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Pokémon The Legendarian Chronicles

Chapter 35: The Indigo Rangers
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Everything finally starts to come together. We're so close--



    ~Chapter 35: The Indigo Rangers~


    The next few minutes passed by in a hazy whirlwind of light and sound and motion. First weightless free-falling, then the tingling prickle of a psychic hold against my skin. Then wings flapping and the feeling of being airborne again, this time in a smooth, straight flight rather than the frenzied zigzagging of trying to throw off pursuers. Finally, I found myself blinking slowly as my senses returned, feeling the wind in my hair and my arms still clasped around a warm, fluffy neck. A crown of red and gold feathers danced in my vision.

    “Swift?” I said, blinking. “Are you alright? I thought—” The last thing I remembered was him struggling to protect me from the Rockets, but then they double teamed us and knocked him out, and—

    The Pidgeot turned his head slightly to glance back at me. “*After Mew rescued us, your friends gave me a revive,*” he explained.

    Mew? And my friends…?” I lifted my head to see a pair of flying Pokémon soaring ahead of us. Ajia riding her Aerodactyl—Pichu on her shoulder—and Starr riding… a Dragonite? What? Where did the Dragonite come fro— But then my brain clicked into place. The Dragonite… it had to be Mew. Starr was riding Mew. What a bizarre thought.

    I shook my head to get my bearings and then glanced around to see that we were flying low over a series of forested hills, no buildings in sight. The Tohjo mountains were visible in the distance ahead of us, so we had to be flying west, with Indigo at our backs. But why…?

    “What’s going on? Why are we just leaving?” I asked, loud enough to be heard over the wind rushing past us.

    Ajia looked back at me, then gestured for Aerodactyl to slow up until he was flying right alongside me and Swift. “The Elite Four is handling the situation back there,” she said.

    I stared incredulously. The Elite Four were the ones who had confronted Moltres? I guess it made sense. They were the strongest trainers in all of Kanto. With their position, of course they’d be willing to put their lives on the line to protect the League. But still…

    “Look, I know they’re tough, but there’s no way they can beat Moltres,” I said flatly.

    “No, but they’re good enough to keep it busy without getting themselves killed,” she answered in a matter-of-fact voice.

    “Which is more than you can say,” Starr cut in.

    I bristled. Her tone had something of an accusatory edge to it.

    “Really, Jade, what the hell were you thinking?” she went on. “Fighting Raven and Ender by yourself? Are you insane?”

    I blinked cluelessly. “Was I supposed to know them?”

    “They’re only the new heads of the Kanto combat unit,” she said flatly,

    I jolted. I’d been fighting the combat unit heads without even knowing it? “How do you know that?”

    Starr froze, looking like she’d rather not answer. “I… might have asked Ajia. But it was obvious; they were second in command under me, so it’s no wonder they got the position after I left.”

    So I wasn’t the only one who had been curious about the goings-on within Team Rocket after we left. “Okay, well… anything I should know about them?” The following stream of obscenities told me I probably shouldn’t have asked. I glanced back at Ajia on my other side, still feeling rather lost about this whole situation.

    “So, we’re just leaving it up to the Elite Four then?” I asked, hardly daring to believe it. I’d never known her to back down from anything. Especially after becoming Mew’s chosen.

    “We’re not leaving it all to them, alright?” she answered. “We just need to take a moment to regroup somewhere safe and come up with a plan.” I blinked. That was an oddly terse response, coming from her, but… okay.

    The three flying Pokémon soared low above the treeline, continuing their flight west of the city. After a minute or two, something caught my eye on the horizon: a large, red-roofed building situated atop a rocky outcropping, with scattered Pokémon flying above it.

    “What’s that?” I asked.

    “That’s the Indigo Plateau ranger station,” Ajia replied.

    I wanted to ask why she’d brought us here, but the words somehow didn’t reach my throat. Fortunately, Starr was more than willing to.

    “Why did you bring us here?” she asked, not bothering to hide her suspicion.

    “Look we needed to get out of the city, and we’ll have an easier time planning if we—”

    “Whoa, hang on, what’s this ‘we’?” Starr cut in. “Jade and I aren’t a part of your rebel nonsense, remember?”

    Ajia groaned. “I’m not saying you are! Just trust me, okay?”

    Starr grumbled a bit but didn’t protest any more as the trio of Pokémon threw out their wings and prepared to land. We touched down in a large, gravel clearing in front of the building near a flagpole flying a stylized blue globe—the emblem of the Ranger Union. The building itself had a wide, stone base with a wooden, cabin-style upper level topped with red eaves. A squad of rangers was hurriedly assembling on one of the training grounds north of the base, mounting an assortment of flying-types—lots of Pidgeot and Fearow, but also Skarmory, Noctowl, and even Gliscor—all taking off for Indigo.

    I recalled Swift, Ajia recalled Aerodactyl, and Dragonite-Mew flew off into the forest. Ajia immediately began striding toward the building with an obvious sense of purpose.

    “So, I’m assuming you’ve been here before?” I asked, jogging to catch up. “If this was your go-to?”

    “Yeah, my dad works here,” she replied.

    I stopped, blinking with surprise for a second before continuing after her. I guess I did have the vague inkling that at one point I’d probably known that her dad worked for the Ranger Union… maybe? I’d just… managed to completely forget about it.

    I followed Ajia up a small set of wooden steps to the building’s front entrance, Starr dragging her heels behind us with a very deliberate air. Ajia was just about to open the door when it suddenly burst open, forcing us all to jump aside as a ranger bolted down the steps and took off for the training ground. Ajia gave an embarrassed half-smile before holding the door open for us. I stepped cautiously inside, immediately shuffling off to the side so I wouldn’t be in anyone else’s way.

    The main lobby was full of people, almost all of them wearing the iconic red jacket of the Ranger Union. The overall air was one of anxiety as the rangers rushed about their business, some of them giving orders to subordinates, others talking into handheld radios. I jammed my hands into my pockets, doing my best to merge with the wall, when suddenly, in the midst of all the noise, my ears caught the sound of someone calling out, “Ajia?!”

    I turned to see a ranger not much older than Ajia striding toward us with a look of recognition on her face. “What are you doing here?” the girl asked.

    “We had to get away from Indigo,” Ajia replied, folding her arms behind her back with a sheepish look. “Is it alright if my friends and I crash here for a bit?”

    The ranger glanced at us dismissively. “Long as they stay outta the way, I doubt anyone’ll mind.”

    “Great,” Ajia said brightly, turning around to face us. “Guys, this is my friend Kari. We met during that ranger internship I did two years ago.”

    Starr gave a curt nod that passed for a greeting, and I just sort of waved. Kari didn’t seem too concerned with the introduction and was now giving Ajia a glare that was half suspicious and half exasperated.

    “So you came here from Indigo, huh?” she said, tapping a finger against her belt. “Please don’t tell me you were fighting Moltres.”

    “Heck no, I’m not that crazy,” Ajia replied. I fought back a sudden desire to melt into the floor.

    Kari raised an eyebrow. “How ‘bout not mucking around in an emergency zone when we’re trying to clear out civilians?”

    Ajia gave a crooked grin. “Can’t promise that, I’m afraid.”

    “Oh my god,” Kari said, putting a hand to her forehead. “Glad to see you’re alright, at least. I’m sure your dad’ll be glad too—oh, speaking of—”

    I glanced over in the direction she had turned to see a short, balding, dark-haired man who had just exited one of the main offices, talking with a couple of other rangers at his side. The man’s eyes lit up, and Ajia didn’t hesitate to run over and throw her arms around him, oblivious to the rangers who had to jump out of her way.

    Man, it had been ages since I had seen Ajia’s dad. Not since the last time I’d stayed at her house back when we were both in grade school. That felt like an eternity ago with two completely different people, neither of whom were us.

    Ajia and her dad were talking animatedly about something, though I couldn’t hear them with how many other people were in the lobby right now. I tapped my foot against the wall, feeling somewhat out of place. Kari gave me and Starr the occasional sideways glance, like she wasn’t sure if she should wait here with us or leave and get back to whatever she was doing before we showed up. So I just avoided making eye contact and let my gaze wander over the rest of the lobby, settling on a healing station off to the left.

    …Aros was still injured and Chibi was out of power. And Swift could probably use some attention as well.

    “Is… is it okay if I heal my team?” I asked Kari.

    “We look like a Pokécenter to you?” she asked dryly.

    My face fell. I was just about to stammer out some kind of apology, but then she snorted. “Just messing with ya. Help yourself.”

    I blinked, but then didn’t waste any time excusing myself and weaving around the rangers in my path. I handed Swift, Chibi, and Aros’s Pokéballs to the ranger closest to the machine before rejoining Starr right around the same time as Ajia did.

    “Alright, my dad’s cool with us staying here. Come on, there’s a lounge this way,” Ajia said, gesturing for us to follow her. But then she paused, glancing at Pichu, who was still riding her shoulder.

    “You wanna go keep Dad company while we’re here?” she asked. Pichu, who had been looking a bit bored and anxious, immediately perked up and jumped down from her trainer’s shoulder, zigzagging around feet as she ran back to the office. Ajia smiled faintly as she watched her starter leave, then motioned for us to follow her again. I glanced back at Starr. She just shrugged, and the two of us followed Ajia down a relatively empty hallway off to the left.

    “So, your dad, is he…” I struggled to think of the right way to put it. “Is he gonna be flying into danger with the rest of them?”

    “No, no, he’s not a field ranger,” Ajia said quickly. “He’s an admin, he’s mostly in charge of organizing stuff here at HQ, assigning squads to the field, keeping track of who’s doing what, that sort of thing.”

    That was a relief. It just went without saying, at this point, that the two of us were bound to get dragged into Rocket business. But the idea of anyone else getting caught up in it unnecessarily just felt… wrong. Even adults whose literal job was helping out with emergency situations.

    “Does your dad know about…?” My voice trailed off as I failed to come up with the right words.

    Ajia gave a puzzled half-smile. “About what?”

    “I dunno…”—I gestured vaguely to all of her—“everything?” She laughed slightly, and I added, “You know… all the mortal danger and such.” I couldn’t have imagined my mom would have been remotely okay with anything I’d done on the Rebellion. And of course, I’d conveniently glossed over all of it during my phone calls.

    Ajia gave an awkward shrug. “Soooort of? He knows a couple of things I’ve been involved with. The time I helped you out at the plane crash, the attack on Viridian, where I got my Eevee pair from… Stuff like that. I’ve made it sound like unrelated incidents and not, like… some kind of Rocket-fighting agenda.” Even though it was, in fact, a Rocket-fighting agenda, in every sense.

    My attention was caught by my Pokégear buzzing from inside my pocket. I took one look at who was calling and was instantly hit with a bizarre mix of relief and guilt. Rudy. He was alright. But I’d completely forgotten about how we’d been split up, what with the panic of facing the executives.

    “Where the hell did you go?” his voice immediately demanded the instant I answered the call.

    “Are you okay?” I asked.

    “Yeah, yeah, we’re both fine, but never mind that, where are you?”

    I put a hand to my temple. “I’m at the ranger station west of Indigo. It’s a long story, can you meet me here?”

    Technically I wasn’t sure if it was alright to just invite other people here, but it was too late to take it back. And I really didn’t want to explain it over the phone. Fortunately, Rudy was the sort to jump first and ask questions later. “Kay, we’ll head over,” he said before hanging up.

    Well, at least that confirmed that Darren was alright too. But I was a little annoyed that, once again, running for my life had shoved everything and everyone else out of my head.

    Ajia stopped once we’d reached our destination, opening a door and leading me and Starr inside the lounge, which was currently unoccupied. It was a spacious room with several well-worn couches, a couple of snack machines, and tables covered in various books and magazines. Starr didn’t waste a second zeroing in on the closest couch and flopping onto it dramatically.

    “God. Can’t we have a minute of peace,” she muttered.

    I walked over, leaning against the arm of the same couch. “We had nine months of peace,” I said slowly, more to myself than to her.

    “Yeah, yeah,” she said, waving a hand like she didn’t want to hear it.

    Ajia had shut the door behind us and began pacing back and forth, lost in thought. I rubbed my arms, still feeling overwhelmed by everything that had happened today. And now that we were finally in a calm, quiet environment, the questions were starting to flood my mind once more.

    “I just… I don’t get it. Nothing about this makes any sense. Why are the Rockets doing this? And yes, I remember what Lexx said, but…” I trailed off, hoping one of them would say something to make me feel less lost. But neither of them did.

    Starr narrowed her eyes at me, and I suddenly became aware of the fact that I’d been staring at her. “What’re you looking at me for?” she asked.

    I fidgeted, unsure of how to put it. “Lexx said they were trying to stir up anti-Legendary sentiment. What did he mean by that?”

    Starr let out a deep sigh. “Look… he’s right about one thing: the Rockets want the League to fear the Legendaries. That way they can look like the good guys for catching them.”

    I gaped incredulously. “But they caused all of this by catching them in the first place!”

    Starr shrugged. “No one knows that. You see a bunch of crazy Legendaries trashing cities on the news, is some kinda brainwashing plot gonna be your first guess?”

    I opened my mouth to speak, but then froze. A strange and unexpected thought had suddenly taken hold in my mind. “Should we tell the League what’s going on? Like, all of it?”

    Starr snorted. “Yeah, like they’ll believe us.”

    “I’m serious. We could have Mew back up our story, and—”

    “Leeeet’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Ajia said, holding both palms out. “The Legendaries have good reason to want to play it safe right now. And Mew trusted me to keep her secrets.”

    Right. It wasn’t fair to make that decision for them. But still… if we could at least ask them about it someday…?

    Ajia glanced back and forth between me and Starr. “I’m going to talk with the rangers and figure out a plan. It is alright if I leave you two here?”

    I tilted my head, mildly puzzled by how abrupt that was, but I nodded all the same. Ajia turned her attention to Starr, but didn’t get a response. She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. Then she just went ahead and exited the room, shutting the door behind her.

    Starr and I were alone. And for some reason, I couldn’t help but get the feeling like there was a thick air of tension hanging over the two of us. I couldn’t quite put it into words, but it was definitely there.

    Starr let out a long, exasperated sigh, tilting her head so she could glance at me out of the corner of one eye. “So. You wanna explain?”

    I swallowed. Why did I already feel like I wasn’t going to enjoy what was coming. “Explain what?”

    She turned so she was now staring straight at me. “Oh, I dunno, why you were off fighting Rockets by yourself?”

    I felt my cheeks go red. Right. That.

    “I thought we were both done with that,” she said, eyes digging into me.

    “Look, I wasn’t looking for Rockets, okay? They found me,” I shot back.

    From the look on her face, Starr wasn’t convinced. And in the back of my mind, I knew that was a lie. My first instinct had been to figure out what the Rockets were doing and try to put a stop to it. Even if I’d gotten… momentarily paralyzed.

    Starr’s expression softened. “Jade. How many times have I told you I don’t want to fight Team Rocket?”

    I closed my eyes, gripping the edge of the couch. “I know. I know, I know.”

    She stared at me, her face deathly serious. “Do you know? Cause from the way I see it, the moment the Rockets show their face again, you’re immediately looking for ways to get yourself killed.” She clenched her fists, glancing away. “And… I know I should be there to make sure that you don’t. But I don’t want anything to do with this mess.” She screwed her eyes shut. A heavy pause followed. “But I can’t just let you get yourself killed either. Do you see the problem?”

    I swallowed. “Yeah.”

    It wasn’t like I wanted to throw myself into danger. I wanted so badly to ignore it. To pretend it didn’t exist. And yet I’d defaulted to the instinct that told me it was my job to do something about it. Of course, it hadn’t just been me. Chibi had been gearing towards it as well. But at the same time, I couldn’t pin this on him. Even if I didn’t think I’d ever understand how he still had that much determination, after what had happened that night.

    That night. I shuddered. My mind flashed back to it. Back to the night when Moltres had appeared over Midnight Island. I’d thought that I’d moved on. I’d thought that the things that happened last year were done and over with. In the past. I was starting to think that would never be the case.

    “Back there,” I said slowly. “There was a moment when… it was like I was back on Midnight Island, on the night of the attack.” I wasn’t sure why I was saying it; the words just came out of my mouth without my thinking about them.

    Starr sucked in a breath. I hadn’t meant to bring up something that had happened while she was still a Rocket. I knew she hated being reminded of it, and I was sure she was going to say so. But she didn’t. Instead, she stood up and walked over to me. I flinched. And then she grabbed my hand pulled me into a hug. I blinked for a moment, caught off guard, but then found myself slowly relaxing.

    “That’s… that’s in the past, okay?” Starr said. “We both said we’d help each other get past all that, yeah?”

    I exhaled slowly, holding tight. “Yeah.”

    For several seconds, neither of us said anything. I forced my eyes shut, willing my brain to block out everything else—the Rockets, Moltres, everything—and just exist here in this moment.

    After some time, Starr let go, glancing away. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said quietly.

    I shuffled a foot against the floorboards, struggling to think of what to say. But I couldn’t help suspecting that the longer we stayed here with Ajia, the higher the odds we’d get dragged into something we didn’t want any part in. And I just… I didn’t want my recklessness to hurt Starr.

    “I’m… I’m gonna go talk to Ajia. Gonna try to explain to her.” Explain what, I wasn’t quite sure. Just something. There had to be a way through this that wouldn’t leave me disappointing one of them.

    I left the room and glanced back and forth down the hallway. It was just dawning on me that Ajia hadn’t specified where she was leaving off to. I’d pretty much just have to explore the base until I found her. So I tried my best to stay glued to the wall and out of the rangers’ way as I wandered the halls. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to find my way back to the lobby, where I spotted Ajia pacing back and forth in a tight circle in the corner. Her expression brightened when she saw me approaching.

    “Ah, good timing, I was just coming to get you,” she said, giving a small wave. “Let’s talk outside, I don’t wanna get in anyone’s way.” She gestured to the door. I shrugged and followed her outside, down the wooden steps and around the cobblestone path that surrounded the building. Her movements were quick. Anxious, but controlled. Like her brain was moving at a million miles a minute, and she was struggling to keep up. Part of me couldn’t help suspecting that she’d led me outside in case she needed to say something that no one else should hear.

    “Alright, I’ve been talking with everyone else, trying to get an idea of the situation.” Her hands moved animatedly as she talked. “Sounds like Moltres is still raging, so we haven’t missed our opportunity or anything.”

    I blinked. “Huh?” I had the distinct feeling that I’d walked into a half-finished conversation without even knowing what the subject was.

    “The rangers are still busy with the evacuation, so that means we don’t have to worry about that. So we can just focus on the Rockets.” She tapped a fist to her palm like she’d just realized something. “You fought the combat unit head, right? Were you able to get any info?”

    From Ender? No, I’d been too busy trying not to get killed. Although… he had mentioned a few things. “He… did say that it was the kind of mission where he could have some fun, whatever that means.”

    Ajia paused, putting a hand to her chin. “Well, that does seem to confirm that this is just an attention-grab.” Her eyes darted to the wall that way they did when she was deep in thought. “That’s good because they probably won’t confront us when we head back to the tourney site. Though it might make it harder to draw them out. I’m working on a couple of plans, but it’s a lot to juggle. The rangers aren’t gonna like this…”

    I stared at her, a familiar feeling creeping up the back of my neck. One that I hadn’t felt since the night of the Viridian attack. Ajia was still pacing, still muttering various things under her breath, but I wasn’t paying attention to any of it now that I’d realized what was going on.

    I’d… I’d have to say something. But the idea of doing so was just so intensely uncomfortable that part of me was tempted to just go along with everything she said, without question.

    “You’re… you’re doing it again.”

    Ajia paused, giving me a confused look. “Huh?”

    I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to say this, I really didn’t. But it had to be said. “You’re just assuming that I’m gonna be a part of this. I haven’t agreed to it yet, so… it shouldn’t be a given.”

    Ajia’s face fell. She bit her lip, clasping her hands behind her back. “Right. I’m sorry.”

    That was it? That was all it took to get her to drop it? Something was up.

    Ajia took a deep breath, her eyes sliding to the ground to avoid making contact with mine. “Can I ask you something? Have you ever considered rejoining the fight?”

    I gaped at her. “What?” Why on earth would she ask something like that? “I spent five minutes in the fight just now and I almost died, what kind of question is that,” I said, feeling the blood rush to my face.

    Ajia looked mortified. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean it like that, I just…”

    “You just what?” I asked, my voice heating slightly.

    Her eyes darted to the side. “I just… this conflict has a way of dragging people in whether they like it or not. I’d… really prefer if we were ready for it, you know?”

    It was a hasty excuse. Not nearly as polished as her previous ones.

    “Alright, spill it, what’s going on,” I said flatly.

    Her brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”

    “You’re hiding something. Again.” The last word had deliberate emphasis.

    “I’m not trying to, I just…”

    I clenched my fists. “You just what? Why can’t you just be upfront, ever?

    “It’s because of Mew!” she exclaimed suddenly.

    I froze. Mew? Why on earth did Mew care if I was going to keep fighting the Rockets? The idea of a Legendary caring about human affairs still felt… really weird.

    “Mew… wanted me to ask you,” she said slowly, struggling through every word. “I didn’t want to, but… she insisted.”

    “Mew.” I repeated blankly. This was all happening because of Mew. In a way, it was a small comfort that Ajia wasn’t trying to drag me back into this of her own volition. It at least managed to clear the fog of hurt and betrayal from my head. But in its place, a wave of confusion swept in.

    “Mew wants me to help you,” I said, more to myself than to her. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why can’t you just get help from the other chosen?”

    Ajia paused, heavily considering her words, almost like she was grappling with them in her head. Finally she took a deep breath and quickly said, “None of the other patron legends have picked a chosen yet. I was the first.”

    I blinked at her, stunned. “What? Is that… okay? Aren’t they short on time? Aren’t things supposed to get worse soon?”

    “Yeah, they are. And that’s probably why Mew’s—” Her words cut off sharply mid-sentence. “I probably wasn’t supposed to—” Again, her words cut off. She stomped a foot to the ground and yelled, “I’m sorry, I know!”

    I paused, the gears slowly turning in my head. “You’re talking with Mew right now, aren’t you?”

    She massaged her temple. “Yeah.”

    I honestly had no idea what to say to that. It was slightly discomforting to know that she was privately talking about me with someone else while I was right here.

    “I’m sorry. It wasn’t right to lay all this on you,” she said heavily, staring downward.

    I frowned. It was obvious by now that she hadn’t wanted to, so… I wasn’t mad at her anymore. Now I was just lost and unsure of what I should be feeling.

    Ajia shook her head, letting out a deep sigh. Then she turned to leave.

    I grabbed her arm. “Wait.”

    “No, I need to go,” she said, still facing away from me.

    “Ajia…”

    But she had already run off, her footsteps echoing off the stone pathway. For several seconds, all I could do was stare after her, still processing what the heck had just happened. It felt like I was being torn in two different directions. On the one hand, Starr, who wanted nothing to do with this fight, and who would only be hurt by seeing me throw myself into it. And on the other hand, Ajia, someone who couldn’t walk away from it even if she wanted, who was now being pressured to drag me back in for unknown reasons.

    But now… I guess I had just made my choice. The best thing I could do now was let Starr know that I’d successfully managed to stay out of this mess. She’d be happy to hear that, at least. And it was what I supposedly wanted as well. So why didn’t I feel happy about it?

    My shoes dragged against the wooden steps as I slowly trudged back inside the ranger station. Starr wasn’t in the lounge anymore. She must’ve gotten bored and wandered off. Or maybe she’d gone looking for me and Ajia. Who knows. Well, I was already sick of this room, and the entire base was full of ambient anxiety from all the rangers mobilizing. Maybe I could go back outside and wait for Rudy and Darren to show up. At least then I’d have the fresh mountain breeze and the sounds of the forest to lose myself in. Anything other than being inside my head right now.

    I turned to leave, but the door shut by itself. What the hell? I was just about to reach out and grab the handle when I felt a small prickle on the back of my neck, the hairs standing on end.

    And then suddenly Mew was there, right in front of my face. I jumped back, stifling a yelp.

    “Mew?! Don’t scare me like that!” I blurted out, clutching a hand to my chest.

    The psychic cat folded her ears back, locking eyes with me. <I’m sorry. I just needed to speak with you.>

    It took me several seconds to process that. “Me, as in, just me. Not Ajia?”

    Mew nodded. <Just you.>

    I relaxed slightly but still felt tense, with swirls of confusion clouding my head. Why was a Legendary Pokémon taking the time to speak with a random human, especially at a time like this? I took a few slow steps over to the nearest couch and sat down, gesturing for her to follow me. The psychic cat drifted over lightly, her tail twisting and turning behind her.

    <So. How are you doing?> Mew asked.

    Why did she care? “I’m… doing alright,” I said warily, gripping the fabric of my jeans.

    <That’s good. Ajia was worried about you. She didn’t mean to cause you distress.>

    I paused, struggling to sort through the dozens of things I could say. “Ajia told me you’ve been asking her to talk to me about joining the fight again. I just… don’t get why.”

    Mew closed her eyes and turned away, clutching her tail with her paws and shaking her head ever so slightly. I wasn’t sure if I should be upset with her. Of course, I had to assume she had a good reason for pushing Ajia to say those things, but…

    Finally, the cat lifted her head and stared long and hard at me with her large, sapphire eyes. Her gaze was concerned, with a shadow of guilt mixed into it.

    <It’s important,> she just said.

    I frowned. What was I supposed to take from that? I’d been hoping for a better answer.

    “Look, if you want the truth, I don’t know if I can,” I said, unable to keep the heated tone from leaking into my voice. “After everything that happened, I don’t think I have what it takes to fight Team Rocket anymore.” Was I so sure of that? Was that just an excuse? I was disappointing Ajia by hiding from the fight, but I was disappointing Starr by throwing myself into danger anyway. And even if I ignored both of them, I still had no idea what the right path was.

    <It may not be possible for you to stay out of it for much longer,> Mew pointed out.

    I swallowed. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

    <Certain events that transpired last year may have altered your fate,> the legend said earnestly.

    I raised an eyebrow. “My ‘fate’? What are you talking about?”

    Mew paused, heavily considering her words. I couldn’t help noticing her eyes making the same tiny, darting motion that Ajia’s did when she was deep in thought. Were they… communicating right now?

    I felt a prickle of anger welling up, and I stood to my feet so that I was at eye level with her. “Why does it matter so much whether I’m involved in this fight or not? Why does everyone seem so invested in that? You can’t expect me to believe I’m that important. That my involvement is that necessary.”

    Mew fixed her eyes on me once again. <It’s not important for the sake of the fight, no. It’s important for your sake,> she said, her words strained.

    What? What was she talking about…? Important for my sake? So she wasn’t concerned about what would happen in the fight, but… what would happen to me? Why?

    Mew shook her head, glancing away. <I’ve said too much.>

    My pulse quickened. “No, Mew, hang on, what are you saying?”

    <I can’t…>

    “Are you saying that something bad’s gonna happen to me if I don’t join the fight?”

    <No, that’s not—>

    “What do you know?!”

    <Listen to me,> she snapped, staring me dead in the eyes with a desperate look. <I cannot say anything to influence your decision. This is up to you. Whatever happens, I have to trust that you will know what is right for you.>

    What on earth was Mew talking about? Know what was right for what?

    “Okay…?” I said slowly, still completely lost.

    And then Mew took my hand and began to glow.

    I flinched. “Mew?”

    In a flash, our surroundings melted away, instantly replaced with darkness. I jumped back from Mew like my hand was on fire, throwing a hurried glance at my surroundings. But I couldn’t make anything out. Slowly, my eyes slid back to Mew, a feeling of incredulous dread rising in my throat. She gave me one last desperately sad look and then vanished.

    “Mew!!”

    My voice echoed off the walls. But she was gone. I was alone.

    I took a few slow, shaking steps. The floor was made of rough, uneven stone, I could tell that much. And then my eyes slowly began adjusting to the semidarkness. I was in a small, wet cavern, the rocks glistening with water and glinting with the light of… something, though I couldn’t really see any light source. I could hear the sound of water crashing down behind me, and I turned around to see a large, crystal-clear pool filling half the cavern, fed by a wide, curving waterfall that covered most of the far wall. Then the rest of my senses returned; I shivered and rubbed my arms, overtaken by a sudden chill.

    “She teleported me…” I whispered to myself, “…but why?”

    My eyes slowly traced the walls. Wet stone surrounding all sides, with no openings. The waterfall had to flow in here from somewhere, but I had no way of climbing it.

    “I’m trapped,” I muttered in disbelief. “She’s trapped me here alone with no way out…?”

    And then a voice—a chillingly bitter telepathic voice—resounded in reply, <I wouldn’t say that you’re alone.>

    An overwhelming pressure gripped me from all sides, and my body instantly went numb. Not that voice. Anything but that voice. It cut through me like a knife, sending my mind reeling back to that fateful day when I made the biggest mistake of my life. It was the voice that had haunted all my nightmares since then—one that I’d desperately hoped to never hear again.

    From deep within the pool of water, two eyes, radiating blue, pierced the darkness with an icy stare that seemed to bore right through me. The glow illuminated the creature’s face, revealing a sleek avian head with a mouth curled into a smirk.

    <Welcome, human. Are you ready to face the consequences of the day we last met?>






    ~End Chapter 35~

    Next Chapter: It's all been leading to this.
     
    Chapter 36: The Guardian of the Waters
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    This is it. The chapter it's all been leading to. I never made it this far in the old version. I've been waiting so long. But now it's finally time.



    ~CHAPTER 36: THE GUARDIAN OF THE WATERS~


    My breathing was shallow and my heart was pounding. I couldn’t move; I was frozen on the spot, barely able to think.

    Lugia called me here to kill me. That was the only thought my brain felt like generating, and it repeated it over and over again until I felt like I was going to be sick. The Legendary dragon-bird slowly emerged from the pool in front of me, trails of water streaming down silver feathers, eyes glowing blue with psychic energy. I’d seen it countless times in my nightmares, but here it was, in front of me, for real.

    I clenched my fists, swallowing hard. This was just like last time. Not like the Rocket conflicts, not a struggle for survival. There was nothing I could do. Nowhere to run, no way to fight back. Helpless. I might as well have already been dead.

    But somewhere deep within the spiraling vortex of fear and panic, there was a tiny voice arguing that this didn’t make any sense. Why now? Why after so long? Why had Lugia let me live in the first place? Why was Mew in on this? Too many questions, my head was going to burst.

    Lugia raised a brow. <No response? Are you content to allow fear to control you? How pitiful.>

    I bristled. Had to do something, anything. I clutched at a Pokéball and held it up, my arm shaking. I’d battle. Yeah, that was it. We’d battle, and we’d… well we wouldn’t win, but we’d find some kind of opening that would let us escape. Any way out. We had to. The vaguest notion of how unrealistic this plan was prodded at the back of my mind, but I didn’t care.

    Lugia’s eyes narrowed. <A battle. You want to battle. That’s… amusing.>

    My fingers gripped the ball so tightly I could feel my pulse through them.

    The dragon-bird tilted its head ever so slightly. <But then… perhaps it’s a good sign that your first instinct is to fight.>

    I paused. Confusion drifted to the front of mind. But it felt more… puzzling than the barrage of panicked, unrelenting questions from before. Had… had Lugia been trying to get a rise out of me?

    But then… then the sights and sounds of what happened last year hit me in the face like a truck. I was standing in a grassy field, lit by moonlight and the glow of Viridian City on fire. I saw Lugia, but it was no longer standing in front of me, but rather, looming high above me, mouth curled into a smirk, eyes flashing hatefully as the psychic energy tore through my body. A sudden jolt of nausea overtook me, and I was sure that I’d been hit with the attack for a second time. But no… Lugia hadn’t done anything. Yet again, I’d been dragged back to what happened last year. Why did this keep happening. Why. Why. Why—

    <Are you quite done with your meltdown? I haven’t got all day.>

    The words snapped me back into reality. I was here, right now, standing in front of the Legendary in a water-filled cavern. The attack in Viridian was last year. I had to focus on the now.

    “What do you want with me?” I croaked.

    <For starters, I’d like you to pull yourself together.> It almost sounded annoyed.

    A surge of anger shot through me, shoving the terror aside. “Stop toying with me! You called me down here in order to get revenge, right? Are you gonna taunt me some more or just kill me outright since it didn’t work last time?”

    For some time, the Legendary gave no sign that it had heard me. I stood there, fists clenched, breathing hard, waiting for its response. It was like nothing existed here but us—we might as well have been in total, crushing silence.

    <Are you under the impression,> Lugia began slowly and menacingly, <that I tried and yet failed to kill you on that day?>

    I froze, lost for words. It had sounded almost offended by what I’d said. For so long I’d wondered how I survived, and the only one I could talk about it with, the only one who even knew what had happened, was Chibi. But he hadn’t seen how it ended. I’d replayed it in my mind, over and over, unwilling to accept that the Legendary had just decided to let me live of its own volition. It didn’t make any sense. Not after I’d seen the unbridled fury in its eyes.

    “I… I didn’t think—” I started.

    <That much is evident,> Lugia cut me off. <But had you given it a second thought, it would seem obvious—even to you—that had I really wanted to, it would have been all too easy.>

    “I know that!” I exclaimed, a wave of heated frustration washing over me. “And after today, what does it matter?!” It was like talking to someone who had a knife to my throat. I was trembling, muscles shaking no matter how hard I told them to stop. No matter how badly I wanted to appear unmoved by my total lack of control over the situation.

    With a reserved tone of voice, the dragon-bird replied, <If you must know, I had Mew call you here today because I wished to speak with you in private.>

    I took a step backward, muscles relaxing ever so slightly. It just wanted to talk? I couldn’t remotely expect it to be a pleasant conversation, but… alright. I could handle that. But still… why had Mew looked so anxious about sending me here? And why couldn’t I shake the feeling that I was still in danger?

    <Now is not the time to dwell on past events,> Lugia went on, waving a wing dismissively. <My concern is the here and now. Mew tells me that you think you can stay out of this war, even after all that has happened.>

    I blinked. That wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all. “Why do you care if I’m involved with the war against Team Rocket? Why the hell would it matter to you?”

    <As a matter of fact…>—Lugia’s words were quiet and meticulous—<it matters a great deal. The actions and attitudes of all the humans who have opposed the so-called Team Rocket are very relevant to the Order’s interests. I was told you had read the words inscribed upon the ruins of Midnight Island. Or did they slip your mind?>

    I stared, still trying to work through the conversation taking such a bizarre turn. “What, the thing about seven Legendaries making an alliance with humanity? Don’t tell me you’re one of them?”

    Eyes narrowed, Lugia replied, <And what if I am? Is that so hard to believe?>

    I paused. My mind pulled up the image of the silver bird soaring high over Viridian City, firing off brilliant orange beams that tore through whole city blocks at once. That wasn’t the image of a guardian who’d been tasked with keeping balance in the world. But I didn’t exactly feel comfortable saying that.

    “No… I guess not.”

    At my words, Lugia gave a sort of self-satisfied nod. <Good. Now pay attention. The conflict between human and Legendary has been steadily worsening the past few years, and it is likely to reach all-out war by summer’s end. There are those on either side who have dedicated themselves to preserving the balance. But that alone is not enough. Two sides working separately toward the same goal are unlikely to succeed. But together… they might have a chance.>

    My eyes widened, and I dared to let a glimmer of hope rise within me. “You’re talking about the alliance, right? Are the Legendaries going to help form a new resistance against the Rockets?”

    <No. I do not trust human organizations.> My face fell immediately. Lugia continued, <The potential for conflicts and schisms and betrayal is too high. It was already disastrous for one of our number who rushed in too soon after several humans betrayed the Rockets two years ago. Some of our order—like Mew—are willing to take that risk. I am not.>

    What was it talking about? One of the Legendaries had tried to ally with a human before Mew? And it had backfired?

    “So… if you don’t want to join us, then how are you supposed to form the alliance anyway?”

    Lugia paused, shifting its wings while it considered its words. <The alliance between human and Legendary is intended to be between individuals, not just the two sides overall. It was believed that this would allow a more unified core when that alliance is put to the test.>

    I nodded. “You mean like Ajia and Mew, right? I heard her referred to as being ‘chosen.’ But… I thought that meant, I don’t know… that she had some kind of destiny in all of this? And it seemed to fit in with the prophecy, so—”

    With a scoff, Lugia said, <I’ve never put much stock in ‘destiny.’ Fate is nothing; action is everything. Your friend took action toward protecting the balance, and Mew selected her as a result. It’s as simple as that.>

    I sighed, running a hand down my face. Alright, it clearly didn’t intend to explain anything more than the bare minimum. And I had to stop thinking about the legend like a prophecy, because it obviously wasn’t. So… seven individual humans would get chosen because they had protected the Legendaries. And none of them were predestined. And it was based solely on their actions.

    But why was Lugia telling me all of this?

    Unless…

    I stared at the silver Legendary in wide-eyed horror, unwilling to believe it. It couldn’t be possible. It couldn’t be…

    “So… so you’re saying…” I swallowed hard and continued, “that I’m chosen? Even after what I did?”

    <Perhaps moreso because of what you did, among other things. You have connected yourself with the legends as few others of that rebellion have,> the dragon-bird answered.

    Because of it? Why in the… how—” I struggled, the full effect of what I’d just been told hitting me in the chest like a truck. This didn’t make any sense. Lugia was supposed to hate my guts—why else would it have done… that? But now it wanted me to be its chosen and this didn’t make any sense.

    Lugia closed its eyes in frustration and said, <Let me explain this as simply as I can. You are an interloper. You have no inherent significance in the legends, but your interference in the conflict between human and Legendary has forced you to become a part of them. The seven patrons of the Order are obligated to seek out those interlopers deemed to have the strongest connection to both the conflict, to the other interlopers, and to themselves.”

    My stomach had melted away to nothingness. “And I’m one of them. I’ve helped save Legendaries. I’m friends with a bunch of others who are also involved. There really is no way I can escape from that mess, is there?”

    <I doubt it. Unless you are willing to allow your allies to risk their lives while you save yourself,> Lugia said, giving me a rather disgusted scowl.

    “Of course I don’t want to do that! I just… I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Ever since the rebellion ended, I feel like I kind of… broke something. Like I couldn’t fight them anymore, even if I wanted to.” I stared at the floor miserably, my face burning. There, I’d said it. I couldn’t tell Ajia, but I’d told a freaking Legendary that had tortured me.

    Lugia’s expression softened. <In the end, it is your choice. I cannot force you. You’re connected to the conflict whether you like it or not, but your role in the legend is up to you.>

    I glanced up at the dragon-bird incredulously. That was a weirdly… understanding response it had given me. “I don’t get it. How do I have a choice?”

    <Simple. I cannot be your patron if you refuse. I would then select another.>

    “And you really have to pick a human to side with?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

    Lugia let out what almost sounded like a growl. <I do not wish to go against the instructions given to the Order so long ago. Neither of our sides can prevail without the other. That much is obvious, from what we’ve seen of the conflict thus far.> It winced slightly, as though the admission was painful. <In particular, Mew seems to believe we will fail if we do not embrace our human allies. And of course, the humans will fail without our strength.>

    It was such a weird thing to consider—that Legendaries could actually benefit from having humans on their side. But then… in this sort of fight, there were a lot of advantages to being human, weren’t there? We didn’t have a humongous target on our back just from being spotted anywhere. We could sneak into Rocket bases, gather information, avoid traps, figure out the Rockets’ weaknesses… Not even Mew could get into a Rocket base undetected—not without help.

    <So. What will you do?>

    I froze. This had all happened so suddenly—I wanted more time just to process all of it. But then… I’d already spent all day agonizing over whether or not I should help fight the Rockets. And even throughout the past nine months… I’d always felt like I was hiding from it all.

    “This agreement… it’s not something that can ever be taken back, can it?” I asked slowly, my voice shaking. “I’d basically be saying that I’ll fight with you until we put things right for good, wouldn’t I?”

    <The alliance requires patron and chosen to have their spirits physically bound together. So yes, I would say this is kind of a long-term commitment,> Lugia said dryly.

    Right… I should have figured as much. Part of me always knew that I’d be drawn back into the fight whether I liked it or not. But then… if it really was inevitable, wouldn’t it be better to have a Legendary Pokémon on my side? Wasn’t that the best possible way to survive the war and protect everyone else?

    I took a deep breath. “Alright. I’ll do it.”

    Lugia’s piercing gaze seemed to bore a hole right through me. It motioned for me to step forward, and I did. My legs no longer dragged like lead as I moved them—already it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from me.

    The avian dragon craned its long neck down until it was eye level with me, and for the first time I was struck by just how huge the Legendary was. Its head was small in comparison to its body, yet even that filled my entire field of vision as Lugia stared at me intently.

    <This decision cannot be made lightly, and it absolutely must be your choice. Do you swear to fight alongside the Order of Legends to protect the balance of the world?>

    The words echoed within me, sending my mind back to that day. The day that Stalker asked for my agreement to join the Rebellion. This was the same as that, wasn’t it? I had been uncertain at first, but then knew that it was something I had to do, for myself. This was no different.

    I nodded forcefully. No turning back.

    Lugia pressed its forehead against mine, and then the world came apart.

    A blindingly bright flash of light shattered my field of view as a wave of psychic energy shot through my entire being. I was ripped apart, flipped inside-out, put back together, and then shredded once more, over and over into infinity. What felt like white-hot metal coursed through my veins, dissolving any and all sensations in a spiraling vortex of pain. And then my brain split open, unleashing a torrent of images from the past year. All of my panic, all of my uncertainty, every hesitation I’d ever felt from the moment the fight began suddenly bombarded my mind simultaneously, fighting for dominance.

    It was too much. Too much failure and misery and despair at once. Impossible to sort though. And with each memory, the agony only twisted into me more and more like a burning spear. The ambush on Midnight Island, countless rebels brutally murdered. Trapped in the Rocket base with no way out, staring down death in the form of Mewtwo. The horrible mistake of using the Master Ball. Lugia flying high above me, glaring murderously, ready to end me.

    No. No, I’d already had to endure all of that. I had already survived all of that! Not again! I wasn’t going to run away anymore!

    I reached out blindly, but I couldn’t feel my body anymore and my limbs didn’t exist. Still desperately trying to claw my way out of the whirlwind, still feeling the tendrils of despair licking at the edge of my consciousness, I suddenly realized that I had actually grabbed hold of something. And that’s when I felt it. A vision of Lugia’s eyes radiating an aura of sheer calm that didn’t seem possible. It swept over me, engulfed me, and let my resolution bubble to the surface, unhindered.

    I was going to fight alongside the Legendary Pokémon, and we were going to prevent the conflict between human and legend from escalating to all-out war. This was actually happening, and all of my uncertainty was meaningless now. I had made my decision!

    And then my senses snapped back into focus in an instant. I was standing in the cave once more—no, kneeling—Lugia’s face still directly in front of me, still wearing that expression of pure calm that had dragged me free of the nightmare. I was holding tightly to its eye crests, almost hanging from them at this point. The legend didn’t seem to mind.

    <It is done,> Lugia said. <You are marked. The two of us, legend and human, are one.>

    I let go, allowing myself to slump to the floor, utterly drained. I sat there for several seconds as a light, airy tingling started building in my fingertips. Weird. I was pretty sure my legs weren’t going to obey when I tried to stand up, but then… it suddenly felt as though my entire body had become weightless. Was it an actual feeling, or just the contrast from the crushing weight of despair being lifted? I couldn’t tell.

    “What… what actually happened there?”

    Lugia hesitated. <It’s been described as our fates being intertwined. Obviously it’s something more real than that, but I don’t know what the actual process physically entails.> The last bit sounded uncomfortable to admit.

    I nodded distantly, not really keen on relaying what I’d just experienced. It stared at me for a few seconds, but then seemed to realize that I wasn’t going to share the details, because it drew itself back up to full height and went on, <Right. So… about being chosen. I should tell you what some of the unique effects are. All chosen and patrons have a psychic link that allows them to communicate mind-to-mind, regardless of distance. We’ll also be able to feel each other’s presence—since I’m already a psychic, I can feel yours through the link, but it might take you a while to do the same.>

    “Presence?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

    <Condition. Energy. The state of your mind. For example, if you die, I’d be able to sense it from not feeling your presence.>

    Great. Just what I needed.

    Lugia’s expression sharpened as it pondered what to say next, tail swishing back and forth. <Be extremely careful who you tell of this—you cannot know who to trust unless they themselves have sworn a pact as well. Even your fellow rebels could be targeted by the enemy in the hopes of getting to you.>

    I paused, shuffling a foot against the rock. “But I can tell Ajia, right?”

    <Correct. You already know she is chosen anyway.>

    That was a relief. I couldn’t imagine going through something like this and not being allowed to tell anyone. It must have been maddening for Ajia to endure that last year—constructing that whole elaborate plot to free Starr and Mewtwo, and not even allowed to explain how it was going to work. Having to trust that I would just go along without question.

    “She tried to keep it a secret from me,” I said slowly, rubbing one arm with the other. “Did the fact that I knew about her being chosen have anything to do with why you picked me?”

    <Yes, that was… a factor. Remember that I said the strongest candidates for chosenhood would be connected to other interlopers.>

    There was that hesitation again. And there were still a few more details that didn’t quite add up. I squinted at the legendary and asked, “Why did Mew look so… down about sending me here?”

    Lugia turned away, as though it had been hoping I wouldn’t ask. <Mew was… concerned for you. You had far too much knowledge of the legends and the patrons for someone who I didn’t think could be chosen, not to mention you were closely acquainted with Rockets who have captured some of our kin. I was certain I’d have to kill you for these things, as well as for that capture last year, but Mew was the one who suggested that I might reasonably be able to choose you instead.>

    I didn’t know how to respond to that. Lugia had looked genuinely upset about it too.

    <Also… there is the choosing itself,> the dragon-bird continued, pawing at the stone floor. <It has to be of your own choice. So of course, if you knew you might die otherwise, your consent would have been forced, and the pact would not have worked. And with how conflicted you were about joining the fight… the pact might have failed anyway if your resolve wasn’t strong enough. It might have torn your soul apart. There were a lot of risks. Again, you have Mew to thank for convincing me to go through with it.>

    I shivered. Well that wasn’t a pleasant thought. But it was over and done with now. No point dwelling on what could have been. Although… there was still one last thing that had been bothering me all this time, and this was as good a time as any to learn the truth.

    “Was Mew the reason that you didn’t… that night in Viridian… you didn’t…”

    <Mew convinced me to spare your life, yes.>

    And there it was. The answer to the maddening question that had hung over my shoulder for nine months. In the end, it was as simple as that.

    <I am glad they did,> Lugia went on. <It would have been difficult to find another candidate with as strong a connection as yours.>

    That was a weird sentiment to hear from it. I mean, yes, it was purely a practical concern. But before that, it had sounded genuinely glad that it hadn’t needed to kill me, which was still so surreal after… after what it had done that night in Viridian. My mind had basically split the Lugia from that night and the Lugia standing before me into two different people just to have any semblance of being okay in its presence.

    <I will inform Mew,> Lugia announced suddenly. It craned its long neck upward and opened its beak, letting out a shrill cry that echoed throughout the cavern. “*Mew! It is done!*”

    Mere seconds later, Mew appeared in a flash of light, glancing around frantically until her eyes landed on me.

    <She has agreed?> Mew asked, throwing an anxious look at Lugia.

    <The pact is complete… we are linked,> Lugia answered with a reserved tone. But then the slightest trace of a grin crossed its face.

    And then in an instant, Mew’s eyes lit up and she swooped down right in front of my face, looking absolutely overjoyed.

    <That’s wonderful!> she cried, grasping my hand with both paws and squeezing it tightly. The psychic cat made eye contact with me, and her expression softened. <I know I shouldn’t sound so pleased that you’ll be following such a dangerous path. Or that anyone should, but… I’m just so glad it worked.>

    “Why?” I found myself asking. Why did a Legendary Pokémon care about the wellbeing of a single human? This was still so weird.

    <Why?> Mew repeated blankly. <You are one of my chosen’s closest friends. I couldn’t bear to hurt her.>

    Oh. Right. Yes, that made sense. Why was I reading more into it than that?

    <I imagine you must still have many questions,> Mew said with a sympathetic smile.

    I laughed slightly. “You can say that again.” Although one in particular had decided to surface in my mind, now seeing two of the patrons side-by-side…

    “Who are all the patron Legendaries, anyway?” I asked.

    Lugia blinked in surprise, then gave Mew an imploring look. She glanced back at it, nodding. The dragon-bird then said, <You already know Mew and myself. There is also Ho-oh, Raikou, Suicune, Zapdos, and Moltres.>

    I tilted my head. “So you’re all guardians of Tohjo? Is that… important?”

    <We’re not sure why,> Mew said simply. Lugia narrowed its eyes slightly, but didn’t comment. I wasn’t really sure how it was possible for them to not know. After all, weren’t they all pretty open with each other about this stuff? At least, it had seemed like it.

    “So… which of them have already chosen a human?” I asked.

    Lugia made a slight huff that I took as a sign of disapproval. <Out of respect to them, I will refrain from answering.>

    I frowned. Okay, I hadn’t realized that was an invasive question. Except… the moment I gave it even a second thought, the answer became obvious: Ajia had already told me she was the only one.

    Mew had clearly pieced that together. <She already knows.>

    Lugia glanced away, looking mildly annoyed. <Alright, fine. Mew and I are the only ones, yes.>

    In other words, I was the second chosen. What a strange thought. For so long I’d assumed that there were a bunch of other people out there allied with Legendaries, and that Ajia had been doing secret chosen missions with them. But no. It was just us.

    And then the glaring red flag jumped out at me. “Wait… Raikou and Moltres. Both of them have been captured. How is that going to affect us?”

    <Yes, that is going to be… a problem,> Lugia said, nodding slowly. <That is the reason that I didn’t wait to choose you. With the Rockets stepping out of the shadows in such a big way, we decided to accelerate our plans.>

    I stared at it, perplexed. What did it mean by that? What plans?

    Mew’s gaze turned steely. <We want to use this opportunity to free Moltres.>

    My mouth fell open. “What? How?”

    <We still have yet to work out all the details, but the input from our human allies will be critical,> she explained. <I’ll be speaking with Ajia at length after I return you to the ranger station.> Oh right. I had somehow forgotten that she had teleported me here to begin with.

    “Where are we, anyway?” I asked, glancing around the cavern.

    <Underneath the Whirl Islands, in Johto,> Lugia said, gazing upward with an odd sort of fondness in its eyes. <It’s one of many places that I call home.>

    Those rumors that we’d all heard as kids… that Lugia had been spotted by the Whirl Islands. They were actually true. There was something weirdly comforting about that. It made interacting with the Legendaries feel less otherworldly, knowing that ordinary people saw them from time to time.

    Mew glanced back at Lugia. <I believe that’s everything for now?>

    The dragon-bird nodded. <Everything else can be handled long-distance.>

    Mew turned back to face me, fixing her clear blue eyes on me. <I can take you back now,> she said, holding out her tail.

    That… sounded nice. With all the fear and adrenaline having worn off, the cold, wet atmosphere was becoming more noticeably unpleasant. Mew offered her tail to me, and I held onto its tip. Our surroundings melted into shimmering light, then just as suddenly, we were back in the ranger station, like nothing had ever happened. It was wild to think that for the past half hour or so, I’d been clear across Johto, and now I was suddenly back in Kanto, back in the middle of the crisis hanging over Indigo. I never, ever would have expected half of the things that had already happened today. And the day wasn’t over yet. Not even close.

    The weight of it all was starting to press down on me from all sides. A pressure building in my head suddenly flared up, and I couldn’t help rubbing my eyes in an attempt to relieve it.

    <We’re glad to have you. And that includes Lugia, even if they won’t show it,> Mew said earnestly.

    I paused, swallowing hard. “It’s a lot to take in,” I admitted. “What do I do now? Am I supposed to just go back to what I was doing before?”

    Mew fidgeted with her tail. <I can’t really know how this must feel. Do you want to talk to Ajia?>

    I inhaled deeply. “Yeah. That’d be great.”

    Mew’s expression relaxed. <All right. I’ll tell her to come here.>

    And then Mew vanished, leaving me alone with nothing but my thoughts and the overwhelming feeling that my life was never going to be the same again.






    ~End Chapter 36~

    And with that, we're finally, finally into the real meat of this fic.

    Next Chapter: The power of friendship or something.
     
    Chapter 37: Combined Strength
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 37: Combined Strength~


    I didn’t have to wait long. I had just flopped onto the couch, feeling an unbelievable wave of tension leaking from my muscles, when the lounge door flew open and Ajia rushed in. She paused when she reached me, clasping her hands behind her back.

    “Mew told me that you were talking with Lugia.” She paused. “How did it go?”

    There were a dozen things I could have said. A dozen ways to explain the ridiculous rollercoaster of emotions I’d just gone through. But all I did was open my mouth and say the two words that summed it up best: “I’m chosen.”

    At once, her entire face lit up. “I knew it! Yes! That’s amazing!” she said, flopping down on the couch next to me. But then a look of realization came over her, and she added, “At least… I think it is. I know you wanted to stay out of this mess, but…” She gave a bit of a confused laugh.

    I smiled weakly. “Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it too. It’s… a huge responsibility.”

    Ajia nodded slowly. “But… it also helps having someone at your back through it all.”

    Someone at your back… It was easy to forget that through everything that happened last year… all those times she’d shown such impossible willpower… she wasn’t alone. How many difficult times had she needed to rely on Mew’s support?

    “When were you chosen?” I asked.

    She rested her chin on her palm. “It wasn’t long after the revolt, so… two years ago.” Her voice held an air of disbelief, like she was amazed that it had already been so long. “The resistance had broken apart after our falling-out with the commander, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any more connections within Team Rocket, Sebastian had just flat-out told me I was a tool, and I didn’t have any power to make a difference in the fight anymore.”

    I hesitated, unsure of how to word my next question. “Was… was it painful for you too? Being chosen?”

    Ajia nodded slowly. “It’s a test of resolve. All of the negative emotions connected to the fight, all at once. You’re either consumed by them, or push through and join your spirit with the patron’s.”

    Part of me couldn’t help suspecting that she hadn’t had quite as much uncertainty or trauma to fight through. But… no, that wasn’t fair. Ajia had endured more than her fair share of pain. Making it into some kind of suffering competition wouldn’t do any good.

    “Anyway,” Ajia went on, shaking her head as if to clear that topic. “It’s been such an incredible experience, getting to know Mew. I’ve learned so many things I’d never dreamed of. And I’m sure it’ll be the same for you and Lugia.”

    “Your Legendary didn’t try to kill you.” I had no idea why I said that, but the words were out of my mouth before I knew it.

    Ajia’s face fell immediately. “I… I’d forgotten about that,” she said quietly. “Did… did you ask Lugia about it?”

    I bit my tongue and shook my head slightly. Ajia and Starr were still under the impression that Lugia had made a mistake in attacking me. I wasn’t too keen on correcting that assumption just yet.

    “Well… I’m sure you’ll have plenty of chances to talk about it,” Ajia said, tapping her fingers together. “Though… I can understand if you don’t want to until you get to know Lugia better.”

    She could say that again. Right now, I wanted nothing more than to pretend that the whole thing never happened. Even though part of me already knew that I wouldn’t be able to forget it. Just like I hadn’t managed to forget… various other things. Why would this be any different?

    The conflicted and hesitant look on my face must have been pretty obvious, because Ajia smiled reassuringly and said, “Hey, so… I know this all feels overwhelming and such. Like you’re lost and don’t know where you’re going. It was the same way for me. Back when I first got mixed up with Team Rocket, I never could have imagined it would ever lead to something like… fighting alongside the Legendaries.”

    My mind drifted back to the day that I saw Entei in the blazing forest. Of course I’d never expected anything like this at the time, but… looking back… In a way, it almost felt like I’d been heading down this path ever since that day.

    “You know, it’s kind of weird that the two of us both got mixed up with Team Rocket, completely separate from each other,” I said distantly. “I mean, what are the odds, right?”

    Ajia smiled. “Maybe it was fate.”

    I chuckled a bit. Lugia wouldn’t like that way of describing it.

    “Who knows.”

    We both fell silent after that. There were a million more things I could have asked her. We were both chosen. There finally weren’t any secrets left. But I had no idea where to even begin. This was all so new and strange, and there were so many unknowns that it was impossible to focus on any one of them.

    Ajia was the one who broke the silence. “I’m still really sorry that I dragged you deeper into all of this,” she said, folding her hands in her lap.

    I snapped my head toward her. “Hey. We went over that. I decided to join the Rebellion, okay?”

    She gripped one hand tightly with the other, her brow furrowing. “I should have been more suspicious of it from the start. I should have known that Sebastian was involved.”

    Hearing that name was like a stab through the heart. It’d been so long since I’d had to think about how he’d used all of us.

    “I would have done it anyway,” I said quietly, a slight bitterness on the tip of my tongue. “I was already angry about not being able to help Entei.” It wasn’t as though I regretted joining the Rebellion. And yet…

    “I should have warned you better,” Ajia said, looking up at me.

    What would I have done if she had? Would I have still gone through with it if my friend—someone I looked up to and practically idolized—had told me in no uncertain terms that it was a bad idea? Where would we all be now? Me, still at home, bored and driveless. The experiments, still imprisoned. Starr, still on Team Rocket. That wasn’t a world I wanted to think about.

    “I think… I think part of me wanted someone else to go through this with me,” she went on.

    I stared at her, lost for words.

    “I mean, I know I’m not alone in this,” she added quickly. “I’ve got Mew, I’ve got my team, but…”

    It seemed like a weird sentiment… at first. But on second thought, I kind of knew what she meant. If I’d been going through something like that, without being able to talk to my friends… it would have felt crushingly lonely, even with Mew’s support.

    Ajia sighed deeply, her eyes sliding to the floor. “I shouldn’t want that. I shouldn’t be glad that your life will be in danger too. I didn’t want to be the reason you got dragged back into this, after you asked me to knock it off.”

    “I was glad too.”

    She looked up at me in surprise.

    “When I first started to realize that you were more involved in all this than I’d thought…”—I paused, taking a deep breath—“I was glad. Sure, it sounds bad to put it like that, but… we’re both the same. And I’m not gonna lie, there’s a part of me that’s terrified of all this, but…” My voice trailed off. “Well, we have Legendaries by our side, so that helps.”

    Ajia nudged my arm. “We’ve got each other too.”

    …Yeah. We did.

    I found myself taking her hand in mine, holding it tight. Now, more than ever, I was glad to have her by my side.

    “So… now that we’re both on the same page, Mew wants to talk to us,” Ajia said.

    My face fell slightly. Right. Couldn’t just enjoy the moment. We had work to do. Work that I’d agreed to when I became chosen.

    With a flash of light, Mew appeared before us.

    <How are you feeling?> she asked.

    “I…” I glanced at Ajia. “Pretty okay.”

    The psychic cat nodded, her eyes relaxing. <I’m glad. I do hope that it helps knowing that you’re not alone in all this.>

    I took a deep breath. “It does.”

    Ajia looked back and forth between me and Mew. “So… how have things been going back at Indigo?”

    Mew paused. <It’s been almost two hours and Moltres is still attacking the League,> she said, staring at the ceiling with a contemplative look.

    I raised an eyebrow. “Still?” I would have figured their point had been made by now. Even if Ajia’s deduction was correct, and the Rockets were only doing it to make the Legendaries look dangerous. “What’s the point of dragging things out this long? It’s almost like they’re… waiting for something…” I muttered, my words trailing off.

    Mew drifted back and forth in midair, fidgeting with her tail as she spoke. <I’ve been watching carefully, during the times that I haven’t been with either of you. Moltres has gotten into a few skirmishes with the humans, but nothing too serious.> She paused, looking pensive. <We don’t know how much longer they’ll be there. We must make our move to free them soon.>

    Ajia turned to face me. “We’ve been talking about it. Our biggest advantage is the fact that the Rockets are trying to make this look like a Legendary attack, like the one on Viridian last year. That means they can’t openly use the full strength of their forces to back it up.”

    Well, that did explain why I’d only seen two Rockets and they’d generally avoided associating with Moltres throughout most of the attack.

    “So are we gonna try stealing the Master Ball, just like we did with Mewtwo?” I asked.

    Ajia shook her head. “Close, but I’m betting they’re not carrying the Master Ball on their person. Not after we freed Mewtwo like that.”

    Right. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple. The Rockets weren’t just going to repeat their past mistakes, but… “They’d have to have the ball nearby somewhere, right?” I asked, sitting up straight. “Just in case Moltres got knocked out?”

    She nodded. “Bingo. We need to force them to recall it.”

    A feeling of unease started to creep up on me. “How are we supposed to knock out Moltres?”

    We might not be able to, but we’re not gonna be alone.” She gestured to Mew. Oh… right. And I had Lugia, as bizarre of a thought that was.

    <Also. There’s someone I should introduce you to,> Mew added, gesturing to her side. The air next to her rippled and shimmered. Then a sleek crimson dragon suddenly appeared out of thin air. I jolted back, staring wide-eyed as it hovered right in front of my face without needing to flap its narrow, pointed wings.

    <This is Latias. She’s agreed to help us,> Mew said.

    “Latias,” I said blankly. Faint recognition stirred in the back of my head. “One of the guardians of Hoenn, right?”

    The dragon raised a clawed foreleg. “*That’s me!*” she said, her voice high pitched and melodious, like the chiming of bells.

    There was something bizarrely mundane about meeting a new Legendary Pokémon while seated on a couch indoors. I was so used to it always happening during missions or in deadly, tense situations that this was so… calm by comparison.

    <She has an ability that will be useful for this mission,> Mew said, gesturing a paw in her direction. Latias bowed her head. Then then surface of her feathers rippled, distorting, and suddenly she was just gone.

    I blinked. “Did she teleport?”

    “*I’m invisible!*” the dragon exclaimed, and the words were coming from right in front of my face.

    “Whoa,” I said, reaching out my hand and waving it in the air where she’d just been. I felt her claws touch my palm in return. When I stared very, very hard, I could just barely make out the slightest distortion in the air around my fingers, but other than that, nothing. Then the air rippled into her jet-like shape, and the dragon was back just as suddenly as she’d gone.

    “*So you’re the newest chosen?*” Latias asked, fixing her large, amber eyes on me.

    I smiled weakly. “Yeah.” But then my mind flashed back to what Lugia had just told me. “Wait, but… you’re not one of the patron legends?”

    She shook her head.

    I frowned. “Why not?”

    Latias tilted her head, bemused. “*Why would I be?*”

    I paused, feeling a bit silly for asking. “Huh. I guess I still don’t really know what makes the seven… like that,” I said, rubbing the back of my head.

    “*Ah, yes,*” she said, a look of recognition crossing her face. “*None of us is really sure why those seven were selected to be patrons. It happened so long ago.*”

    I’d have to ask Lugia about it at some point. Maybe it knew more, since it was a patron itself. Although if Mew didn’t even know, then…

    “*Even though I’m not a patron, I want to do my part,*” Latias said, tapping her claws together. “*I know this place isn’t my home, but Mew’s helped me so much, and I want to return the favor.*”

    “Your home region is Hoenn, right?” I asked.

    Her feathery ears drooped. “*Yes, but… I’ve not been able to fulfill my duties as a guardian of Hoenn for some time now. Ever since my brother was taken…*” Her voice trailed off.

    I frowned. “Your brother?”

    She nodded softly, still looking down. “*His name is Latios.*”

    A chill fell over me. I’d heard that name before. That was… that was one of the Legendaries that Sebastian had captured.

    “I’m sorry,” I said quietly, hands clasped. “I can’t pretend to know how you feel but… I was devastated when I heard he’d been captured.”

    Latias drew herself back in surprise. “*Did you know my brother?*”

    My chest tightened and I glanced away. “No. But I knew the one who captured him. I… trusted him. And he betrayed everything we were fighting for.”

    For several seconds, Latias said nothing. Then she held out her arm and said, “*Then he has wronged both of us.*”

    I blinked. Then I slowly held out my hand, and she placed her claws against my palm.

    A knock sounded from the door. Latias instantly went invisible. Mew dropped to the floor, fur shifting from pink to lavender, ears growing, tail splitting, until she stood there in her usual Espeon guise.

    Ajia stood up and went to answer the door, opening it a crack and glancing through. I craned my neck to see through it and caught a glimpse of Ajia’s ranger friend Kari standing on the other side.

    “We’ve got two kids out front asking for Jade. Friends of yours, I assume?” Kari asked. Ajia glanced back at me for confirmation.

    I nodded. “Probably my friends, yeah. I’ll be right out.” I waited until Kari left before adding, “Rudy and Darren. They were both on the rebel team with me; they should know what’s going on.”

    “Alright, go ahead and tell them,” Ajia said, holding the door open for me.

    I exited the lounge and made my way back to the front entrance, which was now a lot more open than earlier, what with most of the rangers having taken off for Indigo by now. Out front was where I saw them: Darren sitting at the bottom of the entry steps, picking at chipped paint on the handrail while Rudy stormed about the parking lot, kicking at loose gravel.

    Darren perked up when he saw me coming and gave a small wave. “Hey, good to see you’re alright. I know bad stuff always tends to happen when you get separated from us.”

    I rubbed the back of my head as I sat down next to him. “I wouldn’t say always…” But no, he was right. This really did keep happening. I found my gaze sliding over to Rudy, unsure if I should say something or just leave him to his own devices.

    “This is such BS,” he muttered. He was pacing, fists swinging at his side, eyes staring at the ground with such intensity that it looked like he was trying to set it on fire. “They’re gonna have to put the League on hold. Who knows when it’ll be back up? If ever!” He gave a particularly hard kick that scattered a wave of gravel through the air.

    I tapped my fingers together, glancing away. I had no idea whether or not he wanted me to comment, but saying anything felt too awkward, so I stayed silent.

    “I was gonna make the top cut, I know it,” he said, clenching his hands in front of his face. “Only eight trainers went 4-0, and the girl I lost to was one of ‘em, so losing to her didn’t hurt my score much.” He glanced back and forth between me and Darren, clearly upset that neither of us had said anything. Then he pointed a finger at Darren and yelled, “You were probably gonna make it too! Doesn’t that bother you?”

    Darren looked awkwardly at me. “Well yeah, but I’m a little more bothered by the brainwashed Legendary terrorizing everyone. Just saying.”

    Rudy took a step back, clenching his teeth. “That’s not... I mean yeah, of course I care about that, it’s just…”

    I couldn’t really blame him for not focusing on Moltres. It was obvious he was stressed out by everything, and focusing on the tournament was just the easiest outlet.

    My ears caught Starr’s voice behind me, and I turned to see that she was in the entryway. Ajia was there too. And from the sounds of it, the two of them were arguing about something.

    Darren glanced back and forth between me and Starr a few times, furrowing his brow like he was trying to figure something out. Then he gestured for me to lean closer and held a hand to the side of his mouth, whispering, “Yeahhh sooo… when were you gonna tell us that you’ve been hanging out with a Rocket executive?”

    My stomach dropped through the ground. “She’s not on Team Rocket anymore.”

    He gave me a look like I’d just said something totally obvious. “Well yeah, I figured it had to be something like that, but… still would’ve liked an update.”

    “Hey, come on, it wasn’t really my place to go giving out her secret to everyone,” I said.

    He chuckled. “Alright, that’s fair,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Is it alright if I ask what the situation is?”

    I threw a glance back at Ajia and Starr. “We’re still working on a plan.”

    Darren paused, mulling something over in his mind. “Well, I guess let us know once you’ve got it figured out.”

    I opened my mouth to reply, but then paused, squinting at him. He’d already pieced together that I was going to be heading back to Indigo, hadn’t he?

    “I wasn’t implying that you had to come with me,” I said, slightly unnerved by his tone.

    Darren gave me a look. “You do realize we got the same training as you, right?”

    “I know that, but there’s nothing forcing you to be a part of it.”

    “Who’s forcing you?” he said with a bit of a smirk.

    I put a hand to my forehead. “No one, I just…”

    “What are you guys talking about?” Rudy piped up all of a sudden, as if he’d only just noticed we were talking without him.

    Darren stood up. “Jade’s going back to Indigo,” he said matter-of-factly, before I could give him the motion to shush.

    Rudy gave me an incredulous glare. I sighed heavily before standing up as well. “We’re gonna try to free Moltres.”

    In an instant, his annoyed and frustrated air just vanished. He stared wordlessly for several seconds before turning away sharply, fists clenched. A wave of guilt crashed over me. Before today, the last time he’d seen Moltres was the night that everything went bad. The last thing I wanted was to reopen those old wounds.

    “I want to help.”

    I jolted. His words were cold and quiet in a way that was very unlike him.

    “What?” I said blankly.

    Rudy spun around suddenly, fixing me with a serious look. “I don’t want any crap like this happening again, got it?” he said, jabbing a finger toward me. “If we free Moltres, that’ll put a stop to it, right?”

    That was… a bit of a simplified view of the situation. The Rockets had other Legendaries. They were still a threat, even without Moltres. But still… dull images of that night kept drifting to the surface of my thoughts. If we could put a stop to that, even in one small way… it was worthwhile. But I already knew why it was important. That didn’t change that they didn’t need to be involved.

    Darren seemed to notice my hesitation. “We know what it’s like to fight Rockets. In a way that other people don’t. They shouldn’t have to go through that,” he said distantly, a strange sadness in his eyes.

    “And if it’ll get the tournament back on faster, then all the better,” Rudy added quickly. From the look in his eyes, it was obvious he knew that the tournament was toast. But it was an easy excuse.

    I gave a weak smile. “Yeah. That’s also true.”

    He folded his arms, looking satisfied. “Besides, you were gonna go back there anyway, yeah?”

    “Well… yes.” But that was only because I was working with the Legendaries. They didn’t have that luxury.

    “Then it’s safer if we stick together,” he said, like nothing was more obvious. “We gotta watch each other’s backs.” I couldn’t really argue with that.

    Without warning, Rudy stomped over with the same intensity that he’d been storming about earlier. And then he threw an arm around Darren’s and my shoulders, which was a little awkward since he was the shortest out of us (what with Darren rapidly approaching my height).

    “The three of us, we’re partners, got it?” Rudy said forcefully.

    “Where’s this coming from?” Darren asked with a raised eyebrow.

    “Got it??”

    “I got it, I got it!” I said, pulling myself free before I could lose my balance.

    Rudy stepped back, nodding sharply with a stern expression, like he’d sure showed us.

    Darren massaged his shoulder and said, “Let us know when you’re heading out, mkay?”

    It took me a second to realize that line was directed at me. “Right,” I said with a nod. Then I turned and walked back up the wooden stairs behind us.

    Inside the ranger station entryway, Ajia and Starr were still discussing something, and it didn’t seem like a particularly pleasant conversation. Ajia glanced up as I neared, looking grateful that I had arrived right at that moment.

    “Hey, so I’ve got a couple more things to figure out before we leave,” she said, her tone falsely cheerful. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

    It was pretty obvious that she was admitting defeat as far as Starr was concerned, and was hoping that I’d be able to talk her down. But of course, I didn’t point that out. I just said, “Sure, see you in a bit,” as she took that opportunity to conveniently go find someone else to talk to. Which just left me and Starr again. And now I had to explain that my plans had taken a total 180 from what I’d been implying earlier. Great. Somehow I hadn’t realized until now that this was likely going to be the most painful part of being chosen.

    “So Starr, uh…”

    I didn’t want to drag her into it against her will—after all, I’d been angry when I thought Ajia was trying to do that. But I couldn’t just leave her in the dark either. How on earth was I supposed to bring it up?

    “It… sounds like Ajia’s gonna be helping out back at Indigo soon.” Because that wasn’t a hopelessly vague statement or anything.

    “I heard,” Starr said dryly, leaning against the wall without looking in my direction.

    “I don’t… I don’t know how I feel about her going alone,” I said slowly, fidgeting a bit. “She could probably use our help.”

    Starr folded her arms, brow furrowing. “I don’t want anything to do with any of this bullshit.”

    I bit my tongue. Couldn’t tell her I’d been chosen. Had to find some way around it. “Yeah, but… it’s gonna be our problem whether we like it or not, isn’t it?”

    I was starting to understand what Ajia had gone through. Even though she hadn’t been banking on Sebastian revealing her role to us back then… there was probably a part of her that had been secretly glad that he did. Because this was agonizing.

    Starr squinted at me disapprovingly. “Why are you suddenly so determined to be a part of this? What changed in the last hour?”

    Oh crap. She was more perceptive than I gave her credit for.

    “I… nothing changed.” Augh, this was torture.

    “Is this Ajia’s fault?”

    “No!” I exclaimed. “She didn’t try to drag me into anything.”

    “Oh good, so you’re just willingly throwing yourself into traffic. That’s great.”

    I didn’t want to dignify that with a response. But at the same time, I couldn’t help noticing the pain hiding behind the anger in her voice. Not even an hour ago, I’d tried to reassure her that I wasn’t going to put myself in danger, and now I was completely turning my back on that. Ajia, Starr, the Legendaries, my team… there wasn’t any way to make them all happy.

    Starr wasn’t looking at me. She was still leaning against the wall, staring out the window at the trees. She let out a frustrated sigh. “I need a moment. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone, got it?”

    “I…” I started, but she had already walked past me and gone out the door.

    ‘Don’t do anything stupid’? I couldn’t remotely guarantee that. And it wasn’t like I could just tell Mew and Lugia, ‘sorry I can’t help, my friend told me not to.’

    I let out a groan and sank back against the wall, sliding down it until I was sitting on the floor with my arms clasped around my knees. At this rate, our best option would just be to leave for Indigo without telling Starr and hope that everything went well enough that there wouldn’t be any cause for alarm when we got back. Or something. That idea felt kind of dishonest, but I couldn’t think of anything better at this point.

    I sat there for a few minutes, chin resting on my knees, trying to force my brain to think about anything else. Was my team was healed yet? I kind of wanted to talk to them—Swift in particular. And I’d have to let them all know what was up before we went back to Indigo anyway.

    I sat up straighter, glancing around the lobby. There weren’t any rangers near the healing station, but there had to be someone still onsite who knew how to use it. After all, the Pokémon returning from the emergency site would need healing, right?

    I had just gotten up to go check (maybe my Pokéballs had been removed from the machine and were just sitting behind the counter or something) when—

    “Hey Jade!”

    I turned to see Ajia peeking out from around the corner of a door that opened into the hallway. I tilted my head at her, nonplussed, but she just gestured for me to come over. So I shrugged and walked over, rounding the corner to see her standing with Kari inside a meeting room of some sort, featuring a dozen or so empty office chairs around a circular table. Kari shut the door behind us and Ajia kneeled in one of the office chairs, folding her arms across its back.

    “Sorry about earlier,” Ajia said, rotating the chair so its back was facing me. “I tried to break the news easy, but… you know Starr.”

    I nodded in response as I sat down, not really too keen to think about it. “So, uh, what’s this meeting about?” I said, gesturing to the room.

    “Just finalizing our plan,” Ajia said to me. She then rotated her chair around to face Kari, who was currently leaning back against the door, reading something on her phone. “What’s the status back at Indigo?”

    Kari glanced up from the phone. “City’s been mostly evacuated; the Elite Four and the rangers are helping defend people ‘round the outer edge of the tourney site. If there was ever an opportunity for you guys to make your move, this is it,” she said in a strangely matter-of-fact tone. Like this was business as usual.

    “Wait, wait,” I said, putting a hand to my temple, trying to gather my thoughts. “How much does the Ranger Union know about the situation? Do they know that Moltres is being controlled?” I asked.

    Kari folded her arms. “We’d had our suspicions. But we didn’t have any proof until Ajia told us about the Rockets. She also said you guys are looking to free Moltres.”

    I shot an incredulous glance at Ajia. She’d been willing to just say that upfront?

    “If you ask me,” Kari went on, “I find it pretty hard to believe that the other guardians are gonna take this lying down. From what I saw of the Viridian attack, there were at least four of ‘em there. Shouldn’t this be left to them?”

    The Viridian attack. It was so surreal remembering that everyone knew about that. It wasn’t just some secret known only to the people who’d gotten mixed up with Team Rocket. It wasn’t like Raikou being targeted alone in the middle of the forest in the dead of night—everyone had seen it happen.

    “If any other Legendaries show up, they’ll just be targets,” Ajia pointed out. “There’s no way the Rockets would pass up that opportunity. Especially not with the tourney site deserted and no witnesses around.”

    Kari put her hands on her hips, giving Ajia an impatient look. “So what exactly are you lookin’ to do?”

    The slightest trace of a devious grin crossed her face. “We’re going to distract the Rockets when the other Legendaries confront Moltres.”

    And there it was. Now it was starting to make sense. Ajia had revealed just enough about the Rockets to get the support of the rangers while keeping our alliance with the Legendaries under wraps.

    “So now you’re banking on them showing up,” Kari said with a bit of a smirk.

    “Hey, you just said you didn’t expect them to take it lying down,” Ajia countered.

    Kari paused, looking reluctantly impressed. “Fair enough. You do your thing, the rest of us will do our part to protect everyone from the collateral damage. Cuz’ judging from the attack on Viridian… there’s gonna be a lot of it.”

    A chill fell over me. My mind drifted back to the rangers’ attempts to keep everyone safe while the Legendary battle raged on in the skies over Viridian.

    “Is… is everyone gonna be okay?” I found myself asking.

    Kari gave me a deadpan stare, and I couldn’t help feeling like I’d just said something unbelievably naïve. “It’s the Ranger Union,” she said flatly. “We’re not afraid to step up to protect people from raging Pokémon. Legendary or not.”

    I winced. Right. Had to remind myself, it wasn’t like they weren’t used to dealing with disasters. Still, I liked it better when it was just us against Team Rocket and no one else.

    “So you passed on the message, right?” Ajia asked.

    Kari had gone back to tapping on her phone. “Yeh. Just got the reply from my squad leader. She’s gonna let the cops and the Elite Four know to keep an eye out for suspicious folks ‘round the tourney site.” So we’d have their support as well. Granted, this also meant we’d have to stay out of their way.

    “Speaking of the squad leader, I need to get out on the field before she kills me,” Kari said dryly, stepping back from the door before opening it. Ajia stood up quickly and followed her out, and did the same.

    “Nothing we said leaves that room, okay?” Ajia said as the three of us walked down the hallway. “I know the Ranger Union won’t approve of us getting involved.”

    Kari gave an exaggerated sigh, tilting her head back to give Ajia a sideways glance. “Look, don’t blame us, we’re supposed to protect everyone alright? Letting a buncha random trainers into an emergency zone is a little counterproductive. And yes, I know you’ve got history with the Rockets, I know you’ve all fought them before, yada yada. That don’t make it any better.” She pocketed her phone and gave Ajia a serious look. “So I’m not gonna tell the higher-ups about what you’re up to, but please just keep whatever you’re doing under control, alright?”

    Under control. Somehow I already doubted that we could promise that.

    Ajia just winked. “Trust me.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    We had our plan, we had the Legendaries on our side, there was no sense wasting any time. Moltres wouldn’t be hanging around Indigo forever. It was time to make our move.

    I retrieved Chibi, Aros, and Swift from the heal station. I was going to let the three out to talk to them. But then on second thought, it would probably be best to let my whole team know about the plan at the same time. So I found a good spot alone near the trees surrounding the ranger station and let all six of my Pokémon out of their Pokéballs at once.

    Aros was still a little bit mangled—his wounds had hastily closed up with raw skin, which was the best that could be done with such a short heal. It would take an overnight treatment for him to fully recover. His energy levels seemed normal at least—antennae twitching with the usual alertness.

    “You guys doing okay?” I asked.

    Swift nodded with relief, while Aros gave a dismissive huff that generally meant he was upset about something, but that it could wait until he was ready to talk about it.

    Chibi glanced around warily. “*We had to retreat?*” I couldn’t help noticing his use of ‘retreat’ as opposed to ‘escape.’ An obvious implication that he expected us to go back. Still, I nodded.

    Jet tilted her head. “*Why? What happened?*” That’s right—she hadn’t been out at all since before the attack. Then again, neither had Firestorm or Stygian. The Charizard frowned, his brow creasing with concern as he realized that something had happened, and that he’d missed it. But the Absol was glancing back and forth between me and Aros, eyes narrowed suspiciously.

    Without much of an alternative, I launched into an abridged retelling of everything that had happened this afternoon. From the attack on Indigo, to the fight with the Rockets. From our escape to the ranger base to our upcoming plan to return and free Moltres. Swift and Chibi already knew most of it, although the latter nodded approvingly when I got to the part where he’d managed to knock Moltres down. Firestorm’s face fell progressively as the story went on. And through it all, Jet looked… worryingly unconcerned.

    “*I don’t really see the problem,*” Aros spoke up loudly. “*Doesn’t this just mean we’re gonna get the chance to fight those two Rockets again?*”

    Well, I was glad to see that he wasn’t shaken up by being utterly thrashed two hours ago, but still. “I mean… yes, but this isn’t exactly the sort of thing we should be happy about, and I don’t get why you’re so pleased.”

    Aros turned away with a look of indifference that was obviously fake. Stygian squinted at him suspiciously before giving me a sideways glance. Then her gaze slid back to Aros and she said, “*You, me. In private. Now.*”

    Aros groaned, but then she thwacked his leg with her paw before taking a few steps in that direction, roughly gesturing for him to follow her. I watched them wander off toward the trees, confused, but knowing well enough not to get involved.

    Instead, I opted to focus my attention on Jet. “So, what about you?”

    The otter tilted her head. “*What about me?*”

    I shoved my hands in my pockets. “This Rocket business is new to you. I want to know how you feel about it.”

    “*It’s great,*” she said brightly, and my heart sank through the ground.

    “It’s… really not,” I said, a little more flatly than I intended.

    Her face fell. Confused, the Floatzel glanced around at her teammates. “*I just wanna be a hero like you guys.*”

    Swift gave her a sympathetic half-smile, like he wasn’t sure how to tell her that there was nothing heroic about it at all. Firestorm stared downward, looking troubled.

    “I… that’s not…” I put a hand to my face, struggling to find the right words. “Look, I know the rebel stories sound, well… cool. But it’s not cool living them. I hope I haven’t made it sound like that, cause it’s really, really not.”

    “*You saved legendaries. And you weren’t even that strong when you did,*” Jet pointed out like she was stating the obvious. “*I’m strong. I could help.*” The hopeful look on her face was heartbreaking.

    “We could die,” I said, my voice dead serious.

    But the Floatzel just stuck her nose in the air and said, “*We’ve gotten outta tough scrapes before.*”

    “That’s—that’s not the same.”

    She folded her arms, giving me an incredulous glare. “*Well, you were already gonna help Moltres, yeah? So what difference does it make?*”

    I opened my mouth to speak, and then froze. “Right, I guess it doesn’t change anything.” Either way we’d be fighting Rockets. What difference did it make whether we all had the right mindset or not.

    “*If you’re not going to tell her, then I am,*” Stygian’s voice suddenly rang out, loud enough for me to hear her. I turned to see the Absol trotting back to us, looking rather disgruntled.

    “*Don’t,*” Aros called after her, but she ignored him.

    Stygian came to a stop once she reached us, fixing her gaze square on me. “*That Rocket you fought. Her Flygon is his original.*”

    I tilted my head. “What?”

    “*His original,*” the Absol repeated with deliberate emphasis, like I’d somehow misheard her as opposed to just not knowing what that was supposed to mean.

    I stared blankly at her. His original what? She still wasn’t saying what—hang on. ‘Original’ wasn’t marked as a descriptor in her words—it was an object. His original.

    “That’s the Flygon he was cloned from?” I asked, gaping at her.

    “*Yes. That’s what I said,*” Stygian said in the tone of someone explaining something obvious to a child. Aros had begun plodding back over to the rest of us, looking equally disgruntled.

    That’s why you blew us off in that last fight?” I asked incredulously, snapping my head in his direction. “Settling some kind of grudge match?”

    The Flygon turned his back to me. “*I wouldn’t expect you to understand,*” he muttered, sounding genuinely hurt by my dismissive tone.

    I stared blankly. “Do you want to explain?”

    No reply. Of course not.

    I ran a hand down the back of my head. “I guess… it’s obvious that it’s important to you, so I won’t say anything bad about it,” I said, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. “But seriously though, you can’t just bail on the rest of us in the middle of a fight.” Ignoring orders from me was one thing, but he’d put Chibi in harm’s way and completely screwed up our ability to strategize versus the Rockets.

    “*What’s it to you?*” Aros asked, still not facing any of us.

    “*If we’re fighting side-by-side, that means we’re relying on you to support the team,*” Chibi pointed out sharply, glaring at the Flygon.

    Aros’s antenna twitched impatiently. “*Alright, I got it,*” he said, smacking the ground with his tail fan. “*Is that everything?*”

    No, I still had plenty more I wanted to say. But none of it was necessarily helpful. Especially not heading into a dangerous mission where we couldn’t afford to be too angry at each other. I could only hope that Chibi would rein him in if he went off the rails again.

    “*Why is this fight your problem?*” Stygian asked all of a sudden.

    I tilted my head at her. “Huh?”

    The Absol’s ruby-red eyes bored into me. “*You’ve been talking about this mission like you don’t have a choice in it. Why?*”

    Ugh, was I just that bad at keep secrets? Then again... I couldn’t really think of any reason not to tell my team. Sure, Lugia hadn’t specified whether “not telling anyone” meant human, Pokémon, or both, but given the options, it clearly trusted humans the least. And wouldn’t I need my team’s support if I was going to protect Lugia anyway?

    …Ah, screw it.

    “Because I was chosen by a Legendary Pokémon.”

    Now that got a heavy silence out of everyone. All six of them stared at me, varying degrees shock, awe, and disturbed fascination crossing their faces.

    “*What,*” Stygian said, her voice a total deadpan.

    “*What does that mean?*” Chibi asked, fixing me with a serious look.

    I took a deep breath, searching for the right words. “You know how Ajia’s partnered up with Mew? Well… it’s like that, but with me and Lugia.”

    A sudden look of recognition crossed Swift’s features. Chibi blinked, staring off into the distance with intense contemplation. Firestorm, Aros, and Stygian still looked a bit skeptical.

    “Look. All this stuff happening with Team Rocket and the Legendaries. It’s big. A lot bigger than any of us could have imagined. And if it isn’t stopped, it’ll turn into all-out war. That’s why they’re recruiting humans to help them.”

    None of them really knew what to say to that.

    Swift was staring downward, considering something carefully. Finally, he looked up and said, “*You’re referring to the writings on Midnight Island?*”

    Aros turned to face him. “*Eh? You knew about this?*”

    Swift ruffled his feathers, embarrassed. “*We didn’t know how much truth there was to it. It could have been a myth and nothing more.*” He paused for a moment, and then looked up at me. “*But I suppose this proves it, does it not?*”

    I swallowed hard, nodding. “Yeah.”

    Next it was Chibi’s turn to pause heavily before making eye contact. “*You’re in this fight for the long haul now, aren’t you?*” The hybrid’s gaze had softened; he knew how conflicted I had been about rejoining the fight.

    I nodded again, and his ears raised slightly. “*Then you’ll have my support.*”

    “*Mine as well,*” Swift said, fixing me with a soft, reassuring look.

    “*Hell yeah,*” Jet said with an affirmative nod as I tried to ignore the sting in my heart.

    “*You already know my answer,*” Aros said in a low voice. Stygian gave the Flygon a sideways glance but then looked back at me and nodded curtly.

    Firestorm’s gaze darted between his teammates. “*I dunno what to make of this Legendary stuff, but…*” His eyes held a strange hesitation. “*It sounds important, so I’m with you.*”

    I glanced back and forth at all of them, overwhelmed. Even if half of them had their own agendas in mind, that was fine. We’d still be sticking together through this.

    I had my friends. I had Lugia. And I had my team. I wasn’t alone.

    I couldn’t help smiling. “Thanks everyone.”

    With that settled, it was probably time to get going. I grabbed my Pokéballs and recalled my team… all of them except one. I couldn’t explain why, just something told me to keep Firestorm out. The Charizard glanced around upon realizing that he was the only one still out, then tilted his head at me.

    I took a deep breath. “Hey, so… is everything alright?”

    “*I’m fine,*” he said, confused.

    I shoved my hands in my pockets, struggling to make eye contact. “You sure? Cause you looked like you had something to say. And I thought maybe it would be easier if it was just the two of us.”

    Firestorm glanced away, chuckling ironically under his breath.

    “Hey, come on. What’s up?” I asked him.

    The Charizard looked back at me, then let out a deep sigh. “*This is just like old times, isn’t it?*”

    “What do you mean?” I asked.

    He was silent for a while, mulling over what to say. “*I thought it had been long enough that we’d never have to go back to that life. Maybe that was naïve.*”

    Oh. That’s what was troubling him.

    I folded my arms behind my head, staring upward. “Maybe it was, but I believed it too.”

    “*I don’t want things to go back to the way they used to be,*” Firestorm said, tail curling around himself. He paused and then added, “*I don’t want to go back to the way that I used to be.*”

    I blinked, taken aback. “Hey, hey. That wasn’t who you are, alright? You’d just evolved, it was a crazy stressful situation, and you lost control.”

    “*That doesn’t make it less real,*” he said, closing his eyes.

    I sighed. “No. But it doesn’t have to define who you are. And the fact that it’s affecting you like this… I don’t know, doesn’t that prove that you won’t turn into that so easily?”

    Firestorm rested his claws on his belly, nodding softly with a contemplative look.

    I shuffled a foot against the dirt. “If you’re scared, I don’t have to send you out when we—”

    “*No, that won’t help,*” he cut in, shaking his head vigorously. “*I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding from it. And… this is important. We’re all on the same team, yeah?*”

    All of us were a team. And that meant doing anything we could to support each other. I took a few slow steps forward and rested a hand on the Charizard’s shoulder.

    “Hey. It’s gonna be okay. I’ll help you through this.”

    The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. “*I’m supposed to be the one to help you.*”

    I smirked. “Hey. None of that.”

    Firestorm chuckled. “*Hah… sorry…*” He shook his head and then straightened himself upright,

    “Ready to go?” I asked, holding out a fist.

    His gaze sharpened, some of the fire back in his eyes. “*Yeah.*” he said, tapping his own fist against mine.

    I grinned. “Alright.” And with that, I recalled Firestorm and took a moment to let it all sink in, alone. My first mission as Lugia’s chosen, right before me. No looking back. Only moving forward.

    And then, without warning, I felt an uncomfortable prodding at the back of my mind. Trying to ignore it, or focus on anything else only made it flare up twice as much. It was something related to Lugia. Something I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten to say something to it? No, that wasn’t quite right. More like… I was supposed to be paying attention to it. Yes, that was it.

    But how? It wasn’t exactly here. Or was it? I threw a hurried glance upward, halfway expecting to see the dragon-bird soaring overhead.

    No, not like that. Like this.

    Like what? This.

    I grabbed my head. What on earth was going on? It was like my mind kept flitting back and forth at random, and I couldn’t control its focus at all. One moment I’d be thinking one thing, and then out of nowhere it would fly off to something completely different.

    Here. Lugia was here. And I still wasn’t paying attention.

    What the heck did that mean?

    Pay attention dammit!


    I froze, blinking. “Lugia? Is that you?” I whispered.

    Yes. Obviously. The idea was laced with a thick air of irritation.

    “What… the heck is going on?” I muttered under my breath as I slumped against a nearby tree, struggling to process this weirdness.

    <I told you we’d have a psychic link, didn’t I?> the Legendary said, and finally, finally I was ready for it, able to distinguish its words from my own thoughts at last.

    “I… guess so,” I said distantly, still weirded out by the idea of its thoughts acting like my own. “But… I’ve heard telepathy plenty of times and it was never anything like this.” Telepathy felt like a psychic was broadcasting its thoughts. Like a signal, just one that was picked up by the mind instead of the ears. But this? This literally just felt like having Lugia’s thoughts come from inside my head. It was weird and alien and I didn’t like it one bit.

    A strange hesitation drifted from Lugia’s thoughts. <Well, you’re right that this isn’t strictly telepathy, but there shouldn’t be any functional difference.>

    I blinked. “Wait, it’s not? Then what is it?”

    <I don’t know, but—>

    “How can you not know?”

    <You think I know everything?> came the Legendary’s irritated reply.

    I wanted to say that it sure acted like it did, but that didn’t seem smart. Thankfully, Lugia either didn’t notice that thought or didn’t comment on it.

    <Also, you really shouldn’t say things out loud when we’re communicating like this,> Lugia went on. <Just direct your thoughts toward me.>

    I furrowed my brow. “I don’t really know how to do that. Saying words makes it easier to focus.”

    <Try it now.>

    I sighed. Alright. I didn’t want to, but this was kind of important, especially if I needed to communicate privately without giving away our connection. So I willed my thoughts to focus on the idea of Lugia as hard as I could.

    Can you… hear me?

    <Close,> it said. <I can feel a sort of… intent from you, but it’s not specific enough to get words. Focus on my presence. Feel it. Direct your thoughts toward it.>

    I closed my eyes and plugged my ears, trying to block out all other senses. I could feel my heart beating—faster than usual, but gradually slowing. But I shoved that feeling to the side, retreating into my own head, ignoring everything else. Just my thoughts. Not the forest, not the mission, nothing. Just my thoughts.

    And then… then there was something there. Like a thought that was just out of reach, hovering on the tip of my tongue but stuck in my subconscious. My mind kept slipping past it, but I willed it in that direction, grabbing at it like a faded memory.

    <Lugia?>

    <There we go. Loud and clear.>

    I opened my eyes, blinking. There it was. That inaccessible chunk of thought suddenly felt alive, distinct and separate from my own, but somehow just as familiar, like it had always been there. Its thoughts were still different somehow, but when I let my focus slip, it was like there was no longer any line between my mind and the legend’s. I could feel it there, this overwhelming, overbearing presence.

    <Not bad, the connection feels stable. You’ll still need to direct your conscious thoughts toward me if you want me to hear them—everything else will just feel kind of fuzzy and subconscious—but it shouldn’t take too much effort.>

    <Really? So… you can’t just hear all my thoughts?> I asked, a bit more overly hopeful than I intended.

    <By focusing on my presence, you’re opening a specific thought to me. Otherwise your mind will just be in the way. I suppose if I really wanted to I could force it aside, but…> It paused, dancing around the idea awkwardly. <Well, that wouldn’t do us any good.>

    I bristled. That wasn’t too comforting a thought. Sure, it was nice that I had the option of opening specific thoughts to Lugia, rather than just giving it access to the entire jumbled up internal monologue all the time. But if it really wanted to…? On the positive side, surely I’d be able to feel if the Legendary were prying into other parts of my mind than normal?

    <You feel skeptical,> the legend stated. <I understand that we have a long way to go before we’ll be perfectly in sync.> It could say that again. It felt uncomfortable enough having someone else in my head without it being that particular someone. Lugia had said we’d feel each other’s presence. Would it… notice the flood of anxiety that I got just from looking at it? Would it be able to feel the way my pulse shot up? God, I hoped not.

    <Anyway…> Lugia went on, <the reason I wanted to speak with you is this: Mew has informed me that you’ll be making the move to free Moltres soon.>

    I nodded instinctively before realizing that Lugia couldn’t see it. <Right.>

    <We won’t be able to fight side-by-side this time. Not if we don’t want to give away our position to the Rockets.>

    My chest tightened. <I know.>

    Lugia paused, its mind dancing around the subject. <So… what I’m saying is good luck. I would hate to have to select a new chosen so soon after finding one.>

    My stomach curled in on itself. That wasn’t exactly something I wanted to think about.

    Lugia’s mind flushed with awkwardness. <That was… a joke. I will see you when this is done.>






    ~End Chapter 37~

    Next Chapter: Lugia and Jade learn to work together, probably.
     
    Chapter 38: Counterattack
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 38: Counterattack~


    A thick air of tension hung in the air as the four of us—me, Ajia, Rudy, and Darren—flew toward Indigo. I was riding Swift, Rudy had Fearow, and Darren had Skarmory. Mew had transformed into an Aerodactyl, flying alongside Ajia’s own Aerodactyl, no doubt intending to take advantage of that form’s incredible speed.

    The idea of four of us going in alone to fight Rockets was completely insane. But I kept having to remind myself that it wasn’t just us. The Legendaries would be joining us, and the Rockets would be way more inclined to pay attention to them. And the rangers already knew to watch out for anyone suspicious at the tournament site and they had the Elite Four backing them up. This was nothing like the old Rebellion missions. Just had to keep telling myself that.

    After a while, the trees thinned, and I could see the buildings of Indigo on the horizon. Smoke still billowed upward from the scattered fires Moltres had started around the tournament site. As for Moltres itself, the firebird seemed to be soaring in a wide arc over the whole city. Our group landed on the roof of a building on the western edge of the city, far from its current location.

    “So how many Legendaries are going to be helping us?” I asked Ajia.

    Ajia folded her arms behind her head. “Well we’ve got Mew, Lugia, and Ho-oh for sure. Mew was working on recruiting a few others, but hasn’t had much luck so far—they’re too concerned that this is a trap.”

    “I mean. It pretty much is.”

    Ajia chuckled. “Maybe so. But we’ve got a trap of our own. Oh, and Latias isn’t going to fight, she’ll be staying invisible and defending the others.”

    That was good. At least, it helped ease the fear that all this mission would accomplish was getting our allies captured. The biggest problem was that we didn’t know how many Rockets were scattered throughout the city. While Lugia and Ho-oh could easily take down Moltres, we had no idea how much danger they’d be in. Which was why we had no choice but to split up, to cover as much ground as possible. We wouldn’t be able to watch each other’s backs like I thought. I really wasn’t too happy about that.

    I turned to face Rudy and Darren, giving them both a serious look. “If anything goes wrong, get the hell out and regroup back here, alright?”

    “Don’t gotta tell me twice,” Rudy said, face full of determination.

    “No worries,” Darren said calmly. “Alakazam can make sure of that.”

    I wished I had some of that confidence. But then, Alakazam was the reason Darren had made it off Midnight Island with no casualties. There was no reason not to trust him.

    “Good luck,” I said.

    Rudy held out a fist, “We got this.” He gave me and Darren a stern look until we returned the fist bump. Then he flashed a thumbs up to Fearow, and the bird spread her wings and took off, swooping down into an alley and out of sight. Darren gave a small wave, and soon he and Skarmory were gone as well.

    I turned back toward Ajia and Mew, struggling to think of what to say. Ajia was the one who broke the silence. “See you when we’re done,” she said with a reassuring smile.

    I forced a grin. “Yeah.”

    Swift took off, and the two of us soared low over the tournament site. Had to keep our eyes out. While Swift focused ahead of us, I constantly turned my head in all directions, scanning for any enemies sneaking up on us. I was not going to let us get caught off guard again. Occasionally Moltres crossed into the airspace overhead, and I held my breath until it passed. We weren’t the target here—had to remember that.

    It was now easy to see the squads of rangers taking formation north of the city. And from what Kari had said, the Elite Four had to be among them, ready to strike back if Moltres got too close. There were probably enough Pokémon there that they could take down the legend in an all-out fight. But the idea of actually fighting a Legendary wasn’t exactly high on anyone’s priority list. The fact that we even had a mental idea of how many regular Pokémon it took to bring down a legend… It was something I took for granted, but would register as totally foreign to anyone else.

    In any case, couldn’t get distracted. If Moltres was mainly sticking to the northside, then that was where we’d find the Rockets. I pointed this out to Swift, and he took us in that direction. I knew we had to find them, but the back of my mind, I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t. Each empty street and bare rooftop gave me a small relief, but it could only delay the inevitable.

    Suddenly, Swift jerked his head to the left. I followed his gaze and caught a flash of blue between buildings. What was that? The Pidgeot swerved back around to take a closer look. And there he was. The executive who had confronted us during the initial attack—Ender. He was sitting on the back of his Altaria, perched on a low balcony that gave him a good view of the air without putting him in full view. I wordlessly motioned for Swift to land on the roof of the closest building. His flight was softer than Aros or Firestorm’s. Faster than them too. That was why I’d picked him for this mission. But our opponent had the power advantage, so we couldn’t afford to give ourselves away.

    Slowly, one talon at a time, Swift stepped closer to the edge of the roof. He craned his neck to look over the edge. Ender hadn’t noticed us. Any second I expected him to snap his eyes in our direction. But no. He was just sitting there. Waiting. Eyes trained on Moltres the entire time. And he was wearing a Master Ball cannon on his arm that hadn’t been there last time.

    <Well if we weren’t sure before, we sure are now. Moltres is definitely bait,> I told Lugia.

    <Feels rather foolish to swoop right into a known trap like this,> the legend replied.

    <Yeah, well… it also feels pretty stupid to pick fights with an executive.>

    <We will both follow our foolish courses of action, then.>

    Was that a joke? I decided not to think about it.

    Our goal wasn’t to fight Ender outright. I knew that much. But my heart still pounded as we waited. The signal would be obvious, I knew that much. Just had to be patient. Couldn’t give away our position yet. Just a little longer…

    A bright yellow beam of energy shot out of nowhere, striking Moltres right in its heart. The firebird recoiled backward, screeching in pain. Up from the forest, Lugia burst into the air, spreading its wings to loom high above the plateau. It was a bit weird seeing the dragon-bird out in broad daylight, feathers gleaming stark white as opposed to their silvery sheen under the moonlight.

    From the opposite side of the sky, Ho-oh soared into view, wings shimmering with a rainbow sheen, blue flames licking its wings. The two zeroed in on Moltres, circling the smaller bird intently. But Moltres didn’t retaliate. Instead, it folded its wings back and shot toward the ground, soaring low over the buildings. What was it doing? None of the Rockets had approached it, so it must have been acting on orders that it got previously. Orders to avoid any other Legendaries? Why?

    Lugia and Ho-oh paused, glancing at each other. I could only guess that they were confused as well. But then it finally hit me. By sticking low to the city, Moltres was forcing Lugia and Ho-oh to fly low to engage. If they stayed too high, the firebird would have more than enough time to dodge their attacks. And the Rockets themselves were all sticking low to the city as well, so it would be easy for them to fire Master Balls from out of sight. Which meant that for any of the free Legendaries to strike back, they’d either have to put themselves in harm’s way, or attack the city. Of all the dirty tactics.

    Lugia must have noticed the same thing, because it asked, <Is there any reason we can’t simply destroy them?>

    Any reason other than the fact that it was implying callously murdering our enemies? Sure. The resulting destruction was exactly the thing we were trying to avoid. We were not turning this into another Viridian incident.

    <Let us fight the Rockets, alright?> I said. <We’ll be more maneuverable closer to the ground, and that way the rest of you can deal with Moltres. You shouldn’t have any trouble with that, right?>

    <Fine.>

    Had to trust that everything would go according to plan. Couldn’t afford to think about the Legendary fight when I had my own mission to focus on.

    Ender hadn’t taken his eyes off the Legendaries the entire time. His arm was trained upward, left hand hovering over the handle, ready to pull back the moment one of the free legends drew too close. He hadn’t so much as glanced in our direction the entire time. It was now or never.

    “Open with Tailwind, then go into a Feather Dance,” I whispered.

    In one smooth motion, Swift leaped from the rooftop and swooped down between the buildings, flapping his wings so fast that a powerful wind current filled the entire alley. The moment that was done, he switched to a light, fluttering motion, scattering countless downy feathers into the air around our opponents. Tailwind would give us the speed edge while also throwing off Ender’s cannon fire. Feather Dance would dull Altaria’s attacks, at least some of them.

    Ender stared back at us with an amused look on his face. “Interesting timing,” he said, glancing between me and the Legendary battle raging overhead. “Alright, I daresay it’s time to escalate things.” He tapped something into a wrist communicator. I held my breath. But he didn’t move from that spot. He just went back to aiming at the Legendaries while Altaria kept a single eye trained on us.

    I felt a prickle of anger well up inside me. Did he seriously think we were afraid to attack him? Or was he just that unconcerned with our presence?

    “Air Slash!” I yelled.

    Swift snapped his wings forward, glowing blades of wind already trailing from the tips, shooting toward our opponents. Altaria waited until the last second to raise a Protect, deflecting the blades away harmlessly.

    Ender slowly turned toward us, raising an eyebrow. “Playing hardball this time. Alright.”

    And then way the hell faster than it had any right to be, Altaria dove from the balcony and shot toward us. I pointed down, and Swift didn’t waste a second swooping under it and taking off in the opposite direction. We shot down the street, the wind following us and pushing us forward, most likely the only thing keeping us ahead of him. Swift kept his eyes firmly on the road ahead of us. Mine were free to wander. Just how close was he…?

    A window ahead of us suddenly exploded with dragonfire, raining shards of glass down from above. I buried my face in Swift’s feathers and tried my hardest to ignore the slivers of pain crossing my arms. I’d felt worse. Had to stay one step ahead of him. If he was chasing us, he wasn’t firing at the Legendaries. Just had to stay one step ahead. This was what we’d trained for. I could handle this.

    A shadow passed by overhead. I glanced up, expecting one of the Legendaries, but it was a Rocket I didn’t recognize, riding on the back of a Charizard, currently aiming a Master Ball cannon at a target I couldn’t see. Could I stop her? But Ender was right behind us, we’d be sitting ducks. I could let out Firestorm, have him target the other—no. No, staying on the run was safer than starting a head-to-head melee, I’d learned that much. It would probably be fine.

    Wait. Through a gap between buildings, I suddenly got a much better view of the Legendaries, and they were a lot closer than I’d realized. Moltres was pinned to the ground, thrashing about wildly in the middle of what looked like a battle park. Ho-oh was perched on its back, talons digging into the smaller firebird’s wings while Lugia fired concussive pulses of psychic energy.

    Dammit, they weren’t paying attention and the Rockets were closing in!

    Time slowed. A crack split the air, my eyes caught the flash of movement, the Master Ball, its target unaware. In my mind I saw it hit, saw that flash of red from the time I’d fired a ball just like it, heard Lugia’s horrified scream and then—

    A brightly glowing ball of mist deflected it at the last second, shot from thin air. I gaped at it in disbelief. And then a huge wave of relief crashed over me so hard that I almost lost my grip on Swift. Latias—Latias had saved them from certain capture.

    And then out of nowhere, Lugia’s voice stormed to the front of my thoughts and yelled, <Warn me next time!>

    <Sorry, I’m still getting used to this!> I replied. I’d seen it happen, I could have said something, I should have said something. I’d just completely forgotten that was even an option. But that was the entire reason we had Latias playing defense, right?

    A spear of irritation pierced my thoughts like a burning hot iron, and I only barely stopped myself from grabbing my head. Geez, Lugia’s emotions were stronger than I thought. I’d known that I’d be able to feel them, but man this was distracting.

    “*Are you alright?*” Swift asked, tilting his head to look back at me.

    “I’m fine, just keep moving,” I managed breathlessly. We couldn’t afford to stop. Not while we were still being followed by—

    I whirled around. Ender was gone. He was gone. The whole point of this was to keep him distracted. Of course he’d known that. Why the hell had I taken my eyes off him?

    “Hold up,” I said, pulling back slightly. Swift flared his wings out to slow our flight before making a U-turn back down the street.

    Dammit. I’d let Lugia distract me, and then I’d lost Ender. We had to find him, and fast. Letting an executive get free shots at the Legendaries was not an option here.

    Movement. Something glinting in my peripheral vision. Flames.

    “Look out!” I screamed.

    Swift turned his head and raised a barrier just in time for a raging ball of pink fire to crash into it, scattering a wave of sparkling flares. What the hell was that? The fireball kept struggling against the barrier without dissipating, almost as if it were alive. Wait… it was. Altaria was inside the fireball, face contorted with vicious fury. Ender wasn’t on its back. I glanced around hurriedly, but he was nowhere to be seen.

    The Protect flickered. Another second and we’d be toast. Had to do something, and fast.

    “Through that doorway!” I yelled, voice cracking. Swift dropped the barrier and pointed his wings back, plunging toward the ground like a bullet and pulling up at the last second to shoot clean through the opening, immediately braking to avoid hitting the opposite wall. We turned around just as the doorway exploded into splinters. I shielded my face with my arms, squinting at the frenzied ball of magenta dragonfire currently shredding the entrance. Swift took a few hesitant steps backward before darting behind the nearest support column. Altaria charged, tearing through the column like butter, and then the ceiling gave way.

    Swift jumped back, turning away from the falling debris, flaring his wings to keep me shielded. I flattened myself against his back, burying my face in his feathers yet again, dull pain assaulting my back with each chunk that hit me. Finally, it seemed to have settled. I cautiously opened one eye to take in the surrounding. The two of us had landed in a crumpled heap, covered by snapped boards and chunks of plaster, a fine mist of dust saturating the air. I coughed hard and breathed in too deep, which only succeeded in filling my lungs with more dust. Ugh. Had to get out of here.

    A violent screech jerked my attention back to our opponent. In the doorway, Altaria stood twitching, body still raging with pink flames. We couldn’t use Protect. Not enough time had passed. Couldn’t make it out of the room in one piece. No other exits. Only a second to act.

    “Sand Attack!” I blurted out.

    Swift swept his wings forward, and a wave of plaster splattered into the dragon-bird’s face. Altaria staggered back with a cough, squinting at us through the dust. And in that split second, Swift flattened himself to the ground right before the dragonfire flared up and Altaria launched itself clear into the opposite wall, tearing right through and landing in another room.

    Rubble was still raining down from the second floor over the entrance, and the hole was now mostly blocked. Had to make our own exit, then.

    I whirled around and ordered, “Air Slash!”

    Swift shook himself free from the rubble, then swung a glowing wingtip forward, unleashing a flurry of blades at a nearby window. Glass shattered, then a gust of wind swept the shards away. The Pidgeot leaped through the opening and launched into the air, beating his wings to take us away from there as fast as possible.

    Except… we weren’t trying to escape. We needed to stay close by. Even if my every instinct was screaming to just ignore Ender and his Altaria and go find the others.

    “Hold up, we don’t want to lose them,” I said. Swift responded by pivoting around in midair and landing on the roof of the building nearest the one we had just escaped from. This would give us a decent view of both exits, and then we’d be able to follow Altaria, hopefully to its trainer.

    Except nothing happened. I furrowed my brow, staring even harder. It had been at least a minute by now. Where was Altaria? It wasn’t trying to find us? And where was Ender, for that matter? If he wasn’t on its back when it raged out, then where the hell had he gone?

    I pointed downward wordlessly, and Swift glided down from the rooftop, landing in the middle of the street. I kept a tight grip as he cautiously stepped forward to peek through the crumbled doorway. But there was no sign of Altaria anywhere inside.

    “Where did they…?”

    Out of nowhere, a sudden needle of anxiety pierced my head. Every muscle in my body clenched tightly as I was hit with the overwhelming feeling that this was very not okay, despite having no idea why or how or what was—

    Wait. Wait wait wait, this feeling wasn’t mine.

    <What happened?!> I asked Lugia.

    <Ho-oh was hit. Latias was able to destroy the ball before they could recover it, though,> it replied, a slight tremble to its voice.

    I let out a deep sigh of relief. The last thing we needed was to have to rescue another Legendary on this mission. Part of me wanted to tell Lugia just how distracting its emotions were, although I already knew that the response would be less than pleasant. It was my problem. I had to get used to it.

    “C’mon, let’s keep moving,” I said to Swift. With a few flaps, the two of us were airborne once again.

    Maybe it would be better to stick closer to the Legendaries. After all, that was where the Rockets were most likely to be. Just being in the general vicinity would hardly give away the fact that we were straight-up working with the legends.

    I pointed down a street that I was pretty sure led back to the park where the Legendaries were fighting. If the violent screeching and explosive blasts coming from that direction were anything to go off. That was when I spotted her. The female executive from before. Raven, was her name? She was riding the same Flygon as last time—the one that had soundly defeated Aros, this time wearing a blue and white scarf. Why did I have to keep running into all the Executives? Why couldn’t Ajia? Or Mew? Anyone who would stand a better chance than me.

    I could try to locate Ender once again. Or I could deal with the executive in front of me who currently didn’t have any opponents. I didn’t get a chance to make that decision before she spotted us though.

    “Back for more?” she just said. Then in a flash, she opened an array of Pokéballs. I caught sight of a large, black bird, then some kind of brown blur ducking behind an abandoned vendor stall, then a violet shadow tracing a path down the walls of the nearest building.

    Oh hell, she wasn’t playing around. No way was I going through the same crap as last time. I let out both Firestorm and Aros, then let Chibi out onto Aros’s back so he could freely abuse his lightning. The hybrid didn’t waste any time charging up a Thunderbolt to fire at Raven, but her Flygon avoided it so quickly I could have sworn he’d teleported. Swift put on a burst of speed just as a pulsing wave of darkness shot right at us, fired by the Honchkrow.

    “Another Tailwind!” I hissed. The Pidgeot looped back, flapping his wings faster and faster, and the resulting wind current swept through the alley, pushing at our backs and against the executive’s side. Honchkrow narrowed its eyes at us, struggling against the wind.

    A shadowy orb shot from nowhere, smacking into one of Aros’s wings. He shook off the blow and glanced around hurriedly, but couldn’t locate his attacker. Chibi muttered something to the bug-dragon, and the latter responded by slamming his tail into the wall, unleashing a shockwave that shook the entire building. A dark shadow fell out of the wall, forming into an implike body with a huge, toothy grin. A Gengar. Its eyes flashed red, and a spear of ghostly energy suddenly pierced its own body, trails of red mist leaking out from the hole. Aros tilted his head in confusion, but then more of the same red mist materialized around him… and zeroed in on Chibi, seeping into his fur. The Pikachu shook his head to clear it before retaliating with a lightning bolt, but Gengar had already phased back inside the wall. Chibi winced, teeth clenched like he was in pain. Wisps of ghostly aura danced around his head.

    All this time, Firestorm had been circling Honchkrow, breathing out scorching jets of fire to keep the bird off our tail. Raven and her Flygon were mostly hanging back, a good distance from the rest of the combatants. I wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t about to question it. The moment they entered the fray, things would get a lot worse.

    We couldn’t keep this up for too long. I knew that. Sooner or later, we’d be overpowered. But we just had to keep it up long enough to hold Raven’s attention away from the Legendary battle. Just had to hold out until then. Lugia would give us the all clear and then we could get the hell out of here.

    And then a brown blur leaped up from a nearby rooftop, aiming right for us. Swift flared his wings to stall our flight. Too late. Blood splattered through the air. I stared stupidly, feeling my brain short-circuit trying to process it, my breath frozen, my stomach melting. Kabutops. It had slashed him clean across the neck, staining his feathers bright red.

    No. No no no! At once, I found my hand flying to my belt, fumbling with his Pokéball. Had to recall him before it was too late. Had to recall him before it was too late. Each second felt like an agonizing eternity as my shaking fingers found the button and pressed it and then recalled Swift in a beam of red.

    I’d recalled him in time, right? He’d live, right? He had to. He had to.

    Falling. I was falling. I’d just recalled the Pokémon I was riding on. But I had to recall him. I had to, it was the only way he’d make it. He was in stasis now. He had to make it. Still falling, had to do something. But he had to make it. Still falling. But Swift—still falling, had to do something.

    “Firestorm!” I yelled.

    Barely seconds later, I saw a flash of orange as the Charizard swooped under me and caught me on his back. Immediately afterward, I clung to his neck as he barreled to the right to avoid blades of wind launched by Honchkrow.

    “*What happened? Where’s Swift?*”

    I buried my face against his neck, clenching my teeth and trying my hardest to banish that image from my mind.

    “*Are you okay?*” Firestorm asked.

    “I’m fine, just keep flying!”

    His neck muscles tensed. It was obvious he wanted answers, but he was holding back from asking them. My every instinct was screaming that we had to flee, or else risk having what happened to Swift happen to more of us, and—

    “*Watch out!*” Aros called out. I looked up to see his diving in front of us, the white light of Protect flaring up just seconds before a massive waterspout crashed against it, scattering a cold mist all around us. Holy crap, that was too close. That Hydro Pump would have knocked us out of the air for sure. Then Chibi had to fire a lightning bolt over my shoulder at Gengar, who’d been sneaking up behind us. Then more movement, out of the corner of my eye. A blurry brown shape. Blades flashing. Not again—

    “Metal Claw!” I yelled.

    Firestorm swung both arms in front of his neck just in time for the blades to bounce against them with a metallic clang. Kabutops sprang back, crouching on a nearby windowsill before leaping at us once more. But this time Firestorm was ready. He tilted a wing, changing our angle so the blades flew right past us. Then he reached out and grabbed the fossil by the leg, swinging it in a wide arc before hurling it straight into the pavement with a crack.

    I let out a deep sigh of relief. Then an agonized cry snapped my attention back to Aros, but… but it hadn’t come from him. I stared in horror. Chibi was lying flat on his back, thrashing wildly, purplish flames clinging to his body, eating away at his skin in places.

    “What the hell? What’s going on? What is that?!

    The red mist. From when Gengar stabbed itself. It didn’t seem to do anything at the time, but it had been stuck to him ever since, hadn’t it? Firestorm flapped his wings hard, attempting to blow out the flames, but they didn’t waver or react at all. Chibi clutched his head, lightning pouring from his body, but it didn’t help.

    “*What do we do?!*” Aros cried in between breathing out scattered plumes of dragonfire to keep our attackers at bay.

    “I don’t know!” I didn’t know how to help him, I didn’t know what this even was, and there was too much to focus on for me to think of what to do, not when we still had to fight off the executive’s Pokémon and—

    Chibi let out one last feeble cry before slipping from Aros’s neck and falling limply through the air. I automatically reached for his Pokéball and recalled him, staring numbly as he dissolved into red energy. Chibi, the most powerful member of the team, out of commission just like that, and I didn’t have the slightest clue how.

    And then, without warning, Flygon shot toward us like a bullet. I jerked backward in surprise. Dammit, of course she’d needed to wait until Chibi went down before she could really press the attack. It was too dangerous to get close to us otherwise. That was Raven’s plan all along.

    Aros zipped over to hover alongside Firestorm and me, facing outward so neither of us could be attacked from behind. The opposing Flygon circled us so quickly it was hard to follow it with my eyes. Aros lunged, slashing wildly, but hitting nothing but open air. It was too fast. How the hell was it this fast? What the hell was going on?

    “Feint Attack!” I yelled, desperate for something to land a hit on them.

    Aros glanced back at me with an uncertain look, but then the dark aura flared up around him and he slipped out of view. Seconds later, he reappeared in the other Flygon’s path, swinging his tail straight into its head. It tumbled over in midair, its momentum taking it way off-balance, and Aros didn’t waste a second darting in, his claws lit with dragonfire. He tore several wicked gashes across his original’s tail before it regained itself. The Flygon shot past him once, raking its fiery claws across his back, and before he could pivot around to brace himself for the second hit, it had already swooped underneath.

    I flinched the moment it hit. Aros howled in pain, and I cracked one eye open to a gaping wound running the length of his belly, bleeding freely. My hand flew to a Pokéball and I recalled him in a beam of red.

    Ugh, maybe that was too hasty. I’d get an earful for it later. It was a nasty wound, but not near as bad as… as what had happened to… No, I couldn’t let it get that bad with any of the others. But now it was just me and Firestorm against her, and somehow I didn’t think we had a shot against just her Flygon, let alone the rest of her team. If we took the fight to the ground, I could let out Jet and Stygian for backup. But then—

    <Moltres is down!> Lugia’s voice rang out in my head.

    I jolted. It was down? Already? Then again, that shouldn’t have been surprising—having to fight Lugia and Ho-oh at once, there was no way the firebird would be able to keep up.

    <We’ll still be nearby in case we’re needed, but we’re backing off just to be safe,> Lugia explained.

    <Gotcha,> I replied. No sense risking the Rockets capturing them when we didn’t need to. That also meant that we had absolutely no reason to keep fighting a losing battle against an executive. Time to get the hell out of here. But that Flygon… it would be on us in a second, unless—

    “Scary Face!” I called out.

    In one smooth motion, Firestorm banked a wing to spin around on the spot, flashing a grotesque snarl at the bug-dragon right behind us. Flygon wasn’t ready for that move and jerked backward with alarm the moment it made eye contact. Its wingbeats slowed, muscles losing their tension, and for a moment it was almost frozen in place, so Firestorm took that opportunity to whirl around and bolt in the opposite direction.

    “Give ‘em a Smokescreen too,” I added, and Firestorm breathed out a billowing cloud of thick black smoke in our path. I covered my nose and mouth until it was well behind us. Then the road ended and we emerged into the same battle park where the legends had been fighting previously. I glanced around hurriedly until I spotted it—there, about fifty yards from us, was Moltres, lying prone, wings splayed across the dirt. There was something almost sad about the sight.

    Wingbeats caught my ear and my heart stopped, but then my brain caught up—they didn’t sound anything at all like the buzzing of Flygon wings. I turned in all directions to see Aerodactyl approaching us from the right, which meant Ajia—no wait, he didn’t have a rider. It was actually Mew!

    “*Stay close by, this is nearly over,*” she said.

    Mew folded her wings back and swooped down to land on all fours right next to Moltres. And then she just stood there. Waiting. She could just teleport Moltres away right now, if she wanted to. But that wouldn’t break the mind control, at least not for good. We still needed the Master Ball. She’d be ready the moment anyone tried to recall it; we just had to—

    A bright blue jagged beam shot out of nowhere, knocking Mew flying limply backward, frost coating her wings. I turned in the direction it had come from, and—

    My stomach plummeted. “What?! Articuno?!”

    The ice bird had just soared into view from practically nowhere, its long cobalt wings scattering a fine powder snow throughout the air. Mew shook herself off before launching back into the air, circling Articuno at high speed, breathing out explosive bursts of flame at it nonstop.

    <Articuno’s here! We need you!> I exclaimed. <But watch out, the Rockets are still nearby.>

    <On it!> Lugia replied.

    A red beam glinted in my peripheral vision. I turned to look in its direction and… wait. Moltres was gone! They’d recalled it?!

    Dammit! Articuno was just a distraction! Where were the Rockets? Who had recalled it? Where was the Master Ball?! I spun wildly in every direction, eyes struggling to find a focus in a sea of details, from the scarred park, to the roads, to Lugia and Ho-oh reappearing overhead, to—

    Suddenly, my eyes snapped to it. A Xatu, down by the ground, clutching a Master Ball in its talons. A white glow formed around it, and my stomach jumped into my throat. It was preparing to teleport.

    <It’s going to escape!> I cried.

    <Mew’s on it!> Lugia replied.

    A psychic glow encircled the bird just as it was flickering out of view. Mew swooped down, her eyes glowing the same shade of blue, and Xatu snapped back into clear view, right before it could vanish. She clenched her wing-hands, and the Master Ball flew out of the Xatu’s talons, shooting toward her. And then a second Ice Beam struck Mew dead on, knocking the Aerodactyl spiraling into the side of a building, crashing through a window. The Master Ball dropped to the ground with a clatter, landing in the road on the edge of the park.

    Articuno wouldn’t have the thought to grab the ball itself. Not without an order from the Rockets. And they were busy right now. I only had a moment.

    “Dive!” I yelled.

    Firestorm folded his wings back and shot downward. I flattened myself against his back, forcing my brain to shut out everything else. Not the battle raging overhead, not the attacks flying past me, nothing. Just the tiny purple ball sitting alone on the pavement below. Closer, closer—

    Blades of wind shot from nowhere and I felt the sting of pain as one tore across my arm. I clenched my teeth, gripping Firestorm even tighter. The Charizard whirled around to locate our attacked, but no one was there. What the hell? I glanced back at the ground to see a shadow materializing next to the Master Ball—a round body with broad wings and an eye-catching crest… Honchkrow! Of course! A dark-type. No way to use psychic abilities to wrestle the ball from it. Mew, where was Mew?!

    Hy heart sank. The Aerodactyl had just pulled herself free from the building she’d been knocked through. Ice crystals covered her body; her wings twitched. She’d taken two Ice Beams from Articuno back-to-back, while in a flying-type body no less.

    Firestorm launched a stream of fire downward. If he missed and melted the Master Ball, that’d help us either way. But Honchkrow snatched the ball and melted into shadow almost immediately. The shadow darted out of sight, past a row of cars on the side of the road, and I could no longer follow it with my eyes. It could disappear into the city, rendezvous with any of the Rockets inside, and then we’d never see the Master Ball again.

    <It’s getting away!> I yelled to Lugia.

    The legend didn’t reply, but I felt its heart rate spike and actually had to clutch a hand to my chest. And then without warning, a brilliant yellow beam shot through the air. I froze openmouthed as it cleaved through several buildings like a hot knife through butter. Glass shattered, concrete gave way, the upper floors slowly collapsed inward. I gaped at the destruction in horrified disbelief. We were only a few blocks away from the evacuees! Lugia couldn’t just let wild like that!

    <What the hell was that?!> I demanded.

    <You said it was getting away,> Lugia replied defensively.

    I stifled the urge to scream. <How is blasting the city supposed to help?! You could’ve hit someone.>

    <Well if you’ve got it under control, I’ll just go back to what I was doing,> the legend said, its thoughts tinged with irritation.

    Ugh. Some help. We’d just have to do it ourselves.

    Firestorm’s wings strained; he was beating them as hard as he could but we weren’t gaining. Was Honchkrow even still heading this way? I couldn’t tell. Just had to keep my eyes peeled for where it emerged from the shadow. Where was Ajia? Why couldn’t she have been the one to deal with this. Why’d it have to be me, the one least likely to—

    Dammit, no, couldn’t let myself think like that. I could do this, with or without help. I could do thi—

    “Forgetting someone?” a voice said icily.

    Stones erupted from the ground in front of us. Firestorm swerved to the right, one of them clipping his wing. Then another stone shot up from that direction, and Firestorm had to throw his wings out to stop in time, then the third wave found its mark, bursting up right from under us. Stones dug into Firestorm’s belly, the shockwave from the impact shot through my body, and then we were down, skidding along the pavement before finally coming to a stop. I slowly stumbled off Firestorm’s back, dazed and in pain, limbs shaking. The Charizard pulled himself to his feet and clutched at his stomach with a grimace, blood streaming between his claws.

    That was all three of my flying mons out of commission. I grabbed Firestorm’s Pokéball, ready to recall him when he pushed my arm down.

    “*Either we both get out of here, or neither of us do,*” he said, spreading his good wing as wide as he could, keeping me out of view.

    Couldn’t let him face Raven alone. In a flash, I let out Jet and Stygian. Three Pokémon, one nearly incapacitated, going up against an executive. Her Pokémon were advancing on us now. Gengar, Flygon, Kabutops… the same Kabutops that… that had… (My mind suddenly generated the image of it doing the same thing to Firestorm, and I tried shoving aside but it didn’t want to leave, and—)

    In an instant, Gengar melted into shadow, Flygon’s claws flared up, and Kabutops dashed forward, blades outstretched. Jet and Stygian rushed forward to meet them, the former launching into a waterspout and the latter lighting her blade with dark energy. Firestorm tensed up, taking a half-step forward like he was about to jump into the fray. But then his eyes darted back to me and he didn’t move.

    A spray of water hit my arm. Gengar’s shadow had tried to slip behind us, but Jet had just cut the ghost-type off with a well-aimed Water Gun. The ghost paused for just a moment, shaking itself off irritably, and the Floatzel took that opportunity to lunge forward, dark aura cloaking her fangs. Across the street, Kabutops leaped back and forth, forcing Stygian to turn in all directions just to follow it with her eyes. The rock-type found an opening and darted forward, blades aimed at her neck, but the Absol parried with her own blade. Flygon approached her from behind, ready to tear into her with flaming claws. But then out of nowhere, Jet tackled it to the ground, locking her frost-covered fangs around its arm. That left Gengar free to target us—the ghost flashed a devious smile before letting its fingertips crackle with electricity.

    I didn’t have to say it. Firestorm raised a shimmering white Protect the instant Gengar let the lightning fly. A shower of sparks hit the asphalt as the bolt crashed into the barrier with a resounding crack. Gengar paused, frowning with disappointment. Without warning, Firestorm dropped the barrier and leaped forward, slashing wildly, his claws shrouded in a ghostly aura. Gengar let out a cry of alarm before dissolving back into shadow and regrouping with its teammates.

    I let out a huge sigh of relief. But it was short-lived. My eyes darted back to Jet, wrestling with Flygon, biting it repeatedly with icy fangs. Stygian, staggering backward from the force of a massive blue orb that Gengar had just fired at her. A chill ran down my spine. One of the executive’s Pokémon was unaccounted for.

    I spotted it a second later, leering at us from between two cars. Upon realizing that we’d noticed it, Kabutops broke into a run, blades flashing through the air with each step. Firestorm took a deep breath. He couldn’t use Protect again, so his claws went metallic. A scythe swung for his neck and he blocked it with a clang. Another one, from the other side; his other arm snapped up just in time. The Charizard kept his eyes trained closely on his opponent, watching, waiting… A third swing and this time he lunged forward, locking his claws around both blades at once. Kabutops’s eyes went wide, and it jerked its arms back, but the fire lizard refused to let go.

    And then my eyes caught movement, over by Raven. At her side, a wisp of dark aura had just faded into view, revealing a large black bird clutching a purple Pokéball. My jaw fell open. Honchkrow? It was right here?! And it still had the Master Ball?!

    “Thought we hadn’t figured out how you stole Mewtwo from us?” Raven asked, her words tinged with ice.

    A bolt of lightning fired from Gengar’s fingertips, catching the tail end of a waterjet. The Floatzel inside let out a scream as the electricity coursed through her.

    “Thought we didn’t know Mew would be here?”

    With a vicious snarl, Flygon smashed Stygian’s head into the side of a car repeatedly. Fiery claws tore red gashes across her snow-white fur.

    “The only question is how you’re working together with those monsters.”

    One after the other, the Absol and Floatzel collapsed onto the road, out cold. All of them down but Firestorm, who continued to grapple with Kabutops, claws locked firmly around its scythes.

    “I’m curious to know. But not curious enough.”

    Kabutops slammed a clawed foot against the ground, and pointed stones burst through the pavement, right under Firestorm. The Charizard’s eyes went wide; he coughed hard, blood dripping from his mouth. Then he staggered backward, sinking to one knee before finally collapsing.

    There was a moment where Kabutops’s eyes flickered between Firestorm and me. Like it was debating going over and just ending him right there. But then it opted to go for me instead. I took a step backward, feeling my blood turn to ice from the fossil’s cold, merciless gaze. It wasn’t even bothering with the speed anymore—it was just casually walking toward me. What the hell could I do to stop it anyway? Couldn’t outrun it, couldn’t fight back, no Pokémon left, no other options.

    <Lugia!!> I screamed mentally.

    <Hang on, I’m dealing with Articuno!>

    <Hang on?! I don’t have time!> I’d be dead before it got here! What the hell good was being chosen if I was going to die alone with my patron nowhere near me?!

    And then out of nowhere, Kabutops was knocked flying into the side of a parked car by absolutely nothing. I stared stupidly at the sight, unable to process it. What the hell had just happened? I didn’t see anything hit…

    Without warning, Honchkrow let out a squawk as something slammed into it, knocking the bird clear down the street. Raven’s mouth hung open with a mixture of shock and rage. The Master Ball clattered to the pavement, then lifted into the air just as fast. But there was no psychic glow—it had been grabbed by something invisible.

    Then, as if on cue, I felt a rush of wind next to me, and the air distorted into the jetlike shape of a crimson dragon.

    “*Get on!*” Latias cried.

    She didn’t have to tell me twice. I recalled all three of my Pokémon and jumped onto her back. She was small. I didn’t fit on her back all the way, and she was obviously having a hard time lifting me. But she didn’t complain.

    “You can’t do that! Who the hell do you think you are?!” Raven screamed after us.

    Latias whimpered slightly as a Shadow Ball struck her belly, but she didn’t let her flight path waver. My breathing was shallow and my heart was pounding at a million beats a minute. We’d done it. We’d gotten the Master Ball, and we’d escaped, and I wasn’t dead. I would have collapsed with relief if not for the fact that we still had yet to make it to safety. There was also the fact that Articuno was still circling the skies ahead of us, filling the air with a vicious Blizzard. Latias shivered, slowing her flight so we didn’t get too close. Lugia was forced to hang back while Ho-oh pushed through the storm, blue flames burning across its body.

    And then a loud whistle split the air. Articuno broke from the fight immediately, diving below us to land in the center of the battle park. I spotted Ender closing in on it, his Altaria looking worse for the wear, covered in burns and missing plumes on its wings. In hot pursuit was Aerodactyl—the actual Aerodactyl—with Ajia on his back. So after I lost track of Ender, he’d run into her instead. I couldn’t help feeling a bit satisfied from seeing how much trouble she’d given him.

    I braced myself in case he decided to try anything on us. But he knew better than to pick a fight with Latias. He also knew better than to attempt firing a Master Ball at her. Not with so many opponents close by. Instead, his Altaria took him right above Articuno, where he jumped down to land on the ice bird’s back before recalling the dragon-type.

    “That wasn’t dumb luck… that was planned,” Ender called out, loud enough for us to hear him. “You were working together with them the entire time, weren’t you?” He laughed. “I think we’ll be taking that into consideration next time.”

    His attention snapped to the other Legendaries. To Lugia and Ho-oh, soaring high overhead, to Mew, still in her Aerodactyl guise, now flying over to meet us.

    He tapped a button on his watch and said, “We’re leaving.”

    Suddenly, the same Xatu from earlier materialized right above him. He reached out to grab its talon, and in a flash, they were gone.






    ~End Chapter 38~

    Next Chapter: Sometimes you just gotta prove a Legendary wrong.
     
    Chapter 39: Burning Spirit
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    And now, Chapter 39. The instant you see the title card, you'll know exactly what's about to happen. But I kinda like that. Enjoy~



    ~Chapter 39: Burning Spirit~


    A bright quarter moon pierced the sky overhead, which was now red with twilight. Our group—me, Ajia, Starr, Rudy, and Darren—had just arrived at a large cabin deeper in the woods west of the Ranger Union HQ. I was riding with Ajia on Aerodactyl since all three of my fliers were out of commission. I’d basically felt numb ever since we left Indigo, and was looking forward to not doing anything for the rest of the night. The day had been far, far too long. Watching Rudy’s last preliminary match this morning felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. In a way, it had. I was chosen now. That life was in the past.

    “This watch station isn’t currently in active use, so we should have some privacy,” Ajia explained as we all dismounted the fliers and made our way inside. “Dad said we could crash here since the tournament site is still an emergency zone, and probably won’t be cleared for a while.”

    The cabin was two stories tall with an array of antennas and platforms on the roof. Inside was a cozy interior with a common room to the right, a kitchen to the left, and a wall covered in belts, tools, and other gear just ahead of us.

    “Just don’t touch any equipment or anything,” Ajia added with a wink.

    Darren elbowed Rudy, who had just picked up some kind of colorful, remote-like device from a shelf. It looked a lot like the ones that rangers used to calm raging Pokémon on TV. (Granted, it probably didn’t work anything like it did on TV, but the device itself was real.) Rudy hastily set it down, then opted to go raid the kitchen cupboards for whatever nonperishable foods had been left here. I considered following him—I was pretty ravenous after all—but exhaustion ended up winning out. I shuffled over to one of the common room chairs and sank into it, feeling vaguely lightheaded. Absentmindedly, I reached for my Pokéballs, only to remember that they weren’t there.

    I’d dropped my team off at the main Ranger HQ healing station. My memory of the encounter was a bit fuzzy. After the adrenaline from the mission had worn off, it’d been replaced by a wave of sheer panic as I’d rushed straight there and made them swear that they absolutely would not open Swift’s Pokéball until they were ready to stabilize him. And they’d reassured me, over and over, that yes, they’d be able to handle it, and yes, from my description of the injury and the speed he’d been recalled, he was almost certainly going to recover. And now, an hour later, their words were starting to stick, and I could feel myself relaxing slightly. But the mental image of what had happened still burned, leaving a sickly anxiety worming through my insides.

    <You really shouldn’t work yourself up so much about it,> Lugia had said. <Didn’t they say he was going to be fine?> And I knew that it was right, but my brain didn’t want to listen to that right now. Especially since it was coming from Lugia.

    I could have died. My whole team could have died, and having contact with Lugia hadn’t helped one bit. I wanted to say something, but what was there to say? We’d all known, going into that mission, that the Legendaries wouldn’t be able to fight by our side. Obviously, that meant that they couldn’t step in to save us without putting themselves at risk. But we were the ones risking our lives to save them. It wasn’t fair.

    But that was what I’d signed up for when I agreed to be chosen.

    Looking for something to busy myself with, I found myself idly reaching for my bag, which was currently sitting on the coffee table. At least Mew had managed to recover our stuff from the hotel in Indigo. Something told me that returning to the emergency zone a second time for such a stupid reason would be slightly frowned upon.

    I dragged the bag closer to my chair and started digging through it, like I was looking for something. I wasn’t really sure what, but I continued to shove the bag’s contents to the side until I reached the bottom. And there it was. Like I’d been looking for it all along. The strange metallic orb that I’d recovered from the basement of the Midnight Island ruins. I’d been carrying this thing around for nearly a year now, and I still had no idea what it was. I slowly clasped my fingers around it, feeling its cool, airy surface, a metallic tingle running through my fingertips.

    When I’d first gotten it, there wasn’t anyone I could ask about it other than Stalker. And I’d never gotten the chance to ask him. But now? I was acquainted with multiple Legendary Pokémon, all of whom were familiar with the chosen pact. They’d definitely know something about the orb, right?

    Something else prodded at the back of my mind. What had that pedestal said? That the alliance between human and legend… would fail? I hadn’t paid it much thought at the time. But now I’d seen the proof that the alliance itself was more than just a myth. Now the idea was a lot more unpleasant. Lugia and Mew didn’t seem to be under the impression that our efforts would fail. And we’d just had a major success too…

    Something bumped my chair, and I glanced over my shoulder to see that Starr was leaning against it with her arms crossed over the headrest.

    As expected, Starr’s mood had bounced between outrage and worry ever since we’d gotten back from Indigo. It wasn’t as if I could pretend we hadn’t just hurled ourselves into another deadly situation when she wasn’t looking—the evidence was written all over my arms. In between her ranting over the way we’d just up and left the moment her back was turned, she’d dragged me off to the medical office so I could get my arms bandaged up. None of the cuts were too deep—not like the bullet wound from last year. Still, it was probably good that she made me do something about it, because I sure as hell wasn’t in the mood for it after what my team had gone through.

    “I still can’t believe you guys just went and did that,” Starr said with a rather unimpressed tone. “Could have at least told me.”

    I rubbed the back of my head. “I thought Ajia tried to.”

    Starr opened her mouth to speak but then froze. “Yeah. She did.” Something in her voice told me that fact didn’t really make a difference.

    I exhaled slowly through my nose, unsure what I was supposed to be feeling right now. I hadn’t meant to just turn my back on everything I’d said to her when we were back at the Ranger HQ. But… becoming chosen kind of changed things a bit.

    “I’m guessing it went alright?” Starr asked, trying too hard to make it sound casual.

    I blinked. “Well yeah—like Ajia said, we did it. We freed Moltres.” We freed Moltres. Saying it out loud made the reality of it sink into my mind a bit deeper. In spite of everything, we’d succeeded.

    “I know that,” she said with a slight huff. “But you’re okay, right?”

    “I mean…”—I gestured to myself—“I’m here, aren’t I?”

    Starr groaned exasperatedly and rubbed her knuckles against my scalp. “Alive and alright are two different things. Quit being dense.”

    Okay, she had a point there. I’d made it back from all the Rebellion missions alive too, but… not entirely alright. And the various injuries I’d received were nothing compared to the anxious nausea from what my team had gone through.

    “Yeah. I’m fine,” I said, my mouth dry.

    She seemed to realize how I’d said it. “But someone else isn’t?”

    I wrapped my arms around my knees, pulling them close to my chest. “Swift was… injured.” Everyone was injured, but… not like that.

    Starr paused. “Is he gonna be alright?”

    “The rangers said he would be, but…”

    “But you’re worrying yourself about it ‘cause that’s what you do,” she finished.

    I tilted my head back to look at her directly. “Kinda like what you’ve been doing.”

    To my immense surprise, she let out a snort. “Got me there.” She sank against the back of the chair so that her chin was resting on the top of my head. “Just tell me we’re done for the day, alright? No more surprises.”

    Given the fact that I had absolutely no desire to do anything else for the rest of the day—heck, the rest of the week—I said, “I’m okay with that, yeah.”

    Eventually we’d have to deal with the fallout from all this. Eventually, Mew and Lugia would come up with the next plan of action, and I’d have to help them with it. But for now, I was content to just stay here like this.

    There was a knock against the wooden doorframe. I glanced around the side of the armchair to see a ranger now standing in the entryway. My heart leaped for a moment upon seeing a Pidgeot behind her. But no, it wasn’t Swift—darker belly, longer markings, shorter crest. The moment I gave it a second thought, I felt like an idiot for getting my hopes up. Obviously, he wouldn’t have recovered yet. I don’t know what I was expecting.

    “You really are something else, you know that, Ajia?” Kari said. Her voice was half accusatory, half reluctantly impressed.

    Ajia spun around to face her. “Oh yeah?” she asked, in a tone suggesting that she knew exactly what was coming.

    Kari leaned against the doorframe, arms folded. “It’s pretty obvious you guys are working together with the guardians. No idea how, but it’s the only way you could have pulled that last mission off.”

    Ajia grinned sheepishly. “Saw through that, huh?”

    The Rockets had seen through it too. What was it that Ender had said? ‘We’ll have to take that into consideration next time.’ I didn’t like the sound of that.

    Something else was bothering me. From what the others had said, Raven and Ender were the only executives at that mission. Only two. Two top-class, legendary-handing executives, sure. But only two? Where were the rest of them? Did the Rockets really care so little about that mission? They’d taken a huge gamble by putting Moltres in such a vulnerable position… there had to be a good reason.

    Kari’s expression turned darkly serious. “How long have you all had contact with the guardians? Was it since before the Viridian attack?”

    Starr stood bolt upright. “Yeah, hold up. That’s Ajia’s deal, alright? The rest of us aren’t insane.” I found myself sinking lower into my chair.

    Kari’s gaze slid back to Ajia, looking weary. “Please don’t tell me you had contact with them during the attack.”

    What? She didn’t seriously think that we’d just stood by and let that happen, did she?

    I threw myself around the side of the chair so that I was staring straight at her. “We tried to stop the Viridian incident! If all it took was just talking to the Legendaries, don’t you think we would have tried that?”

    Kari paused, considering me closely. “…Fair. Sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

    I sank back into the chair, still feeling a bit on-edge. The Legendary I had just made an alliance with… was one of the ones responsible for the attack on Viridian. And I didn’t feel remotely comfortable talking to it about that. Besides, Mew had been 100% against the attack. Mew had confronted Lugia about it, right?

    I was chosen now. I was supposed to protect the Legendaries. Even if...

    “So, looks like the big secret is out… again,” Ajia said, looking more relieved than anything. She’d been holding onto Legendary secrets a lot longer than I had. It had to be getting tiring, especially having to hide things from friends or allies.

    At the point I finally noticed Rudy standing at the entrance to the kitchen, staring at Ajia with his mouth hanging open. And from the looks of things, he’d been like that for the past minute or so.

    He blinked a few times to regain himself before saying, “You’ve been working with the Legendaries?”

    Ajia gave him an amused smile. “What’s with that look? You’ve helped save them yourself, haven’t you?”

    He shook his head. “That’s not the same. It’s not like I’ve ever talked to them.”

    “Guess this explains why you guys were so sure we could pull off freeing Moltres, huh?” Darren asked me with a sideways grin. “Seemed like a crazy plan otherwise.”

    “You went along with the plan,” I pointed out.

    He shrugged. “Never said I was smart.”

    “Okay, hang on,” Kari said, putting a hand to her forehead like she was still trying to work something out. “The guardians. If you’re working with them, they’re still nearby, aren’t they? What about Moltres? Are you actually keeping it here? Where is it?”

    Whoa. Okay, this was a lot of questions, how were we supposed to explain any of this? We couldn’t just tell everyone about the chosen pact. But now Rudy, Darren, and Kari were staring at Ajia expectantly. And heck, even Starr of all people was giving Ajia a curious glance, waiting to see what her response would be.

    Kari walked over to Ajia, staring her straight in the eyes. “Where. Is. Moltres?”

    Ajia let out a defeated sigh. “Alright, alright. I’ll show you.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The five of us trudged through the darkening woods on our way to a nearby clearing, where Latias had apparently released Moltres from its Master Ball. Mew led the way, trotting in front of us as an Espeon. I kept expecting someone to question why Espeon of all people knew where the Legendaries were, but no one did. As for me, I was just conveniently going along with the fact that Starr had pinned the blame on Ajia to avoid bringing up the fact that I was chosen as well. Not that it did much to stave off the avalanche of questions from Rudy.

    “This is nuts. I can’t believe your friend knows Legendaries. Which ones? How did she meet them? Have you met them?

    “Look, one thing at a time, alright?” I said, though I wasn’t exactly sure which one to start with.

    “Yeah, give Jade time to make something up,” Darren added with a chuckle. I glared at him and he just gave me a wry grin.

    It also didn’t help that I was having a hard time thinking on account of Lugia complaining in my head the entire time.

    <It’s not like we have a choice,> I reminded the legend. <They’re not going to leave us alone until we give them answers.>

    <Of course you have a choice,> Lugia snapped. <You can refuse to tell them anything. Simple.>

    I rubbed my eyes in frustration. <How are we supposed to explain why?>

    <They do not require an explanation.>

    <Um, yes, they do. If you want someone to help you then they have to be able to trust you,> I said flatly.

    Lugia paused, unwilling to agree with what I’d said, but also struggling to think of a shutdown. It finally settled on, <Well… those two interlopers are one thing, but what about the others? What about her?>

    I raised an eyebrow. <You’re gonna need to be a little more specific.>

    <I’m not good with human names,> Lugia mumbled. <The one that you and Mew’s chosen are close to.>

    I tensed up, feeling uneasy. <Starr? What about her. She already knows about the chosen pact, remember?>

    <I’m aware,> Lugia said sharply. <That doesn’t give her the right to be privy to our plans. Particularly considering her… colorful past.>

    I bristled. So Lugia knew about that. <Look, I don’t want to have this conversation. Starr betrayed Team Rocket. I trust her with my life.>

    Lugia was silent for some time. Scattered bubbles of frustration drifted through its thoughts, but it didn’t put any of them into words. <…Fine,> it said grudgingly, and then its presence retreated into the corner of my mind where I had a harder time feeling it.

    I let out a deep sigh of relief, already feeling a lot better. Dealing with my own emotions was one thing, but getting a double dose of anxiety was too much to handle.

    “Oh crap, is that it?” Rudy said, suddenly breaking into a run.

    I squinted. Some fifty yards ahead of us, an orange glow was visible through the trees. We emerged into a warm, brightly-lit clearing, and there it was. The gigantic firebird lay on its side, flames flickering gently on its head, wings, and tail. There was something oddly peaceful about it. I was so used to seeing it flying overhead, raining down death and destruction. I’d seen it used to kill escaping rebels. Earlier today, I’d barely escaped from it with my life. And even though I knew none of that was its own doing… it was still hard not to feel uncomfortable being so close to it.

    The ground had been swept free of any leaves, needles, or other forest debris, which made it all the easier to spot the purple shards that lay next to Moltres. So Latias had destroyed the Master Ball. Well, of course she had, that was the only way to deactivate the mind control. She also must have healed Moltres, as most of its battle injuries were gone. Was she still nearby, guarding the firebird invisibly? I couldn’t help letting my eyes scan the air above the clearing, hunting for the telltale distortion.

    Rudy was slowly inching closer to Moltres with a look of disturbed fascination. Meanwhile, Starr was glancing around the scene with a disapproving look on her face.

    “So we’ve just got the Legendary bird of fire unconscious right here, huh?” she said. “No big deal, right?”

    I gave her a look. “You’re acting like this is the first time you’ve seen Moltres.”

    “Yeah, well, I am not letting myself get desensitized to this crap,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “This is not normal, okay?”

    Kari and her Pidgeot hadn’t moved since we got here. The former was staring at Moltres with a somber look. Pidgeot’s head was lowered, eyes trained on the ground. It was easy to forget that those two—and most people, for that matter—weren’t used to being in the presence of Legendaries. Starr was right. We really had gotten desensitized to it.

    After a minute of silence, Kari straightened suddenly, turning toward Ajia. “So what’s your plan?” she asked. “Moltres gonna be staying here or what?”

    Ajia laughed. “No way. The other Legendaries are gonna explain the situation to Moltres when it wakes up. And… I guess it’ll go with them.”

    Kari gave her a sideways glance. “So what, does everything go back to normal now? Moltres is free, the day is saved, no more Legendary attacks?” From the look on her face, it was obvious she didn’t trust that for a second.

    Ajia rubbed the back of her head. “Not… exactly. But Indigo should be safe now.”

    Kari nodded distantly, not taking her eyes off Moltres. “Don’t suppose you know where the next attack is gonna be?”

    “The next one?” Ajia said, looking confused. “I mean… the goal is to prevent this from happening again.”

    “Hm,” Kari just said, absentmindedly running a hand through Pidgeot’s crest. “Well. I guess I’ll let everyone know that there shouldn’t be any more trouble from Moltres. I should be getting back to base anyway.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “God, this is gonna be hard to explain. And you haven’t even given me half of it, I can tell.”

    The ranger motioned to Pidgeot, who leaned forward for her to climb onto its back. She paused, glancing over the five of us in turn. “You know there were news crews at Indigo, right? I dunno if they saw you, but… whatever you’re hiding, word’s gonna get out eventually.”

    “We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Ajia said simply.

    Kari was silent for several seconds. Finally, she threw one last glance at Moltres before nodding. “Alright. Good luck,” she said with a small wave. “And try not to cause any more trouble.”

    With a few powerful flaps, Pidgeot took off from the forest floor and the two of them flew off into the twilight skies.

    “You two seem like real great friends,” Starr said dryly.

    Ajia waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, don’t worry about her, I’m always getting into trouble and making things hard for her, and she’s always giving me crap about it. It’s kind of our thing.”

    Starr just shrugged. Still, despite Ajia’s casual tone, I couldn’t help feeling bad. It was another reminder of just how badly this whole Rocket mess was stressing the rangers out. We could fight the Rockets, but they were the ones that had to deal with the fallout.

    I was jolted from my thoughts by Rudy’s voice: “Oh crap, it’s waking up.”

    What? Moltres was—?! I threw a hurried look back at the firebird, whose eyelids were twitching. Its head shifted slightly. Flames burned a bit brighter. Ajia glanced sharply at Mew, and the two of them nodded to each other for a bit while they talked mind-to-mind.

    Starr took a few steps back, raising both arms. “Allllright, I’m good. I’ve seen enough. Heading back to the cabin now. I do not need to be near that thing when it wakes up.”

    She turned and walked off into the forest, making it abound thirty feet before pausing like she’d just realized something. Then she turned to look back at me expectantly, waiting. She was expecting me to follow her. But if the Legendaries were going to be explaining the situation to Moltres soon, wouldn’t it be best if the chosen were present for it? Not that I could say I was chosen, but…

    I gave Starr a helpless shrug that hopefully conveyed the fact that I wanted to follow her but couldn’t. She scowled and turned away, walking further away until she was out of sight.

    I sighed, turning to face Rudy and Darren. “You two should probably head back too.”

    Rudy gaped at me like he’d never been more insulted in his life. “What? Why are you allowed to stay here, then?”

    I was spared the trouble of having to invent a reason when Ajia jumped in with, “At least hide, we don’t want to freak it out, alright?”

    Rudy paused, still looking dissatisfied, but struggling to think of a counterargument.

    “Come on, let’s listen to her,” Darren said, grabbing the back of his shirt and dragging him off toward the trees, ignoring his protests.

    Ajia and I were the last ones to step back, leaving Moltres alone in the center of the clearing. Well, alone except for Mew. She threw a glance back at us to make sure we were all out of the way, then vanished. Several seconds passed. And then in a flash, she reappeared—in her normal body—with Lugia and Ho-oh. Even though I’d been expecting them, it was still jarring to see two gigantic birds suddenly appear out of thin air, making the clearing feel that much smaller. I couldn’t help letting my eyes slide over to Rudy who was now gaping at the trio of Legendaries in stunned disbelief.

    Ho-oh nodded toward us, then took a slow, cautious step towards Moltres, leaning down to tap its beak against the smaller firebird’s shoulder.

    “Can you hear me?” it asked.

    Moltres stirred slightly. “*What’s going on…?*” it mumbled. “*Everything hurts…*”

    “Easy,” Ho-oh said in a calm, measured voice. “You’re safe now.”

    Moltres took several slow, shuddering breaths, struggling to fold its wings and pull its talons under its body. Then its eyes shot open. “*Wait, what?*” It glanced down at itself frantically, flames intensifying with a crackle. Then it threw an incredulous look back at Ho-oh, eyes wide with shock. “*I’m… how?*”

    “The humans no longer control you. You are free now.”

    The flames slowly lowered to a calm smolder. Moltres blinked a few times, lost for words.

    “How are you feeling?” Ho-oh asked.

    Moltres opened its beak to answer, but then it tilted its head at Ho-oh, squinting at the larger phoenix like it had only just realized something. “*Why are you speaking as though—?*” And then the firebird paused sharply, its eyes tracing the clearing and the humans standing nearby. It tensed, letting the flames on its body flare up once again. I felt a sudden desire to melt into the ground.

    “Ah. That would be why,” Moltres said dryly, and it took me a second to realize that it had switched from Pokéspeech to common. “Seems we have humans in our midst.” It turned back to face Ho-oh. “Why is this acceptable?”

    “These humans freed you from your capture,” the larger phoenix replied simply.

    Moltres glanced back at us once more, narrowing its eyes. “I see. I would like to leave now.”

    “You can if you must, but I would quite prefer if you’d remain,” Ho-oh said, closing its eyes matter-of-factly.

    Moltres didn’t respond to that. But it also didn’t move. It just sat there, eyeing us suspiciously. I kept my eyes on the ground to avoid making eye contact.

    Ho-oh turned to face the rest of us, the four humans standing at the edge of the trees. “I must thank you all for your assistance.” Its gaze fell on me, and I couldn’t help shrinking back a bit. “I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance,” the phoenix said, bowing its head. “You are aligned with my sibling, are you not?”

    I blinked in surprise. It took me a second to realize it was talking about my chosen pact with Lugia. “Oh, uh, that’s right.” Unsure of what else to do, I bowed back and said, “It’s nice to meet you?”

    Ho-oh nodded. “Likewise.”

    “Where are my siblings?” Moltres spoke up suddenly, its expression somewhat conflicted.

    Ho-oh shifted its wings uncomfortably. “Articuno is still within their grasp. We weren’t given an opportunity to free them like we were with you.”

    Moltres was silent for several seconds. “I see…” it said, the emotion in its voice hard to place. It then glanced at each of the Legendaries in turn. “And what of Zapdos? Were they not a part of this effort?”

    Ho-oh’s face fell. It glanced back at Mew imploringly.

    <Zapdos has… not been speaking with me,> she said softly, curling her tail around herself.

    Moltres blinked, and this time it was easier to see the heaviness that had taken hold in its eyes. But then its gaze hardened, and it said, “Never mind them. What happens next?”

    <Well… now that we’ve freed you, we’ll be setting our sights on freeing the others,> Mew said. She gestured for Ajia to step forward, who did so with all the confidence of someone who wasn’t surrounded by Legendaries.

    “The Rockets still have four Legendaries in their possession,” Ajia explained. “We’re not going to stop until we’ve freed them all. If we can pull it off, that will definitely prevent the war, won’t it?”

    <That’s optimistic,> Lugia said with a snort.

    <We need the optimism,> Mew replied, giving the dragon-bird a hard look.

    “Well, that’s one way of looking at it,” Ho-oh said, considering her carefully. “But we must also prepare for the worst—if we are unable to prevent the war, we must ensure that the pact is completed. It may become difficult to locate more suitable candidates. We will have to take that into consideration.”

    Moltres glanced between the other legends, mulling something over in its mind. “Still aiming to fulfill the chosen pact, are you?”

    <Of course,> Mew said, as though nothing were more obvious. <Why would we stray from that path now?>

    “Hm,” Moltres just said, disapproval crossing its face. “And how do any of you know that your… selected humans will remain by your side when this conflict escalates and their small lives are threatened?” I couldn’t help but notice its eyes briefly slide toward me.

    Mew shook her head. <Moltres. You are like the rest of us. You’ll have to select an interloper eventually.>

    The firebird narrowed its eyes. “So you say. I still am not convinced that humans possess the resolve necessary for something like this.”

    <The humans freed you,> Mew pointed out.

    Moltres tossed its head indignantly. “Your point? It’s one thing to naïvely charge forward into danger with no grasp of what it means. It’s another thing to see the reality of it, and to continue putting one’s life on the line.”

    I… hated to admit it, but Moltres’s words did strike a chord inside me. It had been easy to agree to joining the Rebellion, knowing that it was dangerous, but not truly grasping the reality of risking my life for this cause. It had been a lot harder to keep pressing on after seeing that reality firsthand. But… I’d done it anyway. And I wasn’t exactly the strongest-willed person around. That had to count for something, right?

    But no one had said anything to the contrary, so Moltres gave a smug grin and went on, “Humans don’t have the resolve necessary for something like this. They lack passion.”

    “You’re wrong.”

    Just those two words brought the world crashing to a halt. Everyone’s eyes widened in shock, even Moltres’s. I whirled around to locate the source… and saw the one person whose expression was one of anger rather than shock.

    It was Rudy. Rudy was the one who had said it.

    Moltres blinked, clearly not used to having a human talk back to it. “Excuse me?” it said, slowly striding across the clearing. A chill ran through me as the great firebird towered over Rudy, bearing down on him.

    Rudy took a deep breath to steel himself and then said, “You’re wrong about humans. We’re not gonna run away just because it’s dangerous. We already know what’s at stake. We’ve been a part of this for too long.” There was pain in his words. That heaviness that I knew all too well.

    “There is no true reason for you to be involved in this war,” Moltres said, waving a wing dismissively. “I cannot expect you to risk your life for this cause when you could leave at any time with no personal cost.”

    Rudy clenched his fists. “What’ll it take for me to prove it?”

    Moltres tilted its head at him, bemused. “Is… is that a challenge?”

    “I guess it is,” Rudy said with a forced laugh. Like he wasn’t really planning on it, but wasn’t about to back down now.

    The firebird stared blankly, almost like it was having a hard time processing his reaction. “Do you… honestly believe you can defeat me?”

    He scoffed. “Like that matters to me.”

    Moltres paused, and for once, it didn’t have an immediate comeback. Several seconds passed. Then, the firebird began to laugh. “I like that. Alright. Come at me, then.”

    Rudy was going to fight Moltres. What even was any of this. My brain refused to accept it, even though I’d seen the entire conversation leading up to it.

    <Is this really necessary?> Lugia asked, taking a step forward.

    “You’re invited to keep quiet,” Moltres snapped. Lugia rolled its eyes, but said nothing.

    Rudy spun around and let out his team. Six Pokéballs opened with a flash and materialized into Fearow, Raichu, Tauros, Nidoking, Ebony, and Pupitar. All six of them immediately snapped their attention to the huge fiery Legendary standing right in front of them, varying degrees of fear and awe crossing their features.

    “In case some of you didn’t know, we freed Moltres from the Rockets,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder unnecessarily. “Except now it apparently doesn’t think we’re good enough to help it.” (Moltres raised a brow at that, but didn’t interject.) “Who wants to show it that we know what we’re getting into?”

    Ebony’s mouth hung open, stars in her eyes. Raichu gave a devilish smirk, sparks leaping from her cheeks. Nidoking cocked an eyebrow but put up his fists just the same. Pupitar didn’t complain, which was about as close to a yes as she ever gave. Tauros glanced uncertainly at Moltres. He hadn’t been on the team during the Rebellion days; seeing Legendaries in person was totally new to him. And the idea of fighting them had to be equally weird. But after several seconds’ hesitation, the bull’s eyes sharpened. He pawed the ground and let out a snort, leveling his horns at the Legendary.

    And in the midst of them all, Fearow glanced back and forth at her teammates incredulously. She drew herself back, ruffling her feathers. “*I’m out. This is crazy.*”

    Rudy closed his eyes. “That’s fine. I’m the crazy one here,” he said, taking her Pokéball in his hand. He gave her a soft look. “But I don’t want you to have any regrets.”

    Fearow scoffed, turning away dismissively. But then she glanced back at him out of the corner of her eye with just the slightest bit of uncertainty. Rudy held out the ball, and she snapped her gaze to him.

    “*Stop,*” Fearow said sharply. “*You’re right.*” She took a deep breath, throwing a sideways glance at Pupitar. “*No regrets this time.*”

    Rudy nodded forcefully, replacing her Pokéball on his belt. Then he spun around to face Moltres and said, “We’re ready.”

    Such conviction,” the firebird said mockingly. But then it crouched low and spread its wings, flames intensifying with a crackle.

    Rudy pointed forward and the team leaped into action—Nidoking and Raichu firing off bolts of lightning, Fearow letting blades of wind fly from her wingtips, Ebony barking out a pulsing wave of dark energy, Tauros charging powerfully, sparks coursing through his mane. Moltres lazily waved a wing to raise a wall of flame in front of its face, blocking the attacks. It then swept both wings forward, unleashing a hail of fireballs from its blazing feathers.

    “Fearow, Nidoking, shield the others with Protect!” Rudy yelled.

    The two of them banded together in the center with practiced coordination, and everyone else didn’t waste a second ducking behind the duo. Flames spilled out around the pair of shields, the entire group of Pokémon flinching from the waves of heat that scorched the air. I stepped back instinctively, but the fireballs rebounded off a psychic barrier that Mew had raised to keep the forest around us from catching fire.

    “What sort of conviction does it take to risk your companions in a pointless battle?” Moltres called out. “What does this say of you?”

    Rudy clenched his teeth, glaring at the Legendary. “They’ve got the same conviction as me. We’ve all got each other’s back; we all make each other stronger.”

    “Such statements are meaningless,” Moltres said with a scoff. “Any risk you would take is borne by them, not you!”

    The hail of fireballs lessened. But before any of them could prepare for another attack, Moltres swept its wings together, and another wall of flames burst up from the ground, right in front of Rudy’s team. The firebird stared down at them with a smirk as though daring them to break past the wall.

    “Fearow, carry Raichu over the flames!” Rudy yelled.

    Fearow paused just long enough to let Raichu leap onto her back before flapping harder to gain altitude. The electric-type leaped down from above, landing on Moltres’s back and discharging a flood of lightning. The firebird squinted for a moment as the electricity surged through its body. It began to glow. Then a beam of red shot forward, dissolving Raichu just seconds before flames erupted from the spot where she’d been standing.

    Rudy re-released Raichu next to himself. Moltres snapped its attention to the two, starting slightly upon seeing that its target was standing right next to him. Then its eyes narrowed.

    “You think I’ll hold back simply because you’re in the way?” it demanded.

    Rudy smirked. “It made you pause, didn’t it?” Did he seriously just say that?

    Moltres’s eyes went wide for a second. And in that moment’s hesitation, Nidoking burst up from the dirt, horn already crackling with electricity. A bolt of lightning shot through the Legendary. Moltres kicked the ground-type away, annoyed, but then Tauros slammed into it at full force, sparks leaping from his mane.

    “I’ve made that mistake before,” Rudy muttered, staring downward, fists clenched. “I put my Pokémon at risk when I wasn’t willing to do the same for him. I’m not letting anything like that happen ever again.”

    Moltres tilted its head incredulously, but then the corners of its beak turned up. “Oh? Then how will you protect them? How will you protect anyone? What strength can the legends possibly derive from you?”

    “I…”—he grit his teeth—“I can’t answer that.”

    Moltres smirked. “Better find an answer, then.” It unleashed another torrent of fire. “Before my patience is through!”

    This time Ebony leaped in front, struggling to shield her teammates. Her pelt glowed red, absorbing the flames, but it was too much for her. Fearow flapped her wings, trying in vain to blow away the wall of fire. Raichu retaliated with bursts of lightning. It wasn’t enough. Ebony let out a whimper and sank to the ground. Nidoking struggled to raise a Protect, but it hadn’t been long enough since the last time he’d used it. The barrier flickered with the heat of the flames, then sputtered and died. The lineup broke, Nidoking retreating underground and Raichu hopping on Tauros’s back to escape the Flamethrower.

    “I suppose you think that teaching this lot a few amusing tricks makes you worth something, is that it?” Moltres asked, its eyes lit with anticipation. Like it couldn’t wait to see how he’d respond.

    But Rudy didn’t give an answer. He just kept his eyes on his team and called out, “Tauros, power up Raichu; Fearow, cover them with Mirror Move!”

    Sparks coursed through Tauros’s mane, this time flowing into Raichu. She used the boost to fire off another lightning bolt, twice as thick as the last one. Moltres’s eyes twitched from the hit, and it swept another wing forward, sending more fireballs raining down from above. Fearow copied its motions exactly—a shimmering, reflective surface trailed from her wings, spawning an identical barrage to intercept Moltres’s attack. Nidoking used that opportunity to emerge from underground and fire off yet another Thunderbolt at the Legendary.

    “Enough!” Moltres snapped, stamping the ground with a talon. The dirt began to glow.

    “Get back!” Rudy yelled.

    Fearow shot toward him with a Quick Attack while Tauros and Nidoking dashed after her. Seconds later, flames erupted from the ground where they’d been standing. Rudy staggered backward, shielding his face from the waves of hot air rushing outward. Even from where I was standing, the heat was stifling.

    Finally, the flames cleared. I could see Tauros panting hard, Raichu clinging to his mane. Nidoking holding a tuckered-out Ebony under one arm. Fearow landing next to them, feathers scorched. They were still standing. But only because Moltres wasn’t remotely using its full power. How long until it got bored with this game? What would it do then? It wouldn’t… actually attack Rudy, would it? Mew would put a stop to things if it came to that… right?

    Moltres chuckled lowly. “Such passion you instill in your comrades. Truly a sight to behold.” Its eyes scanned Rudy’s battered and tired lineup… and settled on Pupitar, who hadn’t moved this entire time.

    “What of this one?” Moltres asked, cocking its head. “Has your stirring inspiration failed to move them?” It would’ve been easy to miss the way Pupitar’s eyes twitched slightly at the Legendary’s words.

    Rudy scowled. “Leave her alone, she can do what she wants.”

    “Oh? What happened to your talk of shared conviction?” Moltres asked eagerly. “Clearly you are not the great motivator you believe yourself to be.”

    Rudy opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but then clenched his teeth and remained silent. His team glared daggers at the firebird, but none of them had the strength to do anything about it.

    At least, not until Pupitar hopped in front of all of them, facing down Moltres alone.

    Rudy stared. “You don’t…” he struggled to find the words. “You don’t have to if you don’t wanna.” But Pupitar didn’t acknowledge that he’d said anything.

    “Am I wrong?” Moltres asked her. “Why don’t you show me?”

    Without warning, Pupitar fired a burst of gas and shot forward, plowing into the firebird’s belly. Moltres stopped laughing. The Legendary opened its beak and retaliated with a vicious Flamethrower, completely enveloping the rock-type in an overwhelming blaze.

    “Use Protect!” Rudy yelled.

    A shimmering white barrier formed around the pupa’s body, but the swirling torrent of fire completely surrounded her on all sides, immobilizing her. It was only a matter of time before the Protect shattered from sheer force of it, and then what? Moltres grinned wildly, adding more and more fire to the vortex. Flames spilled out around the barrier relentlessly. Pupitar’s armor glowed white-hot from the heat.

    Wait. That glow. It wasn’t the heat—Pupitar’s body was glowing by itself. With a resounding crack, her armor split open. Arms and legs shot out, claws digging into the dirt. Rows upon rows of spikes erupted though the shell. Moltres paused its fire breath, staring down at its opponent with intrigue. Where there had once been a limbless pupa, a rock-armored beast slowly raised herself from the dirt, shaking bits of broken armor to the ground. Her eyes snapped open. She looked down at herself, flexing her claws experimentally.

    She’d evolved. She’d evolved!! I didn’t think she’d have the strength to pull that off for several more months. Maybe it was the sheer pressure of fighting a Legendary. Maybe it was the force of taking Moltres’s attack. Maybe it was determination alone. But however it happened, she’d evolved.

    All five of her teammates suddenly broke into wild cheering—Ebony practically jumping for joy in spite of her burns and Nidoking pounding his chest wildly and Raichu firing sparks into the air. Rudy stared at the dinosaur, eyes wide with awe and pride. Finally he jumped several feet into the air, throwing both arms up. “I told you you could do it! I told you! You did it!”

    And then Pupitar, or rather Tyranitar—who had always looked perpetually bored with everything, even battling—flashed a toothy grin back at them all and said, “*I like this.*”

    And then she charged forward. Every footfall sent jagged blades of stone ripping up from the earth, and for the first time, I saw a flicker of alarm in Moltres’s eyes before the Stone Edge dug into its body. The firebird recoiled backwards, screeching in pain and rage before unleashing an explosive burst of flame, shattering the stones to bits and consuming Tyranitar in a whirlwind of fire. The rock-type stood her ground, pushing on through the raging inferno. Raising both arms straight up, she pulled a hail of boulders from the dirt and sent them crashing into Moltres.

    But the tips of Tyranitar’s spikes had started to melt away. The rock-type sank to her knees. She glanced back at Rudy, and his hand hovered over his Pokéball belt.

    Tyranitar shook her head. “*Not yet. Took this long to get this body. Might as well see what it can do.*” She stomped the ground again and more rocks exploded up from under Moltres. The Legendary easily could have avoided the rocks. But it didn’t. Almost like it was making a point by sitting there and taking them. Stones dug into it over and over, but it kept up the relentless stream of fire, waiting until Tyranitar was doubled over, panting hard. The dinosaur screwed her eyes shut, digging her claws into the dirt. One last rock ripped itself from the ground, smacking Moltres in the side of the face. Then another fireball and she was down. Sprawled out on the dirt, the faintest trace of a grin still visible on her face.

    “You were badass, Tyranitar,” Rudy whispered before recalling her in a beam of red light.

    They’d lost. Well, there was never any question that they would. But Rudy didn’t seem bothered by that fact. He’d known full well there was zero chance of him coming out ahead, and he’d done it anyway, and he obviously wanted it to mean something, though I wasn’t sure what.

    Moltres took several slow, menacing steps forward, eyes glued to Rudy the entire time. Part of me wanted to run over to him, but the other part was glued to the spot, unable to do anything but watch.

    “I should kill you for such a foolish move,” it said poisonously, looming over him.

    Rudy craned his neck upward to glare at the phoenix, defiance written all over his face. “I thought you wanted to see some passion. Now you’re saying it’s foolish?”

    Moltres laughed, and the sound echoed around us with an eerie reverberating quality.

    Rudy wasn’t fazed. “I want to make a difference. So if you won’t believe me, then let me prove that humans aren’t weak.”

    The firebird tilted its head back, looking genuinely surprised. “Such conviction… but I wonder… will it be able to endure the flames of war?”

    Rudy grinned. “We’ll find out, won’t we?”

    Moltres opened its eyes wide as though it had been slapped, but then immediately broke into reverberating laughter once more. “Speaking as though I have already decided?! Ha! Very well! Let us see how you handle it!”

    And in a flash, Rudy was completely engulfed in flames.

    “Rudy!!” I screamed, eyes wide, but then Ajia held me back with a knowing look.

    “Just watch,” she said quietly.

    Just watch?! Just watch as Rudy was—wait. The flames swirled around in a vortex, sending waves of heat radiating around the clearing. Every few seconds, a gap appeared, and I caught a glimpse of him in the center. Face scrunched up in pain, but still standing, not charred to ash. And then I saw myself in his shoes, that moment when I felt myself torn apart as Lugia and I were joined together.

    Mew had to stop Rudy’s team from rushing in to pull him from the flames. They all stared at her wide-eyed as she explained. Rudy was on his knees now, fists clenched at his side. Moltres’s eyes were closed in deep concentration. A faint red glow emanated from the firebird, visible even through all the firelight.

    And then, in a flash, the flames cleared. Moltres’s eyes snapped open. Rudy fell forward onto all fours, breathing hard. At once, his team crowded around him, Nidoking helping him stand while Ebony nuzzled his side.

    “What… what the hell just happened?” Rudy asked, sounding dazed.

    Moltres folded its wings, peering down at him. “You wanted the chance to prove yourself. You have gotten it. You are now my chosen. You will fight by my side until the end of the war.”

    He grinned weakly. “Sounds good.”

    “Do not take this commitment lightly,” Moltres snapped, its voice heating up.

    Rudy’s expression sharpened. “That’s not it. I know it’s a big deal.” His eyes slid to the ground. “I just… I know I’ll be able to help out a lot more if I combine my strength with yours. This is my chance to do something right. I wanna feel good about it.”

    Moltres considered his response carefully. Finally it nodded and straightened itself, glancing around at the rest of us for the first time in a while. All of us were frozen, staring at the two of them with varying degrees of shock.

    “So. I’ve sealed my pact, as you wished,” Moltres announced, throwing a sideways glance at Mew. “Does this satisfy you?”

    Mew chuckled slightly. <There’s no need to put it like that,> she said with a smile. <But yes… I’m glad.>

    Lugia gave an unimpressed snort. <So I suppose we are completely throwing secrecy to the winds, then?>

    Mew curled her tail around herself. <For our missions to work from now on, we might have to. It was a great advantage in rescuing Moltres, but now the Rockets know that their enemies are getting help from the legends, one way or another.>

    Lugia squinted at her. <Need I remind you that you were the one so insistent on keeping the secrecy in the first place?>

    <I know…> she said, closing her eyes. <Times have changed.> She refused to look at Lugia.

    <Why are you so worried about secrecy, anyway?> I asked Lugia privately. <I understand that it’s dangerous to let too many people too close, but everyone in our group has already proved they’re trying to help, haven’t they?>

    Lugia was silent for some time, its mind flitting between two different things. It felt conflicted. <With humans, you can never know when they will turn on you. The Order has already learned that lesson the hard way.>

    I blinked. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to take that. <So what you’re saying is, you don’t trust us.>

    A prickle of annoyance. <You have had more dealings with humans than I. Can you honestly say that they have never betrayed you?>

    I paused. Memories from last year surfaced in my mind. I’d trusted that Stalker wanted to help the Legendaries, and that had turned out to be a lie. Lugia must have sensed my doubts, because I felt a wisp of self-satisfaction from it.

    <No. I can’t. But…> But I didn’t have a good argument. There wasn’t much point in continuing this conversation, so I decided to drop it for now.

    “Today has brought us not one, but two great victories,” Ho-oh said, nodding toward Rudy and Moltres. “I wish you both nothing but the best.”

    Moltres tossed its head indifferently. “So what next?”

    Next? After everything we’d been through today, the idea of there even being a ‘next’ was too exhausting to think about.

    Fortunately, Ajia was on the same page. She jumped in with, “We’ve all had a long day. We should call it a night; worry about tomorrow when it comes, alright?” She looked up at the Legendaries imploringly.

    Mew nodded. <I agree. You all deserve rest.>

    Thank god. Even if we’d be sleeping in tiny cabin bunks as opposed to the plush beds in the hotel room back at Indigo, it still sounded like heaven after all this. And… some of us had gone through more than others.

    I glanced back at Rudy. He was giving his team a reassuring smile as he talked with them, having to hold Ebony down from licking his face repeatedly.

    “You guys were awesome, you know that?” I said as I walked over. Ebony beamed up at me while Fearow closed her eyes with just the slightest bit of a self-satisfied grin. Rudy smiled faintly, holding a hand against his temple. I couldn’t help noticing him swaying a bit, like he might lose his balance at any moment.

    “Hey, so… congrats,” I added, unsure if that was an appropriate thing to say in this situation. “How you feeling?”

    “It’s wild,” Rudy said distantly. “I saw… things.” He closed his eyes and shuddered. All the negative emotions associated with the fight, all at once—that’s what he’d just had to endure. Having gone through that myself, I couldn’t blame him for feeling out of it.

    Rudy finally opened his eyes, forcing a smile. “I made a lot of stupid mistakes, huh?”

    “We all did,” I said slowly. “You could say that joining the Rebellion was the stupidest mistake of all.”

    Rudy shook his head. “That’s the one thing I don’t regret. I mean… I know what it led to. But that was my fault. Just joining the team in the first place? I don’t regret that.”

    I paused, meeting his eye. “Me neither.”

    As we walked toward the edge of the clearing, I happened to glance over and see Darren leaning against a tree, hands buried in his pockets and an awkward look plastered on his face.

    “Right, so… this is a thing, I guess,” he said with a forced laugh, his eyes tracing the various Legendaries still standing around the clearing, discussing things amongst each other. “Should I really be here?”

    “Why the hell not?” Rudy asked heatedly. “You’re on our team, aren’t you?”

    Darren chuckled. “The Rebellion ended a long time ago.”

    “That doesn’t matter,” Rudy said, waving a hand like he didn’t want to hear it. “The Rebellion’s over but that Rocket mess is still happening, yeah? That didn’t magically go away.”

    Darren gave a noncommittal shrug. Then his eyes fell on me, and he gave me a curious look. “So Jade… you’re obviously one of the ones who’s allowed to be here, I guess. Did you… make a deal with one of them?”

    I swallowed. No point in hiding it. “Yeah.” Rudy snapped his head toward me in surprise—he must not have pieced that together yet.

    “Which one?” Darren asked.

    “Huh?” I hadn’t been expecting that question to sound so casual. “Oh, uh… Lugia.”

    He folded his arms behind his head and gave a crooked smile. “You know, that’s pretty sweet.”

    I had a hard time framing it like that, but... yeah. It kind of was.

    “Wait, seriously? You’re partnered with Lugia?!” Rudy exclaimed, and his tone ripped me back to a distant time. Back when he’d gush about meeting Legendaries and proving himself to them. Back before the weight of the world had crashed down on us.

    Unsure of how else to respond, I just said, “Yeah.”

    “Why didn’t you tell us?” Rudy demanded.

    I almost laughed out loud. “Why do you think? I wasn’t allowed to, that’s why.”

    He scowled. “That’s dumb, why not?”

    I opened my mouth to speak… and then realized that Moltres really hadn’t explained much of anything about the chosen pact to Rudy. Maybe it planned on doing so privately later. Either way, silly as it was, Rudy had a point. While it made sense that we couldn’t go blabbing Legendary secrets to the world, I was absolutely fed up with keeping secrets from friends and allies. No more.

    “You’re right. I guess it was dumb.”

    Rudy nodded sharply like he’d sure showed me. Like I hadn’t just agreed with him.

    “C’mon, let’s head back now. You look like you’re about to pass out,” Darren said.

    “I’m just fine,” Rudy snapped. Nidoking rolled his eyes at that, as he was probably the only thing keeping his trainer standing.

    It had been a very, very long day. But in the end, I couldn’t help feeling pretty okay about how it had all turned out.






    ~End Chapter 39~

    Next Chapter: Sebastian's here. And he has news for everyone.
     
    Chapter 40: Crisis in Hoenn
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Thanks for the reviews, uA and Adam! I really enjoyed reading your comments. :D

    With this chapter, we've hit an important milestone. LC is officially halfway done. It's wild to finally be at this point. Is everyone ready? Let's dive in~



    ~Chapter 40: Crisis in Hoenn~



    By the end of the night, Mew had teleported the other Legendaries back to their respective homes. It was kind of strange to feel Lugia’s restless, distracted mind slowly settle into a calm, gentle flow, almost like a river slowing down. The feeling was… relaxing in a way. If Lugia could sleep soundly, then so could I.

    Ajia showed us the barn behind the cabin, which was set up as a Pokémon sleeping quarters, and everyone let their teams out for the night (with a few exceptions like Pichu, who preferred to stay with their trainers). Then we were finally free to head inside and get ready to crash. My head hit the pillow and I was out almost immediately.

    Then, what felt like seconds later, a high-pitched cry jerked me awake.

    “What the heck…” I muttered to myself, burying my head under the pillow. The noise didn’t stop. And then, for whatever reason, my brain finally processed that it was Latias’s voice.

    “Latias?” I blurted out, sitting up straight and blinking in the darkness. Then the light switch flipped on and I had to shield my face from the sudden brightness assaulting my eyes. Squinting through nearly-closed eyelids, I could just barely make out the crimson dragon flying circles near the ceiling.

    “*There’s an intruder!*” she cried.

    An intruder? What? Who? The Rockets? How did they find us here? Did they follow us? Were we under attack?

    “Who is it?” I asked her.

    “*It’s him! The one who stole my brother!*” the dragon cried.

    My heart skipped a beat. Stalker? Stalker was here? No way. I hadn’t seen him in over nine months. I was hoping I could just forget about him. What on earth was he doing here? Why now?

    I rubbed my eyes aggressively until I was finally able to see, then threw a glance at Ajia and Starr. Ajia already had a look of deep concentration as she spoke mind-to-mind with Mew. Starr’s eyes were screwed shut, and she looked tired enough to murder someone for more sleep.

    “Someone gonna tell me what the hell is—”

    “Sebastian,” Ajia cut in.

    Starr’s eyes snapped open. “What the hell is he doing here?” she said.

    “Guess we’re about to find out,” Ajia said, jumping to her feet. She paused long enough for Pichu to leap onto her shoulder before bolting out the door. With a heavy groan, Starr followed.

    I leapt out of bed and glanced around for Chibi… and then remembered that he and the rest of my team were back at the main ranger station. Dammit. I mean, I’d had to, they were injured, but still, dammit. Then again, it wasn’t like we had any reason to expect a fight… right?

    I rushed down the stairs, my head a confused, distorted mess of conflicting emotions. Stalker was here, and I had absolutely no idea how I was supposed to feel about that. Wary? Anxious? Scared? Angry? This wasn’t how I’d imagined things would be the next time I saw him. But what had I imagined? That we’d somehow get the chance to talk things out and come to an understanding? Of course that was unrealistic. But had I wanted that?

    Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I registered the fact that we were running downstairs to confront a Rocket commander while wearing pajamas. So now embarrassment could get added to that pile of conflicting emotions.

    My footsteps slowed as I reached the ground floor. The front door was open, light spilling out into the front walkway; Ajia and Starr were out on the steps. And there he was, right in front of us. Former leader of the Rebellion. Current head of the Johto combat unit. The one who’d used us for months, playing with our lives, all just to serve his power play with the Kanto force. Standing out there in a long, white executive’s coat, arms folded behind his back, Charizard sitting calmly at his side. He raised his hands disarmingly, casting an amused glance around at the lineup of both human and Pokémon that had rushed out to confront him.

    “I believe congratulations are in order,” he said. “You all did quite the masterful job stealing Moltres from the Kanto force.”

    Part of me wanted to say something. It had been over nine months since I’d last seen him. Nine months since he’d abruptly gone from trusted ally to cold manipulator in the span of a single night. But the words wouldn’t come.

    “What do you want, Sebastian?” Ajia asked, her voice tired and exasperated. Pichu punctuated her words with a jolt of sparks.

    “Wait… Stalker? He’s the one you’re all so worked up about?” a voice called out.

    I spun around to see the two faces that weren’t scowling at him: Rudy gaping incredulously and Darren squinting like he was trying to put together what was going on.

    “What are you doing here, man?” Rudy asked, taking a few steps forward.

    “More like what the hell are you doing here,” Starr snapped.

    Rudy froze, staring at her in bewilderment. He glanced back and forth between Stalker and me, waiting for answers.

    Oh geez, he didn’t know. I’d never told him. He had no idea that Stalker wasn’t on our side after all. On top of that, I could now see a couple of Rudy and Darren’s Pokémon inching into view from around the side of the cabin, looking equally confused. Ebony and Weavile in particular were frozen mid-step, like they’d been about to run over and say hi until everyone started acting so hostile.

    I made eye contact with Rudy and frantically shook my head back and forth while swiping a hand from side to side. But he just stared back, completely oblivious. Darren seemed to realize what I was getting at though. He grabbed Rudy’s shoulder, and when the latter turned toward him in confusion, he just shook his head and put a finger over his mouth.

    “There’s no need for hostility. I’ve just come to talk,” Stalker said.

    “You’ve got some nerve showing up here like this and expecting a warm welcome,” Ajia said coolly. Starr distinctly looked like she was holding back from saying much harsher things.

    And then out of nowhere, Latias shot forward, stopping right in front of him and staring him straight in the eyes. “*Let my brother go!*”

    Stalker stared back, unflinching. “I’m afraid that I can’t do that. I still need to utilize his strength for my plans.”

    “*How is what you’re doing any different from what they’re doing?!*” she cried, voice breaking slightly.

    Stalker closed his eyes in frustration. “I am not going to explain this again. I need Latios. Now do you want to hear what I have to say or not?”

    Latias drew herself back, eyes wide and shining. And for a second, I was half-convinced that she was about to attack him. But then she screwed her eyes shut and bolted away from him, ducking behind Mew, who was hovering over Ajia’s head, watching him carefully.

    “I believe your other Legendary allies will want to hear this. Why don’t you bring them here?” Stalker offered.

    “You really think we’ll fall for that?” Ajia asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “They have nothing to fear from me,” he said simply. “I’m the one who’s outmatched here.”

    It didn’t… seem like he was lying. After all, what could he possibly do to us when he was so ridiculously outnumbered? Heck, even without the Legendaries, all Starr had to do was snap her fingers and her team would be on him in an instant. And from the look on her face, she was about five seconds away from doing just that.

    Ajia let out a sigh, then glanced over at Mew and nodded. The psychic cat considered her carefully, then nodded back and vanished. Several seconds passed. I felt a sudden spike of irritation in the back of my mind as Mew no doubt had just invaded Lugia’s sanctum. Another minute passed, and Mew suddenly reappeared, this time joined by three gigantic birds—Lugia looking cross, Ho-oh concerned, and Moltres intrigued.

    “Who is this human?” Moltres asked once it had gotten a good look at the standoff. “If he has stolen the power of a legend, why do we not simply kill him?”

    Stalker stared unflinchingly up at the firebird. “Killing me won’t free Latios. It would only ensure that you never find him. And I have information that you require.”

    “Bold of you to assume I would not kill you anyway,” Moltres said coolly.

    “I would not have come here if I hadn’t prepared for that possibility.” The unspoken implication was clear—he knew for a fact that his life was not in danger.

    Moltres considered him for some time before drawing itself back, looking satisfied. “Very well. Say what you have to say.”

    Stalker turned to face the rest of us, surveying the faces on our group. “I’m sure by now you’ve all realized the purpose of the Rockets’ attack on Indigo.”

    I hesitated. I thought we knew, but hearing him say it like that, I was suddenly unsure.

    “They were… using it as bait to capture the other Legendaries,” I said, eyeing him closely.

    Stalker folded his arms behind his back. “That’s one reason, certainly. Far from the main one, however.”

    “So quit playing your dumbass games and tell us already,” Starr spat.

    He made eye contact with Starr briefly, looking vaguely amused by her wording, before turning his gaze back to Ajia. “It’s more that they wished to draw attention away from something else.”

    “So it was a distraction,” Ajia said flatly. Stalker nodded.

    Nothing but a distraction. God, that explained everything. No wonder the mission didn’t make any sense. Trying to lure the others into a trap and capture them? And sending only a single squad of Rockets with two executives to do it? What a joke. Of course the Rockets didn’t really have an agenda at Indigo. No wonder it felt like the attack just kept going for hours with no end goal, more about putting on a spectacle than actually accomplishing anything. We were idiots.

    “What are they really planning?” I asked, a sinking feeling building in my stomach.

    Even after all this time, I had no trouble spotting that subtle gleam in his eye when I asked that. Like he was already relishing the chance to explain. I hated it—all it did was remind me of how I thought I knew him.

    “The attack on Viridian last year put the Rockets in a dangerous position,” Stalker began slowly, carefully watching for our reactions, “and without Mewtwo, it would be too difficult for them to proceed with their plans, unless they manage to obtain a weapon on par with Mewtwo.”

    A Legendary Pokémon… on par with Mewtwo? Did such a Pokémon exist?

    “What, so like Mew?” I asked with a glance back at the psychic cat.

    “Mewtwo was engineered to be stronger than Mew,” Starr cut in, folding her arms. “And Mew is too difficult to hunt down. Trust me, it’s not Mew.”

    <Some Legendary Pokémon are more powerful than others,> Mew explained, gesturing to Lugia and Ho-oh. <They are the higher legends. It’s likely that Mewtwo matches even them in strength.>

    That some Legendaries were even stronger than the rest… the idea had honestly never even occurred to me. Then again, it made sense, thinking back to when Lugia had attacked Viridian—Articuno and Moltres had barely been able to put a scratch on it. But somehow it was comforting that, as powerful as Mewtwo was, he wasn’t stronger than the higher legends. His power wasn’t unprecedented.

    <Let them try for me. I dare them,> Lugia said coldly.

    Ho-oh gave the silver bird a tired look. “It’s not wise to tempt fate.”

    Stalker shook his head. “Fortunately, neither of you is the target,” he said matter-of-factly. “The Rockets have set their sights on Hoenn.”

    A heavy silence fell over the surrounding. Slowly, each of us turned toward Latias, whose eyes had gone wide with dread.

    “*What do you mean?*” she asked, her voice quivering slightly.

    Stalker paused for several seconds, waiting until all eyes were back on him. Satisfied that he had everyone’s attention, he went on, “They’re going to reawaken Groudon and Kyogre.”

    Groudon… and… Kyogre? I’d… vaguely heard of them. Ancient gods of Hoenn, or something like that? Not exactly the kind of Legendaries that anyone ever saw.

    Latias was still staring. “*But… how? They’d need the red and blue orbs, but... those are…*”

    “Currently held inside the Magma and Aqua bases, yes,” Stalker finished. “The Rockets aim to steal them.”

    “Wait, wait wait wait,” I said, grabbing my forehead while I tried to make sense of this sudden revelation. “What the heck are you guys talking about? Orbs? Reawaken?”

    Latias paused, realizing that the rest of us had no idea. She tapped her claws together and said, “*Two years ago, there was a terrible event in my home region. You might have heard of it—the humans called it the Hoenn weather crisis.*”

    Okay, that definitely sounded familiar. Memories of seeing footage of a crazy weather catastrophe on the news suddenly drifted back to me. Supposedly caused by a gang of environmental extremists, although how exactly they’d been able to cause such a thing had always been conveniently danced around.

    “*Two rival organizations sought to shape the Hoenn region in their own image,*” she went on. “*One sought to expand the land; the other, the sea. So they set their sights on awakening the ancient gods Groudon and Kyogre, to realize their dream.*” She paused, shivering. “*But… that dream would have been nothing but an unending hell for the world.*”

    I stared at her, a chill running down my spine. “Are you saying that Team Rocket’s trying to recreate that disaster?”

    “Only as long as it takes to capture them,” Stalker said simply.

    I gaped at him, still struggling to process the weight of it all. “And these Magma and Aqua guys… we’ve gotta deal with them now?”

    Latias frowned. “*I… don’t believe so. When the Hoenn region was in crisis, both teams’ leaders saw the error of their ways, and lent their efforts toward sealing Groudon and Kyogre once more. After the crisis was resolved, they announced that they wished to make amends, and pushed their organizations in a more respectable direction. Latios and I kept a close eye on them—the Hoenn region has not seen any trouble from them since.*”

    “Well they’re gonna be in for a nasty surprise when the Rockets show up on their doorstep,” Ajia said grimly.

    “The Rockets have been sending agents to Hoenn, gathering information for months,” Stalker went on, pacing slowly in front of us. “The Indigo attack was only to hide the fact that their entire combat unit began mobilizing yesterday. The mission is already underway. They’ve sent squads to both teams’ headquarters, as well as to the mountain where the two Legendaries now sleep, so I’d recommend splitting up.”

    I jolted. “Hang on, what? Right now?! Why didn’t you tell us sooner?!”

    “You sent Lexx to warn us but you couldn’t tell us that it was all just a goddamn distraction?” Starr snarled. “You wanted us to fall for it!”

    Stalker stared at her, his gaze cold and unyielding. “I need you all to make things more difficult for them. But it wouldn’t do me any good if you stopped them outright before they even started.”

    “The hell?!”

    Ajia shook her head. “Just like the good old days, huh?” Her tone was disappointed, but unsurprised. “Getting everyone else to do your dirty work. Is that ever going to change?”

    “I still need to appear loyal to the boss,” he replied, holding both palms up. “It would be a complete waste if I gave myself away now.”

    I was speechless. I wanted to say something. Hell, I almost wanted to lash out like Starr. But all I could do was stare at him in stunned disbelief. It shouldn’t have been surprising. It shouldn’t have. But part of me had still been hoping that Ajia and Starr’s perception of Stalker had been… had been wrong. That the person I’d known on the Rebellion had been real. But no. Stalker was fake. It had only ever been Sebastian.

    “You know, I’m surprised to see all of you here together,” Stalker said offhandedly. “Or rather, I’m surprised to see the Legendaries willingly accepting help from humans. Of course, I’m sure at least some of you are here by contract. I wonder which ones.” His eyes lingered on me a little longer than they should have. I kept my expression perfectly neutral.

    “Anyway. I have business I need to attend to,” he said, turning to walk away, Charizard following close behind. “I expect I’ll be seeing you all in Hoenn soon. After all,”—he turned to face us one last time—“the clock is ticking.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    “What the hell was any of that?”

    Rudy’s voice echoed throughout the yard, the only words anyone had spoken since Stalker had left.

    “Like, I don’t even know where to start,” he went on, bracing himself against the side of the cabin. “Why was everyone treating Stalker like a bad guy? Why was he talking like that? What the hell is going on?”

    “Your precious rebel team leader is head of the Johto combat unit,” Starr muttered, rubbing her eyes. The anger from Stalker’s arrival had largely worn off, and she mostly just looked exhausted.

    Rudy gaped at her. “But… that doesn’t make any sense!”

    I felt a nudge at my side; Darren had sidled over to me when I wasn’t looking. “Hey, quick question: when did you find out about that?” he whispered.

    I jerked my head toward him. “Eh?”

    “Well, you obviously already knew,” he said with a knowing look.

    Oh. I guess it was obvious, yeah. I swallowed hard and said, “Last year.”

    Darren clicked his tongue. “You could’ve mentioned it.”

    I put a hand to my forehead. “I didn’t want to think about it, alright? I was hoping I’d never have to deal with him again, but then all this stuff happened and… yeah.” God, I’d turned into Ajia. When had that happened?

    Rudy was pacing back and forth in the driveway, arms swinging at his side. Finally, he snapped his head toward the rest of us and asked, “So what are we gonna do about what he said?”

    “Excuse me?” Starr said, staring at him incredulously.

    He glanced back and forth between us like we were all insane. “We’re not just gonna let them catch Groudon and Kyogre, are we?”

    “Yeah, why don’t you just charge right into an obvious trap. Sure,” Starr said, throwing her arms in the air.

    “Starr, I’m not saying we should trust Sebastian or anything—” Ajia began carefully.

    “But you’re all just gonna play into his hands like usual,” Starr finished, not bothering to hide the disgusted tone in her voice.

    “Look, I was just chosen, alright!” Rudy shot back, giving her a fierce glare. “And I don’t really get what that means yet, but I know I can’t ignore this.”

    I was in the same boat as him. I’d only been chosen for… geez, only about four hours longer than him. God, it felt weird putting that in perspective.

    “Guess this means we’re getting the rebel team back together then,” Darren said, crossing his arms behind his head. “Unless you don’t need my help? I dunno if I can really measure up now that you’ve got Moltres.” He gave Rudy a sideways glance.

    “You’re not getting out of it that easy,” Rudy snapped, grabbing the back of Darren’s shirt before he could walk back inside.

    Starr stared at us, shaking her head. “So what am I supposed to do?”

    Ajia gave her a soft look. “I’m not gonna pressure you to help us,” she said. “It’s up to you.”

    “If I may interject,” a booming voice suddenly said. I looked up to see Ho-oh focusing its large, amber eyes on us. “If you wish to help your companions, you should say so.”

    Starr stared up at the legend incredulously. “I don’t want to. I want nothing to do with this stupid war.”

    “If that were true, you would not be here,” it said, with a rather matter-of-fact tone.

    “The hell do you know?” she snapped.

    Ho-oh’s expression was calm, unyielding. “My apologies,” it said, stepping back from us.

    Starr’s eyes flickered back and forth between the various Legendaries, eyes narrowing suspiciously. Then she spun around to grab me by the shoulders, and I flinched.

    Please tell me you’re not going to do this,” she said, her voice breaking.

    I stared back, feeling my heart crumple inward. I didn’t want to do this to her. I really didn’t. But I didn’t have a choice.

    “I have to,” I said weakly.

    “It’s this stupid chosen thing again, isn’t it?” she asked, her voice low and cold, but with blades of anger digging into it. “Tell me the truth. You were chosen too, weren’t you?”

    There it was. She’d already guessed, so there was no use denying it.

    I swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

    Starr clenched her fists, muttering various obscenities about the Legendaries. She glanced over at Ho-oh. Then to Ajia. Then screwed her eyes shut with a pained expression. “Then. I’m going with you.”

    I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off with, “Don’t say anything before I change my mind.”

    Unsure of what else to do, I just nodded. There wasn’t anything I could say that would make things better anyway.

    “Where are we going, exactly?” I asked, throwing a glance over at the Legendaries. Lugia tilted its head sort of like a shrug and then gave Mew an expectant look.

    Mew put a paw to her chin. <Latias, do you know?>

    At those words, Latias slowly drifted out through the cabin’s front door, eyes glued to the floor. Several times, she opened her mouth to speak, only for the words to fail. Finally, she managed to say, “*The Magma building is on the slopes of the great volcano, and the Aqua building is off the northeastern shore. I can show them to you, but…*” Her words trailed off. She stared downward, trembling slightly. “*I should have known about this. My home region is under attack and I didn’t even know. What kind of guardian am I?*”

    I blinked. “Hey, hey this isn’t your fault,” I said, gently touching her shoulder.

    “*This is all so much… I don’t know what to do,*” the dragon cried, burying her face in her claws.

    I flashed a helpless expression at Mew. She flew down and embraced Latias, wrapping her arms around the dragon’s neck, and I took a few steps back to give the two some space.

    For some time, no one said anything. We just stood there, awkwardly avoiding each other’s eye. It was a weird feeling—the first time an imminent Legendary mission had seemed so… personal.

    Ajia watched the two with a solemn look on her face, then turned to the rest of us. “We don’t have much time. Let’s get ready.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    After we got dressed, Mew teleported us over to the main Ranger HQ. It was 4 in the morning, so Ajia first had to get someone on night shift to wake her dad up, then he woke up all the other senior rangers onsite. I wasn’t entirely sure, but it looked like she was having him break the news to the others so that she wouldn’t have to explain to everyone why we even knew about this in the first place. Being on a first-name basis with the Johto commander was hardly something to be proud of.

    My half-asleep brain was still having a hard time processing the fact that we suddenly had to travel to a region clear on the southern end of the archipelago. It was nuts. The sun wasn’t even up yet, and we hadn’t gotten to fully recover from yesterday, and now this? Why the hell did we have to deal with this now? A voice in the back of my head said that was exactly the reason the Rockets had chosen to execute this mission in the dead of night after mobilizing all their troops while the entire region had its eyes on a Legendary attack. It made perfect sense, but I wasn’t exactly in the mood to admit that.

    While struggling just to keep my eyes open, I spotted Starr making a break for the coffee pot, pouring herself a large cup and downing it almost instantly, without even adding any sugar or anything. I wandered over to her, and she must have mistaken that as me wanting to get coffee too, because she poured a second cup and held it out to me.

    “I’ll pass,” I said, sticking out my tongue.

    “I’ll take it,” Rudy said, suddenly appearing from behind me.

    Starr raised an eyebrow, but handed it to him anyway. “Aren’t you like twelve?”

    “I’m fourteen,” he snapped, shooting a glare at her.

    Starr rolled her eyes—it was clear that she didn’t really see the difference.

    “You like that stuff?” I asked, gaping at him as he started chugging it.

    He grimaced. “No. But I think I’m gonna need it.” He did proceed to drown it in sugar, though.

    Ajia broke off from the gathering of rangers and jogged over to us, moving far more quickly than anyone should at this hour. Her eyes held an obvious tiredness though, like she was forcing herself to be more energetic than she really felt.

    “Okay, they’re gonna contact the Sootopolis rangers, have them start evacuating the city. So that’s all good there, I’m gonna see if I can snag some healing supplies for us,” she said, gesturing to a nearby closet. “Something tells me this is gonna be a long fight.”

    Good. The last thing I needed was to be stuck with my entire team incapacitated like yesterday. I didn’t exactly have a stash of revive crystals lying around, given how expensive they were. Not that it would have done much to heal the massive wounds that my team had sustained… although it probably would have helped Chibi.

    Speaking of my team… I glanced over at the healing station and… yes! A ranger had just walked behind the counter. I practically flew over to it, slamming both hands on the countertop and loudly asking, “Is my team healed?” It had been ten hours or so—that was enough time, right?

    The ranger blinked at me in tired confusion. (I guess it was kind of weird for a trainer to be using this facility.) “...Your name?” he asked.

    “Jade Arens.”

    He shuffled through the Pokéball trays behind the counter before finding a tray with six balls, one of them the telltale black experiment ball.

    “Looks like their wounds are closed up, for the most part. They were due for a few more hours on the machine to be back at 100%, but it’s safe to let them out, at least.”

    No sooner had he set the tray down had I grabbed all six balls—three in each hand—and ran outside. All six of my Pokémon appeared in flashes of light, and I found myself immediately inspecting them for signs of damage. Jet, Chibi, and Stygian were okay—they’d gotten off easy. Firestorm and Aros had some raw skin where their wounds had closed up but not fully recovered yet. Swift… looked completely fine. Feathers clean, eyes alert, no sign of what had happened.

    “Are you guys alright?” I asked.

    Swift gave me a curious look while Firestorm stretched widely and yawned.

    “*Still sore,*” the Charizard said, inspecting the wingtip that had been torn yesterday. “*At least we all made it out okay.*”

    Chibi fixed me with a serious look. “*What about the mission?*” Right, it wasn’t like he could ask the rangers how it went.

    “It went fine, Moltres is free, everyone else made it out okay,” I said quickly.

    The hybrid eyed me closely. “*Something’s wrong. What is it?*” Of course he’d noticed right away. I don’t know why I expected anything less.

    “I’m going on another mission,” I said flatly.

    “*Another one?*” Stygian asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “Stalker showed up, turns out that the entire Moltres situation was some kind of BS distraction,” I said quickly, trying not to think about it too much because it only made me feel even more frustrated about the way he’d played us for fools. “Two more Legendaries in the Hoenn region are in danger. I need to know who’s not feeling up to it so I know who’s okay to send out.”

    “*Which ones?*” Firestorm asked, frowning.

    “Groudon and Kyogre.”

    Most of them showed no reaction to the names—stories of the two weren’t very common in our region, and that must have gone for both humans and Pokémon. At least… aside from the Floatzel now staring up at me with starry eyes.

    “*We’re gonna rescue gods now?*” she said, mouth hanging open.

    Ughh, I didn’t want to encourage that line of thinking, but I didn’t have the time or energy to shut it down.

    “Yep, we’re rescuing gods. Big important stuff. Is everyone in fighting shape?” My eyes lingered over Swift. He tilted his head quizzically, and I quickly broke eye contact.

    “*Well I’m fine,*” Jet said, sticking her nose in the air. “*That Gengar’s Thunderbolt wasn’t that bad.*”

    Stygian closed her eyes. “*I’ve had worse.*”

    “*You got off easy,*” Aros muttered, flicking her with his tail fan.

    I stared at the Flygon, unsure of how I was supposed to take that. “So were you wanting to sit out or…?”

    “*Who the hell do you take me for?*” Okay, never mind, I’d just failed at reading him again, that was fine.

    “*I guess we don’t have a choice,*” Firestorm said, tapping his claws together. “*We can’t just let those two get caught.*” He paused for a bit, flame crackling. “*But we didn’t exactly stand a chance in that last fight,*” he went on, grimacing. “*This isn’t just gonna be a repeat of that, is it?*”

    At his words, all six of them looked back at me, waiting for my answer. The answer I wasn’t sure I could give. Of course I didn’t want it to be a repeat of last time, but…

    I swallowed. “We won’t be alone this time, we’ll have the others for support,” I said firmly. “And the Legendaries. They’ll actually be able to help us this time.”

    The Charizard considered me carefully. “*Alright.*”

    So that was everyone. I grabbed their Pokéballs and recalled each of them… and then found my hand frozen when Swift was the last one out.

    “You’re… sure you’re alright?” I asked. It was hard to look at him without imagining that gaping wound across his neck. Even if it had only been for a few seconds… they were some of the most terrifying seconds in my life.

    “*I’m fine,*” Swift insisted. “*You recalled me so quickly that I didn’t lose much blood. And it was a clean slice—easy to mend.*”

    “Okay.” I took a deep breath. “I really don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.” Wait. That almost sounded like—“Not that I’d be fine with losing any of the others, that’s not it at all!” I added quickly. “I just…”

    “*I know what you mean,*” the Pidgeot said, pressing his forehead against my arm.

    I exhaled slowly, wrapping my arms around his neck.

    “*But… I do worry,*” he said, shuffling a talon against the dirt. “*The possibility of losing any of us is a very real one. We can’t pretend otherwise.*”

    I let go of him, glancing away. “I know that. I’ve always known that, I’ve just… shoved it aside. Rudy had to learn that truth the hard way, and here I’ve been hiding from it.” God, it hadn’t even been a full day yet, and here we were marching into mortal danger again. And I’d already accepted it as an inevitability. How screwed up was that?

    “Do you… think maybe we shouldn’t be doing this?”

    Swift paused, mulling the question over. “*It’s like you said. You were chosen. It’s a commitment you cannot back down from.*”

    I rubbed my arms, eyes sliding to the ground. “Yeah, but… the rest of you aren’t bound to that or anything.”

    He gave a patient sigh. “*Each of us has our own reasons for being here. And we’re not going to abandon you in your time of need. This is too important.*”

    I knew that. I’d always known that. And yet there was still that small part of me that doubted it. That worried they were just going along with it because I was their trainer. Even if half of them were the sort to immediately call me out on that sort of thing.

    “*Also, you really shouldn’t have recalled me while you were on my back,*” Swift added, giving me a look like he didn’t know what to do with me.

    I smiled weakly. “I knew one of the others could catch me.” It was still a pretty stupid move, yeah. Just waiting the few extra seconds for Swift to glide down so I could recall him on the ground wouldn’t have resulted in that much more blood loss. But in the moment, it had just been the obvious thing to do.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    “We’re gonna have to split up. Have half of us tackle the Magma base and the other half do the Aqua base,” Ajia announced once we’d all regrouped back at the cabin, where we could talk with the Legendaries without catching the eye of every ranger in the union.

    “So, what, me and Jade take one base, you and the twerps take the other base?” Starr asked, with a tone that was trying too hard to be casual.

    Rudy gave her an incredulous glare. “What? No way, the three of us are mission partners, you’re not splitting us.”

    “That supposed to mean anything to me?” she said flatly, giving him an unimpressed look.

    “It means,” Darren cut in, before Rudy could say anything hasty, “that we trained together and our teams already know how to support each other.”

    “Yeah, well, if both of you come with me and Jade, then Ajia’s stuck by herself, and—”

    “Look, our teams are gonna be uneven no matter what since there’s five of us,” Ajia said carefully, giving Starr a meaningful look. “Since those three have trained together and the two of us are more experienced, why don’t we just split it like that?”

    Starr was silent for some time. “Fine,” she said grudgingly, folding her arms and glancing away. Though she hadn’t said so, it was pretty obvious that she was only coming along because she didn’t want me to get myself killed. But Rudy, Darren, and I had faced the combat unit together before. Our teams were a whole lot stronger now, plus we’d have Legendaries backing us up—actually backing us up, not like that crap from yesterday. I’d be fine without her.

    …Somehow, I already didn’t believe that.

    <Now it’s just a matter of which of us should go where,> Mew said turning to face her fellow legends. <Obviously, patrons and chosen will want to stick together, but—>

    “Forgive my interruption, but what of the island where Groudon and Kyogre rest?” Ho-oh asked. “It seems reasonable to assume that the most powerful enemy forces will be the ones preparing to confront the legends directly.”

    Ajia paused to consider it. “Actually, wouldn’t it work best if you and Lugia take that one? You wouldn’t be able to come with us inside the bases,” she pointed out.

    <My abilities will be best utilized at sea anyway,> Lugia said simply. <And separating from my chosen will allow our groups a line of communication.>

    Ajia tapped a fist against her open palm. “Alright so me, Mew, and Starr will hit the Aqua base. Lugia and Ho-oh will guard Sootopolis and make sure no one comes close.”

    Rudy nodded sharply. “Then me, Jade, and Darren will hit the Magma base, and Moltres can be our backup.”

    Moltres gave Rudy a sideways glance. “Time to prove that you’re not all talk, eh?”

    “That’s the plan,” he replied shortly.

    “*What about me?*” a small, high-pitched voice asked. I glanced over to see Latias hovering off by the bushes, her posture small and restrained.

    “Are you… feeling up to it?” I asked cautiously.

    The dragon’s eyes sharpened. “*I want to help. My home is in danger. This is my responsibility.*”

    Mew gave her a soft smile. <Of course. We’ll be glad to—>

    “Go with these three,” Starr cut in, gesturing toward me, Rudy, and Darren.

    I blinked. “Eh?”

    She fixed me with a hard stare. “You’re not gonna have your… ‘patron’ or whatever. And his will be stuck outside,” she added, jerking a thumb toward Rudy and Moltres. “So you three could use more firepower.”

    Latias glanced at Mew, unsure, but the psychic cat gave her an encouraging smile. “*Alright. I’ll do it.*”

    <Very well. Are you ready?> Mew asked, holding out her tail.

    It took me a few seconds to realize that was directed at our entire group, and that this was it—she was seriously about to teleport us to Hoenn. I barely had time to process that reality before me, Rudy, Darren, Moltres, and Latias were all crowded around the tiny psychic cat. I grabbed hold of her tail tip.

    And with that, our surrounding melted into distorted light before immediately reforming into a rocky, sloping terrain. If the sudden lack of trees didn’t give away how far we’d travelled, the stiflingly warm, humid air would have done it. Not to mention the volcano peak towering over the horizon. Smoke gently drifted up into the sky, blotting out the stars, and the moon had long since set.

    And then I saw it. Not too far from us, built into the side of a sheer rock face, was a large, black and red building. A bright red light flashed angrily over the front entrance. From inside, I could hear the muffled sound of an alarm blaring. My stomach curled in on itself. The Rockets were already here.

    Mew stared at the building, concern etched all over her face.

    I took a deep breath. “Go on. The others will need you,” I told her.

    <But…>

    “The situation with the Aquas has gotta be just as bad. Go!”

    She paused for several seconds before nodding. <Good luck.> Then she vanished.






    ~End Chapter 40~

    Next Chapter: The race for the Red Orb is on.
     
    Chapter 41: Team Magma
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    Thanks for the reviews, Del and wind! I'm glad that catnip gave you both the opportunity to revisit! :quag:
    The Charizard Guy is as mysterious as I remembered. A bit strange handing out cards to new trainers to recruit... but I suppose getting them new means they'll be more likely to turn over to his group's cause and not be recruited by Team Rocket?
    Yep, that's the general idea! New trainers so that they're least likely to be recruited or seen as a threat.
    "I’ll have to check back soon to see what happens, because I need to know!"
    - Windskull, January 10th, 2020
    This is a mood. 🙃
    I assume the exclusion of the word "my" was intentional here, but it kind of makes the pain here feel impersonal and doesn't jive well with the first person perspective, imo.
    Y'know, it is on-brand for me to omit words, but I'm thinking that was a legit typo because it reads way better with a "my" there. :P



    ~Chapter 41: Team Magma~


    With a flash of light, Alakazam materialized from his Pokéball. At Darren’s command, the psychic-type observed our rocky surroundings, then held both spoons to his forehead, humming to himself for half a minute or so.

    “Got it memorized?” Darren asked.

    Alakazam held up a spoon and gave a grunt of approval.

    Darren nodded. “Alright good.” He turned to Moltres and said, “If anything goes wrong, we’ll teleport out to you.”

    The firebird blinked, apparently not expecting anyone other than its chosen to address it. “Very well. Should any enemy forces appear out here, I will not allow them to escape.” With that, Moltres spread its wings to take off, scattering embers as it ascended.

    We turned our attention to the base. The front entrance had already been broken down by the Rockets; nothing stopping us from walking right inside. We stepped forward into a wide, open lobby with dark, glossy stone floors. Glowing tubes filled with what honestly looked like magma (it couldn’t really be magma, could it?) lined the walls. Flashing red lights illuminated the way forward, leading to the start of several long, narrow corridors. Not the best environment for all my broad-winged flying Pokémon. We’d need maneuverability.

    I grabbed two Pokéballs and let out Chibi and Stygian. I’d keep Jet in reserve, that way I could let her out if anything happened to the other two, and she could hold off the enemy while I healed them. Rudy responded by letting out Ebony and Raichu. Then Darren took a few seconds to consider our lineup before letting out Weavile to stand alongside Alakazam.

    Three Faint Attack users for surprise hits, a teleporter, two electric-types that could boost each other’s lightning; all small and maneuverable, but three of them big enough that we could duck behind their Protect if needed. A good roster for being in the line of fire. I hated how quickly and naturally that assessment came to us.

    “Everyone’s good on their Protect training, right?” Darren asked. There was a murmur of approval from all of them.

    “Good, cause we’re gonna need it,” he said grimly.

    I turned to Latias. “It’s probably best if you stay invisible for most of this. The last thing we want is you getting captured.” The dragon nodded before vanishing in a wave of rippling light.

    “*I’ve been wondering something,*” Ebony spoke up suddenly, her words hesitant. Everyone turned to face her, and she pawed at the floor sheepishly. “*We’re not going to lose anyone this time, are we?*” the Houndoom asked, and my heart tore itself in half.

    Rudy froze, staring at the ground with an expression I couldn’t place. Finally, he leaned forward and put his hand on her head. “We’re not. I promise.”

    I gave him a sideways glance. He couldn’t promise that. I couldn’t promise that. None of us could. But pretending was the only thing we could do.

    We set off down one of the corridors, not running, but not moving slowly either. I didn’t really know what we were looking for. Some sign of the Rockets’ presence? The alarm continued to buzz angrily in the background, but I willed my brain to tune it out and just focus on what was right in front of us. No Rockets yet… and no Magmas either, for that matter…

    Almost as if on cue, a pair of soot-black wolves rounded the corner and stopped right in front of us, crouching low and snarling.

    “Hold it right there!” a voice ordered from somewhere.

    I whirled around in time to see two more wolves dart up from behind, cutting off our escape. This didn’t feel like the Rockets’ style. Why would they warn us? In this sort of mission, there was no point in taking prisoners.

    “Are you guys Team Magma?” I called out.

    No answer. The two Mightyena in front lunged. Weavile and Stygian jumped in front of us, colliding with the opposing dark-types and enduring the dark aura that flared up from the impact. Behind us, I heard a snarl and the crackle of flames as Ebony took up the rear defense, followed by sparks as Raichu must have joined her.

    “We’re not here to fight!” I yelled.

    “Yeah, well, you’re gonna get a fight!” the voice retorted. Oh my god, seriously? We didn’t have time for this!

    A flock of Golbat descended from the ceiling, spitting out globs of poison. I ducked immediately, covering my head, but the sludge splattered off a psychic barrier above us (Latias?). Chibi fired off a wave of sparks at the flying-types and they seized up, muscles twitching with paralysis, struggling to stay airborne. One dove right at us, and I dropped to the floor as it chomped down right where my arm had been just a second ago.

    “Stop it, we’re trying to help you guys!” But I could barely hear my own voice over all the chaos, so I doubted that they heard it either.

    “We’ve gotta get their attention,” Rudy muttered into my ear. “Something flashy, without hurting ‘em.”

    Something flashy, something flashy… something like Flash?

    “Shut your eyes, both of you,” I hissed to my teammates, and then, to Chibi: “Use Flash!”

    Chibi took off running down my outstretched arm, and the last thing I saw before I shut my eyes was the hybrid leaping into the air, feathers glowing brightly. Then a blinding brightness assaulted my eyelids, and I had to hold a hand over my face to shut it out completely.

    The sounds of startled yips and fluttering of wings filled the air. I opened my eyes a crack and saw the Mightyena staggering backward, ears pinned and eyes screwed shut. The Golbat weren’t affected (did they use sound to navigate?) but they were currently trapped by some kind of psychic aura, most likely Latias again.

    “Stop attacking and just listen to us!” I yelled as loud as I possibly could.

    Footsteps approaching. I spun around to see a group of people running up behind us, all of them dressed in hooded red uniforms emblazoned with a black M logo. They looked tense, guarded, but the moment they got a good look at us, their expressions suddenly morphed into confusion.

    “Wait, it’s just a bunch of kids?” one of them said, shooting a glance at her teammates.

    “What are you doing here?” a second one asked, fixing us with a rather unimpressed glare.

    “We’re here because Team Rocket is invading your freaking base!” Rudy shot back.

    “Why were you sneaking around?”

    “The front door wasn’t exactly locked,” Darren pointed out flatly.

    One of the Magmas turned around and hollered, “Hey Courtney! They’re not with the intruders!”

    At his words, a side door further down the hallway opened. And from inside, a short, purple-haired woman emerged. The other Magmas all backed away slowly as she approached us, wearing an icy, inscrutable expression.

    “You three… came to help?” she asked simply.

    I looked at each of the Magmas in turn, who were all staring at her. They obviously held her in high regard. And… she didn’t seem like the kind of person we wanted to say the wrong thing to.

    I took a deep breath and said, “The Rockets are after the Red Orb. We have to stop them no matter what.”

    Courtney stared at us for several seconds before giving a curt nod. Then she turned around and gestured for us to follow her. “Come. This way.”

    I glanced back and forth between Rudy and Darren, who both just shrugged before motioning to our Pokémon. Chibi jumped back on my shoulder while Raichu hopped onto Ebony’s back. Weavile gave her a dirty look and then opted to ride Stygian, while Alakazam hovered lightly across the floor. The other Magmas stopped to feed their Mightyena and Golbat squads some berries, and then our group set off, Courtney taking the lead. No one said anything as she led us down a maze of corridors, taking us deeper into the mountain.

    “Where are we going, exactly?” I asked finally.

    “The others… need help,” Courtney replied, her words terse. That really didn’t answer my question at all.

    One of the Magma agents must have noticed the confused look on my face, because she added, “We got separated from the others. Last we saw, Admin Tabitha was trying to fight the intruders off, but he…” Her words trailed off.

    “He’s fine,” Courtney snapped, a slight edge to her voice. She didn’t look back at any of us and just kept marching forward with the same forceful air.

    An uncomfortable flicker of unease started to creep up the back of my neck. This situation… was a lot more familiar than I’d realized. An ambush in the dead of night, alarms blaring, scared rebels fleeing down dark hallways, desperate to regroup, Rockets lurking out of sight. I’d been caught up with thinking of this like another Legendary mission. Protect the orb; stop the Rockets from catching more Legendaries. But now that we were here, it was feeling a lot more like that night on Midnight—

    No. No, it wouldn’t end up like that. The Magmas were clearly capable of defending themselves. But had they ever had to go up against an enemy as ruthless as the Rockets? And did we really have enough firepower to help them?

    Light was streaming down the corridor ahead of us. My blood ran cold—I could hear gunfire in this direction. Courtney slowed to a stop when she reached the corner and held up a hand for everyone else to stop.

    “Here,” she said.

    I wasn’t sure what awaited us in the next area, but I already knew it wasn’t good. I crept closer to the corner, peeked around it and—

    And then immediately jerked my head back. A squad of Rockets had guns trained on the entryway, ready to fire at any moment. I’d caught a brief glimpse of some kind of commotion behind them. Other Rockets and their Pokémon, fighting an unseen enemy—the other Magmas?

    “Okay, yeah, we walk around that corner, we’re super dead,” I said flatly.

    Darren nodded sagely. “The worst kind of dead.”

    There was no way to get past that many armed Rockets, not when all they had to do was open fire on the entryway. Had to disable them somehow. Maybe Chibi could rush out with Quick Attack, paralyze a few of them… Although if he got targeted by their Pokémon forces, the last thing I needed was for him to go down first. Maybe…

    Wait. What was I doing? We had the perfect surprise attacker right by our side.

    “Latias, are you there?” I whispered. I wasn’t entirely sure if she could hear me or not, but seconds later, I felt a light claw tap on my shoulder.

    “Can you disarm the Rockets in the entryway?”

    Two taps. Then a small whoosh of air that felt like her darting around the corner. I let out a breath. Okay good, I was not in the mood to go running through the line of fire.

    I made eye contact with Rudy and Darren. “She’s clearing the way. You guys ready to run?”

    The two nodded and proceeded to give instructions to their Pokémon. I turned to face the Magmas and said, “When the Rockets go down, we’re gonna make a break for it and try to find your teammates.”

    Half the group gaped at us in surprise. But Courtney just nodded with the same sharp, unreadable expression as before.

    “*Go now!*” Latias cried suddenly.

    “Now!” I repeated, breaking into a run.

    Around the corner and I could now see the squad that had been guarding the hall, all flat on their backs, no guns within sight. I leaped over them and emerged into a large, cavernous room filled with heavy machinery that had been turned into a total warzone. Attacks tore through the air across the center of the room, ripping through the rocky floor and crashing against the machines as both sides traded blows while keeping behind cover. Which side was which?

    “Over there!” one of the Magmas yelled, pointing.

    I jerked my head to the left to catch a glimpse of someone in a red-hooded uniform peeking around the edge of a huge drill. Which meant the horde of Pokémon to the right was Rocket, with their trainers hiding out of sight. I wasn’t sure if Latias had gotten the chance to disarm that squad yet, and I wasn’t keen on finding out.

    “We gotta move!” I yelled.

    Darren nodded to Weavile before he and Alakazam teleported ahead, and the dark-type took off, already breathing out an Icy Wind toward the first three Pokémon that had broken from the Rockets’ lineup. At Rudy’s command, Raichu jumped down from Ebony’s back, her form already blurring into several copies of herself.

    I met Chibi’s eye and said, “Go with Raichu; power each other’s Lightning Rod and then go for Discharge.”

    The two electric rodents dashed after Weavile, and then Rudy and I sprinted in the opposite direction, Ebony and Stygian racing alongside us and the Magma squad following not far behind. Just had to focus on reaching the Magmas’ side of the cavern. I tried not to look at the scattered Pokémon that had fallen in the middle of the makeshift battlefield. Tried not to think about how they would have been recalled if they were able to be. Just had to keep running. I heard the familiar sound of bullets striking Protect—dammit why was that so familiar—and screwed my eyes shut, willing my legs toward the space that I’d last seen.

    I reached our goal and ducked behind some kind of huge drill before sinking to the ground, heart pounding. Rudy jumped past me a second later, followed by Courtney and her Magma squad. I counted them out and—okay good, we hadn’t lost anyone. Whether that was luck or thanks to Latias playing defense, I wasn’t sure.

    Once I’d recovered, my eyes wandered over the nearby Pokémon. Lots more Mightyena, but also plenty of Magcargo, Camerupt, Golbat, Rhydon, all keeping a constant barrage—rocks, fireballs, sludge—arcing through the air and raining down on the opposition. Then I suddenly noticed that about half the Magmas were staring at us in confusion. Right, they’d just seen a couple of random kids break through the Rockets’ defense out of nowhere, with no clue who we were or why.

    “Courtney!” a loud, nasally voice called out.

    I looked up just in time to see a large, round-faced man charging toward us—or rather, charging past us and clapping his hands on Courtney’s shoulders. “You’re alive!”

    “Yes, Tabitha. We’re fine,” she replied dryly.

    “H-how did you make it here?” he stammered.

    She turned to gesture at me, Rudy, and Darren. “New friends,” she said in a singsong tone.

    The man blinked in surprise. “What?” His head snapped toward us, like he’d only just noticed we were here. “H-how did you kids get in here? And why?

    “Why does everyone keep asking that?!” Rudy yelled, stamping a foot against the dirt.

    But before any of us could answer, Courtney cut in with, “Where’s Leader Maxie?”

    Tabitha’s face fell. “We—we haven’t seen him. I think he’s still in his office. We’ve been trying to reach him, but the intruders haven’t yielded one bit.”

    Their leader? The Rockets would no doubt be gunning for him if he was the one with the Red Orb. Had they already reached him? Were we too late?

    “Which way to his office?” I asked hurriedly.

    Tabitha blinked at me, apparently still confused that we were even here, but willing to overlook it for now. “It’s… on the far side of the cavern. Past where the intruders have taken up their defense.”

    Rudy tapped a fist against his palm. “So we’ve gotta break through to get to him.”

    My eyes slid back to the opposing side. Now that I was paying attention, the Rockets’ forces were clearly focusing on two things: keeping the pressure on the Magmas and preventing anyone from making it out of this room. If that pressure faltered for even an instant, they’d be overrun. No amount of gunfire could stop a horde of charging Rhydon.

    On that note, it was now obvious that the water-types on the opposing side were hanging back to stay out of the line of fire. Could always tell Chibi to focus them down, but they were circled by a squad of Dugtrio, keeping their speed boosted with Agility.

    Dammit. The Rockets had really thought this through.

    “We could try to teleport past them?” Darren suggested, throwing an inquisitive glance toward Alakazam.

    “*Too many in the way,*” the psychic said flatly. “*Need a clearer view.*”

    He made a face. “Of course. Don’t know why I thought it could be easy.”

    So we had to split their attention. Give them enough opposition that they couldn’t hold us back with just a single unified defense. The Rockets’ Pokémon were all clustered together, defending each other from the Magmas’ overhead barrage while the Rockets themselves kept behind cover. And while they couldn’t let loose any big attacks without hitting each other, they didn’t need to beat us—all they had to do was keep us from getting past.

    Wait, but that meant… they almost definitely had other agents already confronting the Magma leader. Dammit. We had to get to him now.

    I whipped out two more Pokéballs to let out Aros and Jet (too many rocks for Firestorm and Swift, better to keep them in reserve). I turned to each of them one after another and said, “Stygian, go for a Swords Dance and then slip through their defenses with Feint Attack. Chibi, stay on the move, paralyze everyone you can. Keep your power use low, go for Iron Tail when you get an opening. Aros, Jet—if you can pull anyone away from the center lineup, do it, then follow up with trapping moves. We don’t have to beat them, we just have to break their guard as fast as possible, got it?”

    Chibi didn’t even answer, he just bolted away faster than I could see. The others nodded sharply before taking off after him. I could only hope that Latias had managed to disarm the rest of the Rockets. Even if she hadn’t… it wasn’t like they could fire on the melee with their own Pokémon in the way, right? Had to keep telling myself that.

    Rudy and Darren had sent out more reinforcements and were quickly relaying strategies. The usual hit-and-run style, keeping out of sight, using disruption moves. Most of their Pokémon didn’t waste a second finding a good spot where they could duck behind one of the many large machines and start firing off attacks from behind cover. The only one who hadn’t moved was Tyranitar, who stood silently with an expression somewhere between impatience and disapproval.

    Rudy stared blankly at her. “Tyrani—?”

    “*That plan would take too long,*” she grumbled.

    Then, before Rudy could say anything else, the rock-type broke into a lumbering run, charging straight into the center of the battlefield.

    “Wait, get back, you’re just gonna be a target!” he yelled.

    But the dinosaur ignored him and kept going. A few Rockets fired on her. Then upon seeing how useless that was, they started ordering their Pokémon into formation. At least, until a huge stone pillar erupted from the ground, right in the middle of that formation, forcing those on either side to back away from the center. Tyranitar didn’t waver—she just kept going, punching her own Stone Edge and shattering it to pieces, driving the Rocket’s Pokémon further to either side to avoid the hail of rocks.

    Wait. She’d basically just cut a huge gap right through the middle of the Rocket’s defenses, forcing them to target her or else. If we could keep going with that, draw more of them away from the exit, then—!

    “Change of plans! Everyone, support Tyranitar!!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.

    “You guys too!” Rudy called out, turning to the Magmas behind us. “Light Screen, Reflect, Helping Hand, anything! This is Hoenn, right? Your ‘mons know multi battle tactics, yeah?”

    Tabitha looked unbelievably offended at being ordered around by a teenager, but Courtney just nodded and let out her Camerupt, ordering it to use Rock Tomb. Then the rest of the Magmas leaped into action, letting out Pokémon and calling out attacks. A duo of Claydol’s eyes glowed, and several walls of shimmering light went up around Tyranitar, diffusing the numerous attacks now flying right at her. The Mightyena squad that had first confronted us all rushed forward in formation, eyes flashing with the glare of Intimidate—half of them snarling viciously to cut the potency of the enemies’ moves, the other half barking out insults at the opposition, taunting them into an all-out offense, not giving them a chance to use the same support tactics we were using.

    But an all-out offense wasn’t exactly outside the Rockets’ area of expertise. A squad of Dugtrio turned and shot toward Tyranitar, sending rippling waves through the ground and pulling her legs into a sinkhole until Weavile intercepted them with a few well-aimed ice chunks. They were followed by a squad of fighting-types, all rushing at her. A couple fireballs and mist balls from above knocked down two or three but rest kept going. A Machamp took the lead, reaching Tyranitar first and slamming all four fists into her belly. The rock-type reeled backwards, grunting in pain, but before Machamp could follow up with a second hit, Alakazam fired off a psychic pulse from both spoons, striking it right in the face. Its muscles strained, fighting against the telepathic hold, movements slowing just enough for Tyranitar to swing her tail and knock it off its feet before smashing it into the ground with her foot.

    I dragged my eyes away from Tyranitar to take stock of all my Pokémon. Aros, trapping a pair of Poliwrath in a swirling Sand Tomb while a Claydol pelted the two with multicolored Psybeams. Stygian, slipping in and out of the shadows behind the machinery, slashing at a Hypno who’d been raising protective barriers around its teammates and then ducking out of view just as quickly. Jet, adding more water to a growing Whirlpool while Raichu electrocuted anything that fell in.

    They were all holding their own. But we had to do more than that. For all we knew the Rockets could already have the orb, and we were stuck here dealing with—

    Movement, in my peripheral. Alakazam snapped his gaze behind us and then suddenly brought both spoons together, raising a Protect just in time to block the shadowy orb that had flown right at his face.

    What? Where had that—my eyes suddenly locked onto a shadow tracing the wall behind us. Was that…? Alakazam narrowed his eyes and pointed forward, firing a psychic pulse at the rock surface. A spiky, implike shadow fell out, immediately flashing a wide grin and snickering. Gengar! Already charging up a ball of ghostly aura in its paws.

    A string of lightning shot from nowhere and Gengar cried out in alarm as the orb flew wild. Chibi! In a flash, the Pikachu raced into view, sparking threateningly, fur and feathers standing straight up. Gengar glowered at him, but it knew better than to take him on. It dissolved into shadow again, darting across the floor and out of sight. Chibi paused, nodding to me before dashing back into the fray.

    I jerked my attention back to Tyranitar just in time to see a Linoone run up and tag her leg, washing her in a shower of white sparks. A surge of energy shot through her. The dinosaur’s next stomp packed enough of a punch to tear a hail of boulders up from the ground, burying three or four opponents right in front of her. Then, without warning, her whole body shook as a heavy punch slammed into the side of her face. Machamp—it had pulled itself free and was now pummeling her relentlessly while she fought to keep her balance. Other fighters dragged themselves out from under the Rock Slide. Seeing Machamp holding its own, they launched into their own counterattack, flinging chunks of earth, launching huge waterspouts, focusing every effort into taking her down.

    My heart sank, and my eyes frantically swept over each of my Pokémon, one after the other, all of them busy struggling with their own opponents. None in any position to help her. But we couldn’t let her go down, not now, not when she’d done the most of anyone.

    And then a brightly glowing mist ball shot down from above, exploding right in Tyranitar’s face, knocking all of her attackers flying. The rock-type blinked—either from confusion, or from the sudden brightness in her face, I couldn’t tell. Either way, the attack hadn’t caused her any pain. It was psychic.

    Machamp was flat on its back, out cold. The other attackers picked themselves up from where they had fallen before glancing around, trying to locate their attacker. But before they could even make a move, another mist ball rained down on them, followed by a dazzling flash of light exploding outward that knocked the entire squad out instantly.

    Hooooly crap was I glad we had Latias on our side. It was easy to forget that despite her timid, soft-spoken nature, she was still a Legendary Pokémon.

    But the Rockets—they had to have realized that the invisible thing was the one dishing out the most damage right now. The reaction was obvious. The still-standing fighting-types retreated, trading off for line of ghost-types, all firing off bursts of shadowy aura toward the last place they’d seen her. The attacks flew wild; Latias had already swooped behind them, breathing out a sparkling cloud of violet and gold dragonfire. The ghosts fell to the ground, twitching wildly as sparks leapt from their bodies.

    Then a black orb shot through the air, striking her dead-on. Latias gave a yelp, recoiling in surprise, and with a rippling of distorted light, her red, jetlike form suddenly snapped into view. I threw a glance in the direction the ball had fired from and saw—dammit, that same Gengar and its stupid smug face, cackling from its perch atop one of the Magmas’ drilling machines. I called for Chibi and he appeared from the opposite end of the cavern, firing off a huge lightning bolt—bigger than he probably should have—and striking it right in the face. I glanced back at Latias to see if she was alright and—

    …And suddenly became aware of the fact that at least half of the fighters near her were frozen, staring openmouthed. Oh. They’d literally just seen a Legendary Pokémon appear out of thin air. That was a bit shocking, yeah.

    The pause was only for a second. A lightning bolt broke the standstill, and then everyone was back to barking orders or dishing out attacks. But now the Rockets knew we had a Legendary supporting us. They weren’t here on a capture mission. None of them had Master Ball cannons. Still, something told me that we really, really didn’t want them all targeting Latias at once.

    Sure enough, the few remaining fighting-types on the opposing side tagged out for dark-types, all firing off pulsing shockwaves of dark energy. Latias looped around the first two but the third one was too fast and caught the side of her wing, sending wisps of darkness trailing across her feathers. Latias shivered, struggling to pull herself free. The momentary pause slowed her flight just enough for her to get bombarded by three more Dark Pulses, followed by a barrage of Shadow Balls from the ghosts that had targeted her earlier. The dragon recoiled backward, eyes shut, struggling to block the attacks with her psychic power, but the dark energy cut right through it. Chibi fired at her attackers, dropped a Honchkrow, then had to dart away as a Marowak slammed its club into the spot where he’d been standing.

    “Tyranitar, support Latias!” Rudy yelled.

    With a huge effort, Tyranitar threw a Primeape off her back and weakly lumbered forward to stand in front of Latias, taking the dark attacks that were meant for her. The rock-type let out a low growl before stomping the ground. Pointed stoned burst up through the earth, driving the three opposing dark-types into the side of a machine and pinning them there. Then the dinosaur let out a deep, resounding roar that echoed through the cavern.

    It was obviously just for show. I could see the deep cracks all over her armor. The eye swollen and bleeding. She wouldn’t last much longer.

    Rudy’s hand hovered over her Pokéball. “Tyranitar, are you—?!”

    “*Fine,*” the rock-type growled. “*Worry ‘bout the others.*” She glanced over her shoulder, but she wasn’t looking at us—her gaze was firmly on Latias. The dragon’s eyes were closed, and a healing glow washed over her, mending the blackened patches of skin and feathers. Then she thrust both arms forward and the same glow poured over Tyranitar. The bleeding stopped. Cracks in the armor slowly filled…

    Wait—Latias could heal others? Not just herself!

    Tyranitar blinked in surprise. Then the corners of her mouth turned up slightly. She let out a roar before swinging her tail at the ground, tearing our more chunks of rock to use as ammunition while Latias darted around her, deflecting as many attacks as possible. How could it have taken us this long to realize that those two were the perfect duo in this situation?

    The battle raged on around them, too many details to possibly take it all in. I saw Darren recalling the fainted Weavile and sending out Golduck. Rudy spraying down Nidoking with a potion. Tyranitar enduring high-pressure waterspouts until Chibi and Raichu took the entire water squad down with a tag team lightning strike—both of their fur standing on end from a Lightning Rod charge. The ground-types, where were the—

    Trapped. All of them trapped. Aros and Jet had combined their Whirlpool and Sand Tomb into a sprawling quagmire of mud (I’d never taught them how to do that!) and held them there while the Magmas’ fire-types poured flames onto them nonstop.

    How long had we been at this? I had no idea if we were too late. No idea if the Rockets already had the orb. But we had to keep going until—

    Darren tapped my shoulder. “Hey, enough of them are down that it’s probably safe for us to teleport over to the door.”

    What? I peeked around the edge of the drill, and—he was right. The Rockets’ lineup was completely scattered from splitting their attention between Latias and Tyranitar, while also fending off blows from our teams and the hail of attacks from the Magma Pokémon. At this point we finally had a clear view of the doorway that led out of the cavern, now almost entirely unguarded.

    Almost as if she’d sensed what we were planning, Courtney said, “Go. Help Maxie. We’ll hold them off.”

    I snapped my head toward her. “Are you guys gonna be alright?”

    “Help our leader!” she snapped.

    I nodded and recalled everyone except Chibi before calling out, “Time to go!”

    The hybrid fired one last bolt at the opposition before dashing across the torn-up earth, dodging several rocks along the way. He leaped onto my shoulder and I grabbed Alakazam’s hand, and then everything dissolved into a vortex of light and color, reforming seconds later into a darkened hallway.

    A nearby Rocket spun around and was about to call for his teammates, but a single jolt from Chibi and he went down. Seconds later, there was another flash as Alakazam reappeared with Rudy. A few more seconds and it was Darren’s turn, and we didn’t waste a second. The three of us took off sprinting in the opposite direction, the sounds of the raging battle slowly fading behind us.

    Tabitha hadn’t said where exactly their leader’s office was, but the first turn on the left led to a pair of large, important-looking double doors. This had to be it. I pushed the doors open to reveal a short passage with more magma tubes lining the walls. The floor was almost completely covered in scorch marks. There’d been a battle. Dark masses littered the ground all around, but I couldn’t tell what they—oh geez. I screwed my eyes shut, but couldn’t block out that smell. Charred flesh. I opened my eyes a crack. Honestly couldn’t even tell if they were Rockets or Magmas. My stomach clenched up, and I closed my eyes again until we reached the end of the hall.

    When I next opened them, we were there—standing in front of us stood the doors to the leader’s office. My ears caught the sound of voices from the other side:

    “I’m not going to ask again. Give me what we came here for or I’ll burn this entire place to the ground.” My heart skipped a beat. I recognized that voice.

    “I know very well why you want it. I’ve used it myself for that very purpose. I will not allow anyone else to repeat my mistakes.”

    “You have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

    A wave of tension flooded my body, and Chibi’s paws clenched my shoulder reassuringly. I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply. Then I went ahead and released Stygian once more. Rudy let out Nidoking and Raichu, while Darren opted to go with Golduck and Sandslash.

    I made eye contact with Rudy and Darren. This was it.

    We pushed open the doors to reveal a large, red-carpeted office. There’d been a battle. More scorch marks marred the walls and floor; large stones were lodged into the side of an overturned desk. To our left was a short, slender man wearing a long red overcoat and a stoic expression, standing behind an enormous Camerupt. To our right, the Rocket executive I’d fought yesterday. Her Flygon wrestled with a Mightyena while Kabutops—that Kaputops, I noted, feeling an uncomfortable lurch in my stomach—slashed at a Crobat that was relentlessly fluttering around, trying to get at the executive directly.

    Just Raven and her team. No other Rockets. She must have ordered the others to stay behind and prevent the Magmas from coming to their leader’s aid. That, or… back in the hallway…

    Both of the two noticed us at the same time, turning in surprise. The Magma leader tilted his head ever so slightly, looking perplexed. The Rocket executive’s eyes widened. “You again?!”

    Not wasting a second, Chibi leaped forward sent a Thunderbolt right at Raven, but her Flygon darted into its path at the last moment, smirking as the lightning coursed harmlessly across his scales.

    Chibi’s claws gripped my shoulder. “*Dammit. That was my last bolt,*” he muttered.

    What? He was out of power? In retrospect, I should have realized that—he’d been expending energy like crazy back in the cavern melee. Still, we had the advantage here—Stygian, Raichu, Nidoking, Alakazam, Golduck, and Sandslash out, with half our teams still in reserve. Raven glanced back and forth between us and Maxie, clenching her teeth in a wide-eyed rage. She had to realize she was outmatched. Her hand flew to a belt pouch and whipped out a Pokédex, pressing a few buttons on it.

    “I didn’t want to do this. This is your fault,” she hissed, pointing at us. What? What was that supposed to—

    A purple Pokéball materialized from the Pokédex’s transfer port. My jaw fell open. A Master Ball. Why did she have a Master Ball? We’d freed Moltres! Who—?!

    She opened the ball, unleashing a burst of light. And then my stomach plummeted through the floor when that light formed into a huge, auburn beast. Blank, mindless eyes stared at us from a brightly colored face. Huge blue paws stamped the ground, radiating shimmering waves of heat.

    Entei. She had Entei. The three of us had fought our way here, and now we had to fight Entei.

    “The orb. Now,” Raven said.

    Maxie’s calm demeanor had slipped, and he was now visibly sweating, staring down the volcano beast. Camerupt let out a snort and took a few steps forward, its movements shaky but its eyes unyielding.

    Then, in the midst of it all, I just barely caught the sound of Darren hissing, “Alakazam!” under his breath. It took a second, but then I realized—the Master Ball, it was right there, we could steal it, we could—

    Raven pointed at the psychic before he could even raise his spoons, and Entei immediately spat a fireball directly into his face. Alakazam’s eyes went wide right before it struck him dead-on, right in the chest. With a weak, sputtering cough, he sank to the floor almost instantly.

    “Not this time,” Raven muttered darkly.

    With a few more button presses, the Master Ball vanished. Deposited back into the online Pokéball storage, most likely. Then she signaled to Entei. The beast drew itself back, gathering flames in its throat. I stared at it in horror as Darren frantically scrambled to hold a revive crystal to Alakazam’s forehead, even though there was no way it would work in time. Chibi had run over to Raichu, holding a paw against her cheek as sparks rapidly coursed between them. Not enough time. Not enough—

    Wait. Had I seriously forgotten our best defense?!

    “Latias!” I cried.

    She was still back in the cavern, helping the Magmas. She wouldn’t hear us, she wouldn’t make it in time, there was no way—

    I was wrong.

    Latias shot into the room overhead, firing a mist ball right into the fireball’s path. The two exploded in a wave of steam and sparks, and when it cleared, Latias was hovering lightly in front of us, facing down the volcano beast.

    Raven stared at the jetlike dragon with a look of disturbed fascination, but then her gaze hardened. She signaled something else to Entei, and the legend opened its jaws wide, gathering a ball of black, shadowy aura in its mouth. Wait—Shadow Ball?!

    Latias’s eyes went wide. She brought her claws together, gathering psychic energy between them, but she wasn’t fast enough. Entei fired. The Shadow Ball struck her right in the chest, knocking her flying back. With a weak cry, she crashed against the wall hard and sank to the floor, looking dazed. My heart curled inward. Just how many attacks had she been taking to protect everyone back there?

    Raven turned back toward Maxie, glaring. “I warned you.” Then she snapped her fingers, and her Pokémon encircled her, taking defensive stances. The air around Entei started to shimmer. Blue embers flared up within its long, shaggy coat. I felt a wave of cold dread come over me. Something told me we weren’t going to like what was coming.

    “Get back, everyone!” Rudy shouted. Stygian, Raichu, Nidoking, Golduck, and Sandslash all gathered together, preparing to use Protect. Then he turned toward the Magma leader and added, “You too!”

    Maxie blinked at him, too stunned to respond, but his Camerupt shoved him over to us while Mightyena and Crobat joined our Pokémon’s defensive line. Suddenly a wall of light—larger, sparkling, more transparent than a Protect—surrounded us. I glanced back at Latias, whose eyes were shut in concentration. All of the Pokémon on our side raised their Protect shields at once.

    The embers in Entei’s coat burst into full flame. Then it stamped the ground, and the room exploded.

    Even through the Light Screen, even with that many Protects blocking the flames, the heat was beyond overwhelming. I clenched my teeth hard, covering my face with both arms as the sweltering air rushed over me. I could feel the skin starting to burn. I could hear the telltale spark of Protect shields flickering, about to shatter. My mind immediately visualized it—all of us, consumed by unrelenting flames, flesh melting, bones charred—

    No—no, it had to stop before then. If it went on too long, Raven and her own Pokémon would be incinerated. It had to stop before their defenses ran out. It had to.

    Finally, the air settled. Through closed eyes, I could tell that the blinding brightness was gone. The heat lingered, but it was weaker. Tolerable. Slowly, I opened my eyes a crack. The entire far side of the room—everything beyond our protective wall—was just gone. Incinerated. The walls were scorched black and warped from the intense heat. The banner hanging from the back wall had turned to ash, revealing what looked like the door to a safe. Raven’s attention snapped to it. She pointed it out to her beast, who obediently walked forward, stepping over what had once been Maxie’s desk, now reduced to scorched, ashen hunks. With fangs glowing like hot iron, Entei tore into the safe, ripping the door from its hinges. Raven proceeded to reach a gloved hand inside, pulling out a glossy, translucent red sphere.

    The orb. There it was. And if we didn’t think of something within the next few seconds, the Rockets were going to have it.

    “Do it now!” a voice hissed.

    I whirled around to see Darren… staring very intently at nothing. I blinked cluelessly. What was he—wait. Alakazam was gone. Had he been recalled, or…?

    “Darren…?” I asked slowly.

    A burst of shimmering light and suddenly that space was far from empty. I jumped back, jaw hanging open. A fresh wave of heat radiated outward as Moltres was crammed into the corner of the room, wings folded, neck craned down to avoid hitting the ceiling. And in front of it stood Alakazam—eyes half-lidded, barely standing, and covered in burns… but conscious. He gripped both spoons in trembling claws, the tiniest trace of a smug grin playing at the edge of his muzzle.

    He’d managed to teleport Moltres.

    Maxie blanched, taking a step back. His Camerupt stared open-mouthed. Raven glared murderously. Moltres had been hers, and we’d stolen it.

    Moltres really couldn’t maneuver in here at all. And it would be difficult for it to let loose any flames without incinerating the rest of us. Still, there was something undoubtedly intimidating about being cornered with Latias on one side and Moltres on the other. The firebird opened its mouth, letting flames lick the edges of its beak threateningly.

    “We got what we came for,” Raven hissed, recalling her team and leaping onto Entei’s back. She pointed forward, and suddenly the beast was charging right for us. I threw myself out of the way, landing awkwardly on my side and throwing a frantic glance over my shoulder just in time to see the volcano beast barrel straight past us and through the open doorway. They weren’t attacking—they were escaping.

    “Take me outside now!” Moltres demanded, slamming a talon against the floor. “They had an airship parked at the entrance to the base. If we do not follow them now, we could lose them.”

    Rudy clenched both fists. “Then I’m coming with you!” he yelled, running over.

    His patron drew itself back in surprise. “What?”

    “I’m your chosen, aren’t I?” he said forcefully. “If the Rockets try to catch you, someone’s gotta get in their way.”

    Moltres chuckled to itself. “Very well. We shall pursue the enemy together.” It leaned forward and Rudy vaulted onto its neck. Then the legend turned to us and barked, “Take us out!”

    Alakazam blanched. Darren had been spraying him with potions, but he still looked just about ready to pass out. Still, he raised his spoons, screwing his eyes shut and clenching his teeth, and in a few seconds, the three of them flickered once, twice, then finally vanished. Seconds passed in silence with Darren intently watching the spot where they’d left. Then Alakazam reappeared and immediately fell forward onto his face.

    “Sorry ‘bout that, bud.” Darren said, recalling him.

    “Should we go after them?” I asked, picking myself up from the floor. We couldn’t let the Rockets take the orb, but picking fights with a Legendary was just about the stupidest move possible. I glanced back at Latias. The dragon was silent, resting on the floor, eyes closed as a healing glow washed over her body.

    Darren sighed, staring at Alakazam’s Pokéball. “We’d never make it in time. And I’m not too sure any of our Pokémon could keep up with an airship. This is on Rudy and Moltres now.”

    Footsteps echoed down the hall behind us. I immediately tensed up, but then Courtney and Tabitha burst through the door into Maxie’s office, panting hard and out of breath.

    “The intruders are... retreating!” Tabitha managed between gasps for breath. Then his eyes flew open when he noticed the state of the office. “W-what happened here?! Leader Maxie are you alright?!”

    And that was enough to finally pull Maxie from his stupor. He blinked a few times, Camerupt nudging his side, until he finally managed to say, “They took the Orb.” His eyes wandered across the destroyed office before finally settling on me and Darren. “Why was that group after it in the first place? Are they really trying to follow the path that I so foolishly chased two years ago?”

    “Not… exactly,” I said, wincing. “They’re only trying to recreate the Hoenn crisis so they can capture Groudon and Kyogre.”

    Maxie paused, processing this information with a look of distaste. “Why is a group of children the ones to inform us of this?” he asked dryly.

    I put a hand to my forehead. “Look, it’s a bit of a long story, but we’ve dealt with Team Rocket before. We spent literal months infiltrating their bases and crap.”

    “That, and you seem to have enlisted the help of the guardians yourselves.” He nodded toward Latias. The dragon ruffled her feathers and turned away shyly.

    The leader of Team Magma turned to walk away from us, folding his arms behind his back. “I certainly don’t want to see that disaster repeat itself. Not after everything it took to put things right again. However…” He turned around, fixing us with a very serious look. “It has taken too long to get the Magma group on its way to being a respectable organization, and, understandably, the public still does not fully trust us, even if we have the backing of the champion.” He sighed, running his hand along a display cabinet that had miraculously escaped Entei’s blast. “I would prefer to keep us out of this.”

    I opened my mouth to speak, but then froze. I hadn’t exactly implied that I wanted him to get involved, but… wasn’t preventing another crisis just as relevant to their interests as ours?

    I struggled to find the right words. “Wouldn’t… wouldn’t opposing the Rockets now look better?”

    “There is also… much to attend to here,” Maxie said slowly.

    My eyes traced the walls of his scorched office. And then my mind drifted back to the rest of the base. The no doubt countless injured people and Pokémon…

    I exhaled slowly. “Yeah… that’s fair.”

    “I’ll go. In your place.”

    I don’t think anyone was quite expecting that. Slowly, we all turned to look at Courtney, who was staring at Maxie with a look of cold resolution.

    Tabitha glanced back and forth between the two, looking flustered. “Oh! And I shall accompany her, of course!” he hastily added, stepping forward alongside her.

    Maxie considered them for some time, then finally sighed and removed his glasses, popping out a multicolored stone that had been embedded in the rim.

    “Take this. You’ll need it.” He walked over to Courtney and dropped the stone into her palm. She stared at it in shock, glancing up at him as though asking if he was serious. He nodded. Then she slowly curled her fingers around it, nodding softly in return. I had no idea what that was supposed to be, but it obviously carried a large importance for the two of them.

    Maxie straightened, turning back toward us. He laid eyes on Latias, and a curious expression crossed his face—something between intrigue and guilt. “I never did get to apologize for before. Though perhaps no apology could suffice.”

    Latias closed her eyes. “*That time is behind us,*” she replied softly.

    Right, she’d fought back against Team Magma to save her home once before. This reunion had to be a bit awkward for both of them.

    Maxie’s gaze was on me and Darren again, and his expression was back to the same stoicism as before. “You lot look exhausted.”

    “We’re fine,” I replied automatically, even if I could feel exhaustion creeping up on me now that the adrenaline was wearing off. “We’ve got to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to the Blue Orb.”

    “It will do no good to rush into a conflict unprepared,” he said firmly. “Take a moment to recover your stamina.”

    “Team Rocket is infiltrating the Aqua base right now,” I said exasperatedly.

    But Maxie was steadfast. “The Aquas won’t fall to them so easily—they’re more formidable than that.” The corners of his mouth curled up ever so slightly. “Trust us—we’d know.”






    ~End Chapter 41~

    Next Chapter: The Aquas are prepared to take on most of the Rockets' Legendaries. Except that one.
     
    Chapter 42: Team Aqua
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 42: Team Aqua~


    A click and a fizz rang out as I popped the top on a can of energy drink. I grimaced, then proceeded to chug it down. It was sour and awful but I didn’t care. I was gonna need something to keep me going who-knows-how-much longer we had to fight.

    I still had to give Lugia the bad news. Couldn’t put it off forever, even if I would have liked to. Since Lugia and Ho-oh were at Sootopolis, they were now the only thing standing between the Rockets and Groudon awakening.

    I took a deep breath and said, <The Rockets got the Red Orb.>

    <What? How?> Lugia immediately demanded.

    <The executive had Entei!> I replied heatedly, my face burning with shame. <I don’t even know how; it’s supposed to be with the Johto force.>

    <Are we to assume the Johto force has nothing to do with this?>

    <I—> I paused. My gut instinct was to say no, because the two halves of Team Rocket never seemed to work together on anything. But in light of what I knew about Stalker, I couldn’t rule it out. For all we knew, he only warned us about this mission so that he could capture Groudon and Kyogre himself.

    <No, not really,> I admitted. <In any case, how’s the situation at Sootopolis?>

    <There’s a fleet of airships here. They haven’t made a move on the city yet.> Lugia’s mind was calm, yet tense. Guarded. <We’ve tried attacking them from afar, but our attacks simply glance off their shields.>

    <Rudy and Moltres are chasing the airship that left the Magma base,> I said. <He’s gonna keep me updated, but we should assume they’re heading to Sootopolis with the orb.>

    I felt an affirmation from Lugia, almost like the mental equivalent of a nod. <Right. No matter what, we won’t allow them to approach the island.>

    So that was settled. Nothing more I could do, so it was best if I put the Red Orb situation out of my mind. If I could.

    “*How did Lugia take the news?*” Chibi asked, staring intently at me from the nearby snack counter. He’d obviously gotten the hang of spotting the face I made when talking to Lugia.

    “Better than I expected, honestly.” I wasn’t even sure what I had been expecting. Anger? We’d failed to protect the orb. It should have been angry. I was angry. We should’ve been expecting that we might have to face a Legendary. We should’ve been ready for it.

    I had to keep telling myself that it wasn’t a lost cause. We had Rudy and Moltres pursuing the airship that had left. And Lugia and Ho-oh were ready to stop them once they reached the island. This wasn’t over.

    And… at least we were all okay. That was something.

    I glanced over at Darren, who was currently raiding the Magmas’ break room fridge. Not for himself, on second look—he was mostly just holding the fridge open and watching helplessly while Weavile shoveled rice balls into her mouth.

    The small break had given us a chance to heal our teams at least. No one was too badly injured, aside from Alakazam, who’d suffered some severe burning from Entei’s fireball—the sort of thing that really needed Pokécenter treatment, not just a brief stint on a healing machine.

    “Think Rudy’s gonna be okay?” Darren asked offhandedly.

    I tilted my head. “Yeah?” Then something hit me about the way he’d said it, and I added, “Why, do you think he’s not?”

    Darren shoved a hand in his pocket. “I mean. He is riding a Legendary into a literal warzone.”

    Oh. I guess it sounded pretty ridiculous when worded like that. Yet another thing that I just took for granted as reality, without stopping to think about it.

    I shuffled a foot against the floor, trying to think of what to say. I finally settled on, “Does it feel weird that this is normal to us?”

    Darren laughed. “All the time. I seriously forget that it’s not normal. And then someone like Maxie comes along and is like, ‘Why are a bunch of kids here?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah… this is weird.’”

    ‘Why are a bunch of kids here?’—that question still felt bizarre. We were just kids. I hadn’t felt like one in a while. Not since that night on Midnight Island.

    “Before we went on the Moltres mission,” Darren went on, “when I explained it to my team… everyone was pretty familiar with that kind of situation, y’know? They were just like, ‘oh yeah, this again.’ Except Skarmory—he wasn’t on the Rebellion, so for him, it was like, ‘what the heck, why are we doing this?’” he said, chuckling under his breath.

    I took a swig of energy drink. It was slowly becoming more tolerable. “I wish Jet had been like ‘what the heck.’ She’s got it in her head that we’re like, a bunch of war heroes and that this is all some kind of—” I paused suddenly as the realization hit me. “She’s basically us, when we started out. We were like that back then, weren’t we?”

    Darren shrugged. “Probably. I know I had it in my head that I was doing something big and important. Not that it’s not, but… well, you know.”

    I knew that feeling all too well. I’d joined the Rebellion because I wanted to feel important. Maybe the feeling would eventually pass for her, like it had for us. Although… given what had caused us to lose that view…

    “The weirdest thing is that I have a hard time imagining life without all this,” Darren added. “What would I do with myself? Just walking into a building, I start calculating escape routes… imagining how quickly I could react if the person next to me got shot.” He closed his eyes with an ironic half-smile. “Pretty sure if we told anyone else, they’d think we were insane.”

    It was the same for me. Seemingly random things still called back those memories and instincts, no matter how much time had passed. Flashes of lightning, and I’d suddenly feel concrete on my skin and acid in my mouth when neither were really there. The heat of flames, and my ears would ring with gunshots and screaming kids. Catching a side glance of my best friend from just the wrong angle, and I’d feel a spike of adrenaline from nowhere and a fist locking around my collar and…

    “We’re pretty messed up, yeah,” I said. “It helps not being the only one, I guess.”

    Darren nodded distantly. “Yeah.” His mouth curled into a smirk. “But you guys being partnered with Legendaries? That’s still weird. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

    I snorted. “That’s fair.” Then I glanced at my watch. It’d been fifteen minutes since Rudy left. Each minute we spent here was another minute for things to go downhill at the Aqua base. “Come on. We shouldn’t waste any more time.” Chibi jumped back onto my shoulder. I downed the rest of my drink in one unpleasant gulp and tossed the can before walking toward the door. Darren shut the fridge door with Weavile still inside, waited five seconds, then opened it again, which finally prompted her to jump out from inside and follow us out of the break room.

    As we walked down the hallway, I felt Chibi’s paws grip my shoulder. “*I couldn’t understand…*” he said quietly.

    I glanced at the hybrid out of the corner of my eye. “Hm?”

    “*Before yesterday… when I thought you were trying to hide from this mess,*” he clarified. “*It didn’t make any sense to me. But… you had a life before all this. I forgot because I didn’t have a life before all this.*”

    Oh. That did make sense, what with the way that he’d been constantly badgering me for information on Team Rocket for the past nine months. I’d been frustrated at him for being unable to let it go, but… obviously that wasn’t so easy for him.

    His paws clenched my shirt. “*I said I wanted to find something else to live for, but then I was angry with you for trying to do just that.*”

    I reached over my shoulder to put a hand on his back. Felt his body tense up and then slowly relax. “It’s alright. I understand. And… I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help you move on.”

    “*Not your fault,*” he replied immediately. “*I wasn’t letting you. Some things I have to figure out on my own.*” I didn’t necessarily agree with that, but… saying so wouldn’t help, I knew that much.

    We regrouped in Maxie’s half-destroyed office where several Magmas were already hard at work cleaning up. Maxie was currently discussing something with his admins, but then glanced up at me and Darren when we entered.

    “You two will need to reach the Aqua base as quickly as possible, correct?” the Magma leader asked.

    I nodded. How far was that, anyway? I wasn’t too good with Hoennian geography, but if it was off the northeastern shore… that had to be at least 150 miles away. Or even more? Maybe I could text Ajia and have her send Mew to get us? But if they were in the middle of a fight, the last thing I wanted to do was distract them.

    Maxie must have seen the dismayed look on my face, because he went on to say, “In the past, our team had… frequent need to teleport to the Aqua base for infiltration purposes. And while those days are behind us, some of our teleporters still have the location memorized.” Good. We couldn’t afford to waste any time flying all the way there.

    The admins who’d be going with us—Courtney and Tabitha—stepped forward, flanked by a squad of four Magmas and three Pokémon—a Kirlia and two Claydol. So they’d be teleporting eight humans total, plus Latias, whom everyone had pretty much just accepted was here at this point. No point hiding herself anymore.

    Courtney gave one last bow to her leader before taking the Kirlia’s hand. I placed my hand against the rough, earthen surface of one Claydol while Darren did the same with the other one.

    This was it. Barely done recovering from our first failure, already rushing into another fight. No way of knowing how much longer the night would last. God, that thought was exhausting.

    “I wish you all the best of luck,” Maxie said, nodding.

    Then the office melted into distorted light. Two jumps later, we appeared on a wide, rocky platform surrounded by water on three sides. Ocean waves lapped at its edge, and a cool sea breeze swept through the air. The sky had lightened noticeably compared to when we’d arrived at the Magma base—I turned to face the open sea and was met with the first light of dawn peeking over the horizon.

    The teleporters vanished and reappeared twice more until all of us were here, including Latias. Courtney gestured for us to follow her before silently leading us down a rough path along the water’s edge, skirting the perimeter of a sheer rock face, past sharp crags jutting up from the shallow sea. We rounded a particularly narrow ledge where the rock protruded out into the path, and there it was, the entrance to the Aqua base—a wide opening carved into the side of the rock down by the water’s edge. How were things going in there? Were Ajia and Starr alright?

    The path we’d been following didn’t reach the entrance. In fact, there were no visible walkways at all, just an open waterway for boats or water-types. I was just puzzling over the best way to get in when a grinding, metallic sound suddenly reached my ears. It almost sounded like… a garage door opening, coming from the direction of the Aqua base. Was it inside the waterway, out of view?

    After several seconds, the door sound ground to a halt, and in its place, I could hear an alarm blaring, mixed in with the sounds of… an engine revving? No, multiple engines revving. Getting louder.

    Then, without warning, a huge blue and black speedboat shot out of the opening at top speed.

    “After them!” a voice shouted.

    A flock of flying-types bolted out the hangar next, half of them with riders. Following close behind them was a fleet of smaller boats that broke off from each other the moment they exited, swerving wildly, dodging Pokémon attacks. Like half of them were trying to avoid the other half.

    “What the heck?” I muttered under my breath. Was Team Aqua… making a break for it? Taking the fight to the ocean?

    “Hey! Over here!” Tabitha called out, waving his arms over his head. At first it didn’t seem like any of the boats had noticed him. But then one of them abruptly swerved into a full U-turn, zooming straight at us. It didn’t make any effort to slow down gradually, instead braking hard right as it pulled up. I flinched as a spray of seawater washed over all of us, then glanced up to see that the boat was full of people wearing striped shirts and black bandanas, all staring at us—or rather, the Magmas—in total confusion.

    “The hell are you punks doing here?” a tall, burly man called out to us from the helm. He was shirtless, heavily tanned, and wearing the lower half of a wetsuit with a large, stylized ‘A’ tattooed on his chest. So… an Aqua, if that was anything to go off.

    “We came here to help you ungrateful whelps!” Tabitha called back, stamping a boot against the rocks.

    The man captaining the ship scoffed. “You think we forgot how to fight off invaders? Always managed to send your group packing, no sweat!”

    Courtney narrowed her eyes but didn’t say anything. Tabitha shook his head and stammered, “W-well I know you Aquas are physically incapable of taking anything seriously, but these Rockets are bad news!”

    “Ha! Couldn’t defend your base?” the man said with a hearty laugh. “Figures!” Tabitha’s face went red.

    “Matt, dear, they came all this way to help, the least we can do is give them a lift,” a voice called out. I glanced over at the ship’s bow to see a slender, dark-skinned woman with long, black hair streaked with blue. She was currently leaning against the guardrail, eyeing our group with an amused look.

    “If you say so, Shelly,” Matt said with an exaggerated eye roll. Then he turned back to us and said, “Get on board, and hurry it up, will ya?”

    One of the Aqua members extended a ladder down the side of the boat. Tabitha started climbing aboard, muttering to himself the entire time, followed by Courtney, the other Magmas, and finally me and Darren.

    “More kids? Seriously, what’s with all the kids today?” one of the Aquas asked loudly the moment he got a good look at us.

    “Child soldiers recruited to fight a war with the Rockets,” Darren answered without missing a beat.

    That caught Matt off guard. He blinked at us for a second before bursting out laughing once more. “Jesus, Kanto’s not as boring as I thought!” Then he whirled around and gripped the wheel tightly with his giant hands. “Alright, we’re setting off. Hang on tight! I ain’t turning this thing around if any of y’all fall overboard!” he called out. I barely had time to cling to the side of the railing before the boat abruptly lurched into a tight U-turn and began accelerating to top speed.

    The Aqua ship practically flew across the water, scattering sea spray into my face and whipping my hair around like crazy. Far ahead of us, I could see the rest of the boats, as well as the aerial squads of Rockets. We were rapidly gaining on them.

    Tabitha struggled to make his way toward the helm, fighting against the air pushing him back. “Do you even know what they’re after?!” he yelled over the roar of the wind in his face.

    Matt scoffed. “They’re tryin’ to get their hands on the Blue Orb, what else? That’s why Archie took it and made a break for it. He knew we’d be way better off fighting back in our element.” He gestured to the fleet of boats ahead of us, now circling around to confront their pursuers.

    At once, dozens upon dozens of Pokéball flashes rang out, and I was suddenly staring at an absolute horde of water-types. Wailmer, Carvanha, Sharpedo, Wailmer, even a few Wailord—all launching high-pressure waterspouts outward, crashing into the Rocket boats, toppling half of them, knocking flying-types out of the air. The skies near-instantly filled with a nonstop barrage of water so relentless it might as well have been raining. Heck, in a few spots it actually was raining, as some of the water-types had generated rain clouds to help fuel their attacks.

    Gunfire rang out a few times, but the onslaught of waves radiating out from the Aqua fleet kept the Rockets from getting close enough for a clear shot. Bolts of lightning shot out from some of the electric-types, but they were too far to target the heart of the Aquas’ forces, and could only pick off the outliers.

    Holy crap. Maxie wasn’t kidding when he said the Aquas in their element were scary effective.

    In the midst of the chaos, my eyes locked onto a gray-scaled blur zipping in and out of the Rockets’ aerial lineup. Aerodactyl! Ajia was okay! I couldn’t see her clearly, but I could see the small jolts of lightning that Pichu fired off every few seconds, and the Rockets’ Pokémon falling around her, wings twitching with paralysis. Mew was probably here too, disguised as one of the multitudes of water Pokémon. Not to mention Latias, wherever she’d flown off to.

    But then what about—my eyes scanned the army of water-types, struggling to pick out individual Pokémon—there! A Feraligatr and a Gyarados adding to the torrential onslaught keeping the Rockets’ boats from getting close to the Aqua leader—and the latter had a trainer on his back. So Starr was okay too. Thank god. After me, Rudy, and Darren had only barely made it, I hadn’t even wanted to think about the idea that Ajia or Starr might not have survived the Aqua base.

    A high-pitched trill suddenly broke the air and my stomach instinctively tied into a knot. I knew that sound. I glanced upward and sure enough, there it was. An icy, cobalt falcon circling overhead, ribbonlike tail swirling snow behind it.

    Articuno. God, I was sick of facing down Legendaries.

    “Yeah, that thing gave us trouble back at the base,” Matt said grimly, staring up at the ice bird. “Some Kanto girl—a friend o’ yours?—she kept it busy while the rest of us hightailed it outta there so we could fight back on our own turf.”

    My mouth went dry. If Ajia had managed to stand up to Articuno, then it was because she had Mew, and no other reason. “Don’t… don’t underestimate Legendaries.”

    Matt grinned. “Don’t underestimate Team Aqua.”

    Several dozen water-types all fired on Articuno at once, from all sides. It retaliated with Ice Beam after Ice Beam, freezing countless waterspouts into jagged icy spires. But for every attack it froze, ten more filled the air, forcing it to stay on the move, constantly looping out of the way, struggling to control its flight with waterlogged feathers.

    Articuno was limited to picking off opponents with single shots. It couldn’t just let a vicious Blizzard rip through the air without hitting its own forces. And now it was stuck spiraling around, struggling to find an opening. It shrugged off a few of the waterspouts, freezing a group of water-types solid, but for each squad that fell, there were five more to take its place. There were actually too many for it to break through. And really, that shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, before the Rockets had legends at their disposal, they’d had to take them down with huge numbers of ordinary Pokémon—this was no different

    Matt jerked the boat to the left and I snapped my hands to the railing again as we only narrowly avoided a sudden patch of ice that sprung up from a rogue Ice Beam. Then, with another swerve, he pulled our boat into a wide arc heading straight for the center of the Aqua fleet. The water-type forces parted to let us through, and Matt took us further in until our boat was traveling right alongside the largest ship in the fleet.

    “Hey Archie! Get a load o’ the reinforcements we picked up!” he called out.

    Archie? Wait, that was their leader, right? I leaned out over the railing and stared up at the larger ship. There he was at the helm—a tall, wild-eyed man in a navy wetsuit with a cape of netting trailing from his belt and a huge golden anchor hanging from a chain around his neck.

    Archie turned in our direction and blinked at us for a few seconds before breaking into an amused grin upon seeing that the ‘reinforcements’ were a bunch of Magmas and some kids.

    “Ha! You came to help us? That’s rich!” Tabitha folded his arms but didn’t bother responding. Archie smirked. “Appreciate the offer and all, but we’ll be taking care of this lot on our own!” He leaned over the ship’s railing and called out, “Whaddya say, bud? Let’s show these punks we mean business!”

    At first, I wasn’t sure who he was addressing with that last bit. But then, several seconds later, a Sharpedo burst out of the water, right alongside his ship. Archie grabbed at the golden anchor around his neck, and in an instant, beams of light burst out of it, streaming through his fingertips in a dazzling array of colors. What on earth? Was that… normal? None of the Aquas looked surprised—they were all staring in anticipation, like they couldn’t wait for what was about to happen. On its next leap from the water, the same rainbow light erupted from Sharpedo—from a polished stone strapped to its dorsal fin. And the instant the light crossed paths with Archie’s, it flared to life, completely engulfing the shark, swirling around it so thickly that I could barely see it, Archie grinning wildly the entire time.

    Suddenly, the light exploded outward from the two in a dazzling prismatic flash, fading into shimmering rainbow strands drifting upward from Sharpedo. The Aquas burst into wild cheering. And all I could do was stare openmouthed. It was like a Sharpedo but more, body covered in bright yellow patterns and scar-like markings, with jagged, toothy protrusions jutting from its snout.

    “What the hell just happened?” I muttered under my breath.

    Archie slammed a foot against the ship’s railing, thrusting a finger toward the Rockets. “Get a taste of Mega Sharpedo.”

    Mega… Sharpedo? That light… that was a mega evolution? I’d heard vague stories about it—real important to Kalosian history, practically a myth for the longest time—but I never thought I’d ever actually see it.

    Sharpedo burst from the water almost too fast to see, launching itself clear through the air, striking one of the Rockets’ flying-types and knocking it and its rider into the sea. Then the shark fired a burst of water behind it and cut through the sea like a torpedo, honing in on one of the ships that had been stolen by the Rockets, tearing a wide gash through the hull with its jaws.

    The sudden counterattack didn’t go unnoticed. With a high-pitched cry, Articuno swooped down and fired, freezing the water in Sharpedo’s path. But the shark barely noticed. It shattered the ice with the spikes on its snout and kept going, tearing through the water at high speed, smashing ice wherever it could, freeing the frozen water-types so they could go right back to launching brutal Hydro Pumps at the Rockets.

    “See? What’d I tell ya,” Matt said, a hint of pride in his voice. “My bro’s got us covered.”

    They actually had a shot. And even if Raven showed up with Entei, it wouldn’t exactly be a big help at sea, would it? We actually had a shot. This wasn’t over.

    And then Lugia’s voice was in my head saying, <It’s awake. Groudon is awake,> and the world came crashing to a halt. I stood frozen, gripping the ship’s railing so hard my knuckles turned white, numbly processing the sudden announcement from nowhere.

    <Wh… what?> I asked shakily.

    <Did you not hear me?> the legend said.

    I shook my head. <No, I—I heard you, but—how?>

    <I’m unsure. None of the airships here have made a move on the island. We’ve been watching them the entire time.>

    <There is no way in hell the ship that left the Magma base could have made it there by now; it’s clear on the other end of the region. And Rudy hasn’t messaged me yet either, so—> And then the answer hit me. The single, blatantly obvious truth that none of us had considered yet.

    <Oh my god, we’re idiots. They didn’t need to get their entire force there! The instant they had the orb, all they had to do was just teleport a single person to the cave to awaken it. They probably already had a teleporter ready to go with the location memorized and everything!>

    Lugia’s mind crackled with frustration. It hadn’t made that connection either. <So staking out the entrance was for nothing, then.>

    <We would’ve needed someone waiting to confront them inside the cave.> I slammed a fist against the railing. <Damn it.>

    Lugia steeled itself, as through suppressing the frustration and trying to focus. <Ho-oh and I will protect Groudon. Do not let them recover the Blue Orb!>

    “Hey. You okay?” Darren asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. Though he hadn’t heard the conversation, he’d definitely seen my random outburst and the sudden wave of anger crossing my face.

    “Groudon is awake,” I said, holding a hand against my temple.

    His eyes widened for a second with surprise. He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but then froze, processing. “Oh. They sent someone ahead to—”

    “Yeah,” I said flatly.

    Darren closed his eyes, exhaling slowly. “…Rudy’s gonna be pissed when we tell him.”

    I’m pissed.”

    “Yeah, that’s kinda unlike you.”

    I was not remotely in the mood to care about that. We couldn’t afford to let them get the Blue Orb too. Even if the Aquas were holding their own now, I didn’t trust for a second that the Rockets didn’t have more tricks in store for us.

    “So I’ve been meaning to ask—how do y’all plan on fighting here, anyway?” Matt asked, glancing back at the Magmas. With a smirk, he added, “Unless you’re telling me you finally figured out that water is the best type?”

    Courtney glared at him, but then turned and looked out at the waters surrounding us. I followed her gaze and saw that the seaway here was unbelievably shallow, with rocks and sandbars scattered between random pockets of deep water. Matt’s near-constant swerving wasn’t pointless—he pretty much had to do it to avoid beaching us.

    “There. Let us off there,” Courtney said abruptly, pointing at a particularly large sandbar along the outskirts of the sea battle.

    Matt shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

    The boat swerved again, but by this point I was getting used to it. Matt pulled us over as close as we could without getting stuck, and then I immediately bolted down the ladder and jumped off from it to land in the sand. Darren, Courtney, Tabitha, and the Magma grunts dismounted after me.

    Matt gave us one last incredulous glance and said, “Y’all are determined, I’ll give ya that. Good luck!” before the boat sped off.

    Darren turned around, quickly grabbing two Pokéballs from his belt. “Alllright, I know everything looks good right now, but let’s be real—we know that’s not lasting.” He let out Skarmory and Weavile, then climbed onto the metal bird’s back, with Weavile riding in front of him.

    I let out Swift, Jet, and Aros in a flash, keeping Firestorm in reserve—better to not have him out with all the water flying through the air, plus I’d need a backup flier if Swift went down. “Jet, hop in the water and defend those boats. Aros, give them air support, and keep away from the ice. Chibi, go with him—make sure your lightning doesn’t hit the water, we don’t want to fry any Aqua forces. Precision strikes only—no Discharge.”

    Jet gave a mock salute and dove into the sea. Aros glanced at Chibi with a look like he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the right words. The Pikachu either didn’t notice or didn’t care, jumping onto his back like usual and clinging tightly. After a few seconds’ pause, Aros turned to face the Aqua fleet before taking off.

    I climbed on Swift’s back and said, “We’ll want to stay clear of Articuno. Take us over the Aqua forces so we can support them however we can.” The Pidgeot nodded wordlessly. Then he flapped his wings and we were off, circling the airspace above the sandbar. Below us, the Magmas had sent out all their ranged fighters, and plumes of fire had already begun to rain down on the Rockets. Skarmory swept a flurry of pointed stones into the air that hovered around the Aqua fleet, ready to dig into any Rocket forces that came too close.

    Time to enter the melee, then. A burst of Quick Attack and we were off. We flew past a group of Pelipper that was busily whipping up a Tailwind, forcing the Rockets to fight against the wind. I scanned the waters below and spotted a squad of enemy Pokémon that had darted in from behind, zeroing in on Archie’s ship. In one smooth motion, Swift swooped down and nailed two or three of them with Air Cutter, which caught the Aquas’ attention and led to a barrage of Dark Pulse from the Mightyena pack onboard.

    No time to stop and focus down any opponents, no time to land any big moves. Just darting in, small strikes, then darting out. Movement caught my eye, and I threw a glance upward to see a squad of Crobat above us, already paralyzed by Chibi, Aros tearing through them in a blaze of dragonfire. To our left, another squad of fliers. Two of them had just gone down to a Hydro Pump, but a Yanmega deftly zipped past the waterjets, eyes glowing as it shot a multicolored beam and took down one of the Mightyena. Swift fired off an Air Slash, knocking it back, and that took the dragonfly too close to Skarmory’s rocks, which immediately dug into it. A Gliscor powered through, shrugging off the rocks, but a rush of Icy Wind from Weavile coated its wings in frost. Then, while it was stunned, Swift dove down and smacked it with his wings, knocking it into the waves, where it was immediately frozen by one of the Aquas’ Walrein.

    I felt a burst of cold air behind me—Articuno?—and whirled around in a panic, but no, it was just Weavile, slowing another group of Crobat with Icy Wind. Then a loud crash snapped my attention back to the ship just in time to see a Blastoise ramming the hull with a high-speed headbutt. I pointed Swift downward, and he immediately caught it between the eyes with a blade of wind. And in the moment’s pause while the tortoise was clutching its face in pain, a duo of Lanturn surfaced right next to it and unleashed a flood of electricity.

    They just kept coming. We could hold our own, but for how long? Even with the Aquas’ impressive fleet, Rocket forces still kept managing to slip through. Swift struck down a Beedrill, stirred up a whirlwind, and tossed a few more Crobat into the floating rocks. He was just flaring up his wings with light, about to go for an Aerial Ace when something orange glinted in the corner of my vision. A Dragonair, facing Archie’s ship, charging something in its mouth—a ball of orange light.

    Oh no. Hyper Beam.

    “Guard them with Protect!” I cried.

    Swift dove, and the Dragonair fired, and time seemed to slow as the blinding beam lanced straight for the ship. Swift flared his wings at the last second, white light shimmering in front of us. I screwed my eyes shut right as the beam struck the barrier with a piercing screech. Ears ringing, I felt a spray of water from something surfacing beneath us, and dared to open my eyes a crack. Another Dragonair below. Couldn’t Protect.

    “Quick Att—”

    Too late; a burst of dragonfire exploded from below, pouring over Swift’s feathers and sending a jolt of raw, heatless pain shooting through my arms. I clung to him for dear life as he struggled to regain his flight, firing off blades of air at everything around us. Through blurred vision I caught a glimpse of the Dragonair recoiling backward, then darting in for another attack.

    I coughed, eyes watering, and yelled, “Tw-twister!”

    Swift whipped up a whirlwind streaked with white flares, catching the dragon in its center and whipping it around mercilessly. But, wait… what about the first one? I spun around and there it was—behind us, its horn crackling with sparks. My stomach curled inward, already anticipating the burst of lightning, already seeing it before it had even—

    And then a giant, blue-scaled head lunged out of nowhere, grabbing the Dragonair in its icy jaws and hurling it so far that it was practically a speck when it landed in the water. I blinked in shock at our sudden rescuer, eyes falling on the person riding on its head, who was currently giving me a rather unamused look.

    “Starr?” I blurted out.

    She pointed forward, and her Gyarados snaked his way through the water until he was alongside us, giving Swift the chance to land on his back and rest his wings. The Pidgeot hummed gently as a healing glow washed over him from Roost.

    Starr spun around to face me. “What’d I say about getting yourself killed?”

    I flinched. “We were doing fine,” I replied automatically. Then my brain caught up with my mouth and I added, “But… thanks.”

    Her expression softened. “Just giving you crap. I’m glad you’re okay.” She turned back to face the same direction as Gyarados, pointing out a few targets that were getting dangerously close. “We’ve been doing alright here.”

    “Better than alright. Way better than we did at the Magma base,” I said.

    She gave me a sideways look over her shoulder. “Do I even wanna know?”

    I wasn’t too keen on sharing the details anyway. “Not really. They got the orb and woke Groudon, that’s all that matters.”

    “Does Ajia know?”

    I paused. “I’m… not sure.” Both she and Mew had been here the whole time, so not likely. I only knew because my patron had seen it happen.

    My eyes wandered over to Ajia’s Aerodactyl as he looped through the air, sending blades of air from his wingtips and knocking the Rockets Pokémon back as they attempted to take aim. Near him, a green blur flickered in and out of shadow, the Pikachu on his back firing bolts at anyone who got too close.

    And then, for whatever reason, I noticed that the seas around us were a lot less… hectic than they had been only a few minutes ago. Most of the skirmishes had died down. The Rocket boats had all pulled back, putting a wide berth between them and the Aquas’ forces.

    “What’s going on?” I muttered under my breath. Were they… retreating? That didn’t make any sense. Sure, we were holding our own well enough, but there was no way they’d give up that easily. They had to have something else in store.

    And then I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see several large somethings in the air. I squinted, struggling to make out the details. Then my eyes widened—it was a fleet of airships, rapidly approaching us from the northern horizon. Fighting back against Rockets on stolen Aqua boats was one thing, but airships?

    “Crap. They’ve got reinforcements coming,” I said, a sinking feeling building inside me.

    At my words, Starr whirled around. Her eyes narrowed. “Shit. It’s the Johto force.”

    A few of the Aquas started cheering as the Kanto Rockets pulled back, but it wasn’t long before they spotted the approaching airships. A crowd of waterjets fired on the nearest one, but the water just glanced off to the side, deflected invisibly. So the airships had ALR shields, huh? Then again, that did match what Lugia had said. But what was powering them? ALRs were useless without Pokémon energy as fuel.

    A large, metallic door on one ship began sliding open with a metallic creak. A flicker of sparks shone from within. And then a gigantic golden beast leapt down from the ship, landing on the nearest boat with a heavy thud that shook it so hard I thought it would capsize. Aqua grunts stumbled back from the impact, toppling over the side and into the water. Those still on board recoiled in fear.

    I stared frozenly, mouth hanging open. It was Raikou. The Legendary Beast of Thunder that I hadn’t seen since that night a year ago, when we’d actually managed to save it from the Rockets. And it had a human on its back. A young man wearing an Executive’s outfit, surveying the Aqua forces with a half-bored, half-amused expression.

    “Lexx?!” Starr’s voice rang in outrage.

    He jerked slightly upon hearing his name, then turned to face us, face splitting into a wide grin. “Oh hey! Nice job keeping the Kanto force busy. But we’ll be taking it from here.”

    Raikou crouched low before leaping high into the air, instantly letting a hail of lightning rain down on the Aquas’ forces. Dozens of Pokémon cried out at once before falling silent. And that was just the first attack. Raikou kept going, leaping from Aqua ship to ship, positioning itself behind the Aquas, so the water-types would have to attack their own trainers to get at it. Bolts rained down from above, spreading like a web across the surface of the water, forcing the remaining Pokémon to dive under to avoid it.

    My heart sank as I numbly watched it all unfold. “But… he warned us about their attack…” I uttered weakly.

    “‘Warned us’ my ass, he was just trying to distract us with pointless bullshit so we wouldn’t know what was really up,” Starr growled.

    And what had I been expecting, really? That Stalker sending us here to sabotage this mission meant that the Johto force wasn’t involved? Of course that was a joke.

    I was dragged out my thoughts by Starr tapping a fist against her Gyarados’s armored scales, then pointing forcefully toward Lexx. “We’re going after him.” The sea monster nodded sharply, and I had to throw my arms around Swift as our ride lunged forward, cutting a line through the seaway, straight toward Lexx and Raikou.

    I stared up at Starr, speechless. She wasn’t serious, was she? But neither she nor Gyarados showed any sign of stopping. I couldn’t let her go after him alone, but… after seeing the devastation that Raikou had just unleashed… I wasn’t sure if I had to protect her… or hold her back.

    “*This seems… unwise,*” Swift said, quiet enough that only I could hear him.

    “You’re telling me,” I whispered. Then I called out, “Starr, are you sure we should be doing this?”

    Starr didn’t respond. Or acknowledge that I’d said anything, for that matter. Her gaze was firmly locked on her brother, who was still antagonizing the Aqua forces. A couple of ground-types had endured the lightning and were attempting to strike back, sending waves of muddy water crashing down on him. But Raikou just raised a Protect barrier around itself and its trainer, the mud splattering off harmlessly. Then it retaliated by opening its jaws wide and launching a volley of shadowy orbs, picking them off one by one before they had a chance to counterattack.

    “Hey!!” Starr belted out. She pointed forward, and Gyarados spat out a narrow jet of water that splashed against the thunder beast’s side, only narrowly missing Lexx himself. “Why don’t you get over here and fight me, you little worm!”

    Raikou slowly turned in our direction, staring expressionlessly. Lexx gave his sister a crooked smile. “Starr, I want you to think about the fact that you’re challenging Raikou while riding a Gyarados.”

    “Like I care,” she spat. “Do you even have the balls to attack me?”

    Oh my god, what was she doing. My hand hovered over Firestorm’s Pokéball—I could let him out at a moment’s notice, he could grab her, we could make a break for it. But Lexx ignored her, turning around and focusing on the Aquas once more. Above us, the squads of Rockets pouring out of the Johto airships had grouped together in an aerial formation, with the Pokémon in front putting up Reflect and Light Screen to protect those in the back. There were still a decent number of water-types bombarding their shields with high-pressure waterspouts. At Lexx’s command, Raikou fired another string of lightning from its forehead, straight upward, calling down a bout of thunder from the sky, right in the center of the Aquas’ broken lineup.

    Without warning, a hulking blue shape burst up from the water with a violent splash. Feraligatr! Her jagged, toothy jaws dug into the tiger’s leg, staining its pelt red. But the legend only barely flinched. Lexx glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and sighed before motioning to Raikou. Strings of electricity danced across its mane, then flew into the gator, who let out a garbled cry and fell overboard with a splash.

    Really, Starr?” Lexx said, giving her a tired look. “This will all go a lot faster if you guys don’t get in our way. We’re facing a common enemy.”

    “Looks to me like you’re helping the enemy right now,” she snarled, recalling her starter.

    Lexx paused. “Well… yes. But not for long.”

    “The hell is that supposed to—”

    But her words cut off sharply at the whistle of something flying through the air, rapidly approaching. Gyarados noticed it first, darting to the right. Swift flared his wings to keep his balance, and I flattened myself to his back right as a hunk of molten earth slammed into the side of the ship, knocking Raikou off balance and nearly throwing Lexx from its back. I whirled around to see Courtney, standing at the edge of the water, arm outstretched. Her Camerupt stood next to her, snorting steam from its nostrils.

    “What is it with people wanting to fight Legendaries today?!” Lexx yelled to no one in particular as he regained himself and pointed for Raikou to disembark. “Do you guys seriously not know how strong they are?” The lightning beast gave a mighty leap and hurtled through the air, landing on the nearest island with a spray of sand.

    “Strong,” Courtney mused to herself. “Alright then.” She held out the multicolored stone that Maxie had given her. Beams of light suddenly burst out of Camerupt’s collar—the same light that we’d seen from Sharpedo not that long ago. But then, that could only mean—!

    The light consumed Camerupt, swirling around it like a raging vortex. And then it exploded outward all at once, dissolving into multicolored strands radiating upward. With a loud snort, Camerupt stamped the sand, melting it beneath its hooves. Its thick, crimson coat ruffled with every movement. Glowing, molten lines of magma traced the volcanic peak that had burst up from its back.

    “She can’t beat you… you say?” Courtney asked. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly. “Perhaps I can.”

    Lexx let out a low whistle. “Never seen a mega evolution in person.” He smirked. “Well this just got slightly more interesting. Alright, I’ll play your game.” He jumped down from Raikou’s back, gesturing for it to go ahead, and the lightning beast took a few steps forward until it was standing directly across from its opponent.

    “I’ve always wanted to know just how much lightning it would take to hurt a ground-type.” Lexx grinned darkly. “Should we test it?”

    Courtney’s eyes flickered with interest. “An experiment?” She stepped back and motioned to Camerupt… or rather, Mega Camerupt. “Let’s begin.”

    The volcanic Pokémon reared up with a snort and stamped both forelegs into the sand. In reply, an explosion of molten energy burst up from under Raikou, consuming the beast. Raikou kept walking, a twinge in its eyes and the slightest shudder in its steps. Then, with little more than a flicker of sparks as a warning, it unleashed an absolute deluge of Thunderbolts.

    I’d seen floods of lightning before. I’d seen Chibi pour his entire power supply in a single move, more than once. But this? It sent me reeling back to that night we destroyed the Thunder Field, giving Raikou that chance to use its full thunderous might against the Rockets. All of that, directed on just one Pokémon. Camerupt staggered back, teeth clenched, pain in its eyes, the air shimmering from the sheer heat of the lightning. But it was enduring, and forcing itself forward, stamping the sand again and generating another eruption beneath its opponent.

    This was the power of mega evolution.

    Raikou waited for the earth to settle beneath its claws. It tensed itself, strings of lightning coursing through its mane. But before it could strike, a huge chunk of mud crashed into the back of its head, knocking it forward a few steps. What? Where had that…?

    The beast threw a glance over its shoulder to locate its attacker. There, on the far opposite side of the sandbar, stood a Swampert, shaking the water from its fins and eyeing Raikou. The only one out of the crowd of ground-types that hadn’t fallen to a single Shadow Ball.

    Raikou turned toward it. Then it closed its eyes. The air shimmered and warped, condensing into waves of light that dug into the mudfish. It didn’t even flinch. Raikou blinked in surprise. Then Swampert lunged forward, striking the ground with its palm, sending a rolling wave of sand crashing into the tiger’s legs, bringing it to its knees, which gave Camerupt the chance to call up another eruption right beneath it.

    Right. So the Swampert was Mew. Got it.

    Starr was watching this all unfold with a look of distaste. Finally, she turned away and said, “Well, the creepy Magma chick is dealing with shithead over there. Come on, we’ve got other problems to worry about.” Gyarados gave a flick of his tail, and suddenly we were moving again.

    I blinked in surprise. She was actually willing to let it go? I’d been half expecting to have to drag her away from a fight with him. Still, I wasn’t about to question it. I threw one last glance back at Courtney as we left. We couldn’t waste her distraction—we had to protect Archie’s ship. My eyes scanned the waters around us and—dammit, Raikou had really screwed us over. What little remained of the Aqua forces were regrouping in the center. In the air, I spotted Darren flying on Skarmory, the metal bird stirring up whirlwinds and knocking approaching Rockets into the pointed stones. Saw Aros and Chibi still going strong, along with Aerodactyl and the Pelipper flock, all of them working to keep the Rockets from getting any closer.

    I was just about to have Swift take off and help them when a high-pitched whistle filled the air and a frantic voice yelled, “Get down!” I tilted my head back to stare straight upward and—holy crap, what?

    Meteors. The sky was full of meteors.

    “P-protect?!” I yelled.

    Swift leaped into the air, flapping right above Starr and Gyarados before spreading his wings wide and forming a wall of light above us. Not even a second later, dozens of projectiles—sparkling red and blue flares that looked like dragonfire—rained down on the entire seaway, clattering off barriers, knocking flying-types out of the air, and tearing holes in ships. I held tight to Swift’s neck, burying my face in his feathers and flinching with each shock wave and just willing it to be over.

    After what felt like forever, the countless impacts began to die down. I lifted my head right as the Protect wore off and Swift leveled off our flight, gliding in a low circle above the water. A chill fell over me—the skies were disturbingly bare. Half the aerial fighters had been knocked into the sea from the meteor shower (what even was that move?) and most of the Aqua fleet now had gaping holes in their boats. I threw a frantic glance back at Archie’s ship to see a Walrein hard at work freezing the openings shut, but the hull had already taken on so much water that it was too late. The Aquas on board were frantically discussing something when Archie suddenly made a hard right turn, beaching the ship against the closest sandbar before they could sink any further.

    Crap. This was bad. There went their mobility. And with half the water-types down… I whirled around to see Articuno rapidly closing in on us. No, no no no. If it got too close, that was it, game over. Had to do something.

    …Articuno should have taken some damage by now, right? Between all the water and fire and lightning and—

    Chibi. He was the only one that could put a dent in Articuno, besides Mew—and Mew was still dealing with Raikou. Even if it was just for an instant, it’d give us the opportunity to get Archie to safety.

    “We’ve gotta find Aros and Chibi, fast!” I hissed into Swift’s ear, and the Pidgeot instantly put on a burst of speed. I flattened myself to his back, holding tight as he ducked and weaved around the few remaining fliers, scanning them all with a growing feeling of dread. Aros hadn’t been hit by the meteors, had he? Or the ice? Or any one of a dozen other things that could have taken him down and I wouldn’t have even seen it and—there! A wave of relief crashed over me when I caught the flutter of green wings out of the corner of my eye. Swift had already spotted him, diving down to where the Flygon was helping fish unconscious Pelipper from the water.

    “How much power do you have left?” I immediately asked Chibi.

    “*Borrowed some from Pichu. I’m at around half,*” the hybrid replied.

    Would that be enough? Didn’t matter, had to try it. “It’s a long shot, but we don’t have a choice,” I said, pointing toward Articuno. “Use Mega Bolt!”

    The Pikachu turned to face the ice bird, eyes narrowing. He drew himself back, poised to take a flying leap, when—

    “*Wait,*” Swift cut in sharply. “*They’ve got hostages.*”

    What? What was he sayi—oh crap. Articuno was actually carrying the Aqua admins in its talons. Of all the dirty moves. Couldn’t hurt Articuno without hurting the hostages, at least, not with lightning. But who else could put a scratch on it?

    A rush of wind shot past me and I saw the brief flash of red feathers in the sunlight. Wait… Latias! Of course! She could do it—she could save them! Glimmering mist balls formed from thin air, pelting Articuno right in the chest repeatedly. The ice bird recoiled backward with each blow, instinctively retaliating with an Ice Beam that missed its mark completely.

    Now they were close enough for me to spot that it had a rider—the executive, Ender. He pointed forward, and the legend sent a rush of cold air from its wings. Frost formed around a jetlike shape in the air, flickering red before Latias snapped into full view, her illusion broken. Shivering, she pressed on through the storm, still forming more mist ball attacks, still pelting Articuno with them, forcing it back from the ship below. And then, when she was mid-move, Ender snapped his fingers, and a jagged Ice Beam split the air, striking her dead-on.

    My heart jumped into my throat. No!

    Latias cried out in pain, her attack fading into mist. She struggled to bring her claws together for a Protect, but the ice crystals were too thick, her arms frozen solid. Then the ice made its way to her wings, and with a pitiful cry, the crimson dragon went limp, spiraling down into the sea with a splash.

    I stared in horror. She’d be a sitting duck! Any one of the Rockets could capture her!

    “Firestorm, grab her!” I yelled, opening his Pokéball.

    The Charizard materialized in thin air, immediately pitching his wings back into a steep dive. I held my breath as he flared his wings just above the water, then let it out as he reached down to wrap his arms around Latias and lifted her from the sea.

    “Don’t let anyone near her!!” I cried.

    But the Rockets weren’t paying attention to them at all. Everyone’s attention was firmly on Ender and Articuno. The ice legend spiraled down over us before landing on Archie’s ship, pinning the Aqua admins to the deck with its talons. Archie let out a roar and lunged forward, held back at the last second by four of his crewmates grabbing him by the arms.

    “One wrong move from any of you and these two get impaled,” Ender announced to the crowd. “Or frozen solid. Take your pick. Hell, I could even shoot them if you wanted me to give them a clean death, but that’s the boring option.”

    Archie’s entire body trembled with rage so thick that I half expected him to throw his crew off and rush the Legendary by himself. But then his eyes slid to the trapped admins, and he slowly deflated, relaxing against his crew’s hold.

    “I believe you know what we want,” Ender said, holding out his hand.

    Every inch of me was screaming to do something, anything. But what? There were Rockets facing in all directions, watching our every move. Even if Mew just teleported right up to them, all it would take was a slight twitch for Articuno to drive its foot-long talons into the admins.

    Silence hung over the surrounding. No one dared to move. All eyes were on Archie, waiting to see what he would do.

    “Don’t give it to him, bro!” Matt yelled.

    Ender snapped his fingers and a garbled cry of agony rang out from the deck and Archie belted out a desperate, “No!!” and oh god. A daggerlike claw had just pierced Matt’s side. Blood flowed from the wound, dripping onto the deck.

    “Whoops. Such a clumsy bird,” Ender said, delicately stroking Articuno’s neck feathers. “Looks shallow, though. He’ll probably pull through. Sure would be a shame if it happened again.” He lifted his face to give the Aquas a pointed look.

    For several seconds, Archie didn’t respond. He just stood there, teeth clenched, eyes lit with fury. Finally, he took a few slow, resentful steps back until he was inside the ship’s bridge. I couldn’t see what he was doing inside—all I knew was that it felt like ages before he returned holding a polished, glassy orb of the deepest cerulean. That was it. The Blue Orb with the power to awaken Kyogre. And we had to just sit and watch as he handed it over to the Rockets.

    With hateful resignation written all over his face, Archie took a step forward. Then another. Each one forced, like it was taking all of his effort. Until finally, he was standing right before the overbearing form of the giant ice bird. Ender motioned for Articuno to lean down, then held out his hand. There was a moment’s hesitation. But then Archie steeled himself, forcing his arm forward and dropping the orb into Ender’s open hand.

    “See how much easier that was?” Ender said as he held the orb up to the sun, admiring the light glimmering off its surface. “Can’t believe it took me that long to think of it!” He tapped Articuno’s side and it spread its wings to take off, ascending from the ship’s deck with heavy wingbeats. Once they’d gotten some distance from the ship, the ice bird released the two admins from its talons, dropping them unceremoniously into the sea, where the Aquas’ Pokémon immediately rushed to retrieve them.

    “Show’s about to start, everyone!” Ender called out, releasing his Xatu. Then he and the psychic blinked out of sight.






    ~End Chapter 42~

    Next Chapter: The showdown in Sootopolis is nigh.
     
    Chapter 43: Dance of the Ancients New
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 43: Dance of the Ancients~


    I stared numbly at the silhouettes of the Rocket airships as they disappeared over the horizon. They’d gotten the orb, and we’d all just sat there and watched it happen, and it wasn’t like we should’ve said ‘screw the hostages,’ but there should have been something. Anything.

    While I was frozen, Swift glided down to where Firestorm had landed—the same island where Archie’s ship was beached. The Charizard was still holding Latias, his arms clasped tightly around her sides.

    “It should be safe to let go now,” I said.

    He gave one last furtive glance around and then nodded, setting the dragon gently onto the sand. The ice had largely melted from her on account of being held by a Charizard for the past few minutes. Her breathing was still shaky and her body shivered uncontrollably.

    I reached into my belt pouch and retrieved a revive crystal before cracking its shell and holding it to Latias’s forehead. Several seconds passed, all of us waiting with bated breath. Finally, her eyes snapped open. The dragon jolted upward, eyes darting back and forth before she stopped and blinked in confusion.

    Her gaze snapped to mine. “*Did we…?*”

    I shook my head, and the look on her face crushed my heart.

    “*I wasn’t able to stop them,*” Latias said emptily, staring downward. “*I failed again.*” Her claws dug into the sand.

    I bit my lip, glancing away. It wasn’t fair to expect her to beat a Legendary just because she was a legend herself—especially not one with such an overwhelming advantage. But I had no idea how to say that convincingly. Where was Mew—she’d know what to say.

    Actually… where was Mew? I turned my head in all directions, but I couldn’t see her or Ajia anywhere. Guess I was on my own here. I awkwardly put a hand on Latias’ shoulder. “You did the best you could. And this isn’t over. Not by a long shot.”

    The dragon nodded distantly, her amber eyes now staring off to sea.

    “Can you heal yourself?” I asked gently.

    It took several seconds for her to respond. But then she finally closed her eyes and let a healing glow ripple across the surface of her feathers.

    Footsteps crunched in the sand behind me. Slowly, Starr walked up to stand alongside us. She didn’t say anything at first. She just stood by my side, watching Latias heal in silence.

    “Is it bad that my first thought was why the Rockets didn’t just do that sooner?” she finally whispered, a bitter edge to her voice. “It’s what I would’ve done.”

    I fought back a shudder. She didn’t want me to answer. I knew that much.

    In the seas all around us, everyone was regrouping now that the Rockets had left. Water-types ferried unconscious teammates back to the Aquas. Flying-types landed on the ships and the sandbars. The Aqua boats that hadn’t sunk were all converging on the point where Archie’s ship had beached. Out the corner of my eye, I saw Aros and Chibi landing alongside Swift and Firestorm—at least we’d all made it through okay.

    Then a sudden thud caught my ear behind me. I spun around to see Darren’s Skarmory sprawled out in the sand, Darren himself awkwardly stumbling off the metal bird’s back. Weavile followed close behind, shaking water from her fur.

    I jogged over to them. “Hey, are you—oh geez.”

    Skarmory was breathing heavily, blood streaming through holes in his armor. Darren himself was soaking wet (had he fallen into the ocean at some point?) and hurriedly spraying the steel-type with a potion.

    “I forgot he didn’t know Protect,” he said breathlessly, not looking up at me. “If his armor weren’t so sturdy, we’d’ve been screwed.”

    What? He didn’t know—oh. Skarmory wasn’t on the Rebellion. God, it had just become second nature to order Protect at a moment’s notice after all our time on that team. But he’d never learned it.

    “Do you need a revive? I’ve got one left if you—”

    Darren shook his head, grabbing a Pokéball and recalling the metal bird. “No, no, I’m just… gonna keep him in the ball. Until we have the chance to hit a Pokécenter.” That was his second Pokémon that had been incapacitated. How much longer until we’d get a chance to heal everyone?

    Darren let out a hollow laugh. When I gave him a look, he said, “I’m just trying to imagine how he felt. ‘Use Protect, I don’t know that move, idiot.’”

    I wasn’t sure what to say to that. It was all too easy to see myself in his position—I couldn’t help suppressing a shiver.

    A flash of light caught my eye. Ajia had just blinked into view with ‘Espeon’ on one side and Archie on the other. The latter stared downward with a cold, steely expression. And then it hit me—Skarmory was far from the only critical injury that the group had suffered.

    “How’d it go?” a woman asked. I glanced upward to see Shelly staring down at the Aqua leader from the beached ship’s deck. She gripped the railing with trembling arms, still soaked from when Articuno had dropped her into the sea.

    Archie took a deep breath. “Took Matt to a hospital in Lilycove. They rushed him into the ER. Sounded pretty confident, so… I think he’s gonna be alright.”

    She gave him a curious look. “You’re not staying with him?”

    Archie was quiet for some time, staring down at the sand. “No. No, he’ll be alright. ‘Sides, we gotta stop things from getting any worse.” He clenched his fists, jerking his head up to give a stern look to all of the Aquas gathered around. “We’re not gonna let those assholes get away with this, ya hear? If there’s any way we can help fix things, we gotta take that chance.” Archie turned his gaze to the south. “We owe it to Hoenn for what we all did last time.”

    Ajia was still standing next to him, nodding to Mew as they talked psychically. I walked over to stand next to her and was suddenly struck by just how frazzled she looked. Her eyes held a strange combination of heaviness and manic, barely-contained energy.

    “Are… you okay?” I asked her.

    Ajia blinked at me in confusion. Her eyes flickered towards Mew, and she forced a smile that looked almost genuine. Almost. “I know things look bad right now, but it’s not over. We can still fix this.”

    That kind of evasion didn’t seem promising. “I… know that, but are you—?”

    “Oi! This one belong to any of you?!” a voice suddenly rang out.

    I turned and squinted at an Aqua waving to us from an approaching boat. In front of them, a Wailmer was carrying something on its back. Something orange—some kind of wet, bedraggled furball?

    Wait. No. No no no. It was a Floatzel.

    “Jet!” I screamed, breaking into a run across the sandbar, sprinting through the surf until I was right in front of her, staring at her limp body splayed out across the Wailmer’s back with matted, bloodstained fur. Dread crept up the back of my neck. Was she…? No—no, she was still breathing. Thank god. I grabbed a revive crystal, cracked it, and held it to her forehead.

    The wait was agony. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds, but those seconds took an eternity. She was going to be okay. Just had to keep telling myself that. After who knows how long, I noticed that the bleeding had slowed, and her breathing had grown steadier. Good, good. She was going to be okay—and this time I actually believed it.

    In an instant, Jet’s eyes snapped open and she sprung onto all fours, hissing madly. I sprang back, waving my arms in front of her face.

    “Hey! Hey, you okay?”

    The Floatzel blinked at me for a few seconds before slowly sinking back down, some of the tension in her muscles loosening. Her breathing was still shaky, eyes still darting around frantically.

    “What… what happened?” I asked, trying to keep the confusion out of my voice.

    The sea weasel stared downward, eyes wide and unblinking. “*Couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. They were all surrounding, but… couldn’t fight back. Just… sinking, and I couldn’t… I couldn’t…*”

    “You couldn’t what?” I shook my head. “Never mind, we’re safe now, you can—”

    She shook her head vigorously, screwing her eyes shut. I slowly reached out a hand to brush the fur on her arm, and she flinched. My heart crumpled inward. What on earth had happened? (I hadn’t seen it, I’d almost left her behind, she could’ve—)

    Unsure of what else to do, I held out her Pokéball. “Did you want to—?” Before I could even finish the sentence, Jet reached out and tapped the button, dissolving herself into the ball.

    I stood frozen. None of the Aquas said anything, but I could feel all their eyes on me.

    Jet didn’t know Protect. Just like Skarmory. I’d let her go out into a warzone, and I hadn’t even considered the fact that she wasn’t trained for it like the rest of us. But at least Darren had been there for Skarmory. I hadn’t even seen what had happened to Jet, and if the Aquas hadn’t said anything, I might have forgotten her entirely. What the hell was wrong with me?

    I walked numbly back onto shore, lower half now soaking wet from wading through the surf. Swift and Firestorm both watched with obvious concern. Aros was pretending very hard to look like he hadn’t seen anything.

    A hand grabbed my shoulder, and I flinched. “Come on, let’s go,” Starr said heavily.

    I swallowed hard and nodded, recalling Aros, Swift, and Firestorm while Chibi returned to his usual perch on my shoulder. I half-expected him to say something, but he didn’t.

    “We’re going on ahead,” Ajia announced. Latias gave a sharp nod. All of her fear and regret was gone, replaced with steely resolve.

    Archie turned from his conversation with Shelly. “We’ll catch up as soon as we can.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “And don’t worry, we’ll keep this lot safe,” jerking a thumb toward the Magmas. Tabitha glared at him like he was trying to find a way to feel insulted. Courtney was busy healing her Camerupt, spraying down the gashes across its fur.

    The last thing I saw was Archie giving us a determined grin. “Give ‘em hell for us.” Then everything melted into light.

    Our surroundings rematerialized into a ridge of white rocks, and I immediately had to shield my eyes. Holy crap, the sun. It wasn’t even that high in the sky, but the light was blinding. And the heat—it pressed in from all sides like a smothering blanket. It felt like I was going to drown in it.

    Slowly, I dared to open my eyes a crack, letting them adjust. I found myself looking down on a lake-filled crater, half-hidden under giant clouds of billowing steam. I squinted at the haze of white, struggling to make out any details. Where was it, it had to be here…

    Then the steam parted, and I caught a flash of red. Just long enough for a glimpse of the giant crimson beast responsible for this—piercing yellow eyes, claws dripping with lava, and jagged, spiky hide crisscrossed with glowing blue veins.

    Groudon. The embodiment of the earth.

    Somehow, even after all this time, even after getting used to the idea that the ancient, all-powerful Legendaries could be captured in a Pokéball just like any common Pokémon… the idea that this thing was in danger of being captured just seemed… ridiculous. It was stupid—why on earth would Groudon be any different than the other Legendaries? But somehow, it just felt on a whole other level. Standing here, being in its presence, I couldn’t help feeling unbearably small and insignificant.

    “God, they’ve really done it now,” Starr muttered under her breath. “Going after the legends back home was one thing but this? I always knew things would get out of hand eventually. Never thought I’d actually see it though,” she added with a dry laugh.

    I couldn’t help noticing Ajia giving me sideways glances in the middle of her back and forth with Mew. I was about to ask why, but then, wait—had they even known that Groudon was awake before we’d gotten here? I hadn’t told her. And now that we were here, the idea of sharing what happened at the Magma base burned almost as much as the heat. We’d failed, and now an entire city was in danger, and—

    “We can’t let them awaken Kyogre,” Ajia said suddenly, yanking me out of my spiral. “If Ender teleported into the Cave of Origin, then we’ve got to go after him.” She was pacing, her movements twitchy, erratic, like everything was running on overdrive.

    Mew pawed at the ground, looking pensive. <I’ve been inside the Cave of Origin many times. But I’ve never laid eyes on the chamber where the land and sea were put to rest during the last crisis, so I will be unable to teleport there directly.> Her Espeon body’s forked tail flicked anxiously.

    “We’ll find it,” Ajia said firmly. Then she turned back to the rest of us and forced a smile. “Keep each other safe. And keep Groudon safe!”

    I blinked. “You two are going in alone?”

    “We can’t risk all of us going in there and leaving Groudon unguarded,” Ajia answered. Her words had a practiced tone, like she’d already been planning to say that.

    “But…”—I gestured vaguely upward—“Lugia and Ho-oh?”

    “They could get captured too,” she immediately countered. “And then what? Besides, dark narrow caves, I’m gonna have Z try to get the jump on them. Not gonna fight them head on.”

    Starr let out an unimpressed snort. “You expect us to just let you run off and play hero by yourself while we—”

    “Just trust me, alright?” Ajia exclaimed, her voice desperate. “We need the rest of you to stay out here, okay?”

    Starr gave her a long, hard stare. Finally, she clapped a hand to Ajia’s shoulder and said, “Come back alive, got it?”

    Ajia blinked at her in surprise, but Starr’s expression was dead serious. She gave her a reassuring grin. “Of course.” Then Ajia and Mew blinked out of sight.

    They could handle it. Had to tell myself that. It was the only way to keep the growing pile of anxiety from consuming my thoughts.

    So that left us to deal with the Rockets out here. There was just one problem—where were the Rockets? The steam was thick enough that I couldn’t see much of anything around Groudon, but from its movements… it sure didn’t look like it was fighting off any attackers. It was just calmly walking forward. Vast flows of lava slowly spread out all around it, cooling as they hit the lakewater. Each footstep sent tremors spreading so far throughout the crater that I could feel them even from way up here.

    “It’s not being attacked,” I muttered. “Maybe it managed to fight the Rockets off before we got here?”

    Chibi’s eyes narrowed, ears twitching. “*That, or the Rockets are waiting for something.*”

    “Yeah, but what?” He didn’t answer. His paws clenched my sleeve as he stared downward, deep in thought.

    A shadow passed overhead. I jerked my head upward to see Lugia and Ho-oh, circling high above us.

    <Lugia! We’re here!> I called out.

    Lugia snapped its head toward us, then turned back to Ho-oh briefly before the pair of them spiraled down. Gusts of air swept outward as the pair touched down on the white rock, folding their wings and throwing troubled glances back at the lava beast in the center of the crater.

    “Well… it’s good to see the Rockets didn’t catch Groudon,” I said. That was at least one good thing, right?

    Lugia shifted its wings uncomfortably. <They didn’t try to.>

    I tilted my head. “What?”

    <Nothing happened. The airships stayed outside the crater the entire time. They didn’t even attempt to approach Groudon.> It gestured a wing behind us, away from the crater.

    What? I spun around and sure enough, there they were—the fleet of airships, grounded on the northern shore of the island. I could just barely make out a small yellow shape pacing in front of them (Raikou?). And something large and blue perched on one of the ships, most likely Articuno.

    This didn’t make any sense. An entire fleet of airships equipped with ALRs, combined with the power of multiple captive Legendaries. And they didn’t even try? Were they just waiting for the forces from the Magma base to meet them? But then we’d have Rudy and Moltres at our side, so really, that’d even things out.

    Rudy. How was he doing? Stuck riding Moltres halfway across the region. On his own if the two of them were ambushed. Part of me couldn’t help wishing that he’d come with us, and let Moltres pursue the airship by itself. But that wasn’t alright either. He was chosen now. He needed to have Moltres’s back. Even if…

    “I am not so optimistic to believe that they stayed back because Lugia and myself were standing guard,” Ho-oh said. “That said, it didn’t seem wise to abandon Groudon.”

    I continued to stare at the Rocket fleet, a feeling of sickly unease dawning on me. “We… we messed up. We shouldn’t have sent you to Sootopolis. But… I thought Groudon would be in danger.” I threw another glance back at the red beast, watching as it called a giant plume of magma up from beneath the lake, forming a large hill. “They never even tried to catch it?”

    <Evidently not.>

    “But that doesn’t make any sense!” I said again, like saying it out loud would somehow force an answer into being. The Rockets had every opportunity to catch Groudon, and they’d just ignored it. Unless…

    Latias tapped her claws together. “*Perhaps they didn’t think they had the power to challenge the earth directly. If they awakened the sea as well, and let the two fight, then both would be much easier to capture, yes?*”

    Dammit, that made sense. If we’d known… there wouldn’t have been any reason to send Lugia and Ho-oh here. They could’ve helped fight off the Johto force. They could’ve—I froze, gears turning in my head. “Stalker. He—he told us the Rockets’ forces would be here so we’d send our most powerful legends here. He wanted them to get the orbs.”

    Starr stomped the ground, shaking her head. “I told you guys. I told you that Sebastian was playing you.”

    I screwed my eyes shut. “I know, alright? I know.”

    “You knew, but you ran right into it anyway,” she said, her voice heating up.

    “Well, it wasn’t like we could just ignore him either!” I yelled, throwing both hands toward the Rocket airships. “Were we supposed to just let the Rockets do whatever they wanted here?”

    Starr was silent for some time, staring off at the fleet, idly kicking rocks down the slope. “Look, it’s not just you alright?” she said, turning away. “I should have realized that was his angle. But I wasn’t thinking about it because I didn’t want anything to do with it, and—”

    “I don’t believe it wise to dwell on the mistakes we have made,” Ho-oh said, its gaze fixed squarely on me and Starr. “Let’s focus on how to move forward.”

    Starr stared up at the phoenix incredulously for several seconds. Finally, she broke eye contact and muttered, “Right.”

    How to move forward. If the Rockets weren’t planning on catching Groudon until after awakening Kyogre, then it meant we had some time to think, at least. But with no Rockets to fight, what exactly were we supposed to do here? Stop… Groudon?

    Wait…

    “Has anyone tried asking Groudon to stop?” I asked. It seemed weird saying it out loud. Talking with an ancient being that had been sleeping inside the earth. But… it was still a Pokémon, right?

    Lugia shifted awkwardly, glancing at Ho-oh. The phoenix cleared its throat and said, “We… attempted to speak to them at several points, but they did not respond to anything we said.”

    Great, so we couldn’t reason with it. Of course things couldn’t be easy.

    Latias bowed her head. “*This is similar to what happened last time. We were unable to get through to them back then, either.*”

    “What are we supposed to do, then?” I asked heatedly. We’d failed to protect the orbs and already had to deal with one of the legends being awake (and the heat was making my head feel fuzzy and my thoughts didn’t want to flow straight), and I sure as hell was not in the mood to just sit here waiting for something to happen. I found myself automatically grabbing a Pokéball from my belt.

    “Jade, if you head off on your own just like Ajia, I’m gonna slap you,” Starr said flatly.

    “Well, what am I supposed to do?!” I countered. “I’ve got to do something.”

    Darren held both hands up disarmingly. “Ohhkay, I know you might not be thinking straight, on account of having a Legendary for a partner.” I gave him an unamused look, and he went on, “This seems like the kinda thing we should leave to them. How ‘bout we focus on stuff that we actually can help with?”

    “Like what?” I asked.

    He pointed down at the buildings lining the inner slope of the crater. “For starters, the city that’s probably about to be destroyed, yeah?”

    What? Oh no. Were there any people still down there? They’d had a head start when the Indigo rangers gave the warning a few hours ago, but the evacuation couldn’t possibly be done already. We had to buy them more time.

    “Right. You’re right, we’ve gotta head down there,” I said, opening Firestorm’s Pokéball. He froze the moment he laid eyes on Groudon, staring at the dinosaur with a disturbed look.

    “*That’s Groudon?*”

    “That’s Groudon,” I replied heavily, climbing onto his back.

    I glanced at Starr, tilting my head in a ‘come on’ sort of way, but from the look on her face, it was plain that she wanted to do anything else. Grudgingly, she let out Arcanine. He shook his mane out in the sunlight, closing his eyes contentedly for a moment before leaning forward for Starr to climb on.

    “Mind if I get a lift?” Darren asked, folding his arms behind his head.

    Starr’s irritated gaze snapped to him, but he didn’t flinch. “Sure, whatever, hop on,” she said. Darren climbed onto the firedog behind her, like he hadn’t noticed her reaction.

    Firestorm glanced back at me worriedly. “*This heat… it feels nice, but are you going to be okay in it?*”

    “I’ll be fine,” I said, even if I was already starting to feel lightheaded, and had no idea how long I’d be able to last. But there was no point worrying him when we had a mission to stick to. “Alright, you two”—I gestured to Lugia and Ho-oh—“keep trying to get through to Groudon. If there’s even the slightest chance that we can get it on our side… Well, if not, just make sure it stays as far from the city as possible.”

    Lugia glanced back at the Rocket airships, conflicted. <I suppose. But inform me the instant that the enemy makes a move on us. We’ve suffered enough failure as it is.>

    I nodded before turning back to the others. “Come on, let’s go.”

    Firestorm flapped his wings and we were off. Down into the crater, gliding almost effortlessly on the warm air while Latias flew next to us and Arcanine deftly leaped whole city blocks at once. The roads of Sootopolis were deserted. Scattered buildings had crumbled from the tremors that occasionally shook the island. It took some effort to keep my eyes from drifting back to Groudon. And to the creeping flows of lava that I couldn’t help but notice were dangerously close to reaching this side of the crater.

    After passing through five or six deserted neighborhoods, I felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe the city really was empty? But then nope—I finally spotted a large crowd several blocks ahead of us, in an open clearing that must have been the town square. Dozens of people and Pokémon were clustered around the entrance to a tunnel that must have led directly outside the crater. Scattered throughout the crowd were Pokémon rangers, easily identified by their uniforms. And with them, an assortment of Pokémon helping with the evacuation: an Aggron with two people on its back; a Machamp carrying four kids, one on each arm; several large bird Pokémon taking off with riders.

    Town square was noticeably cooler than the rest of Sootopolis. Entering the airspace was like a breath of fresh air, a break from the oppressive haze hanging over the island. Flaring his wings, Firestorm swooped down to land in the first open space he could find. With a mighty leap, Arcanine landed alongside us, making several people nearby jump back in alarm.

    “What’s going on here?” one of the rangers snapped.

    There were about a dozen ways I didn’t want to answer that, so I just went with, “We’re here to help. We’ve got strong Pokémon that can help carry people out, put out fires, recover people from collapsed buildings… whatever you need.”

    The ranger folded his arms. “Appreciate the offer and all, but what made you think it was a good idea to come here? We’re trying to get everyone off the island, and we weren’t exactly planning on adding more people to… to the…” His eyes went wide and his voice trailed off.

    I was about to ask why when someone cried, “Th-there’s a guardian with them?!”

    I spun around to see half the crowd staring at Latias openmouthed. Oh, yeah, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Waltzing straight into the center of town with a Legendary in tow was bound to turn a few heads.

    “She’s, uh… here to help too,” Darren said sheepishly. Latias gave a soft wave, clearly uncomfortable with all the attention.

    The rangers glanced between Latias and us incredulously. A few of them turned to look back at Groudon—or rather, the pair of gold and silver birds circling Groudon that had suddenly shown up right around the same time as us—no doubt putting two and two together.

    “Fine, fine. We’re almost done here, but could always use more Pokémon. Have your teams join the squad that’s clearing out the north side,” he said, pointing in that direction. “Fire and water types preferred. Fliers and teleporters can stay here to carry folks down to the docks.” He then turned to the rest of the rangers behind him and called out, “Let’s keep moving!”

    Starr didn’t waste a second letting out her team and barking out orders. Her fire-types took off down toward the area where the heat was most intense, Feraligatr lumbering after them on all fours. From Darren’s team, Sandslash and Golduck followed, while Weavile joined the squad of Walrein keeping the town square cool with Icy Wind.

    I hopped off Firestorm’s back, grabbing three Pokéballs and letting out the rest of my team.

    “We’re evacuating people,” I announced once they appeared. “Firestorm, stick to the hot zone. Aros, fly high and look for anyone who got left behind. Stygian, check the collapsed buildings. Swift, join the group carrying people out of the crater.”

    “*Where are the Rockets?*” Aros asked, glancing around in confusion. Because of course that was the first place his mind went.

    “They’re not attacking right now,” I said exasperatedly. “And this city’s about to be destroyed, so we really can’t afford to think about them right now, alright?”

    The Flygon huffed. “*It was just a question, geez,*” he said, spreading his wings.

    My face fell. “Wait—” But he was already gone, flying off with the rangers’ Pokémon.

    No no no, I didn’t want to be like this. But I was all ready for him to complain like yesterday, except… that was after the first Rocket encounter yesterday. He’d been just fine during the second fight, right? At least, up until the point when he… ugh, I couldn’t keep the details straight. Too many fights in too short a time.

    After an awkward pause, the rest of the team glanced at each other with uncertainty before Firestorm cleared his throat and said, “*This way.*” Swift gave me a concerned look, but then took off with Firestorm, while Stygian raced after Aros.

    “*I’ll stay with you,*” Chibi said, breaking the silence. “*I don’t trust the Rockets to stay out of this too much longer.*”

    “Thanks,” was all I managed to say. Even if we were too late to stop the Rockets from getting the orbs, we could at least help make sure that everyone made it out of here.

    All around us, the rescue efforts progressed. Teleporters blinked in and out of the crowd. Flying Pokémon touched down, pausing just long enough to pick up more passengers. Latias had joined a Metagross that was levitating rubble out from the tunnel, most likely shaken loose by Groudon’s tremors. On one of her return trips, she paused suddenly, like she had just noticed something.

    “*Oh! I know him!*” Latias exclaimed, pointing.

    I followed the direction of her claws to see a silver-haired man in a crisp black suit with metallic accents. He was discussing something with a group of rangers who pointed at us every so often. I tensed up. Somehow, I didn’t feel like being pointed out was a good thing in this case.

    “Wait. That’s Steven Stone, isn’t it?” Darren whispered to me.

    The name was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it off the top of my head. “Who?”

    “Steven Stone? Champion of the Hoenn League?” Darren gave me a look. “Really, Jade, do you ever watch TV?”

    “I’ve heard of him alright, I just forgot!” I said, feeling my cheeks go red.

    Oh crap, he was walking this way now, Metagross floating gently alongside him. I couldn’t help freezing up as he stopped right in front of us, surveying our group with a mixture of curiosity and deep contemplation. “If you don’t mind… could any of you explain what’s going on here?” he asked.

    I shrank back. “You’re asking us?”

    “Well, you kids seem to have enlisted the help of not only two Johto guardians, but one of ours as well,” he pointed out. “Care to explain?”

    I rubbed the back of my head. “Not… really.”

    Steven raised an eyebrow, but then Latias drifted in front of us. “*They’ve all helped fight Team Rocket in the past. They’ve all protected Legendaries. I trust them.*” Starr scoffed quietly but didn’t say anything.

    The champion considered Latias carefully. “Very well. I’ll trust your judgement.” He turned around, facing the ongoing Legendary clash. “So Team Rocket is the cause of this. I’d heard news of their actions in Tohjo… but this seems beyond any of that.”

    I blinked. “You’ve heard…? How?”

    “The Indigo League,” he answered. “I’m not privy to the full details, but they’ve relayed the general situation to us here in Hoenn.”

    What? The League knew about the Rocket situation? I was about to say something, but Starr cut in with, “Yeah, that tracks.”

    Steven nodded. “I’m grateful for the assistance, by the way. But something tells me you three came here for another reason.” His words were calm—shockingly calm, given the situation.

    I paused, unsure of how much to tell him. “We thought we’d have to fight the Rockets to protect Groudon, but… they haven’t targeted it yet.”

    His face faltered, like he was having a hard time working through what I said. “Why would something like that be your responsibility?” His words weren’t judgmental, just… perplexed.

    I took a deep breath and said, “We didn’t… enlist the Legendaries. It’s more like they enlisted us.”

    Something shifted in his expression. After several seconds, he replied, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    I paused. That definitely wasn’t the reaction I’d been expecting. After all, being partnered with a Legendary… most people would find that pretty amazing, right? Hell, some people would even be jealous. But Steven had immediately known that it wasn’t something desirable.

    “I suppose I can’t tell you to get yourselves to safety then,” he went on. “Look after yourselves. And if you need anything, come find me.” He gave a small wave, then turned and briskly walked back to the rangers, Metagross floating not far behind.

    I stared after him, thoughts swirling in my head. I’d just gone and told him about the chosen thing. Sure, he’d basically already put it together (and so had the rangers, for that matter). But I still wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. I just… felt like we could trust him.

    “*He knew about the Rockets,*” Chibi muttered. “*I always thought the Legendary project was a secret.*”

    “Me too,” I replied. “The League knows more than they’re letting on.” Then again, hadn’t Lexx vaguely implied something like that yesterday? Obviously the Rockets’ street-level stuff was known to pretty much everyone, but if Steven knew about the Legendary project…

    And then without warning, a horrible, reverberating scream suddenly tore the air, shaking the island and gripping my entire body.

    No. No no no no.

    Storm clouds began condensing out of thin air, quickly covering large swaths of sky, blocking out the harsh sunlight. Part of me couldn’t help feeling sweet relief the instant that blinding sun was covered, but it was offset by the creeping dread settling in my gut.

    It was Kyogre. It had to be. How had they described it? The embodiment of the sea that could drown the world in a torrential downpour? What else could this be? Mew and Ajia hadn’t managed to get there first. But what were we expecting? None of us could stop Ender from teleporting inside the cave. The moment he’d gotten the Blue Orb, this was inevitable.

    Groudon jerked its head toward the northern edge of the crater, fixing its blazing yellow eyes on the hole—the same hole it had emerged from—with rapt attention. Alarm spiked in the back of Lugia’s mind. With a mighty flap, the dragon-bird swooped down in front of Groudon’s face, spreading its wings as wide as it could.

    <No, no, no!!> it yelled. <Pay attention to us, dammit, not them!>

    The waters inside the crater began to churn. Slowly at first, then rising in intensity until fifty-foot waves slammed into the shores, crashing against the rocks and smashing a half dozen buildings flat (oh god, there weren’t any people there, were there?).

    Groudon observed the rising waters with a look of distaste. Then it raised both arms upward, calling more magma up from below, raising its island high above the water’s surface. Plumes of fire shot upward from the spires of fresh earth, piercing the cloud cover and letting that blazing sunlight through.

    <I said pay attention!> Lugia snarled. It snapped its wings together, unleashing a blast of wind straight into Groudon’s face, carving deep gashes into its craggy hide. Despite looking as immovable as a mountain, the beast actually staggered backward from the force of the attack. For several seconds, it didn’t move. Then, with a low rumble, Groudon slowly pulled itself to its feet, and something in its movements sharpened. It had just been doing its own thing before, but now it stood tense, arms held outward, claws digging into the lava spires, pulling energy from the earth. The blue veins across its back brightened. Then it opened its maw wide and blasted out a torrent of fire. Lugia swept its wings together in front of its face, white-hot flames streaming over its feathers. I couldn’t help flinching at the sight, but Lugia barely looked fazed. Its eyes glowed, water streaming up into the air and swirling around it. In a flash, the water rushed forward like a freight train, crashing straight into Groudon’s chest and slamming the beast so hard into the lava wall behind it that it partially sank into the molten rock.

    Whoa. Okay, this was getting too extreme. <We’re not trying to hurt it, remember!> I yelled.

    <Maybe they deserve to get some sense knocked into them!> Lugia countered.

    <If we weaken it, that’ll just make it easier for the Rockets to target it.>

    <If we take them down, we can still fight the Rockets ourselves,> Lugia huffed indignantly.

    <After wasting all your energy?> I asked.

    <Do you have a better idea? You were the one adamant that we not allow their power to go uncontrolled. They’ll level the whole city and think nothing of it!>

    Sure, that was true, but that didn’t mean it was a good idea to basically do the Rockets’ work for them. But I couldn’t think of a… that is, there wasn’t much… ugh, the screeching from inside the mountain was growing so loud I could barely hear myself think.

    Groudon’s eyes lit up at the sound, and it let out a resounding roar in reply. The ground shook. The lake pulsed. The tension hanging in the air was so thick it was almost electric. Seconds dragged by for an eternity with no one daring to move. Then an explosive burst of water erupted from the cave, and with it came a gigantic leviathan, blue as the deepest ocean and streaked with glowing red lines, pulsing with energy. The sea beast landed in the lake with a mighty splash, surfacing soon afterward and letting out a cry to the heavens. The clouds instantly gave way, unleashing a torrential downpour. Even though the rains were clear across the crater, it was still unnerving, seeing the weather turn so unnaturally.

    Lugia glared at the new arrival, exasperation flooding its mind. But it pushed the emotions to the side, forcing itself to stay cool. Turning its back on Groudon, Lugia flew down to hover over the raging whirlpool Kyogre had created.

    <I need you to listen to me,> Lugia said, keeping its voice level. <Groudon isn’t your enemy. The humans who awakened you are. They intend to steal your power and use it against the rest of us.>

    Kyogre wasn’t paying attention. Its winglike flukes continued to beat the water, stirring up towering waves that crashed into Groudon’s mountain, tearing chunks of fresh earth from it. Annoyance crept back into Lugia’s thoughts, and with the flick of its tail, a psychic glow forced Kyogre to look upward.

    <Did you hear me? I’m trying to—>

    Without warning, a waterspout erupted beneath Lugia, knocking the seabird flying through the air like a ragdoll before splashing awkwardly into the lake. I flinched—even though this was Lugia we were talking about, that still looked like it hurt. Part of me was half-tempted to ask if it was alright. The other half thought better of it.

    <They are going to regret that,> said a cold voice in my head.

    Lugia burst from the water, eyes glowing a menacing blue, psychic fury echoing so hard through our link that I got an instant headache.

    <I can do that too,> Lugia hissed, flaring both wings upward.

    In an instant, the waves radiating out from Kyogre reversed direction, slamming back into it. The leviathan fought to keep itself steady, powering itself to the top of the waves just in time for a sharp gale to force it back down again. Across the lake, Groudon let out a roar and stamped the ground. Piercing stones thrust upward from the deep, breaking the water’s surface and digging into Kyogre. The sea monster screeched in pain, struggling to free itself from the rocky prison.

    <You’re not getting a pass here,> Lugia growled, turning back to face Groudon. With the flick of a wing feather, the waves reversed again, and Groudon only barely had enough time to raise a wall of lava in front of itself before an enormous wave crashed down on its mountain.

    A wisp of self-satisfaction leaked into Lugia’s thoughts. It was abruptly cut off by a jagged Ice Beam crashing into its back, sending a wave of frost across its whole body. What? Where had that—I snapped my head in the other direction to see Kyogre, still fighting its way out of Groudon’s trap, snapping stone spires with its flukes… but with the obvious glint of ice shimmering around its toothy jaws.

    Lugia shook the frost from its wings and drew itself back to fire another blast of wind, but Kyogre already had another Ice Beam ready, firing it right into Lugia’s face. The seabird staggered back, fighting to keep itself steady in the air, several colorful swears echoing through our link. But before it could regain itself, Groudon nailed it with a few well-aimed boulders from behind, knocking it closer to the water, just in time for one of Kyogre’s waterspouts to erupt beneath it. Then, while it was still reeling, another hail of rocks, only barely stopped by a barrier. The moment the barrier dropped, another beam of ice.

    I winced as one blow after another struck without mercy. It… it would be fine. This was Lugia we were talking about. It could withstand anything.

    …But what if it couldn’t? What if it was stuck there, pummeled endlessly until it couldn’t fight back, and we couldn’t do anything to stop it, and—

    Out of nowhere, a searing sunbeam struck Groudon from above. The volcanic beast hissed in pain, stumbling back into a lava flow and partially sinking into it. An echoing cry rang out as a pair of rainbow wings dove for the spot where Lugia was still pulling itself from the ice.

    Of course! Ho-oh!

    With an angry screech, Kyogre sent a towering wave straight for the bird duo, but Ho-oh raised a barrier, and the water crashed against it, spilling out around the sides. Lugia took that opportunity to snap the ice with a psychic pulse, just in time to dodge the next wave of rocks that Groudon called up from the lakebed.

    Okay, the two could probably hold their own together. At least until the crater was completely evacuated, which—I glanced over my shoulder at the rapidly emptying town square—probably wouldn’t be too much longer. Okay, good. The city was toast, but at least everyone would be out by then. But what if the disaster expanded beyond Sootopolis? Latias had said that their fighting threatened the entire Hoenn region last time. And we had no way of stopping them without also making them easier to capture. At this rate… it would almost be better if they were—no, no I wasn’t going to let myself think about that. We could protect Hoenn and stop the Rockets from getting them.

    A familiar sound caught my ear from behind—the sharp blip of a teleport. I spun around to see—

    “Ajia! You’re back!” I yelled, running over. She was doubled over and breathing heavily, bits of snow and ice tangled in her hair. A pair of Ninetales (one of which must have been Mew) stood beside her, shaking the snow from their tails.

    I was about to say something, but the sound of hoofbeats cut me off. Starr had just ridden over on Rapidash, skidding to a stop in front of Ajia.

    “What happened in there?” she asked.

    Ajia straightened herself, trading a brief glance with Mew. “They… knew we were coming. Couldn’t teleport out once we were in the chamber, had to fight Articuno. And, well…”

    Starr’s expression faltered. “You knew you wouldn’t make it in time, didn’t you?” I jerked my head toward her in surprise, but Ajia just nodded slowly.

    She’d known. That’s why she made us all stay out here. It was a lost cause from the beginning.

    One of the Ninetales trotted past us, gazing down at the Legendaries trading blows in the center of the lake, the air torn by wind and fire, lava and water. <What are they doing?>

    I rubbed the back of my head. “Lugia was… trying to keep the fight under control.” That was one way to put it. “Ho-oh only stepped in to help.”

    Mew shook her head, letting a glow surround her before she blinked out of sight. Seconds later, there was a small flicker in the middle of the combatants. It took hold of Lugia and Ho-oh, and then the two of them vanished from the battlefield. Then Mew—still a Ninetales— reappeared and offered a tail to each of us. I took one, unsure of where it would lead, and then we appeared in a deserted side street. Not far from where we’d been before, from the sound of it—just far enough that we could talk to the Legendaries without anyone seeing us.

    It was kind of weird seeing Lugia and Ho-oh standing side by side in the middle of town like this—both of them taller than the houses around them. Lugia in particular was bruised and beaten with chunks of ice stuck in its feathers. While it shook itself off, Latias flew in from nowhere, already letting a healing glow radiate from her claws.

    Lugia gave a small huff. <I can heal myself.>

    Latias froze, shrinking back a bit. Then she nodded softly and drifted back to hover alongside me.

    Ho-oh straightened itself with some difficulty before stepping forward, talons clicking on the stone pavement. “Good to see you, Mew. As you’ve noticed, things have not gone well out here.”

    Starr snorted. “Putting it mildly,” she muttered under her breath.

    “I don’t believe we’re in a position to fight them,” the phoenix went on. “Not when they’re like this. Even if we came out ahead, it would not end well.”

    With Lugia and Ho-oh gone, the two raging legends were free to focus on each other once more. Groudon commanded rolling flows of lava so thick they threatened to fill the entire lake. Kyogre’s waves struck with such power that they carved deep trenches in the surrounding stone.

    And then, out of nowhere, a thought struck me. “Wait. How on earth were Groudon and Kyogre stopped last time?”

    Ho-oh blinked for a moment, then glanced over at Latias. She tilted her head as though the answer were obvious and said, “*The messenger from the heavens arrived and told them it was time to stop.*”

    I stared blankly. “The messenger… from the heavens?”

    Latias nodded. “*One of the most ancient protectors of our land, and the only one with the voice that can calm even the earth and the sea: Rayquaza,*” she said earnestly. “*They were our only hope. The humans performed a ritual to summon them from their throne in the heavens, and they returned the two to their prior sleep.*”

    Everyone was silent for some time. I honestly had no idea how to respond to something like that. It almost sounded more like a myth than something that had actually happened, but if she’d seen it firsthand, then who was I to question it?

    Lugia let out a cough. <That’s, uh… that’s all well and good. Very mystical and such. But how are we actually going to get through to those two?> Mew thwacked the dragon-bird with her tail, and it shoved her with its wing.

    Latias blinked at Lugia in confusion. “*Are… you doubting the great messenger’s existence?*”

    Lugia gave an exasperated sigh. <No. Obviously they’re real, but they’re not exactly here right now, are they? We’ve got to take matters upon our own wings.> It gestured down at the raging battle for emphasis.

    “Well, hang on,” Ajia said, raising a hand. “If the messenger showed up last time, then it’s possible for it to help out here, yeah? If we can just find it, and get it to—” Her words cut off sharply, and her expression suddenly transformed into one of disturbed realization.

    I blinked. “…Ajia?”

    “It’s a trap. This was all a trap.”

    Starr scoffed. “Yeah, no kidding. And we walked right into it.”

    “Not for us!” Ajia exclaimed, shaking her head. “For Rayquaza. The Rockets were never after Groudon or Kyogre at all, they were just trying to lure Rayquaza here. It’s the real target.”

    Starr opened her mouth like she was about to protest, but then froze, gears turning in her head. “…Shit. You’re probably right.”

    God, this explained everything. Why the Rockets hadn’t attacked Groudon. Why they were just waiting for something, with no indication as to what.

    Latias looked mortified. “*We can’t let that happen!*” she cried.

    Ajia spun around frantically, looking in all directions. “Where are the Rockets? We’ve got to take down their fleet before Rayquaza gets here.”

    “They’re outside the crater,” I said, pointing vaguely in the direction we’d come from. “But do we really have the firepower to fight them head on?”

    <Where is Moltres?> Mew cut in.

    Right, Mew and Ajia still had no idea how things had gone on our mission. “Rudy and Moltres were… tailing the airship that took the Red Orb,” I said, feeling progressively dumber with each word. “We didn’t want to lose sight of them.” Fat lot of good that had done us.

    <Can you contact him?> Mew asked in earnest. <We’ll need their support.>

    “Right,” I said, snatching my phone from my pocket and pulling up his number as quickly as I could. I threw the phone to my ear, bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet as it rang.

    Come on, pick up pick up pick—

    Then a small click followed by a sudden blast of sound in my ear. I jerked the phone away and held it at a distance, where I could just barely make out a voice shouting over the smothering noise.

    “Rudy, where are you, we need you and Moltres here now,” I yelled into the microphone.

    His words cut in and out, barely audible over the roar of the wind. “I don’t—some forest—something? Why? —happening?”

    “How much longer until you get here?” I asked.

    “How should I know?!” came the reply.

    I glanced up at the others with a helpless look on my face.

    Mew gave a restless flick of her tails. <I could teleport them here if I knew where they are.>

    Except he’d just said he didn’t know where they were. Unless… Well, we were never gonna get anywhere over the phone. I hit the end call button and opened the messenger. Fingers flying across the screen, I texted him, “Send me a screenshot of your location in the GPS. Don’t ask, just do it.”

    I still expected him to ask at least twenty questions or come up with some reason not to do it. But no, not even a minute later, my phone buzzed, and I was looking at a zoomed-in snippet of Hoenn’s map.

    I held out my Pokégear to Mew. She squinted at the image, tilting her head back and forth, muttering to herself, until…

    <Wait. That waterway. I recognize that shape. I know where they are!> Within seconds, she had vanished from sight.

    I let out a breath. Okay good. We could get Rudy here, attack the Rockets before they were ready, before Rayquaza showed up. Then it could put a stop to Groudon and Kyogre, and the city would be saved. We could do this.

    “Hey, uh… did I hear something about bringing Rudy here?”

    I glanced over my shoulder to see Darren wandering over with his hands in his pockets. His team wasn’t with him (mostly likely still helping the rangers), aside from Weavile. She seemed to have gone a bit overboard with the whole ‘keeping cool’ thing, as Darren’s hair and clothes were coated in bits of snow, even though we weren’t standing in one of the patches of harsh sun.

    “Mew’s getting him now,” I said.

    Darren nodded. “So he has no idea what he’s showing up to, huh.”

    I opened my mouth to speak, but then stopped. Right, last thing Rudy knew, the Rockets had only gotten the Red Orb.

    “…Did you ever tell him that Groudon was awake?” I asked, already not looking forward to the answer.

    Rubbing the back of his head, Darren said, “See, I was going to, but then we had to help the Aquas, and I forgot.”

    Ah, crap.

    As if on cue, a flash of light appeared next to Lugia and Ho-oh, and there was Moltres, stumbling a bit from the sudden jump and throwing suspicious glares around. On its back, Rudy blinked in surprise, like he still hadn’t worked through what had just happened. Then his eyes widened the moment he saw the twisted mess of black clouds mixed with blazing sun.

    “What the hell?!” Rudy cried as he slid down from his patron’s back.

    “What is the meaning of this?” Moltres demanded, waving a wing toward the lake filled with towering waves and explosions of lava.

    “The Rockets got the Blue Orb,” I said, wincing. “Also they might have teleported the orbs into the cave.”

    Rudy smacked his forehead. “Oh, what the hell? Seriously? We flew all that way for nothing?”

    “Hey, not for nothing,” Darren cut in. “It’s not like we could’ve had the Magmas’ Kirlia teleport Moltres all the way here. It would’ve had to fly either way, and you kept it safe yeah?”

    Rudy paused, considering it. “Yeah, I… I guess you’re right.”

    “Survived your first job as Moltres’s chosen, that’s a win,” Darren said, nudging his shoulder.

    Moltres clearly wasn’t satisfied by that, though. “How are we meant to deal with this?”

    “We’re not worried about them right now, they’re not the real target here,” Ajia said hurriedly.

    “Then what is?”

    And then a terrifying and unearthly roar brought the world crashing to a halt. Everyone froze instantly. I could feel it echoing through my whole body; pure, paralyzing anger so thick I could hardly breathe.

    “*WHY DOES HUMANITY NOT LEARN FROM ITS MISTAKES?*”

    A beam of light pierced the sky directly above Sootopolis crater, pushing back the clouds, dispelling the distorted haze of heat from the air. And from within, a brilliant, emerald green ribbon of light spiraled down toward the crater. A serpent. Riding on currents of wind so effortlessly that it was practically made of wind.

    The air hung still. So unnaturally still that I felt a small jolt when something rushed up next to me. I dared to let my eyes drift away from the sky, and to the crimson dragon now floating alongside me, staring at the emerald serpent in reverent fascination.

    “*The messenger from the heavens. Rayquaza.*”






    ~End Chapter 43~

    Next Chapter: An unlikely deal, an unlikely solution
     
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    Chapter 44: Messenger from the Heavens New
  • Chibi Pika

    Stay positive
    Staff
    Location
    somewhere in spacetime
    Pronouns
    they/them
    Partner
    pikachu-chibi
    ~Chapter 44: Messenger from the Heavens~


    Everyone was frozen on the spot, staring in awe as the serpent spiraled downward. No one dared to speak. No one dared to breathe. It was like the entire earth had gone still, all eyes watching the emerald ribbon twisting gracefully through the air.

    Rayquaza was here. It could put an end to all of this, just like last time.

    And then out of nowhere, a piercing Ice Beam crashed against the serpent’s body. Rayquaza snarled in pain, falling backward in midair as ice crystals coated its scales. Curling its body inward, the dragon shattered the ice into bits before jerking its head in the direction of the beam.

    “*What is the meaning of this?*” it demanded, the words echoing through the still air.

    A sound echoed in reply. Wingbeats. Then Articuno soared into view, snow trailing from its long, ribbonlike tail. Seeing it was a cold, jarring crash back into the reality of the situation.

    Articuno fired again, but this time Rayquaza was ready. The serpent looped out of the way as smoothly as wind, then steadied itself and roared at its attacker.

    “*Explain yourself!*”

    It didn’t know. It had no clue what this attack meant.

    Articuno leveled its flight, staring down the serpent. And then, with a roar, the entire fleet of airships shot into view at top speed. Over a dozen of them—flying, mobile ALRs, all zeroing in on Rayquaza.

    “We’ve gotta stop them!” Rudy yelled, climbing back onto Moltres’s back in a hurry. Not even a second later, Moltres launched into the air, sending a rush of warmth through the street.

    Lugia and Ho-oh glanced at each other briefly before taking off after the firebird. Mew had already begun to transform, growing horns, a tail, wings… she’d become a Charizard! Ajia hopped on her back, and the two immediately took off after the gold and silver birds.

    “I’ve gotta help Lugia,” I muttered, turning to run back toward the town square, where I’d find my team still helping with the evacuation. But then my eyes fell on Starr and Darren, and my heart sank.

    “You guys…”

    Neither of them had flying Pokémon available. I had to go, but they couldn’t come with me. Not unless either of them rode one of my Pokémon. But that meant none of us would have a backup flyer and that was just insanely risky and—

    Darren folded his arms behind his head. “Hey, I get it. My team and I are gonna keep working down here. I get the feeling this place is gonna go down in flames soon. Gotta help out where I can.”

    I turned away from him, to where Starr was very deliberately avoiding my eye.

    My throat clenched. “Starr…”

    “There’s no point in repeating all the things I’ve already said,” she cut in. For a few seconds, she didn’t say anything else. But then she turned sharply toward me, jabbing a finger in my direction. “You’ve got a Legendary at your back, right? Use it. And tell Lugia that if it gets you killed, I will figure out a way to make it regret it.”

    Relief washed over me. “Right. Okay. Good luck down here!” I yelled before taking off in the opposite direction.

    I sprinted down the stone streets of Sootopolis, scanning the airspace overhead for any sign of my Pokémon. I found Swift first and flagged him down. With his eyes, it didn’t take us long to locate the others. Then we took off for the center of the crater, where the airships were rapidly closing in on the Legendaries.

    Articuno was still doggedly focusing on Rayquaza. Lugia rushed in, flapping its wings to stir up a fierce whirlwind and knocking Articuno’s flight askew. The ice bird regained itself within seconds, firing back with a blinding Ice Beam. Lugia folded its wings in front of itself right as the beam struck, exploding into a vicious flurry of snow and ice with way more force than I expected. So much force that it sent the dragon-bird reeling backward. I winced as Lugia shook the shards of ice from its wings, jolts of frustration piercing its thoughts.

    <That hit was far stronger than usual from Articuno. What have the humans done to them?>

    I blinked. <What? Some kind of battle enhancements?> It never would have occurred to me to use those on Legendaries. But of course the Rockets had thought of it. They knew they’d be having to fight us.

    An uneasy feeling crept down my spine. The airships had arranged themselves in a large circle around Rayquaza, slowly drawing inward. There wasn’t much time left. Lugia glanced back and forth hurriedly before flapping hard to gain altitude.

    <The Rockets are closing in! Get Rayquaza out of there!> I yelled.

    Lugia hesitated, jolts of anxiety dancing through its mind. <That’s right in the middle of their forces. They’ll have units ready to capture us.> I felt wisps of… fear? What? It was afraid?

    <And?? Do you want them to capture it?!>

    The fear melted into anger, a smothering wave of it, flooding my brain from all sides. I wanted to curl into a tiny corner of my head where I didn’t have to feel it. But… no. No, I couldn’t let myself care about that, not right now, this was too important. And so, fighting back every instinct screaming at me to just let Lugia do whatever it wanted, I snapped back with, <Look, do you want them to catch it? Just do it!>

    The anger broke for just a moment. I was sure it was going to round on me, unleash some kind of psychic fury on me for yelling at it. But then, without another word, it turned and folded its wings back, diving straight into the center of the ALR circle. Lugia fired a burst of water that knocked Articuno aside and then turned to Rayquaza, who was currently sizing up the circle of airships.

    <You need to leave this place!> Lugia yelled.

    Part of me half expected the emerald dragon to ignore Lugia, just like the other two had. But no, it circled back toward Lugia, fixing its golden eyes on the seabird.

    “*So long as the land and the sea continue their dance, I must be the one to calm their spirits,*” Rayquaza stated simply.

    <The humans are trying to catch you! Do you even know what that means?! Do you even pay attention to what happens beneath the clouds, or are you too busy reigning from on high to—>

    “*Leave me be, sea guardian!*” Rayquaza snapped. “*Your input is neither wanted nor needed!*”

    Lugia’s wordless scream of frustration echoed throughout my head.

    I couldn’t really say I was surprised. <Groudon and Kyogre didn’t understand what you were talking about either,> I pointed out.

    <Those two have been asleep all this time,> Lugia countered. <That one doesn’t have that excuse!>

    A sudden Thunderbolt fired at Rayquaza. I turned in its direction to see… Raikou? Standing on the back of an airship! A second bolt fired, but Rayquaza was ready for it this time, looping out of the way in one smooth motion before retaliating with a vicious blast of dragonfire. With a mighty leap, Raikou arced through the air, landing on the next airship over while Rayquaza’s attack enveloped its previous ride.

    The ship didn’t swerve or make any effort to move. Almost like it wanted to…

    It wanted to get hit. That was the energy they needed!

    The ship’s shield projectors crackled with sparks. Waves of energy rippled outward, linking with the rest of the ships, forming a web, slowly encircling the sky battle in an enormous bubble.

    <The barrier is forming! Get out of there!> I yelled.

    Lugia flapped its wings, powering itself forward at top speed even as the waves of energy shot from airship to airship all around it. Ho-oh flew after it in a hurry, zeroing in on the spot furthest from the barrier’s origin point, the web slowly encroaching. Only a few seconds left before they were trapped. Come on!

    Folding its wings inward, Lugia shot through the opening like a missile. Not even a second later, Ho-oh slipped through, the wall of energy catching on its tail feathers with a small jolt of sparks. I almost collapsed with relief. They’d escaped… although now they couldn’t defend Rayquaza. It was trapped inside the barrier with Articuno and… a Charizard? Wait—Mew and Ajia were still in there! They’d stayed behind to protect it! Two Legendaries against one. But Articuno was stronger than usual. And still, Mew had to fight, which meant she couldn’t protect Ajia at the same time. What if she got hit?

    Rayquaza jerked its head back and forth, apparently realizing that it was completely surrounded. Then its attention snapped to Articuno right as the ice bird began gathering icy energy in its beak. Mew swooped in front, countering with a blast of white-hot flame that totally overwhelmed the oncoming Ice Beam. Way stronger than any real Charizard’s flame, that was for sure. Meanwhile, outside the barrier, Lugia was circling restlessly, firing blades of wind from its wingtips, one after another. But it was no use. With that barrier up, the ALR circle could just absorb anything Lugia could dish out.

    <It’s no good, attacking the barrier like that won’t work,> I told Lugia.

    <How are we meant to break through, then?>

    <We’d all need to attack together—that’s the only way to overload it. Surround it from all sides, while Rayquaza attacks from the inside.>

    Attacking from the outside wouldn’t be so easy though. Not with Raikou and Entei patrolling the perimeter by leaping from ship to ship. The two beasts were perched on platforms atop each ALR, almost like the platforms were designed for them. We’d never had to attack ALRs that were being guarded by Legendaries. Usually it was the other way around. How the hell were we supposed to get at them?

    Both beasts had riders, too. Raven was glaring daggers at Rudy and Moltres—we’d stolen Moltres from her, of course she’d want it back. And Lexx… he actually waved upon looking toward us, and a burning anger welled up inside me. Just what the hell was Lexx doing, playing like he was our friend every time we saw him. He’d ruined the Aqua’s forces. It was his fault that the Rockets had gotten the Blue Orb and Matt had been stabbed and… and Jet…

    Raikou opened its mouth and lazily fired off a Shadow Ball at Lugia. I pointed forward and Swift swept a wing outward to block it, the ghostly energy streaming over his feathers harmlessly.

    Lexx put a hand to the side of his mouth. “Might wanna stay back!” he called out. “Gonna get pretty chaotic in a bit!”

    “What the hell are you talking about?” I yelled back.

    But before he could answer, I caught a glint of flames in my peripheral vision. I spun around and—

    “Look out!”

    A blazing Flamethrower shot past us. Swift cried out in pain, his wing completely scorched. I hurriedly grabbed a Full Heal from my belt pouch and reached out as far as I could, spraying down his wing while he struggled to keep our flight steady. Where had that even come from? I threw a frantic look over my shoulder, and—oh crap. Entei, leaping toward us, already gathering more flames in its mouth.

    “Quick Attack!” I yelled, and Swift put on a sudden burst of speed. Just enough that the next Flamethrower went sailing past. Chibi fired off a narrow string of lightning behind us, but by now we were far enough that Entei had plenty of time to leap aside.

    “Save your power, we’re not fighting Entei. Not again,” I warned him.

    Chibi gave a small huff but didn’t protest.

    “How is your power, anyway?” I’d never asked how much he used up during the fight to protect the Aquas.

    Chibi turned away, avoiding my eye. “*It’s low. Used a lot of it in the last fight. Haven’t had enough time to charge back up.*” It was obviously hard for him to admit, since he was supposed to be the team powerhouse.

    “We gotta get you more. Just need to find a source of electricity and…” Hang on—Raikou was here. Where was Entei… Okay good, Entei was distracted by Moltres right now. We had a clear path.

    “Let’s get you that power. Swift, fly close to Raikou.”

    Our flight path veered closer to the airship. Chibi tensed up, ready to leap at any moment. Lexx glanced in our direction.

    “Now!”

    Chibi leaped from my shoulder, falling straight at Lexx, tail glowing like he was going for an Iron Tail. Would he realize what we were playing at? For just a second, I could have sworn I saw him crack a smile right before Raikou unleashed a Thunderbolt at Chibi. The lightning struck, enveloping him. The Pikachu clenched his teeth, screwing his eyes shut. Then all his fur stood on end as the energy was pulled into his body.

    He was falling now. Swift dove down just in time for me to throw my arms up and catch him. I immediately clutched him to my chest, feeling all my hair stand on end from the static charge. As we flew past Raikou, I caught sight of Lexx, still smirking. He knew exactly what he’d done.

    I looked back down at Chibi. His breathing was erratic, sparks coursing through his feathers.

    “You alright?” I asked.

    “*Fine. Better now.*” he said with the tiniest trace of a grin.

    I grinned back. “Alright. Let’s save Rayquaza.”

    Swift flapped powerfully to gain altitude before circling high above the barrier. We could see most of the Legendaries below us, and they most likely wouldn’t notice us up here. Inside the barrier, Articuno and Rayquaza traded blows, with Mew still breathing out streams of fire to limit the ice bird’s mobility. I didn’t want to believe for a second that they’d be okay just because it was two-on-one. Articuno had a massive advantage, and… now that I was paying attention, I could see that the ice bird was wearing some kind of orange goggles. For protection? For enhancement? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that Articuno was blazingly fast. And those Ice Beams? Too bright to even look at. Lugia was right—this level of power was not normal.

    Outside the barrier, flames tore the air. Moltres was targeting an airship with massive bursts of fire, engulfing it in a raging firestorm, but the flames just clung to the barrier before melting into rippling light.

    We had to unify everyone. Attack together, just like when we’d saved the birds.

    “Ajia! Tell Rayquaza to attack the barrier!” I shouted at the top of my lungs

    I honestly wasn’t sure if she could hear me from in there, but seconds later, Charizard looped closer to Rayquaza, roaring to it. The serpent jerked its head in surprise. I wasn’t sure if it was going to listen, but then raging pink dragonfire flared up across its scales. With a low growl, Rayquaza turned around and hurled itself at the barrier, tearing and clawing at it in a frenzy.

    <Lugia, it’s time. Make sure Ho-oh and Moltres are ready.>

    If the Legendaries were all focused on all-out offense, they’d have no way to protect themselves. I turned to the Pikachu clinging to my shoulder.

    “*Chibi, we’ll need you to defend them from—” I paused. He’d need to be able to let out a sustained blast—no way he could do that sitting on my shoulder. Not with the way his body generated lightning.

    I grabbed Aros’s ball and let him out. I was just about to let out Firestorm too, but then the memory from yesterday flashed through my head. Swift mortally wounded. Falling. No, Firestorm would have to stick with me as backup.

    “You two are getting paired up again,” I said nodding to Chibi as he leaped over to Aros’s back. “I know it’s airships this time, but it’s the same old ALR tech we’ve dealt with before.” I forced a smile and added, “Just like old times. The Legendaries are the all-out offense. The rest of us need to protect them. Let’s go.”

    We had the raw firepower. They only had so many legends on their side. We just had to keep up the offensive and hope that none of them got captured.

    Banking his wings, Swift took us closer to Lugia. Squads of flying Pokémon were deploying from the airships that hadn’t formed the barrier, already converging on the Legendaries. Had to keep them back. Slow them down. Anything.

    “Tailwind,” I muttered.

    Swift swept his wings forward and a powerful wind current formed, pushing out from us and against the oncoming Pokémon.

    “Follow up with Double Team and then use Air Slash on anyone who gets too close,” I added. We didn’t have a shot in hell at defeating that many opponents. Just had to keep them distracted with a barrage of fast, light moves.

    To our left, Ho-oh was struggling to keep the pressure up while Raikou’s lightning rained down on it. Way worse than the lightning that had taken down the Aqua fleet. I caught a flash of red as one of the bolts glanced off Latias’s barrier. Aros managed to intercept a second one, and Chibi used the energy to strike down three fliers at once.

    To our right, Moltres was struggling to find an opening to attack the barrier with Entei cutting it off at every turn. Raging streams of fire collided between the two, Entei’s far brighter, bursting straight through Moltres’s blaze. The firebird pulled back, letting its flames dissipate. My heart jumped into my throat as Raven snapped her arm forward and fired a Master Ball. But then a small jolt knocked the ball aside—Raichu. She was actually riding Moltres. Rudy had switched to riding Fearow, currently struggling to fend off a red and green-winged blur. Her wings glowed with the light of Steel Wing, blocking the Flygon’s Dragon Claw with a metallic clang.

    I clenched my teeth. Rudy didn’t have much of an answer for Flygon—at least not while in the air. But… he’d be okay. Had to tell myself that. Had to focus on protecting Lugia.

    I held on tight as Swift swerved into another Shadow Ball’s path. He followed up with an Air Slash, nailing a Gengar right in the face and darting away before it could regain itself. It was that pattern, over and over. Swoop in, Air Slash, dart away before the counterattack. All around us, afterimages from Double Team zipped in and out of the Rockets’ forces, preventing them from landing a hit on us.

    We couldn’t draw all their fire, though. A wave of Dark Pulses hit Lugia in the back, and I whirled around to see another squad of Rocket Pokémon approaching from the side. Another wave hit; Lugia’s eye twitched. I could feel it resisting the urge to turn around and knock them all back with a single devastating blow. But it held fast, striking the barrier with piercing beam attacks repeatedly. Meanwhile the barrier was… still going strong. No flickering or weakening. Too many interruptions.

    “Go for a Whirlwind,” I ordered. Needed to push them back from Lugia.

    The wind whipped into a frenzy, tossing a squad of Crobat aside while a wave of Pokémon led by Honchkrow circled around to approach from the other side. I flattened myself to Swift’s back as he dove under them before swooping up from below, launching an Air Cutter upward. I flinched as a Thunderbolt fired, but it missed, hitting one of the copies. Most of the copies had been struck down by now, but there wasn’t an opening to make new ones. Not with this many opponents crowding the skies.

    A sudden burst of speed and I almost lost my grip. Another Thunderbolt, then a burst of dragonfire—no time to strike back, had to keep moving. Swift ducked and weaved around enemies with flawless precision. Then Gengar cut us off in the front. He pivoted to change direction, but two squads closed in from the sides at once.

    “Dive!” I hissed.

    Swift pointed his wings back, and I clung to his neck for dear life as a hail of attacks shot over our heads. The wind rushed past us. I buried my face in his feathers, focusing on nothing but holding on. Slowly, the crackle of lightning and ice and dragonfire faded into the background. I dared to throw a glance over my shoulder. The Rockets hadn’t pursued—the Legendaries were a much more obvious target. Swift flared his wings to level our flight once he was sure we’d lost them. But when I nudged him to fly upward, he didn’t move.

    “Swift?” I asked.

    “*Look down there,*” the Pidgeot said.

    I leaned over his side, gazing down at the lake below us. It took a few seconds for it to sink in—the water was still. No bursts of lava. Groudon and Kyogre had stopped fighting. They were just sitting there, eyes trained upward on the emerald serpent twisting and turning through the air in the middle of the ALR barrier. How long had they been like that? Had I seriously not noticed?

    “They’ve stopped?” I muttered, hardly daring to believe it. “But why?”

    “*Was it because that one arrived?*” Swift asked, glancing up at Rayquaza.

    “I’m… not sure.” All I knew was that this changed everything.

    <Lugia, they’ve stopped. Groudon and Kyogre have stopped.>

    <What?> The seabird whirled around and threw an incredulous glance down at the two Legendaries sitting motionless at the center of the lake. Confusion and disbelief flickered through its thoughts.

    A glimmer of hope took hold in my mind. <I think we might actually be able to get through to them now.>

    Lugia hesitated. <I’m a little busy right now.>

    Of course it was. I really couldn’t blame it. But someone had to do it. The lake wasn’t a raging hellscape anymore. It’d actually be possible to get close to them without getting totally annihilated.

    I took a deep breath to steel myself. <I’ll do it, then.>

    Lugia jolted. <Wait, are you crazy?>

    Maybe. Had to do it anyway.

    I pointed downward, and Swift dove. The air rushed past, the sounds of the battle now well behind us. My heart thundered in my chest. We were actually approaching Groudon and Kyogre. Sure, the space around them wasn’t a death zone anymore, but they’d easily be able to… No. No, I couldn’t think about that.

    A sudden rush of air swept alongside us, and I looked over to see Lugia diving as well.

    <What are you doing here? Weren’t you attacking the airships?> I asked.

    <Ho-oh’s taking care of it.>

    I threw a glance upward to see the phoenix assaulting the barrier with explosive bursts of blue flame. I couldn’t imagine any Rockets being able to get close enough to those plumes of fire without getting incinerated. Not to mention that I could see the glimmer of red wings darting around it—Latias still trying her hardest to protect everyone. They would… probably be okay.

    I focused back on the water below as we descended. Down to where the last remnants of steam slowly drifted up from what had once been ground zero. Where Groudon and Kyogre sat watching Rayquaza motionlessly.

    Lugia’s mind was tense. It obviously didn’t trust those two not to lash out. But even as we neared, the duo remained calm, eyeing us silently. Lava pulsed lazily at Groudon’s feet; waters churned softly around Kyogre.

    Swift leveled his flight before landing on a patch of cooled rock. I could feel the warmth drifting upward, but it was gentle. Hard to believe that this place was a raging inferno not even half an hour ago.

    I took a deep breath. Here goes nothing.

    “Groudon! Kyogre!” I called out at the top of my lungs.

    For several seconds, nothing happened. Then the great red beast blinked. I could actually feel those burning eyes shifting to me. It opened its mouth—Lugia tensed, ready for anything—and let out a deep, reverberating rumble of a growl. The sound tugged at my mind, almost like there was some meaning there, just out of reach. It rose and fell with the rhythms and tones of Pokéspeech, and the patterns were… familiar. But putting meaning to them felt like trudging through mud.

    “Is it… saying words?” I asked.

    <Yes,> Lugia said. <It’s a downright ancient form of Pokéspeech, though.>

    My heart was racing. It was actually talking to us. We could explain everything!

    “Can you translate for me?” I asked. Something told me these two weren’t going to understand modern Tohjoan.

    Lugia concentrated, its focus sharpening. And as Groudon spoke, I could feel the understanding drift across our mental link.

    “*Why do you wish to speak with us, small one?*” Groudon asked.

    Lugia’s eyes slid to mine. It had addressed me? Not Lugia. Me. Then again, Lugia was the one who’d been attacking it all this time. And getting addressed by a human had to be a strange experience for it.

    I swallowed hard—the idea of saying something back was overwhelmingly intimidating. But what else had I come down here for?

    “We’ve… been trying to talk to you this whole time. Why wouldn’t you listen?” I said as Lugia repeated my words in its voice.

    Groudon slowly blinked. “*Our dance would not allow it,*” it said, as if nothing were more true or obvious.

    “Your… dance?” Was it referring to… their fight? I still couldn’t get over them standing calmly, side-by-side, without a hint of malice toward the other. Not after the way they’d been tearing into each other previously.

    “Why were you two fighting?” I asked. “And what do you mean by ‘dance’?”

    A rolling thunder echoed from Groudon’s chest, and it took me a second to realize that it was laughing.

    “*It must be joking,*” Kyogre spoke up, its voice a low hiss that chilled the air.

    “*Perhaps the beings of this time do not know,*” Groudon mused. “*How easily the old tales fall into myth.*”

    “*It’s disgraceful,*” Kyogre spat.

    Groudon gave the sea beast a tired look. Then it lowered its gaze to me once more and said, “*Our dance is the ceaseless urging of our souls. It is an eternal cycle of beginning and ending. At the dawn of this world, I settled the molten surface of the planet into solid land and set the continents into motion. They settled the waters of the planet into seas and carved out the oceans. It was eons of creation and destruction, back and forth. I have no idea how long our dance lasted. I don’t even remember how we were set into that path to begin with.

    “*At some point other living beings came to inhabit this world as well. And then the messenger from the heavens came to tell us that we were done. We had to sleep for life to continue, for our dance brought balance to the earth, but it would be an unending hell for any others. And I was so very tired. So I buried myself under the skin of the earth, allowing myself to sleep, and in my dreams, I have guided the flow of the earth’s blood and the journey of the continents ever since.*”

    I stared at Groudon. Its words felt like a heavy weight settling onto my chest. All this devastation, and it wasn’t even something they’d chosen to do? Was it really just… nothing more than instinct?

    “So it’s not even like you wanted to fight each other?” I said, unable to keep the incredulous tone from my voice. “Couldn’t you refuse? Couldn’t you decide not to?”

    As Lugia repeated my words, Groudon shook its head softly, almost with an air of disappointment.

    “*I cannot expect one like you to understand our dance. It is why we exist. Even now, it calls to me. It is my purpose.*” It exhaled long and slow, causing a wave of warm air to wash over me. “*But it seems the messenger does not wish it this time. They have already come to end it. And so soon?*” Its words held a wistful, almost sorrowful air.

    “Don’t you wish you had a choice?” I found myself asking.

    Groudon considered me carefully, something shifting in its eyes. “*The burden of decision has never been ours to hold. We have our purpose. You have yours. How can I lament that?*”

    Maybe it wasn’t something I could understand after all.

    I let out a breath, struggling to think of how to word my next sentence. “You said the messenger had come to end your dance. Well, the only reason it started this time was because of humans. They awakened you because they wanted to steal your power. You’re both in danger.”

    Kyogre let out a sharp, broken exhale—a laugh? Groudon tilted its head ever so slightly, gazing at me curiously. “*They believe they have the power to harm us?*” Though it was impossible to tell, something told me that it wasn’t trying to be condescending. That it was genuinely confused as to how such a thing could happen.

    “They have the power of the legends on their side,” I said slowly. “They could actually do it. And they’re attacking the messenger right now.”

    Groudon was silent for some time, its head held low.

    “*Then… we must not hold back,*” the volcanic beast finally said, a low sorrow in its voice.

    “*They must pay,*” Kyogre echoed.

    “You’ll help us?” I asked, daring to let the glimmer of hope rise within me.

    Groudon was about to answer, but then Kyogre suddenly cut in with, “*We could do much more than that if we had our true power.*”

    I blinked at the leviathan. It stared back, its gaze cold and unrelenting.

    “Your true power?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

    “*The orbs,*” it replied immediately.

    The orbs? The Red and Blue Orbs that had awakened these two in the first place?

    “*I can feel it even now, the orb,*” Kyogre went on, an undercurrent of… desperation in its voice. “*I feel as though it houses a piece of my soul. One that was ripped from my body ages ago. I must have it.*” It gazed up at the airships longingly. I couldn’t help but notice that its eyes were following… one ship in particular.

    “That airship? The orbs are there?” I asked. The beginnings of an idea were taking hold. If we could get the orbs to them… they could destroy the ALRs, and then…

    Groudon fixed me with a serious gaze. “*You require our strength to save the messenger. Let us regain our true might, and we can easily do this.*”

    I blinked. “You’d really be able to do it that easily?” I said incredulously.

    Kyogre stared me down. “*Our true might would let us destroy them all.*”

    A twinge of unease flickered in the back of my mind. But we weren’t in any position to turn them down, were we? We needed their power.

    “Can you fire all your power at those ships? That’ll drop their defenses, and then we can get the orbs.”

    Groudon nodded deeply. “*Of course.*”

    Was this a huge mistake? I still wasn’t sure. If they’d really be that powerful, then… after we defeated the Rockets…

    I clenched my fists, struggling to push back the doubts. “If… if we do this for you, you have to promise to go back to sleep afterward. For the sake of the world.”

    Groudon regarded me for some time. Part of me worried that it wasn’t going to agree, but then the volcanic beast turned its head upward, staring at Rayquaza, twisting and turning within the barrier overhead.

    “*The messenger has already arrived. Our dance, it has been broken,*” Groudon said simply.

    Lugia flexed its wings angrily, drawing itself up to full height. <Look. I don’t give a damn about your dance, if you don’t hold up your end of the deal, you’re going to be sorry. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you. I don’t care how powerful you’ll be. You will regret it.>

    Groudon chuckled. “*Do not be so sure of that, sea guardian. But there is no reason to go back on our word. After all… the messenger’s true glory could easily smite us all.*”

    The messenger’s true glory? What did that mean?

    “*Enough of this,*” Kyogre barked, the veins on its body glowing a vibrant red. “*You wished for our help. Let us do this.*”

    I traded glances with Lugia. “Alright.” We could worry about that later. After we’d gotten the orbs.

    Swift and Lugia both spread their wings and took off. Below us, the air began to shimmer, the thick, sludgy lava under Groudon’s feet glowing with renewed life. The surrounding waters began to churn, slowly at first, but quickly growing more vicious. Rayquaza’s arrival may have swept the hellish weather clean from the sky, but the power hanging over these two was still so thick it was almost tangible.

    With a roar, both earth and water erupted at once, lava plumes and waterspouts shooting into the air and crashing mightily against the ALR barrier with an explosion of sparks. Raikou and Entei both leaped back, retreating to the ships furthest from the impact point. The entire barrier flickered and shimmered, struggling to absorb the flood of energy.

    <Well, those two might be total nutcases, but at least they’re finally on our side,> Lugia said with a bit of satisfaction. It gave me a sideways glance and added, <Good thinking.>

    I blinked. A compliment? Coming from Lugia? Well, I wasn’t complaining.

    The airships started pulling upward, trying their best to get out of Groudon and Kyogre’s range. If they gained too much altitude, we’d never be able to keep up the pressure.

    “We’ve got to force them back down!” I exclaimed.

    Lugia flapped harder, powering itself upward while Swift and I rode the slipstream behind it. We reached the top of the barrier, where Ho-oh and Moltres had joined forces, unleashing a barrage of white-hot flame. Lugia flew over to join them, already charging up an Aeroblast in its mouth. Gale force winds and raging fire combined to form a swirling firestorm, tearing into the barrier and sending shock waves all across its surface.

    Something caught my eye—Raven and Entei, quickly converging on Moltres. Couldn’t let her get a clear shot, but couldn’t put us within range of Entei.

    “Stay behind them. Keep up the Whirlwind and be ready to dodge.”

    Swift circled the beast in a wide arc, stirring the wind into a frenzy. Entei was barely fazed, but it sure got Raven’s attention. She flashed a murderous glare toward us, but didn’t order an attack. She just gripped Entei’s mane tighter and pointed for it to target Moltres.

    A piercing yellow beam shot from nowhere, and Lugia only barely managed to block it at the last second. I spun in the direction it’d come from and saw one of the airships that hadn’t joined the barrier circle now advancing on us. Moltres broke from the attack group, razing the ship with a vicious Fire Blast. Without any nearby units to form a shared barrier, it was forced to pull back. Then a second beam struck from behind, and Moltres fell forward, screeching in pain.

    Raven pointed her arm forward to fire a Master Ball, but the winds around Entei were too vicious—she couldn’t keep her arm steady, her hair kept whipping into her face. While she struggled to get her bearings, Raichu fired a Thunderbolt into the ALR beam’s path. Small, but just enough of an interruption that Moltres managed to pull itself free.

    By now the Rockets’ forces were advancing all around us, including Raven’s Flygon and Gengar. Latias was knocking them back left and right, but there were too many of them to handle on her own. Maybe we needed to switch strategies—have one of the other Legendaries back her up. With the added power from Groudon and Kyogre, we didn’t need to have all our legends attack the barrier at once. Rudy, where was Rudy—there he was! Still riding Fearow, currently keeping Honchkrow busy.

    “Rudy! You and Moltres can deal with the Rockets, I’ll stick with Lugia and Ho-oh!” I yelled.

    He flashed a thumbs up and pointed Fearow toward the oncoming crowd of flying Pokémon. Without him saying or doing anything, Moltres followed—he’d gotten a handle on the psychic link, hadn’t he?

    Inside the barrier, Rayquaza was a searing ball of raging dragonfire, flailing against the energy shield with all its might. Mew grappled with Articuno, holding on tight with flaming claws while the ice bird thrashed against her hold, unable to reach Rayquaza.

    The airship circle dipped lower. Sparks cracked as a plume of lava collided with the barrier from below. A torrential waterspout followed, and it flickered from the strain. I knew that look. It was almost at the breaking point. Too much power for it to handle.

    We were close! Just a little bit more…

    Out of nowhere, a thunderous lightning strike rained from above, striking Lugia with a deafening crash. I clapped a hand to my ear, screwing my eyes shut as my whole body went numb. That was way too close. When I opened my eyes, I caught a glimpse of something yellow leaping up to the highest airship.

    Raikou. I’d forgotten about Raikou.

    Lugia was struggling to keep itself airborne. That gave the airships the opportunity to fly higher. Groudon’s next lava plume fell short, hitting nothing but open air.

    Dammit. We were so close! We couldn’t give up now!

    A high-pitched whistle suddenly tore the air. I jerked my head upward and felt my insides dissolve. Meteors—just like the ones that struck down the Aqua fleet.

    <Look out!> I cried.

    Too late. Lugia screeched in pain, molten balls of red and blue dragonfire scorching its feathers before it had the chance to raise a barrier. Ho-oh struggled to fight through it, keeping its flames going even as the meteors pummeled it from above. Whatever launched these was strong enough to hurt those two?

    Another piercing whistle sounded, and this time I caught a glimpse of the ball of light as it shot high into the air above us before exploding into a second wave of meteors. My stomach curled inward—this time we were in the line of fire.

    Swift didn’t waste a second. The Pidgeot immediately swept his wings in front of us, and the white light of Protect appeared just in time for the first meteor to crash against it. I clung to his neck, teeth clenched as the shock waves shot through us. First one meteor, then a second—the barrage just kept coming. The Protect flickered. Then it shattered. Swift fell backward, fighting to keep his flight steady, swerving awkwardly to the left as a meteor clipped the edge of his wing. I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder only to see one headed right for us, and—

    The meteor crashed against a barrier that flared up from nowhere, exploding into flaming shards that fizzled into nothing. Swift took that moment to regain control of his flight, and we both stared in shock at our savior.

    “Latias! I… thanks,” I said breathlessly.

    “*Hang in there,*” she said with a hopeful smile. “*We can do this, I know we can!*” And for a moment, I actually believed her. I nodded, and she held up a claw before shooting off just as quickly as she’d arrived.

    I sat there, breathing heavily, heart pounding a million miles a minute as Swift kept us at a level soar. Okay, we weren’t dead. Time to focus. I turned in every direction, trying to take stock of the aerial battle. Lugia and Ho-oh had landed along the crater rim, letting a healing glow wash over them with Roost. They’d both taken a lot of damage from that last attack. Lugia’s pure-white feathers were scorched all over from the dragonfire. But where had the meteors come from?

    No sooner had I thought it than something caught my eye overhead. A jetlike shape high above us, silhouetted against the sun. I squinted, struggling to make it out. It was a sleek, cobalt dragon with pointed wings. Cloth billowed from the rider on its back.

    My breath caught in my chest. Riding on the dragon’s back—it was him.

    I felt the blood rush to my face. Stalker. The one who’d strung us along all day, playing us for fools. At least this time he wasn’t even pretending to help us. Better for him to just outright attack us rather than what he’d been doing before.

    “Shepard! Fashionably late as always,” a voice drawled.

    Cloudlike wings soared into view, and there was Ender, riding on his Altaria. As he stared down Stalker, something about his demeanor felt distinctly… hostile.

    Stalker said something into a communicator. A low hum followed, and the barrier started flickering. Then, in an instant, the wall of energy spanning half of the airships fizzled into nothing. The barrier—they’d just straight-up deactivated it? Rayquaza wasn’t trapped anymore! Why on earth would they do that?!

    Ender cocked his head. “Oy! Shepard! What do you think you’re doing, friend?” he asked with a dangerous edge to his voice.

    Rayquaza let out a cry that sounded almost excited before blasting a stream of violet Dragonbreath at the closest airship, melting the shield projectors. The serpent rushed in and tore through the armor in a blaze, but not before the adjacent ship rotated and fired a beam at it. Mew swooped forward, grabbing the fins on Rayquaza’s back.

    “*Come on, we’ve got to get out of here!*” she cried.

    “*No,*” Rayquaza hissed. “*This is unacceptable.*”

    Ender snapped his fingers and Articuno fired an Ice Beam, stopping the dragon’s rampage cold. It couldn’t move. It was frozen solid, claws buried in the ALR armor, tail dangling limply.

    Then, without warning, Sebastian pulled back his coat sleeve to reveal a Master Ball cannon, pointing it straight at Rayquaza.

    “No!!”

    Time slowed. The ball shot toward Rayquaza; the dragon couldn’t move. Then Mew darted forward, deflecting the ball with a well-aimed blade of wind from her wingtip.

    Ender turned to face Sebastian, smirking. “Ah, so that’s how it is? Think you’re clever, do you?” Ender pulled out his own communicator and said something into it.

    Entei leapt into view, already charging a Shadow Ball in its mouth. The beast launched the orb at Latios, but the cobalt dragon put on a burst of speed and avoided it easily. Ender motioned to Articuno. The ice bird dove, zeroing in on Latios, but he was too fast for it. Then, without warning, Articuno abruptly put on a burst of speed and fired an Ice Beam directly at him.

    A burst of flames from above collided with the Ice Beam, cutting it off. I threw a glance upward and saw the unmistakable silhouette of a Charizard. Not Mew this time. Stalker’s Charizard. Then a golden blur shot out of the blue, slashing at Altaria’s underside with flaming claws. A Dragonite. Articuno was still tailing Latios, but a bolt of lightning fell from above, striking the ice bird with a thunderous crack.

    Ender spun around. On the closest Johto airship, Raikou stood sparking.

    “Oh look, the Sakari brat’s involved in this too, why am I not surprised?” he called out.

    “Just keeping things interesting!” Lexx called back.

    Seconds later, a Flamethrower from Entei poured over the spot where Raikou had just been standing, engulfing the airship. The thunder beast had leaped aside, retaliating with a vicious lightning strike. Entei only had a moment’s notice to raise a Protect to keep itself—and its trainer—from being electrocuted.

    It was chaos! Johto Rockets firing on Kanto Rockets, attacks tearing through the air left and right, striking both airship and Pokémon alike. In the midst of it all, Mew had set to work thawing Rayquaza with her fire breath. She’d gotten about halfway before the serpent had the leeway to shatter the remaining ice. Without even acknowledging her, Rayquaza launched into a spiraling Twister. Vicious wind currents ripped through the air all around it, knocking the combatants back. All the while, Latios circled the airships like a hawk, just waiting for an opportunity. We couldn’t let him get one.

    I felt it before I saw it—Lugia flying back up to meet us, flanked by Ho-oh. Both of them fully healed after roosting. I could feel the confusion drifting through Lugia’s mind as it observed what had happened in its absence.

    <They’re… fighting each other?> Lugia said incredulously.

    <This isn’t the first time they’ve been at odds,> I replied.

    Lugia tilted its head, observing the ongoing chaos. <I see. Well, this is convenient, isn’t it? Let them destroy each other,> it said, sounding rather too satisfied with the idea.

    Maybe we wouldn’t need to get the orbs back after all. Maybe the Rockets really would just destroy each other. Then again, it still didn’t seem like a good idea to leave them alone, not when either side could make a move on Rayquaza at any time.

    “*They’re fighting each other now?*” a voice asked.

    Latias had reappeared at my side, staring at the ongoing chaos with a perplexed look. “*I don’t understand, why are they—*” She froze sharply, eyes wide with… fear? No, anger. I’d never seen that kind of expression on her face. It was actually chilling.

    I followed her gaze to see her staring straight at Latios. Or rather, straight at the human riding on his back.

    Oh no.

    “*Latios!*”

    “Wait—” I began.

    “*He’s right there!*” she exclaimed with a desperate look. “*I’m going to get him back this time!*” she cried, folding back her forelegs and shooting off.

    “Wait, don’t go!” I yelled, reaching for her. But she was already gone.






    ~End Chapter 44~

    Next Chapter: An ending, but at what cost?
     
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