Unearthly sounds filled the forest as Weavile clashed with a blight upon reality. He was swift as lightning and keen beyond belief, slashing and weaving and striking with a dizzying flurry of blows whenever an opportunity arose. Not-black power shrouded his claws and bit deep into the Harbinger's cloak, slashing through a little deeper each time, and Weavile snarled as his senses alerted him to the Harbinger's every warp.

Trees fell, devoured by unearthly energies.

Creeks froze not into ice, but in time before boiling away beneath a noxious cloud of lashing darkness.

The air fouled. Newborn specters emerged only to be reaped by the Harbinger's thick, twisted horn.

As fast as Weavile was, the Harbinger was faster.

Time was crumpled around it, accelerating the Harbinger beyond what was physically possible, and it blurred with every blow, shifting faster than possible and seeming to skip brief instants of time—yet despite the blur of white and darkness, Weavile kept up.

He sensed the flowing tide as it coiled and slashed and carved and moved with it, slipping away inches before a black-edged horn could carve into his dark fur. White claws flashed and Dispelled away the Distortion for a glorious instant to reveal the twisted Absol.

The claws were repelled, and the dance began anew.

Ash watched it all ravenously, devouring all he could to satisfy his racing thoughts.

"How do you think it works?" Ash murmured to Dazed and Nidoking, who stood diligently by his side. The rest of his team were training on various projects, though they never strayed far. Not with the Harbinger around. "Distortion-based, obviously, but that speed is insane. I've seen dark-types with Distortion-based Agility variants before, but this is different."

They watched for a moment as the battle continued. The Harbinger danced around Weavile, pressing him constantly, but Ash knew it was only a fraction of the fractured Absol's true power. It had proven that well enough in their battle the day before.

Lotus hung on his hip. The Spiritomb wasn't too keen to show itself around the Harbinger—and given that the Harbinger had carved right through the same defenses which had frozen a molten stream of Champion-level Draco Meteors in their track, Ash couldn't blame it.

That wasn't even going into the Harbinger's sheer fury at anything Distortion-related. The Harbinger was passionate if nothing else. That only stirred up even more questions for the creature, but Ash wasn't about to interrupt.

Not when Weavile was being pushed to his limits.

But what caught Ash's attention was the strange, flickering nature of it, as if the Harbinger moved too fast for the world to register.

"It's not like Mint Chocolate Chip's abilities," Ash mused as Weavile was forced back by a billowing rush of shadow. "Less controlling time and more breaking it in a controlled fashion, though the end result is similar."

But where the Sage of Acuity was precise and masterful, twisting it wherever he pleased, the Harbinger seemed to exist within its own bubble. Ash had no doubt that the Harbinger could warp time in various ways, but it appeared content to simply accelerate itself.

Nidoking grunted after sharing a glance with Dazed, and his burgeoning psychic abilities manifested as his eyes burned bright. A little rock glowed blue and spun rapidly, twisting faster and faster relative to its slower twin in Nidoking's claws.

"That's what I was thinking," Ash agreed. "It's a unique method of acceleration, I'll give it that. It has potential…"

Rather than slowing everything else down, the Harbinger seemed to simply distort its own frame of reference, creating a zone in which it moved at an accelerated rate relative to the rest of existence. In its shroud, the Harbinger made the rules.

And no matter how many times Weavile tore into it, its endless font of Distortion seemed ready to rally. Only the combined efforts of the team had stymied the Harbinger, and that included all the specializations that Ash had incorporated in order to contest Distortion specialists such as Durand.

Far stronger trainers might have fared far worse against the Harbinger's might. Ash could only imagine the dread that a Ghost Master like Phoebe might have regarded the Harbinger with—its malicious aura would strike lesser ghosts dead, and its horn would shear their essence apart without an ounce of compassion.

The Harbinger was reasonable, sure, but even the tame side that Ash had seen possessed no empathy for any specters. Lotus would be dead and gone if the Harbinger had its way…if Ash and his team hadn't proven so difficult and managed to negotiate.

Yet for all its dreadful power, Ash found beauty in the way it fought. Simple, efficient, pragmatic. It was no wonder the Harbinger was regarded with fear and respect amongst the Pack. Did the Alpha—the Mightyena that led the vast majority of the wild communities in Hoenn—ever fear the Harbinger coming to remove her presence?

While the Harbinger seemed less vitriolic towards dark-types like Weavile—the fact that the refracted Absol proved willing to spar with Weavile at all said that much—Ash could still imagine it reaping a few if they grew too strong or too willing to spread their tainted power across the land.

Lotus was powerful enough to spawn Distortional rifts, though that seemed mollified if Ash kept on the move, and Ash remembered the vague impression of an Absol that he'd seen across the sands. How close had the Harbinger been to ending the problem itself?

That left a twisted feeling in Ash's gut as he imagined Lotus' tale ended so soon, a story of nothing but pain and misery and misfortune…

It would have been easy to hate the Harbinger for that, Ash thought, but there was an easy acceptance in the Harbinger's purity of purpose. Ash might not agree with it, but the Harbinger had devoted itself wholly to its cause. It was death, it was balance, it was the scourge.

But it was predictable, and Ash could appreciate that.

So while Lotus preferred to be kept away in its Pokéball, Ash was at least grateful that Lotus was willing to hang on his hip. He ensured that a few of his teammates were nearby at all times, though. Harbinger had earned some trust, but it was grudging.

Even as Weavile pushed himself to his utmost limits, unveiling Mind Breakers that faded into Harbinger's shadow and Dispels that bought naught but a few seconds reprieve, the rest of the team invested their time wisely.

They couldn't afford to waste such an opportunity—in many ways, remaining in the Harbinger's presence was like a discount version of the Sky Pillar. Just for otherworldly power rather than the cosmic flame of draconic energy.

Dazed never allowed her attention to stray from the Harbinger (and neither did the rest of the team) but she did content herself with playing with Distortion, collecting spheres and shaping it according to her whim. It was a far cry from psychic power, but the training proved similar to the exercises the Hypno had undertaken on Mt. Pyre's dark slopes: shape the latent Distortion into Shadow Balls, and refuse to bend to her inherent weakness to that foul energy.

While several members of the team had little interest in managing Distortional abilities, Torrent at least contented himself with channeling the ambient draconic energy carried in the atmosphere to burn away the Distortion which bled from the Harbinger, which actually earned the Kingdra an approving nod from the Harbinger even as the twisted Absol sent Weavile flying with a well-placed kick.

The Harbinger proved a poor teacher, all solemn and tired, but that was fine. They were good students, and Weavile was swift to recover from the blow. Bruiser had dealt him far worse. Ash learned all he could from Weavile and Harbinger as they dueled, gleaning everything he could from the tendrils of Distortion which bled from the Absol's bone-white fur and the uncanny blur of its motion.

Ash would learn everything. He would take all the Harbinger had to offer and, with any luck, would have something to give back as well.

Well, actually, it appeared the Harbinger had already found payment for their tentative truce. Its horn writhed with shadow as it cleaved through Weavile's defenses and a shockwave hurled Weavile back into a tree, where he lay stunned for a few brief moments.

And in that time the Harbinger took a single step. Space crumpled about it, twisted and broken, and the Absol appeared right in front of Ash.

But it wasn't Ash that the Harbinger had eyes for.

Nidoking snarled as the Absol stepped closer, but the Harbinger stared pointedly at the black sliver of order clutched within Nidoking's blunt claws. It was silent as ever, but the shadow bleeding from its fur twisted and writhed near the Moon Stone's presence, peeling away as if the little rock scalded it.

Ash sighed. "Do it."

Nidoking grit his teeth as he focused, and the Harbinger closed its eyes in pure bliss as the silver-edged pink wave washed over it. While Nidoking still took several seconds to connect with the power of the Moon Stone and manifest it into the universe, it was growing easier every time.

The Harbinger shuddered as it became a simple Absol once again, shaking off the last wisps of squirming Distortion like Lairon did water after a bath, and seemed to take great peace in that brief moment of calm.

And then the Harbinger twitched as dark power gushed forth from its skin with renewed fury, lashing out like an undammed river, and leapt away to strike at Weavile once again as Ash's friend rose to his feet.

That same flicker of motion crumpled space and time like discarded paper, and the Harbinger seemed uncharacteristically furious in its next few swipes before it calmed—Weavile swerved away from its horns and savage kicks, barely dodging them in most cases, and with every exchanged blow he learned more.

While the Harbinger was the master of Distortion from what Ash had seen, they both dreamed of learning its secrets. Its strange acceleration and flicker-steps were far beyond them, let alone the masterful twisting of space which allowed the Harbinger to pursue Plume on equal footing, but they could dream!

Given the contents of your ordinary dreams, I fully expect to find you salivating over this aberration tonight.

Ash snorted. "Its techniques, maybe."

He doubted the Harbinger would take kindly to Ash trying to catch it. He'd likely end up with a horn to his throat for the trouble.

The Harbinger seemed just a bit single-minded.

Still, while the Harbinger's level of skill and power far outshone their own—strange as it was to apply that term to a creature of foul power and biting shadow—Ash's imagination was alight with thoughts of working with Weavile to develop a pale reflection of the Harbinger's formidable talents.

It might be limited, might be restricted to shallow bursts, and might exhaust Weavile, but Ash hungered at the thought. He could just imagine Weavile skipping through an opponent only to reave their back with his claws, or leaving deadly fast fighters slow and sluggish in comparison.

Ash imagined Weavile keeping pace with Plume in the sky, finally learning his lesson and putting those feathers of his to good use. His lips twitched. After living in Plume's mind, he knew just how ecstatic she'd be to see her lessons finally applied, even if in a rather different manner than she had expected.

He brushed Lotus' keystone reassuringly as the Harbinger and Weavile continued their brutal duel and took comfort in the little twitch he felt. That Lotus trusted them enough to remain around the Harbinger spoke volumes, and Ash resolved to prove that trust well-founded.

The Harbinger's shadow swelled with power.

"It'll be back soon," Ash murmured to Nidoking, who nodded and raised the Moon Stone like a ward. "Be prepared."

Strange as it was, the Harbinger was never willing to stray too far from Nidoking and the Moon Stone. Plume had come down a few times to blast the Harbinger with a gust of the North Wind (and seemed to take a little too much pleasure in flinging the Absol off its feet) but it didn't have the same scourging effect of Nidoking's harnessing of the fae powers inherent to the Moon Stone.

Ash resolved to keep that little tidbit secret for now. Fairy-types were largely a phenomenon unique to the corner of the world on the Western Continent which contained Kalos, Galar, Paldea, and a few other regions, but areas such as Alola contained them as well.

Those were rare pockets, however, and the fae would find themselves starved and frail if they ventured too far from that corner. Some would simply lose that aspect of themselves, but any fairy-type which was too reliant on that power would waste away if bereft of it.

Such powers had made Kalos and its neighboring regions uniquely protected against the draconic powerhouses of Indigo and Hoenn, but it also limited their ability to project that power. No one knew quite why they failed, though there were a thousand different theories floating around.

Based on the secrets that Ash and Nidoking gleaned from the Moon Stone, Ash suspected Legendary involvement. Perhaps he'd find his way to Kalos one day to hunt down its hidden powers.

It would be nice to test his team against an entirely new challenge…

But if he and Nidoking could just learn to master the Moon Stone then they would bring that world to the National League. Oh, Ash couldn't wait to see Lance's face if Nidoking brought that strange energy to bear against his dragons!

Friend-Trainer, you worry me sometimes.

"Just thinking," Ash said with a grin. "Good thoughts, Dazed. Happy thoughts!"

She rolled her eyes.

Still, Ash couldn't be too upset as the Harbinger flickered ahead of them to be bathed in the radiant power of the Moon Stone yet again. Nidoking didn't hesitate to blast the Harbinger—while Ash was happy to offer the twisted creature a relief from its power, he'd be lying if he said they didn't see a few other benefits to dampening the Harbinger's strength.

The paranoid side of Ash (which Nidoking quite agreed with) preferred the Harbinger to be as weak as possible while they coexisted with it. While the Harbinger was hardly frail, it would only tear a few Master-level fighters apart now.

At least it would succumb to a focused assault from Ash's team when its Distorted cloak was blasted away in a moonbeam, even if it only took a few moments for its inexhaustible strength to resurface and tear its way from the Harbinger's flesh.

Nidoking had made strides in manifesting the Moon Stone's strange power more swiftly, layering it with greater potency, but it was still difficult. Ash felt his companion wrestling with the power, and helped to focus Nidoking's efforts by laying his hand upon his friend's purple hide.

He felt the Moon Stone's latticed focus brush against him and expressed it into the world, beating back the chaotic nexus boiling out of the Harbinger, and the Absol shuddered and fell to its knees.

Ash leaned closer to the misshapen Absol, eying it with blatant curiosity as it expressed what little weakness it could. And then its power bled back into the world, writhing and furious at its banishment, and little proto-ghosts curled off to find their place in the world.

Or would have.

"What are you?" Ash asked slowly, eyes upon a few little shadows that the Harbinger reaped with its gnarled horn. "I've watched you, Harbinger. Whatever your power is, it isn't natural. It's not inherent to you. You've tamed it, but it's like a beast on a leash. When you first appeared, you felt like a scar. A shell of flesh barely covering an abscess. Skin pulled tight over blistering rot."

The Harbinger's scarlet eyes widened at that and its 'wings' twitched even as the not-black fog surrounding it boiled furiously, stretching far and wide in fury as the Harbinger's shadow scratched over the earth.

Nidoking scowled and stepped forward, but Ash shook his head. Dazed twitched beneath the Harbinger's oppressive presence, which was sufficient to slay lesser ghosts and drive weak psychics mad, but stood strong.

Torrent hovered closer, wreathed in draconic fires. The teal glow contrasted sharply with the foul shadows which the Harbinger cast.

"Stop," Ash said softly, and his team restrained themselves. He watched the Harbinger with open curiosity. "It's not angry at us."

The Harbinger hissed, shuddering, and for a moment Ash felt a hint of something else roiling, straining, fighting for the freedom it loved. Freedom was what Distorted beings were built upon, the union of the chaos of their world and the stability of this one, yet the Harbinger kept itself tight and restrained, coiled like a stubborn spring.

"Not your doing at all, is it?" Ash murmured, stepping closer to the dark shroud billowing out of the Harbinger's skin like smoke. It stung and gnawed at him, desperate to devour him whole, yet he remained unharmed. Fire burned in his breast and the Song's purifying notes echoed in his ears.

The Absol regarded Ash as if he were utterly mad.

Perhaps he was.

He raked his fingers through the biting Distortion, searing it away as he recalled the memories of the Moon Stone's perfect order, and remembered the two glaring red eyes which regarded him after Durand's Malamar struck him with Confuse Ray.

"Borrowed power…" Ash said to himself, but then shook his head. "But not quite. Not borrowed. Not stolen. Contained. Bound."

There was a war in the Harbinger. A struggle for dominance. A restraint.

Ash met the Harbinger's scarlet eyes as his team encircled them.

"Show me."

And though for a moment the Harbinger hesitated, the font of Distortion within it surged, writhing, twisting, lashing out until the sky turned black and the world wavered. The Harbinger twitched, shuddering, and gnashed its teeth, but the gnarled horn slashed this way and that to slay the newborn ghosts which bled from this new surge.

Ash knelt. "I want to see," he said. "I want to understand. Show me."

With that, the Harbinger howled as an endless stream of dense black ooze tore itself free, though it writhed as it remained tethered to the Absol, and the great shape manifested as a half-shadow, a suggestion of what truly lurked within.

Absol's body slackened.

Its terrible black horn unknotted.

Fur bleached white as dead bone softened to freshly fallen snow.

The hackles of its white fur softened and the black edges shed.

The twisted reflection of Mega Evolution straightened and faded away.

But even as the Harbinger faded into a simple Absol—though it remained mighty—an aberrant shape took form from the billowing darkness bleeding from the Absol's spine. It was black as a stormcloud, fury rushing from its very presence, and the thick Distorted mist coalesced and straightened upwards, towering over them all.

It strained to tear itself free, but the Harbinger's scarlet eyes flashed.

It could not flee.

It was not allowed to.

The specter shuddered as its freedom was denied, and its silent figure trembled with fury as its will was bound by that of its jailor.

Nidoking rushed in front of Ash, venom dripping from his horn, and snarled at the spirit as it grew great and terrible. Torrent's turquoise flame blazed. Infernus snarled…and then the ghost manifested in full as the color drained from the world and the breath was stolen from their lungs.

A broad, mighty shape—an infuriatingly familiar shape—glared down upon them all.

A red eye burned in its socket, deeper and darker than any Ash had seen before. The spirit's single eye was crimson as blood and luminous like the sun to contrast the solid shadow of its ghostly flesh. Its shoulders were wide and a snarling golden face carved into its broad chest opened and snapped, sucking the life essence from the world.

Ash's team whipped back as if slapped, overwhelmed by the sheer power, though all stood strong: Nidoking with his black sliver of infinity, Plume who sang the North Wind, Torrent whose thoughts grew frosty before the cold glaze was shattered by the harmonious melodies of Lugia's Song.

Dazed who refused to bend, Infernus whose fire within only blazed brighter in the face of a challenge, Bruiser, who staggered but stood unbent and unbowed with the certainty his journey had granted him, Seeker who had peered into depths darker than this one, and Weavile, in whose veins coursed the same alien energy.

The Dusknoir sucked and ate and devoured in its brief moments of half-freedom, draining the world dry in its search of sustenance to liberate it from the shackles placed upon it by the Harbinger, and the shadow of its form gained new depth and solidity.

Trees snapped and tumbled.

Grass crumbled to dust.

The wind itself was consumed, whatever energy animated it suddenly vanished into the void of Dusknoir's golden chest-maw. Its ethereal grey fingers, each as thick as Ash's forearm, clenched tightly as new strength fueled it.

And all the while the Harbinger held it back.

It peered upon them all and the red eye burned harsher.

It did not give. It did not share.

It demanded.

Unfortunately for the chained Dusknoir, Ash and his family did not bow.

Ash's team resisted—Nidoking was unbent, Torrent stood regal and tall in defiance, and Tangrowth only whined as a few of his rubbery vines snaked forth in an attempt to brush the Dusknoir…they passed right through, but Tangrowth was delighted to find that the Harbinger was in no position to resist a few pats on its white-furred head.

The Harbinger just gaped at Tangrowth, who seemed rather pleased with himself, before clenching its jaw and restraining the terrible Dusknoir a little tighter.

While Ash's team resisted the burning eye and the golden maw, Ash shrugged off its void-gaze and eyed it speculatively. Weavile hissed and raised his claws in challenge to the Dusknoir as Ash stepped closer.

Its bloody eye seared them all and it sucked the life of the world away, taking all the forest had to give, and Ash's team fought back yet again. It wanted to devour them, steal away all that they were to strengthen itself and tear free of its earthly bonds.

No, that wasn't acceptable, Ash thought.

But whereas Ash's friends screamed their defiance, Ash saw another way.


Ash gave.

The Dusknoir's furious demands washed off of Ash, and he shared of his own volition: loves, hates, wants, needs, failures, successes, and everything that he was. It shuddered as Ash fed little pieces of himself to it, twitching and growing a shade more corporeal even as it recoiled away from him, and the Harbinger hissed at Ash.

"How hollow you are," Ash murmured, staring into the abyss, and smiled. "Want a little more?"

He offered the terrible Dusknoir the weight of himself, and the Dusknoir buckled. Thankfully that seemed to put the Harbinger at ease, and it didn't look so frustrated any longer.

"Take it," Ash said easily as he gutted the Dusknoir with the weight of his nature. It wavered as he shared more and more with it, filling up the void in its stomach and then some, gorging it on ideas it could never understand. "It's what you wanted, right?"

Dusknoir pulled away from Ash, but he stepped closer. It had been so eager to take from the world before! He'd give it more than it could imagine.

In that moment, Ash stared into the sucking abyss.

It demanded. It stole. It drained. It devoured to sustain the burden of its own existence.

The specter had torn so much from the world, so Ash didn't mind taking a little back from the abyss. Less than he'd given, of course. Dazed had taught him well.

He fostered the connection between them even as the Dusknoir tried to sever it, felt the terrible weight of its shadow upon the world, reached deep…and wrenched.

"Share with me," Ash said. "Show me your truth."

And the Dusknoir did. Its silent figure trembled, twisting, pulling, desperate to flee back into the safety of the Harbinger's flesh, and Ash would allow it. But not yet!

Not before he could understand.

A wisp of Freedom-Incarnate slipped into the world only to be greeted by terrifying stability!

It ate at him, devoured his essence, sought to bind and shackle him in Space-Time's oppressive rule. His spawn-siblings were eaten away in mere minutes as they fled and failed to find a host, that corporeal binding which offered them bones in this cruel reality.

He was the lucky one.

They all disintegrated, annihilated by contact with the Real, but he raced forward. He learned quickly, harvesting trickles of world-essence as he flitted through the forest.

And there was his salvation! A lost child, disobedient and foolish, who had wandered in the woods and cried for someone, anyone! He answered and drank deeply of the child's own essence, feasting on fear and desperation, and forged a corporeal form for himself.

His red eye landed upon the shivering child, burning like a candle-wick, and pity grew stronger than his ravenous hunger. The child's flesh was cold, yet the First Duskull took their chilled hand in its wispy grey cloth and guided it home.

"The First Dusknoir," Ash murmured as he stared with fascination into the shackled specter's blazing red eye. It could not look away from him, and Ash watched raptly as he fed the bound creature Fire and Ice and Lightning. It trembled, its shadows breaking and coming undone, and the eye twitched madly. "The First Reaper."

Dazed's eyes curled up into a sneer at that title, and Ash could hardly blame her for the grudge she held.

What would happen if he fed it the vestige of Order he'd gleaned from the Moon Stone shard. What if he showed it those faintest imaginings of the Beginning?

Ash stepped closer, eager to inspect the bound Reaper more closely, but the unearthly powerful entity's lone eye blinked, turning dark, and it fled into the Harbinger's flesh, suddenly grateful for its jailor.

"A shame," Ash muttered. "We could have learned from it. I only wanted to ask a few questions."

Nidoking snorted at that, though Torrent flickered with dragonfire as he stared at the empty space once occupied by the First Reaper. Such a powerful creature, the endless font of the Harbinger's terrible strength, and it had run.

What a pity.

With the First Reaper returned, the not-black veil began to pour forth from its flesh once more. The Absol stiffened as terrible energies wracked its flesh once more, twisting its horn to appear as gnarled as Agatha's old cane, raising its fur to white wing-like hackles as the Absol strained, and it regained its previous form as power flooded its flesh.

And the Harbinger rose, grim-faced, and peered desperately at the Moon Stone in Nidoking's grip.

"The First Dusknoir—the First Reaper—and you made yourself its prison," Ash marveled. While many ghost lineages emerged independently multiple times in a case of something like convergent evolution, the first who spawned that lineage was a Progenitor. Once they possessed their corporeal vessel, be it poison gas, an abandoned doll, or old cloth, their offspring would be deposited into similar items. "Now how on earth did that happen?"

Dazed toyed with her pendulum before wiping it clean on her snowy mane, seemingly eager to displace whatever lingering corruption festered upon it. Her voice was faint and wispy near the Harbinger.

If only I could peer into its mind! What more could we glean?

"Can you show us?" Ash asked, stepping forward once more. The Harbinger's face might as well have been carved of marble, but it did not shy away as the First Reaper had. He extended his hand. "You've immersed yourself in the darkness, but you're still of this world. Let me see."

For a while the Harbinger's eyes just darted from Ash to Dazed to Nidoking to the rest, never remaining still for long, and Ash could only wonder what was going through the creature's head. It had displayed nothing but single-minded intent to purge Distortion from the world thus far, and to see it so hesitant was quite the occasion.

"You've been fighting for a long time," Ash said, though he had no clue how long the Harbinger had been active. Its captive must be ancient, but how long had the Reaper persisted before meeting its match in the Absol?

The Harbinger's flat eyes squeezed shut for a moment as it nodded.

Ash crouched. "It must be quite the burden."

Though the Harbinger didn't react to that, Ash knew. He offered a hand. Lotus remained hidden on his belt. "Want to share it?"

And after a moment, the Harbinger nodded. It was hesitant, slow, uncertain, but Ash hid a smile as the Absol dipped its feral head to let the twisted black horn lay in Ash's open hand. The horn was cool to the touch, almost frigid, but fluctuated in temperature constantly: one moment it was comfortable, then spots would freeze over and then practically scorch his hand.

Distortion was uncertainty, chaos, abandonment of the laws of the natural world. Where it went, reality broke.

Nidoking remained close with the Moon Stone held high like a ward to banish the darkness. It softened the rushing roar of the dark cloak which enveloped Harbinger, but Ash still had to grit his teeth as it flowed over his skin and gnawed at him, although it seemed hesitant to actually touch him.

Perhaps it knew better.

Though it was impossible to forge the necessary connection while Ash and Nidoking practically drowned in a storm of dark energy, their combined efforts burned enough of the Distortion away to unveil the Absol beneath the Harbinger.

"There we go," Ash said quietly. His fingers curled around the Harbinger's twisted horn as the mighty warrior leaned desperately into the touch. And as Nidoking blasted the Distortion away, little fragments of memory and feeling and determination flowed into Ash.

Ash nearly buckled beneath the weight of centuries.

But he'd experienced far worse.

He reached past the black veil, seared it away with memories of Order and Fire, and brushed against everything the Harbinger offered.

Ash was born an abomination, an outsider, severed from his community by the foul power that lurked within his tissues. He watched others communicate, all clean and pure, but they could not understand him. Only his own kind and their dark fellows shared his company, and all because they shared the same shadow.

The blight of his own nature bled throughout his homeland. Deadly fog crept through the crevasses. A great island of the dead mocked him.

But when he slew his first ghost, he felt that darkness recede.

He felt right. His purpose slid into being, and only solidified as he hunted in the moonlight.

For all his efforts, for all his sacrifices, he could not stem the tide. The blights on reality festered, spawning more of their own, and for every parasite he slew another ten emerged to replace it.

He fought! He bled! He suffered!

He failed.


But his will was iron. He did not falter. He slew the darkest of beasts, the cancer that sought to spread wider and farther. He fostered his own strength to purge that which would not be controlled, devouring the foul monstrosities and adding their strength to his own.

He followed the moon ever further, praying for its blessings, and he wandered northward until the snow crunched beneath his feet.

The corruption intrinsic to him boiled away as he stepped upon the shores of the Full Moon Haven. Every step was agony, a test of his purity, but he struggled ever onward. He prayed for the absence of his foul nature, for the darkness to be flayed from his hide, to be scoured clean of the rot upon reality.

What a glorious day to scourge the corruption from his flesh!

Blessed Lunar-Light, purity incarnate, was absent. Its duty put his own to shame. But as he boiled away beneath the white sands, he found sacred purpose anew in the lone Lunar Feather which sanctified its shores.

It did not bind to his flesh. It did not accept him, unclean as he was, but it granted his wish!

His rot faded. His darkness was replaced with light. His corruption was made pure.

He rejoiced. He could listen to the others, share his thoughts with the world!

A beast of shadow no more, but an emissary of the light.

So he began his duty anew.

He reaped. He slew. He purged the shadow and beat it back one ghost at a time.

And when one of his own kin grew too mighty, he ended them too. One less irritant for the Lunar-Light to purge.

So passed the decades.

He grew mighty anew, greater than before, certain in his purpose.

Until one day he was tested. He slew an army of spirits, tracked their source, and discovered his match.

An ancient void. An inescapable abyss. A primordial evil.

His light faded in the face of the First Reaper's shadow, but he did not falter.

They fought and fought and fought.

Days passed.

The world broke beneath them.

For every scrap of essence he carved from the greedy Reaper, it tore at his flesh and dampened his light. For every one of its spawn he ended, a legion more tore free from the First Reaper's maw.

And when they both lay broken, fighting to the last, a dread realization fell upon him.

He would die, his light extinguished, his service ended.

The Reaper would rise from his ashes and darken the world for an eternity.

He could not end this evil. He could not slay the monster.

But he staggered forward on broken legs, set his own teeth to the First Reaper as it lay exhausted, and he devoured it. He wretched again and again as he supped upon the foul shadow and ingested its darkness, dimming his light, fracturing him!

Yet he stomached it.

He sacrificed his light and embraced the darkness anew.

He could not kill the First Reaper, but he could bind it forevermore.

He threw himself upon the pyre.

And as the tattered remnants of that dread creature awakened anew in his flesh, its endless essence bleeding forth in a black veil as it writhed within his bones, the bond between them wracked his tissue and twisted his fur and ruined him!

They warred. They struggled. They tore each other apart.

They fused.

The Absol died.

The Harbinger was born.

Their service began anew.

Ash fell away from the connection with a gasp, pity in his eyes. He breathed heavily as the Distortion born of the First Reaper's presence billowed about him, still unwilling to properly touch him, and rose.

"You've sacrificed so much," Ash said as his team clustered closer. "Your light. Your body. Your hope. I'm sorry we can't do more for you."

The Harbinger grimaced, glanced at the Moon Stone in Nidoking's grip, and sighed. Its power brought a peace to the Harbinger, but it could only dampen the writhing corruption embedded in its very being.

Its suffering could be ended if the Harbinger unfused, if it unshackled the corpse of the First Reaper within its bones, but the Absol at the Harbinger's core had an adamant will. It would never shirk its duty, and it would never let the grand specter, the progenitor of all Duskull, go free.

Such was its purpose. Without that, Ash suspected the Absol would simply wither away. How long had it remained shackled to the greatest of Dusknoir?

But no, the Harbinger was here to stay, refracted in a mockery of the partnership and glorious unity shared by Ash and Plume. It was a fusion born of two mighty warriors, two diametrically opposed foes, and whatever beauty they could have forged was twisted and ruined by the hatred shared by the Absol and the corpse of the First Reaper.

"Maybe one day."

The Harbinger sighed, tossed its terrible horn, and allowed its dread might to crash over them like a black wave.

Nidoking tensed, Weavile raised his claws, and Dazed coalesced fragments of its power into a mighty Shadow Ball even as the Harbinger's tendrils lashed out to devour proto-ghost after proto-ghost, reaping the mindless specters as easily as it breathed.

It seemed like the Harbinger had a few frustrations to work out.



They didn't have much time with the Harbinger. It was a restless soul, devoted to its purpose with a fervor unlike any Ash had seen before, and nothing good would come out of trying to restrain it.

That the Harbinger had been convinced to train them at all (let alone leaving Lotus in peace) was a small miracle.

But that just meant Ash had to wring every moment for all it had to offer.

"What do you think?"

Torrent's body flickered with sparks of turquoise flame. They fell down from the air like swirling cinders and clung to the mighty Kingdra to leave his dark plates of scales glimmering like a suit of armor. His horns burned the brightest, flickering with starry embers.

Given the shroud of night that the Harbinger carried with it, Torrent might as well have been the sun.

The Kingdra rumbled at Ash and allowed the dragonfire to fade away. He'd learned to pull it from the air, but it still required a great deal of focus. Ash expected it to be a month or two before it was really viable in battle,

But that was fine. Ash and Torrent were both willing to invest the time for the potential payoff: tapping the practically unlimited supply of ambient draconic energy native to the atmosphere.

Ash shivered at the thought, that old hunger crawling through his veins.

"It's coming faster to you now, even here," Ash said. Torrent spat a bit of dragonfire to ward off a wisp of sickly Distortion that curled away from the Harbinger as it dueled Weavile and Nidoking yet again—while others on the team honed their abilities in the face of the Distortion, both Weavile and Nidoking made the most of their new teacher.

The Harbinger was still an awful teacher even after it opened up a little. Not like Lance, who made every lesson fun and knew how to set Ash's blood pounding, or even Steven whose steady voice still rang true with passion.

No, Harbinger was too sad. Too tired. Too grumpy. And much too focused on slaying every ghost in a ten mile radius, although it seemed it cast a dark enough shadow that most ghosts knew to stay far, far away.

That left the Harbinger only with those that couldn't (or wouldn't) flee and those powerful enough that it chose to go out of its way to hunt them.

Like Lotus.

The Spiritomb was safely ensconced in its Pokéball at the moment. Lotus had proven unwilling to stay around the Harbinger for an extended period of time lest they tempt fate.

But the Harbinger didn't mind sparring, even if it was too powerful for Weavile and Nidoking to pose a realistic chance of dealing serious damage, and was still intrigued by Weavile's Dispel and especially the Moon Stone.

"We're going to have to keep an eye on that," Ash nudged Torrent to point out the Harbinger's ravenous gaze fixated upon the Moon Stone in Nidoking's grip as his friend raised the sliver high to ward off a tsunami of Distortion. It broke around the fae energy, banished to nothingness, and the Harbinger shuddered. "I'm kind of worried the Harbinger is either going to eat it or kidnap Nidoking. Maybe both."

Torrent snorted and spat a Dragon Pulse to assist as the Harbinger flickered forth and crumpled space-time to land a devastating kick into Weavile's gut. A Distorted shockwave exploded forth from the twisted Absol's paw and sent the smaller dark-type hurling backwards to crumple at Ash's feet.

The Harbinger's aura devoured Torrent's Dragon Pulse entirely, swallowing it up like a black hole did the light of a star.

That earned an irritated rumble from Torrent and Ash felt his competitive fires spit up. Infernus detected it too from where he practiced maintaining his Plasma Blade in a Distorted environment, although the second he rushed to meet Torrent the delicate psychic barriers which contained the Plasma Blade disintegrated.

Infernus growled, but that was nothing but a distraction to the glee as he joined Torrent in supporting Nidoking in their duel. The forest was soon ablaze with whipping water, turquoise flames, and Infernus' fiery glow.

It was a far cry from the brutal battle of two days prior, but Torrent's might was eager to crash against the Harbinger's darkness.

Ash only had eyes for Weavile. "You okay?"

Weavile groaned and pulled himself up with a little help from Ash. His scarlet eyes darkened as they focused upon the Harbinger. His wicked claws scraped together as he hissed with frustration.

It only took a second for Ash to understand.

"Mad you can't beat the ancient Absol with one of the Progenitors trapped inside its bone and blood?" Ash asked. Weavile growled and coiled as if ready to leap back into the fight. "Good."

Weavile looked at Ash oddly after that remark.

"The Harbinger's strong," Ash said. "So, so strong. It's amazing, isn't it? Just watch it move!"

And they did just that as the Harbinger dueled Nidoking, Torrent, and Infernus to a standstill. Most of their blows were devoured by the cloak bleeding out from the Harbinger's flesh—like an even mightier Wonder Guard—but even then only a handful even landed.

The Harbinger moved too swiftly and tore into the three mighty warriors, though they acquitted themselves well in the battle. Its black wings spread, its terrible power settled around them like a noose, and its too-fast motion grew so swift that it left Ash a little nauseated to keep track of.

Plume would claim that she was faster, of course, and by a measure she'd be right. The Harbinger cheated, after all, but anything that could even attempt to keep up with Plume in the air was something to be respected.

Weavile watched with blatant envy. His evolution unlocked his potential and enabled him to stand on even footing with younger teammates of a Champion, but even his new speed and reflexes couldn't compare to the Harbinger.

"You've become my little monster," Ash said fondly as he scratched around Weavile's feathered crown. The dark-type grinned at that, preening at the praise. "The Harbinger's stronger now, sure, but it's only mortal in the end. It's not a Legend. We're coming for it, Weavile. We'll surpass it!"

His friend snarled at that. Weavile's teeth chattered in delight as he scraped his white claws together once more. Ash knew he was just itching to get back out there.

"You've worked hard. You've absorbed everything I've wanted and then some. We fell again and again to ghost and dark-type specialists like Karen and Durand, and here you've come to nullify all their advantages to let us stand on even footing."

Weavile stiffened at that, Dispelling a wisp of dark energy before it could come near them, and made a counterclockwise circle with one of his claws as if asking Ash to repeat that.

"You've worked hard?"

Weavile shook his feathered head.

"My little monster?"

Weavile hissed and made a clockwise circle this time.

"You've nullified their advantages?" Ash asked, and Weavile nodded slowly. "Just think about it. Mind Breaker was the first. Most ghosts would be blasted apart by that!"

The Harbinger's mere presence felt just as heavy as a Mind Breaker, but that was fine. They would get there. That was a case of the Harbinger being absurd rather than any fault of Weavile's.

"And with Dispel…" Ash trailed off, recalling how Weavile briefly circumvented the Harbinger's dreadful might and broke apart Cynthia's Spiritomb's Shadow Ball. "Well, you know where we're aiming to take that. You'll catch their essence and shred it like wrapping paper."

Weavile perked up at that. He always took his fair share of pleasure in 'helping' to open presents.

"All their tricks, all their techniques, and here comes Weavile to nullify them all and bring them back to earth," Ash said with a laugh. "Even the Harbinger isn't immune. One day you'll bring it low as well."

His friend nodded sagely at that, scratching his chin as he considered Ash's words, and bared his sharp teeth in a smile. Weavile's eyes lit up as he listened.

"So look at the Harbinger and get mad. One day you'll even the playing field and use that to slay that monster yourself."

Weavile cackled.


After two days of begrudged sparring, Ash woke up to find the Harbinger gone. The vile taint fled from the land and he breathed pure air for the first time since it had ambushed them.

Dazed waited at his side.

It vanished into the night.

"Not even a goodbye? That's rude. I really thought we were starting to make a connection"

Tangrowth gurgled cheerfully in agreement as he basked in the first light of dawn. His hundreds of vines wriggled happily as they tried to snake around Ash, Weavile, Dazed, Oz…well, to be honest, it wasn't an exclusive club. He wanted to love everyone.

Ash happily clutched at a few of the vines that squeezed down on his right arm, patting the rubbery surface with his free hand.

Dazed blinked at him.

Are we speaking of the same entity? I do not believe the Harbinger is capable of 'making a connection' as it were. Unless that connection is between its horn and its prey.

"Well, I can't argue that," Ash sighed. "Maybe it's just nervous now that we've had a chance to see all of its tricks. The Harbinger should know we're going to crush it next time!"

Oh, he could just imagine the fight now! He didn't bear the Harbinger ill will in the same way he couldn't begrudge a tornado for devastating a forest or Infernus for burning everything within a mile radius. The Harbinger had devoted itself to its self-imposed quest, and its very being had shaped around that ideal.

It wouldn't stop Ash from coming to blows to defend any innocent ghosts from the Harbinger in the future, but it was almost relieving that the Harbinger's assault wasn't anything personal.

Actually, that was incorrect. The Harbinger's attack was insanely personal. It's just that the Harbinger despised every individual ghost on such a deep level that it practically looped back around to being impersonal.

At least it was capable of reason.

Indeed. Although your enthusiasm for facing such a foe would ordinarily be concerning, I cannot deny that it was a satisfying battle. Perhaps I am simply relieved on behalf of He-of-Iron-Minds.

"Steven should be happy!" Ash said with a grin, stretching as he began to organize his own things while the rest of the team made their own preparations to break down camp. They were like a well-oiled machine by now. "The Harbinger gave me all kinds of ideas to put Sidney in his place."

Dazed polished her pendulum and a flicker of psychic power warded off one of Tangrowth's vines that attempted to poke the looped gem.

Binder, we have discussed this.

Tangrowth's vine slumped.

Dazed rolled her eyes and offered the pendulum for Tangrowth's inspection, who gurgled happily as he gently brushed one of his smaller vines against the faceted surface.

Are you satisfied?

His little dance suggested he was, although Tangrowth's saucer-like eyes only widened even further as Seeker came and landed upon his head, burrowing deep into his vines to avoid the sun as it grew brighter.

Dazed turned her attention back to Ash.

Where shall we go next, Friend-Trainer?

Ash hummed as he stowed a few items away in his bag. "Well, Sidney said that things have calmed down with the tidal waves. Most villages are secure now. We could go help them set up defenses for next time, though. We know it's coming."

Torrent's scarlet eyes flashed even as he set up a drinking station for the team before they departed.

"But the League has plenty on their plate," Ash sighed. "We'll probably end up in Lavaridge, if I'm being honest. Infernus isn't too far off, but he still has a ways to go with Blast Burn, and I know Flannery was wanting to collaborate on it. She's been going crazy trying to get it all tied together."

Nidoking snorted at that as he plodded by and used his abilities to smooth out their campsite and the various scars of battle they'd left on the landscape. The Harbinger's sickly presence was of greater concern, but Weavile was helping to scatter any lingering pockets of Distortion with Dispel.

Dispel didn't destroy the Distortion, but it went a long way in dispersing the foul energy from the land. It was more dangerous in higher concentrations, and once it was scattered it faded far more quickly. The worst case scenario was for the unearthly power to accumulate to a point where it didn't disperse.

That was how you ended up with such self-sustaining lands such as the valley of Lavender.

The Ghost of Lavender's shadow had stained the earth itself. Ash doubted anything short of a Legend or vast stretches of time could properly scour it now. Thankfully the Harbinger was aware of such ramifications and seemed quite nomadic.

"I should probably see if Steven's available in the next few days too, although he'll probably be driving himself into a frenzy trying to hunt down Magma," Ash remarked. "It's not his fault, but you just know what happened with Tabitha is eating him up."

It was still strange to think of the smiling man as a traitor. He'd been so nice, so open. But Ash supposed it was all a mask. Although it was even worse to think that it wasn't a mask and that Tabitha managed to be all those things while remaining scum at heart.

But good old Tabitha had paid his dues and then some, Ash thought. He really just felt bad for Lava Lad's role in the whole affair.

Dazed peered at him.

And what of the Silver-Lesser-Kin?

Ash winced. "Please don't say that around him. I don't think Silver would appreciate it—he's more than just my brother. He has his own identity."

You have not heard his thoughts, then.

That just made Ash grimace.

"Yeah, I should stop by," Ash admitted. They exchanged terse messages every few days—largely updates on various situations in and out of Ever Grande City—but it made Ash's messages with Gary look positively delightful in comparison. "It's just…awkward."

He is wary. Uncertain. Trapped.

"Maybe it's not good for him to stay cooped up in Ever Grande," Ash said, chewing his lip. "It would drive me crazy. It's safe, sure, but maybe…"

They chatted for a little longer as they made ready to leave and Ash prepared Plume's saddle, but Ash felt his PokéNav vibrate.

"Hold on just a minute," he called out to Plume, who fluffed her feathers impatiently. She'd gone off on a few flights during their time with the Harbinger, but she hadn't dared to venture too far. No doubt she was feeling pretty intense claustrophobia from only having some of the sky to rule. "I'll be right there, I promise!"

Ash flipped the device open and lit up when he saw it was from Gary. They'd been plotting out a few different ideas for the Silver Conference as it approached—the tournament was just around three weeks away now—although he'd been assisting Jon and Amelia as well.

Those two had been very busy these past few months. They'd ventured up north to Rota for some tournament that Jon had won, and since then had pooled their money to purchase the tutelage of an old Nomad in preparation for the Silver Conference.

He'd brainstormed various techniques and provided input on challenges they'd encountered in their own journeys, but Ash thought the focused attention would do them good. Ash wasn't certain that it would be quite as effective as sharpening their edge on a monster like Clair, but he was happy for them regardless.

Hopefully Jon hadn't spent all his money on it this time…it would be a bit embarrassing for him if Amelia had to loan him food money during the Silver Conference. Again.

Still, he put that out of mind as he pulled up Gary's message. Had he finally done it?

Elite Four Prick Ash,

I would like you to know that I hate you.

Ash blinked. "Huh."

I will NEVER forgive you for having the audacity to fight that dragon loving piece of—

He skipped that section.

before she decided to shape up and stop being an embarrassment to her entire dragoncestuous clan! Dragonite, Salamence…she even gloated that Bruno's been giving her stupid Kommo-o lessons to help it against Diamond! Give that stupid piece of crap a year and I bet she'll have a Dragapult, Garchomp, and every other stupidly rare, stupidly strong dragon in existence.

Speaking of crap, though, after a close match I paid a few workers at a Miltank ranch to let me put all the manure for the day into a storage container. Guess what Clair found waiting for her at the Blackthorn Gym the next day?

Come to think of it, that next day is when she evolved her Dragonite. Sore loser!

But that's not really what I'm mad about.

I pulled up yesterday after working with Alakazam and Arcanine on a few tricks, and guess who I see at the Gym? That's right, our favorite duo of losers. They thought they were hot shit. But you know what?

They got the badges.

And you know what? that's BULLSHIT! Algdhsagl;hsaldh

I watched that battle! I saw them fight. And I have to admit, they're not as pathetic as I remember when we met them on the Lake of Rage. But I've fought Clair more times than that idiot Jon can count, and I know she was treating them with kid gloves.

And let me tell you buddy, that woman-child doesn't even know what kid gloves are! This is so freaking stupid I can't stand it—they didn't even deserve to beat her. Sure, they did decent, but I know Clair and that fashion abomination of a woman threw the match!

'Worthy trainers' she said.

'Credits to your hometown' she said.

'Superb examples of maturity, patience, and Indigo's virtues' she said.

I wish you could understand how much I hate her, Ash. I don't care if it's the last thing I do. I'm going to DESTROY her. I know I can make her cry, buddy. I know it, and I'll be damned if I don't prove it!

I've told Alakazam to record the memory preemptively. Nidoqueen is gonna hold the camera so that I can send it to everyone I've ever met.

Anyways, I've got planning to do and rivals to crush. I'll see you at the Silver Conference and I WILL HAVE THE RISING BADGE.

Smell ya later!

Ash snorted as he finished it. Who would've thought bringing Gary Oak to Blackthorn would be all it took to get Clair out of her rut? She might've advanced more in the past six months or so than she had in the past six years.

It was no wonder Lance was torn between pride at her growth and absolute frustration at the cause. Ash couldn't imagine this would be a good tale to record in the Wataru annals.

Still, he couldn't hide the small grin that worked its way onto his face as he finished the last of his preparations, recalled the team, and hopped onto Plume's back.

"I'd tell you what I just read, but you'll know soon enough anyways," Ash remarked as he made himself comfortable. He reached out to hug Plume's warm neck once, tapped the Key Stone pinned to his hat, and smiled. "Ready?"

She shrieked and spread her wings wide, and they became one.


The next week was a busy one.

Ash found himself assisting Flannery and Roxanne quite a bit as they scoured their territory to mop up any lingering poachers or undesirable characters, and Fino himself devoted the majority of his time to managing evacuation procedures and pursuing various leads sent to him by Steven across Lavaridge's sprawling lands.

"Too many links pointed to Lavaridge as a source of the Magma infection," Fino had said one night as he, Flannery, Ash, and their teams met for dinner in Forina atop one of its old spires. He scanned the dusky horizon as if the emerging stars would lead him to his target. "Fortree's lands suffered the brunt of actual activity, but Steven discovered quite the web. Too many supply depots, too many logistics facilities, too many of Magma's subsidiaries…with dear Steven stretched thin, I thought I'd step in to help."

Ash knew Steven appreciated any aid he received, though he quite pointedly asked Ash not to interfere. This was a task for more delicate hands, or so Steven claimed.

It was amazing the amount of problems that could be solved with brute force, though. Just look at Lance!

Steven was still busy reconstructing his web from Tabitha's literal ashes—even the Dusk Stone that the Magma leader kept on him had been traced back to its suppliers by Steven to generate new leads—and hadn't had time to meet with Ash yet, although they'd scheduled to catch lunch in Rustboro in the next week.

He'd have to press Steven not to push himself too hard. Seeing Lance burn out and fade away had been bad enough. While Steven's mind was well-organized and sharp as a steel blade, Ash knew the former Champion well enough to understand just how brittle he was as well.

Steven had enough on his plate without Ash adding to it.

When Ash wasn't giving Flannery or Roxanne a helping hand, he and his team diligently trained. They received no more visits from the Harbinger (nor did Ash expect any in the near future), but that was fine. Simple observation granted them the foundation needed to push forward.

Blast Burn remained a priority, naturally, and he and Flannery spent just about all of their free time working with Infernus and her own team to generate the technique. Infernus more-or-less had it down at this point, but Ash was impressed time and time again with Flannery's explosive leaps forward.

She was good.

"Ash!" Flannery high-fived him as he plopped down next to her in the Lavaridge Gym's private training grounds. Her beaming face was streaked with soot, though sweat left clear trails down her skin, and her hair was an absolute bird's nest. The pleasant scent of smoke greeted Ash as he settled onto the bench. "I didn't think you'd make it today. Any luck in Dewford?"

"Not yet," Ash sighed as he stretched a bit. Infernus had stuck around Lavaridge for today and offered Ash a brief salute before his searing body repeated his current iteration of Blast Burn for Caldera and Piper, who watched on with rapt attention. "Brawly and I spent all morning visiting different islands, but so far nothing. I've been angling to get him to reach out to some of the local villages, but things have been…rocky."

Flannery nodded sagely. "Well, Brawly's never met a rock he won't punch!"

"That's what I'm worried about," Ash said. He briefly massaged his temples to alleviate the minor headache he'd earned for his troubles. Brawly's Alakazam meant well, but a day listening to her telepathic bellowing took its toll. "But we'll find it sooner or later. There are some stories I've heard about an 'icy beast' but who knows if that's accurate or not?"

Flannery's nose wrinkled. "Who wants some big block of ice on their side anyways? Ice is lame! It's just slow water."

Weavile hissed at her from where he trained with Torrent.

"You know I'm right!" Flannery roared back, shaking her fist. "Prove me wrong! Guess what? You can't! I don't care how cute and fluffy you are. Boo ice! Slow water sucks!"

The dark-type spat a wisp of frost from his maw, yowled, and pointedly ignored Flannery after that. At least the 'cute and fluffy' comment mollified him somewhat.

"Ha! That's what I thought!"

Weavile spat an Ice Beam their way, though it safely trailed a few feet above Flannery's stained hair. Ash frowned at Weavile, which thankfully sent the dark-type scurrying away.

"See?" Flannery crowed. "Ice can't even hit a stationary—"

"You should probably quit while you're ahead," Ash said drily.

She smiled sheepishly at Ash. "You might have a point," Flannery said. After a moment she bit her lip. Ash followed her gaze to see that she was focused on the brilliant blast of flame that Piper spat, then the roaring conflagration expelled from Infernus' cannon.

"You alright?"

"Yeah," Flannery said. "Just thinking is all."

"About what?"

"Just how ridiculous Infernus is! I want a Magby so bad," Flannery said, shaking her head. "I've been keeping an eye out for any that want a trainer, but no luck so far. Infernus has been training for what, two years? He's amazing. You're amazing."

Ash's face reddened. "Infernus works hard. He never, ever stops."

"Wow, I wonder who that reminds me of?" Flannery teased, then turned a little more serious. "I don't know, it just makes me feel like I have to catch up! I've been training for three years, you know. I'm good. I know that—no one's ever claimed that Gym Leader Flannery is humble. I'm used to being on top!"

"You're strong," Ash said slowly, turning to face her. "And you're only getting stronger."

Flannery barked out a laugh and punched him lightly in the shoulder. "Not strong enough!"

Those words were familiar enough to Ash—practically his mantra—that he nearly flinched.

"Yeah, I know how that feels," Ash said. "It never ends."

"I just feel like I should be stronger, I guess," Flannery said, smacking her fist against her palm. She paused to let out a raucous cheer for her little Torchic as he charged valiantly at Infernus only to be (somewhat gently) punted across the room, his tiny wings fluttering madly as he tried in vain to fly. "I dunno. I guess it just feels like I'm failing my team? I've been training for three years, Ash. And…"

"And?" Ash prompted. He might not have been the best with humans, but this wasn't a human. This was Flannery. This was his friend.

He was happy to listen.

"Well…you remember that conversation we had a few weeks back?"

Ash nodded.

"It made me think a bit."

"Huh. Miracles do happen."

"Hey!" Flannery protested, though she smiled the whole time. "That's rich coming from you, Mr. 'Let's ask the creepy Mega Absol who tried to kill us for lessons'. And that's not even the dumbest thing you've done!"

"It's not dumb if it works."

"Ha, you've got a point there!" Flannery snickered. "But you're going to give Steven a heart attack if you keep it up."

"Metagross has it under control. And Claydol," Ash added. "As long as Claydol didn't get the idea that it would be funnier to see Steven go into cardiac arrest."

He winced at that and rubbed his own chest as the agony of Mewtwo stopping his heart near the beginning of his time in Hoenn popped into his mind. Old anger surged, but he cooled it swiftly as Flannery seemed ready to open up.

"I've been set to become Gym Leader from day one of training," Flannery admitted. "Growing up and seeing Grandpa…what else could I want? He's the best Fire Master in the world, and everyone looked up to him and respected him and he's everything. I love Lavaridge, I love Grandpa, I love being a Gym Leader! But sometimes I just want to be a trainer, you know?"

Ash nodded along.

"I'm not even going to say the grass is always greener, because I'm pretty happy with my pasture," Flannery said with a smile. "My life is awesome! The League is my family as much as Grandpa is. It's not fair how adorable the twins are, Roxanne and Winona are like the big sisters I never had, Norman is weirdly intense but always gives good advice…I could go on and on!"

"It just comes with a lot of responsibilities," Ash said, knowing exactly how she felt. The League had given him more than he could ever understand, but it came with its own bonds. There was a duty to be done. "I miss the road too."

"Exactly!" Flannery prodded him with her elbow before bellowing out a few orders to Caldera. "Sometimes all I want is this," she said, gesturing at the battlefield. "Training, battling, competing, fighting. I just want to let loose and burn the whole world down!"

Infernus grunted approvingly at that before unleashing another pillar of flame.

"It's just…there's always something. Paperwork. Lessons on 'proper Gym Leader etiquette' that Glacia keeps calling me in for for some reason. Building relationships with the Lavaridge community. Pointing newbies in the right direction and kicking the snot out of the arrogant ones. And I love it all!" Flannery finished hurriedly.

She glanced at Ash. "I've trained hard, sure, but I've spent the last few years devoting myself to being a good Gym Leader for Lavaridge above everything else. We've grown so much! But then I look at you and feel like a Slugma. How different would I be if I just hit the road?"

"Have you talked to Fino about it?"

"It's so weird to hear you call him that," Flannery grumbled. Her shoulders slumped. "Nah, I don't want to bother him. He's so busy lately. I don't want to stress him out anymore, not when Lavaridge needs us both. I won't let anyone down!"

Ash frowned. "It sounds like you're letting yourself down."

Flannery winced. "Ouch."

"Things are slowing down," Ash said. "Hoenn's calmer than ever, but it might not be that way for long. Bad things are coming, Flannery. You and Fino have worked your tails off to get Lavaridge ready. When it comes…I think you'll miss this chance. If you're going to do it, do it now. Take a few months and do what you want. "

She nodded at that, tugging at her hair as she fell into thought. "Maybe," Flannery allowed. "I think you're right. It's just…what do I say? I can't abandon my town. And what if Grandpa thinks I'm just being lazy? If I leave them and they end up needing me—"

"Then I'll be here," Ash promised, meeting Flannery's eyes with deathly seriousness. "We can't be the Gym Leader that you are, but we can do everything we can to help Fino take care of things. I'll protect Lavaridge as if it were Pallet Town."

Flannery stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, then grinned and brushed a bit of bright red hair out from her eyes. Her fingers were smudged black with the soot covering her face and hair. "You know what? You're pretty cool sometimes."

Ash barked out a laugh. "Only sometimes?"

"Maybe a little bit more than that," Flannery allowed, then exhaled. "Thanks, Ash. That, uh, that means a lot."

"Just let me know," Ash said, then spotted several of Flannery's team huddled over in one of the corners. "How's the lava work coming?"

Flannery laughed nervously and scratched the back of her head. "Well, pretty good! But I think Roxanne is going to strangle me if I ask anymore questions. She ignored my last two messages."

"Maybe she's busy."

"Oh, she's definitely busy! Busy being lame."

Ash flicked her on the forehead, ignoring her cry of protest. "I'm going to tell her you said that."

"I'll deny all charges!"

He cracked a smile. "Well, you've already mostly figured out Tephra! I know Infernus' techniques aren't exactly what you're going for here, but maybe that'll keep you busy until Roxanne can help out."

"Tephra's pretty cool," Flannery agreed, then flung her arms out. "Boom! Explosions! What's not to love? I get a kick out of every challenger who triggers them. But yeah, I want to specialize a bit more on the rock-type side compared to what Infernus has been working on. Don't get me wrong, fire techniques are way cooler, but lava."

Ash's smile grew. "Yeah! That's fair. Dual-Mastery will help a lot, I think. Fire has so much destructive power, but becoming a Rock Master will help out a ton with defense! Plus you can throw exploding rocks full of lava at people. What's not to love about that?"

Tangrowth leaned over with big eyes and gurgled his agreement as a few vines wrapped around Ash's leg and Flannery's arm in a cheery embrace.

"You might have some competition soon, buddy!"

The grass-type couldn't have looked more overjoyed at that.

"Burning shrapnel," Flannery said with stars in her eyes. "Lava geysers! Heat venting!"

"Imagine Wallace's reaction whenever you challenge him—just picture the whole pool going up in boiling steam!"

Flannery brightened at that, then cackled. "Mt. Chimney won't have anything on us by the time we're through!"

It was Mt. Chimney that had inspired Flannery to go down this path the last few weeks. While the minor earthquakes continued to wrack Lavaridge from time to time—although thankfully the architecture was built to account for that, and a small legion of ground-types remained on standby to minimize the effects of seismic waves on critical areas—the fiery rim of Mt. Chimney burned away.

Lava spills became more frequent as small, steady eruptions took hold. None were truly dangerous, although the spectacle was something to behold, but it reminded Ash and Flannery just what lay ahead.

Instead of buckling beneath the pressure or despairing beneath the weight of the cataclysm to come, Flannery grit her teeth, squared her jaw, and found strength in the blazing eruptions. She clawed inspiration from nature's wrath.

Ash could only admire that kind of resolve. All he could do was his best to push her to make the most of it…not that Flannery needed much help on that front.

"You'll do it," Ash said with the utmost certainty. "It's Mastery or bust for you, and I pity anyone who tries to get in your way."

Flannery leaned back against the bench and stretched. "You know what?"

He hummed back.

"It's really nice to have someone telling me to cut loose and set the world on fire," Flannery confessed.

She hesitated.

"Grandpa is always telling me to slow down—Flannery, you have a lifetime to enjoy Mastery, so why don't you enjoy the moment instead? The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long!" Flannery lowered her voice to mimic Fino's calm, kind tone with an affectionate laugh. "I don't think Grandpa's ever rushed once in his life. He became a Master at thirty and never looked back."

Ash nodded along. Most elite trainers achieved Mastery during their twenties or thirties, though the number that reached that level in the first place was only a tiny fraction of a percent. Young Masters like Will and Karen were very much the exception, while Lance achieving Mastery at fourteen made him a veritable freak of nature.

And what does that make us, Friend-Trainer?

He could only shake his head at that.

"You're not Fino Moore," Ash said simply. Flannery looked stricken for a moment before he continued. "You're Flannery. What worked for him might not work for you. If you want it, take it."

Flannery exploded off the bench. There was a wild look in her eyes. "He's the best Fire Master in the world—"

Ash wasn't so sure even Fino would agree with that.

"—but you're right," Flannery finished. "It's not in me to slow down, Ash! Mastery or bust! One year and we're going to be blowing up mountains!"

Those members of her team who weren't actively fighting cheered in a storm of rumbles, neighs, and growls.

Ash grinned madly and shared a quick look with Infernus, who brightened like a kid at their birthday party.

"I believe you. So what are you gonna do about it?"

Flannery's eyes burned. Her team readied for battle, as did Ash's.

"Them's fightin' words!"


"The soufflé is collapsing. Take it back."

The beleaguered waiter nodded primly and snatched the dish away, whisking the perfectly fine (in Ash's opinion) dessert back to the kitchens. Ash would consider Silver lucky if they didn't spit in the food…not that an establishment like this would ever do something like that.

"I didn't see anything wrong with it."

"You wouldn't," Silver growled. "Not all of us grew up in the boonies."

"And I'm grateful every day that I did," Ash bristled. "Pretty sure that silver spoon in your mouth would make me sick."

Silver's eyes narrowed. "That's what you think? You don't know—"

"Then tell me!" Ash snapped back. "I thought I was bad at communicating. Then I met you. Thanks for absolving me of that. I've had better conversations with Gary back when he—"

"That Oak brat?"

Oh, what would Gary think if he heard that coming from a kid a year younger than them? Ash would have to tell him if he ever got a chance. He'd mentioned Silver to Gary before, even if anything even tangentially related to Rocket was…tough.

"Yeah," Ash said. "I think you'd like him. You're practically two peas in a pod."

Silver scoffed.

Ash sighed after a moment and reigned himself in. Silver had a unique way of getting under Ash's skin, but that was as much on him as it was the kid. He just couldn't keep the irritation down whenever Silver had a snide comment or snarky jab.

"How's Ever Grande?" Ash quickly changed the subject. Silver looked ready to scowl, but at least the other boy seemed just as relieved to divert. "Everything still going well?"

"They keeping me practically locked up," Silver said bitterly. "The only thing they need me for is the occasional interrogation or to verify out-of-date information. And everything's too colorful! It hurts my eyes. But it's peaceful, at least."

Too colorful. Ash wanted to roll his eyes but stopped himself. Silver wasn't even really locked up! He needed oversight and couldn't exactly be on his own yet, but the League had already deemed him to not be a threat.

Silver just stayed in Ever Grande because it was safe.

"Don't you have free reign of Ever Grande?"

"Sure, as long as I don't go into restricted areas," Silver grumbled. "But it's claustrophobic. At least I'm allowed in Victory Road if I have an escort. There's decent training opportunities there."

"At least you can stretch your legs a bit," Ash said, though Silver's sour expression didn't lighten. What else was new? "You might be able to convince some of the Rangers or ACE trainers to battle you when they're off-duty if you need some extra practice. Maybe I could talk to Phoebe or Glacia."

Silver tensed at the mention of Glacia. No doubt she'd taken it upon herself to ensure the boy behaved. "The League doesn't want anything to do with me, and I don't blame them," Silver groused. "And keep Phoebe away from me! She creeps me out."

"She creeps you out?" Ash blinked. "She's so nice! At least she's not Sidney."

"He sucks," Silver complained. "His stupid Zoroark keeps messing with me! If I see Giovanni standing in the corner one more time—"

There was a long, long list of complaints on that front, and Ash made a mental note to mention it to Wallace when he brought Silver back to Ever Grande.

Ash also planned to kick the crap out of Sidney as well, although that might need to go on the backburner for a few months. And had also been on his to-do list from the first time he'd met the infuriating man after the raid on the Stone colony.


He had his own plans for Sidney's team, although they'd require a totally different approach than Karen. Whereas she was all about trickery and exploiting every weakness possible, Sidney was all-out aggression—one way or another, very few of Sidney's battles lasted more than ten minutes.

It was one of the things that Ash did appreciate about Sidney. The Dark Master went right for the throat.

"I've been thinking…"

Silver immediately regarded Ash with suspicion.

Ash ignored it.

"The Ever Grande League won't need you much longer. The last fragments of the Rockets are being broken up or otherwise disposed of," Ash said, deciding not to mention that Executive Archer had been dumped on the Fortree Gym's doorstep a few days prior. His mind was half-melted from a Confuse Ray and he had major internal damage thanks to a Leaf Blade to the gut, but was still alive.

That was progress for Durand, at least. They'd still been able to extract useful information from the foul man after patching him up and before sending him to the Trench to keep his subordinates company.

It couldn't have happened to a kinder soul.

"And then what happens to me and my team?" Silver muttered. "Are they going to strip them from me and kick me out when they have no further use for good old Silver? Will they give my team out as rewards to high-performers?"

"No!" Ash exclaimed with a long-suffering groan. One day Silver would learn to exist without jumping to the worst possible conclusion every single time. "We've talked about this—you're not even locked up! You'll be on probation and have a tracker until you're finished, but we're not going to just send you off on your own."

Silver was silent.

"Do you have any family you could stay with?" Ash asked. "Anyone you trust?"

The boy stabbed the remains of his pasta with a fork. "My only family is locked in the Trench. I don't suppose your goodwill goes that far."

"It doesn't."

"I don't need anyone," Silver said quietly. "Just my team."

Ash nodded. "They'll see you through. Do you know your mom? Maybe we could—"

"Ariana isn't my mom," Silver said, his pale eyes shining furiously. His knuckles turned white as he gripped his silverware as if strangling it. Thankfully they were in a private room. Otherwise the entire restaurant probably would've turned to stare. "And if you ever say that again I'll kick your ass, Elite Four or no. You hear me?"

"Loud and clear." Ash could only blink at the sheer vitriol laced into Silver's every word. "I won't bring it up again."

"You'd better not!"

Silver wasn't kidding. The closest thing he had to family really was locked up in the Trench, part of Drake's dragon hoard of fallen foes. Ash knew Domino's file practically by heart—there were more holes in it than in Lairon's carapace, but she was a cold-blooded killer.

Yet there was an undeniable warmth in her when she spoke of Silver. Perhaps that had been the boy's only light. The only softness Silver had ever known.

Ash lowered his voice. "Can I be blunt?"

"Do you know how to be anything else?"

He elected to ignore that.

"What do you think about going back to Indigo?" Ash pressed forward before the gobsmacked Silver could respond. "Stop. Listen. Hoenn is dangerous. I can't say much more, but things are going to get really, really bad sometime soon."

"Worse than the criminals who want my head?"

Ash met Silver's gaze unflinchingly. "Much worse. You think Durand is bad? I don't want you here when things turn sour, Silver. If you want to go to Indigo, go. I've cleared it with the Elite Four already. You'll keep your check-ins, you'll still be on probation, but your case will be transferred to Indigo."

"Just like that?" Silver reclined in his seat, staring at the remains of his meal. "I could go home?"

He nodded.

"I…I need to think."

"Take your time. Just not too much."


Steven sipped his tea. It was piping hot, though Metagross regulated the temperature to acceptable levels before the steaming tea struck Steven's tongue. Occasionally Claydol would slip past Metagross' iron clad defenses and raise it back up to uncomfortable levels, or even freeze it solid.

Steven's face scrunched up in the most amusing way every time the construct succeeded.

The mundane methods in which Steven managed to utilize one of the strongest psychics on the planet never ceased to amaze Ash.

"Lance reports that the investigation into Kalos is going well, although the Lumiose League has always been slow to act on internal matters," Steven sighed. "Diantha does her best, but their institutions are slow and stubborn. They've calcified with age and don't take lightly to change."

"Unless someone comes in and burns it down," Ash said, recalling his conversation with Durand atop the Sky Pillar. "Unless someone sets the stage for new growth."

Steven looked disconcerted at that line of thoughts.

"Perhaps," he hedged. "But that is a dangerous line of thinking. Who is to say what comes next will be better? Chaos is a breeding ground for opportunists. Those willing to burn down an entire institution aren't generally the best at building something from the ashes. Change from within is slower, but I do believe it is possible. And more importantly, stable and lasting."

Ash hummed as he considered Steven's words. "And what if it's too big? What if there's too much inertia?"

One only had to look at Hoenn to see how quickly the corruption could take root. While Hoenn was hardly brushing the scales of a place like Orre or many of the frontier regions, it had taken only thirty years for the beginnings of Magma to germinate.

Then again, how much of Magma's network was simply inherited from whatever industrial and corporate powerhouses had been entrenched from before the Last War?

Steven smiled a little humorlessly, although his slate eyes flickered. "That's when you need someone like Metagross and I."

They chatted a little longer, though Steven pointedly did not bring up the incident with Tabitha. Ash could detect that undercurrent of frustration that ran deep in Steven, however, but the former Champion did his utmost to avoid letting Ash see it.

If only Ash didn't know him so well!

Ash couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to see the work of months undone in a single instant, to watch with horrified eyes as all those efforts turned to (somewhat literal) ash. It wasn't as if Steven had come away with nothing, of course, and he still had plenty of threads to weave together into a new picture, but Tabitha's untimely demise had thrown a wrench into his plans.

"Maybe you need a vacation," Ash suggested upon a lull in the conversation. "Take a day or two to relax and clear your head. You've been nonstop for the past few months."

"Perhaps," Steven said. "But I must admit that I've rather enjoyed my recent tasks beyond a few unfortunate…incidents. Data, inferences, logic puzzles. It's all rather relaxing. Numbers do not lie. There are no shades of grey, only the truth to uncover and piece together."

Steven might be the only person in the world to consider uncovering Magma's conspiracies as 'relaxing' but Ash supposed that made him the perfect person for the job.

"It seems that you could use a break as well," Steven said, frowning. They'd discussed the incident with the Harbinger—and Steven had been quite frustrated, though Ash spent the first few minutes talking Steven down from hunting the Harbinger down with Metagross and a small army behind his back—but had worked it all out. "I'd expected Plume to be able to avoid the Harbinger. Sidney's intelligence was lacking, it seems. We had no clue of the Harbinger's true abilities"

"Don't let her hear you say that," Ash warned, though he wanted to crack a joke about Sidney's 'lacking intelligence'. She'd glared daggers at the Harbinger for most of their training, and Ash thought her professional pride had been wounded by the Absol keeping up with her in the sky. "But yeah, the Harbinger was something else. Its skills are incredible! Like nothing we'd ever seen before."

Steven gave a long-suffering sigh. "I know that look on your face. Sidney was quite vocal about his thoughts on the rationality of your decision to train with the Harbinger…at this point I just have to assume you're doing this all on purpose."

You should have seen Steven's blood pressure skyrocket when he heard the news! I'm so glad we keep you around, Ash. His face was redder than a Tamato Berry. I was a little worried a passing Tauros would take offense.

"They aren't actually attracted to the color red—" Ash replied even as Steven's brow furrowed and the Steel Master said, "While that's a common misconception, Claydol, Tauros are technically—"

Claydol uttered a telepathic groan.

Ugh. You two are perfect for each other. Disgusting! I did my best to save you, Ash, but you succumbed to the infection regardless. Next you'll tell me you secretly have a psychic of your own living in your head at all hours of the day.

Ash glared pointedly at Claydol as the construct shuddered, cut off all its psychic levitation, and plopped dramatically to the floor with a 'thud'.

He wasn't sure if that was Metagross' doing or not.

"Perhaps I'll be able to pore over the data Lance sent me yesterday in peace now," Steven remarked, drumming his fingers against the table. "It will be a good distraction as I recalibrate my efforts to unmake Magma. Even a quick scan of the records of Lysandre Labs revealed a dozen irregularities. And what of you, Ash? I hope you don't plan to meet any additional entities like the Harbinger."

"I don't plan on it."

Steven groaned.

"I'm just burning time until the Silver Conference. I've thought about stopping by to see the end of the Indigo Conference, but the rest of the Indigo League seem like they have everything under wraps. Plus I'm working on an official challenge for Will and Karen and don't want to give them any warning," Ash admitted. Steven looked intrigued. "I'm helping out Ever Grande a bit, but they're running out of jobs for me now. It looks like our enemies are laying low for a bit."

"As they should, although a few additional data points would be useful to my efforts. Criminal activities have fallen to a six-month low since Tabitha's death," Steven said, unable to hide his pain and frustration at that. "And I am disconcerted by the possibility of a Metagross' involvement in Magma's efforts. Though Metagross possess many gifts, the mark of their mental manipulation is…distinctive."

"It's no wonder they've been so hard to pin down if they have a Metagross crunching their numbers," Ash said. While Metagross were spectacularly rare, it wasn't as if they were monopolized by the Stones. There were only a few dozen colonies worldwide, but they'd proven willing to work with humans before in exchange for resources that the colony could utilize.

"Indeed. They are likely utilizing Metagross in a similar capacity to the Ever Grande League," Steven remarked. "Although a Metagross' natural capacity for battle is exceptional, I believe their efforts are somewhat wasted on the battlefield."

Ash scoffed. "Do you have any idea how rich that is coming from you?"

"It is not my fault if most trainers do not optimize their partners properly," Steven said mildly. "But it cannot be argued that their computative abilities are beyond exceptional. Magma is wise to utilize their talents. While the direction of Magma undoubtedly springs from a human source, it is no surprise that they are proving so difficult to pin down if they have Metagross available to check redundancies and formulate the dense layers of systems which obfuscate their activities."

He could see that Steven was about a few seconds away from descending entirely into Metagross #1 Fan Mode and headed it off.

"Well, maybe it'll be especially satisfying to smush them with Regirock once you pin them down. Has there been any luck with the other? Brawly and I searched the archipelago a bit but we haven't narrowed the search down yet."

"I'm afraid not, although Metagross and I have continued to work to turn Regirock into a useful asset. Its own inbuilt limitations are frustrating, but we command it somewhat more flexibly now, although I have failed to develop it in the direction of semi-autonomy as I'd like. I've considered sourcing a Beldum from another colony to take on some of the processing load—"

Metagross' scarlet eyes burned a little bloodier at that. The taciturn creature made a rumbling noise that exhibited just what they thought of Steven's idea.

"—but there have been some logistical concerns with that plan," Steven quickly amended.

Claydol chimed in from its sad repose on the floor.

Metagross is J-E-A-L-O-U-S.

While Claydol had already severed its own levitation, Ash didn't think that it was the one who decided to mute its telepathy. Metagross stared bloody murder at the construct before returning to their uncanny stillness now that they had fully made their point.

"Regirock will prove invaluable for pitched battle, but I hardly imagine that will be a concern going forward," Steven said. "The nature of conflict has changed since the Last War and the centralization of power."

Ash could only imagine the devastation that could have been wreaked if Regirock's tomb had been uncovered a few decades before. While far from a proper Legend, Ash knew the weight of its existence. Forged by the God-King's own hands with divine inspiration…

Even Drake the Dragon Master and Mega Metagross (Megagross?) couldn't do much more than temporarily wound the construct, and from Ash had heard, Regirock repaired itself almost as quickly. It was an unstoppable juggernaut limited only by the void within.

"Maybe you just need more practice," Ash said. "Otherwise it's not going to see much use unless something is stupid enough to attack Ever Grande City."

Oh, how he'd have loved to see the looks on the Rockets' faces if they'd ever gathered up enough suicidal courage. Regirock would have crushed them to paste!

Steven's lips quirked. "Indeed. For now, I believe we shall prove sufficient without Regirock's aid. Though perhaps that will change if we uncover the rest. Ever Grande has recruited something of an expert in the subject to assist us, although I don't expect to progress at more than a trickle. It's the nature of such a search."

"At least Cynthia and Mint Chocolate Chip helped get us started."

"Indeed," Steven said. "Her skills have proven valuable, although I do hope she'll stumble across something from the Learned which will narrow our search even further. But perhaps I'm being greedy."

"I don't think anyone could blame you after the year you've had," Ash said lightly. "You deserve a lucky break or ten."

"You're still in one piece despite stumbling into more trouble than I thought possible. I'm content with that."

Ash snorted. Metagross' eyes flashed.

"But I'm afraid we must be going," Steven sighed, looking rather unhappy with the prospect. "Duty calls."

With that, they parted ways with a quick hug. Ash remained for a few moments to share glances with Lairon and a few other members of his team, then smiled.

"Think Plume would be up for a quick flight?"


"Tangrowth! How are you doing?" Ash laughed as Tangrowth urged him closer with a few vines looped gently around his arms. The grass-type whined and tugged Ash over, sending him stumbling. Thankfully there were a few rubbery vines ready to catch him. "I haven't seen you so excited in a minute. What's up?"

Tangrowth eagerly pointed to a heaping pile of stone that he'd shaped into a larger-than-life effigy of Ash and his friends. It was largely constructed of black rock but sand, dirt, and various other forest materials had been scrounged together by vines, Ancient Power, and whatever other abilities Tangrowth possessed.

"Wow, did you make that?" Ash grinned. While the actual details of Tangrowth's masterpiece were a bit crude—and Ash was willing to attribute that to Tangrowth's poor sight more than anything, given that he experienced the world primarily through his vines—the reconstructions were surprisingly faithful. "You've been holding out on us!"

His friend danced at that, slithering a few of his vines over to point out different aspects for Ash to admire: the scar from Articuno's blizzard upon Ash's face, the gemmed loop clutched preciously in Dazed's thick fingers, Torrent's regal horns, and the sewn hats (shaped of vines and moss by Tangrowth) held in Bruiser's mighty hands.

"You're going to have to make more of these," Ash admired and dug out his device to take a few pictures at different angles. "What sparked this?"

Tangrowth's vines rustled as a few rushed forth to Ash's pack and pulled out the little metal etching that Steven had offered Ash the other day.

"That'd do it," Ash teased, leaning onto Tangrowth and holding his large red fingers. "It's beautiful, Tangrowth. Have you shown the others?"

He shook his whole body quickly, and Ash smiled. "Well, I'm honored to be the first! I hope this is just the beginning for you, Tangrowth."

No doubt several of the others had caught sight of Tangrowth's art project, but he appreciated that Tangrowth had hauled him over first. Tangrowth perked up and he quickly flung out a dozen different vines to go collect other members of the team, but Ash shook his head.

"Maybe not yet," Ash suggested. "Let's wait for them to go on break, okay?"

Tangrowth wilted, but a few questions from Ash managed to distract him from his disappointment while also leaving the rest of the team to train in peace.

Even as the gurgling Tangrowth practically hauled Ash across the training grounds to inspect his masterpiece from the other side, the others were busy with their own projects.

Plume was focused upon emulating Lugia's technique—which they had named 'Aeroblast' after a brainstorming sessions during their last Mega Evolution together—to little success, much to her frustration.

She had created a functional version in the psychic-bounded Hurricane, which amplified the wind torrent to unbelievable heights, and had made steady progress on infusing various Concepts into her regular attacks, but even an attack that could level a small forest was only a fraction of the power they knew they could achieve.

They'd come to primarily work on new innovations while Mega Evolved in hopes that their united skills and perceptions would allow them to embrace connections that would otherwise be beyond them individually. It had met with some success, but the scale of the project they were attempting was beyond any single technique that the team had approached thus far.

But when they achieved it…

Plume cried out overhead, shrieking her frustration into existence as yet another attempt at Aeroblast failed. Gold motes flecked from her throat, but they failed to coalesce.

Without Ash to guide and amplify her abilities it was like banging her head against a brick wall.

They were greater together.

At least Infernus had a more manageable project, although right now he was busy ganging up on Torrent with Lairon. The mighty Kingdra challenged himself by restricting his abilities to the draconic aspects of his power.

Though Torrent's attempts at drawing and conducting the ambient power was still in its early stages, he had picked up enough to give his attacks a bit of extra oomph.

They were all warming up: Nidoking clutched the Moon Stone in his grip, sensing minute flickers of Distortion and wheeling around to blast Shadow Claws and Shadow Balls sent by Dazed and Weavile with wispy shields of Fairy energy even as he dueled Torrent.

It was still difficult to draw on, but Nidoking found it far easier to wield small pulses of the fae power than he had even a few days ago.

Torrent surprised Nidoking every now and then by participating as part of his own training—his eyes narrowed in frustration as he attempted to manipulate the draconic power which permeated the atmosphere, but the extra energy collected made for an especially nasty Dragon Pulse which was just barely washed away with Nidoking's new defenses.

At the Sky Pillar it would have been child's play to coalesce the power into an attack now that they recognized the connection…well, that was being a bit too flippant, Ash corrected.

It was easier at the Sky Pillar, not easy. Trying to grasp the particulars of draconic power in the atmosphere was like trying to catch smoke in your bare hands…if the smoke fought back. What Zinnia had done wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination, although what Ash attempted now was even more difficult.

Draconic energy was true to the nature of its wielders: wild, furious, and free. It did not bend easily and did not surrender to Torrent's will lightly.

This technique was draining beyond belief, though Ash thought the potential applications more than justified the investment of time and energy away from Torrent's other skills. His other project, water manipulation, was advanced enough to survive a little attention elsewhere.

It was much like Aeroblast in that regard.

If they could master this technique, they could master the world.

Nidoking wheeled around to raise the Moon Stone sliver high as Torrent managed a dull, wavering Dragon Pulse reminiscent of his very first efforts in those early days outside of Pallet Town before the Dandra Tournament.

Such an attack would barely singe Nidoking's hide, but the poison-type manipulated the power in the Moon Stone with speed enough to break the tiny pulse upon it like waves upon rocks, the primordial energy fading in the face of such perfect order.

And it was that which attracted so much of Ash's attention and confirmed his burgeoning suspicions: the power of the Moon Stone was the power of the fae creatures which inhabited Kalos and a few select other regions, though that raised all sorts of questions which had set Ash off on a dozen different trails of research.

Lance had been a little confused when Ash sent a list of questions (it was only six pages once Dazed and Nidoking helped him trim it down, so Ash didn't see what the big deal was) for the Fairy Masters that Diantha had roped into facing him, but at least the Indigo Champion was happy to oblige.

"Yes, good work!" Ash cheered Nidoking and Torrent both on. Torrent's attack was far from viable, but at least it was a step in the right direction. Perhaps in the coming months they might hammer it into something practical for proper battle. "Keep it up!"

Nidoking grinned back and turned to blast apart Dazed's Multiball, his ephemeral shield of silver-trimmed pink energy sufficient to annihilate it all on contact, scourging the vile power from this world.

Ash half-expected the Harbinger to warp from nowhere to leap into the flood. They'd become a little worried that the living prison had grown a little addicted to the fae energies which emanated from the sliver.

But the Absol was nowhere to be found, which was a tad relieving. Ash had come to respect the Harbinger—even like it in some ways, even if he'd never forget its attempt on Lotus' life—but its single-minded pursuit of its self-appointed duty always put him on edge.

It was reasonable enough to agree to an alliance of sorts, but Ash had no doubt that the Harbinger would scourge Lotus from this world if he saw the chance.

Weavile hissed at Ash from a distance. Nidoking had his back turned to the dark-type, and Ash knew exactly what Weavile was thinking.

He nodded back with a smirk.

Weavile perked up, flickered forth with a Quick Attack, and it was only Nidoking's keen senses mixed with his hard-earned ability to sense Distortion that allowed him to spin back to face the Weavile.

Nidoking roared, bearing his Moon Stone shard high, and a great surge of wild, uncontrolled power flowed forth like a rushing river. The pink shield materialized like a fog as the dark power wreathed around Weavile's claws was banished, but Weavile just snickered as that unearthly not-light exploded from his lean body in a wave to match Nidoking's fairy barrier.

"Let's see how much you can handle," Ash murmured as the Mind Breaker lashed out. Grey tendrils crept forth like Tangrowth's vines to probe and lash at Nidoking's shield, eroding it even as they themselves were devoured by the orderly light, and Nidoking grimaced as the overwhelming tide managed to carve through his own defenses inch by inch.

And when it infiltrated far enough the Moon Stone dropped from Nidoking's twitching claws and the shield faded away.

Nidoking stumbled back, wracked by grey lightning, but was otherwise unharmed by the Mind Breaker. It wasn't a full powered Mind Breaker—Ash didn't want Nidoking out of commission, after all—but it would have been enough to knock out a lesser fighter.

And Nidoking's latticed shield had managed to hold the worst of it back. Was the Moon Stone itself so potent, or was that the normal effect of fae power upon Distortion? Ash's studies pointed to it being overwhelmingly effective, but it was hard to believe that such a terrible force could be softened so effectively.

They'd have to find a way to lessen Nidoking's reliance on the Moon Stone as a source of power, although Ash genuinely didn't know if that was even possible. This was unexplored territory, after all, and he was eager to keep it hidden for now.

Would a canny Ghost or Dark Master have a dozen ways to compensate for that weakness? Certainly. But the fact that they had to account for it at all was lovely to consider.

Ash had spent the majority of the last year learning to defend against their esoteric bullshit. He'd practically specialized in it! Could anyone blame him for being a little spiteful?

He was broken out of his thoughts as Nidoking snarled at Sneasel, his tail thrashing, and made to fire off a blinding Thunderbolt at him, and Ash just smiled.

For all that things had changed since they came to Hoenn, even more stayed the same.


Ash leaned against a rock as they rested a few dozen miles east of Lavaridge, not too far from the beginnings of the Piede. He wasn't altogether eager to visit that blasted wasteland again—least of all for whatever memories it might kindle in Lotus—but wanted to familiarize himself with every aspect of Lavaridge's territory before Flannery took a short sojourn from her duties.

He knew she was still a little broken up about it, but Ash had laughed like a lunatic when she told him that Fino had (quite happily) granted her request for a month or two of reprieve before the Ever Grande Conference.

Flannery had given everything to her people. It was time for her to take care of herself for a bit. While he was going to be half-chained to Lavaridge for a bit, he was happy to take on that burden if it meant Flannery felt free to satisfy her own wanderlust.

It wasn't as if he'd be utterly bound to Lavaridge, after all. He'd only be taking on the majority of the duties for the two weeks until the Silver Conference began. After that there'd be a rotation to ensure that Fino always possessed support.

This was a sacrifice he was happy to make for his friend. Flannery deserved it.

Besides, he couldn't imagine what sort of fight they could have once she was done!

But she wasn't quite off the hook yet. Flannery was off in Fallarbor settling a dispute between a few trainers and the Minor Gym there, but in a few days she'd be free to go off on her own journey.

"Torrent, I could use some advice."

Torrent turned away from his efforts to levitate a little closer to Ash, his great size swallowing Ash's vision, and rumbled his question.

"You know I've been thinking of challenging Will and Karen, right?"

The Kingdra nodded.

"I—" Ash hesitated. "Do you think I should challenge them for real? Should I go for one of their positions? I'm not sure if I can beat them, but I know I want to try. I want to face them at their best!"

That earned an amused snort from Torrent, but the mighty dragon waited patiently for Ash to continue. Water swirled up from the glassy dew adorning the morning grass as Torrent considered Ash's words.

"Nothing would fire them up like seeing me across from them in the Indigo Stadium," Ash said with a savage grin, imagining the fire pumping through their blood in the face of a proper challenge. "But I don't know if I want that. I couldn't assume the role for another few years while I was trained up as an official member, and the thought of being chained down like that…"

Ash still possessed a great deal of flexibility as a trainee. The fact that he'd been sent off to Hoenn with Steven at all spoke to that, and he enjoyed the freedom it offered. Lance's warnings echoed constantly in his mind, and Ash would be lying if he said the thought of such monumental responsibilities didn't put him on edge.

Aaron of Sinnoh was the closest Elite Four member to Ash in age, and even he had over three years on Ash. He remembered Cynthia mentioning that the Bug Master would be sixteen fairly soon, and he still hadn't assumed full responsibilities.

It was a similar situation to Lance. While his mentor had conquered Champion Marcus and ascended to Indigo's throne at sixteen, Marcus remained as de facto Champion for several years while Lance underwent training in various areas to ensure he was ready for the demands of the role…and that was with one of the most powerful and established Elite Fours in the National League to support the young Lance.

"I just keep tossing it over in my head," Ash admitted to Torrent. "There's nothing that would make me happier than to test us against the best of the best. I know you guys are ready. It's been nearly a year since we've come to Hoenn, and in that time we've pushed farther than I could imagine. But…what if we win?"

Torrent's scarlet eyes crinkled as he regarded Ash fondly, then knelt to brush his horns against Ash's hat.

Confidence. Self-assurance. Pride.

"Yes," Ash breathed as the weight of Torrent's thoughts washed over him. They were deep as an ocean, but an undercurrent swept beneath it all. The competitive edge he buried beneath his regal mask, the drive for perfection, the will to see all challengers broken before him. "Yes. We could win. We could sharpen ourselves to our limits."

Where would they break? It was difficult to say. Will was a tricky one, his creative mind lending itself to a thousand tricks and frustrating misdirections, and Karen was a savage fighter with a relentless drive for self-improvement.

Koga led you through a maze of shadow and poison until it was time to land the killing blow, while Bruno met you on the open field and proved himself the better.

And beyond them all lay Lance the Dragon Master reclining on his throne, grinning as he awaited the next challenger.

Ash had no illusions about his chances against the senior members of the Elite Four at this point, let alone Lance. But Will and Karen…

"After the Silver Conference," Ash decided. "I'm not sure if I'm ready to claim their spots, but we will face them. We'll be at our best, and they theirs. Let them see what we've become! I hope they haven't been resting on their laurels."

Torrent rumbled with pride, leaned down to brush his horns against Ash's head once more, and rose proud and tall as they imagined the battles to come.

They rested a while and chatted, content with each other's company as the rest of the team trained, and meditated for a time. There was so much to do, so much to see, and time was trickling down until the Silver Conference.

Ash couldn't wait to see his friends, and he already had plans—

Beep! Beep! Beep!

He was broken from his concentration by an ear-piercing screech from his PokéNav that immediately brought the rest of his team running.

"That's the emergency broadcast," Ash murmured. It was the same frequency that brought quick responders to the Sky Pillar when he was attacked by Zinnia. His blood ran cold for a moment as he turned west to face Mt. Chimney, but the volcano was still quiet and content.

There was no deathly crashing of the seas or churning of the earth.

Groudon and Kyogre were still asleep.

He exhaled even as he flicked the PokéNav on so that he could hear the broadcast. It was garbled with static, but clear enough to discern Fino's voice. If he was putting out that

"—Bravo. To all League personnel within Zones L5, L6, and L7: Myself and four Lavaridge Gym Trainers are investigating a Distortional spike on Mt. Chimney's northern side that occurred during a routine patrol. I request assistance from all available personnel. Coordinates…"

"You got that?" Ash called out to Dazed, who nodded. "Everyone, get ready! We're going to reinforce Fino. When released, expect a combat situation."

They all nodded their acknowledgement. Ash quickly recalled them save Plume and Lotus, who remained on his belt. His hands felt like a blur as he saddled her up and strapped himself in. Thoughts raced through Ash's mind, concern first and foremost—Fino was a proper Master, after all, and he wouldn't have called for help for nothing.

Ash ran down the possibilities: the Harbinger came to the forefront of his mind, naturally, but Ash doubted the twisted Absol would pose an issue. While Ash genuinely thought the Harbinger would be a far worse opponent for Fino than it had been for Ash—Fino hadn't specialized nearly as much in anti-Distortional tactics as Ash's team had—he also doubted that the Harbinger would be hostile to the Fire Master.

The Harbinger had little attention to spare for anything that wasn't a ghost or spawning more of the reality parasites.

Ugh, Ash had spent too much time around the moon-addled zealot if that was how he was thinking.

Otherwise there were a few powerful ghosts that the Ever Grande League tracked.

But Ash's thoughts couldn't help but go in a darker direction…

"Come on! We need to hurry," Ash urged Plume. She cooed back at him before exploding upward in a rush of wind. Lotus rattled along on Ash's belt, little wisps of lavender mist bleeding out, and he rested a gentle hand upon his friend. "Lotus, we might be going into danger—I can return you, if you like. It's not often we have forewarning, and I'm happy to keep you out of it. It's your choice."

Lotus hesitated, a lone green eye blazing into existence, and froze.

Fear. Dragged from beds. Entombed forevermore. Its new companions burnt away in dragonfire.

Protectiveness. Thrashing its tail, spitting sparks in defense of its family, beaten down and collected like the rest.

A shield raised. Armor worn.

A will to preserve what little light there was.


Ash exhaled as the weight of Lotus' memories and hopes crashed over him. "Thank you," he murmured, brushing his fingers against the grained surface of the keystone. It felt a little lighter all of a sudden. "You'll stay with me, okay? We play it safe."

Lotus seemed quite happy with that given the little rush of warmth that Ash felt radiate out from it. The emotion was such a far cry from the sheer frigid nature of the darkness that once consumed the Spiritomb that Ash's breath hitched, and he poured all the gratitude he could into the keystone.

Plume carried them swiftly. The wind itself urged them forward, lifting them faster than mere physiology would have allowed, and Ash reached up to grasp the Keystone pinned into his tattered cap.

They went knowingly into potential danger. Zinnia and the Harbinger had taught him well: always go in with an advantage.

"Fly with me?" Ash cried to Plume with a small smile on his lips. She gleefully sang her beautiful song in agreement. His hand clutched around the keystone and felt Lotus' soft mist seep through his fingers.

A light flashed.

And just like that, they were one.

Their eyes saw far and pierced deeply into the bones of existence. They saw the shadowed mist crawling over Mt. Chimney and the bloody light lurking deep within, the weight of cloying Earth weighing down upon them like an anchor as it struck them with terrible mass.

For a moment all thoughts of Fino fled as the beast beneath Mt. Chimney's true scale hammered down upon them.

Its seeping power could not be easily constrained, and their hearts hitched as they felt the great monster stretch throughout the great spines of the mountains for miles and miles and miles, its length unimaginable for any living being. Its waking dreams manifested as the eruptions which plagued Mt. Chimney and trembled the earth.

But it wasn't living, was it?

"All of that, but it's only a creature of earth," they sneered and spat vitriol at sleeping Groudon. "Your crown might scrape the sky, but you will never know true freedom, sleeping beast!"

Their piece said, they shot forward to where Fino had directed them—shrouded shadow blanketed the mountain, cutting off teleportation, and their glorious unity enabled them to be of one mind as they whirred through a dozen approaches in an instant.

"Down," they sang. "Death from above, death from below!"

Keen vision scraped the world bare and pierced past the canopy. Illusions mottled them, obscured the truth, but such was an admission on its own.

Fino and four Lavaridge trainers stood in a tense standoff with a dozen black-garbed figures. The League forces were arrayed in a defensive position, their partners already out, and signs of battle littered the area: burning brush, smoking trees, and shredded earth.

Rockets? No, the distinctive 'R' was missing, and it would've taken an army of the scum to make Fino pause.

But the Distortion which blanketed the mountainside was thick and potent. No wonder Fino's transmission had been half-broken.

One lone figure stood amidst the black-clad group. She was wavering, cloaked in illusion, but the despair on her face as she caught sight of the two was very real.

Fino didn't look much better, though Lucille by his side waved her burning wand in greetings. Did he not appreciate their majesty? The audacity!

They swept down with a glorious cry and came down in a crash of wind that buffeted the mountain and kicked up a shroud of dirt and dust. Smoke fled, banished by their purity, and their human half slid easily off while their avian half exploded upward to return to the heavens in which they ruled.

Distance weakened their unity, though the bond remained strong and intact, but Ash felt the solidity fade away as a bit of individuality returned.

He grimaced at the unpleasant feeling—Plume remained in the back of his mind, impressions of her senses and thoughts flickering into his own, but separating was akin to stepping out of a warm, steaming shower to be faced with piercing winter air.

Plume raced high above, and he felt the wind against her face. How he yearned to be up there with her!

Ash released a few of his teammates on reflex, though the small number of fighters on Fino's side cautioned him not to release all just yet: Weavile, Nidoking, Dazed, and Torrent manifested in a flash of light.

They were a veritable army.

"We're here, Fino."

Fino had never looked unhappier to see Ash. It struck him, but the Fire Master was quick to greet him. "Your aid is appreciated, Ash, although if I'd known…"

Ash's brow furrowed.

"Why did it have to be you?" Durand's lilting voice broke the silence. Ash leapt as her illusion came unveiled and the Distortion around her face fled, though Ash suspected her Zoroark had plenty of fallback options. Shedinja appeared by her shoulder, its carapace as expressionless as ever. A bright pink bandanna with a stylized smiling Espeon was tied around its body.

"Durand," Ash said, his voice tightening. So his worst suspicions were confirmed. "Situation?"

Lucille's soft voice was muffled thanks to the Distorted fog which littered the mountainside—which reminded him all too much of the Indigo Conference Final—but was clear enough to discern.

During our investigation, we saw fit to burn away the corrupted areas. In doing so we revealed this band, led by Durand. A minor skirmish ensued upon the initial revelation, but we have reached a tentative stalemate. We do not wish to escalate. Do not release anymore of your teammates!

Ash nodded his acceptance and didn't release any further members of his team. Lotus on his hip granted him some measure of safety, though his hands strayed down to the pokeballs on his belt for reassurance. Plume would buy them time if needed, even if they'd have to be wary of Noivern.

Who knew how many of Durand's team were obscured?

She rarely went in if the deck wasn't stacked in her favor.

Then again, Ash's appearance very well might have tipped the scales far, far away. Durand was not happy to see him. The Rogue Master was coiled tight like a wire already. Her usual easy confidence was nowhere to be seen with both Fino Moore and Ash Ketchum arrayed against her on the same potential battlefield.

Ash took a moment to assess both sides aligned against one another: while the League forces were tense, they remained disciplined with their teams out. Fino pointedly kept most of his fighters locked away. Only Winston the Coalossal and Lucille the Delphox stood ready for combat, though those two alone could have crushed the vast majority of the forces backing up Durand.

Meanwhile Durand's forces—Aqua, Ash suspected, although they didn't wear the ordinary uniform—were just as tense as their leader. Some seemed eager for a fight while others were ready to run. Most covered their faces, but the assortment of Pelipper, Crawdaunt, a floating Seadra (whose trainer instantly rose in Ash's estimation), a trembling Absol, and a few other fighters frequently found in the archipelago didn't help to hide their likely affiliations.

The whole scenario felt like a powder keg ready to go off. While the League forces were outnumbered, they were certainly not outmatched.

Fino was a former member of the Elite Four. While Durand might be more dangerous, Fino was her better. Fighting Durand was a risky endeavor, but Ash's presence could tip the scales.

His heart pumped.

They could take her in.

Two-on-one were the best odds they were going to get, and if they could the Hunters here…hell, this might be the one time Ash would smile to see George Grey show up!

Lucille's voice flickered once more, still muffled. The Distortion shroud was growing thicker and thicker, which Ash wasn't a fan of. No doubt Durand wanted as many pieces on the table as possible to dissuade any conflict.

It is possible. Should conflict begin, we will reach out for the Hunter Squad and other reinforcements. But we do not want to antagonize her, Storm-Tamer. She is anxious.

Durand's eyes were cold as ice but Ash could sense the wildness lurking behind. They raced between Ash, Fino, Winston, and Lucille with obvious worry, though occasionally she glanced up to the sky where Plume flew. He found himself regretting releasing Nidoking and the rest, as Durand's tension only racketed higher every time she looked at them.

We have exchanged attacks, but they were only probing. Allow us to negotiate.

"Understood," Ash murmured. Bruiser's mighty presence would have offered comfort, but he remembered just how on-edge Durand and her team had been around him atop the Sky Pillar. While his fingers itched with the urge to release a few more of his teammates as Durand stepped forward. Shedinja—Coco, Ash remembered—moved smoothly with her.

"Master Durand," Fino said genially, though his every word was calm and carefully chosen. "I apologize for the interruption. Now, I believe we were discussing your presence here."

Durand's accent was thicker than normal, though still understandable. "As I mentioned, Master Fino, we apologize for the incursion. We are not here to harm any League facilities, I assure you. Our intentions are noble."

"Then share them with us," Fino urged. "We did not come here with intentions to battle. We simply detected a spike of Distortion in our territory and came to investigate. But if you have information you can give us, perhaps we can negotiate. Our battle hasn't yet spilled blood. We need not change that."

Durand's face bore naked relief, though Ash twitched. They had her right where they wanted her!

They'd never get another chance like this again.

"Very well, Master Fino! Your terms are acceptable," Durand agreed, her voice easing a bit. Her men shuffled behind her with their teams with the same relaxation. One stood straight and taut by Durand's side, however, and Ash's gaze slid over to the man. His wild purple hair had an eye-catching orange streak dyed into it. "We are not here to threaten Lavaridge or Ever Grande. Our own efforts have revealed a stronghold of our mutual foe, Magma. It was our intent to pay them a visit. You know as well as I do that opportunities to wound them directly are all too rare to come by."

The wild-haired man's face was a mask, but Ash frowned as he saw a subtle tension fill him.

"I would be remiss in my duties to allow you to operate without intervention," Fino said lightly, but pushed onward as Durand's tanned face twisted. The scars upon her cheek seemed fiercer than ever. "However, if you share your information and allow us to verify it and act in your stead, then I believe we might reach an accord."

"Yes," Durand said quickly, reaching into the pocket of her tan cargo shorts for a small black device. A murmur of agreement came from her guards. Ash really hoped that none of them were technically a bodyguard for Jacqueline Durand of all people. That might be the most pointless job in the world. "That will be acceptable. May I approach, or would you prefer your noble Delphox to take it?"

"Your offer is appreciated, but unnecessary," Fino said with a smile. He adjusted his spectacles. "I would not wish to cause you or your team unnecessary stress. Lucy, if you would?"

The Delphox gracefully swished her wand once. A psychic shell flashed into existence around Durand's device and began to whisk it over to Fino's outstretched hand.

Ash felt something shift. Plume's keen eyes from above caught the wild-haired man lean down to whisper something to…was that Durand's Shiftry?

No, he realized, it was a copy, perfect to the last detail aside from the true steel in the original Shiftry's eyes.

But it didn't matter.


At that muttered command, the false Shiftry did two things in the blink of an eye.

First, it spat a hail of Bullet Seeds wreathed in dark power straight at a blue-eyed Ranger with a glowing Magcargo at his side.



The psychicsreacted swiftly, layering a shimming shield over the Gym Trainer, but the Distorted Bullet Seed—even if this bastardized, stolen version was far less stable than Durand's true technique—shredded through the barriers and tore into the Ranger's chest.

The man crumpled as the Bullet Seeds exited through his back and he collapsed in a pile of blood.

They all froze, horrified.

Fino aged a hundred years in an instant. "Vito!" He cried, broken at the sight of his fallen green-haired Gym Trainer. How long had Fino taught the younger man? How many battles had they seen together? "Vito!"

Before they could blink, the false Shiftry took advantage of Lucille's momentary lapse in concentration to fire another stream of black-crackling Bullet Seeds into the small device which Durand had surrendered.

"Brodie, you fucking fool!" Durand roared, wheeling on the stone-faced man. Shedinja hovered ominously forward, though it refused to depart its beloved trainer's side, and Ash got a sick feeling in his gut. "I'm going to—"

Then the trainer's Magcargo wailed in despair, an awful sound like lava bubbling, and oozed forth with a roar to unleash a spray of flame which was just barely intercepted by a spray of dirty water from one of the Aqua grunts' Marshtomp.

The other Gym Trainers held back, but the Aquas were not so disciplined. Even as Lucille restrained the Magcargo, a few of the antsy Aquas' partners fired off Water Guns and other assaults as Brodie's Ditto shot off another surge of Bullet Seeds which tore through every psychic protection, and one of the Gym Trainers' Graveler snarled and spat a Hyper Beam into their midst—

"Fuck!" Durand swore, her usual composure and casual confidence abandoned, and the reflection of the roaring flames spewed by the raging Magcargo burned in her green eyes.

At that moment the Masters knew that there could be no peace today.

But that didn't mean Fino couldn't try.

"Stand down!" Fino cried, turning on his Rangers and Gym Trainers. "Stand down!"

But even as the Fire Master attempted to restore order amongst his loyal forces—a feat almost impossible as the battle between the Lavaridge trainers and Aquas' teammates intensified—Ash felt the shift in Durand.

It only solidified as the Magcargo's Fire Blast was devoured by Shedinja before it could splash over Durand herself.

Flowing flame burst forth from Lucille's wand like a molten river, twisting and stretching to absorb a hail of attacks that threatened Fino, though most were errant, and Lotus shivered as it stopped a Water Gun that went wide. Nidoking and the rest immediately took up defensive positions, and Torrent vengefully compressed the captured Water Gun and redirected it into a forceful Hydro Pump that hurled the offending Seadra into a tree.

Lucille's flame's immense heat stretched wide, little flecks of psychic power interspersed throughout to increase her control (which Ash filed away even now) and the wall of billowing flame scorched their skin and boiled away the moisture in the air.

Durand shivered. Her mossy green eyes turned to cold emerald at the sight of the writhing flames and looked far, far from Lavaridge.

Her jaw set. Shiftry and Farfetch'd twitched as they came into existence, unveiled by Zoroark as they readied to do battle.

Ash picked out the exact moment cold practicality appeared and the hope for a peaceful resolution vanished.

Durand disappeared into thin air, no doubt hidden by her Zoroark (assuming that had actually been her the entire time), and Ash ground his teeth even as he released the rest of his own team in an instant.

"Ash, step back! We can still—" Fino sighed when he realized what Ash had done, resigned to the path that lay ahead, and released his own partners: Kalena the Salazzle, a grumpy Simisear who Ash had only met a few times, a massive Camerupt named Canono, Plinia his half-blind Typhlosion, and a heavyset, craggy Torkoal with squinting eyes named Calliope. They all emerged to support Winston and Lucille. "Very well. We shall do what we must, hmm? Careful, Ash. We don't wish to push this beyond control. Lucille, send the signal to the Hunters. We cannot risk anymore than we already have."

"I understand," Ash responded as he checked over his own team—they were already busy blocking barriers, taking up defensive positions, and trying to test the stalwart defenses of Durand's own team as her deadly fighters prepared themselves.

Less than thirty seconds had passed since the faux Shiftry's attack.

Fino's Talonflame exploded forth from above with a furious cry, heralded by a trail of smoke and sparks, and wreathed itself in flame—

A Noivern swept towards it, screaming soundlessly, and Talonflame spat a great gout of cinders, each of which erupted into a fireball that set a great collection of green leaves on fire. The dragon was swallowed whole and Talonflame screamed victory.

And then the illusion faded away just as the true Noivern appeared from nowhere, unveiled by Zoroark just in time for Talonflame to shriek as an enormous Boom Burst rattled the small flier just as Noivern's fangs wrapped around its neck.

Fino recalled the wounded Talonflame in an instant, his face set into a disappointed frown, and sighed. "That's how it is, then? I see. It's time to remember old lessons better forgotten."

The sight of Fino's full team (minus his roaming Blaziken) emboldened Ash, and the familiar drum beat echoed in his ears as his hot blood began to pound. Steam boiled off his skin as Fire rose in his heart and little flecks of flame came away with every exhale.

Lucille held her wand aloft and began to coalesce the blooming fires around them into blazing projectiles, bending the flames to her will, but that maneuver set Durand's team off: a hail of Bullet Seeds wrapped expertly in crackling shadow littered forth to hammer into Lucille, only absorbed by Winston hurling himself between them.

The Coalossal grumbled as some of his craggy black armor was shorn off.

Ash wasn't surprised that Durand attempted to remove the psychic which could network Fino's entire team first. His own team knew to protect Dazed at all costs, thankfully, and he instructed Dazed to catch Lucille up on their plans.

Winston rushed off to support the Rangers as the maybe-Aquas began to hammer down upon them, realizing their only choice was to commit to the fight now that League blood had been spilled.

They couldn't compromise now. Not so easily as they had before.

"So it's come to this," Fino said quietly. Lucille stood erect at his side, every inch his noble lieutenant, and her eyes flashed azure as she relayed orders to the rest of the team. The Distortion wasn't so thick as to entirely disrupt telepathy, although it was muffled. "We tread carefully, Ash. Lucille discovered Durand earlier, but with the chaos…"

"We can find her," Ash glanced to Weavile, who nodded. He raised one of his paws and shut his eyes as he focused, doing his utmost to sense any Distortional hot spots—harder than usual thanks to the dark fog which Durand had layered throughout the forest—even as Ash glanced around at the rest of his family. "She'll go for an escape—there's no chance she fights both of us willingly. I don't know if she'll prioritize the Aquas or not. Where do you want us?"

"Perhaps it would be better if she did escape," Fino mused, but shook his head. "No, we cannot suffer this attack. Poor Vito! If we are to be forced into conflict, then we must gain all we can from it."

Bursts of lava, gouts of flame, and earth-shattering blasts of power erupted from Fino's team as they seamlessly engaged Durand's team, though they were rattled as Durand's Noivern appeared from nothing with a Boom Burst to crash down upon them—Dazed was ready, though, and shaped one of her anti-sonic shields to absorb the cacophony before it could entirely disrupt their tight formation.

Durand had taught him many lessons in their battle on the atoll. Never let it be said that they were poor students.

"I will match Durand," Fino said gravely. The lines on his weathered old skin seemed deeper than ever. "Ensure she cannot use the Rangers as leverage. I suspect she will attempt to take hostages. And stay back! You've fought her before and I trust your judgment, but remain cautious. Support where you can. We will need all you can safely offer."

"You have us," Ash swore. "We're yours."

"Good man," Fino said, clapping Ash on his shoulder, and adjusted his spectacles once more. "To me!"

"Don't let her escape," Ash hissed as attack after attack was traded by the Lavaridge forces and Aquas as the battle began in earnest—it was chaos already, with the smaller League force concentrating to maximize their fire, but both the Aquas and the Lavaridge trainers shifted elsewhere to offer the Masters their space. None of them wanted to be caught in the crossfire between Fino, Ash, and Durand. "Two on one! These are our best odds."

His blood ran hot with the battle-frenzy and his every sense sharpened in anticipation of the challenge, but a dull ache panged in Ash's chest.

Part of him didn't want to fight Durand. Not like this, anyways.

She was no monster, no Rocket. Durand's hands were stained red with blood, but she was more than the darkness which had consumed her path. There were embers of something noble still burning within her.

But Ash had his duty just as she had hers.

He'd remained true to the promise he'd made her: Lance would bring all the influence of the Indigo Champion to bear in order to see justice done, and he could only pray that Kalos would scoop the corruption from its festering flesh beneath Diantha's guiding hand.

Yet the time for consideration was over.

Battle had joined.

"Let us leave and no blood will be spilled!" Durand's voice manifested as if from nowhere, though she was still wrapped up in Zoroark's illusions. For now. Ash had plans for that… "I did not order the attack!"

"Surrender," Fino called out between bouts of orders. Durand had immediately centered upon Fino as the primary threat, and his team was already under siege: Shiftry—Corin, Ash recalled—and her Farfetch'd ran circles around them, constantly attempting to pick off any vulnerable targets, and Ninjask blurred as if from nowhere to sow chaos and cover their retreats. "Recall your team and we may negotiate!"

Durand's scoff might not have been real, but it carried every scrap of the contempt she felt for that order.

Ninjask shot in to strike at Fino directly then, flickering into a dozen illusory copies that threw their defenses into shambles with Double Team, but was forced back by a roaring gout of flame from Lucille, who attempted to snare Ninjask in a Trick Room to negate its speed. The bug shot away too fast to see, however, and Ash roared out a warning as Ninjask poised to assault the far more vulnerable Lavaridge Gym Trainers.

It cut down three of their partners—a Numel, the Magcargo who set off the fight, and a Graveler—in an instant.

"Lairon, help Winston!" Ash cried, and his friend skated over with his magnetism at breakneck speed. He took a few hits on the way, but he was agile enough to avoid most of the crossfire as the battle intensified. Ash snapped out a few other orders, but his team had already moved to assume their positions.

They'd trained months for this. Even with that in mind, however, the sheer ferocity with which the battle began still caught them by surprise.

Durand's team fought much the same as they had in the atoll, though when engaging Ash's bunkered down team they exhibited more caution than in the past.

Shiftry was a terrible tornado of slashing Leaf Blades and Razor Winds, spitting Distorted Bullet Seeds in precise streams to splinter defenses, and Leaf Storms which tore through stone and psychic barriers in equal measures. Farfetch'd was Shiftry's partner in crime, constantly capitalizing on the openings created by the grass-type and redirecting any attack that came Shiftry's way with the black hole atop its leek.

Farfetch'd redirected attacks at Infernus whenever possible, and its death glares were truly ferocious. The bird seemed to take particular pleasure in absorbing Infernus' Flamethrowers and Fire Blasts and twisting them around to release the thermal explosions right back at a more vulnerable foe.

No doubt Farfetch'd didn't appreciate Infernus setting its leek aflame in their previous fight five months ago.

It wasn't often that Farfetch'd took direct action, but its partnership with Shiftry was true mastery. They complemented one another without a second thought, moving in anticipation of the other, and wove a roving web of defense around Durand's team.

They and Ninjask were relentless, but Fino's Simisear, Nidoking, Seeker, Oz, and Tangrowth were just as steadfast in their defense—Ash's heart raced to see Seeker take arms against such powerful opponents, but she acquitted herself well, blurring in and out of focus to assist Simisear as the simian hurled clouds of exploding firecrackers and streams of flame to force the raiders back.

Speaking of raiders, Ash gave the okay to Weavile to go in with Fino's Salazzle, Kalena, and assault Durand's backline. She was still hidden, and Weavile was perfectly poised to strip her defenses and escape options away with his unique abilities.

Noivern flitted to and fro within the canopy to remain a constant menace, although Ash hoped it was frustrated with the efficacy of Dazed in maintaining sonic-resistant psychic barriers to reduce its devastating disruptive effects. Lucille learned swiftly as well, so it wasn't long before there were two psychics actively ruining its primary function.

Ash-and-Plume kept a careful eye on it, tracking it the best they could. All they needed was a single opening…

Slaking barreled forth from nothingness in a great roar, soaked in water and mud from one of the probably-Aqua trainer's Marshtomp to prevent the overheating that tended to slow the powerhouses down. It immediately occupied the center, acting as a physical barrier to draw attention while Shiftry and Farfetch'd did their bloody work.

Aegislash joined Slaking in all its silent glory, bleeding darkness as it blocked and slashed and wove around attack after attack. The blade moved swiftly and efficiently as it and Slaking dueled with Plinia, Infernus, Calliope the Torkoal, and Canono the Camerupt, guarding the powerhouse effectively and doing its best to bait the assaulting fire-types in with feints and traps.

Malamar—Douceline, Durand had called it—was nowhere to be seen, but Ash would have to be a fool to dismiss her blatant manipulations across the battlefield: Lavaridge fighters turned on one another at key instants, shields were stripped down, and even a few of Fino's teammates momentarily twisted to strike at one another before Lucille grew wise to the tactics and denied the Malamar's victories.

"Keep Lucille and Dazed safe above all else," Ash instructed Nidoking, who nodded and manifested a psychic barrier just ahead of the Delphox to block a tree trunk hurled by Slaking. "We'll be defenseless without them."

And Durand clearly recognized that as well, as many of her attacks were focused around breaking through the ring around Ash and Fino and taking down the psychics which were so key to their direction.

Trevenant made its appearance known as well, and Ash cheered Tangrowth on as dozens of spiked roots tore from the ground only to be intercepted by a flurry of striking vines that met and matched them. Though Trevenant's every assault shredded Tangrowth's rubbery appendages, Tangrowth embraced the bright sun and utilized Perfect Regeneration to restore every vine lost.

There would be no victory through attrition today, and Ash could only imagine how frustrated Durand must have felt as Ash's team imposed their counters—he caught moments of her attempting new strategies to counter his counters (and he was a little flattered that she'd likely trained specifically to correct weaknesses in her own team after their last fight) but the constant pressure from Fino ensured that room to fight back was difficult to come by.

Ash knew her well, and her strategy was all too clear: divide and conquer as much as possible,

A Bullet Seed went right for Winston's eyes as the Coalossal fought off Ninjask, who baited the hulking warrior to look one way just in time for Shiftry to strike, but Lairon warbled and met the blinding blow with a Protect. While the projectiles pierced through, they slowed enough for Winston to raise an arm, though his armor cracked.

"She's fighting viciously right off the bat," Ash hissed, directing his team to move in response to various changes. Durand was falling back slowly but steadily, no doubt using her vanguard as a way to buy time for her to escape, but they pursued just as quickly. Strong as she was, she wasn't built for open confrontation like this. Let alone against two powerful foes. "Stay alert! Don't give her an opening. Keep pushing! The more she has to defend, the less opportunity she has to attack."

While the main line of Slaking and Aegislash were steadily falling backwards, though they fought bitterly for every foot the combined force led by Plinia took, brushes with Ninjask and Shiftry were innumerable. The two agile fighters danced all over the battlefield, probing every defense and tearing down a number of the Lavaridge trainers' teammates despite the best efforts of Winston and Lairon.

Ash grit his teeth. If the Lavaridge trainers collapsed then they'd have ten more trainers attacking them—Ash and Fino would tear through the Aquas on their own, but any distraction from Durand could prove fatal.

Her defenses were lacking, unable to sustain the assault beneath such powerful teams, but her offense was deadly enough to prevent them from fully committing. If they overextended for a single second she would tear them apart wherever she could.

"We can't afford to let my Gym Trainers be defeated," Fino said in the midst of his own efforts coordinating the battle—his team moved like a well-oiled machine, though even they lacked the smooth synergy of Durand's. They knew each other well and had fought together many times, but Durand had achieved a mastery in the cohesiveness of her own family. "Ash, dispatch more members of your team to support them. We can free up your teammates once the Hunters and other reinforcements arrive."

Ash nodded his assent. "Torrent and Oz, go support them. Chip away at Durand's team whenever possible, alright?"

The two powerhouses nodded and swiftly moved away, though Torrent doused the field by Ash in water until they were practically ankle-deep in mud. No doubt he wanted a way to interact with the battle even by the Gym Trainers. At least the additional firepower would go a long way in dissuading Durand's vanguard from getting too close.

Great cracks of thunder and lightning tolled as Oz fought her way across the battlefield, closing off Farfetch'd and Shiftry's range as Shock Waves and Thunderbolts flew—she raised her arm to catch a few projectiles from the Aqua trainers on a psychic shield, flicked them off dismissively, and broke their ranks with a single Thunderbolt.

She wasn't in the thick of things as she no doubt desired, but Ash was already risking Infernus in the forefront of the battle. Durand was utterly overwhelmed trying to keep two mighty foes off her for long enough to mount an escape, but she was a crafty opponent. Ash didn't want to overcommit in case she saw a chance to unleash any nasty surprises.

Torrent spat furious jets of water into the midst of Durand's team. Aegislash went spinning away as one slammed into it just before it would have cut a deep gouge into Canono's orange side. When it returned, the water snagged Aegislash's blade and stopped it in its tracks, though the Distortion which bled from Aegislash severed that control soon enough.

Slaking and Aegislash were a formidable pair, however, and ran rampant—the sheer physical might of Slaking meant that none could stand directly against him, although Ash was seconds away from unleashing Bruiser if the tide turned, but the fire-types goaded the mighty beast and struck him with flames from a distance whenever possible in hopes of making the titan overheat.

Farfetch'd flickered in and out of the battle to absorb whatever flames it could (and redirected them towards Ash and Fino as deadly columns of blazing light), but Slaking proved itself to be more than simple brawn. It constantly spat Blizzards and Ice Beams or shrouded its fists in frosty energy to dampen the heat, and whenever a fire-type attempted to interrupt it, Trevenant would send spiked roots laced with Distortion to harass them.

"Stand by," Ash told Bruiser. So far Bruiser had been playing defense and lashed out with lightning-quick punches whenever Shiftry made an attempt on a trainer, but he'd dispatch him to assist wherever was most needed once

But Durand's illusions were still up. There was no use sending Bruiser in if Douceline the Malamar or one of Durand's specialist fighters were just going to pull a trick and take him out. He had no doubt that Aegislash would consider taking Bruiser down with Destiny Bond to be a worthy trade.

That was how the battle tracked for a minute: Durand retreated, and they advanced.

Hot coal flung around the battlefield as Winston tore into Durand's team at any opportunity, scalding Slaking and forcing Malamar to divert the burning carbon with psychic shields, and Dazed was forced to take up much of their defense as the Malamar drug Lucille into a psychic battle.

Based on the grimace and shudders wracking Lucille, it wasn't a pleasant experience. Dazed joined in where she could, but she had other duties.

All the while Malamar still spat Distortional shrouds that crept through the burning canopy, blocking off areas and ensuring that Aegislash had somewhere safe to retreat to. Durand's team seamlessly covered one another, and they worked so smoothly that it felt as if her team numbered twice what they truly were.

But while Slaking and Aegislash were the centerpiece of the battle and the ones holding back Ash and Fino's advance force, it was Trevenant who ruled the battlefield. While Tangrowth's flashing vines flicked back and forth in constant warfare to keep the worst of Trevenant's disruption attempts from spearing through the ring of defenders around Ash and Fino, the Trevenant seemed unstoppable as it sipped upon the Distortion in the air.

"It's making ghosts!" Ash snapped, quite familiar with the signs after his time with the Harbinger, and his team immediately blasted apart the trees, vegetation, and shrubs that Trevenant's spiked roots had attached to.

The Trevenant roared, a rattling sound that sounded like the rustle of a windstorm through leaves, and managed to create just a few animated vines and saplings that whipped forth to harass its foes, though they were quickly dispatched thanks to Ash's warning.

Oh, if only the Harbinger were here to see this! Ash would give anything to have the Harbinger appear now…no doubt it would be most unhappy with Durand's team.

"Agh!" Fino stumbled backwards as Noivern swept through and unleashed a Boom Burst that left their vision swimming and spikes of agony in their ears—Dazed manifested a sonic shield, but Trevenant speared it apart with a Distortion-shrouded root before it could form, allowing the Boom Burst to strike through and rattle them.

"We have to take that Noivern out!" Ash snapped. They had defenses against it now, but it was going to expose them to attacks if this kept up. They couldn't afford a single lapse! Half of Durand's team was intent on getting to the fragile trainers, though none of their attacks had been outright deadly yet.

No doubt Durand wanted to take hostages. She was badly outgunned despite her efforts, and it was only logical that she wanted to ensnare one of the humans to force an end to the conflict and buy her escape.

Lives for freedom.

They closed ranks to force the Noivern back with sprays of lightning from Nidoking's horn and a spit of toxin from Seeker alongside Simisear's great field of sparkling flame, but it just redoubled Ash's determination.

Who knew if they would get a second chance?

The longer the battle went on, the more of a chance there was that Durand would escape and this whole shitshow would be for nothing.

Zoroark's illusions utterly obscured Durand's rear line, but they were slowly being pulled farther and farther from the Lavaridge trainers. If they continued to advance…

"Infernus!" Ash roared across the battlefield. Infernus had just been kicked by the deceptively fast Slaking, who was now doing its best to get its meaty fists around Torkoal, and stared up at Ash with a dazed look. "Burn the forest down! Don't let them retreat another inch!"

Infernus looked positively delighted at the prospect, and he leveled his cannons as Plinia tackled Aegislash out of the way. Barely an instant later there were twin vast cones of flame erupting outwards, igniting everything they touched in a billowing conflagration that crackled greedily as it consumed dry tinder and grew hotter and more furious than ever.

Durand's team attempted to stymie the Flamethrowers, but they ranged too wide and too far. Brief pockets were protected, but the forest behind Durand's team was ignited. Ash didn't think she had a single teammate that could properly control the blaze, and he could only imagine how desperately she wished she had a water-type at the moment.

The illusions held, unfortunately, but Ash grinned, satisfied that he'd closed off an avenue of escape and applied a little extra pressure.

Trevenant stumbled away from the blaze, fear in its ghostly red eye, but never ceased its relentless attacks.

Noivern came shrieking down again, a Boom Burst ready to explode into their midst and break their formation, but two things happened in that moment.

First, Ash felt a telepathic cry that he recognized as Malamar's. It was similar to Durand's own voice, and his heart panged.

But victory surged in his chest as Douceline stumbled out of the illusion for the briefest instant, a bleeding wound carved into her side by what must have been Weavile's claws, and both Lucille and Dazed snapped back to reality as their full attention refocused upon the battle.

Douceline was soon shrouded in Zoroark's illusion and removed from the battle once more, but the damage was done.

Even as Noivern came swooping down, Dazed's eyes flashed blue. Elemental Synthesis was difficult in a Distorted environment like this, but that didn't stop her from raising her pendulum and blasting off a great arc of lightning that struck Noivern right in the belly.

The Noivern's flight wavered and it flapped its wings frantically to escape even as Fino called out the order that Ash had been waiting for.

"Battle of Mistralton!"

And just like that, Lucille spun her wand in a graceful motion, waving it as if she were conducting an orchestra.

The flames which littered the forest twisted and flowed into twelve blazing missiles which smoothly launched after Noivern. Ash bit back a mad cackle as they shot forth at breakneck speed—Noivern panicked, floundering in flight, but tore through the air with incredible agility as it swerved, dodged, and avoided the projectiles.

It was amazing how much easier Lucille's deadly techniques were to appreciate when they were pointed at the enemy!

Eight of the missiles remained in pursuit of Noivern through the forest, manipulated expertly by Lucille's psychic powers, but four others diverted: one struck wildly into the area of the battlefield covered by Zoroark's perfectly-crafted illusions, where it was no doubt devoured by Coco the Shedinja, while another three hunted Shiftry, forcing the deadly grass-type back as he became the hunted.

The whole battlefield practically sighed in relief as Shiftry was forced back, but that soon died when Farfetch'd leapt forward—always in the perfect place at the perfect time—and caught the fiery arrows just before they would have speared Shiftry through.

Farfetch'd sucked them into the void atop its leek, squawked, and jabbed its weapon at Dazed, though the psychic workings which contained the flaming arrow was undone by Dazed with a dismissive flash of her eyes.

Noivern was fast, fast, fast! It blurred through the burning trees, screaming and slashing and hacking its way through the battle, and swerved right as it was pursued to land a Supersonic on Fino's Camerupt—the hulking behemoth stumbled, stunned by the surprise attack, and cried out as Aegislash landed another darkness-enhanced slash to one of Camerupt's front legs.

Alas for Noivern, Lucille was unstoppable despite Noivern's best efforts. The battle raged on as she hunted the Noivern through the trees with her arrows, which turned fast as a whip's crack and accelerated further and further, driving Noivern into a vulnerable area…and exploded in a set of blinding flashes.

Noivern screeched at the sudden burst of light, but caught sight of a lone arrow that remained on its tail before it could impale the dragon. It shot upwards, finally forced to abandon the canopy, and Ash cackled like a lunatic.

He pointedly ignored the disturbed look Fino sent him. It didn't take long for Fino to focus back on beating Durand into the dirt with his layers of disguised orders.

Just as the Noivern sprung out of the burning canopy and reoriented to dive back into cover, Plume—who saw through Ash's eyes just as he saw through hers—came shooting down from the heavens like a comet.

Noivern twisted and its eyes went wide as it saw Plume's glorious form sweep down—with awe, no doubt, as it should!—and barely had a moment to erect a shimmering green Protect before she smashed into it with a Super Speed-enhanced Steel Wing.

If it weren't for the Protect, Plume's Steel Wing would have shorn the lesser creature that dared to trespass into her into twain! It deserved no less for defying her in their previous battle.

As it was, Ash felt the crunch of ribs beneath Plume's Steel Wing before she sang the North Wind into the field below, disrupting the illusions for a brief instant even as Noivern's unconscious body tumbled through the air.

Noivern bounced off trees and carried burning leaves down with it.

And so fell one of Durand's escape routes.

Through Plume's eyes, Ash caught sight of Durand's face as she hissed out order after order to Shedinja and Douceline even as they assisted Zoroark in fending off Weavile and Kalena.

Durand's jaw dropped at the sight of Plume in all her Mega Evolved glory.

Dread filled her forest green eyes.

"Look at us!" They sang, their unity apparent once more as Plume descended to just above the tree line. "Be afraid, Hunter-Durand! The skies come for you!"

Their unity snapped as Plume shot away even thanks to Shiftry firing off a dozen poison-coated Bullet Seeds after her, though such an attack was folly at best.

Douceline emerged from the illusion once more to arrest Noivern's fall. One of her tentacular arms was held aloft and channeled psychic power to snare the dragon, and as a result of her distraction Slaking was struck by a blue Flamethrower from Fino's Torkoal, Calliope, that would have otherwise been guarded against.

Noivern was returned as soon as possible, although Zoroark obscured the position of the light beam, and Douceline's beaked mouth twisted hatefully. Shiftry and Farfetch'd flashed into motion, suddenly focusing their efforts on tearing into Dazed and Lucille, and Douceline's cruel eyes flashed.

Her voice—so uncannily close to Durand's as to make Ash uncomfortable—hissed into their minds as one of the three surviving Lavaridge trainers was caught in a psychic grip and yanked to the center of the battlefield. With Lucille and Dazed temporarily distracted, there was no one to contest her manipulation except Nidoking, whose psychic powers were insignificant compared to Douceline's.

Enough! This ends now. Another move and I ruin this man. Not all humans are so robust as yourself, Storm-Tamer. Would you like to see what happens when I get a hold of one who isn't?

The battlefield froze. Durand's team—and the seven probably-Aquas that remained conscious—subtly adjusted themselves to more favorable positions, but Ash and Fino's teams didn't dare move.

Douceline seemed to smile at them.

My Mistress regrets the loss of your subordinate, Fino Moore. Do you really wish to lose another? And what a loss this fellow would be! I'm sure you know better than anyone that this man—Francis, is it?—has a family.

Oh, how sweet! A rosy-cheeked wife with such a warm heart. A darling little girl…Master Moore, I hope you're willing to step up and take responsibility when it's time to knock on their door and deliver the bad news! You're an old hand at it, aren't you?

I'll be gentle, don't you worry. A pinched vein here, a ruptured aneurysm there. But you Hoennic folk are used to getting drooling husks delivered to your door, aren't you? I'm not as well-practiced as a Beheeyem, but I'm sure I'll get the job done.

Or you could call this waste of a battle off before anyone else gets hurt.

The Gym Trainer was petrified by Doucelines' psychic power, but Ash could practically taste the fear rolling off him. His team cried out at the threat and the sight of their trainer's wide, terrified eyes.

Fino froze in his tracks, an old pain in his expression, and made to speak—

"Three seconds," Ash muttered to Dazed, who sent back a mental acknowledgement.

And before Fino could finish a single word, Plume rocketed down. Flames extinguished behind her as she passed through the canopy, opened her mouth and unleashed a windstorm.

Douceline flew twenty feet backwards and slammed into a burning tree. The feeble psychic shields she erected in the milliseconds of warning she received were hardly enough to blunt the damage, and Ash had the displeasure of seeing Douceline vomit slimy goo all over the forest floor.

The Malamar attempted to regain control of the Lavaridge trainer she'd taken hostage, but Dazed and Lucille telekinetically hurled him (as gently as they could, mind you) back to relative safety.

Douceline wasn't out of the fight, but Plume's pseudo-Aeroblast carried with it a hint of purity, serenity, and cleansing power. The North Wind rushed through the forest, stilling their violent hearts for an instant, and swept away the corruption.

Zoroark's illusion was shattered.

Durand and Zoroark gaped, eyes locked upon Plume in the instant before she swept back into the air, and Zoroark flung itself in front of Durand as a single fiery arrow shot from the tip of Lucille's wand straight into Durand's chest…or would have.

Coco darted in front of the arrow even as Durand's team wailed and shot back into motion to resume the fight, and the steel of the husk's love for Durand proved stronger than its inherent fear of the fire.

The flaming arrow was devoured whole by Wonder Guard.

And on that note, Durand's team leapt back into the fight with renewed ferocity. With their trainer threatened, any semblance of holding back was abandoned.

Ash thought that was incredibly hypocritical given that Shiftry and Ninjask had been gunning for himself and Fino since the beginning, but his team could express that sentiment in the best way possible: by beating the living crap out of Durand and her team.

Yeah, that sounded really nice right about now.

"Well done," Fino said before descending into a few hacking coughs as the smoke from the forest fires crowded them. Plume couldn't interfere quite as often now that Durand's team was wise to her, but she was considerate enough to blast some of the smoke away from them. "You did a good thing there. We must end this quickly! We can't let her illusions return."

"Got it!"

They warded off a dozen more attempts to snag hostages—including Ninjask darting in from behind in an attempt to put its pincers at Ash's throat, which nearly got it smacked to pulp by a furious Nidoking's tail—as the battle renewed in full, but the Lavaridge trainers were wise to it.

Durand was desperate now, and that made her more dangerous than ever.

While Durand put up a valiant defense, her Aquas were dropping quickly as Torrent and Oz tore into their forces.

It had been perhaps four minutes of combat, and Durand was already heavily on the backfoot. The Hunters and other League personnel would arrive soon. Once those reinforcements came in the battle would be as good as over.

His team remained close to him, unwilling to expose a single weakness with Ninjask and Shiftry prowling around, and Ash caught sight of Weavile and Kalena running rampant in Durand's backline and cutting off any Aquas who attempted to fall back to her. Unconscious bodies lay littered around the duo as they poked and prodded, fighting more viciously than ever in response to Durand's own force.

"We need to take down Aegislash," Ash growled to Nidoking, pressing the Moon Stone into his claws. Nidoking's other abilities were far more useful at the moment. "If you see a chance…"

Nidoking nodded, then grunted as he manifested a Protect to shield against a great boulder hurled their way by Slaking.

Even as Slaking bought a bit of extra space, Aegislash darted around the battlefield and cut and slashed and confused wherever it could—it swept in a glittering arc as it faced down Plinia and Infernus both, and Slaking leapt into action as the brilliant blade wove a web of misdirection and treachery.

Plinia gasped in pain as Douceline stunned her with a mental assault for a moment and the Aegislash carved into her leg with its blade drenched in Toxic, and she returned with a flurry of explosive kicks and punches punctuated by bursts of white-hot flame that managed to force Aegislash back into Infernus, who roared and landed a brutal Fire Punch into it that sent the living sword spinning.

But Slaking made good use of the distraction.

The powerhouse barreled through Canono's defense—a great geyser of thick lava which sprang from the volcanoes on the Camerupt's spine—with a Protect layered over it, snarled at her, and—

"Slaking's picking her up," Ash said, gaping. Durand had clearly taken a bit of inspiration from Bruiser's mid-evolution rampage through her team…

Slaking heaved with more strength than anything short of a Machoke could imagine, hoisted the squirming Camerupt above its head (careful to keep the volcanoes upright so that Canono didn't erupt on him), and hurled the massive Camerupt more than twenty feet away, spitting a perfectly-aimed Hyper Beam that detonated against Canono's vulnerable belly and added an extra ten feet to her fall.

Canono easily weighed several tons, and the whole forest trembled as she landed. Her bulk barreled through several trees and flatted them before she came to a stop, stunned.

And then Shiftry appeared from nowhere with a Leaf Blade at the ready and slashed across the Camerupt's exposed throat. Molten blood gushed from the open wound, setting everything it touched ablaze.

Ash's eyes bulged even as Fino cried out. "Canono, return!"

The Camerupt disappeared in a flash of light before the injury could turn critical, although that would have to be treated immediately upon release. Camerupt were tough, but Ash had seen the stark appearance of tough fibrous connective tissue between her slit throat.

Shiftry had cut deep.

With his first target down, Slaking rushed and roared at Plinia, who limped forward with a roar, and the hulking normal-type slammed his great fists down to sunder the hot ground with an Earthquake.

The Earthquake rippled throughout the battlefield and left them all stumbling—save for Durand's team, who seemed to have expected it—but Nidoking stamped his foot and effortlessly broke the Earthquake before it could wreak havoc on Ash or Fino.

But even as Slaking prepared to bring a Hammer Arm down onto Plinia, Infernus cackled and leapt into action. The forest shone with his molten light as he raised a cannon and beckoned an explosive Lava Plume from the ground to force Slaking back from Plinia, although Infernus couldn't spare more than a second before Aegislash swept forward with a dark-edged blade to slash at his spine.

Infernus twisted and blasted Aegislash away, roaring his challenge, and chased after the ghostly blade.

With Infernus gone, Slaking rushed around the bubbling lava, careful to avoid it by several feet, and charged Plinia once more.

Tangrowth's saucer-like eyes narrowed. While most of his attention was engaged on countering Trevenant, who incessantly attempted to animate vegetation and spear calves and guts with its vicious lashing vines, three vines flicked silvery orbs of Ancient Power through the battle to land in the lava.

And just like that, Slaking screamed as thick globs of molten lava clung to its back, searing through even the Slaking's thick skin and hide. It was glued to him by Tangrowth's will—although Shiftry immediately refocused its attention on Tangrowth to break his concentration—and it took Douceline to scrape it off with her psychic powers, temporarily giving Ash and Fino's teams a relief from her relentless psychic assaults.

Instead of taking that sitting down, Tangrowth gurgled victoriously as he flung two more Ancient Power orbs into the lava…and instead of flinging it, the molten pool exploded outwards! Ash's own team frantically blocked it, although the bulk came raining down onto Durand's territory.

Ninjask screeched as it swerved around the sudden lava rain, forced away from attacking Nidoking, and Slaking screamed as it was covered once more. Trevenant felt a single globule upon its bark and howled, scraping madly at the searing lava before it could burn all the way through its ghostly trunk.

Coco steadfastly blocked the fiery rock with Wonder Guard, although her efforts wavered. Torrent, Oz, and the others constantly beat down at the Shedinja's defenses, eager to exhaust its supply of power and weaken Durand's greatest shield, but Farfetch'd devoted constant attention to intercepting whatever it could.

No doubt Durand would attempt to sneak away the second there was a break in the battle, although removing the illusions with Plume—and now Weavile was constantly on Zoroark to prevent the dark-type from bringing them back up effectively—had gone a long way in mitigating that.

If there was one thing Ash was certain of, it was that Durand wouldn't abandon her team.

As long as they were still out and fighting she was here to stay. They just couldn't let up for even a second!

But that was easier said than done. Durand's teammates constantly went for humans. Their blows didn't go for the kill, but their greatest desire was to snag one and force another stalemate…and this time they'd be ready for Plume, who circled overhead to provide visual feedback for Ash as she waited for an opportune moment to strike.

She'd eliminated Noivern early, and that was the most important thing. Noivern might not be the deadliest member of Durand's team, but the sonic dragon played a pivotal role in distracting her enemies and breaking their defenses down so that Shiftry and the rest could capitalize.

Its early loss was a grievous blow to Durand's efforts.

Ninjask seemed determined to take up Noivern's slack, though. It swerved constantly over the battlefield and the steady buzzing of its wings seemed to come from a hundred different directions at once. Illusory clones of Ninjask zipped all over the place. Combined with Shiftry's own Double Team copies, it made the battlefield a complete wreck.

Dazed and Lucille picked out the true Ninjask and warned the defenders as quickly as they could, but Ninjask itself was so quick that it gave them a constant headache to deal with. While not as fast as Plume in the open air, its maneuverability and acceleration was insane.

It kept a wide berth from Bruiser, though.

But when the lava from Tangrowth's explosion threatened Durand, Ninjask went into overdrive—it struck constantly, attempting to go for pokémon throats and arteries to cripple them, and using Mind Reader to perfectly counter every attempt to pin it down.

Seeker and Simisear proved essential in keeping Ninjask off the vulnerable members of each team—both pursued Ninjask with lightning-quick reactions, and Seeker only grew more ferocious when Ninjask lashed out in an attempt to put a Night Slash to Ash's throat and stop the battle once more.

Ninjask unleashed a Bug Buzz (which Dazed shielded against) and swerved out of the way of Bruiser's responding punch, then launched forth with dark-clad claws to swipe at Ash.

A tiny Zubat intercepted the insect, tearing at its exoskeleton with Poison Fangs to force it away. Ninjask flung her off of it and shot a dozen feet away in the blink of an eye, and Seeker spat an ear-piercing Supersonic to force it back properly.

Ninjask buzzed furiously and darted off.

But then Shiftry swept by to lure off Simisear, whose wide-ranging attacks proved perfect for fighting off such speedy foes. The moment the coast was clear, Ninjask shot back in at Ash with determination in its eyes—

And there was Seeker once more to fight it off in a scramble of venom-drenched fangs and scratching talons. Simisear's eyes widened and it leapt back while the rest of the team bombarded Slaking, Aegislash, and Shedinja.

Before Ninjask could come slashing down on Ash or threaten him with a Night Slash, lavender mist spilled forth from Lotus' keystone. A burning green eye glared at Ninjask and the bug froze in time, arrested by the crushing apathy that came bearing down upon it.

But Ninjask was no fool. It shrouded itself in Distortion as Night Slashes formed upon its limbs, and it clawed its way out of the prison a second before Simisear brought a flaming fist upon it.

Ninjask ran away again, and Seeker hissed in frustration as she saw a small drop of blood drip down Ash's arm from where one of Ninjask's claws had gently brushed him.

She chattered furiously, twisting this way and that to fling blasts of air at Ninjask as the bug-type prodded and tore its way around the team, and the moment Ninjask was properly forced off by a spray of crackling flame she landed upon the muddy ground and screeched.

Seeker chattered once at Lotus, more gently this time, curled tight, and erupted with a blinding light.

Ash's heart stopped.

She was evolving.

"We have to protect her!" Ash cried, rallying his team to Seeker's defense. It wasn't the best time to evolve, but Seeker's frustration had boiled over and triggered the change. She was determined to evolve to protect them.

And so they would defend her.

"Non!" Durand roared above the din of the battle, cutting off her previous command as she steered Zoroark and Douceline against Weavile, who was a blender of claws and darkness as he pressured them constantly. "I don't think so. Not this time!"

At her command, Ninjask and Shiftry both dashed in, eager to put an end to this and remove an empowered combatant from the field. No doubt they remembered exactly what had happened with Bruiser last time.

Shiftry vaulted over the earthen fortifications erected by Ancient Power in one smooth motion, flickering into a dozen clones to confuse them, only for Oz to dart forth from the Lavaridge trainers with a Flash Step, crossing a hundred feet in the blink of an eye and intercepting it with a flash of light.

While Shiftry was too swift for her to bring down so easily, it was still forced to dive away from her thrashing whip-like tails and the crackling lightning that leapt from her supercharged fur. Ninjask darted away as well, forced back from Seeker's metamorphosing body, and Nidoking erected a psychic barrier that the insect plowed right through.

It was slowed and Oz jolted it with a Thunderbolt that rattled Ninjask and sent the twitching creature fleeing for cover, while Nidoking swung his tail at Shiftry with bone breaking force and just barely missed.

Shiftry zoned in on Seeker. Illusory Shiftry flickered this way and that, but Nidoking's psychic senses enabled him to track the real one thanks to the shadow it cast.

"Seeker!" Ash screamed as her shining white body stretched and grew, bones extending and thickening to support a massively larger body, and Weavile yowled in the distance, furious at the attempt on Seeker's defenseless form. His own attacks grew more and more vicious, and Malamar's dark blood stained his claws.

The Shiftry darted forward, stumbling as Nidoking's Flamethrower singed its feet, and thanks to that just barely grazed Seeker with a Leaf Blade rather than running her through.

"Kill it!" Ash's vision went red and Fire burned in his blood.

Torrent heard his cry. Though he was still supporting the Lavaridge trainers and absolutely tearing apart the Aqua team, practically single handedly facing down fifteen of their fighters at once, he spared a moment of attention.

The water around Ash's feet rose and snared Shiftry in a crushing grip—while Shiftry tore its way free, that seemed to spell the end for Shiftry's interference.

"Seeker, are you okay?" Ash rushed to her side, cradling the new Golbat in his arms. It was shocking how heavy she was now: Golbat were over a hundred pounds of muscle and sinew, ten times more than a Zubat's light frame. While she would be a bit clumsier and less agile now, she was overall far faster and sturdier as well.

That would be corrected upon her future evolution to Crobat, although they'd have to ensure she waited a while to prevent any complications from too-rapid evolution. But then she would have the best of both worlds.

Seeker's eyes—she had eyes! Ash wanted to scream to the world—opened for the first time to see Ash. He smiled down at her for a brief instant even as the battlefield burned and Bullet Seeds flew and darkness bled and warriors screamed, committing this moment to memory amidst all the chaos.

"You're with us," Ash said soothingly, reaching out to brush her blue fur. It was soft as ever. Her eyes devoured Ash, then strayed down to the keystone on his hip. Lotus had manifested one burning green eye to peek at Seeker, although it quickly faded away when she caught Lotus staring. "Are you wounded?"

Her great mouth snapped shut—there was still a bare patch where Golduck's Water Gun had nearly killed her so long ago, but Ash saw the beginnings of new fur growing where there had once only been pale skin.

But there was no sign of the grazing wound dealt by Shiftry's Leaf Blade. Ash exhaled in relief.

Seeker struggled to her feet (another big adjustment for her) and spread her massive wings wide, chattering just like she did as a Zubat as a new world of sensation greeted her. As she prepared to leap into flight, Ash hurriedly stopped her.

"You need time to adjust," Ash argued, relying on Dazed, Nidoking, and Fino to coordinate the battle in his brief lapse. "You have an entirely new sense. New limbs! I can't let you fight like this."

The Golbat struggled against his grip, shaking her whole body in protest, and Nidoking laid a clawed hand upon Ash's shoulder when they had a brief reprieve from the constant siege of Ninjask, Shiftry, and Farfetch'd's combined efforts.

Let her fight, Nidoking's black eyes said, and Ash hesitated. One look at Seeker's determined glare made him relent.

"Stay with Simisear," Ash bit out, mind going frantic at the thought of something going wrong. "Hit from a distance or stay here if possible. Do not take any unnecessary risks, do you understand?"

Ash tapped his head.

"Plume will keep an eye on you, but this is a fight we can only do so much in. Understand?"

Seeker nodded eagerly, spread her purple wings, and shot off in a rush of air with Simisage darting through the burning branches behind her.

Seven minutes had passed since the battle began. Reinforcements would arrive soon, and that eased Ash's racing pulse

Farfetch'd—Laurent, Ash vaguely recalled—suddenly flickered at them from nowhere just as Shiftry bore down on them as well. The bloody fight behind them between Infernus, the half-crippled Plinia, Calliope the Torkoal, Aegislash, and Slaking raged on in the center, the only thing preventing their entire teams from rushing Durand.

The deadly duo struck quickly and efficiently, slamming a plasma-edged leek—it looked like Laurent had learned more from Infernus than sheer vitriol—down into Bruiser's leg in an attempt to cripple the Machamp, but the sheer wind from Bruiser's retaliatory punch sent the Farfetch'd flying backward after the wound was dealt.

But then a roar shattered their concentration and Ash's stomach dropped.

Slaking plowed into Bruiser with a Sucker Punch as the Machamp was distracted and sent him flying, though Bruiser was tough enough to shrug it off.

But with Shiftry and Slaking suddenly in close proximity, Ash couldn't hold back any longer.


Shiftry wisely fled, though he tried to stick a Leaf Blade through Nidoking's neck in the process, and through Plume's eyes Ash saw something dangerous shift in Weavile as he littered Zoroark with little slashes.

It wouldn't be long before Weavile broke through its guard and got a shot at Durand and Shedinja. Every time Zoroark attempted to raise a new illusion, Weavile snarled and shredded it apart with a casual Dispel, frustrating the illusionist to no end.

Even as Bruiser launched back across the burning forest, Plume dove deep for a brief moment as Seeker and Simisage chased after Ninjask. She barreled down and sang of Fire, infusing Ash's mastery of the Concept into her song, and the blazing battlefield erupted with newfound vigor, as if someone had just hurled a heap of dry tinder upon every individual flame.

Durand stumbled, going terribly pale, and Shedinja shrank away.

Meanwhile, Infernus laughed. The scorching heat which radiated off his body spiked to newfound heights, his very essence invigorated by the expression of Fire into the world, and he delightedly sprayed surging torrents of flame in every direction.

Shedinja barely managed to guard against them, holding them back with sheer courage alone, and as Douceline shifted to reinforce Durand's defense she became prey for Weavile.

Weavile hissed as he saw his chance. Kalena spat a poison-infused Smokescreen into Douceline's face, and as she swept it away with a dismissive flick of her tentacled arm, Weavile darted through the smoke and carved a Shadow Claw into her gelatinous flesh.

Douceline's telepathic shriek rang throughout the mountainside.

As Weavile slashed deeper and deeper, relentless in his punishing assault, he wielded a specific permutation of Dispel that they had plans for. The Distortion wreathing his white claws erupted outward, injecting into Douceline's body, and manipulated the entropic power to writhe within the Malamar's soft flesh.

Malamar maintained a unique ability to manipulate both psychic and Distortion due to heavily compartmentalized organs, linings, and tissues which prevented the antithetical energies from directly interacting.

Weavile tore those protective linings to shreds as he set the Distortion surging within her body.

Her telepathic shriek cut off as her psychic powers were robbed, and the Malamar seized and twitched and writhed, collapsing to the ground as her own body turned against itself—Ash supposed this might be the psychic equivalent of an autoimmune disease.

And as Douceline writhed on the ground, tentacles flailing like mad, yet another one of Durand's escape options was cut off.

Durand's hand trembled as she recalled the Malamar.

But the loss of Douceline set the rest of her team into a frenzy—Slaking raged, blocking Bruiser's initial leap with a Protect, and though it shattered like a pane of glass beneath the force, Shiftry and Farfetch'd swept in from behind to distract Bruiser with the plasma-bladed leek and a Leaf Blade to the back.

Bruiser was too tough for the Leaf Blade to do much more than scratch him, but the attacks cost precious seconds before he could refocus his efforts on Slaking.

And in that time, Slaking lunged.

Dazed and Lucille worked as one to restrain Slaking, temporarily pausing it in a psychic prison, but the Shadow Claw which manifested around Slaking's massive fist tore the beast free. It backhanded Lucille even as Ash and Fino dove backwards—too close!—and shot at Ash and Fino to grab them with its meaty fists to end the battle once and for all.

"Come on!" Ash roared, challenging the Slaking as if he were going to launch himself at the fourteen foot tall behemoth, and cinders spilled from his mouth. "Show me what you—"

He treasured the sheer surprise on Slaking's face as Infernus howled his defiance from behind and plunged a Plasma Blade through the normal-type's thick side, though it went wide and didn't hit anything too important.

It sizzled through the hide, blazing forth with light as the superheated flames churned within Infernus' psychic shell, and Durand's screams haunted Ash as the sickeningly pleasant scent of burning flesh (and the not-so-pleasant stench of burning fur) filled his nostrils.

Slaking's eyes went wide as it briefly fell to one knee, stumbling just in front of Ash and Fino, and then something seemed to snap inside of it.

A distant, impassive part of Ash couldn't help but be amazed. Months ago this Slaking had been ragdolled as a Vigoroth by a freshly evolved Bruiser, yet here it was, trading blows and matching itself against Ash and one of the strongest Fire Masters in the world.

How strong might Durand have become in a year? Two years?

"Berserk, my love!" Durand cried. "Return to me!"

But as Slaking embraced Berserk—and Ash felt a bizarre mix of pride and frustration as he heard Durand's name for this technique—it seemed to have different plans. It rose to both feet with a lunge, snarled as its black eyes settled upon Ash, and kicked backwards with a Mega Kick that sent Infernus flying twenty feet backwards back into the fight with Aegislash and Plinia, though Infernus scraped the Slaking's burnt back raw with the edge of his Plasma Blade as he went.

"Overheat it!" Ash commanded as he scrambled backwards, snarling up at the berserking Slaking. "It can't keep this up for long!"

They didn't have to overpower Slaking if they could just overwhelm its physiology. From there, it would be child's play to finish the beast off.

If it didn't beat them all senseless first.

Or worse.

"Return! Return!" Durand screamed, her voice raw. "Come back!"

But as Nidoking closed in and Bruiser launched forward, shattering a Protect hastily thrown up by a passing Ninjask like glass again before wincing at the Bug Buzz the Ninjask flung out, Slaking's eyes strayed to Fino.

Ash's blood ran cold.

Just as Slaking rushed the old man—who was far more composed than Ash would have expected, what with the giant bearing down on them—Plinia exploded from the earth, spitting mad, and tore into Slaking's chest while spewing flames.

Her eyes were half-blinded and her leg bled furiously from where Aegislash had landed its Toxic-infused cut—no doubt she wouldn't last long, and she was already slowing—but her ferocity was the stuff to make Infernus proud in that moment.

She briefly recoiled out of reflex when Slaking unleashed a piercing howl—Hyper Voice—that left them all groaning, but immediately dug back in.

Bloody streaks ran down Slaking's muscular chest, but its brutish face twisted up into an ugly smile.

Its eyes flashed blue.

Plinia had pulled back to coalesce a Blast Burn to incinerate the Slaking's face; she slackened as Slaking implanted a psychic suggestion into her mind. Nidoking and Dazed blasted Slaking with scorching flame, as did Fino's teammates who weren't busy keeping the rest of Durand's team from supporting Slaking, but it wasn't enough.

"Encore!" Ash hissed. "Dazed, break it before—"

Although the half-blind Typhlosion had just begun to form the Blast Burn that would finish Slaking off once and for all, the Encore took effect. The psychic suggestion implanted the repetitive urge, and she began clawing into Slaking's bloody chest just as she had been a few second before.

And with Plinia forcefully committed to that course of action, Slaking knew exactly what to do.

In the blink of an eye, Slaking's giant fist shot forward, plucked Plinia off its ruined chest by her head as she kicked and scratched, and its enormous palm enclosed her head. It glowed white with the power of a Crush Claw.

And squeezed with a squelching crunch.

"No!" Ash screamed, eyes wide with horror as Plinia went limp—she was sucked away into her Pokéball even as the sound reached his ears, but grief and rage took him.

Bruiser's own fist came down on Slaking's tree trunk-thick arm and the thick limb snapped as if it were made of glass, leaving splintered bone thicker than Ash's leg jutting out agonizingly, but Slaking spat a Hyper Beam straight into Bruiser that sent the lighter Machamp flying back, while Slaking only stumbled a few feet towards Ash and Nidoking with red-rimmed eyes and ragged breaths.

Infernus howled, wailing almost, and launched back, but Nidoking blocked Slaking's one-armed punch, misdirecting it with an expert placement of psychic power, and dueled the berserking Slaking to a standstill with Sludge Bombs and jabs of his horn and hateful Flamethrowers to the face.

Every step Slaking took was nudged aside by a quick Earth Power, its every Hammer Arm wrenched away with a psychic twist, and Slaking's every movement denied.

"Plinia!" Fino wept, tears running down his withered cheeks as a barely-conscious Lucille used her power to haul him to safety. His shaking hand clenched Plinia's old Pokéball like a lifeline. But he hardened swiftly, though the grief still burned in his eyes, and Lucille's claws clutched at him as he pulled himself up and tonelessly issued command after command.

Even as Fino's team descended in wrath and Slaking roared as it made its desperate attempts to end this battle in Durand's favor, Tangrowth leapt forward with furious eyes—Plume bought him a second by sweeping forth with a North Wind-infused Hurricane to break Trevenant's concentration, and Tangrowth yanked himself to Ash and Nidoking with his vines.

Nidoking held Slaking back without budging an inch, denying the behemoth every step. Bruiser limped back with Rampage-enhanced strength despite his injured leg, every vein bulging red, but Tangrowth arrived first.

Ash winced as thick vines threw him to safety and Tangrowth planted himself in front of Ash. The grass-type gurgled with a disturbing calm, like the uncanny silence before a raging tempest swept through, and coiled a great number of his vines together to twine them like great green ropes.

And even as Slaking fought Nidoking, those binds looped around Slaking's every limb and matched its superhuman strength with their own.

The Slaking strained and thrashed, screaming as Tangrowth brutally wrenched its broken arm backwards along with its intact one with a crunch, and another one of the twined sets of vines snapped forth to loop four times around Slaking's throat, denying it the oxygen it needed to fight.

All of Tangrowth's vines shone a brilliant green as they sapped Slaking dry of energy—Slaking fought on even as its face turned blue, so Tangrowth held nothing back. The vines around Slaking's windpipe tightened every further, and when the beast tried to spit a Hyper Beam at Tangrowth and Ash, Tangrowth spat a cloud of noxious Poison Powder and Stun Powder onto one of his vines and shoved it down Slaking's throat.

The powerhouse's eyes bulged as the fumes filled up its airways, but still did its best to rise and surge forward. Its fists burned with fire to sear away its bonds.

Tangrowth gurgled again, warningly this time, and when Slaking continued one of Tangrowth's vines snaked away to brush against some of the lava spattered around the battlefield. When it ignited, Tangrowth pulled it back and raised it to Slaking's gaping maw to force it inside and detonate the Effect Spore he had shoved into Slaking's internal pathways—

And Slaking was recalled before Tangrowth could end this for good.

"Blaise, return! Rest easy."

"You've been spending too much time with Infernus," Ash stared at Tangrowth with wide eyes, still stunned by the last thirty seconds. He clutched desperately to the warm vines that Tangrowth brushed against him, however. "Thank you."

"Thank you for avenging my dear Plinia," Fino sniffled as he limped to them. His eyes were bloodshot, stung by smoke and grief. He embraced Tangrowth and nodded gratefully to Nidoking and Bruiser, who had seen that Tangrowth had things well in hand and instead warded off any of Durand's team who came to support the normal-type. "She…"

"We will end this!" Ash swore, growling as he surged forward to stare at Durand. Her green eyes weren't so cold anymore: they were wide, afraid, angry.

This had gone further than any of them could have imagined.

With Durand's most powerful centerpiece defeated, she knew that her time was limited. She raised a Pokéball and a Kadabra began to materialize—and then Kalena was on it, spitting toxic fires into its face while Weavile unleashed a point-blank Mind Breaker to crush the likely teleporter.

Durand and Coco fell back further, but they were trapped by the fires that Infernus had set.

Shiftry and Farfetch'd fought on desperately, weaving an airtight defense even as they chattered at Durand, no doubt urging her to flee, but her jaw set.

"I will never leave you! Not that day, not now!"

But the disadvantage that her team had been forced into from the very beginning was only magnified now, and the only recourse that Durand had was unfettered savagery.

Even as Ash and Fino's teams regrouped, ready to truly fall upon Durand's lines and collapse her team beneath their combined might with critical components like Douceline and Slaking defeated, Shiftry danced around them.

Ninjask shot forward and unleashed a Bug Buzz in Torkoal's face—distracting her with an illusionary afterimage—that rattled her, and with Plinia no longer present to guard her, Shiftry darted close and ruthlessly slashed a Leaf Blade across her eyes.

Even as steaming blood poured down Calliope's face, she screamed and tripped forward. Shiftry met Fino's eyes, poised to spit a Bullet Seed down into Calliope's skull while she frantically unleashed massive storms of flame and smoke, and seemed satisfied when Fino instantly recalled the Torkoal.

And while Fino's team focused their efforts upon Farfetch'd, recognizing that it was the last key defensive fighter preventing them from bringing down Shedinja, Aegislash met their charge, shifting into its defensive form, though it was forced to dodge from Winston's Blast Burn.

The weapon of war shot past Farfetch'd, who didn't even try to catch it on its leek, and nearly blasted Trevenant apart, shearing half the specter's body away in a single blow. It fought on, but Ash could tell it was badly wounded.

Laurent the Farfetch'd fought valiantly, catching and redirecting attacks so swiftly that his blurred motions could barely be tracked, but even that brilliant warrior was slowly overcome by the sheer weight of attacks pressing down on them.

Distortion still fogged the forest beyond the confines of the battlefield, fueled by Trevenant, but Ash felt utter relief as he saw approaching figures through Plume's eyes.

The Hunters.

The ASTRE trainers pushed in quickly, well-familiar with Durand's tactics by now, and immediately reinforced the Lavaridge trainers. Only two Aqua trainers and their teams were still standing, and at the sight of Captain Maria and her hunter squad they immediately knelt and surrendered.

It was clear which way the winds were turning.

"Surrender by the order of the Lumiose League!" Captain Maria demanded as her Bisharp rushed in to dispatch the remaining Aqua pokémon. They didn't resist at all as they were forcefully returned alongside the small army of their unconscious fellows that Torrent had brought down. "Jacqueline, it's over."

Durand spat at that even as Aegislash spun back into its bladed form and raised high. Its clever purple eye scanned the Hunters, spun to Ash and Fino's teams as the battle raged closer and closer to Durand, and squeezed shut.

Ash felt the rush of shadow just moments before he found the Shadow Sneaking Aegislash's Distorted blade at his throat.

Nidoking roared, trembling, his black eyes locked on the blade. His claws clutched around the Moon Stone sliver, but he didn't dare strike.

His entire team froze.

Ash gnashed his teeth, furious beyond belief. Power boiled in him, ready to be unleashed, but Fino raised a hand.


There was no sound but the sizzling of smoke and the cracking of timbers as they burned away.

"Jacqueline, don't do this!" Alfred, one of Captain Maria's teammates, stepped forward. His golden hair bounced around his aristocratic features as he beseeched the Rogue Master, who stared out at them all with haunted eyes as the flames burned behind her. Weavile was poised to launch himself at her at a moment's notice—after the casualties so far, his mercy was gone. "We can talk this over."

"I hope so," Durand rasped, her hand clutched tight around the pokeballs of her fallen teammates. "For all our sakes."

Aegislash remained poised perfectly at Ash's throat. He could feel the darkness bleeding from its blade just as he felt Plume's indignant rage, her worry, her fear. Lotus hung on Ash's hip still and the keystone twitched madly, but he calmingly brushed his knuckles against it.

Not yet.

"You've bested me. Jacqueline Durand is beaten," Durand's words were ragged and worn, broken. Her tanned face was black with soot and her green eyes stood out like cinders as her haunted visage took in the flaming wreck of the battlefield. "Master Fino, Master Ash…your valor is unquestioned. Enough blood has been shed today, yes?"

There was a desperate air to her. And as stupid and insignificant as it was in this horrible moment, Ash's heart leapt as he heard her acknowledgement. Master.

A vein throbbed in Fino's face and he went red for a moment, clenching his fists, and Weavile trembled with fury and fear. His thick black fur stood on end and his claws twitched with bloodlust.

Rivers of venom dripped from Nidoking's horn. His eyes were black with death.

They were all coiled tight as a wire.

Fino had been Ever Grande's foremost diplomat for decades, and Ash suspected it took all that experience for the Fire Master to not give into the urge to explode. Lucille's eyes were mere slits and fat steaming tears dripped from Winston's eyes as he stood alongside the Hunters and the remaining Lavaridge Gym Trainers.

If Ash were Fino, he would have had Durand's head for what Slaking had done to Plinia. Even he felt like a hole was ripped in his chest—he didn't know if she was outright dead, but the Typhlosion's head had been crushed even as Fino recalled her. There were some things even the miracles of modern medicine couldn't heal, and his blood boiled.

But Fino was a better man than he was.

"I agree, Master Jacqueline," Fino said through some superhuman self-control that Ash couldn't fathom. Lucille helped him stand straight and tall as his eyes met Durand's hunted gaze. His hands shook with wrath. "This is a battle that never should have been. Let us discuss this further before more blood must be spilled. I am certain a peaceful resolution may be reached, but not with your blade at Ash's throat."

Durand's eyes flitted to Ash. There was something there for a moment, something soft, but they hardened to chips of emerald.

"And surrender my leverage to you with a smile on my face?" Durand scoffed. Aegislash drifted closer. There was no doubt in Ash's mind that the living sword would do it if commanded. "Non! Do not take us for fools, Master Fino. I have great respect for everyone here! You are the best the League—no, the world!—has to offer, but there is still work to be done. I will never be separated from my family!"

She was breathing harder now. Shedinja drifted closer, rubbing its Espeon-styled bandanna against Durand's cheek, and the Rogue relaxed a hair.

"Harming Master Ash is the last thing I desire, believe me, but I will do what I must to see my duty through," Durand said so softly that she could barely be heard over the strangling smoke and roaring flame. The Hunters slowly began to attempt to encircle her, but she cut that off quickly. "None of that, Maria! Stay right where you are."

Aegislash's purple eye locked onto Ash as it drifted centimeters closer. He glared back at it, imagining it reduced to molten slag beneath a roar of Fire. Oh, if only he could muster the same scorching breath that had burnt his pale imitation away in Greenfield!

Fino did not miss it. "I am pleased to hear that, and I am willing to offer an olive branch: Ash's freedom for your team's, in addition to whatever information you possess regarding Magma's activities."

Those terms were more than generous. This whole mess had already become a massive loss for Durand and Aqua both: her team was badly wounded, though none were killed, and the probably-Aquas under her command would be interrogated to determine any useful intelligence. Not to mention their allegiance.

The Aquas were already on thin ice with the League and the public despite Ash's best efforts, and the fallout of this battle would be catastrophic for their public perception and operations.

Anything that Durand could salvage out of this mess—goodwill, opportunities, preserved assets—was a blessing.

"My team goes free," Durand said with the utmost conviction. "They will do no harm to you, not if I ask them to turn away. They can still choose another path. The trainers assisting me deserve their freedom as well, except for the one who instigated this conflict."

Ash…doubted that, but he said nothing. Not with Aegislash watching him like Plume eyed her competition.

"While I am certain your teammates would respect your word, I cannot allow the trainers under your command to go free," Fino said. "They must be interrogated at minimum, and if they are found to have committed any crimes they will be sentenced as such."

The fact that Fino didn't immediately turn to stare daggers at the Aqua trainer who had killed Vito was a testament to his immense discipline. But there was a grave weight to his words, a steel in him to see justice done.

And there was quite a bit of justice to be dispensed after today.

"Scan them here," Durand argued. "Many of them only acted defensively—"


They all jumped, though Ash groaned as Plume's eyes filled him in with the newcomer.

A great flash of draconic power tore through the air, missing them all, and detonated in the distance as another newcomer swaggered onto the scene with a snarling Hydreigon and silent Beheeyem at his side and, heedless to the tension hanging over them all, released his full team.

Durand looked ill at the sight of his terrible Chandelure and its Distorted fires.

Or perhaps the newcomer did so because of the tension. Ash didn't like the look in George Grey's dark eyes as the grinning mercenary took in the devastation left by the conflict. There was a dreadful excitement there, a hungry familiarity, and a desperate craving for more.

It was darker than Ash's battle-lust, born of boredom rather than a lust for challenge, and it could never be sated.

"Oh hell, looks like I missed all the fun!" Grey's grin reminded Ash of a Sharpedo as he strolled onto the side opposite of the Hunters and Lavaridge Gym Trainers and spread his arms wide. He whistled a jaunty tune as he assessed the damage and sauntered a little closer to the burnt, bleeding Durand, though Shiftry flickered forward to block his path. "A real shame I received a late invitation, eh? Glad I was able to catch the tail end of the party! And I like the new look, Jackie. It suits you!"

"I should've fed you to Douceline the last time we fought," Durand hissed, and it was a measure of everyone else's disdain for Grey that they didn't even interrupt. Aegislash edged even closer to Ash's throat, but Grey saw it, winked and skipped even closer to Shiftry. "Not another step, mercenary!"

"Master Durand is correct," Fino's words were impatient. Kalena hissed at Grey, spitting poisonous smoke from her nostrils, and looked ready to enforce Fino's words with bloody action. "Step back, Mr. Grey. The situation is under control. Your presence is not required."

"Under control, huh?" Grey drawled, jerking his head at Aegislash and then motioning around at the sheer devastation left by the battle: pools of lava, smoking trees, and a veritable wasteland. "Sure looks like it to me! Even I think there's a little somethin' weird about a preteen ready to get his throat slit. But what does little ol' me know about hostage negotiations? Normally I'm on the other end of this predicament."

Hydreigon snarled at that, its uncontrolled fury a sharp contrast to the regal, composed Hydreigon commanded by Drake, and everyone just about boiled over. Aegislash was a creature sensitive to emotions and it appeared agitated, darkness flickering off to land upon Ash's skin, and his whole team coiled.

He felt Aegislash then as a Destiny Bond formed, linking Ash's nervous system to the creature's own state. Dazed quickly relayed the information to the rest of the team.

Ash was confident he could burn it away with Fire, but how quickly? It was a shame the Destiny Bond didn't go both ways. Otherwise he'd just reach out to Groudon, knock himself out, and drag Aegislash down with him.

Infernus' Plasma Blade hummed as he shaped it back into existence, a hateful sneer on his face as he eyed Aegislash. No doubt he wished to test his blade against the living weapon.

"Not another move without my say so!" Durand hissed. "Do not push us! Very well, here are our final terms. All of my group walks free, accompanied by our teams. I will see justice done—all the information we discussed earlier will be delivered to a secure League facility within the next day."

"A Lavaridge Gym Trainer is dead." Fino's grim words hung over the smoking battleground like a dark cloud. Grief stained his words. "Plinia is dead. We will see justice done."

"I did not order it!" Durand snapped. Her face was twisted in denial as she jerked her head over at the maybe-Aquas and she frantically gestured at the wasteland they'd created. "This is not my doing. Take that idiot Brodie! The responsibility is his, not mine. He acted of his own accord."

Fino was silent, and then one of the black-garbed men hesitantly piped up.

"Ma'am…Brodie escaped. I saw him slip away during the fighting, but he was too far to pursue."

Ash snarled, and Plume immediately began her search. The man had a Ditto which could make things difficult, but as long as he didn't have access to teleportation he couldn't have gotten too far!

Fino's eyes squeezed shut. Lucille pulled herself up by his side, her bloody wound from Slaking grating at her, and the wand blazed to life in her grip.

"Oh, that ain't a hoot!" Grey sounded positively delighted. "Now how are we gonna resolve this now? Your boy's dead and his killer nowhere to be found. What a damn shame—brings a tear to my eye, honestly."

The League forces looked ready to tear Grey's head off, but the blade at Ash's neck kept them frozen. But a restlessness emerged at Grey's words on both sides.

"New terms!" Durand hissed. "We walk free. Ash comes with us as a sign of good faith."

Fino stepped forward and his face twisted with the first true trace of emotion he allowed to slip through. This was the pebble that collapsed the mountainside.

"Absolutely not! Be reasonable, Master Durand! Your team is beaten. Elite Four Sidney and Phoebe will arrive within minutes. The League—I—will not allow this travesty to go unanswered! Surrender. Put your pride aside. Spare your team further hurt!"

Durand hesitated. She stood silent amidst the roaring flames. Smoke stained her blonde hair and soot clung to her skin. She was an ashen wraith, and Ash felt the indecision warring within her, the unseen specters whispering in her ears.

"And where will we go?" Durand's voice was deadly soft, barely discernible. "Who will take us?"

Captain Maria stepped forward. Her Bisharp stood in silent vigil at her side. "The Lumiose League will take you into custody. You will be given a fair trial, subject to Lumiose—"

Durand barked out a mocking laugh that was a little too high for comfort. "A fair trial, Maria?! You must be mad! I will never return to Lumiose so long as she is there. Not all in Lumiose are as honorable as you noble hunters." Durand shook her head. "No, no, no! That will not be satisfactory! No, that will not be satisfactory. New deal: My assistants and I go free. I take Ash and return him within the hour. He will be safe, I swear it! His wounds will be seen before mine. The League does not pursue us."

At that, Ash felt Aegislash's dark-wreathed blade touch his skin, cutting him so slightly, and a surge of darkness enveloping him, felt the unearthly power soak his bones to twist him through space-time and carry him over to Durand's side.

Nidoking screamed and his team rushed to intercept—for a moment he envisioned a pair of bloody eyes blazing in the darkness—


Aegislash found itself trapped in a crushing grip as Lotus sprung to life, flowing more urgently than Ash had ever seen, and green flames danced within its miasmic form. The blade was Distorted and cut through easier than most, but it gave Ash time.

Fire burned in his breast and the snare shattered entirely. The distant awareness of Aegislash's form was broken and Ash's team were free to attack.

Even as the blade finally carved through Lotus' frozen grip and freed itself, Nidoking lunged forward with the Moon Stone raised even as Dazed spun a writhing Shadow Ball in her grip.

Ash channeled Lightning and felt his nerves surge to life as he recalled Lotus, thanking his friend with a quick word, and ensured that the Spiritomb wouldn't be hit by a single wisp of the unshaped river of fae power unleashed from the Moon Stone in that instant.

He heard surprised cries from the Hunters even as Maria ordered their forces forward, but all Ash had eyes for was Aegislash as it switched itself to its defensive form.

It didn't help.

The Aegislash was not destroyed by the burst of silvery-pink power that flooded over it, but the vast majority of its strength was temporarily robbed and it fell clattering to the ground at Ash's feet. Even in the heat of battle, Ash could see the shock and recognition on the faces of Durand and the Hunter trio.

He snarled down at it.

Tangrowth snatched the blade in one of his vines as Aegislash's power slowly returned, coiling tight around the spectral blade's hilt, and it began to rise once more. The grass-type frantically tossed it from vine to vine before finally catching sight of Infernus.

His friend's wide eyes grew even bigger and Tangrowth gurgled desperately as he flung the blade into a lava puddle. It didn't quite hit, and when Aegislash rose once again, Tangrowth snagged its hilt and hurled it at Infernus, who caught it in his molten grip.

Infernus hissed his fury at the temporarily fragile Aegislash. He stepped away from the team, shone brighter than he ever had as wild flames billowed up his massive frame, and grew so blindingly bright that he resembled a living star.

Fire resonated in Ash's heart.

Aegislash melted away in his grip, and when Infernus was done there was nothing but molten slag remaining.

The Magmortar spat on Aegislash's remains.

All of that took less than thirty seconds.

Durand's remaining team—Zoroark, Coco, Laurent, and Corin—each shared the briefest of glances as Aegislash's final gambit failed, and Coco ignored Durand's frantic cries and rejections as the Shedinja's power twisted in the familiar writhing shape of a Phantom Force to warp itself and Durand to safety…

But Weavile had seen too many friends bleed, too many friends die.

He lunged forth past Zoroark, snarled, and slammed his two Shadow Claws straight through the Espeon-patterned bandanna and into the hidden hole in Coco's body which drained the life-essence from all who looked into it.

And when his dark claws were within Coco, he wrenched them apart and shredded her exoskeleton into halves, Dispelling her before she could reform.

The Shedinja's two halves collapsed lifelessly to the ground as her fragile spirit was scattered to the wind.

"Coco!" Durand's scream carved right to Ash's heart. Her grief-thick wail rose above the din of battle and crackling flame, rising deeper than mere sound as Ash gasped. The hammer blow of Durand's grief struck his own chest and he staggered away, clutching his temples.

Fino's eyes closed. "There can be no peace today," he whispered, his hand clutched tightly around Plinia's pokéball. Ash prayed that she still lived, though he knew those prayers weren't to be answered. Not with how horribly limp the Typhlosion had gone in that brief instant… "Do not hold back. Do not hesitate. Allow them to surrender if they will, but they are too dangerous. We will not allow anymore of our own blood to be spilled. Take Durand alive."

"Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" Grey cheered as his team swept in, Beheeyem's eyes blinding blue as the psychic coordinated Grey's team with frightening efficiency. "Get in there, boyos! I told you today was gonna be good!"

Grey had some new team members, Ash dully noted. He was in a fugue as the battle intensified one last time. A slouching Bisharp, expression surly and with none of the dignity or pride of Maria's own specimen. A Solrock floated beside Beheeyem, its eyes emanating psychic power the same sickly green shade. And a Malamar of his own, sending an infuriatingly cocky wave in Durand's direction.

Corin and Laurent fought unrestrained now, whatever semblance of morality remained abandoned in favor of survival and vengeance. They covered for each other perfectly, defending Durand against all comers while Zoroark did its utmost to warp her away, though Weavile and Kalena were just as relentless in their pursuit and disruption.

Durand's last remaining members of her original team fought amidst the flames against overwhelming odds as an army came down upon them.

They fought like legends of old as Laurent's singularity took attack after attack and turned it upon his foes, redirecting and weaving an impenetrable web of flame and deceit, even as Shiftry tore through shields and cleaved flesh with deadly skill.

He was a wicked shadow flitting from tree to burning tree, always in motion, and the Shiftry darted close in a squad of his illusions to wreak havoc amidst the organized ranks—Grey's team operated like a smooth machine, though not so smoothly as Durand's once had, and Shiftry and Farfetch'd turned their own tactics against them.

Laurent absorbed a Fire Blast and hurled it into Jellicent's field of mist, boiling a great deal away and revealing Eelektross (who looked a little sick as it caught sight of Infernus charging forward) who unleashed a bolt of lightning, though the electric-type shrieked as Corin darted forward. Wrapped in a veil of Razor Wind, the Master-level fighter quickly demonstrated the difference between itself and Grey's team.

Grey was an elite combatant, but the Shiftry left his individual teammates looking slow and clumsy. He darted past Eelektross' whipping arms and ruthlessly carved the electric-type (Ash had been a little embarrassed to realize his spotty information in the Indigo Conference had failed him during his preparations for Grey) to shreds with his Razor Wind cloak before seamlessly dispatching the creature with a Leaf Blade to the chest.

Squirming Leech Seeds shone in Eelektross' wound as they began to feed on the electric-type's energy to feed it to their progenitor, who swept away and stole the attention of half Grey's team from Laurent the Farfetch'd. A storm of Distorted Bullet Seeds erupted from Corin's maw, aimed expertly to part Grey's head from his body, but they were swallowed up by a gout of purplish flame courtesy of Chandelure.

Douceline emerged from her pokéball and wove whatever confusion she could with her last bits of strength, but it wasn't enough. The endless pressure from Ash, Fino, the Hunters, and Grey beat the single Farfetch'd back repeatedly, and Ash genuinely had no idea how the lone warrior still stood.

Ninjask was everywhere at once, flitting around so quickly that it seemed to be fighting ten battles at the same time, dealing out its unerring strikes just to cycle around to the next bout. It was blindingly fast, relentless, and kept constant pressure on the entire battlefield.

Beheeyem barely protected itself from Ninjask's Bug Buzz, but it still rattled the psychic, and opened it to a wavering Dark Pulse from Douceline before the Malamar collapsed beneath the combined efforts of Grey's own Malamar and Alfred's Donphan, who flung itself into her with brutal force.

She was still fighting, but lacked the strength to stand with her wounds. Trevenant saved her, defending her with a field of whipping vines that single handedly beat back many of the Hunters and the remaining Lavaridge Gym Trainers, and several fighters found themselves skewered upon its thorny roots, although they were recalled before too much damage could be dealt.

Ash panted as he did his part in coordinating his team and beating down all the resistance he could, a little dizzy and sick with the way the day had gone.

He'd been speaking with Torrent less than thirty minutes ago…

Desperation fueled the remnants of Durand's team, and the attackers had to play carefully in order to avoid the deadly blows that the vicious fighters attempted to hand out like candy. They fought not to disable or beat back the League forces, but to end them.

It was their only choice.

"Push on!" Fino cried, coordinating the disparate groups with ease. For a moment Ash saw visions of a commander rather than a diplomat, Drake's favored lieutenant, and Ash's team followed every command seamlessly.

Weavile hissed as Zoroark landed a vicious blast into his chest which sent him sprawling, and the illusionist instantly vanished from reality with its biggest threat gone. Douceline's body and Durand vanished with it, and Ash roared. "Don't let them escape!"

Plume swept down with the cry of the North Wind in her breath and beneath her wings, and the Distortional working was swept away like ink by water. Douceline's tentacles waved frantically, but Plume vanished out of range before the Malamar could strike.


The last vestige of Douceline's ravaged psychic potential faded away as Durand recalled her, howling orders like a madwoman as she fought to retain her last attempts at falling back with her team in tow.

Fino was a constant stream of instruction, his measured words the only thing calm about this frantic battle to the end. He was the axis upon which the battle spun.

"Captain Maria, lead your forces and the Rangers to encircle Durand. Box Durand in, but cover for each other! We can't afford to lose anyone else. Cut down her team if needed. We can't let them—" Fino's words cut off with a wheeze as he staggered backwards beneath a stream of pinpoint Bullet Seeds, the shimmering shield which Lucille frantically erected torn to shreds and the wall of burning coal spat by Winston too slow to intercept. "Oh…"

Fino crumpled to the ground.

His white robes were stained red.

Blood pooled beneath him.

Haggard breaths left his lips.

Ash saw nothing but red.

Someone was screaming.

Ash thought it might be him.

He shouted something to his team. His ears ached.

Lairon abandoned the Rangers and shot forth at full speed to plow through Trevenant's back. Winston buried the possessed tree in burning coal.

It warped away, still burning, and Oz shot forward with Light Dash to stun it with a shockwave before shattering its fragile bark apart with a Brick Break. Roots snaked out like mad with the last vestiges of its power, but Oz's tails flicked with thundercracks to meet the flurry.

Corin evaded four flaming arrows cast forth by Lucille, whose eyes brimmed with tears, and nearly cut one of Grey's Hydreigon's snapping arms off with a Distorted Leaf Blade as he swept by it, but stumbled as Kalena lashed forth with a spray of toxic flames and finally caught the agile warrior.

Durand shouted out frenzied order after frenzied order to hold the line, refusing Zoroark's attempts to warp her away from the tattered remains of her team, and made to recall all those who still fought.

Perhaps she considered surrender.

Perhaps she considered imprisonment better than the total loss of her team.

But Infernus' fury came forth like the eruption of a volcano.

For once, Infernus wasn't smiling in the midst of a bloody battle.

Zoroark staggered backwards as its burgeoning illusions came undone in the face of his fire and might, barely twisting to avoid a thrust of Infernus' Plasma Blade, and Lucille's eyes turned to flint.

One of her fiery arrows twisted midair to abandon the rest of the volley. Laurent desperately batted the rest away with his leak, though the singularity at the end was warped and twisted beneath the strain of the battle, and Durand blinked as Lucille's arrow darted around Zoroark's defenses and buried itself in Durand's gut.

The flaming projectile pierced right through despite Zoroark's frantic pulse of Distortion and lodged itself in Durand's abdomen, impaling her and burning white for a few seconds as Durand looked dumbly down, searing her internal organs to a crisp.


Durand's green eyes went wide as her team howled and cried—Shiftry launched himself to her side, babbling nonsense to her as he pressed his blood-stained leaf to her burning wound. He fought off Weavile's savage flurry of Ice Punches even as Laurent fell back to her side as well.

The moment Lucille turned away from Durand with grim satisfaction, she collapsed by Fino's side, staunching her own bleeding wounds.

Fino's team abandoned the battle. Winston rushed over, weeping, and Kalena slithered forth with insane speed, abandoning Weavile and his battles. All gathered around Fino's crumpled, bleeding body and Lucille's psychic power released all those who had been recalled, save Plinia.

She was gone.

And when they were in range, Lucille held her wand aloft, her furred frame wracked with sobs, and enclosed them all in a Trick Room to separate them from the rest of the world. Time slowed to a crawl within the confines of Lucille's technique, and Ash prayed that they had the time they needed while the rest of the League forces finished this fight.


Hot tears stung at his eyes and he forced the emotion away.

There would be time…but not yet.

What was he going to tell Flannery?

A horrible lump felt like it was strangling him, but he drew on Ice to steady himself.


Infernus leapt away from Zoroark to charge the remaining members of Durand's team. Weavile held off the dark-type, which fought with savagery Ash had never seen as it did everything in its power to reach Durand's side just as Fino's own team had gone for him.

Laurent's heart was broken, yet he stood valiant against Infernus' encroachment. His hollow eyes sparked to life as some semblance of old anger renewed itself at the sight of the Magmortar.

The Farfetch'd raised his leek and met Infernus' Plasma Blade with his own weapon, layering it in a green Protect which held back Infernus' humming edge as they contested…but Infernus had no interest in fighting fair, and he spat a Flamethrower right into Laurent's face now that the singularity was no longer there.

Corin stood over Durand's trembling body and fought the world as it came crashing down upon the duo, but spared a stream of Bullet Seeds which hammered into Infernus' gut and tore deep wounds into his molten flesh.

But that didn't stop Infernus. Even as the Farfetch'd took advantage of the distraction to lunge upward with blinding speed propelled by a Quick Attack, the tip of his leek sharpened by manipulated energy to spear up through Infernus' chin to exit through his skull, Infernus' other cannon reached forward and gripped the leek in his burning grip.

Just as Aegislash had melted away in Infernus' molten claws, so did Farfetch'd's leek catch flame. Oppressive heat pressed Farfetch'd back, overpowering him, and his feathers burned even as he flung the leek away and spat a Hurricane into Infernus' face.

Infernus' Plasma Blade impaled Farfetch'd through the face, and he cast the valiant bird's corpse away as he approached Durand and the Shiftry who defended her with all he had.

Other teams pressed forward now that the battle cooled—Ninjask darted away from one of Eileen's attacks, only to be intercepted and wrestled to the ground by Seeker, who spat venom upon its exoskeleton which weighed it down for Torrent to finish with a Hydro Pump—and encircled Durand.

With the battle all but done, Ash turned to Fino as tears burned in his eyes, but he was still locked away in the temporal lock by Lucille. His team crowded around him, moving at a Slugma's pace, and Fino's mouth twisted into words painfully slowly.

Ash's heart ached and he wanted to scream as he realized he was witnessing Fino's last words to his team.

"Fuck!" Ash snarled, latching onto that little ember of fury that kept the tsunami of sorrow from overwhelming him. He blindly staggered towards the sound of the dying battle, utterly lost, and felt Nidoking's gentle claws on his shoulder.

His friend didn't try to stop him now that the battle had ended. Ash was deaf to the world now, only aware of the lights of his team by his side, and Plume's sorrowful song overhead as she circled above the smoking ruin of a mountainside.

The mournful sound stilled the flames. Fires dimmed. A crisp rain fell.


Dazed followed behind, concern bursting through their connection, and Ash welcomed her psychic embrace. But he did not stop.

All of his team was with him save for Lotus. Ash released him.

Ash stumbled forward, led gently through the ruins by Nidoking, and ignored the frantic chatter of the Hunters and Lavaridge Gym Trainers as they began to secure the area, compile damage reports, and subdued the unconscious forms of Durand's last remaining fighters.

Save one.

Infernus grunted as Ash approached Durand's smoking body in a fugue state, rushing forward to greet him before realizing his body heat would wound him, but Ash shook his head, channeled Fire, and grasped Infernus' cannon with his own flesh.

It was pleasantly warm, and Ash treasured that warmth as he took one more step forward.

He let Infernus go.

Shiftry, burnt and littered with a dozen mortal wounds, peered up at him. Its eyes were tired as it stood vigil over Durand, all the fight gone. But it still raised a drooping Leaf Blade at Ash, one last ember of defiance in it, before a rattling cough broke its fighting will.

"Corin…" a broken voice wheezed. Corin forgot Ash entirely and laid his white-furred head atop Durand's chest, shaking. One trembling hand reached up through heroic efforts to lace her fingers through the Shiftry's snowy white mane. "Let him come."

Ash collapsed at Durand's side, staring down at her listlessly. Nidoking hung over his shoulder, and much of his team encircled them, ensuring the Hunters could not approach.

He could feel the last dregs of life leaving her.

She was a smoking ruin of a woman, the flesh of her stomach blackened and burnt and her skin warped. Her eyes were bloodshot and glazed, half-blind, and every breath was accompanied with a squelching gurgle as she stared up at him.

Ash opened his mouth…and didn't know what to say.

He wanted to shake her and scream at her.

He wanted to punch her in her burnt face.

He wanted to beg her to tell him this was all just a bad dream.

He wanted to beg her not to die.

All that came out was a choked groan as the tears fell. Not just for Durand—for this senseless waste of life, for Plinia, for Fino, for Vito, for all the blood spilled today. And for what?! This? A mountainside burnt to a crisp, good men dead and gone, and a bloody idealist seared to ash?'

Ash couldn't speak, so Durand did it for him.

"Master Ash," Durand rasped, red-eyed and smoldering away to her last breath. "Wear it well. Be better than me."

All he could taste was bile at the title.

"I didn't want it like this."

"Nor I," Durand said softly. The hysteria was gone, the wrath, all replaced with the serenity of one who knew their road had come to an end. "I'm so tired…"

"Then rest," Ash said, his voice ragged, worn to the bone. "Go to your family."

Durand's scorched lips twitched at that, and her green eyes grew distant, then dull as the spark faded.

All they reflected now was the burning canopy above.

"I kept my promise," Ash said.

He stayed until her last breath rattled in her chest.

Durand was finally still. Finally at peace.

Corin went quiet, leaned into Durand's chest, and wailed.

It wasn't long before the Shiftry went silent as well, giving up in the face of its grievous wounds.

Ash rose, ushered up by Nidoking's soft touch, and stared ahead, empty.

"Goodbye, Durand."

And with that, he dragged himself forward back to Fino. His mind was a black storm, but as he left Durand's body behind, a voice dug into his ears like a dagger.

George Grey stood in his path with that same empty, easy grin on his pale face. Both hands were in his pocket as Hydreigon slavered at his side, its eyes registering Ash with a furious surprise, and Chandelure hovered at the mercenary's side.

The burning ghost surged its blue fires as it spied Infernus at Ash's side, and one of its flames surged up as if to offer a little wave.

Infernus looked ready to murder it.

Grey peered down at Durand's charred body and whistled. "Well hell, I barely recognize her! She's a lot prettier in the wanted posters, eh? Old girl's a little crispy now. Well-done, even."

Ash's blood boiled.

The Unovan grinned wider at that and reached forward to slap Ash happily on the back, ignoring the death in Nidoking's eyes or the low rumble from Torrent as water stirred all around them.

"Whole team burnt to ash and bones by a Fire Master, huh?" Grey mocked the fallen Master, teetering back and forth on his heels. "Shit, Jackie, this is starting to turn into a bad habit—shit!"

Fire burned in Ash's veins.

His knuckles hurt for some reason.

Blood dripped from them.

Grey's nose was bleeding and bent out of shape, and the Unovan stared at Ash with wide eyes.

Hydreigon gaped, snarled, and rushed in, only for Torrent to hurl it backward with a furious Dragon Pulse. He blazed with draconic power, all patience gone, and looked ready to finish the job.

The dark dragon wisely scampered away to rejoin the rest of the team.

Chandelure just seemed vaguely amused, and didn't stop Ash or his team from stalking past.

"That was a good punch, boyo!" Grey called out, sounding pleased as punch as he adjusted his broken nose. His voice was nasally and muffled thanks to the blood dribbling from his nostrils. "Got another one in ya?"

Ash ignored him.

The world still spun around Ash as he staggered forward, ignoring the throbbing in his knuckles, and he found himself by Fino.

"Where the fuck are the medical teams?" One of the Lavaridge Gym Trainers—the one that had nearly been lobotomized by Douceline—roared. His eyes were sunken and bloodshot with smoke and exhaustion, but he rallied his team.

"Elite Four Sidney, Phoebe, and Glacia have teleported in! Medical teams will be here right behind them!"

He was still locked in the temporal shell, but Lucille finally collapsed beneath its weight, shaking, and clutched one of Fino's wizened hands between her own paws as Kalena licked delicately at his mussed hair. Winston still shuddered above, wracked with heaving sobs that sounded like an engine roaring, and Fino's thin chest rose and fell swiftly as he peered at Ash.

His spectacles were ajar.

Winston delicately adjusted them with one of his massive, rocky fingers. One cracked and the Coalossal looked ready to sob all over again.

"Ash," Fino wheezed. Ash collapsed at his side, though he didn't dare crowd Fino's team as they mourned. He could imagine no higher disrespect. The old man reached out and grasped Ash's hand in his own, tightening the grip to a vice. "You'll protect them, won't you? Her?"

He couldn't even protect Fino, Ash thought miserably, but nodded. A small flame kindled as Fino smiled up at him, exhausted.

Ash's hand grasped frantically for the weighty pouch on his grasp.

"You won't die. I won't let you."

Perhaps Fino saw Ash as he was in his final moments, or perhaps Lucille perceived the nature of the Sacred Ashes and granted her comprehension to the Fire Master.

"All stories end, Ash. Don't cry. I know what's on our doorstep, and I don't think those ashes are meant to write this old man a sequel," Fino's voice grew frail. Wispy. Old. "There are a lot of people waiting for me. Perhaps I've kept them long enough…"

His breaths grew shallow.

Some of the lines of his face softened, but there was a raggedness to his last breaths even as the Lavaridge Gym Trainers screamed for the medical staff to hurry.

Lotus emerged from its keystone, striking the ashen battlefield still for a moment, and set its burning green eyes upon Fino. The flat line of Lotus' fiery mouth twisted into a pained grimace, and it watched the old man's face twist in fear, uncertainty, confusion—all those feelings which encompassed a mortal's last moments.

And Lotus' fog brushed over Fino.

Not an end, but a new beginning.

Not oblivion, but peace.

Not despair, but hope.

Fino's expression eased.

And with that, Fino Moore died.

Founding member of the Ever Grande Elite Four.



A good man.


Ash watched Fino's team mourn and embraced his own, treasuring their warmth as they collapsed upon him.

It was over.

He didn't know how long he sat there.

It felt like hours.

It was probably minutes.

A team of uniformed medical officials took Fino away. The Master's team went with them.

Rangers and Lavaridge Gym Trainers stormed the area and cataloged everything.

He ignored them too.

Flannery wasn't there.

Ash's stomach tied up into knots.

His team sat with him.

A kindly voice interrupted his dazed state.


Glacia's words were heavy with grief, yet soft as new snow. She drifted forward in her gown, heedless to the way the ashen earth stained the powder blue fabric, and gently tugged Ash to his feet after Nidoking dipped his head in acceptance.

"Come along, darling. You shouldn't be here."

Ash was dimly aware of Glacia pulling him into a hug—she was surprisingly warm—and then she led him away.

He followed.

A/N: First off, I can't believe I made this deadline. You DO NOT want to know how much of this chapter was written in the last twenty four hours. I've spent about fourteen of those hours working on the battle scene. I had an outline scene but had to actually write it all today lol. So sorry if there are any minor mistakes. I tried to go through it, but 40k words is tough to work through!

Thanks to the mods for looking over the chapter - Raptor is a madman and stayed on a call with me far, far past after midnight to look over the chapter and help me edit…oh, Raptor also wanted me to remind everyone that next chapter might be SLIGHTLY delayed due to Shadow of the Erdtree coming out! Maybe just a little bit.

So this is a heavy chapter. I couldn't fit everything in, so hopefully any questions that you still have will be answered next chapter. I tried to address as much as I reasonably could this time, however.

I would love to know what you thought. This is unlike just about anything else I've ever written, and it's something I've had planned for…oh, ten years now, since before the end of the Indigo Conference, and it's surreal to actually reach this moment.

No deadline for the next chapter. I plan on getting it out as soon as possible, but I will be balancing it with one of my personal projects, so I can't say exactly when it will be released. By the end of July is a safe bet, although I'd love to have it out earlier.

On another note, I wanted to thank everyone who submitted their wonderful work to the Traveler 10k Contest! I have been utterly blown away by the passion and quality invested into each submission, and I am really looking forward to reviewing them now that I have some free time!

If you wish to join the server and view the submissions, please go to my profile. I will be updating the Discord link to be fully open for a few days.

Not all tears are evil.