"This is your last chance." Iliana glared. "Come quietly or we will have to take you in by force."

Durand pressed her palm over her heart and gasped. "Truly? I have helped your League today. Must we come to blows? A hundred Rockets lie behind me."

"And several Ranger squads."

She shook her head ruefully. "I offered my assistance. Unfortunately, they chose to make the same choice that you are making now. So tragic! And yet, they still draw breath. That is more than can be said for most of the Rockets."

Iliana and Rupert both looked absolutely miserable with what they were obliged to do. Neither of them had any illusions about how this fight was going to go. While Ash's team was still fresh, theirs had fought a dozen battles on the ground. While most were fairly one-sided, that still took its toll after a while.

The advanced combination techniques didn't help either. Spreading the load across so many Pokémon meant that it wasn't as draining as one of Oz's lightning bolts, but they still ended with fatigue.

"Is that your final answer?" Iliana was stern and professional, but Ash knew that she was half-pleading beneath the bluster.

Durand never lost her easy smile. She shifted her weight, spread it out to both feet. A fighter's stance. "It is. I respect your duty, but I value my freedom more. Who will mete out justice if I am locked down in the Trench?"

A dozen attacks flashed from the ACE teams – bursts of electricity, jets of water, gouts of flame, and two blinding Hyper Beams.

The Rogue Master startled as Ash's team broke their cover and joined in.

Infernus set the world ablaze as he ignited a concentrated Flamethrower from the rear, bathing the scene in a wicked glow. He charged in soon, pouring off heat that warped and twisted the air.

Oz whirred ferociously as she thrust her fist forward, joining the battery of elemental fury with a frenetic lance of electricity directed center-mass of Durand's team. Precision strikes weren't the best option against agile opponents, but Ash figured it would have two outcomes: either it would manage to strike something or it would force a reaction

The latter could be just as valuable as the former in a battle of this caliber.

A vacuum wave of expanding air, dust, and smoke immediately hid them from sight. Ash heard several pops and low hums as he waited to see if they'd managed to knock any rust off the Master.

It took only a moment: at the end of the barrage, Jacqueline Durand stood unscathed. Slightly dusty, but that was all. Her easy smile shifted into an assessing frown, but otherwise she may as well have just come back from a leisurely stroll in the park. Shedinja hovered protectively before her. Unearthly power swirled around it as its ghostly energies devoured the attacks.

The last sparks and embers fell into rapidly decaying orbits around Shedinja, before fading and disintegrating as one. Ash was reminded of the black holes that he'd studied in school… and on a few slow nights when his imagination ran wild with more and more outlandish ways to hone his team to perfection.

Wonder Guard performed exactly as he feared it would. Shedinja and Dusknoir had a nice case of convergent evolution going on, at least when it came to their techniques. Both had weaponized the dark void within themselves as a method to swallow attacks whole.

There were two ways around the technique: play to the limitations etched into Shedinja's exoskeleton or batter the defense down with brute force and overwhelming might.

Any trainer worth their salt would pick the former. Shedinja was a deadly opponent to the unwary, but could be outplayed.

But in the hands of a Master… well, Shedinja were at their strongest in a free setting like this. It wasn't alone on a regulated battlefield. Durand had plenty of fighters able and willing to run interference. Shedinja would be nigh-untouchable in Durand's hands.

They'd have to maneuver carefully.

Regardless, it meant that the element of surprise Infernus and Oz - and by extension the rest of his team had - was now spent for nothing. Something nagged at him. That flame should have punched right through Wonder Guard no matter how highly trained it was.

Now it was Durand's turn.

Shiftry immediately fired a round of Bullet Seeds to force the ACE fighters down and into cover. Shedinja emanated a revoltingly dim, ghostly pulse that sent Ash's stomach turning. It evaporated several lances of psychic energy sent their way, and had the additional effect of throwing every other fighter into a similar state of brief nausea.

Two moves from two fighters, and Durand briefly seized the initiative and control of the battlefield. Ash could feel the weight of her assessment on him as she read the new terms of engagement.

She came to the same conclusion he'd made immediately; she wouldn't be able to fight them off with only two of her teammates at her side.

Infernus recovered first and hurled another Fire Blast into their midst. Shedinja's carapace quivered at the sight of the powerful inferno, and another piece of information clicked in Ash's head. While Shedinja were renowned for their defensive capabilities, its one true vulnerability came in the form of the old fears that plagued its former self.

Fire could burn. Stone could crush. Talons might rend. It had been soft and small, once. All the base fears of its former form clung to the husk it had become. They were rooted deep in its psyche, etched into its very exoskeleton. The spirit that had infested a Nincada's discarded shell could not escape something imprinted so deep upon its soul.

It righted itself after a moment, and dispelled the remnants of Infernus's blaze a moment after.

Ash frowned thoughtfully, taking precious seconds before the battle was joined to plan for this particular thorn. Durand would have other trump cards, but this would require special attention.

Shedinja should have been swallowed up by the flame, but it appeared unharmed even now. He'd never heard of one trained to this caliber, so he didn't know if that was conventional or not.

He itched, though. Something wasn't right.

He asked Dazed to relay that information but received no response. Iliana and Rupert had problems of their own to deal with. Namely Shiftry, as it dashed forward in a blur, flashing green and white as it called upon its power and engaged the two ACE teams. They fell upon it with a myriad of battle cries, but Shiftry split into two, four, six, eight, twelve copies of itself that each sowed their own brand of confusion.

It was so fast that it could flit in and out of each copy and lend its physical weight to their illusory strikes.

The ACE trainers soon adapted. They showcased their skill as their team smashed together and enclosed Shiftry. When it struck, another fighter would deflect the blow. When it dodged, one of their teammates would block it with their body. When it leapt, they would all unleash torrents of flame and energy into the air to catch it.

It landed and staggered slightly, its sweeping white mane singed and blackened in place and a strained expression crossing its dark features as it took hits that would have knocked out a dozen others of its kind.

Ash probed Durand's defenses in the meantime. A Flamethrower here, a Psybeam there, and an occasional Rock Tomb pitched in by an eager Lairon. None managed to breach Wonder Guard.

It seemed like, however overwhelmed, the ACE trainers might be able to keep Shiftry occupied for the time being, so Ash decided to keep his focus on Durand.

This was their best chance to take her, after all. Ash couldn't trust that Durand was entirely unprotected other than her Shedinja, but if he didn't strike now what other chance would he get? He could either take the chance, or he could try to burn time and survive until Steven and the League forces arrived.

Regardless, she had to be occupied. A master with the time and space to work was at their most dangerous.

Considering the risk that even one of her teammates posed, Ash didn't feel safe allowing her to just do whatever she pleased. It was rare, but Durand had killed League members before. To be fair, most of them had been involved in something sketchy, but it showed that she was willing to cross that line.

The less space she had to work with, the better. It would be best to make the first move. If she regained the initiative then she would beat them all and vanish into the air. He needed to take her out before more of her team took to the field.

He almost called for Infernus to get in close to Shedinja (it would keep Durand safe at least briefly), but he changed his mind as the ACE trainers suddenly gave several yards of ground up and the tide began to turn against them.

"Infernus!" Ash roared from the cliffs. His friend returned with a snarl of his own as he cut off the sustained Flamethrower he'd been bathing Shedinja with. "Get in there! Keep Shiftry occupied!"

Infernus was all too happy to comply. With the leash snapped, he charged forward in a rage. Flames battered and twisted sand into a molten slag. The air grew hot enough to where even Ash could feel it from up high.

His eyes darted across the battlefield as his family shifted behind him. They'd calmed a bit after the battle with Silver and Domino, but the new adrenaline gave them their edge back.

"Oz, keep your distance and cover us. Exploit whatever openings you see. Nidoking, Dazed, you're with me in reserve. We have to maintain a tight perimeter or she'll drive us apart. Bruiser, meet whatever she releases. Use your judgment for Rampage intensity. Sneasel, you're our skirmisher. Intercept any aggressors and pin them down so that we can land a few hits."

Tangrowth, Plume and Torrent were each in their own element, hidden by jungle, sea and sky. Too far for detailed orders. He'd have to trust them to act when he needed them to. Dazed could relay messages to Plume and Torrent if they came close enough.

Tangrowth… Well, he might get confused. Best to let him work things out on his own.

"We good?"

A series of grunts and nods answered him, and he smiled eagerly, his own blood beginning to leap in anticipation of the true confrontation's beginning.

This was just the prelude.

Shiftry noticeably increased the speed of its movements when it saw Infernus moving closer, but impressively didn't let up in its assault on the ACE teams. Delcatty cried out and then went silent as a low powered Bullet Seed hammered into its skull. Manectric rushed in to protect it, but a sudden Razor Wind manifested behind it and yanked it closer to Shiftry.

Manectric roared like a beast and blazed white as it became a whirling storm of fang, fur, and thunder. It snarled as, instead of pulling away from the sudden wind, it instead lunged into it. Shiftry's eyes widened for just a moment as Manectric fell upon it, eyes trained on the true copy amidst the clones.

Others in the team immediately lunged forward as well, but an explosion of seeds was all that they received for their troubles.

The electric-type was flung to the side and collapsed a mere instant before its jaws closed around Shiftry's arm.

Rupert's team attacked with renewed vigor and fury as Rupert returned their comrade to its pokeball. Shiftry never felt it.

Instead, seeing (or perhaps feeling) the heat of Infernus's presence closing in, it took advantage of the hole left in their defenses to slip away and rejoin Durand and Shedinja. It wasn't uninjured thanks to their efforts. Red streaks of blood tinted its white mane, several of its leaves had been snapped clean off, and one of its stilt-like legs had a chunk taken out of it. Still, it was sobering to realize how easily it had struck down Delcatty and Manectric.

Then its whole body shone a brilliant green, a telltale sign of Synthesis, and Ash felt their spirits fall as the damage simply melted away as though it had never been dealt in the first place. All their hard work amounted to nothing.

Synthesis wasn't free - that was their saving grace, at least - it would still take its toll in the form of fatigue, but that was preferable to wounds that might prove an active hindrance in combat.

Perhaps not too high a toll, Ash amended as Shiftry straightened up after a momentary sag.

Infernus came to a skidding stop as he realized that running into the middle of the teams would only hurt their chances. Instead he grinned, braced himself, and leveled a cannon straight at Durand.

Something like recognition bloomed in her eyes, hard as it was to see from this distance. A hint of something like admiration. Respect. Maybe even a touch of understandable wariness. Shedinja moved to intercept.

Shiftry glanced up at the cliffs again. An uneasy feeling came over Ash. It looked like it was expecting—

BOOM.

Ash cried out as a black shadow swooped down behind them. He'd barely had a second to sense its presence before an awful Sonic Boom erupted, sending his ears ringing (though not, he realized painfully, deafening him as it could have).

His mind went into overdrive even as the thundercrack rolled over them. Annoying, a little painful, and debilitating… the attack was moderated. Durand was still toying with them. He was torn between appreciation and frustration.

The earsplitting shriek sent them all stumbling – Nidoking was particularly affected thanks to his sensitive hearing, but he didn't hesitate to wheel around and fire a Thunderbolt from his horn. It glanced off a black membranous wing, but that was all Ash's blurry vision could catch before Dazed teleported them down to the beach.

She fell to one knee immediately after. Ash helped her up and looped her heavy arm around his shoulder. He projected worry to her through their link, but she waved it off. Although he knew it was a simple matter of exhaustion (and not to mention overstimulation from the sudden Sonic Boom) he couldn't help but hold her tight until the shakiness passed.

Nidoking stood beside them, his heavy body sinking slightly into the soft sand, furious and thrashing as he hunted the skyline for the one who had assaulted them. Ash caught another glimpse of a hawkish black figure disappearing into the trees before Oz, Bruiser, and Sneasel clambered down the rocks at record speed to join them.

They'd chosen the cliffs because it was protected and guarded from view of the beach. If that cover had been broken then there was no point staying up there. Any flier, especially one quick and skilled enough to strike without any of his team's keen senses picking it up, would find them easy prey up there. He would return with all haste to that covered position the moment that shrieking shadow was out of the fight.

"Ash Ketchum!" Durand seemed genuinely pleased to see him. She opened her arms wide as if embracing him from afar - Shedinja immediately had to block another Flamethrower, as well as the Thunderbolt, Hydro Pump, Hyper Beam, and a number of less conspicuous attacks that joined it - and beamed. "We must stop meeting like this, yes? Your passion for righting wrongs is charming, but a battlefield is no place for children."

Nearby, Iliana's lips puckered as if she'd just sucked a Nomel berry at Durand's words. Ash could only imagine what was going through her head.

"I'm just here to help," he replied, steadier than he felt. "The Rockets have to be stopped."

"Yes they do!" Durand agreed wholeheartedly. She waved at the few Rockets still left on the beach. Most had been dragged off, but there wasn't time to finish the job before she'd come to crash their party. "This is fine work. Good work."

Ash just nodded. Durand tapped her chin, then perked up. "I hoped to make a few new friends today - a young boy, your age, with red hair. A blonde woman. A man with cyan hair. I drove them this way through the trees. You must have them, yes?"

It wasn't a question. He tensed. His team readied themselves.

Rupert cut in. "You can't have them. They're our prisoners."

Her eyes widened. "No, I do not want them! I am pleased to know that they are in the best hands. You will do more good with them than I." Durand's faint accent thickened as a jolt of energy went through her. She muttered something to Shiftry, who nodded tersely. "But if you have them… and the fun is nearly over… yes! We have time for one last flight of fancy."

Ash, Rupert, Iliana, and all their pokemon shared one wary, miserable glance, even if the fires of competition stoked in Ash's heart. He couldn't help the thrill that raced through him as Durand watched them challengingly. Ash suspected she was just as eager as he was, if not moreso.

She was the one with the right to not be worried, after all. This was just a diversion for her. It could turn nasty in a heartbeat for the rest of them.

Shiftry acted too quickly to react. One moment it was still, and the next it had fired off a tight burst of Bullet Seeds into their midst. Psychic barriers manifested, but the Bullet Seeds blazed right through them thanks to the layer of Distorted power wrapped around each of the projectiles.

It was an obscenely precise shot. Iliana and Rupert's radios exploded.

"Let us keep this between us, yes?"

They locked eyes.

Durand's were a verdant green, and glimmered with familiar excitement while her palms inched towards her pokeballs.

"Champion Steven and your Elite Four Sidney are occupied a ways off. We have some time. Let us raise the stakes! If you manage to defeat me," Durand's tone indicated just how likely she thought that was. "I will not resist arrest. If I win, I leave as intended. More than fair, do you not think?"

Ash didn't have to say a word. He nodded tightly, and his team struck as one.

Infernus teleported above them all, distant enough that the crack of his psychic power was lost in the din of battle that still consumed the island. He blazed white, then blue, and beckoned all who saw him to come in challenge. As he dropped, the others struck.

Nidoking rushed forward to take point, a Flamethrower spitting from his lips in a column of roaring red as he prepared to block any attacks with his sturdy body. The others followed suit - Lairon moved to rush forward, emerging from where he'd (surprisingly) cunningly hidden himself in the underbrush with a low, grating roar, but Ash cut him off with a sharp remark. He couldn't play aggressively in a fight like this.

A Psybeam launched from Dazed's pendulum joined the barrage that came from the ACE teams, all aimed for Durand's position. Ash trusted each hit to be aimed to cripple or merely injure, rather than kill, but his heart still leapt as attacks that would stagger Conference-ready fighters raced each other to strike the Rogue Master.

They all faded, of course, devoured by Shedinja's incredible power as it moved to protect its trainer. The finality of the motion - and Durand's utter lack of concern for the potentially fragile fighter - only solidified Ash's suspicions that things weren't quite right.

Not that they ever could be when facing someone like Durand, but still. Bruiser hurled a Focus Blast like a shot put into their midst to little effect, as did Sneasel's Ice Beam, and a barrage of Thunderbolts hurled by Oz. Each attack was swallowed up with minimal trouble.

He frowned - Shedinja didn't even look fatigued, though there was value in keeping it occupied.

Ash turned his mind to strategy; his team would be relying on him to think around Shedinja's improbable defense. That was his value on the field.

Tangrowth was still up high with the prisoners, but he was confident that his friend would soon join the battle.

"Focus on the environment around her," He called out in between the sharp retorts and explosions of his team's assault. "Trees, sand, whatever! Let's see if there's a limit to what Shedinja can absorb. Go for shrapnel. Bruiser, see if you can toss some boulders in there—"

Darkness rolled out from the forest, consolidating to be thick and heavy around Durand. She, Shiftry, and Shedinja were still visible, but it was as if night had fallen on their little corner of the beach. It was sturdy and cloying like earth, resisting the efforts of the radiant sun to dispel it.

Durand had allowed them the first attack, but it wasn't to last.

Ash blinked.

Shiftry had abandoned its position as sentinel. It single-handedly dove into the ACE teams to prevent them from unleashing anymore devastating assaults - Ash caught the beginnings of a Ball Lightning forming, before Shedinja's whole body flashed gray and cast out a net of Distortional energy to disrupt the working.

He shuddered involuntarily as faint nausea rolled through was nasty. Shedinja didn't focus much on offense, but it appeared specialized for disrupting more intricate techniques alongside defending its trainer.

Ball Lightning evidently warranted its intervention; it had been content to simply take attacks outright before this point.

They had to take it out…

Infernus landed in a burst of heat and flame a moment later, within feet of Durand's position and unphased by the wave of disrupting energy.

His landing shook the earth and Durand staggered, her eyes widening momentarily as he roared, gushing flames, and then something like emotion flickered in Shedinja's dark aura. It dashed the short inches towards Durand, wrapped them both in shadow, and reappeared elsewhere far, far from Infernus' devastating presence.

Shadow Sneak.

Ash frowned at the sudden realization that Durand had apparently deemed it an acceptable risk to travel using ghostly methods. That was… unwise. Distortion was bad for your health. Agatha was proof of that.

But then, so was staying feet from a Magmortar.

Infernus roared, spitting a stream of flame thirty feet into the air, and set himself to teleport again, then stopped. A visible confusion settled over him as his eyes flashed magenta with psychic power but nothing happened. He tried it again, but he was too smart to beat his head against a brick wall - at least a brick wall he wasn't certain he could shatter.

"It's the ghostly energy!" Ash shouted over the barrage of attacks still flying. His team had adjusted immediately and continued to liberally bombard Durand's new position.

Infernus just snarled, then charged off after Durand the old fashioned way. As he moved, he wrapped himself in a cloak of roaring flame that gnawed at the darkness clinging to him in delicate, miasmic strands, burning it away with what Ash sensed was more than mundane fire, and held one cannon high to fire off another Flamethrower at Durand. Shedinja blocked it, but it was forced back as some of Iliana's teammates diverted their attention from Shiftry and struck at the same time.

Durand just folded her arms, seemingly pleased, if slightly ruffled by the close shave.

"Yes, yes!" She called out to Infernus, a sly grin on her face as he barrelled toward her with an expression of thunder. "Show me what you can do! Fight us like you fought that Salamence - to the end!"

Well, that settled it. Durand was just as crazy as Ash himself.

His lips quirked. Anticipation pounded in his veins as some of the weighty pressure eased off him. Now he had to beat her!

Shedinja tried blasting the Magmortar with a noxious beam of purple, but Infernus pressed forward through it, raging fire bursting forth with renewed vigor as the assault dissipated into his cloak. Sand melted to misshapen glass beneath his feet. Vegetation crackled and caught flame twenty feet away. He appeared like a snarling wraith stalking the dunes as the air bent and warped with his passing. Steam hissed as it rose from the sand where trapped water boiled.

"Yes, yes, YES!"

Durand was clearly delighted, but she wasn't blind, and Ash saw a flicker pass through her eyes. Shiftry was being worn down by the coordinated assaults of Iliana and Rupert, who were more wary now that they'd seen its offensive capabilities. Unable to knock it out, they'd instead stymied it, and with it occupied Shedinja couldn't possibly stand up to Infernus at close range alone.

Ash wasn't blind either, and saw her hands gesture oddly - specifically.

He sprinted closer at breakneck speed. Infernus roared again, raised both cannons, and an enormous cloud of black smoke shot forward as he prepared the Smokescreen to cover his approach. Two more great streams of flame exploded outwards. They were larger than any before, stretching across the fifty feet to strike Durand with ease, but they didn't just shoot straight.

No, Infernus put his training to good use. They fired forward in a straight, predictable pattern at first, but just before they would have struck Durand and been absorbed by Shedinja, they came alive as wavering shells of psychic power surrounded them. It must have been a mighty effort by Infernus to maintain it through the Distortional Field, but he managed nonetheless.

Both flames arched like striking Arbok, twisting around Shedinja's grey nets of devouring power, and struck -

A white staff - no, that was a leek! - held aloft by a prehensile, drab brown wing rose to meet the torrents of animate flame. There was a snarl as the flames came crashing down, a sound like an enormous drain being opened, and Infernus' assaults were sucked away into a void that opened at the edge of the Farfetch'd's leek.

All the fire soon vanished within the portal, which condensed to a tiny black bead which mounted the bird's tool as an adornment.

The small brown bird was still awash in a crackle of sparks and cinders, but it cast it away with a gust of wind conjured up by its leek. Its eyes were grim and resolute, knowing, but not lost in rage.

That couldn't be said for Infernus, who came crashing down with a snarl. He crashed through the pungent black smoke that had billowed out over the area, alit with his might, and laid down a shining blow that would have made Bruiser proud against the outstretched leek.

Ash's jaw dropped as the leek shone a brilliant white and held against a Brick Break that could cleave stone and steel.

Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration. Farfetch'd only matched the blow for a single improbable moment, perhaps even less, and then swept Infernus' mighty claws aside, turning his own power against him.

Infernus was too experienced to be taken advantage of, however. Farfetch'd shone in a haze of blue light, the focused psychic power marking it as channeling Agility while also blunting the effects of Infernus' heat cloak, and its leek glowed green with power as it took on a sharp edge - Leaf Blade wasn't a common choice against a Magmortar, but the blade would still do its work.

Well, it would have.

Just as Farfetch'd swept the leek forward to cut into Infernus' thick belly, his friend rushed forward into the blow. He grunted as the Leaf Blade slashed him, but it failed to penetrate properly. Great streams of flame gushed out of Infernus' cannons and spat from his mouth as Farfetch'd was suddenly enveloped by his cloak, but the same black bead shaped again.

It didn't stop Infernus' next blow from catching the scorched Farfetch'd and sending it flying (literally), but it did guzzle those attacks down again.

The bead condensed, though slightly larger this time.

Ash frowned. Mirror Move? It was reminiscent, but felt quite different. Perhaps some modification that Durand had honed into a Master-level technique. Farfetch'd had been one of her original teammates, if he remembered correctly. One of two survivors, the other being Shiftry.

But if this was Mirror Move, it should have -

Infernus roared at his foe's attempted escape. He shot off one last Flamethrower, which Farfetch'd caught again in the void, and then turned his frustration on Durand's position once more, but she was already gone again, whisked away by Shadow Sneak.

Farfetch'd took the moment of distraction to spin and direct its leek to face the ACE teams as they organized another of their combined attacks.

The bead flashed, expanded, and exploded. An enormous burst of heat and light ushered forth, sending them all stumbling backwards, and Ash felt his skin scorch before Dazed shielded him. Her hand shook as she held her pendulum aloft.

Wild, unfocused power - familiar power, stolen power, Infernus' power - roared outward and threatened to engulf them all, but Ash sensed something strangely familiar. The wildfire shrank, twisted, writhed, then coalesced into a loose stream that poured forth like a lance from Farfetch'd's leek.

Orange flame swallowed both ACE trainers and their teams, only blocked by a coordinated wall of Protects that shimmered and merged into a green aegis that managed to bring Infernus' stolen flames to a halt.

Farfetch'd fluttered away from its fiery foe, seeking a new angle to pressure the ACE trainers before they could coordinate and bring it down, only to barely parry twin Thunderbolts fired by Oz and Nidoking. It sucked one away into its void while the other was deflected with a shimmering green wing, but it bought enough time for the ACE teams to focus it down.

It was forced away, caught between a raging Infernus and a squad of battle-hardened pokemon (Ash couldn't decide which was worse), but wasn't left alone for long. There was Shiftry, flashing like a wraith between them all, and there were the dozen illusory clones it used to sow confusion. Given the necessary moment of respite, both regrouped a short distance away - more attacks came, and were negated, avoided, redirected, returned.

They settled into a brief equilibrium, trading energy for energy. It was only the ticking clock that kept Ash feeling that they had the edge.

He still grit his teeth between hissing orders, mind ablaze as he tried to figure out what he was missing, and planning for the next surprise.

Why wasn't Durand releasing the rest of her team?

The air was thick with noxious power, the Not gnawing at his senses and blunting his perception as though he were inhaling a thick cloud of smoke. Sneasel darted in and out of the melee, his eyes nimble enough to raptly track Shiftry as the grass-type darted in and out of the opponents, working seamlessly with Farfetch'd to bait attacks (which were soon stored in the void for safekeeping), punish mistakes, and toy with the others. Ash's friend did his best to counteract the grass-type's efforts and limit its working space, but it was clear that he was a novice working against a master in subterfuge.

Infernus, by contrast, was the wrecking ball. When he acted, Durand's team reacted. To some, his repeated charges back and forth across the field might have appeared comical, but for Durand's team his power demanded respect lest they be crisped by the overpowering heat of his cloak.

The Master herself had been forced to repeatedly pull away to a safe distance, watching with hungry eyes as Shiftry and Farfetch'd danced. To be honest, Ash was in a similar state. Criminals they might be, but their synergy was beautiful.

They fought like a single soul inhabiting two bodies. Each played perfectly to the other's strengths. Farfetch'd would lead greedy attackers into a bladed whirlwind or vicious storm of Bullet Seeds, while Shiftry dodged neatly to feed attacks into the bird's void. Both complemented the other's style perfectly. Long years of close teamwork were evident with every little movement, every feint, every riposte.

His thoughts moved in an unpleasant direction as he realized that none of his teammates would fight so well together. They'd trained in duos and trios, but even then they looked like stumbling amateurs next to this well-oiled machine.

It was a nightmare for a direct fighter like Infernus.

The duo never engaged him directly, always keeping just out of range. His teleportation was shot in this environment, and both Master-level opponents were too cunning to fall for the baits, feints, and infuriated challenges he hurled their way.

Infernus had gained more and more self-control thanks to his countless hours of training against infuriating opponents (Metagross, any of Karen's team, Lance's dragons, take your pick) but this had clearly tested his patience. Teleportation had spoiled him. It had been a long time since he'd had to chase an elusive foe down on foot.

He was growing more and more frustrated, Ash reflected grimly, and that would make him stupid.

You couldn't be stupid around Jacqueline Durand.

His friend was giving the ACE trainers time to regroup, at least. Even if he was unable to directly face them himself, the simple fact of his presence kept them from running over the ACE teams, who were far more vulnerable with some of their strongest brawlers gone. They were canny enough to take advantage of the opportunities the rampaging Magmortar presented, and keeping them in the fight was Ash's number one priority.

Rupert and Iliana ran around like mad while trying to keep their teams organized, their voices beginning to go hoarse with the amount of shouting they needed to be heard over the din.

That was where he surpassed them. He might not be capable of some of the coordination they could engage with, but his team could fight without him feeding them constant instruction. It was half of what they drilled for in training. Lack of direction and indecision would not be a point of failure for his team.

They were his best support, though. He might contend with Durand in raw power, but he knew she had more tricks down her sleeve. She hadn't even called upon that winged shadow again…

Breathe. Keep the ACE trainers up. Burn time. Figure out Durand's game.

Those were his priorities. He would leave Infernus to it for now.

"Dazed," he said quietly, eyes still on the opposition. "Tell Torrent to kick up Rain Dance. I think we'll need Storm Surge to win this. Keep coordinating the others as best you can. You see an opening, you take it, okay?"

She didn't waste her power responding telepathically, but he knew that she'd follow his commands to the letter.

That freed him up. Anxiety bubbled in his stomach at the thought of relinquishing control over this fight, but he reassured himself with the knowledge that he was just prioritizing.

A dark shape leapt out of the undergrowth nearby, and Ash momentarily tensed, before realizing Dazed and Nidoking hadn't paid it a single glance.

Sneasel loped to his side, whining sharply to get his attention, and Ash, concerned, crouched, his voice low and urgent, though he did his best to sound calm. "What is it?"

His friend gave a little shudder, white claws raking gently over his black coat. Sneasel was hunched, with his nostrils flared, and eyes wide open. The little dark-type growled slightly and gestured, scanning the area with the wariness of prey.

Something was here. With them.

Dazed tensed. No doubt she'd picked up on Ash's paranoid thoughts. Every blade of grass, every grain of sand, every patch of shade… it all seemed deadly now.

"Can you sniff it out?" Ash muttered, half-watching the fight. Infernus had just propelled a few more psychic whips of flame out to harass Farfetch'd, though he'd wised up enough to avoid feeding into its stolen stockpile. Having his own power turned against him no doubt galled the Magmortar.

The ACE teams had prepared some sort of combination technique, centered around a veritable sea of poisonous sludge gushing from Victreebell's open maw and directed into a whirlwind of toxic droplets by Starmie and Slowbro, but Shiftry screeched. A cloak of Razor Wind whipped up around it and Farfetch'd both, slicing away the psychic manipulations with ease.

Wigglytuff launched forward with a glowing fist, but Farfetch'd landed, parried the blow with its leek like a master swordsman, and smacked Wigglytuff away with a deft clip of its sturdy wing - or would have.

With a roar that sounded more at home on a Primeape than a Wigglytuff, the normal-type caught the wing in one of its stubby hands. The bird's eyes widened as its attempt to escape into the air was suddenly cut off, brought its leek down with unnatural force -

Wigglytuff never gave it the chance. It was larger than most of its species already, its bouncy body covered in an underlayer of meaty muscle, but Wigglytuff's huge mouth opened, and it sucked in as much air as it allowed. The pink body inflated to twice, five, ten, no, twenty times its size in an instant.

Farfetch'd's hammer-like blows never landed. Its leek was ripped from its grip as the sudden inflation sent the bird flying away at breakneck speed. He watched as it rolled once, twice, and just barely dodged a twin pulse of electricity from Plusle and Minun.

Its serious eyes sharpened as it spied its focus by the ground at Wigglytuff's feet. Farfetch'd looked naked without its leek, but it stood tall and proud as it expertly ducked and weaved around the onslaught of attacks from Ash's team that were suddenly focused upon it.

A green Protect manifested instantly around its small body as Thunderbolt, Psybeam, and even a Sludge Bomb from Nidoking to help pin it down landed - they rolled off or were absorbed by the mighty barrier, but Ash had no doubt the effort must have strained Farfetch'd something fierce.

Things were about to get worse for it. Shiftry lunged forward with newfound ferocity to force Wigglytuff back, punishing it viciously for its aggression with a Bullet Seed to the gut that had rapidly deflated the Balloon Pokemon with a pained yoom, but it had only a moment before the ACE teams descended upon it.

Shiftry cleared the distance as it buffeted its foes away with a miniature typhoon generated by its fans, but barely avoided a storm of techniques from Ash's own team and some of the ACE pokemon in reserve. It was clipped, winced, but received a brief respite as a dozen lashing roots whipped up from the earth - the ACE teams were soon ensnared in the cruel, grasping appendages that shone with dark power, and by the time they'd escaped Shiftry had already pulled away.

Could that be the pokemon lying in wait, or were there more?

Ash had no doubt that Shiftry would find its way to safety, but Wigglytuff's brave maneuver had bought them some time. Infernus saw his chance and took it. Immense streams of flame poured down upon the bird's Protect, leaving the air writhing and glowing as vegetation burst aflame and sand shone bright.

Farfetch'd wouldn't last long under that. He turned to Sneasel. "This is our chance! Can you pinpoint them?"

His friend hesitated, raised his paw as shadowy power manifested around it. The technique was similar to the one used by Thorn-Stalk, their Cacturne guide in the Piede, and honed alongside their attempts at developing Sneasel's affinity for raw Distortional manipulation these past few weeks.

It wasn't perfect, but the ability to sense out other sources of Distortion were invaluable in both the field and in battle. Ash waited impatiently, ill-at-ease with a potential threat able to strike at a moment's notice, but knew it might take some time.

Durand's appearance had left the entire battlefield absolutely drenched in Distortional energies. It wouldn't be enough to cause damage to the humans or pokemon present, but it was enough to act as a sort of background radiation and interfere with psychic abilities, fine-tuned techniques such as Sneasel's sensing, and make life quite unpleasant for psychics.

Still, he had faith. Ash did his part. He focused entirely back on the battle, calling out orders occasionally to have his team attempt to pin down the temporarily disadvantaged Shiftry and Farfetch'd, and bided his time.

Sneasel spat an Ice Beam into the fray to divert attention - it went wide, arcing past Infernus only for the shimmering Protect to withstand it, but he immediately tugged on the hem of Ash's shirt. He glanced away just as the ACE teams rushed in to support Infernus by blocking off another avenue of escape.

Farfetch'd's and Shiftry's strategy had been obvious: starve the beast.

He had to admit that it was quite an effective way to fight a fire-type like Infernus. They couldn't stand against him in direct battle, so they denied him at every opportunity while they picked away at their other foes.

Unfortunately, stoking the flames of Infernus' rage rarely worked out for anything in the long term. He charged, sprinting forth like a freight train, and the ACE teams made way. They had no desire to be caught up in the living inferno.

Infernus paused for a moment as he ran past where Wigglytuff had stood before Shiftry took it out of the fight. One cannon remained trained on Farfetch'd, bathing his foe's Protect in flames to maintain pressure and prevent escape, while the other spread a wide arc of fire to distract Shiftry and give the ACE teams more time to pin it down.

He slowed to a jog, amping up the intensity of his flames until they blazed like the sun, and a malicious grin worked its way onto his face as he spotted Farfetch'd's leek. Infernus pointedly swerved out of his way, planted a foot on it, and grumbled out cruel laughter as the focus crumbled away to ash.

It took longer than it should have, but the end result was the same. What had once been a treasured possession and tool was now nothing but dust on the wind.

Farfetch'd stared from behind the shield. Its eyes were filled with something incomprehensible, welling with slight tears that only made Infernus laugh harder.

The shield dropped.

Flames billowed over it.

Farfetch'd sucked them all away into a void bead at the tip of its beak. Its feathers were singed, but it was otherwise unharmed. Infernus' eyes lit up as he charged anew, only to be knocked off course by a vicious windstorm spawned by Shiftry's winds - Farfetch'd lunged forward, snagged a stick tossed its way by Shiftry, and met Infernus in direct combat.

Pissing off opponents went both ways, it seemed.

Sneasel tugged again, distracting Ash from the sudden conflagrations as stolen flame erupted from Farfetch'd's beak.

"You have it?"

His friend nodded. A surge of excitement rose in him. "Where?"

A bone-white claw subtly pointed to a thicket of trees and brambles around a hundred feet to the north. It was untouched by battle, secluded by the cliffs that rose above and the dense forest behind where the League and Rockets clashed, and protected by a few massive mossy boulders that could absorb stray attacks. One large, ancient tree stood tall in the midst of it.

His own team would have difficulty penetrating those natural barriers from this distance. Any lateral attacks would be lost within the stone or trees. No, Ash knew exactly how to approach this.

It felt nice to ambush Durand (well, her team) for once. She was still off in the distance, shielded by Shedinja, and watching them all with too much amusement for Ash's liking.

Maybe this would force her to take them a little more seriously.

I have transmitted your orders to the Plume. She will strike -

The flames of Infernus, the cutting gales of Shiftry and furious Farfetch'd, the incessant stream of attacks raining down on them all courtesy of the ACE pokemon… they all paled in comparison to the storm that approached them.

Boom.

He wasn't certain where Plume had come from, but the sound barrier shattered in an instant. Silence fell over the atoll for a brief moment as her arrival was heralded by the sonic boom - Infernus, Farfetch'd, and Shiftry fought without interruption, but all others hesitated.

Time stood still for that passing instant, though the fighting soon continued.

A cool breeze swept in from the north. It was gentle, a soft caress as the world stirred to listen to a keening cry that pierced deeper than sound should. Despite its slow trickle that reminded Ash of a winding stream, Hoenn's heat was lifted for just a moment.

Just as soothing rain swept in to bury smoke and smog, so too did the North Wind act as a balm upon frayed reality. The grey haze gnawing at them all was torn away as the natural world reasserted itself. It would soon settle back down like a corrupt fog hanging upon the earth, but for just a moment Plume's fledgling mastery of the North Wind banished it.

Shiftry's Night Slash failed, the dark power edging its blade-like fans suddenly carried away like motes of dust. The gnarled roots lashing at Plusle and Delcatty shuddered and retreated back beneath the earth. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Durand shimmer and then blur beside Shedinja , before resettling into her normal, animate self.

What?

He sucked in a rattling breath - the air was so clean - and felt a subtle fuzziness fade from his thoughts. All of a sudden the world seemed so much clearer. It was so easy to think! So easy to plot. So easy to see, feel, and perceive everything around him.

Something flickered in the air, manipulated by a corrupt presence. Ash saw a glimpse of something black and vulpine with a great red mane and stunned eyes -

It vanished in an instant.

No matter. The Song spilling from Plume's beak had only been a prelude.

A glorious cry came from the heavens. Great shadows swept over the beach and forest in an instant as Plume's massive wings outstretched. The wind shuddered with her passing.

Her speed was too great for him to capture as anything but a blur, but he could see in his mind's eye what happened: proud eyes narrowed to slits as she spied the location fed to her by Dazed, inhumanly powerful muscles made minute adjustments to her course, her curved beak opened, and out burst a whirlwind just barely constrained by a shining shell of guiding psychic power.

All their unseen enemy would have picked out was the faintest shadow before Plume's fumbling mimicry of Lugia's weaponized hurricane struck it.

A poor recreation it might have been, but it was enough.

Terrible power flooded the area. It prickled at his skin, corroded his essence. Dazed staggered, her telepathy suddenly cut off as the antithetical power smothered her like noxious smoke. Ash supported her as best he could as the ghostly power returned with a vengeance—

Shedinja appeared as if from nowhere through the haze, gathering up scraps of darkness and stitching them together into a weblike structure erected against the violent winds. It wavered beneath the gale's force, though - Plume's power cut through its barriers like nothing else had - and slowly came apart. Wavered, then shuddered, and then began to lose altitude before it was caught by a pair of tanned arms that also emerged from nothingness.

Confusion struck him as Durand and Shedinja wavered again in the corner of his eye - the two of them appearing from shadows before the Master swiftly sprinted into the woods - and for a moment he prepared to snap orders.

Wait.

Ash scanned the field, following the hunch he'd developed, taking advantage of the lingering effects of Plume's attack to pierce the shroud.

The glimpse he'd caught of a great red mane returned to his thoughts, and the puzzle clicked into place.

They'd been fighting an illusion this entire time.

Shedinja was silent as it held its barriers against the weight of a miniature tornado, but Ash could imagine its desperation as those barriers wavered and slowly closed in around it and Durand. She was shouting, a wide, panicked look in her eyes, though her words were lost amidst the furious gale.

Fortunately for them, the necessities of flight meant that Plume was unable to remain stationary above them while maintaining the attack, and in the split second between a the thunderous flap of her wings she needed, Shedinja had enough time to fling itself around so that its back faced her. Ash caught sight of the gaping void in its back for just a moment, revealed as the bandana (forest green and adorned with smiling cartoon Eevee) concealing it loosened and tangled in the fighting, and felt something in his guts churn -

He quickly looked away from staring directly into the abyss, but Plume evidently hadn't done the same, and her rattled shriek split the air.

Pain and confusion quickly turned to fury, and she unleashed a second, more powerful gale at the ghost-type, capturing dust and ash and debris as it split the air, strong enough to fell trees.

It was lost in the sudden nexus of Distortional energies that seemed to explode around Shedinja, but the power seemed to unravel something.

Finely crafted illusions fell away in an instant as their owner's control was shattered by the sudden shift. Colors twisted and bled away in a psychedelic haze to reveal Durand attached to the sun-bronzed arms supporting Shedinja. Behind them…

A Zoroark watched Plume with its jaw agape. Its black fur was studded with silver strands all over, and a fair portion of its mane had faded to a dull russet. Battle scars littered its form, some deep and ragged, others long, thin and silvery. Most carried clear evidence of masterful care, and had vanished into little more than pale lines disturbing its fur, but a few old wounds still glared out at Ash: a great patch of knotted black flesh across its ribs and a trio of ugly claw marks across its left shoulder.

It stared at her a moment longer, then its eyes flickered to Ash and Dazed and Nidoking, and realization struck it.

Ash barked an order, and the panic that crossed its features instantly transformed to urgency and resolve as it spun its power into another form. The Zoroark leapt forward, placing itself between Durand's frail, human form and Ash's team, and immediately erected an aegis of green energy to absorb the onslaught of attacks that followed a moment later.

The shield wavered thanks to the Distortional energies weaving in and out, threatening to crack it like an egg, but Zoroark's eyes squeezed shut and it held firm as a giant boulder, a storm of splintered stone, a Flamethrower, and several other attacks smashed into it with the sound of thunderstorm.

Something shifted in the air. Shedinja's power had stalled Plume's initial attack, but another gust of wind produced by a flap of her wings threatened to push it over the edge - instead of gushing power outward to ward off the assault, Shedinja suddenly yanked everything in.

Wind caught and trapped by its impenetrable defense howled in victory, It rushed forward like a living thing, drawn forward by the absence of resistance… and was sucked into the void in Shedinja's back. The little Eevee-adorned bandanna fluttered madly and was suddenly torn away by the vicious gale - it seemed impossible, but Shedinja consumed the Master-level attack in an instant.

For a moment Ash stared, gobsmacked at the sudden reversal, and worried that anything they tossed at this monster would just be devoured whole. It gave him unpleasant thoughts of the final round against Michael's Dusknoir…

Then Shedinja sagged into Durand's clutches, stared at her with unblinking eyes, and fell unconscious into the safety of her cradling arms.

Ash couldn't believe his eyes. They'd actually taken out one of her teammates.

"Oh, my poor Coco!" Durand hugged her Shedinja tight for a moment. Despite himself, Ash felt a flicker of guilt as she doted upon it. She ignored the spray of attacks from Ash's team as they were caught on Zoroark's strained Protect. One soot-stained hand carefully adjusted the ghost's bandanna to cover its void before she returned it.

She turned, and her green eyes fixed on Ash.

For a moment he saw Jacqueline Durand the Rogue Master in those eyes. Calculating, assessing, picking him apart like a Sneasel and its prey. He returned the favor.

Then it was gone, replaced by a passionate glint. She waved for a ceasefire, though Shiftry and Farfetch'd were still tearing through the ACE teams despite Infernus' attempts to pin them down. Delcatty laid unconscious against the sand now, and Ash suspected the rest would soon follow as the numerical advantage faded away.

If Infernus could teleport, this would have been over minutes ago. As it was, he was just growing more and more frustrated with his slippery opponents. They'd have to start training without teleportation - it was a crutch that both of them had grown too accustomed to using.

Ash's instincts screamed to attack, to exploit every opportunity he could, but the pragmatic side of his brain won out.

He wasn't necessarily fighting to win. He was fighting for time. He was fighting for Steven and Sidney to arrive and sweep Durand off of her feet.

"Forgive me! I have done you a disservice, Ash. A child you may be, but I will not disrespect you or your family by toying with you. You are better than that, and so am I. How you have grown!" She stretched her arms wide and sent a bright white smile his way. "Very well, then. Challenge me with everything you have. I shall return the favor!"

Despite himself, he grinned.

That he could do.

A nightmarish figure twitched to life behind Durand. Twin branches cracked, groaning as they shifted from their immobile position, and stretched out to reveal thinner limbs like claws dotted with leaves. One section of its trunk creaked and slowly dragged open to reveal a bloody red eye that burned like flame within the dark void of its insides. It watched them with raw curiosity as tangled roots shifted beneath the earth's surface.

Trevenant. Well, that explained the whipping roots that were giving the ACE teams such trouble.

A voice touched his consciousness for the first time since the shroud of distortion was laid.

"Ash! Hold on. We're regrouping. Shiftry and Farfetch'd are on the run. I repeat, hold on!"

Rain pattered down on his skin, courtesy of Torrent's Rain Dance.

It was good to know his friend was nearby; his presence had been missed in the field, but Ash trusted he'd been exercising his autonomy responsibly. Who knew what the Rockets had sequestered in the ocean that might've proven an issue.

He knew that his friend was lurking in wait for a prime moment to unveil himself. Torrent was wise enough to know that he was most valuable in reserve at the moment. It was his place to tip the scales when necessary.

"Give it everything you have on three." Ash murmured. He didn't like the way Durand's lips curled up. "One, two - ARGH!"

Just as his team marshaled their first assault, the black shadow from before swooped over them. He collapsed underneath a sudden explosion of sound - it tore deeply into him, though Dazed soon erected a spherical barrier around them all to shield them from the worst of it. Her focus was shattered by the high stimulus, however, and the shield wavered just as roots suddenly burst from beneath their feet.

They struck at all of his friends, but they paid particular attention to Bruiser and Dazed - Ash caught sight of wicked purple poison on the sharp tips before they lanced into their tender flesh.

Sneasel snarled and shredded several within a second, while Nidoking simply stamped them apart. Bruiser did one better and snagged one of the thorny roots in his tough fist, wincing only slightly as he ripped it out and brandished it like a whip.

They had little time to recover as another blurring figure shot forward. It buzzed loudly, the only heralding of its arrival, and went right for Dazed, trailing energy of an alien, olive green. She fell to one knee, barely warding it off with a burst of psychic force, and the buzzing insect vanished away before any of the others could even react.

More roots shot up from beneath their feet (that was really annoying when someone else did it) only to be shredded again by Sneasel, who was prepared for them this time. Nidoking used his burgeoning Earth Sense to act just before they arrived, and blocked several with his thick hide.

They bled dark power, however, and made a point of slashing at Dazed. Her pendulum still shone blue, but it grew dimmer by the second as she was pricked again and again by Trevenant's stinging appendages.

"Sneasel, protect Dazed!" He hissed. It was a sign of the situation's severity that Sneasel didn't bat an eye at the command. The little dark-type sprung forth to defend Dazed as she recovered. "Nidoking, give us a warning if you sense them."

He nodded, eyes narrowed to slits. Nidoking sprayed a storm of Poison Sting at their enemies, though Durand was nimble enough to leap behind one of the massive boulders protecting her position. Still, at least Shedinja was out of the picture. Maybe they could actually hurt her team now.

"Dazed, tell Tangrowth we need him." Ash said quickly. He didn't want to give away Tangrowth's involvement, but they could desperately use some artillery right now. The bug - Ninjask, of course she had a Ninjask - darted in and out of the team, always angling for Dazed, but happy to harass Nidoking and interrupt any attacks he sent. It steered clear of Ash, obviously unwilling to cause any real harm, and he used that to his advantage.

As Nidoking stabbed futilely at the bug, Sneasel shredded root after root with gleaming claws, Lairon erected a shimmering green Protect to shield the team from a sudden explosion of flame from Farfetch'd as it arrived, and Dazed struggled to coordinate their actions, Ash shifted to be in the very center of his team.

Ninjask buzzed at him in annoyance as it passed by, but was forced to back away lest it hurt Ash with its shining pincers. It continued to harass the team along with Trevenant's roots, but at least Nidoking wasn't suffering quite as many little cuts. Even Bruiser tried to take a swing at it, but Ninjask easily avoided the strike… then dashed back just inches away from Bruiser's face for a moment as if to mock his sluggishness.

Bruiser grunted and threw another haymaker, but it struck nothing but air.

More and more attacks came and it seemed inevitable that they would be slowly picked apart - every time Nidoking tried to fire off an Ice Beam, Shadow Ball, or Flamethrower, Ninjask would dash forward. He was growing increasingly frustrated, stamping on all the roots he could and attempting to slow Ninjask with his limited psychic powers, but it was fruitless.

Lairon and Sneasel played defense. Dazed was still half-collapsed as Ninjask and Trevenant both made her a priority, and it was all the younger pair could do to keep her in the battle. Ash seriously considered recalling her until the pressure was up, but he needed her.

Bruiser's muscles bulged as blood pounded through them, and the vessels coursing through his mighty grey physique pulsed and burned bright. His reactions swiftened, and Ash knew he was ready to go - Ninjask soon gave him a wide berth.

They were all still a little disoriented by the Boom Burst that had rolled over them like a thunderclap. Ash's ears rang, and he felt a little ill and poorly balanced. He refused to falter, however, and snapped out orders like a general, a parallel to Durand who appeared to be finally taking them somewhat seriously.

Oz weathered the onslaught the best. Following his orders to the letter, she had rushed a safe distance away so that she could safely unleash her attacks directly at Durand, Trevenant, and Zoroark.

Just as her first Thunderbolts were unleashed, however, a few saplings shuddered and sprang to life as they were wrenched into position to block the lance of electricity.

A normal tree would have exploded in a barrage of splinters and sap beneath the raw might of Oz's assault. These shone grey and black and seemed to devour the electricity entirely, no doubt enhanced by Trevenant as the ghost took command of the environment.

Nidoking's tail thrashed and absolutely obliterated a small sapling that leaned in to snag up Ash. The next was torn out by its roots, and Ash spotted one of Trevenant's black-shrouded appendages snaking up into its trunk to animate it.

Oz was soon harassed by Ninjask, who took advantage of her isolated state to weave in and out of her guard with impunity. Her cloak of crackling electricity made direct confrontation deadly for the bug, but it simply spawned several buzzing clones with Double Team to keep her busy. It was impossible to track the damn thing, and Ash suspected he'd need Infernus' wide streams of flame to actually land a hit.

Zoroark winced as some explosions went off in the distance - Ash quickly took note - but finally shrouded itself and Durand in a field of illusions. That was frustrating, though at least Ash knew how to break the shroud now.

The dark-type was an absolute master of its craft, but it relied on fine control. Throw in enough Distortion, or its opposite, and that control would be broken.

Could he use Seeker's echolocation to work around Zoroark's illusions? Theoretically she should be able to surpass them, but a black shadow above cooled that immediately. Noivern would blind her, and she would be devastated by the lightest of attacks being thrown around.

He spared just a moment to observe Farfetch'd and Shiftry as the pair approached. Iliana and Rupert's teams were doing everything in their power to slow them down, but it was barely making an impact. They were far more interested in taking on Ash's team than the shattered remnants of the ACE teams.

Only Plusle and Leafeon remained on Rupert's team. Shiftry must have run through the rest, because Ash spotted Illumise and Delcatty fully unconscious farther back. Rupert was tending to their wounds with a Hyper Potion, although Ash doubted they'd recover in time to contribute to future fights.

Dodrio and Starmie still remained conscious with Iliana, though Dodrio was in hot pursuit of Farfetch'd. It rapidly gained ground whenever they found a patch of open ground, but Farfetch'd kept just ahead of it thanks to Shiftry covering its advance with Bullet Seed and the ample cover provided by the environment.

Well, it wasn't ideal but at least they would have some support. He suspected that Starmie wouldn't last long, however. Durand seemed to give a special priority to psychics.

It was a smart tactic. Access to hundreds of highly trained, skilled psychics was one of the League's greatest advantages against less organized opponents. A single powerful psychic could shield vulnerable trainers and teammates, coordinate entire groups of fighters with incredible precision, and even rule the battlefield with the superior positioning ascribed by teleportation.

To be honest, the League had grown reliant on that luxury, especially in the vast wilderness of Hoenn. It was the only way to reasonably control this much territory.

He grit his teeth as Shiftry and Farfetch'd neared. They already launched probing assaults to test Ash's defenses - Lairon yipped as Shiftry's Bullet Seeds lodged right in his Protect, then slowly bled through thanks to the Distortion channeled through them. The projectiles didn't shred it as they would have a standard psychic barrier, but it was an intimidating sight all the same.

"Get some rock walls up!"

Lairon quickly did so. It was just in time to block another round of Bullet Seeds. They still shredded the stone with ease, but at least it absorbed the majority of the force. One still managed to pierce through their defenses and slam into Dazed just as she rose to her full height - her nostrils flared as her breath was forced out.

Ash snarled and eyed Shiftry's blurry form hatefully.

There was little time to think. Shiftry was relentless as it charged, disguising its assault with a brief team of illusory copies that disoriented their efforts, and with a rush of blurred movement appeared inside their perimeter, and slashed a Leaf Blade across Nidoking's vulnerable armpit. He roared, thrashed madly, and even sprayed another swarm of Poison Stings, but they only landed uselessly in the sand as Shiftry dashed in to poke at Bruiser next.

Bruiser's knuckles slammed down into the earth with an explosion of sand and rock, detering the attempt with an indiscriminate spray. Shiftry wisely angled away towards Oz, though her whipping tails and swinging fists kept the speedy grass-type at bay.

Farfetch'd, who'd joined Ninjask in engaging her, had taken to sucking down whatever attacks she managed to fire off, expertly catching each burst of electricity in the void-tipped stick it had found and redirecting them at Ash's team.

To her benefit, Dodrio, Minun and Leafeon had elected to cover her instead of keeping up the fruitless pursuit. They formed a defensive perimeter around Oz and made it their priority to let her focus on offense, though it did little good so far. She'd managed to blow up one of the defensive stones near Durand's last location with a well-placed Thunderbolt, but it hadn't done much more than scratch Trevenant.

There was no way Durand had stuck around there to be hurt by the shrapnel.

Ash stepped closer to Dazed, hoping to shield her from additional attacks, but a root gently snared his ankle and yanked him off his feet. He grunted as he fell into the rain-drenched sand, but Sneasel viciously slashed it apart and then leapt to take a swing at Ninjask, forcing it away.

They were being picked apart.

Where was Infernus?

The rain fell harder.

His team were all powerful, but they weren't used to fights like this. Normally their overwhelming strength and wide-spanning attacks put the pressure on their foes. They would command the battlefield with ease and turn the entire world against whoever had attracted their displeasure.

Durand wouldn't allow that.

Trevenant seemed to have a sixth sense for when Ash's team were preparing a game-changing attack. It would animate trees or lash out with its tangling roots to break their focus, or expose them for Ninjask to rush in and bleed. Ninjask itself was untouchable, dashing around with near impunity so long as it steered clear of Oz's field of electricity. Precision attacks were far too slow to even brush it. Area of effect risked harming allies.

Those two had been hard enough to deal with after the black shadow (probably a Noivern based on Durand's nationality and its sonic attacks, if Ash had to guess) rattled them all with that Boom Burst, but Shiftry and Farfetch'd added another layer to the melee.

Shiftry and Ninjask adopted similar strategies. They denied action and covered for one another, often engaging two targets at once to prevent one of Ash's team from going to aid each other, or even guide Ash's teammates into stumbling over one another as they were forced one direction or another.

Farfetch'd was simply wherever it needed to be. It caught ranged attacks with ease that hinted at some sort of higher awareness, and seemed particularly vicious now that Infernus had burnt its previous leek to cinders. The creature rarely engaged in melee, normally preferring to redirect attacks this way and that to break any cohesion that Ash could have hoped for.

Every now and then it would interfere with an Air Slash or Heat Wave when needed, but it seemed to prefer the role of an active defender.

They were being whittled down, ultimately. Worst of all, Ash knew that they were just toying with him despite Durand's proclamation. If this were a real fight, they would have killed him already and watched his team fragment.

He snarled, ready to breathe flame himself - his family would not be toyed with!

The rain fell harder. It was approaching a storm now.

Darkness flitted toward them from the corner of his eye. He braced himself as Noivern shot forward faster than the human eye could track, only to blink as a victorious shriek pounded through the air.

Great talons snatched Noivern from the air. He caught just a moment of true surprise in the creature's dark eyes as it briefly came into view. Plume had been waiting for it to make an appearance, and now she was punishing the violent dragon for its transgressions.

She flapped her wings once, sent Farfetch'd, Shiftry, and Ninjask all tumbling through the air, and flitted away with her prey in her enormous talons. Noivern wasn't much smaller than her, but she made it seem effortless. Plume shrieked her victory as she prepared to dash her foe against the rocky cliffs, only to cry out in pain as a violent storm of wind burst forth from Noivern.

Razor Wind. It seemed a specialty of Durand's, and it did its job well as the aeroblades slashed into her. Blood dripped from the shallow wounds and she was forced to let Noivern loose as it thrashed and broke her grip.

It was followed by a shrieking Boom Burst - Ash's vision blurred as the awful cacophony washed over them all. Whatever advantage they could've gained from Plume's interruption was shattered as his entire team was rattled by the attack. Without Dazed's shields, it was absolute suffering.

He puked, as did Nidoking, and he felt pops in his ears as they repressurized. The others somehow kept the contents of their stomachs held back, but they were all left queasy and unsteady on their feet, which Durand's team immediately leapt upon.

Ash could only thank the heavens that Noivern wasn't unleashing them at full strength. A full-fledged Boom Burst would have shredded him apart. This was meant to debilitate, not obliterate.

Plume had managed to shield herself from the worst of it, but she was forced to retreat as Noivern suddenly went on the offensive. It soon retreated back to the forest, well-aware it would never catch Plume in the open sky, and Ash already dreaded its return.

It wouldn't be so easily caught off guard next time.

Ash wiped his mouth clean and barked out more desperate orders. He felt a little nauseous as he realized that Durand's team was already fighting with a handicap: it was daytime.

At night they'd be almost unstoppable. Noivern alone would be almost impossible to pin down under the cover of darkness. He glanced up at the darkening sky and wondered if they might be making a mistake. Perhaps Sunny Day would be a better bet…

But Infernus wasn't around to set it.

Ash cursed. "Apply pressure wherever you can!"

Great heaps of rock, and even a little lava,suddenly came sailing over the cliff's edge. Ash whooped as it smashed into the battlefield with incredible force, kicking up a haze of sand and dust. Trevenant actually had to erect a Protect to shield against it, and they earned a moment's relief from the thrashing roots.

A few globs of lava landed on the creature, and Ash felt a bit of vindication as the ghostly tree groaned. It shuddered and used a few roots to desperately toss the lava away, but it left a noticeable scar on its weathered bark… which was soon erased as its roots pulsed green and sucked up nutrients to feed the ghost.

Could everything on Durand's team heal itself? Ingrain meant they'd have to finish it in one blow, or a sustained assault, neither of which were currently viable with the rest of Durand's team interfering.

With Trevenant temporarily distracted, they launched into action. Their long experience being beaten down by superior teams came into play; whether it be Bruno or Lance or Steven, Ash's team knew how to exploit an opportunity even while they bled.

You never knew when the next one would come around.

Nidoking piled on the assault on Trevenant with a huge Sludge Bomb. It was guided by his psychic powers to preserve as much of the foul liquid as possible, and Starmie soon joined in to strengthen the shell and speed its progress. Farfetch'd attempted to cut it off, but a flurry of silver Ancient Power orbs slammed into the earth before it and turned the stone alive.

Trevenant had barely recovered from the lava when the Sludge Bomb splashed over it, searing with its acidic touch and noxious odor. It groaned like the creaking of a grove beneath a sudden storm as black tendrils burst from its wooden flesh and peeled the poison away, but it offered another opening.

His friend stamped his foot as his eyes squeezed shut. Ash felt the change in the earth, felt a mighty will wrench control of the solid substance, and grinned as Nidoking thrust his arms apart with a roar - Bruiser leapt before him and absorbed another Leaf Blade from Shiftry, though it was only a glancing blow thanks to Sneasel's swift Ice Beam that forced the agile creature away.

Shiftry fled as a Razor Wind wrapped around it and shredded light cuts in Sneasel's fur, but it was restrained so as to avoid hurting Ash. A Bullet Seed slammed into Nidoking's jaw and twisted his thick neck around with a snap, but the attack was nothing serious.

It certainly wasn't enough to keep Nidoking from bleeding power into the earth and tearing it asunder. A five-foot trench that cut down nearly ten feet appeared with a great roar of earth and an explosion of force - Ash could see dozens of Trevenant's roots stretched taut across the chasm, wriggling and alive and flooded with dark power.

Lairon warbled, leapt down into the empty expanse, and plopped through ten of the foul things. His weight snapped them like twigs. The others reared back in shock, but he was too quick. While he couldn't repeat the same trick, he did summon a blade of stone with Rock Tomb that cleaved through nearly all of them. Some escaped, but Trevenant visibly flinched.

Its restorative abilities would take care of that rather quickly, but Nidoking and Lairon had bought time.

Stone and silver spheres rained down from the heavens as Tangrowth took his support role seriously. While he failed to land more than scratches on Durand's ridiculously fast and perceptive team, he did prevent them from working together smoothly.

Ash's team slowly gained ground.

Bruiser's Focus Blast clipped Farfetch'd's wing. Shiftry was forced to retreat as Lairon rushed forward, legs scrambling in midair as if he was swimming, and Sneasel struck at the same time. Without Trevenant's support they were somewhat more vulnerable, especially as the ACE remnants tossed in attacks at random to throw them off further.

Durand's team's pace swiftened, feeding into the bloodlust as well. Impossibly fast already, Shiftry became a silent wraith of bladed leaves and wind wielded like a sword. Its superb command over Razor Wind left the technique a passive threat, always ready to close off escape or punish an attacker for a single slipup.

Farfetch'd kept up, though still focused primarily on absorbing Tangrowth's Ancient Power. It was unable to store away physical attacks, Ash noticed, though that didn't stop it from firing off stolen Ancient Power spheres into tossed stones and sending them right back where they came.

A rather offended gurgle sounded from on high when the first boulder was sent sailing back at its previous owner.

Something in Ash's chest leapt. It was the only warning he got before a great roaring river of flame rolled over Farfetch'd, the creature just barely spared as Trevenant managed to send a handful of animate trees lurching forward to shield it. Whatever remnants made it past the tangled knot of saplings was soon sucked away into Farfetch'd's void.

That technique was so incredibly annoying.

Ash wanted it.

Still, he barked out a slightly maddened laugh as Infernus' arrival broke their siege. His friend was furious, eyes ablaze with white-hot rage, and he charged forth as he kept the flames billowing down against Farfetch'd's defenses - a few silver spheres burst forth from Farfetch'd's replacement stick, struck the sand, and yanked it up into a solid wall to absorb the flames as Trevenant's animated minions were reduced entirely to ash despite their ghostly protections.

The sand twisted into a slag heap that shone cherry red in sharp contrast to the dull grey of the gentle rain, steam washing off it in great droves, but something about it left a beautiful, beautiful idea in Ash's brain.

"Dazed, do you have this?"

She nodded feebly, protected by a stone enclosure erected by Tangrowth, and her eyes flashed with a dull light.

Ash hoped Plume would receive it in time.

"Push now!" He roared. Leafeon and Plusle growled from the sidelines - a line of electricity shot from Plusle's chubby cheeks to Oz, who blazed gold in the mist as her body became saturated with her charge. The grass-type's bladed tail whipped back and forth as a bloodlust filled its eyes, but for now it contented itself with a storm of Razor Leaves that filled the air and forced Ninjask away from Oz.

It buzzed away, flicked one of its front legs up in what Ash thought to be a rude gesture, and cried loudly in a way that only worsened Ash's burgeoning headache.

He hoped Infernus could catch the blasted thing in his flames. Ash didn't see any other way to take it out of the fight, and it was growing more and more aggressive as Ash's team converged into a solid unit.

If he wanted to keep his team up, they had to take out at least one of Durand's. They'd always had the advantage of numbers, but Ash had no clue how long that would last. Steven must be arriving soon, but how long would it take? There was an army of ghosts and Rockets between them.

Just as Infernus bore down on Farfetch'd in an effort to settle their frustrating battle from before, a wild howl tore through the air. A rampaging simian launched out from the trees to Infernus' side, the tuft of red fur on its skull practically vibrating as it landed heavily before Infernus and readied a Protect to absorb the blazing stream of fire that immediately spat from the Magmortar's mouth.

The Vigoroth absorbed the flame for just a moment before leaping away, its eyes gleaming eagerly in the fire light. Despite its spastic energy, Vigoroth somehow managed to make every motion appear smooth and graceful as it dodged away from Infernus' next assault. It was devilishly quick, though one of Infernus' psychic-controlled flames managed to brush it, and Vigoroth howled again as it cast a few blades of Distortional power into the midst of the fire.

It dissipated, suddenly going wild as the ethereal shell disintegrated.

Another shape fell upon Infernus then, bursting out of the long shadow behind him. He dodged with practiced ease as a golden blade struck to pierce his back and spat flame - Infernus sneered at the Aegislash as it emerged in full and absorbed the full might of a Flamethrower cast from his lips.

He was too familiar with them both to have evaded them so well. Ash suspected that he'd found what had kept Infernus away from them all this time. They must have ambushed him as soon as Durand made her move.

To be fair, though, they seemed quite familiar with Infernus, bearing heavy scorches, charred fur, and in the case of Vigoroth a wary expression that belied the spring in its step.

Still, it was clear that they'd chosen their moment well. Infernus directly countered too many of them to leave standing. He was already being crushed beneath the weight of numbers as Farfetch'd stole away the flames threatening to engulf Vigoroth, and Aegislash carved through the air at him with a shining blade.

He was a fortress besieged on all fronts.

Aegislash shifted seamlessly between offense and defense. Infernus rarely had a chance to focus his anger upon it, but when he did Aegislash held its shield aloft and absorbed it as its entire body was wreathed in a dark aura.

Ash wasn't sure if Durand herself qualified as a Dark or Ghost Master, but she sure as hell specialized in it. She must really hate psychics.

Ninjask and Shiftry prevented any attempts to help Infernus. Farfetch'd snagged any attacks. Oz was still charging up - it had been less than thirty seconds than Infernus had appeared, although it felt like significantly longer thanks to the ferociousness of his battle - and Nidoking was still focused on hammering Trevenant with Sludge Bombs and Ice Beams.

"Tangrowth! No rules - throw all the lava you can!"

The barrage of stone and silver from the cliffs stopped for just a moment. Shiftry took advantage to dash in and kick Sneasel in the chest.

Infernus still faced down Vigoroth, Aegislash, and Farfetch'd at once. He was a machine even without his greatest advantages. The Magmortar was a huge target, but he fought masterfully. When he could dodge, he did. When he couldn't, he angled himself to take the blow in the safest way.

He closed the distance with Vigoroth to force the rampaging normal-type away with his body heat. Flames devoured whatever energy attacks lanced toward him. Even Aegislash couldn't bear to fight close to Infernus for long, often having to retreat from the glowing figure lest its Distortional shroud fail in the face of his awful heat.

While Infernus failed to make much headway, he still kept them occupied. He was being whittled down by a death of a thousand cuts (literally, thanks to Aegislash) but the fires within burned hotter than the fires without.

Every cut gushed molten blood. Darkness clung to the wounds, seeping deep within to gnaw at Infernus from the inside, and Aegislash leapt from any shadow it could to deliver sweeping blows and infect Infernus with cursed cut after cursed cut. It was a familiar strategy to anyone attempting to slow Infernus down.

He was slowing.

Infernus' lips peeled back in a snarl. His eyes were aglow with life.

He laughed and laughed and laughed as he weathered strike after strike. Aegislash grew confident. Its purple eye narrowed as Vigoroth danced close as bait, blurred into two to confuse Infernus, and it plunged forward to impale his muscular body on its golden blade.

Infernus spun around without a thought for Vigoroth, cackled, and stepped forward into the blade. His cannon folded into claws and he grasped the hilt in his searing grip, ignoring the pain, though he let out a violent roar that transitioned into a white-hot Flamethrower that consumed the spectral blade.

Cursed steel sucked all the life it could from Infernus, but his fires tore it down faster than it could build up. Aegislash shuddered and struggled to pull itself free, but Infernus refused to let it go. Terrible power plunged through him as Aegislash threw everything it could, but it was quickly learning why it was an absolutely stupid idea to get close to Infernus, much less this close.

It had thought he'd shy away from the malignant blade as any rational being would.

It had been mistaken.

Still, Durand's team epitomized synergy. They didn't just stand by gawking as Infernus took their ally down.

Vigoroth ignored the heat and pain and landed upon Infernus in a frenzy of slashing black claws. It was a desperation that Ash knew well: the desperation to save a treasured comrade from destruction. Something twinged in his chest at the sight, but he felt only relief as Tangrowth finally made his contribution to the battle.

They'd been unable to reach Infernus before. Nidoking couldn't even try to Dig away without Trevenant's roots tearing into his hide, and if he did leave then the rest would be swiftly overtaken. Shiftry, Trevenant, and Ninjask did a good job of corralling them all, and even Bruiser's attempts to smash boulders and trees to send shrapnel flying into Ninjask and Shiftry had little effect.

Lairon and Sneasel were struggling to keep up with the pace of battle, although Sneasel seemed to slowly accustom himself to Shiftry and Ninjask's insane speed. He couldn't touch them yet, not while trying to shield Dazed from their pokes, but his eyes tracked them accurately more often than not.

But for a moment Ash's stress melted away.

A veritable sheet of glowing lava sailed down from the cliffs. It was loosely congealed into a fat glob, but Tangrowth had always struggled to shape it properly. By the time it landed and buried Infernus, Aegislash, and Vigoroth in a molten heap the lava had completely fallen away from the grass-type's control. It hissed and bubbled as light drops of rain pounded down upon it.

He caught only the briefest glimpse of Aegislash holding its shield high and a lattice of interlocked hexagons manifesting before it all rained down.

Infernus laughed as his head burst out from beneath the molten stone, lava dripping from his mouth like blood. He forced it off himself as new strength filled his limbs, though growled in frustration as he peeked beneath and caught sight of neither Aegislash or Vigoroth.

They emerged in the trees a moment later. Aegislash's tassel looped around Vigoroth's wrist. Both looked badly burnt. Aegislash in particular seemed on its last leg - between Infernus' last stand and Tangrowth's intervention, it had strained itself to its breaking point.

It eyed Infernus with blatant interest and pulled away from Vigoroth as the normal-type tried to support it. Aegislash inclined its blade in a sort of nod, was consumed with dark power, and rushed in again for round two.

Plume swept down. She didn't attack the Aegislash directly (that would've been a poor choice) but she coasted fifty feet above the beach and flung a Gust right at the sand. A huge veil was tossed up in a swirling blur to obscure Aegislash and Infernus both.

Vigoroth groaned, then leapt off after it - Oz whirred loudly as she saw her chance.

Boom!

A thunderclap rolled through the earth and rattled all their bones. Ninjask wavered for a moment as it was tossed asunder by the sudden attack, but the enormous spear of her Lightning Bolt left the air sounding as if the heavens themselves were being torn apart by its might.

They were all blinded for an instant, but Ash caught what happened next.

The Lightning Bolt landed dead on Vigoroth - or would have.

Farfetch'd lunged forward desperately and caught the bolt on its stick. Its grip wavered as the brilliant beam of lightning was sucked away into the void, and the little black hole leaked electricity and twisted madly as if about to collapse - the bird's eyes widened, it sought a target, and thrust its stick immediately at Infernus as he readied himself for Aegislash's attack.

"Infernus! Air Lens!"

Its stick shattered into a thousand pieces beneath the strain. Ash heard it squawk indignantly as its replacement focus suddenly vanished in an explosion of splinters.

He was more focused on the redirected Lightning Bolt. It had perhaps lost a bit of its potency, but Oz had put a ton of juice into that attack. Ash prayed desperately for Infernus to react in time, saw him crane his neck to glance in that direction -

The Lightning Bolt collided with Infernus' cannon. It sent him stumbling back, forced away by the sudden release of heat and light… but Infernus remained standing. His cannon was raised in defense, a steady output of intense heat bursting from it, and Ash felt immediate relief.

Ash thought he heard a distant squeal of excitement somewhere in the forest, although it might just have been his imagination.

Oz's Lightning Bolt was too powerful for Infernus to block entirely with such little notice. Ash caught him shuddering and twitching as arcs of electricity danced down his hot skin, but the fact that he was still conscious at all was a miracle.

Infernus set his eyes back on Aegislash as it charged through the artificial sandstorm. His lips twisted up into a gleeful smile.

He raised his cannon.

Flames erupted.

The sandstorm turned to a whirling mess of molten glass. Little flecks of fiery sand whipped around in a lethal storm. Infernus cranked the heat higher and higher and higher until the entire beach seemed as if it was set next to a glowing star. Vigoroth was forced to run around lest he be caught and shredded in it.

Pokemon were tough, but any organic fighter caught in that molten glass storm wouldn't last long at all.

Rock-types would survive it with little trouble, as would many ground-types and steel-types. The heat would be more of a problem for steel-types than the glass. Still, the way it would cling and stick to whatever it touched would pose a problem for almost any other pokemon. Even most fire-types wouldn't handle a shell of molten glass for long.

He'd first thought of the idea in the Piede and discussed it with Infernus a few times. It was a little cathartic to finally see it in action, even as he was forced to yank his foot away from a creeping root.

Two things happened in the span of an instant.

First, Aegislash proved itself too cunning and perceptive to be caught in the trap. It emerged from Infernus' shadow, avoided his reflexive blow, and caught a Flamethrower meant for the approaching Vigoroth on its shield.

Then it lowered the shield, angled itself for attack, and Infernus' eyes lit up like a child ready to tear a present open.

"Don't!"

Infernus twitched at Ash's words, but it was too late. He landed a fiery punch into Aegislash just as the Master-level fighter subtly connected a strand of purple energy to Infernus' flesh. Dawning awareness flickered in Infernus' eyes, but it was too late. Aegislash had planned its feint too well.

The connection was made.

The empathic link was forged.

His friend screamed as all the pain suffered by Aegislash was inflicted upon him tenfold.

Infernus fell to one knee, quivering as Aegislash managed to levitate itself again. It inclined its hilt once more to Infernus, though Ash doubted Infernus was even aware of it through the mind shattering pain.

The fact that Infernus was actually grounded (even if only temporarily) rather than sent into a fury spoke volumes.

Second, a sonic boom erupted behind them. Ash flinched and readied himself for a mess of nausea on behalf of Noivern, but they weren't its target this time. The creature must have spotted an opportunity once Plume had revealed itself, for it had taken the cliffs from Tangrowth and forced him away with an onslaught of sonic and draconic attacks.

Tangrowth was forced to fling himself down the cliffside, though he easily swung safely thanks to his dextrous vines. The loss of a prime position, though… Ash felt uneasy as he wondered what became of Silver. Was the boy still unconscious?

They'd only lasted this long because Tangrowth was practically untouchable to most of Durand's team up there. This didn't bode well, although it would be nice to have Tangrowth's vines down here to counter Trevenant's roots.

Noivern swooped overhead, spat a Supersonic wave that left them all sick to their stomachs, and flitted away before Plume could punish it. Before they could recover, Ninjask appeared with impossible speed - even faster than before! - and shrieked.

It hung motionless in the air for a moment as its wings vibrated together, pulsing with a horrible siren-like wail, and the sonic waves ripped through them all. Nidoking flung himself in front of Ash to absorb them, but it still left Ash's vision swimming. His balance was completely shot, as was the rest of his team, and he stumbled this way and that as the world seemed to come untethered around him.

He could hardly tell left from right, grabbing desperately for any of his friends to anchor him in reality, but Nidoking thrashed with his tail in an attempt to smack Ninjask out of the air - he missed, nearly took off Sneasel's head, and soon thought better of that idea.

Ninjask's little legs rubbed together greedily. With their core crippled, it shot toward Dazed even as Shiftry dashed towards Leafeon in a synchronized burst of speed. Ash cried out a warning for her, as she was nearly crippled by Trevenant's poison, her own exhaustion, and the constant overstimulation provided by the battle and Ninjask's Bug Buzz, but her eyes were dull and unresponsive.

The bug-type dashed in, swept in with clicking mandibles empowered by Night Slash, and chomped down on her arm. Dazed's eyes widened briefly as her system was overwhelmed with the dark power - she'd summoned up the power for a Zen Headbutt, although it was immediately snuffed out by the antithetical energies - and then Ninjask let out another nauseating Bug Buzz and finished off the psychic.

The rest of them were all sent to their knees by the sonic attack even as Ninjask offered up a cheery wave of its pricking leg and vanished in a buzz. Ash hated that thing. His fingers grasped the sandy soil like claws as he staggered up with a burst of willpower, followed shortly after by the rest of his team.

He swiftly recalled Dazed before any more harm could come to her. Ash gripped her pokeball tightly as a great sense of loss came over him. She would be fine after some treatment, but with her gone they'd lost an enormous strategic asset.

None of them were in good condition after that lightning-quick attack. Oz was the only one still fighting well. Her species was well-adapted to handling extreme light and sound thanks to their familiarity with thunder and lightning. She was currently doing her best to shield Leafeon with her bulk and swinging tails and great arcs of crackling electricity, but Shiftry was untouchable as a wraith. It seemed to move before Oz even considered her next strike, eyes locked on her own, and Ash bit back a snarl as he recalled a Shiftry's ability to read the intent and motions of others.

It was a difficult art, rare except for among the most powerful and experienced Shiftry, but even young Shiftry possessed a particular affinity for acting preemptively. It was a matter of debate among researchers, and one that Shiftry rarely deigned to assist with, but Ash had seen hypotheses ranging from sensitivity to wind currents to acting in response to minute fluxes in dark-type and ghostly energy to simply superb reflexes.

Based on the fluidity and swiftness of Durand's Shiftry, he suspected it to be attuned to some combination of all three. It seemed unnaturally at home in the Razor Wind cloak that it shrouded itself in, but the thing constantly poured out dark power.

Even in the battle haze and nausea of the sonic attacks, Ash couldn't help but put his own theories together. Could Shiftry saturate the area around itself with Distortional power to enhance its senses? Could it use that to mimic certain psychic abilities to peer through time? Could it -

Not the time for this!

All that mattered was that it read Oz like a book. It baited attacks, offered Farfetch'd a chance to steal another of her mighty Thunderbolts for itself, carried itself forward in a gale of wind, and exploded in a blinding Flash of light that left Ash with stars in his vision.

He recovered to see Shiftry crossing a Leaf Blade (which was clearly drenched in a Toxic sheen) against Leafeon's bladed tail. Oz was already on her way to assist, and Leafeon did an admirable job. Its glowing leafy tail whipped back and forth as it sparred with Shiftry. At one point it even threatened to sever its foe's wooden arm, although Shiftry's insane reflexes saved it.

Ash felt a surge of relief as he saw water slowly receding from the shore and a great bulge building up in the distance. Help was coming, albeit not soon.

Oz charged forward with a Flash Step - Shiftry's eyes widened, it flipped away, but managed to leave Leafeon with a few thin grazes that already began to swell as its body reacted to the Toxic. Leafeon roared (rather cutely, Ash thought) and its eyes narrowed hatefully at Shiftry as the creature danced away.

"Alpha-7!" Rupert shouted from the sidelines as he treated his Illumise. He was sweaty and desperate, one of his hands going to the small arsenal of tools on his belt.

Leafeon's lips pulled back in a snarl. It leapt forward as a rain of Distorted Bullet Seeds shot forth from Shiftry's cruel mouth right into Oz's back - Leafeon erected a mighty Protect just before they would have slammed into her and chipped away at her remaining strength.

The grass-type groaned with the effort, but reinforced the barrier until the gnawing power imbued within the Bullet Seeds was consumed and they fell limply to the ground.

Shiftry ignored them both for now. It had finished Leafeon with the Toxic, though the vulpine creature was attempting to hold off the violent effects as long as possible. Its body was shining bright with Synthesis as it burned all of its energy to fight off the poison.

Plusle peered out from behind a tree. It had hidden when Shiftry arrived, but now it was back to firing off little arcs of electricity into Oz to amp up her own attacks. The little electric-type had realized its best bet was to continue acting as her support and to avoid attracting undue attention.

With that situation stabilizing and his own team regrouping (but still noticeably off balance) Ash turned to Infernus.

It had only been a few seconds since Noivern and Ninjask swept over them. In that time, Infernus had struggled to rise up, but even his fires were dimmed. Vigoroth hooted its victory as Aegislash slowly levitated away with its blade dragging the earth, pounded its chest, and leered at the Magmortar.

Fire blazed in his veins. The Feather burst to life where it lay embedded in his chest for some futile effort.

A grim certainty came over him. There was only one thing left to do.

"Infernus! This is your time - Earth Burn!"

Despite his poor state, Infernus mustered a weak grin. He raised one cannon and slammed it against the cooling lava as the rain pounded down on them. A great quake wracked the earth, winding fissures throughout the sand and rumbling them all, and his eyes shut -

Molten gold poured from Vigoroth's fanged maw as panic filled the hyperactive pokemon.

It knew what was coming.

The beginnings of lava began to well up in the depths. It was as if all Infernus' power was dredged up for this one last attack. His blazing coat exploded with power as heat radiated out from him in mighty waves. Air twisted, steam hissed, and in the rain and lava and lightning Ash imagined him back in Sudmauna, partaking in the Origin Festival…

A Hyper Beam slammed into Infernus. The golden blaze coursed over him and thrust him backward. His focus was broken and his eyes were hazy, but some spark filled them again as Infernus' incredible stamina and fighting spirit bore him through.

Lava gushed from the thin fissures winding through the beach. It was feebler than it would have been if Infernus was at full power - he hadn't had the strength to hammer down a full Earthquake to ravage the earth or the focus to draw up a geyser of lava - but it still burst up in a spray of molten rock.

It came and came and came, burying Infernus and leaving Vigoroth rushing away with Aegislash cradled carefully in its grip, and Ash felt a well of hope. Infernus just needed a moment! One moment beneath the lava and he could recover, patch his wounds, and reenter -

Farfetch'd fluttered over to Vigoroth. With its second focus gone, it had gone and collected something very familiar: a sparking black rod about the length of Ash's forearm. The avian pokemon had snagged one of the Rockets' shock batons as a replacement for its stick. It cocked its head at the devastating Earth Burn as it intensified, building in power and swelling with heat until it would explode and bury them all in lava .

The little bird cocked its head. An air of satisfaction fell over it as Farfetch'd eyed the shimmering purple thread that still connected Aegislash to their mighty opponent.

It didn't hesitate. Farfetch'd quacked apologetically at Aegislash, then tapped the button to activate the shock baton.

"Dazed, stop it!"

Dazed was gone.

Aegislash blinked understandingly at Farfetch'd.

Farfetch'd gently rapped the shock baton against Aegislash' steel form and held it there. It seemed quite pleased with itself.

Infernus thrashed beneath the lava.

Vigoroth fired another Hyper Beam into the pile, sending glowing rock flying everywhere and revealing Infernus' flailing form.

Farfetch'd tapped the shock baton against Aegislash again. A keening groan erupted from the living weapon as it trembled, but it bore the pain to ensure their victory. Vigoroth rubbed it sympathetically, though it had to pull away to block an Ice Beam and Thunderbolt courtesy of Nidoking and Dazed, respectively.

Destiny Bond was supposed to be an empathic link. It was supposed to require intent. Direct intent to him. It was a disgustingly complicated technique - it was a miracle that a rookie trainer like Josh Brooks in the Conference had managed to pull it off - and the slightest variable could send the delicate workings apart.

Whether a standard modification of the technique for high-level users or a personal twist from Durand's cunning mind, Aegislash was able to break the rule. Masters treated those limits as more of suggestions.

He couldn't imagine the amount of training that had required. If Aegislash was really in a battle to win, it would be so simple to just thread a Destiny Bond to others and have an ally strike it to shut them down.

That was terrifying.

Ash found himself grateful that Durand wasn't going for the throat. No doubt there were defenses against it and ways to disrupt its altered Destiny Bond. He couldn't discern the exact mechanics from this brief exposure, but the more moving parts there were in the technique the easier it was to shut down.

Infernus went still. Ash returned him a moment later.

Another anchor of his team was gone. The odds were turning against them by the moment. Infernus had single handedly occupied the attention of three powerful members of Durand's team for several minutes - his uniquely destructive nature and body temperature had made him the perfect choice to keep them busy.

Oz might be in the same realm as Infernus now, but her attacks were largely precision-based and incapable of covering large areas. Durand's agile team was an awful matchup for her, and it didn't help that Vigoroth was there to absorb any attacks that would have landed with Protect.

Ash grit his teeth and did his best to calm his raging thoughts.

They were down to the core group able to defend somewhat against Durand's relentless attacks. Tangrowth could counter Trevenant's roots and was already raising stone barriers to make it more difficult for Ninjask or Shiftry to just dance about, although Trevenant was just as quick to disassemble them.

Bruiser tore his way through the roots as well, though the poison was clearly taking its toll on him. He fought harder than ever, however. His physiology was well-adapted to handling poison. Even now it coursed more and more adrenaline through his body in an attempt to counter it. It strengthened him further as a result, even if that came at a price.

Nidoking was still in good shape. He'd only taken glancing wounds, as had Lairon - a steel-type was a good match against Durand's favored tactics. Lairon wasn't able to do much against her, but he still protected them all with his body and abilities.

Ash savored a moment to fantasize about how outmatched Durand would be when Steven finally got here…

Sneasel seemed invigorated, if anything. Testing his claws against Shiftry's blades hadn't turned out well for him, but he was acting faster and faster. It reminded Ash of Sneasel's zeal as he fought against Karen's Weavile.

There was something thrilling about facing a superior opponent. The drumming of his heart and the tingle of excitement in his nerves was sufficient proof of that.

A broken string of telepathy cracked through his mind. It was dim and indistinct, but he was able to translate it with some effort. Ash was reminded of trying to make out words while beneath the water.

It was Iliana. She must have brought Starmie back to consciousness.

Ash! Steven has broken through! Seven minutes, Ash! SEVEN MINUTES! He's coming -

Seven minutes.

Seven minutes.

Seven minutes.

Ash silently despaired. That was practically an eternity. What on earth had kept Steven for so long?!

He felt something shift, then the world peeled something dark and slimy away not too far away. Durand appeared with an easy smile, though there was a thread of tension winding its way across her features.

She couldn't have heard Starmie's telepathy, but she knew that she'd tarried too long here. Ash suspected that Durand wouldn't have bothered playing this game with him if she'd anticipated this much resistance.

They were on a time limit. Every second that the sands had to drop was another second in Ash's favor.

He was okay with losing the battle if it meant winning the war, even if he really wanted to conquer this unexpected mountain.

"Such grit! What is his name?" She motioned to where Infernus had once stood. Her eyes were sparkling. "I am an admirer, you know. His performance in the Finals… marvelous! In Kalos, we have many tales of fabled dragon slayers. None of the tales ended like that! If only we had more time…" Durand finished wistfully.

Despite himself, he found himself agreeing with her. He couldn't help but well up with pride as he thought back to that fateful battle against Michael and the valiant efforts of his family.

Ash breathed deeply before he replied to burn a little more time. Every moment counted.

"Infernus."

"Infernus…" His name rolled off Durand's tongue as she tested it. She smiled. "A fitting name. Magnificent indeed!"

Ash glanced down to Infernus and Dazed's pokeballs. "You don't know the half of it." He shut his eyes for a moment, enjoying the brief reprieve from her team's constant testing. "Your team are monsters."

Durand actually laughed. It seemed too pleasant and too light to belong to a murderer.

They both knew it was a compliment. Vigoroth had cradled Aegislash again, but the simian grinned and waved at Ash. Even Trevenant's blazing eye softened a bit, although Shiftry and Farfetch'd never lost their wary edge. It was bizarre to see these deadly opponents soften, even if it was just for a moment.

"You do not know the half of it," Durand echoed. She plucked her floppy sun hat from her head and ran a finger through her sweat-drenched blonde hair. The sounds of battle came closer. She bit her lip. "We thank you for the compliment, Ash, but we had best be off. My work here is done. Farewell, Ash Ketchum! I hope that we meet again. It was truly delightful!"

She was going to walk away.

Just like that.

"Audrey, my dear. If you would?"

Zoroark unveiled itself with little prompting or fanfare. It didn't bother with dramatic effects like Sidney's did. Instead, it simply opted to materialize as if from nowhere. Ash thought that this professional might be even more dangerous than Sidney's own Zoroark.

They both straddled the lines of reality and fiction of their own design. Sidney's Zoroark seemed to revel in it. It would reenact a horror movie with itself as the villain just to get a kick out of it. Durand's would just walk up unseen and slit his throat.

But how was she going to leave? Noivern? No, it would be plucked away by Plume or harassed and tracked by the League. This whole island was under lockdown.

Trevenant uprooted itself and slowly shuffled up behind Durand. It leaned happily against her and wrapped her up in a tight grip. She relaxed against it. Dark power built around the duo even as Durand readied the first of her pokeballs to recall her team.

No.

No.

She was not going to Phantom Force out.

First off, that was insane. And stupid. And dangerous! Stupidly dangerous? Yes, that and dangerously stupid.

Secondly, he wasn't ready. Steven couldn't be more than five minutes away. If he could just hold her a little longer… Durand wouldn't kill him. More importantly, she wouldn't seriously injure his team. She might pull out a trump card to decisively beat him and make her escape, but he didn't think that she would take it too far.

If worse came to worst, he would surrender and let her leave. He wouldn't put the rest of them at risk if it seemed things were going too far. A cornered beast was the most dangerous sort. Ash just had to hope that he could distract her long enough for Steven and the League to get here.

A plan began to formulate.

Let her recall her team.

Let Sneasel do what he did best.

Take out Trevenant to cut off her escape. Aegislash too. '

Hold out.

A mad smile overtook his features as Durand's last few pokemon were recalled. She still kept a watchful eye on Ash and his team, though Noivern was still perched somewhere above to prevent any funny business and he hadn't spotted Zoroark or Shiftry being returned.

"Sneasel!"

Revulsion struck him like a hammer as noxious, vile power poured forth from Sneasel's very being. A wave of it washed over them all, clinging to them like grease and permeating all their senses. He could taste the bitter sweetness of the paradoxical power. Grey coated his skin, dulling his senses, and for a moment he couldn't feel anything deeper than the physical.

The Song quieted in his ears.

Zoroark's illusions melted away like turpentine dissolved paint. It was left bare and exposed a short distance from Durand, and it shrank away as if horrified at its sudden vulnerability.

Noivern smashed through a tree as its mind was shattered in the middle of a Boomburst. The creature was too skilled and too tough to stay down for long, but it bought them a moment of time. Plume shrieked, swooped down, only to have to swerve away as another sonic wave erupted from its ears.

Flash.

Shiftry had managed to resist the Mind Breaker, but it hissed as Oz smashed her hands together and blinded their opponents with a brilliant burst of light. Oz was behind them all so they were spared the worst of it, but even so Ash had to squint. Durand's team were too well-trained to let it stop them for long, but it bought Ash and his team precious seconds.

He heard the tell-tale noise of pokemon being released. Durand clearly wasn't willing to fight at only partial strength. She was too wary to take on an opponent without maintaining as much control as possible.

Durand was soon hidden behind Trevenant's imposing form, but Ash caught a glimpse. She was impatient, face bloodless and hands shaking after her exposure to Mind Breaker, but she impressed Ash with her resilience. Perhaps it was simply willpower or perhaps her regular exposure to the vile power wielded by Sneasel and her team, but she'd handled herself well.

She was still conscious, for one.

A little trepidation washed over her tanned face, but Ash caught a glimpse of something else flickering behind the haze: excitement.

He'd surprised her. To a Master like Durand, one who strived every day to seek out her own limits and push them that much farther, thrills like that could be hard to come by. She'd taken the bait.

Ash stepped forward, mouth set into a grim line. "You aren't going anywhere! We're not done with you."

Shiftry clicked at her, but Durand shook its warnings off.

"Very well! Let us put this to an end. It's been a long day for us both." She whistled once and alternated the frequency between high and low pitches, and her team sprung into action with blinding speed.

Her team struck as one. They were consumed by a dozen illusory clones of each teammate - Noivern leapt up and flapped its wings once, dissolving into eight more that darted around and sowing chaos. Shiftry paused to fire off a Bullet Seed into a flashbang tossed by Rupert, then followed suit.

A Leaf Blade swept behind Oz's right knee. She roared, swung around, only for Shiftry to dart forward with a burst of speed and escape her strikes even as it swept a Night Slash into Nidoking's back - Sneasel hissed and blocked it with a clatter of claws, but didn't go unpunished.

Ash could hardly keep track of what was going on. His team fought like mad to survive the vicious onslaught, suddenly aware of the devastating teamwork of their enemies all over again. His frenzied mind was torn between firing out rapid orders to keep them alive and admiring the seamless display.

Bruiser swung a knee right into Shiftry's wooden face and sailed right through. He pounded his chest with frustration but kept swinging, only for another copy of Shiftry and Ninjask - blurry at the edges, clearly insubstantial - to rush at him. It wasn't a trick that he would fall for again, and he ignored them.

He grunted as tangible strikes struck him. Mandibles clicked around his neck. A bladed leaf slashed his chest - and then both clones dissolved seamlessly. All that was left of their existence were the thin red lines coated with fading grey power.

Zoroark, Ash's mind soon realized. It was frozen with its eyes shut, but he had no doubt that this was one of its tricks. So it could make solid illusions as well? Jessica's Starmie had pulled that trick with psychic powers way back in the Conference, but this was something altogether different.

Could Sidney's Zoroark manifest tangible creations as well, or was this limited to Durand's? And what was the limit?

He could figure that out later. For now, he could only call out orders for Bruiser to help him defend against more and more of the tangible clones that were intermixed with the Double Team copies. Now they were even more indistinguishable. The frayed illusions sent by Zoroark previously were specifically as bait to trick Bruiser after Shiftry's perfect copy had mixed him up.

Sneasel leapt back and forth as Vigoroth rushed forward. Their claws clanged as they ducked in and out of the others. Vigoroth's eyes were sharp and intense and joyful as it found an equal in Sneasel, who couldn't match the frenzied simian in strength but just barely overcame it in speed and agility.

Together they carved a violent path through the battlefield. They stayed far from the real dangers - Nidoking's swinging tail would knock them both out with a single strike, as would Oz's wild Thunder Punches. Tangrowth's own vines whipped around to counter the onslaught of Trevenant's thorny roots, but Vigoroth was confident enough to slash them wherever he could.

Each lost vine was one less variable on the battlefield. A blessing for Durand and a curse for Ash.

An occasional Dragon Pulse fell like a comet on the battlefield courtesy of Torrent. They rarely struck anything but air, but provided valuable interference to keep Durand's team at bay.

Sneasel ducked beneath a hooked claw, spat an Ice Beam right into Vigoroth's face, and his eyes sharpened to pinpricks as the normal-type's jugular was left exposed. His legs tensed and he leapt forward -

Shiftry appeared from nowhere with a Sucker Punch and chopped Sneasel in the neck with its claws. Sneasel gagged, one set of claws going to his throat while the other swept at Shiftry and slashed off one of its leaves, but the grass-type was soon gone in a gust of wind that carried it to more vital battles.

He tried to recover, but Vigoroth had already danced forward. It seemed disappointed at the intervention, but it knew the stakes of this battle. Vigoroth snarled and slammed its thick skull right into Sneasel with a vicious headbutt.

Sneasel stumbled back, dizzied by the blow, and that was it. Vigoroth leapt forward with its hooked claws ready to rend, but only met empty air as Ash recalled his friend. The wild creature growled again, locked its eyes on Tangrowth as he fended off Trevenant and Farfetch'd with a storm of whipping vines that were systematically being cut away and rendered useless, and shot forward to strike with a series of vicious Fury Swipes.

Whatever hope Ash had felt before vanished as he saw the tide truly turn against them.

Bruiser fought off a dozen twisting roots, but his eyes went blank as a strange aura settled over him. Ash immediately knew it to be psychic power based on the feeling rolling off of the shimmering azure, but it was… different. Sickly. Somewhat unstable, but somehow all the stronger for it.

The power wrapped Bruiser up in a cocoon even as Trevenant's thorny appendages looped around each of his limbs with crushing force. It wouldn't be enough to stop Bruiser, but he wasn't even capable of resisting as he fought some unseen battle.

Ash's eyes widened.

There was another. How many teammates did Durand have?!

A trio of animated trees tore themselves from the earth and unsteadily lurched toward Bruiser. Their limbs snaked around him and he was soon buried entirely in wood and leaves.

"Bruiser!" Ash's voice was helpless. Bruiser, a rock, always dependable, couldn't hear him. Or, if he could, he couldn't answer.

Nidoking tried to be everywhere at once, although his real priority was shielding Ash from the effects of the battle. Many of the wounds scarring his thick purple hide weren't meant for him originally, but were stray attacks he'd absorbed with his sturdy body. Many more were intentional, and his body was painted red with all the light cuts and gashes he'd suffered at Shiftry's and Ninjask's surgical hands. Or mandibles, as it would be.

Oz was beset by the ailing Aegislash and Farfetch'd. The avian had switched focus from Tangrowth once it became manageable for just Vigoroth and Trevenant to handle - Trevenant had set ghostly flame to Tangrowth's vines, and he was now being forced to shed more and more lest the sickly fire consume them all - and now acted as the shield for the others.

On her own, Oz would have crushed Aegislash at this point. She likely would have crushed Farfetch'd as well. Trevenant played its part perfectly, however, and had snared her thick ankles with toxic thorns. She couldn't yank her foot free with shredding her flesh and exposing her to more and more of the poison.

She fought like a monster, though. A veritable lightning storm pounded off her fists with every strike, thunder rolling through the air. Even Farfetch'd couldn't steal them all away. It was forced to choose carefully, and Aegislash slowly flagged as she hammered it again and again with vicious bolts of electricity.

A black shadow shrieked overhead, no doubt about to unleash another Boom Burst to leave them exposed and easy pickings, but Plume launched forth and tackled the dragon out of the sky. Noivern crunched as it smashed through a tree, but it was too devoted to Durand to let that stop it.

One wing was crooked and bent, but it fought on regardless. Plume wasn't much better off, and the two soon found themselves occupied in a brawl off to the side. Great wings battered against one another, beak met fang, and great gusts of wind were inundated with sonic blasts. Plume was able to yank the creature off to the side, however, so it couldn't interfere with the other battles.

Suddenly the rain pounded harder and harder, dragging down smoke and cinder to the earth and purifying the air. The storm clouds above had darkened to be nearly black. Ash caught a glimpse of the beach having grown much larger and the docked boats resting down against the sand.

It was time.

Durand's team dismantled his own, but they had been missing a key piece.

A key piece that had been building up strength all the while.

The ACE trainers saw that time was running out. They tossed everything they could into the fray: flashbangs, smoke grenades, concussion bombs, and whatever other weaponry they'd been given. Nothing could do much more than stun or slow down one of Durand's team, but it was enough.

It was also enough to make them a target. Trevenant cast one baleful glare their way. Twin roots burst forth from Rupert and Iliana's feet, whipped up in a blindingly fast motion, and crushed them to the ground. They still drew breath, but they wouldn't be getting up for a few minutes.

As Oz was forced to the ground thanks to a barrage of attacks and Nidoking threw himself in front of Ash, Torrent made his move.

The Song rang in his ears.

Water roared behind him.

Durand's eyes had been alight with victory, but her jaw dropped in the face of Torrent's power. A great wave (more of a column, really) rose up behind them, driven with mighty force. It came crashing down with all the fury of a tsunami as it carved its way across the beach. Sand was torn away and carried forward with its power and Ash managed a mad bout of laughter as it slammed into the team.

Nidoking hugged Ash tightly to his chest as Torrent's tsunami fell like a great hammer against Durand's forces. Lairon rushed over to their safe zone. It parted delicately to avoid Ash and Nidoking, although the spray of the raging seafoam dripped upon them and left Ash's clothes sodden with water, salt, and sand. Brine filled his nostrils and for a moment he felt as Torrent must have, invincible beneath the waves.

The endless deluge of water swept several of Durand's team away entirely. Vigoroth was dunked beneath the wave, as was Zoroark - a tangible wave of Distortion slowed the onslaught for a brief second, but was soon ripped apart as Torrent commanded his weapon. Farfetch'd fluttered away, but was pulled away and buried beneath it.

Ash felt quite vindicated at the sight of Farfetch'd's shock baton yanked away from the bird's grip. He'd have to tell Infernus about that later. The feeling only deepened at the sight of a sodden Zoroark looking quite like a Rattata as all its fluff was compacted by the water.

Trevenant rooted itself deep and did not budge. One of its great trunk-like limbs pulled Durand backward behind it as the water encroached - a hundred roots anchored it to the earth, though Ash hoped that they'd all be swept away regardless. It wouldn't matter if the soil itself were carried away by Torrent's wrath.

His hopes were dashed. A glowing blue psychic wedge shaped itself ahead of Durand and absorbed the majority of the water, diverting it to the sides rather than trying to stop it entirely.

Ninjask avoided it entirely, reappearing only to make another rude gesture at Torrent as he settled into the battlefield, having been carried by the great wave to make his stand. It flitted away, finished an exhausted Plume with an X-Scissor, and darted back to buzz concernedly at Durand as its little mandibles tried to right her askew hat.

The fallout only lasted a moment. Durand's team were injured by the attack, their abilities exhausted to survive the heavy torrent, but none had been knocked unconscious. Vigoroth and Zoroark looked absolutely miserable as they crawled out of the pits they'd been knocked into, but they also looked completely pissed.

His spirits fell. None had been - wait!

A glint of steel shone half-buried in sand and mud. Aegislash did not rise.

Torrent wasn't done yet, however. His spirit sang with might and discipline as he projected himself into the world. He immersed his identity, his experiences, his intimate familiarity… all was invested into the water that saturated the earth and sky.

Droplets hung suspended in the air. The rain stilled, then swirled downward in a great spiral. The beach grew dry as if it had been suspended beneath the summer sun as water gently pulled itself free from its constraints and hovered toward Torrent.

His red eyes gleamed as a cyclone began to build. Slowly first, then faster - Lairon hastily erected a Protect to shield the Kingdra as he focused his might - and soon a miniature hurricane manifested on land with Torrent, Nidoking, Lairon, and Ash in its eye.

And, most importantly, Aegislash.

Ash might not know Durand well, but he knew her well enough. He knew that she would never leave one of her teammates behind, even if it risked her own freedom.

He wouldn't, after all.

Torrent's cyclone tore up the earth and soil around them. It soon stretched twenty feet high, then thirty, then forty, and soon the whole island could witness it. Saltspray rained down on them all, but Ash could only exult as he stared upward into the sky and the swirling walls of the little hurricane. Whipping winds diverted any that would attempt to breach its walls.

Durand would find a way around it to reclaim Aegislash, but Torrent bought time. His scarlet eyes were shut tight as he maintained his focus. Ash couldn't say how long he would be able to keep the insanely powerful construct up, although even now more of the rainclouds were sucked away and consumed by Torrent's hurricane to fuel its ever growing mass.

"Lairon, you've earned a break. Why don't you go sit over on Aegislash and relax?" Ash grinned, some of his glee coming back. How could it not? Torrent had bent the sea and sky to his will. They had their hostage.

Lairon licked his leg, trotted over to Aegislash, and plopped down to bury the spectral blade beneath his bulk.

He exhaled. "Nidoking, get ready. They're going to break through any second. We can't stall much longer. Oz is probably unconscious by now. They wouldn't have just sat around waiting. Hold on for just a little longer, okay? We can do this."

The words were as much for his benefit as theirs. Ash smiled at Torrent and laid a hand against the great plates of his chest. He passed everything he could along their bond and hoped that Torrent knew exactly how much Ash appreciated him right now.

Torrent's neck raised a little higher. The hurricane grew stronger -

Ash ducked even as the Song went mute in his ears. He felt a flood of sickly energy wash over him. It seeped into his pores and clung to the back of his tongue. His vision was suddenly consumed by craggy bark and a single blazing eye as Trevenant used Phantom Force to emerge past the hurricane's walls.

Its eye spewed spectral flames. Wicked roots were coated in the Will-O-Wisp and slashed at them all (except for Ash). Nidoking swung his tail to smash Trevenant apart, but a shimmering psychic grip caught it and froze him in place.

Nidoking roared, spat an Ice Beam at Trevenant, but yet another psychic barrier absorbed it effortlessly. It was still murky, but Ash had no doubt of its effectiveness.

He hated not having Dazed at his side.

She would have torn that barrier apart.

Trevenant hadn't come alone. Shiftry leapt from its shadow, blades glowing green, and set upon them. Nidoking reared back to spit a Sludge Bomb, his eyes flashing blue to guide it forward into Trevenant with psychic power, but a stray root blazing with ghostly power delicately slashed the shell.

It was soon snagged by another, stronger psychic presence that remained unseen. Ash barely had a moment to cry out a warning before the psychic took its new toy and tossed it right over Torrent.

The searing sludge broke his focus for an instant. He was awash in the foul, clumpy substance that no doubt burned his eyes and whatever exposed spots it had reached. Torrent was still as a statue as he struggled to maintain the hurricane as it flagged. He was no longer trying to keep it pushing outward, but brought it inwards to fall down upon Trevenant in a waterfall.

Roots rushed for Aegislash to yank the unconscious blade free of the earth, but Lairon curled himself up in a ball and refused to be moved. No doubt Trevenant could eventually yank him off, but it would require more roots than it had available at a time.

He crackled with electricity, the tell-tale sign of Lairon's magnetic abilities, and Ash suspected that he was using his magnetism to bind Aegislash's metallic shape to his own body. It wouldn't be going anywhere.

Will-O-Wisp blazed forth to consume Lairon instead. Ash snarled, rushed forward to do something, but a stern-eyed Farfetch'd blocked his path. It didn't look amused.

Grinding steel and loud voices emerged in the distance.

Farfetch'd had realized there was no time to waste. Ash had spent the whole battle rallying his team, guiding them through the worst to avoid tunnel vision, and otherwise finding ways to prolong this whole experience.

He couldn't know if Durand herself had given the order, but Farfetch'd had decided to take him out of the fight.

Time slowed.

Farfetch'd met his eyes. They widened as it saw something in him. He felt a probing presence, the beginnings of a connection between two who saw deeper than most.

His brothers and sisters dead, littering the ground beneath the Red-Turn-Feather and he broke - He stared at Infernus' broken body, burnt beyond even his ability to withstand by Fire itself -

With all but the dear Soul-in-Bladed-Wind and Defiant-Star-in-Dark-Night murdered, there was only his core. An old life burnt away in black fire, but what fertile ashes they were. He would see deeper, he would see the truth for his last remaining brother and sister and any who would come after -

Farfetch'd lightly inclined his head, but Ash saw a cool resolve. It wouldn't kill him, but it had already raised a lump of driftwood to knock him out -

Everything happened in a blur.

Nidoking broke the psychic grip and barreled forward with maddened desperation, a hateful roar bursting from his throat. Farfetch'd vanished in the blink of an eye.

Trevenant took advantage of Nidoking's distraction to rush Torrent even as water collapsed down on it in a thick sheet. Its eye burned as one of its great limbs came down with a Wood Hammer and smashed Torrent flat against the ground.

He rose despite the concussive strike, refusing to bend and bringing the hurricane down ever faster, but Trevenant's roots snared him and bound his large body tightly. Each root blazed with ghostly flame - Ninjask darted in with a Giga Impact to the back of Torrent's head. Thanks to the roots holding him tight he absorbed all the force instead of allowing himself to be carried away by the momentum.

Still he rose! Torrent was rattled and the hurricane had lost its driving spirit, but Torrent reared his head back with the beginnings of a last, defiant Dragon Pulse on his snout -

Shiftry rushed forward with a Leaf Blade. A vile Confuse Ray built up in Trevenant's eye -

Ash recalled Torrent.

Nidoking was next. Trapped by the others amidst a heavy rain of the lifeless hurricane, he was beset on all sides. Shiftry finally took him down with a Bullet Seed to the neck that landed thanks to Trevenant snaring him entirely in burning vines.

Tangrowth pulled himself up with his three remaining vines. The rest had been severed by Vigoroth. His protective shell still covered the majority of his dark body underneath, but Ash's eyes caught sight of Tangrowth's bloodshot gaze. He gurgled furiously, charging in without a care, only to be stunned by a dark wave that struck from somewhere in the woods.

To think that Durand had hidden another teammate this entire time…

Just as he thought it was over, Bruiser erupted in an explosion of long wooden splinters and torn vegetation. His muscles bulged with blood and compressed power. His eyes were wild thanks to whatever mental war he'd just fought while trapped by Trevenant's little minions.

The Machoke certainly made an entrance. He bounded forth, snagged Lairon in a single mighty hand, clenched tight, and swung the unconscious steel-type (when had that happened? Ash had missed it in the chaos of the battle) right into Trevenant.

Bark splintered as Lairon's steel carapace tore off Trevenant's head. The red light blinked, surprised, but grew furious and bloody red with power as it realized what had been done. Bruiser snarled, swung Lairon again, and tore Trevenant's legs off with a single powerful blow.

He rose his makeshift mace again even as Durand recalled Trevenant.

Every juvenile fantasy he'd ever had would have been fulfilled if Bruiser tore Aegislash from the sand and wielded it in his other hand, but alas! It wasn't meant to be. Given that it was a cursed blade, it was probably for the best.

Ash just watched with wide eyes as Bruiser roared with red eyes and swung Lairon in a wide arc. It struck nothing but air, but even Shiftry and Ninjask gave Bruiser a wide berth. Zoroark suddenly manifested a field of nothing but inky blackness around Bruiser to blind him, and Shiftry stole the moment of opportunity.

A Bullet Seed smashed into Bruiser's chest and sent him stumbling back. Ninjask dashed forward behind him and struck with a Bug Buzz that deafened them all. Noivern limped forward, throat full of dragonfire, and Shiftry flipped forward and prepared to spit another Bullet Seed right into Bruiser's throat to cut off the oxygen fueling his Rampage.

The penultimate pokeball on Ash's belt trembled, then burst open. Red light manifested into a flickering purple shape that burst into motion.

Seeker shrieked, quivering in fear, as she latched onto Shiftry's wooden face. She fluttered all around the Master-level grass-type with utter desperation. Little wings buffeted her opponent and Supersonic squeaks left it with a nasty headache and sense of vertigo, but a sudden burst of Razor Wind tossed her aside, bleeding and stunned.

Shiftry hissed, rose, and turned to her frail little body with its Leaf Blade raised. Ash screamed-

"No, nothing permanent! What bravery!" Durand shouted, voice anxious but admiring all the same. Shiftry sneered, struck Seeker with the flat of its blade to prevent future interruptions, and punted her away with a lightning fast kick.

A massive grey foot would have taken Shiftry's head off if it weren't for the grass-type's supernatural reflexes.

Bruiser roared as he leapt over to defend both Ash and Seeker, though Ash immediately recalled her once no more danger was apparent. He clutched her pokeball tight, whispering thanks to Seeker for her efforts, but kept a wary eye on Bruiser.

Mists billowed all around them. Rain fell from the heavens.

His chest rose and fell in deep, unsteady breaths. Bruiser's serene nature was shattered here. Muscles bulged as blood pounded through them. He'd cast off all limits of Rampage - all thoughts of self-preservation had been tossed away as Bruiser prepared to burn himself to the wick.

Shiftry. Farfetch'd. Vigoroth. Ninjask. Noivern. Zoroark. The unseen psychic.

Oz was unconscious, as were Tangrowth and Nidoking. He'd recalled Dazed, Sneasel, Seeker, Plume, Infernus, and Torrent.

Bruiser cut a terrible figure amidst the mist and rain. Steam billowed off his muscles as his blood pumped harder and hotter than ever before, stoked by rage like which Ash had never witnessed. The Black Belt hung loose around his neck.

He trembled with fury.

He stood alone.

Ash cradled Seeker in his arms. Even if Durand was willing to attack him, it wouldn't be anything too dangerous. She would be safe here until he had a chance to recall her. His thoughts strayed to the last pokeball on his belt. This was their last chance. Should he…?

Bruiser's muscles flexed as he prepared to attack. The steam billowed more wildly with every passing second as limit after limit was shredded. If it kept up, Ash was going to fear that the slightest movement would tear Bruiser's body apart, almost like Claire's Kommo-o.

But Bruiser was hardier than that. Smarter, too.

A berserk fury filled the air. Even Ash felt the beginnings of worry for his friend. It was as if he'd seen a calm, placid sea suddenly sent whipping and raging as a storm brewed.

Bruiser dared one last glimpse at Ash and Seeker. Both were pitiful and sodden with rain and sprayed with dirt, dust, and soot. Light wounds covered them both. Blood dripped.

Something shifted in Bruiser's eyes. A moment of clarity as Ash tenderly pulled an emergency Potion from his pocket and sprayed shivering Seeker's slender gashes. The team were scattered like corpses all around them, and he finally realized that he was all that stood between Durand's team and those he swore to protect.

He was their lone shield.

Power still filled his every muscle, but the unconstrained body was suddenly tempered by a mind clearer than a blue summer sky. A certainty befell him. He remained ready for battle, but Bruiser gently untied the Black Belt from around his neck.

His clumsy fingers moved with uncharacteristic grace as they tied the Black Belt around Bruiser's waist. That token earned by right of combat from the Karate Master in the Saffron Dojo finally found its rightful place.

Some unseen tension, a weight carried for more than a year, eased around Bruiser's shoulders. He stood up straight.

He began to glow a brilliant white.

The shining light would have put Infernus to shame. It originated in his gut, but soon spread to consume his entire body in a metamorphic blaze.

Ash's heart stopped. It was happening.

Durand, her face streaked with mud and her blonde hair waterlogged, watched with stunned, delighted eyes. She looked like a girl watching her first pokemon battle. Her team watched with horror. She was lost in the moment alongside Ash, but clarity soon filled her wide gaze.

"I am honored."

She shook off her glee with obvious disappointment and whistled. Durand looked pained at giving the order - Ash suspected that she wouldn't want to potentially complicate the evolution by inflicting a Distortional wound or anything like that - but the signal was clear.

Bruiser, clad in stark white armor, met Durand's team in battle. It must have been torturous to fight through the instincts and shifting bones and twisting fibers during evolution, but he did not falter.

Neither did Durand's team.

Vigoroth charged with a roar. Noivern fluttered forward despite its injured wing. Zoroark stalked forward, its wiry frame and lean muscle revealed entirely by the wet fur stuck flat against its skin. Shiftry and Farfetch'd swung wide to the left and right of Bruiser respectively to set up a pincer maneuver. Ninjask darted forward.

Desperation filled his mind. Those desperate thoughts birthed a mad plan.

"Bruiser!" Ash screamed as the muse struck him. "Rampage! Hold Rampage! Hold it no matter what!"

He didn't know if Bruiser heard him. Perhaps it didn't matter.

Bruiser leapt forward to meet them all. His metamorphosing body shifted and roiled the whole time, thickening and lengthening and growing even thicker with muscle and bone.

He was too fast for Vigoroth. His backhand sent the normal-type flying into the cliffside. The frenzied creature tumbled through thick clumps of thorny vegetation, cracked a tree in half, and slammed against the rocky cliff.

Vigoroth didn't rise.

Ninjask swooped in to clamp around Bruiser's neck and inject him with dangerous toxins.

A new hand burst out of Bruiser's shoulder and extended into a massive arm thicker than Ash's entire body. It snagged Ninjask in a grip that could crush iron, threatened to squeeze and pop the bug like a water balloon… and then hurled it away.

Ninjask buzzed frantically as it vanished into the grey clouds a few hundred feet above their heads. Durand gaped.

Zoroark wisely bled away into nothingness.

Noivern flung itself at Bruiser with a sonic burst, one intended to damage rather than rattle as it had before, but one glowing fist slapped it out of the sky and crushed it into the earth.

Shiftry and Farfetch'd struck, unfazed by Bruiser's new power, and engaged him with a flurry of blows too fast for the naked eye to track. Leaf Blades slashed Bruiser's face. Farfetch'd's new focus, a stick clumsily sharpened into a blade and shimmering with some sort of reinforcing power, stabbed through his stomach.

Every motion tore Bruiser's body apart as his muscles shredded themselves to tiny pieces.

His evolution stitched him back together even faster.

Bruiser's wounds faded faster than Farfetch'd and Shiftry could inflict them, filled in by molten white light that rebuilt billions of cells in the blink of an eye. Poison boiled away within his veins.

It must have been agonizing, but Bruiser clung to the evolutionary power like a lifeline, like precious oxygen in a burning building.

His muscles broke down and rebuilt. His bones shattered and reforged.

With every movement his strength grew vaster. His spine twisted and cracked as it stretched to leave Bruiser nearly seven feet tall. Another arm burst out of the flesh of his meaty shoulder. He became a whirlwind of motion, strong enough to shatter his limits and grow faster and faster and faster!

Ash and Seeker watched silently as he met Durand's two strongest in an even match. He was fast, but they were faster and more agile. Bruiser tensed his legs and exploded into motion, but unused to his own strength he charged nearly twenty feet too far, nearly leaping into the forest.

"Stay back! Outlast him!" Durand commanded verbally, her voice hoarse and ragged from a long day spent screaming orders above the din of the battlefield.

Shiftry and Farfetch'd immediately adapted their strategy, recognizing that they couldn't cut through Bruiser's healing… Ash bit his tongue as he spotted Aegislash's blade suddenly vanished, swept up by invisible claws, and realized that Zoroark had decided to put its invisibility to a more practical use in the face of a Rampaging Bruiser.

Durand spared Zoroark a smile as Aegislash's unconscious form was laid delicately at her feet, and she returned the ghost. Even as she did, Ash caught sight of Bruiser's grey flesh as the evolutionary power finally finished its masterwork.

His heart stopped as he admired his friend's new shape.

Bruiser stood tall and proud. He was taller by more than a foot now. His last seconds of evolution had stretched his height to be a hair above seven feet, leaving him an enormous grey tower amidst the otherwise flat beach.

Every muscle seemed chiseled by the expert hand of a sculptor. Grey skin was stretched tight across them, the color of iron and just as strong. While the majority of his body was largely the same, it had been honed to perfection by his evolution and the unorthodox strength training he'd performed in that precious minute.

Even his face was almost identical. Perhaps it was less reptilian in structure thanks to his large muzzle receding somewhat to be more similar to a humans' mouth and the three bone crests atop his head had thickened and grown taller to resemble a three-pronged crown, but it was still him.

One of his hands brushed against the Black Belt around his waist. It had been tied hastily to be loose and flowing, but with his new bulk it strained against his skin. Bruiser's mouth curled up into a proud smile.

Some chord of anxiety in Ash loosened at that. He'd never seen Bruiser as anything but a Machoke, but this was undoubtedly Bruiser.

The only real difference were the two mighty arms that projected from above his shoulder blades. Both twitched a little, new fingers opened and closed experimentally as if uncertain of how to manipulate themselves. They were enormous and just as strong as the pair of burly arms beneath them, meant for grappling and overwhelming any opponent foolish enough to come within close distance.

He smiled as Bruiser stood tall despite the pain and exhaustion left in his otherwise indomitable musculature.

Despite Bruiser's nigh-perfect new physical state, Ash knew that he wouldn't last long. Evolution might provide a short rejuvenation, but it was exhausting. It took nearly everything that the body had to metamorphosize into its new shape. Whatever energy reserves that Bruiser had been running on were obviously sapped dry.

Trunklike legs quivered. His fingers shook. Bruiser's eyes spoke of utter exhaustion.

He remained their champion.

Seeker couldn't see him, but her ears twitched and strained for every unsteady breath that Bruiser took.

"He's amazing!" Ash whispered to Seeker. His hands stroked her back while his fingers gently brushed against the bare patch of fur on her chest where Golduck had struck her all that time ago.

No matter.

Ash quietly described the changes in Bruiser to Seeker's attentive ears. She literally shook in his hands with the desperate desire to flutter over and hug him tight, but Ash couldn't let her do that. Not with Shiftry and Farfetch'd still around.

"You were so brave to protect him like that," he murmured. Seeker's little wings wrapped around his forearm as she held him tight. "This wouldn't have been possible without you, Seeker. Thank you."

Just as the words rolled off his tongue, Shiftry and Farfetch'd fell upon Bruiser's exhausted form with ruthless precision. Ash recalled Bruiser before they could damage him any further and whispered his gratitude and congratulations to the pokeball.

She squeaked back at him, ready to fly away and buy whatever precious seconds she could for the League to arrive, but Ash shook his head.

"Rest easy, Seeker. You've earned it. I'll see you soon, okay?"

He recalled her and rose to his feet. His knees were caked with wet sand. Ninjask buzzed by, flying unevenly and zigzagging through the air as if drunk (Ash had a good reference to go by after their stay in Sudmauna). It flipped him a rude gesture with its mandibles again as it struggled to Durand's side.

The League would be here soon. Has it been seven minutes yet? If not, it must be dangerously close.

"I wish you well, Ash, but we must be going now." Durand was already recalling her team with haste. Her tone was light, but Ash could see her taut jaw. She was scared. "I hope that we may meet again one day. This battle… it has been a long time since I have been tested so thoroughly! Perhaps I have become slow and lazy in this tropical paradise? No, no, I will not diminish your achievement!"

Farfetch'd was recalled. Zoroark still hadn't revealed itself, nor had the unseen psychic. She spared him a genuine smile.

"But no matter! Take pride in your efforts today, Ash. It was a nice game that we played." Durand wagged a finger at him as she adjusted her belt. "Your thirst for victory is a sight to behold. You never give up, do you? Do not rest on your laurels. Stagnance is the foulest monster that any trainer may face. I will not be the same trainer if we were to battle again, and I hope that you will not be either. Au revoir!"

She tapped a glittery pokeball on her belt. Shedinja emerged in a burst of light, clearly worse for the wear but conscious. It couldn't make an expression, but Ash had the sense that it was glowering at him.

Dread filled him.

Durand was going to escape? After all of this!

No!

Blind determination filled him. Ash had always been a person of action. Lightning resonated with his sudden certainty, his resolve to win.

He tapped the last pokeball on his belt.

Durand frowned at the innocuous keystone as it materialized on the scorched sands. It sat so innocently there. She shuddered as if sensing that she was being watched. The plain rock sat inanimate for an instant; Durand didn't know what it was, but she was no fool.

Ash wouldn't waste either of their time by releasing something harmless.

A sickly green glow suffused the stone. Spiritomb's malign influence struck them like a wrecking ball.

His exhaustion magnified tenfold. It had been a brutal day and his body wanted nothing more than to lie down, curl into a ball, and sleep until the end of time. Ash's eyes sagged, the adrenaline driving him was snuffed out like a tiny flame, and every muscle felt as if it had been replaced with lead.

Zoroark's masterful illusions shattered like a pane of glass. The waterlogged vulpine stared blankly ahead, lost in its own inner world.

Shedinja was somehow more lifeless than ever. Durand clutched it tightly for comfort. She was entirely limp, consumed by the crippling wave of apathy seeping out from Spiritomb's keystone. Could the power even be called malicious? It was just a dreadful consequence of Spiritomb's being.

Even Shiftry was drained of its vitality. It must have bore a terrible burden, because it was almost eager to give into oblivion. Shiftry's eyes squeezed shut. Its harsh face eased and its leafy blades brushed against the sand.

Ash grit his teeth.

Nights with Jonathan, Amelia, and all their friends by the Lake of Rage.

Trading techniques with Gary before they went their separate ways after the Conference.

Listening raptly to Lance's passionate recollections of his early days, lost in dreams of glory and adventure spun by the Dragon Master.

Memory after memory filled the void until he found himself again.

Ash staggered to his feet. "Steven!" He cried. "Steven! We're here!"

Seconds passed. The dread aura only strengthened as Spiritomb gained awareness - it constituted its true form, wisps of lavender gas emanating from the cracks in the stone, and Ash felt it suddenly become in-tune with its surroundings.

Pockmarked earth. Limp bodies. Dark skies. Dying flames.

Spiritomb trembled as it found itself upon a battlefield once again. A sickly green pallor was cast over the world as Spiritomb sucked it all dry, tearing every shred of being and substance away and replacing it with a void.

The sand lost its luster. The breeze died. What little sunlight pierced Torrent's conjured clouds lost its luster.

Flat and grey. That was the world Spiritomb shared.

He marched into the village alongside ten men and their beloved partners "We'll shelter here for the winter. No one will break the Argent Peace until the snows break." Love and laughter in the endless nights at the end of the world demons appeared in the night he bound him and was taken away and woke himself they were together they were alone they were one

"Argh!" Ash clutched his temples as something cracked in Spiritomb's facade just as it had that night over Sudmauna during the Origin Festival. It had no reservation. Spiritomb shared and shared and shared everything -

Hordes of humans and their partners alike embraced oblivion. They wasted away until the frosts and dehydration took them.

"Stop it! Please, stop it." Durand's voice was weak. She clawed the earth. Spiritomb's pressure only intensified - Ash fought it off through experience, but Durand's team floundered. Something shifted in the forest behind her, something that looked like… tentacles?

Durand herself rose, sparked to life through some inner fire, some purity of purpose and ideals. No psychic power or Distortion surrounded her. It was her own strength that bore her through. Ash stared blankly, aghast as she fought off Spiritomb's mangling influence through some herculean feat of will. It wasn't easy - Durand's face was twisted into a horrible grimace, her muscles seemed to slip away from her control, but she mastered herself.

"I will not falter," the Master rasped. "I did not then, I will not now."

She repeated the words several times to herself as a mantra to center herself around. They were spoken in the rhythmic cadence of something that had been said a thousand times before. It worked. Ash couldn't believe his eyes as Durand finally found her footing.

"Not then, not now…" Durand muttered, then said something else in her native Kalosian. "To me, my loves!"

Shiftry stirred. Its eyes were red and bloodshot.

Zoroark twitched. Shedinja rubbed against Durand.

She snapped her fingers. Zoroark moved as if swimming through molasses, but its fearsome gaze found Ash - it refused to even look at Spiritomb, who continued to pound against their mental defenses incessantly in its mad desire to share its pain.

They wouldn't fight it. Perhaps they couldn't.

Ash simply stared at the little keystone half-buried in the sand. It seemed so small.

Guilt and a dozen conflicting feelings crashed together within him as Spiritomb veritably screamed visions of war and smoke and cruelty into his thoughts. Deeper than thoughts, perhaps, given the nature of Spiritomb.

He'd returned Spiritomb to the battlefield. He'd used it as the weapon it had been forged to be.

Zoroark chose to work smarter, not harder. Ash felt a twist in the air, and then Spiritomb's pokeball was tapped. It shuddered and recalled the keystone immediately. They all breathed easier with the poor creature returned to stasis. Even the natural world around them seemed to exhale in relief.

"We cannot tarry!" Durand barked. She already returned Shiftry, then Zoroark. "I had not wished to do this, but you will not let us go. You will fight to the end. Perhaps even past it. Douceline!"

The unseen psychic finally made itself known. It levitated in from the forest, somehow managing to appear as if it were slinking and swaggering all around. Two tentacular arms waved about hypnotically at its sides, as did a series of shorter tentacles that crowned its blob-like head.

Its eyes were cruel and dangerously bright, gleaming with terrible intelligence and cunning. The Malamar carried itself as if it were the center of the world and everything else was just insignificantly orbiting around… with the exception of Durand, perhaps, whom it spared a haughty dip of acknowledgement to.

Ash was reminded of some unholy fusion of Pierce and Gary. Just the thought made him feel vaguely ill.

Malamar - Douceline, Ash supposed - watched him curiously. Its eyes flashed blue even as the inner chambers of its body boiled with dark power, partitioned apart through countless years of evolution to allow Malamar to draw on the antithetical powers simultaneously.

Ah, the Storm-Tamer. Delightful! I wish we had more time to spend together. I sense oh so many tantalizing secrets hidden in that skull of yours. Alas, the Mistress has no more time for games. You've burned so much of it already.

His face twisted up in a grimace. Its voice was young and female with a lilting Kalosian accent. It was quite similar to Durand's own voice, actually. Ash doubted that was a coincidence.

He almost wished it would pry into the deepest layers of his mind. Ash's lips curled into a cruel smile at the thought of what it would find. Would it melt away, or would it just be burned out and left as a mindless husk?

Malamar continued, heedless of the dark thoughts swirling around in Ash's head.

Perhaps the next time around. But we can't have you causing any more trouble. You must enjoy exploring the unknown. Here, let me show you something new!

Ash was defenseless. Malamar's beak twitched in its approximation of a smile as its hypnotic tentacles waved, then one of its arms slashed in his direction. Dark power channeled through it, swelling with a blot of unearthly energy, and it darted in his direction.

He recognized it immediately. The technique had laid waste to his teammates too many times for him not to.

Confuse Ray.

Shit.

Even Lightning couldn't make him react fast enough to avoid the attack. He had just enough time to witness Malamar and the others recalled by Durand, who then slipped away with Shedinja's Phantom Force with a parting wave, before it hit him.

Time and space dissolved away around him.

Black edges frayed at his vision. The beach shuddered, then dissolved. The Concepts went dark within him. The Song died in his ears.

An odd, sickly sensation came over him as the energy suffused his every cell, saturating him in the foul power, and worked its way to his core. Ash wanted to scream as he felt something deep within him loosen and become unanchored, cast spinning into a listless void as his very being was steeped in darkness.

The oblivion was formless. Shapeless. Time bled away. Seconds passed in hours passed in years passed in zeptoseconds passed in eons passed in seconds. Space was meaningless in this vast, endless singularity - boundless and without substance.

His brain swam. His soul frayed.

But he could see deeper! He centered himself on that realization, the lust for knowledge, the delving into secrets. It was all he was now, all he could be.

Ash was immersed in the writhing void. It was alive, he felt, and there were things here! Things-that-were-not-things. Things that could not be and things that had only lived in nightmares of the waking world.

Ethereal, insubstantial, free of limitations, they crawled around him, they saw him, clung to the static and mundane in this limitless world of unending freedom and possibility, they hated it, wanted to be free again, were sickened by his substance and order as he was sickened by their diaphanous nature. His thoughts swam, losing coherence as the chaos of this mad realm ate at him.

It rejected him. It gnawed and shredded and attacked in an effort to purge him and tear down this thing that imposed itself.

For a moment he saw as they did - he hated limits, hated order, hated being trapped in any way, hated the little thread connecting him to the static universe when he only wanted to be free and open and himself.

And then he remembered that he was Ash Ketchum. He was a human. He carried the laws within him, and deeper things as well. His perception was dulled and blunted by the warping chaos, so he filled himself with Fire to light the darkness.

His essence would not be rejected so easily, though he wanted to wretch as his perception deepened and more of this realm's paradox became unveiled - the only pattern to be seen was that there was no pattern, the only truth that there was none, and his head ached, and his soul burned, and he wanted so badly to go home -

The nexus writhed, solidifying - he could not truly perceive anything here, but he felt something was watching him. Some vague thread had become aware of the intruder in its midst. He imagined blazing red eyes staring at him from the void, the emptiness shaping to reject him -

A great Shadow peered through gaps in reality

Ash found the thread tethering him to his body and fled toward it. The darkness did not chase, though it still filled him body and soul - it wished nothing more than to separate from him and return home, hated the alien world that had trapped it, and the two went their separate ways.

"Kid! Kid, wake up! Wake up! Please."

His eyes snapped open. Ash groaned, spat out a foul-tasting glob of saliva into the sand, and propped himself up on his elbows.

"Holy hell, he's actually awake. Rupert! Get your big ass over here."

Iliana clutched his arm, but released him to give him space.

"That sucked." Ash's vision was still swimming, but he didn't feel that bad, honestly. If the day's events hadn't already worn him to the bone he'd probably be fine to get up and find a more comfortable spot to pass out in.

"Kid- Ash," Iliana corrected despite Dazed being nowhere near capable of reminding her. She stared at him in disbelief. A data pad hung slack in her grip. No doubt she'd been tallying up the damages of the day while waiting for Ash to wake.

The seconds ticked by. Ash frowned at her, impatient. "What?"

"I watched you take a Confuse Ray to the face. From a Master-level Malamar. That thing scrambles brains as often as Rupert changes his underwear."

"Once a week!" Rupert called out good-naturedly. He was crouched over Leafeon spraying on some medicine to treat its many poisoned wounds.

Iliana cracked a smile despite herself. "You should be in a coma," she said. It was more to herself than to Ash. "Even if it held back…"

Ash yawned. The nausea is mostly gone now. He could really use a nap. His stomach turned for entirely different reasons as he thought of his team. While his own injuries were fairly light, they needed to be seen immediately.

"Must have been a weak one." The excuse sounded lame even to his ears.

Iliana scoffed but left it at that. After a moment she stiffened. "Chin up, Ash. We've got company."

The forest was shredded apart with telekinetic force.

Aggron charged through, barreling over trees and breaking them to splinters without breaking stride. Skarmory darted overhead with death in her eyes. Her wings clanged together like the clashing of swords. Cradily swung its heavy body through the surviving trees with great vines.

Cradily hovered leisurely behind, spinning nonchalantly as it followed the trail of devastation.

Oh my. We missed quite the spectacle, didn't we? I can only imagine how much money will be changing hands after word of this gets out. Lance will be so proud.

Ash rasped out a laugh.

And then came Steven atop the back of Mega Metagross. His eyes were wild and hungry - afraid, Ash realized - and his body was taut as a wire. Steven's suit was little worse for wear, although there were some noticeably frayed patches where little bits of the battle had broken through the nigh impenetrable psychic barriers protecting him.

The former Champion's mouth hung wide open as he took in the devastated beach. Panic filled him as his eyes darted back and forth. Ash felt a twinge of something inside him. Steven appeared a broken man in that moment, but fortunately one of his teammates guided his sight.

He had never seen such relief.

Unfortunately, the mask of Steven Stone, Ever Grande Champion was soon back in place.

Ash had a lot of explaining to do.

XX

Steven paced back and forth with a long-suffering expression.

"Please correct me if I'm wrong. You captured dozens of Rockets with the aid of ACE Trainers Iliana and Rupert. Your mission was relatively uneventful and went exactly as planned."

Claydol hovered above Steven's shoulder and chimed in. It maintained a psychic barrier over the entrance to the tent to offer them a bit of privacy from any prying eyes and ears.

To be fair, that should've been an indicator that something was about to go horribly wrong. We've had several conversations about this.

Steven had always been good at maintaining his composure, but anyone who knew him well could realize how stressed he was at a glance. He massaged his temples and continued to pace around in the small medical tent that had been set aside for Ash.

Minus Steven's nervous energy, the tent made for a relatively calm setting. Everything was a sterile white and appeared brand new. A doctor had charged in a few minutes prior and given Ash a quick check-up. The woman's blonde eyebrows had arched nearly to her hairline as she skimmed over the medical report made by a harried nurse and looked at Ash doubtfully.

She'd pronounced him "All clear" with a mystified expression, told the nurse to jab an IV in to get him hydrated and dull some of the pain from his aches, then rushed off to help people who actually needed it.

Outside was another story. Hundreds of human and pokemon alike ran around madly. Some carted the injured or directed support staff to various medical stations. Others ferried massive trays of storage compartments. No doubt they were crammed to the bursting point with drugs, combat enhancements, contraband, and other illegal substances that the League wanted secured as soon as possible.

Pokeballs were being gathered onto massive carts as well. Hundreds of pokemon were contained within. Each and every one had been a slave to the Rockets.

They weren't alone, however. A few burly, suntanned men and women hung off to the side. They wore a familiar uniform: a black bandanna, a white shirt with blue stripes, and worn dark pants. Most had at least one League supervisor with them (often with a Wingull or Taillow fluttering above for an extra pair of eyes) and were offering their own accounts with bombastic expressions, raucous shouts, and boasts.

Each seemed to enjoy putting on a show for their fellows. They waved their arms, enunciated their point, and took their fair share of jeers and cheers. One looked drunk on victory and proudly peeled back a bandage on her arm that revealed a great chunk of missing flesh. The League investigator turned a little green as the Aqua grunt leaned closer to give a better look.

At least it was already filling in. She must have gotten a modified Potion applied.

Overall both sides gave each other a wide berth. They were allies of circumstance. A giant of a man led a few other Aqua grunts in preparing a large galleon that must have been a century old. It was a proud vessel, modified to take advantage of modern propulsion while retaining a vintage exterior, and a figurehead of a Luvkiss adorned its front.

A few Mightyena dragged pieces of metal equipment back and forth along with a few other materials that the League must have allowed Aqua to take: a few pallets of food, medical supplies, and even a few pokeballs.

He caught a better glimpse of their enormous leader.

…Why was he shirtless?

Questions for another time.

He dragged his attention back to Steven.

"This was meant to be a routine mission!" Steven moaned. "It was supposed to be safe. You were meant to be kept away from the fighting. But look!" He seemed ready to pull his silver hair out. Steven gesticulated wildly at Ash. "You fought a Rogue Master! You got hit by a Confuse Ray and somehow just walked it off. You are never leaving my sight again. And stop picking at that!"

Ash looked up from his IV. It had been jammed in pretty quickly (and was only necessary thanks to the insistence of Steven, who hadn't allowed Ash to be more than two steps away since finding him on the beach) and itched.

He voiced his opinion, but was quickly shut down.

Personally, Ash thought that it was Steven who needed the IV. A light dose of sedatives might be helpful as well, at least if Steven wasn't currently suffering from a concussion. When was the last time he'd been so worked up?

It was actually sort of relieving that Steven was more banged up than Ash for once.

Apparently Steven and his team had been in the midst of shattering some of the Rocket fortifications as the scum fled when he'd been informed of Ash's battle. Sidney had been coming from the opposite direction and accidentally drove around a hundred lesser ghosts right into the midst of the fray.

Steven's inhibitions were lowered enough to mutter a few curses about "... that insufferable Sidney and his reckless use of Night Daze…" while he explained the situation, which Ash graciously pretended not to hear. He did tuck them away for later, though.

One of the Rockets saw their chance as the combined weight of the ghosts and a Dark Master sapped the strength from Metagross' shields. They'd tossed a tortured Voltorb, given the command, and unleashed a violent Explosion mere feet from Steven.

Claydol and Metagross had managed to save him, literally throwing themselves and a psychic barrier up with renewed focus, but some of the force had managed to penetrate. Initially he'd been horrified - how could Steven of all people have gotten injured? - but now he thought the beginnings of a black eye on Steven's fair skin wasn't too bad of a souvenir given the circumstances. He'd have to send a picture to Lance once it really came in.

No one escaped entirely unscathed from a melee like that. Not Ash, not Durand, and apparently not even Steven Stone.

Steven had even been left with a minor concussion.

The whole fiasco had occurred just before Durand made her way to the beach. It had taken time to secure Steven and ensure he wasn't more severely injured and even more time before Steven was in a fit state to realize that Ash's alarm had activated.

He'd apologized about fifteen times already. Ash expected it to be twenty before he convinced Steven to give it a rest.

They were all alive, after all. He couldn't ask for more than that.

"We had the beach on lockdown." Ash recounted. "We captured several different groups. Eventually a stronger group - the Earthen Fist - arrived. Proton arrived in pursuit of them, and we captured Proton, Domino, and the kid- Silver." His mood soured. "You said there was no sign of him?"

Steven nodded. "A Ranger went to detain them. Domino was still bound and immobilized, but there was no sign of a red-haired boy or the teammates that you listed. We found evidence of several pokeballs being dug up manually. Others were dragged out of the earth with telekinesis."

Ash said a word that would've appalled his mother. Steven was too out of it to do more than blink sleepily in response.

"I knew we should have bound him," Ash grumbled. "Why couldn't Durand have come just five minutes later? We just ran out of time."

He stewed on that for a bit while his mind fired in a million directions at once. "He must've woken up, found Gallade, and teleported out. Too much stimulus and too much Distortion. No wonder the Hypnosis didn't hold!"

"It's unfortunate, but we have the real prizes in Domino and Proton," Steven said lightly. Ash just glowered. "He's little more than a curiosity at this point. Domino was the center of her faction. I doubt that the boy will be able to rally any remnants on his own."

"Who was he?" Ash asked. "He was working in a team with Domino- she was even protecting him." It didn't take a genius to realize that wasn't normally a priority for Domino. Her file was full of accounts of her ruthless nature. "Silver was skilled, too. I'd rate him as low Gym Leader-level. Flannery would probably be able to handle him, but I'm not sure."

Steven appeared guarded. "There are unverified rumors," he hedged. "They are severe enough that I'd prefer not to spread them until we have an opportunity to interrogate Domino. She will have the answers we seek. She lies at the center of the entire web."

Ash's eyes lit up. "When?"

"Soon. Captain Bella escorted her to the Trench." Steven said absentmindedly. "She'll be treated, placed under perpetual Hypnosis, and withdrawn for questioning in a few days. I plan to be there for the occasion. We've waited a long time to see her brought to justice. Her crimes will not go unpunished."

We as in the League, or we as in Steven and Metagross? It was always difficult to tell.

"I'll go with you."

Steven's bleary eyes cracked open. "Are we really doing this again?"

"You did say that I was never leaving your sight again."

Steven groaned.

"What's the Trench, anyways? A prison, obviously."

"The prison, more like. It's our most secure facility. Only prisoners we intend to keep permanently are brought there." Steven crashed down into a comfy chair situated in the corner of the tent. He moaned in relief. Ash had been hanging out on the cliff for most of the day. Steven had been running all over the island. "Every region has something like it. Indigo has the Roost situated on Mt. Gold."

"They all have their own defenses. The Roost is impenetrable. Was impenetrable," Steven corrected himself with a frown. "It wasn't Legendary-proof, unfortunately. Mewtwo assaulted it shortly before the attack on the St. Anne. Many of the worst Rockets were released, including…"

He didn't need to finish that sentence.

Ash scowled. That was how Pierce was freed and left to rampage on behalf of the Rockets? A bitter taste filled his mouth.

The presence in the back of his mind was uncharacteristically silent.

"The Trench has never been breached." Steven added proudly.

Come now, Steven. You know better than to say silly things like that, especially around Ash.

Steven wasn't a superstitious man, but both he and Ash rapped their knuckles on the nearest surface after Claydol's comment.

"Regardless, it's a fortified prison located a few dozen miles west of Dewford. It was a logistical nightmare, but we were able to build the facility far below sea level in an ocean trench. It's impossible to enter except through teleportation, which is only accessible at randomized intervals to prevent unauthorized breaches. Drake and one of his original Ever Grande Elite Four drew up the plans for it shortly after the war's conclusion."

Were those two snippets unrelated? Ash doubted it. The liberation of Hoenn's eastern seaboard had been bloody and costly. Several particularly brutal overlords of the Unovan invasion had vanished from the history books during that time.

Most assumed assassination by the city-states, but dragons were known to enjoy their hoards… perhaps Drake was partial to old trophies.

He couldn't fault the old Champion for it. Some people just needed to disappear. It wasn't like the new Unovan government would be interested in reclaiming them, not with an entire region to rebuild.

It was fitting that Drake of all people would have imagined the prison of his nightmares as beneath the waves. For a man who lived his life split between the sea and sky, its depths must have been particularly formidable.

Steven cut off his explanation with a wince. He rubbed at his temples.

"Are you okay?"

"I've been better," Steven waved his concerns away. "It's just too quiet, I suppose. The silence is grating."

It wasn't physical noise that Steven was referring to. Between the energy of the League and Aqua's bombastic recollections, that was an impossibility.

Psychic links were unsafe to maintain with a head injury. It didn't tend to work out well for either party. Ash doubted that Metagross was too happy about the temporary split either.

Silence.

"You did well, Ash." Steven said finally. "By all accounts, you served with distinction and comported yourself well in a difficult situation. I wish things had gone differently, but even I couldn't have planned for Durand's appearance. By all accounts…" he trailed off. "Well, we'll analyze that situation later. You need your rest."

They both needed their rest, but Ash knew better than to argue with Steven on this front. He knew they'd have ample time to discuss the battle later (no doubt Steven had some pointed opinions on some of Ash's decisions) but neither were in the mood at the moment.

It had been a long, long day.

"Who invited Durand to the party anyway?"

Just the name left him with an unsettling mix of feelings. Some he couldn't quite place, just mishmashed feelings all jumbled together. Others were easier to define: a little excitement, dread, and a touch of hunger.

He had no doubt that she wouldn't treat him so gently if they fought again. Did she bear him any ill will? No, Ash didn't think so. She'd enjoyed herself just as much as Ash had, despite the close call with the League.

But Durand was pragmatic. She wouldn't risk being bogged down again.

She would fight to her strengths next, not in an open field where Ash's team could leverage their own advantages. He didn't have many more convenient evolutions to throw her way.

Steven cast a glance at the giant Aqua leader - Fang Matt, Ash recalled - through the open door of the tent. "We can't prove that just yet," he said softly. "But when we do… well, those responsible will find that their costs will soon outweigh their meager benefits in the eyes of the Ever Grande League."

His face smoothed out moments later and he rose from his chair. "I must go survey the contraband and assess the results of the raid." Steven said. His voice was hollow. Ash couldn't blame him.

Nothing good ever came out of a Rocket base.

They'd already found massive vaults of ghostly legions left over from the war. Who knew what else the Rockets might have been cooking up?

Steven bid him goodbye and swept out of the room with Claydol.

Ash was left to his rest.

Ash was left all alone.

Exhaustion nearly took him immediately, but his hand tapped against Spiritomb's still pokeball. Ash thought of the crack in its apathy as the pitiful creature took in the sights and sounds of a battlefield for the first time in centuries, if not millennia.

He'd used it.

He'd awoken it from its slumber and had tossed it ruthlessly into the flames of war.

Bruiser had chosen to defend Ash. Bruiser had consciously cast his self-imposed bonds aside and found a new freedom in battle.

Spiritomb's chains had only been drawn tight like a noose.

Those dark thoughts plagued him as he was carried off into a fitful slumber. Ash was more aware of Dazed's absence now than he had been on the battlefield.

These dreams would be best forgotten.

A/N:

What is this? A chapter released in less than three months? I can't believe it! This was a really fun chapter to write and I hope that you've enjoyed reading it just as much. I'm ready to take a break from writing about these crazy battles though lol. It's exhausting keeping track of all the moving parts.

Anyways, we're done with some of the serious stuff for a while. Embrace the fun stuff! And traveling. And Ash stumbling into mysterious sidequests… I just accidentally described the whole story.

I'll try to get the next chapter out as soon as I can. Please let me know what you think in a review! I love to hear your thoughts.

As always, thank you to the mods for their help in cleaning up the draft. I got impatient and rushed the last half of the editing so blame me if you see any mistakes lol.

Also, during THAT scene I was alternating between Gohan's Anger theme and Ultra Instinct lol. It felt fitting.