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SparklingEspeon

Insquisitabilitating
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. espurr
  2. fennekin
Note: This review covers material that isn't on the TR Forums yet; I've done my best to contain all that to spoiler tags, but if you aren't caught up yet I'd suggest skipping over this until you are.

~Review of Special Episode 4 – Chapter 105~

So I was going to return to review at the end of Act II, but the ending of Act Two was RowlAnxiety, so I decided to go through everything currently existing instead! ….Mostly because once I get binge reading on something I can’t really stop myself. :V I broke off at Chapter 105 by the FFN counter when I ran out of steam, so that happened. Writing this all up while it’s fresh in my mind.

Anyways! This is a story that already had a pretty huge scope from the beginning, but once the last Guardian missions were squared away that scope really billowed out. I think the special episodes were what helped that along, introducing (or at least bringing into the spotlight) concepts like wraiths and the Revisor while the main plot in the present mostly dealt with a lower-stakes emotional arc for Owen and the rest of Team Alloy.

There’s definitely flaws—which is to be expected with a web serial this long and complicated, but IMO, these flaws have to do more with me feeling like things just went on for too long than it does me getting confused by all the things going on. Because, I haven’t really been confused thus far. I think things are beginning to spiral a little out of control in Act III, when we have like ten different POVs and some of them are floating out of focus for a bit (Quartz; Har), but for the most part I’ve been able to keep a surprisingly good hold on everything. Only thing that’s kind of getting me is the distinction between Void Basin and Chasm of the Void. From what I understand, Nate hides in one, and the other is just… evil? And corrupted Jerry’s family and possibly Spice? IDK, and I keep getting them mixed up.

So in the last review I said that I thought that Act II had a bit too much talking. And tbh I still kind of think that. Team Alloy’s whole “Do I have free will?” crisis, while interesting, was pretty much just talked out. Jerry’s “Why should I be honorable when the world just throws me down” thing was talked out. Even Eon is pretty much just interested in talking. Even with the battle between Team Alloy and Har’s group, this act was pretty much a slog for me to get through… until Step buried half of Kilo Village in a blizzard while attacking Rim. Then from there on out we get all the plot: Nevren drops his Anam bomb on Hot Spot, Eon makes his move, the wraiths move out into the Spirit World, Star goes axe murderer on Eon and Quartz HQ, Arceus finally steps fully into the fray, Gahi gets the psychic-orb, Dark Matter/”the Wraith King” makes its entrance, and Everyone Dies while Kilo enters its own personal 2020. It kind of feels like the two halves were distilled here a bit, rather than blended together.

That’s a lot of stuff to cover, and I have a bunch to say about the ending and Act III, but first I’ll do my best to cover all the intricacies of Act II, because like I said, there’s a lot.

Firstly, hands-down my favorite part of Act II was the Special Episodes. Admittedly it has a lot to do with the l o r e drops, but I enjoyed the flashes back to the past and the focus on characters who generally stayed in the background like Anam and Eon. Interesting that Anam got two, although I guess it needed to be that way to introduce Dark Matter. My favorite of those was definitely the first Anam one. I liked all the contrasting imagery from the books of Mew and Arceus, and the origins of some of the newer legends like Hecto. It’s not surprising to see why they disagreed, when there’s fundamental contradictions in their philosophies (“Don’t venture outside of what you were made to do, or you’ll live unhappily.” – Arceus; “Push your limits constantly, or you’ll never live.” – Mew) It was also interesting to get another look at Nate and where he came from.

Speaking of Nate, I’d long suspected he was a mimikyu, tbh. He’s also precious and does not deserve the revulsion he gets from almost everyone D: I wonder if it’s the Dark Orb that’s making him that big, or is he something that came about from Ancient/pre-Kilo? He mentions that he just ”woke up in the chasm of the void (I thiiink that’s the right one?) and felt he had to stay there”, and apparently he’s one of a kind, so…

Not sure how I feel about Har and company. Like, interesting concept, and it’s depth for Eon’s character, but so far they’ve pretty much just sat around in the background? I haven’t actually seen them affect the plot significantly at all in Act II outside of just existing, and so far in Act III they’ve been stuck at Trina’s crumbling palace. They’re kinda just…. There. Not sure if they’re gonna get used more in the future or something.

It was interesting to see more light shed on Eon and Arceus. In Act I, Eon was an enigma who wanted to get closer to Owen for unknown reasons and Arceus was just talked about. Here, they developed into their own distinct personalities—With Arceus actually being somewhat more sensible than Star, even if he’s got a stick up his arse, and Eon being an emotional parent figure who’s gone way too far on the pretense of seeing his “son” again. I don’t know how Nevren ended up thinking he’d be a good replacement for Star and Arceus, though. IMO, he’s worse.

And honestly, I don’t get Nevren. He seems like the type to be self-serving, or at least pretty calculating—so I don’t understand what he could possibly stand to gain by joining up with the Hunters instead of Anam. If he’s self-serving, then he had it made where he was. He was Anam’s right hand (…Paw? Gooey limb? I think he hates that idea), he had sway and influence in the Thousand Hearts, the resources to do whatever crazy experiments he wanted, Star’s trust, etc. I don’t understand why he would throw that all away for Eon. And if he legit thinks that Eon is a better leader than Star or Barky or even Anam would be, then I don’t understand how he came to that conclusion either. Because Eon is very clearly emotionally volatile and has been for centuries—that’s not a person you want to drop Ultimate Power into. And if he was using Eon as a means to an end and planned to betray him at some point… well, that’s not off the table, and it does make more sense than I anticipated, but even so, that’s eeeviiil. Since the only end I can think of is taking over after Star and Barky were gone.

Also, pretty sure that weird scene with him attacking Owen back in like… chapter six? Had something to do with the Revisor.

I have to say, from the moment the Wraiths were introduced my first thought was “Void shadows?” Fascinating to see that prediction was right.

Star goes hog-wild in Quartz HQ despite at least trying to be nice for the rest of Act II and now we finally get to see what she’s truly made of—Well meaning, but blinded by hate for people she fought thousands of years ago. Shortsighted and emotionally driven, wishing to change the world to what she thinks is best without any regard to what others think, and willing to use pokemon as tools if she deems it necessary. I wouldn’t say she’s pure evil, or even “evil”, really, but she’s trying to be holier-than-thou when she… really isn’t. I don’t think she deserves the #f*ckStar campaign trending against her quite yet, but she’s far from innocent and, just like she claims Eon does, won’t admit or even entertain that she’s wrong. I haven’t lost my sympathy yet for her—that was an awful way to die, after all, and not even Nevren deserves that—but my position at this point is “WTF. Be better.”

Literally no-one suspected Hecto to be a threat… until he was. :D

I’m not sure how I feel about Rim yet. I think this is a grey area character for me—it feels like she was just the caretaker for all those mutants and not a mastermind leading the plan, but she was also behind some of the guardian attacks, apparently fought her way into the Psychic Orb by brute force, and her priorities definitely align against Star. Although, granted, Star isn’t exactly in the right, so it’s hard to say how evil being against her makes you by virtue. I don’t think she deserved what she got from Star, though. The poor thing almost literally died of shock until Lavender saved her.

Poor Lavender does his best to save Rim but doesn’t realize that ‘rim’ isn’t the correct body specification… welp, hope Rim enjoys her new life as a cherrim, I guess.

Also, did that machine have the framework for every single pokemon (barring legends) written into it?

I feel like Gahi getting the Psychic Orb was somewhat poetic, since he got ragged on all the time for being dumb/dimwitted. And… he’s not the wisest. But he’s certainly not dumb! It fits him, tbh. The Unown are also interesting spirits—I hope we get to see a bit more of them beyond them just appearing for attacks and stuff.

I was expecting Dark Matter to get involved at some point, but didn’t realize it was Anam’s Voice/malevolent spirit up until the last special episode. It makes more sense than it should—I think it clicked for me halfway through their talk in the Ghost Orb. The perfect “Oh shit” reveal right before everything exploded.

I think Owen and Brandon’s heart-to-heart is one of the most satisfying scenes in the entire act. Firstly, we get to see Brandon again, who hasn’t been in the picture since they visited him in that factory—seriously, what has he been doing in there all those centuries—we get to see Owen actually treated as an equal, not as a crush or someone to be ordered around or protected, and also Brandon is a pokemon who can say “no u” to the legendaries and walk away unscathed. Which is pretty cathartic tbh.

Okay! So. Act II ending. This is my other issue with Act II in general—it feels like the ending isn’t really an ending so much as it is a cliffhanger for Act III. I got no sense of conclusion really, and everything was left dangling and up in the air. My impressions from reading the end of Act II were:

  • Star is dead
  • Owen is dead??
  • EVERYONE IS DEAD
  • Wtf is Nate doing is he part of Dark Matter or something :worriedgoo:
  • Well. Everything’s gone to crap. Act III is going to be a ride.
  • ….Why don’t I feel satisfied, though? I’m just…. Empty.
It’s like there’s been so much stuff opened, but none of them were really closed well. The only person who I feel had a thematic Act II end position was… Star, I guess, who died being consumed by the very things she’d tried to bury or block out. And even then, I don’t feel like that’s a very thematic conclusion for her, since her big flaw was, y’know, assuming she’s right/knows better than everyone and acting foolishly. (Holding out on that she’s not dead dead, just “Voidlands” dead; it doesn’t seem like her story’s over yet)

The Voidlands was something I had admittedly expected to see due to some chance spoiler stuff, but not quite like this. I had thought it was going to be some weird extension of the spirit world or something that got added onto Kilo, or a place that the entire Hot Spot crew escaped to after Kilo was destroyed completely; maybe where all the legendaries were banished. But at the end of the day, I was expecting it to be a refuge/a second Hot Spot, not… this.

This is pretty much the closest I’ve seen to the Voidlands being played straight in a fic, though. Short of the void titans, it’s pretty much what you’d expect to see from someone roaming the canon Super voidlands, down to the legendaries being there and all. I have a bunch of negatives and positives for this particular section of the plot.

My biggest negative, I think, is how much stuff that’s being added onto the plot here. All the exposition and worldbuilding about how a civilization would thrive in the pokemon equivalent of Hell is cool and all, but it’s a whole new set of characters in an already sprawling plot that covers eons and probably over fifty characters already. I can’t even list all the relevant characters in HoC from memory and now there’s like fifteen more, and going by each Act’s overall count of forty-something chapters, I don’t really see how it’s all going to breathe. We have:

  • Owen’s past as a Charmander in Kanto, + his history with Necrozma and the other legendaries
  • Zena and Amia are shells of what they were
  • Evil father, evil voidland kingdom who’s after Owen even if they don’t know it yet
  • Slightly less evil father and his presumable ‘make up with Owen’ plan
  • Almost all the legendaries are hanging around the voidlands somewhere, and are probably going have to be recovered in some way
  • Now Anam and Dark Matter are in the mix
  • Mewtwo’s on his way to mess Null Village up
And that’s not even covering what’s going on in Kilo right now!

  • Rhys at the factory
  • Corrupted Emily and her storm
  • Pandemonium in Kilo Village and Angelo trying to adjust
  • Whatever Har and co. are doing right now idk I lost track
  • Nevren and Rim and Quartz
  • Spice and her weird void powers
  • Jerry flashback
That’s not to say that the stuff in Kilo is boring, because tbh I’m enjoying that more than I am the stuff in the Voidlands. And I think the reason is that in Kilo, I’m getting answers, while in the Voidlands, I just have questions. Reading the Kilo chapters, I’m learning more about what makes Kilo tick. All that worldbuilding you teased for like 60 chapters is finally paying off. I’m seeing more of the history, learning about the geography, and stuff is finally moving out of the past and going forward. And with it, smaller characters who didn’t have a chance to shine under Owen and the rest of the Hot Spot Crew are getting their own arcs, like Spice, Phol, and Angelo. In short, it’s like we went through two arcs of a big history lesson, and now all those dominos you carefully set up are finally spilling over and it’s perfectly coordinated. In the voidlands… I’m not really getting that. It’s like we’re back at tbe beginning all over again.

On one hand, I can see the merits. Like, giving Owen the chance to stand up for himself by placing him in a barren wasteland and incapacitating his role models/””commanders”” one by one. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m getting any real answers here. Much like Owen, we’re just being led along with a carrot on a stick with the promise of answers, but each answer is just a mirage that’s replaced with more questions.

  • Owen was a Charmander named “Smallflame” from Kanto? Cool, but then doesn’t that negate almost everything we already knew about Eon and the Alloy? Where did Gahi, Mispy, and Demitri come from? Why are they able to fuse in the first place? How is Eon connected to this?

  • There’s a village in the Voidlands, and Owen and Jerry are safe! But syke, turns out that village is just the doormat to an entire Voidland kingdom, and in that kingdom there’s a Hydreigon that’s probably Owen’s father for some reason? And also he’s evil? And also Owen is a hot product here? And also there are legendaries here? And Also Owen was like the student of the third counterpart to Star and Barky, who definitely wasn’t Necrozma? When did Z-crystals get involved in this?

  • We finally get to see Cypher City! But that’s only to introduce like four more characters who are likely going to get their arcs over the course of the voidlands conflict.

  • See where I’m going with this?
It feels like with the voidlands, we’ve been thrown back to the beginning, and maybe even a few steps further. Which, for a story so long and already at The Point of No Return, feels somewhat disheartening tbh. Could I bear 20 more chapters of the Voidlands and a clean arc wrap-up at the end of Act III? Probably, but if Owen was still trapped in purgatory by the beginning of Act IV an act I’m pretty sure is happening at this point with the current scope, I feel like that would really be pushing it for me. I guess what I want to see here is more answers and for something to finally change for Owen, because it feels like all he’s been doing is sitting around and waiting for his memories to come back and hoping reality gives him a break like it hasn’t for five centuries or something. I don’t want him to just lie down and take another round of the universe going “No u” and yeeting his character development back three years.

That said, there are a lot of cool ideas flowing around here, like Void Titans, which are presumably amalgamations of void shadows built around the legendaries (?), and Cypher City. I’m curious to see what makes a civilization in the voidlands, presumably a centuries old one filled with pokemon who don’t naturally “die”, tick. Where do they get their bread and cheese and fake meats from? Are they farming it? How do they do that without the sun; can you even grow anything there? Aside from dead trees and poisoned berries. Also tribes in the Voidlands—there seem to be some, since they cooked Owen’s dead body, so I’m kind of just wondering how they haven’t died out yet. Wandering around the wilderness like Owen and co. did is clearly not sustainable.

Also, Owen literally eating himself was twisted. I should have taken that more seriously when you mentioned it in the discord :failmander:

I wonder why he didn’t remember his first death, though…

I also appreciated how absolutely desperate and hopeless you made it feel when Owen was wandering around and searching for the others. You weave his encroaching madness as he gets more and more insane into the prose almost flawlessly, and for perhaps the first time in this story, death actually feels like death. When Amia dies, there’s no guarantee she’ll just float into the Aura Sea and be resurrected in her orb in a few minutes. It feels barren and empty; there’s no time for Owen to mourn or even bury the body.

Parts of this that struck me the most vividly were the paragraph with the rock, Owen eating himself, Amia’s death, and when he finally gives up and drinks the water that may or may not be poisonous but he doesn’t care because he’s just too thirsty at that point.

So gold protect barriers = affiliated with Necrozma… (I know that wasn’t confirmed but it basically is so.) now I have to go back and see who had a gold protect at some point. Clearly, there’s more than one gold protect user walking around if stuff works the same way in Kilo.

I wonder what Star commissioned from Angelo? Welp, guess it doesn’t matter now, because he’s about to be traumatized 20 times working for the Thousand Hearts! :D

When push comes to shove, I get what he’s talking about when he doesn’t want to touch Heart work with a thirty-foot pole. Since it seems like all his ancestors were short-lived due to Heart Work, he’s got an aversion to it—and in any other situation, I wouldn’t support dragging him out of his art hidey hole to help with the hospital. I think he kind of does have to go this time, though, since it’s all hands on deck here and he does have the power. It isn’t very nice that people are just nagging him for everything, though. I wonder where you’re going to take him, because it feels like he’s pretty immovable on the “I don’t wanna do anything but draw for the rest of my life” stance and emergency work in Kilo is not helping with that.

Why does everyone hate Nate?? I mean

Yes

Kilo Village is technically under attack from something that looks similar to Nate

But also like

He declared he was friendly and had backing from Rhys?

Also, because I haven’t covered the Kilo stuff yet and there’s still a lot to go through, Rhys’ speech was a very strong moment, IMO. It simultaneously showed off the hopelessness of their situation while giving the pokemon of Kilo Village a sense of hope.

Also, OMG, Step. Think before you judge >.>

I get that she’s like, tribal/old fashioned or whatever, but the amount of empathy she lacks is scary. If pokemon like Star and Eon are too emotional for power like Step claims, Step is the opposite extreme—she’s cold to a point where she lacks any emotion or understanding of others’ predicaments. I can’t say I like her too much.

Also, what’s up with Emily? That storm proooobably isn’t good. And we still don’t have an answer for why her being the original Dragon guardian was under Divine Decree…

I don’t know if I have too much to say on the Jerry episode, but it was interesting. I’m gonna assume whatever they got off Void Basin is what’s corrupting/mucking with Spice, since she likes to go there. Also wasn’t entirely clear on what happened to Jeremy—My current assumption is that he was being abuse and Brigid killed him? That’s what I’m gleaning from it.

I think I’ve noticed that each arc so far has had its own theme. Arc I was memories and growth; Owen was thrust into a world he never even realized existed, told he was older than he could even fathom and everything he knew was a lie—which in itself was just a lie just to cover up more lies. It’s down to him to grow out of that, and by the end of the arc he and the rest of the Alloy have conquered their beserkness and evolved fully. Arc II was Denial and Free Will. Owen and the rest of Team Alloy are forced to confront how much free will they actually have, and the more independence they gain, the more they realize that everyone around them is just looking to use or coddle them in some way. Star wants Owen there because he’s an important piece on the board, Eon just wants his pokemon/”son” back but doesn’t recognize that Owen isn’t a baby to be coddled around, etc. Har struggles with his identity, and the rest of them had their memories removed so they could be free of the grief of being copies. Meanwhile, Nevren pulls Anam under his control, thus taking away his free will as well. And throughout all of this, every single one of them is denying—either through willful shutting out or complete ignorance—the actual eldritch abomination that strikes them all down the moment they leave it unchecked. I guess in some twisted way this arc also works as a metaphor for climate change… somehow. :V Arc III is looking to be recovery and unity. Owen and pretty much everyone he knows gets thrown into the Voidlands, to varying degrees of lucidity. Some of them are shells of their former self, and Owen has lost all his powers. None of them stand a chance unless they all band together. Meanwhile, Kilo is pretty much on fire, and it’s down to all of the pokemon there to save themselves, instead of waiting on Anam and the Thousand Hearts to do it for them. None of them are out of the woods yet, and they’ll have to recover and build up their strength and unity for when that final battle is upon them.

My overall thoughts are that Hands of Creation is a very sprawling, original, well thought-out epic that wields a double-edged sword: the very details that make it pop with life and tick underneath the surface are the ones that sometimes make it bloat too much, or carry a plotline on way too long, or slow the pacing to a snail’s halt. It seems to carry strong themes of memories and how the past makes the future, and indeed a lot of this story does take place in the past. However, it’s layered in such a way so that nothing ever becomes confusing or feels like too much, and the characters, while seemingly exaggerated and goofy at first, take a surprisingly serious turn later on.

I think the biggest merits here are the world and the rich lore—As I’ve said before, Kilo feels lived-in and ancient rather than just a façade, and that’s only gotten more and more evident the more we delve into its past. Its clear that you actually have a vast lorebook and aren’t just making this all up on the fly, and I’m interested to see what parts of that are revealed next. Despite how dense it is, though, it’s definitely one of those stories that can keep the pages turning when it gets good—in no small part due to the manageable chapter lengths and the simple prose.

Anyways, I’m ending this review on the perfect wordcount of 4,444 words, so bye for now, I guess. I’ll try to return again once you wrap up Act III. Maybe I’ll be surprised and you’ll find a way to end it all there, but tbh I’m expecting an Act IV at least. There’s just way too much to wrap up in a single act without squishing some stuff.

Until next time!

~SparklingEspeon

Listening to: Voidlands – PSMD composer I also listened to this while reading Act III. I thought it was strangely appropriate.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partners
  1. charizard
Thanks to all of you for all the kind words and strong feedback! I've talked to you both elsewhere, but in general I'm really glad that you're enjoying yourself, Navar, and Espy, I hope things pick up for you in the coming chapters. I've definitely been putting a greater focus on picking up the pace for these current chapters in particular to get things rolling faster, and hopefully all the stuff happening in Act III has good payoff when it all comes together.

In any case, after a lot of dillydallying, it's time for me to start publishing Act III here. I'm going to be rapid-fire about it because I've delayed a LOT...
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partners
  1. charizard
Act III – A Faded Voice

A red sphere shielded itself inside a hollow shell. While it could not curl, it was the closest equivalent to hiding away from the world: within its void, within its own small reality. All around it, above and below and behind and in front, were little pinpricks of light. False stars like the night sky of the living world.

Little droplets of slime punctuated the otherwise complete silence. It was annoying. He didn’t have to be here. He could have wandered off to do whatever he wanted while he took care of annihilating the world. Was moping around really necessary? Dark Matter rumbled irritably, turning his attention toward the Goodra that refused to leave.

“Why are you still here?”

“Please stop this.”

The words felt like little daggers against his core. He contracted his shell like a child hiding deeper under the covers. What was he doing, hiding away from the Goodra? He had the upper hand! Judgement, Devastating Drake, Light of Ruin—all three attacks only paused his advance. The real stopping point was this pestering Goodra. With him around, he…

“I changed my mind. You… you tricked me. That wasn’t fair.”

“I only made you realize the truth. Because you denied it all, too. For so long, you tried to convince yourself that the world—”

“It’s not ruined! It’s not rotten!” Anam squeezed his fists together, slamming them against his sides. “The world’s just hard to live in sometimes, and that’s just life!”

“It is the reality the old gods created.”

“So?” Anam challenged. “With all the bad stuff, there’s also… also good stuff! And that means—”

“Fleeting pleasures in a world that was built on survival. By default, life persists only for its own sake, and only by taking away from other living things. That is the rule of nature molded by Mew, based on the laws formed by Arceus.”

“And what about Necrozma?” Anam said. “He’s in here. How come you never talk about him?”

This child was actually growing a spine. He’d never seen Anam talk back to him like this before, in all those centuries. Always kind, always delicate, and now he was yelling… But the way his lips quivered, his tail flicked here and there… He felt his fear, his sadness. He was only lashing out because of how all other mortals lashed out. Kilo’s new god was cornered, and now he only knew but to struggle aimlessly.

Pitiful.

“Don’t just stare at me like th-that,” Anam said, his voice hitching at the end. “Necrozma’s why I made the world better in the first place. What did he do wrong, huh?”

Another long silence followed, the fake stars in the fake sky rotating around them. A few more globs of purple slime fell onto the flat and featureless void, the imaginary floor formed by Anam’s own desires. It was a wonder how long the floor would exist before he fell into despair like everyone else.

Stubborn.

“His mistake is the same one you made,” Dark Matter replied. “He trusted mortals.”

Another quiet rumble shook the void, and Anam finally looked down, flicking his antennae. He sat with a childish plop and looked up at Dark Matter.

“So you refuse to leave?”

“You can’t do anything while I’m here.”

Dark Matter growled at that, looking down. Even now, he was tied to him, stuck in a perpetual deadlock so long as Anam continued to have hope. How irritating. Anam had lost hope so completely for that one instant, and he’d already recovered? What fueled him?! Why?!

Dark Matter slowly formed a black cloud from deep within his core, aimed at Anam. His bright, green eyes stared back, filled with defiant sadness. The darkness crackled more, concentrating into a fine point. It stayed there, ready to fire at any point.

Anam stared.

The beam smashed into Anam’s body and bent around, spraying flecks of slime behind him, yet the main part of his body, his core, amorphous as it was, still remained completely unharmed.

Dark Matter rumbled and compressed his sphere again. “Pest.”

Anam’s horns crossed in front of his chest, his eyes now transitioning to one that was more like a disappointed father’s. “You said you wanted to be happy.”

That one hurt. Dark Matter lacked a head, yet it still somehow felt like a headache. It cracked through his shell and into his core, and then somehow into the core of his core. That wasn’t fair. Someone like Anam wasn’t allowed to say something like that.

“What happened?”

Stop, stop. Anam wasn’t like this. He wasn’t angry. Anam didn’t get angry. Why was he looking at him like that? Dark Matter shrank away. It wasn’t fair. Anam was supposed to agree. He was supposed to give up and agree. This was the right thing to do, after all.

“It’s all fleeting. Even if I did become happy, it would go away. I… don’t want it anymore.”

“You’re… denying it.” Anam gulped, looking away. “You lost hope.”

“I can’t hope.”

“You can!” Anam shouted, squeezing his fists again. “Y-you can! When you reached out to me, when you agreed to help me… th-that was hope! That had to be—”

“I just wanted you to shut up. It was desire and hunger… Not hope.”

“That’s not true.” Anam’s eyes turned fierce, like his mother’s. “Y-you… you hoped, because you wanted to be happy. And you thought I could do it. That was hope! And… and you still care enough about the world… don’t you? That you helped me for so long, telling me about everyone’s darkness so I could make it less, and less. That’s true, isn’t it? You feel less darkness than before. I-it’s not… it’s not all for nothing.”

“Nevren would have ruined it all.”

“No, he… he just wanted to save the world. He told me so.”

“From gods who also wanted to save the world?”

“Y-yeah, but—Nev-Nev…”

“Is just another fool who thinks the world can be saved.”

The pain wasn’t going away. Dark Matter had hoped it would—no. No, he couldn’t hope. That wasn’t part of him.

Anam let out another laugh, snapping Dark Matter out of the silence that he hadn’t even noticed. “What?”

“E-every time I think I understand you, I learn a little more, Mister Matter.”

He hated when Anam laughed. Why couldn’t he laugh?

“What do you mean?”

“You spent so many centuries trying to make the world better with me, but one little thing makes you give up on it all… i-it’s sad. Maybe I lost a little hope, but it’s never too late. You can turn this back… can’t you?”

No, no, stop talking. He didn’t need to hear this nonsense. The world was hopeless. Hopeless! There were no clean souls. Even Anam was tarnished and imperfect; he just denied the negativity and shouldered it all for himself, as if a single person could handle all the flaws of the world. Clearly, he couldn’t. He was a fool to even try.

“Please, Mister Matter. Turn it back. We can try again. I’ll tell everyone what happened. I’ll tell them what you are, and I’ll explain everything. They’ll pool all of their power together for you, and they’ll make you happy. I just n-need you to listen.”

Dark Matter couldn’t press his shell tighter. Any more and it would crack. “No.”

Another silence followed with Dark Matter refusing to look at him. Pest, pest, pest. Leave. Go away. He didn’t need Anam anymore.

“How come?”

His voice was so soft. Why did it hurt more than when he was shouting? “They won’t help me. It’s as I said. They’ll kill me. They already tried. There’s no going back now, Anam. It’s… too late for me. I can’t go back.”

“Y-you’re wrong. I’ll protect you. I will!”

And then, Dark Matter laughed. It was foreign to him—the laughter was one of disgust. That was why, he was sure of it. Because of course Anam would try to shoulder even his burdens.

He hated him.

He always hated him.

“Then you’ll die, too.”

The Goodra’s eyes didn’t waver. Dark Matter turned his attention to Anam again, but it wasn’t enough. He focused his attention away, snarling out another rumble.

Finally, Anam closed his eyes, and the tightening feeling Dark Matter felt around his core faded away. The Goodra brought his hands together, and then his horns back. He breathed steadily.

“What are you doing?” He recognized that posture.

“Praying.”

Dark Matter wished he could scoff. “To Star? To Barky? To Necrozma? None of them can hear you here. Your voice is silent.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Then you’re throwing it to the wind, hoping the nothing will pick it up? You’re a fool.”

“You’re here.”

“I’ll ignore them all.”

“That’s okay.”

Then it was to stop him. Holding onto blind hope was all Anam had left. In fact, Dark Matter knew it was just more denial; he could feel it radiating off of the Goodra. The hopelessness, the fear, the regrets, all of it swimming around in his pathetic form like the ink-black corruption that infested his body. Dark Matter knew that the face Anam gave him now, so tranquil and confident, was nothing but a thick mask. He saw through it.

Yet despite all of Anam’s doubt, and all of his fatigue, Dark Matter couldn’t feel defeat from him. And that was the one thing he needed—for Anam to submit again, this time for good. He just clung to this “hope” he claimed to have because that was all he had. But for what purpose? Why? Why? WHY?

“They’ll help you. All my friends will know to help you.”

“Half of them have already fallen into my realm. It won’t be long before Kilo collapses. And as despair spreads… so will I. You won’t be able to stop me once you’re convinced of that.”

“Prove me wrong.”

Anam didn’t open his eyes at all. The Goodra kept breathing. Dark Matter couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t understand him. He never did. He pretended to.

Anam was riddled with every negative thought that he should have had. And despite this perfect formula, every single fact lined up in front of him to show how he was wrong… He refused it anyway. Was there even a point to understanding how such a warped mind could function?

That was it—he never desired to understand Anam. Yes! Of course. He was just playing along. And now that Anam was wrong—then he was right. He was right. This was what he had to do.

“You’re their god, now, and all the other gods are useless or dead. Who could you possibly be praying to?”

A small smile tugged at Anam’s lips. “I don’t know why you keep calling me their god,” he said. “But I think I know who gods pray to.”

“Nobody. Prayer from a god is pointless. You’re speaking nonsense.”

“I think gods pray to mortals.”

The Goodra was delirious. “Really. You think Star, Arceus, you think they pray to their creations?”

“Mhm. Maybe they don’t know it, but I think they do.” Anam opened one eye, peeking at Dark Matter. “They just want friends in their own way. And I bet Necrozma was like that, too, huh?”

“I wouldn’t know. Everything you just said made no sense.”

Anam closed his eyes again and returned to a neutral pose.

“Then you’re praying to nobody. Nobody can hear you. It’s pointless.”

Anam’s smile returned, tranquil. Dark Matter sank back into the void and seethed silently, getting at eye-level.

The irritating Goodra didn’t change his expression, even after Dark Matter threatened to shoot him again. He formed another shadowy beam, making sure it crackled loudly so Anam would hear, but he didn’t react. It wasn’t like it would actually go through to him—the same way Anam could strike him in return. And those negative emotions were subsiding, despite all his efforts. Envy toyed with Dark Matter next.

“Then this is your new normal. Praying to the void.”

“I’ll call out to anybody who will listen,” Anam said.

“Nobody. Nobody can hear you.”

“You’re still here.”

More silence followed. Eventually, Dark Matter stopped his futile charge, staring Anam down. He just had to bide his time until he finally lost hope… Or maybe he could do something a bit more active.

“No.”

“What?”

“I won’t let you stop me this time. If you can stop me…” Dark Matter rumbled deeply. “Then I just have to gain more power.”

“But you said you were afraid they’d—”

“I don’t care,” Dark Matter hissed. “I refuse to wait while the world suffers. While you try to perpetuate it. It’s over. You lost. You’ve gone back on your word. So—I’m taking this into my own hands.”

Anam stood up. “Think about this, Mister Matter. You—”

“Star is here,” Dark Matter said, his core crackling with anxious anticipation. “How long until she loses herself?”

Anam’s eyes darkened, lips quivering. “She wouldn’t—”

“Goodbye, Anam.”

And with a final crack of lightning—one that Dark Matter knew Anam would try to follow—he disappeared from the void.
 

kintsugi

golden scars
Location
waiting for the fog to roll out
Pronouns
she/her
Partners
  1. silvally-grass
  2. lapras
  3. golurk
Hi Namo! Here for Blacklight on ch3.

Overall there are some interesting ideas in this one! Owen finally gets his try at becoming a Heart, and we get a glimpse of what this actually means to him and to the rest of Kilo Village. I liked the bits where Anam gets emotional and we get to see the level of respect that Hearts command in the village + how Owen has accepted that the risk is part of the job. It's nice to get some insight into what Owen thinks about his aspirations here! It reminds me a bit of The Lion King where Simba's super hyped to be king and doesn't really know what he's getting himself into, but as an audience member I can watch and be like, oh yes, this is gonna go great.

The exam system is in a strange spot structurally, but it reminds me of the chunin exams--didn't particularly expect that we'd be going into the semantics of how various species would sit for multiple choice tests, but here we are! I think it's a creative workaround for some of the sillier aspects of canon, which seem to imply that a multi-species society developed desks and chairs that are functionally identical to our own. It's in a bit of an awkward position where most of the test is skipped over but there's still a fair bit of time spent on the set-up here--structurally this chapter did feel like three distinct parts (wrap-up from ch2/the ceremony/the test), and the connective through-line of "Owen finally gets what he wants re: the Hearts" dies off a bit in the beginning and the end.

Owen chuckled nostalgically at the three. He decided, for now, to ignore why he had felt like reminiscing on memories he did not have.
I do wish we had some sort of rhyme or reason for lines like these--Owen decides to ignore this thought, but then he's super focused on interrogating Rhys, until he isn't, until he is. It's a bit tricky to follow what makes him choose to do this, and at some point I'm just going to blame his rampant amnesia for this as well I guess? He strikes me as a bit of a smol bean who's not the best at focusing on something or making a cunning plan to get things done, but from a narrative perspective it becomes hard to follow his motivations--the narrative is very intent on putting them in your face, and Owen is very intent on pushing them away where he doesn't have to look at them. Stacked with the knowledge that everyone is lying to Owen for reasons that we don't fully get to understand, some of these mysteries feel a bit empty? The mushrooms and Anam both glow with a strange color; I'm sure they're deeply interconnected for reasons that neither Owen nor we understand, but until then they're just glowing mushrooms. There's a bit where we cut away to Alex/Amia having a conversation after Owen rushes to bed, and I'm not really sure why the scene needs to linger on--it's another "something's up, but we won't tell you".

And! Unsure. I know I'm not really the intended audience here + I haven't really reached the payoff yet, so I'm a bit hesitant to say "it's blatantly obvious that something's up and most everyone is in on it by now", since perhaps these bits got added in to make that more clear. I know at some point it's weird because this fic is written episodically, there's a shitton of moving pieces, readers get one chapter per week on a scale of years, and everything is layering together into one complex payoff--so yeah, if you had to pick a side to lean to, I understand why you'd go for overemphasis rather than underemphasis. There's definitely something to be said about trying to juggle this many pieces in the air, so kudos to you for that! I can tell there's been a lot of plotting to make everything fit together, eventually.

some misc thoughts; kept this section slim since it's old prose and the story is a million years ahead of me
Slowly, color returned to Owen’s scales. “Sorry,” he finally said. “I guess I’m just a little tired after the day. I didn’t expect to get pelted by rocks in that forest, is all. I don’t think Aerodactyl are supposed to know Rock Blast. Maybe I’m just delirious.”
I'm not entirely sure if I follow the fixation on Rock Blast tbh. Would getting hit by a move that Aerodactyl could learn and still getting pelted by rocks really make him feel better? Who decides who gets to learn moves anyway? Is it physically impossible for some pokemon to learn moves, and all of this information for learnsets is codified and promptly undone each year, looking at you, Aerodactyl on this page from Gen 8

“Yes. Thank you for letting me guard you, Owen,” he said. “Stay safe. Be sure to keep up your meditation.”

“Oh, sure!” Owen said. “Yeah, you make Team Alloy do the same thing, right?”

“Yes, I do, that’s right,” Rhys said. “It’s very important for everyone.”

“Yeah. Okay! See you, Rhys!”
Wasn't sure what vibe you wanted here--is this an "as we both already know" sort of conversation, or is the idea that they're both staring past each other and telling really shitty lies that they both know the other is probably seeing through?

James brought his wings forward, forming a bow-like weave from his wing. An ethereal arrow appeared where his feathers touched the bow.
The ember at the end fluctuated in its intensity, going from a blazing flame to a shrinking ember.
Not really here to comment on your super old prose but the wing/bow/wing/bow and ember/ember here are a bit awkward.
 

Umbramatic

The Ghost Lord
Location
The Yangverse
Pronouns
Any
Partners
  1. reshiram
AHAHAHA FOOL! This review is not JUST for this year's Review Blitz. It's a review I've owed you as a reward since LAST YEAR'S review blitz! So instead of just one chapter I read all the way from where I left off here (Chapter 8) to where I lefty off on Serebii (the end of Chapter 13). The plot is clearly escalating and from what i know of this fic it doesn't STOP escalating. Some highlights:

-We meet Zena! I love that she immediately A. angsts and 1. gets romantically akward with Owen

-The lore about the Orbs and Hunters is cool shit. I do wonder how much more Rhys and Nevren being former Hunters will play into things.

-The Special Episode was a Time. I do wonder how """Deca""" plays into everything, since IIRC your special episodes actually tie into Le Plot

-I love the Guardians so far. All of them. Especially ADAM. He's so good. Wiillow and Statue Shiftry are great too.

-You're good at describing food. And yourt names for magazines and such are pretty great and make me giggle

-Owen's memory issues strike again! I still think he was a Bad Boi in a past life somehow.

-Overall I trust no one. :3

Man I still have barely made a dent in this one huh. If only I had more time. And energy. And Doritos, those are very, very important. But this is a very fun fic to watch unfold and I DO intend to be back fore more. I guess you could just say my experience with this fic is a,,,

...Late evolver.

...You can boo me now.
 

Navarchu

Exploration Team leader
Pronouns
He/Him
Partners
  1. swampert
Hi Namo, guess I’m back to reading this fic, reviewing chapter 27 this time. I'm tired due to some personal issues, so this will be the only chapter I’m reviewing today, sorry. With that out of the way, time for me to start this thing, I’m already hyped for what I’m reading.

Chapter 27 – Lakeside Chat

Honestly I found this one pretty adorable in the beginning. Everyone is helping Enet, a new ally is cool, I suppose they need all the help they can get, nice.

Another funny moment: Owen daydreaming about what he would look like if he was a guardian of other orbs. I don’t blame him, Charizard should be a dragon, Gamefreak robbed us in the end, sadly.

...Jesus, that last part scared me. Is that why Anam doesn’t use his power? He gets, for lack of a better word, possessed? This is intriguing but also scary. I just hope everything will work out in the end, Anam is such a good character that I feel awful just reading that scene. Honestly love when the writers do that, so another good point for your story, I guess.

This does leave a good cliffhanger for the next chapter, and since I’m not reading it now, it’s even better for me, as a reader. Guess this brings this review to a close, overall, another good chapter, I don’t think I disliked any of your chapters so far, which is a good thing, even for a lousy critic like me. This was fun, thank you for writing this fic, and see you on my next review, keep up the good work!
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partners
  1. charizard
Thanks to everyone for your reviews. Always a pleasure as always! I've talked with you guys all about it and have enjoyed the feedback as usual.

I've been neglecting updating this for a long while now as I don't really have anybody following it here specifically until it's caught up. I think it's about time I get as many chapters here as I can, then work on threadmarking. So with that in mind... Time to rapid-fire Act III!

Chapter 77 – Under the Red Sky

This had to be a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare.

Owen, back to being a Charmander, with weak muscles and an even weaker flame, panted as he ran by the red river. He didn’t know how long he had been running, or why—he just wanted to find… No, he didn’t even know what he was trying to find. Was he trying to run? To what? From what? He was just running on instinct—something that seemed a lot stronger, now.

At least it provided him with a sense of guidance. Usually he’d be aimless and sitting around until he was given some sort of direction—at least now, he knew to go someplace instead of stay put. He didn’t know which one was the better option, though.

To his left were the strange plateaus, carved, potentially, by eons of wind. To his right was a large river, the depth of which was impossible to discern. Thick and red like blood, but it smelled like… Owen wasn’t sure. Maybe it did smell like blood. Ever since he had gotten here, his sense of smell had been failing him. Perhaps everything was so strong that it had made him scent-blind.

His legs burned. He had to slow down. But once he slowed down, would he be able to start running again? His chest felt simultaneously cold and hot and tight. “Ngh, nngh, hnngh…”

He had to keep going. Someone had to be out there that had come here, too, wherever here was. And even if he chose to go in a random direction, it felt like the way he was going was now the right way. Forward. Wherever forward was.

And then he tripped over his own clumsy steps, slamming into the strangely hard, yet dusty ground. After a sharp inhale, dust coated his tongue and throat, leading to rough coughing and wheezing. He rolled over and, not thinking, scrambled to the lake and took a drink.

Foul.

He heaved the water back out, at least losing some of the dust, but it had been replaced by what Owen would have imagined Rhys’ trash pile would taste like. The thought earned another gag, then a cough, until his chest hurt more.

With a cough that was slightly too hard—nearly all of the air in his lungs seemingly gone, a splitting headache crackled across his skull, blurring his vision. He breathed through his nose next, careful that he wasn’t face-first in dust this time, but the air was dry. It only made his lungs hurt more.

His arms trembled, finally gathering enough strength to push Owen onto his back.

The Charmander’s head lay in the very edge of the shallows, tail dry. The sky was still red as ever, but he spotted a few clouds this time—gray things that gave him something to concentrate on.

The painful feeling in his lungs was starting to subside, though the dull throbbing of his legs hadn’t gone away. The same went for his sore throat and dry mouth. The thought of getting more water from the red pond made his whole body seize at the thought. But was there water anywhere else?

Owen turned his head to the left, seeing plateaus and the lakeside. He turned his head to the right, seeing plateaus and the lakeside. He didn’t have to, nor wanted to, lift his head up to know that the same scenery—aside from the lakeside—could be seen ahead.

A little time would be nice, just to relax and let all those pained feelings fade.

Owen wasn’t sure when, but at some point, he had drifted off into a nap.

<><><>​

Charmander hid behind Charizard’s tail, poking his head out now and then to watch the fights. Bigtail and Redscale were fighting. The Charmander with a big tail and the Charmeleon with crimson scales were always training, even if it wasn’t as good as it could be. But it helped to pass the time.

Bigtail weaved to the right of one of Redscale’s slow sweeps. He stumbled and fell over, but Redscale waited. Bigtail got up, but then lost his balance and fell backward, pressing his tail against the back of his head. He whined and rolled, puffing a stray ember into the dirt.

It was mostly dirt. Any grass in the training area had burned away a long time ago. Before he hatched, that was for sure. He didn’t see grass that often.

Charmander ran his claws through the dirt curiously, squeezing between little, dry clumps. With curiosity and impulse, he lifted his claws and licked at it.

No real taste. Dry. A little bitter. He didn’t like it.

He grimaced and ran his tongue over his teeth a few times, snarling at nothing. It wasn’t coming off. He kept licking, bringing his paws to his tongue again. Why was there more dirt, now? It still tasted bitter.

“What are you doing?”

Charmander chirped and looked up, dirt still speckling the scales around his mouth. Charizard frowned, leaning forward to lick some of it off.

“Stop that.”

Charmander whined and licked at the roof of his mouth again. He puffed a small flame, but that just made it all feel dry again.

Charizard closed her eyes, but then her attention turned upward. Charmander followed her gaze.


<><><>​

Muddy drool caked the edges of Owen’s mouth. “Ngh—” He squeezed his eyes tighter, but then cracked one open. Same sky, no sense of how much time had passed. It couldn’t have been that long, but his body felt horribly stiff.

His dream felt blurry and distant, but he remembered a bit of it. What was that? He remembered… warmth. And the dirt. And…

Owen rubbed at the corner of his mouth, wrinkling his short snout when his claws ran along the thick layer of dried dust-mud. He tried to sit up, only to realize that his head had sank partway the wet ground. With a loud, sucking sound, Owen managed to pull the back of his head out of the muddy lakeside, looking back at the imprint he had left in it with a worried frown.

Maybe that had been more than a nap

Perhaps he could continue his advance now that he had some time to rest.

Where am I? Where… what happened when Anam… when everyone…

He felt like he should have been panicking, but he was too exhausted. There wasn’t much energy in him to run. Sitting up had been a chore. A simple walk would probably be best for now—at least until he could find something to eat, like a few berries, or maybe if there was a shop nearby.

After all, everything was usually just a warp away. Even without those, it hadn’t taken too long for him to find something if he needed it.

A dry wind sent up plumes of loose dust, forcing Owen to close his eyes and cover his face. When the wind settled down, he took a peek to verify it was safe to open them completely.

It occurred to Owen that he hadn’t seen anybody since he’d first been… defeated. Yeah, let’s call it defeated.

It was a better idea than anything else that may have happened. But he was still breathing, and he was still walking, and everything still hurt—so he had to be okay.

He finally got to his feet. Wobbly, at first. His tail felt heavy. Arms, too.

One step after the next. Step, step. Soon, he found his rhythm again. At least his throat wasn’t dry anymore.

His mind wandered. He replayed the fight over and over in his head, trying to recall small details that he might have missed in how frantic it had all been—but that was just it. So panicked, so desperate to survive and save everyone… All I remember is Dad—no, that… Eon got taken, and… and I told everyone to run. Did they get away? How is everyone? If… they didn’t… are they here?

Owen’s walking had been off-center, and the reminder was his foot splashing into foul, red water. He shuddered and corrected his path, but not before looking behind him to have any sense of how far he’d walked, or how far this pond went. It seemed circular, and now that he had gone so far, it felt like he was losing track of where he had to go.

I can’t follow this thing forever. I’d go in a complete circle. Do I just…

He had to break away from the lakeside. But his throat… It was starting to feel dry. And his tongue, and his breaths. Owen looked at his arm, pinching at the scales, looking at the little wrinkles of his elbow.

Dehydration?

He needed… water?

But he hadn’t needed water—truly needed water—for moons, now. Ever since he’d become Mystic, he…

It hit him even harder than before—a horrible pit, a knot, a weight in his stomach that twisted, and then loosened with a low rumble.

It wasn’t just a lack of water. He needed food.

Clutching at his belly, the Charmander winced and eyed the river with a quiet whine. He hadn’t come across any sign of water since he’d arrived. That… red stuff was the closest thing to water that he could find. If he went away from the river now, and he didn’t find anything to drink…

With no choice, he approached the water. He smelled nothing at first, but once he had his mouth just barely above the water’s surface, a tinge of foul, rotten odor, simultaneously sweet, sour, and bitter, assaulted him. He squeezed his eyes shut, held his breath, and dipped his muzzle in for a deep gulp.

It wasn’t any better. It coated his tongue and freed him of any residual dust, but the taste was like bile—even worse when it went down his throat. It wafted to the back of his nose, lingering there. What he’d just downed threatened to rise back up. He shut his mouth tight and even grasped at the edge of his maw with his hands. He had to keep it down—otherwise, he wasn’t going to get any water at all.

It wasn’t enough. He needed a bit more water… It was water, right? He didn’t want to know for sure and just hoped that was the case—because, otherwise, he was going to be without water. And if he was getting hungry, then he’d just—shrivel up and die if he didn’t get something to drink.

He took another revolting gulp, this one slightly better than the last. Maybe his tongue had gone numb to it. Still, the aftertaste—the scent that battered the bottom of his head—made him retch.

That’s enough, right? he pleaded with himself, but he still felt thirsty. He wanted to cry. Squeezing his eyes shut again, he took another generous helping of red water, and finally jumped back, as if his very body was forcing him to reject any further attempts.

Three massive gulps. That was enough.

After spending some time recovering—and waiting for his stomach to settle at least somewhat—the Charmander got back to his feet and turned his back to the lake. Welcoming him was a long walk to towering plateaus. With his tiny legs and how far away it seemed, Owen feared it would take at least an eighth of the day… if he could tell the time of day!

Where’s the sun?!


Owen stared irritably at the sky, expecting to see some sign of what time it was, but there was nothing even hinting at it. Starting to lose his patience, Owen marched onward. It didn’t matter how long it took; he just had to go forward, thoughts about what had happened still swirling in his mind.

Another cruel gust of wind blew past. He shielded his eyes, waiting for the dust to settle; he wandered forward anyway, guided by a vague sensation that he had to keep going this way. Was something calling out to him, or was he just trying to convince himself that this way was accurate? He sensed that someone was there, in those plateaus.

The only other person he could think of that would be here would be Eon, one of the first to be claimed. But he wouldn’t want to see him, now—not after…

He couldn’t get the sight out of his mind. How helpless and desperate Eon was to get him back… surrounded by his mutants—his children… his soldiers… for a war that he never asked to be part of.

That he never…

Something about that thought didn’t settle right with him, much like the water in his guts.

Owen tried to think more on that statement, nearly stumbling when his foot sank partway into a false ground—it was actually just a pile of loosely collected dust in a pit as big as he was. After righting himself and making sure his ankle was okay, he continued around.

Didn’t ask to. Didn’t ask to. No, he did ask for that. But how did he ask that? When did he ask that?

I thought I was done with this memory nonsense!

He stopped briefly and huffed out a weak ember. Even his attacks weren’t like they used to be, so what if he’d somehow lost his memories, too? After all, every other time he became a Charmander, he had forgotten everything about having evolved.

At least I kept that this time…

How far had he gone? The lake was just a small, flat circle in the distance, and the plateaus were a lot taller, now.

The ground shook, dust scattered from a small shockwave thanks to the vibration alone.

All this dust would’ve been very distracting if he still had his Perceive. In fact, since he didn’t have that anymore… why did he still have a sense of where to go? This was different from the aura sight granted to him by Mysticism, and his Perceive. This was deeper, weaker, less… precise.

Another rumble disturbed the dusty ground. Those were becoming worryingly pronounced. Where were they coming from?

The plateaus towered above him like angry parents after getting a notice from school. They stared down at him, not mad, just disappointed, at how small and weak he’d become all over again. The plateau to his left was glaring particularly strongly. Owen quickly looked down, slapping his cheek. “Losing it…” he mumbled, and then startled himself at how hoarse his voice sounded. The lake was too far away, now, but maybe he didn’t get enough water after all…

Another rumble, and this time his heart skipped a beat. Either the source was becoming stronger and a volcano was about to explode, or an earthquake was coming, or—whatever was happening, or something was coming closer. Why did things always have to come closer? All his life, he felt like he was wandering around in the dark despite all the light his tail provided, and now he had looming shadows to run from, too.

No, that wasn’t any different, either, was it?

Owen quickened his pace, the empty, purple fields of dust sprouting a few new decorations, such as the stray rock or boulder. Undoubtedly, it had been chipped off from the plateaus and rolled all the way here from sheer momentum. Did rocks get a thrill from the way they rolled? It must have been exhilarating after spending so much time not moving. But it also must have been fast, too.

Owen stumbled over nothing and slapped his cheeks. Stay calm, don’t lose it! He didn’t know where those thoughts came from, but they felt so distracted and there was also a rock not too far ahead.

He took a few steps closer—it was black against the rest of the purple dust. Something to focus on before he went crazy, and he wasn’t crazy, he was just bored, and not crazy.

It was good to see you, little rock. It was starting to get boring with all the nothingness, and the lake had bad odor. But rocks didn’t have bad odor. At least, Owen hoped they didn’t. The Charmander squinted at this thought, slowing his pace and approaching a nearby pebble. He picked it up, giving it a curious sniff. No, no scent. That was good. Did it have a taste? Lick, lick. No, not much of a taste, but it did remind him that his tongue still felt dry.

Another rumble made Owen drop the small rock. More fell from the upper portions of the plateau, rolling and kicking up most purple dust when it hit the ground.

That wasn’t an earthquake.

Running on pure instinct, the Charmander scrambled to the largest rock that he could hide behind—thanks to his small stature, it wasn’t that difficult—and hoped that whatever it was wasn’t coming from behind. No, why would it? There was nothing but empty fields behind him.

A round boulder about the height of a Charmeleon was the first one that he deemed worthy of hiding behind. Panting and suppressing worried chirps, he waited for the next rumble and tried to gauge where it was coming from.

It didn’t take long. The next one was even stronger, and it was coming from the left and ahead. He peeked out from behind the boulder again.

Then he saw it.

It was about half the height of the plateaus—bigger than anything he’d ever seen moving before. Taller than Emily—at least three, maybe four times her height. Black, like a thick Smokescreen. It reminded Owen of a wraith. He only saw the front of it before he ducked back behind the boulder. It had something that vaguely resembled a head and neck, but where one began and the other ended, let alone where its shoulders were, was a mystery. Another rumble shook the earth, shaking Owen’s balance.

He dared to take another peek at the gigantic thing. From how far away he was, it was like staring at the Heart HQ from across town. Yet for that thing, it was probably only a few paces. And each pace was slow, shambling, and stumbling. Not every step it took made the ground rumble; it just happened to stumble now and then, falling over.

Four legs. It had four legs… he thought. Similar to the head and neck, its inky body didn’t have much of a definition for where its body ended and its limbs began. The same went for its tail. The movements… A cross between a quadruped and a Bug. Maybe he’d see something like that from Trina’s abode.

It was wandering toward the lake. That meant it was going away from Owen. Good. Maybe while it was distracted, he could hide in the plateaus instead. He still felt a nagging feeling to keep heading inside—and that was even more important now that something like that was behind him.

Slowly, he circled the boulder, peeking only to verify that it was still wandering in its predicted direction. Could it be friendly? Did he even want to risk that? His instincts screamed no, and he complied.

Still, he was paralyzed with fear. Maybe that was part of his instincts, too. If he made a sound, would it hear him? It was so big, maybe it wouldn’t. But there was no telling. He should wait until it was by the lake, which wouldn’t take too long. It was already halfway there, after all.

Owen held his breath, realizing that in the amount of time it took for him to get from the lake to the plateaus, the creature had passed along it in a matter of a handful of minutes.

Minutes. He remembered that metric. Owen rubbed his head with another suppressed groan.

The creature bent down, collapsing its front legs with another deep thud. Red water splashed in all directions from its knees as its head lazily dipped into the water. Did it have a mouth?

It surely must have. But the water didn’t splash near its head. It just… kept its head there, sucking the water in a steady stream. Owen watched, transfixed, still holding his breath, as its body swelled to an even greater size than before, gaining at least another of its heads in height. Its body became slightly more defined—though there hadn’t been much definition to begin with. Something that resembled muscular tone formed along its legs; the vague sense of hips and shoulders followed, but it was still of a Pokémon that Owen hadn’t seen in books, in person, or described in any way in legends or myths. Was it even a Pokémon? It was titanic…

Finally, it stopped drinking, raising its massive head—which still lacked definition, let alone a face. Tilting upward, the even larger creature stared at the sky. It let out a sound that was a mixture between a tornado’s wind and a demon’s scream.

What is that? What is that?! What’s it doing?!

It felt like Owen’s head was about to split open. He covered his head and curled up into a ball behind the boulder, but that wasn’t enough. The sound reverberated through his bones, shaking his arms and legs, pressed against his soft insides. He let out a ragged wheeze and breathed in sharply. The tightness in his chest came back with every heavy beat of his tiny heart. By the time the roar was over, Owen remained curled up behind the boulder, trembling and with a loud ringing in his ears.

Is it gone? I can’t hear. I can’t hear…

It was the most he could form in his head. Everything else was drowned in thoughtless, paralyzing fear. Everything was going dark again. Owen reminded himself to breathe, slow breaths, deep, steady. Just like his meditation. He closed his eyes, envisioning a small flame in the dark, flowing with gentle winds.

It’s gone. It’s gone and I’m too small for it to care about me. Maybe it’s just a bad dream. I’m hallucinating. I’ll open my eyes and it’ll be gone.

No, it’s definitely still there.


With his composure returned—but not quite his hearing—he stood back up and tried to steal another glance at the titan. It was following the river in the opposite direction. The relief that spread over Owen was enough to turn his legs to jelly.

On the ground, Owen was wise enough to keep from breathing in the dust this time—that’d be bad, after being so far from the lake. The call from the plateaus returned to him now that the terror had left.

Regaining his composure and his ability to stand, he ignored the fading ringing and continued away from the lake, stealing a glance or two behind him to make sure the titan hadn’t turned around. Thankfully, it never did.

Was he dead? What part of the spirit world was this? Could he die again? Did he have something to fear here?

Something primal was telling him that dying was dangerous.

He continued between the plateaus. He thought that they would have just been a narrow passageway, but the flatlands between each plateau were actually wider than even the training grounds of Hot Spot. Still, he was careful not to walk by either of them. After seeing how readily some of the rocks fell, walking along the walls seemed like a bad idea.

Every so often, he’d hear a distant rumble and freeze. Every time, the rumble became softer, rather than louder, and Owen advanced with a bit more relief in his breaths. Soon, he went past the first layer and looked to the left, then the right.

It was an entire forest of the things—that lake was just some sort of clearing. He was a tiny speck of sand among these rocky trees, and he wondered if climbing to the top of one would give him a better idea of where he could go next.

His instincts were telling him to go right again. Without any indicator of where else to go, he followed that vague feeling again. Though, this time, it felt more defined. Sharp. But where was it coming from this time? It almost felt like it was coming from inside one of them.

It felt like a dull itch on the top corner of his skull; Owen spun until he felt the that itch, like some kind of telepathic call, strike the center of his forehead. Yes, there.

The Charmander stared directly at one of the tall structures, imposing and insurmountable. The way the rocks curved outward the higher it went made for an impossible climb for his tiny limbs. Some of them felt like mountains that had been flipped upside-down.

There’s no way I’m going to die here, Owen thought to himself, trying to at least keep the pessimism out of his head. Those giants won’t find me, and they won’t eat me, either.

Owen wrapped his tiny arms around his body, suddenly feeling a chill despite his Fiery nature. Oh, Mew, did they eat Mom? Dad? Are the others here? No—no! They’re fine! They have to be fine. If I’m fine, they’re fine. I’m so much weaker than they are…

His stomach tied itself into a knot again; he groaned, one eye squeezing shut in a wince, while the other remained trained on the rocks, like there would be some kind of hidden passageway when he actually touched it. He had his doubts; while he lacked his aura sight, he doubted there would be an illusion of a wall out in the middle of nowhere.

Owen glanced at the sky again. Yes, still red. The rocks—none fell. He’d have to keep an eye on those, Owen thought. Just feel for rumbles, right? As long as there isn’t anything trying to chase me down, or…

He was afraid to, but he glanced behind him. Nothing. He breathed out a sigh of relief and stopped at the edge of the rocks. Putting that farfetched illusion theory to the test, he leaned against a stone. Solid, without a hint of give. No illusions there. He grabbed another, smaller pebble and wondered if throwing it at the wall would do anything different… or if it would break a loose rock off and injure him.

Best not to try.

He tried to focus on that vague feeling again. It wasn’t directly at the center anymore, but now that dull call was sharp, to his left.

A long walk across about an eight of the plateau’s circumference led him to the mouth of…

It’s a cave.

It occurred to Owen that perhaps this vague call was actually some kind of Psychic trap to draw in unsuspecting victims. His flame doubled in size just as another rumble shook the ground. It was louder this time. Above him, none of the rocks loosened or fell—not nearby, at least. The distinct thud of a larger boulder further away indicated that some other part had broken loose.

And then another boom, even louder than before, sealed Owen’s choice. It was coming closer. He couldn’t afford to get caught, trampled—eaten? Would it eat him? No, that was silly. He was too small for something like that.

…When was the last time he’d come across another living thing his size, anyway? The way there was no sun or any indicator of time passing, it could have been anything from hours to a couple days. He didn’t even know how long he’d been asleep.

The fatigue hit him again. He had walked more in this day or days than he had in the past moon, he was certain—perhaps, in part, because most of his travel had been with Waypoints. Those would have been nice to have. Or wings. Yes, wings would have been nice, Owen thought bitterly. What was worse, forgetting that he’d ever been a Charizard, or remembering it, and yet still being a Charmander?

Maybe ignorance really is bliss, he snorted.

A third rumble shook him from his thoughts. Without thinking, he scrambled toward the cave’s entrance. He pinned himself against the inner wall of the cave, breathing shallowly, and checked the interior for—

“SKRAAAA!”

Something leapt onto Owen’s back and jammed its fangs into his shoulder. Owen shrieked and slammed his back against the wall, which was barely enough to loosen it from his body. He spun around to see his assailant—another ink-black, amorphous thing, this time with two wings and a gaping mouth. The fangs, also black, had a small fleck of Owen’s blood on it.

The winged wraith lunged at Owen again, screeching. Owen dove to the right and swiped at it with sharp claws—probably all he had to work with, as far as he knew—and stepped back to gain some extra distance. The wraith screeched again and blew a gust of wind toward Owen, forcing the Charmander off his feet. He yelped and hit the ground in a rolling stop.

The feeling was sharper than ever. It felt like it was right behind him. But the wraith was a bigger worry. Despite landing its attack, it seemed even angrier than before, flying clumsily toward him. Owen puffed a gout of fire, but it evaporated early, leaving just a bit of heat haze to distract the wraith.

It closed in fast. Falling back to another reflex, Owen crossed his arms and braced himself. A golden bubble obscured his vision, his Protect shield as radiant as ever. The wraith bounced off of the shield with an ethereal thud. Taking advantage of its dazed state, Owen stomped on the ground and channeled a bit of energy into the floor. Then, he stepped back, losing his balance on something smooth and hard.

The Protect shield dropped and the wraith advanced again.

“Stop!” Owen shouted, like it would listen.

He focused on the spot he had stomped; a pillar of fire burst from the ground for a split-second, illuminating the small cave in orange light and engulfing the wraith in embers. It screamed again and flew in the opposite direction, out of the cave, and then into the air, even as another thud shook the entire plateau.

Owen breathed quickly, eyes darting left and right. Only his tail kept the cave alight. It was only ten, twenty of his paces deep, and he was already near a dead end of the cave. The entrance, a dim circle that felt so far away, revealed no further movement.

The wraith probably wasn’t going to return.

Hoping that he’d hear it if it did, Owen turned his attention to the strange, solid thing that had tripped him.

What’s… that?

The smooth object was a flat, rhombus-like crystal, a calm green. It was see-through, like colored glass, with a black symbol in the center. Curious, the Charmander prodded at it. The crystal sparkled a bit in response, which only heightened his curiosity. He shined his flame over it, and the orange light glistened against the radiant crystal. Owen finally picked it up, rolling the diamond in his hands; it was a bit too big for him to grasp with one hand completely; his fingers could only touch if he held it by the edges. Still, something about it fascinated him, and it was definitely what had been bugging him.

Odd. He didn’t feel much of that call anymore, now that he was holding it. He rolled it in his other hand, chirping curiously. Finally, he studied the odd, black symbol in the middle more closely. Within the transparent, green structure, the black symbol that reminded Owen of a leaf sat stoically.

Can I call on my Grass powers? Owen wondered to himself, focusing. As much as he didn’t like losing his Fiery pride, there was some practicality in it, if he could. He envisioned his flame sprouting into a beautiful flower, his scales becoming leaves. He held the crystal to his chest, like it would somehow help. When that didn’t work, he pressed it on his forehead. Nothing. He checked his tail—still a flame.

With a disappointed sigh, Owen finally sat down. The rumbles were softer again. It must have taken a different route. Was that another creature that he had to worry about?

He couldn’t stay in that cave for much longer. But now where was he supposed to go?

Now that he didn’t feel the dull call of the crystal, maybe he could focus on another. That had to mean something, right? It was all he had to go by. Crystal in hand, Owen stood up—ignoring his fatigue and the pain in his shoulder, and focused on… anything. He knew what it felt like once, so maybe he could feel it again.

He felt it. It was faint, but it was coming from the same direction as before, a vague, dull pull toward what Owen was going to call north. Was it actually north? Possibly, but he had his doubts. Perhaps this was how migratory flying Pokémon felt when going north or south. Did they have this dull, directional feeling, too?

One step after the next, Owen continued his march through the dusty wasteland. He juggled the risk of being spotted by one of those behemoths and being crushed by rocks from above. Any time a rumble became particularly loud, he slowed down and hid near a plateau or other fallen boulder, always keeping the nearest one in mind in case he had to run back to hide.

Aside from one incident where a bipedal one had paced across the path Owen had been taking, though, he didn’t encounter another one. For the best; Owen wasn’t sure if he even had the energy left to run. A quick walk was the best he could manage; his stomach was already contorting itself to feel full, and he still had no idea where the next source of water was coming from.

Something was tricking Owen’s eyes. It looked like there was actually an end to this madness further ahead—far, far ahead, but certainly a change in scenery. The network of plateaus ended with a long, black strip across the horizon, at least where there were big enough gaps between the plateaus to see past them. That was one thing to be thankful about in this field; despite how tall the stone structures were, the fact that entire fields separated them meant it was easy to see for miles.

Still, he didn’t go directly toward that black horizon. Something else was dully calling for him, and he had a feeling it was going to be another of those crystals. He looked at the one he still had in his possession; its green glow was a welcome change to the purples, grays, and reds that surrounded him.

Now, where was the next? A bit to his right this time, and it didn’t feel like it was at this plateau. Tedious. He had passed by so many of them that it was starting to feel the same.

After another long pass of a plateau—walking at his pace, he counted that he averaged about fifteen minutes each time, even longer to move between them—and then rounding the corner of the one ahead of the first, that feeling became sharper.

Why am I even chasing them down? This one doesn’t even feel the same.

That much was true. Unlike the green crystal, this feeling still felt dull even after how far he’d traveled to what he hoped was closer. So, why did he still feel the need to continue? Well, then again, the first time, he got a pretty rock out of it. Maybe this would be worth it, too.

Owen inspected his shoulder. The bleeding had stopped, but there was a clear, red stain running along his chest and, surely, down his back where the fang had punctured him. He’d wash it off… if he wasn’t worried about whatever strange substance the dirt was. He was not going to use the red water. It was already a struggle drinking it—putting it right into his blood stream? Pass.

More passes, an unknown number of minutes. Owen lost track of both the time and the times he’d passed across the fields. But eventually, he noticed that his sense of direction was pulling him in a different direction.

Here.

It was inside the stone structure, so it had to be another cave. The same process worked again, and this time he didn’t have any rumbling to scare him into running—which would waste precious energy. He glanced at his tail, not trusting his own sense of how much energy he had.

Oh, that’s bad.

It was at least at half its usual size. If he didn’t find water, or at least food, soon, he’d be dragging himself through the dust.

But maybe some of that was also because he didn’t sleep yet. He should have stayed in that old cave, but at least now, this was a new one. No matter what he found in this cave, he’d sleep… As long as he could scare off whatever wraith was taking up residence inside.

With that in mind, Owen took a slow, deep breath and prepared for battle. He still had Protect. He still had Fire Trap. That would be enough. At least he remembered those techniques, even if he wasn’t strong enough to use them at their best.

A cruel wind blew by, forcing Owen to brace himself and close his eyes to the dust. He felt a need to protect his flame, meaningless as the gesture was, until the wind settled down.

And to the edge of the mouth he went.

Okay. Just another wraith, maybe. And then the crystal. One… two…

Owen leaped into the cave, arms tensed and ready.

All of the fight left him in an instant.

Slumped against the wall, clutching at the largest of many wounds, was a green Gardevoir, staring at Owen with bittersweet recognition.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partners
  1. charizard
Chapter 78 – Back to Basics

He couldn’t find the words, so he just stumbled toward her. It felt like even longer than the walk through the plateaus, but he finally collapsed into her lap. The first sound she made—a weak, entertained laugh—nearly made him break down, sobbing. It had been too long since he’d heard anything that even resembled another voice.

“Mom,” Owen blubbered. “I th-thought you—”

“Shh, shh…” Using her free hand, she rubbed the back of Owen’s head. Her voice was so faint that Owen tried to quiet his sniffling to hear her. “Are you okay?”

“I—I am now,” Owen said, rubbing his eyes. “Ugh, I dunno where this is! Mom, where’d you go? Where are we?”

“I don’t know,” Amia said softly, scratching behind Owen’s head. He stretched and pressed against her, letting out a happy chirp. “Owen, are… you okay?”

“You asked me that already,” Owen said, laughing. “I’m okay, kinda. Oh, um, and I know I used to be a Charizard.”

Her eyes widened at that.

“I don’t get it, either. But, Mom, you—” He looked at her wounds, finally remembering them. It wasn’t just on her side. There were cuts and bruises all over her body, and some of them were still bleeding—especially the one by her side. “What happened?”

Amia shook her head. “Wraiths… I…”

That was all he needed to know. The way Amia’s injuries looked, compared to the single wraith he had encountered before, it seemed like she had suffered a lot more than a single one. Yet, she fought them all off!

Still… “I—I’ll go and look for some berries, or… There are berries, right? Somewhere?”

“No, no,” Amia said gently, reaching down. “I’ll be f…”

“What? You’ll be what?”

“I don’t need…”

“You do,” Owen insisted. “Please, do you know where any are? I’ve been looking for food, and I’ll find some for both of us!”

Amia hesitated, squeezing her eyes shut. “It’s dangerous.”

“Well, it’s—” Owen felt the flame on his tail intensify. Dangerous? Everywhere was dangerous! Was she just trying to make sure he was okay because he was a little Charmander again? He was still in a better state than she was. “Just tell me.”

Amia bit her lip.

The words fell from his mouth before he had the chance to think about it: “Tell me, because it’s my turn to take care of you.”

She didn’t answer immediately. Instead, another dry, dusty wind blew across the cave, little purple clouds creeping their way inside.

“Forest,” Amia said. “There were a few…”

“A forest? That black stuff, off that way?” He pointed toward the wall.

Amia nodded weakly. “Please, be careful.”

“I will, but I need to get us food, and berries for you.” Owen stepped away, holding his crystal like it was a badge. He scanned the cave for something similar, but found nothing. Puzzled, he said, “Did you run into any of these things?” He held the crystal up.

Amia didn’t recognize it.

What drew him to her, then? Owen had his doubts it was something sentimental. It felt too tangible.

“Okay.” That didn’t matter. He still had to keep Amia safe, and if a wraith happened to wander in…

Owen stood up, taking a few paces away from Amia and toward the cave’s exit. There, he stopped and stomped his foot on the ground. Then, another, and another, a little bit of his power draining each time. He panted, but pushed through until he had stomped across the cave from wall to wall. “If anything tries to sneak in, they’ll hit one of my Fire Traps,” he assured Amia. “I’ll be fast!”

Amia looked like she was about to get up, but Owen saw her weakness.

“No, I’ll be fine,” Owen assured her. “You’ve… I don’t want you to get hurt more. Okay?”

After a long, reluctant pause, she sank back down.

Sparing one last glance behind him, Owen marched to the forest with renewed vigor.

<><><>​

Trina had prepared them for this, should it ever happen. It was one of their many drills—if something ever happened to her, or if she was away and something dangerous had approached, all of her Bug subjects knew where to go, what to do, what to wait for, and for how long.

Even with her gone, that plan remained.

Har rushed through the silken labyrinth, the silk now completely dark without any Mystic luminosity.

“Har!”

He spun around, greeting Ani. The Meganium jerked her head back. “Everyone’s kind of freaking out. Are you…”

“Yeah, I’m working on it,” Har replied with a little grunt. “I almost got everyone coordinated to make sure they know what they’re doing. How’s the east sector?”

“They’re the ones freaking out.”

Har rubbed his forehead, growling. “Oh, come on. We went over the drills!”

“You’re the only one studious enough to remember them off the top of your head, Owe—er, Har.”

Har glared, but then felt his bag bumping against his side. He glanced at it, then at Ani.

“What’s wrong?” Ani asked. “Hey, you aren’t trying to Perceive me, are you?”

“No, I—I turned it off,” Har said, looking down. Indeed, he wasn’t reading them—it was rude, and they could tell by the glow of his flame when he was trying it.

“Good,” Ani said. “Anyway, um… Sorry about that.”

“Whatever, look—Is Lygo handling it? Where’s Ax?”

“They are. I just wanted to tell you it’s probably not gonna work until you go along, too.”

“Ugh, fine, fine. Everyone here is doing okay, so can you just make sure nobody’s wandering around while we’re on lockdown?”

Ani nodded, but then eyed Har’s bag. “So, what’s with that? Looks kinda overstuffed.”

Har clenched his jaws. “Nothing,” he said uneasily. “Trina just left me something, that’s all. And I’m starting to worry that it’s the last thing she’s gonna leave us.”

“Don’t say that,” Ani said, flicking his forehead with a vine. “Honestly. She’s way too strong to be taken down by some stupid whatever’s going on.”

“But since when did we ever just…” Har rubbed at one of his horns worriedly, the anxieties that he’d been shoving down in the back of his mind coming back rapidly. “Never mind, she’s—she’ll be fine. We’ll see if she comes back in the morning and, well, if not, we’ll… figure out our next steps.”

“Right.” Ani frowned again, looking at the bag. “So, seriously, what did she give you? Looks like a bunch of scarves.”

“Y-yeah, it’s nothing,” Har said. The scarves were supposed to give back Ani, Lygo, and Ax’s memories the moment they slipped it on. But it wasn’t an appropriate time to do that, was it? In the end, he was supposed to keep Trina’s subjects calm until she returned. Right now, returning all of their memories—what would that do to them? Was that necessary right now? Would he lose them? No—that part wasn’t important. It wasn’t fair to keep it from them, but if he just waited a little while longer—

A vine smacked him on the cheek.

“Gah!” Har rubbed his snout, waiting for another. When none came, he peeked out.

“You’re zoning out again! What’s wrong?”

“Did you really have to hit me?”

“I was jostling you! You didn’t respond!”

“Oh.” Har blushed beneath his scales. His flame shrank down shamefully. “Sorry. I’m just distracted. Can I tell you later? We need to focus on keeping the colony safe.”

Ani sighed. “Fine, fine,” she said. “But it looks like those are scarves for us, don’t you think?”

Har tensed.

“Why’d she leave those? Our old equipment is just fine.”

“Look, I need to take care of the east side, right?” Har said hastily.

Ani glared, not advancing, and Har felt frozen in place. It wasn’t until several seconds later that Ani moved past him. “Fine, tell us later.” She didn’t look back.

Har’s wings drooped and he nibbled at his tongue.

He wasn’t afraid of losing them. Getting distracted simply wasn’t good right now. Later. He’d tell them later.

<><><>​

“Go to room 4-C, the Bewear needs to have those bandages cleaned again. You, what’s the patient in 5-A’s status?”

“Stable. They’ll be fine on their own for now.”

“Good, then go to 8-E. Heal Pulse if you need to, and forget the berries, they’re useless.”

They headed out, and Incineroar grunted, looking frantically over a list written in scrawled handwriting. He left a small checkmark next to 5-A’s, the paper lit only thanks to a nearby Volbeat standing on the table. The rest of the room was barely lit by the glows of the brighter Pokémon nearby, like a Rapidash’s flames in the corner.

Several Pokémon shuffled in and out, testing the entryway to the hospital, either to bring more of the injured in, or to push out those who could be discharged—even if they hadn’t been fully recuperated. They couldn’t afford it compared to the most severely injured. Most of them had been from the training area; without a means to heal, intense sparring matches suddenly became lethal. And then there were injuries from nearby villages in the outskirts, outsourced to Kilo now that their basic berries were of no use, and their natural healers were rendered exhausted.

“Need me to adjust, Phol?” Volbeat asked, wiggling his rear.

“Yes. Don’t do that again,” the Incineroar replied. “I’m almost done. We’re low on healers. They only have so much energy.”

“Well, that voice in the sky said—”

“I do not care about that right now,” Phol said flatly. “I don’t care if the apocalypse itself is coming; I have patients to take care of, and if the world doesn’t end, they’re living to see the sunrise.”

“Y-yes, sir.”

A few more checks, and Phol was confident that he had finished it off for the patients in critical need of attention… except he knew that it was only going to tie them over until midnight. They needed more healers, but without any berries to replenish their energy, the healers would be outpaced by the injured.

“We need to send people out to gather volunteers,” Phol finally concluded. “Gather any spare hands and have them scout out. Bang on doors. Disrupt their sleep. I don’t care. We need healers, and I know more people will be coming in with fresh injuries once the night guard realizes their healing items don’t work. This is a code red.”

Volbeat stood there, along with a few others who had stopped to listen to Phol.

“Are you doing anything productive right now?” Phol said behind a growl.

“Well, er, we don’t really know what—”

“Then get out there and find more healers!” He slammed his hands on the table. “This is not a time to hesitate! People will die if we don’t act now!”

“Yes, Sir!”

Phol looked back at the list again, realizing that, with that complete, he had to find another use for himself. His eyes were heavy, but that didn’t matter. He’d worked long shifts before, sunrise to the following sunrise, even. Perhaps this would be one of those shifts.

Wasn’t there a Smeargle near this place? Yes, there was. Always up late with his art projects, depriving himself of sleep for the sake of his craft. But Smeargle could learn practically any move—and Heal Pulse, when it was possible, was incredibly popular to have on hand. Surely, he would know of it.

Not wanting to waste time, he looked back at the others. “Keep maintaining the critical patients. I’ll be back. I think I know of someone who can help here.”

He also thought about Spice, the Salazzle. She was a strange case; their berries didn’t work at all on her on the field, and that left permanent scarring on her body when she had finally been brought to Kilo Village. A rare sight. He remembered her talking about her vials of special, concentrated berries—her potions, she called them—that could heal her much more effectively.

Was she home? She could be useful, too. In fact, anybody from the south might. Before annexation, they didn’t have much in terms of blessed berries. Perhaps some of their old traditions still persisted.

One thing at a time.

Phol stepped out of the hospital and weaved to the side, allowing a Chimecho, two Gallade brothers, and a Clawitzer pass through, all of them channeling healing energy in their bell, blades, or claw.

That eased his mind enough to actually leave the hospital in the others’ hands. Kilo’s decentralized sense of leadership once the Hearts were out of the equation made it easy for Phol to take charge when he needed to. As much as the culture perplexed him—as he, too, had been raised by southern natives—it made it easy to step up and organize the others. Leaders and followers, no matter how it was officially outlined.

Most of the buildings were completely dark. A few luminescent Pokémon were a lot easier to spot, each one wandering around with aimlessness or at least a vague sense of purpose. Some utilized their techniques to light the way. He spotted a Blaziken maintaining the flames of a Blaze Kick to keep part of the street lit while they conversed with a few others. He was careful to stay on the dirt or stone roads rather than the grass.

Phol passed by the nearby grocery shop next, glad to see that most of the facilities there—aside from the lights—were still operational. A chilly frost emanated from the frozen aisles, and everything else seemed to be perfectly in order. But without Waypoints, Phol wasn’t sure how they were going to resupply it once their current inventory ran out.

And how would they get supplies out to the rest of the world?

Not only that… but all of the outskirts and remote villages scattered around Kilo, once connected by the Waypoint system—they were stranded. Those with Teleport could only do so much on their own.

But he would have to deal with that later.

“Angelo?” Phol called, hoping he got the name right.

“Yuh-yes?”

A golden light circled around the Smeargle’s tail, acting as some kind of illumination while he painted. Phol doubted it was efficient compared to working under proper light, but he wasn’t surprised that he had some kind of utility for when the lights went out. Perhaps he had gone a time without a Luminous Orb before.

“Do you know Heal Pulse?” Phol asked.

“Er, I do, but—my projects, I—wait, what’s wrong? Why do you need Heal Pulse?”

“The hospital needs anyone who can use the technique. You know how useful it is day-to-day. Come with me.”

“But my—”

“I’m not giving you a choice, Smeargle. Lock up your things and come to the hospital. What other techniques do you know? Can your kind switch between more than four?”

“Well, I’d need time to recall my forgotten ones, but—”

“What else do you know?”

Angelo hesitated. “I, er… Nothing particularly useful.”

Evasive. Bothersome. He didn’t have time for this. “List them out in detail when you’re not needed for healing. People are going to be pulling you left and right for your utility, understand? You aren’t an artist anymore. Time to save lives.”

“Bu-but I like my art, I—”

Angelo, let’s go.” Phol reached out and grabbed the Smeargle by the arm, having barely enough courtesy to not smudge his current project, which seemed to be depicting a half-drawn Aerodactyl, and carried him over his shoulder and out of the building.

“But—but didn’t you hear that voice? What does it even mean? And those explosions, and the sky, and—I just don’t want to think about it,” Angelo rambled. “This must all just be some sort of big trick, or a bad dream. A-and when I wake up, it’ll all be over, like it never happened.”

“How ambitious of you,” Phol said with a low growl. “Are you even equipped with Heal Pulse now?”

“I—I’m switching to it now. Just give me some time to break it back in.”

“And you aren’t going to explain to me the list of techniques you have otherwise?”

“Th-that’s private! You don’t just ask a Smeargle about that; it’s like reading my diary!”

“…You keep a diary?”

“…No.”

They went past the grocery shop again, where a few nighttime dwellers stepped inside to see if everything was okay. The night-shift cashier, a Weavile, seemed nervous, sparing occasional glances outside and toward the starry sky.

Angelo, spotting this, also looked up while over Phol’s shoulder. “What’s going on with the world? It’s all gone insane…”

Phol stopped when he spotted a little Squirtle on the ground, thinking he was another of the injured in the streets. But he got up and continued running, so Phol advanced again. “It’s going to get a lot worse before we can find our footing again. We need to focus on lessening the impact right now, and we need your help for that, okay?”

Angelo whined, looking down. “I just can’t escape it, can I?”

“Responsibility? No, that’s life.”

“No, just…” Angelo sighed. “Never mind. Are we almost to the hospital? My chest is starting to ache from all the carrying. Your shoulders are very hard.”

“Comes with the species.” Phol adjusted the Smeargle, but something in the sky caught his attention. He hoped it wasn’t another strange light show. Between the pink explosion and the apocalyptic meteor shower, maybe the world really was coming to an end.

“Is that a Joltik?” Angelo said.

“…Joltik can’t fly.”

“That one has wings.”

“They don’t have wings, either.”

The Joltik landed in the middle of the main square, right next to the hospital and the now-defunct central Waypoint. Just what were they going to do with that main spire, now? Affix a light to it to guide fliers in? Maybe.

Speaking of fliers.

“A flying Joltik. What do you know?” Phol set Angelo down and pointed toward the hospital, but the Smeargle was too curious. He approached her as well.

“I think I drew you, once,” Angelo muttered. “Are you a rare subspecies of Joltik?”

“I’m the Fairy Guardian!”

“…R-right. Right. That’s good to hear.”

The tiny Joltik shook out her fuzz and folded her wings down. Even Phol couldn’t remain stoic when a Lucario, Porygon-Z, and Torkoal came tumbling out of that fuzz, followed by a pink mist enveloping them. They grew to their normal size, and the Joltik skittered onto the Lucario—who was collapsed on the ground.

“Can you heal him? He’s beat!”

Angelo pointed at Joltik. “H-how did—why did—”

“Heal him,” Phol said firmly.

“R-right, right. Sorry.”

Angelo grabbed his tail and made a motion in the air with it—a little circle. A pink orb formed. With another flick of his tail, like a tossing motion, the ball enveloped the Lucario, who seemed very familiar.

Passersby Pokémon murmured to one another.

“…Wait, isn’t that Elite Heart Rhys?”

“I dunno about Elite Heart, but he’s Rhys!”

Rhys groaned at his name being called, opening one eye. “What happened?”

The Torkoal—who might have been grown too large, since he was even bigger than the Lucario—poked his head out of his shell. “Are we at Kilo Village already? Oh, that felt like such a short nap…”

The Porygon-Z was motionless, though Phol recognized the appearance in his vacant and dim eyes. He was still asleep.

“Porygon-Z. Are you able to wake up?”

His head twitched. A feminine voice buzzed. “Initializing Hope O.S. Warning: Hope O.S. shut down abnormally during the last session. Boot in safe mode? Y/N.”

“Y,” Phol replied.

“Wait, what did you just tell it?” Angelo said.

“When a Porygon-Z is knocked out, they speak in a strange dialect that seems to be universal across their kind. Apparently, Safe Mode is the proper protocol when making sure they’re okay, because it keeps the rest of their selves in a safe place while we talk to some… base part of them.”

“I have no idea what that means.”

“I don’t either. I’m just repeating what one of my colleagues told me about himself. The legend is that their kind came from humans, and humans, when they existed, spoke like them.”

“Creepy.”

Phol rolled his eyes. Rhys, meanwhile, got to his feet, using the Torkoal as support. “Thank you, Elder. Are you alright?”

“Yes, just fine,” Elder said. “Goodness, it’s dark. Is it morning yet?”

There was the smallest hint of blue in the otherwise black, white-speckled sky. It really was going to be a sunrise-to-sunrise shift. Exhaling through his nose, he turned his attention back to Elder. “Are any of you critically injured?”

“No,” Rhys replied. “Nobody with us. Are Waypoints truly destroyed?”

“Yes. Along with berries, orbs, seeds, and the vast majority of our medical supplies. It’s as if we’re in the south, pre-annexation.”

“Pre-what?” Joltik said.

“Before Anam spread his blessings, or whatever they are, there,” Phol clarified.

“Oh—Anam…” She looked away.

“Do you know where he is? We need him immediately.” Phol eyed Rhys, who was also avoiding his gaze. “What happened to Anam?”

“Anam’s… not able to be here at the moment,” Rhys said. “We need to organize everybody in Kilo Village as soon as we can.”

“But it’s almost morning and I didn’t get a blink of sleep,” Angelo said. “I—I know, I know, I’m going to focus on healing people, but—think about it. Nobody is going to remember what anybody says until it’s at least noon. It’s too late, er, early, to do something like this, don’t you think?”

“Hrmm…” Rhys and Phol exchanged a look. Then, the Lucario asked, “Willow, are you tired?”

“I’m Mystic! I don’t need to sleep!”

“Safe Mode boot complete.”

“Hope O.S., what was the cause of your shutdown?” Phol asked like it was a routine.

The feminine voice continued. “Checking logs. Cause of shutdown: Depletion of energy and disorientation due to a series of percussive blasts of Fairy, Normal, and Dragon energy at close proximity. Onslaught against unknown entity: ‘Dark Matter.’ General stress. Static electricity from a Joltik.”

“Current status?” Phol said.

“Normal.”

“Hrm. Alright. Restart normally.” He must have been a fast healer to not need a Heal Pulse to patch things up. He’d ask for the hospital’s digital duo, but they didn’t have the current shift, and he wasn’t sure where they lived.

“You do not have the necessary user permissions.”

Phol did his best to keep calm. “I am a doctor at Kilo Hospital. I have your best interests in mind. Restart normally.”

“You do not have the necessary user permissions.”

“Guess she doesn’t trust doctors,” Angelo remarked, shrinking away when Phol flashed a glare at him.

Rhys sighed, looking like he was ready to fall asleep again. “Restart normally.”

“Restarting.”

Phol’s left eye twitched, but felt no desire to press the subject. Moving on, he asked, “What were you saying about being Mystic? You aren’t related to the Aggron that snowed over half the crater, are you?”

“Oh, you mean Step? She’s mean! …But we’re friends.”

“Of course.” Phol wondered if most of this was some kind of sleep-deprived hallucination. Still, on the off-chance that this was real, he motioned for Angelo to head into the hospital.

“Rhys, do you know Heal Pulse? I believe your kind are also capable of learning it.”

“Er—not immediately,” he said. “I could channel my aura toward it if you give me time.”

“Please. Healers of all kinds are needed right now. I suspect we will have a lot of injured coming toward Kilo Village on foot.”

“On foot…” Rhys frowned deeply. “We need to find a way to help all of the villages that used to be connected by Waypoint, immediately.”

“Oh, oh! I know! What if I shrank down the villages and flew them here?”

“Do we even have the necessary housing and shelter for that?” Rhys said. "I don’t think we do. Willow, even if you can carry them, I’m not sure if you’d be able to help them once they arrive. How long does that shrink magic operate for?”

Phol decided to not ask why a Joltik was capable of shrinking people. “Can she do it in reverse and make something increase in size? Is it permanent?”

“No, and no,” Willow said, sticking her upper half in the air. “Making things bigger is dumb unless I’m the one that gets to be bigger.”

This is who I have to work with. Phol growled. “Fine. What about shrinking supplies and flying them over, and then returning them to normal size?”

“Oh! I can do that!” Willow nodded. “That reminds me of the Poké Ball things that Owen told me about from Brandon’s place!”

Rhys looked like he had just had the life sucked out of him, but Phol didn’t understand a word of what the strange Joltik said. “Whatever it reminds you of, put it to use here. I have to check on a few more patients, and then, when I’m sure everything is at least okay, I’m taking a power nap.”

“Mrm, perhaps I should do the same again,” Rhys said. “ADAM, are you awake?”

“Systems operational.”

Phol tilted his head. Porygon-Z’s voice had changed. That was odd, but then again, so were all of them. “And how are you doing, Hope O.S.?”

“I believe that is just some sort of code name,” Rhys said. “He prefers to be called ADAM.”

“Mm, right. Well, if you can help out at all, do what you can. Direct anybody who needs healing to the hospital, and if you find any others who know Soft-Boiled, or Heal Pulse, perhaps even Morning Sun, any techniques like those are welcome.”

ADAM buzzed. “Parameters accepted.”

With that settled, Phol returned to the hospital to make sure Angelo wasn’t loafing about, dreading the potentially endless wave of injured Hearts and explorers that would come to Kilo Village.

<><><>​

The flight from Hot Spot to Quartz HQ was long, cold, and tense. Step considered several times whether it would be a good idea to simply drop Nevren from her back right then, but she figured he would just Teleport. His lucky charm, whatever it was, unnerved her. Several times she said something and it seemed like he already knew what she would have said.

Psychics. How invasive. Can you hear these thoughts, Alakazam? Know that when your guard is down, I can kill you.

But Nevren did not acknowledge, nor react, to her. Instead, he seemed focused on the increasingly-distant void in the sky, which had thankfully stopped its expansion.

Step finally landed when Nevren directed her to where Quartz HQ was from memory. Because of course Nevren would have the memory for traveling to this place without Waypoints. Step snorted out another frosty plume and landed on the blackened ground. Her legs sank into the darkness. She tumbled forward with a surprised shout, slamming her hands in next. “Ugh!” She spat a beam of ice to right herself, pulling her legs out next. She used a platform of ice to more evenly distribute her weight.

“Fascinating,” Nevren remarked, using Psychic energy to float above the darkness. “I don’t think this is a wraith, as I don’t sense the same malevolent aura coming from it, but I certainly sense… Ah! It’s Nate. Hello, Nate.”

“Nate? Is that not the Dark Guardian?”

Just then, several eyes on the ground opened, each one staring at Step and Nevren. It was a field of them, reflecting what little light came from the early morning sky. They all blinked randomly and independently of one another. An arm rose from the darkness and waved at the Aggron and Alakazam.

Step stared without a change in her expression. “Hello, Nate.”

Hello… The arm flopped back down into the rest of his mass.

“Why are you outside, Nate?” Nevren said. “And, er, you seem to be a bit… flattened.”

I’m a little tired.

“I can see that.” Nevren leaned forward, looking at one of the eyes. The lid was halfway closed. He heard several tired groans and murmurs from all over Nate’s body. “Why are you tired?”

I had to stop Dark Matter.

“Ah. I see.” Nevren knew that the strange, ultra-powerful Dragon attack was from Anam, and Judgement was certainly from Arceus—his tower they had seen when flying to Quartz HQ—but the final attack… “I did not expect the Dark Guardian to know Light of Ruin.”

Light of what?

“An ancient attack,” Nevren said. “I’ve been able to emulate it somewhat with some of our technology, but not organically. Nate, who are you?”

I’m Nate.

Step’s eye twitched. “That isn’t what he meant and you know it.”

Sorry, I don’t know. I’ve always been this way.

Step was growing increasingly impatient. “Then perhaps it is hidden behind a Divine Decree?”

“I’m not so sure,” Nevren said, frowning. “Nate… Are you familiar with that attack at all? Where you got it from?”

Nate was silent, perhaps pensive. Step couldn’t tell.

No. I woke up one day in the Chasm. I always felt like I had to stay there, because… Because.

“Well, I suppose that explains why it was so easy to convince you to move,” Nevren said. “Hrm. Regardless, we need to head inside. Stay safe, Nate. Return inside when you have the energy, but we need to—”

Something was making muffled shouts from below.

“Nate, are you smothering someone?”

Oh. Sorry.

His body weakly shifted around, arms and various other limbs pulling something out from below. Lavender, in his base form, let out a deep gasp and said, “Father!”

“Ahh, Lavender.”

Step tensed, entering a battle stance. She still remembered the last time they had met and she wasn’t about to let herself be caught off guard again by this monstrosity.

Lavender seemed to remember, too, and he shrank away, eyes glowing cyan.

“There’s no need to fight, you two,” Nevren said. “We’re allies here, yes?”

“Was that a joke?” Step said in a low growl, slamming her tail down. That hit several of Nate’s eyes, making him wince and jiggle. She grumbled to herself and stomped over Nate as quickly as she could, following Nevren into the main entrance.

The white halls unnerved Step after having flown over a completely blackened Kilo. Luminous Orbs had completely disabled themselves, so why was Quartz HQ still operational?

That left her thinking back to what had happened in Hot Spot. How everyone had simply fallen or fled. That pathetic, gooey dragon getting possessed by Dark Matter. Some world leader he turned out to be.

“Why are these Orbs still working?” Step asked.

“Hm? Ah, Elder actually made them, not Anam. Perhaps that is why.”

“Elder? Then he can replenish our supplies?” Perhaps that was why he was so useful to them. That oversized Torkoal had no fighting spirit in him; his power had been dedicated toward blessings instead.

“Unfortunately not. He made these Orbs over the course of… decades, really. He doesn’t have the power to make more than one for several days.”

“Then this was a slow preparation in case Anam revoked your blessings,” Step deduced.

“Ah, sharp. Very sharp,” Nevren said, smiling back at her.

Step slammed her tail on the ground irritably again, her anger bubbling in her icy chest. She wanted to summon her spirits to assist in the fight, but what would have happened to them if a wraith attacked? There was no telling. She already lost her family once, and she didn’t intend to lose it again.

She hadn’t checked on them in a while.

Ra. Is everything okay?

Wraiths are trying to attack our realm, but…

It’s too cold!
Cent chimed in next. We’re just blowing them back!

Oh, and Alex is frozen. Um, what do we do with him?

…Frozen how?

He’s just sorta there. He stopped moving a while ago.


Step rubbed her forehead, ignoring Nevren staring at her. Put him to the Ice Core. Amia is missing, so he is my spirit for now.

With that out of the way, Step glared at Nevren again, her eyes anything but friendly. “I’m only here to keep an eye on you. If you try anything questionable, consider yourself shattered in ice.”

“I understand.”

Lavender plodded behind, keeping his head down despite being taller than both of them. “Then why are we here?”

“First, we need to reset the auras of anybody who may be going berserk from the undue stress. Were you taught the Reset Wave from Amia or Rhys?”

“No.”

“Ah. That makes things difficult. I suppose only I will be able to do this, then. Alternatively, you could kill them.”

Simultaneously disgusted and unsurprised, Step snarled at him. “You would kill your own creations?”

“It’s not quite killing if we control their revival process. It’s simply a Reviver Seed with extra steps, hm?”

“You treat death as if it has no consequence.”

“For us? It does not.” Nevren glanced back. “How is your dead family doing?”

The Aggron stopped walking and Lavender bumped his beak against her back, stumbling. He mumbled an apology, but Step ignored it. Instead, she slammed her tail against the wall, her toe claws digging into the marble. “Do not get smart with me.”

“I apologize.” Nevren turned around and bowed his head. “Will we continue?”

She waited for another remark, but none came. She retracted her claws from the ground and glanced at her tail; it had cracked from the impact. After some focus, the ice repaired itself.

“I will freeze any troublesome mutants and you can reset them.”

“Lavender, will you help?” Nevren continued down the corridors again.

“Oh, um, okay,” he said. “Actually, um, when we can, is it okay if we go to the incubation floor? Auntie Rim’s there, and…”

“Rim?” Nevren asked. “Is she overseeing the reviving Pokémon?”

“No, um—” Lavender pawed awkwardly at the ground, talons scraping against the tile. “She’s… in one.”

That one stopped Nevren. “In one.”

“Um, when Star attacked, and she took Auntie Rim’s Orb, something bad happened to her.” His voice quickened with every word. “She was fading, and Dad said to take care of her, so the only thing I could think of was what happened to others when something bad was happening to them, and—”

“Is she okay?” Nevren cut in.

“I don’t know!” Lavender said, beak trembling.

“…Did the machine give any warning messages?”

“No. It’s making her aura and body now.”

“Hrm… Very well. On our way down, we will stabilize any mutants we see, and . . . “

Step had lost interest in the conversation. She could care less about what strategies Nevren and Lavender had for neutralizing mutants. She would just find the ones she could, freeze them if they were acting up, and move on. Simple.

A Druddigon rounded the corner ahead, staring at Step with wide eyes. “G-Guardian?!” he said, but then entered an uncertain battle stance. “I—you’re not allowed here! Go away!”

“Move aside, whelp.”

Step didn’t pause her walking. She saw the weakness in his eyes. When they weren’t in their ‘battle modes,’ as Owen had called it, they were nothing but docile children and not worth her time.

“Nuh-no! That’s not allowed!” The Druddigon fanned out his wings and bared his fangs, blue cinders falling from his jaws.

Step continued walking, staring him down. His body tensed further, but the tentative step back told her all she needed to know. Once she was a few paces away from him, the Aggron lowered her body and snarled, clouds of ice billowing out of her mouth.

Druddigon screamed and ran down the left hall.

The Aggron rose again and snorted. “Pathetic, all of them,” she said. “Shame on Eon for enlisting these innocents.” She then glanced back at Nevren, still planning with Lavender, who struggled to understand the full scope of his instructions. “…And shame on you for coordinating it all.”

In an effort to clear her head, Step wandered the halls and eventually found a peculiar dead-end with a number on the wall. One. She stared at it suspiciously, waiting for it to do something like the rest of this absurd place. Someone was behind her—she sensed their irritating life energy—but she waited for them to speak. Nervous? They were probably nervous.

“U-um, d-do you need help?”

Nervous. Step huffed a small plume of cold mist. “What is this? I do not trust it.”

“Um, it’s a wall, and if you say a number between one and ten, it’ll bring you to that floor.”

“Bring me?”

“Yeah, using Nevren’s teleportation. He’s really good at that. I even saw him make a portal once!”

Step finally turned her head to look at the speaker. Another abomination: This one was a Donphan with the red cheeks of a Raichu and the shell of a Magcargo. What a sad existence. Did they even enjoy living that way?

“A-are you okay?” the abomination asked, shrinking back.

“Are you?” Step asked.

“Not anymore…”

A tense silence followed, and then Step turned around to completely face the thing. “Tell me,” the icy Aggron demanded, “do you enjoy being what you are?”

“Excuse me?” it asked with a squeak. Electricity crackled in its cheeks and flames sputtered out of its shell. “I don’t understand.”

“Being what you are. This fusion of… I am going to guess three Pokémon. Fighting a war you do not fully understand. Losing your mind and your self to battle. Is it a happy way to exist?”

But it all went over its head. Step saw no recognition in those mindless eyes. It just shook its head and tried to move past her, but her body was too wide for the halls. “I just want to go,” it said.

“Hmph.” Step moved to the side. “Leave, then.”

“I think Dad’s nice,” it went on.

“Eon, the Hunter?”

“He just wants to save the world.”

“The world is collapsing.”

“Well, he could fix it!”

Oh! It had enough courage to speak up! Step could respect that, at least a little. Perhaps they were not so docile after all. “Why do you fight for him?” Step asked. “What has he given you?”

“He… cares for us.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t understand what you mean…”

Step let out a slow breath again. “How does he care for you? He feeds you? He plays with you? Do you genuinely think he loves you?”

“I… yes? I don’t know what you mean.”

This was growing tiresome. Why did she even bother? They were all under his cult and they were his leader; they had been created, cultivated, and indoctrinated with no perspective of the outside world. Of course it wouldn’t understand.

Maybe she could get some use from it yet. “Never mind,” Step said. “Is there anything interesting on the other floors? I am weary of the first.”

“Um, well, the dining hall is on the fifth floor, and my room is on the third floor, um… Did you ever go in a Poké Ball before? The ninth floor has a bunch of those.”

A place like this must have had a more interesting location than silly spheres and a place to eat. “Where is the Dark Guardian kept?”

“Oh, Nate? Eighth floor. It used to be one of the sparring rooms, but since he’s so huge, we had to put him there instead…”

None of that was useful. “What’s the most important floor?” Step asked.

“U-uhh… well…”

“The deepest? Ten?”

The way it refused to speak afterward said all she needed to know. She closed her eyes and stepped away. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to intrude. Please, you may go.”

With a relieved sigh, he bumped against the wall and said, “Three,” and disappeared.

If Step had to make a guess, the place where the mutants were grown was on the tenth floor. She stepped toward the wall, staring at the ‘One’ that taunted her. Very well, Eon. Let’s see how blasphemously you’ve toyed with death…

“Ten.”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partners
  1. charizard
Chapter 79 – A New Day

They were like transparent pillars in a great, unholy palace. The dark gray plating on the floor and ceiling greatly contrasted the white tile that the rest of the facility displayed. Most of them were empty, but several of them bubbled ominously with lumps in varying levels of development floating inside.

A long hall of green cylinders greeted Step upon entering the main lab. Ten floors underground, past a long hallway, into a dimly lit room. Step looked between the empty cylinders, a scowl on her face. The urge to destroy every last one made her tail twitch and her claws flex, but her daughters and her mate kept telling her to hold off and focus on what mattered.

One of the cylinders was full of a thick liquid. Floating inside, curled with its wings wrapped around its tiny body, was a Noibat. She puffed a small cloud of ice at the container, enough to get his attention. But it didn’t care, curling back up.

“So, this is another mutant, still in its larval stage? Is that what you are?” Step asked, but it either did not hear or did not care. “Fine, ignore me.” And it did.

Mom, are you okay? Cent asked. You’ve been really… um, you know, agitated. Like, craaazy agitated.

It’s not
that bad, is it? Kana added. Like, we cheat death all the time, kinda. We should be across the aura sea.

Ra was next. Step, what are you trying to accomplish by going down here? Destroying these things wouldn’t help anyone right now. We could use this army to fight Dark Matter.

That,
Step said, is why they still stand. The sole reason I have not reduced the entire southeast of Kilo into a new tundra.

Geez, Mom, bring it down a few notches,
Kana said. This is all kinds of extra.

I just need to see what we’re dealing with, and—
Step abruptly stopped and turned her attention to the right. The aura felt familiar, but two things were odd about it. Firstly, unlike all of the other Pokémon in these incubation cylinders, this Pokémon was being formed into a fully evolved state. And second, the aura suggested there was a piece of Mysticism already within it—but a small amount. A Hunter.

It was small and lumpy, more like something vaguely plant-like. Draped in a thick, purple veil and hiding some vulnerable center, it vaguely reminded Step of a Cheri Berry.

Step approached the cylinder to get a closer look, making sure the tiny form wasn’t actually of something familiar. She wasn’t that knowledgeable about all the species of the land; this one, perhaps she’d encountered one long ago, but the name escaped her.

Thankfully, Cent knew. What’s so special about that Cherrim, Mom?

It’s a Hunter, I think.

Eh? In there? Weird.


“Step?”

Nevren walked down the hall, head cocked to the side.

Step grumbled and backed away from the cylinder. “Who is this?”

“Hm? Just another mutant, I imagine,” Nevren said, and then motioned behind him. “I finished my headcount, if you’d like a report.”

Step eyed the cylinder suspiciously, but with everything going on, this was the least of her problems. And he was right—she wanted to know if there were any mutants she would have to take care of. “Go on.”

Nevren motioned for her to follow, which she did, out of the cylinder chambers and back into the halls of Quartz HQ. “Seven mutants are still unaccounted for,” Nevren said. “A trio and two duos.”

“Unaccounted. What does that mean?” Step said. “That they aren’t in the facility, and are therefore running rampant somewhere in Kilo?”

“According to the aura logs, one pair had left recently, perhaps yesterday. Another had been missing for quite a while—he could be anywhere in Kilo by now. And the last pair, there’s no log of them being gone for longer than the day. A recent disappearance.”

“Your mutant escapes are so commonplace that you have to track and log their auras?” Step said with a snarl.

“Yes. As I said before, it’s not ideal, but it’s also the only way we could have fixed the issue with their slipping sanity now and then. If we notice a mutant has gone missing, we simply recover them.”

“I believe a proper solution would be to simply kill them.”

“Ah, that would also be useful,” Nevren said, nodding.

Step stared, wide eyed for only a second, before she returned to her original snarl. “You don’t even care about them?!”

“I care about them deeply,” Nevren replied. “Killing them would deliver them back to the Reincarnation Chamber. It seems that despite everything, that is still operational. Quite curious.”

“Reincarnation—” Step stopped herself, still wondering what part of Nevren she was supposed to be outraged about. The fact that Nevren was cheating death so easily—something about that angered her to her very core—or how nonchalant he was about it all.

In the back of her mind, it seemed hypocritical, since nearly everyone among them had cheated death long ago. But this felt different. This felt… blasphemous.

“I’m leaving.” Step moved ahead of Nevren, making sure her tail swept him off of his feet. Her irritation doubled when he simply tucked his legs in midair, floating in place in a Psychic half-jump.

“Now, hold on,” Nevren said, though he made no effort to pursue her, nor did his voice hold any urgency. “If you’re going to leave, I recommend you at least take a communicator with you.”

“A communicator?” Step swung around again, going for another sweep, but Nevren once again dodged out of the way. The icy Aggron went for a swing this time, aiming to graze Nevren’s mustache. He didn’t even flinch, staring at Step. “After everything you’ve done?” she said, undeterred.

What’s with this guy? Cent said within Step’s Orb.

No kidding. Nothing fazes him! Kana replied.

Perhaps he’s reading her mind, Ra theorized.

The thought didn’t bode well with Step; it only made her want to get out faster. If Nevren wasn’t going to respect the privacy of her own mind… Tell me, Alakazam, can you hear my thoughts now? Know that you only live because the mutants cannot be contained without your help. If your usefulness fades, then so will the light in your eyes.

“You’ve been staring at me for quite a while,” Nevren said.

Oh, he’s totally messing with you, Kana said.

The Alakazam tilted his head. “Is something the matter?”

“Give me the communicator. I will tell you when I’ve eliminated the mutants.”

“Do you even know where they are?”

“I’d rather search aimlessly than spend another second here.”

“Ah, I see. Very well.” He handed Step the silver badge. “Take care.”

“You aren’t even going to argue against me leaving?” Step said.

“No, I believe you intended to come here on your own volition. I never requested you to follow.”

Don’t fall for it, Mom! Kana said. It’s reverse psychology! He wants to keep you here!

But wouldn’t keeping an eye on him be a good idea? After all, he’s a traitor.
Ra hummed. And I—oh, Step, hold on.

Um,
called another voice—Alex. Now that he was an Ice Spirit, the cold of the region didn’t bother him. Step, I’m sorry to intrude on the family gathering in your Core, but I wanted to deliver some news?

Step tilted her head upward, earning another curious inquiry from Nevren, but she ignored it. Yes, Hydreigon? How are the wraiths?

Er, right. Everything is fine now. I don’t think the wraiths will be bothering us any time soon… It seems that the last of them gave up.

Gave up? Good. Keep an eye on the border until then.
Step paused, then said, And I haven’t found any news on your mate. I’m sorry. Have you learned anything new on your side?

No… Thank you. But nobody has entered the Ice Realm aside from wraiths.

Mm. Take care
.

Nevren came back to her attention. She glared momentarily, then said, “The wraiths have stopped attacking my realm. I imagine the same can be said for the others.” She frowned, then, and considered what that could actually mean. “…Give me more communicators. I will fly to Kilo Village to give them to the surviving Mystics.”

“A good idea.” Nevren dug through his bag. “And that means, I imagine, that you weigh the priority of communicating with them higher than any antics I may pull here.”

“You’re taunting me.”

“Merely stating a fact.” He handed her a small sack of the badges. “I’ve made quite a few of them just in case.”

“Then you hoard just like Rhys. The only difference is you create your own mess rather than collect it.”

Nevren merely shrugged. Step wrenched the bag from his claws, then angrily looked it over. Holding it would be cumbersome, and she didn’t have a bag on her otherwise to strap around her neck.

“Having trouble?” asked Nevren.

“No. I will manage.” She coated the sack in frost, then planted it on her chest. She focused… Soon, it sank into her body, the bag frozen within the outer layer of her icy form.

“Fascinating,” Nevren said under his breath. “You really are just made of Ice.”

You know, if that came from Owen, I’d think he was giving a compliment, Cent said. But from him, it feels more like a veiled insult…

Maybe you should give him a solid kick before you go,
Kana suggested.

Ra said nothing, neither objecting nor encouraging her.

“Bah.” Step turned around, aggressively sweeping her tail near Nevren. He stepped over it wordlessly. “Manage this place as you like. Just know that if I am displeased, you will regret it.”

“Understood.”

“…One final question,” Step said, thinking about everything that she had seen in this laboratory. The mutants, the experiments like Lucas and Lavender, the Reincarnation Machines, those all seemed to make some sense. The one thing that didn’t—the one abnormality that seemed off…

“How is this place powered?” Step said.

“Ah, a few spare spirits,” Nevren said. “In part. Eon provided a significant portion of his life force along with Elder, but it seems that Eon’s had faded considerably. Elder’s alone remains for that portion of the provided power.”

“Elder… A mere Hunter was capable of providing that essence?” Step turned around again, this time intrigued enough to humor Nevren with a neutral expression. “Can Hunters confer blessings?”

“Not usually, no, which is why I’m quite surprised Elder was capable of it. Then again, it isn’t as if being able to enchant things is unheard of. Elder is just the only Hunter without an Orb that can do it on his own.”

Something about that didn’t add up to her. Um, wait, Alex said. This lab has been around for a lot longer than they had Orbs. How did they…?

“What powered it before Eon got an Orb, then?” Step asked.

“Ah, aside from Elder, there was a bit of Owen’s life force powering it, too, as well as some spirits that we eventually turned into future mutants. From there, it became a cycle of spirits used for power before they moved along to bodies… And then those bodies that died, the spirits returned to their artificial Orb, you could call it, and . . .”

Every word—Step stopped listening after a while—made her icy blood boil more and more. She eventually wanted to hear none of it and spun around, slamming her tail against the wall. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

Step didn’t look back, but she saw his shadow waving at her.

<><><>​

Compared to the plateaus, the tall trees of the blackened forest were less intimidating, yet somehow even more sinister. The plateaus stood tall and rigid, and even though they were wider at the top, it wasn’t as if they leaned over anything. These trees creaked at any movement Owen made. Their tall, thick trunks twisted and turned on their way toward the sky, and the branches were gnarled and jagged like loose brambles.

The tangle of rigid branches blocked most of the sky, and occasionally Owen would happen upon a fallen one. None of them had leaves, or if they did, they had fallen away long ago, joining the uncomfortable, damp ground. The mud-like dust went at least up to his ankles.

On his way to the forest, his nose—ever-sensitive thanks to the lack of any real smells in this wasteland—had picked up on the mouth-wateringly tantalizing smell of something cooking. Perhaps he had hallucinated it, but he knew, for just a whiff, he had smelled something savory. If he was lucky, that meant there were others nearby, perhaps some actual civilization! But he didn’t want to risk it or get distracted, and there was no telling if they would actually be friendly.

Amia had said she’d found berries in the forest. He wasn’t about to go off to another village and defer to their advice or help. He was supposed to be more independent, after all. And for once, he wanted to save someone all on his own, not relying on the decisions that other people made. More rationally, he had his doubts that a wasteland like this would leave others with food to spare.

And the berries would be free if he got them from the forest, and would guarantee that Amia would be healed. He just had to hurry. She was strong… but he didn’t want to leave her alone like that for long. The Fire Traps would protect from one wraith, but what if there were several?

The loud, dry crackling of a twig under Owen’s foot startled him out of his thoughts. He nearly spat out an ember on reflex, but suppressed his shock and took a deep, calming breath. He looked behind him and saw the edge of the forest. With how densely packed the trees were, he wasn’t sure if he should venture too far in. He’d be better off searching for berries near the edges.

No telling if wraiths loomed deeper inside, anyway. Amia had been injured the same way.

Berries, berries… Owen scanned his immediate area and found nothing. Would dead trees even provide anything? Owen looked at his green crystal again. It was a strange, perhaps random thought, but what if he could use whatever sense guided him to the crystal, and to his mother, to find berries?

Eyes closed, Owen focused on his surroundings. Perceive or not, he had some strange sense. He felt the crystal in his hands. That was always present. But he had felt Amia, too, even with that in his possession. What else was out there?

He remained motionless, but all he could see was the black cover that came from his eyelids. So, he stood for a while longer, searching, but still, nothing.

Eventually, he frowned and opened his eyes. He’d have to keep track of how far he went while searching. A little deeper wouldn’t hurt. He just had to keep his senses sharp. The flame on his tail would only draw attention; any dark areas would be best avoided.

He was meticulous, counting the number of steps he’d taken. Every hundred, he’d take ten deeper into the forest and then go back the other way for another hundred. After several of those, not finding anything, he instead took two hundred steps and swept across another segment of the forest, brushing along the very edge of the thicker perimeter before returning a few layers within.

His stomach tied itself into another knot, and this pang of hunger was enough for him to double over and wince. He had to find food soon—no, he had to find berries. And save a few for Amia. An apple would be nice, too.

He stepped over another twig, but accidentally lost his footing, crunching it. It reminded him of candy, those little, flaky wafers back home that he’d buy from Sugar ‘n Spice. They had once offered him one of their special menu items for being such a regular customer—Everything Nice, they called it.

It was just one of every item.

But he had taken the offer, and that crunchy wafer was one of his favorites. In a daze, Owen picked up the twig, inspecting it. What if…

Maybe just…

He’d read about it…

But that wasn’t from normal bark, was it? He had to get to the core of the tree. A nibble on the fallen branch confirmed it; tasteless, dry—Owen wasn’t sure if he could properly chew it, even if he tried. Bits of it got caught between his teeth, under his tongue… Owen struggled to get most of it out, but his mouth was so dry.

He had to get it from the core of a tree. Thankfully, there were tons of them. But would any of them hold edible wood? He could at least try.

He approached the nearest one and ran a claw along the rough edges. He pried off a bit of the bark, only to see more solid wood inside. He’d probably need to actually use his claws for this one.

Could he tap into Metal Claw again? It had been a while, but he still remembered having to use it a few times. He could’ve done it to get to Zena’s hidden abode, had Demitri not headbutted his way in. For someone so mild-mannered, he really did think with his muscles when presented with an obstacle…

Maybe channeling some of that was a good idea.

Owen squeezed his claws, searching for that old energy. Steel-gray light collected at the edges of his tiny fingers, concentrating to a fine point. He drew his arm back, crouched down, and swung.

He felt something wet on his claws and his heart skipped a beat. It was either blood or tree sap. Oh, please let it be tree sap.

Nothing red against his orange scales. He looked at the tree. It was bleeding instead—a thin, reddish liquid, akin to the lake. His tail dimmed a bit at that, but still, it was liquid. It was water—maybe. Owen ran a finger along the tree and inspected it, giving it a tentative taste.

Nasty.

But it wasn’t any worse than the lake water, and compared to shriveling up, it was just what he needed. He tore off a piece, digging into the softer, reddish wood beneath the tough bark, and pulled out a long, thick strip. It dripped in his claws, and some primal part of Owen forced him to nibble at the bottom so nothing reached the ground. The ground didn’t need this water, he did. Even if it tasted awful. Actually, it was starting to taste tolerable. Not good, but tolerable.

He sucked at the bottom of the bark, waiting until the wood was dry enough to pull away from. That wasn’t nearly enough water. He’d need to get a little more.

The tree was bleeding too much. It was trickling down the rough bark and toward the dirt.

What if it ran out?

Owen lunged at the base of the tree and stuck his tongue near one of the little rivers, relief washing over him once it had stopped the flow. He ran further up, eyes crossing as he got closer to the source, and swallowed.

Good. All taken care of. Oh, the aftertaste. Owen tried his best to keep from wincing, but no matter how thirsty he was, that bile-like taste wasn’t going to go away like magic.

He pulled away once the liquid’s flow slowed, returning to the piece of bark that he’d taken. It was a lot easier to chew—and a lot softer—and he hoped it at least provided him with a little bit of energy.

He munched on the tough, yet soft bark like it was hard taffy. It was starting to taste like taffy, too. Bad taffy, but—sweet, too. Was he losing it? Maybe, but this would help him return to sanity.

He tore off a few more pieces for the travel ahead, and wondered if Amia would appreciate a few of them, too.

Owen realized that his hands were already full of tree taffy. How was he could to carry back the berries when…

He’d have to think about that while searching for them, because regardless, he’d have to bring a few along for Amia.

After more walking—and with half of the tree taffy consumed—he spotted color in his vision, something that stood out subtly from the purples and blacks. Blue, a vibrant blue like an early morning sky, poking through a pile of mulch near the base of a tree.

Could it be?

Beneath the pile, after brushing the dirt aside, he saw a small patch of berries. They actually grew here—Amia was right! He pulled at one, but then winced. It had a lot of… resistance.

He tugged a bit harder, but the other berries followed, attached to the Oran like they had grown together in bunches. Except—it wasn’t just Orans. A few were, but there were Pecha Berries, and Cheri Berries, all part of the same vine, stuck together.

Well, that solved the carrying issue. He glanced at the trees. He could have potentially used the branches to fashion a scraggly, crumbly basket, but this sped things up much more conveniently.

“That’s everything, I guess,” Owen said. His voice startled him; high and hoarse.

Eleven berries on the bunch, and of them, three were Orans. Perfect! That would be more than enough to heal Amia up, and even give her some actual food, too.

He quickly navigated back, still searching for any signs of wraiths—to his fortune, none came. Maybe they were afraid of his tail, or maybe they knew he was dangerous. That had to be it.

After grabbing another few bunches of tree taffy and placing them between the berries, hoping they would stick together, he hauled his findings out of the forest with a tired, but still present spring in his step.

It was going to be a long walk back, but at least now he knew what he was supposed to do with himself.

<><><>​

The first sun of a new era of Kilo rose to its usual routine. First, Kilo Mountain’s face and jagged rocks cast long shadows across the forest and fields, and then, as the sun rose higher, the light finally shined within the city, still named a village by tradition, within. Various flying Pokémon flew in a high circle around the large crater, searching for stragglers trying to find their way to the great, natural landmark at the middle of the world.

The cross-shaped main streets were flooded near the southern side with dots of civilians looking for answers. Meanwhile, the hospital had been expanded into nearby shops and buildings—commandeered for the sake of making room for the influx of patients, though very few protested. Many dots congregated around the center of Kilo as the hospital expanded to take up nearly the entire center of the city. North, the commercial district had a thin sea of Pokémon looking for their last supplies before the stocks ran out, indefinitely.

Most shops were already closed, sold out. Places that didn’t have food or equipment, simply items of pleasure or entertainment, closed early, their shopkeepers more concerned with keeping their friends and family safe, visiting the hospital, or checking the south where most of the remaining Pokémon had gathered. Perhaps some were in the hospital as patients themselves.

The training district was devoid of activity entirely. Every Heart, provisionary or otherwise, had headed to the heart-shaped building at the very base of the southern district, past Waypoint Road, and embedded within the dip of the crater. Even as everything else crumbled, even as Anam left, the red heart remained—there were still hundreds of Hearts ready to help.

That’s what they hoped, at least.

In front of the Heart HQ, at the top of the stairway, stood the one Elite Heart that remained after the sky had fallen. The strange, black vortex far north of Kilo village remained, ever-present on the distant horizon. Occasionally, great arcs of light flew over the ski and smashed into it, leaving distant, thunderous booms for all of Kilo to hear.

Rhys knew that was Arceus, preoccupied with keeping Dark Matter at bay, but did that matter anymore? It seemed that Anam had already kept him suppressed. Yet another stalemate, and despite this, it seemed that the world was one second closer to doomsday.

It was almost nostalgic.

Without communicators, Rhys had no way of knowing what Nevren was doing with Step. In their rush to leave, they had left them behind in Hot Spot—and beyond that, Rhys wasn’t entirely sure if they worked any longer. Berries, Orbs, and Waypoints were strongly tied to Anam’s blessings, to the point where the revocation of them led to the crumbling of social order as they knew it.

However, after searching through all of town, it seemed that not all was lost. Technologies that did not rely on Anam’s blessings were still in working order, such as the hospital’s medical technology, the aura reading systems… They all seemed to be working. What else did they still have?

The crowd was getting larger. Rhys cleared his throat and raised a paw to get everyone’s attention. Nobody was listening. A few stray eyes here and there, but then they returned to speaking to one another. The Lucario growled to himself, figuring he’d have to make a louder noise.

Good thing most of his strength was back after that long rest. He fired a small, crackling orb of aura into the air, then clenched his paw. It exploded with a loud POP! that startled enough of the crowd for a noticeable silence to quiet the rest of them.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” Rhys said, shouting as loudly as he could without coming off as screaming. “I would like to begin by—er…”

Someone pushed their way through the crowd. The Exploud that usually showed up for announcements, such as when the Thousand Hearts had performed the Ceremony of Advancement.

“Hey, hey!” he called out, waving an odd, rubbery tube of some kind, attached to a strange device at one end and a long, glowing rod on the other. “This still works! I made it myself; use me!”

“Er—thank you.” Rhys took the piece and, by routine, jammed the rod into one of the holes on Exploud’s back. He then opened his mouth wide, and Rhys spoke into the other end of the tube, his voice amplified for everyone else to hear.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming!” Much easier. “I understand that there is a lot of chaos, but rest assured that the Thousand Hearts are well prepared for such catastrophes!” They were only partly prepared.

“Many of you may have noticed that Arceus has descended from the heavens and Destiny Tower has returned. Do not be alarmed!” There may have been reason for alarm. “He is currently combatting the void in the sky that had also appeared north of Kilo, in the Shimmering Outskirts. That situation is under control!” They didn’t know that.

Murmurs returned. Rhys’ ears tried to tune in on whatever they were saying, some of the louder voices coming in clearly. Mostly names stood out to him, like ‘Anam,’ or ‘Nevren.’ He figured those were valid concerns.

“Elite Hearts Alakazam Nevren and Decidueye James are handling the situation on other parts of Kilo!” True for only one of them. “Meanwhile, Goodra Anam is busy battling the void directly, and will be working tirelessly to keep this place safe until then!” Rhys could only hope that was the case.

“Until then, I implore everyone to stay together in pairs or trios, just as you would expect of a Heart rescue team. Badges, Waypoints, and most Dungeon equipment is no longer useful, and until we can find proper substitutes and replacements, everyone—civilians and Hearts alike—will need to operate under extreme caution!

“I would also like to encourage anybody capable of learning Heal Pulse, Life Dew, or any other healing techniques to tune your auras toward being able to draw from that power quickly. I have already personally tuned my aura toward it. Please consult with species experts to learn if you are capable of the same techniques.

“And lastly, I would like to caution anyone from entering a Dungeon at this time, for fear of safety in the distorted environment. Go to a Heart as usual for any absolutely-necessary Dungeon operations. Report any mutant sightings immediately, and do not engage with them.”

Rhys believed he had covered everything he wanted to, but something was still nagging at him. The way the crowd seemed, while informed, suggested they were still… unnerved, uncertain. Something was missing. What was missing? Their eyes were lost and confused. Despite the fact that his speech was over, it felt like he was still losing them.

Realization hit him—his speech wasn’t over. If the world was in a crisis and they had nothing substantive to actually hold anything together, what was the one thing he could do to show a sense of unity regardless?

“And now,” Rhys amended, “I would like to remind everyone of why we are all here. While this is a mantra that typically applies to my duty as a Heart, it is something that applies to all of us broadly, as Pokémon of one purpose, to help each other. We are all Hearts at our core. And so…”

Rhys raised his paw, bringing it just below the spike on his chest. It seemed that many others caught on, mimicking the motion if they could, others taking on similar poses with their varying body types, using vines, hooves, or tails. Others simply bowed their heads.

“A thousand hands

A single heart

Working and beating as one.”


The crowd slowly stopped their shuffling, more and more of them murmuring the mantra to themselves. Others said it a little more loudly, and the energy was contagious. Indeed, a thousand hands, thousands upon thousands, but they all tied to the same heart. Rhys glanced back at the HQ, then back to the crowd.

“Unite the lands

From worlds apart

Until our battles are done.”


He thought of the Waypoints. It wasn’t so bad. They had gone without Waypoints long ago, when Kilo had been fragmented across various villages and small kingdoms, for lack of a better term. And so, once again, this verse regained its relevance. Rhys didn’t pause too long, and went with the rest of the crowd, which would have carried on the rest of the mantra without him.

“We serve Kilo and all its parts

Under one name: The Thousand Hearts!”


What followed weren’t cheers or shouts of roars, but little murmurs and echoes of the same mantra again. Some seemed frightened, but they were brought closer by hardened eyes and determined spirits. Others seemed less enthused, less hopeful, looking back at the void in the horizon. But more still were already dispersing, and Rhys saw their muted auras, focused on one or two tasks at most. Searching for a species expert, readying themselves for a Heal Pulse. A surprising number were already going to the hospital district—it was a district now, overnight.

No time for peace; before Rhys took his first step down the platform, something in the Heart HQ exploded. He whirled around; a puff of smoke billowed out of the main entrance. He rushed inside, spotting a glow to his right. He ran down the hall, followed the colorful path to the storage room, and spotted the fading, cyan barrier of a Golem’s Protect.

“What happened?” Rhys said.

“Sorry! Sorry!” shouted another voice inside.

Past the smoke, a Primeape holding a straight, wooden stick of some kind stumbled through the debris.

“What happened?” Rhys said.

“We were checking inventory, and suddenly this stick just… blew up!” Primeape held it up. It glowed faintly with energy.

“Ah, that’s… that looks like a Blast Seed’s energy, doesn’t it?” Rhys squinted. “In a wooden stick…”

Isn’t this Nevren’s storage room? He was always fond of making useless experiments…

Rhys stepped in curiously, taking a careful look at the shelves. Despite the blast, most of the area was undisturbed aside from a new layer of smoke and dust. More of those odd, metallic wrists bands lined one part of the room, while neatly organized rows of more wooden sticks decorated another. Some of them were curled, others had little leaves growing out of the top, but they all glowed faintly.

Golem grunted. “What are these things? Seems like Elite Heart Nevren really went crazy with making them all. Did he do them without Anam’s blessings?”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Golem said. “Just like those Jammers, they aren’t made by Anam—they’re totally underground.”

“Conferring blessings is usually impossible for most,” Rhys muttered to himself. Still… I’ve seen something akin to blessings happen by others, and Mystics also have some capacity for it. Considering how long Nevren had to practice, I shouldn’t be too surprised at how far along he’d come.

He should have paid more attention to his projects.

So lost in thought, Rhys didn’t notice the second explosion until Golem brought up his cyan barrier again.

“Will you stop that?!” Golem shouted over the rough coughs by Primeape.

“Sorry, sorry! I was just putting it down and I accidentally set it off, or something! Here, let me just… slowly… slowly…” And on the ground it went.

Rhys sighed and inspected the strange stick. “…Wands,” he muttered under his breath.

“What was that?” Golem asked.

“Nevren had been developing equipment that he called wands, but this is all we have.” He inspected the shelves. “But that does mean that if others that were not Anam can confer blessings, perhaps, with a little luck…

Rhys shook his head. It wasn’t much use at this point to theorize on what could be possible when they were still trying to regain lost ground. “Leave this room alone for now,” Rhys said. “This just gave me a thought: unregulated Orbs and other equipment might be in the hands of criminals.”

“Wait—you mean, Orbs not made from Anam’s blessings?”

“Or not based off of them,” Rhys said, nodding. “We’ll need to be careful.”

“Right.”

Rhys hummed in thought. Blessings—incredibly difficult, but not impossible, to channel techniques into empty glass Orbs. They had barely been a problem in the past; Anam and the regulated Orbs simply outnumbered and outmatched them. But now? Perhaps they were actually a threat.

And what of—

Rhys’ ears twitched, sensing a commotion outside. Flaring auras, panic. What now?!

At the base of the HQ, a bruised and battered, but still standing, Emboar stumbled forward. “We need to lock down every single Dungeon,” he grunted to Rhys.

“What? What happened?” he said.

“There… there are monsters inside. Shapeless… black things, they were everywhere, they… I…” He collapsed, sending another wave of panic through the crowd.

Rhys pointed his paw forward and channeled pink energy through it, blasting Emboar with a Heal Pulse. While it didn’t heal him completely, it was enough to seal his wounds, yet his aura still appeared… damaged.

Wraiths. Why hadn’t it occurred to him until now?

Anam’s blessings were gone. Every single Dungeon that he had blessed—every single one in all of Kilo—was infested all over again.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partners
  1. charizard
Chapter 80 – Finding Stability

Demitri was a lot heavier than Mispy remembered.

The Haxorus lounged on her back, axes by his side, while he nestled his face against her. “Thanks for this, Mispy,” Demitri mumbled.

The Meganium nodded silently, though she was more focused on her surroundings. With no idea on where to go, they had decided to try to find the highest ground possible. To their fortune, they had wound up right next to a mountain, stuck in some kind of valley. The mountains were black—so dark that, at times, it was hard to tell where there were cracks in the ground, or boulders to step over. It had gotten so bad that Demitri had tripped every other step, resulting in Mispy’s more unorthodox mode of travel.

Her vines crawled over every small pit and dip, filling in the cracks without much issue. Sliding forward, creeping one vine at a time, she focused on their surroundings. The actual aspect of climbing—the slope wasn’t very steep—had become a routine. Red skies above and black rocks below made for a very ominous sight. The wind was invisible, kicking up no dust; she could only know to brace herself when she heard it coming, or otherwise had to make sure she had a good foothold—vinehold, technically—of a nearby rock.

“How far up are we?” Demitri said. “I don’t wanna look down.”

“Almost,” Mispy said. The summit wasn’t too far. If she really wanted to, Demitri could probably ball her up and throw her to the top. If only they had Gahi or Owen to do the flying; it would’ve taken Owen only a few hundred seconds to get to the top of the mountain from here. Instead, they had to deal with kiloseconds.

Mispy suddenly stopped.

“H-huh?” Demitri braced himself. “Is there another one?”

“Mhm.”

She raised a vine, pointing it at the ground to her left. She waited, staring, her antennae twitching. Then, suddenly, something black oozed out of the ground, lunging at her; the Meganium’s vine was faster, piercing it right in the center. It shrieked and went limp; she flicked it ahead, where it bled an inky blackness.

“Is it dead?” Demitri asked.

Mispy prodded at the thing; no movement. She jabbed it. More black ooze came out. “Dead.” She curled a vine around it, lifting it toward Demitri. It dripped thickly. “Hungry?”

Demitri’s head jerked forward in a restrained retch. “I—I’m full from the last one,” he said.

Mispy shrugged; the vine holding the carcass split open four ways and wrapped around the vaguely shapeless blob. Once she actually pressed on the strange body, she felt vague, slightly harder parts of the body that resembled limbs. Did this thing actually have arms and legs beneath its rounded mass? How strange. Not that it mattered; it was food, now.

Piece by piece, her vines tore away, swallowing each piece greedily until all that remained was black residue. She sighed, satisfied. Any food was good food, and it seemed like they weren’t going to come across anything fruit-based for Demitri to enjoy anyway.

It had been a battle just to feed him the first time. ‘What if that blob had a family?’ Demitri had protested.

She sighed at the thought, which earned a worried pat from the Haxorus. “It’s okay,” she said.

“It’s settling well, right?” he asked.

“Mm.”

Maybe they did have families, but as far as Mispy could tell, they were even dumber than ferals—not counting Enet. Then again, she didn’t deal with ferals all that often… But these things just attacked on sight. They were defending themselves! And once they were dead, well, it’d be wasteful, wouldn’t it?

She wondered if another would attack. She was still a bit hungry.

A while more of climbing brought them to the top, but a cruel wind forced Mispy to brace herself again. Her aura sense gave off no other wraiths, so that was a good start, but it would be bad timing if she had to take one on while the wind blew. Did they get blown away by those? They were pretty dense—and, therefore, were very filling meals—usually.

There had been one time, though, when she killed one and it simply dissolved into thin air. That was strange—and disappointing. It was the least defined of the bunch, nothing but a blob that vaguely resembled a Goomy, similar to the ones that Anam had summoned when he was possessed. She’d probably never know what those ones tasted like.

Soon, they reached the top—a flatland near the top of the mountain, with only a modest dip of a crater at the center. Demitri didn’t want to scan for too long, but he looked around enough to gather that they were simply too far away from any sense of civilization.

It was all the same. Mountains all around, skies the same, and the horizon was lined with more mountains. With the featureless sky, there wasn’t a whole lot to tell on where to go, either.

“Still nothing, huh?” Demitri said. “I guess we should just—wait, what’s that?”

“Huh?”

A cave. It was on the other mountain to the left of the one they’d been climbing—which meant it would be another long and boring climb—but it was at least something. Mispy’s antennae twitched, but it was too far away to tell. Still, at least it would be more climbing down than climbing up. The cave was a lot lower than the summit.

“It’s so far away,” Demitri whined. “Why can’t we just fly there?”

“Wings.”

“I—I know, just—wait. Didn’t we glide on our way here?”

Mispy flinched. Did boredom get to Demitri so much that he’d rather try to fly than take the safe walk? Then again… they could get attacked by more wraiths the longer they took, and they couldn’t risk too many injuries before tapping into their healing energy. And with food being scarce, Mispy would have to use up her vines for the healing.

“Glide?” Mispy said.

Mispy and Demitri had arrived to this strange place from the sky shortly after they had been taken by Anam. It was disorienting at first, but Demitri had been right next to her. They had been taken together, though the ground had been rocky. But the way they had broken the landing—aside from Mispy using most of her weight as a cushion for Demitri—was to try to fashion her vines into a flat, wing-like glider.

It hadn’t worked well, but it had slowed the fall.

Mispy gave Demitri an uncertain look, though she couldn’t find her words. She tried to speak, but she stumbled over herself and grumbled. “Not…” was all she managed to say.

“I guess so,” Demitri said with a nervous laugh. “Okay, maybe a little too crazy. Let’s just go with the normal walking, a-aha… Besides, I don’t know if I want to experience falling again.”

He adjusted himself on her back and leaned forward. “Do you want me to get off?” he asked.

Mispy wrapped her vines around his waist and smiled. She could feel her words returning to her again. “I’m fine.”

Demitri wrapped his arms around her neck for a better grip. “I wonder if we should fuse after all. Then I won’t be bothering you on your back.”

She had considered it, but would that take up more energy? Less? It was hard to tell. Food used to be abundant, and now they were just trying to be cautious.

“Not for now,” Mispy said.

“Yeah, I guess we don’t know what it’ll do with our energy.”

Deciding to keep to the same routine, Mispy started her slow and careful descent down the valley. They went over the rocks, over a small fissure, and finally started their ascent all over again. At some point during the descent, Demitri had fallen asleep. Mispy kept him situated on her back with a few more vines, which he happily snuggled with. Meanwhile, she kept his axes in safekeeping for now. She did appreciate that he slept with them off so he didn’t cut up her back with them, for how sharp they were.

Eventually, they made it to the cave on the other side, and in case there was something lurking within, Mispy gently shook Demitri.

“Mmm… uh… huh?” Demitri blinked himself awake. “What’s going on? Oh.” He rubbed his eyes, finally slipping off of Mispy. “You know, we could probably use the cave as shelter if it’s empty, don’t you think?”

“Mm.” She didn’t feel any odd auras inside. Maybe it was actually safe to rest for once. Taking shifts while sleeping would still be wise.

The inside of the cave looked like more of the same black rocks. No dust here, either. After Demitri verified with Mispy that it was safe to advance, he led the way in, unable to see the back of the cave. He was bolder, now, with the knowledge that there was nothing else inside. Still, he had to be careful about the floor being uneven.

A chilling wind shocked Mispy to her core. She raised her vines in an attempt to shield from it, but she could already tell that her body wouldn’t last against this cold for long.

Demitri had it just as bad, rubbing his arms. He retreated behind Mispy’s vines. “Cold—”

Mispy nodded and wrapped him in some of them in an attempt to shield the Haxorus from the wind, which didn’t end. And further along, the rocks were changing from black to something with at least some color. And was that… salt?

“Why does it smell like the beach?” Demitri said, wincing when another whip of chilling air hit his arm.

“Let’s keep going.”

Defiant of the wind, the pair pressed onward, black, oppressive rocks giving way to a dimly lit cave within, the stone even colder to the touch. Bizarre as it was, they continued anyway, and heard a high, constant whistling sound. “What’s…” Mispy looked back. “What is that?”

“Whistling—like wind through a tunnel,” Demitri said. “Wait, didn’t Owen mention to us about that before? A cave that always had a loud whistling noise. He went with Nevren to train, and he told us about that weird dream, I think… That was from a reset ago.”

“I remember…” Mispy frowned. That didn’t make sense. That cave was at the northern edge of Kilo, even further than Hot Spot. But that did explain the salty air—it overlooked the ocean on the northern side.

Everything except for how they got there made sense, if it really was…

“It actually is Eternal Whistler,” Demitri said, pointing to the left. “Owen mentioned that only heavy rocks remained and stuff. It’s gotta be.”

Mispy’s eyes brightened. That meant they were somewhere home. The air seemed saltier when they went in one direction; if they wanted to head south, closer to Kilo, they would have to go in the opposite direction, against the wind.

“”C-cold,” Demitri said. “How did Owen d-deal with this?”

“Fire.”

“Oh… right…” Demitri rubbed his arms again. “Would love to have Owen around right now… S-so warm…”

Gahi would’ve done even worse, Mispy imagined. Ground and Dragon wouldn’t do well in this sort of frigid weather. Step’s angry words echoed in her mind—how ironic that three components to the apparently-perfect fusion shared a weakness to Ice.

There weren’t a lot off feral Pokémon in the area. Even when Mispy tried to get a feel for their auras, she only sensed a few hiding in the corners. Did they fear the two of them?

Mispy suddenly froze in thought, then tapped Demitri on the side.

“H-huh? What? Too cold?”

“We’re mutants.”

Demitri blinked. “Yeah, we are. Are you feeling okay?”

Mispy looked onward, frowning. Once they got out, if the world was in any sort of trouble from what Anam was doing, or if the others were fighting, would they get mistaken for enemies by the general public? They didn’t have Enet to hide them in an illusion this time, and while Demitri could pass as normal… there was no disguising Mispy. She wouldn’t even pass as southern—she was simply too different.

“Oh… oh,” Demitri said lowly. “Well… we can’t just go back, can we? We’ll just behave really nice, and maybe they’ll believe us. Better than nothing. R-right?”

He had a point, but it wasn’t exactly a good chance.

Soon, they reached the exit, with just the little distorting waiting for them. It seemed a little different than the others; usually, they had to pass through little segments from one to the next, but they hadn’t encountered anything like that. And now, they were at the exit?

They decided to just accept the blessing and advance through, blinking at the sudden brightness. The sun practically burned against them. “Aagh, I think we adjusted too much to that dark place.” Demitri groaned, holding his arm up to the afternoon sun. “Maybe we should… stick to the shade or something. It’s kinda hot today, isn’t it?”

Mispy had to agree. She knew from traces of Demitri’s memories what it felt like to feel the pain of a burn, and even she was starting to feel it. It reminded her of when she’d endured Anam’s attacks—like they went right to her aura. Why was it that the sun felt the same way, now? No, it wasn’t the sun. It felt like the very air was oppressive to her. She looked to see how Demitri was doing, but—

“D… Demitri!” Mispy lost her words again.

“What?” But then he gasped. “Mispy! You’re—what’s happening to you?”

“What?”

They were both losing their shape, like a haze had overtaken their bodies. And it was getting worse—and as it got worse, so did the pain.

“S-something’s wrong,” Demitri breathed out.

It happened right when they got out of the Dungeon. Their first reflex—to simply go back. “Hurry,” Mispy said, pulling Demitri with her. They passed through the distortion for a second time—relief flooded over them, like cold water on a burn.

Demitri trembled, staring at shaking claws. “I… th-that… what happened?”

Mispy didn’t know. The pain—such a rare feeling for her—had become nearly unbearable by the time she’d thrown herself through. It was fading, though.

They shuddered together. Going out again was out of the question. But that just left…

“We need to head back… and find some other way in. W-we should tell the others about this first, and see what it means. Maybe Owen will know, right? He’s… got to be in there, too. Something out of all this must make sense.”

Mispy nodded. Owen might know. They just had to find him. How hard would it be to find a Charizard? He was probably searching for them from the skies.

“Let’s go.”

With a determined nod, the duo elected to return to the strange, red-sky land they had come from.

<><><>​

Manny slid down a hill made of cotton candy.

It was awful. The sugar got all over his fur and stuck between his paws, and he didn’t want to think about anywhere else that he’d have to start cleaning by the time he got to the bottom. Behind him, all of the other surviving spirits of his Realm continued through, some of them tumbling and spinning downward.

“We’re fallin’ too fast!” Manny shouted. “I ain’t gonna fizzle ter a fall, we gotta slow down!”

Elbee, further behind, pulled out one of her blades and slashed into the cotton candy slide; far below, there was a bubbling pool of pink liquid, waiting to melt them down should they land in it.

Yen followed next, slamming his hidden claws into the cotton candy, followed by the others doing the same. Azu, Roh, and Verd were strong enough to dig their claws into the surprisingly thick hill of pink fluff, and Manny swung his arms backward, using his wrist spikes to stop his fall. He slowly decelerated, his body pressed against the slide at a steep angle. They were only a few seconds away from the bottom if they lost their hold.

Freaking Willow,” Manny said, puffing out an irritated breath. “What’s with the Fairy Realm?”

Everything smelled sweet, and the sky was a swirl of pink and pale green, like the entire atmosphere had been painted in pastel. The clouds looked like brush strokes trying to imitate hair.

“I don’t trust Fairies. Never did.” Elbee tried to get a better hold of her blade. The Samurott couldn’t position herself nicely, but instead looked at her surroundings. “So, this slide goes into that pool of bubbling pink lava, right? What do we do?”

“Guys! A little help?!” Doll cried.

Far above them, two Pokémon were caught near the top of the slide. Clair and Doll—with their rough skin and prickly body respectively—had gotten caught on the slide right at the beginning.

“Aaah, that ain’t good,” Manny muttered, but he was pinned against the cotton candy by his own spikes.

“Pick the Fairy Realm, you said,” Elbee said in a hiss. “It’ll be easy, you said.”

“Oy, we tried ADAM’s place and that was messed up! I ain’t gonna live there! And Step’s nuts!”

“Oh, and the shrink-happy Joltik isn’t?!”

“Baaah, ferget that! She’s weak, I figured we coulda handled it!” Manny waved dismissively, which loosened him from the slide. He swung left, yelping, and he slammed his spike into the slide again.

A silence followed where nobody tried to move—up or down. Then, Elbee growled, jamming her forehead’s horn into the cotton candy. “Great. So what do we do now, leader?”

“Shaddap, I’m thinkin’!” Manny tried to move his arm, but any time he did, he felt his grip on the slide become more and more perilous. He couldn’t see what was to their left or right, but straight down was a bad idea.

“Elbee, shoot some water into that stuff. See if it’s actually hot.”

The Samurott nodded and launched a glob of water toward the vat below. Direct hit—the water sizzled loudly, a series of pops sending solidified pink material in all directions. The water blended with the pink fluid once it was as hot as the rest.

“Yep, that’s hot alright,” Manny said with a wince. “Great. That’s out.”

Some of the hot water splashed on the slide, melting the sugar near the bottom.

“…Oh, lookit that,” Manny said. “Hang on. I think I’ve got an idea.”

“Way ahead of you,” Elbee said, and then blasted the slide in front of her with a Hydro Pump.

Manny barked in surprise, eyes wide. “WHAT? NO! Don’t—”

“What?” Elbee stopped her attack prematurely, but the damage was already done. The water spread through the fluffy sweetness like it was nothing. “Which way were we supposed to go?”

The bridge split apart, revealing an open pit filled with—

“Oh, come on…”

All the others screamed or shouted, looking for a way out as more and more of the sugary footholds disappeared into melted, red candy. Far below, colorful, lumpy mounds of yellow, green, orange, and red, several times their size, came into view. In the rain of sugar, Manny crossed his arms and shouted, “Fall floppy; it’ll hurt less!”

Manny loosened his body, while Yen tried, and failed, to catch up to him in time. The Drampa kicked his legs and channeled his innate levitation abilities—something that the other spirits lacked in Willow’s domain. Roh flailed his arms in an attempt to fly. It had no effect. Azu struck an honorable pose, sticking one arm forward with his fist clenched, while his other arm held his hips. Verd had passed out—never was a fan of heights.

Clair was falling a lot faster than the others, challenging the ground to try to kill her, while Elbee actually listened to Manny’s advice. The Garchomp hit the pit’s center, sticking headfirst into one of the red lumps near the middle with a loud splorsh. Manny landed next, getting his chest-spike stuck in a yellow gumdrop. The others all landed one way or another, with Azu managing to hold his pose even after he landed. He was waist-deep between a pinkish and orange gumdrop, looking like he had been there all his life.

Verd, meanwhile, had landed back-first, and then rolled further down. The spikes on the Chesnaught’s shell carried a few of the gumdrops down with him, reinforcing his back with sticky goodness.

Sticky water landed on all of them in a brief, sweet rain. Manny’s fur stuck together, and for a moment, he just remained face-down, wondering if trying his luck with Step would’ve been the better choice after all.

Yen landed gracefully beside Manny, tilting his head. “It looks like everyone landed fine,” the Drampa said, serene as always.

Manny usually admired Yen’s ability to keep a level head and calm tone in nearly every situation, but right now, it seemed to make the sugar bubble with angry fury on his head. “Yeah, landed jus’ fine,” Manny grunted.

Yen’s massive snout gently went under Manny’s chin, playfully helping him up. “You were smart to tell them how to land,” he said. “You’ve had rougher landings in the past, haven’t we?”

Gentle waves of nostalgia hit him, and briefly, Manny felt like a Riolu again. He remembered a gentle fire that warmed up his waterlogged body and the Oshawott that so cheerfully doused him anyway, asking for a fight. He had been angry at the time, livid, even, and had his arm not been broken, he probably would have given her that fight. But now it just made him want to go for another sparring match with her.

“Gah, always know what ter say,” Manny mumbled, rubbing the back of Yen’s neck, though he couldn’t hide his dumb grin.

Yen nuzzled Manny back, but movement to his left caught his eye. “Ah… Clair.”

She was angrily slashing and chomping at some of the gumdrops, only to stop in confusion when the sweet taste got to her. Chew, chew. Too thrown off by their landing platform, she just shuffled to Manny and awaited further instructions.

“Feeling better, Clair?” Yen asked.

The Garchomp licked at the sugar between her teeth. “Yerm, ‘m fine.”

“Yes, you’re fine,” Yen said gently.

Clair snorted, but then glanced at Manny. “Yeh, doin’ fine,” she said.

Yen looked crestfallen. “Oh, goodness, another one…”

Manny smirked. “What’s wrong, can’t deal with the accent?”

Yen smiled nervously at Manny. “It’s charming. I’m just surprised at how impressionable they can be. That Flygon, Gahi? He had acquired it even faster all those centuries ago…”

Yen really did like to think about the past, Manny said, but that comforted him. Maybe he was spending too much time thinking about old times, but now that he was surrounded by gumdrops and melted sugar, thinking about better times kept him sane. Good call, Yen. “Swear, it was like Gahi already had it and just fergot,” Manny remarked.

They performed a quick headcount. Manny did best to ignore the fact that he felt like he was about to be rolled up for a Joltik’s sweet treat. He saw Clair, and the color trio… That took care of the mutants. Yen was, of course, by his side—Elbee was angrily jamming her blade into several of the larger gumdrops.

Someone was missing.

“…Doll?” Manny looked up. “Beh, ain’t that something.”

She was dangling by her shoulders and arms, unable to break loose from the sugar. A green dot in the pastel sky.

Now that they were lower, just where were they?

Manny didn’t expect Willow’s realm to be filled with nothing but sweets and—oh, there were mushrooms as well. That was more appropriate.

To his left, there was a mountain that, instead of trees, had giant mushrooms dotting its rocky—no, those weren’t rocks, those were crystals of solid sugar. Muttering incoherent curses under his breath, he looked for some sanity to his right, only to see that more of those mushroom trees had blocked his view outside the pit.

One was staring at them with black eyes and tiny, white dots for pupils in the mushroom-tree’s stump.

The sound of Elbee firing a Hydro Pump caught his attention. He looked skyward; she was trying to knock Doll loose from her sweet prison, but wasn’t accurate enough for such a distance.

“Little higher, gotta account fer gravity,” Manny advised.

Because at least gravity still worked properly here.

“Hey!” Manny shouted at the mushroom. “Where’s Willow? We need help, ya got that?”

The mushroom jeered at them, then laughed. Its echoing mirth shook the gumdrops and the sugar on their bodies. Then, it closed its eyes, and the mushroom became lifeless.

“…Well, alright.”

“Got her!” Elbee shouted. “Wait, no, I missed a bit…”

“Are you even getting far enough? That’s very high up…” Yen frowned, readying his body for another flight. “If I push, I might be able to get back up there in time.”

The Cacturne, meanwhile, kicked her legs uselessly. Her thorns were simply too stuck in the sugar.

Squeaky giggling made Manny’s ears twitch left.

Several Togepi, Joltik, and Cleffa were at the top of the pit, staring at them. Manny counted at least twenty in total. The Joltik in particular made his fur bristle. Great, she’s got fans.

All of them jumped into the air and sprouted large, pink wings. They fluttered toward Manny, who at this point was resigned enough to watch without a reaction. One of the Joltik landed on his head.

“Hi, Mister! How’d you get here? You don’t look like one of those mean old wraiths!”

“Yeah, we’re kinda runnin’ from them,” Manny said.

“Oh, is that it?”

“Oooh, you look strong! How come you’re running away?”

“Well, can’t fight a whole lot all at once. Too risky outta our own realm.”

“How come you’re not in your own realm? Did you lose?”

Manny kept his expression even, despite his urge to snarl. “Yeah, we met the wraiths’ boss. Didn’t exactly go well.”

“Oh, I see, I see! So, you want to see Willow?”

“Yeah, what’s she doing now?”

“AaaaAAAAA—OOF!”

Doll landed in a few of the gumdrops, stuck for a third time. Azu and Roh helped to free her, while Elbee and Yen tried to wake Verd up.

The fairies giggled and circled around the group several times in a disturbing tornado. “She’s flying around Kilo Village with a bunch of others!”

“Everyone’s scared because of Dark Matter, but with Willow on the case, nobody should be worried at all!”

“Yep! Willow will just shrink him down until he’s a tiny, tiny marble, and then crunch! No more Dark Matter!”

Manny frowned, pensive. “Dark Matter… So that’s his name, eh?” All things considered, it was appropriate. But he still didn’t like the sound of that. Wraith King was the name he’d known it by before, and that was just a title; Dark Matter… Should they really give it the dignity of calling it by its chosen name?

Not that it mattered; did it even care? It seemed keener on destroying everything all over again. And Star…

“Are you okay?” one of the fairies asked.

Manny jolted up. “Yeh, jus’ fine. Eh, take us ter Willow. Where’s she?”

“Well, you can try to talk to her directly if you go to the Core!”

“Sure, where’s that? Mind flyin’ us there? Actually, hang on—how come we can’t fly, eh? Let that happen! Ain’t that hard. Aether Forest let us fly no problem.”

The flying fairies all giggled again, and then a Togepi sang, “Only fairies are allowed to fly here! If you want to fly, we’ll turn you into a fairy!”

“Wait, no, hang on, yeh can’t just turn someone like me—”

Pink dust surrounded Manny in moments, as well as all the others on his team of refugee spirits. His back felt heavier, and a new set of limbs—wide and flat and with great resistance when he tried to move them. He didn’t want to look, because he knew exactly what had just happened.

But he couldn’t stand still forever. Eventually, be opened his eyes and beat… his new, pink wings, taller than he was. He gave them another few tentative beats, and each one lifted him a few inches off of the ground. He stopped, landing with a cloud of pink, glitter-like mist. The horror was too much for him to express, so he didn’t express it at all.

Behind him, the others sported similar wings, some taking it better than others. Verd, who had finally regained consciousness, inspected them curiously. Clair was already trying to fly with them, swiping at the air like it gave her a better battle stance. Azu marveled at them, and then tried to flex while in midair. “A wonderful addition!” he declared.

“Well… It could be worse,” Yen said to Manny. The Drampa’s wings were perhaps the largest of them all, and several of the other fairies were gathering on his back for a ride. He was unnerved by their presence—Dragon instincts, no doubt—and Manny just groaned and rubbed his head. “Yep. Should’a gone with Ice.”

“Come on! Let’s fly to the Core! There’s a portal that’ll take us there!”

“A what now?”

“A portal! Don’t you know? The Fairy realm is full of them if you know where to look! C’mon, let’s fly through one!”

“Will it get us closer ter the Core?”

“Yep! We’ll lead the way.” And then, the swarm of fairies took off for higher ground, beating their little wings like Butterfree.

With an irritated sigh, Manny followed them all to the skies before, finally, he spotted what seemed to be an odd, golden circle in the air. “Oh, lookit that,” he said. “So, through that, I figure?”

“Yep!” the flurry of pink nearly blinded him. Trying to ignore the fact that the wings came naturally—and all of his precious Fighting spirits—he beat them a few times to gain height above the haze and toward the portal.

“Hey,” Manny said to the others. “When we get outta here… nobody speaks o’ this. We clear?”

<><><>​

News of the hostile Dungeons and the return of the wraiths accelerated all efforts to put nearby Dungeons in complete lockdown. A map of all known Dungeons had been pulled out, marked, and then assigned to flying Pokémon to scout the perimeter for any signs of recent visitors, and to leave signs depicting the dangers of entering one now.

Blessed Dungeons were one thing—easy to manage. Anam had crafted their properties with nothing but benevolence in mind. If someone became too injured in a Dungeon, it would warp them to the entrance, sometimes with most of their injuries gone. Their auras were often severely damaged, though, and Rhys never quite understood why; it was as if injuries within Dungeons were done to the aura, rather than to the body.

Along with that, Dungeons often gave rise to blessed items within, like Oran berries. They even grew along the perimeter of nearby Dungeons from exposure. Rhys recalled the ones he had used to heal Owen during his outburst, so long ago, when he’d discovered Zena. And, perhaps most importantly, blessed Dungeons lacked wraiths of any kind.

But those blessings were gone—and now, so too went all of their benefits. Defeat in a Dungeon spelled death for those who traveled inside; no useful, blessed berries, orbs, or seeds appeared there; and wraiths ran rampant within.

Just like that new Dungeon within Hot Spot. The first dungeon to form in centuries… Why now? Would there be more?

Not that it mattered—they were all unblessed, now.

Several Pokémon entered and exited the office and passed along the halls, looking for orders on where to go next or what nearby area to scout. Nearby, because they didn’t yet have the provisions to handle long treks without Waypoints to take them anywhere more than a little ways away.

“That should be all of them,” Rhys stated, looking over the map, then at the long checklist of Dungeons that they had to send others to. He had deliberately excluded a few of them—such as Ghrelle’s swamp, or Zero Isle Spiral, since not only would those be too dangerous, but the Trinity surely had them covered. Though, it wouldn’t hurt to check just in case.

Before he had the chance to give out the final orders, something landed on his head. On reflex, he reached out to grab it—only for a jolt of electricity to crackle against his paws. He hissed and swiped it away, but that just learned another zap.

“Willow!” Rhys hissed.

The Fairy Joltik fluttered in front of Rhys, sparking angrily. “Why’d you hit me? I was resting my wings! Do you know how long I’ve been flying?”

“You don’t even need wings to fly!”

“Yeah, well, it looks better!”

Rhys pinched the bridge of his muzzle. “What do you need, Willow? Shouldn’t you be scouting with the others?”

“Manny wants to see you!”

Rhys blinked, and then his expression transitioned rapidly from exasperated to serious. “Manny? He’s alive?”

“Nope! But he ran all the way to the Fairy Realm just to see me! I’m gonna summon him now. All his other surviving spirits are there, too, but Manny’s too strong on his own. I gotta put aaaaall my strength into this so he looks solid!”

“Yes, of course, I—”

Rhys realized that several passerby Hearts were staring at the flying Joltik, but by now, they’d already made themselves known to the public. There was no real point in trying to keep themselves hidden for very long. He sighed. What was one more power?

“Summon him. We don’t have much time to—”

“Actually, Manny wanted it to be done in private. He refuses to come out in public as a Fairy.”

“…What?”

But Willow was already flying into the Heart HQ, and Rhys followed with a morbid sense of anticipation. Manny, a Fairy? What would he look like? Would he have fur colored like those mushrooms that Willow often summoned? Or perhaps, would he sparkle with every movement? Perhaps his voice would be several octaves higher—that could be it.

Whatever it was, Rhys intended to meet it with respect and dignity.

A spirit shot from Willow and in front of Rhys—a Lucario, pure and simple. Rhys’ shoulders visibly lowered with relief… and then he froze. Two luxuriously hot-pink wings spread behind Manny, taking up his entire arm span and a bit extra in width. Manny glared at the ground, paws clenched, as he stared at Rhys’ feet.

“Laugh an’ yer dead.”

Rhys nodded firmly, body tense.

“I’m here after we got attacked by that demon and stuff. We’ve got a lot ter go over.”

Rhys grunted in affirmative.

“…You busy? I’ll wait.”

“Just some small duties,” Rhys said too quickly.

“I’ll wait.”

Rhys made a hasty retreat into Anam’s office, shutting the door firmly behind him. Elder, who had just ascended the stairs nearby, tilted his head. He’d caught Rhys’ expression, filled with a great amount of strain and forced discipline.

“Is Rhys okay?” Elder asked, but then kept his mouth open upon seeing the elegant Lucario that remained with Willow. “Oh… goodness, Manny.”

“Yeh don’t wanna know… how much hate I got in my heart righ’ now.”

Elder looked at the closed door of Anam’s office, then at the Fighting Fairy, and frowned. “Perhaps some time to cool down would be best.” He exhaled a plume of clear smog, then rested his shell near the door.

<><><>​

“So he’s really callin’ himself Dark Matter now, eh?” Manny said.

“Indeed.” Rhys poured out some hot apple cider for himself, then passed the main teapot to Manny.

“Pur some fairy dust in it. It tastes way better!” Willow said, waving one of her mushroom spirits in her paws.

“…Yer not gonna tear off pieces o’ them again, are yeh? That’s weird.” Manny looked at the giggling mushroom.

“What’s weird about it?”

“Everything.”

Willow snorted and pulled off a bit from the cap—earning a loud giggle from the mushroom—and then tossed it into her tiny bowl. The rest of the mushroom disappeared in a puff of mist, returning to Willow’s Realm.

Elder hummed worriedly. “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the wraiths are trying to attack us any way they can. We can’t afford to let our guards down at all. Willow, your Fairy Realm—is it safe from wraiths?”

“Well, they can’t get anywhere near my Core, so I think I’m okay.”

“What security measures do you have?” Rhys asked. This one was curious. Of all the Guardians, Willow was among the weakest, yet her realm was safe from wraiths?

“Oh, that’s easy. Most entry points will destroy wraiths because of the spicy pits of sugary doom! And even if they get past that, they still have to battle the mushroom giants, and then they have to get across the gumdrop chasms. Oh, and Choco Mountain, and after that, Wafer Ridge…”

Rhys blinked several times, then looked at Manny.

“It’s a freaking candy land.” His wings beat once on reflex. “Only reason we got through easily was because the spirits guided us to a weird portal. Looked like a ring. Went through a few of them, actually. Next thing we knew, we were near the Core.”

“Hrm. So a confusing architecture can thwart the wraiths. That’s good to know. We should probably warn the others about that. Manny, what was your realm like?”

“Er… simple.”

“I see,” Rhys hummed. That explained why his realm was so easily overrun. Step’s was quite hostile as well, from what he gathered. ADAM hadn’t spoken of any issues in his realm, either.

Rhys briefly thought about all the other realms, but then quickly realized that all of the others were either overrun or simply claimed by Dark Matter. Everyone…

Well, the Trinity still had theirs, but there was no telling how they were doing until they sent others. “Ah, that reminds me… Elder. Could you stay here and discuss with the others? I need to send for a few teams to investigate the Poison and Dragon Dungeons.”

“Wait, isn’t that sorta a bad idea?” Manny said. “Star said those places’re pretty dangerous fer mortals. I mean, apparently the Dragon Guardian’s fine with mortals, but Poison, I dunno… And there’s that weird barrier protecting the factory that keeps mortals from getting’ there, too.”

“Hrm, that’s true. But we can’t travel all the way to the Poison swamp on our own, can we?”

“Well, I could fly there,” Willow said. “I’ll shrink one of you down to come with me. Do we know who Ghrelle would like?”

Manny thought back, but then growled. “The four that Star said would be fine the first time’re all…”

Rhys’ expression darkened. That was true. Enet, Owen, Amia, and Gahi were all lost to darkness. The four who Star had considered ‘worthy’ of Ghrelle’s presence, at least from the Altaria’s perspective.

“Tch… I’ll go,” Manny said, nodding. “Willow can come with, and I’ll take over her body fer a bit when we arrive. How long’s the flight, y’think?”

“From Kilo all the way to that forest… That’s quite far. Perhaps a day.”

“Don’t got a choice. Who’s gonna go ter the factory, you?”

“Zero Isle Spiral and the factory are on the same route,” Rhys said. “I will visit them both without a problem.”

Elder leaned his huge shell against Rhys. “Hmm, I do wonder, though…”

Rhys ran his paw along the large Torkoal’s side, watching wisps of smoke escape from the top.

“Would it really be a good idea for all of you to go alone like that?” Elder hummed. “I don’t know if it’s safe anymore, not with the wraiths.”

“We don’t have time nor other Mystics to help. ADAM is trying to assist in stabilizing the technology that went down, isn’t he?” Rhys frowned. “All that remains is Willow and I. Manny’s attached to Willow for now. We… have to.”

Elder hesitated, looking down. “I… I see.”

An awkward silence followed, but Rhys didn’t have time to think about all the others. If there was any hope of saving them, it would be by defeating Dark Matter—their spirits were probably imprisoned in the Ghost Orb.

That had to be what happened. And perhaps, if Hecto still can’t find Amia, maybe she—

“Hecto. Where is he?”

“What?” Elder said, but Rhys was already stepping out of the Heart HQ.

“Hecto. He’s how we can communicate with all the others with ease. Why hadn’t we considered that until now?”

“Well, I suppose part of that would be because of all the panic,” Elder admitted. “We’ve been so busy that—Well, actually, we aren’t really sure where Hecto is, are we? We need to find one of him…”

“I’ll go look! Do I just call for him a bunch?” Willow stretched her wings.

“Er, yes, actually,” said Elder with a nod. “I suppose you could try to do that.”

“Okay!” And she was gone.

“…Hey, wait, wait, oy! Yeh left me behind! I—” Manny looked at his paws, which were already fading the more Willow distanced herself. The Fairy Lucario let out an annoyed grunt, about to say something, but then his body dissolved into mist completely. His spirit returned to Willow in a blue ember, leaving Rhys alone with Elder.

“…We should search for backup just in case, Rhys,” Elder said, looking down. “I just don’t want to risk it, and we already know that mortals can handle themselves against wraiths if they have backup. But a Mystic alone can be overwhelmed.”

The Lucario rubbed his forehead. “And you shouldn’t come with me for this,” he admitted.

Elder frowned, but nodded. “I’m sorry I’m not much of a fighter, Rhys. It just isn’t part of my capabilities. Perhaps if I trained like Rim, I would be at your level, but… My focus was always imitation blessings. Something I should do here.”

“No. It’s not a problem,” Rhys said. “I just want to make sure you’re safe, Elder. And… if you’re worried about me, then I’ll search for some talent in town. Almost all of the Hearts are scouting Kilo, though, and we can’t afford to take guards away from the border in case mutants wander here. I might need to look for hidden talent.” Rhys’ paw flashed with cyan flames. “Thankfully, I have just the means to do so. And if they need a boost in power, there’s always that Substitute technique I developed.”

“Ah—don’t strain yourself too much,” Elder said. “You know how draining that is to your power.”

“That’s the point,” Rhys said. “A spark of energy is just enough for a boost… If it’s enough to take Demitri and Mispy to their highest forms, then perhaps it can help strengthen other non-Mystics to fight by my side, too.”

“Just don’t do it immediately,” Elder pressed. “Find… already-strong talent.”

Rhys nodded, setting off for town. He had already felt a few powerful auras that hadn’t even joined the Hearts; perhaps he could begin there. He already recalled a few that he’d spotted previously: a powerful Incineroar, for one, and a strange Smeargle.
 
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