A/N: The Pokémon Pirates are back for their first adventure outside of the East Blue. There's a mystery to unravel, some Amazons to save, and a determined pirate crew to stop. It's a super rainy and depressing day where I'm at, so please review and add some sunshine to my life!

I had to do a little character design, because so little is known about Basil Hawkins' crew. The only new named character besides Hawkins I introduce in this chapter is the man-sized black cat we see only briefly in the anime. I've given him a name and a Devil Fruit power. The Devil Fruit is called the Hika Hika no Mi, where 'Hika' is a shortened form of the Japanese for 'from the sun.' The power of the Devil Fruit is to merge with shade or shadows to allow for stealthy movement. Note that this is not like Blackbeard's power, nor is it like Moria's. The cat is Hawkins' spymaster, and his Devil Fruit is more useful for infiltration or assassination than pitched battles. Just giving you the heads up, in case any of you are confused by the scene that introduces him. Many thanks to sagitarius for great beta work, and for helping me iron out some of the issues with this chapter.

Disclaimer: I don't own Pokémon or One Piece

Chapter 7: The Isle of Women

Running a battleship turned out to be a lot tougher than sitting on a Lapras as it cut through the ocean. For one thing, a Lapras didn't have an engine room full of tricky machinery that kept falling apart. Brock and Meowth struck up an unlikely partnership as they fiddled for hours with complicated parts – they were the only ones with the necessary patience except for Graveler, and the Boulder Pokémon tended to break more machinery than it fixed. When Brock and Meowth rejoined the rest of the crew for meals, they were usually liberally streaked with grime and engine oil, and always cursing up a storm.

"Still," as Brock remarked on their second day in the Calm Belt, "it beats getting eaten by a Sea King."

"I'd almost rather be eaten by a Sea King than have to eat another one," Ash groaned. "Gyarados is keeping us well fed, but damn if charred fish doesn't get old after a while."

"It almost makes you wish Sanji had come with us instead of Luffy," James said from the other end of the table. "Then we'd have a cook of our own."

Thinking about the amorous chef made Ash frown. If it was a choice between delicious meals and making sure that lecherous kick-happy cook stayed far away from Misty, well… he'd take the latter option every time.

Brock tucked into his food like a starving man. In addition to his gear-wrangling with Meowth, Brock also spent significant portions of each day in the refurbished Medical Ward. This was what he'd taken to calling Sub-level Four, which was capable of housing about a hundred Marines. Brock and Graveler had knocked down a few walls, cleared the rubble, and were in the process of turning the space into a proper infirmary.

The only currently injured members of their party were Scyther, Bulbasaur, and Nidorino. Charizard also had numerous bullet wounds, but it was very firm about not needing any treatment. After the first charred jacket, Brock had decided not to insist.

"I hope we find an island that has Pokémon soon," Brock reflected. "We know they're somewhere in the Grand Line, or else Misty wouldn't have been able to catch that Lapras. Maybe there are some Pokémon with healing abilities, like a Chansey or something. At the rate that we're sustaining injuries, we're going to need more than my home-made medicines."

"Gary found a Doublade in Loguetown," Ash said, shaking his head at his First Mate's good luck. "So it stands to reason that there are more Pokémon out there – and there are kinds we wouldn't have encountered in Kanto! I hope we find an Absol… or a Gurdurr! I bet one of those could deal serious damage to a Pacifista!"

The rest of the crew joined in the discussion with gusto, comparing the relative merits of Pokémon native to other continents, Pokémon that they'd only ever heard about. No one broached the topic of why such Pokémon were appearing in the first place – it was easier to leave that for the future, and focus instead on lighter topics.

Training dominated most of their time traveling the Calm Belt, as it was the only thing that differentiated one day from the next on the unchanging ocean. Gary trained twice a day with Doublade, honing his newfound psychic awareness and pushing himself to get stronger. Doublade adjusted its weight to become heavier, so that Gary would have to tax his strength in order to wield it.

Gary's favorite training was with Brock, when the Rock Trainer activated his new Iron Defense technique and went fist-to-blade with Gary's swords. Those sessions exhausted both of them, but they could feel themselves improving.

The battles between Pikachu and Eevee were also a daily occurrence, since the unevolved Pokémon were determined to make sure that they weren't outclassed as other Pokémon evolved. Pikachu often worked on its Thunder attack alone, and watching what a direct hit did to a fully-grown Sea King was a sobering experience.

Brock's Zubat apparently decided that it was finished being the only unevolved flier around, and evolved into a Golbat. Aerial battles took place every evening in the sky above the battleship, with Pidgeotto and Fearow joining Charizard and Golbat for acrobatic feats and various combat formations.

Sometimes their Trainers joined them, to make sure that they were as comfortable in the air as they were on the deck of a ship. It would be useful when facing Marines in the future to be able to attack entirely from the air – cannons were almost useless against opponents as nimble as Bird Pokémon, after all.

Three weeks passed in this way, without a single ship or island appearing on the horizon. Halfway through the fourth week, Charizard and Fearow returned early from a scouting mission with news. With Meowth translating, the Trainers learned that they would soon reach an island.

"Heavy forest cover," Meowth reported, listening intently to Fearow as it squawked with excitement. "A few mountains, one fairly large… and possible human habitation! At least, Fearow thinks it spotted some smoke rising up out of the trees."

"Good enough for me!" Ash declared. "Gary, let's scout out a place to land. Somewhere easily defensible, so we can figure out whether the island's inhabitants are likely to be hostile."

Misty took the bridge to orient the ship, while Brock rushed to the Medical Ward to throw together a hasty traveling kit with first aid supplies. There was no telling what threats awaited them on an unknown island…

Ash and Gary returned an hour, faces flushed as much from excitement as from the wind. "Turn us three degrees starboard, Misty," Ash called out to his navigator. "There's a nice beach that looks fairly isolated. We can dock there and find our bearings."

It was possible that the inhabitants of the island, wherever they were, would see them coming. A battleship this size was visible from a long way off, after all. But that was a risk Ash would have to take. If they ran into natives who were friendly with the Marines, well, that was what the Marine uniforms stowed in the crew locker were for.

The beach Ash and Gary had chosen was large enough for the battleship to come very close to shore. The treeline began mere yards away, the leafy tops towering over the cruiser. Their ship might be visible from the sea, but only if a ship was approaching from roughly the same direction they'd been coming from.

Brock and Graveler tripped the switches that lowered the huge mechanized anchors that would keep the ship in place, while Misty rappelled down a rope in order to be the first to set foot on the new island.

The Pokémon Pirates assembled in a loose circle on the beach, grinning at each other with barely restrained excitement. A new island was a treat in itself after a long stretch at sea. Brock, who went barefoot now that his feet were tough enough to replace the need for shoes, stretched his toes luxuriously in the warm sand.

"What do we do now, Ash?" James asked, looking around at the surrounding woods. "Looks mighty easy to get lost in there…"

"I think we ought to send out a scouting party," Gary suggested. "Just to get a feel for the terrain around this beach, and make sure nothing's lying in wait or anything like that."

"That's a good idea," Ash agreed. "We'll split our group in half. Meowth, you'll lead, since you've got the sharpest senses out of all of us. Brock, you too, since you're the least vulnerable if there is something nasty out there. And me, of course… anyone else want to come?"

James put his hand in the air. "I wouldn't mind… it'd be nice to stretch my legs a bit. Leave Gary with the womenfolk."

Misty raised an eyebrow. "Was that intended to be an insult to Gary, or to womenfolk?"

"Um…" James gulped. "…neither?"

"Good answer."

"Just sit tight," Ash told the three who were staying behind. "Make sure nothing comes nosing around our ship. We'll be back before you know it."

oOoOo

Jessie took to pacing up and down the length of the beach before the scouting party had been gone thirty minutes.

"Calm down," Misty advised the Team Rocket member. "They'll be fine."

"Yeah," Gary added, lying down on the sand and placing an arm over his eyes. "You're stressing out for no reason."

Jessie knew that her anxiety was irrational, but she couldn't help it. Being separated from James just put her on edge. Who knew what might be lurking out there in the dark woods? Without her there to watch his back, James would be vulnerable- Jessie cut off those thoughts with a wordless snarl.

He'll be fine, damn it!

If she told herself that often enough, maybe she'd even come to believe it. An hour passed with no sign of the scouting party.

Jessie's Arbok was the first to sense trouble. It drew itself up, hood flared, and hissed with vague worry. Jessie was by its side in an instant, rifle aimed in the direction Arbok was facing.

Misty had Gyarados out in the cove, Starmie duo ready for action beside her, while Gary rolled to his feet and drew Doublade with a smooth motion.

There was a flash of movement from within the trees… and then James burst out into the open, arms akimbo and yelling bloody murder.

"They're trying to kill us!"

Ash and Brock appeared a second later, with Onix taking up the rear. Their yells joined James', and then Onix's pained bellow subsumed the other noises.

"Who are they?" Jessie yelled, though they were too far away to hear. "Who's trying to kill you?"

Her questions were partially answered by a trio of arrows that flew out between the trees, directly toward the fleeing Trainers. Ash's Pikachu charred the shafts with a Thundershock, but Jessie didn't doubt that more would follow.

James reached Jessie and threw himself behind her, clutching at her arm with exaggerated fear. "The savage semi-nude women are trying to kill us!" he panted.

"Let go of me, you big l- what did you say?"

But James didn't need to repeat himself. The mysterious archers had appeared from the cover of the forest, and it was just as James said – they wore scanty outfits made from animal fur, and the murderous expressions on their faces were definitely savage.

Ash and Brock reached them, and the Trainers spun around to present a unified front. Jessie took a few unconscious steps forward, perhaps reacting to the fact that these harpies had been firing at her teammate (the fact that they had also been firing at her Captain did not escape her, but somehow didn't quite enrage her the same way).

As the female archers took in the sight of the battleship and the other Trainers on the beach, they slowed momentarily. The leader loosed one last arrow, purely on reflex. Arbok moved like a flash of purple lightning, then flared its hood as wide as possible and bared its fangs in challenge. Jessie suddenly became aware that several of the women approaching them – there were five in total, ranging in appearance from the small, petite blonde to a hulking brunette with muscles that put Brock's to shame – had snakes draped around their shoulders. With the bows, the snakes, and the outfits, they really did make for a strange sight.

"Want to try me on for size?" Jessie snarled, sighting along her rifle's scope to line up a shot on the leader. "Fire one more arrow, I dare you! I'll stuff it down your throat!"

The leader of the archers still advanced, although she held up a hand to keep her followers from loosing any more arrows.

"Why did you attack us?" Ash called out. "We mean you no harm!" He might as well not have spoken for all the attention the women paid him.

The leader locked eyes with Jessie, displaying no fear despite the rifle currently pointed at her chest. "Do these men belong to you?"

What?!

"I'm certainly not going to let you harm them, if that's what you mean," Jessie said, unwilling to show any confusion in front of her aggressors.

"You have the courage of an Amazon," the archer said, "and you have a snake companion as well… I'd almost take you for one of us, if it weren't for the… the men." She spat out the word as if it had an unpleasant taste.

"What's wrong with them?" Jessie demanded belligerently, not sure exactly how she had come to be elected spokesperson. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that James was still cowering behind her, indulging his ridiculous penchant for theatrics. "They may be a bunch of louts, sure-"

"-and they smell bad, don't forget that-" Misty added helpfully.

"-and they stink," Jessie acknowledged, "but surely that's no reason to kill them!"

The leader eyed Ash as if he carried some infectious disease. "Men are forbidden on Amazon Lily. They are dangerous creatures who only bring destruction in their wake. The penalty for a man to walk on Amazon Lily is death."

"Whoa there!" James said, shocking into standing straight and coming out from behind Jessie. "Don't you think that's a little extreme-"

Jessie stomped on his foot. "Shut up and let me handle this!" she hissed under her breath. "My deepest apologies," she said to the archers, mind racing as she tried to come up with some bullshit that these crazy women might believe. "I was unaware of your customs. In my country, we too believe that men are responsible for many evils, but we have too few women to defend ourselves against our many enemies. Our survival depends on keeping the men as slaves, to serve and protect us in our feuds with our neighbors."

Not too bad, Jessie thought with satisfaction, for the spur of the moment.

"Slaves?!" James squawked, until Jessie hit him in the ribcage with the butt of her rifle.

"Silence, lowly dog!" she barked. "I have allowed discipline to lapse in our months at sea, but I realize that was a mistake. If you do not wish to be hanged for trespassing, be silent before your betters!"

James glared at her, but did as he was told. Jessie was a little worried about Ash, but the Captain appeared willing to go with the flow. He lowered his eyes and backed away with many subservient gestures, followed quickly enough by Brock and Gary. Misty advanced until she was even with Jessie, the Water Trainer's eyes sparkling with mirth. "Lowly dog?" she whispered, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter.

"I do humbly apologize for the actions of my slaves," Jessie addressed the archers, bowing at the waist. "But it was an honest mistake, and I cannot allow you to take their lives. My safety on the high seas depends upon their strength."

Jessie thought the burly female looked skeptical, as if unsure how men could possibly be trusted to protect her. "Our law is absolute," the leader declared, though she sounded less assured than she had a moment ago. "They must die."

Jessie sighed. "I don't advise that," she said frankly. "See these monsters with us? They're obedient to our will, and they're powerful enough to take on hundreds of Marines at a time. We've got you outnumbered and outgunned, unless you're hiding something more dangerous than arrows under all that leopard-print… which I seriously doubt. You walk away, we sail away, and everybody's happy. Deal?"

By unspoken agreement, the archers huddled up to confer in private. Jessie was dimly conscious of Meowth sidling forward, its ears cocked, no doubt listening in on the conversation to gather more information about these strange women.

"They don't want to fight us," Meowth whispered, barely loud enough for Jessie to hear. "And… their leader is gone, apparently, so some think they should bend the rules…" Meowth listened for a few seconds more, tilting its head slightly. "Oh, that's interesting…" he breathed.

"What is it?" Jessie demanded.

"Just wait – Ash is going to love this!"

The raven-haired leader approached them, the other archers keeping arrows nocked but not fully drawn. "We have decided not to fight you," began the leader, drawing a snort from Misty.

"Damn right," the former Gym Leader murmured.

"But these monsters you command… the rock snake in particular is like others we have seen before."

Jessie exchanged startled glances with the other Trainers. Ash kept silent, though it was with difficulty.

"You've seen an Onix before?" she asked.

"I do not know this name… but similar monsters have been sighted near the quarries where we shape the stone for our arrows. Our island has been plagued by monsters these past few months. Do you know why this is?"

Jessie risked a look at Ash, but he kept his face blank, leaving everything up to her discretion. "Not for sure," Jessie hazarded, "but we have great experience with these monsters… they're called Pokémon, for one thing. If you guarantee safe passage for me, my traveling companion, and our slaves, I promise to tell you everything you want to know. If Pokémon have been appearing out of nowhere, life must have been difficult for you recently."

The leader's eyes took on a haunted cast. "You speak truly. We were all right when our leader, Boa Hancock, was here, but without her it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the village. Some of these 'Pokémon' are strong enough to withstand our arrows, which is no easy feat."

"Come on, Kikyo," said the husky brunette in a deep voice. "Let's take them back to the village. Elder Nyon will know what to do."

"Shut it, Sweet Pea!" Kikyo barked, but her face softened somewhat when she looked at Jessie. "Will you come with us? On my authority as temporary Protector of our village, I will extend safe passage to all of you unless your… men… make trouble. Is that satisfactory?"

"Works for me," Jessie shrugged. "Misty?"

"Yup!" Misty patted Brock on the head as if the Trainer were a particularly well-mannered pet. "We'll keep the boys on a short leash."

James paled when he saw Jessie's answering grin. She rubbed her hands together with a decidedly malicious chuckle.

Thanks to cultural differences, it looks like I'm in charge for the moment… Oh, this is going to be fun!

oOoOo

The Amazon village was pretty amazing, Ash had to admit. It was built into the side of a small mountain, with the Princess' palace built at the summit. Everywhere there were women, rushing to and fro about the business of daily life. Brock was in heaven, although the sharp arrows and fearful looks of their escorts kept him from saying anything stupid.

Jessie and Misty were supposed to be in charge, and they played their roles well. Jessie had Arbok lash at the boys' ankles with its tail whenever they began to fall behind.

Ash was very interested to see the presence of Pokémon. He saw a Rattata sneaking around down one alleyway, and a trio of Pidgeys roosted on the edge of what looked like a fighting rink in the center of the village. They were all wild Pokémon, but the Amazons seemed to coexist with them peacefully enough.

Jessie asked about the Pokémon, and the Amazon leader – Kikyo was her name, she told them – explained about the recent appearance of monsters on the island. It had been going on for several months, and no one knew why.

"They came out of nowhere," she said, "and not just freakish rats and birds, like the scavengers that have flocked to the village, but terrifying creatures of living stone."

"Sounds like Rock types," Ash whispered to Brock, who took his eyes off the pretty women long enough to nod in agreement.

Kikyo brought the group to a particular house in the village, which was apparently the home of a respected elder. Elder Nyon, when she appeared, certainly looked the part. She was not that much taller than Meowth, and her wrinkled face held the wisdom of many decades.

After hearing why the men had not been killed on sight, the old lady agreed that the Pokémon Pirates were potentially the answer to a great many of the village's problems.

"The Princess won't be back for months, in all likelihood," Elder Nyon grumped. "That flying dinosaur is smart enough not to cross her, but now it has no problems flying over our fields and stealing our sheep. Even when we imbue our arrows with Haki, it isn't fazed!"

"Flying dinosaur?" Gary murmured, intrigued.

"Could be a lot of things," Ash replied, running through an imaginary list of Pokémon that might match that description. There weren't that many, especially considering that the majority of the Pokémon appearing on Amazon Lily seemed to be Rock types. Aerodactyl was Ash's best bet... and an Aerodactyl would definitely be a good addition to the team. Ash couldn't stifle a grin, imagining what havoc a bullet-proof flier like Aerodactyl could wreak on a Marine stronghold or battleship.

"Will you help us?" Kikyo asked Jessie. "We do not have the same familiarity with these creatures that you seem to. Our village is not so prosperous that we can survive for long without our flock."

Jessie risked a quick glance at Ash, who had no objections. The elder's eyes narrowed, but she didn't say anything. "Of course we'll help!" Jessie assured their guests. "Right, Misty?"

"Wouldn't dream of doing otherwise," Misty said blithely. "We've seen our share of flying dinosaurs. Where does this bad boy live?"

"In the east, on the tallest mountain on the island," Elder Nyon said. "Our foraging crews do not go that way any more, except in the direst need. We believe, however, that the monsters first appeared on that mountain, and are now spreading. Amazon Lily was always a dangerous place, but every day the danger grows…"

"Then you've called on the right people," Jessie assured the Amazons. "We've been sailing the Grand Line, trying to find out why Pokémon are appearing like this. With luck, we'll find something on that mountain."

"And maybe catch us a flying dinosaur," Misty reminded her, laughing. "Kill two birds with one stone."

Elder Nyon thanked them graciously, and their escort cheered. "Come," Kikyo urged, the fierce warrior appearing cheerful for the first time. "We cannot send you off tonight, so let us show you how we celebrate here on Amazon Lily."

"Oh, food!" Brock cried. "And prepared by such beautiful women! I can't wait!"

Kikyo looked slightly sickened. She spoke resolutely to Jessie, not deigning to so much as look in Brock's direction. "You and Misty are welcome, of course, to our halls. May I ask that you leave the… the men… in the shed where we shelter the sheep during storms? That way they will not disturb us as we feast."

"Ah…" Jessie said, fighting down spurts of laughter, "I don't know about that…"

"Food will be brought to them, and there are fleeces stored inside that can double as bedding."

Ash did not like the mischief in Jessie's eyes.

"In that case," she practically purred, "it's fine! Behave yourselves, boys. If you have trouble falling asleep, don't worry… there will be plenty of sheep to count!"

James sighed with fatalistic resolve. "I hate that woman."

oOoOo

Many factors contributed to Amazon Lily's almost total isolation. First was its location in the Calm Belt, which discouraged all but the most determined from coming near. Second was its cold reception for all members of the male sex. Last, and most potent of all, was the reputation of the fearsome Kuja Pirates, led by Boa Hancock of the Shichibukai. With all of these reasons to stay away, few pirate crews were foolish enough to drop anchor anywhere near the Isle of Women.

The pirates who were foolish enough, however, found out that Amazon Lily was not as well defended as one might have supposed. The Kuja Pirates, for example, were rarely at home, preferring to range far and wide striking fear into the hearts of other pirates. And the island itself was too large for its female inhabitants to keep a constant watch over the entirety of the coastline. There were many hidden coves on the far side of the island, furthest from human habitations, where the determined could hide from watchful eyes.

At the same time that Ash and his crew were enjoying the hospitality of the Amazons, in fact, a pirate crew was waiting in one such cove, having braved all of the dangers of Amazon Lily. Various crew members scuttled around the deck, carrying out their tasks as quickly and quietly as possible. From the speculative glances they sent at the fathomless jungle around them, it was clear that many were afraid. But none gave voice to their fear, discipline holding them fast to their assigned tasks.

In the Captain's cabin, their leader pondered the mysteries of fate and the universe. Basil Hawkins sat at his desk, a beautiful piece he'd acquired from a monastery in the North Blue – after killing the monks who lived there, of course – and examined the cards pinned carefully on a metal contraption with multiple spikes. To anyone else, the arrangement of the cards could have no possible organization, but to Hawkins' eyes they were rich with meaning, possibility, and danger.

He had risked his life and the lives of his crew coming here, but the prize he sought was worth it. So many paths stretched out ahead of him, and only one led to success… Hawkins suppressed a small smile. That was the only true satisfaction in life: to ride the waves of fate, evading the dangers lying in wait for the unwary, and emerge unscathed at the shores of destiny.

The treasure he'd foreseen was closer than ever before, and Hawkins would not rest until it belonged to him. The world was hurtling into a new era, and most people hadn't a clue… Hawkins intended to be at the forefront of that era, and he would permit nothing to stand in his way.

"I have returned, Captain." The wry, mischievous voice broke Hawkins from his reverie. He stood up from his desk and turned, only to find an apparently empty cabin. He was the only person in the room.

Then the shadow nearest the door began to swell and undulate like some giant amoeba. It reared up, building upon itself until a shadowy form as tall as Hawkins had materialized. A moment more, and the roiling shadow coalesced into a man-sized cat, black as night, wearing a dark coat with a white, ruffled collar.

"Welcome back, Boots," Hawkins said with a hint of warmth that was as close as he ever came to being demonstrative. The feline Intelligence Officer was one of the most trusted members of his crew, and possibly the most useful. Boots was naturally stealthy, and eating the Hika Hika no Mi – a Paramecia-type that allowed its eater to meld with shadows – had turned him into the perfect spy. With his unique abilities and absolute loyalty to his captain, Boots was indispensable to Captain Hawkins. "What do you have for me?"

"There's only one village, Boss, just like you thought," the cat said confidently. "It's on the opposite side of the island from the mountain, and ever since the monsters began appearing the Amazons have kept their hunting parties from ranging too far. We won't have to deal with them at all, not if the treasure is on top of the mountain on this side of the island like you said."

"It is, Boots," Hawkins replied with absolute confidence. "The greatest treasure we have ever seen awaits us at the summit."

Boots hesitated, a worried frown creasing his furry face.

"What is it?" Hawkins asked. "Do not fear – speak openly with me."

"Well, I was sneaking through the village like you ordered," Boots began, watching Hawkins for any sign of disapproval. "I saw another pirate crew! It's those Pokémon Pirates that everyone's been talking about – you know, the ones who keep Grand Line monsters as pets. The latest bounties put two of them above 100,000,000 beli, and word is the 'Sea-Witch' can sink an armored battleship just by looking at it!"

"I'm aware of their reputation," Hawkins said gently. "Why does this news distress you? Do you not trust me, my friend?"

"What?! Of course I do – with my life, Captain! That said," Boots said hesitantly, "meaning no disrespect… but I don't think the men will be all that happy about going up against these monsters. We'll follow you anywhere, Captain Hawkins, but maybe… maybe we ought to wait until they move on?"

"It is not our fate to run from this battle," Hawkins said resolutely. Admittedly, his cards had not warned him about the Pokémon Pirates, but there was no need for Boots to know this. Fate often shifted unpredictably, and the only constant was that great risk never failed to appear together with great opportunity. "Did you discover their purpose on this island?"

"Don't know why they came here, Captain, but the Amazons haven't killed their men. Seems they want to hire the pirates to take care of a pesky flying monster that keeps stealing their sheep."

Aheven now, nothing happens by chance.

"Although I could hazard a guess, may I ask where this flying monster is said to make its home?"

Boots swallowed. "On the tallest mountain on the island, sir. The one with the treasure."

When Hawkins smiled, it was usually from satisfaction rather than amusement. This time, it was both. "I see… our path becomes clearer. Boots, ready the men. We will let the Pokémon Pirates blaze the way to the mountain, only to snatch their prize from them at the last moment. But first… let's make a quick stop in the village. There are a few things I think we should pick up on our way…"

oOoOo

Ash was ready to dance for joy when they finally left the village, setting out into the wilderness of Amazon Lily. For one thing, Jessie had been enjoying her power just a bit too much. Ash was tired of bowing every time she looked in his direction.

But the real reason for his happiness was the journey ahead. For the first time since the S.S. Anne had been dumped in the middle of the East Blue, Ash had a chance at some answers. If the Amazons were to be believed, the mountain where Aerodactyl made its nest was the source of the Pokémon rapidly spreading across the island. Maybe, just maybe, they'd find some clue that would help them solve the mystery of how they'd come to be here.

With that prospect driving him, Ash fully intended to make it through the forest as fast as possible, so as to reach the mountain without wasting any time. However, trekking through an unknown forest was never an easy task, especially if that forest was full of Pokémon. After nearly running into a Weedle colony, Ash ordered the crew to slow their pace and proceed with more caution. Wild Pokémon were every bit as dangerous as crews of battle-hardened Marines, and sometimes they were even more unpredictable.

"Feels like the old days, doesn't it, Ash?" Misty murmured as they led the way across a trickling brook. "You, me, Brock, and the great outdoors. No Marines trying to kill us, and nothing standing between us and the next Gym except a few miles of road."

"I think you might be romanticizing things a bit, Misty," Brock said, brushing aside a persistent branch. "I think we had our fair share of scrapes in the so-called 'great outdoors.' And as I recall, you weren't all that psyched about sleeping in tents every night."

Ash chuckled, recalling some of Misty's more… colorful complaints. "We had some fun, though, didn't we?" Ash said, with a bit of nostalgia. Somehow, their days adventuring in Kanto seemed to have happened very long ago. "But our group was a bit small then, don't you think?"

He laughed outright as Jessie ran straight into a branch that James had pushed forward and then released. They were still squabbling – quietly, of course, so as not to alert any of the local wildlife – when Brock held up a hand, bringing the whole column to a halt.

"Guys, check this out!"

The Trainers advanced, wondering what Brock had discovered. It was a set of pawprints – very small, but firmly indented in the soft dirt.

"What Pokémon could have made those?" Gary mused, his eyes following the tracks deeper into the forest.

"Four-legged," Ash said, mentally dusting off his fieldcraft skills. It had been a long time since he'd had to identify or track a wild Pokémon, but it was a skill set that any self-respecting Trainer tried to keep sharp. "Small, but heavy. Maybe heavier than Gary's Nidorino, even though it's smaller…"

"I know what it belongs to," Brock said, something approaching awe in his tone. "It's a baby Aron! A Rock and Steel-type Pokémon, though it isn't native to Kanto. It's also supposed to live in tunnels near mountains, so what's it doing in a forest, and on its own, too? An Aron this small wouldn't normally be without its family. Ash… let's track it!"

"Hold on a second," Misty objected. "Won't that just waste time? We need to get to the mountain, not hare off on a journey after one little Pokémon."

Brock drew himself up, offended. "Says the girl who's caught a Gyarados and a Lapras since we got here!"

"That's not fair! It's not my fau-"

"Guys, that's enough." Ash was gratified at how quickly they stopped bickering and turned to him, waiting for his directions. "As impatient as I am to explore that mountain, I don't see any reason we can't take a detour. For once, we're not being hunted by Marines. Besides, I can't see how adding an Aron to our team would hurt. If I remember correctly, its evolved forms are nothing to mess with."

"You've got that right," Gary chuckled. "I'd love to see that bastard Momonga try to hold a line of Marines against a charging Aggron."

"Then let's take this opportunity to forget we're pirates for a moment," Ash said, highly excited at the prospect of a good, old-fashioned Pokémon hunt. "Who knows, maybe we'll find a few more Pokémon along the way. Brock isn't the only one whose team could use a few new faces!"

That settled the matter. Brock took point, threading his way carefully through the undergrowth after the Aron's tracks. Ash and the others followed, the promise of new Pokémon raising all of their spirits. Ash, who already had six Pokémon, wondered what would happen if he caught a new one. He doubted that a Pokéball could teleport to Professor Oak's laboratory, since not even the professor's technology was that good.

The silver lining to that unfortunate cloud, however, was that it might be possible to keep more than six Pokémon on his team. That would be extremely good news, considering that the Marines chasing his crew probably numbered in the thousands at least. Increasing the size of his team wouldn't erase that number advantage, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.

Ash was busy thinking about Marines and battle formations, so it took him a second to realize when Brock led them out of the dense tree cover. The extra light alerted him, as the sun shone brightly through gaps in the foliage. They stood at the edge of a grassy clearing, at the center of which was a pool dotted with enormous lily-pads.

The Pokémon Pirates froze as one when they realized that they were not the only ones in the clearing. About two dozen Rhyhorns – Ash had a vague idea that the proper term for a group of Rhyhorns was a "rubble," but he wasn't sure – stood around the pool, taking it in turns to drink.

"Would you look at that…" Brock breathed. "I always wanted a Rhyhorn, but they don't live near Pewter…"

"Looks like you've got the pick of the group," Gary said, waving an arm at the Rock Pokémon drinking from the pool. "Don't see an Aron, though."

"No – there it is!" Misty said, pointing to the far side of the clearing. "It's behind that one Rhyhorn, the solitary one near the trees."

It was true – one Rhyhorn stood apart from its fellows, almost like an outcast. Huddling near its stubby stone legs was a baby Aron, which looked longingly at the pool, but made no move towards it.

"What's going on, Brock?" Ash asked. "You know Rock Pokémon better than we do."

Brock frowned, his eyes alight with speculation. "If I had to guess, I'd say that Aron is an orphan," he muttered. "That would explain why it's alone, and so far from any mountains. It probably found that pack and tried to join it, but Rhyhorns are pretty exclusive when it comes to their packs. Rhyhorns rarely mingle with members of different packs, and I've never heard of them interacting much outside of their own species."

James let out an unhappy sigh. "So that Rhyhorn wants to look after Aron, but doing so might anger the pack?"

"Looks like it," Brock agreed. "See how the pack isn't letting them get to the water?"

"But that's cruel!" the soft-hearted Rocket member said, his voice breaking in his indignation. Down at the pool, one Rhyhorn raised its head, noting the high-pitched sound. Jessie told James to be quiet, but the damage was done. Rhyhorn let out a deep growl that seemed to send tremors through the ground, and lumbered around until it faced the Trainers hiding behind the screen of trees.

"Uh-oh…" Ash breathed. "Don't do it…"

But the Rhyhorn pack didn't listen to his whispered plea. They followed the lead of the first one, and began pawing the ground in a way that spelled trouble.

"Now might be a good time to climb a tree," Brock said hurriedly. "A charging Rhyhorn has a lot of momentum, but it can't climb very well."

Ash winced, thinking about the result if a Rhyhorn managed to run one of them down. Definitely not the way he wanted to go. The Pokémon Pirates scrambled up four separate trees, and just in time. The Rhyhorn pack took off with deceptive speed, the pounding of heavy feet becoming a deadly, deafening rhythm.

The lead Rhyhorn was apparently merely curious, and it slowed before knocking into the tree where Ash had hidden. It stared up at him, and gave a low-pitched bellow.

"Neener neener!" James called out from the next tree over, where he and Jessie crouched in an upper branch. "Bunch of rock-brained bullies, aren't you?"

Ash understood that James was offended by the Rhyhorn pack's refusal to accept Aron into their midst, but he still thought the Rocket member was going a little far. Rhyhorns were a little… big… for him to feel comfortable taunting them.

The lead Rhyhorn accelerated quickly for such a large Pokémon. It flung itself towards the tree with James and Jessie, raised itself up momentarily on its hind legs, and jumped – just like a dog jumping to reach a stick. Rhyhorn caught a thick branch in its powerful jaws, and when it dropped to the ground, it pulled the branch with it. The tree trunk bent over, the bark straining with tension.

"James…" Jessie began. "I think you made it mad…"

The Rhyhorn backed up a few steps, exerting enormous pressure on the tree by way of its captured branch. The tree stretched more and more, until Jess and James were mere feet above the heads of the Rhyhorns.

Ash and Gary were reaching for their Pokéballs, wondering if they should go on the offensive, when Rhyhorn let go. The tree snapped upright, sending James and Jessie into the air as if they'd been fired from a cannon.

"Team Rocket's blasting off again…" they flew through the sky, quickly disappearing from view.

Misty sighed. "I thought they were over that phase…"

"Don't worry about them," Meowth advised. The feline Pokémon had scrambled up its own tree, and so had avoided Team Rocket's abrupt departure. "Weezing can levitate, so they won't die when they come back to earth. Unless they land in a volcano, I guess…"

"We'll find them," Ash promised. "But first we need to get rid of these punks. Squirtle, teach them some manners!"

His Water Pokémon broke the Rhyhorns' spirit with powerful Bubblebeam attacks, and then Misty's Starmie duo hounded them as they ran away. Soon the clearing was empty once again, except for the baby Aron and its lone protector. The two Pokémon had taken advantage of the ruckus to approach the pool. Aron guzzled down water as if it had just reached an oasis in the desert. The Rhyhorn watched it with what seemed to be mild amusement, and an almost brotherly concern.

Ash looked at Brock, then nodded to the two Pokémon down by the water. "They're all yours, Brock."

Brock jumped out of the tree, landing solidly and leaving deep, boot-shaped indentations in the ground. Apparently he had activated his Iron Defense technique. "Meowth, would you mind?" he called out. "I think a translator might come in handy."

"Sure thing, but if it charges I'm getting the hell back to the tree."

Meowth joined Brock with the casual use of Agility, and the man and the cat approached the Rock Pokémon slowly.

Rhyhorn noticed their approach immediately, of course, and moved immediately to get between them and the little Aron. It sounded a low, warning growl.

"Can you tell it I don't mean it any harm?" Brock asked Meowth. "Ask what happened to the Aron's family."

Meowth moved a little closer, and exchanged a few terse words with the protective Rhyhorn. "It says the mother died a while ago. Aron ran away from the place where its mother died, but it got lost. Now Rhyhorn wants to look after it, even if it means losing its pack."

Brock smiled with anticipation. "Is there any chance it wants to join our pack?" he asked, not breaking eye contact with Rhyhorn. He let his Graveler and Onix out of their Pokéballs, although he made sure they stayed behind him, out of the way.

Rhyhorn voiced a challenging roar, even before Meowth had a chance to speak to it. A few more words passed between the two Pokémon, which Meowth then reproduced for Brock. "It knows that Aron would be safer with a larger pack, but it's not willing to follow a leader who hasn't proved himself."

"Simple enough," Brock said, rolling up his sleeves. Graveler made a worried noise, but Brock ignored it.

"You're going to fight?!" Meowth exclaimed. "Don't be stupid!"

Brock had eyes only for the Rhyhorn. "This isn't stupid. I have to prove I'm worthy, right? Why should Rhyhorn believe I can protect it and Aron if I can't even beat it in a fight?"

Rhyhorn charged before Meowth could respond. Brock ran right at it, not altering his course as much as an inch as the colossal Pokémon bore down on him. When only a few yards separated Pokémon from Trainer, Brock jumped.

He caught Rhyhorn's horn with both hands and twisted his body, swinging his legs around to avoid being gored. Rhyhorn skidded to a stop, as Brock perched on its head like a rodeo clown. Rhyhorn bucked and kicked, but Brock clung tenaciously and refused to be dislodged.

Rhyhorn soon tired, allowing Brock to launch his first attack. He brought his fists together above his head, then administered a punishing hammerfist blow to the top of Rhyhorn's head. Watching from the sidelines, Ash couldn't help wincing. He didn't see how Brock could do that without breaking all the bones in his hands, but it appeared Brock was equal to the task.

Rhyhorn's stumpy legs buckled, and it crashed to the ground. Brock grabbed it, keeping its massive jaws shut, while exerting pressure to make sure Rhyhorn couldn't get back up.

"Had enough?" Brock panted. "This can end any time."

Because of the way he was facing, Brock didn't see a silver flash hurtling through the air until it was too late. Aron Headbutted him in the back, knocking him forward and breaking his hold on Rhyhorn.

"No fair!" Brock shouted, though he couldn't restrain a laugh as he watched the baby Aron prepare to defend its friend. For a little tyke, it packed a wallop!

Rhyhorn forced itself to its feet again, and nudged Aron with its horn as if to scold the smaller Pokémon. Then it turned to Brock and lowered its horn respectfully. There was no need for Meowth to translate – it acknowledged Brock as its leader.

Brock approached, laughing again as the spunky Aron threw itself at him with another Headbutt. He dodged the rush, and then reached a hand out to Rhyhorn. It nuzzled his hand shyly, then issued a warning growl to Aron as it circled around for another pass at Brock.

"Welcome to the team, you two," Brock grinned. "I think we're going to have fun together."

The rest of the Pokémon Pirates joined him by the water, smiling indulgently as Aron chased its new Trainer around the clearing.

"Now that's settled," Gary said, "how about we go find Team Rocket?"

oOoOo

Ash and his crew decided to spend the night in the forest, but as soon as the soft glow of dawn filtered through the trees they were up again. Jessie and James were still on their own, and while Ash didn't doubt Team Rocket's ability to survive, he wanted the crew to be together again as soon as possible.

The island was enormous, but Ash was confident the crew would be reunited with each other soon enough. Team Rocket knew that the ultimate goal was the mountain where Aerodactyl lived, and Jessie and James were definitely clever enough to strike out for the mountain on their own… at least, that's what Ash was hoping. Whoever reached the mountain first would simply wait for the second group to arrive.

It was still a little while before noon when Ash's group reached the edge of the forest. One of the first things that met their eyes after emerging from the trees was Aerodactyl's mountain, towering above all the other peaks around it. Though it seemed close, Ash knew it would take several hours' fast walking to reach the base.

He pushed his crew hard, and they finished crossing the flat plain separating the forest from the mountain just as the sun reached its highest point in the sky.

"No sign of James or Jessie," Meowth reported, scanning the area. "No life of any kind, in fact, human or Pokémon."

That was when the weather-beaten trail beginning at the mountain's base filled up, almost like magic, with dozens of armed men and women. They had been lying in wait, concealed by the many boulders that dotted the landscape, and now blocked Ash's path.

They were fighters, these men and women, that much was clear. Many held rifles, and there was a surprisingly varied array of bladed weapons. They were not Marines, however; or at least, Ash didn't believe that any group of Marines would wear the tattered and colorful assortment of clothes these people wore. He could see no similarities between the outlandish getups, unless you counted the figurines, necklaces, and bracelets that looked to be drawn from a dozen different religions. Ash's best guess was that this was a pirate crew, though how they came to be here was a mystery, especially when the Amazons killed any men they found trespassing.

A lone pirate approached. His long, golden hair framed a stern face, and he wore a white, ruffled shirt with its laces undone. There was a cross tattooed at the base of his throat, and he had three black marks etched vertically above each eyebrow. Ash's eye was drawn to the sword at his side, which the pirate captain – for Ash instinctively felt this was a captain – wore like a part of himself.

"I am Basil Hawkins," the man announced, as calm as the sea on a clear, windless day. "Captain of the Hawkins Pirates. I already know who you are… Captain Ketchum."

How the hell does he know who I am?! Oh, right… those blasted bounties. It seemed Vice-Admiral Momonga had done his work well, if pirates Ash had never heard of before were familiar with his face and reputation. But why had they been lying in wait?

"I have no quarrel with you," Ash said, hoping he was using the word 'quarrel' correctly… something about this unsmiling captain made him want to sound more intelligent than usual. "Will your crew stand aside? We have business to take care of at the summit."

Hawkins inclined his head gravely. "Please believe me when I say I do not wish to fight. However, my crew has followed me through many dangers so that we might win the treasure I believe to be at the summit of the mountain. That is why I cannot allow you to pass."

"We're not interested in treasure," Ash said immediately.

"Some of us are interested in treasure," Gary muttered under his breath. Ash, as usual, ignored him.

"I'd like to believe you," Captain Hawkins returned, "but it is always a risky proposition to take a pirate at his word. Therefore, I have taken the liberty of acquiring some… insurance, I suppose you might say."

More pirates emerged from behind a particularly large boulder, dragging three female forms bound with ropes and blindfolded. Ash recognized the captives as some of the Amazons in charge of guarding the village: Kikyo, Sweet Pea, and Marguerite. Ash bared his teeth instinctively.

"Kill the bastards, Jessie!" Kikyo yelled. Apparently she'd figured out that the Pokémon Pirates had arrived, but couldn't see that Jessie wasn't there. "Don't worry about us – unleash your slaves' Pokémon and destroy these filthy pirates!"

"You've made a grave mistake," Ash told the blond pirate captain. "I would have let you take the treasure, no questions asked… but you just had to kidnap innocent people and use them as hostages. In my book, that means you're no longer entitled to any treasure… just an ass-kicking."

At his words, the Hawkins pirates advanced. For his part, Ash readied himself to reach for a Pokéball, while Pikachu tensed its tiny legs to spring.

"Please do not be hasty-" Hawkins began, but Ash wasn't about to wait any longer.

"Meowth!" he shouted.

Meowth's Screech attack had the desired effect, momentarily immobilizing the first rank of pirates, including Captain Hawkins. The pirates standing watch over the Amazons fell to their knees, clutching their ears in agony. They wouldn't be able to kill anything any time soon.

Gary and Brock were closing with Hawkins, who recovered from the effects of Screech noticeably quicker than his men. Brock's first punch hit only air, as the captain of the Hawkins Pirates ducked to the side with superhuman speed. He made no move to draw his sword, and dodged once again as Gary lunged with Doublade. Hawkins evaded the first strike, then lunged closer, actually allowing the second strike to slice across his arm.

A cry of pain rang out, but it didn't come from Hawkins. Ash gasped as he saw a deep gash open of its own accord on Kikyo's arm – precisely the same place where Gary had just wounded Hawkins! Hawkins jumped back, holding up his right arm. The gash closed before their eyes, disappearing without even a scar. Kikyo bled freely, although the brave Amazon did not scream a second time.

"I tried to warn you," Hawkins said, as grave as a schoolteacher lecturing a misbehaving child. "Any damage done to me will only harm these innocent women."

"What kind of monster are you?" Ash demanded.

Hawkins sighed. "I do not have time to lecture you on the different kinds of Devil Fruit. Perhaps you will grasp the concept if I demonstrate on a member of your crew."

Then, with only those words for warning, Hawkins transformed. He became a twenty-foot monster that bore no resemblance whatsoever to a man. In fact, he looked like a giant scarecrow, with flailing arms and malevolent red eyes.

The monster Hawkins had become brushed Brock and Gary aside with a single swipe of one long arm. He then advanced on Misty, too swiftly for Ash to think of a plan. Pikachu jumped forward, ready to assault Hawkins with electricity, but Misty stopped it with a yell."

"Don't, Pikachu! Your attacks will only kill the Amazons!"

Misty tried to dodge away, but Hawkins was not to be deterred. Strategies raced through Ash's mind, all aimed at a seemingly insurmountable problem. How was he supposed to stop Hawkins without hurting him?

He came up with a few desperate ideas, most relying on Sleep Powder, but neither Bulbasaur nor Butterfree were out of their Pokéballs.

In any case, it didn't matter anymore – Hawkins was back amongst his pirates, Misty trapped in his oversized hand. "Hold, or she dies!" Hawkins shouted, his voice coming out harsh and twisted.

That settled things. Ash motioned for Brock and Gary to stand down, ready to burst with frustration and fear.

Hawkins abruptly transformed back to his human form, though he kept an iron grip on Misty. He held her motionless without any apparent trouble, then did something very odd. With his free hand he gestured at Misty's face. Though Ash didn't think Hawkins had actually hit her, Misty screamed in agony. Something seemed to materialize out of her forehead – Ash recognized it a second later as a voodoo doll. The doll floated through the air until it reached Hawkin's arm, where it melded into the captain's flesh and disappeared. Ash would have been thoroughly spooked, if there had been any room in him for any emotion except rage.

"It is done," Hawkins declared, shoving Misty towards a trio of his subordinates. They caught her and began to bind her hands and feet with cord. "Your friend is now linked to me through my ability. If you continue this fight, or even move from where you are standing, I will stab myself through the heart. Then, as you can imagine, this lovely young woman will die."

Ash struggled to control himself. Every atom in his body yearned to destroy this man, but yielding to that impulse would only get Misty killed. "You dare," he growled, "you so much as bruise her, and I will destroy you."

The threat didn't faze Hawkins, who only raised an eyebrow. "Do not take this so personally, Captain Ketchum. It is in both our best interests to keep these four women alive and unharmed. I want the treasure that awaits me at the summit, not the enmity of a powerful pirate crew."

"Oh," Ash breathed, rigid with fury, "I think we've gone way beyond enmity."

Hawkins sighed. "I regret that. Nevertheless, my prize awaits me, and I will not be deterred. If you don't interfere, I will return your crewmate before I leave this island. Understood?"

Ash gritted his teeth. "I don't see that you leave me much choice."

"Precisely. I shall leave four of my men here, with orders to watch over you until I return. Rest easy; I doubt this task will take long."

There was nothing he could do. Misty and the Amazons were utterly at the mercy of Captain Hawkins and his strange ability. The three remaining members of the Pokémon Pirates were forced to watch, helpless, as the Hawkins Pirates disappeared up the mountain trail.