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Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Namohysip, Aug 19, 2018.

  1. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 72 – Water and Fire

    Zena’s realm was entirely underwater, complete with bubbly sea beds and rich, colorful reefs of coral. An undersea cavern lined with red and pinkish polyps marked their entrance into the Water Realm, opening into a shimmering field of white sand and dark green seaweed. Few spirits lived here, though those that did peeked out and watched Zena’s return.

    Ever since she’d come to Hot Spot, things felt a lot more cheerful and much less gloomy in the Water Realm. Even the shimmer of the water’s surface seemed brighter. Zena propelled herself out of the cavern first and looked back. “I want to thank you for escorting me, Man—er… Manny?”

    Manny’s eyes were wide, paws covering his mouth in shock.

    “Ah. I forgot. You should be able to breathe here, Manny, if you… simply think to do so.”

    Manny gave Zena an incredulous look, a few bubbles escaping his snout. Behind him, Azu proudly beat his chest, smiling triumphantly at being in an environment that favored his Watery side. Verd, meanwhile, was rolling his eyes at Roh, who was flailing in dramatic, agonizing pain, the flames on his head and tail bubbling in the water. They eventually went out, and the Infernape turned belly-up, motionless and dead.

    The Chesnaught jabbed Roh on the side. The fiery fighter puffed out a plume of hot air and flailed again, glaring at Verd. In response, he pointed at Zena; after following the claw, Roh shook his head and gave a polite bow.

    She had to admit—it was odd to see an Infernape without their fire. He almost seemed… bald. “I suppose you’re all a bit out of your elements.”

    Azu shook his head emphatically and opened his mouth. Huge air bubbles escaped him in a rhythm that could only suggest laughter.

    Yen, behind them all, shook his head, eyes lowered.

    “Well, I won’t keep you,” Zena said. “I can handle myself from here. Return to your realm; I have… a few things that I want to do.”

    Manny and the Fighters tilted their heads.

    “Do you have an idea where Owen may have gone? I have my doubts about him returning to Hot Spot so soon, the way he was… but I also don’t think he’d remain with Eon. Surely he’d…”

    To this, they could only reply with pensive frowns.

    Zena smiled sadly. “Well, I will figure it out. Thank you. Please, we can talk again in the living world.”

    They all nodded—Roh the most enthusiastic—and spun around to return into the cavern that they had entered from. Zena flew through the water, making little conversation with the shy spirits of the ocean, until she found a great dip in the sea floor.

    A few other watery spirits floated about listlessly in the sea. They spared a glance at Zena and gave awkward waves; Zena did the same with her left eyebrow. She wondered how they were all doing. Admittedly, she hadn’t spoken to them very much. They had grown lonely together, often spending most of their time sleeping or hibernating to waste the years of eternity away. It wasn’t much of a waste if there was no end to it.

    A Swampert stared at Zena from the bottom of the riverbed, right at the edge of the abyss. He waved a huge arm her way, and Zena waved back. She figured most of them were already caught up in everything, and, briefly, she wondered if she should stay back to talk to them more.

    Owen spoke with his spirits now and then. They always had useful advice. She’d tried that with them, too, but perhaps she had been too depressing and lonely before. Who would want to hang around someone like that, if only out of obligation? Her tail twitched and her eyebrows curled up. No, that wasn’t a healthy way to look at things.

    She had a small bit of time. Perhaps she could spare a chat with them. She drifted toward the Swampert, whose eyes widened slightly. “Hello,” Zena greeted.

    “Hey,” Swampert replied.

    Zena wasn’t sure what to do next. And neither did Swampert. They both stood there; he played with his massive hands. Zena curled one brow around the other. “Um… Have things been well here?”

    “Yeah.” Swampert rubbed the left fin on his head. “Well, actually, we’ve been a little anxious. Probably felt a bit of it from you. Are things… okay?”

    Zena frowned.

    “Is Owen alright?”

    “I want to find out—but—but actually, if—could I ask you something about that?” The words fell like sand into the undersea valley. “I—does he want to be left alone, truly? I don’t actually—”

    “H-hang on, hang on. What actually happened? Did he tell you to faff off?”

    “No, not quite, just—oh, I don’t know,” Zena admitted with a little, irritated sigh. “It’s my fault, not his. I… oh, let me just touch the Core. I’ll share my memories with you.”

    “Sure.”

    By now, quite a few spirits had gathered to the curious display with their host. Zena shrank at their eyes; she didn’t expect so many to still be around. Why would they bother? They should have crossed the aura sea to someplace less…

    In that endless darkness, she saw a tiny pinprick of golden light. Descending, the dot grew into a large sphere; she gently curled around the golden Core, resting her head on top of its tingling warmth.

    Swampert closed his eyes, as did the many other aquatic Pokémon. Several of them were Milotic, though they were smaller than Zena, perhaps intentionally. A Skrelp and a kelp-themed Grovyle inched closer with concern as the memories flooded over. A transparent, crystalline Solrock rumbled sadly. “Poor Owen…”

    “He’s gone through so much,” Zena agreed. “But I don’t know how to comfort him at all. I just… left!”

    “You had to. If you stayed, he’d just feel like you were trying to order him around.”

    “Are you sure?” Zena looked to a pensive Nidoking with a Vaporeon-like lower half.

    “I’m sure,” Nidoking said. “But maybe if he’s not back yet, you an ask around for where he went. It’s all about timing, you know. Why, with my mate…” He reached out and embraced a blue Marowak next to him, who giggled in reply. “It was all about the timing. Sometimes they’ll be upset, but when they cool down, they want nothing more than to hear your voice. And knowing that Charizard, he’ll want nothing more than that pretty soon. I feel it.”

    “I have to agree,” Marowak said after Nidoking let her go. “From what memories you just showed us, there’s no way Owen dislikes you. He’s confused. The only one he’s mad at is Star.”

    Almost instantly, everyone in the sphere of spirits darkened their expressions.

    Swampert slammed his fist into a palm. “Unforgivable…”

    The various Milotic mirrored Zena’s similarly seething expression, but Nidoking raised an arm. “Let’s focus on the positive for now. For Owen, right?”

    That was enough to calm her down. She rested her head on her Orb. “I… I need to speak to you more often. I’ve neglected you all so much and drove so many of you away with my… tendencies.”

    “We were all in a bad place,” Nidoking said. “We didn’t want to leave you because of how lonely you were, but it just dragged us down, too.”

    A stiff silence suddenly followed. A dark thought crossed Zena’s mind, and she wondered if the others thought it, too. Not wanting to let it fester—trying to take advantage of her newfound openness with her spirits—she said, “I wonder if Owen’s the same way…”

    “I’d like to think there’s more to it than that,” Marowak said curtly. “If you’re so concerned, that’s all the more reason to see him. Communicate. That’s how relationships work, you understand?”

    Nidoking harrumphed. “We’re in this whole mess because nobody talked to each other. Nobody wanted to. People kept secrets and plans. Don’t do that to your mate.”

    “M-mate. Right.” Zena stared into the Core, blushing slightly. “Do you really think that’s possible? Between us? I—I’d love to… oh, I won’t tell this to Owen, not yet—timing, you said—but oh, to be able to settle down one day, perhaps an egg or two…”

    A few of the spirits laughed. A twisting, crushing pressure that had plagued Zena loosened steadily.

    “One step at a time, Zena,” Marowak said. “You need to find Owen, first. I have faith that he’ll love to see you.”

    The Water Guardian looked into the Core. “Thank you. I’ll… do my best. Please, be there for me… even if it’s, er, in spirit.” She pressed harder into the Core. Everything faded to white.

    Zena opened her eyes, now at the bottom of a new cave floor—her lake within Hot Spot. It was good to be home. Rising from the depths, she blinked away the darkness she presumed was because of being inactive for so long. But it didn’t go away. Next, she feared that she had gone blind, somehow—but then her natural, Mystic glow contradicted the thought. She glanced at one of the mushrooms, realizing that they had gone completely dark.

    “H-hello?” Zena called. Where did the light go? Hot Spot was typically very warm, yet now, it felt almost frigid. Perhaps it was all relative, but the darkness didn’t bode well. Amia kept Hot Spot illuminated at all times.

    She slithered out of her lake and turned to the first sign of light. “A-ah—” She didn’t expect it to be so bright. Something was glowing brightly in the middle of Hot Spot. There were shadowy figures nearby in familiar shapes, silhouettes against the central light source. She saw two: Manny, based on the muscular Lucario frame compared to Rhys’ lithe one, and ADAM’s twitching form nearby.

    She slithered silently, feeling guilty for eavesdropping, but she didn’t want to interrupt their conversation at the same time.

    Only… she didn’t hear them talking. They were looking at the ground, playing some sort of board game; Valle must have generated it for them. Zena suppressed a giggle; Valle, making stones for them to move around? How much he had grown.

    “Ugh, these rules are stupid,” Manny shouted, raising his paws in the air. Zena wasn’t surprised that Manny would struggle with a game of smarts; he was all muscle, wasn’t he? Just like his spirits. Very headstrong… not that he’d need much else if he could just punch his problems away. Now that she thought about it, he really was the perfect host for mutants, if they enjoyed fighting as much as ferals seemed to.

    Manny certainly got back to his realm quickly

    “The rules are well-defined. There is no ambiguity.” ADAM twirled his head, then used his beak to flick one of the disk over another. “King this unit.”

    The disk grew in height.

    “How am I even supposed to win?!” Manny said. “This is totally unfair, you know that?”

    Manny was speaking very oddly. And he didn’t usually get this openly frustrated, did he? Zena squinted, wondering if—

    “Star, you should consider thinking more patiently.”

    Zena froze. Of course Manny wouldn’t have returned yet. Star was already here—and she must have told the others… No. They wouldn’t believe her so easily. And why was Valle glowing? She continued listneing.

    “Yeah, well…” Star flicked a digit over one of her pieces, claiming two of ADAM’s in one swoop. ADAM countered with a move that he had clearly planned, cutting the rest of Star’s army in half. She sputtered incoherently, flashing a fierce glare at ADAM. He drifted backward nervously. “…Ugh. Forget it. I surrender.” She fired a small Aura Sphere at one of her own pieces, shattering it. “I guess I suck at all kinds of patience.”

    Zena kept herself from snorting. Certainly, you do.

    “Yes, you do,” Valle said, earning a flinch from Zena. “Despite how you two often clash, you and Step are not very different. Hasty. Quick to draw conclusions. Quick to take action. Yet in the long term, I do not believe your actions provide much benefit.”

    “Excuse me, quick to take action?” Star growled, leaning forward to grab one of the disks. “I spent hundreds of years just sitting by and letting things happen because I didn’t want to step in and mess things up. I was hoping that the Hunters would just… misstep. They were never strong enough to take a Guardian down without my help, you know? But then they just kept going, and… and by then, all the Guardians were all isolated, and…”

    “So now you are overcompensating by taking action too quickly, instead of not quickly enough.”

    “What was I supposed to do?”

    “A number of things would have been more appropriate than stealing Owen’s body. You could have tried speaking with Eon, or listened in on what they were saying. Perhaps, if Eon tried to control Owen, you could have taken over to help him. Instead, you are now the one who overstepped.”

    It was almost like Star was entering a battle stance, but she had no intention of fighting. Instead, the Lucario looked down, breathing out sharply.

    “Hello, Zena,” Valle said.

    “Z-Zena?” Star jolted up. “H-hi! Zena! Um—I, uh… sorry about… look, if you’re looking for Amia, Hecto’s grabbing her now.”

    Zena was in no mood to speak to her directly. It wasn’t just a misstep. Star’s lapse in judgement showed what she truly thought about Owen: a mere tool to get what she wanted, a weapon to use against her enemies. Just like everyone else.

    Star cleared her throat. “So, anyway—"

    “Do not speak to me.” There was no emotion in her tone, only enough coldness to rival Step’s power.

    Star, too stunned, shrank back with her tail between her legs.

    Then, Zena turned to the others, bowing politely. “Hello, Valle, ADAM. I’m actually looking for Owen. Did he return home yet?”

    “No,” Valle said.

    “Star may know,” ADAM added.

    Zena narrowed her eyes at the Porygon-Z, who buzzed nervously in response. She didn’t look at Star, even now, and instead said, “Well, what does she know?”

    The Lucario shifted from left to right, no standing position, or perhaps any position, comfortable to maintain. “H-he flew off to, um, well, Hecto told me that he went to Brandon’s place.”

    Brandon… why Brandon? What was so important about him that Owen would want to…

    Thinking about why Owen wanted to leave, and it suddenly made more sense to Zena. Brandon had made an entire career in his human life with training Pokémon, leading them in a way that was apparently ethical. And Owen, having the same disposition…

    “Well, if that’s the case, I will be going to him. Thank you.”

    There was one place that she knew she could rely on to get to Owen quickly. Flying would take too long, especially from where she was… but they still had a faster way of getting to Brandon through Waypoints. They didn’t set one up for that strange factory, but they did set one up for Emily’s home, which was nearby. Perhaps she could pay a visit to her anyway—surely Emily wanted to see her again.

    She quietly slithered into Rhys’ home, hoping that he wouldn’t disturb his meditation—was that even possible? At some point his spirit was simply gone from the body. She went past the kitchen table, glanced into Demitri and Mispy’s barren room, and then entered Rhys’ overstuffed room. The Lucario’s body leaned against the back wall, cross-legged on the bed. Elder was next to him, snoozing. Zena closed her eyes and, relying on her rudimentary aura sense, found that there was no life energy coming from Rhys. No sense in trying to wake him, and she didn’t want to disturb Elder. The giant Torkoal looked so cozy.

    Still, it felt thieving to take his Badge…

    Zena spared a few moments to fumble with a nearby sheet and ink by the table, writing a short note with her ribbons. I’m borrowing your Badge to see Owen. –Zena

    That should do. Then, struggling against even more piles of junk, she searched for Rhys’ bag. From afar, it almost seemed organized, yet now that she was actually within his room, inspecting and searching for something, the illusion shattered. She couldn’t figure out what half of these things were for. She happened upon a strange bracelet with open slots along the outside, strange sticks that radiated some of Anam’s Mystic energy…

    “Finally.” From the mess came a bag, and within it, a Badge. Owen had taught her how to use it; it was, thankfully, intuitive. Press the center, think of the destination, and hold it high.

    Emily…

    The salty air told her to open her eyes. The sun had already set, leaving a chill-wind to accompany the waves that washed over the shore. Signs of the old clash between Amia and Eon had all but vanished, the only sign remaining being the slightly smoother interior of the caves.

    “Emily? Sorry for disturbing you, er…” She slithered out of the cave. If Emily wasn’t here, she’d know it—how does one miss a gigantic Lugia?

    A great, white lump lay near the cave, curled up with her head tucked under her wing-flippers. “Zena?” Emily said with a groan. “Hi… sorry… I’m sick.”

    Zena blinked, slithering closer to her. “Sick? …You can get sick?”

    “I guess so.” She rolled onto her back, groaning again, while Tanneth emerged from beneath her wings.

    “She’s been feeling kinda bad all day, but it got really bad now,” the Vaporeon said, nuzzling at her shoulders—she had to get on her hind legs to reach them, even with Emily lying down. “She wants to go rescuing other Pokémon, but she can’t do anything like this…”

    Zena frowned, but then dug through her bag. “Well, I always bring some supplies along with me. Consider it a habit from Owen. Why don’t I give you a Pecha Berry? Or maybe a Heal Seed?”

    “Oh, you don’t have to—”

    “No, please,” Zena insisted. “Emily is my friend, too, even if… it’s been a while.” She produced both for her, offering the Pecha first. The berry wasn’t even as big as one of her teeth. “Er…” Not knowing what to do, Zena just tossed it in her partly opened mouth.

    “Mm… a little sweet.” Emily rubbed at her belly, smiling. “I feel a little better!”

    “Were you poisoned by someone, perhaps?” Zena said. “Here, take this Heal Seed, too. I—I really don’t know if just one Pecha can help you, Emily. Did you eat a Tentacruel or something?”

    Emily ate the Heal Seed next; Zena could tell that the Lugia was recovering, bit by bit, and sighed. How could Emily get sick if she didn’t even sustain injuries properly? Something must have been terribly wrong, but she had no time to investigate further. “Emily, perhaps after I finish my, er, errand, I can return here with more supplies for you.”

    “You’d do that for me?”

    “Of course!” Zena laughed, hiding her mouth behind a ribbon. “Owen always talks about not knowing what to use his Heart funds for. This would be a wonderful opportunity.”

    “There’s… is there more in your bag? Do you need it?” Emily asked.

    “Only if you can spare some,” Tanneth said, nodding. “I just wanna see Em get better.”

    “Well, I have a few more Pechas and Heals, but I’d rather save a few for…”

    “No,” Emily said, poking a huge finger at the bag. “There’s… other things in there.”

    “Oh, well, those aren’t… edible.”

    “Can I see?”

    Humoring her, Zena pulled out the first object she could find—a small Orb. “Well, this one is a Totter Orb, in case we run into trouble and need to escape during the confusion… but it’s not too reliable because of how chaotic the battleground becomes. Do you want to, er, inspect it?”

    Zena offered it to Tanneth, who held it up to Emily’s nose. She crossed her eyes in a struggle to see it, then lunged her head forward, taking the Orb and Tanneth with it. The Vaporeon giggled and slipped out from the side of Emily’s jaws, but the Orb remained behind.

    Zena heard something shatter. “E-Emily! That’s not edible!”

    “Aaah…” Emily sighed, suddenly hopping onto her feet—the ground trembled. “That was amazing!” She looked down at Zena and grinned; her eyes were slightly crossed.

    “Er—try not to move for a little while, Emily.” Then, she produced one more Orb, struggling with the concept that they were somehow helping. Did any blessed item help Emily? “Er, why not one more?” she said. “A Slow Orb, perhaps?”

    Emily opened her mouth, eyes closed. With a nervous smile, the Milotic lobbed the sphere down her throat. This time, the dull smashing noise came from deeper within Emily, but it was destroyed all the same.

    Emily gave a slow, approving nod to Zena, waving at an abnormally leisurely pace. “Oh, you’re… slowed, too. Er… apologies. I’ll return with more of our Orbs later, if it’s any help and you still aren’t feeling well.” She didn’t wait for Emily to nod, figuring she at least heard her. “Tanneth, thank you for looking after Emily. I’ll return with more Orbs tomorrow.”

    “And thanks for bringing them! We’d go in and get them ourselves, but I don’t think Emily can figure out how to get around Kilo… and we also don’t have any money.” Tanneth stuck her tongue out playfully. “I’ve been feeling amazing lately, though!”

    “Well, at least one of you do.” Zena giggled, but then slithered to the shoreline. “Sorry for intruding. I have to get going.”

    “Okay, see you!” Tanneth waved.

    Zena touched the water, making one more glance back at Emily when she finally shouted, “See you, Zena!” in half the speed. She slipped into, and became, the water, the currents rushing through the ocean.

    She hoped that Owen wouldn’t mind. She thought back to the spirits within her; they seemed confident, so she had to be, too. Owen didn’t resent her, right?

    <><><> ​

    Owen wasn’t sure how he wound up in this situation. From being possessed to telling everyone he knew and loved to go away, and now, sitting in front of a former human that he barely knew, laying bare his soul for him to evaluate.

    A lot about what he had to say made sense. He didn’t like it, but having a ‘feral mind’ or whatever Brandon called it fit Owen too well. Pokémon of his world—some of them looked up to humans for leadership and guidance. They were domesticated. Like Zeke, his Blaziken. And Eon made him the same way, domesticated.

    He understood that much. But that just led to a completely different problem. And, somehow, it felt even more pressing than anything else.

    Brandon sighed, moving so he was sitting in front of Owen, legs crossed. Owen folded his wings around his chest, hiding beneath it for shelter.

    “Alright,” Brandon sighed, shaking his head. “Look, I’m really good with the relationship between humans and Pokémon and stuff, but girl problems aren’t really my thing. But I’ll try. What about Zena?”

    At least Brandon was willing to humor him, but now Owen didn’t know what to ask. How was he supposed to start with something like this?

    “Just speak your mind, buddy. First thought.”

    “What am I supposed to feel about her?”

    The words surprised both of them. Brandon squinted, rubbing the back of his neck. “Eh… what? You want me to tell you? C’mon, I may tell Zeke to use Blaze Kick, but I don’t tell him to use Pay for Dinner.”

    Owen stifled a laugh, looking away. “Y-yeah, I know, sorry. It’s just—what you said before. About having a tendency to follow what other people tell me, and… and stuff like that. What if… what if that’s the same way for Zena? I…” Owen had to look down. With his eyes closed, he started to feel around the factory, sensing all of the Poké Balls on the conveyer belts. He followed the tracks to the assembly line, and then tried to go back to the offices.

    “Hey, Owen.”

    “H-huh?” Owen looked up. Brandon’s eyes were on the ceiling.

    “No offense, but you always getting distracted with that Perception of yours really drags down the pacing of my conversation. You mind turning it off?”

    “I can’t,” Owen said. “I mean, I can take my horns out, but…”

    “Does that hurt?”

    “No, but… it’s… embarrassing.”

    Brandon crossed his arms. “Nobody’s judging you. Just do it for now, alright? Get insightful while we talk. This is for Zena, right?”

    Owen grunted; he didn’t know if it was his natural obedience or not, but he reached up and clicked them out. He placed them by his side, muttering, “Bet if I was less loyal, I’d still keep them…”

    Brandon frowned and looked to Zeke, who just shrugged. “Look. Maybe saying you’re domesticated was too strong a word. It’s just, it’s sort of like Zeke. Back when I was a trainer, he was selected to be someone’s first Pokémon because he was just really friendly toward humans.”

    “I thought they were cool,” Zeke said, going into a throwing stance. “Go, Zeke! Blaze Kick!” He tossed an invisible ball.

    Brandon held up his arms in an entertained shrug. “It’s sort of to help trainers get to know how to work alongside Pokémon without, you know, more troublesome personalities.”

    “Like Viper?” Zeke asked, giggling.

    Brandon winced, tapping his chest. “Hey, I earned his respect eventually.” He then motioned to Owen. “It’s not like you’ll just blindly follow what others say. I mean, look at you now! You told Eon off, you beat up Star, and from what I’ve been told, you were a bit of a rebel to your folks from time to time.”

    Owen, unconvinced, nodded anyway. It still felt like he was looking up to Eon when he probably shouldn’t have—like there was a nagging feeling in the back of his head that Eon was worth following. But he wasn’t. He couldn’t be. Not after everything he did.

    “Look, you’re asking how you’re supposed to feel about Zena,” Brandon said, which distracted Owen from his thoughts. “So what, how far’d you guys take it? First base, second base?”

    “…What?”

    “Like, how close do you guys get? How much have you, uh, done together?”

    “Well, we do a lot together. Every night, usually, after we’re done sparring and meditating and stuff like that, we’d read a book together, or we’d play marbles or something—you know, nothing too noisy so we didn’t disturb anyone who actually had to sleep or relax.”

    “Okay, I know, but—never mind. So you guys are close, right? Like, how serious is this? I’m trying to get a feel for how much you guys actually do together.”

    “What do you mean, do?”

    “Like, you seem like the kind of guy to really wait until you guys do anything physical, if you ask me.”

    That much seemed to be true; maybe Brandon had a good read for him even with this after all. “Yeah, I think so.”

    “Well, have you guys kissed?”

    Owen’s face reddened beneath his orange scales. “W-well—yeah. We did.”

    “Alright, that’s first base. How about touch? Have you guys, you know… touched?”

    “Oh, all the time.” The Charizard nodded. “Usually while we’re reading, Zena would wrap her ribbons around—”

    “Okay, okay, don’t need to hear that.” Brandon waved his arms in the air.

    Owen blinked. Humans had odd customs; how was her wrapping her ribbons around him while they read worse than kissing? He wasn’t going to question it. “I guess we’re kinda serious.”

    “I’ll agree there.” Brandon sighed, giving Owen an amused smirk. “Well, look at you.”

    “What?”

    “Landing a Milotic. Prettiest Pokémon in the world?”

    Zeke let out a loud trill, like he was cooing at Owen enviously.

    “Th—that’s not what I was—” Owen quickly brought his wings forward to hide. He spoke from behind them, giving his voice a muffled filter. “She’s pretty, but that’s not why—I mean—actually…”

    “Aaah, come on, I’m just teasing. I get it. From what Boss keeps gossiping about, seems like you guys have decent chemistry. Maybe you’ll really get her in a knot if you start pumping iron, eh?” He flexed a bicep, but the phrase didn’t register with Owen. How does one pump iron?

    Owen breathed out of his nose, finally coming out from his wings. “I know. I was… too stupid and my head was so scrambled that I didn’t even remember half the stuff we did together. She was a great friend for the whole time, though. Kept tolerating me being a huge idiot.”

    “Hey, that was only slightly your fault,” Brandon said, shrugging. “You can’t help that you can barely remember anything. But look, what’s this got to do with what you’re asking me? Like, do you want to ask how to go on a date? Because I’ve got great one-liners if you’re doing that whole courtship thing now.”

    “I—I don’t think Zena’s into that kind of thing. I’m more focused on…”

    “Aww, c’mon, not just one?” Brandon asked. “Like, hey, girl, if I could rearrange the alphabet, I’d put U and I together.” He clicked his fingers, the metallic echo lasting several seconds.

    Owen squinted, envisioning the alphabet. Those letters were pretty far apart; why would he arrange it like that? “…Wait—oh! Oh, I get it!” Owen gasped, suddenly laughing. “That’s really clever! But—I don’t know if I want to have a funny one like that. Wait—no! I’m not asking for a pickup line—we’re already courting!”

    “Well, a lot of pickup lines can be substituted for little sweet nothings.” Brandon tapped his chin, but then performed a small flourish, holding his right palm out, “Hey, baby, you’ve got a bit of cute on your face.”

    Owen blinked several times, his wings unfolding at the same time that his face flushed. “W-wow, Brandon… I bet you had a lot of people trying to court you.”

    “Not really.” Brandon crossed his arms. “Oh, I’ve got a good one. Between your Typings… oh, she’s the Water Guardian, right?”

    “Yeah.”

    Brandon cleared his throat, this time going on one knee, spreading his arms wide. “Zena, you’re the only body of water I’d ever swim in.”

    Owen flushed again, recalling the time he actually had done that. “I—I think that one would make both of us pretty, uh, flustered.”

    “Yeah, maybe that one was a bit much.”

    “No, keep going!” Zeke suddenly interjected, leaning forward with wide eyes. “I want to hear more of your pickup lines! Oh, oh, I know!” Zeke chirped a few times, like he was trying to articulate himself. “Zena! You’re the only Water that makes my flame brighter!”

    Owen gasped, slamming a fist into his other hand. “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

    “You should totally tell that to her! I bet she’d totally swoon over it!”

    Owen’s flame burned a bright yellow, the light in his eyes reflecting something similar.

    “Hey, now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Brandon patted the air down. “Let’s pull things back for a second. You got sidetracked.”

    The sudden seriousness of Brandon’s tone threw Owen off. He shook his head a few times, remembering why he had come in the first place. “Right—sorry. But… thanks for cheering me up a little. I feel a lot better about… I mean, I think I do.”

    His flame returned to its usual orange; with it, his thoughts returned to the brief flashes of Zena staring so pleadingly at him in the Grass Core. No matter how many fancy human pickup lines he learned, or whatever other special secret techniques Brandon had, it wouldn’t mean much if that moment was going to be in the backs of their minds.

    “Sounds to me like you’ve got a lot of self-doubt,” Brandon said. “Ever since you turned Zena away. Run that by me again? With all that recap you told me, I think I forgot a few of those details.”

    “Y-yeah. Okay. Here’s the thing, I… I do like Zena. A lot. And if we can get more serious with that courtship thing… and I don’t mess it all up with my memory problems… “

    “Hey, quit beating yourself down about that. I think, out of everyone, Zena would understand that the most. She’s already had to deal with it for a few moons already, right? Heh.”

    Owen’s wings drooped at this. “Everyone knows. Zena’s just the one that it probably hurts the most.”

    “Well, I figure it hurts your family, too,” Brandon said. “It isn’t like anybody here wanted your memories to be scrambled like they are. But that’s not really what this is about, is it?”

    “No.” Owen heaved a sigh, accidentally puffing out an ember that scorched Brandon’s toes. “Sorry!”

    “I’m good.” He used the bottom of one to rub the top of the other. “Go on. You turned Zena away like everyone else. Why? If you know you like her and you can trust her, why’d you do it?”

    “Because…” Owen’s voice became quieter, more flashes of Zena in his mind. They were starting to feel so cold, like he’d thrown it all away when he shouldn’t have. He squeezed his hands, reaching for one of his horns so he at least had something to hold.

    “Hey, don’t get distracted,” Brandon warned.

    “I—I wasn’t gonna. I’m just… I need something to hold.”

    “You can hold me,” Zeke offered, scooting closer. He wrapped his arms around Owen, earning a small, reluctant smile from the Charizard.

    Owen finally composed himself enough to say, “The reason I pushed Zena and everyone else away back there was because… I realized that it’s all part of my instincts. The fact that I just trust anybody that’s stronger than me, or that seems smarter than me, or just… maybe knows something I don’t. I just… I just automatically trusted them. Star, Anam, Rhys, Mom… and maybe even Zena.” The final part was almost inaudible.

    “And maybe even Zena,” Brandon repeated.

    “And what you told me just confirmed it. I’m… domesticated. Eon made me… docile.” Owen put the back of his finger to his forehead, leaning down. “The Bug Guardian, Trina—she and I told the rest of my team that even though we have an instinct to fight, we still got to choose who we fought for, and why we fought. B-but we do even have that?! Or are we just—are we just predetermined to do that, too?! Just designed to… to always…!” Owen covered his eyes, flame blazing white. “What am I? Who am I supposed to be? NO! Why—why am I even saying that? Why am I saying, who am I supposed to be? Th-there I go again, asking and asking for an answer…!”

    Zeke struggled to keep Owen composed, his talons gently wrapping around his arms next. He chirped quietly, “It’s okay, it’s okay. My trainer knows.”

    Owen shuddered a few times. “I need to stop breaking down l-like this. It can’t be healthy. Even Mystics can only take so much, huh?” He blubbered out a laugh, wiping his nose.

    Brandon waited a while until Owen was calmer. “Well, Owen,” he said, “I don’t really know what to tell you. That Bug Guardian had a good point that you got to choose who to fight for… but you know, I think now that you’re aware of your instincts, you might be able to choose who you want to follow, too. It’s not ideal… and maybe one day, you can figure out how to follow yourself, too. But I’m just speaking realistically here. The truth is, you aren’t ready to stand on your own. You don’t have the training to do it. So if you want my opinion? You should start looking at people who can help you think independently. Someone who might ask for your opinion just as much as you’d ask them.”

    “Someone like… Zena?” Owen said.

    “Well, hey, you said it, not me,” Brandon shrugged, though he grinned anyway. “Ideally, couples are equals. Sure, in truth, that’s not always the case… but hey, you can get pretty close. And I think Zena’s well aware of how you are.”

    “I’ll have to tell her the truth, though,” Owen said. “I dunno if she’d… think of me the same way after that.”

    “Owen, I dunno if that’s a problem,” Brandon said. “For one, she’s already stuck with you this long. She just wants to be there for you.”

    “Yeah, exactly,” Owen said, claws scraping the ground. “And even though I knew that, I still told her to go.”

    “I bet she understood why you did that, too. After all… with everything you’ve been through, why do you think she left so easily?”

    “Because—” Owen looked up, but he couldn’t find the answer. Brandon’s head tilted to the left, inquiring for Owen’s theory. “Because she…”

    “You think maybe she already had an idea why you wanted to be left alone?” Brandon said. “She’s not psychic, but I bet she’d have some good intuition on you. After all, how could you know who you are if you’re always attached to someone else’s orders?” The Machoke shrugged. “You know, if you want my opinion in all this, I say you just think about what I said, really rationally-like, and then decide if any of this is even worth your time. Who’s worth it to you? Anybody? Everybody? Nobody?”

    “There are too many of them that I care about,” Owen said. “Even if I think about it rationally—”

    “Ah, ah,” Brandon held up a finger. “No knee-jerk reactions. Those are your instincts talking. Just let it simmer, alright? Just think about Zena for now. Let’s narrow it down. Thinking rationally, do you think Zena has your best interests in mind?”

    “Of cour—”

    Brandon gave Owen a stern glare, crossing his arms.

    “R-right. Rationally.” Owen looked down, focused on his feet. “…We met by chance, in a way. I mean, I guess not really, but… I went to her on my own. And ever since then, we just… became friends. We cared about each other because we were in the same situation. And then we started reading together, playing some games… we trained together and… we were equals. I think out of everyone, she’s the one that I blindly followed the least. And I still cared what she had to say. I dunno if that counts as rational, but…” Owen paused, a thought crossing his mind. “She… she left. She left me in the Grass Core because I asked her to. She… she actually listened to me.”

    “Which means what?”

    “…That I’m not just someone who takes orders from her.” Owen squeezed his hands. “Zena… listened to me.”

    “So what’s your answer?” Brandon asked. “She worth fighting for? And why?”

    “She is,” Owen said. “I—I get that now. And it’s because she sees me as an equal. Not somebody to give orders to.”

    “And that,” Brandon said, “is what makes a partnership work.”

    Zeke pulled away from Owen and stretched. “It’s the philosophy of Pokémon training, too!” he said. “Even though humans are the ones that give orders, that’s because they can’t fight. We put our trust in the human to do the planning for us so we can focus on fighting. But if we’re mistreated… that’s not a good bond at all.”

    “It’s kind of a weird way to look at it, but it’s true,” Brandon said. “All bonds are a bit of give and take. Trainer to Pokémon, mate to mate… I guess that’s the best advice I can give you.”

    Owen sniffed one final time, wiping the last of his tears away. “I don’t get a lot of your human culture, Brandon, but I think I understand what you mean.” He felt the weight from his shoulders lighten. “Now I just have to repeat all that to Zena somehow.”

    “Heh.” Brandon motioned to Owen’s horns. “I think she gets it.”

    Figuring the conversation was over, the mutant leaned for his horns and snapped them back on. The moment his Perception was back in full force, Owen’s eyes widened and he spun around.

    “Z-Zena?!”

    She was right by the entrance, only a few seconds away, with tears and a big, sad smile on her face. One of her ribbons covered her mouth, while the other one waved at Owen in greeting. Without thinking, Owen stumbled forward; Zena returned the favor by slithering the rest of the way, wrapping her neck around his and embracing the rest of him with her ribbons.

    “Oh, Owen… I’m so sorry…”

    “N-no, I—I wasn’t—how much did you…?”

    “Right after we stopped giving you some hot pickups,” Brandon said. “Sorry for lying to you like that, but Barky told me that Zena was on her way here. Decided to stall for time until I spotted her at the entrance. Even Hecto pitched in to help out, told Zena to stay quiet before she went in. I figured it would be easier this way.”

    Zena pulled away, nuzzling him. “I wanted to just go right up to you and tell you it was okay… but Brandon kept giving me the fiercest looks when I tried, when you weren’t looking. Oh, something about that presence…”

    “I call it the trainer’s glare,” Brandon said with a smug grin. “Doesn’t matter if you’re domesticated or not, you can command a real presence when you need to. But I think deep down, you already knew to just let it happen.”

    Zena shrugged Brandon off, focused on Owen. “I understand, Owen. Everything. You were just trying to figure out who you were again, and—and how can I blame you? I don’t. It hurt, but I don’t blame you, and… and you’re fine now, right?”

    Owen’s grin wavered.

    “Oh—don’t—don’t feel pressured. I understand.”

    “No, that’s not—I’m fine with you. I just… it’s everyone else. I need to really sort things out for everyone else, still. Everyone… I can’t just go with my gut anymore. I can’t trust it.”

    “Good, focus on that, alright?” The Steel Guardian clicked his fingers together to make another dull clanging. “Now get outta here. I kinda prefer the quiet. This is more socializing with folks that aren’t my spirits that I’ve done in a while, and I’m starting to feel all introverted.”

    “Okay, okay,” Owen said, though he still grinned. “Oh, actually, but… Brandon, while you’re still here.”

    “I mean, not like I’m going anywhere.”

    “Can you tell me about why you follow Arceus?”

    Brandon blinked, glancing to his left. “What do you mean?”

    “Well, you’re talking about thinking rationally for everything, and how you can choose who to follow, and how it’s sort of a mutual respect sort of thing. So that’s probably the same thing between you and Arceus, right?”

    “I guess it’s kinda like that,” Brandon said. “At least in the sense that we sorta listen to each other. I feel like we butt heads more often than we need to, but hey, Boss has a big ego. Then again, so does Star, and Eon… they’re all stubborn, if you ask me.”

    “Yet you choose Bar—er, Arceus.” Owen didn’t want to prod so forcefully, but he didn’t think he was going to visit Brandon all that often. He wished he could—perhaps a change in his schedule would be helpful? But still, it would nag at him if he didn’t ask. “Why are you working for him?”

    “Geh…” Brandon shrugged, looking over at Zeke. The Blaziken chirped again, uncertain, and looked at Owen.

    “I don’t know,” Zeke said. “He says Star isn’t a responsible person.”

    “Basically,” Brandon said, “I guess it’s sort of the lesser of two evils.”

    “I suppose I can agree,” Zena said. “But from what Owen told me about Arceus, I’m not quite fond of him, either.”

    “What Star did to Rim,” Owen said slowly. “Isn’t that… isn’t that exactly what he tried to do to me? He used those white lights and tried to…”

    “Ehh…” Brandon rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah.”

    Thoughts swirled around Owen’s head. Star never tried to do that—well, she did, back when he, Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi had first become the full Alloy. But that was to keep them from rampaging. If anything, that was for their own good. But Barky…

    “I’m not gonna excuse his actions,” Brandon said, “if you’re fishing for me to try to justify the way he is. He was just trying to take you out of Star’s paws before she used you against Eon. Because you’re susceptible to commands. If you trust someone enough, they could probably lead you right into spearheading a war.”

    “W-war…” Owen’s heart suddenly raced. He shook his head. “I—I wouldn’t do that.”

    “Right.” Brandon sighed, looking back. “Well, anyway. I’m gonna go back to meditating. You still want to stick around?”

    “No, I think I should start heading back,” Owen said. “To… Hot Spot.”

    “Hot Spot?” Zena said. “You’re sure?”

    Owen nodded. “If I think about it rationally… Mom and Dad raised me for centuries, and they only wanted me to live a normal life. Yeah, there were… a lot of lies… but did they ever actually try to hurt me? They love me. So… if anybody deserves me, it’d be them.”

    “Deserves you.” Zena blinked at Owen in surprise. “That’s very… assertive of you, Owen.”

    “Oh.” He shrank down. “Was that bad?”

    “No, no, not at all,” Zena said. “You need a bit of that. Perhaps I should think that way for a little while, too.”

    Owen grinned, but then looked behind him. “Thanks for everything, Brandon,” Owen said. “Sorry about disturbing your meditation.”

    “Eh, I’m over it.” He waved him off. “Fly safe.”

    “See you!” Zeke chirped.

    “See you,” Owen chirped back.

    Brandon and Zena exchanged entertained looks. Deciding to take the scenic route back, Owen and Zena took to the skies under the cover of twilight.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2020
    Chibi Pika and git-it like this.
  2. Kindoflame

    Kindoflame Active Member

    I have read the entire story and it is absolutely fantastic! Easily one of the best character-driven stories I have read. Every major character is given unique personalities and goals, and none of them are carbon copies of archetypes.

    I think what I like the most is how you tie themes of free will, identity, and memory together. How can you make decision when you do not know who you really are? What do you know about yourself when you cannot trust your memories? Can you be responsible for actions when you never ever remember doing them? That last one is explored less than the other two, but we get a hint of it whenever Amelia talks with Owen.

    My biggest problem is with the world-building. More specifically, the lack of it. Hot Spot is an isolated location, far from any large populations. Every Guardian lives in an isolated location, far from any large populations. Emily lives in an isolated location, far from any large populations. The Hunters' base is in a isolated location, far from any large populations. Do you see the pattern? Because of the beginning we have a good sense of how Kilo Village functions and what life in there is like. Outside of that though, how ordinary Pokemon live their lives is a bit of a mystery.

    More importantly, we do not see how they are effected by the war between the Mystics. Are people cowering in fear or going on with life despite it? What do people suspect and what wildly inaccurate rumors are being spread? Do citizens have resentment toward the Thousand Heart for failing to stop the mutants? With Nate at the Hunters' base, a giant geological feature of the continent has disappeared; people should be freaking out pretty hard about that. One nice thing you could have done is make the population more and more distrought as the story progressed, which would help shift the tone of the story overall.

    On a different note, have you considered characterize the Hunters as a cult. Even if you ignore the surface level similarities (separate from larger society, hostile to non-members, charismatic leader) there is still a lot that makes the Hunters like a cult. What really makes the difference is how specifically Eon controls the mutants, psychologically speaking. We have not really seen a lot of the inner working of the Hunters, so there is certainly potential to do this.

    If this is the direction you want to go, can I suggest making the 'battle mode' of the mutants be activated by a dead-man switch. Something along the lines of if Eon does not give a mutant a specific aura-signature every 36-hours, then the mutant will automatically enter 'battle mode'. If this is not the direction you want to go, I would suggest reading up on cult survivors at least a little so you can characterize Tox and Soli well.
     
  3. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Aaah! I'm glad you enjoy it so much! Thank you! Always good to find a new reader when it's not just someone on the discord server or something and they just pop up in the wild.

    I wholeheartedly agree, and this is actually something that I've been hoping to rectify with edits when I have the time. Just more tidbits about the world and so on, like the grocery shopping scene, or the scene with Smeargle, or Sugar 'n Spice, and so on. I need more of that. However, I will point out that some of this is a design flaw borne of the plot -- the Guardians are supposed to be isolated. Which leads to...

    ...They aren't! In fact, for the most part, most life in Kilo Village is completely ignorant of Mystic happenings, by design of everyone involved. It's a shadow conspiracy bubbling to the surface. Step having her outburst in Kilo Village, which will have repercussions later, is actually the first major Mystic incident that Kilo Village had in public in this lifetime. So, we'll be seeing that later, but for now, this is intentional... for now~ After all, the public knows, now. And this can't stay in the shadows forever...

    Now this, however, is a very good point. I think I will look into highlighting this both in edits and in future chapters. I definitely need to find a way to point that out without bogging down the plot.

    It's definitely got some cult vibes. I'm aware of the psychology behind it, and I hope I can explore some of that in the future.

    This would be completely out of character for Eon, unfortunately. Their 'battle mode' of them slipping away uncontrolled is a design flaw that he's been trying to fix; it's not meant to be their defaults. So I'll definitely take a look at the above if I can.

    Thanks for reading!
     
  4. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Special Episode 6 – You Promise

    Sunlight filtered through stained glass and onto the Pokémon congregation in the audience chamber of a pristine, white temple. Long, large seats covered the majority of the room, only half-full. At the front was a Goodra, riddled with countless scars and old, old wounds. He recited off of a book—this time, the Book of Arceus—to the audience, which seemed to be paying attention, or at least feigning it.

    Anam shut the book a moment too quickly, sending a cloud of dust into the air. He suppressed a sneeze, wincing at the particles that stuck to his arms and chest. That was going to take a long time to get off…

    His single, green eye scanned the temple audience. Two Tyranitar sat at the front seats, grinning at Anam when he finished, though the left one looked like he had just woken up. Off near the middle-right of the audience were two other Pokémon, standing up at the sound of the book closing. Near the back corner was a group of younger Pokémon quietly chattering with one another, stopping only when they realized the Goodra had stopped talking. They glanced nervously at one another.

    “Thank you all for coming!” Anam said to the handful of Pokémon. “We’ll have another holy day in twenty days!” Because five days was too often nowadays. “I’ll make sure to put notices up on Quartz Square when that day comes! See you, and thank you!” He waved, though half of them had already shuffled out. Anam kept smiling until everybody left.

    All but one of the Tyranitar. “Hey, Anam!” He waved him down, lumbering across the aisle.

    “Hey, Rora,” Anam said. “Did I do well? I think I made some of them a little bored…”

    “I think you did great.” Rora patted Anam on the shoulder, careful to avoid a new bruise that had formed from his last dive into a Dungeon. Rora brought his hand back, slime connecting it to the Goodra’s shoulder. “You didn’t stumble over your words or anything.”

    “I know! I did so well that time! I just wish there were more people!” He lunged forward, and for just a moment, Anam saw a flash of terror in the Tyranitar’s eyes. In a caring embrace, Anam heard the slime squish between them. “Thanks for listening, Rora. I know you heard that story a lot.”

    “Y-yeah… that’s great… real great…” Rora slowly pulled away, wincing at the many strands that tied them together like some twisted sense of fate. “It’s always good to hear the story again. You notice new things, you know?”

    Anam grinned, stepping through the temple doors and into the afternoon sun. He breathed through his nose, opening his right eye. He tried to open his left, but it didn’t quite work.

    Rora winced. “Are you alright?”

    “Huh? Yeah, why?”

    The Tyranitar looked away. “It’s just, a lot of those injuries seem really painful. You’re more scar than skin.”

    “Oh, it doesn’t hurt! Well, this one does, but that’s because I just got it from the last blessing.” Anam pat his shoulder gingerly, rubbing at the darkened bruise. “And Goodra scar easily, remember?”

    “You need to stop flying solo for Dungeons.” Rora crossed his arms and growled. “Your mother did fine because she had you and your dad to help cover her blind spots, but going alone keeps getting you injured one way or the other. And also, your Mom was huge. I didn’t realize how big she was until I realized you, um… you’re smaller. Well, normal.”

    “It’s not that bad,” Anam said. “It was only bad once!” He held up his right hand, as if to bring up a finger, but it was missing. He hastily swapped for the other hand, which had a proper pointer digit. “How come you’re bringing this up, anyway?”

    Rora tensed. “It’s… because we found another Dungeon that has to be blessed. But it’s… in Rotwood Fen.”

    The color drained from Anam’s expression, but he held up his smile nonetheless.

    “But we set that place as restricted,” Anam said, voice quivering. “Nobody’s allowed to go there.”

    “I know,” Rora said. “But recently, someone got close to that place, and they spotted a wraith at the border of the forest. Further than it had ever gone before. And our scouts are saying that it’s getting a lot closer to the Chasm of the Void, too. And who knows what’ll happen if those two come into contact somehow.”

    Anam frowned. He hadn’t visited the Chasm in a long time. It was too close to Rotwood Fen, and it was such a long walk. Most fliers weren’t too keen on carrying him, either. Nate… hopefully he would be okay. He didn’t want the wraiths to get him.

    “No,” Anam said. “I’ll go alone.”

    “But Anam, that place was that killed your—”

    Anam abruptly brought his hands to his ears, loudly singing a psalm. “O Arceus, let your light shine on—”

    “ANAM!” Rora bumped his fist against Anam’s unbruised shoulder. “Stop. The wraith perimeter has been steadily moving toward the Chasm for a while. It’s getting too close. I know you keep saying that dark crater isn’t something we need to worry about, but what if the wraiths reach it, huh? What then? We have to stop it before it gets to that point. And I’m not letting you go alone.” Rora turned around. “I got a bunch of us together. A squad of eight, plus me and you. We’re gonna be ready this time. But I need you to be our figurehead, alright? Like always. Oh, and that whole divine protection stuff.”

    Anam shook his head. “N-no, no. It’s not good there. It—it’ll be fine! We just have to keep praying to Arceus, and Mew, and eventually if things get bad, they’ll—”

    “Anam.” A rumble echoed from the back of his throat. “Look, I know that you want to keep up that whole faith thing… and I get it. You lead the temple, you want to follow your mother’s footsteps. But the Book of Arceus taught us that if we need to do something, we have to take action ourselves. The Book of Mew only says that Mew will help us once everything else is lost, and I don’t want it to come to that point. We can’t rely on them to step in. What ever happened to Zygarde, huh? He barely visits anymore.”

    “H-he’s busy! He’s busy trying to summon Mew again!” Anam nodded fervently. “I saw Mew myself, and She could totally help us out when she’s at full strength! We just need to have more faith in her, and pray!”

    “Is that what She told you?” Rora said. “Or are you just guessing that based on what the Book of Mew says?”

    “Isn’t—isn’t that the same thing?” Anam said defensively. “Mew… told me that she just needs more time to help. That she isn’t needed yet. That’s all… so that wraith problem is just fine!”

    Rora’s eyes narrowed. “We’re going to be at the entrance to Rotwood Fen in two days. We’re leaving tomorrow. If you don’t come, we’re going to investigate on our own. Now what?”

    Anam froze. “Y-you can’t go in. You’ll… you’ll die.”

    “Then you’ll come with us to help, won’t you?”

    “No. I’m gonna go in myself, and—”

    “We’re going in no matter what,” Rora said. “You will die if you go in. Your Mom died. So, we’re going to back you up. I’m sick of you going in solo, getting hurt, and then smiling like everything’s okay. It’s not. Quit trying to act like God and let us help you.”

    Anam stood still. He looked back at the bell tower—the bell itself had long since rusted into uselessness, but it was still there as a figure. He looked at Rora again, but he was already lumbering away.

    “Rora, wait!” Anam said. “I’ll… I’ll go. But you have to promise to stay close! And to run away if it gets bad! Okay?!”

    The Tyranitar didn’t turn around, but he replied in a yell. “Sure. But you’ll be running away with us!”

    Anam nodded, but he knew that he still needed to prepare. While it would take a lot of energy out of him—and he wasn’t nearly as practiced as he wished he would be—he had to put some of those new, blessed equipment to use.

    <><><>​

    “By the holy names of Arceus, and under Your divine power, may our travels be blessed and our paths clear. We ask for Your mercy and for our pure wishes to be granted. We beg for good luck today so that we may continue enjoying Your world and continue praising Your name in life. By Your divine light.”

    “By Your divine light,” the crowd repeated.

    Anam clapped his hands together. “Perfect!” He spread his arms out to them, accidentally creating a trail of green slime between his hands. “Are we all ready? Then let’s go in!”

    Right behind Anam was Rotwood Fen, as dead as ever. The ground was gray and murky with a thin layer of unknown mud. The cold, heavy, humid air sent a shiver down half of the Pokémon in front of Anam. Among them were a few friends and colleagues of the Hundred Hearts—a small collection of fighters meant to defend the town and keep resources plentiful during its steady growth.

    Rora led them, and he led this squad, now. “You got it, Anam. Lead the way and we’ll stay back.”

    A Scrafty wobbled next to Anam, shuddering. “H-how unsafe is it? I’ll fight as hard as I can, but…”

    “It’ll be fine!” Anam said, reaching forward to shake her hand. He tugged her forward for a hug, her short stature bringing her only up to the Goodra’s belly. “You’ll be nice and safe.” He held the back of her shoulders assuredly. “I promise.”

    She nearly melted in his embrace, closing her eyes. Anam knew that she liked these hugs—even if the size was awkward, he wondered if it was his size that made her feel safer. She pulled away, brushing off the slime as politely as she could with a conjured veil of darkness. “I have faith in you, then.”

    An Absol barked next. “Look, I’ve already got a really, really bad feeling about this place, but it always feels a little better with you around, Anam. So… I’m gonna have some faith, too.”

    A Linoone spoke up next. “But use that sixth sense of yours to tell us if something bad is coming.” He pawed at his ears. “Forget faith in luck, if you sense something bad, we need to bail.”

    Others in the group murmured in agreement.

    Anam nodded. “If something bad happens, I’ll go back and we can prepare more. That’s the promise, okay?!” He clasped his hands together. “Nobody has to die!”

    “Then let’s go,” Rora said, marching forward. Anam went right beside him, raising his arm to summon his one tendril of light. It created a golden barrier around them, spiraling in a half-dome, and coated the ground beneath them in that same radiance.

    They hadn’t walked very far at all before the familiar distortion of space, rippling and bending the light, flashed before them. Anam took a steady breath. “It won’t be easy to get out once we go inside,” he said. “I wish it was still just a normal forest…” But since the last time he’d come here, a Dungeon had formed. He’d have to use a lot of divine energy to break out by force.

    “Just save enough energy for an escape, alright?” Rora said.

    “Yeah. Okay. It should be easy!” Anam nodded, stepping through the Dungeon barrier. “The same energy I use to bless it, but… for us! Easy, h-ha…” Anam fiddled with his fingers again.

    “Do you have enough energy for all of us?” Rora asked worriedly.

    “Oh, definitely.”

    “AaaAAA—I really don’t like the feeling I just got.” Absol shuddered, shaking her head furiously. “It feels like we’re already surrounded!”

    “Surrounded?” Anam asked, gulping. They had entered the Dungeon only moments ago. Was that just the distortion messing with Absol’s perception? Or—

    “Left!” Linoone shouted.

    Rora slammed his foot on the ground; seconds later, a spire of stone pierced through a nearby tree. It shrieked, black matter erupting from its body. It evaporated into nothing.

    “Trevenant…?” Cacturne said.

    “No.” Anam gulped. “That was just something to look like one.”

    “Wraiths… already…!”

    “No time! Let’s go, Anam. Stay close! If anybody slows down, carry them! Okay?”

    Anam stayed in the center of the crowd, making sure his radiant barrier kept everybody inside.

    It didn’t take very long for more wraiths to show up, though most of them were deterred by Anam’s barrier. After just two of them, the rest hissed and sank deeper into the Dungeon.

    “K-kinda wish we had those segments to the Dungeon right about now,” Cacturne said. “Can’t you bless it from here and stabilize the place?”

    “N-no, I can’t,” Anam said. “Just be careful!”

    “We’re still at the outer perimeter of the place,” Absol said, “and I already feel awful the deeper we go. I th-think we’re already being followed. And the atmosphere feels… twisted. I don’t know what’s going on here, just—”

    The sun abruptly disappeared.

    Three of the team screamed in surprise. Absol shook her head again, whimpering loudly. Anam stiffened, but it was Rora who shouted to the others. “Stay close, keep it together! Don’t leave the barrier!”

    Whispers filled the air, yet they couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Anam swiveled his head around, horns flicking slime onto Rora, who shook it off and grumbled. “Anam, are you doing alright?”

    “I’m sensing… something. But I can’t—”

    “AAAAH!”

    Anam spun around to see Linoone leaping into the air and onto Absol’s back, screeching and pointing at the ground. All heads turned below.

    Eyes. Countless eyes in pitch-black ground stared up at them through the barrier of light that Anam had created, some tiny, some as large as Rora’s head. Tendrils poked between where the eyes weren’t, trying to break through the barrier. While their darkness dissolved, some of the light faded wherever they touched.

    “They’re trying to eat through the floor!” Linoone screamed.

    “Get off me!” Absol shook him away. “Anam! Let’s hurry and get to the core! We can’t be that far, right?!”

    “I—I dunno!”

    Rora stomped on the ground, forming another column of stone just beyond the barrier. The darkness persisted, but in the dim glow of Anam’s shield, they saw a handful of wraiths evaporate.

    Without a word, they all sprinted along, the slowest of them falling behind. Linoone shouted for them to slow down, and while they did, that only made the stragglers panic. Scrafty was nearing the back edge of the barrier by the time Anam slowed down.

    A team of wraiths lunged at Scrafty, piercing through after only half of them evaporated. The other half latched onto Scrafty —she screamed, flailing against them. A dark swipe evaporated another, but two still remained, eating into her skin. An Armaldo hopped back, slashing at one of the remaining wraiths. The other one kept dissolving her left arm, only for a Golisopod to wrap his claws around the misshapen blob, tearing it away.

    “Get away from her, you—” He tried to tear it apart, but it suddenly changed shape. Spikes covered its body, dark points melting Golisopod’s chitin. He yelped and threw it away, but it stuck to his arms, flowing into his blood. Then it lunged at Golisopod, enveloping his face. He screamed, muffled, but by then, Anam had finally arrived.

    One touch from his tendril of light evaporated the wraith completely, but the damage was done. Golisopod’s chitinous armor had decayed, both eyes rendered useless.

    “I—I can’t see,” he stuttered. “Anam, I can’t—”

    Another scream, this time to the left. Flareon’s leg was caught by a series of tendrils. In mere seconds, his entire lower half was enveloped in melty darkness, threatening to pull her into the ground. It was only by the quick thinking of a nearby Nidoking that Flareon hadn’t been consumed entirely. He grabbed him by the forepaws, and Rora followed next, grabbing his midsection from the other side. The darkness lashed out at both of them, stinging their hands, but Flareon was freed—though most of the fur on his lower half was gone.

    Flareon opened his mouth to speak, but then passed out.

    More eyes leered at them from the ground, and now even more from above. The group shrank to the center of the barrier, injured and burned, as the light that protected them slowly faded. To keep the barrier strong, Anam had to shrink the barrier’s radius. The eyes closed in, hungry.

    “This… this isn’t how it was supposed to go,” Anam said. “I… I had to… I had to save you! M… Mama… P-Papa…”

    “Anam, don’t lose it now,” Rora said, holding his shoulder. “If we can fight this off, we can still escape.”

    The light was a dim flicker.

    Rora rumbled. “One attack. Just one attack, okay?! Everyone! WITH ALL YOU’VE GOT!”

    The whole group, aside from Flareon, blasted the darkness with their strongest attacks. Rora aimed to his right, blasting a thunderous beam of light energy from his maw, sweeping his head to the side. The Hyper Beam dissolved a good chunk of what was ahead of them. Scrafty slammed her good arm on the ground, sending waves of darkness in all directions to sting and dissolve as much of the wraiths as she could, even as the returning rot ate away at her arm.

    Golisopod stretched his arms out, forming a barrier of his own that enveloped the whole team; immediately after, Nidoking gave a quick nod to Golisopod and jumped in the air. He landed hard, shattering the ground around them; all of the ground-bound wraiths dissolved, while the squad remained protected by the Wide Guard. Anam handled the rest in the sky, sweeping his Dragon fury across the blight.

    Suddenly, from chaos, came silence. Rora fell to one knee, wheezing. Scrafty nursed her arms. The others panted, feeling their residual injuries. Linoone inspected Flareon worriedly, but he was breathing.

    The silence only lasted for a few seconds. The whispers came back. Without the sun, there was no telling if they were near or far.

    “No…” Scrafty squeaked.

    Golden light coursed through Anam, readying a second attack, no matter what it took from him. He raised his hands. “Get ready! I’ll—I’ll hold them off!”

    Green light shined above them. Anam blinked. “What?”

    Hundreds of beams of green light rained down from the sky, briefly illuminating the dead forest around them. There were wraiths everywhere – in the trees, on the ground, by the rocks, and right next to them. Yet the Thousand Arrows pierced through them all, bouncing off of Anam’s barrier at the same time.

    In the green light, Anam saw the flickering image of a great, green-black serpent. “Toto!” Anam whispered.

    “Wh-what a miracle, Anam!” Cacturne said.

    Absol whimpered, shuddering. “Too much… it’s too much…!”

    Anam winced, biting his lip. Absol was right. This was far too much. They had to go. Half of them were too badly injured to keep fighting, and the other half wouldn’t last long before suffering the same fate. They needed treatment—Flareon especially.

    “Absol!” Anam rushed toward her, but stopped short of touching her fur—he knew she didn’t like that from his slimy body. “Did it feel like there was anybody watching us before we entered?”

    “No,” Absol said, holding her dirty paws over her head, as if it was pounding. “No, and now that I’m in here, I just—I just know that we are. They were all inside here, waiting…! And now we can’t even get out! Th-they feel so much stronger in here… and…”

    Anam nodded. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I can handle this, alright? Watch. I’m gonna do some magic that’ll make this all okay.”

    “A—a miracle? Now?” Absol asked.

    The other eight in the crowd watched Anam curiously.

    “Yeah. It’s a secret technique. Super special secrets!”

    His audience cringed.

    “Show us,” Rora said. “Anything to make this easier.”

    Anam closed his eyes. He breathed in. His horns twitched; wraiths were near, but they couldn’t get through his radiant barrier. Not yet. “By Arceus’ holy light and Mew’s divine mercy, bring safety upon my friends, who are not so blessed as to have your power. Grant them safe passage through the Dungeon, so they may escape and—”

    Rora’s eyes bulged. “ANAM!” He lunged at the Goodra, holding him by the shoulders.

    Anam sniffled, bopping his snout against Rora’s. “…Escape and live another day.”

    The light intensified. Anam squeezed his hands together; little bolts of lightning zapped all nine of his friends, giving each one a little, startling jolt. All except for Rora.

    Rora couldn’t say anything for a few seconds. Little golden specks of light flickered beneath their feet for everyone but Anam. Tears—Anam didn’t know what they were from, anger or panic or something else—formed at the corners of Rora’s eyes. “Why—”

    “Bye, Rora. I’ll be back soon.”

    The nine became balls of golden light and shot through the sky, higher and higher. Wraiths tried to strike them from the air, but their radiant protection was too strong. The dark creatures evaporated upon contact. Rora’s spirit rumbled at Anam, but no words came. Far, far away… then, a flash in the high barrier of the distortion. And then, they were gone. Safe.

    Anam looked back at the dim, green glow of the serpentine Zygarde. “Toto… you showed up!”

    “I step in when necessary,” Toto said. He came closer, but then Anam’s eyes widened. Toto’s scales were already partway decayed; his natural glow, faded. Entire portions of his tail were missing, oozing a strange, translucent-green fluid out of his wounds.

    “T-Toto…!”

    “This body won’t last much longer. Anam… you need to leave. I don’t have enough power for another attack like that.”

    Already, the light from Toto’s body dimmed, leaving only gray hexagons that had once been white.

    “B-but…!”

    “I will be fine.” The giant serpent looked down. “Use your power to leave this place. It is too much for you.”

    “But what’ll happen if it reaches the… where Nate is?”

    “I do not know.”

    “And… my parents. You said you monitor the aura sea. And you never found them.” Anam hesitated. “What if… what if they’re…” He looked back. “What if they’re still fighting?”

    “I doubt they would be capable of fighting for so long.”

    Anam bit his lower lip, Toto’s stoic indifference settling coldly in his stomach. “Well, they have to be somewhere,” he said. “I think they’re inside.”

    “And you intend to join them?”

    “I’m gonna save them.” Anam’s radiant barrier flashed. Then, it became solid again. “You’re too weak to continue. I’m gonna send you back.”

    “Anam, you must leave. This thing might be trying to gather the Hands, and you have one.”

    “Then I won’t let him have it.”

    “Do not be so childish. You can’t—”

    Anam’s horn twitched. “I’m not childish!” He shoved the Zygarde back. Due to the sheer difference in size, Toto didn’t even move. But the tap was all he needed.

    “Anam, you’re being childish at this very…” Toto’s body was awash in spheres of light. “That was very clever.” And then he was gone, flung out of the Dungeon like the rest.

    <><><>​

    “Mew, by Your name, I request for your blessings, guidance, and miracles. While our travels have been filled with hardship and peril, we have not lost our faith in You. And we hope that we can continue for another day by Your radiant light, and may the darkness before us melt away. By Your divine light.”

    Anam cleared his throat. “That one sounds really appropriate right about now.”

    The deeper he went, the more the wraiths surrounded him. The eyes on the floor, and now eyes in the sky well beyond his barrier. His horns throbbed painfully, their mere presence like a sting across his whole body. He was getting close. And by keeping his barrier much closer to his body, it was a lot harder for these lesser wraiths to come close.

    He’d come across a few stronger ones, but his Dragon Pulse dispatched most of them easily. The stronger wraiths had shape to them, vaguely resembling Pokémon, almost like imitations of what they were trying to mimic. He’d even come across ones that were almost exactly like their uncorrupted counterparts, yet were veiled in a shadowy aura, invisible to the naked eye.

    Something was glowing ahead. Purplish and very weak. Compared to the infinite darkness around him, it was still too bright.

    But then, one such example of a solid wraith appeared, right when the darkness was so thick that he could barely see a step past his barrier. The eyes all disappeared, which somehow plunged Anam into an even deeper darkness without moving him an inch. He gulped, feeling a new, powerful presence before him, rising from the ground in a black cloud.

    Brown and green feathers wreathed in a dark aura greeted Anam. Cold eyes stared him down. Anam tensed, readying his Dragon Pulse, but something held him back. The weakest feeling in the back of his mind stopped the blue fire from escaping his throat. Instead, he stood there, chest puffed out, a blue glow bubbling through his neck.

    The Decidueye hooted lowly. “Leave. Now.”

    “No—blrghh.” Anam burped out half of his Dragon Pulse. Decidueye weaved to the right, dodging the flames that lit up the right side of his body. “Sorry.”

    Decidueye brought a wing forward, using the other to draw an arrow from the shadows. “Leave. Now.”

    Anam gulped, staring the arrow down. The power that radiated from the tip threatened to pierce right through his barrier. “How… how come you don’t just attack?”

    The wraiths whispered around them. Quiet whispers, incomprehensible sounds. For a while, that was all the noise that Rotwood Fen had. Decidueye’s arrow didn’t advance, and Anam’s flames had completely died.

    “Are you their leader?” Anam asked.

    “No.”

    More silence joined the darkness. By now, even the wraiths were quiet.

    Decidueye continued. “What do you think your friends are doing right now?”

    “They’re safe. I sent them away.”

    “Where do you think they went?”

    “I—I sent them so they could go back to Quartz Mountain.”

    “Only some obeyed.”

    “What?”

    “You should have known better than to come here. They are approaching, even now. Three of them. A Tyranitar. A Scrafty. A Golisopod. The rest fled with their lives.”

    “They came back in?!”

    “Of course. Because they knew you would die. And they wanted to save you.”

    The darkness in Decidueye’s arrow intensified. Anam winced, his foe’s pull on the arrow growing stronger. The shadows darkened into something that was like becoming blind.

    “You should have known that only the strong survive in a world of chaos.”

    He let go. The arrow pierced through Anam’s barrier, the shadowy feather striking the Goodra in the chest. Anam gasped, immediately tugging the feather’s tip out. The clouds poured into the hole of the barrier, but Anam immediately closed it. His chest felt cold. He didn’t have to look down to know that the shadowy rot had spread there, but he’d been through worse. It was just going to become another scar.

    Anam breathed out a plume of blue fire against the shadows, neutralizing them, but Decidueye already had another arrow ready. He fired again; Anam was ready this time, using the single tendril of light—a more solid part of his barrier—to deflect it.

    “Tch.”

    Anam retaliated with his first true strike, another beam of blue fire against him. Yet the wraith commander sank into the ground, two Decidueye appearing. But the aura on the left felt a lot stronger.

    “That’s a good Substitute, Mister Decidueye,” Anam said reflexively.

    The darkness in their auras weakened, making Anam tilt his head curiously. Had the wraith reacted to that, or had he lost his mind?

    Perhaps he had. The darkness was back and even stronger than before. Decidueye hooted lowly, almost a half-screeching growl, and said, “And now only two are coming.”

    “Wh-what do you—”

    Anam heard a scream from behind him, far away. He gasped, spinning around, but then realized a split-second later that Decidueye would shoot from him behind. He jumped out of the way, narrowly evading a shadowy arrow that grazed his left arm. Residual rot darkened his elbow.

    Another screech that was violently cut off midway. That one was Golisopod.

    “ANAM!” the final voice cried, dripping with desperation. “ANAM, WHERE ARE—" And then, just as unceremoniously as the other two, he was cut off in complete silence. Anam couldn’t find his breath; it was like time had stopped.

    “You did this to them,” Decidueye said.

    It didn’t fully register. They were fine! The reason their voices had cut off so suddenly was simply because a residual amount of his blessings were still there. When they were defeated, they were ejected from the Dungeon, just like any blessed one would operate.

    “Face the truth, Anam. You killed them. And here’s my proof.”

    Three lumpy shadows emerged from the ground—crawling, struggling against the dirt. Moans escaped misshapen throats; decayed claws pushed the dirt away. Anam staggered back, falling onto his rear. “W-wait… no…!”

    Their auras felt the same. It wasn’t some trick or illusion. Auras couldn’t be replicated like that so easily.

    “Rora!”

    Parts of the Tyranitar were missing, replaced by chunks of shadow that dribbled and oozed on the ground. His face was missing. Scrafty and Golisopod were no better, shambling forward as the darkness crept over them.

    “Anam,” Rora moaned. “H… help…”

    Anam gathered a golden light in his hands. “It’s—it’s okay, Rora! I’ll save you, I—”

    Rora suddenly screamed, cowering away from Anam. The other two did the same, staring with wide, empty eyes at the divine light in Anam’s hands. The Goodra shook his head. “No, it’s okay! This will help you, it’ll—”

    Anam hastily shot at Rora, but he jumped out of the way. Instead, it hit Scrafty, who had been hiding behind the Tyranitar. She screeched, flailing, and then she evaporated.

    The Goodra’s eyes widened as far as they could go. “Where’d she go?!”

    “I already told you it’s too late,” Decidueye said. “Her spirit belongs to the void. They all do. Everything does.” The dark aura spilled over, flooding the ground. Clouds ate away at Anam’s shield, or what little remained of it. The flickering radiance was only further weakened by the Goodra’s shattered will.

    Rora trembled, more and more shadows covering his decayed body. His mouth opened, but no words came out. He slouched, as did Golisopod.

    More wraiths emerged from the ground, these ones much more solid and defined than the blobs that he had encountered before. While they had some form, they were half merged, limbs and heads crawling over one another.

    Yet it still nagged at him. This Decidueye’s aura felt so familiar. And— “How did you know my name?”

    Decidueye flinched. “They called you Anam all the time. Now this is your final warning—you’re going to leave, or I’m going to—”

    “Well, I can’t leave now! You took my friends!” Anam slammed his arms to his side. “Give them back!”

    “They’re gone, Anam.”

    “Nu-uh, because they’re right in front of me!” Anam walked toward Rora, who flinched again at the light that got too close.

    “The light will burn them, Anam,” Decidueye said. “I said leave.”

    The surrounding wraiths all whispered angrily. But their behavior was too strange, now. They weren’t blindly attacking, and one was even talking to him. Wherever he was… the wraiths were under some kind of different control here.

    “Please…”

    “You saw what happened to them,” Decidueye said.

    Moans filled the air. The bodies of Pokémon stared at him with empty eyes, calling his name. Anam shut his eyes tight, covering his face with his tiny hands. “No…! It’s… it’s not too late!”

    Decidueye prepared another arrow. “At the very least,” he said, “you will join them.”

    “Please… Mister Decidueye, I just want my friends. We’ll leave you alone, I just want my friends! We… we were going to save the world together!”

    The arrow was taut, but he didn’t fire. “Save the world?” Decidueye asked. “I’m afraid the world is far beyond saving, Goodra. There is no law, only chaos. That is how the world has always operated. The strong survive. The weak die. Surely you know.”

    “It doesn’t always have to be like that!” Anam said. While he spoke, the corpses kept piling onto him, digging into his flesh. He refused to back down and shook them away. “Just because the world is how it is, doesn’t mean it will always be that way! We can make it better! I can’t do it alone… but with all my friends… just think of what we can do!”

    Decidueye let go of the arrow and it struck through Anam’s chest.

    “Ughh—” Anam tried to grab it, but his strength left him. He tried to breathe out, and then in—barely, he managed. He tried again, bringing his arm forward weakly, wrapping his fingers around the feathery, shadow arrow. Anam tugged at the arrow and pulled it out completely; he focused, dizzy, and felt the heat from a seed in his bag. The mystical glow enveloped him, and then the wound—and all of his recent injuries—vanished. The corpses shrieked, blinding by the brilliant light of the Reviver Seed.

    “What was that—?” Decidueye hissed.

    Anam struggled to his feet. “It’s something that I’ve grown for a long time. A Seed, imbued with a power so potent that it can bring you back from the brink of death! I learned these arts long ago… from the Book of Light. From Necrozma’s teachings in them. But… but it’s still not good enough. It didn’t… work when my friends were in trouble next to me. I need to make them better. I…” Anam stumbled forward. “If I could just find Necrozma, maybe I could… but nobody hears me when I say his name…”

    Decidueye scoffed. “Apparently I can’t hear the name, either, because I didn’t understand a word of your fragmented speech. So. You created a seed that can heal you in an emergency. That changes little. I’ll just kill you twice.”

    He shot at Anam again. The Goodra pulled the arrow out and grabbed an Oran Berry.

    Decidueye hissed. “Really, eating, at a time like this? You insult me.”

    Anam swallowed it whole, and the wounds vanished.

    The Decidueye glared. “I’m beginning to notice a trend.”

    “My name is Goodra Anam…” He held his head up, staring straight at Decidueye. “Head and Founder of the Hundred Hearts…” He pointed at the ghostly avian. “I’m fighting for the world. And I… I refuse to die because you’re afraid to change it!”

    The moans quieted down. Soon, only the wind filled the silence. Decidueye stared down at Anam with a scornful glint in his eyes. “Your eyes… I don’t know how someone can be so bright in a world so dark. It’s… disgusting.” He glared, and then raised a wing. “Kill him.”

    The corpses moaned… but didn’t move.

    “Excuse me?” He raised both wings. “Have you lost your hearing? I said kill him!”

    The corpses ignored him. Their eyes were fixated on Anam.

    “Nrgh, then I will just kill you myself. Nothing can revive you if you don’t have a mind!” James aimed for Anam’s head, but the Goodra didn’t even move. He just watched Decidueye. And he stared back. Between the eyes. The perfect shot. He just had to fire. He just had to let go… Let that spiritual bow pierce the Goodra’s soul, and sent him to the depths of this corpse garden. Just let go. Let go. Let go…

    “What’s your name?” Anam asked. “Your aura… my barrier. Now that my barrier is gone, I…” He gulped. “I feel your aura so… so clearly. I’d never forget it. You…” Tears welled up, but they didn’t escape him. Not yet. “Your name is James.”

    James’ dead heart skipped a beat. And that moment of weakness made the corpses rise up in a frenzy. Anam didn’t know why, or what caused them to do it, but he suspected it had to do with all the light that they were being exposed to. Could Necrozma’s techniques be working on them?

    They climbed the trees and piled on top of one another, going higher and higher until one grabbed James by the ankle. He shrieked and fell into the pile, where they swarmed and slammed him into the ground, pinning him down.

    “What—what are you doing?!” James said. “Stop! I am your leader! Don’t fall for his lies! He knows nothing about this world! He is a mortal! He hasn’t seen death! He—what is—what are you doing?! No—! STOP!”

    A few of the corpses were sliding something toward Anam. A gray orb with little white specks floating through it. All of the corpses seemed to be tied to this orb by thin, white, immaterial strings.

    “What’s that?” Anam asked, reaching toward it.

    “No!” James said. “Don’t you dare! You are the least worthy to harness this terrible power! The LEAST! I REFUSE you! I REJECT you! STOP! DON’T YOU DARE!” James screamed unendingly, but Anam ignored it all. This was clearly some sort of key.

    Wait… this looked familiar. Mama talked about it once, but it wasn’t in either of the Books. Not even the Book of Light spoke of them. Was that… an Orb?

    Of course. That’s where the spirits went. They were part of an Orb. But where was the Guardian?

    “It’s okay, Papa,” Anam said.

    “I—” James stopped. “I…!”

    Anam reached forward, pulling James close. “I missed you so much…”

    “Anam… please… get away… don’t let them take you…”

    “It’s okay,” Anam said, squeezing tighter. “I’ll… be okay.”

    He reached out and touched the orb.

    <><><>​

    Anam bubbled curiously, squeezing his hands in empty air. “Huh?” He stood upright, but he couldn’t see anything around him. “That’s weird. I thought I was just touching the—”

    “Hello.” The distorted sound was like countless voices speaking at once.

    A tendril of fuzzy darkness, almost like tiny particles of dust concentrated together, slammed into Anam, sending him several feed backwards with a scream. Another one wrapped around his body, holding him tight. It squeezed.

    “A-agh! S-stop!” Anam struggled, chanting weakly. “B-by Mew’s divine blessings—”

    “ENOUGH with your silly chants!” he squeezed tighter. Anam screamed, spurts of golden light from his single filament lashing out at the shadows. “AAH!” The tendril swung, hurling Anam on the ground.

    He splattered there, winded. With one arm, he tried to prop himself up. The ground didn’t feel like anything. Ethereal, almost. With his other hand, he formed a small blob of golden light, shining it in the air. All around him was the dim glow of a sky, both above and below him, specked with little, white stars. Somehow, Anam felt like those stars were watching him. Ahead, in this dark realm, he saw a sphere shrouded in black dust, pulsing with purple energy. The tendril that had grabbed Anam shrank back into the sphere.

    The sphere rumbled, throbbing with waves of shadows. “How did you make my spirits rebel?”

    “Huh?”

    “Your father, I understand. He was already resisting me. For a mere mortal… his spirit is stubborn. The moment you entered the forest, he fought back.”

    “That’s because he’s my Papa! He’s super cool!”

    Another rumble. “Yet all of my other spirits… stopped as well. What did you do to them?”

    Anam frowned, slowly getting to a sitting position. He wasn’t attacking anymore. “I, um…” Anam looked down. “I just wanted them to be happy… I wanted my friends back. They weren’t being themselves.” He looked up. “Can I see them?”

    A hollow noise, like a deep bell ringing too many times, echoed from inside the core. “No.”

    “The spirits…” Anam’s horns twitched. “My friends… Papa… and… Mama!” He struggled to his feet, nearly falling over again. “They’re… they’re all inside you!” Anam broke out into a wide grin. “I—I knew it! Can they hear me? Rora! Mama! Papa! It’s me, Anam!”

    “SILENCE!”

    A shadowy blast shot out from the sphere, straight to Anam. He had expected as much. He held his arms forward, creating a golden shield with his filament. He winced as some of the darkness licked at his shoulders and sides, but otherwise, the blast had been completely deflected.

    Anam hobbled forward. “It’s okay. It’s—it’s okay! I’m here! And I’m gonna help! Because as long as I have faith, Mew and Arceus will help me!”

    “Mew… and Arceus…” Despite having no features, Anam sensed the dark orb sneering. “If they were helping you, none of this would have happened. Your friends wouldn’t have died. All of their hate… all of their resentment… I feel it all, Anam. I know it all.”

    “I don’t understand,” Anam said. “My friends… they all liked me. They wouldn’t have come with me if they didn’t!”

    “It was a holy obligation in their eyes. It was not for your friendship; I sense no love from them. Only begrudging duty and fear from their final moments alive. They only became close to you because of your Divine Dragon status. Only because of that single Hand in your possession.”

    Anam flinched, shaking his head. “That… that doesn’t make any sense. The whole village… all of Quartz Village came together to help me! They wouldn’t have done that out of duty! Not just duty! M-maybe a little bit, but it couldn’t have been…”

    The darkness swirled again, surrounding Anam on all sides. He held the filament out, creating a protective barrier.

    “I am the embodiment of negativity. Every cry of pain, every twinge of guilt, every deep, dark regret… I know every one. I feel every single one. Even you. I sense your fear. Your hopelessness. Your doubt.”

    Anam’s eyes widened, realizing that this could be true. But the embodiment of negativity? That didn’t make sense, either. “Why would… why would you exist?” he said. “I don’t understand. A-and… I still don’t believe you. I think my friends cared about me. They wouldn’t have gone so far if they didn’t. Ever since I was little, they helped me. When Mama and Papa died…”

    “They suddenly became nice to you.” The darkness pooled over Anam, obscuring his vision beyond the barrier. “Because you were their power. They used you. It’s nothing more than that. You were useful to them, and so they befriended you. But if you lost your power, none of them would care about you. Just like before.”

    “I… I…”

    The shadows thickened. “Close your heart and give up. It would be much easier to feel nothing than to realize how pathetic it is to cling to this façade.”

    Anam blinked again, looking at his hands. They were trembling. Then, he looked at the shield around him and the darkness that threatened to pierce through the moment he dispelled it. “I don’t understand.”

    “What do you mean?”

    The Goodra crossed his arms, and then his horns. He focused in front of him, shining his barrier to clear up some of the fog. He wasn’t sure if this entity had eyes, or if he could see, or—well, how he could see, but he wanted to make ‘eye contact’ anyway. “You’re just wrong.”

    More hollow rumbling that shook the slime on Anam’s body followed. Then, he said, “There is no way for me to be wrong: I feel what I feel. There is no point in lying. Because I feel your doubt, too. And your fear, and your confusion.”

    “But…”

    Another blast of shadows slammed into the barrier, and, briefly, that shield of light flickered, tiny holes leaking darkness into Anam’s bubble. He winced when some of that brushed against his body, seeping into his slime. He shuddered—it went deeper than his aura, like it tainted his spirit. He breathed slowly, concentrating on whatever inner light he may have had to push it out.

    “If you’re so certain that your friends and family care so much for you… then I’ll just prove to you how wrong you truly are.”

    Black lightning slammed into the ground, deafening Anam. While his ears rang, the darkness dispelled itself, making the black spirits fully visible.

    “Papa!”

    That was the first spirit, the Decidueye.

    “R-right? Papa…?”

    But he only stared, hate in his dark eyes.

    “He has known my suffering for so long, and has lost track of his own sense of self, that he does not even remember his old body. He understood immediately how much his old life was an illusion. Or perhaps he willingly abandoned his form? The Salandit species… the males are useless. They shall never reach their full potential. Yet he was born into it. Such a cruel world…”

    “That’s not true! Papa was very strong, and he was small! So it was really convenient! And Mama loved him!”

    “Deny as much as you want. But you cannot deny it for the rest.”

    More thunder boomed, and another wad of darkness formed where the lightning struck. This one shaped itself into a Tyranitar. “Rora…” But just like before, his eyes returned nothing but darkness. A shadowy aura radiated from his throat, threatening to blast Anam whenever he let his guard down.

    “Rora regretted following you into this place, just like all your friends. All of their struggles in life, amounting to getting killed in a forest that you led them into. Years upon years, washed away in moments. And it’s your fault.”

    “Rora, that’s not true, is it?” Anam said. “I’m sorry that I hurt you so much by bringing you here. But I’ll make it better! Just like I did with the Dungeons! And town, and… and the way you made it all better for me, too. Everyone at the village. I owe everything to them.”

    “Pathetic. I almost feel pity. But not enough. Why don’t I show you what’s become of your beloved mother? The Divine Dragon you took over. Do you think she’s proud?”

    Another boom formed a dark blob, coalescing into a Goodra nearly twice his size. Anam beamed, taking eager steps forward. “Mama!”

    A dark blast slammed into Anam’s barrier, piercing straight through it. He screamed, a huge, dark blotch rotting his chest. He gasped, the barrier closing before more darkness could seep in, and struggled to keep his breath level.

    The dark orb didn’t say anything at first. Then, after a strange hesitation, he said, “That is what your mother thinks of you—that you’re weak. That you’re foolish. Don’t you see? Give up. There’s nothing left now that you’re within my domain.”

    Anam rubbed his chest, staring worriedly at his fading barrier. Then he looked at Rora and his parents. All of them stared down at him, glaring. He could only see one thing in their eyes. The expressions were the same. But in what the entity called hatred, Anam saw something else. Those eyes weren’t filled with hatred or disappointment or disdain. If anything, Anam saw challenging eyes, like he could do better. He knew those eyes. Mama’s firm look…

    She really was a lot bigger than he was. At least two heads taller, even as that blackened wraith. He could only dream to be someone as big and strong as her.

    The darkness and rot faded from Anam’s chest quickly. So quickly that it surprised even the Goodra, who looked down, then at the barrier. “I… I understand.”

    “Then lay your head down and accept your fate. This exchange has become tiresome.”

    “You can’t feel the good parts.” Anam straightened his stance, giving the dark orb a firm look. His horns twitched, curling and uncurling. “You’ve felt negativity so long… that you don’t realize that there are good things in everyone, too. You don’t understand it.”

    “I understand that such things are fantasies. Fabrications. Illusions to make living tolerable.”

    “But that’s just wrong,” Anam said, advancing toward Papa first. He smiled at the Decidueye, who continued to glare. “Papa, it’s okay. I’m gonna make it better, alright? I’ve… I’ve missed you so much.” He held out his arms. “I know it might mess up your feathers a little, but… can I… hold you? I never got to.” He laughed. “We used to be tiny compared to Mama, and now, I guess we still kinda are… but we’re still the same size, too! A little.” Anam had to look down, still. But they both still had to look up to Mama.

    “Anam…” The Decidueye’s wings twitched open. Anam beamed, lowering his shield.

    “You fool—they don’t want your silly hugs. You disgust them!” Papa’s body abruptly disintegrated into a black fog, returning to the dark orb.

    Anam yelped, grasping at where the Decidueye wraith had been, but then looked at Rora, who similarly disintegrated. Then he looked at Mama, but she remained standing.

    He forgot to put up his shield again.

    Clearly, the darkness had been waiting for that moment, because a dark, misty arm wrapped around Anam’s body, lifting him like he was nothing but a hollow Pecha Berry. Anam writhed in his hold, the tendril eating away at the parts that it touched until it became a thick, black sludge, oozing onto the featureless ground. The Goodra gasped, kicking his legs uselessly.

    “If there is one emotion I know well, it is denial.” The red eye in the center of the orb flashed. “How self-destructive creatures become when they deny the obvious and throw themselves into the abyss. They see nothing but horror, and yet they march forward, happily, to their deaths. To me. To the abyss.”

    “It’s… it’s all to help each other. The world… is good… because we help each other.” Anam wriggled out from the darkness’ grip, but he could only accomplish a few inches. “The Book of Arceus… teaches us to be dutiful… to do what we can for the community… and the Book of Mew… teaches us how to care for ourselves. If we just—HRGK!”

    The pressure redoubled, threatening to snap Anam’s bones and crush whatever was left of his muscles. Anam couldn’t move them anymore.

    “Your faith? Is that what you rely so heavily upon? With my countless spirits, do you really believe I am ignorant of every word within those texts?”

    Anam wheezed, staring at nothing.

    “Blind faith is nothing but thinly veiled denial.”

    “No, it’s… it’s not just… They’re real… They’re here to help… Mew gave Pokémon their Types… so they could help others. Arceus created the Embodiments to ease the powers of nature. It was all for us… They all care so much for us! And—and they can care for you! Please! There must be a way to—AAAH!”

    The darkness tightened even more, crushing a number of bones that Anam could no longer comprehend. He screamed; something metallic pooled in the back of his throat.

    “You naïve child. Do you not understand that they are all mere stories?”

    Anam kept screaming, gagging on his blood before the pressure loosened. He felt warm—something in his chest made the tendrils back off, but only slightly. Anam struggled for air; this felt worse than normal injuries. This was his aura. And the darkness was trying to break his spirit. He couldn’t let that happen. He had to save him. He had to save his parents. But what was he supposed to do? Arceus and Mew—would the help him, just like in the books? “Arceus… Mew… save me…”

    “Disgusting. Even now, you deny your reality, even as it digs into you.” The tendrils tightened, burrowing past Anam’s skin and muscle. Somehow, as an aura, it felt worse. The darkness was rotting his aura and polluting his spirit.

    “H-help…”

    “The Book of Arceus. The Book of Mew. Those grandiose tales of the gods being heroes for the mortals they lord over… Who wrote those books? Do you believe the gods to be reliable writers of their own histories? No. The gods did not write them. The Books are nothing but constructs generated by power-hungry mortals to keep the masses behaved.”

    Anam heaved, his vision blurry. He could only hear the darkness’ words, now. Everything else was fading.

    “How convenient that a god wants order for society to fall in line. How convenient that another wants the masses to be content with what they have. How easy it must be to control a world when an invisible force watches over them.”

    Anam coughed, gasping wetly for air. “S… stop hurting me…”

    The darkness advanced, sinking fangs and claws into Anam from all sides. He screamed, but the darkness hissed into his ears. “No. They aren’t just stories. They are all lies.”

    Something hot flew past Anam’s right side. Then, thousands of screams deafened him, and Anam fell to the ground, his broken body lying on its back. He coughed, staring at the final trails of dragon fire leaving Mama’s mouth. The dark core floated backwards, a dark mist fizzling around him.

    “You… DARE…”

    “Don’t forget, Anam,” Mama said.

    “Forget?”

    But then Mama disappeared, and it was just him and the dark core again. “And now you are alone.”

    Anam squinted, the feeling in his body returning. And that warmth was back, too. He blinked at a golden glow flooding his vision; something from his chest. The Hand… The warmth! That was it! It was living proof of Arceus’ blessing. Was that what kept this darkness from taking him away like it did with all the others?

    It all clicked. The light…

    “You wanted me to be like you.”

    “What?”

    “You can’t kill me… you can’t do anything to me.”

    “I have done everything short of that.” The tendril coalesced into a single, fine spike, hovering over Anam’s chest. “Don’t force me to kill you. I will annihilate you.”

    “Was that a lie?” Anam asked. “You… already would have. If you’re so negative… you just want to get rid of me. But you can’t.”

    Anam’s body, all over, felt better. Horribly bruised, but better. He staggered to his feet, giving a polite nod to the spike that threatened to impale him. But it didn’t move. And that, above all else, confirmed it to Anam that there was nothing to be afraid of.

    The Goodra’s body glowed like a single flame in a dark room. It was dim, but in the void, it was the brightest thing in that reality. Anam grasped the spike with both hands, squeezing it. “I just want things to go back to normal.”

    “Let go of me.”

    Anam didn’t listen, squeezing harder. “Please, let everyone go. I don’t want to fight. I don’t want any of this. I just want everyone to be happy—I want to go home. I want everyone to go home…”

    “I said… let GO!”

    The spike flew forward, through Anam’s slimy grip, and straight into his chest. Anam’s eyes bulged, but instead of blood, a golden light poured out of him. The core screamed and recoiled and the dark spike’s tip was reduced to a fine mist. It flailed in the air, slamming into the ethereal ground, and Anam tried to maintain his stance. His wound closed; the dark core shined slightly.

    It shined? Anam tilted his head. “…Do I need to…” Anam moved forward slowly, arms outstretched.

    “What are you doing? Leave! Get away!”

    The sprits swirled around inside the dark core. He could practically hear them. Mama, Papa, Rora, and all his friends. So many lost souls waiting to be freed. He had already accepted that strange power once, before he had entered this void; it was rightfully his. He just had to do it again.

    Anam touched the shell of the core, first. It sizzled against his hands, but it didn’t hurt. But the darkness screamed, trying to pull away, yet Anam was in control of this reality, now. This wasn’t the negative entity’s domain. It was his.

    He held it tighter. “Hold still.”

    “NO! LET GO! DIE! DIE!”

    The tendrils slammed against Anam’s radiant body, but without any despair, the darkness evaporated before it could so much as touch him.

    “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! STOP! STOOOP!”

    “Shh… I’m sorry. I need to do this. The spirits… accepted me. It’s only fair that… I take control.”

    He leaned forward, staring at the great, red eye in the center of it all. He saw within it no expression, yet he could feel something, just briefly. Fear. This darkness was afraid of him. Was he already part of this negative entity? He’d never felt so intimate with such horrible emotions before.

    “This… this world…” He thought of Mama. “I’ll make it better!”

    He reached out to the core. His vision went white, and then in all faded to black.


    ---


    (continued in next post)
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2020
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  5. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    <><><> ​

    Dull thuds filled the air in random, occasional beats. They sounded wet, like a log slamming onto fresh mulch. Anam blinked and tried to rub his eyes. It felt like he was still in the void, but it felt like he had the most wonderful nap!

    Unfortunately, he couldn’t feel his arms. Or legs. Or much of anything below his neck, actually. His horns twitched; he used one to wipe his eyes instead, yawning. It was odd; it didn’t feel like the air he was ‘breathing’ went anywhere. Simulated from familiarity.

    The wet thuds continued; in the darkness, Anam thought to brighten things up a little. While the ground was still invisible, the individuals within the void brightened. He saw two, not including himself: the dark entity, still as an orb with a single, misty tendril… and himself? He saw himself lying on the ground; the dark tendril slammed onto his body, smashing it over and over again…

    “Um, Mister? What happened?” Anam asked, trying to move his arms. Still no luck. He tried to move his horns instead—they were always stronger than his arms—and pushed his head up.

    It was a lot lighter than expected. “A-ah! Whoa!”

    He looked down, but he didn’t have a neck to look down with. Instead, he tilted forward, falling onto his face with a grunt. His horns twirled around and lifted him back up. “Ugh… I’m… I’m just a…”

    He was just a head; the rest of his body was being slammed into the ground.

    “So you’re awake. Wonderful.”

    Anam gasped. “Hey! Wonderful? That means you’re happy, right?!”

    “I am capable of sarcasm.”

    “Oh…” Anam frowned. “Well, at least you know how to act like you’re happy! Kinda. Right?”

    Slam. Bits of slime and goo flew across the void, splashing onto Anam’s face. He closed his eyes, opening one to see the tendril picking it up and tossing it back onto the ground. Anam realized—he had two eyes again. It was disorienting; he wasn’t used to having depth perception again. “Um, how come you’re beating me up?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “…But… why am I just a head?”

    “At some point it fell off.”

    Anam wriggled his horns until he managed to position them like legs. Anam’s head waddled a few paces closer, wincing at how beat up the body appeared to be.

    His horn-legs bent and lowered his head down. He crossed his ‘legs’ beneath his chin. “Are you doing this because you’re bored? Is that a negative emotion?”

    “For some reason, pummeling your body makes me feel less unhappy.”

    “Oh…”

    The tendril made a motion to strike one last time, but he hesitated. Eventually, it lowered, leaving the Goodra body where it was.

    “I guess that means you couldn’t kill me after all.” Anam, seeing that the body was unusable, turned his attention back to the darkness. “But… I really did mean what I said. I want to help you. It’s not fair that you were born only feeling all those negative emotions. You should be feeling the happy ones, too. Maybe… I can show you some of that?”

    “It is not like I have a choice.”

    “Yeah, but maybe it’ll be fun! I’ll show you what it means to feel something like that! Because we’re together now, right? If I accepted the Core, and stuff, I mean. The Ghost Orb… and you! Um… actually, I don’t even know what to call you. Do you have a name?”

    The thing hesitated in its next pound. “I… I do not remember. I don’t know. I only remember waking up in fear, confusion, and sadness. I don’t know my name, if I ever had one. I simply… am.”

    “Oh. That’s… that’s also unfair. You went all this time without a name?”

    “It was not as if I ever needed one. I am… all of negativity. Do I even have an identity?”

    “I say you do. Because I’m talking to you right now, and you feel like a person to me. So let’s name you!”

    The ethereal darkness rumbled irritably, but didn’t protest.

    “How about we name you… do you want a normal name, maybe? Or maybe we should call you something more exotic? My Dad was named something exotic, kinda like Mom.”

    “Your mother was human. Her name is a human name. Their culture permeates Quartz. James was named by Madeline; he used to just be named, Salandit.”

    “O-oh… um… I didn’t know that.” Anam blinked, looking down. “Humans… what were they like?”

    “Not very different from Pokémon: Uselessly fighting to persist in a world where they will ultimately die.”

    Anam frowned. “Let’s get back to your name, then. How about we call you… All?”

    “No.”

    “Then how about a normal name, like, um, Dariko?”

    “Never.”

    “I guess you want a special name, huh? Okay. I mean… oh!” Anam clapped his horns together excitedly, his head wobbling on the ground. “I have a really clever one! If you’re kinda like everyone, that means, when I’m talking to you… there’s a little bit of my thoughts that you can feel, too, right?”

    “That is true. I feel all of your negative thoughts. I know that you are doing this for me because…” But he couldn’t finish. He just grumbled again. “Tell me your idea, Goodra.”

    “If you’re me, then when I’m talking to you, it’s like, I’m you! So… let’s call you, You!”

    A brief silence fell between them in the void. Anam’s eyes widened with hope, but then he rumbled, “I hate you.”

    Anam lowered his head until it touched the ground again, his horns flexing. “I guess You isn’t a good name after all… Okay. Let’s keep thinking.”

    It was quiet for a while after that, with Anam focused on trying to name his new spiritual companion. Eventually, the darkness rumbled again. “Don’t you have some waking up to do?”

    “Not until I name you.”

    “Why do you care?”

    “Because you deserve a name! You’re my friend now, right? I need something to call you.”

    “…Friend?”

    “Yeah! Have you ever had one before? You have a lot of spirits in the Ghost Orb, but not a lot of friends, I guess. Maybe we can try it out! I’m, um, your host, right? So I should be a very good one. It’s polite. And we can be friends, too.”

    He didn’t reply.

    “Hmm…” Anam studied his body again, seeing how dark it was. He wasn’t really sure what kind of material he was made of, either—spiritual in some way, probably. But that did give him an idea… “I don’t know what species you are. The first name is usually the species, but you’re just… darkness. That’s what you are. So what if your first name is Dark? And your last name is what people would call you informally. And since you’re made of everything… I mean… I really wanted you to be called You, so, um, Dark You, but I guess that’s stupid…”

    “…Perhaps not stupid… but I refuse to be called something like that. I am everything. I am… the darkness of everything. That is… my identity.”

    “You are everything…” Anam repeated this to himself, over and over, in little whispers. Then, he gasped. “Matter!”

    “Matter?”

    “If you’re everything negative, then that’s your name! Matter! Your full name is Dark Matter!”

    “Dark… Matter…”

    “Do you like it?” Anam could tell; something about that name resonated with this ball of evil, even if he didn’t want to—or perhaps couldn’t understand how to—admit it.

    “I don’t dislike it.”

    “Then that means you like it!” Anam clapped more with his horns. “Yes! You have a name, Dark Matter! Can I call you Mister Matter, though? Or just Matter?”

    “Mister Matter. I refuse to be called so informally.”

    “Okay, Mister Matter it is!” Anam giggled, righting himself. “I’m really glad that I could help you even a tiny bit, though. I’ll show you that the world can be a lot better than all the negativity you’ve been feeling. And maybe you can help me. Tell me about the negative thoughts that people have, and maybe I can help to make them better. If you feel less negativity in the world… then that means there would be more positivity to take its place, right?”

    “…Do you truly believe it’s not an illusion? Positive emotions. They can’t be real…”

    “They are. And I’m gonna show you. I’ll tell everyone about you, and then they can—”

    “NO!”

    Anam flinched, whatever he planned to say lost to the void.

    “You cannot tell others. I… they will try to find a way to destroy me. And they will destroy you, too. You have no reason to tell them.”

    “Oh…”

    “I want you to promise me that you won’t tell them. I… don’t want that. And I will disrupt your every move if you refuse.”

    “Okay—I promise,” Anam said. “I don’t want them to hurt you… that might hurt all the spirits with you, too. I want to make this better so… so you can release them, right? I’ll try my best. I’ll show you hope, and happiness, and warmth. Yep! So, I promise!”

    “No. I need more. This is too big of a secret. I can control the spirits within me and make them forget; I cannot release them because… if I do, they will speak of me to the gods. And they may try to get rid of me, too.”

    Anam frowned. “Do you really think they would? You… you said those stories are lies. Does that mean…?”

    “They are only out for their own interests. Just as I am. But I do not want to be destroyed. That is surely what they will try to do.”

    “But… but then what do you want? You want to be happy, right?”

    Dark Matter didn’t reply immediately. It sounded like he was trying to say something, but then stopped, like he didn’t know how to articulate it.

    “You said that being happy was an illusion, but… Are you sure? Or is that just… denial? You said you were the most familiar with denial. Because maybe… That’s what you’re doing, too.”

    “I can’t be happy. It is an illusion… to me. It is part of my reality to be… negative.”

    “Well, maybe I can change that,” Anam said. “Or maybe… Arceus and Mew can? Are the stories really… lies?”

    Dark Matter growled. “The stories are glamorized or outright lies. But the gods themselves… are clearly real. You already met Zygarde, who has ties to Mew. And yet… That changes nothing for me.”

    “But what if their miracles are real, too? What if I told them, and they—"

    “The gods hold the power to help me. Yet they do not. Because if they ever find out I exist… they will destroy me instead. They will refuse to help me. I’ve felt their negativity, too. I know this. They will kill me…”

    Anam gulped, wanting to protest, but he seemed so convinced of himself… Could he be telling the truth? Or was it warped like the rest of his perception?

    “If I want to be fixed, I must do it myself. With their own power. The scattered power, like what is within this Ghost Orb—the Hands.”

    “What do you mean?” Anam asked. “You want… the Hands. This?” Anam made a motion with his horn, producing his single filament.”

    “Yes. Anam… I need those. I must gather them. The very things that can destroy me can also help me. If I can get enough, perhaps I can rewrite my own reality. The same way Arceus had used them long ago to create reality itself.”

    It started to piece itself together for Anam. While Anam suspected that not even Dark Matter himself knew why he existed… it seemed clear that he wanted to change his fate. But, just to be sure, Anam said, “So you want their power, because…”

    “I want the Hands of Creation so I can finally be happy.”

    There it was. That was good enough for Anam. But at the same time, giving all of that power to someone like Dark Matter would be… risky. And if he thought that, then Dark Matter heard the thought, too. “I’m sorry…”

    The sphere lowered in the void. “It’s hopeless. I’ll never be happy.”

    Somehow, seeing the giant ball of evil lament made Anam’s heart sink. Frantic, he said, “No! I’ll find another way! I promise! I’ll make the world happier, and then, if you’re part of me, maybe you’ll start to feel a little happy, too. And I won’t tell anybody.”

    “And would you make that a Divine Promise?”

    The sky—the invisible, dark sky—rumbled lowly, getting Anam’s attention. The Goodra looked up, nearly toppling over from his imbalance of just being a head and horns. “What’s that?”

    A dark tendril moved toward Anam, who lowered his head down so he could reach out to it reflexively.

    “It means that should you break it, I would gain your divine power. It would be a way that I can be sure you will follow. Otherwise, I will have one more Hand to get closer to what I need. Because if I’m not convinced… if you fall into despair… Then you’ll accept that you were wrong.”

    “Well, okay,” Anam said. “That sounds fair! And it’ll make you feel better?”

    “…You will make a Promise to me? You will risk your power just for the chance to make me happy?”

    “If that’s the only way you can feel better… then yes! Because I’m not just helping you. I’d be helping everyone. The whole world! And you’ll get to help me! Because what’s a better way to fix the world than to know everything that’s wrong with it?” Anam grinned. “Okay, I Promise! Oh!”

    Just then, from Anam’s right horn, a glowing light erupted, twisting around the dark tendril of Dark Matter. The entity flinched back at first, but then floated forward. He was silent for a while.

    Anam tilted his head, careful not to fall over. “Something wrong?”

    “You’re really doing this.”

    “Yeah! But are you okay with helping me?”

    “Why?”

    “I said why!”

    “No. Why? The real reason.”

    This again? Anam tried to be polite. “I don’t understand…”

    The sky rumbled again, but then he reached forward and twisted the tendril around Anam’s horn. “Then that makes the two of us. Restate your Promise.”

    Anam frowned, but he did so. “I Promise to keep you a secret for as long as you help me save the world!”

    The glowing brightened. Dark Matter said nothing, but the sky rumbled again. The red eye in the center of the shell pulsed anxiously. “So long as I help you, the secret will be kept. And once I stop, you become free to speak of me to the others. Is that your deal…? How… one-sided. Your naïve faith… Of course a Divine Dragon of Light would behave this way… Why should I be so confused? I accept.”

    The golden light blinded them both.

    Slowly, it all faded, and Anam dared to open his left eye. He saw Dark Matter there, as usual, floating, with his red sphere gleaming in his protective shell. “Where are my parents?”

    “With me.”

    “…Can I… see them?”

    “Not now. It would be… bothersome. But I will teach you how to summon them… and how to speak with them.”

    “Oh… You’ll teach me?”

    “I have to help you if you’re going to keep me a secret. That was the deal.”

    Anam bobbed his head. “But what about all my friends? If I can summon them, then…”

    “I will suppress their memories if you summon or revive them. It is not difficult since they are already under my control.”

    That seemed satisfying enough. With a happy bounce, Anam said, “How do I go back out?”

    “That should have happened a long time ago. Your spirit acclimated to the Ghost Orb and you should have woken up… but it seems that it was too much for your body. It must be sustained only by the Orb’s power and my own. You need to focus to wake up; I refuse to be trapped with you for eternity.”

    “Okay, focus…” Anam closed his eyes, trying to sense through this void where his body was. It wasn’t much of an instinct or a feeling so much as it just came to him; it wasn’t anywhere around him, not above or below, but afar. He found his body. “I think I see it.”

    “I feel it, too. And—We have visitors.”

    Anam felt it, too. The presence of two auras just at the edge of the pit he’d grabbed the Orb from. An Alakazam and a Chikorita. “Why are they here?”

    “The Chikorita feels fear and disgust. Your body must be an awful sight.”

    “And how about the Alakazam?” Anam asked. “Is he afraid? I should go and help them.”

    “…I feel… nothing… from the Alakazam.”

    “Nothing? Then he must be…” Anam gasped. “His soul must be pure! No negativity at all! That’s amazing! I’m totally gonna—”

    “No. A pure soul is impossible. His aura… was not forged in this world. Just like your mother… He is human. Or, perhaps… was human.”

    “So you can’t feel the negativity from people whose auras weren’t made in this world?”

    “…I do not know… That is only my theory.”

    “Another human… wow. What’s his name? I wanna greet him!”

    The darkness rumbled. “From Madeline’s memories… he is Michael.”

    “Michael. That reminds me of Papa’s name, in a way.”

    “They are human names. As I said… their culture permeates this world in the smallest traces. But perhaps he will go by a different name. It has been… too long, since he had been human in any way, according to Madeline.”

    “Well, I’ll wait for him to introduce himself.” Anam closed his eyes, golden light pouring from his head as well as his body a few feet away. Dark Matter shrank away from the light, grumbling something to himself. “And, Mister Matter…”

    “Is that my name, now?”

    “I just wanted to say… Thank you.”

    Dark Matter said nothing. The golden light that flowed out of Anam became too bright to look at; he shrouded his shell in a dark fog, but even then, the light cut through.

    “For helping me make the world a better place. And in return… I’ll find a way to make you happy.”

    And then the light stopped. Dark Matter remained in the void, left behind again, but not without the smallest hint of Anam’s essence left behind—the link they now shared. And from it, Dark Matter felt… something new, for an instant.

    “…Thank you…”
     
    Chibi Pika, git-it and Kindoflame like this.
  6. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 73 – Gather

    With so much that had happened, it was a miracle that they could clean up Quartz HQ at all. There was still a lot more to do. The walls of the fifth floor were still wrecked here and there, holes making new passageways into rooms, rendering the actual doorways useless. Blood coated parts of the halls on various other floors. Severed plants, rubble, and cooled molten rock littered the floor, and the air was filled with the lingering pressure of countless stressed mutants.

    What’s wrong? What’s wrong?

    I can’t see. Can’t see.

    Lavvie, open your eyes! I want to see!

    Lavender frowned, complying. His eyes trailed over the trembling mutants, still in shock from the battle. Next to Lavender was Lucas, no longer in his Mega form, looking skinny and frightened. He let out soft whines now and then, flinching to any form of contact. Lavender tried to ease him out of it, but he was inconsolable.

    Dad? How about Dad?

    Is Dad okay?

    He’s alive, right?

    Lavender let out a sound that was a mixture of a whine and a chirp. The chimeric Pokémon crouched down and paced toward Eon, bumping his beak against the other Espurr. “Dad?”

    Eon jumped, looking at Lavender, then back at Rim. She was still staring emptily forward, a bit of drool collecting at the corner of her mouth. Eon reached forward with a paw and cleaned some of it off; Rim didn’t respond. Was she getting worse? Her aura felt so weak. It was barely keeping itself together.

    “Rim…” Eon reached closer, rubbing under her chin. Her eyes remained open; Eon looked like he was in pain when he reached forward to close her eyelids. They didn’t reopen.

    “No,” Lavender whispered. “She’s… she’s still alive. I feel it.” He reached out to paw at her, but then stared at his own talons. He’d risk cutting through her fur if he got too rough. A simple scrape, the way she was… Rim was always delicate. Her barrier kept her safe, yet now…

    “She just n-needs some rest,” Eon said, nodding. “I… St-Star… Star did something bad to her, Lavender,” he explained. “B-but I’ll find a way to fix it. Always do. I’ll find a way. I’ll…”

    They all fell into silence; Lavender looked at the remaining mutants.

    Can we help?

    What can we do?

    Lavender, do something!

    Countless voices echoed in Lavender’s mind. He winced. Shh, shh, let me think… And the voices quieted down, though a few of them still seemed to mutter little concerns and ideas.

    “What happened to Owen, Dad?” a mutant asked—this one was a Raichu with the wings of a Mothim and the claws of a Sandslash. “He looked so…”

    “Star possessed him. And then she…” Eon shook his head, his body expanding and shifting from an Espurr to Owen’s mutant form, towering over all of them. He staggered back so he didn’t accidentally crush the comatose Espurr. “She must have planned to do that eventually. Using Owen to kill me. M-my own Owen… h-how could she—how could she—”

    “Dad,” Lavender said shakily.

    Eon took in a muted gasp, hiding his face from the others. “I—I’m sorry. You shouldn’t see me like this. I’m… I’m your father. We need to get through this together.”

    “But how?” Lavender asked. “Owen… he looked so angry… but why? Shouldn’t he be angry at Star, and not… you?”

    Eon clenched his jaws. A few of the mutants looked at one another with uncertainty, then back at their father.

    “Dad?” the mutant Raichu asked. “How come Owen’s mad at you, too?”

    Eon looked back at them, and then looked at his paws. “I… He doesn’t like what we’re doing with the Guardians. Taking their Orbs, I mean.”

    “But you said that it was to free them,” Raichu said.

    Lavender nodded. “It’s mean, but it’s even meaner that they have to stay like that, right?”

    “I…” Eon never completed his answer.

    “Dad…” Another mutant stepped forward, this one with the body of a Flareon, the fur of a Jolteon, and the fins of a Vaporeon. “Is he mad because we kill people?”

    Various mutants shifted uncomfortably.

    “When we black out, sometimes you say that something bad happened. We know what that means, Dad…”

    “N-nothing happens,” Eon said hastily.

    The mutants frowned. Lavender shrank away. “Dad’s been getting better at that. We don’t go berserk nearly as often, and… and now it’s usually only when he switches us to battle mode. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? Then you don’t have to actually… see it happen.”

    And once again, the audience found various parts of the hall to observe instead of their father.

    “Dad?” The Eevee-evolution fusion looked up. “When this is all over… Are you going to turn it off forever?”

    “Yes,” Eon said immediately. “Yes, with all my power. I… We just need to save the world from them. You’ve seen what they’re like. And…”

    “How come you need Owen for it?” Lavender asked. “And the rest of Team Alloy?”

    Eon ran a claw over Rim’s limp form, and then picked her up. “Owen… all of Team Alloy, but Owen most of all… we were partners. We worked together just like Rim and I a long time ago. It’s the sort of bond that… I don’t know how to replicate. It’s irreplaceable. And it’s tangible. It’s something that we could use to usurp them, give me the edge that…” Eon’s voice quickened, but then he slowed to a stop. “But… but he doesn’t remember that anymore. It’s gone.”

    “Because of how he was split apart?” Lavender asked.

    “No,” Eon said. “Well… some of that might be true. But the rest…” He shook his head. “It’s hidden behind that Divine Decree. He doesn’t remember. And I can’t tell you about it, either.”

    “If he remembered, do you think he’d partner up with you again?” Lavender asked. “If any of them did?”

    “I don’t know anymore,” Eon finally said, slumping over. “I wish that I could just say one magic word and Owen would suddenly remember everything, smile, and go by my side. Would be nice to have the power over wishes, huh? Maybe I’d be able to pull another miracle like the Reincarnation Machine all over again.”

    Lavender glanced at Rim, then at Eon. But when he did, there was something new in Eon’s eyes—they were wider.

    “Star possessed Owen,” Eon repeated. “What if… that also gave him Star’s blessing?”

    “Huh?” Lavender tilted his head.

    “What if that broke the Decree?”

    “Maybe?” He wasn’t sure how significant that was. Eon always thought it was important to break through that thing, but why did it matter here?

    Eon suddenly stood up. “If I had to know where Owen was, right now…” He paced around, letting a few other mutants inspect Rim, though he warned them to be gentle. “…He left for Brandon’s… but I don’t think he’ll stay there that long. I don’t know what he’ll tell him, but… But Owen will definitely want to go back to Hot Spot. It’s his… home. Even after all this. Maybe he’s heading there now? I… Does that make sense?”

    The mutants all stared blankly at him, including Lavender. None of them knew Owen the way Eon did.

    “I’m going to try. One last time, I want to see if he hears me.” He backed away from Rim, giving her one last look. “Please—take care of Rim, okay? I’ll be right back.”

    “Okay, but—what are you gonna tell Owen?” Lavender asked. “Try on me!” And you guys, try to listen, too. Maybe if we work really hard, we’ll hear him!

    The spirits within Lavender all agreed and listened with all their might.

    Eon hesitated, but then gave Lavender a small smile. “There are so many things and so many places that I’d want to talk to him about. But, to start… I’m going to ask Owen about Kanto.”

    Lavender’s head-crest fanned out, then relaxed. “Can you say that last part again?”

    I didn’t hear it.

    Me neither.

    I think I did, but I forgot.

    Eon shook his head. “I need to go. Take care of Rim, okay?”

    The Ditto, still as a mutant Charizard, sped through the halls, using generated updraft to glide the turns with ease. Everyone’s attention then turned to Rim. The Meganium from the battle earlier nuzzled Rim with concern. “Her aura’s getting so weak…”

    “What can we do?”

    “How… how weak is it?” Lavender asked, leaning closer. He nudged Rim; no response. She used to react at least slightly, but now, it was like she was completely asleep. She was barely breathing. “N-no, don’t answer. I… she’s…”

    She’s dying.

    She’s fading.

    What do we do?

    We have to do something.

    Lavender, do something!

    You can save her, right?

    Do something!

    Do something!

    Lavender shook his head, trembling. Quiet, quiet, please, I… I can’t hold you all in if you get so…

    The spirits settled back down again.

    Lavender nuzzled Rim closer, feeling her weak breaths against his feathers. She wouldn’t last before Eon got back, would she? And if he came back without Owen, and then Rim was gone, too…

    Can’t we do anything?

    Anything?

    Lavender listened to Rim’s heart. It was beating, but… That wasn’t the problem. It was her aura. He couldn’t feel it. Soon, her spirit would slip away, and…

    Her… spirit.

    Lavender glanced at all the other mutants, then at Rim again. Then back at the mutants. “I can save her.”

    They all perked up. “How? What will you do?”

    “I’ll save her the same way you guys get saved. Do you guys trust me?”

    The mutants nodded unquestioningly. Lavender was one of their strongest and smartest mutants—even if he was a little different, with all of the friends inside of him.

    A few mutants realized what Lavender was about to do and beamed. Lavender beamed back, turned to Rim, and gently wrapped his beak around her chest. He closed his eyes, searching for her essence… There it was. That flickering, golden light within her aura, weak as it was…

    He breathed in. Rim’s body breathed out. And then, it lay still. A new warmth to accompany all the others flowed into him, caressed by the countless other spirits that tried to talk to Rim. They got weak, confused replies from her.

    La… ven…der…?

    It’s okay, Auntie. You’re safe now.

    What’s… where… so warm…

    Just rest, Auntie. I know what to do. I’ve done it all the time! I’m gonna Reincarnate you, okay?

    He sensed apprehension from Rim then, but she also seemed too tired to question it. She was already sinking into the cozy warmth inside his being. Just… be careful…

    I will.

    He was already bounding through the halls. He whispered “ten” to the wall, then spun around and down the new halls. Into the lab, he found the nearest empty Reincarnation chamber, staring at the clear glass. He pressed a button and the machine lit up. He read the interface, squinting at the small screen in the center, and pressed his talon on the start button.

    Two words appeared on the screen: ‘Insert spirit.’

    Lavender looked at the apparatus to the side that opened up, glowing slightly with something that resembled a Protect barrier. He sifted through his spirits until he could find Rim’s, leaning forward for a gentle breath. A single, golden orb floated out and into the tiny Protect sphere, which snapped shut before Rim’s spirit could fade. The sphere sank into the machine; shortly after, he saw the spirit at the top of the cylinder. He smiled, nodding, and looked at the interface again.

    ‘Provide body specifications.’

    Lavender typed in “Rim” and confirmed. His tail-fin wagged with anticipation; he looked up at the spirit again, and then back at the screen in time to see the confirmation page disappear. “Good!” Lavender said, already seeing artificial aura channel and coat the spirit, and then the cylinder itself filling with a thick fluid.

    Satisfied, Lavender pressed his forehead softly against the cylinder and backed away. Feeling cheerful, he shifted to his Scolipede form and rolled back down the halls to tell the others the good news.

    <><><> ​

    “Good. Then everything is in order.”

    Mobilizing an entire mutant bug army was more work than Har could have anticipated. Sure, the spirits were easy enough—they could go in the Bug Orb and forget about it. But the actual, living mutants? Har grumbled, rubbing his forehead. He needed a break. After what felt like half the day of nothing but walking and coordinating, he wanted to curl up and nap.

    His room within Trina’s abode was coated in Rawst leaves, lined with books. Well, it used to be; they had packed most of it away to go to Hot Spot. That would be another worrisome change, but… maybe it was for the better? His annoyingly cheerful, ‘complete’ counterpart, even with his inferior body, was at least tolerable. But the way Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were toward one another was going to be an aching needle in his brain any time he looked at the erased versions that he lived with. The ones he called his partners.

    Trina was coming; he sensed her from two turns down in the labyrinth. She seemed to be carrying something with her vines; scarves? Har wasn’t all that interested in fashion statements… Maybe they were for someone else. He sat up, straightening his back to look as formal as possible.

    The Serperior nodded at Har as her first action, and Har nodded back. “I trust you are doing well?”

    “Yeah.”

    “I wanted to give you something.”

    “Oh, that’s for me?”

    “In a sense.” Trina handed them over; each one was a pale green color and radiated Mystic energy. He felt it upon contact, like a dull pressure all around his scales.

    “What’s… what do they do? I get the feeling these aren’t just normal scarves.”

    “This is something that will be a bit stronger than the average Scarf. It’ll only work once… but I have three of them. And they only activate under a specific circumstance.”

    Three scarves… Har tensed his jaw, not wanting to ask another question. He took them wordlessly and returned to his nest. “Well, thanks.”

    “I’m assuming you know what they’ll do?”

    Har growled, tracing a claw along the soft fabric. Three scarves, and after what had happened with Team Alloy, and Trina’s little remarks about how meeting them would be good for him…

    “It’ll return their memories,” Har said, unable to suppress a snarl. “They wanted them gone. I don’t see why you should give them back. That’s not fair.”

    “Mystics can only seal memories, not erase them,” Trina said, shaking her head. “They are never truly gone. That’s something fundamental, according to Star: the persistence of memories in the spirit. Nobody, not even a god, can change that.”

    “Well, they said they wanted to keep it away. I figure it’d only be fair to honor that for as long as possible, huh?” Smoke trailed out of Har’s nostrils, ready to blast the three scarves into piles of ash.

    Trina stared, expressionless. She was daring him. Daring him to destroy the scarves in front of her—or at all. She suddenly felt a lot larger. Har shrank back, the flame on his tail dimming. The smoke cleared. He balled up the scarves and set them by his bed. “They don’t even know they have them.”

    “I told them from the outset that it was temporary until they could find new identities. I advised against it, but I’m not one to deny my subjects something they truly desired. And perhaps it did delay their grief. But, Har… even if the memories that had been sealed away are incomplete, it was the basis of who they were. By sealing that away, I’ve observed that we may have… stunted them. You have already grown to be someone completely unlike Owen. But now you only want to see your old Team Alloy back to normal.”

    “No.” Har narrowed his eyes. “I wanted them to be happy. I don’t care how.”

    Trina closed her eyes and turned her head down, breathing through her nostrils. “When you’re ready, Har, I have put that power to you. I trust that you will at least tell them the truth. I believe, after seeing their copies, they are ready to make that choice, and they are ready to accept their full identities and retain who they are now.”

    The Charizard said nothing. His eyes were fixed on the scarves; he knew he couldn’t destroy them. It would betray the trust that Trina had given him and, more importantly… it would put him in an unjust control over the rest of his team.

    “I trust that you won’t misplace them,” she said. “Conferring blessings is incredibly difficult. I don’t know why it is such an easy thing for Anam to do, or how your counterpart did it without any practice. Perhaps it is some kind of specialty in their Mystic powers. But I won’t be able to replace them.”

    “Okay, then how long do I have?” Har asked in a growl.

    “The power will fade by tomorrow.”

    Har jolted upright, but Trina was already slithering out. He squeezed his claws over the scarves, piercing the fabric with tiny holes. “Why couldn’t you have just given me time to decide for myself?”

    “This is what they wanted long ago. It has nothing to do with you. Now, I’ll be going to speak with Owen and the others in Hot Spot to make final arrangements for our arrival. Everybody will be gathered in the central chamber for our migration. I shall return with another Badge’s power and guide us all there under the cover of night.”

    Her voice faded as she turned down the next corner of the labyrinth of silk.

    Har sat in the middle of his room, staring at the scarves again. “Guys…” He didn’t know what it would do to them.

    Ani, Ax, and Lygo. Would he lose them? Or… would he have them back?

    <><><> ​

    Where was Owen when they needed him?! The sky was falling! Or—or what, what was it doing? It seemed to be growing a huge vortex right above Hot Spot. Demitri didn’t know the first thing about vortexes or rips in reality or any of this Mystic junk beyond fleeting thoughts from Mispy, who had gotten them from Owen. Secondhand-secondhand thoughts. Double-secondhand. Thirdhand?

    Demitri took a shaking step back, eyes wide and pupils narrow. It was darker than the evening sky. There was blackness, and then a purplish outline, and then… it was like going blind. Complete absence of light. He felt as if he couldn’t look at it for long without getting swallowed completely by it.

    Vines wrapped around his torso, anchoring him back to reality. He looked at Mispy, her eyes just as wide, saying everything that she physically couldn’t. Without a clue what to think of it themselves, they turned their attention to the other two—the Elite and the leader himself. “Nevren? What’s happening?” Demitri said. “P-please, you gotta know!”

    Nevren wasn’t looking at the sky. Instead, he was looking at Anam, who was still digging into his own skull with his slimy claws. Black ooze seeped out of the Goodra’s eyes and head wherever the claws pierced. What was happening to Anam? Did it have anything to do with the strange void over them?

    “P-please… stop…” Anam said, but then his head sank into the ground, becoming nothing but a purple, bubbling puddle flecked with black.

    A different voice came from the puddle. “You were wrong… accept it.”

    Demitri exchanged a look with Mispy, but they were equally confused. That wasn’t Anam’s voice. It was… what was it? It sounded like all of the spirits inside of Anam were talking at once, through him. How was that even possible? Where was it coming from, or was it… just there?

    Why couldn’t he go back to being ignorant and blissful? He longed for the days when he was resting with Mispy—Axew and Chikorita, sparring against boulders and trees and each other. Little Heart missions to rescue a Pokémon in need, or arrest some outlaw in trouble. Sure, he didn’t have his memories back then, but did that matter?

    Okay, maybe it did. He glanced at Mispy, then back at Anam’s puddle. “Should—should we get the others?” Demitri asked, defaulting to seeing if someone else could do something—anything—to help Anam.

    The void above them let out a low rumble, like deep, distant thunder. It shook Demitri’s chest, leaving him to shake his head. “That felt crazy… Mispy?”

    She had crumpled over, eyes wide, like she had been punched in the gut. The wind had completely left her. To his right, Nevren had staggered back, holding his chest as well, before his breath returned to him.

    Anam’s body was a lot darker. “No… It’s… it’s not too late…”

    “Nevren… You used your power… and used Anam… to create the Waypoints. You designed all of the technology. You gave Anam what he called hope…” The Goodra stood up, his entire upper half infested with inky blank sludge. It seeped into his lower half like dye in water. “Yet it was all to weaken his mind. All to control him. All to betray him.”

    Nevren blinked several times, looking at Demitri and Mispy.

    “I was right all along. No matter how much good Anam does for you all… It means nothing. People like you… will undo it all.”

    “N-Nevren?” Demitri asked. “What’s Anam—what’s that voice talking about?”

    “Nothing. Something within Anam is out of control. Go and get the others, quickly. We need a means to subdue—”

    Nevren suddenly turned toward Anam and held his hand forward. A transparent barrier formed, flashing when Anam abruptly got to his feet and slammed his body against it. A single, red eye glimmered in the faceless Goodra’s head. Despite having no mouth, the Goodra spoke, its red eye flashing. “This world…” He raised a shadow-infused fist. “Anam failed to save it.” The shadows intensified; Nevren launched a precise Psychic blast at the fist, knocking it clean off. It flew behind them, splattering in a pile in the grass, which instantly withered away.

    But the shadows remained on the stump at the end of Anam’s arm. The fist didn’t matter anymore. “Now,” the voices said, “it is my turn.”

    He slammed down onto the barrier, shattering it effortlessly. Nevren immediately jumped away and shouted to Demitri and Mispy, “Into Hot Spot! Now!

    He shut his eyes and disappeared in a flash of light.

    Demitri stepped back next, followed by Mispy trying to slide into the caverns, but they were both too slow. Even Anam, now that he was back on his feet, outpaced them. Black fog seeped from his body in black boils like the gaseous pits of hot mud.

    “M-Mispy—” Demitri turned around to run, but Anam opened his mouth and fired a beam of blackness at the Haxorus’ back.

    He wailed, the blast splashing in all directions, but the impact site was left blackened, exposing bare skin beneath his tough scales. Mispy wrapped her vines around him, pulling him close, but they didn’t have time to fuse. Demitri couldn’t concentrate enough to do it safely—what would happen if they did it under so much stress? He pushed away from her; Anam was charging up another blast.

    “No!” Mispy lunged forward and wrapped a layer of herself around Anam’s head. A shadowy explosion expanded the plant wrapping, leaving huge patches of rot that seeped into the outside. Mispy winced.

    “M-Mispy? Does it… hurt?” Since when could Mispy feel pain in this form? Her body didn’t register that sort of thing. Unless… it wasn’t hurting her body.

    “Y-yes,” Mispy said, blinking back tears.

    They had to get it away from them. They needed time to warn the others before Anam killed them all—or whatever it was that took control of him. That wasn’t Anam—that was… Demitri, hyperventilating, could barely think straight at the sight of Mispy actually in pain. He hadn’t seen that since she was a Chikorita.

    What would Owen have done in this situation? He always had some way out of things, didn’t he? He was supposed to be the one to strategize or give solid advice.

    Having no idea what else to do, Mispy wrapped more vines around Anam, even as the current ones started to blacken and fall away at the tips.

    Demitri tried to think back to the last time they had fought together. Their fight against their counterparts—what did they do then? Did any of that apply here?

    More and more of Mispy wrapped around Anam, sealing him away, while her main body shrank back. She curled her neck down, sniffling—clearly no longer used to pain in general, let alone at this magnitude. “Mispy!” Demitri wanted to run toward her, hug her, find some way to comfort her while they bought more time—Nevren would be warning them, right?—but until then, he couldn’t see her suffer. He wanted to comfort her, pick her up, take her to—

    Pick her up…

    Demitri’s arms twitched and his claws clenched. He glanced at Anam. He was completely wrapped up in vines by now, like a grotesque cocoon of plant and rot. Every so often, it expanded with a shadowy explosion, but Mispy diligently sealed him with another layer each time. She looked like she was about to throw up with how her eyes bulged with every explosion.

    Demitri grasped at one of his tusks and pulled it free. “Sorry, Mispy!” He raised the blade and swung it down on the first vine, but that wasn’t his true aim. While that slash was indeed enough to cut through it like butter, the shockwave that followed from his desperate strike expanded the cut to all the other vines, and then into the ground beside them in a straight-lined fissure.

    Demitri dropped his blade and lunged for the cocoon, wrapping his arms for whatever sort of grip he could possibly find. Then, he curled his neck around to get it over his back, crouched down, and, with all his strength, hurled Anam with the power of his entire upper body. For good measure, he used the back of his head and neck to lob the cocoon even further.

    His claws throbbed with a dull pain. He looked at them to see what was wrong, but regretted it when he did. They looked like they had gone through a thousand years of sun, brittle and chipped away on all sides. Clicking them together, he feared, would make them fall off.

    “H-how does m-my neck look, Mispy?” Demitri squeaked, not wanting to know what touching the cocoon had done to it. There was a dull pain there, too. And it was starting to feel worse.

    He tried to focus on how far he had thrown Anam instead. He was a little, black dot, still flying through the air until he landed hard on the prairies. It was about six Gahi-seconds away—more than enough time to try to get everybody out of Hot Spot if they hurried. They could warp to Kilo Village!

    He finally turned around to see how Mispy was doing. The mutant Meganium looked a lot smaller than usual, most of her body—that is, her vines—cut away. But her tears had stopped; Demitri cutting them off actually relieved the pain, rather than worsened it. He had hoped as much; his slashes didn’t cut into her the way Anam’s strange attacks did.

    “Let’s go inside,” Demitri said, but then felt lightheaded. He retched, reflexively bringing his claws to his mouth to hold down his bile, but when he did, one of his claws fell off. “Wh-what…”

    Mispy wrapped what little was left of her around him and urged, “Inside.”

    “O-okay… okay…”

    But before they had the chance to go in, Mispy turned her head to look up, vaguely in the same direction Demitri had thrown Anam, but further south. “Gahi?”

    Demitri heard it, too. It sounded slightly like the singing of his wings, but there was something different about them. It sounded more like metallic wind chimes. In the dark, it was hard to see anything, but they could at least see the silhouette of a Flygon heading toward them—or was it a Flygon? It seemed too dark, and, even stranger, there were dots of white all along it, like stars. But the stars weren’t part of the sky—they moved below the clouds.

    The starry Flygon landed in front of them earlier than expected, several feet away from them at first, and then right on the ground a blink later. Demitri yelped, stumbling onto Mispy.

    “What’s going on?!” the Flygon shouted. “The whole freaking sky’s tearing open!”

    “In! In!” Mispy pulled Demitri back. Gahi followed after, hiding inside Hot Spot the moment the void in the sky thundered.

    Gahi’s wings folded to their sides; he clutched his abdomen and crumpled over, groaning. “What… what was that…?”

    Mispy had to stop to catch her breath. Demitri’s vision had gone into a dark tunnel; he could only focus on Mispy’s vines that were wrapped around his arm, guiding him forward. He heard muffled noises of the others, who seemed to be in similar strained positions.

    “What’s going on…?” Demitri wheezed, finally able to see something flickering in his darkened vision. It looked like a flame. “Owen? Is that—”

    “Yeah, it’s me,” Owen said, and then Demitri felt a warm presence in front of him. “Demitri, eat this.”

    Without thinking, Demitri opened his mouth and downed an Oran Berry. Warmth spread through him, followed by a soft light, and then some of his vision returned. He sighed in relief; the pain in his claws and back had faded significantly, too. Just a weak throb, now.

    “Thanks, Owen,” Demitri said, looking to see that Mispy was feeling more revitalized, too. Though her vines didn’t grow back, her main body looked much better after two Orans.

    “What happened?” Owen asked. “And why is—”

    Another thunderous boom shook the caves; Enet wailed and crawled out from Jerry’s abode and hid near Owen in a tight, furry ball. Owen jumped and leaned forward, growling soothingly at the feral Zoroark.

    “The sky’s falling!” Demitri blurted, motioning to the ceiling as if he could point at the sky from there. “There’s a huge hole in the—no, worse, Anam’s gone NUTS!”

    Mispy straightened and flashed a glare at Nevren. “Anam said…”

    Demitri glanced at Mispy, then at Nevren. That’s right—Anam was saying something about Nevren being the one who betrayed him. But how, and why? He didn’t know who that voice was—but it seemed like Nevren wasn’t denying it. Demitri leaned against Mispy, her vines wrapping around him in response, and he said, “Nevren, what did Anam mean? He said that you… betrayed him. Is that why he’s gone crazy? How come he—” Demitri held up his claws, realizing that they were still trembling. “His Ghost powers or something…”

    “I don’t know what Anam is speaking of,” Nevren replied. “There is a strange entity in the Ghost Orb that is making him behave this way. I suggest we come together and fight it off so Anam can regain—”

    “Wait, hold on,” Manny said, raising his voice. “What do you mean, the Ghost Orb’s going nuts? Those spirits should be fine with Anam, right? That’s, like, how spirits work!”

    Demitri squinted. “Manny? Where’d your accent go?”

    “Oh, uh—I’m actually Star right now,” the Lucario explained. “L-long story. I—”

    “Oy, oy, hang on fer a hot second,” Gahi said with a snarl. “First you take over Owen, and then you think I’m just gonna let yeh slide with takin’ over Manny next?! Get outta him er I’m gonna—”

    “No, no, he’s fine with it, I promise!” Star held her arms forward, waving her paws frantically.

    “Oh, sure, like I’ll believe you, body-thief!” Gahi made a motion to stomp on the ground, but Mispy knocked one of her vines on Gahi’s cheek. “Yow!”

    Mispy pointed with another, rotting vine behind her.

    “Not right now, Gahi,” Demitri translated for Mispy. “We’re—Anam’s… We need to focus on that right now.”

    Gahi growled, fists clenched tight. The cosmic Flygon snorted out a plume of white stardust and conceded, though not without glaring at Star. “Fine.”

    Mispy blinked, nudging Demitri again. The Haxorus glanced at her, then followed where Mispy had been staring. From there, the others did, too, looking deeper into Hot Spot.

    Heads turned to Rhys’ home to see the lithe Lucario staggering out. While his body seemed to be perfectly fine, he was fatigued that he had to lean against Elder to stay standing.

    Demitri pulled away from Mispy, but she followed him anyway. “Rhys!” Demitri shouted, tempted to dive to save Rhys from his collapse. Instead, Mispy held him up on the other side.

    “His aura…” Mispy shook her head.

    “I’ll be fine, I—I’m just tired. I had a difficult fight against wraiths. They—they sapped my aura. I was caught off guard… used too much energy in the spirit realm. I’ll be fine, but Nevren…” He pointed at him. “I don’t know how, but you did this. The wraiths, Anam, the Dungeon in Hot Spot—it’s all connected, and you’re behind it.”

    “Rhys, be careful of what you’re saying,” Nevren said. “You have no proof. I am just as surprised by these developments as you—”

    “You turned Anam into your puppet, unleashing some kind of—some kind of evil that he’s been keeping under control,” Rhys said. “I felt it in his aura. When you ordered him to strike me down, and when he rebelled against you, I felt it. A dark… dark aura, like I was going blind simply seeing it. It was so overwhelming that I couldn’t see anything else, and…”

    Rhys nearly fell forward again. Mispy channeled energy into Rhys—of what she had, at least—and propped him up more.

    “Rhys, please,” Elder begged. “Don’t strain yourself. Rest, rest…”

    “I cannot rest while Anam is rampaging,” Rhys hissed, “all because of Nevren destabilizing whatever control Anam must have had—I’m sure of it. Nevren! You—you TRAITOR!”

    “Rhys, now is not the time for—”

    “Wait, hold on, hold on,” Star said, holding her paws up. By now, everyone had gathered to see what the commotion was. Jerry glared at Step, but then growled when Willow hopped onto his head. ADAM buzzed with anxiety and spun his head around several times. Zena curled closer to Owen, whispering something to him. At the same time, Enet was growling at the air, which earned a similar, perplexed growl from Owen. Valle remained where he stood.

    “Excuse me,” someone called; a Serperior slithered toward them, looking puzzled at the social chaos. “Why is everyone here?”

    “Hi, Trina,” Star said with a wave. “Sorry, we’re busy trying to sort something out. Nevren here, he’s—”

    “As if you’re one to talk,” Zena immediately said, growling at Star. “You stole Owen’s body! If anybody here is a traitor, it’s you!”

    Star’s eyes widened as far as they could go, shockwaves of Fighting energy radiating off of Manny’s body. She spoke slowly, but loudly, “I was trying to HELP!”

    “Your idea of help is—”

    Demitri finally found his voice. “GUYS!” But it was so loud that it startled that Haxorus himself, making him cover his mouth. But it did its job; all heads turned to him, and a few of them winced, including Owen and Enet.

    Mispy prodded Demitri to keep going, using another vine to wrap around his shoulders, gripping firmly.

    That was the push he needed. “Can we argue later? This is pointless! Anam—he’s still going crazy, and I only threw him so far. If we take too long, he’s gonna come right back and…”

    Star dug her claws into her head’s fur. “Why is Anam even going nuts?! He didn’t have anything to do with this!”

    “Maybe all of your scheming made him upset,” Zena said.

    “REALLY?” Star hissed.

    “It was Nevren who destabilized Anam by turning him into a puppet,” Rhys hissed.

    “St-stop arguing…” Mispy’s voice was too soft over the rest of the bickering. “St… st…”

    Demitri clenched his jaw. She was trying so hard to talk, but the stress of everything was bringing back her stutter. He held her shoulder, but couldn’t find an opening to keep them from focusing on each other. No—they had a common enemy. He had to remind them. “Guys?! Anam?!” Demitri waved his arms, catching some of their attention.

    “Is this really the time?” Nevren reinforced, motioning toward the entrance. “We can discuss my alleged treason later. Perhaps we should all focus on—”

    “Owen!” Eon shouted from the entrance to Hot Spot, rushing in as an identical Charizard. “Owen, I know it seems bad, but—”

    “OH, AND NOW HE’S HERE!” Star roared, slamming her paws against her eyes.

    “W-wait, wait!” Eon motioned frantically behind him. “Before I came in here, I saw Anam—he’s—we need to get out, now! I think the wraiths—”

    “Too late.”

    With black flames covering his whole body, Eon flew limply across the room.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2020
    Chibi Pika and Kindoflame like this.
  7. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 74 – Collapse

    Feral Kricketune punctuated the air, deafening Spice. She tried to ignore it, but Milli Town was right next to a whole nest of them. Small buildings made of clay and stone dotted a lumpy field of grass. To the left, a forest blackened by day’s end sang the first few notes of its nighttime tune. To the right, boisterous singing and dancing to drums and strings rang out in friendly competition with the wild chirping.

    “Ohh, I can’t thank you enough for taking on this job.”

    Next to Spice was an elderly Mamoswine. She seemed to be enjoying the cool, outdoor air of nighttime; perhaps it was her Ice attributes. Mamoswine’s eyes followed Spice’s hands with each deft motion. In front of the Salazzle was an assortment of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats sourced from all over Kilo. Spice had gone all over the place to gather them, though she was grateful for it. This town needed it after everything they had gone through.

    “It’s the least I could do,” Spice said. “I just had to take my mind off of things, anyway.”

    “Oh, because of that attack on Kilo Village? That must have been frightening. Oh, miss Spice, could you cut that one up a bit more? The chunks are a bit large.”

    Spice obeyed, taking some of the sliced Orans to more finely chop. Her eyes trailed left to a dim glow in the corner of her vision. “Leo, wake up.”

    “Buh—huh? What?” The Delphox’s hand was hovering limply over a boiling pot of stew, keeping it cooked to a simmer. The chilling wind would cool the stew a bit more than necessary, but Leo’s fire more than made up for it. “I’m awake.”

    Spice sighed, shaking her head. “Why don’t you just take a nap for now? You really shouldn’t have come with me.”

    “I’m just—” Leo suddenly yawned, nearly dipping his hand into the stew. “I’m just worried about you, Spice. You haven’t slept in days.”

    Mamoswine gasped, turning her huge body to address the Salazzle directly. Spice narrowly ducked to avoid one of her tusks. “Days? Goodness, you could have fooled me.”

    “Yes, yes, days, but it’s nothing to worry about. I feel perfectly fine. When I’m tired, I’m tired.” Spice had to admit—though not aloud—that the fact that she wasn’t even slightly tired was starting to worry her. Was something wrong with her head? Did something just snap? Or was someone slipping Chesto Berries in everything she ate? Not that they worked well on her, but pack enough into something…

    What was more worrying was that Spice not only felt fine—she felt amazing. Energized. Like she could take on the world! And after the day’s events of half of Kilo village being flooded with snow, living ice-sculpture family under an Aggron matriarch… and then Jerry. Spice rolled her eyes. Jerry. How he got involved with their ilk… She should ask him next time. They were in such a rush to go back to his new home that they’d left her in the dust, all because of that Zygarde.

    Zygarde! Since when did he exist? She had been sure it was just a myth. Legends in general were just that—legends. They never really existed. But then not only had she met one, but Jerry spoke with Mew? After the crowd he came with, maybe he was telling the truth…

    She had brushed it off as one of his insane ramblings, but in hindsight, it felt different.

    “Spice, wake up.”

    Spice straightened, flicking her tail irritably. “I’m awake. I was just thinking.”

    “About Jerry?”

    Spice paused for a split-second too long. “No, about Kilo Village.”

    “Mhm.” Leo yawned again, backing away from the stew. “This batch is ready. I’ll carry it over to the party.”

    “You do that,” Spice said, suddenly aware of the Kricketune again. Seconds later, they all stopped chirping.

    Spice’s heart skipped a beat; Mamoswine shifted her weight. “Ooh. They aren’t singing. That’s… ominous…”

    Then, they heard thunder, yet the skies were clear all around them. Or was it thunder? It lasted for too long, like the aether itself was growling at them. Spice’s heart fluttered again.

    They were currently in the far east of Kilo, and the explosion felt like it came from the north of Kilo Village. Spice wasn’t sure why she knew that—everybody else had been looking around in random directions for the source, but her eyes turned northwest. “What was…”

    She narrowed her pupils, focusing on the distant sky. It was too dark to see, perhaps too far away… but something was there.

    Several lights went out, Luminous Orbs embedded in walls and ceilings all snuffed out in an instant. Pokémon shrieked in surprise—the party in the community hut switched from laughter and singing to groans and annoyed grunts. A Gardevoir near the middle of the crowd raised her hands, forming a sphere of light. The Flash helped illuminate the houses, as did a few other Pokémon with the same technique.

    “What’s going on?” Mamoswine asked. “Did someone use a Jammer?”

    “They better not have,” Spice growled. The last time she had to deal with one of those was with Jerry, and last she checked, they had confiscated his. “Come on, we need to investigate what’s going on. Sorry, but we’re going to have to cut short this little service.”

    “Not a problem,” Mamoswine said. “Please, get back to us as soon as you can if you find out anything.”

    Spice nodded. “Leo!”

    The darkness had made Leo nearly fall asleep. The Delphox jolted awake. “H-huh? What?”

    “We’re heading back to Kilo Village.” She headed down the road, pulling Leo along to keep up the pace. “I’ll drop you off at home so you can sleep, and then I’m gonna keep investigating what’s going on.”

    “You’re still not—” Leo interrupted himself with a yawn.

    “No, not tired at all. So I’m gonna take full advantage of it until I crash.”

    “Keep this up and I’ll just have to get someone to Sleep Powder you,” Leo mused.

    She hadn’t considered that. Still, now that something was actually happening, she’d rather be awake. “Maybe later.”

    They walked over to the edge of town. Leo held up his hands and created a small flame to illuminate the way forward. “Oh, there it is,” he said, pointing at the Waypoint on the ground ahead.

    “Great. Let’s—”

    A shriek echoed from the left, deeper in the forest.

    “Oh, what now?!” Spice reflexively slipped a hand into her bag, drawing out a few iron spikes.

    Leo bumbled after her, but she motioned quickly. “Stay behind me, Leo.”

    “Okay, okay.”

    She weaved into the forest, stepping carefully over a few small rocks. Slipping into a bush, she heard another shriek further ahead. It was too dark to see easily, but the steps were from a heavier Pokémon. Then came a grinding of some kind. She only knew that kind of sound came from a large, serpentine creature going over twigs and roots.

    She readied one of her poison-laced spikes. The fleeing Pokémon ran past her; the grinding was getting a lot closer. And the sound of hissing, a feral growl punctuating it.

    Something moved in front of her. She burst out of the bushes, slamming her spike down on the incoming aggressor. It shrieked and slammed into Spice, a beak cutting into her arm. She grunted in reply and blasted the thing with a jet of fire. It let go and slithered past her, but in the fire, she saw what it was. It had the face of a Malamar, but it was longer—serpentine. A mutant running wild.

    “Wh—Leo!”

    Leo, too startled to react, misfired a Psychic blast. It did nothing to the serpent, but it twisted the branches and rocks around in a rapid cork-screw. He staggered away and fired a jet of flames from his hands next, completely missing. Instead, he hit Spice, who had to shield herself. She hissed at the intense burn, but it was nothing compared to the holler that came from Leo.

    When she lowered her arms, the Malamar mutant turned in the opposite direction and fled deeper into the forest. Leo was crumpled on the ground; residual dark energy mingled with scattered embers, and Spice knew instantly what had happened. It had landed a Night Slash on Leo—on the side. Blood was already seeping through his deep fur; she couldn’t tell how bad the cut was, but in Leo’s state, that didn’t matter.

    “Come on, Leo,” Spice said, fishing through his bag. Her own didn’t have the healing supplies necessary—they were for her. While her arms were still tingling from the burn, it was nothing compared to the Delphox’s wounds. She pulled out an Oran Berry from his supplies. “Here, Leo, open up.”

    He eagerly chomped down, swallowing in big gulps. He grunted, panting a few more times.

    “Slowly, idiot, slowly.”

    A few more bites and it was down, but that sickening, golden light that usually followed never came. Leo kept panting, clutching his wound. “Why isn’t it going away?” he wheezed. “It—I still feel it. I don’t…”

    “H-hang on, maybe it was—I don’t know.” Not knowing how else to react, she grabbed another Oran and shoved it into Leo’s mouth, not even asking this time. He grumbled through his chewing, trying to stand up at the same time, but Spice had none of it. His wounds weren’t closing—why weren’t they closing?! Two Orans weren’t enough? That had just been a basic Night Slash.

    He needed a Heal Pulse, and from someone strong. Thankfully, there was a Waypoint just out of town. “Hang on, Leo. I’m gonna carry you back, alright?”

    “Urgh…” Leo lifted his hand, staring at his bloodied fur. “Why isn’t it…”

    “I don’t know. We just need to go.”

    After a short walk, with a mercifully quiet town with the inhabitants trying to sort out the sudden drop of all Orb technology, Spice hopped onto the Waypoint. She closed her eyes—the warps always disoriented her when she wasn’t careful.

    “…Spice?” Leo groaned.

    “What?” Spice looked back, but then realized that they were still at the village. Then, more bewildered this time, “What?”

    She stepped off of the Waypoint. Back on. Nothing. Off, then on again. Nothing.

    “It’s… it’s broken.” The Salazzle stared at the horizon, so far away that they couldn’t even properly see Kilo Mountain.

    “What do you mean?” Leo winced, trying to readjust his wounded side.

    Spice stepped off of the tile, staring incredulously at it. Like it was impossible. Because it was impossible. This had never happened, not once in all her life since the Waypoints had been introduced to the south. Yet, there it was, right in front of her.

    “The Waypoints are broken.”

    <><><> ​

    “Other Owen’s hurt!” Enet shouted.

    After all the power that Eon had demonstrated before, and the fight he tried to put up against Star, Owen didn’t expect to see him so easily hurt by Anam’s shadowy blast. Yet there he was, spinning across the ground in the remnants of one of Anam’s strange techniques.

    Nevren took a step back and looked at his lucky charm again. A dim gray colored its center. Rhys, meanwhile, stumbled over himself trying to get to Eon.

    “We have to get out of here. We can’t fight Anam like this!” Demitri shouted.

    Mispy still ached from her last attempt at holding Anam off. It was a dull pain, but the fact that she felt any kind of pain at all…

    “What’s wrong with him?” Zena whispered to Owen, but the Charizard only shook his head. He dug through his bag in an attempt to find his Badge. Fighting in Hot Spot after all that had happened was going to only cause more trouble. Anam had the advantage in the chaos; he didn’t have to worry about friendly fire or ruining the caverns. They just had to find a way to get out.

    “Let’s just go.” Owen found his Badge and flashed it at the others, who got the signal. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were quick to grab their own; they weren’t sure which Badges had a charge and which ones didn’t, but each Heart had one. As long as some of them were operational, they would be able to escape, right?

    They had to at least try.

    Anam fired another beam of shadows toward the congregation, but this time Owen was quick to react. He leapt in front of everyone else and crossed his arms; the shield of golden light worked the same as it always did, dispelling the shadows completely.

    To counter, Willow fired a ball of shrinking mist toward Anam, but it evaporated in an oppressive atmosphere before it could even reach him.

    “I don’t get it—what’s going on? Why is Anam—” Star winced, holding up the barrier again. “He sounds like—l-like…”

    “You know who I am.”

    Star’s blood ran cold and her wide eyes darted to the others. “We need to run! NOW!” Panicking, she fired an Aura Sphere toward Anam, but his Ghostly aura absorbed it.

    Owen blindly fired a wad of flames at Anam. “We’ll go to Kilo and buy us more time. Everyone! Come close!” he shouted. “Behind me!”

    Rhys fished around for his Badge, panicking when he realized that it was missing.

    “Oh—sorry,” Zena said, revealing Rhys’ Badge in her ribbons. “I used it.”

    “I also used one of yours,” Trina said. “It may not do much.” She then shoved her vines into the ground; just ahead of Anam, a flurry of silken webs covered the entryway. The fact that he was so slow to charge his attacks and approach was their only saving grace.

    “H-hopefully three is enough?” Owen said, but that just made everyone gather up closer.

    “Hurry, Owen!” Enet growled at him.

    “Okay, okay,” Owen said, which earned an odd look from Enet.

    “Owen, focus,” Zena said urgently. “You don’t need to growl at Enet right now, she’s just stressed.”

    “Growl? What do you—” Owen shook his head. Not the time. He held his Badge in the air and closed his eyes.

    He still heard everyone’s worried mumblings and the sound of Anam blasting through the thick wall of silk. It was already dissolving into black sludge. Zena fired a cone of water at Anam from the other side; Step followed up with a beam of ice, freezing the water in place as a solid wall.

    Owen lowered his Badge. “It’s not working?!”

    Heads turned toward Owen expectantly; they had been ready to warp out, but now, without any sense of getting out, they scrambled to enter a more defensive stance. Step stomped her foot, frosty air swirling around her hands. ADAM’s beak started to glow with a charging Hyper Beam.

    “No, no, no—” Star tugged at her ears, eyes darting in all directions like a trapped feral.

    “Why isn’t it working?!” Demitri looked at his own. “Trina! Yours worked, right?”

    “Y-yes, it did.”

    “We used Owen’s to get back here, too,” Zena said quickly. “Did it run out of power?”

    “That doesn’t explain ours!” Gahi looked at Mispy and Demitri; their Badges had been similarly useless. They weren’t in a Dungeon, were they? Anam’s aura wasn’t strong enough to disrupt warping, too, was it? Or…

    “It’s too late. I have revoked Anam’s blessings.”

    “Wh… what?” Owen felt his chest tighten. “Revoked? Just like—”

    The barrier of ice shattered; a shroud of black fog flooded Hot Spot Cave, making Owen’s tail flame grow to twice its size in alarm.

    “Left! G-go left!” Owen cried, narrowly dodging a stray beam of dark energy. Anam fired in all directions in a scattered shot.

    Trina shouted in pain from one, leaving part of her front darkened. She winced, coiling her body in a reflex.

    “Owen!” Zena slithered toward him and fired another Hydro Pump toward Anam. That was accompanied by Step blasting the water with another beam of ice from her palms, keeping the wall thick to stall for time.

    “Do none of the Badges work?” Demitri shouted, flailing his in the air like that would actually help.

    “Anam disabled them,” Rhys said. “He disabled the Badges—we don’t have a means of escape here. Not an easy one.”

    A thunderous crack shook their auras; several of them collapsed into a heap and struggled back to their feet. The ice chipped away.

    “Asserting Normalized atmosphere,” ADAM announced, followed by sending a pulse of white light toward Anam. It coated him, briefly solidifying his ethereal, dark body. Then, in a loud, rallying buzz, he shouted, “Attack!”

    Enet created a ball of lightning in her paws and hurled it at Anam next. Perfect aim—she threw it through one of the crevices and zapped Anam’s solidified body. His Dragon resistance to electricity had been completely nullified. Enet turned to Owen. “Attack! He’s vulnerable!”

    “Okay, okay!” Owen said, blasting a gout of flames toward Anam from afar. While it widened the icy wall, that didn’t matter; they were pushing Anam back.

    More sticky webs curled around Anam’s legs and tail, locking him in place for easier strikes. Trina grunted, clearly still impaired by the first blast. “If you think a simple blast like that is enough to stop me…”

    Star fired ineffectual Aura Spheres at Anam. His Ghostly power had been inhibited by ADAM’s blast, but Owen didn’t feel that same power from Manny’s body. Was she still exhausted from her time possessing him? What great timing, Owen hissed to himself. Enet was getting close to Anam and in the way of some of the crossfire. “Enet! Get back, you’re too close!”

    Enet hopped back obediently. “Sorry, I’m trying to get a good attack in!”

    “Will you two quit making those feral growls at each other?!” Willow said. “It’s scary! And I can’t get a good shot in! Hold still!”

    The Joltik landed on top of Owen’s head, forcing him to keep his neck steady. “What do you mean, growls? I’m just talking to Enet!”

    “No, you were growling, now shut up!” Willow charged up pink energy, sprouting wings on her back. Between those wings, which flexed upward, a sphere of light, like a pink Aura Sphere, formed in an unstable glob. “Keep him still!” she shouted.

    “Your simple tricks will do nothing.”

    Another shadowy blast cut through the web. Owen sprang into action then, rushing forward to cross his arms. The blast deflected upward and into the ceiling, disintegrating some of the rocks in an instant. Black ash rained down on them, but Gahi beat his wings rapidly, blowing the debris to the side of the cavern. Demitri yanked one of his tusks out and wound his arm back, taking aim at Anam.

    He threw it. The sheer speed of his throw created a small shockwave, bending the light around it. The blade struck Anam by the tip first, piercing into his body, but the shockwave blew it apart at his core. Black sludge scattered behind and to the sides, most of it collapsing below it, but they knew Anam better to think that would be the end of it. Zena and Step launched another Frozen Hydro Pump toward the wriggling blobs of sludge, freezing them all under a large heap of water, like it had stopped in time.

    Willow didn’t lose her charge, glaring at the frozen water. “Did we do it?” she said.

    Owen took an uneasy step forward, closing his eyes. “No,” he said, still feeling their movements. “He’s—he’s melting through the ice and gathering himself up again!”

    “Oh, great,” Star said, rubbing her paws together. “What’s taking Manny so long?! He can do this way better than me!” She tried to charge up another Aura Sphere, but it was so unsteady from her panic that nothing could hold its shape. Even her voice trembled.

    The dark sludge had formed a small dome within its icy prison, coalescing into a single mass once more. “F-freeze it again!” Owen ordered.

    Zena, exhaustedly, fired another Hydro Pump at the melting ice. Then, seconds later, Step followed up with another freezing beam. Zena didn’t stop until she had run out of all the energy she had. Step clenched her fists, cutting off her beams. The entire cave entrance was frozen over.

    “Oh, great, wise guy!” Gahi shouted, pointing at Owen. “You just froze over the exit!”

    “How are we supposed to get out?” Demitri said. “If we break out of the ceiling, we might cause a cave-in!”

    They were still moving. Deep inside the ice, they still burrowed through the dome to combine into a single entity again. Even if they escaped, it would chase after them, perhaps take innocents along the way. What were they supposed to do?

    He was already regenerating. By the time he broke out, Anam would be back in a single piece—the very thought that they were trying to kill him… Owen didn’t even have time to process it. They didn’t have time to think about what they were trying to do, just that they had to or they would all die.

    “Guys,” Owen said, getting an idea. “He’s already regenerating. We—if we want to beat him, and m-maybe get whatever’s in Anam out… we have to hit him all at once. With everything we have, the second he—”

    “Are you CRAZY?” Star shouted. “No! We need to get away!”

    “But we—”

    “Owen!” Star interrupted with an exasperated sigh. “Think about it! Anam is literally the strongest Pokémon in the world, behind maybe Aramé, but guess what, she’s not here! The only person who came close to beating him was Rhys, and that was before we knew that the Wraith King was inside him!”

    “The what?” Owen said.

    “Long story! More later!” Star pointed at the blob in the ice. “We have to run. We can’t beat that thing. Trust me, I know we can’t. We need to regroup. I know I got off on the wrong foot, but can you at least trust me on this?”

    The ice was melting. Everyone else seemed uneasy. Demitri prodded at the empty space where his tusk used to be, now frozen with the blob somewhere. Owen didn’t have the heart to tell him that it had already been disintegrated by Anam.

    “Regardless of what you choose, Rhys is in no state to battle,” Nevren said. He had been staring at his lucky charm the whole time, its color a deep gray. “We must escape. Fighting him is useless. Rhys, come with me.”

    “I r-refuse to—”

    “You don’t have a choice,” Nevren said impatiently, shoving him forward. “Elder!”

    “Y-yes, I’m coming,” Elder said.

    “Charge all the power you must,” Nevren said. “I know I can’t stop you from trying to free Anam from that thing’s hold, but my personal recommendation is you evacuate!”

    “What’re you suddenly giving up fer?” Gahi growled, flicking his tail. “I thought you—”

    Nevren disappeared in a flash of light, along with Rhys and Elder.

    Owen blinked, but then Gahi cursed at the air. “Of course his Teleport still works!”

    “H-he’ll come back for us, right?” Owen said. “How many can he teleport at once?”

    “Just two is a stretch,” Star said, finally forming an Aura Sphere.

    Owen sensed Eon stir, finally returning to the waking world. Nobody tried to help him up, but Owen was tempted to ask Mispy to heal him—if they had the time.

    “Here’s the plan,” Star went on. “We wait for the ice to break, blast the ever-loving tar out of him, and then run for it.”

    “W-wait! Mom!” Owen looked at Star. “Where’s Mom?”

    Star flinched. “Hecto’s still looking for her across the aura sea. I—”

    “Her body. We need to bring her body with us.”

    “Well, that’s true, I—”

    “Gahi!” Owen said, motioning toward his chest. For some reason, that gesture was all they needed. Gahi rammed into Owen, disappearing inside. After a pulse of weak light converted their bodies to their fused self, Gawen spun around and flew toward Owen’s home.

    Mispy wrapped her vines around Demitri’s arm, pulling him closer. They exchanged a wordless nod; the Haxorus sank into the Meganium.

    “She’s right this way,” Gawen said to himself, as if both halves wanted to communicate to one another verbally. He could sense her body, still unoccupied by any of the spirits within the Fire Realm. Perhaps they didn’t want to, or they felt it would be safer if the body lay inert, totally unaware of the battle going on outside. But something felt off about it. Gawen wasn’t completely sure why at first, until he entered the bedroom and saw it for himself.

    It as a subtle change to his Perceive, but not to his eyes. Just below her chest-fin was a strange, rhombus-shaped object, transparent and deep red. At first, Gawen thought it was her heart, but it only matched the color. There was no blood. But he didn’t have time to think about that; he sped toward her and picked her up, holding her across his chest. Using his four wings and a dash of levitation—either innate to the body or his Mystic power, he wasn’t sure—he glided across the ground and to the rest of the group. They were in the middle of a hasty preparation for their departure, though it seemed that those who still had strength left were gathering in an attack formation. A final assault.

    “Let’s go, Owen,” Zena said. “I—I don’t have enough power in me for another attack like that.”

    “Hyper Beam fully charged,” ADAM reported.

    “I’ve got a shrink ball!” Willow announced.

    “Zap!” Enet clicked her claws together.

    “Yeah, I’m gonna go.” Jerry tiptoed to the blocked exit, but once he got close, he screamed.

    All eyes turned toward the exit—wraiths stood on the opposite side, their shapeless masses flooding the narrow, blocked path. Some of them rose from the ground, clawing at the air as they took form. Some resembled Pokémon; others, only vaguely. But Gawen recognized one from the masses instantly.

    “James!”

    The Decidueye wraith stared at the Flygon-Charizard, drawing a feather of darkness from nothing. Despite a thick wall of ice separating the two of them, Gawen had a feeling it wouldn’t mean much against a darkness-reinforced arrow.

    “Guys! Focus!” Star shouted, pointing at the main blob. “It’s about to—”

    James fired, blasting a hole through the ice without effort. Gawen crossed his arms and blocked the incoming arrow. “We have to take care of these guys, too!” he said, stomping on the ground. Molten earth erupted beneath the wraiths and James, disrupting their stance. A few remained, but a ball of lighting exploded in front of their group, stunning them.

    “Precious seconds, wasted.”

    “Guys, NOW!”

    The ice shattered in another ear-splitting explosion, sending fragments of ice in all directions. The explosion itself dissolved the rest of the wraiths, which returned to the central body—vaguely in the shape of a Goodra—in a stream of smoke. Everyone else had to shield their eyes from ice fragments. The explosion left several cuts across most of their bodies, but once the initial blast wore off, Gawen roared, “WILLOW, NOW!”

    “Aaaah!” Willow hurled her sphere of shrinking energy toward Anam.

    He turned his head, but before he could react, Gawen shouted preemptively, “Mimi, NOW!”

    The Meganium-Haxorus fusion brought several vines forward; they opened up, revealing the mouths within, as hot energy channeled out of them all, firing in front of her central body. The various beams collected into a single point and blasted forward toward Anam. In response, the Goodra opened his maw, collecting shadowy energy—

    “STEP!” Gawen shouted next.

    Gladly!” Step, on the opposite side of Anam, blasted the demon with another Ice Beam just in time. She knocked his blast off-course—

    “Jerry, DOWN!”

    The Aerodactyl slammed himself against the ground, the misfired blast of shadowy energy grazing his horns.

    Working on overdrive, Gawen felt a headache coming on. But he refused to fall to the chaos—if there was any time that he needed to put his Perceive to use, it would be now, to overpower Anam. He didn’t have time to say anything but commands. He just had to pray they would realize he knew what he was doing.

    His heart fluttered at the thought—they all listened to him. They trusted him!

    Anam was about to dive out of the way. Not while he was around. He slammed his foot on the ground, sending molten earth behind Anam. He staggered forward, further pressing into the oncoming Solar Beam, and then—finally—Willow’s slow-moving ball of energy enveloped him. His body rapidly shrank down to something no larger than a Joltik—a small speck of void-like darkness.

    Eon finally got to his feet, clutching at his side where the rot had settled in. “Owen—we need to go, I—”

    Gawen used his free hand to grab Eon by the shoulder. He pointed him toward the prone Goodra. “ATTACK!”

    Eon reflexively blew a plume of fire toward Anam. Then, when he came to his senses, he channeled some of his Mystic power through it, too. Pressurized wind and billowing sand surrounded the flames, rapidly crystalizing into sharp bullets of molten glass.

    Gawen followed up with a blast of his own, the twin flames mixing into a single column of bright, orange light. Step followed it up with another blast of Ice, this time sending an entire blizzard—a chilling wind that cut through the caves. Complementing the wind was Enet’s lighting, tossing more heaps of electricity toward Anam. Then, Star fired off two Aura Spheres, one firm, the other one dissolving halfway. She cursed under her breath.

    ADAM fired his Hyper Beam. This time, the burning blast of energy—both of heat and force—tore holes into the ground and shook the cave walls. Gawen feared that it would collapse over them, but by some miracle, the rocks were sturdier than expected.

    Instead, when the blinding beam had subsided—along with the ringing shock of the blast itself— Gawen found a burned, melted portion of the cave where Anam had once been. Clouds of smoke, little wisps, floated in the air, obscuring something in the middle.

    For a few tense seconds, only the deep, labored breaths of the injured and the tired filled the air. Then, little jingles and crackles of bits of glass and rock punctuated the aftermath. The demon had been silent during their strike, but Gawen knew they hit it. He felt it.

    “A-Anam…” Gawen wasn’t sure what had happened to him. But his body was gone, evaporated, disintegrated. The flames, the beam, the ice, all of their auras clashing against his had finally—

    “I told you,” the air around them said. “It is useless.”

    The clouds parted to reveal a dark, purple sphere, roughly the size of Gawen’s fist. An Orb—the Ghost Orb, perhaps? But then, something clouded over it. A red, crackling energy, pulsing with life. A dark shell formed around that sphere a second later, and the smog solidified around it, turning into Anam’s body once again, pure black.

    Gawen could sense something festering underground, but he didn’t have time to warn any of the others.

    “Aw, forget this!” Jerry shouted, shoving his way past Mispy.

    They were too exhausted. They had put everything into that attack, and Anam was still standing.

    “RUN!” Star shouted uselessly, sprinting for the exit. But of everyone, she had been the furthest from it. Anam held his hand forward, blasting the air in front of Star; she stopped with a shriek and lost her balance. Then, with his other hand, he blasted Jerry on the back.

    The mortal Aerodactyl shouted and fell forward, groaning.

    “Jerry!” Gawen flared his wings, but had to jump away instead, dodging yet another blast from Anam. They were going out in all directions, striking everything they could hit. Enet narrowly dodged several of them, a few stray blasts grazing her ample fur.

    “Your energy is expended.”

    Anam stepped back, lowering both arms. Mimi finally made it through the ice, but she was looking around blindly. Could she not see the exit? Gawen tried to fly toward her to guide her out—his tail could show the way even as the darkness of outside swallowed the rest of the light.

    Mimi yelped; wraiths oozed out from the ground near the entrance. Gawen suddenly realized what had been underground.

    They were surrounded.

    “Fall.”

    And one was right beneath him. He hopped into the air. The wraith grazed his foot, grabbing hold. He kicked frantically, breaking free before it could rot him away—but it felt different that time. He felt a new sort of pull from the wraith, but then his Perceive warned him of an incoming blast.

    That same Perceive overwhelmed his senses with the actions that all of the others had been taking—too frantic for him to completely discern. Step blasting everything with ice, Mimi flailing her vines and axes toward incoming wraiths. Willow had sprouted her fairy wings to fly above them all, shooting Moonblasts at clusters of the blobs. Zena slammed her liquefied tail over several in front of her, then swept in a semicircle to slice through the rest.

    He had no means to maneuver away in time. Instead, with crossed arms, he guarded himself with a shield of radiant light. Gawen looked back at Anam; he was still black as ever, but he saw tiny flecks of bright, lavender slime coursing just beneath the surface.

    But that was all he saw. When his shield faded, Gawen spread his wings to flee.

    A beam of darkness shot out from below, hitting him at his core. He hollered in pain and twisted back to the rocks, where several wraiths oozed out of the ground. One enveloped his left wings, and another tried to consume his arm. “N-NO!” He flailed, tail blazing a frantic orange. Beating his wings, he expelled several Fire Traps in all directions. They detonated instantly, blowing him left and right, but it also blew the wraiths away.

    Mimi fired a Solar Beam toward the wraiths, destroying several, yet more took their place. James stood at the very top of the exit, aiming shadowy arrows toward anybody who tried to advance. In all the chaos, Jerry had been struck by one; he lay on the ground in a heap, clutching at a wound on his shoulder.

    Another scream echoed behind him. Gawen had completely forgotten about Eon. “Dad!” He spun around just in time to see that Eon, battered from several disorienting blasts, had been swarmed by wraiths. He saw the Charizard’s flame, but then saw the wraiths coalesce around him until nothing was left.

    “DAD!”

    Gawen turned and tried to fly again, but he felt heavy. He looked to his right and saw that more wraiths were forming in his wings. “No—I—” Gawen shook weakly, but they wouldn’t come off this time. His muscles burned. His throat was strained. And, most of all, his aura felt like a candle in the rain. He had nothing left.

    Gawen couldn’t even find the strength to cross his arms for one last Protect, useless as it would be.

    Two thoughts entered his head at once—the first, to fight back. And the second, to save who he could. At first, it was unclear whose thought was whose, but then, as the consciousnesses split, Owen held his arms forward. “Gahi—RUN!”

    The Flygon was hurled out of his chest, back to his normal color, but still imbued with half of their shared power.

    Or more. Owen wasn’t sure how much he had given him… but his vision went dark after that. He heard Gahi scream his name. “Run, Gahi.” He wanted to shout it, but he didn’t have strength. His hearing went next. Despite the fact that all sense had left him, Owen still twitched his body with what energy he could. That pulling sensation was back, even stronger. He realized, then, what it meant: They were taking his spirit.

    The wraiths enveloped Owen, plunging him into complete darkness.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2020
    Chibi Pika, git-it and Kindoflame like this.
  8. git-it

    git-it Member

    ...Now I'm up to date with HoC. And I can tell you, I had fun reading.

    It was different from PMD I knew by now, because the protagonist is not (known) human. But that doesn't mean it's less good than those.
    Learning about the past of the characters to understand the present was very interesting and gave everything and everyone depth.
    So far, the object has been the preparation against the hunters. What a twist that they aren't the main opponent. The situation is just becoming critical, but if it wasn't like this, it wasn't PMD.

    You know how to keep curiosity up. You have a good style of writing, a good story and well thought out characters.
    Keep going, I will follow you. I might comment if I have thoughts to speak out, but don't expect too much from me.
     
    Namohysip likes this.
  9. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 75 – Descend

    He’s supposed to be dead!

    Star could barely run. Barely focus to fire an Aura Sphere, or anything, at what Anam had become. The sight of Owen and Eon being consumed by the wraiths had left her not knowing how to feel. Disbelief—that was all she could feel. That this had all been a single, giant nightmare, a warning that she should have just worked with them all from the start.

    But she wasn’t waking up. By now, Hecto would have nudged her awake, told her it was alright, and asked to talk about it. That wasn’t happening. Hecto was nowhere. He still hadn’t found Amia. And Anam had become the demon they thought they had annihilated a thousand years ago.

    Amia’s soulless body lay on the ground where Owen had been taken. There was no way that they could have saved her in time; the wraiths wrapped around her next. Gahi, stunned only for a second, shook his head and flew backward. He was too panicked to use his Psychic powers. Now that he was back to normal, did he even know how to tap into them again?

    Star tried to find her voice—she wanted to shout, to remind him, to do anything in this useless body of Manny’s. No—it wasn’t his fault. She had exerted herself too much, and now…

    “And now, the useless one… is you.”

    Star swung her arm to her right, screaming. She hit something and it dissolved into mist.

    Wraiths flooded the caverns. Step blasted several with Ice Beams; ADAM stayed close to her, while Enet scrambled away from a horde. Her illusions didn’t work well here. All of the smoke left clear disturbances whenever the Zoroark moved invisibly.

    “And it’s all your fault.”

    Star spun around, using her momentum for a powerful kick on another formless wraith. She stumbled after it passed through, surprised at Manny’s strength, and fell on her back. She squeaked—her tail bent in an odd direction.

    She rolled back to her feet, only to see Anam’s blackened form staring down at her, towering over the Lucario.

    “If only they would listen.”

    Star flinched, taking another step back. She blasted Anam with an Aura Sphere, then fired a half-formed one from her other paw. Neither did anything; ADAM’s ‘Normalize’ aura had worn off. Perhaps it was because the Porygon-Z had fled the entryway.

    Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Step had rammed her way through the wraiths, losing only an icy arm and part of her tail in the process, while carrying ADAM under her remaining arm. The wraiths tried to ambush her, but she radiated too much icy energy—like a sort of frosted Protect—for them to break through as easily. Willow was balanced on the top of Zena’s horn, zapping several wraiths from her vantage point. But the Milotic was surrounded, and despite Anam being so focused on Star, the wraiths acted on their own.

    Zena screamed for Owen again—Star didn’t know if that had been the first time, or the first one that she had noticed. Demitri and Mispy, still fused as Mimi, couldn’t find a way out of the caves. Still, it wasn’t like they were trying anymore.

    Enet and the rest of Team Alloy had stayed behind with Zena, perhaps in an effort to free Owen from the wraiths that had enveloped him. “No!” Star yelled. “Run away! He’s already gone!”

    “They would never trust you.”

    Anam blasted Star with another beam of shadows. She wailed, the force of the explosion sending her tumbling across the cave. The wraiths swelled, covering huge swaths of the floor in their shapeless darkness. They concentrated around Zena next, latching onto her lower half in an effort to pull her under. Some readied weak beams of shadow at her sides, but Enet blasted several of them with more electricity and dark slashes.

    Gahi slammed down onto the ground, earthen explosions dissolving even more. Any wraith they hit fell with ease, but that didn’t stop even more from replacing them. The source was Anam. They came, endlessly, from him. If they wanted to stop the wraiths, they had to stop him—even Anam ran out of energy, presumably.

    And Star was the only one who could do that, now.

    “And so you’ll help them, even after what they did to you?” The demon possessing Anam took a single step toward Star; in return, Star took another one back. “Do they deserve it? You’re wondering that. If they were smart, they would have fled. Yet now they’re caring for the spirit that I had already claimed.”

    “Yet you’re not f-finishing me off.” Star focused her energy into a Flash Cannon this time, blasting Anam with white light. It took off part of his shoulder, but tar-like slime took its place. “Because you can’t. I’m—”

    “I can easily end this.” Anam reached toward Star, but she yelped and hopped away. The momentum carried her too far and she fell backward, though she pivoted so she didn’t crush her tail again.

    Star scrambled up, but Anam stomped on her thigh, slime enveloping and pinning her down. She didn’t feel any pain, but she also couldn’t move; panicking, she fired more Flash Cannons at him. When Anam moved away, his leg remained on her—it had become another wraith, staring emptily at her.

    “N-no—get away. You don’t—”

    “I’m keeping you here.” Anam leaned forward, wrapping his hand around her neck. She jerked her head away, but Anam squeezed tight. A hoarse squeak escaped her and nothing more. “I want you to witness your failures before I claim you last.”

    He pulled her up. Her arms hanged limply by her sides, and Anam turned her so she could see, just in time, the wraiths topple over Zena. She fired Hydro Pumps in random directions, each one completely missing its mark. Mimi screamed and slashed at the wraiths that had surrounded Zena, readying another Solar Beam.

    But it was all useless. Gahi’s Earth Power, Enet’s Thunder Bolt, the Solar Beams, the Hydro Pumps… There were just too many wraiths.

    “Because I am the source of them. And as you said… Anam is the strongest.”

    “St-stop that!” Star shouted, slamming her fist into Anam’s face. It sank into his cheek; she yanked her arm back, shaking off the slime futilely.

    “All of the Guardians that you had tormented. The plan you laid out just to try to make as if everything was okay. The lies you wove to keep them all content, like there was no other way…”

    Anam leaned forward, empty eyes piercingly staring at Star’s. She couldn’t look away—Anam’s hand was wrapped around her head, preventing any movement. But then, he forced her to stare at his torso instead, which began to ripple and split open. Star couldn’t find her voice to scream, so she only watched with wide eyes. There wasn’t anything inside but more darkness, but when it split further, she saw through to the other side. He widened more and more until it became an empty window to the battle.

    Zena had been completely overtaken by wraiths, her ribbons reaching uselessly for where the wraiths had wrapped around Owen. Next to her was Mimi, who had been bogged down by too many to fight off fast enough. A Solar Beam exploded from within the pile of darkness, but only a few rays of light had escaped before being snuffed out. Haxorus fists smashed through more wraiths, but several others enveloped the holes made.

    Gahi grabbed onto Mimi’s shoulders, beating his wings as hard as he could to break her free. That only made him get caught up in the wave of wraiths that had already consumed several of the others. Star didn’t know what happened to them—but she couldn’t sense Enet or Trina, and Step, ADAM, and Willow felt incredibly faint. They were either distant, or…

    “Already gone. That’s what you fear. And it’s all because you failed to destroy me. Because you failed to even notice me…”

    “Y-you… you can’t…” Star tried to turn her head again, but Anam’s gooey hands kept her still. “How are you still alive? We—we destroyed you.”

    “Yet, you didn’t.”

    Star couldn’t watch anymore. She forced her eyes closed, trying to ignore the desperate shouts of the others. She heard their prayers—desperate cries to the heavens for some way to save them. They weren’t coherent sentences. They were primal thoughts. Star curled up more, held up only by Anam’s grip.

    “I said,” Anam said, “you need to watch.”

    Tiny tendrils slithered around Star’s face and through her fur, collecting around her eyelids.

    “St-stop… stop…”

    They tugged her eyelids up. She twitched her head; she felt them like a thick spiderweb. All she could see were the lumps of Zena, Mimi, and Gahi, trapped beneath the wraiths. Their struggles became progressively weaker, Hydro Pumps and Earth Powers completely absorbed by the sheer quantity of darkness around them.

    At the far end of the hall, Step and Jerry fought off wraiths at the fringes of the shadow swamp. Jerry was barely standing, while Step was closer to the entrance. A small collection of wraiths separated the two of them, and Star had no idea what happened to the rest of them.

    Just then, a flash of light appeared behind Step. An Alakazam, who tapped on her back. She shouted in surprise—but then, in another flash, both he and the Aggron disappeared. Only Jerry remained.

    But the wraiths were all around him, and he was too weak to fly.

    “Do you want to know something, Star? None of them trusted you. They resented you. For everything that you did to put them in their situations, for all of the secrets you kept from them, that you still keep… too afraid to face your old shames. Thinking that they would judge you for what had happened. For what happened to Quartz. For what happened to the humans who saved you.”

    Star couldn’t watch. But she couldn’t close her eyes—Anam wouldn’t let her. She gritted her teeth and did what she could to look away—the last of her own free will that Anam was allowing of her. She turned her eyes, and only her eyes, downward, staring at his feet. She just had to gather a bit of her strength back and she could get away. She could let him talk.

    Something crept along her face again. And then she felt a pressure—a strange, new, sharp pressure around her eyes. And then, by force, her view went back to the wraiths.

    “I won’t let you run away from your problems. I won’t let you look away.”

    Star’s mouth opened, but she couldn’t make any sound. A weak whimper escaped after a few seconds of struggle, but her view was firmly locked. The tendrils had locked her eyes in place.

    Jerry swiped at several wraiths away, but several more latched onto his back. He roared and spun around, but that was when the second wave toppled over him. A few wraiths landed on his scarf. They screeched, dissolving instantly.

    Anam’s colors flashed purple again, little swirls of light fighting to escape from the oppressive darkness. His grip loosened from Star’s eyes just enough for her to feel it. She had only a second to react.

    Star closed her eyes and focused as much as she could, holding her breath. Before the demon could catch what she was trying to do, everything faded away, and she withdrew deep into Manny’s body, ejecting herself from the Fighting Core.

    Relief washed over her even during her fall—her tiny, feline body bobbled in the air just below the golden orb in the center of the Fighting Realm. Nobody else was in the Core’s main chamber.

    Too exhausted to float straight, Star struggled to fly out of the first room. Behind her, the Core rumbled with a distant roar, countless spirits inside suddenly bursting out and flying past her. Their embers materialized into little Riolu, mostly, but others transformed into different, smaller forms, all eager and hasty to get out of the room.

    “Wh-what’s—”

    The Core was swirling with black smog.

    “We have to find Manny!” one of the Riolu shouted.

    “Faster, faster!”

    “Hurry!”

    One ember had half-formed into a Riolu before a black tendril wrapped around its body, tugging it back into the Core. He screamed, followed by several failed escape attempts by other spirits.

    Star didn’t look back after the first time. The spirits were right: she had to find Manny. Not because he could take down this darkness—none of them could alone, at this point—but because he was surely on his way back, and he would run right into the demon’s trap if she didn’t stop him.

    The screens overlooking the fighting arenas displayed empty fields and barren seats. Exercise equipment lay strewn about, some still running with nobody on them. Once a source of happy nostalgia, the strange devices now reminded Star of the human world—something that she did not want to be thinking about during this chase.

    After several rooms that seemed to repeat the same abandoned scenery, several Aura Spheres flew through the air a single passage away.

    “Manny?”

    It wasn’t Manny, but it was a lookalike—Star could only tell because his aura didn’t radiate the same power that the true Guardian did.

    “Star? What’re you doing here?” the lookalike said. “Doll and Elbee are further back, we—”

    He fired another Aura Sphere, disintegrating a wraith that had climbed onto the wall. That one had been in the shape of a Spinarak.

    “Sorry about that. We’re trying to fight off these wraiths! They came outta nowhere—maybe from Aether Forest? That’s the only place we’re connected to from here, I mean, except the Aura Sea, but—”

    “Everyone needs to get out of here.”

    “What do you—”

    “Oy!”

    Star’s heart sank.

    The real Manny burst through a collection of wraiths with a single punch, pointing at Star. “What’re yeh doing here? Get outta here befer these wraiths get ya!”

    “No, you get out!” Star shouted. “The—Anam, the—the source is right inside Hot Spot! And he’s trying to—”

    Star realized that Manny was not staring at her, but behind her. She turned back just in time to see a wave of shadows topple over her.

    For a few, terrifying seconds, Star’s world went dark. She could hear his voice all around her, no way to escape it. His voice was no longer being said to her—it was being injected right into her consciousness.

    It’s as I told you. You can’t escape your problems by running. Even as you abandoned them all… I will always find you.

    Star blasted the darkness in front of her with a Psychic wave. She saw brief flashes of light and nothing more; she was still too exhausted, the very strain of unleashing any attack in the spirit world leaving her fatigued and fading. And if she faded while this thing was around her, what would…

    Do you think any of them would ever come to your rescue after what you did? Do you think you deserve that?

    Star blasted again. A single dot of light blessed her vision, but it was fleeting. The oppressive darkness collapsed around her, squeezing her spirit. She tried to breathe, like her spirit actually needed it, but the air only left her.

    Answer me. Do you think you deserve anything from all those that you’ve wronged? For all their lives you’ve destroyed? For every century they suffered?

    Star’s ears rang. Every beat of her heart filled her hearing and throbbed against her temples. She couldn’t speak back.

    You don’t. You never did. Because this world was born of an original mistake. I was born from it.

    Star was too strained to fully register her surprise. This demon had nothing to do with any of them. It was just an anomaly! How could she have possibly created—

    Even now, you deny. Deny, deny, deny, deny, DENY.

    “A-ahh—” Something cracked. Star didn’t know where. She couldn’t feel anything for parts of her body.

    It’s no wonder I’m so familiar with the emotion when the gods themselves are plagued with it. I’ve had enough. Give up.

    Star made one more Psychic blast, but this time, not even a speck of light got to her. She tried again, but the blast was even weaker than the last time. Her cries made no sound; was there even any air around her?

    The ringing in her ears was back. She couldn’t feel anything below her neck. She wasn’t even sure if there was anything left. It was all numb and cold.

    You created me. You created me like the rest of this world. Accept it. Accept your punishment.

    She couldn’t think anymore. All she could hear was the demon’s words in her mind.

    Let the world you created consume you. Just as it always happens to those who meddle with their own design…

    Sleep was all she wanted. A long nap, away from all the trouble. She didn’t care about the Hunters or the Guardians or Barky or…

    Hecto

    The thought crossed her mind for only a few, fleeting seconds. He was still out there, searching for Amia, and what would happen to him if she…

    Light flooded her vision, as did air into her lungs. A huge, blue paw wrapped around her chest, yanking her out of the demon’s expansive form. A split-second later, she saw the blurry image of Manny. He was saying something, but she wasn’t sure what. He sounded concerned.

    Her body jerked around when he jumped away, still holding her tight. The air rushed around her thin fur, stinging every inch that it touched. Did a whimper escape her? She was sure it did, but she couldn’t hear it… But then Manny’s paw pressed onto her back, holding her firmly.

    She didn’t hear him, but she knew what he said. That she was okay. It was odd how she could have that weak connection with him, even now—she didn’t need to hear him or understand him to feel how he felt.

    It was funny, people like him.

    But Manny was still running away, and rather than get better, the stinging was only getting worse. Her vision, once blurry, was now fading completely. She whimpered again, wanting to see the light, but it didn’t come back. Manny held her tight against his chest; she felt the hard, cold spike against her cheek, and the warm, firm muscles beneath his fur.

    Unable to see anything, her mind started to make it all up. She saw Hecto, a Dusknoir, floating in front of her. His single, blazing eye stared intensely.

    Star, hold on. You will be okay.

    Behind Hecto was a Riolu standing atop a Drampa. The Riolu held out a paw, sticking his leftmost digit up.

    We’ll figure this out, hah!

    The Drampa nodded, knocking the Riolu off balance in the process.

    A demon like this is formidable, but I don’t see why we should stop now.

    Then she saw a Samurott and Cacturne appear on either side of them. The Samurott brandished her blade menacingly.

    If that thing thinks it can just wipe us out, he’s got another thing coming!

    Er, let’s just be careful about it. Head on, we might, um, die.

    Star begged the illusions to listen to her and help her now. But that was all they were. Illusions. None of them cared about her anymore.

    Manny’s paws held her firmly again, tucking her beneath his arms. He weaved left and right, then flipped, kicking something. Then, he pressed her against his fur again, dodging something. He shouted and staggered, now holding Star with just one arm.

    A final image appeared behind all the others. But this one confused Star. She knew Manny, the little Riolu who tried to save the world. And he knew about all his partners back then: Yen, Doll, and Elbee. But… who was…

    The statue of a Shiftry appeared behind the rest, floating stoically.

    Do what you want, Star, but you will let me fight him first.

    Star’s world tumbled around her. Manny lost his hold on her and she hit the floor. The coldness of the tile seeped into her body, but an even colder, vile feeling crept over her after. Manny shouted, but his voice was distant. He didn’t pick her up.

    The images disappeared—melted away in a black fog. In the middle of it all, a crackling, red sphere shined through.

    The past is the past… Finite and gone. Just like you.

    The shadows invaded her skin, rotting her from the inside. With no strength to fight back, she only screamed in her mind. There were no words to give, only primal thoughts to survive and fight and live. The red sphere faded away. Her consciousness slipped away, going somewhere else.

    Whispers filled her head. They were urgent whispers, not threatening, but not calming, either. None of it made sense, but she got a feeling from it. The voices sounded so familiar. A different demon.

    Struggle!

    Star’s arms, wherever they were, twitched.

    She channeled energy from a place she didn’t know and sent it forward.

    And then everything stopped.

    <><><> ​

    “Manny! We have to go!”

    Elbee swung her body around, making a crescent-shaped slash of water around her entire left side with her blade. Several wraiths split in two, disintegrating, but several more oozed out from the ground. The Samurott snorted proudly, but then turned her attention back to her leader.

    “STAR!” Manny shouted for the umpteenth time, slamming his fist downward. The shockwave rolled the ground, turning the wraiths all around him into mist. He then disappeared where he stood, utilizing the blink’s worth of transport that Extreme Speed granted him, and reappeared where he had seen Star last. He plunged his paws into the darkness, punching and kicking his way through, but felt no sign of her.

    “She’s already gone, Manny! We need to save ourselves!” Doll swung her arm next, a volley of needles impaling the wraiths to her right. Then, the Cacturne rolled, dodging one of the many blasts that the wraiths had attempted to shoot at her. “They’re starting to get stronger, Manny! The guy’s channeling more power into them or something!”

    Elbee sliced through another set. Manny jumped away from the advancing wall of darkness towering over them like a landslide.

    “She ain’t gonna be gone that easy!” Manny shouted back. “Star’s stronger’n that! She’s—”

    A shadowy blast struck Manny on the side, making him curse loudly. He slammed his fist into the ground again, clearing an entire column’s worth of wraiths with the shockwave. His muscles were already starting to feel strained—a manifestation of his fatigued spirit. No matter how much he wanted to fight, these wraiths won by sheer numbers. He had no idea where the core of this thing was, either, unless this was just an onslaught with no end.

    He jumped away and stumbled, losing his balance. If he fell on his back, the wraiths would surely take advantage of his prone state. In an attempt to roll and fall on his paws instead, he instead landed face first into Elbee’s side. She grabbed him and flung him onto her back, then leapt into the air with jets of water from her feet.

    “Hang on tight, Manny,” the Samurott said. “Doll!”

    “Right here!” The Cacturne slammed her arms into the ground; the momentum sent her flying forward. After a flip, she swung onto Samurott, catching on her body with her needles. Elbee shrieked, but held strong, and by the time Doll had clambered on completely, they had left the bulk of the wraiths behind.

    “Where’s the color trio?” Elbee said.

    “Further,” Manny grunted, forming a few Aura Spheres to keep the wraiths from advancing. It hardly left an impact; most of their evasion came from their ride being so fast.

    “You can’t sense their auras?” Doll said.

    “Was never good at that.” The Lucario tried to form another Aura Sphere, but the sheer act left his arms feeling like jelly. It dissipated before he could fire.

    “Just hold still, Manny. This place is draining too much of our power. It was bad enough trying to fight our way in!” Elbee blasted a jet of water forward, clearing the way. Doll took out the flanks, standing on top of Elbee to blast Pin Missiles in both directions.

    “How do we even get out of here, again?”

    Further,” Manny urged.

    Without a sense of direction, Elbee kept moving forward, repeating the same patterns again while doing her best to conserve her energy. A Hydro Pump here, a Pin Missile there—somehow, they had a decent enough rhythm despite the wraiths trying to surprise them around every corner.

    What did surprise them was a wave of blue embers disintegrating a clump of wraiths to their right. Beneath the wraiths was a flailing Garchomp, hissing and snapping at anything that tried to get close.

    “Who’s—”

    “Oy, that’s Clair!” Manny said, pointing. “Clair! O’er here!”

    The Garchomp stopped fighting to look.

    “Clair—oh, that one mutant spirit that gave you trouble,” Elbee recalled.

    “I remember watching that fight,” Doll said. “You stole her spirit last, right?”

    “Yeah, ‘cause she kept puttin’ up a fight,” Manny said. “Clair! This way!”

    She obeyed without a second thought, though she did hiss at a few wraiths on her way to them. Further ahead, shockwaves indicated the presence of Azu, Verd, and Roh.

    “Perfect,” Manny said. “C’mon! We gotta go!”

    “Guardian Manny!” Azu declared. “You won’t believe how many wraiths I’ve defeated! Out of the three of us, I would say that I claimed the most of—”

    “Time to go, scalebag!” Elbee said, shoving past him. Doll fired another set of Pin Missiles at the few remaining wraiths that had made it this far in the ruined Fighting Realm.

    The Feraligatr, Infernape, and Chesnaught chased after Elbee, but they still protested despite this.

    “But what about the other spirits?!” Verd said.

    Roh’s head-flame was at least three times its normal size. “We can’t leave them! We—”

    “Already gone! Star’s gone! We gotta—” Manny’s voice cracked. “Gotta regroup!”

    Clair stopped and spun around.

    Elbee stopped next. “What’s she—”

    “Keep goin’!” Manny said. “She knows what she’s doin’!”

    She hesitated for only a second before catching up with the rest. Clair, once the wraiths got close, growled. She jumped into the air and slammed into the ground; it heaved, an Earthquake destroying all of the wraiths in that section of the gym at once. Veiled in a huge swath of smoke, Clair spun around and caught up to the rest of them with ease, a confident smirk on her face.

    “Good job, Clair,” Manny muttered. At least he could save one of them… even if, in a way, she had only saved herself.

    The rooms of the Fighting Realm transitioned into patches of grass overtaking the concrete. Walls broke apart for trees. Soon, the artificial landscape of the Fighting Realm faded to the mystical aura of Aether Forest.

    “Where now?” Elbee asked breathlessly.

    “I—”

    A beam of darkness blasted Clair on the side. She shrieked, hissing and rubbing at her now limp arm; a Pin Missile from Doll took out the wraith that had been hiding. “This place is infested, too!”

    “Then we just gotta keep running,” Manny said, pointing forward. “Let’s find another Guardian’s spot!”

    “Who should we try?!”

    Manny thought about who they could see. They ran forward blindly; if Manny’s Orb was somehow infected with the wraiths, then that meant so was all of Hot Spot. All of them would be a risk. There was no way Eon would be happy to greet them, either, or any of the Hunters.

    “Ferget the Guardians,” Manny said grudgingly. “We’re heading ter the Hall of Origin.”

    <><><> ​

    The Hall of Origin felt emptier than usual.

    Like something was missing. Yet, for the most part, Arceus had always been there in relative solitude, watching the world from above, with what limited interface he had been allowed.

    Rhys had been very cordial. Perhaps part of it was because he had been too exhausted from the wraiths attacking him, but he had always been very respectful. But the wraiths attacking at all was a concern. Once Star returned, they would have to deliberate on how to deal with it. Assuming she was interested in doing that at all.

    Arceus narrowed his eyes at the wall, tapping a hoof on the pristine floor. Perhaps this stress would finally be enough for her to give up her power entirely. Then he could fix the return of the wraiths and the Hunters in one motion.

    And then the silence was disturbed by the loud pitter-patter of several large Pokémon—though, compared to him, they were still insignificantly tiny.

    He sensed various Fighting auras, as well as the unmistakable aura of…

    “Manny.” Arceus turned and looked down at the Lucario, a small, cordial grin in his eyes. Still, there was a hint of concern. “Why are you here?”

    “Hey, big guy, eh…” Manny panted a few times, then motioned behind him to the others. “Can yeh help out Clair first?”

    “Clair?” Arceus surveyed Manny’s spirits. There were the three mutants that Manny had assimilated into his Core—Roh, Verd, and Azu. The Chesnaught in particular seemed shaken, being comforted by the Infernape with gentle pats on the arm.

    Then there was Doll and Elbee. The latter was missing a few needles, but she seemed fine. Elbee, however, could barely stand, and it looked like the Samurott had been running across all of Aether Forest.

    Were the wraiths already back there? He had told the Trinity to keep an eye on their Dungeons for now, just in case wraiths tried to attack them. The last thing he needed was for them to run into trouble in their own domain like the other careless Guardians might.

    Then there was Yen, who had someone on his back… a Garchomp. The only one he didn’t recognize. Arceus floated over to Yen and felt her artificial aura radiating off, just like the mutant trio, and hid his grimace. He’d much rather do away with someone like her, but Manny was the one making the request…

    “Of course.”

    Arceus inspected Clair. She had countless injuries over her body, each one lined with black fog that suggested a wraith’s shadows. That would be trivial. He tapped his hoof on the ground, washing Clair in a radiant light. The shadows dispelled instantly, leaving only the wounds behind. Another tap and the wounds sealed themselves.

    “Thanks,” Manny said.

    “What happened?”

    “Wraith’s source was inside’m.”

    Even Arceus couldn’t hide his widening eyes. “What do you mean, inside?”

    “Hot Spot’s infested with wraiths. I dunno if they got out. I couldn’t get ter my Orb, ‘cause wraiths were coming outta the core. Star was there, too, but…”

    Arceus saw a flash of regret in Manny’s eyes. He knew that look. That he failed to save someone—but he was still trying to keep a strong face. “What do you mean?” Arceus said. “Where’s Star?”

    Manny couldn’t answer, so Yen did. “The wraiths got her. She’s… gone.”

    “…Gone.”

    “We saw it happen,” Elbee said immediately, clutching at one of her blades with a trembling paw. “There’s no way Star escaped. They… they got her.”

    “…The empty feeling…” Arceus looked up. “Star’s influence is gone.”

    “How bad is that?” Manny asked.

    “Well. That part is not catastrophic.” Arceus shook his head. “Star and I shared many of our blessings, and a lot of what we did is self-sustaining. However, with Star gone…”

    Filaments of light sprouted from his back, Arceus simply too eager to hide it. “I have some work to do.”

    “Eh—what? Wait, we gotta regroup and need ter take down this thing!”

    “I will. And for that to happen, I need to do a few things so I can step in directly.”

    Arceus hastily walked across the Hall of Origin, deeper into its chambers. At the far end, opposite of where Manny had entered, was another white door large enough to open for Arceus to enter.

    “With Star gone, nothing is holding me back,” he said. “It’s time I returned.”

    <><><> ​

    With every Luminous Orb in Kilo rendered useless, only the flames of Pokémon and their natural light source kept the world from falling into complete darkness. It had been a cloudy night for the eastern parts of Kilo. Chilling winds bit at Spice’s scales. She had lost count of how many days she’d gone without sleeping, but now, even if she was tired, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to fall asleep.

    “How is he doing?” Spice asked.

    “He’s doing better,” Mamoswine said. “That Delphox really is a fighter.”

    “Can I see him yet?”

    “Not yet. The healers still need to take a look at him. We don’t have any good Heal Pulse users in this village… We usually just relied on Orans and Revivers. Oh, I’m so sorry…”

    “No, don’t be.” Spice looked down the road. A helpful Chandelure was passing out torches to other villagers; his own body glowed with an eerie light to keep the rest from going blind.

    “Need one?” Chandelure asked, levitating one of the torches toward Spice.

    “Thanks.” She grabbed it, holding it above her head. Chandelure spat a few blue flames toward it, igniting the wood. Blue transitioned to a more natural orange once the wood caught fire properly.

    “Everyone’s panicked auras have been a little tasty,” Chandelure admitted guiltily. “But I’m starting to feel bad. A little light should calm them down, right?”

    The town was already starting to feel brighter. Almost… too bright. “Yeah, uh, you’ve got some pretty strong fire, actually. Maybe we should shove you in the ceiling and—what?”

    Chandelure’s gaze was focused behind and above her. Almost afraid to turn around—the day was already hectic as it was—she spotted something glowing in the distance. It was dim, but steadily got brighter.

    “Okay, what in Mew’s name…”

    The glow was bright enough that it sharply contrasted the night sky, leaving a very clear shape to see.

    “Wait a second,” the Salazzle said, absently running a claw along her scar. It was starting to throb—she felt a weak presence coming from that spire. It reminded her of how that thunderstorm in Nightshade Forest had made her scales tingle. The memory left her chest with a weak, burning sensation.

    She refocused on the bright, tall structure. It looked like some kind of triangle, or a—“That’s the Spire of Trials!”

    “Spire of Trials?” Chandelure said. “That weird Dungeon that just has a bunch of ferals that punch you to death?”

    “Yeah, but… I heard the Dungeon suddenly lost all of its inhabitants a while back. Now it’s glowing?” Spice frowned. “Has the world gone insane?!”

    “Probably.”

    Spice flashed a glare at Chandelure.

    “What?! Waypoints broke, Orbs broke, even Orans broke. How do you break an entire species of berry?! World’s gone—AHH!”

    Spice had to shield her eyes, too. The Spire of Trials had become like a second sun; shrieks of the village filled the air. Then, the ground rumbled, just softly enough that it didn’t knock anything over, but just enough that it still made Spice crouch down as a precaution.

    The light dimmed to something more tolerable again.

    “Holy…”

    Chandelure, if he had a mouth, would have been agape. Instead, Spice saw his flame flicker with awe, shrinking at the sight of the source of the glow.

    “Yep. That’s pretty holy, alright,” said a nearby Empoleon, pointing a wing forward.

    A quick scan of the roads revealed a few Pokémon kneeling or bowing on the ground, all in the same direction, muttering something fervently under their breaths. Spice’s scales felt like they had bristled—a cold shiver ran down her spine, and her tails flicked a bit of poison mist behind her. “Sorry,” she murmured, but then, finally, looked back at the source of the ever-dimming glow.

    The Spire of Trials was gone. Replacing it was an even taller structure made of luminous, white marble. It pierced through the sky, the top just as wide as the bottom. It seemed thinner, yet taller than the Spire.

    And at the top was a gleaming, white figure. It was too far away to see what it was, but the way so many Pokémon had fervently bowed down, Spice felt a sinking feeling in her gut.

    And then the white dot flashed. First, countless trails of white light went off in all directions—long tendrils that lit up the sky in a web of white, flowing lines. Then, those faded, forming a bright, yellow-gold, unmistakable wheel of light above the tower.

    “Arceus! Oh, it’s Arceus! He’s returned!”

    Countless Pokémon cheered and raised their heads, arms, wings—anything that they could to wave at their god, no matter if the Creator could actually see them.

    Spice squeezed her hands, unable to get rid of that horrible feeling on her scales. She should be happy. If all those stories about Arceus were true, then they were saved, weren’t they?

    The wheel finally faded, as did the light, and even the tower had been reduced to nothing but a small glow. And with the glow, the cheers faded, too, though the rush of optimism within the crowd was palpable.

    Spice breathed out sharply through her nose.

    Now she remembered.

    “Well, would you look at that,” Spice acknowledged, tapping her claws on her hips. “Destiny Tower’s risen again.”

    <><><> ​

    Tall trees with no leaves thwarted any attempt to see beyond a few layers of the forest. Left, right, none of that mattered. Up? The sky was a perpetual, ominous crimson. The ground a bleak, ashen brown. Everything smelled of ruin. What kind of ruin was hard to discern. Rot? No, it wasn’t quite rot, not just that. Flames, fire? Possibly, but perhaps only as a trick of the mind. Dust, age, perhaps?

    “Oh, dear. It all looks the same.”

    A green Gardevoir held her hand against the tree trunk. Its outer layer crumbled to the touch, revealing soft, squishy insides that, too, withered away if she pressed too hard. Amia grimaced, brushing it off, but it was persistent. Her hands were speckled with that strange blackness.

    She could only go forward. But she had no idea where anybody was, or where she was, or anything of the sort. One second, she was fighting Star within the Grass Core. The next, she had been hit by one of Hecto’s many arrows. Then, she had blacked out—appearing in the aura sea… or did she? She couldn’t remember. It had been so fast. A strange force—it felt like something had pulled her in an odd direction, against the sea’s flow.

    Then, she was groggily waking up in this strange, endless rot with a red sky, a black ground, and dead trees. The forest in particular reminded her of Rotwood Fen, back when she used to live in the south. It didn’t bring back pleasant memories.

    She shook her head. Focus, dear, focus. Where was Alex? Was Owen okay? Did they defeat Star? What about Eon?

    None of that mattered if she couldn’t even find them to learn the answer.

    Amia was about to take another step when she felt a light rumble in the ground. She blinked, staring at the trees. Bits of loose ash and rot fell from the branches; she had to shield her eyes from the stray particles.

    The rumbling was getting louder. She recognized the sound—she heard it often from Zena when she was exploring Hot Spot. It must have been a serpent… but the sound was too loud, too powerful. Deeper than Zena’s, and she was already exceptionally large.

    And then it got softer. Whatever it was, it was slithering away, now. The tension in Amia’s chest—which she had only just realized she had—loosened.

    Something shuffled behind her. The tension came back; Amia spun around, raising her hands to strike—and then screamed.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2020
    Chibi Pika and git-it like this.
  10. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 76 – Flashes in the Dark

    Red skies oversaw a silent, somber land covered in purple dust. Scattered like giant trees were great plateaus, all at equal heights despite their random assortments across the purple landscape. Red-purple lightning bolts shattered the sky, drawing the attention of two Pokémon stationed at the top of one of the plateaus.

    “Found one,” said the first creature—a dark, metallic bird with red eyes. “But I think it’s too far away. Too far, too far…”

    “We should try anyway,” the other said—a Sandslash with a few too many spikes missing. “Come on. Up!”

    Corviknight watched closely at where the thunderclap had originated, its rumble still echoing across the plateau field. “It’s falling.”

    “Where? My vision’s not like yours.”

    “I’ll just fly. But it’s too late, too late.” Corviknight spread his wings once Sandslash hopped on. “He might be dead already.”

    “Always worth a shot. It’s been a slow shift anyway. C’mon, fly!”

    “I will, I will.”

    “Any Titans?”

    “No, just one, just one.”

    “Okay, a Titan. Avoid it.”

    “I will, I will.” Corviknight took off, watching the orange creature fall closer and closer to the ground. “Hmm, hmm, he’s falling fast. That won’t end well.”

    “Well, if he’s lucky, he’ll survive.” Sandslash pointed ahead. “Yeah, I see it. Let’s—”

    Another lighting bolt crackled to their right, a bit closer than the first bolt.

    “…Priorities. Let’s try that one instead.”

    “But the other?”

    “We’ll save the closest ones first, we—” Sandslash couldn’t finish. Another thunderclap behind them caught their attention, but they missed where the bolt had specifically come from. He growled. “Did you see where that one came from?”

    “No, no.”

    “Alright. Closest one first.”

    Leaving the original faller behind, they instead chased after another falling creature. They recognized this one as a small, shapeless, pink blob.

    <><><> ​

    “Ooh… the thunder’s really loud,” Lavender said, shivering. It sounded as if the whole sky was splitting apart. But even more frightening was that he could hear its boom even from where he was—at the bottom of the lab, ten floors underground.

    He glanced to the left, frowning with even more concern. Rim’s body wasn’t forming right; it didn’t look like a developing Espurr at all. It was rounded and bulbous, and it looked like something was growing out of the top. He whined loudly, pressing his head against the cylinder. “It’s gonna be okay. Are you okay?”

    But Rim had barely developed enough to hear him. It would take moons for her to be back in any sort of living condition without Eon to accelerate the process. But he would be back soon, and everything would be okay.

    And then the lights flickered. An alarm sounded on the opposite side of the hall, buzzing Lavender’s head. Lucas, far down the hall, howled and paced around worriedly, little flames leaving his mouth.

    “It’s okay, Lucas!” Lavender cried over the beeping.

    The lights stopped flickering, but instead gave off a red glow. Lavender worriedly looked at Rim’s tank; nothing was failing, but he knew what the red lights meant. Last time this happened was when he had blacked out and destroyed one of the generators—at least, that’s what Eon said happened. Did that mean one of the generators failed again?

    The alarm meant something else went wrong, too. A lot of somethings, maybe. But he didn’t know the first thing about how this lab worked or what he could do to fix it!

    But he did know that he could help to power it. “Lucas! Go check on the others! Umm—find, um—find Nate! Yeah, find Nate! Maybe he can help? I’m gonna—I’m gonna fix the power!”

    Lucas barked and sprinted away. Lavender, going deeper into the lab, thought to become a Scolipede again, but Eon’s words echoed in his mind. Not in the lab. I’m gonna use you today, he said to one of his spirits.

    Okay! Don’t fall like last time!

    Lavender nodded and his body shrank down, grew wings, and sped up even more. The Ninjask fumbled in the air.

    No, not like that!

    Sorry!

    He regained his composure and flew ahead again, moving past the last of the grid-like arrangement of cylinders, before coming to the back room. He shifted back to his Silvally form and placed his talons on the door. After a pause, it slid open—Lavender sighed in relief. At least the door still worked.

    The door opened to a small chamber that had a single, mechanical pillar in the middle of the room. A screen near the bottom of this pillar showed various statistics about the power level of the lab and any critical issues present. Lavender didn’t understand most of it, but he did understand one part—the status message that had most recently come up.

    ‘Critical power failure – Central Infinity Energy Core destabilized. Relying on Secondary Chamber.’

    Lavender only knew one thing from that status message—that the main energy reserve had lost its power somehow. Eon was the one who kept that powered with the help of Rim and Elder, before Elder left. The secondary core was new, and he was, indirectly, the one who kept it powered.

    Lavender decided to check on the primary core, first. He trotted over to the left side of the pillar and poked at one of the metal coverings. It slid open in response, revealing a small, faded rhombus. He frowned. “It’s out of energy?” he mumbled to his spirits. “But it’s called Infinity Energy. It’s not supposed to run out.”

    Eon only put a blessing on it, though. And Rim. He didn’t put his actual spirit inside.

    “But that won’t run out as long as Dad’s…”

    There’s still some energy left, another spirit said. Why don’t you power it with some of us for now?

    “But what happened to… I… D-Dad—”

    Focus, Lavender, it’s okay!

    It’s okay! He’ll be back.

    Maybe he’s just fighting.

    Lavender whined. “Okay. Who wants to power this one?”

    Several volunteered and collected at the base of Lavender’s throat. He puffed out a golden cloud of light toward the rhombus; the spirits drifted toward the little crystal, brightening it. The gem glowed, and then lost its diamond shape, becoming instead a sphere. Lavender pressed his head against it.

    Are you guys doing alright in there?

    Everything’s good!

    I think you gave enough.

    Does it look good out there?

    Lavender opened his eyes. The alarm stopped. The lights weren’t red anymore. And most importantly, the status screen on the central chamber was back to normal. All green, with no scary red lights or flashing exclamation points. He sighed, closing the chamber, and then moved to the right side.

    It was about time he switched out the spirits anyway.

    The chamber opened to a similar, golden sphere. Lavender pressed his head against it. Hey guys! Having fun?

    What happened?

    Suddenly it needs our power.

    Did something happen to Dad?

    Lavender winced. I don’t know. But I’m gonna swap you guys out, okay?

    Okay.

    I was getting bored.

    Lavender nodded and asked for volunteers again. They were more reluctant this time, murmuring that Lavender should tell them what happened to Dad as soon as he could. After agreeing, several more of his spirits funneled into the sphere, and at the same time, the spirits within leapt out and toward Lavender. It was a routine—one that most of them were very familiar with.

    With both chambers fully powered—and Lavender feeling a lot more empty—the Silvally turned around and listened. Even within the bottommost, centermost part of the lab, he could still hear faint rumbles from outside. And there was something else accompanying it, too. A sliding feeling… No, more like… What was that?

    What is that? Lavender asked, not wanting to speak so he could still hear the noise. A grinding, like something semisolid passing through a narrow hallway. He’d heard that before. Where was—

    That’s Nate!

    How come Nate’s moving?

    Go check! He’s only two floors up!

    Lavender didn’t want to bother with taking the elevators—too far away. Instead, his eyes shifted to a dark purple and he sank into the shadows, going up. He passed through rubble and stone before settling on the ninth sublevel. Nothing was happening here except for a mutant Tyrantrum giving little love bites to a mutant Noivern.

    “Eek! Lavender! We weren’t doing anything!” Tyrantrum said.

    “Do you guys hear anything?” Lavender asked hastily. “Did the lights go out?”

    “Oh, they did.”

    “Even on this floor, huh…” Lavender frowned. “Okay. I’m going to see Nate.”

    “N-Nate? Are you sure?” Noivern shrank down. “He’s kinda creepy…”

    “Yeah, but I can sense him moving. He’s pretty big, after all… and I guess I can feel his energy a lot more than everyone else here.”

    “Oh, well, my aura sonar can sense it,” Noivern said, tapping her massive ears. “Hey, yeah… he’s definitely moving.”

    “Thanks.” Lavender gave them both a quick bow and hopped into the wall, ascending further until he rose into a large, empty chamber.

    Nate used to be there. He scanned for any signs of him, but all he saw were papers strewn about with completed and half-completed drawings of the various mutants, as well as countless fabrics of half-made costumes. A few of them were fully constructed. There was one of Lavender’s true form, though only the head and neck were complete; based on how there were more materials and cloths scattered nearby, Nate must have found his chimeric body to be a real puzzle.

    But there was no Nate.

    In an effort to pick up the pace, Lavender searched for another speedy Pokémon. Ninjask—where was… Lavender froze. He’d left him back at the Core chamber. He wasn’t supposed to be without so many spirits—he couldn’t find his form.

    G-guys! I need a fast one! A-anybody?

    Lavender bounded down the hall anyway, waiting for his spirits to deliberate. Eventually, he felt the presence of one spirit get brighter. Closing his eyes, he braced for whatever came next; his limbs suddenly disappeared under him, replaced by wings. The new Crobat toppled over in a crumpled heap, groaning.

    Warn me next time…

    He slammed on the ground to gain altitude, air channeling around him. With newfound agility, Lavender banked around the sharp corners and followed any possible trace he could feel from Nate’s massive aura.

    After one turn, he spotted something dark in the corridors, draining into the next. “Nate!” Lavender shouted, flying until he was right on top of him. “Nate! Hang on!”

    But he kept slithering away. The only thing that Lavender got in reply was a small pause from part of his body. Black limbs pushed Nate forward, crawling on the ground in tandem in undulating waves. A few eyes on the ink-black body opened and stared at Lavender.

    Lavender landed on top of Nate and switched back to his true form. “Nate,” he said again. “What are you doing? Where are you going?”

    Several eyes closed, and a few of the arms grabbed at his forepaws. Lavender lifted one and shook it. “Um, hi, Nate, but where are you going?”

    I feel like I need to go somewhere.

    “Go somewhere? What do you mean?”

    It’s calling me.

    “It? What’s it?”

    I don’t know. It’s struggling to live.

    “Struggling to—but Nate, you’re not supposed to leave! Remember? I mean, that’s what Dad said.”

    I can’t find him. I’ll ask later.

    Lavender realized that Nate was trying to push him away, but he shook his head. “Nate, we can’t go right now. Not until Dad comes back. Something’s wrong, and I have a bad feeling…”

    So do I.

    “Don’t you think it’s a bad idea to go, though? If it’s a bad feeling, maybe you shouldn’t be going.”

    Nate’s massive body—of which Lavender could only see the tail-end—slowed down. Up ahead, a frightful shriek rang out. A few seconds later, Lavender saw a lump run beneath Nate, like he was lifting himself over something… And then, he lifted Lavender next. Left behind was a curled up, trembling form of a fusion with the body of an Abomasnow, the colors and hands of a Hitmonlee, and the lower half of a Carnevine. A while later, the fusion lifted her hands from her face, looking around confusedly.

    “Um, Nate, I think you’re starting to freak out some of the family…”

    Sorry. I’m in a rush.

    Lavender noticed that Nate was going away from the teleporter wall. “Um, Nate? Teleporter’s that way.”

    I’m too big. Taking the emergency stairs.

    “Oh. Wait—you shouldn’t be doing that anyway! Please, can’t you stay?”

    Lavender realized that, given how big Nate was, he was probably already going up the stairs… He sighed again, trying to find another way to convince him. He couldn’t think of anything, and instead watched as Nate went on an upward incline. The marble halls transitioned into an alternating stairway that zigzagged its way skyward. Every bit of metal that Nate nicked on the handlebars—indeed, he used them for safety, because it was polite—echoed all the way up and all the way down the concrete walls.

    Several arms, tentacles, and wings wrapped around Lavender to brace him in place. At first, Lavender wondered why, as he was only trying to convince Nate to stay back… But the alternative was Lavender constantly nipping at his heels. Did Nate have heels? Well, yes. Several, in fact.

    Lavender shook his head, trying to refocus. His spirits were doing no better, unable to find a way to convince the Dark Guardian to halt his enigmatic advance.

    That was, until Nate did it himself. With a lurching halt, Lavender found himself swinging forward and past several of Nate’s limbs, though a few of them caught Lavender in time. His talons accidentally jabbed at one of the many eyes, causing it to wince in pain.

    “Oh—sorry,” Lavender said, but the eye already sank into the darkness. “Nate? What’s wrong?”

    The limbs started to push Lavender forward, but then Lavender gently broke out of his binds. “Want me to go up? I’ll do that.”

    Something’s wrong.

    They urged Lavender to go up. Channeling his ghostly powers again, he sank into the wall and quickly ascended from the eighth floor, to the seventh, then the sixth… how far did Nate’s body stretch?!

    Lavender finally found the surface floor and emerged to complete darkness. The sun had set long ago, but he could still see the vague shape of Nate’s upper body leaking out of Quartz HQ. “Nate? What are you doing?”

    I need to go.

    And then, without warning, Nate’s huge body lifted itself into the air, more and more of him rising like a serpent reaching for a low branch. But in this case, it seemed like the only branch Nate intended to grab was the clouds themselves. Wings outstretched from all sides and, despite not flapping, seemed to generate an updraft, the same way a Dragonite managed to take flight.

    Dragonite. Lavender searched for the species, but couldn’t find it. He settled for becoming Crobat again, ascending with Nate, but he was rising even faster than he could manage. The air current that flowed around the black amalgamation ripped through any sort of updraft that Lavender could make, sending him spiraling down. Lavender called for Nate one last time, even as he was sprawled out on the floor, but he kept climbing higher.

    The last of the Dark Guardian’s form plucked itself out of Quartz HQ. His entire body levitated just below the clouds as a great, fat serpent, coiled together like he had been in the Chasm. Its body spiraled around itself, leaving only what vaguely resembled a head to poke out from the black coils. Ethereal, black wings, looking unnaturally attached to the rest of the serpentine form, spread out. It glided over an updraft that didn’t exist. It moved unnaturally, like it was hanging off of a ceiling that moved forward, the head training itself on some far-off entity in the horizon.

    At the front of Nate’s body, where the serpent’s head extended forward, came a glow. At first, it seemed white, but it was too dim. He beat his wings once, ascending higher into the sky while battering the distant ground below with small twisters of wind. Lavender, caught up in one of them, barely stabilized himself in time to avoid the second wingbeat, and then the third.

    A low rumble shook Lavender next, down to his core. The beat pressed against his heart, and then rippled to the surface of his body, and then back in again. Wave after wave dizzied Lavender until he had to land, heaving. The spirits inside of him shuffled worriedly, asking Lavender if he was okay, asking him to get up. But he couldn’t handle being in anything but his base form. His body shifted back to his chimeric self, and then he rolled to look at the sky.

    Pink. The light was pink, at the mouth—if Nate’s body as a whole had one. The head was split open five-ways, like a giant, clawed hand. The fingers opened like they were mouths of their own. The light… brighter. What was it?

    Another rumble shook Lavender, followed by its aftershock. Ba-thump. Lavender’s heart ached, heaving again.

    “Lavender! Are you okay?!”

    “What? What?”

    Someone was beside him. He saw crackling orbs of electricity—the Ampharos standing guard, along with the Sceptile, he was sure.

    Another rumble, ba-thump, made Lavender curl up. Ampharos and Sceptile winced, too, and looked up. “That’s Nate?!”

    “What’s he—”

    The pink energy doubled, then tripled in intensity. A shockwave cracked the air, knocking fruits off their trees and snapping the weakest branches into splinters. A line of pink stung Lavender’s vision, cutting across the sky.

    <><><> ​

    Hot Spot Cave lacked any light. The stars, the moon, the clouds themselves—gone and replaced by a swirling vortex of red, purple, and void-black.

    “Why did Anam contain the Wraith King?” Rhys wheezed, barely able to stand.

    “How can we possibly hope to…” Elder could only watch as the void expanded farther.

    “We have to calm Anam,” Rhys said. “We need to regroup and fight him. Find some way to bring that demon out of him, or—or find a way to seal it again.”

    Nevren appeared in a flash of light. With him, an icy Aggron, an agitated Porygon-Z, and a Joltik with fairy wings. Three Guardians, but Nevren then said, “I can’t bring any more.”

    “What do you mean—”

    “I can’t bring any more. My luck’s run out, I’m afraid.” Nevren held his lucky charm forward, revealing its dim, gray glow. “These three are the best I can do. The Wraith King has either already claimed, or is too close to, the others.”

    “But—Owen! Team Alloy! All of the Guardians, the—”

    “Gone. We must go.”

    It didn’t look like Nevren was giving Rhys much of a choice.

    “The void in the sky is expanding. What happens if it covers the world?” Elder said. “We can’t stop it from advancing this time. The Chasm is—Star and Barky aren’t… The Tree—”

    The void rumbled, making ADAM and Willow shake. Step looked up at the void defiantly. “I doubt there is nothing to be done,” she said, holding her palm toward the center of it. She fired a blast of icy energy toward it.

    “How can you expect that attack to—”

    The ice melted away, but the remnant energy that remained from Step’s attack—the aura that tried to produce the ice as it sailed through the sky—continued to battle with the swirling void before ultimately fizzling out.

    “You don’t have enough power to counteract something like that, Step,” Nevren said.

    “I beg to differ,” Step growled. “Something inside me is telling me I can. I will destroy that—that thing if I must!” She fired again, but the same result occurred. The ice melted away, and the aura battled weakly against the expanding vortex. By now, three quarters of their sky had been consumed by the void.

    “How are you…” Nevren trailed off, looking at Rhys next. He was too weak to fight back.

    Are you still trying to fight?

    Nevren halted his words to stare at the sky. “It’s… that’s him.” He squeezed his spoons a bit tighter. All of the others turned their attention to the expanding darkness, a soft rumble like never-ending thunder shaking small rocks in the dirt.

    All life has proven its uselessness. Nothing but suffering permeates your world, propped up by a single soul’s ambition to alter the natural state of reality. I gave him a chance, I watched from within as he slowly, yet in vain, tried to repair the world, only for it all to be wiped away by those who hungered for power. Had I let it continue, the war would have escalated to ruin what little structure you had. And then, what would become of me? You would destroy me, just as you try to destroy each other.

    You do not know what to do with power. I am Dark Matter, named by your god, Anam. The old god, Mew, has been claimed by me. The old god, Arceus, is next. The Hunters are all but vanquished. All those who seek power will fall to the void.

    The joy your old god tried to manufacture in this world is false and fleeting. His heart was the only one that shined, and now it is tarnished by hopelessness thanks to his very subjects and their greed. I will show you the world for what it really is. I will show you the world you ungrateful souls have been blinded to: A world without blessings, a world without your god to unite it so tenuously.

    I am your new god. I will show you a life without suffering. I shall shape this world into its ideal form: A state without suffering or pain. A state… of terminus.

    As Dark Matter spoke, the void in the sky expanded further and further, wrapping around more and more of the sky. Nevren couldn’t see the stars no matter where he looked. His Revisor remained useless in his hands. Despite the fact that they had been rewound every single time, his fingers felt raw. How many times had he just heard that speech? He lost count. Rushing in, running out, nothing was enough to stop Dark Matter from expanding across the sky.

    Step was inconsolable, launching Ice Beam after Ice Beam into the sky, only achieving the weakest pauses in the void’s expansion. Soon, the whole world would be covered, and this time, there wasn’t a reserve of power to prevent it from staying that way.

    Someone kept repeating his name. Only when he felt the sting of electricity did the Alakazam look to his right, seeing an angry Joltik clinging to his mustache.

    “You’re the smart guy!” she shouted. “Think of something!”

    ADAM spun his head several times. “Calculating probability of victory…”

    Nevren didn’t need to wait for the answer. He looked at his Revisor again; bright blue. He could use it, but for what purpose? Did it matter anymore?

    It was tiring. So, so tiring, going back, over and over, to find a solution that simply didn’t exist.

    “What are you doing?!” Step shouted at Nevren, blasting him with a weak gust of frosty air. “The brainy one will help!”

    Nevren flinched, blinking several times at Step. Her piercing gaze didn’t stop her from firing at the sky, not even looking anymore. She didn’t need to—the general direction of up was enough to hit her target. “The sky has an aura! Therefore, we can strike it!”

    But how could such an immense aura be fought, even slightly?

    Something flickered in the corner of Nevren’s vision. At first, he thought he was hallucinating, but then Rhys, barely on his feet, turned toward it, and then Step, and then ADAM and Willow.

    “What is that?” Elder said, extending his neck to gain extra height. “Pink…”

    It was getting brighter—and closer. It cut through the darkness like it was fog. A roaring rumble echoed from the vortex’s core, shaking Nevren’s very spirit. He shuddered and took a knee. “Step,” Nevren wheezed.

    The Aggron didn’t kneel. Nevren could feel her stubbornness—even if her body was falling apart, she’d refuse to kneel to the dark god.

    The pink light struck the center of the vortex, creating a shockwave that—despite Step’s adamance—knocked everyone several feet away and into the air. Nevren slowed his and Rhys’ fall with a Psychic barrier, while Elder skidded across the ground with a strained grunt. ADAM flailed, and Willow flew over tall grass before landing on a nearby clump. Step landed the hardest, cursing loudly, and then stared back up at the crackling vortex.

    The void had been cut down by more than half, yet it still remained, struggling to expand further. Someone cried out inside the cave—the unmistakable voice of Anam.

    “Is he still fighting it?” Nevren said.

    “Anam is the center!” Step said—but Nevren doubted she was correct.

    “Step, wait!”

    But she was already rumbling toward the cave entrance. Nevren, knowing that she’d be claimed like all the others if someone didn’t Teleport her out, followed her.

    In the corner of his eye, Nevren also spotted another flickering, white light. Now that the void had been cut through with the assistance of that attack—that pink light that seemed so familiar—he saw a follow-up. Flying filaments of white energy curled through the sky and descended upon Hot Spot.

    “Step!” Nevren shouted. “Brace yourself!”

    Despite her fervor to run forward, she listened and tensed her body. “Why?”

    The ground heaved from several ethereal impacts. Hot Spot’s cavernous ceiling partially collapsed, large boulders tumbling and slamming onto faded mushrooms. Several wraiths screeched and dissolved, but a few times, the fallen boulders bounced off of something solid, too.

    Streams of white light pushed through the cave’s ceiling and struck homes built into the walls, cracking their structures. The sky was alight, punctures of divine energy dotting the once perfect void.

    Dark Matter roared, and this time, Step was forced to all fours, grunting. Nevren couldn’t move; his whole body felt compressed by the pressure Dark Matter gave off. He could only stare through the darkness to see Anam’s form in the middle of it all, staring emptily upward. Swirls of lavender competed with black ooze within his body. Nevren couldn’t see anything else with all the wraiths, aside from a few fallen boulders, streams of light from punctures left in the cave’s top, and near the middle of Hot Spot—

    How did he forget about Valle?

    His aura had always been so weak, and his presence literally like a statue, that he had completely forgotten that he was still there. He didn’t glow. The Shiftry statue remained where he always had, unmoving, and Nevren couldn’t safely get to him. He looked at Step.

    “And what is your plan?” he said, finally finding his breath. “Step, how do you expect to—”

    “If your Anam is as strong as you say, then he can still fight this demon,” Step replied. “We just need to help him.”

    “I feel that this is beyond help.”

    “I’ve already decided that for you. Now choose: Die here, or assist and I consider whether to kill you later.”

    Nevren blinked. “Excuse me?”

    “You caused this by tampering with the vessel. Now help me fix it!” Step fired several Ice Beams at incoming wraiths before turning toward Nevren. She grabbed him from under his arm and forced him to his feet. “Now will you fight?”

    Nevren suppressed a shudder from her icy touch. “I can’t fight.”

    Step eyed him, looking at his limp arm, then at his tired eyes. She snarled and shoved him back; he fell to the ground with a painted grunt. “Useless.”

    Then, the Ice Guardian turned back to Anam. “Ghost Guardian! Stop letting that demon control you!”

    She blasted more wraiths, using the tunnel as a choke point. Nevren rolled to his front and pushed up, getting to his knees. The wraiths seemed a lot weaker, but the sky was darkening again. Was Arceus’ Judgement not enough? And that last attack—it wasn’t coming again, was it?

    “H… help…”

    “Anam!” Step blasted the wraiths in front of her with a wall of ice. The Blizzard destroyed most of them, leaving only a few stragglers to ice over. “Keep fighting!”

    “I… I…”

    Not even Judgement is enough to stop me. What hope do you have to—

    “Please… Mister Matter, enough…”

    “Keep fighting!” Step roared.

    From the ceiling, a wraith dropped down. Step looked up too late—two more had appeared.

    Suddenly, a blast of ice, fire, and electricity knocked away all three, destroying them. ADAM swept forward. “Refreshing calculations.”

    Two Moonblasts arced past Step and dissolved another cluster of wraiths. Willow landed on Step’s head, shrieking. “I’ll help!”

    Rhys, using Elder as support, staggered into the cave next. “Anam, just a bit longer. Arceus and—and someone else is already trying to help. Can you keep fighting?!”

    It is too late to fight back! Give up!

    “Bluster!” Step took aim at more of the wraiths. “Just what would happen if I struck Anam’s body, I wonder? Would you have to retreat?”

    You would only harm your precious god!

    “He’s not my god.” Step pointed her hand forward.

    A heavy rumble staggered Step, forcing her to misfire into the floor. She tried to get up, but a few wraiths fired shadowy blasts at her, deflected only because Willow and ADAM were quick to counter with their own blasts. Step got back to her feet, but another tremor knocked her to the left.

    “Aah… aaaah!” Anam whimpered, then wailed. Swirls of lavender briefly overtook more than half of his body before the darkness came back. Dark Matter roared again; Anam’s body became pitch-dark, but then more bright purple shined through. Step snarled; the bright spots were clearly Anam fighting back. All this time, he had been trying to fight against Dark Matter for control? Perhaps the squishy dragon was mentally stronger than she’d given him credit for.

    It won’t be enough! Just give up!

    “A bit forceful for someone who claims it is hopeless!” Step said. “Anam! Put an end to this!”

    “I… I…”

    Anam, I already felt your despair. You know this world is rotten. Let me fix it. I can end all of this.

    “This isn’t… what I wanted…”

    Endings are always painful. But the sooner you accept it, the sooner this can all be fixed.

    “Yes, trust the cloud of evil.” Step snarled and finally righted herself just in time to see Anam glow.

    Anam. Anam, what are you doing? That’s enough. That’s enough!

    “St-stop… I changed my mind! STOP!”

    IT’S TOO LATE!

    It was too bright for them to look at directly. ADAM buzzed and blared an alarm.

    With an incomprehensible scream, a bright, indigo flame exploded from Anam’s body, shooting through what little remained of Hot Spot Cave’s upper ceiling. An intense shockwave, followed by a rush of hot wind, sent Step and all the others flying out of the cave, smashing against some of the walls along the way. Sparks of a bright, golden energy singed their bodies and knocked away chunks of Step’s icy form.

    On the outside, the few who weren’t face-first in the dirt saw a large, indigo drake made purely out of flaming Dragon energy. It smashed into the void above, sending a golden ripple throughout its influence; at some point, the gold light sliced through portions of the void, disintegrating some segments completely. The heat melted Step’s icy snout and several of her claws.

    And then it was quiet. The wind blew, the void above rumbled lowly, stabilizing… but it didn’t expand. The sky was still mostly blotted out, but the darkness didn’t expand. The aftershocks of gold were far into the horizon, revealing the stars and clouds again.

    Rhys slowly righted himself with Elder’s help. Willow and ADAM figured out which way was up. Step panted, growing back the parts of her that had melted away. “It’s still there.”

    But it wasn’t expanding.

    “What was that attack? What did… what did Anam do? I’ve never seen such a technique before.”

    Rhys looked back to see Nevren picking up his spoons.

    “We’ve seen it before,” the Alakazam said. “I don’t know what it is, but he’d used it in Hot Spot Dungeon when under extreme stress, too. It was filled with more Dragon energy than I’d ever seen… It certainly wasn’t a normal technique.”

    “But whatever it is,” Rhys said, “it subdued Dark Matter, as he calls himself. Yet…”

    They all stared at the now dormant void, neither shrinking nor expanding. Then, they turned their attention to the east.

    “Arceus has descended,” Nevren remarked. “That means Star is…”

    “Gone.” Rhys looked at the cave entrance, so small from how far away they’d been flung. A black fog seeped outside…

    “I believe Dark Matter has been rendered dormant, but we can’t do anything here,” Nevren said.

    “But the others—”

    “Are gone. We need to salvage what we have left and refocus.” Nevren stood up, spoons in one hand. “We have no choice. We’re useless here.”

    “Useless…” Rhys tried to channel some of his aura power, but nothing but a small spark came. He tried harder, but Step cut off his concentration with an angry slam of her tail.

    “Where can we go?”

    “I’m going to return to Quartz HQ and round up what we can,” Nevren said. “There may be some help from them. You should go to Kilo Village and ensure that society isn’t in chaos.” He made a reflexive draw for his Badge, but then realized how useless a gesture that now was. “…Hm. This could be a problem.” He turned to face Kilo Mountain. “That’s at least a day’s travel.” He then faced the southeast. “…Quartz HQ, even longer…”

    “Waypoints are gone. Can’t we fly there?” Rhys looked back.

    “Well, I certainly can’t fly. Rhys, you can only fly with your aura power, and you lack it.”

    “What good would the town be for us? If there’s power in your lab, we should focus on there only.” Step crossed her arms. “The mortals are useless here.”

    “I beg to differ. Even if we are strong, Jerry has demonstrated that even mortals can match Mystics under the right circumstances.”

    “Against a naïve Charizard,” Step corrected.

    “And he is not even of the Thousand Hearts. Some of you should go there.”

    “And we are listening to you, why?” Step pressed. “You are the cause of this.”

    “Irrelevant. We are on the same side, regardless of the cause of the problem. Or do you believe I also want the world to plunge into darkness?”

    “I have no ties to Kilo Village, and I trust you with nothing.” Step walked toward Nevren. “Therefore, I am coming with you to Quartz. If you cannot fly, I will take you there.”

    “Then I will be going to Kilo Village,” Rhys said, grunting. “On foot until my energy—”

    “I can help!” Willow said.

    “What do you—”

    A pink mist suddenly overtook Rhys, Elder, and ADAM. Before any had a chance to react, a yellow fuzziness followed, and then intense gravity.

    Rhys grunted loudly, trying to stand, but the downward force was too strong.

    “Calm down!” Willow said. “I’m gonna fly us there! If you’re too weak, then I’m all that’s left!”

    Rhys rolled over and buried himself in Willow’s fuzz. Next to him, ADAM spasmed and muttered various diagnostics.

    “Willow! Warn us next time!” the tiny Lucario tried to stand, but one of Willow’s fairy wingbeats toppled him over. “I… urgh…”

    “Oho… well, this is very convenient, isn’t it, Rhys?” The hard shell of Elder bumped against Rhys’ side. “There isn’t much else we can do. Why don’t we rest?”

    “Rest…” Rhys sighed tiredly, looking away. “But the void, it’s…”

    Elder looked past the forest of fuzz. “I see stars. That’s good enough, isn’t it?”

    Rhys glanced to his side, where pink wings the size of Emily beat up and down. “Shrinking down and resting on a Joltik’s back,” Rhys mumbled. “Not how I intended to end the night.”

    With one final sigh, he stared at the starry sky. “Arceus returned, and with it his Judgement to stop the void from expanding. And then that energy Anam gave off…” Rhys closed his eyes. “So familiar, but… why can’t…” The thought escaped him, drowned out by fatigue as the weight of the battle completely crashed on him. “Pink energy…” The sight of that beam tearing through the sky entered his mind again.

    “That was Fairy energy,” Willow said. “But I’m the Fairy Guardian! No fair! Why can’t I use that technique? I’ve never seen anything like it!”

    “It’s not a normal attack,” Rhys said slowly, drifting in and out of consciousness. “Light… of Ruin…”

    If Willow had said anything after, Rhys didn’t hear it. The Lucario faded into his dreams.

    <><><> ​

    All of Owen’s senses gave way to nothing but an intense, unbearable, throbbing pain. The metallic taste in his mouth wouldn’t go away no matter how much he tried to spit it out—and that, in itself, sent needles through his throat. He tried to groan, but nothing came out. Only one eye could open, and with it, all Owen saw was a blurry, purple landscape and tall, dark structures. The air smelled of dusty stagnation and blood.

    It was dark. Owen’s tail felt cold. His wings, when he tried to move them, gave the sharpest pain of all—that was, until he tried to move his legs, and then his arms. Was everything broken?

    By some miracle, he realized that his left arm was still functional. With a grunt, he moved it over his throbbing head, feeling something… sticky. His head didn’t feel as solid as it should have been. And where were his horns? He felt the cavity that they should have gone in, but…

    It was getting darker. Why couldn’t he see anything? Something primal stirred in Owen’s chest—a tightening, gripping fear. Charizard weren’t supposed to see darkness. They were never in darkness. To be in the dark meant death. Where was his flame? Where was his flame?

    Owen twitched his tail, but a sting of agony shot through him when he tried. Part of it was bent at an odd angle. Like everything else on him, apparently. He opened his mouth to let out a cry for help, but a wad of blood escaped his throat instead.

    His head hit the ground hard, breathing through his nose.

    This felt too familiar. Lying on the ground in debilitating pain, unable to move, unable to breathe, with his vision rapidly fading. What was he supposed to do? Who usually helped him?

    He felt a phantom of something holding his back. It felt like Amia. Mom… help…

    But nobody was there. No Heal Pulse came. His wings twitched one last time. Finally, Owen closed his eyes—seeing no difference when he did—and tried to focus. It was all that he could do, and soon, even that became too difficult. His mind swam in a blurry soup of thoughts, images passing through his mind’s eye. Zena fighting off the wraiths, only to be overwhelmed by them. Amia disappearing in a flurry of embers from a Legend’s onslaught. A Charizard, several times his size, smiling down at him…

    Mom…

    <><><> ​

    A chilly breeze threatened to snuff out his flame. Charmander shivered and curled up tighter, grasping at his flame to hide it under his chin. It wasn’t as if it was truly in danger of going out… but it felt that way. He remembered how important that flame had felt to him. He wanted to protect it more than anything in the world.

    Hot breath washed over his back. Charmander reflexively uncurled, letting out a long, drawn-out chirp. He looked up into the sharp, blue eyes of Charizard. He could only see her nostrils and her eyes. She leaned forward and nuzzled him, knocking him onto his back. He chirped again, kicking the air. Charizard pressed a paw on his chest; Charmander chirped and kicked harder, giggling. He lunged his head forward and snapped at her claws, leaving no mark when he latched on.

    Charizard blew a puff of embers in his face; Charmander yipped and let go, falling onto Charizard’s tail tip. The warmth covered him like a blanket. He rolled and curled around it, breathing in the flames the way grass would take in the sun. That’s what she taught him. That Grass ate the sun, and he ate the flames.

    Another flick and the tail pushed Charmander under Charizard’s wings. There, two other Charmander and one Charmeleon lay nestled in a warm cluster, the heat making everyone look blurry. It welcomed him.

    Charizard nuzzled his back again, finally pushing him inside. Reluctant, still full of energy, Charmander settled under her wings, pressed against Charmeleon’s shoulder, and then nestled between two of his younger siblings.

    Dark tendrils suddenly started to fill his vision from the sides. Charmander whined, curling up a bit tighter, but the heat made him want to fall asleep. The darkness covered half of his vision, but then he spared a glance to his mother’s tail. The light overwhelmed him as well las the dark tendrils. They all disappeared.

    All he saw was the flame and its comforting warmth.

    “Good night, little ember.”

    <><><> ​

    Owen awoke to the painful sting of water all around him. He thought to gasp, but a primal thought told him not to breathe. Not while he was underwater.

    With every ounce of strength he had left, he kicked his legs and wiggled his tail, clawing his way to the surface. His vision was red, and the sky beyond the water looked purple and murky. Freezing liquid rushed past his face; his tail bubbled in it, puffing clouds of steam that rose faster than he did.

    It was getting dark again. Even more frantic, Owen saw the rippling surface get closer. Closer, closer. Just a little closer, a little more! He tried to motivate himself, but his lungs felt like they were about to collapse. It was at his throat. The water crept into his snout when he had nearly let in a half-breath. It tasted foul.

    Sound returned to him next, as did that first, sweet, painful breath of air into his burning lungs. He gasped loudly, sputtering and flailing for the water’s edge, which was miraculously nearby. Keeping his tail above the water, he paddled toward the edge and rested only when he was finally on dry land.

    The loose dirt stuck to his body in a thick layer, coloring his body like a bruise, but he didn’t care. He didn’t even want to move for a while, not after that.

    His chest rose and fell quickly, but it slowed down when the sense of danger finally passed. The dirt caked on his body, which didn’t help at all—the dirt was just as bad as the water, and dealing with both was anything but pleasant—but with some tired wipes on his scales, he got at least some of it off.

    A few embers escaped his mouth, like he was testing to make sure he still could produce them. They didn’t feel like they were enough for a proper technique, but at least he had his flame again. He still felt blind, but at least he could see with his eyes.

    Reluctantly, he rolled onto his chest and pushed himself into a sitting position. He thought he could see, but it was all so blurry. The water shock must still be affecting him. It had been a while since he’d felt true water shock—when was the last time? Oh, when I drowned in…

    It hit him all at once. “Zena!” he cried, springing to his feet too quickly. The wave of dizziness that followed made him fall forward, caught only by his arms and a bit of quick thinking. “Ugh—” He may have been dizzy, but he still had to find her. “Zena! Anyone?!” He could only see a red lake behind him—at least, he thought it was a lake, since it was still too blurry. And tall, imposing figures far ahead, like black tree trunks. Crimson skies, violet dirt. Where was he? Was this Ghrelle’s place, the poison swamp? Even there, the sky wasn’t red. Maybe it was some kind of freak storm, or…

    That darkness. Did the darkness cause this?

    He didn’t want to spend more time thinking about it. He’d wait for his vision to come to him normally. It already felt a bit like it was coming back to him.

    That was a good enough excuse to start flying. It didn’t feel like there were any obstacles in the way; the only thing obstructing his flight would be those tall, black things, which were starting to look a bit like plateaus.

    Feeling lighter on his feet than usual, Owen gave himself a wobbly, running start. Blood rushed to his legs. His tail—he felt the flame blaze, filling him with vigor. Yes! He could fly with this kind of energy. All he needed was a bit of pep.

    He had enough speed. With a crouch, Owen hopped into the air, leaned forward, and planted his face firmly in the dirt.

    His back flew ahead of the rest of him until his tail touched his snout. Then, when his inertia finally gave out, his belly hit the ground with a rough thud. Owen groaned and rubbed his bleeding nose, only realizing then how odd that felt. His snout was… short. And his fingers felt delicate.

    “Wait… wait, what—”

    His vision was clear enough to see the details of his orange scales. He looked down; cream scales. That was normal. He looked at his tail, the same fire as always. But he felt thinner. Of course, he was always thin for a Charizard, perhaps part of those mutant genes, and his horns were—

    Owen frantically grabbed at his horns, but all he felt were smooth scales. A loud whimper escaped him. He didn’t want to test it, but he had to: he flexed his wings.

    He had no wings.

    “No…”

    Owen spun around, staring at his feet, at his tail, feeling physically for his wings as well as he could. He couldn’t believe himself when he ran straight for the water to see his reflection, and that confirmed it.

    The Charmander’s shriek carried on into the plateaus.

    End of Act II
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2020
    Kindoflame, Chibi Pika and git-it like this.
  11. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Act III – A Faded Voice

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

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

    “Why are you still here?”

    “Please stop this.”

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

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

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

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

    “It is the reality the old gods created.”

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

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

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

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

    Pitiful.

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

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

    Stubborn.

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

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

    “So you refuse to leave?”

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

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

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

    Anam stared.

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

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

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

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

    “What happened?”

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

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

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

    “I can’t hope.”

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

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

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

    “Nevren would have ruined it all.”

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

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

    “Y-yeah, but—Nev-Nev…”

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

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

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

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

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

    “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

    “How come?”

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

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

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

    He hated him.

    He always hated him.

    “Then you’ll die, too.”

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

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

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

    “Praying.”

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

    “That doesn’t matter.”

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

    “You’re here.”

    “I’ll ignore them all.”

    “That’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

    “Prove me wrong.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “I think gods pray to mortals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Nobody. Nobody can hear you.”

    “You’re still here.”

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

    “No.”

    “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Goodbye, Anam.”

    And with a final crack of lightning—one that Dark Matter knew Anam would try to follow—he disappeared from the void.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  12. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 77 – Under the Red Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Foul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><> ​

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What are you doing?”

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

    “Stop that.”

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

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

    <><><> ​

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

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

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

    Maybe that had been more than a nap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dehydration?

    He needed… water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Three massive gulps. That was enough.

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

    Where’s the sun?!

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

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

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

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

    That he never…

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

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

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

    I thought I was done with this memory nonsense!

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

    At least I kept that this time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    That wasn’t an earthquake.

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

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

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

    Then he saw it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No, it’s definitely still there.

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

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

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

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

    Something primal was telling him that dying was dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Best not to try.

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

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

    It’s a cave.

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

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

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

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

    Maybe ignorance really is bliss, he snorted.

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

    “SKRAAAA!”

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

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

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

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

    The Protect shield dropped and the wraith advanced again.

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

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

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

    The wraith probably wasn’t going to return.

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

    What’s… that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here.

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

    Oh, that’s bad.

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

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

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

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

    And to the edge of the mouth he went.

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

    Owen leaped into the cave, arms tensed and ready.

    All of the fight left him in an instant.

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

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 78 – Back to Basics

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Her eyes widened at that.

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

    Amia shook her head. “Wraiths… I…”

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

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

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

    “What? You’ll be what?”

    “I don’t need…”

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

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

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

    Amia bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

    Amia nodded weakly. “Please, be careful.”

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

    Amia didn’t recognize it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><> ​

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

    Even with her gone, that plan remained.

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

    “Har!”

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

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

    “They’re the ones freaking out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A vine smacked him on the cheek.

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

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

    “Did you really have to hit me?”

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

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

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

    Har tensed.

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><> ​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Well, that voice in the sky said—”

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

    “Y-yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yes, Sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

    One thing at a time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But he would have to deal with that later.

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

    “Yuh-yes?”

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

    “Do you know Heal Pulse?” Phol asked.

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

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

    “But my—”

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

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

    “What else do you know?”

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

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

    “Bu-but I like my art, I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “…You keep a diary?”

    “…No.”

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

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

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

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

    “Responsibility? No, that’s life.”

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

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

    “Is that a Joltik?” Angelo said.

    “…Joltik can’t fly.”

    “That one has wings.”

    “They don’t have wings, either.”

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

    Speaking of fliers.

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

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

    “I’m the Fairy Guardian!”

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

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

    “Can you heal him? He’s beat!”

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

    “Heal him,” Phol said firmly.

    “R-right, right. Sorry.”

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

    Passersby Pokémon murmured to one another.

    “…Wait, isn’t that Elite Heart Rhys?”

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

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

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

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

    “Porygon-Z. Are you able to wake up?”

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

    “Y,” Phol replied.

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

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

    “I have no idea what that means.”

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

    “Creepy.”

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

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

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

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

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

    “Pre-what?” Joltik said.

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

    “Oh—Anam…” She looked away.

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

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

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

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

    “I’m Mystic! I don’t need to sleep!”

    “Safe Mode boot complete.”

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

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

    “Current status?” Phol said.

    “Normal.”

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

    “You do not have the necessary user permissions.”

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

    “You do not have the necessary user permissions.”

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

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

    “Restarting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Systems operational.”

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

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

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

    ADAM buzzed. “Parameters accepted.”

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

    <><><> ​

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

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

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

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

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

    “Nate? Is that not the Dark Guardian?”

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

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

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

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

    I’m a little tired.

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

    I had to stop Dark Matter.

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

    Light of what?

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

    I’m Nate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Something was making muffled shouts from below.

    “Nate, are you smothering someone?”

    Oh. Sorry.

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

    “Ahh, Lavender.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    She hadn’t checked on them in a while.

    Ra. Is everything okay?

    Wraiths are trying to attack our realm, but…

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

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

    …Frozen how?

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

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

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

    “I understand.”

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

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

    “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    That one stopped Nevren. “In one.”

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

    “Is she okay?” Nevren cut in.

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

    “…Did the machine give any warning messages?”

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

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

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

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

    “Move aside, whelp.”

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

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

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

    Druddigon screamed and ran down the left hall.

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

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

    “U-um, d-do you need help?”

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

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

    “Bring me?”

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

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

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

    “Are you?” Step asked.

    “Not anymore…”

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

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

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

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

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

    “I think Dad’s nice,” it went on.

    “Eon, the Hunter?”

    “He just wants to save the world.”

    “The world is collapsing.”

    “Well, he could fix it!”

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

    “He… cares for us.”

    “How do you know?”

    “I don’t understand what you mean…”

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

    “I… yes? I don’t know what you mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “U-uhh… well…”

    “The deepest? Ten?”

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

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

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

    “Ten.”
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  14. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 79 – A New Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It’s a Hunter, I think.

    Eh? In there? Weird.

    “Step?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No kidding. Nothing fazes him! Kana replied.

    Perhaps he’s reading her mind, Ra theorized.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Do you even know where they are?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Mm. Take care.

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

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

    “You’re taunting me.”

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

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

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

    “Having trouble?” asked Nevren.

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

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

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

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

    Ra said nothing, neither objecting nor encouraging her.

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

    “Understood.”

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

    “How is this place powered?” Step said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Goodbye.”

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

    <><><> ​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It was just one of every item.

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

    Maybe just…

    He’d read about it…

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

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

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

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

    Maybe channeling some of that was a good idea.

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

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

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

    Nasty.

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

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

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

    What if it ran out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Could it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    <><><> ​

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

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

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

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

    That’s what they hoped, at least.

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

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

    It was almost nostalgic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “A thousand hands

    A single heart

    Working and beating as one.”

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

    “Unite the lands

    From worlds apart

    Until our battles are done.”

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

    “We serve Kilo and all its parts

    Under one name: The Thousand Hearts!”

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

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

    “What happened?” Rhys said.

    “Sorry! Sorry!” shouted another voice inside.

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

    “What happened?” Rhys said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He should have paid more attention to his projects.

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

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

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

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

    “What was that?” Golem asked.

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

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

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

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

    “Right.”

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

    And what of—

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

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

    “What? What happened?” he said.

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

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

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

    Anam’s blessings were gone. Every single Dungeon that he had blessed—every single one in all of Kilo—was infested all over again.
     
    Kindoflame, Chibi Pika and git-it like this.
  15. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 80 – Finding Stability

    Demitri was a lot heavier than Mispy remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

    Mispy suddenly stopped.

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

    “Mhm.”

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

    “Is it dead?” Demitri asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Mm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Huh?”

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

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

    “Wings.”

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

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

    “Glide?” Mispy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Not for now,” Mispy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Let’s keep going.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Fire.”

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

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

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

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

    “H-huh? What? Too cold?”

    “We’re mutants.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Let’s go.”

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

    <><><> ​

    Manny slid down a hill made of cotton candy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Guys! A little help?!” Doll cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Oh, come on…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Gah, always know what ter say,” Manny mumbled, rubbing the back of Yen’s neck, though he couldn’t hide his dumb grin.

    Yen nuzzled Manny back, but movement to his left caught his eye. “Ah… Clair.”

    She was angrily slashing and chomping at some of the gumdrops, only to stop in confusion when the sweet taste got to her. Chew, chew. Too thrown off by their landing platform, she just shuffled to Manny and awaited further instructions.

    “Feeling better, Clair?” Yen asked.

    The Garchomp licked at the sugar between her teeth. “Yerm, ‘m fine.”

    “Yes, you’re fine,” Yen said gently.

    Clair snorted, but then glanced at Manny. “Yeh, doin’ fine,” she said.

    Yen looked crestfallen. “Oh, goodness, another one…”

    Manny smirked. “What’s wrong, can’t deal with the accent?”

    Yen smiled nervously at Manny. “It’s charming. I’m just surprised at how impressionable they can be. That Flygon, Gahi? He had acquired it even faster all those centuries ago…”

    Yen really did like to think about the past, Manny said, but that comforted him. Maybe he was spending too much time thinking about old times, but now that he was surrounded by gumdrops and melted sugar, thinking about better times kept him sane. Good call, Yen. “Swear, it was like Gahi already had it and just fergot,” Manny remarked.

    They performed a quick headcount. Manny did best to ignore the fact that he felt like he was about to be rolled up for a Joltik’s sweet treat. He saw Clair, and the color trio… That took care of the mutants. Yen was, of course, by his side—Elbee was angrily jamming her blade into several of the larger gumdrops.

    Someone was missing.

    “…Doll?” Manny looked up. “Beh, ain’t that something.”

    She was dangling by her shoulders and arms, unable to break loose from the sugar. A green dot in the pastel sky.

    Now that they were lower, just where were they?

    Manny didn’t expect Willow’s realm to be filled with nothing but sweets and—oh, there were mushrooms as well. That was more appropriate.

    To his left, there was a mountain that, instead of trees, had giant mushrooms dotting its rocky—no, those weren’t rocks, those were crystals of solid sugar. Muttering incoherent curses under his breath, he looked for some sanity to his right, only to see that more of those mushroom trees had blocked his view outside the pit.

    One was staring at them with black eyes and tiny, white dots for pupils in the mushroom-tree’s stump.

    The sound of Elbee firing a Hydro Pump caught his attention. He looked skyward; she was trying to knock Doll loose from her sweet prison, but wasn’t accurate enough for such a distance.

    “Little higher, gotta account fer gravity,” Manny advised.

    Because at least gravity still worked properly here.

    “Hey!” Manny shouted at the mushroom. “Where’s Willow? We need help, ya got that?”

    The mushroom jeered at them, then laughed. Its echoing mirth shook the gumdrops and the sugar on their bodies. Then, it closed its eyes, and the mushroom became lifeless.

    “…Well, alright.”

    “Got her!” Elbee shouted. “Wait, no, I missed a bit…”

    “Are you even getting far enough? That’s very high up…” Yen frowned, readying his body for another flight. “If I push, I might be able to get back up there in time.”

    The Cacturne, meanwhile, kicked her legs uselessly. Her thorns were simply too stuck in the sugar.

    Squeaky giggling made Manny’s ears twitch left.

    Several Togepi, Joltik, and Cleffa were at the top of the pit, staring at them. Manny counted at least twenty in total. The Joltik in particular made his fur bristle. Great, she’s got fans.

    All of them jumped into the air and sprouted large, pink wings. They fluttered toward Manny, who at this point was resigned enough to watch without a reaction. One of the Joltik landed on his head.

    “Hi, Mister! How’d you get here? You don’t look like one of those mean old wraiths!”

    “Yeah, we’re kinda runnin’ from them,” Manny said.

    “Oh, is that it?”

    “Oooh, you look strong! How come you’re running away?”

    “Well, can’t fight a whole lot all at once. Too risky outta our own realm.”

    “How come you’re not in your own realm? Did you lose?”

    Manny kept his expression even, despite his urge to snarl. “Yeah, we met the wraiths’ boss. Didn’t exactly go well.”

    “Oh, I see, I see! So, you want to see Willow?”

    “Yeah, what’s she doing now?”

    “AaaaAAAAA—OOF!”

    Doll landed in a few of the gumdrops, stuck for a third time. Azu and Roh helped to free her, while Elbee and Yen tried to wake Verd up.

    The fairies giggled and circled around the group several times in a disturbing tornado. “She’s flying around Kilo Village with a bunch of others!”

    “Everyone’s scared because of Dark Matter, but with Willow on the case, nobody should be worried at all!”

    “Yep! Willow will just shrink him down until he’s a tiny, tiny marble, and then crunch! No more Dark Matter!”

    Manny frowned, pensive. “Dark Matter… So that’s his name, eh?” All things considered, it was appropriate. But he still didn’t like the sound of that. Wraith King was the name he’d known it by before, and that was just a title; Dark Matter… Should they really give it the dignity of calling it by its chosen name?

    Not that it mattered; did it even care? It seemed keener on destroying everything all over again. And Star…

    “Are you okay?” one of the fairies asked.

    Manny jolted up. “Yeh, jus’ fine. Eh, take us ter Willow. Where’s she?”

    “Well, you can try to talk to her directly if you go to the Core!”

    “Sure, where’s that? Mind flyin’ us there? Actually, hang on—how come we can’t fly, eh? Let that happen! Ain’t that hard. Aether Forest let us fly no problem.”

    The flying fairies all giggled again, and then a Togepi sang, “Only fairies are allowed to fly here! If you want to fly, we’ll turn you into a fairy!”

    “Wait, no, hang on, yeh can’t just turn someone like me—”

    Pink dust surrounded Manny in moments, as well as all the others on his team of refugee spirits. His back felt heavier, and a new set of limbs—wide and flat and with great resistance when he tried to move them. He didn’t want to look, because he knew exactly what had just happened.

    But he couldn’t stand still forever. Eventually, be opened his eyes and beat… his new, pink wings, taller than he was. He gave them another few tentative beats, and each one lifted him a few inches off of the ground. He stopped, landing with a cloud of pink, glitter-like mist. The horror was too much for him to express, so he didn’t express it at all.

    Behind him, the others sported similar wings, some taking it better than others. Verd, who had finally regained consciousness, inspected them curiously. Clair was already trying to fly with them, swiping at the air like it gave her a better battle stance. Azu marveled at them, and then tried to flex while in midair. “A wonderful addition!” he declared.

    “Well… It could be worse,” Yen said to Manny. The Drampa’s wings were perhaps the largest of them all, and several of the other fairies were gathering on his back for a ride. He was unnerved by their presence—Dragon instincts, no doubt—and Manny just groaned and rubbed his head. “Yep. Should’a gone with Ice.”

    “Come on! Let’s fly to the Core! There’s a portal that’ll take us there!”

    “A what now?”

    “A portal! Don’t you know? The Fairy realm is full of them if you know where to look! C’mon, let’s fly through one!”

    “Will it get us closer ter the Core?”

    “Yep! We’ll lead the way.” And then, the swarm of fairies took off for higher ground, beating their little wings like Butterfree.

    With an irritated sigh, Manny followed them all to the skies before, finally, he spotted what seemed to be an odd, golden circle in the air. “Oh, lookit that,” he said. “So, through that, I figure?”

    “Yep!” the flurry of pink nearly blinded him. Trying to ignore the fact that the wings came naturally—and all of his precious Fighting spirits—he beat them a few times to gain height above the haze and toward the portal.

    “Hey,” Manny said to the others. “When we get outta here… nobody speaks o’ this. We clear?”

    <><><> ​

    News of the hostile Dungeons and the return of the wraiths accelerated all efforts to put nearby Dungeons in complete lockdown. A map of all known Dungeons had been pulled out, marked, and then assigned to flying Pokémon to scout the perimeter for any signs of recent visitors, and to leave signs depicting the dangers of entering one now.

    Blessed Dungeons were one thing—easy to manage. Anam had crafted their properties with nothing but benevolence in mind. If someone became too injured in a Dungeon, it would warp them to the entrance, sometimes with most of their injuries gone. Their auras were often severely damaged, though, and Rhys never quite understood why; it was as if injuries within Dungeons were done to the aura, rather than to the body.

    Along with that, Dungeons often gave rise to blessed items within, like Oran berries. They even grew along the perimeter of nearby Dungeons from exposure. Rhys recalled the ones he had used to heal Owen during his outburst, so long ago, when he’d discovered Zena. And, perhaps most importantly, blessed Dungeons lacked wraiths of any kind.

    But those blessings were gone—and now, so too went all of their benefits. Defeat in a Dungeon spelled death for those who traveled inside; no useful, blessed berries, orbs, or seeds appeared there; and wraiths ran rampant within.

    Just like that new Dungeon within Hot Spot. The first dungeon to form in centuries… Why now? Would there be more?

    Not that it mattered—they were all unblessed, now.

    Several Pokémon entered and exited the office and passed along the halls, looking for orders on where to go next or what nearby area to scout. Nearby, because they didn’t yet have the provisions to handle long treks without Waypoints to take them anywhere more than a little ways away.

    “That should be all of them,” Rhys stated, looking over the map, then at the long checklist of Dungeons that they had to send others to. He had deliberately excluded a few of them—such as Ghrelle’s swamp, or Zero Isle Spiral, since not only would those be too dangerous, but the Trinity surely had them covered. Though, it wouldn’t hurt to check just in case.

    Before he had the chance to give out the final orders, something landed on his head. On reflex, he reached out to grab it—only for a jolt of electricity to crackle against his paws. He hissed and swiped it away, but that just learned another zap.

    “Willow!” Rhys hissed.

    The Fairy Joltik fluttered in front of Rhys, sparking angrily. “Why’d you hit me? I was resting my wings! Do you know how long I’ve been flying?”

    “You don’t even need wings to fly!”

    “Yeah, well, it looks better!”

    Rhys pinched the bridge of his muzzle. “What do you need, Willow? Shouldn’t you be scouting with the others?”

    “Manny wants to see you!”

    Rhys blinked, and then his expression transitioned rapidly from exasperated to serious. “Manny? He’s alive?”

    “Nope! But he ran all the way to the Fairy Realm just to see me! I’m gonna summon him now. All his other surviving spirits are there, too, but Manny’s too strong on his own. I gotta put aaaaall my strength into this so he looks solid!”

    “Yes, of course, I—”

    Rhys realized that several passerby Hearts were staring at the flying Joltik, but by now, they’d already made themselves known to the public. There was no real point in trying to keep themselves hidden for very long. He sighed. What was one more power?

    “Summon him. We don’t have much time to—”

    “Actually, Manny wanted it to be done in private. He refuses to come out in public as a Fairy.”

    “…What?”

    But Willow was already flying into the Heart HQ, and Rhys followed with a morbid sense of anticipation. Manny, a Fairy? What would he look like? Would he have fur colored like those mushrooms that Willow often summoned? Or perhaps, would he sparkle with every movement? Perhaps his voice would be several octaves higher—that could be it.

    Whatever it was, Rhys intended to meet it with respect and dignity.

    A spirit shot from Willow and in front of Rhys—a Lucario, pure and simple. Rhys’ shoulders visibly lowered with relief… and then he froze. Two luxuriously hot-pink wings spread behind Manny, taking up his entire arm span and a bit extra in width. Manny glared at the ground, paws clenched, as he stared at Rhys’ feet.

    “Laugh an’ yer dead.”

    Rhys nodded firmly, body tense.

    “I’m here after we got attacked by that demon and stuff. We’ve got a lot ter go over.”

    Rhys grunted in affirmative.

    “…You busy? I’ll wait.”

    “Just some small duties,” Rhys said too quickly.

    “I’ll wait.”

    Rhys made a hasty retreat into Anam’s office, shutting the door firmly behind him. Elder, who had just ascended the stairs nearby, tilted his head. He’d caught Rhys’ expression, filled with a great amount of strain and forced discipline.

    “Is Rhys okay?” Elder asked, but then kept his mouth open upon seeing the elegant Lucario that remained with Willow. “Oh… goodness, Manny.”

    “Yeh don’t wanna know… how much hate I got in my heart righ’ now.”

    Elder looked at the closed door of Anam’s office, then at the Fighting Fairy, and frowned. “Perhaps some time to cool down would be best.” He exhaled a plume of clear smog, then rested his shell near the door.

    <><><> ​

    “So he’s really callin’ himself Dark Matter now, eh?” Manny said.

    “Indeed.” Rhys poured out some hot apple cider for himself, then passed the main teapot to Manny.

    “Pur some fairy dust in it. It tastes way better!” Willow said, waving one of her mushroom spirits in her paws.

    “…Yer not gonna tear off pieces o’ them again, are yeh? That’s weird.” Manny looked at the giggling mushroom.

    “What’s weird about it?”

    “Everything.”

    Willow snorted and pulled off a bit from the cap—earning a loud giggle from the mushroom—and then tossed it into her tiny bowl. The rest of the mushroom disappeared in a puff of mist, returning to Willow’s Realm.

    Elder hummed worriedly. “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the wraiths are trying to attack us any way they can. We can’t afford to let our guards down at all. Willow, your Fairy Realm—is it safe from wraiths?”

    “Well, they can’t get anywhere near my Core, so I think I’m okay.”

    “What security measures do you have?” Rhys asked. This one was curious. Of all the Guardians, Willow was among the weakest, yet her realm was safe from wraiths?

    “Oh, that’s easy. Most entry points will destroy wraiths because of the spicy pits of sugary doom! And even if they get past that, they still have to battle the mushroom giants, and then they have to get across the gumdrop chasms. Oh, and Choco Mountain, and after that, Wafer Ridge…”

    Rhys blinked several times, then looked at Manny.

    “It’s a freaking candy land.” His wings beat once on reflex. “Only reason we got through easily was because the spirits guided us to a weird portal. Looked like a ring. Went through a few of them, actually. Next thing we knew, we were near the Core.”

    “Hrm. So a confusing architecture can thwart the wraiths. That’s good to know. We should probably warn the others about that. Manny, what was your realm like?”

    “Er… simple.”

    “I see,” Rhys hummed. That explained why his realm was so easily overrun. Step’s was quite hostile as well, from what he gathered. ADAM hadn’t spoken of any issues in his realm, either.

    Rhys briefly thought about all the other realms, but then quickly realized that all of the others were either overrun or simply claimed by Dark Matter. Everyone…

    Well, the Trinity still had theirs, but there was no telling how they were doing until they sent others. “Ah, that reminds me… Elder. Could you stay here and discuss with the others? I need to send for a few teams to investigate the Poison and Dragon Dungeons.”

    “Wait, isn’t that sorta a bad idea?” Manny said. “Star said those places’re pretty dangerous fer mortals. I mean, apparently the Dragon Guardian’s fine with mortals, but Poison, I dunno… And there’s that weird barrier protecting the factory that keeps mortals from getting’ there, too.”

    “Hrm, that’s true. But we can’t travel all the way to the Poison swamp on our own, can we?”

    “Well, I could fly there,” Willow said. “I’ll shrink one of you down to come with me. Do we know who Ghrelle would like?”

    Manny thought back, but then growled. “The four that Star said would be fine the first time’re all…”

    Rhys’ expression darkened. That was true. Enet, Owen, Amia, and Gahi were all lost to darkness. The four who Star had considered ‘worthy’ of Ghrelle’s presence, at least from the Altaria’s perspective.

    “Tch… I’ll go,” Manny said, nodding. “Willow can come with, and I’ll take over her body fer a bit when we arrive. How long’s the flight, y’think?”

    “From Kilo all the way to that forest… That’s quite far. Perhaps a day.”

    “Don’t got a choice. Who’s gonna go ter the factory, you?”

    “Zero Isle Spiral and the factory are on the same route,” Rhys said. “I will visit them both without a problem.”

    Elder leaned his huge shell against Rhys. “Hmm, I do wonder, though…”

    Rhys ran his paw along the large Torkoal’s side, watching wisps of smoke escape from the top.

    “Would it really be a good idea for all of you to go alone like that?” Elder hummed. “I don’t know if it’s safe anymore, not with the wraiths.”

    “We don’t have time nor other Mystics to help. ADAM is trying to assist in stabilizing the technology that went down, isn’t he?” Rhys frowned. “All that remains is Willow and I. Manny’s attached to Willow for now. We… have to.”

    Elder hesitated, looking down. “I… I see.”

    An awkward silence followed, but Rhys didn’t have time to think about all the others. If there was any hope of saving them, it would be by defeating Dark Matter—their spirits were probably imprisoned in the Ghost Orb.

    That had to be what happened. And perhaps, if Hecto still can’t find Amia, maybe she—

    “Hecto. Where is he?”

    “What?” Elder said, but Rhys was already stepping out of the Heart HQ.

    “Hecto. He’s how we can communicate with all the others with ease. Why hadn’t we considered that until now?”

    “Well, I suppose part of that would be because of all the panic,” Elder admitted. “We’ve been so busy that—Well, actually, we aren’t really sure where Hecto is, are we? We need to find one of him…”

    “I’ll go look! Do I just call for him a bunch?” Willow stretched her wings.

    “Er, yes, actually,” said Elder with a nod. “I suppose you could try to do that.”

    “Okay!” And she was gone.

    “…Hey, wait, wait, oy! Yeh left me behind! I—” Manny looked at his paws, which were already fading the more Willow distanced herself. The Fairy Lucario let out an annoyed grunt, about to say something, but then his body dissolved into mist completely. His spirit returned to Willow in a blue ember, leaving Rhys alone with Elder.

    “…We should search for backup just in case, Rhys,” Elder said, looking down. “I just don’t want to risk it, and we already know that mortals can handle themselves against wraiths if they have backup. But a Mystic alone can be overwhelmed.”

    The Lucario rubbed his forehead. “And you shouldn’t come with me for this,” he admitted.

    Elder frowned, but nodded. “I’m sorry I’m not much of a fighter, Rhys. It just isn’t part of my capabilities. Perhaps if I trained like Rim, I would be at your level, but… My focus was always imitation blessings. Something I should do here.”

    “No. It’s not a problem,” Rhys said. “I just want to make sure you’re safe, Elder. And… if you’re worried about me, then I’ll search for some talent in town. Almost all of the Hearts are scouting Kilo, though, and we can’t afford to take guards away from the border in case mutants wander here. I might need to look for hidden talent.” Rhys’ paw flashed with cyan flames. “Thankfully, I have just the means to do so. And if they need a boost in power, there’s always that Substitute technique I developed.”

    “Ah—don’t strain yourself too much,” Elder said. “You know how draining that is to your power.”

    “That’s the point,” Rhys said. “A spark of energy is just enough for a boost… If it’s enough to take Demitri and Mispy to their highest forms, then perhaps it can help strengthen other non-Mystics to fight by my side, too.”

    “Just don’t do it immediately,” Elder pressed. “Find… already-strong talent.”

    Rhys nodded, setting off for town. He had already felt a few powerful auras that hadn’t even joined the Hearts; perhaps he could begin there. He already recalled a few that he’d spotted previously: a powerful Incineroar, for one, and a strange Smeargle.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  16. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 81 – Healing

    Spice didn’t take her eyes off of Leo for most of their walk, particularly focused on the bandages around his abdomen. She never realized how thin he was beneath all that fur. The Delphox moved delicately, trying not to aggravate his wounds, and he murmured little curses occasionally as he felt the bandages press against his wound.

    “Maybe they put it on too tight,” Spice said. “They didn’t know their own strength. I can readjust it if you—”

    “I’ll be fine. It needs to be tight. It’ll remind me if I’m moving too fast.” Leo took step after careful step down a trail that no Pokémon had traveled in decades—and it showed.

    Beyond the nonfunctional Waypoint, the early morning sun revealed an expansive, lumpy field of tall grass. The breeze was nice against her scales, and she hoped the morning sunlight would give Leo a bit of energy, too.

    “We should have stayed for one more night,” Spice said.

    “The others might need us at Kilo Village. A day wasted is a day without our help.”

    “You won’t be much help if you’re dead.”

    Leo growled, but kept his eyes trained forward. “Have you slept yet?”

    “Will you stop going on about that?!” Spice hissed, flicking her tail at him—but immediately stopped herself. She kept calm. The last thing she wanted was for her to be the one responsible for his first bandage replacement. She glanced at her bag; it had enough supplies for three replacements in case the wounds bled through.

    That would be more than enough for when they got to the next village, right? They just had to find and follow the river along the way to Kilo.

    “Spice.”

    “Eh? What?”

    “You didn’t actually answer my question.”

    “What was the question?”

    “Did you sleep?”

    “I’m not tired.” Spice picked a stray scale and tossed it aside.

    “How many days has it been, now? Four? What did you do while I was asleep?”

    “Patrolled the village and watched Destiny Tower.” Spice glanced back, and Leo followed her gaze, to the tower where the Spire of Trials had once been. “You can’t see him from here, but Arceus is definitely at the top. Three times overnight, he fired off what I’m pretty sure was his Judgement attack on something up north.”

    She pointed in the vague direction of the northwest. “Guess whatever’s there is a pretty big threat. Maybe when we get closer, we’ll see what it is.”

    “Arceus,” Leo breathed out. “And I mean that literally. He’s actually real. Does that mean the Books were real all along, too?”

    “Who knows?” Spice said, shrugging. “If you ask me, they’re probably just stories because of how powerful they are. But you know what’s also possible? Arceus coming down has everything to do with Orans and everything not working.” She puffed a small cloud of poison, then dispelled it with a smaller plume of fire. “Let’s take it easy for now. One step at a time, right? We’ll get to the next village and see if we can restock on anything.”

    “And maybe we can get you some sleep. You’re looking… agitated, Spice.”

    Spice’s left eye twitched. “I’ve tried to sleep. Drop it. Okay? I’m sick and tired of hearing it, day in day out, get some sleep, get some sleep, I would if I could!” She raised her arms in the air, then crossed them over her chest. “Hope the rest of the team is doing alright.”

    “They should be back at Kilo Village,” Leo said. “And I think—”

    “Wait.”

    Leo stopped. Spice rose a bit higher, straining her spine to straighten her stance completely. She squinted and sniffed the air, then closed her eyes. “Hear that?”

    “What?”

    “Smells like wet dirt, and I think I hear a small waterfall.”

    The tall grass made it hard to see much; it went up to Spice’s chest on her normal stance and tickled her scales. They had to be careful with their fire here unless they wanted to set off a Rain Dance from a feral.

    Her scar was starting to itch again. “Hey, can we hang on for a second?” she mumbled to Leo.

    “What? Oh. Sure.” Leo spotted a small lump of grass nearby and inspected it, making sure it wasn’t some sleeping Pokémon, and then sat down. “Is it bugging you again?”

    “It’s all this grass,” Spice muttered. “My scales are more sensitive where the lightning struck. Just give me a second.” She dug through her bag, little glass vials clinking against one another. She pulled out one with an odd, whitish substance, marked with a yellow dot on the top. She poked her claw on the cork and tugged it out. A bit of the powder puffed out with it, drifting to the ground.

    She poured some of it in her palm and stuck the vial in the grass to keep it upright. From the back of her throat toxic liquid bubbled up; she spat a small drop on the powder, where it sizzled into a yellowish paste.

    The numbing relief that followed upon slathering it over her chest was enough for her to breathe an audible sigh of relief. “Finally,” she mumbled. She let the liquefied powder air out for a while, flaking off with the wind, and brushed aside the rest.

    “Alright. Sorry for the wait.” She recovered the vial, corked it shut, and slipped it back into her bag. “Let’s find that river.”

    After some trial and error, they found a direction where the bubbling got louder, and it was no wonder why they couldn’t see it at first. The tall grass had obscured it and leaned over the river, a mere few feet across. It was shallow, too. But a sudden dip in land made the water just loud enough to spot. “And now, we just follow it,” Spice said.

    “Right.” Leo said, though Spice noticed a bit of breathlessness in his voice.

    “Or,” she said, “we can take a second to relax.”

    “No, I’m—”

    “If you trip, that wound is gonna reopen. Besides, it’s starting to bleed through. I think it’s about time we changed them.” Spice motioned for Leo to turn around, and he reluctantly complied, sitting down by the riverside.

    Leo winced when Spice got to the last few layers of the bandage, sticky and red. His fur got caught in some of it, and she had to pull a bit delicately so it wasn’t too uncomfortable. She looked through her supplies for a certain powder.

    “What’re you doing?”

    “I’m gonna do something that’ll help it heal faster, but it’s gonna hurt. You fine with that?”

    Leo’s lip quivered.

    “Oh, brush off your eggshell. It won’t be that bad.” She pulled out another vial, this one with a blue cap.

    “Wait, wait,” Leo said. “Your hand—isn’t it still a little poisoned from your—”

    “Oh, fine.” Spice rolled her eyes and breathed a plume of fire onto her own fingers, then shoved it in the water. It sizzled, a small cloud of steam rising to Leo’s face thanks to the wind. Spice winced at the cold. “Happy?”

    “Yes.”

    “You know, being too sanitary can make you weak to filth down the line,” Spice said.

    “Says the Poison Type,” Leo mumbled.

    Without warning, Spice smeared the powder onto Leo’s wound, making him yelp and nearly jerk away.

    “Oh, quit it.”

    Leo stifled his whimpers, though his eyes were tightly shut, creases forming over his muzzle. Spice followed up by wrapping another bandage over his waist, making sure it was a little less tight this time, but still tight enough that it wouldn’t slip or jostle around.

    “There, that better? This shouldn’t strain the wound all that much.”

    “A little… Did you have to be that rough?”

    “You were bugging me.” Spice huffed, flicking her tail. “Alright. That’s done with. Let’s just relax and let you gain your breath.”

    “Are you sure?” Leo said. “I’m good to go. I—”

    “You’re a liar is what you are. Just sit still, alright?”

    Leo frowned, but he didn’t protest further.

    This far away from any town or Dungeon was a rare thing indeed. Spice remembered the old days when she was a child, before the southern annexation; no Waypoints to go so conveniently from place to place. Taking a trip to the nearby town meant navigating hills and paths often trotted. If there was an outlaw or some other unruly Pokémon in the way, she remembered her parents taking an alternate route, where the grass was similarly tall, just to avoid them.

    Those were all hazy memories at this point. Vague visions of getting lost in a Dungeon crossed her mind; she remembered an intense, dark feeling, and her mother staring at her in fear. Everything was dark. And then what? Those Dungeons were always cursed; if Spice could credit anything to their insufferable leader, it’d be fixing those.

    “This is a peaceful place, isn’t it?:” Leo asked, breaking Spice out of her memories. “I wonder if civilians ever travel here.”

    Spice paused to remember what Leo had just said. “Doubt it. All this tall grass makes me surprised we haven’t run into any wild Pokémon, actually.”

    Another gentle breeze ran across the field, kicking up loose blades of grass. A few got caught in the fur that stuck out of Leo’s ears. Spice brushed some of them off for him, flinching when a few extra blades went right over her snout.

    “Something wrong?” Leo taunted with a wry smile. “Look at that, a big, strong Salazzle scared of grass.”

    “Shove it.” Spice feigned to jab him in the side, earning a preemptive yelp from Leo. She smirked; he pouted.

    A few Magikarp fell from the higher levels of the river, following the flow. They kicked up dirt on the riverbed, revealing a Wooper that had been lounging in the mud the whole time. Despite the world showing signs of the beginning of the end, the ferals still behaved as they always had. They didn’t care. As far as they were concerned, it was just a thunderstorm without rain.

    “I’m glad it’s still quiet,” Leo said.

    “What?” Spice said, losing her thoughts.

    “All of this. I was worried that when I woke up, the world would be on fire, or a wasteland, or… well, simply not the same.”

    “It isn’t.” Spice looked in her bag. “Waypoints are gone, berries stopped working…”

    “That isn’t very different for you, is it?” Leo asked. “You grew up in the south before annexation.”

    “Not for long,” Spice said. “I was only ten when that all happened.”

    “Old enough to remember.” Leo gave her a little smile. “I don’t really know what that sort of life is like. I was a little Fennekin that lived right next to Kilo Village, in one of the outskirt colonies.”

    “Oh, really? Which one? Maybe on our way, we can pay a visit.”

    “Oh, it is on this side, if we keep heading to the mountain this way…” Leo hummed. “It’s called Yotta Outskirts. It’s sort of a spread-out settlement, one of the biggest in terms of, you know, landmass. Mostly farmland for crops. I wonder if they’re doing alright after, you know… How are they going to deliver all that food?”

    “Well, they can always do it the old southern way,” Spice said. “Get a big, winged Pokémon and fly it around to everyone who needs it. Simple, basic.”

    “And tiring. Those poor wing muscles.” Leo rolled his shoulder. “I can’t imagine.”

    Spice shrugged, but sensed that Leo was feeling livelier than before. “Think we’re about ready to go?”

    The Delphox adjusted his footing and tried to stand on his own, pausing when he felt a strain in his side. Spice held him and helped him up.

    “Thank you.”

    “No problem. Let’s get going.”

    <><><> ​

    He could still smell it, even after getting close to where Amia had been. It smelled a lot like soup back home, some kind of thick, hearty stew, maybe. But that came with risks, and he didn’t want to have his berries stolen. Maybe when he had more energy, or if he was just more prepared in this strange place—or if he was actually evolved, that would’ve been nice—

    Owen grunted, trying to keep his composure. There was no use fretting over that sort of thing. After all, he’d been through it countless times before. Now he just remembered them all.

    “Mom?” Owen called, hoping she was still there. He didn’t smell blood, and he didn’t smell ash or anything burning. Had she been left alone? No rumbles had greeted him during the whole walk, thankfully, but that could change at a moment’s notice. The sooner he got in, the better.

    Amia was where she had been before, though she seemed a lot paler. Her eyes drifted toward Owen, and she motioned weakly at the ground where Owen had set the traps. Once he got closer, he saw the subtle glow of where they had been planted.

    “Nobody came. Good.” Owen sighed and walked over the traps—they didn’t activate to him—and settled down next to Amia. “Hey, do you want to have something to drink first, or the berries? Wait—dumb question. How about I give you the berr—”

    “Water…”

    A chill ran down Owen’s spine. Her voice was so weak. It was like an icy pit had replaced where his stomach had been. “Water. Right. Water.” He pulled one of the tree taffy slices. “It’s not the best, but it really helped me, and the berries will probably have some in it, too. See, that one’s a Pecha. It’s probably got a lot of juice in it.”

    Amia nodded weakly, and Owen handed the tree taffy over. She tried to use the hand clutching at her wound at first, but it was caked in blood. She shifted her weight and nearly fell over; Owen dropped the berry amalgamation and propped her up. “It’s okay, here,” he said, easing it into her mouth for her. She wasn’t able to chew it well, but she got the juice out. When he saw her wince, he smiled nervously. “Sorry, I know it doesn’t taste good, but it’s water. I’ll give you the berries next, okay? How about the Pecha first?”

    Owen tugged a bit harder at the amalgamation, finally breaking loose the Pecha. At the very least, it looked mostly the same compared to a normal one, even if it was attached to a bunch of other berries. Maybe that’s just how the berries grew in this part of the world.

    He peeled off a segment of the Pecha, which broke apart in his claws, and fed it to Amia. Soft fruit. She was able to chew it easily. And then another, and another, and soon the whole Pecha was down, though Amia didn’t look any better. But it was hydrating. It would take time. “Another?”

    Amia seemed unsure, but then looked at the Oran.

    “Right. Let’s get you healed. It’s a little tougher, so how about I break it open?”

    “Okay.”

    Her voice didn’t seem as dry this time, but it was still weak. She gave him a little smile, waiting for the Oran to be cut up. Owen remembered how to cut them into smaller pieces; trace the outside, use a claw to cut along the tougher outer portions, and then break along the segments. Easy enough. He could use the button at the top as a guide. Snap. Snap. Soon he had four pieces. A few more, and it was in eighths, the soft insides spilling juice out. It, too, was a bit… red. Unorthodox. But it was the same as everything else here.

    “Okay, open up.”

    Owen watched Amia’s wound after each Oran slice, but nothing seemed to be happening. He wasn’t the only one with a bit of concern in his eyes. He looked at Amia again. Zena had mentioned that Orans used to not be blessed—that it would be harder to heal. Still, they healed a little. Maybe this place just wasn’t blessed?

    It certainly seemed that way.

    “I’ll get the next one ready,” Owen said.

    He wasn’t sure where she put it all, but every piece of tree taffy, and every berry from the whole bunch, had gone to Amia, and Owen wouldn’t have had it any other way. The taffy would last at least through the… He decided to call it night.

    Amia winced, glancing at her wound again. Her eyes seemed grave, and Owen could understand why. After being a Mystic for so long, having to deal with an injury like that, where it simply didn’t heal after enough time—he couldn’t imagine how scary it must have been.

    “I’ll get more,” Owen said. “I know what to look for now, so—”

    “Stay.”

    Owen had already been halfway out the cave, but he spun on his heel. “St-stay?”

    “I’m feeling better… You’re tired.”

    “Yeah, but you still need more—”

    “No.”

    Owen’s flame twisted and crackled. He was supposed to be helping her, darn it. Not taking orders. But, his eyes were heavy. She probably saw that on him while he was cutting up the berries for her.

    “Please, rest, dear. You’ve done so much…”

    Every word brought a heavier fatigue over his shoulders. Rest sounded nice. “But you’re sure you’ll be okay?”

    “Mm.” Amia motioned at the part of her dress that was draped by her side, so invitingly asking for Owen to curl up over. Owen’s legs carried him there without his input, and soon, he was curled up next to her in a cozy heap.

    Amia’s hand drifted over his back, stroking along his scales, over his head, his shoulders—she found the spot, after all this time. He arched his head back, stretched his legs, and let out a long, drawn out chirp, growl, and then curled back up. How did she always know where to scratch? Did he still have that as a Charizard? He hoped so. Maybe it migrated to between his wings, or…

    Owen’s eyelids fluttered again, then finally rolled to the back of his head. He was so tired. And even though he wasn’t sleeping in his own bed this time, it was with Amia. Hopefully Alex was okay somewhere… They’d have to find him next. And then, maybe he could find everyone else, and find a way out of…

    <><><> ​

    Careful fingers wrapped around Charmander’s neck, squeezing at the extra skin and scales.

    “You’re a healthy one. Looks like your mother took great care of you, huh?” The human behind Charmander moved to his arm next, tapping it. He lifted it on reflex, and they inspected them next.

    “Not just her,” a Marowak growled nearby.

    The one behind Charmander laughed. “Yes, you, too,” she said.

    Charmander’s father growled again to emphasize his point.

    The human rubbed Charmander under the chin. “Okay, little guy. Turn around; let’s listen to your heart.”

    Charmander spun and chirped at the assistant. She had fair skin, dark hair, and a thick, flameproof lab coat on, as well as protective goggles. He knew that those were used because of his fire. With a hint of defiance, he puffed an ember in her face; it brushed against her cheek.

    “Oh, you” she said, rubbing at where he’d hit.

    Another chirp. Then, the human said, “Okay, shh. Don’t chirp for a bit, okay?”

    She brought out a funny device that was attached to her ears, with a little circle at the other end, which she placed on his chest. He didn’t really know what she was saying, but he knew to be quiet when this happened.

    After a little while, she pulled it away and smiled. “Good job, Charmander.”

    He chirped again and looked at Charizard. Her smile was part proud, part elated, and the human said to her, “You’ve got another wonderful child here, Miho. He’s still a little too young to go on an adventure with a trainer, but do you think he’ll be ready?”

    “My son is always ready.”

    Charmander’s flame dimmed. He didn’t understand how Charizard knew what they were saying, but were they talking about the trainers? He looked down. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for that… Or if he wanted to. Why couldn’t he be like Redscale? He never went on an adventure. He just stayed home, and sure, he was getting older, but…

    “Sounds like Amber’s pretty confident,” the human said.

    Charmander chirped uncertainly. “Am I gonna go away soon?” he asked.

    “Soon, little ember,” Charizard replied.

    “But I don’t want to.”

    “Smallflame…” Charizard frowned, looking at the humans.

    The other human, who had been writing things down on a large rectangle that he always carried, said, “Is something going on?”

    “It sounds like Charmander isn’t so sure yet,” the human guessed. “Charizard, is that it?”

    “No, he’s ready,” Charizard said.

    “I’m not!” Smallflame protested.

    “You’re ready.”

    Marowak looked away wordlessly.

    The two humans listened, but it was clear that they could only understand the emotions behind their words, and not the words themselves. But that was simple enough, wasn’t it? Maybe Charmander just had to be a bit more assertive. He looked at the humans and growled. “I’m not going! Ever!”

    “I—I think we upset him a little,” the rectangle-wielding human said.

    “Hmm, maybe he’s just agitated from all the testing. We went on for a while. Let’s just let them rest for now. Sorry, Amber. But he’s wonderful! Perfect health!”

    Charizard was more focused on Charmander, but she gave a little, irritable growl to the human. “Thank you.”

    “G-guh, that was a scary-sounding growl,” the nervous human said.

    The one with goggles grinned. “No, I think she was just saying thank you. She’s just occupied with the little guy. What, you’ve never given an irritated thanks?”

    “I—right. Sorry. I’m still new to all this…”

    “Well, everyone learns. You’ll eventually get a feel for what Pokémon are trying to tell you.” They both walked away, leaving Charmander behind with the others. He didn’t want to look at his mother.

    He didn’t need a stupid human to get stronger, and that was final.

    <><><> ​

    Waking up hungry was a new feeling for Owen, and for a while, he wished he could just find a way to go back to sleep. So cozy. The wave of nothingness was soothing in hindsight. Though, the strange dreams were starting to freak him out. Was that what a human looked like? Where were those memories—those weren’t memories, were they? What was…

    But as soon as the dream had come, it faded. Owen spent a while trying to piece together some of them again, but they were slippery in his mind’s fingers. Maybe if he meditated later, when he wasn’t starving, he could find more of them. He’d thought he had all his memories, but maybe there were more that he had completely lost until now.

    Owen exhaled through his nose and glanced down at his tail, and then at Amia’s dress with a small smile. He tried to roll, but then felt Amia’s hand still on his back, so he stopped. Now it was just awkward. How was he supposed to squeeze out while she was asleep? “M—” He almost called to her, but then figured she wouldn’t appreciate being woken up like that.

    The pain in his stomach reminded him that he still had to get up to find food. Perhaps he had given too much to Amia after all—he should have taken a berry or two. That taffy didn’t give much for him after all…

    Owen carefully crawled from under Amia’s hand, making sure that his tail, even if it was just a dull warmth, didn’t brush against her dress or her hand. Finally, he stood up, stretched his back—he heard a few satisfying pops—and sighed out a chirp. He glanced back to make sure Amia was still asleep.

    She was still slumped over, hand resting where Owen had once been.

    Something seemed off.

    Owen wasn’t sure what. But there seemed to be something bothering him about the image. She was… too still.

    And for a while, so was Owen: still. His blinks were quick, when they happened, like he was searching for any sign of movement from her, his mind immediately snapping to the worst-case scenario. He took a hesitant step forward, like going closer would see the subtle movements of her breathing. He struggled to reach up to her nose to feel her breath, but that’s when he realized that her eyes were half-open, a little smile on her face.

    The surprise made him stumble, his hands instead slamming onto her side. He gasped—she was cold. As cold as the rocks behind her.

    The only part of her that was warm was where he had been resting.

    Thoughts didn’t come to Owen immediately, only a blurry fuzz of muddled words, and even those he didn’t completely understand. His head pounded with the beat of his heart, like it was trying to beat for the two of them. He reached toward Amia again, not thinking, just trying to feel for the cold again, like it wasn’t real. His vision closed into a tunnel, and then a pinprick of light, and then nothing.

    <><><> ​

    “I don’t want to leave you,” Charmander said, wiping tears from his eyes. “It’s not fair!”

    Charizard’s frown deepened. Her strong tail brushed him until he was sitting up, but Charmander kept his face hidden. His body shook with sniffles.

    “Little ember, do you really not want to go with a human? Think of how much stronger you’ll become. The adventures you’ll have, the places you’ll see. You’ll grow wings. And if the adventure doesn’t work out, you’ll still learn and see what the world has. And if, after all that, you still want to come home… Then I’ll be here.”

    “I don’t care what’s out there,” Charmander said. “I want to stay home.”

    “But you’re almost ready to go,” Charizard said. “The humans’ rituals for starting an adventure… They told me a few will be coming soon. You won’t be part of that?”

    “No.”

    Charizard opened her mouth, but suddenly an otherworldly screech, followed by an explosion, filled the air.

    <><><> ​

    Owen woke up with a start, springing to his feet, but then fell over. His nose smashed against the rocks and he smelled metal. With a groan, the Charmander rolled over and looked back—a wraith was staggering away from the cave, burned from one of the Fire Traps.

    Once his heart rate went back to normal, Owen steadied his breath and inspected the floor for the missing glow. He glanced back to see if Amia was doing alright—

    There she was, still motionless, eyes half-open, completely oblivious to the explosion that had protected them.

    She was still cold, and she still wasn’t breathing, and Owen refused to believe it. He stepped back, turned around, and then turned back again, but the sight didn’t change. He felt her wrist for a pulse again, and felt nothing, and her body was stiff. The only sign of movement came from the fact that she had fallen to her side, earning a surprised yelp from Owen, and then a flood of hope. She’d come back to life, and she’d soon grunt from being woken up so rudely. Because the body had moved. Downward, sure, but it moved.

    No movement followed, her limbs twisted unnaturally and uncomfortably, though it wasn’t like she would feel it.

    “Mom?” Owen finally said, barely above a whisper.

    He didn’t even know why he said it, and soon, he was in front of her again, feeling her cheek for some sign of life. And then her arms, and then her head, and her eyes. He couldn’t look at her eyes, yet he had to. He tried to close them, running his hand over the top of her forehead, but they stuck back open. Trying again yielded the same result.

    “C’mon,” Owen said, but he couldn’t bear to try again. He instead pushed her back to a sitting position, but she fell over again. He let out a loud, helpless whimper and rolled her onto her back instead. Her arms stayed rigidly in place. She had to be in a graceful position, he had to get them crossed, why didn’t it work for her, why couldn’t she just—

    Owen tripped over her dress and yelped, sniffling. He could barely see. And his stomach was still twisted in knots. On his back again, he curled up, too lost to figure out if he was supposed to stand or stay there. Would another wraith come? It would just run into another Fire Trap. That didn’t matter.

    The ground rumbled again, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t leave for a while. He should leave, and he knew he had to find a place to go, but not now. He… just couldn’t. He couldn’t.

    Was she in the spirit world now? How would he get there? He wasn’t even Mystic anymore. All of his friends were still looking for him. They were still fighting Anam. Or did the fight end? They would be looking for him.

    But he couldn’t leave! What about Amia? Or at least, what she left behind.

    The isolated Charmander shook his head, taking deep, meditative breaths. It wasn’t working. But he had to think rationally about this… He had no idea where he was, but he at least knew that Amia was probably more worried about him than he was of her. Maybe there was a bright spot to this after all; Amia could tell them where he was. Maybe they would set up a rescue party to find him.

    They wouldn’t be able to find him if he was hiding away in a cave in the middle of nowhere.

    He curled up tighter when another pang of hunger hit him. He glanced at the gnarled vine that had once held those berries, then at Amia. Now that he thought about it, he still smelled… there was a hint of… berry rot. The smell of…

    Owen stopped thinking about it, physically clenching his jaw and fists. He forced himself to his feet and paced left and right, angrily shaking his head. What if he burned her body? That was a proper way to… No, he didn’t have the energy for it. The Fire Traps were too volatile; it wouldn’t… burn it properly. Bury her? He was too small, too weak, and he didn’t have the tools.

    Would Amia understand if he just abandoned her body here? Or maybe he’d just tell her that he buried it, or burned it, because she was the Fire Guardian, and she wouldn’t—no. He was a horrible liar. She’d know.

    His stomach tied itself into knots again and he doubled over. The pain didn’t go away; it was always there, dull and in slow, rhythmic spikes. He had to eat something soon, or…

    Particles of purple dust bushed against Owen’s back; the wind was picking up. It danced behind him in small waves of ruin before finally settling. Some of the dust collected on Amia’s half-open eyes, further clouding them over. The rumbling was getting weaker; the large creature was going away.

    Owen remained still for a while longer, his tail flame crackling once, then twice, and then it dimmed. He stared at Amia’s body for longer than he’d ever admit.

    A horrible thought crossed Owen’s mind, and that’s when he decided to leave.

    “I’m sorry,” Owen whispered, and before he could think twice about his decision, he used what energy he had to sprint out of the cave. He didn’t look back.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  17. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 82 – Casualties

    Angelo leaned his back against the wall, legs crossed. He panted heavily, like he had been running for several miles, and he wasn’t sure if that was actually the case or not. He had been going from room to room for at least the first quarter of the day, ever since Elite Heart Rhys’ announcements. Tireless—but that was a lie, because he’d never felt so tired since his training with his father.

    He saw someone approaching him, and he held up his paw. “P-please, I need a break. I can barely breathe; I can’t use Heal Pulse for a while, please…”

    The Pokémon—Angelo wasn’t even sure who or what it was—left without a word. He felt a pang of guilt for shooing them away so quickly, but what he said had to be the truth. He felt like he was withering away. He’d lost count of how much he had healed the hospitals’ patients.

    A nap sounded wonderful. And maybe lunch, and second lunch. Anything to get his energy back. They still had food, right?

    A blurry figure entered Angelo’s vision again, this one accompanied by the characteristic warmth of a Fire. “Phol?” the Smeargle said, squinting up.

    “How are you feeling? Don’t forget to conserve your energy.”

    “I—I know, of course I know that,” he said, but then something cold was placed in his paws. He squeaked, but then Phol’s strong hands guided Angelo’s to his face. Smelled like a cold smoothie. A straw poked at his snout. “Ow.”

    The cool temperature was all he noticed at first, and it was precisely what he needed. Then came the taste—sweet, and was that a hint of coconut? He usually didn’t care too much for that, but right now, he liked anything that would cool his chest. There was an odd tang, too. He recognized the taste, bringing back bitter memories, but he shoved those away, too. He needed the energy, even if it was from an Elixir.

    “Mmph, I thought these weren’t good anymore?” Angelo said, looking up. “All blessed items stopped, didn’t it?”

    Phol shrugged. “Only some Elixirs failed. Some of them are just made with certain mixtures of ingredients, and that seemed to be enough. Pechas, Rawsts, a lot of them are working just fine, too. They aren’t blessed; they’re just natural.”

    “Then Orans were blessed,” Angelo mused aloud.

    “Sitrus as well, even if they’re harder to come by.”

    Angelo took another deep sip, the tang overtaken by the creamy taste of yoghurt and berry mash. He had to pause, losing sense of everyone else around him, to savor that refreshing gulp.

    “You healed nearly half of all the patients here, you know,” Phol said.

    “I—I did? I think I burned myself out, to be honest…”

    “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

    The words themselves should have been disapproving, but Angelo heard something else in Phol’s tone. Pride? Praise? Angelo curled his paws, humming. “You mean I did well?”

    “You did more than everyone else here. Good job.” Phol looked ahead. “Anyway, I need to make sure everything’s in order. Let us know when your strength is back, but I think the major influx of patients is taken care of.”

    Angelo looked up, spotting a furrowed expression on Phol. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

    “…Just rest for now. I’ve got some things to tend to, but they aren’t anything you need to worry about.”

    “Er, right.”

    The Incineroar left him alone again, and the tension in his chest left with him. Angelo sighed, deflating against the hard wall, and looked at his half-finished smoothie. Why did Phol get that for him, anyway? It would’ve been nice if he had something with banana in it. Those were always amazing. Apples, too. Apples and bananas… maybe some yoghurt with it? And ice. Was Ludicolo Café still open? Maybe he could escape for a nap there.

    “Smeargle?”

    Oh, sweet merciful Arceus.

    “Yes?” Angelo looked up. His breath caught in his throat; he sprang to his feet and gave a quick bow to the Lucario before him. “H-hello, Elite Heart Lucario Rhys. Er, I, sorry if I’m looking—er—unbecoming or anything—”

    “Your aura. You’re very powerful, aren’t you?”

    Oh, stars, why does he know that? Oh, that aura sense—why do Lucario have to be so prying?!

    “No, I’m just—er—strained a bit from Heal Pulse. I Sketched it a long time ago, you see, er… Just had to tune my aura to bring it back to the surface. Smeargle are odd Pokémon in that way, don’t you think?”

    But Rhys stared for a little while longer, eyes trained on him, and Angelo knew that wasn’t going to be the end of it. He braced for the line of questioning, the same questioning he always got whenever he showed even an ounce of talent. Just leave me alone. I just want to go home, sleep, and forget any of this happened…

    “No, I know what aura strain looks like, and it’s certainly not this,” Rhys said in a hum.

    Angelo cursed in his mind, hoping Rhys couldn’t read that, too. “Er—I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just an artist, Lucario. Maybe you’ve seen my work around town? Like, er, the menu inside Sugar ‘n Spice?”

    “Oh, you made that?” Rhys said, eyes widening with surprise. “Goodness, small world. It’s lovely.”

    His heart fluttered. “You really think so?”

    “Oh, of course. One of my students actually—” Rhys cut himself off for some reason, puzzling Angelo. His expression became grave again. “I’m sorry, I got distracted.”

    No, wait, stay distracted!

    “Could you come with me for a mission when the healing is over?” he said.

    Angelo hesitated, looking off. He was already feeling tired from all the healing. Maybe he could go on for a little longer, but he didn’t want to admit that; they’d be able to handle this on their own.

    “I think I’m done with healing for the day, actually. They have everything covered. But I don’t think I’m cut out for doing anything crazy, um, with all due respect. I’m just an artist.”

    “Just an artist?” Rhys pressed. “But your aura is incredible.”

    Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be? Angelo thought bitterly. For an instant, he didn’t see a Lucario before him, but another Smeargle with an infectious, proud smile. Just let me go home. “Sorry, I just don’t have a fighter’s heart. Normal civilian here. I, er, I was never interested in all that Heart business—just too dangerous.”

    “I understand,” Rhys said, “but this is a crisis situation, and you have one of the strongest auras in town. Please, can you accompany me somewhere for a simple mission? A very simple mission. …Also, do you happen to know Fly?”

    If I say no, will you believe me? “I do, er, but it might take me a moment to tune myself to it.”

    “Tune yourself…” Rhys frowned. “Don’t Smeargle completely lose access to a Sketched move once they tune to another? They can only have so many cling to their auras.”

    How could I forget about that?! Angelo tensed, which earned a concerned look from Rhys, and that just made things worse. At this rate, he was either going to think he was a lunatic, or he was going to peg him as some kind of crisis deserter. And sure, he was that, but that didn’t mean Rhys had to know it. For shame! The Elite Heart, asking him for something in a time of crisis…

    He had no choice.

    “Er, right. I’m actually part of a bit of a… talented line of Smeargle. My father was the same way, and his mother, and her father, and so on… A bit obsessed with preserving the lineage, actually. Er—sorry, rambling.” He cleared his throat. “I guess you could say we have a vast aura. We can recall any move that we had Sketched; we don’t have to re-Sketch it from anybody. Sketch it once, and as long as we have time, we can relearn it just as any Pokémon can relearn a move they’d buried away.”

    The more Angelo spoke, the more Rhys’ eyes seemed to light up, albeit subtly. He had a sinking feeling why.

    “Angelo,” Rhys said. “Your father, I mean. He was a Heart.”

    And there it is.

    “Yes,” he said, bowing his head. “Died early, of course. That also runs in the family because they just can’t stop overworking themselves. So, I carry on the title. Smeargle Angelo, once Junior, now just… well, without title.”

    “Your father and I were acquaintances for a time,” Rhys said, eyes showing just a small flash of nostalgia.

    That only made Angelo want to shrink down further.

    “Sorry—I didn’t mean to talk of the past. But do you need anything before we go?”

    It wasn’t even his choice to begin with, was it? “Just some time to gather my strength,” Angelo said. “What do I have to do?”

    “I need you to come with me to a place across the sea. It’s a bit of a long flight, but with your power and some energy, we should be able to make it.”

    Angelo had to make sure he heard him right before repeating, “Across the ocean? What do you mean, across the ocean? There’s nothing out there except… Well, nothing! There are rumors about a tiny island, but after that, you’ll just go all the way around to the north.”

    “There is something there,” Rhys said. “We need to check on it, but it’s dangerous for me to go alone. If you could just come along? I also need to find one other person, another strong aura—do you happen to know any?”

    “No, sorry.”

    “Then I’ll continue looking. Can I meet you in Kilo’s eastern exit by noontime?”

    Angelo checked the shadows outside. They were still a bit angled against the street that split Kilo in half. He had a lot of time to just duck into Ludicolo Café for a quick rest. “Sure. I’ll see you then.”

    Finally left alone, Angelo rose to his feet and tiptoed his way out of the hospital. He made a lazy glance at the patient list; most of them were checked off. That was good enough. Without looking back, he slipped out and paced down the road.

    A while later, Phol returned breathlessly. “Second wave of casualties is incoming. All healers gather up! We’ll need everyone!” He looked for Angelo. “Where’s Smeargle?”

    <><><> ​

    Angelo relished his precious few seconds of isolation in Ludicolo Café. The stools were the same as always, and the tables were mostly empty—people were too busy on getting everything in order on their end, but Angelo wasn’t too concerned about that for now. Instead, he placed an order for a simple apple smoothie and closed his eyes. The Elixir shake was nice, but the bitter tang left an aftertaste that he wanted to wash away with something purely sweet. Apples were just the treat. And apples with sugar? Even better.

    He made a mental note to consider healthier alternatives next time.

    Yet, despite this, that bitter taste didn’t go away. Though now it was all mental—because he knew there was still one last job he had to do today, all thanks to that Elite Heart’s request.

    Angelo groaned and pulled his hat down, hoping he wasn’t messing up the fur that constructed its shape. He just wanted darkness over his eyes. “Why me?” he muttered aloud.

    “Um, your apple shake,” Ludicolo said, placing it on the table.

    “Ah! Oh—sorry, sorry.” Angelo sprang up, straightening his hat-fur again, and then looked down at the drink. Left alone again, Angelo took a few tentative sips, and then glanced at the entrance. He half-expected to see Rhys there, waiting for him to go. And he’d probably be obligated to comply, too.

    Before he knew it, his drink was empty, and he sighed. All things considered, he should probably get back, but a little longer of taking a break never hurt anyone. He looked at his paws, wondering if they were still shaking, but they were stable. Guess all I needed was a bit of sugar…

    He sighed, slipping off of his seat. Perhaps a little bit of rest was what he needed after all. The little excursion could do him some good; the hospital was so depressing with everyone panicking. And he’d already healed half of them—they could handle the rest.

    He left Ludicolo Café and took a deep breath of the early autumn air. Was it that time of the year already? It certainly didn’t feel like it. He should check the leaves the next time he left Kilo Village.

    An uncomfortable thought crossed his mind. When was the last time he’d set foot out of the village? He usually spent most of his time at home with his commissions, or working on his comic, and only really went out to gather groceries. His last time going out, that was…

    Dad…

    Angelo grumbled to himself, his mood instantly soured. Maybe I can back out if I say I’m not feeling well.

    A slow walk back to the hospital reminded Angelo that he’d completely forgotten where he was supposed to go to see Rhys. Did he really want to go back and be asked to do everyone’s healing again? Maybe he could sneak back home and snooze. It was about that time for an afternoon nap, too.

    The hospital looked a lot more crowded than before. Before Angelo had the chance to spin on his heel to leave, his curiosity got the better of him, and he got a little closer. Phol was yelling orders at someone; other Pokémon—Angelo recognized them as healers—tripped over one another and shoved past mildly injured Pokémon in favor of others that were deeper in the facility.

    A Clefable waved a Corsola in the air, scattering a cool mist through one of the rooms. Angelo tilted his head, following the two in time to feel the refreshing effects of Life Dew reenergize him. “Er—did something happen?” he asked Clefable.

    “Some village northwest was attacked by a stray mutant. Some kind of—I don’t know what it was, but everyone who fought it became seriously injured. The whole village ran to bring them here.”

    “Shake me again!” Corsola shouted.

    Clefable complied, more Life Dew seeping into the room.

    Inside, several Pokémon were lined up on the floor, varying shapes and sizes, but all of them barely conscious.

    “An entire village is in the hospital right now?” Angelo said, squeaking.

    “Yes—please, do you know Heal Pulse?”

    “Yes, I—”

    “Go to room 5E, they’re short. Hurry!”

    “Okay, where’s—”

    “Just follow the hall!”

    Angelo sputtered an affirmative and weaved past a few more, only for the powerful grip of an Incineroar pulled him back. “Yaaah!”

    “Angelo,” Phol hissed. “Where have you been?”

    “I—I—”

    Phol picked Angelo up and hauled him over his shoulder. “We need you in 5E, and then the neighboring rooms. They’re all critically injured.”

    “Critically? How badly were they—”

    “Just focus on healing and don’t focus on the injuries.”

    Soon, Angelo was set back down and urged forward. Phol left before he had a chance to reply. There weren’t many healers here… The silence was ominous. The buzz behind him was muted.

    “Hello?” Angelo called, stepping inside. “I’m here to—”

    They were lined up on the ground, several of them unconscious or close to it. Burns—he recognized them as being from Hyper Beams, based on the circular patterns that covered most of the large ones’ bodies—and lightning scars covered most of them, and even worse. He approached the first one—a Slowking that was more black than pink. He channeled a Heal Pulse into him, washing away most of the injuries like dirt under a waterfall. Slowking groaned loudly and rolled to the side; dead scales fell away, revealing a fresh coat underneath. They looked sensitive and discolored compared to the rest—had the wounds already settled in?

    No, of course they had. Without berries or Revivers or Waypoints—they had traveled all the way to Kilo Village on foot?

    He moved to a Boltund next. She whined with every attempted movement, but a Heal Pulse soothed her enough so she simply fell asleep. He checked her pulse, and then her breath; both were weak, but stable.

    Then there was a Druddigon, but he wasn’t moving at all. He was clutching his side, frozen in time; it looked like bandages had been hastily placed there, only for them to break open and bleed out. “Hey, it’s alright,” Angelo said softly, and then channeled a Heal Pulse into him.

    Nothing happened.

    “Er—” Angelo pulled his hand away, staring at the unmoving Pokémon. The blood was slowing, but he had a sinking feeling that wasn’t because of the Pulse. It pooled everywhere.

    He hadn’t noticed until now, but there was a trail of blood from where he had been, all the way to the entrance, and further down the hall. “Hey, wake up,” Angelo said shakily, sending another Heal Pulse toward Druddigon. It passed through uselessly and struck a nearby Rhydon, slumped against the wall behind Druddigon. Most of the Rhydon’s wounds went away, but the fact that it passed through at all…

    Angelo didn’t have any aura sense. He didn’t need it. Yet, despite this, he still shakily stepped toward Druddigon and held a paw against his neck. It sank in; he felt no pressure. His limb was stiff.

    No no no no no.

    He had been alive recently. Had to have been. Could he try it again? Heal Pulse—it was supposed to be easy, right? Just—just bring them back from the brink! These Pokémon were well past a usual duel’s results. A Heal Pulse was barely enough for some of them, yet…

    He moved on to the next Pokémon, healing him quickly. The fatigue was starting to set in, but Angelo ignored it and healed the next, and the next. How many were left? There were at least twenty Pokémon.

    Someone was crying in the other room.

    His vision was fuzzy; he didn’t even know why he was doing all of this. Did he even have enough energy for the next room? He was out of practice. Been out of practice for years. Why was he here?

    Keep pushing, Junior! Dig deep and find that inner power!

    Angelo shook the voice from his mind. He didn’t have any energy left. And once the final Pokémon was healed, he staggered back to see his handiwork. Two of the Pokémon in the room hadn’t reacted to his Heal Pulse. The remaining twenty were anywhere between bad to stable.

    “Unngh…” The Rhydon he had healed opened his eyes. The barely-healed Pokémon dizzily stared at Druddigon, smiling. He glanced at Angelo. “Thanks…” And then, he tried to reach for Druddigon. “Dad… Looks like we made it…”

    It felt as if Angelo’s temperature had halved. The last thing he saw was Rhydon holding his father’s dead shoulder; after that, Angelo bolted.

    <><><> ​

    A bright green blur raced through the dark forest, tearing through dead branches and leaving nothing but a storm of twigs behind. “Rrgh, it all looks the same! C’mon!” Gahi twisted around and slammed his tail on the ground. Molten earth erupted behind him, followed by a shriek. A blob of darkness dissipated into nothing but smoke.

    “Yeah, don’t think yeh can sneak up on me that easy,” he growled.

    He glanced at the sky, hoping that he’d have some vague sense of time, but that was useless with how it was just red, always. He didn’t know why he even bothered. He was obviously trapped in some kind of nightmare-realm made by Anam’s demon spirit, so that probably meant he was somewhere in the Ghost Orb. This was a pretty big Orb, since apparently it went on forever!

    Owen’s latent knowledge about flying in a random direction to go into Aether Forest didn’t work, either. So, he was obviously also trapped in the Ghost Orb.

    He also had a vague feeling that he wasn’t supposed to be going in circles. Instead, he had the slightest feeling that he had to go forward, which he felt was supposed to be southeast. He felt something in that direction. What was it? Hopefully something that was less monotonous than a bunch of useless crystals. Still, it bugged him if he left those behind—and so, he now had three diamond-shaped gems in his claws, each one a different color.

    A few more quick dashes through the forest, the dead trees a blur that only he could comprehend, and he suddenly stopped and listened.

    Going above the treetops was a bad idea. The last time he’d tried that, he couldn’t even count the number of dark beams that came from the forest from all directions. His shoulder still ached from that attempt. So, instead, the Flygon grunted and followed the now slightly stronger feeling to the left. Yes, where was that coming from?

    He crept through the last of the trees and sensed movement. But at the same time, that movement stopped. Gahi narrowed his eyes, trying to tune his hearing for anything odd. His antennae twitched, but they wouldn’t be nearly as useful as Owen’s horns. Too bad he wasn’t around to help.

    Gahi suppressed a growl and crept forward again. Something was ahead, but he didn’t have the instincts to creep forward the way a feral would. He folded his wings back, worried that even a strong breeze would make them whistle, but in his distracted shuffling, he stepped on a fragile twig. Gritting his teeth, he stared forward, but he heard nothing.

    One more move. It was right behind the tree. Was it friend or foe? Should he call out? No, that could give him away, if it was an enemy.

    He knew what he had to do. Just grab it. Grab it quickly—he had the speed—and figure out what to do after that. Maybe pin it down, or toss it in the air.

    Gahi tensed his muscles and felt the aura around his body shift, readying for a blink-speed run. He’d only have a split-second, but that was all he needed.

    One moment, he was in front of the tree, and in another, his green, gleaming body was on the opposite side in a blurry curve. He grabbed the hiding creature and shouted, “Hah!”

    But it was just a mound of dirt and twigs under his claws. “Eh—”

    Something lightweight slammed on the back of his neck, earning an irritated grunt. “What’s—” He tried to reach for it, but a thin vine smacked his hand away. “Yow! Oy! What’s yer—”

    “It’s rude to sneak up on someone like that,” said a familiar, yet extremely high-pitched voice.

    Gahi spun around, but something stuck to his shoulder. He reached for it, feeling a thick, tough vine. Pulling it forward, the rest of the creature followed, dangling in front of him with an irritated glare.

    “…Trina?” Gahi said to the Snivy.

    “If the accent is anything to go by, you’re Gahi?” Trina said. “I hope this isn’t how you normally greet others.”

    “Eh—no.” Gahi didn’t let go of her, though. “And yer a Snivy because…?”

    “It isn’t really something I know the answer to,” Trina said. “How ironic that despite the fact that I take care of your kind, I wound up being the first one to be reduced to my lowest form.”

    “So yeh really never devolved any of ‘em?” Gahi said.

    “No. I hadn’t considered it. I only wanted to put them in a more stable mental state.”

    “Oh, right, yeah. Figure you wouldn’t’ve known about that whole thing.” Gahi tilted his head left and right. “Guess you just turned ‘em inter yer soldiers instead.”

    Trina’s huge eyes narrowed to a glare. “I didn’t turn them into soldiers,” she said. “I gave them all the opportunity to leave if they wished.”

    “Yeah, after brainwashing them.” Gahi shrugged.

    “I wasn’t—”

    “Look, it’s fine. If you wanna get in a philosophy debate about yer methods, go talk ter Owen when I find the guy. I don’t care. It was like yeh said, right? We’re mutants, so we choose who we wanna fight, but we’re fighters. You just gave ‘em a choice.”

    Trina blinked, but then shook her head. “You don’t understand what I was actually doing for them, do you? Just because I can alter the mind doesn’t mean I do.”

    “But yer the Bug Guardian. Don’t those guys kinda like workin’ in hives and all that?”

    “What an awful stereotype! Perhaps for feral Combee, but—”

    “They call you Queen Trina.”

    Trina opened her mouth to retort, but she interrupted herself several times. Eventually, she just sighed and said, “That was something they came up with themselves. I didn’t enforce it.”

    “Uh-huh. Didn’t stop it, either.”

    The Snivy growled, her one vine twitching in Gahi’s grip while the rest of her body hung limply in thin patience. “I suppose I’ll just wait for Owen, then.”

    Gahi shrugged. “Maybe we c’n figure out why yeh got all tiny, too. But, heh, well, yeh look cuter that way, so that’s a start.”

    Trina growled. “I’m not supposed to look cute. I have a regal image to keep up! If my subjects saw me like this…” She glared at the gnarled tree roots. “We need to find a way out of here that doesn’t involve being burned away.”

    “Eh? What’re yeh getting at?”

    Trina didn’t reply immediately, her expression becoming pensive. Gahi wondered if she was trying to gather exactly what she meant for herself; burning away? He didn’t feel anything like that, aside from getting blasted by shadows, but he had shaken that off. It had been more like a cold burn, too.

    “It’s how I became a Snivy, or at least, what might have led to it.” Trina motioned in a vague direction behind her. “I was exploring this forest for some sort of landmark—as a Serperior—and found a distortion. It was a Dungeon. But once I found the exit, I felt myself… evaporating. I had been in such a rush to get away from the Dungeon, though, that I couldn’t get back in time before I realized what was happening. The next thing I know…” Trina frowned, motioning to herself with her arms. “Everything goes dark. There was this horrible feeling in that darkness—I fought against it, somehow, and… woke up here. As a Snivy.”

    “Huh…”

    “I premise the same didn’t happen to you,” Trina said, eyes going up and down his Flygon body.

    “Nope.” Gahi leaned forward and bumped the top of his head under Trina, earning a surprised shout. Gahi grabbed a vine that had reflexively shot from her shoulder and brought it down to his neck. “Guess yer gonna ride on me fer a bit.”

    “This is degrading.”

    “Oh, okay,” Gahi said, plucking Trina off. He dropped her to the ground, where she landed with a soft pomf against the dusty ground.

    Trina tried to dust herself off with her vines—her tiny arms were almost as useless as when she had mere leaves for hands as a Serperior—and then looked at Gahi’s thigh. Humiliating—so small that she’d been reduced to thigh-height…

    She didn’t need to look up to know Gahi was smirking.

    “You’re mocking me.”

    “Wanna walk on yer own?”

    Trina crossed her vines and turned her head away. “I said it was degrading. I’m not going back on that.”

    “Bah! Get over it.” He thumped his tail on the ground. “If yer that low ter the ground, and somethin’ attacks, no tellin’ what it’ll be, got it? So get over it, go on my head, and you’ll be safer.”

    “Really, you want that?” Trina said. “After all you just ranted to me about?”

    “Ranted? C’mon, I’m just sayin’ the truth. Besides, yer still an ally, ev’n if yer methods’re shady.”

    “Yet you’d still lower yourself to carrying me.”

    Gahi couldn’t squint his eyes further. “You just said it was degrading, what’re you—”

    “Yes, I did. I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about—”

    “So what’s that make me, super-degraded?”

    “What?”

    “What do you mean, what, you just—”

    “Hold.” Trina raised a vine.

    Despite how tiny she was, Gahi listened with an irritated snort. A small plume of indigo fire escaped his nostrils.

    Trina lowered her vine and watched Gahi’s tail as it thumped on the ground, kicking up a small plume of dirt from a dry patch of the ground. “Yes,” Trina said. “I said it was degrading, to let me ride you. And I don’t want to perpetuate your feelings by doing that, if that’s how you’re going to be. I won’t play that game.”

    “Game? What in Mew’s pink a—this ain’t a game, I was offerin’! You gotta drop yer pride and accept it.”

    “…Excuse me? Drop my pride?” Trina rubbed her eyes irritably. “I don’t understand you. I have no pride to drop here. Putting you in a lower position would mean you would be shedding your pride.”

    It was Gahi’s turn to rub his eyes, even going so far as to pluck off his lenses and groan. “Baaah, I don’t get you! Yer small! I’m big! Ride me!”

    “Even after what you said? I thought you wouldn’t want to be a soldier.”

    “It ain’t like that.”

    “Then you don’t find it degrading?”

    “Well, maybe fer you.”

    “I don’t find it degrading at all.”

    “BUT YOU JUST—” Gahi’s claws squeezed together, then tugged at his huge antennae. “You said it was degrading.”

    “For you.”

    Gahi blinked at this, trying to repay what little of the argument he could remember. It had gone so quickly that he couldn’t even remember precisely what had started it.

    While Gahi snapped his lenses back on, Trina continued. “It’s degrading to you to carry me. If you feel that I treat your kind as servants, I’m not going to put you in that same position.”

    “That… wha…” Gahi felt a headache coming on. “I don’t care about that. I ain’t yer servant. I’m just helpin’ you.”

    The Snivy continued to stare, vines crossed. “…And you’re sure? It’s as I said. I won’t let someone offer their services to me if it means they’re lower.”

    “N… nah, that ain’t how I see it.” Gahi squeezed his left antennae thoughtfully, ignoring the disorienting feeling that it gave him. “Yer small. That’s it. Willow did th’ same thing.”

    “I don’t care much for Willow’s treatment of others.” Trina frowned and concentrated her focus on Gahi’s left, gleaming wing. “But if you truly don’t mind, then I will ride you.”

    “Yeah, jus’ phrase that better next time,” Gahi said, leaning forward to pick up the slightly flustered Snivy from the ground again. “Were you really gonna just go on foot if I got all offended?”

    “Yes.” Trina looked down. “I know that your group would be unsure of me and my methods, and even if I try to prove myself, that lingering doubt remains. I don’t want to exacerbate it if I don’t need to.”

    “Mm. So that’s how it is, eh?” Gahi frowned.

    “What do you mean?” Trina mirrored his expression.

    “Nah, nothin’. Just… didn’t think you actually cared.”

    A confused silence permeated Trina’s general aura. During that time, Gahi leaned forward and helped Trina onto his head again, and then started walking.

    The Flygon puffed out a small plume of dragon fire. “I thought all the stuff you said was just sweet nothin’ stuff. Trying to win us over, y’know, manipulate more people to join yer ranks. Guess I’m just paranoid after bein’, y’know, created ter be a weapon.”

    Trina shifted her weight; Gahi felt that she was leaning forward, resting her chin between his antennae. She wrapped her vines around his neck, finding a good equilibrium.

    “Figure I owe yeh an apology fer that,” Gahi muttered. “Y’ain’t so bad, if y’were gonna go without a ride just ter prove a point.”

    “It was petty,” Trina said, looking away. “I would not have gotten far on my own. I had spent most of my time hiding since I woke up as a Snivy.”

    “Mm.” Gahi tried to look up, but couldn’t see her.

    Trina chuckled, finally resting her full weight on the top of his head, rather than resting on her shoulders. “Gahi?”

    “Yeah?”

    “I suppose I owe you a bit of an apology, too. You’re much more intelligent than I gave you credit for.”

    Gahi grumbled, flapping his wings once. “What, just because I talk funny, I’m stupid?”

    “No. I just know you from how Lygo used to be,” Trina said. “Headstrong, perhaps more interested in the fastest way to fix something than a more careful approach?”

    He couldn’t deny that one.

    “But you wouldn’t have gotten this far without at least a little intelligence. And the way you ended up trying to evaluate me…” Trina shrugged. “I think that was something unexpected of you.”

    A wind blew through the forest and her leafy tail tickled his neck. He tried to ignore it. Gahi’s attention turned back to the forest and its dull repetitiveness

    “Do you have a destination in mind?” Trina asked.

    “Just followin’ my gut,” Gahi said, holding up his claws to show the three crystals he’d been carrying.

    “Hm? What are these?”

    “Dunno. Keep pickin’ these things up. Every time I get a feeling that there’s somethin’ there, I find these.”

    “I see…”

    “And I also felt it when I ran inter you. So what, you got one?”

    “No, I don’t. But I had a similar feeling… Though, I was too small to get close. And it felt a bit aimless.”

    “Got any better ideas on where ter go?”

    “Well, no.”

    Gahi shrugged, nearly making Trina lose her balance on his head. “Eh, sorry,” he mumbled, keeping his head steady. “If I had better shoulders, I’d put yeh there.”

    “It’s not a problem.” She wrapped her vines more firmly around his neck—which was much thicker than she was—and asked, “Then we just keep searching until we find something new?”

    “Yep.”

    Trina sighed. “Very well. And hopefully we can find something to eat, too. I don’t know why, but… I’ve been hungry for the first time in… generations. My Mystic powers are suppressed, perhaps?”

    “Maybe.” Gahi nodded to himself. “I haven’t been Mystic all that long. I only know that from Owen. Guess it must be weird needin’ sleep and food all over again. Heh. Privileged existence, if y’ask me.”

    “Hmph. I suppose it was, but it’s only a fair exchange for everything we have to deal with.”

    “Heh.” Gahi smirked in reply, but he didn’t disagree. He wasn’t really sure what to think about the fact that he was a Guardian, too—or at least, for a fleeting moment, he used to be. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside him, he still had that Psychic power. He just had to awaken it again.

    “Let’s keep going,” Trina said. “Maybe we’ll find—”

    A bolt of lightning, followed immediately by a bone-shattering thunderclap, knocked loose branches from their flimsy trees.

    Trina looked up; she had seen the bolt, black like Kilo Village’s crater. She squinted at what she thought was something blue in the otherwise red sky. “…Hm. I think I found that something.”

    “Eh?” Gahi followed the vine Trina used to point. “…A Druddigon?”

    “You said flying above the trees is dangerous,” Trina said. “How quickly can you weave between them?”

    “Watch me.” Gahi crouched down, predicted the Druddigon’s landing site, and disappeared in a green blur.

    -------------

    Author's Note: And... all caught up.

    Congratulations, everybody, we did it: this thread is now fully caught up with the FFN, Wattpad, and AO3 platforms. You can no longer feel behind compared to everyone else! This also means, however, that uploads will now be slower here starting next week. I'll be finishing and uploading chapter 83 on March 29. After that, chapters will come once every TWO weeks, instead of weekly. Thanks everyone for keeping up with the story, and I hope you continue to enjoy what's to come! Because Owen won't. For those who didn't want to see any HoC-specific communities until you were caught up, you're now caught up.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  18. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 83 – Stew

    If it wasn’t for how thirsty he was, he would have been crying for a lot longer, but some part of Owen kept that from happening. He still couldn’t accept it. Amia…

    He couldn’t remember what cave she had been left behind in. And he had no way to sense where she had gone, either. He was lucky enough to have the sense to bring the green crystal with him, but now that Amia was gone, he couldn’t sense where she had been. It must have been tied to her aura.

    Now, all Owen could do was follow that smell of stew. It was weaker than the day before—maybe because there was less of it—but that also meant there had been a lot before. Surely, they would have some to spare for him.

    At this point, Owen had been more focused on one step after the other than anything else. He didn’t want to think too much about what had happened, not until he had food in him. Otherwise… Perhaps he’d wind up seeing Amia a lot sooner than intended.

    Another rumble shook the ground—they were becoming more frequent lately—and Owen dashed to one of the rocks, ducking behind each one now that the rumbles were so close.

    He was starting to get reckless and desperate. The smell was so strong. He had to be close.

    A booming shockwave cracked above him. Owen fell to the floor, covering the top of his head. Another one of those roars followed—the windy shriek of a giant. He whimpered loudly, trying to drown it out, until it finally passed. His chest felt like mush, yet his heart felt tight. He gasped for breath, not realizing that he had held it for so long. The very end of a dark blast, its faded particles shimmering like black-purple sparks, flew far above him.

    They were different from the corrupted light that had been used to suppress his evolution, yet the colors still reminded him of that. And that, in turn, reminded him of his tiny, Charmander body.

    At least it meant he wouldn’t have to find as much food to support himself.

    What was that blast? Owen looked up again, but the rumbles were becoming louder. He had to hurry if he wanted to avoid it. He continued to duck between larger rocks, using what little energy he had to sprint between the ones that were too far away, until he spotted a small cave.

    He had to risk it. The smell was strongest from there.

    He was mere steps away from the entrance when a shadow in the corner of his vision crawled across the ground. He stared at it, then looked up on reflex. His pupils narrowed in terror—something black was flying in the sky. He didn’t have time to judge the size or whether it saw him—he only scampered into the cave, not looking back, and then tripped over a small, raised platform.

    “Urf—” He didn’t smash his face this time, at least. The ground shook again and a few loose rocks hit the dusty ground outside. Softer. It was going away. And he didn’t see that flying creature’s shadow, either.

    With the immediate danger out of the way, he could finally focus on his surroundings. He brought his tail forward, holding it like a torch, and found nothing but a large, stone pot in the middle, over a dying fire made from wood that he recognized as being from the forest.

    Without thinking, he ran toward the pot—which was twice his height—and tried to think of how to get inside. He scanned for any wraiths, but found none. There didn’t seem to be any traps—but who else could make traps like him? He just had to climb up and get some.

    Little bowls were scattered around nearby. Had this place been recently abandoned? Probably because of that huge titan. Could it smell the food? That would’ve gotten its attention…

    Owen pressed his hand against the stone bowl, hoping it was light enough that he could at least roll it to get inside. The moment he did, he felt a jolt of energy rush through him. He yelped in surprise and pulled his hand back, shivering—it was warm, but it also felt like he had been hit by one of Enet’s sparks. He poked it again and felt the same spark—so that was the trap.

    The food was right there and he couldn’t even eat it.

    Some primal part of the Charmander made him pace around the bowl several times in a wide circle, looking for an opening. There had to be something he could get out of this—anything! How could he tip a bowl over without touching it? Or did he just have to power through it? No, even then, he was too weak. It was probably too heavy.

    If only it wasn’t hooked up with a trap!

    A trap…

    Owen looked at his feet, a thoughtful chirp escaping him. What if he…

    Owen stomped his foot near the base of the bowl, channeling a bit of energy into the ground. Then, for good measure, he did another—feeling the strain on his body. He had to stop there.

    He took a few steps back. Narrowing his eyes at the base, he tried to activate them remotely. Just a little more… Ugh, I can’t concentrate… He could only think about the food inside. He grabbed a pebble instead and readied a Protect in case it went flying back at him. He tossed it onto the trap, using it as a focus, and then crossed his arms.

    The explosion tipped the bowl over completely, the contents sloshing heavily. Some of it spilled out, but it looked like the pot had only been a fifth of the way full. Still, that was more than enough for him, and Owen let out a series of celebratory chirps and embers into the air. He scrambled to the stew, not caring that it was only warm and not hot. Manners were a thing of the past; he shoved his hands into the brownish-red porridge, pulling out chunks of meat and berries without thought. He even saw some of that tree taffy in the mix, but he didn’t care. Food! It was food!

    Owen sniffled, taking a break to blink away a few of his tears, and kept eating. It’s so good, he thought to himself, his desperate sobs of relief the only thing that kept him from eating even faster.

    I’m a mess, Owen thought, trying to calm himself down once he realized how savage he’d been. But if those strange dreams were anything to go by… what if that’s just how he was? No—there was more to it. Even feral Pokémon—at least, his mother… his—was that his mother? And not Amia, but…

    It gave him a headache. The food was more important for now. Those dreams were fleeting at most; maybe if he got another, he could actually try to focus on remembering them a little more.

    Owen winced—there was something hard in the stew. He spat it out. “Oh, gross…”

    It was a piece of bone. Part of something a lot larger than him. Shaking his head, he looked into the stew for more pieces, realizing that whatever they had put in this giant pot, they had put it in whole, or at least were… very averse to being wasteful about it.

    Why did they run off, anyway?

    The thought was fleeting. Curiosity and hunger got the better of him, and he dug through the stew to get rid of more of the bones. Couldn’t eat that without messing up his gut, after all. He already bled on the outside; bleeding on the inside would just make things worse.

    He wondered where the other bones had gone. He looked around, just to be sure he didn’t miss any, and raised his tail. Now that his energy was back, his flame was a lot brighter.

    His heart leapt up into his chest—there were bones around, stripped clean of flesh. He recognized a few as bones he’d expect from a limb, and others, vertebrae. Thinner, longer bones suggested wing-like appendages, too… Were those claws?

    Owen shuddered and looked inside the stew again. There was something lumpy at the very bottom of the tasty slop. Out of morbid curiosity, he reached forward. The only sort of bone he hadn’t seen yet was the skull.

    What exactly did they wind up cooking? Owen thought, tugging hard against the lump. It was heavy—maybe as heavy as he was! It’s so big! No wonder they had spent so long cooking it. This pot must have been full the first time he’d come across the scent.

    He pulled a little harder, but then yelped—he broke off part of the skull. It was certainly a skull, just based on the vague shape. What had come off—to easily—was a pointed horn of some kind. Then again, it had probably been cooking at the bottom for a while. Owen discarded it and tried to pull out the rest of the skull.

    With a bit more tugging, he finally pulled it free, the stew falling out of the empty holes left in the head. He grimaced at first, regretting that he’d pulled it out at all. Gross. Maybe he should have waited until he wasn’t hungry anymore to do this inspection.

    More of the stew fell from the skull, and he started to get a better idea of what shape it had. The lower jaw was missing—probably somewhere at the bottom of the bowl, still buried. The top of the skull was a lot longer than it was tall. Long snout. Intense eye sockets, too. And—

    Oh, Mew, it’s a Charizard.

    Owen dropped the skull into the vat and took a few shaky steps back. Did he just—there was so much, and—

    He stepped on the horn again and kicked it away with a shriek. Dizziness from breathing too fast forced him to sit down, holding his head. His stomach churned harshly, it was rising up, hot, stinging bile in the back of his throat. He clenched his jaws tight and clamped his claws over it for extra measure, then clenched the back of his throat.

    It would be even worse if it came back out. He didn’t want to see it again. He couldn’t bear to look at the bowl, either. The Charmander wobbled toward the wall, placing one hand on the rocks, as his tail crackled loudly.

    “That didn’t happen. That didn’t…”

    It kept flashing in his head. Those empty eyes in the skull, leaking stew from all over. It slid off of the skull where the scales had once been, mixing with the red stew. The pointed horn that had come off so easily, nothing but a firm tug needed to break the bone. How long had it been there, festering? How long had…

    Pointed horn?

    Owen glanced back at where he’d kicked it away.

    Something about this picture didn’t fit, and the nagging feeling finally pulled him out of his spiral. He looked back at the horn again, inspecting it more closely. Charizard didn’t have pointed horns like that, like it curved upward. Those were mutant horns. Or maybe some subspecies that he didn’t know about. But…

    He checked the head again, careful not to look at its face, or whatever was left of it. One horn was still left. And even though most of the flesh had been cooked away, there was still…

    Click.

    It popped off with just a firm tug.

    For a while, all Owen did was stare. He wasn’t horrified anymore. Confused, maybe. Baffled? Was that the feeling? He tried to analyze his own thoughts, but then refocused back on the horn.

    His horn.

    He was the only Charizard in the world to have detachable horns. Har, and all the others of his kind, could turn down their Perceive naturally. But he couldn’t. He had to physically remove his horns to stop the sense from overwhelming him.

    “It’s… it’s me. H-ha, it’s… it’s me!” Owen tossed the head—his old head—back into the pot, laughing with wide, incredulous eyes.

    Was he supposed to feel better or worse about eating it, now? He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. He laughed for a little while longer, settling down into little, disjointed chuckles. The energy from the meal was starting to get to him.

    Charizard stew! With only the finest herbs and berries. It cooked itself.

    Finally calm enough to grab a small bowl—he gave himself permission to eat his own carcass—he dipped it into the overturned pot. If anything, he could get another helping with some dignity to make up for the circumstances.

    Because despite everything, there was a new fire in him that wasn’t just from the food. His thoughts, now sharper, came to one new conclusion with this surprising piece of information. While he tried to ignore the twisting of his stomach—either because the stew tasted funny, or because of this new realization—he only let that fuel the flame.

    Upon first landing in the wastes, he had fallen so hard that everything in his body broke. Had he been a Charizard? If that was the case… He had died then. He had died, lost part of himself, somehow—he was familiar with the feeling at this point—and became a Charmander. If he died again, would he lose even more of himself?

    Only now he understood: Amia was not safe and sound in the aura sea, nor was she in the Fire Realm.

    She was still here.

    Somewhere out there, wandering as a Ralts.

    <><><> ​

    The smell of paint welcomed him like an old friend. Trembling hands grabbed a nearby can—that he’d produced a while ago from his tail, but it was still fresh and ready for use—and inspected the nearby bucket of dirty water next to it.

    Angelo wasn’t in the right mindset to paint. He wasn’t the sort of insane artist who could only draw when he was feeling particularly flustered. In fact, he couldn’t paint at all with how much his hands were shaking, his heart pounding, his legs threatening to shatter like the last few twigs of a tree in Void Forest.

    It was just him and the dusty, stuffy, warm, inviting darkness. The Smeargle waded through piles of crumpled papers, heavy and stuck together in a flaky wad from all the paint that covered each one, and into the back room where a small container filled with cold berries sat. The Orb inside had gone out—some sort of slow-burn Hail Orb to keep the insides cool—but he opened it very quickly so the cold would be preserved for what little remained within.

    A Pecha and an Oran. Not blessed—though even if they had been, they weren’t anymore—and just for a little treat. He started with the Pecha, savoring it, but it didn’t stop his shaking. Were there Chesto Berries in those drinks at the café? No, that wasn’t it.

    He heard a distant scream outside for Arceus knows why. His blood froze instantly, followed shortly by his heart, as terror gripped his chest. He didn’t move, and he only realized a few seconds later that he’d crushed the Pecha in his hand. After muttering a soft curse, he grabbed a nearby paper and wiped the sticky remnants on it, tossing it on the dusty pile of trash. Clean that up later, he thought to himself for the umpteenth time.

    It wasn’t worth checking. He was done. No more healing, no more chaos, just his home, his art, his darkness, his quiet, his solitude. The most interaction he’d never need is for making little art commissions, client requests. Sure, some were a bit hard to deal with, but at least they weren’t dying. Dying for his work, sure, but not drifting away to the spirit realm.

    Angelo realized that he didn’t want to paint with red, perhaps ever. How limiting would that be for his art in the future? Was he being overdramatic? The fact that he felt his Pecha Berry coming back up suggested otherwise.

    He needed to distract himself some other way. Perhaps an early afternoon nap. Maybe he could work on that request from that strange Espeon. That painting didn’t have any red, did it? Why was his fur suddenly standing on end?

    “Angelo.”

    Some mixture of a silent scream and a whimper bounced around his throat. Unable to look back, he only froze, hoping that it was his imagination. When it was clear it wasn’t, he then hoped that Rhys would just leave him alone.

    He didn’t, and he should have known he wouldn’t. In fact, he was walking closer, into his home, seeing all this mess—clients weren’t supposed to see this, this was his private room, why was he breaking into his house and trespassing? Just because he was a Heart, he had the right to barge into anywhere he pleased? Oh, gods, he was right next to him. What now? His body didn’t move. He was a feral Rattata facing down an Arbok.

    Rhys’ paw gently held Angelo’s shoulder, squeezing the life out of him. “Are you all right?”

    His voice still didn’t come to him. Instead, Angelo choked out a small squeak, then another sputter, and then shook his head. He was far from fine, yet he couldn’t say it aloud. Mixtures of shame and evasion had his throat sealed.

    “What happened?” Rhys said, sweeping aside the mess nearby with his foot like it was the most normal thing in the world. He sat down next to Angeo, crossing his legs.

    Something finally escaped him. “I can’t go,” he said.

    “I can see that,” Rhys said gently, still holding onto his shoulder. “I was waiting for you in front of the Heart HQ. When you didn’t show up, I checked the hospital…”

    Angelo couldn’t hide his shudder. “I can’t go back there.”

    “Angelo, why? You nearly surpassed my healing,” Rhys said. “Yes, I had to replenish my strength—I’m not tuned to healing—but you…”

    “I can’t go back!” Angelo shouted again. “I—I’m not built for blood. I’m sorry. But I’ve done all I can, and I can’t… I can’t…”

    More silence followed, the dusty air wrapping Angelo in what little comfort he had left with the intruder in his home. He couldn’t tell Rhys to go away; he was an Elite. The only one left in town. The fighter. And he was telling Angelo to go and help. Just like his father. The one that Rhys probably saw when he looked at the Smeargle before him. His father who worked himself to an early grave all for the name of others.

    Angelo wasn’t a Heart; that was his father. Maybe Rhys had to see that.

    “I’ll come later,” Rhys said. “The hospital might be getting another wave, and we can use your Heal Pulse. Can you also Sketch Life Dew from someone? Anything will help.”

    There was no escaping it. One way or the other, Rhys was going to force him to get involved. And how could he say no? He heard his father’s words echoing in his mind again.

    It’s our duty, Angelo. Our ancestor didn’t work toward this power for us to squander it! Now, come on! Let’s try another Dungeon! I’ll help you draw later!

    “Angelo?” Rhys said. “Your aura is… very unstable. Please, if there’s anything you need…”

    “I—I’m fine,” Angelo said. If he said the truth, Rhys would just echo his father’s words. “I—I just need to rest. I’m fatigued from the healing. Later this afternoon, I’ll come back, I just—”

    “I understand.” Rhys nodded. “Take care of yourself.”

    “And what about that flying trip you wanted to take?” Angelo said. “You—needed someone who could fly.”

    “I needed someone powerful who could fly, but right now, securing the injured in Kilo is more important. I’ll… find some other way to contact them later.”

    “How would you do that? Are there any Waypoints you could—oh.”

    Rhys smiled sadly, nodding. “It’s not very easy. If there was a way to remotely contact them, that would be wonderful, but…” He paused, looking at Angelo’s paw thoughtfully. Rhys finally let go of his shoulder and hummed. “Remotely… Arceus…”

    “What?” Angelo asked. “Arceus? Destiny Tower, from the Books, appeared, didn’t it? You’re planning on flying all the way there?”

    “No. I won’t have to.” Rhys stood up. “I should have realized it sooner.”

    Angelo figured they should have realized a lot of things sooner, but in all the chaos, they’ve just been trying to put out the immediate fires. “What did you realize?”

    “I could just send a prayer to Arceus,” Rhys said. “Star mentioned that she could hear prayers—surely it’s the same for Arceus… Rrgh, but I can’t remember if he’s particular about what sort of address you’d make…”

    “O Lord, hear my plea, and by Your Grace may it be answered,” Angelo recited like the chemical formula for sugar.

    Rhys blinked, but then nodded in recognition. “Of course, your father must have taught you that. Thank you.”

    Angelo said nothing and Rhys stood up, bringing his paws together. The weight over Angelo’s shoulders lifted slightly, but only slightly, when the Lucario finally exited his home.

    “Fighting Pokémon,” Angelo muttered to himself. “So imposing…” He knew that wasn’t it.

    With Rhys gone, he looked at the uneaten Oran Berry next to him and frowned. He rolled it for a while, forward and back, and then eventually watched it bump into the corner of the room. The pile of discarded papers leered at him—what are you going to do now, failure? Add to me, clean me up, or are you just going to run away again?

    Angelo retreated to his bedroom.

    <><><> ​

    Far to the east of Kilo Village, atop Destiny Tower in a late afternoon sun, Arceus stood near the edge of his domain and stared at the settled vortex in the faraway horizon. Dark Matter stopped his advance. Perhaps he’d finally realized that so long as Arceus remained active, he couldn’t advance. Did that mean he was unable to claim Star’s power? What had happened to her, then? Perhaps the same could be said for the other Guardians he’d claimed; perhaps there was hope yet.

    But it was all speculation for now. Dark Matter could have been waiting for him to bring down his guard; attacking the vortex while it was down didn’t seem to do anything, either. Should he approach? …No, that was too risky.

    O Lord, hear my plea, and by Your Grace may it be answered.

    Another one from Kilo Village, from the feeling of it. He had been getting a lot of those, and while he typically listened to them without any direct acknowledgement, this one was a familiar voice.

    The prayer continued. Kilo Village is stabilizing, but we have a great influx of outside villagers in grave conditions. Mutants are running rampant in isolated pockets across Kilo. The Dungeons are amok with wraiths. We need time to recover; is there anything you can do to help? How is the Trinity? Guardian realms are being invaded by wraiths, and I do not have the mobility, currently, to investigate. Manny and Willow may look after them, if needed. Er… I suppose if you have a means to communicate with me…

    Did he? He did. Just as he’d reached out to Owen, he could reach out to Rhys, though a god interfering with mortals—or whatever Rhys counted as—wasn’t something Arceus was very keen on doing.

    But he and Rhys had already communicated before, and he felt he had a stronger connection to the Lucario, anyway.

    Fine. If only because it pertained to the Trinity and Dark Matter and a great crisis. Hello, Rhys. The Trinity is fine and where they should be. I am on Destiny Tower, making sure that Dark Matter is not advancing and keeping my Judgement charged.

    It took a little while to hear Rhys again; Arceus imagined he was stunned in getting a reply. Perhaps he was also feeling honored in being graced by a reply at all by his almighty Creator.

    Almighty once he got his Hands back, at least…

    You can’t eradicate him outright? Rhys asked.

    The ignorance stung, but Arceus didn’t let it show. No. I can only suppress him, and he is currently idle. I cannot sense any power charging within the dark vortex.

    I see. Then it’s safe for you to descend? We could use your assistance.

    The idea disgusted him on reflex, but a rational side suggested that what Rhys was asking for wasn’t unreasonable. In this time of great crisis, would he not be at least slightly obligated to descend and help?

    Very well. I shall descend. Alert the town and I will depart.

    He supposed that waiting wasn’t totally out of the question, but he did want to at least help, and standing around, while habitual and familiar, was making him restless. That void in the sky wasn’t going anywhere, after all, and he hadn’t been able to appear in the mortal world for so long…

    But it was a little unbecoming of him, too.

    A gentle gust of wind ruffled his fur and making an ethereal whistling noise through the wheel that wrapped itself around his abdomen. His heart fluttered; wind… How long had it been since he’d felt a genuine breeze? It hadn’t crossed his mind all this time. He was ashamed to admit it—and he never would to anybody else—but feeling the wind over his fur was something he didn’t know he had wanted.

    The sunlight was next: warm against the gray skin of his face, trapped in his fur for what little of the heat broke through its white surface. He stepped uncertainly toward the edge of the tower, admiring—admiring the autumn forest to the south, its leaves halfway between orange and green.

    This was the world he ruled; the world he had to defend against Dark Matter. And with Star out of the way, perhaps he finally could.

    Are you able to teleport here now? Rhys called.

    Snapping from his thoughts, Arceus prepared himself. I am. I’ll sense for your aura…

    It wasn’t that difficult to find; Rhys was distinct to him, and zeroing in on his position was only a few steps away from trivial.

    In a flash of light, Arceus disappeared from the top of Destiny Tower and reappeared in the middle of town. Almost instantly, he heard loud shouts and gasps in surprise, and he tilted his head upward to bask in their inevitable reverence.

    “Indeed,” Arceus said, projecting his voice for everyone in the square. “It is I, Arceus, here to—”

    An earth-shattering SNAP filled the air, followed by a heavy, chest-shaking rumble. Far to the north, just over the horizon, a puddle of black ink spilled over the clouds and ate away at the sky. It crawled out in rapid and ravenous branches, tearing the light away from the day.

    Within seconds, it was halfway to Kilo Village.

    Arceus summoned his light and fired a volley of quick, arcing beams of white light—it was a sloppy Judgement, and he hoped that would be enough to stall it in time to prepare a proper one. He ignored the screams and startled shouts, as well as Rhys calling for everyone to calm down.

    “Arceus, what’s happening?” Rhys asked for them all.

    “Nothing to concern yourselves over,” Arceus said as the blasts of light cut through the darkness. It slowed the advance, but more ink pooled over the sky. Cursing mentally, Arceus focused and, in a flash of light, disappeared from Kilo as quickly as he’d arrived, and the cool breeze of Destiny Tower’s top greeted him. Here, he could draw from his power the most, where the spirit world met the living world.

    His light redoubled, and then he fired at the expanding darkness. The great arms of creation crawled across the sky.

    <><><> ​

    Complete pandemonium and panic shattered whatever order Kilo Village had left. Rhys couldn’t deny it himself; his heart was beating out of his chest. He stared helplessly at the expanding darkness that raced Arceus’ Judgement.

    “Ev-everyone get inside!” Rhys shouted, having no idea whether that would be even close to useful against the sky literally disappearing. He raised his arms above his head and charged an Aura Sphere several times larger than his head, firing it at the sky. It flew slowly; a shadow crept over Kilo Village in a blink’s worth of time, and suddenly it was a night without stars.

    The glow of Rhys’ blast lit the street for a few seconds, bathing it in bright cyan. Another bright light—ADAM’s Hyper Beam—lit up another part of town and beat the Sphere’s pace. When the Hyper Beam struck, a splotch of light tore through the void, revealing the sky that was indeed still there.

    An orb of lunar energy followed, and then a feeble, fist-shaped Aura Sphere right after from Manny’s attempt at a strike as a spirit. So, they hadn’t left yet? Good, because leaving was useless at this point. And then came a volley of flames from an aura he didn’t fully recognize, and then a speedy, successive blast of rocks.

    Where were all those attacks coming from?

    “Attack, attack!” shouted a Weavile to Rhys’ left, flinging high-speed Ice Shards at the blackening sky. “Ugh! I can’t get high enough!”

    “Allow me!” A Mawile dipped her second set of jaws beneath Weavile and hurled him upward; he followed up with even more Ice Shards before flipping in the air and landing with a stumble.

    Several more Pokémon followed up, carving tiny holes in the oppressive night. Waves of light followed from the north, explosive shocks disturbing small pebbles from their resting places on the ground. The holes in the sky remained for much longer, and a follow-up Hyper Beam from ADAM carved a permanent gash through it.

    Rhys sensed something forming within the clouds. The same tingling sensation he felt when energy and aura gathered for a powerful strike.

    But then, as quickly as it came, it faded, instead replaced by another volley of Judgement spears. The civilians struck for a second time, this time led by ghostly Marowak riding atop an Arcanine, throwing a flaming Bone Club toward a particularly dark patch of the sky. Unfortunately, it fell short.

    Rhys wondered if, had they not been on a mountain, the thought of trying to strike the sky would have been laughable. Still, it was well below the clouds.

    Another explosion knocked the wind out of Rhys and forced him to his knees, as well as several of the other Pokémon in the area. That wasn’t a normal shockwave; it rocked him down to his very spirit. Some Pokémon had passed out from the shock, waking up seconds later. He had sensed their very auras violently eject from their bodies, returning to their living shells seconds later.

    Light returned to the sky in slow waves, the black sheets fading into the nothing that it had come from. A tense and heavy silence followed, nobody daring to speak. All eyes were on the horizon, which finally lost its ominous, dark aura. Already, Pokémon mumbled about Arceus’ arrival and subsequent departure.

    “Arceus…” Rhys sighed. What happened? He looked to the now clear sky. I have to tell them something about your brief appearance.

    Dark Matter was waiting for me to leave Destiny Tower in order to strike. I cannot leave again.

    Rhys squeezed his paws. I see. Very well. I will be seeing you later, then. There is another thing I need to take care of… Particularly having to do with our medical needs.

    Medical?

    Rhys nodded, but then realized that Arceus probably couldn’t see him. There are a lot of healers, and even a talented Smeargle, but I’m positive another wave of Pokémon will be coming in need of our already exhausted supplies. We need better healing.

    Better… Arceus paused. You don’t mean…

    Rhys winced, but projected his sigh to Arceus the best he could. I need to find Emily.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  19. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    It’s here.

    The moment you’ve all (not) been waiting for.

    THE GREAT EON HATE MANIFESTO

    I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve been putting this off for awhile. There was just so much I wanted to say, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to say it correctly! But I've had more than enough time to think it over and I think I've finally got all my thoughts in order. Let's do this!

    So, Eon’s POV opens with this, and we're already given practically a textbook portrayal of abuse red flags. Let's just run through the check list: Desire to isolate Owen from his support network. Framing the support network as the real villains. Callous disregard for the emotional turmoil this would inflict on Owen. Framing Owen being with him as important above all else.

    Easy way to twist his perception of you. Get him to call you dad long enough and it becomes true.

    Lavish him with gifts so he more easily forgets his other family. Only you know best. Only you really know him.

    Oh how easily he reverts back into that controlling mindset. Only his feelings for Owen are true. Only his are pure. Owen belongs to him. Owen’s uncertainty can’t be due to his own beliefs and opinions, it’s only because the others stole him.

    But is that knot made of guilt? Or anxiety at the fact that he almost slipped up, almost did something that would push Owen away again. Things aren’t good or bad based on Owen’s well-being. They’re good or bad based on whether they make Owen like Eon.

    Straight-up admitting he’d control Owen in lesser ways. Classy.

    All of this is framed as a means to an end.

    Oh my god Eon you derailing, gaslighting sonofabitch, that has NOTHING to do with what Owen was saying and you know it.

    Owen was arguing that it’s messed up for them to be indoctrinated as child soldiers in a way that none of them will question it, and then Eon sees his chance to swerve into talking about the fusion madness, which is utterly irrelevant to this discussion. And he’s 100% aware of the fact that he’s making an irrelevant detour, too. Just look at that wording!

    And just look at this. For the past few pages, he’s been condemning the others for forcing Owen to live through countless false lives, but right here he gives away the fact that he knows it was necessary! He himself had already needed to do it! And that was indeed, for Owen’s well-being. But now when the others do it, it’s bad.

    I love how when Eon’s actions aren’t seen from his POV, it can seem somewhat well-intentioned, but the instant you get in his POV, which should in theory be more sympathetic (because you’re straight-up seeing how he justifies it), all it does is make it even more blatantly toxic and manipulative and graaaahhh.

    I didn’t meeaaannn for anyone to get killed, so no one can hold it against me. It’s fine. Everything is fine.

    Gahi reader avatar yet again.

    See, to offer a bit of contrast, I do believe this 100%. The shift is subtle, but easy to spot. This is one of the rare moments where Eon’s love for Owen doesn’t come across as possessive in nature. A desperation move to bring back someone that was lost. Like something straight out of FMA.

    YES YES YES YES

    I frickin love the way this moment plays out. The uncharacteristic greeting. The instant moment of dread that washes over Eon, followed by him desperately trying to rationalize it, despite knowing that his fears are true. The transformation. The callout I’d been waiting for. *chef’s kiss*

    (I’m gonna use this as an excuse to segue into talking about Star, but I’ll return to my Eon thesis in the end.)

    The past few chapters have all been very deliberately setting up the thread that “Star is not to be trusted!!11” The narrative has been extremely insistent on it, having the sentiment echoed by multiple characters.

    Thing is, I’m not buying it.

    We already know Star is flawed, has made many mistakes, and regrets every one of them. Using this suspicion as buildup for a Star betrayal wouldn’t make any sense. Having her slog through the gargantuan task of fixing all her mistakes is far more narratively satisfying. That, and, there’s kind of the fact that we’ve seen her POV, and there’s no discrepancy between her intent and her actions. We see Star explaining why she needs to get to the Core, and her inner thoughts mirror what she tells Klent. As a result, all the suspicion levied at her reads less as “but what if it’s truuuuue?” and more like “we already know this is false.”

    Buuuut, let’s assume we didn’t have access to her thoughts, and had to analyze her trustworthiness on a purely strategic level. If she actually did intend to use this as a trump card in some sort of plot, there is no way in hell she would have played her hand here in such an open or blunt manner. If anything, this actually proves that she’s not planning to control Owen! (Currently. Past plans notwithstanding.)

    This actually clears Star in my mind.

    …So anyway, back to Eon!

    Why Eon Sucks (but not for the reasons that everyone says)

    So, this chapter makes a pretty solid case for why Eon is an abusive piece of crap. He’s willing to do or say anything to get Owen to like him, never respects Owen’s concerns, never admits fault, constantly brushes off the harm he’s caused. It’s plain as day, all the textbook signs of abuse, brilliantly saturating every inch of his narration.

    And yet…

    I’m not convinced that this is the fic’s intended reading.

    The main evidence I have is seeing how my view of Eon directly contrasts every other readers’. That’s not to say that everyone else likes Eon, not at all. Plenty of readers hate him. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone hate him for the same reason. Heck, it’s the same way with the characters in the fic themselves. Step and Zena and Amia all make great arguments against Eon. But none of them quite hit the nail on the head. So we’ll open with everyone else’s case against him before I make mine.

    It’s established pretty early on that the problem with Eon is that he’s willing to murder the guardians in order to steal their power to surpass the gods. We still don’t know why, but from the way he’s talked about it, it’s not just that he thinks he’s going the Guardians a favor by killing them (although he does think that.) There’s obviously a larger motive such that he believes is worth accomplishing no matter the cost.

    A lot of characters in the fic naturally oppose being murdered and are perfectly willing to condemn Eon for this. And I love reading those moments. But the thing is:

    I’d argue that Eon’s first onscreen appearance constitutes a much bigger moral event horizon cross than all the previous murder.

    His first action in the fic is to put his own son through unimaginable trauma in order to prove a point to his enemies that they’re worse than him. What he did to Gawen was, at the time, the worst thing we’d seen happen to a character. This is a fic where death is no big deal! Lack of meaningful stakes was a very real possibility, and the first scene with Gawen was tailor-made to shatter that assumption: to show that horrible, horrible suffering was still possible even when death and injury are trivial. Later, during the confrontation with Amia, we see Eon play this off as if he knew Owen would be fine.

    He still has not apologized. He still has shown no sign of remorse. He’s shown regret, certainly. But only in the context that doing that made Owen think less of him. Not because of how that suffering affected Owen.

    The murders were to serve a (presumably) noble goal. An unfortunate side effect of chasing a goal that he believes is best for the world. It’s still wrong, obviously. (“Cool motive, still murder.”) But I think it’d be wrong to call it selfish. Meanwhile, the stuff with Owen is pretty much the definition of selfish. It’s always been about his own desires, never what Owen wants or the people he cares about. All of those things are just obstacles to Eon possessing Owen. If I can't have you, neither can they. Hell, just look at the line from his POV scene after the confrontation with Amia: “I lost him!”

    So like… all of this should be a recipe for Eon being my favorite character, right? Twisted morals, truckloads of self-justifications and denial? Those things are my jam!

    Well…

    Intent vs Narrative Framing

    I know that you enjoy seeing people interpret your characters in wildly different, even contrasting ways. Eon is an interesting case. Some folks hate him for what he put the Guardians though. Others… find his obsession with Owen endearing. This makes me wonder at the intended takeaway from scenes like the ones I quoted.

    There’s a really weird tone dissonance present in Eon’s scenes. Sure, he’s framing himself as sympathetic because of course he is. The problem is, the story has no method of framing his actions as harmful. The narrative is perfectly happy to lay out all the reasons why the murders are not okay, through all the characters constantly condemning Eon. Not to mention Owen calling out the creation of child soldiers and the brushing off collateral damage. Meanwhile, all these cute moments between Eon and Owen are framed in a… almost heartwarming way. They’re moments that reinforce Eon’s willingness to manipulate Owen, rather than making him second-guess it.

    I’m just imagining what it would look like if Eon was torn up with guilt over the ways he’d hurt and manipulated Owen, but also couldn’t stop thinking about how admitting that would risk driving Owen away forever, and knowing that maybe Owen deserves that, and that he’d be better off that way, but not being able to follow through because of how much it would hurt. I’d be all over that in a heartbeat.

    But no. His obsession with Owen is not only portrayed as heartwarming glimmer in an otherwise dark sea, but as evidence that he actually cares, which means that there might be a chance to get him to renounce all that other stuff. Meanwhile, I’m just like “Okay all that other stuff is bad but his interactions with Owen are more concerning.” When people frame it as heartwarming, I’m just like “Are we even reading the same fic? It’s not cute, it’s fucking creepy!”

    I feel like the fic doesn’t want me to view the things he’s done to Owen as terrible. Or worse, wants me to view those as the sign that there’s still good in him, despite the other stuff. As such, I can’t shake the feeling of “BIG YIKES” every time Eon is framed as sympathetic.

    …And it’s entirely possible that all of this is 100% intentional. Maybe that’s the point! Maybe the only reason we have this dissonance is because there aren’t any characters who can condemn it, simply because no other characters know the real extent of it. Maybe if any of the others were inside Eon’s head, they’d immediately go “oh, that’s messed up” the same way Owen was gladly tearing holes in Eon’s justifications for child soldiers.

    Instead, we see all of Eon’s actions within the plot heavily scrutinized, but his treatment of Owen is treated as the silver lining, and not as the last straw.

    So like, why do I even bring all this up?

    I know Eon is going to get a redemption.

    Even if I hadn’t seen outside comments, it was pretty obvious from the way the story is progressing. I want to preface this with the face that I am not opposed to Eon getting redeemed. However, I’m not going to be sold on an Eon redemption unless he shows real, actual remorse for the way he’s treated Owen, and not just because it made Owen dislike him a few times. I need to see an actual willingness to say, “Your happiness is more important than my happiness, even if it means I can’t be in your life anymore.” Only then will I be willing to believe that his love for Owen is not possessive in nature, and that he truly has Owen’s best interests at heart.

    Until then?



    go Star go, tear Eon to pieces YESSSSSS
     
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2020
    Kindoflame likes this.
  20. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    ...So like, did I mention that the Eon Manifesto was holding me back from reviewing the rest of the fic, lol.


    Chapter 65:

    God, the contrast in seeing how Amia regards Owen vs how we just saw Eon regarding Owen is stark. This is what love looks like. Respecting them. Valuing their opinion. Being willing to accept when their needs run contrary to yours. Not whatever the hell we just saw Eon expressing in 64.

    Ah, I do like that she's caught onto Eon's little time trick. Hopefully the others keep this in mind from now on.

    Please tell me you're going to have me draw them like this when the time comes.

    Man, even Arceus respects Owen's boundaries better than Eon. Remind me why the other characters seem to have a problem with him again. He's like done nothing wrong, lol.

    We now return to your regularly scheduled "oh fuck yes."

    This is the best chapter in the fic.

    Dammit Gahi, stop, I'm trying to enjoy this.

    Like rationally, I know that what Star’s doing is a major breach of consent, very not okay, etc, but like, emotionally? Yes, all of my yes, tear Eon to pieces.


    Chapter 66:

    Oh my God.

    I have got to admit, until this moment, the fight against the wraiths seemed completely futile and endless, with exactly zero chance of them coming out ahead. I'm actually surprised that it even was possible to put a pause on it here. There's clearly an infinite source of them somewhere.

    Someone's gotta know something about this universe cancer, right? I find it very hard to believe that this wraith subplot is unrelated to all the characters constantly talking about how they need to save the world, despite us still not knowing what they need to save it from. (By the way, uh, can we get an ETA on that reveal lol.)

    Hecto, you are not good at this.

    Manny is quickly becoming my favorite character.

    And he's also the voice of reason too?! Alright, that settles it.

    Okay I'm sorry, I know this is a serious moment, but the comedic timing on this is hilarious.

    Ehhh, the only reason I have even the slightest confidence that that's how it would've gone is because you were there, Gahi. If it was just Owen? Yeah, hell no, abort.

    Nevermind. This is the best chapter in the fic.

    (I still... don't know... exactly what the authorial intent was with this chapter? Like, are you intending to make Star less likable from all this? It's not working, lol.)


    Chapter 67:

    Why do you tease us so.

    Freaking finally.

    'Light,' huh...

    Owen. I dunno what you felt, but we were in Eon's head the whole time, and literally the only thing he was genuine about was the fact that he doesn't regard you as replaceable. Which just means you're his most prized posession.

    Oh yes, I see where this is going. Protagonist tired of being strung along and kept in the dark by everyone else, finally lashes out. Might have written that myself~

    Owen, I'm all for this epiphany, but no, he wasn't. And you already know why they were. Let's not backtrack that character arc.

    Step. Eon tried suggesting this exact same thing several chapters ago, and it's already been proven why this can't possibly be Star's intent.

    (Wow, I really hate having knowledge that characters don't have, huh.)

    *sigh* All good things must come to an end~


    Chapter 68:

    See? I knew they'd be fine!

    Alllright Owen, I know you're still in shock from a traumatic event, but you already know why they had to hide things from you. You literally went insane anytime someone so much as mentioned the word fusion.

    Amelia is a good. Also, it's not like he ever really chose to do that? I can understand having an existential crisis because you did something terrible in a past life, but he literally never had a choice. It never was him, even back then.

    See, this is what I meant in my Eon rant, about characters saturated with guilt and regret and self-loathing being my jam. With Eon, it's awkward and uncomfortable because I can't even tell if we're supposed to see him that way, but with Star, it's just so indulgent.

    Rather telling how easily she defaults to worrying about whether everyone's okay.

    Man... Star is like the least selfish character in this entire fic.

    Oh shi--


    Chapter 69:


    So you're just gonna casually drop the Dark Matter reveal just like that, huh. No big deal, right.

    Don't you just hate when your intrusive thoughts are sapient.

    Pfft. So it still looks out for him at times.

    (Also, I still can't pin down the distinction between when Dark Matter is speaking with quotes vs without quotes.)

    Aww. So you're saying we're not gonna get Psychic Ga--

    I SPOKE TOO SOON I SPOKE TOO SOON YESSSSSSSSS


    Chapter 70:

    This is pretty funny seeing as we've already been inside Star's head, and despite her crossing all sorts of lines, there wasn't a lick of selfish motivation in it anywhere.

    I'm really glad Manny's not jumping on the ~oooo we have no idea what Star wants~ train like the others. I understand that we, the readers, have insight that they don't, but man is it frustrating to see them make all these bold assertions that are verifiably false, lol.

    Ahh, so the Revisor is also from Dialga. That's interesting, since it works differently than Eon's charm, and also trumps Eon's charm (possibly just because Eon doesn't know how the Revisor works.) I'd be curious to see what a fight between the two would look like if both of them were fully aware of what the other's charm did.

    This is deeply amusing to me for Reasons.


    Chapter 71:


    Stop me if you've heard this one before--

    Huh. Is there ever a point where souls can't be retrieved? Death is trivial, you can just grab them from the sea. Crossing the sea is trivial, you can just go get them. There's got to be a point of no return, right?

    Thank God, Jerry voice of reason here. We do not have time for this petty nonsense when there are actual problems to be dealing with.

    Hm... does she not know about Dark Matter, then? This is interesting seeing as Nevren didn't seem to know what it was. He just kept referring to it as some demonic entity.

    I'm with Owen on this one. Also, gonna whip out a quote from my fic: "No one who fights for you ever really has a choice in it. You just make it look like there is."

    Ah, so he's a Pokemon from the human world then. That fits pretty well with the fact that (at least some) Hunters are humans-turned-Pokemon. (Has that been revealed yet? I've honestly forgotten.) I'm still amused at the fact that this fic sort of casually gives reveals to the reader without drawing attention to them or anything.

    Actually... does this count as a reveal? Is there any reason to not outright say that he's from the human world here?

    *Inhales.* Alright so... here's where I confess that I had already read this scene before writing the Eon manifesto. This is what made me realize, with a sinking feeling of dread, that all that stuff in 64 was probably written to be endearing on purpose. It's clear where the story intends to go with this. Just... just tread carefully is all I ask. Please don't try to portray all the creepy, abusive shit from 64 as a good thing. Please.

    It's funny. Most people are like "Eon should probably reuinite with Owen but his plans can't be allowed to go through." Meanwhile I'm like, "Sure let his plans go through, no one's ever given a good reason why they shouldn't, but for the love of God keep him the hell away from Owen." :P

    Anyway, I'll probably tackle five chapters a week or so from here. It's been long enough~

    ~Chibi~
     

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