"Drinks! Cold water, fresh lemonade, soda… Nana has whatever your heart desires!"

"Here, please!" Steven waved the vendor over to their shaded cabana. The ancient woman shuffled over with a massive tray of drinks that seemed too heavy for her skeletal arms, but she somehow made it look like a breeze as she passed through the gigantic palm leaves draped over the entrance.

Ash quickly hopped up to help her balance the heavy tray on one of the simple cedar tables situated around the huge enclosure. Steven had spared no expense to ensure their teams would be comfortable. She patted his cheek (he fought hard not to twitch at the contact) and smiled toothlessly as she offered up her thanks.

"Thank you, darling. Goodness! Isn't it hot out today?" She fanned herself with another palm leaf tucked into the strap of her bathing suit. The vendor stared a little too long at Steven for Ash's liking. "Sea and stars! Say, young man, don't I know you from somewhere?"

"Uh, no, I don't believe so." Steven twitched and tugged his gigantic orange sun hat down over his face. It was an enormous floppy orange monstrosity that would've fit comfortably on Aggron, so it appeared ridiculous on a human. Only a pair of gigantic black sunglasses kept it from drooping down to cover Steven's whole face. "Some of my cousins have visited Sudmauna. Perhaps you've met one of them."

His claim appeared valid at a glance. Steven had taken great care in preparing a disguise of sorts before they'd flown off from Ever Grande earlier in the morning.

It was quite nice seeing the tension and worry slip off Steven's shoulders as he picked out various pieces of clothing and accessories that would make him unrecognizable as Steven Stone, former Ever Grande Champion. He'd seemed ten years younger as he showed off item after item to Skarmory, Claydol, Aggron, and even Armaldo for them to critique.

Ash considered the end result a success.

Right now Steven reclined back in a wicker beach lounger with a glass full of ice and one of those fancy little pink umbrellas in hand. His beachwear was just as gaudy as his hat and glasses. Steven's open shirt was a tropical-themed nightmare printed with bright red flowers and grinning blue Wailmer. Many of the other beachgoers outside the village wore something similar, but it was Steven's swim trunks that sold the illusion.

Steven looked a little green when he first looked at them and muttered something about how his father would disown him if he saw him like this, but he decided to wear the neon green shorts anyway. The color would've been offensive enough on its own, but the truly damning element was the massive Silph Co. logo plastered prominently all over the trunks.

It wasn't the most convincing disguise Ash had ever seen, but it was garish enough that it hurt his eyes (and sense of taste) if he looked at it for too long. Steven's most recognizable features such as his silver hair and grey eyes were obscured by his accessories, and nobody else would pay enough attention to discern his true identity.

He doubted anyone would break through the ruse… unfortunately Steven had also decided to release Metagross. The huge creature currently stood at Steven's side like a fearsome metal sculpture. A few towels had been tossed over Metagross alongside Steven's pokeballs. Bright red eyes glared out from beneath the various coverings, and the poor old woman received a dreadful fright when she caught sight of them.

"Oh my!" She clutched her chest, and for a terrifying moment Ash feared he might have to put those CPR lessons from his trainer certification classes to good use. Knowing Metagross, however, it might not be necessary. Metagross could probably fix something like a heart attack with a quick burst of psychic power and fend off half his team at the same time.

"Metagross is perfectly harmless," Steven reassured the woman. She took a few deep breaths, but refused to make eye contact with the intimidating psychic. His eyes strayed over to the forgotten tray of drinks, and the vendor quickly snapped back to her duties.

"What catches your fancy?"

"Water, please."

She filled his cup with icy water, then raked her eyes over Steven once again, settling mainly on the sliver of pale skin exposed by his open shirt. Ash shuddered as the old woman smiled roguishly, although Steven seemed entirely oblivious to her attention.

"And for you, darling?" She leered at Steven, then stole a look at Ash and lowered her voice. "We have the best rum in the archipelago! Good Champion Drake swears by it! If you prefer something… sweeter, I can make you my special mai tai."

Steven's silver eyebrows rose, but he cast a guilty look at Ash, who snorted. "It's a little late for that. Remember the ferry back from the Sevii Islands?"

That earned a groan, but Ash's point was made. Steven quickly made his order and the vendor shuffled away with her massive tray of drinks a few moments later, but not without one last glance at Steven.

Well, that was horrifying.

Steven's ignorance somehow made it worse. Misery loved company, and Ash had no one to share it with but Nidoking, who pointedly closed his eyes. It might have been worth training up Dazed's mental abilities just so she could pluck this memory from his brain and erase it forever.

"I think that went well."

"She definitely recognized you."

"What?" Steven shook his head. "Absolutely not. I'm unrecognizable."

"You are… kind of. Someone else isn't," Ash looked pointedly at Metagross, who still sat inhumanly still. Any children who poked their heads into the big fancy cabana were liable to run away screaming at the sight.

Steven frowned. "I'm hardly the only trainer with a Metagross. Admittedly, they likely haven't seen one in-person since my last visit with Fino."

"When was that?" Steven's remark piqued Ash's interest. "You came here during your apprenticeship, right?"

"Fino gained an appreciation for the people of Sudmauna while he was stationed here during the war. He makes a point to come back often. I expect he'd be here now, in fact, if it weren't for the situation in Lavaridge."

His stomach twisted in guilt as he sipped on his refreshing water. The ice cubes resonated with him, but the little brush of objectivity did little to soothe him. Lavaridge would be in danger no matter what, but he still wished that Fino and Flannery might have had a little longer before their lives were turned upside down. Ash's revelation meant their waking lives were consumed with drills, evacuation plans, and the careful extraction of Lavaridge's most priceless histories.

"- appreciated his efforts to monitor the volcano. It's currently dormant, but expected to erupt within the next five years or so."

Ash grimaced. This line of conversation wasn't taking his thoughts anywhere pleasant. "So when is this festival you've mentioned?"

"Nine days," Steven cheered up immediately. Years slipped off him in an instant. "I can't wait! It's been… my goodness, it's been six years since I've had the pleasure."

That certainly put things into perspective. Ash would have been six at the time, probably still roaming around the Corral with Gary and trekking him with muddy feet and dirt-streaked skin.

Good times.

"It's based around celebrating the natural world, right?"

"Yes. The Origin Festival honors Groudon, Kyogre, and Rayquaza and their roles in the creation of the world. I'm not overly familiar with the lore behind it all," Steven admitted. "I enjoyed observing the more technical aspects of the production. Fino is the one you'd want to ask about that."

Fair enough.

"I'll have to hunt around," Ash said. "Where are they putting it on, though? The town looks a little…"

"Broken?" Steven sighed. "Yes, it's seen better days. Those hurricanes last year came out of nowhere. There was no time to prepare. Sudmauna was almost destroyed. Thank goodness they vanished just as abruptly as they appeared."

His stomach turned. Ash remembered Moltres buried beneath a great trench carved in the waves, Mewtwo's dominating presence and the words that scraped his mind raw, and the clean snap of Fergus' arm fracturing.

It wasn't just the survivors of New Island that had suffered that night.

"I saw a few crews trying to get things set up. Could we help?"

Steven stroked his chin. "Hmm. Yes, that's a good thought. I'd hoped to offer our services for the ceremony regardless, but it's clear they need help. Our teams would take a lot of the pressure off."

Interest mounted at the prospect. Steven wanted them to help in the ceremony? He had no idea where to begin - his team was rather straightforward, although Ash's mind spun as he began to think of ways they might be useful. It would help if he knew more about the ceremony, but he could always ask around for that information.

"I'd like for you to have a chance to decompress after your mission," Steven sipped at his drink. "I'll ask around, but we won't jump into anything just yet. You've earned a few days off after your time with Glacia. She's a stern taskmaster."

Ash snorted. He couldn't help but think fondly of his lessons with Glacia, even if sitting down with her each day had somehow been just as intimidating as rushing headlong into a battle. "Yeah. I learned a lot, though."

"She gets results. You should have seen how Lance shaped up around her, although now that I think of it that might have been for a different reason entirely," Steven smiled softly as he drifted off into old memories. "Now, there's a training spot on the other side of the volcano that Fino and I used during our previous visits. It's isolated enough that we shouldn't run the risk of anyone coming upon us. We should be safe from causing any property damage as well."

Ash listened and nodded along as Steven outlined their regime. It was a little lighter than normal (this was supposed to be a bit of a vacation, after all) but Ash already picked out several points in the day where he could either study his own material or set up individual training sessions with different members of his team.

The island would be the perfect environment to train several of his teammates. Infernus would be able to utilize the volcano for quick healing or help Tangrowth with his lava training, Torrent had the whole ocean to practice his water manipulation, and the diverse environments offered up plenty of opportunities for the others to stretch their legs.

Oz still had a long way to go with Storm Surge, and right now time was the most precious resource he had for her and several other members of his team such as Dazed and Sneasel. They had the foundations. Now they just needed to build upon them and perfect their skills.

"- has Cynthia contacted you yet?"

"No," Ash quickly shook his head as he snapped back to reality. "Not yet."

"Goodness, what is she doing up there?" Steven muttered to himself. "It's not unusual for her to go off on research binges like this, but she normally leaves a few avenues to reach her. I hope she'll reach out soon."

Ash nodded. He felt the same. "I have a few ideas for Spiritomb. No training!" He said hastily when Steven frowned. "I don't think we're ready for that. But I don't want to let this time go to waste. If I can just get Spiritomb to trust us…"

"Easier said than done," Steven pointed out. "I knew Cynthia when she first acquired her Spiritomb. I know the situations aren't identical, but I hope you don't expect this to come easily."

"Of course not. I know what Spiritomb is. I've felt a hint of what it's gone through. Scars like that take a long time to heal. But I'd rather get started now than leave it to fester. There's no time like the present."

Steven acknowledged Ash's point with a nod and sipped again from his giant straw. "I'll inform Juliet, then. She'll keep up with your progress. If you need any of my team's support…"

"You'll be the first to know," Ash promised. "I want to take things slow, though. There's no reason to stress out Spiritomb any more than I have to."

"Very well. Now, how has your progress on Sneasel's new technique been going? You mentioned you were hoping to train him to sense Distortion? That seems like something Phoebe would be fascinated by…"

XX

Sudmauna was a decent-sized isle in the southern reaches of Hoenn's archipelago, a lesser island nestled between two larger landmasses. The archipelago was relatively untouched aside from the odd village and town. Any city numbering more than twenty thousand people stood out as a gem of civilization amid the great clusters of islands.

Hundreds of thousands of people were scattered all over the archipelago's vast territory, but their population density was so low that sometimes the archipelago felt like a wasteland. You could travel for hours by ship or pokemon and never see another human soul or settlement.

The town's size was hardly exceptional, but it did boast a population of several thousand native islanders and a few hundred mainlanders that had settled here over the years. Many of the mainlanders had once been stationed here during the Last War and gained an appreciation for the lifestyle and values on the island.

It wasn't quite a tourist trap like Cinnabar, but it did seem to have a steady influx of visitors who brought a welcomed influx of cash into the community. A few research stations scattered across the island and a Ranger outpost in the village also offered incentive for outsiders to stop in.

Most tourists were content lounging on the beach - Steven was there now, probably sipping on his third mai tai of the day and being ogled by old ladies - but Ash set his sights on a different prize: Mauna Whenuatoto, the green-clad volcano which rose far above the human towns scattered along the isle.

Local legends claimed Mauna Whenuatoto was the mountain of the earth's blood, a great stone scab heaped upon a weeping wound in the world's crust. For once he couldn't boast any secret intuition or hidden knowledge beyond a subtle throbbing in the Earth which he didn't dare investigate, but he found the stories fascinating nonetheless.

He couldn't claim any secret knowledge on that front, but he did know it was an absolute pain in the neck to climb. Sheer rock walls blocked most routes up the mountain. It was only with Bruiser's help that he was able to work his way up the imposing trails winding their way up the volcano. A few Tailow chirped at him from their roosts, but they and the many bug-types that occupied the island gave Ash and Bruiser a wide berth.

Mauna Whenuatoto provided an impenetrable barrier to any casual hiker. Even Ash felt the first tinges of exhaustion as he wound his gloved hands in a few thick vines and steadily crawled up a sharp incline. Sharp rocks prodded at his unprotected skin, but he steadfastly shoved the sensation away as Bruiser clasped his forearm and hauled him up from above.

Ash might have been struggling, but Bruiser made this trek look as easy as breathing. In another life he'd made his home in the rugged mountains of Fuchsia and thrived there. The powerful combination of his well-honed instincts and absurd strength left Bruiser able to dance from hill to hill. When a sapling blocked Ash's way, Bruiser bent it away with a single hand, then carefully allowed it to return to its proper place.

He was just grateful that Bruiser was such an excellent guide. They'd left the village far behind them, but after just two hours of climbing, all manner of acquired cuts, scrapes, and fresh bruises, and caked on layers of sweat muddled with the loamy dirt and scraps of vegetation, Ash found himself at his destination.

"Not too shabby. What do you think?"

Bruiser made a show of squinting at the massive heap of vine-covered stone, then offered Ash a thumbs up before plodding around to investigate. He laughed and turned his attention to their surroundings.

At first glance, his senses insisted he'd stumbled onto a handful of towering rock formations and weathered black boulders all draped in green vinery and heaps of vegetation and sediment. Most of the spires were hardly visible beneath the verdant overgrowth, and behind them lay a great hill of lush, tangled flora all competing for the precious sunlight scattered across this clearing.

Beyond the hill rose a sheer cliff, and not long after would be the volcano's yawning mouth. The thick canopy jutting up above the rocky heights was enough to obscure his view of the higher reaches of the volcano, but that was fine. Ash wasn't so eager to stare into the belly of the beast after his experience at Mt. Chimney.

No, he hadn't come here for the natural wonders.

Ash stepped forward, careful to avoid the three-leafed heads of a few snoozing Oddish nearby. A Gloom peered out at warily Ash and Bruiser from behind a mossy fallen log, but didn't seem to recognize them as a threat. He nodded his thanks to the grass-type, who squealed out a quick response before ducking away.

Some Tailow and a lone Swellow had set their homes in the spires set around the clearing. Most watched the pair with blatant curiosity. Sudmauna treated their wild pokemon well, but it wasn't likely they often received visitors so high above the town. One of the more daring Tailow squawked at him in challenge.

Ash snorted as he imagined Plume's response.

None of them were bold enough to do anything more than observe, particularly with Bruiser carefully scanning them over, and Ash walked past one of the moss-covered boulders. He absentmindedly tossed his bag onto it and enjoyed the brief reprieve from its weight.

After a moment's search he found his next target. The gleaming bronze plaque was bound to the top of a rectangular limestone block placed just before the huge rock formations. Bruiser wasn't interested in the history here, but Ash knew Dazed had been looking for it ever since they'd arrived.

She wasn't built for an endurance climb. Dazed could have teleported from place to place, but that would have left her exhausted and grumpy.

He found himself especially grateful for pokeball technology. How did people ever get by without it?

Ash put the thought away as he released Dazed. She blinked once as she took in their surroundings and her eyes soon flashed as she offered Ash and Bruiser a short telepathic greeting.

"We're here!" Ash shook off his exhaustion as he tapped at the bronze plaque. "See?"

I do.

Ash stepped aside to make room for her to glance over it. She should be able to translate the modern script easily enough. Dazed struggled with long and unfamiliar words, but she was making progress by the day.

He offered Bruiser a sheepish glance as the Machoke saw how absorbed they'd become. Bruiser just smiled at him and found his own way to relax.

It didn't take him long to find a relatively clear boulder and adopt a meditative pose. Ash smiled softly as Bruiser's chest took on a steady ebb and flow like the tides lapping against Sudmauna's black beaches.

Bruiser could stay like this for hours. There was no need for Ash and Dazed to rush.

"Having any luck?"

Dazed's pendulum leapt in her hand as her eyes flashed blue.

Will you read it to me?

He doubted she had much trouble with the acid-etched lettering, but far be it from him to refuse her request. Ash cleared his throat as he skimmed it over.

"Helo's Tower," he read. "Constructed in the early sixth century PIL, this small fortress was built on the high reaches of Mauna Whenuatoto by order of the Draconid Diarch Lyconia, who had it constructed in order to provide a secure outpost and waystation for passing Draconids. Her network of small, secure fortresses helped to ensure her domination of the archipelago and was used to fortify the seas around the sacred Sky Pillar where she ruled.

The tower bears the name of Diarch Lyconia's original Salamence partner, who was slain in battle against Diarch Proclo, who she supplanted in PIL 540. Helo's Tower stood as a bastion of Draconid influence until PIL 888"

Ash rattled off the remaining text of the plaque. The letters were written small enough to fill several long paragraphs in the large plaque. He and Dazed both absorbed the new information like a sponge, and he soon wished he could have seen this place in its full grandeur.

It was difficult to imagine these overgrown ruins as a small tower-fortress of the old Draconids, but his vivid imagination allowed the little details to add up. The plaque offered a small diagram of the tower's layout and gave him enough information to spin himself a little fantasy.

The great spires he'd found were the bones of the tower. They'd crumbled away beneath time and the slow death of Draconid power in the region. What he'd first imagined to be boulders were great heaps of stone which had slipped off the tower as it crumbled. Those fortifications had landed some small distance away and were now hidden beneath layers of moss and lichen.

What he'd imagined to be a hill was actually the fortress proper buried beneath a century's worth of soil and rendered unrecognizable. Was anything of value left hidden in the entombed armories and stockrooms, or had it been plucked away by hungry pokemon and the villagers of times long past?

Hoenn had known hard times in the last hundred years. Anything precious would have been looted by the desperate long ago without the Draconids here to protect it.

Part of Ash longed to dig away and excavate the hidden ruins, but he couldn't bear the thought of disturbing something left to its rest for so long. It had spent at least a century hidden beneath the masses of greenery. It felt wrong to intrude upon that.

Sometimes what was buried should remain so.

Ash's hand slipped to the Ultra Ball on his belt as the thought crossed his mind, and he supposed it was probably best to let sleeping Arcanine lie. Digging around in ancient ruins hadn't done him many favors recently, even if it had helped to soothe his burning curiosity.

But that circled back to the other reason he'd come all the way up here.

The Draconids made a point to build in isolated spots such as these. They lacked the speed of the Wataru and their Dragonite, but the Salamence they bonded with still opened up options that no other force in Hoenn possessed.

While the Draconids weren't so loyal to their Salamence as the Wataru were to their Dragonite; they were a devastatingly practical people and regularly bonded with Trapinch, Horsea, Swablu… the Draconids were eager to welcome anything draconic into their ranks.

Still, the original Draconid people honored their Salamence above all else.

A Salamence might not match a Dragonite's speed and maneuverability in the open air, but they were no slouches. They were robust, mighty, and eager to stretch their wings in battle. The Draconids used their partners to secure dominance wherever they roamed, and their people thrived wherever conventional nations would struggle.

The dragon could carry its partner and supplies to unassailable mountains and badlands on Hoenn's mainland, while their draconic power could obliterate ships and burn towns to the ground in the archipelago. It was child's play for the Draconids to fly from island to island demanding tribute from anyone who wanted to live in their shadow.

His reading even suggested that sort of thuggish behavior was even a rite of passage. They were strong, but few, and you have to keep the peasants in line, right?

They constructed their towers and fortifications in out-of-the-way places to leverage that advantage. Most of the Draconid aeries would be a long, miserable trek up a mountain for any attackers but just a few minutes by flight to the village. It was a constant reminder of who really held the power.

Its isolated location made it perfect for his own mission.

Ash moved farther into the collection of tattered stone pillars. What was it like in its heyday? It would have been stuffed full of supply crates and foodstuffs. Soldiers would be stationed on its walls and always watching for messengers from the skies. Dragons would have roamed where they would and squabbled for dominance amongst themselves.

But the arches had fallen. The tower had crumbled.

Creeping vines and mats of tangled vegetation ruled now. It wouldn't have taken them long at all to supplant the Draconids once this location was abandoned. Nature might be displaced for a time, but it would always creep back once the tenants had pulled away.

Ash soon found himself in the midst of the old tower. Some parts of the ancient foundation were bare of anything but pioneering mosses and lichens due to dayround shade, although much of the floor was covered in small grasses and shrubs.

Dazed was his shadow, of course. Ash trusted her to alert Bruiser if they stumbled upon anything surprising. He didn't think it likely, what with the peacefully snoozing grass-types littered all over the place, but it never hurt to be careful. He laid his hand against one of the pillars and felt nothing but the coarse vines on its surface.

Ash was loath to disturb the stones if he could help it, but there was a way around that.

Thank goodness for psychics.

"See anything interesting underneath all this?"

She didn't answer him, but the tell-tale blue glow of psychic power pouring from her said enough. Dazed's pendulum swayed purposefully as she scanned the area. Soon enough her eyes quirked up.

A thin section of clumped green moss burned brilliant blue before it suddenly peeled away. Dazed errantly tossed it to the side and it thumped against the damp earth. Psychic powers really were the most versatile tool in existence. There was a reason the wild Alakazam enclaves never saw fit to develop any others. Everything they needed was already a part of them.

Ash squinted at the bare patch of stone. It was damp and dark with moisture, but beneath it all were a handful of those same angular symbols as he'd seen in the caves below Forina.

"Draconid!"

Indeed. There is more.

He quickly pulled out his PokeNav to take a few pictures of the dulled etchings, but decided to wait until he could get the rest. Dazed prepared to peel away greater and greater sections of moss and vines, but Ash interrupted her.

"Teleport it away."

Very well.

It was a bit of a pain for Dazed, no doubt, but they both saw the advantages of working the advanced skill into their everyday lives. Incorporating Magnet Rise into Lairon's everyday routine had shot him leagues ahead of Ash's expectations, and Remote Teleportation was infinitely more demanding to master.

They'd take any excuse to push once inch closer to their final goal.

Dazed took some additional time to build up focus, but after a few seconds her eyes flashed and Ash felt a twist. He smiled when a huge chunk of the greenery vanished… although he winced when he saw that Dazed had taken a small sliver of the rock wall as well.

A trickle of panic filled him as he inspected the rocks, but he felt a tiny prick of relief as he saw she'd only teleported a few square inches of it with the moss. Ash flushed and inspected the wall. At least that section appeared to be blank and he sighed in relief.

At least nothing too valuable was lost.

Still… "Maybe we should be more careful where we use that

I concur.

He was thankful that their experiment hadn't truly damaged the weathered old stone, but that had been too close for comfort. It didn't slow them down for long, though. Ash peered closely at the wall to inspect the engravings again. He found himself frustrated that he couldn't make heads or tails of the deep-carved symbols.

Some appeared carved by chisel and hammer, while other lines cut deeper and rougher as if cut in by claw. All were achingly familiar.

Dazed hadn't uncovered just the carvings, however. Above the long rows of writing were a few small carvings of great dragons, tall humans fighting alongside them, and dozens of smaller human and pokemon figures fleeing them.

Dragon fought dragon, Draconid fought Draconid, and at the end a lone figure, an enormous woman with long hair painted red (a few flecks of the pigment had somehow survived until now) stood alone without the Salamence that accompanied her in the other images. Ash wondered whether the script all around it told this story.

Context from the plaque suggested it was probably a remembrance of Diarch Lyconia and her Salamence partner, but he hoped Flannery could shed some light on this. It wasn't Lavaridge history, but she'd probably get a kick out of any chance to flex her rusty translation skills.

"I'll check around with some of the locals once we get back" Ash said. "They probably recorded this stuff ages ago."

Dazed continued peeling away new sections of moss to reveal more of the Draconid etchings. Just the sight sent a little thrill through him, and it didn't take long for him to snap as many pictures as he could, often from several different angles so that Flannery could easily make everything out.

It could be the exciting tale of a Draconid conqueror as she took hold of the oceanic realm, but the etchings could be a bunch of old tax records for all he knew. Ash considered him thoroughly corrupted by his studies when even that seemed exciting.

Cynthia's books often lent credence to the idea that even the most mundane discoveries revealed insight into the day-to-day lives of ancient peoples. No doubt some enterprising scholar had pored over this site decades ago, but there was something incredible in the realization that he (well, Dazed) had made a discovery and recorded it.

Plus, who knew? There was always the potential for a thrill.

They stood within the ruins for a time and happily chatted about whatever inane details they discovered in the circle. Ash and Dazed poked around a bit more, carefully avoiding disturbing the local pokemon, and uncovered a few new details: a handful of clay-caked pottery shards dug up at some point by an enterprising wild pokemon, then promptly abandoned when their finder realized they were neither shiny or filling.

Time passed and the sun turned overhead. Little else of interest was discovered, but Ash took pleasure in the company. Bruiser joined after an hour or so. He was content to listen and nod along to Ash's errant ramblings and Dazed's pointed conjectures as they gathered more scraps, but he did make a token effort to poke around with them.

He eventually returned to his meditation, but Ash enjoyed his presence while it lasted.

It was nice while it lasted, but they couldn't play around forever. The others were training and this wasn't just a field trip for Ash. He'd come here with a purpose.

Two, actually.

I will be nearby investigating further. I will come if I am needed. Shall I warn the sleepers away?

"Yes, that would be best. We don't want them getting caught up in this."

He spared Dazed a smile as she shuffled off through the plants in the direction of the overgrown keep. With any luck she'd find some old, rusted relic or shattered pottery. That wasn't why she'd chosen to leave, though, and he appreciated her awareness.

Telepathy meant she had it easier than most on that front.

It has its advantages.

Ash snorted, then plopped down on one of the smaller boulders. It must have been one of the little chunks that tumbled off the tower's arch when it crumbled away. The moss and lush greenery that blanketed it made for a relatively comfortable seat, and Ash situated himself as Bruiser rested nearby with a small rock in his hand.

He took one look at him and laughed. A lazy (but certainly daring) Tailow had perched on his shoulder, preening itself meticulously, and a fat Shroomish had plopped itself into Bruiser's lap without a care in the world. Bruiser hadn't let that bother him, but he did gently shift to shoo them both away.

The offended Tailow squawked and screeched amidst a flutter of feathers and beating wings, while the Shroomish sleepily wandered off to a less disruptive cushion. Bruiser toyed again with the rock in his hand. It was grey and caked in red clay, roughly the size of Ash's PokeNav.

Bruiser frowned at it.

The stone crumbled to dust in his meaty fist. Bruiser watched as the coarse grains spilled from his hand to scatter along the underbrush, then his eyes squeezed shut as he prepared to meditate.

Concern flickered in Ash's heart. He longed to peer into Bruiser's thoughts, to know what was carried in the undercurrent of his soul, but held back. Not now - Bruiser might not even think of it as an intrusion, but Ash wasn't sure he could handle two streams of thought at the moment.

Not when Spiritomb was next.

Ash watched Bruiser consideringly, turned his future words over again and again until they felt right, and finally spoke.

"Fear will eat you alive."

Bruiser cast Ash an inscrutable look. When was the last time Bruiser had shown him anything but outright warmth? It felt odd to see the slip in Bruiser's demeanor, but he pressed on anyway as Bruiser's thick fingers tugged at the Black Belt around his neck.

There was no hostility, of course, but Ash knew his friend was troubled.

"I won't say much. You already know everything I'm about to tell you. I bet you've been thinking about it for ages. You just need to hear it from someone else."

Bruiser's stone-like countenance betrayed nothing. But Ash knew Bruiser, knew him just as he knew himself, and felt utter certainty that his friend hung onto his every word.

He pointedly looked around at the tattered foundations and mossy stones.

"How long would it take you to tear all this down? I give it one minute."

Bruiser flinched.

"There! There's that fear. See?"

That earned a soft frown.

Ash's point was made and his words softened.

"It's scary, isn't it? You have the strength to break stone. The strength to break people. Strength is power, power is change… it's all the same, just another burden to bear."

Bruiser brushed his knuckles against a few small plants that Ash and Dazed had disturbed. A few moments of his attention smoothed them out to their proper state.

"Change is a burden, but it doesn't have to be bad. You're so strong, Bruiser. When did you learn to fear it?"

You could hardly chalk a pattern of behavior to one singular moment. Ash knew that. A dozen moments flitted through his mind, all feats of strength that would put any other Machoke to shame. Little scenes where Bruiser pushed too hard and discovered the world might as well be made of tissue paper.

But he knew what Bruiser would always come back to, and Ash was soon proved correct. The question had to be asked.

Bruiser grimaced as he plucked a fallen branch from one of the great trees overhead. It was thick as a man's wrist, knotted and tough and mottled with age. Ash would have loved to find it when he was a kid running around the Corral - him and Gary probably would have beaten the snot out of each other with it.

Yet Bruiser snapped it between two fingers as easily as Ash might break a toothpick.

His friend looked forlornly at the splintered remnants, then cast them aside to lay in the dirt and grass.

For a moment he considered reminding Bruiser that Princess hadn't seemed to mind having her leg broken - she definitely hadn't taken it as harshly as Bruiser - but that would be insensitive.

"I understand."

Bruiser smiled tiredly at him.

"How long have you spent mastering yourself? Your whole life, I bet. Bruno told us that control comes before everything else. You can tame a fire into a tool, or it can burn out of control."

Nothing about this was new, but Bruiser enjoyed routine. He'd spent more time with Bruno than Ash during their last visit to the Plateau, and the vast majority of their work was spent on compensating for the Rampage-fueled leaps in strength.

Most Machoke trained solely to control their immense strength. Fine motor control was deemed more important than bulking up any further. Enormous challenges were required for Machoke or Machamp to push their limits, and it just wasn't feasible for wild specimens to seek them out.

And why would they?

But Rampage set Bruiser at war with himself. In the end, the only challenge fitting for his iron body was his own might. Ash saw something fitting in that.

This road less traveled led them to new challenges, however, and Ash felt a stir of sympathy for Bruiser's plight. Of all Machoke, he was the last that should have to deal with this struggle. But they would prevail. They always had.

Ash's throat tightened. "Agatha… she told me that a ghost would find a feast in me. She picked me apart with one look. What are you talking about? I'm not afraid of anything?"

His words came mocking and cruel at the blindness of his past self, though Bruiser didn't find it so funny. Ash sobered quickly and continued. This wasn't about him.

"She was right. I bet she'd love to hear that, but she knew all along. I am afraid, and why not?" There was a lot to be afraid of. Ash might forge ahead, but he wasn't that willing to shove his head in the sand. "The St. Anne, New Island…" Bruiser pat him gently on the knee and gave Ash space to continue. "Fear sucks. You surrender yourself. It's weakness. But it's also fuel."

He offered Bruiser a moment to mull that over. "It's pushing you now, isn't it? You're afraid of hurting someone like you did Princess, so you work hard to control it. That can be good, so long as you don't drown in it."

Bruiser looked away. This time it was Ash's turn to pat him on the knee. It was like slapping a chiseled statue.

"You've pulled me out of that pit before. You all have. Now it's my turn to help you."

A tiny smile appeared on Bruiser's face. He plucked another stone and squeezed tight until a bit more dust sifted out between his fingers. Bruiser stared silently at the fragments of stone.

"It's all a tool," Ash said quietly. "Strength, fear. Use them for good, use them for bad. They're neutral in the end. Some people use them to tear things down, but that's not you, is it?"

Bruiser's hum rumbled one of Lance's enormous speakers. He rose smoothly from his seat and cut a heroic form in the sun rays that spilled through the canopy and painted the old ruins gold. Something in the underbrush attracted his attention and he spent a few moments nudging it out.

A large hunk of stone half-buried beneath the dirt and vines emerged. It was a small boulder around Sneasel's size, yet Bruiser plucked it free as easily as Ash might pull a weed in his mom's garden. He held the hundred-pound rock in one hand as he scanned the weathered rocks nearby.

It took him a moment, but Bruiser soon found an empty spot in the broken tower that was at the correct angle to have discarded the stone. Bruiser hefted the stone, set it back in its proper place, and smiled at last.

The rock didn't slide into its old home easily, not after decades or centuries of elemental exposure, but at last it fit correctly. Who knew how long it would rest there? It may fall again in a week, a month, a year… but that wasn't the point, was it?

Bruiser admired his handiwork. He still appeared deep in thought, but Ash knew one conversation wouldn't change that. All Ash could do was validate Bruiser and perhaps reinforce ideas that had already begun to condense during his hours of meditation.

It was just like he'd said earlier… sometimes you have to hear it from someone else.

Ash gave Bruiser his time. He wouldn't rush his friend. When Bruiser finally appeared at peace, Ash found hesitation and eagerness warring within him. His decision was made, though.

They weren't done here.

"Bruiser? I'm going to release Spiritomb. It won't affect anyone else out here. It's just you and me."

Ash clutched Spiritomb's Ultra Ball. His knuckles were white.

"Will you stay with us?"

Bruiser nodded without hesitation. He was tense, but that was only natural. Only a fool would look toward this. Ash thought Bruiser would be the most prepared to stand tall against Spiritomb's storm. His placid nature and implacable spirit would ward off the worst effects.

He was also one of the least likely to try to grab the keystone and hurl it off the cliff.

Ash had spent time going over what details he knew of Spiritomb's creation with his team. His frequent conversations with Dazed meant many were already aware, but not all of his friends desired to keep up with those.

They couldn't treat Spiritomb as a monster. This whole wild reach for the heavens was doomed to failure if they did.

Bruiser might know what Spiritomb needed best of all Ash's team. He'd walked this road with Seeker, and Ash hoped he may be able to use that experience to provide solace for another tortured soul… or one hundred and eight of them.

It might be selfish of him. Bruiser had a big heart. Spiritomb's pain might become his own, but Ash didn't know what else to do. He would need to have his own conversations with Bruiser to make sure he wasn't burning out or taking on too much.

"I - thank you. You remember what it felt like?"

Bruiser nodded stiffly.

He pressed on quickly. It was like building up the will to jump into a freezing lake. If you thought too much you would be paralyzed.

"It's going to come out just as strong. Spiritomb's apathy is infectious. You can't let it take root. If you do, there's no cutting it out until Spiritomb is returned. Never give in."

Bruiser digested that. He swung his arms a few times in a clear effort to work out some of the tension, but he was as ready as he'd ever be.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? Remember yourself."

He chose his next words carefully.

"Think about what's most important to you. Good or bad. Your worst memory or your best. Anything that will make you feel. Hold tight to it no matter what. Spiritomb will do its best to take them from you," Ash murmured. "Remember what's yours. Stand and protect it with everything you have. Do you understand?"

Bruiser nodded with a distant glimmer in his eyes.

"Are you ready?"

He received a thumbs up.

Spiritomb was released.

The keystone sat innocuously in the midst of the ruins. It was somehow disconnected from the warmth, sunlight, and life all around them. Spiritomb's presence immediately struck them like a hammer.

Ash only had to grit his teeth against the despair - tucked in, warm, his mother's voice sweet and lilting as she read him a bedtime story, "A long, long time ago, there was a beautiful land known as Michina…", fingernails softly scratching Ash's scalp beneath thick black hair until his eyes slid closed - to weather it.

Bruiser fell back. One of his hands clutched at a boulder and dug deep until little fractures appeared, but he didn't fall entirely. Ash laid a hand on Bruiser's huge shoulder and his breathing calmed.

The helping hand was all he needed. Ash's lifeline helped Bruiser rally. Once Bruiser wasn't in imminent danger of collapsing, Ash turned to the plain keystone. Lavender wisps hung suspended from its cracks and a venomous green glow oozed from its unknowable depths.

So calm. So peaceful. He should take a seat and -

No! Not this time. Ash threw off the mental influence and stood indomitable against it, though it was like a starving man tossing out a banquet. Nothing seemed so appealing as a brief respite, a quick nap, just close his eyes and fall into the -

Nope.

Ash forced himself to stay on his own two feet and hated himself for it. If he gave Spiritomb an inch it would take a mile… and probably his life too.

"Hello," He decided not to call it Spiritomb. Who knew what kind of reaction that might provoke? "It's me, Ash. Do you remember me?"

Nothing.

It didn't dishearten him. Ash expected this to be their relationship for some time, and that realization helped steel his resolve. They had two weeks in Sudmauna before the festival. Ash planned to set aside at least an hour a day to sit with his newest teammates.

More, if he could stand it.

Part of him quailed at the thought of exposing himself to its aura for so long, but he had to see it through to the end. His mom hadn't raised him to be a quitter.

"This is Bruiser." He decided not to mention anything about their previous meeting. Ash thought it best not to stir up memories of that fight. Not yet, anyway. They needed to build a foundation first. "He's one of my oldest friends. I've never met anyone with a heart like his."

Bruiser's face darkened as he grunted softly to Spiritomb. Ash wasn't sure if Machoke could blush, but this certainly came close. as he grunted softly to Spiritomb. He appeared to have found his own anchor now. Bruiser stood tall.

Ash could sense the burden it laid on him, however, and appreciated his friend's resolve more than ever.

"We're on an island called Sudmauna. It's located in the far south of Hoenn. There's a village an hour or so from here, but I didn't think you'd want to see so many people. Let's just sit here for a while and enjoy the sun. It's a beautiful view and there's life all around us. Trees, vines, mushrooms, pokemon… the whole island is thriving."

Ash continued with his inane ramblings for as long as he could manage. Spiritomb never offered any sort of response, but Ash hoped it could hear him and process his company. He wasn't sure what Spiritomb could sense from within its keystone, so he slipped into as many descriptions as possible.

Did it sense through the Distortion it bled? Could it view the truth of the world like Cynthia through some sort of Aura sense? Were those haunted eyes able to see as he did? He hoped to answer those questions one day.

Bruiser would grunt or nod along occasionally, but Spiritomb's aura took a visible toll on him. Ash had to return him after twenty minutes despite Bruiser's protests. He could see the despair seeping in and sapping Bruiser's resolve. His friend managed longer than Ash had hoped, and his heart swelled with pride.

He clung to that emotion like a lifeline.

The hour passed without any sudden surges or signs of consciousness from Spiritomb. A part of him was disappointed, but Ash would take that over it lashing out. He wanted to ease it into the group, so this was a success in his eyes.

But even Ash was worn down eventually.

The signs piled up slowly but steadily. Every string of thought was eventually infiltrated with desires to sleep, sit down, and wait and wait and wait. He wanted nothing more than to forfeit his power of movement (too much effort, like climbing the volcano) and let the days pass by until he toppled over as a desiccated husk -

Ash returned Spiritomb, exhaled, and collapsed against one of the tower's ruined walls. The world was grey and every breath took titanic effort. Even the thought of uncapping his canteen to soothe his parched throat seemed impossible.

He'd wrung himself dry of all emotion in fueling his resolve against Spiritomb's passive force. Ash had sifted through memory after memory - a cocky boy with brown hair ran ahead, cackling as Arcanine covered Ash's face in warm licks - to cling to, and he couldn't bear to do it again.

But he would.

Tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

As bad as it was to be around Spiritomb, Ash knew he could withstand it. It would only make him stronger in the end.

If this was Spiritomb's way of sharing itself with the world, then Ash would find a way to soothe its pain. He could put Spiritomb away and recover. Spiritomb didn't have the option to run away and lick its wounds.

His resolve only strengthened… but for tomorrow.

Dazed was here now and she knew what he needed. Her pendulum swayed gently in an unseen breeze, red light enveloped him, and he found the rest he sought.

XX

Steven's attire was just as outlandish as Ash had come to expect. He'd elected against all sense of odds and decency to wear a blinding teal shirt adorned with grinning Whiscash and Luvdisc, neon orange trunks that made Ash's eyes ache, the same oversized sunglasses and floppy hat, and garish green flip flops with long white socks on underneath.

He assumed the locals must be used to tourists wearing all kinds of similarly bizarre outfits, but they still watched Steven's innovative socks and flip flop combo with blatant disgust. Steven was too drunk on his newfound anonymity to be fazed as they roamed the beaches and buzzing markets of Sudmauna.

To be fair, it wasn't just the anonymity. Vendors shoved mojitos, mai tai, cocktails, and bottles of rum at Steven from all directions. That hadn't helped. Steven was always careful to moderate (especially with Ash around) but there was no mistaking the ruddy tinge to his cheeks by the afternoon.

Steven earned a well-deserved reputation around Sudmauna as a big spender within just a few days, despite his insistence to Ash and Claydol that all his purchases were modest and discrete. The warm welcomes that Steven received from shop owners, restaurateurs, bartenders, and the dozens of sun beaten peddlers begged to differ.

Storage technology made his purchases hard to keep track of, but Ash stumbled upon Steven perusing Sudmauna's mineral, fossil, and jewelry stalls each day during his own wanderings. He feared that Steven had spent a king's ransom during their short stay, especially when he browsed after a local had plied him with drinks.

Worse, Steven would pay whatever the hawkers demanded without haggling. He wouldn't even blink at their outlandish prices! Then again, why bother? It was all pocket change to Steven. Ash didn't know what access Steven had to his family fortune, but his time as a star trainer and the Ever Grande Champion ensured he wasn't hurting for cash.

Most would see it as a textbook case of a clueless tourist suckered into as many bad deals as he could stumble into, but Ash remembered Steven's words during their first Lavaridge visit.

"It's not a bad thing to be underestimated."

Ash wouldn't complain if that was how Steven wanted to play it. He and his team were able to reap some of the benefits. Steven was welcomed with open arms no matter where he went, and today that had led them to a fine restaurant full of cheerful islanders, lazing pokemon, and enthused tourists.

Its name was a dreadful pun, like most of the restaurants here. In this case, it was named after the owner's Octillery partner, who served several customers at once from within the small pool in the center of the restaurant.

The Heavy Octillery Seaside Diner had earned its reputation, though. Ash was happy to poke at the Octillery-ink pasta. The unique flavor had been donated by the establishment's namesake.

Ash finished chewing his bite and swallowed before he spoke lest he conjure up a disapproving Glacia to scold him. "You're going to be recognized. What happens then?"

I confiscate any pictures that are taken. Winona would sell her Gym for a set.

He snorted at Claydol's comment, though Steven didn't seem as amused. The former Champion cut quite the figure as he leaned back in his stool and sipped on his fruity drink through a bright pink curly straw.

"Who could recognize me?" Steven scoffed and spread his arms wide. A few wandering eyes found him, but most of the locals soon went back to their business. Bombastic tourists were undoubtedly a common sight. "I fully expect you to give us away. You're not even wearing a disguise!"

Ash looked the same as ever in a plain blue T-shirt and black hiking shorts. And his hat, of course. He ignored Steven's pointed look.

"I can't believe you just said that with a straight face," Ash said. But he had caught a few lingering eyes over the last few days, mostly from younger islanders. "There's no way your disguise actually works."

"Look around."

Most of their fellow diners were too engrossed in their own cups and conversations to pay much attention to the two outsiders. Claydol received an odd look or two - they were rare in the archipelago - but they were hardly the only mainlanders littering the town.

Haven't you learned? Humans are universally too narcissistic to take note of anything not directly related to them. All sapient beings are self-interested snobs, really. You won't notice anything that doesn't have something to offer you. Does Steven look like he has anything to offer when he's dressed up like this?

Definitely not.

"I get it," Ash waved off Steven's explanation before it could begin. Curiosity rose up as he glanced over Steven's horrendous patchwork attire again. "Still… What's with the disguises? It's not…"

Respectable for a decorated former Champion and heir to the prestigious Devon Corporation to galavant around like he's in the midst of a midlife crisis? For shame! So judgmental! He hasn't even shopped around for a shiny new yacht yet.

"Thank you, Claydol," Steven gave a long-suffering sigh, a surefire sign that Claydol had seen fit to broadcast its thoughts. "I'm quite content, thank you very much. As for the disguise, it's a little trick I picked up from Fino. He's quite well-known. Fino enjoys authentic experiences, so he preferred to travel incognito when possible."

First Blaine, now Fino. Were Fire Masters obligated to take up a penchant for disguises and misdirection, or did he just keep meeting the weird ones?

Most Masters were kind of weird in their own way, though. It took a special kind of person to reach those heights. Ash supposed he had no room to talk.

At least Fino wasn't obsessed with puns and riddles. He even kept his Gym publicly accessible. That gave him a few points on Blaine.

"- quite eager for the festival to begin!"

Ash hid a wince as he realized he'd lost track of the conversation again. "Did you ever find out if we could help?"

"I did. I asked around and it seems that one of the town elders is leading the efforts. Would you like to swing by and speak with her after lunch?"

"Yes!"

He might have sounded a bit cheery, but this was something Ash had begun to look forward to. Not just the Origin Festival and the history embedded within, but the thought of being a part of it… it lit a fire in his belly.

Steven smiled and sipped from his curly straw. "Very well. I have her location. Finish up and we can head off. The day's still young."

Ash thought Jon would have been proud about how viciously he attacked his bowl.

XX

Living in a small town sure could be convenient. The Origin Festival's organizer lived just a short jaunt away from Heavy Octillery. It reminded him favorably of Pallet Town. Cities were just too big sometimes. Who wanted to spend all day trekking around a bunch of dirty streets?

The brain behind the festival was located in a straw-thatched home built in the traditional archipelago style. A few harried looking people ran in and out, and several Tailow flitted from her window with letters tied around their legs.

Plume's shadow soared over them. The lesser flying-types' eyes bugged before they quickly sought the cover of some nearby trees.

Steven and Ash pushed past the woven strips of fabric that served as the home's door. They barely had time to blink before an old woman behind a rickety desk listed off a dozen tasks without looking up from the paperwork she had her nose buried in.

They stared.

"Well?" She bit off. "Are you just going to stand there and gawk? We have -"

The old, hunched Mawile curled up near her feet tugged on her sleeve with the jaws sprouting from its head. She was too engrossed in her work to notice. It took a second, firmer tug to convince the elder to raise her head.

"Yes, dear, what is - oh my!" She squinted. It accentuated the deep laugh-lines that furrowed her face. A spark of recognition flickered as she saw Steven's bizarre outfit.

"Oh!" She cried. The plump Mawile rolled its eyes and slumped back into its little nest of colorful blankets and a shirt that must have belonged to its trainer. "You must think me beastly with a reception like that! I swear it's not how I usually greet guests - here, take a cookie."

The elder rose and tugged a tall stack of crumbly cookies from a covered platter on her desk. He barely had time to blink before two cookies appeared in his palm. Three were forced into Steven's hands - "Look at you! You're so thin, you poor thing." - before she actually introduced herself.

"I am Elder Amiri, but you can call me Miri, if you like. Now, let me make a proper introduction. Who do I have the pleasure of welcoming to my home?"

Aggron poked his great horned head through the cloth door to snag a warm cookie from Steven's hand. Steven blinked as Amiri wordlessly replaced it and offered half the remaining cookies to Aggron, who rumbled thankfully before making his exit.

"We're wandering trainers. We heard of the Origin Festival's troubles through the grapevine and hoped to assist with your preparations.

Amiri's jaw hung agape. "I - truly… you wish to help us?"

"Of course. I've attended in the past, and I know there have been difficulties this past year."

A wide smile cracked Amiri's stunned expression. Ash grunted as she yanked them both into a warm embrace. "My, what did I do to deserve such shiny pearls? The sea smiles upon us today! Don't you agree, Kamaka?"

The Mawile nodded innocently as its jaws stealthily snagged one of the chocolate chip cookies from the platter. Amiri pretended not to see it.

"We're both moderately skilled," Steven said, obviously flustered by Amiri's welcome. "I specialize in steel and rock-types, but I have several psychics among my team. Ash - uh, Dash -"

Ash hoped Steven knew he wasn't going to go along with that stupid ruse.

"- is a generalist. We're happy to help however we can."

"What a blessing! I never expected a mainlander to - ah, I'm sorry. Times are hard. Our normal friends can't make it to help this time around. And with those hurricanes last year…"

"That's part of why we're here," Steven admitted. "We knew you might need additional assistance given recent events."

"How kind," Amiri bit her lip, then reached back to her neatly organized desk for a notepad and ballpoint pen. "We can't afford to offer you much in the way of compensation, you know. We can barely pull trainers in with a mission board post."

"No compensation necessary!" Ash was aghast at the idea. It was something he would've considered back in his journey through Kanto, but he and Steven were the last people who needed to take this community's money. The League compensates them well. This was just serving the people they'd sworn themselves to.

Well, Ash was given heaps of cash that he had no idea how to spend. As for Steven, who knew? His situation with the League was opaque at best, and his teacher wasn't one to discuss his financial situation with Ash.

It must be good, though. There was no way he'd have acquired such a hoard of vendor junk otherwise.

"Your hospitality will be payment enough," Steven's lips curled upwards at Ash's remark. "There are six days until the Origin Festival, correct?"

"There are, and there's so much to do!" Amiri despaired. "The stage must be assembled, the torches must be set, the commissions must be transported…"

Steven raised a hand. "We're at your service until the festival. What do you need us to do?"

"What can you do?" Amiri asked quickly. Her eyes narrowed. "There's been tell of storms and thunder on the far side of the island. None of ours venture there, and I know none of our trainers could pull that off."

He and Steven shared a glance. "That might have been us."

A glint appeared in Amiri's gaze, smoldering beneath her matronly demeanor. Ash recognized it all too well - she'd stumbled upon a treasure trove, and there was no way she was going to let this opportunity go to waste. This kindly old woman was going to work them to the bone, and maybe scrape a little past it to the marrow.

At least it was for a good cause, right?

XX

Time was a fickle thing.

It was meant to trek along at a steady gait in theory. Time was never supposed to stumble or sprint ahead. Personally, Ash thought that was a load of garbage. Some days lingered on like a bad houseguest. Others stretched on just as long, but were kind enough to be full of new sensations, sights, and experiences.

Right now? Ash felt as if entire days slipped by in the blink of an eye. He'd learned to get used to it as he immersed himself in a task. Time burned by and Ash soon felt buried beneath the hundred tasks that his team took on.

Training, studying, sitting with Spiritomb, carving out relaxation time no matter the demands, assisting the locals with the Origin Festival… Ash couldn't be sure how he managed to keep his head above the figurative water.

He wouldn't change it for the world. They toiled hard and a bone-deep satisfaction was their reward. This was his vacation. Ash spent about as much time lounging about as Jon spent with his nose buried in a book, but so what?

Anything was better than twiddling his thumbs, and the best way to recover from his sessions with Spiritomb was to get up and move. He had to live if he wanted to do this day after day.

Besides, he was happy to help the Sudmaunans. His team (most of them, anyway) took pleasure in their service.

The festival's organizers had been abuzz for weeks now as they tugged all the necessary strings. Sudmauna arranged for visitors, spent hundreds of man hours to prepare the site, and offered up all sorts of food and favor to the wild pokemon for their services. Job postings were made and every viable trainer was enlisted or paid off.

It was a madhouse.

Elder Amiri might be a plump, cheery woman, but she wielded her warm smile, induced guilt, and the respect she'd fostered like a whip. She was like the very concept of a grandmother stuffed into a single skin suit. That didn't stop her from running a tight ship.

Ash had seen through her within the first day.

"You want a break?" Amiri patted a local girl's cheek affectionately with a rueful smile. "Oh, bless your heart. We have a job to do, I'm afraid. The Origin Festival won't prepare itself, you know! Now off with you. Work hard, and I'll see if I can't whip up a treat for you."

Anyone who pushed for an extra break received the same treatment. Afterwards they weren't sure what had happened. They were shut down immediately, but left mollified and uncertain as to why they'd ever asked at all.

Ash respected her for it. She must have been quite the trainer in her youth, and Amiri hadn't let that talent slip between her fingers. Four scuffed pokeballs (all in the old style preferred by Professor Oak and Fino) were proudly displayed as a necklace.

Elder Amiri was a one-woman army, but she wasn't the only elder involved.

"No, not there! There! Don't just fumble with it - Amiri will gut you if that falls. No more cookies for you, pipsqueak!"

Mahaka braced himself and readjusted the clay pot he hauled. It was far too big for his tiny frame. The boy couldn't have been older than nine and had started following Ash around like a lost Growlithe during their rare breaks.

Ash moved to help him, but it was too late. Mahaka teetered back and forth with the effort to carry the pottery and bumped into several other children and pokemon along his path. One of them growled and shoved Mahaka back.

He was going to fall -

Bruiser effortlessly shifted the twenty-foot log on his shoulder so he could spare a hand to steady the boy. Ash smiled at the scene, especially when Mahaka gleefully chattered out a few words of thanks.

The stream of commands from the grizzle man beside him never let up.

"Hurry up, Mahona! Stop flirting with Diego and get to work on those banners, you lazy little thing! Don't you dare laugh at her, Tane. I see you hiding behind those sacks. I'll have your hide if you don't shape up!"

Ash snorted as the children and young trainers sprinted to and fro at the verbal lashing. Elder Amiri cajoled and nudged just so to get things done. This overseer treated every problem as if it were a nail and himself a hammer.

"Rotten little squirts!" Elder Rawiri's mustache quivered with displeasure as his raptor-like eyes scanned the beach for any sign of laziness or insubordination. His bare, oiled scalp gleamed beneath the sun. Thick, twisted pink scar tissue caked his skull, although his face had been spared by whatever flame had swallowed him. "Always trying to sneak off… disgusting! No appreciation and no respect means no mercy!"

Rawiri was only a few inches taller than Ash himself, but he managed to cut a frightful figure nonetheless. His bellows and red face made him a giant in the eyes of the children, who didn't dare plead for sympathy. They knew he'd give them a good tongue-lashing when it was deserved. Most of the young workers fled the moment they heard Rawiri's cane clacking closer.

The man's prickly nature initially rubbed Ash the wrong way. Initially it was only Glacia's lessons that kept his tongue in check, but he soon discovered a few of Rawiri's redeeming qualities.

First, he made a habit of sneaking candy to a dozen children a day (and far more pokemon).

If you were a hard worker or volunteer he offered praise. If you came up with better ways to accomplish a task he would congratulate you and find a fitting reward. If you were caught offering a hand to those in need he'd press a little trinket or seashell into your palm. If you were a big-eyed toddler doing your best he would make you feel like the biggest kid on the beach.

If you pulled your weight he would reward you… and demand you never tell anyone where you got the candy, of course.

Second, Rawiri held himself to even higher standards. He must have been at least seventy and trapped in a failing body. Rawiri relied on a beautifully polished red-and-grey cane shaped from the discarded lance of an Escavalier to get around, but he still threw himself into every task he could.

The old man helped the children lift with his good arm and pushed things into their proper place. He'd press his weight against beams as more experienced workers or pokemon hammered them into place.

Ash never thought a man with a peg leg could move so swiftly.

Third, Rawiri never appeared without his uniform. The dichotomy between his spitting exterior and softer center intrigued him, but Rawiri's olive green fatigues and the frayed red badge displayed proudly on his frail chest truly caught his attention. His uniform was worn and patched, but there was no doubt they were painstakingly cared for.

It frustrated him that he couldn't recognize the badge. He couldn't look at it without his brain itching. The cloth must have been a vivid crimson once, but the years had dulled it to the color of dried blood.

Ash could've beaten around the bush and hunted down the information himself in a long hunt for knowledge.

But he was busy, so he just asked the grumpy old sailor about it instead.

"I have a question."

Rawiri's face was stone. "Can it wait?"

"It can… but I'd rather know now."

"Not even going to pretty it up?" Rawiri paused to holler at a few passing children and the chirping trio of Swablu hanging above, then patted his patch proudly. "Whatever. The Crimson Wings, Drake's finest."

"The First to Follow."

Rawiri's knuckles whitened around his metal cane. "You know our words?"

"I do."

The old man harrumphed.

"If only our own children were so dutiful. Look at this lot! They'd rather dream their dreams and run off to the mainland as soon as they're old enough to stretch their legs. No respect, I tell you!"

Ash was reminded of his conversation with withered old Caterina. "What's wrong with dreams?"

"We all had a dream once. You'd know all about that, wouldn't you? You're… nine? Ten? It's hard to tell with these old eyes."

"Twelve."

Rawiri curled his lip, then pointedly glared over at a few slackers. One of them had his finger stuck up his nose, which Rawiri had some choice words for. They slunk back to their positions.

"It's all the same. You think three years is worth splitting hairs over? Forgive me if I don't think too much of what you have to say. It's salt in the sea, boy. Salt in the sea."

A few Gary-inspired caustic remarks were ready to fly off his tongue, but Ash imagined Jon expressing the same thoughts. Nothing would change and Rawiri wasn't half as patient as an old sage like Pryce. He felt a surge of affection for the Mahogany Gym Leader.

There was so much that Ash wished to say to that, but he held his tongue as he imagined Jon expressing the same thoughts. It wouldn't change anything, and Rawiri wasn't half as patient as a man like Pryce. Ash felt a sudden surge of affection for the old Mahogany Gym Leader.

Butting heads wouldn't accomplish much, but he was still going to pry what he could from Rawiri.

"Then I'll listen. Hoenn's new to me. There's so much I don't know, but I want to understand."

Rawiri looked at him for a moment, shook his head, and wordlessly tossed him a piece of salt water taffy. He unwrapped it and popped into his mouth as the elder began.

"I can't blather on all day. There's too much to do, so I won't repeat myself. You want to know our story?"

Ash nodded. His eyes locked on Rawiri's ancient face as the old man grumbled. Nidoking glared from across the beach as Rawiri roughly grabbed Ash's shoulder and angled him so he could look into Sudmauna's bay.

"See that little island - no, not there. There. No! Are you slow? Lords of Wind and Water, finally!"

Rawiri's rude commentary didn't do much for Ash's nerves, but he finally managed to locate the specific island pointed out to him. A dozen other shadowy mounds around it threw him off. Only the low rise of a slope and the distinctive shape of mangroves were discernible from this distance.

"What about it?"

"Aren't you supposed to be listening, not running your trap? Thing is, it's no island at all."

"So what is it?"

"I was getting to that! It's a bloody Unovan carrier, boy. Sunk, salvaged for whatever it was worth, and finally put to good use as a new habitat to replace the reefs they destroyed. Only good it ever did."

Rawiri spat a fat glob of saliva onto the sand. "Rotten commander wanted our island, and look at what it got him. I hope the bastard wallows in a pool of Hydreigon piss for the rest of time."

Well, that was an unpleasant image to be forced into his head. Ash shook it off as his mind set to work. "They needed an outpost?"

Rawiri spit again, then made a rude (but well-deserved) hand gesture at the distant ship. A few of the smaller children saw it and laughed, only to scurry when the crusty old veteran directed the gesture at them instead.

"Aye. Sudmauna was secure and distant from the great powers. We had no navy and the old Draconids were scattered to the four corners. The Vans wanted to turn us into their staging ground in the archipelago."

Ash trained his eyes on the sunken Unovan carrier. "I see how that worked out."

"That rustheap didn't come until later. We had to earn it! They gave us demands, we spat in their face, and they laughed. They had a strategy, see, and it worked wonders. The Vans liked to round up rowdy wild pokemon from their northern frontier. Catch 'em all, drug 'em all, and dump them in enemy territory."

Rawiri spat again. "Local pokemon don't like the competition and hunt them. The transplants were fighting for their lives. Ripped the whole damn island apart."

Ash looked at the Escavalier cane clasped in Rawiri's shaking hands. Did that mean…?

"This is one of them. An old friend - a good friend. We took some in after the initial bloodbath. We offered safety if they'd join the resistance. We fought. The Vans tried to break us. Executions. Hostages. They brought their Beheeyem in and shattered mind after mind."

The old man smiled humorlessly. His eyes were lost and unfocused. "We held out. They decided it wasn't worth the trouble and began shelling the village. Better to build atop the ashes than deal with us, see. Their Beheeyem couldn't break us all. We slowed them down and they needed a port. We left them no other choice."

Ash gestured to the sunken carrier. It was shocking to realize he'd have never noticed its true nature without Rawiri pointing it out. The years hadn't been kind to it. All sorts of sediment and mud had accumulated to disguise its shape. Corsola might have initially been attracted to its sturdy frame, and the rest would have been history.

"So how did you bring down that?"

"We gave it our best. We were a bunch of fools trying to play hero. Old Malia and I flew with the others while our village burned, but we couldn't make ti through. Their Aviator Corps were waiting for us. They picked us off like Swellow swooping up Magikarp."

Rawiri's face was blank.

"They made a game out of us. Ten for the Tropius! Twenty for the Altaria! Five for every islander head!"

A dull hollowness filled his chest. It reminded him of what Spiritomb inspired. All Ash could do was listen to these old horrors.

"And then it was over. We heard a roar. The shelling stopped. All of a sudden it was quiet, so quiet, like we'd stepped into the eye of a hurricane. Like the whole world realized a predator was afoot. You should have seen it!"

"The carrier forgot the village. It dropped everything and turned all its fire to the western skies. The Braviary abandoned us. We pulled ourselves together, got ready to go after the carrier… then there was a green flash, brighter than all the Vans' pyrobombs combined, and the carrier fell apart! It split like a twig!"

Rawiri pounded his frail old chest with his good hand and saluted off to the west. Ash could imagine the scent of smoke and seawater, the cry of Braviary and Tropius tangled together, and the guttural roar that froze them all. That old victory gave the elder some respite, but Ash still felt the old man's burden.

How many had died for that one moment?

"Drake."

"Good Champion Drake sent them running. He tore through them like fang through flesh. His dragons plucked wings and offered the riders up to us. The Good Champion won our battle, then came down and helped rebuild our village with his own two hands. We took our pound of flash. From there… you know your history, boy. I can see it in your eyes."

"The First to Follow," Ash murmured. "It all started here."

Rawiri's chest puffed out like Plume when she saw her own reflection. "We offered ourselves before any of the mainlanders. History was made here! Some stayed to rebuild. Others followed the Dragon Master to Lilycove. The Ever Grande Accord was struck. By the end we followed the Good Champion to foreign shores. Castelia, Mistralton…"

His good hand brushed over the Crimson Wings patch on his breast and then went to his peg leg. Rawiri's missing arm stood out all the more prominently with the green sleeve of his fatigues tied into a clumsy knot over the absent limb.

"War's shit. Try to avoid them."

Ash nodded along numbly. His mind was still whirring with all he'd heard. There were so many connections to be made. There were so many paragraphs to bring to life!

"The Good Champion remembered our loyalty. We earned our seat at the table as equals. His League was a good one. A strong one."

"It's still the same League. Drake's still on the Elite Four… and Wallace is from the archipelago."

Rawiri burst out laughing. It was a frightful sight. "Oh, you really don't know anything! Wallace is Sootopolis through and through. Pretty-boy is a mainlander. I don't care what rot he spits. He doesn't know us and never has. If only one of our own had been strong enough to claim that throne!"

Ash frowned.

"Are things really that bad? I know the League is stretched thin, but…"

He could only gesture at the village as his words failed him. It was still scarred from the 'freak' hurricanes and a bit rundown, but its people bustled, laughed, and worked in harmony with the pokemon around them. Sudmauna wasn't pristine, but it burst with life.

Rawiri was silent. "It's a hard job," he allowed. "The Good Champion was up to the task. His soft little successors, though? They don't have the grit. How the Dragon Master ever lost to those delicate little flowers…"

Ash himself could give a play-by-play breakdown about what missteps had sealed Drake's fate in those battles, but he didn't think Rawiri would appreciate it. Those battles were some of his favorites and he'd watched them again and again to pick apart strategies and techniques. Rawiri would just lament every wrong turn or pick apart any perceived fault in Steven and Wallace's approaches regardless.

"The League's trying. They're good people."

"Aye, I suppose they are. Good Champion Drake wouldn't step aside for anything less, even if the mainlanders sink their claws deeper year by year. But good men have failed us before. I expect they'll do so again. You can't patch a gaping hole with a dishrag and pray the ship won't sink. And until they figure things out, we have Aq… our own to turn to."

The slip didn't go unnoticed by either of them. Ash's stomach tightened. Rawiri seemed ready to finish on that note and was quick to give a few nearby children some scathing reprimands as his temper fouled. Rawiri turned to Ash again, tossed him a few pieces of taffy, and sent him away.

Elder Amiri hadn't joked about how badly they needed assistance. The great wooden stages for the crowd were the primary project, but preparing the materials for the ceremony was only a tenth of the battle.

Mewtwo's hurricanes had done a horrible number on the town. The mainland's interior was largely spared, but the islands and coasts were vulnerable to the storms. Many homes sported obvious patches and others had been reconstructed entirely. Whole streets had been repaved and cleared of debris. Sudmauna's power grid had been utterly ruined by the howling winds and torrential downpours.

But the people had rebuilt nonetheless.

They'd done a fine job, but the reconstruction of critical infrastructure meant the splintered remains of their wooden stands, ceremonial site, and viewing platforms had been neglected.

Amiri was efficient enough that they would have pulled off a successful ceremony no matter what, but Steven and Ash's appearance brought a resurgence. Their efforts offered hope for the festival's old glory to shine through, and Amiri was determined to wring them dry to ensure the Origin Festival would go off without a hitch.

Metagross (well, their psychic powers) had earned her undying love. They'd almost single-handedly tripled the rate of construction at Steven's command. Stands and platforms came together shockingly fast. The pace only increased when Claydol took charge of the rest of the team and put them to task.

It only took a day for the project's skeleton to be raised.

The wide variety of Ash's family meant they could do what Steven's could not. Nidoking patrolled the beach and roads as Ash's shadow. He frequently corralled wayward or lazing pokemon and trainers into action with a stern glare or disgusted snort.

Nidoking inspired nearly as much fear as Rawiri these days. He had little patience for anyone who wouldn't pull their own weight. He'd spent the last year around Ash and the rest of the team, after all, and they were nothing but driven. Laziness was anathema to him.

While Nidoking domineered the horde and nipped at the figurative heels of anyone who caught his ire, the rest of the team soon found their places in the madness.

A legion of water-types bowed to Torrent's every command. Every toss of his horned head sent his followers clamoring to do his bidding, and his presence brought order to the disorganized masses of the young trainers and recruited wild pokemon.

Long string of admirers trailed behind him at all hours of the day. It didn't matter whether Torrent was working or spending time with the team. Ash had even caught a besotted wild Seadra puffing her scaly chest out whenever Torrent levitated by.

Torrent's retinue expanded by the day. It didn't take long for his collaboration with Nidoking to bear fruit. They worked well together, and an experienced local Swampert guided them in the construction of a simple microcosm of Hoenn on a nearby beach.

They'd reshaped the field of damp, seafoam-brushed sand into a vast intermixing of earth and water in mere hours.

Sand and hard-packed earth formed Hoenn's land. Torrent and his subjects painstakingly carved out an intricate system of canals to flood it properly. Ash had little input on this project. He'd been put to work keeping the kids to task alongside Dazed and Bruiser, both of whom proved useful in a dozen different ways.

Even Seeker found pleasure in venturing out on her own to carry messages to and fro. Her natural speed and agility made her ideal for the task once dusk fell and the sun's searing rays faded away. Ash's heart warmed to see her so animated, and he found himself writing entirely unnecessary messages to Steven, even as his teacher's replies became more and more bemused by the day.

Infernus and Spiritomb were the obvious exceptions. Ash still carved out an hour to fly to Helo's Tower and sit with Spiritomb, but he knew it would be an awful idea to let it out anywhere near the town. Unspeakable trauma might put a bit of a downer on the festival.

As for Infernus, he had his own niche to fill. He was content to train within the confines of the volcano for now, even if he'd been bitterly disappointed with the lack of monsters buried in its depths. The mated Magmortar pair in the chamber hadn't met his standards.

The days would pass quickly like this, but that only spurred him to invest more and more of himself into the good work. Every bit he could spare was poured into the project.

It was nice to build something for once.

XX

Sudmauna's clock tower chimed ten times.

Every light was extinguished. Families flipped breakers and snuffed candles. The night flooded in like a rising tide. Its darkness was heavy and weighty, almost suffocating, and thick enough that Ash could almost feel it against his skin.

Only the silver sickle of a waxing crescent moon and the milky sea of glittering stars pierced the veil. Even their radiance was obscured by a hazy shroud of flat grey clouds.

Sneasel was in his element.

He pranced by Ash's side, nearly invisible in the shadows. Ash could only perceive him by the faint rustles of his soft fur and the occasional thump of his velvet paws against the freshly erected bridge they traveled on.

Ash's Feather outshone the stars tonight. It was a constant effort to suppress the rainbow glow. The conduit was eager, perhaps feeding off his own anticipation and the energy that filled the air, and desired nothing more than to dance along to his heartbeat and the sound of the Song in his ears.

The day was long, but it felt so good to be here now. Everyone in the village had emptied from their homes to filter into the sacred cove at sunset. They'd begun the first stages of their celebration, although the real party wouldn't start until after the ceremony.

Ash had spent the early hours of the night with Steven and their teams. They'd enjoyed a well-deserved respite after a long day of rehearsals and last minute alterations.

Part of him wished he could have joined the townsfolk. He probably would have ended up enjoying the early celebrations from afar, but it still would have been nice. Ash didn't want to intrude, though. They had their own part to play.

"Are you excited?"

Sneasel hissed back and rushed off into the night. He wouldn't stray far. Tangrowth was happy to steal Ash for himself and waddled alongside him with a vine laced tightly around Ash's hand. His huge eyes reflected the faint starlight as he gurgled happily. Ash could hear the rest of his vines dragging along the wood and sand.

"I know you are!" Ash squeezed Tangrowth's vine. His friend took that as an invitation and it was only moments before Ash was snagged in a dozen vines and clutched close in a warm, rubbery hug. The scent of earth and rainforests filled Ash's nostrils. "I love you too, Tangrowth. Do you feel ready?"

Tangrowth wriggled all over.

"Just make sure to keep Infernus in line, okay? You know how he is. I'm trusting you!"

Tangrowth's vines looped around Ash to support him properly, then hauled him up around his 'shoulders' to carry him as he walked. Ash looped his hands into Tangrowth's wriggling shell for a little extra grip and smiled again as some of Tangrowth's vines supported him from below like a seat.

"You're the best."

Ash's weight was like a feather to Tangrowth. He enjoyed the comfortable ride, even as Sneasel appeared from the darkness and whined pitifully. The little dark-type stretched out his arms in silent pleading. There was no way that Tangrowth could resist that.

Sneasel was wrapped up and tossed onto Ash's shoulder just a few seconds later.

"Couldn't help yourself, huh?"

The dark-type hissed and looped his wiry arms around Ash's neck as Tangrowth carried them steadily onward. Ash spent a moment looking up at the stars and pointing out familiar constellations to his friends, but soon found himself more focused on the rise and fall of Tangrowth's happy gait and the warmth of Sneasel's fuzzy cheek pressed against his neck instead.

Forget the heavens. Ash had everything he needed right here.

It wasn't long before they arrived at their destination. The organizers dedicated themselves to preserving the darkness, but they were paying for their efforts if the assortment of arguments, curses, and low growls from the dunes were anything to go by.

Steven was already in place on the other side of the cove. They should still have a solid forty minutes before the ceremony began.

His nerves writhed under his skin like electric cables as the anticipation mounted. Ash took a deep breath to steady himself. They'd spent hours preparing for this night. Old Rawiri and a dozen other elders corrected Ash's team again and again until their critical eyes found no fault. That was something he could take comfort in.

Rawiri was very good at finding the tiniest flaws in otherwise ironclad performances. If Rawiri was satisfied, then the only person Ash would worry about disappointing was himself.

…Well, that didn't help his nerves any. There was no turning back now. Ash had made a commitment.

"You're here!"

A tiny face (had he ever been that small?) peered up at him. It was barely distinguishable in the darkness. The boy giggled as Tangrowth poked and prodded with one of his vines, but quickly grew more serious as one of the leather-skinned elders sent him a pointed look.

"Mahaka. You look prepared."

He'd grown fond of the boy, even if Mahaka's obsession with trailing after him could be annoying. Mahaka was the ringleader of Ash's own cohort. They all tended to blend together with Nidoking and Torrent's fans.

Mahaka was carefully garbed in an assortment of traditional clothing. A long, richly decorated skirt woven of several varieties of green fiber hung around his hips. Bits of broken Clamperl shell encrusted the fabric and a belt of iridescent Heart Scales was clasped around his waist.

His chest was washed in deep blue pigment that blended in perfectly with the night. Its even color was only broken by an intricate pattern of bright crimson lines that sparked something in Ash's memory.

The boy's feet and calves were painted a rich brown that was difficult to see in the darkness, although the brilliant veins of orange and red streaked over them in an intricate network of bright vessels caught some light.

Atop the boy's green-painted head was a crown of dragon fangs. They'd been carefully gathered over the years and preserved for ritual use. Most of the teeth were the long, jagged knives of old Salamence, obviously prized and painstakingly cared for, but amidst the mass were also a handful of Dragonite teeth, the grinding molars of a Flygon, an Altaria's talons, and a rather fresh looking set.

Ash suspected the newest fangs originally belonged in a Hydreigon's maw.

"It took forever to get all this on!" The boy complained. Mahaka still flexed and grinned. "But it's pretty cool, huh? Maro's gonna be so jealous!"

He snorted and sent Mahaka scurrying off with a few encouraging words. The different squads were beginning to pair up. It only took a moment to find his crew of trainers and wild pokemon. Ash wasn't really in charge, but the strength of his team meant that they took the lead during the ceremony.

The dunes soon became a bustling hive of activity. It warmed his heart to see so many busy people and pokemon stop to greet Tangrowth affectionately. His friend had made himself well-known these last few weeks.

"Let's go!"

His group was ten trainers strong. It was largely composed of young locals who hadn't quite worked up the courage to leave home on a journey yet. Ash released his team and motioned for the others to do the same.

"Torrent and Oz, you're with Anton and Izzy. Infernus and Tangrowth, up on the ridge with Maia and Sparkly. Dazed, with me. Bruiser, they need you down on the shore. Seeker, I need you to take something to Steven…"

They'd rehearsed this all before. His orders came swift and easier. The energy in the air infected them all with a wild fervor. It didn't live up to the pounding adrenaline before a battle, but it might be the next best thing. The anticipation lacked the intensity that set his pulse pounding and set his blood aflame, but he relished the satisfaction of seeing all these moving parts and hours of effort coming smoothly together.

He supposed it reminded him of the thrill of watching one of Tangrowth or Infernus' traps set off successfully. There was nothing like spending an entire battle lining up the pieces and watching the terror in the opponent's eyes when they realized they'd been caught.

Ash had a hard time imagining a sweeter sight.

Plume cooed softly at the sight of him. Ash brushed her plumage with his thumb and smiled. "It's pretty dark up there. Will you be able to see everything?"

His comment merited an undignified squawk and a quick nip. Ash laughed and quickly stroked Plume to appease her. "I know, I know. What was I thinking? You're queen of the sun and the stars."

She nodded back fervently, but she was still a bit offended. Ash snorted and whistled a few notes of the Song, smiling as Plume bobbed her head to the tune. Its peace soothed her poked pride and it wasn't long before she took off in a gust of wind and left them all behind.

"Ash, we need you over on the ridge! Your Magmortar is scaring the kids…"

He'd say that was unexpected, but... well, he'd best take care of that.

The ceremony ticked ever closer.

XX

Stars glittered like diamonds overhead. The veil of clouds still swallowed the majority of their light, but enough pierced them to illuminate the faint rocking of waves on the black ocean. It drank up every droplet of moonlight that scattered across its surface and extended on forever like a void.

The wind carried the scent of sea salt and mud. Only the rhythmic lapping of the dark waves against the pale sands of the beach, the steady rise and fall of the teeming crowd's quiet words, and the faint commotion of the hidden organizers filled the air.

Every inhabitant of Sudmauna was represented, human and pokemon alike. Hordes of people lined the dark beach. Friends and family stood together as wild and trained pokemon intermixed with the crowd. Their calm presence lent weight to the restless mass of humanity. The energy in the air infected them as well, but the pokemon knew the importance of what was to come.

Ash picked out the subtle rocking of Ludicolo, eerily still Nosepass, and countless others all here to pay their respects to the natural world that birthed them.

Something awoke in Ash's mind, dark, cold, and… curious?

A great silence overtook them all as the minutes slid by. Chirps, growls, and songs fell to the wayside. Shouts and whispers died down. Even the wind fell silent and the sea splash muted.

The darkness grew more poignant by the moment. It was unmarred by torchlight or flashing cameras and even the subtlest sounds seemed drowned in its cloak. Ash's own breath froze in his chest.

… Then a baby wailed its little lungs out. The tension shattered as its mother frantically shushed the infant.

It was only a brief reprieve. The silence mounted until a single voice shattered it.

"In the beginning, there was the void."

His senses screamed as a new shadow filled the night.

Before, the darkness was the mundane absence of light. It suddenly grew thick and terrible with writhing, aberrant power. From all around the beach the world tore and distorted beneath the new burden. Little pinpricks of Not prodded from all directions, but the greatest by far burst like a noxious geyser from the dunes to his west.

It wasn't a proper Mind Breaker, but the Distorted power that Sneasel poured into the world struck the crowd mute. The spectral veil was gentle, more like a light grip than a choking grasp, but it washed over them like a rotten tide and froze the great crowd.

The world darkened further and further as a dozen dark-types and a handful of ghosts poured their essence into the world to recreate the primal void. A mass of dark energies brought the night into life as the stars and moonlight bent and refracted. It devoured everything it touched and the light soon faded.

It wasn't long before the Distortion permeated the entire cove.

"In the timeless, spaceless void there was nothing, and from nothing sprang the world!"

In an instant the shadows faded and the night regained its former softness. The void retreated and the world seemed to exhale in relief along with the crowd. A new power soon swept the gnawing Distortion away.

Dazed's eyes burned blue. Another azure-shrouded figure blazed from across the cove. Steven and Claydol were stationed over there. Metagross had little aptitude for their work and was most likely placed where its telekinesis could be put to good use.

Both psychics channeled in unison. They thrummed with a great swell of strength. Smaller lights soon blazed with them as their subordinates fed their masters power to spin into existence.

"The shadows of the void settled into the black waters of the abyss."

An illusory figure woven from psychic power appeared beneath the waters. Its shape was impossible to discern, but was easily as vast as a Wailord. The figure's appearance broke the darkness and the crowds could see the true enormity of the endless ocean before them, although the beach remained cloaked in shadow.

"As the waters settled over the bedrock of reality, fires erupted and land formed."

A blazing heat washed over the gathered crowd at the signal. Scattered fire-types turned their heads to the sky and spat hot gouts of flame to illuminate the world, but they only heralded something greater. Another spectral figure manifested. It was craggy and misshapen like a hot coal and loomed over the onlookers like a mountain.

Great globs of lava sailed through the air from farther down the coast. Their fiery glow outshone everything else, even the leviathan beneath the waters. All eyes tracked the molten heaps as the air warped and twisted around them.

Tangrowth and Infernus' aim was true. Nearly a dozen of the massive spheres struck the ocean like comets! Enormous bursts of hissing steam exploded from the sea as the lava made contact. The dark waters churned as great waves tore up at the elemental clash.

The waves soon broke against the shore, but more and more lava came down like rain until the noise rolled like thunder and the crowd feared the storm would grow out of hand.

A steady patter of rain came down, spawned into existence by a handful of well-trained water-types capable of maintaining a Rain Dance, and only added to the chaos as the clouds thickened.

Boom!

Lightning flashed and the crowd quailed. Oz hurled Lightning Bolt after Lightning Bolt while the pokemon crowded all around her used Flash and Thunder to emphasize her mighty display. The world threatened to come apart at the seams as thunder rolled, the sea raged, and lava fell again and again.

Tangrowth and Infernus kept tossing lava into the sea until it was set wild and whipping and a thick layer of steam roiled above the entire cove. The lava was swallowed by the sea and sank to the bottom, though superheated water continued to billow upward and form a great white pillar over the frenzied surface.

"From their conflict, the firmament was born! Tired of the endless clash of the Earth and Sea, the Sky descended from the newborn heavens and quelled their long war."

Dazed and Claydol refocused. A gleaming serpentine figure appeared within the mist, terrible and beautiful and coiled in fury.

Boom!

Oz put her training in Storm Surge to good use, for a bolt of true lightning descended from the clouds and struck the sea. The brilliant arc illuminated the entire world for a brief instant, bringing the rolling waters, the sodden sands, and the angry black clouds above into focus.

… Ash hoped Oz hadn't overdone it. The lightning hadn't struck her, but that effort might have left her exhausted.

But he had little time to think of it. Ash watched with bated breath as a phantom swept over the island. It was too swift to see, invisible in the night, but its effects instantly made themselves known.

A sonic boom burst above them all, frightening the children and setting everyone's nerves on edge, and Ash heard the first notes of a beautiful song as the sky's fury swept the rest away.

The crowd stumbled as a low-grade Gust hammered over them, strong enough to rock them but too weak to hurt anyone. Plume swept over them again to rock them one last time, then turned to smite the interlopers of earth and sea.

Lava surged again, only to be swatted from the sky with a Hurricane. The globs exploded into the sea in another burst of steam, which was also blown away and scattered with Plume's might. The clouds were banished as she shot through them in a blur. Plume proudly sang her own song and parted the clouds like a knife through butter.

She flew faster and faster and the world reshaped beneath her. Tangrowth and Infernus ceased their assaults, though Ash knew Infernus must have been tempted to throw one at Plume for real, and Torrent steadied the raging sea from his throne below the waves.

"The Sea grew weary and retreated to the deepest depths of the abyss. The Earth stumbled and fell to rest. And so the Sky tamed the world!"

Dazed sagged as she and Claydol released the titanic illusions and allowed all but the serpentine form of Rayquaza, the Sky, to drift away into nothingness. The serpent uncoiled, roared in a terrible display emphasized by a Hurricane spat by Plume, and then sailed off into the scattered clouds.

"You've got this. Just a little longer."

He allowed Dazed to rest against his shoulder for a moment. Ash felt a moment of loss when she quickly regained the strength to stand on her own.

Thank you, Friend-Trainer.

"Of course."

Silence reigned in the aftermath of the violent displays and the sudden onset of Plume's forced peace. The world settled and stilled, as if it were afraid to disturb the newfound tranquility. What could be more terrifying than inviting the Sky back?

And then it shattered.

A sudden eruption of song deeper than language burst from the beach. Humans and pokemon alike lent their voices to the handful of experienced masters guiding the rest. Flutes whistled alongside other woodwind instruments which Ash couldn't name to cut an undercurrent that carried steady beneath the mortal voices.

There was an intentional discord between the singers and their instruments as it first began. Yet a new harmony emerged as it continued. It settled in comfortably with the lapping of the calmed ocean. New voices joined and piled on faster and faster until the initial song became a chorus of thousands as the onlookers lent their voices to the world.

Something about the tune struck him. It carried so naturally with the wind and came in accordance with the waves. It struck a chord buried deep in his spirit. It reminded him of an old friend and beckoned forth an aching nostalgia for seafloor depths that Ash had never seen.

The moon shone a more brilliant silver than before.

This was a hollow facsimile, an echo lingering perhaps a thousand years or more since it last sounded here, but he knew.

"It's the Song. They're singing Lugia's Song!"

Dazed's pendulum leapt in her hand. Her eyes burned blue in the night as she enmeshed herself in the natural world.

Yes.

The pearlescent flute gifted to him after Shamouti appeared in his hand almost subconsciously. Ash raised it to his lips and added his own contribution without a second thought. There was something magical about acting in concert with so many other living things. His melody merged seamlessly with the rest, and something in the voices of the crowd shifted, as if finally recognizing they were singing a half-composed tune.

Ash's sound was subtle, playing deep beneath the rest, but even so it became the core of the performance. Voices layered around it. The musicians subtly altered their notes, and the black sea softened and went flat as a mirror as the Song cast its serene spell on the world.

Then it shifted! Flutes fell away in favor of great, pounding drums that stirred something primal within him. He allowed the Song to die down as this new beat struck him. The villagers roared and pounded their feet against the sand.

Thump.

The drums hammered.

Thump.

The villagers roared.

Thump.

The beach trembled at Nidoking's behest.

Thump.

For a moment he was back on Mt. Chimney and lost in the roots of the earth. The even breathing of a great beast… Ash shuddered and found himself back in the present, and found himself imagining the Earth's heartbeat pounding beneath him.

It continued for a long time. The villagers poured all their primordial spirit into the performance, then cut off abruptly. The musicians didn't miss a beat, however, and the flutes returned with a new tune. The new beat wasn't so firm and mighty as the Earth's, nor as serene as the half-forgotten Song, but fell somewhere in between.

Content tranquility thrummed, ready to be roused to apocalyptic anger should its peace be disturbed.

If Ash had to describe it in a word, he would say it was tension. There was an uncomfortable and frantic tautness to the new sound. But he found certain notes familiar, and soon his instrument joined the rest. He didn't play the familiar Song now. Instead he drew on the counter notes he'd learned from the Beasts, the equal and complementary sounds that filled in gaps and created a cohesive whole with Lugia's Song.

"And with the Sea and the Earth tamed, the Sky slept! The abyss fostered the first life in its cradle and it spread throughout the Sea and onto the Earth's skin. But the world turned on itself again and again and life was beaten back."

The sea stirred. Steam billowed forth as Tangrowth helpfully tossed an enormous ball of lava that dripped hot stone over the tumultuous waters.

"And each time they did, the Sky came thundering down!"

Oz's companions made a massive Flash that blinded them all as she clapped her hands together and beckoned forth a roll of thunder that rattled the crowd's bones.

"Between these battles, the Moon was born of the Abyssal Sea. The Primordial Earth's blood congealed and joined its side. Resplendent Sky, eager to illuminate its beauty, spawned the Sun!"

Dazed quivered under the strain as she and Claydol guided the lesser psychics again. The titanic illusions manifested, but only lasted a few moments this time before they slipped away.

"And so the cycle repeated ten thousand times. At last, humanity was born! It grew strong and wise in its cradle, and spilled forth."

A long row of torches lit as one, likely sparked to life by Metagross' fine control over Elemental Synthesis. The tiny figure of Mahaka in his regalia greeted the crowd, grinning madly as thousands of eyes landed on him. Light barely beat back the darkness, but the darkness was so complete that the boy might as well have had a spotlight on him.

Anyone could have recognized how happy Mahaka was, but he adopted a serious expression. Amiri continued to speak.

"Humanity found beautiful lands and fine partners… and yet one day the Earth rose again and the Sea with it."

More torches lit until the entire beach was visible. Onlookers blinked, yet soon oohed and aahed at the facsimile of Hoenn carved into the beach. Nidoking and Torrent's work was well-regarded as they all admired the perfect divisions of land and sea.

Several notable landmarks had been shaped by the pair. Mt. Chimney and its branching mountains were symbolized with upraised boulders, as was Mt. Pyre to the east. Ash noted that the archipelago was shaped with exquisite detail, particularly around Sudmauna. There was far more landmass in the archipelago than there should have been…

Then it was swept away by a violent explosion from the mountains. Fire belched out and frightened those nearest to it. A great rush of heat billowed out and the continent cracked, but that was nothing compared to the shrieks that appeared when Torrent summoned a great wave from the ocean.

Half of Hoenn was drowned in an instant. Much of it was swept away entirely and pulled into the great sea. Mahaka squawked as he fell into the mud, but recovered his footing with impressive speed.

"When the Sea rose, its terrible power sunk the south and the east! The Earth fought hard to reclaim its lost territory, but it was for naught. Humanity feared its end! Our lands were devoured by the great flood, and the Sea would not relinquish them. Oracles foresaw the catastrophe, and guided our people to the highest mountaintops!"

Mahaka staggered, covered in mud and seaspray, and clung to one of the surviving 'mountains' of the new archipelago. He was soaked wet, thoroughly miserable, yet still wore it all like a badge of honor.

The sea came alive with a tempest at Torrent's command. Clouds thickened anew and rain poured down in great sheets. Lava burst forth from the cove to match it. A hill to the south shuddered, quaked, and exploded with smoke and molten rock - Ash could just imagine Infernus' cackle in the rumbling beneath his feet.

Lava spilled as Earth Burn stole the attention of the crowd, hissing and bubbling and roiling as it rolled down the hill and clashed with the sea in a terrible display.

More and more lava bursts roared up. Each new explosion sent the sea into new chaos as the steam pillars piled higher and higher.

"Our ancestors watched the world break from this peak. Days passed and the conflict raged hotter and hotter. Soon they feared even their sanctuary would come apart. The Earth and Sea waxed in power, but neither could win! At last, the Sky appeared on the horizon, furious its long slumber was broken and guided by the hopes and dreams of humanity to Hoenn."

A single flash of lightning punctuated Amiri's tale, but it was unlike any other they'd seen. Oz summoned her full might for this, and Ash knew she'd probably collapsed… but it was worth it. For a moment the whole world stood still as the heavens lit with the light of a sun.

The enormous arc of white lightning hung precariously in the air, streamers dancing in every direction before it found its true mark. He could imagine Oz's fist raised proudly and her form consumed with power as the stark lance found it.

Screams burst forth from the crowd at the ferocity of the sound and sight, and the Feather on his chest arced hungrily as it resonated with the expression of Lightning.

It vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The light vanished. The moment was broken, but its impact was not forgotten. Sea stilled and Earth quieted, cowed by the display… although Torrent and Infernus were probably raring for a fight after all this.

"When it was over, the Sky returned to its throne as Sea and Earth hid away for their long slumber. May they never wake again!"

"May they never wake again!" The crowd chanted in unison. Ash's stomach sank.

"Our people saw the new world and forgot the old. The seas stretched far now, and we made our home on Sudmauna - and we will never leave!"

"We will never leave!"

"Come forth, children of Sudmauna, and offer your bounty. Pay your respects to the world that birthed us!"

More torches lit. The whole town was unveiled. Families awoke from their spell and blinked away the sudden light. Every family carried a discarded Clamperl shell. Ash and Steven wouldn't participate in this part of the ceremony, but Ash saw many of the native trainers stepping toward the water.

Family after family walked their way to the shore hand-in-hand. Every Clamperl shell was fit to bursting with treasured trinkets, favorite foods, and various wishes and hopes inscribed into the shell itself by chisel or written neatly onto little bits of paper.

Desires for a bountiful year, for the blessings of the sea to be theirs… Sudmauna had long depended on the ocean for survival, and that need was clear as day in the reverence they held for it.

They held that the mighty Sea once swept their old homes away, but celebrated the new home they'd been given. The ocean was feared and loved in equal measure.

It went on for a long, long time.

Sudmauna was just a small town, but the Origin Festival attracted attendees from dozens of nearby communities. Even the larger cities in the archipelago still held this place close to heart. Ash began to slouch as the minutes passed, but straightened immediately as Glacia's small frown filled his thoughts.

He couldn't say how Glacia had managed to build muscle memory in just a few days, but she'd managed the impossible.

Ash wished that the others could have been here to see this. His mom, Professor Oak, Gary, Jon and Amelia, little Molly… they should be here with him. Just imagine if Gary, Amelia, and Jon had been recruited to help with the ceremony. What a show they could have put on!

More thoughts filled his mind.

Did Lance ever attend the Origin Festival? He'd spent years in Hoenn and was close with Steven during that time. No doubt Drake and Fino were good friends. Rawiri had told Ash that Drake often made an effort to take part, generally playing the Sky while Fino played the Earth.

Every year brought a new performance. It heavily relied on whatever trainers were available to lend their talents. Ash could only hope that he'd done it justice.

Rites to honor the sea continued for some time. When the families had finished paying their respects, they opened the shells and splashed a tiny handful of water over the various offerings and pushed them out to sea. The shells bobbed like cradles on the waves as they were carried away. Torrent and his crew helpfully guide them out into the open ocean.

They didn't only pray to the ocean. The sea might rule their day-to-day lives, but the beach soon came to life with their offerings to the earth. Ash and Dazed watched fascinatedly as the people and pokemon unveiled hundreds of intricate creations.

Dozens of sandcastles were displayed. Some were vast, richly decorated palaces and others were simplistic forts shaped by a child's unsteady hands. Sculptures of glass and sand stood proudly with a similar range of quality. Great carvings and statues were lugged across the island and gathered awed attention. Many people placed offerings atop them or buried them into the sand.

Ash didn't miss the hungry pokemon scoping out likely spots to return to for a free meal.

"As we have paid respects to the sea, let us pay respects to the land that saved us!"

The crowd went silent, then bowed once to the great volcano which dominated the mountain.

"And now let us give thanks to the Sky which defended us!"

A great cheer rose, and the people turned to face the direction of the distant Sky Pillar on the horizon. During the day it was visible as a thin profile, but right now it vanished into the blackness of the night. The Sky Pillar was so immense that it could be seen nearly anywhere in the archipelago if you cared to look for it.

They fell to a knee as one and prostrated themselves in the sand. He could hear the low whisper of hundreds of murmured thanks, prayers, and litanies, but they offered no material offering or sacrifices as they had to the sea and earth.

And why would they? To the islanders, their very survival was an offering to Rayquaza. That they lived on was thanks to its intervention, and every day that went by was a mark of their affection for the great serpent.

The festival was their dedication.

Minutes passed steadily, and he imagined they might have rested in silent contemplation for half an hour before Amiri's voice broke the silence once more.

"We sit now in the darkness, as we did during our great trial! After seven days of toil, upon the passing of the last night, a rainbow stretched upon the horizon, a symbol of the Sun that our suffering was past. Let us spend the night in revelry until the sun breaks again! Dance, sing, feast, and make merry! We are alive, so let us act like it! Praise the sun!"

That earned a resounding cheer. Laughs carried on the wind as the tension of the ceremony broke, and the cohesion descended into cheerful chaos. Merchants sprinted for their stalls to prepare their wares. Families met and gathered to celebrate together. Children squealed as they played their games and chased their peers, adults, pokemon, and anyone else they could wrangle into their festivities.

Ash watched from afar with Dazed. All the other organizers rushed back to the beach to join the rest of the town - Ash suspected this was the most eagerly anticipated night of the year - and take part in the raucous festival.

All the coiled up tension was unleashed as the town came together to celebrate.

The darkness closed in. Ash paused to enjoy the peace and quiet. Stars glittered as the clouds dispersed, and he smiled as Plume landed with a joyful shriek.

"You were amazing!" Dazed rolled her eyes as Plume preened beneath the praise. "I loved how you tore through the clouds… I just wish everyone could have seen you. You were too fast for most of them!"

Plume cooed and nuzzled against him, though that soon cut off as Infernus teleported a short distance away. His fiery glow left Ash's eyes watering, and he seemed pleased with his contributions.

Ash offered him his own congratulations even while Tangrowth landed in their midst, having pulled himself along with his strong vines. Sneasel yowled from within a tangled cage of greenery. An opportunistic Tangrowth must have captured him on the way over.

Nidoking plodded along the sandy path with a few loyal stragglers keeping pace with him from a distance. His beady eyes were narrowed, but Ash could tell some part of him appreciated their loyalty.

"The others will be here soon," Ash leaned in close to Nidoking's massive form. Warmth radiated off him, softer than the eye-watering heat that radiated from Infernus. "Can your entourage give us a minute?"

Nidoking grunted softly. A dozen feet begrudgingly retreated. Ash wished he could make them out in the darkness. He suspected they were still skulking around to listen in on the proceedings, but oh well. There was nothing to do about that.

Nothing he was willing to do, anyways. Let them have their fun.

It wasn't long before Ash's words came true. First it was Seeker. She squeaked and flapped to herald Bruiser's approach. He hauled Oz's limp, crackling form over his shoulder like she was a sack of flour, although she was massive enough that he was drowning in a sea of black and white fur. Oz was barely conscious, but pumped her fist in victory when she saw Ash. Sparks danced down her shaggy coat, but Bruiser's grey hide was tough enough for him to shrug it off.

Ash snorted. "Thanks, Bruiser. I appreciate you making sure she got here okay. Oz, I think you might have overdone it. You look like a wrung out rag."

She fervently shook her head, but her current state reminded him of Steven when he'd accidentally had one too many drinks.

Nidoking's nostrils flared at the sight of Oz, a flicker of amusement dancing in his black eyes, but a swell of water on the beach distracted them before they could tease her. Torrent rose from the black waters with his head raised proudly.

None of his subjects had followed after him, but Ash suspected that they knew better. Nidoking might play tough, but he was a softy at heart.

Ash was content to sit with them and catch up for a few minutes. They eagerly soaked up praise, but more than anything they were just happy with their achievement.

The Origin Festival couldn't have occurred without them. Not like this, at any rate. They'd worked hard and invested countless hours into it. Now it was time to reap what they'd sown.

Ash thought back to the great displays of power and finesse, as well as the artistic flair hammered into them by the elders until they brushed perfection… Maybe there was something to Contests after all. They couldn't be so different from this.

But the lure of the festival was strong. They all stole glances at the raucous celebration. By now most of the villagers had broken out into wild dance. Bonfires blazed on the beach, often erected in circles around the offerings to Groudon. Dozens of goods-laden stalls had been raised to meet the demands for food and drink.

Laughter and shouts filled the air, along with the occasional crack of a fist or the roar of flame as impromptu pokemon battles broke out. It was the last that left Ash hungering like nothing else. Still, he was happy to spend the whole night with his team. The crowds would be difficult, he'd probably end up just standing at a distance lost in his own mind anyways -

A soft presence slid against his mind and seemed to encircle his anxious thoughts.

Join them. We are with you.

His heart pounded. The Feather seared him as it fed on the fuel he offered, and at last he quelled the sensations and was himself again. Ash smiled hesitantly as Sneasel clambered up around his shoulders, Torrent offered a low nod, and Nidoking took his place on his side.

… Tangrowth was already inching towards the festival, vines wriggling in anticipation. This was what he'd been looking forward to all along. Where else could he make so many new friends?

Ash exhaled. "Okay, you got me. Let's go."

It was time to join the rest of humanity.

XX

Chaos! Pure unadulterated madness. He hadn't seen so many people in one place since the Indigo Conference. Energy bled through the air and animated people that much more. Passions rose, blood pumped, and it seemed everyone was doing their utmost to honor the life their ancestors had bought them.

The village smelled of smoke and sand from the festivities, along with the distant smell of rain that faded by the minute. Scents of strange, delicious foods filled his nose and beckoned him towards the stalls, although the teeming mass of humans that clogged Sudmauna's cramped streets put him off for now. Still, Ash couldn't help but study them with blatant fascination.

They fought harder, laughed louder, and indulged more in dance and song and drink than he'd ever seen - Sudmauna was alive, and Ash could feel the music in his bones. His foot tapped along, though he absolutely refused to be pulled into the midst of all these people, let alone dance.

He'd rather not embarrass himself, thank you very much. Glacia's brief pointers hadn't covered the lively dancing found here. The dark corners were perfectly fine. Ash was content to enjoy the festival from a safe distance.

League Rangers patrolled among the populace to keep the peace. They seemed just as eager as the rest of them, though, and were welcomed with open arms by most. He could easily pick them out at their posts or skirting purposefully around the throngs, but his eyes were sharp enough to pick a few others on a similar mission.

They were clearly locals, or at least natives of the archipelago, and they moved just like the Rangers. He could tell they wanted to keep a low profile, but they were too loud and too happy to stick with it. Most patrolled with a single Ludicolo or Pelipper. The majority carried a few extra pokeballs on their belt.

This came in all sorts of different outfits (usually with adornments offering respect to Kyogre) but they all wore a black bandanna.

Ash watched for a while, but soon grew bored. The Rangers could handle them if there was any trouble. It wasn't long before he immersed himself in the festival again.

"- to Mala's Snack Shack for the best treats in town! We have honey nut treats and cinnamon rolls straight from -"

"Forget your offerings? For only a small price, I can save you from a divine grudge -"

"Fancy yourself a battler? Join our tournament for a chance at eternal glory!"

Vendors shouted from every direction to advertise their wares. Ash was tempted to go grab something to eat - even Nidoking eyed a few of the treats hungrily. He knew his mom would just love a souvenir as well, even if it was probably all cheaply made garbage sold at a premium…

The tournament attracted his attention, but he wanted to keep a low profile. Besides, it wouldn't be fair unless Steven got involved. Well, it would be fair if it were Ash and everyone else who entered up against the former Champion, along with a few of the Rangers stationed around.

Ash had come far these past few months, but he wasn't an idiot.

"What do you think? Should we go grab a bite?"

Nidoking huffed as he nodded. His performance had taken quite a lot out of him, even if he hadn't been quite as involved as Tangrowth or Infernus in playing the part of Groudon. He'd put in far more work in the preparations, however, and Ash had learned that keeping track of all the moving pieces (many of which seemed to be pulling in all different directions no matter how frustrated he grew) was an exhausting experience.

The others had dropped off to seek their own fun at Ash's prodding. Most were quickly caught up in scores of human and pokemon admirers eager to ply them with praise for their service, and his team had been happy enough to invest themselves into the festival.

They'd also made it a point to steer the wellwishers clear of Ash. He certainly appreciated that gesture. Only Nidoking remained stubborn enough to stick with Ash despite his urging - Bruiser, Seeker, Aron, and Tangrowth had dragged Oz off to enjoy the festival to the fullest, while Torrent was swamped with fans as he returned to the beach.

Dazed had no taste for the overwhelming mass of humanity and emotions, so she'd gone off to converse with Claydol and a few of Steven's other less sociable teammates such as Cradily and Armaldo. She was a comforting warmth in his thoughts, though, always watching and only a request away.

As for Plume… well, she'd taken to the celebrations like a Magikarp to water. She soared above as a flock of lesser flying-types chirped and squawked in their efforts to keep pace, earning raucous shouts of glee as she tore through the skies just above the streets. Admirers swamped her in hopes to gain her attention and young battlers challenged the mighty Pidgeot.

It was their funeral.

Infernus had opted to be dropped off at the volcano to train, of course. He'd taken one look at the festival and scoffed when he determined there were no worthy opponents to be found.

"Ash!" Steven shouted from across the square. He was red-faced and still in his ridiculous get-up, although it was a bit muted in respect for the ceremony. The floppy hat was a constant, of course. "I was worried you wouldn't make it! I'm so happy to see you!"

He shared a quick glance with Nidoking, who snorted amusedly at the sight of Steven's red cheeks. "We found our way."

"Good! Everyone's so nice here! They keep giving me things! I just had the best cinnamon roll!"

Said person also told Steven that he was the best cinnamon roll. Thankfully Metagross is here to keep an eye on him.

Claydol's dull droll connected to his mind for an instant, then slipped away and left Ash to his privacy. He smiled up at Steven. His teacher was relaxed and happy and laughing - when was the last time he'd seen Steven without a frown or furrowed brow? It was like their stay in the village and the festival had remade him.

Steven was twenty-eight years old. This was the first time he'd ever looked like it.

"I'm having fun too."

His teacher beamed radiantly. Ash was tempted to take a picture for safekeeping. Who knew when he'd see this side of Steven again? If he'd see this side of Steven again. "You are? That's wonderful! I was afraid you wouldn't want to come!"

"I thought about it. I guess I just couldn't stay away."

"Good! Good! You should come with me! There are a few shows done on the night of the festival, and I know they'd love to meet you! Your team did a fantastic job tonight, and so did you! Thanks for all your hard work!"

Steven frowned as if hearing something no one else could. He disconnected from the wild mood for a moment and temporarily retreated back into Steven Stone - it only lasted for a moment though, and he soon shook his head and clapped Ash on the shoulder just like Lance might have.

"On second thought, you don't need me dragging you off. I'll be around! If you want to find me, just ask Claydol! Claydol's always watching."

This is true.

"Go off and have some fun! Make some friends!"

"I'll try to live up to your example."

"Good thinking! See you, Ash!"

With that, this oddly cheerful version of Steven staggered off, probably led around by Claydol to keep him safe. Metagross appeared behind him, somehow having vanished into the crowd. The metallic behemoth didn't spare Ash a glance as it stomped after Steven before he could slip away.

He shook his head and shared a smile with Nidoking, then moved to go off and enjoy the festival like Steven said. Ash doubted he'd have half as much fun as Steven tonight, especially as he stepped back to avoid a horde of screaming kids chasing each other and yelling something about 'Get the Grumpig!' but he'd make an effort for Steven's sake.

"Bah. Half a girly drink down and Steven Stone's stumbling around like a lad with no hair on his chest."

Four girly drinks, two shots of rum, a mai tai, and whatever else the townsfolk can shove down his throat. I'm glad Steven's having fun tonight, because he won't be in the morning. Poor thing.

That last bit was said without an ounce of authenticity.

"Four girly drinks, actually. And a little extra."

Rawiri limped up on his peg leg with eyes lighter than had ever seen them, although right now they fixed Ash with an odd look. "Why on earth do you know that?"

Ash shrugged and looked the elder over.

He was dressed in his normal fatigues with the Crimson Wings patch affixed proudly to his chest. A vacant-eyed woman walked with him, thin fingers laced within Rawiri's good hand.

It was difficult not to stare at her. She was hunched with age and seemed utterly disconnected from the bright atmosphere around them. Stringy white hair crowned her head. It was straight, but appeared unkempt as if fumbling, amateur hands had tried to groom her. The woman didn't say a word when Ash greeted her politely.

She stared at him with a doll's eyes. Her jaw hung slightly open. Rawiri shook his head at Ash while he led the woman along with more tenderness than Ash had ever seen from him.

Ash frowned, but he refocused on the conversation.

"So I can mark him up as a bad influence too."

"He's not," Ash said testily, unwilling to have anyone step on Steven's good mood tonight. Nidoking grumbled in his favor. "He's one of the best people I know."

Then something struck him.

"Wait, how do you…" Ash mumbled, then sighed. "The disguise didn't work."

Rawiri's whiskered mouth curled up into a grin. "Maybe the first day, but we're not dumb. I've been grabbing pictures all week. Blueblood's got a famous face. All the shriveled old biddies here are obsessed with that boy. Can't say I understand it."

Well, that was one thing they could agree on. For a moment he wanted to ask if the woman shuffling alongside Rawiri thought the same, but he didn't dare. It was too personal - rude, even. Rawiri seemed content to pretend that she didn't exist, but he gripped her frail hand tightly as if she were the most precious thing in the world.

"Anyone who pretended otherwise was blind, damn fool enough to chug brine, or playing along for some stupid reason. Bah!" Rawiri literally spat and heaped a glob of phlegm on the ground. Ash's nose wrinkled, as did a few passersby who gave Rawiri a wide berth. "And he can't even hold his drink! Good Champion Drake could chug a barrel with the best of them! You haven't seen a man until he's knee deep in Drake's Piss!"

Ash shared another horrified look with Nidoking. "Drake's what?!"

What kind of League had he joined up with?

Rawiri cackled at the look on Ash and Nidoking's faces. "Ha! Never gets old. It's the Good Champion's prize brew - one sip will make you a man, and probably scorch your tongue off to boot."

Ugh. His thoughts must have been obvious, because Rawiri let off another rasping laugh. For a moment the man looked at the woman with mirth in his eyes, though it flattened away in an instant and he ceased rubbing at the simple gold wedding band around her finger.

She burbled for a moment, then went silent again.

An awkward pause hit, though Rawiri was clearly unwilling to address it.

"Uh, enjoying the festival?"

It was as awful an opening as Ash had ever made, but it was something. Rawiri brightened, eyes alight with torchlight. "Aye, it was a good show. I have to thank you for that, don't I?"

"And Steven. And about fifty other trainers who helped set everything up."

"Yeah, yeah. I see your point," Rawiri squinted at him, then scratched at the simple black bandana he'd layered over the gnarled layer of pink scar tissue on his head. "Blueblood's got a little bit of steel to him."

Ash wasn't sure if the pun was intentional, but he was sure Blaine would have loved it regardless… maybe he'd have to try and get Rawiri off to Cinnabar to see the old Fire Master. They'd either get along great or be enemies for life.

"Excuse me!"

Rawiri stiffened and his hand twitched toward a salute as someone came up behind Ash. Thankfully they were smart enough to give Nidoking a wide berth.

"Ah no need for that, you old Carvanha! You'll embarrass me in front of your friend."

"No worries there," Rawiri grunted, voice stiffer than iron. It was clear the newcomer had left him ill at ease, but he spoke with nothing but genuine respect. The old woman at his side smiled vapidly at the newcomer, "The boy has no place to judge."

The newcomer, a tall, dark man in casual native clothing and a plain blue bandanna that matched Rawiri's in appearance, barked out some rough laughter. Ash couldn't miss the row of eight pokeballs on the man's belt, which immediately stole his interest.

A trainer, then, and a strong one at that.

"Sure, sure whatever you say!" He grinned down at Ash - he couldn't detect a hint of anything but genuine pleasure to make his acquaintance. "The name's Arnold. What about you, scamp?"

"Ash. This is Nidoking."

Arnold squinted at him, his face cast in dark shadow by the torchlight. "Ha! It's good to meet you both. Folk mentioned a little Master-boy helping with the ceremony. I'd expected to find him soaking up love from his adoring fans, not honoring his elders!"

Rawiri's face twisted up like he wanted to drop an acerbic remark, but the new man seemed to have softened his tongue a bit. He could be grateful for that, even if Rawiri's deference itched at him. If you'd asked Ash a few minutes ago, he'd have said only Drake would have Rawiri on his best behavior like this.

"I'm no Master." Yet.

"Close enough that all us nobodies can't tell the difference! The great Ash Ketchum in our neck of the woods… you're all the kids have been talking about. I didn't believe it until I saw you for myself."

The elder growled. "Just wait until you hear who else is stumbling around…"

Their efforts to remain incognito really were a miserable failure. Steven was going to wither when Ash told him. It's not like Ash had really tried that hard, but he'd made a token effort so he could enjoy their privacy.

He grunted once at the reminder and earned a laugh from the large man. An impressive black beard hid much of his face, but even in the flickering torch light Ash could see that his features were lined with the faintest beginnings of wrinkles around his mouth and eyes.

His senses warned him moments before a large Crobat flitted down from a rafter and landed effortlessly on Arnold's muscular shoulder. The man seemed naturally suited to a blinding smile or wry grin, and when his eyes turned more serious for a moment it seemed unnatural and forced.

Crobat chattered happily into Arnold's ear and Ash ached for Seeker's company. He missed the weight of her or Sneasel clutching to his neck, though Nidoking's strong presence was a comfort. Ash couldn't help but gain a measure of trust for the man.

Many social pokemon evolved only when the right chemical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters were present in the body - high levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin were favored, as well as low levels of cortisol and other signifiers of stress.

It wasn't the happiness itself that was important, however, but what it indicated. A happy pokemon with low levels of stress was more likely to have a steady supply of food, shelter, and other conditions that meant its body could sustain the demanding process of evolution.

Quite a few first-stage pokemon such as Igglybuff and Pichu relied on it for similar reasons. Their bodies were small, stealthy, and required little food. Favorable conditions with a caring parent, strong social bonds, and good nutrition usually meant it was safe for the young pokemon to abandon those advantages, while higher stress levels generally indicated that conditions weren't right.

The presence of a Crobat or other pokemon who evolved through those methods was hardly a perfect indication of someone's nature, but it was at least a good sign. Bad people could still treat pokemon well, even if for only pragmatic reasons, but Ash wouldn't expect to see scum like the Rockets with a Crobat, for example.

"Is that so?" Arnold murmured to Crobat, who wrapped its huge wings tightly around the musclebound man. He absentmindedly reached up to scratch beneath the poison-type's throat. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ash Ketchum, but I'm afraid Mr. Rawiri and I have some business to discuss."

Ash scowled, but looked to Rawiri. When the elder nodded and he realized there would be nothing else, he accepted the dismissal. Besides, those cinnamon rolls sure did smell good and he hadn't eaten in hours…

"See you around, Rawiri."

"You did good work tonight, kid. Go have some fun… and don't let any of the babies talk you into a battle! I don't want to mop up a sea of their tears tomorrow."

Ash nodded, then turned to leave. As he left, he caught just a few traces of conversation. It was almost drowned out by the cacophony and happy chatter of the crowds, but a handful of Arnold's words were audible through the haze.

"- nice kid! You look lovely tonight, Miss Aroha. Now, have you heard the news? Richard and Roland have been getting rowdy…"

It was none of his business, really, and Ash soon found himself content to embrace the festival at last.

From a safe distance, of course.

XX

Night persisted, but the dawn would soon arrive to paint the land gold and red. The horizon would lighten, the ocean would sparkle, and the festival would at last be over.

It persisted down below. From this height he could still see all sorts of small battles, shows, and various contests going on. Children were flagging and the mood had just begun to fizzle out, but the people fought on through the night. Even as bodies grew weary and conversations grew shorter and terser and just about everyone appeared dead on the feet, the party continued.

Ash had his fill. He'd eaten with Nidoking and chased Bruiser, Oz, Seeker, Tangrowth, and Aron around. Steven had introduced him to various elders, shopkeepers, and others he'd met in Sudmauna (most of whom were in a similar state as the former Champion). When he'd grown weary of human company and overseeing a few impromptu battles between some of the younger children, Ash found himself resting with Dazed, Claydol, and the other recluses at the edges of the town.

Then he'd walked the streets again, laughed and ate with Plume as she deigned to descend to his level, and at last found himself on a high cliff overlooking the whole town. It was tricky to navigate in the dark given the lush vegetation and thick vines and branches that covered the mountain's slopes, but the Feather offered light and he had ample fuel for it after tonight.

Exhaustion left every step an effort, but he pushed on. Dawn would break soon and put an end to this long night. He could rest then.

But he had one last person to attend to.

A tangled mass of vines and poking branches parted before him as he shoved past. Ash ignored the little scratches they left on his bare arms and instead embraced the sight of Sudmauna below in all its glory - people had begun shifting to the beach and leaving the streets behind.

He felt a heavy dread settle upon him as he stepped forward, an insidious whisper tugging out all his secret thoughts and forbidden feelings, but by now Ash could shrug it off for a time. It was easier than ever now. Ash had just left a feast of positive feelings and memories to hold dear for a long, long time.

Even Spiritomb couldn't take that from him.

The keystone seemed so innocuous where it sat a foot or so from the cliff's edge. Not a wisp of spectral energy was to be seen, but Spiritomb was always lurking within. It didn't respond to Ash's presence, but he didn't let that put him off.

One step at a time.

He plopped down next to the keystone, although he was careful to give Spiritomb some space. Ash spent a moment just looking down at the village and the people gathering on the beach to rejoice and pay homage one last time.

From here he could see it all. Part of him wished he could have sat on the cliffside with Spiritomb and watched the ceremony, although he'd never give up the opportunity to support them as he had. It must have been incredible to see the psychic phantasms and the roiling sea from this high up, though, let alone the spears of lightning and explosions of lava as it met the ocean.

"Did you get to watch any of the ceremony?"

A wisp of lavender fog spilled from the stone. It was as much of a reaction as Ash could have hoped for, and it encouraged him to continue.

"I think this might be the best view on the island."

Nothing.

"The Sudmaunans carry it out every year on this day. They celebrate their ancestors to remember the lives they once lived, then celebrate to cherish the life they have now. They've been going strong the whole night - I don't know how they're still dancing. I'm exhausted."

In fact, his eyes grew heavier and heavier, the toils of the night taking their toll -

"Nice try."

Nothing.

"It really is beautiful down there. I don't really like people. Humans are hard to understand sometimes, not like pokemon. They're hard. Too loud. And they always want something! Why can't they just -" Ash cut himself off. Negativity would do Spiritomb no good. "Tonight I understood. I felt like I was one of them."

A little more lavender escaped and one toxic green eye manifested to peer down over the town. It was half-closed, squinting as if awoken from a deep slumber, but for a moment Ash saw - no, felt - something from Spiritomb. It swept over him, shared freely with the world, but for an instant the apathy cracked and the void like emptiness was filled.

Lean in close for a kiss share an embrace spin through the plaza laughing "Come dance with me!" take him take me to the fields bite into a juicy fig listen to peaceful breathing -

Ash tore himself away from the mass of feeling and fragments and confusion. His vision swam as if trying to make sense of a vision fractured across a splintered mirror and its hundred shards, but he steeled himself and retained control from those shared perspectives.

Spiritomb's form boiled, growing tempestuous as the raging sea from earlier in the night. Its light cast a ghastly pallor over the world, venomous green lights waxing, Power flooded forth and its shape spread terribly quickly. Tendrils lashed out like whips, or perhaps an Octillery's tentacles, to flay at the world and share just a little of Spiritomb's pain.

For a moment it was furious and Ash grit his teeth to bear the terrible brunt of emotion. Countless memories from dozens, shattered and stitched together, connected only by that thread of rage, flooded him and inspired a deep, ugly anger in his gut, but Ash was the master of himself and clamped down on it.

But he wanted to be angry. Spiritomb poured thought after feeling after memory into him, and he saw for a moment what this poor, pitiful thing had once been. They were alive, and now they were not. Their destinies were stolen and made a mockery of.

Now Spiritomb gave freely the only thing it had: itself.

He weathered it for a time, and then it was over. Fury was spent, then the void was unfilled.

Spiritomb retreated and Ash felt no more. The change was abrupt and Ash watched the keystone carefully, but there was no deception there. All he'd seen was the stirring of mostly-dead ashes to reveal the last live coal buried deeply beneath.

Ash sat there with Spiritomb until the dawn broke.

The sun rose in the east, the world came to life, and the villagers all offered one last bow to the golden star and then another to the Sky Pillar as it unveiled to the north. People and pokemon alike prostrated themselves and offered up their hopes for the next year, then scattered in all directions.

It was over.

He silently returned Spiritomb, then rose with a groan. It was agony to fight that exhaustion and the Feather beckoned him with its strength, but he'd rely on his own for this chore.

The walk down to the village would be long, but the soft bed waiting in his hotel and the company of his team beckoned him like a golden lure.

A long night, but a good one.

XX

Steven's still form laid silently on the bed. He'd been asleep for a full day now, wrapped up in a cocoon of the grey sheets that had replaced the original bed dressings. Comfort was always a priority for Steven. Ash supposed it was paying off now.

Every now and then he'd rise for a moment to scarf down whatever food or water, but he wouldn't respond to anything Ash said other than with a dull groan. He wasn't entirely certain whether Steven himself was making the effort or if it was Claydol or Metagross telekinetically controlling him to make sure he got some nutrition in.

"Should I do this?"

His current predicament came in the form of a gigantic pitcher of chilled water held in his hand. Ash looked at it, glanced down to the insensate man below, and ultimately shook his head.

That would be cruel.

Ash set the pitcher down… only for it to be engulfed in a fiery skin of blue light, levitate upward, and dump the freezing water all over Steven, who rose sputtering, only to be caught up in the cocoon and roll off the bed with a heavy thump against the maple flooring.

Apparently it was too much for Steven, because the poor trainer just gave up and laid limp for a moment in his sodden sheets. Sneasel pointed a black paw and snickered, but Lairon was kind enough to nudge Steven with his hard head and roll him over onto his side.

He shot an irritated look at Claydol, but the construct somehow managed to look innocent.

What? I didn't do it.

Huh. Ash's eyes glanced over to Metagross' hulking form. Metagross appeared totally oblivious to the world, but he didn't miss the faint traces of blue energy fading around their scarlet eyes.

As usual, Metagross steadfastly ignored Ash. He thought he saw a flicker of irritation about the metallic creature, though. Apparently they didn't enjoy going through life on their own. Were they lonely without Steven conjoined to their mind, or were they just irritated that Steven had put himself into such a state?

He doubted he'd receive answers anytime soon.

"Steven?"

"Bluh?"

A pale, shaking arm protruded from the cocoon. Ash helpfully tugged some of the covers off to unveil Steven, who stared miserably up at the ceiling. He could only imagine how bad it would've been without the water and greasy food shoved down his throat over the last day.

"Turn the lights off. Please."

He nodded to Dazed, who used a quick burst of psychic power to flip off the lights and pull the curtains closed. Steven seemed a little happier once that was done, but still laid flat against the ground and staring up at the ceiling like a man who'd just seen battle.

"Are you alive?"

"Unfortunately. Is the festival over?"

"It ended a day ago."

Steven groaned.

"Don't tell Lance. He'll never let this go."

Ash shrugged noncommittally. He'd already given Lance a rundown in his last letter. There wasn't much to do while waiting around for Steven to wake up, especially after he'd helped with the cleanup. Lance hadn't sent a response yet, but he hoped it would give him a good laugh.

"You've had a few visitors."

"Who?"

"The mayor, Amiri, some of the vendors wondering where their favorite customer had gone, a few old ladies who were worried about you…"

Steven's face twisted unpleasantly. "They did this to me. All of them."

He doubted they'd forced Steven down and shoved drinks down his throat… well, actually, he wasn't sure now that he thought about it. Steven had earned a lot of goodwill for all he'd contributed to the ceremony, and the people had embraced him.

One of Steven's hands grasped out for the huge sun hat and clutched it to him.

"I don't think you'll need your disguises anymore. Turns out everyone knew who we were the whole time. Big surprise."

"It always worked for Fino when he came to play Groudon," Steven grumbled, then squeezed the hat tightly. "But that's now what I grabbed it for. I need it in case I get sick."

Oh, are you not feeling well? I'm sorry. Could it be related to the poison you kept chugging?

Steven glared at Claydol, but had no good response.

"I'd planned on leaving today…" Steven rasped. Ash silently handed him another glass of cool water, which Steven gratefully accepted to sip on. "But I'm afraid we might need to stay another day or two before we head to Petalburg. I don't think I'm in a fit state to travel."

"Agreed."

That was no trouble for him. He enjoyed exploring the tangled jungles of the island and he could always use a bit more training time. Their preparations for the ceremony gave him a few ideas of some other objectives he could try to hit, and the ruins atop the mountain offered plenty of opportunity for his own study and a good place to work with Spiritomb.

No, a few extra days here would be no problem at all.

"Good," Steven groaned, then laid his head back down against his soft grey sheets. "I'm afraid I'm not going to be one for conversation for some time. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to sleep."

Ash frowned. He was lucky Amiri had offered a few tips on how to get Steven presentable again. "Food and water first. After that Dazed can put you to sleep."

Steven nodded miserably and Ash felt a surge of amusement at his sorry state. Maybe he should take a few more pictures. Ash had a sneaking suspicion that Phoebe would be overjoyed to receive them, and he could probably try to bargain with Sidney for a few pointers.

Things had taken an unexpected turn with Steven's 'illness' but Ash found himself satisfied with his stay in Sudmauna despite it all. The ceremony was a success, Spiritomb had shown something besides its veil of apathy, and his team had managed to progress their own techniques a fair bit.

Then his PokeNav chirped to indicate a message. Hope flooded Ash's chest as he began to prepare a quick meal of noodles and beans for Steven and he hurriedly flipped it open to see who it was from. Lance was a good possibility, as was his mother or one of his friends from Pallet Town, but…

You have one message from: Cynthia Carolina.

Ash's smile was radiant.

A/N: I hope you enjoyed the chapter! I apologize for the wait - the actual writing of this chapter took me roughly two weeks split up over the last two months, but I found myself distracted with several side projects that should be very beneficial down the line. I've finally compiled all my notes and written up a detailed breakdown of every remaining Traveler chapter with scenes and other details plotted out, so that has made my life MUCH easier.

The other culprit is Elden Ring. No explanation needed on that front! Exploring the Lands Between brought my writing to a screeching halt for a few weeks lol. I wrote the last 40 pages in the last week trying to get caught up.

I know this chapter didn't have much action in it, but I do hope you enjoyed the mandatory beach episode that gave them a bit of time to recuperate and regroup as the story picks up again after the training in Forina and the adventure in the desert.

I'm very excited for the next chapter, and I hope we'll see it released in April! Thank you so much to Raptor, Jain, and Val for their feedback and hard work.

Thank you so much for reading! As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts!