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Pokémon Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

SparklingEspeon

Insquisitabilitating
Pronouns
She/Her
I finally returneth

I must say, this fic is finally truly living up to its reputation. By the end of Act I, things are beginning to tie together in ways that are both convoluted and genius – and while I did successfully predict some of them, many others I never even saw coming even though they had been foreshadowed from the beginning.

So Nevren, like I expected, is working with the Hunters. That said, I’m wondering what exactly his motives are. It’s strange how benign the Hunters have been up to this point – aside from the Mutants, which may or may not be tied to the Hunters somehow, the only actually evil things they’ve done in media res are forcefully take orbs from other guardians, killing them if they have to. That said, it’s clear they have an overarching motive, and what it is still eludes me. I’m very interested in Eon’s “all sides of the story” comment, and I specifically believe Star is hiding some key piece of information that would make this all click into perspective. At this point, I’m just waiting for the “true villain” reveal moment where it turns out both groups are fighting the same threat in their own way.

Deca and Eon being one and the same I predicted too – mostly because it was pretty obvious after the second encounter that Deca was a ditto, and Eon’s species is never named at all until SE3. And considering that Deca faded out around the time that Eon was introduced… The dots were easy to connect. It also puts scary new context into everything that came before it: where was Eon before this? He could have been anywhere. All he’d need was a blindfold/a form without eyes, and he’d be the perfect spy. And assuming that Deca is just a dummy form that he took on to directly converse with Owen, how much has been keeping tabs in other ways?

Moving past that, however, Brandon and the pokeball factory are the next large points that I want to cover. Brandon himself is explicitly stated to be a Human, with his spirits being the trainer team that he had before he got zapped into the pokemon world. What is not explained, and I think purposefully on Brandon’s part (and later Hecto’s), is why he was zapped into the pokemon world, and what that pokeball factory is doing there. Hecto says that Arceus wants it as leverage, but essentially nothing else, no matter how Owen prods. And since Hecto is trying to keep it under wraps, that tells me Star was likely involved big-time, and Arceus took over later. And that pokeball factory is definitely important for later – I will be watching.

As for Hecto… There are a lot of pretty scary characters in Hands of Creation, but I think that Hecto scares me the most. What Hecto doesn’t have in brute strength, he makes up for by being literally everywhere at all times. And given that he’s essentially pledged to Star, I have no doubt that Star can and will use him as a weapon if it comes to that. I believe she already is using him to keep tabs on everyone around her. And that’s a pretty scary thing. Barring potentially Owen and the rest of Team Alloy, it’s a safe bet that Hecto is easily Star’s biggest advantage over everyone else – and if her motives are less-than-honorable? Well…

The chess scene with Rim (who I keep reading as “Rym” halp) was cute and built a tiny bit upon her character. However, I’m a bit baffled by her… extreme aversion to speaking. What little broken sentences she does say proves that she’s not mute, and the way she carries herself doesn’t seem to suggest that she’s socially awkward or suffers from some kind of mental condition that would prevent her from speaking. It’s just some weird cartoony quirk. It sucks, because even when actions speak louder than words, Rim’s actions kind of flanderize her character. All we’ve seen her do is re-enact the “cute but deadly” trope the entire fic, and while psycho-cat was fun for a bit, it comes at the cost of her character not really being layered/coming across that way. I think this is one of the areas where Hands of Creation’s more anime style falls short for me.

You’ve done a pretty good job showing Owen’s maturity and growth as he struggles with his evolution. His sudden mental shift after becoming a charmeleon in the Nightshade Forest was a bit jarring (when he suddenly became super gung-ho about evolving into Charizard out of nowhere), but his struggles with evolution in general are brilliantly written. By the time that he finally evolved successfully into Charizard, I could feel his frustration over not being able to evolve all those previous times, his desperate want to not ever have to go through that again, and his joy at finally evolving successfully.

So Elder’s the last Hunter. Assuming Eon also counts, and it seems like he does, that’s all five Hunters. I wonder where he stands on this, given that Rhys seems to be on good terms with Elder, and we haven’t actually seen him act out against Star’s group yet. I imagine he’s a character for later.

The Chasm of the Void is a very interesting location – a lot of places in this story have “void” in their names (Void Basin, Void forest, Void chasm), I’ve noticed… I wonder who the Dark guardian is. Judging by their dialogue being in bold it’s either someone with telepathy, or someone with a very not-normal form, and considering that this the Dark-Type guardian I’d say telepathy isn’t likely. I kind of want to say spiritomb, but I feel like that’s the wrong answer…

And finally, Team Alloy takes on its full meaning, which I explicitly remember being referenced multiple times earlier in the story. Just like the metal that team Alloy is named after, its members are all smaller parts that bond to make a larger, stronger whole. Seriously – how much of this did you plan?? NGL I’m borderline scared

With the introduction of Tanneth, I think that’s the first major eeveelution character featured in this story. A bit of an anomaly, since most PMD stories have at least one early on, but not necessarily unwelcome. I still wonder about that Jolteon back in Nightshade Forest though. I feel like it’s important for some reason.

Emily herself was… interesting. It seems like anyone who stays around her for too long experiences memory loss of some sort – Tanneth doesn’t remember being an eevee at all, and considering that divine decree forcing people to forget . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I doubt it’s just memory loss from old age. Although, if Tanneth has gotten that old and hasn’t died of natural causes, I’m willing to bet that she’s not necessarily normal either.

Was it Nevren that tried to teleport out of Emily?

Arceus shows up in the spirit realm to help out Star as she tries to untangle Gahi and Owen – whether this is Arceus trying to make up for past deeds, or him looking out for Owen is unclear.

I think the last time that I reviewed, I devoted a section to how most of the guardians faded out into the background after their spotlight appearances. While the focus seems to be almost entirely on Willow, Manny, and Enet, it’s nice to see some of the older guardians such as Valle and ADAM return (if only on the sidelines).

Now… Special Episode 3. I’ll be honest, I was completely expecting this to be a second revisit to the Nightshade Forest scenario, which I still believe is going to be visited again – there’s something there that’s not been entirely explained yet there, I’m sure of it – so seeing Quartz HQ instead surprised me. Not that it was unwelcome – it certainly explains a lot. It’s surprising seeing the stark difference in the character dynamic: Everyone seems to be more than friendly towards each other, and all of Team Alloy know everything about themselves. Eon, Rim, and Nevren in particular seem out of place here, considering how disconnected they’ve been from the rest of the group in Hot Spot in the present. What interests me in particular is a slight aside revealing how Anam got the ghost orb – golly, he’s old – and the actual unveiling of Eon. Already, Eon is shown to have a lot of strength: he can easily match Owen in a battle, and his speed is presented as a force to be reckoned with.

Something else that chills me to the bone is the line “Oh! You mean our new siblings that you’re making?” I’m not sure if this refers to the mutants, or if Star and co. were making more Team Alloys, but… The implications are pretty worrying. The entire scenario is pretty twisted when one thinks about it – Team Alloy must have known full well they were being bred and raised by the Hunters to act as living weapons, and they were okay with it. Either that, or they just flat out didn’t realize the implications, meaning they were being raised like pigs for slaughter.

There’s still a big chunk missing here. What led Star to fall out with the Hunters? What are the Mutants, and why do they exist? Where do Arceus, Anam, Brandon, and that old pokeball factory fall on this? While it’s not explicitly said, I think that The Alloy fusion wrecked Quartz HQ, and the Hunters decided to cut their losses and work with Team Alloy instead. It may even have been where Star began to fall out with them – maybe she saw it as too destructive. Or maybe, it was the other way around. Either way, it’s pretty chilling, and I think this is a big part of the puzzle that just needs a ‘click’ moment before it all fits together.

Overall, the first act of Hands of Creation has, in my opinion, lived up to its reputation and more. While the prose can be somewhat drab/beige at times and the shounen anime style the story takes on admittedly holds it back or makes it a bit over the top in some places, the story itself holds up brilliantly, and never did I feel like it was pointlessly rambling on or becoming needlessly convoluted beyond comprehension. I did admittedly have to take a few breaks to let everything sink in over the course of the 43 chapters that I’ve read, but those 43 chapters had enough grip and pull that I didn’t get bored or end up putting the fic down permanently throughout any of it.

Happy writing, and I’m looking forward to reviewing Act II!

~SparklingEspeon

Listening to: Luma Pools – Gareth Coker
 
Last edited:

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Thanks for the review, Espy! I'll respond more thoroughly later, but I like the theories you've got going~

Chapter 51 – Fickle Soul

“Mbbfffrr…” Anam slimed his way into his makeshift home in Hot Spot Cave, curling around his favorite rock until it was completely drenched in his purple goo. “I missed sleep,” he said.

Rhys, doing his best to be cordial, averted his eyes and said, “I believe I will be resting with Elder in my home. So, unless I am needed elsewhere?”

He was atop Elder’s shell, legs crossed. Elder was only somewhat warm in what would have been the hot spots of his shell, and Rhys had little trouble riding on his back. Despite his typically reserved nature, nothing was going stopping the Lucario’s tail from wagging vigorously at the prospect of finally having a night together with Elder that wasn’t just in their telepathic connections.

“Ugh…” Demitri stretched his back, hearing a few cracks. “That was such a long walk. We need to install a better Waypoint system for this place.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” Nevren said. “Imagine if someone from the public sees us using a strange, exclusive Waypoint? We’d have to find a place in secret, and that, well, that would just get even more complicated. We can only use our Badges and their personal warp point.”

“Is Valle still here?” Willow asked. “I don’t think I saw him in a while!”

“I am still here.”

“Enet,” Step said, “perhaps it is appropriate to release your illusions. There is no longer a need.” Indeed, Step was back to her Icy self, gently tapping against her armor to make sure it was back to normal.

Enet nodded and clicked her claws together, concentrating on the surrounding area. Mispy’s tendrils returned to view. Relieved, she shook a few of them and wrapped a few on her back to envelop Demitri, squeezing him in an abominable hug. Demitri let out a little wheeze, nuzzling the tip of his snout against her back. He was careful not to cut her with his tusks.

Step scanned the area. “You have not restored Valle.”

“Hmph!” Enet turned her head, arms crossed.

“The Shiftry shall return, yes?” Step said lowly. “We do not want to bump into him.”

“I request visibility.”

ADAM spun his head irritably. “Restore Valle.”

“No.”

ADAM buzzed. “Sudo restore Valle.”

Enet hissed. “No! He’s dumb!”

Just in time to evade the scuffle, Elder slipped into Rhys’ home. “Oh, what a wonderful place you live in, Rhys. A bit,” he paused, “primitive, and a tad cluttered, but it’s very quaint, isn’t it?”

“I’ve grown quite accustomed to the simple nature,” Rhys said. “I certainly miss some of the luxuries that Nevren was able to produce—and in general the technologies of modern Kiloan life—but what we have here is just fine.”

Elder chuckled.

Rhys glanced at the giant Torkoal again. He was used to the general smokiness of Elder’s presence. It used to sting his nose, long ago. But now, after all this time away, the smell was nostalgic. He leaned forward, tracing at a familiar ridge pattern. “Being physically nearby… nothing replaces it,” he said. “Meditation is never enough.”

“It truly isn’t,” Elder said.

“You don’t have to go back, do you?” Rhys asked. “Elder, I… I simply don’t see why you still want to follow Eon, after all he’s done. Is that truly what you want to do? He’s terrorizing the Guardians. Is he truly the one you’d rather have the Orbs? To have control over the world?”

“I don’t,” Elder said. “I’m afraid that I… don’t know who I want to have that sort of power, Rhys. But I had nowhere to go. Eon is losing himself, Rhys. If I leave, I do not know if it will be for the greater good. If Eon grows too impatient, he may do something that he’ll regret. For all of us.”

Rhys gently pressed his paw against Elder’s shell. “Elder, if everybody within Hot Spot Cave gathered together to strike Eon, would we win? Surely you would know.”

Elder shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know,” he said. “Eon isn’t the one we need to worry about any longer. It’s his army.”

“A-army, of course,” Rhys nodded. “B-but quite a bit of that army is with Trina, isn’t it? The Bug Guardian.”

Elder shook his head. “No. There is more.”

“Why would Eon want to make an army?” Rhys said, raising his voice slightly. “I still don’t understand it. He would never need so many—does he want to start another war?”

“Is that not what is already happening?” Elder asked. He huffed out a steady stream of smoke. “A war that neither dead god desired, fought in their name by the living. History repeats.” Elder sighed, lost in thought. “I miss Dialga…”

“That is not going to happen again,” Rhys said firmly. His fur bristled, aura flames pulsing from his paw pads.

The Torkoal puffed a small plume of defeated, white smoke. “Then you will need to surrender to Eon.” The silence that followed made Elder lower his head to avoid Rhys’ stunned eyes. “You have to either surrender, or Eon will strike. He’s ready, Rhys. Everything is falling into place. That’s what he keeps muttering to himself, and I—I simply don’t know what he means.”

“E-Elder,” the Lucario finally found his voice, “what’s gotten into you?”

“I don’t want another war, Rhys,” Elder said. His body was stiff; Rhys recognized this as the Torkoal’s quiet terror. “Please. Just let it all end.”

“Is this what you tell all of the other Guardians?” Rhys whispered. “Did you come here just to tell us to surrender? You want me to surrender? Are we just another one of your missions…?”

“No, but… perhaps I still have it in mind.” Somewhere between pleading and resignation, Elder leaned his shell against the wall. “If Eon strikes, it won’t just be our heads on the line. The whole world is going to get caught up in it again. It will be just like before, Rhys. But this time, instead of the Divine Dragon, it’s Eon. Do you really want that?”

“I never wanted it the first time,” Rhys growled. “And I certainly won’t let Eon rule, not after I’ve seen his methods of gaining that power. He’s worse than Arceus.”

“Then, you align with Star?”

Rhys winced, not expecting such a swift retort. “I don’t know.”

More silence followed, and more smoke filled the room and dissipated into nothing. Elder’s expression, once firm, softened. “You sound quite a lot like Owen. But you know, I think Owen has a personal favorite. He quite idolizes Anam, doesn’t he?”

“If you want my opinion, Anam isn’t any better. He’s afraid to take action.”

“I don’t blame him.”

Rhys grunted. “If Anam had his way, we would all still be in the same strange stasis as before, all the Guardians suffering in isolation, while Eon slowly continues to build his army. We’d be in an even worse position! So, no.” To this, he nodded firmly. “I wouldn’t want Anam to gain the Orbs either. It isn’t as if he can. He also Promised Arceus that he would not possess another Orb.”

“Most of the Guardians did, really,” Elder said. “What a clever approach, hm? Prevent the Guardians from usurping him by just blocking that option altogether, or risk giving that power directly to him anyway. Barky was always the clever one.”

“Perhaps we shouldn’t refer to Arceus in that way,” Rhys murmured. “It seems… disrespectful.”

“Oh?” Elder asked. “A change of heart? You were not typically one to put much respect toward him, Rhys.”

Rhys ears went down slightly. “I suppose that’s true,” he said. “It merely seems… petty.”

“I see.” The Torkoal frowned, but then craned his neck out of his shell to nuzzle Rhys on his thigh. “I’m sorry for all of this, Rhys. I wish I was stronger. I wish I had the heart to fight. But it simply isn’t in my nature. You know that, right from the beginning, in our first battle.” Elder saw his body tense. “I’m sorry. I won’t mention it. And I…” He hesitated. “And, regarding Eon, I…”

Rhys let out a slow, steady sigh, looking at his right paw. It was trembling. It was unspoken, but Elder already knew that Rhys wasn’t going to surrender. And even if Elder didn’t want to leave, he had to, didn’t he? If he abandoned Eon, what would become of him? He could unleash the entire Synthetic army upon the world in frustration. He couldn’t stay here.

But was he even enough to keep Eon sane anymore? He already killed two Guardians. Perhaps it was already too late.

The weight Rhys provided on his side was a constant reminder of his presence.

He also couldn’t leave Rhys. The light in his eyes was brighter than ever when they first touched after so long. And now, he was going to leave him again? Perhaps that would be even more devastating.

Elder craned his neck to look at Rhys again. He opened his beady little eyes, black and shining with red irises. They held their gazes with one another.

He wouldn’t leave. Elder smiled slightly at Rhys, and finally settled his shell on the ground completely. Without a word, Elder eased Rhys’ spirit. And for a while, they did nothing together—just like old times.

“Thank you,” Rhys said softly. After basking in their togetherness for a while longer, the Lucario found enough security to lean back. Elder adjusted so his shell pressed some weight against Rhys’ body, another nostalgic feeling that had been irreplaceable.

“How much time do we have?” Rhys asked. “Will Eon give warning?”

“He will. Even if he decided to strike now, he would need weeks to mobilize.”

“That will do.”

Elder heaved another sigh, releasing a plume of smoke from his shell that enveloped Rhys. He closed his eyes reflexively, as he always did, and then wondered aloud, “I do hope this smoke isn’t damaging to my airways.”

“Well, you’re Mystic, so I suppose it will do little harm,” Elder said. “I apologize anyway. Perhaps I can lower it a tad?”

“There’s no need.”

“Oh, no, I should. It shouldn’t be too difficult. I may not be the greatest of Mystics, but I can surely achieve that. It isn’t as if Torkoal must emit their smog all the time, yes?”

Rhys didn’t protest, but he did absentmindedly run his claw against Elder’s shell. He glanced at the glowing portions of it, realizing just then how he had been avoiding the hot portions of Elder’s body with muscle memory alone, even if they weren’t particularly hot.

“Let’s rest, Rhys,” Elder said. “It has been far too long. We can converse about Eon when everybody else returns.”

“Hm. Of course.”

The cozy silence enveloped them again, their eyes trailing across the room. Every so often, Elder looked back and asked about one of the trinkets that Rhys had on his shelves. An old, bracelet-like contraption that Nevren had made caught Elder’s eye, but even Rhys wasn’t sure what it was. Then he looked at the blank book that Anam had gifted him long ago, like some sort of empty journal, wholly unused. And of course, there were stacks of letters that Elder had sent to Rhys to give some sense of physical interaction, even with telepathy allowing for spiritual meetings.

A while later, Demitri and Mispy passed by their room, going through the halls and into their own on the opposite side. Rhys couldn’t help but crack a smile. They were two pairs across the hall from each other. But his smile faltered when he saw their pensive faces and felt their turbulent auras.

“They’re thinking about it again,” Elder said quietly to Rhys. “Should we talk to them?”

Rhys didn’t have much of a choice. Mispy was glaring holes into his fur. He gave Elder a gentle pat, and the two crossed the hall and entered the synthetic Pokémon’s room. Unlike Rhys’ room that was cluttered with Pecha Berries and mementos of the past, Demitri and Mispy lived in a room that was minimally decorated. They had a bed of ample, soft leaves, which they slept together in. And nothing else. Hold on. Where was the bed?

Rhys tilted his head slightly, realizing that it was gone. Had it always been missing? Rhys briefly recalled the day Mispy and Demitri had fully evolved. Mispy had been uncharacteristically satiated that night.

Demitri and Mispy, therefore, slept in a room that was devoid of any sort of decoration or furniture. Upon coming to this realization, the first thing Rhys commented was, “I noticed how… empty your room seems. Perhaps we can dip into some of our Heart earnings for some decorations?”

Demitri and Mispy exchanged a glance, and then scanned the rocky walls.

“How come?” Demitri asked.

“Well, because it’s quite empty,” Rhys said. “Wouldn’t you like to have something to… look at? Something pleasing to the eye? …Such as a bed? I must ask, where has your bed gone?”

Mispy evaded Rhys’ eyes. Despite the pair’s brief falter, the Lucario still didn’t get a proper response from the Haxorus and Meganium.

Rhys stood up. “Why, right here,” he said, pointing at the corner. “There could be a shelf, right here. I could load it with books. Or perhaps little figurines? There’s a store that sells lovely little figurines, Demitri. And Mispy, perhaps a book of recipes? You could choose which ones I can cook. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

Mispy shifted her vines. “I guess.”

“And—and right here,” Rhys said, following the wall until he was on the opposite side. “Perhaps a desk for you, Demitri, if—if there was perhaps a need for you to use a desk?”

The two mutants stared. They recognized that Rhys was just trying to distract them, or cheer them up, or give them some sense of normalcy. But nothing was going to wash away the fact that they were genuinely uninterested in any of those decorations. Their room was barren because they had no use for any of it. They never did. Rhys pushing them to be interested in something so trivial was just a reminder that their minds were incomplete. And Rhys could feel those thoughts radiating off of them by the emotions in their auras alone.

“We just want to fight,” Demitri stated with an iota of venom. “None of this other stuff is interesting.” He slumped against Mispy, sinking halfway into her tapestry of vines. “Because that’s how we were designed.”

“N-nonsense,” Rhys said a touch too quickly. “Demitri, you love Mispy, do you not? That’s already one thing that isn’t related to fighting. And Mispy, don’t you enjoy food? Cuisine? Far from fighting.”

“Mm.”

“Rhys,” Elder said, “I believe what they mean is, above all else, fighting is what appeals to them the most. More than their hobbies, more than their other interests, they love to fight.”

Neither protested.

“I—I see,” Rhys said. His jaw clenched in defeat, mentally cornered. “I see. I believe I understand. And I imagine you are not happy with this.”

“I don’t know,” Demitri said.

Rhys stood there at the end of the room. He looked at the corner again, envisioning the desk that he could install. But he couldn’t envision either of them using it. And so, his prospects faded away like the fleeting idea it was.

“I want to see Trina,” Mispy finally spoke up.

“Trina?” Rhys repeated. “But—we can’t do that yet. We told her that we would see her in the morning. We have to wait until tomorrow.”

“No.” Her body shifted. While her height did not change, her vines changed to a more organized, crawling stance. It was clear that she was ‘standing up’ to leave.

Rhys knew them all too well; between their turbulent auras and how he had raised them for so long, he could deduce every thought they had. Mispy surely recognized that they both meant well, even if their memories of Elder were vague. Yet it still felt wrong—like none of this was correct. That it all felt sick. They didn’t know a thing about themselves, did they?

Mispy possessively wrapped a few vines around Demitri, squeezing him for comfort. The Haxorus responded by leaning back, closing his eyes. They just wanted to feel like their normal was real.

Perhaps, then, the only thing that felt real was Trina’s words. Someone they barely knew, yet someone who seemed to know them, and their kind, more than Rhys did. But surely Rhys could do better.

“Mispy, I won’t allow you to go to Trina,” Rhys said. “It’s not a good time. She seems to be very particular about—”

“She’ll let us in.”

“Mispy,” Rhys said firmly, “you are staying here. Do not let her get to you.”

Rhys stood in front of the exit. Mispy, due to her size, required the entire passageway to go through and had to stop.

“Why do you want to go there, Mispy? For what purpose? What would this accomplish?”

“Move.”

“Mispy.” Rhys spoke a bit more firmly, earning the smallest hint of a flinch from her. In response, Rhys softened his tone. “What’s gotten into you? Please, listen to me.”

That didn’t help; Mispy’s expression twisted to a glare. “Like I’m designed to?”

Rhys flinched, tail dipping between his legs. “N-no. Not because of that. Listen to… reason. Mispy, please. We can talk about this, can’t we? It’s just one night, and we can go after that.”

“I’m not tired,” Mispy said, but her stare faltered. “I…”

Rhys hesitated, but then looked down at the mess of vines. “Demitri, what do you think? Are you really sure that seeing Trina would be a good idea? What if she tries to control you?”

Mispy’s vines wrapped another revolution around Demitri, even when he was still buried somewhere inside.

“I…” Demitri’s voice remained muffled. “I don’t know. It’s all so… I’m… I don’t know what to think anymore.”

“You feel lost,” Elder spoke up. “And you think Trina can guide you?”

Mispy winced, but then, suddenly, her body shifted slightly in color. Her usual, bright green became slightly yellowish. Her neck expanded significantly in width, looking more like a torso in shape, and the scales toughened, too. Two large axes sprouted on either side of her face—the upper half of Demitri’s upper body was attached to Mispy’s torso. The last to form were the arms. The first action of the behemoth with these arms was to wipe her eyes.

“Why am I like this?” she asked. “I… I hate it. I can’t go out anymore. I never will. I can never go to… Ludicolo Café. I can’t take jobs for the Hearts. I can’t even train at the dojo. Because… because I’m fake. I’m a mutant. The Hearts are supposed to kill me! Or at least relocate them for you or Nevren to just… send away.”

“That’s far from the truth,” Rhys said hastily. “That—that wouldn’t happen at all! If I came with you, and said you were an ally, surely we’d—”

“Is that why we had to hide?” she asked immediately. “I had to be told to look normal and act normal?” She waited for a reply, but Rhys couldn’t think of one. “I’m a monster. I needed an illusion just to… to…”

“Mispy… Demitri…”

The fusion turned away. “Mimi.”

“Oh, that’s lovely,” Elder said with a smile.

“Mimi,” Rhys said gently, “I promise you, we will go to see Trina tomorrow. First thing in the morning.” He paused. “After breakfast.”

“Do you promise?”

“I…” Rhys hesitated. “Yes. I promise.”

Mimi held out her hand, claws tense. “Do you Divine Promise?”

Rhys stared uneasily. “I can’t promise that,” he said. “There could be an interruption of some kind that could prevent us from going there that early. But I do promise, on my honor, Mimi. I will do everything I can so you can visit Trina.”

Elder spoke up. “I’ll be sure to pester him to do just that.”

The Haxorus-Meganium fusion stared at Rhys. Deep, red eyes that Rhys matched with equal intensity. They held it without blinking.

“Fine,” Mimi said, breaking her stare. “Tomorrow.”

Rhys wondered if Mimi would be sleeping in that fused state. Based on how she was curling up, she was. The Haxorus upper half leaned forward, awkwardly trying to find a cozy position. That didn’t quite work. Next, she tried to turn to the side, and it seemed like she was getting somewhere closer to comfort. She brought a few vines forward to use as a blanket, bed, and pillow. While the thorns were sharp, her scales were tough, and she didn’t get poked by any of them. The rest of her body—the Meganium half—had the rest of the vines draped along the floor, spilling along most of the room.

“Well.” Rhys stood awkwardly. “Good night, Mimi.”

Mimi nodded, grabbing some of her vines to squeeze during the night. Elder stepped out of the room, went across the hall, and settled in Rhys’ bed next. “Come, Rhys,” he said. “They won’t leave. I trust them.”

Mimi squeezed her vines a little tighter, but nodded. “Good night.”

Rhys saw that little spark in her aura. She had planned to run away. But Elder said he trusted them. Now, she couldn’t.

<><><>​

A seemingly endless hall of white, marble walls beckoned Eon inside. His heavy, scaly steps echoed. The flame at the end of his tail crackled. Great, orange wings were folded behind him, pressing firmly against his back. His fingers tensed, claws prodding at his palm.

“Back off, I said!” shouted a rumbling voice.

“Give it back! I totally called dibs!”

“Rrragh!”

A plume of smoke flooded the left corridor, dirtying Eon’s left side.

“Oops—sorry!”

Eon glanced to the right and saw a mutant Meganium wrapping around a thrashing Garchomp with oversized blades and sharp scales.

The Charizard continued walking down.

“What’s got him in a mood?” murmured the Meganium.

“Lemme go!”

“Then give me Auntie’s cookie!”

“Mine!” Loud munching.

The Meganium gasped. “You JERK!” She slammed the Garchomp against the opposite wall. He broke loose and returned the favor with a heavy tackle. The scuffle continued and faded into echoes.

Eon spun on his feet and turned to the right, passing by a few more mutants. They all eyed Eon curiously. “Are you okay?” one asked.

“I’m just fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“If you’re starting to feel unstable, you should see Dad, okay?”

Eon stopped, staring at the mutant. It was a Lycanroc with a crimson, furry back and scaly, powerful limbs. His Charizard form melted away, shifting into an exact copy of the Lycanroc.

She gasped. “Oh, Mew! I’m sorry, Dad!”

“It’s just fine.”

“Wow! You held onto that Charizard form for a long time! Are you getting better at your, um, issue?”

Eon winced. “Someone just happened to be in my thoughts.” Even as he spoke, his left arm became orange, and half of a wing sprouted from his back.

“Oh, okay,” the mutant replied. “Um—okay, Dad.”

Eon nodded and continued on his way. It only took a few seconds for him to stumble, grow, and return to Owen’s shape. Eon made one last turn and saw a dead end with a large “1” written in black Bluk paint. Approaching the very end of the white wall, he stopped and muttered, “Ten.”

In less than a blink, the “1” in front of Eon turned into a “10.” He turned around and walked down a new hallway, this one decorated with little doodles on the wall.

“Rhouff!”

The bark was loud enough to shake Eon’s ribs. It was a Houndoom, but with a few odd modifications—one with pronounced, bone-like armor on its front half and jagged, sharp horns from either side of its head. His chest armor sported two tusks that hooked forward and out of its shoulders.

He skidded to a stop right in front of Eon, sitting down with a happy, panting face. He barked again.

“Lucas,” Eon greeted with a forced smile. “How are you feeling?” His body melted to a quadrupedal form, mimicking Lucas and his pronounced chest armor. This earned a few excited licks from the Houndoom. Eon chuckled quietly, “So, you’re handling that Mega form well, are you? Good. Just remember to release it if you feel uneasy. Fetch Auntie Rim and Uncle Hecto, will you?”

“Rhouff!” He spun and bounded off.

Eon watched for a while, and then heaved a sigh. By the time his eyes were open again, he was on two legs, keeping his tail above the ground so it didn’t heat the tile.

Eon heard—and felt—a distant rumbling noise again, gradually increasing in volume. He recognized that sound anywhere. Eon kept walking, even as the rolling got louder, and suddenly, stopped the intersection between this hallway and the next. Something large and purple rolled past him, much taller than he was. Eon leaned forward to watch the Scolipede slow down, stop, and then roll in reverse. Eon stepped back. It hopped in the hallway—thankfully, the ceilings were quite high—and unraveled in mid-air, landing on its four legs.

“Papa!” the Scolipede squealed.

“Hello, Lavender,” Eon greeted, forcing another smile. His body shifted and hardened into Lavender’s double.

“I thought I sensed you! How come you looked like a Charizard?”

“I just had it on my mind, Lavvie,” Eon said. “How have you been doing?”

“I’m doing great! I’m gonna get dinner!”

“It’s quite late, you know. Shouldn’t you be going to bed?”

“N-no, it’s not late!”

“Everyone should be going to bed pretty soon, you know. Go tell them. I still need to do some nighttime work.”

Lavender stared at Eon with wide, watery, pleading eyes.

“That won’t work on me, Lavender,” Eon said, quickly turning away. “It’s time for bed. You need to meditate, too, don’t you? Keep your spirits up.”

Lavender didn’t stop.

Eon tried to step out of the way, but two Scolipede were just too bulky to squeeze past the same intersection—particularly when Lavender was strategically standing diagonally.

“Just one more hour,” Lavender begged. “I wanna train some more!”

Eon sighed. “Fine. One more hour.”

“Yaay!” Lavender headbutted Eon in the neck, eliciting a wheeze. “I love you, Papa!” He curled up and rolled down the hall again. Just at that moment, Rim stepped into the white hall. Her wide eyes bulged even wider when and she dove back into the hall she came from, narrowly avoiding him.

Eon smiled at Rim when she approached; his form shrank and shrank until he was exactly her. “Hey, Rim.”

“Mn…” Rim nodded, stepping closer. She gave him an affectionate nuzzle on the cheek. “How…?”

“I’m… I’ve been better,” Eon said, turning away. “Where’s Hecto?”

Rim shrugged. “Lucas…”

“Mm. Well, I need to talk to Nevren. And… I wanted you all to be there. I want to know how Elder is doing, anyway. If they took him in, then he’s probably with Rhys and the rest of Star’s minions.”

Rim nodded.

“Let’s just go to my room,” he sighed, rubbing his forehead.

Rim frowned, but followed. “How did…?”

“Owen?”

Rim nodded.

Eon didn’t answer.

Rim gently bumped against her double while they walked.

They turned after the third doorway, stopping in front of it. Eon held his hand forward, and the metal door parted. The inside was a neatly decorated room. The corner held a large, king-sized bed with a mattress stuffed with cotton and covered by a large, black, smooth blanket. There was a desk with a small nightstand made of dark wood. Atop the desk was a simple, black headlamp. Opposite of the desk was a mahogany bookshelf sparsely lined with a few books on each level. The lowest shelf had what appeared to be a thick, often-opened book. The spine was worn to the point that one needed to be told it used to be a hardcover.

“Oh,” Rim said, perking up. She dug through the small bag around her chest and pulled out a few rolled up papers, handing it to Eon.

“What’s this?” Eon asked, opening one. He instantly grew in size, going from an Espurr body to one of a Haxorus. “Oh,” he said, marveling at the detailed sketch of the very form he took. “Nate works quickly, doesn’t he? I never expected the Dark Guardian to be such an artist, but he really is talented. And it’s not nearly as expensive or time consuming as that Smeargle in town.”

“Mm,” Rim said, giggling.

“He likes the kids, doesn’t he?” Eon asked. “New bodies for him to study and draw. I’m surprised that’s all we needed to do to convince him to come in the first place. That was good thinking on Nev’s part.” He hesitated, looking at the pictures. He slowly went to the bookshelf and leaned down, grabbing the worn book. “Rim,” he said, “would you mind sorting through this and replacing the old drawings?”

Rim nodded. Her eyes glowed and, with a gentle Psychic wave, pulled the book from Eon’s claws and lowered it to the ground. It was tabbed alphabetically, and Rim first moved to the H tab and found Haxorus. She winced. She remembered drawing this one. The proportions were all off, and Eon struggled to transition into the species by using it as a reference. There was one time he actually did turn into the sketch, almost exactly, and could barely move. The bone structure was all wrong, and his tail took up more than half his body. She was happy to replace it with a more accurate drawing.

“How’s Nate doing, anyway?” Eon asked. “I didn’t go to the eighth floor on the way here.”

“Fine,” Rim said. “Playing.”

“With the kids? That’s good. I was worried they’d scare each other.”

“Mm. No.”

Eon nodded, but then sat against the foot of his bed, sighing. Rim watched Eon, but then wobbled closer and hopped onto his chest.

“Wh—Rim!” Eon said. His form shrank and fur sprouted all over his scales. Rim pressed against his furry chest, pulling him as close as she could.

“It’s okay.”

Eon flinched; their cheeks touched. But after a long pause, he relaxed, wrapping his tiny arms around her the best he could. Rim did the same. And in that quiet silence, Eon’s form slowly shifted again. Fur shrank and hardened to scales, and Rim went from embracing an Espurr to merely hanging on to the belly of a synthetic Charizard.

Rim rubbed her tiny nose against Eon.

“He said,” Eon started, “that… the other parents raised him longer. He doesn’t want to come back. All of that time we spent together…” His claws shook. “I lost him. I… I lost him…!”

“No,” Rim said softly, nuzzling his chest. “It’s okay…”

Eon was shaking, rubbing his eyes. He didn’t want Rim to look at him, and she honored his wishes, but she still remained on top, embracing his chest as well as her tiny arms could.

Someone knocked on their door.

“That must be Hecto,” Eon choked. He took in a sharp breath, wiped his eyes, and sat up. “Rim, could you get him?”

“Mn.” The Espurr wobbled to the door and pressed her paw on it. The tenth of a Zygarde stepped in, nodding.

“How is he?” Eon asked.

“You will need to specify.”

“Who do you think?!” Eon snapped, digging a claw into his own chest.

“Hm. I do not know. I do not have a copy stationed on Emily’s island. You never considered it a priority, due to her… condition. However, with one of Nevren’s communicators, I was able to at least overhear their conversations. They are playing a word game while Amia and Jerry heal.”

Eon’s claws ground against one another.

“I would also recommend,” Hecto said, “giving up your power, and abandoning your—”

“Yes, yes, as you always say,” Eon growled. “Remember that I only allow you here to keep me updated, Minion of Star.”

“I am not her minion,” Hecto said. His expression did not change. “I am her mate.”

“She only keeps you around because you can survey the world like she can’t.

Hecto’s right paw twitched. Nothing else moved.

Rim shifted uncomfortably.

“Why do you want me here?” Hecto asked. “You never allow me to the tenth floor. Nate’s spirits torment me on the eighth. They do not understand personal space. I have no doubts that some of the southern rumors of the Abyss are true.”

“Have they said anything about surrendering?” Eon asked.

“The notion was dismissed silently,” Hecto said. “There was not any discussion on the matter.”

“Of course there wasn’t,” Eon growled. “That will be all, Hecto. Thank you.”

Hecto remained where he stood.

“I said thank you,” Eon said.

“I am not Star’s minion.”

Fine, you’re her happy-go-lucky toy-mate, is that better?”

Hecto stared for a while, but then turned around, leaving. Once the door closed—and Rim confirmed that his aura was leaving for the warp to higher floors—Eon walked toward his desk and pulled open a drawer. He grabbed a single badge, slightly different from the communicators that Nevren had given Star’s group. He pressed on the button and waited.

“Hello?” Nevren said. “Eon, this isn’t the best time.”

“Call it off.”

“What?”

“Call it off.”

Nevren was quiet. “Eon, now is truly not a good time. I’m in Hot Spot Cave. Everybody is around. I was barely able to get time to myself.”

“Did you already perform Plan D?”

“Yes. I can’t stop it now.”

“Then don’t move any further. Just… how far have you gone?”

“Anam has been rewritten, but he can break free at any time if I’m not careful. It’s a very perilous position, Eon. You know I can’t hold it for very long.”

“Well—how long can you hold him there?”

“Why must I wait? Owen and the others will be here soon. I can—”

“Do not,” Eon said. “That is an order.”

“And when Anam ultimately breaks loose and kills me?” Nevren asked, his tone still as idle as if he was talking about sunny weather.

“How—how much time do you have?”

“Well, if I’m very diligent, I imagine I can make this last indefinitely. But a more realistic scenario is that I will make a mistake after a few weeks.”

“Then—then wait until… wait until then,” Eon said.

“Really, just wait?” Nevren asked. “That’s your plan?”

“I’ll think of something.”

“Is this about Owen, again?” Nevren asked. “Honestly, Eon, if you miss him that much, I could easily make another. And this time, I will make it so he does not care that he is a replacement.”

“You know that’s not the same thing,” Eon said.

“What would be the difference? Some fabricated memories here, the same flaws and emotions there, give him a name, and you have Owen. I’ll even try to reproduce memories about the old days—"

“IT’S NOT THE SAME,” Eon roared. “I WANT HIM BACK!” Eon slammed the communicator on the desk, resulting in the table, and then the concrete beneath it, to shatter. The communicator lay in the rubble, still functional.

“You know it isn’t the same, and you know that it doesn’t work. I was an idiot to even think to do that, and now they’ve run off, too. I want Owen back. I want my partner back, Nevren. I know you can’t relate to that, but… but if you do anything to him, I’ll… I’ll kill you. And no amount of luck from that charm of yours is going to stop me.”

Eon tremored. The Charizard glared at the rubble, focusing on the communicator as if Nevren would somehow be able to see his glare. He waited for a reply.

“Very well,” Nevren said. “I will give you time to win Owen back. But do not blame me if my hand is forced. I will, however, give it an honest effort. Are we in agreement?”

It took a long while for Eon to reply. “Fine.”

The communication ended with a light tap. Rim stared at Eon for a while longer. She had never seen him last in the same form, without looking at it, for so long. And in Eon’s eyes, Rim saw the same determined light that Owen had.

But there was no way Owen was going to happily see Eon again at this rate, and especially not if Nevren was going to have to unleash Anam before Plan D came falling apart. There had to be some way to… ah!

“Um…”

Eon glanced at her.

“I have… an idea.”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
A bit delayed, but here's my proper response to your review, Espy!

I must say, this fic is finally truly living up to its reputation. By the end of Act I, things are beginning to tie together in ways that are both convoluted and genius
I'm very glad to hear this! Though convoluted is definitely something hard to avoid, I'm glad it at least is impressive enough to accept and move forward with.

I’m just waiting for the “true villain” reveal moment where it turns out both groups are fighting the same threat in their own way.
Ha, for some reason this isn't a common thought by the end of Act I. I wonder if the sheer length of the story onward is what makes people suspect this now.

As for Hecto… There are a lot of pretty scary characters in Hands of Creation, but I think that Hecto scares me the most. What Hecto doesn’t have in brute strength, he makes up for by being literally everywhere at all times.
This is another uncommon but very reasonable take! Indeed, we don't really have anybody but Hecto who seems to be all over, yet so quietly unspoken of.

However, I’m a bit baffled by her… extreme aversion to speaking. What little broken sentences she does say proves that she’s not mute, and the way she carries herself doesn’t seem to suggest that she’s socially awkward or suffers from some kind of mental condition that would prevent her from speaking. It’s just some weird cartoony quirk.
Hmm, I wonder if I messed up Rim's characterization here. Her first impression was indeed a creepy cat, but I think later on it's more clear that she's incredibly shy, but also incredibly powerful. Her speech issues stem from anxieties in public spaces. Perhaps later in Act II when we see her here and there, it will be more clear?

Seriously – how much of this did you plan?? NGL I’m borderline scared
Ahaha... well, I do plan a lot.

Was it Nevren that tried to teleport out of Emily?
Yep.

The entire scenario is pretty twisted when one thinks about it
A lot of Owen's backstory as a mutant is this, yep.

While the prose can be somewhat drab/beige at times and the shounen anime style the story takes on admittedly holds it back or makes it a bit over the top in some places, the story itself holds up brilliantly, and never did I feel like it was pointlessly rambling on or becoming needlessly convoluted beyond comprehension.
Yeah, the prose is very plain, likely because I'm not exactly carrying myself nor trying to carry myself as someone who has a mastery of words. I think another reason I do this is because the plot is already so complex, I think putting a layer of complex language on top of that might make things borderline impossible to follow. At least, that's the excuse I tell myself ^^; I could do for some more varied verbiage here and there in particular so it doesn't seem monotonous. Glad that the plotting itself makes sense!

Thanks for the review, and looking forward to your reactions to Act II.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 52 – Reunion

“We’re back!”

“Owen’s back!” Willow cheered, skittering across the caverns to hop onto Owen’s head, using his lowered hand as a boost. By now, the gesture had become a small ritual for the Charizard and Joltik. “How’d it go?”

“Uhhh… I mean, could’ve gone better,” Owen said, motioning behind him to the others. “Jerry couldn’t get healed. Emily’s power couldn’t get rid of the melting property, but she was able to enhance his Stable Scarf. Now it’s a Stabilize Scarf. Star made up the name again.”

“What’s the difference?” Willow asked.

Owen hummed thoughtfully. “Well, my version kept Jerry the way he was when he puts it on. Emily’s version brings him back to normal if he accidentally takes it off for a little while.”

“Yeah, that’s the property I felt from it,” Star confirmed. The transparent Mew floated around Manny. “How’re you holding up, Jerry?”

“Never better,” the Aerodactyl growled. “What do you think? I’m still stuck with you lunatics. I was starting to warm up to the idea of indentured service again compared to this—”

“What Jerry means is, he’s glad that he can hang out with us for a lot longer.” Star gave Jerry a sweet smile.

Jerry glared, clenching his jaw.

The Mew went on. “Until we get strong enough to counter Ghrelle’s Mystic power, that’s how it has to be. Isn’t that right, Jerry? I guess we’ll have to find a way for you to be useful until then.”

“Oh, I’ll show you useful,” Jerry said, beating his wings.

“Oh, oh! I know!” Anam’s voice sang from his building to their left. The Goodra waddled outside with his bag lodged partway into his chest. “Let’s make him a Provisionary Heart!”

Whatever fire Jerry had to lash out against Star extinguished instantly, freezing him in place.

Anam dug through his chest, as if searching around for something. Not finding it there, he dug into his thighs. “Ah!” He pulled out a small, gold emblem, a bit different than the one thousand full-fledged Heart Badges in circulation, and handed it to Jerry.

He stared at it, the only sign that he wasn’t a statue being his blinking eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Anam asked. “It’s not as strong as normal Badges, but it’ll help you! They’re only good for warping yourself out of trouble, and it only goes to Kilo Village, but if you go with a fellow Heart that has a real Badge, you’ll be able to go on assignments really easily!”

Anam held his hands out again, but his horn-feelers twitched nervously. He pushed his arms a bit closer until the Provisionary Badge was mere inches away from Jerry’s face.

Finally, Jerry showed signs of movement, but it wasn’t toward Anam. Instead, his eyes transitioned from disbelief into distrust. “Why?”

“Why?” Anam repeated. “W-well… because!” He pushed the Badge even closer.

“No,” Jerry said again. “Why? Why do you think I should get one? After all… you put me in jail.” His mouth twisted into a smirk. “You wouldn’t want something like me representing your army, do you?”

Anam’s smile briefly faltered, his cheerful eyes transitioning into desperation. Owen, on the sidelines, didn’t know what to add. He opened his mouth, but all he could get out was a soft, “Um…”

Owen regretted making noise at all. Jerry flashed a glare at him that made his flame shrink to half its size; then, he looked back at Anam. “They arrested me. I hurt others and stole their stuff. Still want to give that to me?”

For just a moment, Anam’s hands drew back, but then he pressed forward again. “Y-yes! You’re a Provisionary Heart now. Congratulations!”

Jerry still didn’t grab it. Instead, his glare redoubled. “Why?”

“Because… because anybody can become a Heart eventually.”

“Even me, an outlaw?”

“Yes!”

A bit of slime from Anam’s hand dripped on the ground with a soft plop. Only then did Owen realize how dead silent Hot Spot had become; even ADAM’s typical buzzing had silenced itself, or perhaps he was too far away. Owen had a feeling that Jerry had a thousand things to say to Anam, yet he sensed a bit of fear in his body language, too. It was in his wings, like he wanted to fly away. Owen unconsciously flexed his own, slowly, and glanced at Zena. She was busy biting her lower lip, looking between the Goodra and Aerodactyl.

“Where’s James?” Zena mumbled to Owen. “Anam needs someone to mediate…”

Owen wasn’t sure, either.

But then, finally—and perhaps only to get him away—Jerry reached out and grabbed it, wincing at the slime that squished between it and his claws. “Thanks,” he hissed.

Anam nodded, but then spun around, quick to walk back into his home. Owen didn’t need Perception to see that Anam was just trying to avoid further confrontation. He then glanced at Jerry, seeing another mixture of emotions in his face. Some of it was relief, perhaps… but he had a feeling what Jerry was thinking, because the stray thought had crossed his mind, too. What kind of leader was he, barely able to handle someone that didn’t agree with him?

Owen shook his head of the thought. Anam was a wonderful leader—he was a peacekeeper.

Jerry shuffled off to claim a home for himself, muttering something about where he could go. But then he said, “But they’re all dead, right? Figure the spirits that used to live here don’t need a home. Hmph. I’ll pick whatever.”

With Jerry gone, and after a long day and night of activity, there was an unspoken agreement among the Hot Spot inhabitants to disband to relax for a while. For Owen, that meant giving Zena a little glance and jerking his head, offering for her to follow him to his parents’ place. The Milotic gladly followed, wondering if they were going to play another game of marbles.

“Mew, that was awkward,” Owen mumbled. Zena nodded, lowering her head a bit while she traveled so they were at eye level.

“Can you stop doing that?” Star mumbled, rubbing her ears. Following as one of Manny’s spirits—and with Manny a bit further away, now—she was barely tangible.

“Huh? What?” Owen asked.

“Using my name when you say something. Y’mind not?”

“Oh—sorry. Is that… sacrilegious or something?” Owen asked. “Sorry. Before all this Guardian stuff happened, I didn’t exactly read the Book of Mew or the Book of Arceus, so… you know.”

“You didn’t complain much about it before,” Zena said. “Is it disrespectful?”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just you guys have been doing it a lot more often lately, and I figure I’m gonna have to deal with it a lot longer, so, yeah. Don’t do it as much.”

“How come? Not—not to offend or anything, but, is it a tradition, or respect, or…?”

“You really think I care about stuff like that?” Star said. “No. Any time someone refers to me by name like that, I hear them. In my head. You’re supposed to call me for a prayer, yeah? And then I hear it. But if you make a reference to me in that way, while I’m here, I kinda hear it double-time. With my ears and my spirit. And there’s a weird delay, so it’s like you’ve got a super-echo. Messes with my brain.”

“Oh,” Owen winced. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”

“It’s fine. Now y’do. I’m gonna go and tell the others now, because I think everyone’s been doing that.” And then, with only a brief pause, she stared at the Charizard. “Are you fine, Owen?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” Star pressed. “Eon didn’t get to you, did he?”

Owen hesitated for a split-second too long. “He didn’t.”

Star crossed her arms.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Owen said. “I already told him I’m not interested. Mom and Dad raised me for centuries! I’m not gonna throw that all away just to go back with my first Dad.” He stared at the ground. That wasn’t what bothered him. No, it did—but what bothered him more was how Eon spoke of Star. He already had shaky doubts about the Mew, and now this? And there were still… stray thoughts. His memories from that day in Quartz to now felt scrambled, but he had a new nugget of doubt in his mind, too. All over again, it felt like he was missing more of himself. The more he gained, the more it felt like he knew nothing.

But Star relented. “Good, Owen. Eon’s… twisted. I’m sorry, but he’s lost it. He’s not the same person you used to know. Okay?”

Owen’s claws scratched against his arm’s scales. “What do you mean that he’s lost it?”

“Him trying to get you back has become an obsession. That’s really all there is to it. I don’t think it’s very healthy, and you don’t really want someone with that kind of temperament with all that power, alright?”

Sounds familiar, Owen thought on reflex, but nodded. “Yeah, I understand. He’s… he definitely shouldn’t—yeah. I already knew that, so don’t worry.”

Star glanced at Zena. The Milotic replied with a nod. Star replied in turn, and then floated back to the main square.

When she was gone, Zena glanced at Owen. “Not the right temperament, hm? Sounds familiar.”

Owen smiled a bit too quickly. He hid it and made a hasty glance at Star, but she was already flying into Willow’s tiny home.

“Hm. There she goes,” Zena said. “Owen, would you like to, perhaps… read a book together?”

“Oh,” Owen said, nodding. “That sounds fine.”

Zena brightened, slithering after him. “What will we be reading today, Owen?”

“Uhh, what did we read before?” he asked nervously.

“You don’t remember?” Zena asked.

“Sorry,” Owen said. “I met you before my last reset, right? Everything is… kinda scrambled still. I’m sorting through it.”

They entered his parents’ home. Amia wasn’t present, and therefore his father. Owen headed to his room and stepped over his bed, digging through an alcove in the back, which held his stash of books in their latest editions. All in the Rawst paper format, of course.

Zena gulped, shrinking. “Of course. I understand. Well, we read a book about Scarves, and other Dungeon equipment. Do you remember that?”

“A little,” Owen said, rubbing his left horn thoughtfully. “Mrrgh, I can barely remember getting the Grass Orb, Zena. Did I meet you before or after that?”

“Well, after. You ran away as a Charmeleon, and you went into my caverns to talk to someone you knew was in a similar situation. A Guardian that was sealed away. You were upset that your parents and your idols lied to you.” The Milotic slithered closer, leaning over his shoulder to get a look at what book the Charizard was choosing. She was careful to avoid the flame at the end of his tail; while Owen’s flame was much colder than the typical flame in his state, if he got too excited, that wouldn’t be the case.

“Feels like a really long time ago,” Owen said. “A lifetime ago. Literally. It’s like… every time I got reset, it’s just a new life that I live. Reincarnated, with that life and all its memories just… blended up. It feels… distant. Not… me, now. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something even further back than my first memories. Crazy to think about… I wonder if that’s what actual reincarnation is—hey, do you think Star does that?”

Zena blinked. “Owen, let’s focus. I don’t think Star does that, or she’d probably mention it… But you don’t remember talking to me for the first time? Meeting me?”

Owen shook his head, but stopped midway. “Well, actually,” he amended, “I kinda do. I remember… yeah. Yeah, I kinda remember. I remember I saw… something I really liked. And I felt really bad, too. I remember those feelings, you know? And then, remember when you first moved in? We made that little lake for you in your place, and…” Owen rubbed his head. “I think I remember that.”

“Did you enjoy that?” Zena asked. “Did you enjoy being around me?”

“Oh, totally,” Owen nodded, pulling out a thick book from the alcove near his bed. Survival Guide: Equipment Synergy for Maximum Effectiveness, Fifth Edition. “I love when we talk.”

Zena immediately perked up. “You do?”

“Yeah.” He glanced back, tilting his head. “Hey, your muscles did that thing again. So, you’re happy? I’m really sorry I keep asking, uh, you know. I’m still learning the serpentine body. I hope I wasn’t like this before I reset, too.”

“Of course I’m happy, Owen,” Zena said, giggling. “So, you love being with me?”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “You’re a nice friend. Everyone is. I love talking to all—uh, most of the folks here.” Owen blinked, looking back. “Zena? Your muscles got weird again.”

“Oh, I—” Zena gulped. “It must be your imagination.”

“Seemed more like your muscles did the exact opposite thing.”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” Zena said. “Please, let’s read.”

Owen stared uneasily. “Did I say something wrong?”

Zena tried to hide her wince, but Owen’s worried eyes forced the words out of her. “Do you truly not remember anything?” Zena asked. “Anything at all from the last time you reset? What about after that? When you fully evolved, and remembered your first life?”

“Well, I’m sure I remember some of that,” Owen said, nodding. “After I fused with Gahi for the first time, though, I think I got scrambled again. But only halfway. So, all that’s kinda blurry, too.” Owen shifted uncomfortably. “Sorry. At this point, I’m just taking things one moment at a time. It’s hard to think back to specific times. I just have… flashes.” He nodded. “I guess I can’t remember you too clearly, ha…. But it’s probably fine, right? We can still do stuff now!”

She tensed, wishing she had fists to clench. “Why don’t we just get to reading?”

“Um—sure, Zena, but can we talk for a second?”

“No, reading is just fine. Reading with you is all I—”

“Hey, Owen?” Demitri called.

Owen turned back to see the mutant Haxorus and behemoth Meganium at the entryway. Gahi was standing behind them both, trying to lean over their hulking forms in annoyance. His slimmer body allowed him to weave between them, but not much further.

“We’re going to Trina’s,” Demitri continued. “Want to come?”

“Trina’s? The Bug Guardian? The, uh, what was she again?”

“Serperior. We want to see her,” Demitri said.

“Yeah, I dunno, they’re really bent on seeing her fer some reason,” Gahi said. “So, y’coming?”

“Owen and I were going to be reading a book together,” Zena said curtly. “Do you need him with you? Why don’t you take Rhys?”

Demitri and Mispy winced slightly. “He’s coming anyway,” the Haxorus said.

“Insisted,” the Meganium clarified.

“Then you’ll be fine. Owen, would you like to read?”

Owen glanced at Zena. “I mean, yeah, I was kinda looking forward to reading,” he admitted. “But Trina has a bunch of mutants, too, just like us. Maybe we can win her over if we go?”

Mispy looked at Zena curiously, but then glanced at Demitri. Gahi, who had lost interest in the conversation, wandered into the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards for no reason. He didn’t even look inside any of the ones he opened.

Owen sighed, shutting the book. “I guess I should go.”

“Wait,” Zena said. “Could I come, too?”

“You?” Owen said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Water Guardian, Bug Guardian, but a Serperior… that’s sorta tricky. I think it’d be better if we brought Mom instead. Fire Guard—oh, no, but Psychic, versus Bug…” He sighed. “Okay, let’s rethink that. Valle? No, he’s still kinda weak. Anam? No, he’ll probably rub Trina the wrong way. She’s regal, right?”

“Kinda,” Demitri said. “Do you want us to go looking around and see what everyone says?”

“Are we even fighting?” Mispy pointed out.

“Oh, yeah,” Demitri said. “I guess that’s true.”

“Well,” Zena said, “if you’re planning, then I suppose I’ll just go for the time being.” Her throat briefly closed around itself. After a pause, she found her voice again. “Excuse me.” She attempted to slither past Mispy, but she was just too large. She had to instead struggle over her vines, tumbling over once she got past most of her. Mispy tried to slide out of the way, but Amia’s home, despite being equipped for Owen’s father’s Magmortar body, was still not large enough to accommodate Mispy’s bulk.

Once Zena finally escaped, she headed straight for her home, passing by the Gardevoir and Magmortar in question.

“Oh—what a party!” Amia said.

Demitri and Mispy looked back and jumped. “A-Amia? New look?”

The green Gardevoir waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s temporary. I’ll be back to my usual blue soon. I just need to recover a little more. I think my spirit is a bit on the weak side right now. Star told me to conserve my energy. Er, but more importantly, is Zena okay?”

Owen perked up. “What’s wrong with her? I know something’s wrong, but I can’t figure out what.”

Mispy stared at Owen. Her wide eyes and seconds of stillness suggested she needed to make sure that he was being serious. “Really?”

“Yes!” Owen said. “Look, I’m really good at body language, just not her body language. When was the last time I’ve been with someone without arms or legs, you know? …Mispy, what, uh, what’s with the…?”

Mispy’s vines twitched irritably.

Demitri spoke up, “I actually kinda thought you two had some tension or something going on. Like maybe you were arguing?”

“Arguing? No! Why would we be arguing? We were just about to read a book together, but then this stuff came up.”

“She asked to come with you,” Demitri said.

“Yeah, but I dunno if that would’ve been the best idea, y’know?”

“Why?” Mispy asked.

“Well, Serperior is Grass, and she’s the Water Guardian. It doesn’t really work out all that well, I think.”

Amia put a hand to her mouth, but then nearly put them together over her chest as if in prayer. “Oh, Owen, honey.”

Alex mumbled something to Amia and started to walk away, but Amia held him on the shoulder and shook her head. She yelped at the heat of the fire on his body, quickly waving her hand.

Alex jumped. “A-are you okay?”

“Y-yes, I’m fine, dear. I’m sorry. Goodness, I forgot what it’s like to feel burned.”

“Eh? What’s wrong?” Gahi asked, finally finished opening every single cupboard of the home.

Demitri rubbed the back of his head. “You really don’t notice it, Owen?” he asked. “I thought you were supposed to be the smart one. Did your head get scrambled that badly?”

“I—I’m smart,” Owen said. “And I’m perceptive.”

Mispy brought a vine forward, prodding his chest angrily. “Body-perceptive,” she said, and then ran a vine to the lethally-sized nonfiction in his hand. “Book-smart.”

Owen blinked. “And combat-smart!”

“And nothing else.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Mispy snorted, but then jerked her head at Demitri. He nodded and backed out of the home. Mispy suddenly reached out with her vines, wrapping around Owen’s body.

“Uh—”

She tugged Owen forward and turned around, sliding out of the home. Zena’s abode was diagonal to Owen’s, just across one of the cavern halls. In only thirty seconds, with Owen trying to get into a better position along the way, resigned to his fate, they stopped in front of the Milotic’s little alcove. She tossed the Charizard inside and turned around, grumbling something to Demitri, who nodded. Gahi listened, too, looking just surprised enough to pay attention.

Zena was staring into her lake when Owen had arrived. It was completely dark in her home, so the light that Owen’s tail introduced was enough to get her attention even before Mispy tossed him inside.

“Uff—” Owen grunted, rubbing his head. “Rude!” he shouted at Mispy. But then he turned ahead and looked at Zena. She had turned around, coiled tightly around herself. “Hey—I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” She brought one of her ribbons to her face to scratch at an itch below her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry. I think I said something that offended you.” Owen gave a quick little bow. “Look, there’s—there’s something wrong with my head, you know that, right? Between being designed as a weapon, and how everything beyond a few weeks ago is a total fog, except for my very first life, and then just in general me relying too much on my Perception, I think I’m interpreting what I’m reading off of you wrong. So, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry. If I offended you with something anti-Milotic, or anything.”

Zena stared in silence. Her eyes were wide, but her jaw was tense.

“See,” Owen said. “I don’t know what that means. I just don’t. I never read—or, I don’t remember reading—any books about how Milotic or other Pokémon like you react on a muscular level to things. I don’t know if I’m making you madder or if I’m helping. Maybe Mispy’s right. I’m designed to be good at Perception and combat, and I’ve got the smarts from the academic side, but I guess I just—”

“Owen,” Zena finally said.

“Y-yes!” Owen nodded.

“You don’t know how I feel?” she said. “You can read my body, but you don’t know what it’s saying?”

“Pretty much,” Owen said. He drooped his wings. “I know it sounds really discriminatory and stuff, but I feel like I’m looking at you in the dark. Or that I can recite something in a secret code, but I don’t know what the code’s actually saying.”

“I see,” Zena said, nodding. She took a slow breath. Her stance returned to its more dignified, steady gaze. “Then I just have to tell you. Is that it?”

“Until I get better. I—I promise, I’ll get better!”

Zena nodded. “I’m sure you will, Owen.”

“Oh, Mew, just kiss already!” Gahi groaned.

“Hey!” Star yelled from across the cave.

Zena tensed, as did Owen. “W-wait, you…” It was Owen’s turn to tense up. “You… like me? As in—”

“Owen,” the Milotic said. “When you come back from Trina’s home, I would… like to have dinner with you. The two of us.”

This time, Gahi was silent—as was, it seemed, the rest of the cave. It didn’t last; Enet and Willow got into some sort of spat, screeching while tossing Moonblasts and Thunderbolts at one another.

Tuning it out, the Charizard found his voice. “You? Me? Me?

“Of course you, Owen!” Zena said, halfway between exasperated and relieved. “What else would it be?!”

“But—why? Wait. That’s what you’ve been feeling?” Owen slapped a palm to the side of his head. “I thought you figured I was a nutcase! I mean, with the whole thing with me killing Klent, and the crazy battle-mode headspace—I still get chest pains if I don’t get a good fight in, I—”

“That doesn’t matter,” Zena said. “That’s your instincts, but they aren’t you. They aren’t the Owen I know…” She shook her head. “That was the one that I saw in my lake. The one who talked to me, and… who cared about me. Who spent all that time you could’ve spent with anyone else! You…” Zena looked at him again, and then laughed, staring at the flame on his tail. “Owen! You—you lit up my life!”

The Charizard stood still. His flame—the only source of light in Zena’s dark home—flickered into a bright yellow. Then, it settled back to its cooler orange.

The memories that followed were vague, but powerful. Sitting at the lake. Scrambling back and seeing her for the first time. The fear she felt. The loneliness. And then, the desperation to run away. Seeing Rhys for the first time—the one who had tried to kill her. The betrayal upon hearing Star’s revelations, and her involvement with the Hunters. The reason for all that suffering.

Owen didn’t know what to do with his arms. He ended up fiddling with his claws, as he always did. “I didn’t think you’d think of me that way,” he admitted. “I mean, look at me. I—”

“Enough, Owen. H-how do you feel about me?”

The Charizard gulped. “W-well,” he said, fidgeting. “I… that, uh, I…”

Zena waited, holding her breath. “Or… or are you more interested in Gahi?”

Owen blinked. “Uh—wait, what? Where’s that coming from?”

“Well,” Zena looked away. “Demitri and Mispy are together. And you and Gahi… fused together, and you seemed pretty happy about it. I was just wondering if…”

“Oh, no, no, nothing like that,” Owen said. “I mean—Gahi’s nice, but… that’s all. Can’t really imagine having a romantic dinner with him without it blowing up in our faces.”

“Hey, what’s that supposed ter mean?”

Zena hesitantly asked, “So, if Gahi is just a friend, then by comparison, I…?”

The Charizard poked a claw from each paw together. “I always… liked talking with you, and reading stuff, and training, and all that. But, I still feel like we barely know each other.”

“I feel like I know you quite well,” Zena insisted.

“You don’t have broken memories,” Owen replied. “I… I’m sorry, Zena. I don’t remember a lot of it. I don’t remember a lot of… anything. And if I can’t even do that…!”

Owen was starting to understand how a serpent’s body reacted to despair.

“But,” he amended, “I want to know you more. I want to… recover my memories. Because I know they’re there. And it’s… ugh.” Owen rubbed his head. “I just hate that I can’t remember what you’re remembering right now! So… so if you can deal with that, then…”

“Then… then it’s a yes?”

“To—”

“To dinner. It—it doesn’t have to be anything grand, just—just so we can talk. This way, you—”

“Yes.”

It was delayed, but following a second of silence, Zena let out a sound that was a mixture of a sigh and a laugh, and Owen learned what it meant for a Milotic to feel an emotion that he couldn’t find the word for. “I’ll hold you to it,” she said with a disarmed smile. But then, Zena cleared her throat and straightened her upper body. “Well,” she said. “You should get going, hm? To Trina’s.”

“Yeah,” Owen nodded. “…Hey, wait a second.” He looked Zena over. “You!”

“A-ah?”

“You’d be perfect for Trina! You’re—all dignified, at least, that’s how you present yourself, right?”

“Well—is that not how a Milotic should be? Graceful?”

“I mean, I guess. I prefer when you’re just relaxed. But this would be great for Trina!”

Zena blushed. “Oh, I’m—wait, so you’d like me to come with you?”

“Yeah! Definitely. I should’ve thought about it earlier. It’ll be Team Alloy, and then you, and I guess Rhys.” Owen shook his head. “Aside from Mom, it’d be kinda like right before we went off to get Willow, Valle, and ADAM, huh?”

Zena giggled. “Yes. But we should be careful. From what Rhys and the others have said, Trina sounds quite… mm. I don’t know the word.”

“She sounds like someone you need to show respect, or she’ll make you show it,” Owen said. “Okay. Let’s see if anybody else is interested.”

They quickly gathered everyone up. Owen pressed on why Demitri and Mispy were so eager to leave, but all he got in reply was that they were curious about Ax and Ani—their doppelgangers. That got Owen curious about Har, presumably a fellow Charizard. Gahi seemed indifferent about meeting Lygo, his own counterpart, but for one reason or another, the Flygon stuck around. It wasn’t every day they got to go as the full Team Alloy, after all.

“Don’t say that,” Demitri mumbled to Owen.

“What? Team Alloy? But it’s so cool! It—”

“Nevren made it up because we’re an alloy.”

Owen winced, but decided to drop the subject. “Okay.”

Most of the others seemed uninterested in meeting Trina. In particular, when they asked Manny if he wished to join them, he only laughed. For a while. He didn’t stop. Instead, he kept practicing summoning someone that he called his ‘true’ strongest spirit.

When asking Azu, who had been standing nearby, who Manny’s true strongest spirit was, he only replied, “Ha HA! While I am among the strongest spirits in the real world, our Guardian has other spirits he can only dream to make tangible! Doll, Elbee, and the greatest spirit, Master Yen, have yet to arrive!”

All the while, Manny kept laughing quietly to the notion of seeing Trina again. They left him alone.

It ended up being their team of seven—the Alloy, Rhys—and Elder, who insisted to accompany Rhys—and Zena. With them gathered in the center of Hot Spot, Rhys and Mispy used their Badges to warp them to Trina’s abode, having set a custom waypoint there the day before. In an instant, they went from the cooling corridors of Hot Spot into the white, elaborate caverns of Trina’s web-made labyrinth.

Owen needed a moment to adjust to the new environment, blinking at the dim, white web all over. He shuffled his weight, feeling the silk under his feet.

“So,” Trina said, her voice deep and soothing. “You’ve come, right on time, as promised.”

“W-wow,” Owen said, marveling at the great, silken chamber. He tapped into his Perception, taking full advantage of how much he could extend his senses into the main room. He felt the thick layer of web beneath and around him. Trina, the Serperior, was behind them, by the opposite side of the wall.

What unnerved Owen was the many cocoons that lined the walls. In every single one, he felt the presence of a body, wrapped up and sealed away. Some were struggling. Others were resting peacefully. A few were awake and listening. Owen shivered. Most of them felt like they weren’t normal Pokémon. Synthetics, like him? Was this their fate?

He retreated his awareness back into his body, sighing. “This place is creepy,” he mumbled, turning around to address Trina with the others. “Oh.”

He was so overwhelmed by the many bodies sealed in cocoons that he hadn’t noticed the ones that stood beside the Bug Guardian. It was like staring into a mirror.

Har, Lygo, Ax, and Ani all stood in front of their queen, in the exact same formation as Owen, Gahi, Demitri, and Mispy.

“I thought it would only be appropriate to introduce you to one another.”

Har was, scale for scale, a complete replica of him. The Grass Guardian gulped, raising a hand to wave.

Har smirked in reply, giving a noncommittal wave at Owen in return. “Hey.”

He sounded exactly like Owen.

“Hey…” Owen returned the gesture with an uneasy wave. “Um… Har, right?”

“Yep.” He flared his wings boastfully. “Nice to meet you, Prototype.”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 53 – Similarly Different

Being called a prototype was new. Owen knew it was true, but there was something about actually hearing the word spoken by what was literally an improved version of himself that hurt more than he had expected.

“Har, that was very rude,” Trina said. Her eyes were closed and her head was up. “You will apologize.”

Har crossed his arms. “I only said the truth. I still owe him a lot.”

“Can’t you see how offended he looks?” Trina asked, motioning with a vine toward Owen.

In response, the prototype Charizard flinched. “I’m not offended.”

“But you are a bad liar,” Trina said. “That’s ironic, coming from someone meant to be aware of all forms of body language.”

“You don’t say,” Zena mumbled.

Owen glanced pleadingly at Zena; she returned his gaze with an apologetic smile.

Rhys cleared his throat. “Well, we have arrived, as promised. It is the morning after our first visit. Have you made a decision on whether you would like to come with us to Hot Spot Cave?”

Elder waved nervously at Trina, figuring he’d at least try to be useful during this conversation. He was so used to trying—and failing—to convince Guardians to give up their power that he didn’t know what to do with himself when that wasn’t his task.

“I have come to a decision,” Trina said, “on how I will determine whether I will accompany you there.”

“Yeah? And what’s that?” Owen asked. “W-we have to fight them, don’t we?”

Trina gave Owen a wry smile. “That’s very interesting of you to say,” she said. “Is that what you feel would be the most appropriate?”

Owen fidgeted with his claws. “I mean, what else would it be, right?” he said. “I bet our copies like to fight just as much as we do. And even if that’s how we were supposed to be designed, I mean…”

Demitri and Mispy both looked at one another. Owen looked back.

“Hm?” Trina said. “Is something bothering you two?”

Demitri flicked his tail, avoiding anyone’s eyes, even Mispy’s. “Well, a little,” the Haxorus said. “You told us… that we should be proud of what we are. But I don’t get how we can.” He tapped his left claws against his right arm. “That’s why we wanted to come here again. Mispy and I don’t… get what you mean.”

“Hmm.” Trina adjusted her coils. “I see. Because you believe that you have no control over your fates. Is that it?”

Demitri rubbed at his right tusk, pulling it out of its socket and snapping it back in. “I guess so,” he said. “Is that it, Mispy?”

Mispy shrugged, unsure herself. “I feel…” But she couldn’t finish.

“Lost?” Trina asked.

Demitri and Mispy shook their heads. “Not lost,” they both said.

Owen saw Trina’s eyes widen imperceptibly, but she masked it an instant later.

“Then you must feel cheated.”

They shook their heads again.

“I think I get it,” Gahi spoke up.

“Yeah,” Owen said, nodding. “I think I know what they’re feeling.”

“What is it, Owen?” Zena asked. “Is it… that you don’t know how you are?”

“It’s a little bit of that,” Owen said, glancing at Rhys. “But it’s more like… I think Demitri and Mispy feel guilty when they feel good about something. Remember back when I talked to Brandon, and he said that my whole cleverness thing was just part of my design?”

The Lucario nodded. “Yes. I remember. You were quite hurt.”

“Oh.” Zena looked down, contemplative. “Is it because… you felt that a part of you that you felt was you… was just what someone wanted you to be?”

Owen sighed, giving a sad, yet relieved, grin. “Exactly. It’s like a part of who I ‘decided’ I was, turned out to… not be my decision.”

Trina chuckled. “None of us decide who we are.” She motioned to the ceiling with a vine. “Not me, not your teacher, perhaps not even the gods themselves.” She closed her eyes, nodding slowly.

Team Alloy all exchanged glances.

She went on. “Even I did not determine who I am myself. I was born alone and taken in by my brother and mother. I was shaped by my instincts and then polished by their upbringing. Are you not the same? The only difference is that while I was designed by the ancient hand of nature, you were designed by the careful thought of a father.” Trina looked at the four of them. “We are not very different. And in the end, were you not happy?”

This seemed like a speech Trina gave often, how rehearsed it felt. Did she tell this to all of her artificial followers? Owen had to admit, it did feel reassuring, in a strange way…

“Happy? I mean—of course!” Demitri perked up. “We were happy before we started actually thinking about what we were. We were—stupid.”

“Stupid?”

“Yeah,” Owen went on after Demitri hesitated to answer. “I think what they mean is, before, they didn’t know anything about themselves. So, of course they were happy. Ignorance is bliss, I guess? But,”—he turned around to face them—“don’t you guys get it?” He waited, but when they didn’t respond, he continued. “I dunno about us being the same like Trina’s saying, but we still get to choose what we like about us, and what we want to change about ourselves.”

“But is that our choice?” Demitri said. “What we like and what we don’t?”

“I mean, kinda chipping scales at that point,” Owen said, rubbing the top of his head. “C’mon, can’t you cut me a break? The fact that you feel bad about fighting means you still get to choose!”

“B-but we want to fight.”

“Then that’s your choice.”

“But then it’s what we’re designed to do!”

Owen shrugged, but kept his tone assertive. “So then, you’re saying you don’t have a choice but to not fight?”

“No, I—” Demitri blinked. He stared at his hands thoughtfully, squinting as if the answer was somewhere in his palms. “What?”

“If you’re saying you were designed to fight, then if you wanted to fight your design, you’d have no choice but to not fight. So, either way, you don’t have a choice. Fighting is following your design, and not fighting is going against it, because it was your design.”

Mispy squinted at Owen, grumbling. “Book smart…”

“I ain’t got a clue what yer saying,” Gahi told Owen flatly. “Say it in an easy way.”

Trina chuckled. “He’s right, Owen. You should try to simplify it for your team.”

“Uhh—” Owen sighed. “Rhys? Help me out?”

“I do not have a right to tell them how to think on this matter,” Rhys said solemnly.

“Okay, but can you at least translate me?! Elder?”

“Oho… I’m afraid I am slightly lost myself, Owen.”

“Owen means,” Zena said, drawing Team Alloy’s attention, “that your choice is whether or not you want to follow this part of your instincts, and when.”

“My choice… is to make a choice?” Demitri said.

“No,” Zena urged, leaning forward. “Your choice is that you get to decide when to fight, and when not to. Just as we all do.” She looked up at the webbed ceiling. “I believe I understand what Trina is saying. We all have those choices. Which one will you make?”

Demitri and Mispy looked at one another.

“And you know,” Owen said, “I don’t think it’s just that. I know that you guys want to fight. I do, too. It’s just in our blood, right? But you know what makes it better for me?”

“What?” the other three asked.

“It’s not just fighting. And I dunno if it ever was for a while. Sure, that’s part of the fun. But—” Owen dug through the bag wrapped around his neck and pulled out his Badge. “We choose who we fight, and what we fight for,” he said. “Eon wanted us to fight for him. But we don’t have to. We fight for the world.” Owen tapped the Badge to his chest. “C’mon, you know the chant! With me, say it! A thousand hands, a single heart, working and beating as one.”

Zena tilted her head, but Owen had an expectant look in his eyes.

Demitri sighed, clasping his claws together. “Unite the lands, from worlds apart, until our battles are done.”

Owen beamed and finished, “We serve Kilo and all its parts—under one name: The Thousand Hearts!”

Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi looked at Owen, entranced. They looked at his Badge, then at his chest, and then at his eyes. A bit of Owen’s light seemed to shine in his team, flashes of a grin on all three of them.

“You’re lame.” Gahi beat his wing toward Owen, letting out a single snort to disguise a laugh.

Mispy looked at a few of her vines, wrapping them around stray strands of silk. “We choose… who to fight for.”

Trina smiled slightly but then gave a short nod to Har and his team. “Then, do you choose to fight for your Guardians?” Trina said. “Depending on how this battle goes, I will decide on whether I shall join your cause or not. I would like to take you all to the sparring arena.”

Owen looked at the three of them. “Well?”

They all nodded.

“You guys should cheer us on,” Owen said to Rhys, Elder, and Zena.

The Serperior slithered further into the caverns, where only the dim glow of the Mystic-enhanced web led the way through.

“Who we fight for…” Demitri looked at Owen. “I never really thought about it like that, but, that’s how we do it, huh?”

Owen nodded. “Seems that way to me, at least,” he said. “Feeling better?”

“A little.” The Haxorus relaxed a bit. “Actually, no. A lot. I feel a lot better if it means we can fight for the people we care about.”

Mispy nodded. “Like you,” she said to Owen.

“M-me?” he said. “But you’re Team Alloy’s leader, aren’t you?”

Mispy giggled. “Officially.”

Owen let out a nervous laugh, but then Zena gave him a gentle headbutt. “Owen, I think it was unspoken a while ago that you became the Alloy’s leader. You give direction. You evolved first.”

Gahi snorted.

“And,” Zena went on, “I think there’s something about you, Owen, that they look up to. You feel a lot like the eldest sibling, in a way.”

Owen rubbed the back of his neck. “Aw, well, I guess if you guys need coordinating, I’m pretty good at the brainy stuff.”

“So modest,” Mispy mocked.

“H-hey, look! I’m just trying to take the compliment!”

They all laughed; even Rhys broke a small smirk. Har, Lygo, Ani, and Ax continued their walk alongside Trina, not breaking their marching pace, though they did grin at one another, too. Har’s claws twitched briefly, but he shook his head right after, catching Owen’s attention. He decided not to say anything.

A long, though lighthearted, silence filled the air for a while. The labyrinth muted their steps and echoes were next to impossible thanks to the layout of the walls. Owen briefly worried that his tail might set the web on fire. “Hey, Har?”

“Yeah?”

“How do you not set this place on fire when you sleep?”

“I sleep on a Rawst bed.”

“Oh, you too, huh?”

“Everything else, I’m just careful. The fire isn’t as hot as we make it out to be. Especially if you aren’t in a battle or anything. I think there’s an aura component so it’s not so bad. Ethereal, y’know?”

“I thought that!” Owen said. “Maybe with some focus, I can make it just a warm flame, too. That’d be nice.”

“Yeah. Why d’you ask?” Har asked. “Afraid of burning someone?”

“U-uh,” Owen glanced at Zena. “I was just wondering.” He eyed the webbing again, realizing that there was no light source aside from their flames. “Say,” Owen remarked, “how come all this Mystic stuff is usually bluish?”

“Hm? Oh, that is merely the default color of aura,” Trina said. “I believe that was a creative choice by Star.”

“Of course,” Owen said, sighing.

“Is that why the sky’s blue?” Gahi asked.

“No, Gahi,” Owen said. “The sky is blue because of the way different frequencies of light—”

“Oh, great,” Ani said, rolling her eyes, “he’s a brainy one, too.”

“Hmph!” Har flicked his tail up. “I bet I’m smarter. Since I get more books and stuff, I probably know way more than he knows just from raw knowledge alone.”

“Oh yeah?” Owen said, tail blazing yellow. “How big is your book collection?”

“I,” Har said, “have the latest edition of ten different books on biology and botany, and I’m subscribed to Pokémon Physiology, so I’m getting new content every full moon.”

Gahi squinted. “How d’you even get something like that all the way here?”

“The more normal-looking ones of our Queen’s kingdom go in town,” Har said, shrugging. “They pass. Like Ax. As long as he doesn’t pull his tusks out, he looks mostly normal.”

Demitri and Ax exchanged glances. The prototype Haxorus waved shyly. The upgraded Haxorus looked ahead with a shrug.

Owen smirked. “Well, I,” he said, “have the latest edition of every Dungeon Exploration textbook in all of Kilo!”

“So, what, all four?” Har said.

“Th-they’re very expensive!” Owen said. “I—I also have a collection on Pokémon physiology, and even the eighth edition of The Unabridged Encyclopedia of Pokémon Species.

“W-wait, there’s an eighth?” Har suddenly perked up.

“Yeah, it came out really recently,” Owen said. “Did you get it yet?” He couldn’t hide the smug lilt in his voice.

Har shrank, but then looked at Trina pleadingly.

The Serperior sighed. “I will put it on the list.”

They continued with their walk. Gahi eyed Lygo, sizing him up. They really were identical in appearance. “So, what makes y’ better than me?” Gahi said. “Yer Owen said prototype, so, what? What’s the improved stuff? Faster?”

“No, nothing like that,” Lygo said, shaking his head. “And what’s with your accent? Did you hit your head in your incubation chamber or something?”

“Oy, this accent’s awesome! I picked it up from someone I ran into a long time ago.”

“You mean the other Lucario? The dumb one?”

“Yes,” Rhys said, “it was Fighting Guardian Manny who influenced Gahi’s accent. He ran away out of curiosity for the outside world. Unfortunately, he was still in a very impressionable, malleable state, so to speak.”

“Oh, so he didn’t develop properly,” Lygo said. “Makes sense.”

“You asking fer a fight?” Gahi growled.

“I mean, that’s what we’re about to do.”

“I think the accent is quite cute,” Trina commented. “It’s a shame it’s attached to such a crass individual.”

“Hey, I ain’t crass!” Gahi said. “That’s Owen’s deal!”

“Crass, Gahi. Not Grass,” Rhys said.

“And I meant the thick-headed Lucario,” Trina clarified. “You, Gahi, I know little of.”

“Oh,” Gahi said. “Hmph. Well, I ain’t gonna call it cute, either. It’s cool.”

Trina chuckled. “I see. I will take your word for it, Gahi. Now then, to answer your question on Lygo’s improvements, it is actually not very much. The original Alloy prototypes were actually already close to what Eon considered optimal. Their largest flaws—that is, the instability you experience upon fusing together—were already fixed by you manually, is that correct?”

“A-actually, we’re still working on that,” Owen said.

“Hm? Oh, so you can’t fuse together?”

“No, we can,” Owen said. He motioned to Mispy. “I fused with her once or twice, and I fused with him, too,” he motioned to Gahi, “but we’re still practicing.”

“We fused,” Demitri added, patting Mispy’s side.

“Hm, I see. That is wise. If that’s the case, I won’t have my four battle you as an Alloy. Instead, they will fight individually. I don’t want the sight of your Alloy form triggering any unstable memories.”

“Thank you,” Rhys and Owen both said.

Trina quickened her pace and said to the others, “I would like to introduce our guests to the sparring arena. The web here is particularly tough and can weather some of the strongest attacks that I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing from my subjects, one being from Ax.”

The Haxorus proudly held his hips with his muscular arms—or at least tried to.

The webbing here wasn’t sticky, but the walls were still thick, white, malleable. Owen could tell that they would bounce against any sort of impact. The ground looked like a miniature desert of white silk, complete with lumpy dunes. Owen tested this by knocking a knuckle against it. It wobbled stiffly. Demitri glanced at Trina, but before he could ask his question, she said, “Please, test it out for yourself.”

Demitri nodded and rammed into the wall with all his might. He sank an entire body length inside, the wall of silk bending in a gentle curve with the mutant Haxorus at the center. It then bounced him back with an equal amount of force. Rhys quickly manifested an aura shield to slow Demitri down, narrowly avoiding his huge body flattening him.

“Urgh—th-thanks,” Demitri said, getting back to his feet with the aura shield dissipating. “That’s really strong. Did you, er… make this?” he asked Trina.

She nodded. “Yes. It’s quite useful, I think.”

Demitri shifted nervously, and Owen could practically feel the words dancing at the tip of the muscular mutant’s tongue. “Where did it come fr—”

Mispy smacked Demitri on the shoulder, sighing. “Will we fight?”

Trina smiled wryly. “Of course.”

“Oh, actually, uh, so if you guys aren’t going to fuse together, I guess that means I can’t use my Grass or Mystic powers, either, huh?” Owen said. “That way, it’ll be an even m—”

“That won’t be necessary,” Trina said. “Your counterparts will be able to handle that Mystic power without issue.”

Owen did his best not to keep his fiery pride from getting the better of him. After Jerry, he knew to be open to an idea of a non-Mystic gaining an advantage. “Oh, yeah? How come?” he asked innocuously.

“Mutant auras were designed with Mystics in mind,” Trina said. “Tell me, Owen. Have you fought a mortal before?”

“Y-yeah, I have.”

“How well did it go?”

“It, uh, depends,” he said. “The first time I fought him, he was kinda on the weak side, and he couldn’t hurt me even if he tried and I just stood still. But the second time I fought him, a little later, he—he actually was a real challenge! So, it was a tough fight against him, that second time, yeah.”

“He lost,” Mispy clarified.

Thanks.”

Mispy smirked at Owen’s glare. Owen didn’t need to read her body to know what she wanted to say. ‘Just keeping you in check.’

“I see. And this was the same person. What was the difference between those two fights, Owen?” Trina asked. “Yes, he was weaker in your first encounter, but I doubt that alone would have been enough to make you go from invincibility to losing. Based on how you explained it to me, I imagine it was just as unexpected for you. Overconfidence, perhaps, contributed? And then you panicked, further dampening your Mystic power. It was only a sparring match, so you had little to prove. That, too, dampens your Mystic power.”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “My heart wasn’t really in it. I wasn’t fighting to survive or anything, and I kinda wanted to be gentle. But when he got that first hit on me… I don’t know. Something changed.”

“Changed with whom?” Trina asked.

“With him, er—Jerry, is his name. When Jerry attacked, and he actually hurt me, I felt the whole atmosphere change when I fought him. Not… not the air, but the…”

“The aura atmosphere, perhaps?” Trina said.

“Y-yeah! Kinda! It was just a feeling, like when a Mystic really exerts their power, and you kinda feel that… that burning feeling. I kinda felt that, but not. Not a burning. More like… I felt like my own aura was thinner. Or something?”

Trina nodded. “I know what you are describing.”

“Star said it was because Jerry’s own willpower grabbed hold of my Mystic radiance, and for as long as he fought me, he made it his own, too. So, he matched my power… with my own power.”

“Used his willpower?” Trina asked with an amused shine in her serpentine eyes. “Is that how the Mew describes it? How cute. I suppose in an abstract sense, that is what happens. Mystics distort reality; strong spirits can reject the Mystic’s distortions. I call it the Mystic Backlash. Whatever happened to Jerry, he must have been particularly motivated to undo some of your Mystic boon.” Trina motioned to her iteration of Team Alloy. “Recent mutants are naturally able to negate this to an extent, hence why they are so dangerous to Guardians.”

“…Recent?”

“Yes,” Trina nodded. “Unfortunately, very early iterations of mutants did not have this property. Therefore, your models, as the pioneers, are not capable of this. Not by instinct, at least.”

“Oh.” Owen shifted his weight.

“But that makes for a good opportunity, don’t you think?” Trina said. “Now we can compare the effects. Ax and Demitri have similar strengths. Why don’t we have both of them attempt to punch through my Mystic barrier? Or perhaps slice, with those axes of yours? Ahh, that would be a good idea.” Trina nodded. “Ax, why don’t you throw one of your tusks my way? Then we can use Demitri’s lack of natural Backlash as a comparison.”

“Is that really necessary…?” Demitri’s shoulders slumped. “We get it, you guys are better. I’m not even in the mood to fight anymore…”

Trina stared at Demitri at his last statement, blinking. “Excuse me?”

“I just…” Demitri shrugged. “You keep implying that your Alloy is better than us. And, y’know, it’s true, isn’t it? So… what’s the point? I’m just not in the mood to fight anymore.”

Trina and Ax exchanged dumbfounded glances. The Bug Guardian cleared her throat, regaining her regal composure. “Well, if you… ‘don’t feel like fighting,’ I suppose just this demonstration will do.”

Ax and the others deflated exaggeratedly.

Fine,” Ax said. “I’ll go first, alright?” He brought his right hand to his tusk and pulled. With a gentle click, the tusk detached, a bit longer than expected for how deep it went into his head. The handle was large enough for Ax to comfortably hold. He made a few practice swings to make sure he would get a good throw.

Zena slithered around Owen, inspecting his horns closely.

“Uh—Zena?” Owen said. “D’you need something?”

“Is any part of you detachable?”

“Uhh—no, I think that’s just a Demitri thing.”

“And a Gahi thing,” Zena said.

“Oh, right,” Owen said, but then felt Zena wrapping her ribbons around his right horn. “Uh—Z-Zena?”

Click.

Zena stopped moving, as if she was staring at something. “…Oh.”

“Wh-what? What happened?” Owen said, bringing his hand up. “I f-feel weird. Like I just closed one eye. H-hello?” He felt at his right horn, but it simply wasn’t there. Instead, he felt an odd groove where it should have gone, and a strange emptiness overtook his senses. “P-please put it back on.”

“S-sorry.”

With a series of clicks, the horn snapped back in place.

Owen sighed, relieved. “I don’t think I’m supposed to take those off.”

“Why in the world is that even…?”

Har tilted his head, running a hand along the back of his horns, giving them a light tug. “I can’t do that,” he said. “I think that’s a prototype thing.”

“I guess that means Mispy’s the only one who can’t—”

Mispy, out of her own curiosity, wrapped one of her vines around another, giving it a light tug. It popped right off, moving on its own, writhing like the vine that resided in Owen’s stomach in his Grassy form.

Owen never felt more like a freak than at that moment.

Mispy put the vine back in its place, though unlike the others, it seemed like Mispy just partially reabsorbed it. It wasn’t something that simply snapped in place—her body was much more malleable, and must simply grow and stick to whatever gets placed inside.

This didn’t help Owen’s feelings.

“Okay,” the freak of a Charizard said, shaking his head. “You know what? I don’t even care. My horns detach. I give up. Demitri? Let’s just let Trina do her… her whatever.” Owen plopped down on the ground with a resigned thud, wrapping his tail around to his front. He sighed. “How strong do you think your throw will be, Demitri?”

“Well, I dunno,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt Trina.”

“There won’t be any need to worry about that,” Trina said. “Now, Ax. Would you mind?”

“Okay.” Ax brought his left foot back, then his right arm up, holding the ax above his head. He tilted his head uncertainly and switched his stance—left arm up, right foot back, and nodded, feeling more confident with this angle. Trina brought two vines forward from behind her shoulders.

Ax threw his ax at full force; it made a quiet whistle through the air for its split-second travel across the arena, but then hit a barrier midway through. For the sake of visuals, Trina made this barrier visible as a dim, white wall. While the ax was slowed down somewhat by the approach, like moving through thick air, it still pierced the barrier, going to Trina at a quarter of its original speed. She deftly moved back and grabbed the ax by the handle with her vine, a mere foot away from her chest.

“Very good, Ax,” Trina said, lobbing the ax back to him in a gentle arc. He grabbed it in midair, inspecting the handle. Satisfied with its condition, he slid it back into his face, clicking it secure.

“Your turn, Demitri,” Owen said.

“Rrgh… I don’t like that she’s just doing this to demonstrate another thing we don’t have,” he said to Owen. “Do I have to? Let’s just take her word for it. That barrier looked thick, and the other me, he still went through it easier than I’d expect. It reminds me of trying to break through Rhys’ aura shields, but stronger. Mine are just gonna bounce off.”

“Well, then throw it as hard as you can,” Owen said, holding his fist to his chest. “I bet if you really give it your all, you’ll make Trina flinch. I bet you’ll even pierce through the barrier and make her catch it! Imagine the surprised look on her face!” Owen didn’t believe his own words, but a toothy grin shined through anyway.

Demitri cracked a smile. “You really think so?”

Owen didn’t. But he nodded enthusiastically. “Definitely. I bet you’ll at least make her flinch. Just try! Remember, you’re a Heart. You never work half-heartedly. Think of this as a mission!” He clenched his fists and tried to motivate the irritated Haxorus as much as he could.

“Okay, okay, fine,” he said, giving Mispy a confident smile next. “As a Heart, I have to give it my all.” Then, he walked away from the group, over an odd lump in the arena where the webbing clumped together for some terrain variety, and then over to where Ax had been standing for his throw.

“Are you ready?” Trina asked.

Owen nibbled on his tongue nervously. Even though they all knew Demitri didn’t have the inherent Backlash property, Trina was demonstrating her habit of taking every battle seriously. Owen felt a pang of self-consciousness at this. He should probably make a habit of that, too, so he didn’t get caught off guard by someone like Jerry again.

Demitri got into a similar position as Ax, though he seemed more comfortable using his right hand to throw. He leaned back, looking at Trina. “I’m ready.”

“Very good. Throw.”

Demitri swung and threw in the same way that Ax had. It whistled in the air—Demitri’s throw was just a bit faster than Ax’s, perhaps just because he happened to get a better swing, or just by simple luck. The actual difference wasn’t very much.

In another instant, the ax flew at the barrier. It didn’t slow down nearly as much, either; the ax smashed through the barrier, distorting the light around it.

Zena and Owen both gasped; Rhys opened his eyes, having been watching the exchange by aura.

Trina’s eyes widened imperceptibly. She twisted her second vine forward to catch the rapidly spinning ax. The blade sliced cleanly through the first vine. The second vine wrapped around the handle, but it was still moving with such force and speed that it slipped out of her grip.

While the webbed arena didn’t allow for much of an echo, everyone heard the loud, dull thud of the ax hitting the Serperior in the chest and the sharp crack of a rib or two breaking where it hit. And for a few seconds of shocked pause, Trina stared down at the ax sticking inside of her, straight into her heart.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 54 – Lend a Hand

Demitri screamed, frantically waving his arms. “AAAAAAAAHHH, I’M SO SORRY!” He rushed toward Trina with heavy steps, tripping over the lumpy terrain. Ani was much faster, gliding over the web with ease, and inspected the ax lodged inside Trina.

“Is—is she okay?!” Demitri asked with shaky breaths.

“Of course I’m okay,” Trina growled, blood dribbling out of her mouth. “How did you”—She coughed blood, staining some of the web crimson—“do that?!”

Ani tugged the ax away with one vine, blasting Trina with healing energy at the same time. One of her vines melted away, and Trina’s chest was back to normal. The Serperior wiped away the remaining blood on her mouth with her one good vine. The other slowly regrew.

“I—I don’t know!” Demitri winced at the blood, making useless motions toward the ground as if he could will the red away. “I th-thought I just, uhh… I just threw! Like normal! I mean, I guess I was a little fired up—m-maybe I did what Jerry did, and got so fired up that I did a Backlash on accident? Owen’s really motivational, s-so…”

“Willpower alone isn’t enough for that sort of Backlash. I don’t know who this Jerry is, but he sounds like he got lucky against Owen’s hubris. I doubt that sort of battle will be replicated now that the young Guardian learned his lesson.” The Serperior slithered closer to Demitri, handing him his ax, but then circled around him, inspecting his body.

Mispy glared.

“What is this?” Trina muttered, closing her eyes. “Your aura… for just a second, I saw…”

“Y-yeah?” Demitri said. “I know it looks a little weird. The others told me that it was because I don’t have any ancestry and stuff, since I was created artificially. Rhys has the same sort of thing! Except just Star as a direct ancestor since, uh, she created their auras or something?”

“It was more or less a symbolic gesture,” Rhys muttered.

Demitri uneasily put his tusk back in his face, clicking it inside. Then, he looked at Trina, who was still inspecting his body. “Hey, so, uh—”

“Hush.”

Trina placed a vine at the center of Demitri’s spine. “Can you do me a favor, Demitri?”

Mispy growled, vines curling and uncurling. “Vines off…”

“It will only be for a moment, Mispy,” Trina said to the territorial Meganium. “I won’t hurt him. I merely want to examine something about his aura.”

Mispy snorted, sinking lower with her vines writhing irritably. She watched Trina carefully for any sign of her trying to hurt the Haxorus.

“Now, Demitri. Do you know how to draw into your own aura, by any chance? Has Mispy taught you anything about this, or perhaps Rhys?”

“You mean meditate?”

“Yes. May you do that for a moment?” Trina asked.

“Sure.” Demitri closed his eyes. The Haxorus eased his breathing, wobbling where he stood until he planted his rump firmly on the ground, shaking the web. Trina readjusted her vines to be at the center of his spine again.

“…Hn!” Trina tapped Demitri’s back and he straightened completely upright. Two tendrils of white light burst harmlessly from his chest, right near the center, just below the ribs.

Demitri gasped raggedly. “Wh-what—”

Mispy lunged at Trina; it required both Trina’s and Rhys’ barriers to keep her from ripping the Serperior apart.

“Hold!” Trina said firmly. “Demitri is just fine! Speak.”

“Y-yeah, I’m fine,” Demitri wheezed. “What’s—?”

“It’s just what I had suspected,” Trina said, slithering until she was in front of him. “Hm, two… Interesting.”

“Uhh—help?” Demitri said. “I feel weird. Help? Stop?”

“I apologize,” Trina said, nodding. “Focus on the two Hands and pull them inward, please.”

“What? How?” Demitri said.

Trina sighed. “Just relax. It will happen eventually. Then, you will learn the feeling, and it will happen on its own.” She slithered away, approaching Mispy next. “May you meditate?”

“No.”

“Mispy,” Rhys said, “Trina is only trying to help. I’d like to see this as well.”

Demitri poked at the two tendrils sticking out of his chest. “They’re kinda warm,” he said, grasping one. He felt something, yet he didn’t at the same time. His hand passed through, yet it still felt like part of him was holding onto it. The strange dual-sensation was too much and he jerked his hand away, and it felt normal again. “That’s weird.”

“Can I do that…?” Owen looked at his chest.

“I just want to see how many Hands you have,” Trina said to Mispy.

“Many,” Mispy said curtly. She raised ten of her vines, shaking them threateningly toward Trina. The Serperior was unfazed.

“You know what I mean,” Trina said. “Please. Let me see.”

Mispy growled, but then turned her head away. “Fine.”

Trina slithered closer and asked Mispy to do the same things as Demitri. First, she closed her eyes. Then, she meditated, and Trina tapped at the side of Mispy’s body—she was too large to easily reach the spine. On the opposite side, three tendrils of light burst out. “Three…”

Mispy used a few of her vines to knock and jiggle at the three tendrils that floated in the air. Gusts of wind had no effect on their gentle flow, though trying to touch them did make them move. Mispy tried grasping it with a vine, but when she did, the vine fell down, limp—as if she’d lost feeling in it for the moment that it had held it too tightly. The feeling returned seconds later.

Trina looked at Owen. “I’ve never… seen this happen before. I didn’t think it would happen, but, well, the evidence is right before us.” She pointed with a vine at the five tendrils in total. “It appears that Owen’s Mystic power was partially transferred to the rest of the Alloy. Owen, you mentioned that you fused with the others before.” She slithered toward Gahi, gesturing for him to start meditating. Gahi reluctantly obeyed, sitting down with his tail coiled in front of his slender body.

“Yeah, I did,” Owen said. “I fused with Gahi a few days ago. We kinda went crazy… but after that, we stabilized, thanks to, er, Emily. Long story. But yeah, we fused. Oh—and later on, I fused with Mispy, too. W-wait, are you saying—when I fused with them, they—they took some of the Grass Orb with them?! I thought it was, uh, just one unit!”

“I did, too,” Trina said. “And yet, here we are.”

“Does that mean we can summon spirits, too?” Demitri asked. “What about—uh—what about the whole thing with, wait, hang on,” He rubbed his head. “How about going to that weird spirit world that Owen talked about? Can we do that? Rhys can. Right?”

“Yes,” Rhys said, “but it’s not quite a simple task. I thought—”

“Mispy, you fused with Demitri recently as well,” Trina deduced.

“Mm.” Mispy nodded.

“I see. Then that means… Gahi should have ten.”

She tapped Gahi on the back and—unexpectedly—only seven tendrils of light poured out of Gahi’s chest, each one flowing to some invisible, idle current.

“Nngk—I’m with Demitri, this feels real weird,” he muttered, grasping one. His hand instantly felt simultaneously numb and warm. “Gah—what is that?!”

“Stop doing that,” Trina said irritably. “Why are you all obsessed with trying to grasp your Hands? That’s your aura splitting from your body. What you’re seeing is ethereal. When you try to touch it, your aura makes contact, but your body passes through. It’s fine enough if you’re simply knocking against it, but if you hold it from all sides—grasping, as you are—it has nowhere to go, and it simply pushes your aura away from your body. Be careful, or your aura might detach completely.”

“And then what?”

“I was never foolish enough to find out.”

“H-hey, I got mine!” Owen said, holding out his claws. He had four emerging from the palm of each scaly hand. “Just eight, huh? Not that many. That’s just one more than Gahi, right?” He counted the ones from Gahi’s chest. “Yeah, seven.”

“Mm. That adds up,” Trina said. “Each Orb contains twenty Hands. Owen, when you fused with Gahi, you fused down to the very cores of your beings. Body, mind, aura, and spirit. Since Hands are tied to the link between the aura and spirit, you must have exchanged powers while fusing with one another.” Trina looked between the four as if mapping out the order in which they had fused to make such an arrangement.

“Wait, but Rhys totally would’ve noticed that!” Demitri said. “Rhys?”

“I—I certainly would have, if there were spirits within you,” Rhys said. “Or if you were utilizing your Mystic powers—but I suppose… you haven’t done that, since you weren’t aware of it. Until now, when I suppose Owen’s motivational speech was enough to trigger a Mystic reaction out of you, Demitri.”

“Wait, so they don’t have spirits in them like me?” Owen asked. Worriedly, he closed his eyes. Hey, guys? Are you in there?

We are,
replied Jumpluff Klent. Owen, everybody is accounted for. We didn’t notice anything, either. It’s strange, but… the spirit world seems completely unaffected by the split.

“Well?” Trina asked Owen.

“They’re all there,” Owen said. “They didn’t notice a thing—they’re just as surprised as I am. Wait. So—so does that mean when I was fighting Jerry, I was at less than half my Mystic power?”

“Hmm… No. That’s not necessarily the case. After all, a Hunter, with just one Hand, can kill a Guardian with all twenty of theirs. Though, having more does have an effect, at least on the scope and range of your power.”

The Serperior then slithered away from them all, sighing irritably. “Well, seeing as you are now Mystic, and managed to learn how to Backlash against my barrier with your willpower, as Star would call it, I suppose my demonstration can’t be done completely.”

“It’s alright,” Owen said. “Now we just know that more recent Mods can do it, and we kinda can, too, since—”

“Mods?” Trina repeated.

“Yeah, uh, modified Pokémon.”

“I see.”

“Is—is it a bad title?”

“Bad, yes. I suppose that’s a good term for it,” she agreed. “You couldn’t have been more creative?”

“I think Manny was the one who came up with that one,” Demitri recalled.

“The other Lucario? I’m not surprised,” Trina said.

“What do you call them?” Owen asked. “Mutants? That’s what most of the world calls them.”

“Hmph. I suppose I never gave a name for my subjects,” Trina said. “They are all equal to me, regardless of their origins. Is that satisfying?”

Demitri and Mispy both nodded. “A little,” said the Haxorus. “To be honest, I feel a little better after… you know. Our talk. And stuff. But—” He eyed Ax uneasily. “It’s still weird to see someone exactly like me.”

“More than Rhys seeing a fellow Lucario?” Trina asked.

“But they’re completely different. They’re almost opposites! They don’t even fight the same way.”

“Well, part of that is due to how versatile the Lucario species is. I was more referring to the personalities you share. I can tell that you are quite different.” Trina scanned the eight of them, and then looked to Zena and Rhys. “Hmm… You all seem unconvinced.”

“He even does that same thing I do,” Demitri said, mirroring Ax’s foot shuffle to shift his weight.

Trina sighed. “Very well. If you are so unsure, I have a proposal. You have impressed me enough to consider joining your group under Star, as little as I approve of her cowardice. It seems that she is not quite running your group, anyway, so much as she is helping you find more Guardians, is that it?”

“More or less,” Owen said. “Some of us aren’t really on super good terms with her just yet…” He glanced at Zena, who nodded.

“Then it is settled,” Trina said. “I will send Har, Lygo, Ani, and Ax with you to your home for a few days. This works well, as I will need that time to mobilize and organize my subjects. Unlike most of you, many of those you see here are still alive, and cannot simply be withdrawn as spirits. Then, when they feel they have enough information for me, they will tell me whether you are worth joining or not. Simultaneously, you will realize the differences you share with your counterparts. Har, I think this will do well for you, too.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Har said.

“You know what,” Trina said with a wry smile.

Har growled and crossed his arms, flashing a glare at Owen. The gesture made the prototype flinch—did he do something wrong?

“Do you have enough of that strange Heart power to warp back to your homes?” Trina asked.

“Yes,” Rhys said. “I used my Badge to warp us here, but Owen and the others have their own Badges to bring us back. Considering how many of us there are,” he said, “we should use two of our Badges this time.”

“Right,” Owen said, fishing out his own. Mispy pulled out the next one.

“Hey, these things gonna go back in yet?” Gahi aside, poking at the seven filaments of light drifting in front of him.

“In time,” Trina said. “Just relax. As you can see, Demitri’s are almost inside again.”

Demitri poked at the little nubs sticking out from the center of his ribcage.

Owen inched over to Har’s half of the team and the rest moved toward Mispy. “Hey, um,” he said, “I’m sorry if I offended you or anything. I’ve kinda been doing that a lot lately.” He glanced awkwardly at Zena. “I—”

“It’s fine,” Har said. “Not your fault.”

“Oh. Okay,” Owen said. “But how come Trina said that?”

Har glanced at Owen, but then at the Serperior, who was leaving the arena to tend to the rest of her subjects. The Charizard sighed. “Because,” he said, “my first name was Owen.”

He snatched the Badge from Owen’s hand, seeing that he was too stunned to use it, and thrust it in the air, warping them back to Hot Spot Cave.

<><><>​

“Have fun at school, Saffron!” Salazzle Sugar waved her son down the road of cobblestone, just at the base of Kilo Mountain. The little Salandit glanced back just once to return her wave. Sugar sighed, shaking her head. “I hope he passes that test. He studied so hard!”

A Rampardos next to Sugar shrugged. “It’s just basic math. He knows his multiplication tables; that should be enough.” He gave her a gentle tap with his snout. “Anyway, I have to head to work.”

“Guess I do, too.” Sugar licked him on the chin. “Big day today?”

“Every time there’s a mutant attack, there’s a new request for rebuilding. It’s almost a routine.” He hung his head a bit lower. “I know it sounds morbid, but as long as mutants keep damaging outside settlements, I’ll have a job to scheme out the new foundations. Maybe I can convince them to install improved Protect insulation?”

“You better.” She reached forward for an embrace; Rampardos had to bend down to get to her height. “Okay, see you, Dezz. I’m heading to the shop.”

With a wave, the pair parted ways, with Sugar heading to the Waypoint just behind. Dezz, meanwhile, headed deeper into the outskirts to find another Waypoint to a ruined town. From the Waypoint, Sugar followed her usual route to her shop, crawling and weaving past the morning crowd of Pokémon. She spotted a few familiar faces along the way: a Marowak sleepwalking her way to the daycare; a Smeargle completely lost in thought; an Incineroar carrying a bag of medical supplies. Soon, she approached her building, pressing her paw against the open entrance. When it passed through without resistance, she blinked, realizing that the barrier to the entryway had already been taken down.

The only other aura it had been configured to open to was Spice, but… hadn’t she been on an overnight mission? “Spice?”

“Hey, Sugar,” Spice called from the storage room. “I got everything ready.”

“You’re back from your mission?”

“Yeah, it was pretty easy. Labeling it overnight was an overestimate; we found the guy just fine hiding under a boulder.”

Sugar went past the white countertop and into the supply room; everything—all of their pastries, ingredients, and tools—had all been neatly organized and resupplied. That was usually her morning routine before opening officially. “Spice, how long have you been here?”

Spice finally tore her eyes away from the last of the supplies. “I’ve been here for a few kiloseconds, I think. It hasn’t been long at all.”

“But… that’s insane.” Spice looked at the organized shelves. A pile of Oran Berries in a box, arranged neatly in a grid-like format to take up as little space as possible. She searched for any kind of error or oversight, but as far as she could tell, it was almost better than how she did it. “Spice, did you even sleep?”

“I tried, but I couldn’t. I’m just… not tired.” Spice pat the box of Cheri Berries. “That’s the last of it. I also got all the pastries made from yesterday out and they’re ready to sell. Sorry if you don’t know what to do, now, but…” Spice tittered, looking away. “I had to find something to do.”

Sugar held Spice’s forehead. It was hot, but that was normal for her Type; it wasn’t blazing. She checked Spice’s eyes, next, but they didn’t appear bloodshot. Still…

“Have you tried sleeping again? You can’t just stay awake for so long, Spice; this is starting to scare me…”

“I would if I could, but I’m not tired. I’m not too worried about it.”

“Maybe you should have that checked? Why don’t you try a Sleep Seed, or—oh, sorry.”

Spice scowled. “I’d use one if they worked on me.”

“Y-yeah.”

Spice unconsciously ran a hand along her scarred chest, the electrical pattern ever-prominent. “Maybe if I shoveled five of them or something. But I don’t see why I should bother. I’m just gonna go on a mission to get rid of this excess energy.”

“W-wait, Spice, maybe… take a break today,” Sugar said. “What if you suddenly pass out mid-mission?”

“What am I supposed to do all day?” Spice jabbed the air in front of her. “I have way too much energy to just sit still. I need to do something.”

Sugar nervously clasped her hands together. “Spice… This is too strange. I’m sorry. This is just like when Mom was worried about you, remember? I just—don’t want anything odd happening. Can’t you just… patrol town instead?”

Spice grumbled, but her expression softened. “I guess I could do something like that…”

“Please. Just for today? And maybe go see the hospital if you start feeling strange again, okay?”

“It’s not like they can help me,” Spice growled, but then turned away. “But… okay. For you, Sis.” She spun around, holding the edge of the exit. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me. Alright?”

“I really just wish you didn’t go on missions. Blessed items barely work on you. You can’t just…”

“I made it this far.” Spice grinned sadly. “Besides, I… it’s my calling. Anyway, I’m gonna go patrol.”

“See you,” Sugar said, and she was gone. Alone in the shop, Sugar worriedly bit at her tongue. With old worries resurfacing, the Salazzle tried to focus her mind on whoever would be the customer of the day.

<><><>​

White tiles lined the floor, pressing against concrete walls. Lights filled the ceiling every few paces in the form of little crystals powered by Mystic energy. In a grid-like formation, strange machines surrounded thick, glass cylinders made to hold small Pokémon, no more than two feet in diameter. Some of them were empty. Some of them were filled with a strange, opaque, brownish-red liquid. Others were a clear green, with little figures floating inside.

Talons clicked against the tile in addition to claws, tail wagging happily. “Huhu… Aw… look at him! He’s a cute one! Lucas, don’t you think he’s cute?” Lavender asked. “…Lucas?”

Lavender closed his eyes. Chitin coated his body and solidified, and his purple form grew grabber-like appendages from the side of his head. The newly-formed Drapion scuttled along the aisle of cylinders, but he stopped again when he saw one of them catch his eye. “Hi, hi!” he said, pressing his head up against the glass. “Hi! Hi!”

The strange, partly-grown figure floating in the green, bubbling fluid stared at Lavender. It appeared to be a Tyrunt, but in some strange development cycle, like it lacked an eggshell. No, it had a shell—that was the glass cylinder that surrounded it. The eyes had no lids. Its little, gooey stubs for arms wiggled at Lavender, and Lavender waved his right, massive grabber in reply. The developing Tyrunt grinned and wiggled weakly.

“You’re cute!” Lavender said. “Can you hear me?”

Tyrunt stared blankly.

Lavender clicked his mandibles thoughtfully. “Oh!” He slammed his head against the glass—startling the Tyrunt—and shifted his form again. Thick, green slime coated his shrinking body until he was nothing but a pale blob floating in the slime. The Reuniclus pressed against the wall and thought, Can you understand me?

And to this, Tyrunt nodded.

Ooh! That means you must be Reincarnated! Aww, you look cute! Don’t worry! It won’t be long now! He bobbed his body. Hey! Did you see Lucas anywhere?

Tyrunt shook his head.

“Aw, okay. I’ll keep looking. See you!”

Slime evaporated from his expanding body, and he returned to one of his favorite forms, Scolipede. He rolled through the halls—they were thankfully wide enough for him to do so without much of a risk of running into anything—and stopped only when he made it to the other end of the hall. He shifted back to Drapion. “I smell you…” He clicked his mandibles a few times. “Ah!”

He tumbled forward, back to Scolipede, and went down three aisles. He turned and uncurled, landing with heavy grace on his feet. “Lucas!”

The Houndoom spun around, panting happily.

“There you are! I thought I lost you!” Lavender hopped heavily, disturbing a few of the developing mutants. They tried to turn away, glaring. “C’mon, let’s go! We need to find Daddy and make sure he has the stuff for groceries when Auntie goes!”

Lucas barked and followed Lavender through the aisles.

“Lucas! Is your Mega form still okay?” Lavender asked, looking back. “Are you feeling angry or crazy yet?”

Lucas barked.

“Okay, good,” Lavender said. “Remember! Daddy said if you ever feel upset, you need to go to him right away!”

The Houndoom emitted a playful growl.

Out of the lab, they ran through white hallways and turned many corners. Lavender slammed into the wall that had “10” written on it with a heavy THUD. Lucas pranced behind him, tail wagging.

“Two!” Lavender said.

The ten became a two. Lavender twirled around and rolled away. Lucas hopped on top of the spinning wheel and used it as a platform, running backward to keep on top. When Lavender turned, Lucas held on tight. They continued rolling along the halls.

Just in time, Lavender saw two Espurr exit the hall, smiling at one another. “Daddy!” he shouted when his head was at the apex of his roll.

Rim blinked in horror at the Houndoom riding the rolling Scolipede and vanished. Eon was not so quick. The pair toppled right over him, flattening the Espurr into a pile of pink ooze. He gurgled, shifting into some strange amalgamation of a Scolipede and Houndoom: a purple exoskeleton covered in black fur. A few seconds later, he became just a Scolipede.

“Sorry, sorry!” Lavender said. “I’m sorry, Daddy!”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Eon grumbled, shrinking down into an Espurr upon searching for Rim, who had disappeared. “I should really look both ways before crossing the street…”

“Looking both what?”

“Nothing,” Eon said. “Seeing how rushed you two were,” he said, “I’m guessing you had last minute errands for Auntie Rim?”

“Yeah!”

Rim reappeared holding a small notebook. With a bit of Psychic energy, she wrote down Lavender’s exhaustive, long list of trinkets and items. It had everything from a certain flavor of cookie to an exact number of berries to some sort of new toy he heard about. He then said that Lucas probably wanted some treats, to which he barked an affirmative.

“Did you get all of that, Rim?” Eon mumbled, still on his back, staring at the ceiling, contemplating why Lavender so frequently flattened him in the halls.

“Mm.”

“Okay!” Lavender nodded.

“Lavender,” Eon said, “you’ve been in that Scolipede form for a while. Are you stuck or something?”

“No! I transformed a lot while in the lab!”

Eon’s tiny heart skipped a beat. He sat up. “Th-the lab? You didn’t—”

“I didn’t break anything this time!”

Eon sighed. “Lavender, please don’t go in there. I know you’re good at movement now, but you can still trip, and it was a huge mess the last time you crashed into the chamber. And the embryos were very upset at you afterward, remember?”

Lavender shrank down. “Y-yeah, but… but I apologized!”

“No transforming, and no rolling, in the lab,” Eon said firmly. “Now go back to your base form. I want to make sure you’re still stabilized.”

Lavender frowned, but then shook his head. “I don’t think I should look like that right now,” he said. “Maybe later.”

“…Alright. I understand. Now, Rim will come back with everything you asked. You were the last one we needed anyway.”

Lavender nodded and slammed his front legs on the ground. “Good! I can’t wait!”

“…And why do you prefer that form so much, Lavender?” Eon asked curiously.

“I can roll!”

Eon sighed, rubbing at the massive space between his two eyes. “Fine, fine,” he said. “But I want you to try maintaining a lot of different forms, just in case, okay? Tap into the memory of every one you can.”

“Hmmm…” Lavender tilted his head thoughtfully. “Okaaaay, I’ll do it later,” he said. “…After I get my toy.”

“What even is a Five-Cube?”

“It’s a cube that’s got twenty-five squares on every face and each face has a different color and you have to scramble it up and then you—”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Eon sighed, waving dismissively. “Ugh, turn off the Psychic, please.”

“Ha ha, you know I can’t do that!” Lavender giggled. “Besides, that’s not the Psychic part at all! Stop playing by stereotypes, Daddy!”

“Oh? What Type was it?”

“I dunno!”

“Wh—then how can you know it wasn’t a Psychic?!”

Lavender giggled. “I dunno! Maybe it just isn’t?”

Eon held his tiny arms up, trembling with some strange mixture of exasperation and confusion. He rubbed his eyes. “Okay. Okay, Lavvie. Rim. Go to Kilo and get the usual groceries. And… be careful.”

“Mm.” Rim vanished.

Eon stared at the empty space where Rim had once been. “…Lavender.”

“Yeah?”

“I want you to follow Rim. Keep her safe. And… don’t hurt anybody, either.”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 55 – Grievances

In the dim glow of the Hot Spot mushrooms, Jerry’s new Provisionary Badge shined. It reflected the blue light sharply. He couldn’t help but tilt it to see the light caress the rounded edges of the heart at the center of the Badge.

After all this time, I’ve got another Badge to throw away. Jerry grumbled. I should just toss it in the lava this time, huh? That’ll show them…

“Show them what?” Star asked.

“Guh—” Jerry shot up from the ground. He winced as a reflex, expecting his spine to protest with a sharp pain, but when none came, he needed another few seconds to adjust. Right, that freak’s healing…

“Must be nice to not have that messed up back, huh?” Star asked.

“Okay, new rule. Stop reading my mind,” Jerry said.

“Okay, okay,” Star raised her hands. “Sorry. I forgot how easy it was with non-Mystics.”

“What, Mystics can block you?”

“Mind-reading is really internal. It’s one of the first things that I can’t do when someone’s aura gets too strong,” Star said. “Unless I really try, but… I’m not like that.”

“Sure you aren’t.”

“Oh, come on, I get that enough from Zena,” Star whined.

“What’d you do to her?” Jerry asked.

Star stuttered. “W-well, I mean—”

“So, I figure she’s right to not trust you,” Jerry muttered. He sighed, eyes softening. “Sorry. I guess you get a hard time from everyone, huh? Figure they had big expectations for their Creator and they feel let down because you’re just like the rest of us.”

The Mew shifted her position in the air. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m just glad they can still deal with me enough to summon me. And hey, some of them are getting strong enough that I look semi-solid now! Or I’m just getting weaker…”

“What would be making you weaker?” Jerry said.

Star shrugged. “I don’t think I’m any weaker. Definitely feels that way sometimes, though…” She flicked her tail, trying to form a small, Psychic bubble to rest on. Unfortunately, her presence in the real world was still too weak. It dissolved in a fine mist.

At the entrance to Jerry’s home, Amia cleared her throat quietly. “Um, Jerry?”

The Aerodactyl sighed, wondering if it was a custom to bother each other in this place. “What?” He turned his head to address the still-green Gardevoir. “Where’s that blue you love so much? Tired of looking special?”

Amia winced. “I’m—not strong enough to do that again, yet.”

“Summoned your mate fine,” Jerry said.

“I can’t do both. I had to choose.”

“Oh. Well, good for you.”

“Er—Jerry, if you want, perhaps we can… find a way to go into Kilo Village and buy you a bed?” Amia held her hands together delicately, almost as if she was pleading, even though her tone suggested it was just a polite offer.

“I don’t have the money for a bed,” Jerry said.

“Oh, no, dear, we would get you one,” Amia said. “Before he left, Rhys left me some funds for it. What do you say?”

“So, you’re saying it’s Team Alloy’s money that would get me the bed.” Jerry couldn’t suppress his snarling expression completely.

“I mean, well…”

“Yeah, I’m sure you mean well,” Jerry said, “but you know what, that’s not something I’m gonna accept so happily. Especially if it’s the same reward money they got for arresting me in the first place.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not that.”

“I had a pretty big bounty, y’know,” Jerry said, smirking. “I was good at what I did. I bet my head was enough to buy a bed or two.”

Star sighed. “C’mon, Jerry, they’re just trying to be nice,” she said. “Can’t you just accept it? What, you’re just gonna sleep on the rocks?”

“What, like I haven’t already done that? Please. I’ll be fine.”

“Ugh, I swear to me, Jerry,” Star muttered. “Amia, how about you just gather up some folks, and we’ll just get his bed? He’ll have to come, unless he wants us to get something stupid. Maybe we can get one in the shape of a Clefable? Ooh, actually, I heard from Hecto that there’s a new bed coming out that’s in the shape of Anam! So every night, you get to feel him hugging you.”

Jerry’s eye twitched. “You wouldn’t.”

“Oh?” Star asked. She spun around with a victorious, smug smirk. “Amia, you mind? Just three Mystics should be fine. I doubt Eon would try to take us on in public like that if we kept our numbers together.”

“Okay, dear. Jerry? Do you have a preference for who comes with you?”

Jerry folded his wings in front of him thoughtfully. “The ice sculpture looks reasonable. And the weird guy, the crazy red and blue one. What’s he again?”

“Or, you mean ADAM, the Porygon-Z,” Star said.

“Yeah, that weirdo. He doesn’t look like he’ll give me any lip, so him.”

“Well, he doesn’t have lips, so that helps,” Star said. “Alright, so, ADAM and Step. What about Amia herself?”

“Oh, sure, put me on the spot,” Jerry growled. “…Fine, yeah. But is she strong enough to walk around like that? She can barely summon her mate.”

Amia rubbed at her arm, nodding. It seemed that she recognized that he had a point; he wondered if these Mystics truly knew what it felt like to be vulnerable. Perhaps Amia was being reminded of that now.

“Well, uh, yes and no,” Star said. “…Okay, no. I guess Amia should stay back. How about, uhh… d’you mind Manny?”

“The Lucario with the crazy look in his eyes? I’ll pass.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Star mumbled. “Okay, fine. How about Willow?”

“The Joltik? Do you even want her out in public?”

Star grabbed her tail, gently twisting it. “Okay, good point.” She spun her tail like a rope. “Hmmnnn, okay. How about Enet? …Okay, fine, I guess not. Look, just pick one, alright? Willow, Enet, or Manny, to go with Step and ADAM, because four’s a good number.”

“Can’t I just get Zena? You know, Owen might be a bright-eyed idiot, but he’s got good taste, eh? Wonder how he got so lucky with a piece like that.”

Star stared. “Listen, if you say that in front of her, I’m not gonna help you for what happens next. Also, Zena’s with Owen to see Trina and the others. You gotta pick between the other three. Come on.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll pick, ehh, Enet. Sure.”

Amia nodded. “Okay. I’ll get those three.” She stood there, motionless. Was she waiting for some kind of acknowledgement? “Um—okay. I’ll go.” She awkwardly stepped away and waved to get the nearest one’s attention, Enet.

Jerry watched Amia go, but then asked Star, “What’s Enet’s deal again?”

“Deal?”

“Yeah. All of you guys have a deal. Manny’s a weird battle heart with a funny accent I’ve never heard before, Valle’s afraid of moving, Willow’s as mature as she is large, ADAM’s… whatever he is, so what’s Enet’s deal?”

“Well, she’s technically feral… or at least was born feral.”

“Oh, great. How’d you even get her to talk?”

“A little Mystic power and maybe some speech therapy.”

“Right, more godlet powers.” Jerry rolled his eyes.

“Godlet?” Star repeated.

“That’s what they are, right? Little mini-gods.”

“That, uh, I don’t think that’s how it is.”

“Well, okay. If it’s not that, how do their powers work, again?”

“Uh—” Star hesitated.

Jerry tugged at his scarf. “This scarf. Owen literally imbued it with his will and desire to save my life, and went against that toxic Altaria’s poisoned swamp. And Anam. He blesses things, and that’s the same thing, isn’t it? C’mon. What’s with that Mystic junk? You guys can literally rewrite reality. That’s how you phrased it, right?”

“Okay, okay, so maybe there’s a little bit of truth to that,” Star said, “but it’s not like Mystics can just do whatever they want. In fact, I’m kinda surprised Owen could perform blessings at all—that’s sort of an Anam thing. Mystics tend to specialize in certain talents and they aren’t good at others. It’s not all that different from what you can do.”

Jerry looked at Star incredulously.

“It’s the same power all Pokémon have,” Star said. “The auras they possess is just a tiny version of being able to rewrite reality the way they want in specific ways. All those techniques and powers and abilities Pokémon have… that’s just aura! Mysticism just expands their range a little, kinda.”

Jerry squinted. “Wait, really? So we all have supernatural god powers?”

“Yeah. Mystic power just adds a bit more to what they can already do, and then, if they have any, you know, tendencies, or any other strange properties to them, that sometimes manifests as extra quirks in what they can do. It’s not like Owen can easily become a Water Type compared to Grass, for example.”

Jerry huffed, adjusting his wings. “Right. But I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that everyone is somehow magical., and Mystics are just a little more that way.”

“What, you think you have an organ that just creates rocks to shoot at people?”

“Well, I—”

“Do you have any idea how energy-inefficient it is to have a tail that constantly spews fire?”

“Uh—”

“Like, seriously, if you guys followed the law of conservation of energy, you guys would be dead or boring.”

Jerry stared at Star, barely understanding what she was saying. He eventually discarded the statement entirely. “Well, great.” He flipped the Badge in his wing-hand a few times, staring at it again. “I guess when you break it down, these Badges are just the Teleport technique for specific locations.” He rolled the Badge idly, making the blue shine from the mushrooms follow the ridges of the Heart emblem.

Star grinned. “Pretty shiny, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Still don’t really like holding it. Just brings back bad memories.” He closed his eyes, sighing. Bad memories were pretty common lately, ever since he ran into that bright-eyed scalebag. “…She’s really fine? Mom?”

“I mean, as fine as you can get, y’know, yeah. Y-yeah, she’s fine, she’s fine,” Star said after locking eyes with Jerry’s darkening expression. “I promise, she’s fine.”

Jerry stared for a while longer before softening his gaze. “Then tell her I said thanks. Guess I got a little fire from knowing that she wants me to be stronger, is all. It’s what helped me beat Owen, right?”

“Definitely,” Star said. “Part of it, at least.”

“Okay!” Amia called back, knocking at the side of the entrance. “They’re all ready! Do you want to go?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jerry said, standing. “What’re we getting again? Because I thought of something else. If you’re treating me to a bed, getting some food on top of that wouldn’t be a bad idea, right?”

“Oh, of course!”

“Good,” Jerry said. “Guess I can’t complain, then.”

He stepped outside and flipped the Badge in his wing-claws again, slipping it into the back around his neck. “Guess I’ll hang onto it,” he said in a murmur. He spotted the Zoroark, Aggron, and Porygon-Z waiting in the square, where Valle was also standing as always.

To Jerry’s surprise, the Shiftry statue’s arms were moving very slowly from parallel to perpendicular to the ground, and back again. “…You’re moving?”

“Yes.”

“He’s being better!” Enet said.

“Valle’s fear of movement is a hindrance to his capabilities,” Step said. “It seems that he is trying to overcome this fear.”

“Being isolated for so long,” Star said, “poor guy tried to cope by not moving to make the time go by faster. I guess after a while, that’s all he knew. I’m… really sorry I put you through that, Valle. I should’ve realized and checked on you more often. Maybe actually pressed when you said you were fine… But I still don’t get why you can’t change back to normal.”

“The apology is appreciated,” Valle said. “I am terrified. I need to stop being scared.”

“That’s good,” Star said.

“Keep up that arm stuff,” Jerry said noncommittally. “Guess once you’re not scared of that anymore, you can say you did good.”

“Thank you. I envy your movement.”

Jerry decided not to question Valle’s twisted perspectives and instead pointed a wing. “What’s with the blob?”

“Huh?” Star said. She followed Jerry’s wing and spotted Anam waddling down the caves. “Huh. Guess he’s out for a stroll. Weird that James isn’t following him around, but I guess he’s busy in that Ghost Realm.”

“Right, the realms. That’s still weird to think about.” Jerry watched Anam for a while longer, clenching his jaw thoughtfully. Eventually, he rolled his eyes. “Whatever. He’s probably just guilty for rejecting me.” He suddenly became conscious of the Badge knocking against his chest through the bag’s fabric. “Hmph. Let’s go.”

<><><>​

The transition from the cool, yet stuffy halls of Trina’s labyrinth to the hot, dry caverns of Hot Spot Cave was startling. Demitri and Ax both rubbed their arms at the temperature change.

“Still need to get used to that,” Demitri mumbled.

“…There are two of each of you,” remarked a Shiftry statue in the middle of Hot Spot Square. “My movement training has rendered me insane. I shall stop.”

“Did that sculpture just talk?” Har asked Owen.

“Huh?” Owen was still caught on the fact that Har had told him he used to share his name. “Oh, sorry, that’s just Valle. He’s a Shiftry, and the Rock Guardian. He doesn’t move.”

“But he’s trying!” a tiny voice shouted from behind Valle’s head. Willow popped up, waving a tiny leg at them. “Hi, Owen! Hi, Owen!”

Both Charizard waved reflexively. Har flinched and brought his hand down.

“Hey, um,” Owen hesitated. “Do you… prefer the name Owen?”

“No,” Har replied instantly. “It’s just a habit.”

Owen gulped. “Okay, sorry.”

“Mm, Owen,” Zena spoke up. “Why don’t we greet the others? After all, we want them to meet everybody.”

“Sure,” Owen said. “So, Har, Ani, Ax, Lygo—this is Joltik Willow and Shiftry Valle. Willow’s the Fairy Guardian.”

Willow sprouted her large, pink wings as a demonstration. “I’m really cute! And I’m also really strong!”

“And also really irritating,” Gahi murmured to Lygo, who snorted a laugh in response.

“How many Guardians are here, anyway?” Har asked.

“Uhh,” Owen brought up his claws, counting. “Zena, Valle… oh, ADAM, where is he?”

Valle answered. “He left with Step, Enet, and Jerry to Kilo Village to get groceries and a bed.”

“Oh.” Owen nodded, counting his claws again for Step and Enet. “Oh, and also Mom—I mean, Gardevoir Amia. She’s the Fire Guardian.” Owen looked down. At six, he ran out of claws to count with. He lowered his arms. “I guess we have a lot of Guardians with us, huh?”

“We do, but that’s a good thing,” Rhys said. “We already have a serious advantage over Eon. Considering his movements, well…” He hummed thoughtfully, crossing his arms. “We should likely prepare ourselves once—well, if—Trina decides to join us. Aside from the Trinity, she’s the last Guardian that has no alliance… and, you know, isn’t dead.”

Owen sensed a strain in Har’s wings. Almost on cue, Har stretched them to loosen them up. The improved Charizard asked, “How many did Eon get to?”

“Well, while we aren’t certain how they acquired the Psychic Orb under Rim’s control, the Ground and Flying Orbs are with Eon,” Rhys said. “Hrm. If they left for errands, it would be redundant to introduce you to everybody now. Why don’t you two train against one another first as promised? I can tell you are all a tad stir-crazy from your lack of fighting.”

Owen and Har both nodded. “Yeah,” they said.

Har flinched again and turned to address his Alloy. “C’mon, let’s go plan out a strategy.”

“Hey, actually,” Owen said. “I know a good spot where we can train, if you like. It’s a little deeper into the caves, but it’s where we used to fight all the time. How’s that sound?”

“Sure,” Har replied.

Gahi rubbed his head.

“Mm?” Mispy asked Gahi.

“Nah, nah,” Gahi dismissed. “Just weird hearin’ two Owens. Figure one was enough.”

Demitri scratched at one of his cheeks. “At least I’m confronting my fears, right?”

“Fears?” Ax asked.

“That you’d be so similar to me, or something.”

“Oh, like you were replaceable? I mean, I guess as much as if anybody needed some ultra-powerful attacker on their team, we’d be pretty interchangeable.” Ax tilted his head. “But yeah. Feels like we’re kinda different, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Demitri nodded, but then jumped when Mispy wrapped a few vines around him. “You okay?” she whispered.

“I am.” He nuzzled her vine. “A lot, actually.”

“Good.” Mispy bopped him on the snout.

“At least they both seem pleasant,” Zena said, slithering after Owen. She almost mistakenly went toward Har—they walked in the exact same way—but corrected herself when she felt a Mystic aura emanating from the other Charizard.

“Yeah, wrong way,” Har mumbled at Zena with a hiss. “What, you interested in me, too?”

“Hey!” Owen said. “Just because you used to be me doesn’t mean you—wait. Uh, Zena?”

“No, no,” Zena shook her head. “I prefer the one I met first. We spent more time together, and… you two still seem a little different.”

Har flinched at this, a slight smile creeping at the edges of his lips, but it twisted into a grimace seconds later. “Thanks, I… I’m Har, yeah.”

On their way through the caverns, Owen kept stealing glances at his double. Har did the same thing. Every time Owen glanced at Har, he’d quickly look away, and vice versa. Mispy and Ani both sighed to one another.

Mispy asked Ani, “Are you the leader?”

“Har kinda is,” Ani replied. “…But I keep him in line.”

Mispy giggled. “Same.”

Owen recalled that Mispy had indeed done the same with Gahi, back before he had officially joined Team Alloy under the Hearts. With a small smirk, Owen realized that Gahi was still just as helpless against Mispy if he ever got ensnared.

Ani looked at Demitri, then back at Mispy. “You’re… together?”

Mispy and Demitri exchanged glances, but then nodded.

“That’s weird.”

Mispy huffed. “Not to me.”

“Well, I guess if you spent so much time together not knowing anything… I guess you grew close in a different way than Ax and I did.”

Mispy nodded, but then looked at Lygo and Gahi. They were definitely the most different of the two—undoubtedly due to Manny’s influence on the Flygon’s impressionable little mind.

Owen stole one final glance at Har and sighed. “Listen,” he said, “we’re the same person. I can read your body language better than—”

“I know, okay?!” Har said. “So, turn it off or something.”

“I can’t,” Owen said. “Maybe you can, but I can’t. I think it’s… stuck on. And it feels like there’s still something bothering you. Is it—is it really me? Is it the name?”

“It’s not the name,” Har growled. “My name is Har. And you’re Owen. Simple.”

“But you said—”

Har beat his wings, sending a gust of wind all around him. Owen winced, covering his eyes with his right arm.

“I’m a better version of you,” Har said. “So don’t call us the same. Or equal. Or anything. We’re totally different.”

“What’s got his tail in a knot?” Gahi murmured to Lygo. “Ever since yer Queen went and said Har would need this sorta thing, he’s been in a mood.”

“He gets like this sometimes,” Lygo said, sighing. “Does your Owen brood about things all the time?”

“Ehh,” Gahi said. “Sometimes, but I feel like he, eh… was right ter do it. And besides, he helped me out when I was feeling down.”

“I think we’ve been brooding more,” Demitri said. “Lately. I feel a little better about it now.”

Rhys’ ears lowered slightly.

Mispy, spotting this, tapped a vine on the Lucario’s shoulder.

“Er—Mispy,” Rhys addressed with a formal nod. “I am fine. Don’t—”

“It’s okay.”

Rhys flinched, mouth opening, but no words came. He glanced at Gahi next. The Flygon, however, just gave a knowing smile—and, for once, it didn’t seem to be for teasing. Rhys deflated; the weight practically lifted from his shoulders.

Demitri, catching on, gave a nod to Rhys, too. “You just wanted us to be happy. We’re, you know, ourselves. We just need to find hobbies. You know, I wouldn’t mind taking up something. Like cooking!”

Owen blinked. “Cooking?” he repeated. “Why cooking?”

“Well, er…” Demitri glanced at Mispy. “No reason.”

“You know, that sounds like a great thing to look into. I think Mom has a cookbook or two that you can borrow, if you want,” Owen offered. “How’s that sound?”

Demitri perked up. “Wait—really? You think I’d actually…?”

“Worth trying, right? And what about you, Mispy?”

“M-me?” Mispy blinked. “My—hobby? Now?”

“Well, no, but, er…” The fire immediately left Owen. Perhaps he overstepped.

Mispy’s expression shifted to a sad smile. “I like to fight… and…” She shook her head. “I…” But she stopped when Demitri squeezed one of her vines, getting her attention.

Ax flicked his tail, frowning. “Trina told us that apparently you guys didn’t know you guys were mutants for, like, four centuries. Is that really how old you guys are? That’s crazy.”

“Kinda. I don’t feel like I’m four hundred, though.” Demitri started unsheathing and sheathing one of his tusks, clicking it while he thought. “Our memories are still totally scrambled between our first life and now. It’s all sorta blurry. Maybe once we get more of that sorted out, we’ll actually have a better idea of who we actually are… if there’s anything new to find in there. Feels kinda like trying to sort through Rhys’ junk.”

“E-excuse me, it’s not junk, it’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, it might be useful one day,” Gahi said, waving an arm dismissively.

Zena sighed and placed a ribbon on Owen’s shoulder. “Owen can’t even remember when we met,” she lamented. “It wasn’t that long ago…”

“I—I’m working on it,” Owen said. “I’ll remember. I promise.”

“What is she, your mate?” Har asked Owen.

“Uh—” Owen flushed. “No. We’re only starting to know each other. We’re gonna go out to dinner tonight.”

Har looked back at Zena, who blushed in the same way Owen did. She avoided Har’s eyes. “Hmph,” Har folded his wings behind him. “She really likes you. I can feel it in her body language.”

Owen narrowly restrained himself from lunging at Har out of desperation. He instead was able to mask it as a sharp breath. “You know the serpentine body language?!”

“Queen Trina is literally—”

“You need to teach me,” Owen begged. “Please.”

They locked eyes. Owen hoped that Har had the same do-good Heart-style mindset that he did.

“I’ll think about it,” Har said grudgingly, looking ahead. That meant he would.

Owen’s wings lifted slightly. He felt that based on Har’s body language, he was perfectly willing to help him out. Har rolled his eyes, clearly reading Owen’s relaxed body language. It seemed that there was going to be no hiding anything from each other’s Perceive.

Owen still sensed a small bit of tension whenever Har looked at them, but the anticipated battle overshadowed it. Perhaps letting off some steam would help them both out. The two Alloys, Rhys, and Zena resumed their walk.

They traveled through the caverns and into the Hot Spot training hall—the same one he fought with Manny in, and where he fought Jerry—Owen turned around. Har continued to walk with the rest of his team to the opposite side. “Okay. Let’s plan, guys,” he said. Zena and Rhys both looked at one another and stood to the sidelines, figuring that this would be something that the Alloys would need to do on their own.

The two Charizard had their backs toward one another, far, far out of earshot. They stole glances behind one another a few times, then quickly looked toward their team again.

“So,” Owen said, “I think Har has… some identity issues going on. I don’t want to make him think that we’re exactly the same.”

Har addressed his Alloy, “There’s no way we’re going to act like them. If Owen thinks he’s going to try to outsmart us by thinking of what he’d do, he’s in for a surprise.”

Owen nodded. “So, I think we should do something different.”

Har slammed his right fist into his left palm. “Let’s do something totally different.”

“Like what?” Ax and Demitri asked.

“Well,” Owen said, “to be honest, I was kinda thinking, er… you guys remember Brandon?”

“I, uh,” Har hesitated. “Actually, there’s this idea I heard about from Dad—I mean, Eon, a long time ago…”

“Brandon?” Gahi asked. “Th’ Machoke? Oy, wait, yeh mean—”

“What idea?” Lygo asked. “Wait, you mean—"

“Exactly,” Owen and Har said.

And after enough deliberating, Owen turned around first, waiting for Har to do the same. “What, you finished planning already?” Har asked upon turning.

“We had a reference,” Owen said.

“Well, we’re ready, too,” Har said, grinning proudly. “Don’t think it’ll be so easy to beat us like this. It’s a totally new strategy!”

“It is?” Owen asked. His flame blazed yellow. “Well, I can’t wait to see it! Maybe we can learn from each other!”

Har’s tail blazed in the same way. He masked his enthusiasm. “Y-yeah, sure. That sounds okay, I guess.”

Owen frowned. “You don’t want to?”

“No, I just—can we just fight?!”

“Oh, s-sorry. Right.” Owen looked back at the other three, nodding. Har did the same.

The two trios stepped into the arena, and both Owen and Har drooped their wings.

“Wait… what?” they both said.

It was the same formation. Mispy in the middle, with the two Dragons on either side, and with Har and Owen in the back as commanders.

“But… but it was supposed to be different,” Owen said. “I—I was basing my model off of the Steel Guardian! You know—the human? This was supposed to be like a trainer battle—from that ancient human world!”

“Wh—” Har shook his head. “We were gonna do the same thing to catch you guys off guard! The—Dad—I mean, Eon told us about it!”

“Dad—I mean, Eon knows?” Owen asked. “About humans?”

“Yeah, I mean, he’s been around a while. He probably knows all the tales,” Har said. “Do you remember him telling you about them?”

Owen winced. “Not yet,” he said. “Maybe vaguely?”

Har grumbled, crossing his arms. “We… we came up with the same strategy.”

“If I may interject,” Rhys spoke up, raising a paw.

“Oh, what do you know?” Har hissed.

“W-wait,” Owen said, “what is it, Rhys?”

“I, er…” Rhys hesitated. “I recommend you fight regardless. With the strategies you’ve devised. Perhaps it’s not as similar as you think.”

The eight all looked at Rhys with skepticism, and then toward one another, at their doubles.

“It’s quite a tantalizing endeavor, don’t you think?” Rhys said. “You can compete with one another’s strengths directly. You will see the differences then. Besides, Owen, Har, do you not want to determine which of the two of you would work as better commanders? Better leaders, better thinkers in the heat of battle?”

Both their flames burned bright again. Har folded his wings down, crossing his arms. “W-well, I—”

Owen shuffled his wings and his feet. “Well, m-maybe—”

They finally sighed. “Okay,” they both said. They exchanged another look, lingering in each other’s eyes briefly. For just a second, Owen sensed some form of kinship—not rivalry. But that faded into the crackling atmosphere of competition.

“Ready when you are,” Har said; by his words, Ani, Ax, and Lygo entered a battle stance.

“Right,” Owen said, and Mispy, Demitri, and Gahi did the same.

Zena glanced at Rhys with a wry smile. “How manipulative of you.”

“N-necessary evil,” Rhys muttered, avoiding her gaze. “They need this.”

“I’m sure,” Zena said, giving Owen an encouraging grin.

The two Alloys stared at one another again, tense and ready. Yet they didn’t make a move. It seemed like they didn’t know how to begin—at a perfect mirror toward one another, they didn’t know how to approach. Every so often, Ax and Demitri would twitch in the same way, or Ani and Mispy would try to maneuver in the same, mirrored direction. Lygo and Gahi were locked in the most intense stares.

Har and Owen, a few paces behind their respective trio, looked ready to shout their first order, but hesitated that it might be the same one.

“…Is something wrong?” Zena called.

“They don’t know how to begin,” Rhys said. “Hrm. Very well—I will assist.” The Lucario got up from his sitting position and flared his aura slightly. “I’m aware of a few human traditions myself, I must admit. I heard it the same as Eon did. If you wish, I can help… send things off. Would you like me to do something?”

“Anything,” Owen and Har said.

“Of course.” Rhys cleared his throat, murmuring to himself. Then, he raised his voice to announcing “…This will be a battle between Team Alloy of the Thousand Hearts, and Team Trina of the Bug Guardian. On my call, this will be a three versus three battle, with assists from their tr—their leaders. Are the combatants ready?”

“Ready!”

Har and Owen caught the glint in each other’s eyes. They both smirked, tails burning blue.

Rhys fired a weak Aura Sphere into the air, detonating it a split-second later. Cyan dots swirled in the air, filling the battlefield with harmless embers.

“Begin!”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Content warning: A battle between two mutant teams will generally lead to bloodier results, even if it's just sparring.

Chapter 56 – Mirror, Mirror

The first clash was between Gahi and Lygo.

The first blood on both sides came from claw marks, identical, from the two Flygon. They instantly turned around and went at each other again, startling Demitri in the middle of his dash.

“Demitri, block!” Owen shouted.

Demitri looked forward and narrowly grabbed Ax’s arm, just before one of his blades would have come down upon him. That left Mispy and Ani to both close their eyes and bring a reflective barrier around both of their teams. The transparent bubbles partially obstructed the strikes from the Haxorus and Flygon pairs—but it wasn’t nearly enough to stop them completely.

Har shouted next. “Lygo, distract Mispy!”

The Flygon redirected himself in an instant, slamming straight into the Meganium’s many vines. This was enough to keep her from interfering with Demitri and Ax, who were still grappling against one another near the center of the caverns, though it seemed like Ax had a slight edge in strength.

Ani slid back. Owen instantly knew what that meant, and he could feel it in the way her muscles tensed, channeling energy through her body. She was charging her Solar Beam—a single one of those strikes could disrupt the entire clash. And with Lygo distracting Mispy—

Owen didn’t have time to think further. Gahi was moving on his own, chasing Lygo down to keep him away from Mispy. The Meganium, seeing Ani charging, mirrored her strategy—

“No, Mispy!” Owen shouted, knowing that she’d do it too late. “Heal Gahi! He’s hurt!”

Gahi, hearing the order, retreated back to Mispy with Lygo in pursuit, but once Mispy sent a wave of healing energy toward him, he smirked at Lygo.

Har raised his arms and wings. “No, Lygo! Back!”

The two Flygon narrowly missed one another. Mispy tried to swat at Lygo with a vine, but he was too fast to hit.

“Ax, now!”

Ax pulled away from Demitri, but the latter pressed forward in retaliation. He fell on top of Ax.

With his tail and legs, Ax kicked Demitri into the air. Just then, Ani blasted a solid, white beam of energy from her petals. It was a direct hit, singing Demitri’s scales and blinding him at the same time. Excess energy spiraled in all directions, bouncing off walls and disintegrating mushrooms. Zena ducked and narrowly avoided a stray blast; Rhys remained still, the energy singing a bit of his fur.

Demitri roared and stumbled back, covering his eyes.

Ax drew his tusk-blade again and rushed for Demitri for the finishing blow.

Oh, great, he’s blind?! Owen clutched at his horns in a panic. Ani charged her Solar Beam just a bit faster than Mispy could. Ax was a bit stronger. And while Owen couldn’t quite tell, it seemed like Lygo was a bit more agile, too. They really were slightly better versions of Team Alloy. But that didn’t mean they’d lose. He was better than Jerry in almost every way as far as combat was concerned, and he still lost. It wasn’t hopeless.

First things first—Demitri was blind. Owen had to be his eyes. “Demitri, dodge right!”

He obeyed, and just then, Gahi slammed into Ax from the side, knocking him over. Lygo came swooping in a split-second later to grapple against Gahi for a second time.

“Ani, heal up Lygo!”

Healing would be the worst thing for Owen. If they could just take out Ani, the whole team’s stamina would go down tremendously. “Gahi, keep Lygo away from Ani!”

With Owen distracted, Demitri was wide open. Ax swung his blade horizontally against Demitri’s side, slicing through part of his scales like butter. It only stopped because Demitri used his hand to push the blade down, jamming it against his own flesh. Demitri screamed and thrashed his free hand forward, connecting with a single, desperate punch to Ax’s chest.

The impact was so loud that even Owen felt the air compress around his head. The resultant shockwave was even more devastating to Gahi and Lygo, who had been right next to them. In midair, they stumbled away from the two Haxorus, yet they still clawed fiercely at one another. Blue flames coated their arms, Dragon fury imbued within each blow.

They wouldn’t last at that rate, and Owen needed Gahi to keep the pressure on the rest. “Gahi, fall back!”

“Lygo—keep chasing him!

Owen flinched. Har was actively trying to break the symmetry in their battle styles, wasn’t he? He was being defiant. That wasn’t an optimal choice—Lygo pursuing Gahi would bring him right into their territory. Was Har just trying to break their similarities?

Owen pushed the thought away. Not important. Not now. He had to win. “Gahi—get to Mispy!”

Take him down!” Har roared.

Owen realized that he neglected to give Mispy any orders; now, she was operating on her own. As a result, she blasted her own charged Solar Beam at Gahi. His reflexes were quick enough to see the flash that he tumbled out of the way in midair. The blast singed his wings, but nothing else. Lygo, who had been focused on Gahi, didn’t tumble fast enough. It grazed his entire right side, badly burning his arm and wing. He shouted in pain and banked back, falling toward Ani.

Owen realized just then that there was no way they were going to make any progress on either side until they took out Ani. Owen recalled during sparring sessions long ago that Gahi could never hurt Mispy faster than she could heal. It had to be Demitri.

“Gahi! Attack Ax!”

By now, Gahi was back at full strength, stretching and flexing his wings to ignore the relatively minor burn. “You got it,” he growled.

“Lygo! Go after Gahi!”

What’s he doing?! Owen did what he could to stop from hyperventilating. That wasn’t a good strategy at all. That left Demitri free to strike Ani, didn’t it?

Ani slid away from Demitri, her petals aglow with solar energy. But Demitri, while slow, was still faster than the opposing Meganium’s charge.

“Mispy, Light Screen! Weaken that Solar Beam as much as you can!”

Mispy obeyed, a second barrier enveloping and enhancing the first, coating around the team like a suit of armor reminiscent of Rhys’ aura techniques.

Har stuttered, “A-Ani, quick, Reflect!”

Demitri was already there, Dragon fire coating his arm. With a single swipe, he slashed across Ani’s huge body, cutting countless vines with the shockwave of his claws while further singing the main body in a diagonal line. Ani roared in anger—she, too, did not feel pain, even as green blood gushed from her body—and slammed her remaining vines against Demitri. That was when the Haxorus used his free hand to pull out one of his tusks.

Demitri brought his arm up. The blade—A crimson red color like the lining of his claws—swung across all of the vines that wrapped around him, slicing through them like noodles. He pulled back and grabbed his second tusk, knowing that Ani was already severely weakened. They only needed one more strike to finish her off.

Sick, pale green energy coursed through the blades, channeled through his arms and his thrashing aura. Demitri stepped back once to get in a better position, flicking his tail. Ani flinched, looking for a way out, but her huge body was too sluggish. Lygo was occupied with Gahi; Ax was chasing after the Flygon pair. Mispy struggled to keep up with the speedy duo.

That left Demitri completely open, no matter how helplessly Har yelled for her to get out of the way. He slashed down, sending that green energy out in a devastating, cross-shaped slash that lit up the cave.

The X-Scissor left Ani stumbling forward, hissing. Her neck was low and her eyes were crossed. Her petals—a few of them cut up—glowed, then dimmed, and then flickered defiantly with life. But after a few seconds of struggle, the blood loss was too great. With an angry look in her eyes, her head drooped, eyes narrowed, too weak to move.

“Gahi! Left! Right!”

All while Demitri was fighting with Ani, Owen struggled to guide Gahi out of the two-pronged attack. Mispy’s petals were alight with energy, but she couldn’t get a clear shot at Lygo or Ax. Was Ax a bit faster than Demitri? No, he wasn’t—but he was staying close to Lygo. They were fighting near one another intentionally—was that part of Har’s plan? To keep Mispy from firing any shots by keeping an ally too close?

“Wait, no!” Owen said.

In a brief upper hand, Lygo wrapped his tail around Gahi’s legs. Then, he used his arms to bind him from behind, his slightly serpentine body doing wonders to keep Team Alloy’s mutant Flygon from struggling free. Ax rushed toward Gahi, fist balled up in blue flames.

“Mispy! Aim right in front of Gahi! FIRE!”

Mispy obeyed, but the blast came too late to save Gahi from the blow. Lygo pushed him forward at the exact moment Ax landed his Dragon strike. The sound of fist on chest echoed through the cave, the impact sending Gahi flying straight toward Owen. He dove in the way, reflexes telling him to cross his arms in a Protective stance, but he fought it. He held his arms out and caught Gahi with his softer body, skidding backward and onto his back.

Weak, golden light enveloped Gahi’s body; in seconds, the restored Flygon jolted awake, gasping. “Buh—guh—wh—what—eh?!”

“HALT!” Rhys shouted.

The authoritative voice cut through the cave’s chaos. First, Rhys walked to Ani, who was barely conscious, yet standing upright. Rhys’ feet were coated in a bit of aura armor to avoid the blood pooling around her.

“What’re you doing?” Har said.

Rhys inspected Ani carefully, holding his hand in front of her face. Her eyes followed them weakly and a low growl emanated from her throat. Rhys felt something gnaw at his shin. He reflexively jumped back—one of Ani’s vines had tried to bite his fur.

“I was wondering why the Reviver didn’t work,” Rhys muttered. “Ani, you’re in no condition to fight. Return behind Har.”

“No,” Ani growled, blood pouring out of her mouth.

“Ani, just because you can’t feel pain doesn’t mean your body won’t shut down. Any further and the Reviver will activate. And you know that means a loss, yes?”

“No,” Ani hissed again, her vines clumsily pushing her body forward. “I’m… not… losing… first…”

“Ani, you didn’t lose first,” Rhys said. “Gahi already activated his Reviver.”

“…Oh.” Ani promptly collapsed. A split-second later, golden light enveloped her, restoring a great deal of her body—but not entirely. It seemed that even for the Reviver—small ones that only restored the body, and not so much in terms of energy—Ani’s body was too bulky to work with all at once.

Ani hissed to herself and turned around, gliding over the blood that she had lost. She went behind Har and curled around herself, moping. Gahi, it seemed, was doing the same behind Owen, clawing at the ground with an irritated glare.

“Hey, you did great,” Owen assured Gahi. “You distracted Lygo and Ax! We took out their Meganium!”

Gahi muttered something in reply and looked away, taking off his goggles to clean a perceived bit of dust from them.

“Keep it up, Owen!” Zena called.

Owen nodded, though he sensed a bit of anxiety from Zena. That was anxiety, right? Owen still had trouble figuring it out, but he was having a lot of fun. They never got to go all-out against someone else in so long. He watched Rhys leave the arena and return to his referee position.

“Are the combatants ready to resume?” Rhys called.

Haxorus Ax and Flygon Lygo on one side. Meganium Mispy and Haxorus Demitri on the other. Owen knew that their biggest problem would be Lygo. He’d be too fast for either of his team to strike. Owen also predicted that Har was going to try to capitalize on that. He had to take him out first before he became a nuisance. But just as he took down Ani, Ax could take out Mispy.

He could tell that Har was fuming. Ani was the cornerstone of their team’s durability, after all, and they took it out. It was all because Har got careless. Perhaps this time it wasn’t out of arrogance like Owen had with Jerry, but defiance, just trying to go against what he—and therefore Owen—would have done. He wondered, if they fought symmetrically, would Har have won by now? They were slightly better than they were, after all.

Or was Har just not as good at strategy? They spent their time under the Hearts, training as a rescue team. What did Har do? They were guards for Trina’s realm, but that was all. Perhaps that was their edge. How could Owen capitalize on that?

“We’re ready!” Har shouted.

Startled, Owen responded as well. “Y-yeah, I’m ready, too!”

Rhys held up his arm. “Resume!”

“Demitri, guard Mispy!” Owen struggled to recall what techniques Demitri was readily capable of. “If Lygo gives you trouble, try—Stone Edge?! And Mispy—charge a Solar Beam and aim for Lygo!” It wasn’t the best combination, but they both worked from a distance, and since he had two slow team members, that was going to be their best bet at striking the speedy Flygon.

“Lygo, attack Demitri! Take him down, but don’t get hit! Try for Earth Power! Dodge his blows! Ax, go straight for Mispy! Blades out, X-Scissor whenever!”

With Owen’s team close together, it was much easier for him to keep track. All of the moving bodies had been close to overwhelming his Perceive, just like it had against Jerry. But now, with just Lygo to worry about as a fast body, Owen thought even faster.

“Mispy, aim up!” Owen said. “Aim higher!”

Lygo reacted by dipping down. Perfect.

“Demitri, now!”

The Haxorus stomped on the ground. Sharp rocks erupted from just below Lygo; he twisted and barreled out of the way, narrowly avoiding the strike.

“Mispy, now!” Owen yelled.

“Right!” Mispy fired her Solar Beam where Lygo had barreled out of the way. Lygo’s eyes widened, but rather than freeze, he beat his wings one last time and narrowly avoided the blast. The residual heat singed his tail, but he sustained nothing more.

Har hissed and shouted, “Counter now! She can’t charge up another one of those! Lygo, stagger Demitri! Ax—throw!”

Ax obeyed immediately, grabbing his first tusk. He hurled it straight at Mispy. Both she and Demitri were too slow to do any sort of dodge or deflection. The blade pierced straight through Mispy’s side, cutting through the vines to get to her ribs, but it stopped short from anything vital.

Har cursed. “Second one!”

“No you don’t!” Demitri said, acting on his own this time. He glanced at Mispy, who seemed angrier than anything that they got such a good hit on her. Demitri gave her a little smile. “I have an idea.”

Owen sensed from Demitri’s muscles what that idea was. The arms were tensing too much, and so were his legs, like he was getting ready to lift something truly massive. “Mispy!” Owen said. “One more Solar Beam! Aim for Ax this time!”

“What, forgot about me?!” Lygo taunted.

Demitri grabbed Mispy by the vines and snuck beneath her massive body. Then, with a grunt, he lifted Mispy into the air, the Haxorus’ much smaller body standing firmly beneath. Mispy’s petals glowed brighter, Solar Beam nearly charged. She flashed her neck in Lygo’s direction. He reacted by flinching away, gaining more distance from her. Exactly what she wanted.

“Now!” Owen said.

Demitri bent his legs and then hopped—still carrying Mispy—and slammed hard on the ground. The shockwave went out in all directions through the ground, rocks heaving in a single, destructive jolt that shook the sturdy ceiling of the cave. Thankfully, this part of the caverns could withstand such force.

It was a different story for Ax. When the ground heaved, he was tossed into the air like a bag of berries, flailing uselessly. He crashed down on his right arm, leaving a dull pain whenever he tried to move it again. Lygo, in the air, was unaffected. Owen and Har both hopped to avoid the rocks, beating their wings a few times to outlast the Earthquake. Rhys levitated off the ground with an aura platform, as did Zena when she saw the shockwave coming toward her.

Mispy’s Solar Beam was fully charged. She aimed her shoulders toward Ax—

A blur rushed past her and suddenly she was blind, dragon fire coating her face. Mispy roared and shook her head, still feeling something caught in her face, though Lygo was already banking around to go for the second strike. Her flailing made Demitri fall underneath her. He frantically climbed out, “M-Mispy! Can you see?!”

“No!”

“Now you!” Lygo said to Demitri, his claw coated in green blood.

“Heard that!” Mispy hissed, turning her body.

“W-wait—” Owen said, body twitching into action. This was bad. If they collided like that, they’d be down another fighter—and the last one he’d have was blind! He felt a tingling in his legs; he glanced down. They were green and leafy, his toe-claws digging into the rock. His heart skipped a beat. He looked at the Flygon spinning and zig-zagging to throw Mispy off. At his high speeds, his wings sang in the air. No matter how fast Lygo went, she could hear him.

Owen recognized that Har saw this, too. The Charizard’s claws were clenched and coursing with wind along his arm. They had seconds—and at the same time, with Lygo rushing toward Demitri, the two Charizard acted.

Vines shot up from the ground and snatched Lygo right from the air, pulling him onto the ground. A concentrated blast of razor-sharp air slashed along Mispy’s chest, the force knocking her shoulders just enough to miss the Solar Beam completely. Instead, it shot into the walls, incinerating the mushrooms and leaving the wall with a dull, red glow.

Rhys had been screaming some sort of protest—something about illegal interference—but it was already too late. Owen and Har stared at each other with smoke coming from both their nostrils. Rhys scratched his head with both paws, tugging at his ears. Zena just smiled.

Owen and Har stared at each other with a strange gleam of recognition in their eyes. Perhaps they were similar, but at the same time, their differences already seemed quite apparent. Owen hoped that Har could see that more as the battle progressed so he could fight at his best instead of defying strategy just to prove a point.

“So, that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?” Har said.

“I guess it is,” Owen replied.

“I’m sick of watching the fight and giving orders.”

“Yeah, I think we’re better than that,” Owen agreed. “As leaders…”

“We fight with the team.”

“GET ME OUT!” Lygo roared, fighting the tangle of vines.

Owen and Har both smirked at one another—a challenging stare—and flew into the fray.

Har rushed for Lygo and slashed at the vines that bound him. Owen went in the opposite direction and beat his wings toward Ax, creating a flurry of orange dots in the air. These dots—all trapped explosions of fire—floated toward and circled around Ax like little Volbeat in the night.

Ax held still, unable to find an opening. If just one of them detonated, all the others would, too.

“Uhh—” Ax said.

Har jumped away from Mispy just in time to dodge her vines. He curled a second Air Slash toward her, this time right to her face.

“Mispy!” Demitri yelled. He pulled out one of his axes and threw it at the incoming shockwave. Owen sensed their trajectories—it was going to miss.

He slammed his foot on the ground, turning it green. Vines dug through the rocks and emerged right in front of Mispy, taking most of the blast. She earned only a few cuts against her face, red blood trickling down her cheeks.

Another vine grabbed Demitri’s ax in midair, twirled around, and hurled it right back at Har. The Charizard dodged out of the way, but then abruptly turned back. “LYGO!”

The ax grazed the Flygon’s wing, leaving a long, shallow gash against the scales. He hissed and landed on the ground, waving his arm toward Demitri next.

“Uh—” Demitri saw the ground well up beneath him. Earth Power again, and he was too slow to dodge out of the way. Owen didn’t have a counter this time, so instead, he tried to pin Lygo down with more of his vines.

“Lygo, jump!”

Lygo obeyed without hesitation, just in time to dodge a frenzied assortment of roots and plant life erupt from the rocks below. Owen cursed—of course Har would’ve been aware of that. Invisible to the eyes, but totally obvious to Perceive.

What was less obvious were the plans that were cooked up in the minds of the opponents. And, in Owen’s case, his allies.

Mispy’s remaining vines—few as they were—wrapped around Demitri’s waist. At first, he seemed startled, but the confusion lasted only for a few seconds. As if by some wordless communication that only they understood, Demitri readied himself with his one remaining ax.

Many of Mispy’s broken vines receded into her body, lengthening the few that remained intact. Then, she pulled back—with Demitri in her hold—and whirled them forward.

“WHAT?!” Lygo tried to fly back.

Owen took action. He wrapped his vines around Lygo’s legs when he was stunned by the sight of a Meganium swinging a Haxorus-tipped whip toward him. She only needed a second, and Lygo broke free a scale’s width before that. Not that it mattered. Mispy released Demitri at the apex of her throw. Lygo could only twitch his arms in an attempt to block the incoming Dragon. Demitri held his blade back and sliced forward, piercing through his shoulder.

Lygo roared and retaliated with dragon fury in his claws, slashing with his one good arm at Demitri’s face and chest. The impact broke Lygo’s chest, and the rocky wall of the cavern was behind him. At the last moment, Lygo rolled his body in the air, whipping Demitri around so that he would hit the wall instead. They crashed into it with a loud thud, the whole cavern trembling one last time.

Golden light enveloped Lygo and Demitri at the same time.

Owen sensed something flying through the air. He ducked to avoid it, but realized too late where it was heading. “Mispy!”

Har blasted Owen with an intense beam of fire. At first this puzzled him—he could just take the heat and protect Mispy with his vines. No—his vines. He was still Grass! Owen shut his wings and formed a barrier of light, blocking the rest of the blast before his whole body would’ve burned to ash. He had no way to save Mispy.

Mispy was still recovering from her far toss of Demitri when the axes struck her. The one lodged in her body was still a nuisance, but this new ax went straight into her neck. Both were deep, cutting through bone and muscle. Har ceased his flames and cut through the air with his claws again, sending another Air Slash toward the blades in Mispy’s body.

The hit was precise and decisive. The blade in her side dislodged, opening the wound. The blade in her neck went even deeper, cutting something vital. Her whole body went limp in an abrupt instant. Her petals fired a weak Solar Beam in a random direction, hitting nothing but the ceiling.

“No!” Owen turned just in time to weave past another Air Slash from Har. He turned and spotted the smoking, but standing, Ax, who had survived his Fire Trap barrage. Two on one.

Ax slammed his foot on the ground. Owen felt the stone beneath his feet rise and sharpen. He immediately dodged to the left—right where Har had blasted another Air Slash, which grazed Owen’s head. Why was he aiming so often for his head?! If that hit his body, it might have actually done some damage.

Owen’s reckless dodge made him fumble. He could deal with Har. He knew his body. But Ax was dangerous. A single hit from him would end the fight. Owen stretched his wings and flew toward Ax, knowing that without his blades, he couldn’t throw anything. With gusts of wind twisting around his claws, Owen sent wave after wave toward the weakened Haxorus.

Har was hot on his tail, pursuing with the same technique. Owen couldn’t afford that hit. Just one blow would put Har too far in an advantage. How was he supposed to protect against Har and strike Ax?

Ax blocked the Air Slash and stepped out of the way, but he was too slow to avoid Owen after a trivial redirection. But now he was going to collide with Ax!

Owen’s first instinct was to fly back, but a second thought stopped him at the last minute. His eyes glowed with the idea. He made one final wingbeat and flew a body’s length higher in the air. Then, he closed them completely, creating a Protect barrier around him. Then, still Protected, he went straight for Ax.

So surprised at the ball of light, Ax only stood there with wide eyes. The high-velocity impact clanged with an ethereal echo that twisted the air around them, golden light from the Protect radiating in all directions.

But then Ax reached his arms around what part of the barrier he could and clenched his claws around it. And, for the first time, Owen saw his barrier waver.

“What—”

Ax squeezed his arms together and the barrier shattered like a glass bubble.

That’s right…! Owen was helpless. The mutant Haxorus… can smash through Protect!

The world moved slowly. He saw Ax’s arms crash down around him. It’d crush his neck. In what felt like forever, but was truly only an instant, Owen ducked. It missed his neck—but they hit his horns instead.

It was like going blind. Ax slammed on both horns and knocked them loose, and then off completely, leaving those same strange holes that Zena had left when she pulled them off in Trina’s abode.

Owen screamed and slashed at Ax point-blank twice during their fall. Then, he rolled on the ground, bouncing twice with his momentum. Golden light enveloped Ax’s body, but not Owen’s.

But he couldn’t see. No—he could see, but only with his eyes. His head felt bare. His horns were somewhere near the center of the arena.

Now, with Owen on his back, Har walked forward cautiously. Ax crawled away, knowing he was defeated, to recover his axes from Mispy, who had since also been restored partway by her own Reviver.

One on one, Owen to Har. In the back of Owen’s mind, he wondered if this counted as a loss because Mispy had passed out first. But based on the way the counterpart Charizard was staring at him, that wouldn’t be satisfying for either of them. This was the final fight.

Har didn’t hesitate. He flew over the ground with intense wingbeats, never once touching the rocks on his rapid approach. Owen sprang to his feet and opened with a defensive Protect, blocking the first strike. Har kicked off of the barrier and left behind a cloud of Fire Trap dots in Owen’s way. A trivial matter.

Owen jumped back and blew a gust of wind at the cloud, sending it to Har. They detonated, harming nobody, but they left behind enough light that Owen had to squint. He tried to Perceive his surroundings, but no sensation returned to him. His horns—they were gone. Were those truly what granted him his Perceive? That explained why it was so weak as a Charmander, and partway strong as a Charmeleon. But with them disconnected and scattered on the battlefield, he felt… normal.

It was awful.

He saw Har coming in from the right with another Air Slash. Owen dodged to the right and countered with his own, knowing that was the only effective attack he had against his counterpart. But with Har’s Perception, how was he supposed to be able to strike him?

The exchange went for a while, Air Slashes going left and right, yet none connecting. Both played evasively. And with only one target to think about, Owen didn’t need his Perception for very much, even when Har occasionally touched down on the ground to throw him off. It was just a duel at this point, but in their clash, they kept stealing glances at one another. Har’s eyes were wide in some strange recognition. Owen, puzzled, squinted at him. Har shook his head in response.

Neither wanted to stop to speak. They kept fighting, almost at a synchronized rhythm or dance of battle. While Owen had no sense of Perceive any longer, he had a strange feeling that they were breathing as one, hearts in sync. Yes, they were almost the same. Perhaps there were some differences due to how they had been raised differently, but in the end, they were cut from the same cloth. And this was something Har refused to acknowledge. But it was something that Owen had already accepted.

That’s when he realized what he could do. His own weakness was all he had left. The same way Gahi had an advantage over him.

Owen rushed straight to Har.

“H-hey!” Har shouted, weaving to the left. He retaliated with another Air Slash; Owen blocked it with another shield of light. Then, when it dropped, he slammed shoulder-first into Har, square in his chest. He felt the wind knocked out of his opponent and dug his claws in. Har did the same, but Owen had the plan mapped out in his head. With his free hand, he slashed at Har point-blank, intense wind ripping away scales. Some of it cut through the membrane of his wings next, tearing the right one apart until it was no use for flight. They went crashing down, tumbling to compete for who would hit the rocks first.

In the end, Har had more strength remaining, and he gained enough leverage to force Owen’s back toward the ground. Owen concentrated and formed another sphere of light behind them—he bounced, cushioned by the barrier, and rolled further away, kicking Har back. He landed on his feet next and rushed closer while Har was down.

Air Slash, straight for Har. It connected against his left wing this time, putting them both in tatters. He cried out and struggled to stand. Owen rushed even faster, heart beating in his ears. One more strike—

The air around him suddenly exploded with whipping, compressed air in all directions. One of his eyes was cut to the point where he couldn’t see through it, and the sudden explosion of air left a deafening ring in his head. Owen didn’t know what happened, or how, or why. But it was like a hundred tiny Air Slashes had been launched on all parts of his body at once. He crumbled forward to the ground, bleeding from nearly every scale. His hearing returned, but barely.

Har puffed, a foot away from Owen. He had no strength remaining to attack. “…Unlike you…” Har wheezed. Owen felt something squirming in his stomach, but Har was too busy relishing his victorious strike. “I can Trap… all of my attacks. Air Trap… has you done…” Weakly, he raised his arm, gathering energy. His legs didn’t cooperate; whether Har could see Owen’s counter coming or not, he had no way to dodge.

Owen swung his head forward, mouth agape. From the back of his throat, at rapid speed, emerged a vine. Har jumped, trying to fly away, but his wings didn’t allow that anymore. It wrapped around his leg instead. He raised his hand and slashed at it, severing the vine for a painful sting to Owen.

But then he turned his arms green. They lost their shape and split apart into countless, tiny tendrils. He slammed them around Har, ensnaring him in a firm bind. His legs lost their shape next, plunging into rocks. The maneuver was enough to barely prop up what remained of Owen’s mangled body, an amalgamation of vines making up his limbs.

Har opened his mouth and torched Owen’s face with fire. Fire and lava from the environment was trivial. But flames enhanced by aura were dangerous. With the Flamethrower to the face, Owen was blind in both his Perceive and his eyes. But it didn’t matter; he had Har right where he wanted, and he refused to pass out until he landed that final blow.

Two vines emerged from the ground, sharp like spikes. Har had to have known it was coming, but that was the beauty of this strike. Har had no way to escape. Wings worthless, legs bound. He couldn’t dodge. The one way to beat him—to make even the knowledge of an incoming attack useless. To be too fast to counter. Just like Gahi.

Perhaps he got lucky. Owen didn’t care. All he knew was that he felt his legs’ vines pierce straight through Har, from the chest to the back. Owen let go, pulling the vines out, and fell onto his back.

Now on the ground, muscles exhausted and vines wilted and charred, he heard Har let out a grunt. Owen didn’t react. He didn’t have the energy to react. He breathed steadily. His body felt wet from the blood all over, pooling under him. He felt very warm. Almost tranquil. But there was a lingering doubt that Har was still standing. That’s what kept him from giving in. No, Reviver. Don’t activate. Not yet. He could still fight, even if his body refused to move.

One of the vines from his right arm twitched like a finger. That was all he could manage.

And then, Owen heard Rhys. “All four of Team Trina have activated their Tiny Reviver Seeds. Therefore, Team Alloy is the winner!”

A small grin escaped Owen. He heard someone move near him. They weren’t steps, and they weren’t the hulking slide of Mispy. Zena? Owen tried to speak, but nothing emerged.

Something nuzzled just beneath Owen’s neck. “Open your mouth, Owen,” she said.

Owen obeyed. Something cold—a mixture of sweet, sour, bitter—all sorts of tastes—slipped just above his tongue. He chomped down. After a brief warmth, his eyes returned to normal. He blinked the blur away, squinting. To Owen’s surprise, his Perceive also returned. He brought an aching arm to the back of his head, feeling the pointed tips of his hooked horns. Did the Oran Berry also restore them? Those were removable!

The first thing that crossed Owen’s mind was searching for them. He closed his eyes… yes, there they were, on the ground to his right. If he removed his horns again and ate another Oran, would he grow a third set?

Owen stood up, but then winced. His wounds weren’t completely healed, and everything ached. With the heat of battle leaving him, the pain of the fight came at him in full force.

“D-don’t push yourself,” Zena said with a titter, supporting him with her ribbons. Owen gave up on standing alone and fell against her body. “Oh, Owen,” she said, sighing. “Good work.”

Owen weakly nuzzled Zena, mumbling something that even Owen wasn’t sure of. This felt about twice as bad as his training as a Charmander with Azu.

With his horns back, Owen also sensed Zena’s tense muscles and finally realized that she was nervous. At least he was getting better at detecting her feelings. “Zena?” he said. “Are you okay?”

“Oh—I’m fine,” Zena said. “It’s just, well… it was a bit… brutal, don’t you think?”

“Brutal?” Owen asked. His first reflex was to remark that it didn’t seem brutal at all—if anything, it was one of the best fights he’d ever had. But then, with a slightly less blood-drunk mind, he thought about it more objectively, particularly if such a match had taken place in a dojo within Kilo Village. “O-oh. You’re right, I guess in hindsight that was pretty… mmm… Sorry.” He sighed. “I think we all got a little carried away.”

“Well, it’s in your nature,” Rhys said, shrugging. “I suppose it’s healthy to let off a bit of that steam with those who can reciprocate those feelings. I’m just glad Elder’s napping. He never was one for fights.”

Owen still ached, even after the Oran. “I hope we didn’t use up too many Revivers,” he said.

“It wasn’t much. Only seven Tiny ones meant for training like this,” Rhys said. “They hardly are as difficult for Anam to make—let alone hard to find in Dungeons. They aren’t practical enough for proper explorations; without the energy to keep fighting, they’re best used for running away or for practice duels like these.”

“I’d hope they aren’t hard,” Gahi shouted from the sidelines, slumped over. “I still feel like I got slammed against rocks a million times.” He rubbed his head.

Demitri laughed, patting Mispy on the side. He had a few small cuts and missing scales, but most of it had been healed by the Meganium, even after the Oran Berries hadn’t quite patched them fully. But now, Mispy was snoozing next to him, her vines in a tapestry around the Haxorus like a makeshift blanket. For just a moment, Owen remembered why they were together in the first place.

And then a small realization dawned on him. This was the first time they truly got to fight at their fullest as a team—Team Alloy. A part of him was frustrated that he wasn’t able to do that until now. But most of him was happy that it finally came. His memories with them were cloudy, but it felt like the fog was slowly clearing. Yet it still felt like there was so much more he didn’t know.

Ax and Ani weren’t nearly as close, it seemed, and they both stared at Demitri and Mispy with confused frowns. Lygo shrugged and bumped his head against Ani. “Hey, are you holding up alright? You really pushed yourself back there.”

“Hmph, I’m fine,” Ani said, turning her head away. “I’m just mad I was beaten before their Meganium was.”

“At least it was fun,” Ax said, laughing. “We never got to fight the same models before! And not with Revivers, either. They must really get a lot of money to be able to just throw away seven of them like that.”

“Mm,” Ani said, but then watched Har. He was approaching them, albeit slowly, and with his drooped wings. “Poor Har.”

“Why’s he so invested in beating Owen?” Lygo said, tilting his head. “I don’t get it. Sure, they’re the same species as us, but how’s that any different from, say, Rhys and the stupid one fighting?”

“It’s different for him,” Ax said. “We… don’t have their memories. We were made off their models, but… Har was made from Owen. It’s not the same as us. At least, I think so… You don’t think Har’s keeping something from us, do you?”

“Maybe, but who cares?” Ani said. “Har’s always moping. Maybe Owen’s why.”

“Oh.” Lygo nodded. “I guess so. But that was decades ago. He’s a totally different person now!”

“Hmm.” Ani waved at Har. He didn’t return it. “Like I said… he’s in a mood.”

“I’d be, too,” Ax said, looking back at Owen.

The victorious Charizard finally looked up to see Har walking back to his own Alloy. A thought crossed his mind. “Owen!” Owen shouted.

“What?!” Har roared back, but then flinched at himself. “D-don’t call me that.”

“I’m glad we fought.”

Har stared at him. His fists were clenched, almost trembling. “I won,” Har said. “My team lasted longer than yours.”

“Yeah, they did,” Owen said, grinning. The Oran was not enough to heal his missing left fang that he only now realized was gone. He’d need another one.

Har flinched, guard lowered completely. After several seconds of confusion, perhaps both at himself and toward Owen, he huffed a cloud of smoke and walked toward the winner. He held out his hand. “Fine,” he said. “Good fight.”

Owen held out his hand, grasping it. Har’s grip was stronger, making Owen flinch and squeak.

“What?” Har let go, tilting his head.

“Wh-why do you shake hands so hard?” Owen whined.

“You don’t?”

“N-no,” Owen said, pulling his hand away to nurse it with the other. “I guess I just… got into the habit of being more delicate from Mom.”

“Mom,” Har repeated. “The Fire Guardian?”

“Yeah. I guess she always shook hands delicately. And Dad—his arms are… different, so he’s kinda always careful about what he does with them.”

“Oh,” Har said, looking at his hand. “Right… yeah…” He looked at Owen’s hands again, then at his eyes. “I… I can’t go by that name anymore. Owen. I can’t.”

Owen frowned. “How come Ani, Ax, and Lygo are different?” he said. “They don’t… feel as upset about all this. But you…”

Har couldn’t look at Owen in the eyes anymore. “It’s complicated,” he said. “I don’t… I don’t know if I know how to say it. I’m just… I’m you. And I’m not you. And they’re…” Har shook his head. “Well, after a hand shake like that, you’re nothing like me anyway.” He forced a smile.

“Heh…” Owen mirrored it, but knew the issue wasn’t over. But he knew himself well enough to know he shouldn’t push it. Not now. He did, however, have another concern. “Are you hungry?”

“I’m freaking starving.”

<><><>​

“Anam, out for a stroll?” Nevren followed him carefully.

“Mhm!” Anam happily walked down the caverns. “I heard that Wen-Wen came back! Right? You told me!”

“Ah, yes, I did tell you,” Nevren nodded, walking with his spoons floating in front of him. “Quite an interesting pair, the two.”

“Two?” Anam said.

“Yes. Owen and Har are of the same species. That is to say, they’re of the same Charizard base, made from the same Synthetic model.”

“Oh! So, is the other one also called Owen?”

“Hmm, he used to,” Nevren said. “But I overheard that he changed his name to Har.”

“Har. I like that name!”

“I suppose as good as your name hypothetically being Ood,” Nevren said.

“Ood. That sounds like it could be a fun name, too! Would you call me Ood, Nev-Nev?”

“I would prefer Anam.”

“Oh, okay,” Anam said, walking for a while longer. “And I prefer not being controlled.”

Nevren stopped in his tracks. Anam did the same. The caverns were completely silent. A small bit of slime from Anam’s right arm plopped on the ground, and Nevren was almost positive that he could hear the echo repeat three times.

It had been longer than a moment that Anam knew this—there was no way he could Revise long enough to make him never realize. After all this time, he became careless. No, that was because of Eon. Anam would have been used by now if it wasn’t for his order.

“Controlled?” Nevren repeated.

Anam turned around, frowning. “How come, Nev-Nev?” he asked. “I thought we were friends.”

“We are certainly friends,” Nevren said. “I value your contribution to the world greatly. It was through your efforts that Kilo is stable. I have no intention of destroying what you worked toward.”

“Then how come?”

“It was part of Eon’s orders.”

“You said you didn’t like Eon anymore,” Anam said. “When I saved the world from the Divine Dragons’ War, you said that I was better than Eon. When I saved Rhys, you said that I deserved to save the world. And that Eon wouldn’t do it right.”

“And I held my word for four hundred years,” Nevren said. “Times change, I’m afraid. In fact, time is running out.” Nevren held his hand forward, pointing it toward Anam’s head.

“Don’t.”

“I must,” Nevren said.

“I won’t do anything,” Anam said. “If you’re still friends with me… you won’t control me.”

“I’m afraid you’re already under my control, Anam,” Nevren said. “Your instincts have been rewired. If I give the command, you will obey.”

“Do you care about me?” Anam asked.

“I care about you dearly.”

“Nev-Nev… let me go.”

“I’m afraid I cannot.”

“But we’re friends.”

Nevren nodded. “We are. But I cannot. This is my duty.”

“Why?” Anam asked. “Why do you need me like this?”

Nevren was silent.

“Nev-Nev…” Tears flowed thickly from the Goodra’s eyes. “What’re you gonna make me do…?”

Nevren stared at Anam for a long while then. And for a single, fleeting instance, Nevren wondered if he felt something. He shoved the emotion away; that sort of useless thinking was what made Eon throw this entire plan into chaos. He had to press onward. Follow his duty.

The Alakazam finally answered. “I’m going to make you save the world.”
 

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Staff
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
I had to remember where I was up to with this, so I started from Owen's transformation since I remembered that quite well. Apparently I was spot on XD

After reading through Chapter 8, I'm beginning to question why I put this down for so long. Your writing is fantastic. I loved the energy in this chapter. I really felt for poor Owen with all those revelations thrown his way, on top of losing his fire typing and having to adapt to life as a plant. Poor guy.

“Ow.” He at the small hole left behind.
I think there's a word missing here?

Owen’s feathers fanned out, making him look much larger and puffier than before.
Wow. An improvement on Charmander! =P *shot*

In all fairness, this was kinda cute. I like the leafy feathers a lot. And the way his body has changed to having an internal vine as well as a compulsion to cough up seeds was just great!

“That’s your FUR!”

“Of—of course it is! I happen to shed quite a bit during the summer!” Rhys raised his muzzle indignantly. “I wasn’t going to put it all to waste! I made it into a cloak. I wove it with some Wurmple silk for a foundation, let it dry, and—”

“I’m wearing YOU!” Owen squeezed his eyes shut. “Who hoards their own fur?! You don’t see me making a—making a bag out of my discarded scales! I think I’m going to throw up—”
I loved every bit of this. It was hilarious. I mean, why not make clothes out of shed fur? Surely they make garments out of wooloo wool, right?

Owen stared at the cloak of Rhys.
Petition to give that a capital 'c' and make it a canon item to the series? 'Cloak of Rhys'.

A silhouette of a Decidueye rose from the ground in the form of a black fog, the rest of his colors arriving seconds later.
I really liked this description. (Although I didn't expect what happened next, however. I just thought it was a cool decidueye stunt!)

Anam’s office was only about seven of the Goodra’s paces across. Upon entering, the left side was riddled with books covered in a permanent, hard layer of dry slime.
Little details like this really make this story. I love it.

Yet, to Owen, there was an eternity’s worth of between that one and the next.
I think I've spotted another missing word?

I'm curious as to what's going to happen next with the Water Guardian. I have a vague recollection of that cave. I liked Owen's internal conversation with Star, too. The whole thing felt very real, and a genuine believable reaction to everything. Nothing felt forced, and part of me began to put pieces together from much earlier on, too. I began to wonder if Owen is also a ghost since he 'died' at the very beginning? But after his evolution, I don't think that's right. Hmm...

I really need to keep reading this. I'll try to stay on the ball this time! Please bare with me.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Thanks for the review, DA! I'm really glad you're getting back to this, and happy to see you're enjoying yourself! There's certainly more to come and a lot more of Owen's journey to go. Enjoy the ride!

Next up, a chapter where we go on some shopping!

Chapter 57 – Golden Breath

Kilo Village didn’t change much from how Jerry remembered it. The early-noon sun was as bright as ever. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, holding it. Then, he breathed out and stretched his wings, soaking in the sun. Step was back to her normal, Rock-Steel form again, and thankfully Enet and ADAM didn’t have to change much to blend in. They had been worried about Star at first. Step, the strongest of the three Guardians accompanying them, summoned her, but when she emerged, she was instead taking the form of a similarly-colored, but much more mundane Espeon. Unfortunately, she was still see-through. It would have to do.

“It must be strange,” Step said to Jerry. “You are Rock, yet you are also Flying. How do you reconcile your Types’ desires?”

“Easy, high mountains,” Jerry said. “Caves are nice, but there’s no open air. What about you? Steel-Rock, and then Ice.”

“Mm. I’ve grown used to the northwestern tundra. The caves are… not of my Orb’s element, but they appeal at least slightly to my primal desires. It will do.” Step nodded. “Briefly, I assumed the form of a Kommo-o. Caves and dens were appealing to me at the time. Perhaps some of that remained.”

“A Kommo-o, eh?” Jerry said, intrigued. “So, you guys can just alter your forms, just like that?”

“It takes quite a bit of energy and focus to maintain,” Step said. “But after a while, you grow accustomed to it. But never completely. It’s still easier to be, well… what you were born as.”

Enet looked at the nearest building, peering inside, but it looked like a lot of people lived there. She saw three little nests with differently sized Pokémon resting on it. One was being fed a watery, white liquid from a bowl by a Miltank. Another was simply resting. A third was being attended to by an Incineroar. He seemed to have trouble with walking, and the Incineroar was acting as a crutch.

“What’s this?” Enet asked.

“Inconclusive,” ADAM said.

“Hm? I’m not sure,” Step said. “…Ah, wait. I believe it seems familiar to me…” Step suddenly stiffened. She remembered being here, once, only a few decades ago. It was not a happy memory.

“…Are you guys serious?” Jerry asked. “It’s a hospital. It’s where Pokémon that were badly hurt and couldn’t be healed go to recover. I used to go there for my back issues, actually. Threw it out when I lifted something the wrong way back when I worked in construction.”

“Construction. For homes?” Step asked, eying the hospital. “Hospital… ah, Cent…”

“Let’s not get distracted, guys,” Star said. “Let’s head to the marketplace! Bound to find a good bed there.”

“Are you sure you should be taking the front?” Jerry said. “You look like a ghost.”

“Aw, it’s fine! I’m just… practicing astral projection.”

“Is that even real?”

“They’ll believe it if I say it. After all, what else could I be?”

“Literally God.”

“What else could I be expected to be?”

Jerry rolled his eyes. Nobody was listening from the Waypoint. They came at a good time. Most of the Hearts were out on their assignments, and most of the civilians were working. Too early for lunch, too late for breakfast. “You’re just lucky this is during the lull of the day.”

Impatiently, Star tapped her ethereal paw through the ground. “C’mon! Let’s go.”

Enet tilted her head at Star. “Cute.” She pointed at her.

“Cute, eh?” Jerry said, walking with them. “Hmph. She just chose that form because it’s got a similar color.”

“Hey, I pick different forms all the time! Kinda comes with the job description.” She suddenly stopped. “Oh, oh! Okay, actually, can we make a detour for a second? Step, how much did you guys bring?”

Step opened the bag, but before she could speak, ADAM buzzed the answer. “We have been allocated 70,347 Poké.”

Jerry choked on air. “H-how much?!”

“Seventy thou—“

“I heard, I heard,” Jerry growled. “But why so much?!”

“You will have to ask the Gardevoir that question,” Step said. “And perhaps also the polite Lucario. They were the ones who provided the funds.”

“How much…?” Enet asked.

“Ah. You do not know how much that can buy?” Step asked.

Enet nodded.

“Hmm, well,” Step said. “I do not know, either. ADAM?”

“I am not familiar with the raw purchasing power of Poké. However, I am familiar with the prices of a number of items here. Blessed Berries for the purposes of exploration tend to cost approximately one hundred Poké. They are not very filling. Raw foods, such as apples or potatoes, tend to also cost one hundred Poké. Most plant food items cost that much. Meats cost significantly more per energy unit. The cost of food for a carnivore significantly outweighs that of herbivorous or omnivorous Pokémon.”

“Tell me about it,” Jerry muttered.

“Considering food alone, assuming one does not go hunting and foraging, I expect the cost of food for a full year to be approximately 300,000 Poké at minimum for a carnivore, and significantly less for an herbivore. Omnivores will therefore be in the middle range.”

“Sounds about right,” Jerry confirmed. “I had to do these numbers pretty often.”

“What else must be paid for?” Step asked.

“Well, your house, if you have one and didn’t just pick out a cave. But thanks to the Hearts’ whole Beat as One campaign, we still have to pay for any piece of land that we own as a tax. And that’s not counting actually building or buying it.”

“Is that part expensive as well?” Step asked.

“Depends on the sort of home you want to build. If you wanna live right here in Kilo Village, with the cutting-edge of technology and all that? Get ready to live in debt for the rest of your life.” He shrugged. “But me? We lived down south in Pyrock Village. Much cheaper. Not the cheapest in all of Kilo, but it worked.”

“…We?” Step said.

Jerry’s jaw shut tight from whatever he was about to say.

“Mm. I understand,” Step said with a nod. “I will not prod.”

The Aerodactyl relaxed, though his dampened mood didn’t go away. “Thanks,” he mumbled, avoiding eye contact.

“What’s Poké?” Enet suddenly asked.

“Uh, money,” Jerry said. “You use it to buy things.”

Enet stared blankly.

“…Right. Wild.” He sighed, rubbing the top of his snout. “Okay. Let’s say you want to get an apple. So—”

“Tree.”

“Let’s say you want an apple, but you don’t want to go in the trees to get one.”

“Then… no apple.”

“Okay, yeah. Normally. But let’s say, eh, someone else got an apple.”

“Their apple.”

“Yeah. But then, you give them this. A hundred Poké.” He looked into the bag around his neck, pulling out a little gold coin. He gave it to Enet.

She held it confusedly in her claws, sniffing it. Her snout wrinkled.

“Yeah, uh, lots and lots of Pokémon have touched that over time,” Jerry said.

“Gross.”

Jerry shook his head and advanced. “For that, I get an apple, and you get a hundred Poké. Now, let’s say you do that a few times. You make it a job for you to gather apples. Then, people give you Poké for the apples you give them.”

Enet blinked for a while longer, but then nodded. “Apples… Poké. Why?”

Jerry then pointed to a nearby shop. It had much better food items on display there—pastries of some kind. “Now, you can use the Poké you earned to buy something for yourself, without having to do all the work for it.”

“I… give Poké… for apples?”

“Not apples. But it can be, if you want. But for other things.”

“Apples… becomes Poké… becomes… other things?”

“There, you’re getting it.”

“…Gets… everything else? From apples?”

“Yeah.”

“So… if only apples… I, apples, with… that become Poké?”

Jerry’s eyes widened slightly. “Exactly. You’re… you’re pretty bright, aren’t you?”

“Bright?” Her ears flicked.

“Smart.”

Enet flinched. “I’m… smart?”

“Y’seem smart to me,” Jerry said, shrugging. “You pick up on things fast. That’ll do you well, especially since you used to be feral.”

Enet lit up, nodding. “Yeah! Smart!”

“Heh.” Jerry looked off. “Yeah, smart.”

Step tilted her head, making a low, grinding noise when the plates of her neck ground against one another. “You look much better when you smile.”

“E-eh?” Jerry struggled to keep his walking pace.

“Intimidation figures decreased significantly,” ADAM said.

“Rrff. Well, now I’m gonna think about that every time I smile,” he growled. “Thanks.”

“You should,” Step said. “I wish I could smile.”

Jerry looked at the Aggron. “Oh, yeah. Look at that. Your lips can’t move.”

Step nodded. “I suppose if I socialized, it would be a bit difficult.”

“That’s odd,” Jerry said. “Sometimes, I get the impression that you were smiling.”

“Hm.” Step avoided his eyes. “How interesting of you to say.”

Jerry watched Step, smirking. “Like right now.”

Her chin flicked upward, jaws closing tight. “Hmph." She snorted out a puff of ice. “Then perhaps we shall both not smile.”

“Guess so.”

The further they walked, the more Star picked up the pace. “There!” she said. “Hang on, can we spend a bit on this for a second?”

“Uh, why?” Jerry said, squinting. “What is this place?”

Jerry wasn’t very familiar with this part of town. They had gone far north in the crater. Normally, this part was for Dungeon equipment, but even further north held newer buildings for less essential living. The ghostly Espeon stood in front of one of these newer buildings, colored a bright blue, with letters in black at the top. “Smeargle’s Sketches.” Not very catchy, but it got the point across.

“C’mon!” Star said.

“What’re you doing?” Jerry groaned. “I thought we were getting a bed. Don’t tell me you’re the sort to go on some sort of shopping spree the moment you have a bunch of money on you.”

“No, no,” Star said. “Trust me, give me this, okay?”

“Look at that, God telling us to ‘give her this,’ like she’s some kind of little kid. Hey! Are you listening to me?! I’m calling you a kid!”

The interior of the blue building was littered with papers and cloths dusted with paint, and the air itself smelled of the same paint. There was a hint of sweetness to it, too, like bits of berry juice was used to make some of the pigments. No windows. Near the back, they saw a Smeargle working on a large canvas almost as big as he was, standing on a wooden stool to get some extra height.

“Uh, hello?” Star called.

The Smeargle tilted to the left. “Hm? Oh. How long were you there?”

“Not long. Can we get a commission from you?” Star said.

He was so inattentive that he didn’t even realize Star was transparent. “Sure. My prices are on the wall.”

Star craned her neck to see the prices. A large, full portrait went all the way up to 25,000 Poké, and Jerry, fearing for his funds, was about to speak up.

“That one,” Star said. “Small frame, full color. That’s about big enough to put on a little shelf, right?”

“Oh, that’s a popular one. Sure. I’d love to do that. What of?” He stopped his painting and sighed, rubbing the hat-like fur atop his head. “I need a break from this one anyway. I’ll put it on pause. If it’s a small frame, I can probably get it done by the end of today. How’s that sound?”

“Sounds perfect! Actually, I can give you an exact idea of what I want here. Can you lean forward? Close your eyes. I’m gonna give you a vision.”

“A vision? You must be an incredibly powerful Psychic—I’ve never heard of that before.”

“Yep, I’m pretty talented.” Star stuck her nose in the air, earning a muted growl from both Step and Jerry.

Smeargle put his tail down and leaned forward, closing his eyes. Star stared at Smeargle, the little gem in the middle of her forehead flashing once. Smeargle opened his eyes a bit wider than usual. “I see,” he said, nodding. “Of course. That’ll be 5,000 Poké. I’ll take half now, and half when I’m done.”

“Deal,” Star said, nodding at Jerry, who, figuring that it wouldn’t be too much out of their supplies, obliged, pulling out two gleaming, silvery coins and five gold ones.

“Okay. If I had to guess, I’ll be done by the evening. I want to get this in while my mind has that vision fresh.”

“Don’t worry, it’ll last a while,” Star said, nodding. “Thanks!” She spun around. “Let’s go back.”

“Sure.” Jerry said. “I take it you aren’t telling us what you had him draw?”

“Nope. It’s a surprise!”

“I’m getting really tired of these surprises,” Jerry said, following Star out with the others.

“Okay,” Star said. “Let’s go back to what we were supposed to do. Jerry’s bed! And then let’s just hang out in town for a while, huh? Wait for his picture to finish.”

“Oh, it’s a picture for me?” Jerry prodded.

“Uhh—no, I didn’t say that,” Star said.

“You’re terrible with secrets,” Jerry said. “Actually, you know what, I—uff!” He bumped into Step’s back, dinging his jaw against one of her armored plates. “What’re you doing, stopping in the middle of—”

ADAM blared an alert signal, flailing his body. Enet covered her ears and glared at ADAM, muting his general area with her illusions.

Across the road, exiting out of a nearby building with a bag overfilled with little snacks and trinkets, was a familiar, tiny, deadly Espurr.

“So what? It’s just some kid on errands,” Jerry muttered.

“Th-that’s Rim,” Star said. “Oh, of course she’d visit here during the down time.” She looked at the others. “We need to go.”

Rim turned her huge eyes toward them—it looked like she wasn’t expecting to see them, either, based on how they bulged even wider.

Jerry rolled his eyes. “Honestly, the way you’re being, I wouldn’t doubt it if…” His voice trailed off in a long drawl. Jerry felt, for just a split-second, a sharp pain in his back, but that faded as quickly as it came. Also fading was his general ability to feel anything. His legs gave out from beneath him, and his wings refused to cooperate. Enet yelped and ran toward Jerry, trying to wake him up with ineffectual slaps.

The Aerodactyl was awake, but paralyzed. His body twitched and convulsed, a pointed, iron spike sticking out of his back, laced with some sort of potent venom.

“Got you.”

Star and the others spun around—Step slower than the rest—and saw a Salazzle clutching another iron spike, just in case it was needed. Step glanced back at Rim next. She was drawing nearer.

“How bold to try to hide among the crowd, Jerry,” Salazzle said.

“S… Spice…” Jerry grunted.

“Oh, come on!” Star roared. “Jerry! You stupid—I thought Anam cleared your—"

“Sorry for the suddenness, you guys,” Spice said, twirling the spike in her claws, “but Aerodactyl is a very dangerous outlaw. I needed this little activity, anyway. I’m restless. Aerodactyl Jerry! By the power of Team Alight, you’re under arrest!”

Rim stood right behind them.

“Who’s the kid?” Spice said.

“N-now, hang on,” Star said. “Let’s not freak out about this, okay? Let’s just—”

Step instantly became transparent, covering the ground in a thick layer of ice.

Jerry now knew what it was like to have a layer of snow over his entire body. He made sure to avoid the north thanks to the intense cold. He was always wary of Ice Types. Even when he preyed upon the weak and unsuspecting for their change and their equipment, he avoided the Pokémon he’d have a natural disadvantage against. He had the fortune of never having to deal with Icy attacks in his life.

Now he was three feet deep in a layer of slush that froze him like nothing else. He screamed a muffled scream from beneath the snow, beating his wings to break out. By some miracle, he found the surface and clawed his way out and onto his feet. When he emerged, he noticed a distinct lack of Star—Step’s initial blast must have dissolved her spirit, sending her back to the spirit world.

“What—”

“GET DOWN!” Step roared.

Jerry reflexively hit the snow with his body again, wincing at the stinging cold against his front. Just then, a beam of icy energy brushed mere inches above his head, leaving behind a snapping layer of frost.

Kilo Villagers screamed in panic from their buildings, hiding inside. Jerry dared to peek out from his snowy shelter. ADAM was still blaring his alert signal, but he was also concentrating a bright light at the tip of his beak. Enet had disappeared completely—he had no idea where she went. Step held her hands forward, shooting Ice Beams from each palm at something in the sky.

“What is that thing?!” Jerry shouted over the icy blasts. He struggled to stand, but then realized that the poison in his system was still hampering his movement even more than the snow. He struggled to dig through his bag, hoping he had a Cheri Berry on him.

Something touched his left wing. “Spice!” Jerry said.

“You need to explain to me what in Mew’s name is happening right now,” Spice hissed.

“Oh, like I’d know!” Jerry hissed. “These people are insane! Get—get out of here. It’s too dangerous.”

Rim dodged every single Ice Beam. Bags and bags of groceries floated around her. Apples mingled with Oran Berries. Pages of books turned on their own in the wind, large novels trapping smaller comics within. Little trinkets and toys bumped against each other in a cloud above the Espurr.

“Hyper Beam at fifty percent,” ADAM announced.

“What? He’s charging a Hyper Beam? I thought that technique went in reverse!” Spice said. “Just fire already!”

“Normal Hyper Beams are not enough for the Hunter,” ADAM reported. “Supercharging.”

“What does that even mean?!”

“Don’t question it!” Jerry said. “Get this Mew-forsaken spike out of my–AGH!”

To her credit, Spice obeyed, having yanked the spike out of him without a second thought. Blood dribbled from the open wound. Spice slipped a small vial made of sugar into Jerry’s mouth and said, “Bite.”

Jerry obeyed without thinking. Energy surged through him and his wound closed instantly. “Ungh—” He winced at the strong, bitter aftertaste.

“Aggron!” Spice yelled. “Stop disturbing the peace!”

“The Hunter is dangerous,” Step replied, pointing at Rim.

“That little thing? Come now, she’s adorable! A little creepy, but c’mon! And you just froze the entire street! I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Step disregarded Spice’s existence and stared at Rim again. She was still watching them, unblinking.

Step kept her right hand aimed at Rim but knew that the moment she fired, she’d just dodge it again. She used it as leverage. “Why are you here?!”

Rim finally blinked at Step, but then motioned to the groceries behind her, as if it was obvious.

“Tch… a likely story,” Step said. “Where are the mutants, then? You surely have them nearby.”

Rim shook her head.

“Oh, really? You just happened to come to Kilo Village at the same time we do? To get groceries?”

Rim fidgeted with her paws, nodding. The various items scattered behind her rearranged themselves into their respective bags, clicking shut once full. Rim accidentally dropped an apple, losing her focus. She looked back.

That was Step’s chance. She slammed her tail on the ground, sending a huge wave of snow behind her. It buried both Spice and Jerry, and the hulking Aggron flew straight into the air. Her fist enveloped itself in frosty air; despite her bulky frame, she moved from the ground to the air right in front of Rim in a fraction of a second. Rim only had time to stare back at Step and gasp.

She collided with the barrier, shattering her own fist upon impact. Step hissed and drew her other arm back. Rim’s eyes flashed purple. Step realized too late that she wouldn’t be able to dodge it.

The Psychic blasted her to the ground in a spiraling motion, drilling into a building across town. Reinforced rocks and mortar fell on top of her, along with the surprised screams of the inhabitants. They scrambled out of the crumbling home.

Rim hastily gathered her supplies and shut her eyes, ready to disappear.

Spice crawled out from the snow. She puffed a plume of fire into the ice and pulled Jerry out next. The Aerodactyl, shivering and wet, only had a few seconds of what he could call stability—as he was at least on his feet—before a new disturbance ruined his balance.

ADAM fired.

The Hyper Beam was dense and narrow, but the light it emitted made it appear to be almost a fourth the radius of Kilo Village itself. A white core surrounded by yellow and orange swirls, accented with unstable red sparks, slammed against Rim’s barrier. She shut her eyes tight and held her paws out.

The Beam scattered across her barrier, blowing huge holes in the clouds above Rim. Some stray beams deflected back to the ground, scorching rooftops. Others carved new dips in the streets like the claw of some titanic Garchomp.

Step jumped out of the building and then slammed her foot on the air on an invisible platform, reorienting herself straight for Rim. Her fist was healed, and she shattered it for a second time on the Espurr’s barrier. This time, she broke through.

“Got you,” Step hissed, wrapping her claws around Rim’s throat with her remaining hand.

Her eyes widened with panic. Psychic, swirling energy churned around Step, but the Aggron squeezed her claws, digging into her throat. That was all she could do. The Psychic blast tore her arm into five icy chunks. The hand remained latched onto Rim, stuck in its clenched position. Desperately, Step slammed her remaining, handless arm down onto Rim and pushed her toward the ground.

They landed on top of the grocery store, breaking through the roof. Berries, fruits, and vegetables scattered in all directions. An innocent southern Vulpix became buried in the scattered produce. A Froslass and Tangrowth running the shop fled for their lives into the streets.

Step didn’t even take the time to ask Rim for last words. She brought her one arm down onto her skull. At the last second, a final barrier blocked Step from finishing her off. Her eyes glowed and blasted the icy Aggron out of the shop, breaking the entrance apart. She tumbled across the ground and stopped on her back, too disoriented to get up.

Rim gathered up her groceries—somehow mostly intact—and emerged from the shop, staring at Step unblinkingly. Step’s icy claws fell from her neck, leaving behind a small patch of blood.

“Urgh…” Step tried to stand, but a force kept her held in place. “On my back against a Psychic… just like Ra…” She growled out a curse, blowing another puff of frost into the air. “How appropriate.”

Rim’s eyes flashed—but then her entire body suddenly jerked to the right. The Espurr yelped, a bloody wound abruptly forming on her side. A second one appeared next to the first, slashing down her arm. Rim’s eyes flashed to the right, twisting the air, but whatever was attacking her was completely unaffected. A third slash slammed against Rim’s barrier, but then a fourth cut diagonally across her back. She screamed and fell to the ground, panting.

Lithe footsteps kicked dirt into the air. That was enough for Rim to flash her eyes again, this time firing a strange beam of Bug-imbued energy toward the steps.

Enet’s illusion dropped instantly. The once-invisible Zoroark went flying across the street, tumbling and twirling on the ground until she stopped in a dusty, dizzy heap.

Step managed to get to her feet. In the little time she had, she rushed Rim and raised her remaining arm. The Espurr didn’t have time to react, only to turn and stare at the icy death that awaited her.

“NO!”

A concentrated plume of fire slammed into Step’s back, turning a portion of her tail into water. Then, it exploded violently, sending Step clear over Rim and on her partly-melted back. Her left leg shattered, absorbing most of the impact.

“Who—?!” Step hissed.

Standing on the opposite side of Rim, rushing to her side, was a Typhlosion, nuzzling the tiny Espurr’s cheek. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Lavender,” she said quietly. “Go away…”

“No! I’ll save you!”

“I’m… fine…”

“Get away from the Espurr, child!” Step shouted. “Or die with her!”

Step rose to her one remaining leg, holding herself up with her one arm on the opposite corner of her body. A cold wind spun around them, snow gathering and compacting around her missing limbs. In mere seconds, Step’s body was in one piece again. She held out both hands toward Rim and left no time for either of them to answer.

Lavender brought his arms forward and held his head down. A shield of light blocked Step’s onslaught, protecting Rim just behind him.

“Do you really think a mere Protect barrier is enough for me?!”

She kept firing. She delved into the depths of her Mystic strength to press even when the Protect barrier started to fade. Lavender grunted and held his hands forward again. The Protect barrier flickered and shattered.

Lavender yelped in pain, the Ice Beam freezing his chest, leaving large crystals behind that made it hard to move his arms forward again for another Protect.

“Rim… run away! I… I’m not allowed to hurt them… Dad said so!”

Rim struggled to stand, looking behind her. She nodded.

“As if I would allow such a thing!” Step said. She looked up and spotted ADAM finally approaching from the air. She could only tell because of the multicolored blast flying down from him. Freezing, shocking, and burning energies all mixed into one and slammed into Lavender from behind.

He howled, falling forward. That left Rim open to attack. The Espurr wobbled toward the downed Typhlosion, completely vulnerable. “Now!” Step shouted to ADAM.

“Target locked.” The Proygon-Z fired another Tri-Attack for Rim. At the same time, Step unleashed her final Ice Beam at her. If those two connected—based on how Rim’s body was so strained, her barrier depleted—it would kill her. It had to.

“STOOOP!”

Lavender lunged over Rim and enveloped her body in his fur. Ice wrapped around his left side and the mixed auras of the Tri-Attack scorched, shocked, and froze his right. The flames on his back erupted and melted the ice away, sending plumes of steam into the sky.

Step saw him move away. She grunted frustratedly. At this rate, they’d escape. She squinted, trying to read their auras through the steam, but something about Lavender’s aura made looking at them sting. It was blinding. Staring at Lavender was like staring into the sun with wide eyes.

“Ugh, to the void with this,” Step muttered. Her normal sight was more reliable at this point, even with the steam. With a splitting headache from looking at Lavender’s glowing spirit, she opened her eyes.

She saw a shadow in the rising vapor. She had no idea what it was, but it could only be Lavender and Rim. The icy Aggron readied her hands, taking aim.

Something jumped out of the steam. Something Step had never seen before. It moved so quickly that she couldn’t get a good look at it—only that it went on four legs, with a white head and neck, a black body, and green forelegs like talons.

Lavender moved so quickly that Step didn’t have time to change her aim. She fired out of reflex. To Step’s fortune, it hit the creature right between the eyes, split by the strange crest atop its head. To Step’s misfortune, it didn’t even slow him down.

The talons of the strange creature glowed with a fiery, orange aura. Still in the air, Lavender swung his forelegs down onto Step. The fire melted the top layer of her icy body and the impact shattered the rest of her shoulders, leaving her armless. The forward momentum carried into Step, knocking her backward.

“Ungh—!”

Lavender jumped in the air again; his form eclipsed the sun from Step’s vantage point. She only saw his silhouette—and then his eyes, narrow and glowing with a golden light.

A spirit emerged from Step’s chest—a large Kommo-o. And then two more appeared right beside him. All three of them slammed their chests in unison, sending clanging shockwaves toward Lavender all at once.

It was barely enough to disrupt his strike; he fell to the ground and shook his head.

“R-Ra—”

The largest Kommo-o looked back. “Pull yourself together.”

The other two went to either side of Step and helped her up.

Enet, finally awake, struggled to her feet, severely hunched over.

ADAM’s beak was glowing with a halfway-charged Hyper Beam.

Jerry and Step finally rounded the corner in time to see what had happened on the opposite side of the street.

Lavender was completely surrounded, yet it didn’t look like he was anywhere near finished. His eyes glowed, fierce and fiery, like his flame-imbued talons.

Rim sat up. “Lavender…”

He looked back. The golden light in his eyes dimmed. “H-huh?” Suddenly, his body convulsed. He bowed his head in a retch, and then a cough. A golden, ethereal cloud spewed from his throat and onto the ground, comprised of tiny orbs of light. Lavender gasped and clamped his jaws on as much as he could, practically breathing them back in. Despite this, some evaporated away anyway. Lavender coughed again, expelling even more of that golden fog.

In the chaos, Rim crawled to Lavender. She tiredly pulled out a strange device from her pouch—Step caught sight of it. A shining Badge—identical to the ones Team Alloy carried with them.

Step fired another Ice Beam, this time from her mouth, but by the time it got to their positions, the pair vanished in a golden light.

She huffed snowflakes. “Pathetic,” she said, though it was hard to tell—even for herself—who that was targeted toward. And then, she fell.

“Mom!” one of the Kommo-o spirits said. She caught Step under the right arm. “Kana—help—”

The other daughter held Step up by the other arm.

The largest Kommo-o walked briskly to her side. “How are you?”

“The Hunter got away,” she hissed. “Ra…” She glared at him. “Thank you for helping.”

Ra nodded, offering a proud smile. It faded seconds later. “We must regroup. That thing was not normal. Another weapon of the Hunters.” He looked back at the others. ADAM was dispelling his charged Hyper Beam gradually with a soft glow. Enet had collapsed onto her back, breathing steadily. Jerry and Spice caught up to them.

“You’re explaining to me everything,” Spice said.

“I’m gonna tell the same thing to that cursed Mew,” Jerry hissed back.

“Mew?!” Spice said. “You’re kidding.”

“I wish I was.”

Spice looked between them, rubbing her head. She addressed Jerry. “The… ice-Aggron is showing signs of aura fatigue. We need to bring her to the hospital.”

“Sure,” Jerry said.

“After that, we’re gonna get you and these three processed.”

“Excuse me?” Jerry said. “Didn’t you hear me?! I said my name was cle—”

“Fine, maybe not you, but certainly the Aggron and Porygon-Z.” She pointed to them. “They clearly assaulted the Espurr to cause all of this mess!”

“Are you—” Jerry paused. With Spice’s perspective, Step did initiate the strike. But there had to be a good reason for it. Step was one of the most reasonable Pokémon he’d ever seen in this insane collection of nutcases. Was she a nut, too? Perfect.

“Safety first,” Spice said. “Let’s take her to the hospital. If you can explain it to me then, I won’t arrest them, but I can’t say the same for all the other Hearts when they see the damage she did. The—” Spice hissed. “I need to check the other buildings for anybody injured, too. Jerry, you’re helping me.”

“What—”

“I’m putting my faith that you aren’t lying to me when you said your name’s cleared. Help me with this. Besides, isn’t this what you’ve always wanted?”

Jerry grunted. He dug through the bag around his neck and pulled out his Provisionary Badge. “Guess so.”

Step’s eyes bulged. “You idiot,” she said, shoving him back. “Show me that at the beginning. Now I don’t have to threaten you with my poison.” She pointed to the right street. “Check that side. I’ll check the left. Okay?”

“Alright. And what about them?” Jerry said. “They don’t know the way to the hospital.”

“Oh—I do,” Cent spoke up. “I used to work there.”

“Of course you did.” Jerry sighed. “Fine, then you bring him and the Zoroark to the hospital, got it?”

“Okay. Dad! Carry Enet!”

“…Must I?” Ra asked.

“It’s only fair,” Step replied. Despite her exhaustion, her eyes shined with amusement.

A smirk that only Ra recognized. “You’re enjoying this.”

“I am.”

He awkwardly approached the Zoroark, hesitating to get any closer. She locked eyes with him briefly and growled.

“Hello, Enet,” Ra greeted.

A dark aura enveloped her claws. Ra expected as much.

“I’m here to help,” he said, pointing behind him. “I’m with the Ice Guardian. I cannot hurt you.” A simple lie to get the feral to cooperate.

Enet stared at Ra. “…You’re mean.”

Ra swallowed his pride and lowered his head and upper half in a bow. “I’m sorry.”

Enet huffed and got up to her feet, taking a few stubborn steps past him. She couldn’t keep it up, stumbling over her own feet. Ra held his arm out and caught her. She growled at him again, but finally snorted, resigning herself.

They walked along the icy roads. The snow was rapidly melting. The overabundance of water drained effectively through the drainage ditches that lined the edges of the streets.

“Mnngh…” Step groaned. “Golden…”

“What?” Kana asked.

“Star’s… telling us to be careful,” Step said.

ADAM fell in line with the other two injured Guardians. Up close, it looked like the Porygon Z’s beak had somehow deformed from the overexertion of his attacks.

“I was unable to detect aura readings during the battle,” ADAM reported. “Attempting to scan user ‘Lavender’ resulted in a sensor overflow. The scanner had to be rebooted. Three attempts were made with the same results. When light sensors detected a golden color, aura sensors were briefly operational. A large number of individual auras were detected for three seconds.”

“Souls…” Step tried to walk normally again, but she heard her icy joints creak. “Star is saying… that those lights… were souls…” Unable to remain conscious, the Aggron finally passed out, leaving her daughters to carry her the rest of the way.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 58 – In Public

Nurse Blissey squeezed past the clogged halls of the hospital near the center of Kilo Village, balancing a Soft-Boiled egg in her tiny hands. It glowed with golden light. She quickly tossed it onto the Aggron that was in the corner of the room in one of the heavy-duty beds, made from reinforced stone, cotton, and thick sheets.

“Status on Aggron?” Blissey asked.

“She’s stable,” Incineroar replied, looking over at a small screen embedded into the stone. It had white text on a black screen, reading out various numbers and metrics based on countless other devices—mostly for precaution—that surrounded Step’s general area.

Step groaned, trying to move one of her icy arms.

“Please don’t move, Ma’am,” said Incineroar.

“Where… am I?”

“You are at Kilo Hospital. You’re under good wings.”

“The others…”

“They are fine, too,” Incineroar said. “You sustained the most damage, so we’re taking care of you. Don’t worry about anything else.”

“The Hunter…”

“The person you were fighting is gone. Don’t worry about it.”

“I need to go,” Step said, rising up—but something kept her from moving. “What…” She looked at her arms. Strange, black fabric made from some ethereal material wrapped around her. “What is this?!”

“Stay calm. We’re just restricting your movement so you don’t further hurt yourself or others.”

“Hurt others?! I shall make you my first victim, you—”She angled her wrist toward Incineroar, who stared with indifferent, calm eyes. Step fired a weak beam of ice at him as a warning shot. A golden light blocked the beam completely, Incineroar crossing his arms with a deft, routine movement. Step was positive he was trying to suppress an eyeroll.

“Don’t think you can Protect against the next one,” Step hissed.

“Mm. I won’t need to,” Incineroar said.

A new light behind Step caught her eyes, opposite of Incineroar. The black fabric had originated from a Wobbuffet, centralized at the base of its blue, bulbous form. “Sorry,” Wobbuffet said meekly.

“What did you do to me?” Step said. She growled and focused entirely on Wobbuffet this time, channeling her aura for a Blizzard to freeze everyone over. That was much easier. Yet… the strike never came. She couldn’t tap into it at all. Blizzard was simply not there.

But she knew Ice Beam worked. She held her other palm toward the Wobbuffet, drawing from her aura to launch another. But then a blue light enveloped her next, and the charge faded in an instant. “What—”

A purple shadow emerged from the ground, solidifying into a Gengar. “C’mon, seriously? Just keep it together. We’re trying to help you here.” His eyes glowed with blue light.

“Just so you aren’t panicked, we’re keeping you from trying to escape and cause more trouble,” Incineroar said, pointing at the Aggron’s arms. “Wobbuffet’s Shadow Tag prevents any motions of escape. If you moved to try to cooperate, it will let you. But once you try moving to run away, you’ll be pinned down. Don’t do that.” He then pointed to Wobbuffet. “Also, he used Encore on you, blocking your aura channels from switching openings. You can only use the last technique that your aura tuned itself toward. Looked like an Ice Beam. Then,”—he pointed to Gengar—“we Disabled the one remaining channel.”

“Why such elaborate security?!” Step hissed. “Let me go!”

“Because you just snowed over half of the crater,” Incineroar said dully.

“Do you really think these bounds will restrict me so easily?! I’ll—I can so easily break free if I pleased!”

“Oh, by all means, break if you wish,” Incineroar said with a shrug. “You’re too weak to do anything. Look at your aura readings.” He tapped at the screen. Step didn’t understand what any of the numbers or abbreviations meant. “How about this,” he said. “If you calm down, we’ll let your kids and your mate come in to see you. I don’t know what sort of strange variety of Pokémon you are to be made entirely of ice, but they told me you’re from the northwestern tundra. I buy it.”

Step glared at Incineroar. “What is wrong with me?”

“Mentally or physically?” At the glare, he went on, “Well, it used to be horrible injuries, but you seemed to have healed yourself up just fine from that. Somehow. A Soft-Boiled egg took care of what remained. Now, we’re just dealing with some aura strain. I’ve never seen something this unstable before. It’s like your aura’s ready to leap out of your body. Or… well… I don’t know what else to make of it. It’s almost like your body and aura are blended together.”

“Hmph. That isn’t anything to worry about. I feel perfectly fine.”

“I’m sure you are,” Incineroar said. “Do you want to see your family or not?”

Step growled. She settled down, muttering to herself about her own uselessness.

“Then please, don’t make this any more difficult. At the rate of your recovery, you’ll be released by tomorrow morning.”

“Unacceptable!” Step’s energy returned again. “Release me now! There is no time for such foolishness!”

Incineroar sighed. “Gengar. Hypnosis.”

“You got it.” Gengar said, eyes glowing purple.

“Such pathetic tricks won’t work on me,” Step said, staring Gengar right in the eyes. “You may have blocked my aura, but I refuse to fall asleep. Allow me to see my family. Where are they?”

Gengar and Step locked eyes. The purple glow intensified. Step glared harder. Gengar shifted his weight, frowning uncomfortably.

“They’re waiting in the lobby,” said Incineroar after Gengar gave up.

“Would’ve gotten you next time,” Gengar said in a mumble.

“Then you’ll settle down?” Incineroar asked.

“I suppose I don’t have a choice,” Step said, puffing a bit of frosty air into her blanket. After a long silence, she eventually turned her head until her snout dug into the fabric she was resting on. The softness against her steel hide perplexed her. “What is this? Cotton?”

“Yes. Well, wool, I suppose. Or cotton-wool. I didn’t really look into what Mareep shed with a Cotton Spore technique, but they make very good fabric.”

“Mom?”

Step suddenly turned her head, realizing that the black ribbons that covered her arms gave no resistance. “Kana,” she said, sitting up.

“Easy,” Incineroar said.

Step obeyed, slowly getting into a sitting position. “Cent,” she greeted the second Kommo-o and then nodded to the third. “Ra. You’re all okay?”

“We are,” Ra replied. “And you?”

Step looked down. “I am not,” she said. “I failed against some sort of… creature, and a Hunter. It was disgraceful.”

“It was,” Ra said, nodding.

“Dad?!” Kana said.

Ra raised his arm. “But,” he went on, “you did far better than any of the others. There was something… wrong with that creature. I do not know what it was. But the feeling I got—and what Star told us…”

“Souls.” Step nodded. “What did she mean? I can’t hear her any longer. She must have traveled to the others to tell them the news.”

“Whatever it is,” Ra said, “it had her incredibly shaken, and not merely because of how frigid your Ice Realm is.” Ra sat on the bedside. Kana and Cent sat across from Ra. “That monstrosity truly frightened her. But now, you must rest.”

“Yeah, rest!” Enet said.

Gengar and Wobbuffet shouted in surprise at the sudden, abrupt appearance of Enet in the middle of the room.

Incineroar growled. “Who are you, and how did you get here?”

“Zoroark,” Enet nodded, pointing a claw into her furry chest. “And… Zoroark.” She clicked her claws together, disappearing.

“Do not worry,” Step said. “She is friendly.”

Incineroar grumbled something about the place becoming too crowded. “Do not cause trouble,” he said. “I don’t understand all of your strange freak-show talents, but right now, it’s my job to make sure you make a full recovery. None of you put Aggron in any stress.”

“No stress!” Enet agreed, reappearing.

“Enet,” Step said. “What of ADAM and Jerry?”

“Zzz is okay,” Enet said. “Jerry, um…”

“Jerry left to help Spice check on all the buildings to make sure nobody else got hurt,” Ra said. “You indeed filled most of the town with snow. It’s a good thing the runoff system for rain can handle the water melting.”

“Hmph. They’re lucky that they have to deal with snow and not total annihilation by the Espurr.”

“How in the world is an adorable little Espurr a danger to all of Kilo?” Incineroar said, shrugging. “I see her walking through town all the time at this time of day. She’s probably just shy of all the bustle of the mornings and evenings when most Hearts are preparing for missions.” He shook his head. “Don’t cause trouble. I need to check on another room. Our staff can’t handle this influx that you created. Will you guys take care of this?” He looked to Wobbuffet and Gengar. They both nodded—in Wobbuffet’s case, his black tail did.

Incineroar left, leaving Step and the others to brood.

Enet tapped her claw on Step’s arm. “Okay?” she asked.

“Hm? Yes, Enet, I’m just fine. My aura is weak, but as you can see, Ra can still maintain himself, as can my kids.” She looked at her. “Enet, you were seriously harmed. How are you here, now?”

“Healed!” Enet said, nodding. “With… that!” She pointed at the Blissey across the hall tossing a golden, egg-shaped wad of light toward another patient.

“Oh, I see,” Step said. “Blissey are wonderful healers. Though, I imagine it is nothing compared to the mutant Meganium.” She smirked. “Well. In any case. I suppose I will rest.” She let her body drop back onto the cotton, sinking a few feet inside.

Peace and quiet returned to the Ice and Electric guardians.

Just down the hall, with his beak buffed out and repaired, ADAM flailed in protest. “I do not require further assistance. I am… optimal!”

“Sir, sir, it is okay. You do not have to struggle! We only want to check on your inner workings.” A second Porygon-Z bobbed worriedly on ADAM’s right.

A Rotom was on the left, buzzing uncertainly. “There is something strange about your circuitry. Perhaps you loaded the incorrect programs?”

“No such programs are incorrect! I am fully operational. Optimal! All unit tests passed!”

“He’s talking kinda weird,” Porygon-Z said.

“You kinda talk like that if we hit you on the head hard enough,” Rotom said.

“Perhaps he’s concussed,” Z said. “Well, no matter. Fellow kin, would you mind, uh… holding still? We’re going to try to do a system patch.”

“You do not have the necessary user permissions.”

“Sorry, not a choice. That fight must’ve banged you up pretty bad.” Z nodded to Rotom. His body crackled and jittered, plunging into Z’s body. He shivered, “Urgh—okay. Okay, that’s good. Digitizing… now!” Z, possessed by Rotom, became nothing but a crackling streak of colored lights. He shot directly into ADAM’s chest.

He let out a blaring alarm again, buzzing and screaming with his head spinning rapidly atop his body. “ACCESS DENIED!” he roared. “MALWARE DETECTED!”

“What on Kilo is going on in here?!” Incineroar stormed in. He quickly ducked, narrowly dodging a wad of floating frost crystals. Upon hitting the wall, they exploded and left behind a chunk of ice. By his feet, a ball of electricity crackled and exploded in the same way. Going right for his chest was a ball of fire. Incineroar grabbed it and threw it to the ground, grunting.

ADAM blared klaxons, shouting again about malware, viruses, and unauthorized access. Incineroar rushed out to call for Gengar, but instead ran into an Aerodactyl.

“Ugh—sorry,” Incineroar said.

“What’s going on?” Spice asked, standing just behind Jerry. “And what’s that noise?!”

“Sounds like the tweaking Porygon,” Jerry mumbled.

“Porygon-Z,” Spice said. “Don’t get lazy with their names. They get really offended.”

“Yeah, sure.” Jerry rolled his eyes.

“The Normal Guardian appears to be in distress,” said a creature just behind Jerry and Spice.

Incineroar blinked. “What in the world are you supposed to be?”

The canid Zygarde nodded. “Hello. I am here on assignment. Pay me no mind.”

“Yeah, while we were checking out the houses for anybody else that may’ve been injured,” Jerry said, “he said he’d like to accompany us for some business we had. Don’t worry about Zygarde. Besides, according to the legend, these guys aren’t that strong in this form.”

Incineroar stared. “Zygarde. Of the Legends. Here.” He looked at the canine, then at erry. “…Fine. I need to check on other patients anyway. That Blizzard really did a number of some folks. Zygarde, don’t cause any trouble.”

“Understood, Phol.” Hecto bowed.

“Incineroar. Keep it formal.”

“Apologies.”

Jerry peeked inside just in time to see Rotom and Z slam into the wall, dizzy. ADAM then flew through the hospital, alarms on an eternal repeat.

Spice rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “I see what you mean by tweaking,” she said. “Is he always like this?”

“I’ve only known him for a day and, yes, he’s always like this,” Jerry said.

Rotom and Z twitched, barely conscious.

“It’s like a… Dungeon in there…” Rotom said.

“Guess he couldn’t fix his software,” Spice said.

“Software?” Jerry repeated.

“That’s the term their kind use,” Spice said. “It’s kinda like their brains, I think. They must’ve thought your friend had, um…”

“Corrupted files,” Z said. “So many… corrupted files…”

“ADAM is not a standard Porygon-Z,” Hecto explained, turning his unblinking, hexagon-eyes toward Step’s direction.

Rotom’s body fizzled. “I think I’m gonna throw up.”

“Guess we should track down Mr. Corrupted,” Spice said.

“Do we have to?” Jerry said.

“Doesn’t matter. He ran off toward Aggron’s room, and I wanted to have a word with her anyway,” Spice said, tapping him on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“I, too, would like to speak to the Guardians all at once,” Hecto said.

“Okay.” Jerry pointed a wing at the Zygarde angrily. “what’s your deal? I’ve never seen you until now.”

“I am Star’s eyes,” Hecto said. “I watch. However, due to the extreme circumstances, I am here to interfere and report. I suppose in that sense, I am now her paws.”

“Well, don’t interfere with me,” Spice said. “I need to give that Aggron a little taste of the law.”

“You aren’t seriously going to arrest her, are you?” Jerry said. “Once Anam finds out about this, she’s gonna be let off with a warning, at most.”

“Doesn’t matter. Nobody’s above the law, and she just iced over half of Kilo Village. That kind of destruction can’t go unpunished.”

“Fine, fine, your funeral,” Jerry said. He followed after Spice, mumbling, “Consider yourself lucky nobody got killed. Though a few homes are gonna need to be rebuilt…”

They entered the emergency room—something that, at first, startled Jerry. His eyes darted around at the familiar scenery, heart racing for only a few seconds. He gulped, looking down.

“Hey,” Spice said, holding his shoulder. “It’s alright.” She stepped in and waved down Wobbuffet. “Is Aggron doing okay?”

“She’s doing better,” Gengar answered for him. His eyes briefly focused on the crackling scar on Spice’s chest, but after a fierce glare by the Salazzle, Gengar averted his eyes. “Aura is still giving off weird readings, but the stability is going up, so that’s all we’re worried about. And, uh… you, uh… hey. Are you another one of those weird Pokémon?”

“Hello,” Hecto said. “Do not mind me. Finish your interactions.”

“Hi, Jerry!” One of the Kommo-o cheerfully waved at the Aerodactyl.

“Eh, hi,” Jerry said.

“…Okay,” Spice said, staring at Jerry. “Why are there three living ice sculptures of Kommo-o in the hospital with an Aggron the same way?”

“I told you,” Jerry said, “you don’t want to get involved in all this. You think this is weird? Just wait. The second you see Anam for how he really is, you’ll start reconsidering if you want to retire early.”

“Oh, please,” Spice said, looking at the four. “I think it’s interesting. Besides, I already know there’s some crazy darkness about Anam.”

“…Excuse me?” Jerry said. “What? No. He’s a happy bundle of immortal slime, not—”

“No, there’s more,” Spice said, looking at Jerry. “What you’re telling me just confirms it. Hmph… anyway. You. Aggron.”

“Yes?” Step said.

“You do know that you are under arrest for disturbing the peace, property damage, and negligent use of aura, right?”

“I care little for your laws,” Step said. “I saved your lives.”

“Seven Pokémon were seriously injured and fifty more suffered minor injuries,” Hecto reported monotonously. “Additionally, three buildings were completely demolished, and approximately a quarter of all Kilo Village properties are partially flooded.”

Spice nodded. “Yeah, about that,”—She flexed her claws in a wave-like motion—“you attacked first. I was there, and I saw the whole thing. That Espurr was buying groceries. She showed zero signs of aggression. Everything she did was in self-defense. I don’t know what kind of crazy powers she had, but whatever feud you have, your mistake was taking it to Kilo Village. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to take you in.”

“Bold of you to assume you can subdue her,” Ra spoke up with a scowl. “My mate could overpower you all if she wished. She is only behaving this way to be cordial.”

“Strong!” Enet said.

Spice blinked at Enet. She prodded Jerry again. “Is she—”

“Feral, yeah. Not sure how she’s talking.”

Spice shook her head, finally spotting ADAM spinning his head in the corner, muttering something about defragmenting.

Spice rubbed her head. “Look, I’m not gonna question it. You’re made of ice, apparently an Aggron and a Kommo-o can be mates, and ferals can talk. Got it. Today I learned a lot. But the point is, Aggron, if you want to lighten any of your punishments, and if what Jerry’s saying is true about Anam giving you some kind of pardon, then you’ll cooperate with us. How does that sound?”

“Trust me, Step,” Jerry said, “just work with her. It’ll be better this way. Besides, we aren’t taking you out now, right?”

“No, we can’t discharge her,” Gengar said. “Her aura is still unstable, and we’d like to keep an eye on her in case she needs another Soft-Boiled treatment.”

Spice nodded. “Alright, that’s fine. Then how about this. Is she fine now?”

“We were told to keep an eye on her because she was being… uncooperative.”

“And rightfully so, restraining her like that,” Ra snarled. “I have half a mind to strike you all.”

“V-violent threats are going to just increase your charges,” Gengar said.

“Hey, you guys need to tone it down,” Cent said, tapping Ra on the head. He flinched and growled at her, but Cent held her glare. “These guys live to help you. The least you can do is be grateful. You’re just being a nuisance.” She looked at Step. “Both of you. You’re being awful patients right now. Try having some dignity.”

“Dignity?” Ra said. “How is this any—”

Cent flicked Ra on the snout, earning a surprised snort. “Dignity,” Cent said again. “Learn to accept help. Enough of that stupid Dragon pride.”

Ra opened his mouth partway to retort, but no words emerged. He glanced at Step.

The Aggron huffed a cloud of snowflakes and turned away. “Very well.”

Gengar blinked. “…You… sound familiar,” he said to Cent.

“I—I do?” Cent asked, flinching. “What’re you talking about?”

“You know, I don’t really know for sure,” Gengar said. “Wait. Your mother—no offense, but, your biological mother—did she happen to work here once?”

Cent blinked. She pointed to Step. “She’s my biological mom, sorry.”

“But… you’re a Kommo-o.”

“Yeah, because of my dad.”

“But… that’s not… how…”

“It’s complicated,” Cent dismissed.

Gengar frowned, but then his eyes glimmered. “Oh, I get it. Transfer Orb, right? That must’ve cost a pretty Poké.”

“Guess it’s kinda bad that everybody knows we exist,” Kana whispered to Cent. “What’re we supposed to do?! Star can’t erase all their memories! And Nevren can’t, either, right? That was the thing he usually did? But Mom iced the town! And now we’re here!”

Spice groaned. “Maybe I should retire early,” she mumbled. “Hey, Gengar, Wobbuffet. Go tend to the other patients. I don’t think Aggron’s going to cause any trouble for now. Looks like she’s content enough with just having her family around. And if she does cause trouble,” Spice said, winking at them, “I’ll take care of it.”

That, it seemed, was enough. They left to tend to other patients more in need of their help.

Step finally relaxed, deflating against her mate when the black fabric dissolved around her. “It has been a while,” said Step, “since I felt so… weakened.”

“More recent for me,” Ra said, clearing his throat. He made an uneasy glance at Enet.

The Zoroark growled at him.

“Hello, Zoroark,” Ra said.

“Enet,” she replied, growling.

“Right, of course. Enet. Star gave you that name, didn’t she?”

“Nice Star. Mean you.”

Ra snorted. “Ironic.”

“Dumb word!” Enet said. “Glad you’re dead!”

“I feel very alive,” Ra said. “Death only comes to a spirit that has given up!”

“Then give up!”

“Enough,” Step boomed, rubbing her head. “You bicker like children. Enet,”—she pointed at her—“Ra means you no harm. He made mistakes in his past that he has already paid for with the end of his life. And with his death, he remains in my company. I apologize that you were forced into the Guardian life, but the true person you should blame for your circumstances is Star, not my mate.”

Enet growled, sticking her nose in the air. “Mean.”

Ra sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Is she always like this?” he asked Jerry.

“How should I know?” He looked to Spice. “Look, I don’t know the full story here, but as crazy as these guys seem, Step’s one of the more reasonable ones. So, if she attacked Espurr, there’s a good reason for it. Right?”

“Absolutely,” Step said. “She is a Hunter. She attempted to kill me only one day ago with her mutant subjects.”

“Mutant?” Spice repeated. “Wait—you mean those freakish Pokémon that’ve killed Kiloans? We’re still rebuilding Milli Town out east…”

“Exactly those,” Jerry said. “Back when I first got arrested, I ran into some crazy Snorlax that was more muscle than fat. I don’t think I could’ve run away faster. Felt like a Ninjask. That thing could’ve turned me into dirt with one punch. Of course I got out of there.”

“Comforting,” Spice said with a mumble. She then addressed Step again. “So, she’s the leader of the mutants that have been causing trouble in certain areas? You know, we’ve had to clear out and evacuate small villages because of that. We even lost Granbull Jin—Mew rest his spirit—last year to one that came too close to Kilo Village.”

Jerry nodded. “Yes. She’s behind it. And I met another one of them, too, back when I was getting, uh, treated.” He tugged at his scarf to make sure it was still on tight. “His name is Eon. And he’s even stronger than Rim. I don’t know why she’s here in Kilo Village, but I don’t think she should be allowed inside. When I see that slime dragon again, I’m gonna ask him if he knew about this…”

“Mm. And what about that… thing that was with her? I saw a glimpse of it. Like it was transforming into different things, but then it became some kind of… mashed up version of a bunch of different Pokémon, all at once. What was that?”

“An abomination,” Step said.

Hecto cleared his throat.

“It coughed up souls!” Cent spoke up, not hearing Hecto. “That’s… Why would something have more than one soul inside it!?”

“Well, figure that’s possible with Team Alloy if they fuse,” Jerry said, “but yeah. Not like that. If those golden lights really are souls, I gotta wonder why. Actually, second question: when you say soul, are you talking about that Book of Arceus junk? That stuff’s actually real?”

“I gotta hear this,” Spice said, leaning forward with interest. “No offense to Arceus followers, but Mew’s more my kind of Pokémon, if you get what I’m saying.”

“Nobody’s really surprised by that,” Jerry said. He yelped when Spice’s tail whipped him on his lower back.

“Go on?” she asked Step.

Step shrugged. “The concept is strange to me as well. Body, aura, spirit, they are all layers to us. That is all I know. Perhaps some are the same. I did not pay attention to Star’s explanation since it has little relevance to my daily life.”

“Perhaps now it’s relevant,” Ra said. “If the Hunters are creating a creature that can contain countless souls inside, there must be a reason, just as there’s a reason to be creating mutants that can fuse together. Seeing as that thing was able to so easily strike Step down… perhaps this is the next step in the Hunters’ inventions.”

“Comforting,” Step growled. “Perhaps that is why Star was so upset.”

“Star?” Spice finally asked.

“Oh, just Mew,” Jerry replied with a casual wave of his wing.

“Oh, okay.” Spice rolled her eyes. “Why not.”

“Excuse me.”

Heads turned toward the entrance.

“Oh, right, you. Zygarde. You kinda blend into the background, don’t you?” Jerry said. “I forgot you were here.”

“That is generally my role,” said Hecto. “My name is Zygarde Hecto. I am Star’s eyes, but at the moment, I am here as her mouth. She is traveling across the ethereal forest to find the others, and tasked me with communicating the rest of her words.”

“This day just gets better and better,” Spice said. “The Legendary Zygarde… well, part of him, at least. You’re a lot smaller than the Book says you are.”

Hecto continued, undeterred. “Star neglected to inform the newcomer Guardians—as she thought such a situation would not arise—that Rim occasionally visits Kilo Village under an ancient treaty between the Hearts and the Hunters. They visit for luxuries and other goods to keep the mutants at bay. In exchange, they assist in retaining, controlling, and capturing mutants, rather than unleashing them.”

“Wait,” Kana said, “so Rim… really was just here on errands?”

“That is the general opinion.”

Step clicked her claws against her arms. “Mm. A treaty. Why was I not informed of this?”

“Star is quite absentminded. She did not consider Rim crossing paths. Additionally, the actual treaty was only known by a select few, typically Nevren, Rhys, Elder, and Anam. Rhys and Elder have been involved with one another, and Nevren and Anam were not present. I apologize for not informing you in time, but I was trapped under the snow as well.”

“Do you just wander the town and we’ve never seen you?” asked Spice.

“This was a rare arrival,” Hecto said. “Strange activities have been making Star antsy, so I have been visiting more often. Additionally, I was assigned to inform you that the chimeric creature you encountered is known as Silvally. I know little else.” Hecto’s hexagon eyes flashed once. “Additionally, I recommend returning back to Hot Spot so we can discuss these new developments.”

<><><>​

Two mutants lounged near the entrance to Quartz HQ. One was a Sceptile with a long, winding tail, like a serpent covered in sharp, leafy blades. Another was an Ampharos whose body pulsed in waves of cyan electricity, starting from the head and ending at the tail.

The air smelled vaguely salty from the nearby ocean that surrounded the small island. Their landscape was a field of white sand dotted with grass and palm trees. Behind them was the entrance to a small cave leading underground, marked by a stairway, as well as a large hillside of yellow grass.

A gentle breeze shifted the sharp leaves on Sceptile’s tail. “Hey,” Sceptile said. “I’m sorry.”

“Hmph.” Ampharos turned his head away.

“I didn’t mean it, okay? I didn’t know that was the last slice.”

“You could’ve asked.”

“I thought there was another box, okay? I’m sorry.”

“You knew it was my favorite flavor.” He sniffled.

“I—I know I did, I…” Sceptile bit his claw nervously. “What can I do to make it up to you?”

Ampharos flicked his tail, sending sparks toward Sceptile. “Today’s my chore day,” Ampharos said. “You’re doing it. Then I’ll forgive you.”

He slammed his hands together. “Okay! It’s done!”

“Good.” Ampharos looked ahead. “…And I’m sorry I scorched your comic book.”

Before Sceptile could reply, Rim appeared in front of them, battered and bleeding, with Lavender right behind her, barely able to contain the souls within his mouth. Behind Lavender came a haphazard assortment of groceries and goods.

“H-help,” Lavender said.

They sprung to their feet. “Mom!” they both cried.

Rim’s breathing was weak, and she could barely look up.

“G-get Dad!” Lavender begged.

They obeyed without question, sprinting into the lab, screaming at the top of their lungs for Eon.

It took far too long in Eon’s opinion for him to reach the surface. He, as an Espurr, flew out with the power of wind, kicking up a cloud of sand. Lavender transformed into a Golem and stood in front of Rim, blocking the incoming blast. He then rolled to the side to allow Eon immediate access.

“Rim! Rim, what happened?!” He clutched her fur, but then flinched when he saw how much of her blood had soaked into it. “You’re practically half mortal! W-wait, let me—” He held her shoulders firmly and channeled energy into her.

Rim gasped weakly, holding out her paw. Eon gulped, paws shaking. She saw the huge tears soaking the fur on the impostor Espurr’s cheeks. “I’m okay,” Rim said weakly, forcing a smile.

“You’re far from okay,” Eon said, but then looked at Lavender, who was holding his mouth shut.

“Lavender—why were you in your Silvally form? Never do that! It’s not stable yet!”

“I’m sorry!” Lavender said, three souls spilling out of his mouth. He snapped his jaws around each one, struggling to swallow.

“You tried to fight,” Eon said. “Why?! I said not to—”

“The mean Aggron fought first!” Lavender said, sniffling. “M-Mom woulda been even more hurt!”

Eon stared at Rim next. She looked away.

“It was just groceries. It was just groceries in Kilo. Did—did that treaty mean nothing to Anam?!”

“She didn’t know…”

Eon shakily held Rim, waiting for her to breathe easier. “Rim, is that what happened? Lavender—go inside and put on your Sealer.”

“O-okay. Okay.” Lavender shambled inside, turning into a Scolipede again to roll as quickly as he could.

Eon watched Rim’s wounds slowly close. He heard slithering behind him and looked back. “Dad, do you need me for any help?” It was a mutant Meganium, vines writhing with worry.

“Please,” Eon said, standing aside.

“M-Mom…!” She rushed forward and wrapped her vines around Rim, channeling healing energy into her. With barely a piece of her vine consumed, Rim was back at top health, though her aura was still depleted.

“Take her inside,” Eon said, staring with wide eyes. “Please… make sure she’s okay.”

“Okay. B-but where are you going?” Meganium asked.

“This—this is too much,” Eon said, paws shaking. “I’m—I’m done. I can’t let this go on. This was too close, too—” He swallowed, trying to stay composed for his child. “Don’t worry about me. I’m leaving to see one of your older brothers, that’s all.”

“Okay,” Meganium said. “But, Dad, who—”

“Please, take Rim inside. She needs rest.”

“Okay—okay.” Meganium lifted Rim onto her back and slid into the underground lab.

Eon stared forward. “This is all wrong,” he said, his body slowly shifting to the mutant Charizard’s form. “This is too much. It’s… too much. I’m not waiting. Two weeks… Nevren’s just going to rush me. I’m ending this now.”

He held the Badge in his hands, closing his eyes. “Owen…” And then, he was gone.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 59 – Blessings

Using the Badge to find Owen had been a bad idea: Eon had warped right to the Central Waypoint of Kilo Village.

His tail-flame erupted, and he realized that he had to put his blindfold on before he lost his shape. Sure, he would be fine if he transformed now, but it was so inconvenient and disorienting. No other Ditto in the world had the same overactive Imposter ability that he did—so active that even his Mystic abilities had trouble suppressing it, somehow.

He generally preferred the Charizard body, anyway.

Digging into his pouch, he pulled out his scarf and wrapped it around his eyes, careful that the little lucky charm he liked to keep with it remained between his eyes once the blindfold was tied tight.

He took a single step, and a new thought crossed his mind.

Wait. Should I be looking like Owen right now?

As a Charmander, Owen had the weakest sense of Perceive that Eon was able to tap into masterfully to see where he was going. But as a Charizard, it was almost overwhelming.

If he used Owen’s Perceive—which he still struggled with fully processing when he tried—he would accidentally transform into someone that he ‘saw’ with the ability. That would’ve made the blindfold useless to begin with! He usually had Owen to concentrate on to retain his form if he didn’t have the blindfold on, but even then…

He didn’t think this though.

And why was it so cold? They weren’t deep in autumn yet.

Wait. Was being Owen a good idea? In the middle of Kilo Village, Step and the others would surely spot him. They’d think he was Owen, and then—that was bad.

He really didn’t think this through.

New plan. Act natural. Suppress your aura.

Perhaps having Perceive would be useful after all. He could sense that Step and the others were in a hospital nearby. Powerful Guardian auras that perhaps only Lucario and skilled Psychics would notice. They wouldn’t find him if he kept his aura low and suppressed; they seemed distracted anyway.

Tip-toeing his way through the streets, he earned a few uneasy looks by passerby Pokémon. What were they so afraid of? It wasn’t as if he—

He was a mutant. And he was sneaking around town, and apparently Step had clashed with Rim right in this very street, given how everything was overrun with melting snow. He did it again. He made a rash decision, and now he was in one of the most precarious positions he could have put himself in. A mutant body, with a Hunter aura, in the capitol of the world, filled with Guardians and Hearts alike.

If Nevren found out about this, Eon could imagine the amused smirk he’d give. No, Nevren never smirked. But he would for this, wouldn’t he? First time for everything.

He glanced to his right; he saw a southern Vulpix trying to tug a Riolu out from a huge mound of snow that had collapsed over her.

Eon winced, huffing out a strong plume of fire. Keep the form. He had to make sure Step and the others were still there, and his Perceive was the best way to do that. It was hard to miss a Guardian’s aura and their strange bodies. The strain—reading his Perceive and maintaining the body that could use it—was like holding his breath. He had been holding it for minutes by now.

“S-so… c-cold…” Riolu tried to squirm out, but Vulpix just wasn’t strong enough.

“Stupid snow… why can’t I be the cool Fire version of me, huh?” Vulpix lamented.

Why me? Eon abruptly redirected to Riolu and Vulpix before reaching forward. He didn’t say anything—in fact, Riolu let out a surprised yip—and pulled her out from the snow, nodding. “Sorry.”

He then turned around and hastily wandered off, barely suppressing the aura sensors from forming on the side of his head.

“Is-isn’t that a mutant?” Vulpix squeaked.

“Southern, like you!” Eon shouted back, though if he got a reply, he didn’t hear it. Maintaining the form was starting to bring on a headache; even with his Mystic power, this strange curse plagued him. At least now he could maintain something at all. I should’ve brought Angelo’s sketch of a Charizard or something, Eon thought, thinking back to the local Smeargle’s sketches.

It seemed that there were still rescues underway within the overwhelming snow. Some parts of the town were buried in several feet of it; entire buildings were snowed over from roof to floor. One building in particular had some movement within that only his Perceive could sense—a Shinx and a Murkrow. The snow was too thick; they couldn’t tell which way was up or down.

Eon put both palms on either eye, letting out a frustrated sigh. He paced toward the building, then away and to the southern side of town, and then back to the building, and once again back to Waypoint Road. But ultimately, after taking several circles—and drawing a few concerned looks from others in the rescue effort—he went to the building and blew gentle flames into the snow.

Using his Perceive, he resolved to at least help with the rescue effort, keeping an eye out for if the Guardians—or perhaps more meddlesome, Hecto—were at risk of spotting him.

Owen would be fine. He had to help these townsfolk, first.

<><><>​

“Is it just me,” Owen and Har said—both of them abruptly cutting themselves off.

Har grumbled, but Owen tittered.

“Sorry,” Owen said. “You go.”

“Is it just me,” Har growled, but then returned to a neutral tone, “or have we been walking for way longer than we should be?”

Lygo rapidly beat his wings. “Oh, good, that’s not just me.”

It felt like they had been walking through the Hot Spot caverns for at least a chunk of the afternoon—though that may have just been the boredom and hunger settling in. Everything looked the same. Owen was almost positive that they’d passed by the same patch of mushrooms five times.

He had offered to eat the mushrooms—they were actually very filling, even if the taste left something to be desired—but everyone but Mispy and Ani politely declined. The latter two plucked a few to try, though indeed, the taste was… bland. Though it did leave their mouths with a slight glow.

“We have been wandering for quite a while,” Rhys said, looking at the rocky ceiling. “In fact, it almost feels as if we’ve taken the same turn numerous times. Owen, Har, could you sense the way out for us? Perhaps we should have asked that sooner.”

“Sure,” Owen said. He closed his eyes, expanding his aura. The knowledge that this was all concentrated in his horns like some kind of freakish, scanner-like appendage was distracting. He thought back to how his senses worked as a Charmander, with only his eyes. Such simple times. Now there was a whole lot more to digest.

“Ow,” Zena mumbled.

“S-sorry,” Owen said, having accidentally stepped on part of her body.

“What, you can’t focus?” Har asked. “Let me do it.”

“Okay.” Owen sighed. “I think I’m still trying to adjust to it. It’s so overwhelming when I’m out in a big area, too.”

“No clue why you get that,” Har said. “I just turn it down when that happens.”

“Wait, you can really just turn it down, just like that?” Owen asked.

Ani spoke up. “You can’t?”

“No,” Owen said. “I think it’s all or nothing.”

“Explains why your horns are removable. I bet Nevren made you that way so if something happened, he can just tug them off.”

“Right,” Owen said. A thought crossed his mind. “And Rhys! What’re you gonna do with the ones that broke off, huh?! I saw you sneak them into your bag!”

Rhys flinched, reflexively clutching at the strap across his shoulder. “It might be useful one day,” he said. “It won’t take up that much space.”

“Get help,” Mispy said with a sigh.

“I’ll have you know, I have no need for help,” Rhys said. “One day, you will thank me when something seemingly useless becomes useful. I’ve seen it happen countless times.”

“In comic books?” Demitri asked, earning a deep, trembling giggle from Mispy. “Say Rhys, when’s the next edition of The Steel Chemist coming out, anyway?”

“Second moon of autumn, why do you—” Rhys shook his head. “It will be useful.”

Har’s belly abruptly groaned. Shortly after, Ax and Ani joined the chorus.

“I’m with yeh,” Gahi said, claws grasping at the scales of his gut.

“I’d ask to use our Badges if it wouldn’t just be a waste of the power,” Owen said, looking at his supplies.

“I can’t find the exit,” Har eventually reported, absently clutching at a bit of scales on his belly. “I’m gonna starve to death if this keeps up.”

“Oh, quit exaggerating,” Ani said, rapping a vine at Har’s shoulder. “How far did you check?”

“I have no idea,” Har said. “It almost feels like I can’t look too far before it gets… blurry and weird. But that can’t be right, so maybe I’m just tired and it’s messing with my Perception.”

Rhys paused. “Hold on,” he said, looking through their inventory.

“What’s gonna be useful this time, Rhys?” Har asked with a little smirk.

Rhys glared, pulling out a Badge. He tilted it left and right, and then held it up. After a second, he brought it down again; the little button in the middle glowed faintly. “…We’re in a Dungeon.”

They all stopped walking and stared at Rhys, and then at his Badge. While Trina’s Alloy was not familiar with how Badges worked, Owen was. The indicator light meant that, indeed, they were still within the distortions associated with Dungeon atmospheres.

Owen and Har spoke first. “What?”

“We’re in a Dungeon,” Rhys repeated. “The Badge is very accurate with this sort of thing. I doubt it is a false reading. The Hot Spot training area has become a Dungeon.”

“Th-that’s—that’s impossible! Right?” Owen looked at the walls. It explained why their walk had been taking so long, but why now? Did they even notice the distortion upon entering, or did it become one while they were inside? Sure, distortions were subtle, but surely they would’ve noticed it. Then again, with how distracted they all were with the upcoming fight…

“Dungeons don’t just form spontaneously,” Zena said. “When did the last one form?”

“They had to form somehow,” Rhys said in a murmur. “But you’re right. A new Dungeon hadn’t formed in at least a century. We need to be careful. If this is a fresh Dungeon, the distortions won’t be very intense, but that can change very soon. It hasn’t been blessed by Anam. We should leave before the distortions become something to worry about. I’d rather not lose you all here. Now, Owen, do you have your Badge with you?”

“Yeah, I think we all do. That’s more than enough charge to bring everyone back if we just use… three, right?”

Rhys nodded. “We will perform an emergency exit. Keep all of your belongings near you, please.”

Har and the others looked themselves over. Having no belongings, they just stared expectantly at Rhys.

“Er, of course.”

He, Mispy, and Owen pressed their Badges and held them toward the ceiling. In a flash of light, they vanished from Hot Spot Dungeon and reappeared next to Valle in the town square. Based on the cavern’s glow, more time had passed than they thought. The mushrooms were a lot dimmer in the Dungeon area compared to here, suggesting that it was getting close to early evening.

“You disappeared,” Valle greeted.

“Yeah, for some reason the training area became a Dungeon,” Owen said.

“That is abnormal.”

“Yeah, really abnormal, actually,” Owen said. “When did we disappear?”

“Near the midpoint between here and the training area.”

“Pretty far into the caves,” Owen translated for Trina’s Alloy. “Hmm… that’s not good…” He turned to Rhys. “Did Nevren ever get any theories on why Dungeons appear?”

“A few, but I can’t be certain unless we ask him. Eon actually was trying to figure out the same thing, before, well, they severed their alliance with one another.” The Lucario crossed his arms, pensive. “Perhaps this new data point is what he would need. Valle, where is Nevren?”

“He, with Anam, disappeared into the same Dungeon.”

“Wait—they were trying to find us?” Owen said. “And we missed them?”

“Anam wanted to go on a stroll. I do not know why.”

“Bah, want me ter go get ‘em?” Gahi asked, fishing around for his own Badge. “Figure I can just fly along and pass the message. Figure I’ll also be able ter tell ‘em myself in no time.”

“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” Rhys said. “May I borrow your Badge? I will look for them. You all should stay back and eat with your counterparts.”

Har snorted. “I was kinda looking forward to your cooking,” he said. “I haven’t had it in a really long time.”

“Ah, well…” Rhys’ aura sensors drooped slightly.

“It’s alright,” Owen said. “Elder can tell us how to cook instead!”

“Ah! Brilliant,” Rhys said, nodding. “He will gladly help with cooking. Does that sound fun to you all?”

“Kinda,” Ani admitted, glancing at the others. “What do you think, Lygo?”

“Sure,” the Flygon said. “Maybe we can have a cook-off! We may’ve lost the battle, but I bet we can cook better than you guys.”

“Oh please, what’s a buncha bug-followers got over us?” Gahi said, crossing his arms. “I bet we can copy some random food in Kilo Village’n beat you.”

Demitri tittered nervously. “Um, actually, l-let’s not butt heads so soon.” He looked at Ax, who had been unconsciously sharpening his axes with his claws. He squeaked and hid behind Mispy, who glared at the Haxorus copy.

“What?” Ax said, plucking out one of his axes. “I was getting it ready for slicing berries.”

“Slicing…” Demitri’s eyes flashed with interest. “That’s right! I could totally use my tusks for easy cutting! A-after I wash them, first.” He poked his claws together, the light of recollection sloly filling his eyes. “I think I remember… being really into cooking before, right?”

“You were,” Rhys confirmed. “Always trying new dishes, actually, each time I made one. You’d try to replicate it.”

Demitri’s tail twitched and he played with his claws a bit more. “I don’t think I was any good at it, though.”

Mispy bumped her snout against Demitri’s shoulder, shaking her head. “They were good.”

“Mispy loved anything you cooked,” Rhys said. “I’d argue she enjoyed your cooking more than anybody else.”

Mispy hummed, agreeing, and that made the Haxorus straighten his stance. “Then what’re we waiting for? Let’s get cooking!”

Rhys smiled, trying his best to keep his tail from wagging, and departed to find Anam. Meanwhile, Trina’s Ax and Ani watched Demitri and Mispy with mild fascination. “We could’ve been like that?” Ax said to Ani.

“Still weird,” Ani said. “I don’t get why Mispy barely talks, either. Is something wrong with her?”

“Something’s wrong with all of them,” Lygo said, rolling his eyes. “But you know what?” He motioned for them to look at Har’s tail. “This is the happiest I’ve seen Har in a while. Let’s keep this up, alright?”

Ax and Ani blinked at the cheerful flame, but then looked at Har’s frowning face. Ani groaned. “He’s trying to be cool.”

Ax rubbed his forehead. “Charizard can’t mask their emotions to save their lives.”

<><><>​

Now that he was aware of the distortion, it was clear when he passed into Hot Spot Dungeon. The usual, vertical wall of water-like ripples of light—like a giant soap bubble—spanned the entire corridor, and once he passed through, the mushrooms dimmed instantly after passage.

Without Anam’s blessings to keep the Dungeon structured, he was unsure of what to expect. Thankfully, because of how young the Dungeon was, he didn’t expect the twisted space to be anything to worry about. Perhaps it would be even more benign than the average blessed Dungeon?

After a mere five steps inside, a sudden chill ran down Rhys’ fur. The aura sensors on the back of his head felt squeezed. Rhys winced, trying to deafen his own senses, and looked around. What was that? It felt like Anam, but… different. He rarely felt that sort of pulse unless Anam’s aura was unstable. That often happened when he had to actually fight seriously. Rhys couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.

“Anam?” Rhys mumbled, quickening his pace.

Just in front of Rhys, on the ground, a black splotch formed in the rocks. He stopped, staring at it. Out of paranoia, he formed an Aura Sphere in his paws.

At first, it was only the size of an Oran Berry, but then it expanded until it was as big as his head. And then bigger, until it was nearly half his size. Rhys stepped back, taking aim.

A shapeless, black blob rose out from the ground and lunged at Rhys. “Ngh—” He immediately fired.

It exploded on contact. The inky blackness it was made of went in all directions. Rhys held up an aura shield to block any of it from getting on him, but it didn’t matter. The blackness evaporated into nothing.

It occurred to Rhys that if that was one of Anam’s Ghost spirits, his Aura Sphere would have been useless. Realizing that a brisk walk was no longer warranted, he sped through the Dungeon in a full sprint.

A few more black splotches appeared near the middle of the caverns again. Rhys jumped over them, looking back to see more of those strange things form within. They were mostly blobs, but some of them struggled to form more complex shapes. There wasn’t enough time to determine what they had become. He stared ahead and saw three more rise before he had the chance to go past them.

Not wanting to risk making contact, he fired another Aura Sphere at the middle blob. While that one exploded, the two remaining ones slid toward Rhys and expelled a ring of darkness in all directions. Rhys didn’t react quickly enough; the darkness sank into his fur and the skin beneath, eating away at it. He yelped and jumped away, clutching at his abdomen. It was a good thing he packed his bag. He grabbed an Oran Berry and chomped down. With his free paw, he fired another wad of aura at the darkness.

The third one showed no fear. It advanced toward Rhys, shooting another ring of darkness out toward him. Rhys held out an aura shield, but his surprise doubled when the dark ring ate through the aura matter like flames on butter. His paws instantly felt like they were burned all the way to the bone. Hissing, he pulled away and fired a final Aura Sphere.

In an explosion of darkness, it evaporated. Rhys grunted and stared at his paws, the fur falling away. It felt numb. He grabbed a second Oran Berry, realizing he only had one left after this one. He downed it and advanced, sensing Anam and Nevren once he passed through the next section.

He felt Anam’s presence even more strongly, now. But he also felt the looming presence of those blobs again. They seemed so familiar to him, but it had been ages since he’d last seen one. He couldn’t recall anything but their familiarity. The term was at the edge of his mind. And then, rounding another corner of the caverns, he spotted—

“There!” Rhys said. “Anam!”

“Hi Rhys!” Anam waved, but then turned his head to the right and blasted a Dragon Pulse straight into another one of the black blobs, disintegrating it instantly.

“Greetings,” Nevren said, directing his spoon toward another of the shadows. With a twisting, Psychic blast, it vanished next.

“Anam! I believe we’re within a Dungeon that had formed recently. I don’t know what these things are, but perhaps that has to do with it. You must bless it!

“I gotta get to the core to do that!” Anam said. “I think it’s further in!”

“Then let’s go before these things surround us completely,” Rhys said, looking at his paws. “I can still feel their attacks, even after the Oran Berry. It’s like it ate away at my very aura. No, that’s precisely what happened. What are these…?” When he thought about it, they seemed familiar. The memory was so long ago and so faded, though.

“I believe we’ve encountered something similar long ago,” Nevren said. “Ahh, the name, what was the name… Ah! Wraiths. That’s what we called them.”

That did it. Rhys’ fur stood on end, his aura sensors rising on high alert. Flashes of hoards of those shadowy creatures chasing after them from all directions in Dungeons that had been left to run rampant, just like Rotwood Fen where Nevren had found Anam to begin with. “We have to go quickly,” he said. “Anam, can you sense the Dungeon’s center?”

“It’s not too far. Stay behind me!” The Goodra sluggishly advanced, his horn-feelers twitching. Rhys followed at an agonizing pace, readying Aura Spheres for any incoming wraith.

“So! What brings you here, Rhys?” Nevren asked. His eyes glowed with a readied Psychic, just in case a wraith tried to catch them by surprise.

“Ironically, this Dungeon,” Rhys replied. “The two Alloys had a sparring match here not long ago. We didn’t realize we were in a Dungeon until our walk back was… significantly longer than our walk in. A check of our Badge and it all became clear. It’s no wonder ferals get lost within them. We could hardly notice!”

A wraith pounced at Rhys from behind. Nevren’s eyes flashed even brighter and the wraith spiraled away, slamming into the wall. It splattered and evaporated.

“Thank you,” Rhys said, hanging his head in embarrassment.

“Not too far now,” Anam announced. The horns on his head throbbed uncomfortably. “Definitely close.”

“Quite nostalgic, this,” said Nevren. “We haven’t gone on a blessing exploration in generations.”

“Dungeons haven’t been appearing for just as long,” Rhys said. “Nevren, do you have any guesses on why they appear when they do?”

“I’m beginning to form a theory from this new datum,” Nevren said. “Could it have to do with Mystic power? Perhaps. But I will wait until we have this all taken care of before I divulge that. I’d rather not distract us when—”

Rhys fired an Aura Sphere just above Nevren’s head. A wraith had dropped from the ceiling, threatening to engulf him if Rhys had been a split-second too late.

“Yes, quite like that,” Nevren replied. “Thank you.”

Rhys continued on his walk, occasionally glancing at Anam. He had been walking uncomfortably slowly for a while, as if something was holding him back, or something was troubling him. Perhaps he just felt the pressure of another blessing after such a long time. These wraiths were certainly frightening—perhaps Anam was just trying to put on a brave face for them.

Anam suddenly stopped, pointing a stubby arm forward. “There.”

A strange, black fog filled the area ahead. A distortion was far down the hall in the opposite direction, indicating the way out of the dungeon. The twisted dimensions would return them either to the opposite side of the cavern they had entered, or back where they came from, depending on how the Dungeon’s layout behaved. Since it wasn’t blessed, there was no way to control this.

But they weren’t going for the exit. They had to wade through another part of the Dungeon, through the cloud of black fog.

“This is usually the part where only you advance, is it not?” Nevren said.

“It’s too dangerous for you to go any closer,” Anam said. “I need to go, um, on my own. Just for a little bit, so I can bless it from the inside.”

“I’d like to come with you this time,” Nevren said.

“I as well,” Rhys said. “It has been a while. You might need extra protection.”

“No,” Anam said.

“I’m afraid I’m not giving you a choice in the matter,” Nevren replied. “You will let us come with you, yes?”

“N…” Anam struggled with his own words.

Rhys watched Anam curiously. “Anam? Are you okay?”

“Anam,” Nevren said.

“N… okay,” Anam said. “But be careful! If a wraith gets you… and pulls you under… I…”

“I’m sure we will be fine,” Rhys said.

“Mmgg…” He nodded and reluctantly advanced. “Stay close to me,” he said. “The clouds are bad for you.”

Anam held his arms out, forming what seemed to be a bubble of radiant, golden light. It was too dim to be Protect, yet Rhys felt just as secure within, at least from the darkness. When Anam stepped toward the clouds, they parted away, fizzling when they got too close to the light. Rhys saw wraiths in the walls, staring at them—at least, he imagined they were staring. Without faces or any definable features, it was hard to tell what they were doing. But he could feel their gaze nonetheless.

“Anam,” Rhys said. “What are these things, truly? You seem to know quite a bit about them. Are they just known as wraiths?”

“Shh,” Anam said, waving him down. “They’re angry…”

Rhys stopped. “What?”

The black clouds whispered incomprehensibly.

The Lucario’s fur stood on end, aura sensors throbbing in pain. “I’ve never had such a sensation in a while,” he said, digging through his bag. He pulled out a scarf and wrapped it around the back of his head like a reverse-veil. He sighed. “Much better.”

“Rhys, what is that?” Nevren asked.

“Thick-Aura Scarf. If my senses are ever overwhelmed, this helps to block it.”

“Why in the world do you carry that with you?”

“It could’ve been useful. It’s only a cloth.”

“You truly must keep your hoarding tendencies in check.”

“It’s not hoarding,” Rhys said. “I’m merely being thorough. I collect important artifacts.”

“My Looplet prototypes are next to useless, yet you refuse to part with them,” Nevren said.

“Perhaps one day it will be useful.” Rhys stuck his nose in the air.

“And perhaps I should set you up for a therapy routine,” Nevren muttered.

Anam suddenly stopped walking. “We’re here,” he said.

The whispers were overwhelmingly loud here—almost like yelling. Rhys was glad for his scarf. “I’ve never been to a core like this before,” Rhys said. “What is all of this? It’s never been like this before.”

“They’re mad…” Anam said. “I’ll calm them.” Anam raised his arms in the air, and then his horns. This was followed by twenty-one tendrils of light sprouting from his back. He took a deep breath, and then released it. “May your spirits… find peace,” he mumbled.

A pulse of light emanated from him, passing right through Nevren and Rhys. It expanded into the dark clouds—they all shrieked and backed away, but the pulse advanced too quickly. They dissolved upon contact.

Rhys noticed Anam’s body briefly darken.

Seconds later, Anam was back to normal. The golden tendrils retracted into him and the Goodra spun around, grinning. “All done! The Dungeon is nice and stable!”

“Impressive,” Nevren said, nodding.

“Yup!”

“Well, if that’s the case, we should leave,” Nevren said. “Why don’t we advance to the exit of this Dungeon? We can use our Badges for a routine warp to Hot Spot afterward. We have our Waypoints configured for there, yes?”

“I do,” Rhys confirmed.

Nevren made a sudden, strange movement toward Anam, like a half-glance, half-gesture. “Should we get going, Anam?” he asked. He slipped his hand into his bag, as if feeling for an item aside from his Badge. Rhys caught a glimpse of a second Badge with a dim, gray center.

“Nevren, you aren’t nervous about this place, are you?” Rhys asked. “You’ve been grasping at your lucky charm quite often.”

“Ah, I apologize,” Nevren said. “I suppose I am just trying to be careful.”

“It’s still very odd that you’re so superstitious,” Rhys said. “How could a Pokémon of science like you wind up believing in a lucky charm?”

“How could someone so diligent such as you wind up with an endless pile of expired Pecha Berries?” Nevren countered evenly.

“Rrgh.” Rhys turned around. “Let’s go.” He reached for his scarf.

“Ah, Rhys—”

“Yes?” Rhys asked, taking the scarf off.

He was almost instantly hit by the intense, flaring aura of Anam. He nearly put it back on. “An—Anam, are you okay?” he said.

“Huh? I’m fine!” Anam said.

Nevren stood still. He looked at his lucky charm again. Still gray. “Hrm… This may not be worth the trouble of a few hundred Revisions.” He said it under his breath and then slipped the Revisor back into his bag. “I’ve already tried twenty times. It’s quite tiresome. Considering how close we are, this will have to do.”

“…Excuse me?” Rhys said. “Nevren?” He winced at the flaring aura. It was as if Anam was fighting against something, yet he stood completely still. “Anam, has this blessing destabilized your aura?”

“No… it’s not that…” Anam said. “I’m just fine! This Dungeon wasn’t bad at all! It was a tiny one. C’mon! Let’s go home!”

“Anam, you’re acting strangely,” Rhys turned around completely, facing them. Nevren stood still.

Anam just kept smiling. Rhys squinted, stepping a bit closer. “Anam…?”

The Goodra’s smiling expression faltered. But then he nibbled his hands nervously. “It’s okay, Rhys. Nothing’s the matter.”

Nevren’s hand was hovering over a peculiar, blue badge. Rhys eyed this. His lucky charm. “Nevren,” Rhys said, “do you know what’s wrong with Anam?”

Nevren was quiet. His face held no expression, as usual when in private. His typical, friendly demeanor was tucked away for when it was needed. Right now, it was not necessary. In fact, the façade was not necessary, either. Rhys would have been the first to find out, anyway, along with Elder.

Rhys looked back at Anam. He took a tentative step closer. No, his aura was all wrong. “You’re unusually happy after a blessing. You’re much more somber most of the time, if I remember correctly. What changed, Anam?”

“Umm…. I dunno!” Anam said. “I just am! Ha ha!”

Rhys stepped directly toward Anam, craning his neck to look directly at his face.

That’s when he saw it. Despite Anam’s cheerful smile, there were thick, gooey tears streaming down his face, mixed with the slime of his body.

“Are you okay?” Anam asked. “Aww, cheer up! Everything’s fine!”

“That will do, Anam,” Nevren said, tapping his two spoons together.

Anam suddenly stiffened; his expression washed away, and he stood still, silent, and neutral. Tears continued to stream down his face, but he did not act.

Rhys stood still. “…Anam…” The walls felt far away. It was like they were the only things in the world… Rhys, Nevren… and his puppet. “Nevren… you…”

“This outcome is less than ideal.” Nevren bowed his head. “…Anam. Subdue him.” He flicked his spoon and Anam lunged toward Rhys.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Chapter 60 – Black Clouds

The rush of thoughts that swirled through Rhys’ mind in that instance was incomprehensible even to himself. His heart raced with an adrenaline he hadn’t felt in centuries; the aura that leaked through his paws felt like cinders. That dense pit in his stomach finally blossomed into a great, burning coal that cooked him from the inside.

Rhys rushed for Nevren. But Anam was in the way; the bulky dragon swung at Rhys with no technique or reason. That made it easy to dodge, but it was still a dodge. Rhys jumped away, gaining distance between him and the puppet Goodra, whose tears still flowed from his blank eyes.

“Nevren!” Rhys shouted. He swung his arm to the side, aura embers dancing in front of him in a small shower of lights. “You—what are you doing?!”

There was no way. Nevren had worked with Anam for centuries. Countless inventions to build Kilo Village to its current, advanced, peaceful state. The world had finally been unified and at peace! Save for the Guardians, there had been no more peaceful a time in all of Kilo than this very day. And Nevren was behind a large portion of it, all for the world.

“You said that Anam deserved the world!” Rhys roared, aiming an Aura Sphere toward Nevren, but the ember flickered with hesitation.

“I did,” Nevren said, expression unchanging. “And at the time, I meant it. But unfortunately, centuries have passed, circumstances have changed… and perhaps Eon was right after all.”

“You… you TRAITOR!” Rhys’ Aura Sphere flared to life. He fired directly at Nevren, but Anam stood in the way, taking the blast instead. His gooey chest burst apart, spattering the walls, but more of the purple slime slid into place.

This time, Anam’s throat glowed with red fire. Rhys’ instincts screamed to get further away, and he had to obey. He jumped back again, gaining more distance, just in time to leap to the right to dodge the flames that singed his fur. He blasted another Sphere toward Nevren, but once more, in the narrow halls, Anam took the blow. This time, Anam’s arm lost its shape, returning to normal after a few seconds.

“Ironic,” Nevren said, “to call me a traitor, when you were the first to make that Divine Promise to Zena, explicitly abandoning your role.”

“My role,” Rhys repeated, aura sensors rising with his anger and overflowing power. “I never had a role here.”

Nevren shrugged. “Star created us to gather the Orbs. Is that not—”

“Don’t be so coy with me,” Rhys hissed. “You know that’s a lie. We were never created. We were conscripted.”

“I suppose, yes. Auras cleansed with just her mark on our ancestry, all for the purpose of her divine mission. A bit haughty, in hindsight, is it not? And Star did warn us herself that should she ever lose heart, we should carry on for the greater good. We all know she was an undisciplined god. She herself knew this would happen. A rare moment of foresight. More irony for the Psychic, I suppose.”

Rhys finally caught his breath during the pause. “Then I suppose I lost heart just as she did. What we’re doing is not for the greater good. It is just borne from a desire for power. That much is obvious.”

“Then you would prefer how things are now?”

Rhys kept his muscles tense and ready for any sudden movements from Anam. Despite this, he faltered briefly. Thinking that Anam would take advantage of this, he redoubled his stance and fired a warning Sphere toward him. Anam swung one of his horns and knocked it into the wall, shattering the rocks.

Nevren continued, casually waving his right spoon in a small circle. “Biding your time and living in blissful ignorance. Satisfied and resigned with your eternity. Does this not bother you, Rhys?”

“Of course it bothers me,” Rhys said. “I wouldn’t have become a Hunter had it not. But this, Nevren, is not the right course of action. It will only give way to more blood and more mistakes. Another war. Every time we fight for the Orbs, it always winds up the same way. The Orbs collect and scatter, mortal lives are lost, the Guardians live in stagnation.”

“And your approach now is different, how?” Nevren asked. “Owen’s charisma is impressive, seeing as he befriended over half of the Guardians, but that is really all he can do. He has no intention of gathering them into his person, just like Anam.”

“Anam cannot. He made a Promise to never gather the Orbs as part of his spirit.”

“Ahh,” Nevren said. “That is true. That is true. When a Divine Promise is broken, their Mystic power will be channeled into the other that they made the Promise with. We have seen it before, after all, with Madeline and Tanneth. Yet Star and Arceus… they went to great lengths to not only gain Promises from the Guardians… but to also prevent them from breaking them. Have you ever considered why that is?”

“No,” Rhys said. “It’s quite obvious that they both want that power to stay separated, and for the balance of the world to be maintained. Arceus with a third, Star with a third, and the world with the rest.”

“Perhaps,” Nevren said. “Yet, the Promise has never been broken. Guardians fear Promises, because it is so easy to break them. You must have your fullest will when creating one, after all. Did you know that Star implied to Guardians that a broken Promise meant the destruction of not only their power, but their very spirit?” He tilted his head. “What a cruel thing to say.”

Rhys growled. “It isn’t wrong. Look at what nearly happened to Amia when her power was depleted. Body and aura as one, she nearly faded completely from this world.”

“The best lies,” said Nevren, slowly lowering his spoon again, ceasing his circle, “are the ones wrapped in truth. That is not why Star discouraged the Guardians from breaking Promises of any kind. The real reason is because if they broke just one Promise… they would learn the truth that Owen inadvertently uncovered for us. That the Orbs and their Mysticism are not intertwined.”

Rhys stared at Nevren, his guard still up. “How is that relevant? What significance does that hold?”

“Long ago, Arceus created weak embodiments of the Types. The plates? I believe that was what they were called. He created many of them, really, though only one set was truly filled with any meaningful amount of power. And then he imbued a third of the Hands into a set of them, transforming them into the Orbs. That is the story we were told, is it not? We assumed that the Mysticism was forever bound. But when Owen fused with Gahi… part of that power went to him, did it not?”

Nevren paced left and right, as if he was reasoning this out for himself just as much as Rhys, perhaps to reiterate for himself the scheme the gods had tried to keep a secret. “I sensed it. I was waiting for it to happen. When Eon unleashed Gahi and they fused together… I checked Gahi’s spirit shortly after. And within him, I detected ten Hands. At the time, at least. With all the fusing they do with one another, I imagine the number has shifted.” Nevren shook his head, looking down. He spotted a bit of rubble caught in his left mustache. He shook it away with a tiny Psychic blast. “Rhys, if a Promise is broken by an Orb holder… they do not lose the Orb. They lose their Mystic power.”

Rhys blinked. “Then—if someone gains their Mystic power, but not the Orb itself…!”

“Indeed,” Nevren said. “Someone can gain Mystic power and uphold their Promise.”

“Th-that’s—that’s preposterous!” Rhys said. “Why would Star and Barky allow such a huge oversight?!”

“Why indeed?” Nevren said. “While it’s clear that Star and Barky are not fully aware of the very world they created, I doubt they were ignorant of this. Unfortunately…” Nevren clicked his spoons together. Anam, who had been stationary, stiffened. “That is the extent of my theory. I do not know what they planned to do with this knowledge, only that they did not want other Guardians to know about it. Frankly, we don’t even know if they have other Promises with each other.”

“That’s it?” Rhys said. “The Orbs and the Hands are not tied together, and you plan to use this exploit to gather power into Anam? Why didn’t you just have Eon gather the Guardians together?”

“Well, we would have,” Nevren said. “Unfortunately, not only were the Guardians extremely evasive, but only Star knew where they were, and only after a lot of sleuthing in the aura sea and the spirit world. Only recently did the Guardians become so visible. Quite curious, isn’t it? And not only that, but Eon trying to fight all of the Guardians himself would be a risk.”

“So, you admit that Anam is stronger than Eon,” said Rhys. “That if we combined our strength, we would have beaten him?”

“Perhaps,” Nevren said. “The statistics suggest that Eon would still defeat you, though not without great sacrifice. This plan was merely to minimize casualties. For example, instead of waging a war of mutants—that would be plan D, if I have my lettering memorized properly—we are instead having Anam absorb the power of the Guardians, leaving the mortals uninvolved.”

“And what does that mean for me?” Rhys asked, aura flaring wildly.

Nevren stared at Rhys with that same, unblinking stare. But there was a rare moment where he hesitated. “That is entirely based upon how you react here. I do not want to kill you. And the removal of your Mysticism may just do that. So, Rhys, here is my proposal: You speak nothing of this to the others… and I will not unleash Anam upon them.”

Rhys snarled, showing his teeth. “I have no reason to believe you will hold up such a deal. You’ve already lost my trust, you…” His voice caught in his throat at the sight of Nevren’s cold, blank stare. “How can I call you my friend?”

“Perhaps one day we can look back at this and laugh,” Nevren said. “But as a friend, Rhys, I do not want to hurt you. Speak nothing of this and lend your Mystic power when the time comes. That is all I ask.”

“You could not have asked the same from the other Guardians?”

“No,” Nevren said. “Because ultimately, their goal was to gather the Guardians, not the power. Nobody there wants to be a god.”

“Then the mission has always been the same,” Rhys said. “To usurp Arceus and Star, and become gods instead!”

An uneasy silence fell between the pair. Anam continued to stand, awaiting a command that never came. The Alakazam rubbed his chin thoughtfully, pushing the end of his spoon along his left mustache. “Hmm…” Nevren finally crossed his arms. “Yes.”

Rhys fired three Aura Spheres in rapid succession toward Nevren, each one in three different directions. The first one Anam blocked; the remaining two hit Nevren’s spoons, cupped by the curvature, and redirected to the walls.

“Now, is this really necessary?” Nevren asked even as two more Aura Spheres came his way. His Revisor a dim gray, Nevren easily moved along, deflecting each Aura Sphere, completely ignoring the ones that he knew Anam would properly block. Like steps to a dance he would only have to perform once, Nevren made easy work of the Spheres the same way.

The Alakazam pointed his left spoon forward. Anam lunged toward Rhys, who grunted and stepped away. Anam still advanced, trying to grab the Lucario by the arm. Anam managed to grasp the spike on his wrist; Rhys reacted by slamming the back of his other one into Anam’s arm, piercing through with ease. Anam pulled at Rhys, but the puncture weakened his gooey arm’s integrity enough that it tore off completely.

Rhys flung his arm to dislodge Anam’s hand, spattering it against the cave walls. He panted, realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to last against Anam and Nevren both. Not without pushing himself to the very limit. If he could just kill Nevren, that would be enough. Kill Nevren… would he really have to kill… Nevren?

“Why?!” Rhys shouted. “Why couldn’t you have just been truthful?! Why are you still aligned with Eon? You told me you believed in Anam!”

“I did,” Nevren said. “But as I told you before, that was centuries ago. I now realize that Anam’s hesitance to take action with his great power is what made me… disillusioned. Ultimately, Eon is the only one who has a vision for divinity, and one that can fix what the current administration broke. I’m afraid we will not see eye to eye on this, Rhys. I see that. And I apologize.”

“If you’re truly sorry”—Rhys pointed his paw at Nevren—“then you will stand down, free Anam, and… and I promise not to speak of this.”

“Oh?” Nevren tilted his head. “If I free Anam of my shackles, all is forgiven? By your honor?”

Rhys’ paw trembled. “Yes. I only want peace. I only want to live with Elder again. My Promise was made from the bottom of my heart, Nevren. I am truly done with being a Hunter. I am a Divine Dragon.” Rhys slowly breathed out. “And it is the Divine Dragons that fight for the world.”

Nevren’s eyes widened just slightly in amusement. “Quite a while since we’ve used such a term,” he said. “I believe it has been so underused that its original meaning has been lost to time.” Nevren closed his eyes, turning his head downward. “Much like the reason being a Hunter was lost to you, I suppose.”

“It’s time that I free Anam,” Rhys said. His aura rose to a fever pitch, the heat in his chest not unlike the fire within Owen. It ran just beneath his fur and exploded out, coating his body in a blinding flare and solid armor. A blade of aura extended from his right paw and a shield formed around the wrist of his left.

“Well,” Nevren said. “At least you know to wrap things up.”

Rhys vanished from view, appearing right in front of Nevren. He slashed down the Alakazam’s chest, yet all that remained was a trick of the eye. Nevren was across the corridor, having teleported just a moment before. Rhys turned around and spotted Anam’s horns swinging toward him. He ducked and sliced through the incoming horn, using his shield to block the other. He sidestepped around Anam, lucky to not slip over the slime, and dashed toward Nevren again. The Alakazam blinked, teleporting on the opposite side again.

Rhys turned around, only to be met by Anam’s horns, the sliced one regrown. It wrapped around tight, pulling him off of the ground. Rhys, choking, tried to pry Anam’s hold off, but not only was his horn too slippery, but his grip was too strong.

“Let go, Anam! Break free! Break free…!”

Anam’s grip strengthened. Rhys’ aura armor flickered from the pressure. With one hand, Rhys abruptly let go and sliced at the feeler that held him. It cut through like he was made of water. He fell to the ground, narrowly able to land on his feet. The detached feeler still held onto his neck with the same grip strength. He couldn’t pull it off, the pressure putting immense strain on his armor.

Rhys rushed for Nevren again. This time, Anam’s remaining feeler extended and hardened into a horn, slamming into Rhys’ chest. He coughed and powered through it again, swiping at Nevren, who only took a step back. Rhys noticed that Nevren’s lucky charm was a dim gray.

The armored Lucario held his paw out and formed a sphere of aura energy next. If he couldn’t get to Nevren physically, then he’d just have to keep working with—

Anam opened his maw and sent a precise, silent burst of draconic energy into Rhys’ spine. That was all it took. Too much time had passed. His aura armor shattered and evaporated into little, blue embers. Rhys collapsed to the ground, drained and paralyzed from the waist down. His back had a burning, black hole in the very center.

“Do you have any further protests, Rhys?” Nevren asked.

Rhys grunted, staring at the wall to his right. The caverns felt so much narrower now that the Dungeon was blessed and normalized. Even if he wanted to flee, it would be too easy for Anam and Nevren to catch up. The halls, with Anam’s far-reaching strikes, would take him down instantly.

He was already down, in fact. But a defiance kept him from stopping. He still had time.

“No… please…” Anam whimpered.

Rhys’ heart skipped a beat, looking back. “Anam… fight it!”

Nevren tilted his head. “I have no intention of killing him. The Alloy would be devastated, should Rhys die. Still, we cannot have him injured, either, can we? Rhys, you can’t show signs of damage. Additionally, you are quite dangerous to approach.” Nevren nodded, glancing at his still-gray charm. “Anam, if you may.” He gave a small bow.

Anam’s hands enveloped themselves in a black fog. He flicked them, and it descended upon Rhys.

“What—” Rhys tried to move away, but his body didn’t respond.

“Ah, ah,” Nevren flicked his spoon. “You shall remain where you are, yes?”

Rhys’ body was rapidly deteriorating. The fur fell from his body in clumps; the flesh beneath it blackened. Rhys twitched to move, trying to push off the ground. With one final breath, he held his arm up. A sphere of white energy collected in the paw… and then faded. Rhys collapsed.

A golden light erupted from Nevren’s bag and poured over the rotten Lucario. In moments, when the golden light faded, the Lucario remained, healthy, with a vibrant coat of blue-black fur. He gasped his first breath and jolted to his feet. The waste around him from his fallen fur and flesh faded into a dark mist, returning to Anam’s body.

“I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” Anam said, yet his expression was blank.

“Now, we won’t be doing that again, will we?” Nevren asked.

Rhys, hyperventilating, looked at his paws, and then back at Nevren.

“Why are you surprised?” Nevren said. “Who in their right mind would go without a Reviver Seed? Still, a shame I had to use one of mine for this. You will not strike again, yes? Your body may be restored, but your aura is another story.”

Defiantly, Rhys held out his hand again. A flickering, fading sphere formed. Anam stepped forward—

“There is no need, Anam,” Nevren said, tapping his spoons together.

Anam returned to a neutral stance.

Rhys fired, but Nevren merely waved his spoon, creating an invisible barrier. The Flash Cannon’s energy evaporated like smoke in the wind.

With weak knees and a light head, Rhys collapsed, paws on the ground.

“Nevren…! You… you said you were finished with the Hunters,” Rhys said. “How could you lie to me? How could you have hidden this?!”

Nevren shook his head, returning the Revisor to his bag. “I suppose I was very careful,” he said to Rhys. “After all, I have always been the most intelligent of the Divine Dragons, even before the schism.”

Rhys was still shaking, even with most of his energy depleted. “Star will know,” he said. “Hecto will surely know… Hecto will tell Star. You know he will.”

“And that’s just fine,” Nevren said, nodding. “Star has become irrelevant, unfortunately. Like Arceus, and like Anam, she has let her emotions cloud her judgement into inaction. The result? Centuries of suffering in silence by the Guardians, and indeed, by this entire, small world. It is as you said, yes?” Nevren asked. “When you and Star decided to nudge Owen into taking the Grass Orb, thinking that he, unaligned with anybody in this tedious shadow war, would finally lead to a resolution? That is what you meant when you spoke to Anam, when she finally convinced you to let him touch the Orb, correct?”

Rhys flinched.

“Yes, he told me everything about that conversation,” Nevren said. “Using Owen to tip the scales in our favor. Yet Anam did not know what to do with that power. Nobody did. Everybody was happy with keeping things as they were. Guardians in isolation. The Orbs, separate. The world in stasis and stagnation. Pitiful, isn’t it?”

Rhys spat. “Eon would be a horrible ruler.”

Nevren shook his head. “Anything,” he said, “is an improvement over two dead gods, Rhys. Fault Eon as much as you wish—he is at least compassionate for the plight of mortals, unlike Barky.”

“Star is—”

And responsible enough to know how much is too much.”

Rhys replied with silence.

Nevren continued. “You believed that Owen, the most intelligent piece of the Alloy, could overthrow Star, Barky, and Eon? And then, at the last moment, you would claim his mind. In the end, Owen is an Alloy, subject to our control. And as the most experienced user of the aura, you could control his very essence better than any of us. Is that correct, Rhys?”

“That isn’t at all what my plan was!” Rhys shouted. “Owen has just come to terms with who he is. I would never steal that way from him—even if I could!”

“Ahh.” Nevren’s eyes briefly glowed with realization, holding up a finger. “So, Owen is beyond your power, now? Is that it?”

Rhys’ jaw locked shut.

Nevren continued. “An even greater shame is that you made that Promise to Zena. Owen’s Mysticism is what bars you from controlling him. That is when I realized you were no longer working toward this plan. I was on my own. You’ve grown soft, Rhys. You, too, let compassion for the Alloy cloud your vision into inaction. You can no longer possess an Orb to control Owen. He will forever be ahead of you, simply because his Mysticism has outpaced yours. Of course, he could lower his guard, or you could slowly chip away at him…” Nevren glanced at Anam. “But it is impossible for this ordeal will last for another five centuries.”

“Release Anam, Nevren!” Rhys swung his arm sideways. “This is too far!”

“That cannot be done, Rhys,” Nevren said. “He was my assignment. And I do intend to let him continue in his position, as always.” He looked to Anam with a small nod. “He will continue to be the Heart of Hearts. I will wipe his memories of this interaction so he is not distressed over it.”

“Memories cannot be wiped for a Mystic, Nevren. You may be able to wipe them from a body, but a soul keeps them all. And a Mystic will ultimately access them more than any mortal could! Anam will remember. Just as Owen’s memories kept returning the moment he became Mystic.”

“Yes, but Anam will be near me,” Nevren said. “Should something trigger their return, I will seal them again. It is not a problem.”

Rhys’ glare did more damage than any of his aura attacks currently could.

“Think about Elder, Rhys,” Nevren said. “What would he do in this situation? I imagine he would tell you to stand down. There is no point in fighting further.”

Rhys glared at Nevren, but his eyes softened when he thought about the Torkoal. “Elder…”

Nevren waved his hand slowly in front of Anam. The Goodra blinked confusedly, wiping his eyes. “What happened?” he asked.

“Don’t you remember, Anam?” Nevren asked. “We were going to return to Kilo Village to perform another Reviver Seed blessing. The darkness of this strange Dungeon must have had you thinking. You got so worked up over the idea of Pokémon dying without them, you may have gone into a panic.”

“O-oh.” Anam sniffed, poking his fingers together into a big blob of slime. “Yeah.”

“Come, let’s avoid such a fate! A grand blessing it is!”

“Yeah!” He ran ahead, feelers twitching with an innate sense of where the end of the Dungeon was. He waited for Rhys and Nevren at the far end of the corridor, waving at them happily.

The Alakazam tapped his spoons again. “Shall we wait, Rhys?”

The ex-Hunter stared at Nevren. Rhys didn’t have the power to defeat him. With Anam nearby, Nevren could easily send Anam at him again. Nevren had this all planned out—every piece for five centuries, calculated to this very moment. But this couldn’t be it. There had to be some way out. Some way to stop this madness.

“If this is too much for you, Rhys, I could wipe this encounter from your mind, if you wish.”

“I will never,” Rhys hissed, “allow you to manipulate my mind.”

“I see,” Nevren said. “Very well.”

Something dawned on Rhys just then. Was Nevren manipulating him, right then? Was Elder, too, being controlled? Rim? Eon himself? No—Eon was too strong. Rim, too. They had Orbs within them. But Rhys was vulnerable. Could he, right now, be—

Rhys realized, right then, how Owen and the others must have felt. With whatever defiance he may have felt, he tried to push Nevren out of his mind, if he was there to begin with. He did not know. But he pushed anyway as hard as he could. When nothing happened, he did not know whether that was because Nevren hadn’t tried, or his hold was already so deep that it was useless.

He wasn’t going to let that stop him. Rhys looked at his paw. Nevren couldn’t control him—he’d have been aware of it. If he took so long to manipulate Anam—who was already easily trusting and open—Nevren wouldn’t be able to get him. Rhys sighed, hoping that the same could be said for Elder.

They walked toward Anam, Nevren to his right, Rhys to his left. Anam hummed a tune to himself, waving his head left and right.

“Oh, and Rhys,” Nevren said. “As a reminder, if you tell the others about any of this… I will unleash Anam upon them early. If you are looking for a way to counter this plan, you’d best do it silently.”

Startled, Rhys glanced toward Anam, yet the leader of the world hummed through it all. Did he even hear it? Or was he being controlled to hum? Was Nevren making him hum? Rhys watched Anam closely. He watched his eyes, happy as could be, beaming. Yet he didn’t see the light in Anam’s eyes. Instead, he saw gooey tears again.

Rhys wasn’t sure what happened seconds later. Something new burned inside of him. He heard a horrible roaring inside of his mind, some primal anger that centuries of discipline had kept level and controlled. But this betrayal—this complete uselessness, despite all of his power, against someone he had trusted for lifetimes and generations—it was enough to shatter any dignified restraint he had.

“Nevren…” Rhys growled.

“Yes?” Nevren asked, glancing at his blue, glowing Revisor. Out of reflex, he reached down to hold it.

“You… truly think… you can silence me like this?”

“I do, yes.” He held the Revisor.

His head pounded. Rationality left him. He didn’t care how cunning he was or how much he had planned. Even if this, too, was part of his plan, he refused to take the order quietly. The outcome no longer mattered.

“I will NEVER—" In a spark of primal, helpless range, all of Rhys’ muscles tensed into a final flash of aura might. His armor and blade returned, dashing straight for Nevren. The Alakazam flinched and jumped to the side—something that surprised Rhys, who had been expecting a perfectly timed Teleport. Anam squeaked, falling on his back.

“Rhys, stop!” Anam said, trying to get up.

Rhys didn’t. With Nevren fallen over, he raised his blade and leaped into the air, red eyes glowing with aura. He slammed his blade down, grazing Nevren’s arm. The blade’s sharpness left a cut.

Nevren pressed on his lucky charm.

Nothing happened.

The Alakazam stared at the Badge in pure disbelief, then at Rhys, split-seconds away from him. He blinked and disappeared, reappearing behind Anam. “Take him,” Nevren said hastily, waving a spoon.

Anam stumbled forward, limbs jerking without total control. He opened his mouth and fired another Dragon Pulse toward Rhys. He easily weaved through it, aura armor flickering. If Nevren was going to dodge behind Anam, then he had only one option left. Rhys brought his arm back and plunged forward when Anam’s Pulse subsided.

His arm stabbed straight through Anam’s bulk. His momentum carried him straight through Anam, creating a Lucario-sized hole through his gut and out his back. Nevren’s eyes bulged in surprise, but the Lucario was too fast. He sliced at the side of Nevren’s brown chest—the largest wound yet—and then rolled across the floor. His armor evaporated, but Rhys refused to give up.

Nevren had no idea where Rhys was drawing this power from, let alone why his Revisor wasn’t working. But neither circumstance was favorable.

Rhys spun and fired one final aura Sphere toward Nevren’s face. He brought his spoon up and clumsily deflected it, but his spoon slipped from his hand, clattering onto the ground behind him. Rhys fired again. Nevren ducked to the left and tried to get in front of Anam—who was standing eerily still—and blocked the second Sphere with his other spoon. He barely retained his grip on that one.

“Now, Rhys,” Nevren said, pressing his Revisor again. Nothing. “Now is not the time to fight, yes? As I had warned you, Anam will attack all of Hot Spot should you rebel! We wouldn’t want that, would we? Anam, is that correct?”

Anam said nothing. He was still motionless, the gaping hole in his gut slowly closing. Nevren noticed that Anam’s slime seemed a bit darker than usual.

“Stop… fighting…” Anam said weakly. “Please… stop…”

Rhys suddenly stopped, looking back. “Anam! Are you free?”

“We will stop, Anam.” Nevren waved his hand in front of the Goodra. “Rhys? Please, lower your aura. You know this won’t do us any good. If I am defeated, Anam will lose himself completely and go berserk.”

Rhys growled. “And if you’re lying?”

“You know I don’t make such gambles.”

Rhys stared at Nevren in silence, but finally let his aura armor dissipate. His adrenaline was keeping him up, even as his aura cried out for rest. But now that the armor was gone, his legs wobbled.

Nevren quickly held Rhys by the chest, holding him up. “Hold, Rhys. Are you okay?”

“No,” Rhys said. “My aura is… fading a tad. Performing the aura armor technique… twice in a row… ngh. No. I’m afraid I’m not at my best.”

“Hrm,” Nevren said, nodding. “Very well.” He gripped Rhys’ shoulder firmly, digging his clawed hands into his fur. Rhys gasped, jerking away, but Nevren redoubled his hold the weakened Lucario. Energy channeled from Nevren into Rhys. Then he let go.

Rhys stared at Nevren, eyes wide. Rhys then channeled a bit of aura through his paws, watching the flare’s steady energy.

“Better?” Nevren asked.

“How do you know I won’t merely strike you down?” Rhys immediately said.

“I know you well enough that you won’t,” Nevren replied. “…And I am still your friend, Rhys.”

“You killed me.”

“I apologize, but a single Oran wouldn’t have been enough to restore you, and I unfortunately ran out of them. A Reviver had to work. It wasn’t too painful, was it? From my experience, Anam’s rot doesn’t start to hurt until several seconds pass, and we killed you before that happened. I was being quite utilitarian about this, Rhys.”

Rhys growled. “You’re lucky that Anam is here,” he said. “If you didn’t have him go berserk if you were harmed… perhaps I would use your gesture of kindness against you for the greater good.”

Nevren nodded. “I understand,” he said, though he knew Rhys’ words were hollow. “Now then, Anam.” He turned toward the Goodra, though he eyed the slime that flowed through his system. Once pinkish-purple goo had flecks of deep purple swimming inside in a gentle current. “Are you okay?”

Anam stared emptily at Nevren.

“Hmm, Anam,” Nevren waved his spoon toward the Ghost Guardian. “You will listen, yes? Return to normal. You remember none of—"

Anam’s horn jerked forward and slammed on top of Nevren, pressing him into the rocky floor. Rhys leaped back, a mixture of horror, surprise, and glee rushing through him at once. Anam was fighting back! And yet the sight of Nevren crumpled on the ground still unsettled a part of him.

“Anam!” Rhys shouted.

A thousand voices spoke at once. “Die.”

Anam’s second horn darkened into a pure, inky black, the color slowly spreading through the rest of his body. The horn stiffened, straightened, and sharpened, plunging itself into Nevren’s back. The Alakazam couldn’t even cry out. The horn curled around Nevren—still pierced through—and flung him over Rhys. Nevren rolled across the rocks, blood splashing over every spot he went over, until a golden light from his bag washed over him.

Nevren panted, clutching at the phantom pain where the hole had once been. Rhys spun around and crossed his arms, triumphant. “What now, Nevren?” he said.

Nevren struggled to remain upright but could only manage to prop himself up with his arms.

“Anam is free of your hold, and—”

Nevren’s eyes flashed with Psychic energy. Rhys tried to shield himself from the blow, but none came. Instead, he heard the dull slap of slime on an invisible barrier. He turned back.

Anam was almost totally black, with fog of the same color pouring lazily out of his mouth. More fog, with black specks of darkness floating inside, seeped from the surface of the Goodra’s body. Rhys’ aura sensors ached again. He watched the horn—which had been poised to stab Rhys though the chest in the same way—retract.

“A-Anam?” Rhys said.

The Goodra stared at Rhys. His mouth opened slightly, but no words came out. Instead, it closed… but countless voices followed anyway. “Anam is asleep.”

“Rhys,” Nevren said. “Small bit of bad news. I’ve run out of Reviver Seeds.”

“I know.” The fog blocked the exit of the Dungeon completely. “Now you can join him.”

The Goodra opened his maw and blasted them both with a piercing beam of darkness.
 
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