Red and Blue from their hearts…"

The gears in his mind turned, and Ash stared with renewed fascination at Jirachi's pale mineral shell. Was that how Jirachi had ended up here, locked away far beneath the earth and buried so close to the Behemoth itself?

"Desire." Ash rolled the word over his tongue. It fit, he supposed. The Wish Maker was eager to please, eager to reach into the mind and make all wishes a reality.

Jirachi's shell pulsated, and Ash couldn't help but brush his hand over the many segments of the crystal again. He smiled down at it, and part of him wanted to take it away from this terrible place. Jirachi hadn't done this on purpose… when its carapace hatched, all it would take is a single wish to return them all to life. They'd be healthy, whole, and brought to a new age.

The Wish Maker was powerful beyond belief, a Legend that stored its power for a thousand years (assuming that part of the myth was true, at least) only to unleash it all in a week. With Jirachi at the League's side, they could put the Legends to rest with but a word.

It was a desire that Jirachi would be all too happy to fulfill.

Ash doubted it could destroy the Behemoth and Leviathan - and that sounded like a terrible idea, given their Concepts - but he had no doubt it could delay their Awakening.

In Jirachi was all the answers Ash could have hoped for. A perfect world lay before him, encased in a cocoon that would shatter one day and free one of the few Legends that may truly serve humanity instead of threatening it.

And with all those answers came new problems.

Ash grimaced. It was just the Unown problem all over again, wasn't it?

As an Elite Four member, it was his duty to report Jirachi. He should make the League aware of its capabilities, mark its location, and consult with the League on the best way to safely extract Jirachi from this location to await its awakening.

As Ash Ketchum, it was his duty to do the exact opposite.

If he didn't trust Lance of all people with the power of the Unown, then the last thing he would do was set the Wish Maker out for people to fight over. He glanced out at the mountains of corpses that had succumbed to Jirachi's allure, and it was all too easy to imagine the world reaching that state should Jirachi be revealed. Even if it was on a millennial timer, he was still handing over a ticking time-bomb - whether it went off now or later, he would not be able to control the outcome.

And there was no clue when Jirachi would emerge from its pale chrysalis in the first place. Soon was his thought - there was a pattern unfolding and it felt safe to assume that much - but what did soon mean? Was it just his greed egging him on and leading him to a terrible fate?

What was time to a Legend? Soon for Jirachi might mean a century.

The last people to have used Jirachi's awesome power had sealed it away far from those who might abuse it or embrace its strength wholeheartedly.

Ash was inclined to think that they had the right idea.

He rose to his feet and offered one last brush of his fingers over Jirachi's shell. It warmed even further, then he pulled it away. A dead man's gaping jaw and empty eye sockets stared at him from behind the dais, and offered a grim reminder of his surroundings.

"I'll remember you," Ash murmured softly to the resting Legend. "And when the Millenium Comet is here, I'll return."

The thought of coming back to this nightmarish place left Ash's empty stomach turning all over again, but he fought back his revulsion. Sacrifices had to be made, and his comfort (and any hope for good dreams for Dazed to snack on) was a small price to pay for the potential found in Desire.

Bile rose in the back of his throat at the thought of all the corpses lying behind him that he'd have to wade through, but one last thought took him.

Hundreds had the misfortune to come here, and they'd all died. They'd been trapped by greed and lust and all the things that could be desired, both good and bad.

They'd all come here to take.

Jirachi was all too happy to give, but something about that rubbed him the wrong way. It was in its nature to give, but had it ever even had the chance to accept?

Ash stared, measured thoughts rushing through him, and at last he came to a decision.

He had little to offer. What could a Legend like Jirachi even want? It was beyond mortal needs like food and water, had a purity of purpose he could never hope to comprehend, and had little use for anything he could hope to give.

But perhaps it didn't need to be useful.

It only needed to be given.

He thought and thought and thought. It couldn't be just a scrap, but there were some things Ash truly couldn't afford to give…

At last, he came to his decision.

"It's not much, but I have something for you." Ash cleared his throat, and felt distinctly awkward talking to a crystalline lump on a pedestal. He knew there was some vague awareness in there, but it was still a bizarre experience.

He reached into his pack, and pulled out one of his dearest treasures. Ash's hands shook as he clutched it close, and he couldn't stop the urge to put it right back. If his desire was to keep it, then Jirachi would be happy to grant it. But he steeled himself, and felt the pang of self-imposed loss.

It was a flat, oval disc a bit bigger than his closed fist. The treasure had a rich golden hue that he'd become accustomed to seeing since his time with the Indigo Champion and there was a lump in his throat at the thought of just giving it away.

"This is my Dragon Scale. Champion Lance, the Champion of Indigo, gave it to me after I helped him and Steven Stone capture a criminal in the Sevii Islands," Ash rambled, trying not to choke up too much. Every word was brittle, and he distracted himself by placing the coarse golden scale against Jirachi's chrysalis. "It was a hard fight, but worth it. We did something good that day and put a bad man in prison. I was so proud," he smiled in remembrance. "One of my best friends, Torrent, evolved with this scale. It was beautiful…"

Ash trailed off as he was lost in memories of the old days. Things were so simple back then. Jirachi's crystal pulsated, the light brightest in the section near the Dragon Scale, and he chuckled despite their grim surroundings.

"Do you want to hear more? I have a lot of stories."

Jirachi shone brighter, and Ash brushed his hand against the Dragon Scale one last time.

"Well, it all started in Pallet Town…"

XX

It was with a heavy heart that he left the Dragon Scale and Jirachi behind. All his willpower was needed to turn away from the Legend, and his whole body shuddered in revulsion at the sight of the bodies waiting for him. Their dried remains seemed to glare at him, and some of the skeletons still had their hands outstretched towards the chrysalis.

Ash's heart nearly stopped, but most of his fear was just replaced by pity.

This could have been him. One of those tiny skeletons might have had Flannery's bright red hair if she hadn't been such a smart kid and listened to her gut.

He thought to step forward, but couldn't bring himself to climb through the bodies again.

He just couldn't.

"Please, not again." Ash begged the world, hoping against hope that Jirachi would somehow grant that one wish. He reached for Dazed's pokeball, but felt sick when he remembered he'd left it with Flannery. And even if he had it, could she even function next to a psychic force like Jirachi? "Please."

Just as he tried to gather up the nerve to climb back into the pinching bones and rattling ribcages and tight, leathery skin, Ash found himself standing on the other side of the bodies, right where he'd come in.

He trembled in relief, but blinked in confusion as the familiar cold, azure flame of Mewtwo's power trickled away. Ash couldn't explain why Mewtwo chose to take pity on him, but nothing but the truest gratitude filled his chest.

"Thank you!" Ash gasped, and Mewtwo was silent. He only had the briefest vision of a young girl with long hair and kind eyes floating in the sky before the Legend vanished entirely. It just left Ash with more questions than answers, but after the absolute mess today had become he could deal with that later.

Ignoring his revulsion, Ash peered one last time at the maze of corpses. So many lost souls, and they would never find what they were looking for. They would never find peace.

"You will be buried," he promised the dead, guilt rising in his chest. "I can't… not yet. I can't bring anyone else here. But when I come back, I'll make sure you're put to rest."

The dead did not answer, but they didn't need to.

Ash took his first step into the tunnel, and turned his back on the Wish Maker.

It wasn't going anywhere.

A/N: Wow, this was a doozy. I told myself I'd have it released by the beginning of March, which was a filthy lie. It just kept going on and on and I STILL cut off the battle with Fino for the sake of my sanity. That'll come up next chapter. At least this broke my record for longest chapter ever (I think) and I hope it stays that way! I really want to transition into 10-15k chapters, but I've also been telling myself that for a year now.

Anyways, I hope you've enjoyed this chapter! It's pretty packed, and I truly hope that it was worth the wait.

As always, the Traveler Discord server is always open! There's some amazing art, stories, and discussion posted there. If you're interested, please PM me to receive access. I can't promise to respond immediately since I'll be very busy over the next day or two, but I will try to send out invites as fast as possible. I may also post an open link on m for a few days so that anyone interested can join, but that might not be up for a while.

I also wanted to give a shout-out to my mods, Val, Raptor, and Jain, for reading over this and making the final product much cleaner and of higher quality than it would be otherwise. Val especially spent a ton of time going over it and editing it, so I wanted to give him a special thanks! (especially for reading my 3 am rambles as I tried to finish this)

I hope you continue to enjoy the story, and that you have a wonderful day!