Fire burnt in his heart as Plume tore across the skies with all the glee she'd bottled up for weeks now. No one would ever think that she'd been wounded! The Pidgeot's wings stretched wide and beat with the force to tear trees up by their roots.

She sang her victory as she pulled ahead of Lance and Dragonite, though the two whipped forward faster and faster on the dragon's unfurled wings.

Forests dashed beneath them like a great emerald ocean. Plume pushed herself faster and faster as Ash urged her onward. The wind whipped against him, but he was well-secured in the saddle and did not fear the fall.

Plume would never let him fall.

Dragonite kicked forward with a great burst of wind, rocking Plume and Ash slightly as his passing weakened their air bubble, but Plume's eyes narrowed. She glanced back at Ash once, received a nod of confirmation, and Ash was forced to hold on for dear life as she flitted into Super Speed.

For a moment the sudden acceleration left his stomach in his throat and Ash nearly lost his lunch. His face felt as if it would tear off as his skin flapped stupidly in the wind. He was truly grateful for the goggles which kept little flecks of dust and debris from his eyes, but right now it was all he could do to keep himself clutched to Plume.

This was how Plume felt in battle? She'd been holding out on him! Ash would've laughed madly if he could've. As it was, he made some garbled cackle that had Plume briefly checking on him, though she beamed at his childish glee and shrieked her own glory to all of Hoenn as she claimed the heavens for her own.

Dragonite and Lance fell back, unable to keep up with her newfound speed, and Ash and Plume both cried out their victory as Rustboro came within their sights. It was a familiar blot of dull grey, rusted brown, and the distant glimmering of steel and glass.

Not his favorite city, but at least Roxanne was there. She was cool.

And her thoughts were wonderfully unfiltered.

"Yes!" Ash loosed his hold on the saddle and pumped his fist as they circled above the city. No doubt League sentries had already marked him, but Ash and Plume had become regular sights according to the Rangers. No one would watch the twelve-year-old on the majestic Pidgeot too closely…but the defeated Lance might draw some attention atop his golden Dragonite.

That was when Ash realized he had no clue where to go. He knew the vague region of Steven's apartment—it was the 17th, and Steven had hassled him enough about clearing his schedule today that he'd been planning to visit once his training with Plume was finished—but had never approached it from the air.

Lance clearly had. He was about twenty seconds behind Ash and Plume, but the two of them only had a few seconds to chase after Dragonite and Lance as their competition dove deep at a speed that would've given most humans a heart attack…or made them pass out from the G-force.

But Ash felt the resonance of Fire in his Feather, beneath his very skin, and grit his teeth. Both he and Lance were made of sterner stuff, and Plume needed no orders to dive after them. She tucked her wings to her side, rocketed down through the air, and even as Ash fortified himself with Fire for strength and Ice to mitigate the self-imposed damage, Plume caught them.

More importantly, she passed them.

A few pedestrians and a very dignified Delcatty shrieked and scattered as Plume came plummeting to earth. Their passage was smoothed by her command over the air itself, but they were careful to cut much of their velocity by the time they landed just outside Steven's disgustingly fancy apartment building.

"That's what I'm talking about!" Ash roared, startling a dull-eyed Pidove (likely a descendant from populations introduced during the Unovan invasion) perched happily on a nearby mailbox in a…well, nest would be a generous word. It was three twigs plunged seemingly at random into a tattered scarf it had likely plucked from some unfortunate bystander.

Plume sang her victory to the sky she ruled. Her voice echoed throughout the city, silencing all but the distant sounds of machinery for a few seconds. Ash just hoped they didn't get a noise complaint. If Macy were here…

But Pidove wasn't intimidated by her magnificent display. Its glassy eyes brightened as it roamed over Plume's magnificence crest, the glossy feathers of her plumage, and the monstrously powerful muscles coiled beneath.

It cooed softly, hopped down from its pitiful nest, and began shuffling in an awkward dance upon the street, landing right in front of a beleaguered pedestrian, who understandably cursed as the fragile bird nearly came underfoot.

"Crazy people coming down from the sky and stupid birds trying to get stepped on. What a day!"

Pidove paid no more attention as Plume's fierce eyes landed upon its fragile form. For a moment she seemed ready to blow the ambitious creature away, but after a few seconds she seemed content to bask in the Pidove's adoration instead.

Ash just shook his head as the Unovan flying-type's clumsy dance grew faster and more eager until the little creature was tripping over its own talons.

A great golden Dragonite landed with nary a sound, though the entire street paused to stare with dropped jaws as towering Lance leapt off with a great laugh and promptly wrapped Ash up in a brief one-armed hug that left Ash feeling just as weightless as he was upon Plume's back before dropping him back to earth.

"Grand flying!" Lance said, delighted in Ash's victory. Dragonite folded his burly arms and snorted smoke, though he seemed pleased as well beneath his wounded pride. "She flies as if the wind itself carries her forward."

"Plume's come a long way since the Indigo Conference," Ash said warmly. Plume still stared at the Pidove as if unsure if she should frighten it off or enjoy its impromptu worship a little longer. "She's flown these skies a thousand times—every thermal, every current, every inch of Hoenn is hers now."

"That was us once upon a time. Happy days!" Lance said, sighing fondly at the recollections, then smirked as he caught sight of the Pidove as it fell right upon its face, although a few onlookers looked ready to repeat the action as the Indigo Champion strode into Rustboro. "Who's this? Did you catch a new teammate while I wasn't looking?"

"Unfortunately not. Just an admirer."

"She's earned a little admiration," Lance teased Plume as she affectionately reached out to butt her head against the Champion's shoulder. He grunted as the raptor nearly knocked him off his feet, but reached forward to stroke her feathers nonetheless. Pidove screeched in indignation. "Sorry little guy! Come back in a few years. Maybe Plume will give you a second chance."

Plume scoffed, but the Pidove's eyes took on a fierce glint. It screeched again, fluttered off only after snagging its tattered blue scarf in its beak, and vanished off into the city with the utmost determination.

"I feel like you've created a monster."

"Or Plume's future suitor," Lance said, smirking. He dodged as she lightly nipped at him. "Oh, you know I'm kidding. But who knows? Maybe I've inspired our little Pidove to new heights!"

"Maybe," Ash said as he unsaddled Plume and gave her a few treats to enjoy in the meantime, although feeding a pokémon of her size meant he essentially materialized a large bucket of food for her to devour as he did the tedious work. "So what are we doing here? Steven's been talking about it for weeks, but he's been tight-lipped about the whole thing."

Lance smiled. "Well, if our dear Steven hasn't seen fit to spoil it, I won't either. Steven's not the most intimidating when he's mad, but it does make you feel like you've stumbled over a socially awkward Eevee. You feel bad."

Ash snorted. Curiosity burgeoned within him, but he just released Claydol and Dazed as he returned Plume. Both psychics immediately recognized the location, and Claydol spun just that much faster than usual.

Neither his smile nor his amused thoughts went unnoticed by Claydol, who flashed blue.

I have not missed that traitor. He abandoned me, practically shoved me out the door into the cold, harsh world with hardly a goodbye. And he left me with you! That's probably the most dangerous job in all of Hoenn. But I've survived this long. Perhaps I'll just stick with you. Do you have room for a mighty psychic artifice of war on the team? I can discipline Infernus for you.

"He'd love that," Ash remarked. He jabbed his finger at Dazed. "But no, I don't think so. Your competition is a little too steep."

Her eyes curved up in a smile.

Claydol reeled backwards.

Even you, Ash? I'm wounded, truly. Am I to be rejected by all you fleshy sacks of meat-juice and brain-fat? Lance, you're the heir to a grand legacy. You've persistently shown an attraction to anyone who could freeze the blood in your veins with a word. I could be that for you. Wouldn't it be beautiful?

Lance stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I have been meaning to diversify…"

Ash rolled his eyes as Lance smiled brilliantly at the security guard outside the gated complex, who paled at the sight of the Indigo Champion and waved them through without the word. Dragonite politely waved to him as they shuffled through.

Dazed stared balefully at the stairs that led up to Steven's apartment.

"You can always teleport up," Ash offered. Hypno were most comfortable on flat plains and the even flatter city streets. Shuffling was their preferred mode of transportation. Climbing was certainly within their capabilities, but it was an annoying chore in most cases.

That seems a fitting use for my abilities.

He thought she was joking for a moment, but Dazed immediately materialized seamlessly at the stairs to Steven's apartment.

"Well done!" Lance clapped. "You'll make Will jealous. He doesn't make us sick anymore, but he still can't make it work without an obnoxious flash of light. Lately he's been working on making it different colors, so I'm not entirely certain it's unintentional at this point."

"I'll have to ask him. What's his current favorite color to make?"

"Purple, of course," Lance sighed as they ascended the stairs. "Koga's quite the fan, even if he tries to pretend otherwise."

With that, they stood just outside Steven's apartment door. It was practically isolated given just how massive each of these apartments were. Most covered more surface area than an actual house.

Normally Ash would call it excessive, but Steven's team was full of truly massive pokémon. They needed that space. What was more impressive was that the floors could actually support their weight. Most floors would crumble the second Aggron came out to play.

"Is that…music?"

Yes, it certainly was. Steven's regular tastes bounced between calming classical orchestras and blaring techno and electronic symphonies, although Claydol seemed to have a preference for the most bizarrely obscure, ear-stabbing bands ever known.

Ash couldn't care less about it all, but Steven knew almost as much about his favorite composers and musicians as he did rocks. And he knew a lot about rocks.

But no, this was a piano. While that would be nothing unusual for Steven to listen to, it was easy enough to tell that this was being played in person. Ash's thoughts immediately turned to the sleek black instrument that Steven had brought into the apartment—he doubted it would have ever fit through the doorway normally, but matter-energy conversion was quite convenient for moving large and unwieldy objects.

It was a little muffled, but Ash knew at once this wasn't Steven's work. The sound was beautiful, aggressive and quick, almost overwhelming with the speed and passion with which it was played.

Ash's heart quickened. The sound reminded him of that glorious anticipation before a grand battle.

Lance just grinned, typed in the code to Steven's apartment, and cracked the door just enough for it to not break when he kicked it open in the most pointlessly dramatic way he could.

"Honey!" Lance sang, seeming lighter than Ash could remember. It was as if all his worries for the past two years had just drifted away for a time. "I'm home!"

Ash blinked, though Dazed seemed oddly amused still.

The piano's fast, furious notes reached a crescendo, then cut off as Ash followed Lance into the familiar apartment. The even more familiar sight of Steven's silver hair warmed Ash's heart.

He'd seen Steven a few odd times these past two weeks or so, but he still missed his teacher. Plus he was a little worried about how much influence Metagross might have garnered without Claydol there to remind Steven of his own humanity.

We'll be lucky if he doesn't start speaking in binary.

Ash snorted at Claydol even as Steven's eyes brightened. While the tell-tale signs of exhaustion were just as present as always, there was a sense of giddiness as Steven welcomed them with open arms.

"Lance! Ash! Welcome. I wasn't expecting you so soon, although I had hoped…"

And Claydol! But a simple construct of myself is always going to fall beneath the attention of the great Steven Stone.

"I was getting to you, Claydol," Steven said cheerfully. "It's so good to see you as well. It's strange that you've been 'feeling ill' the last few times that Ash and I have spoken. Particularly since you have no digestive system to speak of."

Claydol sniffed disdainfully in all of their minds.

"Dazed as well! It's quite the party, I must say."

Ash waved at Steven, then blinked once more as a new figure popped up from behind Steven, no doubt coming from the direction of the piano that had gone silent.

A Lucario waved at him with a bowl of ice cream clutched between his paws. Lucario carefully protected it as a newcomer approached.

"It's his cheat day," Cynthia Carolina explained as she drifted from the piano in her black coat. She smiled at Ash even as her eyes warmed. The Lily of the Valley Champion pointed at Ash even as he gawked. "And I've heard you have become interesting, Ash Ketchum. Most interesting. Why don't we head to the Rustboro Gym and I can test you for a second time—"

"Later," Wallace said from the kitchen. He sipped at a steaming mug of tea, seeming utterly serene amidst the modern legends. "Roxanne warned me that even our beloved Morma didn't think Rustboro Gym could handle a battle between her and Ash. I fear that you testing him might result in a razed city. We have enough headaches, dear."

"Wallace, Wallace, Wallace," Cynthia sighed. "I must protest the way you run your region! The audacity to not have facilities capable of containing Champion-level fighters is absurd."

The Ever Grande Champion nodded solemnly. "Forget Aqua, forget Magma, forget the dregs of society wreaking havoc. I have a new mission to complete."

"See that you do," Cynthia said primly. She sniffed and turned her nose up. "My station demands nothing less."

Lance frowned. "I didn't realize we invited Glacia to this party."

"You're not panting like a Mightyena suffering from heat stroke, so we clearly didn't," Steven said. Ash grew marginally more hopeful that Steven wasn't about to start spouting off geology facts in 1's and 0's.

Lucario ate a scoop of ice cream as his ears perked up.

Lance colored. "Just because the only person you've been attracted to in your whole life has been Winona—"

"You like women who can kick your ass," Cynthia said soothingly, stepping forward to pat Lance's shoulder. "It's quite alright. Steven's assured me this is a household without judgment."

The Indigo Champion grinned. "That explains a lot. If I like women who can kick my ass, then I never have to worry about any improper feelings about you—"

Cynthia flared, though her amused smile never slipped. Her hand went to Spiritomb's keystone, which hung tantalizingly from her belt. What control it must have! Even the mere presence of Lotus still battered against them all like river waters frothing against a dam.

Should he introduce them?

"Is that a challenge I hear?" Cynthia asked. Lance waggled his pink eyebrows. "It's been two years since our last bout. Perhaps it's time we settle the score. Princess has been bitter about how that ended. She's been working the whole time to ruin your day."

"That's the bare minimum. She should be thinking of how to ruin my every second or it's not enough!" Lance declared. He swung his cape to make his point. "But you're on! And just wait until next year. I have a new friend who's going to—"

"Having to think of next year already?" Cynthia interrupted. "I must have this one in the bag, then."

"Please! Do you have any clue what I've been through the last two years?" Lance asked, his wrist burning bright to Ash. He felt the Feather embedded in his chest resonate. Strange to think that Moltres' Feather had been a part of him for nearly a year now… "I've been sharpened to a razor edge while you've been growing lazy on your throne in Sinnoh! We're going to mow you down."

Steven coughed politely. "Perhaps we should try to maintain a little decorum in front of Ash?"

"Nah." Lance waved Steven off. "He's been around us for ages at this point. He knows better than to think we're saints, don't you, Ash?"

"Your pedestals shattered over a year ago," Ash said sagely, even if it was a half-lie. He'd gotten to know the Champions better since then, but even Lance in his warmth and affection still retained an element of that mystique. Would Ash ever stop looking up to him? Ash didn't think so. "No need to hide it anymore."

Still, he couldn't help but watch Cynthia and Lucario with awe. Lance and Steven were familiar sights, and even Wallace was someone he had grown to first name basis with, but Cynthia from distant Sinnoh seemed otherworldly with her black coat and shining eyes.

"Regardless," Steven continued as if he hadn't been interrupted, "I think it necessary to induct Ash to this little affair. You see, each year—at least when it is permissible—"

"Last year wasn't," Lance said grimly.

"Indeed," Steven said with another cough. "Due to various circumstances. But in normal years, the Champions of the National League attempt to congregate and spend one week together."

"So why are you here?" Cynthia teased. Lucario nodded sagely. "I do believe you gave up that title…"

Steven coughed more loudly. Ash was about to offer him a lozenge. "Regardless, it's a time-honored tradition since the days of the original three: Drake, Uther, and Irene. It's our pleasure to continue it and to continue building the bonds between the three regions overseen by the National League and President Goodshow."

"And it's fun," Lance added. "Sadly, you're a tiny child so you won't get to go on the bar crawls with us, but at least Steven and I have vouched for you. I figure you'll be a part of this arrangement soon enough."

Ash scowled at the first bit, but eased at Lance's words. It was impossible to imagine challenging a Champion, but perhaps one day…

Once upon a time he'd thought the same about a Master.

"I'll take what I can get."

"Good attitude!" Wallace cried. "See, Steven, I told you he'd be agreeable."

"There was never any doubt regarding that," Steven said drily. "Ash is being faced with the prospect of facing multiple battles with trainers far, far stronger than him. I suspect he would have sniffed us out in Rustboro even if we never said a word."

"Dazed would have, if nothing else," Ash said. "But someone probably would've warned me about all the explosions around here regardless."

"There are quite a few of those." Lance nodded. "It's probably the easiest way to find us."

"It had better not be!" Steven squawked. "This is my apartment, mind you, and I expect you to…"

"Shush, you know we'll respect your property," said Wallace. He flicked his turquoise eyes, a mirror to Lisia's, about with barely disguised disappointment. "Colossal and colorless as it may be. Perhaps it could use a makeover or ten. The decor is so five years ago."

"You didn't complain about this apartment when I mentioned how many bedrooms it had! Accommodating four people and a small army for each isn't easy," Steven protested. He looked rather flummoxed. "And if I may remind you, it was you who canceled the plans for Sootopolis—"

Lance nudged Ash's side. "Keep a close eye on the wild Ever Grande Champions as they engage in competition. The one which comes out on top will establish itself as the dominant male…"

"They'll keep each other busy for a few minutes," Cynthia said, eying both Steven and Wallace fondly. "Oh, I've missed this! It reminds me of the old days. The simple times before everything grew so dreadfully complicated."

The Indigo Champion nodded fervently, and for a moment Ash imagined the Champions as they once were: teenagers filled with fire and ambition without the weight of a region to stifle them. His heart panged for Lance, who had taken that burden on far, far too early without a second thought.

Lance had spent two years after his defeat of Champion Marcus being trained in preparation for his true ascension to the Champion's throne, but in many ways the boy Lance once was died at sixteen. It seemed so, so far away to Ash—Lance and the rest were all in their upper twenties and that was old, almost as old as his mother—but he had the sneaking suspicion time would creep up on him as it would any other.

"As the eldest Champion of this unruly bunch, I declare the week a go!" Lance's powerful voice practically rumbled the apartment, momentarily splitting Steven and Wallace up from their spat. Steven politely clapped at Lance's proclamation, although Cynthia jeered. Lucario ate another massive chomp of chocolate ice cream. "Let the festivities begin!"

Fire blazed upon Lance's wrist, momentarily drawing all their eyes to it, and Ash had a mad smile on his face as Lance spun to face him with the same excitement that had burned within the Champion since they arrived in Rustboro.

"Want to watch Cynthia and I battle?" Lance asked. Ash lit up. What kind of question was that?! Of course he did! "It's been a long time since I've been able to go all out. I know you're eating Dragon Masters for lunch nowadays, but I might still have a few things left to teach you."

"Such as how to gracefully handle defeat," Cynthia chirped. Lance narrowed his eyes at the smiling woman. "I'm afraid moral lessons might be all you have left to impart. After this, he might just want to escape this humid nightmare and come to Sinnoh to be trained. We have an open trainee spot, you know."

Ash snorted. "Let's see what you've got."

Lance looked stricken. "Trying to poach my own student in front of me?" He flicked his cape aside, revealing the row of pokeballs on his belt. "The Drake cannot let this insult stand! It's time to pop that overinflated ego of yours. All that mountain air must've addled your brain."

"Says the one who lives in a mountain." Cynthia sniffed. Her pale hand moved to Princess' pokeball. "Do you think Steven would mind if we started here? Princess loves nothing more than battling amidst luxury. She has expensive tastes."

Claydol cut in.

I'm sure Steven wouldn't mind—

"Steven would!"

Cynthia sighed as the former Champion interrupted. "A shame. I'll have to let her scratch off some shedding scales on that nice granite countertop later, then. Lance, I presume you have a spot picked out?"

Lance just grinned.

XX

Andel, Bob (who practically tripped over himself at the sight of Lance), and a sagely Alakazam with a crisp mustache which utterly dwarfed Bob's were happy to whisk the trio away to whatever spot Lance had in mind.

It couldn't have been more than a few hours travel from Rustboro. Less on Plume's back, of course. Ash had grown accustomed to the sights of Hoenn's territories, and the rocky plateau upon which the teleporters deposited them was surely in either the rocky northeast of Rustboro's range or the central expanse of Lavaridge.

The ominous black cloud which hung over Mt. Chimney after one of its lesser eruptions (most of which simply fizzled up lava like a half-shaken soda) sprouted to the northeast, telling Ash that they were on the border between Lavaridge and Rustboro.

Ash assessed the plateau itself with a curious eye. It was strange to think that he'd likely passed over it at some point. Plume certainly had, what with her frequent trips around the region. But the stony precipice was rather bare, all things considered. A few stubborn trees clung to life here and there alongside a tattered sheet of moss, lichens, and small shrubs, but this place was shorn of all other features.

Perhaps it had been shaped into a makeshift battlefield by the wild pokemon, a proving grounds of sorts, or maybe Lance had cleared the space himself ages ago when he still roamed Hoenn as a cocky teenager at Drake's heel.

Lance's eyes glimmered in the light of the afternoon sun as he flung his arms out. "Behold! Battle Rock!"

Cynthia's sharp grey stare devoured every detail imaginable. Metagross might have been jealous. Ash felt the power of her sight, the Truth for which she hunted, and watched raptly as her own nature asserted itself upon the world.

Quick. Efficient. Perhaps even unconscious.

"Clever name," Cynthia said. Her lips curved upward as she recalled some distant memory. "Wait, this is where you used to take all those girls? It's a dump! There's no way anyone was impressed by—"

Ash listened curiously.

"Took them to battle," Lance stressed. Were his cheeks red? Ash didn't think he'd ever seen the Indigo Champion blush before. It was normally the other way around. "And only that!"

"Sure," Cynthia drawled. "Was it your tongue versus their tonsils?"

Ash made a face. Gross.

"Anyways!" Lance was quick to cut that line of conversation off. He looked rather like he was looking forward to beating Cynthia's face in, and Ash had to wonder if she'd prodded at him intentionally to knock him off balance. "Are we here to battle or not?"

"Sure! As long as it's with pokémon," Cynthia teased. She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow, already looking rather miserable in the Hoenn heat. Her black coat must've been stifling. "Ash, would you do us the honor of being our referee? You'll make a fine witness."

He nodded, whistling the North Wind's song even as both Champions stepped to opposite ends of the Battle Rock. It was perhaps two hundred feet in diameter and raised several dozen feet above the treeline below. Great mountains towered overhead, though all paled in comparison to mighty Mt. Chimney, and a few curious wild pokémon had already begun to gather on the rocky cliffs above.

They were in for one hell of a show.

Cynthia exhaled in relief as the gale swept across Battle Rock and lifted the oppressive mugginess of Hoenn's spring. The peaceful wind caressed their faces and curled around Ash in an embrace as it eased their minds, but the battle-lust ran stronger than the North Wind.

Ash eyed the plateau speculatively, wondering whether it would even be able to stand up to a battle between Champions. A Master-level duel would likely be manageable (depending on their specializations) but Champions

Oh well! If they broke the mountain, Ash would just have to come back with Tangrowth and Nidoking to patch it back up. No harm no foul!

"As the challenger, Lance releases first!" Ash had refereed enough matches for Flannery and between the Indigo Elite Four to take to the role by heart. Speaking of hearts, Ash's was absolutely pounding. He went ahead and released most of his team so they could take in the spectacle.

And to act as damage control if things went south.

He so, so hoped things went south!

Lance nodded, all humor gone from his bearing as he became the Indigo Champion. His cape fluttered behind him, making Lance seem impossibly huge, and the usual warmth of his easy smile and kindness faded as he grew focused.

Yet the passion was still there. It was simply focused bright as a laser rather than flowing out like a wildfire. Ash and Infernus both knew which was more dangerous.

The effect was ruined somewhat as Dreepy popped its head out from beneath the clasp of Lance's cape, though it squeaked and hid again when it caught sight of Ash and his team. That was probably a good decision based off Sneasel's (and Seeker's) stormy expressions.

Ash didn't miss that the little Dreepy was still significantly more turquoise than its usual dark coloration. It had truly grown fat on draconic power at the Sky Pillar. He could only wonder at what curious effects such an anomaly might have upon the future Dragapult's development.

As for Cynthia, she appeared utterly serene. There was only that brilliant spark and a secret smile etched upon her face, though Ash knew the battle-lust hidden beneath. But this was a fight between equals, not a simple test for Ash. She'd been able to play then, to cut loose and embrace the flow of battle, but Lance would punish every mistake with ruthless precision.

He was a monster! But so was she.

The two Champions dipped their heads once in respect. It was all that signified their long friendship. All that was left now was the competition.

Aerodactyl came first, a great craggy beast of stone and sinew which appeared far too heavy to even glide, let alone conquer the skies. Ash knew better. She was far from the fastest of Lance's team, but her rocky wings carried her across the winds with terrible strength and speed. Even a smidge of grace, though Aerodactyl cared little for that.

He'd rarely ever seen Aerodactyl in action—Lance had told him that Aerodactyl was too savage for most fighters to manage when they trained together beneath Mt. Ember. She was a warrior to make Infernus proud, still ruled by the primordial fire pounding in her blood.

The living fossil screeched as she materialized, unleashing a roar upon Hoenn which might not have been heard for millions of years.

The forest went silent.

But Aerodactyl's hard gaze softened at the sight of Cynthia, and a deep, pleasant sound like one of Plume's coos erupted from her throat.

Cynthia's battle mask slipped as she waved happily back, though it was all business from there.

And then she ran a finger down the keystone hanging from her belt. Ash felt Spiritomb before he saw it. Purple smoke deeper and angrier than Lotus' pale lavender flooded out like a roaring river breaking through a dam, shrouding Cynthia's black-clad figure in its writhing mantle before wrenching its keystone from Cynthia and hurling it upon the rock.

Just the sight of it left Ash gnashing his teeth. He remembered just what a brutal fighter it had been, how it had flitted around the battlefield from shadow to shadow and devoured Torrent's attacks with its sickening pressure.

His team felt it too, though Ash had left Lotus in its pokeball. They stamped their feet. Nidoking's teeth bared as his great tail thrashed across the stone. Torrent's scarlet eyes glimmered and a turquoise sheen shimmered across his heavy blue plates.

Oh, they wanted this fight! Ash wished nothing more than to throw caution to the wind and throw his own hat into the ring. How would the Champions react to that? Would they laugh? Would they turn on him just as eagerly?

Ash's tongue ached to give the order, but he restrained himself.

This anger was not his own. This was a mere shade of the wrath that had once turned brother upon brother and warriors against their liege in a frenzy of violence. It had once scarred the misty valleys and forgotten chasms of ancient Sinnoh. Now it graced Hoenn.

Spiritomb.

Its furious presence was reflected in its appearance: where Lotus was calm and sluggish, its gaseous body normally frozen and almost solid with a flat face of fiery green burning in the center, Cynthia's Spiritomb was chaotic. The creature's body was erratic, flickering like a flame, and the cinders twitched and writhed and leapt as though ready to sear its foe alive.

Once upon a time its mere presence had nearly undone Ash. Now he weathered the storm with nary a blink, and much of his team was the same. They had seen worse. Felt worse. They were stronger now.

Most of all, they were solid. Secure. Armored by experiences and time that had lent them greater strength and greater will.

Aerodactyl sneered. Her spiked tail smacked the ground in challenge as she uttered a guttural roar. Its bladed tip embedded in the rock like a hot knife into butter. Was she really the best choice to piss off even further?

Perhaps her rage would make her stupid. No doubt Cynthia planned for that, but Lance had worked with Aerodactyl for a decade now. As much focus had been placed upon reigning in her wild temperament as upon her physical prowess.

Ash's mouth watered. His team watched on hungrily.

"Begin!"

XX

They fought mightily. They fought furiously. They fought swiftly.

Ash soaked up every spare detail. Every glint in the Champions' eyes. Every motion of their battle-honed teams.

Neither had opened with their cornerstones, though their weakest fighters would have been a wicked foe to even the mightiest Master. Each wished to tease out their opponent's strategies, test the limits of their strength, and then bring the hammer down at the first sign of weakness to crack the impenetrable armor open to reveal every vulnerability beneath.

Aerodactyl had taken to the skies, bombarding Spiritomb with bursts of stone and flame and plasma even as the specter lashed out with entropic blows and surges of vicious hatred that set all their blood aflame.

While Aerodactyl resisted the urge to fall into the frenzy, Ash didn't miss the fact that Lance gnashed his teeth with every missed blow. He roared like the dragons he tamed when Spiritomb struck Aerodactyl, looked as if he wished to rush into the battlefield himself, and seemed to take on the visage of his warlike ancestors (or perhaps their cousins the Draconids) as the battle stretched on.

Perhaps Cynthia hadn't released Spiritomb for Aerodactyl after all.

Both fighters fought furiously. Aerodactyl moved more swiftly than a stony beast should, twitching aside with deadly reflexes and flitting into illusory copies. Sandstorms raged, torn up from Battle Rock itself. They were all devoured by Spiritomb's corrosive presence, shredded into nonexistence by its hatred.

Spiritomb's twisted Aura raged like a storm. Blades of violet slashed at Aerodactyl's rocky hide from two hundred feet away and cut through to the meat beneath. Green conflagrations exploded from nothing mid-air, coating Aerodactyl in sickly flames that clung stubbornly to its rocky hide like spectral jelly and burned and burned and burned.

They traded blows and techniques faster than Ash could blink, flowing from one to the next with such fluidity that Ash felt that he was witnessing a gloriously brutal dance rather than a battle. Each took its opponent's attacks and turned them against one another with ease, pitting the physical against the ethereal.

And in the end, the physical won.

Lance flashed a signal with his Feather, coded in a series of blinks and subtle dances of the golden flame upon his wrist, and Aerodactyl's eyes surged in victory. Ash would have thought weaponizing the Feather and its supernatural power to be a little cheap, but he could feel Cynthia's own Sight drinking in the world and flow of the battle.

The two Champions held nothing back. That included their…extras.

Aerodactyl's stony hide was still wreathed in the jelly-like green fires which prevented her from activating Agility to psychically enhance her speed, but she tucked her great wings close to her powerful body and dove nonetheless. Her savage jaws opened wide as she locked onto Spiritomb with outright hunger in her eyes, and she shot through Spiritomb's devouring presence.

Green flames coating Aerodactyl surged to elicit a terrible howl of agony as they burned deeper than flesh and blood. Deep violet fumes swirled over Aerodactyl's hide and wings like acid, gnawing away at her defenses to strip away the stone coverings. The rest of the gas rushed forth from the keystone to seep behind her eyes and fill her nostrils with strangling poison.

Infernus salivated as Aerodactyl fought through it all, spat a foul Ominous Wind from her gullet to stun Spiritomb, though the spectre's control and skill was such that the attack was soon incorporated into its own body, and then swallowed Spiritomb. Ash caught a moment of surprise and fear in Spiritomb's burning gaze before it vanished.

Ash's eyes widened. Nidoking snorted.

I suspect that isn't good for one's health.

"You're telling me," Ash said dumbly as Aerodactyl gleefully tipped her throat back and made to fully tip Spiritomb into her digestive tract, though Lance called that off with a sharp rebuke. The flames burning Aerodactyl vanished (although some stubbornly burned on) and Ash suspected that Spiritomb would've torn Aerodactyl apart from the inside if she didn't suffuse her body with a protective Curse that would dull Spiritomb's Distorted attacks.

Infernus roared his encouragement to Aerodactyl, who looked terribly queasy as Spiritomb did its best to make her throw it up.

"1-0 for the Indigo Champion!" Ash called the battle there, unwilling to let this get any bloodier than it needed to. No doubt Aerodactyl would be willing to fight to the death even in a spar, and crippling injuries would be a terrible way to start the Champion's celebrations off.

Aerodactyl was a terrible sight of ravaged scales, seared wings, and deep gouges as she hacked Spiritomb up, who writhed furiously at the sight of her before being recalled by Cynthia.

The Spiritomb was covered in bile and putrid saliva. Ash couldn't blame it for not being happy.

From there, things moved swiftly. Ash murmured instructions to his team here and there to contain the damage that threatened to bring the mountainside above tumbling down upon their heads, but for the most part the Champions restrained themselves just enough to prevent a disaster.

Aerodactyl had defeated Spiritomb, but she was sapped of much of her strength and physical defenses. Glaceon appeared as a living blizzard. Ordinarily Aerodactyl might have been able to keep herself warm via fire-type techniques, but Spiritomb had slashed any temperature resistance to ribbons with its deep cuts and acidic touch.

As a result, Glaceon found Aerodactyl a…well, easy mark might be overselling things. But she vanished into the snowstorm she summoned as if it were a simple extension of herself. Aerodactyl fought admirably, but only managed to leave moderate damage before she was frozen solid by one of Glaceon's icicle-like projectiles made of her own frozen fur, which dragged more and more ice behind it as it flew through the air until it seemed Aerodactyl was brought down by a javelin rather than a few frozen hairs.

Glaceon fell to Lev, who surged right into the midst of the ice storm with no fear. Lev was far slower on land than on water—the Gyarados' immense bulk meant he was slow and cumbersome in terrestrial environments, which Glaceon ruthlessly exploited—but the sheer size and bulk of the sea serpent (combined with a furious tempest of elemental techniques which drowned out Glaceon's efforts and cast the snowstorm aside) enabled Lev to hurl Glaceon off Battle Rock with a flick of that great tail.

Ash counted that as a win for Lance, although Cynthia looked ready to argue that. But both she and Lance were practically quivering to continue, so she reaped an 'easy' win with Lucario instead. The noble fighter bowed to Ash, Lance, and their teams once, then ruthlessly dismantled the slowed Gyarados' defense.

To be honest, it was a rather firm reminder of just how unfair Lucario was. Ash could sense Lucario's own power invested in the world, bound up in all of reality to propel the noble fighter to new heights.

As far as warriors went, Lucario was the whole package. Every blow the fighter landed was devastating, his abilities enabling more than simple fists to tear into his foes. Shockwaves pierced and ravaged Lev's defenses, cracking plated scales and tearing exploitable gaps in the formidable armor.

He was preternaturally nimble, dodging attacks milliseconds before they even manifested and clambering all atop the sixty feet of Lev's massive body like a dancer. While the Gyarados' enormous size meant it was physically indomitable (unless you had the King Under the Mountain, or perhaps Bruiser on your side) it did mean that Lev was slower than most Gyarados without buoyancy to support its immense body.

Lucario made the most of that opportunity. Lev spewed Hyper Beams, filled the air with terrible heat, and conjured up elemental storms that would have leveled all of Pallet Town if they were unleashed upon it, but all were for naught.

When fire filled the air, Lucario was nowhere to be seen. When frost chilled them all to their bone, Lucario's breath filled it with new vigor. When Lev thrashed and twisted and writhed, Lucario raced up the Gyarados' enormous spine as if going for a leisurely jog. Shockwaves propelled out from his paws with every step, piercing a foot or more into Lev's body to rattle the beast.

In the end, Lucario proved just as fierce as Ash remembered. Practically untouchable thanks to its Aura-based perception. Strong enough to tear through most any defenses. Durable enough to resolve through any storm that may find him.

Mighty enough to strike down Lev with an Aura Sphere to the base of the skull, though Ash suspected the battle would've gone far differently were there a source of water for Lev to immerse himself into.

But alas, Battle Rock wasn't so accommodating. Ash spared Torrent a glance. Maybe he should leave a gift to whoever next used the Rock…

"Lucario, that's just not fair!" Lance laughingly complained as he recalled Lev, who rather looked as if he was about to douse Battle Rock with a leviathan-sized puke after that attack. Lucario just bowed, though that didn't stop him (or Cynthia) from looking a tad smug. "You're untouchable."

"Says the one who built his legacy off the same," Cynthia chuckled. "Do you know how frustrating it is to fight someone when half their team breaks the sound barrier?"

"I might have an inkling," Lance said, sparing Plume a glance. He reached for Dov's Pokéball immediately, drawing a scoff and long-suffering sigh from Cynthia. "But how else was I supposed to beat old Drake? I certainly wasn't going to outmuscle him."

"Oh, it's very pragmatic of you!" Cynthia said cheerfully as she signed a few words to Lucario, who quickly nodded back. Lance lazily tracked the signs, acting as if he didn't understand them. But Ash had caught sight of a book on sign language the last time he'd visited Lance's room in the Plateau. Did the Indigo Champion ever stop working to better himself?

Ash didn't think so.

Did Cynthia know that as well? Who could say. Certainly not Ash. She betrayed nothing other than the sweat rolling down her face and the pink coloring her cheeks.

Lucian hadn't been kidding. She really didn't agree with Hoenn's climate. Even the North Wind that Ash had summoned had only offered a brief respite.

"I certainly approve as a pragmatist. It's just as a competitor that I find it relentlessly irritating."

"Sounds like a personal problem to me!" Lance called out as he released Dov. The burly Dragonite was truly immense, easily a time and a half wider than slender Saph, and stretched his massive wings wide as he stood in front of Lance, roaring his arrival. Dreepy watched with wide eyes as its reptilian head poked out from Lance's collar. "You ready?"

Infernus' eye twitched. It must have been killing him to just sit and watch these magnificent fighters go toe-to-toe. To be honest, it was doing the same to Ash. He was feeling a little…explosive.

Lucario sent a sign back to Cynthia and she nodded.

"Begin!"

Ash had already watched each of their fights (both public and those stored only in the League archives) dozens upon dozens of times already. While Steven was a legendary trainer in his own right, Ash had enough experience with the man and his tactics to only peruse his battles around ten or twenty times.

Steven's entire team could fight at the Champion-level (at least those who remained with him upon his ascension) but Metagross was just a freak of nature. As incredible as Dazed was, she still only had one organic brain to utilize. Metagross had four. It was hard to replicate any of their feats.

Tragic. Should I fuse a few of my fellows to my own body?

"As long as the Warden is one of them," Ash returned, which Dazed wrinkled her nose at.

Still, he overall had more to learn from Lance and Cynthia. Lance for his own approach to battle—overwhelming mobility complemented by even more overwhelming force, which complemented Plume quite well—and Cynthia as the one Master of All in the entire world.

Each of the Champions leaned heavily into their own specialty.

Lance embodied the dragon, mastering the skies and bathing the base earth with fire, ice, and lightning. Steven emphasized technique and preparation above all else, planning for every eventuality and ensuring he had the arsenal to rule the battlefield no matter what he faced. Wallace's sheer skill was rapturous to witness, displayed with ease and striking heavy as a sledgehammer while presenting soft as a feather.

But Cynthia! She studied them all and drew upon their sources of power, repurposing them into her own. Lance's indomitable strength, Steven's analytical mind, and Wallace's grace…all learned from, incorporated, and synthesized into something new.

It was inspiring.

Lucario and Dov fought as if they were figures of myth and legend. Cynthia signed, Lance signaled with the Feather an archaic code Ash recognized from the journals of the Drakes. He could scarcely keep up, but suspected both had cracked the other's deception and had to account for that as well.

While Lucario was skilled and agile, Dov was force incarnate. He dove in and out of battle while wreathed in windswept armor and bellowing challenges to Lucario, who ducked and swerved and dodged his every attack, though the great rivers of fire, billowing clouds of frost, and golden meteors of draconic power pushed him to his limits.

Lev was too slow to face Lucario with gravity working against him. Dov? He ensured that Lucario had nowhere to run. And as Lucario's seemingly endless stamina was sapped, Dov wrapped himself in a cloak of several protective techniques at once to slam into Battle Rock and sunder the enormous plateau in two.

Earth Wrecker lived up to its name.

Ash stumbled as an earthquake wracked the mountaintop. Lucario leapt into the air moments before impact and manifested a spherical green Protect around himself to prevent the concussive force from sending him flying, but even that defense nearly failed beneath its sheer power.

Dov launched himself at Lucario with a roar as the mountain cracked. His great wings hurled the Dragonite's enormous body, now blazing with turquoise flame, into the fighter. Lucario's superb reflexes nearly saved it, but Dov was just so, so fast.

The slowest of Lance's three Dragonite was still impossibly quick by any measure.

What Dov lacked in agility he made up for in acceleration. He couldn't take a midair turn like Dragonite, Saph, or Plume, but he was fantastic at going very quickly in a straight line. Lucario did everything in his power to twist away, but Dov's might even broke through the warrior's Protect.

Dov and Lucario traded a dozen blows in mere seconds. Each would have felled a lesser fighter with ease. But Dov spat flame, spewed dragonfire, and exhaled clouds of frost with every movement to obscure Lucario's vision. It did little good thanks to Lucario's supernatural perception (which sang out to Ash like a beacon) but still added pressure which limited Lucario's incredible range of motion.

How many hours a day did Lucario spend stretching? Perhaps Ash and Bruiser would have to work on that.

Yet Lucario still landed strikes. They were generally guarded against by Dov, whose defensive techniques and sheer bulk enabled him to weather the stone-cracking blows with little more than a grunt or roar, but Lucario was steadily sapped of stamina.

Dov was best known for his physical might, but Lucario still proved a match for it. Lucario gave more and more ground as Dov hammered down again and again with a deadly combination of elemental fury and draconic-infused blows, but the longer it went on the more swiftly Lucario adapted. Lucario's spiked metal fists lashed out, wreathed in frost and draconic energy, and shattered diamond hard scales wherever they landed.

Outrage filled Dov with new strength when he began to flag, but Lucario danced around a blow, striking the base of his wing with a shockwave-enhanced punch to prevent flight, then swung a kick at Dov's throat—

Ash winced as Dov spat a Dragon Pulse right into the ground between them, flinging them apart with an explosion. His great mass ensured he only stumbled back a few feet while Lucario flew nearly twenty. Dov roared, flexed his muscles, and shot out with Extreme Speed to flicker into Lucario—the warrior twisted and manifested a Protect just in time, but was sent flying back even further until he went off the mountain.

Lucario wasn't finished, but even his preternatural senses had their limits. Ash knew firsthand just how devastating Lucario was as an opponent. Infernus was about as well-suited to face the Champion-level warrior as any pokémon could have been.

His body heat alone gave him an edge against Lucario, but the mighty pokémon bore the advantage of precognition, extreme strength, and impossible skill.

But Dov could fly. And not just the smooth glide of a Dragonair, but the sort of rapid acceleration that made Dragonite feared throughout all of Indigo in the hands of the Wataru. Dragonite needed a great deal of space to properly maneuver (similar to Plume) but Dov worked around that.

He wasn't overly concerned with true flight, particularly not when Lucario's blow to his wing made it a chore. No, Dov wielded his wings as weapons. They propelled him forward in short bursts to prevent Lucario from utilizing his superb reaction time. They hurled gales of wind strong enough to uproot trees. They came flying at Lucario as blunt weapons alongside Dov's claws and fangs.

And Lucario fell in the end. He could dodge attack after attack, but Dov never offered him a chance to rest. Even grounded, he attacked from so many angles that all of Lucario's energy was spent on defense.

Ash filed that little tidbit away and shared a glance with Infernus, who seemed to have come to that same realization while watching the battle with those starving eyes.

That set the tone of the rest of the battle: Cynthia and Lance were evenly matched in terms of skill and power, but Lance leaned heavily into mobility and the advantages offered to him by the multitude of flying-types which composed his team.

Steven was an iron wall who could bunker through the worst of Lance's assaults. Many of his team were limited in their responses to the Dragon Master and his fierce companions, but Claydol and Metagross possessed skill such to strike them from afar. Skarmory could take the fight to them in the sky.

Armaldo's pincers could tear through the impossibly hard dragon scales that guarded Lance's team, Aggron's armor was nearly as impenetrable as Metagross' psychic defenses, and nothing less than multiple Draco Meteors would do any sort of damage to Cradily that couldn't be easily healed away.

Cynthia could always strike back and pick his defenses apart with ease, yet Lance's team found the sky their constant refuge when the goings got tough.

Dov was brought down by Togekiss. The cheery pokémon waved to Lance and Dov with a smile upon her face, but proved relentlessly effective in battle—while Togekiss couldn't wield the fae energies which saturated such far-flung places as Kalos and Alola, Cynthia had seemingly optimized her abilities to replicate them in some fashion.

Such abilities couldn't be wielded offensively, but Togekiss was the sort of fighter that drove Ash mad! She was slow next to Dov, yet his injured wing allowed her to fly circles around him. Her agility far surpassed his own, and Dov got a taste of his own medicine as the Togekiss easily swerved around his every technique while prodding back with blades of wind, a swirling Aura Sphere that sent Dov's golden scales flying, and a medley of gentle attacks that wore Dov down until he simply couldn't fight anymore.

Togekiss felt impossible to strike, strangely lucky with every passing attack, and ground Dov's fortitude away with psychic power and impossible skill.

Saph put a quick end to that. Togekiss had weaponized Dov's inability to pursue her into the sky, but Saph could fight her on even terms. While Saph still needed a great deal of space to maneuver (which Togekiss denied as often as possible with sonic attacks and precision-based strikes which landed disconcertingly often thanks to Togekiss' use of Future Sight) Togekiss just couldn't keep up with the speed with which she darted in and out.

Amidst the misty mountains of Sinnoh Cynthia's team would find this a far more even battle. Each was capable of ascending the rocky slopes with ease. But in the open space provided by Battle Rock?

It took every scrap of skill they had to match the unrivaled mobility commanded by Lance. He was just too fast. Lance was all too aware of his advantages and leaned into them as heavily as he could. The moment Saph was brought down by Princess (who could fly high and match the Dragonite for speed, yet was outmaneuvered when straight vectors weren't involved) he released Dragonite.

Now that was a fight.

Princess had proven her superiority against Ash's team long ago. He'd kill to test his strength against her again, though he expected Cynthia would be all too happy to accommodate that wish.

She met her equal in Dragonite.

While she'd matched Saph's speed—and slightly surpassed Dragonite's—Princess relied on experience to trap Saph, cripple her wings, and bring her down to earth. Garchomp had evolved to pursue targets in close environments such as cave tunnels and rocky cliffs, so their physiology largely lent itself to extreme speeds in a brutal rush. Maneuverability wasn't their ally.

Princess had mastered such basic skills long ago. Any ordinary Garchomp couldn't match her speed, her agility, her simple control over her own body and the minute adjustment required to optimize her flight.

But Dragonite?

Whereas Saph was still young, Dragonite commanded nearly twenty years of experience. Princess didn't bother trying to rush or outfly the cornerstone, instead dispersing his draconic assaults with her own techniques and matching him blow-for-blow whenever he dared come close.

Dragonite was no fool. In close combat, Princess was his superior. He was a little slower than Saph, a little less burly than Dov. But Dragonite was the best fighter by a significant margin, the perfect fusion between the two.

While Dragonite couldn't match either of his siblings in their own specializations, he utilized his gifts more effectively than either. He toyed with Princess from a distance, showering her in dragonfire and Hurricanes and Draco Meteors that rattled her, and gave ground whenever she dared to take to the skies.

Princess was stronger. Just as skilled. Just as domineering over the battlefield.

But why would Dragonite play fair?

Dragonite was fighting to win, after all.

So he struck from hundreds of feet away where Princess could never hope to catch him. When she sent her own Draco Meteors after him, he flew nearly a mile into the sky in the span of thirty seconds.

And at long last, Princess fell. There was nothing she or Cynthia could've done to prevent it. That clearly didn't sit well with Cynthia (whose face was rather red now and slick with the sheen of sweat) and Ash could already see the gears of her mind spinning and spinning.

Even a Master-level Dragonite wouldn't be able to compete with Princess. But Lance's were the best in the world. Not an ounce of their natural gifts were wasted. And his lead Dragonite in particular was a true monster!

Power, speed, a keen eye for the battlefield, and nearly two decades of experience had crafted a devastating foe.

Ash couldn't wait to face the beast down in truth. He'd been able to go 2-6 with Lance when he was last in the Indigo Plateau, but admittedly his victories had been over Saph and Mael. Mighty combatants for sure, each capable of matching two or more of a Master such as Fino's team, but inexperienced or lacking the advantages that let Lance rule the battlefield.

Could he match Dragonite just yet? Ash doubted it. He had come a long, long way in the six months he'd been in Hoenn, but Dragonite was a true monster.

Oh, his team would wear it down. It wouldn't be such a crushing defeat as when Metagross swept him off his feet near the beginning of his time in Hoenn. Had that really been ten months ago?.

But he'd be very, very lucky to get a second or third victory if Dragonite went all out from the beginning.

Princess whittled Dragonite down steadily, yet succumbed all the same. She simply couldn't pursue him, and would rather invest her resources into grinding the mighty golden dragon down when he came close for an attack rather than fruitlessly burning her stamina pursuing him into the skies.

None of his most distant attacks had an effect, though they were accurate. Princess dispersed most of his Draco Meteors or Dragon Pulses with the same sort of technique Clair used (which Lance the Dragon Master had never exhibited, Ash noted) to neutralize them.

But eventually the elemental storms wore her down, and Princess was brought low by a final Ice Beam. She hardly even had a chance to fight back.

Hardly fair, but it was a victory for Lance all the same.

Zinnia had taught him the dangers of relying too much on a single flier, and here was Lance doing the same. Seeker would grow into her own if she continued down this path, but Ash couldn't help but imagine alternatives…he wasn't especially invested in obtaining a new partner (he had his hands full already) but could he adjust one of his teammates' development into anti-air techniques?

It would be a necessity if he wanted to take down Lance the Dragon Master.

Tangrowth could fill the sky with rock, of course. All of his teammates had ranged options. But there was a far cry between fighting an average fighter versus one optimized for evasion and speed like Lance's companions.

Dazed's Remote Teleportation was a viable counter, but it relied on redirecting the opponent's attacks in most cases. Lance wouldn't fall for that more than once. Mind Breaker would be a wretched assault for a flier to suffer through, but it was limited by range.

Ash would have to focus on fixing that.

He'd expected Cynthia to be frustrated by this turn of events, but she looked positively delighted. Well, the heat left her miserable, but Princess' defeat left her with a sparkle in those grey eyes. Cynthia was glowing already thanks to the incessant sun exposure, but she seemed galvanized by her defeat.

"Who's next? Chryssa, Shimmer? We can take them all!"

"Well, about that…" Cynthia fell into the same eager tone she'd battled Ash with. He listened closely as she reached for a shiny new Pokéball on her black belt. Did he even need to consider the color of her clothing at this point? "I'm afraid that answers weren't all I found at Lake Acuity."

Lance grinned. "Oh?"

"Meet the Sage of Acuity. Mind your manners!"

With that, a fantastic creature appeared. At first glance Ash recognized it as a Braviary, all muscle and proud eyes and regal bearing, but it bore several subtle differences that attracted further examination.

While most Braviary were dark and strong, drunk on nobility and determination, this Braviary's feathers were largely white and pale. Its underside remained grey like storm clouds, but the tips of its wings were light and strong, intended to blend into snowy environs and fluffy clouds. There was none of the hues of red, blue, and yellow of a Braviary's normal plumage, and its head was framed with an enormous crown of downy white feathers.

What struck Ash the most were its eyes. Still proud, still possessed of insurmountable dignity and nobility, yet they blazed with an azure light, violet psychic energy rippling above them and framing its piercing stare. Most psychics only demonstrated such power when they actively drew upon their psychic abilities, yet this Braviary swept them all up in its burning gaze.

Ash blinked as a great presence like the waters of a frigid lake washed over him. The power was vast and deep, trained to its greatest potential and explored to many different corners, and even a glimpse of that perception was like catching sight of a pale eye eager to peer into all his secrets. Hungry for knowledge, hungry for comprehension, hungry to sort all the mysteries of the world.

It held no hope of scrutinizing Ash himself, but it saw deeper than even Sabrina.

Ah, Storm-Tamer! I have sensed you from snowy Sinnoh. To be in your presence…the world shudders. Fascinating! But I forget my manners. I am Oldest-Waters. The Learned call me the Sage of Acuity.

"A pleasure to meet you." Ash nodded to the strange Braviary. The voice was young, curious, prodding, yet bore an ageless weight to its words. It almost reminded him of a kinder Gary or even a younger Professor Oak.

The Sage bowed, then flicked his bright eyes to Lance, who watched with a stupid smile on his face.

And Lance-Aflame. You have faced trials worthy of the heroes of yesteryear. I've met a few of your forebears and their partners. Many once came to sip of the frigid waters in search of answers. It was my honor to greet them! They would be proud to see their blood running through your veins.

That caused the wrathful set to Lance's face to ease somewhat. Spiritomb had driven his temper mad, stoking the flames of his emotion, yet the Sage's words doused that conflagration. Or at least eased its burn.

"I…have questions."

The Sage's pale eyes sparkled.

Perhaps I will have answers! But let us clash first! My partner has been waiting for this moment. I'll pluck a feather if I disappoint the one to guide me from my solitude.

"This is what we've been waiting for!" Cynthia snapped, sparking with excitement that practically radiated outwards to fill all of Battle Rock like a warm flame. "Oldest-Waters, let's show this unoriginal punk—"

"Hey!" Lance whined, matched by an offended grumble from Dragonite.

Cynthia waved his protests away. "Sorry, Dragonite! You're a dear, but I just fought Dov, Saph, and yourself in quick succession. One craves a little…variety. You know how it is."

Dragonite nodded sagely.

Speaking of sages…

Oldest-Waters' feathers shone brilliantly. Dazed watched with blatant fascination as a great swell of power rose up around the pale Braviary.

We spoke of this, Cynthia. I am Mint Chocolate Chip to you. That's the name you offered me, and after tasting the confection I am proud to bear it so long as we stride together.

Cynthia flushed (although it was difficult to tell with her already red face) at the looks Lance and Ash sent her.

The Sage flung out a great wing as if saluting Lance and Dragonite. His boyish voice rang in their minds once more. There were several scars which marred his front, though no Braviary would think of their battle-wounds as something to be ashamed of.

It's my honor to face the Champion of these southern shores! I haven't visited the south since our lands were conjoined. My fellows named me Sage, not Knight, but I will bring all I have to bear against you.

"And we'll do the same for you!" Lance sang, practically trembling with excitement and joy as Dragonite clapped his great claws together.

"Begin!"

Dragonite shot into the air in the span of a second, unleashing a great Dragon Pulse at the Sage even as the strange Braviary remained grounded.

Their breath was nearly stolen away as the Sage drew upon his psychic abilities. The Braviary blazed in that soft lavender light, his power suffusing his every feather like ten thousand flickering candles had lit up all at once.

The Sage cocked his head and watched delightedly as the sphere of draconic power came hurtling closer, though Lance, Ash, and their partners looked dumbfounded as it slowed to a crawl as if caught in a jar of honey.

The Dragon Pulse slowed, then froze, though Ash thought he caught some nearly imperceptible motion to it as the Sage flashed. It would take an hour for it to reach the Sage at this rate.

Dazed's eyes widened. Ash shared a glance with her. Temporal manipulation.

He didn't miss the fact that the Braviary lazily kept track of Dragonite as well, always scanning just ahead of the golden dragon. Some of that might have been the Sage's vast psychic awareness (which seemed to swallow up all of Battle Rock with ease) but Ash couldn't help but think there was more to it.

It was my pleasure to emerge to an age of reason. Teleportation is an idle convenience nowadays. The relationship between matter and energy is well-understood by the masses. But everyone is still so nervous about playing around with time!

The half-frozen Dragon Pulse blinked out of existence. Dragonite roared as he just barely swerved out of its way. It detonated in a flash of light that was blinding from a thousand feet away.

Space. Time. It's all the same when you get down to it! You can't have one without the other.

Beneath the cheery young voice was an old, old mind. The strange Braviary seemed content to lecture as it defended against Dragonite's ferocious assaults. Every word was packaged and layered countless times with memories, emotions, concepts, and weighty thought. It was as if a lifetime's lessons slithered into their brains.

The will behind it relished the connections they drew. It relished the entanglement of minds. It relished the synthesis of something greater from their shared experiences. Just as it gave, it took.

Indeed! We're all children of the Three. We all bear their blessings. It's our duty to brighten and kindle the blessings of others, don't you think? Emotion grants us our soul, but it's the Will that allows us to convince the universe to see things our way for a moment.

A flurry of Draco Meteors spiraled down towards the Sage, but were caught in the temporal field yet again. They aged, scattered into stardust, and faded into nothingness beneath the Braviary's twinkling eyes.

But where would be without the Intellect and Knowledge to direct it all? A well-balanced individual has all three, of course. Will is fostered by Emotion, which is reigned by Knowledge, which is given resolve by Will…but I'm boring you!

Here's a new lesson! The better you know a thing, the better you can bend its rules. See?

Ash couldn't believe his eyes as the soft purple flames dancing upon each individual feather surged up. And from nearly a thousand feet away, Dragonite was slowed to a crawl. He remained in flight, but appeared as if he were in slow motion or flying through the aerosolized equivalent of quicksand.

Lairon in flight would've been able to catch him easily.

The technique only lasted a second or two before Dragonite burst free with a roar, eyes ablaze at being bound in such a fashion. Lance roared with him as the Sage winked at Ash and Dazed.

What a mighty will! He lives up to the tales Cynthia told me. Energy is easier to catch. All of us little cogs can change the direction of the Great Machine, even if only for a moment. Much harder when both of us are steering in different directions!

The Sage's playful glint turned a tad more serious as Cynthia signed to him. His eyes were fixated upon Dragonite, but Ash had no doubt that his psychic perception was attentive to everything Cynthia said. Then again, she could be giving him entirely different orders telepathically.

Misdirection was the name of the game.

But Ash watched hungrily as the Sage's pale wings flapped and carried his large body swiftly into the air. Every feather glowed with psychic power, rendering the Sage a beacon even in the afternoon sun. He flew swiftly, too swiftly, and Ash wondered if the psychic energy blazing softly about his light feathers might be doing some of the heavy lifting.

The Sage shrieked. His joy filled the heavens and Dragonite unleashed an echoing roar as the golden glint circled around the rock at breakneck speed. Plume couldn't take her eyes off the pair.

Poor Pidove was going to have quite the competition ahead of it.

Dragonite's attacks were rebuffed by the Sage's temporal control—it was terrifying and beautiful all at once to behold the ease with which the mighty psychic manipulated the adamant rule of time—but none of them missed that the Braviary was a tad slower to wield its might in the air.

Oh, the Sage was a superb flier! Ash wasn't sure how much of that was his natural skill versus simply guiding his great body through the air with his psychic powers. And at times he flitted forward with impossible speed, vanishing into less than a blur. He'd have sworn it was teleportation, but Ash suspected some sort of temporal field.

A day ago he would've said it was impossible. Or close to it. Now he couldn't help but imagine the possibilities!

But the psychic flight ensured that the Sage couldn't focus the entirety of his power. That slip ensured every reaction was a little slower than it might have been. Dragonite could work with that.

Dragonite lashed out with superb speed, though the Sage always seemed the quicker. But while the Sage could nullify his dragonfire and elemental storms, Dragonite was the greater warrior. He pressed the Sage whenever he could, doing his utmost to exhaust the monstrous psychic's reserves.

Nothing broke through the Sage's defenses, always accelerated or slowed out of the way, but Dragonite only grew faster and faster. He darted around the Sage as a predator did particularly sturdy prey. He pressed and pressed and pressed, leveraging all his hard-earned experience to gain the advantage.

The Sage seemed impenetrable even as Dragonite darted in and claws met shimmering talons. Dragonite was hurled away as the Sage screamed, propelling a psychic shockwave from his throat that rattled the golden dragon's bones, but Dragonite darted away and shot through the air at supersonic speeds to escape the next shriek, although the Sage pursued with that unnatural speed.

Both clashed again and again! Dragonite was the mightier, yet the Sage had no end of tricks. He reacted perfectly, ensuring that Dragonite never escaped without a mark. But for all his mythic skill, the Sage was slowing. Growing exhausted. Tired.

Dragonite was still fresh.

Dust billowed through the air. The mountain groaned beneath their feet. Fire and frost and psychic energy filled the skies. Pressure mounted. Wild pokémon fled even as Ash and his team inched closer and closer to danger.

Lance and Dragonite fought in perfect sync. Cynthia and the Sage were similarly matched thanks to their various abilities, but whereas Cynthia was a master of the battlefield, Ash could see the Sage's inexperience shining through as the battle went on.

Braviary's power was as costly as it was impressive. There was far more in the Sage's arsenal than temporal manipulation, although that seemed to be its favored skillset, but Ash suspected that the Sage had enjoyed a long, long period of peacetime.

When was the last time he needed to regulate his abilities?

Too long, I tell you! The Learned of Uxie were always a bit fond of pastries. I'm regretting all my indulgences these past few centuries!

It was odd to hear a psychic of the Sage's caliber telepathically huffing and puffing in Ash's mind, but it was what it was.

"Learning anything?" Ash hissed to Dazed, who had scarcely blinked since the battle began.

You would scarcely imagine how much. The elegance of Oldest-Waters' techniques! The patterns are so intuitive even as my mind struggles to comprehend them. When I tug upon Space, it flows like water. Time is rigid and unyielding as steel. And yet Oldest-Waters wades through it like mercury. I cannot…

"You're Dazed," Ash spoke with the utmost confidence. "You will."

Dazed's eyes curved upwards.

And that was that.

The Sage grew more and more dangerous—Dragonite was frozen and struck with psychic shockwaves, reverted backwards as if teleported directly into the Sage's blows, and soon accumulated dozens of talon marks and bloody wounds. Probably a few concussions as well.

But Dragonite broke free with every attempt to cage him. His wings would flex and tear through psychic snares. Dragonfire would break the Sage's every working. Golden scales blunted every assault.

The Rock broke.

It didn't stop either of them.

Lance and Dragonite continued to work in sync. But Cynthia and the Sage learned. The Sage had no doubt seen a few scrapes in the pasts, but they seemed distant memories.

The Learned of Uxie had a militant arm, the Knights of Uxie, who acted as protectors of the Great Library of Canalave and other outposts of the scholarly order, and Ash knew they'd played a part in the bloody reproach of the supernatural abominations and foul works of the Artificer (whatever that was) and other Aura-forged relics of the Weeping Centuries.

They had scoured as much as they could from memory. After meeting two Spiritomb, Ash couldn't blame them. What other horrors had been scattered to the winds or buried deep beneath Sinnoh?

Whoever or whatever created such pitiful things deserved no less than to have their memory erased.

While the Sage didn't seem the martial type, Ash was frankly alarmed at just how quickly it grew to match Dragonite. The Braviary's strength drained quickly, but its reactions improved even faster.

The Sage responded more efficiently. More swiftly. More viciously. He and Cynthia both studied Lance and Dragonite as one (no doubt using their abilities to enhance the process) and rapidly gained a deep comprehension of the ebb and flow of the duel.

His psychic abilities began to weaken, but the Sage matched Dragonite even more fiercely with the knowledge and intuition he gleaned.

But Dragonite was a Champion's cornerstone. An avatar of battle itself. And even as the world shattered beneath the force of their techniques, Dragonite's keen instincts and experiences won out over the pale Braviary's new enlightenment.

The Sage's keen mind and monstrous abilities taught it quickly, but Dragonite was brilliant enough to match it.

And to recognize when the Sage no longer commanded the flow of time so easily.

The fliers came apart. Braviary was largely uninjured thanks to the psychic shell encasing its feathers, though they were nearly faded now, and Dragonite escaped with bloody gouges down his tan chest.

But Ash felt Dragonite's surge of victory as the Sage floundered, his flight no longer so smooth. He couldn't just whisk away at impossible speeds and angles anymore. Dragonite held the advantage in flight. But more importantly, the Sage couldn't run away.

Not quickly enough, at any rate.

Cynthia's grey eyes flickered. She felt it too, and the Sage immediately darted away.

Lance grinned like a loon. All code and secrecy was thrown aside as he jabbed his finger at the Sage. His cape whipped around his shoulders rather fantastically, and for a moment he truly looked the part of a conquering hero from the old legends.

"Obliterator!" Lance roared loudly enough to quiet the world. Fire filled his words. Dragonite cried out in delight. His jaws opened wider than Ash thought possible. "You might've made friends with a monster at Lake Acuity, Cynthia, but I was busy making a monster of my own!"

Cynthia signed frantically to the Sage, but Ash didn't miss the utter delight in her expression. It probably matched his own.

"Show me everything you have! Don't let me go back to Sinnoh empty-handed."

Lance cackled madly as Dragonite chased after the Sage with a mouthful of blazing turquoise light. They neither burst out in a great stream nor coalesced into the familiar shape of a Dragon Sphere or Draco Meteor.

No, it was almost underwhelming.

Ash felt reality shudder as a pale light of faded emerald with a hair-thin streak of molten gold at its center speared forth from Dragonite's throat in a finger-wide beam.

At first it blazed through the air and struck after the Sage before the quick Braviary could react. Nothing happened. But Ash felt the change.

A single turquoise spark burned like a cinder near Dragonite's maw. Then two. Then four. Then eight! In the span of a second, those sparks chased after the emerald-gold beam ravenously, multiplying exponentially until the entire sky was burning with dragonfire.

Ash's skin seared beneath its heat even as Dazed, Nidoking, and Oz supplied their power to shield the delicate humans from Obliterator's horrible pressure.

The sky was alight! Draconic flame devoured all in a great conflagration that swelled and roared and billowed wider and wider until it swallowed up everything within five hundred feet, and if it weren't for Dragonite's eyes squeezing shut and waging a war of control with the Obliterator Ash suspected it would grown larger and larger.

"Yes! Yes!" Lance waved his hands and danced madly, bouncing up and down like a lunatic. He looked like a teenager again, all bright eyes and battle-crazed grin. "Burn it. Burn it all! Set the world ablaze!"

Ash wanted to giggle along with him as the atmosphere itself ignited. The blue-green fires grew fat, feeding upon that latent draconic power within the atmosphere, and all the Sage's might was nothing in the faces of the fires of creation.

He felt as the Sage's power flooded the world in an effort to reign in the Obliterator and perhaps reverse its course, sending the destructive energies back to sparks, but Dragonite's flames burned hotter than time.

The Sage's working collapsed. Cynthia recalled the masterful psychic soon after, and the battered Princess emerged to assist Dragonite in neutralizing the nigh-uncontrollable tempest that he'd unleashed.

Torrent inspected them closely, but neither he nor Ash felt comfortable enough to intervene for fear of making the deadly conflagration even more agitated.

"So that's Obliterator, huh?" Ash muttered to himself, sharing a quick and critical look with Torrent as he dissected the technique. Such power was perfect for Lance. Any challenger unlucky enough to make it past Bruno and Koga would have no idea what was about to hit them.

A self-propelling draconic conflagration. Obliterator was quite the fitting name! If Dragonite hadn't held it under fierce control, Ash suspected that the Obliterator would have burned and burned. One spark begets another.

The flames would hardly swallow up the entire world, but anything in their immediate vicinity was toast. All the wild pokémon watching their battle had fled the moment the fiery cataclysm had emerged.

They were smarter than Ash, at any rate.

Dazed appeared exhausted, though at least Bob and the other teleporters had been gracious enough to assist in managing the damage. She sagged and Oz offered the Hypno her beefy arm to lean on, which Dazed took gratefully.

As for Battle Rock, it was scorched black. What little vegetation clung to the rock at the beginning of the battle was simply gone. Ash in the wind. Even the resolute tree was reduced to nothing. Stone fused and heaped upon itself as slag. Smoke billowed upwards in an immense black cloud that would probably have a hundred Rangers bearing down upon them.

"We've got our work cut out tomorrow," Ash grumbled to Nidoking and Tangrowth, who both blinked dumbly at what was once Battle Rock. "How are we supposed to fix this?"

Ash shook it all off.

"Lance is the winner! I don't think we can take any more of this."

Ash still had stars in his eyes as the teleporters whisked the Champions away from the catastrophe. Lance was absolutely covered in soot and his Feather burned brilliantly at his wrist. All that shone through the dust clinging to his skin was his bright hair and a shit-eating white grin.

"Did you see that?" Lance exulted, roaring loudly to Dragonite as the exhausted golden dragon nearly toppled to the ground next to them. He was absolutely beaten. Figuratively, anyways. "You're amazing, Dragonite! I can't wait until the others can pull it off."

Dragonite sneezed out a great cloud of ash and groaned, worn to the bone by both his battles with Princess and the Sage alongside the finish. Obliterator must've been brutal to pull off, although Ash suspected the vast majority of its demands came in the control required. Any less and they'd have all been swallowed up and scorched to the bone by the raging fires.

Ash wasn't too bothered. Seeing Obliterator in action was well worth the risk. Dazed sighed telepathically into his mind.

I worry about you, Friend-Trainer.

"Ah, you've earned a rest! Maybe Esteban's cooking will liven you up later," Lance cheered, slapping Dragonite on the back (carefully avoiding the many wounds left by the Sage) and promised Dragonite a dozen different treats before recalling the tired cornerstone. "Ash, did you see that?"

"I saw it!" Ash beamed as Cynthia approached, looking just as delighted as the two of them. Torrent rumbled his agreement, no doubt comparing it to the techniques he'd been working on. "Weaponizing the latent draconic power in the atmosphere like that is genius. It barely requires any energy on Dragonite's part, although the control issue looks like a nightmare. Unless you're surrounded by nothing but enemies. Or something that can take it."

Not that much short of a Legend could stand up to that. The King Under the Mountain could probably survive it well enough—Ash couldn't couldn't forget it weathering the mighty attacks of the Crystal Entei in the corrupted Greenfield—but anything of flesh and blood would be hard-pressed.

Lance's brow furrowed. His jaw hung slack for a moment as he looked at Ash as if he'd never seen him before. "Uh, yes. How'd you—"

"You beat me!" Cynthia didn't sound displeased whatsoever. Quite the opposite in fact, although Ash suspected half of it was just her using this battle to probe Lance's new developments and dissect him for future bouts.

While Cynthia showed her hand in the form of the Sage, Lance had thrown Obliterator and several other token improvements he'd made over the years. She would always struggle against his fliers, but Ash doubted it would take long for her to devise new plans and come back for a rematch.

In particular, Ash thought that this had been a chance to whet the Sage against truly formidable fliers for the very first time. Princess and Togekiss were incredibly skilled, but it was Lance's true mastery.

Give the Sage a little time and experience and it would be a terrible opponent indeed. The strange Braviary's rapid adaptation, incredible psychic potential, and partnership with Cynthia practically ensured it would grow into a true monster. All it needed to do was become properly molded into the martial mindset of a Champion's partner.

"Well fought, Lance! You made me eat my words this time."

"This time. I can't wait to see what you'll pull out next time," Lance said, puffing up, even if he certainly realized everything Ash had. "A fine match! Sinnoh is well-defended, I see."

"As if her geography and the horrors of Coronet weren't enough!"

Even Cynthia's good cheer seemed broken at the mention of the things crawling in the Underground. Ash hoped to pry a few stories out of her later.

The Lily of the Valley tugged at her black coat, a darkening pink already dusting her cheeks thanks to the brilliant sun wheeling overhead. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead.

Ash sympathized. Lance smirked. "You're looking a little faint, Cynthia. Shouldn't a refined lady such as yourself be carrying a parasol or something? You don't want to get sunburnt the first day."

"You're right! The weather must be getting to me if you managed to beat me, Mr. Half-My-Team-is-Dragonite."

"Sorry, I couldn't hear you. I'm just so distracted by the heat!" Lance laughed as the Feather embedded into his wrist blazed up in a flare of golden tongues and radiant heat that spiked the temperature up a dozen degrees. Whatever remnants lingered from Obliterator's destructive power flared as well, amplifying the effect.

The sun pounded upon their shoulders. Steam boiled off of Lance's skin, which was surely scalding to the touch.

Cynthia was dripping with sweat now, panting beneath the miserable weight of her thick black coat, but she paid no heed to that discomfort as she trained her grey eyes upon Lance's Feather. Fire burned all about him, shrouding him in heat and light and warmth, and Ash barely noticed.

But Sinnoh's Champion was fascinated.

"The Fire of the gods upon your wrist! I'll never be unimpressed. If only you could see yourself now, Lance. More than Indigo finds its champion in you. A man cloaked in virtue. Trapped beneath a mountain of his own success searing himself away bit by bit…"

Lance flinched at that. Cynthia seemed faraway, lost in her own perceptions, and Ash felt the tug of her upon the universe. All that was Cynthia had expanded outward, intermingling with the waking world, and he suspected Lance himself was blind to it.

"Then I'm terrified to think what Ash must be," Lance said drily. Ash's Feather burned bright, sparking and searing and glowing, as Lance's own crackled with intent. "I'm blind next to you, Cynthia. But even I can feel that."

Ash felt her sweeping perception rush over him like a wind, scouring him inside and out. She didn't dare take more than a brief glimpse.

"Mantles of the world woven in and out. A promise around his neck and hope on his hip. A giant trapped in too-small flesh," Cynthia murmured. Lucario was beaten and bruised, yet he reached a paw out to steady Cynthia as she swayed. "Ugh, I need a snack. I feel like I'm about to pass out! Some refreshing ginger sake ice cream, perhaps? We could celebrate your victory!"

"It's hot," Ash offered as Cynthia's musings came to an end, though they all knew it was the least of Cynthia's struggles. "Can't be helped."

Lance smiled. "You've never been one for Hoenn's climate," he said kindly, stepping forward to take Cynthia's drenched black coat from her shoulders as she peeled it off. "Have Andel take you back to the apartment. Enjoy some of the sangria I know Steven has been hiding from Wallace…or go pillage his stupid expensive wine cellar."

"Wine cellar?" Ash squinted. "He lives in an apartment."

"That's what I said! But Steven didn't let that stop him. Not that he even drinks the stuff," Lance complained. "Claydol and Aggron just like collecting rare vintages. But enough. Get a drink. Relax and trade stories. Spend a few hours figuring out how you'll beat me next time. Sound fair?"

"Quite," Cynthia smiled, far less rattled than she had been after first catching that swift glance at Ash. "Yes, that sounds like a splendid idea! I'm sorry to leave you both so soon, though."

"Nonsense!" Lance cried, sweeping his cape forward as Andel politely stepped forward to greet Cynthia, who recalled Lucario and the remaining members of her time. "We gave Ash a fine show and I defended my claim to my pupil. We'll catch up before too long!"

Cynthia's smile turned more genuine as she offered Lance a brief hug before stepping back to stand by Andel, who waited patiently for them to finish with his normal air of professionalism. Bob could take a page from his book!

"Farewell! That really was such fun. I haven't had a rush like that in ages! Aaron is chasing after me with all he has, bless his heart, but my beloved Elite Four have grown…complacent. Perhaps I'll have to stir the pot when I get back!"

"They'll love that," Ash said. "Have you considered taking Claydol with you? It'll whip them into shape. Or make them so mad they'll give all they have just to make Claydol shut up."

"Oh, I'm not that cruel," Cynthia said. Her eyes glittered in a way that said she was exactly that cruel, if not moreso, and her lips curved into another smile. "So long! Don't be late for dinner. Wallace and Esteban are cooking. They're sublime."

With that, Cynthia Carolina vanished alongside Andel without so much as a twist or flicker of light.

It was only Lance, Ash, and their teams left upon the half-shattered Battle Rock. Yeah, Ash was definitely going to need to swing by with Tangrowth in the next day or two once the damage had a chance to settle. He suspected Battle Rock would be seeing quite a bit of use over the next week.

Once the glass had cooled, anyways.

"I've missed her! Steven's like a brother to me, but you know how he can be," Lance confided in Ash as they stepped away from the molten remnants of Battle Rock. "He can get stuck on the little things, but Cynthia gives as good as she gets. She fit right into our motley crew."

"Before you became Champion, right?" Ash asked as Lance easily guided them through the woods. They were clearly familiar to him. How many times had he walked this path?

"Just before," Lance said with a nod. "We met when I was training with Drake—Cynthia was a Master then, already a rising star, but she had her own pursuits in Hoenn. She had no interest in titles or glory back then. No intention of becoming Champion. Not in the short-term, anyways. She just wanted the freedom that came with power. She was always smarter than me…"

Lance trailed off, shook his head, and refocused.

"Battle Rock's a bust," Lance said, turning to face Ash with that same wild smile upon his angular face. "But what do you say to a quick spar? Most of my team's toast after that fight, but I can think of a few who could use a test against a fierce opponent."

Ash puffed up at the praise. His eyes found Infernus, who looked ready to leap at Lance right then and there.

"Magnus is still fresh, isn't he? You're on!"

Flannery was going to be so jealous.

XX

It was strange to crash in his room in Steven's apartment with such legendary figures under the same roof. Dinner had been a lively affair—Wallace and Esteban could give his mother a run for her money, even if he'd never tell her that—and Ash had retreated after a while to give the Champions some time to catch up.

He'd gotten in a few hours training with Lance, sure, but Ash knew all too well just how precious time with those closest to him was. Lance and Steven were precious to him, but he didn't want to overstay his welcome.

Ash had been invited to this auspicious occasion. That didn't mean he had to monopolize it. He had plenty to keep him occupied while the adults went out on the town and had their fun: plans to make, training to see to, and the simple pleasure of basking in his team's presence.

It was hard to beat that.

Still, Ash and Dazed couldn't help but be amused by the little domesticities displayed by the Champions: Wallace teleported back to the Plateau before bed, but apparently had an entire arsenal of self-care supplies stashed at Steven's place, as he spent the last thirty minutes lounging around in fancy turquoise pajamas and a muddy green facemask that left him looking a bit like an alien from one of those old Unovan films. He must've been quite the sight for the guards at Ever Grande City when he reluctantly returned to his quarters.

Cynthia turned out to be a poor cook—Lance quickly dissuaded her from helping Wallace and Esteban, and the Ludicolo just as swiftly ushered her out of Steven's kitchen—but she, Lance, and Ash all proved vital in the clean-up. She took all of five seconds to work out a simple but elegant system to distribute the load and ensure the whole process was all painless as possible.

When Cynthia wasn't enthusiastically discussing archaeology with Steven (although he seemed more interested in the mineral samples she'd taken from beneath Coronet than her historical delvings) she was scribbling down various mutterings, observations, hypotheses, and scripts in a small notepad that she stowed in one of her many, many pockets.

Her famous black coat had become emblematic of Cynthia herself and inspired all sorts of fashion choices amongst young trainers, though not many pulled it off like she did. Lance could probably sympathize with that. But Ash was pleased to find it was made with practicality in mind as well as simple aesthetics.

He could appreciate that choice.

"It helps to organize my thoughts. There's nothing more frustrating than having a wonderful idea only for it to slip away into the aether!" Cynthia had explained as she scribbled away with neat, precise handwriting. "Writing them down renders inspiration a little more concrete. I've spent my life pursuing a well-ordered mind."

Ash stole a glimpse at the notebook. Her handwriting was beautiful enough to resemble calligraphy such as he'd seen in Ecruteak's museums, but Cynthia clustered her writings so densely as to make a massive, nigh incomprehensible block of text.

"The body is the cudgel of the mind. Strength is vital, of course. Why else would we spend so much time pushing our teams to their limits? I can't fight alongside my team like Bruno," Cynthia said with some regret, then tapped her beautifully embellished pen to her temple. It was shaped from Probopass castoffs and had the entirety of the Lily of the Valley League's founding framework micro-etched into the surface in a display of unbelievable craftsmanship.

Cynthia had been very proud to announce that fact. Steven had been quite impressed.

Lance affectionately proclaimed it as the nerdiest thing he'd ever seen.

"Fisticuffs with an excessive number of Dragonite might not be in my future, but we trainers have our part to play, don't we? If all I can contribute is my mind, then I will ensure it's the sharpest it can be! And certainly the sharpest among my peers, although Lance makes that an easy task."

Lance laughed from the couch and quickly spat back a retort. It didn't take long for them to descend into their friendly bickering once more. Wallace looked resigned, though Steven looked a tad offended before Wallace leaned over and whispered in his ear.

Claydol flashed blue.

For goodness sake, Steven! Haven't you ever heard of sarcasm?

Still, Ash kept track of Cynthia's writing more closely from then on. In the midst of conversation she'd jot a note down, scribble out a strategy, and once even recorded a joke from Lance that Ash didn't particularly understand, although it got laughs from the other Champions.

She even allowed him to read over a few pages. Most of the writings strained his eyes to the point that he'd prefer a magnifying glass to examine it with, but within the labyrinthine texts of her notes was found random throwaways, philosophical musings, ideas for techniques that Ash lacked the context to comprehend, and a hundred other assorted tidbits.

It was fascinating to see her thought process, and Ash was particularly eager to catch little whiffs of the research she'd done on Lake Acuity's shores. He needed her newest book to come out! A few sneak peeks couldn't be too much to ask for, right?

He knew Steven and Lance's own habits like the back of his hand at this point, so they hardly raised an eyebrow. But it was fascinating to watch the interplay between the giants—seeing their playful jabs and old jokes left him feeling a little lonely all of a sudden.

What was Gary up to? Flannery? Jon and Amelia?

Flannery had become a familiar presence over the last few months, but it felt like ages since he'd met the others. But the Silver Conference was just around the corner. A little less than six weeks now.

Soon.

But those were the thoughts that guided him off to bed that night. As much as he missed them, though, Ash could never feel properly lonely with his team around him.

They slept close that night.

XX

"So tell me about this Silver boy," Lance asked as he led Ash through a sparse forest near Rustboro towards their training destination near Battle Rock. His tone was light, but the words struck Ash like a blow.

Panic filled him. Had Wallace talked? Did Lance know?

No, no. He was being silly. Lance was just curious.

"I know you've been busy down in Hoenn these past few months," Lance said, voice darkening for an instant, though it wasn't directed at Ash himself. The Indigo Champion glowered at a passing spruce as if his mere gaze might set it aflame. Perhaps it might. "I have no clue how you found the boy! I can't imagine hunting through all of Hoenn for one person. He must be very special."

Lance knew his hatred for Team Rocket better than almost any other. Ash wasn't dumb. He read between the lines—Lance was genuinely curious about his motivations. Was it suspicion? No. But Ash was extending his own neck out for a Rocket…well, it was out of character.

"Not really," Ash said slowly, thinking back to his terse fragments of messages exchanged with Silver. There was enough tension there to cut with a knife. "He's kind of a jerk, actually."

Lance guffawed at that, and even Gabite chortled at his side with a strange, wheezing laugh that sounded like sandpaper scraping together.

Circumstances and Ash's dogged determination (and Mewtwo, although Ash wouldn't be mentioning that detail to Lance, an idea which the cold presence seemed to resonate with) had brought them together, but their first meeting had been…difficult.

Perhaps they'd warm up and improve in time, but Ash wouldn't be particularly upset if they remained at arm's length. He'd done his duty. He'd extended his hand and offered Silver a chance, which the boy had wisely accepted.

Silver had his new life. It was up to him whether or not he wanted Ash to be part of it.

Family was something you chose, after all, even if Ash had somehow seen fit to consciously include Silver in that category. Even he questioned that decision at times when Silver was being particularly difficult.

And what a coincidence it was that 'difficult' seemed to be Silver's default state.

But hey, nobody ever said one had to like family. It helped a little that the League reported the boy had been passed out for most of the past few days, his body no doubt exhausted by harsh life on the run.

The road could be exhausting at the best of times, let alone when one was fleeing from just about every major faction in Hoenn.

"Kids can be grumpy," Lance said sagely, looking pointedly at Ash, who rolled his eyes. The Indigo Champion had been in a playful mood ever since coming to Hoenn. He'd been running the missions for the last few days to ease the burden on Ever Grande's overloaded shoulders, but that hadn't done a thing to dampen his spirits.

Lance was happy. It warmed Ash's heart.

"So he's a jerk. No surprise given what I've seen in his file," Lance said offhandedly. Ash's pulse quickened. While Lance played the loudmouth, Ash knew exactly how quickly his mind moved beneath the mask. Would he pick out the truth? All he needed was a few scraps and the time to actually put them together. "Those interviews…sheesh. Giovanni really was a piece of work. It's a miracle the kid is as put together as he is given the circumstances he was raised in."

"Giovanni set the bar low," Ash said bitterly. Lance's eyes flitted over to Ash for just a moment.

"You must've seen something in him."

Ash shrugged, uncomfortable with where the conversation was headed. "He's a stupid kid. Made mistakes. Didn't think he deserved to suffer forever for it." Then, softly, "His team trusted in him. Did I see more than the faintest ember? No. But his team saw a bonfire."

Lance nodded, always partial to fire-related metaphors. Ash supposed he had the flickering Feather upon Lance's wrist to thank for that.

For a moment it seemed as if Lance would press further, but the tall man caught sight of the set of Ash's jaw and softened. "We can talk about something else if you like. I won't push. But if you ever need to get something off your chest…"

"You're the first I'd come to," Ash said earnestly, grateful as ever for Lance's simple awareness of people. Would Steven have backed off so readily? Ash loved his teacher, but he doubted it. Steven would have blindly questioned further and further until Claydol smacked him in the head with it. Then he'd frantically apologize and probably beat himself up for the mistake. "Thank you."

They walked in comfortable silence for a bit. Lairon chased after Gabite with a happy warble as he shot through the air. His levitation was getting faster and faster, although he could never quite catch the quick dragon. Sneasel flitted from tree to tree above, cackling as he stymied their progress with well-placed Ice Beams or veils of shadow.

Ash smiled.

"It's amazing how swiftly you and your team grow," Lance chuckled as he tracked Sneasel's dark shape through the boughs. Gabite screeched as Sneasel lightly rapped his wing with the flat of his claws and danced away. "Leaps and strides don't cut it. I swear I'm going to blink one day and you'll be tearing through Indigo Stadium after me!"

He grinned. "When did you become a prophet?"

"Probably when I stuck this thing to my wrist," Lance said, tapping the Feather. It flared a brilliant gold that reminded Ash of a coalescing Hyper Beam.

Ash snorted. "Well, it's better than nothing." He rapped his knuckles against the Feather embedded in his chest, smiling as it crackled with Fire and Lightning alike, a dim rainbow glow manifesting in tune with his heartbeat. "You should look into getting a few upgrades."

Lance looked a little green at the thought. "I'd rather not play with my soul like a Persian with a ball of yarn."

He shrugged at that. They were getting close. Cynthia had no doubt already made it out, having been eager this morning to go out and work on a few anti-Lance and anti-Metagross strategies (her words, not Ash's) but had been kind enough to offer to referee for them later.

But there'd been one question that had gnawed at him.

"So…Obliterator."

Lance's eyes shone even as Gabite cast a hungry look back at them. That didn't last long, however, as Lairon happily slammed into the scrappy dragon-type like a freight train. The two went tumbling down in delighted shrieks.

"Beautiful, wasn't it?" Lance beamed. "Not the most creative name, I admit. It's my first attempt at creating a Draconic technique of my very own! I've generally just stuck with the general Wataru arsenal and focused on making the most of them. Ha! Clair is going to be so jealous. She's always been a little more innovative on that front. She's crafted plenty of techniques, but nothing truly Master-level. I figured it's about time I live up to my title."

"Master-level?" Ash scoffed, recalling the terrible self-propelling inferno a single spark of Dragonite's might had unleashed. It very nearly reduced Battle Rock to a slag heap! If that was Master-level, then Plasma Blade was a butterknife. "Obliterator could wipe an army off the map if they weren't prepared."

Lance's face darkened as he glanced at his Feather. "More than an army, I hope. I've aimed my sights higher."

Ash said nothing to that, but continued after a moment's thought. "It's clever. A self-sustaining blast…how did you ignite the draconic power in the atmosphere? "

The Indigo Champion stared at Ash for a moment. His jaw hung open a little dumbly just as it had back at Battle Rock. If only Ash had a camera!

"I, uh, well…" Lance coughed. "I'm no Drake, but I've picked up a few tricks. The dispersed atmospheric energies seem to respond aggressively to highly concentrated draconic power, although draconic energy itself is unstable enough to the point it's almost impossible to actually reach that level. It's an exercise in control far beyond Dragon Pulse or Draco Meteor. Dragonite is the only one who's managed it, and it pushes him to his absolute limits."

"You're more of an elemental specialist, though," Ash pointed out. Lance himself acknowledged that he wasn't the sort of dragon purist that Drake was. "Do you think someone with more of a dragon focus could set it off more easily?"

While Lance's strategy undoubtedly paid off—he was nigh unstoppable—it had come at the sacrifice of the specialization in draconic abilities. That didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. Lance's 'weak point' put him well above the average Dragon Master.

Lance smiled with the same confidence that made him Indigo's beloved hero. "Oh, there are some out there who might do it better. But that number could be counted on one hand. Two of them are here in Hoenn. And this is only a shadow of what I intend for Obliterator to become, a shoddy prototype, but it's still beyond me at the moment. Perhaps Drake—"

The Champion seemed poised to explain more, but a clear voice burst across the clearing as they stepped into their new battlefield. It bore only a scant few scars, but was clearly a favorite spot of low-level trainers based upon the pitted tree trunks, small craters, and various furrows in the earth.

Hopefully it would remain mostly in one piece after they left.

"Took you long enough! Princess and I were beginning to fear you'd forgotten about little old us."

"For shame," Lance tutted, wagging his finger at his fellow Champion. Gabite immediately straightened as Princess' cold yellow eyes settled upon the feisty little dragon. Ash couldn't blame him—Princess was his mother, after all, even if Garchomp were hardly known to be the most attentive (or affectionate) parents. "Not my favorite Champion! Then again, you've only earned that place because Steven decided to break convention for once in his life."

Cynthia chuckled, but watched Sneasel clamber through the trees with blatant interest. While she didn't possess one of his species, Ash had no doubt that she'd encountered plenty. Great Weavile and Sneasel packs practically ruled parts of Snowpoint's frigid valleys.

"I'm glad you'll finally be facing a worthy opponent," Cynthia said, smiling at Lance and Ash both. "I know I was just a warm up."

"If that," Lance teased. He pointed at her bright red face. Cynthia had rather begun to resemble a Corphish's bright carapace after a few days beneath the pounding Hoenn sun. "And what did I tell you about sunscreen? No one's going to recognize you when you go home."

Cynthia wrinkled her nose. "I have been wearing sunscreen. Hoenn just hates me."

"Oh," Lance considered that for a moment. "That's fair. Anyways, are you ready?"

"Yep," Ash said, grinning madly as Sneasel dashed to his side and set his eyes upon Gabite with deadly intent. His white claws clicked together as he scraped them. Lairon hovered up to Cynthia's leg and affectionately headbutted her, which left her wincing. "Sorry, he does it out of love."

Lairon chirped and hovered back to Ash's side. Cynthia watched the display with bemusement. "I'd hate to see what he does to his enemies."

Ash just smiled, then squared up across from Lance. Cynthia coughed and refocused. "This will be a one-on-one battle. The battle will continue until knock out or surrender. Any questions? No? Wonderful! Begin!"

It was Gabite who had challenged Sneasel, and it was Gabite who struck first. The churned dirt beneath Sneasel's feet came alive and sprang up in a spray of sand and grit, moving swiftly to encase Sneasel and bind him before his incredible mobility could be used to his advantage.

At the same time as the impressive display of earth manipulation—how many Gabite could do that, Ash wondered—Gabite surged forward with the same incredible acceleration that Princess displayed. The jet-like appendages on the side of his head exploded with draconic power to propel him at a speed that would've made Plume proud even as grains of sand and dust and mud tore themselves from the topsoil to wreathe around him in a grinding halo.

Gabite struck Sneasel in the blink of an eye with a mighty roar that Princess inclined her head at, but his quarry was gone. He struck the earth like a hammer and enormous waves of force exploded forth to radiate out twenty feet in every direction, ravaging shrubs and toppling trees. The Earthquake couldn't catch Sneasel either, however.

Sneasel still liked to play with his food, but Gabite was too mighty of a foe. His friend dashed to and fro, spitting Ice Beams when he had space and flickering into illusory doubles of himself when the relentless Gabite came bearing down.

Yet Gabite was a monster. He'd been born to one of the mightiest Garchomp in the world (likely the strongest) but it was Lance's brutal and masterful training regime that had acted as a crucible to forge Gabite into a beast that Masters wouldn't take lightly.

They'd sparred before, but Ash watched Gabite with admiration even as he barked out coded orders for Sneasel to decipher in the heat of the moment. Hours upon hours of drilling and preparation ensured that they were interpreted smoothly and efficiently.

Sneasel yowled and Gabite roared as they came together in a vicious melee. One would never think they were friends of a sort with the brutality with which the duo fought: Sneasel was all grace and hooked blades, slashing to kill with claws wreathed in shadow and venom and frost, while Gabite was an earthen beast come to life.

While Gabite's speed and strength was formidable enough, it was the seamlessness of his techniques that Ash admired the most. Every moment turned the earth itself against Sneasel, though he was too fleet of foot to be caught by it. Nidoking's earth manipulation was far stronger, but Gabite had learned to weaponize topsoil and dust in a phenomenal way.

In a contest of power and skill, Ash would put his money on Nidoking. But Gabite used what he had masterfully. Sprays of dust moved to blind Sneasel or obscure Gabite's slashes. They masked the brilliant spray of a Flamethrower even as Gabite met claw with claw.

Splintered stone came alive throughout the arena and hung suspended in the air, eager for Sneasel to come near so they could jab and prod at him to force him into terrible positions against their master.

Scorching Sands burst to life, bright cinders flaring as Gabite commanded them to launch at Sneasel and burn him alive. Fangs snapped, filled with flame and draconic power, and the scrappy little dragon Ash had always thought a menace to paperwork proved to be a menace to all.

Gabite was a whirlwind that Sneasel met blow for blow. When Gabite struck, he dodged. When Scorching Sands attempted to swallow him up, he broke Gabite's control with a miniscule flex of Distortion that left the fiery sands collapsing to the soil from whence they came.

Frost bit at Gabite. Sneasel's every movement bled cold and shadow into the world, robbing Hoenn of its heat. He never flinched when a claw scraped him or sand gouged at the light wounds littering his black fur, but struck back faster and harder to make Gabite pay for every drop of Sneasel's blood with five of his own.

Gabite struck again and again, cloaked in the elements, but Sneasel flitted back and forth—he was nimble enough to slip by most attacks to pry scales off Gabite to open chinks in his armor, but he fought with cunning as well.

Feints there. Quick Attacks while splitting into a Double Team there. Strong as Sneasel had become, his forte wasn't to match Gabite with brute force. No, he aimed to bleed him dry.

That wasn't to say it was an easy fight! No, far from it. Gabite seemed inexhaustible, and as Sneasel shot away with Quick Attack to open up some space, the little dragon roared out in challenge, set himself, and shot forward with his wings spread wide.

Motes of turquoise energy billowed around him and exploded with intensity as he became a living Draco Meteor. It was Dragon Rush in truth, but Gabite could barely be seen beneath the furious power.

The number of Gabite capable of mastering the technique to such an extent was miniscule: Dragon Rush demanded an enormous amount of power. That was difficult enough to manifest and control at the best of times, but the heat of battle made it far more demanding.

Lance shouted constant orders to guide Gabite as the creature shot into Sneasel just before the little dark-type could spin around, but Ash was faster.

"Mind Breaker!"

Sneasel didn't have time to turn and react, but he didn't have to. Cynthia and Lance alike staggered as that awful dread power exploded from Sneasel in a foul miasma, sucking them hollow and draining them dry of emotion and will, though everyone in the clearing bounced back after a few seconds.

The Mind Breaker's choking influence reminded Ash of Spiritomb for a moment—Ash knew the two had been spending a lot of time together, but had Sneasel drawn inspiration?

Gabite collapsed. The Dragon Rush sputtered out into a harmless spray of sparks, though Sneasel was canny enough to dodge regardless. That proved to be a smart decision, as Gabite managed just enough control to ignite them for a brief instant.

Even the soil that had begun to spin up to trap Sneasel fell apart beneath the sheer power of Mind Breaker. The gates to another world were briefly opened, all alien and toxic and chaotic, and the world seemed dimmer in its appearance. Like the soul and vibrancy had all been drained out.

The forest was silent.

Lairon whined, but Ash just laid a hand upon his steel armor to comfort his friend. Ash himself remained standing.

Gabite rose faster than Ash could have hoped for, but it was plain as day he was still rattled and drunk on the point-blank Distortion burst. He swung and spat flames, but they went wide. He sought to command the earth, but it crumbled to dust.

Sneasel could have ended it there. They all knew it. For a moment Ash saw that conniving look in his eye, the predator instinct that Ash adored. The ruthless fighter that would go for victory at any cost.

But Sneasel softened and leapt back, raising his claws in challenge.

Lance straightened, still pale. The Feather upon his wrist was dim and half-extinguished, though it regained strength by the moment. "Ugh, that's quite a bit more potent than the last time we felt it. It was an uncomfortable breeze then. Now…well, I never would've thought to see Ash Ketchum using tricks like that!"

He wasn't disapproving. Proud, if anything. Lance was always eager for any avenue to victory. The Indigo Champion would never turn his nose up at strength.

Ash shrugged. "Lost to Confuse Ray and ghostly crap too many times. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Or at least do it better than they can."

Lance chuckled at that even as Cynthia recovered and began to eye Sneasel speculatively, a calculating gleam in her grey eyes.

Mind Breaker was a potent weapon, but it was no more than a bludgeon. Realistically, any Dark or Ghost Master could train at least a few of their members to produce something similar. It was a concentrated burst of Distortion that only a tiny fraction of pokémon would ever be able to summon (and most ghosts would practically destroy themselves with it) but raw power wasn't an issue for most Distortion specialists of that caliber.

No, most proper specialists and Masters found more value in the esoteric and fine applications of their partners' abilities. Distortion was the realm of the impossible, and truly skilled practitioners such as Morty's Mismagius could manifest bizarre effects most could never imagine.

Sneasel didn't have that kind of experience…yet. But he did have raw power, endurance, and endless conditioning courtesy of countless hours of Hunt the Sneasel, though recently those games tended to end with Sneasel turning the tables on his pursuer after a merry chase.

He still fled instantly from Bruiser, though, especially after his evolution. Ash couldn't possibly imagine why.

No, Mind Breaker was just the beginning. A fantastic offensive technique that struck past the physical. It was also quite effective for training Sneasel's sheer capacity, much like when Oz used Storm Surge. His power had skyrocketed since mastering it.

But its true potential would only shine when Sneasel grew more skilled. Dispel was yet another step forward, and one that Ash was eager to develop further. That was power.

Ash's thoughts returned to Sneasel, who was poised for the challenge Gabite was gathering himself to offer. Determination blazed all about the dragon, nearly as tangible as the Dragon Rush he'd conjured up before, and a wild sort of hunger filled his warm yellow eyes. How different they were from Princess'!

"Is this it?" Cynthia gasped, hands flying dramatically to her mouth. "Will the brave Ash Ketchum avenge my honor against this vile barbarian with the adorable and mighty Gabite?"

Gabite seemed mollified by the praise, if not the spirit of the words, but Ash noticed that Cynthia neglected to mention the fact that she and Lance had both won several battles in the last few days, although Roxanne made them go to Ever Grande City after the second.

Redrawing maps was a pain, apparently.

But Gabite just turned to stare at Lance with that ravenous, desperate look again.

Lance had a stupid grin on his face.

"Yes, I think so. This is just what you've been waiting for. It's time, little prince. Time to become a king!"

And with that, Gabite began to shine. White light suffused him, blazing bright as the sun as vast amounts of energy were unleashed and began the seamless process of restructuring Gabite's anatomy.

Bones softened and shifted, lengthening and thickening. Sharp scales healed and grew harder. His claws grew into great scythes even as his wings expanded. The stubby dorsal fin melted and grew vast.

And when the light bled away, a mighty Garchomp stood before them. Tears shone in Lance's eyes even as Garchomp roared his first. The forest quivered. Cynthia clasped her hands together even as Princess' yellow eyes softened just a tad.

He was her own, after all. Any Garchomp worth their salt would dream of the day their offspring returned as a proper rival.

"You did it, you beautiful beast, you did it!" Lance roared loud as any of his dragons. He immediately fumbled with the Poke Balls on his belt to release his team in a frenzy—space was rapidly at a premium as a small army of dragons poured into the battlefield, but they shrieked and howled and sang at the sight of Garchomp, who awkwardly waved at them with his new limbs. "Attaboy!"

Lance's team rushed forward like a tidal wave to engulf the new Garchomp in a pile of scaled bodies, but Garchomp barked something at them and shook his head fiercely. They stopped, nodded, and retreated to the sidelines to stand by and support their newly evolved brother.

Garchomp turned to Sneasel, dipped his head in respect, and raised a scythed claw.

Sneasel returned the gesture, nodded back, and sprang at the beast with new ferocity. Their earlier duel had been draining, but there was no hint of exhaustion in Sneasel now: he moved like quicksilver, all speed and grace and fluidity, and did not balk at the great newborn Garchomp.

It was to no surprise that Garchomp proved a furious foe. The dragon roared, flecks of turquoise flame spitting from his savage maw, and rushed forward to dominate Sneasel as a hacking and slashing mess of bladed wings.

Garchomp's yellow eyes flickered with delight as every movement came easily. His strength as a Gabite had been formidable, yet the evolution had amplified his strength tenfold. Every muscle bulged and flexed with power. An errant blade slashed through a sapling without a hint of resistance.

The dragon roared with glee as his true potential revealed itself, even if he still fell a great deal short of his mighty teammates. Every movement faster, every twitch strong enough to tear his foes to pieces. Fire dribbled from his mouth in a raging stream, filling the twisting air with heat and forcing Sneasel back, and the sand erupted forth with newfound fury.

Sneasel ducked and dodged deadly blows, weaved around snapping jaws full of knife-length fangs, and danced between the Sandstorms that flowed like water around Garchomp. Garchomp roared and the twin streams of sand came rushing down upon Sneasel like a river, though he flitted away with incredible grace to avoid the strike.

They smashed into a thin oak and tore it to splinters.

Garchomp snarled and launched himself after Sneasel, though his movement was still clumsy. He'd relearnt basic motions quickly enough, but grace was still beyond him. He was clunky and awkward like a newborn Ponyta once he started moving.

He shot forth so quickly that he barreled through a small thicket of bamboo rather than into Sneasel, who just barely restrained a cackle at the sight. But the little dark-type was all business now. The time for levity had gone the moment they crossed claws.

Ash called out coded orders now and then to steer Sneasel and prevent him from tunnel-visioning, but to be honest his friend had things in hand. A single blow from Garchomp's vastly superior power would spell his doom, but Sneasel skirted around the great seas of flame and sand and blades with contemptuous familiarity. He managed to always be an inch from danger.

Sneasel had recognized Garchomp's new weaknesses just as he knew to be wary of his newfound power. Give it a week and this gangly clumsiness would be long gone, but for now Garchomp still hadn't learned how to properly use his body.

He was thick and powerful with muscle, but awkward in it, as if the dragon was wearing a too-large suit. Garchomp's attacks were stronger than ever—half the nearby forest was in tatters from his stray, overpowered elemental storms—but wasteful and unfocused.

All that power and he had little ability to properly wield it. That would come in time, but for now…

Garchomp roared, frustrated even as he exulted in his terrible power (he looked dazzled every time an errant Flamethrower spat about thirty feet farther than he'd intended), but Ash almost laughed when he realized it: Sneasel was applying the same tactics he used against Infernus.

Delay. Dodge. Wait for the perfect moment for the killing blow.

Both Lance and Ash called out frenzied orders to guide the flow of battle, but things continued much as they had been. Garchomp slowly gained a little more control as he tested the limits of his power (no doubt Lance had quickly reigned him in with his own commands), but Ash saw the writing on the wall.

Sneasel just had to keep dodging. Ash urged him away from direct conflict, though Sneasel was in no hurry to test his strength against the furious Garchomp regardless, and ticked down the seconds.

Evolution tended to provide a massive burst of vigor and strength thanks to the immense energies coursing through the pokémon's body, but that fresh stamina was short-lived. The act of evolving was exhausting, and the adrenaline surge it provided could only last so long.

So all they had to do was wait it out. Garchomp couldn't moderate his strength well yet (perhaps he could discuss the issue with Bruiser later) and wasted precious endurance with every breath. Fires burned unnecessarily hot. Great storms of earth tore gouges from the earth when a spray would do.

Dragonfire flickered over him in showers of sparks as Lance's jaw set, and Ash knew this was it. This was Lance's attempt to circumvent the exhaustion he knew was coming.

"Run!"

No codes that time. Sneasel was way ahead of Ash. The moment the furious stars washed over Garchomp, Sneasel took off into the forest as if a monster were chasing him…and Ash supposed that was exactly what was happening.

"Hey!" Lance cried. "That's no fun."

It wasn't fun, but neither was taking an empowered Garchomp to the face. Ash grit his teeth as Garchomp swelled with might, drowning in a corona of dragonfire, and the beast unleashed a bone-chilling roar as the blue-green flames settled about his powerful frame and sharpened to a bloody red.

Garchomp tensed, then shot forward as the Outrage consumed him. It was a testament to his own skill and mental fortitude that he remained in control, though the ferocious technique demanded blood and savagery. The power propelled him forward and he simply tore through tree after tree rather than weave around them—Sneasel yelped as Garchomp's wings spread and shot the dragon into the canopy, but managed to slip beneath.

A little spray of the boiling red energy lashed off to slash Sneasel, sending him careening to the ground with a cry of pain, and Ash snapped off order after order as Sneasel scrambled to recover. He leapt to his feet and shot away as fast as he could, but Garchomp came crashing down just behind him.

The topsoil came up in a roar, Garchomp somehow retaining the wherewithal to unleash a small spray of Scorching Sand while still maintaining the Outrage in a display of phenomenal skill, and Sneasel just barely rolled away to freeze the incoming onslaught with a frigid Ice Beam.

It melted straight through the frozen portion of the earth wave, but it stopped the attack in its tracks. That didn't mean Garchomp was done, however. He came bursting through the sizzling mess with a roar, blades slashing, only to spit with fury as his fiery teeth came crunching down on an illusory copy.

Sneasel split away and ran for all he could, dashing forward with Quick Attack to cover as much ground as possible, and Garchomp gave chase. The boiling blood-red flames of Outrage were beginning to fade, the last vestiges of his enormous strength failing, and Sneasel smelled weakness.

Just as Garchomp came surging forward for one last attack, Sneasel wheeled around and spat an Ice Beam straight into the dragon's right ankle. It landed with perfect precision and encased the joint in an icy prison. Already awkward and clumsy in his gait thanks to evolution, Garchomp had no chance of breaking free with the casual effort a more experienced member of his species might have.

No, instead he ignobly toppled to the ground. Garchomp's exhaustion was apparent, and Lance's face was grim as Sneasel flickered forward in a rush of blackness and laid his bone-white claw against Garchomp's throat.

Garchomp blinked once, coughed out another sandpaper laugh, and was returned in a flash of light.

"And the victor is Ash Ketchum! Does this mean Indigo has a new Champion?"

Sneasel stared utterly dumbstruck at the sight even as Lance and his team roared their congratulations—even Cynthia clapped, though she still watched Sneasel assessingly, and Princess grudgingly inclined her great head.

And then he squeaked as he was wrapped up in a crushing hug courtesy of Ash and then flung up into the air.

"Yes! Yes!" Ash screamed, catching Sneasel even as the dark-type still stared blankly, then tossed him back up. "You did it! You won!"

Then Sneasel cackled in delight, wrapped his long arms around Ash, and squeezed right back.

Victory was sweet indeed.

XX

Steven twitched.

"Relax," Ash soothed his teacher as he clutched the rippling Mega Stone in his hand. It was so gentle, yet the power within was tangible. It wanted to be used. Wanted to be freed. Life dwelled within, humming with the barest trace of awareness, and Ash felt the potential writhing. "I promised I wouldn't blow this one up."

"That shouldn't even have to be a concern!" Steven despaired. "These are precious artifacts. Irreplaceable! And after what you did to my poor Thunder Stone…"

Ash twitched as he imagined what Steven would say if he'd heard of the dozens of elemental stones that Professor Oak had more or less fed to him the last time he was in Pallet.

"Agatha never broke hers," Lance pointed out. "Believe me, she tried. She always wanted to see Lumiose's reaction if she handed them back a dead, empty Mega Stone."

Steven looked a little ill.

Both Ash and Lance quieted for a moment after Lance's words, each feeling the loss of the former Elite Four.

"Karen and Will both took to it famously," Lance assured Ash, shaking the feelings off to plaster on a cheerful smile. "She asked me to let her know how today went—she and Will were practically screaming when they heard about Sneasel and Garchomp, you know."

"Oh really?" Ash grinned. "What'd they say?"

"Both quickly went off to train for some reason," Lance said with a smirk. "Karen won't let me in on her newest tricks, although I can guess what she's up to. Will loudly announced his intent to master the cosmic forces, naturally. My stories of the Sage of Acuity seemed to inspire him."

"He's not the only one," Ash said even as Steven fidgeted nervously every time Ash's fingers tightened around the Mega Stone. It pulsed with his touch, threatening to awaken fully. If only he would let it. The cold fire watched intently. "Dazed has been playing with time as well. She's been doing a great job of hiding it, but I'm afraid she's not as subtle as she thinks."

Dazed sniffed.

"If we can focus, please!" Steven cut in. He looked ready to have a heart attack as Ash felt the stone with the faint connection between them. Memories of sky and the wind beneath his wings filled his soul, and he felt an aching longing as he was restricted to the base earth. The Pidgeotite glowed orange in his hand and Plume leaned closer to admire the sheen.

Ash nodded and even Lance quieted down.

"Now," Steven coughed, taking on the didactic tone he always did when ready to drop a lecture. Ash waited patiently for him to continue, though Plume plucked the Pidgeotite away to hold in her beak. Somehow that relaxed Steven. "Mega Evolution is a fairly simple phenomenon to manage. Although it requires a strong bond between pokémon and trainer to avoid…complications—"

"He means agonizing pain, disassociation, ego death, and unstable transformations," Cynthia chimed in as Wallace gallantly led her into the clearing arm-in-arm. They'd just returned from a spar. Judging by the bright smile on Cynthia's bright red face (oh no, she'd started to peel) she'd emerged the victor.

Then again, knowing the Champions, she might have just been enthused for a wonderful fight. It was something Ash knew all too well.

Steven frowned. "I had hoped to frame it more diplomatically."

"I'm not sure how much you can pretty that up, dear Steven," Wallace said, patting Steven's arm. "Even I have difficulty finding beauty in such an imperfect fusion."

"It's not anything to be concerned about!" Steven waved his arms frantically at Ash, though Ash wasn't worried in the slightest. Actually, Steven was the only one looking to have more than a smidge of concern. "A minor factor, really! We predict such a result to be incredibly unlikely."

'We' meaning Stevagross was in full effect, Ash supposed. The metal behemoth stared at Ash with those cold red eyes.

"I'm ready," Ash said, reaching out to brush Plume's feathers with his fingers. She cooed at his touch and passed back the Pidgeotite. They'd already set her up with a small brace around her neck to hold the Mega Stone, and Ash was quick to place it in its safe place against her chest. "Do you have the Key Stone ready?"

Steven looked a little hesitant to pass it over, but he did so regardless. He exhaled the moment it didn't explode in Ash's hands.

Cynthia looked a little disappointed, although Ash suspected she had scientific curiosity behind her. She quickly jotted a few things down on one of her many notepads before stowing it away into her coat pocket.

"Although it's a simple process, catalyzing the initial transformation can take some time," Steven explained. "Metagross assisted me somewhat with their psychic abilities, but even so it took nearly an hour. It's quite the draining process. Both the pokémon and trainer will share the burden, but it will be almost crippling when Plume reverts to her standard form. But don't worry! I brought acetaminophen tablets for the headache."

Ash closed his fingers around the Key Stone and the pin it was set in. The marble-like stone was warm to the touch, comforting, and he felt the connection between himself and Plume solidify even as he stuck the pin into the underside of his cap.

They were one.

He stared at a trio of two-legs walking the dirt path beneath the tree she had claimed as part of her domain—tiny, runty, and frail as the grublings his mother brought him once upon a time. Cripples. They couldn't even fly!

One challenged him. Him! He puffed up. Let the featherless biped and his Barbed Guardian come!

It was the most wonderful mistake of her life.

Even as Plume's dearest memories flooded into him, Ash's own self mingled with her.

She watched the Pidgey fly to her defense against the Beedrill swarm unleashed by the Samurai Kid's utter stupidity. Adoration flared in her breast as the Pidgey struck down the horde with fury, casting barbed Poison Stings aside with a mighty Gust and landing upon his shoulder as a glorious Pidgeotto.

A great titan of stone and earth bore down on her, the partner of the First, though she scarcely knew it at the time. The mighty beast clipped her in a charge and whirled to face her, only to be knocked off balance by an enormous gale of wind, produced by the most majestic Pidgeot she'd ever seen.

She cackled like a madwoman as the magnificent Pidgeot reclaimed her throne at long last! Two of Fino Moore's greatest fighters brought low!

She guided the Pidgeot and the Kingdra through the motions of capturing the North Wind in their souls. They took upon her burden.

Certainty filled him.

"Open your wings," Ash said. "Fly with me."

Steven's jaw snapped shut as Plume began to glow white. It was impossible, a paradox of evolution, and yet Ash ignored it all in favor of jubilation as Plume evolved for the third time…even if only temporarily.

They were one.

She watched through his eyes as her body transformed. He felt her muscle knit itself sturdier and stronger, her bones lengthen and lattice.

Their transformation was smooth, easy, resplendent. They spread their wings wide (Steven had to jump out of the way) and cried their arrival to the Sky they had met at the Pillar. The world listened to the heralding shriek and went silent.

They opened their eyes and admired themselves.

They were magnificent!

The sun graced their plumage, which grew even more lustrous and beautiful. Their breast was a pure and shining cream delineated cleanly from the brilliant orange of their shoulders. Great red-and-gold feathers swooped together to form their crest, which flickered like flame in the sunlight.

And their wings! Their wings were long and mighty and spread wide enough to fill the world and dominate the wind beneath. The crest trailed far behind them, following the graceful lines of their mighty muscles to nearly brush the filthy earth beneath their talons and feet.

Nearly.

They would never allow such an indignity!

Their great wings were tipped with a dazzling line of cerulean feathers which caught the sunlight just so. Gorgeous!

They roared as one, for that's what they were. Let the world know what had arisen!

Lance laughed uproariously after a moment's pause, his bellowing laughter returning the world to life.

"Impossible!" Steven breathed, then pinched his nose. "Oh, what am I saying? I should have expected you to spit on convention."

They nodded primly.

"Oh, you are a beauty!" Wallace gushed, though he remained a respectful distance away as they turned to face him with raptor eyes. "My, you've granted me the most brilliant inspiration! Your wings tipped with seacrest, your crest a captured sunset…I must compose a poem!"

"That will be acceptable," they said. "I expect it by sundown."

Wallace chuckled.

As for their masterful teacher Lance, that lord of the skies in his own right, he looked downright awed. That expression only strengthened as they spread their wings and took flight, though their human body remained on the ground with the earthbound.

"It's overwhelming, isn't it?" Cynthia asked dreamily as she peered up at the vast feathered comet dancing through the skies with grace beyond any other. Their thoughts were sharper, their avian body more reactive, their command of the wind amplified beyond belief!

"One soul conjoined in two bodies. It should be an abomination, for we know what road that can lead down, yet it is instead the creation of something greater and more wonderful than the sum of its parts. A marvelous synthesis!" Cynthia continued, then smiled warmly at them. "I tried to bite Spiritomb with my human self the first time I Mega Evolved with Princess. The instincts are so fierce."

"I never noticed a difference," Steven said, frowning.

"That's because you and Metagross spend all your time in each other's heads anyways," Lance said drily. He looked wistfully up to the sky. "Blazes, she's fast! I'd be worried for Dragonite if they tangled like this. It's just not fair that they never discovered a Dragoniteite! I'll spend the rest of my life searching for one after I get off this blasted throne."

What a glorious challenge that would be! The battle-lust filled their heads. Oh, if only Zinnia-Challenger-Soon-Corpse was here now. They would tear her feeble beasts from the sky and pluck their wings out!

Let them know what true power was!

Sky-Yearning-Lairon watched hungrily, levitating as high he could before collapsing and falling six feet to the ground. They reached down to pat him. He was trying, unlike that Feathered-Shadow-Sneasel! Their first pupil was disappointing in his lack of ambitions.

But soon the Iron Child would join them in the skies.

Though their initial flight was swift and mighty and furious as they exulted in their newfound freedom—how different it was from riding upon a saddle!—they soon joined once again. Their avian half came down at breakneck speed only to settle gently upon the base soil once more.

The wind caught them easily.

There was no doubt in their mind as their human half leapt upon the other's back. The connection which joined them screamed with joy, both bodies quivering in excitement, but Lance caught them.

"Easy," Lance said, raising his hands. "You can fly, but saddle first."

"Fine!" They cried, eyes wild as they turned upwards to the sky which called them.

Thankfully Lance was a quick hand at adjusting the straps of the saddle for their avian half's new dimensions, and it was only a minute longer before the human half was secured into the saddle and they shot off with a rush of wind that buffeted their teachers below.

"Don't go too far!" Steven cried.

"Fly far! Fly fast! Nothing in the world can reach you!"

"Lance, stop being a bad influence!"

"What? I'm telling the truth. She was a hair faster than Dragonite before. There might be faster somewhere, sure, but I wouldn't bet on them finding her. Or lasting long in a fight."

"Yes!" They shrieked as the wind rushed beneath their wings, practically ushering them along by their own will. "We're here. We're here! Witness us, world, and face us if you dare!"

Nothing answered their call.

Their newly developed antennae shifted with the wind, allowing a deeper perception of the wind currents twisting around them like caressing fingers. They spread their arms and wings wide and shouted again, gleeful at embracing the flight in all its glory!

This form…it was unlike anything they could have hoped for! Their senses sprung farther and wider than ever before. One half's keen eyes penetrated far and vast, opened to the light and their sharp ears to every sound within miles. One half, the weighty force of many disasters threaded through it, offered insight into the nature of reality and offered depth to their sight.

Hoenn unfolded beneath them.

Their antennae stabilized their flight, secured it, smoothed it. New speeds awaited them, new peaks, and they laughed madly as the emerald and sapphire of Hoenn's forests and waters rushed beneath like great indistinct streaks of vivid paint.

They pushed the limits of physicality. Their avian half's enhanced physiology grew more and more natural as they swept north over Mt. Chimney, Lavaridge cradled within its sprawling foothills, and they felt the urge to sweep down and demand that Flannery come answer their challenge!

But then they would have to descend to earth…

No, that would come later. Great wings propelled them further and faster with every passing second, their song resonating with the air itself, and for a moment their cry felt like the splitting roars of a great dragon winding its way through the uppermost reaches of the atmosphere.

Clouds swept around them as they circled Fallarbor and shot east. Their wings beat faster and faster, yet their endurance was unsapped. They could fly for days. Weeks! They never had to return to the cloying dirt and all the troubles which came with it…

Lesser creatures fled. The sky was theirs! Hoenn was theirs! Even the great Salamence declined their challenge, as they should, though they found themselves terribly disappointed.

They covered the journey across Route 119 which had taken them six weeks on foot in less than an hour, coasting over the great grasslands and hundreds of waterways which brought Hoenn's heart to green life. Fortree's enormous trees burst up like a thicket of arrows from the earth, but they passed it so quickly that they were gone and distant mere minutes later.

Mt. Pyre was a blot on the world, the cataclysmic fist of Sky pressing down from above while the Ghost of Pyre waged an endless war upon the Red and Blue Orbs situated at its peak. They skirted the edges, drinking deeply of the elemental forces, and they saw the true nature of the place with eyes both physical and metaphysical.

A black, writhing tumor upon reality weaponized against the Fonts of Creation. Chaos turned to protect order. A terrible golden eye half-turned to Pyre, the weight of its glare enough to manifest the raging storm which terrorized the mountaintop.

Then it was behind them, and they swept across the sea with only a few glances at Lilycove's urban sprawl. Blue waters crashed far beneath them, ships and Wailord mere dots as they peered down from the heavens. Excitement sparked in their hearts. Could one of them be a worthy foe?

But alas, even the leviathans descended into the abyss when they came plummeting down. Disappointment filled them, but the world was too beautiful to stay subdued for long.

They laughed as a handful of fliers scrambled from Ever Grande as they neared. Swellow, Pidgeot, Skarmory, Salamence, and Tropius alike fell far behind as they exulted in their superiority. They shot past before the aerial defenders could do much more than blink, and soon left the jewel of Hoenn behind them.

And they never tired! Only the faintest edges of exertion crept in, the pleasant burn of a nice workout. As wonderful as their newfound power was—and the newfound unity, which was precious beyond anything else—it was the limitless stamina which proved the greatest boon.

They could go anywhere, see anything. Freedom. It sang to their conjoined souls.

Another hour passed as they darted across the archipelago's skies. Tiny villages blinked beneath. The Sky Pillar erupted from the sea like a spearhaft with its heart buried within the earth.

Anger filled them as they recalled the victory and defeat alike found at that place. They saw the Sky Pillar, humming with power and its countless murals and etchings blazing the gold of a Draco Meteor. Pain and exhilaration, conquerors and saviors, all had made their homes in that place.

They set both pairs of eyes upon the Sky Pillar's peak. League forces were arranged around the Sky Pillar now, layering the islands surrounding the great maelstrom in small camps and outposts, and they knew Glacia rested somewhere beneath. She had made the Sky Pillar her own headquarters as she pacified the remaining resistance in the archipelago, unwilling to let a chance of Zinnia's return go unmet.

Oh, if only elegant Glacia could see them! Her prim mask would shatter at the sight of their glory. The mighty Ice Master would break beneath the hurricane force of their winds and the depth of their unity.

They shrieked once to announce their arrival, but left the League behind as they descended to the three-faced tower's summit.

They had made a promise, after all, and it was time they kept it. Only the Sky Pillar itself could drag them down from the heavens. Anything less wouldn't have sufficed.

So they peered at the spot the Coward-Zinnia had escaped, the place where Hunter-Durand had bared her soul, and where Drake had come plummeting down to meet them. They relived those moments together, filling in gaps, and remembered the battle against the Dragon Master from two pairs of eyes.

Dragonfire against their feathers, the ectoplasmic blade of Dragapult seeking their heart.

Fury filled them, but they let it all loose in a wild cry as they claimed the Sky Pillar for themselves. If Zinnia wanted it again, she was welcome to come and take it! They would tear her dragons from the sky with their talons, show them the darkest corners of their mind and the weight of their existence, and crush them beneath!

But they did not linger for long. With their mission done, the blue skies drew them back. The archipelago vanished as they soared higher and higher, no longer fearing air thinning, and then came back down with a fierce dive that would've left their human half ill mere hours ago.

No longer. They'd been unshackled.

Their joy was infectious, vast beyond reckoning, and they cruised to and fro for another hour. Cities and towns were little more than passing curiosities. Dewford rose up, then fell behind.

They were faster than ever, stabler than ever. Let that Detestable-Wretch-Macy see them now! She would be blinded.

The sunlight blazed behind them as they circled east, pulled off maneuvers that left them laughing and laughing, and both were nearly overcome by the simple beauty of the mainland and archipelago laid out before them.

Verdant. Lush. Sunbathed. A beautiful land filled with beautiful sights.

An idea came to them, and the human half carefully tapped the release on an Ultra Ball. They slowed to a crawl. It was painful to limit themselves, but both knew it was only for an instant.

The weight of the keystone solidified in the human half's palm. Scooping, hollowing apathy battered the walls of their mind, but it was an old feeling now. Easy to weather before, and now it took only a burst of song to break its hold.

Dark power spilled from the stone, hesitant as it realized just where it had been released. Had it ever seen the true glory of the skies before or ridden the great winds? Their heart broke at the thought of being confined in the cramped tomb under the Piede for countless centuries. What a dreadful fate!

Lotus' lavender gas seeped outward. Little green cinders sparked to life and formed burning eyes and a flat line for a mouth, but it twitched as if overcome by the sunset behind them and the dazzling rays which scattered across the vastness of the rolling sea.

Reds and oranges bathed the world. The sun boiled above. The winds caressed them. Could Lotus feel, they wondered?

"Have you ever flown before?" They asked, and Lotus stared at them both. That power battered again more curiously, and they smiled as one as Lotus' blank mask broke. For a moment it seemed horrified at the fusion of souls, the merging of two into one, but as its perception swept over them they detected a realization.

Not the mashing of souls, but the union. Not the stitching of tattered remains together, but the synthesis of something new and beautiful and greater. Two tiny facets of the same infinite gem realizing the connection between both.

Something seemed to give in Lotus then, and the frigid lavender gas that often seemed more solid than fluid boiled. Loathing, envy, bitterness, horror, despair, and wrath all exploded from the Spiritomb at once, shattering the remains of its apathetic carapace, and for a moment Lotus' own nature rushed into them.

-wings carried them silently through the forest, producing nary a sound. Keen eyes spotted a Wurmple in the darkness of the night and they swooped down, talons extended and-

It was only the briefest of instants, but the two became three, and then separated.

Lotus stared at them, still boiling and writhing, but it was softer now. The envy was there, the despair as the emerald flame eyes turned to examine their keystone, but a few of the eyes turned outwards to take in the sunset.

They clutched the small keystone tighter, their bond mighty enough that the fraying presence of Lotus could only nick it.

"Will you fly with us?"

Lotus at last nodded, and they smiled as they beat their mighty wings and sprang off into the horizon.

XX

A gentle touch woke Ash from his dreams. They were filled with the roaring of crowds, the song of victory, and the wind buffeting his face. For a moment he missed his wings, his raptor eyes that could peer miles upon miles away with the same clarity of his own feeble human senses.

But the velvet paw brushed him again, this time with the edge of a cool claw, and Ash sat upright.

Dazed stood diligently by his side as always. There was nothing revealed in her gaze except for curiosity, and Ash smiled blearily as he saw Sneasel perched upon his belly.

"Want under the covers?" Ash offered, pulling the grey comforter up to offer the dark-type a little burrow. The Feather burned gold beneath his sleep shirt. "I can make it as warm as you want."

Sneasel stood upright and shook his head, something hesitant in his eyes.

Realization struck Ash. Glee, delight, catharsis. It was a long time coming, wasn't it?

"You're ready."

Sneasel nodded, steeling himself.

Ash reached into his pack and pulled out Karen's Razor Claw. "It's yours, Sneasel. Are you ready?"

The dark-type nodded, then hesitated. He swept his clawed paw out to gesture at the rest of the sleeping team. A few of the more diligent teammates had already woken from the slight disturbance—Nidoking foremost amongst them—and watched on from where they were piled around the bed.

Lotus had taken to watching over them as they slept, although most of its essence remained locked within the keystone. But right now Lotus' tiny cloud of purple fog solidified as a few emerald sparks manifested into a flat eye that settled upon them.

Ash smiled. "Dazed, can you wake them? I think it's time we had a team meeting."

As Dazed telepathically reached out to urge the team from their rest, Ash caught sight of the tension in Sneasel's little shoulders. He reached forward and rested his hand upon them, leaning closer and lowering his voice.

"It's scary, huh?" Ash asked. Sneasel bristled, but Ash soothed him. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. You've never evolved before. You've never felt the change. Change can be scary. It's only natural—you're leaving what you once were behind to blossom into something new."

He pulled Sneasel close. The little dark-type pressed his face deep into Ash's chest, burrowing into the warmth provided by his body heat and the glowing Feather, and peered up at him.

"When it first happens, you feel everything go white," Ash said slowly, speaking from experience. "It's hot, almost painfully so, and you're half-blind. Everything seems so pale. So lifeless. Everything except for you."

Sneasel's ears twitched. Ash reached up to rub affectionately at the red feather upon his head, recalling fond memories of trying to teach Sneasel to fly when he was just a hatchling.

"It feels like it should hurt, but it doesn't. You're not leaping into this prematurely. Your body is ready. It's desperate for change. You'll feel your bones scraping together as they rearrange themselves. Your muscles will thicken and twist. Your wings will—well, I guess you don't have to worry about that part."

Ash smiled down at Sneasel.

"Your potential will be undammed. But it won't hurt you. It's a little discomfort, but the freedom…you'll love it, I promise. It'll be over in a blink."

Plume cooed at Sneasel as she pulled her great head from beneath her wing, sharing a lingering glance with Ash, and hastily preened him. He had to be looking his best, after all! This was a big occasion.

The others offered their own congratulations as Sneasel drowned in their attention: Nidoking and Torrent grunted softly, acknowledging him with a dip of their regal heads, while Oz affectionately scratched her thick knuckles against his skull and left his black fur poofy and sticking out in every direction.

That earned her a hiss from Sneasel and a dirty look from Plume as she saw her hard work undone.

They all offered their congratulations (and Tangrowth wept from behind his shell of vines). Ash and Dazed ended up having to pry his squeezing vines off of Sneasel so that the dark-type could actually breathe.

Seeker chittered at Sneasel, the sins of his early months forgotten, and hulking Bruiser offered a reptilian smile down at his dedicated pupil. It might have been unthinkable when they first came to Hoenn, but they had all grown since those early days.

But there was still one who needed to witness this, so Ash was quick to return the team once they'd finished giving Sneasel their regards and had Dazed teleport him to a clearing not too far from Rustboro.

They'd spent plenty of hours training casually in the area in the week since the Champions had begun their little reunion. While the first few days saw the Champions spending as much time as possible with each other, duty called and occupied a great deal of their time. That meant Ash had plenty of time to work with his team to apply the lessons he was clawing from the days spent with each.

Once he'd found the perfect spot, Ash released the team. Including Infernus, who didn't take long to catch onto what was happening once he spotted Sneasel standing nervously in the midst of the team.

Infernus blazed like a star thanks to the heat rolling off his muscular form. He banished the dusk and revealed Sneasel in all his anxiety-ridden glory.

For a moment Sneasel peered up at Infernus challengingly. Infernus had always been a constant in Sneasel's life. Moreover, he'd been the ultimate foe. Even Sneasel at his brattiest regarded Infernus as something to be retreated with respect, much as one would wisely steer clear of a raging wildfire.

But now Infernus glanced down at him, snorted a black cloud of smoke, and nodded once at Sneasel. The Magmortar seemed to consider his part in the whole affair finished, as he swaggered off to carve out a spot for a lava bath to relax in.

Ash didn't miss that Infernus still oriented himself so that he could still keep an eye on the proceedings.

"Are you ready?"

Sneasel took a deep breath that inflated his lean chest, met Ash's eyes, and nodded.

A stupid smile split Ash's face. He knelt, traced his fingers along the sharp curve of the Razor Claw, and held the bone out for Sneasel to reverently take.

"You've earned it with sweat and blood. It's yours by right."

Sneasel's eyes squeezed shut as he felt the cool bone against his fur. For a moment nothing changed. The only light that filled the clearing was the molten glow of Infernus and his lava pool. The night was silent save the breathing of Ash and Sneasel's brothers and sisters.

Dazed's eyes flashed, and Ash allowed her influence to guide his words. His lips quirked upward.

"Not such a brat anymore, are you?" Ash said, his voice cracking ever so slightly. He'd embraced Sneasel from the moment his egg hatched in Viridian Forest. Every step of the dark-type's growth had been overseen by Ash.

Oz, Plume, and Tangrowth had nurtured him. Infernus had scared the living daylights out of him. Torrent, Nidoking, and Dazed were only a few years older than Sneasel himself, yet they'd acted as stern disciplinarians to steer him along the right course.

Seeker had been his temporary victim before earning his respect. Bruiser had detested Sneasel's brutal ways and low cunning until he'd begrudgingly allowed Sneasel to train alongside him.

Lairon—who currently looked ready to bury Sneasel in a loving tackle and a mountain of metallic flesh—was the first that Sneasel could feel senior to, though the steel-type very well may have been older.

And when it all passed, Sneasel was one of the first to offer his hand to Lotus in friendship. He was the first to spring to their defense. Masters and Legends and love were what had forged him into the pokémon he'd become, and Ash was proud to call him a brother.

After a moment's reflection, Sneasel's eyes opened and the white light of evolution suffused his wiry frame. Ash could feel the power, the change, the potential ready to manifest. The team watched as one as Sneasel fell to his knees, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the energies coursing through him, and began to evolve.

Ash was relieved to see that it was tame as far as evolutions went. Most pokémon were well-adapted to their own evolutionary pathway thanks to millions of years of natural selection, but it was no secret that evolutions could be somewhat painful.

Most offered little more than minor discomfort, but particularly extreme evolutions that amplified size, added brand new appendages, or dramatically resculpted the body could test those subjected to the forces of the metamorphosis. Those who evolved from stones tended to be more prone to that sort of misfortune.

Pokémon still made it through just fine unless there was some external factor at play, but Ash had seen how Nidoking had suffered in his early evolution. It hadn't hampered Nidoking, but the longer a pokémon remained in its earlier stages the more easily they tended to take to the change. Luckily, Sneasel's evolution promised to be far less taxing and transformative than Nidoking or Bruiser's had been.

Sneasel was ready, yet Ash still couldn't help but watch him just as protectively as Plume and Tangrowth.

The vast energies remade him entirely: his feather split and was joined by dozens of others to sprout from his scalp and form a bright red crest that fanned across his forehead like a blood-stained crown. Limbs cracked and lengthened, exploding forth as cells divided countless times in the span of a few instants, growing a little longer and lankier while dense cords of muscle overlaid the new improvements to the skeletal system.

And then the light faded away like the dimming of a star.

Sneasel was gone.

Weavile replaced him.

The dark-type was fierce and sleek where Sneasel was soft and fluffy. That wasn't to say he'd lost all his fluffiness, of course. Weavile wouldn't be in danger of freezing anytime soon, though that wasn't likely to happen in Hoenn regardless.

He looked up with eyes wide and dangerous, the slits filled with malice and predatory calculations. Claws a good deal larger and crueler flashed white in the lava light. A grey haze settled about him, that sickening feel like Ash was plunged back into the Confuse Ray swept over the clearing, and sharp fangs bared.

They all waited silently, half the team ready to wrap Weavile up in a hug and the other ready to pound him into the dust. Lotus' own dread power rolled over them like a tidal wave, intermingling and sucking the fire from their hearts, and Weavile finally blinked.

And when he did, it was Sneasel that looked back at them. Instinct and the aftershocks of evolution slowly faded away, replaced by a furry black cannonball that looked down upon his wicked claws with wide eyes.

A slow grin spread across Weavile's face and he turned to Ash as if ready to leap upon him and take his place upon Ash's shoulders just as he deserved, only for a few rubbery vines to snatch him and pull him into a tight hug.

Weavile yowled, kicking and screaming for a moment as Tangrowth gurgled madly, dancing up and down on his red boot-like feet, and practically cocooned the not-so-little dark-type in a wriggling shell of squirming vines.

Even Nidoking cracked a smile at that, and the team was quick to pile in—Tangrowth shuddered with happiness as a small army rushed into the mass. His eyes squeezed tightly shut in contentment and Tangrowth proved to have enough vines for all of them as they went in to greet their remade brother.

Vines whipped around to cling to Oz's crackling bicep, Torrent's plated armor, even around Nidoking's horn. Lairon was yoinked closer while Dazed looked horribly uncomfortable as she was picked up and dragged right next to Weavile, although she didn't care enough to fight back.

And finally Ash was pulled in, laughing all the while, and took his place of honor in the middle of it all. Weavile looked at him with certainty, and Ash knew that he was ready. Ready for a name. He hadn't found it yet, but even nameless Weavile had learnt very well who he was.

Hoenn really had been good to them…

XX

Dewford was lovely this time of year. It was hot (just as Hoenn always was) but a refreshing breeze came sweeping in from the sea and the beaches were lovely enough to make up for the miserable tropical climate.

Juliet and Andel had been kind enough to whisk them there, but Ash couldn't help but feel a spring in his step as he and Cynthia wandered the beaches near Dewford. Plume was off tearing through the skies in her Mega Evolved state, though she couldn't wander too far without the connection severing, and Ash enjoyed the opportunity to peer through her eyes even as she did his.

The connection frayed with every additional foot between them, and the additional experience they'd garnered these past few days enabled them to maintain their own individuality. It was a testament to their bond that they could maintain it at all with more than a mile between them.

Ash was happy to throw it all away when they were together—there truly was nothing more beautiful than truly becoming one with another of his brothers and sisters, and he sought it out as often as he could, though Ash feared that it was starting to make some of the others a little jealous.

Who knew? Maybe they'd find their own Mega Stones one day. Frankly, Ash would pay a disgusting amount of money for such a gift.

Princess wandered off in the distance, sniffing around and scratching up the terrain, and looked rather annoyed as Plume flitted to and fro. Unfortunately, Princess' own Mega Evolution wasn't particularly favorable to flight.

It ended up just being Ash and Cynthia who were free for the day. Steven, as always, spent the vast majority of his time working with Metagross and Claydol to hunt the vast webs of conspiracy amongst Hoenn's elites.

The Ever Grande League had already made nearly a dozen arrests in the last week, most of which resulted in even more information and light shed upon the layers of corporations involved in Magma's plots. To be honest, it was a little alarming as to just how widespread the shadowy organization's influence was. At least it seemed there was no honor amongst these thieves.

Magma didn't possess the same solidarity as Aqua, nor the same resolve, but they possessed a scattered network of contacts, agents, and those who they'd collected blackmail or compromising information on to leverage. They had fingers in every pie, even if generally just one or two that would be difficult to replace once the League pruned them.

And that was just what Steven was doing. He seemed a little manic at times, but the former Champion's love of minutiae and logic problems turned out to be the greatest boon Ever Grande could've asked for. Based on the current progress, Steven seemed convinced he'd have the vast majority of the conspiracy unraveled within a month.

Magma operated through various layers of affiliates, shell corporations, stooges, and those who agreed with their ideals of reclaiming territory for human usage (particularly in Hoenn which had such powerful wild pokémon factions like the Pack to contend with) but even their paranoia couldn't stand up to Steven's scrutiny.

As chaos died down across Hoenn, Steven's time to shine had come. Ash couldn't wait until Magma's leaders found a very upset Metagross at their door. But the worst suffering at all would come if Steven left them in Claydol's custody for a day or two.

That would have them rethinking their ways.

Lance and Wallace were busy with diplomatic visits. Cynthia had taken care to get her official responsibilities out of the way early, though she was still taking up one or two missions for Ever Grande each day to provide a bit of aid.

"I tried to get it all done before I turned too red," Cynthia sighed. She'd abandoned her black coat for fear of roasting to death in Hoenn's tropical heat—though her lips quirked up into a knowing smile whenever a refreshing breeze swept into the north or the temperature plummeted for some strange reason in Ash's presence—and replaced it with a beautifully patterned sundress that Wallace had gifted her the day before. "Though those hopes all proved to be in vain. Don't tell Lance I said that, by the way. He still thinks I'm in utter denial."

"My lips are sealed."

"Good man!" Cynthia said approvingly, then peered off into the endless waves battering the coastline near Granite Cave. She tutted and whisked the massive sunglasses (had she borrowed those from Steven?) off her face, revealing the pale white skin around her eyes. Compared to the bright red of her face it almost made her look like some sort of weird inverse Zigzagoon. "I can't appreciate anything with those blasted things on!"

Once her vision was cleared, Cynthia hurriedly released her Milotic into the salty waters. The breezy sundress she wore bore an exact copy of the beautiful water-type's scales within its threads.

Shimmer sang brilliantly as she fell cascading into the sea, glittering like a serpent of gems as she smoothly slid deeper before resurfacing in a spray of sun-sparkling water.

"Beloved, would you search the trenches and sands for any signs of our pet project? Some of the sources in the Underground point to the reliquary's location being inscribed here."

"Reliquary?"

"Another aspect of why we decided to have our little get together in Hoenn," Cynthia explained as she kicked off her neon green flip flops (okay, those were definitely borrowed from Steven) and sighed happily as she felt the sun-warmed sand brush against her skin. "I'd come across scattered references to beings of great power entombed in Hoenn post-Weeping Centuries—"

The image of Steven straining to master the hulking titan sprung to Ash's mind. "Regirock?"

"I thought so, but it wasn't until I communed with the Sage that it was proven."

Cynthia looked fondly up at the strange Braviary as he wheeled over the beach. The Sage spun madly through the air amidst a flock of curious Taillow that had come to investigate the strange sight, telepathically laughing all the while.

"Almost all written records were purged by the Knights of Uxie by command of the Lake Orders, but it turns out the old boy has a long memory."

I'm young at heart! What are a few centuries here and there?

"A drop in the bucket, apparently," Ash said, wondering just how old the Sage really was. He released Torrent, who rumbled pleasantly at the sight of the blue-green sea, and who seemed like a Horsea again as he dove in after Shimmer to help the Milotic in her tasks.

Old enough to remember the last one who walked your road. I watched him part the clouds above Coronet and followed him to the peak! But what does it matter? Age is just a number, right?

Ash's brow furrowed at that, then shook his head and recalled bright-eyed Mew giggling and bouncing around as it dueled Mewtwo with cataclysmic forces that could have torn a continent to shreds given enough time, though even it had proved to have an edge beneath all the cheerfulness.

"You might have a point."

"Of course he does," Cynthia chimed in. "The Sage—"

Mint Chocolate Chip.

"Mint Chocolate Chip," Cynthia said apologetically. "Sorry, it's difficult after hearing the Learned worship you for so long."

Worship is a strong word. 'Revered' might be more accurate.

"Regardless, Mint Chocolate Chip has been quite helpful. While he wasn't party to all the arrangements, he does recall the transport of three of the Aura-forged golems to Hoenn in the wake of the Weeping Centuries. Several factions saw it done, although the Knights did their best to suppress the information."

And what a shame it was to see the God-King's craftsmanship leave its home! You've felt it, Storm-Tamer. I can see it. They were marvels of engineering, the dearest desires of an aging monarch embodied. We won't see their like again!

"You really knew him!" Ash gasped, eyes alight with passion and hunger. "You have to tell me about him. I felt little wisps when I connected with Regirock, but I couldn't get any real answers. Do you know what happened to him?"

The Sage laughed into his mind.

Oh no, I'm not so unfortunate. But the world grew a great deal darker that day.

With that, the Sage fluttered away after a particularly scrappy Wingull that dared to go after his tail feathers, barking out a telepathic laugh before playfully freezing the little flying-type in time. Its fellows quickly scattered, and the Sage allowed the Wingull to escape his grip before lazily trailing after it.

Have at thee, miscreant! No, your offers of where to find the best garbage won't do you any good here. My new friends have already introduced me to the best human foods on offer! I'm glad we kept them around for all these years.

"That'll keep him busy for a while," Cynthia said as her grey eyes flickered. Ash felt them scour the world and peer deep into the abyss. He immediately felt an aching longing for the bond with Plume. The whole world had been theirs!

"Should we be worried?"

"No, he's a sweetheart," Cynthia dismissed as they watched the Sage sail after the Wingull. He always trailed just a few seconds behind as the little bird beat its flat wings furiously. "No, he'll have his fun and probably teach them a few tricks along the way. He's old, Ash. Old and powerful—there's not much psychic abilities can't achieve once you're skilled and strong enough. But he's been in self-imposed exile for a long, long time. The world is still fresh and exciting for him."

Ash hummed. "He certainly seems to be enjoying himself," he said, then scanned Cynthia over as she pulled the giant gaudy sunglasses back over her face. She even wore a light head cap of woven fabric over her golden head, though it didn't do much for the vast heaps of hair that trailed down her back. "I think you're burning."

"Certainly not this time!" Cynthia denied. "I'm burnt, sure, but I'm confident that I've prepared properly!"

Ash doubted it, but let Cynthia live in her fantasy land as he turned his eyes back to the sea. The Roar pounded in his ears like a war drum, growing deeper and stronger every day in the way of a slowly waking beast. It unsettled Ash, though the raging of the Sea proper was still a long way off.

But in time…

But Torrent's power lent the Song strength, and its soothing notes echoed in Ash's soul to dampen the Roar. It eased Ash's worried thoughts just as the sight of Torrent breaking the waves around him as he was propelled forth by briny water did.

Shimmer chased after with trills of her own, then they dove deep beneath the waters to hunt whatever artifacts that Cynthia and the Sage suspected had been entombed here. The Volumo Empire's fall had been vast and swift, and Cynthia had found plenty of artifacts off Dewford's coast before.

It just seemed that she hadn't been looking in the right place for the League. Not that her initial expeditions had set out with the goal of unearthing some kind of Aura-forged superweapon.

No, that was a modern problem.

"So there are two more of them hidden in Hoenn," Ash muttered. "You find the reliquary here, but then what?"

"They'll be protected, no doubt. Warded by all the power the Guardians could bring to bear. I suspect they'll bear guardians of their own. Sinnoh saw terrible bloodshed left in their wake. They wouldn't have left any precaution untouched."

His fingers clenched around Lotus' Ultra Ball. Cynthia's eyes flicked down to follow the motion. "More Spiritomb?"

Cynthia's face might as well have been carved from marble when the word spilled from Ash's lips. Her own partner twitched upon her belt, fueling irrational anger in Ash before he clamped down on it.

He'd learned to manage foreign influences a long, long time ago.

"Perhaps," she said, "but they were a crafty bunch. Creative, too. Believe me, there was no shortage of horrors they could have stowed away. It'll be quite the adventure to uncover their secrets!"

"And then what?" Ash asked. "Regirock is powerful, but it seemed…clumsy. More suited to a proper battlefield than hunting the Rattata picking at Ever Grande's heels."

Cynthia nodded, seemingly delighted that Ash had reached the same conclusion. "Oh, they're not the all-powerful engines of war they once were! Yes, they were designed as guardians or to break down city walls. I'm optimistic that dear Steven and Regirock might be able to shatter the work of the Guardians! Otherwise it's going to be quite the undertaking to break through."

She peered out to sea for a moment, a calming hand upon her Spiritomb. Its lavender gas boiled furiously.

"No, I expect that Ever Grande won't be able to use those three hammersto chase after their current foes. But it will anchor locations and render them impervious to threat—the golems might not be intended to pursue foes, but I doubt there's anything in all of Hoenn that could deal them lasting harm."

Ash nodded. "They'll bounce back. They're designed to persist. To recreate themselves."

Cynthia lit up. "Exactly! Their nature is of permanence. The God-King did not create them lightly. They were to be the anchors of his dynasty."

"And what use is a weapon once it breaks?"

"I can think of a few," Cynthia murmured, soothing her own Spiritomb. "Ash, may I make a request? Spiritomb has been interested in meeting another of their kind.

"Ah."

"I understand if Lotus is hesitant, and I would never wish to pressure you if you think a meeting will be harmful to Lotus' development. I'm glad the naming worked out, by the way! I tried with this grump," Cynthia said, lovingly brushing her Spiritomb's keystone, "but Spiritomb never took to any. I think they don't want to forget their origins. They're very…fractured."

Spiritomb writhed at that, though it almost seemed more a habit than any true vitriol.

"Wrath burns ever brightly," Cynthia said as if quoting from some old book, then chuckled to herself.

"Is that your core?" Ash inquired of Spiritomb, though he hoped he wasn't being rude. The keystone twitched even as Cynthia nodded. "Lotus has shown me…things. Flashes of before."

"The shadow lightens with every passing day, but we still struggle on occasions. I've seen enough glimpses of the past for a lifetime. Spiritomb doesn't recall all of their past selves, but we've reconstructed what we can after those difficult early days. Poor Steven! I can't imagine how unpleasant I was to be around back then."

Ash felt a little cold standing in the sun as those vicious memories which Lotus had bombarded him with echoed in his mind. "I'm sorry. Truly."

"Spiritomb was made of wrath, but they've broken past their nature. That's the first step. The key step. They were designed to embody a single emotion, a single feeling," Cynthia said, face twisting up in disgust. "A person might be consumed by rage, but even a Snowpoint berserker knows they're more than that."

Cynthia sighed.

"That's what they must remember. They were fashioned into an idol, a monument to sin and human failings, but I'm sure you know there's more under the surface."

Ash nodded. He hesitated, then said, "I'll need to ask Lotus first. Can you…"

"It'll just be for a moment," Cynthia reassured her own Spiritomb, then recalled the keystone as it angrily jiggled on her belt. "They're not the biggest fan of stasis. It reminds them too much of their old resting place."

"Lotus likes it, I think, although it's hard to tell sometimes. It's been enjoying the nights with us, though," Ash said as he released Lotus.

Darkness pounded at their skulls.

Oh, two of the poor creatures? This is a little too dark for me. Bye! I'll be back once I teach this scrappy little fellow a lesson.

The Sage's telepathy faded away as he left the skies over the beach and followed the Wingull ever further away.

Cynthia staggered beneath the power of a largely unbridled Spiritomb, though she held herself well. She was fire and energy in that moment, bouncing back with the force of memories good and bad, and Ash nodded to her once she'd overcome the initial storm of apathy and despair.

"Different aspects, yet the feelings is so similar…" Cynthia whispered between heaving gasps. She somehow had the presence of mind to scramble for her notepad. "Fascinating! How will their opposing influences affect one another? Will they complement? Nullify? Amplify? I can't wait to see!"

A single burning green eye peered out from a faint haze of lavender gas. It watched Cynthia flatly.

"Lotus, this is Champion Cynthia of Sinnoh," Ash said, well-aware the titles meant nothing to Lotus. But he'd told the Spiritomb endless stories of the Champions, and the familiar name at least piqued some curiosity. Something resembling it, anyways. "She discovered her own Spiritomb, remember? They want to meet you."

Lotus froze. The gas went frigid. The beach darkened. The temperatures plummeted.

Everything around them went still. An invisible pressure clamped down upon Ash's thoughts and skin, but he broke it with a simple flex of will. Cynthia's eyes squeezed shut as she fought to do the same, then ultimately managed to dispel the oppressive weight of Lotus' abilities.

"Would you like to meet them?" Ash asked softly of Lotus. "You don't have to. I'll return you if you want. I just don't know when we'll get another chance like this. When you'll get another chance."

Lotus digested that for a minute. Then two. Then three. Just as Ash began to feel uncomfortable with the long silence, something resembling acceptance radiated out from the Spiritomb.

Ash and Cynthia shared a look, then Ash nodded. Cynthia beamed as Spiritomb manifested upon the Dewford sand in a flash of light.

For a moment the two Spiritomb were still and silent. Great power burst from both, billowing up out of the crack in their keystones like swirls of miasma. Lotus' gaseous form was stiffer, almost solid, and a pale lavender to Spirtiomb's darker violet. One hundred and eight green cinders flared to life within.

Even Ash felt the breath sucked from his chest as their pressures washed over the beach. Perhaps the Sage had the right idea in taking a quick break!

Their presence twisted the world. Whereas Lotus brought the winds and sounds of the beach to a screeching halt, Spiritomb's fury stirred it. The sand grew hot and trembled beneath their feet, then the energy and motion was sucked away until Spiritomb brought it back to roaring life.

Air twisted with might. Motion and stillness. Hot and cold. Wrath and Apathy.

Yet as much as it seemed the two Spiritomb were roaring, Ash saw the way their power intermingled and bled together. The way traces of Spiritomb's violet flecked into Lotus' lavender and vice versa.

Two contrasting emotions pounded against each other like a hammer on an anvil, but the result was something softer, if that word could be applied to Spiritomb. More complete.

The beach was cast in shadow as the two Spiritomb communicated in flares of light and dark power, yet Ash and Cynthia simply watched. Neither was willing to disturb the fragile equilibrium between the two.

Lotus seemed more animated than ever, its thoughts and emotions pouring out with the swiftness of heated syrup rather than the usual sluggish viscosity of pitch. Its gaseous form was more fluid, softer somehow, and the normal uncaring armor was cracked to reveal little chinks for feelings to bleed through.

As for Spiritomb, it seemed…calmer. Less furious. The tempest had met a mountain range it could break upon. It boiled with less vitriol, its glare softened, and in both Spiritomb Ash could see a ravenous curiosity.

How long had they been alone in the world?

"I think they needed this," Ash said. He and Cynthia slowly inched away to provide the Spiritomb their space. "Seems they're a little less isolated."

"Their state of existence is near unique. Can you imagine the feeling? They live on a wavelength separate from any other. Aliens to ghosts and mortals alike," Cynthia said, eying Ash for the briefest instant. "It must be a relief to know there are others like you."

Ash nodded slowly as the words resonated deeply with him. Alone. He would never truly be alone with his team at his side, but even they hadn't walked the exact path he had.

The delicate interplay between the two Spiritomb was suddenly shattered. They both shuddered as the pale Braviary swept over, eying the two curiously.

Oh, that wasn't as bad as I thought!

Most psychics would break before the sheer presence of a Spiritomb. The oppressive weight of their nature was difficult enough for those with blind minds to bear. For one with their mind's eye open wide, it was like staring into a void sun.

The Sage, Oldest-Waters, left the Spiritomb cowering. They didn't cease their intermingling, but their green glares twisted up to regard the majestic Braviary. The avian cocked his great head as he eyed them speculatively, his presence like a douse of frigid lake water upon a flame.

His telepathy would've fallen short—their nature eroded psychic power like flame to cotton—but the Sage's youthful eyes seemed to smile at the Spiritomb as he met them on their terms. Rather than reaching out with his mind, Oldest-Waters shared his nature with them all and guided them to his perceptions.

Minute adjustments to the airflow beneath his wings carried him above the foothills of Mt. Coronet, Reality-Bound. Warriors fought beneath in sprays of acid, flame, and frost, and then all went still.

Men and pokémon turned against each other and slaughtered their brothers and sisters.

Legions succumbed to despair and froze in the snow.

A wicked abomination stole the might of others, wielding their techniques with true terror.

The greatest abomination of all, a monument to the foul art and the greatest of sins, bending all to its will.

The Sage hopped back, eyes still light despite the grim visions. A telepathic connection formed between the Sage, Ash, and Cynthia, though Ash could feel that the Sage somehow managed to entangle his nature with the two Spiritomb at the same time.

I'm no Knight, but I joined them in their campaigns. Even back then the years passed by like water through a sieve, but I wasn't so aloof as to blind myself. I freed one of their brethren from their cruel existence with my own talons. I scattered their keystone to the winds.

I would offer the both of you the same mercy…but it wouldn't be such a mercy at all, would it? Of all the wonders I've seen, of all the times I've glimpsed, this is the most wonderful! This is a kinder world than the one I was born to. We thought the Spiritomb were lost causes. We thought the only help we could give them was to set their souls free.

But the two of you! To see potential in one of the poor creatures. To have hope for them! To think bitter old me was content to live an eternity studying the Logic Cosmic by the Waters of Wisdom. What a silly name! Knowledge doesn't equate to wisdom. Sinnoh's history speaks to that.

The Sage seemed to mentally embrace them both, warmth flooding through the connection.

I gave up hope long ago. The Weeping Centuries taught me better, or so I had thought. The Spiritomb played a part in that, as did witnessing all the Artificer's abominations.

But this is a world I'm proud to live in! Mercy, hope, and compassion are everywhere I look. The darkest corners of my days now have light shining brightly into them. Cynthia, thank you for showing it to me.

Oldest-Waters dipped his regal white head.

This is a world worth fighting for. Dark times are ahead, but know that I will be at your sides when the day comes.

"And it will be our honor to have you join us!" Cynthia bowed back. "The old world and the new should stand together!"

The Sage nodded, satisfied.

And so it shall! Oh! It looks like I have some more discipline to dole out. See you!

With that, the Sage took off after he caught the scrappy Wingull from earlier trying to rally its hesitant flock to gang up on the Sage, who unleashed a psychic-empowered scream that rattled their bones. They were quick to scatter.

Both Spiritomb eased up once the Sage was gone—had they been on one of those ancient battlefields once upon a time, or did they simply feel the vast stretch of Oldest-Waters' power? If a Legend like Mewtwo or Lugia was a vast ocean, then the Sage felt like an old, ancient lake. Endless and deep and unfathomable.

Metagross might win in a straight battle, but Ash suspected that the Sage was one of the few who could call themselves superior to the psychic behemoth. They didn't seem to have delved into applications of force as much, but their esoteric abilities were far beyond Metagross' current limitations.

Speaking of current limitations…

Ash released Weavile, who was utterly unphased by the presence of the two Spiritomb. He spared them a look, but otherwise just greeted Ash with a casual wave and watched Cynthia assessingly.

"Evolution is a good look on him! My own partner, Rocky Road, evolved in a spar with Wallace the other day," Cynthia said. "Gabite, Sneasel, and Hakamo-o in just two weeks…it's worthy of celebration!"

He'd heard of the evolution, though he hadn't gotten to see it himself.

"He's worked hard for it," Ash said, smiling as he reached forward to scratch around Weavile's feathered crest. The dark-type happily leaned into it, purring as Ash hit just the right spots. At least something hadn't changed! "I was hoping to ask you and Spiritomb a favor, actually."

Both trainer and warrior turned to him with a bit of surprise. Spiritomb might have been spitting mad normally, but now it just glowered at him. Ash had Lotus to thank for that.

"We've been working on a technique," Ash cautioned, unwilling to reveal the full details to Cynthia of all people. No doubt she'd reverse engineer the principles easily enough once she saw it in action, though he didn't think she had any teammates who could make much use of Dispel. "Would you be willing to have Spiritomb attack Weavile real quick? We—"

Cynthia smiled, signed something, and Spiritomb's eyes turned a little more slowly than normal. Lotus' influence, no doubt. But that didn't stop the positively foul Shadow Ball it summoned from a little scrap of its violet essence from tearing through the air to smash into Weavile.

Or it would have.

Even Cynthia blinked as Weavile hissed, flipped backwards, and focused. Dark power suffused his right claws as he slashed through the air, and the Shadow Ball fragmented. Its foul essence splintered and shattered, though a few trickles still slammed into Weavile, though he was powerful enough to weather the assault, and Ash grinned madly at the proof of concept at last.

Nidoking and Dazed had both been happy (a little too happy in Dazed's case) to hurl a Shadow Ball at Weavile to test Dispel, but that was a far cry from a Champion's attack. Even a half-hearted one.

But the fundamentals were sound! Spiritomb had just given Ash exactly what he needed.

Dispel had a long way to go: it was slow, required a bit of time and preparation, and was still somewhat inefficient. But with this, Weavile was well on his way to countering the esoteric arts which had once spelled Ash's defeat time and time again.

Oh, he couldn't wait to use this against Karen! The look on her face would be well worth the time and effort that had gone into mastering the basics of this concept.

They'd trained furiously for the lasttwo days to ensure Weavile had a decent handle on the technique. While his control was initially shattered upon evolution, they quickly reigned it in and discovered that the expansion of his raw strength more than made up for the growing pains of regaining his previous precision.

Sneasel had trained himself to exceptional capacity as he grew into the fighter he was. Mind Breaker training alone had developed his ability to channel vast flows of Distortion that would have ravaged a lesser warrior's body and mind beyond repair.

But even though he'd worked hard to achieve those results, it was always like pushing a massive boulder uphill. The body of a Sneasel wasn't built to naturally manage that flow. How often would it have ever needed to be in nature? Great effort allowed the possibility, but it was always a strain.

Weavile's new body blossomed and opened the path to further development. Ash and Weavile had both spent the last few nights chattering about the possibilities that lay before them, though half their time had been used trying to come up with a suitable nickname for Weavile.

He'd half-prepared a list in the year and a half or so since Sneasel had hatched, but it turned out that most of them rather fit Sneasel's youthful jackassery—also known as Garyness—rather than the more mature adult he'd grown into.

'Rend' was considered, but ultimately dismissed with a firm shake of the head.

'Reaver' lit something in Weavile's sharp eyes, but after a minute's consideration Weavile sighed and flicked his claws dismissively.

'Maverick' actually caught Weavile's attention, but that was discarded as well.

It would come in time. Weavile was patient, but not that patient.

"My my," Cynthia murmured, grey eyes blazing as she Saw the dispersal of Spiritomb's technique. "Isn't that interesting? That would have been useful against Irene. Why don't you show me again? I might have a few suggestions…"

XX

The reunion was coming to an end, and as a send-off they ended up following Cynthia's idea of a battle celebration. Battle Rock had been remade courtesy of Ash, and why not use it one last time before they returned to their normal duties?

Events had been picking up. Steven knit more and more of Magma's web together. Wallace was occupied keeping Hoenn together in the face of a few vicious tidal waves that had corresponded with a vast Roar in Ash's perception. None had been too devastating, but there were several communities which required aid in the face of the natural disasters.

Lance would be off to Kalos chasing Zinnia, Cynthia would need to return home to keep Sinnoh (currently the National League's bastion as the other regions recovered) as stable as possible.

The winds were changing.

Wallace had been kept from frequenting the daily activities for the most part thanks to his responsibilities as Ever Grande Champion, but he appeared as often as he could. And on this most auspicious of occasions he'd been happy to act as referee.

"What a delightful day! Our Indigo representatives, Champion Lance the Dragon Master who is famed for his magnificent cheekbones, and the precocious and most helpful Ash Ketchum, are to be tested against the most brilliant and beautiful Champion Cynthia Carolina and our dashing silver-haired dreamboat, winner of the 992 Most Fabulous Jawline award presented by Trainers Weekly, Champion Steven Stone!"

"I feel objectified," Steven complained. "Do you know how often I hear that title? I'm still half-convinced that Claydol is the one who set that award up."

The construct was suspiciously silent on the topic.

"Having the same color hair as your most devoted fans is a blessing," Lance teased as he picked out a few flaking scales from Garchomp's back. "Think of it this way, Steven: if you ever get disinherited from the Stone family, you'll have a great future ahead of you as a gold digger! Ninety-five with a heart condition seems like your perfect type."

Steven looked utterly appalled.

"Oh Lance, you have such a way with words," Cynthia said, batting her eyelashes at the grinning Wataru. "Teach me your ways?"

"I would," Lance sighed, "but do you know what the problem with teaching you anything is?"

"What is it?"

"You'd end up better than me. That's just unacceptable. You'll have to figure it out yourself."

Cynthia groaned despondently, toyed with her hair for a moment, then shook her head as she surveyed Lance and Ash's choices.

"Weavile and Garchomp," she said, then reached for the Sage's Poke Ball. "If we're using our newest teammates…"

Steven frowned earnestly. "Cynthia, have you considered diversifying? You shouldn't rely so much on a single fighter."

Lance coughed loudly. It sounded suspiciously like someone harshly whispering 'bullshit'.

"Oh Steven," Cynthia sighed, laying her hand on Steven's arm. The former Champion blinked at her. "I've worked with some disreputable characters when forced to, but never did I expect to be partnered with a hypocrite."

Steven began to say something, but Wallace cut in. "As lovely as it is to revisit your old spats, I must request that we hurry this up. Such a great deal of fun, but we all have business to attend to. Even those of us who seem determined to cosplay as the top half of a Voltorb."

Cynthia flushed at that. "What would Elite Four Glacia say if she heard you insulting a visiting head of state on a diplomatic mission?" She smiled even as she released a glistening Kommo-o. The mighty dragon clanged its shining scales together. "What do you say, Rocky Road? Will you defend my honor?"

Wallace didn't flinch at the considering look sent his way by the mighty Kommo-o. It wasn't one of Cynthia's familiar teammates to Ash, but he'd witnessed a few of the training battles Cynthia had used it in. While Rocky Road wasn't quite as green as the Sage, she was still a relatively fresh addition to the team that seemed to weigh in as an intermediate member.

Most trainers would have considered raising a Kommo-o to be their crowning achievement as a trainer. For Cynthia, it was just the first of many steps to transform a fresh ball of clanging clay into a competent member of a Champion-level team.

Yes, Rocky Road would prove a fine opponent.

And yes, Ash was aware of just how ridiculous that sentence sounded.

With that, the four trainers turned to face one another with the thump of anticipation in their hearts…mostly Ash's. And Weavile's. They still hadn't settled on a name yet.

"Are we ready?" Wallace asked impatiently. He smiled at the four nods he received, each trainer slipping into battle mode. "Then begin!"

The scene was set.

Ash and Lance stood on one end of Battle Rock, each having already worked out their basic strategy months ago. They hadn't planned for this occasion, obviously, but they'd spent a bit of time working out basic ways their teams could work together.

Weavile and Garchomp were certainly prepared—they took one glance at each other, nodded sharply, and rapped claw against claw before turning to face their formidable foes.

Rocky Road put Clair's ferocious Kommo-o to shame. Oh, they weren't too different physically. Cynthia's might have been a hair smaller, even. Both had been pushed to their physical limits. But the way they acted…Clair and her team always felt like they were striving to rise above the clouds, desperate and hungry to earn their station.

But Rocky Road was confident. Easygoing. Relaxed. The Kommo-o smashed her arms together to set off a resounding clang that resonated throughout Battle Rock, sure, but other than that she simply swaggered around as if she were the best in the world.

Which she very nearly was.

But not quite. Ash hoped they'd remind her of that. She might be part of one of the best teams in the world, but she hadn't quite ascended to their heights just yet. Ash was happy to help intercept her in the midst of her journey.

As for their other opponent, Ferrothorn whisked its spiny appendages around threateningly. Steven had temporarily reclaimed him from his duties working with the Pack, and he had taken eagerly to his return to Steven's team.

It wasn't a permanent affair, but both Steven and Ferrothorn seemed enthused at the reunion. Ferrothorn had only gone his separate way due to his disinterest with a Champion's duties. With Steven on something resembling leave, Ferrothorn had been happy to work together once more.

And now Ferrothorn faced him.

"The left appendage seems a little weaker," Ash observed, curious to pick out whatever he could against an unknown member of Steven's team. Apparently he had several more floating around. Not all had been enthusiastic to join the League in full.

Lance winced. "Yeah, Dragonite hit him a little too hard once. Tore the limb right off. I think he's still a little bitter about that…"

Ash squinted. "Ferrothorn or Steven?"

"Yes."

And with that, their battle began.

Although all the trainers deliveredorders their own way—Ash by short, terse commands, Cynthia by her sign language and flashes of her grey eyes, Lance by flares of his Feather and bellowed code, and Steven through painstakingly pre-planned strategy—the pokémon largely fought by instinct and training.

Not all were Champions just yet, but they were Masters one and all.

Gusts of dragonfire, earth, metallic scales, and steel flashed. Noxious dark power sucked the life and energy from its foes. Claws clanged against carapace, teeth locked around legs, and they all strove for dominance with the utmost fury.

None had truly worked together before, but Weavile and Garchomp proved a devastating pair thanks to their familiarity with the other's skillsets—while Garchomp occupied Ferrothorn with blinding gusts of grit and traded blow after blow with Rocky Road, though she had the advantage in hand-to-hand, Weavile carved into them with claw, frost, and Distortion.

Whenever Ferrothorn garnered the focus to unleash a devastating technique, Weavile was there to distract him or fracture the steel-type's thoughts with a 'gentle' Mind Breaker. When Rocky Road wound up for a devastating blow, Weavile ducked past her guard to freeze a joint or prod her

Yet Rocky Road and Ferrothorn were hardly defenseless. Neither had worked together before, but Ferrothorn was quick to adopt a role similar to Weavile's. While Garchomp and Kommo-o came together in a furious clash in the center of Battle Rock, various techniques flaring around them like coronas, Ferrothorn played his part.

Metal spines flung from his open maw, each exploding in a storm of shrapnel that efficiently tore Garchomp's armor of scales apart with every blow. Garchomp howled as the metal splinters shredded his defenses, and Rocky Road was all too eager to smash a clanging fist into the exposed hide.

Weavile flickered forward to scramble the Kommo-o's vicious strike, slicing his frosted claw against her armored throat, and cackled as he sprang away with his new muscles. He was faster than ever before, fluidly flowing around every attack thrown at him, and Ash grinned at the blatant joy across Weavile's face as he contended with the best.

An ordinary member of Lance, Steven, or Cynthia's teams would have torn Weavile apart despite his enhanced skills, but these were Masters. Dangerous, skillful, and beyond any ordinary pokémon, but so was Weavile.

Weavile thrived the longer the battle went on. Simple physics favored him: Garchomp and Rocky Road were honed to the sharpest edge, but they were massive. Every motion took huge amounts of energy, and their duel pushed each to the limit. Whenever Weavile darted in to steal a blow against Rocky Road, he avoided her fists with contemptuous ease, snickering as he danced around her earth shattering attacks. Mighty as Rocky Road might have been, months of Hunt the Sneasel had left him well prepared.

Ferrothorn was stationary, thus more energy-efficient than his partner, but every attack tore deep gouges from the landscape. Shrapnel shredded the battlefield, splintering the stone and reorienting to come tearing down upon Garchomp in a fluid storm of sharp metal shards.

But Weavile was a blur. He couldn't contend with Rocky Rock in sheer power, nor Ferrothorn in physical destruction, but his Distortion abilities rattled them to their core. It was dangerous to use it too violently for fear of distracting his partner, but both Weavile and Garchomp fell into sync rather quickly.

While Weavile wasn't a physical match, he used his Mind Breaker to its utmost limits. The power flowed faster and more furiously than before, Weavile's potential undammed by his new form, and Ash wanted to cackle with him as he slipped through attack after attack while shrouded in a storm of sickly grey power.

Then Ferrothorn lashed out once more, raising up thousands upon thousands of metal pieces littering the tattered Battle Rock in a display of terrifying control, and swept them all at Garchomp and Weavile both.

Great sweeps of sand and dirt and grit shot up in a whirlwind to blunt the damage to Garchomp (and the shrapnel pinged harmlessly off of Rocky Road's scaly armor) but even more of the shrapnel swirled around to focus upon the nimble and agile Weavile, who had proved a thorn in their enemies' sides for too long now.

But as the shrapnel came flooding in, animated by Ferrothorn's relentless will, Weavile paused. The trainers and fighters alike gasped as a terrible, wretched, paradoxical hole was torn in the world, and the shrapnel clattered to the ground, frozen in time.

Yes, Weavile and Lotus had spent a lot of time together.

That didn't stop the remainder from shredding Weavile, leaving red streaks matting his fur where scarlet blood spilled forth to stain the black, but enough had been stilled to prevent him from being completely overwhelmed—the battle raged on, every trainer commanding in their own way, and the fighters weaponized their teamwork to deal devastating blow after devastating blow.

By the end of it, Rocky Rock was missing around half her scales in total and had mottled bruises dotting her exposed hide. Ferrothorn wielded his greater experience—he'd trained with Steven for years, after all, even if he was a little rusty nowadays after parting ways with Steven's team—like a blade and managed to avoid or circumvent most damage.

Garchomp was torn to shreds, however, and Weavile lost strength with every breath. Even so, they brought down Rocky Road as a team. Ferrothorn was ravaged by Mind Breaker and unable to react, though he exhibited an impressive streak of determination to bring himself back from the brink,

Even as Garchomp sensed his failing strength, he hurled himself into Rocky Road in a cloak of grinding sand which worked its way between her armored scales and tore as many asunder as possible. Rocky Road roared, clanged her arms together, and met the Garchomp head on as her own scales shot out to pierce the blue dragon's hide.

But even as she tore into Garchomp, Weavile appeared from nowhere and dug his claws into the exposed flesh revealed by Rocky Road's missing scales. Weavile grinned in a way eerily reminiscent of Ash as he pried armored scales away and blasted a fierce Ice Beam to frost her joints and unprotected skin over.

A quick flare of Mind Breaker left her utterly exposed, and Weavile leapt away even as Garchomp finished her with a vicious Dragon Rush that lit up the day like a second turquoise sun.

Cynthia hissed an ancient Sinnoan curse that Ash only recognized from his readings (it was a foul one at that, saying absolutely dreadful things about Lance's ancestry and their relations with their steeds) but the playful glimmer in her eyes left his gut sinking.

"You always had a habit of hyperfocusing on the tallest nail," Steven said lightly, and Ferrothorn groaned out an ugly snicker. Lance and Ash alike spat out order after order as Ferrothorn shuddered and shone brightly with a deadly light. "Even Champion Lance has his foibles."

Weavile and Garchomp were immediately swarmed with a veritable tornado of cutting shrapnel that came in calculated waves to tear apart any defense they hoped to mount, though Weavile guarded Garchomp with his Lotus-inspired techniques (although each one was rough and raw, consuming vast amounts of power) while Garchomp dredged up Sandstorm after Sandstorm to deflect and dull Ferrothorn's splinters, each of which further exploded into a dozen smaller pieces.

They'd overstretched themselves to take down Rocky Road, and the Kommo-o would ultimately have the last laugh as Ferrothorn commanded the full might of a Champion-level fighter to bring them both lower. No other warrior could wield the strength and complexity of a technique of that scale.

Ferrothorn may have been rusty, but he was never weak.

Steven smiled innocently as Ferrothorn groaned again, this time waving his vines around, and the shrapnel was cast aside to clear the way between the parties.

"And the victors are our dashing Steven Stone and the radiant Cynthia Carolina!" Wallace declared with a happy cry.

Silence reigned over for just a minute as they all digested what this truly meant: the end of the get-together.

Cynthia and Lance had their own duties. Wallace had sacrificed too much to visit almost every day these past two weeks. Steven had spent the time collecting all the information he could, and it was time that he come unshackled to purge Hoenn of all those who would do it harm.

They couldn't exist in this nostalgic equilibrium forever. Duty brought it to an end.

Tropical storms had begun to rage in the archipelago, accompanied by the briefest spikes in the omnipresent Roar. Cloying Earth shuddered as minor earthquakes wracked the mainland just a day later.

Times were changing, and Ash feared where they might lead in the coming year.

But he didn't miss the way that Lance, Cynthia, and Steven all exchanged sorrowful looks, each well-aware that it was time to part ways and return to stark reality. Each resigned to the burden upon their shoulders.

Whatever excitement victory brought Steven and Cynthia was short-lived as the lightness faded from their expressions and the hard lines returned. They aged a decade in a day, the joy of their younger years almost forgotten, and Ash felt the same wrenching loss as they did in that moment.

"Another!" Ash blurted out, desperate to ease their worries for even a few moments longer. All four adults turned to him—Lance's lips twitched, no doubt keen on Ash's aims, while Cynthia softened.

Steven wrinkled his nose. "I'm afraid that we won, Ash. Admirable as your dedication to self-improvement is, I'm afraid that we each have neglected our—"

Cynthia raised her hand. "Perhaps we're being a little hasty, Steven. The battle wasn't quite as decisive as I'd have liked."

"What are you talking about?" Steven frowned. "Metagross calculated that we would win approximately—"

"I agree!" Lance thundered, shocking Steven out of his appeal to logic. His cape fluttered behind him as he swept his hand out. "We can't leave this up to chance! For me to accept defeat so easily…what kind of mentor would I be to allow my student to learn that lesson?"

"A reasonable one?" Steven hazarded. "Defeat and disappointment are important lessons to learn, albeit difficult, and—"

Wallace coughed. "What a beautiful display of determination on behalf of our young friend! Perhaps we have time for just one more…"

Steven threw his hands up in the air. "You people are so confusing! Fine. If we're being outvoted, then we'll just have to make the most of it. Prepare yourself, Lance. Ash, when we beat you again we're going to have a very long talk about the necessity of accepting your limitations."

"You'll have to win first."

Steven blinked even as Lance chuckled (no doubt readying himself to carry more than his fair share of weight) and shook his head as he ushered Metagross onto the field. The metallic psychic drifted lightly across Battle Rock as they settled their bloody red eyes upon Ash with a hint of impatience.

"I'm afraid Ferrothorn is tired," Steven said despite Ferrothorn's grunt of protest as Metagross encased the creature in a psychic shell and practically flung it back to Steven's side. "Since I don't have any unpracticed or youthful teammates within range, you will have to make do with Metagross."

"And Mint Chocolate Chip," Cynthia said, smiling brightly as the Sage appeared at her side. The ethereal Braviary nodded approvingly at her recollection of his preferred name. "I can't be shown up in our last battle!"

"That's how it is, huh?" Lance's voice was filled with delight as he released Dragonite, who loosed a bone-shaking roar. He couldn't have sounded happier as he looked over at Ash. "How opposed are you to rebuilding Battle Rock later?"

"Not at all!" Ash chirped as Infernus appeared at his side. The Magmortar shone brilliantly even in daylight, a fierce white glow pouring off as his scorching heat bathed Ash's skin, and they grinned in tandem. "It'll be our pleasure. But let's help you break it first."

Infernus materialized a Plasma Blade as his hungry eyes sought out the Sage, though they settled primarily upon Metagross. It had been a while since they'd had a chance to test their strength against the formidable psychic, and Infernus had far more tricks up his sleeve this time.

Let the Champions witness the full extent of their power!

They were going to get their teeth kicked in, but at least they'd have an amazing time in the process.

And more importantly, they'd bought the Champions a few extra minutes of respite.

"Begin!"

A/N: This was supposed to have been released about a week ago, but my sister had her baby a little early and that ended up taking most of my attention lol. But I hope you enjoyed! Definitely a bit more light-hearted than the last few chapters, but it felt like a good break as we continue Ash's journey through Hoenn!

It's crazy to think that we're 3/4 of the way to Chapter 100! Time is flying by, isn't it? Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this little break and some of the big events that occurred during it :) There's been quite a bit that I've been waiting for and I'm so excited to show it at last!

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts! Things will get moving again next chapter, and I'm super excited to step into the next phase of the story.

The contest submissions are still open for another month, and I can't wait to see the entries we have in store! More information is available on the Traveler discord, which I'm going to add a fresh link on my profile to. It'll be open for a few days to make it as easy as possible for everyone to join!

Thank you for reading!