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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
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

Bug Catcher
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.
 
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