Ash wasn't normally one for high-tech environments and cold machinery, but LaRousse did have its perks. Steven bade him farewell just a few minutes ago, and since then Ash had wandered the streets, utterly lost in thought and uncaring of the myriad reactions he inspired in the people around him.

Let them look. He had nothing to hide.

Oz stalked by his side, her beefy presence enough to ensure they had space. Ash didn't mind the onlookers, but he didn't particularly want anyone rushing up in hopes of an autograph. The Electivire might be a big softy at heart and far too willing to spoil Lairon rotten, but she was also a mass of crackling black-and-gold fur, with arms large enough to compete with Bruiser's in bulk if not strength, and thrashing, sparking tails that threatened action.

"What do you feel here?" Ash asked Oz absentmindedly as they completed another circuit around a park that lay in the shadow of the Battle Tower.

Dazed walked on his left, staring into the sun occasionally as though fascinated by its radiance.

She was also on 'Warn Ash of Grey' duty. He wouldn't put it past the mercenary to challenge him to a battle right in the middle of LaRousse, and nobody needed that right now.

But then again, Ash did just that a few hours ago. Perhaps he was just a bit of a hypocrite.

Oz whirred her response, sparks crackling in her fur. Ash reached out to that thread between them, embraced it, and felt. His nerves tingled as if they'd been hooked up to a livewire.

Great steel trees glittering like the sun off Iron-Child's gleaming silver armor—Skinny, furless figures like Takes-the-World, her brother, in form if not nature, soft and delicate and afraid like he never was—The hum of power blanketing the human-metal-forest like fur thicker than she'd ever felt, just begging to be claimed just like the white daisies in the field which would stand out so beautifully against her glorious coat if Takes-the-World would be so kind as to weave them in with his deft fingers

Ash slipped away from Oz's thoughts with a laugh and eyed the fields of daisies flowering in the nearby park.

"I think that can be arranged," he said with some amusement. She whirred happily at him. Her last adornment had been torn away in the battle against Wallace. "Come on, then."

Oz thudded alongside him with a happy grunt. Her immense form sent a few curious children fleeing into the nearby hedges as the trio stepped into the fields.

It was a distraction, and a mundane one at that, but personally, he was just happy to have some direction. Most of his journey in Kanto had been spent on his lonesome (well, his team's lonesome) but now that he'd been cut loose, he felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of options before him.

It was so much simpler when all his journey had entailed was challenging the Gyms.

Ash missed those days occasionally. The heights they'd reached since then, the bonds they'd forged, and the sights they'd seen were, of course, more satisfying than those early days could have imagined, but those first, innocent steps into a larger world were irreplaceable.

Ash spent a few minutes collecting daisies for Oz, who briefly attempted to help, but instead ended up crushing most of the poor flowers with her thick black fingers. Luckily, Dazed was kind enough to guide her in using her psychic abilities to pluck the stalks smoothly from the roots.

They all must have made quite the odd sight.

He sighed and cast a longing look up at the glittering Battle Tower as he began to carefully weave daisy chains around Oz's antennae. A normal human might have shocked themselves on contact with Oz's crackling fur, but he smiled as the bolts coursed through his skin. They fed the Lightning within him.

Perhaps onlookers might think something odd of it, and maybe it was a little odd, but Dazed's glares and Oz's contented whirrs (easily mistaken as threatening to someone unfamiliar with the species) would scare most off.

Ash had ensured that he'd picked a somewhat secluded portion of LaRousse's park before settling down, but there were still plenty of joggers and visitors meandering around, and no doubt those kids were still spying from their not-so-hidden grottos. Pokémon, too, went about their lives, though not without some wariness evident, no doubt the result of the chaos of the last few days.

He spared them all a few glances as well. He looked, they looked away. He looked away, they looked. Oddly, the presence of him and his team seemed to calm several; no doubt the presence of a powerful trainer provided a sense of security.

Ash welcomed that.

He found himself staring up at the distant Battle Tower again and again, wondering, weighing. What a splash they could make if he showed up at its famed doors!

What sorts of challenges could they throw his way? Trainers would swarm LaRousse, seeking to face him. Or to find themselves a rematch. Hundreds had faced him at Fortree, after all.

But no, Ash had to let such lovely fantasies drift away like smoke between his fingers. It would be fun, no doubt, but while he was fine with a little attention, he didn't want to attract too much. Not when the world was still reeling from the attacks and most of Hoenn was still licking its wounds. There might be an argument to be made for trying to distract them from their troubles, but he suspected such a sentiment might not be appreciated by many.


It may be well to earmark the thought as potential fodder for a future endeavor. Have the Tower-Masters offered to provide compensation in exchange for our presence and sport?

He nodded. "Not for today, though," Ash admitted. "We could probably arrange something for a surprise visit, but…" He trailed off. "You never know."

Dazed's eyes curled up in a smile as she telekinetically wove a string of daisies together and presented them to Ash and Oz, who beamed. Sprays of sparks cast off her waving tails, though Oz used her own psychic abilities to prevent them from scorching the grass.

Then we wait. Let them beg for our presence. We will profit from their desperation.

Ash snorted. "Maybe I should let you haggle at shops. You'd drive a harder bargain than my mom."

Delia Ketchum might be all smiles and sunshine, but Ash had seen her at work at her deli back in Pallet. She was an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Perhaps you should.

Dazed polished her pendulum, staring off blankly into space for a moment before her thoughts intertwined with his own again.

My kind are renowned for their talents in bending the wills and minds of others with their arts. I seek to master such power. Yet, there is a certain appeal in accomplishing such with naught but my words. Do you agree?

Ash nodded as he braided a few flowers into a band around Oz's enormous bicep. She flexed and bared her flat teeth in a smile as the muscle bulged. A Masquerain eying them from a nearby pond squeaked and vanished into some bushes when it caught her eye.

"Maybe you can ask Lance for some tips next time we see him," Ash said. "Or Will. They're both good with people. Not like me."

Oz rolled her eyes and jabbed a huge thumb at a gaggle of young children gawking at him as they trailed behind their mother. A few made to come closer, but seemed intimidated by Oz's bulk and Dazed's intense eyes. Ash waved and smiled at them to ease their fear, and was rewarded by bright smiles.

Ash blinked as both Oz and Dazed stared pointedly at him.

"That's different!" he protested. "They don't know me. They just have an idea of me. I'm just trying to do my part and make them feel at ease."

Moons ago, you might have been correct. But you have become more, Friend-Trainer.

Oz nodded in agreement, though she was distracted by her new flowery bracelet. She held it up to the sky to admire her accessory.

He felt a surge of warmth for their confidence and grasped both Oz and Dazed's hands in his own, and smiled gratefully at them. Ash basked in it for a time, pleased despite his own misgivings, but eventually lowered his gaze.

"You might be a little right," Ash admitted.

Such a concept can hardly be surprising to you.

"We've all grown quite a bit, don't you think?" He cast his gaze off at the Battle Tower again, hungering for pounding blood and the thrill of victory, or even defeat. "I feel a little lost. I don't know where to go, honestly. I don't feel like how I felt in Johto, or Kanto either. We have the whole region ahead of us, and we have to create our own goals."

Speak your mind, Friend-Trainer. Spawn-Mother-Guide always whispered that many minds are better than one. Unless those minds are idiots. It's fortunate that the Brute isn't among us.

Ash acquiesced with a smile. "We could loop back to Route 119 and train for a bit. Explore somewhere new; the hinterlands near Rustboro, maybe, or venture into Meteor Falls. Maybe roam the archipelago again, maybe chase a storm now that the season is turning…The possibilities are endless!"

Oz tapped him on the forehead, a knowing expression on her face. He felt enough electricity to stun a Zigzagoon course through him in a refreshing jolt. Everything around him sharpened: details stood out more starkly, scents grew sharper and gained depth, and the world was more beautiful than it had ever been."

"Where do I want to go?" Ash murmured, picking up on the unspoken question. His hands curled into balls. "I want it all! I want to plod across the fields, to feel the Piede's sands beneath my feet, to make camp on a beach, and delve deep into the caverns. But I can't just take all that time for us. The League still needs help, even if Steven is doing his best to keep me out of things."

Duty calls, but it can be ignored.

"It can," Ash agreed. "But I'll never be deaf to it. I don't want to be the one to do it. We have power, and power should be used, don't you think? We can make things better. Lighten the load."

A surge of anger spiked in his chest as he thought of the crises flung upon the already overworked Ever Grande. Steven's dark-ringed eyes and weary gaze filled his thoughts. How many more suffered the same exhaustion, the same heartbreak, the same struggles?

Every mission he took was one less to weigh upon them. Ash would respect Steven's wishes. He wouldn't necessarily go hunting for trouble like Durand, but his team had done wonders in Fortree.

Perhaps they could do something similar wherever he stepped. Eat at the list of priorities from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

Giovanni, Proton, Archer, Pierce and Domino's faces all flickered through his thoughts. They all had power, and they'd all wielded it like a club to claim what they wanted. They beat others over the head in the pursuit of their desires, and dragged them back to their den to feast upon leaving the world a worse place for it.

They'd never managed to break the world, but they'd certainly left cracks.

It was his responsibility to right the wrongs begun by Giovanni, even if all he did was nudge things along in a better direction.

Oz rose to her impressive full height and stretched widely, modeling for a few curious Magnemite who'd hovered by to check out the source of such incredible power. They made a clanging noise—Ash thought it was of admiration—as she surged with power.

"Showing off for your new fans?" Ash asked with a laugh. Oz proudly nodded, flexing again for the electric-types as an aura of jumping electricity sparked from her fur. Dazed took a pragmatic step back to avoid the sudden shower. "I think someone's been spending too much time with Plume lately. Speaking of…"

He smiled as Plume erupted in a burst of scarlet light. She crowed her glory to the world, a resounding shriek that stilled the entire park for a moment, and spread her wings wide to bask in the sun's radiance. A few Block Bots floated by curiously, but kept their distance.

It suited her, Ash thought.

"Hey there," Ash said softly, reaching forward to stroke the glossy feathers above her beak. Plume happily leaned into the touch, nipping his hat in the gentlest way possible. It still threatened to snap the bill in two. "I'm a little lost and need a place to think. All this technology and glass and metal is clouding my head."

Oz protested, so Ash reassured her that they'd find themselves in another city soon enough. He owed her a feast after LaRousse stirred her appetite.

"No one knows these skies like you," Ash continued. He began the quick process of saddling Plume up. It was second nature by now. "Take me somewhere wild. Somewhere we can all think. Can you do that for me?"

Plume beat her wings once to unleash a great rush of wind and looked down at him with gleaming eyes, offended at the very prospect of Ash doubting her.

"That's what I thought!" Ash cheered. "Well, show me what you've got!"


Plume didn't disappoint.

Less than an hour later they landed upon a tall mountain that Ash knew stood just a few dozen miles from Sudmauna. In fact, he figure he would probably be able to see it from here if he had Plume's raptor eyes.

Unfortunately, the distance fogged the details. Sudmauna, he knew, was humble, and blended into its surroundings. At best, he caught a few glimpses of what he thought might be rising cook-smoke.

The people of Hoenn always had been skilled at merging nature and civilization.

Sudmauna wasn't the only landmark of note, however. Sunset would soon be upon them; the red rays scattered off the rolling waves like raging flame. The scarlet light filled the horizon, intermingled with shades of gold and orange and all the other colors that reminded Ash of warmth and heat, to frame the greatest architectural marvel in all of Hoenn: the Sky Pillar.

Oh, it was still a distant thing. Little more than a sliver at the edge of the world from Ash's perspective, like a straight-edged knife embedded in the crust of the earth, bisecting the horizon.

Yet it rose, magnificent and proud, impossibly tall, piercing the heavens above.

Something in Ash shuddered as he cast his eyes upon it. It was that same part of him that remembered the feeling of pounding, molten magma in his veins, and the crushing weight of the world pressing down on him. It was the same part that had felt the sheer weight of the Orbs, and that had watched the smiting fist of the sky come down in fury upon the peak of Mt. Pyre.

He had been tempered by Pyre's treasures, but even Legends would cringe under the weight of those Concepts. Even Mewtwo had.

The cold fire flickered indignantly at the thought.

Plume, even with all of her well-earned arrogance, gave the Sky Pillar a wide berth. She wouldn't even look at the ancient spire. Ash didn't have the heart to urge her closer that day, but he resolved to explore its mysteries soon enough.

For now, they settled in for the night.

He contacted Lance once he'd made himself at home. While Ash hoped that the Indigo Champion might be able to stop by on one of his patrols, Lance soon called him back and apologetically let him know that he was too busy to spare the time, though he encouraged Ash to call him whenever he liked.

'Leave a message if I'm not there. I'll make time for a response when it finds me.'

Lance wouldn't remain in Hoenn for long, not when others in Indigo might start to get ideas after the chaos Ever Grande had been plunged into. Scores of reports had already filtered into Ash's inbox, though he only skimmed them.

Crime aplenty. Petty theft. Violence. Poaching. Trafficking. Exactly what he'd expect, though it wasn't pleasant to be proven correct.

Others reports, less so. Vigilantism. Public indecency. Defacement. Vandalism. Denunciations. Stranger things.

One particularly creative vandal had taken his team of six Smeargle and painted…vivid and well-defined imagesof a shirtless Wallace wrestling an equally shirtless Steven for the Champion's Mantle on the walls of the Lilycove Contest Hall. The manhunt was still on, prosecuted by irate Coordinators more than actual League enforcers.

As said, vigilantism.

If only they were all like that last one. While odd, that was a sort of criminal that Ash could deal with. The whole affair was ridiculous enough that it had done more to lift the region's spirits than any number of arrests could have.

Mad artists were less depressing than mad pyrobombers.

But he closed the reports soon enough. Ash didn't want to trouble himself with such concerns right now. Not when his own path was so unclear, and he was explicitly not required.

Plume had made herself a perch of a rocky cliff nearby. She sang the song of the North Wind to the sea, stirring the waves and inviting a cool breeze to caress the cliffside. Ash smiled at the serenity it bestowed upon the mountainside, and to Lotus, who rested inanimate in its keystone at Ash's side.

He walked over to her to look out over the ocean, leaning on her bulk and smiling as she lifted a wing for him to slip under and draw closer. "You've never sounded better."

Plume ceased for a moment and preened, before her attention drifted and she stole a glance at the distant Sky Pillar.

"We'll claim that one soon enough," Ash reassured her. Her feathers ruffled as she nodded, an iron will filling her eyes. "We'll soar to the top."

She seemed unconvinced, but at least his words calmed her.

Ash admired the sparkling waves for a time, but idly tossed a Dusk Stone into the woods below for Sneasel to hunt down with his Distortion sense. The little dark-type took off with a yowl, clambering down the cliff after his target. He was blindfolded, but Sneasel's senses were sharp enough to guide him.

It wasn't long before Sneasel returned, though he snarled at Plume for flapping a weak gust of wind at him to send him careening off the cliffside. Sneasel was swift though, and managed to catch himself with his claws on the craggy surface and haul himself back up with the Dusk Stone clenched between his teeth.

Plume took off with an amused look in her eyes before Sneasel could hit her with an Ice Beam as revenge, but a few trails of icy arcs followed her nonetheless as she soared off into the sky.

"Good," Ash said as he took the Dusk Stone from Sneasel. He'd bought ten of the beautiful stones just in case (thank you Elite Four paycheck), but thus far Sneasel had recovered them each and every time. "You're getting better. It won't be long before you're ready for the next stage of your training."

Sneasel perked up, but he was already realizing just how tired he was. Ash laughed as the little dark-type collapsed into his lap in a pile of quivering limbs. He gently scratched around Sneasel's itchy feather, careful to ensure that Sneasel wouldn't be lulled into full slumber.

His slight weight and warm fur was a comfort, though it made the oppressive heat of Hoenn even worse. Ash would manage, though. He wouldn't trade this moment of closeness for the world.

Some of the team had scattered, mostly engaged with their own training or off exploring the island. Nidoking and Oz lingered nearby. Nothing would threaten them here.

It had only taken a few minutes after they first landed to establish contact with the local wild pokémon. The small community—led by a small council of one in the form of an old, sun-stained Exeggutor—had been happy to offer them this cliffside for a few nights in exchange for some training, a bit of medicine, and protection from any foreign threats such as poachers, all for as long as Ash and his team camped here.

It was an easy trade to make, and Ash felt some satisfaction that they would leave the local community better for their presence one they left.

"You didn't think Mind Breaker was all, did you?" Ash teased Sneasel as the exhausted dark-type growled lightly at him.

Sneasel rolled his eyes and brandished one of his paws; extending his claws, they briefly became enshrouded in ghostly energies, overlaying a sickly purple glow beneath.

Oh, he'd finished that technique on his own, had he? Ash gave him an approving scratch. While the lesser techniques hadn't quite fallen to the wayside after the Indigo Conference, they'd been superseded by the raw potential of Mind Breaker.

Sneasel had been a busy Beedrill to hone them on top of his primary technique. He hadn't thought about Sap and Jab for a long time; once they started on Mind Breaker, the inferior techniques had fallen to the wayside. Clearly, Sneasel hadn't forgotten.

He really had matured since they'd first set foot upon Hoenn's sunny shores. "You should be proud of yourself. Melding techniques like that isn't easy."

Sneasel purred. Evidently, he didn't hold the lapse against him.

Good. "But no, Mind Breaker was just the first step of many. We've been learning together, you and I. In Hoenn, on the slopes of Mt. Pyre, even in Lavender. It's taught us so much about Distortion. Mind Breaker is a fine tool, but it's limited. A blunt instrument when you occasionally need a knife between the ribs."

Sneasel flicked out his deadly claws from their black, velvet sheaths. Ash smiled. He'd thought Sneasel might appreciate that metaphor.

"Exactly! Your stamina has improved by leaps and bounds since we left Kanto. You can command Distortion in waves that most others would be overwhelmed by. You can sense the chaos it introduces, and hunt it as well as you would any other prey."

Every word was selected just to appeal to Sneasel, and it seemed that Ash's efforts were rewarded. Sneasel's eyes grew wider and more eager with every word, though the reflex was tempered by Ash's scratching beneath his chin in the way that he knew Sneasel adored.

"When we're done, you'll be able to do so much more than just sense Distortion," Ash promised. "I'm no Master of the Dark, but I discussed it with Phoebe. As much as I could without giving the game away, at least. We'll never match the skill or precision of a true specialist team—"

Sneasel yowled loudly in irritation, and Lotus stirred in its keystone.

Both Ash and Sneasel stilled, but relaxed once the Spiritomb proved itself content to lie peacefully.

Ash continued. "...But the Masters are focused on fine manipulation once they have the requisite power and control; on crafting the perfect tool for every scenario. They spend years searching for the perfect pattern." Ash's voice grew more manic. More heated. More vibrant. Sneasel snarled eagerly, impatient as always. "They spend so long looking at the weave that they forget the thread that it's made of. We can't match that, and why would we want to? No, we're going to unravel their every design."

That earned a quizzical look from Sneasel, and he hissed inquiringly at Ash.

It was just the response he'd expected. For all that his thoughts were unclear in relation to their immediate journey forward, this was fighting. Training. This was clear as day to Ash, and that was a comfort.

"We're going to go deeper than they have. We're going to grasp their power and tear it up by the roots." Ash growled, his voice rasping as fantasies of domination and victory played out in his head. Sidney's smug smile in tatters beside his Zoroark's illusions. Phoebe's chipper expression twisted in a rictus of shock as her infuriating Dusknoir lay ground to dust. "We're not going to wield Distortion, we're going to rule it. Command it! And it all starts with this."

Ash dangled the Dusk Stone just above Sneasel's paws and laughed as the little dark-type snagged it out of reflex and eyed his reflection in its onyx surface.

"When we're done, you'll shred a ghost's essence with a glance," Ash promised, and then hesitated. "Well, I think. That's what we're shooting for."

Another pokémon might have regarded him doubtfully for his moment of indecision, but not Sneasel. He just nodded with the utmost confidence in Ash. Ash loved him for that. For about a million other reasons as well.

"Try to stir the Distortion inside of it," Ash said. "Direct it. Command it. If you're able to free it from the Dusk Stone without breaking the stone, we'll consider it a success. Nidoking's going to be working with you on this."

Nidoking had hung around as the rest wandered and blinked at the words. Sneasel seemed a little irritated, but he'd been working with Nidoking to sense Distortion for months now. While Nidoking lacked Sneasel's innate sensitivity, he'd grown skilled in that art. This would just be a natural extension.

It fit into Ash's other plans for his first friend as well.

They discussed training for a while longer as they all snacked. Dazed wandered back, pointedly standing right by Lotus, and Plume swept back in to perch on the same rock as before. Sneasel eyed her distrustfully, no doubt planning his revenge for her little stunt earlier, but was too content to fly from Ash's lap.

Plume seemed a little disappointed by that.

The rest of the team trickled in over the next hour, along with a few additions. Tangrowth had managed to befriend a whole hive of Cascoon, it seemed, and proudly displayed two dozen of the unenviable pokémon, flinty-eyed and generally unimpressive-looking from where they hung suspended by threads of strong silk from his vines.

Well, at least nothing would harm them here. Ash offered them a nod and turned to address his team, putting the visitors from his mind. It was far from the strangest group of friends that Tangrowth had made during their travels, and they seemed content enough in his vines.

"It's been a while since it's just us," Ash said wistfully. He smiled brilliantly at them all. "I've missed it. I love Steven and his team, but it's just not the same. But now…what do we do? The whole world is out there. I want to hear your thoughts."

A cacophony of grunts, roars, gurgles, whirrs, and squeaks greeted him at that and Ash could only smile. Most included various gestures in their responses, which Dazed did her best to attach little scraps of meanings to each. It was unnecessary, but Ash appreciated the gesture nonetheless.

He raised a finger and the team instantly quieted.

"Food for thought: the Rockets seem to have been dealt with, but it seems like Magma has decided to step up and become more active. I wonder why; they've been content to lurk in the shadows up until now," Ash said.

Nidoking grunted, churning the earth beneath his touch. It reacted more strongly than ever to his presence since the ground-type had spent those long, brutal days meditating before the Red Orb of Mt. Pyre.

Ash nodded, his smile turning flinty. "Yeah, I agree. That can't stand."

Judging by the various looks on the faces of the rest of the team, they agreed.

He sighed. "No matter what we do, we'll help wherever we can. Ever Grande can't say no, not when they're desperate enough to bring people like Grey in."

Torrent snorted derisively in agreement. Grey hadn't left much of a favorable impression on anybody.

Ash smiled at him. "Think he'd take offense if we tracked him down? No, wait, he'd get a kick out of it. That almost makes me not want to battle him."

Plume pointedly spread her wings wide and preened to show off her magnificence, no doubt of the opinion that they should show the world their own glory, proclaim their name from the highest towers, shine with radiance, and strike down anyone foolish enough to think themselves the superiors of Ash and his team.

That seemed all well and good, but as the others made their own bravado known, Ash caught Nidoking and Oz sharing a pointed glance.

Oz nodded to Nidoking shortly and stepped in front of Plume to hide her from Ash's gaze (and earned a disgruntled shriek from the Pidgeot for her trouble) as Nidoking stepped forward.

His eyes flashed with the bright azure of psychic might. Ash felt a new, unfamiliar touch brush against his mind, one sturdy as an oak and with the measured depth of the earth itself, and a wide smile split his features as the questing tendrils of Nidoking's amateur telepathy drew close.

Nidoking was nowhere near true telepathy. It was difficult enough to transmit the jumble of images, emotion, and sensation bound up in the flash of deep red hair and wild eyes like Ash's, let alone articulate them into precise words and meanings.

And above all else, a color.

The message was nonetheless received.

Ash grimaced. "Silver."

Nidoking grunted in agreement. Infernus' eyes brightened, fires forming in his cannons, but dulling as he soon remembered the weakness of the Rocket boy's team. They might be formidable to most, but Ash's team could crush them like a gaggle of Wurmple.

Not that he'd say that out loud near Tangrowth's new friends, of course.

"I want to find him too," Ash grumbled, though he couldn't quite say why. There was a drive in him to do it. A fire that couldn't be quenched. Silver needed to be brought in. "That'll be a tough one, though. He might be lingering in Hoenn, but it's also the perfect place to hide. He could be anywhere, and that Gallade ensures that he can flee with a moment's warning."

It was difficult to imagine the boy roughing it on an island somewhere. No doubt he was used to living the pampered life of a Rocket prince. Ash doubted that Silver had ever spent a night without his back on a comfortable bed.

Well, perhaps before. A grim satisfaction tinged his thoughts. With Rocket in shambles as it was, no doubt he'd been getting a taste of the rougher life of late.

Also to consider, however; Aqua patrolled the archipelago. That wasn't to say there weren't still a million potential hiding spots, but Ash doubted that Silver would want to risk falling into their hands. News of the boy would've spread beyond the League, and Ash suspected that Aqua had known of his existence ever since the Rockets first landed in Hoenn.

Durand had come looking for him and his guardian, after all.

Ash grimaced as he looked out on the ocean and actually saw three boats flying Aqua's colors in the distance. Hordes of Wingull surrounded them, no doubt waiting for cast-off scraps from their meals.

They were doing their own part to secure their homes, he knew, but it was just one more brazen sign of how far the League had slipped. Ever Grande needed Aqua, for all that they disliked the fact.

The last few days had proven that.

Nidoking rested a dull claw against Ash's forearm, and that sealed the deal.

"I'll look for him," Ash promised, even as a hint of trepidation filled him at the prospect of the quest. It wasn't that it would difficult, necessarily. He looked forward to the challenge, for all that he predicted many tedious nights to come poring over paperwork and League reports for any hint of the boy.

No, Ash knew what he was afraid of.

It was what he would find at the end of this undertaking.

"I can't leave the idiot out for Grey to find," he decided at last, hedging around the thought. "The League can have him, but not Grey. Or Durand," Ash said as an afterthought, a bitter thorn piercing his heart. His fingers curled into fists. "Let's put together a plan tonight, alright? We can train here for a few days, maybe check the surrounding islands to make sure the local populations are okay, and then…"

His team surrounded him.

And then we hunt.


Stepping back onto Sudmauna's streets was like returning to a home away from home.

Ash had only spent a few weeks here with Steven, but he'd grown to love its sandy beaches, sunweathered people, and crashing waves. The people recognized him as well; Ash was greeted with nods, waves, and eager questions of all sorts from children and adults alike.

It was a little overwhelming, but Ash felt more comfortable in this frontier town than he had in the mainland's great gems. He let Tangrowth take the lead, and soon enough a small crowd had gathered around to greet the friend that every single one of them had already made.

Tangrowth had been quite busy in Sudmauna during their stay here.

Ash was happy to see that the town was in good shape. It had been largely untouched by the chaos which had engulfed Hoenn, although Ash saw plenty of trainers with black bandannas patrolling alongside the likes of Mightyena, the odd Kecleon, and Marill. Tentacool and Tentacruel roamed the water in their blooms, and dozens of Wingull and Pelipper soared above on thermals to keep an eye on the sea.

He'd expected to witness nervous-looking Sudmaunans alongside the battle-hardened, non-local guards, but he was surprised. Ash wasn't sure if he should have been; they had become one and the same at this point.

A few of the likely-Aquas cast glances his way every now and then, but didn't seem too worried by his presence.

Who knew what was going through their heads? Ash watched them back, but drew the most comfort from Plume, whose eyes tracked every movement from on high.

He doubted that the Aquas were willing to start any trouble with him. Ash had developed a deep fondness for Sudmauna as he helped them with their Origin Festival, and it seemed that they had become fond of him as well. For better or for worse, Ash was a familiar face, and neither he nor they were eager to get in each other's way.

They would remain wary, though.

They gave one another a respectful berth, although a few of the Sudmaunans that Ash had met in his previous stay that had taken up Aqua's colors didn't bother to hide their pleasure at his appearance. Several even came up to offer him a congratulatory fist bump or high five.

"We knew you were something special!" A woman named Noe cheered him on. "We were rooting for you in that battle! Wish it wasn't so fuzzy though. Damn receivers have been trash lately!"

"I could send some recordings your way," Ash offered. "I've ordered a few physical copies."

"No wonder!" Noe's partner, a man named Kai, chortled. "Ah, you did every islander proud that day!"

Such comments were common enough, but Ash picked up on other snippets as well as he watched Tangrowth interact with his adoring public. The children bounced in his vines, tugged on his spongy arms, and giggled as they hid inside of his shell of blue-green vines and called out to their friends.

Tangrowth had never seemed happier. Today, anyways. He somehow managed to break that record each and every day. He was irrepressibly innocent, too wholesome for suspicion.

It meant nobody blinked twice when Ash listened in.

"—did you hear that Mauville's research facilities were raided? Slateport too. Idiots can't even protect their centers…"

"—bastards robbed a few dumb, newbie trainers blind on Kuakua Island. Beat them bloody and stole their teams. They're lucky the Pack found them."

"—beat back the grunts, but one of their admins took out half the squad. Had to pull out before things went further south. Thankfully we got the hostages out…"

He tried not to linger too long on such chatter, but it was impossible to miss. While Sudmauna was happy to see him, there was an alertness that hadn't been present last time. They were ready for anything.

At least some memories of the good times remained: banners from the Origin Festival, a few arrangements in the town center that had been set up for the party and were never changed, dozens of stalls who hadn't bothered to change their festival bargains except for absentmindedly cross-outs with red paint.

At least Sudmauna was safe. It was a bit of a backwater, but there was security in obscurity.

And then a familiar presence came hurtling toward him, one cane-assisted step at a time. ""Good on you for showing that snooty Sootopolitan who's boss! All respect to you, but Champion Drake never would have let you get so far."

"Rawiri," Ash greeted with a smile at the sight of the wrinkled old elder. Rawiri was fiery as always, full of impassioned energy despite his advanced age, and a rare smile graced his lined face. Then excitement bloomed in him. "Wait! Is Drake here?"

He'd been eager to test the legendary figure for some time now, and with the former Champion patrolling the archipelago with his old student Lance…

"Nah." Rawiri spit, then sneered at Ash. "Good Champion Drake stopped by a few days ago to sell off some of his piss with that Champion Lance fellow, but they couldn't stay long. Now Lance!" Rawiri declared with a voice like thunder. "There's a proper Champion, all dragonfire and blood and smoke. At least he has some meat on his bones, not like these useless pretty boys the mainland has been raising up…"

Ash was horribly concerned at the mention of the 'piss' until he remembered that Drake's hobby was brewing some of the foulest liquor in existence (according to the stories passed around Sudmauna's campfires and Phoebe's laughing tales, anyways).

He snorted, and made a point to tell Rawiri that Steven was far more in-shape than he appeared. Rawiri just scowled, too happy with his own mental narrative to make room for reality.

"I'll believe it when I see it." the old man scoffed. "Got the look of a dandified Skarmory to him. And no sense of style! Anyone who wears those damn hats knows nothing about good taste."

Ash wanted to defend Steven, but Rawiri might have had at least one point in his favor there. Tangrowth roused himself from his fanclub to dance over, wrapping Rawiri in a hug even as the acidic old man scowled and tried to disentangle himself.

"I remember when that boy came strolling through here with Drake over a decade ago with that clanking shadow of his," an old woman at another stall shook her head. "You'd think he was a Wailord with how big his head was. Thought he was Lord Ocean's gift to the world, I'd wager. Then again, with all the broken hearts he left behind, I suppose he had reason to."

"I, for one, don't mind these useless pretty boys," another woman that Ash vaguely recognized said with a cheeky smile. A few more elderly women behind her hooted in amusement. "Steven Stone? More like Steven Stone Hard Abs!"

Ash made a noise somewhere between a snigger, a gag, and a horrified wheeze. Oh, he was definitely telling Claydol about this later. Then again, maybe he should surprise Steven and Claydol both…

Rawiri scoffed even harder, looking absolutely disgusted by the remark. "You're too old to be giggling like schoolgirls! What's our guest going to think?"

"Old?" The woman, Pali, rolled her eyes. She poked a bony finger at him. "You're one to talk. Look at all those liver spots! The sea's going to take you soon enough."

"He's too salty. The sea would just spit him right back out," another giggled.

Rawiri said a few choice words in some dialect that Ash had never heard before and the crowd of senior citizens gasped, although quite a few chuckled in a way that reminded Ash of himself when Gary was around.



"You old salt, you!"

Rawiri snapped his fingers impatiently. "C'mon, Master-boy. Miri'll want to see you. Might have a few others as well. You're a big name nowadays. I hope you don't drag in too many idiots trying to follow you here."

"I do! It's been slow," one of the women shouted from behind them with a teasing lilt to her words. "How am I going to doll myself up for my silver-haired stud muffin when I can barely pay my rent?!"

They left the giggling elders to their conference.

"What did you say to them?" Ash asked Rawiri as they paced through Sudmauna.

Quite a few of the stalls and shops had upgraded their inventory or replaced old fixings with shiny new beams of wood and metal, Ash noted. How much money had Steven spent here?

"I'll tell you when—" Rawiri paused, squinted at Ash's old eyes, and leaned down closer. His breath stank of brine and his old face was weathered with long years of sun exposure. "You really want to know?"

Ash nodded eagerly. Even Nidoking's ears twitched curiously.

Elder Rawiri leaned down and whispered into Ash's ear, just low enough that any eavesdroppers wouldn't be able to pick up on the utterly foul string of insults, obscenities, and vile things that only a grizzled old war veteran with too much time on his hand could've crafted.

Such power… Such fury… such vitriol…

Maybe he'd let Gary know a few of them. If he could be convinced that Gary wouldn't just snitch on Ash to his mom the next time that his friend saw her. That had been a favorite game of Gary's when they were younger.

"Really?" Ash asked, slightly awestruck. He looked at Rawiri with wide, somewhat horrified eyes. "But you only said a few words."

Rawiri smiled with great satisfaction. "Our old tongue might be half-lost, but it's wondrously compact. Doesn't hurt that the old curses are most of what's survived. I can teach you a few more, if you like. Choice stuff, too. Say them on TV and you'll really make those delicate flowers screech."

His mother would probably scrub his mouth out with soap if she heard about him even thinking one of those Sudmaunan curses (Ash was suddenly grateful that she hadn't retained any sort of psychic abilities after Greenfield). But if Ash was anything, it was curious, and he nodded emphatically alongside Nidoking.

"You'll do no such thing!" Elder Miri's voice cut Rawiri off as they stepped past the curtain into her humble office. She sent the old man a venomous glare. "Aren't you always complaining about the youth like the bitter old man you are? And now look at you, doing your part to corrupt them!"

"Words never killed anyone," Rawiri grumbled, only vaguely abashed. When Elder Miri glanced away, he mouthed 'later' to Ash. "This one would like to have words with you."

Elder Miri inclined her head at Rawiri, acknowledging the respect. She still looked quite put out with him.

She smiled radiantly at Ash, though. "Look at you! I swear you've grown two inches since the last time we saw you. Welcome back to Sudmauna, dear. Would you like a cookie?"

Ash happily accepted and passed one to Nidoking, who idly munched on it while they talked. "Can I take a few for my team?"

Elder Miri's eyes lit up as if he'd just hooked her up to Oz's tails. "Of course, dear! You've been working so hard. You all deserve a treat!"

He was quick to thank her, both his mother and Glacia's voices ringing in his ears. "I really do appreciate it," Ash smiled brightly. He sobered as he realized it was time for business. Elder Miri was a lovely woman, but she could feed off of small talk for hours. His voice had been left hoarse and ruined several times, his seared vocal cords strained by the long conversations.

"Can I ask you for a favor?"

"What is it?" Rawiri grunted. He sat down with a long, aching grunt as his bones creaked. "I'm not in the business of agreeing to blind deals, Master-boy."

Ash really wished he would stop calling him that. He shoved the twinge down and focused on what was truly important.

"Silver. The Rocket boy. I'd like you to keep an eye out for him. And if you find anything, please let me know."

He was no fool. While Rawiri more-or-less openly wore his Aqua ties (or at least sympathies) on his sleeve, Ash had been around Miri to know that she wasn't far from him. She was a subtler creature than Rawiri, but she knew who was quicker to respond when Sudmauna needed aid.

Sudmauna might have little of interest to most outsiders, but Ash knew they had connections. Ears to the ground, or waves, as it were. They had a foot in the door to a world that Ash would never be able to access otherwise.

While he was no expert on criminal elements, Ash would rather have Silver dealing with Aqua than George Grey.

Ash couldn't trust them, not after Durand's attack (despite the mixed reports), they at least had a genuine purpose. They policed their seas. They fought for the local pokémon. They wouldn't kill a child. Not without damn good cause.

Ash didn't think Silver would offer them that same courtesy back, not as he ran like a frantic Rattata seeking to evade a dozen circling Spearow, but it was still more than Ash suspected he might get from Grey.

Elder Miri steepled her fingers and watched Ash with naked curiosity. "We've heard stories of him. Reports from distant villages. He's long gone now. What would you want with the Rocket boy?"

A little authority bled into his words. "I failed to bring him in the first time. I aim to settle the score. It's a dangerous world out there, and no place for someone like him. And there are others looking for him." Ash saw the faintest traces of doubt in their eyes. He met Rawiri's gaze quite intentionally. "Outsiders."

"Foreigners," Rawiri spat. "Almost as bad as mainlanders, eh?"

Ash supposed he should be grateful that Rawiri's game of mental gymnastics didn't include Ash in that category. Thank goodness for his contributions to the Origin Festival, he supposed.

"I need to find him," Ash emphasized. "He's too strong for the Rangers, too strong for…others," he said pointedly. "But I can bring him in easily. One less thing to worry about. And I can make sure he's not hurt too badly. He's just a kid. A dumb, dangerous kid, but a kid nonetheless."

"And what does that make you?" Rawiri japed. "Barely out of diapers and talking down to those still toddling about. What are you, nine? Miri, what's that nonsense you always jabber on about—'Wisdom from the mouth of babes?' That's a load of steaming Camerupt shit if you ask me."

"Rawiri…" Elder Miri said warningly.

Ash let the words roll off him, well-used to Rawiri's vitriolic nature. This was nothing new, even if he had to lay a hand on Nidoking to still his fury. The low grumble shut Rawiri up, at least.

"He's important, and I don't see a good future for him if we don't do something. He might not have a happy ending regardless," Ash said slowly. "But I need to find him. Is there anything you can do to help?"

Tangrowth gurgled sadly behind him, reaching forward to wrap a comforting vine around their shoulders, even those that didn't want it, like Rawiri. A vine engaged in a loving duel with Rawiri as it tried to make it past Rawiri's cane, which the old man wielded like a sword.

No doubt in spite of himself, a smile touched Rawiri's lips, and he visibly weighed his options.

He and Miri shared a glance, silently communicating. Miri finally relented at Rawiri's stare.

"We have contacts who may be able to help," she said after a moment. "They'll at least keep an eye out. Rocket or not, the archipelago's no place for a child. We can spread the word."

Ash exhaled. "Thank you. With the attacks…" he said, met their eyes, and reached outward to feel them. Righteous anger flooded them (and him); fury at the killers and thieves and thugs who abused the peace, and he pulled away.

They didn't noticed a thing.

Perhaps it was impossible to say if Rawiri and Miri were knowledgeable enough about Aqua's affairs to know of any involvement, but Ash doubted that. Aqua was a potentially dangerous force, but it seemed content with watching over the archipelago for now. Maybe they'd taken some opportunities, but the last week hadn't been their work.

As far as these two knew, anyways.

While Magma was shadowy and extended its tendrils everywhere it could, Aqua had been crafted to fill the void that the League could not. They had risen to meet the challenges posed by the criminal rings and Rockets who sought to hide out in the archipelago and bend it to their own ends in a world where Ever Grande hadn't the power to be everywhere it needed to be.

They might be a threat to the integrity of the Ever Grande League in the long run, and had a bad habit of ignoring all but their own authority, but nothing Ash had learned of them so far hinted at any desire to project power into the mainland. More importantly, they were helping people, protecting the weak.

It wasn't ideal, but they were a problem that could wait.

"Thank you," Ash said quietly. They looked at him as if he was more than a mere boy in that moment, although perhaps the mighty Nidoking and cheerful Tangrowth, who'd finally won his battle with Rawiri's cane and had wrapped the man up in a grudging hug, helped in that regard. "I really do appreciate it. Sudmauna has been good to me. If you ever need anything…"

"Crush that fancy pants Champion under your heel and we'll call it even. Maybe the Good Champion will realize what a fool—"

"Rawiri," Miri warned, and he fell silent. "That's a generous offer, Ash, and we thank you for it, but I hope we'll never need to call upon you, either. There's too much weight on your shoulders. Know you'll always have friends in Sudmauna. We do not forget."

Ash dipped his head, took a few extra cookies, and left Miri's office in better spirits.

As he left, Ash saw the most distant shadow of the Sky Pillar on the horizon, a needle-like sliver that inspired an incredible hunger within him.

Steven isn't here to say no, his mind whispered.

Ash's fingers felt like claws as he imagined commanding Plume to fly him to one of the last great mysteries of Hoenn. There was so much to learn there. So many secrets. It beckoned him, if only to marvel at the architectural impossibility of such an ancient, vast structure, that which had scraped the sky since time immemorial.

"We'll go there," Ash promised himself. Nidoking grunted at his side, curious, but Ash shook his head. "The Sky Pillar."

Something like a grimace crossed Nidoking's face, but he nodded regardless, and steel filled his expression. His vote of confidence was everything.

For now, though, Ash would have to content himself with spending way, way too much money on silly things he didn't need.

Sudmauna deserved it, after all, and maybe there would be a few nice rocks he could give to Steven the next time they met.

Actually, a new thought occurred to him, perhaps this was a good time to make good on his promise.

Dazed might get a kick out of becoming their new negotiator.


Stars twinkled overhead. The crescent moon hung like a sickle above their heads, bathing the sea in its argent light. Ash admired the sheen of the Flute as the lunar glow seemed to ignite a silver flame within it.

The Song spilled from his instrument, his breath given voice, soothing the waves and beating the wind, while even the cold ocean water softened to a comforting chill. Ash embraced that serenity even as Torrent commanded the waves with his own will, demanding that they bend to their monarch.

A little game of theirs, the latent power of a Legend versus his own.

Pounding water churned, then stilled. Whirlpools sank deep into the distant sea, then filled in with a crash like thunder as water filled the vacant space. Complex limbs of seaspray like an Octillery's appendages contorted above, strained to the limit by Torrent's desires.

And the moon shone brighter and brighter with every note, beckoned by Ash's pleas.

At last he set it down.

"You've come so far," Ash called to Torrent. "But isn't it wonderful to see how far we have to go?"

The sea resumed its natural course in the absence of the Song, and Torrent eased his spiritual grip. He came drifting over to Ash, as unbent and proud as ever, and lightly rubbed his plated chest against Ash's shoulder.

A bone-shaking rumble signaled Torrent's agreement.

"You've had the strength for a while now. Our time on Pyre proved that," Ash said, recalling Torrent and Nidoking's meditations upon the Red and Blue Orbs as they spewed forth creation beneath the glaring sky. "But Wallace showed us the limits of this power, and what we have to grow beyond."

Strength was something that would always grow as Torrent mastered his power, but what would make him truly terrifying was control. That Torrent had come so far in water manipulation in such a short time was nothing short of a miracle, but there was only so much that brute force could accomplish, even if wielded by a skilled user in a versatile way.

"See all that?" Ash rose to stand by Torrent. They stood and watched the frenzied waves. Perhaps it was just Ash's imagination, but the ocean seemed wilder every day. Less tamed. Begging to come alive and grow free and run rampant. "That'll be yours."

Torrent was quiet for a moment, casting a quick glance to the lunar crescent, and nodded at last.

For a time they discussed Ash's greatest dreams: taking Wallace's techniques to the next level.

"Did you see what he did to Tangrowth?" Ash asked for the tenth time, voice wild and excited and eager. Torrent indulgently nodded, always content to listen to Ash ramble. "Imagine that! Next time we fight Amelia's Venusaur, you just bam!" He waved his hands wildly. "Take control of Vine Whip. Wouldn't that be amazing?"

Torrent rumbled softly, butting into Ash again. He idly tugged the cold water from the soaked beach, leaving the sand dry and crumbly as he amassed a great swirling sphere of water.

"Or a Tentacruel! What would even be left after you ripped the water out? No, no, Steven's Cradily!" Ash cackled to the ocean. Torrent looked at him with a strange mix of concern and amusement, then puffed out an exasperated swirl of black smoke. "Perfect Regeneration that without any water, Steven!"

And there was so much more! Ash doubted that Torrent would ever boast Milotic's affinity for aquatic regeneration, but the potential of manipulating water to control an enemy (or, more likely, break concentration, techniques, and positioning) or to indulge in the seamless transformation between water and ice, or tugging Torrent into the sky in an aquatic veil…

It was inspiring, really. Wallace truly had crafted art with his techniques. And it was the sort that Ash was most poised to admire.

Yet Ash also didn't want to neglect the draconic aspect of Torrent. For so long, his dragon-type techniques such as Dragon Pulse and Draco Meteor had been among the useful tools in his arsenal. The past few months had taught Ash so much about the fluidity and versatility of water, but on equivalent scales, it would never have the sheer, destructive force of draconic power.

Clair had shown a true mastery over the energy, enough that her dragons edged out even Lance's in some areas. Obliterator might fix that, but she had revealed the potential value of delving deeper.

That had become a bit of a common thread in his approach to working with his team over the prior few months. It was all well and good to develop highly specific tools using their elements, to develop scalpels and hammers and shields that might be brought out for the perfect occasion, but Ash had seen the true power in this world, and it didn't lie in technique alone.

Ash would train his team to reach deeper, to touch the bones of the world and make that power their own. It might take more work up front, but as they truly came into their potential, they would become truly unstoppable. They had spent almost two years as the whipping-toys of fate and the unstoppable might of nature.

It was time for the world to bend to them instead.

The earth beneath their feet, the lapping waves, the sky above their heads and the black storm clouds that filled it, all that and more would be their weapons of choice. Even all that was Not, if Ash had his way.

"Oh ho? I thought I'd heard thunder, but I didn't realize someone had taken my training spot!"

Ash turned to face a large man with a broad, smiling face and a dark goatee. He'd wrapped a black bandanna around his skull, hiding whatever hair he had from view, and he looked utterly at ease in his blue wetsuit, bare feet perfectly at home digging into the soft, damp sand.

The face was the most familiar part of him, besides the big, untamed smile.

"Arnold? I didn't know you trained here," Ash blinked, surprised. Elder Rawiri had assured him that this was a solitary spot to train. The gears of his mind turned swiftly, and he watched Arnold with clear eyes, blatantly curious now as the pieces came together. "I hope I'm not in your way."

"I train all over the archipelago! I've never been one for setting down roots," Arnold said with a roaring laugh. "The waves are my home, and my bed whatever beach I land upon."

Torrent turned back to command the waves again, stalling them all with only his will, seemingly content to leave one eye watching the newcomer and the Crobat who clung happily to Arnold's shoulders.

Ash hummed, wondering if Plume had spotted Arnold yet. He hadn't heard a warning call from her.

They'd been working on her night training after the battle with Karen. No doubt her razor sharp eyes were trained upon them by now, at least. They weren't quite as adept at piercing the darkness as they could in light, but her impeccable hearing would have picked up on the conversation unless she was miles away.

"There's nothing like the road," Ash said, nodding. "So, what brings you here tonight?"

He plucked a fragment of an old Clamperl's shell out of the sand at his feet and admired it in the faint light of the bonfire he'd kindled with a spark of Fire. Its mother-of-pearl sheen glistened beautifully. For a moment he stared into the depths of the black sea and imagined the source of that distant Roar which sounded in his soul.

"Curiosity!" Arnold laughed, stepping closer to bask in the drying heat of the fire. "I thought I'd have a nice midnight swim, yet here you are. Who would imagine running into the famous Ash Ketchum out in a humble village like Sudmauna?"

Lairon skated over with his magnetism and sniffed at the tall man's feet. Ash's opinion of Arnold rose a notch as the man knelt to let Lairon nuzzle his hand and even pat him affectionately.

"Rawiri might," Ash said, taking a bit of pleasure in the brief surprise that flitted across Arnold's cheerful face. He turned the shell in his hand, brushing over it with his thumb. "And anyone who knows me. Cities are a little…much. Even in Hoenn."

Arnold nodded, and then inclined his head at a great length of salt-dried driftwood that Ash had hauled over to his makeshift camp. "May I?"

He smiled gratefully when Ash acquiesced and, first breaking it into pieces, tucked each into the fire. Crobat spread its wings wide from behind Arnold, seemingly comforted by the flickering heat. No doubt Seeker would be fascinated to meet another of her kind, although she was still off guiding Bruiser through the woods as they hunted Sneasel.

The larger man lowered himself down into the sand, leaning back on his hands to stare at the sky.

"I'm right there with you, scamp!" Arnold said. "Business takes me to Lilycove all the time. Can't stand the place! So many people. So loud. Hoenn's better than most at respecting the natural order—thank the Good Champion for that—but she grows a little more crowded by the day, and the rest of us out here take another step into the wilds."

Ash nodded absentmindedly, though his razor perception never strayed far from the man.

Only the crashing of the waves and the moonlit glow which bathed the beach tugged his thoughts away from the (likely) Aqua member before him.

"That's why I like the archipelago," Ash said. "You might be the only human for miles. Hoenn's a beautiful land, and the mainland has incredible sights wherever you look, but there's a certain peacefulness out here. It seems so quiet until you really listen. The world's alive."

More than he'd like to admit, given the monster sleeping beneath Mt. Chimney. For a moment Ash allowed himself to wonder just where Leviathan slept.

Lugia claimed that it had descended to the black depths after its clashes with terrible Groudon, and Ash could never forget the Guardian of the Sea's mentions of the seals and barriers it had erected to keep it asleep.

Jailor of the Sea, more like, Ash thought. Humanity should be grateful to Lugia for acting as the warden to such a terrible beast.

He doubted anyone would find Kyogre beneath the waves, so long as Lugia had anything to say about it. That being said, if Groudon slept beneath the mainland, it stood to reason that Kyogre would be found somewhere close by. The archipelago wouldn't be spared the clash simply for its remoteness.

"Aye, it is," Arnold chuckled, pulling Ash back. "If only the mainlanders could see it. Perhaps then, they'd stop trying to bring in their own noise, and leave our islands untouched."

He tossed another chunk of driftwood into the fire. The warm orange glow reflected off his face and highlighted the laugh lines there.

Ash arched his eyebrows, but bent down to lovingly rub Lairon's chassis as the steel-type rolled over to expose his hard belly to the flame's warmth. Lairon's hind leg twitched happily, and he even levitated a little as he unconsciously pulled on his magnetism.

"Never seen a Lairon do that before! Quite impressive, I must say. Wouldn't expect that from a near rookie."

"He's a special one." Ash shrugged. "All my family are. You won't find any others like them in the whole world."

Most might've taken Ash's words as simple boasting despite their earnestness, but Arnold nodded along with the utmost sincerity. Ash suspected that the man understood exactly how he felt.

"What kind of noise are they bringing?" Ash asked curiously. "I don't see many mainlanders out here."

"Bah, just the usual! They've snatched up all the cheap land they can on the mainland without falling afoul of the Pack, so now they turn their eyes to the archipelago. Money talks louder than tradition, and their influence creeps in by the day." An ugly look passed Arnold's face, something that spoke of deep anger, and perhaps regret. The look of a man personally crossed. "It's sickening! It's slow now, but mark my words: unless someone puts a stop to them, we'll find ourselves pushed out of our own towns."

The Crobat behind Arnold let out an affronted shriek at the thought. Arnold chuckled and reached out to scratch the Crobat's soft purple fur. "See? Leilani agrees!"

"That's a beautiful name," Ash said. "Nice to meet you, Leilani. This is Lairon, and that's Torrent."

Leilani fluttered out from behind Arnold, basked in the flame for just a moment, then darted swiftly through the sky to investigate Torrent. She didn't push too close for fear of agitating the Kingdra, but the Crobat seemed quite interested in his exercises.

"She's a good soul," Arnold said fondly. He shook his head, then, not deterred by Ash's gentle attempt to redirect the conversation. "It's death by a thousand cuts, scamp. They show up smiling, offering to invest, but the moment you accept you've sold your soul. More than that, you've sold your home. Your children's home. Your culture's. And then they'll walk next door to tempt your neighbor, too."

Ash reached forward to shift a few, salt-stained logs, nudging them into the flames.

Arnold watched him carefully. "You only have to crack the door for them to rush in like a flock of greedy Wingull. Just look at the so-called Battle Frontier! A good idea, in theory, but I know who had to go looking for new homes once the land was sold. It isn't right."

Ash pondered Arnold's words and looked deeper into the fire, felt its tongues against his senses, and smiled wanly as he urged it higher and hotter, though not so much that Arnold might think it unnatural. Yet the man watched Ash all the same, as though waiting for some reaction.

Ash doubted that he'd picked up on the actual use of Fire, but perhaps some burgeoning senses? Curious, regardless. He took the man in and felt something…strangely familiar emanating from the anchor necklace which hung loosely around his neck.

"Not all of them are like that," Ash said quietly. "Most of them aren't. Steven's not. He's one of the best men I know."

Arnold watched Ash measuredly, then nodded. "Aye, most of them aren't. Most are just people like you and I, born and shaped by the land they've inherited from their forebears. Most just want to live their lives and find a little bit of happiness along the way. But there are enough, Ash, who only see the world for what they can take from it, and have the means to do so."

"And that's where the League comes in," Ash said. "We keep the balance."

He thought of Giovanni, of the Rockets, of all those who valued their own greed and desire for power over the good of others.

"We, huh?" Arnold grinned. Ash simply nodded, and his visitor sobered. "You aren't wrong, you know. We islanders have our own bones to pick with the League, but they do good work and have good intentions. I respect that. I was even one of them, once upon a time."

Ash blinked. After all he'd heard about Aqua… "Really?"

"Where else is an idealistic kid with something to prove going to end up?" Arnold laughed uproariously. Leilani came swooping by to ensure everything was alright, then flitted back into the darkness to watch Torrent wrest the ocean to his will. "Ha! Ever Grande was even younger than it was now when I served. Good Champion Drake was at the helm, riding the waves of petty bickering after the war and steering the League as effectively as he steered that magnificent old galleon of his."

Ash eyed him with new appreciation. "Did you ever meet him? I've heard so much about him, but I've never had the chance. He's a busy man."

Arnold nodded. "Once or twice. He's…Oh, he lives up to his name. Champion Drake's a dragon in the shape of a man. You'd have to be, to command a team like his. There's a weight to him. Gravitas, like a whirlpool sucking everyone around him in. He speaks, and the world listens. He has a mighty fine mustache, too! We all marveled at it!"

Ash snorted out a laugh. "Yeah, that sounds about right. Lance, Steven, Fino, they all have their own stories about him, and he seems larger with every new telling. I can't wait to battle him one day."

"Ha! If only I could have been so lucky. Maybe there's still time for it," Arnold said with some veiled amusement, as if he was laughing at a joke only he was privy to. "I doubt I'd last longer than a shanty town in the face of a hurricane, but my lads and ladies would be proud!"

His 'lads and ladies.' Ash's faint hope that he might have been mistaken about Arnold's affiliations faded. "Why did you leave? The League's good to its people. I doubt they would have forced you out."

Arnold sighed and poked the fire with one of Ash's sticks. Infernus had taken pleasure in burning most of them to charcoal, but Ash had managed to save this one to stir the flames with.

"No, I wasn't forced out. Far from it. But being on the inside, well, you get to see all the limitations. The petty forces tearing a good thing apart." The fire popped as some hidden well of sap spontaneously boiled over. "Ever Grande brought us under one banner, but only the Good Champion bound it together. Ever Grande commanded vast territory, but lacked the numbers to patrol it. Ever Grande had good intentions, but insufficient power to enforce them."

Arnold tossed the stick down and blew out air through his teeth. "It's better than the old days, true, but Ever Grande is stretched thin. It can't serve its people or its pokémon as it should."

"It can do its best," Ash argued. "Every day is a step forward, and one day we'll reach the end of that road. Things take time. Building a nation, especially so."

Arnold listened intently, genuinely interested in Ash's arguments. "But what about the meantime?" he asked quietly. "We followed Champion Drake because he knew us as no other did, and still does. We lack Gyms. We lack influence. We lack a voice, because Champion Drake was enough.

He didn't need to specify who 'we' was.

"But now?" he continued. "The mainlanders wrest control back. Wallace is as good as a mainlander. That nightmare the other day…who did he choose to protect?"

"Lance and Drake were both in the archipelago," Ash reminded Arnold, a faint edge to his voice. "They patrolled day and night."

He understood Arnold's point, but there was more to the story than simple bias. The attacks were focused on the mainland, based around strategic targets; the archipelago just wasn't at as much risk. The Dragon Masters were sufficient.

"As did…our people," Arnold cut himself off, but Ash suspected he knew exactly what word was going to roll off the warm man's tongue. "Perhaps the League is doing its best. Perhaps securing the mainland above all else makes sense. Perhaps that's the logical thing to do. But it doesn't help those of us out here, does it? So we have to help ourselves."

Arnold rose, his anchor necklace clanking against his muscular chest. "I've seen pokémon communities in tatters after the Rockets and poachers ran through them. Towns pillaged by criminals, and the corporations that swept in to buy up the property when the insurance wouldn't cover the damages. Young trainers murdered for stepping where they shouldn't."

Fury touched the man's face for but a moment, though not directed at Ash. Leilani swept in to clutch at his shoulders, and he rested one of his large hands over the delicate membranes of her wing.

Ash wondered, even as his hackles reflexively raised in the presence of such concentrated emotion, who or what had hurt Arnold so deeply, so personally.

The man exhaled deeply, and calmed himself.

"The Ever Grande League is a dam holding back all the ugly things in Hoenn," Arnold said. "But a dam can only stand so high. This isn't Indigo or Sinnoh. All that ugliness is spilling over, and unfortunately, it's happening right in our own backyard. Someone has to stop it, even if it's not Ever Grande."

"I understand," Ash said softly. "I really do."

Torrent drifted up behind him, regal scarlet eyes watching Arnold with a detached curiosity. He rested a hand against Torrent's heavy plates while Lairon rose up to greet the water-type. Ash thought of the Rockets and that burning fury which reared its head at the mere mention of them. The rush of black water in the St. Anne, the weight of a Muk drowning them all.

He thought back to Jirachi, who he'd never said a word about to Steven or Wallace or even Lance despite the potential it held. Wasn't it only natural to want to take charge of your own destiny?

"The League does care, and it's doing its best. As are we," Ash motioned to his team, then rapped his knuckles against the Pokéballs on his belt. "Trust in that. Trust that we're trying to prove you wrong."

Arnold chuckled. "I think I can do that. What do you think, Leilani?"

The Crobat chattered happily at Ash, and for a moment he imagined her as Seeker. What a strange sight that would be! His little friend had been a Zubat for so long now.

Arnold smiled. "Well, it's been nice chattin' with you, Ash! I've heard good things about you from some friends. I'm glad to see they weren't puffing hot air."

Ash nodded back and stood to offer his hand, which Arnold happily took. His handshake was strong, but not crushing like Ash might have expected. The man smiled warmly at him.

"Sorry to interrupt your training." Something about Arnold's eyes seemed very sad for a moment. "It's a beautiful night for it."

"Sorry to interrupt your swim," Ash replied. "It's a beautiful night for that too."

"Ah, don't worry about me, scamp!" Arnold said with a laugh. "I think I have everything I need tonight. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow."

Ash nodded as the man drifted away with a wave, seemingly at ease in the darkness. No doubt his Crobat was a seasoned fighter.

Ash doubted any of his team would have much trouble with her, minus Seeker, naturally.

Then again, Seeker was just vicious enough that she might catch Leilani by surprise. The little Zubat was a veritable whirlwind of hooked wings, envenomed fangs, and utter savagery when she threw into a fight.

She wasn't like Infernus. Seeker just wanted to end it quickly no matter the cost.

Another thought occurred to him.

"That anchor!" Ash called out as he brushed it again with his advanced perception. It blazed on the edge of his senses like a warm lantern flush with light from a moonbeam. It reminded him of…Ah, it escaped him, for all that it was achingly familiar. "What is it? It's familiar."

Arnold froze for a moment, then relaxed.

"Heh. Maybe you'll find out someday! Ask me the next time we stumble across one another and you'll get your answer." He raised an open hand over his shoulder in a wave and continued off into the dark. "Enjoy your night, Master-boy."


Ash had a debt to settle, and it was time to pay up.

Mt. Chimney, rising above all its lesser kin like the King to its fellow Onix, belched great clouds of smoke and soot into Hoenn's vast, starlit sky. The moon crept out from behind the dark stain even as the sun waned on the horizon, drenching the rocky lands in rays of gold.

He'd stayed in Sudmauna just long enough to safeguard it—they had no issues other than a few trainers who grew too rowdy after a night at one of the bars—and let the heat die down around Hoenn. The League would be stretched thin for months as the aftershocks continued to rattle the region, but at least the worst of the blazes had been extinguished.

Everyone was still on edge, though. He could almost feel the haze of tension that had settled around Lavaridge as he rode on Plume above its cozy spot in the mountains. It was thick enough to match the smog spewing from the volcano it was nestled next to, and Ash felt a stirring unease in his stomach until, as he circled above the Gym, he saw an orange lump with a familiar shock of bright red hair lazing atop it.

Flannery was using Caldera the Camerupt as a very warm pillow—Ash would never understand how she enjoyed that kind of heat in the shadow of Mt. Chimney—but shot to her feet and offered him a cheery wave the second she recognized Plume.

Ash grinned at the sight of his friend, and Plume sang out a greeting to Flannery as they plummeted downward in a steep dive that sent his guts into his throat.

Plume landed heavily upon the roof, both she and Ash grunting at the impact. It was heavier than it should have been, as if the cloying press of Earth upon their shoulders had become a tangible thing. It weighed upon him like the heaviest boulder imaginable, stifling his every breath, and Ash shuddered as he remembered the sensation of molten lava coursing through his veins.

It had drowned his mind and soul with the terrible weight of a single drowsy thought.

Ash felt a waver in the connection he shared with a different Legend as a moment of shared anxiety flickered between them, synchronizing as they found themselves on the same page for once.

Ash took a deep breath and cast that fear off like a weighted blanket. This was not the time.

He'd grown beyond that fear. Ash would always respect such power, but he would never be ruled by it.

Not again.

The cold flame faded into the background where it belonged.

Flannery beamed at him, radiant as the sun with her corona of bright hair. "And what's the mighty Ash Ketchum coming to see me for?" She grinned at him, arms spread wide. Ash blinked as she wrapped him in a quick hug, though she was quick to lounge back against Caldera. "Come to celebrate the arm wrestling champion of Hoenn?"

The Camerupt seemed quite disgruntled at having their cuddling time interrupted, but was courteous enough to offer a polite groan to Ash. It reminded him of the shuddering of a volcano.

He murmured a greeting back, though Plume only offered a quick chime of greetings to Flannery (and deigned to let the Gym Leader stretch up to stroke the soft feathers of her mighty chest) before she spread her wings and shot off the roof in a buffeting gust of air. No doubt she wished to stay as far away from this claustrophobic place as possible.

Ash couldn't blame her. They wouldn't be staying long.

He wanted to have a little more company though, and so released Lairon, who lit up with delight at the sight of Camerupt.

He charged forward to greet her, and Caldera's eyes widened and she instinctively turned her head far, far away from Lairon. She looked quite queasy for a moment.

"Yes, actually," Ash said as he sat down beside her. "Maybe you can convince Wallace to accept those challenges in lieu of battles."

Flannery snorted. "Yeah, I doubt it. With all respect to our awesome Champion, I don't think he's going to risk his position on that bet. I'm pretty sure Champion Lance could break him like a twig."

"Probably." Ash laughed at the thought. Wallace was brilliant, but he wasn't built for power. Physically, anyways. "I guess Indigo wins that one," he added. Flannery stuck her tongue out at him. "Oh, you'll be happy to know that our mutual friend agreed to the terms."

Flannery shuddered in delight.

"Yessss," she hissed in a way that Ash could only describe as 'unhinged'. Her spirit was so vibrant that Fire flared in his heart.

"Beware, challengers!" Flannery shook her fist down at the mostly empty streets. A few drifters stared up at her as if she were utterly mad, but most of Lavaridge's natives seemed used to her. "You're all screwed now!"

Ash laughed, then grew more serious. He examined Flannery, searching for any signs of injury or stress, and was happy to see that she just looked exhausted. Maybe she'd appreciate a zap like the one he'd given Dawn.

"How are things here?" he asked. "Are you okay?"

She grimaced. "Uh, for a given definition of okay. We haven't been hit too hard, but we've had to spare a few trainers for Mauville. It's been a prime target. Criminal groups from other regions recognized that Ever Grande is teetering, and they've been sneaking in to take advantage of the chaos while they can. Just adding fuel on the stinky fire, the jerks."

He'd describe them in harsher terms than 'jerk' but maybe he'd just spent too much time around Gary's filthy mouth.

"Grandpa might be mostly retired, but he still has a reputation. You don't stay on the Elite Four for decades by being a pushover!" Flannery said with a distinct note of pride. Caldera sighed in agreement as steam burst from her volcanoes. "We've had a few robbery attempts on old Lavaridge treasures, I guess, but they'd already been evacuated thanks to the eruption. You should have seen their faces when they just found me and Plinia instead!"

Ash snorted. "Too bad Infernus didn't decide to tag along ahead of time. He'd have gotten a kick out of that. You should've seen him with the Rockets at the Stone colony. They looked like they were about to faint, though that might've just been from the heat exhaustion.

"She'd never hurt anyone, not really," Flannery said fondly. "They got a little singed, but Plinia's just a big warm softy at heart!"

Caldera looked rather doubtful, but was too busy trying to evade Lairon's loving headbutts without rising from her lazy pose to interrupt.

"Anyone else? I've been reading the reports." Ash paused. "They've been rough, to say the least."

"A bunch of poachers rode in on Tropius and a Pidgeot to attack the Happy Fields breeding facility, but Lucille shot them all down with those awesome fire arrows! I guess that Pidgeot wasn't up to the task like Plume was," Flannery awed, starstruck as she stared off into the distance with a dumb smile. Ash could empathize.

"Honestly, I think Plume exposed a few gaping holes in her defenses," Flannery continued. "Lucille's been training like a fiend recently, enough that she's been having trouble finding anyone fast enough to practice on. Plume's in a league of her own. Mostly, anyways. Oh! Champion Lance was telling me about his team and they were so cool…"

"They really are," Ash agreed. "Lance is incredible."

Lairon nodded fervently in agreement before plopping into Ash's lap with enough force to crush his legs. Ash hid his grimace as best he could to spare Lairon's feelings. He hoped that his friend would lose that habit before he evolved into an Aggron.

Flannery oohed, covering up her giggles for his misfortune.

"Wow!" She clapped her hands together. "On a first. Name. Basis with the Indigo Champion! You must have friends in all sorts of high places, buster."

As if she didn't already know. Ash rolled his eyes.

"You could say that." Ash turned his nose up at her. "I also juice my team with Rare Candies, if you haven't heard."

She gasped. "I knew it!"

Lairon frantically shook his head, so Ash just laughed and pet him reassuringly.

"He's a great man—a good man," Ash added. He hadn't told her much about his personal relationship with the champion yet, so he decided to throw her a bone. "He saved my life, you know. Threw himself right in front of a monster to protect a kid he barely knew."

The dark flame surged at that, though it didn't gnaw at his mind. Then it stilled, growing duller than ever.

"And I thought being a Gym Leader was supposed to be exciting!" Flannery shook her head forlornly. "But every time we talk you just throw out another crazy story. Are you just trying to one up the world or something?"

"Or something," Ash said. "You're onto our game, I guess. But Lance has done so much. He trained me, took me to…" he trailed off as he thought of their disastrous battle against Moltres, the sight of Infernus limp and cold flashing to the forefront of his mind.

He didn't think he could finish that thought, actually.

Flannery pat his arm sympathetically, reading his expression. Even if she didn't know what he was remembering, she knew the look. No doubt she'd seen terrible things herself, no matter how much Fino tried to protect her from it.

He would tell her one day, he was sure, but didn't feel up to it now. Not with so much going on.

Ash shared happier stories instead, and Flannery offered up experiences of her own as they leaned on each other, back to back, and watched the mountain spit fumes: a Wynaut who made a literal splash as its egg hatched in the sand near the hot springs, tales spun by Fino of his travels throughout the world, and sweet moments with her team that left Ash wishing to gather his own up and spend another day in the wild with them.

There was never enough time.

The evening wound down with the setting sun, which was soon replaced by dark splashes of blue and purple lit only by the dull glow of Mt. Chimney's spitting mouth. And at last, the dark haze gave way to inky black painted with glittering dots.

Lairon snored by his side, but over the afternoon, Caldera had finally grown to trust them both enough to allow them to settle in with Flannery against her hot side. Ash was practically drowning in coarse orange fur, but it proved to be a comfort as the sun's radiance faded away.

"I'm looking for someone," Ash said at last. "Fugitive. Young. Red hair—"

"Oh, that Silver kid?" Flannery glanced at him, clearly surprised. "Why? I don't think he's gonna be a problem anymore. All we've gotten are a few odd reports. I think the kid's just getting run ragged. He'll be found sooner or later. Ever Grande has eyes in the alleys, the trees, the waves…He can't hide forever."

"Sure, but I'm a little worried about who will find him," Ash said.

He thought about spinning some story like he had for Rawiri and Miri about how he'd fought Silver in the atoll, failed to bring him in, and felt obligated to capture him for good this time, but one look at Flannery's open, trusting eyes sent that notion tumbling into a dark pit.

"I—" he faltered, and tried again. "There are some things that I can't really talk about. Not yet, but there's a connection between me and him. I want to find him. I have to find him. There's no other option."

Flannery accepted it more easily than he expected. "This isn't one of those secrets, is it?" She jabbed a finger pointedly at Mt. Chimney, which belched great black smoke behind them. Ash felt the Earth shudder ever so slightly and hid a grimace. There was tension here, the churning of a great mind inching closer and closer to the surface with every passing day.

It wasn't ready, not yet, but Ash was horrified all the same that he could notice any difference whatsoever. His hand went to the Unown tablet looped around his neck, and his thoughts went to the purple chrysalis hidden beneath Forina. Part of him wished to check up on Jirachi, but the rest didn't dare.

Not after what he'd seen there. Not with the temptation that whispered into his ear.

"Not this time," Ash said after a moment, injecting false lightness into his words. "Just normal secrets. Relatively speaking, anyways. Not the fun kind, either way."

"Whoo!" Flannery wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. She exhaled sharply, relief blatantly painted across her face. "Well, that's fine by me. I'll let you know if any of the Lavaridge Rangers report anything. He's a high-priority target, but not THAT high-priority, you know. He'd better be wearing his brown pants when you show up."

Ash snorted out a laugh, then relaxed and let the conversation drift back to easier topics.

Flannery looked up at the stars. "Man, it's late. You're welcome to stay the night in the Gym. We've got a few guest rooms we keep ready."

One thing that Ash loved about Hoenn's nature-bound cities was that he could still see the great sweeping expanse of the heavens from within them. Saffron's blinding lights outshone the celestial bodies by a mile. It was unnatural.

Ash smiled. "I think we'll take you up on that."

"Great!" Flannery cheered, pumping her fist excitedly. "Maybe you can watch Infernus and I terrorize a few challengers come tomorrow, huh?"

His smile widened into a dangerous grin. "Can't wait to see it."

Silence for a moment.

"Wanna go fight?"

"I thought you'd never ask!"


"Ash Ketchum?!" A sleepy-eyed Ranger perhaps six years older than Ash blinked at him uncomprehendingly. "Uh, Bruto? Am I dreaming?"


The Ranger pinched his arm, then straightened up immediately. He didn't quite snap a salute, but he looked far more nervous than he had a few moments ago. Ash had no real authority over him, but he was still an Elite Four trainee of the National League. That commanded respect, if nothing else.

Then again, Ash attributed much of it to the battle with Wallace. He may not have won, but he'd managed to contend with the Ever Grande Champion long enough to earn recognition from the last few Ranger bases he'd visited.

"Just checking in," Ash said, unwilling to jump right to the point. "How are things here, Ranger…?"

It seemed to comfort the Rangers to have him around. Or, rather, the high-level pokémon that they'd witnessed. Bruiser, Torrent, and Oz were practically celebrities now, though only Oz really embraced it. She adored showing off the flowers and intricate patterns that Ash had learned to weave into her electrified fur.

The Ranger was still gobsmacked by Ash's presence, but at least his Grumpig proved a little more adaptable. It snapped a lazy salute, its pearl shining brightly, though it refused to look directly at Ash.

Salutations, Storm-Tamer! This one is Bruto, though my kin know me as Dreams-of-Feasts. My friend here is called Ranger Rocco. Forgive him! He's a bit slow. I trained my mighty psychic abilities with him as my test subject for many months in my previous form. I'm afraid there were dire repercussions.

"Bruto!" Ranger Rocco squawked.

A few other Rangers and their pokémon poked their heads out to view the commotion: Ash spotted the long neck of a Tropius, a Vigoroth's wild eyes, and a Swellow that squinted at him suspiciously.

He waved at them.

Rocco glared at his companion. "Sorry, Bruto here is full of—uh, has a terrible sense of humor."

Ash smiled. Bruto and half the other psychics he'd met. It seemed like they either fell into airy mysticism or plunged straight past it into utter insanity.

Ash had seen what drove the world, though. Could he blame them?

"Captain Renato is absent, I'm afraid. Off on patrol," Rocco explained when Ash sent him a questioning look. "Sorry for the inconvenience. Things have been…well, they've been hectic. We're one of three outposts that cover Sector Fortree-4, and it's been wild."

"What kind of wild?" Ash asked. "Outpost F4-A reported tons of agitators stirring the Pack up. Spreading fires, attacking wild communities and retreating, that sort of thing. No real attempts at causing serious harm, but enough to get them fired up."

Rocco hesitated, but soon broke.

"Similar activities here," he admitted. "We reported to Leader Winona about the situation, but she's dealing with the entire Fortree territory going mad. The Pack holds it well enough, but they're lashing out. They're not happy about dealing with our messes."

Understandable, even if Ash hated that it was just one more knife in the gut of the League. There hadn't been so many brazen attacks as there were during the first wave during the Wallace Cup, since the League had managed to steady itself enough to prioritize true violence, but it seemed like the entire region was suffering from a bout of chronic insanity.

Every day teams of rogue trainers set off pyrobombs with nary a care in the wilderness. Several had been 'taken care of' by furious wild pokémon and Pack representatives, but it agitated the locals and stole League attention.

Petty robberies and vandalism had skyrocketed without adequate supervision to keep a lid on things. Few would normally attack traveling trainers—the League cracked down viciously on such activities, and you never knew when a twelve-year-old would be carrying around a terrifyingly powerful monster like Infernus—but shops were frequent, static targets.

Organized bands swept through small towns, isolated areas, and even some roads and took everything they could. Like lightning, they would strike and fade away, leaving the thunder of a hundred raised voices behind them.

They—and who they were was the topic of furious debate outside of the highest League circles—had even adopted an old Unovan tactic and begun to pour dozens of foreign-born pokémon into highly contested territories to further infuriate the wild pokémon.

Most were quickly rounded up and sent either to the Safari Zone for temporary safekeeping or, in the most ideal cases, home to their trainers if they'd been stolen, but it was a relatively low-cost and low-effort maneuver that nonetheless created more havoc than one could generate kicking a hive of Kakuna.

People and pokémon were frightened and angry. This sort of chaos hadn't been seen in Ever Grande since the Last War. Things weren't exactly falling apart, but a shadow had fallen over Hoenn. The average person wasn't necessarily affected, but they could see it everywhere they looked, and the League was impotent to put an end to it.

Someone wanted the League smeared and distracted, and it was working.

The Ever Grande League already had too much on its hands, but this strained the entire system beyond breaking. Indigo and the Lily of the Valley League had spared all that they could—Ash knew that Bruno had essentially abandoned his vacation to act as support, and apparently a dozen Ranger teams led by Gym Leader Byron had swept down from snowy Sinnoh—but they had their own troubles to contend with too.

Nothing of the likes that Hoenn had to deal with, but Conference season was approaching. Indigo refused to loosen its grip for fear of letting their own bad actors gain a foothold, and Sinnoh was larger than Hoenn, and almost as wild. Moreover, while the archipelago was vast and functionally empty (Hoenn's influence didn't extend far underwater), Sinnoh's countless mountain valleys were just as difficult to traverse and manage, if not moreso.

Sinnoh's League was old, established, and well-entrenched, but even it could only sacrifice so much for their sister League's sake. Ash pitied them for having to deal with Mt. Coronet alone. Its massive tunnel networks, strange whispers, and the strange pokémon that drifted down from its slopes were a handful at the best of times.

This was not the best of times.

Whoever drove this (likely Magma) had a set a few key events in motion, but this wasn't sustainable. They'd revealed the cracks which had set in from the Rockets, stirred the pot, and opened the door for the natural forces already seeking to fill the void of the Rockets and weakness of the Ever Grande League to nip at the League's heels.

Magma hadn't done much directly, but they'd worsened the internal strife and invigorated any force eager to crack the foundations to action. And Ash couldn't help but be suspicious that such action had happened just a few short months after the fall of the Rockets.

Perhaps Magma had feared the League's eyes turning inward with the outside threat disposed of. But with this move, they'd sealed their fate—if it was Magma, and the League gathered information on them as they put out a thousand different fires, then it was only a matter of time before they came for the shadowy organization.

So what drove them?

Ash refocused. "And if the Pack is upset…"

"We're upset," Rocco said with a weary sigh. "Sorry to dump all our troubles on you, but it's been a wild few weeks."

"I did ask for it," Ash pointed out. "Besides, we're here to help."

Torrent hovered by Ash's side as Rocco and Dreams-of-Feasts stepped back to let them enter the Ranger base. The Kingdra levitated with the utmost poise, his strength greater than ever since their last few days of training. A palpable aura of strength radiated outward from his blue-clad form. Pokémon and human alike lowered their gaze.

"Excuse me?" A woman in her mid-twenties jogged up with a drooling Gloom trotting behind her. Its drooping eyes flicked open for a moment to meet Ash's curious stare, but it shuddered and hid behind its trainer. "Uh, Buttercup? You good?"

"She'll be fine," Ash said smoothly, not wishing to give the Rangers much time to think about any odd happenings. "But it's just like I said: I'm here to help."

The Ranger stared at him. She wore a badge that identified her as 'Abby'. "You're serious?"

"Deadly so."

One of the Rangers, a stout man layered with more muscle than the Vigoroth at his side, barked out a laugh. "Don't you think you're a little overqualified to be helping the likes of us? Don't get me wrong, if you're willing to offer your team as support, then it's the best news we've had in weeks. But a Master seems like overkill for the problems we're dealing with. Leader Winona could clear our sector up in a night or two if there weren't sixty others begging for her attention."

"I'm no Master."

The Rangers openly laughed at him.

Ash ignored them. They'd never had a chance to see the greatest heights up close like he had. Lance, Cynthia, Steven, Wallace, Agatha, Bruno, the list went on. Ash might trade blows and fighters with them now, but he was just a newborn Ponyta finding its footing compared to the great Masters.

He still had so far to go.

"Master or not," the beefy man said doubtfully. "I can't believe that F4A and E were telling the truth! They'd said you'd come to help out, but we thought they were just spitting hot air like always. They cheat at cards, you know."

The Tropius nodded emphatically with a sour look across its reptilian face.

Ash snorted. "I know things are tough right now. That's why I'm here to help, just like I've helped five other outposts in the past week. Plus, I'm looking for someone, and I've heard you saw him last."

"Who?" Rocco asked, a little of the Ranger coming out now that he'd had time to adjust to Ash's presence. Good. He needed them sharp. Ash might have the muscle, but they were the professionals. They'd be the ones guiding him on this operation. "Not too many humans make it out here, you know. It's mostly just Pack."

"Not many humans up to any good, at least," Abby chimed in. "Poachers, smugglers, dumb teens renting a Tropius ride out here to spend a romantic evening in the woods with their significant other…We have plenty of those to spare."

"The Rocket boy, Silver," Ash explained, preferring not to think too deeply of that last one. "He's a personal project of mine."

"Better you than me." Abby snorted. "Narsco and Cappy Renato tagged him a while back. He fought them off before support or Leader Winona could arrive. Left them buried up to their necks in the dirt and took everything but their Pokéballs, but at least he didn't kill them. I heard the Poochyena cackling from here when they found the two of them. Maybe there's hope for the little punk."

"Maybe." Ash grunted, preferring not to think about it. Torrent lightly butted into him. He just appreciated the comfort. "How long ago was that? F4-A had reports from a Linoone that caught sight of him two weeks ago, but that wasn't much to go by."

Rocco and Abby traded looks. "Six days or so? It's hard to say. We could check the files, but it was something like that."

Ash wilted. Six days might not seem like much, but it was an eternity for a competent trainer like Silver. Let alone one that had a teleporter like Gallade. Ash might not think much of the boy's shitty attitude, but there was no doubting that he was strong. Gym Leader-level was impressive for anyone, let alone an eleven-year-old.

Too bad that strength wouldn't avail him in the face of Ash and his family.

"Was there any indication of where he was going?"

"Nope," Abby said with a shake of her head. "We didn't have a psychic available. Not one that could stand up to his Gallade, anyways. That thing is fast."

I take offense to that.

"Shh, you're very quick in your own way," Abby comforted Dreams-of-Feasts. Ash had never seen a Grumpig pout before today. "Like when the dinner bell goes off."

Exactly! My speed knows no rival.

"I know a certain Pidgeot who might take offense to that," Ash joked. Torrent rumbled behind him, the noise so deep that Ash felt it in his bones. "So what's your biggest problem? I can clean it up for you if you'll steer me in the right direction."

"Well, our biggest problem is that the world's decided to get spicier than Yellow Fruit's cooking," the stout man (Brick, according to the name tag Ash only now saw as he stepped forward) said, jabbing a thumb at the Tropius, who sniffed disdainfully and flapped its great leafy wings at the accusation. "I doubt you can do much about that. But we've located a poaching ring that you could help with. They're too well-equipped for us to do much about on our own—eighteen trainers, and at least one high-level Golduck that packs enough of a punch to make us wary—but it's going to be at least a week before reinforcements can arrive."

"A Golduck, huh?" Ash grinned a bit too widely as a dangerous glint appeared in his eyes.

He traded an eager glance with Torrent, who seemed equally enthusiastic. "Well, we have some pretty bad Golduck memories. Maybe this'll be a good punching bag by proxy."

"Uh, sure," Rocco said, obviously unnerved. "If you say so. That Golduck's not the only threat, though. There's two Swellow patrolling the skies that keep picking up on us when we try to scout. We think there's a Hippowdon dowsing for tremors as well, though that's Bruto's hypothesis, so take it with a grain of salt. It's a well-equipped group. Too well-equipped, honestly. It's not normal."

"Sounds like it's becoming the new normal," Ash said, scowling. The last few outposts had similar things to say, although none sounded quite so large as this one. "It's a new plague."

Those poor Swellow. Plume was going to pluck them from the sky. At least the others might stand a bit of chance. Ash suspected that just one or two members of his team would probably be enough to crush this filthy ring beneath their heel, but they'd probably have to work for it. Entrenched enemies, he'd come to learn, were irritating in all sorts of vexing ways.

A stirring of excitement rose up in him just like it had at the last few Ranger outposts he'd offered a helping hand to. This reminded him of those good days in Fortree when he'd gotten to run jobs from the mission board.

Those were fun! Doing a good deed didn't hurt either. Ash doubted these poachers were true Rockets, but they were still the scum of the earth. He'd take pleasure in watching them quail before Infernus, and it would be a nice warm-up for Lairon too before they went into their daily training.

"Well, let's go! Do they have any teleporters?" Ash asked. "Any methods of escape?"

Abby shook her head, though she looked distinctly discomforted by Ash's enthusiasm. Her problem. "No teleporters that we know of. I have a Banette that can release an Ominous Wind to disrupt teleportation just in case. Their main method of transportation seems to be a few Tropius that they've captured. They caught a baby as well; we think they're using it as leverage over the adults."

A stab of fury filled his heart and Ash's fists clenched. Stealing young pokémon was a time-honored tradition of poachers and criminals operating in wild areas. The juveniles were often curious, less guarded, and packed less of a punch than their parents. Once under control or captured, threats to their wellbeing offered quite a bit of protection.

It was a double-edged sword, though. If that leverage was lost, the entire wild community in the area (and sometimes beyond) would come crashing down like an avalanche.

And it didn't always work. It was distasteful to Ash, but not every species was so attached to their young. Some seemed to go by the 'you win some, you lose some' approach, and would just attack regardless. Ash suspected Mamoru would fall into that latter category.

"Dazed and Plume can take care of that," Ash said confidently. A handful of wild Tropius might not have the firepower to save their offspring from such a well-organized band, but he did. And he would make the poachers pay. "Any idea what they've been targeting?"

"They set up on a hillside about twenty miles away a few days ago. We skirmished, but they outnumber us, so we resolved to collect intelligence instead. They don't seem to be going anywhere. So far they've been patrolling the forest—a Pack emissary, one of the Alpha's children, has reported large numbers of Chimecho being taken."

"Chimecho?" Ash murmured to himself, a little surprised by the detail.

Chimecho generally weren't considered prime targets for poachers. They had little utility, such as flight, lacked a natural aptitude for battle (at least in such a way as the lazy and unimaginative people who might have bought them could draw out), and had a tendency towards…odd personalities.

Most of Hoenn's Chimecho population lived upon the slopes of Mt. Pyre, but there were healthy populations spread throughout the forests as well. They tended to coexist with ghosts wherever they gathered, sounding their chimes like warning bells for the living.

Ash couldn't help but recall the spectral mist of Mt. Pyre parting around the drifting Chimecho as they wandered its peak. His mind ran quick as lightning, and he frowned as new questions arose within his thoughts.

"Yeah, it's weird. Those things creep me out. Their beady little eyes…" Rocco shuddered. "And their smiles! Why do they always smile? It's weird!"

They're probably just imagining scooping your eyes out with those big suckers on their head. You don't even want to hear what goes through their brains, my friend.

"Brains?" Rocco looked a little green. "Like, plural?"

Indeed! They take a little clump of neurons from each of their victims and implant it in their—

Ash was quickly growing impatient. "We need to take them down as soon as we can. How long do you need to prepare?"

"I'm ready," Abby tapped the four Pokéballs on her belt. "Rocco?"

"Ready. Brick?"

"Need to alert the captain, but other than that I'm ready to go. Give us ten minutes."

"Alert the Pack too," Ash said, his mind racing. "They're going to want to see this. It might earn some goodwill."


Ash had to give the scum credit: their compound was quite well-fortified.

The poachers were an efficient lot, and had constructed a fair system of fortifications upon the slopes of the large hill. Pokémon had torn great trees from the soil by their roots and stacked them high on the poacher's behalf to form a sloping barricade many trunks thick.

Any serious fighter would tear right through them, but it wouldn't be a quiet affair. That bit of warning was all the criminals needed. Such a flimsy defense wasn't meant to stand strong in the face of an attack, but rather to buy a handful of seconds to prepare.

No doubt they had plenty of Pokéballs ready; the devices were a poacher's greatest defense against wild pokémon. It was all well and good to arm themselves with technology, such as electronets, cryobombs, pepper grenades, and sonic cannons, but those were expensive and unlikely to stand up for more than a second against a truly determined, or simply furious, pokémon.

Worse, they would make them mad. Madder, anyways.

For all the ingenuity of humanity's technology, most of it was only good as a brief distraction in a fight. The majority of pokémon were quick and agile enough to easily outperform a human's reflexes, and those that weren't could weather a storm of weaponry with little worry. Weapons technology was largely meant for lesser pokémon, and even then only primarily as a method of support for their own fighters.

But a Pokéball? It was difficult to capture pokémon who weren't willing by design, but even a few seconds spent fighting off the attempt could be precious in a battle. The League offered many wild pokémon the choice of being unofficially captured (and their Pokéball retired to a safe League vault) as a manner of protection, but many were unwilling to take on what could easily become a leash.

Between their subversion of local populations, numbers, and technological advantage, the poachers operated more or less unimpeded. Wild pokémon almost always waged guerilla warfare against their hunters, but nothing too overt could be accomplished without suffering targeted reprisal. Collective action and calculated strikes had always been humanity's greatest edge.

No dramatic action could take place without greater power than what most communities could easily muster. The Pack could accomplish this—such issues were largely why the Pack had organized beneath the Alpha's snarling maw in the first place, after all—but even they were strained.

They had eyes and ears everywhere, but it took time to organize a strike.

A humble Tailow acted as the Pack's eyes here. The little bird had looked in Plume's direction with the same rapturous gaze as when Ash watched Lance in action, but for the moment, its fierce eyes were locked upon the grey clouds that brewed above.

Ash had taken a position on a nearby hill, far from any danger but still within range to observe the happenings. Dreams-of-Feasts was skilled enough to weave a mirage to protect them from the Swellow pair's prying eyes, although he seemed exhausted just by the effort.

It was a stark reminder of just how far Dazed had risen above the average psychic.

Illusions, at least of the physical sort, weren't Dazed's specialty, but she was powerful and skilled enough to take over for Dreams-of-Feasts should the need arise. She waited at Ash's side, polishing her pendulum with her stark white mane as they observed.

Rocco waited at their side as well, all signs of nervousness vanished like dust in the wind. In the anxious teenager's place was a Ranger in truth. It reminded Ash of the other Ranger bases that he'd helped out over the past few days since his visit in Lavaridge: they were happy to joke and laugh and be themselves in the safety of their halls, but when they were on a mission, all that slipped away to be replaced with stern professionalism.

"Teams are in position," Rocco murmured. "We're ready to move in when you are. You make the mess and we can clean it up."

The forest was quiet around them, bereft of the pokémon who feared both the poachers and the coming battle.

Ash nodded with an easy grin. "That's what I like to hear."

He had never been more grateful for the constant rain which battered down upon Fortree's Route 119. It was a pain to travel through, but it made for wonderful cover.

He took a deep breath and embraced the North Wind as it swept through him. Ash urged it to wipe away Rocco's lingering worries and smiled as the Ranger stood taller and sharper than ever. Dreams-of-Feasts' mirage strengthened and grew firmer as his mind was purified of distractions.

With the thick blankets of ominous dark clouds already blanketing the forest, and those no doubt as remarkable as the rising and setting of the sun, none of the poachers noticed as they darkened even further. Rain came pelting faster and faster.

Rocco shivered at Ash's side, but Ash himself was beyond such feelings.

No, all he could focus upon were the figures strolling through the encampment with boxes of cargo. Some were filled with Pokéballs stamped with various pokémon insignias, others with rare berries harvested from the sector, and more still with trophies ranging from a handful of Leaf Stones to rainbow-glimmering Milotic scales to a few Linoone tails carefully collected and harvested from their victims.

There were a few other gruesome prizes, but Ash felt sick when he looked upon them and did his best to shove them from his mind.

Righteous fury welled within him, driving the Feather upon his chest to blaze with the same indignation. Steam boiled from his skin, though thankfully Rocco didn't seem to notice anything out of the ordinary, too focused on peering through his binoculars.

Dreams-of-Feasts' focus began to slip, though, so Ash reigned himself in. Focus.

They'll pay, he swore to himself.

They will.

Dazed's voice was a sliver of ice in his mind, poised to drive right into the poachers' vulnerable brains. Where were Grey and his Beheeyem when they needed them?

"Send the signal."

Dazed's luminous eyes flashed a fiery blue. Ash stepped between her and the encampment to keep any sharp-eyed sentries from catching sight. Psychics were insanely useful in the field, but their abilities tended to be flashy at the best of times.

Several things happened over the next few seconds.

The grey clouds darkened to true black.

Thunder tolled in the distance. Ash knew it to be a sonic boom.

The two Swellow were torn from the sky by great talons faster than the eye could see.

Tailow squawked eagerly above them as though it was cheering Plume on as she flitted across the heavens, so swift that all Ash could make out was the slightest of blurs, one smudge of a Swellow left limp and hanging in each of her talons.

With the scouts down, the rain came harder and harder. Ash felt a petty pleasure as the poachers ran around madly trying to move their misbegotten goods into shelter to protect both their spoils and themselves.

They had no idea what was coming.

Ash could sense the subtle atmospheric changes that came of Rain Dance, but most wouldn't be so sensitive. He'd spent countless hours training with Torrent and Oz alike to harness that great power, so the fluctuations were second nature to him to make out.

But why would these poachers be concerned? Few pokémon could command such power, and what was the point of stirring up a storm where one already existed?

And then the folly of their ignorance was revealed.

Ash had watched with satisfaction as Sneasel crept from cover to cover for the last few minutes. His claws were like razors, slashing out with frigid or ghastly power to knock out half-a-dozen patrollers in the last few minutes.

He was nimble enough to clamber around their fortifications with ease, cloaked from the Golduck's psychic awareness by the dark power flooding his cells, and light enough to avoid attracting Hippowdon's attention.

Golduck might have been a trained psychic, but it took true skill to pick out the holes in the world left by dark-types. It was like catching the shadow left by an invisible man on a dark day.

Harder when you didn't know to look for it.

Sneasel slipped past the wooden walls, and was currently poised to strike. He was still waiting for his own signal.


And waiting.

Then the darkness abated.

The horizon glowed gold, as if the sun had begun to peek out from behind the thick-packed clouds, and Ash relished the sight of the confused expressions and body language from the poachers and their fighters. Each went still, staring cluelessly into the distance.

Then panic struck as the sun came soaring closer and closer, coming forth like a blazing comet.

Or a Draco Meteor.

Ash barked out a raspy laugh (and ignored Rocco inching away from him) as Torrent's Draco Meteors came arcing down in a twisting swirl of golden fury. The earth quaked even from this distance as they detonated on impact, splashing great waves of draconic flame and destruction all around. Great sprays of dirt and dust picked up, though the rain quickly packed it back down into mud, and the camp descended into chaos.

He relished the panicked shouts of the poachers as they snapped order after order to their stunned teams, only to be cut off as a black blur came through like a bladed whirlwind.

Sneasel was having the time of his life as he smacked human skulls with the back of his Distorted claws and then wheeled around to dig the hooked ends into the flesh of any pokémon unfortunate enough to stand in his way.

No serious defense could be mounted, although a few competent fighters made an appearance.

The anticipated Golduck came dashing out just ahead of a furious-looking trainer with dark eyes and bright blonde hair.

A Graveler and Golem came tumbling down the mountainside to act in the camp's defense.

The yawning maw of a Hippowdon erupted in a great explosion of mud to emerge from its subterranean home.

Sneasel could have handled them easily enough, but he wasn't alone. While no more Draco Meteors came crashing down to devastate their foes, something even more dangerous made an appearance.

Bruiser vaulted the wall, Lairon gripped in hand like a bludgeon, and slammed the heavy steel-type right into Hippowdon's jaw as the beast prepared to unleash an immense Hyper Beam straight at Sneasel.

Ash heard the crunch from hundreds of feet away, as well as a crying whine as Lairon was swung with enough force to lift Hippowdon out of the mud to fly a few feet into the air. It landed with a heavy thump and didn't rise.

Rocco winced beside him.

Any pokémon without Hippowdon's innate sturdiness might have had its neck snapped by the force. Happily, Bruiser had better control of his strength now, and it wouldn't come to that.

He wasn't keen to continue merely estimating the relative constitution of an opponent after what happened to Océane.

So, he only gave it a stiff neck and a broken jaw. A Pokémon Center could heal that up almost overnight once the League claimed the Hippowdon, although Ash fully expected it to break out into a bloody sweat at the sight of Machamp and Lairon from now on.

If it remembered today at all, that was. The jury would be out on that one for a while yet.

With Hippowdon gone, Bruiser turned his eyes upon the Graveler, who had frantically turned to use Rollout in order to make an escape after seeing the devastation unleashed upon their powerful ally.

Unfortunately, Sneasel leapt upon one with an Ice Beam ready and froze it solid, cackling as he tipped it into the mud with a great heave.

As for the other…

Bruiser's eyes narrowed as he made the calculation, a slight smirk crossing his face, and Lairon warbled eagerly as he activated his Magnet Rise, making him lighter and easier for Bruiser to wield than ever.

And, once Bruiser's brain set to work, it was over.

Lairon loosed a (frankly adorable) war cry as Bruiser hurled him forward at such an incredible velocity that Lairon's magnetic abilities went more into stabilizing his flight than into accelerating it.

He just barely managed to twist over to orient his tail towards the enemy before he cracked Golem's carapace in two.

The Golem dropped like…well, like a sack of rocks. It didn't even have the opportunity to cry out as Lairon smashed into it with such force that its outer layers of rocky armor essentially crumbled to dust, and the rest tumbled uncontrollably away.

Even Lairon was bruised after that, but he still cheerfully flipped himself up, shook off the backlash from the hit, and leaped into battle to support Sneasel against a pair of Zangoose.

It wouldn't last long.

To make matters worse for the poachers, Plume blitzed through and unleashed a howling gale propelled by the North Wind to tear the camp's tents apart.

At the sight of Plume, Sneasel, and the rest, the handful of Tropius forced to assist the poachers let out fierce roars and fell upon the poachers and their fighters with murderous intent. One sought out a poacher downed by Sneasel, snarled furiously, and smashed its massive foot into the mud-bound man's gut with a sickening squelch.

Ash winced and turned his attention to more important matters.

Sneasel and Lairon tag-teamed any attempts at organized resistance while Bruiser intimidated foe after foe into submission with a mere glance or twitch of his massive arms. Every flier (save the freed Tropius) who attempted to rise was smitten from the sky by Plume or struck by a bright lance of lightning courtesy of Oz.

And then the camp was set ablaze as Infernus teleported into the battle's midst with a terrible roar like the burst of a volcano. He leered at every enemy, and seemed disappointed as he realized that the rest of the team had the situation well in hand.

Unfortunately, there was another figure, released by a frantic poacher, who quickly attracted Infernus' ire: a glowing Magcargo that had absolutely no clue what it was in for.

Ash had asked Infernus to limit his destructive tendencies so as to avoid damaging any evidence or wounded pokémon, but this at least gave the Magmortar something to keep him occupied.

The poor Magcargo only had a few seconds to stare at the charging Infernus with wide, horrified eyes before Infernus punted him, teleported just ahead of the spinning fire-type, and crushed the Magcargo into the mud with a vicious downward hammerblow. Mud solidified, cracked, and warped as the superbly hot creature cratered into it, but it might as well have been a refreshing breeze for Infernus.

Those enemies who remained tried to flee as they realized just how outclassed they were, but the remainder of Ash's team (minus Nidoking, who stood guard with Ash and Rocco) and the Rangers caught them in a snare.

Torrent snagged a half-dozen pokémon at once in watery prisons as they fled Bruiser and the camp. Only the Golduck that Ash had been warned of remained fighting at the side of its trainer, and Ash soon found himself impressed.

While it stood no chance against Sneasel or Lairon, it was able to trade blows for a short time. Sneasel's dizzying rush of attacks overwhelmed it, but that it took more than a few moments spoke to a level of skill they hadn't anticipated seeing from the likes of this backwater.

Golduck probably stood around low Conference-level, perhaps worthy of fighting in the Top 256 or 128, and Ash was both horrified and somewhat impressed that the poachers had found a trainer of that caliber to work with.

It would tear most wild threats apart, and even Ranger squads would stand little chance against it if the Golduck had any kind of support. They would need an ACE member or Gym Leader to strike it down without a dangerous fight on their hands.

Unfortunately, Golduck soon found itself in a bind, however, as Bruiser, Tangrowth (who swung over the wooden fortifications with his vines), Infernus, and even Seeker turned their furious attention upon it. It threw itself in front of the dark-eyed trainer from earlier, standing firm in the man's defense, and prepared itself for battle.

It seemed utterly gobsmacked as it was suddenly buried in an elemental storm, and pathetically relieved as a follow-up love tap from Bruiser sent it to oblivion.

No doubt Golduck wondered what on earth it had done to deserve such vicious treatment, but it hadn't had to worry about that for long.

While his team might have been working out some old frustrations by proxy, they weren't quite as brutal as they would've been to the real Golduck they wanted to clobber.

What would that ornery water-type think of the team now?

The same dark-eyed poacher from before attempted to mount a defense, but there was nothing to be done. His forces were scattered and beaten down beneath Ash's team, secured by the Ranger, and the man soon realized that.

Alas, Lairon decided to burst out of the mud to wait right in the way of the poacher's shins, and Ash heard a loud curse as the poacher went tumbling into the mud. Lairon rested a single firm foot upon the man's back, and he soon gave up.

The whole affair took about five minutes.

"Uh, wow. Remind us never to piss you off," Rocco murmured, his face pale. "By Champion Drake's drooping…uh, mustache," he quickly corrected at Ash's inquisitive look. "Team, move in with minimal caution. They'll be secured by the time you arrive."

Rocco looked at him awkwardly. "So, uh. You ever interrogate a poacher?"

Ash smiled.

Clean-up took far longer than the actual fight. Ash was stunned as the Ranger team quickly rushed through the camp to dissect it piece by piece and uncovered all sorts of contraband. Some of it left his stomach turning and bile rising up in his throat, but the number of Chimecho captured was frankly astonishing.

What on earth did they need eighty-two Chimecho for? No doubt dozens more had already been transported away, but Ash couldn't think of them right now. He relished their happy songs as they were released, and didn't miss how Sneasel winced at the ringing sound.

Ash didn't stay for the entire processing, not with so many things on his plate, but he could at least enjoy the sight of a few Tropius circling above while two of their number cuddled a (relatively) small Tropius that must have been only weeks old.

"You guys deserve a treat after all that," Ash whispered to Nidoking, who fervently nodded. He glanced to Rocco. "Are you all good here?"

"We'll be fine," Rocco replied as he handcuffed the dark-eyed poacher from before. "Done this before, and this lot wasn't original enough that we're dealing with anything new."

The Ranger was quick to scan the man's face with a League-issued PokéNav, which soon pulled up a long file.

Rocco whistled. "Marlin Green, Top 128 in the 996 Silver Conference. Big name to be in handcuffs. Who would've thunk a Conference challenger would throw in with a bunch of poachers?"

The mud-drenched man grit his teeth. "It pays better."

"Not anymore," Ash said grimly. "I doubt that money will go far in prison."

The man glared furiously at him, but Ash's stare didn't waver. On the surface he was a normal man in his early twenties; many of his features were buried beneath the mud Lairon had stamped him into.

Then Ash thought of what would rip his own heart out.

He knelt to be on Marlin's level. The man didn't dare try and lash out with Nidoking so close, well-aware of the species' temper. All he could do was sulk.

"Enjoy your time away," Ash said softly, close enough to see the beads of water dripping down the man's face to carve away the mud. "You'll never see your team again."

Marlin's eyes widened and his mask cracked as the first true emotions flickered across his face.

Alarm. Fear. Guilt. Grief.

It was enough for Ash. He rose, turned his back to the poacher, and looked to Rocco. "We need to go, but let us know if you ever need help again. We'll be roaming."

"Gotcha," Rocco saluted. "Good luck out there. We'll keep doing our end. If that little punk pops up, you'll be the first we call." He sighed. "Maybe we'll get something useful out of this lot. I doubt these idiots know anything important, but if we can collect enough pieces of the puzzle…"

Ash nodded back, stepped away, and turned to his team.

This wasn't the only Ranger outpost they planned to visit today.

But then he froze as an idea sprang to mind.

"He's not going to need his Pokéballs anymore after they're deactivated, right?"

"That's right," Rocco said cautiously. "We'll keep them in more secure stasis containers while they're processed."

Ash smirked.

"Send me his belt."


"I'm sorry, son," Mr. Stone said softly as he passed Ash a simple oak box. The businessman's hands shook. "I truly am."

It had all the hallmarks of the Stone family: slim, elegant, and professional by any measure. And so much heavier than its small size would suggest.

Nidoking leaned his head over Ash's shoulder and studied the polished wood with a grave expression that matched the lump in Ash's throat. His great claws curled tightly and scraped furiously against each other.

They had never truly lost a teammate before, even if they'd never had the chance to truly know Anorith. Ash's fingers squeezed the edges until they went pale. His grip had never been tighter.


"All there," Mr. Stone whispered.

He still bore wounds from the attack: broad, bandaged burns that crawled out from beneath his cuffed sleeves, a laceration below his eye that was only an inch from blinding him, and several bandages across his neck.

A man with Mr. Stone's resources no doubt had the best possible medical resources available—and had readily opened them to other survivors of the attack, from what Steven had told Ash—but any Distortion exposure tended to slow healing.

"She's intact," he continued, bowing his head. "I know Kanto's traditions, but I didn't know yours."

Ash clutched Anorith's box ever tighter. It was so small, he thought, even smaller than he'd expected. He'd known she hadn't been fully developed yet, albeit quite close, but the injustice of the situation burned ever brighter within him.

"We'll put her to rest," Ash said with a ragged edge to his words.

Nidoking growled his agreement at his side, though he looked as if he were ready to tear those who'd committed this foul act to shreds. Ash would've let him, but it sounded like Metagross had beaten them to the punch.

Sunlight spilled through the windows of Devon, highlighting all the repair work already done. Small signs of battle still scarred Mr. Stone's office, but the worst of it had been restored. Cracks marred the walls, certain sections were bare of valuable trophies or precious stones, and there was no sign of that peculiar keystone that had left Ash with the most peculiar (and familiar) feeling of being watched.

It didn't seem the right time to hassle Mr. Stone about it right now, what with him looking to be three nights without sleep, but Ash resolved to check in with Steven about it sometime soon.

After all, how on earth could Mr. Stone have had a Spiritomb in his office?

Was it a trophy? A curiosity or relic brought in by some spelunking expedition in Sinnoh's labyrinthine Underground? Or had the same forces that had imprisoned Regirock and Spiritomb in the Piede Desert decided to toss weapons of mass destruction all around Hoenn for shits and giggles?

Perhaps Steven could offer him some answers.

"Where will you take her?" Mr. Stone collapsed into the plush chair behind his massive mahogany desk, though he did his best to make the motion seem painless.

He failed utterly. Ash felt a stab of sympathy for the man, but all he could think of was the maelstrom within.

It wasn't the same as what he'd felt when Moltres struck down Infernus. Not even close. Infernus was his brother by battle. Anorith was a stranger, for all that he'd dreamed about what she might have become to him.

But it hurt nonetheless.

"I—" Ash hesitated, thinking of everywhere he might have taken her. He didn't want to cremate her, though that was fairly common practice in Kanto. Between Ecruteak and Lavender, that practice came from both ends of Indigo.

Anorith had been born of stone, and it seemed fitting that she should be returned to it.

Part of Ash thought to return to Forina and set Anorith by Jirachi's purple chrysalis, dreaming of star-shaped Desire's power to bring the poor thing back to life. Part thought to carry Anorith to some distant isle and set her on a cliff to watch over the seas that she might have returned to.

"Can I bury her at the colony?" Ash asked Mr. Stone and the hulking Metagross behind him. "I would have liked to take her there to train if things had been different, and I'd like for Steven and Armaldo to be able to visit, if they'd like."

Ancient's red-black eyes widened almost imperceptibly. It betrayed so much more emotion than Steven's with that one gesture.

Mr. Stone nodded soon after sharing a glance with Metagross.

It would be our honor. You have done our kind great service, Storm-Tamer. Bury her with our blessing. Her slumber will never be disturbed so long as the colony stands.

"Thank you." Ash's voice cracked. "I—I'd best be going now."

"Wait," Mr. Stone said as Ash turned. He glanced behind him only to see Mr. Stone hurriedly pulling a neatly folded envelope from one of the countless drawers of his desk. "For you, Mr. Ketchum."

Ash's hands were full, so Nidoking took it and tore the envelope apart and used his psychic abilities to levitate it in front of Ash.

Mr. Stone winced, but Ash couldn't care less as he skimmed the note.

His brow creased. "An invitation?"

"A gala on behalf of the League and the Stone family," Mr. Stone explained. "Steven and I talked it over. We'd be honored if you would attend. It's a fundraising effort in order to galvanize action and raise relief money for people affected by the recent—"

"I'm in," Ash interrupted. "So it's next week?"

Mr. Stone's large mustache twitched with relief. He half-expected an audible sigh to slip out of the man. His fame annoyed him at times, but Ash was happy to put it to good use.

"That Saturday," Mr. Stone confirmed. "These events take time to put together, but Ancient here has been most efficient in handling the arrangements. But it will take time to allocate the funds to their proper place as well. But with figures such as Elite Four Glacia, yourself, and a few other movers and shakers present, I have no doubt it will be quite the well-funded endeavor. Tickets are already quite the commodity."

"What will I need to do?"

"Just attend and be yourself," Mr. Stone chuckled. "Perhaps have a few training tips ready. I have no doubt every young trainer will flock to you the moment you step in the room."

Ash cracked a wan smile, though it didn't last for long given the mood. Maybe one of them would be up for a battle or two. "I think I can manage that," he said. "You can count on me."

"Steven assured me that I could," Mr. Stone said. "Instructions on attire, address, and time can be found on the invitation, but feel free to contact my secretary should you have any questions. Ms. Carla will be happy to assist you."

He dipped his head to the executive, then turned. Ash paused to let Nidoking know that he was recalling him before the poison-type vanished in a flash of light only to be replaced by Dazed. She eyed the box with the same solemnity as Ash felt, sagging for a moment beneath the weight.

"I'm glad you're well, Mr. Stone. Dazed, can you take us to Steven's apartment?"

Mr. Stone said his own farewells just as Dazed and Ash vanished in the blink of an eye.


The Stone colony stood only a short distance from Rustboro, close enough to be easily accessible by the Stones, who had built their family compounds practically on top of the Beldum colony, but distant enough that residents wouldn't just stumble upon it.

That was as much for their safety as the Beldum's. A steely-eyed Metagross that Ash knew to be Eyes welcomed him stiffly with a retinue of Metang and Beldum swarming behind it; they swiftly drifted back to work once the pleasantries were dispensed. The colony had better uses for their time than to stand around entertaining pleasantries.

Ash could always appreciate that pragmatic edge to the Metagross.

A brief mental link between himself, Dazed, and Eyes pointed him to an appropriate spot to bury Anorith. While Ash would have preferred to hunt down a resting place on his own, he had to admit that they'd chosen a perfect place: a distant green hill only a short distance from one of the Stone family homes, carpeted by wildflowers blooming in a dizzying array of color.

He doubted any Metagross had an eye for such a thing as personal preferences—they didn't dispose of their dead like most would—but perhaps they'd buried enough Stone family members here to know what humans preferred.

It would be peaceful. Untouched. Distant from any who would disturb it or from the mining efforts of the colony.


So Ash drifted there, guided by the intuition shared by the colony, but incapable of making haste. The box was heavy in his hands, a weight he'd never expected to carry outside of a Pokéball.

Dazed shuffled along by his side, ever vigilant after their last experience here, and both took in the scars rent into the earth, still unmended, by Hunter J and her teams.

Ash took pleasure in the thought that they'd met their end. They would never harm anyone again. They would never be the rock tossed into the tranquil pond to send ripples cascading throughout the still surface.

Some deserve the end. Some are taken unjustly.

"Yes," Ash whispered, and the box felt as though it were filled with lead. He released the rest of the time. Nidoking first, then Plume, then Torrent and Seeker and Infernus and Bruiser and Tangrowth and Oz and Lairon until his entire family circled around. "It's time. Walk with me?"

Each paused to consider the tiny container in Ash's hands, unable or unwilling to ever ignore the pleading that had colored his words. All knew what it meant, even Tangrowth.

Ash only began to explain the situation to the grass-type when it first happened, but Tangrowth had come to understand far too quickly for Ash's liking.

He had lost that innocence long ago. If only Ash could help him reclaim it.

Infernus snorted a puff of flame as his scorching heat set the grass beneath his feet ablaze, but Torrent effortlessly extinguished it. Ash doubted Infernus felt true sorrow, but there was something in his gaze. A weight and depth rarely seen beneath the battle lust.

They followed Ash as he made his way to the hill. They climbed it with him. Stood astride while Plume circled above.

Ash examined the hill closely and calculated the best spots. He determined where the sun would strike and where the rain would wash away. When he found the proper place, he knelt to dig the hole.

Yet just as he dug into the hard-packed soil with his frail human fingers, it came undone just before him at Nidoking's command.

"I should do this," Ash said with steely determination. His shoulders felt so tight, his hands didn't want to unclench. He wondered if he could.

He heard a grunt, and cast a look behind him. Saw the grim faces of his team.

They had lost a teammate as well.

Ash acquiesced and rose. He'd done his part.

Nidoking tore open a small slot in the soil with his earth manipulation. Tangrowth polished its edges and snapped off several curling vines to join Anorith as her companions.

Plume sang a dirge for Anorith, pouring her grief for the loss of another baby to cherish into the world.

The world listened. The winds howled with her. The leaves rustled and fell from their stalks. Flowers shuddered.

Bruiser and Seeker watched silently, eyes glazed over, their minds cast adrift. Infernus joined them, dreaming of lost battles, the loss of a potential rival that would never have the chance to taste his flames.

Torrent remained as regal and stoic as ever, but rumbled softly. Raindrops came crashing down as his own emotion touched the world. Sneasel clung to one of Tangrowth's vines, watching with just a tinge of confusion as Tangrowth quivered.

Dazed lifted Anorith in her box reverently from Ash's grip with her psychic powers, taking care that it didn't so much as twitch. They all watched as it drifted smoothly downwards, lowering itself seamlessly into the deep slot in the earth, which Tangrowth gently filled in with sweeps of his vines.

Ash's heart panged as a sense of finality and closure swept over him. With every grain of dirt swept into the grave, it became more real.

This was it.

Lairon, always eager to be helpful, tore a heavy stone from the nearby earth with Rock Tomb and manipulated it to sit atop the pile of disturbed soil with uncharacteristic delicacy. He plopped on his haunches near Ash's foot and nuzzled Ash's shin hard enough to leave a faint bruise the next day.

And at last Ash released Lotus.

Oblivion suffocated their thoughts, but they'd all grown accustomed to it by now. Ash, Infernus, Bruiser, and Plume rose from the muck the fastest, but it wasn't long before the rest followed. It had become discomfort, not agony.

Lavender fog froze in their trickles, rising from the keystone. A few dancing green flames flickered within the haze, stirring to life as Lotus sensed its new surroundings, but they stilled too, almost as if by reflex, as though Lotus knew that was what it was supposed to do.

Ash wasn't certain if this was a good idea.

Lotus had been born of apathy and despair, and he suspected that there was danger in exposing it to anything that would threaten the slight measure of security it had gained these past few weeks since the new year.

Lotus still refused to communicate beyond the occasional wisps of insight, the outpourings of memory-emotion, or the relapses into the depths of its darkness, but it had grown content enough to simply sit within their camp while the rest of the team went about their business.

None except Ash really tried to interact with Lotus, not yet. They were still frightened of it.

Seeker would perch nearby and chatter to Bruiser while he meditated alongside Ash in Lotus' vicinity, but Nidoking only approached to act as Ash's shield in the event of an attack.

But this half-neutrality suited Ash. He didn't expect an overnight change. He'd seen those little glimpses from Lotus, the windows into the closed house of the soul that revealed its desire to be more than a monument to misery and dark days.

That was enough for him.

Lotus had existed—suffered—in its current state for centuries at the bare minimum. For it to sit still as a statue in their midst rather than attempting to drown them all in the stifling darkness it was born in was a miracle. He would allow Lotus to take its time to join them.

But, while Ash might fear the consequences, it would be unjust to leave Lotus in the dark.

The Spiritomb had expressed a willingness, however faint, and hesitant, and frightened, to become a part of their team. That meant it was welcomed to join in their glories and their bitterest losses.

Life wasn't just sunshine and rainbows. He wouldn't patronize Lotus by pretending otherwise.

Despite its silence, Ash sensed the dullest crack of curiosity in its armor of apathy. The swaying grass all around Lotus froze. The raindrops hung suspended as they bent to its pressure.

It listened. It waited. It watched.

It was enough.

He turned to regard the spot.

"I had so many hopes for you," Ash murmured to Anorith where she rested beneath the stone. "We all did. I hope you find peace upon this hillside. We'll all join you in the night one day."

Torrent spewed a fierce jet of water in precise patterns as Dazed fed an epitaph into his thoughts. The high-pressure shot easily ate into the gravestone.

Torrent stilled with concentration as he carved Dazed's words into the stone, but didn't relent. Ash recalled Chinatsu's story of grief, when they first met.

'He carved those words with his own hands. They were bloody with the heat of battle, still stained with the essence of Shinobu's life. His mind was vacant with grief.'

Was he a lesser man than Taimu, that his hands did not shake? That he had a mind to think? No tears to shed?

But he never knew this soul, not really.

Honored Friend

We Never Knew You

But We Shall Never Forget You

Be at Peace

Ash lowered his gaze and closed his eyes. 'Wherever you are now.'

Lotus shuddered, its bleak aura swathing them in a choking grip. Cracks. The lavender gas swirled, roiling as if stirred by a great heat. But its power did not rise uncontested. It reached out to him, seeking…something. Reprieve, perhaps. Comprehension. Guidance.

Ash didn't move, but instead focused on the loss, the emotion, the feeling; everything that the Spiritomb could not stand, but that it was made to feel.

He poured images of late nights poring over potential strategies with Nidoking and Lairon, the long talks with Steven atop one of Forina's natural pillars regarding Armaldo's own development, and all the dreams of a new friend to share their fire.

Phantom grief. A ball of yarn undone by one tug.

Spiritomb shared memory upon memory with them all: fingers intertwined, then yanked apart. Voices in separate tombs that went silent as they welcomed darkness. Loving farewells. Cruel jabs. Forlorn words. All came rushing in like a great current. Loss experienced by one hundred and eight lives.

And now the loss suffered by the one they had become, in its eyes so much less than the sum of its parts.

They mourned together.

"Rest easy," Ash whispered, kneeling before the grave. "We live for you. We go on. Even if we never met, you'll always be part of the team. Win or lose, fight or flee, live or die…You'll be with us all the way."

Much of his team matched him, though Infernus stayed standing. Even the mighty Magmortar's head dipped for a moment, though.

Lotus' pressure faded then, wrapping itself in layers upon layers of insulation as the rest of the team paid their respects. That went on for a long, long time.

His hand brushed past the Pokéballs on his belt to lightly touch the pouch next to them. It weighed heavier than ever, as did the Unown tablet around his neck. Some part of Ash knew what the gift was capable of. What it was meant to do. The Concept buried within the still ashes sprinkled within.

The ashes were meant to renew.

Part of Ash longed to tear the headstone away, dig through the newly filled grave, and pluck Anorith from her box. He could sprinkle the ashes upon her, watch the rainbow flames kindle…

And then what?

He never felt so guilty as when logic reared its head.

Would Anorith even be able to survive outside of her artificial womb? Would her mind be ruined by the trauma of her own death? And—the self-rebuke flagellated his thoughts—what if another of his team, one that he'd shared blood and sweat and time with, fell?

Terrible battles lay ahead. Earth turned beneath his feet. The Sea's Roar grew ever louder in his ears. And when they rose, danger rose with them.

Indecision warred within him.

He tugged open the little pouch's drawstrings and stared into it as the rest of the team mourned. Only Nidoking and Infernus watched him silently, each waiting.

The pouch's contents were just as they had been when Wes' shade first offered it to him in the highest reaches of the Tin Tower: bone-white ashes glimmering with the faintest hint of lustrous gold.

The pale powder was gritty with the remnants of what had been, the contents a lingering reminder of its previous form. Ash had only just begun to open his eyes to the mysteries of the world when he'd last dared to peer into the ashes during Johto's frigid summer. He'd caught a fleeting glimpse of the dead embers waiting to reawaken into a raging rainbow flame before his mind had been overwhelmed.


His breath was the North Wind. His heart beat Fire through his breast. His nerves conducted Lightning. He tempered his thoughts with ruthlessly pragmatic Ice when the time called for it. The Song echoed in his ears, as did the howls of the Beasts.

Ash was more than what he had been atop the Tin Tower.

Truly, Ash was more.

Johto had seen him restored to a shadow of his former self, but Hoenn had been good for him. Ash never understood how badly he needed to explore a new land, to face new challenges, to escape the shadow of Kanto and its Legends, until he'd done it.

He hesitated to think of the wounded thing he'd been in those days, mind half-flayed by the Concepts he only just understood and spirit worn raw and hard by horrors he never should have seen.

So afraid.

Agatha's hiss filled his thoughts. 'My ghost howls for the spirit of a little boy ruled by his fear!'

She'd known him better than he'd known himself when she said that. Ash had fought the comment off with brazen courage and dismissed it because he couldn't bear to accept the truth, but she'd been so terribly correct.

Nidoking took his hand in his clawed grip, careful to avoid causing Ash pain. He smiled and squeezed Nidoking's heavy hand in his own.

With his team—with Steven, and Lance, and his friends—he had healed. Found his foundation that he would never waver from. Found his mortal anchors who would never see him lost. And with peace in his heart and soul, Ash was stronger than ever.

He became more human, more Legend, more Ash.

More me.

Ash pointedly ignored that remark, and now he looked into the Sacred Ash of Ho-Oh. He didn't dive past its physical incarnation. No, just looked upon the bone and dust which glimmered with a tint of gold and the barest promise of a rainbow beneath.

No life emerged from a vacuum. It was built upon the bones of what came before, the dust that they all became in death. But from that rot and decay sprang something new and vibrant and alive, and Ash prayed that Anorith's nascent spirit continued on in the soil, the grass, and all that grew here.

Let her memory be carried in the world beyond just as it was carried in the hearts of Ash and his team.

The cold flame in his thoughts grew just as pensive as Ash and his team were. Dazed stood ramrod straight as she felt the surge crawl through them all.

I saw the end through your eyes. I felt the lance through your heart. And I saw only oblivion.

Bitterness filled Ash's thoughts and fury filled the rest of the team as they were privy, for one of the first times, to Mewtwo's words. "You can't leave us to grieve in—"

I hope there is more. I dream that there is more.

Nostalgia, longing, grief, and half-faded memories of a smiling blue-haired girl and her three—four—dreaming companions flickered through their minds like a raging current unleashed from a tight dam.

Ash gasped, focused upon the grave, and grit his teeth as a terrible grief consumed him like the rising tide.

A whisper a foreign lifetime away passed through Ash's mind like the faintest gust of wind.

"Thank you for your tears. Live, okay? Living will be fun."

The cold flame vanished in an instant, tearing away like a hand that had just touched a hot plate, and Ash was alone with his team again…and yet, not alone at all.

"Let's stay here a little while longer, okay?" Ash whispered to his team as he knelt before Anorith's grave. "I—I'm not ready to leave yet."

His team crowded around him, pressing close as the sun shone warmly down upon them. He drew the drawstrings of the Sacred Ash's pouch tight and secured it on his waist, refusing to think of it any longer.

Goodbye, Anorith.


They spent their spare days and nights training in the wild places of Hoenn.

Ash had his goals, but nothing relaxed him like guiding his team through their exercises. While they spent ample time hunting and helping whoever they could, they would also never stop pursuing their endless quest for self-improvement.

Every day was yet another chance to hone their edge.

Ash folded his arms as he leaned back against a tree and watched the grove die.

Well, that was probably dramatic. Larger plants, and the great trees rising up around him would be just fine, though it would be a bit of a shock to their system.

But the tall stalks of grass, shrubbery, and creeping vines withered to dust before him. Lush green dulled, wilted, and crumpled to wisps of its former glory. Leaves shriveled and fell from their stalks in a rain of crackling brown. Even the earth itself heaved, cracking as the moisture and nutrients drained from it.

Nothing would grow here for some time. It would take months for the soil to replenish itself, perhaps even years. Ash would have to put some effort into kick starting those efforts. Some specialist grass or ground-types could rejuvenate this land with a single technique, but Ash's team lacked such abilities for now.

Despite the devastation, Ash couldn't help but smile as he watched Tangrowth sprout back from nothingness. Sneasel, Torrent, and Dazed had worked in tandem to delicately shear his countless vines away to nubs with razor claws, blades of water, and psychic shears, leaving Tangrowth with only just enough cover for his spongy body for the most vital details remain largely hidden.

He'd looked wrong with his protective cover cut away, almost naked, and Ash was both fascinated and filled with relief for his friend as Perfect Regeneration worked its magic.

Such a technique was mentally demanding and bore a tremendous cost—particularly in Tangrowth's eyes, who deplored the price Perfect Regeneration demanded of the vegetation and soil around him—but the benefits in battle were well-worth it in Ash's view.

His heart did ache to see Tangrowth's helpless gurgles at the sight of the ravaged environment, but Ash had already promised Tangrowth that they'd spend plenty of time learning how to repay the land for what they'd taken from it.

But from that death came life. Tangrowth's life. Vines sprouted at incredible seeds as he supplied them with minerals from the soil, vast quantities of water sucked up by a few of his seeking vines, and the bright sunlight beckoned forth by Infernus.

It wasn't as fast as Cradily's variant of the technique, but the fossil only had to regenerate small portions at a time. Singular vines that it used as appendages, or to repair damage to its body. Tangrowth's version was a bit more ambitious. Far more demanding, but with far greater payoff.

Tangrowth's battles hinged on his vines. They were his senses, his limbs, and his primary method of interacting with the world. Without them he was nearly blind, and more than half-helpless.

So many battles had been sealed by the enemy recognizing this weakness and cutting off those vital appendages one by one.

No more.

With this, Tangrowth's greatest weakness was negated. He'd always been a powerhouse, but this gave him lasting power that would keep him going until he was too fatigued to muster the focus for Perfect Regeneration, or until he had sucked the area dry.

Or unless something could outrace the rate of regrowth; Ash wasn't blind to the similarities between this technique and the likes of what he'd experienced at the hands of George Grey's Jellicent. Thankfully, Tangrowth was far less passive by nature than that particular opponent.

That was all if he would pay the cost, though. Ash had already brainstormed a few ideas to account for that. He wouldn't ask Tangrowth to trade his moral center and emotional wellbeing for power.

While it was a bit of a necessity in these early days as they worked to establish the baseline of technique, Ash hoped it wouldn't demand such costs for long.

Perfect Regeneration was, for now, imperfect, just like the rest of his team's specialized techniques, but this was a version that could be used in battle. It was slow and could be interrupted by an enemy—and was relatively inefficient compared to Cradily's version, likely to be better used in short bursts rather than a sustained, prolonged rejuvenation—but it was still everything Ash could have hoped for.

But while that hunger rose up in Ash like a yawning void, it sealed shut the moment he saw Tangrowth's vines quiver and his saucer-like eyes turn downcast as he fully recovered and turned his helpless gaze upon the devastation he'd wrought.

A low, keening whine uttered forth from the shell of vines. Ash was beside him in an instant.

For once, it was Ash who hugged first. Tangrowth was always so free with his love and comfort, and Ash desperately wanted to return that love.

"Shh, it's okay," Ash whispered, burying his head in Tangrowth's wriggling shell of vines. They embraced him desperately, pulling the boy deeper. "You can stop now. It's done. See?"

Tangrowth gurgled at that, squeezed Ash tighter than ever, and they hung together for a time. Ash was lost in the darkness of the squirming shell, but he'd never felt more free.

"This is your technique," Ash said. "It will be your choice to use it or not. But I'm going to do everything in my power to ensure that we learn to give more than we take, okay?"

The hug grew even warmer until at least Tangrowth released Ash. One vine remained, loosely coiled around his forearm. Ash smiled and patted it fondly as he turned to Nidoking, who looked on with a rare warmth to his gaze.

"How's the training going?"

Nidoking raised a claw in his own version of a thumbs-up, then swept his tail to point it at the raging thunderclaps in the distance. Or their source, rather.

Oz, Dazed, and Infernus had each taken part in a brutal, three-way brawl. While the pressure was ostensibly on Dazed, the other two elemental powerhouses held enough distaste for one another that they still, somehow managed to angle crackling bolts of lightning and billowing streams of roaring flame at each other.

Dazed could have easily teleported away, but instead she stood her ground. While she wasn't allowed to fight back directly by the rules of their little game—and braggings rights for winning, as well as the promised privilege of taking charge of the other two's training for the day, made for quite the high stakes—Dazed was allowed to Remote Teleport the attacks from her foes in order to twist them towards her own ends.

So Infernus frequently received a Thunderbolt right in the cannon as he prepared to unleash a Fire Blast, and Oz often roared in fury as Flamethrowers struck her back and shattered her concentration.

To say that she derived a great deal of joy from fueling the internal divisions of their partnership would be an understatement.

That wasn't to say that Dazed escaped their attentions unscathed. She was scorched and exhausted as a result of the sheer intellectual rigor of Remote Teleportation, which added several additional factors to the already complicated act of tearing a stable hole in spacetime, in addition to the difficulty of simply teleporting an entire column of fire or lightning in the first place, put an immense strain on her.

Naturally, Infernus and Oz were happy to capitalize on that.

She wouldn't last much longer, for all that Dazed bought precious seconds by mentally prodding the elemental warriors with her psychic abilities. Little flashes of her pendulum warped their perception, twisted their senses, and urged them to cast their aim to the side to send their violent attacks scattering inches away.

It was actually quite fun to watch, especially when Plume or Sneasel decided it would be a good time to leap in and harass the three.

Sneasel, against expectation, was often too busy attempting to master Dispel to bother, but it provided an excellent respite for him when his frustration peaked. So far he'd only managed to stir the power in the Dusk Stone, although his sensory abilities had already evolved by leaps and bounds in the last few weeks.

But as Dazed flagged, her eyes flashed. Infernus' psychically guided flames, which had twisted toward her with incredible intent, cracked and become a shapeless conflagration that went wide.

She stole a glance at Oz, and the two nodded.

Infernus snarled as Oz roared and fired a Lightning Bolt that outshone the sun at Dazed, which then immediately twisted to seek Infernus. Air Lens bore it well, leaving the attack barely resembling a shower of sparks, but Torrent helpfully spat a Rain Dance into the air to disrupt the fine heat control that allowed for the protective thermal shield.

The Magmortar shot Torrent a death glare, but the Kingdra had already returned to his own training: freezing a thin pane of water into shining ice. It was coming along well enough; the edges were stable at least, until Infernus spat a fireball into the watery screen as a bit of payback.

Taillow and Beautifly fled the moment they heard the resulting explosion of steam.

Infernus refused to shift from his position, but raised up hissing geysers of lava from the earth to intercept whatever attacks Oz hurled at him. The competition was already void thanks to Torrent's interference, but Infernus' pride demanded he fight to the end.

Of course, he just grew even more furious when Tangrowth cheerfully threw a house-sized chunk of loosely clumped earth at him with Ancient Power.

Infernus snarled, raised one of his cannons high, and Ash grinned as an intense, blue-tinged blade of flame came rushing out, contained and circulated in a wavering psychic shell that strained beneath the heat.

But it was stable enough to sear right through the chunk of earth. The Plasma Blade briefly extended from Infernus' cannon to a length of five feet from its normal two (although such an action horribly destabilized the fragile technique) and cut the massive chunk in twain before it could crush Infernus into the ground.

The Magmortar's eyes glimmered with fury as the rest of the team piled on to join the fun, and he dodged, redirected, or simply took attack after attack.

He never wavered as Plume came sweeping by to blast a gust of wind his way, or when Torrent threw a great wave at him, or even when Lairon warbled out a war cry and skated forward with his magnetism to tackle the blazing Magmortar.

Not the best tactical decision, but Ash was glad that Lairon was having a good time.

Only Nidoking remained apart. Bruiser didn't involve himself directly, but his honor compelled him to helpfully throw a few boulders between Infernus and Oz to even the odds. Seeker was more than happy to blast Infernus with the kind of painfully high-frequency sounds that left Ash's ears ringing even from this distance.

"You don't want to go in and even the odds?" Ash elbowed Nidoking, who snorted and shook his head. The earth trembled with his every motion, a sign of his growing control over the element. He'd come a long way. "You're still mad about him throwing that inter-team battle on the way to Fortree, aren't you?"

Nidoking bared his fangs in a dangerous smile in return.

Ash laughed.

"How do you feel?" he questioned his friend, who cocked his great purple head at Ash quizzically. "About your training, I mean. You've developed a stronger foundation than anyone else, but I know it's slow work."

The poison-type shrugged. While his work with toxins, earth manipulation, and other aspects of his kit from the Indigo Conference had advanced in leaps and bounds, Nidoking hadn't begun work on a force magnifier like the rest of the team.

No, Ash had developed him for simple, understated competence. Nidoking wasn't the flashiest, but he had a response for everything. He was reliable no matter the situation. They'd taken a ton of time to hone his psychic talents, strengthen his existing skills, and branch out into new talents which would serve him well in the future.

It was hard to imagine a world where Distortion-sensing wouldn't prove invaluable against the myriad Ghost and Dark Masters who plagued the highest tiers of training, for example.

But that was only the beginning.

"It's going to take time," Ash confessed. "But I think we're ready to move into the next phase of your training."

Nidoking visibly perked up at that. Toxins leaked from his deadly horn and the bulky spines upon his back as adrenaline coursed through his system.

This had been a long time coming.

"It begins with Dispel," Ash continued. "We need more weapons against ghosts, and it'll serve as a further foundation for evolving those techniques into new pieces of our arsenal. Plus, I think you and Sneasel could stand to spend more quality time together."

His friend rolled his eyes, and even flicked Ash with a blunt claw. Ash snickered. "No, but we have your psychic abilities down. You might not be able to match Dazed, but you have the power and control. We can start to work on guiding your attacks like Infernus, maybe even work our way up to minor instances of Remote Teleportation."

Nidoking hummed, considering, interest dancing bright in his black eyes.

"And just imagine!" Ash rambled, excitement pounding in his heart. "Capitalizing on the set-up for Storm Surge by calling down lightning! Channeling Bruiser's strength with Superpower to complement your own strengths. You're the heart of the team, Nidoking, and you'll be greater than the sum of our parts."

It wasn't all that Ash had planned for Nidoking—far from it—but it was the next step. Nidoking was uniquely versatile, possessing variants of the talents most of the team commanded already, and with the synergistic tactics that Ash had begun to lean further into after the battle with Durand, it only made sense to ensure he could take advantage of conditions set up by the rest.

Nidoking was the ultimate team player. Between his varied abilities, his own specialties in his toxins and powerful earth manipulation, and the various counterplays that Ash was attempting to incorporate into Nidoking's tactics, he was going to be the lynchpin that gave the team the flexibility they needed to adapt to any threat.

And once he'd built that foundation, well, who knew? Ash had plenty of ideas, but Nidoking had almost endless options.

Ash nearly salivated at the thought, and his friend, seeming to read his mind without effort, chuffed again and looked at Ash with amused eyes.

"I—" Ash began, only to blink as his PokéNav buzzed in his pocket. Nidoking waved Ash off, turning to toss a noxious Sludge Bomb at Infernus for good measure, and trudged off to join the battle with grim delight. "See you! Have fun."

Who could it be? His messages were still full of Gary-inspired spam, but he hadn't expected to hear from any friends so soon. Ash blinked as he checked the screen and saw a name he hadn't heard from in quite a while: Neesha.

He felt a brief stab of guilt. While Ash and Neesha had shared a few messages since the Indigo Conference (usually something less than one per month, though sometimes the silence stretched longer) he struggled with communication at the best of times. It was hard enough to keep up with his friends and mentors, let alone someone who was still a relative stranger with a bucket of bad experiences attached.

They were bound together by the events of New Island, but other than that, there was little to glue them together.

Part of it was that she was just so worried about him. Her concern felt dangerously close to pity, and that was something that left Ash more than a little uncomfortable.

He tapped the message open.

Hey Ash,

Long time no see! I've been adventuring near Snowpoint for a while, so I just got to see a recording. They've been playing it constantly in the Pokémon Centers. You should hear the chatter about you, though I have no doubt you get more than enough of that down in Hoenn.

Good work. I can't say I know what it's like to humble a Master, but I bet it's pretty nice.

I'm just reaching out to check in on you. When I was leaving the icelands, a thought struck me: we're coming up on the anniversary of you-know-what.

Isn't it crazy that it's been almost a year since that awful day? I still remember it sometimes. I wake up in a cold sweat. I remember that horrible voice and those horrible eyes and those horrible words. I remember our pokémon fighting for all of our lives and the monster crashing down with Mew.

I feel insane sometimes. Did that really happen? But I remember you, and Corey, and Fergus, and I know that it was more than a nightmare.

You're a busy guy, Ash Ketchum. I get that. None of us would have expected you to hit these heights! We always thought you were talented, but you've outdone us all. Congratulations. You deserve it after all you've been through.

Corey's doing better. He's still…off. I think it scared him more than anything. He's off in Alola, I think, taking a well-deserved vacation. I hope it helps his nerves. Fergus told me that he's actually headed off to Orre. Michael sent all the Top 16 invitations to help him in his crazy quest, but I didn't know anyone would take him up on it! I think Fergus just wants to make a difference.

I wonder if that awful George Grey got an invitation? Orre seems like the perfect spot for him. Michael seemed about ready to strangle him though, so maybe not. He'd probably fit in too well..

Anyways…Happy New Year, Ash. I hope you've found some peace.

Best wishes,


Ash read the letter again and again and again, a maelstrom of thought tearing its way through the vague sense of numbness permeating him. There was a storm on the other side of his connection with Mewtwo, a rising tide that would blot out the sun, but it didn't spill over much into his own thoughts.

A whole year, huh? Time really did fly.

How far they'd come in that time. How much they'd grown. Ash watched his team with a faint smile, prouder than ever as their friendly brawled intensified into a devastating battle that most would've thought to be one of life-and-death.

Ash typed out a quick reply, assuring Neesha that he was doing well. He asked about the progress she'd made in her team's training, her adventures in Sinnoh, the events of the last few months…Anything that would ease her own mind.

It really was too bad that George Grey hadn't taken Michael up on his offer. Ash would love to not have to think about that guy right now.

His lips quirked as he recalled the two talking during the Closing Ceremony. If he'd received one at all, that was.

He was fairly certain that Michael hated Grey, and rightly so. Perhaps Grey reminded Michael too much of the thugs and criminals he sought to purge from Orre. No doubt the Unovan would fit in just right down in the sun-bathed sands.

Those thoughts came to a close as yet another marketing request for X Combat Enhancements came through, this one mentioning that his 'agent' (who Ash suspected to be named Gary Oak) had been quite enthusiastic about their last offer and had ensured the X team that Ash was incredibly excited to make a deal with them.

His teeth ground together. Didn't Gary have anything better to do?! Shouldn't he be preparing for the upcoming Silver Conference or something instead of pestering Ash?


What to do, what to do…Justice had never sounded sweeter.

Ash's lips twisted into a cruel smile as inspiration struck him.

Yes. Yes! That just might do the trick.

Poor, poor Gary Oak.

Payback was a bitch. It was also just about the only force strong enough to convince Ash to go into an interview of his own volition.


They pored over report after report. Incident after incident. Eyewitness after eyewitness.

And not a damn thing that was usable!

Ash flipped his PokéNav shut with a snarl and shoved it into his pocket. He glowered down at the countless sheets of paper he'd printed out at one of the Ranger outposts he'd helped in the last few days. All he'd done was go in and talk to an angry Slaking in the Petalburg Forest, but the Rangers had practically thrown a party afterwards.

Trying to calm down a furious, hormonal, newly evolved Slaking wasn't their idea of a good time. Ash had gotten a kick out of it, though; the Slaking had risen up to its full height of ten feet (it was still a bit runty due to its youth) when he first approached with Nidoking at his side, but the sight of Bruiser was what calmed it.

Well, the sight and then experience of Bruiser catching its meaty fist effortlessly in one of his own, twisting, and tossing the testosterone-filled Slaking onto its side with a fairly gentle, economic motion. It might not have been the smartest creature, but the young Slaking knew a losing fight when it saw one.

Too bad. Infernus would've adored seeing it quail before his fires.

But it eased the Rangers' minds. Petalburg Forest was fairly secure due to its position in Norman's territory, but it was still a vast land. Every altercation with a wild pokémon was one less set of eyes watching for the poachers seeking to swoop in, and one more strain on their relationship with the locals.

Ash had helped nearly thirty Ranger bases with their assignments at this point, but he became more and more aware that he was just tossing a bucket of water onto a raging inferno. While Hoenn had stabilized somewhat, hostile forces continued to antagonize and divert and prod wherever they could.

His calls with Steven were regular, but almost all of them were interrupted by a sudden mission in the archipelago or even by Metagross, demanding that Steven go rest. The former Champion was worn down to a nub. While he might be powerful enough to secure almost any mission with ease, each was still an expenditure of time and energy.

It didn't help that wild pokémon near Sootopolis had begun to grow more and more antsy in recent days. The change was slow and gradual, but even trained pokémon reported feelings of anxiety. Such news unsettled Ash, but he, Nidoking, Torrent, and Dazed had spent so much time poring over League reports recently that the happenings would be impossible to miss.

Things were dreadfully slow now, but Ash suspected it was only the beginning. It wouldn't be long before pokémon around Mt. Chimney would begin to report the same if Ash's suspicions were correct.

At this rate, months would go by before anything significant happened, but Ash would be on his guard regardless.

"We're getting nowhere," Ash sighed, turning his thoughts away from such matters. He gratefully sank into a cushion of Tangrowth's vines, which were more than happy to tangle him up in a great big hug. The rubbery appendages squirmed happily as Ash snuggled in.

Nidoking grunted, just as frustrated as Ash with the slow pace of their search. Torrent was more patient, but even he was weary. Neither read so well as Dazed, so every report they assisted with was a slow and painful affair.

He appreciated their aid more than he could say. It unsettled Ash to imagine Silver roaming Hoenn free and vulnerable. The boy was dangerous, even if Ash doubted he'd draw attention to himself.

There were sightings of the boy, and the occasional brawl with authorities or Rockets from Archer's flagging faction attacking him when they ran into each other at the various safehouses they'd maintained. Usually, those were only uncovered after the League was alerted to collateral from the battles.

But Silver had been trained well. He was a slippery one.

If only Ash had taken Gallade's Pokéball and strapped it to his own belt! Durand had caught them off-guard. Teleportation was Silver's greatest boon. Gallade only needed a free second to concentrate in order to whisk his trainer to safety dozens or even a hundred miles away.

Ash doubted that Silver's Gallade was half as skilled a teleporter as Juliet or (loath as he was to admit it) Bob the Alakazam, but that didn't matter. While Indigo was secured by vast numbers of League scouts and psychics, Hoenn was just too vast and too untamed. If Silver could make it into the wilderness then he was free to hop around as he liked.

It felt as if Ash had taken on an impossible task. Several times he'd ventured to police departments or Ranger outposts that had encountered Silver (or at least suspected his presence) within the past day, but a day was an eternity when one could jump across space.

They were searching for a needle in a haystack.

Dazed watched him with her sharp eyes.

Patience, Friend-Trainer. Our quarry is elusive, but we are determined. We will find him one way or another.

"I hope so," Ash said with a sigh. "It's just…I need to find him, you know? It's not right that he's running around Hoenn like this. He's hunted, he's causing trouble, and he's being an absolute pain in the ass!"

He took comfort in Tangrowth's vines as they coiled around him in a warm embrace. Lairon perked up the moment he saw Ash within Tangrowth's grip and levitated over to hop on in as well. Ash laughed as Tangrowth happily caught the heavy steel-type with two dozen vines and brought him in close.

It wasn't like him to allow his frustration to boil over like this, but Ash was content to channel Gary when it was just his team listening. Nidoking snorted at his proclamation and shied away from a questing vine that Tangrowth sent his way. Torrent just tossed his head at the undignified remark, even if he no doubt sympathized.

Dazed shuffled closer. She was courteous enough to allow one of Tangrowth's vines to coil loosely around her ankle, though if he got too affectionate she would probably slice it right off with a blade of psychic power.

This is unlike you, Friend-Trainer. You chase a single spark in a field aflame. Patience is your greatest weapon.

"I know," Ash said raggedly. A frozen flame flickered in the back of his mind, always watching but not coming forth with renewed focus. He just ignored it as he always did. "I know. But he's my responsibility. I can't just leave him running about."

Dazed cocked her head at him.

Why not?

"He's…" Ash hesitated. "A kid. A prick. He's Giovanni's," Ash finished as if that would explain everything. Nidoking snarled at the hated name. "I've been fighting Rockets since I became a trainer. I swore to clean up Giovanni's mess and end the suffering he's caused. Silver is part of that. He might not know me, but I know him. He's my family, and I can't let him cause any more harm. That's enough."

The Hypno idly polished her pendulum.

Family is not determined by blood.

"Of course not!"

If you feel that there is a connection between you, then this quest will be worth every bit of time we invest. We are happy to aid you in your hunt. But what will you do when you find this Silver-Foe-Kin? Is he your enemy? Your blood? Your quarry? Or do you seek something more? We are with you no matter what, but this is a question you should answer for yourself.

"I…I don't know," Ash admitted. "I've been focusing on finding the little jerk. Stopping him from hurting anyone else. Trying to make sure someone like Grey or Durand doesn't come calling. Taking a load off the League's plate. A dozen reasons, and I don't even know which one matters the most."

Nidoking rubbed his cheek against Ash's. He laughed and let some of his worries float away.

Torrent drifted closer, listening intently. Water passively coated Torrent's scales, his own attempt at replicating some of Melody's techniques, and Ash hoped that he might be able to rely on his water manipulation rather than his draconic might one day. The strength that would save!

"He's Giovanni's son," Ash said quietly, leaning into Nidoking's warm touch. He met Dazed's eyes as his face twisted into some inscrutable expression that betrayed his own confusion. "I never had a sibling, nothing even close. Not until I met all of you. Gary was the closest, I guess, but we hated each other for years. I don't need anyone else, not when I have you. I don't know this kid, and he seems like a prick anyways, like Gary on his worst days times ten."

Yet you feel that he is your responsibility.

"Of course." Ash rose. "Who else is going to do it? The League, sure, but they don't have time to deal with the Pikachu nibbling on wires while the whole house is burning down. Rangers don't have the firepower. ACE has higher priorities. And imagine if Grey finds him! Or Sidney."

Ash made a face that was matched by his companions.

He stalked back and forth like a caged Persian, his friends trailing him. "He's a rotten kid. You heard the way he talked to his team, right? Calling them names, cursing them. It's not right."

Ash spoke with the utmost conviction, and Nidoking nodded fervently in agreement, disgust in his eyes.

He continued. "I might not know the details, but from the sounds of it he was raised to be Giovanni's little prince. Ugh, can you imagine?"

Ash channeled Rawiri and spat on the dirt and muttered a curse at that foul man.

"That could've been me," he said with something between disgust and relief. Thank the universe that his mother had escaped! She was strong. So, so strong. Would he even recognize a version of himself raised by that filth?

"I could've been just as monstrous. Maybe better, maybe worse. Who knows? But it's no wonder he's rotten. But that Gallade of his…It saw something in him. He's alone out there with nobody to turn to, or to teach him what's right and wrong."

Perhaps there is hope for him.

"Maybe." Ash grunted, not particularly wanting to think about that. It was easier to think of Silver as prey. Still… "And if not, maybe Torrent can spray him down until the muck washes off. Think you can scrub a soul clean?"

Torrent rumbled with something like laughter. He'd at least do his best. Ash snorted as Plume swept overhead and shrieked her agreement—she could certainly accomplish such a feat, naturally.

At least Plume would never lack for self-confidence.

"This is going to drive me crazy," Ash said as he tugged at his frayed cap. He made a face as a few threads came off at the touch. Maybe it was on its last legs. He immediately shut that thought down. It had come with him this far, right? "What do you say we join the rest for a bit? We could use a break."

Nidoking was quick to growl in agreement. This sort of work wasn't to his taste, but Ash just appreciated that he'd been willing to help out at all.

"Let's go, then!" Ash cast a look at Torrent. "I bet Oz could use a training partner."


"I can't believe I'm doing this," Ash groused to Nidoking, whose eyes flashed blue as he sent back a flicker of amusement. He nervously fiddled with his tattered hat even as the cameras blinked.

You have no one else to blame, Friend-Trainer. You chose this path less traveled.

"What on earth is wrong with me?" Ash muttered.

Lairon and Tangrowth stepped forward to lean into him and wrap him up, respectively, nearly forcing Ash to their ground with their combined love. It was just about the strongest force in the universe…or at least the most likely to leave Ash bruised from overly affectionate hugs and tackles.

Torrent drifted forward, his regal power blazing around him in bright green flickers that left the media crew edging worriedly.

They cast nervous looks Ash's way, but that was nothing new. He'd managed a few easy words with them at first, more used to interacting with strangers since he'd been visiting the Ranger outposts (although at least they were fighters), but they'd been leery the moment Ash's team was released.

It was odd to see them shy away from Nidoking and the rest. It was odd to see them shy away from Tangrowth's delighted eyes. It was odd to see them so fearful.

Didn't they see their power? The battle-forged grace with which they moved? The scars of battles past?

His team was beautiful and the humans were blind if they couldn't see that. Ash had rediscovered himself in these last few months, but there were some things he would just never comprehend.

But Ash slipped away from those thoughts as he met Torrent's scarlet eyes. The gaze of a monarch fell upon him, cloaked in great power and greater authority, and Ash sensed approval.

That lightened him. Ash's back straightened. His spirit consolidated with renewed determination.

Ash and his team would conquer this challenge just as they had all the rest.

"Nothing worth doing comes easily," Ash said to himself as much as to his team. Torrent dipped his head just the slightest bit, and Oz whirred in agreement. "We do it because it's difficult."

Infernus was cloaked in the combined barriers of about a dozen psychics (helpfully provided by the Rustboro City Gym once Ash had announced his intentions) to prevent his heat from utterly ruining the recording studio, but Ash could see his savage grin at Ash's proclamation.

"We're ready for you," a teenager whispered to him.

She had dark hair tied up in a severe bun meant to make her look older, but it mostly highlighted her relative youth instead. The girl seemed a little awed by the team, but shifted uneasily seemingly every other second she spent near them.

No doubt she'd drawn the short straw. The bosses were happy to sacrifice the intern to the crazed Elite Four trainee who'd shown up with agents of the Rustboro Gym to commandeer their recording studio for a few hours. Ash fully expected that the attention this would draw would more than make up for the inconvenience, but he could also understand their trepidation.

We are here.

And that made all the difference.

Ash took a deep breath. "I'm ready."

They turned the cameras on him. Ash blinked, briefly stunned, but steeled himself as if he were wading into battle.

The person behind the camera raised an open hand, counting down silently with his fingers.


He'd happily take a few Rockets right now. Oh, how Ash would love to see their reactions to his full team assembled in all of their glory. Almost, anyways. Only Lotus was absent, and Ash had even hesitantly made an offer to the Spiritomb to see if it would be interested in joining them.

Lotus had been content to hide away in its keystone, although a touch of curiosity had battered him with all the delicacy of Bruiser's punches before it decided that it wanted absolutely nothing to do with such an event.

It had admittedly been a relief. While Ash had made the offer in good faith, he had zero clue of how the logistics of that would've worked. Would he have to steal away a few members of Phoebe's ACE squadron to contain the darkness, or would Lotus be willing to attempt to restrain itself?

He was just glad he wouldn't have to find out. This was difficult enough already.


These last few weeks had given Ash quite the education. He'd seen just how gloriously his team blazed among the rest, just how bright the light they cast emanated to pierce the foul darkness encroaching upon Ever Grande, but it had also shone him their limits.

They worked endlessly these past few weeks. Ash shook hands, solved problems, and struck down Ever Grande's foes. His team were a bulwark, but they could only cover so much ground. They only had so much time in one day.

Enough pressure had eased to ensure Ash that the Ever Grande League would survive. It was too strong to fracture at such a touch, but he'd seen the cracks already. The archipelago was pulling away. Tensions between humanity and the Pack flared. Their enemies laughed.

Yes, Ever Grande would survive, but it would limp on with its forces and reputation in tatters. Who could have faith in a League which couldn't protect its own people? The Mandibuzz had begun to circle, knowing opportunity when they saw it.


His team could—had—accomplished incredible things in service to Ever Grande, even if he'd only taken the low-hanging fruit to free up resources. They could run a dozen missions a day and still only toss a single pail onto the great blaze.

They were amazing, but they had limits. It had gnawed at Ash to even admit that, but it was simply the truth. And there was little he had come to value more than the truth.

Ash could take pressure off, but in the end he could only relieve. He was only one bright candle amongst a thousand when it came to the sheer scale of Hoenn's problems.

A flame could only produce so much light on its own. For it to warm the world, it must spread.


He met the camera unflinchingly. Dazed had spent hours helping him prepare for this while Torrent and Nidoking adjusted his body language: spine straight, eyes steady, arms relaxed at his side. They understood power and how to demonstrate it to the world.

Dazed also held another vital role, though.

She carried his trophies.


"My name is Ash Ketchum, Indigo Elite Four trainee," Ash said in perhaps the most unnecessary introduction of all time. Most of Hoenn knew his name by now.

He said nothing more, but raised the first of his trophies. A belt of black fabric studded with several deactivated Pokéballs hung in front of the camera, his trophy from Marlin Green.

The man had been sent to a high-security prison after a quick trial, with his team currently in stasis due to the League's stressed state. If he demonstrated good behavior, he had a hope of seeing freedom within a few decades.

In his other hand he raised an iron mask painted a dull yellow. Three foul-looking black Pokéballs dangled from it on a chain. A few weeks ago they'd held a formidable Tyranitar, a Sneasel, and a Scizor.

The Iron-Masked Marauder had been a powerful threat to most League personnel, similar in strength to Pierce, but he'd stuck his head up too high. He'd escaped the dissolution of the Rockets in Indigo and fled to Hoenn to start his own enterprise.

Unfortunately for the Marauder, his attempt to capture the Eruption in one of his strange Pokéballs set Ash and a few Rangersafter him. Those nasty devices warped the pokémon within into fighting machines, apparently, their designs based on some sort of foul method born in Orre according to Steven's message. It all reminded Ash too much of the hints he'd gotten about Michael's past.

It had been a fun fight, but short.

Behind him, Dazed levitated dozens of other belts, trophies, and assorted remnants of the battles that Ash had fought. It was a strain to keep so many up, but Nidoking, Oz, and Infernus all lent their psychic potential to her efforts.

"Relics of people who wanted to tear the world down," Ash rasped. "Poachers. Robbers. Killers. People and pokémon who valued their greed more than their freedom."

He cast them aside with a clatter, and Dazed released her grip on the dozens of other trophies to send them tumbling to the earth.

He couldn't see it himself, but Ash knew that images of the Ever Grande League triumphant flashed across the scene. Ash had worked with Glacia and Steven (who was in full Stevagross mode, as Lance would say) to select them.

A swathe of the Piede flash-frozen by Glacia's mighty team, a handful of hardened Rocket survivors quivering as her Glalie sneered down upon them. Glacia herself stood primly as ever, unbothered by the sand in her hair and gown.

Half-a-dozen mystics bound by spectral chains emanating from Phoebe's Dusknoir as Phoebe shouted commands. They'd attempted to take advantage of the League's distraction to invoke a deep portal to the alien world from which ghosts were born, seeking to beckon a great spirit of chaos to their service.

Four high-level trainers, perhaps on the level of seventh-badgers, attacked illusory copies of Sidney's teams which dissolved into black paint and blood. They panicked, tried to flee with their storage compartments full of technology stolen from New Mauville, and ran right into a leering Sidney and his Zoroark.

An island ravaged and turned to twisted black glass by blue-green dragonfire. Drake was not in shot, but there was no mistaking the great Salamence which screamed its victory as it rested upon an enormous submarine which had been torn from the sea by the former Dragon Master's enormously powerful team.

Phantom, a grizzled man in old pirate garb with an enormous blue beard and his second-in-command, a honey-haired man in garb somewhat similar to Team Aqua's quailed before Drake's terrifyingly composed Hydreigon, who appeared almost bored as it terrorized the well-equipped criminals who had viciously raided Lilycove's coast.

And then footage of Ash's own handiwork, though it had been filmed by him and League cameramen from a great distance: hillside fortresses ravaged by Plume's gales, Infernus coming down upon twenty fighters, and Lairon standing triumphant atop an Onix he'd knocked out with a magnetism-propelled charge.

"The Ever Grande League stands strong," Ash declared. "We fight, and we're winning. The dust will settle soon. But the battle never really ends. The Rangers, the Gyms, the Elite Four…We're giving everything we have, but there will always be scavengers waiting for their turn. Villains ready to take what they think is theirs."

Ash turned to his team and stepped over the belts filled with deactivated Pokéballs, pins, half-burnt hats, and whatever other trophy he'd managed to scavenge from his defeated foes.

He felt a surge of satisfaction as he witnessed that tangible display of just how much damage his team had done to those who preyed upon Hoenn's residents.

"Fight for the world you want," Ash said gravely. There was no Fire or Lightning in his words, only himself. "Train hard. Hit up the mission boards. Help everyone you can. Make your mark on the world and leave it better than you found it. Give more than you take."

He smiled.

"And if you're one of those that thinks the money is worth it, think twice. Hoenn broke the Rockets. What makes you think you're any different?"

A/N: Well well well! Is this a Traveler chapter released on time? I was actually hoping to have this released on Wednesday if you believe it, but the chapter just kept growing and growing and growing until it was around twice its original projected size. Story of my life!

I hope you enjoyed the chapter! It really felt like an Ash-centric chapter, which is a bit odd to say given that every chapter is technically an Ash-centric chapter. I think that he was able to really grow into the shoes of what he's becoming, and was able to mature a lot.

We're pushing further and further along, and let me tell you that the next chapter is going to be a blast. It's one that I've been looking forward to for AGES.

Thank you so much for sticking with Traveler! I would LOVE to hear your thoughts in a review. I'm going to give it a few days, but I'm hoping to fully respond to all my messages that have been piling up for the last few weeks lol.

Have a lovely day! I'm going to be working on some other projects for a bit, but I'm hoping to have the next Traveler update out by 11/14. Maybe earlier depending on how my other stories that I'm working on progress.