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Act I - A Fragile Identity
  • Namohysip

    Dragon Enthusiast
    Staff
    Partners
    1. charizard
    ACT I - A Fragile Identity

    Poison-tipped fangs plunged into Owen’s chest. The Charmander cried out, struggling through his pierced lungs, and pushed against the stone serpent wrapped around him. He didn’t know what it was. It had the face and colors of a Tyranitar, with its rocky edges and black gaps in its armor. Yet it had the winding, coiling body of a Seviper, a poisoned blade at the end of its tail, and long, sharp fangs stuck deep within him. He tasted blood; he couldn’t breathe. His lungs were full.

    “OWEN!” cried a Gardevoir.

    “M-Mom!” Owen mouthed.

    Behind the Gardevoir was a Magmortar. With fire in his eyes, he launched a volley from his cannons that exploded right next to the amalgamation. It hissed in pain; the Flame Burst sent him flying, along with Owen. The bursts lit up the surrounding field of lush grass, cutting through the evening twilight’s darkness. Only the fading fire of Owen’s tail and the Magmortar’s shoulders lit the area—making them easy targets.

    The impact on the ground gave Owen just enough time to escape, wriggling out of its rocky hold. He felt free for only half a second. Owen turned his head and saw the thing launch a succession of large rocks toward his father, the Magmortar. Three hits. They went straight through him. Blue fire erupted from the resulting holes. And then, his father exploded in a flurry of embers.

    D-dad? Owen stared with wide eyes, distracted.

    The serpent hissed and swung its tail forward—a sharp pain surged through Owen’s back. A jerking motion forced Owen’s head down. He saw the blade coming out from his chest. He had no way to scream.

    “Get AWAY!” the Gardevoir, his mother, screamed for him. An incredible heat washed over Owen’s back, and then a horrible, shrieking wail filled his ears. He fell; the tail slipped out from behind. Blood gushed on the dirt beneath him.

    Owen fell face-first into the dirt, but despite this, it felt like the coziest pillow in the world. Everything felt cold, and then warm.

    “Owen! Owen!” She rushed toward him, paying no mind to the fire on the ground. It didn’t look like the flames affected her body at all. “Owen, it’s going to be okay!” She held his back, pushing wave after wave of healing energy through his body. His breath returned to him; he coughed the remaining blood out.

    What happened to his Dad? Owen’s eyes darted in all directions, his expression asking what his mouth couldn’t.

    “Shh, it’s okay,” she said, placing her hand firmly on his back. The pain was unbearable. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Calm down. Sleep…”

    The world curled itself up in a tiny circle in front of Owen, darkening into a distant tunnel. But then, the world uncoiled, much to Owen’s displeasure. He just wanted to sleep.

    The Heal Pulse intensified, the warmth almost too hot even for his Fiery body. He gasped his first breath, life—and pain—returning to him in full.

    But then he felt a different energy course through him. It wasn’t healing him. “Shh,” Amia said softly. “Just sleep. Just sleep…”

    It felt awful. Energy drained from his core. His vision faded. And then, darkness.

    <><><>​

    The dim glow of nighttime mushrooms colored the rocky walls of the cave. Mixing with this light were flickering embers of orange and yellow. Owen was lying in the middle of these flames, enjoying the warmth; they licked at his scales and washed over his back. The flame at the end of his tail got hotter, brimming with energy. He rolled over to sear his belly next.

    Wait. What happened? Wasn’t he—

    “No resting on the fire, Owen.”

    “Wh—huh? I wasn’t!” He rolled away and quickly hid beneath his bed of leaves. Some of them turned black from the fire, but they didn’t burn. “Ngh,” He held his chest. It felt horribly bruised. And his back was killing him. No wonder he was sleeping on the fire! But why did he feel that way? He remembered a fight. A fight that he’d lost. Badly. But was that just a dream? He remembered a rocky serpent. And fire, and explosions. It was all so garbled—he wasn’t sure what was real.

    The Gardevoir peeked into the room, her white dress aglow from the mushrooms and the fire. She sighed, smiling. “You’re lucky we got you that special Rawst Leaf bed, or we’d need to replace it every night!” She laughed, but then walked over, patting him on the head. “Go to sleep, dear. Tomorrow’s a big day for you, isn’t it? Another expedition as a trainee. You don’t want to do that while sleep-deprived, do you? When you get up, Alex and I will get you a good meal ready.”

    “Yeah…”

    Another voice whispered quietly from the other room. “Amia, is he okay?”

    Owen saw the burning shoulders of his Magmortar father. A vague image flashed in front of his mind of that very same Magmortar bursting into an explosion of blue embers. Bluer than his mother’s hair. That must have been a dream.

    “It’s very late, Owen. Get some rest.” The blue Gardevoir gently pressed her hand against his back, making him reflexively tense. She frowned at this, biting her lower lip with concern. “Owen, did you have a nightmare?”

    “I think so…”

    “Well, it’s gone, now,” Amia said. She looked back to Alex, who shuffled to the other room. “Get some sleep. It’s still late at night.”

    Owen eased himself onto his bed of leaves again, giving a defeated nod. “Okay, Mom.”

    Right before going to bed, his mind felt muddled again. In the corner of his eye, he saw an eerie glow. His consciousness abruptly cut out.

    <><><>​

    Breakfast was a hearty stew. The table had three seats. Two were sized for the smaller frames of the mother and son. Both were approximately the same width, albeit oversized for Owen. The third seat was much larger than the rest—in order to accommodate for its usual occupant. Alex, bumping his cannon-arms nervously, looked down at his food without a hint of an appetite.

    “What’s wrong?” Owen asked.

    “N-nothing,” Alex said. He refused to make eye contact.

    Owen squinted suspiciously. He glanced at Amia, who giggled nervously and looked at her half-eaten bowl.

    “Mmm. How are you feeling, Owen?” she asked.

    “Perfect! But, uh, I don’t know. Did you ever have that feeling where you had a really good dream, but then you can’t… remember it?”

    Owen noticed the subtle, shocked expressions in his parents’ eyes, but he didn’t acknowledge it.

    “I had one of those. But I can’t remember any of it. I think I was having a really big fight. I remember my heart racing!” Owen played with a lump of a potato in the stew. His parents always got uncomfortable when he talked about his dreams, and he never knew why. He did admit that they felt too real to be dreams, but what else could they be? He had decided long ago not to press the issue. He grabbed his bowl and downed half of his breakfast. His parents’ expressions were grave, but they feigned a smile when he looked at them again. “Weird, huh? Dreams are funny.”

    “Oh, Owen, m-maybe you’re just nervous about all this,” his mother said. “Becoming stronger, more responsibilities. Being part of the Thousand Hearts is a big deal, after all! …If you get in. Remember, there’s no shame in failing the exams.”

    She was trying to help him feel better, but that didn’t help the knot of inferiority tightening in his gut. How many times had he tried and failed to get in? No, this would be different. That was the whole reason he was going out on a practice exploration in the first place.

    “Y-yes, exactly,” Alex said. “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not too late to… live quietly? Perhaps take on a farming job.”

    “No way!” Owen said, beaming. “Fighting is the way to go. I can’t live without a good fight. And what better way to fight than to, uh, y’know, fight bad guys?”

    “Of… of course.” At this point, his father’s flaming shoulders were mere cinders. Owen’s mother put her hand on Alex’s back, shaking her head.

    Owen returned to his meal.

    . “So… today’s the day, right?” Alex asked, breaking the tense silence.

    “Oh, Alex, you weren’t up all night, were you?” Amia asked.

    Owen wouldn’t doubt if Alex spent all night fretting over his planned excursion.

    “No! I shut my eyes,” he said. “…Owen, are you sure about this?”

    “Super totally!” Owen said, tipping his bowl of stew directly into his mouth.

    Alex gulped. “Amia, don’t you think it’s a little early?”

    “Oh, Alex, we can’t baby him forever. He’s an adult!” she said. “It’s just one exploration. Into a known area. In a Dungeon, sure, but nothing he can’t handle! He’ll be just fine.” She fidgeted with her hands. It was a telltale sign she was trying to convince herself it would be okay. Owen chose not to acknowledge this, either.

    “Yeah,” Owen said. “And if I get horribly maimed, I’ll just warp back to the entrance! It’ll be fine!” He grinned, but he wondered if his word choice could have been better. He was trying to be funny, but he practically heard his father’s heart explode through his giant torso.

    “B-but it will still be dangerous! You’ll be badly hurt, Owen! There are stories of bandits and outlaws and even ferals waiting for defeated Pokémon to return to the entrance. You’ll be too weak to fight back, and then—and then—” Alex’s shoulder fire nearly touched the ceiling of the cavern. “And what if you bring something important with you? If you get kicked out of a Dungeon in that way, you’ll—lose it! You’ll lose almost everything on you! Perhaps even your—your life!”

    “Well, if wild Pokémon think it’s safe,” Owen said, “then it must be really nice, y’know?”

    “B-but…! That’s…!” Alex’s arms heated up. He looked like he was going to collapse into himself with worry. “Wh-which Dungeon is it again?”

    “It’s only the Wooden Wilds, dear,” Amia said. “It isn’t even very far. And it’s mostly just Bug and Grass Pokémon—you have nothing to worry about! He won’t strain himself.” She nodded at both of them.

    Alex hummed against his lips, expression twisted with an endless pit of worry. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Then… then, you can go, Owen. But—be careful! Very, very careful. And if you ever run into trouble, we’ll tell the Hearts about it right away.”

    “I’ll be fine, Dad,” Owen said. How humiliating would it be for his parents to ask the Hearts to rescue him? He was supposed to be part of them, not one of their clients! He hopped out of his seat. “Okay! I’m gonna go now, alright? See you!”

    “W-wait!” Alex said. “Did you meditate?!”

    “Did this morning!” Surprisingly, this was the truth.

    Owen hopped out of his seat. He grabbed a small, lightweight, golden Badge with a heart-shaped insignia from a nearby rock, and then grabbed his little exploration pouch from the front, wrapping it around his back. “See you!” He glanced at the Provisionary Heart Badge within his claws, nodding to himself.

    They watched Owen leave. Amia leaned into Alex’s chest, sighing.

    Alex’s fire finally returned to something normal in size. “I hope he isn’t self-conscious of his size. It might affect how strong he is, even if he’s stronger than the average Charmander, you know, given the…”

    Amia giggled, patting Alex on the shoulders, completely unaffected by the flames. “He’s got a strong will, though, and he’s resourceful, too. He’ll make up for it. And who knows? Maybe this adventure is what he needs to control that spirit of his.” She sighed, staring at the empty bowl Owen left behind. “I wish Rhys was still here. Maybe we wouldn’t have had to…”

    Alex hummed worriedly. “That was a close call, yesterday,” he said. “I’ve never seen one of those mutants so powerful before. What if he runs into another of those—those things in the Dungeon?”

    Amia bit her lip. “I know, dear. But that Dungeon is safer than most. If he runs into any trouble, well, it’ll be better there than anywhere else. You know it’s me they’re after, not him.”

    “That doesn’t make me feel any better.” Alex rubbed his cannons together. “If I was just a little stronger, I could have defended us both. But I just… evaporated after the first strike. Curse this body. It’s so foreign, even now. Sometimes I wish I…”

    “It’s not your fault, dear,” Amia said soothingly, holding his shoulder a bit tighter. “It’s my fault, too. I should have been more careful when leaving the caves. If we just stayed put, we wouldn’t have had to put Owen through all that again.”

    Alex frowned, but then the Magmortar forced a smile to the Gardevoir. “Let’s clean up the table,” he said. “And—and if he isn’t back by the evening… N-no, late-afternoon…!”

    “We’ll call the Hearts. I promise.”
     
    Chapter 1 - Kilo Village
  • Namohysip

    Dragon Enthusiast
    Staff
    Partners
    1. charizard
    Chapter 1 – Kilo Village

    Owen walked with a spring in his step, tail flame blazing happily. The caverns that he lived in had no natural sunlight, but the mushrooms that lined the rocky walls and ceilings gave more than enough light. Not that it mattered; complete darkness was a foreign concept to most Charmander.

    The central cavern was a stone’s throw across, with many smaller offshoots in either direction. Other villagers made their homes in these rocky caves, mostly Fire Pokémon like himself. In that sense, his adoptive mother was an exception to the population, though she could deal with the heat like any other Fire could.

    “Oh, Owen!”

    Owen stopped, spotting a large Arcanine bounding over to him. “Hi, Granny Arcanine!”

    “Oh, hush, I’m not that old. Auntie Arcanine is just fine.” Despite this, she smiled, passing a small bag of apples over. “You’re going on a little mock-expedition, are you? I gathered these up just for you.”

    “Aw, thanks!” Owen graciously took them, counting them for inventory, and slipped the three apples into his pouch.

    “I figured it would save you the trouble of going by the apple garden yourself,” Arcanine said, fluffy tail wagging. “It’s not far, but you’re a busy Heart, aren’t you?”

    “Well, I’m not a Heart yet,” Owen said, though his tail and chest both expanded at the thought. “Just wait! This time, I’ll get it!”

    “Ohh, your eyes are so bright, Owen.” She laughed, waving him off.

    Owen left at a full sprint, too full of energy to go any slower, and only looked back to wave her goodbye.

    The passage narrowed until it was only a reminder to Owen that, one day, he’d have to be more careful about how he walked through it. When he became a Charizard, he’d have to keep to one side so he didn’t take up the entryway. Though, now that he thought about it, he didn’t see a lot of other villagers pass through this area. They usually kept to themselves—it was a secret location, after all. Which made it even cooler.

    Owen stopped at what appeared to be a dead-end of the caves. He hopped onto a small, flat square on the ground. Nothing happened.

    “Oh, come on.”

    Owen stepped off of the tile, swung his arms back, and hopped a bit higher into the air, putting his full weight and gravity behind the jump. The tile depressed a little, but still, nothing happened.

    He used to open this so easily. Did he lose weight? Muscle weighed more than fat. Owen worriedly pinched at his gut, wondering if his chubby Charizard genes were coming through before the rest. But it felt normal.

    The apparently lightweight Charmander scanned the ground and found a large rock. That’ll do. He hauled it over with him and jumped onto the tile again.

    Click.

    The dead-end glowed a bright cyan, much like the glassy mushrooms. The blockage, a huge boulder, rolled aside, revealing the bright sky. Owen squinted, reptilian pupils narrowing until he could finally adjust to the new normal.

    He emerged to the base of a rocky hillside behind him; green fields of grass as tall as he was greeted him ahead. To his left and right was a simple dirt path, carved by traveling Pokémon. Owen headed to the left, knowing that it would be a quick walk to get to Kilo Mountain.

    It was a little raised hill in the distance from his perspective, but that was a whole mountain of black rock. The ground rumbled, the boulder that had led to the opening of his hidden village rolling back into place, blending in with the rest of the hill.

    A short, quiet walk later, with the summer breeze tickling his flame, Owen stopped where the dirt road converged with many others. Embedded into the ground was a flat, silvery hexagon with a few dim lights lining the sides. The lights weren’t very bright in the morning sun—it was mostly for visibility at night. Instead, it made for a colorful, intricate pattern that, from what Owen had read, was meant to be aesthetically pleasing, and had little other functional value.

    Owen stepped onto the Waypoint and gently tapped his ankle on the tile. In a flash, he disappeared.

    <><><>​

    The sky was a blinding blue that morning, not a cloud in sight. With the help of the Waypoint, the fiery explorer appeared in the middle of town in a flash of light. It hadn’t felt like anything but a blink, yet in that blink, he went from staring at Kilo Mountain from far away to being within the crater’s top, within Kilo Village itself.

    “That was so cool!” Owen said. It wasn’t his first time, but the wonder of being able to teleport from any other Waypoint to the central one would never wear off for him. Just as this wasn’t going to be his first exploration, but it’d be the first one in a slightly harder Dungeon that he could remember.

    Owen looked around to gather his bearings. Immediately in the center of town was a sign that said, ‘Welcome to Kilo Village!’ It was odd to have a welcome sign in the exact middle of the location, but it made sense when most individuals entered through the Waypoints scattered across all of Kilo. The town itself was in the middle of a crater at the top of an extinct volcano. From inside town, one couldn’t see anything beyond the dark hills of the crater. The altitude, however, wasn’t very high; the mountain was mostly underwater, rather than above the sea—according to the Water Pokémon, at least. Owen didn’t intend to test such theories out.

    The buildings that surrounded him were no more than two stories tall. Oblong rocks bound by mortar shaped the buildings near the center of town—the oldest buildings of the crater. These black stones were home to nobody. Instead, it served as a hospital for rescued and injured Pokémon. Owen spotted a Chansey through windows of wood and glass, holding a few soft-boiled eggs in her tiny arms. A Miltank was carrying a large jug of milk in the opposite direction.

    Owen decided not to think too hard about it.

    All around Owen was everything that a Heart would need. The northern side of the crater was dedicated to Dungeon items and equipment. These buildings were made from the same material, but were more recently renovated, lined with displays of seeds and berries, wands and orbs, tonics and vitamins.

    The east was dedicated to eateries and restaurants for Pokémon that were either preparing for a mission or returning from one. Sweet and savory scents mixed in the air and the jovial energy of a job well done permeated the atmosphere. If it wasn’t for the price, Owen would have eaten there every night.

    The west was for training and sparring, fighting one another, attacking dummies, and conquering obstacle courses set up by retired explorers. These buildings were often where experimental materials were used before shifting the techniques into the older buildings. After all, if it could withstand the attacks of the Pokémon that trained there, it could easily handle whatever else the rest of the town had to deal with.

    Owen then glanced longingly at the southern part of town. The Thousand Hearts. The building itself was a big, red, heart-shaped structure, with many smaller hearts scattered around: kiosks and special-purpose facilities. Inside the biggest building was where all Hearts met for check-ins, assignments, and training. Why a heart? Owen had no idea, though it might have something to do with their leader’s personality.

    All of the sights and the bright sky lifted his spirits. He couldn’t ignore how nervous his parents were, and that dampened them slightly—but he figured that if he kept acting cheerful, maybe he’d be able to fool himself into truly feeling confident, too. That feeling always nagged at him. The idea that something wasn’t right with anything he did. Not that he did it incorrectly, but that something, in general, felt wrong. Even now, it tugged at his mind.

    Lost in thought, he didn’t notice a passerby Zangoose.

    “Kid,” he said, “you oughta get off the Waypoint.”

    “S-sorry!” Owen scrambled away. “Okay. Okay, time to go. I need, uhh, what do my supplies look like?” He rummaged through his bag. “A-and I’m not a kid!” he shouted. “I’m just a late evolver!”

    He had two Oran Berries, two elixirs, two apples, a Pecha Berry, a Heal Seed, a Totter Orb, and—just in case—an Escape Orb. That should be enough, hopefully. No need to go to the shop to get anything. He’d want at least one Reviver Seed, or even a tiny one just for the boost to escape from trouble, but he didn’t have the funds for that sort of thing. Oh! But what if they had a rare berry or two? Sure, he preferred having his bag half-empty in order to make room for scavenging in the Dungeon, but a few extra berries wouldn’t hurt. If he just shuffled the Oran Berries around, perhaps carried the Totter Orb instead?

    “Kid. You’re in the way.”

    “S-sorry!” He stumbled. “Wait—I’m not a kid! I told you, I’m a late evolver! I’ll have you know, I—uh—I, er…” He finally realized who he was talking to. Not the Zangoose this time. It was a Golem, a behemoth of a rocky sphere, staring down at him from his great height. Defiantly, Owen puffed out his chest. He was a full-grown adult! Or at least an adult! Lots of weaker Pokémon never evolved. He just happened to be strong and slow at evolution.

    The Golem sighed and wobbled away.

    <><><>​

    “Kid… not a kid… I’m just a little late, is all. I bet I’m way stronger than even the average Charmeleon! Stronger than that Golem, too, if he didn’t have an advantage.” Owen mumbled more to himself, the rest incomprehensible, clutching his bag. “I didn’t train with Dad for nothing.” He hesitated on that line of thinking. What if he didn’t evolve yet because he never got to train with a Charizard before? Could that happen? Is that how evolution worked? Owen shook his head. No, many Pokémon were raised without the same species around, and they evolved just fine. Adopted Pokémon weren’t at some—some disadvantage, were they? No, he was just fine! “Yeah, I’m just—”

    He bumped right into another patron. “Sorry! I’m sorry!”

    “Ahh, it is not a problem.”

    Owen saw an Alakazam whose mustache was large enough for Owen to walk on like a carpet. Owen’s gut twisted with a feeling he couldn’t comprehend. But then, he shoved that feeling away, and instead tried to take in exactly who he was talking to.

    “Y-you’re—you’re—!” Owen’s eyes sparkled. “Alakazam Nevren! Oh—oh, wow!”

    “Ahh, you’ve spotted me!” Nevren chuckled. He put his two spoons in his left hand and shook Owen’s with his right. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

    Owen tilted his head, confused. Hadn’t they met before? No, they hadn’t. He was just so well-known that he must have had that impression.

    Nevren continued. “Ahh, I see you have a Provisionary Heart Badge. Training to become one of the Thousand, are you? There are quite a few open slots coming up soon, you know. Sixteen official retirements.”

    “Sixteen?” Owen asked. “Wow! How come? Are… are some Pokémon not doing well?”

    “Ahh, no, no, it’s nothing like that,” Nevren said. “These Pokémon are retiring on schedule. There will be a ceremony about that soon, you know. Perhaps you should attend and network with the others.”

    “But you’re an Elite Heart,” Owen said. “Do you think I’ll be able to, um, get to that level?”

    “Well, surely with time, you can. Everybody begins at the Entry tier, of course. But, looking at you…”

    Owen felt a cold pit in his stomach at that analytical gaze. Was he being judged, right there, by one of the most Elite Hearts in the whole world?

    Nevren nodded. “I see potential. Quite a bit!”

    “Y’do?!” Owen said, worries gone instantly. “Wow! Okay! Then I’ll definitely do better!”

    Nevren nodded. “In fact, why don’t I give you a small gift?”

    “What? A gift—from you?! Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Please! I’ll treasure it!” Owen had no idea why Nevren would want to give him a gift so randomly. But he wasn’t going to question a freebie!

    “Of course! Here, have this.” He handed Owen a small stone. It sparkled in the sun, but was mostly gray, like a shiny rock.

    “Cool!” Owen said politely. “What, uh, what’s it do?”

    “It is a special stone that protects Pokémon that have not yet fully evolved. It’s called an Eviolite—and it will be useful as long as it is near your body. I, of course, have no use for it, but you certainly do.”

    “Oh! That means, so, when I get super strong, that’s when I won’t even need it.” It was a constant reminder that he was a larva when he shouldn’t have been. But, at least now he had a boost. “That’s the perfect item! Thank you!” Psychologically it was undoubtedly going to feed into some complex, Owen thought, but in terms of practicality? Priceless.

    Nevren chuckled. “Be sure to keep it with you!” He walked past Owen, and the Charmander was left puffing a little plume of confused smoke at the Alakazam. Keep it with him? Of course he would!

    Completely forgetting about going to the shop, he headed south again to the Heart. There, along the pathway, were many lines of warp tiles, each one with a label engraved on it. They were Waypoints set up by explorers of the past in different regions across the continent, meant for getting there instantly, rather than on foot or by wing. With the tiles sorted by a strange derivative of Unown runes, Owen searched for Unown-W’s symbol. “Western Crystal Cave, Western Wetlands, oh! Wooden Wilds! That’s it, alright.” Owen took a breath. “Tenth section. That’s my goal.”

    Before he had the chance to enter, someone bumped into him.

    “S-sorry! Again!” Owen said, a hint of irritability in his voice. This place was too crowded.

    “Feh, quit standin’.” A huge, orange jaw chittered in front of Owen, owned by a Trapinch.

    “Gahi, don’t be rude,” said an Axew just behind the Trapinch. Right next to the Axew was a Chikorita, who rolled her eyes.

    Owen’s heart fluttered as if he’d seen old friends. Yet, he didn’t even know their names.

    The Axew was the first to speak. “I’m sorry about Gahi,” he said, motioning to the Trapinch. “We were actually on our way to do a little mission. Or, well, to find one.”

    “Oh, really? I was going to go exploring in the Wild Woodlands.”

    “Y’mean the Wooden Wilds?” Gahi asked.

    “Y-yeah, that.”

    “Heh, well, g’luck,” Gahi said. “Figure yeh ain’t too experienced.”

    “I am too! I’m super strong! I just… didn’t evolve yet.”

    “Oh, really?” Gahi asked, his starry eyes shining with interest. “Well that makes four o’ us. Mispy, Demitri, ‘n I all’re late evolvers, but we’re super tough!”

    “Oh! Wait—late evolvers. Is that real?” Owen had just made up the term, but they used it, too. Owen’s tail-fire burned a bit brighter at the validation.

    “’Course it is!” Gahi said, stomping his tiny foot. “Otherwise, I’d be a Flygon by now!”

    “And I’d be a Haxorus,” Demitri said. “Well, maybe just a Fraxure.” He rubbed at his tusk, tending to a little nick on the right side.

    “Meganium…” Mispy said, leaf drooping.

    The three collectively sighed.

    “I know how you feel.” Owen’s tail drooped slightly. “I’ve trained hard enough to become a Charizard already. I’m sure of it! But, it just never happened. It’s so weird. Everybody else in my scales would’ve evolved by now, but…”

    “It’s too bad,” Demitri said. “But, what can you do? We work with what we have, as Heart Entries.”

    Owen’s eyes sparked. “You’re one of the Thousand?!”

    “Well, three,” Demitri said. “We’re our own little team!”

    “That’s so cool! How’d you get in?”

    “Hard work,” Gahi said.

    “And,” Demitri said, “we got a good word in from our mentor, an Elite Heart.”

    “What? Who? Which one?” Owen asked.

    “Lucario Rhys,” Demitri said.

    There was the smallest pause from Owen. He knew the answer. He knew these three were his students. Trapinch Gahi, Axew Demitri, Chikorita Mispy. It was obvious to him! But why? No, don’t look crazy. Not today, Owen thought. He feigned a beaming expression. “He’s so cool! He’s the aura expert, right?”

    “Yeah,” Demitri said. “And he’s super tough!”

    “I already met Alakazam Nevren a little while ago! Those two are friends, right?! Oh, can I meet—I mean,” he paused. “Um… I mean…”

    “Heh,” Gahi said, amused. “Maybe when yeh get stronger. ‘Til then, we’re gonna do our mission.” He led the way to the main building. Demitri followed, waving back in farewell. Mispy gave Owen an apologetic smile and followed after them.

    Owen watched them with a tilted head. Their entire conversation felt like one giant déjà vu. Everything today did. He shook his head; if he kept thinking like this, his entire day would be ruined. He forced excitement to take over. He had an exploration to do!

    <><><>​

    “Peh! Pah!”

    Embers filled the air. Shrieks of wild Pokémon accompanied them. With their bodies burned, they vanished in thin air, returning to the entrance to the Dungeon. “Sweet!” Owen said, pumping his fist in the air. “This is super easy!” He felt a little bad about hurting those Pokémon, but they were the ones attacking him. Owen felt a gentle sting to his side; one of the Paras had jabbed him in the thigh.

    They should be fine enough. Getting ejected from a Dungeon often left the victim exhausted… but ferals like those were resilient.

    Owen puffed and leaned against a nearby tree that jutted out from a soft wall. The corridors of Dungeons were always so awkwardly narrow, made from raised ground nearby—in this case, of dirt and rock. A strange gravity prevented him from climbing the walls, let alone flying over them if he ever sprouted wings. Perhaps in his dreams he could.

    Owen’s stomach growled loudly, breaking him from his train of thought. He tittered and dug through his bag. “I guess fighting all the time can work up an appetite, huh?” The crackling flames of the battle’s aftermath spoke back to him. “I need to stop talking to myself.”

    Owen sat down to enjoy his meal. He grabbed a stick nearby and stuck it through the core of the apple. He wrapped his tail around and kept it in front of him, roasting the apple above the flame, focusing to make the flame hot enough to actually cook it.

    Someone growled behind him. Owen sighed. There was never any peace from the ferals of the Dungeon. They wandered aimlessly into these strange distortions of space, with no knowledge about how to leave, or even how they got in.

    “I wouldn’t do that,” Owen warned. He didn’t even turn around. He bit into the roasted apple, savoring the sweet, hot taste.

    The feral advanced, growling even louder. Suddenly, the ground beneath the Pokémon’s feet lit up in a bright yellow. A column of fire engulfed it—and that was it. A quick shriek, and then it was gone from the Dungeon. Satisfied, Owen spun the apple to cook it a bit more. “My signature attack—Fire Trap!” he said to the wind.

    Being at such a disadvantage, he had trained day and night to perfect a delayed Fire attack, should he ever be caught off guard when handling things one on one. He wasn’t really sure how long he had actually trained; long enough to forget when he actually learned the technique, at least. Still, it took time for him to do it. He could only use it if he had a big opening. But that wasn’t so bad. Now, if only he could figure out how to run away and use the attack at the same time.

    Owen finished his apple and stood up. “Top shape!” He pumped his fists in the air. “Can’t beat me now, Dungeon!”

    The ground rumbled, as if Owen had tempted fate a bit too much. “U-uhh—” He looked back.

    “Rrr… rrrn… rpphhf…”

    Owen’s fire burned bright. He was ready to run at a moment’s notice. He shoved his hand into his bag, looking for an item that he’d picked up in an earlier section. He found it and looked up just in time to see the foot of a Snorlax stepping through the corridors. This Snorlax was huge—even bigger than he thought was normal for the species. And its arms were a bit longer, too, with long, matted fur. Muscles bulged unnaturally. It wasn’t a normal Snorlax—and Owen wasn’t prepared for whatever it had in store.

    The phantom pain in Owen’s chest and back suddenly flared up at the sight of this mutated Pokémon. He had forgotten all about it. Suddenly, Owen remembered his dream, or flashes of it. He remembered his father getting struck, and then exploding in a cloud of blue embers. And some creature—he couldn’t remember what—slicing at him. That didn’t feel like a dream. But—his father was alive! It had to be a dream.

    The Snorlax, however, was anything but. A single swing from its mighty fist would turn Owen to a fine, red mist.

    “Nope!” He threw a seed toward the Snorlax and fired a puff of flames along with it. The seed ignited, sending soot and smoke in all directions, both blinding and suffocating the mutant. It roared and rubbed its eyes, stumbling blindly into a wall. Owen, knowing he was outmatched, fled for the next section. He only stopped running once he was sure he was far away. He held onto his tiny knees.

    He caught his breath and stood straight. “That was weird,” Owen mumbled. “Never saw a Snorlax like that before.” He shook his head. Nothing he could do about it now. It was just something to report when he got back to Kilo Village. The Charmander gently held his chest; the phantom pain was fading.

    I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. That was real, and I’m not seeing things. Not crazy.

    And so, he advanced. Each section was separated by a small distortion, like a vertical pool of water, but Owen had an easier time checking each time his Badge blinked. The blink indicated a transition into a new part of the Dungeon. Section seven, section eight, section nine… section ten. “Okay, this must be it,” he said. “Finally.” Between his apparent struggle to differentiate dream from reality, and then the Snorlax sighting, his enthusiasm for the exploration was being sustained only by his own feigned excitement.

    He did his research. There was a Waypoint at the end of the tenth section, where the Dungeon’s perimeter ended. What great timing, too—Owen was beat! He didn’t want to admit it to the Dungeon, but the tenth section was his limit. He looked up at the sky. The sun’s rays weren’t shining through the tall trees anymore—not directly, at least. It looked like it was going to turn orange soon. If he didn’t get home by evening, Alex’s cannons were probably going to explode with worry again.

    “Hey. Kid.”

    Owen bristled. “I’m NOT a ki—id…!” He turned around. On the other side of the Dungeon hall, a few paces behind him, was a creature with gray scales, huge jaws, and large wings. His eyes… Owen didn’t like those eyes. Trained, focused. Malevolent. What did this one have in mind? He saw that look often in town—outlaws that were captured, still bitter with defeat. But this one wasn’t defeated.

    Of all the people that he’d met today, this outlaw was the first one that he had no inkling of familiarity with. He had to be careful what he wished for; meeting this Aerodactyl gave him the worst pit in his stomach yet. Maybe it was the apple.

    “What’s someone like you doing in a place like this?” the Aerodactyl asked. “Looking for an advantage? Nothing but Grass and Bugs here, after all. Fire Type like you? Easy win.”

    “Y-yeah. Really easy, ha ha…”

    “I have an easy time here, too,” Aerodactyl replied. “Rock is strong against Bugs. And Flying? Beats ‘em both. But you know what’s really great about me?”

    “Y-yeah? What?”

    “Rock beats Fire. Rock also beats Flying. And guess what explorer-types show up the most here?”

    “F… Fire and… Flying?”

    “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?”

    “I—I know Alakazam Nevren,” Owen said. “You should be careful how you act in front of me!”

    “Oh, is he around?” Aerodactyl asked. Owen flinched. His hesitation said it all; the winged Pokémon’s jaw twisted into a horrible grin. “Guess that won’t matter, then, will it?”

    “Uhh…! Uhh, then I’ll just beat you!” he said. He stomped on the ground and leaned forward, feigning an attack stance.

    “Oh, really?” Aerodactyl asked, amused. “That’s a laugh. Okay, kid. But I’ll give you one last chance. Gimme your bag, and I’ll let ya go. Otherwise, I’ll—”

    All that was left behind were a few stray embers from his tail; Owen bolted.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 2 – Trouble in the Woods
  • Namohysip

    Dragon Enthusiast
    Staff
    Partners
    1. charizard
    Chapter 2 – Trouble in the Woods

    “Stupid kid—get back—pfwaaagh!”

    A Fire Trap exploded beneath Aerodactyl when he reached where Owen had stomped. Unfortunately, all it did was slow him down. “Nghh—that burns,” he muttered, rubbing at his right side with his wing.

    Owen ran as quickly as he could, glad that the outlaw was stunned by the surprise attack. Hoping it would work again, he spent some of his time stomping on the ground. This created another trap. Owen turned down the corridor, but then skidded to a stop. “W-wait! That’s not fair!” he shouted.

    “You shouldn’t be the one to complain about being fair!” Aerodactyl shouted, pushing through the second Fire Trap.

    Owen stared at the path—or, rather, the lack of a path—ahead of him. He had run into a dead end. There was no way out but to backtrack, and that was where Aerodactyl was rapidly closing in.

    “Heh, well, I suppose our fairness evens out, doesn’t it?” Aerodactyl said. He stopped advancing if only to taunt, but it was clear that he was looking for a good way to strike without dealing with more of Owen’s tricks.

    “That’s not right! I—just—let me go!” Owen said.

    “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t think I can do that,” Aerodactyl said. “Not without some payment first. Your bag. Just hand it over, and I’ll be on my way.”

    “No way!” Owen said. He glanced in his bag with the little time he had. He had too my precious items in it. The gift from Nevren, too. And all the items he picked up during exploration! Wait, the items!

    “Ha!” Owen said. He saw the small, blue sphere—an Escape Orb. He could use it. He’d be out of here without a problem! Owen smashed it on the ground. He was ready for the blue light inside to envelop him and take him straight to the entrance. Instead, the light and energy inside evaporated into nothing.

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

    “Heh,” Aerodactyl said. He dug his right wing into his own bag, flashing a strange-looking device. It was red with a glowing, yellow heart button in the middle. “Jammer Emblem. You think I’d let you run off so easily? Everyone brings Escape Orbs. So, I bring a Jammer.”

    “Th-those are illegal! You can’t use those without Heart permission!” But Owen realized shortly after that this was an outlaw. What was one broken rule if they already cast the law aside?

    Aerodactyl took another step forward. Owen only had enough time to use one more item. And his Totter Orb would be useless, too. He could try to use his Badge to escape—even if it was just a Provisionary Badge, it still had enough of a charge to escape. But within a Dungeon, it wouldn’t have the energy or precision to take anything on him—just his person. All of his items—no, Nevren’s gift, too! He couldn’t use his Badge. He didn’t have time, anyway; it needed a few seconds to activate. Seconds he didn’t have. The moment he made a move, Aerodactyl would attack.

    Something knocked against his claws in his bag. A seed. It felt strange to the touch, as if the air around it simply wasn’t there. He knew the feeling. A Warp Seed.

    Owen immediately shoved a seed in his mouth and chomped. In one second, he was staring an Aerodactyl in the face. In another, he was in the middle of a random area in the same section of the Dungeon. Owen, working off of the adrenaline rush, immediately ran ahead. If he could just find the—

    He was in the exact same room he had been in before. He even saw the Aerodactyl emerge from the hall next to him. Owen fought against his own momentum and scrambled backwards.

    He rushed through the Dungeon as much as he could, but fortune was not Owen’s friend that day. He couldn’t find the way out. Why did this always happen when a quick escape was needed the most?! He had explored the entire segment by now! Where was the next distortion?

    He found a room he hadn’t yet visited. He peered inside and saw the Aerodactyl—and the exit, right behind him.

    Aerodactyl caught sight of Owen at the corner of his eye. His huge jaw twisted into a smirk. “Hey, there,” he said. “Having trouble?”

    Owen wasn’t sure how long he’d stood there. It was just the two of them. The exit out of his reach. But now, he knew that he had a solid target. That Aerodactyl wasn’t going to move from that spot. So, if he could take advantage of that somehow, then maybe—

    “Hey!” Owen said. “How about this?!” He grabbed something from his bag and threw it at the outlaw. It was another seed—one that, upon hitting him, popped and scattered a strange dust around the Pokémon.

    “Wh—huh?! Why you—little—!” He was bumbling where he stood, wobbling horribly. His jaws opened wide and he fired—unexpectedly—a set of rocky pellets toward Owen. Rock Blast—Owen was sure his species wasn’t capable of such a technique normally.

    He launched pellet after rocky pellet in a random direction, completely missing Owen. Now was his chance! Owen opened his mouth and launched a small plume of fire toward him. An Ember was less than ideal, but it at least did some damage. All of his other techniques either required contact or required Aerodactyl to move to where he had been standing. Ember was all he had, or all he thought he could pull off against someone so much bigger and faster.

    “Ngh—!” Owen narrowly dodged to the right, evading a lucky shot, but his momentum made him tumble to the ground. He scrambled up—and felt a sharp pain on back of his head. Everything felt upside-down, and there was a sharp ringing in his ears. “Ughn—no, I…!” he tried to stand, but a second rock smashed against the center of his spine. The force made him roll across the ground like a bag of berries—he couldn’t feel anything on his lower half.

    Aerodactyl tried to fire a third, but nothing came. “Tch.” He spat out a loose pebble. “Must be getting tired.” He winced at his burn. Then, he stepped toward Owen, who was too injured and dizzy to react, yet not enough to be kicked from the Dungeon.

    “You gave me some real trouble, Charmander,” Aerodactyl said. He pulled Owen’s bag away and dug through it, grabbing one of his Heal Seeds. With a chomp, his burn evaporated before Owen’s eyes. “Heh. Well, I’ll just take this bag as payment.”

    “N… no.” Owen struggled weakly, a single hand still clutching at the strap. “You can’t!”

    “Looks like I can,” he replied, munching on an Oran Berry next. He roughly tugged the bag away, jerking Owen forward. Aerodactyl’s injuries vanished with a wave of blessed light at the same time that Owen’s face slammed into the dirt. The outlaw let out a deep, refreshed sigh.

    “P-please. At least give me the Eviolite that Nevren gave me,” Owen said, holding himself up with an arm. “You don’t… you don’t need it. You’re fully evolved. Or, er, you don’t evolve…”

    “Eh?” Aerodactyl looked at the glimmering stone. “Doesn’t look like a normal Eviolite to me. I bet it’d sell real well, though. Sorry, kid. I’m keeping it. And you’re right. My species doesn’t need evolution.”

    Owen tried to blast him again, but no flames came out; he could taste the fire on his tongue, but he didn’t have the strength to push it further. He exhaled, but the flame was gone. The best he could hope for was that Aerodactyl would be merciful and leave him alone. Maybe he should have listened to his father. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. He couldn’t even send a distress signal. His bag was taken, and therefore his Badge. Was this it?

    Aerodactyl stared at Owen, and Owen wondered if he could smell the fear radiating off of him.

    “Kid,” he said, “I don’t work like that. All I want is the goods. What happens after, I don’t care. That’s the way the world works. And the way Dungeons work.” He took another step closer. “Here, let me help. I’ll beat you up nice and good, and you can crawl back to your base to recoup. You ready?”

    Owen stared up at the outlaw. They locked eyes. His wing was raised. Owen didn’t know if he’d be able to survive the blow. If he’d wake up at all at the entrance, or if he’d just be there, too weak to fight, left for the ferals to eat.

    “Please,” Owen said.

    The wing hung there, tense. But then the claws at the end clenched in what may have been a fist. “There’s nothing more that I hate than you Hearts.” He lowered his wing and gave Owen a halfhearted kick, more like a push, that only accomplished a half-rotation of the Charmander’s numb body. “Thanks for the loot.”

    He spun around, walking toward the Dungeon’s exit. Owen’s throat clenched, as if trying to seal what little pride he had left inside his body.

    “No way!” someone shouted.

    Owen’s heart fluttered. He recognized that voice from earlier in the day. He turned his head weakly and saw an orange blur rush past him. A speedy Trapinch, a walking contradiction, and a welcome surprise. He weaved left and right, went in front of Aerodactyl, and then hit him directly.

    Aerodactyl shouted and stumbled back. “You—oh, great. Hearts?!” His wings clutched the bag to his chest. “But it’s just a bunch of runts. Is that your best?”

    Demitri and Mispy were puffing at the other end of the hall, trying their hardest to catch up to their third member.

    “Far from our best!” the Axew said, huffing. His tiny hands were barely able to grasp his scaly knees. “We’re Team—uh, what was our team name, again?—uh—Alloy! Of the Thousand Heart!”

    “Hearts,” the Chikorita mumbled, using two vines to act as a fifth and sixth leg, since her normal four weren’t enough to stay standing.

    “Y-yeah! Hearts,” Demitri said. “And we’ve got to be top-tier to get into something like that!”

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

    “Goodra Anam said that a ranked system isn’t good for morale, so we aren’t the worst or the best! We’re just Entry-Level Hearts!”

    “Guys!” Owen shouted hoarsely.

    All this time that they were talking, Owen saw the outlaw making sly, subtle movements with the bag. “He’s trying something!” He might have disabled his jammer. And that could only mean he would use an Orb next.

    “Hmph, think you’re clever?” He pulled out the Totter Orb and threw it on the ground. Owen felt the confusion wash over him instantly, on top of the dizziness that he was only starting to recover from. He gave up and collapsed on the ground, trying to stop his head from spinning. He knew that the best thing to do while confused was to wait for it to pass. “He’s getting away,” he mumbled.

    “I got ‘em!” Gahi said, rushing Demitri with a dark aura characteristic of his Feint Attack.

    “G-Gahi! What’s your problem?!” Demitri said. “He’s right that way!” Demitri sliced at the air in front of him, leaving a small, blue trail of dragon fire with both swipes. It completely missed.

    “Stop,” Mispy mumbled, shutting her eyes.

    “I’ll get ‘em!” Gahi said, striking out again with a dark tackle. He hit the wall.

    The outlaw was mere steps away from the exit. But then, Gahi got a lucky shot on his next run. He shook the dizziness away, spotted Aerodactyl, and ran. The orange blur was in front of the outlaw in seconds, blocking his way out.

    “How’d you—outta the way, peanut!” He opened his mouth and fired a volley of three rocks. Gahi dodged them all and countered with a solid strike with his massive head, square in the chest. This one left a bruise; the outlaw stumbled back, dropping the bag. In the amount of time he took to reach for it, Gahi took it and dropped it by Owen.

    Good, Owen thought. The outlaw would give up and run away, and he’d be safe. Then he could head home and take a nice, long nap.

    Instead, the outlaw roared and ran toward Owen.

    Weakened and immobile, he shut his eyes tight, waiting for the inevitable impact that would kick him out of the Dungeon. And then, despite expecting nothing of it, he prayed to Arceus that he’d be able to wake up afterward. But it never came. He heard an impact, but he wasn’t the one to receive it. He opened one eye.

    Demitri was standing in the way; he took the whole hit with one of his tusks. Miraculously, it didn’t break, but it looked like it hurt. The follow-up wasn’t any nicer—a strong jab to the side of Demitri’s body with his other wing—but he stood anyway.

    “Give it here, you—” Aerodactyl grabbed the bag. Owen didn’t have the strength nor reflexes to hang on. The outlaw turned around, sprinting for an escape.

    “Mispy! Now!” Demitri shouted.

    Owen had to shut his eyes again. He saw a blinding beam of light, and it was simply too much. He heard the Aerodactyl scream in fright, and then he heard the dull noises of punches and kicks and swipes. And then, panting. Gahi laughing. Demitri telling him to quiet down.

    Owen jumped when he felt something brush against his back.

    “Eep—! O-oh, it’s you,” Owen said, spotting Mispy, clearly the healer of the team. Her vines gently rubbed at his spine.

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

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

    That wasn’t a dream.

    Despite the healing, the phantom pain returned to him in an instant, and flashes of that past event clouded his vision. His muscles seized and his claws dug into the dirt, leaving tiny holes in the ground. Embers spilled from the sides of his mouth, and his eyes widened.

    One of Mispy’s vines slapped Owen on the forehead. “Stop that.”

    “B-buh—h-huh—” Owen snapped back to reality. “Wh-what happened?”

    “You’re fine,” Mispy said. “Shut up.” She pressed her vines against his back again and focused. Healing energy continued to flow into him, and Owen, after a few seconds of tension, managed to breathe easy. He shut his eyes, thinking happier thoughts, like when he had cut his arm on a rock when he fell, and how his mother used the very same technique to patch him up. Easy, easy… Finally, Owen could breathe easily again.

    “Nng, that’s the spot,” he said. “Was that Heal Pulse? You know Heal Pulse?”

    “Mm.”

    “Hey, uh,” Demitri said, rubbing his right tusk again. “Sorry about your bag.” He handed the tattered remains to Owen. “Most of the items got ruined from Mispy’s blast. But maybe there’s—”

    Owen grabbed the bag and rummaged through it desperately. “Ah!” He pulled out two items—his Provisionary Badge, and Nevren’s gift. There were a few other berries and orbs remaining, too, but those were much less important. “It’s okay. This is all I needed!”

    “Hey, we still messed up your inventory,” Demitri said. “How about we bring you back with us to our mentor’s place? He’s kinda good at repairing bags and stuff. Maybe he can patch it up?”

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

    Again?

    Owen’s own thoughts gave him another pause.

    “You okay?” Demitri asked.

    “Dazed,” Mispy surmised with a nod. She gave Owen a little smile.

    He stared at the three for an uncomfortably long time. Mispy shifted from her right feet to her left feet. Gahi clicked his jaws.

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

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

    “You’re weird,” Mispy said.

    “I—I kinda feel like we met before, too,” Demitri admitted. “That’s crazy! We must have good chemistry.”

    Gahi’s jaws opened and closed in contemplation. “Meh. Let’s go.”

    Owen rubbed his paws together to get off the dirt. “How’d you guys find me so quickly?”

    “Well, we saw a bunch of Paras and other wild Pokémon near the entrance, so we figured you were still going through the Dungeon,” Demitri said.

    A pit of guilt weighed on Owen’s stomach. “O-oh. They were still out of it? I didn’t—I wasn’t that hard on them, right? I didn’t…?”

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

    “W-wait, how badly were they—”

    “Aah, they’ll be fine. Wild Pokémon’re real resilient, I figure.”

    Demitri nodded and rummaged for their Badge. They walked to the exit of the Dungeon and finally passed through; their Badges all blinked in a slow pattern. The raised ground of rock, embedded trees, and dirt transitioned into an open woodland.

    “Made it,” Owen said, relieved.

    “Yeah. Let’s get out of here,” Demitri said. He pressed the little heart-symbol in the middle of the badge once, and the others did the same. In a flash of reddish-white light, the Badge transported the group out of the forest and to the center of town.

    <><><>​

    “Great work on apprehending this Pokémon, Hearts,” said a Watchog. “We will be sure to escort him away for his punishment.”

    “It—it was a setup! I swear!” Aerodactyl pleaded. He was still smoking from the Solar Beam, and his left eye was purple and shut completely from Demitri’s Dual Chops. “I didn’t mean to steal all those things! I was under Hypnosis! I’m—I’m a sleeper cell, secretly, eh, secretly I go crazy when my master wants me to! And, eh, and my master is right in that building, over there!”

    Owen didn’t even need his sharp senses to see that lie. Watchog, too, was unconvinced.

    “Hypnosis puts Pokémon to sleep. It doesn’t control them.”

    “Feh, quit yer lying,” Gahi said. “Pay yer dues and don’t do it again.”

    The Aerodactyl whimpered and ducked his head down, defeated.

    “Oh—um,” Owen spoke up, “I almost forgot, but, can I report something?”

    “Report? What else would you like to report?”

    “I don’t want to… I don’t want to make anybody feel bad, but there was this really weird, really muscular, really angry-looking Snorlax in the same Dungeon that I found Aerodactyl—um, what’s your name, Aerodactyl?”

    “Like I’d tell you,” he hissed.

    Owen flinched. “W-well… w-well, I just thought it was strange to see a Snorlax there.”

    “Hm, perhaps it was just your imagination. Were you hungry while fighting?”

    “Not really. I just finished an apple.”

    “Perhaps you were seeing things. Still, I will report it. Do not be worried. Strange Pokémon like those are seen in Dungeons all the time, and it’s nothing to be concerned with—so long as they don’t wander out of those Dungeons.” He mumbled the last part. “Eh—we let our Elite Hearts deal with them. Now then.” He looked at Aerodactyl. “We will be going.”

    And so, he was escorted away.

    “Hmm,” Owen watched. “What’s going to happen to him?”

    Demitri tapped his tusks thoughtfully, giving the top of a nearby building a pensive stare. “Well, he was wanted for theft. Targeted explorers and took everything they had on them. We actually took that Mission because he was said to be in the same Dungeon you went into. Sorta spelled bad news, when you put two and two together, y’know? Chances are he’s going to have to work his debts away to pay them all back. Maybe as a volunteer as a temporary rescue team member. I think they call ‘em Broken Hearts. Make a living. Then once he’s done, maybe he can continue that work with full pay.”

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

    “So, he pays back his debts, and gets a job in the process? I wish it was that easy for me,” Owen mumbled. “My dad wants me to be a berry farmer because my sharp senses would let me tell when they’re ripe or not.”

    “Goodra Anam says that a lot of thieves only do what they do because they don’t have the skills for anything else,” Demitri said.

    “Feh, I think they’re just weak-willed,” Gahi said.

    So,” Demitri continued, “what happens is they can contribute back to society instead of being worse than some random wild Pokémon. That make sense?”

    “Yeah! It totally does!” Owen said. “I can’t believe it’s so nice, though! I guess Anam is even better than I thought.”

    “Heh. Well, anyway, let’s show yeh ter our personal Waypoint,” Gahi said.

    “Yeah! And—oh.” Owen hesitated. “Actually, before we go, can we take the Waypoint back to the Dungeon again?”

    “Eh?” Gahi said. “What fer?”

    “Just to check on something.”

    <><><>​

    “Yer serious.”

    Owen had brought Team Alloy all the way back to the Dungeon’s distortion. They were careful not to pass through and enter it all over again, and in reality it wasn’t a very far walk thanks to the Waypoint set nearby, but for Gahi, it was already an inexcusable detour.

    “Yer coming all the way here just fer some random ferals?”

    “I didn’t think I’d do that much damage. You said they were pretty beat up, right? And Aerodactyl looked really hurt, too. Just… you know.”

    “Bah, he probably got roughed up by the recovery squad fer resisting arrest,” Gahi said. “C’mon, yer fire ain’t all that bad.”

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

    “Yeah, yeah.” Gahi clicked his jaws together impatiently. “Could be having dinner by now.”

    “C’mon, Gahi, he’s just worried.” Demitri picked at a bit of dirt between two of his claws. “It’s one thing to defend yourself, but I think Owen just wants to make sure he didn’t go overkill on it.”

    “K-kill, yeah,” Owen said, laughing hastily. “No need to go overkill.”

    Mispy closed her eyes, breathing out. “Ahead,” she announced.

    “Ahead?” Owen said, his eyes following the path for him. A small cluster of Paras skittered groggily about, each one with a burn here or there, some with their mushrooms looking particularly damaged or cooked. When Owen got closer, one of the Paras hissed and skittered away. The others did the same, almost in unison, and clustered together. Purple fog trickled out of their mushrooms, threatening to flood the arena if provoked.

    Owen’s flame blazed behind him, but he kept it hidden out of the ferals’ sights. He dug through his bag, slowly pulling out a Rawst Berry.

    “…Why’s a Fire carrying around Rawst Berries?” Gahi said. “You guys don’t get burns.”

    “Others do, though,” Owen said, taking a hesitant step forward.

    The Paras all hissed at him, poisonous clouds thickening.

    “D-do you guys have Pecha Scarves?” Owen asked.

    “Eh? Yeah, we’ve got one,” Gahi said. “…Wait. Aww, c’mon.” The Trapinch exasperatedly flung his huge head back.

    Mispy knocked a vine on top of Gahi’s back, giving him a firm stare. “Let him.”

    “B-beh, feh.” Gahi clamped his jaws shut tight. “That ain’t even enough, one lousy berry.” He watched Owen as Demitri handed the scarf over. Gahi growled and looked up at the trees. “We’re gonna be here all day if we just let him do his thing. Scalebag, go get more from that tree.” Gahi jerked his head above them. “Orans right up. I’ll help roll ‘em over.”

    Demitri nodded, scraping his tusks against the tree, as if sizing it up. “Yeah, that seems like I can knock a few down. It won’t startle them?”

    “Who caaares, they’re all bunched up! Oy, Owen! Back off a sec!”

    “Huh?” Owen glanced back just in time to see Demitri taking a few readying steps back. He backed away from the Paras, tugging at the scarf tied around his neck.

    “Hah!” Demitri sprinted toward the tree, ramming his head full-force against the trunk. The branched trembled weakly; the loosest berries fell to the ground. Gahi swiftly went beneath them, lifting and then lowering his head beneath the berries to slow the fall of one. The rest plopped on the ground, a few rupturing slightly from the fall.

    The Paras hissed again, thickening their poisonous fog. Mispy backed away with Demitri and Gahi, the fog getting a bit worrisome. Owen, in the middle of it, only winced at the pungent odor the fog gave out. Thankfully, with the scarf’s blessings, the effects stopped there. Owen gathered up most of the berries, enough to fill his arms, and then spun back to the Paras. By now, they seemed slightly puzzled, the fog around them dissipating.

    “I’m sorry I hurt you guys so badly,” Owen said. “I know I entered your territory, and I was just going on a fun exploration. I shouldn’t have been so careless about you guys. Just try not to attack randomly, alright?”

    “Torch, they ain’t gonna understand ya,” Gahi said. “Besides, yer scaring them. Gimme a scarf.” Gahi jerked his head at Mispy, who rolled her eyes and wrapped one around his abdomen. Protected, the Trapinch wobbled to Owen and said, “Look. You gotta keep yerself small. They’re already weak, so they ain’t gonna fight back. Just look small and offer whatever y’ wanna do, yeah?”

    Gahi rolled a berry toward the Paras horde. A particularly bold one skittered closer, snatching the berry away. It nibbled a few times, still tense, and eventually relaxed after Owen did. The Charmander smiled, showing his teeth—a small mistake, as the Paras hissed and skittered away again.

    “Good going,” Gahi mumbled.

    “Look, I’m not familiar with Paras, alright?” Owen rolled another one over. This time, a few more Paras leaked from the pile, nibbling at their offerings. And then a few more, and then more still, until the whole horde had gathered in front of them to feast on the bounty. Burns slowly reversed, cooked mushrooms simply looking a bit chipped. Dull light touched upon anywhere the burns had been, dimming when they were completely gone.

    “Happy?” Gahi asked Owen once the Paras accepted the group as safe enough to tolerate. “Looks like these guys are.”

    Demitri and Mispy, once they saw that the poisonous fog had faded, joined them to watch the feral Pokémon up close. It was almost calming to see the horde feed, watching the way their mandibles meticulously tore at the pulp. “You seemed kinda invested in this,” Demitri commented. “I mean, they probably could have just climbed the trees and gotten it on their own, y’know?”

    “Y-yeah, I know, maybe.” Owen watched a particularly small Paras wrestle with a particularly large berry, grinning—this time, without showing his teeth. “I guess I’m a little self-conscious about it.”

    “I guess y’did beat ‘em up kinda bad,” Gahi said. “Didn’t think they looked that bad when we passed ‘em by the first time. Maybe these’re just the ones that got roughed up the most.”

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

    Owen rubbed his head. Foggy as his memory was, Demitri did have a point. He hadn’t fought too many of them. He couldn’t have burned these all. Still, it was a good thing he came when he did. “Either way, I’m glad I came to undo some damage.”

    “What makes you self-conscious, eh?” Gahi asked.

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

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

    “He ain’t,” Gahi confirmed.

    Owen laughed weakly, but then continued to observe the Paras. The ones that had their fill skittered away thanklessly, while the more gluttonous ones remained to nibble on a few more. “Normal Fire isn’t the same way as Dragon fire,” Owen said. “It’s… untamed. Violent. Hungry. If I don’t keep it in check… I could do a lot more damage to innocent Pokémon than I need to.” Once the final few Paras left, Owen brought his tail forward and inspected the flame at the end. “I guess I just want to be careful. And if I slip up and get carried away… I want to make things right. That’s part of being a Heart, right? No fighting if you don’t need to.”

    Gahi said nothing. He opened his mouth, but then closed it, looking to Demitri and Mispy to say something instead.

    “Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself,” Demitri said, patting Owen on the shoulder. “Dragon fire can do some serious damage, too. If it gets caught on normal brush, it’ll become normal fire just from the heat. Ethereal or not, heat is heat. I guess I don’t have to worry as much since, er, I usually just use brute force…”

    Owen smiled, rubbing his nose. “Yeah, I guess that’s true. You seem like you’ve got a lot of muscle; may as well use what you’re good at. I’m a little on the scrawnier side.”

    Mispy smiled, sighing. “They’re gone,” she said, pointing a vine toward the departing Paras.

    “Yeah.” Owen stood up, his flame a cheerful orange. “Sorry for the detour. I’m ready to head to your guys’ place.”

    “Meh…” Gahi looked at the eaten pile of berries. “I guess it’s worth it.”

    <><><>​

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

    “Convenient,” Owen said. “And the Waypoint led us almost right to here.”

    “Yeah, all Hearts get that sorta treatment,” Gahi said. “Guess it’s a benefit fer working under the Hearts, keeping the world nice and safe.”

    “Yeah,” Owen said. “But, it’s just so cool! The way you guys just beat that Aerodactyl without any trouble!”

    “Well, there was a little trouble,” Demitri said.

    “Yeah, had ter keep yeh safe,” Gahi said. “But sure. No trouble.”

    “Mnn.” Mispy sniffed the air. She could smell dinner.

    “That smells good,” Owen said. “Umm—so, your mentor! How is he? What’s he like in person and stuff?”

    “Lucario Rhys is, uh, he’s nice,” Demitri said. “He just happens to also be really, er, strict, sometimes. You know. But it’s all part of being trained, right? I guess it’s not that bad.”

    “Jus’ wish he didn’t make us meditate all mornin’,” Gahi said.

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

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

    Mispy, too, was disappointed. “Boring.”

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

    “Oy, Rhys! We’re home!” Gahi said. “Mission went fine! Brought a guest!”

    “A guest?” Rhys said. “I should prepare another portion.”

    Owen ran to get a first look. And there he was: Elite Heart Lucario Rhys. His red eyes were intense, but Owen felt oddly safe when looking into them. His aura sensors—the strange, black, teardrop-like extensions behind his ears—were a bit larger than average.

    “H-hi!” Owen said. “It’s nice t-to meet you, Elite Heart!”

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

    “Rhys?” Demitri said.

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

    No, you weren’t, Owen thought. “Oh! Anything’s fine,” he said. “I promise! I’m good to eat anything as long as it isn’t dirt.”

    “Well, dirt ain’t how Rhys cooks,” Gahi said.

    “Yeah, Rhys is a good chef!” Demitri said. “You’ll love whatever he makes.”

    “Ha, okay.” Owen took in in the new environment. The immediate entryway was a short walk, perhaps only a few of his tiny paces. After the entryway was a larger, dome-shaped segment of the cave. The stone table in the middle of the room was where they ate; the edges of the room had equipment like a stone stove, cabinets, and shelves for storing nonperishable food. Owen was surprised at how elaborate it was. “You guys really have a lot of stuff here!”

    Rhys nodded. “With our earnings, we have been able to purchase a few luxuries.”

    Owen sat at the table. From where he was positioned, he could see further into the cave. It was like a hallway that split off into separate rooms. Four in total. One was the closest, forking to the right. This one led into a room that had a faint, white glow in it. None of the other rooms glowed. The second room was to the left, and two more were further in. Perhaps they were for each of the Pokémon that lived there. Owen deduced that the glowing one was Rhys’ room. What was in there?

    What Owen saw next made him rub his eyes. There was a cloud of some kind—a very fine mist, like a pinkish haze. It didn’t move with any breezes. Oh, no, Owen said. Now I’m starting to see things! Can anybody else—? Owen glanced at the others. Mispy’s leaf was twitching, like she had an itch. Demitri and Gahi were too focused on Rhys’ cooking.

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

    “Y-yes, Owen, why do you ask?”

    Owen looked at the pink cloud. Gone.

    “Nothing. Just tired. So, uh.” Owen grabbed his tail so he had something to do. “Team Alloy. That’s a pretty cool name.”

    “Alakazam Nevren helped us come up with it!” Demitri said. “It’s really cool. Something about how stronger metals are made from weaker metals working together. It’s awesome!”

    “Hmph,” Rhys said.

    “Heh, Rhys is mad ‘cause he didn’t say it first,” Gahi said.

    Owen giggled. He had to admit, it sounded clever. He certainly saw that kind of fighting in the Dungeon, too. They worked very cohesively. He wondered if he’d be able to contribute to a team like that…

    Out of the corner of his eye, the pink mist bobbed in and out of the room.

    Unable to contain himself, Owen asked, “Hey, so, is this cave haunted?”

    “Yes,” Mispy blurted.

    “Baah, no it ain’t,” Gahi said, waving his head dismissively. “You guys’re just superstitious. Sometimes the wind blows funny, that’s all. Mispy always gets like this.”

    “It’s true!” Mispy said.

    Gahi and Demitri both looked at the hall. The pink mist was gone.

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

    “Colors? Like pink?” Owen said.

    “Pink? No, usually greens and yellows,” Demitri said.

    Rhys sighed, pausing his food prep. “I am the one who is most in tune with the aura,” he said. “And I say that whatever phenomenon it is, it’s nothing to worry about. Now, enough talk of spirits. Dinner is ready.”

    And just like that, their idle talk about ghosts subsided. It must have been a common occurrence for it to be dismissed so easily, but Owen decided to put this piece of the puzzle in his mental notes.

    Rhys served out the food—a hearty stew, this time, filled with mostly savory items. Owen happily gobbled his portion; it reminded him of what he ate for breakfast. Breakfast… “Oh!” Owen suddenly said. “I—I totally forgot! My parents were gonna freak out if I didn’t get back before the evening!”

    Owen thought to use his Badge, but having just used it to return to the Central Waypoint in Kilo Village, it wouldn’t have the energy to warp him again until tomorrow. More importantly, he didn’t have a Waypoint registered for Hot Spot Cave—after all, if someone stole his Badge, they could theoretically warp right to that secret village. He’d have to use the public Waypoints instead, and then walk the rest of the way.

    “Oh, don’t worry,” Demitri said. “We’ll just bring you home instead! Your parents won’t worry too much, right?”

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

    “Uhh—well—too late now,” Demitri said. “We’ll just run really fast to get you there?”

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

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

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

    Rhys shrugged noncommittally. “Some areas enjoy privacy, I suppose. Don’t worry, Owen. But it’s still a bit unsafe to wander alone at night without supplies. Hrm, but your parents will still worry, won’t they?” Rhys hummed again, looking between the three members of Team Alloy. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to let you three go at a time like this.”

    This was his chance. “So, does that mean… you’ll be bringing me there, Lucario? Or, u-um, I can just go on my own.”

    “You may call me Rhys,” he said with a small smile. “And I would be happy to.”

    He would? Owen didn’t expect that to work. In fact, in hindsight, it felt forward, and rude. But there was an odd sort of familiarity that he felt with Rhys. Then again, aside from the Aerodactyl, that was how he’d been feeling all day. And Rhys seemed to know him, too, given how casually he spoke. He had heard from rumors that Rhys was usually incredibly stiff.

    “Okay—Rhys. Um, since you’re an Elite, I can trust you with a secret, right?”

    “Of where your parents live?” Rhys asked. “Revealing this to me will change nothing.”

    “Okay. Then after dinner, it’s really okay if…?”

    “Yes. It shouldn’t be a very long walk, yes?”

    “Nope! The Waypoint is really close.”

    With the thought that he’d be able to walk and talk with one of the best Hearts in the whole world, Owen ate the rest of his dinner faster than a Swalot.

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

    He then glanced at Rhys’ room. He saw the pink mist again. Oh, Mew in the stars, he thought, taking his final bite. Can’t I have just one normal day?
     
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