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Pokémon Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
If it's foreshadowing that his tail doesn't behave like regular fire because it's aura, I could buy it
As much as Owen is strange, this is one thing normal about him. All Charmander, and all Pokemon in general with their elemental attributes, are aura-based in how they're emitted. It's sort of touching upon that anime logic of a Ponyta's flames only hurt if they want it to, and so on. The thermal aspect of the fire only happens when they want their aura to emit it.

(The reason Owen sleeps in a Rawst bed is because he 'sleep-fights' and his tail becomes hot while dreaming.)

what tripped me up was what parts of the world *were* being revealed vs what weren't.
Right, I think I get that, and building up on it...

So like if in the third chapter of Harry Potter we got a full rundown of the Triwizard Tournament instead of walking through Diagon Alley to learn a bit about wands/potions/wizard supplies, I'd wonder why this Triwizard Tournament stuff is so important that we're getting that over the basics of the world. Or in this case, if Owen goes into a dungeon with ferals, I'd be curious about some of what he knows about those things.
It seems like during this expository portion of the story, I need to better evaluate how I reveal information relative to the reader and what Owen knows so it seems easier to follow without seeming 'out of the way.'

I do think that this explanation is better than the original one -- instead of "Hypnosis can't control minds" it could be "there's no way a psychic that powerful would waste his time on you", which would seem a lot less pointlessly nitpicky imo
I'll keep that in mind, maybe an offhand remark. It'll double as world building anyway~

I do feel strange trying write any sort of reasonable criqitue based on 0.5% of the total wordcount, so I'm glad this was helpful to your editing!
Y'know, early feedback is just as useful! The beginnings of a story are immensely important, after all. And while I imagine it'd be hell to give such detailed feedback to the entire story, chapter by chapter, I certainly appreciate when feedback is provided for the beginning chapters, the latest chapters, and any particularly egregious portions in the middle. Anything more and I wonder, "God, I hope you aren't overworking yourself over this."
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
ACT II – A Stubborn Ego

The Hall of Origin was made of pure, white, shining tile. Light shined from above, radiating off of tall ceilings. The light bounced off the walls and illuminated the floor. The passageways were so wide that an entire squad of Owens could march, wing to wing, and have room to spare. The ceilings were tall enough to even more flying far overhead. The hall led into a chamber at least four times as large. It was here that Arceus stood, staring at a great spherical projection in the air.

To the naked eye, nothing was happening. But to Arceus, he could see every event of the world through mortals’ eyes. He couldn’t focus on it all. He no longer had the power to do that—he lacked it for a very long time. Instead, he had his focus on one thing at a time. And right now, his attention was tuned to something that was not even a part of his own design…

The screen projection shifted until it was looking over Hot Spot Cave. It couldn’t go much closer. He could only see blurry images of Owen and the others conversing with one another, looking through the eyes of the Pokémon inside. But their Mystic power made maintaining a connection too difficult. The projection suddenly fizzled out, going back into a great sphere of the world by default.

“Yo, Barky.” In a flash of light, Star appeared and landed on his back. She was so small that his fur was like a field of white, tall grass. The Mew’s tail flicked with an air of innocence, but the larger deity knew all too well that she was taunting him.

Barky growled. What an irritating imp.

“Still watching Owen, are you?”

Barky stared at the sphere. The projection expanded; its outer edges faded, and a thin view of Hot Spot Cave’s interior came into focus, though Valle’s eyes. He was particularly useful for how aware he was of the caverns and how weak his aura was. His eyes were always watching—irritably, Barky imagined—at the various motions in the cave. It showed everyone—aside from Anam and Nevren—sitting in the middle of the square. They seemed to be calming Demitri and Mispy down. But the vision was quite faded. The high concentration of divine energy between all of the Guardians made it difficult to observe them. Anywhere Anam was in particular made observation next to impossible.

“His aura stabilized,” Barky said. And while Demitri and Mispy were distressed, they appeared to be in no danger of losing themselves to those old instincts. Rhys’ plan worked. It took centuries… but it worked.

“Yep. Guess I won that bet after all, huh?”

Barky snorted. “I do not gamble. That is a mortal’s vice.”

“Being wrathful is a mortal’s vice, and look where you are.”

That one stung. Barky’s left hoof scraped against the floor, leaving a hollow-sounding echo through the hall. Star, looking down at the hoof from atop his back, shook her head. He could never quite control his anger. Her tail flicked again. She tilted her head and arched her back, stretching every part of her body while lounging on top of him, even her little claws.

“What do you want?” Barky finally asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Star said in a sing-song tone. “I’m just popping by.” She twirled a lock of his fur between her tiny claws.

Barky didn’t say anything in return. He went back to watching the mutated Charizard.

Star gently tugged at the fur, pulling off a few loose strands. “It’s pretty impressive that science can create something that I couldn’t.” She looked at the blurry image of Owen and Gahi, “Look at them. Fused together into something that probably shouldn’t even exist. I mean, by my standards, at least. But, y’know, I don’t think I really mind that anymore. Owen’s nice. And Gahi, I like his attitude. The two of them together is kinda the best of both worlds.

“Between Nevren’s knowledge over genetics and Rhys’ knowledge over the aura, they managed to make the perfect fighter out of four pieces. Aside from a few flaws. But… I’m glad he’s finding himself. He didn’t deserve that fate—none of them did.”

Barky growled. “And yet, so many more have been created since then.” He turned his head so his right eye stared directly at Star. The piercing, unblinking, green-red gaze made Star shrink, just slightly. “Are you proud of that?”

Star bit her lip.

If Barky had a mouth, he’d smirk with it, but he figured his eyes would say enough. He knew she hated when he was right. Sure, Owen and his team were under their own control. Independent, even if they were still a bit subservient to authority figures like Anam or Rhys and—in Owen’s case—Amia. But the others? What of them? Would they be slaves to the remaining Hunters forever? Was that her fault? She probably wouldn’t think so. She didn’t have that kind of power, after all. The Hunters carried on after she made the mistake of trusting them. Now it was the mortals’ turn to fix it, not her.

“They’ll work it out,” Star said. “I have faith in them.”

Predictable. Barky scoffed. “Faith is for the lower creatures, not gods. We are their faith, Star. You cannot fall back on it as they do, for we are where it all ends. There is no higher authority.”

Star’s tail flicked irritably. Barky watched her tiny fist clench; she wanted to punch him in the back, but that would just show him her weakness. Go on, Star. Show it again.

Star relaxed, but her glare didn’t subside. “You say faith is something for mortals to do, but so is bickering, but we’ve been doing that for the age of the universe. So, what then, huh?”

Barky had no response. He returned to watching the sphere.

Star huffed through her nose. Her toes clenched on the fur, prodding between two vertebrae on his spine. She kicked off and leaned forward, hanging her arms over part of the golden wheel attached to his back.

“Hey, Barky,” Star said. “You know they’re eventually going to gather them all. Someone is. And none of the Promises they made can keep that from happening. You can’t wait it out. So…”

He waited, but Star didn’t continue for a while. That must have been all that had to be said. And Arceus didn’t have much to say back, either. He made his point. But he could tell that her talking with him just made her feel worse. Still, he had no idea what she was thinking; they couldn’t read each other’s minds. He’d like that, but she refused. And if she refused, then so would he.

Star cleared her throat again. “Barky…”

“Unless you plan to step down, I have nothing more to say.”

After a few seconds to stare, she floated off of him. Arceus eyed her closely; he knew her for so long that it didn’t take Owen’s Perceive to know how she was feeling. Perhaps a heavy heart, but a stubborn attitude to deflect any guilt away from her. Maybe she wanted it to all be over. And, really, he wanted it to be the same. If only she listened to what he had to say. Was she thinking the same thing toward him? No, of course she was. Because she was a fixer. She had to help. And apparently she knew how it had to be done.

Arceus stared at those determined eyes of Mew. Fists clenched again, she spoke, “Once I have them all… you’re done.”

She disappeared as quickly as she came.

There was no wind in the Hall of Origin. Complete silence accompanied the tension Star left behind. The Creator broke it with a gentle tap on the ground. It echoed, on and on. Arceus wondered if he spoke too harshly toward her. Because she was right. He did get angry. But Star was no better. Star was too immature for that sort of power. She mingled with the spirits of mortals as if they were at her level. They simply weren’t. Yet now, she behaved like one. And then, in the end, it always got her hurt.

“How did it come to this…?”

But he didn’t like the answer.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 40 – Regrets and Reconciliation

Gawen watched silently as Demitri and Mispy recalled their past, or at least a small portion of it. They remembered bits and pieces of their first lives. Perhaps not all of it, but enough to understand exactly what had happened to them, and why they had been reset. Minds scrambled and left to insanity, spending centuries being slowly repaired by Rhys. At some point, Rhys must have spirited them away so they wouldn’t have to fuse ever again.

The Flygon-Charizard fusion glanced at the Lucario in question. He was standing as he always had, stoic and silent, but the tension in his body spoke volumes. Compared to Owen alone, Gawen couldn’t sense the extreme details, but it was enough. It was as if the guilt of a hundred lifetimes had concentrated itself into a thick, bitter bile in the pit of Rhys’ stomach.

“It hurt so much,” Demitri said in a shaky whisper. The Haxorus wrapped his arms around himself, shuddering. “My head was all over the place, and… a-and I didn’t know what was going on, and… and I was just… I just had to move… I had to… I don’t know what I had to do. I just had to… get it all out. F-fight…”

Mispy, next to him, wrapped her many, many vines protectively around her mate, pulling him close. Demitri flinched away—Gawen was certain it was because he was afraid of fusing with her, but she refused to let go. If anything, she held on tighter, pressing her head against his.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“Oh—M-Mispy…” Demitri shuddered again, giving in. He fell toward her, squeezing five of her vines close. The remainder wrapped around him until he was pressed against her main body. She craned her neck, brushing her cheek just above his axes. Even if she couldn’t feel pain, she knew that it upset him if she accidentally cut herself on his axes. The muscle memory of how to hug him despite the axes returned to her immediately.

Demitri sniffled, relaxing when he was finally enveloped. He remembered her scent. It was always strongly of plant life like this, like grass sliced by his axes. He always liked the smell of cut grass. Now he knew why. Demitri deflated against the monstrous Meganium, still sniffling, but feeling relaxed.

Rhys and Manny both subconsciously rubbed at their aura sensors. The former glanced at Gawen, briefly meeting eyes.

“I think we should all retire for the day,” Amia said delicately. “Hopefully by tomorrow, or the day after, Star will have some Orb locations for us to look for. Not too many are left, right?”

“We know where a few are,” Rhys said, “but I doubt any of them would be productive. Eon is going to send someone to the Frozen Oceanside soon, though. Likely Rim. We should be ready for that.”

“Do you think if we ask Hecto, he’ll tell us when Eon starts making another move?” Gawen suddenly spoke up. “I mean, by now he’s probably trying to keep an eye on him, right?”

“No can do there.”

Gawen glanced around, spotting Star’s faded form hovering just behind Manny.

“Thanks, bud,” Star said.

“Heh, no problem.”

Star addressed the group. “Hecto still hangs around Eon to keep an eye on him, but Eon sorta keeps a lot of things from him. There’s no way he’ll find out if Rim’s gone. I mean, she could probably just be heading out to get supplies for the army, you know?”

Gawen gulped. “R-right. Well, Hecto can at least check if something’s going on in Frozen Oceanside, right? And Star, d’you know any other spots?”

“I thought I knew where the Bug Guardian was, but she must’ve moved again. And she’s not talking to me, so I have to go scout around the spirit world again. I’ll let you guys know if I find something. I also want to get a better read on where the Ice Guardian is in Frozen Oceanside. That place is huge. You’ll freeze before you find her if I can’t get a good read, so sit tight, alright? That’s probably one reason why Eon didn’t go there right away.”

Gawen nodded, looking at the others. “I guess that’s the plan. Thanks, Star.”

“Gonna head off. Thanks, guys!” Star disappeared into Manny.

Amia tilted her head at Manny. “Now, why does she always pick you to get summoned?”

Manny shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe she feels safer since she’s got a Type advantage. I know she hates goin’ through Anam. Fits the pattern. Besides, I dunno. I don’t mind. It’s kinda cute. Don’cha just wanna scratch under her chin?”

Zena stared. “…No.”

“Bahh,” Manny waved a paw at them. “I’m gonna go train. Gotta try summoning Yen again. Figure if I can half-summon Star, ain’t too hard ter make’m solid.”

Demitri was composed enough to nod at Mispy. “I think we’re going to take a… nap.”

Rhys made a motion to go after them, but Mispy was already sliding off to their room, carrying Demitri with him. Something held him back, feet planted firmly in the ground. Others in the group dispersed as usual, and Rhys, looking lost, turned and walked to the training grounds.

“Hmm…” Gawen saw that while everyone was dispersing, nobody quite paid attention to Rhys, perhaps because the Lucario was very good at leaving without being followed. He always was quiet. But something was bothering him. The Owen half was screaming to follow after, and that was enough to convince the Gahi half to take reluctant steps along.

Watching Gawen from behind, Zena opened her mouth to speak—but Gawen was already too focused on Rhys to acknowledge much else. She winced.

Amia placed a hand on Zena’s neck. “Don’t worry, dear. Owen is still trying to remember things—and don’t forget, that’s Gahi in there, too.”

“He didn’t remember me, Amia.” Zena looked at her. “I thought he was supposed to get all his memories back. But I didn’t see a single… a single flash of recognition on his face. I was just another Guardian. What if—”

“Zena, Zena, dear,” Amia said delicately, placing her other hand on her ribbon.

Alex stood on Zena’s other side shaking his head. “You can’t force this. Owen’s mind is in a delicate state right now, and memories are probably going to be coming to him in flashes for a while. Maybe a few days, or moons, or… well…” He bumped his cannons together. He wiggled his arms against one another, almost like a hand puppet, like his hands were two heads debating an idea. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this.”

“We’ll help you, dear.” Amia took her hands off of Zena to clasp them in front of the fin on her chest. “We’ve had to raise Owen for so long. We know he’ll remember you eventually. We just have to jog the memories out of him.”

Zena could only watch Owen, fused with Gahi, walk away. “Of course.”

<><><>​

“Rhys?” Gawen called.

Rhys jumped. “Oh—Gahi—er, Owen, er…”

“I think Willow picked Gawen,” the fusion said, flashing a resigned smile.

They didn’t quite make it to the training grounds. The cave was still tall and wide, making Gawen’s voice echo. Rhys slowly turned around, though he was looking at Gawen’s chest rather than his face. Eventually, those eyes trailed to the wall instead, trying to look casual.

It only occurred to Gawen then just how small Rhys was, now. He was at least a head or two shorter than him, fully evolved. After half of him spending almost all of his life as a Trapinch or Vibrava, actually looking down at him was a surreal feeling.

It also occurred to Gawen that they had been standing in silence for a while.

“I, er,” Owen’s half fumbled.

And then more silence flooded in.

Rhys shifted his weight to his left foot. “Well, if you were looking to train with me, I’m still a bit tired from donating my aura matter to Demitri and Mispy.”

“Right, yeah. Ain’t a problem,” Gahi’s half said.

The following silence didn’t last as long, broken again by Rhys. “How have you been feeling? Are you… acclimating to being fused together? Is that how you prefer things?”

“I mean—either way is fine. I guess we just never bothered breaking up yet,” Gawen said. “And, actually, er… I think right now, I want to be two-in-one for this.”

“For… this?”

This time, Gawen shifted his weight, almost mirroring Rhys’ posture. It was impossible to ignore Owen’s dulled Perceive like this, with just one Lucario and everything else motionless enough to satisfy Valle.

Gawen crossed his arms, and then crossed his wings over them. “I felt how you were when Demitri was breaking down.”

“Ah.”

His neutral tone was characteristic as ever, but his body had tensed considerably.

“Sorry, but you know I can tell.”

“Of course. I cannot blame you.”

“I just wanted to say that… even if it’s hard on them, I’m still happy that we can finally remember who we are. It… it hurt a lot. Back then, and remembering it now. But we had to. Because before, it was like… living in a fog. It still is, but… for the first time, it feels like that fog is clearing up. Like my head can breathe again. Like I can actually see, even if it’s still blurry, and there’s still so much left to clear up, and…” Gawen rolled his eyes. “Ugh. You get it. I’m sick of Owen’s side explaining it. He’s too wordy.”

Rhys allowed a smile to escape him. “Well, that, too, is something I can’t blame him for. He always was the one to read the most.”

“Yeah.” Gawen grinned, unfolding his wings, then his arms. “Anyway, the real reason I wanted to come here is just, I’m sorry for how guilty you feel for all this. I dunno how hard it must’ve been to raise me—er, to raise Gahi and the others, like that.”

“You’re sorry? I’m the one who should be sorry for putting you through it all.” Rhys looked away, paws clenched. “I shouldn’t have allowed it to happen in the first place. All the ceaseless suffering… and for what? For—”

“Rhys.” Gawen thumped his tail on the ground, startling the Lucario enough to break his posture. The thud echoed for several seconds, and in a way, it didn’t seem to stop. “Enough.”

Rhys raised his arms in some kind of protest against an invisible force, but then lowered them, along with his head.

“Enough of that already.”

Rhys nodded. “Of course.”

“We’re moving forward, got it?”

“Of course.” His voice was even smaller.

Behind the red lenses, Gawen’s eyes softened. “There’s one last thing I wanted to say.”

Rhys listened without a word.

“The Gahi side of me never wanted to say it, but the Owen side ain’t giving me a choice. I figure it’s a good idea to get it out there.” He looked down, trying to make eye contact, but all Rhys was interested in were the glowing mushrooms in the corner of the cave that gave the hall its light.

“For all the time you spend raising Gahi, and Demitri, and Mispy, and for all the trouble you went through just to fix us… when it could’ve been easier to just leave us, or to just let us keep being weapons, or to control us, or… anything. For taking the hard route to make us better… I just wanted to say thank you. And… that I love ya, Pops.”

Far in the distance, like a faint echo, Willow screeched at Enet about playing unfairly, and that she was going to shrink her and stomp her into the ground. Then, the panicked voice of ADAM drowned them both out, followed by blaring an alarm signal. That, too, was so faint that it quickly faded into nothing.

Rhys brought his paw to his mouth to hide his smile, but a chuckle betrayed him. He looked at Gawen directly for the first time, the Lucario’s expression brimming with a strange light. His paw migrated to his eyes next, tilting his head back. The little chuckles got a bit louder, accented by sniffles.

“Pops,” he repeated. “Oh, such an informal nickname, Gahi. And you’ll never call me that as yourself, will you?” He laughed again, his mouth some strange combination of a smile and frown. “Oh! Pops…”

Gawen stepped a bit closer, bringing a hand on his shoulder. Rhys couldn’t see, but he felt it. His body immediately leaned forward, though his free arm didn’t move just yet. Gawen wrapped his wings around the small Lucario, pulling him closer. He had to lean a bit awkwardly to get at a good level with him, but that was okay.

Rhys’ laughing eventually died down, replaced by quiet, undignified sniffles. Gawen took care to avoid the spike on his chest, but otherwise kept the Lucario in a full, warm embrace. His undercoat was so matted. He smelled vaguely of Pecha Berries that had long since gone bad, but it was only noticeable when he was right next to him. Little imperfections.

Rhys finally composed himself enough to speak, still holding Gawen close. “That’s all I ever… that’s all I ever wanted to hear. Oh, Gahi…”

Gawen slowly let Rhys go. He resisted at first, so he stayed that way a while longer. The sobbing Lucario eventually relented, releasing the mutant fusion to stand properly. He stretched, cracking his back once.

Rhys made one last sniff, wiping his nose with the side of his paw. “In any case,” he said, accompanied by a sigh. “I did intend to meditate. I may spar with Manny again if he is not too busy with summoning his mate.”

“…Wait. Mate? Yen?”

“Apparently so, from chats I’ve had with him,” Rhys said.

“…You guys chat?”

“Why wouldn’t we?”

“You guys are, like, complete opposites.”

“Two sides of the same coin, hm? There is a lot to empathize between two Lucario.”

Gawen still seemed unconvinced, but he nodded anyway.

“Would you care to join us? Perhaps we can spar or train as well.”

At that moment, the two halves had completely different answers. Gahi wanted to lean forward to speak, while Owen wanted to look back. The result was a Flygon’s head moving forward, while a Charizard’s head pulled back, the original head splitting in a clay-like two before solidifying to normal.

“Hah, you bet I wanna—”

“Well, actually, I think I’m—”

The disorientation of two heads trying to control the same body made the partial-fusion fall over, caught only because Rhys was quick enough to break the fall from below.

“W-wait! Stuck! Can’t—Gahi, quit moving the tail!”

“Stop movin’ my arm!”

“F-focus! Just focus!!” Rhys said from below, holding them up. “Perhaps it’s time you separated, yes?”

“Okay, okay. Just give me a second. We did it before.” Owen tried to turn his head, but his neck muscles weren’t quite cooperating. “Gahi? A little help?”

“Hang on, hang on,” Gahi muttered. He planted his feet on the ground. “Rhys, grab Owen’s arm. Owen, wiggle yer arm. Yeah, that one. Got it? Okay, now pull… little more…”

With a tug and some focus, they separated out into two halves. Owen stood up, making sure that his flame was singular and his scales were orange. Gahi made sure his tail wasn’t on fire and his body was sleek. “Finally, yer outta my headspace,” Gahi snorted.

Owen grunted, holding back his own words. Instead, he nodded at Rhys. “Um—thanks, again. I’m gonna head back and… read something. I need to relax. A fight sounds nice, but… I don’t know. I don’t think it’s healthy.”

“I understand,” Rhys said.

“I don’t.” Gahi snorted. “See ya, nerd!” In a green blur, he flew deeper into the caves.

Rhys watched, then followed, a noticeable spring in his step. It didn’t take Owen’s Perception to see it. The Charizard smiled at the thought, returning to the rest of Hot Spot. It wasn’t a very long walk, and in no time, he spotted his home, the gentle glow of Alex’s shoulders illuminating the inside of the home a bit more than the rest of the mushroom-lit caverns.

“I’m home,” Owen called, tapping his claws on the doorway. “Everything alright?”

“Owen! You didn’t go training with Rhys? And what about Gahi?”

“That’s who went training.” Owen laughed, heading to his room. He plopped onto his bed belly-first, tail raised in the air while he rummaged through a little alcove near the back of his room, searching for a good book to read. Something light. Academics were nice, but he wanted something a little more on the entertaining side.

Maybe The Steel Chemist—he couldn’t remember a few of the volumes, so it would be worth reading again. Or maybe he could reread Perish Book? That sounded better. He grabbed the comic and placed it delicately at the edge of his bed, but then another thought crossed his mind. He couldn’t read without getting it taken care of first.

Owen sighed, sliding the book away. He quietly stepped out to see Amia preparing dinner with Alex. Small portions, since they didn’t really have to eat; it was mostly for Owen. “Hey, Mom? Dad?”

“Yes, dear?” Amia asked.

“I just wanted to say, um, since I don’t think I said it before… I mean, er…” Without Gahi, somehow the words were a lot more difficult to come by. Let alone being able to say it. “I…”

Amia and Alex both turned fully this time, the Magmortar of the pair hesitantly approaching. “Are you feeling okay? What did you want to say? Does it have to do with… your memories?”

Gahi was always someone to take action. To step forward without really thinking about it. It was stupid and reckless. But sometimes, was it the right thing to do? Was he overthinking this?

Amia stepped forward next. “Owen, if—”

Owen brought his arms and wings out, grabbing them both. He pulled them in, wrapping around them, and closed his eyes. Alex suppressed a yelp in surprise, while Amia let out a quiet “Oh!”

“Thank you,” Owen said.

Amia and Alex looked at one another over Owen’s shoulders. They both smiled, returning Owen’s gesture as well as they could. Alex leaned in, gently tapping his left cannon on Owen’s back.

Far away, watching through the simple window into their kitchen, was a Milotic. And while there was a pang of envy and longing at the sight of Owen having such a close moment with two others… Zena still smiled and retired to her home.

<><><>​

The rest of the day passed with little happening. Hecto indeed kept an eye out for any possible movements from Rim, but nothing suggested that she had headed to the Frozen Oceanside, or anywhere else, all through the night. Still, that didn’t keep some in Hot Spot from getting antsy while they waited for Star to talk about any leads on where they could be.

“Can’t we just go to the places we know about?” Owen had said.

But the reply was simple. They were too exhausted from the fight against their berserk fused form to do much of anything for the day. Instead, they spend the night recovering, and felt refreshed by morning.

And to their fortune, Star had returned with news, summoned once again by Manny. “Gather everyone up! I’ve got three places we can look!”

Gahi and Owen had been in the middle of practicing their fusion technique again. They were getting better at the transition, though separating still took a lot longer than fusing. Demitri and Mispy were a bit more hesitant, more content with spending the day sparring with one another.

“Oh, hey, you’re fused together again,” Star said. “Feeling alright? Who’s active right now?”

“Uh… both?” Gawen said. “I guess we sort of just shift around when we need to, but right now I’m feeling pretty fifty-fifty.”

“At least he took on Owen’s vocabulary,” Demitri mumbled to Mispy.

“I heard that,” Gawen said. “Don’t think Gahi isn’t still around, y’know.”

“Kept Gahi’s attitude,” Mispy giggled.

Gawen grumbled, shaking his head. “That reminds me, Star,” he said, noticing that the others had yet to fully gather, “in our memories… you were solid. How come? I thought you were dead even before all this happened.”

“Oh, I was… I was actually there,” Star said. “I’m… not allowed to do that anymore.”

“Wait… you mean…” Demitri said. “You mean that’s why you never, um, physically visit this world anymore? Because Arceus doesn’t let you?”

“We don’t let each other,” Star said. “Barky came down after I split you four up, and… and he wasn’t very happy. So, we sealed each other off, trapped in the spirit realm until we both agree that we can both descend without a summoning. So… basically neither of us can come down at full strength anymore.”

“Wow…” Demitri said. “So, you guys are… in a standoff, kinda?”

“Pretty much,” Star said. “Isn’t really any other way to phrase it than just a divine deadlock between the two of us…. Which, by the way, is probably why he’s so obsessed with this Orb business. If enough Orbs get into either of our hands, well—we’ll overpower one another, and who knows after that. Whoever gets all the Orbs will tip the scales.”

Gawen nodded. “…But… I’m not aligned with you, Star. Or Ba—or Arceus. Why would you want me to have an Orb? After all, you were the one who….”

“I guess,” Star said, “I… think you’d know to make the right choice, in the end.”

“That’s not part of my design, is it?” Gawen said.

“No, no, nothing like that,” Star said. “Just, once you guys all get together—”

“We’re going to just put an end to what’s happening and live peacefully,” Gawen said firmly. “No pooling the power together. We’re stopping Eon, and then we can be done.” Gawen frowned. “When can we do that, anyway?”

“Once we have everyone we can have,” Star said. “This is gonna be the last of it. Barky’s Trinity isn’t gonna help, but I want to at least give one more shot to the second person there. The Dragon Guardian’s a no-go, but the Poison Guardian is… maybe there’s a chance? I say we try. Don’t worry—I’ll go over that when everyone else gets here.”

It didn’t take long for everyone to be gathered, but Star’s instructions were quick. She sighed, sitting on top of Gawen’s head. “Alright, here’s the deal. We’ve got the last three Guardians that we want to check out, and hopefully these can go without a hitch. Bug, Poison, and Ice. The last one is Dragon, and we ain’t gonna touch that one yet.”

“Why not?” Gawen crossed his arms, incredulous.

“You wanna die?”

Gawen frowned, tri-flame tail flicking. “Y’know, if this Dragon Guardian is so strong, how come Barky doesn’t just send that one to Eon and be done with it?”

“Ask Barky that one,” Star said. “Maybe we can have a talk with her after Eon. I’d rather take on a known evil than her. Alright?”

“I bet the Dragon Guardian is just cool and you don’t like that.” Gawen growled.

“I can’t… tell if that was Owen or Gahi,” Star said. She looked at the others, but they seemed equally unsure. The Mew rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Let’s keep going. So, here’s the thing. Poison Guardian, I have a team set up for that. I know how she is, and I think it’d be a good idea if the most agreeable personalities went there. So… just from my guess, that’s gonna be Owen, Enet, and Amia. Oh, and, uh, I guess Gahi, since… you know.”

“You sure Gahi won’t be a bad influence?” Amia said.

This earned an offended look from Gahi’s half, nearly splitting their heads apart; he slammed his hands on either side of his skull, as if that helped to physically keep them in place. “Not funny,” Gawen muttered.

“Perhaps I should go instead.” Rhys raised a paw. “As a Steel Type, I would—”

“No, no,” Star said. “Bad idea. You four are fine,” Star said, “And, Rhys, I think you should go to the Bug Guardian instead. You will be more useful for that. Manny, maybe… you, too. Demitri, Mispy, I think it’d be a good idea for you to go with.”

Amia frowned. “Well, Anam could still go to the Poison place, right?”

Gawen, exasperated, said, “How come yer so against me?!”

“Gahi will be fine,” Star said. “And about Anam, I know I said that, but…” Star looked up. “Where is he? He’s still at Kilo Village, and I dunno if he’ll be back for a while. I thought it’d be a quick little trip, but something must be keeping him. Is Nevren answering any of you?”

“No, not yet,” Amia said. “Should we try contacting him again? Perhaps they’re caught up in paperwork again.”

“Yeah, try that,” Star said. “I’d go try talking to Anam again, but those Ghosts play pranks too much in their realm… It’s hard enough to go through them, but they’ve been pretty antsy lately. Anam was just about to summon them against you, Gawen, but once he held back, well, they’re still pretty angry about it. If I go now, I might have a problem leaving.” She shuddered. “Something about that place… doesn’t sit right with me.”

“Must be your Type,” Manny said in a half-joke.

But to Gawen, it still didn’t settle right anyway. Anam was their strongest Guardian—shouldn’t he be accompanying them? “Hmm, well, we should probably keep Anam in mind once we’re done with these Orbs. While that happens, we can check out the Poison Orb.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Star said. “Rhys, how about you go to the forest with Demitri and Mispy?”

“Eh, I’ll tag along, too,” Manny said.

“Okay, that works. Another team of four. Zena, you think you can handle the ice?”

“Oh, er…” Zena glanced at Gawen, then at Amia, who gave her a small, apologetic smile. She sighed, looking back at Star. “Very well. If it’s necessary.”

“I wanna go too!” Willow said. “I said that last time!”

“I shall go as well,” said ADAM. “I feel that a team of three is adequate for that location. Valle will accompany me; four will be a redundant and secure amount.”

The Shiftry statue was unmoving as always, but finally spoke up. “I did not agree to this.”

“You will accompany me.” ADAM turned his head, and only his head, to the Shiftry statue.

The cave rumbled quietly. “Very well.”

“Okay, okay,” Star sighed. “You two Luvdisc can go. Someone leave a note for Anam to see when he gets back so he doesn’t freak out that everyone left, alright? You know how panicked he gets if he feels alone.”

“I’ll get to that,” Amia said.

“Okay, team. Let’s break! Don’t forget your communicators!”

<><><>​

“You know, Owen,” Amia commented, “you’re very obsessive about everybody’s inventories. I think you were starting to rub people the wrong way.”

The forest was an odd, hazy purple color. The trees were dark, and the leaves were a sickly violet. The ground felt cold and sticky, despite nothing actually sticking to their feet. The Dungeon itself was not a labyrinth like the normal variety they were used to; instead, it seemed to be by the Poison Guardian’s personal design, a simple, flat, and open field of trees.

As they passed by, a hazy Pidgey watched them from above, flying away when they got too close.

“But—but you saw how they were preparing it! They had clear holes in their inventory.” Gawen, with Owen as the dominant mind, pleaded his case. “Willow didn’t even pack Oran Berries! Who goes on a mission without Oran Berries? Even if you’re Mystic, you can’t go unprepared. A single Oran Berry can mean the difference between life and death, you know. It’d be even better if you brought two. Or three.”

Enet nodded. “They taste good. And things that taste good are good.”

Amia rubbed her head. “Well, that’s true, but did you really have to sort through their items one by one?”

“Well, I found that empty Elixir bottle in Demitri’s bag, didn’t I?” Owen said. “I knew something didn’t feel right. What if he ran out of power for Dual Chop, tried to restore his aura, and got nothing but an empty bottle? They’d be done for!”

“O-okay, Owen, you made your point,” Amia said.

“And Rhys! I can’t believe him! I thought he’d be better about it, but he didn’t even bring a Petrify Orb with him. It’s not as if he has crowd-control techniques, either. Just because he has super cool aura powers doesn’t mean he might get hit from behind. One ambush and—okay, okay, she said she gets th’ point already! I’m takin’ over, yer actin’ up!”

Amia sighed. “Thank you, Gahi. I think Owen was getting more worked up than he needed to.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Gahi snorted. “I was considering de-fusin’, but af’er that, I’m gonna let’m simmer down.”

“He talks a lot,” Enet said. “Big words.”

“Feh, worse ‘n Rhys,” Gahi said.

Enet nodded. Uneasy, the Zoroark took in their surroundings. They had been going through a forest, and the last river they passed was quite clear. But now it was starting to smell a bit different, and while she at first thought they had passed by a river, it was actually a thick stream of bright, purple sludge, the consistency of flowing mud.

Something dripped from a branch above them. Amia reflexively touched her shoulder and shrieked. “Oh—GROSS!”

“Wh-what?!” Enet’s fur puffed up, making her look twice her size.

Amia flicked her hand against a tree trunk; purple goo spattered against the wood. “Poison Guardian indeed—oh, where’s my Pecha Scarf, I’m just going to mmmnfff…” Amia tied the scarf around her face.

“Stinky,” Enet complained, grabbing her own scarf.

“Good thing I prepared for this…” Owen said, taking over the body. He grabbed a scarf and wrapped one around himself. There was a spare in the bag in case they decided to separate.

They weren’t even sure where the goo came from—inspecting the trees above revealed nothing. But they were certain that the Poison Orb was here. They felt the Mystic aura getting stronger, corresponding directly to the prevalent, purple fog that polluted the atmosphere. But Owen sensed another presence nearby that didn’t get stronger nor weaker. Were they being followed? It felt… vaguely familiar. It was recent, compared to his long, long life—but it still felt distant. Probably a reset before his current memories, or two, or maybe three. Someone he met in a previous ‘life,’ in a set of scattered memories.

“Is that…?” Owen mumbled.

“Is what, dear?” Amia asked.

“I think someone’s following us.”

“Oh? W-well—we wouldn’t want to frighten them. Maybe you should separate.”

“Frighten?” Owen asked. “What, I’m scary er somethin’?” Gahi asked.

“…You… are very kindhearted,” Amia said delicately. “You don’t seem very scary since we know you.”

Owen’s wings drooped. “So, I look kinda…?”

“Big and strong and scary.” Enet nodded.

“Oh, Owen, it’s not your fault!” Amia said. “Or you, Gahi, it’s just—how the dragon Pokémon tend to look, usually! It’s just how you are, but it has nothing to do with—”

“Okay, okay.” Owen sighed. Despite it, he smiled. “I’ll de-fuse. I think I still sense—whoever it is…. I swear I know who it is, but…”

After a bit of focus, Gahi stepped forward from the malleable body of the fusion; Owen closed up behind Gahi, rubbing his chest to make sure everything was where it should have been. He didn’t feel as empty. Maybe he was having an easier time fusing and parting, both mentally and physically, now that they were more in sync—or perhaps because he was starting to get sick of sharing a mind with Gahi.

“What d’ya see?” Gahi asked.

“I see…” Owen closed his eyes. “…It’s an… it’s someone sneaking around, I know that. And he’s been following us for a little while… W-wait! Hey!” Owen shouted, pointing at a nearby bush. “It’s—it’s Aerodactyl!”

“Eh? Wait, yeh talking about the one from way back then, ehh… that was the life befer this one, right?”

“Y-yeah. Yeah, I was a Charmander, but it was before the last time our memories got reset. H-hey! Aerodactyl! I thought you were serving time!?”

At first, there was no reply. But then, a moment later, he emerged, smirking. “Well, look at you,” he said. “All evolved in such a short time. Guess you were a late bloomer after all… eh?” He snorted. “…I escaped. Turns out it’s pretty easy to just fly away if you find the right opportunity.”

“B-but… but you could’ve gotten a job! And everything!” Owen opened his wings and arms completely, as if protesting reality. “Wouldn’t that be better?”

“Ugh, what sort of bleeding heart are you?” Aerodactyl said. “Look, Charizard, I dunno what your deal is, but that boring kind of life isn’t for everyone. I’m a Pokémon—and I can live off the land as I please!”

“Um, Owen, who is this?” Amia asked.

“Smells mean,” Enet said, growling.

“He’s that outlaw, remember? The one I got on one of my last missions before all this Orb stuff happened. He must’ve escaped and hid here where nobody could get him….”

“Yeah, well,” Aerodactyl hesitated, “That’s exactly it. Problem is, this place isn’t exactly the best place to hide, either. Can’t get too close to the center without feeling sick. Nobody comes here. No food to steal. And all the fruit tastes… tainted.” He looked off. “But it’s still better than how I was living after you caught me.”

Owen held his chest in a similar way that Amia does, with his right arm against his heart. “B-but I was trying to help! You can’t live this dangerous life! There aren’t enough… resources to keep living that way!” Owen looked Aerodactyl over, realizing that he seemed skinnier than an Aerodactyl should be. He could see his ribs pressing against his skin, and his legs looked like they were barely able to hold him up.

“Pah! It’s better than struggling just to make ends meet. You have it easy. You’re strong, and part of the Thousand Hearts. Did you ever wonder why so many people want to get into such a dangerous business? Or why there are only really a thousand of you at any one time?”

“B-because of standards? Right? And because it’s for people to help everyone! What else would you put yourself at risk for? And—and you could take a job that isn’t rescuing, too! You could help clean the buildings, or gather food, or—”

Aerodactyl snarled, cutting Owen off. “I can’t live off of that without living my whole life doing it. Look at you, all pampered and groomed to be a Heart. And don’t think I don’t know your story.” He pointed at Amia. “You used to be a Heart, too! Now I don’t know why you’re still alive after all this time, but you guys are part of a long line of Hearts. The elite class! And then there’s us, at the bottom. As if we ever had a choice.”

Amia flinched. “I—I’m not who you think I am,” she said. “Gardevoir simply don’t live that long.”

“I’d bet you come from that line, though. Am I right? Of the Fire Clan? My family line was at the bottom ever since our little feud with yours. That’s how the story goes, and it seems pretty obvious, even now, that it’s true!”

“Fire Clan?” Owen said. He had no idea what that was. He deduced that this was how the Fire Orb was presented to the general public, and based on how Amia had suddenly flinched and closed in on herself—even if it was slight—perhaps Aerodactyl was saying the truth after all…

Aerodactyl snorted again. “I’m in a bad mood. I haven’t had a good meal in days. But you know what really fuels me? It’s seeing folks like you who don’t know how the world really is. It’s time to even the playing field!” He got into a battle stance, wings forward and jaws clenched. “Give me all you have, and I’ll let you go. Otherwise… You’ll die, right here!”

Enet hissed, fur on end.

“Honestly…” Owen rubbed the back of his head, playing with his left horn with the tip of his claw. “Aerodactyl, c-can’t we talk? It sounds like we have like three layers of issues to go over here! Maybe we can—”

“I’ll talk if you hand over everything you have.”

“That’s not right, either, y’know!” Owen said.

Gahi beat his wings, kicking up a small cloud of hazy dirt. “Bah, ferget this guy! Let’s beat ‘im up!”

“Gahi, we can’t—this isn’t a normal Dungeon. If we defeat him here, he might not get sent back—and we don’t even know if he’d be able to survive an ejection anyway. Look at him!”

“What, scared?” Aerodactyl said, maintaining his stance, but it didn’t take Perception to see his trembling form. He was fueled by pride alone.

“Ngh… then we’ll beat ‘im up gently,” Gahi muttered.

Owen considered their options. What Gahi proposed, at this point, was probably the best thing they could do. “Enet, stay back,” he said. “I don’t think you can attack softly, and I don’t want to hurt him.”

“Attack… softly?” Enet asked. “Like playing?”

“Not… not really. We’ll handle this one, okay?”

“Hmph…” Enet didn’t fight it. She took a few steps back; her foot landed in more of that purple slime. She winced and kicked away; it stuck between her paws. She sat on a nearby rock, picking away at the goop with her claws.

Owen stepped forward.

“Oh, really?” Aerodactyl said. “Hah! Charizard wants to fight?”

“Yeah,” Owen said.

“I’m a lot stronger than before, you know,” Aerodactyl said. “Don’t think this’ll be some easy repeat compared to last time!” He slashed at the air, making a small shockwave that nearly knocked him off balance.

“That’s cool,” Owen said uncertainly. It was a strong hit, but he had nearly fallen over from pushing too hard just with that. “I guess that training helped you out, huh? You know, with all that work, you might’ve even made it into the Hearts…”

For some reason, this made Aerodactyl’s face screw up into some strange mixture of anger and desperation. He opened wide and chucked a Rock Blast straight toward Owen. The Charizard ducked—the blast hit Gahi, standing behind him, instead.

The three consecutive blasts broke open against the Flygon’s head. “Ow,” he muttered, rubbing the small wound.

Owen started to walk forward; his lithe frame, for a Charizard, allowed for easier movements, even up close to his opponent. Aerodactyl took a nervous step back. “S-stop dodging!” He took another step. “How d’you know where all my attacks go?” But then he smirked. “Heh… got you!”

Nothing happened.

“E-eh?!” he said. “But—but the—” He looked down. Owen’s legs had a small tint of green; vines had covered the pitfall he had set. “Where’d those come from?! Y-you—got lucky!” Aerodactyl tripped on another vine and fell backward. His wings beat frantically to stand up, but by then, Owen was right in front. In a panic, Aerodactyl lunged forward. His teeth sank into Owen’s arm—powerful jaws that could split logs in half, normally. And yet… when Aerodactyl crunched down, nothing broke. No blood spilled; not a scale got dented. Owen’s body simply resisted the attack—bending against the teeth, yet not breaking. The aura behind his strike was gone.

“Aerodactyl… A lot’s changed. I’m not that weak Charmander anymore. And you’re… starving. This just… isn’t worth my time. Please, just go. If you go back… I’ll tell Anam to go easy. You can get a second chance, okay? I’ll… I know. I’ll buy you something to eat, too. You… you feel so hungry. I know that sounds weird, but…”

All the while, he gnawed as hard as he could against Owen, but it was as if he was immortal. Even with his strength, even if he was a little weak because of the miasma he’d been living in for so long, how could he be doing almost no damage against this Charizard? Owen felt his disbelief, and he saw the subtle blotches of poison that spread beneath his skin.

Aerodactyl let go and fired toward Owen, point blank, with a Rock Blast. Owen felt this one—he winced, but he still took the blow. A small blemish on his scales was left behind when the five consecutive blasts connected.

“Y-you’re crazy! Y-you’re some kind of—some kind of—freak!”

“W-well, I mean…” Owen, caught off guard, glanced away for only a second. That was all Aerodactyl needed. He jumped away with a single wingbeat, panting.

“This… this isn’t over!” Aerodactyl searched for a way out; this deep, the forest looked the same in all directions.

“Hey, you ain’t gonna get away! I’m faster’n you’ll ever be!” Gahi threatened, taking a single, quick step forward. His foot landed right in a large puddle of purple sludge. “Aw, c’mon!” he shouted, stepping away. He glanced at Owen. The Charizard had it covered. Disgruntled, he sat next to Enet and picked at his foot with her.

Owen turned his attention back to the escaped outlaw. “Please. Just… think about it, okay?” Owen said. “I know where you’ll be.”

“It’s… it’s not worth it!” He shook his head, swinging his wing sideways at the air. “Just—leave me alone! And I’ll figure out my life on my own! I don’t need you to tell me how to live, you—you pampered little—”

Another glob of slime fell from the tree, landing on Aerodactyl’s right wing. “Ngh—I hate this forest!” he shouted. “What is all this?! If you go even deeper into this place, what happens?! Purple goo falls from the trees! Disgusting!” He pointed toward Owen; it seemed like the purple goo was getting larger, sinking into his wing. “I hate all of this! I hate you! I hate this life! I…! I…!”

A long silence filled the air just then, like Aerodactyl couldn’t find the words. He shook his head, locking eyes with Owen. The Charizard almost flinched—there was a strange… emptiness in them, like the desperate eyes of a hungry feral.

Those eyes glistened with tears at the very edges. “It’s just—not—fair!”

Enet looked up for just a second. Her eyes bulged. “Wing!”

Owen focused on the wing of Aerodactyl and saw the membrane… melt away—turned into more of that poisoned goo. Aerodactyl didn’t even notice it, not until Enet said so. He bent the stump of his wing back. “Wh-wh… what—”

It advanced; the goo that dripped from his wing landed on his leg, which melted next. He screamed; it didn’t look painful, but the Rock-Flying Pokémon was panicking. He flailed, and that caused more goo to spatter on different parts of his body. Aerodactyl only had one leg to stand on; he tried to hop away. “S-stop… make it stop…!”

“A-Aero—it’s okay!” Owen scrambled toward him, digging through his bag as if that would help.

“N-no! You get away from me!” he said, swinging his other wing. The melting was advancing rapidly—he couldn’t move with his legs anymore. Even his tail had dissolved; his upper half remained, just his one wing and head. He dragged what remained of his body across the ground to keep running.

“Stop!” Owen said. “H-hang on!” He dug through his bag, his mind racing. There had to be a way to help. Had to be! And then Owen saw it—a Pecha Scarf. Could he—

Aerodactyl’s wing was gone now. Without a chest or even a torso, he had no means to speak—just fearful eyes staring ahead. Owen wrapped the Pecha Scarf around his head. “Th-there!” he said… but nothing happened. It kept going; his long neck dissolved next. Just the head. Desperate, Owen stared a bit longer. “No, no…!”

He closed his eyes tight. He had an idea. He focused on his power a bit more—deep within him, that divine energy held within that Orb. He channeled it from those depths and pushed it into his claws, and then into the scarf. It was all he had left to try. All he was thinking about was trying to save this outlaw’s life. He wasn’t going to forget that fearful look in his eyes. What a horrible way to die. He refused to let it happen. Stop it—make it stop. Owen commanded it to stop.

And the melting… stopped. The Pecha Scarf was glowing. Not even Owen could believe it at first. With his heart racing, Owen checked to see if Aerodactyl was alive. It was hard to tell; the only indication was that he blinked. He wrapped the scarf around the stump that was Aerodactyl’s neck and turned his head. “A-are… are you okay?” he said.

He opened his mouth and, somehow, was able to speak. The Scarf glowed a bit with each word. “What happened? Why am I…? I… I can’t feel… I can’t feel my body…”

“It’s okay,” Owen said. “I’ll—we’ll get you to Mispy, okay? She’s a great healer. I bet she can patch this right up…”

“Is—is that gonna happen to me?” Gahi said. “H-hey, wait a second—ain’t that mine!?” he shouted, pointing at the scarf.

“I—I feel like this is a little more important, Gahi!” Owen said.

“Ngh… yeah, I guess,” he relented.

“A-Aerodactyl, sir, does… does it hurt at all…? W-we can go back right now if you want!”

“N-no, it… it never hurt. B-but I can’t feel… my body anymore. I’m just a head….” His voice raised with confusion. “What happened to the rest…?”

“I—I don’t know,” Owen said. “But we’ll figure it out, okay? We’re just going to carry you with us for a little while.”

Gahi sighed. He looked at his foot. “…How come that never happened to me?” he said. “I… I dunno. I feel fine. Am I in one piece?” he looked at his tail, then his wings. All fine.

“It touched all of us,” Amia said. “but it only affected Aerodactyl…. That’s so strange. But we should still be careful. Gahi—are you Mystic?”

“Nah,” Gahi said. “I think Owen’s still got all that. Still, eh… good thing I ain’t a puddle yet. I don’t wanna melt… Looked painful…”

“It wasn’t,” Aerodactyl said irritably. “Do you even listen?”

“He’s not the best listener,” Owen whispered.

“Oy, what’re yeh sayin’ about me?” Gahi growled. “Meh, let’s keep goin’. If he ain’t hurt he’s fine.”

“Okay,” Owen said. “Oh—here, Gahi. Take this,” Owen said, handing his Scarf over. “If you’re not Mystic, this purple fog might hurt you anyway. I’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Gahi said, wrapping it around his mouth. “M’kay. Let’s go.”

And so, the five advanced through Dark Mist Swamp.

“…Your name is Owen,” Aerodactyl said.

“Yeah. Um—what’s your name?” Owen asked.

He snorted. “Like I’d tell…”

Owen nibbled at his tongue but said nothing.

“…It’s Jeremy,” the head said. “Just call me Jerry.”

Owen nodded. “I’m glad I could help, Jerry.”

“Don’t celebrate just yet,” he growled. “If I have to live like this forever, just kill me.”
 

Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
Back again for Catnip Circle, reviewing chapter two. This chapter felt a lot stronger to me prose-wise! The action sequences flowed for the most part and I really liked the uneasy atmosphere you built up at Rhy's house. I also appreciated the interlude with the paras. That showed a lot of good things about Owen's character and raised some interesting world-building questions.

One place I consistently felt like I needed a bit more was in Owen's internal narration. We get several sudden realizations during the chapter that float up and away without ever really being digested in the moment they take place. It makes Owen feel less like a person to me, and more like a plot vehicle.

I did find the members of Team Alloy very hard to differentiate/keep track of. Kept having to scroll up to remember which one was the trapinch vs the axew.

Line-by-line reactions below:

Hoping it would work again, he spent some of his time stomping on the ground. This created another trap.
This whole mechanic confused me. How does stomping the ground create a trap? Owen doesn't seem quite certain it will work, but he does it anyway?

Owen turned down the corridor, but then skidded to a stop. “W-wait! That’s not fair!” he shouted.
I think this would read more smoothly as "Owen turned down the corridor and skidded to an abrupt stop." The "but then" stops the action from feeling immediate here.

Owen stared at the path—or, rather, the lack of a path—ahead of him. He had run into a dead end. There was no way out but to backtrack, and that was where Aerodactyl was rapidly closing in.
This action sequence was well-done, as Owen slowly runs out of options.

He had too my precious items in it.
Some kind of typo going on up there. Too many? I do wonder why the aerodactyl thinks a random kid is going to have valuable things, though. Owen only has a provisional badge, right?

Owen smashed it on the ground. He was ready for the blue light inside to envelop him and take him straight to the entrance. Instead, the light and energy inside evaporated into nothing.

“Wh-what?” he said. A mysterious power had stopped the Orb from functioning. That normally only happened against Pokémon with powerful auras, or—

“Heh,” Aerodactyl said.
I think you can drop "A mysterious power had stopped the Orb from functioning." It both doesn't explain anything and explains too much. The surrounding context makes the jammer-reveal work well without a line like that.

But Owen realized shortly after that this was an outlaw. What was one broken rule if they already cast the law aside?
Nice insight on his part.

It felt strange to the touch, as if the air around it simply wasn’t there. He knew the feeling. A Warp Seed.
I couldn't envision this description. How do you feel as if air isn't around something? Air doesn't really feel like anything in the first place.

He rushed through the Dungeon as much as he could,
As fast as he could? As quickly?

He had explored the entire segment by now! Where was the next distortion?

He found a room he hadn’t yet visited.
This seems a pretty blatant contradiction back to back. Maybe say "almost" the entire segment.

Owen wasn’t sure how long he’d stood there. It was just the two of them. The exit out of his reach. But now, he knew that he had a solid target. That Aerodactyl wasn’t going to move from that spot.
This paragraph read a bit jerky, especially with the fragment.

He was bumbling where he stood, wobbling horribly.
I don't think "bumbling" is the word you're looking for here? You can't bumble as you stand.

His jaws opened wide and he fired—unexpectedly—a set of rocky pellets toward Owen. Rock Blast—Owen was sure his species wasn’t capable of such a technique normally.
This moment would make more sense to me if the technique was something actually unusual, rather than a rock-type pokemon flinging rocks in a slightly different way? It seems weird that Owen would be surprised that an aerodactyl is firing rocks at him, even if it's "Rock Blast" as opposed to "Rock Slide", "Ancient Power", "Stone Edge," etc.

He launched pellet after rocky pellet in a random direction, completely missing Owen.
Confused by this. Why would he launch rocks in a random direction? Why isn't he aiming at Owen?

He scrambled up—and felt a sharp pain on back of his head. Everything felt upside-down, and there was a sharp ringing in his ears. “Ughn—no, I…!” he tried to stand, but a second rock smashed against the center of his spine. The force made him roll across the ground like a bag of berries—he couldn’t feel anything on his lower half.
I liked this sequence--the action felt concrete and I like the berry bag simile. "Center of his spine" feels oddly specific--I think "back" would read more smoothly.

And you’re right. My species doesn’t need evolution.”
This was a really interesting moment, especially since Owen's late evolution seems to be a major plot point and subject of anxiety for him. What is the social significance of evolution? True it can be a sign of maturity, but since some pokemon indeed never evolve, what does evolution mean for them? The way the aerodactyl says this with such emphasis makes me wonder if there's a stigma against no-evolution pokemon or something.

“Kid,” he said, “I don’t work like that. All I want is the goods. What happens after, I don’t care. That’s the way the world works. And the way Dungeons work.” He took another step closer. “Here, let me help. I’ll beat you up nice and good, and you can crawl back to your base to recoup. You ready?”
I liked the chatty tone here, and the way it's not even that cruel of a thing to say, since Owen's been happily beating people up in the dungeon too.

if he’d just be there, too weak to fight, left for the ferals to eat.
I sort of want a sense of whether this is a legitimate fear and thing that actually happens or a sort of "monsters under the bed/ the ferals will eat you if you misbehave" kind of fear. Are "civilized" pokemon all vegetarians and "ferals" not?

The wing hung there, tense. But then the claws at the end clenched in what may have been a fist. “There’s nothing more that I hate than you Hearts.” He lowered his wing and gave Owen a halfhearted kick, more like a push, that only accomplished a half-rotation of the Charmander’s numb body. “Thanks for the loot.”
I like how the aerodactyl ends up being not one-note evil bandit, but has a bit of a conscience.

A speedy Trapinch, a walking contradiction, and a welcome surprise.
The way this is written, it feels like you're listing three separate things, and that confused me a bit. Maybe, "A speedy trapinch! That was a walking contradiction, but a welcome surprise."

“You seem new. Worst of the best, I take it?” Aerodactyl asked, smirking.

“Goodra Anam said that a ranked system isn’t good for morale, so we aren’t the worst or the best! We’re just Entry-Level Hearts!”
This banter flowed well and feels very of its world. It's slightly childish, but the PMD games do tend towards that vibe.

He might have disabled his jammer. And that could only mean he would use an Orb next.
The switch from speculation/"might have" to certainty/"could only mean" reads oddly.

Owen had to shut his eyes again. He saw a blinding beam of light, and it was simply too much.
Your ordering is off here. The light should flash, making Owen shut his eyes, rather than us being told he shut his eyes, and then that there was blinding light.

He heard the Aerodactyl scream in fright, and then he heard the dull noises of punches and kicks and swipes. And then, panting. Gahi laughing. Demitri telling him to quiet down.
I like the choice to switch to auditory sense here.

Her leaf glowed and released a soft light that clouded around Owen. All of the energy he had lost returned to him. He could feel his lower half again, too.

Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay, it’s okay. Calm down. Sleep… Amia’s words echoed in Owen’s mind.

That wasn’t a dream.

Despite the healing, the phantom pain returned to him in an instant, and flashes of that past event clouded his vision. His muscles seized and his claws dug into the dirt, leaving tiny holes in the ground. Embers spilled from the sides of his mouth, and his eyes widened.
Hm, so I see what you're going for with the healing pulse bringing back the memory/dream, but Owen's realization of "That wasn't a dream" feels abrupt and a bit out of nowhere.

He didn’t care about the bag. He got invited to a Heart’s home! And now that he had a moment’s pause, he wanted to see Rhys again, anyway.

Again?

Owen’s own thoughts gave him another pause.
I think I want a little more reaction here, even if it's just "He shrugged off the strange thought."

“I think I know you guys,” Owen finally admitted.

The three looked at one another. Then, back at Owen.

“You’re weird,” Mispy said.

“I—I kinda feel like we met before, too,” Demitri admitted. “That’s crazy! We must have good chemistry.”
I'm sure that's it. Nothing odd going on whatsoever.

“Besides, this place is overpopulated with those pests anyway. Isn’t enough food fer ‘em ter all survive.”

“W-wait, how badly were they—”

“Aah, they’ll be fine. Wild Pokémon’re real resilient, I figure.”
Pretty clear disconnect between wild pokemon being easy to beat up but also considered more "resilient" than Owen and crew. Interested to learn more about this civilized/wild split in your world--why some pokemon can speak and others can't, how or if that relates to dungeons.

Chances are he’s going to have to work his debts away to pay them all back. Maybe as a volunteer as a temporary rescue team member. I think they call ‘em Broken Hearts. Make a living. Then once he’s done, maybe he can continue that work with full pay.”

“And repair that Broken Heart of his,” Gahi sang mockingly.

“So, he pays back his debts, and gets a job in the process? I wish it was that easy for me,” Owen mumbled. “My dad wants me to be a berry farmer because my sharp senses would let me tell when they’re ripe or not.”
Yeah, that seems a little weird? It seems like more trouble than it's worth to stick a former outlaw in a rescue team when he could easily turn on them and resume his old ways? Why not set him to work in something with lower stakes and less opportunity to escape?

Owen’s flame dimmed. “I just want to make sure,” he said. “It wasn’t that far of a walk, right? We’ll head to Rhys’ place right after. It’ll just give me some peace of mind, alright?”
Good on you, Owen.

but I think Owen just wants to make sure he didn’t go overkill on it.”

“K-kill, yeah,” Owen said, laughing hastily. “No need to go overkill.”
Hm . . . more repressed memories?

When Owen got closer, one of the Paras hissed and skittered away. The others did the same, almost in unison, and clustered together. Purple fog trickled out of their mushrooms, threatening to flood the arena if provoked.
A particularly bold one skittered closer, snatching the berry away. It nibbled a few times, still tense, and eventually relaxed after Owen did. The Charmander smiled, showing his teeth—a small mistake, as the Paras hissed and skittered away again.
Nice description of their reaction here.

Owen’s flame blazed behind him, but he kept it hidden out of the ferals’ sights.
Not sure how he would do that?

“Others do, though,” Owen said, taking a hesitant step forward.
Aw, that's both very thoughtful and maybe shows his loneliness too, hoping that one day he'll be exploring with companions.

“I know I entered your territory, and I was just going on a fun exploration. I shouldn’t have been so careless about you guys. Just try not to attack randomly, alright?”
Part of the fun for Owen in that earlier chapter seemed to be knocking out everyone he encountered, though.

Also, if the idea is that the pokemon in the dungeons are attacking because they're protecting their territory (which makes sense) it feels like navigating this would be part of dungeon exploration training? Like, ways to show you're not attacking, or advice to try making a berry offering first for passage. This scene with the wild pokemon feels a lot more realistic and nuanced than the previous chapter's depiction, but it's also hard for the two to coexist in my mind.

It was almost calming to see the horde feed, watching the way their mandibles meticulously tore at the pulp.
Hm, if you say so, Owen.

“I guess I’m a little self-conscious about it.”
What he means gets clarified later in the conversation but it was confusing and didn't really seem to follow from the previous sentence.

“Didn’t think they looked that bad when we passed ‘em by the first time. Maybe these’re just the ones that got roughed up the most.”

“To be honest, a lot of these don’t actually look like your flames, Owen,” Demitri said, pointing at the Paras. “Looks like some of these guys got hit by something a lot worse. But at least the burns are gone.”

Owen rubbed his head. Foggy as his memory was, Demitri did have a point. He hadn’t fought too many of them. He couldn’t have burned these all. Still, it was a good thing he came when he did.
Hm, so some one else came by?

Owen smiled sadly. “Well… just fire in general, I guess. It’s not like Dragon might, like Demitri, where it’s… more graceful and controlled and… you know.”

Demitri blushed under his green scales, rubbing at one of his tusks. “I dunno if I’m all that graceful.”

“He ain’t,” Gahi confirmed.

Owen laughed weakly, but then continued to observe the Paras. The ones that had their fill skittered away thanklessly, while the more gluttonous ones remained to nibble on a few more. “Normal Fire isn’t the same way as Dragon fire,” Owen said. “It’s… untamed. Violent. Hungry. If I don’t keep it in check… I could do a lot more damage to innocent Pokémon than I need to.” Once the final few Paras left, Owen brought his tail forward and inspected the flame at the end. “I guess I just want to be careful. And if I slip up and get carried away… I want to make things right. That’s part of being a Heart, right? No fighting if you don’t need to.”
Huh! That's an interesting hang-up. I feel like I'd want a few hints of it earlier, especially since Owen seems to have a love of the thrill of battle as well. I could see those two things coexisting, but right now his characterization feels a little erratic.

Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi lived in a small cave near the western base of the mountain. The rocks here were a lot lighter—closer to a reddish-brown color than the dark basalt of Kilo Village’s crater. Trees were immediately beyond the rocky exterior of their home, with Oran Berries growing from the tops of some, and apples from others. Gentle winds washed the leaves, making the ripe fruits fall from their branches when a particularly strong gust passed.
I got a stronger sense of place here than I had from some of the past place-description.

I think you're missing a word with "Trees were immediately beyond the rocky exterior of their home," --trees were visible? I'm not sure about the verb of "washed" going with wind. Wind could wash leaves in a more literal sense, so the figurative use here was a bit jarring.

“Meditating?” Owen said. “You guys meditate, too? I do it all the time! It’s really nice to clear your head.”

“Aw, not you, too,” Gahi grumbled, wobbling into the cave.

Mispy, too, was disappointed. “Boring.”

“I—I’m not boring,” Owen squeaked.
Hah, cute interaction.

Rhys stared at Owen for a bit longer than anyone in the room thought comfortable. Owen noticed his fur puff out. For a split-second, his paws glowed with a light blue, aura ember.

“Rhys?” Demitri said.

“I’m—sorry,” Rhys said. “I was thinking about what I could prepare for a Charmander.”

No, you weren’t, Owen thought.
This moment felt nicely tense. Again though, I am left wanting a bit more internally with "No, you weren’t, Owen thought." What makes him think that? Once he does, does he wonder why he thought that? Does he accept it? How does he feel about Rhys lying to him? It's weird how he thinks "oh this elite heart just lied to me" and then the subject drops completely from his internal monologue.

Rhys nodded. “With our earnings, we have been able to purchase a few luxuries.”
I'm curious about this living arrangement. Do all beginner teams live full-time with their mentor? How often do teams rotate out?

It was like a hallway that split off into separate rooms. Four in total.
The fragment's a bit jarring. You could use a comma "It was like a hallway that split off into separate rooms, four in total." or just "There were four in total."

What Owen saw next made him rub his eyes. There was a cloud of some kind—a very fine mist, like a pinkish haze. It didn’t move with any breezes. Oh, no, Owen said. Now I’m starting to see things! Can anybody else—? Owen glanced at the others. Mispy’s leaf was twitching, like she had an itch. Demitri and Gahi were too focused on Rhys’ cooking.
Really nice atmospheric bit here. I like how the thrill of being at an Elite Heart's house keeps being broken by the sense of deja vu and unease.

Rhys was moving stiffly. That was odd. He usually moved with a graceful flow. Did he notice? “Rhys?” Owen spoke up. “Are you okay?”

“Y-yes, Owen, why do you ask?”

Owen looked at the pink cloud. Gone.
I think this is supposed to be the intrusion of his suppressed memories, but the way it was written was a bit confusing. It's maybe the way it's two separate sentences? Make it feel like Owen is thinking this out, rather than the thought just sort of floating up in his mind. I also didn't know what to make of the "Did he notice?"--did he notice he was moving stiffly? I don't think you need it to make the transition to Owen speaking up. Something like, [Rhys was moving stiffly. Odd, since he usually moved with a graceful flow. “Rhys?” Owen spoke up. “Are you okay?”]

He had to admit, it sounded clever. He certainly saw that kind of fighting in the Dungeon, too. They worked very cohesively.
Think you can merge those last two sentences, which are really the same thought, "They'd certainly worked together cohesively when they fought in the dungeon" or whatever.

“L-look, this place is creepy sometimes, alright?” Demitri said. “We see little, like, colors floating around sometimes. All of us! So, it has to be real.”

“Colors? Like pink?” Owen said.

“Pink? No, usually greens and yellows,” Demitri said.
I wonder if that has to do with their individual auras. Pink is pretty close to red/fire, and Team Alloy is ground/grass/dragon.

And just like that, their idle talk about ghosts subsided. It must have been a common occurrence for it to be dismissed so easily, but Owen decided to put this piece of the puzzle in his mental notes.
I like this observation Owen makes and the slight uncannyness of the topic being abandoned the instant Rhys tells them to. "put this piece of the puzzle in his mental notes" felt very clunky to me, though. Maybe something like, "It must have been a common occurrence for it to be dismissed so easily. Still, Owen found it strange. Maybe he'd ask them more some other time, when Rhys wasn't around."

“Dad might explode,” Owen said. “Literally. He’s a Magmortar, and he kinda does this thing with his arms when he’s nervous, and I’m worried he might—like—fire into his own hand, or something? I dunno what happens after that. But he might actually die from anxiety if I don’t get home in time.”
Aw, very cute.

“O-oh, uh, actually, about that. My parents said that I can’t bring people back home because it’s a secret where I live, and stuff.”

“I see,” Rhys said, nodding. “That’s understandable.”

“Wait, it is?” Demitri said. “How is that—who has a secret home?!”

Rhys shrugged noncommittally. “Some areas enjoy privacy, I suppose.
I feel like the secrecy of Owen's home is meant to be weird and Rhys isn't making a big deal of it because he's already in on it.

But there was an odd sort of familiarity that he felt with Rhys. Then again, aside from the Aerodactyl, that was how he’d been feeling all day. And Rhys seemed to know him, too, given how casually he spoke. He had heard from rumors that Rhys was usually incredibly stiff.
There's a bit of a gap between feeling familiarity/knowing someone/ being casual that made this chain of thought read oddly to me. Maybe, "And Rhys seemed to feel that familiarity too, judging by the casually way he spoke to Owen. According to rumor, he was usually incredibly stiff."

Okay, Owen thought between bites. So, everything today feels weirder than usual. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t dreaming last night. Did Dad actually explode? Did I get attacked by another of those mutant things? Nngh, or am I just losing it? Nevren’s a Psychic, right? Maybe he can fix my brain.

He then glanced at Rhys’ room. He saw the pink mist again. Oh, Mew in the stars, he thought, taking his final bite. Can’t I have just one normal day?
Oh my, Owen crams all his critical thinking into the final paragraphs! I wanted a bit more a transition here and a little more throughout the chapter to justify his realization that the dream's not a dream. Owen's absence of internal monologue makes the sudden abundance of it here feel like it comes out of nowhere.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Thanks for the review, Pen! Good feedback like before all around. For some clarifications...

I did find the members of Team Alloy very hard to differentiate/keep track of.
Yes, this is an early problem that I have, and I think part of it comes with being a little light on epithets combined with having too few physical descriptors sprinkled in, and so on. During my eventual revisions using all the feedback I've been getting recently, I intend to look into this.

One place I consistently felt like I needed a bit more was in Owen's internal narration. We get several sudden realizations during the chapter that float up and away without ever really being digested in the moment they take place. It makes Owen feel less like a person to me, and more like a plot vehicle.
I think this also applies to later parts of the chapter, particularly with Rhys at his home, but yes, I'll look into this. I use internal thoughts pretty sparingly, so it can be kinda jarring when I use them for a while...

Owen only has a provisional badge, right?
That and the gift Eviolite that Nevren gave him, as well as the bag itself. Owen considers any one of these things too precious to lose. He's a little fussy about it.

I think you can drop "A mysterious power had stopped the Orb from functioning."
This line was actually one of my rare nods to the games ^^;. That specific line is what is said when an Orb doesn't work. In older games, Orbs were disabled against bosses for some arbitrary reason, and I sort of integrated that into strong auras or a Jammer disrupting its energy. I do wonder if it's superfluous to make it such a strong nod, though...

This moment would make more sense to me if the technique was something actually unusual, rather than a rock-type pokemon flinging rocks in a slightly different way? It seems weird that Owen would be surprised that an aerodactyl is firing rocks at him, even if it's "Rock Blast" as opposed to "Rock Slide", "Ancient Power", "Stone Edge," etc.
I think I can go about specifying this a little more. It's kind of gamey, but certain moves look a certain way, or at least have a certain base variant--and Aerodactyl can't normally fire rocks from their mouths in this way. Rock Blast was, canonically, an illegal move until the Galar DLC came out and gave it to Aerodactyl AAAAAAAAA and that was what I was going for. I'm... I might need to find a more foolproof way of integrating this plot point for later...

Yeah, that seems a little weird? It seems like more trouble than it's worth to stick a former outlaw in a rescue team when he could easily turn on them and resume his old ways? Why not set him to work in something with lower stakes and less opportunity to escape?
The explanation was a little naive, and typically that's actually what happens. Very low-risk outlaws would possibly be volunteers on Rescue Teams, but a Broken Heart can also be a volunteer secretary. It's later revealed that Aerodactyl was put on bulletin board duty, replacing papers and so on.

Not sure how he would do that?
Line of sight? Hide the tail behind his back rather than sway it off to the side, etc.

Part of the fun for Owen in that earlier chapter seemed to be knocking out everyone he encountered, though.
This scene with the wild pokemon feels a lot more realistic and nuanced than the previous chapter's depiction, but it's also hard for the two to coexist in my mind.
I think I was clumsy here. Owen's double-think of "Fighting is fun!" and "I don't want to hurt people if I don't need to." is intentional. A civilized Pokemon "enjoying" fighting in this way is not normal, and that connection that Owen is having trouble making is equally a problem. I do need a better way to express it, though. Owen generally avoids battles, but if he's resting and a Pokemon comes in to attack, he'd (happily) defend himself--which makes the entire exploration on Owen's side more problematic, but he doesn't acknowledge it because, well, he doesn't like thinking about it. He instead tries to make up for that guilty pleasure by checking on those he struck.

Hm, if you say so, Owen.
What, you've never spent several minutes watching a crab eat a banana?

Hm, so some one else came by?
I kind of wanted to imply that someone else attacked the Paras in the Dungeon, and hoped a few readers might wonder, 'what if it was that Snorlax?' but maybe I could be more explicit about it.

Huh! That's an interesting hang-up. I feel like I'd want a few hints of it earlier, especially since Owen seems to have a love of the thrill of battle as well. I could see those two things coexisting, but right now his characterization feels a little erratic.
Right, yeah. I can probably add a few more hints.

I feel like the secrecy of Owen's home is meant to be weird and Rhys isn't making a big deal of it because he's already in on it.
You are correct. Owen is sort of conflicted in looking up to Rhys for being an Elite, and the fact that Rhys is being very suspicious. But he's a good boy who doesn't think Rhys is doing it out of anything sinister, so he doesn't press it.

--

Once again, big thanks for the feedback!
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 41 – Frozen Over

The northwestern corner of the world was covered in a perpetual, thick layer of ice. The white field was dotted with black rocks and sloping hills of snow and ice. The ground wasn’t stable, and there were a few incidents early on where Valle had fallen into thinner portions of the ice and had to be hauled out before he sank to the bottom. With some levitation, they were able to manage their way through the worst of it—as Mystics, the cold didn’t bother them too much at first. But the deeper they went into this icy territory, the more it seemed that their Mystic powers lost their effect. The cold’s horrible fingers crept into Zena and Willow the most.

Willow trembled, the frost rapidly forming on her yellow fuzz. “I can’t feel my… everything!”

Zena nodded. “It is… quite cold. I am glad that I can deal with such things normally… but it may be a bit much if I go any further… I feel like my Water form would solidify completely if I transformed…”

“I guess then you’d be a pretty Milotic ice sculpture, a-at l-least,” Willow said.

“System processors are functional,” ADAM said. “The current temperatures are allowing my CPU to overclock safely without additional cooling.”

“The temperature has little effect on me,” Valle said. “But I would want to avoid water. I do not want the ice to break through any cracks in my body. The expansion may destroy my limbs.”

“You could always m-move, you know,” Willow said. The tiny Joltik hopped from Zena’s head onto ADAM’s. The bitter cold licked at Willow’s fur during the jump, and Zena, for that split-second, worried that the little Joltik would turn solid right then. Thankfully, she landed and dug a claw along the side of ADAM’s smooth head—he buzzed in protest.

“Mmmm… that’s so much better…”

“Adam’s warmer?” asked Zena.

“Mhmmm…” Willow nuzzled up against one of ADAM’s smooth eyes. His optical lens flickered nervously. “It’s like Owen’s head,” she went on. “I wish he came with us. Owen feels nice…”

“He is nice…” Zena hummed.

“Huh?” Willow asked.

“Hm?” Zena blinked, looking back at her.

“Be careful,” Valle interjected. “The ice ahead of us is thin.”

Indeed, it seemed like the ice in front of them was clear, the water below a lot darker. Valle levitated off of the ground, gently floating above the frozen floor.

He rotated his body. “You should do the same.”

“O-okay.” Zena contorted and twisted her body, and then moved up, slithering through the air, reminiscent of a Rayquaza. “Well, this isn’t so bad…” she said, wobbling unsteadily in the air. The bitter cold not only got through her Mystic aura, but it also seemed to interfere with their levitation. “We simply continue onward like this?”

“Yeah! Um… but what are we looking for?” Willow asked.

“Scanning…” ADAM said. “No Mystic Aura detected. The next scan will begin in 200 seconds.”

“Oh, right, Mystic auras,” Willow said. “I wonder what the Ice Guardian is like. I hope she’s at least a little warmer…”

“I have my doubts,” Zena said. “It has been getting… c-colder every step of the way.”

Willow pressed her body as hard as she could against ADAM. “But you don’t step.”

“It’s an ex-expression,” Zena grunted. “Is it—getting even colder, by chance? I—I f-feel as if my v-very blood will be… solid soon…”

“M-maybe,” Willow said. While her belly looked nice and warm thanks to ADAM’s heat, ice crystals formed on the fur on her back. The wind howled around them; this frozen tundra wanted no life to advance any further. Perhaps even Ice types would struggle in such low temperatures. If it was this cold for Mystics, how cold was it for a normal Pokémon?

“I’m positive the Guardian is ahead,” Zena said. “It—it just has to be. Even for here, this cold—just isn’t n-natural. Any colder, and we may s-solidify…”

“Even our Mystic power has no effect against this cold,” Valle observed. “It indeed must be from another Mystic, in that case. Perhaps we should make our presence known. The cold may subside if we express that we are—” Valle’s arm abruptly fell off, landing on the frozen lake with a dull thud, leaving a crack in the thin ice. It slipped through and sank into the abyss, and the group all stared at it, mesmerized. “…I just replaced that arm.”

“L-letting ourselves be kn-known. That m-might be a good idea,” Zena said. “G-Guardian of Ice! We are—the Guardians of—Water… Fairy… oh… what are the other two?”

“Normal and Rock,” said Valle. “We wish to speak with you in peace. You seem to be a very skilled Guardian—I’m sure you can, in some way, read our intentions.”

“Life functions lowering,” ADAM reported.

“The cold is so draining,” Zena said. It was like they were walking straight into Yveltal’s cocoon; did this Mystic Ice have more power than just the cold behind it? Perhaps this was Icy Wind and they didn’t even realize it… “Hello? Are you there?!”

They received no reply but the wind. Willow winced when a particle of snow got in her eyes; she rubbed one of her legs on the lens to clear it up, and then attempted to burrow against ADAM’s smooth body. It didn’t work, but she tried anyway, just to keep moving. “I can’t… f-feel… my…”

“Willow?” Zena asked.

Willow stopped moving, frozen precisely on top of ADAM’s head, expression caught in frigid desperation. She carefully brought her ribbons over her body, delicately picking her up even as icicles formed on her pink brows, pulling her up. The Joltik was completely stiff.

“That isn’t good.” Zena checked her aura; it was still there, thankfully.

Even without Mysticism, she supposed mortal Pokémon were durable enough to withstand a little freezing. More worrying was the fact that if they didn’t hurry, the same thing was going to happen to them.

“I think I’ll just…” Zena carefully wedged the frozen, yellow fuzz between ADAM’s head and shoulders.

“W-we need to hurry,” Zena said. “S-Star said it was j-just ahead.”

“Valle and I can advance,” ADAM proposed. “You shall stay back so your organic body does not freeze completely.”

“N-no, it’s fine,” Zena said. “We just need to…”

But then, before they decided to fall back, the cold let up. It was still freezing to a mortal, but to a Mystic, they could finally resist the bitter frost. Zena first tried to discern any sort of difference between the snow that had fallen before compared to now, but between the total whiteout conditions and the howling wind, nothing had changed. Just the Mystic disruption that nearly froze them over.

“Thank Arceus.” Zena sighed. “Let’s keep going.” If anything, perhaps that meant the Ice Guardian accepted them.

Willow slowly thawed, twitching back to life. “What happened? Did I sleep?”

“You froze. Are you okay?”

“Mmm…” Willow shook off some water from her body before it re-froze again and hopped off of ADAM’s head, landing on Valle next. He protested halfheartedly, but at this point gave up on the tiny Joltik hitching a ride on the others. She offered to chip away at the layer of ice that had formed on his stone body, using her little legs as ice picks. He accepted this as payment.

During the walk, as Valle floated forward in an otherwise motionless stance, he asked, “Have you ever considered taking on your evolved form?”

“No, because they aren’t cute,” Willow said. “As the Fairy Guardian, I have to keep up an image of being cute and deadly. You wouldn’t understand.” She stuck her tiny body in the air. “Now hold still, I need to pick at the ice on your joints. Oh, right, you don’t move!”

“Somehow, I think Valle, of all of us, would understand keeping up appearances,” Zena thought aloud. “But really, cute and deadly? Why can’t a Fairy be… well… just cute?”

“Some are.” Willow hummed, thinking. “But that’s less fun. I wanna be both! That way, I can scare people or make them coo at me, and I get to choose what and when!”

“Hm.” Zena wanted to remark that Willow was one of the least deadly of the group—but recalled her little talent of shrinking her opponents. Perhaps she could be trouble if they upset her.

“I like how quiet it is,” Willow said. “It reminds me of home, except it’s ice instead of grass, and rocks instead of mushrooms. Do you think there are little ice demons here?”

“Oh, home?” Zena said. “My home was quiet, too. But I didn’t enjoy it as much. I used to speak with my spirits a lot more often, but… in hindsight, perhaps I depressed them with my loneliness.” Zena blinked, glancing at Willow. “Frost demons?”

“Yeah! I turn my spirits into screaming mushrooms to scare others away. It’s really funny! We all get a good laugh out of it.”

“Oh, I see.” She did not. “Unfortunately, my spirits were never quite as adventurous. They must take after me. Bit of a… cycle of inaction… We felt lonely, together. Even now they aren’t very enthused about, er, doing much.”

“You were lonely?” Willow asked.

ADAM buzzed. “My input sensors, too, were lacking stimuli for very long ranges of time. The log files of my arrival to that strange temple have corrupted long ago. In fact, such a large amount of time passed in my lifetime that I had to add a byte to my time counter in order to accommodate for my logging. My species was not built for such large timeframes.”

“I dunno what any of that is, ADAM,” Willow said. “What do you mean, built? I thought your kind came from Ditto getting creative.”

“…I believe that humans made my kind originally,” said ADAM. “But I do not know how that is possible, if humans are from another world.”

“That is curious,” Zena said. “Perhaps they used to exist… but died off?”

“Maybe we ate them,” Willow said. “Humans don’t sound very strong. I bet they were secretly at the bottom of the food chain, and eventually we just realized that and ate them!”

“I’m not so sure,” Zena said. “Remember what we heard about from the others about Brandon. They have other advantages…. Apparently, they’re smarter than Pokémon, or perhaps have something else to give them an advantage over us… The way he was described, Brandon seemed very skilled, even if he isn’t human anymore.”

“He sounds weird,” Willow said. “I dunno how I feel about humans. I don’t think I like them if they’re all like Brandon.”

ADAM buzzed uneasily.

“There appears to be an obstacle ahead,” Valle reported.

Everyone stopped their advance.

Zena squinted at the obstruction. It appeared to be transparent, but something was inside, too. A silhouette darkened the core of the large lump of clear ice. At least, she imagined it was clear; there was a layer of frosty snow that made it impossible to see through it clearly. “What is…” she said. Was it some sort of rock with a thick layer of frost? Or…

“O-oh no!” Willow said. “Someone got frozen over in the ice! I can see their aura still trapped in there!”

“Aura? How could someone survive such a freeze?” Valle said. “Most bodies would perish under such cold for so long. That’s why I suggested going back for you organics, like Willow.”

“It’s alive, so we should try to help,” Zena said, accelerating her slithering pace. “What is it?” She closed her eyes to focus her senses entirely on the aura. It was weak, but it still had a shape. How horrible—it must have been awful to freeze over in such a way. Would they even be able to speak? A brain on ice didn’t sound like a good thing… “It appears to be a… Torkoal, is it not? Though he’s quite large…”

Indeed, it was a large, orange Pokémon with a brown shell, frozen in ice. Based on the aura strength, he wasn’t conscious, and based on its compact shape, he was hiding in his shell.

“A Fire Type on Ice,” Willow said. “That must be a really strong Guardian to do something like this.”

Valle floated a bit closer, tilting his entire body to get his face closer. “Hmm… How can we free him?”

“There is no need.”

A deep, metallic voice filled the air this time. They turned and saw a remarkable sight—something entirely see-through, made of the very same sort of ice that surrounded the Torkoal, like glass. Zena realized that Valle might have, in some ways, made a new friend—though, unlike Valle, this Pokémon moved. An Aggron made entirely of clear, see-through ice, covered in a thin layer of blizzard snow.

“Welcome to my home,” she said. “Do not stay long.”

“Uh—” Willow bristled and sparked with pink dust. “Are you the Ice Guardian? We’re Guardians, too! Don’t we kinda have that in common to be friendly?”

“Hunters have Orbs, too. Hunters are Guardians. I wouldn’t consider myself to be… that, you see.” She nodded and motioned to the clump of ice that contained the Torkoal. “He doesn’t have an Orb—but he is still a Hunter, the one called Elder.”

She had an odd accent. While not broken, there was a sort of tough disconnectedness about the way she spoke, as if the nouns and adjectives and verbs were being placed next to one another forcibly, rather than in a flowing rhythm.

“Elder,” Zena said. “That sounds… familiar. Isn’t that the one that Rhys…”

“Rhys?” repeated the Aggron, the wind picking up. “I do not know of any Rhys, but if he is also a Hunter, and you are with him—”

“No, Rhys is no longer a Hunter,” Zena said.

“You sound certain.”

“He made a Promise to me that he would not kill another Guardian,” Zena said. “A Divine Promise.”

The Aggron flicked her tail, bumping against the ice that encased Elder. Her arms crossed pensively. “I see…. And how do I know you are not lying to me?”

“I could Promise to you that I did not just lie,” Zena offered.

“…No. Not necessary,” she said. “You have truth in your eyes.”

Willow’s sparks died down. “Oh. That was easy.”

“The Joltik will speak with grace.” The Aggron glared, her intense, icy eyes threatening to freeze Willow over for a second time.

“Eep—!” She hopped onto ADAM again and hid in the gap between his head and torso.

Step released her glare, but remained guarded. “Hm. Which Guardian is she?”

“Fairy. I suppose her personality fits,” said Zena, sighing. “She means well, I assure you. My name is Milotic Zena.” She moved one of her brows forward like a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“I am Aggron Step,” said the Ice Guardian, bringing her right hand forward for a shake. Contact made Zena’s brow freeze, but it didn’t look like Step realized it, or didn’t care. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I apologize if your trip here was daunting, but I stopped my Mystic blizzard so you could approach.”

Zena glanced at the frozen Hunter. She also used her other brow to rub off the ice from where Step had made contact. “Could you release him?”

“The Hunter? Why?”

“I believe he is harmless.”

“Of course he is harmless. He is frozen.”

“Wow, ADAM,” Willow said. “She’s even more literal than you are.”

Step growled, resuming her glare. “I shall make a frozen Joltik next if she does not watch herself.”

“Nnn—” Once again, Willow hid away, though this time it was behind Zena’s head, shrinking until she could fit between her scales. Her tiny voice said, “Call me when she’s not scary!”

“Hmm…” Step relaxed her glare again, though not without an unamused snort. “Well. I suppose I will let him out. I intended to use him as a bargaining chip when the other Hunters came, but if you are sure it is safe…”

“Ah—about that,” Zena said. “That is somewhat the reason why we came. You see, we were trying to gather the Guardians together as a sort of… strength in numbers against the Hunters, to defeat them should they try to attack us all at once.”

“Oh? The opposite approach, then, to the original plan?” Step asked. “I was quite happy with my quiet solitude.”

“Y-you… liked that?” Zena winced. It felt like a lie. She didn’t look happy at all. What sort of Pokémon could enjoy that horrible loneliness, and crave more of it? Zena recalled many long nights cursing her existence within those damp caverns, thrashing about in frustration, yet also her fear of dying. She had stagnated in there, until Owen put his feet into her lake. That was when it all changed… Zena shook her head. The cold must have been getting to her.

“I did, yes,” Step answered. “I could spend an eternity here with only myself and my spirits. There is no need for others. My mate is with me; my children visit. I even met a few of my grandchildren. I need little else.”

“Wow,” Willow said. “I mean… I guess so…”

Only Zena could hear Willow, given her size. “I suppose we all react differently to the plan, but for now, we do need to change. Step, would you come with us? We can bring Elder, too.”

“Hmm… You understand why I am hesitant.”

“Y-yes, well, what if we… bring him frozen, first? And then we will… thaw him at home, where we can be in a more controlled environment.”

“Hmm…” Step crossed her arms, considering. “That will have to wait.”

Valle slowly rotated until his back faced Step. “Yes, it will.”

“What?” Zena asked.

ADAM buzzed with three rapid beeps. “My aura sensors indicate a team of synthetic auras as well as one Hunter is approaching.”

“W-wait—ADAM, can you tell what it is?” Zena asked.

“…An Espurr… is the Hunter,” ADAM said.

“Rim,” Zena growled.

“Mutant auras are more difficult to identify.”

“It matters not,” said Step, slamming her tail against a nearby rock, which shattered. Zena flinched at the noise. “They shall all perish by my frost.”

“We will help,” Zena said.

It didn’t take very long for Rim to arrive; behind her was a set of three mutant Pokémon. One was a Tauros with tails that were literally on fire; the next was an icy Ninetales with luminous, white fur; the final one was a Roserade with frost that fell from its petals, rather than poison. Rim herself was bundled up in thick layers of cloth such that only her big eyes were visible, floating above the three mutants like a haunted Tangela.

“For them to get this far, they may be strong,” Step observed.

“Very,” Zena said.

“They must have been waiting for me to halt my Mystic blizzard. How clever of them…”

Willow, returning to her normal size, said, “I can take ‘em! Just let me get close and I’ll shrink them down to little pebble-sized versions of themselves—and then—squish!”

“You don’t actually squish your victims, do you?” Zena said.

“Well—how else am I supposed to beat them? They’re tiny!”

Valle shouted to Rim, “What are you doing here? Have you come to kill the Ice Guardian?”

Rim looked down but shook her head.

“…Well. That’s good, at least,” said Zena.

The wind howled; the Espurr shivered and desperately rubbed her paws together, breathing into them. Frost dotted the outside of her layers of scarves.

The gray feline puffed again. Zena felt a pang of empathy for her. Neither of them were in a good condition to fight.

“Have you… d…d-decided?” Rim asked, her faint voice even more muffled beneath her cloth. It was a miracle that Step had heard her at all.

“Decided?” Zena asked.

“I have,” Step said, nodding. She looked back at Elder, frozen in ice. “Elder has been speaking to me in the spirit world for quite some time. And while I agree with much of what he says…. I must point out,”—she stared at Rim—“that you brought those three Pokémon with you. Is that a threat?”

Rim flinched. “N-no, I… like… company.”

“What’s wrong with company?” asked Roserade, flicking a bit of ice off of her petals. “Hmph.”

“I’m sure you knew what you were doing,” Step said lowly. “…And I have to say, I don’t agree with any of your practices. I believe Eon has lost his way. I don’t intend to follow him down his confused path.”

“So… you are an enemy…”

“I suppose I am,” Step said, “though I do not agree with the agenda of Mew or Arceus, either. So that puts me nowhere, doesn’t it?”

“No, that puts you, uh…” Willow paused. “I guess that puts you with Owen.”

“Owen?” Step repeated.

“Wait,” Zena said, noticing that the three mutants were getting antsy. “Do we really have to fight?”

“I mean, I was hoping we could,” Roserade said. “We walked all this way and sat around for all this time, and we don’t even get a fight out of it? C’mon!”

“We don’t need to, though,” Zena said. “What… is this all for? Why do you need all of the Orbs? Is it really to usurp Arceus?”

Rim nodded slowly.

“I mean, what else would it be for? Getting taller?” Ninetales asked. “C’mon, you’re thinking too small!”

“Talking’s boring,” Tauros complained. “Can we fight yet?”

Zena wasn’t sure if their badge was ready to warp them out. They’d have to escape quickly, but the moment they made any move for it, they’d be attacked. She had to stall until she could think of a better move, or some kind of distraction.

Still, it was a good opportunity to know what this was all about. “And why do you want to usurp Arceus?” Zena said. “What’s the point?”

“You know, you’re kinda asking the Hunter who isn’t good at talking,” Ninetales pointed out. “You know Auntie Rim has a bad stutter, right? Dunno why she can’t just fix it with her Mystic power, but—”

Roserade smacked Ninetales over the head with an icy rose, then said, “Ignore him, he’s an idiot. To be honest, we don’t really know what Father wants from all this, but, we do know that Arceus isn’t all that friendly.”

“Well—” Zena couldn’t dispute that. “I doubt Eon would be much better.”

“Oh yeah?” Ninetales said. “Well I bet our Father is better than your Father.”

“I don’t revere him in that way,” Zena said. “In fact, after everything we’ve been through, I don’t think I’d revere any of them, even if we defeat you.”

“Well, hey! We’ve got something in common!” Ninetales grinned. “Now, c’mon! How about you give up those Orbs, eh?”

“That would kill us.”

Ninetales winced, but that didn’t seem to deter him. “Um, we’ll be gentle?”

Zena glanced at Roserade, who gave her a knowing nod. He really was an idiot.

“I don’t like gentle,” Tauros said, stamping his hooves.

Rim was, at this point, covered in a thick layer of frost. She used a small wave of Psychic energy to brush most of it away.

“Look,” Roserade said, “the point is we have a mission to do, and the reasons behind it is locked behind one of those Decree things. My guess? Something to do with this world not being right. Father aaaalways talks about it like that.”

“Yeah! I mean, what’s with Dungeons in general, right?” Ninetales said. “And that Void Basin place that keeps getting bigger every year, and that’s the weirdest Dungeon of them all!”

“Void what?” Zena said.

“That weird place southwest! Well, south of here, I guess, since this is northwest, and—”

“I hate directions!” Tauros said, crouching for a dash. He made several strides forward, but the slick, icy ground gave him no forward momentum. Eventually, he fell over, and Roserade, Rim, and Ninetales all looked at Tauros disappointedly.

Zena’s heart skipped a beat. In that one instant, while they helped Tauros stand, she also glanced at Step, who had grown more and more impatient with every exchange. Her claws dug little rivets into her own icy arm. ADAM was constantly bussing. Willow had frozen over once more, and Valle was again behaving as some kind of centerpiece to the icy field.

But she had the badge.

Deftly, she slipped a ribbon into her bag, pulled it out, flipped it so it was hidden from view, and looked back at Tauros and the others.

Just in time. They were looking back again. A second too slow and they would have seen it.

“Team… up?” Rim asked.

Zena was so concentrated on the badge that she didn’t respond. Step, then, took over for her hesitance.

“You cannot possibly think we would team up with you!” Step said. “Decree? How can we trust something you cannot prove? Dungeons? A natural part of the world! Void Basin? Pah! As if I had ever heard of such a place!”

“Well, that’s probably because nobody’s allowed there, and it’s just a boring empty crater anyway,” Ninetales said. “But that other stuff! C’mon, don’t you want to deck God in the—”

“I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!” Step slammed her tail on the ground, shattering yet another boulder. A pillar of icy spikes erupted from beneath Ninetales, and he narrowly jumped out of the way to avoid it. Some of his luminous, white fur was cut from the grazing strike.

“My ‘do!” Ninetales shouted, then snarled. “Okay, that’s it.

Hurry, hurry! Zena begged the Badge, which felt sluggish to activate. How did Owen do it? Was a gesture required? A gesture—right! She had to raise it in the air.

Why?!

Rim raised her paw in the air, shining a strange light. The three mutants looked at it, and then understood. All three dashed toward one another, slipping clumsily, and Zena realized that it was now or never. She thrust the badge in the air—and a Psychic blast knocked it out of her ribbon. “No!”

Step caught it as it flew past her, encasing it in ice that was attached to her hands. “Is this important?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s—"

The three synthetic Pokémon slammed into one another and meshed into a single being—one with the base of a Tauros with a bright glow, the color and frosty tails of a Ninetales, and thorns and petals adorning its body like scales. The fusion was in total control—not berserk, not even shaking. Rim held her paw forward; the fusion nodded and rushed them.

Valle, ending his stillness, fired another volley of rocks; Zena stopped her explanation to follow up with a chilly beam of water. ADAM didn’t have time to fire another Hyper Beam. Willow was still frozen. Both attacks hit it at the same time—it roared in pain and stumbled in its dash, but still rumbled forward, even after taking two direct, Mystic hits. They didn’t have time to evade the strike. There was no telling how powerful their attacks would actually be, considering how much damage it could take and still keep coming.

Step used her uncovered hand to blast a beam of freezing energy, but the energy fizzled out before it even touched the fusion.

ADAM announced, “Switching to evasive procedure.”

“I am still fully capable of fighting!” Step said.

“Your Ice techniques are useless,” ADAM reported. “In fact, it seems to be making the fusion stronger.”

Step slammed her tail on the ground, creating a glacier just in front of the Tauros-amalgam. He spat a plume of fire on the ground, banking off of the indent it left, and ran around the rising glacier instead. Step hissed, slamming her tail down again to create another, but Zena could only hope for it to be slowed down.

“Raise the Badge!” Zena shouted to Step.

“What?!”

“Please!”

Step scowled, but she complied—however, in that instant, her guard lowered.

Between glacial uprisings, Tauros launched a giant cloud of fire toward Step. She staggered back, holding her arms up as a pathetic shield, even though those would surely melt against the incoming fire. Yet, the blast never connected. Instead, through the steam, there were three new figures blocking the strike.

“Ow,” said one of them, bursting into an ember that returned to Step.

The largest of the three looked back at the Aggron. “Are you okay?”

Step grunted, shaking it off. “I got careless.”

“We noticed.” The Kommo-o gave Step a little smirk. “You! Porygon! Will we be evacuating?”

“Species: Porygon-Z!”

“Ra, ahead!” Step shouted.

Ra and the other remaining Kommo-o looked forward too late; a second Fire Blast incinerated them, their embers returning to Step. She slammed her fist into the ground, creating another wall of ice, but flames from the Ice-Fire Tauros melted through the layers rapidly.

“Evasive action! Evasive action!”

“Step!” Zena blasted the ice with water, hoping to slow down the fire’s advance.

Step grunted and raised her icy hand in the air, and finally, it worked. In an instant, the group, and everyone within that range, vanished in a flash of light.

<><><>​

“Toss him in the lava. He will be fine.” Step shrugged.

“But he’ll melt!” Willow squeaked.

“The ice will melt. The shelled Fire will be just fine.”

“But he’ll… drown?” Willow protested, less enthusiastic.

Step, and the frozen Hunter, and the four other Guardians all stood in the middle of Hot Spot square, the first to return from their missions. They were all gathered around the Hunter, still in a block of ice, withdrawn in his shell. Far away, beyond the glow of the mushrooms, was the orange glow of a lava river.

“Rocks in liquid motion disturb me,” Valle stated.

“Well, I obviously cannot get close to the lava,” Step said, motioning to her icy body. “Valle, if you refuse to move, and Willow, if you’re too small, we just have to rely on… what are you, exactly, again? Ra mentioned your species, yet it’s too foreign.”

“I am a Porygon-Z,” ADAM stated. “I refuse to further overheat my processors.”

“Overheat?” Step parsed. “Then perhaps you can use the ice to stay cool while you move it forward. Will you do that?”

“You do not have the necessary user permissions.”

Step blinked, but suddenly narrowed her eyes. “Are you refusing me?” she said in a growl. “You are the most capable. Do you wish for me to melt? Perhaps I should freeze you next.”

“Fear levels increasing.”

“How come you want to unfreeze him?” Willow asked. “The Torkoal could try to kill us! Hunters are all super powerful!”

“This Hunter was… underwhelming,” Step stated flatly. “I have little to say about his strength, as his aura exhumed no power, and he did not fight back.”

“Oh.” Willow moved closer to the ice, shivering when a bit of frost collected on her fur. There was a pool of water near the base of the melting ice. “I guess Hot Spot is already warm enough to thaw him out.”

“This is taking far too long,” Step said impatiently. “I’ve isolated myself for decades, and yet this feels like an eternity longer. I shall shatter his prison myself.”

She stepped back—Willow and ADAM cleared the way. Valle remained where he stood, though he was already out of the way and in his usual spot in Hot Spot’s central square. Step sent from her chest a single aura ember. It grew and solidified into an icy Kommo-o, taking on a battle stance toward the ice.

“Prepare yourselves for a loud noise,” Step warned the others. “Now, Ra!”

Zena tensed, quickly bringing up her ribbons. “Are you sure this is a—"

The Kommo-o slammed his chest, clanging his scales. Dragon-enhanced ripples of sound reverberated across the ice, leaving countless small cracks and fissures behind.

“Hmph.” Ra crossed his arms. “It was sloppy, but that will do.” He looked back to Step, nodding. She nodded back, withdrawing the spirit back into her realm.

She held her chest briefly, knocking her claws against her icy armor. “It was just fine,” she mumbled to herself.

Willow tilted her head at the gesture. “Are you okay?”

“Hm? Yes, I’m just fine. Go on and help the Hunter out of his prison. If I get too close, I might accidentally freeze him all over again.”

“Oh! I have an idea!” Willow jumped toward the frozen Torkoal, spurting her pink wings to complete the gap. “Maybe this’ll help!”

Pink mist formed around her body. After a few seconds, the hunk of ice—and the Torkoal inside—shrank down until it was no larger than Willow herself. She crawled toward the block of ice and prodded at the many cracks that Ra left behind, pulling the walls apart. With him in his shell, it was very easy to free him safely.

“Oh, oh!” Willow said. “His little legs are moving! Aww, isn’t he cute? I wanna just—”

“You will not harm the Hunter,” ADAM said. “I am detecting malevolence from the Fairy Guardian.”

“Am not! I was just gonna poke him a little!”

“That is enough, Guardian,” Step growled. “Return him to his normal size.”

“W-well, maybe I don’t wanna!”

“You shall return him to normal size,” Step said, “or you will be frozen for a century.”

“Mnnn! I can take you on… but I’m gonna do this because I’m being nice.” Willow stared at the ice block a bit longer, waving her tiny legs at it, and then jumped away, landing skillfully on top of ADAM’s head.

The ice returned to its normal size, as did the Torkoal within. Now that he was bigger, they could hear weak, tired groans from within his shell. “Hello? Ah… it’s quite cold…”

“Torkoal Elder,” Step said with a cold gaze. “I hope my spirits treated you kindly.”

“Your mate is quite frightening,” Elder said. “Such intense eyes.”

Step smirked. “It is why he is my mate.”

“Elder,” Zena said, watching him carefully. “You spoke to me before. And Owen met me not long after—you told me… that if I gave up my power, I could finally leave this cave.”

“Ahh… Milotic Zena, correct?” Elder asked. “Yes. I told you as much. You would be free.”

“And then I refused. In fact, I believe I killed you.”

“Ahh… not quite,” Elder said. He brought his foot toward his neck, but then frowned. “Oh, where is my bag…?”

“The bag? I froze it and discarded it into the ice,” Step said.

Elder frowned. “That had my lunch… I haven’t had a lunch in such a long time. I was looking forward to it.” When he was met with nothing but a cold stare, he relented. “Well… it had my Badge, and a Reviver Seed, Zena. I always use that combination to escape if I ever run into trouble. I may have looked injured when you fought me—you have a very powerful Hydro Pump, I might add—but… yes. I escaped. I typically do.”

“Well, you failed this time,” Step growled. “And we will be keeping you here as well.”

Elder bowed his head. “Very well. I cannot fight back. And… I understand that Rhys is here, too. I cannot complain.”

“You know Rhys, then.”

“Yes. We…” Elder hesitated. “We are very familiar with one another. We speak often through the spirit world. And, when fate allows us, we exchange letters and gifts. Why, I know just the perfect Pecha patch… ahh, he certainly loves his Pecha Berries, but only certain kinds, you know…”

Zena felt herself getting older merely listening to him. “You do understand that Rhys is no longer a Hunter. He abandoned his role.”

“He has for a while.” Elder, unfazed, nodded at what Zena thought would be a shocking remark. “I do not blame him.”

“And yet, you remain one.”

“I did,” Elder replied. “I did because I wanted to try to end this nonviolently. Without fighting.”

Willow sparked with pink electricity. “So much for that!”

“Yes…” Elder sighed. “But now that most of the Guardians are with the Trinity, or with Owen, or… dead, I suppose my purpose has ended.” He trotted in place, his huge body—much larger than any normal Torkoal—swaying with the shifting weight. “Eon will be very upset at my departure.”

Step stared Elder down, but then looked back at the others. “I know little of this. Does he seem trustworthy to you?”

“No deception readings detected,” ADAM said.

“He moves very little,” Valle remarked.

“I dunno, but Owen will!” Willow said.

“Yes, if anything, Owen would be able to tell if he’s lying or not. He must have some memory of you, so perhaps he’s familiar with your body language.”

“Owen. Who is this Owen?” Step said.

Willow giggled, hopping onto Zena’s head next. “He’s a super-cool mutant Charizard that gives rides on his head! Right, Zena? And you have a crush on him!”

Zena inhaled sharply, but said nothing.

“Ahh, Owen,” Elder said. “Yes. He has the ability to expand his aura into the surrounding area, becoming aware of everything it touches. This includes body language. For someone he is familiar with, he can tell if someone is lying, or how they are feeling. He will certainly know if I am lying, Step.”

“He is familiar with you?” Step said. “And he is a mutant? Then how can I trust him?”

“Because Owen’s nice!” Willow said. “He’s friends with all of us! I’d rather listen to him than to Star!”

“Really? Then he doesn’t care for Star, either?” The Aggron’s face, unable to show proper expression, seemed at least slightly contemplative. “Owen…”

“He’s the Grass Guardian,” Zena said, nodding. “I trust Rhys because he made a Divine Promise to me, but I trust Owen because…”

Step eyed Zena curiously. “Because of your crush?”

Zena looked down, finding the words and ignoring the hotness of her face. “Because he is genuine. You will see it in his eyes.”

Seeing as Step did not have Owen to reference, she instead looked at Zena’s eyes. Her gaze did not break. “Hm,” the Aggron said. “Very well. I will see what this Owen says.” She turned to Elder. “Until then, we shall wait.”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 42 – Royalty

“Y’know, it’s kinda hard ter hate this place,” Manny said. “Nice air, strong trees… Could do without all the spiderwebs, though.”

Arachno Forest was brimming with life. The trees were thick with dark leaves and strong trunks; very little light reached the forest floor. The ground was lush from recent rainfall. Every boulder hid a plethora of Bug Pokémon beneath it, something that made Rhys’ aura sensors tingle.

“I don’t like it,” Mispy mumbled, also able to sense the auras o several Pokémon hidden away. Her many vines delicately glided over the mud, hesitant to touch any rock for fear of getting bitten by whatever was inside. It wouldn’t hurt her, of course—but it was a very spooky feeling to get bitten by something she didn’t expect to be there.

Demitri, riding atop the mutant’s back, had previous expressed if it was a good idea for Mispy in particular to come here. “You’re weak against Bug Pokémon, right? And I think, like… half of them know a lot of Poison moves, too.”

“None of these choices were favorable for Mispy,” Rhys said. “Ice, Poison, and Bug—if you want my opinion, this may have been the best option. At least this forest is healthy.”

“Infested,” Mispy corrected. The petals around her neck glowed dimly.

“N-no Solar Beams yet, Mispy.” Demitri gently, yet frantically, and stroked the back of her neck. This was enough to calm her down.

“I just… want to go home,” Mispy said. “And cuddle…”

Demitri blushed. “W-well, that doesn’t sound too bad… But let’s get this Guardian, first.”

“Heh,” Manny looked back. “You two’re close.”

“Well, we trained together!” Demitri said. “We were both created, like Gahi and Owen, and we were supposed to work as a team. So, I guess in a way, this was meant to happen. I don’t mind.”

“Mm,” Mispy said. “Demitri’s cute.”

“I—I am not,” Demitri said, clicking a claw against one of his tusks. “Don’t I look scary and gruesome? These things detach, you know!” He tugged at his right tusk, pulling it clean off. A small hole, like a giant nostril, was left behind where the tusk had been securely in place. “I think I look awesome, not cute.” He wedged it back into place with a dull click.

“Both,” Mispy said, turning her head back to nuzzle him.

Rhys hummed, jumping at a Spinarak that had skittered across the ground. Mispy saw it, but nobody else did, so she’d hold that against him later for second helpings at dinner.

“Now, let’s focus,” Rhys said.

“Heheh, what, too mushy fer yeh?” Manny teased.

“It’s simply not the appropriate time,” Rhys said, turning up his nose. “Besides, I feel the presence of another Mystic aura far off. But… it’s difficult to tell where. It’s a powerful aura—my senses are being disrupted.”

“Oh, so it ain’t jus’ me,” Manny said. “I’ve been trying ter sense any life that might be stalking us down… but fer the life o’ me, I can’t. Not a single aura. Feh…” Manny went on to mumble under his breath. “Guess it’s all the spiders ‘n stuff.”

“Mispy?” Rhys said. “Your sense of aura is more precise than either of ours when you focus. Can you sense anything?”

Mispy shook her head. “Blind.”

“This Guardian must be deliberately masking any major auras nearby,” Rhys surmised. Suddenly, a strange creature skittered past them, darting from one bush into the next. It looked like an Electrike with more limbs than it should have… “At least we know we found the right… general area.”

Mispy shuddered, looking at the sky for something that was at least vaguely cute. Her eyes relaxed when she saw a Pichu lounging in the treetops a bit further ahead. But then it rolled in its sleep, revealing huge, insectoid mandibles and chitinous claws where its arms should be. Hopes crushed, the Meganium elected to focus on the back of Rhys’ head.

Something rustled in the bushes far to their right. Mispy jumped; half of her tendrils writhed defensively; the other half crawled over her own body and wrapped around Demitri like a cocoon.

“M-Mispy—can’t see—gnck!”

“Who’s there?” Rhys immediately widened his stance and held his paws up, flaring with aura. “We—have no intention to fight, but will defend ourselves!”

“Speak for yourself,” Demitri, muffled, said. “I wouldn’t mind some sparring, but—we aren’t hostile or anything!” He squirmed until his head was free. “Mispy, can you see anything?”

Mispy didn’t answer, still spooked at the sight of what appeared to be a Whismur with insect legs sprouting from its back, its normal limbs dangling uselessly while it crawled from one tree to the next.

“Who are you guys?” someone called, shrouded in the darkness of the trees’ shadows. “And why do you look like… us?”

“Us?” Demitri asked. “Wait, that voice sounds… weird. I don’t like it.”

“…Familiar…” Mispy glanced at Demitri.

There were two Pokémon on the other side of the trees. If only because they were curious, the first one stepped aside to get a better look—it was a mirror image, an exact copy, of Demitri, down to the last detail. Moments later, an identical copy of Mispy emerged next, writhing vines and all.

“I… I don’t believe it,” Rhys said breathlessly. “Nevren made… another set. Or Eon, or…” He shook his head, looking back worriedly at the two mutants on the team. Mispy could already see the worry etched in Rhys’ expression: he likely figured it wasn’t going to bode well for their psyche after what they had just been through.

“A… another…” Demitri repeated slowly. His voice became quiet. “They’re… they’re us.”

It made sense. That Meganium had the same strange appearance, for one, and while the other Demitri could have just been a particularly strong-looking Haxorus, she was sure those tusks were removable all the same. It made sense. If they had been created once, then it just went that they were probably created again… Were there others?

“No, they aren’t,” Rhys said firmly. “They look like you, but they’re different entirely. That isn’t you—Haxorus, what is your name?”

“Ax,” said the clone of Demitri.

“And you, Meganium?”

“Ani.”

“They’re… less creative,” Mispy noted. “Wait, but if…”

Demitri nodded. “If there are copies of us, then—um—hey!” He pointed at Ax. “Do you know a Charizard and a Flygon that, um, come with you guys?”

“You mean Har and Lygo?”

Mispy had no words for their naming convention, and instead looked down, feeling what she could only guess was disappointment in her kin.

“Yeah, eh… actually, hang on,” Manny said. “Why’re yeh guys here? Yer… synthetic, ain’t ya? Most o’ my spirits’re synthetic. And they were all crazy until I helped calm ‘em down.”

“We were like that, once,” Ax said. “But Queen Trina helped us. Now we serve her.”

“Queen… Trina,” Rhys said. “Interesting—and this Queen of yours… may we meet her?”

“Why?” Ax asked.

Ani glared, vines already tense for battle.

Rhys spoke slowly, knowing that anything sudden could provoke them. “Hm… we believe that she is a Guardian, perhaps of the Bug Orb? We are forming an alliance of Guardians to protect ourselves against the Hunters. If that’s agreeable to her, then we would like her to relocate to our… base, of a sort.”

“Hmm…” They both hummed. They stared suspiciously at Rhys; the look they gave him seemed to put the Lucario off his rhythm. Perhaps he wasn’t used to being given such skeptical looks from Demitri and Mispy. That made sense, Mispy thought—they were usually looking up to him, not down at him.

But having exact copies like that presented a new opportunity.

Mispy shifted her weight. “Um…”

“What is it?” Ani, Mispy’s double, asked.

“…Can we fight?” Mispy asked.

“Heheh…” Manny shook his head. “Never change.”

There was a glimmer of temptation in Ani’s eyes, but she scoffed. “I don’t do things so childish for no reason. You won’t get a fight from me unless Queen Trina makes a request for it.”

“Well, all the more reason to meet her, right?” Demitri said. “Can we?”

“Well,” Ax said, fiddling with his claws in the same way Demitri did. “…Fine. We will inform her that you are here. But it will be up to her if she can meet you at all, you know.”

“Sounds fine ter me,” Manny shrugged. “Lead the way.”

The both glared at Manny.

“Wh-what my colleague means,” Rhys said, “is that we would be honored to meet your queen, and humbly request that you lead us to her domain.”

“That’s better,” Ani growled.

Ax hopped on top of Ani’s back. The Meganium slowly spun around on her vines and crept forward into the forest depths. Demitri and Mispy watched them uneasily. Even his habit of riding atop Mispy was something they did. But—no, that was just a natural reaction. Mispy’s body was great for traveling and carrying great weight on foot, or vine. If anything, Manny and Rhys should’ve been on top of her, too. If it wasn’t for the Waypoints that Nevren had organized the scouts to set up for them to these locations, he would’ve been riding on Mispy’s back anyway.

On the way to the Bug Guardian’s domain, Manny mumbled to Rhys, “Well, ain’t they proper… Ain’t nothing like my spirits.”

Rhys nodded and spoke leisurely, just loud enough for Demitri and Mispy to hear. “Mutant Pokémon are just like we are, when you take away their modified instincts. As such, they can be raised and influenced to behave in ways you wouldn’t expect. It seems that this Bug Guardian is following a feral Vespiquen’s approach to raising an army… How interesting. I’m curious what species she is.”

The more they walked, the more the forest became blanketed in webs and silk. He could hardly see the trees through it all at this point. In fact, for a moment, that they weren’t in a forest at all anymore. Even the sky was blotted out by the web; they were in some sort of bug nest. A cave out in open air.

“Hey, eh…” Manny eyed the cocoons. “You ain’t… turnin’ us inter lunch, are yeh?”

“Lucario don’t provide very much meat,” Ani said. “Eating your kind wouldn’t be worth the trouble.”

“Th-that’s right, good thinking. ‘Cause we’d give you way more trouble than it’s worth.”

“That’s one way to put it,” said Ax. “But should you give us trouble anyway, perhaps we will reconsider. I’ve never had Lucario before.”

Manny puffed out his chest. “Feh, yer queen doesn’t sound so tough. I bet I could take ‘er down with just—”

Rhys was about to warn Manny to hold his tongue, but before he had the chance, both Ax and Ani spun. The mutated Haxorus sprung from Ani’s back, pulled from his face one of his bladed tusks and held it against Manny’s side. At the same time, Ani wrapped her vines around Manny and squeezed, making sure her thorns left a mark. He didn’t have time to react to the vines; Ax and his blade was just an additional threat. At first, Manny just gave a confident smirk; a few mutants couldn’t do much to him as a Guardian.

His frame cracked in three places.

“Hrngk—!” Manny wheezed, eyes wide.

“You will not threaten the queen,” Ani and Ax said in a hiss. “Got it?”

“Yeah,” Manny rasped. “Got it. No threats.”

Ani released him, and then he collapsed to the ground, groaning. Demitri hastily got down and helped Manny onto Mispy’s back to recover.

“Idiot,” Mispy mumbled. This Fighting Guardian was indeed where Gahi got his attitude from. He used to be such a good guy, too. But after that rebellious runaway phase, he was a delinquent. At least, she imagined that was the case.

“Good thing I don’t eat…” Manny coughed out a glob of blood and rubbed at one of his broken ribs. “These guys ain’t no joke…”

Mispy wondered if healing him so soon would be a disservice to Manny; after all, would he learn anything from this?

“They’re us,” Demitri said, looking at Ax. “Of course, they’d be strong.”

But strength alone from some mortal wasn’t enough to break through Mystic protection. Manny knew not to speak up, though. Perhaps the Guardian was enhancing them in some way.

“He gets it,” Ax said, smiling at his counterpart.

Mispy giggled, bumping her head against Demitri. “Um… Who’s… the queen?”

“Queen Trina,” Ax said, “or the Bug Guardian, like you said. She’s a Serperior, and she’s probably the strongest one in the world, even if you excluded her Mystic Aura. That’s how strong she is.”

Manny looked like he was about to question this claim, but his eyes had a flash of terror, and for what Mispy imagined was the first time in centuries, he held his tongue. Perhaps he learned something after all.

“Is she a merciful queen?” Rhys inquired.

“Absolutely. Queen Trina is the most reasonable Pokémon in the world. We owe our lives to her; we would be dead without her guidance.”

“Oh? How so?” Rhys asked. “You are mutant Pokémon—that likely means you were created by Nevren, yes? You came from Quarts HQ?”

“That’s right,” said Ax. “But… we don’t really… remember a whole lot about that. It’s sort of fuzzy. I think it comes from the fact that we had to be calmed down.” Ax stared back at Rhys with a hint of suspicion. “How do you know that?”

“Er—I happened to know about the area. We’ve been investigating the synthetic Pokémon and… those associated with them for quite some time now. It’s only natural that we would be familiar.”

“Hm.” Apparently easily convinced, Ax continued. “A lot of us were sent here on a mission to take an Orb with us. We were led by Espurr Rim. That’s probably what happened to us, too, before the Queen took us. Do you know about her?”

“I certainly do,” Rhys said. “We’ve fought one another in the past. She is very powerful.”

“Not as powerful as our queen,” said Ax. “She and her army were able to take down Rim’s onslaught—including us, I guess. But instead of killing us, she took us in.”

“She… took you in?” Rhys asked. “Were you not in your battle modes? I doubt Rim would return you to a neutral state in the middle of a battle.”

“We were still in that mode. But she took us in anyway. Her army of Bug Pokémon and her servants restrained us and dragged us to the deepest part of her cavern, the place we’re leading you now. And once we were brought there…”

At this point in their walk, the forest path gave way to walls of silk, lit only by the Mystic glow of the web and the little light that could shine through the cavern’s ceiling. It truly was a place made by, and for, Bug Pokémon. Massive Bug Pokémon. The cavern’s ceilings were high enough to fly in, and even if they all walked side by side, they wouldn’t be able to touch both walls.

A cold, twisting feeling made a knot in Mispy’s stomach. She couldn’t see anything by aura, even within here. Only her eyes helped her see, now. The way the cavern was constructed absorbed all echoes; sound traveled only through vibrations in the webbing. And that could only mean that everyone in the cavern knew they were here. It was too quiet. She felt thousands of eyes staring at her from all directions, yet she couldn’t see a single one.

“What are… those?” She pointed a vine ahead. It was darkest there. Less and less natural light reached these parts of the labyrinthine corridors, leaving them to rely on the glow of the web instead. And with that glow, Mispy saw oval-shaped cocoons a bit larger than Rhys lining the sides of the large cavern. One of them moved. Another one twitched. The rest were completely still.

Manny tensed. Something else was moving in the darkness. Something long, slow, graceful, a lot like Zena. “I think we found her,” Manny said.

“Yes,” said Ax. He and Ani lowered their heads; Ax went on one knee, while Ani, lacking knees, sank lower to the ground and deeply bowed her head.

“Hm…” Rhys said. He followed suit, kneeling with his eyes closed. Demitri and Mispy, thankful to have references, mirrored the poses Ax and Ani took.

Even blind, Mispy couldn’t ignore the sheer aura presence radiating from the approaching Guardian. She peeked through her left eye—Indeed, it was a Serperior. The gaze from her red eyes pierced through them. Even without talking, Mispy felt like she wanted to speak every lie she’d ever said.

The others seemed equally hypnotized.

Rhys shook the thoughts from his head and maintained his composure, and Mispy did the same.

Queen Trina indeed—her hypnotic spell wouldn’t work on her. But… maybe if she opened up a little?

Rhys quietly spoke, “Demitri, Mispy. Remember your meditation.”

That was enough to snap them out of it. Realizing what had happened, they watched Trina with extra caution.

“So that’s yer game…” Manny wheezed. He wasn’t affected at all, but between his still healing ribs and the immense pressure she radiated, he could hardly breathe.

“Queen Trina,” Ax said, “we brought the guests that you desired.”

“Desired?” Rhys asked.

“Yes. When you requested to see her, we felt her will, and her will was to allow it.”

Ani nodded and continued for Ax. “We can feel her thoughts and commands, no matter where we are. One day, if we die, our spirits will be bonded to her will even more. Spirits that serve a Guardian are quick to become like them, or to become loyal to them. It’s only natural.”

“You have fulfilled your duties for the day,” Trina said. “You may rest.” Trina spoke deliberately. Her voice was neither loud nor soft, but perfectly controlled, like it had been practiced countless times. Her volume was enough to command attention, yet not distract with its loudness.

“We thank you.” The two mutant Pokémon moved backwards, raised themselves, turned, and departed through one of the many corridors in the maze of webs.

“…That was weird,” Manny said. “That’s calmer than I’d ever seen a synthetic like’m befer.”

“That is because I tamed them,” Trina said, staring at Manny. She observed the plethora of crimson patches riddling the Lucario’s crushed body. “…What have you done to elicit Ani’s wrath?”

“E-eh, nothin’,” Manny said. “Yer highness. I ain’t meanin’ nothin’.”

“…You spoke badly of me.”

“E-ehhh.”

“I could turn you into a mere drone for that,” Trina said, staring right into his eyes.

Manny quickly looked away, some primal instinct inside of him telling him to avoid eye contact. Mispy could sense the spirits in Manny’s body, outraged that someone would intimidate Manny so much. “Feh…”

“Hmm…” Trina looked him over. “It is not worth my time. I can sense that you, too, are a Guardian. It would be unbecoming of me to harm your spirits. They have done nothing wrong. But I do sense something curious… Many of the auras within your body are… also without ancestry, are they not? Souls stripped of history. Actually, now that I take a closer look, all of your auras seem odd.” She looked at the two Lucario and two mutants.

“Feh, not important.” He tentatively moved his arm; it was back to normal. During their walk, his body healed roughly halfway. “Sorry, yer highness. Not important ter look at that, but yeah. They’re mutants. I kill ‘em, and then sate their hunger fer battle. Now they fight with me instead.”

“Interesting… Perhaps that is another way to heal their damaged auras. You are smarter than I expected.”

Mispy giggled.

“And you two,” Trina said. “Your auras feel fully repaired. Just how did you do that? What treatment did you two go through?”

“We meditated a lot,” Demitri said.

“…Is that a joke?”

“It is the genuine truth,” Rhys spoke up. “Based on my theories of calming broken auras, and without any Mystic powers like you have, I had to put them through an intense meditation, regression, and training regimen.”

“Meditation… fascinating,” said Trina, eying the two. “And with just that hard work, they were able to maintain their sanity? How did you get them to meditate in the first place?”

“They were not always in these forms. I put them in their base state—in other words… their pre-evolved forms. Thankfully, in that state, their instincts are almost entirely dormant—I was able to train them, so when they returned to their—”

“How did you revert them to a pre-evolved state? Evolution is a one-way path. Only with divine influence can you reverse it. The power of a Guardian, or perhaps a Pokémon of Legendary proportions, blessed by Arceus…”

“Not quite,” Rhys said with a little smile. “I have been blessed by Mew Star, in a sense. I have a tiny fraction of the same divine power you have within me, as a… former Hunter.”

Trina narrowed her eyes. “And how can I be sure that you are a former Hunter?” he said. “At least now your knowledge of mutant Pokémon makes sense.”

“Actually, maybe modified Pokémon is better?” Demitri asked.

“Modified? But you weren’t changed at birth. You were created. Your resemblance to other Pokémon is a mere coincidence, perhaps for the ease of creativity. You are Pokémon, all the same, yet you are different. Be proud of that.”

“P… proud?” Demitri repeated.

“Why would we be proud of that?” Mispy said.

Mispy eyed Rhys’ aura when it wavered with guilt. Now that Mispy thought about it, he had never truly apologized to them about what had happened, why he had lied to them for so long. Was it really for their own good? Was there a better way? It felt like they had lost entire lifetimes to his plan.

“That’s—that’s not a way to look at it, Mispy.”

“We’re fake,” Mispy said, eying her counterpart.

“That’s hardly a healthy outlook. Hmph.” Trina shook her head. “Have pride that you are powerful.”

“Does Star even like us?” Demitri asked.

“Demitri—where is this coming from?” Rhys said.

Trina stared closely at both of the mutant Pokémon. “Yes, Demitri. Where are these thoughts coming from?”

“Enough games,” Manny said. “What’s yer influence on ‘em? I know it’s you.”

Trina glared; Manny’s tail involuntarily sank down, and he winced. He clenched his paws and brought his head up again, but little was going to bring his tail back to its original height. “You mess with the mind. Yer makin’ their inner thoughts stronger. I know how you work, Queen Trina.”

“…But… it’s true,” Mispy said. She felt that these thoughts were her own; surely she would have sensed Trina tampering with them.

Rhys frowned. “…So… that’s truly how you feel about yourselves? That you’re…?”

“We’re strong,” Demitri said. “But… I guess…”

“…Maybe we’re… lesser souls.”

“Preposterous,” Trina said, and this time her voice was a lot firmer. Demitri and Mispy both shrank down like children. “You are artificial, but your soul shines like any other. Your aura may look different, but you are a life all the same. I may not care for Star’s attitude…” Trina gave the pair a small, regal smile. “But I believe that she treats you at the same value as all other lives.”

Demitri and Mispy didn’t seem very convinced, looking away.

“I… I had no idea,” said Rhys. “I thought that they enjoyed themselves.”

“W-we do!” Demitri said. “It’s just—you know, sometimes, it’s nighttime, it’s quiet, and you’re just… alone with your thoughts… You start thinking about things… you know?”

“And it’s… wrong.” Mispy nodded. “We’re… wrong.”

“I—I don’t… I wouldn’t dare consider something like that,” Rhys said.

“Rhys,” Demitri said. “You spent centuries trying to fix us.”

“That’s…” Rhys hesitated, and Mispy knew that look. Trying to find a counter, frantic with his thoughts. A small part of her wished he’d find something to say to ease her worries… but that long silence meant he couldn’t. Demitri was right—they were broken for the longest time, trapped in their own fighting, self-destructive instincts.

“Out of respect for your teacher,” Trina said, “I have no interest in taking you into my hive. You seem to trust Rhys very much, and I see no reason why he would be a bad influence on you, if he is so dedicated to restoring your spirits. And for that, Rhys, I must praise you.”

Rhys did his best to hide his wagging tail. “I appreciate it.”

Just then, a muffled roar echoed from one of the cocoons. It heaved from powerful punches from within, thrashing against the wall the cocoon was attached to. A clawed fist burst out from the silk webbing.

Without missing a beat, Trina turned around and slithered toward it, hissing soothingly. The hiss reverberated in Rhys’ ears, making them twitch and sink down. It was like a blanket that wrapped around his mind. He could’ve fallen asleep where he stood. It was even stronger on whatever was struggling inside; it let out a weak roar, and then the arm went limp. A vine emerged from her back, wrapped around the hand, and eased it back into the cocoon. She then mended the silk, slowly wrapping it back up. Her entire front secreted more of the white lines, and with each lap, the cocoon thickened. Demitri and Mispy shuddered.

“What…” Demitri said. “What’re you gonna do to them? I—I thought Mystics didn’t have to eat!”

“Oh, I’m hardly eating them,” said Trina. “I am storing them away so they can calm down. Every night, I help them sleep. And every morning, I wake them. Slowly, they grow accustomed to my voice and my presence.”

Mispy grimaced. “Creepy.”

Trina scoffed. “It tames them. Most of them are quite fine once they are awakened. If a moon passes, they are tamed, and they wish to leave… then I let them leave. It isn’t as if I force them to stay.”

“Y-yeah, but, you brainwash them, don’t you?” Demitri said. “I can’t imagine myself ever calling someone a queen, and Ax was…”

“You shouldn’t compare yourself to Ax,” Trina said.

“Wh—bu—we’re literally the same person! I mean—body!” Demitri protested.

“Yes, but you were raised in a completely different way,” Trina said. “Instincts can only take you so far. In the end, I was able to soothe their minds and their auras, and then I introduced myself. Your kind are fiercely loyal to any leadership you deem worthy. So, me convincing them that I was worth their time was all I had to do.”

“Well…” Demitri said.

“How did you…” Mispy stumbled over her words, and the next one wasn’t coming in time. Demitri routinely rubbed at her neck, and she relaxed. Finally, the word came. “Convince them?”

“Well, after their auras were calmed,” Trina said, “I offered to battle them. After beating them—”

“W-wait, you beat them? Even when they fused together?”

Trina chuckled. “Do you really think such a petty maneuver will work on me?”

“P-petty? That’s hardly petty! We remember what happened—fusion was Nevren’s ultimate design, or something! It took our best features, and combined them! We were, like, unstoppable.”

“Oh, I’m sure, in a battle one against one, you would certainly give the average Pokémon some trouble,” Trina said. “But I am not a normal Pokémon, and they did not fight against just myself, either. After all, four against one is hardly fair, hm?”

“Well… that’s true…”

“A coordinated team of four could still defeat your fusion. There are limits, even to the ultimate fighter. From what I have observed, even Nevren’s design is limited by how many components fuse together, and how that can weaken the peak strength of any of those individual powers you listed. And to add… Against a Mystic such as myself, there was truly no competition.”

“Well, aren’t you full of yourself,” Demitri mumbled irritably. A bit of his pride was scraped away at Trina’s matter-of-fact remarks.

Manny was prodding at the walls, marveling at the strength of the webbing. “So, eh… did yeh make this all yerself?”

“Of course. As the Bug Guardian, it is my obligation to make a home for my hive.”

“…Where’s it all come from?”

Trina glared. “It is uncouth to ask a Queen where it all comes from.”

“Y-yeh, okay, sure,” Manny said. He rubbed at his muzzle nervously, but then looked up at Mispy, who was fixated on Trina. “Hey, yeh feeling alright?”

“H-huh?” Mispy asked. “Oh—yes. Um…” She sighed, but then looked at Trina.

“…You wish to fight me,” Trina said.

“Mhm.”

Trina smiled. “Perhaps later. I would like to return to the subject of your arrival. You wish for me to join you all?”

“Yes, we do,” said Rhys. “It may be cumbersome, but… we believe that the Hunters’ strength is increasing. We cannot afford to sit passively while Eon gathers them one by one. Even now, he has three Orbs under his influence. Even with your great power, Trina, I do not believe it would be wise to fight him, should he feel the need to confront you directly. That—is no insult to your power,” Rhys said quickly, noticing her strengthening glare, “but more a testament to his, simply due to his ruthless nature. He has thrice the number of Orbs, Trina. It is a matter of numbers.”

“Hm. Numbers only mean so much,” Trina said. “…But I do understand your sentiments.” She looked up, studying the woven cave around them. “I must consider my options. You will arrive tomorrow to receive my decision. I will allow you to leave a personal Waypoint here so you may return easily.”

Considering Trina’s haughty nature, persisting any further would lower their chances. Mispy also figured that Rhys was irritated at all the webbing getting between his toes.

“Very well. We thank you for the opportunity.” He bowed his head, and then turned to set up a waypoint near the wall of the inner chambers—though he made a conscious effort to keep away from the cocoons. He wondered if there was another Lucario somewhere in these chambers, sleeping away in Trina’s prison… He wondered if it was enjoyable.

Rhys shook his head. Her influence was strong. He stopped in the middle of the chamber and held his badge up. He pressed his claw on the heart-shaped insignia twice in quick succession. It flashed. Then, Rhys lowered the Badge to the ground, and pressed once. The flash stopped. Waypoint registered, though only for this Badge. Rhys turned around. “We should go,” he said. “We will return tomorrow, Trina, in the morning. Is this agreeable?”

“It is,” said the Serperior.

In a flash of light, they were gone from Trina’s labyrinth, and returned to Hot Spot Cave.

<><><>​

The halls were quiet again in Trina’s labyrinth, but the vibrations of the webbing, and the general warmth around the corner, suggested someone had been listening to that conversation the whole time.

“Why so shy, Har?” Trina asked.

A snort answered her, earning a sigh from Trina.

“Is he moping around again?” Ax said. “C’mon, Har! It was just more of us!”

“It wasn’t just more of us,” Har said, stepping out from the shadows with his wings low. The mutant Charizard stared at Trina. “That was… those were the prototypes, weren’t they? The…”

Trina frowned, but then sighed, shaking her head. “I suppose they were,” she said. “Come. I shall arrange for lunch to be made. We can’t have anybody upset on an empty stomach.” She slithered deeper into the caves. “It’s not healthy.”

<><><>​

The mushrooms glowed brightly, suggesting that it was late in the afternoon outside. Rhys shivered. “Goodness, what is that feeling?” It was quite warm in the labyrinth of Trina’s silken maze, but Hot Spot Cave was freezing. The instant they returned, a wave of cold air brushed under his fur; every exhale let out a frosty cloud.

Mispy and Demitri huddled close; Manny rubbed his arms. What kind of cold could pierces their Mystic protections? Unreal.

Rhys looked to his right and saw a home where the rocks were encased in ice. An Aggron was sitting inside, also made of ice. He thought it was a statue before it started moving. She stepped outside to greet them.

“Hello. You are also Guardians?”

“Eh, just me,” Manny said.

“Are those two giving you trouble? I shall freeze them,” said Step. Clouds of frost formed around her hands, and it looked like she was about to popsiclize Demitri and Mispy.

“N-no, that won’t be necessary!” Rhys quickly said. “They are—safe. Allies. Yes?”

“Allies. Of the Guardians? They are mutants.”

“Y-yes, friendly mutants,” Rhys assured her.

“…Your aura is of a Hunter,” Step said. “Perhaps I shall freeze you next.”

This was not a good day for Rhys.

Manny stepped forward this time, “Oy, lemme vouch fer ‘em, they’re fine. Yer from Frozen Oceanside? Zena, Willow, Adam, an’ Valle saved yeh?”

“My name is ADAM.”

“Oy, there they are!” Manny waved.

The group of four approached, with Willow atop Zena’s head. The Joltik hopped. “It’s okay, Step! These four are our friends! Oh! Rhys! I’m glad you came back!”

“Oh? It wasn’t as if I was leaving.”

“No, because, um—we have a friend who’s thawing out further in the caves!”

“A friend? Thawing out?”

“Yes,” Step said. “A Hunter approached me, and I froze him so he would not cause trouble. However, I was convinced that, perhaps, he is not so bad.”

“I… I see. This hunter—who—?” Rhys asked a bit hastily.

Step tilted her head. “An old friend of yours? He is known as Torkoal Eld—”

Rhys was gone in a blink; only a bit of his blue fur remained where he once stood.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 43 – Holy Poison

Owen didn’t know what it was like to slog through poisoned gunk until that day. It was thicker than water, but not quite as thick as mud. Between his scales and his thighs, it had a jelly-like feel to it in some parts, and a vague resemblance to the slime of Emily’s insides in others. Every move he made, he could feel it squishing between his toes. Electing to walk through this swamp was possibly the worst decision Owen had ever made.

Amia was on his shoulders, her thin frame squeezed between the two horns behind his head; Enet was on Gahi’s shoulders, legs wrapped carefully around his neck, awkwardly leaning to the side due to Gahi’s backwards-facing antennae. Her fluff interfered with them, inhibiting his hearing.

Enet growled irritably. “Too thin. Can’t sit.”

“Oy, ain’t my fault I don’t got no shoulders,” Gahi said. “That’s just how m’ body works.”

Amia adjusted herself; Owen figured his back wasn’t the most comfortable seat, but it would do. “It’s a little easier for me. Owen’s wings and shoulders are just enough for me to stay on.”

“I want Owen!” Enet said. “You’re lighter! Gahi’s slow!”

“I’m what?” Gahi hissed.

“I—I think what Enet means,” Amia said delicately, “is that you have more trouble walking with someone on your shoulders. I think I’m lighter than Enet.”

If Gahi had fur, Owen was sure it would have been even puffier than Enet’s natural fluff. Trying to ignore his offense, the Flygon glared ahead. “Meh…”

“Your bickering is tiring me out,” Jerry mumbled. “You, Charizard. Tilt me so I can look forward. I’m tired of staring at your chin.”

“Oh—sorry,” Owen said.

They had been walking in silence for so long that Owen had forgotten he was holding the head of Aerodactyl Jerry—the only part of him that remained after the poisoned swamp somehow melted him. Every time he talked, the scarf wrapped around his neck glowed softly, as if it was what was allowing him to make sound in the first place.

“You know, I never realized just how heavy a head can be… But maybe that’s just because of how strong your jaws are.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“I think so,” Owen said. “You guys are known for strong jaws, right?”

“Sure.”

Owen nodded.

“This place still gives me the creeps… And I don’t get why we ain’t melting like this guy was.” Gahi looked at the Aerodactyl head. “I ain’t that different from him, terms of powers and auras. I mean, sure, I got super speed… and I’m artificial… but that… eh…”

“As far as I can tell, your aura should behave similarly to other normal auras, dear,” Amia said. “So, you’re right. I’m not sure why Jerry here was the only one who melted. Though, now that I get a better look at you, your aura is a bit different, Gahi. Must be the lack of ancestry, like Star said.”

“Maybe they don’t care for ancient Pokémon species,” Jerry muttered. “Ugh, I feel like I have a cramp in my neck.”

“Oh—sorry,” Owen said. “Here, let me just…” He carefully loosened the Pecha Scarf, but made sure it remained wrapped around him. “How’s that?”

“…Better. Thank you. Mmnh… And you’re sure you can return me to normal?”

“I have a few ideas, definitely,” Owen said. “Too bad it’s still kinda hard to test it out while we’re here. Once we’re done with meeting the Guardian, we’ll see if Mispy can help—that Chikorita, remember? Well, she evolved, too, and her healing powers are her specialty. And if not… maybe Emily?”

“Oh! So that’s your plan, is it?” Amia looked down, giving Jerry an encouraging smile from above. “You know, I think that just might do the trick.”

“Emily? Who’s she?”

“She’s a really, really good healer that we know about,” Owen said. “If anybody can restore your body, it’d be her, no matter how damaged it is.”

“Hmph. I’ll believe it when I have wings again. Hey, can she fix my back, too? I threw it out a long time ago. If I twist it funny, I can barely walk after for the whole day.”

“She should,” Owen said.

“Oh yeah? And how about the clicking I get on my left leg? Ever since I got in a scuffle with someone, that leg has been bugging me if I bend my knee weird.”

“Probably.”

Jerry squinted, incredulous. “What kind of miracle worker is this Emily?”

“Like I said, she’s a healer. If Mispy’s work doesn’t fix you, Emily’s definitely will.”

Jerry used his jaw to reposition himself slightly, and then turned his eye toward Owen. “Who are you?” he asked. “All of this. None of this is normal. You saved me by some miracle, and you’re saying some other miracle is going to fix all this damage. Why am I not screaming in pain? How am I talking? Is this some Fire Clan ancient art?”

“…Kinda?” Owen said.

“Um—Jerry, about that,” Amia said. “I really don’t… think that…”

“Save it,” Jerry said, closing his eyes. “I was upset. It’s… it’s not entirely your fault. But I definitely could have become a Heart, if it wasn’t for failing that one test…”

“…Test?” Owen asked. “What test? The exams?”

“The preliminaries,” said Jerry. “Did you not take them? They were three tests in total, when I applied. The academic exam, the practical exam, and, apparently, a hidden aptitude exam.”

“Yeah, I did those… and we went through test missions after that, too… but an aptitude exam? What’s that?”

“The one I failed,” Jerry said. “I scored the highest in the mock-mission classes and had the highest score among the incoming Heart candidates, and yet, I was rejected. James himself told me that I wouldn’t be advancing to the practical exams right before I’d’ve been given my assignment. That is how I learned that Anam himself can veto any applicant’s approval, if he wants. Like he has some sixth sense about whether someone is okay to have or not. The rumor is he can sense the darkness in your heart. What a load of—” Jerry grunted, looking down. “And according to him… I just wasn’t Heart material.” The Aerodactyl gritted his teeth. “Anam singlehandedly put me in this life. If I ever see him again…!”

Owen thought back to Anam’s presence while he was assigned to that cold, thin-air cave in the mountains. He shivered slightly at the memory. The altitude was so bad he had some sort of hallucination of Nevren trying to kill him. It felt so real! He had no intention to go back there. If a place like that could give such vivid dreams, he’d avoid the unnecessary stress. But he also remembered Anam shaking his head at a few of the applicants. Was that the veto? He thought he was just judging their test scores…

Owen also remembered that he had failed the Heart exam countless times before, despite scoring well. It was foggy, but he had been through that song and dance countless times before being accepted. Did Anam sense… darkness in his heart? Perhaps that was his old mutant self. Maybe he sensed that he wasn’t ready yet, unlike now.

“I—I’m sure he didn’t do it out of malice,” Owen said. “Anam’s one of the nicest Pokémon I know. Right?”

Amia frowned, rubbing her chin. “He is, but… he is a little eccentric. And childish…”

“And slimy,” Enet said.

“Ehh, something about him rubs me the wrong way,” Gahi said. “Nobody’s that nice fer no reason.”

“Well… at least his heart is in the right place,” Amia relented checking her hair to make sure no gunk had accidentally fallen into it. “We should really focus more on what we’re walking toward. It’s starting to feel… more and more ominous. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “I think it’s the fog.”

“Smells awful…” Gahi mumbled. “Glad this Pecha Scarf’s keeping me safe, ’cause I think I’m gonna die if I take it off…”

They fell into another tense silence, the fog becoming so thick that they could only see a few feet ahead of them, following vague, mumbling paths through grime-encrusted trees. Amia shivered above him, no doubt her Fairy side on instinctual overdrive at being surrounded by the fog.

And then they heard singing.

“H-ha ha…” Owen inhaled deeply through his scarf, eyes widening coupled with an unnerved smile. “You guys hear that, right?”

O Light, by your eternal power…

“I definitely hear it,” Amia confirmed, trying to locate the source. The fog not only obstructed their vision, but also their aura senses. Owen, however, could still get a vague sense of everything around him, at least within a short range.

Strange blobs littered the ooze, moving on their own. The singing came from those.

One thousand arms, guide my path…

“Isn’t this the Psalm of Creation?” Amia said.

“The what? Which Book was that from?” Owen asked, having no familiarity with much of the Books’ contents. Despite how much he read, he had never been particularly interested in those. In hindsight, perhaps he should have studied up.

More voices joined the song. Ancestor, my form is yours to mold…

“Do they want us to sing along?” Owen said. “I don’t really know the lyrics… also, I’m not much of a singer…” He shifted uncomfortably. Why couldn’t this Trinity Guardian be like Brandon?

The fog was getting very thick. He was starting to feel it through his scarf. “I—I don’t think we should be in this for much longer,” the Charizard said, glancing behind him. He couldn’t even see his flame in this purple haze, which sent his instincts into a swirl of panic. He closed his eyes, easing his breath. “M-maybe we should just go. The Guardian doesn’t want us here.”

Gahi and Owen both stopped, but Amia shook her head. “Let me try this. Get your Badge ready in case this doesn’t work.” She then held her two hands together in prayer, just in front of her chest, and stared at the dull glow in the sky that was most likely the sun.

She sang along with them, following the gentle chorus. When Amia started to sing, even more voices joined them. The chorus started again:

O great Light, immortal power

Thousand arms, undying duty

Ancestor, our flame eternal

We thank you for the gift of life!


Owen wanted to cover his ears at how loud the chorus of voices was becoming, but he was holding Jerry. He glanced down at the Aerodactyl head, but to Owen’s surprise, the bodiless Pokémon was grudgingly singing the psalm, too. He glanced at Gahi, who seemed lost, and then at Enet, who was howling out-of-tune with the song.

On the final note, the voices trailed and faded, and with it, the fog lifted. Owen felt like he could breathe again and risked removing his scarf. Nothing happened, so he took a deep, refreshing breath. “Finally.”

Now able to get a good look at their surroundings, he saw that they were in a small clearing, though the sludge was still knee-high and looked even deeper in the middle. The trees were a bright, glowing purple, though that was certainly not the normal color of the wood. There were no leaves, and whatever was the source of those voices, they were gone, now.

The ooze ahead bubbled, giving the team pause. “Uhh,” Owen said. “I think… something’s there?”

From the sludge, a purple mass distinct from the rest rose.

“A-are… are you the Poison Guardian? Like… there’s maybe a 99 percent chance that we’re in the Poison Guardian’s place at this point, so I just want to make sure for that last percent!”

“Nah,” Jerry said. “That whole fog and psalm was just a random feral who got enlightened. Seriously, how can you think this isn’t one of you Guardian freaks?”

Before Owen could retort, a single eye formed in the center of the top of this mass of sludge, with a pupil that strongly reflected the light in the otherwise dim swamp, making the pupil appear white. Then, two more appeared just below and beside the original eye. This strange, sludge-made creature had an ill-defined shape, but from what Owen could make out, it appeared to be a Gastrodon. “Hello…”

Owen watched sludge fall from the open mouth; his voice was a mixture of a childish song and a gurgle.

After a silence, the Gastrodon went on. “You look… interesting.”

“Here’s ter you,” Gahi said with a wry smile. “You the Poison Guardian, Gastrodon?”

“No… But I am the Poison Guardian’s bestie!”

“…Bestie.” Amia repeated. “Well, um—my name is Gardevoir Amia, and this is—”

“Oh, I know who you all are!” he said with what may have been an attempt at a smile on his strange mouth. “And my name is Gastrodon Ano! I’m the lead spirit of the Poison Orb, under the rule of Guardian Altaria Ghrelle.”

“Altaria…” Owen repeated. “That’s a pretty interesting Pokémon to have control over an Orb, huh? But I guess it makes as much sense as my Orb.” Which, Owen realized, would be completely useless in an environment like this. Why did Star want him to come to this one, again? Owen shook his head. “Can we speak to her, please? I know she’s part of the Trinity, but… I think it’d be okay to just talk, right?”

“Hmm.” Ano tilted his head to the left, and then his right. “I dunno. Ghrelle’s usually very busy. So many people like to come to this place, you know. And she has to make sure that nobody impure can get through!” Ano blinked. “Hey! How’d you get here?!”

“Sh-shouldn’t you have opened with that?!”

Ano giggled, sending small bubbles of poison in the air. They popped into more of that haze, evaporating just as quickly. “I guess I’m a little absentminded… But it felt really funny having others walk through my body!”

“WHAT?” Owen stared at the Gastrodon, but then realized how seamlessly its body blended into the sludge. Owen turned green, not due to his Orb, and said, “O-oh, you’re kidding.”

“It’s okay! Lots of people are here.”

“I’m gonna… no offense, but I’ll just…” Owen focused—hard—and levitated above the sludge, creating an invisible platform to separate his feet from Ano’s body. He grabbed Gahi by the hand and pulled him onto the same platform. He was thankful that the fog’s lifting allowed him to actually perform levitation again.

“Thanks,” Gahi said. “When we get back, I’m gonna ask Rhys ter wipe this memory.”

“Don’t even joke about that…” Owen mumbled. “Um—A-Ano, if this is your whole body, wouldn’t that make you the Guardian?”

“Oh! Well… I’m just possessing Ghrelle’s body. She likes to spend her time in the spirit world.” Ano closed his three eyes. “But if you want… I think she’d like to talk to you! Yeah! Okay. Hold on. Mmmmmmmm…!”

The sludge next to Ano bubbled and churned; out from it formed another pile, which, in turn, shaped itself into a melting, delicate figure. Despite being entirely purple, the shape was unmistakably Ghrelle’s.

Unnerved, Owen could only say, “U-uh, Altaria… Ghrelle…?”

She stared at Owen, right in the eyes. Even from their distance, Owen felt something electric shoot through his body, from his head to his feet. Owen couldn’t place it—why did Ghrelle make him feel so uneasy? He couldn’t feel anything from her body language that suggested malice. But he couldn’t feel anything that suggested benevolence, either. Wait… He couldn’t feel anything from her. Her body language was so perfectly masked that she had nothing for him to work off. Her consistency reminded him a lot of Anam and Emily; no real organs to work with. It was just an Altaria-shaped wad of poison.

“Greetings,” the unreadable Guardian said.

“Bad.” Enet growled. Her fur puffed out, making her look twice as large. Her eyes narrowed to slits against the Altaria.

Ghrelle looked at Enet with an amused glint in her eyes. “Electric Guardian Zoroark Enet,” she said. “Have you spoken at all with your spirits as of late? They are still watching, you know.”

Enet blinked, tilting her head.

“While you are simple at heart, you are also not a very good Guardian. You should consider giving your power up to someone worthier.”

Enet hissed and snapped her teeth at Ghrelle.

“H-hey, let’s not…” Owen paused. “W-wait, about that—Ghrelle! Uh—I think you melted Jerry. Can you turn him back?” He turned the Aerodactyl to face her.

“…Hmm, interesting,” said Ghrelle. “That isn’t my doing. Ano is the one who takes care of this forest.”

“Takes care, huh? That’s an interesting way to phrase it,” Amia said. “There isn’t much of a forest left in this place, is there?”

“Hmm. Yes. I suppose here it is more a field.”

“Field of… poison, you mean,” Owen said.

“Yes, that is exactly what I mean. This is known was the Swamp of Purity.”

“Um.” Amia raised her hand. Owen sensed that Amia was trying to choose which battle to take. “Ghrelle, if you know about Enet, and the rest of us, does that mean you’ve already considered joining our group in Hot Spot Cave? Because it would really help us out if, um… you know.”

“I have pondered your request,” Ghrelle said. “And I will have to refuse. There is no need for me to go with you while I have the blessings of the Great Creator, Arceus.”

“Okay, so, since we’re talking about that guy,” Owen said, “when you say blessings, do you mean that in a figurative way, or, um, literally, he blessed you with some sort of… protection spell?”

“You don’t study on your psalms, do you?” Ghrelle said.

“My what?”

Ghrelle shook her head. “All is blessed by Arceus. That is simply how the world operates. So long as you follow His will, the right way will always be forward.”

“Oh, that’s, um, that’s good,” Owen said. “I think that’s… a good way to look at things, if it works for you. I think. Um, how old are you, again, Ghrelle?”

“It is rude to ask a lady her age.” Despite this, Ghrelle’s tone hadn’t changed at all.

“Oh, quit being coy…” Owen crossed his arms.

“Well. I have been here for a long while, as Arceus’ disciple. I am at least one thousand years old, though, if I must be honest, I have lost count a long time ago. I may be off by a few hundred. In this miasma, in this tropical climate, it can be difficult to track the days, let alone the seasons, as they pass.”

“I know a few folks who can relate to that,” Owen said. “That must mean you’re around the same age as Klent, or maybe a little older. Klent protected the Grass Orb for half a millennium or something. After that, I spent… a few more centuries getting sane again.” Owen rubbed his head. “Wow. I think you’re the oldest Guardian I know.” Then again, he never asked the others how old they were.

“Hey, quit the chit-chat, you gonna turn me whole or not?” Jerry asked. “Getting kinda sick of laying around!”

“The sinner will remain silent,” Ghrelle hissed. Her sudden change in demeanor made Owen’s scales prickle.

And then he felt like he’d been punched in the gut. For a split-second, Ghrelle had radiated some sort of power that came from her, and then reverberated off of the field of poison around him. Her aura was immense—he thought she had spread herself too thin to have any real impact on any one area, but that proved him wrong.

“What was that…?” Gahi mumbled, scratching his arm. “Felt like I got a bad case of scaleburn fer a sec…”

Amia was catching her breath. Enet’s ears shrank behind her head and her fur puffed up even more.

Owen looked down. The Pecha Scarf wrapped around what remained of Jerry’s neck was losing its Mystic glow.

“Gh-Ghrelle, hold on!” Owen said quickly. “It’s okay! Jerry will be quiet! Right?”

“Y-yeah, whatever,” Jerry said, feeling his neck liquefy. He knew his place. It seemed that despite it all, the Aerodactyl would rather lose his pride than his life.

The scarf slowly regained its glow. Owen sighed.

Ghrelle tilted her head, trading glances between Jerry and Owen. “Why do you wish to save him? He is below you.”

Owen immediately countered, “No, he’s not. Sure, he made some wrong choices, but… he’s still a Pokémon. And I don’t think I have any right to judge someone after all the mistakes I’ve made, and the… sure, the sins I’ve done. Bet you know about that, too, huh?”

“Your sins,” Ghrelle repeated. “Yes. I am aware of them. I am also aware that they are not truly your own, when you were designed by one that is perhaps the most blasphemous of them all.”

Owen tapped his claws on his arm. “Wouldn’t that make me a demon? Or something?”

“Perhaps, in a way, you are one. But you are noble and climbed your way out of such a status. It is for that reason you were allowed to come this deep into my abode intact.”

“…What?” Owen said. “Wait—hang on. Is that the difference between Jerry and us? The reason he melted and we didn’t?”

“Yes. Jerry has a dark heart. I can sense it. Therefore, Ano’s body rejected him, and he is destined to be purified. You four… are much more redeemable, and therefore are worthy of the living.”

“B-but… but that’s completely arbitrary!” Owen said. “You can’t just judge if someone is good or bad! There’s no metric for that! So, you just decide if someone’s worth melting or not? Is that it?”

“Yes. My judgement is what decides the worthiness of a soul. I have final say in their fate.” Ghrelle stared at Owen, empty, purple eyes suddenly cold. “Star was wise to send you four. While nobody can be truly perfect, you are all pure in your intentions, and lack doubt in your goals. Except for you, Owen… but that much is understandable. You are at a crossroads that nobody else will face. Perhaps, if in your scales, even I would have my doubts.”

“I don’t… know what you mean,” Owen said flatly.

“Your power, Owen,” Ghrelle said. “And your unique position in this world. You have an Orb, and you also are a synthetic Pokémon. Never intended to possess this divine power, and yet here you are. And most importantly… you have not decided on who you wish to align with. No allegiances, no ancestry, no direction but ahead. Your soul is colorless. You do not know what to do with this power, do you?”

“Of course not!” Owen nearly dropped Jerry to raise his arms, but managed to keep from letting go. “I mean—well, I kinda do. I want to use this power to help others. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do—to fight, yeah, but also to use that fighting to be good. Fight bad guys.”

Jerry grumbled something unintelligible, followed by, “Bad guy, huh?”

“I… I guess in a way, it’s what Anam did with his power, don’t you think? He’s one of the strongest Guardians I know, and he made the entire Thousand Hearts.”

Ghrelle’s eyes flashed at the mention. “Anam… I cannot fault him for his intentions. But he is a bit shortsighted, in the end. His ambition will ultimately prove fruitless.”

“Fruitless?” Owen said. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Ghrelle said. “You are holding an example.”

“Holding?” Owen looked down.

Jerry snorted, looking up at Owen as well as he could. “Anam is a naïve Pokémon who happened upon great power. He thinks that the world is happy and everybody can be happy together. But that just isn’t how it works, kid. Pokémon are different. Some fight. Some are lazy. Some take advantage of the kindness of others. Some just… don’t care. That’s just how things are.”

“How they are, currently, yes,” Ghrelle said. “It is in your nature to be selfish. Ultimately, a sane mind would only do things because you enjoy them, or because you need to do them. Owen, how do you reconcile the fact that not all Pokémon can truly get all that they want, yet will continue to fight for it?”

The Charizard’s eye ridges furrowed with uncertainty. “What? I mean… what do you mean?”

“Well. A simple example,” Ghrelle said, raising a wing. Poison dripped thickly into the main body below. “There are only a thousand positions in the Hearts at any given time. It is to accommodate for the size of the world, small as it may be, to rescue all the Pokémon that are in trouble. A constant force to maintain order. Yet, many Pokémon desire that position, do they not?”

“Yeah, because who wouldn’t want to help others?”

Jerry mumbled, “More like, who wouldn’t want to be set for life? The pay’s insane.”

“The pay?” Owen said. “Oh—yeah, I guess it does pay a lot. We need a lot of money to keep our supplies at their best. And I guess all the extra is to help us feel secure and help out at home.”

Ghrelle looked at Jerry. “How is your home life, Aerodactyl?”

Even without a body, what muscles remained in Jerry’s head and neck segment tensed enough for Owen to feel them.

“I—I mean, he’s an Outlaw,” Owen said dismissively. “He didn’t want to work the normal way, so of course it wouldn’t be that good, right? I—I mean… Jerry, you could’ve turned your life around!”

“He could have, certainly,” Ghrelle said. “With hard work to claw his way from the bottom. Because in the end, his family line was one that could never quite get out of their position.”

Jerry cut in, “How do you know all this?”

Ghrelle chuckled. “Well, how else am I to judge a soul?” she asked. “Jerry, your family was put in their position many generations ago by the so-called Fire Clan. Is that what you were told?”

“Yeah. Is that true? D’you somehow know that?”

“The Fire Clan… is a fabrication,” said Ghrelle. “But the group in question does exist. Amia, you are the latest in that line, correct? And the longest-lived. An ancient artifact that crosses lineages that constantly rip it away from each other. Bloodied claws grasping for a fragment of Arceus’ holy power.”

The edge of her mouth, where her beak met the soft, poisoned goo of her head, slid into a smirk, but then she returned to neutral.

“Apparently, the Orb is meant to be passed from parent to child once they’re strong enough to defeat the parent. Stronger and stronger Fire Guardians. And then… you.” Ghrelle tilted her head, her voice possessing an air of faux-innocence. “How did you acquire your Orb, Amia? Whispers of the spirit realm tell me that it used to follow a Hydreigon lineage. Did an ancestor kill the Hydreigon Guardian… or did you?”

Owen didn’t like the tension Amia suddenly felt. Her blue hair pulsed with a dim, fiery glow. “If you can see my past, then you know I didn’t kill anybody.”

“I can’t see the past. I can only sense your darkness. I feel… guilt surrounding this topic.”

Silence.

Ghrelle hummed, breaking her stare to continue speaking. “It must weigh heavily on you, whatever it is. Did you plan to pass that guilt to your child? The child you never had. Well.” She looked at the Charizard below Amia. “Until Owen came along.”

Owen flinched, jerking his head up, nearly knocking the Gardevoir over. “M-Mom? You… you would’ve had me kill you?!”

“N-no! It’s—it’s not like that,” Amia said immediately. “It’s… it’s not killing when we’ve already lived for so long, don’t you think? And—and I wasn’t going to do it until you were sane, like you are now. Oh, Owen, what am I saying—perhaps I considered it, but after all this time, I wouldn’t!”

“You wouldn’t have told me… and then you’d’ve made me be all alone! Is—is that what…?” Owen’s heart raced at the retroactive panic of having to kill Amia. What was she thinking?! He’s refuse it outright! He never got that impression from her. It must have been a very old thought.

“No, no! It isn’t like that at all! If you didn’t want it, I would’ve just… continued to wait.”

Jerry tensed his jaw, glancing worriedly at Owen’s hands. “Hey, buddy, watch those claws.”

“S-sorry,” Owen said, loosening his grip. “I guess that makes sense, but you could’ve told me! I mean, you probably couldn’t have told me. That would’ve opened up a whole new set of questions.”

Amia nodded. “I’m sorry, Owen. In all that’s been happening, I forgot to tell you. To be honest, I wish I could forget I ever thought about that silly tradition. And since you already have an Orb… I guess I have to start looking again!” She forced a laugh. “But… I think I might be the last of the Fire Clan, as we’re called.” She looked at Ghrelle. “But what does the Fire Clan’s history have to do with Jerry’s family?”

Ghrelle nodded, motioning to the Gardevoir again. “Amia’s ancestor was a close friend of Anam, long ago. This was before he acquired the Ghost Orb, when Anam was the leader of the Ten Hearts. I do not know the full story of this, as I never interacted with Anam before to see his side, but as the story goes, Jerry’s ancestor fought for the Fire Orb all the same. And as part of that, in the savage world at the time, they had to do some… less than desirable things to stay alive.

“One of those things happened to be an attack on Anam’s friend, Amia’s ancestor. News came, Anam encountered this ancestor… and they were apprehended. Skip ahead to when the Thousand Hearts are still growing… the son of that ancestor wants to join. Anam remembers the parents’ actions… and refuses him entry, despite their qualifications.”

Owen shook his head. “It can’t be that simple. Anam can’t hold a grudge! He’s… he just doesn’t seem like the sort of person to do that.”

“I am only explaining Jerry’s perspective,” Ghrelle said. “He comes from a long line of… rejected Heart candidates. With little other talents, and no mobility to get more education to become skilled otherwise… they are trapped searching for scraps, and living off of this ever-shrinking land.”

Owen furrowed his scaly brow, feeling the little plates between his eyes press against one another. “Ever-shrinking?”

“Figuratively speaking. With the Thousand Hearts’ influence, the population of civilized Pokémon is booming with the reemergence of lost technologies. Honest jobs once valid, things that any Pokémon could do, no longer bring food to the family so easily.”

“If you aren’t a Heart,” Jerry said, “or you aren’t related to one… you have to work, and work, and work, just to live, until you’re too weak to work anymore. Then you sit, rot, and die. Alternatively, you have to live like a feral, and hope that the chaotic Dungeon life will give you better luck. Sounds great, huh?” Jerry’s toothy grin was painfully wide. “I’ll pass.”

“Then… then his whole thing is justified!” Gahi said. “No offense ter yeh, Amia, but—he got the raw end o’ the deal, y’know? So how come he melted, if it ain’t any of his fault?”

Ghrelle chirped a solemn tune. “He is still weak-willed and blames the world for his faults. He could easily improve on his situation if he took the opportunities granted to him by Anam. Despite his claim, endless toil is not the ultimate fate for all non-Hearts. Yet, he said it himself… he shall pass.”

Jerry winced, looking like he wanted to say something, yet didn’t.

Gahi’s fists were clenched tight, though. Owen knew that this wouldn’t be enough of an explanation for the Flygon.

“You four, meanwhile, are diligent enough to do the right thing, even if that is not always the easiest path. That is the true, godly path. And it is why you are Hearts. Perhaps it is your synthetic nature, Owen, Gahi. You are loyal and dutiful. Arceus smiles upon such traits.”

Gahi squeezed his claws together again, looking at Owen. “I don’t buy it.”

“I—I mean…” Owen looked down at Jerry, who seemed more focused on the thick bubbles in the poison pit. What was life like for the average Pokémon? Did he ever have an average life? First, he lived in a lab underground, cared for by disciples of Mew. And then, at some point later, he lived in a fabricated village where he and his immortal mother were the only ones truly alive.

None of this was normal. It was never normal. Yet… Anam wouldn’t be like that. Kilo was a wonderful place. Jerry was an outlaw, and Ghrelle said so herself that he wasn’t Heart material for a reason.

But it still didn’t sit right with him, yet most frustratingly, Owen couldn’t figure out the answer.

More tension followed, nobody knowing what to say in response. “But… can you turn him back?”

“It seems that synthetics are also very narrow-minded,” said Ghrelle in a growl. “Did any of my words register with you?”

“I mean, sure!” Owen unfurled his wings as a substitute for his arms. “But Jerry’s still just a head.”

“What do you even care about me for?” Jerry muttered. “You heard her, I’m just some ‘sinner,’ and you’re a godly path-walking soul or whatever. You’re above me.”

“I… I don’t think I am.”

“Pbbt.”

Another little knot twisted in his gut. He shoved it away, looking back at Ghrelle. He could think about it later. Maybe the fog was starting to get to him. “And you’re not going to come with us, either, huh?” Owen asked Ghrelle.

“There is no need. I have Arceus’ blessing and require nothing more to be safe here. Like Brandon that you’ve met before, I am satisfied.”

“Brandon…” Owen said. “Hey! Were you human, too?”

Her eyes shined with amusement. “Yes. A Pokémon that used to be human… how interesting, don’t you think?” The Altaria churred a soft tune that made Owen’s spine feel like ice. “Perhaps you should ask about that sort of thing more often.”

“Eh?” Enet said.

“Yeah, what she said,” Gahi said. “What’re yeh gettin’ at, ask more?”

Ghrelle closed her tiny eyes. “There is still a lot that you don’t know, Charizard. And I believe you know this. The more you ask questions… the clearer the sky and the stars will be. It’s not my place to answer. Why not ask Star? She could tell you everything if she wanted to. Perhaps then you will make your choice. And I do hope you make the correct one.”

Owen gulped, looking down. “Y-yeah… thanks.” He felt Amia above him, but then looked at Gahi and Enet. “I guess we should get going. Uh—if you aren’t going to heal Jerry, we’re just going to take him with us, okay?”

“I won’t stop you,” Ghrelle said. “But don’t forget about his sins.”

“Yeah, sure.” He held Jerry with his right arm and dug through his bag with his free hand. He found the Badge and gave a little nod to Ghrelle. “I’ll, uh, try to keep in touch?” He wasn’t.

He then thrust the badge in the air, and then they were gone.

Ghrelle sat in the silence that returned to the poisoned forest. She churred again. “What a unique position to be in. Torn between all sides, courted by each. All because he refuses to make a Promise.”

The bubbles around the swamp swirled with an idle current, perhaps Ano entertaining himself with the flow.

“Arceus, why don’t we just tell him everything?” She looked at the sky, but didn’t wait for an answer. “A rhetorical question.”

Ghrelle raised her wings; a chorus of voices hummed into the fog.

“After all, it is rude to confess for another’s sins.”

Nothing answered Ghrelle in the physical realm, but the way her beak twitched after a long silence, and the way the poison around her churned, she received her answer. The poisoned Altaria descended into the muck, and silence ruled the swamp once more.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 44 - Overconfident

Owen, Gahi, Enet, and Amia all returned from the Poison Guardian’s realm. They smelled of the toxic swamp’s noxious fumes, but thankfully didn’t take much of it with them beyond that.

“Brr—what a cold draft,” Amia said, rubbing her arms. “I don’t think Hot Spot Cave should quite feel like this!”

Amia held her hand forward and summoned Alex next, who immediately rubbed his cannons together. “M-more like Cold Spot Cave.”

Owen looked back. “Hey, dad. I hope, uh, I hope you weren’t too scared back there.”

“S-scared? Why would I be scared?” Alex said with a light titter. “I’m… I’m a, er, Magmortar. I’m quite scary.”

Amia giggled, rubbing his flaming shoulder. “Oh, dear, you were trembling in the Fire Orb. You aren’t very good with cold personalities like Ghrelle.”

“I—I suppose so.” Alex slumped. “S-speaking of cold, though…”

“Y-yeah, what’s goin’ on?” Gahi mumbled, pressing against Owen’s much warmer, fiery body. Without thinking, he rubbed his cheek against Owen’s shoulder; the Charizard just accepted it, figuring Gahi needed it.

Enet shrugged and smoothed out her fur, clearly glad to finally be out of the swamp. She sniffed the air—doing her best to ignore the lingering stench—and said, “I smell… two. New.”

“Two new smells?” asked Owen. “Oh—that must be the two Guardians the others got!” At least the others were able to recover their Guardians. Still, that meant they were the only ones who failed this time… Not that Owen was expecting it to work out. The Poison Guardian was part of the Trinity. In hindsight, he could have been seriously hurt if he wasn’t careful. But Star was confident that he’d’ve been fine. He was glad that she was right.

He concentrated to feel where everyone was. Most of them were near Rhys’ home across the caves, so he walked, followed by the others. A few others were off on their own. Valle was where he always was, in the middle of the town, the centerpiece of Hot Spot. Manny was brawling with his spirits again in the training grounds, though it looked like Manny was a bit tired this time around.

That meant the two new bodies were in Rhys’ home.

“Hello?” Owen said, peering inside. “What’s going on?”

“Hey! You’re back!” Willow said, hopping off of Valle and onto Owen. Reflexively, the Charizard held free hand out, catching the tiny Joltik in midair like some sort of conditioned routine. “Eww—you smell!”

“S-sorry, I think that’ll wear off. We had to slog through a giant swamp of poison, so we kinda had that get stuck everywhere. Our Mystic powers were disrupted too much to just float over it, I think. I might just hop in the lava to clean up.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t do that,” Gahi said.

“We could fuse, and then I could do it,” Owen offered. “Pretty sure I can handle the lava even if you’re half of me.”

Gahi looked tempted.

“How about me?” Enet asked.

“Uhh… lots of water,” Owen said. There was still gunk on Enet’s feet where they had dipped into the poison, and her fluffy body absorbed a lot of the stench. There was no escaping Enet’s particularly horrible odor.

“Hey, how about me?” Jerry spoke up, reminding Owen that some of his cargo was alive and irritated. “I’m still just a head! You gonna fix that, ‘Zard?”

Willow hopped near Jerry and prodded his cheek. “How come you aren’t dead?”

“Beats me,” Jerry replied. “Maybe I am and this is just my dying nightmare. I’ll believe anything at this point.”

“Uhh—y-yeah. Actually, hold on. Let me find Mispy…” He spotted the mutant Meganium in another room and waved her down.

Her many tendrils dragged the rest of her body toward them, squeezing out of the exit by contorting and bending the many vines to fit through.

“Wh-what’s that thing?!” Jerry said. “No way! Nu-uh, those tentacles aren’t going anywhere near me, you hear?”

“B-but, Jerry, this is how we’re gonna heal you!” Owen said. “Trust me. Mispy’s a great healer, okay? Just… can you be gentle with him?”

The Meganium inspected Jerry’s head curiously, prodding at his cheek just like Willow. He growled and tried to bite at a vine. She flinched away and glared, wrapping a vine around his muzzle. He grunted, but was helpless.

“Hmph.” Mispy pulled him close and closed her eyes, channeling her healing energy into him. Owen watched closely, as did the others.

“What… happened to him?” Demitri said. “Why is he a head? That’s kinda…”

“We, er…” Alex knocked his arms together in thought. “Had some complications.”

Owen nodded. “The Poison Guardian melted him somehow. It didn’t work on us—not even Gahi—but it did for him. And so, he, er… that happened. But I was able to stop it with my Pecha Scarf, and… I think some Mystic energy, too. That’s why he’s not totally melted.”

Zena slithered out from Rhys’ room next, listening in on the explanation. “How awful,” she said. “What a horrible way to…!”

Jerry stretched his jaws enough to get Mispy to let go. She rolled her eyes and gave him the opportunity to speak.

“I don’t need your pity,” Jerry grumbled, but then glanced at Zena. “But… thank you anyway. I’m just fine. Didn’t even hurt.”

“So, er, what’s going on here, anyway?” Amia asked, addressing how everybody was crammed into Rhys’ room, spilling out into the main hallway. “You, um…” She peered inside the next room and saw two new faces. One was Step, the Ice Aggron—quite obvious which Guardian she was—and the other was— “Oh! Are you another Guardian? The… Bug Guardian?”

“Oho, no, not at all,” the giant Torkoal replied. “No. My name is Torkoal Elder—I’m glad to meet you, ahh… Gardevoir Amia, yes?”

“Yes!” Amia gave a little bow. She observed that Rhys was sitting close to Elder, practically up against his shell. “Rhys? Do you know him?”

“Y-yes, I’m… familiar,” Rhys said. “Elder. He’s… he’s one of the Hunters—b-but, there’s no need to be alarmed! He isn’t… a fighter.”

“Ahh, yes. That much has not changed,” Elder said with a rough laugh. “I was never truly that good at fighting. I just don’t have the mindset for it.”

“Which one of you is Owen?” Step suddenly rumbled, glaring at the newcomers.

“Oh, er, th-that’s me,” Owen said, raising a claw.

Step approached Owen, sizing him up. She was a head or two taller than he was, and it looked like she was taking full advantage of it. “…You are the one they trust?”

“Sorry?”

Step huffed a small plume of frost, pointing at Elder. “Do you believe he is friendly?”

“Elder? T-totally! I mean, er, from how I remember him, even if he didn’t want to be friendly, I don’t think he can actually… do much against us. And Rhys likes him. They’re best friends, right?”

Rhys’ fur puffed out, aura sensors rising, and then he leaned against Elder again. “A tad more.”

Step growled, but then settled back in her corner. “You’ve convinced me for now, Hunter,” she told Elder, who simply bowed his head. She looked between them, but then lowered her head, as if talking to someone in her Orb.

“Elder…” Owen grinned. He took a few tentative steps at first, but then made a half-jog for the thawed Pokémon. “I missed you! I—I forgot you for a while, but now that I look back…!” He plopped down in front of him with his knees bent, feet swaying in opposite directions, rhythmically in the air. “Tell me a story!” The flame on his tail glowed a bit brighter, and his wings were tucked behind him neatly.

“O-Owen!” Amia flinched, exchanging a look with Alex. She’d never seen him regress so quickly. “Elder—did you raise Owen?”

“Ahh, I suppose I did. Not just Owen, of course.”

“Heh, yeah, you raised all o’ us, Gramps,” Gahi said. “All th’ Hunters did. Even Rim…”

“Y-yeah.” Owen’s enthusiasm faltered, but then he looked at Elder again. “H-how is everyone? Rim, she… She seemed friendly, but what is she really doing? She’s not—she’s not a bad guy, right?”

“Owen,” Elder said softly. “Some things are… more complicated than black and white.”

Step tensed, as if she was ready to mock him, but stifled it into a grumble to her spirits.

“I—I know, but… Rim has been… you know…” Owen thought about their chess game. She seemed happier during that. Was she happy when she was killing Guardians, too… or was that just a duty she had to uphold? Did she want that? Even if she didn’t—she still killed Cara and Forrest. And nearly killed him, too, before he became a Guardian! Or… or was that just trying to scare him away? She only wanted the Orb, not his life.

“I’m not really sure what to say about Rim,” Elder said, breaking Owen’s trance. “She is still fiercely loyal toward Eon, of course. But beyond that, I’m sure even she has some doubts about whether he has gone too far or not. That, perhaps the means that Eon is willing to take to gather the Orbs… has no longer justified the end goal.”

“What’s the end goal?” Owen asked. “To usurp Arceus, right? Because… Star wanted to do that, originally. Right?”

“Yes,” Elder replied, nodding slowly. “Star was not happy with Arceus and the way he is leading the world—or, perhaps more appropriately, not leading it. Star misses mingling with mortals. And Arceus won’t let her.”

“Sounds kinda petty,” Owen said. “Why can’t she visit?”

Elder winced. “I’m afraid that is part of the deadlock between the two of them. Neither will allow the other to descend. I’m sure Star has told you as much.”

“Yeah, but… why? The world’s just fine without all this Guardian fighting, right?”

“Heh.” Jerry tried to adjust himself, but otherwise said nothing.

Owen’s wings drooped, and his legs went back to the ground. “Why does Eon seem so sure that what he’s doing is right? Why did… why would Rim… no. Why were you helping him, all this time? Is… what he’s doing actually the right thing to—"

“Owen…!” Amia breathed.

The fire on Alex’s shoulders flared up with anxiety, and despite being a spirit, his belly growled with a rapidly forming ulcer.

Owen flinched at the sudden change in atmosphere. Almost everyone looked surprised, or upset, or even hurt at that one. “S-sorry, I didn’t mean it like, Eon’s being a good guy, just—what’s he actually trying to do? He wants to usurp Arceus himself, right? What would he do with that? What does he want to do that Arceus won’t?”

Elder frowned, looking at Rhys, and then back at the group. “Are any of you familiar with Orre?”

They all stared at Elder. A few leaned forward expectantly. Manny glanced at the others, as if waiting for them to answer.

“Wait, what did you say?” Owen asked. “Familiar with what? Sorry, I think I missed that.”

Elder, with defeat in his whole body, repeated helplessly. “Orre.”

Owen watched Elder for a while longer. He heard something, but he couldn’t, for the life of him, remember what he said. “One more time?” he asked in a squeaky titter.

Elder shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s not my place to tell you much more.”

“Why?” Owen asked.

Elder smiled sadly. “Because I already told you, and you all forgot.”

Owen’s tail sparked irritably. “You mean it’s another one of those Divine Decrees. Like who Emily is. We can’t know, because Arceus made it that way.”

“Ah, Emily… the ex-Dragon Guardian,” Elder said, testing them.

“If you said something, I have no idea what you said,” Owen said, knowing he failed the test.

Elder nodded. “But if you become stronger… perhaps you can overpower the Decree. All of you, together, may have enough to defy it. Arceus’ sphere of influence is wide, but it is not omnipotent.”

“Hmph… That’s dumb,” Owen complained, flicking his tail, knocking against Gahi. “Oh—sorry.”

Gahi grumbled and sat next to Owen, crossing his legs. He curled his tail around and inspected the fan at the tip; Zena, curious, slithered toward Owen and coiled in a neat pile on the opposite side. Zena nudged Owen on the side, giving him a small smile. “It’s okay,” she said. “You’ll remember eventually. You’ll remember a lot of things, right?”

Owen found himself smiling, too. “Yeah, good point. Everyone here feels so blurry, still. Hey, Zena, maybe later, can you help me remember a bit more?”

Owen felt Zena’s heart flutter. “I’d—love that.”

A brief silence fell among the group. ADAM drifted away, looking like he was about to leave to speak with Valle, before someone toppled him over and knocked him to the side.

“VICTORY!” Feraligatr Azu declared, hoisting a battered Manny in the air. Infernape Roh and Chesnaught Verd posed on either side of Azu, their muscles creating small shockwaves that knocked over a few empty cups and Aspear bowls from the table. “We have defeated our master, and can declare ourselves winners on this glorious day!”

“I went easy on yeh!” Manny said, even when Azu threw the Fighting Guardian on the ground. He landed surprisingly gracefully on his paws, though he staggered a bit when he pushed and landed on his feet.

Roh wagged a finger toward Manny. “Fatigue from an encounter with the Bug Guardian is no excuse for a loss. A victory is a victory, and we prevailed!”

Chesnaught posed to show off his biceps again. While the three mutant spirits congratulated one another, Manny wobbled to the others, murmuring something about having to fight off some of his frustrations.

“Just take it easy, dear,” Amia said delicately.

“Feh, yeah.” Manny tapped Mispy on the back. ”Y’mind if I sit a spell on yer back?”

Mispy reluctantly nodded, still focused on trying to heal Jerry.

Zena turned her attention back to the Torkoal. “Elder… I remember seeing you before. My spirits scared you off, but… You tried speaking to me through them. I apologize for being so hostile.”

“Ah… The Water Guardian. That was quite a while ago, wasn’t it? Oho… it has been some time, yes. The past few weeks have been quite a rush, in particular.”

Owen nodded; Amia and Zena, as well as a few others, seemed confused.

“I’m sorry?” Amia asked. “A… week. What is a week?”

“Seven days,” Owen said.

“That’s an odd measure of time,” Amia said. “How does that measure compared to seasons and moons? Years?”

“Years…” Elder repeated with a slight smile. “A season is a fourth of a year, yes?”

“Mhm. But weeks. I’ve never heard that measurement before! How odd!”

Alex nodded along. “Is that another one of Nevren’s inventions?”

“Yeah, actually!” Owen said. “Nevren gave funny names to seven days, and they always repeat. And each one ends with ‘day,’ but I forget what they’re all called. I think it was Mon, Tues—"

“They get it, Owen,” Gahi muttered, elbowing him.

“No, I don’t get it,” Zena said, suddenly fixated on Owen. “Please, go on. What are these days for? What does it mean? I… I feel as if I’d heard such things before, long ago! But then, they must have faded with time… Some ancient terminology?”

“Oh, uh,” Owen looked at Zena. “I mean… it’s kinda hard to explain it like that, but… if you have a week, you can split up your routine a little better, I think. So, on Saturdays and Sundays—those are called the week-ends, you know? Because they were at the beginning and end of the week, so, uh, I guess those are the days you take breaks?” Owen was unnerved at how wide Zena’s eyes were, like she was learning something completely unfathomable. A whole world of organization. “We have a different system, I guess.”

He scanned the crowd and saw the faces of the others. Zena wasn’t the only one. Willow was sparking with curiosity; ADAM was buzzing, his core processors overclocking to implement this new data. Even Step, the newest Guardian, tilted her head with fascination.

“Is this all so new to you guys? I know I just got my memories back, but I dunno. It seems kinda fundamental to me,” Owen said.

“Well, we never really talked ‘bout weeks befer now,” Gahi said. “Weird. You’d think Nev would mention it ter Anam er somethin’. Say, that means y’guys don’t know what a month is, either, eh?”

“A month!” Zena exclaimed. “I do not. Is that—two weeks?”

“No, that’s a fortnight,” Owen said.

“A fortnight…” Zena said. “Why so many terms? I don’t understand. Wouldn’t just tracking the moon and the seasons be enough?”

“I guess so, but maybe you want to do something that takes a certain number of days, and those days are longer than just a few, y’know? Say… ninety days. That’s about a season, but it’s hard to keep track all the way up to ninety, right?” Owen rubbed his chin. He grunted and repositioned himself to a sitting position, clutching his tail out of habit.

Elder smiled, but then looked at Rhys. He gave the Lucario an affectionate nudge. “Owen hasn’t changed much,” he said. “Though… he does seem more…”

“Subdued?” Rhys said.

Elder chuckled. “Mature, Rhys,” he said. “He’s still quite… chipper, regardless.”

“Ah. Well. Being a Guardian tends to force you to grow up. He’s quite overdue, don’t you think?” Rhys said.

Owen was busy explaining to Zena and the others the idea of a month, or perhaps was more focused on ignoring being called a kid even now.

The group was relieved to know that something familiar to them—a year—still existed in this strange measurement.

“Where’d Nevren learn it all?” Amia said. “There are lots of Alakazam out there, but Nevren seems to know more than all of them combined.”

“I dunno. But he’s also a Hunter, so… I guess that means he had a lot of time to fill that brain of his with all those theories, y’know?”

“Heh.” Manny looked off. “Real interestin’ system.”

Owen glanced at Manny. “What’s wrong? You don’t seem as interested…”

“Eh? Ahh, it’s time, who cares,” Manny shrugged. “Cool system, though.”

“Hm…” Owen shrugged. “Well, if you guys think that’s cool, wait until I tell you guys about calculus!”

It was at this moment that Mispy, Demitri, and Gahi checked out. Their expressions glossed over into empty stares in a matter of milliseconds.

Owen snorted. “It’s not boring. Here, let me show you how you can use it, okay?”

Owen’s eyes suggested a long and thorough explanation, but the thick silence in the room made him hesitate.

“I got rescued by a total loser,” Jerry muttered.

“Am not!” Owen said defensively. “This is really important! You’ll see! N-Nevren said that knowledge is power!”

“Owen uses big words,” Enet mumbled, blinking herself awake.

“I’m with you there,” said another voice.

Owen swiveled his head. “Star?”

“Yo.” She waved, floating out from behind Zena. “Sorry, uh, I heard there was a get-together. Didn’t wanna miss out. Asked Manny to summon me.”

“Heh,” Manny flicked a bit of dirt off his claw. The others gave little greetings to Star, nodding or saying hello, and the Mew took the time to mingle with all the others. Jerry eyed Star with narrowed eyes.

“Hey, is nobody gonna acknowledge this?” Jerry mumbled to Owen.

“Acknowledge what?”

“That’s—that’s Mew isn’t it? Aren’t they incredibly rare? That’s Star?”

“Oh—y-yeah, she is. But we all kinda know her at this point, so… It’s not like we’re gonna revere her or anything.”

“Wait. Revere? What kind of—which Mew is she?”

“She, uh… she’s Creator Mew Star. The Great Ancestor? Uhh… I dunno what other titles she has.”

Jerry stared at her again. “Shouldn’t she be dead? Or do Mew not…?”

“She lives in the spirit world,” Owen said. “Uh. I guess that’s living.”

“Oh—and you!” Star said, floating toward him. “Sorry—yes, I’m Mew Star. I’m sorry that this happened to you, Aerodactyl… Jerry, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So, eh…” Manny spoke up, raising a paw, “what’s up with the guy, Star?”

“Jerry? Yeah, uh…” Star crossed her arms pensively. The Mew hummed in thought and checked the base of Jerry’s neck, where flesh was still partially melted into poison grime. “Basically, the poison in Dark Mist Swamp only affects Pokémon that Ghrelle considers… impure. It’s kinda subjective, but if she senses that you’re weak-willed, or someone prone to darkness in some way, you’ll melt into the swamp. And if you’re a little more upstanding… you’ll not melt. Or if you’re Mystic.”

“W-wait, so Ghrelle really was judging us?” Owen said.

“What righ’ does she have ter do that?” Gahi growled.

“What’s a darkness?” Enet said, poking her chest. “I’m Dark.”

“No, that’s—no, Enet, it’s more, uh…” Star puffed out a breath if confusion. “Wow, how do you explain this?”

“Hey, wait a second,” Owen said. “Why didn’t you let Rhys go, then? He’s totally noble!”

“Owen, he used to try to kill Guardians,” Star said. “Not exactly a sin you can wash away that easily. Especially in a Guardian’s eyes, like Ghrelle.”

Zena nodded.

“O-oh…” Owen said. He scanned the room, thinking about those that Star said wouldn’t be good to meet Ghrelle. Manny and Willow were the other ones that Star had explicitly denied. He could understand Willow. She was a bit uppity, and that sort of attitude probably wouldn’t bode well with Ghrelle. And Manny, well… perhaps he was too…

“What’re you looking at?” Manny said, digging a claw in his left ear.

“N-nothing.”

Manny looked at Owen for a bit longer, but then turned away. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“O-oh.” So, Manny himself knew why. “Okay.” Maybe it had to do with how he killed all those mutants, even if they were part of his Orb, now.

Star nodded. “To be honest, I’m not totally sure about Ghrelle’s judgement. It’s similar to Barky—er, to Arceus’ philosophy, and since she’s part of the Trinity, that kinda makes sense.

“Is Ghrelle super strong?” Enet asked.

“Hey, you’re getting better at using your words, Enet,” Star said. “Is your, uh, language therapy coming back to you?”

“Therapy…” Enet repeated. Owen practically smelled her brain working to find the definition. “Yes!”

“That’s great, Enet. But yeah,” Star said. “Ghrelle’s tough. I don’t know how strong she is because she doesn’t fight in the traditional sense, but she’s up there. It’s just a feeling, you know?”

“So that means we only have the Dragon Guardian that we don’t know about,” Owen said. His tail swayed slowly behind him, and he adjusted his wings to get an itch on his back. “…Oh! How’d the Bug Guardian go?”

“Er, we are still pending on those results,” Rhys said.

“She was cool,” Mispy said.

“And we met us!” Demitri said. “That was cool! I think… To be honest, I’m starting to feel a little weird about it, but…”

“Back up,” Owen said, holding his claws in the air. “You met yourselves? What?”

“Are you guys all just crazy?” Jerry asked.

Mispy glared down.

“Hey, Vines! Keep the healing going!” At this point, Jerry was a head and torso.

Mispy’s eyes narrowed even more. “I’ll eat you.”

“E-eh…” Jerry looked away. “Whatever. How come this is taking so long, anyway?”

“Yeah, Mispy, is something wrong?” Owen asked, hoping to diffuse her anger. He wasn’t sure if she was serious or not about turning Jerry into lunch. She ate plates.

Mispy inspected Jerry’s torso, leaning over to get a better look at what was developing. She gently prodded at one of the organs.

“Hrk—what’re you doing? Don’t do that. That’s weird. What are—”

Mispy adjusted another one, but then furrowed her scaly brow. “It’s not…” she said, but then briefly stopped her healing. She watched his body slowly turn purple, melting away again. She quickly resumed the healing.

“Wh-whoa, whoa, what was that?! Why’d everything feel warm? Hello? I can’t see past your stupid—Someone, tilt my head!”

“It’s—it’s okay,” Mispy said, but then shook her head at the others. It wasn’t okay.

“Ghrelle’s influence is still there.” Owen winced, looking helplessly at the others.

“Ghrelle,” Elder said slowly. “Ooh, she is a scary one. Even if I may be pure enough for her swamp, I would not want to go there. The Trinity in general is quite… formidable. Her Mystic power must already be implanted within Jerry. It would take a lot of power to counter it.”

“Power, huh…” Owen said, but then flicked his head upward. “Mispy!”

“Y-yes?” Mispy asked.

“Let’s fuse!”

“Wh-what?!”

Gahi looked, for just a moment, betrayed. “What’re yeh gettin’ at?”

“If I fuse with Mispy, maybe I’ll get a little Mystic power to enhance her natural healing abilities. What if those two things combined can counter Ghrelle?”

“Ahh, that may work, depending on how strong you are, Owen,” Elder said. “Yes! Do try it.”

“W-will your auras be stable enough?” Demitri asked, grabbing one of Mispy’s vines, fiddling with it. “I—I mean…”

A few more of the vines wrapped around Demitri gently, one patting his head. Mispy then looked at Owen and nodded. “Let’s try.”

“Okay,” Owen said, standing up. Mispy’s many vines writhed and crawled toward Owen—he couldn’t shake the unnerving image—and he stood there, awkwardly. He glanced around. “Can you guys, maybe… not stare?”

“Eh?” Manny smirked, but his eyes were a bit wide with interest. “No way, I wanna see this.”

“I’m a bit curious as well,” Zena admitted.

“What’s wrong?” Enet asked.

“It’s… it’s personal…” Owen said.

Gahi glanced off. “Feh. It’s just something we do. Just do it.”

Alex turned around and closed his eyes. Amia smiled at Owen and did the same. Rhys turned his head, too, but the rest were too curious to not look.

Owen shifted awkwardly, but then wondered if his fire would make Mispy uncomfortable. Probably, especially if it had been a while—a long while—since they last fused in the first place. He decided to make things easier. His scales turned green and leafy, and the flame on his tail went out; in its place, a great, white flower sprouted. He wasn’t sure what felt worse—everyone marveling at the flower, or everyone watching him fuse.

Demitri shifted his weight again. “Wait, so, can I fuse, too?”

“E-er, let’s not have a three-part fusion just yet,” Rhys said. “We should practice with two at a time first, before we push your auras further. Just in case.”

“Oh—o-okay. Just him and Mispy, then…”

“It’s fine,” Mispy assured Demitri with a little nudge. Then, she wrapped a vine around Owen—who squeaked in surprise—and pulled him into her matrix of vines. His body was lost to it almost immediately, and after some shuffling, the creature’s colors changed to a slightly darker green. The flower around her neck turned white, and wings—useless on her heavy body—sprouted. Two horns grew from the back of her skull, and the transformation was complete.

“Uh…” Demitri said slowly. “How’re you guys, uh… feeling?”

The Meganium-Charizard fusion took a steady breath. Then, she exhaled. “…I feel… okay,” she said. “That wasn’t so bad.”

“Nope. Stop.” Jerry rolled his head. “What’s wrong with you guys?” His voice steadily rose. “You guys just stand there and act like it’s normal? What kind of nightmare is this?! I want out! Wake me up! Is this some kinda fever dream before I die? Get it over with! I’m done! You’re all nuts!”

“You,”—the fusion picked Jerry up with a vine, wrapping it around his muzzle—“need to be quiet.”

“Mnnfff…”

“Let me heal you.” And so, she closed her eyes and concentrated, channeling both Mystic and healing energy through the quarter-Aerodactyl.

The spectacle over, everyone settled back down to chat amongst themselves. Willow scuttled toward a few of the vines and hopped onto the nearest one. “Um…”

“Willow?”

“What’s… your name?”

“My name…”

“Yeah. Owen and Gahi made Gawen. So, Owen and Mispy make…?”

“Hmm…” As the first time they ever fused, they never really thought of a name for themselves. And the idea of thinking of names for all the possible combinations sounded tiring. Owen’s half quickly calculated that if they were to find the names for all the fusions, they’d have to keep track of eleven different fusion names!

“I don’t care,” she eventually shrugged. “Too tiring.”

“I’m gonna call you Omi!” Willow said.

“Oh,” Omi said. “Okay.”

“Do you not like it?” Zena asked.

“No, it’s fine,” Omi nodded. “I just… don’t know if I’ll use it a lot.”

“Oh, is it because the Mispy half likes sticking to Demitri all the time?”

Omi and Demitri blushed. Gahi snorted and smirked. “Sounds about right. They’re just doing this ‘cause they gotta.”

Jerry, resigned to his fate, tried to wiggle his wings. He was surprised when he actually got feedback, and he turned his head to see the bones and muscle being wrapped in skin and scales. “It’s—it’s actually working.”

Amia clapped quietly, yet quickly. “Hey! We didn’t have to go see Emily after all!”

“Emily, right. Who’s she, some master healer?” Jerry asked, sitting up once he had a bottom to sit on.

“Um… yes!” Amia said.

“Could we see her anyway?” Zena asked. “Perhaps… just to be sure that Jerry is okay.”

“Ohh, Zena, we should see if we can get Anam to spare an official Waypoint tile for there so we don’t need to use our Badges,” Amia said. “Hmm, speaking of Anam…”

“I’m kinda starting to get worried. Been a while since he heard anything from them. Did anybody try contacting them through a communicator?”

“Tried, but guess they don’t have one on ‘em,” Manny reported.

Star flicked her tail. “Maybe we should fly over and see what’s the holdup? Between his agitated spirits and how long he’s been taking, I dunno…”

“Agitated spirits… Is that possible?” Amia said.

“Not usually,” Star said. “Spirits are pretty happy following their host’s desires most of the time. So, them acting up the way they are is… kinda strange to begin with. I…” she paused. “I dunno. Anyway, if everything’s fine here, Jerry, how about we—”

“Wait,” Jerry said. He turned completely so he was facing Star. “Before you go, can I ask something? To you. Mew. Are you…?”

“Oh, sure, shoot,” Star said. “Am I what?”

“Book of Mew, right?” Jerry stared at Star.

“Sure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean, it’s written about me, I guess,” Star shrugged noncommittally. “But if you’re looking for some sort of spiritual lecture, I’m not that kinda girl.”

“I don’t need any stupid lectures, don’t worry,” Jerry said, and briefly, the god and mortal shared a smirk. But Jerry’s faded first. “I just… wondered if there were any connections you had, you know, because of your role.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s true.” She flicked her tail around and inspected the very tip. “Why d’you ask, Jer?”

Jerry’s jaw locked in a tight, closed position. He remained that way for what felt like an eternity. Willow sparked a few times to break the otherwise total silence; Enet dozed off again. Amia gently held her chest, as if sensing something from Jerry; Omi felt it, too, both in Jerry’s body from Owen’s half and his aura from Mispy’s half. He didn’t want to feel it for long; the way Jerry’s new body’s heart was beating so frantically, it was like he was afraid of Star, or something that Star would say.

Star’s eyes softened. “She’s fine,” she said. “And she wants you to stay strong.”

Jerry’s jaw finally unlocked. “Alright, then.” He hadn’t even paused after Star finished.

Owen’s half never felt such a strange reaction from Jerry’s breathing. Perhaps it was because he had lungs now, but the relief that she felt billowing out of that breath. “Jerry?” Omi asked.

“What?”

“…Nothing. Um—so how are you feeling?”

Tentatively, the Aerodactyl moved his wings. Then, he flicked his tail and stretched his legs. “Mrrgh, that’s actually a lot better.” He nodded at Omi and then stepped away. There was a flash of a glare in his eyes, and then he looked back at Star. “Stay strong, huh?” Then, he looked at Omi. “I want you to de-fuse again.”

“U-uh?” Omi asked.

“Yeah. So, I can see that kid again.”

“Kid? You mean me—er, Owen?” Owen, taking over, asked. “I’m not a kid, you know. I think I’m close to five hundred.”

“Whatever. You don’t act it. I want to fight you again, ‘Zard.”

“That’s…” the fused behemoth laughed. “I just patched you up.”

“Owen…” Star said warningly.

“What?” He glanced at Star with a half-smirk. He was trying to hide it, but he couldn’t deny how sad it would be to just beat Jerry up all over again, just because he wanted to ‘prove himself’ against a Heart. A Mystic Heart, no less. Jerry was already defeated before when he was just a Charmander—sure, he had help from the others, but they were all sealed and weak back then. Now, he wants to fight him not only unleashed, but also as a Mystic?

“Yeah, and I want a rematch,” Jerry said. “I was weaker from all the smog, and I was hungry, too. Actually, you know what? I need food. What kinda eats you have around here? You owe me that. For letting me get melted.”

“Y-you did that to yourself!” Owen protested. “I—I mean, Ghrelle did, but—either way! That wasn’t our—”

“Ohh, we can spare some food, dear,” Amia sighed, clapping her hands together. “Come, Jerry. Why don’t we talk this over some steamed fruits?”

“Fruits?” Jerry asked, wrinkling his snout. “Do these teeth look like they eat fruits? I’d rather go hunting again.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” murmured Star.

Jerry stomped on the ground. “Look, I refuse to let that battle count! We’re fighting for real, one on one! I don’t lose in one on one fights—especially not to some weird little wannabe Dragon mutant!”

Excuse me?!” Suddenly, the Charizard burst forth from the fusion, leaving a startled Meganium behind. “No, that’s not fair. I can’t help that. J-just because I’m Fire-Flying doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to just call me a—”

“Then you want to settle it in the field?” Jerry taunted. “C’mon, let’s fight. One on one.”

“Is this really necessary?” Rhys said impatiently.

“Yeah,” Owen and Jerry both said.

Owen continued, “I don’t want to have to beat you again after just healing you. Jerry, it’s just…” Owen sighed, rubbing his forehead. “You’re sorta out of your league.”

Jerry snarled, looking between all the others. Some in the group were looking at Owen uncertainly, like they wanted to say something, yet didn’t. Owen, sensing this, felt a bit of the wind under his wings leave him.

“…Y’know what,” Star said, breaking the silence, “go for it. I think I want to see this, Owen.”

The Charizard blinked rapidly. “A-are you sure? I—I’ll destroy him.”

“Oh, what makes you so sure?” Jerry said. “Just because you have some fancy-glowy-powers, you can beat someone like me, who lived in the rough all his life? Please. I don’t care how strong you think you are; once I get to full strength, I’ll win. I have something to prove.”

Owen flinched, looking at Star, then at the others. “He can’t be serious,” he said, addressing the group at large. “Aren’t we—just beyond mortals at this point, kinda?”

Daggers. Like an iron spike hitting him right at the side of his skill, Owen felt a glare from Star. His whole body felt frozen from it. He didn’t expect that from her. “R-right?” He thought about Manny’s lesson on Mysticism, and how it contributed to the normal strength imbued in all Pokémon. With how much he’d trained, Mystic-wise, and now that he was in his fully evolved form, Jerry wouldn’t be able to do a thing!

“Yeah,” Star said slowly. “I think you two should fight.”

“S-Star?” Owen said. The only reason Star would be like this would be to prove him wrong. But it just didn’t add up. There had to be some other reason.

“And none of that stupid Mystic-whatever business, either!” Jerry said.

“Th-that’s not fair, then I can’t use my full power, either!” Owen said.

“Yeah, that’s not fair, Jerry,” Star said, eyes closed. “Let Owen do his thing.”

“S-Star, why does your voice sound like ice?”

“Hmm…” Alex hummed, but then nodded to Amia to get something for Jerry to eat. “I think I understand what Star is talking about.”

“Dad?” Owen asked. The flame on his tail flickered, shrinking as if he’d gotten in trouble. “What are you talking about? You hate when I fight!”

“I do,” Alex said, nodding. “But I would rather you fight in a controlled environment than get in trouble when it counts.”

“What’s that supposed to—" Owen looked back at Jerry, who was making mock-wingbeats, as if practicing one of his techniques. Could Jerry actually be strong enough to hurt him? But his attacks in the swamp were nothing!

“You know, hang on,” Star said, holding up her arms. “Let me help. Jerry, you can eat after. I’ll give you some energy to tie you over; that’s just as good as eating. How’s that?”

“Oh, a divine blessing from the Ancestor herself? Thanks, but no thanks. I want to beat this kid with my own power.”

“Pride’ll get you nowhere,” Star said. “I’m not giving you any sort of boost. I’m just restoring you to good shape.”

Owen gulped. Maybe he could back out if he worded something just right. “I, uh,” he said, “I think, maybe this isn’t super productive. Maybe we should…”

Star glanced over to Manny and jerked her head. The Lucario approached and held her shoulder. “We doin’ it like this?”

“Just a little.”

Star then held onto Jerry’s shoulder and focused; Manny’s paw glowed briefly, and Star’s paws glowed next. Jerry’s stance straightened considerably, and Manny hunched forward.

“Ugh, that didn’ feel good,” Manny said, rubbing at the spike on his chest.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jerry said, beating his wings. A powerful shockwave of wind blew Owen’s way, threatening to put out the fire of his tail. “I feel great!” He beat his wings a second time, and Owen had to hold his stance to keep from toppling over. “So, this is what it feels like to fight on a full stomach.” He crouched down, wings spread. “Heh… well. Let’s get this done, huh?” Jerry’s eyes shined with something that Owen couldn’t recognize. It wasn’t the same desperate gleam of an outlaw trying to survive. Somehow, this new shine made the Charizard’s heart seize.

A fire burned in Owen’s chest, ready to battle. But—his instincts still haunted him, and he didn’t much care for that elation he felt for the fight. He channeled that instead to Jerry’s challenge. If he wanted a fight, he’d give it to him. Then he could put it all behind him, shake hands—well, wings—with Jerry, and move on with the real dangers.

But Star’s glare worried him. He glanced at Amia, but she was too busy murmuring something to Alex. He then looked at Rhys, but he was walking with his eyes on the ground, pensive. He dared to look at Star one last time on the way to the sparring grounds.

Star gave him a sweet smile.
 

Cresselia92

Junior Trainer
Pronouns
She/Her/Hers
Hey there! Happy (Late) Catnip!

So, at long last you’ve got me to check out your stuff, huh? :p

Well, I'll straight out skip the initial scene because...



What little I’ve read was more than enough. I just hope whatever happened there won't have much relevance later.

Anyway, here we go!

“Wh—huh? I wasn’t!” He rolled away and quickly hid beneath his bed of leaves. Some of them turned black from the fire, but they didn’t burn. “Ngh,” He held his chest. It felt horribly bruised. And his back was killing him. No wonder he was sleeping on the fire! But why did he feel that way? He remembered a fight. A fight that he’d lost. Badly. But was that just a dream? He remembered a rocky serpent. And fire, and explosions. It was all so garbled—he wasn’t sure what was real.
Rocky serpent... so an Onix? Well, if he has dealt with a Rock- and Ground-type, no wonder he was beaten up. That sounded like a very uneven matchup.

Owen saw the burning shoulders of his Magmortar father. A vague image flashed in front of his mind of that very same Magmortar bursting into an explosion of blue embers. Bluer than his mother’s hair. That must have been a dream.
Well, I mean, Magmortar is literally the Blast Pokémon. Though, Magmortar doesn't normally know Explosion. Did he explode through some other mean, I wonder? Maybe a Blast Trap? 🤔

Owen eased himself onto his bed of leaves again, giving a defeated nod. “Okay, Mom.”
Ah, happily adopted, huh? Cute!

Breakfast was a hearty stew. The table had three seats. Two were sized for the smaller frames of the mother and son. Both were approximately the same width, albeit oversized for Owen. The third seat was much larger than the rest—in order to accommodate for its usual occupant. Alex, bumping his cannon-arms nervously, looked down at his food without a hint of an appetite.
For some reason, this scene is giving me heavy Goldilocks and the Three Bears vibes. I suppose the stew could be considered the salty version of porridge, hehe. :p

“Perfect! But, uh, I don’t know. Did you ever have that feeling where you had a really good dream, but then you can’t… remember it?”
All the times, Owen. I've had many amazing dreams that evaporated from my mind five minutes after waking up.

“I had one of those. But I can’t remember any of it. I think I was having a really big fight. I remember my heart racing!” Owen played with a lump of a potato in the stew. His parents always got uncomfortable when he talked about his dreams, and he never knew why. He did admit that they felt too real to be dreams, but what else could they be? He had decided long ago not to press the issue. He grabbed his bowl and downed half of his breakfast. His parents’ expressions were grave, but they feigned a smile when he looked at them again. “Weird, huh? Dreams are funny.”
Dream Rule #∞: "If a dream feels too real, then it wasn't a dream—it really happened."

“Oh, Owen, m-maybe you’re just nervous about all this,” his mother said. “Becoming stronger, more responsibilities. Being part of the Thousand Hearts is a big deal, after all! …If you get in. Remember, there’s no shame in failing the exams.”
Ooh, boy! A lizard version of Peter, I see. XP

“Oh, Alex, we can’t baby him forever. He’s an adult!” she said.
...Is he? I've got the impression that he was a teenager or similar.

“Yeah,” Owen said. “And if I get horribly maimed, I’ll just warp back to the entrance! It’ll be fine!”
Right, because that is surely going to make them feel more at ease!

He grinned, but he wondered if his word choice could have been better. He was trying to be funny, but he practically heard his father’s heart explode through his giant torso.
Yep. Very bad choice of words.

“B-but it will still be dangerous! You’ll be badly hurt, Owen! There are stories of bandits and outlaws and even ferals waiting for defeated Pokémon to return to the entrance. You’ll be too weak to fight back, and then—and then—” Alex’s shoulder fire nearly touched the ceiling of the cavern. “And what if you bring something important with you? If you get kicked out of a Dungeon in that way, you’ll—lose it! You’ll lose almost everything on you! Perhaps even your—your life!”
You know, I think it could be interesting to go more in-depth about why Pokémon lose their stuff. Like, does the Dungeon "steal" the items, or they end up lost because of looters, thieves and whatnot? Or both?

Amia giggled, patting Alex on the shoulders, completely unaffected by the flames.
Hm? Speaking of that, I wonder why she isn't affected. Either she is using her psychic powers to shield herself from the flames, or Magmortar has "Ponyta-like fire" that doesn't burn the 'mons he trusts.

Or maybe... here's a very crazy thought!



She's a Delta Gardevoir!

Alex hummed worriedly. “That was a close call, yesterday,” he said. “I’ve never seen one of those mutants so powerful before. What if he runs into another of those—those things in the Dungeon?”
Mutants? I had no idea I was reading Steven Universe! :p

Amia bit her lip. “I know, dear. But that Dungeon is safer than most. If he runs into any trouble, well, it’ll be better there than anywhere else. You know it’s me they’re after, not him.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” Alex rubbed his cannons together. “If I was just a little stronger, I could have defended us both. But I just… evaporated after the first strike. Curse this body. It’s so foreign, even now. Sometimes I wish I…”
Evaporated...? Something tells me that they aren't really Pokémon. Are they spirits who craft their own physical bodies or something like that? 🤔

…Yeah, I definitely think I’m reading Steven Universe. They are blatant Gems!

“It’s not your fault, dear,” Amia said soothingly, holding his shoulder a bit tighter. “It’s my fault, too. I should have been more careful when leaving the caves. If we just stayed put, we wouldn’t have had to put Owen through all that again.”
..."That"? What is "that"? *hums in deep thought*

And so we've reached the end of the prologue, and all it does it's give more questions and answers. Well, at least that's an incentive to keep reading, huh? And I shall!

Not that it mattered; complete darkness was a foreign concept to most Charmander.
I mean, you have an incorporated torch in your tail. If all, it'd be worrisome if you saw total darkness. ^^;

The central cavern was a stone’s throw across, with many smaller offshoots in either direction. Other villagers made their homes in these rocky caves, mostly Fire Pokémon like himself. In that sense, his adoptive mother was an exception to the population, though she could deal with the heat like any other Fire could.
Okay, that leans more toward the "Delta Gardevoir theory". So, is she a regional Fire-type variant? 🤔 It would be pretty dope if that was the case: a Fire/Fairy Gardevoir would be so cool (or rather hot?), and fitting!

He used to open this so easily. Did he lose weight? Muscle weighed more than fat. Owen worriedly pinched at his gut, wondering if his chubby Charizard genes were coming through before the rest. But it felt normal.
Well... I've accidentally read something about him losing a lot of blood, so maybe that's why...?

...

*shudders* Yikes! Next!

The altitude, however, wasn’t very high; the mountain was mostly underwater, rather than above the sea—according to the Water Pokémon, at least. Owen didn’t intend to test such theories out.
Have some Water-type Pokémon use Soak on you to become a Water-type. Maybe you could be able to test those theories that way. ;)

The buildings that surrounded him were no more than two stories tall. Oblong rocks bound by mortar shaped the buildings near the center of town—the oldest buildings of the crater. These black stones were home to nobody. Instead, it served as a hospital for rescued and injured Pokémon. Owen spotted a Chansey through windows of wood and glass, holding a few soft-boiled eggs in her tiny arms. A Miltank was carrying a large jug of milk in the opposite direction.

Owen decided not to think too hard about it.
Yeah, better keep those "Is eating eggs considered cannibalism?" thoughts away for the time being. You have to focus on your exploration, after all!

Owen then glanced longingly at the southern part of town. The Thousand Hearts.
I wonder if there are a Thousand Roads to become one of the Thousand Hearts, hehe.

The building itself was a big, red, heart-shaped structure, with many smaller hearts scattered around: kiosks and special-purpose facilities. Inside the biggest building was where all Hearts met for check-ins, assignments, and training. Why a heart? Owen had no idea, though it might have something to do with their leader’s personality.
So the leader could be a lovely peep with a heart of gold? I can dig that.

All of the sights and the bright sky lifted his spirits. He couldn’t ignore how nervous his parents were, and that dampened them slightly—but he figured that if he kept acting cheerful, maybe he’d be able to fool himself into truly feeling confident, too. That feeling always nagged at him. The idea that something wasn’t right with anything he did. Not that he did it incorrectly, but that something, in general, felt wrong. Even now, it tugged at his mind.
Okay, here's a little bit of info for you, Owen: if you feel things will go wrong, then you will channel Murphy's law on you and things will go wrong. So, you'd better think positively ASAP.

“S-sorry!” Owen scrambled away. “Okay. Okay, time to go. I need, uhh, what do my supplies look like?” He rummaged through his bag. “A-and I’m not a kid!” he shouted. “I’m just a late evolver!”
Late evolver, huh? Could this be the Pokémon version of panhypopituitarism / limited production of growth hormones?

He had two Oran Berries, two elixirs, two apples, a Pecha Berry, a Heal Seed, a Totter Orb, and—just in case—an Escape Orb.
Wait... didn't he have three apples? What happened to the third one? He ate it while teleporting?

I suppose the loss of weight affected him so much that he decided to eat one immediately. Can’t blame him for that.

That should be enough, hopefully. No need to go to the shop to get anything. He’d want at least one Reviver Seed, or even a tiny one just for the boost to escape from trouble, but he didn’t have the funds for that sort of thing.
Golden rule of Mystery Dungeons: get plenty of Reviver Seeds! You never know when you have to deal with pesky Discharge/Heat Wave users.

“S-sorry!” He stumbled. “Wait—I’m not a kid! I told you, I’m a late evolver! I’ll have you know, I—uh—I, er…” He finally realized who he was talking to. Not the Zangoose this time. It was a Golem, a behemoth of a rocky sphere, staring down at him from his great height. Defiantly, Owen puffed out his chest. He was a full-grown adult! Or at least an adult! Lots of weaker Pokémon never evolved. He just happened to be strong and slow at evolution.

The Golem sighed and wobbled away.
Yeah, gotta err on the growth hormone deficiency side here.

“Kid… not a kid… I’m just a little late, is all. I bet I’m way stronger than even the average Charmeleon! Stronger than that Golem, too, if he didn’t have an advantage.” Owen mumbled more to himself, the rest incomprehensible, clutching his bag. “I didn’t train with Dad for nothing.” He hesitated on that line of thinking. What if he didn’t evolve yet because he never got to train with a Charizard before? Could that happen? Is that how evolution worked? Owen shook his head. No, many Pokémon were raised without the same species around, and they evolved just fine. Adopted Pokémon weren’t at some—some disadvantage, were they? No, he was just fine! “Yeah, I’m just—”
Hmm... time to look for some Joy Seeds. Perhaps they could give you that growth spurt?

Owen saw an Alakazam whose mustache was large enough for Owen to walk on like a carpet.
Mega Alakazam…?

Owen tilted his head, confused. Hadn’t they met before? No, they hadn’t. He was just so well-known that he must have had that impression.
Deja vu much?

“It is a special stone that protects Pokémon that have not yet fully evolved. It’s called an Eviolite—and it will be useful as long as it is near your body. I, of course, have no use for it, but you certainly do.”
How convenient! Pity that you aren't a Chansey, you would have been almost unbreakable.

“Oh! That means, so, when I get super strong, that’s when I won’t even need it.” It was a constant reminder that he was a larva when he shouldn’t have been. But, at least now he had a boost. “That’s the perfect item! Thank you!” Psychologically it was undoubtedly going to feed into some complex, Owen thought, but in terms of practicality? Priceless.
Look at it in this way. The Eviolite will be your training wheels. As soon as you can ride a mountain bike without falling, you can dismantle them.

Nevren chuckled. “Be sure to keep it with you!” He walked past Owen, and the Charmander was left puffing a little plume of confused smoke at the Alakazam. Keep it with him? Of course he would!
Better consider changing your Ability to Sticky Hold, just to be extra sure. ;)

“S-sorry! Again!” Owen said, a hint of irritability in his voice. This place was too crowded.
No kidding! You may as well learn Spotlight so that others can see you better, at this point! XP

Owen’s heart fluttered as if he’d seen old friends. Yet, he didn’t even know their names.
Deja vu, round 2!

“Oh, really?” Gahi asked, his starry eyes shining with interest. “Well that makes four o’ us. Mispy, Demitri, ‘n I all’re late evolvers, but we’re super tough!”
Hey, there are some benefits in evolving later. You learn some moves faster, so it's not all that bad! ;)

Owen watched them with a tilted head. Their entire conversation felt like one giant déjà vu. Everything today did. He shook his head; if he kept thinking like this, his entire day would be ruined. He forced excitement to take over. He had an exploration to do!
Ah, now you realized? Well, time to move forward and go into the Dungeon.

The feral advanced, growling even louder. Suddenly, the ground beneath the Pokémon’s feet lit up in a bright yellow. A column of fire engulfed it—and that was it. A quick shriek, and then it was gone from the Dungeon. Satisfied, Owen spun the apple to cook it a bit more. “My signature attack—Fire Trap!” he said to the wind.
Nah, that's not shonen enough. You should have exclaimed...



Being at such a disadvantage, he had trained day and night to perfect a delayed Fire attack, should he ever be caught off guard when handling things one on one. He wasn’t really sure how long he had actually trained; long enough to forget when he actually learned the technique, at least. Still, it took time for him to do it. He could only use it if he had a big opening. But that wasn’t so bad. Now, if only he could figure out how to run away and use the attack at the same time.
Ah, Shell Trap Lite, ain't it? Is Owen related to a Turtonator, then?

Owen finished his apple and stood up. “Top shape!” He pumped his fists in the air. “Can’t beat me now, Dungeon!”
And then, the enraged Dungeon proceeded to beat up the poor Charmander, because no one should ever dare to challenge a Dungeon.

The ground rumbled, as if Owen had tempted fate a bit too much. “U-uhh—” He looked back.

“Rrr… rrrn… rpphhf…”
Owen, Owen, Owen... will you just stop jinxing things? Murphy's law, remember?

The phantom pain in Owen’s chest and back suddenly flared up at the sight of this mutated Pokémon. He had forgotten all about it. Suddenly, Owen remembered his dream, or flashes of it. He remembered his father getting struck, and then exploding in a cloud of blue embers. And some creature—he couldn’t remember what—slicing at him. That didn’t feel like a dream. But—his father was alive! It had to be a dream.
Yeah, this is 100% Steven Universe. Mutant Gems Pokémon, puffing Gems Pokémon... does that make Owen Steven? When will we get the Diamonds?

“Nope!” He threw a seed toward the Snorlax and fired a puff of flames along with it. The seed ignited, sending soot and smoke in all directions, both blinding and suffocating the mutant. It roared and rubbed its eyes, stumbling blindly into a wall. Owen, knowing he was outmatched, fled for the next section. He only stopped running once he was sure he was far away. He held onto his tiny knees.
I'm impressed: an actually sensible choice! Those are really rare. Kudos for not playing hero with an unknown beast.

“Hey. Kid.”

Owen bristled. “I’m NOT a ki—id…!” He turned around. On the other side of the Dungeon hall, a few paces behind him, was a creature with gray scales, huge jaws, and large wings. His eyes… Owen didn’t like those eyes. Trained, focused. Malevolent. What did this one have in mind? He saw that look often in town—outlaws that were captured, still bitter with defeat. But this one wasn’t defeated.

Of all the people that he’d met today, this outlaw was the first one that he had no inkling of familiarity with. He had to be careful what he wished for; meeting this Aerodactyl gave him the worst pit in his stomach yet. Maybe it was the apple.
Nah. That's your fight-or-flight reaction being engaged.

“What’s someone like you doing in a place like this?” the Aerodactyl asked. “Looking for an advantage? Nothing but Grass and Bugs here, after all. Fire Type like you? Easy win.”

“Y-yeah. Really easy, ha ha…”

“I have an easy time here, too,” Aerodactyl replied. “Rock is strong against Bugs. And Flying? Beats ‘em both. But you know what’s really great about me?”

“Y-yeah? What?”

“Rock beats Fire. Rock also beats Flying. And guess what explorer-types show up the most here?”

“F… Fire and… Flying?”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?”
That's... a surprisingly clever modus operandi. It definitely makes the Aerodactyl feel very threatening.

I really hope you know Thunder Punch or Dragon Rage, Owen. You’ll need either move.

“I—I know Alakazam Nevren,” Owen said. “You should be careful how you act in front of me!”

“Oh, is he around?” Aerodactyl asked. Owen flinched. His hesitation said it all; the winged Pokémon’s jaw twisted into a horrible grin. “Guess that won’t matter, then, will it?”
Buddy, you gotta work more on your bluffing skills. Take some notes from Phoenix Wright.

All that was left behind were a few stray embers from his tail; Owen bolted.


Not that it won't matter much if this Aerodactyl knows Agility, though. We all know that Agility Aerodactyl are a massive pain in the butt.

----

So here we are, at the end of the review.

All in all, this was a pretty slow beginning, I’d say. It gave a quick view of Owen as a character, as well as his relationship with other characters.

Though, it’s a pity that things truly started picking up toward the end of the chapter. I know, you needed some buildup and introductions to the story, but I’m just disappointed that things truly became interesting just when they ended. I suppose that would be an incentive to keep reading, but if the “brutal scene” is indication of things to come… heh, I don’t think I’ll have the stomach to handle that kind of stuff. No offense, buddy. ^^;

Anyway, in terms of prose it was good and it showed what it needed to show. Just beware of the inconsistencies (like the three apples becoming two), because they can somewhat throw some people off.

See ya around! :3
 
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Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
...Is he? I've got the impression that he was a teenager or similar.
I think I'm going to add a remark that he doesn't behave like one from Alex or something, because you're right, he doesn't. It's intentional but I should probably acknowledge it in-universe more... directly.

You know, I think it could be interesting to go more in-depth about why Pokémon lose their stuff. Like, does the Dungeon "steal" the items, or they end up lost because of looters, thieves and whatnot? Or both?
So, I actually sort of imply this waaaay later on why, but I think that's a good idea to look into. It's hard to shove all this world building early on without info dumping, but maybe it's warranted...

She's a Delta Gardevoir!
Well, since you might not be reading too far into this, spoiler alert... she is! Kind of... Just as it's a "known spoiler" that Owen gets the Grass stuff going on later, Amia... well, yeah!

If all, it'd be worrisome if you saw total darkness. ^^;
Precisely why it'd be bad!

I suppose that would be an incentive to keep reading, but if the “brutal scene” is indication of things to come… heh, I don’t think I’ll have the stomach to handle that kind of stuff. No offense, buddy. ^^;
Hey, none taken. I'm kind of guilty that the first scene disturbed you so much but you had to go through it in any way out of Catnip obligation, so I take no offense if you want to duck out and refrain from Catnips of this story in the future.

Anyway, in terms of prose it was good and it showed what it needed to show. Just beware of the inconsistencies (like the three apples becoming two), because they can somewhat throw some people off.
Alright, that's it. I'm gonna find some time to edit at least THAT inconsistency out...
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 45 – The Balance of Power

Everyone, aside from Anam, his spirits, and Nevren, was gathered around at the large, rocky cavern. The warmer air made it difficult for non-Fire Types to fight for long; Step, sensing this unfair advantage, breathed out a frosty cloud, cooling the room in a matter of seconds. Alex protested quietly and rubbed his cannons together. Most of the others consciously or unconsciously huddled a bit closer to him while the room’s temperature averaged out.

It was here that Owen had trained as a Charizard fighting Manny; where he had lost against the Fighting Guardian. But Owen knew he would have won if he didn’t hold back. He was just trying to control himself. That’s why he lost. He was already past Manny, right? And Jerry would be no different, only this time, he was in total control. He had no reason to hold back. This battle would be over even faster than their encounter in Ghrelle’s domain.

“Make sure he has a Reviver Seed!” Owen remembered.

“I don’t need one,” Jerry said.

“Oh, for the love of—yes, you do, Jerry!” Star said, rubbing her forehead. “And so does Owen! This stupid thing is for a purpose, not for killing each other! Now make sure you have one on you, and you know the rules from there, right?”

“Pfft, rules. I’m going by street rules,” Jerry said, bouncing from foot to foot.

Manny tossed a seed to Owen; he caught it and slipped it into the bag tied around his shoulder. Amia ran over to Jerry and handed him a small bag as well, containing just the seed. Realizing that Jerry’s wing-hands may struggle with working something and tying it around his neck, she helped and slipped it over his head. With that, the combatants were ready.

“So, are we really doing this?” Owen asked, looking at Star.

“Yes,” Star said.

“Why?” He glanced at the others, who were sharing either Owen’s confused expression, or Star’s stoic eyes. In particular, he was unnerved that Rhys had his arms crossed, focused not on Owen or Jerry in particular, but the battlefield as a whole.

Owen then looked to Jerry. The way his heart beat, and the way his lungs inflated and deflated with such depth… Owen could only interpret that as a flame. A fire that he thought only those of his Type could get, but no. Jerry had a fire in his heart, too. He never felt it before; Jerry had felt cold, desperate, and hungry. But now? That must be it, Owen realized. They energized him, so now he’s feeling better. Hmm… maybe I should be more careful after all, even if he’s not Mystic.

It wouldn’t be right to act haughty with Jerry anyway. He had a rough day. He thought back to how he had fought before—he often used Rock Blast. He wasn’t sure how an Aerodactyl could know such a technique, but that didn’t excuse the fact that it would be bad news for his normal form. He kept his Grassy self in mind, which would dull the blow, at least compared to his Fire-Flying default.

“And…” Star raised her tiny arm up, “begin!”

Owen beat his wings in the air, creating a flurry of pinpricks of Fire Traps in all directions. Jerry doubled back, recognizing the maneuver from their first encounter.

“Don’t think you can get me with that again!” Jerry shouted. “I know your trick!” He opened his mouth and fired a set of rocks at the first one, detonating it. This caused a chain reaction, every single blast fizzling into a bright flash. Owen pushed through a gap in the explosions, mouth aflame, the back of his throat aglow. He blasted a jet of flames straight to Jerry. The Aerodactyl flew into the air, glancing at the ceiling to get a feel for how much room he had, and then dove down, straight for Owen with his jaw outstretched.

Owen couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Despite his initial psyche-up to not get confident, he had to marvel at the one-track mind that Jerry had for battle. He shouldn’t have expected much from an almost-ex-criminal, though.

With his Mystic power, evolved form, and unleashed aura—Jerry wouldn’t stand a chance. The power behind Jerry’s aura and his Crunch technique, no matter how much darkness was imbued in it, wouldn’t get past Owen’s natural aura shield. The Charizard grimaced at the thought. Was Star punishing Jerry with this fight? That seemed a bit cruel—he already had a hard life, and now Creator Mew herself was…?

So distracted by these idle thoughts, Owen forgot to bother guarding against the inconsequential approach of the outlaw. He could have created a Protect shield, but that seemed like overkill.

He held his arm out to block Jerry’s assault. Owen prepared for when the Crunch attack would squeeze his arm, just like before, and do nothing. After that, he’d just counter with a point-blank Flamethrower, and end the—

The Aerodactyl’s jaws crushed Owen’s arm like a twig.

Alex and Amia both turned their heads away in unison. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi all gasped. Willow sparked with surprise and hopped angrily on ADAM’s head, declaring Jerry a cheater. Enet agreed, pointing an accusatory claw at the Aerodactyl, having also witnessed that same attack having no effect in the Dark Mist Swamp. She rushed to Amia and shook her for an answer, but the Gardevoir only winced and said to let the battle finish. Manny rubbed his forehead. Step, Valle, and ADAM watched without reacting.

Zena bit her lip worriedly. “Owen…” She glanced to her right. “Star… why are you doing this?”

Star didn’t answer.

Mispy’s vines glowed brightly, ready to heal him. Rhys placed a paw on her back and shook his head.

“But—”

“No,” Rhys said. “They will be fine.”

Owen’s eyes bulged and he jerked his arm away, screaming in surprise and pain; the Aerodactyl beat his wings to daze Owen, gaining some distance.

Trembling, he held his broken arm, fractured in multiple sections—it was useless, but that didn’t matter. He could fight without it. Blood trickled to the ground from deep gashes.

“H-how…?” Owen said. “I’m—I’m Mystic! I’m invincible to—!”

Jerry pointed a wing at Owen. “I don’t care what you say about your so-called divine blessings. As long as you have a body, it can break!”

“Th-that’s not how it works!” Owen said, flashing a look at Star. “Y-you! You—you gave him some—some sort of blessing!”

“I didn’t,” Star said. “I only restored him to be in fighting shape. Go on, Owen. You can sense if I’m lying. Feel my body language. Hm?”

Owen puffed. It was hard to concentrate when his arm was throbbing and stinging. But he tried, and Jerry waited.

“Yeah,” Jerry said. He folded his wings to his side and shifted to his right leg. “I want to know if this strength really is mine.”

Of course, she could be masking her lies. If they had no tell, then Owen couldn’t know one way or the other. Nevren was like that. He could never get a good read off of him unless Nevren was relaxed. But Star was exhibiting some sort of emotion. And it wasn’t that of deceit. In fact… Owen felt something else from Star. Tense jaws, her little paws clenching and unclenching. Her tail flicking, her ears twitching. And that stare she had, directed right at him. Star… was nervous. But it didn’t seem to be because she was lying. In fact, when Star had said she didn’t enhance Jerry, she felt a bit less nervous. Relieved that Jerry was putting up a fight?

“S-Star…?” Owen said. “I—I get it! I think I get it now!”

“Battle’s not over.” Star looked off.

Owen looked at Jerry again. The pain was fading; his Mystic power was patching up the wounds. Bones mended themselves, and flesh bound together. The blood had clotted up, and was no longer painting the rocks. But he still couldn’t use it.

“Can we go on, now?” Jerry said. “It’s time I finished this.”

“A-as if!” Owen said, stepping back. He flexed his wings and flapped them in powerful, consecutive bursts, sending waves of compressed air toward his opponent. Jerry answered with a left hop, opening his mouth. He dodged the Air Slash while firing another volley of rocks from his throat. The first one hit Owen square in the chest—the rest missed.

“What an odd move for an Aerodactyl to know,” Elder remarked.

Owen, winded, was trying to get his bearings.

“Rock Blast… They can’t normally do such things.”

“Yeah, pretty cool, huh?” Star said. “Not the best move, but it catches people by surprise. Apparently, his family line had it for generations. All the way back to the… you know.”

Elder nodded. “I suppose you once gifted an ancestor of his with the technique, then?” he asked.

“That’s probably it,” Star nodded. “I was a bit of a rulebreaker… I mean, I made some of those rules, so I guess it’s a little different…”

Elder gave Star a wry smile, and then looked at the fight. “You didn’t have to do this to Owen, you know,” he said. “You could have just told him. He’s responsible.”

“Maybe.” Star used the end of her tail to clean out her left ear. “But this is payback.” She moved on to the right ear.

“Payback,” Elder repeated.

With a pop, Star pulled her tail out. “Yeah. For running off and acting stupid when I told him specifically not to, back when he first got the Orb.”

Elder stared at Star. “Goodness. I thought Barky was the one to hold grudges.”

Star’s left eye twitched. “Don’t make me start holding another.”

“O-of course…”

Star huffed, brushing some perceived dust off of her arms. “Fine, here’s the real answer: Owen’s a mutant. And no matter how tame he is, he still has some mutant instincts growling in his head. Subconsciously, I dunno if anything but a fight will convince him that he’s not invincible. And I don’t want that happening when it counts. May as well get it over with now.”

“Gnnnck…!” Owen clutched his chest when a second volley of rocks hit him. Some of the shattered pebbles knocked against his chin. Why wasn’t this working? He was supposed to be able to dodge these attacks easily! He saw every attack coming. His body just couldn’t react in time to the erratic firing.

“What, getting tired?” Jerry said. “C’mon! Where’s that super-Mystic-power of yours?”

“I’m—I’m getting to that!” Owen hissed, putting most of his weight on his right leg. Now he knew why. His arm. It was still distracting his movements. Even though he could see every strike, and even though he knew exactly where he had to go to dodge—he just didn’t have the speed or agility to execute it. It was the fight against Gahi all over again.

He had to get clever. And so, Owen closed his eyes, slowly… and focused. His body turned green again, and his scales became leaves, his flame a flower.

“There it is,” Jerry said, a sick grin spreading across his face.

“Yeah, there it is.” Owen glanced at Star. He still didn’t understand. He was supposed to be completely beyond Jerry’s league by now, wasn’t he? Or… or was Jerry just always weak and starving, until just now? He thought about his fight against Manny, and then against Gahi, and then against other synthetic Pokémon. How different were they, in the end? How great was the gap in power? Why would—

“Stop daydreaming!” Jerry fired three rocks.

“Ngh—" Owen brought his wings forward and blocked the blast with a sturdy shield. Past his barrier, beyond sight, Owen sensed Jerry closing in. He opened his wings to the sight of the Aerodactyl flying straight toward him. His fangs were bared, and they were surrounded in an icy fog. Owen tried to move, but Jerry’s momentum outpaced his acceleration. Jerry crunched down on Owen’s other arm—but this time, something much worse than a few fractures coursed through Owen. A stinging, freezing, crushing force pierced his muscles and spread to his chest; the Ice Fang mixed with the blood and flesh and leaves of the Grass-Flying Pokémon’s body.

Owen wailed and swung his frozen arm to get Jerry off, and he complied. He released his hold and flew back with the same dazing wingbeat. Then, Jerry rushed forward for a second time. Owen sensed it, and this time, had the reflexes and adrenaline to react. He opened his mouth wide and launched from his throat a sphere of green energy. Overconfident, Jerry couldn’t stop his momentum in time, and the Energy Ball exploded on his chest. The explosion sent the Aerodactyl flying backward; he beat his wings frantically to regain some control in the air and skidded to a stop once he hit the ground again. A black, circular mark colored his chest.

“Got careless that time,” he grunted. But he still had fight left in him. It looked like Owen did, too. But while there was fire in Jerry’s eyes, it didn’t take a special power for the Aerodactyl to see the fearful, frantic confusion in Owen’s. Jerry brought his wing to his neck, gently stroking at the Pecha Scarf. He didn’t feel any power coming from it, so that wasn’t influencing his power, either. This was his… and it was shattering Owen’s Thousand-Heart pride. And he loved that. “Let’s finish this,” Jerry said.

Owen slammed his tail on the rocks, sending shockwaves through the cave. Vines burst from the ground in huge, monstrous columns that dwarfed even Mispy’s frenzy, writhing toward Jerry. The living fossil took off, weaving past the first two vines. Vine Trap, was it? They couldn’t float in the air like Owen’s Fire Trap. That made them easier to predict. More importantly, they were slower. Owen, knowing this, had to find some way to make them unavoidable regardless.

Jerry spotted one in the corner of his eye, threatening to stab him with its sharp tip. He banked hard to the right, earning just a graze. Then, he banked to the left, and then moved unpredictably to the right again. The vines flicked uncertainly, hitting where Jerry would have gone just a few seconds earlier, had he continued in that trajectory.

Jerry paused as if rather than a vine, an idea had struck him. He fired five Rock Blasts again, but this time, they went in totally random directions. Two went forward. One to the right. One straight up—and another diagonally down. The two that went toward Owen were the first to catch his opponent’s attention. One hit the ground and shattered into tiny fragments; the other, Owen dodged. One hit Owen’s rightmost vine, getting lodged inside. The remaining two shattered into countless tiny pieces.

Those many tiny pieces falling around them like rain—the many, many rocks. Owen’s eyes were wide, vacant. Watching every single shard fall like it could do harm, analyzing where each one could go, how he could use them to his advantage. Accelerations toward the ground, velocities either toward or away from Owen. Owen couldn’t stop. He could only stare and count and analyze, and he briefly forgot how to move. Owen’s trance lasted for only a half-second. But that was all Jerry needed.

He spiraled down and twisted his body in a cork-screw. At the last minute, the claw at the edge of his wings tensed, and he spun until he could get a good angle. He wouldn’t miss this one, so close. Aerial Ace would be Jerry’s finishing blow. “Street rules,” Jerry mumbled, twirling with his claws outstretched. He hit something; Owen felt something. But it happened so fast in the middle of his stupor that he didn’t know where it had landed.

Jerry spun around and landed behind Owen, staring at the blood on his wings. He even caught a few of the leaves.

Owen staggered back, a sudden wetness all over his chest. Everything suddenly felt dark and blurry. His neck hurt. A lot. He stared down dumbly at the blood that spilled from his throat. It hurt doubly so with his current Typing—the sting propagated throughout his body. His vision faded—Jerry had struck something vital.

Owen didn’t even have a moment to properly think. His legs crumpled beneath him and he fell to the ground, limp. The seed inside his bag flashed, washing him in a golden light. Owen’s wounds healed, but the exhaustion of battle remained; he groaned, unable to roll over.

That was the signal to Jerry that he won. He puffed out a sigh of relief, and then looked at the others. “Okay,” he said. “I guess he put up a good fight.” He tapped at his chest, wincing. “Hey,” he shouted, “Vines! Can ya give me a little healing!?”

Mispy glared so harshly that Jerry looked like he’d faint anyway. Gahi’s arms were shaking with rage; Demitri looked like he was about to cry.

Amia and Alex rushed toward Owen to help him up; Star leisurely floated along with them. It was Rhys who ended up giving Jerry an Oran Berry to aid in his wounds. He gratefully chomped on the blue miracle, perhaps the one fruit he’d happily eat.

“Owen, Owen, dear,” Amia said. “A-are you okay? Owen?” She pushed him.

“Wh-whuh… what… what happened?” He rubbed his left horn. Owen gathered enough strength to roll onto his back, grunting. “Ugh, my neck…” He still felt a phantom pain from the slash. His chest wasn’t doing any better. Something blurry and pink floated in front of him—the see-through apparition of Star… She was coming closer, staring him right in the eyes, upside-down. “Star, I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t think I’d lose to—"

Never,” Star said, her tone lower and more venomous than he’d ever heard, “talk like you’re above mortals. Don’t even think that you can’t be beaten by one. And do not assume that just because you’re Mystic, you have the favor of divinity on your side.”

“S-Star, I…!” Owen shook his head, but that only made him dizzier. “I didn’t mean it like I was better than—”

“I don’t care,” Star said. “And you didn’t care when you said it. You just assumed you were stronger. That Jerry couldn’t beat you. You’re better than that, Owen. You knew Jerry was weakened. Yet, here you are. Beaten and bruised, on the ground, after getting your chest cracked and throat slashed. You got beat by an outlaw, and he beat you all on his own. I didn’t enhance him. That scarf he’s wearing is a Pecha Scarf, and it only protects against Ghrelle. I doubt she was helping you in that fight. No. It was just you, and him. And you lost.”

“S-so, what?!” Owen said defensively. “H-he—he had a Type advantage… Rocks… and then Ice Fang! How was I supposed to know that?”

“You’re right,” Star said. “Yet, look at how you were before. I saw that eyeroll.”

It suddenly became a lot harder to look at Star directly.

“I think your memories coming back made you overestimate how strong you really are. Think of how badly that fight with Jerry would have gone if he wasn’t weak—if he had the fire to pierce through your Mystic powers back at Dark Mist Swamp. Wouldn’t have been very cool then, huh? Then you’d be injured, in the middle of the poison, with Ghrelle watching your overconfidence. What if she melted you then? Maybe Jerry would become the Grass Guardian next.”

“I…” Owen said. “Why’re you being like this? I don’t… I don’t get it, I’m just—I’m just trying my best…!”

“You aren’t, Owen,” Star said. “You’re slipping. You’re getting too cozy with your power. You think it makes you invincible? If these Orbs made you so strong, I wouldn’t be worried about some test-tube experiments hunting the Guardians down. If your Mystic powers made you invincible, Cara and Forrest would still be alive. But they aren’t.”

Owen puffed. The phantom pain of the battle was fading. It was replaced with a knot in his gut.

“How’d Jerry beat me?” Owen said. “I’m still Mystic, and he couldn’t have become that much stronger just from being revitalized.”

Owen didn’t expect Star to react with silence. He had been expecting another quick retort.

“To be honest,” Star finally admitted, “I didn’t think he’d beat you so soundly.”

“Gee, thanks,” Owen huffed. That was even worse than he’d been anticipating. He refused to look at Jerry, even though he could feel his proud grin.

“But I knew he’d’ve given you trouble. Because he’s a lot like you, Owen. Resourceful, clever, that sort of fighter. And he’s also got a Type advantage on you, no matter how you slice it.” Star shook her head, sparing Jerry a small nod of approval. “But I think what gave him the win… was the light in his eyes, I guess. You saw it, too, right? The fire? He had something to prove.”

“What, so Jerry won… not just because his energy was back, and he had a Type advantage… but also because… of his sheer will?”

“Yes.”

Owen stared. “…Willpower doesn’t… do anything, though. It’ll motivate you to do a little better, but the body’s the body.”

Star smiled slightly. “Yeah. Normally.”

Owen waited impatiently for the answer.

Star obliged. “Mystic Pokémon have some advantages.” She raised her hands in a shrug. “They can warp reality to what they desire, in some small ways. Change their form.” Star glanced at Manny. “Evolve and un-evolve.” Star nodded at Willow. “And of course, strengthen their auras. And all the other little tricks that Mystic powers let you do, by nudging the world around you a certain way. But that doesn’t apply just to the Mystic.” She nodded at Jerry. “In battle, Pokémon draw from their auras and tap into divine energy. That’s what makes their techniques possible—and their ability to survive them from others. Their offense and defense is enhanced by the aura. This all sounds familiar, right? Rhys’ aura theory?”

“Y-yeah…”

“That was by my design. And when a Mystic is in battle, that Mysticism permeate the whole field, and that Mystic aura becomes a constant presence. If a mortal’s aura fire burns bright enough, they can take advantage of that in battle, too. Because in the end…” The Mew trailed off, nodding. “Drawing from that divine energy is what all Pokémon do. Mystics just have a better connection. But since Pokémon do the same thing… their auras can draw from the Mystic atmosphere. Too. And that,” Star said, “is how Jerry beat you.”

Owen gulped, but then he brought his head down. He understood. Mystic Pokémon were powerful in a lot of ways, and he encountered so many others who dwarfed even his power. With how much he’d been training, and how honed his aura had become, he thought he was totally beyond the average Pokémon’s power.

He looked down at his chest; there were still subtle stains from his own blood. “That’s why the Synthetics, who aren’t Mystic at all, can still give Guardians trouble.”

Star nodded. “I need to remind you of that. Sorry that I made an example out of you, but… I felt it getting out of hand. This goes as a reminder to you as much as it does to everyone else. Don’t forget, yeah? No matter how strong you are, and no matter how many defenses you think you have… The moment someone gets an upper hand? And you aren’t ready for that? That’s it.” Star made a little flourish with her tiny hands, creating little, purple bubbles of Psychic energy. “You lost.” The bubbles popped.

<><><>​

Anam’s office was quiet except for the occasional sound of papers flipping and pages turning. Then, the dull noise of a pen scribbling away.

“Ah. That must be it,” Nevren said, circling his findings. “Well. I should probably dispatch someone to rescue them.” He placed the paper on one of the piles. “James does good work, Anam. It’s a shame he can’t help me right now.”

“Nn… nngg…”

Anam was slumped against the wall, eyes wide, holding his head. The feelers that sprouted on the top of his skull were throbbing uncontrollably, overwhelmed by some invisible, internal sensation.

“Yes, yes, I understand you want to help, but that’s not something I can allow at the moment, either.”

“Get… get out… of my…” Anam said. “P-please… Nevren…” Gooey tears hit the ground. “I thought… you were…”

“Unfortunately, that isn’t part of my plans,” he said. “You need not worry, Anam. This is an uncomfortable transition, but you will grow used to it soon. However, I must be honest, it would have been a lot easier if you just accepted it outright. I shouldn’t have been so reckless. I would have simply revised the moment… but given how close we already are, well. Eon is impatient. I’d rather not have him upset. This will do. I’m positively giddy that it is finally working.” Nevren’s tone remained neutral throughout, and turned another page, reading through the next report.

“All this time… I thought…” Anam said, but his eyes were becoming empty. Vacant.

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” Nevren said, flipping a page. He didn’t spare Anam a glance, far too invested in reading the report in front of him. “I genuinely value this town and this world. And I do value your outlook, Anam. The charisma you overflow with and the morale you provide to the town has been invaluable. There is no use in destroying what you have built, let alone take it over directly. But some things have to be done for the greater good. Sacrifices are necessary. With any luck, they will only be temporary. But it is better than our current trajectory, yes? Yes..”

“No…”

“Mm, I believe you mean yes, yes?”

“N… nn…” Anam’s eyes stared at the floor. “Y… yes…”

“Very good, Anam. I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you… Nevren…”

Nevren suddenly glanced up, and then glanced at a small badge at the bottom left corner of the table. The badge was a sapphire color, with a gray, dim circle in the center.

“Elite Heart Alakazam Nevren!” someone shouted, rushing into the office. Nevren didn’t even glance up, but he knew it was a Golem. “Th-there’s a sighting of another one of those mutated Pokémon! It’s running wild in the—wh-what’s going on?”

The Pokémon saw the scene before him—the Association Head slumped on the wall, and Nevren, standing there, without a care, with a disturbingly neutral, indifferent expression. “E-Elite Heart Alak—”

“There is nothing to worry about here,” Nevren said with a casual wave of his hand. “You won’t remember any of this. Let’s just wipe that mind clean of the past few moments… ahh, there we go.”

Golem stared dumbly ahead.

“Now, close your eyes,” Nevren said, not even looking up.

Golem shut his eyes.

“You will turn around and walk. Your mission will be to gather two Elite Hearts to neutralize the mutant. If it is close to the village, there is no other choice. If it is far, try to subdue and relocate it to the Evergreen Prairie. I will handle it from there. Go on, now.” Nevren shooed him away with a gentle flick, and the hypnotized Pokémon opened his eyes.

“Understood!” He was back to normal and didn’t even look back.

Nevren returned to the report, circling another bullet point. “Modifying memories is so cumbersome,” he murmured to himself. “At least I had practice when Owen ran through the town as a Grass Type.” He shook his head. “Perhaps I could have done that better. Ahh, but how would I hide Anam? No. What I did was best for that one. He will forget. Ahh, Anam. How are you feeling?”

The Goodra was silent.

“Hm. This is a difficult rewrite. Oh, well. It’s only a matter of time. Very persistent, Anam. But I already have you. There is no way to counter me at this point. It’s a losing battle, yes?”

Suddenly, a black fog emerged behind Nevren. James burst from the shadows, ready to fire a feather-arrow directly into his back. But he didn’t. His body was frozen. Nevren looked at his hand; the Petrify Orb in it evaporated. Shortly afterward, the sapphire badge at the corner of his table brightened; the gray circle became a bright blue.

“In another time,” Nevren said, “that would have hurt quite a bit, James. I am surprised you still have a will of your own, with Anam in such a state.” He put his pen down, finishing the final document of the day. He picked up his spoons and turned to address the frozen Decidueye directly. “But then again, your spirit realm has always been… curious. Spirits usually become like their vessels. You are nothing like Anam.”

James’ eyes were filled with the malice of a thousand vengeful spirits. Yet, he was immobile.

“I’m sure you know as well as anyone that the wills of spirits are strongly linked to the will of their host. And, to a much weaker extent, vice versa. Perhaps that is why Anam took so long to control… If I could go back far enough, I would have tried it all again with someone else, perhaps someone less powerful, but still useful. Still, orders are orders.” Nevren held his arms up in a nonchalant shrug. “In the end, this is the payoff. How are you feeling, James?”

The Decidueye kept glaring, but now there was a flash of fear, and confusion, too.

“There is no need to be afraid, James. I have no intention of rewriting your personality, or even your sense of self, let alone Anam’s. I am merely altering a few goals and desires. That is all. …Hm?” Nevren turned his attention to Anam again. He was standing up.

“Ah, Anam,” Nevren said. “How are you doing?”

He shambled forward. Every heavy step left behind slime and black fog.

“Hm. Abnormal,” Nevren commented, though he did not move.

The Goodra held his arms forward and grabbed Nevren by the neck.

Very abnormal,” Nevren said, feeling a light pressure against his throat. “This isn’t Anam anymore, is it? Ahh…” Nevren stared into Anam’s eyes. That was a different glow. This glare was something Anam wasn’t capable of. How fascinating to finally meet her again. “I’m very sorry if this upsets you, Madeline.”

“I… will… KILL… you…”

“I’m afraid that is no longer a choice on your part,” Nevren said. Slime went down his neck, down his chest, and onto the floor. The Goodra’s grip tightened. This possessed Pokémon could easily crush his neck, yet it never happened. Because that part of Anam’s mind was already wiped away, replaced by an instinct to never harm Nevren. And so long as this spirit was a part of Anam, that instinct was part of her hard-wiring, too.

The fact that she was being so forceful was interesting. So interesting! The power of the spirit to defy their own design by sheer will alone. Extraordinary! This was truly the power of Mysticism, of divinity itself. Yet, it was still just a ripple against the inevitable. A small disturbance that faded into the expansive lake, into oblivion. Even now, her grip was fading.

“Why…?” Madeline asked. “Anam… trusted you…”

“He trusts quite a few people. In fact, it would not be much of a stretch that Anam trusts everybody. It was that trust that allowed him to acquire the Ghost Orb in the first place, was it not? Yes… an Orb too powerful to fight, acquired by a Goodra that knew only to befriend. It was that same openness that allowed me to slowly rewrite his subconscious mind. Quite underhanded, I know. But there is no need for honor when all that matters are the results. You may let go of me, now.”

The Goodra instantly let go of Nevren’s neck.

With a gentle Psychic blast, the slime flew off of his body. “After five hundred years of careful subconscious writing,” Nevren continued, “and constant reworking and retrying, I believe we are ready. Quite a few of the pieces are in place. The prototypes are stabilized. Their leader has the Grass Orb. Over half of the Guardians are gathered in one place. Now, if only we could penetrate the Trinity…”

“Your sins… will never… wash away…!”

“Sins?” Nevren questioned. “What a fascinating term, Madeline. Anam speaks very fondly of—ahh, but you know that. Hm. Well. In any case, I believe you are nearly gone, now. I suppose I will give you the opportunity for your final words before the rewrite?”

The Goodra’s eyes were becoming vacant again. His mouth opened once to say something, but only a little breath came out. Black fog surrounded his body, swimming restlessly in his slime like an infestation of bugs. Lumps of shadow-like matter danced beneath the surface of his amorphous form.

The words that came from Anam was in an amalgamation of the thousands of spirits within him. The voice was corrupted, every single one speaking over each other in a garbled cacophony, yet they all said the same thing. “I will… cast you… into… the void…”

Nevren wasn’t expecting that, leaving him in a hesitant silence. “I see,” Nevren said. “I hope you considered that a productive use of your thoughts.”

And then, the Goodra fell back, asleep.

The office was quiet again. Nevren gently scratched at an itch on his chin. “…Ah! I forgot about you. I apologize.” Nevren reached forward and tapped James on the forehead. The Decidueye blinked and shook his head, the effects of the Petrify Orb ending upon contact.

“What… happened? A-Anam?”

“Do you not remember? You were helping me with the daily reports. Anam mentally exhausted himself, slipped into the pool, and fell asleep.”

“Hrmnh… I do not,” James said. “I must have exhausted myself as well. That’s… worrisome. Are the reports finished?”

“Yes! They are, certainly. Once Anam wakes up, you can return to the others. Until then, perhaps you can survey the building. It has been a while since we performed a status check on the general missions, considering the… Orb gathering.”

“Hm, that is true,” James said. “Very well. Thank you, Nevren, for your constant help.”

“It is not a problem, James.”

The Decidueye sank into the ground; the resulting fog trailed out of the office.

Anam quietly mumbled in his sleep. Nevren arranged the papers into a neat stack, leaving only the summary page at the very top. They had quite a few new assignments to take care of. The Alakazam sighed. Speaking of assignments, he just finished his longest one.

“Like a weight off my chest,” Nevren remarked. After nearly five hundred years, it was over. Everything was falling together.

All he had to do now was wait for enough of them to be in one place.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
This special episode contains some fairly dark themes relating to body horror, fantasy gore, and mild realistic gore.

Special Episode 4 - Revise the Moment

Rotwood Fen was a cursed place.

The ground was covered in a thin, patchy layer of dark grass. Surrounding this grass was black mud, fungus, and grime, cold to the touch. Rocks were covered in mold and moss, various shades of gray and bluish-black, or some strange mixture of both. Bug Pokémon hid beneath the largest boulders, in little pockets of air and dirt, seeking shelter from the many feral predators that roamed the woods.

The trees were sparsely populated. Each one was no more than a foot in diameter—flimsy things that had few leaves. The bark flaked away to the touch, and had a fuzzy, soft texture on the surface. It wouldn’t take much to push one of these damp, decaying structures to the ground. The roots were gnarled and twisted through the dirt like tentacles. Some of the trees had scraggly, vine-like, yet wooden accents to the trunk that wrapped around the main bark like Tangela or the limbs of a Carnivine.

Two Pokémon walked through this dying forest. One was an Alakazam, holding his two spoons in one hand, and a strange, square device in another. The device had a minimalistic interface, with a few numbers in the top corner that slowly decreased as they moved, and a dot near the top of the screen that moved closer to the center.

The second Pokémon was huddled behind Nevren—a small Chikorita, nervously avoiding any of the trees. She saw herself in them, and what this forest could do to plants. Would she rot away in a place like this? If she wasn’t careful, she’d end up becoming some wild Pokémon’s next meal. And then what?

“D-Dad,” she said.

“Yes, Mispy?” Nevren asked, looking back.

She gulped. “I—I don’t… like this place.”

“Ahh, I understand. Not to worry. As long as you are with me, we will be perfectly safe.”

“Why couldn’t Demitri…?”

“I only needed you, Mispy, for the purpose of healing,” Nevren said. “The others are still training. You want to evolve, after all, yes? And healing is a great way to practice your special abilities.”

“Mnn.” Mispy sniffed. “It’s scary…”

“I understand,” Nevren said. “Granted, we are a small team. Just the two of us. And you’re quite used to cooperating with the other three. But ever since you fused together and lost your minds, well—” Nevren realized too late that he’d slipped.

“H-huh?” Mispy’s head jerked up. “What… what d....? I—I fused? What does…?! I don’t remember… I don’t…” Mispy’s wide eyes became even wider. Her leaf trembled—memories came flooding back. “A… Aaaa…! AAAAAHH!”

Nevren dropped his spoons to the ground and slipped the now-free hand into the bag slung around his neck. He grabbed a small, blue device with a circular, bright emblem in the middle, and clicked on the center button.

The world was dark for less than a blink. And then, the world returned to normal. Nevren was walking forward. Mispy was walking behind him. Nevren scanned his location and made sure to not lose his rhythmic steps. The tree that they had passed moments ago was ahead of him again.

“D-Dad,” Mispy spoke up.

“Yes, Mispy?” Nevren asked, looking back at the Chikorita.

She gulped. “I—I don’t… like this place.”

“Ahh, I understand,” Nevren said. “Not to worry. As long as you are with me, we will be perfectly safe.” Nevren didn’t pause this time. “I imagine you want Demitri and the others here, but they’re still training. Your healing will be invaluable on this outing.”

“Oh,” Mispy said. “O-okay…”

Nevren nodded. “Very good, then. Let’s continue.”

They continued their walk through Rotwood. The trees were starting to get a bit denser, but they were no less rotten. The sky was darkening rapidly, and Nevren suddenly stopped his walking when he sensed a change in the atmosphere. “Mispy,” he said, “you should stay close to me, yes?”

“H-huh?”

Nevren turned around. Just as he thought. Behind him was a great expanse of repeating trees and mossy rocks. Not the same trees that they had just passed. The entire world around them had shifted and changed, and he could already feel the mystical effects take place through his body.

“We entered a distortion. It seems that we can only advance to our destination by completing it.”

“Distortion? But…!”

“There is no need to worry.” Nevren raised a spoon. “Remember. The greatest danger of a distortion is getting lost. The next greatest danger is being defeated in one, losing contact with the rest of your team.” He inspected the distortion. “It seems that the Divine Dragon already blessed this place, since it seems to have its typical, labyrinthine arrangement instead of something more unpredictable. That’s a good start.” He turned and advanced through the paths. “Being defeated in a distortion, or rather, a Dungeon, will cause you to be rejected from it. You will be away from whatever danger caused you those injuries, but anything that you brought with you, now belongs to the Dungeon. But, more concerning—” he looked back, “—is that you will still be weak. Assuming you do not succumb to the strain to begin with, many predators live at the entrance to Dungeons for this reason, preying on the defeated. While you escaped your captor, what happens afterward is… less than desirable. You must be careful to not fall victim to these opportunistic inhabitants.”

Mispy sniffed, but suddenly stopped. “L-let’s go back,” she said. “I—I don’t…! I don’t want to—” She sniffled again. “Die…! B-be… eaten…!” Her red eyes filled with tears.

“There’s no need to cry,” Nevren said. “Come. There is no way out of a Dungeon once you enter it, but to go forward. Perhaps it won’t be very long.”

With Nevren’s back turned toward Mispy, he continued. Mispy timidly followed in a light gallop, trying to keep up. She tripped over a root and squeaked in surprise. Nevren stopped again. “Mispy, you shouldn’t—”

When Nevren turned around, he spotted a small tree moving. No, not a tree. Between gaps in its wooden armor was a black mass that made up its core; false leaves covered its large hands and head, and a single, great, red eye stared Mispy down. At first, Nevren thought it was a Trevenant, but something was different about it. No, that was just his eyes playing tricks on him. Surely it was just some feral Trevenant.

With a single strike, dark claws slashed through Mispy’s body, tearing her plant-like flesh, straight to the bone. She cried out and collapsed, and a second claw through her back finished it. Her mangled body disappeared from the Dungeon.

Nevren stared dumbly. He didn’t have time to react. A second Shadow Claw went right along his chest—a splitting, yet numbing pain coursed through him. He saw red gush from his body, and the second Shadow Claw going straight for his skull. The shadowy fog wasn’t the normal Ghostly sort. It felt worse.

The next thing he knew, Nevren was lying on the ground, a horrible pain gnawing at his chest. He must have been rejected from the Dungeon, but—he was too weak to move. His head felt light. But he forced himself to open his eyes. He saw a swift motion against his chest—a Mightyena, with its black fur and sharp teeth, was tearing away at him. He couldn’t gasp. His lungs were filled with blood—and the realization of what was happening doubled his pain. His arm twitched, and he attempted a reflexive Psychic attack on the Pokémon. Nothing. He should have expected as much. He turned his head, searching for Mispy. She’d be here, too. The Mightyena crunched down; a gurgling gasp escaped Nevren’s throat.

His vision was blurry, but he saw something green and red crumpled up a few paces away, motionless. More dark shapes surrounded this figure, shuffling around.

“Distortion? But…!”

Nevren jolted where he stood, losing his rhythm. He blinked a few times and held his chest. Nothing. He looked around to gather his surroundings. He had just entered the Dungeon. Mispy was behind him. His heart rate picked up, and he slowly clenched his fist. One breath was all he needed to steady himself.

“There is no need to worry,” Nevren said, remembering his own words. “Remember. The greatest danger of a distortion, that is, a Dungeon, is getting lost. And—” Nevren hesitated. “For that reason, you should stay close to me. Understood?”

“Y-yes! Okay,” Mispy said, trailing off.

“For example,” Nevren said, and then his eyes flashed with energy at a nearby tree. It screeched and wailed; its body twisted into a spiral, splitting apart at the wood. And then, it vanished from view. Unsettlingly, more of that black mist remained where it had once been. Was that a wraith? But this place is blessed… Isn’t it?

“That was a Trevenant,” Nevren lied. “Quite territorial, if I had to guess. But it can’t hurt us anymore.”

“Oh…!” Mispy beamed. “Dad! You’re,” she paused to find the right words, “so cool!”

Nevren chuckled. “Come, Mispy. Let me hold you for this Dungeon.”

She happily complied, jumping into his arms. The Alakazam made sure that she was in one piece, the blurry vision of her mangled body still fresh in his mind. Nevren held her a bit tighter.

He looked into his bag, staring at the cyan device. The dot in the middle was gray, and he slowed down, scanning his surroundings. It was still the same, dreary atmosphere of endless, repeating walls of gray mud and black trees. He stopped walking, and Mispy looked up at him, confused.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Nevren stared at the device. A few seconds passed, and the gray dot brightened again. “Nothing,” he said. “I was just waiting for my device to start again. It helps with Dungeons. A bit of a good luck charm.”

“Oh!” Mispy nodded. “Okay.”

Nevren gently inspected that cyan device again.

Mispy shifted uncomfortably in his hold and leaned against his left arm. “Weird.”

“Hm? What was that?”

“Dream,” she said slowly.

“A dream? Of what?”

Mispy trembled, shaking her head. “S-scary.”

Nevren looked down at Mispy briefly, then at his device. Then, back at Mispy. He gently rubbed at her head, wrapping his fingers around the base of the leaf atop her skull. “There’s nothing to worry about, Mispy,” he said, and sent a subtle, weak energy into her. “Now, what were you talking about?”

“Hm?” Mispy asked, looking up. “Talking about what?”

“You were dreaming. Do you remember?”

“Dreaming?”

“Ah. I must have misheard.” Nevren nodded. He looked forward again. “Ah, look, Mispy. Do you see that?”

It was subtle, but the passageway ahead of them had an odd distortion of light through it, like thick, rippling water. Unless one was paying close attention, it would go completely unnoticed. It took Mispy twenty seconds to see what he was talking about.

“Oh! Water? In the air?”

“Not quite. That is a passageway into the next section of the Dungeon. Watch.” He stepped into the distortion. The world around them blurred, and the trees rearranged themselves in a blink.

He was also surrounded by five Pokémon in a small, cramped space. Mispy yelped in surprise and flailed helplessly in Nevren’s arms; he couldn’t react in time and felt another rotten claw slash through his spine. He lost feeling in his legs instantly. He immediately searched for the device to try again, but then saw a sphere of black energy hurtling toward him. He raised his arm reflexively to block it. It seemed like Shadow Ball, but the way it reacted to his body was anything but. Almost instantly, the black energy exploded, the mist sealed inside wrapping around his arm. It infested it down to the very marrow, rotting it from the inside-out. He hissed and tried to use it to grab his device again, but the Shadow Ball did its work perfectly—he couldn’t use that arm if he tried. He desperately used his other arm, dropping his spoons and Mispy in the process. She squeaked, and he hit the button.

Nevren stood still, staring at the passageway. The little distortion in space beckoned for him to enter. He steadied his breath and looked down at Mispy; she was squinting at the oddly refracted light.

“Oh! Water? In the air?”

“Not quite,” Nevren said. “That is a passageway into the next section of the distortion. However.” He closed his eyes. “I am having a, hrm, Psychic premonition about this passageway. We need to be ready for anything, Mispy. I would like you to prepare yourself. Once we pass through, I want you to perform two of your techniques, yes? A Reflect, and then a Light Screen. I will handle the rest.”

Mispy whined, nuzzling against Nevren’s chest.

“It will be fine. I will protect you if you protect me.”

They stepped through. Instantly, Mispy waved her leaf in the air, making a psychic barrier around the two of them; Nevren deftly stepped forward and spun around, twisting the air around the Pokémon that intended to claw him in the back. It was turned to ghostly wood chips. Mispy waved her leaf again, screaming; a second barrier reinforced the first, significantly weakening the explosive wad of darkness that hit Nevren on his back.

He felt the rotting pain, but he could work it off. He turned around and warped the air again, splintering that one next. The three remaining Pokémon rushed at him, tree root legs flailing against the dirt. They left angry gashes wherever they moved. Nevren had to improvise. He focused and held Mispy tight. With a wash of psychic light, the two of them vanished, reappearing inconveniently only a few paces from where he had started.

“Ngh—just my luck, I suppose,” Nevren said. But it bought Mispy enough channel a warm, healing energy to Nevren, ridding him of the injury on his back. Rejuvenated, he dispatched of the third Pokémon next, leaving just two more to deal with. Mispy puffed out her cheeks at the aggressors.

“M-my turn!” she said, and her leaf lit up. A powerful beam of light—even in the dim sunlight that this cursed forest provided—seared through one of the remaining Pokémon, completely incinerating it. It died so quickly that the Dungeon didn’t even eject its carcass. The remaining wilds stared at the smoldering mass before them. Flaming pieces of wood crackled on the dirt, becoming one with the ash. The remaining one turned around and fled.

“Kill it,” Mispy hissed.

“If you wish,” Nevren said, and held his arm forward. In a twisted sense of revenge, Nevren generated a similar ball of rotting energy from his palm, chasing the final Trevanant. The black sphere engulfed it, and Nevren watched its body darken with a scream. The Ghostly blast split its wooden body apart with surprising ease. Within, the black mass remained for longer than its armor, but it was too badly damaged. The wraith evaporated.

Mispy huffed. “Evil.”

“Territorial is more accurate. But perhaps it is for the best,” Nevren said. “That one may have requested backup from others like it. We couldn’t allow that. Now.” Nevren checked his bag. The button was alight. “That was very good, Mispy. Let’s continue.”

Nevren had to be careful. He checked at his device again. They had two close calls and one verbal slip-up already. He was beginning to suspect he was getting reckless. It was tiresome, trying again and again. But he had a feeling that he was going to have to use that button quite a lot more once they got through this perilous, dreary place. Particularly if there are wraiths here. Why here? The Divine Dragon should have been right at the core of this place, if what Hecto said was true.

Mispy’s leaf twitched, brushing against his chest

“Are you okay, Mispy?” Nevren asked. “Do you see any strange auras? Your sense is quite a bit stronger than mine.”

“Mn, no,” Mispy said. “It’s… hard.”

“Yes, Dungeons tend to do that,” he said. “With the warping of space and time within these fields, well, even your sense of aura is going to be somewhat distorted. Particularly beyond each section.” He pointed at the next distortion. “Get ready, Mispy. The same as before, just in case, yes?”

“Do you have a… premonition?”

“Not this time, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”

He passed through the section barrier and then quickly turned around. Nobody. He checked behind him again, where he had been facing. Nobody. But he still refused to move, listening for any sign of movement, any marking of an ambush waiting to happen. But, there was nothing. Mispy couldn’t detect anything, either.

He sighed slowly. “Very good. As I expected, there is nothing here to worry about, Mispy. We will continue.”

To their fortune, the worst of the Dungeon was actually near the beginning, where they had been ambushed and killed—though only Nevren remembered. He held Mispy a bit tighter again, pressing her back against his chest.

Mispy tilted her head up, tapping her leaf against his neck. “It’s okay.”

“A-ah? Ah. Yes, I’m just fine, Mispy.” He looked down. “Be on your guard. There could be an ambush around any corner in a place like this. The ferals are quite territorial, it seems.” He eyed a suspicious tree. Hoping to conserve his energy for more important battles, he held his hand out and said, “Close your eyes, Mispy.”

She obeyed immediately, and a bright, blinding flash of light pounded into the tree. A strange force accompanied it, like little pinpricks of needles—the tree shrieked and twisted in agony, crumpling to the ground. But he held back to verify something. After the tree’s armor was split apart, what was left behind was a black, angry, featureless blob that radiated a strange, black mist “Hmph, of course,” he said. He twisted it with a Psychic, destroying it completely. That confirms it. This place is infested with wraiths.

Mispy blinked a few times, adjusting to the residual light. “Dazzling…?”

“Yes. It’s quite handy, don’t you agree?”

“How’d you know?”

“Perhaps I was a bit paranoid. I don’t trust the trees here any longer.” He continued through the corridors, noting that the mud of the Rotwood Fen was getting simultaneously thinner and deeper. They were nearing marshlands of some kind.

“And how are you feeling?” Nevren asked.

“I’m… okay.”

“Very good.”

Between the thickening black fog, the darkening sky, and the general distortions that accompanied such an exploration, Nevren had no idea how much time had actually passed since his entry into the Rotwood Fen Dungeon. He did know, however, that Mispy had fallen asleep in his arms after a few more segments, and he did his best to fight the remaining Pokémon quietly. Every so often, she was startled awake by a shriek, and Nevren had to make a second attempt at the same moment a few times the further he went. The worst was when a Haunter had paralyzed him from behind with a single brush of its tongue, and he could only watch helplessly as it dug its claws into him afterward. That one wasn’t even a wraith; that was indeed just a feral. He was glad only he would remember the mishaps.

Frankly, he couldn’t wait until this was over, but he still had a small section left to go. He saw, far ahead, the powerful distortion associated with a Dungeon’s end. And it was in this final section that Nevren stopped his walking, and instead started sloshing through the ground. The water, by now, was waist-deep for the Alakazam, and Mispy migrated from his arms to the top of his head, wrapping her vines around his chest to stay secure.

“Bad,” Mispy said softly.

“Yes, quite bad,” Nevren said. “I do hope there isn’t anything crawling through this water. It’s quite murky. I may need to bathe for an entire day.”

Mispy hummed, pressing her cheek against Nevren’s mustache.

“Ah, Mispy. I do have a bit of an injury near my shoulder from that Haunter’s strike. Would you mind?”

“Oh—okay.” Mispy closed her eyes, channeling a bit of healing energy into him.

The pain eased itself away. Bruises faded, and only a dull tingling remained. He sighed softly. “Very good.”

But that didn’t rid them of the ominous fog that polluted the atmosphere. It obscured their vision; there was no escaping its omnipresence. Mispy moaned quietly and covered her face with her leaf, coughing into it. But it wasn’t smoke, and her breathing didn’t push the fog away. It was a strange, ethereal vapor that didn’t follow the wind. It merely floated around them, sinking into and through their skin, through their very auras.

“Ngh. This is certainly the work of the Ghost Orb,” said Nevren to himself. “Mispy, do not worry. The smoke may feel strange, but it will not suffocate you. It is… This is something else.”

Nevren stared at his hand worriedly. It wouldn’t suffocate them, but he could feel something influencing his body. His hand was darkening. Patches along his arm looked like what had happened when that Shadow Ball hit it. Something occurred to him and he immediately reached up for Mispy, pulling her down.

“Dad?” Mispy asked. Her voice was labored and slow.

Mispy was green as ever. Her leaf seemed a bit wilted, and her eyes were lethargic. But then he saw it—little patches of rot along her right side, first. And then her left.

“Mispy, you must focus,” Nevren said.

“Huh?” Mispy said weakly.

Focus, Mispy,” Nevren said. “Your healing aura. You must use it on both of us. Mispy? Mispy?” He shook her lightly. Her head bobbed limply.

Nevren tasted something metallic. He brought a hand up to his mouth, but then jerked it away. His hand was black and brown. He didn’t even feel it. The skin was falling off. He spat—blood. He looked at Mispy again. Her eyes stared forward without aim.

Nevren dropped the dead Chikorita into the muck and dug into his bag. He slammed a rotten finger on the cyan button.

“Ngh—” Nevren stopped walking. Mispy squeaked, tipping forward atop his head.

“D-Dad?” Mispy asked.

“Ah—I’m sorry, Mispy. I had a horrible premonition,” Nevren said. “You must use your healing aura at all times from here on. Is that understood?”

“All the time?” Mispy said with a whine.

“Yes. Can you do this?”

Mispy grumbled tiredly, but nodded. “Okay.”

Nevren glanced at his arm. The black patches were already forming. But then he felt the energy radiate from Mispy, coursing through him. The patches faded.

He sighed. “That’s very good, Mispy. Keep this up while we go through this area. This fog is not normal. It’s made of some strange, rotting energy. We must be careful when we approach, as it will only get thicker. Warn me if your energy is weakening.”

The wraiths did something similar, but the Ghost Orb was enhancing it somehow. Could that be it?

“Okay.”

They continued. Nevren attempted to float above the muck, but his Psychic powers were being suppressed by the fog, too. He had to go on foot. His bag dragged behind him, but he made sure that nothing emptied from it—particularly, his device. If he could just revise the moment, he’d be fine. He just hoped that a moment was enough time.

They continued through. The fog thickened significantly. Nevren could barely see a few paces in front of him, and Mispy was starting to grow nervous. “Wh-what’s that?” she asked, strained.

“The end of the Dungeon. We’re quite close. Do you see that distortion? It’s a bit different than the others, because the other side is clearer, and the ripples are a bit stronger. That is the indicator that we are at the end of the Dungeon—or, perhaps,” Nevren trailed off. “Alternatively, it could simply be a pocket between the Dungeons’ sections. If that’s the case…” He sighed. “Then perhaps this will be more difficult than I thought.”

Nevren made a few strong steps to escape from the pond. The mud sloshed behind him, and his bag bumped heavily against his back. That bag was going to be burned when they got out of this place. He didn’t want to look down to know the condition of his mustache, but its newfound weight told the whole story.

He passed through the distortion of light, and Mispy’s heart sank.

“No,” Mispy moaned.

It was a clearing that lacked trees except for a single one in the middle. The clearing itself had a rippling bubble around it. Trees were beyond this barrier on all sides, but Nevren knew those were nothing but a backdrop as far as they were concerned. This small pocket of stability was no more than twenty paces across.

“Yes, indeed,” Nevren said. “Unfortunately, this is only a pocket. There is perhaps one more part of this Dungeon to go through.” He sighed to himself, gently rubbing at the stem of Mispy’s leaf. “A shame. But we can at least rest.” He looked around. “The fog is weak here. You may relax your healing and recover.”

Mispy sighed and collapsed; Nevren caught her gently and leaned against the centerpiece of this stable zone, a large tree—after checking that it wasn’t another wraith. There, she pressed softly against his chest again.

Nevren took the time to clean the left half of his mustache first. Psychic waves squeezed at it, cleaning as much of the cursed mud off as he could. Then, he moved on to the left, until he was satisfied enough with its shade. It was browner than he would have liked. He then tried, to no avail, to clean his bag with the same methods. Unfortunately, the mud was deep inside its fibers. It wasn’t coming out. Lost cause.

Mispy tilted her head up. “Why are we here?” she finally asked, as if this question had been eating at her the whole way.

“For the Ghost vessel,” said Nevren.

“The… what?”

Nevren nodded. “The Ghost vessel. A few days ago, Hecto gave word that this cursed place was visited by a Goodra and a team of other Pokémon. This is actually a very important Goodra, and we feared that he might not have even made it through the whole way. This happens quite often, and we rarely see anybody return upon entering. The Goodra went in with an entire squad… so I wonder what their fates were.”

“That Goodra never returned, indeed, but Hecto was able to observe that the Ghost Orb itself had been claimed, somehow. This Dungeon had become blessed. Incredible! I do not know what special talent this Goodra has beyond being a Divine Dragon, but it was enough to tame the Orb. That being said…” He eyed the surrounding area. “I can’t quite say the same thing about the surrounding area. It is still plagued by the rotting aura.”

“Mm,” Mispy trailed off. “Rot…”

“Yes. But it’s safe here, at least.” He dug through his bag and pulled out an apple, inspecting it carefully. It seemed slightly rotten on one side; with a precise, psychic motion, the apple split, and he discarded the blackened half. “Here,” he said, offering the half to Mispy.

She gratefully took it, chomping ravenously. Nevren dug through the bag and pulled out a few berries. Most seemed rotten, and he had to discard them, but a few were miraculously preserved. “Here you go, as well.”

“Don’t you,” Mispy said between bites, “need to eat, too?”

“Ah, I will last,” Nevren said.

Mispy paused if only to ask another question. “Star’s… blessing?”

“Well, it doesn’t make it so I don’t have to eat at all,” he said, “but, I shall last, yes.” Just then, his stomach let out a horrible rumble, and he was tempted to revise that moment to spare himself the biological contradiction.

Mispy giggled, finishing the second berry. She then brought a vine over the final berry and offered it back to Nevren—a simple Oran Berry to fill his stomach, at least a small amount.

“Ah, there’s really no need,” he said, pushing the vine away gently. “You need the healing energy more than I do.”

“I’m full,” Mispy said.

“I know when you’re lying.”

“Just eat,” Mispy said, tossing it to him.

He caught it in his spoon, sighing. “Very well.” He flicked the spoon upward, tossing the berry right into his mouth with precise aim. He relished the taste, breathing a small sigh through his nostrils.

Mispy giggled again, butting her head against his side. “Thank you.”

Nevren looked at Mispy, puzzled. “Hm? For what?”

Mispy looked up at his star-shaped face, tilting her head. “I don’t know.”

“Hm.” Nevren looked past a gap in the dead trees. “Well. Thank you, as well.”

Mispy unsheathed her vines again, fiddling with them to pass the time. Nevren could tell that she was feeling better, but he gave her a bit more time to relax in this moment of calm. Then, she looked up at him again, and Nevren readied himself for her next question.

“How come we’re here? For the Ghost Orb?”

“The Ghost Orb? Well. Up until now, it was the only Orb that we were aware of. And we need to gather those Orbs together, yes? For Star’s sake.”

“Mm,” Mispy nodded, though she still seemed confused.

“Is something wrong?” Nevren asked.

“How come… Star can’t get them?” Mispy asked.

“Ahh, that is the question, isn’t it?” he said. “A number of factors prevent Star from gathering these herself. The first being that she simply isn’t strong enough.”

“S-Star? Not strong?”

Nevren shook his head. “She has power, but she doesn’t have the will to use it. She is a divine entity, Mispy. They operate in a slightly different way than we do, when it comes to their ability to unleash their power. And that power is limited further when they take on a physical form.”

“Oh,” Mispy said. “Physical. As in…”

“As in, with a body, in the world we live in. Star is alive in a literal sense. By Arceus’ own design, gods cannot overpower mortals when in their own domain so easily. She is strong, but perhaps not strong enough to take this on.” He waved his arm ahead at the fog of rot that seeped from the distorted light. “So, physically obtaining the Orbs is something she is not able to do. So, why not attempt to claim it from the spirit world?”

“Spirit?”

Nevren nodded. “The Orbs have a corresponding Core within the spirit world. They are a connection between the world of the living and the edge of the world of the dead.”

Mispy’s vacant eyes suggested she understood about half of what he said.

Nevren hid a pang of irritation. “That is to say,” he went on, “It is a special realm, adjacent to the spirit world. Like a neighbor of the real world. A place between our world and the next. What little divine energy is within them is enough to go just far enough to make that connection.”

“Divine energy,” Mispy repeated, humming. “Weird.”

“Very weird, yes.”

“What is it?”

“Ah,” Nevren said. “Well. They are fragments of Arceus’ original, full power. When reality was created by his thousand arms, Arceus possessed full dominion and power over it. Early on, he created the upper pantheon—including Star. There’s something special about Star, and I’m not quite sure what it is, but he values her above all else. And she was likely the creative force behind, well, nearly all the species common to our lives.” Nevren looked up. “By my current educated guess, each of these Orbs contain twenty of those arms that Barky once used to shape the universe.”

“Twenty?” Mispy said, poking little holes in the mud with her tiny claws to count. “Grass… Fire… Water… Ghost…” she listed quietly.

Nevren smiled slightly. “There are just under 400 of Arceus’ original, divine hands within the Orbs in total. Just over a third. Star possesses a little less than a third, and Arceus retains the rest. And...” Nevren held out his hand, palm toward the sky. A single, thin filament of white light emerged, swaying in the air to invisible currents, “I, as well as the other Divine Dragons, possess a single one.”

Mispy stared at this filament, wide-eyed. “Wow,” she said in a soft whisper. She brought a vine out and tentatively prodded it. It felt like nothing, yet she could still feel its presence. It felt warm, but not to her body. “But, if you have one, and the Goodra has more…”

Nevren shook his head. “It’s not quite that simple. More of these does not mean more power. Not directly.”

Mispy tilted her head.

“In fact, in a small sense, every creature has a small amount of this same divine influence in them. Consider it the original blessing of Arceus, passed onto the rest of the world. The aura, and the enhancements they provide to the body, and the many techniques that Pokémon can learn.” Nevren stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “Yes, that ties all to the aura. Possessing a Hand merely gives you a bit more of that influence, and lets you expand it further, warping and seizing reality just a bit more firmly.”

“Reality?” Mispy said.

“Hmm,” Nevren considered this. “Essentially, it makes it easier for you to change the world, at least in a small sense. For example, with a bit of focus…” Nevren stared carefully at a rock. He reached out and picked it up, and then gently tossed it. He held his hand out and squinted, and the rock stopped falling, frozen in time. And then, after a second of that freeze, it resumed its fall. “Things like that can be done. I have been imbuing some of that divine energy into the technology I make. Delayed teleportation is another. I hope to imbue that power in little items, perhaps badges, or buttons, that one can carry around for emergencies…”

Mispy yawned. “Okay.”

“A-ah, is this boring you?” Nevren asked.

“No, um, I just know.”

Indeed, this was the third time that Nevren had talked about his badges and his theories. He hoped that Mispy was at least slightly interested in how he was able to do it.

“In—in any case, divine energy is infinite in supply, but finite in output. You need to build it up in order to utilize it properly, and even then, you must practice in how rapidly it can be released, and how much you can store. More Hands simply means you can generate more of that power at a faster rate, to an extent.”

“Power to… change reality.”

“Yes,” Nevren said. “To an extent. I do wish I had a few more Hands at my disposal. With enough power, you can consistently ignore gravity, and enhance your attacks considerably, to name a few techniques, and your sphere of influence expands quite a bit as well. The most immediate example being,” he pointed at the fog, “this rotting smoke. It is certainly the influence of the Ghost Orb’s reality-warping properties, honed and mastered for, perhaps, centuries.”

Mispy stared uneasily at the black mist. What a horrible place. She should have been home, eating food and sleeping with Demitri. Instead she was here, where it was cold, and wet, and dark. No place for a little Chikorita like herself! She needed the sun. “Can you cancel it out?” Mispy asked.

“Theoretically,” Nevren said. “But I’m not nearly strong enough to cancel the influence of another set of Hands. Not yet.” He slowly stood up. “I’m hoping to use sense and words with this new vessel instead to gain their favor. We can take the Orb from him, or we can negotiate an alliance of sorts. I will use my premonition to determine which would be best. Are you ready, Mispy?”

“Mhm.” Mispy wrapped her vines around Nevren’s shoulders. She hauled herself up and settled atop him again, resting between the star-shaped horns that jutted diagonally from his head.

<><><>​

The first thing that Nevren noticed upon entering the next series in the Dungeon was how thick the fog had suddenly become. Nevren worried that he would float in it if he wasn’t careful. Mispy was channeling her healing energy as quickly as she could, but even then, he felt a dull, bruise-like pain all throughout his lower body. He just didn’t have the stamina to deal with something like this on his own. Perhaps someone stronger, like Eon himself, would have withstood such a horrible rot, but he and Mispy were too delicate in their current states.

What a shame that she is a mere Chikorita, Nevren thought to himself. If she hadn’t destabilized upon fusing with the others, perhaps this entire trip would have been trivialized.

But that was the past. Too far in the past to revise. The process they used to fuse together lasted longer than a moment—and, therefore, once he realized what was going wrong, he had no way to stop it from happening. And for the same reason, he had to be extremely cautious about this fog. If it irreversibly affected him for longer than his ability to revise, he would be finished.

He glanced above him, seeing Mispy’s vines dangling idly. “Are you doing well, Mispy?”

“Mhm,” Mispy said. “The fog isn’t up here.”

“Ah,” Nevren said. “You’re right. Be careful of your vines.”

“Oh.” Mispy jerked them upward.

The lack of creatures here unnerved him. Not a single Pokémon remained in this strange place. Perhaps the fog itself was so corrosive that even the wild Pokémon could not survive within it, not even the Ghosts themselves. But what about the wraiths? Surely they would have been swarming in an environment like this. Perhaps his theories were incorrect, and this was exclusively the Ghost Orb’s power.

That still didn’t explain the presence of wraiths to begin with.

But then, he sensed another break in the Dungeon. “What is…?”

“Distortion,” Mispy said, pointing at the light. It was strong, indicative of the end of a Dungeon’s influence.

“Yes, indeed. But I did not expect this place to be so… short. I was ready for an entirely new half—but that is certainly the exit. Let’s go.” He had his hand on his cyan emblem and passed through the section.

Mispy gagged and covered her mouth with her vines. Nevren’s eyes watered and the whiskers of his mustache twitched violently when his face wrinkled. The smell was impossible for Nevren to describe. The smell of death. Cold death that lasted for years. Sour rot and salty remnant.

Sitting in the middle of the exit, in a clearing surrounded by a lake of black mud, was the decaying remains of some large, slimy dragon. The once vibrant, purple form was blackened like the sludge that surrounded it. Pieces of its body were lying near the main lump and its head was crooked back, mouth agape. Its thick tongue lolled out of the mouth, part of it already rotted away. Its eye sockets were empty, black holes that oozed some strange, brown-purple fluid.

He and Mispy could only stare at the sight for a full minute. “Awful,” Mispy said. “He’s… he’s dead.”

“A sad fate indeed.” Nevren nodded. This was what the Divine Dragon was reduced to by the Ghost Orb. In the end, they still had bodies, and bodies could decay. Still, seeing someone as holy as him reduced to a carcass… it was a sobering thought. Madeline… I’m sorry that this had to happen to your son. I hope you are together with him at last.

Nevren cleared his throat, shaking the thoughts away. “Mispy, can you sense any auras? We are outside of the Dungeon, now.”

“Oh—” Mispy nodded. “Okay.”

“There’s a high likelihood that the Ghost Orb is still within his body. I’ll have to dig through it. It is perhaps the least hygienic thing to do, but it must be done.” He tried to float above the muck, but the strange aura of the Ghost Orb persisted. He couldn’t levitate here, either, without strain. He elected to descend the old-fashioned way. It wasn’t very far. If the ground had been solid, the distance from the mud’s edge to its center was only four of his paces.

“Keep me healed, Mispy, just in case,” Nevren said.

“Okay.” Mispy kept her vines wrapped around his chest for leverage. She couldn’t take her eyes off the Goodra, even as they got closer.

Nevren waded through the sludge, and immediately realized that its consistency was thicker than usual. It was mud, yes, and rocks and decomposing plant matter. But it was also mixed with the natural slime that the Goodra species secreted, forming a mass so viscous that he could barely slog through it upon entry. It was like honey. The smell was even stronger here. It would take a week, without stopping, of washing to get rid of the grime from every corner of his body that descended into the pit.

And there he was, face-to-rotten-face with the decaying Goodra. Nevren figured that the Ghost Orb would be in the chest cavity, at the center of mass. He carefully moved forward, pressing his hand against the chest of the carcass. It had a lot of give.

He figured that Madeline would have preferred a prayer or a burial, but it wasn’t as if she was alive to see this. He had an Orb to recover; perhaps, if they had the time, they could bury his body after they got what they needed.

He pressed a bit further in, and the flesh tore away on both sides. The ribcage was far gone; he only had to pull away at a few of the—

The dead Goodra’s hand spasmed and snapped forward, holding Nevren’s outstretched arm. For a split-second, Nevren had never felt so frightened in his life. Time stopped in his mind.

“Aaauuuu…” the Goodra moaned, and its head tilted forward with a deep, horrible cracking noise, twitching with each snapping vertebra. Nevren jerked his hand away, tearing the Goodra’s hand off from the sudden movement. Mispy screamed and let go of Nevren. She violently lashed her vines toward the Goodra’s upper body. With a single motion, she smacked the Goodra’s head clean off. It rolled to the side, sinking into the mud.

Mispy kept screaming, but Nevren reached up and held her. “Mispy! Mispy, it’s okay,” Nevren said. “It’s okay—y-you knocked its head off, yes? It can’t—”

The Goodra’s body moved on its own. Nevren took in a sharp breath and doubled back, wading through the mud. He was done. This was too much. He did not agree to this sort of horror.

The thing had a much easier time wading through the viscous mass, as if it flowed around him by his will. The headless Goodra with the exposed chest waded through the swamp blindly; it was hunched over, feeling through the sludge with its tiny arms. Nevren was completely out of the slime by now, just about ready to teleport away from this place, no matter where his attempt at teleporting would take him. Anywhere but here, in this surreal, undead presence.

“I want to wake up!” Mispy whimpered. “P-please!”

“I’m afraid this isn’t a dream, Mispy.”

The Goodra pulled from the swamp its own head and slapped it onto its exposed neck. It was on backwards, the feelers twitching in front. It grabbed itself by the cheeks and rotated. The bones popped into place with a dull thud. Then, he stared at Nevren with those empty, oozing eye sockets.

“H… huuu… huuooo…” the dead thing said.

Mispy’s little buds started to glow. Nevren held his hand on her neck. “It’s okay,” he said. “Hang on.”

Mispy hopped off of Nevren’s head and landed behind him, hiding behind his legs.

“H—huu… hullooo…” the Goodra said.

Nevren gulped. “Y-yes, er, hello,” he said. It was sapient? Nevren looked at Mispy again. “Does it have an aura, Mispy?”

But she was too frazzled to sense anything. And then again, if it had the Ghost Orb within its being, its aura would look strange anyway. There was no telling—

“Who are you?” the Goodra asked, sloshing forward through the slime. Every word that he said was extended in a long moan, every vowel taking much longer to pronounce than it should have. “I’m sorry,” he said slowly. “This body feels weird.” The slow pace of his words were agonizing.

“A-ah, so you are struggling to speak, because your body is not cooperating?” Nevren asked.

“Mmmm.”

Mispy was still staring, wide-eyed. “D-does it hurt?” she asked.

“Hurt? Why?”

“I suppose it doesn’t,” Nevren said. “What a… strong reaction. I did not expect the Ghost Orb to behave this way. I thought it would be more, hm, ethereal, rather than… this.”

“Lots of ghosts.”

“Y-yes, I’m sure there are. Goodra, you… befriended the spirits of that Orb, did you not?”

“Mhmmm.” He finally got out of the swamp, bumbling toward Nevren. The Alakazam responded by taking a step back. But the Goodra kept advancing until he was right in front of him, arms outstretched.

No, no—not that habit—why does this Goodra need to follow such a horrible stereotype to—

Nevren was lost to the squishy, slimy, decayed embrace of the rotten Goodra, pressed between his chest and his arms. He smelled of the deaths of a thousand corpses; Nevren’s eyes watered uncontrollably.

“Yes, yes, it’s very good to meet you, too,” Nevren said, fishing desperately for his cyan badge. Revise, revise, revise! This must be revised! He cannot allow himself to live through this moment. Anything to cut this short. He could dodge it, he’d do anything to avoid this literal touch with death. Mispy was standing behind him at this point, trembling in a strange, confused mixture of laughter and fear.

“Mmmnn,” the Goodra said. “It was so scary,” he said. “But… but then…!” he sniffled again, pulling Nevren closer. The Alakazam lost hold of his badge in that instant and instead bumped against the exposed ribcage of the Goodra, which felt even softer than the last time. Was this Goodra melting under his own sheer power? Or was that just more of the rot permeating through every piece of the dragon’s decaying form?

Nevren finally got a hold of the Revisor. His eyes relaxed, and he heaved a slow sigh. Finally, he could escape. He pressed the button, ready to sidestep.

At first, Nevren thought nothing had happened. But then he realized he was a bit further away from the Goodra again. He was still wrapped in the Goodra’s embrace, and the smell of decay up close hit his nostrils for the first time, for the second time.

The moment had passed. And upon pressing the button, he had gone to the beginning of that moment to relive it again. Out of pure desperation, Nevren pushed the button for a second time, and a third, and a fourth, putting his hand in his bag early just to try, not caring about any signs of aggression he may have been displaying to break free. The Goodra was oblivious to it all. And the button did nothing; its gray, indifferent color indicated that there was nothing he could do to revise further than he’d already gone.

And so, he had to last another moment, repeated, in the Goodra’s dead arms. It was the first time in perhaps centuries he wished to cry. And perhaps he was, if only for the stench—and if only for the experience that he had to relive for the second time, stinging all five of his senses. The air was so thick, indeed, that he could taste it. It reminded him of when Eon had forgotten to empty the broken fridge in storage. It had been a decade. It had its own ecosystem.

“Mmmnn,” the Goodra said. “It was so scary,” he said. “But… but then…!”

“I—I’m sure it was very frightening,” Nevren said, returning to his senses. “Please—I beg of you—I am struggling to breathe.”

“Ohhh!” The Goodra released him, and Nevren fell backwards and onto the dirt. The residual slime on his back made the ground stick to him, and he remained there, staring at the empty-eyed death dragon from below.

Mispy wrapped her vines around Nevren and helped tug him free, chunks of dirt remaining on his back.

Nevren composed himself with a steady breath, tuning out—to the best of his ability—the sensations that permeated the air. He then glanced down at his Revisor, then back at the Goodra. It was blue again, but if he pressed it now, he’d have to relive that for a third time. He counted the seconds in his head, just to be sure that he wouldn’t have to, and the next moment revised would be one without the hug of death.

“Now, Goodra, I—suppose I should introduce myself,” Nevren stalled. “My name is Alakazam Nevren, and this is my daughter, Chikorita Mispy. And you are?” He knew the answer, but it wasn’t as if Madeline ever told her son about them.

“I’m Goodra Anam.”

“It’s very good to meet you, Anam,” Nevren said, still counting the seconds.

Mispy eyed Nevren curiously, but then asked, “Is he… evil?”

“Evil?” Anam repeated. “No.”

“I strongly doubt Anam has an evil bone in his body,” Nevren said. He also doubted he had bones at all.

That was enough time, Nevren figured. He could finally—and safely—put to work what he was intending to do in the first place. If the vessel was still alive, then it wouldn’t do to harvest the Orb right now. They probably didn’t have the power to do it. And Madeline likely didn’t have a lot of good to say about the rest of the Divine Dragons… Eon had tried to bring him over a long ago when she had first perished, and that failed.

He just had to win him over by force. This was the first confirmed Orb that they could get; he couldn’t squander the opportunity.

“Goodra Anam, could you face me for a moment?”

“Hmmm?”

Nevren’s eyes flashed and a wave of psychic energy infested Anam’s mind. The Goodra’s empty eyes bulged and he roared, clutching his head. Mispy yelped in surprise and hopped backwards; Nevren stepped away, too, but then Anam lunged forward and grabbed him by the throat. Nevren wheezed in surprise, clutching the Badge.

“You dare,” Anam said—his voice suddenly warped and buzzing with a thousand different voices, “control my vessel?”

Nevren slammed his claw on the Revisor.

He was standing again, and Anam was right in front, tilting his head.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“H-hm? Yes. I’m fine. Why?”

Mispy’s leaf flicked. “You were… introducing?”

“A-ah. Yes. My name is Alakazam Nevren, and this is Chikorita Mispy, my daughter. And you, Goodra?”

“I’m Goodra Anam.”

“It’s very good to meet you, Anam,” Nevren lied.

Mispy eyed Nevren curiously, but then asked, “Is he… evil?”

“Eevil?” Anam repeated. “No.”

Nevren was no longer sure. But he played along. “I highly doubt Anam is malevolent, Mispy. He merely… appears to be scary.”

With another uncomfortable silence passed, he glanced at his bag. The gray button regained its glow. He could try again. This time, he’d do it with a bit more subtlety. Anam was too strong to control outright. He seemed dim-witted, and his mind was open, but there was more to this Goodra than he had initially given credit. Along with whatever that thing is inside the Ghost Orb. So, he’d have to be slower. Smaller thoughts. Disturb the subconscious mind, and perhaps…

“Well, Anam, I came here to ask you about something,” Nevren said.

“Ohhh?”

“Yes,” Nevren said, sending a much weaker, subtler wave toward the Goodra, this time acting on his deeper mind, pieces that he won’t notice. If there was one thing he could appreciate about having only a single Hand of Arceus, it was that it allowed for very minute, precise changes to his reality. “I was wondering, why did you come in here? Why did you go into this wretched place?”

“Ohh, I wanted to find mm… mmm…” Anam stared at Nevren for a bit longer, those void-like eyes widening a little.

Yes, just a little more, Nevren said. Just to be careful, he kept hanging onto his Revisor. “You wanted to see who, Anam?”

Anam was quiet.

This sort of pause wasn’t supposed to go for this long. “Who did—”

Arrows suddenly plunged into Nevren’s back, and the sharp pain nearly made him pass out. He turned for only an instant and saw a Decidueye glaring at him. Mispy gasped, wide-eyed and frozen. The Decidueye said something, but the pain Nevren felt made whatever was said flow in one ear and out the other. Nevren slammed his hand on the button.

“Evil?” Anam repeated. “No.”

Nevren was quiet. Mispy shifted uncomfortably behind him, as if waiting for Nevren to confirm Anam’s words.

“Y-yes,” Nevren said. “Anam is not evil. He is a vessel of the Ghost Orb. Right now, his body is adjusting to its power, and he is taking on a… Ghostly form. It must be reacting very strongly to him, for some reason.”

“Well, this happened to me first.”

“Ah, is that it?” Nevren asked. “So, this transformation was only partially due to the Orb. The rest was, ahh, you must have withstood quite a bit to get here.”

That Decidueye was watching him from somewhere. He knew it. The last time Nevren had come here, that Decidueye tried to kill him all the same. Why did he seem so familiar? He never knew a Decidueye. It didn’t matter. Nevren only knew that the ghostly spirit would be suspicious of anything he tried.

The modification would have to be a subtle thing, so subtle that perhaps only a single, tiny, insignificant thought could be nudged at a time. Nevren tried that, next. He drew into that single hand he possessed, and tried once again to modify Anam’s mind. Just one thought. A simple thought, implanted: that he, the strange Alakazam before him, seemed friendly.

And he stopped there. He had to add little faults in his mind like that until Anam was open enough, and vulnerable enough, to manipulate quickly, and outright. Anam, the new vessel of the Ghost Orb, was too strong to fight, even now. He checked the button again. It was back to glowing, so he could try again. Around this time, he had been attacked by the Decidueye. But not now. It went unnoticed. The thought persisted. It was possible, but how long would it take?

He had to get the Orb, no matter what. Anam was too much of a threat to Eon and the others as its host.

“I like you,” Anam suddenly said.

“A-ah?” Nevren asked, and he was ready to hit the Revisor again when he came toward him. But this time, Anam held out his cold, dead hand.

“I want you to come home with me.”

Mispy shivered. “S-scary m-monster.”

“Scary?” Anam asked.

“Your manner of speech is frightening Mispy,” said Nevren.

“Ohh, I’m sorry,” He held his jaw, trying to adjust it. “Everything’s broken.”

“M-maybe I can h-heal?” Mispy asked.

“Heal?”

Mispy focused and blasted Anam with a rush of healing energy. Residual fog in the air evaporated into empty air. Anam flinched at the light, and the rest of his body blackened considerably, but at the same time, his jaw and chest closed up. While dark, he looked whole again.

Anam slapped his cheeks lightly, and then adjusted his feelers. They retracted into his skull and then slid back out to their full length, nearly down to his tail, and then returned to their neutral, limp position behind him. “Wow!” Anam said. “I feel great!” And his vocal pacing was finally normal.

Mispy sighed, relieved. At least now he didn’t look like an animated corpse. The eyes, though. They were still completely black.

“Thank you! I can talk a lot better, now! I guess I must’ve been more hurt than I thought.” He giggled.

“Y-yes, well,” Nevren said, “it’s very good that you’re in better shape. “Now, what was that about wanting me to… come home with you?”

“Oh, right,” Anam said. “Umm, yes! I live in Quartz Crater.”

“The center mountain? There’s a settlement there?” Of course there was; it was where Madeline had lived, and where the villagers had likely taken care of Anam since then.

The villagers…

“Anam, did you not come here with a group?”

Anam’s expression darkened solemnly.

“Ah, no. There’s no need to think about that. Tell me about Quartz Crater, please.”

Anam perked up again. “Yeah! It’s a big climb, but most wild Pokémon can’t get there very easily, and we can see them coming. Plus, there aren’t any Dungeons there yet, either! So it’s nice and stable. The perfect spot!”

“I see,” Nevren said. “Quartz Crater…”

“Do you want to become a Heart?”

“…What?” Nevren asked.

“Yeah! Umm—!” Anam turned around and dug through the swamp, pulling out what looked like a little, dull stone. Wiping away the grime, the natural shine of the object pushed through. There was a badly-clawed insignia of a heart on the front. “Here! This is a badge that makes you a member of the Hundred Hearts!”

Nevren took the badge and rolled it in his hand. “This is solid gold,” he stated. “Anam, how in the world did you acquire enough gold to create these Badges?”

“Huh? What do you mean?” Anam asked. “What’s a gold? I’ve just been getting as many rocks as I could that I could carve a heart into so it looks pretty! This one is a little lumpy.”

“I—I see. So, you just happen to have a gold ingot?”

“Mhm! I prayed to Arceus for good fortune, and I think He answered!”

“Hm, I see,” Nevren said, unconvinced. He did have a lot of time to find something like this, so it wasn’t too surprising. “So, you’re saying that you happened upon this gold piece by chance? How lucky.”

“Well, some of my friends helped melt it out of other rocks, too. And we made a bunch of other Badges, too! But this is the only one I could make with this material.” Anam stared down quietly. “My friends…”

“Well, in any case,” Nevren said, “I would be happy to accompany you home, but I will need some time to prepare.”

Mispy gulped, looking at the drops of black, sticky slime that plopped on the ground. She followed the source to the Goodra’s face. “Umm…”

Nevren eyed Anam. “Are you crying?” he said. Had he said something incorrect? His hand hovered over the Revisor.

“N-no, I’m… not! I’m… happy,” Anam sniffled, wiping his eyes. “It’s j-just been a… r-really stressful day.”

“I can imagine,” said Nevren. “Well. In any case, once I have my obligations in order, I will meet you in Quartz Crater. It will take a few days for me to travel there from where I live, of course, but you should be able to wait. Is that fair?”

“Okay! I’ll see you then, and, um, travel safe, okay?”

“I will.” Nevren looked to Mispy. “Now then, let’s return home, Mispy. Compared to here, the rest of our excursion will be easy.”

“Um,” Mispy hesitated. “Will… will he be okay?” she pointed her leaf at Anam.

“Quartz Mountain is quite close to here,” Nevren said. “For a Pokémon of his size, it shouldn’t take longer than a quarter of the day. Our trip will be much longer.”

“Where do you live, anyway?” Anam asked.

“Ah, I live in the Southeastern Archipelago.”

“Oh, wow, that’s a corner of the world!”

“Indeed,” Nevren said. “So, please understand if we take a bit longer. I promise you, however, that I will return within a week’s time.”

“A what’s time?” Anam asked, tilted his head.

“Within seven days. My apologies. The Archipelago has odd terminology for the passage of time.”

“Ohh, okay. I’ll see you in seven days, Nevren!” Anam held out a hand. Figuring that nothing would be lost after how much grime already covered him, the Alakazam returned the favor, and they shook.

<><><>​

Dark wood floors met white marble walls, though neither were visible in the total darkness. The whole world was silent in this room, except for a weak, single gurgling noise in the corner, atop a wooden bed and thick mattress, large enough to hold a Charizard. There was a blanket on top of this mattress with a smooth texture, stuffed with cotton. It was blissful, being able to sleep under the covers, letting the dull heat of the body course through the pocket of air.

And then, a disturbance. Someone knocked on the door, and the peace was broken. “Eon.”

“Mrrrgh. What is it, Hecto? Star’s not here, get over it…”

“That is not the reason for my call. I also do not appreciate your nonchalance toward Star’s absence.”

The gurgling stopped and was replaced by shuffling. A Zygarde, an exact copy of Hecto, slid off of the bed and walked clumsily to the door. He went on his hind legs and pushed it open, eyes straining in the sudden light. “Ngh.” Eon shook his head. “What time is it?”

“It is noon. You overslept.”

“What happened to your ribbon… thing?” he asked, observing that the green scarf-like extension on his neck was short, ending in a jagged taper.

“Trapinch have very strong jaws,” Hecto stated. “I have yet to ask Mispy to repair the damage.”

“Mispy?” Eon yawned. “She left with Nevren for the Ghost Orb.”

“They have returned.”

“A-already?” Eon said, jolting.

“It has been a week,” Hecto stated. “The Rotwood Fen is quite far, and Nevren does not have the energy to perform Teleport so often. He has not perfected the technique due to the Dungeon anomalies interfering with his power. That was his explanation.”

“A whole week, already?” Eon muttered. “Where did all that time go?”

“You have spent the past five days sleeping, eating, and brooding.”

“There’s no need to remind me,” Eon hissed. “I’m merely thinking about our next steps. Nevren’s first plan clearly didn’t work, and now we have to figure out how to stabilize their auras. And what is Rhys suggesting, again? Meditation? What pseudoscience is that?” Eon rubbed his face with his paw. “I need a snack.”

“It will take centuries to stabilize their auras that way,” Hecto said. “But it is better than nothing.”

“Nothing. Hmph. Are you insinuating that I’m doing nothing?” Eon asked. “I was the one to send Nevren off, wasn’t I? Why, without me—”

“I do not question your leadership,” Hecto said, lowering his head without expression.

“Well… well, that’s good,” Eon said, straightening. The duplicate Zygarde walked down the marble halls. “We need to renovate this place,” he said. “It’s too… sterile.”

“Hm. Star expressed something similar.”

“Yeah… Star…” Eon trailed off. “Curse that disgraced Creator for forcing her to withdraw.”

Hecto’s left paw twitched slightly. “She wants you to keep fighting, Eon. All of us. No matter what Arceus has to say about it.”

Eon grunted. “Of course.”

They continued through the hall, and once they entered a large chamber—complete with a small couch and light fixture—Eon spotted the Alakazam sitting on a chair with Mispy resting on his lap, asleep. “Hello, Eon. Er, I imagine that is Eon. Ah, yes, it is.” He only knew because one of the Zygarde transformed into an Alakazam upon being addressed.

“Hello, Nevren,” said the Alakazam. “How did it go? I do not sense any new power from you.”

“Unfortunately,” Nevren said, “the Ghost Orb and its vessel is too powerful to overcome.”

“Even with that lucky charm of yours?” Eon mocked.

“I’ll have you know, it’s quite useful,” Nevren said, pulling out his Revisor.

“What’s a little charm like that gonna do for you?” Eon sighed. “Honestly, for someone so scientific, I don’t get how you can be so superstitious about something that turns gray every now and then.”

“It doesn’t turn gray for no reason. It can look a moment into the future. If it turns gray, it means I must be cautious. It’s incredibly useful, don’t you th—”

Nevren was blasted backwards by an intense Psychic blast. The wind was knocked out of him, and Mispy squeaked, crying out in pain.

“N-Nevren!” Eon gasped, running over. “I—you were supposed to dodge that! I—I didn’t mean to—”

Nevren slammed on the button.

“Hello, Nevren,” said Eon. “How did it go? I do not sense any new power from you.”

Nevren paused for just a moment, but then nodded. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the Ghost Orb and its vessel is too powerful to overcome.”

“Even with that lucky charm of yours?” Eon mocked.

“I’ll have you know, it’s quite useful,” Nevren said, resting his hand on his bag.

“What’s a little charm like that gonna do for you?” Eon sighed. “Honestly, for someone so scientific, I don’t get how you can be so superstitious about something that turns gray every now and then.”

Nevren sighed, but he mentally braced himself. “It doesn’t turn gray for no reason,” he said. “It can look a moment into the future. If it turns gray, it means I must be cautious. It’s incredibly useful, don’t you—”

Nevren countered Eon’s surprise blast with his own Psychic; this caused the air around them to abruptly twist into a miniature tornado, startling Mispy awake. Eon grunted and stumbled back, feeling some of the aftershock. He was less experienced as an Alakazam, and Nevren knew this; it was trivial to counter his blast, when it wasn’t a cheap shot.

“Hm, well,” Nevren said, raising his Revisor. “Would you look at that? My good luck charm warned me that you would try something on me. Do you see the gray color?”

“You don’t say,” Eon muttered, watching the Revisor turn cyan again. “Nrgh. I’ll outsmart it one day. Just you wait. I’m almost positive I had a dream of actually striking you with that blast, too!”

“Yes, but that will remain but a dream and fantasy,” Nevren said with a nod. “I imagine you would be very unhappy if you succeeded. You could have hurt poor Mispy.”

Mispy was already asleep again.

“Ng—w-well, then, it’s a good thing I held back,” Eon grunted.

He nodded, but then set Mispy down on the cushion and walked with Eon down the hall. Hecto followed wordlessly.

Lies. That was your strongest blast. “Well, it all works out. In any case, with my Danger Medallion, or as you call it, my lucky charm, I was able to speak to and befriend the Goodra that became the vessel of the Ghost Orb. He doesn’t seem to know who I am; I doubt Madeline was fond of speaking of us.

“There was no way Elder would have convinced him to give up that power, unfortunately.” Nevren nodded. “The spirits are too hostile. Additionally, I tried to convince him with a wipe of the mind, or rather, I planned to, but my Danger Medallion warned me quite strongly against it. It wouldn’t have worked.”

“I see. So, there’s no way for us to take the power from him, at all?” Eon asked.

This gave Nevren pause. “There is one way.” He stopped walking, and Eon and Hecto did the same.

“So, you already have an idea?” Eon asked.

“Yes.” Nevren said. “I do not know how long it will take, and I do not know how effective it will be unless I wait for a very long time, but I was able to implant a single, simple thought that I seemed friendly, without raising any suspicion. If I can do small thoughts like that every few days or weeks…” Nevren hummed in thought. “Over time, I can weaken his subconscious mind, and perhaps then get what we need out of him. We could even get a new ally out of this.”

“A thought every few weeks? A single thought?”

“It will grow.”

“For how long, Nevren?” Eon said. “The way you’re talking about this—I don’t know what will take longer, repairing the fusions’ auras, or converting the new Ghost vessel.”

“I do not know, either,” Nevren said. “But the Goodra is naïve and trusting. I doubt he will catch on. Yes…” Nevren tapped his claws against the back of his hand. “In time, he will be under my control and not even realize it, Eon. Then we can use his power to claim the other Orbs, once we find them, don’t you think?”

“That’s a bit reaching,” Eon said. “I’d rather go after the Orbs the normal way, if we can actually find them.”

Nevren nodded. “But until then, perhaps that will be my plan. I promised Anam that I would meet him once I had my obligations finished at my home. It’s quite a far travel… but the first thing I will invest my time in will be that Waypoint system I had mentioned to you before. With some luck, travel from here to there would not be so burdensome.” Nevren eyed Eon. “You are uncomfortable.”

“Of course I am,” Eon said, crossing his arms. “You’re leaving this place in order to see Madeline’s son? Isn’t that a bit risky, being the Ghost vessel, of all people? What if Madeline’s spirit finds her way to the Ghost Realm? Then what?”

“Perhaps we can make amends. It isn’t as if it is impossible to repair relations with her.”

Eon stared a bit more closely at Nevren, but then sighed. “Madeline’s scary, though… I don’t want to imagine what her spirit would be like.”

“We don’t have a choice in the matter,” Nevren said. “And there is actually something we can use there, Eon. He is the leader of the Hundred Hearts. With his newfound power, perhaps he can go even further. Not only would we gain an ally in Anam, but perhaps an entire army. That’s what Madeline would have wanted. What if we can use her old blessings in Anam and save the world that way?”

Eon blinked, and Nevren saw, briefly, that spark of hope in his eyes. That undying light; it was almost contagious. Nevren returned his smile.

The Alakazam continued. “On my way home, in fact, I sensed an odd presence. Creatures with strange auras scouting the land. We have never seen movement like that before, have we?”

“What is this? Scouting? What sort of creature?”

“Various Pokémon. All kinds,” Nevren said. “I don’t think we are the only ones hunting for the Orbs, Nevren. Perhaps the Holy Dragons loyal to Arceus are still around after all.

Eon hummed, the light in his eyes dimming. “It’s been too long since we’ve seen them. I… I do wish we could have made up. We used to be such a great team.”

“All in the past, I’m afraid,” Nevren said. “Speaking of things in the past…” Nevren lowered his voice. “I don’t know why, but there were wraiths in Rotwood Fen.”

Eon’s expression darkened instantly.

Nevren shrugged dismissively; it was all he knew. They had to be careful. “In any case, aligning with Anam will be my goal. I will return here every now and then to continue my research and assistance, and… Eon. Don’t look so betrayed. It is not as if I’m leaving for good.”

“I—I’m not betrayed at all,” Eon said, turning away.

Nevren sighed. “Once I can get the Waypoints operational, travel will be trivial. Can you hold out for at least a little while until then?”

Eon pouted. “I suppose so,” he said.

With a short silence, Nevren nodded. “In any case, that is all that I have on the matter. Thank you, Eon,” he said.

“I believe Eon is becoming increasingly lonely,” Hecto observed.

“Y-you will not make assumptions like that,” Eon said instantly. “I’m just worried. I don’t want to lose anybody else to silly debates.”

“A schism between Mew and Arceus is hardly silly,” Nevren pointed out.

“It’s beginning to be,” Eon said.

Nevren didn’t have a counter. Instead, he conceded with a nod, and refocused the subject. “We have to focus on ourselves for now. For Star. And if Barky’s Divine Dragons are making moves to gather the Orbs, perhaps we should do the same, as Star’s Divine Dragons. Yes?”

“I suppose you’re right,” Eon agreed. “Rrmf. Speaking of Divine Dragons. Anam. How is he, overall… would you say? Is he like Madeline?”

“Anam is… nothing like Madeline,” Nevren said. “For one, she would never be so easily manipulated. And I would never expect Madeline to hug somebody.”

“The Goodra hugged you?”

“You will never bring this up again.”

Eon held his arms up.

Nevren rubbed at his left mustache. “In any case, that is my plan. I hope you are satisfied.”

“Wait,” Eon said.

“Yes?”

Eon held out his hand. “If you go… we need some insurance should something go wrong.”

“…I see,” Nevren said. He stared uneasily at Eon’s hand. “A Divine Promise, then?”

“If… it is not too much to ask,” Eon said.

“Well, asking me to make a Divine Promise implies that you cannot trust me at my word alone,” said Nevren.

“It isn’t you that I am worried about,” Eon said. “It’s that Goodra. If he harms you… and takes away your power—we’ll be down a Hand!”

“One of a thousand. An Orb is perhaps twenty times more valuable.”

“Regardless, I don’t want to take such a chance.” Eon said. “Nevren… do you Promise not to lose your Hand to another?”

Nevren stared. “…Eon,” he said calmly, “I cannot Promise that.”

“Wh—why not?!” Eon said. “It’s perfectly reasonable! If you lose your power, I’ll get it instead.”

“That isn’t how it works, Nevren. You are asking me to give you power that I would no longer have. The Promise would take effect once I lose that power. Therefore, you will gain zero Hands when I break that Promise.”

“Wh—well, wouldn’t I get the power that the other person got?”

“Promises are tied to the person, not the power, Eon.” Nevren sighed, wondering how he could simplify it for the Ditto. “And I am not about to Promise not to be in danger of losing my power, either, because that is so broad—who knows how it would be interpreted. You need to be very careful with how Promises are phrased, Eon.”

“Nrgh… well then, you come up with a Promise, smart guy.”

Nevren was at least glad that Eon had the mind to defer to his intelligence. “I don’t think there is one that is good enough to satisfy you, Eon, while still being practical. You will just have to take me at my word that I will return, and—”

“I’ve got it,” Eon said, slamming his right hand into his left palm. “Promise me that you’ll return in two weeks!”

“…You are becoming codependent, Eon,” Nevren and Hecto both said.

“Th-that is beside the point. I do not want a fellow Divine Dragon to be away for too long in a world like that, let alone next to a place where wraiths showed up! C-can’t you send Rhys with you, too?”

“Rhys has to tend to Mispy and the others,” Nevren said, “and I highly doubt he will leave without Elder, and he’s much too slow for travel.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Also, two weeks is a bit broad. If a storm arrives or some other impediment, that Promise may break accidentally. But if it will make you feel more secure for yourself…” He sighed. “Three weeks. Will that do?”

Eon grumbled, squeezing his arms with his claws. “Fine, three weeks.”

Nevren shook his head, holding his hand out. “Then I hereby Promise that within three weeks, that is, within twenty-one revolutions of the world, I shall return here, indicated by stepping onto these marble floors, or however you renovate it by the time I return. Do you accept these terms?”

Eon grinned. “I accept.”

Their hands glowed. The light faded, and the Promise was made.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 46 – Weapon

“Is he still sulking?” Jerry said.

“Looks like it,” Star said.

Owen paced through Hot Spot Cave’s main road, waiting for everybody else to settle in and discuss their next steps. Enet was bathing with Gahi and Amia in the cave’s nearby hot springs—courtesy of Zena and Amia combining their abilities—washing off the stench of Ghrelle and Ano’s poisoned swamp. Enet, in particular, was desperate to get it out of her fur. Rhys and Elder had retreated to Rhys’ home again to relax together. The rest were milling about, decompressing after their successful or failed Guardian recovery attempts, followed by witnessing Owen get his throat slashed by an outlaw.

The current talk seemed to be checking up on Anam, and sending Jerry over to Kilo Village again. While Jerry wasn’t looking forward to it, he also didn’t protest it outright. The way they talked, perhaps Anam was merciful enough to give him another chance, foolish as it may be. If someone wronged him in that way, he wouldn’t have trusted that person for the rest of his life. It seemed like Jerry was still searching for an escape route, however. With so many around—particularly with Star right next to him—it wasn’t easy.

Owen stopped walking and turned, following the same path in reverse with his head down. He was running the battle through his head over and over, looking for ways that he could have improved, scenarios where he wouldn’t have lost. There was also a pit of guilt in his stomach for looking down at Jerry, but also apprehension. Why should he have thought so highly of him in the first place? He was an outlaw! He was the sort of person Owen was assigned to take down.

“Bahh, what’s his deal?” Jerry rubbed a wing on his forehead. “One loss and he’s bluer than a Mudkip’s rump.”

“Well, it was a bit of a beatdown,” Star said. “What, he only landed one hit on you, right?”

“Hmph.” The victorious Aerodactyl gave a noncommittal shrug. “Look, I fought, and I won, so there’s no reason he should be mad at me for doing what I was asked to do. What, unless he wanted me to lose?”

“That’s kinda the point of fighting, but, I see what you mean.”

Jerry glanced to his right. Near the central square, Mispy, Gahi, and Demitri were watching Owen pace. Whenever he met eyes with Gahi or Mispy, the glare they gave him nearly caused paralysis.

He flinched, deciding not to look at them for too long. “What’s their story, anyway?”

“Genetic weapons meant to fuse together, but the fusing part broke them the first time, so we’re gonna be more careful about it,” Star said. “It’s kinda a long story.”

“You don’t say.” He rolled his eyes. “So, Vines is their healer?”

“Pretty much. Demitri, the Haxorus, he’s most of their offense. Gahi, the Flygon, he’s their speed. And Owen ties it all together with, uh, I guess they call it his Perception ability.”

“Perception? You mean how he doesn’t need to see to see what’s going on around him?”

“Yeah,” Star said. “Something about expanding his aura to inhabit the world immediately around him. Pretty crazy stuff. Apparently, it’s something like seeing in three dimensions.”

Jerry eyed the moping Charizard. “It also slows him down. I think I figured out how to put him in a trance by just breaking rocks in the sky. His eyes were going all over the place.”

“Yeah, Owen isn’t used to his powers. It’s been almost half a millennium of re-living being a Charmander over and over again. He’ll need time for all those memories to reassemble, even if he thinks he remembers it all. He doesn’t. It’s just too much to absorb.”

Jerry nodded. “And if they fuse together, they’ll get all their powers in one fighter?”

“In theory,” Star said. “But in practice, there’s some tradeoff. Gahi and Owen fused together won’t be as fast as Gahi alone. Still fast, though.”

“Who designed ‘em?” Jerry asked. “You said they were genetic, eh, whatsits. So that means they were created?” He flapped his wings in protest. “Why am I even bothering, at this point? Between the quartet of freaks, the immortal nutcases, and literally God in front of me, I’m starting to think this is just a dream from starvation, and I’m halfway rotting in the swamp.”

Star sighed, rubbing her forehead. “…Actually, yeah. How come I’m telling you this? I’m gonna have to wipe your memory of the past day, I think. This stuff isn’t supposed to get out.”

“N-no way, I don’t wanna forget pounding that guy into the ground!” Jerry waved his wing toward Owen. “I won’t tell anyone! Okay? Just let me keep this one.”

Star hummed pensively.

Jerry stood there in a tense silence, suddenly realizing that Star hadn’t been kidding. She really would try to wipe his memories. “I—I don’t want to forget what you told me, either,” Jerry added. “About Mom, and…”

“Had to pull that one on me, huh?” Star groaned, tail drooping to the floor. She rubbed her paws on her face, scratching her eyelids. “Fine. But you aren’t telling anyone, got it? Otherwise, I’ll hunt you down and wipe it all away. I’ll replace it with humiliating memories, too, like, uh… I dunno. I’ll think of something. Getting beaten by a Pachirisu in the final round of a tournament, maybe.”

“Deal,” Jerry said, folding his wings to his side again. “Alright, well, I guess if that’s the case, I think I’m just gonna bail.”

“Uh—wait, don’t you still need to serve time? You know, being an outlaw and all that.”

“Whaaat, you’re still on about that? C’mon, isn’t melting and almost getting absorbed into some crazy Altaria’s muck enough punishment?” Jerry continued walking; by now, he was getting the attention of the others in town, and his pace quickened.

“You’re still wanted for fleeing your sentencing,” Star pointed out, raising her voice when he got further away. That drew the attention of the rest; it looked like Gahi in particular was about to give chase. “You don’t want to make your Mom sad, do you?”

Jerry stopped instantly. For five seconds, he didn’t move. The crowd that had gathered held still, too. Then, he turned around. “Don’t you dare. That’s low.”

“That’s true,” Star countered firmly.

Owen broke out of his thoughts to watch. He could sense the flare of the Aerodactyl’s aura, briefly wondering if this was what Rhys and Mispy had felt all the time. Jerry’s face was twisted into some strange mixture of—Owen didn’t even know what. Anger? Sadness? Both? All of it?

But something more worrying came up. Jerry’s feet were starting to look a bit purple.

“Uh—!” Mispy said, and abruptly brought a vine toward Jerry.

He reflexively jumped away. “Get away from me!” he hissed. “I don’t need—”

He fell back when he lost his footing—and his feet. He hit the ground hard and grunted. “Wh-what’s happening?! N-no! I thought I was—!”

Mispy’s vines extended across the rocky cavern and grabbed Owen. The Charizard yelped when he was pulled all the way to Mispy, plunged into her body. Seconds passed—by now, Jerry was missing his legs. Omi, the fusion of Owen and Mispy, opened her eyes and wrapped her vines around Jerry. His feet returned and he, shaken, stood up.

“Hmm,” Star said. “Maybe we should take you to Emily after all. Omi’s power can only reverse the effects, not remove the condition completely. Too bad. I guess we can fly you over to her instead.”

“Wh-what’ll happen if I melt completely? I just—die?” Jerry asked.

“At best,” Star replied. “You could also just be stuck like that until Ghrelle gets you. Or maybe your aura just gets claimed by her? I dunno. See, here’s the thing: auras that get caught up in Ghrelle’s power don’t go through the aura sea. Hecto never finds them.”

Jerry gulped and held a claw tightly around his scarf. “Guess I’m a Mew worshipper now.”

“Yeah, I don’t want that,” Star muttered.

“Can you teleport us to Emily? Our Badges aren’t charged yet,” Omi said.

“No can do, bud,” Star sighed. “Thing is, the way I’m summoned right now, I’m kinda powerless. I’d only be able to teleport myself at best. And then, being so far away from my summoner, I’d probably evaporate in seconds. You’ll have to get to her on foot—uh, or by wing.”

“By wing, huh,” Jerry said. “I’m not gonna fly if I might melt halfway there.”

“Maybe if I…” Omi grabbed the Pecha Scarf still wrapped around Jerry’s neck and focused on it again. Star tilted her head curiously.

“Huh, that reminds me,” Star said, “kinda surprised you figured out this technique.”

“What’s it called?” Omi asked. “I—um, Owen tried to do something—anything—to save Jerry, so… he thought a Pecha Scarf would counter the poison.”

“Well, that’s one way to approach it,” Star said. “Actually, what really happened here is that Owen sorta… blessed that Scarf to have a different effect.”

“Blessed,” Omi repeated. “Like what Anam does?”

“Yeah! I mean, all special Scarves are blessed. Pecha Scarves naturally ward off poison, blessed Orans are way more effective at patching up the body—oh, and let’s not forget the Revivers, especially the full-sized ones… It’s not rocket sci—I mean, it’s not too complicated. Owen just made his own custom scarf with the power of his Mystic energy. Probably something like a, I dunno, something that can maintain your form? Hang on, gimme that for a second.” Star floated over and grabbed the scarf.

Jerry possessively pressed his wing on it, pinning it on his neck. Star rolled her eyes and inspected it without touching.

“…Yeah… yeah, y’know, it seems like this thing is some sort of Mystic version of a Heal Seed now. Nifty! I’m gonna call it… a Stable Scarf!”

“You’re not a very creative god, are you?” Jerry asked.

“H-hey, I’m totally creative! I made, like, almost all the regular Pokémon species!”

“Over how much time?” Jerry asked. “Figure you had eons to come up with ideas.”

“W-well, l-let’s see you come up with something from nothing,” Star puffed her cheeks. She shoved Jerry harmlessly and turned to Omi. “Good thinking, Owen. As long as Jerry wears that scarf, he’ll be okay. You guys and a small team should go to Emily and heal him up. Maybe she can purify his aura of Ghrelle’s influence. While you guys do that, maybe make a quick stop at Nate’s place.”

“Nate?” Omi asked.

“The Dark Guardian. Maybe we can win him over? To be honest, he’s another one that I don’t really keep in contact with all that much. He’s kinda creepy, and didn’t align with me explicitly, either. So, I don’t really know where his head’s at. And it’s on the way there, if you take the southern way to Em’s place. Then, the rest of us can go to Kilo Village to see how everything’s going there.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me!” Omi said.

“Good. Then let’s not waste any time. Let’s divide up!”

<><><>​

The largest group flew toward the south with the intention of passing over the Chasm of the Void on the way to Emily’s. The trip, by wing, would take them the rest of the day, and they’d only be able to get back home before sunrise if they used their charged Badges from Emily’s cave.

The ones that could fly easily went on this trip, leaving the ground-bound individuals—Mispy, Demitri, Elder, and Rhys, who refused to leave Elder’s side—headed to Kilo Village on foot from Hot Spot Cave, intending to use the public Waypoint instead. Accompanying the Hunters and their two students were Valle, Enet, ADAM, Willow, and Step, some of whom were curious about what this village would be like.

Demitri rode on Mispy’s back, absentmindedly playing with one of the petals around her neck. Mispy wrapped a few vines around Demitri and anchored him against her back while they walked, eliciting a chuckle from Elder.

“Rhys, why don’t you ride atop my back as well?”

“E-Elder, are you… are you sure?”

“Well, it would be just like old times, would it not?” he replied. “Oho, I saw that glow in your eye, Rhys. I do not mind.”

Step puffed out an irritable, frosty breath. “The Torkoal walks slowly. At the rate we are going, we will get to town in two days.”

“A-ah, I have always been… a bit slow.”

“It won’t be that long,” Rhys said. “There is a Waypoint that we can take that is public to all.”

“Waypoint. Hm. Of course; there is one this nearby?”

“Yes; this isn’t a very well-traveled road, but it helped that Nevren installed one for here anyway for Amia and Owen’s sake.”

The icy Aggron seemed convinced by this, but then asked, “I’m curious on how such a technology came about.”

“Nevren invented them, actually,” Elder said, “with the combination of Anam’s work a long time ago. He seems quite talented with warp technology in particular, simply imbuing a bit of his power into the Waypoints to get them working. Wonderful technology; perhaps it has to do with his Teleport technique.”

Rhys continued for Elder, “You may be surprised to learn this, but many of these items simply didn’t exist. It wasn’t until Anam learned how to enchant and ‘bless,’ as it’s called, certain things that the Dungeon items we’re so familiar with became commonplace. Before then, he only knew to bless Dungeons to keep them, er, stable, as we know them now.”

“Ah, the blessings that Star mentioned,” Step said. “How clever. Where does the power come from?”

“Hey, yeah, where does it come from?” Willow said, hopping from Demitri’s head and onto Rhys. “They’ve always been around, but why? Is it just Anam?”

Rhys chuckled. “It seems to be an aftereffect of the way Mysticism works. A small bit of Mystic energy from Star and Bar—Arceus is what powers such items within Dungeons. Anam blesses the Dungeon, and that sparks an endless, steady supply of Mystic energy to generate those items within.” He rubbed the bridge of his muzzle thoughtfully. “It also keeps strange, more dangerous things from appearing within the distortions.”

“Interesting…” Step looked up, tilting her head thoughtfully. “Owen seems capable of enchanting something, too. So I suppose this technique isn’t exclusive to Anam.”

“I suppose, though Anam is best at it. Perhaps he’s the most well-practiced.”

“I see…”

They continued on their walk. The silence was a welcome change; Rhys was particularly surprised that even Willow was being quiet, even after migrating to another host. Perhaps she was just enjoying the ride while nestled within Enet’s ample fur. Rhys glanced to his right. Demitri and Mispy were remarkably quiet, and he sensed a slightly turbulent flare coming from the two. Demitri fiddled with Mispy’s petals a lot more often, and Mispy’s vine-tapestry lower half stumbled over stray rocks and boulders. “Demitri,” Rhys said, “Mispy. Are you feeling okay?”

“H-huh?” they both asked.

“You have been remarkably quiet.” He could sense it in their anxious auras. It was the same pattern that came up when they had encountered their doubles in Trina’s domain. Rhys thought back to Gahi and Owen; they had come to accept it, in a way, but these two…

Rhys didn’t want to leave them wondering such horrible thoughts. “You aren’t any less a creature than us, you two.”

“Huh?” Willow asked. “Well, of course they aren’t lesser! I mean, I guess they’re a little lesser since we’re Mystic, but—”

“The bug will be silent,” Step growled. “Can’t you see they are hurting?”

“O-oh.” She glowed pink and shrank in size, hopping off of Enet. The Joltik sprouted delicate wings and went to Mispy; the wings vanished in a mist when she landed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d…”

“It’s okay,” Mispy said, looking back. She understood the sentiment, even if Willow was an idiot. But that didn’t wash away her doubts.

Seeing exact copies of themselves—down to their voices and mannerisms—with Trina… Were there others like them back in Quartz HQ, right now? Were they replaceable?

“Rhys,” Demitri said hesitantly. His voice was just a bit higher than usual. Strained, like his throat was constricting. “Are we… prototypes?”

“What’s a prototype?” Willow asked.

“A prototype,” ADAM suddenly spoke up, “is the first, preliminary model, or perhaps a proof-of-concept, from which other further items or inventions can be designed off of.”

“Proof-of-concept,” Demitri slowly repeated. “We were just tests?”

Rhys glared at ADAM. The Porygon-Z rotated his head nervously. “Muting volume.”

“What that means,” Rhys said, “is that you are the first Synthetic Pokémon to be born.”

“We weren’t born, though,” Demitri said. “We were—”

“You were born, one way or the other,” Rhys said firmly.

“J-just because you repeat yourself doesn’t mean you’re right!” Demitri’s voice cracked. Mispy slowed her walk and the others followed suit.

Rhys’ face felt hot and his heart raced as if he was readying for battle. But this wasn’t a fight he wanted to participate in. It was simply one he had been dreading for a long time. What a familiar feeling, Rhys thought bitterly.

“We don’t have parents!” Demitri said. “We didn’t hatch! I remember seeing those—those cylinders that we came out of! Those were our eggs! Made from glass!”

Rhys winced. He didn’t think they’d remember that far back. Mispy’s walking faltered, but her vines continued. Willow hid near Demitri’s tail, hoping to avoid the confrontation.

Nobody said anything. Nobody knew what to say. Even Demitri and Mispy didn’t know the full story; their memories were still slowly returning, starting from their lives in Quartz HQ. What happened after was a blurry mess of repeat after repeat through the ages. But those first memories were vivid. They remembered the lab. They remembered the tests. And they remembered Rhys, Nevren, and the others. They were a family… but they, the “Alloy,” were meant to be a weapon.

Alloy…

“The name of our team,” Demitri suddenly said. “When we joined the Thousand Hearts, we were trying to come up with a team name. And Nevren came up with… Team Alloy… because we worked so well together. Like a metal, made from other metals, becoming something stronger. Was that just some sick joke?” Demitri said. “Team Alloy…” Demitri’s claws pressed dangerously against his palms.

“It’s—it’s nothing like that,” Elder said weakly. But Demitri and Mispy said nothing in response.

And then, more silence. Their walk was even slower. At this point, Elder didn’t have to strain himself to keep up.

ADAM unmuted himself, floating a bit closer to the pair of mutants. “I am artificial as well. The files pertaining to my origins are corrupted, but I was not born by normal means. I, too, was designed. I have wondered for a long time whether I truly think, whether I truly exist as a being with an aura.”

“You certainly do, Adam,” Rhys said quietly.

“ADAM,” corrected the Porygon-Z. “Yes. I do. And I trust Star when she tells me the same, even if she refuses to tell me where I truly came from. Perhaps it is another Decree. It is… frustrating. My processors overheat at the mere subtask of analyzing those circumstances.”

“W-well, yeah, but,” Demitri said, “Porygon-Z are just like any other Pokémon. Even you have ancestry, right?”

“I do not know,” ADAM said. “My aura is strange, even to other Pokémon of my line. But regardless, my species is ultimately an artifact of the lost human world. I cannot fully relate to your circumstances. But I can at least inform you that so long as you think, and so long as you feel, it is only fair that we agree that you exist. Therefore, you must be treated like any other creature. It is… only normal to do so.”

The wind blew. Tall grass bowed to the group in gentle waves; stray petals and leaves of the waning summer, and the first sign of autumn, blew past them. A single petal of a nearby flower, pure white, got caught on Valle’s unmoving face. Rhys helped to pick it off.

“I’m very sorry that you two are troubled by your origins,” Elder said. “But, if it is any help, even those who were born based off of your early designs are different from you. They have their own personalities, and experiences, and souls that are distinct.”

“But,” Mispy said, “we’re… replaceable. If… if we weren’t good, you could make more.” She scanned the field aimlessly. “Easily.”

“You already made more,” Demitri said. “When we broke, you guys must’ve fixed our designs. And tried again. That’s what happened, isn’t it? Rhys? After we went crazy, and Star split us apart? You kept us away from all the training. We didn’t go through tests anymore. Because we were a failed experiment. Nevren and you—you were going to design better versions of us.”

“That isn’t—that’s not how I thought of it,” Rhys said. “I… I was focused on helping your auras. The meditation replaced your testing—not that you could remember any of that. When you were split apart, you forgot nearly everything about yourselves. You were kids again. I tried to take you on a few excursions. Sealed away, you were safe.”

“And during one of those, that’s when Owen killed Klent,” Demitri said. “Trying to gather the Orbs. Still using us for your stupid Hunter mission—trying to train us to handle our evolved forms all over again… Y-you were still using us as weapons!”

“It—it wasn’t like that at all!” Rhys said. “Owen lost control. There was already so much bloodshed, even before Klent, before we got you involved. There was an entire war, Demitri—all over control of Kilo, and the Guardians had become involved in it.”

“The… the war?” Demitri asked.

Beneath Rhys’ fur, his face blanched. “No. Don’t remember,” he said. “Don’t.”

Demitri and Mispy exchanged glances, but they had no recollection. It must have been during a time when their lives were on repeat, or perhaps they simply hadn’t been involved.

Rhys shook his head. “I never wanted to hurt Klent. I was trying to negotiate, and… and things went awry. After that happened, I had to revert you all so you’d forget, and I had a change of heart, then. I spirited you all away to my next assignment, Amia, and—that was it.”

“And that’s how it all went.” Demitri said. “You trained us there, quietly. Until we got unstable again. And then, I bet you had to leave Owen behind, so we’d never be at risk of fusing into the Alloy. Right? But… I don’t get it. If you just left the Hunters, couldn’t Rim, or D—or Eon, couldn’t they have just…?”

The ex-Hunter paused. “She could have. Perhaps. But, to be honest, I am not sure why she did not try to attack. Didn’t pursue us at all. I’m not even sure why she attempted to take the Orb recently, rather than all that time she had before. All that time. It bothers me every day.”

Despite everything that was happening, and despite their memories coming back in full, it still felt like there was a lot they didn’t know. Every piece of the puzzle that was their past was there, but it was all scattered and scrambled.

The brief, gentle silence was undercut only by the heavy steps made by their Icy companion.

“Did you use us in that war, too?” Demitri asked.

“No,” Rhys replied immediately. Despite the quickness, he showed no signs of lying.

“Tell the truth,” Mispy said. “I’ll… I’ll kill you if you don’t.”

“It’s the truth,” Rhys said. “You were in no condition to fight in something of that scale. I promise you, that was one fight you were kept far away from. Eon would have none of it.”

“So, you’re saying if we asked Eon, he’d say the same thing?” Demitri asked.

“He would,” Rhys said. While he felt a pang in his heart that they didn’t trust his word, he had no grounds to expect that from them.

And then, the statue spoke up. “You two are disturbed by your many copies,” Valle said, “but you are also the only Demitri and Mispy that I know. Just as there are many Shiftry in the world, or many Joltik, or even other Haxorus and Meganium. Just because you are of the same species does not mean you are identical. We have living examples among us. Two Lucario, Rhys and Manny. The same species, yet dissimilar. Is that not the same for you two?”

Enet finally spoke up, catching on to the conversation. “You’re good!” she declared.

“W-well,” Demitri said, “it’s one thing to be the same species, but they’re… us.”

“From what I gather, they behaved differently,” Valle said. “None of us will confuse you for another of your design. That would be quite rude. No two souls are the same.” Valle paused, then, as if something had crossed his mind. “Hm…

“Y-yeah,” Demitri said. “O-okay.”

Rhys sighed. This was not something that they were going to be able to resolve in one walk. Perhaps not even one moon would be enough to help them cope with their circumstances. But it seemed like, at the very least, Demitri and Mispy understood that they in the group would accept them.

Demitri returned to fiddling with Mispy’s petals. After a while, he leaned forward and rested against the back of her neck, closing his eyes. He was careful to keep his axes from cutting her accidentally.

The Haxorus opened his eyes. “Hey, uh, I kinda just thought of something. We’re heading right into Kilo Village, right? But, uhh… I mean… Don’t we kinda… stand out?”

Rhys stopped walking. Up until just then, the thought had eluded him. Based on the reaction of everyone else, it hadn’t occurred to them, either.

He was so used to being around the abnormal that it had become commonplace. Step was a walking ice sculpture. Mispy was a complete behemoth. Valle was a floating statue.

How would they enter town like this?
 

Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
Back for Catnip Circle, this time for chapter three! Gonna echo my chapter two review and say that internal narration remains the stumbling block for me here. The things Owen says and does often seem to be at odds with his thoughts, and he'll have thoughts in one part that seem like they would influence his reactions to people in other parts, but they don't. In this chapter, he goes from confronting Rhys about having met before to waking up the next day and just not thinking about it at all? More in line comments, but if there's something wiping his wind as he sleeps, I think it needs to be cued a bit more, because it's quite frustrating to see all those thoughts drop away with no follow-up. It's starting to feel a bit repetitive without advancing anywhere and it keeps Owen from feeling like an actual person to me because his internal monologue seems to turn on and off like a garden hose.

I liked Owen's test battle scene. You did a good job showing him thinking tactically and show his battling competence without overstating it. I would have liked to get a little more world-building injected via that test! Lots of cool topics hinted at there.

The end of the chapter felt a bit abrupt. I get that plotwise, glowy orb thing is a big deal, but from a character perspective, it feels like Owen would care more about acing his tests, making that the more natural place to cut off.

As usual, the bulk of feed-back is in the line-by-lines:

Gahi wobbled into the left, deeper room.
The first thought I had upon reading this sentence was that Gahi was drunk. Which, uh, I don't think is the case . . . unless Rhys was really working hard to distract them that night.

Demitri and Mispy head into the left room that was closer to the kitchen.
Tense typo? Should be headed.

Owen noticed that Mispy was being quite pushy with Demitri, playfully prodding at his back with her vines on the way into their room. Demitri, meanwhile, meekly bumped against her with his tusks, flicking his tiny tail against her front legs, which earned a giggle in response.
This read a bit weirdly to me. Dmitri and Mispy are both basically doing the same kind of action, but Mispy is pushy and Dmitri is meek? Think it would work a little better if those characteristics show through the actions themselves, not just the adverbs.

Owen chuckled nostalgically at the three. He decided, for now, to ignore why he had felt like reminiscing on memories he did not have.
. . . why though? The internal narration here is a bit clumsy.

Seeing the three head into two bedrooms answered the use of part of the house. Figuring one of the remaining two was Rhys’ quarters, that left one unaccounted for.
Maybe "assuming" in the place of "figuring" here?

“Oh, so the glowy room is yours?” Owen asked, leaving no question unasked.

“Yes,” Rhys said.

“So,” Owen said slowly, “why’s it glow?”

“I have a few items in my room that glow,” he said. “It is nothing else, really.”

“Oh, okay.” He wasn’t convinced. “Nothing about any ghosts, maybe? Spirits, little,” Owen paused, “pink clouds?”
I think "leaving no question unasked" would work better modifying the why's it glow question. Would read more humorously for me.

“I see.” He spoke analytically, but it felt forced. “Thank you, Owen. I will investigate this later, but it’s far too late tonight. I will take you home.”
Not sure what "He spoke analytically, but it felt forced" sounds like. What sounds forced? How analytical can the words "I see" be?

Owen relented. It was late, and he was tired, and Alex was going to blow up with worry. A fresh day could help him think straight.

After a few quick warps—one to Kilo Village, and then another to his usual Waypoint, Owen led the way. His tail flame helped to light the path.
The transition here caught me a bit off-guard. A line about it being dark outside before the sentence about warping might help. Right now we go from being in the house to warping.

To the right was a great field of light green grass that went up to Owen’s chest. With the sun already down, it was hard to see much more than a sea of wavy blackness in the fields and jagged darkness in the mountains, though the tops still stood out against the barely-lit sky.
So, the field is described initially as "light green" but then it says nothing more can be seen than "wavy blackness." That's a little contradictory and makes the scene hard to picture. Cutting the "light green" would solve that I think.

The ember at the end fluctuated in its intensity, going from a blazing flame to a shrinking ember. He thought it was just a lingering feeling because he’d seen Rhys all the time as an Elite, just walking through the halls, but the familiarity still felt too strong.
Curious about the fluctuation--is that normal or unusual? I sort of want that context in this moment.

Should he say it? No. He’d look like a complete lunatic. But if he didn’t ask, it’d bother him all night, and then the next night. He had to ask. So, he stopped walking.

Rhys stopped, too, as if he knew it was coming.

“Rhys…” He turned to face him. “Do I know you?”
Like this moment, particularly Rhys stopping too.

For just a second, it was as if the very wind had stopped between them. For that iota of an instant in time, nothing else mattered but him, the Lucario, and the empty space between them. The rustling, tall grass quieted. The sun set, and twilight ruled the world, save the flame that lit Owen’s back.
This, though, felt pretty overly dramatic and ended up leeching any tension from the scene for me. Also, earlier it said the sun was already down, so the sun couldn't have just set in this paragraph.

I think you could create the effect you're going for but less melodramatically by focusing on concrete descriptions of the physical world without adding extra phrases emphasizing how dramatic the moment is. Like, “The wind dropped off. The grass ceased to rustle. With the sun set, there was no light except the flame of Owen's tail, reflected back eerily in Rhys' eyes." Something like that draws out the moment and emphasizes its importance without resorting to more heavy-handed narrative devices in the style of "for a moment it was as if time stopped etc"

But after that silence, Rhys replied. “Well, I imagine you would.” He shrugged noncommittally, though his evasion of eye contact said more. “As an Elite Heart, I’m known by many.”
"his evasion of eye contact" is a bit awkwardly word-y. Maybe, " He shrugged noncommittally, but avoided Owen's eyes as he added etc"

He tried to get a read for Rhys and his tension, but it was too hard. He was too controlled this time. Owen had a knack for being aware of these bodily cues, but he couldn’t get anything from Rhys.
"He tried to get a read for" was a bit of an odd phrase--almost sounds like the way a psychic would say it.

"Owen had a knack for being aware of these bodily cues" This is a place where show not tell would be better, I think. I'm a little conflicted on whether this feels true to me. He has observed a fair bit of body language, but in the first chapter he seemed pretty oblivious to his parents' body language.

Finally, Rhys answered. “I do not believe in love at first sight.”

Simultaneously, Owen’s tail burned white, and his heart skipped a beat. “N-not in that way!” he squeaked.

He turned around and walked again. He puffed into his hands, letting the flames escape through cracks between his fingers. How could he have said it in that way? As if he was trying to propose to Rhys some sort of—lifelong—Owen shook his head fiercely, imagining a scenario where Rhys would have blushed and said yes. He’d’ve had to let Rhys down nicely, say that wasn’t what he meant. And then, for all eternity, any interaction he’d ever have with his idol would be awkward.
Uh, interesting way to deflect, Rhys. Owen reads as a kid to me still so I found this paragraph as bit weird to read. But it was a nice way to totally change the mood.

I didn’t expect to get pelted by rocks in that forest, is all. I don’t think Aerodactyl are supposed to know Rock Blast.”
Don't worry, Owen. I'm sure illegal moveset rock moves are the worst it's going to get for you in this story.

“Ha! Totally,” Owen agreed. He was screaming inside.

He didn’t know what to make of it, so he just smiled and laughed. He saw no other opening to probing Rhys for those odd feelings of familiarity. He’d have to deal with tossing and turning at night anyway.
Think you could merge these sentences to read more smoothly. So,

“Ha! Totally,” Owen agreed with a smile and a loud laugh. He was screaming inside." Also makes the dissonance with "screaming inside" more pronounced.

He huffed a small sigh, a few sparks of irritability leaving his nostrils. He was home. “So, don’t tell anybody about this, okay? We’re going to Hot Spot Village—it’s a secret, underground town.
A little confused by "He was home" but they aren't yet?

Owen said the last part at such a soft tone that Rhys only heard it thanks to his keen hearing.
This sentence sounds like it's coming from Rhys POV with how it' worded. Maybe, "Owen spoke the last part softly enough that most mon woudn't have caught it, but the lucario had keen hearing." Puts us in Owen's head and intention instead of Rhys'.

“Hot! Spot! Hot! Spot! Open up, Hotspot Cave!” Owen had raised his left arm up, then his right arm, and then brought his left arm down, and then his right arm. This was followed by swaying to the left, and then the right, and then the left and right again; next, he stepped backward, finally advanced forward.

Rhys was rubbing the top of his muzzle, cringing. He wasn’t the only one. Every time Owen did this dance, a tiny part of his Char heart withered away.

“There,” Owen said. He looked back and saw Rhys trying to hide from the world with his paw. “What? It’s not too bad. And nobody would dare do it, so it’s the perfect disguise!”
This sequence felt so anime it did kind of jar me. It's both cringe and then way too aware of its cringe?

“Oh, sure!” Owen said. “Yeah, you make Team Alloy do the same thing, right?”

“Yes, I do, that’s right,” Rhys said. “It’s very important for everyone.”
Rhys is just really into yoga. This clearly has no plot relevance.

Owen watched Rhys leave for a bit longer. No, it wasn’t just some delusion. Unless he completely lost it, Rhys was hiding something. And perhaps Nevren, too. But then again, he probably just heard and saw them a lot. Both of them. They were Elite Hearts, after all.

Owen closed his eyes. There was no use focusing on the negative. Every night ended like this, wondering if he’d done something, or everything, of that day before. A lot of this felt new, yet he still had that lingering doubt. Maybe he was just getting paranoid.
I had some trouble following Owen's train of thought here. So--he feels like he's met Rhys before. Rhys denies it. Owen doesn't actually remember hanging out with Rhys before though. So what does Owen think Rhys is lying about? Does he think Rhys feels it too but doesn't want to say it? And then, where does Nevren come in? He only had a super short conversation with him and it seems strange that he'd lump him in with Rhys as hiding something.

This wording of "Every night ended like this, wondering if he’d done something, or everything, of that day before" was hard to parse.

At some point, it got tiring. He just wanted this perceived monotony to end. But hey, he didn’t have another mental crisis, panicking because he couldn’t remember how old he was. Oh, no. The thoughts were coming back.
Even more lost here. Perceived monotony? Does this mean his constant feeling of deja vu? I'm not sure that's really monotony. Do you mean "at least he hadn't had another panic attack because he'd forgotten how old he was"? That's the only way I can read it. Which, speaking of, how old is he.

He refocused on the positive. “Oh, wow,” he said. “I met two Elites in one day! That’s so… cool!” He bounced slightly, but then remembered the timer on the boulder. He ran in the cave; a few seconds later, the boulder rolled back onto the passageway.
It's kind of scary how he goes from an internal monologue like that to a statement like this. Guess yoga's a real panacea.

The home itself was like a cave within a cave; it was a circular entrance—big enough for his father’s bulky, Magmortar frame to fit through—that led into larger, dome-like rooms. Owen then realized the parallel it had with Rhys’ home.
Parallel with Rhys' home? As in the layout is similar? Is it an uncommon layout or something? And doesn't layout vary by pokemon body type making it likely that humanoid pokemon like gardevoir and lucario would have similar styles of home?

The Gardevoir adjusted her blue hair; there was a bit of ash remnant on the right side, perhaps from one of the kids’ pranks.
Yep, I'm sure that's it. These kids in Hot Spot are real pranksters for sure.

She greeted Owen with a scratch under his chin—something Owen always enjoyed.
D'awww. Cute mental image.

“Just a little,” Owen said. Should he ask? He was going to ask. “Hey, how’d you find out, anyway? Nobody knows how to deliver letters here!”
The way this is worded makes it sound like Owen expects his parents to not tell the truth. Does he though? I don't get that vibe in other parts.

Actually, I'm curious too--my first assumption was that Rhys communicated with them, but later they seem taken aback to learn he was with Rhys.

Both his parents’ eyes widened with alarm when he mentioned them, but Owen was so mentally exhausted that he decided that this was one battle he’d choose to ignore. He didn’t even want to bring up his dream of Alex literally exploding. Too much. Later. Another day.
Again, I'm not sure what Owen thinks is going on here. He frames asking his parents about their reaction as a battle, so he expects that they won't lead with the truth, but why does he think that and how does that influence how he feels about them? (Like, as a reader it's obvious what's going on, but if it's obvious to Owen it seems like he should treat his parents differently because of it.)

Alex watched him go and then glanced at Amia worriedly. She shook her head and held his shoulder.

“I trust Rhys,” she said quietly. “His students can interact with Owen. It… I don’t think it’ll result in… I mean…”

“It won’t happen all at once,” Alex said. “Let’s just be very careful. I’ll come up with some chores that will keep him here when we need him close.”
Kind of jarring to jump away from Owen's head for only three short paragraphs. Everything they say is pretty obvious too, so I don't think you need this.

The next afternoon was cloudier, much like Owen’s mood. He’d slept for perhaps a blink or two.
So yesterday he was having all these thoughts--and today they all are gone? We don't get any internal monologue between him waking from a sleepless night and going to the ceremony. If he's been mindwiped or something it would be nice to have a sentence implying it, because it reads right now as if all the internal character work from the previous section is just being ignored.

Now? It was a sea of Pokémon of all shapes and sizes. A Pachirisu was balanced atop a Rhydon’s head. A school of Magikarp hopped as high as they could to get precious glances at the stairs that led to the Heart. A pair of Girafarig chatted while their tails nipped at one another.
Nice scene-setting here.

The leader of Kilo’s eyes were big, and his body was slimy as ever.
Think a word is missing here? Kilo's what?

Owen knew the sight well. Goodra Anam had finally exited the building.
Think this implies that Goodra Anam is the leader of Kilo, but the way these sentences are phrased don't make it very clear.

Anam shouted from the top, his voice surprisingly high-pitched and as cheerful as the rest of his demeanor suggested.
If his voice is as the rest of his demeanor suggested, why is it surprising?

“It’s this weird, green, swirly thing, like a giant orb, y’know? But Rhys always says that we’re never, ever supposed to touch it,” Demitri said.

Mispy nodded. “Ever.”

“He moved it with a thick cloth and then sealed the bag,” Demitri said. “Not even he wants to touch it.”
Chekov's weird, green, swirly thing, huh?

“He told me it’s really strong, heh. So, I guess he doesn’t wanna get too strong.”
Didn't follow the reasoning here? If an item is strong it doesn't necessarily follow that using it makes you strong, does it?

The Charmander could only imagine James exasperatedly trying to get Anam to remember the words properly.
As with the last chapter, all the new names kind of bled together.

A strange mutant that had been described as a Golduck by some and a Toucannon by others had gotten dangerously close to Kilo Village. Jin had gotten there first, and he fought it alone, buying time before the Elites had arrived. A freak accident where everything had gone just slightly wrong. Despite Owen’s foggy memory, a vague image crossed his mind of seeing Alakazam Nevren passing through the town the day after, visibly upset, yet silent. He had acknowledged no one.
Liked this memory, and the description of Nevren. Nice and uncanny. This implies mutants are a known thing, so why did they react so surprised when he talked about the mutant snorlax?

“His sacrifice saved the lives of countless others. For that, we are eternally grateful, and we wish upon him eternal peace in the welcoming arms of Arceus.”
I wasn't sure what the sacrifice is referring to? Jin didn't lose his life since he's there at the ceremony.

Owen shifted uncomfortably, keeping his head down.

“By His blessing,” Anam said, raising his arms slowly.

“By His blessing,” some of the audience echoed; Owen followed, slightly out of sync.

Owen glanced up, thinking that it was over, but then realized that nearly the entire crowd had their heads down in silence. Flame sparking, he quickly brought his head back down—but the corner of his eye caught something. He dared and looked up again.

Anam was glowing. It was subtle, but under the dim light of the cloudy sky, the Goodra had a weak, blue glow. Rhys’ bag, too, had an ethereal radiance. The Lucario was trying to cover it up with small movements of his paws.

As soon as it came, it faded. Anam and Rhys looked normal again, and the moment of silence passed.

“Thank you,” Anam said.

I—I’m not the only one who saw that, right? Owen said. No, everyone had their heads down. But someone else had to have—

He glanced at Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi. They were all looking down, too. He then looked to his right. He saw a pair of Pokémon murmuring to one another. He tried to listen in.

“Glowed? Did he glow?”

“He did. It was weak, but I totally saw Goodra Anam glow!”

“Maybe the rumors are true. They say Anam used to be a priest of some sort.”

“Maybe he really is holy? Oh, thank Him, the whole town is blessed!”

Excuse me? Owen thought. What kind of nutcase superstition is that?
So . . . Arceus is the recognized deity, but Owen's not into religion? Would be nice to get a sense of how odd that is around here.

He dismissed the notion immediately. Glowing like that happened all the time! The Hot Spot mushrooms glowed in the same way! It was simple bio-luminescence.
I mean, yeah. This is true. There has been glowy stuff in almost every section.

Perhaps Anam was just a rare variety of Goodra, or he had some glowing moss as part of his breakfast or last night’s dinner.

Owen told himself this to stay sane.
I liked the glowing moss for breakfast line. The "to stay sane" line feels a little on-the-nose.

Nevren’s left eye twitched.
Hah, nice. You've done a good job characterizing Nevren in passing in this chapter.

The Goodra broke down in a wail, rubbing his eyes with his free arm, flinging off slime and gooey tears in many directions. The combination of paying his respects to the dead, and then saying goodbye to so many heroic Pokémon, was too much for the leader of Kilo Village.

James pried the audio-amplifier from Anam’s hands and continued the speech—which he had memorized for just such an occasion.
Getting a Wigglytuff and Chatot vibe from these two. It's cute, though I'm interested to see what other sides Anam has.

He passed by Nevren, overhearing a passing conversation about a strange Pokémon in the woods near the western exit.

“. . . Some kind of mutant.”

“Say no more. I will take . . .”

Apparently Nevren volunteered to take care of it—and at any other time, Owen would have been interested in finding out more. But this time, his priorities were hyper-focused on examinations.
Like the whole 'snippet of passing conversation' thing. Think you can cut "Apparently Nevren volunteered to take care of it" which defeats the point of cutting off the sentence--it's obvious to the reader how it ends anyway.

An irritable buzzing sounded on his left. He glanced over and saw a Voltorb staring very hard at his paper, which was on a similar desk, though at ground level. His eyes, narrow, stared at the third question, electricity coursing around his body. Then, with a pop, a bolt singed one of the bubbles

To his right was a Gyarados, mouth closed in intense concentration, staring at a supersized version of the paper below him. His huge, serpentine form was pressed against the corner of the building so he wasn’t in the way, and he was using his whiskers dipped in ink to answer the questions. He was on the fourth, it seemed.
This is a kind of absurd, but I like the thought put into their different physicalities here.

Despite there being thirty of them, they had a large tank of water at the very end of the room, slowly draining into the bottom portion. It was meant to last a thousand seconds—for some reason, Anam had a bit of an obsession with a thousand—but that wasn’t nearly enough time to answer all of the questions.
Didn't follow this. What does there being thirty of them have to do with the tank of water? Why despite?

Policies intermingling, rare situations, but they all mattered. Equipment management, dealing with ferals morally, an outlaw with a hostage, survival tactics…
Would have been nice to get at least one answer fleshed out here, to give a sense of the world-building and show Owen actually knows stuff. Right now he comes off to me as not being someone capable of having thoughts on any of these topics.

Wait. Did he put his name on the—Yes. He did. He saw his name when Grumpig took his sheet. She even checked herself as part of the routine.
Nice moment with Owen's anxiety here.

But he seemed a lot weaker than usual. As Anam’s second-in-command, he could probably beat all of the Heart candidates at the same time.
Maybe go a little more concrete on how Owen can tell he's weaker than usual? Owen comes in on him blasting someone, so it doesn't seem like the first thought in his head would be "wow weaker than usual." Has he seen James at full power before? More repressed memories?

“Ready?” James asked.

Owen’s fire flashed a bright yellow. That was enough of an answer.
Nice

James brought his wings forward, forming a bow-like weave from his wing.
This was hard to visualize.

Owen reacted with a bubble of fire, though James deftly sidestepped. Owen’s attack missed completely, not so much as a singe on his feathers, and James retaliated by firing his feathery arrow.
Maybe, "Owen reacted with a bubble of fire, which James deftly sidestepped. There wasn't so much as a singe on his feathers as he fired another arrow at Owen."

He wordlessly readied another arrow; Owen retaliated with another blast of fire, this time veering it slightly to James’ left. He sidestepped again—right onto the trap.
The action flows really well here and you did a good job showing how Owen uses his tactics.

James straightened out the last of his feathers. “You didn’t win, but you passed, if that’s what you’re wondering. You nearly broke this Substitute.” He hooted again, inspecting one of his burned feathers as if it mattered. “I’m quite impressed, but I’m going to have to return myself to James so this Substitute can be replaced. Excuse me.”
The substitutes taking on consciousness is cool.

This was going to be at least another session or two of meditating.
Is he supposed to meditate after every fight?

Speaking to someone more his level was a bit more reassuring.
This rang true and made Owen feel more life-like.

This is my shot!
Owen over here like, 1595135013170.png

Then they’d see—after that, he’ll finally be a full-fledged Heart.
Typo, should be "he'd"

Owen took a short breath to gather his thoughts. As excited as he was about the exams, he still had some time to kill. The lingering thoughts of the orb in Rhys’ bag returned to him.

“Hey,” Owen said to Demitri. “Where’s Rhys? I want to talk to him again.”
This transition felt a bit clumsy. Like, he could think, ["Then they’d see—after that, he'd finally be a full-fledged Heart. He'd go on his own missions; maybe one day he'd even adventure with Rhys. Speaking of Rhys--Owen frowned as he remembered the strange way the lucario had glowed at the ceremony. He had some time to kill before the results came out. Enough time to satisfy his curiosity. “Hey,” Owen said to Demitri. “Where’s Rhys? I want to talk to him again.”] Just spit-balling, but having the internal narration bring up Rhys in some other context allows it to transition more organically. As is it kind of feels more mechanical, like, time for Owen to think about this.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Thanks again, Pen! Seems there were a lot of criticisms this time around, though I do like that the one part that you had a lot of praise for... was something that had been added from scratch in a more recent edit, compared to the other parts of the chapter that I didn't rewrite quite as thoroughly. So that's, uh, I suppose that's reassuring? ^^;

The things Owen says and does often seem to be at odds with his thoughts, and he'll have thoughts in one part that seem like they would influence his reactions to people in other parts, but they don't.
This is sort of my attempt at trying to drive home that Owen is actively trying to ignore his own thoughts and smile through his insecurities. Happy mask. It's gonna crack eventually.

More in line comments, but if there's something wiping his wind as he sleeps, I think it needs to be cued a bit more, because it's quite frustrating to see all those thoughts drop away with no follow-up. It's starting to feel a bit repetitive without advancing anywhere and it keeps Owen from feeling like an actual person to me because his internal monologue seems to turn on and off like a garden hose.
Hm, right. I'll try to look into this, since it has to do with a lot of issues that are hard for me to get through without spoiling it all at once where it makes no sense out of context. Owen's just not mentally stable.

I liked Owen's test battle scene. You did a good job showing him thinking tactically and show his battling competence without overstating it. I would have liked to get a little more world-building injected via that test! Lots of cool topics hinted at there.
This is the "from scratch" new addition I mentioned. It was a little rushed because I didn't want to bloat the chapter, but considering a lot of this might be cut down or rewritten next time I visit this chapter, I imagine I'll be able to add just what you want.

I think "leaving no question unasked" would work better modifying the why's it glow question. Would read more humorously for me.
I like this suggestion.

Not sure what "He spoke analytically, but it felt forced" sounds like. What sounds forced? How analytical can the words "I see" be?
I think a better term from me would be like, strained, or tersely, or something like that. Sort of like the "I see." is said more bitingly.

This sentence sounds like it's coming from Rhys POV with how it' worded.
Bah, another instance I missed of the early chapters when I didn't know how to properly harness over-the-shoulder and stick to one character.

So--he feels like he's met Rhys before. Rhys denies it. Owen doesn't actually remember hanging out with Rhys before though. So what does Owen think Rhys is lying about?
Owen can't shake the "feeling" he knows Rhys, despite the fact that there's no evidence to support it. He drops it because he doesn't know for sure and he doesn't want to feel crazy, but he still feels familiar with him. Same for Nevren.

Which, speaking of, how old is he.
Owen himself doesn't know and he doesn't like to be asked this question.

Actually, I'm curious too--my first assumption was that Rhys communicated with them, but later they seem taken aback to learn he was with Rhys.
Rhys lied, but apparently being told that Rhys is involved is enough for his parents to not divulge why.

Getting a Wigglytuff and Chatot vibe from these two. It's cute, though I'm interested to see what other sides Anam has.
That's sort of the base of their first impressions... but they'll definitely have more to their dynamic later. Though unfortunately, it won't be for a while.

--

In any case, thanks again for reading!
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 47 – All’s Well

If it wasn’t for the fact that Hot Spot Road was rarely traveled, bystanders would’ve reported them to the Hearts as mutants roaming the world to be contained—or neutralized. Rhys gulped. That wouldn’t do well for Mispy’s psyche in particular.

“Th-that’s right,” Rhys said. “Well. I suppose if that’s the case, we should, hmm… If only Nevren was with us. He’d be able to seal those memories like when Owen ran off in his Grassy form.”

“I can revert to my normal form, if you wish,” Step said. “I do not want to cause any trouble if it is not necessary.” The icy Aggron breathed out a slow, frosty breath that permeated the air around them.

Mispy’s vines writhed from the cold. She shivered and wrapped around Demitri even tighter, squeezing the air out of him—even though he, too, was cold-blooded. She wouldn’t mind fusing with Owen again—at least he had the natural warmth of a Fire Type.

The Haxorus, increasingly more constructed, wheezed, “Mispy… you’re… choking me…!”

“S-sorry.” The mutant Meganium released Demitri and he slumped against her back.

Step’s body lost its transparency and became its normal, gray, steely color. She took one step and stumbled forward, slamming directly into the ground with a loud grunt. “Urngh, how—inconvenient!” she shouted, pushing herself off the ground. Rhys rushed to help on one side, and Mispy brought a few vines back to stabilize the other.

“A-are you okay?” Mispy asked.

“I am much heavier in this form,” Step mumbled.

Rhys huffed from below. “Y-you don’t… say…!”

He pushed Step onto her feet, where she stabilized herself with her tail and took another step. She wobbled and nearly fell forward again, but a quick jerk of her arms kept her in place.

“Okay. How about you, Adam?” Demitri asked.

“ADAM, and I am already the Normal Type,” said the Porygon-Z. “I do not have an alternative form.”

“I mean, yeah, but Zena’s the Water Type and she has a Water form,” Demitri said. “Don’t you have some sort of special power?”

“I do.”

“Oh. So…?”

“It is not visible.”

“Oh. Okay.” Demitri and Mispy exchanged a glance, but then shrugged—for Mispy, this manifested as a bunch of her front-facing vines moving upward, parting ways to reveal even more vines beneath.

“Hmm.” Rhys eyed Demitri and Mispy. Demitri would pass as normal—he was a bit muscular, but as long as he didn’t detach his tusks, he wouldn’t draw much attention. Mispy was the problem. “Perhaps we should have brought the Poké Balls in Brandon’s factory after all…”

Mispy tried to wrap her vines around themselves to form makeshift legs, but it didn’t work as well as she would have hoped. Not only were they too thick to fashion into proper limbs, but they were so abundant that she’d look more like she belonged with Trina’s Bug spirits than anything.

“Mispy, you will need to be on your best behavior,” Rhys finally said. “All of us are more or less normal in appearance, but your form is heavily modified from the average Meganium. It may frighten the civilians.”

Mispy’s eyes widened. “B-but, I can’t help it!”

“Nor can I,” Step said, her steely gaze fixed on Rhys. “My species is naturally intimidating. Am I also banned from this society?”

“N-no, not at all,” Rhys said quickly. His tail hid between his legs unconsciously. “We just need to… hrm.”

Suddenly, Mispy’s body changed shape—from the monstrous vines, to four normal legs, and even a cute little tail that naturally came with a Meganium’s pale green body. Rhys stammered, “H-how is—what is—?”

“Not scary,” Enet cheered, waving her paws.

“My goodness—that’s brilliant, Enet!” Elder said. The Torkoal chuckled to himself for several seconds, the group stopping to marvel at the technique. “Enet’s illusions, of course! Were you listening this whole time?”

Enet may have understood a few of Elder’s words. “Listen. Yes! Listen. Mispy… scary body. I make… less scary.”

Mispy tilted her head. “What do you…?”

“You don’t feel your legs, Mispy?” Demitri asked.

“Legs?” Mispy looked down. “Eek—!” As if reacting to a Bug-Type, she flailed her front legs in a panic—Demitri felt something invisible smack against his head, and then another invisible force squeezed his body tight.

“W-wait—vines—! Mispy—vines—!”

“Wh-what?”

“It’s just an illusion!” Elder said. “Mispy! You don’t have legs! Enet is just making it look as if you have them!”

“Fake!” Enet said.

“Fake?” Mispy had been bucking in the air, trying to feel the legs that she didn’t have. Demitri was dizzy from compression. But when she sank back down—and, more importantly, closed her eyes—she felt that, indeed, she just had vines, vines, and more vines. And she sighed, relieved. She didn’t know how she lived with legs for so long—gliding along the ground with the locomotion of her tendrils was so much better.

“Good! I guess now we look normal,” Elder said. “Ahh, except…”

All heads turned to Valle, the last of their group to not revert to something more normal in appearance. “You know, Valle, it might be a bit unsettling to see a Pokémon turned to stone. Your statue is too detailed.”

“Mm,” said Valle. “Well, it is not as if Pokémon turn to stone normally.”

“Ahh,” Elder hesitated. “I suppose not.”

Rhys glanced at Elder, but then looked at Valle again. “Perhaps you should revert to your original form, Valle. Surely you remember it?”

“I will not. I shall be silent in public and will be a statue.”

“You’re heavy,” Enet said. “Not carrying.”

“Oho, you may be a strain, even for me, Valle,” Elder said. “Please, is it too difficult to return to normal?”

“It… it would be,” Valle said. “I have not moved in a very long time.”

“You moved!” Enet said, bounding toward him. “Your arm! Remember? And attacked Gawen! And, um…” Enet counted on her claws.

Willow bounced a few times while atop ADAM’s head. “Your arm fell off at the Frozen Oceanside.”

“I remember this,” ADAM said. “But that was not a voluntary movement. The ice ruptured his joints, and he had to re-grow the arm from the rocks of Hot Spot Cave.”

“Yes. I hardly count those as movements. Gawen was necessary. But this is not. I am a statue.”

“Move!” Enet said, gently patting his back. “Not bad!”

“I… I would rather not.”

“Why not?” Enet asked.

Valle didn’t answer. A stray blade of grass blew into Valle’s stone eye. Enet tilted her head and picked it away, but then asked again.

“Why not?”

“I,” Valle said, but then paused. “I don’t know if I can. I’m… perhaps I’m afraid to.”

“Afraid?”

Valle was quiet again.

“Valle,” Willow said, “it’s okay to move.”

“It—it is not!” Valle suddenly said.

The outburst made Willow shrink to half her size, crawling along ADAM’s eyes to hide between the space between his head and body again.

Valle continued. “What I mean is, that is…” He settled down again, and then rotated his entire body around. “This is not something that I wish to speak about.”

“Valle!” Enet said impatiently. “Be… normal!”

Rhys and Elder exchanged uneasy glances. They looked at the statue again.

“Valle,” Rhys said, “have you truly become so used to being a statue, that the idea of returning to normal frightens you? What do you mean, you can’t turn back?”

“Hrmm,” Elder said. “I imagine a lot of our Guardians have warped their minds in some small way in their solitude. Even with spirits to entertain them, the body craves interaction. It doesn’t help that spirits tend to behave like their hosts, if enough time passes within their realm. Valle must have been dormant for so long that the very idea of moving is frightening to him. As if his world would shatter. Is that right, Valle?”

“I… am… I am stillness,” Valle said. “I cannot move. For I am the Guardian of…”

“But why, Valle, when so many Rock Pokémon are capable of movement?” Rhys said carefully, yet firmly. “There is nothing to fear with this warped mentality. You can move, Valle. You can.”

“You have already moved before,” Elder said. “You can move again. You will be fine.”

“It… it is too much.”

“Just arm. Come on!” Enet encouraged. “Again! Huh?”

Valle rumbled angrily. “Insolent feral…”

The Zoroark’s fur puffed to twice its size. “What’d?!” Her fur sparked with electricity.

“N-now, now, let’s calm down for a moment!” Rhys said as ADAM buzzed with anxiety.

“There is no need for infighting,” Elder quickly said, trying to diffuse. “We have enough problems as it is, yes?”

Enet hissed at Valle and flicked her claws toward him. The statue vanished in an instant.

“E-Enet!?” Demitri said.

Enet huffed and turned around. “No.”

“Enet! Where’d he—oh.” Demitri shook his head. “You just… made him invisible.”

“Don’t want to see.”

“W-well… that’s as good as anything, I suppose,” Rhys said. They could discuss Valle’s phobia of movement later. With that final anomaly out of the way, they could walk into the village without making a scene with their mere presence. They saw the Waypoint—a small, metallic tile with a Heart insignia embedded into the ground near the end of the path. Rhys demonstrated first, stepping onto it. He vanished in a flash of light. This was followed by the others.

It was nice to see a bit of normalcy in town. Pokémon meandered through the streets in search of an early dinner. Hearts who had finished their missions, easy and hard alike, were tuckered out and ready for a nap. The swing shift of the Hearts was out in search of breakfast before their evening mission.

A few starstruck Pokémon spotted Rhys and waved enthusiastically, and Rhys remembered that he was an Elite Heart. He waved back, and Elder looked back at him, amused.

“I see you still have quite a reputation with the youth,” he said. “I’m positive I saw hearts in their eyes.”

“Y-yes, well… I suppose I do.” Rhys blushed and focused on a random pebble next to a building. His tail brushed against the Torkoal’s shell. “Nothing will replace you, Elder.”

“Oho, I’m hardly worried, Rhys. Let them admire.”

Step rumbled nervously at the sight of so many Pokémon. “This is a dense population,” she said. “How do you all eat? I cannot imagine it is very easy.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be, normally,” Rhys said. “But we have developed small farmlands in the outskirts of town, beyond the mountain range. Though, I suppose as the farmland expands, we may run out of habitats to fill before we encroach upon the nearby Dungeons.”

“Mm. That is a concern,” Step mused. She scanned the buildings again; it had been a while since she had visited here, and it was only for a brief time. She hadn’t paid much attention to what it looked like. “What is that strange structure resembling two ovals?”

“Two ovals?” repeated Rhys.

“Yes. Two ovals merging as one. The large, red structure.”

“A-ahh, the Heart,” Rhys said. “Well. That is the Thousand Hearts Headquarters. That shape? I’m not quite sure why it’s called a Heart, since hearts do not normally appear that way. But that is a cultural shape for a heart; it was part of Anam and Nevren’s designs a long time ago. Anam wished for a heart theme for his little association.”

“I see,” Step said. “And Anam. Did he design these things when he was a child?”

Rhys winced. “No, he did not.”

“I see. And he is your leader?”

Rhys wished to sink into the ground. “Yes. He is.”

“I see.”

Step said nothing more.

“Oh!” Enet pointed a claw at the stairs to the Heart, where Nevren was stepping outside. “That’s, umm…!”

“That’s Alakazam Nevren, Step,” said Rhys. “He is also an ex-Hunter, like myself. He spends his days assisting with the daily tasks and management of the Hearts. Every so often, he also handles the more difficult missions, particularly the, er, mutant missions, if they arise. You see, mutants have a tendency to… cause trouble when they stray from Eon’s army. It’s a constant problem, and from what Nevren told me, it’s only gotten worse as they try to hunt down the Guardians.”

“You mean, strays of our kind?” Demitri said uncomfortably, shifting his weight.

“Y-yes, well, it isn’t as if it is safe for the hostile ones to be around,” Rhys said. “I dispatch of them, when needed. I do not know their aura key as I do for you, so—there is not a way for me to… revert them to a calmer state. Instead, Nevren and I have found… safe drop-off locations.”

“Drop-off?” Demitri said. “So… so Rim gets them, or something?”

“That’s the theory,” Rhys murmured. “…It doesn’t feel right to kill them. They were led astray. We can’t merely…” He thought about Manny and his tendency to kill his mutant opponents. They just became part of his spirit realm. He shuddered.

“But they’d just try to kill us again,” Mispy said, “Or they’d hurt others.”

“If they’re taken care of by Rim and Eon, they should be under control,” Rhys said uneasily. “That’s—simply how it is.”

“Ahh, are you talking about how we handle the Synthetics?” Nevren asked on his approach; there weren’t any others around to hear the conversation other than their group. “There is no need to worry, Demitri. These strays seem to happen from time to time, and killing them won’t stifle the flow. I’m not very pleased with the fact that they are strays to begin with.”

“Y-yeah, no kidding!” Demitri said. “Those things are scary!”

Mispy nodded. “W-well,” she said, “we’re scary, so…”

“Where is the Goodra?” Step asked.

“Ahh, Anam? He is still inside his office, if you would like to see him. It is a pleasure to meet you. And you are… which Guardian?”

“I am Aggron Step—of Ice.”

“Very good to meet you, Aggron Step,” Nevren said. “Now then! Would you like to meet our grand leader of the new world?” He chuckled.

Rhys winced. “That’s not very funny, Nevren.”

“Ohh, just a bit of nostalgia, Rhys,” Nevren said dismissively.

“Let’s see Anam!” Demitri said. Nevren nodded and stepped aside to let them all in.

The bulky Aggron carefully walked up the stairs, though this proved to be extremely difficult. She didn’t trust the flooring, and wobbled once she was nearly to the top. “This is not an ideal place for me.”

They steered clear of her path. The last thing they wanted was for their story to end because a half-ton of living rock and metal fell on them. Step was already bigger than the average Aggron; imagining that on top of their bodies briefly reminded Rhys of when Emily subdued him. Sometimes, Rhys wished he could wipe his own memories the way he could for his students.

After an agonizing ascent, Step entered the Heart and stared at the colorful walls suspiciously. “I have always wondered: how did you make such a strange color for the walls? What special rock is so vibrant?”

“It’s not rocks, Step,” Demitri said. “It’s paint! I think they crush up special berries or something and mix it with, um, water, and stuff.”

“Paint,” repeated the Aggron. “I do not know what that is.”

“It’s like a coating that you put on rocks and buildings so they can look like something else. See the lines? You can’t get lines like those on rocks!”

“Hm.” Step eyed the pinks, reds, and purples of the Heart’s interior. She observed the dark purple on the ground, and how one of these paths led to a room near the back of the structure. A Decidueye stepped out of this room and locked onto their group. “He appears to be important.”

Rhys grunted in affirmative. “That is Decidueye James.”

“He’s boring!” Willow amended. “But he’s Anam’s assistant! And Anam is super nice!”

“Hm.” Step walked to James and held out her hand. “Decidueye James. I am glad to meet someone of sanity. My name is Aggron Step, of Ice.”

“Ah—so you were able to be rescued after all? That’s wonderful.” James then addressed the others. “We apologize for being so silent toward you the past few days. There was an extraordinary backlog of paperwork to sort through, and it took my, Anam’s, and Nevren’s combined efforts to sort through it all. We shouldn’t leave the Hearts alone like that for long again.”

“I don’t blame you,” Rhys said with a grin. “Well, we just wanted to make certain that everything was all right. May we see Anam, or is he busy?”

“We just finished. He’s just taking some time to relax in the pool.” James turned around. “Come.” He eyed Mispy curiously. “…Why does she look normal?”

Enet waved.

“Ah.” James turned and led the way inside.

There, the Goodra was sitting in the middle of the pool in the back of his office with his eyes closed, a dumb smile on his face. The water was thick with slime—it had been too long since his last good, warm soak.

Step crossed her arms skeptically. “This is your leader?”

Anam’s right feeler throbbed and he opened his left eye. “Oh! Hi!” When he stood up, it became apparently that his body was swollen from soaking in the water for so long. Where his body ended and the pool water began was unclear. “Hi! Hi! Um—who are you? I’m Goodra Anam! Ghost Guardian!”

“I am Aggron Step—Ice Guardian. It is”—Step searched for the word—“interesting to meet you.”

“It’s interesting to meet you, too!” He climbed out of the pool; slimy water dripped on the stone ground, darkening the floor. He held out a gooey hand, and for just a second, Step looked trapped.

She hesitantly brought her hand forward and gripped Anam’s delicately, worried that her metal body would crush the amorphous, tiny thing if she pressed any harder. His hand had such an incredible amount of give that she could feel her own claws touching through the palm. She let go when she realized this, and Anam tilted his head.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I—I think I stabbed your hand,” Step said quickly.

“Oh, it’s okay! I’m just jiggly.” He held his hand up, revealing no injury.

“A-aren’t Goodra still solid creatures? I’ve met your kind before, and they weren’t…”

“I’m a little weird because of the Guardian stuff,” Anam said. “It’s fun being like this!”

“Fun. Yes. Well.” Step shook her head. “I cannot relate, but I will take your word for it, Goodra. I hope my contribution to this group will be useful.”

“I bet it will!” Anam nodded. “Oh! Let’s go home! I finished everything I had to do here for today. Where’s everyone else?”

Valle spoke up. “The others left for—”

James hooted and beat his wings in surprise—Valle had been standing right next to him, invisible due to Enet’s illusion. A few loose green and brown feathers scattered on the ground. “V-Valle! Inform me of your presence, the next time, yes?!”

“The others left,” Valle said, “for Emily, due to an extended mission. An outlaw, Aerodactyl Jerry, attempted to ambush Owen’s team in Dark Mist Swamp. However, his impure heart caused Ghrelle, the Guardian of the Poison Orb, to melt his body.”

“Melt,” James repeated. “Are you certain?”

“I witnessed it myself,” Valle said.

“The Aerodactyl,” Step said, “was nothing more than a head attached to a Pecha Scarf when we first saw him.”

“Goodness,” James said. “How horrifying.”

“But it’s fine,” Enet said.

“Yes,” Step agreed. “Owen fused with this one.” She motioned to Mispy. “And that enhanced her powers, between her healing talent and his Mystic enhancement.”

Mispy nodded. “But he started to melt. Again.”

Rhys thought back to how helplessly Jerry had begun to melt; it must have been even more terrifying the first time. “He would likely dissolve instantly if he took away that scarf, so going to Emily would be the only way to heal him completely. At least, that is the hope.”

Anam nodded. “Well, if we’re gonna just wait for them, let’s go home! I wanna try one of those hot springs in the cave!”

“Oho, hot springs?” Elder asked. “Goodness, why did you not tell me about this, Rhys? I would go there instantly. I’m still feeling a tad chilly from Step’s, er, method of storage.”

Step’s metallic face could not emote very well, but her eyes held her smirk. “Good.”

Anam stomped outside. “Let’s go! I’m sick of paperwork!”

“I must agree,” James said.

Rhys sighed, relieved. He was glad that their absence was only because of paperwork. He had the most sinking feeling that something had been wrong due to their extended silence—but, from what Rhys could tell, it was just because of some extra paperwork.

“Oh!” Anam suddenly said. “Wait! We forgot something!”

“We did?” Nevren asked.

“Yeah!” Anam said. “I forgot to do my blessings!”

“Ahhhh.” Nevren clicked his claws together. “My goodness. I cannot believe I’ve forgotten. Very well.”

“Yeah! You guys should all go back,” Anam said. “I’ll catch up! This won’t take too long.”

“Blessings?” Step repeated. “Ah. The same as the enchanted scarves and other items, yes?”

Anam nodded. “We’re running low on Reviver Seeds again. You can’t get very many from Dungeons naturally, so I boost the supply!”

“How?” Step asked.

“Blessings are my specialty! Mhm! I learned from Mom a long time ago. She was a really important Goodra.”

“I see. How interesting,” Step said. “Reviver Seeds… they don’t do very much, do they? They restore your body, but not very much for your energy to keep fighting.”

“Not the big ones! They’re harder for me to make, though… They’re imbued with healing energy that reacts to weakened auras,” Anam said. “They’re very important. But they’re hard to make. Even with all my power, I can only generate a for the other Hearts. But they’re life savers. Literally! We use the tiny ones for training and sparring and easier missions.”

“I see,” she said again, nodding. “Very well. That is very noble of you, Anam.”

“Yes. We will all go for now.” Nevren clapped his hands together, floating his spoons above them. “Come! Let’s not waste any further time here, yes?”

“Well, aren’t you in a rush,” Rhys commented. “Are you finally tired of paperwork, Nevren? I thought I’d never see the day.”

“I suppose even I can get stir crazy. Come! Let’s go. To Hot Spot Cave!”

Rhys nodded, turning for the exit. But then, he sensed it. A presence. So familiar, and yet one that should not be felt here. An Espurr. It was to his left. He quickly turned his head. In the corner of his eye, he saw something purple. But when he looked directly, it was gone. So was Rim’s aura.

Rhys looked at Mispy. She was heading down the stairs, oblivious. Perhaps her mind was still occupied. All the others weren’t nearly in tune with the aura to sense anything. But an icy pit formed in Rhys’ stomach nonetheless. Why would she appear here so brazenly? Her aura felt calm. And then, there had been a spark of panic. And then she vanished. Why would she panic, if she knew that Anam would be there? Surely, he would be trouble for her. Elder was halfway to the stairs when he looked back, giving Rhys a puzzled expression.

Rhys didn’t even realize it, but he was now the only one still near Anam’s office.

“Rhys?” Anam asked, looking back. “Are you okay? Oh, oh! I know! You want to watch me do a blessing, right?”

“Rhys? Now, why would you want to do that?” Nevren asked. “Come! Let Anam perform his blessings in peace. We can wait for him outside, if we must.”

“Actually,” Rhys said, “I think it would be a good idea for me to see this. I’m curious if there is a way to replicate it.” Rhys eyed Nevren slowly. The icy pit in his stomach faded into something denser.

“Rhys,” Nevren said, “are you feeling well? It isn’t as if this blessing would be anything new.”

“I don’t think we should leave Anam alone, Nevren,” Rhys said.

“Huh? What?” Anam asked, turning toward Rhys. “What’s wrong? Everything’s fine, Rhys! I’ve done these blessings so many times!”

Rhys suddenly vanished from view. Anam jumped in surprise and swiveled his head, flinging slime from the ends of his feelers.

“Eep—!”

Rhys was right in front of Rim, who had appeared a split-second earlier. Extreme Speed was truly invaluable, but now, Rhys used an even stronger weapon against Rim—a stare. “Why are you here?”

Rim couldn’t make eye contact. She gazed intensely at the ground with her wide, purple eyes.

“This is the second time. As if you were waiting. Why?”

Rim trembled.

“Rim,” Nevren said lowly. “Do not think you can catch us off guard.”

After a short pause, Rim spun around and disappeared again.

Anam fiddled with his slimy fingers. “That was scary…”

“Hmm,” Nevren said. “It’s a good thing you remained behind, Rhys.”

Elder sighed. “What would Rim have tried to do? Attack you?”

“I suppose she was sent by Eon,” Nevren said, shaking his head. “Unfortunately, he is not very happy with our arrangement with Anam. He is a bit of a thorn in Eon’s side, after all.”

“Ahh.” Elder puffed out a small plume of white smoke. “That’s very true. Hmm—we should be careful about her appearance, Rhys. She isn’t good against multiple, powerful fighters like you all.”

“Hrm. I still do not know her true strength,” Rhys hummed. “Ever since she acquired the Psychic Orb, that is.”

“I’m not sure, either,” Elder said. “But she and Eon trained every day.”

Rhys huffed. “Wonderful,” he said, but then gave Nevren a small jab to the side. “Nothing we can’t handle, I suppose. With how many Orbs we have on our side, including Trina incoming—with some luck—I think we’re almost ready to take Eon directly.”

Anam excused himself into the room next to his office; it was dark inside, so it was difficult to see its contents. Rhys had been there before—it was lined with unenchanted seeds, scarves, and other useful Dungeon equipment.

Nevren nodded. “After the Hunters, it will just be the Trinity.”

Rhys winced. “One problem at a time.”

Nevren sighed. “I suppose that much is true. One at a time. After five hundred years, Rhys. Can you believe it?”

Rhys laughed. “I can’t!”

One of Nevren’s many devices suddenly made a beeping noise. He looked down. “Ah, a Hecto is nearby,” he remarked. “Perhaps this one is touring the town?”

“You have a tracker for Hecto?” Rhys asked curiously.

“Ah, yes, it was something I’ve decided to carry with me. Very useful device. I have it tuned to many of our friends, in fact. I used Hecto for testing, as usual.” Nevren pulled out the device from the satchel on his hip—another square tablet with a light-based interface in the front. “Nifty, isn’t it? If Hecto happens to be nearby, I’ll know, and I can give him updates on anything worrisome.”

“Ahh, that is useful.”

“Well, it used to be,” Nevren said. “Then I invented the communicators. Using Hecto as a messenger has become less useful. At least he can behave as worldwide surveillance—for the areas he visits, at least. Since we’re in Kilo Village most of the time, it’s rare for him to visit. Perhaps he’s craving one of Ludicolo Café’s smoothies again.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.” Rhys chuckled. “Ah, Nevren, perhaps we should stop by there and get something.”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” Elder piped up. “I personally enjoy their Cheri smoothies, oho…”

A bright glow emanated from the room next to Anam’s office. They turned their heads, seeing the Goodra emerge, puffing as if he’d sprinted around the whole village crater.

“Phew. All done!”

“Goodness, that was fast,” Elder said.

“Then let’s return home.” Rhys couldn’t help it—his tail wagged on the way down the stairs. Everything was finally falling into place. They had more than half of the Orbs. He was finally with Elder again, in person. Owen and the rest of the Alloy were stable and sane.

All was well.

Walking beside Nevren, the Goodra stumbled in his steps. The Alakazam glanced at Anam. Gooey tears streamed down his otherwise normal, smiling face. Nevren’s eyes glowed for just one second. The tears ceased.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 48 – Flames in the Dark

Going from Hot Spot Cave to the southern corner of the world took quite a while. The sun was not far from kissing the horizon. It wouldn’t be long until they were above the Chasm of the Void; even in the incoming twilight, they expected to see the blinding darkness that was the crater.

“So, from there,” Star said, balanced atop Zena’s serpentine back, “half of us will pay a visit to Nate, and the other half will keep to finding Emily with Jerry. How’re you holding up, Aero?”

“I’m just fine,” Jerry said, twisting his neck slightly at the tightness of his Stable Scarf. “I’m a little nervous about flying with this thing around my neck. It’s messing with my dynamics.”

“You can land on my back, if you want,” Owen offered.

“I’ll pass,” Jerry growled. “I’m afraid that you’ll twist and throw me right into the water once we go over the ocean.”

“Wh-what kind of person d’you think I am?!” Owen’s flame shrank at the accusation. In truth, Owen was simply trying to make up for his insolence prior to their fight. What more did he need to do? Owen struggled to find the words to form a proper apology.

“If you must,” Zena offered, “you may ride on my back, Jerry. Perhaps you can use my body as a perch? I’m sure I feel a lot like a tree branch if you don’t think about it.”

“Listen, I’m still trying to get used to the fact that you’re flying like the Legendary Rayquaza. I’m not about to also use you as some kind of stand. I’ll… I’ll just fly on my own. I’ll be fine.”

“Hm,” Zena nodded. “Very well.”

A quiet, serene noise filled the air. It was a gentle whistle in an enchanting, organic tune. Almost a song. It pierced through the wind.

“Um, do you hear that?” Amia asked.

“Hear what?” Owen asked. “Oh, Gahi?”

“Ngg—” Gahi beat his wings rapidly and the whistling stopped.

“Gahi! I didn’t know you could sing!” Amia said. “By the Stars, that was beautiful!”

Star’s ear twitched.

“I ain’t singing!” Gahi said.

“He isn’t,” Owen said. “Those are his wings! If the wind blows at them the right way, they make a really nice hum in the air. I remember Nevren once told me that it’s even louder in sandstorms.”

“It ain’t pretty!” Gahi said. “Nevern told me that Flygon use that singing to lure prey fer a kill. It’s deadly. I’m deadly.”

“I thought it sounded quite nice,” Zena said. “I envy that. Despite my species, my singing voice is not quite up to your wings, Gahi.”

“Well, at least your normal voice is nice, right?” Owen asked.

“I—I’m sorry?” Zena asked.

“Feh!” Gahi irritably drifted away from them, flying next to Manny instead.

“Heh.” Manny twirled through the air, wagging his tail. “I’ve been cooped up in that mountain and then those caves fer way too long! I fergot how great it was ter fly!”

“Lucario shouldn’t fly,” Zena said. “I much prefer you on the ground. Perhaps with your face in the dirt?” She giggled, hiding her mouth behind one of her ribbons.

“Hey, don’t go associating me with Rhys,” Manny said. “I know yer history. I ain’t got any bad past with yeh. Don’t gotta worry about me.”

“Yes, you’re less dangerous,” Zena said. “I heard that you lost to him quite soundly.”

Soundly?” Manny said. “Who said that? Who said I did it all easy-like?”

“I believe it was Amia,” Zena said.

Manny’s eyes flashed with genuine betrayal.

“So!” Amia said, drifting away from Manny. “Jerry, um.” She fiddled with her hands. “About earlier. The… the Fire Clan.”

“What of it?”

“I, um, I’m sorry that your circumstances turned out that way. I didn’t think something like that would…”

“It’s that Goodra that’s the problem,” Jerry said. Amia didn’t reply. Jerry, perhaps from thoughts that had been bubbling for a while during the flight, continued. “What gives him the right to judge my character at a glance? What gives that stupid Ghrelle the right to judge me?! Neither of them have the right, if you ask me! I was at the top of those exams! I would’ve passed with flying colors! But then he steps in and denies me the chance. How is that fair?”

“I—I don’t know, Jerry. Maybe we can ask him,” Owen said. “After you’re all healed up, we can see why Anam—”

“I know why! It’s because there was something in my character that didn’t fit with the Hearts’ policy. I get it.”

“Then… why are you mad?” Owen said. “If you didn’t have it in you—”

“Well, maybe I could’ve gotten better.”

“Y-yeah, maybe,” Owen said. “But if Anam had to choose between someone who already had good character, versus someone who, I mean…” Owen didn’t want to say it, but at this point, he was just dancing around the subject. “You became an outlaw after you were denied a position as a Heart. Don’t you think that kind of reaction isn’t—”

Owen winced at Jerry’s glare.

“I’m done talking about this,” Jerry spat. “You better go with the group that sees that stupid Dark Guardian, got it? Because I don’t want to see your scaly hide for any longer than I have to, you pampered little—”

“Shut up for a second,” Star said, gently holding a paw on Jerry’s muzzle. “What’s going on down there?”

Jerry was about to protest, but he grunted instead and looked down. “What?” he asked. “It’s just a crater, nothing wrong with—wait a second…”

“Yeah, exactly.”

The Chasm of the Void was a shallow crater in the middle of a field of tan rocks and red dirt—no deeper than Kilo Village’s. Surrounding this field of lifeless dust were the thin trees of the southern forest. But that crater wasn’t supposed to be that way—and many in the group imagined it would be quite a lot deeper. Yet, it looked like it only went down for a hundred feet. The ground at the bottom was a barren wasteland of even paler dirt and rocks like the terrain that surrounded it. All the way across, it was about a quarter of the size of Kilo Village’s diameter.

“That’s not good,” Owen said. “Isn’t it supposed to be this… black circle that’s like going blind?”

“Yeah. And now it’s gone.” Her voice trembled. “Nate…!”

“Please don’t tell me Eon got him,” Owen said.

“N-no, that can’t be it. I mean, Nate’s shy, but he’d’ve told me, right?! Guys? I’m approachable, right?”

Zena huffed. “I suppose you are friendly, when you aren’t lying through your teeth.”

Owen could tell that one hurt.

Zena’s eyes softened slightly. “I… apologize.”

“N-no, it’s okay. I deserved that. I’m doing better,” Star said in a squeak. She gulped and steeled herself. “Change of plans. Let’s all fly down there and investigate. If there’s trouble, I want us to all be there to fight it off, alright?”

They all nodded and descended. Before long, they were at the very center of the crater; Owen was the first to land, sensing no immediate danger or foreign presence. “It feels fine to me.”

“I don’t know if I should be glad or worried about that,” Star said.

“Oy, Flygon,” Manny said.

“Eh?”

“How about we go off and circle the whole crater, see if we can spot anything weird at all angles, eh? My eyes and yer speed.”

The mutant Flygon made a thoughtful churring sound reminiscent of his Trapinch years. “Yeah, sure. Figure these guys’ll just scan the ground.”

Gahi put his speed to good use, and Manny hopped onto his back. For just an instant, Gahi felt an odd, nostalgic kinship with him—the Lucario that he had been so impressed by as a delinquent adolescent. Now, as a delinquent adult, Manny got to see him in his full glory.

“Oy!” Manny shouted at the others. “We’re gonna do a spin around the crater!”

“Yeah!” Gahi called back. “We’ll let y’guys know if we spot anything!”

And with that, the pair took off.

The rest resumed their search on the ground for any signs of oddities. Star spoke up first. “You don’t think Eon got to him, do you?”

Zena tilted a tiny boulder over with her ribbons, finding nothing. “Didn’t you just say Nate wouldn’t be defeated by Eon so easily?”

“I meant, like, with words,” Star said. “Eon’s pretty good with those when he has to be. Charisma, like any good leader.”

“Eon?” Jerry repeated.

“The leader of the Hunters.”

“Uh-huh. And the Hunters?”

“Uh, the people chasing the—look, I’ll explain later, if we even have to explain it.” Star waved her tiny arms in the air dismissively. “But right now, it doesn’t look like there’s anything here.”

“This dirt,” Zena said, slithering tentatively over it. “It feels… well-traveled. As if there were creatures constantly trotting over it at all times. But I imagine it would be quite lonely down here, don’t you think?”

“I don’t see any footprints,” Owen said.

Jerry kicked at a loose rock. “That’s because whatever used to be here didn’t have normal feet. I’ve never seen markings like this before, and I’ve followed lots of tracks. For all I know, this is just more of that weird business you guys deal with. But the way the dirt looks here, it feels like some sort of Ghost Type used to live here.” Jerry huffed. “Or some abomination. What’s the difference?”

With his foot, the Aerodactyl rolled a rock over and tilted his head. Something flat and yellow had been trapped underneath. He leaned down and picked up a strange cloth. The sensation baffled him—it felt smooth, cold, and wet, yet no water or residue was left on his wing’s claws.

“Huh.” He didn’t see any importance to it, but perhaps the material would be useful. Making use of the small bag they had given him for his sparring match with Owen, he slipped it inside. Maybe he could sell it.

Gahi and Manny—who had been specks in the air until seconds ago—descended next to the group, indicated by that same singing from the Flygon’s wings.

Nada,” Manny reported.

“What the heck’s a nada?” Jerry said.

“It means nothing,” Star said. “Lost language.”

“Doesn’t look like anything’s here,” Zena said. “That’s too bad. I hope Nate is okay…”

“Guess so,” Star sighed. “Okay. I guess Nate isn’t here. I don’t see any signs of a struggle, though.” She looked over at Owen. “What do you think? Owen? Hello?”

“Huh? Oh—sorry,” Owen looked back. “I was trying to scan the whole area and I think I got lost.”

Jerry blinked. “This is a big, open crater. How in Mew’s name do you get lost in here?”

Star’s ear twitched.

“It’s—it’s hard to explain, okay?” Owen said. “Sometimes it feels like I’m everywhere at once, and big, open areas make me just bleed my mind all over. I kinda prefer confined spaces.”

“You’re one of the weirdest Chars I’ve ever met,” Jerry said. “Hmph. So, are we done here? Are we good? Let’s go.”

“I guess we are,” Star agreed, nodding uncertainly. “Owen?”

Owen was standing still again, staring into empty space with his mouth agape.

Jerry smacked Owen just below his horns.

“Ng—don’t do that!” Owen crouched down, covering his ears. “I was just thinking!”

“You were thinking for ten seconds. C’mon, let’s get going before you go crazy. Seeing the Chasm all bare like this is giving me the creeps.”

Owen shrank. “O-okay.”

“What,” Star said to Jerry, “you mean it being like staring into the abyss is any less creepy?”

“That was weird, too!” Jerry said. “Tons of crazy rumors about this place. They say that if you fell into the void, demons would claim your soul and turn your body into more darkness.” He shivered. “Some Pokémon once escaped. They said that they felt thousands of hands trying to pull them apart.”

“Th-that wasn’t what it was like when we came,” Owen said.

“You went into the Chasm?” Jerry asked.

“Yeah! We… mis-warped or something, and wound up there.” Owen paused. “I didn’t know Badges could mis-warp.”

“They can’t,” Star said. “Nevren redirected us there since apparently Eon was gonna head there next. Probably wanted to keep Nate protected. What a load of good that gave us in the end…”

“Jerry,” Zena spoke up. “How do you know about the Chasm?”

“I’m from here,” Jerry said. “Ever heard of Pyrock Village? Not that far from here.”

Amia tilted her head back. “Mm… that does sound familiar,” she said. “But I’ve never been there. Perhaps a few generations back?”

“Yeah. Back before the ‘Fire Clan’ split up.” Jerry shrugged and repositioned his wings. “Whatever. Guess it doesn’t matter now. The Chasm is just gone, and I say good riddance. All those scary stories about evil spirits stealing you away at night don’t have much weight to them anymore, now do they?”

“Doubt they had any weight to begin with.” Star shrugged, eyes closed. “Nate’s friendly. Sure, he’s weird, but he’s friendly.”

“Speaking of weird,” Jerry mumbled. Owen was staring into space again. He flicked his tail on Owen’s thigh.

“Guh—! Stop that!”

Star hummed. “I guess he’s getting his powers back gradually. Power before control. You keep that in check, big guy.” She crossed her arms and flicked her tail. “You weren’t like that when you first evolved, so I think you’re getting your powers back in full before you’re getting back the knowledge on how to handle it.”

“I guess so,” Owen said, shutting his eyes tight. That didn’t help. If anything, it made him even more focused on his surroundings.

Jerry grumbled irritably.

They took off. Before long, the now bright, barren chasm was a small speck in the distance, and the thin, pale treetops of the southern forest took over the landscape. Jerry followed behind at a slightly slower pace. The others were quick to notice this, but it was Owen who spoke up first.

“Jerry, are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, just fine.”

“How come you’re slowing down? Don’t get too far. If you start melting, I’m gonna need to get that scarf refreshed before we get to Emily.”

“I feel fine. Lay off.”

The Charizard winced, beating his wings as if it would help to shake off the rejection. “O-okay.”

“Hey,” Star spoke up. “How about we go on a little detour first?”

“E-excuse me? This is a bit urgent, Star,” Zena said.

“Oh, please, we aren’t in a rush,” Star said. “This is just a bunch of hurry-and-wait. Even once Jerry gets healed by Emily, we need to wait for the Badges to recharge before we can get back home. Jerry?”

“What? What do you want?” Jerry asked.

“Want to visit the Western Chasm Glade?”

Jerry’s flight stiffened into a glide, and he stared ahead, looking at nobody.

“No.”

Star blinked. “You… y’don’t?”

“No. Let’s just see Emily.”

Zena and Owen glanced at one another, and then at Star. She seemed puzzled at the response, but then said, “Aw, well, I’m sure you really want to. I bet she’d—”

“Let’s go.” Jerry beat his wings hard, accelerating forward until he was ahead of the entire group. The ocean dominated the landscape, with the forest below transitioning into fields and sand, and finally into nothing but an expanse of water that glistened orange under the setting sun.

Owen was tempted to ask Jerry what that place was, or why Star was offering, and why Jerry refused so curtly. She was just trying to help, wasn’t she? Owen felt someone brush against his side; he glanced to the right.

“Oh—sorry,” Zena said.

“It’s okay,” Owen said. “Hey, are you having trouble flying? I guess it’s pretty weird for a Milotic to be going through the air, huh?”

“Oh, it’s not strange at all, actually,” Zena said. “This feels very much like swimming. I should do this more often. I would be more worried about your mother.”

“Uh?” Owen looked to his left. Amia was flying, yes, but she was squinting at the air, struggling to see through the rush. “Mom?”

“Oh! Yes, dear?”

“Are you okay? Seems like you’re having trouble, uh, seeing.”

“Ohh, it’s just fine, Owen.” Her eyes were watering.

Owen wondered if Pokémon that could naturally fly just had an easier time with harsh winds. Then again, Zena was fine with it, too, but perhaps swimming through water worked in the same way? Owen looked at the others. Manny was flying, and he had no problem with the wind; last he checked, he never saw Rhys fly. No, he did, when they had gone over the ocean the first time—but did that really count as flying? Propelling himself with the sheer force of aura from his paws? It wasn’t like he could keep it up, either; Rhys had been quite strained by the end of it.

Wings sounded like the most appropriate way to fly, like himself and Gahi. None of these Mystic cheaters. Then again, he supposed lots of Pokémon levitated… But Rhys didn’t. If he wanted to fly, he’d need to sprout an extra set of wings.

Owen briefly imagined Rhys crossed with a Dragonair, little white wings sprouting from his furry back.

He snorted out a small flame from his nostrils and tried to cover it up as a cough from swallowing a gust of air.

“Owen?” Zena asked.

“N-nothing, nothing,” Owen said. “I was just, uh, I was just imagining what it’d be like if, uh, Manny had wings.”

“Wings? Oh, flying,” Zena said. She looked at the Lucario, and then giggled. “Oh, goodness, imagine if you fused with him, Owen.”

“Fused?” Owen said. He imagined himself with Manny’s boisterous personality, and then the mighty wings of a Charizard attached to the thin frame of a Lucario. “That doesn’t sound too bad. For some reason I was imagining the little white wings you see on Dragonair.”

Zena’s eyes bulged and she stifled a laugh of her own. “Now why are you imagining that?”

“W-well, I—I mean,”—Owen flushed—“I was imagining how a Lucario could fly normally. M-maybe they could use a bunch of Aura Spheres and use that as propulsion? Do you think they can shoot them from their feet?”

Manny was too far away to ask without yelling over the wind.

Zena let loose a small giggle. “And how do you imagine I would fly, Owen?”

“Y-you? Umm—well, how does Rayquaza fly? You sorta move like I imagine he would. With… wind power, or something.”

“Wind power,” Zena repeated.

“W-well, what else would it be? Doesn’t he have control over the sky or something? That’s awesome! Hey, Star? Is Rayquaza real?”

“Yeah.”

“W-wow! What, um, what’s he like?”

“He’s cool. A little uptight, but really laid back. Lots of the pantheon is kinda like that. I think they get it from Barky, you know, since they’re sorta disciples of him and stuff. Created their forms, yadda yadda… ‘Quaza was good friends with Dialga.”

“Oh? You mean you didn’t make them? I thought you made all life.”

“All normal life,” Star said. “The Embodiments are his thing, for the most part. But most of them aren’t around anymore.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Owen said. “So Rayquaza isn’t around?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I guess that explains why there have never been any sightings,” Owen said, though he couldn’t help but wonder why they wouldn’t be around anymore. “How come they aren’t around?”

“Eh, stuff happens,” Star said evasively. “Maybe one day Barks will get around to making another.”

“Hmm.” He knew Star wasn’t telling the full story, but perhaps it was just a sore spot, or an accident. Did Rayquaza die from flying into a mountain when he wasn’t paying attention? If it was something embarrassing, perhaps Star was just covering for his spirit’s dignity.

Star growled. “Look, I don’t know the full story, either, okay?”

“O-oh. Sorry.” Owen nodded; if anything, that felt honest.

Zena sighed. “Speaking of Embodiments, I can’t wait to see Emily again.”

“Urk.” Owen’s flight briefly faltered. “Y-yeah. She seemed nice.”

Zena smiled apologetically. “I know you didn’t get the best first impression, but I’m glad you at least see her as friendly.”

“Y-yeah, I mean, she’s great!” Owen forced himself to perk up. “She dedicates her life to rescuing Pokémon lost at sea! She’s like the ocean’s Thousand Hearts! Except, uh, just one Heart. Well, two, if you count Vaporeon, um… Tanneth, her name. And like Anam, she hugs people. A lot.”

“Hugs,” Zena said with another giggle. “Is that what we’re calling it, now?”

“I just don’t want to think of it another way,” Owen said, briefly remembering when he’d also accidentally been halfway submerged in Anam’s slime. No wonder he reminded Zena of Emily.

Jerry eyed Owen suspiciously. “Hang on,” he said. “What?”

“Uhh—” Owen shook his head. “It’s nothing! Nothing. Remember, Emily’s probably the only way we can get you fixed completely, okay?”

Jerry stared. Owen shrank, veering toward Zena if only to get further away.

“So,” Jerry said, “tell me again what’s going on? Who is this Emily you’re talking about, and how is she able to heal me?”

“She’s a Lugia with very special powers,” Zena said. “Potent healing abilities—it’s slower, but it’s incredibly strong. It was enough to heal Owen and Gahi’s minds when they fused together.”

“I don’t think it was just that,” Star said. “But she did help. It’s our best bet at getting you better, Jerry. After that, we’ll drop you off at the Hearts, you can finish your dues, and you’ll find a better job than being a criminal. Alright?”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m some kid.”

Star sighed. This was going to be a long flight.

The sky transitioned to a deep purple in silence, nobody speaking with one another, more involved with their own thoughts. With so many around him, Owen was able to focus mostly on their bodies rather than the great, empty expanse of air that surrounded them, or the ocean below. Most of them were relaxed. Star seemed to be meditating, settled on a spot on Zena’s back. Manny’s lips twitched every so often, occasionally becoming little grins. He must have been talking to Yen. Jerry, however, was still stiff.

“Oh, look,” Owen said, pointing. “Zero Isle Spiral.”

“Yep,” Star said.

The twisted archipelago was to their right. In the darkening sky, they could tell the land apart from the water only because the water glistened orange, while the land itself was dark.

“Wh—hey!” Owen pointed at the very center of the four-pronged vortex of small islands. “That’s awesome!”

The center of the spiral glowed dimly.

“That’s where the treasure is,” Star said with an amused lilt. “In other words, Dragon Guardian Aramé.”

“Can’t we just fly right to the center?” Owen asked. “We can skip Zero Isle Spiral entirely! Oh, wait,” Owen hummed. “Dungeon space is spherical, right? So, once we get too close—”

“You’ll land right at the edge, yep,” Star said. “Besides, I wouldn’t go there anyway. Aramé’s all about strength, and Zero Isle Spiral just isn’t a place you want to go. Even Elites struggle with it.”

“Yer making me wanna challenge it,” Manny said.

“Go ahead,” Star shrugged. “I’ll come and collect your corpse later. She’s merciful to mortals, but she told me a long time ago that if a Mystic ever entered the Dungeon, she’d have spirits waiting at the entrance to kill the defeated.”

“She sounds nice,” Zena said.

“Feh. Doesn’t sound so tough. Maybe she’s all talk.”

“Wanna test it out?” Star asked. “C’mon, Manny. Don’t be an Owen.”

“H-hey!”

Star giggled. “Let’s keep going, alright? One problem at a time.”

More flying, and the sound of wind blowing past them slowly faded out of Owen’s mind. The gentle singing of Gahi’s wings, too, faded from Owen’s mind. Becoming nothing but background noise, the ‘silence’ ate away at him. He drifted a bit to Zena, and then dipped beneath her until he was between the Milotic and the Aerodactyl.

“Um, Jerry,” he said.

“What now?” he groaned.

“I’m sorry for belittling you. For the fight.”

Jerry stared at Owen incredulously. “You think I care?”

Owen flinched. “N-no, I mean, yes? I—I just didn’t want to—I’m just sorry that I said you were weak.”

“Who cares?” Jerry said. “I fight to survive. Just because you thought I was weak doesn’t mean anything. Actually, you know what? It’s an advantage for me, because that might’ve given me the win in the first place.”

“Y-yes, but isn’t… I don’t know. Doesn’t it seem like a big insult? I’m really sorry.”

Jerry wished his wings weren’t occupied so he could rub his face. He compromised by rolling his eyes. “Look, if this is part of your freak-mutant culture of bloodlust, I don’t care. Your apology was losing. So, fine. Apology accepted.” He grunted. “Now how about you stop belittling me for my past, next?”

Owen winced.

“Yeah, Mister Entry-Heart. By the way, did you know that they tell you the team name of the group that arrested you? Part of the records. What kind of name is Team Alloy? None of you guys are metallic.”

“Th-that’s a long story,” Owen said, realization washing over him. Alloy. What a sick joke. “It’s meant to signify a team that can combine their skills into a single, stronger force.”

“So, your fusion gimmick,” Jerry said.

“We… didn’t know about that part.”

“Ohh, so it’s just a subconscious thing,” Jerry said. “Huh. Well, isn’t that something.”

An agonizing silence followed.

Jerry went on. “So. You gonna apologize?”

“For calling you an outlaw?”

Jerry snarled. “Forget it. I can’t expect someone from the Hearts to understand.”

“To be fair, Jerry,” Star said, “you are an outlaw who ran away from your sentence. We could send you right back to toil.”

He growled in response. “Being told off by God herself. Hmph. Guess I should feel honored.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What, don’t like taking responsibility for your mistakes?” Jerry smirked.

“Do you?” Star replied icily.

“L-let’s not get too heated,” Amia spoke up over the wind. “Emily! We’re here for Emily, to help Jerry, remember?”

Jerry and Star continued their glares. Owen, able to see Star’s face from his angle, had to turn away. Jerry’s eyes were no better, and he ultimately drifted back to Zena, taking solace in her graceful ‘swim’ through the sky.

“So,” Owen said to Jerry, “life was pretty hard for you, huh?”

Jerry broke his glare to pay attention to his flight path. “Yeah. Guess you could say that. Sure, maybe if I toughed it out, I would be able to get a decent life for myself. But there were easier ways.”

“Like stealing,” Star said.

“Like surviving away from a dead-end job.”

“Dead-end? You had it made!” Star said. “Do you know how good it is to get a job in construction?”

“Excuse me?” Jerry said, beating his wings to gain some altitude on Star. “You have any idea how high the turnover is for a job like that? Chronic strain would’ve had me out in ten years! Then what?!”

“A-Anam wouldn’t allow something like that to happen,” Owen defended.

“And another thing, don’t you think it’s a little weird that Anam’s the law of the land, the Head of the Hearts, and the world’s grand priest?! Sounds like an awful lot of power, if you ask me. I don’t think he can manage playing God of the Living.”

“Nobody can,” Star mumbled.

“W-well,” Owen stuttered. “I don’t—I don’t think Anam’s been doing a bad job. The world’s fine, if you ignore all this Mystic stuff. Maybe you just aren’t—” Owen caught himself too late.

“Aren’t what?” Jerry asked. “Or are you siding with Ghrelle, saying I don’t have the right character or purity to make it in this world? That I’m some lazy trash? Is that it?”

Amia flinched, ready to speak up, but she couldn’t find the words. Gahi beat his wings irritably, but he lacked the eloquence to counter with anything meaningful. In a rare act of restraint, he said nothing, too. Manny listened with an uncharacteristic, somber silence. Zena looked at Owen, expecting him to respond. Star seemed lost in thought about something else.

“That’s—no,” Owen said. “You—you work hard. You wouldn’t be so strong if you didn’t work hard.” He looked down, stretching his wings for a steady glide.

“Hmph,” Jerry said. “I thought so. You just follow the label. I’m an outlaw. Doesn’t matter what or why. I’m a criminal, and you’re better than me for that. Pretty simple mindset. But you know what? I had to make the choice. I either had to doom myself to a short life, wasting away at unskilled labor just to make ends meet, or—actually survive, no matter what I had to do. I don’t want to hurt people. But I needed to if I wanted to live a life of any sort of comfort that you privileged Hearts have handed to you.”

Owen nibbled on the right side of his tongue. How was he supposed to counter that? He had no idea what Jerry was talking about. Pokémon got along just fine. They worked, they got paid, and they got what they needed to live. It was simple. If there was a problem with the way the world worked—there would have been protests against Anam! Large ones!

“Owen,” Zena spoke up. “Is the world difficult to live in? I have been away for so long, but the time I’ve spent in Kilo Village—I don’t think I saw that much trouble.”

“It’s not that difficult,” Owen said. “You just need to get a good skillset, put yourself to use, and you can pretty much just find a job to take care of.”

Jerry growled. “You talk as if finding a job and getting skills is easy, and then you’re set for life. You aren’t. Sometimes you don’t have the resources to do something the right way. Got it?”

Star snapped to her senses. “Guys, c’mon.”

“Hmph, y’know what?” Gahi flapped his wings, briefly cutting off the whistling song. “Owen’s right.”

“Bah, what do you know,” Jerry said dismissively. “You’re a Heart. You’ve got the best sort of life.”

“Hah!” Gahi swayed threateningly closer to Jerry. “Easy, being a Heart? Don’t make me laugh. While all the normal folks get to live quiet lives, we’re the ones heading straight inter danger every day. We get paid well because we need supplies, and ‘cause without us, Pokémon would be in trouble and dying a whole lot more often. Mutant attacks alone amount fer a lot o’ our problems, too, y’know. We’re the ones who gotta fight ‘em, not the civilians er whatever. Y’know that one guy, Granbull Jin? Died defending town, jus’ like that. And y’know what? I think I’m starting ter understand why Anam rejected you. ‘Cause he has a sense fer this sorta thing. His power. He can peer inter yer heart, feel yer emotions. Figure that’s a Mystic quirk.”

“Oh, is that it?” Jerry said. “Anam, the great, compassionate Goodra, is literally able to feel what others feel? Well then enlighten me, Flygon—why did Anam reject me? Because I was too mean? To harsh? Too scaaary for the adult hatchling to handle? I would’ve been the best new recruit they’d’ve ever gotten!”

“Hmph, no you wouldn’t,” Gahi said. “Strength ain’t why Anam rejects people. That’s what the tests are fer.”

“Then WHAT?” Jerry shouted, seemingly convinced that Gahi knew the answer. “I had everything! I could’ve turned my life around! None of this would’ve happened if I was just accepted into the Hearts! All of it! So WHY?”

Gahi snorted. “That’s easy,” he said. “Why’d you wanna join the Hearts?”

“To make my life better. So I can actually feel secure. So I could actually survive. What’s so wrong about that?!”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with it,” Gahi said. “But that ain’t enough. Figure I know why. D’you, Owen?”

Owen gulped. “Y-yeah. I know. I think I know.”

“What is it?” Zena and Jerry both asked—Zena in curiosity, Jerry with bitter impatience.

Owen winced. “It’s because you don’t care enough about others.”

Jerry stared at them in disbelieving, wide eyes. “How can—” he said, but he stopped himself. An opposing gust of wind disrupted their course and the group of fliers had to swerve to stabilize on their way. The sun had finally set; what little light that had brightened the Chasm, by now, was gone completely. The ocean was a sea of undulating darkness, except for the distant factory where Steel Guardian Brandon resided to their left. This factory had no light, but was instead an even darker patch against the water.

“Don’t care for—” Jerry said again. His wings beat twice, each one angrier than the last.

How can I care about others when I can BARELY CARE FOR MYSELF?!”

He made a nosedive toward the ocean, gaining speed, and then tilted up to move forward. He didn’t care where he went; he didn’t even care if he lost his course. He just wanted to get away from them. He tilted his head back to get a look at his tail and feet. They were still solid. For just a brief moment, his thoughts trailed to the idea that if he melted, maybe he wouldn’t have to think about this anymore. The irrational thought remained in his head for longer than he’d wished, but he eventually shook it out.

“Aagh, what is he doing?” Gahi groaned.

“You guys need to stop pushing his buttons,” Star said.

“Oh, like you weren’t?” Gahi said.

“That was too far,” Star said. “Look, you guys have a point, but we’re trying to help him. If he runs off, we might lose him. Like, super-lose him.”

“He heading the right way?” Manny asked.

“Yeah. He’s fine. Let’s just keep up.”

“So, how exactly are we going to spot Emily’s place?” Owen said.

“I know the way,” Star said. “But if you guys aren’t sure, uhh, let’s see,” Star scanned the group. “Anybody know Flash?”

No reply.

Star sighed. “Yeah, I figured.” She looked down. “Hmm. Well, if Emily’s around, I can sense her aura. Otherwise, we’ll be able to see it on the ocean as a little darker spot. There’s still a little bit of light left. If we speed it up, we’ll actually see it.”

Gahi grumbled. “It’s getting real dark,” he said. “Kinda… tired, y’know.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Amia said. “You… you’re a little sleepy, huh? I forgot that normal people have to sleep. I wonder if Jerry’s feeling tired, too.”

“Doubt it, after getting upset like that,” Star said. “He might be used to long nights.”

“Um, Gahi, er,” Owen said. “If you need help, maybe we can fuse. Then you won’t have to sleep. Does that sound—”

Gahi crashed into Owen, melting into his side. Owen gasped in surprise and swerved through the air, twirling without direction. He fell a quarter of the way to the ocean, and then outstretched his four wings, righting himself. “Ugh—” Gawen muttered. “I’m kinda worried that I’m getting used to that.”

Star giggled. “Doing alright, there?”

“Y-yeah, I’m fine.”

“Not, um, not feeling antsy at all, dear?” Amia asked.

“I’m fine, Mom,” Gawen said. “Gahi’s actually resting. I think he fused differently this time. It feels like he’s… just a little bit there, in the back of my head.”

“Oh, there are different degrees of fusing together?” Zena asked.

“I guess so,” Gawen said. “But with Gahi further in, I feel like I can use the Owen part of me a lot easier. Hey, that’s right—so, think I can just use my Perception to find the cave?”

“I’d be careful about that, but go ahead,” Star said. “You know how open areas can make you feel lost. This is about as open as you can get.”

“N-no, it’s fine. With Gahi in here, it feels… like I can’t expand it as much. It’s not as easy to lose it. Um… but I don’t feel anything yet. I—oh, wait! There!” Gawen gently banked to the right. “See? It’s right there!”

“I see it,” Zena said. “I hope Jerry did.”

“Yep, I see his aura,” Manny said. “Kinda hard ter miss somethin’ so turbulent. Feh… I can’t relate ter what he’s getting at. Like, I get try’na do yer best fer yerself, but there’s more to it, eh? Hearts’re supposed ter be heroes.”

Star glanced at Manny, smiling slightly. “Yeah, you know, you’d make a good Heart, Manny.”

“Bahh, don’t bring that up,” Manny waved a paw dismissively.

The others focused; now that they were closer, they could see the Aerodactyl’s aura standing just at the edge. It was flaring with a mixture of raw emotions, and Gawen felt, simultaneously, pity and annoyance toward the outlaw—an emotion from both his halves.

“Whoa, you alright there, Gawen?” Star asked. “Felt your aura do a weird little pulse there.”

“S-sorry,” Gawen said. “Felt some conflict in my head, uh, I think the Gahi half is annoyed, but the Owen half feels bad, or something.”

“Sounds about right.” Star sighed. “…Uh—wait. Are my aura eyes crossed, or am I counting four auras?”

“Can aura eyes cross?” Manny said.

“Shut up, you know what I mean.”

“I kinda don’t.”

“Just—count the freaking auras.”

They all did. They saw a single, gigantic aura—that was most definitely Lugia Emily. Frankly, they probably would have noticed her even if they didn’t use aura. It seemed that she was home tonight. They also saw the tiny—relatively—aura of Vaporeon Tanneth resting on Emily’s shoulder. Or in her shoulder; it was hard to tell. They also saw Jerry… and then, another Jerry.

Manny flicked his aura sensors. “Oy, what? I think my whatevers’re on the fritz.”

They descended to investigate, landing on the soft sands. The water was cold on their feet. Gawen in particular sank a few inches into the cold sand, shivering with each wave of water that brushed on his scales.

Gawen focused and split in half. Gahi stumbled forward and rubbed at the area just beneath his eye-covers, yawning. Owen advanced into the cave, grabbing his tail to light the way.

“Oh, there’s your friends!” Emily said. Her booming voice shook the entire island; every step of the Lugia threatened to knock the group off their feet.

Not all Lugia are this big, right? Owen thought. She’s almost as big as the Heart!

“Hi, Em!” Star waved. “Good to see you again!”

“Oh, hi! You’re pretty!” Emily said. “Oh, you’re so tiny, too! You’re even tinier than Tanneth!” Emily faced Jerry. “Your friends are cool!”

“Nrgh, they aren’t my friends,” Jerry muttered.

“Found the real Jerry,” Star said. “So who’s—”

The second Jerry, in the darkness, suddenly shifted forms. The silhouette of an Aerodactyl meshed and transitioned before their eyes into a floating, tiny creature—Mew.

“A-another Mew?!” Owen said.

“Getting warmer, Owen,” the second Mew said in a voice that exactly matched Star.

“W-wait, how’d you—” Owen suddenly felt an icy pit in his stomach. He recognized this person. No—he didn’t, not this specific form, aside from it being Star. But he knew who it was. The same person they heard in the Chasm of the Void, before the darkness had gone away.

“He’s not a Mew, silly!” Emily giggled. “He’s a Ditto! And he’s really funny!”

The Ditto, as a Mew, gave a little wave to Owen. When he looked at him, he instantly expanded, landing heavily on the ground, and became another Owen—complete with the mutations imbued within his Charizard base.

Their two flames washed the nighttime with light. And in that light, Owen finally saw this Ditto for the first time in many, many lives. Or, perhaps not; after all, Deca visited him quite often when nobody was around…

Of the ones he could remember, at least. Flashes of old memories all throughout his scrambled mind danced in front of Owen’s vision. Based on Gahi’s dazed expression, he was seeing something similar.

What worried Owen the most was that the icy pit in his stomach was fading. Owen spoke without thinking.

“Dad…”

Eon grinned, holding his arms and wings out. “It’s good to see you again, Owen.”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 49 – Burn Away

Amia stepped forward protectively. The first was followed quickly by a second. Soon, the momentum completely dissolved the paralysis she once had at the sight of Eon.

“Amia!” Star shouted.

But she didn’t stop. She stood beside Owen and then held him on the shoulder.

“Mom?” Owen asked, looking down.

“Stay away from him, Owen,” Amia said softly. She pulled him back.

“Owen,” Eon said, “don’t let her push you around. It’s me! Don’t you remember me?”

“You murdered Guardians like Owen,” Amia said. “Forrest and Cara were—”

“They were dead long before I met them,” Eon said coolly. When he looked at Amia, his body slimmed down into an exact copy, including her voice. “What kind of life is it to be sealed away, alone, for the sole purpose of keeping two dead gods in power? That isn’t living. That’s purgatory. That’s prison.”

Zena, on Owen’s other side, visibly flinched. The Charizard eyed her, but realized why—what Eon just said must have resonated with her particularly strongly. He glanced at Star, but she was suddenly missing. He focused in an effort to find her; she was hiding behind Emily, who was nervously nibbling on her massive arm with her teeth. It seemed like Emily was ignorant to the full scope of their conversation; to her, it was just an argument between people she didn’t know, taking place in her home.

Amia didn’t break her stare. Flames the same color as Amia’s blue arm enveloped her fist.

“I freed them,” Eon said. “They are, literally, in a better place now.”

“They could have been with us,” Amia said. “They could have been happy!”

“Forrest was sick of living. He didn’t even put up a fight,” said Eon. “Star conveniently didn’t have you speak to him, did she?”

“F-Forrest said that he wasn’t interested in talking,” Owen spoke up.

“Who told you that?”

“S… Star…”

Eon didn’t reply to Owen. Instead, he looked back at Amia. “Cara is easily swayed by others. Star used her silver tongue to keep her in check, thinking that everything she did was worth it. But really, was it?” he asked. “Was it worth it, Star? You can stop hiding behind the Stormbringer now.”

Owen blinked. “Wait, what was that last bit you said?” He thought he heard it, but then it left him as soon as it had registered.

Eon looked at Owen with a gleam of realization in his eyes. “Oh, of course,” he said. “The Decree. You don’t know what Emily is, do you?”

“I guess we don’t,” Owen said. “Arceus made it so we wouldn’t. Even Emily doesn’t know, right?”

“Know what?” Emily asked, nervously pulling her arm away from her mouth—a thick line of drool connected the two.

“Hmph. There’s no point, then. You have to get stronger so you can resist Arceus’ warping of reality.”

“Is that a Decree?”

“Mysticism, Promises, Decrees—it’s all the same thing.” Eon shrugged while listing them off. “It all stems from the ability to warp reality to your will. Mysticism is localized to wherever the user is. Promises are rules between two Mystics, with the effect of breaking one resulting on the forfeiture of one’s power. It’s just another rule, with consequences. And Decrees permeate the universe, like a fundamental law of reality, no different than gravity. Which, as you know, Mystics can ignore, if they’re strong enough. Same power, different scope.”

Owen sighed. “Whatever it is, we don’t know what you said. I guess we can’t resist it yet.”

“Ain’t that a shame,” Manny said, crossing his arms, tense. He looked at Star, narrowing his eyes, but the Mew shrank away, silently begging Manny to stop staring. Manny grunted and entered a defensive stance, arms forward, waiting for Eon to make the first move. None came. He spared a glance at Owen for only a second before returning it to Eon. “Oy. Where’s yer army, anyway? The mutants yeh send after everyone.”

“This wasn’t a mission to gather an Orb,” Eon said. “I didn’t think to bring any of them with me. I’d appreciate if you didn’t call them mutants. How do you think Owen feels about that? Or Gahi?”

“Eh?” Manny asked.

Gahi rubbed his arm. “Eh…”

“I guess it has a bad ring to it,” Owen admitted quietly. “But what should we be called? Mods? Synthetics?”

“Pokémon,” Eon said firmly.

Manny laughed a bit too loudly. “C’mon, I’ve got a whole army of ‘em, and even we think it’s a little silly.”

“Why?” Eon asked, becoming Manny. “Are they not Pokémon?”

“Well, sure,” Manny said, “but—”

“Then that’s all we need,” Eon said.

Amia looked at Owen again, nodding. She didn’t want to admit that Eon was right—but this was just what she had been trying to tell him, too. “You’re just Owen to me, dear,” she said. “You, too, Gahi. I’m sure Rhys would say the same thing.”

Gahi looked at Owen uncertainly. Would Rhys, really? his eyes asked.

“Why’d you come here, Eon?” Star said, finally emerging from behind Emily.

“Well.” Eon faced Owen. He immediately shifted to a Charizard form. “I came here so I could take Owen and Gahi home.”

“What?” Owen said. “Wait, what do you mean?”

Eon held out a hand to Owen, even though they were many paces apart. “Owen, once I found out you got your memories back, I knew you’d remember life at home. How things were like before all this happened. Don’t you want to come back?”

Owen’s feet felt like they were glued to the ground.

Amia’s were not. She instantly took a step closer to Eon.

Star piped up. “Amia, don’t—"

“Oy oy, Blue, back up!”

Zena dared to slither in front of Owen. “Get back!”

“You,” Amia said, pointing directly at Eon’s chest, “are not taking Owen away. He is my son, and his home is with us.”

Eon was a Gardevoir, now. An exact copy of Amia, staring right at her. They were feet apart. Owen gulped. What disturbed him the most wasn’t that they looked identical, but that they behaved identically, too. The same glare. The same tense muscles. The only reason Owen knew who was who was because Amia was closer to him.

He leaned close. “Owen is not your son.”

Emily’s cave became alight with the glow of blue fire. The dark rocks, damp from the ocean’s rising and falling tides, glistened a brilliant azure. Amia’s eyes blazed; her blue hair had turned into an inferno of the same color, the same happening to her dress. A living, white-hot beacon, the Gardevoir stepped forward with her arm straight ahead. Owen sidestepped and slammed against the wall to avoid whatever his mother had planned, feeling the heat even from behind her.

Eon had briefly become a copy of Owen when he glanced at the mutant, but he shifted back to a Gardevoir when he looked at his attacker. He stared at his hands. “Ngh—that’s not—”

Amia fired. Jerry threw himself against the wall and rolled to Owen’s location, scrambling past him. He used the Charizard as a living shield, figuring that he’d do a better job at withstanding the heat than he would. “H-hey!” Owen said. “Th-this is kinda too much for me, too!”

“Sh-she’s your Mom, get her to calm down!” Jerry said, jabbing him in the back.

Eon had his hand forward, blocking and deflecting the flames. The beam of white fire hit the walls, turning some of the rocks into flowing lava; sparks and embers danced in the air, biting Eon’s sides. He lost his focus—the flames ate away at his hand. He shouted in pain and then brought his second hand forward. His blue hair shifted to a clear white and an intense air pressure blasted Amia backwards. Her flames flickered from the wind. Everybody else was blown clear out of the cave, including Emily. Her massive form rolled over Manny, Owen, and Jerry, where they became trapped under some portion of her belly.

Amia hopped to her feet; the sand beneath her dress melted and crystalized into glass. Emily’s huge wing-arm, nearest to Amia, blackened instantly. She pulled her arm back in amazement, staring at its burned flesh.

“D-don’t burn my cave!” Emily shouted. She looked like she wanted to step in, but didn’t know what she could do to stop them. The flames were so intense that her body would burn up if she got too close. Even if she could heal, she wouldn’t be able to grab them if anything she touched burned away.

“Listen to the Lugia!” Eon yelled, blasting more wind out. “I’m just here to—”

Amia waved her right arm horizontally in a brutal swing; aura embers scattered before her. Magmortar Alex took the center, right next to Amia—and a handful of the old Hot Spot Cave inhabitants took on the flanks.

“STAY AWAY FROM MY SON!” Amia roared.

Every single spirit fired a volley of flames toward Eon at once. Alex launched two explosive wads of fire into the mix; Amia accented the onslaught with her own blue-white blasts.

Owen and the others had to shield themselves from both the intense light and heat. Even for Owen, the fire felt hotter than he was used to. The ethereal properties made it sting, much like the flames associated with a Pokémon’s normal techniques. It wasn’t simple fire or lava.

Amia didn’t stop her onslaught until some of the spirits next to her flickered. A few of the spirits vanished outright, returning to their host. Amia, with flames as blue as her hair, finally stopped her stream then. Her hair returned to its normal, blue, non-fire state. Emily’s cave was red-hot and the sand near the entrance, now glass, glittered against the idle embers. Emily pat her belly to put out the last of the flames that had been on her. Tanneth had long since fled into Emily’s shoulder to avoid the fight completely, but reemerged to douse the heat away.

The Lugia reached out to try to calm Amia down, but getting within grabbing distance burned her hand to ash. She stared, wide-eyed at her futility, and pulled her stump of an arm away.

Eon stood near the mouth of the cave, still taking the form of Amia. His hand was slightly burned, but that was all he had sustained. Amia, seeing this, took a threatening step forward—as did all of her spirits in perfect unison.

“I’m not here to fight, you know!” Eon said. “Why don’t you hear me out, and we’ll—”

A rainbow of flames blasted Eon, each one from Amia or one of the Fire spirits. Eon held out his hands again and brought up a column of sand with the power of the Ground Orb imbued within him—his body became that of sand, a light tan color akin to Owen’s stomach.

When the flames died down again, even more of Amia’s spirits flickered and returned to the Fire Orb. Now only five spirits remained: Alex, an Arcanine, a Lampent, a Fennekin, a fiery Buizel with twin flames instead of tails, and a Swalot made of the same material as a Slugma.

Eon glanced at Owen; his body expanded and shifted. His dress merged with his thighs, which thickened and became encrusted in scales; claws burst from his hands, just as wings exploded out of his back. Horns grew from his head—and in no time at all, he was a perfect replica of the mutant Charizard. Eon stared at the ground just ahead of Amia’s feet. “Please, I don’t want to fight,” he said. Then, after what Owen could easily guess was a pause for whether it was a good idea or not, he continued. “Mom, can’t you calm down?”

Amia was silent for only a second. “How dare you,” she said in a voice that made both Eon and Owen gulp.

Another blast of heat sent Eon straight against the back of the cave, slamming into the rocks. Eon left an Owen-shaped print in the wall behind him, and the Charizard grunted. “Thought that’d last longer,” he muttered.

“You have the—the GALL,” Amia said, blasting Eon for a second, and then a third time, “to impersonate my son—after… after all that you’ve done?” Her eyes were literally flames in their sockets.

Fourth, and then a fifth, sending Eon further and further into the wall. The Owen-shaped print that he left was well-defined thanks to the heat, like a Charizard mold for history to rediscover later. All of the spirits except for Alex vanished.

Realizing this, the Magmortar worriedly held Amia on the shoulder. “Amia—we’re too close. We need to go back—if Eon strikes—It’s too hot for the others to—”

Eon glanced at Alex briefly—and instantly, his body bulked out. His shoulders widened and his wings vanished; his arms became cannons, and soon, he was an exact replica of Alex. “Not what I wanted.” Eon hissed. “Can we stop this? This is absurd! Just—”

“Oh, and you think turning into my mate will help?” Amia said. “Your mind games won’t work on me, Hunter, I—” Amia’s tiny hands clenched. “Oooough, I can’t believe you’d do something so underhanded!” She threw her hands down beside her. Both Owen and Alex had never seen Amia so upset before.

Eon tried to speak up. “Wait, that’s not—”

Amia’s hair ignited again into a white-hot torch. Immediately below Amia, the cave’s floor reddened into molten rock. Clear flames—visible only by the distortion of light that it caused—careened toward Eon, igniting his body again. He held his arms forward in an X-formation, shielding himself from the blast—but even for a Magmortar’s body, these particular flames ate away at him.

Owen watched Amia worriedly. Was she really doing it? Fighting Eon, right there? He wasn’t even fighting back. He didn’t even look pained. Was this the power of two Orbs? Or was Eon’s form—as Alex, as himself—actually having an effect on Amia after all, weakening her Mystic willpower? Owen recalled the fight against Jerry.

“M-Mom!” Owen shouted. “Get back! You—”

Something flashed. Owen saw it for just a second between Amia’s blasts. The white flame atop her head flickered and faded away, and it returned to her blue hair instead. And then—green. Her hair went from blue to green.

“Mom?”

Eon, between the blasts, said, “Are you—”

Amia fired again, but this time she nearly lost her balance.

“Forget this—” Eon’s arms twitched. “I said—LISTEN!”

A shockwave rocked the entire island; Amia screamed when a concentrated blast of wind knocked her off her feet, sending her straight back to the mouth of the cave. Owen lunged and caught her, grunting when the impact knocked the wind out of him.

He wheezed for a while, staring down at the Gardevoir. Her hands were trembling and her body shivered with fatigue. “O-Owen…” Amia said, looking up.

“Mom—”

He saw it again. The blue hair that he was so familiar with was fading to green. A normal, green Gardevoir.

“Mom! What’s happening to you?”

“What do you mean, dear?” Amia said, slowly sitting up. Owen had to support her. “I feel just fine.”

“You’re green!”

Owen felt Amia’s heart skip a beat. “Excuse me?” She then looked at her arm; it, too, was transitioning from its characteristic blue to a typical green.

“You strained your Mystic powers so much that you’ve exhausted even the most basic aspects of it,” Eon said, crossing his arms. He transformed into a Gardevoir again—this time, green, just like Amia.

“Stop doing that!” Jerry pointed a wing at Eon.

“As if I can help it!” Eon growled, missing a step when he abruptly transitioned into an Aerodactyl. “Ugh—forget this—where’s my blindfold—” He tried to grab for something invisible around his neck, but then he turned his head back. He eyed an ashen pile in the corner of the cave. “That… was my lucky scarf.”

Owen gulped. “I—I’m sorry.”

“Owen!” Zena said. “Don’t apologize to him!”

“S-sorry!”

“Somebody!” Jerry shouted, raising his wings. Apparently, he finally recovered from the shock of the clash. “Explain! Now!”

Eon eyed Jerry, then the others. “Who’s he?”

“Someone we’re trying to help,” Star said. “Got melted by Ghrelle, so we were trying to get Emily to heal him.”

Eon winced, becoming another Mew that floated in the air. “None of that sounds fun.”

Zena stared coldly at Eon, trying to gauge whether the sand or cave was still too hot to approach.

Eon glanced at Zena next; his body plopped on the ground, losing its limbs in exchange for long, beautiful coils. “Don’t think to attack me,” he said. “You already saw what happened to Gardevoir.”

The Milotic hesitated, but then looked at Owen. “The fact that you aren’t attacking us right now means—that you can’t beat us! If we all attack you—”

“I can just leave, you know,” Eon said, moving back to rummage through the ash. He pulled out a small object, keeping it in his knuckles. Owen focused on the little object “I came here to talk to Owen and Gahi, and when I heard that you were heading to Emily’s home, I waited for you there. I even promised Hecto that I wouldn’t attack you guys.”

“Was it a Divine Promise?” Zena asked.

“W-well—I’m certainly keeping the normal promise, aren’t I?” Eon asked.

“Hmph. A Hunter’s word means nothing to me,” Zena said. Mystic energy circled around the Water Guardian, warping the light around her.

“Wait,” Owen said, holding Zena’s upper coils. This was enough to make her hesitate. “If he wants to talk, then he’ll just talk. Right? He—you don’t want to hurt me, right?”

“I don’t,” Eon said. “And I don’t want to hurt your friends, either, if I can avoid it.”

“Oh,” Manny said, “like we’re gonna believe that load of—”

“I believe ‘im,” Gahi said. “Besides, I wanna ask a few questions.”

“Me, too,” Owen said. “E-Eon. Did you kill the Dark Guardian?”

“Nate?” Eon asked. “No. I invited him over to the lab. He took the offer.”

“Why would—” Owen shook his head. “So, you’re saying that Nate’s okay?”

“Yes.”

“Do you Promise?”

“Owen, you know if I’m lying,” Eon said, crossing his Charizard arms irritably.

A tense silence filled the air. A particularly strong ocean wave washed against their feet; Jerry irritably raised one of his legs, wanting nothing to do with the cold water. Owen felt the same, taking a few paces forward.

Eon wasn’t lying. There was no extra tension in the way he behaved—but then again, for all he knew, Eon was better at hiding it. Perhaps he learned from Nevren, who was equally unreadable half the time. Owen could read bodies, not minds. “I still don’t know, D—Eon.”

Eon winced. “You can’t even call me Dad anymore? You just did a little while ago!”

“I—I slipped up, okay? My—my real Dad is with Mom.” He motioned to the green Gardevoir. “And… he’s a Magmortar.” He brought his head down, clenching his fists. “I’m sorry. But they’ve raised me for a lot longer than you have.”

Even without looking, Owen could feel his duplicate’s body deflate, his breathing slow. Wings drooped, just slightly, but then rose back up. But there was an odd defiance in his muscles, too, like he wanted to fight back. Like what Owen had said was wrong. But Owen had done the math; he had only been under Eon’s care for a few decades, right? Yet with Amia and Alex…

“I see,” Eon said. His voice was small. “Well. Alright then. But I’m still your… I’m still your Dad, Owen. And if you ever want to call me that again, I’ll happily accept. Quartz HQ is always open to you.” His fists clenched, staring at Owen again. “But I took care of you a lot longer than you can imagine.”

Owen didn’t respond. The numbers didn’t add up for that… Maybe Eon really was lying.

Gahi pointed an accusatory claw at Eon. “Why’d yeh make me crazy?! Back in the Void Chasm place!”

Eon huffed. “It was high time that you guys returned to your true forms. I knew that you’d’ve recovered.”

“I WENT NUTS!”

“You’re fine now!” Eon countered.

Gahi growled. His eyes darted around Eon—now a mutant Flygon—searching for an opening. He saw none. He was tempted to strike anyway.

“I’m sorry that it gave you a scare,” Eon said, “but I guess I—got a little irritated after that feral bit me on the arm.”

Owen recalled when they had tried to attack Eon in the dark. He had bumped into Enet, which made her lash out in her own, wild way.

“It was about time you rediscovered your powers, anyway,” Eon said. “It turned out just fine for you, don’t you think?”

“You mean you wanted us to be sane?” Owen said.

“Of course!” Eon said. “I was sick of Rhys taking it so slowly. Constantly resetting you over and over must have been pure torture for your minds.”

Owen flinched.

Eon looked at Owen again, and therefore became him. “Don’t you agree? I bet you still can’t sort through anything between your first and last resets. It’s all a blur. Owen, can you even remember how you met Zena?”

Gahi shifted uncomfortably. Owen didn’t want to think about it, but now that Eon was bringing it up, he was right. That time was a blur. He could barely remember even that. It was all just vague memories. Notions of what had happened. No event stood out in his mind at all. It felt important. It felt like there were important events that took place that he couldn’t remember. Why did that bother him so much? No, that was a silly question. Of course it’d bother him. Entire chunks of his past, his self, were still obscured and scrambled. And it sounded like Eon knew the truth.

Eon, satisfied with their lack of counters, continued. “And—and how are Demitri and Mispy?”

“They’re fine,” Gahi said. “Figure they’re the least bothered outta all of us.”

Eon nodded, but then eyed Manny. He transformed into him. “…You,” he said.

“Eh?” he said.

“Gahi ran off a long time ago and met you,” Eon said.

“Eh. Yeah,” Manny said. “What of it?”

“Thank you for dealing with him.”

It was Manny’s turn to flinch. “Yeah, it’s whatever.”

Eon finally looked back to Owen, a small frown forming. His heart rate increased for a reason Owen couldn’t discern. “Owen. How far can you remember? What do you… remember?”

“Eon…” Star floated out from behind Lugia, her tail drooping.

“How much do you remember, Owen?” Eon asked again, raising his voice. “Please. Just—just tell me how far back you can remember of me.”

Owen focused on Eon’s tail fire next. He didn’t need Perceive to see the ember’s turbulence. But still… Why? “I remember Quartz HQ. I remember living normally, or whatever you want to call normally, there. I remember growing in a glass tube before I even had a flame.” Owen looked at his belly, briefly remembering what that looked like. He remembered seeing something blurry and star-shaped outside his tube, looking at him. And a voice, but it was too muffled to understand.

Owen shook his head, trying to shake those strange memories away. He was distracted by how dim Eon’s flame had become, and how tense everybody else—particularly Star—had become. “And I remember… a bunch of times when you saw me as a Charmander… called Deca.”

“Deca…?” Amia whispered aloud. “Owen… how many times did Eon see you… in disguise?”

Owen didn’t want to answer, especially with how weak, yet energized, his mother had become.

Amia snapped her head toward Eon. “Get away from here.”

“Does Owen want me gone?” Eon said, turning into a Gardevoir.

“I said,”—Amia pushed away from Owen, staggering to her feet. Her hair was blue—“Get… away. You aren’t… to ever… come near my son again.”

“Mom…” Owen nibbled on the right side of his tongue. “I…”

Eon glanced at Owen again, transforming into him.

That was enough to set Amia into another rage. She held her arm forward and lit up again; Eon held his arms and wings forward, ready for the attack. Using Owen’s own Protect technique, the flames were deflected off of him and onto the cave walls by the shield of light. Yet Amia kept firing, even when the barrier faded. Eon grunted, waiting it out. Owen saw Amia’s hair fade to green again, yet the flames continued.

“Mom, you need to stop!”

“Listen to your son, Amia!” Star yelled. “You’re losing control! Hello?! Amia?! AMIA!”

Amia wasn’t listening. She just kept firing. Manny tried to get close to shake her out of it, but his entire arm burst into flames when he got within two paces of her. He jumped away and yelped in surprise, landing in the ocean water to put the fire out.

Amia’s arms were made entirely of fire. She got to her knees. They, too, were on fire—no, they were fire. Her dress was evaporating into even more of the rock-melting flurry, and Eon kept his wings closed, shielding himself from most of the blast. He attempted to summon a barrier of light again, but to no effect. It flickered and evaporated.

Star slammed against Zena’s side. “Put her out!”

“What?”

“Amia! Water! NOW!”

Zena stared, wide-eyed, at Star. “No,” she said. “Why would I—”

Do I look like I’m joking?!” Star shook Zena as much as her tiny, transparent body could.

The distrust in Zena’s eyes spoke volumes, but the desperation in Star’s spoke more.

Zena opened her launched a concentrated jet of cold water at Amia; it evaporated almost halfway by the time it got to her, but some of it did make contact. Amia screamed so loudly that Owen had to cover the horns on his head—he felt them vibrate from the Gardevoir’s wail. Zena kept going, her body liquefying completely. She dipped her tail into the ocean and the saltwater fused with her. For just an instant, she gained control of the water by the beach. It washed past them and over Amia and Eon, dousing her completely in the flood.

Zena stopped and solidified again. Star rushed through the steam with Owen; the Charizard knelt down to pick Amia up.

“Mom? Mom, can you—”

Amia felt incredibly light, but it was too hard to see the details in the steam. But he could hear her shallow breathing.

Eon coughed out water. “Oh, don’t worry about me or anything.”

“Owen,” Amia said weakly. “I… I can’t feel my…”

The steam faded. Owen’s eyes widened.

Amia was nothing but a torso and a head. Her dress was halfway gone, and her legs were entirely missing as well. Her arms were flaming stumps, embers flickering at the ends.

“What happened?” Owen breathed.

“I can’t see… Owen, are you there? Who is this?” Amia tried to move her stump. She stared blankly ahead, not recognizing when Owen tried to wave in front of her to verify.

“I’m here, Mom. Mom?”

She didn’t respond. She couldn’t hear.

Eon hobbled to his feet, keeping his eyes closed. The flame on the end of his tail reignited and he groped the ground to go forward. “How does Owen do this Perception—ugh—can’t see a thing without eyes.”

“G-get away,” Owen said.

“Shut up,” Eon hissed. “I’m going to save your mother, if you don’t mind!”

He felt around the ground for a good foothold and finally stood up.

Owen held Amia a bit harder.

“Oh, Owen, I’m just fine,” Amia said quietly. “I’m feeling better already.” Her voice was fading.

“Stupid Gardevoir,” the duplicate Charizard muttered.

Owen glared.

“I’m pretty sure you’re glaring at me, Owen, but you know it’s true. She pushed herself beyond her limits and her Mysticism ate away at her own aura for more power.”

“Ate her body, too,” Gahi muttered.

“When your Mysticism becomes strong enough,” Eon said slowly, “the body and aura are one and the same.”

Owen looked back down at Amia. Her blue hair returned for passing moments, but then faded to green again. She was fighting to stay alive, but it looked like a losing battle. He held Amia a bit tighter. He noticed a gentle, golden glow poking out from parts of her body and blinked confusedly. He looked at Eon; the way he stared at this golden light was not one of confusion, but horror.

“You,” Eon said, pointing at the air. “Heal the Gardevoir. Quickly.

Emily glanced around and sidestepped into Eon’s pointed direction. “Me?”

“Yes. You’ll restore her aura just fine. I don’t know if the others can help her in time, and I’m not touching her. She’ll just lash out at me. Hurry, before she fades.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, and Em?” Star said. “Once you help Amia, we need you to help Aerodactyl. His aura is hurt, too.”

“Okay!”

“Emily can heal that?” Jerry asked in awe.

“Yeah. She’s pretty nifty,” Star said. “Manny?”

“Eh?”

“Restrain Jerry.”

“Eh.”

Before Jerry could react, a Feraligatr appeared behind Jerry and held him by the shoulders.

“Ha ha!” Feraligatr Azu declared. “The outlaw has been apprehended once more! Prepare for your rehabilitation!”

“H-hey, hey, what kind of joke is this?!” Jerry struggled. “I have a thousand different questions to ask right now!”

“And you have been apprehended by the Thousand Hearts… and company! How fitting!”

“That makes no sense!” Jerry managed to free his right wing; he started beating Azu over the head with it, flailing as much as he could. “What are you—where’d Amia go?”

Jerry saw a lump go down Emily’s throat, and a distinct lack of Gardevoir in the general area. The Lugia then turned around and walked toward Jerry in casual, slow steps.

“Your turn!” The Lugia smiled, taking only a few strides to get to her next victim.

“N-nooo, no. No, no—NONONO—AAAAAA—Mmmmnnnn…!”

With Jerry and Amia taken care of, Star sighed. “That’s not how I wanted this to go,” she said. “Eon! Just get out of—where’d he go?”

“He left,” Gahi said. “Disappeared a little while after Em ate Owen’s mom.”

“Please don’t describe it like that,” Owen said.

“Emily literally—”

“Please,” Owen begged.

Gahi rolled his eyes, but then let his wings droop. Something seemed to be bothering him, Owen observed.

Owen turned his attention to the ruined cave. Parts of the walls were melted and still red-hot, even after the ocean water that doused it. The sand near the front of the cave was sharp with imperfect glass. In the complete darkness of midnight, only Owen’s single tail flame and the glow of the rocks lit the island. The only sound was the gentle bubbling of salt water on sand.

With Eon and Amia both gone, Owen ended up thinking about them both. He glanced at Gahi, using his tail to see the faint outline of his face. The Synthetic Flygon stared at the empty space where Eon once was.

Owen struggled to think back to that memory, that early, early memory. It felt so far away. He squinted at nothing, trying to hear the muffled voice, but figured that it was just Eon talking to him while he was developing. The voice was comforting, but perhaps that was because it was the only voice he knew at the time. Figuring that it was simply a time when his mind hadn’t fully developed, he turned to Gahi.

The Flygon was focused on a patch of land in Emily’s cave, staring longingly at where his father once stood.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 50 – Heart to Heart

“OUT! NOW!”

Solid rocks slammed against the fleshy walls that surrounded Jerry. He spun around to make sure he was as far away as possible from any portion of it, and even beat his wings to make sure he wasn’t touching the floor. He spat more rocks against the wall, but they just bounced harmlessly off, shattering on the floor.

Amia was silent in the corner of the room. Without sight, hearing, arms, or legs, all she could do was feel with her back and her head. Though, she had a peaceful smile on her face, like she knew she would be fine. Or, perhaps more likely, she was hallucinating from some strange cocktail that resided in this cursed chamber.

“I will NOT die this way!” Jerry shouted. He took a breath, ready to spit out another wad of solid rock, but nothing came. He didn’t feel that solid mass forming in the back of his throat. He didn’t have the aura for it—too strained. He coughed out a few pebbles and roughly shook his head. “Ungh—not like this… not like this…!”

He was starting to tire out.

“The air—there’s no air in here,” Jerry said, hyperventilating. He looked down at Amia. Motionless as ever. He looked up at the ceiling, where Emily’s throat had been completely shut. “I have to—”

“Hey, Mister!”

Jerry spun in the air. In the strange, glowing flesh, someone had appeared next to Amia. A blue creature that was partially attached to the walls.

“What?” Jerry beat his wings several times, each one harder than the last. “Who are you?”

“I’m Vaporeon Tanneth!” She waved a paw at him. “It’s okay! Emily’s perfectly safe!”

“Yeah, no. Let me out!”

“Sorry, but we can’t do that,” Tanneth said. “Oh! Um, by the way, when you came in here, you dropped this! Do you need it? It seems really important.” She held up a scarf.

“What? W-wait!” Jerry clutched at his neck, but this caused him to stop flying. He yelped and beat his wings harder, maintaining his altitude. But that split-second he had to feel his neck indicated, indeed, that he wasn’t wearing the Stable Scarf anymore. He worriedly glanced at his feet, and then his tail, but it all looked normal.

“What’s the matter?” Tanneth asked, tilting her head. “It’s okay! It’s only a little wet!”

“It’s wet?” He weighed his options. On one hand, he could probably just put that on and it would dry off after a while. On the other, maybe being a puddle of sludge wouldn’t be so bad. After all, melting didn’t hurt—at least, not the sort of melting he had experienced. And it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as whatever this Lugia and her demonic belly-dweller Vaporeon had in store.

“It’s okay! I’ll dry it off!” Tanneth got on her hind legs, using her thick tail to retain balance when she leaned back. She shook her front paws furiously, flinging water—Jerry hoped it was just water—in all directions. “There! All dry!”

Jerry stared. He didn’t need to fly closer, or even squint, to know that what Tanneth did was nowhere near enough to satisfy a Rock Type on what it meant to be dry. “Listen, Water,” Jerry growled, “I don’t know what it means to be dry for someone like you, but me? That cloth is still wet. Very wet. It may not be dripping, but it’s still not touching me. Ever.”

“No, it’s damp! That’s a lot drier than wet!”

“IT’S NOT DRY!” Jerry’s wings were getting tired. There wasn’t any updraft in this place—he was either going to lose his stability from exhaustion, or he’d find a place to land. The ground all looked the same; there wouldn’t be a good way to land and not have to deal with whatever dungeon this place was. He grumbled and finally transitioned into a steady glide, sticking out his feet for a landing.

His toes squished against the malleable flesh. The Aerodactyl gagged, shutting his eyes tight. This entire day has been one long nightmare, and this was the finale, sealed away inside a Legendary demon with no chance to escape, under the pretense of being healed. He should have known better than to trust a bunch of freaks, Hearts, and freak Hearts.

He heard the squishy pitter-patter of the Vaporeon coming closer. He reluctantly opened his eyes to reintroduce himself to his surroundings. He focused on Tanneth; the Stable Scarf was in her mouth. She stuck her head out, offering it to Jerry. It was a bit darker, and it hung heavily from her teeth. But it was either that, or die. No, not even die. Star said she didn’t know where the auras of those who melted went. That could mean a lot of things…

Jerry reached out and touched the scarf. Squish. His claws hesitantly wrapped around it completely and pulled back. It felt lukewarm. Tanneth let go, giggling. “See? Dry!”

In that moment, there was no fiber in Jerry’s being that had even an ounce of joy toward the Vaporeon, the Lugia, or anybody else on that entire island. For the briefest moments, he wondered what it was that led to this very instance. Trapped and eaten, forced to choose between adorning himself with a Lugia-soaked scarf, or a death that would not even grant him the peace of the aura sea. Was it petty? Perhaps it was. But in that instance, Jerry considered throwing the scarf back at Tanneth.

“What’s wrong?” Tanneth asked.

Jerry stared at the scarf. That wasn’t going around his neck. “Nothing. Shouldn’t you be chatting with the monster?”

“Monster?”

“The one who ate us.”

“Aw, she didn’t eat you, silly!” Tanneth said, giggling. “Emily doesn’t eat!”

No words or sounds left Jerry. There was something in his mind—some small, quiet part of his mental fortitude—that finally crumbled away. Perhaps it happened when he stared at Tanneth’s closed, happy eyes. Perhaps it was earlier, when he finally touched the scarf. Or perhaps even still, it was just the culmination of everything in his life that led to that moment. Jerry was sure it was all of these things. But whatever it was, it was enough for him to finally nod to the Vaporeon. He put a smile on his face, dropped the scarf on the ground, and said, “Go away.”

“Oh! Okay.” Tanneth nodded. “You need your rest! I’ll see you later. You look okay, but your friend will probably need all night until she’s better.”

Jerry said nothing. He only waved at Tanneth with his right wing, still smiling. He practically mirrored Tanneth’s expression. This satisfied her, and she waved back with her paw, sank into the walls, and left them alone.

The Aerodactyl waved for a bit longer, as if to be sure that she wouldn’t peek and see him suddenly stop waving. Once he felt an appropriate amount of time passed, he brought his wing to his side. He took two paces to the left and turned around, looking at the walls. He then looked up, at the fleshy ceiling, and at the sealed hole that blocked the way to Emily’s esophagus.

Jerry closed his eyes and nodded to himself. And then, he looked back at the wall.

Jerry screamed. With a single, deep breath, and with every ounce of strain in his throat, the Aerodactyl opened his mouth as wide as he could and yelled as loudly as his chest allowed. All of his fears, all of his disbelief, all of his complete resignation was concentrated and distilled into a single, drawn-out roar.

He eventually ran out of air. He panted, grunting, hunched over. His tail flicked angrily, slamming wetly against the ground. The only reason he wasn’t clawing at the walls was because he didn’t want to get any more of the creature on him than he had to.

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PLACE?!” Jerry roared to the sky. “These—these freaks?! Spirits? Mystics? WHY? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?” He panted again, regaining his breath. He paced across the chamber, feeling even more trapped than before. Despite the ample room that she had—for someone’s insides—it was still too cramped for the flier. He needed air. He needed to see the sky. He needed solid ground.

Jerry muttered loudly to himself in a mixture of angry shouts and loud whispers. “Oh, don’t worry about it, we’ll help you right up!” His laughter was quick and rapid. “Sure, you’re just a head, and your body is in danger of completely melting away, but it’s fine! We have this magic thingamabob to keep you from dying! Oh, and also, that kid whose team arrested you is the one who made it!” Jerry panted a few more times. He was starting to tire himself out. Even standing felt like a chore. “Why would he do that? Well, obviously, because he cares! Something that you obviously don’t do, oh, no, that’s why you couldn’t become a Heart! You just didn’t care enough! It’s aaaall about having your HEART IN THE RIGHT PLACE—NNGHAAAAGH!”

Jerry slashed at Emily’s stomach lining, leaving a huge gash against the thick tissue. There was no blood. In a shaking, seething breath, Jerry watched the flesh squeeze itself together, mending the wound from edge to edge.

“I hate you,” Jerry finally hissed. He didn’t know who he was saying it to. He just kept repeating it to himself, walking in circles, until, finally, something caught his eye. He saw her. The stump of a Gardevoir was propped up against the far wall, only ten of his paces away. Her eyes were open and aware, and her breathing was soft. Her body showed the natural tension of one trying to stay quiet. A stiffness in her breathing, afraid to draw attention.

Jerry’s breathing slowed and he finally stopped pacing. He stopped mumbling. He happened to stop right next to the Stable Scarf. He still refused to pick it up. He hadn’t melted yet, so he wasn’t going to start now.

But now, a new problem presented itself. The Fire imp was awake. How much of that did she hear? Should he even care? He was going to be stuck with her for at least a night. Was she going to say anything? So far, she was just avoiding his eyes.

Jerry growled to himself. Even if Amia looked at him, he couldn’t look back. The catharsis of yelling and thrashing finally wearing off, the Aerodactyl only felt a creeping sense of shame. He saw Anam’s slimy, gooey head shaking in rejection toward his name on James’ list of candidates. He saw Owen’s eyes of pompous concern, looking down upon him when Jerry had no choice but to look at wherever the Charizard decided to position his bodiless head. He saw Star, glaring at him. He saw his mother’s empty eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

Jerry jumped at the sound of someone else’s voice. He simply didn’t expect it. Even though Tanneth had been there not long ago, it felt like an eternity since he’d heard anything but his own thoughts. And that’s what he first hears? He stared at Amia. Her eyes were downcast.

His jaw clenched, sharp teeth neatly fitting together. What right did she have to apologize to him? He wanted nothing to do with her, or with anybody in her family, of her clan. He didn’t care what Ghrelle said. The Fire Clan was real, and in the schism, Amia, or her ancestors, happened to be on the winning side.

But he wasn’t just going to ignore her. She was nothing but a head and torso, but those eyes. He couldn’t bear having those eyes upon him, and he’d do anything to get her to stop staring so silently.

Jerry found his voice. It was ragged from strain. “What for?”

At first, Amia didn’t reply. Her eyes gave little hints of movement, darting minute angles to the left and right, as if searching for an answer in the middle of an invisible book. “I’m just… sorry.”

Jerry stared at the stump of a Gardevoir and grumbled loudly to himself. He brought his wing to his head and clawed at his skull in frustration. “You can’t just say sorry for no reason. Doesn’t make sense. You sound just like your son.”

Amia smiled weakly. “Well… Alex and I did raise him for centuries. I suppose he picked up a few of my habits.”

“Hmph.” Jerry stared at Amia for a bit longer. What was he supposed to say? He couldn’t find it in him to yell now that Amia was able to hear—and now that he was again aware of her presence in the first place. He stared at the helpless thing in front of him. How easy would it be if he just attacked her then? She had no power. What sort of revenge could he take for his lineage of suffering?

A cold, icy void filled Jerry’s guts. This was why he never became a Heart. He pushed the thoughts away.

He swallowed, trying to get the roughness out of his throat. “How much of me did you hear?”

“Oh, not very much.” Amia tilted her head. “My hearing was coming back at around the time you started, but it was all very… muffled. And then my sight came back.”

“Rrff.” Jerry shifted where he stood, still not used to the horrible, squishy dampness under his talons. “And how are you feeling?” Jerry asked noncommittally. “Other than your missing limbs.”

“Better.”

Jerry didn’t say anything in reply. He merely nodded and wandered to a portion of the wall that he deemed the driest-looking. He leaned against a portion of the wall and slid down. It was slick and had enough softness to behave as a pillow.

Jerry tilted his head, carefully cracking his neck. “Why did it have to be like this?”

“Be like… what, dear?”

“You know what,” Jerry said, pointing his wing out. “This. What is Emily? She isn’t a Lugia. She’s… some sort of hollow shell filled with air. Where’s the lungs? The bones? The gut? I’m starting to think this isn’t even a stomach. I don’t think she has organs. I think it’s just a throat that leads to her lower body.”

“You might be right.” Amia nodded. This motion made her body lose its balance, and she fell to the side with a soft “Oof.” Amia craned her neck. “D-dear, I can’t quite get up. Could you…?”

Jerry didn’t move. Now she wanted him to help her up? She could help herself. She was practically a god. Since when did gods ask for help from lowly mortals like him? No. She didn’t deserve the help. She brought it upon herself.

“Jerry? Oh, dear, is my voice going? Jerry, I can’t quite… oh, dear.” Her body rolled until her face was flat on the ground. The Gardevoir’s chest was propped up by her red fin, and she turned her head to get air. “Jerry? Did you fall asleep, dear? It must be quite late. That’s okay. I’ll… be here.”

If she wasn’t right outside, I’d think this whole mess was one of Mew’s divine pranks. Jerry sighed and got up. He did so slowly, as if not to disrupt his spine, but he looked back with surprise. There wasn’t an ounce of pain.

He wobbled closer and brought a wing under Amia’s side, pulling her up. He situated her against the back wall and sat next to her afterward, figuring she’d fall over a second time otherwise. If she was going to be this helpless, then he had no choice but to help. Otherwise, she’d whine all night, he figured.

Jerry adjusted his back again. It really was gone. “So, this place really heals you.”

“It seems so,” Amia said. “I can already see and hear again. In a little while, I think my limbs will start coming back. Well, I certainly hope so, at least.”

“What happened back there?” Jerry asked. “It doesn’t look like you have burns. It isn’t like you incinerated your body. It’s just… gone.”

Amia glanced away. “I’m not sure myself. I just… kept pushing. I felt my power was gone, but… that monster was still there. I kept digging for more energy. Before I knew it, I…”

“I heard something the Ditto said,” the Aerodactyl recalled. “Something about how when people like you get strong enough, the aura and body become indistinguishable, or something. So, I guess I’m talking to an aura right now.”

“Mm.” Amia looked down at her partially-deteriorated dress. “If that’s the case, it’s a good thing Emily can even heal auras… at least a little.” She closed her eyes. “I hope Owen’s okay.”

“He’s fine,” Jerry said, rolling his eyes. “His ‘Dad’ ran off.” Jerry caught the flash of anger in Amia’s eyes. “H-hey, hey, didn’t you hear my tone? I put his title in little air quotes.” He raised his wings and squeezed his claws.

Amia relaxed slightly, but her displeased expression didn’t fade.

“So, what, you guys were mates once, and then fell out?”

“No,” Amia said, sighing. “Eon… created Owen. He created all four of them—Team Alloy. They were meant to be four pieces to a single being that could, well, defeat a lot of things. Guardians included.”

“Even the big ball of slime?”

Amia shook her head, nearly falling over a second time if it wasn’t for Jerry catching her. “Thank you—and I don’t know. I haven’t ever seen them completely fused before. And I’ve never seen Anam at full force, either. They’re two big unknowns.”

“Hmph.”

Another silence followed, and Jerry glanced to his right just in time to see a little nub forming at the top of Amia’s shoulder, twitching with movement. He wrinkled his snout and elected to not look at Amia for the rest of his stay until it grew back completely.

“I’m sure Anam will help you get back on your feet, Jerry. He’s a very good Pokémon.”

“Doesn’t matter if he’s good or bad. Can he solve the world’s problems?”

“Well—most of the world seems quite good, don’t you think?”

“Most doesn’t mean all,” Jerry said. “I still fell through his grand vision. The fact that outlaws exist is enough evidence for that.”

“Mm,” Amia said noncombatively.

“What?”

“Well…” Amia hesitated. “Short of controlling everybody, I don’t really see how you can stop outlaws from existing. Some people just don’t want to play by the rules.”

“Some people can’t afford to,” Jerry muttered.

“I—I know. I know. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“Do you, though?” Jerry asked. “Do you know? Seeing as you grew up under the Guardian side of the Fire Clan, I—and don’t you start about it being fake, it still existed!”

Amia was about to speak, but she stopped when he had raised his voice. “I’m guessing your family was not part of the ones that were involved with the Fire Orb, then.”

“No,” Jerry said. “I guess not. To be honest, I’m not even sure why it all happened. They were all just stories. Yet it turns out they were true, huh?”

Amia hesitated. “I don’t know much about your history, either, Jerry. I don’t even know what the schism was all about. I got the Orb for… different reasons. The whole schism—I don’t know why it started, or what happened from all of it.”

“Oh, really? And how long have you been Guardian?”

Amia nibbled on her lips. “A bit over five centuries.”

Jerry stared. “What—”

“I was supposed to die a long time ago,” she said quickly. “But—some things came up, and I couldn’t.”

“Some things,” said Jerry. “You mean Owen. You raised him for five hundred years? No wonder he doesn’t act his age.”

I don’t act my age,” Amia said. “I don’t think you can act five hundred years old. Mystics… stagnate. We settle into certain mindsets. I’ve noticed that. But I suppose that isn’t a bad thing.”

“Otherwise, you’d go crazy. Maybe the brain just changes as you age. Seeing as you don’t age, you don’t change.” Jerry shrugged.

“How old are you, dear?” Amia asked.

“Thirty-two. Gonna turn thirty-three on the third moon of autumn.”

“Oh, it’s almost autumn, isn’t it?” Amia said.

“When’s your hatch day?” Jerry asked with an amused smirk.

Amia flinched and turned away, nearly falling again. Jerry resituated her again. “I don’t remember.”

Jerry didn’t expect to feel a pit of guilt in his gut from that one. “Oh.”

“You’d think I’d remember something that monumental, but I don’t,” she said. “I don’t even remember which season it was.”

Jerry said nothing. And in the steady silence of the chamber, the Aerodactyl felt his eyelids descend, slowly, without him realizing. There was a strange warmth about this place, and a soothing aura that flowed through the air. It must have been the healing that they talked about before, but now, in the calm, Jerry felt like it was wrapping around him like blankets.

Jerry jolted upright, catching himself before he fell asleep completely. Amia squeaked, falling onto her side again. “Oof—Jerry, dear, are you okay?” Amia craned her neck to get a better look.

“I’m just fine.”

Amia studied him.

He used his wings to pull her back upright, scrunching his snout at the sight of what appeared to be tiny fingers sprouting from her growing arm-stump. They moved and twitched tentatively.

“You look so tired, dear.”

“Hmph, well, I haven’t slept in a while,” he said. “Now that I think about it, I haven’t had a good meal in me, either. I guess that energized pulse Star gave me did the trick because I’m not that hungry yet. Could do for something in the morning, though…”

Near the end, Jerry’s voice had faded into a disorganized mumble.

“Ohh, Jerry, get some sleep. We were wondering the same thing on the way here. Gahi was so tired he slammed into Owen and fused with him!” Amia laughed; Jerry preemptively steadied her body for the inevitable topple. “Thank you, dear.”

“I still don’t know why I got caught up in all this,” Jerry said. “I only went to that swamp to avoid the authorities. Not like they’d ever go there. It was the perfect hiding spot, and after dealing with all the stories about the Void, I figured the swamp wouldn’t be anything to worry about.”

“Mm, because of all the rumors?”

“Yeah.” Jerry said. “The Void claiming the souls of those who fall into it? All those strange sightings of dark creatures skittering around the south? The swamp was nothing compared to that. So, I went there. The only story about that swamp was that going too deep into the poison meant you’d never escape, so I just never did.”

Amia shifted uncomfortably the more Jerry talked about the Void, but she instead focused on what Jerry had alluded to otherwise. “Until you followed us,” she pointed out.

“Nrgh. I got greedy,” Jerry said. “I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to take Owen down.”

Amia frowned, finding a way to adjust herself without Jerry’s help. “Owen wasn’t even out there to arrest you. He was traveling, and he was attacked. Team Alloy was the one that…”

Jerry looked away, and a long silence followed between them. What did it matter? He was just getting some quick goods and cash so he could make a few ends meet. Finding food in the wild was getting a lot harder. Too many territorial wild Pokémon as civilization grew and growing pockets of outskirt towns and villages sent the ferals to get lost in Dungeons. Ghrelle’s words echoed in his mind, but he saw no other, easy way out. The life of an outlaw was just the easiest path. He was already used to it from his father, after all.

“Why do you hate Owen so much?” Amia asked softly.

Oh, and this again. He shouldn’t have been surprised; of course his mother would see him as a golden child. Still… “I don’t… hate him.”

Amia didn’t look convinced, but she also didn’t challenge him. “Oh, okay.”

“Don’t give me that,” Jerry growled, rubbing his skull. “I know that tone.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t give me that either! Argh, you guys are all the same! I don’t get it.” He leaned back angrily. His back squished against Emily’s flesh, and he reflexively jolted forward again.

“Perhaps that’s just the sort of personality Anam recruits,” Amia said quietly.

That brought out another pang of bitterness in the back of Jerry’s throat. He bit on his cheek, getting a phantom sensation of tasting iron, despite not biting hard enough to draw blood. He eased up and sighed.

It was faint, but Jerry heard quiet mumbles through the walls. They were talking amongst each other. It sounded like they were playing some sort of word game. Emily was too thick to hear the details, only the tone. And then, laughter.

Amia laughed with them. “It seems that they’re in good spirits.”

“Mm.”

They listened to a few of the rounds, not hearing any of the words, just the noises. Manny was particularly boisterous. Every so often, they heard the gentle tone of Zena speaking quickly next, and then Owen at the same pace. Owen stumbled over his words, and that caused another round of laughter.

Jerry wrapped his wings around himself, finally relenting. He pressed against the fleshy walls and let exhaustion take over.

He finally found the words. “It’s his eyes.” He sighed.

Amia looked up. “I’m sorry?”

“Owen’s eyes,” he said. “They’re just like Anam’s. Have you noticed?”

Amia looked at Jerry, puzzled. Jerry realized shortly after that, on the face of it, perhaps it didn’t make sense. Anam’s eyes were green like the slimy orbs that lined his body. Owen’s eyes were the natural blue of his Charizard line. Despite being a mutant, that was one feature that didn’t change. Anam’s were also a lot bigger.

“They have light,” Jerry said. “This… this brightness about them. He’s always… going into things with…” Jerry shook his head. “There’s just an energy to it. Like it’ll all be okay. Like he’ll figure it out. Even if he’s facing someone like me, he still had that light in them. I’ve seen how dejected he was when I slashed his throat, and I still saw that light in his eyes. I don’t know what to call it.” He brought his wings forward, picking at a loose scale on the left wing’s rightmost claw. “I hate it.”

Amia turned her head toward Jerry, curiously staring into his eyes from the side. She wondered if he had that same light. What was the light? What did it look like? But Amia didn’t know what to look for. All she saw was that Jerry was tired.

“I’m sorry it bothers you so much.”

“Don’t be,” Jerry said, grunting. “You guys are the ones who have it all together. My problem with Owen is just that. My problem.” He looked up. “Once I’m healed, I’ll just go back to Kilo and finish my sentence. Then I can put all this behind me. I’ll let Star wipe my memories of all this. Then I can move on.”

Amia cleared her throat, but nothing followed.

Jerry glanced at Amia and caught a glimpse of her eyes. He saw it in her, too. She wanted to help him. There was a hopeful light in her eyes.

Jerry turned away and leaned against the wall. “I’m going to sleep. I need it.”

Amia nodded. “Okay, dear. Good night.”

Amia fell over from the nod. Jerry stirred slightly, but Amia quickly said it was okay, and he settled down. The Aerodactyl slept; the Gardevoir remained awake, staring pensively at the walls.

<><><>​

“What do you mean, not healed?!”

“B-buh, huh?” Gahi rolled over, blinking at the sun. “Aghh, what’s with that light…?”

Jerry clutched at the scarf around his neck, but then looked at Gahi. “WAH!” the Aerodactyl shouted, pointing an accusatory wing at him. “What happened to your face?!”

“What d’you mean, my face?!” Gahi shouted in a hiss. “No uglier than yers, stone-breath!”

Jerry and Gahi both growled at one another like two ferals fighting over territory. Gahi eventually broke his stare to reach down and grab his goggles.

“Um,” Owen spoke up gently, “the red hoods, on Gahi’s face are actually removable.”

“N-not for normal Flygon, they aren’t!”

“Demitri can remove his tusks, too,” Owen recalled, tapping a claw on his chin. “I guess that’s just how Nevren designed us.”

“WHY?”

Owen and Gahi both shrugged. Owen did have to admit, though, seeing those coverings off of Gahi’s face made his otherwise entirely green, shiny head a bit bare. “Gahi, does everything look red when you put those on?”

“Eh?” Gahi asked. He placed the red coverings over his eyes; they sank into his scales, and then made a gentle, organic click once Gahi found the right position.

Jerry looked ill.

“Nah, maybe a little? But I think it only looks red on the outside. Y’wanna try’m on?” He pulled one off with a pop.

Please stop doing that,” Jerry begged.

“I—I think we’re okay. Just keep them on, Gahi,” Owen said.

Gahi shrugged and clicked it back on.

“Emily, dear,” Amia said—she was still green, which bothered Owen. “What do you mean, Jerry isn’t healed?”

“His aura’s still… bad,” Emily said.

“Not you, too,” Jerry growled.

“N-no, no! As in… he has… the bad stuff! Melty-melty if he takes the scarf off!”

“Wait,” Star spoke up. “You mean you couldn’t cure him?”

“I got eaten for nothing?” Jerry hissed.

Emily nibbled on her massive wing-fingers. “Sorry,” she said. “This never happened before. But… I can’t heal you!” The way Emily trembled suggested this was more distressing for the Lugia than it was for Jerry.

The outlaw paced in a small circle. “So, what, then? I’m just—doomed to melt?”

“We know that the Stable Scarf can keep you intact,” Star said. “As long as you keep that on, you won’t melt. In fact, I think it got enhanced a little by Emily. I think now if you wear it, it’ll actually restore you back to normal if you take it off and melt. I’ll call it… a Stabilize Scarf!”

Jerry wondered why the Creator was so uncreative. “And if I lose it, then what?”

“Then you’ll melt.”

Jerry growled. “So, I have to stay by you guys so I can get healed. Is that it?”

“Well…” Star said. “I guess so, yeah. I don’t think any of these guys would want you out in the wild and in their conscience, huh?”

“Yeah, if Jerry isn’t cured, we can’t let him go,” Owen said. “He still has to pay his dues, but if he’ll melt if he accidentally loses the Scarf, then—n-no, we can’t.”

“So, you’re saying I’m stuck with you guys for good,” Jerry said.

“Until we can undo it,” Star said. “Ghrelle isn’t gonna. Maybe Anam can? He’s probably our strongest Mystic.”

“I will not ask for his help,” Jerry said.

“Too bad,” Star said. She turned around. “I guess that’s everything. We have a personal Waypoint set for here, right?”

“We do,” Owen said.

“Alright. That’s all we need. Badges should be charged for now, so—let’s head home!”

Owen nodded and pulled out his Badge. Gahi did the same; between the two, it would be enough to warp everyone back.

Amia glanced at the cave, noticing that most of the glass had been cleared away. “I’m sorry about your home, Emily.”

“Oh! It’s okay,” Emily said. “The others helped clean it out! And Zena washed away everything else, too!”

“Yeah, Zena was great!” Owen said. “Would’ve taken forever without her helping.”

Zena giggled. “Well, everyone was a great help,” she said, nudging Owen.

Owen stumbled forward when Zena nudged him. He glanced oddly at Zena, blushing. “Hey, are you alright?”

“Hm? How do you mean, Owen?”

“I dunno. Sometimes you get weird reactions. So, for future reference, what’re you feeling right now?”

Zena blinked.

Jerry rubbed his head. Was he seriously that blind? All that head-scrambling must have really done a number of the kid’s ability to process basic social cues. “How do you function?” he said. “She’s happy, nitwit.”

“B-but I know what she’s like when she’s happy! This was different!”

“Oh, Mew, just take us home.”

Star’s ear twitched.

“I am happy, Owen,” Zena said with an apologetic smile. “Maybe what you’re feeling is me being comfortable, too.”

“Comfortable, huh? Okay. I’ll keep that in mind.” Owen closed his eyes, mumbling to himself. “Comfortable.” He rubbed his arm, looking away. “Comfortable…”

Jerry wondered if he should tell Owen that it was a lot more than comfort. No, he’ll let him figure it out on his own. Jerry doubted he’d ever learn if he just gave him the answers. Besides, maybe Owen could learn what a lost opportunity felt like.

Jerry tugged noncommittally at the Scarf, realizing that he was going to be living with the smart idiot for a lot longer.

“Let’s go!” Gahi said, clicking their Badge. Owen did the same after Emily stepped a safe distance away. In a flash, they all left, and the Lugia waved a massive arm goodbye. Tanneth did the same atop her shoulder.
 
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